The last week in March began a stretch of what weather-wizards liked to call ‘unsettled’ weather, and Percy felt the two days of sleet had made themselves at home within his bones and were rattling around in there with unnerving insouciance: the climactic equivalent of hateful twins.
It wasn’t just him. As the Easter hols crept towards Hogwarts, loyal Ministry workers started to talk about how the Quibbler’s editor had been asking for trouble, supporting Undesirables in such a blatant, public show of treason. None of the school-age children in their families had anything to worry about from the trip on the Express.
Close colleagues started to give him concerned looks and bring him cups of tea and pat his arm bracingly in passing without asking questions. He understood what they were silently saying to him: your family is made of treachery, so of course you’ll have to say you aren’t disturbed by the danger your little sister is in, but she’s sixteen, your sister, a minor, of course you’re worried, we don’t blame you at all.
It was very kind of them. He made sure to look secretly grateful. He was grateful. He felt their support warmly.
He just didn’t feel, as they intended, supported-in-his-troubles. He didn’t particularly feel he had any troubles. The Weasleys had made their choices. He’d done their best for them. Not one of his siblings had shown the least bit of interest in him after running him off with a face full of mashed parsnip; they were completely fine with his becoming a new branch of an old name, and so was he.
His parents had kept trying to reach out for him, and his mother had kept at it even after his father had politely acknowledged that communicating with them might be dangerous for him. He was sadder to know that they were beyond his help, but there it was.
He wasn’t like them. He’d never been like them, and now he wasn’t one of them. He had important work to do, supporting his country, which they were trying to collapse, and that was all there was to it.
On Monday he woke to glowering, spitting skies, and felt… something. There was an anxiety waking in his heart, and he felt his pulse keenly. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt so much in his own body. There was no reason for it whatsoever.
He examined his own face in the mirror, to the point where it started to jeer at him for being vain. He paid it no mind. His blue eyes were close in colour to his father’s green ones under the same not-terribly-defined smudge of only-vaguely ginger eyebrows, but they had the shape of his mother’s. The bulb at the end of his nose was perhaps a bit more like Dad’s, but the length of Dad’s nose dipped in where Percy had the forthright Prewett nose. His mouth was like Mum’s, thin with sharp curves up top, but he had, like Dad, the kind of chin Hagrid might moor one of the first-year boats to.
He felt shakingly unmoored.
There was no reason for it, none at all. Nothing was different, and nothing was new.
He told himself, “You’re not like them. You aren’t one of them.”
He said it to his own Black-Prewett-Weasley face in the mirror. He said it out loud because he hadn’t woken up knowing it. For the first time, he hadn’t woken up with the lovely warm certainty in his head of being his own person, free and capable, right and righteous. He’d just woken up cold, feeling more alone than he could remember.
“I expected you in half an hour ago,” remarked Dearwyne Wigbert, raising an eyebrow when he stopped at the Floo-monitor’s station to say good morning. He’d forgotten to bring her a pastry, he realized then. Maybe that was what she really meant.
He was still, technically, fifteen minutes early, so she really had no right to comment. The knot in his heart tightened anyway, and he groused about the weather as though it explained his slow start.
It didn’t, not remotely. They were wizards, and he’d been up to an hour early in downpours and pea-soupers before (though Dad said that the Muggles had really got a handle on their chimneys and Percy didn’t know what a real pea-souper was).
Wigbert seemed to accept it, though, and before Percy could get away he lost another few minutes to a discussion of her rheumatism and the potions that were falling sadly short of the claims on the bottle.
All day, and for the rest of the week, he felt the eyes on him more sharply. His chest and his guts felt tighter and tighter. Every morning was wretched and cold, with rain spitting on the windows more often than not and no soothing almost-voice in his heart telling him he was different, he was himself, he was unburdened by family shackles.
He didn’t feel worse over time, but he didn’t feel better. It occurred to him that the ones who brought him tea were concerned for him because they were biting down panic themselves, or shakingly relieved that their children were too old for Hogwarts, or still too young.
He went into the Department of International Relations for a meeting. The young mother in what had once been his seat didn't look up when he came in; she was staring blankly at where the picture of her three-year-old was waving cheerfully at her from next to the desk calendar.
He briskly advised her to get back to work, but found himself dropping a brief hand on her shoulder. He also found himself dropping the platitude, “Things will settle down.”
She thanked him politely. In her eyes, he read: That’s what terrifies me.
For a week, he did his job with a bland, professional half-smile, spotlessly clean glasses, and a knot in his throat.
On the Monday after Percy first woke cold, there was relief in everyone’s eyes, but it was not unmixed. No one said they’re home safe, but we’ll have to send them back.
The following week saw a rising cascade of absences. There must be a cold going around, they all told each other. You can’t get Pepper-up for love or money in this market.
