Disclaimer: Harry Potter world belongs to J.K. Rowling, not me.
Rated T for language
A/N: This chapter is sort of a filler one. There will be more action in the next, I promise. I'm about to go to a three-week writing camp (!) so the next chapters will go up depending on internet availability.
Several young witches and wizards, looking barely old enough to be out of Hogwarts, were milling around the Department of Postwar Affairs. The department, which was really just three, large, hastily cleared rooms, still lacked any major partitioning or installation of furniture; the only office in it was Percy's painfully neat one, tucked any in the corner with the curtains drawn tight over its pseudo-windows. Other than that, the department was filled only with tables and desks placed at odd angles and piled with ludicrous amounts of papers. Bill found it difficult to believe that Percy could work in such a messy environment—run it, in fact—without suffering some sort of nervous collapse. Even as the redhead watched, the workers scurried back and forth, further buffeting the surfaces and sending the mountains of papers cascading down to the stained carpet floor only to pile them back up even more haphazardly. It seemed like the office had once been neat, but was being gradually worked into a state of complete disorder. Bill imagined Percy, staying long past sundown every night, filing away every loose scrap of parchment and reorganizing the furniture into orderly lines, only to have it corrupted again the next day by his frantic staff. Not that Bill had any sympathy for his anal little brother—he guessed that the office wouldn't be in nearly so bad a shape if Percy didn't work his staff like dogs.
But right now, inexplicably, Percy wasn't in his office, and none of his staff had any idea where he was, although many expressed an earnest, passionate desire that he stay there.
"This is surreal," Charlie muttered. Bill turned around from his position, leaning against the doorframe of Percy's office, to see the next oldest Weasley perched on Percy's desk. "I mean, Percy is head of his own department and he isn't here?"
"More surreal than when he got drunk and professed to be a secret prankster?" Bill countered, a small smile tugging on the corners of his mouth. That memory was probably his favorite to date concerning Percy.
A glimmer of amusement sparked to life in Charlie's eyes. "Fine, I'll give you that. But still," he added, sobering a little, "I know something's going on with Percy. You know it, too." Bill nodded reluctantly. After Percy's nonsensical rant the other night, which had brought up far more questions than it answered, he was more sure than ever that Percy was involved in something pretty serious during the war, and was incredibly curious about it. "And we're going to find out about it," Charlie concluded. "For his own good."
"Alright," Bill replied dubiously. "But I'm not sure that ambushing him in his office is our best option."
"We're not ambushing him," Charlie said dismissively.
"Charlie." Bill fixed his little brother with a pointed stare. "We're staking out in his office, waiting for him to come back to work, in full view of all his employees." He smirked slightly. "You've been spending too much time around dragons; you've forgotten the normal avenues of interacting with humans. We're ambushing him."
"No, we aren't."
"Yes, we are." Bill had the distinct feeling of devolving to the level of discourse they had before either of them entered Hogwarts. It was liberating—after everything they'd been through, it was kind of fun to act like a kid again.
"No, we ar—"
"It, um, it sort of sounds like you are."
Bill and Charlie simultaneously turned in surprise to see a young woman standing a few paces from the door to Percy's office, nervously tugging on a few loose strands of dirty-blond hair that been freed from the braid resting on her shoulder. Her light brown eyes darted uneasily about the room. Bill quickly recognized her.
"Marie-Claire, isn't it?"
The girl, who had been in his year in Ravenclaw, offered him a strained smile of acknowledgement. "Hi, Bill," she rushed on without a pause. "I go by MC now. This is Percy's department, right? And this is his office? Is he the one you're ambushing?" Each word was exhaled on the same tortured breath.
"Yes," Bill replied matter-of-factly, at the same time as Charlie let out a sullen, protesting, "No."
MC blinked. "Right…" She shook her head as if trying to jostle her thoughts into order, the escapee locks of hair bouncing frantically. "Is he here? I really need to talk to him."
