DISCLAIMER: Harry Potter is the property of JK Rowling and Warner Brothers Studios. This work was created purely for enjoyment. No money was made, and no infringement was intended.
RATING: T (for language, violence, adult themes)
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story goes way back. It doesn't have much to do with wizarding; instead, for some reason we take a trip down angsty-lane to AU land. Just a warning: this story deals with child abuse and its effects on Percy and Oliver, so read at your own discretion. No slash. Enjoy!
ALL IS SAID
He's so much better than them, and they don't know it.
He doesn't even know it. Bloody fool.
It's been seven years, and I swear I still don't understand him. I've never met someone so unequivocally good as he is. He never judges. He never belittles or intimidates. He is the kindest person I have ever known. I think I envy him for that. Yes, I do envy him, because even in all his oblivious stupidity, he's still the best thing that has happened to me. Most people don't think twice about him. Oliver Wood, the Quidditch freak. Oliver Wood, a good enough student. Oliver Wood, the nice guy. The obsessed captain. The overprotective friend. Laid-back. Lazy. Fiercely competitive. Damn talented on a broom. Quiet. Out-going. Good bloke, all around.
I'd like to think that I know more, but sometimes I don't believe I do.
You see, Oliver's ruddy good at hiding things. He's not terribly proficient at most spells to that effect, but I've found that his sort of magic is far more potent. He can lie without even the smallest twitch or blink betraying the words as falsehood. He can prevent even the most persistent of eyes from piercing the outer wall he's erected around his heart. He can manipulate any conversation, pointing any directed question further and further away from him until you've forgotten you've asked at all. He hides behind jokes, behind anger, behind idle palaver and Quidditch and school. He uses anything and everything as a shield to guard himself. It's amazing and frustrating all at once. I've seen him do this. He's done it to me for seven years.
It's only logical to assume that after living with someone for that much time one would get to know another. And I'm quite sure he knows plenty about me. After all, I've no qualms about complaining about my large family, about the endless noise and constant annoyance, about the lack of privacy. Sometimes I've vented about them simply to entice Oliver to do the same of his own family, thinking that perhaps my ranting would allow him to relax and dissolve any reservation he might have about discussing personal matters in my company. But it never has. He has never once complained about his father, though Merlin knows that man warrants complaint. Like I've said, he doesn't judge. He is too good for that, and sometimes I hate him for it.
Still, I've managed to learn a few things, things other people have never seen or, if they have, cared to understand. Oliver cracks his knuckles, for example, whenever he's nervous or troubled. He'll pace as well, walking about with such force as to nearly grind his heel into the floor. Right now, he does both, pacing and cracking, and I know he is truly upset. This is the way he talks to me, the way he tells me he's hurting. Sometimes I think he wants to tell me of his pains but years of silent stoicism has forced him to forget the words. Maybe he just doesn't know how anymore. That frightens me. I hate to see him torture himself. The room is filled with tension, and I know he's reaching out to me, yearning to have me simply know all the dark torments of his heart without him ever having to divulge them to me. I'm not so great as to read his mind, but today I think I understand.
"Oliver, stop," I say, sighing softly. I leaned up from his bed, swinging my legs to the floor and bracing my elbows on my knees. For once, he heeds me, halting in his repetitive march to pivot and turn to face me. Another sign that he is greatly upset. He rarely submits without a fight. "It's not good for you."
He remains standing a moment more. He seems pale today, paler than normal, and his eyes are dull and outlined in darkness. Sleepless nights. His frame is slumped, shoulders normally strong and proud lowered in defeat. He doesn't meet my gaze, and frustration bubbles up within me. Then he pulls his chair from his desk and sinks unceremoniously into it. "Damn it," he groans. His face hits his hands, and then his fingers rake their way through his short brown hair. The nails are bitten. "Bloody hell…"
Again, another point of his subtle language. Oliver has various levels of distressed. You might never know some minor matter is bothering him because he will smile and laugh and talk as though the disturbance does not exist at all. A bigger problem, like a Quidditch loss or a poor grade, would manifest itself as classical avoidance. His utter unwillingness to even acknowledge the issue or you when you bring it up is a sure indication that he is dwelling on some failure. These, of course, while vexing to no end, are only that and nothing more.
He is rarely so upset. I know something very important has happened to for him to bring to bear his most serious of defensive mechanisms. I've learned to understand what he's trying to tell me in moments like this, when he looks at me with those empty brown eyes and begs me to help him. This is the Oliver the others never see, the side of himself that he never shows. I think I'm the only person to ever observe him like this, ragged, frightened, worried. What will they think if they realize that the mellow, Quidditch-manic, smiling Keeper they encounter every day is nothing more than a fraud? I don't know. Sometimes I consider this is to be my blessing, to weather this misery together with him. Sometimes I believe it to be a curse.
Bloody hell, indeed.
We don't say anything more for a long time, and the silence beats down upon me with staffs and hammers and the weight of everything I want to say. I just want to stand and shake some damn sense into him. I'd scream in his face if it would do any good, but I know it won't. Oliver can be bloody stubborn when he wants to be and selfish to no end when it serves his purposes. I doubt he ever realizes how much he hurts me when he does this to himself. There's this terrible ritual we follow without deviation every time he sinks into one of these moods. He gets riled, I tell him to stop. He stops. We sit in a tense quiet while I twist the situation about in my head, trying to figure out what is so awfully bothering him. Then, when he finally realizes what he's doing, he'll tell me. But he'll never tell me everything, and he and I will both know it. Sometimes he'll cry, but he'll never ask for my sympathy. After that, more awkward emptiness, and this will persist until one of us will change the subject for sheer intolerance of the conversation. Then we'll both act like nothing has happened, that I didn't see him tear himself apart from fear and grief, that I didn't watch him cry, and that I certainly never knew about any of this. Like a moment erased in time.
A ruddy right tradition. And I hate it. Given what is about to transpire this afternoon, it will probably be the last enactment.
But, alas, my moment of contemplation has ended. We move onto the next stage. "I don't want to do this," he moans into his hands. His voice shakes. "God, Perce, I don't want to do this."
Now there's a strange thing to be saying on the day of your graduation. I watch him intently, knowing my stare is making him uncomfortable. I wonder how one person can act so differently in different situations. I've seen Oliver on the Quidditch pitch. I've seen him face down careening bludgers without so much as a blink of fear. I've seen him fly, proud and strong and unwavering, confident even when the odds are stacked against him. I've seen how the other players look up to him, admire him, revere him even because he symbolizes everything anybody could ever want to be. In seven years, I've seen that Oliver grow stronger, braver, wiser, turning from a scrawny boy into a man. But in moments like these, the boy comes back. A scared little boy quivering and cowering before an uncertain future. No, not even something so grand. A scared little boy afraid of his father's wrath.
I don't need to think much more to unravel the tangled knot of Oliver's thoughts this day. Truthfully, it had been something perturbing me as well, although I hadn't spoken of it in hopes that it wouldn't occur to Oliver. Obviously I was wrong, and it has occurred to him. I'm fool to have believed otherwise. He's like me, in this respect at least. We both think far too much for our own sakes. "Don't think about it," I say suddenly. The words are free from my lips before I even thought to say them. "Just don't."
He gets angry. He always does when I suggest that he let it go. Maybe he thinks my suggestions invalidate or deride his concerns. Maybe they do. "I can't not think about it!" he exclaims, lifting his face from his hands to skewer me with a fiery glare. His eyes smolder, watery but bright with his desperation, and I feel his rage slam into me. Every bloody ounce of it. He never holds back when he decides to let go. "I can't hide from him. He'll be there, I know it. He'll find me there!" His fingers return to hide his face. I'm sure he's crying.
The words slice through the distance between us, cutting into me with their fear. I knew it would come to this. I really did. But I thought there would be a way to get around it. Again, I'm such a bloody fool, a true git. I can't fix this. And come this afternoon, I wouldn't even be able to try anymore.
