Chapter 30 : Rules of the Prize
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The last thing Fred remembered before the depot attendant grabbed one of his shoulders, pulling him away from the angry mob, was a flash of bright light that blinded the stars far above. The thunderous expression on Albus Dumbledore’s face swam underneath this light as the powerful old wizard made his way towards a backtracking Claudius Ptolemy.
When Fred opened his eyes again, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet to avoid toppling over, there was an assault of sunlight on his eyelids and a constant stream of instructions already issuing from the depot attendant’s mouth.
The attendant clutched something small and shiny in his hands, faintly emitting a bluish sheen – which Fred realized belatedly was a Portkey. “Not allowed to interact with anyone, not allowed to be seen,” he was saying crisply. Fred noticed that he looked considerably different from the last time he’d seen him – he looked younger somehow, and his eyebrows weren’t as thick and dark.
“You are not allowed to use magical means of transportation that can be tracked by their Ministry of Magic,” he prattled on, reciting this speech from memory, “including but not limited to: The Floo Network, Apparition, the Knight Bus, the Hogwarts Express, and Portkeys. Muggle transportation in all forms is strictly prohibited.
“You are not to bring attention to yourself in any way – which includes speaking loudly, purposefully walking out in the open without magical concealment, and attempting to interfere with the lives of living humans. As a precautionary measure, certain spells and jinxes have been restricted from your wand’s normal capabilities, and you will find yourself unable to perform them should you attempt to try.”
Fred was barely paying attention to him, squinting all around while his nerves seized with shock. A tower glinted at him in the distance, a chunk of its roof missing. “Hogwarts?” he inquired breathlessly, forehead heavily creased in bewilderment. “Scotland? You took me to Scotland?”
“You are in Hogsmeade, yes,” the attendant responded, a shade put out that he had been interrupted. “I see your geography skills have not improved. Never seem to know quite where you are, do you?”
“Hang on,” Fred interrupted again, and held up his hand as if to physically stop the attendant from speaking. “You said I’m not allowed to use Ministry-regulated transport? Or Muggle?”
The attendant sighed, giving a long roll of the eyes. “Are you going to ask me to repeat every little thing I say? I am busy, you know. Lots of people dying and all that, needing to be ushered into boats. But to answer you, yes. Eschewing Muggle and Ministry of Magic-regulated travel is obligatory.”
“How exactly am I supposed to get to Devon, then?”
The attendant simply stared at him. “Devon, you say? Well, I suppose that you will have to walk, won’t you?”
Fred’s face flushed an angry red. “Devon’s in the south of England!” he yelled. “How the hell am I supposed to get all the way down there within twenty-four hours?”
The attendant’s reply was brusque. “Walk quickly.” Without waiting for Fred to talk again (which Fred couldn’t have done even if he’d wanted to, he was so upset), he said, “Abide by the rules and you will be eligible to compete in the tournament next year. Try anything funny that will get yourself noticed and you’ll be severely punished for it. As you well know, Cliodna’s Clock has two Seers who will hear about it if a dead man publicly resurfaces in Britain.
“I will be waiting in this exact location” – he paused and gestured to a signpost that pointed to Hogwarts in one direction and Hogsmeade Village in the other – “with this Portkey in precisely twenty-four hours from now. If you are not here waiting for me, I will come get you. I assure you that there is nowhere in this world that you can hide from me.”
His face perceptibly darkened. “If I have to come in and remove you by force, Mr. Weasley, you’ll be going somewhere much more unpleasant upon your return to the afterlife.”
And with a wink and a pop, he was gone.
Fred wasted six valuable minutes standing exactly where he was, seething. So this was his ‘prize’ for enduring five rounds of hellish anxiety? To be cast off in a place where he would care very little about anyone he might recognize and be denied the right to see his family in England, whom he’d entered the tournament to visit in the first place?
And it had all been done on purpose, too, with the attendant or Ptolemy or whoever was in charge of this ridiculous scheme choosing a drop-off location that was too far away to feasibly fit a visit at the Burrow into his allotted twenty-four hours…
Fred stared grimly at the outline of Hogwarts castle, eyes narrowing. Luckily for him, he was not one to give up easily.