(Where would you even get the ingredients, no one remarked, with Diagon practically all boarded-over and Hogsmeade quarantined.)
By the time the Easter hols were over, a full fifth of the Ministry had mysteriously vanished. The DMLE was guarding the borders, monitoring the floo networks, stationed at apparition points, but they were stretched and ineffective. Quite a few of them complained of not being accustomed to guard duty and so-sadly reported difficulty staying awake.
Percy declared this such an easy fix that it was unnecessary to trouble the Minister about it, and authorized the dispersal of bottomless thermoses filled with specially treated stimulating coffee from St. Mungo’s. It didn’t help.
He sent official notice to St. Mungo’s on Tuesday that he and Runcorn would be coming by to test their product, and the mug of coffee they drew from the supply certainly kept him sharp as a tack all through Wednesday. Runcorn was so alert all day that he couldn’t sit still, his eyes kept crossing, and four departments sent his signature back under suspicion of forgery. So, Percy complained irritably to anyone who asked, he couldn’t understand what those DMLE incompetents were complaining about.
When confronted, the DMLE workers told Runcorn that, as he should know having tried it, the coffee was working so well it should be shared with that unofficial Snatcher organization, and he was welcome to come do a tour at one of the outposts if he doubted the work was hard.
Runcorn cursed them all into the ground, but once the tears and screams had faded and the trousers had been cleaned, Percy noticed that the repentant horror they all expressed to Runcorn faded coldly into hard eyes and satisfied mouths. He filed a blandly (blisteringly) factual note about Runcorn’s methods of disciplining his department, expressing no opinion on the subject whatever.
He made no consoling remarks to such lazy, incompetent workers. He certainly knew nothing about it when the brothers he hated most received an anonymous suggestion that those who were choosing to fight from within might be an unmined market for, say, nerve tonics. He raged in impotent fury, taking it as a personal insult and a personal attack when cards with the Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes' new mail order address started randomly appearing all over the office.
He ran a tight, incensed investigation, but they’d been enchanted with a Geminus variant that had a dozen new copies springing up in random places every time someone touched one. In the end, he had to tell Thicknesse there was nothing he could do but tell people to dispose of them. It was impossible to track down the caster without having the original card, which had probably never been on the premises in the first place.
Thicknesse suggested a police action on the address given, but the card was blurred for him. Percy had asked around; no one else had admitted to being able to read it, either. He thought they were telling the truth, sir; he certainly wasn’t able to tell the Minister what it said.
The calm with which Thicknesse took this setback was something Percy had liked about him since he took office. Now, though, it was starting to unnerve him.
He had been glad when Thicknesse succeeded Scrimgeour, because Thicknesse had always meant well and Scrimgeour had been, despite his well-earned accolades, a heavy-handedly manipulative arse. Now he recalled that everyone always knew whether Thicknesse had meant well or not because he used to bellow when he was frustrated.
Percy had told himself that the weight of office must have steadied his new boss. But then, after that first day he’d spent so long at the mirror, he’d started to feel unaccountably envious of Thicknesse. He’d laughed at himself for his ambition at first, reminded himself of his own age and taken comfort in the steps along his planned path that he’d already taken, told himself he was on schedule.
But the feeling had persisted. Around the beginning of the Easter edginess, Percy had realized, with a bit of a shock, that his envy was because Thicknesse hadn’t just stopped bellowing: he’d stopped getting frustrated. He was a bit mild, a bit distant, all the time. He seemed relatively placid even when his initiatives were being stymied and his trusted advisors (Percy had never liked or trusted any of them, but he hadn’t trusted anyone since Crouch. He prided himself in his ability to get on with his job regardless) were at their angriest.
He noticed it didn’t seem to bother Thicknesse’s advisors when he should have been as angry as they were, and weren’t. They seemed to expect it.
He looked at his mum’s aggressive nose every morning in the mirror. He looked at his eyes, the same blue as Bill’s. The same as Undesirable #3.
Ronald was a sulky, ungrateful, entitled brat who’d never appreciated anything Percy tried to do for him, never understood what Percy was trying to tell him, had the audacity to beat Percy at chess, and relentlessly sided with the twins even though they made his life almost as much a misery as they made Percy’s. Percy had often thought all three of them would have benefited if Mum had believed in spanking.
You aren’t like them, he told his own blue eyes, and he knew to his toe-bones that it was true, true, true.
You aren’t one of them, he told his dad’s softly stubborn chin.
When he’d woken with that warm certainty ringing comfortably in his brain, he’d believed it, like he believed the sun would come up. April hissed around him and pissed warm rain against his windows, and the words ran hollower and hollower.
He became more and more sure that it would give him the greatest of pleasure to hex all his brothers inside out, and that he would kill anyone who touched them, and that if anyone went after Ginny he would unmake them to the molecules, rather slowly.
