Dislclaimer: Harry Potter is not mine.

Chapter Four -- A Matter of Interpretation

Thursday morning dawned bright and clear, with the sun perched in a cloudless blue sky, and the temperature just right for the time of year. The bakery Percy lived over had thrown open its doors, and the tantalising smell of fresh bread wafted through the air as he made his way to the local Floo station. It was, all in all, a beautiful, typical late July day.

It was also Harry Potter's seventeenth birthday.

Percy walked past a Food City mini-mart as the proprietor was setting out the day's papers, and found the blaring headline BIZARRE DEATHS IN SURREY staring back at him. He immediately stopped and bought one, and checked the article carefully, knowing Scrimgeour would want any bit of news he could get his hands on.

"Early this morning in Little Whinging, Surrey, several people were found dead in a co-op car park. Not a single person had a mark on him, and their cause of death is still unknown..."

Near the end of the article, Percy read even more of note:

"In a separate but perhaps connected event, a young boy went missing at about the same time the grisly murders took place. Harry Potter, 16, a disturbed and often violent teenager living with his aunt and uncle, vanished from his home on Privet Drive without a trace --"

'Disturbed and often violent'? Even the Muggle papers had gotten it right, while the Prophet still insisted on giving Harry that clumsy epithet and agreeing with everything he said. Granted, the Dark Lord had indeed returned, but that did not give anyone the freedom to go about harassing professors and breaking into the Ministry and openly flaunting the rules -- not even the so-called Boy Who Lived.

To be thorough, Percy picked up the Guardian, The Times, and several other papers that had covered the attacks in Surrey. The man behind the counter at Food City had given him an odd look but accepted his tarnished Muggle coins, and Percy tucked the papers under his arm and took them with him to the Ministry. Fitzpatrick saw him first when he entered the Minister's office suite, and stopped where he stood.

"How much did all those papers put you back, Weasley?" he asked, sneering.

"A trifle," Percy replied coolly, realising that he might have to go without his tea and biscuits one day that week.

Fitzpatrick laughed. "No cost is too great as long as Scrimgeour throws you a bone, eh? Maybe he'll actually acknowledge you today."

Percy glared at him. "The Minister doesn't --"

"Hem, hem." Umbridge appeared in the corridor, seemingly out of nowhere, her bulging eyes focused directly on Percy. "There isn't a problem here, is there?"

"Of course not, M-Madam Secretary," he stammered quickly. "A friendly debate, that's all."

"Nothing untoward, I assure you," Fitzpatrick added, giving her a winning smile in return.

Umbridge looked up at them a moment before nodding decidedly. "I really don't like it when people are caught doing naughty things," she said. "You're both much too old to be acting like children." She patted Fitzpatrick's arm. "If Mr Weasley starts yelling at you again, Brian, don't hesitate to tell me." Umbridge smiled sweetly up at Percy and then waddled back down the hall.

Fitzpatrick waited until she was out of earshot before turning on Percy. "When I meet those brothers of yours," he said, still grinning, "I'm going to buy them drinks." He laughed again and followed Umbridge down the corridor.

Percy slammed the newspapers on his desk once he reached his own office, lips pursed in suppressed anger. It was true that ever since Fred and George had left Hogwarts in spectacular fashion, making her look incompetent in the process, Umbridge had given Percy a difficult time. Assignments were never done to her standards the first go round, she needed tea at least twice a day and he always 'forgot' the way she took it (though it seemed that her tea preferences changed hourly), and then there were incidents like the one with Fitzpatrick. It had been worse when Drury had still been there, though. She had cried at the drop of a hat, and Umbridge would immediately turn to Percy as the cause -- never mind that Drury was seven months pregnant with her first child.

"Collated copies, Weasley, on my desk in an hour." Ackerley entered Percy's office long enough to dump a whole lot of forms into his in-tray, and left without another word.

Perhaps he would have to wait to give Scrimgeour the Muggle papers.

