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.
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.