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Healing by 1917farmgirl

Format: Novel
Chapters: 13
Word Count: 55,835
Status: WIP

Rating: 15+
Warnings: Contains profanity, Strong violence, Scenes of a mild sexual nature, Substance abuse, Sensitive topic/issue/theme, Spoilers

Genres: Drama, Humor, AU
Characters: Harry, Ron, Hermione, Fred, George, Ginny
Pairings: Arthur/Molly, Harry/Ginny, Ron/Hermione

First Published: 09/30/2009
Last Chapter: 11/15/2014
Last Updated: 08/04/2017

Summary:

Amazingly wonderful banner by .Equus @ TDA!

Wars end, but healing takes time and courage, especially in the face of so many changes.  Follow beloved characters as they learn that life can and does go on, that family can mean more than blood relations, and that it's okay to love and laugh again.

2015 Dobby winner for Best Post Hogwarts.

Special thanks to theelderwand for beta and muse help!


Chapter 1: Prologue: No Words
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Prologue: "No Words" 

“For some moments in life there are no words.”

- David Seltzer, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory


*****

If someone had told George Weasley just yesterday that it was possible to feel this much pain and still be alive, he would have laughed in their face and called them a liar.

But then again, yesterday he’d been normal, human, whole, complete. Yesterday he’d been George, one half of the incorrigible ‘Fred and George.’ Yesterday he’d never dreamed he could be sitting in the Great Hall keeping watch over the body of his best friend, his brother, his twin, his other half.

Oh, how he wished it was still yesterday.

“George?”

He looked up at the sound of his name. Bill’s tear-stained face floated before him.

“Kreacher’s organized the house-elves and they’re sending up food. Can I bring you anything?” His brother’s eyes were gentle and sad as he spoke.

Mutely, George shook his head.

“’K,” said Bill, and George went back to staring at his twin. He felt Bill’s strong hand rest on his shoulder for a moment, squeezing tightly, and then he was alone with Fred again.

Fred.

Fred was dead.

The thought spiraled through his brain at least a dozen times a minute, but somehow, even though he continued to gaze at Fred’s long form stretched out on the cold stone floor of the Great Hall, George couldn’t quite comprehend what that phrase meant.

No, scratch that. He knew exactly what that phrase meant – could feel each and every nuance of its meaning stabbing into him like long, jagged daggers. He just kept hoping if he pretended not to understand it might not be true. Ignorance was, after all, bliss.

“Mr. Weasley?”

George sighed as the second person interrupted his thoughts. Couldn’t people bloody well tell he wanted to be left alone? He pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes briefly before glancing up. Madam Pomfrey, the Hogwarts’ Healer, stood before him.

“I’m very sorry to intrude, Mr. Weasley,” she said quietly, gently. George thought she sounded terribly tired, and seeing her torn and bloodstained robes he figured she had a right to. “I need to perform a Wand Sweep for Fred – to declare him officially…dead,” she said apologetically, her voice breaking slightly over the last word. “May I?” she asked, seeking his permission.

Choking back emotion, George raked his fingers through his disheveled hair. He’d known this was coming; had watched Madam Pomfrey and her team of healers moving closer to his end of the room all night, wands glowing blue as they gently and reverently paid their final homage to the Battle’s fallen. With a deep, shuddering breath, George nodded his consent.

His eyes followed her as she moved passed him and knelt at his twin’s side, but then he looked away, unable to watch the act that would make his worst nightmare an unavoidable reality. He glanced at the room around him instead, noting as he did that morning light was starting to fill the broken windows.

His family was scattered throughout it, postures and blood-shot expressions voicing their grief even as they fought to maintain their composure and help out. Fleur tended to the wounded in one corner, his father and older brothers helped clear debris in another. His mother sat wearily at one of the long tables, Ginny next to her, head resting on her mother’s shoulder. Grief was etched deeply onto their tired faces.

George scanned the room again, looking for his youngest brother, but came up empty. Harry and Hermione were missing as well. He hoped they’d found somewhere to rest for a while, grieve away from the limelight. He still wasn’t sure of everything the trio had done to make last night’s victory happen, but he figured it had to be worth a few moments of quiet solitude and the chance to break down without it making tomorrow’s headlines.

“Holy Mother of Merlin!”

George jerked around at Madam Pomfrey’s loud and unexpected oath. She was kneeling by his brother, wand outstretched over his still body, its tip glowing bright – red? She clutched her heart, as if she’d just received a huge shock, and for several seconds she was frozen, eyes locked with George. Then, suddenly, she flew into motion.

“PHILIP!” she screamed across the room even as she scrambled in her apron pockets for something. “PHILIP!”

One of her orderlies rushed over, white-faced and panting. “Ma’am?” he questioned as George still sat there, frozen in place and unsure what was going on.

“You’re in charge here! I don’t know when I’ll be back!” Madam Pomfrey ordered tersely, still rummaging through her pockets. “Blast, where is it?” She turned and noticed George again. “You, boy, give me your shoe!”

“What?” George muttered stupidly, gaping like a fish.

“Your shoe! NOW! There’s no time to dawdle! We’ve lost enough time as it is!”

Bewildered, George yanked off his filthy shoe and tossed it to her. She caught it deftly and waved her wand over it, uttering the spell to change it into a portkey. “How could I have missed…” she was mumbling now, even as she went about tucking Fred’s arms across his body and placing his head protectively in her lap. “Should have checked closer…”

“I’ll be at St. Mungo’s!” she snapped at her orderly one last time.

St. Mungo’s? Taking Fred? George’s brain felt like it was slogging through mud, trying to comprehend what was happening. All around him, people had started to notice the commotion taking place in their little corner. Several Weasleys were making a bee-line for them and Madam Pomfrey was gripping Fred’s arm tightly in one hand and George’s shoe in the other when the mud cleared and it hit him.

Without a second thought, George launched himself off his chair at the startled healer and managed to latch a finger onto the shoe in the last second before the portkey activated. He heard his mum shout his name, then Fred’s, and then the familiar pull behind his naval jerked him away and the room dissolved around him.

Chapter 2: A Little Wounded
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Author’s Notes:
First of all, I have to give a HUGE hug and thank you to my amazingly talented betas, ElJay who edited and helped with the first two chapters, and theelderwand who has been on the job for the rest of the story!  I couldn’t have done this without them! THANKS!

I follow the book version of the Harry Potter universe, not the movie one, with one notable exception. I’ve grown used to the way the characters look on screen so I have sometimes chosen to describe a character based on their look from the movies instead of the books.


Chapter 1: "A Little Wounded"

“I'm a little wounded but I'm not slain; I will lay me down for to bleed awhile, Then I'll rise and fight with you again”
- John Dryden
*****

As Harry descended from the Headmaster’s office with Ron and Hermione, he decided he would make one more appearance in the Great Hall before slipping off to his cozy four-poster. After everything she’d been through that night, the grief and worry, he owed it to Mrs. Weasley to tell her where he was going before he disappeared.

“You gonna be okay, mate?” Ron asked as they walked wearily through the halls.

“Yeah – eventually,” replied Harry. They turned a corner and suddenly found themselves in the corridor where the blast had happened, where they’d lost a friend and brother. All three stopped short, breath hitching.

“What about you?” Harry returned softly.

“Yeah – eventually,” echoed Ron, voice thick with grief as he stared around them with overly-bright eyes.

“Come on, let’s go back to the others,” urged Hermione, gently taking each of them by an arm. “They’ll be worried about us.”

Solemnly, they finished the trek to the Great Hall, exhaustion returning in full force with each step. Harry had made up his mind to simply slip in, whisper a word or two to Ron’s mum, and then slip out again when they entered the doors right into a madhouse.

The place where Fred’s body had lain was teaming with redheads, all yelling loudly at each other, and the body was missing. So was George.

“What’s happened?” he demanded, dashing over as worry clenched in his gut. “Where’s George?”

“And Fred?” added Ron, eyes narrowed.

Everyone ignored them.

“ARTHUR WEASLEY, YOU GET OUT OF MY WAY RIGHT NOW! I’M GOING TO ST. MUNGO’S AND I’D LIKE TO SEE YOU STOP ME!”

“NOT UNTIL YOU CALM DOWN, MOLLY!”

“Mum, we don’t know why they went!” Charlie tried to reason.

“You mustn’t get your hopes up! It was probably part of the Wand Sweep!” argued Bill.

“Then why would George have gone, too?” Ginny demanded, hands planted on her hips as she stood beside her mother. “I’m with Mum; we need to go to St. Mungo’s right now!”

This brought another round of yelling as everyone tried to get their point across at once, even Percy and Fleur joining in. Harry opened his mouth to shout for order but someone beat him to it.

“ENOUGH!” Ron bellowed from beside him, eyes flashing dangerously. Silence fell instantly as they all stared in shock at his friend, who was looking more than a little dangerous. “WHAT IS GOING ON?” he demanded.

Silence hung in the air around them, charged and explosive.

“Madam Pomfrey just took Fred to St. Mungo’s by Portkey,” his father finally explained carefully.

“And George latched on at the last second to follow,” added Charlie.

“St. Mungo’s?” asked Harry, a small burst of hope shooting through him.

“Did she say why?” asked Hermione.

“She didn’t say anything! Just grabbed my babies and left!” Mrs. Weasley seethed. “And I intend to find out why!” Harry was forcefully reminded of a lioness guarding her cubs.

“Molly, dear, of course we need to find out what’s going on,” Mr. Weasley tried to reason again, every bit of his grief and weariness showing in the lines on his tired face, “but we just can’t all rush there and troop inside.”

“Why ever not?” demanded Mrs. Weasley, rounding on her husband. “She took my CHILDREN! I think we have a right – ”

Her sentence was cut off abruptly by a dark shape darting in the broken window and swooping down through the middle of them. Nerves still frayed and on edge from the Battle, ten wands were drawn and pointed at it before they realized it was only a brown owl. It flew toward Mrs. Weasley, flung a note at her hands, and sped away, apparently highly offended by their welcome.

Mrs. Weasley caught the note and tore it open. She stared at it for a heart-stopping moment and then something Harry was sure he would never, ever see happened. Mrs. Weasley’s face drained of color, her eyes rolled back in her head, and she fainted dead away. Mr. Weasley and Bill barely managed to catch her before she hit the floor.

Ginny stared at her mother, eyes wide, then reached out and snatched up the note, reading it out loud.

Mum, Dad, get to St. Mungo’s right now. Fred’s still alive. – George

In the absolute chaos that followed, Harry couldn’t help but wonder how he could be crying so hard and so completely happy at the same time.

*****

“Mr. Potter.”

Harry stopped at the foot of the staircase and turned around. Professor McGonagall was striding down the corridor toward him, robes billowing behind her. Self-consciously, Harry ran a hand down his dirty, sweaty clothes and across his filthy face. He hadn’t paid much attention to his appearance in the four days since the Battle as he’d helped remove rubble and debris, and he certainly hadn’t planned on a meeting with his former Head of House before he’d had time to hit the showers.

“Yeah, Professor?” he asked, wondering why she’d bothered to track him all the way to the base of Gryffindor Tower.

“May I ask you where you’re going?”

“Erm…to take a shower, then thought I’d go to bed,” said Harry, rather puzzled.

“Going to help with repairs again tomorrow?”

“Yeah, I’d planned on it,” he said, even more confused that she was finding it necessary to grill him in the hall about his activities. “Why?”

“I think, perhaps, the others could handle it without you,” she said tersely.

Harry stepped back, stung.

“Are you kicking me out? Do you want me to leave?”

“Potter – ” Professor McGonagall heaved a weary sigh. “Harry. The war is over, and you did Gryffindor – me – proud, but you don’t have to keep doing everything. You can’t fix it all alone. Let others have that job now.”

“But I want to help, Professor!”

“I know, and that’s part of what makes you you. But, Potter, are you helping here, or hiding here?”

The words hurt, perhaps because there was more than a little bit of truth in them that Harry didn’t want to hear. He opened his mouth to protest but McGonagall forestalled him with a hand. “Potter, I’m not kicking you out, as you so eloquently put it. The bed in Gryffindor Tower is yours for as long as you wish, you’ve earned it. But I think, just maybe, it’s time you went home.”

“Home?” he asked, confused.

“Honestly, Potter,” snapped McGonagall, sounding suddenly much more like his Transfiguration teacher. “Sometimes you force me to wonder if you would have made it through school without Granger’s help. Yes, home, Mr. Potter – the Burrow!”

The Burrow. Harry had always liked to imagine that he had a home there, but he’d never dared be so presumptuous to voice that hope out loud. Hearing Professor McGonagall actually speak it filled him with a warm happiness.

“Molly’s been sending me three owls a day demanding I return you. She refuses to listen when I tell her I’m not the one keeping you here, slaving away.”

Harry smiled for real; he couldn’t help it. “She’s not very good at listening once her mind’s made up,” he admitted.

“She’s not very good at listening when her children are involved,” McGonagall said curtly. “Please, Potter, a little mercy. GO HOME. Before she resorts to Howlers.”

Harry sighed. He wanted to; he missed the Burrow and all the Weasleys. He just wasn’t ready. Working in the solitude of the castle, sweating and straining as he fought to help make order again, it gave him time to think, to grieve, to put the battered pieces of his soul back together. Soon, he might feel whole enough to leave, but not quite yet.

“Tell her I’ll come home –” he said the word with extreme pleasure, “-soon, but I’m not ready yet.”

McGonagall eyed him for a long moment with an unreadable expression while Harry fought the urge to squirm like a first year. Finally, she nodded.

“I’ll let her know. In the meantime, make sure you stop to eat three meals a day. I will not have Molly Weasley accusing me of not feeding you.” She looked at him a moment longer and Harry didn’t think he was imagining the deep fondness in her eyes. “Well, off to bed with you then,” she finally said curtly.

“Yes, Professor,” he said with a grin, and turned on his heels and ran up the steps of the tower.


Chapter 3: The Wages of War
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Chapter 2: "The Wages of War"
 

“Guilt is the source of sorrow, 'tis the fiend, Th' avenging fiend, that follows us behind, With whips and stings”

- Nicholas Rowe
 

*****

The reception area at St. Mungo’s was extremely crowded when Harry stepped into it. On top of the normal day-to-day business, the hospital was still dealing with the fallout after the War. As people emerged from hiding or those who had been wrongfully imprisoned where released, more and more patients were turning up every day.

Harry walked through the room feeling very self-conscious, but at least here people were too caught up in their own problems to bother much about him. They stared, of course, but no one approached him, and he thankfully seemed to have lost the media circus that had been hounding him for days.

Counting his lucky stars, he stepped up to the witch at the Inquiries desk.

“I’m here to see Fred Weasley,” he said when she gave him a bored look.

“Are you family?” she asked in a cool voice.

“Yeah,” said Harry without hesitation. “Yeah, I am.”

Her eyes flicked upward, not to his scar, but to his black hair. She looked very much like she didn’t believe him, but after a moment she just shrugged and turned to scan her charts.

“Fourth floor, second corridor, room 432. Visiting hours end promptly at six o’clock.”

“Thanks,” said Harry, hurrying away before she could change her mind.

The lift was empty when he got in so he took the opportunity to loosen his collar and remove his tie. He was feeling hot and stuffy in his suit – a suit he’d worn way too much in the last few days.

The funerals had started on Tuesday and hadn’t let up since. Harry felt obligated to attend as many as he could, but some were definitely harder than others. They’d buried Remus and Tonks yesterday, and Harry still felt like a part of his heart had been left behind in the ground with them. Colin Creevey’s had been that afternoon and he’d come straight from the cemetery without changing. As the lift dinged and he stepped out onto the fourth floor, he was just eternally gratefully that he wouldn’t be attending a funeral for Fred tomorrow.

The hall he stepped out into was quiet and deserted. He looked up and down it, searching for a sign or an arrow to tell him which way to go, but found nothing. He sighed. It was more than a week since the Battle had ended and Madam Pomfrey had whisked Fred away from his startled family to St Mungo’s, but Harry hadn’t been to see him yet. At first, it had been extremely touch-and-go as to whether he would even make it and Harry knew as much as he wanted to be there, he would just be in the way. Then, later, he’d been busy and people had needed his help, and he hadn’t wanted to intrude on the Weasleys in such a private time. In truth, he’d also been a bit nervous. What if Fred, or any of the others, blamed him for what happened? He certainly blamed himself, but he wasn’t sure he was ready to see that blame on the faces of the people he loved the most. He was also worried about actually seeing Fred like this. Fred Weasley was supposed to be vibrant and lively; Harry wasn’t sure he could handle seeing his friend gravely ill and in terrible pain.

“Mr. Potter!”

Harry glanced up at his name to see Madam Pomfrey coming down the corridor.

“Injured yourself again, have you?” she asked with a disapproving frown.

“What?” he said, then he realized she must think he was in the hospital for himself. “Oh, no, Madam Pomfrey. I’m here to see Fred.”

Her eyes softened. “Ah,” she said, now sounding tired. “Poor boy. He’ll be glad of your visit.”

“How is he?” asked Harry quickly. The reports that had been filtering back to him had sounded grim.

“Well, the poor lad has a long way to go yet, but I can finally say that I’m sure he’ll make it.”

A weight that Harry hadn’t even known he’d been carrying lifted off his chest.

“Madam Pomfrey, may I ask you something?”

“Of course.”

“How did he live? We saw him get hit, saw him die, so how were you able to save him?” Not that he wasn’t ecstatic that Fred had survived, but he’d been worried by it as well. A trick like that usually involved a lot of Dark Magic, and his little trip down Horcrux lane had made him paranoid.

“It was a one-in-a-million occurrence, Mr. Potter, I’ll tell you that.”

“What do you mean?”

“The castle wall was hit by a Killing Curse at the very instant it was blasted apart,” she explained. “As it fell on Mr. Weasley it spread the curse to him while at the same time the falling rubble did considerable physical damage. Either one alone would have killed him, but together they actually saved his life.”

Harry stared at her in disbelief, an expression she obviously saw because the Healer hurried to continue. “Because the curse hit the wall first it was greatly dissipated before it reached Mr. Weasley, essentially spreading to him through the stone. Instead of killing him, it Petrified him – rather like the victims of the Basilisk who were fortunate enough to only see a reflection of its eyes. Mr. Weasley was struck with a weakened spell instead of the whole blast. This Petrification also happened at the exact moment the rubble crushed him, in essence freezing his injuries before they could kill him.”

“Wow,” breathed Harry, stunned by the news and the incredible odds that had saved Fred’s life. “So, if the Killing Curse hadn’t hit him, the explosion would have killed him, and if the rubble hasn’t been there, the curse would have?” he said with awe.

“Exactly,” said Madam Pomfrey, looking pleased he understood. “As I said, a one-in-a-million chance. Mr. Weasley is one lucky young man.”

“He’ll be okay now, though, won’t he?”

“I won’t lie to you. He’s still very ill. I’ve had to literally put him back together again on the inside. It’s too soon to know the extent of any lasting complications, but I expect he won’t come out of this without some permanent damage. There’s just too much that we still don’t know yet, but he’s alive and amazingly in good humor, so we shouldn’t complain.”

“Sounds like Fred,” said Harry with a grin. “Thank you,” he added fervently to the Healer. “He’d be dead if it weren’t for you.”

“Well, believe it or not, Mr. Potter, I do not take the health of my students lightly,” she eyed him carefully, as if scanning him from head to toes, “even after they leave school.”

“I believe you,” he said quickly, fidgeting a little under her gaze. He was quite sure she was seeing everything from the enormous and painful bruise on his chest left from Voldemort’s curse to the fact that he’d forgotten to brush his teeth that morning. “Um, can you tell me where his room is?” he asked, suddenly very anxious to escape her knowing eyes.

“Straight down this hall and around the corner, first door on the left.”

“Thanks,” he mumbled again and hurried off. He could feel her eyes following him all the way until he mercifully turned the corner.

He found room 432 easily now he had directions. He knocked quietly before opening the door a crack and poking his head in. It was a private room, one of those reserved for the most gravely injured patients.

“Harry!” someone whispered. He glanced toward the closest corner and found Charlie sitting in a chair, a copy of Quidditch International in his lap. “Come in!” he said in the same stage whisper. “Come in!”

Harry slipped inside and closed the door quietly behind him, then walked hesitantly to the foot of the bed that took up most of the small room. His throat tightened at the sight that met his eyes.

Fred lay on his back on the bed, arms at his sides, creamy bandages wrapped around his left hand and wrist. His chest was bare and encased in some sort of shimmering Shield charm, but Harry could still see the horrible purple bruising that covered his whole torso and shoulders and disappeared under the blanket pulled up to his waist. His head was also wrapped in bandages that extended down over his eyes, and a complicated sort of Bubble charm complete with floating, miniature bellows covered his nose and mouth.

Harry stared at him in horror, thinking he looked worse now than he had when he’d been dead!

“You can talk to him,” whispered Charlie again. “He’s awake. I was just reading to him when you came.”

“Hey, Fred,” said Harry quietly, still not over the shock of seeing the twin like this.

Fred lifted his right hand and gave a little wave, and behind the Bubble Harry thought he saw him smile.

“He can’t talk right now because of the Breathing Charm,” Charlie explained, setting the magazine aside and using his wand to draw up another chair. “His ribs and lungs were badly crushed and the Healers say it will be at least another week before he can breathe on his own.”

Harry raised his eyebrows as he sat down. “Two weeks without talking? Ouch, mate,” he whispered sympathetically. He’d never known Fred Weasley to last more than a few minutes without speaking.

Fred made a gesture with his right hand that more than eloquently described his thoughts on the matter.

“Oh, I don’t know, he seems to be doing just fine,” said Charlie with a chuckle that Harry shared. “Just don’t let Mum catch you doing that.”

Fred sent a second gesture toward his brother.

“Where is your mum?” whispered Harry, noticing how empty of Weasleys the little room was.

“Ginny and Fleur took her back to the Burrow to force her to get some rest. And Dad, Bill, and Percy went into the Ministry today. The Government’s in a shambles right now and even though he’d never ask at a time like this, Kingsley could really use their help. Fred’s doing well enough they felt they could leave for a while.”

Harry felt a stab of guilt and dropped his head, shoulders sagging. He should have been there, too, helping put the world back together instead of hiding out at Hogwarts lifting rocks. The Weasleys had a son and brother in hospital, barely having escaped death and not out of the woods yet, and they managed to show up to help, yet he, Harry, who was only suffering a boatload of bad memories, couldn’t make it?

In typically Weasley fashion, Charlie seemed to read his mind. “Harry, no one’s blaming you for not being there. You’re allowed to take a little time for yourself, you know.”

Harry sniffed, unconvinced, but decided to let the subject drop. “If Fred’s awake, why are we whispering?”

Charlie nodded toward the far corner where Harry noticed a low pallet he hadn’t seen before. George lay on it, curled in a ball and completely zonked.

“I think it’s the first time he’s slept in days,” said Charlie, face softening as he gazed at his little brother. George did look particularly haggard. There were deep, dark circles around his closed eyes and stubble covered his cheeks and chin. He lay on his right side, leaving the gaping hole where his left ear had once been exposed, which didn’t help the sad picture. “No one can get him to leave, not even Mum. Finally, the Healers gave up and just brought the camp bed in. He and Fred had some sort of furious, one-sided conversation about an hour ago and he finally collapsed.”

“Maybe you should bribe the Healers to slip him a Sleeping Potion while he’s out. Looks like he could use it,” Harry suggested, thinking George looked completely worn out.

“Devious,” chuckled Charlie with approval. “I like the way you think, Mr. Potter. Always knew you were part Weasley.”

“I don’t know about that,” said Harry with a grin. “The witch at the desk didn’t reckon so. Almost didn’t let me come up; she seemed to think my hair was the wrong color.”

Behind the breathing bubble, Harry saw Fred smile slightly again and he could almost hear the wise retort he knew the twin must be aching to give. He relaxed a bit more, glad no one seemed inclined to rake him over the coals for not coming to visit earlier.

“How was the funeral?” asked Charlie.

“Fine,” said Harry shortly. It was a funeral, after all, and for someone who’d only been sixteen. “Ron gave your family’s condolences to his parents. And Fred,” he added, turning back to his friend, “Colin’s mum said to tell you they wish you the best.”

Fred gave another little wave, showing he’d heard.

“So, Ron and Hermione get on their way, then?” continued Charlie.

“Yeah. They left right after the service. International Apparation is still being restricted so they took the ferry to the Continent and then they’ll Apparate to Australia from there. I think, now that everything’s over, Hermione’s really anxious and worried about seeing her parents again.”

“Very noble of Ron to volunteer to go with her then.” Charlie’s eyes twinkled.

Harry let out a snort. “Noble has nothing to do with it,” he said, rolling his eyes as he shucked off his suit coat and undid another button on his shirt, making himself more comfortable. “I don’t think he’s let go of her hand since the Battle ended.”

At this, Fred waggled his fingers, asking for something that Harry didn’t understand but Charlie obviously did. The older brother reached down and drew two things from under his chair: a bit of parchment and a self-inking quill. He spread the parchment on the bed at Fred’s side, placed the quill in his brother’s fingers, and then guided his hand so the tip rested on the blank page.

Realizing now what Fred wanted to do, Harry scooted his chair closer where he could see what his friend wrote.

He’s making up for lost time. The words and letters were large and sloppy, looping drunkenly here and overlapping each other there, but Harry could read them. Considering Fred was flat on his back, eyes wrapped in bandages and writing completely by touch, Harry was impressed.

“Yeah, he’s always been a bit thick when it comes to Hermione, hasn’t he?” he laughed.

Charlie touched the parchment with his wand and the ink siphoned off, leaving it clean for his brother to write on again.

What about you, and Ginny? Fred wrote next.

Harry blushed and looked down at his hands. “Um…I haven’t spoken to her yet, actually. Not -” he held up a hand to stall the comment he could practically see forming on Charlie’s tongue " - that I don’t want to. I just…well…I needed some time to…”

“Time to sort yourself out first,” finished Charlie knowingly.

Harry nodded, grateful he understood.

“Well, no offence, mate, but a head case like yours? Might take a while and she’s not gonna wait forever…”

Harry looked over to find George sitting cross-legged on the pallet, blinking owlishly and running a hand over his worn face.

Harry snorted and shook his head. “You’re supposed to get some sleep.”

“With you three yakking away?” he asked, leaning back against the wall.

Fred scratched something on his parchment.

“Fred says you’re a bloody git,” Charlie read out loud.

“Yeah, well, takes one to know one,” quipped George wearily.

Harry laughed. Trust the twins to be normal even in such insane circumstances as this.

“So, Harry, you finally decided to grace us with your presence, huh?” said George.

“Something like that,” Harry laughed again.

“Good, ‘cause Fred and I were about ready to draw straws and see who had the pleasure of finding your scrawny bum and dragging it here, after a good thrashing for stupidity, of course.”

Harry’s eyebrows climbed his forehead again and he looked back and forth between the twins – one stuck in a hospital bed more dead than alive and the other looking like he was auditioning for a role as a zombie.

“Yeah, mate, that’s a right scary threat, that is.” Beside him, Charlie snorted with laughter. “So how long are you in here for, Fred?” asked Harry, turning the conversation back to the injured twin.

Fred just shook his hand in a noncommittal way.

“We’re not sure,” Charlie interpreted. “Healers aren’t giving us a date yet, but they’ve all said there’s no way it’ll be less than a month.”

Harry winced, not just from the fact he knew how happy Fred had to be at the prospect of a month long hospital stay, but because he knew all of it was going to wrack up a pretty penny in medical bills the Weasleys would be hard-pressed to pay. He ran his fingers distractedly around the collar of his shirt – it was the only dress-shirt he had and it didn’t fit very well considering it was purchased four days ago in a Muggle secondhand shop – wondering if there was any way he could convince them to let him help out with the expenses. If Gringotts ever unfroze his accounts and pulled him off their black list, that is.

“Harry, what’s that?”

Harry looked up at George’s question. “What’s what?”

“That,” the twin pointed at his chest. Harry glanced down to see the edge of the dark purple bruise showing in the opening of his shirt. He’d exposed it when he’d been playing with his collar.

“Oh, nothing,” he tried to shrug it off.

“Harry,” Charlie jumped in the conversation, having seen it as well. “It’s not nothing. Let us see.”

With a sigh, Harry unbuttoned his shirt and pulled the sides apart slightly. George gave a low whistle as he stared at the deep bruise. “Darn, Harry! You sure you don’t want us to book you a bed next to Fred? That looks nasty!”

“How’d you get that?” asked Charlie, eyeing him with concern.

“In the Forest,” said Harry shortly, not wanting to discuss it. He watched both their eyes widen in comprehension, mouth’s turning down in very similar frowns. “And I’d appreciate it if you didn’t mention it to anyone, Ron and your mum especially,” he added as he redid his shirt back up, closing all but the collar button this time. After a moment’s hesitation, George and Charlie both nodded.

In the silence, Fred’s quill scratched the parchment again.

What’s Harry got? And what happened in the Forest? Harry read. Apparently, Fred wasn’t completely up-to-date on everything that had taken place on the night of the Battle.

“Just a bruise, Fred,” he said, standing and gathering up his jacket and tie. “And have George fill you in on the rest.” He looked at George, who nodded again. “I’d better run. Visiting hours are almost over. You keep getting better, though,” he told his friend warmly. “My Weasley products are running a little low – I’m gonna need to restock soon.”

Fred smiled again and just waved goodbye instead of writing. Harry thought he looked tired and in pain so it was probably good that he was leaving.

“Don’t be a stranger, Harry, or I really will hunt you down,” threatened George.

“I won’t,” Harry assured him. Then he turned to the older Weasley brother. “Charlie, could I talk to you for a minute?” he asked, nodding his head toward the door.

“Yeah, sure,” Charlie stood and followed him into the hall, closing the door behind him. “What is it, Harry?”

“Fred. Is he really going to be okay?” It had unnerved him to no end to see the normally active and cheerful twin so still and injured.

Charlie sighed. “He’ll live. And heal, if that’s what you’re asking. Healer’s aren’t yet sure if there will be lasting problems from this.”

Harry frowned. That’s what he’d been worried about. Magic that powerful didn’t normally just let you walk away unscathed. “Is he in a lot of pain?”

Charlie eyed Harry for a moment, then nodded, his expression clouding. “Yeah. He tries to hide it but we can all tell.”

Harry was grateful Charlie told him the truth, not the sugar-coated answer most people would have given.

“What’s wrong with his eyes?”

“Dunno,” said Charlie darkly. “The Healers haven’t figured it out. They’ve said there’s swelling in his brain, along with the highest concentration of spell residue. There might also be damage to the eyes themselves.” He shrugged dejectedly. “Honestly, no one’s saying much that’s helpful yet.”

Harry sighed and turned his face away, upset by the news.

“Look, Charlie,” he started after a moment, shoving his hands into his pockets and turning to face the redheaded man. “Right now my Gringotts accounts have been frozen, but – ”

“Wait,” interrupted Charlie with a worried frown. “Your accounts have been frozen? Why?”

“Something about breaking and entering, grand theft, excessive damages…” He shrugged, fighting the urge to smile as Charlie’s eyes grew wide. “I’m sure it will all be straightened out soon, and anyway, that’s not my point. Charlie, I’d like to help with all this.” He gestured at the hospital room behind them.

Harry knew Charlie understood instantly what he was offering as his lips drew into a thin line. “Harry, you know we can’t let you do that. We’ll be all right.”

“Really? A month or more stay in the hospital; potions and spells and lasting complications? No offense, please, because I admire and respect your parents more than any other adults I know, but can you honestly tell me they can afford all this? Fred needs the best care available, but I don’t want your family to loose everything in the process!”

Charlie closed his eyes briefly and ran a hand through his hair. “Harry…I know you’re feeling loads of guilt right now, but – ”

Anger flared in Harry and he road over Charlie’s words.

“Guilt?” he cried loudly, attracting the attention of an orderly on duty at the station just down the hall. She glared at them and Harry lowered his voice. “You think that’s why I’m offering? Heck yeah I feel guilty! I’ve dragged my friends away from their families, from school, made them kip out in the cold and rain, go hungry… I’ve attended twelve funerals in the last four days of people who died in a fight for me. I’ve got a godson who’s going to grow up without parents because of me! And to top it all off, I just sat in that room for an hour with one of my best friends in more pain than I can imagine because he willingly volunteered for that fight I started. So, yeah, I’ve got the market cornered on guilt at the moment, Charlie. But that has nothing to do with my offer.”

He paused, feeling emotionally and physically drained as the last week caught up with him once more. Charlie mercifully stayed silent, giving him time.