I slide from his bed to kneel before him. I take his wrists and pull his hands away. "Look," I say, forcing a measure of bravado into my voice that I certainly don't feel, "you just stay with me. We'll stick together, you and I, and he won't have a chance to get near you. Mum and Dad and all my family will be there. He won't find you, I promise. You just stay with us."
Oliver's chin is quivering though he has clenched his jaw vehemently to prevent the shaking. "I'm scared, Perce," he admits after a moment. Tears escape from his eyes, dripping down his face in glimmering stream. The morning sun shoots through the open window just so, and his eyes are made pale and ethereal by it. It's an awkward moment, uncomfortable because he so seldom confesses his vulnerabilities. I don't know what to do. He wants me to help him, but I don't know how. I'm just a boy myself, a boy standing on the edge of a grand and frightening world. I was always angry in the past that he never came to me when he needed me, that he never asked when he should have. I saw what his father did to him, saw it and hated it. But I never told anyone. Oliver had never asked me to keep this wretched secret. No, that was something I had taken upon myself. I always thought I knew best. I always thought that was what he wanted. And once I started hiding it, lying about it, deluding myself, I couldn't stop. The deeper I sunk into it, the less willing I was to climb out. I've seen the scars. I've seen the bruises. They were only on his body, but they marred both our souls all the same. Boys shouldn't have to deal with that. Boys shouldn't have their innocence so cruelly torn from their grasping fingers.
I wanted to help him then, but I never did. I didn't know how. I was just a boy, and I still am only that. I don't know what to do.
But I act because he needs me to. I slip my arm around his shoulders and pull him into my embrace. He doesn't fight me, though I feared he might. Maybe he doesn't have any fight left in him. His head falls onto my shoulder, and his body shakes. I feel his muscles tense under the thin fabric of his dress shirt as I pat his back soothingly. Silently he sobs, his arms wrapping around me so tightly that the breath rushes from my lungs. I let him cry for a long time, just holding him. This is the first time he has ever allowed me to come this close to him, to comfort him like this. It makes a bit of sad sense. For seven years he guarded himself to everyone, even to my prying eyes. Though he sank down into agony, he never took me with him. And when he hurt and cried and feared, he did so alone, his back turned, his tears hidden, his pain obscured. That was Oliver's way.
Seven years are over, and he's never been so frightened. I know this because I'm scared, too. He doesn't want to hide it anymore. Perhaps he's too exhausted. Perhaps he sees no point in maintaining his façade any longer. Whatever the reason, he's come to me now for protection and solace. Finally, he's letting me in.
"Don't be," I say, feeling tears sting my own eyes. "I'm with you."
A warm wind brushes the curtains, sending them fluttering. It smells sweet, of flowers and cake and candy. It tickles my nose. We should be down in the Great Hall. The ceremony will begin soon, and Oliver isn't even finished dressing yet. His robe is haphazardly tossed onto his desk, and I can only see one of his shoes on the messy floor of his room. For once, though, I forget the rules. This is no small feat for me, but I shove them aside, condemning them to the silence of the back of my thoughts. Even there they whine, but I don't care. I'll tolerate the creeping fear of disappointment, of failure, for this little while. He's not ready yet. He needs this.
He thinks so poorly of himself. He's so much stronger than he knows. I want to tell him, but I can't find the words. So I just let him cry, my stomach twisting into knots and my heart pounding. I'm a bloody fool. I shouldn't promise things I know I can't keep.
Fifteen minutes later, we enter the Great Hall, and Oliver was himself again. It is a startling transformation. The weeping, shaking, frightened boy is again the cool, stoic Quidditch captain. I'm alarmed, frustrated, and amazed all at once to watch Oliver compose himself. He is dressed nicely, his once loose and rumpled shirt straightened and neatly tucked into his trousers. He sports his robe now, pressed and flowing. He's still pale, but the only indication he's been crying is a bit of redness about his eyes. He looks as if nothing is troubling him, tranquil, excitement in his gaze, a smile twisting his lips. A fantastic guise. He's a master at fooling them. He's a master at fooling himself.
This is our final breakfast meal at Hogwarts. We enter in a special line to the applause of the younger students and professors. Oliver walks behind me. I can't hear him above the cacophony of cheering, but I know he's there. Anger coils in my belly. I've worked seven years for this day. I've excelled at my studies, weathered the insults and teasing of my peers and family, and I've succeeded. I'm Prefect and Head Boy. I did phenomenally well on my N.E.W.T.s. This should be a day for celebration, for exultation, for laughter! A day to commemorate all that I – that we – have accomplished. But now there's this black shadow hanging over us. Intangible and invisible, the oppressive gloom seeps into me with the chilly caress of terror. Today should symbolize freedom, but it represents loss to me. Chains.
No longer can we be boys, playing silly games and talking endlessly about Quidditch and girls and school. No longer can we pretend these horrors haven't invaded our childhood. Maybe it's a silly thought, but as we walk down the long room to the euphoric cheers of the underclassmen, I wish this day had never come. I don't know if I want to leave Hogwarts. Things haven't been simple or easy here, but at least there was always a measure of security, of constancy. The world beyond these halls is vast and uncertain, and I don't know if I'm ready to face that. There's darkness out there. I know because I've seen it, and it's not only Dementors and dark magic and You Know Who. I don't know if I want to fight. After all this... I'm not sure I have what it takes to become a wizard. To become a man.
Enough. I'm placating my need for drama with these lofty and philosophical complaints. I'm afraid because, after today, Oliver and I will go our separate ways. I'm worried for him. I'm worried about where he will go, what he will do. He's been offered a position on Puddlemere United's reserve team. Such a chance is every Quidditch player's dream, and I'm happy for him. But I don't know where he will be. Perhaps that's very paternal of me, but I can't help myself. Ever since I learned of what he endures at home, I've begged him not to go back there. Sometimes he's listened to me, though I can count the number of times on one hand that he's come to the Burrow with me in years past. Inevitably he goes back to Scotland. Hogwarts has been something else to us, to him. It's been an escape, a refuge, where his father can't reach him. Without it, I don't know what will happen.
I've told him he can't go home. Not now. He can't let his father control him. He tells me he won't. Until now, I haven't thought about it much. I believed him. This last year has been so much better. I've almost been able to forget the horrors of his past. He's been happy, truly happy, and winning the Quidditch Cup meant so much to him. Even though we had separate rooms, separate lives, I felt closer to him these last few months. He didn't go back over the winter holiday, joining me instead in traveling to see my family. I was glad for it. I really thought that maybe some way, somehow, he had simply overcome this all. Graduation would come, and he'd go and play Quidditch as he was meant to, truly as carefree at heart as he pretended to be. That's what I believed. Idealistic prattle.
Of course it wouldn't be that easy. I'm walking now, feeling him behind me, and I know why he's so afraid. Without Hogwarts, he has no choice.
We sit. He sits next to me, but he doesn't look at me as if he's ashamed. Instead he turns and talks to Harry Potter and Hermoine Granger, both of whom were excitedly congratulating him on both his career opportunity and finishing school. George and Fred slap me on the back and then pour their attention upon Oliver. I watch, slightly jealous but mostly curious. Outside Gryffindor, Oliver is something of a freak. His fanaticism about Quidditch was the cause for quite a bit of derision, though no one from Hufflepuff or Ravenclaw had the gall to insult him to his face. Slytherin is a different matter entirely, but the disrespect they paid Oliver is really nothing particular to the Keeper. However, in our house, Oliver is a hero. He is loved by all, a mentor and idol. They venerate him without knowing anything about him, and I'm pleased by that. He needs that. We're the only two seventh-year boys in Gryffindor. Maybe it's silly, but I always thought that made us something special.
Ron's beside me then, blabbering about something, and I abandon my dark thoughts. It's hard to remain bitter or upset in the midst of such cheer. My little brother is more exhilarated than I am, his face flushed and his eyes glittering with good spirits. The hum of chatter around me continues for a moment more, swelling with enthusiasm and euphoria, and then a call from the front of the hall silences the students.