Since he had recently been to Hogwarts, albeit within a memory, he had no immediate desires to return. It might have been interesting if it were September and the school was in functioning condition, so that at least he would be able to get a glimpse of Ginny, but it was only July and Hogwarts was still in a state of brutal disrepair.
With only one other option, Fred turned tail and headed down the road into Hogsmeade. It was quite hot out but the dirt was stained almost black, hinting that it had rained recently and the sun had yet to evaporate all of it out of the ground. Humidity made his hair cling to the back of his neck, shirt sticking to his skin, but Fred observed none of this. He was so consumed with raw wonder, with that familiar, disorienting sensation of déjà vu all over again, and was also so incredibly elated to be home – to be really home, not just inside a Pensieve – that he did not think he would ever find anything in this perfect, wonderful world to complain about.
The first thing Fred decided to do was cast a Disillusionment Charm over himself and search out a clock so that he could see what time it was, thereby figuring out when to be back at the signpost. He halfway hoped that the attendant might forget to show up or suffer a fit of compassion and just let him stay here forever, but he knew better than to dwell on this happy dream for too long. It would only lead to bitter disappointment.
No, today there was not room for dejection, for self-pity. Today was all he had, his only consolation for surviving when Colin was scheduled to die within hours, so Fred would take this gift in both hands and appreciate it as much as possible.
The little things stuck out the most to him, things he’d forgotten all about – the horizon, namely. In all directions he could see mountains, valleys, lakes. He could see the blurred shapes of faraway towns, with tiny people in them moving about their days. None of them had any idea that a ghost walked in their midst, and couldn’t possibly know how lucky they were to be able to do the simplest things like working and listening to the Wireless and visiting friends.
What Fred wouldn’t give to be able to work again! To serve a purpose, trading his service and goods for money, for loyal consumer support. What he wouldn’t do to hike for days, never once being thwarted by the tiny perimeter of an island barred on all sides by inescapable ocean! Every step reminded him of what he’d been missing since his death, what he knew now he never should have taken for granted. But none of these floating thoughts affected him as much as what he saw next.
Over to his left, just before the rest of Hogsmeade fell into a quick succession of shops, the Shrieking Shack loomed high on a hill. Small monuments poked out of the soil on the lower half of the hill, rolling steadily downward. Having been to Hogsmeade in his youth more than most other students, George excluded, he knew this village like the back of his hand. Those monuments had not been there a few months ago.
He knew, in a queasy stirring in the pit of his stomach, what he would find as he drew closer to the gates. He could already read some of the names – Severus Snape was there, and a slew of other names he recognized but could not believe: Jack Sloper, Lisa Turpin, Owen Cauldwell, Anthony Goldstein, Demelza Robins, Justin Finch-Fletchley, Romilda Vane, Daphne Greengrass. Situated just behind Daphne’s grave, as if hiding, was a plain gray slab bearing the name Orla Emily Quirke. There was no inscription, no religious quotes to sum up her life. Her dates of birth and death were not even included.
Fred felt a flood of disquiet barrel through his bones and blood, prickling at his skin. Remus and Nymphadora Lupin shared the same gravestone, though it was a large, handsome alabaster one and featured hand-carved roses blooming over both of their names. Fred’s eyes passed across many other names, newly sickened each time he read one that brought a specific face or memory to mind. He couldn’t help but wonder why he hadn’t seen them in Cliodna’s Clock. If they were dead, shouldn’t they have met up by now?
Where exactly were they?
Colin Creevey’s grave was notably absent, lending Fred to think that his parents had buried him elsewhere, probably closer to their home. For a few minutes he started to think that maybe his parents had done the same with his body, and he smiled at the idea of resting somewhere near the Burrow; but this thought was quickly stamped out when he finally saw his own name. He had to read it three times just to absorb that it was truly there.
Fred stood on top of his grave, staring with wide, unseeing eyes down at the 1 April, 1978 – 2 May, 1998. In this cemetery devoted to those slain in the Battle of Hogwarts that occurred just a short ways away, the real Fred Weasley was lying utterly still underneath a granite marker with both eyes closed, heart not beating, lungs not breathing.
