You sit in your apartment in front of your desk, which overflows with documents from the Ministry. Most of them are marked Urgent, Eyes Only, Do Right Now Or You'll Regret It -- important documents, for an important job. Your job. The job you wanted from the time you were old enough to understand what it meant to be a Weasley.
Junior Assistant to the Minister of Magic. You're in the thick of the fight against Voldemort now -- the Minister asks your opinion and gives you responsibilities, and you work 90-hour weeks to live up to them. No more cauldron bottoms, or covering for Crouch. You survived the inquisition and your own incompetence, and were rewarded beyond your wildest dreams.
And all your dreams cost you were everything you ever loved.
Parchment spills off your desk onto the floor; a few months ago, you would have scrambled to catch it, to stack it, to make neat tidy piles that proclaim your worth to anyone who passes through. This is who you are, they say importantly, as your shining Head Boy badge used to. This is what you can accomplish.
You wanted that badge from the moment you saw it gleaming on Bill's chest, wanted to be the equal of the older brother you worshipped. Wanted to be tall and smart and impressive, wanted Mum to fuss over you with noisy pride. Charlie's Quidditch badge was no less impressive, but you fell off your broom when you were five and never got back on. It was the Head Boy badge you wanted, that you worked towards every day you were in Hogwarts, and most of the days you weren't.
The badge still hangs in your office, but you haven't polished it in months. The parchments lie ignored in favour of a bottle of firewhiskey. You stare at it, but never quite get around to tipping it back to your lips. The cold in your stomach is beyond the help of alcohol or magic. You've tried both.
You told yourself, for months and months, that you were doing the Right Thing. Most of the time, you even believed it, were able to creep inside the shield of delusion Minister Fudge had wrapped around himself, and warm yourself in the pleasant glow of self-righteousness. They would all see, you chanted, as each day passed with no sign of darkness. Days turned into weeks turned into months and you knew that, any moment now, they would come to you and say, "You were right. Of all of us, you were right." Not Bill, not Charlie, not the twins or Ron. You were right.
Except, of course, you weren't. The shield shattered when You-Know-Who appeared in the Ministry, and you were left without its shelter -- shivering, naked and bewildered, in the cold air of Reality. Your comforting new robes, woven of illusions and cherished all those months, slipped from your body and disappeared into the floor at Dumbledore's feet.
It wasn't supposed to be like this -- that seems to be the mantra of your life to date. The Ministry was supposed to be bright and shining, a reward for seven years of unrelenting labour at Hogwarts. And Hogwarts was supposed to be warm and wonderful, where they would respect your intelligence and discipline, and there would be friends around every corner. But your first 100% mark in class had been accompanied by the professor's fond smile and a remembrance of Bill. All eyes in the Common Room turned away when they realized you don't play Quidditch, wouldn't be flying beside Charlie in matches. Trying to talk about studies and classes found ears for only a few minutes at a time; then your classmates were off again, distracted by a thousand things you didn't care about and they couldn't see beyond. And always there were the mocking sneers from the Slytherin table, mutters about "poor Weasleys" and "Too bad your dad can't afford decent robes for you," and you blushed in shame because they were Bill and Charlie's hand-me-downs.
One day, you vowed, you'd wear new robes and no one would ever sneer at you again. There would be awe and respect, and your name would be spoken in the same tones as Bill's and Charlie's. You bent your will to that goal, studied and worked, and were top of your class second year, when you were the only Weasley at school. The first-years came to you for help; they looked up to you, and you were still proud of your brothers, and still sure that they would be proud of you, if they could see the place you were slowly making for yourself, upholding the Weasley name.
Then the twins came, announcing their arrival with dungbombs somehow slipped into the Slytherin Common Room. Detention in the first two days, and you read them the riot act, trying to show them how wrong it was to break the rules, how much all of you had to prove. And they blew past you into the Gryffindor Common Room, and the residents, first years to seventh, greeted them with a rousing cheer. And suddenly you weren't Bill and Charlie's little brother, which was hard to live up to, but still a matter of pride. You were Fred and George's older brother, and you would never be able to live them down.
Ron came next, your baby brother, and he was best friends with the Boy Who Lived -- they fought a troll, and saved the Philosopher's Stone, and won the House Cup. Ginny came last and you were determined to take care of her, because maybe you didn't fight a troll, or play Quidditch, or set fireworks off in History of Magic, but you could make sure your little sister was settled in Hogwarts, make sure she was happy and doing well. You were a prefect and you could protect her, like Charlie had protected you your first year, and maybe it wouldn't win house points, but your mother would be proud of you for taking such good care of her baby girl.