Dumbledore rises from the grand table at the head of the chamber. The ancient man raises his hands, the wispy mess of his long beard shifting as he does. "Today," he begins in a clear, steady voice, "we honor those among us who will be participating in commencement." He pauses, and those dark eyes glitter with pride. "It is in some ways a very sad day, for we at Hogwarts will lose some of our finest. Prefects, students… athletes… Today, they leave us to venture into the world, enriched by all they have learned and experienced at this school. We will miss them."
He releases a slow breath and then smiles. "And yet it is a glorious day, as well. The sun shines upon the wizards and witches that leave us today, illuminating an amazing path before them. They offer us a grand legacy of accomplishments and hope for a prosperous future. Our loss is the world's gain."
Our loss. The words sober me. My heart deflates, and I sink down into the murk I just barely managed to escape. I feel weak, then, and small among all of my peers and friends. The Headmaster's words grow distant, as though I'm hearing him through a great tunnel, a dark passage that separates my heart from my senses. Everything disappears. I don't want this today. I want to be happy, ecstatic even, and even I know that's rather uncharacteristic of me. I've spent most my life being practical, proper, and reserved. Today I want to be different, because come tomorrow and the days, weeks, and months after it, I won't have the chance.
Yet that harrowing abyss closes around me, blocking out the jovial mood of the breakfast, and I'm trapped in it. Memories I've been trying to forget for years sink their teeth into me, dragging me back to them with the sort of driving hunger something long possesses. I try to ignore them. With everything in me, I try. But it seems I'm destined to suffer this day.
I look to Oliver. He is watching Dumbledore, and his face is calm. His eyes are guarded, though, glazed with lingering fear. I can tell he is trapped with the same dread I'm feeling. He doesn't look at me, but I feel the tension in his frame, and his jaw is set just so. I feel disconnected from him. Something is coming between us. I'd like to think that the bond between us is a bit stronger than simple friendship. I know it now. I know it is coming.
The rest of the breakfast passes. I can't say whether or not I ate anything. If I did, I didn't taste it. My mouth is plagued by a ghostly sensation. Cocoa with too much water. Bitter and unpleasant. It's funny how stupid things stick in your memory. That's what I was drinking the day my childhood was snatched from me.
Oliver had returned to Hogwarts sick. I thought it strange, but I hadn't said anything. We'd been roommates for three and half years, and I'd never seen him ill. He veritably bounced with energy and beamed with the sort of vibrancy that made boys a handful to parents. When I wanted to study or sleep or just think, he was moving, playing, and talking. Some people wondered how the two of us managed to live with each other given our entirely opposite dispositions and habits. Truthfully, it had not begun as anything other than indifference. Gradually apathy and aggravation had become acclimation and acceptance. He was who he was, and I was who I was. He did plenty to annoy me, like pacing before his games, spreading his mess onto my meticulous side of the room, and talking endlessly about Quidditch. I know I did just as much that irritated him. Roommates that became friends could look beyond the little things.
Just two weeks prior he had been excitedly reading some new tome of Quidditch fame and demonstrating to me (sound effects and all) how some of the plays and tactics worked. Just two weeks ago he had been thrilled with the end of the term and equally exhilarated with the new broomstick the captain of the Gryffindor team had acquired for their star keeper. He'd been talking of it incessantly, explaining to me how this broom would benefit him as he guarded the hoops. He'd been his normal, cheery self.
But when I'd come back from the Burrow, my arms loaded with the packages my mother had given me for the beginning of the new year, I found him curled up in his bed. He hadn't moved when I came in, and that immediately set concern and confusion blaring inside my head. Oliver was a horribly light sleeper. He always appeared aware of his surroundings, his attention and concentration at times uncanny. I supposed that was what made him such a talented Quidditch player. I've never been able to so much as shift in bed without his notice, so my loud entrance into our dark room failing to rouse him bothered me.
"Oliver?" I called, staggering to my desk. Down went my suitcase to the floor with a heavy clank, and the various wrapped packages in my arms hit the neat surface of my desk in a scatter. Normally I wouldn't be so haphazard with my things, but the walk from the train and up the stairs had worn me out. One tin canister held some of Mum's biscuits. I probably shouldn't have been spoiling my dinner, but I loved her ginger snaps. I fished one out, tearing away the string that had secured the lid to the container and lifting the top. As I sought for my treat, I called, "Oliver, you want a biscuit?"
He didn't answer. The silence aroused my suspicions again, and I turned around. His back was toward me, and I couldn't see his upper body as the shadow of his bed curtain obscured him. He was wrapped in his blanket. It was quite the queer thing. Oliver had never been overly vocal about his ventures in his father's home in Scotland, so it wasn't at all surprising that he wasn't talking about it. I'd always assumed whatever he shared with his father was private, special somehow, secret enough that his normal boisterous enthusiasm didn't extend to it. Oliver's mother had passed some years ago, when he'd been five or six. Whenever I had questioned him about what he did over the breaks in years past, he'd avoided responding, not rudely but curtly enough to suggest the matter wasn't open for discussion. In my naïve youth I hadn't recognized these primitive signs of what would become Oliver's greatest weapon of all against me: avoidance.
I gave up my search for my biscuit. By now, I was getting rather worried. I couldn't hear him breathing. I stepped to his bed quietly. "Oliver." My voice cracked. "Are you okay?"
"Go away, Perce." His tone was tight, filled with something I couldn't place, and my feet stopped and seemingly stuck to the floor. He didn't sound like Oliver. My boy's mind couldn't quite fathom what that meant. His voice was weak, trembling as though he was trying not to cry by clenching his teeth, hoarse really. I'd never heard anybody talk like that before. It frightened me.
"I said go away!"
His barked order made me cringe. I'd never heard Oliver raise his voice like that to anyone before, much less to me. He always treated me with respect, as though he was attempting to supply the admiration that everybody else failed to afford me. He didn't yell. He didn't snap. Something was really wrong.
I thought about it a moment, his last words echoing cruelly in the silence. "Are you sick?" He didn't answer. I thought I saw him move, bringing his knees tighter to his chest, pulling the blanket taut around his skinny form, but I couldn't be sure with the shadows as dense as they were. The sun was just beginning its early descent in the winter sky. I grabbed one of the candles atop my desk, setting it ablaze with the wand I had pulled from the pocket of my robe. I turned around, tipping the feebly burning wick closer to my friend's shadowy bed. "Oliver?"
He sighed. The breath shook. I thought he might be crying. "I… I think I have the flu or something," he declared quickly. "Just leave me be. I want to sleep." His deep Scottish accent slurred the words even more, and I had to spend a moment deciphering what it was he said.
I was less willing than ever to heed his demands. If he was ill, he should get help. In a school as close-knit as Hogwarts, even the smallest disease spread like wildfire. Entire dormitory rooms full of students had been struck by the flu. It was difficult to control exposure in such confined quarters. No matter his grumpiness, he should go immediately to the hospital wing and have Madam Pomfrey treat him. Of course, the first person who would likely catch his ailment would be me. I had a heavy and challenging load of courses this term, and I really couldn't afford to get sick. Perhaps it was already too late. Perhaps I had already caught Oliver's malady by simply entering the room and unknowingly inhaling this germ-infested air.
Well, maybe there was still a chance I could be saved. I needed to act before I became infected. I decided then and there that I was dragging Oliver to Pomfrey kicking and screaming if need be. Setting my jaw, my worry all but forgotten, I barged to his bed. "You have to go to Pomfrey," I declared forcefully. I knew from a few past sniffles and Quidditch bruises and bumps that Oliver didn't care to be prodded. However, I didn't care to be sick, given everything I needed to accomplish this term. He said nothing to my announcement, and the silence was so deep and lulling that I wondered briefly if I had truly spoken at all. "You have to."
"No, I don't," he countered.
I was getting rather frustrated. "Don't be a stubborn prat, Oliver. I can't afford to get sick, even if it is from you."