He could not comprehend it.
Fred inhaled several light, rapid breaths that made his head feel lightweight and dizzy. He was right there, under the grass, under his own shoes. Fred. The decomposing Fred, the one who would wither and age when the newer version of Fred could not. Even though Fred was now temporarily in the world of the living, and somehow mortal once more, as soon as he returned to Cliodna’s Clock he would freeze again in time, never aging, never physically moving forward.
What would happen to him if he were to die here before his twenty-four hours expired? Would there be two Fred Weasleys buried on earth? Would he once again find himself thrashing in an ultramarine sea near the depot, waiting to jump in a boat and zoom off to the tiny, claustrophobic little island? Maybe he only got the one chance to appear in the afterlife immediately following death, and if he died here again then his soul would be gone forever.
Before he could dwell too much on what he might look like under there in his coffin, morbid thoughts creeping into the back of his mind with grotesque images of a putrefying corpse, he strolled briskly away from the cemetery. He had the rest of eternity to think about death. Today must not be wasted on such unwanted imaginings.
With every person he passed, all of them unaware of the Disillusioned man weaving between them, Fred hoped to see someone he knew. The miniature needles of someone’s wristwatch informed him that he had until noon tomorrow to get back to the signpost. He concluded it would be wisest to give himself at least an hour to spare, just so that he wouldn’t risk being late and having to go to the Grotta.
It would have been lovely to linger, but Fred had more important things to be getting on with than admiring the neatly-pruned lane or crunch of gravel under his feet, many trails of laughter drifting out of many chimneys to gather in the sky like a fog. And so when Fred happened across a broomstick leaning against the back door of the Hog’s Head, he took it without a second thought.
Ahh, he thought to himself with a satisfied smile, trailing his fingers across the engraved Cleansweep serial number. Broomstick travel, he knew, was not regulated by the Ministry. Looks like I’ve just found my loophole.
By evening, Fred had arrived in Norfolk, in a Muggle town by the name of Henley. His skin was cold and damp from flying through a nonstop shroud of mist that had descended over the East Midlands, and his bottom was stiff after several hours of sitting astride a broomstick that must have been designed more for actual cleaning than cross-country travel. This region of England was very much out of the way for him, seeing as how he could have just cut over Wales to reach Devon, but Fred was operating as more than just one person today, with more than one set of concerns and wishes.
The house was wider than it was tall, constructed from pine logs that shone like honey. The sun was already settling between yellow-capped daisy hills, burning right through the back of Fred’s head. He held up one arm to shield his eyes from its rays, tilting his broom against a clump of untended foxglove. In this lighting, the windows reflected blood-red. Striations of dust and pollen swirled in the pretty, blazing light; Fred moved through one of them, disrupting the flow of wind and air. He was not a memory, not a ghost. Here, for a fleeting space of time, he was just as alive and solid as everything around him.
A letterbox poked out of flowering honeysuckle, their coral-pink petals occupied by bees. They buzzed uneasily when he opened the half-circle door to the letterbox, hearing and smelling a trespasser but not seeing one. Fred withdrew a thick envelope from the pocket of his robes and stuffed it inside.
He was going to turn around again, ready to pick up Aberforth Dumbledore’s broomstick so that he could continue southwest to Ottery St. Catchpole, when he heard a bird-like warble trilling from somewhere inside the house. Against his every impulse, Fred tread the rest of the long drive and began to investigate its windows.
Andromeda stood in the kitchen, her back turned to him, and was busying herself preparing a stew. The next window over showed an empty, dim sitting room. Stale light barely penetrated the space, not touching upon deep shadows along the ceiling and corners. He moved along to the very last window on the ground floor, situated on the corner so that sunset could bathe the small bedroom in buttery colors.
In the corner of the pastel nursery, a woman with long, white-blonde hair was rocking in a chair with a baby in her arms. The infant was not quite asleep yet, though his eyes were heavy, and one chubby fist had wrapped itself around a tuft of the woman’s hair. She sang to Teddy until the little boy’s eyes fluttered closed at last, long eyelashes shadowing his cheeks. Now that Teddy was a bit older, beginning to take shape, Fred could spot the traces of Remus in him, and Tonks, too.