“I’ve offered because…Ron…Fred…well, all of you are my…my family. You’re all I’ve got left, Charlie, and...”  He shrugged.  “Isn’t that what families do? Help each other if they can? I have the money, I want to help.”

Charlie stared at him for a while, a plethora of emotions darting across his tanned and weathered face. Finally, he sighed and nodded. “All right, I’ll speak to Dad. It would be nice to see him less worried, but don’t be surprised if he says exactly what I did, Harry.”

It was the best he was likely to get and Harry knew it. “Thanks,” he said, sticking out his hand. Charlie grabbed it in a firm grip with his calloused one and then, much to Harry’s surprise, proceeded to pull him into a tight brotherly embrace.

“Oof,” gasped Harry, shocked and winded. Charlie’s arms and torso were strong and muscled. It was rather like being hugged by a small boulder, and he wasn’t entirely sure what to do. Awkwardly, he returned the hug as Charlie thumped him on the back.

“You know, kiddo, in all this mess I doubt anyone’s taken the time to tell you thanks. You’re a good kid, Harry,” said Charlie solemnly. “We care about you as much as you care about us, y’know.”

Charlie released him and stepped back, leaving Harry rather red-faced and embarrassed.

“Now get on home to the Burrow and let Mum fuss over you. She’s been waiting for days,” he gave Harry a conspiratorial wink.

Harry grinned sheepishly. “’K, but I’m serious, Charlie. Talk to your dad,” he said as he started backwards down the hall.

Charlie nodded. “Oh, and Harry,” he called. Harry stopped. “Get Bill on the Gringotts problem. He’ll help you straighten it all out.”

Harry laughed. Bill! He couldn’t believe he hadn’t thought of that himself. He waved his understanding and thanks to Charlie, then turned away. Already thinking of how he might enlist the eldest Weasley brother’s help, Harry made his way back to the lift, down through the lobby, and out to the Apparation point. With a deep breath, knowing it was high time, he closed his eyes and Apparated to the Burrow.

*****

George slumped in the chair watching his twin sleep with bleary eyes, savoring every detail. He knew he should feel awful, knowing how badly Fred was hurting, and he really did, but he also couldn’t help feeling extremely happy. For one heart-wrenching night, George had known how life without Fred would be, had experienced the loss in his very core. Now, a miracle had brought his twin back to him and thankfully made that night only a memory, but it was a memory he would never forget. Nothing could be as bad as Fred being dead. Yes, Fred was very ill and might never be completely healthy again, but he was alive and everything else was just fluff they could work out later.

The door opened and Charlie walked back in, breaking George out of his thoughts.

“So, he beating himself up as badly as we thought?” he asked his brother, his voice gravelly from exhaustion.

“Worse,” replied Charlie sadly, taking the chair Harry had vacated. “He’s trying to take responsibility for the whole War.”

“Stupid prat,” muttered George. “You send him home to the Burrow?”

“Yeah.”

“Think he actually went?”

“Probably. Where else is he going to go?”

George sniffed sadly and nodded. With such a huge family, both immediate and extended, it was almost unfathomable to him to think of not having anywhere to call home. He felt bad for his friend, struck again with the realization of how much he’d missed out on in life, and how much that life had unfairly demanded of him in return. He really had drawn a very short straw.

“Mum’ll knock some sense into him,” said Charlie firmly.

“Only if Ginny doesn’t get to him first,” replied George.

Charlie gave a little laugh. “We did just send the unsuspecting bloke right into the clutches of all three Weasley women, didn’t we?”

“Poor sod,” said George not sounding sorry at all.

“And, speaking of poor sods, I believe you are supposed to be sleeping?” Charlie arched his eyebrows and nodded toward the pallet.

“I slept,” argued George, not moving. He didn’t want to leave Fred’s side. He was still too terrified he’d wake up and find Fred was dead and this had all been a dream.

“George,” said Charlie sternly, sounding more like Bill than the carefree older brother he was used to, “you look like crap. You haven’t slept for more than a few hours since the Battle ended. You haven’t even gone home yet. The last thing Fred or any of us needs is for you to make yourself sick and end up in a hospital bed of your own.”

George stared icily at his brother. “I’m not a little kid, Charlie.”

“So stop acting like one and I’ll stop treating you like one,” replied Charlie, unflinchingly. He pointed to the low camp bed in the corner. “Sleep,” he ordered.

George glared a moment longer then sagged in defeat. “You’ll wake me up if anything happens or changes?”

“He’s your twin, George. I won’t have to wake you and you know it.”

He smiled wearily at that, knowing how true it was. He and Fred had always had that little extra connection, something their other brothers had learned to just shrug and accept. “Fine,” he finally conceded, standing. When the room spun around him and he had to grab the back of the chair for a moment to steady himself, George was forced to admit that maybe Charlie had a point. A little sleep might not be such a bad idea. Carefully, he made his way to the pallet in the corner and let himself fall onto it.

He was asleep almost instantly.

Chapter 4: Coming Home
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Author's Note:  A huge thank you goes out to theelderwand1 for his help with editing this chapter!

Chapter 3: "Coming Home" 

“A mother's love for her child is like nothing else in the world. It knows no awe, no pity, it dares all things and crushes down remorselessly all that stands in its path.”

- Agatha Christie
 

*****

Evening was settling in at the Burrow as Molly Weasley sat at the kitchen table quietly drinking a cup of peppermint tea and listening to the silence around her. It was a strange silence, one that spoke of changes and new directions, but thankfully not the overwhelming pain and sorrow that it could have.

The clock on the mantle chimed seven as she took another sip. She needed to get back to the hospital shortly. The girls had brought her home almost six hours ago, forcing her to get the rest she knew she needed even if she didn’t want to admit it. She had slept for a while, but her emotions and thoughts were still too raw and battered to rest for long. Fleur and Ginny, also completely exhausted, were still sleeping, but Molly had finally admitted defeat and sought refuge in her kitchen, allowing her tumultuous feelings to surface in the solitude. It was her favorite room and always seemed to offer comfort when she needed it, which she certainly did now. Alone there with her familiar things around her and without the throng of her family, she allowed herself the luxury of a small melt down. Grief, astonishment, months of stress and worry, extreme thankfulness – they all filled her and overflowed into the empty room. Grief for things lost: Fred’s health, dear friends, Ginny, Ron and Harry’s – who was every bit as much her own son as any of the others – lost childhood. Overwhelming joy for things returned: Percy, Fred’s life, Harry’s life, peace and safety. Once the floodgates were opened, she couldn’t stop it, and Molly Weasley let these emotions along with a million others pour from her and be swallowed up in the silence of the room.

Now, as she sipped her tea almost an hour later, she felt worn out but somehow refreshed and renewed. Things had changed and would never be the same – such was life – but she was ready to deal with it now and to help her family through it as well.

She Summoned the teapot and poured another cup. One more and a few more moments with her thoughts and then she would wake Fleur and tell her daughter-in-law she was going back to St. Mungo’s to stay the night with Fred. And George, she reminded herself, knowing nothing on earth or in heaven would convince her son to leave his twin’s side.

It was good, though, she thought proudly, to watch her family come together. It always warmed her heart to see that her sons and daughter had grown from squabbling, rowdy children into young adults who supported each other. Granted, they were often still rowdy, and often still squabbled spectacularly, but that wasn’t what she meant. Her boys had become good, brave men who stood staunchly beside each other – her daughter a strong and passionate young lady. What more could a mother ask for?

Sighing contentedly, she gazed out the window at the familiar view. The trees were sprouting their leaves, and the flowers in her garden were beginning to poke up through the ground again. After a long, hard, cold, winter, spring had arrived. The symbolism of it all certainly wasn’t lost on her.

Looking farther, out beyond the borders of their property, she saw the road that stretched and twisted toward the Village that was hidden behind a hill. Movement caught her eyes and she straightened, setting down her teacup.

A lone figure was walking down the lane. He wore a formal if faded Muggle suit, but the top button of the shirt was left undone and the tie was simply looped around his neck and shoulders. He walked slowly, his head lowered and his hands shoved into his pockets, kicking at the gravel with his toes as if unsure if he should continue forward.

Molly’s heart clenched at the sight and tears filled her eyes. Her lost boy was finally coming home. He was among the walking wounded – of that she had no doubt – but he was coming home, and the rest they could work out.

Resolutely, she swiped away any moisture from her eyes. With a flick of her wand the pot of leftover soup Fleur had made earlier hopped onto the stove and began heating. Another wave and a loaf of bread commenced slicing itself. She Summoned a second cup and saucer and then just waited at the table. She still needed to return to the hospital, but she knew Fred would understand her delay.

Finally, after many long moments where she fought the urge to jerk open the door and rush to the boy, there was a hesitant knock on the kitchen door.

“It’s open, Harry,” she called, standing to check on the soup.

The door opened and he came in, a look of mild astonishment on his pale face. “How did you…?”

“I saw you coming down the lane, dear,” she told him with a gentle smile.

“Oh,” he muttered, then seemed to remember he was still standing in the open doorway and turned around, shutting the door behind him.

“Why didn’t you Apparate here?” she asked, placing a bowl and spoon on the table.

“I did,” he answered, still standing uncertainly by the door. “Well, I Apparated most of the way here, and then I walked the rest. I…I was thinking.”

Molly glanced at him again as she pulled a goblet from the cupboard. He looked so lost and young and unsure, standing there with his hands still shoved deeply into his pockets and his eyes glued to the tops of his shoes. Minerva was right; the boy was floundering and in desperate need of some mothering.

“Well, come in and have something to eat. Fleur made the soup, an old family recipe, and it’s delicious,” she said, acting on instinct. Her mother had always held firmly to the belief that all of life’s problems were best solved over good food.

Harry, however, didn’t move but remained standing awkwardly in the doorway. “I’ve just been to visit Fred,” he said quietly, still not meeting her eyes.

Molly stopped her fussing with the meal and turned to face him, waiting. Eventually, he sucked in a huge breath and lifted his head, squaring his shoulders as he met her eyes.

“Mrs. Weasley, I’m so sorry,” he said, the words coming out in a rush. “He’s hurt so badly, in so much pain, and it’s all my fault! He never would have been there if not for me. I should have told you this days ago, but I…I didn’t dare.”

“Oh, Harry,” she cried, her heart breaking. She set the jug of pumpkin juice down on the table and stepped up to him, gathering him in her arms. He stiffened, but she didn’t let go. “Harry, none of this is your fault!” she told him firmly. “None of it! I know you don’t believe that right now, but I’m going to keep repeating it until you do.” She squeezed him tighter and felt him return the hug slightly. “And as for the part about Fred not being there if it weren’t for you, that’s hogwash and you know it. Do you honestly think anything could have kept Fred away? Or any of us?” She pushed him back and lifted his chin, forcing him to meet her eyes. “We picked sides in this battle years ago, long before we even knew you. He would have been in the thick of it no matter what, and he’d tell you so himself if he could.”

“But Mrs. Weasley,” protested Harry, not listening, “how can you not be...be upset with me? I dragged your whole family into the War!” He swallowed thickly. “Even Ginny. It was like that boggart. I…I made your worst fears come true!”

“A war you almost single-handedly managed to end at great personal cost, Harry,” she countered gently, brushing his shaggy hair off his forehead. “And my worst fears did not come true. Fred’s alive, and so are you. I would call that a miracle, not something to be apologizing for.”

“Even though he’s hurt so…badly?” His voice was timid, hesitant.

With a sigh, Molly placed her hands on his shoulders and guided him into a chair at the table. She then pulled another chair over and sat down so she was facing him. “Harry, I’m going to tell you something and I want you to listen carefully to me. That night, in the Battle, when I saw Fred laying there I…” She gulped. Harry needed to hear this, but her emotions were still raw and tender and it was hard to talk about. “I felt like my heart had been ripped into tiny pieces. He’s my son, my l-l-l-little boy,” her voice cracked, “how could he be d-d-d-dead and I still be here?” She wiped at the tears that were leaking from her eyes but didn’t bother to try and stop them. “I wanted to lie right down beside him and die, too, but I also knew I had other children who needed me.”

Harry looked away, guilt-stricken, tears of his own in his eyes. “I’m so sorry,” he muttered again.

“No, Harry,” said Molly firmly, reaching out to turn his face back toward her as she shook her head. “The thing is that I felt the exact same way when I watched Hagrid carry you out of that forest! I thought you were dead! That I’d lost another one of my sons!”

Harry swallowed, unable to say anything, which was just as well, because Molly wasn’t finished. “Now, I don’t know what’s going to happen with Fred, but the point is he’s alive! You both are! I know somehow it will all work out. And you’re going to be all right, too, you know.”

The young man shrugged. “I don’t know,” he muttered brokenly. “I spent so long not allowing myself to…to think of anything other than Voldemort and what needed to be done, now that it’s over I don’t know what to think, or feel, or do. I honestly hadn’t expected to have to worry about it much. Now…now I… What do I do?” The open, brutal honesty of his voice surprised her even as the anguished question tore at her heart. Harry had never been one to share his thoughts much, keeping them close and secret as a survival instinct. She was touched that he would trust her like this.

“You take it one day at a time, dear,” she said softly, squeezing his shoulders and not bothering to stop the tear that rolled down her cheek. “And you let those of us who love you help you through it.”

“But I…” He broke off again and looked away. Suddenly, he sucked in a huge, trembling breath. “Mrs. Weasley,” he whispered, a sob rising from his chest as he lost the battle to keep back whatever he was fighting, “I…I don’t have anywhere to go.”

The loneliness that poured from him threatened to drown them both. Here he was, only seventeen, and already ripped from the heart of one family and casually discarded by another. He’d had father-figures and friends thrust upon him and then torn away without care. The wizarding world had willingly laid its salvation at his feet, and then tossed him unthinkingly aside when he shouldered its burdens without complaint and accomplished what it couldn’t do. He was an instant celebrity, the poster boy of the War. Everyone wanted his autograph, but no one thought to ask if “The Boy Who Lived” had a roof over his head, clothes on his back, food in his stomach…

“Oh, Harry,” she cried again, leaning forward and gathering the trembling boy into her arms, pulling his head to her chest. This time, he wrapped his own arms around her and clung on, as if for dear life, as great, wracking sobs gripped him. The front of her robes were soon wet from his tears, but she didn’t mind, especially since the top of his head was damp from where her own were falling. “Shh, Harry,” she soothed, swaying slightly and running a gentle hand through his hair as she used to do for Ron when he was small and needed comforting. She knew instinctively that the boy currently in her arms had never experienced this before, and that he desperately needed it. “It’s okay,” she whispered into his dark hair. “You’re not alone.” She kissed the top of his head, pulling him closer. “Harry, this house…this family…we’re your home and as long as we’re here you will always have somewhere to go. Don’t ever forget that.”

Off to the side, the teapot whistled softly and the soup bubbled, but Molly paid no heed to either one. Instead she sat at the kitchen table and rocked the young man in her arms as he released years of pent up pain and sorrow, marveling at how he could be ages old and so incredibly young at the same time.

*****

The warm glow of the rising sun filled the small graveyard behind the church, bathing the place in a solemn, eternal kind of light. Reverently, Molly Weasley stood before the white headstone. It was early morning and she was exhausted, having spent the evening comforting one boy and the night watching over another, but she knew she needed to do this before she returned home.

With solemnity, she stepped forward and laid the bouquet of flowers on the grave. Daisies. Convention would have implied that she bring lilies, or at the very least roses, but Molly had never been one to put much stock in convention, and daisies had just seemed to fit. They were strong and resilient, and while she hadn’t known the woman she brought them for, she did know her son.

“Lily,” she addressed the gleaming headstone, the name strange on her lips, “I don’t know you, never had the chance to meet you, but if you are the kind of a mother I suspect, I’m sure you know who I am. My Ron’s been bringing your Harry home for years now, and I thought it was high time I introduced myself.”

She paused, but not because she felt odd, holding a conversation with the dead. She was the mother of seven wild children; odd didn’t exist in her vocabulary. The sunshine just felt warm and comfortable on her tired shoulders and she waited a moment, soaking it in.

“He’s a good boy,” she said with a smile, “but I’m sure you know that, too. Loyal, kind, brave. Full of mischief, when he lets himself be, but too solemn and much too skinny for my liking. We’re going to work on that, though.”

She paused again, memories filling her and the location sinking in. How close she’d come to leaving both Fred and Harry in a place such as this. She blinked back tears.

“He loves you – desperately,” she continued. “You and his father. I don’t know how and I don’t know when, he’s never told me, but I’ve gathered enough to know he’s had the odd moment to actually speak with you. That means the world to him, and he’d want you to know it. But, Lily, he’s lonely. Terribly lonely, and we both know that’s not good for a young man.

“I’m not trying to steal him from you, or replace you. I would never do that. But he needs love so desperately, and I was hoping you wouldn’t mind if I stepped in for you, while I’m here.”

She stopped, glancing up at the sun as it crept higher into the sky and drinking in the beauty of it before she spoke again. “We love him like a son, Arthur and I,” she said, quietly. “He’s a part of our family now and we’ll take care of him, make sure he’s all right, remind him to wear clean underwear and comb his hair once in a while, try to keep him from being so lonely. I wanted you to know that. If I were where you are, I know I would want someone taking care of my children, and so I give you my word, one mother to another, that he will be loved.”

“Besides, I have a daughter – fiery, redheaded, passionate little thing. I’ve seen the way he looks at her. You know that look, Lily, I’m sure you’ve seen it, too. And frankly,” she added with a conspiratorial wink and a glance at the name that shared the woman’s headstone, “you know what they say about apples and trees… I suspect it might not be too long before I have the honor of at least being his official mother-in-law. But, even if that never does happen, I promise you he will always have a place in our home.”

She gave a little sigh and arched her back, pulling on tired muscles and letting her spine pop. “It wears you out, you know, raising boys, even though you wouldn’t trade it for anything. They grow their hair out and hang fangs from their ears, or traipse across the continent thinking fire-breathing lizards make good pets. They grow up and run off, trying to save the world, or join wars they really have no business being in but you know you could never keep them away from. It gives you heart-failure and ulcers and gray hairs.” She chuckled slightly. “I’m not sure how things work where you are, on the other side, but I have a sneaky suspicion you might know this. You’ve probably had your work cut out for you, pulling strings to keep that boy of yours safe and alive. Who knows, you may even have had a hand in the miraculous saving of my own boy; if so, I thank you from the bottom of my heart, for both of them.”

Molly didn’t really know why she was saying all of this; maybe she just felt a kinship with this woman, this other mother, knowing they both loved the same young man so deeply. She felt she could share these things. “I’ve got to go now,” she said quietly. “My Fred’s still in hospital and no one’s sure how completely he’ll recover, and Harry, Ron, George – they’re all a little lost and broken right now. We all are, I guess, and I need to be there. But you should know, Lily – and James,” she added, addressing the other name for the first time, “that he did it. Harry did it. Your son saved us all, and he survived again. You should be proud.”

She gave another little, warm smile and brushed her fingers across the top of the white stone. “We’ll take care of him for you, I promise,” she whispered, then turned around and walked toward the gate, waiting to Apparate until she was beyond the graveyard’s fence out of respect.

And somewhere, not so very far away, another mother watched her leave, tears glinting in her brilliant, green eyes. “Thank you,” she whispered, and she was almost certain the kind, good-hearted, and fiercely protective woman who was vowing to watch over her son somehow heard her words.


Chapter 5: The Importance of Communication
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Chapter 4 – “The Importance of Communication”

Author’s note: This chapter would not have happened without the help of a few wonderful people. siledubhghlase gave me good advice on how Ginny would be feeling and I really, really appreciate it. And theelderwand practically co-wrote it with me. In fact, much of what Harry says in the second half of this are his words, so I must give a HEARTY thank you to him for his help! Thanks bro! If you want a good read, go check out any of his three magnificent tales! I highly recommend them.

*****

“Haven’t your lips long for my touch? Don’t say how much; show me!
Don’t talk of love lasting through time. Make me no undying vow.
Show me now!”

- Alan Jay Lerner, My Fair Lady

*****

When Harry awoke there were a few moments where he was convinced he was trapped in a furnace. Everything around him was a brilliant orange, and he was sweating like a horse. He blinked his blurry, sleep-crusted eyes several times as the memories of the last night started filtering back through his mind and eventually realized he was simply in Ron’s orange plastered bedroom, buried under the quilts Mrs. Weasley had piled on him. He’d slept the day away and the hot afternoon sun was streaming through the window. Between that and the twenty or so blankets, Harry felt like he was in a sauna.

With a grunt, he dug a hand out of the mound and shoved the covers off. He sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the bed, wincing as the bruise on his chest throbbed painfully. That bruise was taking an awfully long time to heal, which was annoying – until he remembered Fred and decided he had nothing to complain about.

With a lingering yawn, he ran his hands over his face a few times, rubbing the sleep from his eyes, then reached for the nightstand and found his glasses. As he slipped them on, Ron’s room snapped into focus. He smiled at the comfort of the familiar surroundings, glad that some things hadn’t changed. Pig hooted at him excitedly from his cage by the window, the same Chudley Cannons coverlet and posters hurt his eyes, and the same two beds were crammed into the tiny space. The only thing missing was his freckle-faced best friend.

Harry felt a pang of loneliness at that thought. He knew Ron and Hermione weren’t gone, were only away for a short time, would be back soon… It wasn’t like they were moving to Australia, but he still missed them terribly. They’d been his whole world for this last year. He felt somehow exposed and vulnerable without them by his side, and he really hoped they’d find Hermione’s parents quickly and come home.

A trickle of sweat ran down his forehead and he wiped it away with a grimace. His pajamas were damp with sweat and stuck to him. He pulled the t-shirt away from his chest and sniffed it warily, then shuddered. He smelled like he’d just come off a two hour Quidditch practice.

“Disgusting,” he said out loud. Pig hooted back in happy agreement.

So, the first object of the day was a shower, and then he somehow needed to lose a least three-fourths of the blankets without hurting Mrs. Weasley’s feelings.

He got to his feet and grabbed for the rucksack that held everything he owned – he’d brought it to the Burrow last night shrunken in a pocket – then headed for the bathroom.

Twenty minutes later and feeling much cleaner, he was standing on the landing with a folded pile of quilts and blankets in his arms, completely unsure of what to do next.

“She try and roast you alive last night?”

Harry glanced down the stairs to see Charlie coming up them from the level below. He just smiled and shrugged, not wanting to say anything unkind about Mrs. Weasley, especially after what she’d done for him the night before.

“Mum sent me up to see if you were awake yet. She’s got food,” said Charlie with a broad grin as he took half the stack of bedding out of Harry’s arms. “We can stop by the linen closet on the way down.”

“Thanks,” said Harry, following Charlie down the stairs. The red-haired man helped him stuff the bedding into a closet on the third floor landing, and then they made their way down to the kitchen.

Lunch was an ordinary Weasley affair, noisy and chaotic. The atmosphere was light and casual, but there was an undercurrent of stress and worry that Harry didn’t miss, one that was tied directly to the conspicuously empty places around the table. Still feeling rather wrung out from his emotional meltdown the night before, Harry was content just to grab the food as it was passed to him and keep quiet. It was such a relief to not be the center of attention.

A plate of sandwiches was shoved brusquely into his line of sight. He glanced up to find Ginny holding it and suddenly his vision tunneled. Nothing else existed and he stared at her, unable to help it. It was the first time he’d really seen her since the morning after the Battle, and a whole plethora of emotions slammed into him at the sight. His mouth gapped open rather stupidly, and his hand refused to reach out and grasp the plate.

“Would you like a sandwich, Harry?” asked Ginny rather frostily.

Harry’s stomach lurched at the tone and his gaze faltered. “Erm…yeah, thanks,” he muttered, finally forcing a hand to move and take the plate from her. He gulped slightly and looked away, piling several more sandwiches on his plate than he really wanted just to have something to look at other than Ginny.

All through the meal, he could feel her brown eyes on him, boring into him like one of the drills his uncle used to make. It was unnerving and he found it made it difficult to eat. Finally, unable to take it anymore, he asked to be excused and hurried upstairs. A quick stop by the loo and then he planned to sequester himself in Ron’s room until he’d worked out how to speak to Ginny and explain everything without getting himself blasted to bits.

*****

“So.”

Harry jumped, colliding with the bathroom door he was still pushing open and jerked his head up at the unexpected voice. Ginny was leaning casually against the wall across from the bathroom, arms folded and eyebrows raised as she gazed pointedly at him.

“Erm…” he stuttered, his command of the English language apparently deserting him.

“Erm?” she repeated. “You don’t speak to me for days and then ‘erm’ is the best you can do?”

Harry swallowed thickly.

“Where were you going?” asked Ginny, not giving him a chance to speak.

“To…uh… To…”

“Hide,” she finished with a small shake of her head. “From me. Don’t deny it; you know I’m right.”

Harry sighed. She’d always been perceptive, and with him she seemed to have the uncanny ability to see right through him, read every thought and intent without him having to say or do anything. “Yeah, you’re right. I was gonna go try and figure out what to say to you, Ginny.”

“You could have tried ‘Hi, Ginny. It’s nice to see you.’”

“I thought about it, but I figured that might get my head bitten off, or start World War III.”

Now it was Ginny’s turn to sigh. “I’m not going to bite your head off, Harry.”

That gave Harry pause and he couldn’t think quite what to say. He stalled by closing the bathroom door behind him and leaning back against it. Finally, he blurted out, “But aren't you, uh, mad at me?”

“Yes,” Ginny answered simply. “But...”

Harry desperately tried to keep his focus, staring at the girl he'd dreamt about non-stop for the past year. “But what?”

Ginny glanced at him then looked away, down the hall to where the afternoon sun was streaming in the window. “But you're not the only one who's changed, Harry. I've had what you might call a perspective adjustment in the last week. Between you…the Battle…Fred…”

Harry’s heart lurched at those words and he looked down at his shoes. “Fred,” he mumbled. He took a deep breath and hurried on, not daring to look at her. “Gin, I...I know...it's my fault. All of it, and I’m so sorry! I never meant – ”

A small sound escaped her, rather reminiscent of a growl, and he broke off quickly, looking up. Ginny was finally really looking at him, that patented Weasley glare boring holes in his head as she stood with her hands planted firmly on her hips. Harry took just a moment to wonder if that stance could possibly be hereditary...

“Harry James Potter, that's not what I meant and you know it.”

Harry was at a loss. “But...Fred almost died. And you were thrown in the thick of things. And…Merlin, Ginny, I can’t say what I mean. I'm just making a mess of things. I feel like Ron...”

Ginny actually smiled a little at that. “Probably the company you keep,” she suggested. “And at least Ron got a clue, didn't he,” she muttered.

Harry wasn’t sure whether he was supposed to hear that last part, but he let out a small laugh despite himself. “Yeah, I reckon he did, didn't he.” He paused then and ran a hand through his hair, trying to wrap his tongue around all that he needed to tell this wonderful girl, but when he finally figured it out they spoke at the same time.

“Ginny, there's just too much too say – ”

“Look, Harry – ”

They smiled again and he gestured for her to go first.

“I guess what I'm trying to say is this,” said Ginny, her face growing serious. “Yes, I'm mad at you. Yes, I haven't quite forgiven you for running off and leaving me to wonder for TEN MONTHS what was happening with you. Were you alive? Okay? Had you been captured and they were hurting you? Did you have food, somewhere to stay? And then trying to make me stay in that bloody room during the battle? What am I, twelve?”

Harry interrupted at that. He couldn’t help it. “No. Ginny, I know you're not a child. But do you have any idea what I felt like when I saw that killing curse sail by your head?”

“Do you have any idea what I felt like when I watched Hagrid carry you out of that forest!” Ginny shot back, eyes flashing.

Harry's head sank. 

“I thought you were dead, Harry!” cried Ginny, voice rising. “I thought you were gone, and all those dreams I'd dared to let myself have? They were dead, too!”

“Ginny, that's...that's why I've been putting this off. I...I felt my life slip away when Bellatrix nearly killed you. Then I thought of what must've gone through your head when you saw me... But I had to do it, Ginny. I had to!”

“I know. That's part of why I love you. And why I'll get around to forgiving you.
Between the Battle, and Fred dying and coming back, and you doing the same… Well, I’ve learned that life’s too short and unpredictable to hold grudges over silly things.”

Harry felt the slimmest flicker of hope build in his chest. “Forgive me?”

“Don't get too excited, Potter. You’re not completely off the hook yet. I am a Weasley, you know.”

Harry heard her, but his brain ignored it. It was a little hung up on something else she’d said that he’d at first missed. “You love me?” he asked, wide-eyed.

Ginny raised an eyebrow. “Were you dropped on your head as a child?”

He let his wry grin bubble to the surface. “You haven't met the Dursleys yet, have you? I probably was,” he said with a laugh, then sobered. “Do you...do you really love me, Gin?”

Ginny gave an exasperated sigh and rolled her eyes. “Yes, Harry, I really do love you. Would I have stuck around these last seven years waiting if I didn't, you git?”

Harry felt as if he'd been struck by a bludger to the head, or lightening. He was stunned, and suddenly words just started rushing out of his mouth, words he’d longed to say for years. “Gin...Ginny, I... There wasn't a day that went by I didn't think of you, dream of you, your eyes, your lips. Ginny, I love you more than life itself!”

Ginny looked at him for a second and then, completely to his surprise, threw back her head and laughed.

Harry felt his courage falter and his smiled wobbled. He was pouring his heart out to her and she laughed? What had he done wrong? This wasn’t what was supposed to happen…

“Oh, Harry,” she chuckled. “You just spent the last ten months living in a tent, with my brother, on the run from Death Eaters, and you're trying to tell me you thought of me each and every day? Ten months without speaking to me and now only five minutes into our first conversation you've worked your way up to my eyes and my lips?” She had to stop to fight back a burst of giggles. “Fred and George gave you a copy of that bloody book, didn't they?”

Harry felt his cheeks flush instantly. “Err…” he stammered, thoroughly embarrassed. “Well, Ron did, actually.” She’d READ it? his brain was screaming, suddenly feeling very exposed, as if he’d just been asked to give a speech to the Ministry in his underwear. Merlin’s pants, the girl knew everything!

Ginny laughed again. “Men,” she muttered, shaking her head. “Well, Harry, here's something they didn't cover in that book. Talk is cheap.” And she pulled him over and planted her lips on his.

Harry gasped, his glasses going askew. For a moment, his head spun, and then his brain kicked into gear as he realized the girl of his dreams was snogging the heck out of him, and he dug his hands into her fiery locks, returning the favor.

The sudden sound of applause filled the air around them, and Harry and Ginny jerked apart, turning as one to look down the stairs. Bill, Charlie, and Percy all stood there, huge grins on their faces as they clapped to bring down the house. “’Bout time,” muttered Charlie, shaking his head.

Harry stepped back from Ginny. “Peeping Merlins,” he moaned, turning three shades of crimson.

“Like living in a fish bowl,” agreed Ginny, but she was smiling.

Harry looked down at her brothers, hoping they weren’t about to tear him limb from limb. Then he glanced back at the amazing witch in his arms and decided he didn’t care.

“Oh, do carry on and don't mind us,” urged Bill, winking.

So Harry, having vowed a while back to stop being so stubborn and start listening to good advice, did.


Chapter 6: Some Rain Must Fall
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Author's Note:  I can't thank my beta theelderwand enough for his help with this and all my other stories!  He not makes sure I don't have silly mistakes but also is always there to discuss ideas and help me out of writer's block.  Thanks bro!


Chapter 5: “Some Rain Must Fall”

“Into each life some rain must fall, some days must be dark and dreary.”

- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

*****

“This is hopeless! We’re never going to find them!” cried Hermione, slumping onto a park bench and pulling her jacket tight around her, the very picture of misery.

“Hermione, you know you don’t mean that,” said Ron gently, sitting beside her. Tentatively, he put an arm around her shoulders and pulled her toward him, still marveling that she allowed it. “We’ll find them, I promise.”

“How do you know that, Ron? How can you be sure?” she asked, her voice laced with desperation and pain.

“Because you’re you,” said Ron simply. “You’ve never failed to find what you really wanted before.”

Hermione gave a little hiccup of a sob and turned her face, burying it in Ron’s jumper. After only a moment’s hesitation, Ron reached up and pulled her close, running his hand softly down her hair as her tears really started to fall in earnest. He wasn’t very good at this sort of thing, but Hermione wasn’t objecting so he hoped he might be getting better at it.

The truth was they really weren’t doing so well in their search for Hermione’s parents. Just getting to Australia had been tricky. After taking the ferry to France, they’d worked their way through Europe by moving from one Apparation Point to the next. Even at the top of his game, Apparation had never been Ron’s forte. With the Battle of Hogwarts not even a week behind them and neither one of them having taken time to really stop and rest yet, he found each jump harder and harder. By the time they left Europe and moved on to India, he was completely exhausted. An Apparation jump to another continent across a very large ocean was beyond him at the moment and he knew it. That left them with only a few options: pay for an International Portkey to Australia and all the legal fees that went with it or pay for Muggle transportation instead.

