Arthur didn't know what had possessed him to leave the magical lodging he had taken for the night and go for a walk, but once he was at the bar he realized he just wanted to get drunk. Whether magical or Muggle, American or British, bars were all the same. The drinks were the same, the people very similar. Arthur had only once intentionally gone out to drink himself into oblivion, and that was the night Molly had announced she was pregnant and they would have to marry immediately. Once more, his children had driven him to drink.
Joyce noticed him when he first came in. She had only been in the hotel bar for a few minutes when he arrived, and her white wine hadn't arrived yet. As the evening passed, and she drank most of a bottle by herself, the waiter topping her up ever twenty minutes like clockwork, she watched him. He reminded her of someone she used to know. He was not very attractive, with thinning red hair and a paunch. Joyce thought he looked more tired than anything else, and he played with his wedding ring when he forgot that he was mad at his wife. He drank gins and tonic, one after another. He stared at everything and everyone as if he had never seen such an amazing world before. It was wholly at odds with the rest of his demeanor.
Arthur didn't pay much attention to the rest of the patrons. Despite his despair, he was entranced by the Muggle world he found himself in. The moving picture in the box in the corner, like a wizarding photograph but with laughter that sounded not quite right, the people who tossed paper onto the bar in exchange for drinks, the lights. The lights were the most fun. They glowed steadily without flickering, all different colors. The ones in the loo made his eyes hurt if he looked at them too long. There was no fire, but the room was warm enough. When, after a few hours of solitary drinking, a member of the bar staff placed another drink in front of him before his last drink was done, he was surprised. When the man indicated the drink was from an attractive blonde in the corner, Arthur was shocked.
Joyce watched the man receive his drink, and when the waiter pointed in her direction, she was prepared. She raised her glass, and smiled at him. She was flattered that he looked so startled, as if he couldn't believe a woman would ever offer to buy him a drink. It had been an impulsive gesture, one that she didn't want to examine too closely. The man stood uncertainly, and then made his way over to her table. The bar was crowded, and he had to walk carefully to get to her. He was slightly drunk, no more so than she was, and he caught himself before stumbling a few times. Once he arrived at her table, he stood next to the empty chair for a moment.
Arthur wasn't sure what had possessed him to approach this women. She was very beautiful, but he was happily married. Strangers did not share drinks in anonymous bars without an expectation of something more. He knew this, and accepted her invitation anyway. As he sat down, he realized with some surprise that even after a successful 25-year relationship, he was still terrified of women. He felt like a teenager again, and impressing this woman was the most important thing he would ever do.
"Thanks for the drink. I'm Arthur," he said
"You're welcome," she replied. "I'm Joyce. You looked a little lonely, and since I'm here on my own too, it seemed like a nice idea."
"Thank you," he repeated.
As they sat there in an uncomfortable silence, trying to think of something to say, Arthur noticed that she, too, was wearing a wedding ring. He didn't know if this made him feel better or worse.
Joyce noticed him looking at her ring and wondered if his marriage was as unstable as her own. On reflection, she decided men don't usually accept drinks from strange women in foreign cities if their have secure marriages at home. He was British, and she wondered if he was very far from home.
"So what brings you to Chicago?" He winced at how bland the question was, but after he said it, found himself interested in the answer.
"I'm working for a museum gallery at the moment, and we're curating a show with some material borrowed from the Field Museum," she said. "Mostly tribal ironwork."
"Ah," Arthur said, although he didn't exactly understand what she meant. More Muggle things, museums of fields, and showings of Muggle tools. He thought he had deported himself well enough so far, but if he started asking about the museum for fields, she would probably suspect something.
Joyce smiled at him. He probably didn't realize, but he kept looking at her breasts. He did look intrigued by her work, though, and she didn't think it was entirely fake. "Yes," she said, "our show is on locally-made tools from the colonial period. I've been flying all over, looking at collections and negotiating borrowing. This is just the preliminary stages, of course, but the show should be wonderful when we finally get it into the museum."
He nodded. "It must be exiting, exploring all those new items."
Joyce thought he sounded wistful.
"What brings you do Chicago?" she repeated his question back to him.
He looked surprised. "Ah, I just needed to get away for a bit." He was hiding something, Joyce thought, but then he continued. "My youngest son and daughter had some trouble in school last year, and I just wanted to take a moment to, well, recover."
Arthur was unsettled that he had offered such intimate information so readily, but it hadn't occurred to him to lie to her. Perhaps he should have had a cover story created before he came to sit with her, but it was no use worrying about the problem now. At least he had the sense not to mention the Order business, but it was in fact the situation with Harry, Ron, and Ginny that had caused him to take this assignment. He was slightly sorry he had told the truth, however, as his response had made Joyce clench her teeth and look away. He felt out of depth; clearly he had struck a nerve, but he didn't know what to do about it. If Joyce were Molly, then the problem would be easily solved. But Joyce was not Molly, and perhaps that was part of the problem.
