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Chapter 17: May 1998
Soft evening sunlight peered over a horizon of white birch trees, staining the village of Ottery St. Catchpole with oranges and reds like fire. Two people in the front row had to shade their eyes against it to see properly, including Ginny Weasley. I glanced at her mother – her name was Molly, I was almost certain, and I recognized her immediately from seeing that frazzled expression for years on Platform Nine and Three-Quarters – and my gaze flicked to the crooked house just over the hill. Every morning, Mrs. Weasley would be able to walk to an upstairs window, throw the curtains open wide, and watch the sun rise over her son’s tombstone.
Rows and rows of chairs had been arranged here, in a flat patch of field that was just a hop, skip, and jump away from the Burrow. The Burrow. Fred often spoke fondly of it, like it was a person or a pet rather than a home. I would never get to see the inside of it. I would not sit down to family dinners with his relatives and listen to stories about Fred and what he was like as a child growing up. I might have met all of them and known them and grown to love them; and they might have taken me in as one of their own, accepting me unconditionally and exchanging small smiles whenever Fred clasped my hand in his under the kitchen table. Those memories had been taken from us before they could ever formulate, just as Fred had been taken from me.
It was one thing to hear it spoken of – on the wireless, in hushed voices all around me; it was another thing entirely to see it written, to see it etched across plain white rock sticking out of the newly dug ground. 1 April 1978 – 2 May 1998. There was such a finality to the date stamped across the grave that unnerved me – I looked all around, halfway expecting for someone else to stand up and say, “That’s it? We’ve all got magic. Let’s bring him back!”
Staring at the garden of flowers placed around his coffin, however, I knew that he would have already come back if he could, if he’d wanted to. If he hadn’t been tempted to go on to the next great adventure.
George looked uncomfortable as he squeezed down an aisle in the second row, finding a space between his father and a young man I guessed to be Bill Weasley. From this angle, I could finally see the dark hole on the side of his head almost obscured with hair that I had not previously noticed when I saw him in March. I could not bring myself to feel sorry for him and the fact that his ear had been cursed off, as I was quite certain he was not sorry himself. A permanent wound to distinguish himself as having played his part in the war, as having sacrificed, would allay the survivor’s guilt he was sure to experience in the many years to come.
The expression on his face – so fixed and hardened – made me think that he was desperately trying to keep everything in, to expel it later when he could bear to be swallowed by the grief. Lee Jordan, who sat directly behind him, reached across and draped one hand over George’s shoulder.
After many moments of silence and some shuffling around in chairs, Mrs. Weasley stood up at long last and walked, very slowly, over to her son’s coffin. Touching the dark brown surface – the very color of Fred’s eyes – she gazed at it for an immeasurable period of time. Her husband stood up, so wobbly that he almost lost his balance. “Molly –”
She held out one hand to quiet him. “I can do it.”
Even from my spot in the very back, I could peer through the maze of people ahead of me well enough to see Percy, Ginny, Ron, and Charlie linking hands. Bill, Harry Potter, and Mr. Weasley remained still and quiet, and George was hunching over somewhat, staring hard at the ground. No one was looking at Fred today; they couldn’t force their eyes in his direction. They were all looking at George. Here was one young man, alive and walking; and the precise image of his death lay within fifteen feet of him. Everyone was waiting with bated breath, it seemed, for George to completely lose it.
“The labor was twenty-two hours,” Molly managed to say, still tracing the backs of her fingers over a pattern of flowers engraved in one corner of the coffin. “Fred came out first.” She swallowed thickly, turning around. “He came first in a lot of things. He’s competitive in that way. He wanted…” She trailed off, prompting her husband’s alarm again, but he only rose just slightly in his chair before she gestured for him to sit back down. This was something she was going to force herself to endure no matter what the emotional consequences might be.
“It was clear from the very beginning that he wanted to make a name for himself. I remember when he was little – right after he’d accidentally performed his first bit of magic – he told me that he was going to make all of us rich. And he was born with a built-in best friend who wanted the exact same thing.” She took a deep breath, tucking graying strands of hair behind her ears, and shakily lifted her head to face those seated in the opposite rows. Professor McGonagall was there, ramrod straight and stoic next to a weeping Alicia Spinnet. On Alicia’s other side, a little house elf blew her nose into a handkerchief.
“I didn’t want him to fight,” she confessed, dropping her shoulders warily. My heart ripped open again and again, not just for me, but for George and Harry and Ron and Mrs. Weasley. For every single person who had ever known or loved Fred Weasley, and who, just like me, would never see themselves reflected in his widening eyes ever again.
