The Long Way Back

2nd August, 1997

"Hello, Mr. Weasley." Robert Selwyn smiled pleasantly. "I trust you've heard the news?"

Percy looked crossly at the burly man across the desk from him. "I haven't heard any news, Selwyn. I have been called into the Ministry in the middle of the night to answer the questions of an Auror who is wasting time instead of telling me what he wants. I have not had time to gossip."

"I am sorry to have disturbed your sleep," Selwyn said politely, "but it is a matter of utmost importance. Last night, Rufus Scrimgeour resigned the post of Minister for Magic, and Pius Thicknesse took his place." He paused, and Percy could feel the shock in his face. It was true things had slowly been getting out of control – the recent Azkaban escape had been a ringing confirmation of that fact – but Scrimgeour had been doing his best to fight an uphill battle while keeping the public's morale up.

Selwyn cleared his throat, folded his hands and leaned forward, commanding Percy's attention again. "Now we come to the heart of the matter. The Department of Magical Law Enforcement has wanted to follow a lead in the investigation into the death of Albus Dumbledore for some time now, but former Minister Scrimgeour blocked our efforts at every turn. Now that Scrimgeour has gone, Thicknesse has given the Auror office full license to investigate this lead and any other leads that may present themselves."

"I still don't understand why this requires my presence at three in the morning," Percy said stiffly.

"Harry Potter was seen fleeing the scene of Dumbledore's murder." Selwyn smiled again, but this time it was a predator's smile. Percy felt a shiver of unease. He had had his doubts about Harry over the years, but murdering Dumbledore…by all accounts, they'd been close…

Selwyn went on. "We would very much like to question him personally. Unfortunately, he has disappeared, so we are forced to question all those connected to him. In light of your family's closeness with Potter, we thought you might be able to provide us with some useful information."

"If you think my family can give you information on him, why have you not questioned them instead of dragging me out of my bed?"

"We have." Selwyn looked disgusted. "In fact, we questioned everyone at your brother's wedding last night. Incidentally, we didn't see you there," Selwyn added slyly. Percy felt the back of his neck burning. He had received an invitation, but had disposed of it immediately. His family might have been right about Voldemort being back, but distancing himself from them had been the best career move he could have made; it was then that he had finally freed himself of his family's mediocre reputation, at least in most people's eyes. "In any case," continued Selwyn, smirking a little, "your family and their guests proved stubborn, and have given us nothing useful. Since you have proven loyal to the Ministry in the past, we thought we might see if there is anything you can tell us about where Potter might be hiding."

Percy shook his head impatiently. "I haven't seen him in years, and even if I had…he stayed with us twice when I was younger and he was always around my siblings at school, but even then he was Ron's friend, not mine. I didn't talk to him much. And then…" Percy trailed off, not wanting to give Selwyn any more information about his personal life than he already had. Just thinking about the row brought up more emotions than Percy wanted to admit: anger, yes, now grown dim with passing time; but also pangs of sadness, shame, even regret. He pushed these thoughts away and said, as firmly as he could, "I don't know anything."

Selwyn's eyes narrowed. "So," he said in a low, dangerous voice, "you are going to take the same path your family took. A shame; I had thought your loyalty was to the Ministry."

Percy drew himself up, abruptly furious. "My loyalty is to the Ministry, and to no one else. I thought I had proven that by now. I chose the Ministry over my family two years ago, and I have consistently thrown myself into my work and done everything I can in service to this country both before and since that day."

"Very good, Mr. Weasley," said Selwyn, sitting back with a small smile, all pleasant politeness again. "You are a true patriot. If you think of anything I could use, don't hesitate to come knock on my door."

3rd August, 1997

Percy sighed, rested his head on the stack of files he had been working through and closed his eyes. A fearsome headache was pounding behind his eyes, and he had failed to replenish the headache potion he normally kept in his desk drawer when he had run out weeks back. Percy thought ruefully that it showed a regrettable lack of foresight; in future, he resolved, he would be better prepared. He rested for another moment in the throbbing darkness, and then sat up and got back to work.

Being a Junior Assistant to the Minister for Magic had always involved a lot of odd jobs and mindless work, but rarely had he been given a task quite this frustratingly tedious. The moment Selwyn had let Percy go, the new Minister had asked him to compile a list of all living Muggle-borns; he had access to any Ministry records he needed for the task, but Thicknesse wanted it done as quickly as possible.