Later that morning, after having made Ackerley's copies, fetched tea for Umbridge (twice), looked up Wizengamot decisions for Hestia Jones, and presented his finished proposal for Dumbledore's monument to Scrimgeour, the Daily Prophet finally appeared on his desk, courtesy a pretty little barn owl. Percy gave it a Knut and sent it off, before at last noticing the headlines.

Harry Potter safe and sound!
Today, as everyone in the Wizarding community knows,
is the seventeenth birthday of Harry Potter, the Boy Who
Lived. As planned by Minister of Magic Rufus Scrimgeour,
earlier this morning, young Harry was safely removed from
his childhood home in Surrey and taken to a secure location,
where he will remain under the watchful eyes of the Ministry...

Percy felt a giddy smile come to his face. He'd been wrong! Of course Scrimgeour would have been able to convince Harry that it was best if he cooperated with them. He knew that things had not gone as planned last Christmas, but perseverance always paid off, and it had again this time. Percy wondered what the Order would do now, now that the only one who could defeat You Know Who was in custody of the Ministry.

He had to write Harry, he decided. He had obviously misjudged him, for Harry had come to his senses and was at last thinking rationally. What a triumph this was for the Ministry; everything was falling perfectly into place. The war would be over by New Year!

There was a staff meeting just before lunch, and Percy walked down the corridor to the conference room with a bounce in his step, confident that the meeting would be to decide what their next course of action would be, now that Harry was on their side. Curiously, no one else seemed to share his enthusiasm: Fitzpatrick's earlier victory over him had faded into bleak frustration, and Ackerley and Hestia brought cups of tea to the conference with them, which they drank down rapidly. Only Umbridge, smiling owlishly, and Scrimgeour himself seemed cool and composed.

"You are all aware what day this is," the Minister began, as Percy settled in to take the minutes.

"Bloody Potter's coming-of-age," Fitzpatrick grumbled.

"Cheers for that, Brian," Scrimgeour said, scowling. "Yes, today is young Harry Potter's seventeenth birthday, and right on schedule, he's gone conveniently missing."

Percy froze, quill balanced above his parchment. "But sir," he said, frowning in confusion, "I thought the Daily Prophet said --"

"The Order has him, Weasley," the Minister said, giving him a prize-winning glare. "Our man turned up at his house in Little Whinging early this morning, and he was already gone."

"Then why does the Prophet say --"

"There's something you need to learn if you're ever going to advance to a position of power in the Ministry," Scrimgeour said, addressing the staff at large. "The truth is not always pretty, and it's rarely what people want to hear." He leaned forward over the table. "Our economy is weakening because of the war, did you know that? The Galleon is losing ground to the American Token, but the British Wizarding community doesn't need to know that. What good will it do, knowing that a Galleon is now only worth 1.76 Tokens, instead of 1.93? People will only needlessly worry." Scrimgeour closed his eyes and ran a hand through his shaggy mane of hair, looking suddenly old and tired. "Nobody needs to know that Potter is missing. What they need now, with Dumbledore dead and people scared about Inferi and werewolves and who knows what else, is to know that the Ministry is in control and will protect them from You-Know-Who at all costs."

Percy, somewhat numbly, made a note on his minutes sheet: Minister discussed withholding truths from public.

He reread what he had written while Scrimgeour went on, discussing the press releases that would be periodically fed to the Prophet, and tried to make himself agree with the Minister's stance. He couldn't. This was outright lying to the Wizarding public, pretending that everything was fine when things were in fact spiralling southwards. Critics had accused Fudge of denying the Dark Lord's return -- and Percy knew he had been right to stand behind him, for unsubstantiated proof from a fourteen-year-old boy was no proof at all -- but the Dark Lord was a real threat now, and Scrimgeour knew that. Lies in times of peace were all right, in order to keep the peace, but lies in times of war? Percy couldn't think of anything more dangerous.

"Weasley."

Percy jumped at the sound of his name, startled out of his bleak study. "Yes, Minister?" he said quickly.