Money. Somehow it always boiled down to money, and neither one of them were exactly rolling in it at the moment. Hermione had completely exhausted her savings during their ten months on the run, and Ron had never had any savings to begin with. Harry would have gladly given them the contents of his entire vault if they needed it, but he was currently banned from even setting foot in Gringotts, let alone accessing his accounts. Ron figured he and Hermione would just have to wing it, as usual, but before they’d left, Charlie and George had pulled him aside and given him a bag of Galleons, leaving him shocked and deeply moved. He tried to protest but they’d forced it into his hands, claiming their rights as his older and wiser brothers to look after him and pound him into the floor if he didn’t. They’d do it, too.

He took the money.

But that didn’t mean he was unaware of what he was taking. He was quite certain that they had probably just handed him all the money they had. The twins hadn’t been able to go to work for weeks which left their cash flow rather limited, and Charlie, the only Weasley who’d actually been able to maintain his job in the time leading up to the Battle, didn’t exactly rake in the Galleons as a dragon keeper. Humbled, he’d carefully pocketed it, never more proud to be a Weasley.

And they’d needed it. In the end, they’d had to pay for the Portkey. It got them safely to Australia, but they used more than half their money doing it and they hadn’t even started their search.

Completely exhausted, they’d immediately found the wizarding district of Sydney and checked into the cheapest hotel they could find. There’d been a brief moment of embarrassment and uncertainty when confronted by the clerk with the question of one room or two, but it was funds, or the lack thereof, that ended up making that call. They compromised: one room, two beds. They both knew their fledgling relationship wasn’t ready for a leap that big yet.

Still, Ron’s face had burned rather brightly as the clerk winked cheekily at him and handed over the key. Hermione just rolled her eyes.

“Honestly, Ron,” she muttered, shaking her head as they climbed the stairs with their bags, “have you forgotten that we did just spend ten months living in the same tent? I think I can trust you to stay in the same room as me without worrying you’re going to ravish me in my sleep.”

Ron was very glad he was walking behind her when she’d said that; if she’d seen his expression she would have read his thoughts like one of her beloved books and he would have been sleeping in the hall.

They’d started searching bright and early the next morning, far too early in Ron’s humble opinion, but he didn’t complain. He simply allowed Hermione to drag him blinking owlishly to the Australian Ministry and kept his thoughts to himself. He could hardly blame Hermione for her anxiety; they were searching for her parents after all.

Gaining entry to the Ministry via a letter of introduction from Kingsley, Ron figured they’d be done with their task by noon and sharing drinks with Hermione’s memory-restored parents over dinner. Seriously, how hard could it be to find two people?

Apparently, it was bloody hard. The Australian Ministry had no records of a Wendell or Monica Wilkins entering the country at all. Memory modification spells, especially ones as intricate and thorough as those Hermione had used, usually left magical traces behind. Magical governments the world over used these to keep a distant, unobtrusive eye on people with modified memories, to make sure things remained as they should. But Hermione, fearing for her parents’ lives, had done such a powerful and perfect spell it was completely untraceable. It was bloody brilliant, as the Ministry workers said over and over as they questioned Hermione, their awe growing by the minute for the young witch standing in front of them.

Ron’s chest had swelled with pride as he listened. That was his Hermione, all right. He wouldn’t expect anything less from one of her spells. Yep, bloody brilliant…too bad it was now also bloody inconvenient.

Magic being useless, Hermione swept him off to the Muggle library the next morning. They’d practically lived there for the last few days, Hermione ensconced in tombs of Government records or spending hours staring at one of those kerputers using some sort of invisible Muggle net, while Ron felt extremely useless as he sat around trying to offer support and not put his foot in his mouth by talking about magical things while surrounded by Muggles. It was probably helpful for their small amount of Galleons that she was usually so engrossed in her tasks she forgot everything else, including food, but it had been murder on Ron’s stomach. He’d done his best to be patient and ignore the rumblings, until eventually Hermione had looked up and seen the pained, puppy-dog expression on his face and agreed to stop for lunch, or dinner, or whatever the closest meal had been.

That was four days ago and they were no closer to their object than they had been when they arrived. Their money was swiftly running out and Hermione’s spirits were sinking lower and lower. As Ron now sat on the park bench and cradled her sobbing form in the chilly Autumn air, he felt extremely helpless. He wished with all his heart he could just wave his wand and make all her pain go away, but he couldn’t. He wasn’t Harry – strong enough to save a whole world. He wasn’t the twins – blessed with the ability to always say the right thing to cheer someone up. He wasn’t even Hermione – brilliant and clever and able to think herself out of anything. He was just Ron – impulsive, hot-headed, foot-constantly-in-his-mouth Ron.

“Hermione?” he said after a while when her tears had slowed slightly.

With her face pressed to his chest, he couldn’t make out her response as it was muffled by his jumper.

“Hermione,” he said again, gently pulling her head up and forcing her to look at him. Her face was rather red and blotchy and tears still streaked down her cheeks.

“You can do this,” he said firmly, ducking his head to keep eye-contact when she tried to look away. “I know you can.”

“It’s impossible, Ron!” she hiccupped.

“It’s also impossible to infiltrate the Ministry, or break into a vault in Gringotts and get out alive, and I seem to remember a certain witch masterminding both of those successfully,” said Ron pointedly.

“This is different, Ron!” she snapped, brushing harshly at the tears on her face and sitting up straighter.

Ron smiled slightly to himself; that was more like his Hermione.

“Yeah, I know. No one’s trying to kill us this time.”

“Ron!” Hermione wailed, the ghost of a smile showing through her tears. “There are thirty-three Monica Wilkins in Australia! And fifty-six Wendells!”

Ron shrugged. “We’ve had worse odds.”

Hermione plowed on, not even listening. “This is Australia! Not just a country to search, a whole continent!”

“Then we start at one end and work our way through it until we find the right Wendell and Monica.” Ron’s tone was firm and determined.

“We’re running out of money and we don’t know anyone!”

“So I’ll get a job,” said Ron seriously. He put his hands gently on Hermione’s shoulders and forced her to calm down and look at him. “And we don’t need to know anyone; we have each other. Hermione, we came here to find your parents and I’m not letting you give up until we do. Whether it takes us two weeks or two years, I’m staying.”

She stared at him for a moment, her expression unreadable, until finally, she sat up and straightened her hair and jacket. She took several deep breaths, visibly calming herself, and then nodded firmly. Her usual determination back, she stood to gather up her bag, but Ron reached out and took her wrist, pulling her back down onto the bench beside him.

He stared at her for a long time. He couldn’t help it; his mouth seemed unable to function. She was so fierce and loyal and brilliant and beautiful… He’d wasted so much time, convinced she could never see him as he wanted her to, or even if she did he could never be good enough for her. Heck, he still wasn’t good enough, but he was sure gonna try to be.

“What?” she asked, looking at him with puzzlement when he didn’t speak.

“Will you be my girlfriend?” he blurted suddenly, well aware of the blood rushing to his ears.

“What?” she repeated, this time in shock.

“Y’know, officially.”

“You’re asking me this now?” she said incredulously, her eyebrows climbing her forehead.

“I’m a Weasley. We’ve never been big on timing,” he said with a shrug. “Besides,” he added, “you snogged me for the first time in the middle of the biggest battle in fifty years…”

She stared at him a moment longer, long enough that Ron was starting to wonder if he’d really done it this time, crossed that line and messed things up for good. Then, finally, she responded.

“Yes, Ronald Weasley,” she said, shaking her head and letting her radiant smile break through the worry and sorrow on her face. “I would love to be your girlfriend. Y’know, officially.”

“Yes!” cried Ron, punching the air and grinning like a wildcat.

“So,” said Hermione, eyeing him with a shrewd and knowing grin. “Does this mean you’ve just won a bet with Harry?”

“What? No!” cried Ron, highly affronted. “How could you even think such a thing?”

Hermione rolled her eyes and looked ready to launch into some speech about boys and such that Ron really didn’t want to sit there and listen to. He did the only thing he could think of to stop her – he kissed her.

And as they walked away from the bench a good ten minutes later, ready to start their search again, he vowed never to tell her about that bet with Charlie…

*****

With a weary sigh, Harry sank into the hospital chair, wishing it was softer. After the last week he was convinced that there was some universal law that hospital chairs must be as uncomfortable as possible.

“Long day?”

Harry looked up at George’s question and nodded.

“Kingsley had us out beating around in the Moors all day on the trail of some elusive Death Eaters,” said Charlie with a yawn of his own as he sank into another chair.

“Any luck?” asked Fred from where he sat carefully propped up in his bed.

Harry started to shake his head then remembered the bandages still covering the twin’s eyes and answered instead. “No. Gits managed to stay one step ahead of us the whole time.”

“Lucky for them,” said Ginny dryly. “I’d run for it, too, if I heard ‘The-Boy-Who-Lived’ was coming after me.”

“The way we hear it,” cut in George with a rather wry grin, “‘The-Boy-Who-Lived’ has been coming after you all week.”

The room erupted in chuckles from her brothers as Ginny reached out and smacked George. Harry joined in their laughter, but he still couldn’t stop the slight flush that crept onto his face. He chose to glance around in the hopes of avoiding a comment on that particular topic.

The little room was practically bursting with Weasleys. Bill leaned against the windowsill behind the chair Charlie sat in, both looking tired and dirty from a day spent chasing rogue Death Eaters. Ginny perched carefully on the edge of Fred’s bed while George sat in the chair at the head of it, never out of arm’s reach of his twin. George still hadn’t left his brother’s side long enough to go home to the Burrow, but he was at least taking better care of himself. He was wearing fresh clothes, had obviously showered and shaved, and the dark circles under his eyes were starting to fade.

In the bed that was the center of everyone’s attention sat Fred. The breathing charm had been removed several days ago and the twin was relishing in his ability to talk again, even if it was rather painful for him. Harry knew he’d absolutely hated the forced silence, especially with his sight also blocked by the bandages he still wore wrapped around his eyes. Just yesterday the Healers had, after a rather lengthy examination, given the young wizard permission to sit up for short periods of time. The internal damage wasn’t yet healed; the Killing Curse and resulting Petrification had slowed that process drastically, but it was on the mend. The shimmering Shield Charm on his horribly bruised chest remained, as did the bandages on his left wrist and around his head, but Harry had to admit that he looked much better gingerly sitting up in bed and talking. He was much more like the Fred Weasley Harry was used to seeing. He stared at his friend from where he sat in a chair on the far side of the bed, hoping the image of an alive and joking Fred would eventually push the image of a broken Fred with vacant eyes lying still on the floor of the Great Hall from his mind.

“Where’s Fleur?” Harry heard Ginny ask her oldest brother as he shook himself out of his thoughts and clued back into the conversation going on around him.

“Madam Maxime asked for her help with something at the Ministry this afternoon. I think Kingsley’s got Percy in on it as well. They said they’d meet us back at the Burrow for dinner later.”

“And you’re gonna smuggle me some of that dinner back here, right, Bill?” asked Fred.

“Sorry, little brother. Don’t think I’m authorized for a covert mission quite that large.”

“Aw, please!” begged Fred, his voice giving away his teasing. “Charlie?” he tried, appealing to his next oldest brother.

“Nope,” said Charlie with a grin.

“Heartless traitors,” Fred muttered. “This hospital food is gonna kill me!”

“What food?” laughed Charlie. “I thought you were still limited to Nutritional Potions?”

“Exactly my point!” the twin cried. “Have you tasted that stuff? It comes in only three flavors: gross, disgusting, and puke-a-licous!”

Harry snorted with laughter at that; he couldn’t help it. It was just such a normal thing for Fred to say. He’d never experienced this before, this comfortable, sibling banter and he couldn’t help drinking it in, despite the setting.

Fred heard his snort and turned his head in Harry’s direction. “Find my Torture by Tonic funny, do you, Mr. Potter?”

Harry didn’t answer; he was trying not to break out in real laughter. Instead, he dug around in the pocket of his jeans for a moment and came up with a slightly crusty, rather lint covered toffee. He stood and reached across Fred, lightly slapping it into the twin’s good hand. “There,” he said graciously as he sat back down. “Desert’s on me.”

Stunned silence filled the small room for a moment before it broke into roaring laughter. They were laughing so hard no one noticed the door open until Mr. and Mrs. Weasley stepped into the room, followed by Fred’s Healer.

“What’s going on in here?” demanded Mrs. Weasley, hands gravitating to her hips. “Fred is supposed to be resting quietly.”

“Fred is bored to death of resting quietly and rather enjoying the company of his brothers and sister, Mum,” answered Fred with a grumpy frown, and Harry felt a strange warmth spread through his chest as he realized Fred had included him in the term “brothers.”

Before she had a chance to reply to her son’s comment, the Healer stepped suddenly around her and up to the bed. “Who gave you that?” he asked, snatching the sweet from Fred’s open hand. Instantly, five fingers pointed straight at Harry, who cringed sheepishly and tried to disappear into his chair.

“I was just teasing him,” he hurried to explain, throwing his hands up in the air in surrender. “Given how long it’s been in my pocket, he’d be barmy to actually eat it! And thanks for the support, guys,” he added to the others.

The Weasley clan laughed again and Harry got the distinct feeling they rather enjoyed seeing him squirm. The Healer glared at him a moment longer, then shook his head and turned back to his patient, muttering something that sounded vaguely like “early retirement.” He fussed over the injured twin for a few minutes while the Weasley parents found chairs, Mrs. Weasley looking very much like she wanted to be the one doing the fussing.

From his spot on the far side of the bed, Harry watched curiously as Fred won a small argument with his Healer. The Healer wanted him to lie back down, telling him he needed rest. Harry secretly agreed; what he could see of his friend’s face looked tired and strained from the effort of hiding his pain, but Fred wouldn’t do it. He wanted to sit up while his family was there. He promised he’d lie back down after the Healer had delivered his news.

“Shall we get on with this, then?” asked Fred brightly as the Healer stepped back, shaking his head again.

“Yeah, what’s up?” asked Charlie. “Mum just said we were all supposed to meet here.”

“I asked that you all come,” the Healer responded quickly. “We need to discuss Mr. Weasley’s recovery. There are some issues that you, as his family, need to be aware of.”

A rather sobering mood fell over the room and everyone shifted slightly, giving the Healer their full attention.

“I’m sure I don’t need to remind any of you how extremely lucky this young man is to be alive today, or how extensive his injuries were and still remain.”

Harry shuddered as he listened, stealing a glance at his friend to again try and push unwanted memories from his mind.

“Mr. Weasley’s internal injuries were so grievous that they would have killed him instantly if not for the Petrification, but that Petrification has also caused problems. It has slowed his ability to heal and interfered with the spells and potions we normally use to correct such injuries swiftly. We’ve had to delve into rather uncharted waters with his case, using spells much stronger and longer-lasting than we like to.”

“But he’ll be okay, right?” asked Ginny suddenly.

The Healer paused for a moment and looked at her, his face softening slightly at the worry on her face.

“Yes, my dear, he’ll be okay. I suspect in a month or so your brother will be up and about and giving you the usual grief, if at a slightly slower pace. But he’ll have to be careful for a while, you all will. That’s what I needed to speak to you all about. The spells we had to use to put this young man back together again were so strong, and so unorthodox, they’ve rarely been used before. We know very little about how they react to other magic, especially over the long term. It’s one of the reasons we’ve allowed his broken wrist to heal the Muggle way; no point in exposing him to more magic than is needed.”

Harry looked at Fred’s left wrist, noticing for the first time that it seemed to be immobilized underneath the creamy bandages that wrapped it.

“So this is what it boils down to,” continued the Healer. “Mr. Weasley,” he said, addressing Fred first, “in order to insure that the healing spells we’ve placed on you continue uninterrupted and without any nasty or unforeseen side-affects, you must avoid using any magic for at least two months. You can, however, still use magical objects as long as you are not performing the magic yourself. After two months, if we decide you are sufficiently healed, you can resume using light magic, but under no circumstances should you use or be exposed to strong magic for at least nine months. It could cause the spells that are literally holding your insides together right now to fail. Do I make myself clear?”

Looking unusually sober, Fred gulped and nodded. “No magic – got it.”

Satisfied, the Healer turned back to the rest of them in the room. “It’s also going to be important to limit his exposure to magic for some time, especially strong magic. That’s where you all come in. It will take the combined effort of the whole family to help him get through this and insure everything goes as it should. You’ll all have to be careful to limit your use of magic around Mr. Weasley for a while. Can you do that?”

“Of course,” said Bill at once. “We’ll do whatever it takes.”

Everyone in the room either echoed Bill’s statement or nodded enthusiastically. Harry, knowing how magical life at the Burrow was, knew that wasn’t going to be an easy task, but he also knew they were Weasleys – for one of their own they’d all have willingly and without hesitation given up magic completely if it had been needed.

“Very good. I figured as much,” said the aged Healer, smiling for the first time. He quickly began to describe for them in more detail what they could expect from the next few weeks and months, exactly what kinds of magic could safely be performed dependant on how close Fred was or the strength of the spell, and a dozen other rather complicated instructions. Harry listened carefully, determined to do everything he possibly could to help out this family that had welcomed him as though he were one of their own.

“What about his eyes?” said George suddenly, speaking up for the first time and interrupting the Healer’s lecture. “Why haven’t you mentioned them and why are the bandages still on.”

Harry watched as the smile slid instantly from the man’s face and his shoulders sagged. He sighed before speaking. “I was just about to remove the bandages, actually, but…”

“But what?” prodded Mrs. Weasley, sitting forward on her chair and literally radiating worry. Harry again stole a glance at Fred who had been remarkably quiet through all this discussion of his own health and couldn’t help noticing that the older boy was clutching the blanket with his good hand tightly, as if afraid to hear what was about to be said.

The Healer sighed again, then squared his shoulders and launched into what sounded like a speech he had prepared by heart. “Unfortunately, the highest concentration of the Killing Curse entered Mr. Weasley’s body through his eyes. It caused his retinas to detach and die, something we unfortunately didn’t notice in a timely fashion because of the Petrification and the multitude of other more life-threatening injuries. By the time it was discovered, it was too late to heal them completely.”

There was a collective intake of breath from the room at those words, but the Healer went on before anyone could speak. “And sadly that’s not all. After damaging the eyes themselves, the spell continued on into Mr. Weasley’s brain, settling around his optic nerve and causing massive swelling. That swelling has come down slightly, but it still remains, as do the remnants of the spell. We’ve tried everything, but bear in mind we’ve never seen a case like this in all the four hundred and eighty two years St. Mungo’s has existed. There’s simply nothing else we can do.”

“What are you saying?” asked Fred suddenly, his voice quiet as he clenched the blanket even tighter in his fist.

“I’m saying,” said the Healer, turning to address Fred again, “that your eyes themselves are healed to the point you may remove the bandages, but sadly, it won’t make any difference. I’m horribly sorry, son, but your sight is gone. You’re blind now.”

“Forever?” blurted Ginny, her voice a high squeak and her eyes bright with tears she was trying desperately not to let fall.

“I can’t answer that,” said the Healer sadly, sounding very tired. “There’s a small chance the spell may dissipate and the swelling go down over time, but even if that does happen, his eyes are damaged to the point he would likely only receive roughly thirty percent of his vision back.”

Stunned silence filled the small room at those words. Harry couldn’t believe what he’d just heard. Fred Weasley, blind? That just couldn’t be possible! It was just so wrong!

Suddenly, with what sounded like a small, keening wail, Mrs. Weasley dissolved into tears on her husband’s shoulder. It shattered the spell of silence that had gripped the hospital room and sent the sobering news deep into the heart of everyone there.

Abruptly, George pushed himself roughly to his feet, knocking over his chair in his haste, and stormed from the room, slamming the door behind him. As the echo of wood hitting wood mixed with the wails of Mrs. Weasley, the rest of the room looked toward Fred, sitting pale and still in his bed.

“Well, bugger,” he swore softly, letting his head fall back against his pillow.

No one really knew what to say after that.


Chapter 7: Stumbling Blocks
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Chapter 6: "Stumbling Blocks" 

“Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors.”

- African Proverb

*****

Standing at the window of St. Mungo’s Tea Room, George stared through the magical glass at the rooftops of London spread out before him without really seeing them at all. In fact, he had no real recollection of actually arriving in that spot to begin with, let alone why he would want to look at a bunch of dingy roofs through the perpetual London fog. After listening to that bloody Healer throw Fred’s whole world out of kilter, though, he just knew he had to get out. Out of that room, out of the presence of his family, away from Fred and his desperate attempt to hide his fear… He just needed to be anywhere but there before the anger that was suddenly burning through him exploded.

He’d stormed from the room and through the halls, not even aware of where he was going. After who-knew-how-many slammed doors and harsh comments from Healers and orderlies, and perhaps one or two pieces of upturned furniture, he’d wound up here, standing in front of a window he didn’t even want to look out of, his arms crossed and a glare on his face that warned of severe harm to anyone who dared to approach him.

He was just so angry! After losing Fred and then miraculously getting him back, against all the odds, he’d been so sure he was prepared to handle whatever happened as a result but apparently that had been a lie. He’d heard that Healer utter the word blind and just lost it. A million thoughts crashed into his brain with no way to stop them. Thoughts of never playing Quidditch together again, a pair of unstoppable Beaters… Realizing he’d never again glance at his twin and have whole conversations in an instant… No more catching each other’s eye to share a joke across a crowded room…

How could the universe do that to Fred? Sentence him to a life without sight? After everything they’d done and been through? It was just so bloody unfair!

“Not much of a view.”

George whirled at the unexpected voice from beside him, ready to verbally decimate the speaker for intruding, only to stop short.

“There are really much better windows around this place for brooding,” Augusta Longbottom continued, completely oblivious to George’s shocked expression and graciously ignoring the fact that he was gaping at her like a fish. “I could show you where they are, if you’re interested.”

She didn’t speak again, just stood there gazing out that blasted window instead of at him until he felt he had no choice but to say something in return.

“Look, Mrs. Longbottom, I don’t mean to be rude or anything, but I’m really not in the mood for company,” he said, re-crossing his arms and turning away slightly.

“That’s usually when you need it the most, lad,” she replied matter-of-factly.

George scoffed, pulling his arms tighter around himself. “What I need is a magical Do-Over switch,” he bit out, seeing Fred’s bandage-wrapped eyes in his mind.

“Wars don’t have Do-Over switches, George Weasley,” said Mrs. Longbottom bluntly, finally turning to look at him. “Wars don’t clean up nicely. They stop. They might be won. They might even be called victories, but they don’t have happy endings, not really.”

“Thanks,” said George bitterly. “If you’re trying to give me a pep talk, it’s bloody lousy.”

“I said wars don’t have happy endings, George. I never said life couldn’t.”

George turned and looked at the small, old woman next to him, frowning deeply and wondering exactly how a woman in such a ridiculous hat could be making him this peeved. And how she could sound so experienced at the same time.

“Let me guess, your brother’s lying in a bed somewhere in this hospital and you’ve just been told less than pleasant news about his future, correct?”

George didn’t answer, just glared. Mrs. Longbottom, however, seemed unfazed. “And now you’ve decided you’re entitled to stand here and curse the world because it’s been cruel and callous? Well, young man, I’ve some news for you: the world and most everyone in it doesn’t care one iota about your brother. So you’d best get over it.”

Her blunt words shocked the glare right off George’s face and he felt his anger roaring back, but the little woman went on before he could form a nasty enough reply.

“George,” she said, suddenly changing her tactic as she moved a little behind them to a table, “come here and sit down.” She gestured to a seat as she took one herself. George wanted to say no, in rather colorful language, but she’d said it in that tone of voice his mother used when it wasn’t a suggestion and somehow his feet just followed orders and carried him to the table.

“I know what you’re feeling, lad,” she said in a softer voice as he slouched petulantly in the chair.

“How could you?” he spat. He was being horribly rude, to someone he’d never even really spoken to before, but he honestly didn’t care. Fred was blind, would probably never see again, and this woman had the gall to intrude on his brood and then tell him she understood?

“Late one November night, several weeks after the horrible events that cost young Harry Potter his family, my son and his wife were home enjoying a rare evening alone. You-Know-Who had been defeated, at least we thought so at the time, and peace and safety had returned to our world after months of terror, horror and pain. Frank and Alice, Aurors both of them, had been in the thick of it for the entire War, and for the first time in months they’d planned a night off to spend together. I even offered to mind little Neville so they wouldn’t be interrupted.”

Mrs. Longbottom’s words were firm and measured, but there was no missing the undercurrent of sorrow they also carried. As she spoke, George found himself listening intently despite his best efforts. He’d always known Neville was raised by his grandmother, but he’d never seen the need to question why. Now he had the grim feeling he was about to find out.

“They were supposed arrive back at my house to retrieve Neville in the morning as I had other obligations the next day, but they were late. I was slightly annoyed, but it was the first alone time they’d had in almost a year so I tried to be understanding. The day dragged on, however, until after several hours of waiting, just when worry was really starting to set in, someone appeared at my doorstep: Alastor Moody, head of the Auror Department. He came to tell me there’d been another attack.”

She paused and looked right at him, deep into his eyes and George found he couldn’t look away. There, far beneath the surface, hidden behind the mask she allowed the world to see every day, George saw a well of great pain. He sucked in a breath in shock, recognizing it because it was exactly the kind of pain he was currently lost in.

“The War was over, George,” said Mrs. Longbottom quietly, still holding his gaze. “It had been for weeks! Everything was supposed to be safe once more. But here was the head of my son’s department standing on my porch and telling me how very sorry he was, that they’d catch the ones responsible if they had to chase them to the ends of the earth, that Frank and Alice had fought like heroes. And the truth was I didn’t care. I wanted to hex him, curse him with every nasty jinx I had ever learned, and then slam the door and pretend I hadn’t just had my son ripped away from me.”

“Who killed them?” asked George quietly, finding his own rage melting away.

“Rodolphus and Bellatrix Lestrange, attacked them, with help from others,” replied Mrs. Longbottom. “Which reminds me that I really need to send my thanks to your mother, but that’s beside the point. You’ve misunderstood something, George. Frank and Alice weren’t killed. No, they’re still very much alive.”

“But then, why…?” stammered George, confused.

“They’re insane – tortured with the Cruciatus Curse to the point they lost their minds. They live here in the long-term ward now, which means I’ve spent many, many hours in this hospital as I’ve visited them.”

George straightened, really listening.

“George, I don’t know what they told you about your twin, what bad news you’re trying to deal with, but can I give you some advice from someone with a little experience? You may always feel like cursing the world, and you will always wish there was a way to, as you put it earlier, ‘do things over.’ But you also have to realize that’s never going to happen, which means you have a choice to make. You can live life forever brooding on the past, wishing for things that you cannot change and facing the world with that impressive rage you’ve got day after day. Or you can let it go and learn to live again. Wars might end, and with them many other things, but life doesn’t, not if you don’t let it. Yes, I wish every day that the attack on my son and his wife hadn’t happened, but I also thank the heavens each and every day that they’re still alive. Yes, they’re changed and different, not the same as they used to be, but Frank is still my son and Alice still my daughter-in-law – they’re still Neville’s parents. Just because things are different doesn’t mean I can’t still love them just as much, and I know they somehow understand that love. The same goes for you, George. Your brother’s alive, isn’t he?”

George nodded, finding himself for once in his life rather at a loss for words.

“And he’s still your brother, isn’t he, no matter what’s changed?”

He nodded again, feelings welling up inside his chest.

“Then why should any of the rest matter in the least?”

Traitorous tears George desperately didn’t want to let fall pricked the corners of his eyes and he looked away from Mrs. Longbottom, gazing instead back out the gloomy window. “Thanks,” he finally said after several long moments. “I reckon I needed to hear that.”

A wrinkled, leathery hand reached out and patted his briskly – once, then twice – and then its owner stood, straightening her stunningly awful hat. “We’ll, I’m going to purchase a cup of the bilge this place likes to try and pass off as tea and then I really must be on with my visit. But, George, I meant what I said. Look me up if you want the secrets of the best places to have a good fit in St. Mungo’s. I’d be happy to share, one brooder to another.”

She left abruptly after that, not giving him a chance to think of a reply let alone utter it. He shook his head, standing and turning back to the window in almost the exact spot he’d occupied before the strange and unexpected interruption from the formidable little witch in the stuffed-vulture hat. His feelings and emotions were still a mess but something was different, the rage was gone. Disappointment, stunned disbelief, over-powering sorrow – those all remained, but there were other emotions stirring again as well.

Almost without thought, he reached a hand up to the hole where his left ear used to be, fingering it absently. It still pained him occasionally, and he’d noticed some hearing loss on that side, but not enough to bother anyone about. Compared to the loss Fred was facing it was miniscule, but still… They’d lost things before and survived. Perhaps they could manage this blow as well.

The fog outside lifted slightly and he had a clearer view of the city. It struck him that just looking out at those rooftops below was something Fred would never get to do again and suddenly, they didn’t seem so dingy and unimportant.

Those blasted tears were back, stinging his eyes, and he turned his back on the room in a half-hearted attempt to save some of his dignity. This wasn’t going to be easy, this blindness crap, and so much was going to change now, but he knew it was going to be a heck of a lot easier for him than for Fred. So, he was going to stand there until he got himself put back together again, and then he was going to go back to that room and start learning to be the eyes for two people.

*****

The door was old and solid, a hold-over and remnant from many years of history. Generations of magical leaders had sat behind its imposing presence. An ornate, golden plaque had been added to its surface in recent years.

Bill Weasley, fist poised in the air to knock, stared at that door, a grin creeping over his scarred face.

The ostentatious plaque had originally born the phrase “Pius Thicknesse: Minister of Magic,” but someone, using indelible ink, had improved on it. It now read “Prissy Thickhead: Former Minister of Magic, Current Dead Death Eater.” Directly underneath someone had taped a piece of parchment with a crude, handwritten sign on it that read “Office of Kingsley Shacklebolt: Interim Minister of Magic – Good luck catching him actually in this room.”

Bill read it three more times, shaking his head as his smile grew. It was a silly, simple little thing but somehow very reassuring. Anyone of the several men who had sat in this office in the last few years would have made putting up a new gold sign on that door a top priority on their to-do list. The fact that Kingsley had more important things to do than get his name engraved in gold… It was about time they had a leader like that.

Still smiling broadly, Bill let his fist finish its journey and rapped loudly on the wooden door.

“Come in,” Kingsley’s deep voice rang out.

Bill turned the knob and walked into the office, right into a glorious mess. Books and parchments were stacked in haphazard piles everywhere – on the desk, in the corners, spilling out of open drawers. Some of them reached to the ceiling. Bill accidentally brushed past one on his way in and it teetered alarmingly.

Kingsley looked up from the small clear space on his desk where he was working on something and swiftly pulled out his wand, firing a hasty spell at the traitorous pile. It quivered, but stayed standing.

“Filing cabinet explode?” asked Bill wryly, glancing around as his grin only continued to grow.

“You don’t even want to know,” sighed Kingsley, shaking his head.

“I like the sign,” added Bill, nodding over his shoulder as he shut the door behind him.

“Guess who’s responsible for that decorating touch?” prodded Kingsley, leaning back in his chair as his deep, resonate laugh filled the small room.

“I would have suspected Fred and George in a heartbeat if I didn’t know exactly where they’ve been since the Battle,” said Bill, curiosity spiking.

“Oh, it was a Weasley all right, just not the ones you’re thinking of,” chuckled Kingsley. “Your brother Percy did that.”

“Percy!” stammered Bill, shocked. “Percy Weasley? Our Percy?”

“Yes, your Percy,” said Kingsley, using his wand to clear a stack of crumbling folders off the only other chair in the room and gesturing for Bill to sit down. “His tribute to Fred, actually,” he continued, sobering. “That’s one of the reasons I’ve left it there, that and the fact I haven’t been in this building long enough to really worry about it yet. You’ll notice he still managed to get a subtle hint in there that I really ought to be spending a little more time in this office.”

Bill sat in the offered seat, his thoughts drifting to his family. Percy had been working to reconnect with them since the Battle, but Bill knew it wasn’t easy for him. There were years of issues and feelings that didn’t go away in one moment of elation and forgiveness. And their prodigal son and brother was still himself, still Percy; Bill knew he still very much felt like a square peg in their rather round family. He was living at the Burrow again, to help out and because he knew it was what their mum needed at the moment, and he’d made an effort to visit Fred regularly, but Bill could still see how uncomfortable and out-of-place his brother often felt. And how guilty, especially around Fred. Heck, he could almost give Harry a run for his money in the guilt department. At this rate, they’d have to book the both of them for counseling before too long. Still, seeing Percy’s extremely visible tribute to his brother touched Bill greatly.