But you were so busy being a prefect, being perfect, you didn't notice when Tom Riddle's diary almost destroyed Ginny. When she was kidnapped and taken into the Chamber, it was Harry Potter who rescued her, not you. Even in the hospital wing, Ginny looked up at him with worshipful eyes as your mother hugged him and wept on him in gratitude. And you were grateful that your sister was safe, but no one saw you standing there, so you couldn't tell them that.
Your left foot has fallen asleep, and the fire has burned low. It's cold in your apartment, the one you found the day you left home, and you really should go put on a sweater. But you sent back your Christmas jumper in another fit of self-righteousness -- not while they still believed that rubbish, not while they were still working against the right and proper way of things, still insisting on being traitors to the Ministry -- and sacrificed the right to wear any of the jumpers you still have. The wool was never as warm as the memory of Mum knitting it, and that warmth is gone forever.
There's Floo powder in the little box over the fireplace; your hand hovers over it, then drops. Who would you talk to in the flames, who would you see? Your father never meets your eyes when you're forced into the same meetings, and you haven't the nerve to try to meet his; he speaks around you rather than to you if he has any choice. Penelope walked out of your apartment less than a month after you walked in. "Harry Potter killed the basilisk that almost killed me; he's a hero, not just some spoilt brat. And if you won't see that, then you're not the man I thought you were, and I won't just hide in here with you." You found out later she'd contacted Dumbledore, had been passing him information from within the St. Mungo's admissions office.
Her picture is still on the mantle over the fireplace, but it's an empty frame; her face hasn't been there for quite some time. Even your girlfriend could see more clearly than you. And you're not the man you thought you were, either.
You passed Fred and George outside today; their shop is doing better business than almost any other, and they've been consulting with the Aurors on magical weaponry -- something about distractions and bloody noses. You stole a look inside W3 weeks ago, when no one was there but a shop girl you didn't know, and were stunned by the professionalism of it all. They've built something for themselves out of the foolishness you always chided them for, while you sit here in your lonely apartment with nothing to show for your work and concentration. And you're proud of them for their success.
But you can't brag on them, for you've no one to brag to, and they wouldn't appreciate it if you did. They made that quite clear by the way their eyes went cold and flat, and stared right through you at the fascinating bricks behind you. They didn't mock you as they passed, those barbs they could throw "out of earshot" in the spirit of brotherly love and torment. They simply refused to acknowledge your existence, and the worst part is that you can't even work up a spark of anger. You have no right. You have no brothers. And it was your own. Damn. Choice.
You put the whiskey away, still unopened, and ignore the paperwork, poking your nose into the cupboards looking for something to eat. You've never gotten the hang of cooking charms, despite all Mum ever did to teach you; it never seemed as important as the other spells, when there would always be Mum to feed you. But there's no Mum anymore, and your cupboards are bare, and you resign yourself to stale pumpkin pasties and the last of a slab of Honeyduke's chocolate. You eat standing up, leaning back against the counter, the sounds of chewing and swallowing all that break the silence. The Burrow and the Great Hall have never seemed so far away.
It was all supposed to be different at the Ministry. Your father worked there, was respected there, and you would be an adult among adults. No more juvenile fixations on pranks and Quidditch, house points and popularity contests. Mr. Crouch appreciated your intelligence, your dedication, and rewarded you with all the responsibilities you could handle. That he never quite got your name right stung, but you could see past it; he was a busy man, after all, an important man, and he'd learn your name when you did everything right.
It was harder to ignore the sight of your father's robes, shabby next to the clean-pressed, sharply cut robes of the other Ministry officials, the ones who didn't have four children still in school. Shame burned deep, and you tried to shove it away, knowing your father was worth any five of the young men with whom you jostled for position by seeing who could toad-eat with the greatest skill, the deepest imitation of sincerity. But knowing didn't mean believing. Hearing the whispered comments and sneers took you back to first-year, to hot, helpless embarrassment, and you started working through lunch so you wouldn't hear them anymore. You wouldn't be sitting by your father, and he would pretend to believe you when you went on and on about how much work you had to do.
You gave the galleons of your first paypouch to your mother proudly. You couldn't quite look her in the eye with the second, because you kept some out to buy new robes.
The pasties are tasteless, and even the chocolate is bitter; you rinse them down with water and turn out the light with a wave of your wand. It's gone dark outside, and only the flickering flames of your dying fire light the room. They cast shadows over your books and furniture, making familiar forms seem strange and unknown.