The easiest thing, of course, would have been to use the records of magical births taken down by the quill at Hogwarts, but McGonagall, in charge of Hogwarts until it was decided officially who would take Dumbledore's place, had stubbornly refused to provide them to the Ministry. In the absence of access to such complete records, Percy had begun sorting through the OWL result records. It was an imperfect method at best, since it would only provide the identities of Muggle-borns over the age of fifteen, but as the Ministry would soon be gathering records of Blood Status from students, it didn't much matter in the long run. For now, he would simply make do with what he had.

Percy was still not entirely clear as to what purpose the Minister needed this list for; he assumed it had something to do with the fight against Voldemort, and keeping those most at risk safe. In any case, it was not his place to question his orders.

As he flipped open the next file, he heard a faint whoosh from the Floo and the sound of voices greeting one another within the Minister's office. It was nighttime, and most had gone home; the floor was dead silent, and Percy could hear every word.

"How go things, Minister?" Percy recognized Selwyn's sly voice. "Are our plans moving ahead?"

"Yes. Weasley is preparing the lists, and Umbridge has finished organizing her side of things. I plan to present this as a fait accompli. We will move tomorrow; will you be ready?"

"We've been planning this since long before your promotion, Minister," Selwyn said dismissively. "We'll be ready."

They moved on to discuss the Dumbledore murder investigation, and Percy forced himself to stop listening and go back to his list-making. Eavesdropping on the Minister for Magic, he was sure, was forbidden by some rule, written or not.

Once he had gotten back into the pace of checking blood status and noting down Muggle-borns, however, his mind began to wander and he heard the Minister and Selwyn again.

"…And I've placed the brother under surveillance," Selwyn said.

"Is that really necessary?" Thicknesse asked, surprised.

"It can't hurt to be safe," Selwyn said. "Potter's been seen at none of the other places where we thought we'd find him. He might wish to be close to Hogwarts, and he's been known to frequent the Hog's Head in the past."

"Very well. Keep me posted." The Minister and Selwyn exchanged perfunctory goodbyes and there was another whoosh as Selwyn departed. Percy sternly made himself focus on his work again, despite the headache pounding his brain into mush. There was far too much lurking in the back of his mind that he didn't want to pay any mind to – things like the word "brother."

4th August, 1997

The fourth of August began just like every other day. Percy had established a very efficient routine for the mornings, and he always stuck to it. He got out of bed at half-past six, had a shower, shaved, dressed, and prepared a hot cup of tea and toast with marmalade. It was when he reached the part where he read the Daily Prophet while enjoying his tea and toast that his comfortable routine was disrupted.

He had only skimmed the front-page article on the ongoing search for Harry Potter; it still made him deeply uncomfortable to consider Harry as a murderer. He was confident that the Ministry would find Harry, question him, and realize his innocence; however, the fact that Harry was running from them worried him. He might have to admit to himself that he had been wrong about Harry, as he had been wrong about others – his former superior, Crouch, for example. So he had read through the article quickly to establish that it had no new information to give him, and hurriedly turned the page.

The second page headline immediately piqued his interest: "Muggle-born Register." Perhaps this was something to do with the list he had been compiling; the Minister had remained frustratingly tight-lipped about his reasons for needing the list.

As he scanned the article, he choked on his tea. "'The so-called Muggle-born is likely to have obtained magical power by theft or force,'" Percy read out loud, flabbergasted. Then, with even more shock, "'The Ministry is determined to root out such usurpers of magical – '"* He put down the newspaper, his stomach churning.

He knew this rhetoric. Despite Professor Binns' dry lectures, Percy had been an avid student of History of Magic, especially the recent history Binns had barely mentioned. He had read up on the last time You-Know-Who had been active, and on the ways he had been able to use ancient prejudices and fears to his advantage. It might not be the same argument, but the parallel made him uneasy.

But then again, it was precisely because it was an old prejudice that You-Know-Who had found so many sympathizers; and who was to say that there wasn't some fundamental basis for it? But then, people like Penny and Ron's friend Hermione…he couldn't see them stealing their magic. They were better at it than a lot of purebloods. Maybe there were a few Muggleborns – not the ones he knew, but some out there – who actually had stolen magic, and that was what this was about. That would make sense – like with werewolf registry. Not all were dangerous, but some were, so it was best to keep tabs on them all.