"This isn't about you!" he shouted, turning slightly to afford me a harsh glare. Maybe he thought his face remained hidden after his abrupt motion, but I saw his pallor all the same. He was crying. The golden light from the candle glimmered weakly upon the wet tracks on his cheeks. The world tipped, and I felt lost suddenly. I'd never seen him cry before. He was the strong one, impervious to the world's greatest grief. He didn't cry. I didn't understand, and I was afraid.
Something had given him pause. I imagined it was the anger in his own voice, for he held very still, as if listening to the echo of his words. Then he sank down and rolled, hiding his face from my eyes once more. He drew his knees up to his chest. I thought I heard him sniffle. "Just go away," he begged. He sounded defeated. "It's nothing. I'm fine. You won't get sick."
I wasn't convinced, but I didn't know what to do. It was obvious he didn't want me bothering him. Maybe he was just in a sour mood. Maybe he'd argued with his father over the break. I certainly more than appreciated the frustrations family often created. This was just a little fit, one of those moods that came quickly and left without any permanent effects. Still, something inside me ached. I was too young to understand what that something was, but I felt the throbbing. It started in my chest and made my ribs hurt. My stomach felt tied in knots, and my arms and legs were heavy. It was a dull, lasting pain. It told me something deeper and darker was wrong. I realized later that there was another message hidden in its misery. Though it might wan, it would never leave me. It was a vise about my spirit that would always squeeze and put pressure upon my mind to remember this day. I was marked, and once I stepped forward, I could never go back.
But I didn't know this. And even if I had, I doubt I would have done differently.
"Oliver," I said. I could scarcely draw breath I was so terrified of this unusual and unsettling situation. The air had abruptly come alive, it seemed, filling me with a chilly sort of energy. My hand was grasping his shoulder then. I hadn't thought to move, really. It was instinctive action, something one might do to offer a friend comfort. Surely Oliver didn't mean for me to leave him. Surely he'd rather have me try to help him brush whatever matter that was troubling him aside.
Surely this was a matter that could be treated like that.
When my fingers touched his skin, he immediately pulled away. He moved with such panicked speed that I hardly realized it at first. Then my hand closed about nothing, and I saw his body pressed into the shadows of where his bed met the wall. "What's the matter with you?" I demanded without thinking. I pushed the candle closer, angry and irritated that he would be so childish. We were children, yes, but I believed us to possess a measure of maturity that did not permit an act like that. "Go to Pomfrey!"
Then I saw it. The meager illumination from the candle pierced the shadows. Red dotted the edge of his sheets. Like innocent splatters of paint, they made a gruesome trail from the side of the mattress inward. I looked to each, tracing their path like an avid follower, until my eyes came upon a small puddle of crimson. I realized immediately that it was blood.
My wide eyes refused to move from that spot. Vaguely I realized it marked the area where his side had touched the sheets. It didn't seem possible, as though my senses were playing a dreadful trick upon my mind. That was not blood. That was not his blood. I didn't know what to say. Every thought, every emotion, fled my body on a single breath, and I was paralyzed. There was nothing beyond this instance where I stood, dumbly staring at that red splotch with wide eyes and an open mouth. Everything else ceased to exist.
It was Oliver who pulled me from that collapsing prison. "I told you not to care!" he cried. He drew up his blanket, covering his body as he vainly attempted to sink deeper into the safety of the shadows. The blue fabric came to cover the blood, but I knew it was still there. "Go away!"
I began to speak, but not because I had anything of value to say. "Oliver, you're–"
I jumped, startled. An awkward, awful silence descended. I looked into the blackness, but I couldn't see anything. He was hiding himself from me. He didn't want me to see where or how badly he was hurt. I wanted to see these things. But I was afraid to push him. My thoughts were jumbled, and all I could do was numbly obey him.
I stepped back, but my eyes never left his bed. I hoped I would find him amidst the shadows, but I couldn't. I hoped that this could all be erased, that he would emerge with that same goofy, sloppy grin on his face and tell me it was all just a hoax, a joke. But he didn't. Nightmares rarely spread into wakefulness, even in the wizarding world, and yet I was living a horrible nightmare right then. I was stuck in a dream where I could not turn back time, where something dreadful had happened to my closest friend – to the only friend I'd ever had – and I couldn't do anything. Helplessness was brutal.
Eventually I turned away. I returned the candle to my desk. Idleness plagued me, so I started to unpack my presents and treats. As I did, I strained my ears to detect even the slightest sound from behind me. At first, there was nothing. Eventually I heard a rasping noise, as though it hurt him to breathe. I heard a hitched sob. One. Then another.
A heavy drop struck the parchment on my desk. I looked down and watched blankly as the tear streaked the dried ink of some old paper. The black tendrils snaked through the little pool of water. One tear. Then another.
He never cried. But when he did, it seemed only right for me to cry, too.
It was much later that night when Oliver finally allowed me to help him. After consuming an empty, unfulfilling dinner alone in the Great Hall, I had returned to the crushing silence of our room. My mind had refused to concentrate on any manner of schoolwork, so I had set aside my books in weary frustration. I couldn't think. I couldn't find peace. I felt Oliver behind me, lying painfully in his bed, even though I couldn't see or hear him. That sort of jolting awareness left me decidedly uncomfortable. Though I'd pondered the matter relentlessly over dinner, I had come to no conclusions. Oliver was perhaps hurt badly. I knew I should get somebody, Madam Pomfrey at the very least, to tend to him. But I understood why he didn't want to go to the infirmary. He didn't want anybody to discover this. For whatever reasons, he desired for this ugly event to remain secret. Such a conclusion left me with few alternatives. Muddled and morose, I retired, trying to sleep. I couldn't do anything if he didn't want me to.
I lay in bed, my body stiff and tense. The air was taut with something I couldn't quite describe. It was my mattress beneath my back, my quilt covering my body, the outline of my desk showing faintly in the pale moonlight… Yet it didn't feel like my room. This didn't feel real. It had adopted a surreal, nightmarish quality, as if what had transpired earlier in the day had been some sick perversion of reality that couldn't possibly be true. I wanted to believe that was possible, but as I watched the shadows of the clouds dance across the floor, I knew I was only fooling myself. I couldn't realize the fundamental consequence of any of this. It was as though as I was blinded. That ache in my chest and stomach and head told me with no small degree of unsettling finality that something had happened. I didn't know what that was, only that it could never be undone.
I didn't like that. I understood everything, from the simplest of charms to the most complex of potion recipes. I was Percy Weasley. I always knew the answer.
But more than this, I didn't like that I was helpless. Perhaps I could've forced Oliver to go to the hospital. Obviously he was injured badly enough to bleed, and he probably needed serious care, the sort only a nurse could provide. Admittedly I didn't know what or who had hurt him. I wasn't naïve enough to not have my suspicions. I knew nothing of Oliver's family, save that his mother was dead and his father worked for some lesser department of the ministry. It was hard not to jump to conclusions, but jump I did. Something had happened over break. He hadn't been like this when he'd left. It was probably wrong to presume his father had been the one to do this to him, but I couldn't help it. And when I did, my belly ached with something novel and raw. Anger.
It's none of my business. I kept trying to tell myself this. Go to sleep. It's not my place. But it was my business and my place. Oliver was my friend, the truest I'd ever had. He was nicer to me than any one, and he understood me better than any of my brothers had ever managed. And he was suffering. Maybe he didn't want help. Maybe he didn't want my help. But he needed it. I knew he did. I could hear his raspy breathing in the deafening silence of our room. Each time he drew a shallow breath, I listened to the shaking sob threatening to break free from him. I couldn't just lay here and let him suffer!
However, thinking was a far cry from actually doing. Truthfully, I was terrified. Some whining voice inside my head kept my limbs paralyzed. It promised me silly things, like if I stayed still and ignored this terrible thing, it would disappear. I shouldn't have let my fear overcome reason, but I was weak. I didn't want to deal with this. That throbbing pain had settled deep inside me, a chill in my bones and blood. My heart was thundering, booming in the silence. I was so afraid.