Were shadows somehow cast over Harry, over the headmaster, over your parents? Did their shapes change in ways only you could see? How was Harry transfigured from the neglected boy your family accepted as a late-arriving son and brother, a valiant hero with too-old eyes, into a spoilt, attention-seeking fool? When did wise Dumbledore's twinkling eyes become senile and untrustworthy? Why did the whispers about Muggle-loving Arthur Weasley wipe away the quiet strength and love of the father you adored?
But, of course, they didn't change in the shadows -- you did. You wanted respect, wanted to be looked up to, wanted to live down everything Weasley had come to stand for. But when push came to shove, when ego collided with loyalty, love with pride, you didn't have to live down the name. You were the one who couldn't live up to it.
You've wandered the length and breadth of your apartment, cluttered living room to plain bedroom and back again, two or three times -- maybe more, you're not certain. It doesn't take you long, not like rambles in and around the Burrow once did. Although the distance from the kitchen to the front door was certainly short that night, the night of your Great Triumph.
The revelation of "Crouch's" identity tilted your world off its axis. With the shock and guilt came the panic -- your career at the Ministry was surely over. You were cleared in the inquisition, but you could see the disgust in the eyes of the investigators, of your brothers: "You should have known," their faces said, even as they mouthed platitudes about youth and too much responsibility, and you had to agree. Even your mother's love and your father's support couldn't change how horribly, how stupidly, you'd failed. When Fudge called you into his office, you were prepared to be sacked, but even then you managed to scrape up a faint bit of pride, that the Minister himself had chosen to do so personally.
Then, glorious salvation! Not sacked, or even reprimanded, but offered a spot at the Minister of Magic's right hand! Barely 20 years old, and a Junior Assistant Minister, and successful beyond even Bill and Charlie's wildest dreams! No Weasley had ever risen so high, so fast. It went to your head like butterbeer, like whiskey, like Penelope's first kiss; you could barely keep your balance well enough to shake Fudge's hand, accept Umbridge's congratulations. Finally, you'd proven yourself, and your family would be so proud. Your ambition blinded you, made a Slytherin from a Gryffindor, and you know now that was what Fudge had intended all along.
But that day, you were younger and more foolish, and you burst home smiling, new badge prominently displayed on your robes, and ran over your own words as you spilled the brilliant news. You regained your dignity as you ran down, and waited proudly for the cheers, the congratulations, your father's handshake and your mother's tearful embrace.
They never came. There was just silence, that grew and thickened until your mother's half-hearted, "That's... lovely, dear," simply vanished into its depths. Then it all exploded at once: the twins demanding to know when, exactly, you'd gone completely off your nut; Ron and Ginny making loud noises about betrayal and bat-blind ministers; your mother asking calmly (for her) if this was the best idea. With every word your shiny glow of accomplishment dimmed a little more, and your pride grew a little more bruised.
You were grateful when your father shooed everyone out, and sat down with you for a man-to-man talk. Surely he'd understand how important this was. Surely he'd be proud.
Leaning against the window and tilting your head, you can just see a bit of Diagon Alley, the witches and wizards bustling about their business in the deepening autumn twilight. The Leaky Cauldron will be doing a booming business, and you're tempted to walk down there, hide in a corner and drink a butterbeer, and pretend the noisy people surrounding you all have red hair and freckles. But you've tried before and it never works, and you'd really rather be alone.
As if you have a choice.
But you did have a choice, and you made the wrong one. You could have listened to your father when he gently suggested that perhaps Fudge had ulterior motives for wanting a Weasley by his side. He didn't mean it to be insulting, you know that now, you probably even knew it then -- but by Merlin, it was. The implication that the only use Fudge would have for you was not for your intelligence or your abilities, but as a spy. The belief that you'd turn against your own family for Fudge when you knew you never would.
The pain cut deep, deeper than anything you've ever felt, and you struck out in retaliation. You barely heard yourself through the roar of betrayal in your ears, but you remember every word that you flung against your father now. They echo in your head when lie in bed, and you pull the pillow over your head to try to muffle them. But nothing can silence the insults, the overflow of years of pent-up shame and inadequacy.