"I have an extremely important question for you," Scrimgeour said gravely, gazing at Percy over the tops of his spectacles. "Most of your family is involved with the Order in some way." This caused some uncomfortable shifting and condescending sneers amongst the other members of the Ministerial staff. "Do you agree that they likely have Potter in their custody?"

Percy puffed up a bit at being singled out in such a way -- but only slightly. "My youngest brother is his best mate, and my mum has taken him under her wing," he said. "I don't doubt they have him, for what they would claim is his own safety."

Scrimgeour nodded. "So he would be at the Burrow, then?"

"No, I reckon they would take him to their headquarters," Percy blurted out, without thinking.

The other staffers eyed him with keen interest at that. "Headquarters?" Ackerley said, with mild disdain. "You mean they actually have a meeting place? Secret passwords and all that?"

"Where is this headquarters, Weasley?" Scrimgeour pressed. "If we knew where to find Potter, we would be able to focus more of our attention on hunting and catching the Azkaban escapees, and the rest of the Death Eaters."

Percy winced, knowing he wouldn't be the bearer of good news. "It's in London somewhere, in an old house that hasn't been lived in for some time," he guessed, remembering the odd hints from his mother's letters. "Even if I did know exactly where it was, the house is protected by a Fidelius Charm, and Dumbledore was the Secret Keeper. Unless he wrote down the address or made it somehow available to others, then none of us could ever find it."

Scrimgeour studied him for a moment, thoughtfully plucking at his lower lip with his thumb and index finger. "Ackerley," he said finally, "run a search of all Wizarding domiciles in the London city limits. I want addresses and the names of every family that lived in them, then I want you to cross reference those names with the ones of known Order members."

Ackerley blinked. "But sir, we don't know who is in the Order."

Scrimgeour gave him a withering look. "Who was at the Department of Mysteries fiasco last year?" he said. "Who fought against the Death Eaters last month, when Dumbledore died?"

"The Order," Ackerley murmured.

"There you are," the Minister said. "Don't forget to include Sirius Black in that search, because I don't doubt for a second that they were helping him hide after he escaped from Azkaban."

The meeting adjourned shortly after that for lunch, and Percy filed away his minutes in the proper cabinet before heading up to the Ministry cafeteria, head still reeling from Scrimgeour's revelations. Most of the tables had already been filled with Ministry employees, and a long queue came from the kitchen. Glancing around casually, hoping to spy an empty seat, Percy came across his father, eating and chatting away with a young woman with electric blue hair. Percy looked away before Arthur could catch his eye.

He met Hestia waiting behind him, and the two of them talked about what dishes the Ministry cafeteria made better than others as they continued on down the queue and went looking for a seat. They found an empty table with two chairs near one of the corners, mercifully far from Arthur and his companion. Percy found it a nice contrast -- he usually ate lunch up in his office, alone, while he worked on something for Scrimgeour.

Hestia didn't falter in her conversation as she spread her napkin in her lap and enthusiastically started in on her lunch; Percy could only smile a little at her talkativeness. "Of course I just adore Indian food," she was saying. "The other day when we had takeaway from that little place --"

"We don't usually order out like that," Percy said, managing to edge into her monologue. "Only when we have to work through lunch."

"Ah," she said, eating some of her steak and kidney pie. "We were the complete opposite in the Office of Law. We ordered Italian on Tuesdays, Japanese on Wednesdays -- I am determined to buy stock in Wagamama, just for their chocolate wasabi cake alone -- Indian on Thursdays, and we'd go to O'Neill's on Fridays and get royally pissed."

Percy had to hold back his indignation, that the esteemed International Magical Office of Law would act so unprofessionally. "And what about Mondays?" he asked, pursing his lips.

She laughed. "On Mondays we exchanged Hangover Potions, as we were still recovering from the weekend."