Narcissa looked so in love with the small child that he couldn’t bring himself to hate her.
Eyes glistening in spite of himself, Fred glanced around the room until his gaze alighted on a carriage clock that looked just like the one he used to own. Seven ‘o clock. He grimaced. That broomstick was rubbish – barely quicker than vehicular commute. Judging by its unsteady wobbling over Lincolnshire, it would take every bit of two hours to reach Devon.
Two hours from home.
Fred slipped away from the window, hesitance unfurling in his small, dragging steps. Was he mentally ready to acquaint his sore eyes with the Burrow? To see its jagged peaks climbing into the twilight…to hear happy voices making a racket within, to witness dinner or Arthur’s unwinding stories about his day at work… His heart swelled in his chest just thinking about it, but that happiness was soon enveloped in fear.
He had a responsibility to himself to stay sane. After all, he was only too aware that his hours were numbered, that he would soon have to return to Cliodna’s Clock for a year at the very least before he could even hope to enter the tournament again. What are you thinking? Fred inwardly snapped. Weren’t you just one hundred percent against ever entering that stupid tournament again? Think of the risk. Don’t forget what you’ve just been through.
He sighed sadly, an invisible man screening the front garden of Andromeda’s house. It was difficult to remember those problems when he was here, on earth. He’d never been privy to anything more beautiful. “What a gift,” he said to no one in particular, head tilting. “What a miracle, and none of them even realize just how lucky they are to be here, with their homes and families.”
More anxious thoughts about whether or not he would be emotionally capable of handling seeing his family again stalled his determination. With cold footsteps of panic, he wandered without direction into town. It was much easier to immerse himself in a place where he didn’t know anyone, wouldn’t recognize anyone. He could walk much more freely, his head consumed with things like ‘Maybe they’re not even at home…they could all be gone’ and ‘You know that as soon as you step foot in that garden, it’s going to destroy you to leave it a few hours later’ while he was circling aimlessly in a foreign town that had no connection to his former life.
It was a risky game, weighing the benefits of seeing his loved ones against the hurt he was going to inflict against himself when he had to turn around and leave much too soon for his liking.
By the time he’d scraped together a flavorless meal in a pub (he nicked things off other people’s plates when they weren’t looking), it was half nine. Watching the stars pop against the night sky, a calm peace spread throughout him. It would take away all of the pressure to simply not go to Devon. He would not have to face the pain of seeing them only briefly, and would be free to imagine that flying home would only have been a waste of time because for all he knew, they weren’t even there.
It was midnight when he mounted his broomstick. The first twelve hours of his prize had been squandered away, wasted. The next twelve he would leave entirely up to impulse. He grasped the stick in both hands, projecting himself off the ground with a hard left kick. Northwest or southwest?
Two oil lamps had been lit on either side of a broad fireplace to cast light upon a row of gleaming medals spaced across the mantle. There were seven medals in all (the family had collectively received ten of them, but Bill and Fleur of course kept theirs at their own house and George’s was with him in London), lying on beds of purple silk. While every single one of these Order of Merlins were First Class, all of them were blue except for the one in the center, which was gold.
Mrs. Weasley polished them every day, taking care to pay the most attention to the gold one, the medal that told visitors that they had lost a member of their family in the war.
The Mrs. Weasley in question had scarcely left the sitting room all day or well into the night, whose hours were steadily creeping in on her. Various other Weasleys came and went, just as curious as she, but there wasn’t enough room for them all in the cozy, cramped little room. Most of them chose to sit in the adjacent kitchen and search each other for dismal conversation, trying to distract themselves from the oddity of the day. A few of them were asleep by now, being two in the morning, but there was no room in Molly’s thoughts for sleep.
Ginny peeped around the corner into the sitting room, her hand against the door frame. A basket of unfolded laundry lay disregarded on the floor, and the dishes in the sink had yet to be touched. “Mum?”