Nothing can stop the sound of your mother crying when you left, or when you closed the door in her face, cradling your little ball of injured pride close and wrapping it in a blanket of self-righteousness. Fudge believed in you, trusted you, and you repaid him with all the loyalty you'd once given your ungrateful family. They believed in Harry instead of in Fudge, in Harry instead of in you, and you used that knowledge to erase the image of him half-carrying Ginny into the hospital wing, staggering with Ron out of the lake, collapsing beside Cedric Diggory's body.
You chose not to remember, chose to blind yourself to the truth with sulking indifference. This is what you chose.
There's more work piled up on your desk at the Ministry, because you spend too much time haunting the Auror halls, hand-delivering memos that could travel perfectly well by paper airplane, lingering near any conversation that includes a familiar name. Ron, Ginny and Harry narrowly defeated Hufflepuff in the first Quidditch match of the year. There's a Ministry-wide betting pool on Bill and his girlfriend, who is French. Your father and Fudge disagreed on new defence training for Ministry staff, and no one bothered to listen to Fudge. Ron got 7 OWLs, 1 more than Harry; Hermione got 10. Charlie will be coming home for a few weeks to liase between the Romanian government and the Ministry. Ginny is top of her class in Defence Against the Dark Arts, and has served three detentions in her first month as a fifth-year, putting her prefect badge in serious jeopardy; Professor McGonagall is so furious she's shedding--
Everyone goes silent when they realize you're there, so you haven't learned much else. But you'll keep listening, because you have become a spy, just as your father predicted. Not for Fudge, or for Voldemort, but for yourself -- because this is as close as you can come to the people who were your family.
You'd like to send Ron an owl of congratulations, but every time you come close, you remember the pompous, fatuous parchment you owled off when he was named prefect. Telling him to trust Dolores Umbridge, who impressed you by speaking to you in condescending tones that, at the time, you took for well-deserved interest in your abilities. Telling him to shake loose of his best friend to improve his chances of being Head Boy -- because being Head Boy brought so many rewards for you. Telling him to walk away from his family, so he could stand alone in Hogwarts as you stand alone now.
You thought you were being wise and helpful, but Ron, for all his lower marks, has always been wiser than you when it counted. Yet another way in which your ickle baby brother has outdone you, but the last months have left you too tired to be bitter anymore.
You realize you're staring out into darkness, broken only by the street torches, and you step away. The heavy curtains fall back into place, shutting you off from the world once more. You make your way slowly back over to your desk, and begin half-heartedly shuffling rolls of parchment from pile to pile. You should work -- there's nothing else you have to do.
Your hand hesitates over one parchment, and you let your fingers rest against it gently. It's a memo about front lobby security, a change in phone procedures, and you sent most of them out three days ago. But this one has been in your pocket since it was copied, the writing clear on the side: Arthur Weasley, Department Head, Misuse of Muggle Artifacts.
If you were a true Gryffindor, you'd have the courage to walk down the halls to your father's office, and give the memo to him in person. If you were still a Wesley, you'd be able to meet his eyes, and ask forgiveness. If you were a man, you'd be able to tell him you were wrong.
But he already knows you were wrong -- the entire wizarding world knows that -- and you don't deserve forgiveness. You watched as Dumbledore was forced to leave Hogwarts. You left your siblings to Umbridge's harsh control, never suggested she was going too far. You didn't stand with the Gryffindors (and Ravenclaw) who followed Harry on his reckless assault against the Death Eaters. Your baby sister and brother risked death against Voldemort's followers, came out alive and victorious, while you sat in your small, safe office and pretended it would all go away.
In the end, you did nothing. And it was the worst thing you've ever done.
Your fingers fall away from the parchment. A flick of your wand, a quick incantation, and it will fly down the Ministry halls to your father tomorrow morning. You'll watch it go in helpless longing, wishing you could follow it, knowing you never can. It's not pride that holds you back anymore, simply the knowledge that everything you could do has already been done. And you, who prided yourself on always doing things correctly, did everything all wrong.
You made your choices. And now you'll live with them.
Don Conoscenti, "All in Time"
I express that on the phone to Kiki in one of our hash-out sessions, and we got started running down the reasons why Percy would have made all those damned stupid choices. As usual, fic was born, and I spent two days channeling one of the three most hated people in Book 5. Hopefully, you hate Percy a little less now and, hopefully, he'll find his way back to the Burrow someday.
Thanks go to Kiki, for comments and helping me work this out; to Bruce for the quick comments; to Jennifer for the grammar patrolling; and to Celli, deire, and Nicole for the ego-boo. Don Conoscenti gets major props for the lyrics that shaped much of this story, and the song that became the soundtrack (and for just being such a damn cool person).