He’d always done so well in Potions. He’d enjoyed it — the exacting work, the measurable success, and the tersely constructive criticism of an unkind instructor who never praised — though he’d never thought till now he might need to be a competent brewer except to save himself money in cold season.
April was a very cold season. March was supposed to go out lamblike, but Percy could feel the incessant showers washing wool out of his eyes until he almost felt some quiet kinship with lions.
When it was all over, he sat with his family, Dad holding him as tight as he and Mum were both holding a hollow-eyed George, and they listened to Ron talk, and talk, and talk. He told them about camping and about Miss Granger and being hateful to her. He looked tentatively at Percy, as though only Percy would understand how he felt about that now.
Percy didn’t know how to feel about that assumption, but he met his youngest brother’s eyes steadily and Ron seemed to appreciate it.
He talked more, talked about hunger and danger, talked about the disaster he’d made at the ministry, talked about stealing a dragon. Percy and Bill looked at each other while Charlie was expressing his fierce approval. There was no blame in Bill’s eyes, but Percy saw the resignation that meant he was quite right about how they might all pay for that, and for how long.
Ginny asked, in a blazing whisper, about Miss Granger’s scars, and Ron told them about snatchers and chandeliers and house-elves, about finding Miss Lovegood in a dungeon, about Draco Malfoy’s uncharacteristic refusal to be spitefully certain, about a moment’s fatal hesitation in silver fingers.
“Percy,” Mum exclaimed, “you’ve gone all green.”
Charlie, looking magnanimous, conjured up a bucket. Percy found his hands actually taking the insulting thing. He heard his own voice asking, “Scabbers is dead?”
“Yeah,” Ron said in a hard, satisfied voice, and went on about how glad he was, how he still shuddered and gagged to think he’d let that rat in his bed. He reflected (in an incrementally softer tone) that he couldn’t help wondering whether Scabbers had a soft spot for Harry after all, or had been sorry for what he’d done, or maybe he had a soft spot for Ron after being his pet three years.
The bucket’s rim snapped under Percy’s fingers, though he felt quite unemotional. He suggested, not particularly noticing all the silent alarm suddenly facing him, “That would have been on Sunday night, the last week in March. The twenty-third. A week before the Easter holidays.”
“Uh,” Ron frowned dubiously. “Maybe?” He started counting dates back on his fingers. “Yeah, I think so, about then.”
“Perce,” Bill said, suddenly at his elbow, a strong arm around his back. Percy didn’t know when either of them had stood up, but he appreciated it. He still felt quite unemotional, but he also felt a bit wobbly around the knees and queasy about the stomach, and there was white at the edges of his vision.
“Excuse me,” Percy said calmly, in his work voice. “I need to consult with Professor Flitwick for a moment.”
“Percy, sit down,” their father urged, looking confused and worried, letting George go to stand up, too. It made Percy’s eyes burn, and he didn’t know why. “Surely—”
“It’s quite urgent,” Percy told him, the words father and dad fighting it out in his head until he snapped his teeth tight on them both. Perhaps it wasn’t urgent, really, only he’d stopped breathing while Ronald was talking and was sure he wouldn’t again until he knew. “The question of the spell’s sustainability over distance is crucial.”
No one asked him what he meant out loud. They all just looked at him like he’d gone suddenly mad. But Mum was clenching her fists around George’s shoulders in sudden terror. That, and the sudden touch of presence and interest in George’s eyes, made Percy keep talking in spite of the irritating slackness of Ronald’s jaw and the go ahead, brat, make it about you again at the corner of Charlie’s mouth.
Feeling really quite far away, he explained. “If, as I suppose we must, we’re to believe Dumbledore wasn’t a complete crackpot after all, then we know it can be held steady on a single subject for at least thirteen years, so long as the caster’s will doesn’t waver. So the question is primarily that of sustainability over distance.”
“What are you talking about,” Charlie demanded, scowling as though Percy was talking rot to get attention.
Although a deep, quivering part of him knew he was just asking to be mocked again for his ‘crush,’ Percy’s voice was perfectly even when he answered, “Mr. Crouch.”
He had turned away from them to find his old teacher before the incomprehension had, if he was to be fair, had much chance to resolve in their baffled eyes.
But Bill turned with him, and then there was a scuffling noise and George was beside him, bumping shoulders. When George commented, “We always knew there was something wrong with you,” it was in very nearly his usual light, smug, heartless voice, but Percy was almost sure that it wasn’t really mockery. No twin had sounded like that since Percy earned his first badge.
Percy asked George, “With whom?” because somewhere in the last five minutes he’d lost his certainty that he existed.
“Our prat of a brother,” Bill said easily, his arm around Percy’s back so solid and unwavering that Percy could almost feel sure about it. “Come on, Flitwick’s over there with Pomfrey.”
“That’ll save time,” George remarked, and though Bill nodded with a grim twist to his mouth, Percy couldn’t quite wrap his mind around why.