Percy sighed and pushed the paper and his thoughts away. He had to get to work; there was no time for thinking over heavy issues. It wasn't his job to do so.

When Percy arrived at the Ministry, there was no way to avoid the issue of the new Muggle-born Registration Commission; it had been set up down the hall, in the open area outside the Senior Undersecretary's office, and some of those whose desks had been commandeered had Conjured desks and set up shop in the spacious area outside the Minister's office for the time being. There was more flap and hubbub than Percy was accustomed to, and he found it necessary to sniff irritably now and then as he worked on his lists.

The Minister's office itself was more busy than usual as well. Umbridge's singular pink memos were often to be seen alighting on the Senior Assistant's desk, and the woman herself showed up twice within an hour. Percy spotted Selwyn, as well; he was reminded of last night's overheard conversation, and was just reflecting that this must have been what they were planning, when Selwyn came back out of the office with two jarringly familiar wizards.

Silence fell as others recognized them as the escaped Death Eaters Yaxley and Travers. Selwyn looked annoyed; his lips were pursed, and he ushered Travers and Yaxley quickly away. Percy thought it odd that the Death Eaters weren't resisting and that they'd been brought through the Minister's office, but he didn't allow himself to dwell on it for too long. After that, Percy ignored the fuss for the most part, and focused on the slowly-growing list.

It wasn't until he got around to reading the Evening Prophet, once he was home, that he realized the significance of the appearance of Yaxley and Travers at the Ministry. Yaxley, the Prophet reported, had been appointed as Thicknesse's replacement as the Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. Travers was heading up the Hit-Wizards now, and Selwyn the Aurors; both of their predecessors had retired at the same time as Scrimgeour. There was no mention of Travers' and Yaxley's pasts; no mention of their activities as Death Eaters in the first war, or that they had twice been to Azkaban and twice escaped.

The whole business struck Percy as extremely strange. Travers and Yaxley ought to have been sent off to Azkaban, not given top Ministry jobs. There must be some story behind it, some reason to trust them, despite everything.

Still, these new appointments plus that morning's news – it was…worrying. But he'd hold off on theorizing till he had more information on the matter.

22nd August, 1997

Percy was glad that he had decided to walk home from work. He finally had a chance to breathe. The Muggle buildings surrounding him gave no sign of the war that was brewing in the wizarding world. It was relaxing, in a way – an escape – even though Percy knew that the Death Eaters would gladly blast these buildings to pieces and call it "a bit of fun."

It was his twenty-first birthday, and the first day since Thicknesse's rise to the Ministerial office that he had not had to work on that infernal list. He had finally gotten through the OWL results records, and they were still waiting on the Blood Status records and the school records to identify Muggle-borns under the age of fifteen.

Percy was still trying not to think too hard about the new Muggle-born Registration Commission and what their work meant. He himself, it seemed, had been helping them all along; that morning, those on his list who had not presented themselves for questioning had been published in the Prophet. They hadn't bothered to credit him for the list, and he wasn't entirely sure how to feel about that.

Percy turned the corner and headed towards the block of flats where he lived, still deep in a brown study, only to be brought up short by the sounds of a scuffle and a desperate shout of "Percy!"

He looked up, and a jolt of fear shot straight to the pit of his stomach. Not ten feet away, in front of the steps that led up to his flat, a pair of wizards were dueling an all-too-familiar witch. Penelope Clearwater, looking fierce and uncharacteristically disheveled, deflected a curse with a nonverbal Shield Charm. The curse rebounded and hit the smaller of the wizards, who had been looking around for the person Penny had shouted to. The wizard promptly collapsed, and Penny attempted to duck around his partner and towards Percy's door. The second wizard let out a roar of rage and grabbed her by the hair, yanking her back. Penny let out a short, sharp shriek and fell to her knees.

Almost without thinking, Percy ran forward with a shout and Stunned the tall wizard, who sank to the ground, his grip on Penny's hair broken.

Penny stood up, rubbing her head, and said, "Thanks, Perce. I thought they had me for sure." She flipped her hair out of her face and smiled at him, her usual sangfroid mostly back in place. Percy knew her well enough to see she was still shaken, though. He looked towards the men they'd Stunned.