Oliver coughed hoarsely, and then he moaned in such a way that an icy hand seemed to squeeze my heart. I held very still, listening intently. The sound of his hacking had been amplified greatly in the emptiness, reverberating like a sudden explosion. For a long moment there was nothing, not even a strained breath. I could scarcely bring myself to inhale, for my chest had clenched tightly and my throat had closed.
My ears were ringing, and I wondered if I had heard anything at all. This indecision lasted but a moment, for my body moved instinctively even if my mind had shut down. I rolled over, pushing the curtain back. Oliver's call had been so weak, so pained. Whatever hesitation that had before tethered me to inaction disappeared. I swung my legs from my bed and then staggered to my feet. A moment later I was beside his bed.
In the pale moonlight, I could barely see him. His back was turned to me. Sometime during the hours I'd been gone earlier he'd shed his sweater and dress shirt. Now he sported only a cotton t-shirt, and the back of it was dark red. Crimson lines crossed the fabric in horrible long X's. I couldn't move for a moment as I stared numbly at the sight before me. Anew I felt the shock, the sick realization of how serious this was. "Oliver," I called softly. My voice was weak and pathetic, alien to my ears. "Oliver."
He shuddered. I grabbed his shoulder as he choked on a sob. I felt sick, my stomach twisted so tightly that nausea burned my throat. I pulled him back, wanting to finally see his face and find a familiar sight. But I didn't find what I was looking for. Instead I saw pain and fear, the sort that I had never seen before. Oliver's eyes were bright and hazy. His face was pale and sweaty, and a huge, hideous bruise covered his left temple. He seemed lost, scared, unlike the Oliver I knew. Tears fled from those feverish eyes and streaked down his white skin. He looked terribly ill.
My lips barely moved. "Oliver?" I whispered.
He groaned. He shivered uncontrollably. "It hurts, Perce," he moaned.
His hand was shaking as it clenched in my pyjamas. I wrapped my fingers around his arm. "Let me take you to Madam Pomfrey," I begged softly. "Please, Oliver! You're sick." He didn't respond, licking dry lips. His eyes slipped shut again. I chewed the inside of my cheek nervously, growing frustrated and more fearful. "Nobody has to know."
"Everybody will know!" he cried. The clouds shifted outside, allowing a few more beams of the moon to shoot inside our room. The pale light washed over us, and I watched him writhe as though he fought some unseen demon. His fingers curled into the fabric of my shirt, pulling me closer. "They'll see. I can't hide!" His voice twisted into a hoarse, deep cough. "Then he'll find out."
His last words were barely a whisper, but I heard every syllable as though thunder had accompanied his voice. Any doubts I might have previously harbored about his father's involvement in this mess disappeared. I lost my will, then, to argue any more. I wouldn't be able to convince him to seek help. He was terrified, and whether or not that fear was rational, it was real to him. I wouldn't force him. I wasn't so cruel or heartless.
"Let me see to you, then," I said. It seemed the natural thing to offer. I already knew, after all. And I wouldn't tell anyone. I didn't need to swear this to him, because with those words he watched me with shining, hopeful eyes. He never asked. I just gave. Perhaps I shouldn't have afforded him this escape. I didn't know it then, but I was inadvertently setting a pattern of behavior, paving the veritable road of flight that Oliver would then use to run from this problem over and over again. But what else could I do? I didn't know any better.
He seemed as surprised as me by the offer because he didn't answer immediately. It was strange to say the least. This moment completely overstepped the established bounds of our relationship. We were both skinny, ungainly boys, caught in the worst throes of adolescence, named obsessive by some for our respective passions. But Oliver had a measure of courage and strength that I didn't. Perhaps I was overly sensitive, but the scathing insults and hissed comments flung my way hurt me deeply. Oliver always stood by me. Sometimes I thought his friendship with me exposed him to more ridicule than it was worth. But it never seemed to faze him. He stood against them fearlessly, shielding me from their cruelty, but he never made a show of what he did. Everything to him was a mellow venture. He was confident and cool. He protected me. I didn't protect him.
Until now, at least, he'd never needed me to.
A long moment passed, and he nodded. Tears slipped from the corners of his eyes. I nodded, too, feeling uncomfortable. I didn't know what to do. I hadn't studied magical medicine. I knew nothing about tending to wounds. Did Oliver have a fever? He was sweating. I licked dry lips. How did Mum take care of us when we were sick? I felt his forehead. He was hot, but I didn't know how hot a fever felt, really. And all of that felt like a futile discovery, anyway. What could I do about it if he was?
Then I remembered when Charlie had been so sick many years ago. I had been very young, six or seven, but the hazy recollection seemed vivid to my panicked mind. I saw Mum leaning over his bed, a wet washcloth in her hand, bathing his face and singing. He had had a bad virus or something of the like. Charlie had been well again in a matter of days. This was probably more serious, but I couldn't think of anything else. I just couldn't think.
I needed water. I left Oliver's bedside and scrambled to my desk. In a neatly packed satchel on the floor beside the chair was my potions cauldron. It wasn't meant to be used for anything besides brewing, but I didn't have anything else. The floor was cold under my bare feet, but I hardly felt the chill. The heavy black vessel was in my hands, and it was icy, too. My mind seemed split in two. One part of my brain was buzzing with thoughts, racing with emotion, but that stream of consciousness seemed utterly detached from action. I was outside our room then, moving mindlessly to the washroom. It occurred to me that I shouldn't be doing this. I was breaking curfew. I was a stickler for the rules. That gave me a sense of security. Maybe it was silly. Maybe the others were right to make fun of me for my fanaticism. But I needed that structure, that control. I didn't have Oliver's composure. Following the laws, maintaining the strictest decorum, would avail me someday. They could laugh now if they wanted. In the end, it would all be worth it.
My feet struck the floor in a soft, quick rhythm. The hallway was terribly dark, a few candles burning in the sconces fastened to the stone walls. It was a lonely, bleak place at night. I hadn't ever noticed before, as I'd never ventured outside my room after curfew. I stumbled a bit, leaning against the wall. I reached the washroom and went inside. The moon peaked through the windows to cast ghostly rectangles upon the tiled floor. Absently I padded to the sinks. I filled the cauldron with cool water. Then I went back to the room.
Oliver had turned back onto his side. In the heavy quiet I could hear him crying, though his sobs were softer and less strained. I closed our door and locked it before quickly making my way back to his bed. A bit of the water sloshed over the rim of the cauldron, splashing onto the floor, but I hardly noticed. I set it down, and then went to the closet to find some towels and washcloths. When I came back, Oliver stiffened beneath my touch. "Oliver," I called. He sniffled. I knelt on the cold ground. "Come on. You're shivering. And you're bleeding. You need to get cleaned up."
He turned onto his back. The bruise on his face looked larger, the bluish, reddish mark a stark contrast to the incredible whiteness of his skin. I swallowed uncomfortably and faltered for a moment. "Sit up," I commanded softly. "I'll help you."
He hesitated a moment more. Then a wince contorted his face, and he leaned up. I wanted to smile, but my face felt locked into an expression of awkward fear. He swung his legs to the floor. His shaking hand grabbed my offered arm. He gasped and pulled himself to the edge of the bed. Then he sat still, hanging his head, breathing raggedly. I watched him with a growing sense of concern. He looked positively green. "I… I can't…"
"Yes," I said, growing more frustrated, "you can." A strange thing for me to say to him, really. Normally it was him reassuring me. "Get up. We need to get your shirt off."
"No, Perce," he groaned, shaking his head.
I refused to let him let himself suffer. I pulled the chair from his desk to the bed, the legs scraping loudly on the rough floor. I was getting angry, and though I knew I shouldn't be short with him, I couldn't help it. "Get up, Oliver. Don't make this harder. If you won't see Pomfrey, then you have to take care of this yourself."