“I always knew he had more Weasley in him than he liked to admit,” said Bill softly. “I’ll be sure to tell Fred. He’ll love it.”

“I heard about Fred’s eyes, Bill. I’m very sorry,” said Kingsley seriously. “How’s he doing?”

“I think he’s still in shock, actually; we all are really. This is going to take a lot of adjustment, and I’m not sure it’s really sunk in yet.”

“You know, if there’s anything I can do, don’t hesitate to ask. This world and the Order owe a lot to the Weasley family.”

“Thanks,” said Bill, grateful for the offer, knowing it came from Kingsley as a friend and not an obligatory statement because he was Minister.

“I still wish I didn’t have to drag you all back out into the thick of it again so soon,” continued Kingsley wearily. “You should be with Fred right now, not out risking your lives once more.”

“We knew what we were signing up for and you know it, Kingsley. And I seem to recall Weasleys in the Order even before you, Mr. Minister,” said Bill, giving the older man a slightly cheeky grin. “Besides, you didn’t drag us into anything, we volunteered. We’re in this for the long haul and we’ll all take a break once we know the danger’s really gone.”

“Well, I will say this then – people sometimes hint there’s more Weasleys than should be allowed, but I wish I had two dozen more. We’d be lost without the lot of you.”

“Be careful what you wish for, Minister,” laughed Bill. “You do realize I have five brothers, all old enough to marry now… In a couple years you could be swimming in Weasleys.”

“Is that an announcement?” Kingsley shot back, returning the grin as he leaned forward on his desk. “Should I be sending congratulations to Fleur?”

“What? No!” said Bill hastily. “Not yet, at any rate.”

Kingsley laughed again, the sound filling the room, and Bill thought perhaps he was enjoying this little break from all the worry of his new job to chat with an old friend. It didn’t last long, however, as he sobered rather quickly.

“So, what brings you here, Bill?” the Minister asked. “I noticed you haven’t been out there with us for the last few days. What’s going on?”

“I’ve actually come to ask for a little official help,” admitted Bill, leaning forward on the chair and getting down to business. “For Harry.”

Kingsley let out a sigh at the mention of the boy’s name. “Harry,” he said, something akin sadness in his voice. “If there’s anyone who deserves a break from this continued madness it’s that boy. I hate that I can’t give it to him but the truth is we need him out there. He’s good – bloody good – and I’m in no position at the moment to be choosy.”

“He wouldn’t take it even if you could give it to him, and you know that.”

“I know, but that doesn’t make it right. The boy has more Defense experience and skills than ninety-five percent of my Auror Corps, or what’s left of them at least, and a logical head on his shoulders to boot. I haven’t told him this, but I’d induct him into the Auror Corps tomorrow and waive the training, but I’m not sure that’s what he really wants...or needs,” he added after a moment.

“Honestly, Kingsley, he’s so lost right now I’m not sure he knows what he wants,” answered Bill truthfully, thinking of the dark-haired boy who had become like another little brother to him. He knew Harry was hurting – his whole family could see it radiating off him like some sort of sorrowful pulse – and it was madding that they didn’t know what to do to help him. They did the only thing they could think of – surround him with family so he knew he wasn’t alone and keep a wary eye on him.

“What’s going on that you need my help for, then?”

“It’s Gringotts actually. I’ve tried every route and official string I can pull, but they’re being complete idiots about it.”

“About what?” said Kingsley with a frown.

“Harry’s accounts. They’ve locked them and banned Harry from accessing them, or even entering the bank. The kid can’t even withdraw a Knut.”

“What?” cried Kingsley, his eyes narrowing. “The hero of the wizarding world and they’ve barred him from entering?”

“It gets worse,” said Bill grimly. “They’re even considering legal action against him because of that break-in he pulled off to find the Horcrux, and being typical thick-headed, treasure-centered goblins they aren’t listening to a word I say in his defense. I’m doing the only thing I can think of that’s left to me – going over their heads.”

“What I want to know is why no one told me about this until now!” demanded Kingsley, standing and collecting his cloak from the top of a pile of what looked suspiciously like Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes products. With an inner grin, Bill decided not to tell.

“Because he’s Harry!” he replied, shrugging his shoulders as he got to his feet as well. “He didn’t even come to me with the problem until three days ago. The kid’s been living out of his pack for almost a year; he figured a bit longer wouldn’t hurt and he didn’t want to bother anyone.”

“Has anyone ever bothered to tell that boy that it’s okay to need help? And to ask for it?” sighed Kingsley, shaking his head in frustration.

“You’ve met his relatives,” said Bill grimly. “I reckon you can figure that one out on your own.”

“Well, I reckon it’s about time this world started doing something for the boy who saved our collective posteriors,” said Kingsley, sounding more than a little menacing as he flicked out the light with his wand and moved through the piles to the door.

“Couldn’t agree more,” replied Bill with a wide grin. “Should I inform my boss that Gringotts will be getting an official visit from the Minister of Magic today?”

“What? And ruin all the fun? No, I say let’s make it a surprise.”

*****

“…and I think we should try Apparating to Melbourne tomorrow,” said Hermione as she sat on the edge of her hotel bed, busily organizing her bag for the next day.

Ron gave a distracted mumble as he approached his bed with caution, only half listening to her.

“I’d like to take a look in their library…”

Wand raised warily in his right hand, Ron reached out with his left and jerked the pillow to the side, eyes focused for sudden movement.

Nothing.

“…just think it might be the sort of city my parents would gravitate to, y’know?”

Nerves on edge for battle, Ron reached out again and this time grasped the covers on his bed. He took a deep breath and then yanked them backwards, baring the sheets underneath.

Again, nothing.

“…have a wonderful university there, and Dad always liked to live close to…”

He paused, thinking hard. Just because he couldn’t see them didn’t mean they weren’t there, watching him. That bloody book had said they were elusive. He eyed the dark edge of the bed where the covers met the floor suspiciously, fighting the urge to back away.

“Ron, are you even listening to me?” Hermione’s rather exasperated voice broke into his thoughts.

“Yeah, Melbourne, tomorrow. Got it,” he muttered distractedly, getting down on his knees slowly and forcing himself to approach the bed. He took a deep breath, then flipped the bed-skirt up and muttered a Lumos at the space under the mattress.

Still nothing. Well, almost nothing.

Ron reached out and picked up the Deluminator, eyeing it curiously. He didn’t remember packing it, but then he hadn’t really thought much about what he was shoving into his suitcase either. Good thing he’d looked down here, he thought as he pocketed it absent-mindedly. He would have hated to leave it behind.

So, they weren’t in the bed, and they weren’t under the bed. He was feeling a little better, but still…

“Should we pack a lunch for tomorrow or…”

In the closet. That’s the one place he hadn’t checked yet, and it was dark and closed in, just like that book had said they liked.

Face set, Ron walked toward the little closet, wand at the ready. He reached out and grasped the doorknob, counted to three silently in his head, and then yanked hard.

“Ronald Bilius Weasley! What in Merlin’s name are you doing?”

As the closet door banged loudly into the wall, Ron looked wide-eyed at his girlfriend. All three names definitely required his full attention.

“Um…”

Hermione just sat there, crossing her arms as she raised an eyebrow.

“Looking for spiders,” he mumbled.

“Spiders?” she repeated.

He nodded. “This ruddy country has at least a dozen of them that can kill you, y’know.”

“In the closet?”

“It said they like dark places!” he said, feeling the need to defend his actions.

“What said? Where have you been getting this information? You didn’t act like this last night, or any of the other nights we’ve been here?” asked Hermione, narrowing her eyes at him.

Ron mumbled something, looking at his shoes.

“I didn’t quite catch that, Ronald,” replied Hermione briskly.

“From a book,” sighed Ron slightly louder, as if admitting to some horrible crime.

“A book?” said Hermione, surprised. “You? Reading?”

“Well, what else was I supposed to do, sitting in that bloody library day after day while you did brilliant and confusing stuff with that Muggle kerputer? Not like I’m any help to you! There was this book sitting there, facts about Australia… Wasn’t too big, had a lot of pictures…”

Nasty, full color, high magnification pictures, he couldn’t help reminding himself with a small shudder. It was the first time he’d been grateful Muggle pictures didn’t move.

“And this book told you there were spiders living in the closet?” she pressed, incredulously.

Ron shook his head, exasperated with Hermione and her refusal to get it. “No, Hermione,” he said rather grouchily. “It told me there are an insane amount of blasted spiders in this freaky country, and that the little buggers can show up anywhere! And guess what else I learned – most of them are poisonous to boot!”

Hermione sighed. “Did the book also tell you that no one’s died from a spider bite in Australia in years? That spiders are more scared of you than you are of them and would rather run away than bite you?”

More scared of me than I was of them? Ron thought with a scoff. Not bloody likely. “Says who?” he asked, crossing his arms and glaring at her.

“Says any number of official and educated sources,” replied Hermione. “So you can stop acting like there are miniature Death Eaters in our room that are going to jump out and get you.”

Personally, Ron would take Death Eaters over spiders any day. Death Eaters were large, they were generally easy to see, and they didn’t run across your face with no warning in the middle of the night.

“Ron,” said Hermione, a little softer and with less exasperation, “just go shower. And try not to use all the hot water this time.”

Giving a long-suffering sigh and not letting go of his wand, Ron closed the closet door and gathered up his pajamas. It was when he reached down for his comb that had fallen in the space behind the chair that he saw it. It was sitting there, calmly watching him, on the carpet just below the window.

He froze, unable to think, unable the breath, unable to move. All he could do was stare at it while its eight beady little eyes stared back, almost mocking him.

Suddenly, a hand holding one of his trainers descended through his field of vision, completely obliterating the little monster. He blinked rapidly for a few moments then stood up, face burning with embarrassment at his reaction.

Shaking her head slightly, Hermione smiled at him. “Go shower, Ron. I’ll check the rest of the room while you’re gone. And for the record,” she said as she handed him the trainer she had just wiped off with a tissue, “a shoe makes a much better weapon against a spider than a wand. Just a thought.”

Not when they’re four feet tall, he felt like replying but didn’t. Instead, he picked his way to the loo, eyes never leaving the floor and wand still gripped between his fingers.

*****

Eyes glowing like embers from Hell, Voldemort lowered his wand and stepped away from the corpse. He turned toward him, an easy smile on his snake-like face.

“Are you ready to give up yet, Potter?” he asked calmly, pointing to the long form of Fred Weasley stretched out on the ground at his feet.

Harry’s mind was reeling, stunned by having just watched Voldemort slaughter one of his friends, but he forced himself not to betray his emotions. “No, Tom,” he said firmly, not lowering his own wand as he faced his enemy. “I’ll never give up.”

With a casual shrug, the Dark Lord gestured lazily toward one of his minions, who stepped forward and tossed a second body on the ground next to Fred’s. “What about now?” countered Voldemort calmly, pointing gleefully to the tiny form.

Harry’s heart stopped; he couldn’t breathe. Time itself seemed to freeze. Ginny! That was Ginny! He stared at her pale skin and long, brilliantly red hair. Saw her brown eyes, once so full of life and love, now vacant and empty. This was all wrong! This was not supposed to happen! She couldn’t be dead!

“NO!” he screamed. A jet of red light erupted from his wand, catching the Dark Lord square in the chest. But, then, it simply fizzled and disappeared.

Voldemort cackled.

“A Stun spell, Potter?” he taunted. “I killed your little girlfriend and her brother and all you can offer is a Stun spell? I expected so much more from the ‘Chosen One’. Shall I kill another? Your beloved blood-traitor side-kick perhaps?”

Rage, hot and savage, burned through Harry as he screamed a second spell, this time sending a blast of green light from the tip of his wand. With vindictive pleasure, he watched as Voldemort fell to the ground, his taunting laugh finally silenced. Panting, Harry stood there, reveling in the sight.

“You killed him, Harry,” said McGonagall sadly.

Startled, he jerked around to find himself surrounded.

“An Unforgivable, Harry,” said Lupin, shaking his head, disappointment in his eyes.

“At least I only killed the snake, Harry,” put in Neville.

“You’re a murderer now, Harry,” added Mr. Weasley. “You killed Tom, and Ginny, and Fred.”

“No, I didn’t kill them!” cried Harry, desperately holding back tears as he looked again to the bodies of his friends lying on the ground. “Voldemort killed them! I had no choice! I had to kill him or he would have killed the rest of you!”

No one answered and suddenly the rest of the Weasleys were gathered there, great disappointment in their eyes. As one, they turned their backs to him and began to walk away, not speaking.

“Wait! No, please come back! He killed Ginny! I didn’t have a choice!”

“Goodbye, Harry,” Mrs. Weasley called over her shoulder to him. “I won’t have a murderer living under my roof.”

“No! Please! Please don’t leave! I’m sorry! I’m sorry about Fred! I’m sorry about Ginny! Come back! I don’t want to be alone anymore! Please!”

The last scream still on his lips, Harry jerked up in bed, shaking and sweating. Chest heaving from the vivid nightmare, he sat there panting and trembling for several long minutes before he shoved the tangled covers off his legs and swung them to the floor. Fighting the desire to retch, he leaned forward on his knees and ran fingers through his sweaty hair as he fought to control his ragged breathing.

That was the third nightmare this week and definitely the most vivid so far. He’d thought his sleep might be uninterrupted now that he’d ejected Voldemort from his head, but apparently his own brain was perfectly capable of torturing him on its own.

Shakily, he got to his feet and moved to gaze out Ron’s window at the dark night below. Sleep wasn’t coming back anytime soon, not with him trembling like a leaf and still panting as though he’d run a footrace. He might as well put the time to good use planning moves for the long day of Death Eater chasing ahead of him.

Morosely, Harry wondered if winning was always supposed to make you this tired.


Chapter 8: One Step Forward...
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Author's Note:  I can't start this chapter without saying something first.  Around the end of March my muse decided to go on vacation.  And extened, didn't get approval, left no forwarding address vacation.  I literally didn't write anything for about four months, and then when life calmed down enough for me to start again, I found I couldn't.  I just couldn't get the words flowing.  My beta and adopted big brother stepped in and saved the day.  He practically wrote the first half of this chapter for me, helping me get the muse working again, which is why I must give a CO-AUTHOR credit to theelderwand for this chapter.  There's no way I could have done it alone.  Thanks bro!


Chapter 7: "One Step Forward…"

"Fall seven times, get up eight."
- Japanese Proverb

*****

“Well, they gave us the devil of a time trying to get in the door, but then Kingsley said the magic word,” said Bill around a mouthful of pastrami and rye.

Harry snorted slightly. The one and only time he’d used the phrase “the magic word” around the Dursleys had almost sentenced him to a week without meals. With great pleasure, he took a large bite of his own sandwich and shoved memories of the past back where they belonged so he could keep his attention focused on what Bill was saying.

“Don’t talk with your mouth full, dear,” admonished Mrs. Weasley with a frown at her eldest son. She pulled another sandwich from the magical picnic basket at her feet. “And who had the chicken salad again?”

George reached out an eager hand while Bill rolled his eyes once his mother was turned away from him.

Once again, Harry couldn’t help smiling. “So what exactly was the magic word?” He was careful to swallow his own bite of ham and cheese before he spoke.

They were all gathered in Fred’s hospital room, the whole Weasley clan, or at least all the ones who weren’t currently in Australia. Fred had finally been cleared by the Healers to eat solid meals and had instantly declared himself in imminent danger of death by starvation if he didn’t get some real food pronto. Not hospital food – real, authentic, cooked-by-his-own-mum food.

Mrs. Weasley had been only too happy to oblige, and she’d set to it with a will! Harry hadn’t ever seen a sandwich spread quite like this. The whole family was still reeling from the events of the last three weeks – Harry and Fred dying and coming back from the dead, Fred’s blindness… At this point, Harry reckoned Mrs. Weasley would have brought her injured son the moon if he’d asked for it. To have Fred come off the Nutritional Potions was just one more little milestone in the whole family’s recovery and she’d decided to make it a celebration, which explained why the little room in St. Mungo’s was currently crowded with ten people, about nine more than it was comfortably designed to hold. Every chair was filled, and the rest of the Weasleys were crammed onto the windowsill, floor, or the foot of Fred’s bed, all happily devouring Mrs. Weasley’s wonderful sandwiches.

“Taxes,” Bill continued with a sly smile. He scooted over as he spoke so Fleur, who’d been helping pass out the food, could join him on the floor across from Fred’s bed.

“Oh, Merlin!” said Mr. Weasley, shaking his head with a small chuckle even as Percy almost choked on peanut butter and jelly, staring at his brother with wide eyes as he coughed and spluttered.

“What?” asked Harry, feeling very much like he was on the outside of some joke as he watched their reactions. “I don't understand.”

“Don’t worry about not understanding what Bill says,” George drawled.

“We’ve known him our whole lives and we still don’t understand him,” added Fred, frowning as he tried to eat his sandwich one handed. His left wrist and hand were currently incased in a hard plaster cast, making it pretty much useless for anything other than whacking his siblings. The family had been alternately fascinated or horrified at this Muggle treatment for broken bones which was yet another attempt to minimize Fred’s exposure to magic.

“Hey!” cried Bill indignantly at the twins’ comments.

Fred raised his broken arm in surrender, which caused Ginny to growl, “Hold still!” Then she carefully pulled the broken arm back into her lap where she was attacking the plaster with a Muggle marker.

“Ginevra, leave Fred alone and eat your sandwich,” admonished Mrs. Weasley, shaking her head.

“In a minute, Mum,” Ginny replied absently, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear as she leaned closer to her brother’s arm. “I’m almost done.”

Fred frowned in the general direction of his sister. “Harry, are you sure this is a Muggle tradition and not something you drummed up out of that evil brain of yours?” he asked, scowling.

“Oh, yes,” Harry deadpanned, trying desperately not to laugh and thanking his lucky stars Hermione wasn’t here. When he’d showed up earlier to find Fred sporting his spiffy new cast, he couldn’t resist pulling out a marker and signing it with a big flourish. He remembered back to the summer when he was seven and he’d, through events he didn’t feel the need to go into, broken his right arm. He’d gone that whole miserable holiday with a cast and hadn’t managed to garner one signature. He didn’t know anyone well enough to ask them to sign it, and if he did, they were too scared of Dudley to try.

There was no Dudley around now, though, and that meant that Fred didn’t have a prayer of getting through this with the shame of a pristine cast. It had been an instant hit with his family and now in addition to the large ‘Albert Einstein’ autograph Harry’d scrawled, Fred’s cast held the celebrity scribbles of ‘Winston Churchill,’ ‘Godric Gryffindor,’ ‘Sir Lancelot,’ and ‘Queen Victoria,’ as well as an array of pink and purple hearts from Fleur and Ginny that the later was putting the finishing touches on. “It’s one of their most sacred healing rituals,” he finished solemnly.

They hadn’t told Fred about the hearts yet.

Percy, sitting in one of the coveted chairs next to his brother’s bed, frowned, apparently unable to let that slide, and opened his mouth to comment but Charlie promptly stomped on his foot.

“I don’t believe you,” pouted Fred, his mouth full of tuna and completely oblivious to the bedside drama. Harry couldn’t help but notice that Mrs. Weasley didn’t tell Fred not to speak with his mouth full. “I bet you’ve got it all decked out in pink bunnies and rainbows and other dire threats to my manhood.”

“I assure you, zere are no bunnies,” said Fleur, giving Harry a conspiratorial wink. “Your ‘man’ood,’ as you say, eez very safe.”

“And the hearts are just smashing with your hospital robe,” added George solemnly.

“Muuum!” Fred whined, letting his head fall carefully back against the headboard. “How could you let them do this to me?”

“All right, you lot,” Mrs. Weasley said snatching the marker from her daughter’s hand with a roll of her eyes. “Fred’s cast is quite colorful enough for now, and you all should be eating anyway.”

“Besides,” added Bill in mock indignation. “I thought I was telling a story…”

“Yeah, go on,” said Charlie. “I wanna know how old King got the goblins.”

“Where was I?” asked the eldest Weasley brother, shifting to find a more comfortable position on the floor.

“Taxes,” Harry prodded, very eager to hear the rest of this tale. “But I don’t understand what that has to do with anything.”

Bill grinned. “You wanna take that one, Dad?”

Mr. Weasley smiled and nodded, setting his bottle of lemonade aside and leaning forward on his chair, arms resting on his knees. “You probably don’t know this, Harry, but the Ministry functions on tariffs for the most part. The word ‘taxes’ is hardly known in the wizarding world the way it is in the Muggle one. Taxes are to goblins what garlic is to vampires.”

“Or pink hearts are to Freds!” interrupted Fred, holding up his cast again with a humph to emphasize his point.

“Oh, shut up, you loud-mouthed-git. You like it and you know it, so stop milking the sympathy card,” said George, shaking his head.

“Would you two stop it?” growled Charlie playfully as he slapped a hand over George’s mouth. “It’s like trying to lecture to a room full of first years around here and I wanna hear the end of this story!”

Harry grinned at the twins’ antics, so very glad to see them acting like themselves again, but he also agreed heartily with Charlie.

“Exactly!” said Bill loudly riding over the interruptions. “I’ve never seen the goblins move so fast in all my years working for them.” He stopped for a moment, laughing at the memory. “You ever seen a bunch of stressed out, worried goblins?” he asked, chuckling even harder. “I can’t really describe it other than to say it’s one of the most hilarious things to watch on the whole planet.”

As Bill was laughing so hard now he was having a hard time getting words out, Harry had to believe he was telling the truth.

“But King didn’t let up,” Bill managed to continue, holding his side. “I wish you could’ve seen him.”

“So, that was it? The word ‘taxes’?” asked Harry, still rather confused. After eight years as a part of this world, it amazed him how little he knew about it. More often than not he still felt so out of the loop.

“Well, that got us in the door,” replied Bill, gaining control of his mirth again.

Mr. Weasley’s jaw dropped at that, his sandwich frozen halfway to his mouth. “I’d reckon that would have been more than enough,” he said in astonishment.

“Dad, I would’ve, too, but our favorite little trio here really tweaked them off.” He shook his head fondly. “And I can almost understand why. I’ve seen the aftereffects of the incident and all I can say is, Harry, you obviously spent way too much time with the twins.”

“Not nearly enough time, apparently!” cried Fed.

“Fred and I always thought how much fun it would be to hijack that place,” added George ruefully.

“But when the time came,” continued Fed hotly, “did you even think to ask us? No, didn’t even cross your little heroic minds.”

“We were very put out you three didn’t include us,” George finished solemnly.

Mrs. Weasley was watching the exchange in horror, the fresh sandwiches she’d been distributing forgotten in her hands. “You two weren’t actually talking about...”

“Only in passing, Mum,” said Fred quickly, not needing eyes to sense a tirade coming on. “But still, that would’ve been – ”

“ – legendary…” George sighed, his eyes taking on a far off, sort of misty quality to them. “Harry, we just want you to know, we accept you as a long, lost Weasley. We’ve been waiting for another criminal master-mind in this family for so long and now – ”

“Do I ever get to finish this story?” Bill groused, cutting George off mid soliloquy.

Harry couldn’t describe how good this made him feel, sitting here with this family and listening as they talked about him as if he were one of their own, even teased him. It was all such a new experience, having people actually like him and want him around. He still wasn’t sure how to react to it, and he couldn’t stop the blush that crept up his face. He quickly stuffed some more food in his mouth and looked at his shoes, hoping no one would notice.

Of course, someone did. Ginny shot him a knowing look from where she was still sitting on Fred’s bed, and when he raised his eyes to meet hers, she gave him a huge smile.

“He is brilliant,” she agreed, smiling even more. The room suddenly erupted in melodramatic sighs and little kissing noises from her brothers, which made Harry blush even more furiously and try to blend into the wall. They didn’t stop until Ginny sent them all glares that promised painful deaths in the not-so-distant future.

“So,” Bill continued, grinning knowingly at Harry, “we ended up in Ragnok’s office, and I must admit I was really nervous. Riling the goblins up isn’t a healthy thing to do, as I’m sure you know by now, Harry. And on top of that, there was the fact that Ragnok is my boss and I do rather enjoy being employed. King must’ve caught on to that, though, because he dropped me a wink.” The oldest Weasley brother couldn’t continue as he started laughing uncontrollably again. This time no one interrupted his story, the whole room hanging on his every word, but he was shaking so hard he couldn’t breathe, tears of mirth running down his cheeks.

“Bill?” Fred finally said after a full minute of waiting. “C’mon, mate, you’re killing us here!”

With a great effort, Bill finally managed to suck in some air and continue the story. Fleur handed him a dainty hanky that he used to mop his eyes with. “Thanks, dear,” he said, now only chuckling slightly as he handed it back, completely missing Fleur’s small look of discomfort as she took it between two fingertips. “So, I’m standing there in the back of the office, watching Kingsley sit there calmly as Ragnok goes on and on about fines and damages, how the bank’s reputation has been sullied by the vandals and thieves… King just sits there, his expression never changing until finally, Ragnok runs out of steam. Then King looks at me again and simply gets up.

“‘Thank you for your time,’ he says to Ragnok and without another word he turns to leave.”

“What?” interrupted Mrs. Weasley, entirely caught up in the story. Harry thought she appeared ready to Floo Kingsley right then and have a good chat with him about giving in. “He’s leaving?”

“That’s what I thought, Mum! I couldn’t believe it! After all that, he was just going to walk away and let the goblins win. It even threw Ragnok off.

“But then King turns back and says, ‘I’ll just tell Potter that the goblins consider this an act of war.’”

The room fell utterly silent at that. “Wait…What?” Harry spluttered, pouring lemonade down his shirt as he missed his mouth in surprise. He wiped at it furiously with one hand while looking back and forth at all the people surrounding him, more than a little alarmed. “I’m at war with the goblins?” Oh sweet Merlin, not another war! Didn’t I just finish one?

“No Harry. Not just you,” said Percy suddenly. He’d been listening to his brother’s story rather quietly, a look of great respect on his face.

Harry looked around again, confused. “I really don’t understand.”

Mr. Weasley answered this time, his smile a mile wide. “I keep forgetting you still don’t understand all our ways. Let me explain. King was being the consummate politician, and a mighty fair actor as well. All you’ve ever really experienced before are conflicts between individuals. These are resolved as they would be anywhere, but in the wizarding world, conflicts between races are a bit different. They are considered acts of war.”

Harry blanched; the last thing he wanted was to be the cause of a race war. And just wait until The Prophet got its hands on that one. Oh, he was doomed.

Mr. Weasley saw his growing panic and shook his head, smiling as he did. “Don’t worry, son, I reckon I know where this story is going. Bill?”

Bill nodded and continued. “I’ve never seen a goblin go pale before, at least not until this morning. It’s been two-hundred years since the last Goblin War. The goblins have managed to amass an impressive amount of treasure in that time to horde away, something they are rather fond of. Wars, however, cost money. Lots of money. Ragnok was about to protest when King cut him off. ‘Of course, maybe it needn't come to that,’ he said smoothly and Ragnok hesitated.

Bill paused to chuckle again before continuing, doing a rather good impersonation of Kingsley’s deep, booming voice. “‘After all, you’ve just threatened the livelihood of the wizard who single-handedly killed the most powerful dark wizard that ever lived. He probably won’t need any help in a war. And need I remind you he’s already broken through your defenses once. Well, then, good day, Ragnok. And, good luck. You’ll need it.’”

He finished and silence hung in the room yet again until Harry broke it. “He didn’t really say that, did he?”

“Yep, Harry, he really did.” Bill smirked happily.

“Oh, I knew I should have gone with Ron and Hermione to Australia,” Harry groaned, slouching down against the wall and letting his head fall back against it.

“Don’t worry so much Harry!” said Charlie with a laugh. “Goblins need to be taken down an inch or two every now and then. Remind them that world doesn’t revolve around their existence.”

“And it worked,” said Bill, shrugging. “Oh, they didn’t fall on their knees begging for forgiveness or anything. Kingsley still had to strike a deal with them. The first thing they demanded was that the Sword be returned.”

Harry winced slightly, remembering the bargain that started this mess. It hadn’t been one of his finer moments.

“Kingsley said that by all means they were welcome to have it, but as it hadn’t seemed too keen on staying in their possession before, he wouldn’t put much stock on it sticking around a second time. And they’d have to contact McGonagall herself if they wanted to further discuss the terms for that arrangement. Ragnok didn’t mention it again after that.”

Once more the little room erupted with mirth before Bill finished up. “In the end they decided that the Ministry would pay for the damages and make a public statement that the goblins won’t be held responsible for unknowingly harboring illegal dark objects, and in exchange they’ve dropped all charges against you, Harry, and unfrozen your accounts. Mazel tov,” he said cheerfully, raising his bottle of lemonade at Harry.

“And I’m not at war?” Harry couldn’t help asking.

“And you’re not at war,” Bill assured him.

Harry sighed happily and ate his last bite of sandwich, savoring its sweet flavor.

“Guess it’s back to the boring old, quiet life for you, Harry ol’ chap,” said George, shaking his head.

He laughed along with everyone at George’s teasing, but secretly he couldn’t help feeling that a boring, quiet life sounded heavenly.

“Well, tell Kingsley now that I’ve got my accounts open there’s no way I’m letting the Ministry pay for that. I made the mess; I’ll clean it up.”

“Not on your life, Harry,” said Bill, sounding firm for the first time in the conversation. “You saved an entire world of pig-headed old fools from complete destruction, most of them too stubborn to listen to you. You did the only thing you could have done to get that horcrux and no one is going to make you pay for it twice! Besides, I’m quite sure the funds will be drawn out of the accounts we’ve been seizing from dead and convicted Death Eaters. For once in your life stop being noble and just let it be.”

Feeling very much like he’d just been rebuked for the first time in his life by an older brother, Harry closed his mouth and simply nodded, conceding the argument.

The room dissolved into several different conversations after that as everyone finished their food and enjoyed each other’s company. Harry didn’t say much, content to just absorb it all. It was roughly half-an-hour later when Mrs. Weasley began gathering up the remnants of the feast and making pointed comments about Fred still needing his rest. The clan took the hint and stood up, making their goodbyes - except for George, of course. No one, not even the hospital staff, had been able to get George to leave his brother’s side yet. Reckoning it was to the point it would take an act of divine interference for that to happen, Harry climbed to his feet and started toward the door with the rest. He managed to slide up beside Ginny and slipped his hand quietly into hers. She turned toward him slightly, the corners of her lips quirking upward as she squeezed his hand in return.

“Harry, wait a minute,” George called suddenly, causing him to stop and turn. “There’s something we’d like to talk to you about.”

The young wizard sounded unusually sober. “Sure, mate,” he answered, letting Ginny’s hand slide out of his.

“I’ll see you at home,” she said brightly, dazzling him with another smile before she followed the rest of her family out of the room and closed the door, leaving Harry alone with the twins.

“He’s making goo-goo eyes at our sister again, isn’t he?” said Fred with mock disgust.

“Yes, I reckon I might be sick, actually,” replied George.

Harry sighed and rolled his eyes, crossing his arms as he came to stand at the foot of Fred’s bed. “Are you two done?” he asked, shaking his head.

“I don’t know. George, how red is he?”

“Not very. I actually believe he’s on to us, Fred.”

“Blast,” muttered Fred, wincing as he gingerly tried to shift to a new position. “And after we made that promise to little Ronniekins…” Fred tried to say the last part in a jaunty, carefree tone but it actually came out as a grimace through teeth clenched in pain.

George was instantly at his twin’s side, teasing forgotten. “You shouldn’t have sat for so long,” he admonished Fred, carefully helping his brother lie down flat on the bed while Harry stood to the side, feeling helpless and unsure of what to do.

“It was a party, George,” said Fred, teeth still gritted tightly. “I wasn’t gonna spend it lying down like an invalid. I’m fine, stop fussing.” He breathed heavily for a few minutes, eyes scrunched tightly shut, then gradually his face relaxed slightly and he opened them again.

Not that it mattered, Harry thought sadly, noticing how his friend’s blue eyes now drifted lazily toward the ceiling, not seeing anything.

“What did you need to talk to me about?” he asked quietly, sobered by the last few minutes.

“Go get him, George,” said Fred cryptically with a nod toward his brother.

“Go get who?” asked Harry, thoroughly confused as George stepped over to the door and poked his head out, beckoning to someone waiting down the hallway. When neither answered, he repeated the question, feeling some of his patience slip. “Look, guys, what’s going on. Who on earth are you supposed to be getting, George?”