"I…Penny, those are Snatchers," Percy said, suddenly frozen to the spot. "I just Stunned a Snatcher. I recognize him, he's Moore."

"It'll be fine. Just unlock this door for me, will you?" Penny rested one hand on the doorknob as she stood looking at him expectantly. Percy fished his key out of his pocket, shooed Penny aside and opened the door. Penny hurried inside, pulling Percy in with her.

"What's going on, Penny?" Percy finally thought to ask.

"It's the Muggle-born Registration Commission. Mum's still in London and I thought it was best to get her away from the city, but those thugs out there," – she gestured with a jerk of her head towards the door – "recognized me before I could reach her. Long story short, I was in the neighborhood, and I thought I'd drop in. Do let me use your Floo, won't you, Percy?" Penny's voice was sweet, but there was an edge to it.

Percy crossed his arms stubbornly, his eyes straying back to the door. "You've just resisted arrest by licensed Ministry officials and made me an accessory to it. I can't let you use my Floo. It's against the law."

"Against the law," Penny said, her eyes narrowing. "Don't give me that, Percy. The Ministry's rotten straight through, and everyone knows it. Death Eaters and blood purists are making the laws these days. It's war now, and this time the Ministry is on the Death Eaters' side." Percy gulped; Penny stood uncomfortably close now, her eyes blazing. "Which side are you on, Percy?" she asked in a low, intense voice. "Because if you choose the Ministry – again – then you're on the wrong side."

Percy slumped, the persistent uneasiness coming worse than ever. Penny was right. Somehow, Penny was always right.

"Think of it this way, Percy," Penny said, her voice softer now as she let her fear show through her veneer of confidence. "You'll be helping an old friend – and whatever else we were, Perce, we'll always be friends – escape from a couple of people who want her dead and are going to do their best to ensure she gets the worst thing they can do to her within the law."

"The Floo powder is on the mantel," Percy said.

"Thanks," she said with a smile, and Percy nodded as she crossed to the fireplace and grabbed a handful of Floo powder. "Oh, and Percy?" He looked up, and she said, "Sorry about this."

Before he could react, there was a flash of red, and then everything went black.

2nd September, 1997

Percy twitched aside the curtains and glared down at the grey-cloaked figure loitering in front of the shop across the way from his flat. He supposed his watcher's obviousness was deliberate – the Minister's way of letting him know that Percy had lost his trust.

When he had come to after Penny had Stunned him, he had found a note telling him to say that she had forced him at wand-point to let her in to use his Floo and not to worry about her.

He wasn't about to thank Penny for Stunning him, but he had to admit it was rather convincing evidence in favor of his story. But the Snatchers had a different story, and it didn't put him in a very favorable light; both had heard Penny call his name, one had seen him and the other had been Stunned by an unseen assailant. Put together, it was pretty damning testimony. Since the matter couldn't be resolved either way, however, he had been let off with a warning and a new and unpleasant addition to the scenery outside his window.

Meanwhile, he had been thinking over Penny's words and had come to some rather unsettling conclusions. Looking through the lens of her assertion that the Ministry was on You-Know-Who's side – and pushing aside the guilt and revulsion he felt even considering such a thing – a lot of things made sense that hadn't before. In fact…he hated to admit it to himself, but the most logical conclusion, given the evidence, was that the Ministry was being run by Death Eaters.

But then, even if that were true – and he was reasonably certain that it was – what could he do about it? The testimony of his eyes told him that he was being closely watched, and if his watcher caught him in an act of betrayal, he could find himself in serious trouble – and not just the legal kind. With Death Eaters involved, it could mean his life.

His father would know what to do.

A sudden wave of longing washed over Percy. Childish as it was, caught in circumstances he couldn't even begin to understand how to navigate, he wanted his family. He hadn't seen them in two years. He had rebuffed them at all turns, deepening the rift between them, until he couldn't even bring himself to stay in the presence of family members for longer than a minute or so.

He supposed this sudden nostalgia was brought on, to an extent, by having run into his father in the lift earlier that day. There had been more important events – a mass escape of the Muggle-borns being held for questioning that day, and a possible sighting of Harry Potter and Percy's youngest brother – but the one that Percy couldn't stop chewing over in his mind was the agonizing minute he had spent in his father's company. But, in a way, it was also logical to want to contact his family; his parents had been fighting against You-Know-Who since before the Ministry had even acknowledged his return, and if he wanted to ally himself with those resisting the Death Eaters, they would be a good place to start. However, there would be the issue of whether they would forgive or trust him, not to mention the shameful necessity of apologizing and the wrath of his siblings to be faced.