Percy thought of what he and Penelope had done on the weekends, on the rare times when he had not been needed by the Minister, and she hadn't needed to work overtime in order to pay the bills. There was a quiet, classy little cocktail lounge near their flat in Earls Court, where they would go and order exotic drinks they'd never had before and talk in low voices about their hopes and dreams for the future. Penelope wanted a child, but just one, and not quite yet; Percy wanted to move near Hampstead Heath, to regain some of the openness he missed from his childhood in Devonshire; and they both wanted to advance in their chosen fields and live comfortably, with enough money to take care of Penelope's parents in their old age, and leave some to their child when they died.

As he thought this, with more than a little melancholy and nostalgia, Percy abruptly realised that he was staring at Hestia's chest. One of the buttons in her blue-striped blouse had come undone, and he could see the brassiere she wore underneath. Percy felt his freckled face darken with an embarrassed blush, radiating enough heat to rival the very sun. But he kept staring. Hestia's skin was pale and unmarred by freckles, and looked smooth to the touch.

And suddenly, out of nowhere, he wanted to touch her.

"What about you?" Hestia gestured to him with her fork, then paused. "Well. I never thought I'd have to say this to you, of all people, but -- my face is up here."

Percy covered his eyes with one hand, moving his glasses off of his nose. He was even more embarrassed than before, now that she had caught him, and he was probably all blotchy and crimson. "Um." He forced himself to look her in the eye, never mind the tantalising glimpse of her skin. "Your shirt is undone."

"I -- what?" Hestia looked down. "Oh, bugger," she muttered, and she hastily redid the offending button. "Sorry about that. Needs to be resewn, but I couldn't be bothered the last few weeks." She looked back up at him and winked. "Never seen what's under a witch's robes, then, Percy? And here I thought you said you had a girlfriend."

"I do -- I did --" He fought to regain his cool composure, and to stop stuttering like a randy teenage boy. Because he certainly wasn't randy just because he'd seen a bit of skin. Definitely not. "We broke up last week. I don't want to talk about it, and I'm sorry about -- I'm sorry." He stared down at his Ploughman's lunch as though it were the most fascinating thing he'd ever seen.

Hestia chuckled. "No, it's fine. It's all right. That's what I get for wearing clothes that need mending, eh?"

Percy nodded, desperate to distract himself. "Er -- why did you leave the Office of Law?" he asked. "It sounds like you enjoyed it there."

"I wish I had," Hestia said darkly. "The only reason I managed to get as high as I did was because of my cousin, Gwenog -- right out of Hogwarts I was a reserve Chaser for the Harpies for a few years. Got dead tired with that, since the Chasers are hardly ever ill, and I really just kept the bench warm. So when I told Gwen I wanted out, she managed to pull some strings and get me the Law job, since I have N.E.W.T.s in History of Magic and Muggle Studies."

"But you were treated like just another brainless Quidditch player," he said, remembering Oliver Wood. Without Percy, Oliver would never have managed to earn enough qualifications in his seventh year.

"Exactly," Hestia said, smiling warmly at him. "So when Helen Drury's job opened up, I applied for it, and here I am."

Before Percy could ask another question, Ackerley approached their table with an amused look on his face. "Weasley, Umbridge is asking for you," he said. "Says she needs you desperately, and can't ask anyone else for help."

"You've upset her," Hestia said.

"Fitzpatrick provoked me this morning," Percy said, frowning at them both, even as he stood and picked up his tray. "She happened to be there and I took the fall. And I resent the implication that Madam Umbridge would be so fickle, for she has always commended me on the excellence of my work."

Hestia shared a private smile with Ackerley, who laughed out loud. "Good luck with that, Weasley," he said. Percy rolled his eyes and stalked off, to return his tray to the kitchen and head back up to the Ministerial office suite, trying to ignore the fact that his mind kept drifting back towards Hestia's smooth, pale skin.

Umbridge's wrath was particularly prickly this time around, for Percy found himself piled up with more work than he had had in months. He was constantly running around the Ministry for the next few days, making copies and sending memos and writing proposals and reading epic Wizengamot decisions and summarising reports from the Aurors' office. Every little thing that needed to be done to help the war effort against the Dark Lord, Percy did it without complaint, even though he would stagger home at all hours of the night and collapse into bed without supper.