“Me,” a firm, male voice said from the doorway. George stepped aside and Harry watched Fred’s Healer enter the room.

“Okay, now I’m really confused,” said Harry in exasperation. “Why did you need me to stay behind just to watch Fred get checked by his Healer?”

“I’m not here to check Mr. Weasley,” replied the man, closing the door firmly behind him and stepping toward Harry. “I’m here to check you, Mr. Potter.”

“Me?” Harry sputtered, taking a step backwards. “Why? I’m not even sick!”

“And what about that spectacular bruise on your chest that refuses to heal?”

Harry whipped around to glare at Fred and George, feelings of anger and betrayal flaring hotly. “You promised not to tell!” he almost shouted.

“Don’t look at us!” George cried, throwing his hands up in the air. “We’re just the messengers. Ginny’s the mastermind behind this!”

“How did Ginny even know about it?” cried Harry, crossing his arms purposefully and backing even further away from the Healer.

“An excellent question,” said Fred coolly. “One we intend to receive an answer to when this examination is over with, Potter.” He took the sting out of his words, however, by sending Harry a cheeky wink.

“Look, mate,” said George, stepping forward. Harry was struck by the serious concern on his friend’s face. George had aged a great deal in the last few weeks. They all had, actually. “We know you’re hurt, and we know it’s not getting better like it should. I don’t know how Ginny found out but she’s worried and she came to us. Usually Ron’s around to make sure you stop and take care of yourself, but he’s not here right now. We figured you could use someone else to step up to the plate for a bit. Just let the Healer look at you and tell you everything’s fine. Would make us all sleep a little better, especially a certain red-headed witch who just happens to be our sister.”

Harry sighed. He wanted to stay angry and stubbornly refuse, but George had hit his weak spot and he knew it. Defeated, he grudgingly nodded.

“Well, now that’s settled,” the aged Healer said with a bemused expression, “would you be so good as to sit in this chair and remove your shirt, Mr. Potter?”

Resigned to the fact that he wasn’t getting out of this, Harry complied, fighting the urge to grimace as the skin on his chest stretched when he pulled his t-shirt over his head. In the background, George swore strongly, shaking his head.

“Bugger, Harry! That looks worse than it did two weeks ago when I first saw it!”

Glancing down, Harry couldn’t help but admit that George was right. He’d been trying to shove all memories of that night in the Forest out of his mind and hadn’t really looked at the injury closely for a long time. He kept it covered and hoped it was one of those things that would eventually just go away if you ignored it. Apparently, he’d been wrong. The huge bruise covered the whole surface of his chest, and instead of the ugly greens and yellows of a fading injury it should have been, it was still deepest purple darkening all the way to black in some places. Yeah, that probably wasn’t good.

The Healer’s expression was grim and stern. “You’ve had this since the Battle?” he asked, prodding the skin lightly with calloused fingers.

Harry nodded, trying not to wince in pain.

“And you didn’t feel it important enough to tell anyone?” the man scolded, his voice rising slightly. 

Chagrined, Harry hung his head. “I was fine. Others needed the help more.”

“Hogwash,” the Healer snapped. “This is a serious magical injury, and I should turn you over my knee right here, The Chosen One or not, for not seeking help!”

“It’s serious?” repeated Harry, feeling a twinge of fear stir in his gut. “How serious?”

“It’s called Spell Echo,” the Healer explained gruffly as he continued to examine Harry, poking here and prodding there. “It’s actually rather like what Mr. Weasley has experienced only this isn’t caused by a weakened spell or a spell passing through something. Spell Echo happens when a spell is somehow unable to work as intended, for whatever reason – when it reaches its target but is interfered with. Part of the magic from the spell becomes lodged within a person, trapped there, and, depending on the severity of the magic, will manifest in a variety of symptoms. Mild spells will usually show up as only a rash or a good case of hives that won’t clear up, but nasty spells, ones meant to injure, generally take the form of bruising that doesn’t heal. If left untreated, the Echo just festers and grows more painful. This is the largest bruise I’ve ever seen from an Echo, though. Do you recall what spell caused it?”

Harry hesitated, caught slightly off-guard by the Healer’s request. Most of the wizarding world by now knew the basic details of what had happened that night in the Forest, but only Ron and Hermione knew all of it. He hadn’t even told the rest of the Weasleys exactly how things had played out in that clearing, but there was no way he could answer this Healer’s question without letting the whole cat out of the bag.

The Healer saw his hesitation and spoke again, his voice softer this time. “Mr. Potter, I really must know the exact spell that was used in order to provide the correct treatment.”

Harry sighed and nodded, then sucked in a deep breath. “It was the Killing Curse,” he replied quietly.

The Healer’s eyes grew huge while Fred and George, in complete unison, both blurted out a string of words that would have had their mum washing their mouths out with soap for a week.

“And you were going to tell us this when?” Fred said from his bed, appalled.

“Never, actually,” Harry replied, a little annoyed.

“And spend the rest of your life with a bloody bruise on your chest?” snapped George. “Brilliant plan there, mate.”

“I thought it went well with the scar on my forehead,” Harry snapped back. “Besides, didn’t ask your opinion, George, and I’m telling you both that this never leaves this room or – ”

“Mr. Potter,” the Healer loudly interrupted what had the makings of becoming a fine row. Caught unaware, Harry stopped mid-sentence. “I assure you complete Healer/patient confidentiality,” the man went on calmly. “No one will know about this but us, if that’s what you want, but might I make a suggestion? Even the most stubborn of heroes sometimes needs people to talk to, and secrets within a family are never wise. It would perhaps be best to share this with the whole of your adopted family, instead of swearing these two to secrecy, threatening their lives, and putting them in danger of much worse should the rest find out they kept this to themselves?”

Harry gaped at the older man for a moment before hanging his head, shame flooding him. He couldn’t believe it, couldn’t believe what he’d almost started. After all they’d been through and everything they’d done for him, he’d been about to row with the twins over a stupid bruise and his bloody pride. They’d just expressed a little concern for him and he’d snapped at them like they were reporters or strangers.

Merlin, he was tired, he thought running a hand through his hair. “I’m a prat,” he muttered. “A big, grumpy, stupid prat and I’m sorry guys.”

“No harm, no foul,” said Fred, waving his good hand dismissively. “We all have our days.”

The Healer had finished his examination and handed Harry back his shirt. “You can go ahead and put that back on now, Mr. Potter.”

“So there isn’t anything you can do?” asked Harry, his mind coming back to this troubling new development as he tugged the shirt down over his head. He’d just removed one part of Voldemort that had been hanging out inside of him; he didn’t much fancy the thought of going through life with another, no matter what kind.

“Of course there’s something I can do,” said the Healer shaking his head. “What do you reckon this is, the Dark Ages? I brought him – ,” he nodded toward Fred, “ – back from the dead. I can handle a simple Spell Echo, even if it is a large, ugly one. I’ll be back in a few minutes with a potion for you. Promise me I’ll find you still in this room and that no blood will have been shed?”

Feeling like a huge burden had just been lifted from his shoulders, Harry nodded sheepishly.

The Healer stepped out and a rather awkward silence filled the room, Harry still very aware of the fight that had almost happened.

“So, Harry?” said George after the quiet stretched to the point it was almost uncomfortable. “Do you have both kidneys?” he finished conversationally.

Harry snorted, unable to help himself. “What the heck kind of question is that?”

“We were told once that it’s a good conversation starter,” said Fred casually.

“Y’know, for those really awkward silences,” added George.

“Like right now,” finished Fred.

“Have you also ever been told that you two are certifiable?” Harry couldn’t help saying with a laugh.

“It’s on one of the plaques we hang on the shop wall,” said George proudly.

“Gold lettering,” Fred whispered theatrically. “High class.”

Another snort of laughter tore from his nose at that – he couldn’t help it – but thankfully, the Healer returned before he had to think of something witty to say in response.

“All right, Mr. Potter,” the old man said, handing him a jar filled with a goopy, manure-green mixture. It was exuding an odor that rather matched its appearance. “Apply this salve to the bruise three times a day for the next two weeks and you should be good as new.”

“Three times a day?” Harry repeated skeptically, unable to keep his nose from wrinkling up as he reluctantly took the jar.

“Is there something wrong with those instructions?” asked the Healer, eyeing him sternly.

“Does it have to smell this badly?”

“We’re treating the Killing Curse here, lad, not a tooth ache. What did you expect it to smell like, rose petals?”

It was a fair point. “Thanks,” he said, pocketing the potion and sticking out his hand. The Healer grasped it firmly.

“And you promise me you’ll let me know if any complications arise or it doesn’t begin to heal. No more heroics.”

“I promise,” Harry sighed.

“Good lad. Now I must be off on my rounds.” He turned to glance in Fred’s direction. “I shall return in roughly one hour, Mr. Weasley, to update the monitoring spells. I suggest that I find you asleep at that time or I’ll put a stop to any further “Wild Weasley Parties” that might be planned, understand?”

Grimacing guiltily, Fred nodded and the Healer left.

“Thanks, mates,” Harry said to the twins as he stood up from the chair, ready to leave as well. “I really mean that this time.”

“That’s what brothers are for,” said George simply. “Hasn’t Ron told you that?”

Harry smiled gratefully and headed for the door. “Take care, both of you. Try not to burn down the hospital.”

“We make no promises,” replied Fred with a grin.

Harry simply shook his head over their antics and opened the door.

“Oh, and Harry,” George called after him suddenly. “When you get back to the Burrow tonight, go dig in the closet of our old room. There’s something there we’ve been meaning to give you for a while but just haven’t had time.”

Harry’s look must have been rather skeptical because George laughed. “Nothing dodgy, don’t worry. Reckon you’ll actually like it.”

Assuring them he’d look first thing after he got home, Harry waved goodbye and left the room.

*****

As had become his habit of late, Harry Apparated to a spot about a mile from the Burrow, down the little country lane. There was a thicket of trees that insured he wouldn’t be seen by prying Muggle eyes, and the extra walk gave him time to think away from the well-meaning but sometimes stifling protective care of the Weasleys.

Shoving his hands deep into his pockets, he started off at a lazy pace, enjoying the sight of the early summer breeze as it danced in the grasses at the side of the road. He could hear birds and crickets conversing, lost in their own little worlds, and if he listened carefully he could just make out the gentle gurgling of the brook that ran down into the pond at the end of the Weasley property.

It really was a rather perfect day.

And it was all somehow making Harry feel very alone. Fred’s parting words about brothers and Ron had tugged at him painfully. True, he had Ginny now, and that was wonderfully amazing, but there were two spots carved out in his heart that exactly fitted Ron and Hermione that not even Ginny in all her brilliance could fill.

The truth was simply that he missed them – terribly. He couldn’t remember how many times he’d woken in the middle of the night these last few weeks and sat up frantically to share something with Ron only to remember he wasn’t there. Or read something in the blasted Prophet that made his blood boil and turned to Hermione to get her opinion only to find the chair empty.

He tried to tell himself it was crazy to feel this way. It wasn’t like he hadn’t spent every summer alone, insolated from his friends. This was nothing new. And he knew Hermione desperately needed to find her family; she’d sacrificed them for far too long, all for him. Their trip was extremely important and he would have gone with them himself if he hadn’t felt duty bound to stay behind and help clean up the mess from the war he created.

But this summer was also different. For the first time in his life, he was surrounded by people who cared about him, a family that claimed him as their own. It was wonderful and beyond anything he could have ever dreamed of, but it also somehow seemed to accentuate the glaring absence of two of the three most important people in his life more sharply than ever.

He wished they would write and knew even as he did that it was unlikely. They had to save their money for more important things. All he could really do was hope and pray they found Hermione’s parents soon so they could all come home. Now he finally had access to his money again, however, he planned to figure out some way to help them, get money to them, even if he had to hire someone to track them down and hand-deliver it.

Pushing thoughts of his missing best friends forcefully aside, Harry turned his concentration to other maters. Bill’s news about his accounts had reminded him of the very many loose ends he still had dangling in his life. He’d been spending almost every waking moment with Kingsley and what remained of the Auror Corps, trying to mop up the messy leftovers of the war, a task so ugly and taxing Harry sometimes had to question if they’d declared the war over too soon. There were plenty of Death Eaters still out there on the run and most of them weren’t willing to give up easily. Because of that, he’d put off dealing with things, telling himself he’d take care of it all when they didn’t need him anymore. He was starting to understand now, though, that the world he’d saved would never stop needing him. Harry’s hopes of rest, his dreams of peace and quiet, were fading fast. He felt resigned to a future of fighting; it made him exhausted and bone-weary.

With a sigh, he began a mental list of the things he needed to start putting to rest. First of all there was Grimmauld Place. Sirius had left it to him, but he’d known for a long time that he would never be able to live in it again, call it a home. Everywhere he turned, he’d always see his godfather’s restless eyes, longing to be out in the fight and not a virtual prisoner in his own home. That was not the way he wanted to remember Sirius and so the house had to go. He had a plan, but he’d need to talk to Kingsley and Professor McGonagall about the logistics. He’d stop by Hogwarts in the next few days and see what his former Head of House thought.

Then there was the issue of Kreacher. The old elf was still technically bound to him, but Harry honestly didn’t have a clue what to do with him. Perhaps McGonagall could help him with that as well…

And finally, there was the task he’d been dreading most of all, but he couldn’t put it off any longer.

Tomorrow. He’d tackle it tomorrow, and then maybe, just maybe, he could put the past slightly to rest.

He turned a corner and found himself at the edge of the Weasley property. The sun had dipped beyond the horizon several minutes ago and darkness was falling quickly, making the light that was streaming from the Burrow’s windows brighter by the second. Unbidden, Harry’s feet picked up the pace. He was sure he could almost smell the scent of freshly baked bread and he smiled. He’d never had a place to actually come home to, and he was absolutely sure this feeling would never, ever get old.

Pushing open the rusting gate, he saw Ginny out in the far end of the garden, feeding the chickens for the night with Percy and Charlie. She saw him and waved, smiling brightly. Harry waved back before heading for the house, knowing she’d be in soon. As he climbed the porch steps, he allowed a small thought that had been at the back of his mind to ease forward and grow slightly. It was still timid, skittish and uncertain, but for once he didn’t push it away. Maybe, just maybe, when he faced the demons of his past tomorrow, for once he wouldn’t have to do it alone.

Smiling slightly, he reached for the backdoor but he was stopped in his tracks by voices coming out the open kitchen window.

“Molly, I don’t want to do it either, but frankly I don’t know what else to do!”

It was Mr. Weasley, and he sounded more tired and defeated than Harry had ever heard him. Feeling extremely guilty for eavesdropping on Ron’s parents like this but unable to help himself, he eased forward just enough to see through the window. Mr. Weasley was sitting at the table, head in his hands while Mrs. Weasley stood behind him, gently rubbing his shoulders.

She sighed, her face worn and exhausted. “I know, Arthur, I know. I didn’t mean to snap at you. It’s just…” She stopped and sank into a chair next to her husband, taking his hand. “That land means so much to them, to all of us. There are so many memories there – the pond, the paddock, Quidditch matches when they all were young…”

Harry caught his breath, suddenly very sure of where this conversation was going.

“We have no choice, Molly,” said Mr. Weasley, sadly. “St. Mungo’s has been very generous in holding off on the billing for this long, but we have to start paying them something and there’s no way we have enough even if I gave them my whole salary. Then there’s the fact that there’s so much that Fred still needs. No way on this earth will I deny my own son the best chance at a recovery because I can’t afford it!” His voice broke unbidden and it cut Harry to the quick. He’d never seen Mr. Weasley like this.

“Of course!” Mrs. Weasley answered swiftly, squeezing his hand with both of hers now. “You don’t have to convince me. I just can’t help being sad to see it go.”

There was silence for a minute as they both composed themselves, then Mr. Weasley ran a hand across his face and stood up. “I’ll take out an advertisement for it in The Prophet first thing tomorrow. It’s good land, been in wizard hands for generations. Someone will make an offer.”

Thoughts racing, Harry stepped back out of sight of the window, shaking his head. He was almost certain Mr. Weasley was going to sell off the paddock of land they owned, leaving the Burrow sitting on a very small parcel of property. He sighed in frustration. Harry had tried and tried to get the Weasleys to let him pay for Fred’s expenses, but they wouldn’t hear of it. They wouldn’t let Harry spend his money on them. It didn’t matter how many times Harry explained that he wanted to do it, they still wouldn’t listen. Apparently, stubbornness was a family trait.

Hearing this, however, had suddenly given Harry an idea. The Weasleys were the only family he’d ever know outside of Sirius; there was no way he was going to sit by and let Mr. Weasley sell off everything he owned. After all, he’d been known to be stubborn from time to time as well.

*****

From his bed, Fred listened to Harry leave the room, the hospital door closing behind him with a snick, a sound he never would have noticed just a month ago. George stood still for a while, but then Fred heard him settle into his usual chair. Silence reigned for several long minutes as he stared with his useless eyes at the darkness where the ceiling should have been.

“So, when’re you gonna drop the act?” George finally asked, breaking the quiet. Fred heard the slight rustle of fabric and could almost visualize his twin crossing his arms.

“What act?” he replied neutrally, not turning his head. It emphasized his point and as everything still hurt like the blazes to move, it also saved on pain.

“The ‘everything’s peachy-keen’ act.”

“I dunno what you’re talking about.”

There was a sudden burst of movement now as the chair scrapped on the floor. “Oh, come on, Fred. Cut the crap. The last person in the world that’s gonna work on is me and you know it.”

Fred ground his teeth and refused to turn and face his brother.

“Here you sit, putting on this big act for everyone, letting them think you’re doing great. Good old Fred, funny guy, same as before, back to normal… I played along while the rest were here, but now it’s just us and I know it’s a heap of rubbish. The truth is you’re scared to death.”

Darn right he was scared! He was bloody terrified! His whole world had just been yanked out from under his feet like a rug, and he’d been left tumbling and tumbling.

And not only was he scared and angry, he was hurt. And lost. A thick, dark veil had been drawn between him and the rest of the world and nothing would ever make it go away. He’d seen incredible things, done so much – and now he’d never see again. The last few days he’d been unable to stop his mind from cataloguing the ever growing list of things he realized he’d never get to do again. Never again ride a broom, play Quidditch with his brothers. Never see the brilliant light of fireworks filling the sky. Never again Apparate somewhere without help. Never see the smirk on his twin’s face as they waited for the other shoe to drop in some prank. Never see his mum smile at one of their jokes when she was trying so hard not to. Never see his sister on her wedding day…

The list went on and on to the point it was all he could do not to curl up and cry. He was an inventor, a prankster, a joker. How could he invent things, make people laugh, if he couldn’t even see what he was doing? What good was he going to be to anyone anymore? It made him feel betrayed by everyone and everything, even though he knew that was irrational.

“I’m fine, George,” he hissed through his teeth, keeping his thoughts to himself. “Just leave me alone.”

Beside him, George exploded. “Would you stop saying you’re bloody fine already! That’s the biggest lie you’ve ever tried! You’re not fine; you’re blind! And – ”

Ignoring the pain that shot through him at the motion, Fred finally turned to face his brother, temper flaring as he interrupted hotly. “I know I’m blind, George! Kinda noticed that by now, thank you very much, and not likely to forget it any time soon!”

“So, why do you insist on pretending everything’s just great and you’re not worried at all? I know we’ve always hid behind jokes and laughs, but this isn’t the time. You need to let us help you adjust to this! You need to talk to me!”

What was there to talk about? Fred thought bitterly. His eyes were broken, busted, messed up. He was blind and everything was dark now and always would be and it wasn’t as though having a big heart-to-heart with someone would miraculously change any of that.

“Go away, George,” he said, turning back toward the ceiling.

“Not likely.”

Fred’s temper finally broke. “No, I mean it! Just go away and stop being a hypocrite!” he spat furiously. “Snape sliced off your ear,” he said furiously, “and yet I never saw you sitting down for a ruddy tell-all therapy session!”

“That’s entirely different! That was just one little ear; it had no affect on the rest of my life. I can still hear, you bloody git.”

“Not as well,” Fred muttered, the only one in the world who knew that fact. “And what about now? Who are you to lecture me about dealing with crap and talking to people? You haven’t even gone home yet! Remember our shop? Ever gonna go see if it’s still standing? If we still have a living left, something to support a useless blind guy with?”

“Lee and Oliver are taking care of it!” George retorted, his own voice cutting. “Stop changing the subject! You need to talk about what’s happened! I won’t let you live a lie for the rest of your life, pretending on the outside while you’re dying on the inside! It’s the only way to deal with this and you know I’m right!”

George’s words stabbed him right in the heart like a dagger because they were perfectly true. This was so terrifying, so beyond anything he’d ever thought he’d have to deal with that he’d decided not to. If the world wanted Normal Fred they’d get Normal Fred and the real Fred could just hide inside where it was safe.

“Get out,” he said, his voice venomously quiet. “Get out of my room.”

A chair banged harshly against the wall as George let out a string of profanities. Seething with anger, Fred listened as his twin stomped across the room and jerked the door open, slamming it loudly behind him as he stormed out. With all his might, he longed to throw something after him, hear the satisfying sound of destruction to match his rage, but his useless, injured body couldn’t even manage that.

It was only a few minutes after George left, however, when he was alone with the utter darkness and silence and isolation crushing down on top of him that Fred couldn’t help wishing desperately that he’d come back.

*****

Cautiously, Harry made his way into the twins’ bedroom, stopping just inside the door to glance slowly around, his wand drawn. He’d learned the hard way never to assume safety where those two were concerned, but when nothing jumped at, shot at, or otherwise accosted him, he decided it was okay to proceed. He was very curious about this mystery object they apparently had for him.

He started across the room, leaving the door slightly ajar behind him, comforted by the sounds of the house. Mrs. Weasley and Ginny were still in the kitchen doing the washing up from supper, and above him he could hear the creaks and rustles of either Charlie or Percy in their room. Number Four Privet Drive had never creaked or rustled like this, like a home. Harry found he liked it immensely.

Locating the closet door, Harry hurried to it, trying to ignore the unpleasant aroma drifting up from under his own shirt. Good thing he’d decided to take the Healer’s advice and tell the rest of the family what had happened in the Forest because there’s no way he’d have kept the secret now that he was to spend the next two weeks smelling like a barnyard. Their reactions had been just what he’d expected – horrified, saddened, angry… There were colorful oaths and a few tears, but at least it was over with now. Mrs. Weasley had immediately started in on him about regular application of the potion – which explained his current odor.

Wrinkling his nose again, he pulled open the closet only to be greeted with…well the polite word was a mess. Apparently, Mrs. Weasley hadn’t checked up on the state of her sons’ closet for a while because Harry knew there was no way it would pass one of her inspections.

Again exercising extreme caution and keeping a ready eye out for things that could potentially explode or burst into flames, he rummaged through the junk.

“This would be a lot easier,” he couldn’t help grumbling to the empty room, “if I knew what in Merlin’s name I was even – ”

Harry broke off abruptly because he he’d caught sight of something that was entirely impossible. He shook his head and closed his eyes, forcing himself to count to ten before raising the lids again. It had to be a figment of his imagination, but when he blinked it was still there, propped in the corner.

Breath catching in his throat as he tried to comprehend the impossible, he reached with trembling fingers and drew it out, sinking onto the edge of one of the twin beds as his eyes filled unbidden.

He was holding a Firebolt. But what’s more, not just any Firebolt. His Firebolt! The one he’d lost somewhere over Surrey in his desperate flight to escape. He knew the instant he touched it that it was his, the very same one. It felt right in his hands, like a shoe that has molded to exactly fit the wearer. This was his Firebolt! The gift given to him by Sirius, the one and only thing he’d ever received from his godfather while he was alive, and that he’d been sure he’d lost forever.

The tears he’d been trying to hold back finally crested his eyelids, and then there was no stopping them. Still staring at the broomstick in shock, he let them fall down his face and drip off his chin onto his jeans.

Suddenly, the mattress of the bed dipped beside him. He looked up just as Ginny slipped her arm through his and leaned up against him.

“You know you smell like the chicken coup, don’t you?” she said by way of greeting, hugging him gently.

Despite the tears, Harry chuckled a little.

“They’ve been wanting to tell you about that for ages,” she went on softly. “They wanted to give it to you before you left for your quest, the day after Bill’s wedding, but…well…we all know what happened to mess those plans up.”

“But…” Harry stammered, completely at a loss. “How did they ever find it?” he finally managed to ask.

“They searched every night for that whole week,” answered Ginny with a smile. She reached out and wiped the still trickling tears off his cheeks.

“Why?” he couldn’t help asking. That had been the height of the terror before the actual war broke out. Not a wise time for anyone, even the twins, to go roaming around in the dark on a whim. Of course, he had to admit to himself, Fred and George always had seemed to play by their own rules when it came to what was an acceptable risk.

“If you ask them, they’ll swear it was for the broom’s sake only. Fred said they couldn’t stand the thought of such a work of art just lying there, lost. Or, heaven forbid, some Muggle finding it and using it to sweep the porch. It was just too good of a broom to leave out there. Swore me to secrecy about it, too.”

Harry let out a little snort of laughter, brushing furiously at the tears that kept coming as he set the Firebolt on the bed next to him, still unable to really believe it was there.

“But,” Ginny continued, laying her head on his shoulder. “They also knew where it came from.”

Harry’s breath hitched again as he heard her words and understood everything she wasn’t saying. “Remind me to…to thank them,” he said thickly as he squeezed her hand.

She squeezed back then stood up, drawing him with her.

“Come on,” she said brightly. “Let’s go try it out. It’s been too long since you went flying.”

“But it’s dark outside,” he protested, glancing at the inky sky beyond the window.

“That just makes it more fun,” she said with a cheeky grin. “Or are you scared, Potter?”

Grinning through his drying tears, Harry grabbed his newly restored treasure and followed her from the room, his heart still wondering how he deserved such a family as this.

Chapter 9: Solitude
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Author's Note:  First, I must appologize to you my wonderful readers for making you wait so long for this chapter.  You are incredible loyal and kind to stick with me for so long.  Next I must thank, as always, my incredible beta theelderwand!  He really does rock.  Finally, a thank you goes out to WriteYourHeartOut for muse help and a great talent for making up words.

 

Chapter 8: “Solitude”

“The difference between friends and pets is that friends we allow into our company, pets we allow into our solitude.”

- Robert Brault

*****

Purple cows did not exist.

No matter what country you were in, what continent you stood on, what world – Muggle or magical – you hailed from, Ron was one-hundred percent certain this was one of the constants of the universe.

Purple cows just did NOT exist.

But then again, when had the universe ever played fair with his life?

Apparently, said universe was telling him it was time to adjust his cosmic viewpoint because yesterday, at exactly 4:42 PM, he, Ronald Bilius Weasley, became a purple cow.

Giving a long-suffering sigh, Ron adjusted his udder and tried to find a bit more shade.

He had to admit the tale was long and rather sordid – daring, dangerous, and brave – but there was no way in the name of Merlin’s polka-dotted underwear he was going to be telling it to anyone. A man will do many, many things for the one he loves, but that doesn’t mean he has to go shouting it to the world.

And out of desperation, he couldn’t help adding. He’ll do things he’d never dream of out of desperation.

He and Hermione had left Sydney to try their luck in Melbourne a week ago, and the money George and Charlie had forced him to take had run out two days later. The hotel they were staying at here – the owner being a kindly old wizard who’d rather taken a shine to the two of them – had let them stay on credit, but Ron knew they couldn’t do that for much longer. And he hadn’t told Hermione about their lack of funds yet. Everyday that passed with still no sign or hint of the location of her parents was like a knife to her heart. Ron hated seeing her like this and just couldn’t bear to add to her worry by telling her they were basically living on charity at this point.

So he’d done the only thing he could do. On pretense of searching for her parents on foot since he was practically useless in the library of the Melbourne Magical Institute where Hermione had now sequestered herself, Ron had taken to the streets of the city, hunting for a job.

It wasn’t easy. He didn’t have the most diversified skills, nor did he come equipped with paperwork and letters of reference. Melbourne had a strong magical presence, but being the location of one of the few magical institutions of higher learning in the world, every available job had been snatched up by starving university students. He didn’t have a prayer. Sighing grimly, he’d moved out to the Muggle community to broaden his search. That proved just as difficult. He couldn’t exactly write on job applications under the heading Education: “Dropped out of school to save the world.”

After two long days of searching without success, he finally collapsed on a bench outside of Dell’s Bookstore in frustration. Depressed, desperate, and feeling pretty much like the most worthless excuse for a wizard in the world, he was ready to give up. He sat there, absently clicking the Deluminator he still had in his pocket and feeling ready to give up, when he noticed the place across the street for two reasons. One, it was the most glaring eyesore he’d ever seen, and two, he’d accidentally sucked the illumination out of every single light-globe around its exterior while playing with the little magical instrument.

Cursing himself, Ron sat up and glanced around quickly, hoping against hope no one had noticed. In rapid succession, he clicked the Deluminator several times again to send the light back, and then he looked around once more to see if he’d been caught. Thankfully, no one seemed to be paying him the least bit of attention. Relieved, he pushed the Deluminator as far down in his pocket as it would go and purposefully withdrew his hand before turning back to take a better look at the shop.

“Purple Cow Ice Cream Parlor” the sign in front of the old building read, and true to its name, the huge, smiling head of a purple bovine was jutting out from the roof. In front of the shop, tables with bright purple umbrellas and chairs were scattered.

It made Ron cringe, and that was saying something considering he’d grown up with Fred and George. Who in their right mind would want to eat ice cream with that nightmare grinning down at them? But apparently someone did, because he noticed that in spite of the cool, late autumn temperatures, a decent amount of chairs were filled with happy, sticky patrons, and more could be seen coming and going from inside.

Must be killer ice cream, he couldn’t help thinking to himself with a shake of his head. The strangeness of Muggles amazed him more and more the longer he was around them. He’d been about to leave and call it day when a smaller, less flashy sign in the window of the shop caught his eyes.

Help Wanted – Apply Within

When he’d found out what the job was, he’d flat out refused at first. No matter how desperate their situation, there were some things a man just did not do. But as he walked back out the door, he couldn’t help being accosted by the image of a sobbing Hermione after he told her they were out of money and would have to leave Australia without finding her parents.

Then another thought struck him. When he’d left Harry and Hermione all those months ago in the forest, it was only Dumbledore’s gift that had allowed him to find his way back once he’d come to his senses. The tiny, deceptively simple Deluminator had somehow led him back to them when they needed him the most. And now, here in this city, even if it had been an accident, hadn’t the Deluminator practically screamed at him that he should come here, to this crazy Muggle ice cream shop?

Sighing loudly, he’d turned around and gone back inside.

And that was why he was currently prancing up and down the sidewalk in his very own purple cow costume, doing his best to appear perky and appealing and not scare the little kids outright. Just last month he’d been destroying horcruxes and fighting to the death for everything he loved and believe in. And this month? This month he had purple hooves.

The only bright side to this was that at least he was several thousand miles away from every single one of his brothers because if they ever found out about this he was quite sure he just might have to commit either ritual suicide or mass murder.

*****

Being extra, super quiet, Harry pulled the back door of the Burrow closed behind him. As he crept down the steps, he couldn’t help congratulating himself just slightly on having managed to leave without waking even Mrs. Weasley. He’d left them a note so they wouldn’t panic, but it was imperative to his current mission that no one knew where he was really going. Quickly, he slipped down the walk and through the gate. Once beyond the Burrow’s wards, he took his wand in his hand and turned on the spot, Apparating directly to the Ministry of Magic.

*****

“Well, this is it. Home sweet home.”

“It’s so…so…square.”

Harry gave a tiny snort of laughter at Ginny’s assessment of his former home. It was enough to bring a smile to his face even though he wasn’t at all excited to be back here, standing once again in the back garden of number four, Privet Drive.

When he’d flown hastily away from this place almost a year ago, he’d sincerely thought it would be the last time he would ever have to see the house that had been anything but a home to him for sixteen years. In the weeks that had followed the Battle of Hogwarts and the end of his quest, however, he’d realized he needed to go back, for many reasons. Most were practical – he was tired of living out of a rucksack and wanted to see if any of his stuff had survived – but there were other reasons as well. Whether he liked the memories associated with this place or not, a huge portion of his life was trapped in the walls of this house. Before he could move on to the future he had to lay rest to the past, and that meant number four, Privet Drive in all its unpleasantness.

“Yep, that about describes it right there,” he said to Ginny, staring at his former residence with a frown. “I can’t believe it’s still here. I honestly thought all that would be left of it would be a smoking crater.” Other than its somewhat tangled and dead looking yard and garden, the house looked completely as he remembered it.