Molly didn’t seem to hear her. She was still staring raptly at her special clock, glazed eyes fixed on the hand representing Fred Weasley. Since his death, the hand had pointed to ‘Lost’, which was a source of constant grief for Molly. Her husband had suggested moving the clock to the attic so that she wouldn’t have to look at it, wouldn’t see the daily reminder, but she had refused. Today she didn’t know whether or not she was regretful or glad she hadn’t allowed it to be taken away; today, for many long hours, his hand had pointed ominously at ‘Mortal Peril’. It now flitted between a handful of other locations, the most recent one being ‘Traveling’.
“It’s broken, Mum,” Ginny said quietly. “It’s got to be.”
Molly’s face was pale, sickly. “It’s been correct about Percy and your father being at work all day. It showed Charlie at school this morning when he went to help with the rebuilding. George and Ron’s whereabouts are right, as well.”
As though he’d heard his name and dutifully joined them, Ron appeared at Ginny’s side. He seemed just as uneasy about the clock as his mother, for he couldn’t get Harry Potter’s tale of almost crossing to the other side out of his head. Harry had heard posthumous stories straight from Dumbledore’s mouth that were too detailed to have been imagined. He believed Harry. Though Dumbledore was dead, he had been conscious of the goings-on in Harry’s life and had been watching him.
Had Fred been watching them, as well?
Ron and Ginny simultaneously moved into the sitting room, squeezing between the overstuffed armchairs and piles of books and cauldrons, to stand on either side of their mother. Together, the three of them kept a silent vigil under the clock. All of them wondered where Fred was, what he was doing, what sort of horrors had taken place to bring him to ‘Mortal Peril’ and what he was doing now that he seemed to have escaped that danger.
Ginny felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end before anything even happened, Molly and Ron’s arms prickling with goosebumps. And when the hand on the clock that indicated ‘Traveling’ abruptly spun around the face of the magical instrument, they all jumped.
“Oh, my,” Molly murmured under her breath, one hand over her mouth. She was weak in the knees with terror, with excitement and agony that made her intestines ache. Before she could rush over to the fireplace and Floo Arthur, to tell him to come home, Ginny’s fingers found hers and prevented her from moving, pleading silently to remain put.
The house was as silent as a tomb while Fred’s hand spun madly in circles around the clock, passing place after place he could be. Ron had taken several steps backward, stumbling into a small table, and although Ginny very much wanted to run into the kitchen, she found herself irrevocably rooted to the spot.
The world grew still as Fred’s hand came to a rest on ‘Home’, and Ginny heard a soft thump as Molly Weasley fainted to the floor.
There was a flurry of voices, of limbs. George pushed his way in front of everyone, nearly stepping on Percy’s foot as he rushed hurriedly into the sitting room, wanting to see it for himself. When he reached the enchanted clock, he just stood there staring as if he wasn’t really seeing it, expecting it to change back to ‘Lost’ – where it had been ever since his brother’s death.
Harry Potter Apparated on the front lawn and entered the house without knocking, stumbling into Hermione Granger as he did so – who had just Floo’d into the kitchen fireplace. “Where?” she asked sharply. Harry pointed towards the sitting room, where a dense crowd of people waited silently for George to form some sort of sensible explanation.
But George could not speak. His face was bloodless.
“George, dear?” Molly tentatively hedged, brushing a ginger curl behind her ear. She looked like a mess, glancing around every so often in horrified but yearning anticipation that she might see her dead son hiding behind a cabinet or sofa, or looking down the stairwell at them all.
George half-turned, irises clouded over. Before his eyes settled upon her they roamed the length of a window, gaze unexpectedly sharpening as he did so. His shoulders became stiff, complexion draining of color to the point where his eyes looked like dark little holes next to such pale skin. Molly followed his line of vision, confused. “George?” she repeated. “Are you all right?” She surveyed the window again, frowning. “Do you see something out there?”
He looked at her, lips parting slightly. “No.”
She inched closer to him, holding one arm out to pull him to her. “No, you’re not all right, or no, you don’t see something?” she pressed.
