Chapter 1 : As Brothers We Will Stand
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But you are not alone in this
As brothers we will stand and we'll hold your hand
-Mumford & Sons / Timshel
He picked at his wound.
It was long, and purple, and just starting to scab.
Half-hidden by his plaid shirt, Ron could just barely get to the part past his elbow, hidden by his sleeve, and he grumbled when he couldn't scratch it in a satisfactory manner.
He would have closed his eyes and cursed, but lately he kept seeing too many things in the darkness. Bodies mostly, that had been mangled by the falling debris of the walls, or chomped on, or perfectly preserved in stillness, their last breath somehow caught in their lungs. There was one body in particular, a red streak of cold color he couldn't escape.
So he just let his arms fall back to his side, and continued down the cobblestone streets of Diagon Alley.
Which, he noticed with simultaneous apathy and anger, still persisted as the center of celebration. Now that evening had fallen the sparks had started again as wizards and witches walking down the street raised their wands to the sky in glee. Newspapers littered the streets and windows, and no matter where he looked, Ron couldn't escape the images he'd rather forget.
Harry's exhausted face when he finally emerged from Gryffindor tower. The seemingly endless, but neat, rows of caskets that were organized near the Black Lake. Even his own face, once word got out that he had been a part of the great Horcrux search, and that he'd been the one to defeat a piece of evil jewelry.
Looking back on the whole situation, Ron decided that if he never went camping again, it would be too soon.
Kicking one of the papers away with his foot, Ron saw his destination come into view as he rounded the corner. He felt the trepidation sink in. As he got closer, he couldn't help but think that the purple paint of the bricks reminded him of the color of a fresh bruise.
It was an unexpected side-effect of surviving a war: everything suddenly looked, or felt, or smelled, like something morbid.
But as Ron stepped up to the door, he knew he wasn't visiting something that seemed morbid, or was close to morbid. He was facing something truly dead. Death itself, even.
It was the first time he had visited the shop since that day. In all honesty, Ron hadn't even thought about Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes. There were more important things in his mind than trick wands or Wildfire Whiz-Bangs, like learning how to make Hermione's favorite tea when she woke up shaking from the nightmares. Or trying to regain his Quidditch skills with Harry for hours under the hot summer sun until their skin got tight and matched his hair. And as he thought about the newspaper there were all the owl droppings to constantly clean as the entire wizarding world tried to get a hold Harry Potter.
But then George disappeared from the Burrow and didn't return. They had all had their moments, to get lost for an hour, or a few, or even a day or so. But there was unspoken understanding that you had to keep in touch. An owl, a patronus, anything to ensure everyone you were alive, and not the prisoner of some defunct, rebel uprising. A hand on a clock could only tell you so much; George had broken the rules, and now their mother was getting anxious.
So here he was, peering in through the glass and an unexpected medley of emotions began to toy with him. Suddenly, he felt the need to knock, like he couldn't just enter because he'd be desecrating some sort of sacred space. Ron rapped the frame with his knuckles, which were clean, and finally free from scratches. He continued to lean in closer to the glass until his forehead was pressed against it, then his nose, in funnily squished way. None of the lights were on, but everything seemed in order. The boxes were neatly stacked, and he couldn't see any dust floating through the air as the last bits of sunlight fell through. He waited for a few long moments before rolling his eyes.
He was being completely ridiculous. It was probably locked anyways.
Almost lazily, trying to prove himself he was right, Ron grabbed the knob and applied a bit too much pressure, expecting resistance. But the door flung right open, banging loudly as it hit the wall. Ron lunged forward to grab it, and grimaced as he stepped inside, looking around anxiously.
Loud, unexpected noises still did something to him.
And he knew he had a right to feel that reflex in his fingers as he reached for his pocket because the spell that was aimed at him narrowly missed his ear and caused an entire display of love potions to shatter, releasing a horribly sweet aroma into the air. Ron automatically flicked his wrist, and the figure on the balcony ducked as bits of colored wood splintered away from the railing.
“Oi!” came the voice as Ron continued to blast.
His chest heaving, Ron stopped and lowered his wand. The figure stood and Ron planted his face into his free hand, and dragged it over his skin in a grotesquely comical way.
“I always shoot for the ears first,” George said. “It must be a subconscious thing.”
“It's definitely a brain thing,” Ron grumbled, stuffing his wand back into his pocket. “You're absolutely mental.”
He took a step towards the stairs, but George took a step back and Ron froze.
“I'm not really dealing with someone mental, am I?”
George just smiled simply, and continued to move back, in and out of the shafts of light, which were fading each passing minute.
“I thought you knew me better than that,” George said once he was out of sight, and his voice bounced eerily off the walls.
Ron bounded up the stairs by two, but stopped once he got onto the top, and found George sitting on a counter, a bunch of papers on the floor and all around.
“What are you doing?” Ron asked.
“Crunching numbers. We don't have any communication going on with our suppliers, there aren't any new prototypes in the work, and...”
His voice trailed off as he tossed his notebook down on the ground, and Ron cleared his throat uncomfortably. It was very obvious they had reached that moment when everything that was being left unsaid was teetering on coming out. Ron knew how to handle Harry because, when he thought about it, they were basically two different halves that made up a whole person. Ron was just starting to tread into the murky waters of handling Hermione, and there were plenty of mishaps that proved he didn't have his bearings.
Ron couldn't even begin to contemplate handling George. His range of handling emotional things had only been raised to a tablespoon, he felt.
“You're brilliant,” Ron said, and then cleared his throat awkwardly. “People are ready for a laugh.”