My annoyance had crawled into my tone, and he heard it. He looked up at me with a hurt glare. Oliver never easily submitted to anything. I felt guilty a moment for presuming I had the authority to order him about when he was hurt. But before I could say anything, he was on his feet. And he wobbled and nearly fell. I grabbed his arm to steady him. Oliver gave a choked cry, his hand slamming down on the post of his bed to regain his teetering balance. I let him simply stand for a moment because he was fighting for breath. It started to occur to me that maybe his chest was damaged, as he was wheezing heavily. His struggle dissolved into a few deep, shaking coughs that made me wince. Helplessly I watched him gag and choke for air, and when he was done, he nearly collapsed. I stumbled but managed to support his weight. My anger faded. "You're okay," I said softly, holding his shaking form and trying to comfort him. He was like ice.
Eventually he regained his wind and lifted his head from my shoulder. I tried to be strong, but I felt my will wavering. Wordlessly I helped him take off his shirt. The thin fabric seemed glued to his skin, and, I feared, the cuts on his back. He had a difficult time raising his arms, and though I was as careful as I could be, I know I hurt him. Finally his chest was revealed.
I couldn't believe what I saw. In the pale light, the dark of the bruises was that much more severe. His entire left side was painted in red and purple, the welts and wounds numerous and extensive. I wondered if any of his ribs were broken, but I didn't know how to find out or what I'd do if they were. He looked as though he'd been kicked. There was blood on his left flank as well. Wide-eyed and alarmed, I stepped around him and found what I'd feared. His back was covered in cuts and lacerations. Most did not seem deep, but they had bled profusely once.
"Percy." Oliver's voice snapped me from my dark thoughts. He turned, his left arm coming to wrap protectively around his wounded side. "I… I don't want you to see this."
I swallowed, my throat burning. I picked up one of the washcloths. "I don't care," I declared, dunking the cloth into the cauldron before wringing away the excess water. "You wouldn't do any less for me."
He didn't respond to that, but I hadn't expected him too. I took the cloth gently to his bleeding back, and he gasped. His entire form stiffened, and I immediately drew back, fearful of the pain I'd caused him. We were still for a moment, uncertainty weighing heavily upon us, and when I leaned around him I could see his eyes squeezed shut and the white of his teeth jabbed into his lip. But then he released the breath he was holding. He didn't move away from me. I guessed that meant it was alright for me to continue.
And so I did. He shivered mightily as I washed the gashes on his back. His knuckles were pale and shaking as he gripped the post of his bed. The silence grew oppressive and worrisome. I wanted to ask, but I was afraid. Part of me didn't want to trouble him. Part of me was concerned he wouldn't answer and then withdraw from me again. And another part of me dreaded he would respond. I didn't know if I wanted to hear the answer or if I could even understand. A long time seemed to pass. I worked quickly, listening to Oliver rasp and the thundering of my own heart. Finally, I spoke, shoving aside my trepidation for the sake of filling the silence with sound. "Why did he–" Oliver jerked, though whether from the cold press of the water-laden cloth or my words I couldn't say. Icy fear washed over me, and I nearly choked on my breath. "I mean, well… I – I don't mean to," I stammered lamely. He stood very still. I fought to simply swallow. "Was it your father?"
The words hung on the air, dangling, tantalizing with their horrid implications. Oliver sagged tiredly. I could tell that standing was hurting him, so I helped him sit in the chair. He said nothing for a long time, but just when I believed he wouldn't answer, he did. "He… We fought."
He offered nothing more. "Why?" I asked in a timid voice, trying to sound unimposing. If he spoke, I wanted him to do it because he wished to, not because he knew how much I desired to know.
Oliver released a slow breath that ended in a wheezing cough. I stepped back, looking at the cuts crossing the pale flesh of his back. The bleeding looked to have lessened, though the cuts were angry and inflamed. I figured they would scar. I went to his closet in search of pyjamas and a jumper. While I quickly picked through his clothes, I heard him speak. "I don't know. It… it was ruddy stupid. I hadn't told him that…" He hissed suddenly through his teeth. His right hand came to wipe at his wet cheeks. "That I'd made it. The team, I mean."
I turned to look at him, surprised. Oliver had been accepted onto Gryffindor's Quidditch team the fall of our second year at Hogwarts. That had been more than a year ago. I couldn't imagine him not telling his father of his accomplishment. It was quite a feat for one so young to make the house team and as a new keeper, no less. Keeper was generally regarded as a position as difficult as Seeker, if not more so. Oliver had been so thrilled; he'd talked about nothing else for weeks last year, driving me veritably insane. It seemed impossible that he hadn't informed his father.
Of course, such a thought was predicated upon quite an assumption that Oliver got along with his father. As I looked at the wounds splayed across his back in a grotesque painting, it became increasingly obvious that that assumption couldn't be farther from the truth. Still, I wanted to know why. "You were afraid to?"
Oliver closed his eyes. His shivering was becoming worse, and I could tell he was exhausted. "I didn't want to hear what he'd have to say," he declared quietly. I handed him a towel. He took it slowly but made no move to dry the water dripping down to the waist of his pants. "He… He didn't think there was any future in it. Ma always encouraged me, but she never told him that I… What I wanted to do."
I was beginning to understand. Oliver went on, his thick brogue making his words rough and low. "He wasn't always like this," he whispered sadly. A tear escaped his eye and slipped languidly down his face. "He wasn't ever… loving, but I knew he loved me. He never said he was proud, but I knew he was."
He stopped talking. I dabbed at his back with a towel. "What happened?" I prodded quietly.
"Ma died," he responded, his tone dead. "Three years ago."
I took the pyjamas from the bed where I had set them. I handed the pants to Oliver. He didn't turn, but his shaking hand reached up to grasp it. I was about to ask him if he needed my help to change, but he pushed himself upward on his own. He trembled wildly for a moment, enough to make his body teeter as he stood. I steadied him, and then I turned away, giving him a moment of privacy.
The wind rattled against the pane of the window. I looked outside, watching the gray clouds drift across the moon in wispy lines. It had begun to snow. The tiny flakes danced as they floated down, slowly and ethereally. Oliver sighed, his breath shaking with a barely restrained sob. "I thought it would be alright," he said. "I thought… If I waited till the last night… Da was sitting at the table, staring at his dinner. He didn't look at me as I told him. He didn't even acknowledge that I was speaking to him." I closed my eyes, my chest tightening until I could barely breathe. I couldn't even picture this situation. It was alien, unreal, impossible. My father loved me. My father knew everything about every test, every project, every problem in my life. "I – I got angry. I yelled. I shouldn'ta done it, but I was just so… bloody hurt. I was expecting an argument or at least some kind of disapproving look. I had high hopes. This was the first year we were alone for the holidays. I thought…"
He gave a twisted sob. "He didn't care about me at all! I told him that the only thing that mattered to him was his work! I'd defied him, done exactly what he'd told me not to do, and he really didn't care. I got up." The words were coming faster and faster. "I didn't want to eat with him anymore. He told me to sit. When I said no, he… he…"
I jerked, as though I was the one who'd been hit. I felt Oliver shake. Deep inside I realized that problems like this weren't sudden matters. Whatever had driven his father to such an act hadn't been this accusation of Oliver's or his mother's death. Perhaps Oliver might think this his fault, but it hadn't been. I was young, but I knew this.
Oliver spoke again. It was hard to listen to him because now his voice was twisted with sobs. "He told me he was sorry! He said he hadn't meant it, but I… I didn't know if he – if he…" I heard the chair tip, and I ripped around, panic pulsing through me. Oliver was on his knees, his left arm wrapped around his chest, the other shaking as it bore his weight upon the floor. "I can't let them see," he moaned piteously. My heart thudded painfully, and I felt my eyes mist with tears. "Please, Percy! You understand, don't you?"
Truthfully, I didn't. As I knelt beside him, I felt uselessly torn. I couldn't honestly tell him that I could picture this trauma, or that I could comprehend why he chose to endure it. "I can't," I said quietly, shaking my head. My hands came to grasp his shoulders and I leaned closer, taking his weight from his arm. "You shouldn't protect him."
