"So I'm rather undecided," said Percy one summer afternoon when I was nine and he was fourteen, "Whether I want to spend more time on muscle toning, or on general cardiovascular health."
"Whaha iffence?" I said vaguely, making a slurping noise to keep juice from dribbling down my chin as I tried to break my previous record for total number of grapes in my mouth at once. I was paying just enough attention to him that I knew when to pose a question, but for the most part I was busy with the task at hand. I sat on the floor in front of his chair and he plaited my hair into two taut French braids.
"Well, for example, muscle toning would be doing things like weightlifting and push ups and things like that, you know, to build muscle."
"--and cardiovascular would be running or swimming or something, to build up my endurance--"
Sixteen, seventeen . . .
"You see, I can't decide because--well I'm not going to lie to you, I could probably benefit from some muscle work, but I'm such a natural born sprinter, I can't help but be more inclined to make that the focus of my regimen--"
Yes! Nineteen! Now came the tricky part…in order for the record to be broken, I had to completely chew and swallow all of them without spitting anything out. I took a deep, withering breath of intense concentration. This was the moment of truth: if I laughed or hesitated now, they would all come tumbling out and I'd have to start over.
"Of course, according to Clifford Huckle in 'Weightlifting for Wizards' I should be working on expanding my versatility at this age, and when I'm older I can start on honing my strengths."
I did a quick inventory with my tongue. Everything in the center of my mouth was finished chewing, now was the time to carefully shift things around and begin demolishing everything stored in my right cheek.
"Granted, I did some further research and it seems that that's purely speculation and his own personal opinion. Yet, he's one of the most respected magical fitness trainers in England--"
The muscles around my lips were clenching furiously as I struggled to keep my mouth shut; this was the juiciest part of the process. I had to be careful to keep it all contained.
"--but it also can't be denied--I mean, it's been proven in magical studies that if you're really enjoying yourself while working out you get a better outcome."
Only a few unchewed grapes left--I could now close my jaw and form most consonants with relative ease.
"How long did you want the plaits to go?"
The question caught me slightly off guard.
"What? Oh right--try and go as far to the ends as possible, I was going to leave them in a few days so they'd crimp,"
"Right, well, anyway, in the meantime I think I'll just put equal effort into both and do a little more research . . . "
The magical bowl in my lap was a gift to my mother from her godmother, and it refilled itself with fresh grapes every time it was emptied, and, as a result, that summer I became slightly malnourished because I ate almost nothing but its contents.
Over the years I spent a great amount of time in Percy's room as he did my hair and talked to me about his physical training regimen (in which he rarely made any progress), his studying regimen (in which he always made great progress), his relationship with Penny Clearwater, or his favorite topic: his career options.
I listened well enough, and at the appropriate moments I would voice some support for him and his efforts, but for the most part I didn't really care, and that never seemed to bother him. At the time, Percy's exquisite French braids were payment enough for being his unfailing sounding board, but I've come to realize now that Percy did much more than simply plait my hair.
I'm a little ashamed of it now, but when I was young I used to play a little game with my family in which I'd run away and hide every time I felt that I was wronged or neglected, and wait patiently for a very sorry brother or parent to come and find me some time later. However, because of Percy my little game rarely had any success, because he rarely failed to notice my absence within a half hour, and never failed to find me within an additional fifteen minutes.
I was on the first train back to a place that held less than pleasant memories for me, walking behind my brother and Harry and Hermione, when Harry announced not quietly enough that he wanted to talk to Ron and Hermione alone. But I wasn't stupid--I knew they just wanted to ditch me. I had to admit, I didn't think Harry would be so callous . . .
"Go away, Ginny," said Ron nonchalantly, as if he didn't think I had picked up the hint. I glared optical daggers at him but they glanced of his indifferent demeanor like an Imperturbable Charm. Had he just forgotten that this was exactly the reason I'd felt the need to confide in Tom Riddle last year? Or did nothing else matter if Harry was in the vicinity?
"Oh that's nice," I said stingingly, but even Hermione seemed more eager to hear what Harry had to say than how silly little Ginny Weasley felt. I stormed off down the corridor, but when I couldn't find a seat I turned back and watched with the familiar feeling of unwantedness creeping up inside me as they clambered into the last empty compartment. I had nowhere to sit. My tear ducts felt ready to explode, and I took off to try and find a place to cry in private.