“I don't want to laugh. You can't run a joke shop if you don't want to laugh,” George replied, and Ron opened his mouth, but suddenly George's face turned dark, angry almost, and he pointed an accusing finger at Ron. “And he was the brilliant one.”
Taken aback, Ron's forehead furrowed in defense, and he had to grit his teeth a bit.
“He was the one with all the best ideas, the best inventions, the best jokes. I was just good with the customers.”
“I was a customer and you were horrible with me,” Ron said indignantly.
“Brothers don't count.”
“They should count the most,” Ron said without thinking, and George, who had been swinging his legs let them hit hard against the backboard.
The sun had set, and their details were fading, only their outlines remaining. George jumped from the counter and clapped his hands. The lights in the store burned on with a quick hiss followed by a gentle hum.
“Muggles you know, they have these clap on lights. I thought it was good inspiration.”
“See,” Ron said. “You are brilliant.”
“Oh shut it,” George said. He turned and leaned on his stomach, stretching across and over the counter, and emerged with a bottle of Ogden's Old Firewhiskey.
“You really think that's going to help?” Ron asked, moving forward to rest against counter.
“If I recall correctly, you would beg for sips of this stuff,” George said, beginning to rummage again. This time he came up with two short glasses.
“Just for fun. Not to stop myself from seeing things I didn't want to see.”
George just laughed, and jumped back onto the counter. He held one of the glasses up, studying his own reflection.
“Do you know what I see Ron?”
Not knowing what to say, Ron just shook his head, and grabbed the other glass, needing to do something with his hands.
“I see him. That's the thing about being a twin, Ron. I look just like him. When I see me, I see him. I can't escape him.”
George was speaking in a low tone, and there was a thickness in his voice. Now that Ron was near he could see the dark lines under his eyes.
“Don't you see him?” George suddenly asked, his voice growing louder and louder. “Don't you see him Ron?”
George slid, and stood, though he seemed to sway a bit. There was a horrible look on his face, and Ron leaned back as George yelled. Turning on his heels, George thrust his glass at the wall and it shattered.
“When you look at me! Don't you see Fred?”
Ron had stopped looking at him, because, of course, it was too easy to the see ghost of Fred Weasley in every line of his dear brother's face. He wouldn't have thought of it, but now that George had said it, it was all he could see. George grabbed the bottle and tried to open it.
But it didn't work, and he grumbled. Ron stared in a defeated sort of way. He was in way above his head.
“I...” George began, pulling hard, “am not..”
In one moment, he had his wand out, and sliced the glass of the neck of the bottle. It fell like butter, and firewhiskey began to pour out.
He let the alcohol pour into his glass and downed it, making a face as he swallowed.
“I am not sober enough for this conversation,” George said, in a rush.
He just stood there, his outline vibrating gently as he tried to regain himself. He took in a deep breath and finally sat on the floor, and then sank down further, letting his body relax.
“That doesn't help,” Ron said. “You look like Fred did on that day, all spread out on the ground.”
“It should have been me.”
Ron moved forward and kicked the bottle away, and the contents spilled everywhere as it went falling down the stairs. Then, he joined George on the floor.
“It shouldn't have been anyone,” Ron said, trying to make out the faces of everyone who had died on the ceiling. He managed a wolf-like shape, but then felt guilty. Remus probably didn't want to be remembered for that part of him.
“I'm so cold,” George said. “It's like freezing water, in my veins, in my mind. The firewhiskey helps. It makes me warm.”
They stayed there on the floor for what seemed like hours to Ron, but it was probably barely a three minutes. But that was the funny thing about time, Ron had learned. It made absolutely no sense.
“I don't know what to tell you George,” Ron began, pressing his palms to his eyelids until he saw stars. “But you've still got a brother. Four of them, in fact, and we've got to stick together. We'll stand by you.”
Ron couldn't help but chuckle, which turned into a laugh, and then it began to hurt so he rolled on his side and tried to breathe.
“The inspirational talks don't really work when you begin laughing like that Ron,” George said, though his lips looked tense, like they trying not to stay straight. “Really, what?”
“Well,” Ron said, “it's just really hard to stand by you when we're lying on the ground.”
George sat fully up, and stared before making a shocked face.
“I really am going to have to carry all the comic weight in the Weasley family from now on.”
There was silence, but it was sort of silence that was like a nosie, and it made Ron look up. George seemed to realize something about his words, and his back was heaving gently, his head hanging.
His eyes were closed, pressed together so his skin was creased by his eyes.
Ron stood up, and gulped.
He couldn't do this. He didn't know how to do this. At least by himself.
“Mom made a roast for dinner tonight,” he said. “It's been simmering all day, and it smelled amazing.”
George looked up.
“It'll make you warmer, I bet.”
When his brother didn't move, Ron held out his hand. The action seemed to shake him from his reverie, and George took it quickly, and without fuss.
“Well, no,” Ron said. “Nothing's fine yet. But it will be.”
George wasn't looking at him, but Ron thought he saw something smooth out on his face.
“You're cleaning this up,” George finally said, motioning to the mess.
“Only if you pay me,” Ron retorted, bounding down the stairs. He tripped a bit on the spilled drink and had to catch himself.
George let out a laugh that died quickly, but it seemed to invigorate the air.
“We have to be earning money before I can do that,” he said.
“We'll just have to do something about that then,” Ron said. “But later. Right now, I'm starving.”
Ron was at the door, holding it open, watching as George came down the stairs, suctioning up the liquid with his wand as he went.
“Come on,” Ron said cheekily. “Faster. If you need, I can hold your hand.”