“When Bill was small, I thought to myself that I would never have any more children until after the war ended. But the war didn’t end, and we kept expanding our family anyway. Charlie. Percy. Fred and George and Ron...” She pressed her hands to her eyes, lips trembling. “We counted ourselves lucky when we thought You-Know-Who was gone and our children were safe. My two brothers had been killed, but at least we still had our children.
“War came back over a decade later to hurt Bill and George. And then it stole Fred from us. If history has taught me anything, it is that war will return again someday, just when we all think we’re safe. And it will take away someone else who isn’t ready to go.” She shook her head, casting her eyes down. “I would give anything for it to be me instead of another child.”
All was quiet for a spell. “My aunt warned me that this would happen. She told Arthur and I that our family was too big, and that involving all of them in this war would result in one of them inevitably suffering. Those numbers that you see in battles, you know? ‘Twenty killed. Fifty killed.’ The casualties and the missing…those numbers are people. I tried to put it out of my mind. I focused my thoughts on trying to keep Ginny safe, since she’s the youngest and therefore the easiest target. We were helpless with Ron…” She lifted one arm in his direction and dropped it, defeated.
“Ronald was gone for months. We had no idea where he was or what he was doing. We just had to keep faith that it would turn out all right, and that whatever he might achieve with Harry and Hermione would be worth the torture it put our family through. The constant worrying, the constant not knowing…such a push and pull to try to rein my family in close to me, to protect them when I knew I couldn’t. Even when I had to watch all of my children – and Harry and Hermione, who I love just as much – running around Hogwarts with Death Eaters all around them, shooting spells and purposefully putting themselves in danger…I could do nothing about it.
“They get their determination from me and their goodness of heart from their father, and even if I could choose, I would not have preferred to have children who ran from war. My children are so very brave, every last one of them, and I’m talking to you, too.” She nodded at at Harry and Hermione, who hung their heads, laden with guilt. Hermione was sniffling into her wrist.
“I’m proud of them all,” she continued, her voice rising. “They fought alongside witches and wizards two and three times their age, risking everything to save the lives of innocents and to tear and claw their way through the bloodshed until we found some semblance of peace.” She wrung her hands together, drifting fitfully back and forth along the casket’s edge. “I will never know how many lives Fred saved on the night he died. I’ll never know if someone else jumped out of the way, making room for him to come through and duel. I think about it often, wondering if it might have almost been someone else…
“There are sacrifices in war. Sometimes they are people and sometimes they are ideas or material possessions or dreams. But my son died for you.” Her voice softened, addressing Seamus Finnigan. “And you.” She looked at someone sitting behind me, but I couldn’t force myself to rip my eyes from her to see who it was. “And you.” Her gaze flitted over the congregation as a whole, shining with a mother’s love that would never fade, that would be just as pure and strong in forty years from now as it was on the day Fred was born. “And me.”
There was a pause. “We’ve all lost many loved ones, and Arthur and I prepared ourselves as best as we could for the worst to happen. There was Sirius and Dumbledore and Mad-Eye... Death was all the time coming, all the time growing closer. But I didn’t think it would take my Fred.”
Molly looked suddenly bewildered, as though still in shock that he was truly dead, and shocked that she was speaking this aloud to the chairs spread with black robes and bloodshot eyes. “Surely if George is here, then Fred should be, too. If Fred is gone, then why can I still see George? All throughout his life, Fred could look to his side and always see George standing there. His best friend, his mirror image, his business partner. Always together. Inseparable.”
She sought out George in the crowd, and just like his mother, I knew that his eyes were glinting with tears. Her throat visibly tightened, constricting with emotion, and a tear trailed down her cheek, splotching the collar of her robes with a solitary dark spot. “I don’t have a single memory of one of them that doesn’t somehow involve the other. Not a single one.”
Mrs. Weasley’s eyes wandered across the rounded top of the casket, tipped back to let the sunlight wash over Fred’s face. It touched him in whites and yellows and pinks, in ways that I could not, and it was all wrong. He wasn’t smiling. His expression was stiff and stone-like, and the only animated part of his too-still figure was the careful breeze that ruffled his hair. Hot tears pricked my eyes. I hadn’t been there when he died and I couldn’t suffocate the idea that if I had been there, he would still be alive. Oh, please give him back to me, I pleaded to whomever I hoped was still listening. I’ll do anything.
“He’ll never invent anything ever again,” she lamented softly. “He’ll never get to marry or have children. He’ll never fall in love.”