Still, the optimistic part of him knew that anything he did for Umbridge was a fantastic learning experience. She had been at the Ministry longer than anyone else, and her command of Ministry protocol and Wizarding Law was enviable. Anything he learned at her apron strings, as it were, would be well worth the extra elbow grease he put into his work.

He toiled away happily until the Monday following Harry's birthday, finishing with satisfaction his summary of the latest reports from the squad investigating the Tube explosions. Umbridge came to him not a half-hour after his arrival, smiling in a distinctly toady way.

"Mr Weasley," she said sweetly, "might I trouble you for a moment or two?"

He stood immediately, years of good manners bred into him since childhood. "Of course, Madam Secretary," he said genially, gesturing to the other chair in his small office.

"No no, this will only be a moment -- not even, I'm sure," she went on, smiling. "I was wondering if you've had the opportunity to look over the recent amendments made to our citizenship laws?"

"I have," Percy said, straightening proudly. "I made sure to read them as soon as they were passed."

"Oh wonderful, just wonderful," she said, a strangely manic gleam in her eye. "As it happens, I've just received a memo from the Records Department. The clerk on duty is having trouble with a couple applying for a marriage license. I was on my way down to handle the situation. I'm sure you'd like to accompany me?"

"Of course, Madam Secretary," Percy said, eager to see the law in action. He grabbed his favourite quill and a short scroll to take notes, and followed her out of the office and into the lift.

Umbridge was her usual giddy self as they waited for the lift to reach the proper floor. "Such enthusiasm in a young wizard is so encouraging to see," she said, rubbing her pudgy hands together. "We need more employees like you in the Ministry, Mr Weasley. Many, many more."

Percy was swelling with pride by the time they reached the Hall of Records, and walked along the wood-paneled corridor that took them to the front desk. A door ahead of them opened and a young, pimply-faced clerk poked his head out into the hallway. "Thank Merlin," he said, upon seeing Umbridge. "They're getting fidgety out here."

"Everything is under control now," Umbridge said, and Percy followed her through the door and out to the front desk, where applicants waited to obtain marriage licenses.

Percy's mouth went dry when he saw the couple on the other side of the desk. He stopped dead in his tracks.

It was Bill and Fleur.

Percy hadn't seen Bill in almost two years -- not since the Triwizard Tournament, when he had been a judge and Bill had come with their parents to see Harry before the third task. He couldn't believe that this man before him, with his face permanently marred by still-healing scars, was the same older brother he had hero-worshipped for more than half his life. The moment Percy stopped, Bill's eyes swung towards him. Neither of them could look away.

"Well," Umbridge was saying, "what seems to be the problem here?"

"William Arthur Weasley and Fleur Delacour," the clerk said, presenting their identification. "They're planning a wedding ceremony for later in the month, but there's something wrong with Mr Weasley's ID. The scales blink at me when I insert his papers."

"I see," Umbridge said, shooting a conspicuous look at Percy. He looked back helplessly. "Why do you think that would happen, Mr Weasley?"

Percy swallowed. "The applicant is no longer considered a full Wizarding citizen," he said hollowly.

"Ah." She turned to Bill. "And where did you get such nasty scars?"

Bill clenched his jaw as he turned to her. "I was attacked by Fenrir Greyback," he said coldly.

The clerk visibly retreated from him, pale with fright. "Exactly," Umbridge said, smiling even more broadly. When she spoke next, her voice was slower and louder, as though she were speaking to someone hard of hearing. "Because of your injuries, you are now classified as a half-breed, Mr Weasley. You cannot hold property or enter into contracts with wizards -- which includes marriage licenses."

"It was not ze full moon," Fleur burst out, clinging to Bill's arm. "He is no werewolf, any more zan you!"