"What else can I do?" he cried furiously. He turned raging, watery eyes upon me, and I nearly retreated for the heat of his glare. It was if he was trying to shove this blackness from his body and unto anything or anyone available. "He's my father, Perce! And maybe he was sorry… Maybe… He didn't want me to say anything…"
I wanted to tell him that he shouldn't hide this. I wanted to tell him that this wasn't his fault, and that his father had had no right to hurt him. How much could the man have cared, how sorry could he have truly been, if he'd sent his son away after beating him, bruised and bleeding and alone? But I heard what Oliver had left unsaid. He was afraid. If he sought help, Pomfrey would see it all. Confrontation was inevitable. Maybe I couldn't understand why he'd want to defend the man who'd done this, but I respected his wishes. I was too frightened myself to do much else.
Oliver's eyes had glazed. I watched the tears leak from them and roll slowly down his face. He released a slow breath, leaning upon me tiredly. "I cried," he said. His lower lip quivered, and he jabbed his teeth into it. His face scrunched into a disgusted, angry scowl. "He told me I was pathetic." He shook his head. "I didn't want to cry, but it hurt… I couldn't stop. He said no son of his would bawl like a baby." He rubbed at his eyes furiously, scrubbing away the tears, but more came unbidden. "I hated him for saying that, but I – I just couldn't stop."
He broke down in gasping sobs. "Even now," he moaned, "I can't ruddy stop!"
I knelt there, absolutely transfixed. This didn't seem real. It couldn't be real. Oliver was no different. I was no different. We were just two students, two boys from good families. This couldn't be real!
But it was. I started to cry, too.
The two of us sat there, on the cold floor in the dark night, leaning against each other for a long time. I drew my knees up to my chest and wrapped my arms around them. Acutely I felt every single shudder that wracked his body. Heat rolled off of him in sickening waves. I thought he was really sick, and for the first time that night, I wondered if he could die. Some part of me knew his injuries weren't that serious, but rampant terror stomped out logic. Everything suddenly appeared very bleak and grave to my young eyes. Had Oliver's father meant to kill him? Was I killing him now by letting him stay here in this cold room with a fever and so many wounds? Silly, I realized. People don't die from cuts and bruised bones and pain. But all these thoughts raced through my mind. Beneath it all I knew, on some level, I wasn't wrong to think of death. Something had died this night.
"You're not pathetic," I said. I had stopped crying and hadn't even realized it. "You're better than he is."
He said nothing to my soft declaration. His back was to my side. I felt him sag. I sniffled, wiping a hand across my own face. Tentatively I wrapped an arm around his shoulders. We drew no closer. It was strange, this moment, but neither of us had enough strength to maintain the sort of boisterous courage boys our age often boasted. It was so late, and we were both exhausted. I knew I should get Oliver into bed. He needed rest. I had class tomorrow.
But I didn't move. And neither did he. This was all we could do.
And that was all we did, for four years.
We hid. We sat still. We looked away, burying this torment and never speaking of it as though ignoring it could make it disappear. We avoided Oliver's problem, avoided it and wished it had never happened. It was childish and immature to act this way, but we knew no better. Truly it was Oliver who ran. But I was the one who cleared his path, who held his arm, who helped him along his way. I made it possible, because I never did anything to stop him. My heart cried that I should have told Madam Pomfrey or Professor McGonagall or even the Headmaster. My mind always buzzed with this endless shame. I'd disregarded the rules for the sake of my friend. Deep down inside, I knew I was only making this worse by permitting Oliver this escape. This was a stain upon us, one that would fester and spread with time. I knew it then. I knew it would.
And it has.
The worst part of this is that I did this all without Oliver's request. For the days he remained sick and secluded in our room four years ago, I acted his caregiver automatically. I brought him food, lied to his friends and professors, helped him take care of himself… I even completed a few of his assignments for him. I had been disgusted at my submission to the whims of this ugly torment, but I hadn't even thought of stopping myself. When he grew depressed or saddened, when he had nightmares, I never forced him to speak of it. My efforts hadn't stopped there, either. I'd invited him to come home with me that summer and the winter after that. I'd feared he wouldn't accept my proposal; though he never said as much, I believe he hated himself for needing my help. But grander than this was his fear of facing his father, and to my relief he joined my family in the Burrow.
For those years, he had simply been another Weasley. Mum had boundless love, it seemed, for even those not her own. She had taken Oliver into our home without question. I never quite discovered if she had gleaned the purpose of my sudden "attachment" to Oliver. I figure now that she must have. Sometimes Oliver would grow sullen when the family was especially loud or raucous, and he would slip away from the laughter and conversation as though he was a ghost sliding between the words and never touching them. Mum was always especially careful with him, treating him gently but never patronizing him with fake compassion. I'd never thanked her for what she'd done for us. She'd come inside this nightmare with a bit of sun and humor and warm, delicious cooking, but she'd refused to intrude, advise, or criticize. That was Mum's way. She seemed as loud and nosey as the rest of my family. In actuality, she let us all live our own lives.
It became easier to forget, to move on. Time escaped us, dulling the pain and making hazy the memory. Sometimes, when Oliver was laughing about some matter or furiously depicting complicated Quidditch moves to me, I wondered if I hadn't dreamt the whole thing. I saw him fly, playing the game he so loved, warring and winning, and I thought maybe he didn't remember it, either. I hoped he had forgotten, allowing the horrible incident to slip from his thoughts into the back of his mind where it couldn't poison the light of love and life. He was himself again in short order, strong and confident, and we grew up as we should have. I thought it was over.
But these things don't go away. I knew that, even back then. Two years ago he'd gone home for Christmas. When he had told me of his plans, I felt oddly betrayed. This was our secret, our fight, our enemy. I didn't want him to face it without me. Then I felt frightened. He hadn't talked to his father for two years. He'd said he thought it was time to try and work beyond that violent night. He'd said he was tired of wondering, of never knowing for sure if the apology his father had offered was the truth. He'd proclaimed himself tethered to this dark shadow, and he wanted to be rid of the chains.
Personally, I hadn't blamed him. He'd harbored optimism, though, that I couldn't share. So the winter break of our fifth year came and went. I'd told Mum Oliver had gone home to Scotland when she saw me alone at Platform 9 ¾. She'd looked concerned, but she hadn't inquired about it. Still, her worry had been enough to make me worry, and the entire holiday had been dampened by a heavy, wet quilt and doubt and fear that had veritably smothered my cheer. I'd been relieved to return to Hogwarts, if only to learn what had happened to Oliver in our time apart. Had his father touched him again? I had feared finding my friend in a similar state as I had two years ago, and that terror had plagued me relentlessly.
But I hadn't. Oliver had greeted me happily, dressed neatly and hale. Relief stronger than anything I'd known had rushed over me. It hadn't been until later that night that I'd realized my euphoria was premature. We'd talked for hours, but eventually I came to notice that I was the one doing all the talking. The signs that things were not as well as my friend depicted were subtle, indeed, but I'd become masterful at deciphering Oliver's enigmatic moods. There was a certain guarded glint in his eyes. When he thought I wasn't looking, his shoulders sagged from their typical proud stature. I began to fear Oliver's brief, empty description of his break had been only a lie.
When I saw the new bruises on his chest after he'd come back from the washroom, I knew it. He tried to hide them, of course, guarding his white flesh from my worried, shocked eyes with a towel and then quickly dressing in his pyjamas. But I didn't ask, and he didn't tell. All too easily we had slipped back into an old, habitual routine. Avoidance. And when we did speak of it, that rough outburst of emotion would be followed by the familiar, cold apathy. I had hated myself for many days after that.
He never went home again.
As I think about it now, this confrontation today was long in coming. Everything put aside eventually returns to seek its due. Things are not easily left behind. Of course this day would come. It was what we had worked for, what we had run from. A warm wind has lifted us so that we could meet this day. We are aloft now, at the top of a tall mountain, at the end of a long journey upward. I haven't been certain of many things since that night, but I am certain of this: I can't let Oliver go. I've never been overly adept at Divination, but I know it deep inside me. The day is hot, and the sun is bright. The breeze is cool and sweet. But I'm cold inside with the sort of foreboding that heralds an undeniable disaster. If it let him go now, I know it will be the end.