"Why?" asked Charlie suspiciously, as Bill straightened a little in interest.
"I can't find Audrey," MC replied, biting her lip. Bill remembered that MC had always been cursed with several nervous ticks, which had, apparently, outlasted her N.E.W.T.s. He watched in alarm as crimson blood welled up, staining her pale lips. "I've been looking everywhere, at her flat and at the Reserve and I've been calling and calling but she doesn't pick up, and—" she drew a huge, sustaining breath into her no doubt aching lungs. "And I thought Percy might know where she is."
Bill felt an uncomfortable, cold hand grip his stomach. "She's missing?" Not Audrey… he thought numbly. He had liked her a lot. She was perfect for Percy. If she was gone, his little brother would never get over it, he'd revert back to being completely intolerable… But no, Bill told himself firmly, the time in which people just vanished without a trace was over. "Are you sure she's not just…I don't know…gone out shopping or something?" Fleur could disappear for hours under that excuse, although Bill found it highly suspicious that, for the last few weeks, Hermione had gone with her…
MC shook her head vigorously. "Audrey hates shopping. And besides she knows that we all have to be ready at any moment! In case something happens."
Bill frowned as Charlie hopped off of Percy's desk. "What do you—?"
"What's going on in here?"
They all turned to see George standing in the doorway, eyebrows up. His cloak was caked with questionable potions and colorful powders, and there was a bright blue Pygmy Puff clinging desperately to his sleeve. Clearly, he had come directly from Weasley's Wizard Wheezes.
"What are you doing here?" Charlie asked in surprise. Bill echoed the sentiment.
"I came to talk to Percy," George replied, taking a few steps forward to awkwardly stand by the corner of a desk flooded with papers. There was a tone of uncertainty in his voice that Bill was completely unused to, and that put him on immediate alert. George had seemed to be coping so well lately, finally emerging from his old childhood room, talking with them again, going out, working out the shop; he hoped nothing had changed that. But why would he want to talk to Percy?
"So did we," Charlie said, as MC nodded enthusiastically, still yanking on her hair.
George, bemused, turned to her. He opened his mouth—probably to ask who she was—but MC cut him off before he had the chance. "Do you know where he is? I need to talk to him, right now. It's an emergency." Her eyes were intense and full of urgency.
"What's wrong?" Bill demanded. A panicky feeling was beginning to rise in his chest. He shoved it down and leveled his voice to a calm, commanding tone. It was a trick he'd gotten really good at, as the big brother of the chaotic Weasley brood. "We can help." Charlie and George nodded their agreement.
MC seemed like she was going to accept the offer, but then her face fell. "I—I'd love that…but you can't."
"Because I can't," MC said miserably. "I have to go…look for them, I guess." With an air of pitiable desperation and hopelessness, she turned on her heel and started to leave.
The crash! of a door slamming shut reverberated throughout the department, and the eyes of Percy's workers snapped to the main door. Most of them stopped in their tracks. One particularly shabby looking teenager made a break for it, and George leapt out of his way, stumbling into a desk and sending a cascade of scrolls and files to the beige carpet floor. The Pygmy Puff surfed down the avalanche and went scrambling away, dodging between quick footfalls to hunker down underneath the nearest table.
"What," a familiar, booming, pompous voice rang out, "have you all done to my department?"
"We're working," one of them said irritably.
"Really?" Bill heard Percy's voice snap back. "Because it looks as if you're tossing about piles of important documents as though they were confetti, and judging by the amount of meaningful work you've completed, I am forced to conclude that such an assumption is correct!"