Umbridge gave her a patronising smile. "If I were you," she said, "I would distance myself from Mr Weasley as soon as possible. A pretty witch like you should have no trouble finding someone else."

"I don't transform," Bill insisted. "You can ask my parents, they were with me during the last full moon, as was Madam Pomfrey from --"

"My hands are tied," Umbridge said, sounding not so much regretful as triumphant. She turned to Percy. "I'm sure you can explain the laws, Mr Weasley," she said. "I have other matters I must attend to." She took the pimply clerk with her, and Percy found himself alone, standing on the other side of the records desk from his oldest brother and future sister-in-law.

They stood facing each other for what seemed hours, before Fleur spoke. "Percy," she begged. "He is your bruzzer. Please do not do zees."

Percy looked away, at his scroll and quill. "The law says --" He cleared his throat uncomfortably, wishing he were back in his office. "The law is clear --"

"I'm not a werewolf, Perce," Bill said evenly. "I've had several long conversations with Remus Lupin, who is one, and he says that I don't have enough of the characteristics."

Percy seized on that. "Obviously you do, if there was a problem with your identification," he said, voice growing stronger. "A new law was passed last month, which greatly restricts the rights of half-breeds --"

"Don't you dare call them that," Bill cried, eyes flashing in anger. Percy stepped back, startled. "Mum and Dad raised you better than that."

"He does not change," Fleur said, threading her fingers through Bill's. "I swear zees to you. He is no werewolf."

Percy looked between the two of them, his heart pounding somewhere near his throat. His breath came in short gasps, as his brain frantically scrambled for a solution. The laws had been passed primarily to protect full humans; otherwise, people would be infected left and right by werewolves left to wander freely. If Bill really didn't change...

"What happens?" he said.

Bill relaxed, but only a little. "I eat my steaks rare now," he said. "And on the full moon, my sense of smell is slightly better. That's all."

Percy bit his lip, until he tasted blood. "Swear to me that that's all," he said. "If I learn that there's more --"

"That's all, Perce," Bill said softly, leaning on one hand on the desk. His blue eyes were bright and earnest. "I swear."

A minor change in diet? Increased olfactory abilities on one night in thirty? That was a long way off from turning into a savage beast with a hunger for human flesh. The laws had been created for the dangerous ones, the ones who really changed and put the people around them in harm's way. Percy turned to Fleur. "Do you feel unsafe or uncomfortable on the full moon? Has anything ever happened to make you feel that your life was in danger?"

Fleur shook her head. "Nevair," she declared throatily. "Not once. Bill would nevair 'urt me."

Before he could think about it too closely and change his mind, Percy reached into the desk before him and dug out a marriage license. "I'll have to make sure it gets filed by the end of the day," he said, half to himself, as he began filling it in. "I'll do it myself. No one looks up records anymore, unless they're doing genealogy, so it might be years before anyone catches it."

"Thank you, Percy!" Fleur cried, seizing him by the ears and kissing his head. "Oh, thank you!"

He blushed, but slid the completed license towards them, and witnessed them signing their names. "You can't publish the banns in the Prophet," Percy said seriously, initialing the license and giving it the proper stamps of authenticity, "and you can't make the ceremony public."

"If that's what we need to do, we'll do it," Bill said.

Percy took the form and with one quick spell duplicated it. "Hide this," he said, shoving a copy towards Bill; Bill tucked it into the front of his dragon-skin jacket. "Tell no one aside from family and close friends," he added anxiously. "If word reaches the right ears, it's my job. Now go, I have to --"

Bill reached out and grabbed Percy's shoulder before he could turn away. "We sent you a wedding invitation," he said. "I want you to come, Perce."

Percy laughed a little and shook his head. "No, I really shouldn't."

"Bollocks to what everyone else will think," Bill persisted. "It's my wedding and you're my brother."

"It is only right, for what you have done for us," Fleur agreed.

"I have to go. I'm sorry." Percy shook off Bill's hand, and without another word he left the records desk, closing the door behind him.