With some relief, he realized that his family must be under heavy surveillance; while he might be able to go wherever he wished by Apparition without his watcher being any the wiser, his family's watchers would be quick to notify the Ministry if he showed up there.

Who, then, could he ask for information? If only he hadn't fought with his family, he would never have been in this mess. He would have known where to turn; in fact, he wouldn't have had to find someone outside his family. And, if he was honest, he probably would never have had to face this situation if he had turned down the promotion, as his father had warned him to do. Percy pushed down the guilt, forcing himself to think. Who had he heard of who might have news of his family? Someone they were fighting alongside, maybe the shadowy Order he had heard them mention before the row – that would be his best bet. But the problem was that if he had heard of such people, it was because they had been caught or were being watched. Being watched…

He suddenly remembered the conversation between the Minister and Selwyn he had overheard only a few weeks before, though it seemed a lifetime ago.

When Thicknesse and Selwyn had discussed the Dumbledore murder investigation – which, Percy realized now, might have been nothing more than a way to legitimize searching out Harry – they had mentioned putting Dumbledore's brother under surveillance. If this brother was worth keeping an eye on, then he must be seen as a danger to the Ministry; and with his family, he might well have something to do with the Order. What else had been said? All he remembered was that Selwyn had thought Harry might show up at the Hog's Head, and that this was somehow connected with watching Professor Dumbledore's brother.

After wracking his brain for more specific wording, he finally gave up and began to think of how he could get more information on the brother. His access to the Ministry records, obviously, was an advantage, but which record could he look for?

And then he remembered something else he knew about Dumbledore's brother, and it was so generally known and memorable that he could have kicked himself for not remembering it sooner. Dumbledore's brother had once been charged with performing some bit of illegal magic on his goats. There would be a record of it, most likely in the Improper Use of Magic Office's files. He could go into the Ministry and find it, and he'd be well on his way to locating the Dumbledore brother.

Now, with some semblance of a plan made, Percy felt much better. With some direction and a lot of persistence, he could do anything.

Or so he hoped.

Several hours and far too many files later, Percy finally found what he was looking for. In the light of his wand, he scanned through the details of Aberforth Dumbledore's arrest.

"Aha," he said softly. He had found the connection to the Hogs's Head: Aberforth was the owner and barman of that pub. With that information, he could easily find him. The only problem was: how to avoid being seen? Aberforth's watcher could be stationed inside the pub.

Of course, there were parts of a pub most people couldn't get into without the barman noticing and being suspicious – the storeroom, for example.

"Is somebody there?" The suspicious voice came from the doorway of the file room.

Percy jumped and closed the file quickly. He stood up, adjusting his glasses, and said, "Is that you, Selwyn?" He was relieved to hear that his voice came out steady despite his pounding heart.

Selwyn sneered. "Oh, it's just you, Weasley. What are you doing here at this hour, anyway?"

"Had a bit of work to follow up on," Percy said. "Nothing major, I just needed to check my facts."

Selwyn narrowed his eyes at Percy. Percy thought he could almost see the thoughts going through Selwyn's head. Selwyn was suspicious of Percy – he was always suspicious of him these days – but there was no denying that Percy had a reputation for being a bit too enthusiastic about his work sometimes, so there was no reason for him to ask any further questions. Finally Selwyn nodded and said, "Make sure to lock up when you're done."

"Yes, sir," Percy said, and heaved a sigh of relief when Selwyn's figure disappeared from the doorway. He listened carefully to Selwyn's footsteps receding down the hallway. When he could no longer hear the sounds of Selwyn's progress, he whispered a spell to duplicate the file.

Percy put the Dumbledore arrest file away, tucked the copy he'd made into his briefcase, and left.

4th September, 1997

Percy had read the file over and over during the past two days, but had gleaned no more information than he had at first glance. He wasn't entirely certain what he was looking for, really; it just felt strange to plunge in with so little information.