George twisted around in his chair and panned the rows and rows of guests until his eyes found mine, and Lee did the same. I knew what George was telling me, silently and without words. We looked at each other for the longest time, burrowing in the safety and security of it, until his mother resumed speaking. I closed my eyes, feeling the light on my face. I thought of the sun setting over Fred’s nose and chin and lips for one last time, providing warmth in his eyelids that blood could not.
When I opened them again, Percy was trembling. Ron’s arm was around him, and Percy’s forehead was buried in his little brother’s shoulder as he wept uncontrollably. The strongest of them kept their heads held high, holding others on either side and allowing someone else to give in to their sorrows instead. There would be time later to grieve privately. The war was over and we had nothing but time to think and feel. Most of us were given our futures back again, tainted with the souls of those who had died to give it to us. My future, for the time being, was gone.
“But I would like to think that I will see him again someday,” Molly continued, wiping away moisture from her bright eyes with one hand. “And I will listen to him laugh. I will look at him for days and just listen to him talk about whatever he wants to talk about, and I’ll tell him how very proud I am – was – I mean –”
She paused for a second, finding solace in Mr. Weasley’s presence. He seemed to reach out to her from his chair, holding her hand despite the distance. Together, they were reliving the births of their children, and the years and years of memories of a family unlike any I’d ever seen before. Between the two of them, they could think back to twenty years ago when Fred and George were small, visiting the past like it was only a heartbeat away. There were sleepless nights and wailing infants and broken toys, and there were shrieks of euphoric laughter and Christmases and bedtime stories. It was impossible to be near to them all, almost together as a whole but not quite – they would never be quite whole again – and not revel in how incredible the Weasleys were.
“And I know that in a way, he’ll be proud of himself,” she trudged on, her eyes still locked on Mr. Weasley’s. “Because he got there first, before any of us, and he’ll know about everything already. He’s unlocking the secrets we have yet to learn, right at this very moment. Because Fred’s not here anymore.”
That’s right, I thought, gazing at Fred’s immobile profile. He’s off on the next great adventure. Somewhere out there, he was not stiff and stone-like. He was relaxed, peaceful, smiling. I wish I could see everything you’re seeing…I wish I was with you…
Molly crossed over to Fred’s upper half, bowing to kiss his hairline. With tremulous hands, she withdrew a small bit of parchment from the interior of her robes and began to read in a conversational tone to her son, just for him. I strained my ears to hear what she was saying.
“You walk faster than George. Even though you usually walked in step with each other, you never stood completely still. You have fewer freckles than George, and there is one on your neck that he hasn’t got. He is just a smidge taller than you. You prefer to wear collared shirts and he doesn’t. When you talk to people, you tilt your head to the left side – he tilts his head to the right. Your shoes are always tied, and George’s come undone often. Both of your eyes have a bit of hazel to them in the right lighting, but your eyelashes are somewhat longer. George has a tiny scar in his eyebrow that he got when he was staring into a cauldron in Potions in his first year and it blew up.” She folded the paper in half and wiped her eyes on her sleeve. “I’m your mother and I always will be, and I didn’t need for one of you to lose an ear in order to be able to tell you apart.”
All eyes were on George. George’s eyes were on his family, watching them crumble one by one under the weight of tragedy. His mother, his father, his brothers and sister. There was something healing in the expression on his face, because he knew things the rest of us did not. He had a link to Fred in life and in death that could not be explained or described, and he knew it, too:
Fred’s not here.
He’s in the sky, the sun, the trees. He lives on in Ginny’s compassion and George’s penetrating brown eyes, rippling through my hair in a wind like his fingers might. He was away for the time being on an adventure, looking over his shoulder at all of us with a mischievous grin and laughter dancing in his gaze.
The sun set over Fred one final time, serene and forgiving, and Mr. Weasley strode forth to close the lid. It creaked as it lowered, clicking into place with an awful loudness, and the dead boy’s parents stood over the place where he would rest for all eternity.
George stood up as well, triggering panicked glances from his neighbors, and he bent his head over where Fred’s closed eyes were concealed underneath the mahogany that would protect him from dirt and rain and ice as he rotted away. One would never move again while the other continued to walk and breathe and try to forge a path in the remains of our shattered society, one half of a whole for the rest of his life.
George had lived to see this day, and Fred had not. On the other hand, Fred was experiencing the afterlife before the rest of us, satiating all of his ample curiosities. In more ways than one, it would be an eternal competition; a joke between the two of them that no one else could be privy to witness.