They sat, conversation lapsed once more into a very uncomfortable silence, and just when Arthur was about to make his apologies and leave, Joyce spoke again.
"I understand. My daughter burnt down her school."
Arthur stared at Joyce, aghast. "Oh, no, it wasn't like that." He felt awful as soon as the words left his mouth. "I mean, they left school grounds and did some stupid things and got quite a few students hurt," and one good man killed, he added silently. "They just made a mistake, and it was a mistake that got too large to handle."
Joyce snorted. "At least you seem to know what happened. All I know is that my daughter, who used to be bright and popular and happy is now withdrawn, and goes out at all hours, and burned down her school gym."
Arthur shifted nervously, and scratched the back of his neck. "Did you ask why?" He briefly closed his eyes, wondering how much of a fool he sounded, but when Joyce merely nodded without comment, he felt better.
"She said, 'it was necessary,'" Joyce said with over-precise enunciation.
Arthur stared at Joyce. That was astonishingly similar to the reasons given by Ron and Ginny for their ill-conceived raid on the Ministry. Harry said, therefor it was necessary. After all the trouble they had gotten in to with the Chamber, Arthur had hoped that the first thing they would do when confronted with a problem would be to ask for help. But not his children.
Joyce watched Arthur play with the napkin from under his drink. He had expressed surprise when she admitted Buffy's actions, but almost immediately accepted that this was her life. She didn't know whether to be sad or relieved. Hank hadn't been this accepting when the school called, and it had only gotten worse since then. Arthur simply didn't seem to know what to say in response to Buffy's explanation. Joyce didn't blame him; she had no idea how to respond. When he spoke again, she had been certain he would apologize -- for what, she didn't want to speculate -- and leave.
However, instead he said, "That's what my kids said. Actually, they said they did what they did both because it was necessary, and because they just couldn't explain the circumstances to us because we wouldn't understand."
Joyce blinked, and then began to giggle. "Do they think that we sprang out the womb full-grown? While I admit that there are more things that I don't understand than that I do, why do they insist on imagining that we are completely useless in their lives?" She realized she was beginning to laugh hysterically, and appreciated that Arthur merely waited until she had finished.
"I don't know, but they're not always wrong. I feel pretty useless in my own life, and then I've seven kids' lives in which to be useless. The more the merrier, I suppose."
Joyce was jarred to hear that Arthur had seven children. Her only child seemed one too many on some days. He must have noticed the look on her face, because he smiled ruefully.
"I'm not sure what we were thinking. The first six are boys, but still. A large family is nice, but it's gotten a bit out of control."
Joyce nodded, but couldn't quite wrap her brain around the idea.
"At least," she finally ventured, "it's the youngest two. That means the older ones are all ready making their own problems for themselves."
Arthur burst into laughter, and Joyce grinned. His laughter was unrestrained, and lightened the tension in his shoulders. He calmed quickly, though, and answered her. "The others do get into trouble, but they're all of age, so it's less of a problem for me and Molly."
Arthur realized with a start that he had mentioned Molly to the woman, which was not something that you did if you were looking to have an extra-marital affair. Joyce didn't seem to notice, and instead smiled.
"I can't wait until Buffy is out of the house. Does that make me a bad mother?"
Arthur hesitated. In all his years with Molly, the only time she had ever asked that question had been when Bill was very small and had colic, and they were living in a two-room bedsit, and Molly was constantly tired and cranky. Bill had been up all night screaming, and evidently hadn't stopped from the time Arthur went to work until he came home, and Molly had shoved Bill at Arthur, screamed, "he's your son too," and stormed out of the house. Later, after she had returned, she had apologized to both of them, and asked that question, and Arthur had responded that she could never be a bad mother. He still wasn't sure if that was the right answer, and Molly had never asked again.
"You love your daughter, right?" he asked.
"And you want her to be happy?"
She nodded again.
"I think, if you're a honest person, then sometimes you accept that you liked your life before you had kids, and you can admit that sometimes you want that life back." Arthur had certainly spent a great deal of time imagining a day when all the children were gone, and there were no more Hogwarts fees and books and uniforms, and no more trouble. This was usually when he had just found a new Muggle item, and wanted nothing more than to play with it in the garage.
Joyce smiled sadly at the table. "I know. But I never imagined that raising a child would be so much trouble."
Arthur shrugged. "And yet, we wouldn't trade it for the world."