“We could be seeing what someone wants us to see,” said Bill quickly. “No one comes any closer until I say so, all right?”

Harry, Ginny, and Charlie all nodded, stepping back to let the eldest Weasley brother do his work.

When Harry had mentioned his plans to return to Privet Drive at dinner the night before, Ginny had immediately announced she was going with him. Then Charlie, spouting some cock-a-mammy story about always wanting to see the childhood home of the famous Harry Potter (which Harry knew was a load of tripe) had quickly insisted on tagging along. Harry suspected it was Charlie who had tipped off Bill as the eldest Weasley brother had been at Shell Cottage with Fleur the night before and not even at the family dinner. In fact, Harry was dead sure it was only other pressing appointments and such that kept the entire Weasley family from being with him right now, but thankfully, Mrs. Weasley was spending the day with Fred, Percy was needed by Kingsley, and Mr. Weasley had business in London as well.

Still, as Harry watched Bill methodically checking the perimeter of the Dursley’s property, Harry had to admit having him along was rather wise. He hadn’t even thought about traps or curses being left behind. Just because Voldemort had finally had the decency to stuff it didn’t mean all his handiwork was gone. After his time on the run that should have been the first thing he thought of and yet it hadn’t even crossed his mind until Bill had showed up at the Burrow as they were finishing their late breakfast and said he was going with. It was a sobering, depressing thought.

“I can tell someone came here,” said Bill after a moment as he walked back to them. “The wards and spells the Order put in place have all been broken, but I can’t find any evidence of new ones or curses that might have been left in their place. I reckon it’s safe to go in, but we need to be extra careful. Keep your wands out and your eyes open.”

Harry nodded and drew his wand. “Right, then,” he said and marched to the backdoor. “Alohomora,” he muttered, tapping the lock. The door clicked and he pushed it open, stepping inside.

In the kitchen dust lay thick on everything – table, chairs, counters, floor. It didn’t look to Harry as if it had been disturbed for a very long time. He couldn’t help thinking how the sight of all that dust and dirt in Aunt Petunia’s normally impeccable kitchen would have sent her through the roof. Of course, once she recovered, her next move would have been to yell at him to clean it up.

“So, this is what Muggle houses look like,” said Ginny coming up beside him.

Her voice stirred him from his unpleasant thoughts and he looked at her before glancing back to see Charlie and Bill both standing behind them, looking around. Of the three, only Bill had ever been there, and he hadn’t ventured beyond the kitchen.

“Well, this is what this Muggle house looks like,” said Harry with a shrug. “Although I’ve heard some are actually rather nice… Anyway, shall we get this over with?” He turned away, not wanting to see the frown on Ginny’s face as she picked up on his darkening mood, and took a step forward only to be stopped by Bill’s hand on his shoulder.

“Do you mind if I lead the way?” he asked.

Harry felt a spark of annoyance shoot through him and opened his mouth to reply but Bill went right on, cutting him off. “I know you’re a more than capable wizard, Harry, but I don’t fancy having to explain to my mum what happened if we bring you home in anything less than pristine condition.”

With a sigh, Harry let his mouth snap closed again. Bill might be making light of it for his sake, but there was no mistaking the very real and very serious warning in the older man’s eyes. Once again, Harry had to remind himself that having an older sibling was a good thing, and not something to get in a huff about.

“All right,” he said, conceding the lead. “But for the record I don’t fancy explaining to your mum and Fleur what happened if you get hurt either, so don’t expect me to just back off should we find something less than pleasant.”

“Duly noted,” said Bill with a small smile. “So, where to first?”

“Reckon we might as well check the whole house, since we’re here,” said Harry, his glum mood returning full force. “Kitchen seems clear so…” He shrugged. “Sitting room’s just through that door,” he said with a gesture.

Wand drawn and expression serious, Bill lead the way with Harry and the others falling into step behind him. The door to the room opened with a puff of dust that set Ginny sneezing but that was it for drama. After barely a minute, Bill declared it clean as far as he could tell.

The three Weasleys roamed around the room curiously, taking in every detail with varying degrees of interest. Bill glanced around, but he seemed to be keeping an eye out for unexpected dangers more than admiring the decorating style of Harry’s relatives. Ginny wandered, taking in the overabundance of pictures of Dudley and complete lack of ones of Harry with barely disguised disgust, while Charlie seemed to have inherited his father’s fascination with Muggle items.

“Blimey, is that really one of those fellyvisions?” he asked excitedly, tapping happily on the screen. “Can you make it go?”

Standing in the middle of that room, Harry barely noticed them. He suddenly felt emotions he’d thought for sure he’d buried long ago welling up inside of him. While he and his family had parted somewhat amicably, there was still no denying that this room, this whole house in fact, had held nothing but loneliness and misery for him for sixteen years. It had been little more than a prison, and all he wanted now was to finish what he came for and get out – leave and never, ever come back.

“Harry, are you okay?” Ginny was suddenly at his side, worry mixed with the anger he could see burning in her chocolate eyes.

“Peachy,” he said curtly. “Let’s just get this done.”

He strode to the cupboard under the front stairs and yanked it open, waving away the cloud of dust before sticking his head in to glance around the place that had been his room for ten years of his life. There were spider webs in the corners, some forgotten junk piled on the floor, and a few broken crayons littering the shelf but nothing he needed to be worried about taking. He stepped back out and was about to shut the door but Ginny ducked around him and peeked inside. Her eyes caught the faded, childish drawings scribbled on the bare walls and she paused, transfixed.

“Did you…?”

“…draw them? Yeah,” Harry finished bitterly.

“What were you doing in the cupboard?” she asked curiously, tracing with her fingers a particularly large drawing that Harry remembered was supposed to be a dragon but to his grown-up eyes now looked more like a green sheep having a really bad hair day.

“Living,” he snapped. It had been a mistake, letting the three of them come here with him. The thing he liked least in the world was people digging into his deepest kept secrets, which was exactly how this trip was turning out.

“Living?” Ginny echoed, frowning at his tone.

“Welcome to the childhood living quarters of the great Harry Potter,” he said coldly. “Maybe we can get the Ministry to put a plaque up or something.” He stepped away without looking at her, knowing he was projecting his anger unjustly but not really caring at the moment. He glanced at Charlie and Bill, still examining the sitting room. “Charlie, any Muggle items you or your dad want, they’re yours. I’m going upstairs,” he called and without waiting for Bill’s approval, bolted up the stairs two at a time, stopping in front of the door to his old room. Not being a complete idiot, he took the precaution of performing a wand sweep for danger before entering and locking the door behind him.

The room was exactly as he’d left it. Not even the bed had been mussed up.

Emotions slammed into Harry like a tidal wave hitting the shore. All the hype, all the planning to get him safely away from here last year. The immense cost! And for what? Voldemort hadn’t even come here, hadn’t even felt the need to send a decent posse of Death Eaters. He could have stayed, could have left when he turned seventeen according to the original plan, and Moody would still have been alive.

He glanced at the corner of the room where an owl cage had sat for six summers. So would Hedwig.

A painful lump filled his throat and he sank onto the edge of his bed. She’d been such a small loss compared to the ever growing list of people who had died that he hadn’t allowed himself to even think about her. Who was he to mourn a dead owl when others had lost fathers, wives, or children? But now, in this shabby room with its glaringly empty corner he found he couldn’t help it. She’d been his first friend, the first living thing that had cared for him since his parents. She’d been loyal and brave and hadn’t cared a bit that he was famous. She’d loved him unconditionally and he wasn’t ashamed to admit that he’d loved her as well.

Wiping at his suddenly moist cheeks, Harry stood and quickly went to the wardrobe. As with everything else, the clothes he’d left behind were still hanging there, untouched. He yanked them out, moved to his trunk and kicked it open before stuffing them inside. He then gathered up anything still remaining in the room that he thought he might want and dumped it all into the trunk. He made one last check of the space beneath the loose floorboard before shrinking his trunk and shoving it into his pocket. Lastly, he stepped to Hedwig’s empty corner and picked up her dusty food and water dishes. He held them tightly for a moment before pocketing them in his jacket.

Done with what he came to do, he started for the door but then stopped suddenly, turning around again.

“You never wanted me here,” he spoke softly. “And I never wanted to be here. So let’s make it like I never was.” Pulling out his wand, Harry waved it slowly around the bare, pathetic room. Carpet suddenly covered the cold floor and warm colored paint spread over the walls. New curtains waved cheerfully by the now bright windows. The lumpy mattress firmed and tasteful bedding appeared on it while the chipped and faded wardrobe and desk became sturdy and appealing. “Funny what something can become when you give it a chance isn’t it?” he muttered to the room softly, then turned and left, closing the door on the now unrecognizable room behind him.

The Weasleys had had the good grace to wait for him downstairs. “I’m done here,” he said curtly, albeit with less sting in his words than before. “But there’s something else I need to do. Tell King it’s safe to send the Dursleys home. I’ll meet you back at the Burrow for lunch.” And without waiting for their reply, he walked out of number four, Privet Drive for the last time.

*****

Harry Apparated directly from Privet Drive to a spot along the coast of Devon. He’d never been there before but when he was little he’d seen the place on one of Uncle Vernon’s Grunnings calendars. He’d rescued the photo from the trash when his uncle had binned the used calendar. He used to spend hours staring at the picture when his relatives had left him alone in his cupboard, dreaming of the freedom and beauty it seemed to offer. He loved the look of the waves crashing against the rocky cliffs and how the flat, green land at the top of those cliffs stretched off into the distance that the picture didn’t show. The photo was long gone now, but the scene had stuck with him, an expression of a little boy’s longing and dreams. The destination had popped into his head without conscious thought and he just went there, knowing it was perfect.

Standing on the top of the cliff and looking out at the water, he could see for miles in any direction, enough to know that he was utterly alone. For a while, he just stood there, hands shoved into his pockets as he listened to the muted sound of the waves breaking on the rocks below, watching mesmerized as the sea rolled unending toward the shore. It was quiet here – calm, peaceful. These hills and cliffs had stood for eons, buffeted by that never ceasing sea, unconcerned with the petty lives of men. Wars, plagues, power - they meant nothing to the land. Here Harry was not the Boy Who Lived, The Chosen One, the savior of the wizarding world or a hero; here he was but a faint footprint in the sand that the wind would just blow away.

Hedwig would have liked it here.

That was the one thought he’d had and reason enough to come. Hedwig would have liked it. Miles and miles of open space to fly in while the golden sun shone down on her and the salt-tinged wind rustled her feathers. Harry smiled through his sorrow, thinking on it, not caring at all that a thin tear slipped down his cheek. He knew the land would never tell.

Slowly, he pulled the empty food trays from his jacket pocket and held them in his hands, lost for a moment in the grip of memory. He remembered that day almost eight years ago when Hagrid had given her to him, a snowy white owl to become his first pet and friend. From that day on, she’d held a piece of his heart.

And now it was time to say goodbye properly. He didn’t have a body to bury, or even a place to mark, but he still felt the need to pay tribute to all she had done for him. Pulling out his wand, Harry touched Hedwig’s things and muttered a dissolving charm that Hermione had taught him, then drew back his arm and threw them as far out to sea as he could.

“’Bye, Hedwig. You were a great friend,” he said as he watched the dishes hit the waves and dissolve in the sunlit water.

*****

“Hey, Gin! Wait up.”

At the sound of her oldest brother’s voice, Ginny stopped climbing the stairs and turned around to face him, shifting the basket of clean laundry to rest more firmly on her hip.

“Yeah, Bill?” she asked, curious what he wanted.

“You’re becoming quite domestic you know, doing all this cooking and cleaning lately, and now taking on the laundry,” he said with a teasing smile as he took the basket from her. “Practicing for you and Harry?”

Rolling her eyes, Ginny smacked him on the shoulder once her hands were free.

“Ow! Sibling abuse, sibling abuse!” Bill cried dramatically, but Ginny could see his eyes twinkling brightly in his scarred face. She couldn’t suppress a smirk.

“Oh, shut it, you,” she laughed. “I’m just trying to help Mum out a bit so she can spend more time with Fred. And for the record, Harry’s better at cleaning and laundry than I am.”

Bill chuckled. “Touché,” he agreed as they stopped outside of the first bedroom. Ginny took the pile of folded clothes out of the basket and entered the room to put them away while Bill waited in the doorway.

“So, you just decided to take pity on your poor, overworked little sister and come help me?” she asked as she put clean socks and shirts into different drawers. “Will you be making lunch as well?”

“Not if you want to have actual food,” said Bill sarcastically as Ginny rejoined him and they moved up the stairs to the next landing where their parents’ room was. “But I can help with the laundry,” he added with a grin. “I’ll sort and you can put away.”

Ginny nodded. Growing up with six brothers she had learned very early never to turn down offers of help.

As they worked, Bill’s expression sobered. “I just wanted to check on you,” he said, eyeing her. “Are you doing okay, after everything that’s happened?”

Ginny looked up to find her big brother gazing at her with real interest and concern. Ever since she was a baby, she and Bill had had a special bond. Maybe it was their age difference but he’d always been fiercely protective of her, and she in return had often found it easier to go to Bill with problems than anyone else in her large family.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” she said with a shrug as she tried to stuff her dad’s socks into a drawer that was more cluttered with random Muggle objects than articles of clothing.

“Gin,” Bill said, warning in his voice.

Sighing, Ginny reached down to pick up the rubber duck that had escaped from the drawer despite her efforts. She retrieved it and then sat down on the edge of her parents’ bed, fiddling absentmindedly with the little yellow toy as she gazed out the window.

Putting the clothes basket aside, Bill sat down beside her.

“I don’t know, Bill,” she replied honestly. “So much has happened and changed… I’m not even sure I know how I am. I reckon I’m still sort of in survival mode.”

“I reckon we’re all like that right now,” Bill agreed gently. “I know I am, and Mum and Dad. And I’m not sure Fred and George have even got to it yet…” He trailed off and Ginny could see the sadness in his eyes as he spoke of his younger brothers, a sadness she felt deeply herself. She had no idea how any of them would deal with their new futures, but Fred had the hardest road ahead of any of them.

“Are you sleeping all right?” her brother continued gently.

“Better than Harry,” she muttered grimly. Very few nights went by without the sound of muffled screams coming from behind the closed door of Ron’s room. “Do you think he’ll be okay?” Ginny asked Bill suddenly, daring to voice the worry that had been eating away inside of her for the last month. “Will he ever be just Harry again?”

“Dunno,” answered Bill truthfully, his expression sad. “He’ll never be the same as he was before – none of us will – we’ve all changed too much. But I think he’ll learn to be happy again, especially with a certain redheaded witch I know there to help him out.

Ginny blushed, rolling her eyes at her brother again. Then she remembered their trip to Privet Drive that morning and her expression darkened.

“Did you know he slept in a cupboard until he started at Hogwarts?” she asked hotly, anger flaring.

Bill blinked in surprise. “No,” he said shortly, scowling.

“Explains a lot doesn’t it?” she muttered darkly, glaring at the rubber duck in her hands as if everything were it’s fault. “And makes me want to try out some of Fred and George’s more creative curses on his so-called family.”

“As much as I tend to agree with you, I think your fire and passion could be put to better use.”

Just then, they both heard the sound of the kitchen door opening.

“Hello? Anyone home?” Harry’s voice floated up the stairs to them.

“And speak of the devil…” Bill said, giving her a playful wink and nudge with his shoulder.

Ginny just laughed, letting the anger slip away for now, and stood up, stuffing the Muggle toy back in her dad’s sock drawer. “I’ll finish putting the clothes away,” offered Bill. “You go check on that stubborn hero of yours.”

“Thanks, Bill,” she said, giving him a quick hug before turning to go back down the stairs.

“Oh, and Gin?” Bill said, stopping her in the doorway. “Remember you’re only sixteen, he’s only seventeen. You’ve both seen and done more than most people twice your age, but it is okay to just be kids, you know. I think maybe you both need to remember that. Just a thought.”

Caught off guard by her brother’s words, Ginny didn’t answer, just went downstairs to meet Harry, lost in thought.

*****

“Oh, I see someone’s brought you a nest of scrappelpods. That’s a very nice gift. Did you know they’re supposed to bring good dreams and fertility?”

“Erm, what?” asked Fred, squinting his eyes in the direction he could hear Luna Lovegood’s airy voice coming from.

“I think she means the flowers from Katie, Angelina, and Alicia,” George whispered in his ear, his voice full of the laughter he was holding back.

“Oh,” said Fred, grinning as he shook his head at Luna’s characteristic…well…Luna-ness for lack of a better term. He was a little curious why she was here as she was really more Ron and Harry’s friend than his, but she had spent several weeks living with his family at Auntie Muriel’s after the trio had rescued her from Malfoy Manor, so it wasn’t entirely odd that she was turning up now to see him.

And she certainly wasn’t the first to come. This morning, after a lengthy examination from his Healer, Fred had been declared well enough to have visitors who weren’t family. Apparently, word had spread quickly because he’d had a steady stream of people coming by ever since. His side table and the windowsill were now overflowing with cards and flowers from everyone from Professor Flitwick to Lee and Oliver. Hagrid had brought a bag of homemade sweets Fred knew better than to try, and Kingsley Shacklebolt himself had stopped by to give both him and George an official thank you from the Ministry. According to George, his room was starting to look quite festive.

Too bad he wasn’t feeling very festive.

He was trying. He and George were fine again after their row two days before. Their fights might be spectacular but they never lasted long. George had come back after a few hours and he’d asked him to stay; the fight was forgotten and no apology was needed. That’s just the way it was with them.

But the topic of the row hadn’t been as easy to sweep under the rug, because deep down Fred knew George was right. He was absolutely terrified of spending the rest of his life blind, but he also had absolutely no idea how to change that. Hiding behind a sarcastic, bitter humor was what he’d always done and the only thing he could think to do now, even though on the inside he was about as far from real laughter as he could get.

“I’m very sorry about your eyes, Fred,” his current guest spoke, pulling him from his thoughts. With her characteristic bluntness, she was the first of his visitors to mention his sight. “Life is rather unfair sometimes isn’t it?”

“Yeah, it is,” he agreed, remembering that this girl had had her home destroyed, her father imprisoned, and had herself been a captive of Death Eaters for several months. If anyone knew about unfair, it was Luna.

“Things will work out, though, I’m sure of it. They usually do,” she assured him brightly. And that was the magic of Luna – the ability to look for the best in things when most people would just curl up and cry. Perhaps he’d needed this visit more than he realized.

“Thanks. I probably needed to hear that,” he said.

“I brought you something,” she went on, her unworried voice somehow very soothing. “I was going to bring you a card but then I thought it would be rather useless as you wouldn’t even be able to see it and I’m really horrible at the ones that have singing charms and such. So I figured I’d just come see you without a gift, but as I was walking here I noticed a thicket of dirigible plums and stopped to pick a few and right before I was leaving, I found this. Hold out your arms.”

Intrigued, Fred did as she asked even though his left arm was still awkwardly incased in the Muggle cast. He heard her rummaging in something for a moment and then suddenly there was a small squeak and something warm and soft and very much alive was resting in his hands.

“What is it?” he asked, startled as he pulled the little squirming body close to keep from dropping it.

“It’s a kit!” replied George, immediately at his side to help steady the little animal. “A baby fox!”

“Seriously?” he asked. With George helping him, he managed to get his good hand free so he could gently run his curious fingers over the tiny, soft animal.

“His mum was dead, you see, and he was alone and scared. Now I’ve never been blind but I closed my eyes for an hour yesterday to try and see what it was like and I thought it was certainly awkward, even knowing I could open them again when I was done. When I saw him, scared and frightened, I thought you might’ve been feeling rather the same way and maybe you could help each other,” Luna explained, sounding as though she’d just given him a teddy bear and not smuggled a live animal into a hospital ward. “So, would you like him?”

Fred Weasley was not accustomed to being at a loss for words, but just now, with this strange, straightforward and yet incredibly thoughtful girl, he found he couldn’t think of anything to say. And he also found that yes, he did want this warm, wiggly bundle of fur he was holding. Mutely, he nodded.

“Good, as he was quite difficult to keep quiet while I was bringing him in and I really would hate to have to take him back out.”

Fred heard her stand up and move closer to the bed. “I do hope you get better soon and everything. I don’t know about you but I always find it quite inconvenient to be ill. Goodbye,” she said brightly and just like that she was gone.

“Wow,” breathed Fred as he heard the door shut, “that takes the cake as most unusual visit to date.”

“And most insane get-well gift ever,” added George, helping to keep the wiggly little animal in his hands. “You seriously want to keep it?”

“Yeah, George,” Fred answered, giving his first real smile in a long time, “I reckon I do.” They’d never had a pet before. All their brothers and Ginny had received one at one time or another, but he and George never had. He guessed their mum and dad had figured they had each other to look after, and he’d never really minded. Feeling the tiny heartbeat of the kit as it snuggled in his arms and against his chest now, though, he knew he really wanted this animal.

“Uh-huh,” muttered George as he stepped back slightly. Fred could practically hear him rolling his eyes and shaking his head.

“What?” he groused, stroking the kit’s soft fur. It had settled down for the moment, curled on his lap.

“Nothing,” said George, sniffling dramatically. “Just never thought I’d see the day you’d replace me is all.”

“Oh, shut up, you git,” replied Fred, rolling his own useless eyes, “and go make yourself useful by finding something for this fur-ball to eat.”

“All right,” George agreed, heading for the door, “but I am absolutely not going to be caught giving your new toy a bottle, nor am I going to be the one to explain to Mr. Scary Healer about his existence in your room. And it is also your sole responsibility to tell Mum.”

Fred laughed as his twin left the room, although he had to admit the last bit about their mum did worry him just a little. He’d cross that bridge later, though. Sighing, he let his head sink wearily back into the pillows propping him up in bed. It amazed him how quickly he still tired and how much his whole body still ached. He had yet to even get out of bed on his own, and he knew for the moment his body and legs were still so weak they were useless. The Healers had told him it might be weeks before he was walking again.

Without conscious thought, his good hand began stroking the little animal sleeping on his lap. He figured the tiny fox must have some magic in it; an ordinary wild fox would have been terrified of humans and never have taken to being held so quickly. Of course, since this animal had been found by Luna Lovegood, magical traits were probably a given – she was good at finding things like that. And she was right – this was the best present from anyone so far. This was a present he could touch and feel and most likely soon smell. Much better than a bunch of cards and flowers.

The door opened and footsteps sounded in his room.

“That was fast, George,” he called. “Don’t tell me they have a supply of infant fox food for sale in the tea room?”

His twin didn’t answer but instead closed the door quietly. A funny feeling settled in Fred’s still healing gut, and he shifted the blankets to cover his new pet completely as he listened to the footsteps stop at the foot of his bed. He might not be very good at this blind thing yet, but he did know his brother’s footsteps and something was wrong.

“George?” he asked, all humor gone.

“Guess again,” a low voice he’d never heard before said.

Panic rushed through him and he sucked in a deep breath, trying to control the overwhelming sense of helpless vulnerability he felt.

“Who are you?” Fred demanded, his voice as fearless as he could make it.

“My brothers and father were all there that day, at the Battle of Hogwarts,” the voice replied, laden with hate and rage. “Fighting for a noble cause and it got them killed, killed by your family and that murderer Harry Potter!”

As he finished, fear clenched Fred like a fist, and it seemed as if the temperature in his room dropped by ten degrees. He was surrounded by impenetrable darkness, lost in a void of black – alone, unarmed, and too weak to even sit up without help! Terror, hot and bright, seized him. Not three feet away a very angry Death Eater stood, one of the many renegades his father and brothers had spent the last three and a half weeks hunting down, and he couldn’t see! He couldn’t see!

“What do you want from me?” he asked, feigning bravado he certainly wasn’t feeling and hoping the tremors he felt coursing through his aching body couldn’t be seen by the other man.

“To return the favor,” the man replied simply, and Fred heard the swish of robes as an arm was raised. “I lost everyone that night and yet you sit here, brought back from the dead. I reckon there’s a debt of pain to be paid by your family and you’re going to pay it.”

Heart pounding, Fred knew without seeing there was now a wand pointed directly at him, and absolutely nothing to stop the owner from using it. He’d never, in his whole life, felt more helpless or more afraid. His tortured mind had conjured up a number of horrible things that could happen now that he was blind, but what was playing out in his room was ten times worse than any of those terrifying thoughts.

“And the sweetest thing?” his tormentor continued, obviously enjoying the terror he was causing. “Rumor has it I won’t even have to use a proper curse. Just fire a Stupefy or Petrificus at you and you’ll simply fall apart on the inside. Poetic, isn’t it? So, Weasley, I do believe it’s time to say goodbye.”
 
 
 
 


Chapter 10: Wounded Soldiers
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

To my wonderful readers:
I am so incredibly sorry that it has taken me this long to update. I’m sure that most of you have given this (and all my stories) up for dead and abandoned by now. They’re not, I promise. It’s just that my life for the last year and a half has been one long run-on mess of events and deadlines and stress, and as a result I had to let some things go in order to remain sane. Sadly, my writing was one of them. There is finally a light at the end of the tunnel, however, and so I’m trying to get back in the swing of things. Thank you so much for your patience.

This chapter is dedicated to my wonderful beta and adopted big brother Eldy. You never let me give up on my writing during all that real life stress and jumped right back on the beta-bandwagon when I finally had something to send you. THANKS BRO!

And to WYHO, Pix, and Mel for being awesome friends and ever willing fic sounding boards.


Chapter 9: “Wounded Soldiers”

“In war, there are no unwounded soldiers.”
     – Jose Narosky

*****

Stupefy!”

The shouted curse fell on Percy’s ears like a hammer as he opened his brother’s hospital room door and walked right into a nightmare. In horror he watched as a jet of red light shot from a hooded figure’s wand directly toward Fred, who summoned every ounce of strength he had and barely managed to roll out of bed and topple helplessly on the floor just as the spell sailed above him.

“NOOO!” Percy screamed. Moving without thought he hurled himself at his brother’s attacker. He crashed into the startled man, knocking them both to the floor in a tangle of robes and limbs. With savage fury, he tore the wand from the Death Eater’s hand and threw it across the room. Then he gave in to the rage coursing through him, a rage that was like none he’d ever felt before. He vented all of it at the black-robed figure that had tried to take his brother’s life, furiously pummeling the man with his bare fists. He’d watched Fred die once, right in front of him. Watched the light fade from the eyes of a brother he’d barely had time to make up with. Then a miracle had brought him back and there was no way, NO WAY, he was going to watch it happen again!

Just then, Percy caught movement out of the corner of his eye; someone else rushed into the room. He turned from his bloody prisoner, ready to attack this new threat, only to see George’s panic-stricken face.

“FRED!” the young man cried, racing to his twin’s side.

Finally, Percy’s horror-fueled thoughts cleared enough for him to see reason and he remembered the wand in his pocket. Harshly, he whipped it from his robes and pointed it without hesitation at the Death Eater, muttering the binding spell with enough anger to produce ropes two inches thick.

“George, go get help!” he ordered his younger brother, aware of the extremely grey tint to Fred’s skin as he lay gasping for breath in a pile of knotted bedclothes on the floor, his twin hovering frantically above him. “NOW!”

His words left no room for argument and for the first time in his life, George obeyed without question, running back into the hall and screaming for Healers and security.

“Fred,” Percy said gently, kneeling by his brother’s side. “Fred, can you breathe?”

“Yeah,” Fred answered after a minute of panting. “Sorta. Chest hurts.”

Percy didn’t have time to ask any more questions as he was shoved roughly aside by the Healers and Medi-wizards that were suddenly circling his injured brother. In worried shock and growing fear, Percy and George stood side by side in silence and watched as Fred was quickly restored to his bed, a blur of activity surrounding him. It seemed to last for hours; the Healers not even stopping their work as security wizards arrived and took the battered Death Eater away.

Finally, Fred’s chief Healer stepped back and wiped at the sweat dripping off his forehead with the sleeve of his robe.

“Is he all right?” George asked at once, his face practically white with worry.

“Yes, thank Merlin,” the Healer sighed. “There was some slight re-injury caused by the fall, but the protection and Healing spells held, and none of the magical residue from the curse seems to have come in contact with them. He’s bruised and sore, but that’s it.”

Letting out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding, Percy glanced at George just in time to see his younger brother’s legs give out on him.

“Whoa!” he cried, catching him and guiding him to a chair.

“Sorry,” George muttered, leaning forward with his head in his hands. “Just…just…” He couldn’t even finish the sentence.

“I know,” Percy said, and he really did. His heart was still pounding from terror and shock.

With the exception of the aged Healer, all the extra personnel had left the room, leaving them alone with Fred again.

“Where’s Gus?” Fred asked suddenly, his breathless voice tinged with worry and pain.

“Gus?” Percy repeated, thinking maybe Fred had hit his head as well.

“My fox. Luna gave him to me. He didn’t get hurt did he, falling out of bed like that?”

“Your fox? Luna?” Now Percy was really confused, but just then a fearful sort of whimper sounded from beneath Fred’s bed. Eyes widening, Percy knelt down and peered under. Sure enough, back in the very farthest corner, two little eyes stared at him out of a tiny, furry, red head.

Oh, Sweet Merlin! he couldn’t help thinking as he carefully eased the terrified animal out of its hiding place.

Frowning sternly, he stood and turned to his brother. “There is no way you are keeping this animal! Do you realize how many hospital rules you’re probably breaking – not that you’ve ever cared much for breaking rules – and on top of that – ”

“Excuse me, Mr. Weasley?” he was cut off mid-rant by the Healer, which was probably a good thing. Percy was letting his panic and adrenaline from earlier run into a full steam lecture, the kind he had promised himself to try harder not to give. He turned and eyed the man expectantly.

“Let me just say it wouldn’t be the first animal to spend some time inside these walls while it’s owner recovered. Wizards do tend to get very attached to their pets. If it helps your brother, I have no problem with it staying.”

Percy felt his jaw literally drop.

“See,” said Fred, and Percy got the feeling it was only the pain he was in that kept him from sticking his tongue out to accompany that statement. “Now, can I have him back?” he asked, holding out his good hand.

Giving a long-suffering sigh, Percy deposited the frightened animal in his brother’s lap.

“Word has been sent to both the Ministry and your family about what just happened here, so I would be expecting some rather worried company soon,” the old man said, standing wearily. “Do not leave him alone until they get here,” he added sternly to Percy and George, who both nodded.

“So,” said George to his twin as the aged Healer left the room. Percy noticed he looked a little less pale, although he hadn’t tried to stand back up yet. “What I want to know is when you decided the beast’s name was Gus?”

“I think it was as I was falling to the floor. It sorta hit me, if you know what I mean,” Fred answered. Both twins gave a watery laugh at that, and Percy found he suddenly couldn’t stay, couldn’t handle this attempt at normalcy in the face of what had happened…what had almost happened.

“George, stay here, I’ll be right back,” he said quickly and then rushed from the room before either of his brothers could say anything. He made it to the lavatory down the hall before he lost it. Bending over the porcelain bowl he emptied his stomach completely and then just knelt there shaking, not only from the shock, but especially the fear of what he nearly lost again.

*****

“Are you sure this is what you want to do, Harry? Have you really thought this through?”

“Yes, Professor, I really have,” said Harry earnestly. He was sitting in Kingsley Shacklebolt’s office at the Ministry with Kingsley himself and Professor McGonagall. “I know Sirius left it to me, but I can’t live there. All I can see is Sirius stuck there, a virtual prisoner. That’s not how I want to remember him. Besides, I don’t need it, but don’t try and tell me the Order couldn’t use it.”

“The Order is perfectly capable of finding a new home for Headquarters,” said Professor McGonagall rather sternly.

“I know, Professor,” Harry sighed as he ran a hand tiredly through his messy black hair. He’d been prepared for this argument, but it was still annoying. “But I want to do this. No, I need to do this. You have all been telling me I need to let the past go and start looking to the future – well this is one of those things I need to do. I’d like your help with this, that’s why I came to you as I’m honestly at a loss as to the best way to approach it, but one way or the other I want this done.”

Kingsley and McGonagall shared a look and then the Minister sighed, leaning back in his chair. “What do you need to know?”

Harry grinned and leaned forward. “What my options are. I wanted to just give you the bloody house as we all know that between what my parents and what Sirius left me I don’t need the money, but Bill mentioned some legal stuff I didn’t really understand that might be a problem and – ”

“You are aware that Albus named you as his heir as well, are you not?” Professor McGonagall interrupted his tumbling words, and Harry felt his jaw go slack as he turned to her in shock.

“Wha—at?” he stammered.