Part of me wanted to jump to my feet and run down the aisle to him, tearing the lid back to check – to be absolutely sure – that it wasn’t some never-ending nightmare. To say goodbye and whisper words in his ear like his family had gotten to do. I could not whisper my goodbyes over his body and attach myself to the handles of his coffin, refusing to let go.
I could not give his mother the pain of knowing that he’d died in the middle of something beautiful, and that he could have had much more than she ever realized. And so there I remained, small and insignificant in the back of Fred’s funeral. The only man I had ever loved, with something much stronger than romance – there was friendship, and secrets, and teasing – and he was dead and I could not be with him anymore.
He’d known me at my best and my worst, my most vulnerable and most idiotic. There were pages and pages left unfilled for us, destroyed before we could find out what would happen next; but for every blank page, there was another one from the past that spelled out humor and delight. I would be one of the few privileged people Fred continued to live through. The past was living, after all. All I had to do was close my eyes and I would be in his arms again, if only within the walls of my memory.
I watched George’s fringe shift over his eyes, marveling at the luxury of life. It was the one time since I had grown accustomed to the twins’ differences that I wished I couldn’t tell them apart. It would be so easy, so numbing and lovely, to be able to sit there and pretend that it was Fred standing over George’s casket instead. As horrid as the idea was, it would have provided a comfort for me to delude myself into thinking that I was looking into Fred’s vibrant eyes, speaking to Fred, hearing his voice ring out…
Someone dropped into the vacant seat next to me. It was Delphine.
She gave me a look that relayed a great many things, eyebrows pulled together as she smiled in pity and loyal understanding. She was wearing her old Hogwarts robes, as they must have been the only black clothing she could find, and her glasses were new. Rectangular frames. She wrapped an arm around my back and pulled me into her shoulder. It was cathartic to know that there were now three people with me who knew that Fred had died with someone waiting for him, lost and ignorant in a forest. Just a few days ago, I had been fiddling with the dials on my wireless, listening…
Nymphadora Lupin, Vincent Crabbe, Fred Weasley, Colin Creevey…
And just like that, everything was gone. He was someone on a list of names – a number. He joined the ranks of those who now existed as war and death statistics. I tried to imagine what it must have been like – the framework of Hogwarts splitting apart, dust and debris raining down on them as children carried the bodies of other children and rested them in alcoves where they wouldn’t be trampled as the battle raged on.
He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named was gone at last, defeated by a teenage boy. But in his wake, the damage was staggering. The Dark Lord had taken too much with him when he left this world, including a large part of myself that I would never get back.
I couldn’t take my eyes off of George. He had been there in the midst of everything. Detention in Umbridge’s office. Throwing Dungbombs at Delphine. Whirling Angelina into the Great Hall so that Fred and I could explore the corridors of Hogwarts alone. Lighting fireworks while the two of us watched from the Owlery roof. I was thankful that he’d seen it all, for that made it feel more real. Otherwise, it might be as though I’d dreamed everything up. But with George’s gaze darting to mine every so often, expressing what neither of us could say aloud, I was not alone.
I reached into my pocket and wrapped my fingers around a familiar shape – not my wand, but a quill. I withdrew it and rolled it around in my palm. The blue feather was horribly bent – old, stiff, and nearly broken – and I had no ink to write with and nothing left to write on. My eyes starry with tears, I painted the air with unseen strokes – forming four letters that, to me, spelled out love better than the word love itself. Delphine continued to rub my back consolingly, unaware.
The wind whistled through long blades of grass while Fred’s coffin was lowered into the ground, his parents and siblings reaching out to touch each other’s elbows, arms, and fingers as they stood around the hole. Mr. Weasley squeezed George’s hand, the latter man’s face solemn and serious as he watched his brother disappear below the earth. Just as the coffin vanished from view, so did the sun. It slipped behind the Burrow, descending between green hills thatched with garnet, burning up in the twilight with vivid color. The coffin shook once when it sank to the very bottom, and this was when George began to cry, shoulders shaking like a broken person. It was painful to watch – private – and I couldn’t look at him anymore. I wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to look at him again.
Appearing from nowhere in the violet sky, a bright flash of parchment fluttered through the treetops and spun twice in the air before landing in my lap like a leaf. It was battered and dented, folded into the shape of something that might have once resembled a bird.
I stared at the scrap of faded parchment until the stinging moisture in my eyes blurred over; until I couldn’t see anything at all.
A/N: One more chapter left.