Dumbledore's voice hauls me back to the present, and abruptly I let go of these memories and contemplations and fears. I look up, and then I stand up. My movements are jerky and inelegant, and I feel lost. Oliver is sitting next to me. His hands are white as he clutches his knees, and his eyes are ahead. I can't gather what he's thinking. Then he looks at me, and the corner of his mouth curls into a weak, knowing smile. My throat closes. Seven years, and he still has that disarming smile.
My feet are carrying me, then. Inexplicably poise comes to me. I lift my chin, drawing a deep breath to compose myself. I feel the beautiful day come inside me and ward away the darkness. Mum and Dad and the others are in the crowd, watching me now in my moment of triumph. The ecstasy is enough to drive back any sadness, and I smile.
Headmaster Dumbledore is grinning at me. His weathered face is warm and open and aglow with pride. Those dark eyes of his glitter as they meet mine. I feel the little boy again, timidly walking up the passage of the Great Hall to sit on the stool and have the hat sort me into my house. He seems to understand the strange sensation, for he nods calmly. He shakes my hand. Then Professor McGonagall shakes my hand, too, and her elderly visage is brimming with happiness. She hands me a scroll. "Congratulations, Percy," she says quietly.
I walk around, looking over the group of graduates, past the streamers and flags to the crowd. My family is cheering for the both of us. I scan the gathering intently, but I don't see anything suspicious. I don't even know what to look for. I've never seen his father. I take my seat again, turning back to watch Oliver speak softly to Dumbledore. The ancient wizard holds his hand tightly, his other hand resting over it momentarily as he talks in a hushed tone. I squint, wondering then if Dumbledore hadn't perhaps known all along.
Then he receives his scroll from McGonagall, and she embraces him fondly a moment. After that, he returns to the rows of chairs. He sits beside me with a tired sigh. But he's smiling genuinely. I look at him, and I must have had a bewildered expression on my face, because he leans close to me. Though his eyes are dark with worry, a mischievous glint comes to them. "I guess you and I are in this together," he says quietly. "Friends?"
I chuckle. That was the same thing he'd first said to me after joining me at the Gryffindor table seven years ago. It had just seemed so silly, the way he offered friendship like it was the most natural outcome of our chance sorting into the same house. His logic had always been sort of strange. It was almost as if he knew we'd be together even before he'd known me. As weird as that was, it was also entirely right.
Dumbledore is addressing the congregation, but I hardly hear the words. I'm warm then, with a sense of pleasant finality. Oliver seems happy, looking forward with a smirk twisting his lips and a light in his eyes. Maybe this is all for nothing. Maybe he's overreacting. Maybe…
The Headmaster raises his arms, and all those present, families, students, and friends, erupt in a roar of cheering. We're on our feet, pulling our black, pointed caps from our heads. We toss them high into the air, and they soar upward. I watch them. They seem to fly slowly, lethargically rising and floating at the top of an arc before sinking languidly down. Free.
But freedom is a transient thing. For hats and boys and hearts.
The crowd comes in then. I'm surrounded by my friends and family. Penelope is the first to find me, her hands coming to wrap around my neck and shoulders. She kisses me, laughing joyously. Then my friends are there. Harry pumps my hand enthusiastically, a huge grin on his young face. Hermione is teary-eyed as she hugs me. Many other Gryffindor students are there, cheering and applauding my success. The warmth rolls over me, and I smile widely, shaking many hands and thanking many people. I have never felt so loved, so appreciated. The school is rallying behind me, Head Boy, Prefect, Percy Weasley. The standards of Ravenclaw, Slytherin, Hufflepuff, and Gryffindor fly on their tall poles in the gentle breeze. They all seem one today. All the competition and division between us has disappeared, and we're all the same again.
I turn, and my family is there. Fred and George guffaw loudly about how scared I looked while walking to the Headmaster, clapping me on the back. Bill and Charlie each hug me, congratulating me on my accomplishment and welcoming me into the world of adulthood. Ron is chatting with Harry excitedly, the two boys imagining their own commencement day. Ginny hugs my legs, her orange hair soft under my hands as I grasp her tightly.
"Good job, son!" my father cries, sweeping me into his arms and squeezing me against him. I laugh as the air rushes from my chest. "Good show! Right good show." He leans back, grinning. Satisfaction rushes over me in tingling waves. My heart is thundering. I can't stop smiling.
After he lets me go, Mum is immediately there. She grasps my face between her cool, familiar hands and plants a kiss on each cheek. She embraces me, sighing as though she is trying hard not to cry. "My boy!" she says. "All grown up!"
"It's not as though he's the first," Bill remarks whimsically. He looks to Ron and winks. "Or the last."
Mum swats him in the arm. "Don't ruin this moment for him!" she chastises without any heat. She wipes the tears from her eyes. The entire family begins to talk then, their happy voices and laughter joining the hum of conversation across the square. People begin to walk to tables alongside of the green, eager to partake in the drinks and fine food. I stand, lost in the conservations, swept away in the joy. The day is beautiful. Everything is wonderful.
And then I realize. Mum does, too. "Dear, where's Oliver?"
Cold terror slaps me, and I can't move. Paralyzed by horror, I stand very still, the smile sliding from my face. Then I turn. Somehow I know where to look. There's a crowd behind me, black robes swishing as people mill about. I peer through the group, unable to breathe. Surely it's nothing! Surely he's with Harry or Lee or the Quidditch team…
Then I see him. He's standing near the edge of the lawn. His face is white. The breeze ruffles his robes, his hair. For a moment I just watch, unsure of what I'm observing. Then I see the hand upon his shoulder. The fingers are thick, strong, and they're curled tightly. My eyes drift behind him. A man stands there. He's speaking with a few other men who I don't recognize. Oliver stands very still. His form is tense with unmistakable terror.
No. Please, no!
His father's fingers press into Oliver's shoulder. He doesn't wince. His face is vacant, and his eyes are empty. I can't believe it has come to this. Though I've feared it all day, I'm still shocked and terrified. Across the distance between us our eyes lock. I open my mouth, my jaw quivering, but I can't speak. My voice won't come, and though I want to scream and shout, I can't find the words. We have run for so long, hidden for so many years. How can it come to this?
I don't understand. I never have! And I know he doesn't, either.
But he's not angry. In his eyes, there is nothing but defeat and remorse. I can't manage the strength to speak, but I don't need to. The words don't matter anymore. I've failed him, and I know it deep down inside. Somehow, he knows it, too. And he knows that I'm sorry.
An endless, torturous moment passes. He struggles to smile, but he does. That same damn smile. A tear escapes my eye, and all I can do is smile back. I know this is the end. The moment we feared would come. And all I can do is smile back.
The black wraith behind Oliver shifts, and then he draws his son closer. A dark cape twists in the summer wind as he turns. I see his face. He has short dark hair and stern eyes. I expect a monster, but I find a man. I hate and fear him all the more for it. I'm a man myself, now. It's only fitting that I see evil for what it is.
Oliver tries to hold my eyes, but his father pulls him away. That hand moves to drape across his shoulders. To another's eyes, the act may have seemed loving. To mine, it's a violent threat of what's to come. I watch as they walk away. I stand and watch as my friend is taken from me. And when they are gone, I still stand and watch. I stand still and watch. I hear my father behind me. He is boasting to someone, talking loudly of his son's accomplishments. He's laughing, and I can feel his pride like a warm brush of the sun upon my skin. What will he think, I wonder, if he learns that his son, his accomplished son, failed to keep the only promise that mattered?
I don't know. But I know he'll never stop being proud of me or stop loving me. And that makes me feel so guilty. So very guilty.
I tip back my head and look up at the sky. It's perfect, blue and bright. The clouds are white, pristine. I'm the same, really. Perfect Percy. Weak, useless, insignificant. Without weight or gravity, pushed about the empty sky by a wind turned cold. I'm still smiling sadly, feeling the familiar sting in my eyes. I betrayed him. I left him alone. I let him go. When he needed me, I let him down. But what more can I say, really? What more can be said?