“Albus named you his heir,” she repeated gently. “While he did not have a vast fortune one can start to amass a tidy sum when the only things one purchases from year to year are sweets and questionable robes and dressing gowns. Upon his death half of the money went to the scholarship fund at Hogwarts, then some specific bequests and a portion of his money went to Aberforth, but the rest went to you. Surely Scrimgeour told you last fall?”

Harry huffed. “I reckon there’s a lot of things Scrimgeour forgot[ to tell me,” he muttered, shaking his head. “But why, Professor?” he continued, turning to his former teacher in confusion. “Why would he do that? It’s not like I need the money.”

“Because he loved you,” McGonagall answered simply. “You were the closest to a son or grandson he ever had.”

A lump Harry didn’t expect rose up in his throat at her words and tears threatened to fall unbidden as he thought of Dumbledore with his gentle voice and bright, twinkling eyes. He turned his face away and stared at a precarious stack of parchment labeled “Internal Affairs” in the corner for a few minutes, swallowing hard as he blinked furiously to keep the tears from falling. After a few minutes, he forced his emotions back into submission and turned to face Kingsley and McGonagall.

“So what do I need to do to make this happen?” he asked firmly.

“You’re one-hundred percent sure you want to get rid of the property?” Kingsley questioned again.

“Yes,” Harry answered without hesitation. “Sirius hated that house. I don’t want it.”

“Well, Bill is right. Giving the house away is probably not the best solution. But then again, neither is outright selling it,” said the Minister, seeing Harry’s mind was made up. “Part of the reason Grimmauld Place was chosen to begin with is the deep and powerful magical protections that it carries. You may not have the Black family name, but since Sirius legally willed it to you as his heir, they have remained intact. In essence, you have been adopted into the Black family.”

Harry must have let his thoughts on that prospect flick across his face involuntarily because Kingsley leaned back in his chair and let out his deep laugh. Even Professor McGonagall’s lips twitched slightly.

“Don’t worry,” the other man chuckled. “I don’t reckon that means you have to add the Malfoy’s to your Christmas card list. But,” he added, getting back to business again, “what it does mean is if you sold or gave away Grimmauld Place the protections inherent in the Black family name would be annulled.”

Harry frowned, trying to follow what the other man was saying. “So, you’re telling me I can’t sell it, but I can’t just give it away either? I’m stuck with it, then?”

Kingsley shook his head. “Have you thought of a lease, Harry? You’d retain legal ownership, but you would delegate responsibility to the Order.”

Something he’d learned ages ago, long before magic and pre-destined quests and Voldemort had ever entered his life, popped into his mind. Without thinking he blurted, “You mean, sorta like Hong Kong?”

Once again, Kinsgley’s rich laugh filled the cluttered office. “Harry, my boy, you may have single-handedly saved the wizarding world, but there’s no denying that Muggle upbringing, is there?”

Harry blushed, not sure whether to be insulted or join in the laugher.

“Yes, Harry,” said Professor McGonagall, shaking her head slightly at the Interim Minister’s antics. “You are exactly right. You set the terms and conditions and we lease the house from you for a determined amount of time and a yearly fee.”

“Can I make the fee anything I want?”

“It’s your lease, Harry,” Kingsley reminded him, still smiling.

“Okay then. I want the yearly lease to be one Knut,” he announced, crossing his arms and daring them to argue with him.

“Do you think the Order can handle that exorbitant sum?” Kingsley asked McGonagall, his eyes twinkling.

“We’ll manage,” replied the professor with mock seriousness. “Any other stipulations, Harry?”

“Yeah,” he answered, starting to feel a huge measure of relief at the thought of finally moving on in at least one part of his life. “Kreacher. I’m worried about Kreacher.”

“Kreacher is bound to you, not the house itself. Leasing the house to the Order won’t change that at all,” replied the Minister.

“I know,” said Harry, waving a hand impatiently. Strangely enough, through the events of the last year and sealed by Kreacher’s act of loyalty in the Battle, Harry had grown rather fond of the ancient elf. He’d tried numerous times over the last month to offer the house elf his freedom, but Kreacher would have none of it. He seemed determined to live out the rest of his days in Harry’s service, much to the teenager’s embarrassment. “But Grimmauld Place is his home. I might not want to live there, but if he wants to…” Harry shrugged. “I want it part of the terms of the lease that he always has a room there and free run of the place whenever he wants. And for Merlin’s sake let him keep the heads of his ancestors there ‘cause I really, really don’t want him hauling them over to be stored in my trunk or something!”

“You do realize how difficult that’s going to make picking a theme for the new décor of the building, don’t you?” asked Professor McGonagall. She said it so even and straight-faced that Harry almost believed her, until he saw the slight twitch at the corner of her mouth that soon turned into a real smile. “Of course, Harry. Kreacher is always welcome there as well as at Hogwarts.”

“So are you happy with this arrangement, Harry?”

Harry nodded at the Minister, feeling more than pleased with what had just been worked out.

“Good. I’ll have some of my lawyers draw up the legal documents tomorrow and then if you approve of them we can make it official—”

Suddenly, a slivery Saint Bernard streaked into the room, cutting Kingsley off mid-sentence. “There has been a Death Eater attack at St. Mungo’s directed at Mr. Fred Weasley,” it spoke in the calm but urgent voice Harry recognized as belonging to Fred’s main Healer. “Your presence is requested immediately, Minister Shacklebolt.”

Fear froze Harry’s insides at the words and he leapt to his feet, rushing from the room with the others, his only thought now to get to the Floo chamber as fast as possible.

*****

With an audible sigh of relief, Ron slipped into the men’s room of the ice cream shop and quickly tore off his costume, praising whatever Muggle genius had invented this thing called “air conditioning” as he fought the urge to stretch out on the floor right in front of the vent. Thank Merlin some beautiful Muggle law mandated he be allowed two twenty minute breaks and an hour lunch every day or he would have gone barmy by now. Or melted, like the blobs of ice cream screaming children were always dropping on the sidewalk outside the shop. Who knew being a purple cow was such hard work?

He still hadn’t told Hermione what he was doing. Oh, she knew he’d found a job. The minute he’d told her, she’d flung her arms around his neck and started to cry, thanking him a million times over for being willing to do that for her and telling him he was noble and wonderful and some other stuff he hadn’t really understood because her mouth was sorta smashed against his by that point. She’d just assumed he’d found a job in the Magical community, and Ron couldn’t bring himself to correct her – a man had to have some pride after all.

Besides, he was worried about her. The longer they went with no trace of her parents the more despondent she became. She threw herself into the search with a fervor, but underneath that mask Ron could see the truth – that a little bit of the Hermione he had loved since he first saw her bushy, bossy head poke into their train compartment was dying with each passing day. It terrified him because he was absolutely helpless to stop it.

Exiting the lavatory, Ron grabbed a sandwich from the deli-fridgerator-thingie (he’d been given free reign during lunch) and then headed outside to spend the forty-five minutes he had left on his break. The late Autumn air was chilly without a purple cow suit on; he pulled his jacket closer as he headed across the street to Dell’s Bookstore. He knew his brothers and Harry would give him no end of grief if they knew he was frequenting a bookstore during his lunch, but he’d only come in the first time looking for a gift for Hermione to help cheer her up and he’d found it was a quiet, comfortable place to hide and eat. Besides, he’d given up all rights to dignity when he donned the purple monstrosity hanging back in the men’s room anyway.

“Afternoon, Ron.”

“Hey, Lisa,” he replied to the Muggle university student who was manning the shop. Apparently, the store’s owners were on a two week vacation. They were expecting their first child and wanted one last trip before it became too difficult to travel. Lisa, who was taking a semester off from school, was covering for them while they were gone.

Grabbing a newspaper, Ron took his sandwich and settled at the same table in the corner he’d been using for the last week. It was incredibly weird to read a paper where the pictures just sat there and didn’t move, and where the stories made not a single mention of the epic struggle between good and evil that had just taken place a few weeks earlier. He longed for news from home, an update on the clean-up and search for rogue Death Eaters, a note about how Harry was handling everything, word about Fred…

He sighed and shoved the paper away, bored with it. He ate the last bite of sandwich and then stood up, glancing at the clock and noting that he had roughly half an hour before he had to return to his purple torture. Maybe today he would find that perfect gift for Hermione.

Still feeling rather out of place in a room so full of books, Ron wandered the small shop, haphazardly browsing the stuffed shelves and books that overflowed into stacks and piles. But it was no use. He flipped through book after book but he could never be sure he’d found the right one. Here was a book on macramé – what in the name of Merlin’s pet pony was that? Ron thought to himself. He saw another on the art of cooking and nearly grabbed it until he realized that it would be more of a gift for him than Hermione.

He glanced through the “History” section for a while, but soon moved on. He was sure there were books there that Hermione would have liked, but the topics were all on Muggle history and he had no idea where to start. He walked quickly through the “Geography” section, unable to stop a laugh when he saw A Scenic Travel Logue of England. After all of the countryside they’d seen, the last thing they needed was pictures of all the rotten places they’d had to camp. He especially had no desire to see the Forest of Dean ever again.

Ambling up the book-strewn stairs, he worked his way through “Home Improvement,” “Entertainment” and “Science Fiction” finding nothing that sparked any interest. Then he turned a dark corner and found himself in a dimly lit section called “Comics.”

“Wicked!” Ron whispered, a huge grin splitting his face. “I knew Muggles were good for something.” With boyish delight, he grabbed the first book off the stack, a volume titled Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cat* and settled on the floor to read, thoughts of Hermione momentarily forgotten.

It was quite different from the wizarding comics he had grown up with; there were things he didn’t understand, but it somehow felt like a bit of home and he found himself loving it, even laughing out loud.

“This is great!” he chuckled, turning a page. “Fred and George would love this,” he added to himself, feeling a pang of longing for his family and worry for his gravely injured older brother and the fact that he didn’t know how he was doing now. An idea struck him and he turned over the book, glancing at the price. It was an older, used copy and so the price had been reduced.

The clock struck the hour, telling him he needed to hurry back to work. He stood up, making a decision and knowing Hermione would understand. He dug the money out of his pocket and paid for the book, then walked back across the street imagining the happy grin on his brother’s face when Fred saw the crazy Muggle book, read the words, and laughed at the pictures.

*****

Exhausted, Harry sank down into a chair in the hospital tea room, letting his head fall wearily into his arms on the table.

This day had been insane.

Hearing Fred had been attacked sent fear and anger he’d rarely felt rushing through him. He’d grown up devoid of any experience with family love, both receiving it and feeling it for others. Ron and Hermione had been his family since year one and he’d honestly never expected more than that, but the Weasleys had adopted him willingly into their family. What had shocked him that morning however, was to realize that he’d also adopted them, allowed them to fill that void in his heart. Not just Ron, Hermione and now Ginny – no, he realized he loved all those crazy redheads as if they were his own blood. It was a wonderful discovery, but it was also extremely scary. Letting people into his heart was dangerous; it meant he could be more easily hurt.

He sighed, not bothering to raise his head from his arms. Oh how he wished Ron and Hermione were here with him. He missed them so much it was a physical pain lodged in his chest, an ache that grew every day that went by. Not only were they his best friends, they had always had the ability to pull him back from the brink when he was teetering on the edge of disaster.

Running fingers through his limp hair, he sat up just as George Weasley slipped into the tea room and sank bonelessly into a chair in the far corner of the room by the window, never even noticing Harry.

Speaking of someone teetering on the edge of disaster…

Harry frowned as he scanned his older friend. George’s eyes were blood-shot and ringed with dark shadows, his face haggard and thin and covered in scruffy stubble. His clothes were wrinkled and he sat hunched over like an eighty-year-old man instead of a twenty-year-old kid. Harry knew the Weasleys were deeply worried about him, almost as much as they were concerned for Fred. Mrs. Weasley lived in fear he was going to end up in his own hospital bed before long. As far as Harry knew, George hadn’t even left the hospital once since he’d hitched a ride here on Madam Pomfrey’s Portkey that fateful night.

Quietly, Harry rose to his feet and left the room, a determined glint in his eyes as he formed a plan. It wouldn’t be a fun or pleasant one, but it needed doing. In fact, as Harry reflected on it, taking on unpleasant tasks that “needed doing” had become his life-long specialty. At least this time he knew he would be helping a friend.

*****

“Hey, George, come here for a minute,” Harry called out from the far side of the hospital common room when he saw the tall youth enter. George looked around for a moment before spotting Harry and weaving his way through the tables to where the dark-haired wizard was.

“What d’you need?” asked George.

“Just wanted to show you this,” said Harry pulling a Muggle toy out of his pocket. “Thought it might interest you for the shop,” he added. He glanced surreptitiously at the corner of the room to Kingsley, who nodded slightly, before he held the toy out to George.

The instant they were both touched it, Harry felt the familiar tug behind his navel of a Portkey activating. He registered the shock and surprise in George’s eyes before the hospital dissolved around them.

They landed with a thud in the sitting room of the Burrow, and Harry watched the confusion on his friend’s face turn instantly to anger as he took in his surroundings. He swore vehemently and rounded on Harry, taking a violent swing at him.

Harry, the product of years of training, easily ducked just as Charlie’s thick, muscled arms wrapped around George.

Expelliarmus!” said Bill from the corner, and George’s wand flew from his pocket and into his eldest brother’s hand.

“Argh!” George growled wildly, wrenching free from Charlie’s hold and backing away from the three of them. He glared furiously at them for a long moment of complete silence before he turned in a rage and hurled the Muggle toy at the wall where it exploded like a bomb on impact.

“You tricked me!” he shouted at Harry. “You bloody traitor!”

Harry, his expression serious and unyielding as he stood his ground, calmly undid the first few buttons on his shirt and drew the edges aside, allowing the top of his still healing bruise to show. “Learned from the best, didn’t I,” he said bluntly, his eyes boring into George’s pointedly.

George narrowed his eyes at him angrily before turning away.

“And you two?” he shot at his brothers.

“Back-up,” said Charlie simply as he stood like a roadblock in the doorway, arms crossed.

“And one-hundred-percent behind Harry’s plan,” added Bill, clearly not in the mood to take his younger brother’s temper tantrum.

“I’m fine!” snapped George, running hands through his hair in frustration as he paced.

“No, you’re not!” replied Bill. “You haven’t been home since the Battle, you haven’t even left St. Mungo’s! You’re hardly sleeping, you barely eat… You haven’t even been to check on the shop! Mum’s sick with worry over you and we’re tired of it!”

“You had no right! No right to bring me here against my will!” George spat.

“Maybe not,” agreed Harry stepping toward his friend defiantly, “but I did it and I’m not sorry. George, you’re falling apart and we can all see it, even Fred! You need to step back for a bit, sleep in your own bed, eat your mum’s cooking and let her fuss over you for a change instead of me! Check in with Oliver and Lee about the shop, turn someone’s shampoo into glue – anything!”

“What I need is to be with Fred!” said George desperately.

“George, Fred has six Weasleys, half the Order, and the Minister himself watching over him right now!” exclaimed Bill. “You. Need. To. Stay. Home!”

“I can’t! I almost lost him!”

“We all almost lost him, Georgie,” said Charlie in a surprisingly gentle voice.

“Not like I did, you didn’t!” cried George, tears leaking unbidden down his cheeks as his words burst forth, a month’s worth of pent up emotion finally exploding. “You don’t understand! You can’t understand! You lost a brother – I lost half of my soul! It tore a whole so big I knew it was gonna swallow me up too! I can’t[ lose him again! I have to stay with him!” He sank onto the sofa, completely spent as he stared at his brothers and Harry in desperate pleading, angrily swiping at his wet face.

Harry glanced at Bill and Charlie, feeling like an intruder in a private family moment and not at all sure what to say. Thankfully, he didn’t have to think of anything.

“George,” said a soft voice, and Harry looked over to see Ginny slip into the room and move over to the sofa. “George,” she repeated, sitting beside him and wrapping her arms around her big brother. “He really is gonna be okay. We promise,” she whispered. “Now we have to make sure you’ll be okay, too.”

“I’m…I…I need to stay there,” he replied helplessly.

“Fred said you might say that,” replied Ginny with a small grin, “which is why he just sent me here to give this to you.” She pulled a piece of bright pink parchment from her pocket and handed it to George. The twin read it and suddenly broke out into a watery laugh. “That prat,” he muttered, shaking his head.

Curious, Harry took the parchment from George. Large wobbly letters spelled out a message: Stay home and get some rest, you big git! And shower, because this place is really starting to stink and how am I ever supposed to make my move on that Healer’s Assistant with the sexy voice if you and your stinky socks are hanging out in here night and day? – Love Fred

Harry laughed out loud. He couldn’t help it; it was just so…Fred. The tension of a moment before dissipated, leaving just a heavy weariness.

“Fine,” sighed George. “You win. But that was a vile trick and you three are not forgiven, not by a long shot.” He held his hand out to Bill for his wand back as he stood.

“Nuh-uh,” said Bill, firmly shaking his head. “I’m not a gullible First Year. You get the wand back after you look like a member of the human race again. And we decontaminated your room as well, just to be safe. You can sleep or you can count the scorch marks on the ceiling, but you will stay in there until Mum calls you tonight for dinner.”

George glared at Bill, clearly ready to rekindle the argument until Ginny spoke up. “Or, I can just hex you until you wish you’d taken option one,” she said sweetly, wand pointing unerringly at his head.

“Nutters, the lot of you!” cried George, throwing his hands up and stomping off up the stairs, but no one missed the tired slump of his shoulders or weary sound of his feet as he went.

“If I were the three of you, I’d sleep very, very lightly for the next, oh six months or so,” said Ginny, shaking her head as she turned and headed into the kitchen. “You play with fire, expect to be burned eventually…”

Harry gulped. Maybe he should take Kingsley up on that offer of a bodyguard after all…

*****

With a muffled scream, Harry shot up in bed, sweat pouring down his neck and back in icy rivers as he gasped desperately for air and tried to push the images from his mind.

It was just a nightmare, he thought frantically. Just a nightmare, and hardly a new one at that. His life had given him quite a collection of night terrors to choose from and ever since that completely terrifying encounter in the forest a month ago it seemed all the walls he’d built up over the years to keep them back had crumbled to dust.

More exhausted than he’d been before he went to sleep, Harry drew his knees up to his chest and let his head sink to the sheets that covered them, blinking back tears.

“Here, son,” a quiet, sorrowful voice said and he jerked slightly as he felt the mattress dip beside him, looking up swiftly. Mr. Weasley was sitting on the bed’s edge, holding out a cup.

“Don’t worry, it’s only warm milk. It used to help Ron sleep when he’d have nightmares.” Mr. Weasley’s voice was warm and caring, despite being laced with deep sadness.

Harry stared at him for a long moment. Part of his mind was still stuck alone in the void of his dreams, unable to understand this unexpected kindness in the dark of his night. Finally, he blinked and reached out a shaking hand to grasp the cup.

“Thanks,” he mumbled quietly. “How…? Why…?”

Mr. Weasley seemed to understand the question he couldn’t articulate.

“I heard you tossing and turning. You don’t raise seven children and not learn to distinguish the sound,” he said gently. “I’ve been sitting with you for almost an hour. I didn’t want to invade your privacy, Harry, but no one should be alone when their mind turns on them at night.”

Harry swallowed the milk slowly, marveling at the calming and completely new sensation it sent through him, then handed the cup back. No one, not even Sirius or Remus, had ever done this for him before – calmed him in the night like a…a father.

“They’re getting worse, aren’t they?” Mr. Weasley continued sadly. “The nightmares.”

Still overwhelmed by strange emotions, Harry just stared at the gentle, balding man beside him before he finally nodded. Mr. Weasley squeezed his arm softly, shaking his head. “I wish I could take them away from you, make them stop, give you and all my children back your childhood.”

“It’s not your fault, Mr. Weasley,” said Harry, his voice raspy.

“It’s not yours either, Harry,” returned the older man. “Something you need to remember. Now, get some sleep.”

Mr. Weasley stood but instead of leaving the room, he made his way to a chair in the corner that was barely illuminated by muted lamplight and settled in, picking up a well-worn book.

“You…you don’t have to stay,” stammered Harry. “I’ll be fine.” But even as he said it he found he didn’t mean it.

“You don’t mind if I stay for a while do you? Molly wakes at even a hint of light and I’ve got to finish this chapter before I can sleep now anyway,” replied Mr. Weasley lightly.

Harry shook his head, a feeling of relief shooting through him.

“Get some rest, son,” said Mr. Weasley softly.

Suddenly feeling safer than he had for…longer than he could remember, Harry lay back down and closed his eyes, knowing he wasn’t imagining the soft whisper that told him that at least for tonight, he wasn’t alone.


* Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cat is by Bill Watterson.

 
 
 
 


Chapter 11: Unexpected Help
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Chapter 10: “Unexpected Help”
(Chapter co-authored by theelderwand, who filled in a LOT of holes. He also provided beta-ing services. Thanks bro!)

"It is one of the most beautiful compensations of life that no person can sincerely try to help another without helping themselves."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

*****

Moving slowly, Arthur Weasley made his way through the twists and turns of Diagon Alley, his heart heavy but resolved. The wizarding street had not come through the Second War unscathed; shops had been damaged or destroyed and familiar faces were missing, but everywhere signs of rebuilding and a determination to push forward with life were strong. That stubborn British will that hadn’t admitted defeat through centuries of trials wasn’t about to surrender now. The wizarding community would rebuild – again – like a phoenix from the ashes and life would go on.

He paused for a moment in front of the darkened, damaged front of one shop, remnants of an ad for “U-No-Poo” still clinging to the broken window and allowed a small smile to lift his lips. It would take time, but light and life and laughter would fill that store again, he was certain of it.

After a moment, he moved on, his steps a little lighter and his spirit resolved to see this through.

Gringotts was humming with activity, Goblins scurrying here and there and patrons queuing up to the counters. One whole corner was still roped off, piles of rubble surrounding a rather glaring hole in the marble floor. Arthur found himself trying not to smile as he remembered Bill’s story.

“Harry Potter two, Goblins zero,” he muttered under his breath, shaking his head.

“Arthur!” a voice called, and he turned to see a man weaving his way through the crowd toward him.

“Arthur,” he said again when he reached him, shaking his hand warmly. “It’s good to see you again. It’s been too long.”

“Amos,” Arthur replied, returning the handshake. “It has been. But I hardly expected you to be neighborly when we were all in hiding,” he added with a laugh. “Thank you for your help on this matter. It’s a comfort to be going through someone I trust, although I never quite figured you for getting into real estate.”

Amos sobered slightly and a pained look crossed his face. “I couldn’t stay at the Ministry. Not after they refused to acknowledge my Cedric’s death, tried to brush it off as an accident so Fudge could pretend You-Know-Who wasn’t back.” He shook his head, the pain now mixing with disgust in his features.

Arthur nodded knowingly. He knew how hard it had been, staying at the Ministry and playing along with the tripe that Voldemort’s lap dogs had been spewing. He’d been able to do much good for Harry and the Order by enduring it, but if it had been his son’s murder that was covered up so the government could continue happily with its head in the sand, he wouldn’t have been able to stay either.

“That was wrong,” he said simply, sadly. “I wish I could have stopped that.”

“Well, there was much wrong done in the name of good,” answered Amos. As he spoke, he steered them away from the rubble and the bustling of the main bank corridor to a small desk tucked into a corner. “Which, sadly, brings us to the real topic of this visit, doesn’t it? Are you sure you want to go through with this business transaction, Arthur? You know magical property changing hands is no small thing.”

Arthur sighed as he took the seat Amos offered him, feelings and emotions rising up inside that made controlling his next words difficult.

“Yes, Amos. Molly and I have discussed it, and there really is no other choice. Our family and Fred’s needs have to come first.”

“Of course,” said Amos with a sympathetic nod. He reached into his robes and withdrew a roll of parchment, which he spread onto the desk. “I’ve the Purchase Agreement here, then. The buyer wishes to remain anonymous, but he or she does have some pretty specific terms and conditions for this sale. I suggest you take a moment to read through them.”

Arthur pushed his sliding glasses up on his nose and leaned over the parchment, reading carefully. A confused frown began to wrinkle his forehead as his eyes skimmed the list.

The seller shall insure that all magical characteristics of the above mentioned parcel of land shall remain intact at the time of the sale and shall take no action to strip or remove them prior to the transfer of titles…

The seller shall not interfere with any action or actions the buyer may take in reference to the property above once the Purchase Agreement has been signed and processed…

The seller shall insure that the Ancestral Name associated with the property is not stricken or removed during the process of completing the sale, but shall remain despite the transfer of titles. Buyer’s subsequent use(s), transfer(s) and/or bequest(s) regarding the disposition of this property, as more fully described in Addendum A., to be presented to seller following the instant transfer, shall be binding in all respects on the parties to this agreement…

By the time he was finished reading all the fine print, Arthur was more than a little apprehensive and worried. These were very unusual and specific demands, even for a sale of magical land such as the Weasley paddock. He couldn’t help but wonder what the buyer had in mind for his land, but he’d begun to fear the worst. After all, whoever bought the paddock would be their neighbors, for good or ill. And ill looked to be what was coming. The last bit of writing about “subsequent uses and transfers” greatly worried him. And what could be in Addendum A? Whatever the buyer was up to, Arthur’s hands were tied as securely as if he’d been hit with an Incarcerous jinx.

Arthur hated this. He felt like such a traitor to his father and his heritage, selling off what had been passed down for generations, but what else could he do?

“Do you have the quill?” he asked softly, wanting to get this over with before he changed his mind.

Amos nodded, gesturing for a goblin to approach. The creature stepped up to the desk, producing the official Binding Quill from thin air and then standing close to serve as the witness.

His heart breaking, Arthur took the quill and signed the parchment, trembling at the slight tingle of magic that swept through him as he finished scribbling the date. The parchment immediately rolled shut with a snap. It was done. The goblin took the parchment and slipped it into his coat. He then produced a bag of Galleons which he handed to Arthur with an official parchment slip indicating the total amount. To Arthur, the little bag felt like it weighed a ton as he slipped it into his pocket. He nodded at the goblin, then turned to his old friend.

“Thank you, Amos,” he said, rising to his feet and extending his hand, now wanting nothing more than to return home. Somehow, he and Molly would have to break the news to their children tonight. “I really do appreciate your help with this.”

“Wait a moment, Arthur,” Amos answered, rising as well but ignoring the offered hand. “There’s still the matter of Addendum A.”

Arthur shuddered at the implications. He’d forgotten this wasn’t over yet.

“Please, come with me, Mr. Weasley,” the goblin said, gesturing to a door at the far side. “This sale is not quite complete.”

Arthur followed the goblin into a room full of small, golden boxes set into the wall. The goblin pressed his fingers to one of them and it opened with a click, revealing another piece of rolled up parchment.

“Addendum A,” the goblin droned in a bored voice.

Arthur reached out and took the parchment, barely controlling the slight shake that ran through his outstretched hand. He pulled it open and read it quickly.

Upon completion of the Purchase Agreement, this document, heretofore referred to as “Addendum A,” shall serve as a Quit Claim Deed, vesting all right and title to the aforementioned property in Arthur Weasley, in fee simple absolute, for valuable consideration already received by the buyer.

In stunned silence, Arthur re-read the parchment three more times but it still said the same thing.

“What is this, some kind of joke?” he demanded of the goblin. “The buyer is backing out?”

“The buyer is doing exactly what the parchment says,” the goblin answered, apparently tired of dealing with stupid humans. “The money is yours and title in the land has now vested in you again, per the buyer’s wishes.” The goblin raised his arm toward the door. “This transaction is completed. Good day.”

Arthur was at a loss. “Wait! Who’s the buyer? And what is this about ‘consideration already received?’”

With a huff, the goblin continued, as if he were explaining to a child. “The buyer wishes to remain anonymous. As for the ‘consideration’ mentioned, the buyer is acknowledging that you have already compensated him or her in exchange for the return of the property.”

“How? I haven’t…”

“Good day,” the goblin said more forcefully, clearly indicating that it actually wasn’t, as he walked through the door, leaving a very befuddled Arthur standing there in the chamber with the deed in his hand.

The answer to his questions suddenly hit him like a bolt of lightning.

“Harry James Potter, you sneaky little bugger,” he muttered, shaking his head.

*****

Harry stepped out of the loo at the Ministry right into a flash of light going off in his eyes.

“What the –?” he cried, throwing his arms up as he backed into the wall, momentarily blinded.

“Harry, dear, it’s so wonderful to be meeting with you again!” a very recognizable voice purred from beside his left ear.

“Rita Skeeter,” he mumbled, closing his eyes in longsuffering annoyance as more flashes continued to assault him.

“I must say it has been too long since our last chat,” the blonde continued in an overly chipper voice. “I was simply thrilled to get this assignment! Get a few shots from the side, Wesley, darling, where you can see those adorable dimples,” she added to the photographer that was snapping photos of Harry like there was no tomorrow.

“What? No, don’t get any shots from the side, Wesley!” Harry snapped, pushing the man and his camera out of his face. “Rita, what the heck are you doing?”

“But Harry, it’s all for the calendar of course!” she said, ignoring Harry’s protest and motioning for the man to continue.

“Calendar? What calendar?”

“Why the Daily Prophet’s Twelve Months of Harry Potter Calendar! It was all spelled out very clearly in the memo. Now, what would you like your quote for January to be? How about something from that amazing piece I wrote on you for the Triwizard Tournament? Some of my best work…positively heartrending.”

“I’m not doing a bloody calendar!” Harry roared, anger rushing through him even as a fiery blush crept up his cheeks and Wesley the “darling” photographer continued to snap pictures of him from all angles. He tried to push past the woman and her sidekick to escape, but he’d forgotten how good she was at cornering people.

“Now, I’m thinking for July or August we must do at least one beach scene. Don’t worry, it will all be perfectly tasteful, unless, of course, you wanted to indulge your fans a little,” she added with a wink.

“Argh!” he ground out, temper and patience finally breaking. As Wesley leaned in to get a close-up, he snatched the camera right out of the man’s hands and chucked it in a nearby water fountain, reveling in the rather large splash.

He turned to Rita Skeeter, who was gaping at him just a little bit like a fish while the photographer raced to try and save his precious camera. “Yes, I have a quote for you,” he said in faked politeness. “Shove off.”

And then, with as much dignity as his flaming red cheeks would allow, he walked quickly away.

*****

The moment Ron walked into the ice cream shop at the close of the day he could sense something was off – wrong. He had the head of his costume tucked under one arm, ready to slip into the men’s room and change, but he stopped, looking around. His intuition, the product of a year on the run and eighteen years as the butt of Fred and George’s pranks, told him all was not right with the scene before him.

The owner’s teenage son was behind the counter, wiping up the sticky residue of a day’s worth of ice cream before closing the till, and in the corner to the right sat the last costumer. Ron narrowed his eyes at the man, realizing where his unease came from. He was probably only a few years older than Ron, but he screamed out of place as he sat there licking a double berry ice cream cone, his eyes shifting nervously around, as if waiting for something.

Ron stuck his hand into the pocket of the purple cow suit, fingering his wand.

Suddenly, the door behind him burst open and another young man came in. In his hand was a Muggle gun.

“All right, no one move!” he shouted as the first guy ditched his ice cream on the table and also pulled a gun, pointing it at the boy behind the counter who was frozen in fright.

“All we want is the money,” the new guy said. “So, just hand it over and no one has to get hurt.”

Looking back later, Ron wasn’t entirely sure why he did what he did next. Maybe it was just that after fighting a war against ultimate evil and helping his best friend save the world from a sadistic, immortal dark wizard two Muggle thugs with guns didn’t really count for much. Or maybe he just really wanted to get out of his purple cow suit. Either way, he acted without a lot of conscious thought. As if it were a Quaffle he was pitching back into a Quidditch game, he chucked the head of his costume at the man who had been sitting at the table. It hit him square in the back and sent him sprawling. On the way down his head collided with the counter; he was out cold before he hit the floor, gun skittering uselessly away. Then Ron launched himself at the thug closest to him, smashing his fist into guy’s face.

It was all over in seconds. He didn’t even use his wand. Gits were more inept than Snatchers, Ron thought to himself.

Which is why Ron really couldn’t understand why everyone else insisted on making such a big deal about it.

The shop’s owner came, pumping his hand over and over and going on about how he’d saved his son’s life and gave him a raise on the spot.

Then the Muggle pleasemen showed up and made him retell every little detail while they made studious notes in little books.

Then the Muggle reporters arrived and he had to rehash the whole thing yet again, this time while photographers insisted on snapping his picture in that stupid purple cow suit, head held grumpily under his arm “for authenticity’s sake.”

All this fuss for having good aim and a Muggle brawl? Ron couldn’t help but shake his head.

He would never understand Muggles.