But, with no other options, he had decided that tonight was the night. It was unlikely he was going to find any new information – back copies of the Daily Prophet might have been helpful, but he had no such archive at his disposal – and he didn't particularly want to wait until the next week if he was going to spend the intervening time worrying fruitlessly. He had already decided that going on a Friday or Saturday night was a bad plan; there were too many people in pubs at those times, too many possible witnesses if things went wrong. And while a weekday would have been best, he worked during the day on weekdays. So a Thursday night was the best he was going to get.

Percy summoned up an image of the inside of the Hog's Head's storeroom in his mind. He had no first-person experience of the place – the Hog's Head's reputation had kept him away while he was in school – but the photographs in the arrest file had been exceedingly useful. Keeping the mental picture firmly in place, he turned on his heel, not allowing himself doubts.

With a pop, he Disapparated.

He opened his eyes to find himself in the storeroom of the Hog's Head, just as he'd hoped. He had never tried Apparating to a place he'd never personally been before, and it was a relief to find that it had worked.

He had little time to enjoy this small victory, though, for Aberforth quickly came to investigate the noise in his storeroom, wand at the ready. "Who are you," he growled, "and what are you doing in my storeroom?"

For some reason, the problem of being threatened with likely hexing hadn't occurred to Percy. He held up his open hands and stammered, "Sorry for, um, dropping in like this. I know you don't know who I am, I just thought…" He stopped, took a deep breath, and said more calmly, "I came here looking for…" He paused again and blinked, surprised. He wasn't entirely sure what he had come here looking for. Advice, perhaps, or news about his family. The latter sounded like a good bet, and a good way to earn this man's trust. "My name is Percy Weasley," he said, "and I came to ask if you have any news about my family."

Aberforth stared at him for a moment, while Percy tried not to squirm – he had that same uncannily knowing way of looking at a person as his brother – and then he grunted and lowered his wand. "Better sit down, then, son." He gestured at a row of crates. Percy did as he was told, but Aberforth stayed standing. "Well, then. Why can't you just ask 'em yourself?"

Percy stiffened and said, "I just can't. Isn't that enough for you?"

"If it's pride keeping you away, boy," said Aberforth, "then you'd be better off if you just went to 'em, instead of asking a stranger for news."

"It's not exactly that," Percy said, choosing his words carefully. "The Ministry is watching us both, and it could be dangerous if I were to go to them. I had the Ministry convinced for a while that I was completely loyal to them," he continued, leaving out the part where he'd had himself convinced as well, "but there was an… incident, and now they're not so sure of me. The only thing is, I haven't had any meaningful contact with others who are aligned against the Death Eaters, and I would be very grateful if you could direct me to someone who could keep me up to date with the goings-on."

"These are dangerous times. How do I know I can trust you?" Aberforth's eyes seemed to bore into Percy, and without a second thought, he simply spoke the truth.

"I wouldn't trust me," he said grimly, staring down at his hands. "I've been an idiot, and I've helped them. I didn't know I was at the time, and someone else would've done it if I hadn't, but it doesn't stop the fact that I spent a lot of time and hard work on something that's being used against people. Maybe even against people I care about." He looked up at Aberforth then, and said, "It was a mistake and I want to make up for it. And I don't know where else to go. I can't go to my family. I can't. But I want to help, if I can, and I want to know…I just want to know if they're all right." He felt his throat clenching, and he looked back down at his hands to hide his expression.

"You're Arthur Weasley's son," Aberforth said after a moment. It wasn't a question, but Percy nodded anyway. "They're all fine. Well, mostly. I hear the youngest son has come down with a bad case of Spattergroit and is staying home from Hogwarts. I'll listen out, see if I can hear anything more." Percy looked up, relief making him almost giddy. "It's up to you how I get the message to you, though," Aberforth said sternly. "An owl's out of the question, they search 'em all these days, and I suppose you know Floo's out too."

"I can work something out," Percy said. And then, sincerely, "Thank you."

23rd September, 1997

Percy Apparated into the store room of the Hog's Head and called Aberforth's name, the joy of hard work well done making him incautious.

Aberforth appeared in the doorway, wiping his hands on a grimy rag.

"I've got it," Percy said proudly. He produced a small square of parchment from his pocket and handed it to Aberforth.

"What's this then?" he grunted, examining it.

"It's got a Protean Charm on it, and a pretty neat one if I do say so myself," Percy said. "Anything you do to it, it'll happen to mine as well. Write a note, it'll show up on mine."