Bill stuck his head out of Percy's office (which was now quite crowded, as George had ducked into it after nearly being run over by the fleeing employee) to see Percy pull his wand from his pocket with one hand (the other was clutching a scrap of parchment like a lifeline) and give the slim piece of wood a dramatic flick. The loose scrolls and files immediately rose into the air and began zooming about to reach their proper location, coming to rest on various surfaces in neat stacks. Papers even shot out of people's arms, and many were swatted in the face in what were (Bill hoped) accidental collisions. As Percy strode toward his office, they dashed and wheeled around him, as if he were the moving eye in a veritable storm of Ministry documents. Bill marveled at the display of complex magic.
And then Percy reached his office, and saw the small crowd that had jammed themselves into it. His blue eyes widened in shock behind his thick horn-rimmed glasses and, immediately, the papers dropped like dead birds from the air.
"What in the name of Merlin are you all doing here?" Percy demanded, hastily stuffing the parchment scrap deep into his pocket. The redhead seemed exhausted—his hair was disheveled, dark circles painted over the pale skin under his eyes, and the beginnings of a stubble beard adorning his usually clean-shaven, gaunt face.
Bill saw Charlie shift awkwardly, shuffling his heavy leather boots. Obviously, this plan had worked out much better in his head. "We came to talk to you," the dragon keeper said, with an uneasy clearing of his throat.
"Oh," Percy replied, a slight fringe of frostiness to his voice. "I see. And it took"—he did a quick head count, pausing minutely when his gaze raked over George—"four of you in some sort of surprise assault to accomplish this? Were you all afraid of approaching me alone? That I might attack if not intimidated by large numbers?" He pushed his way into the office, scowling deeply, and shouldered past Charlie to reach his desk. Ignoring them, he placed the parchment scrap on the desk, smoothing it out with both hands, and then appeared to change his mind and snatched it back up, crumpling it in one fist.
His behavior alarmed Bill slightly—he was far more cross, more obsessive than Bill had ever seen him. Did he know that Audrey was missing?
"We wanted to talk to you about Ayden," Charlie cut in, clearly excepting a strong response.
He wasn't disappointed. Percy froze halfway through forcing his palm across the crinkled surface of his parchment, and MC sucked in a sharp, pained gasp. "How do you know that name?" Percy demanded, whipping around.
"You said it," Bill replied quietly, and Percy's brow furrowed. "That night last week, when we went out together, and you were, you know…"
"Pissed," George supplied helpfully. "Really, really pissed." Percy scowled.
"Anything I said after you plied me with alcohol—"
"Oh, please," Bill snorted. "You got yourself drunk, don't pretend otherwise."
"—cannot be trusted," Percy finished smoothly, glaring. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have work to do—"
"I'm sorry," MC blurted out. "I'm sorry, but this is really important." The fear palpable in his voice won Percy's attention from the enigmatic piece of parchment, which he let flutter from his grip. "I can't find Audrey. I called her, but…"
Alarm flashed over Percy's face. "I thought you lot just had lunch together."
"We did. But we can't find her, and…" she broke off, eyes flittering uneasily over the faces of the other redheads crammed in Percy's office, as if she was unwilling to reveal the source of the crisis in their presence.
"What?" Percy demanded, a steely edge of authority entering his voice.
"They've been raiding the stations," MC finally wailed. "The houses we used. There's no one there, but we don't know how they knew where to find them. What if they have inside information? What if…"
"Bloody hell," Percy muttered, his eyes suddenly becoming unfocused and haunted, as if he didn't need to hear the end of MC's "What if…" to imagine what she was implying. Bill's mind reeled, trying to digest this situation, to apply his Curse-Breaking logic to it, to figure out what the hell was going on.
It was George who cut off his question this time, his brown eyes serious and solemn and flickering with an emotion Bill wasn't sure he recognized. Pride? Admiration? There was no way…"Go, Percy," he said.
With a grateful nod, Percy swept out of the office, MC on his heels, leaving Bill and Charlie to stew in their own bemusement and frustration.
Percy strode purposefully out of his office, not dedicating any brainpower to wondering what three of his siblings had been doing there, or to the fact that his department was shamefully slovenly. He shoved the scrap of parchment (having already memorized the charm Umbridge had written there) into the hands of his nearest employee, barking "Derive a counter-charm for this."