*****

“Well, Frederick, this is a fine kettle of fish you’ve landed yourself in.”

Fred groaned at the voice coming from the doorway of his hospital room and let his head thump back against the wall behind his bed.

“Good morning, Auntie Muriel,” he said sarcastically. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

“Apparently all this mess has done nothing to improve your attitude,” she groused. Fred heard the thumping of her cane as she moved into the room and helped herself to a chair. “I’m to mind you today, boy. Your mother Flooed in a panic, always overly emotional that Molly, and so being a decent, charitable women, here I am.”

Fred closed his useless eyes and shook his head. Ever since the attack more than a week ago, his family refused to leave him alone for even a minute. Apparently, they were running out of people who were available for the job, however, and today his mum was scraping the very bottom of the pot if she was pressing Auntie Muriel into service.

“And I’m returning this bloody cat,” Auntie Muriel continued, either missing his pained expression or choosing to ignore it. He felt something heavy and alive suddenly be dumped into his lap, startling Gus who was sleeping curled up by his legs. “It’s been at my place long enough and I have no intention of letting it hang around one day longer.”

With tentative fingers, Fred reached out with his good hand and felt thick, slightly matted fur, whiskers, and a squashed face. Crookshanks. He’d almost forgotten they’d taken Hermione’s humungous cat with them when they fled to Auntie Muriel’s in the dead of night. So much had happened since then.

The large cat sniffed experimentally at Gus for a moment, but then seemed to lose interest, settling down on Fred’s lap and turning its head away from Auntie Muriel as though it was every bit as glad for the parting as she was.

Fred could hardly blame the beast.

“I’m terribly sorry that my almost dying is such an inconvenience to you, Auntie Muriel,” he muttered, unable to keep the words from slipping out.

“Of course you’re not. You and that blasted twin of yours have been inconveniencing me your whole lives and you’ve never been sorry for one single thing.”

She had a point.

“Ah hah! You know it’s true! I see it on your face,” she said triumphantly.

Fred’s face split into a grin. He couldn’t help it. Muriel just brought out the…diabolical side of him.

“Stop grinning. This is a hospital! People are dying and having their limbs chopped off and such! It’s no place for smiling,” she scolded, slapping the back of his good hand and causing him to jump. “A hundred and eight years old and I get dragged out to babysit. No one has any respect anymore, I tell you. No respect…” she muttered. Fred heard her rummaging around in the giant handbag she always carried.

“Well, today for once in your life, you get to listen to me.” He heard her finally pull something from the bag and settle it in her lap, and then his ears picked up the sound of pages turning.

The Morally Magical Life,” Auntie Muriel read out loud pointedly. “By Modest Merriweather. Chapter one…”

Fred closed his eyes again. Maybe a hero’s death at the Battle of Hogwarts wouldn’t have been that bad after all. This was going to be a very, very long day.


 
 
 


Chapter 12: Bless the Children
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Chapter 11: “Bless the Children”

Oh, I am very weary, Though tears no longer flow;
My eyes are tired of weeping, My heart is sick of woe.

- Anne Bronte

*****

“That was delicious, Mrs. Weasley,” Harry said, leaning back in his chair and pushing his plate away to keep the motherly woman from piling yet another helping of chicken pie on it.

“Thank you, dear,” she said with a smile that didn’t quite reach her tired eyes.

Bill was at the hospital tonight keeping watch over Fred, but the rest of the family were gathered around the table in the Burrow enjoying one of the Weasley matriarch’s famous home-cooked meals. It was almost like old times – almost.

But, with the food gone, reality descended once more and everyone began to scatter back to their current worries and tasks. George headed out to meet with Oliver and Lee and see the damage done to the shop for the first time. Fleur left for the hospital to spend time with Bill. And Charlie and Percy said they were late for an important meeting with Kingsley. Harry himself had plans to Apparate into London and visit Grimmauld Place. Sirius’ things needed to be sorted through, and he’d been putting it off for far too long.

“Harry, may I have a word please?” Mr. Weasley stopped him as he was about to leave the cozy kitchen. He looked unusually serious as he gestured down the hall to the small room he’d converted into an office years ago.

“Sure,” replied Harry. He had a feeling what this was about and found he was suddenly nervous. Quietly, he followed the man who was like a father to him into the tiny space and waited while the door was shut.

He expected Mr. Weasley to begin speaking at once but instead the older man just stood there for a while, gazing at him with an unreadable expression. The butterflies in Harry’s stomach started to turn cartwheels.

Finally, the other man spoke. “You shouldn’t have done that, Harry,” he said softly – almost sadly.

Yep. He’d been right about the topic of this conversation. “Why not?” he asked, hoping he didn’t sound belligerent.

“Because that money is yours – your legacy from your parents and family. You shouldn’t have to spend it to help me take care of mine.”

“Mr. Weasley, your family is the only real family I’ve ever known,” said Harry with quiet fervor. He found himself fighting strong emotion all of the sudden as he tried to make the kind but stubborn man in front of him understand. “And outside of Hogwarts, this is the only place I’ve ever considered a home. Did it ever occur to you that maybe I didn’t want to lose it either?”

Mr. Weasley again stared at him for a long moment without saying a word and then, without warning, he pulled Harry into a tight hug.

“Thank you, son,” he said, fighting back tears. “You’re as much our son as any of the others and I was a fool not to consider that.”

Harry didn’t quite know what to say in return, so he stayed silent and simply returned the hug. When Mr. Weasley let go a few seconds later, he straightened his shirt self-consciously, biting back a grimace when his fingers brushed the healing bruise on his chest.

Mr. Weasley’s face instantly darkened with concern. “Let me see that bruise, Harry,” he ordered.

Harry didn’t even bother protesting; he’d long since given that up as hopeless around this family. He pulled his t-shirt up so Mr. Weasley could see the purple and black injury.

“Have you been putting the potion on it?”

“Twice a day, as instructed,” replied Harry with a nod.

“Then you’re coming with me to visit Fred tomorrow and let someone look at that again,” said Mr. Weasley firmly.

“But –!” Harry started to protest, his pride flaring up.

Mr. Weasley overrode him. “You can either come with me for a quiet visit to “see Fred,” he said, “or I can tell Molly and let her drag you there.”

Harry snapped his lips shut. Given the options, a nice quiet trip to the Healers with Mr. Weasley was far superior to the worried, over-the-top fussing he’d have to endure if Mrs. Weasley found out.

He quickly nodded, grabbing the doorknob to make his escape, but he stopped and turned back. “Y’know, you aren’t fooling me at all. I can see exactly where Fred and George get it from,” he chuckled, then ducked quickly out of the small office and raced down the stairs.

*****

George walked through the halls of St. Mungo’s slowly, purposefully taking the long route to Fred’s room as he tried to sort through his thoughts. Visiting the shop in Diagon Alley yesterday had been sobering; yet another very broken part of their lives they would have to work to rebuild.

He knew he had to tell Fred – they didn’t keep secrets – but his brother was barely keeping it together from the blows he’d already been dealt. George was afraid this might be the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back.

Fred was trying; he knew that. He continued to keep up the cheerful act for the rest of the world, but at least he was now telling George what he was really feeling - which was hurt, anger, and terror. Strangely enough, the little fox Luna had given his twin seemed to be providing more help than anything, giving the comfort no one else could break through his protective shell to doll out. But a fox alone wasn’t going to convince Fred that they would survive this and life could somehow be good again.

George honestly didn’t know what to do, or how to help, or what to say. Humor was their failsafe. It’s not that they didn’t know how to take life seriously, or meet grave things with the respect they deserved, they just chose not to. An open rebellion of sorts against the trials and sorrows that made up the world. Laugh in the face of danger and all that crap. George just never thought something would come along that could actually smother that spark of humor right out.

Lost in his dark thoughts, George turned the wrong way at the next corner into a corridor he’d never been down before. He’d walked half of it before he was stopped by an unexpected sound bouncing off the cold tile. Realizing his mistake, he looked around in surprise. His gaze was drawn to a set of double doors and then on up to the sign above. A sudden, devilish smile burst out on his face as he read the words. For the first time in what felt like ages, the spark of mischief filled him, driving away the depression of just moments before, and he realized he knew exactly what to do.

*****

“Your shoes squeak.”



“It’s quite annoying, actually.”

“Will you shut it!” the voice behind him hissed.

“Just trying to alert you to the problem.”

“How in Merlin’s name am I supposed to push you through these halls without getting caught if you insist on jabbering the whole time?”

“Well, maybe if you hadn’t come into my room, kidnapped and forced me into this chair, and then wheeled me away without any explanation…”

It was true. George had burst through the door, practically tossed him into a wheelchair he’d procured from somewhere, and then rolled him out into the hall without answering any questions.

“I mean, if this is a jailbreak I heartily approve, but I have to question your planning. It seems a little haphazard.”

From where he sat in the darkness that now defined his world, Fred heard his twin groan deeply.

“Now I know why people find us annoying,” George muttered.

“Seriously, where are we going?” Fred tried one more time. On his lap, Gus squirmed restlessly, and it was all he could do to keep hold of the little animal with his one good hand. George’s insistence on quiet told him that whatever he was up to was probably highly unsanctioned by Fred’s Healer. That and the fact said Healer had pretty much insisted he stay in bed. He thought the man’s exact words might have been “stay in bed or else” but his memory was a little foggy on that point.

“I said you’ll find out in a minute. And did you really have to bring that ball of fur?”

“Are you suggesting I should have left him alone and unattended in the room by himself?”

“Maybe.”

“Heartless git.”

Noisy prat!” his twin whispered harshly. “Seriously, you’d think this was your first time sneaking about!”

“Well, forgive me for asking stupid questions, but this is my first time doing it blind!” Fred snapped, his good mood evaporating without warning. And that effectively brought about the quiet George had been demanding, except that all the fun of the moment had vanished and now Fred just felt like a jerk.

After a long while of pained silence during which they turned at least two more corners, George came to a stop.

“Well, hello dearies!” said the overly-cheerful voice of a nurse or matron. “Can I help you?”

“Is it all right if we visit for a while, Matron?” George asked.

Visit where? Fred couldn’t help wondering in frustration. Surprises were all well and good, but this was getting ridiculous. Didn’t they remember he couldn’t see anything! For the first time he realized that blindness stole not only his ability to get around for himself, but also his surroundings – his connection to the world. He hated it.

“Of course! They’ll be thrilled! Just don’t stay for too long. The poor things tend to tire quickly,” the matron answered.

Fred felt himself pushed forward a few more feet and then they stopped. George leaned down next to him and spoke quietly.

“I know things have been pretty crappy lately and you’re not too thrilled with life at the moment, but…well, I just thought this might help us both. Please just give it a try?”

Before he could wrap his head around that cryptic message, Fred felt the slight breeze of what had to be a set of double doors opening and found himself pushed out of the corridor and into a new room.

It was light and airy – that much he could tell just from entering. George’s footsteps seemed to echo forever, traveling the length of an apparently long ward with tall ceilings, and he could feel the sunlight streaming in on his face from multiple high windows. There was a quiet bustling for a minute, as if the room was full of many people who just weren’t saying anything, before a small, hoarse voice broke it.

“Blimey, are you the joke shop guys?”

“Yep,” George answered from behind him. “I’m George Weasley, and this is Fred.”

“Are you the ones who turned one of the halls at Hogwarts into a swamp?” another little voice asked, a girl this time. “My sister told me it was the most wicked thing ever!”

George chuckled. “Yeah, that was us.”

“Wicked!”

“Wow!”

“This is too cool!”

Suddenly, they were surrounded by a crowd, apparently ranging in height from barely above Fred’s knee to somewhere just shy of about five feet, judging from where the voices were coming from. A few of them sat in chairs like Fred’s, their wheels bumping into his own as they tried to get closer, and a least one or two were confined to their beds, calling out questions from where they sat.

And now Fred knew where they were: the Agatha Addock Long-Term Children’s Ward. His dark cloud of self-pity fizzled away in the presence of the kids that gathered around him.

“Masterfully played, George,” he whispered, shaking his head with a small grin. George said nothing, just gripped his shoulder from behind reassuringly.

“Kitty cat?” a baby voice from his right side drew Fred’s attention. He reached out tentatively and found a curly head that barely cleared the arm of his chair.

“Hey there,” he said gently. “This is Gus, my fox. Do you want to touch him?”

The little head beneath his hand nodded, the child completely unaware that he couldn’t see the gesture, and he felt a tiny hand creep toward his pet. Luna’s gift proved once again that some kind of magic flowed through its veins because it never once flinched or tried to slip away. Instead, it sat patiently – if a little nervously – on Fred’s lap and let a multitude of small hands rub its fur and pat its head.

“How come you’re hurt?” This came from a kid that sounded older, his voice starting to crack with change.

“I was in an…accident a few weeks ago,” Fred lied.

There was silence for a moment and then the same boy replied, “You were at the Battle, weren’t you.”

Apparently, news of the Battle of Hogwarts and the end of the War had trickled down until it reached even sick kids stuck in the hospital. “Yeah,” he answered, seeing no reason to deny it now.

“So, who wants to see a few magic tricks?” George interrupted deftly, and Fred heard the sound of a deck of cards being shuffled.

“ME!” a chorus of voices shouted.

George pulled up a chair next to his own and proceeded to show off some of the easiest Muggle card tricks they’d picked up over the years. Then they took turns regaling the kids with their very best – albeit slightly censored – jokes and pranks. Sometime during the show, the curly-haired toddler found his or her way into Fred’s lap and snuggled up next to a happily cooing Gus. That was almost certainly against Healer’s orders, but he didn’t care, because he’d realized something.

He could still make people laugh.

Even without his eyes.

The magnitude of that discovery floored him, mostly because he hadn’t even realized until that moment the weight he’d placed in it. If he could still do that, that one most simple and yet vital thing, maybe…just maybe life really could go on.

“I’m sorry to interrupt this little party, boys,” the kind voice of the Ward Matron cut in after a while, “but it is unfortunately time for the afternoon administration of potions for these little ones, and then naps all around.”

“Oh!” groaned the kids. “Do we have to?”

“Yes, you have to,” the woman answered. Fred imagined her small and round, with a firm face that had a hidden twinkle. As he felt the tiny one who’d fallen asleep on his lap lifted carefully away, he made a mental note to ask George for a description of the woman later.

“Will you come back?” a girl’s voice asked, her tone pleading.

“Will we come back?” George turned the question back to him, and Fred could almost see the raised eyebrow.

“Of course we will! And we’ll bring everyone a free sample of the best Weasley Wizarding Wheezes products we have! How does that sound?”

Once again the room erupted in happy cheers.

“We’re gonna have to restock you know…make a trip to the shop to pick up some things for the next time we come by,” Fred said a few minutes later as George once again pushed his chair through the echoing hallways.

“Erm…about that,” said George hesitantly. “We might have to do a…er…bit of rebuilding first. Went by there today and I think the Death Eaters took exception to our decorating style…”

Fred paused, images of their shop – their dream – smashed and burned flashing through his mind, but then he forcefully stopped them. He’d been down that route of despair already; he refused to undo all the good the last hour had wrought.

“So, we rebuild,” he answered firmly. “Bigger and better than ever.”

George didn’t answer, but he didn’t have to. Fred knew exactly what he was thinking and feeling. His twin continued to push him back to his private room in silence, except for the occasional light sniff that Fred graciously pretended not to notice. It wasn’t until they neared the last corner that they both became aware of an awful commotion from up ahead.

“What in Merlin’s name…” Fred muttered, straining to listen and make sense of what sounded like a whole mob of pounding feet and shouting voices, some of them worryingly familiar. Behind him, he felt George tense apprehensively as they turned the corner and came into view of his room.

“AHHHHHHHHH!” shrieked a voice that could only belong to his Mum, cutting clearly through at least a dozen other voices that all started shouting at once.

“Forgot to leave a note, didn’t you,” said Fred quietly into the darkness.

“Ah…oops?” replied the chagrined voice from the back of his chair.

Fred grinned, feeling for the first time like life was going back to normal, or at least creating some sort of new normal.

*****

“It’s stress.”

“What?” Harry asked, distractedly. He’d only been halfway paying attention, thinking instead of both the draining day spent helping Kingsley and Hagrid follow a tip and of the scare with the twins that afternoon.

“The bruise. On your chest. The one that’s not healing properly,” the older man said in the short, clipped sentences a person would use with a small child as he glared at him sternly. “It’s stress that’s impeding the process. Though I can’t imagine why anyone in this family could ever be accused of causing stress.” The Healer’s words dripped with sarcasm, obviously thinking of the earlier hospital incident as well.

Harry decided to ignore that. “I’m using the potion as directed,” he said, oddly defensive.

“At this point, that’s not enough.”

“So, what do I do?” he asked in frustration. How long would he have to walk around with his body bearing the literal mark of the man who had stolen his childhood?

“You rest!” the Healer said, eyebrows climbing to the ceiling as if it were obvious. “You slow down! You stop trying to carry the guilt for the entire War that’s driving you to kill yourself cleaning up after it!”

Harry jumped to his feet, yanking his shirt back down with jerky, angry movements. “I can’t do that! I can’t sit by and leave others to fix the mess I created and don’t you dare ask me to!”

Rage that he couldn’t even explain burned through him, fueled by exhaustion. It was hot and fearsome, far stronger than the situation merited, but he found he couldn’t stop it. He shot daggers at the old man for a few seconds, then turned and stomped from the room, slamming the door in his wake.

“Harry! What?” Mr. Weasley jumped up from the chair he’d been waiting in outside the small office and stammered, but Harry ignored him, marching off down the hall without even a backward glance. He rounded the corner and then found himself breaking into a run.

This place, the walls – they were smothering him and he had to get out! He had to get out now!


Author’s Note: I know it’s been years. Let’s not dwell on that. The good news is I’ve had a long sit down with this story and I think I know so much better where it’s going now than I did a few years ago. It does need a good edit to fix some typos and mistakes that have slipped through the cracks over the years, but I figured I’d give you all a new chapter before I started in on that.

Next chapter: What’s up with Harry? And then off to Australia to check in with Ron and Hermoine.


Chapter 13: The Truth Hurts
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Chapter 12: The Truth Hurts

“The only difference between a rut and a grave are the dimensions.”

- Ellen Glasgow

*****

When Ron emerged from the Ice Cream shop for his lunch break two days after “the incident,” he found another surprise waiting for him. His jaw dropped at the sight of Hermione sitting at one of the outside tables, jumper pulled tightly around herself as she held out two brown paper bags.

“Care for a little lunch?” she asked innocently.

For a full minute, Ron was speechless. He stood frozen, too stunned at seeing her there at his job to move. “How did you find me?” he finally blurted. He really thought he’d covered his tracks!

“Well,” she said with a smile, “it appears that for the second time this summer, Ronald Weasley is something of a hero.” She pulled a Muggle newspaper out of her purse and unrolled it on the table. And there he was, right on the front page wearing that ghastly, purple cow suit with the ruddy head tucked under his arm. He was frowning, practically glaring at the camera. Good thing Muggle pictures didn’t move because he knew there was no way on earth his picture self would be staying in that frame otherwise.

“Ugh!” he groaned, covering his face in humiliation. “That wasn’t heroics! It was a stupid Muggle fight. I can’t believe they printed it in a paper!”

Hermione laughed and stood up, tucking the newspaper away again before coming around to stand right in front of him.

“Maybe,” she said. “But you are a hero.” Her voice was suddenly soft and serious, and Ron thought he could see tears brimming in her eyes again. “And do you want to know why?”

He didn’t answer. He was finally starting to figure out that there were some times when a girl asked a question and she didn’t expect a reply.

“Because you took this job for me, a Muggle job that you absolutely hate, so that I could keep looking for my parents. Thank you, Ron,” she whispered, and reached up to pull him into a kiss. “I love you.”

He was so surprised by her last words that he almost forgot to return the kiss. She loved him! Him! Boring old always on the sidelines Ron Weasley! She’d just said it out loud. He would have been beaming from ear to ear if Hermione hadn’t been snogging him fiercely.

“Did you really bring me food?” he asked a few moments later when she finally let him go, and he’d managed to come to his senses.

Hermione rolled her eyes, but she was smiling. “I tell you you’re my hero and snog you in public and all you can think about is your stomach?”

“What, I’m hungry! It’s hard work being a purple cow! And I only have forty minutes of lunch left.”

“Fine,” she said with a cocked eyebrow and a smile she couldn’t quite hide. “Here you go.” She held out one of the paper bags. “But can we go inside? It’s freezing out here. Who would seriously want to buy ice cream in this weather?”

“Wait, I have a better idea,” said Ron, a grin splitting his face as he grabbed his lunch and then took his girlfriend by the hand, tugging her toward the street. It wasn’t often he had the chance to show Hermione something. Usually, it was the other way around.

Quickly, he pulled her across the street and into the little bookshop.

“I’ve been coming here to eat lunch. It’s quiet, and there’s no bloody cow staring at me,” he explained.

“Oooh,” breathed Hermione, looking around at the stacks of books in appreciation. “You’ve really been coming in here all on your own?”

“Always the tone of surprise,” he grumbled. “I can read you know. Just always had better things to do in the past. And before you go getting sucked into some boring history section or something, let me show you my favorite place.” He dragged her up the stairs to the back corner.

“Comics. I should have known,” laughed Hermione.

“I know, isn’t it brilliant! Muggles have comics, too!”

“I could have told you that, Ron. I used to read a lot of these when I was little.”

“What?” cried Ron, seeing his girlfriend through entirely new eyes. “How come you never said anything? These things are amazing! We could have had wicked fun!”

Laughing again, they settled down on the floor to eat their lunch while Hermione pulled a few worn paperbacks off the shelves, flipping to her old favorites. It was such a pleasant, relaxing break from the stress they’d both been under for so long that Ron absolutely hated when the clock struck the hour, reminding him that he was a grown-up now who had responsibilities. Reluctantly, he replaced the books and climbed to his feet.

There was a commotion in the main part of the shop as they came down the stairs. Loud talking and banging filtered in from the back room, as if people were shifting heavy objects. Lisa was at the counter, however, and looked unperturbed by the noise.

“So, is this your girl?” she asked as they left the stairs. “The one you’ve been trying to find the perfect book for?”

Ron blushed slightly and didn’t dare meet Hermione’s eyes. Instead he changed the topic. “What’s going on, Lisa?” he asked, indicating the sounds still coming from the cracked doorway behind the counter. “Everything okay?”

“Oh, yeah. Dell and Nikki just returned from their holiday. Dell’s bringing in the luggage to the flat in the back.”

“Dell and Nikki?”

“The owners…”

“Oh, yeah, I remember.”

“Lisa?” a man’s voice called out just then, followed by footsteps approaching from the back. A door opened behind the counter and a head poked through. “Did the furniture for the nursery arrive while we were gone? Nikki wants to put the hordes of baby clothes she bought away.”

Ron’s jaw dropped as beside him Hermione hitched in a breath and froze.

“Dad?” she finally whispered, her voice cracking.

“Pardon me,” the man who used to be known as Mr. Granger asked, stepping fully into the room with a confused look on his face, “but do I know you?”

“It’s him! It’s them! You found them, Ron!” Hermione suddenly cried, latching onto his arm with vise-like fingers. She totally ignored her father’s growing puzzlement.

“Dell?” another voice joined the insanity as a woman entered from the back, drawn by the noise. “What’s going on?”

Ron recognized her at once. Hermione bore a close resemblance to her mother. Dell and Nikki…Wendell and Monica… It all suddenly made sense. He remembered that afternoon several weeks ago when he’d sat down on the bench outside this shop and his Deluminator had led him to the ice cream job. Once again, he realized, Dumbledore’s gift had saved him, without him even knowing.

“Mum…” breathed Hermione, tears starting to leak down her face. “Oh, Mum, I’ve missed you so –”

His girlfriend broke off abruptly as Mrs. Granger stepped out from behind the counter, her obviously pregnant midsection coming into view.

“Oh, Merlin.” The words slipped from Ron’s lips before he could stop them.

Hermione let out a heart-wrenching sob and suddenly bolted, slamming through the front door disappearing down the street.

Ron gaped after her, then turned back to the others. Lisa was staring at him in confusion, while the Grangers appeared almost hostile. He gulped and then tried to paste on a smile.

*****

Beads of sweat ran down Harry’s face as he shoved the crates out of the way.

It was hotter than Hades in this attic and he couldn’t believe how much crap had been stuffed into the room over the years. The Black family apparently never threw anything away, and now he had to sift through it. Here and there he found a trinket that reminded him of his godfather. These he set aside to save, but the vast majority of the junk stored up here was worthless, dangerous, highly illegal, or downright deadly. The pile to be magically incinerated was growing exponentially.

Frowning, Harry slammed the lid on another box of evil objects, his mood falling father into a funk.

He was exhausted. Day after day he spent his time chasing the ghosts of a war that just would not end – fighting, running, dodging, hiding… He couldn’t show his face in public without drawing some comment, either embarrassing praise for his fabulousness or scathing criticism for everything he was doing wrong, from how he tied his shoes all the way up to all the lives he’d destroyed. Awful dreams haunted his nights, robbing him of any sleep and leaving him weary and bleary-eyed each morning. Physically, his body ached, the bruise on his chest having settled into a sort of dull throbbing over the last few days. Worst of all, however, was the pain in his heart he felt for his missing best friends. How he longed for Ron and Hermione to come home.

A trunk in the corner gave a funny twitch, drawing Harry’s attention. Snatching up his wand, he approached slowly.

“You know, normal people collect photo albums in their attics, or outdated clothes,” he muttered to himself tiredly. “Not the heads of their ancestors, or weapons of mass destruction.”

Squaring off directly across from the wiggling chest, Harry raised his wand and magically forced the lid open.

He was fully prepared for a boggart or something similar to jump out at him, but nothing did. Instead, an eerie, disturbing silence descended on everything. It made the little hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. Unnerved, Harry approached the trunk with caution.

Suddenly, a thin, anguished wail filled the room. It started as one voice but it seemed to escape from the chest and multiply. Other boxes and chests burst open, releasing more horrendous sounds, until he was surrounded on all sides. It was as if all the cries of human suffering over the centuries had been captured and contained in one place, and now Harry had released them. He clamped his hands to his ears.

And then, to his horror, pale, translucent shadows began to drift up from the open containers, congealing into ghostly forms with eyes that glowed red.

Colloportus!” Harry screamed as his heart raced, whipping his wand around to point at the original source. The lid of the trunk barely moved. He switched plans.

PROTEGO!” he shouted, sending out a massive shield spell. It expanded around him like a bubble, gradually pushing the chilling figures back where they had come from. Finally, they disappeared. The wailing lessened and a second command for the trunk to lock was finally obeyed. As the first trunk snapped shut all the others scattered around the room followed suit.

The screams ceased and blessed silence met his ears as he stood in the center of the attic, panting and sweating like he’d just ran a marathon.

And then the door behind him banged open.

“Harry, what was –!”

He whirled and fired off a massive stunning spell before he had even consciously realized what he was doing. In the doorway, an instantly alert Kingsley Shackelbolt broke off his sentence to throw up his own wand, only barely managing to deflect the spell. It hit the attic wall with a crash that echoed off the walls and left a smoking hole behind.

Harry’s arm dropped and he let his wand slip from his fingers as he gazed in horror at what he had almost done. Kingsley was gazing at him not in anger but in profound sadness.

“What are you doing here?” Harry finally managed to ask, head hanging in shame.

“You asked me to stop by, to finish up the details on the rental contract? Remember?” The man’s voice was soft and low.

“Oh,” was all Harry could think to say. He’d totally forgotten about that conversation from much earlier in the day.

Another awkward silence followed.

“Harry,” Kingsley eventually broke it.

Harry didn’t look up.

“Harry,” Kingsley said again, in a voice that Harry knew demanded his attention. Reluctantly, he raised his eyes. “No more. You are off the search.”

“What! No, that’s not fair! You can’t –”

“I can and I just did.”

Harry felt rage building inside of him, stoking the flow of adrenaline that had already led to him accidentally attacking the Minister himself. When Harry spoke again, there was an uneven desperation in his voice. “I can’t just stop!” His breath was coming in short anger laden gasps. “And you can’t stop me!”

Just for a second, Kinglsey appeared to be holding back the urge to grab Harry by the collar. He kept his cool, however, and took a deep breath. Slowly, he eyed Harry. Then he nodded in resignation. He placed his wand back in his robes as he took a seat on one of the chests. “Sirius said the same thing to me, once. And he was right. I couldn’t stop him. And now he’s dead.”

It hit Harry like a blow to the stomach. He was expecting a fight, not a comparison to his godfather.

Kingsley casually gestured to one of the chests.

Chagrined, Harry sat down.

The Minister continued to eye Harry with a piercing stare. “Sirius was a good man, caught in a bad life. Something I know you understand.” He let that sink in before he continued. “Growing up as an outcast from a Death Eater family tested him to the limits and while he managed to keep his soul, his experiences left him restless and very reckless, some might even say self-destructive.”

Harry shifted uncomfortably. He feared he knew where this was going.

“He never got to live his life, circumstances saw to that. But, Harry, his real problem was, even if he’d been given the time to, he didn’t know how.” The older man cocked an eyebrow at Harry. “Now, you’ve been given something Sirius never had - time. And you’re wasting it. If you stay on this path, you’re going to suffer the same fate.”

Kingsley let that work on Harry for a few moments before he resumed, speaking sadly. “Harry, Sirius carried around the guilt of what happened to your parents like a millstone around his neck. He couldn’t stop blaming himself for their deaths – felt like it was completely his fault, no matter what anyone tried to tell him after the truth came out. But let me ask you this, do you believe it was his fault?”

“No, of course not!” Harry answered instantly.

“Exactly, and yet, you’re doing the same thing. Only you’re trying to carrying the guilt for an entire war. A war that is not in any way, shape or form your fault.”

“But – !”

“No, Harry, listen to me,” Kingsley interrupted. “You may have, through circumstances beyond your control, played a pivotal role in this whole mess, but it IS NOT YOUR FAULT! This war has been in the making since a lonely, miserable young woman tried to force someone to love her, and then couldn’t deal with the consequences of that decision. This war was a result of one evil man who enjoyed causing pain and fear. And of thousands of others who made decisions to join him, or fight against him.

“What I’m trying to say is that while fate may have set you up for a part in all this that you shouldn’t have been asked to play, every single person who fought in this war or in the Battle on either side made their own choice to do so. You can stop trying to bear the burden of guilt for all of them. Sirius let that guilt consume him. So, that’s your choice. You’re finally free to do what you want. You told me that Dumbledore said ‘your soul’s your own, now,’ and he was right. Now you have to choose for yourself, Harry. Just for you.”

Harry was about to speak when Kingsley cut him off again.

“But, you just might want to consider what your actions are doing to others before you do.”

One name shot instantly through Harry’s mind – Ginny – followed quickly by those of Ron, Hermione, and the rest of the Weasleys who had adopted him into their midst. It was hard work, Harry realized, being part of a family and learning that his choices could affect more than just himself.

Kingsley nodded as if he’d been reading Harry’s thoughts, if not his facial expressions. “So, you’re right, I can’t stop you from hunting renegade Death Eaters, or working yourself to exhaustion.” Then Kingsley’s tone turned colder and less personable. “But, as Minister, I damn sure can keep you out of the Auror Corps.”

As he rose and turned to leave, Harry felt his heart sink. There went his dream. He sighed and let his head hang, but then Kingsley hesitated and turned back.

“At least until I’m certain you’ve taken some time away from saving the world to save yourself,” the older man said, giving him that same sad look he’d used several times already. “Can you live with that?”

Knowing he really had no other choice, Harry nodded. Kingsley nodded back, satisfied.

It wasn’t until the Minister was halfway down the first flight of stairs that Harry remembered the vile trunk.

“Minster, wait!” he called out, stopping him. “You don’t think perhaps you could send a…erm…Auror cleaning team here? I don’t even know what most of this rubbish is, but at least half of it has tried to kill me.”

Kingsley just shook his head and rolled his eyes, something Harry thought he’d never see the stately man do. “You know you could just ask Arthur, Bill, and Charlie. Their varied professions mean they are more than qualified.”

“Oh,” Harry muttered sheepishly, realizing how stupid it was that he’d never thought of that.

“It’s time to start remembering that you are not alone, Harry,” was all Kingsley said in response. “Now, come see me tomorrow about what this meeting was supposed to entail. Until then, go home, Harry.”

And with that, Kingsley turned and finished his decent down the attic stairs, leaving Harry speechless as he disappeared out of sight.


Author's Note:
A big shout out and thank you go to my big brother Eldy for this chapter. He guided me out to the end when I got stuck. Several of the paragraphs in the last section have to be attributed to him. Thanks bro!

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