Aberforth grinned. "Good, it'll stop you barging in here and tripping over my turnips."

"That was one time," Percy mumbled, flushing.

"Have you eaten?" Aberforth asked, startling Percy, who shook his head. "I've made too much stew for one," he said gruffly. "Why don't you come up and have a bowl?"

"I couldn't," Percy protested.

"You spend too much time with Ministry types," Aberforth said. "It'll do you good to spend some time with other company, even if it's just me. Come on." He disappeared through the door, without appearing to wait for Percy. Percy hesitated a moment, then followed.

They emerged behind the bar. The Hog's Head was empty and eerily silent. Aberforth said, "They've set a curfew, damn them. I've had to start closing soon as it gets dark. It's bad for business, but then I suppose there are more important things to be worrying about. This way." They passed through another door, also behind the bar, and up a staircase. At the top, there was a sitting room with a table and chairs set up in front of the hearth. "Sit down, then," Aberforth said, and went through a doorway into another room. He returned with two bowls of stew. Another trip brought two goblets and a jug of mead, and then Aberforth sat down. While Aberforth tucked in, Percy examined his spoon as discreetly as he could. Aberforth chuckled. "It's clean enough," he said. Percy flushed and started to eat.

The silence stretched out, but Percy couldn't quite feel uncomfortable. He didn't know this man very well, but he was an ally, and that was something powerful these days.

Aberforth was the one who finally spoke up. "Seen the latest rubbish in the paper?" he asked. "I don't know why I even bother reading the Prophet these days. 'Department of Mysteries' Research on Muggle-borns Hailed as Greatest Contribution to Wizarding Knowledge to Date.'" He snorted. "I never was much of a one for study, but even I can see that's rubbish. I hear the Quibbler is a good source of information these days, though." Percy felt himself raising his eyebrows, and Aberforth laughed. "It's true. If you can get your hands on it without raising suspicion, I'd recommend giving it a try."

They went back to eating, and Percy smiled. It was nice to have someone to talk to honestly, for once.

1st May, 1998

The fa ade of the British Museum was dark and silent, and Percy couldn't help but stop and stare for a moment. It reminded him of Gringotts, in a way, and if he closed his eyes he could almost imagine he was in Diagon Alley as it had been in the old days, before half the shops had been closed and shuttered, and the streets filled with wandless Muggle-borns, Death Eaters and the stink of fear.

Percy didn't know what time it was, only that the sun had gone down hours ago. He had never gotten around to getting home, somehow; his flat, with its constant watcher, felt every bit as confining as the Ministry building. He was sick of having eyes on him all the time, looking for the smallest sign of disloyalty. The Ministry had only gotten less trusting as time had gone by. Arrests of traitors were happening more and more frequently, and a queasy fear had settled into Percy's stomach and stayed. He could do nothing without signing his own arrest warrant, but at the same time he longed to help in the war against You-Know-Who somehow. He had taken, increasingly, to walking through Muggle London until he tired himself out enough that he could Apparate straight home and fall asleep.

Tonight, though, an odd restless energy had settled in, and nothing could shake it.

Percy turned away from the museum and walked on. He was beginning to think the world would never be free of the shadow of evil. Aberforth was convinced the war was lost already, and Percy couldn't help but agree. Sometimes he considered just going to his family, and damn the consequences, because either way, he was doomed, and at least he'd get to see them one last time. Something held him back, though; fear, or hope, he wasn't sure.

Suddenly he felt warmth in his pocket as the square of enchanted parchment he carried everywhere with him heated up, signaling that Aberforth had written a message. Percy pulled the parchment out, his gut clenching as he braced for bad news. He was always expecting bad news, these days, mostly because nothing bad had happened to them in all these months.

But what he found instead was something totally different. You-Know-Who on his way, Aberforth's scrawl read. Big battle getting ready to break out at Hogwarts. Order members arriving already.

Percy could barely believe it. Not caring that any passersby would think him mad, Percy let the sudden hope he felt bubble out into laughter. Finally, the key to redeeming himself and placing himself firmly on the right side – and maybe to seeing his family again, too. He pressed back a pang of fear. If he had to see battle before he saw his family again…well, so be it. It was for the right cause.

With a hurried whirl and a sharp crack, Percy Disapparated.

*Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, first American edition, p. 209