I opened the last door to a freight compartment that was filled with students' luggage. The car was dimly lit by sickly streams of light filtering through the long, grimy window panels that ran around the walls just beneath the roof. One of the panes had been broken, and as the train barreled along it drew out all the energy and heat in the car like a sort of constant, rattling breath. I scanned my eyes over the cold mountains of trunks, looking for the smallest little cranny I could find to wedge myself into. Let it never be said that I'm claustrophobic: I'm always most at home in the places where no one else could possibly fit. I found the perfect spot in the back left corner where a neat little hole had been made between two enormous stacks of trunks. I stepped carefully over, and nimbly climbed into the little cranny.
I slid down against the wall with my legs bent up around me in a lotus position, but as I shifted my foot just slightly to allow for better circulation, something in the structure of the pile next to me was upset, and it came toppling down. The heavy trunks made several loud thuds as they collided with the rest of the trunks piled around me and formed a fully-fledged cage. I tried feebly to free myself for a moment, but my bent and awkward position was such that it made it nearly impossible to apply any sort of force.
For a moment I contemplated being upset, but I couldn't force myself to feel anything except rejection and bitterness. Ron'll be sorry now, I thought savagely. But then a voice in my head that sounded like Charlie spoke louder, No he won't, it's your fault you decided to be a drama queen and go sit on the cold cement beneath a pile of luggage. I gave a dejected sigh and as I exhaled I felt my very bones resign themselves to a long interlude of solitary confinement.
It must have been nearly an hour later when I heard the door to the car slide open and bright golden light shine in, but it seemed to become tired and faded by the vacuum that was the broken window, and a moment later it made no difference at all to the cold, draining ambiance of the luggage car.
It was Percy, appearing with his usual pretentious swagger at the door like some kind of godsend. I felt slightly embarrassed--I hadn't played this game in a long time and thought I had rather outgrown it. I felt as though blood should have rushed to my face at being caught in such a ridiculous place, but instead my cheeks stayed cold and numb.
"Hello," I said, my voice creaky and gargled from an hour of silent crying. Percy looked at the pile of luggage I was buried beneath as he cocked his head a little and narrowed his eyes, which dropped all pretenses when they found mine. He smiled.
"What are you doing?"
"I--erm--looking for something," I said, my heart beating fast at my thin story. Percy wasn't fooled, he dropped his smile and said somewhat accusingly as he walked over and shifted the piles aside and pulled me out,
"You were crying, weren't you? Who was supposed to find you under there?"
I wanted to hex him very badly. How dare he aim so near?
"No, I wasn't," I said defiantly, but he still didn't believe me.
"Come now, Ginny, I'm sure Ron didn't mean to be mean, and Fred and George were asking about you," he draped his arm lazily over my shoulder and led me into the warm and cheery compartment beyond, "Let's go."
I never understood how he knew. I hardly ever talked to him about how I felt, or why I did the things I did. It was almost always he talking my ear off as I languidly stuffed grapes into my face. I suppose I simply underestimated how closely he paid attention to me as he went on and on about himself. I suppose he wasn't as self-absorbed as everyone accused him of being.
But now all that has changed. Percy broke Mum's heart and threw away his family for a job, and I feel forced to believe what Fred and George have been telling me all along.
"Ginny, you know he's only nice to you so that you'll tell everyone he's your favourite brother and he'll look good."
I never wanted to believe them. I hated to think that the only reason he showered me with compliments and plaited my hair and noticed when I was gone was that he was an ingratiating opportunist. In any case, I never expected Percy to sever ties with everyone in the family. I still have trouble believing it sometimes- believing him. He knew all my favorite hiding places, I could never cry in peace even if I wanted to, because he would always find me and tell me it everything was just fine. How could have done that, how could he have known how, without really loving me? But he must not have, because he certainly doesn't care now.
It feels like he's been kidnapped by someone I thought I knew; I hate him, for all of the obvious reasons, but I keep glancing back up at the front door, expecting that person I knew to come bursting through it with an explanation for why he had to do what he did. Why it was for our own protection, or something forgivable like that.
And with every day that passes without him bursting through the door, that hopeful expectation gets cut in half, until it's just a tiny sliver, so small that no one can see it. But that's the funny thing with cutting everything in two; no matter how small that sliver becomes, it never disappears completely. Until there comes a point where somebody with authority over the situation says it's virtually gone, that for practicality and our sanity it ends there. But you always know deep down that it's still there, it's just very small.
I wonder if he knows how miserable I am, every time I think about him. I wonder what he's waiting for. I wonder if he knows that it's been so long that I've forgotten why he left. Sometimes, I just want to scream and say that I don't care! I don't care what he did, and I don't care if he's an opportunist who would screw himself to get ahead and who only pretended to love me. I don't care . . .
Because he had me fooled.
A/N: Please review! And a special thanks to Pooca, my exceedingly awesome beta!