MC hurried after him. "Did you check the Reserve for Audrey?" he demanded. She nodded. "And our flat?" Again, her head bobbed up and down. "And you called her?" Another nod.
"Over and over," she gushed. "I can't find her. It's not like her to just disappear like this. She knows that we need her!"
MC dogged Percy's heels as he rushed through the corridors, his black cloak billowing behind him. He racked his brains for an idea, something, anything, he could do to remedy this situation, but nothing came to mind. Panic was beginning to spread through his body, wiping out the former exhaustion. Where could Audrey have gone? What could they possibly do about the rash of Death Eater break-ins?
Soon Percy's path brought him to the Atrium. The huge room was bustling with activity as people emerged from the roaring green fires in every fireplace, and apparated into existence with a loud crack! A knot had formed around the gouged marble floor where the Magic is Might statue had been removed, speculating about what would replace the grotesque monument.
"Oi!" A loud, familiar voice bellowed behind Percy. "Hey, Percy!"
Percy stopped abruptly, whipping around. Oliver Wood was pushing his way through the crowd, expertly throwing about his burly shoulders to get to where Percy and MC stood. Percy was surprised to see him; they had been roommates, sure, but never good friends. From practically the moment they shook hands at the Gryffindor table in the Great Hall, they realized the huge gulfs that separated them. Oliver was wildly intense about Quidditch, which Percy viewed as a colossal waste of study time, and Percy was entirely committed to his classes and becoming prefect, which bored Oliver to tears. The best that could be said about their relationship, really, was that they stayed out of each other's ways.
But Percy had lived with him for seven years, long enough to recognize that the Keeper's voice was lacking the heartiness and competitive spirit that it had once possessed in full. Dark circles surrounded his sunken eyes, his skin was abnormally pale and his brown hair was limp. Oliver, Percy reasoned, probably matched his own state of overwork and exhaustion perfectly.
"Yes?" he asked.
Oliver began to riffle through his pockets as he spoke. "We've been cleaning out the old cells in Azkaban," he explained, face set in a stony mask. "There were some…bodies there, and we used some spell to identify them. The Keeper finally located what he was searching for, and pulled out a piece of parchment, offering it to Percy in a Quidditch-gloved hand. "I heard that you're compiling a list of all the war casualities. I thought you could add these names to the list."
Percy slowly reached out and took the parchment, unconsciously unfolding it, wondering how he had managed to saddle himself with such a grim responsibility. "Okay," he replied softly, his eyes dragged unwillingly to the scribbled names as if to the scene of some horrific accident from which he wanted to look away, but couldn't. Somehow, some part of him knew what would be there before he even saw it.
The name Ayden Carter was written there, in near illegible scrawl, adorned with ink splotches and water stains.
An iron fist sunk itself into Percy's stomach, and he sucked in a sharp gasp as a terrible sensation twisted through his insides, jarring and agonizing but not surprising, not really, and that was the most painful part.
This had been coming on for a long time, and now it was here. Suddenly, Audrey's disappearance made sense. Her carefully constructed walls of denial had come tumbling down with the knowledge of Ayden's death.
"Oh, Merlin," MC whispered as she looked over his shoulder at the list. "Not Ayden…"
Oliver Wood stared solemnly at them. "You knew one of them." Not a question. Neither of them responded.
The part of Percy's brain that was always working, always planning, immediately leapt into action. He had to deal with the Death Eater raids on the old safe houses quickly, then find Audrey, console her like she had him after Fred's death, put together Ayden's funeral…
Mostly, though, he was mourning, knowing Ayden had died the death he'd feared: having never been able to apologize to his family. To depart from the world of the living with a million regrets.
But Percy wasn't going to let that happen to him. "C'mon," he said gruffly to MC. "We have work to do."