George swallowed, staring at the clock again. “It’s nothing,” he replied dully. “Just got spooked by my reflection.” There was a long minute of thick, suffocating silence, with several pairs of eyes boring holes into his own, and finally he could stand it no more. “It’s broken, Mum,” he said. “Fred is dead. He’s not coming back. I’m going home to London, I can’t really be around this.” He leaned in to give her a swift peck on the cheek, and then strode smartly into the kitchen and through the door, slamming it closed behind him.
He took the long way around the back of the house, moving as quietly as possible, all the while trying to smother the irrational beat of his heart. His face was still whiter than the moon, all of the blood seemingly sapped from his body. But still, something urged him forward, yanking him by gravitational pull into the chicken-strewn vegetable patch, through the hedges and fields to a paddock where he had spent some of the best summers of his life.
A lone figure stood at the top of the hill, white moonlight flooding around him to bask his form in black shadow.
George’s heart was now in his throat, pulsing violently. “Fred?”
The figure trotted closer, matching his gait beat for beat.
“And make Dad promise not to build any more flying cars,” Fred told him, idly snapping a stick in half. They were sitting in the orchard, surrounded by trees that would muffle their voices and prevent them from being seen by prying eyes, but Fred consistently spoke in mutters and murmurs, scared of being overheard. Would Trelawney or Vablatsky tell on him if they saw what he was doing? What would the penalty for such a crime be?
“Why?” George wanted to know.
Fred shrugged. “Just in case.”
“All right.” George’s mouth closed around the uttered words; he chanced another glimpse at Fred, still reeling. “I just…I can’t believe that…that you’re really here.”
“I don’t think I’m supposed to be,” Fred whispered, just as pale as George. It was unnatural for him to behave this way, so quiet and nervous.
“What’s happened to you?” George questioned, taken aback. “You’re not at all yourself.”
“It’s just…” Fred glanced all around, scratching his neck. “There are rules that comes with this. I am very clearly breaking them right now, talking to you. I’m not supposed to be seen or heard or anything.”
George frowned. He sat up straighter in the grass, one hand propping up his weight. “Isn’t that the allure of the twenty-four hours? You told me that you’ve just spent the past month dueling, that Creevey had to lose because of population control or whatever. What kind of consolation prize forbids its winners to be seen or heard?”
Fred studied the grass underneath him intently. Whereas here he could dig for days and days and find nothing but dirt, he’d always gotten the feeling that doing so in Cliodna’s Clock would reveal cardboard or packaging paper, something to prove that everything was fake. A pretend paradise. “Those are just the rules. They say you have to abide by them, but so far no one’s come to arrest me or anything, so maybe their methods are just to make threats and trust winners to uphold the rules…?” He threw a rock at the base of a tree. “I don’t know. I have no idea whether or not anyone will ever find out, but if they do, I’m likely to get into huge trouble.”
George just sat there for a minute, trying to digest all the things Fred had told him about ‘Cliodna’s Clock’ and the Devil’s Duel. “You can’t get into trouble if you don’t go back.” He abruptly stood to his feet, extending a hand for Fred to take. “Come on, then! We’ll just – we’ll go home! Can you imagine the look on Mum and Dad’s faces if they saw you? If they knew that we’ve got you back?”
“I’m supposed to be dead,” Fred deadpanned. “Seeing me again might very well kill them. And besides that, I can’t just go home, it’s not as simple as that.”
“I reckon not, not with that attitude,” George exclaimed, tugging harder on Fred’s hand. Fred remained rooted to the spot, not budging. “What are you playing at? Why are you just sitting there?” Fred could sense the emotion building in his brother’s voice, the overpowering grief working its way back up. “Come on,” he pleaded. “Please. You can’t go back, you can’t.”
“If I don’t go back, he’ll come in after me,” Fred cried, frustrated. He tore his hands through his hair, body shaking. “And then he’ll take me to the Grotta, George, you don’t understand.”
“Help me understand, then.” George kneeled next to Fred, eyes wide and insistent. “Who’s coming after you? Some Cliodna’s Clock bloke? No worries there, I’m always packing.” He held up a wand, waving it about. “Let me grab Ron, Dad, and Harry and we’ll make sure this git doesn’t do anything to you.”
Fred smiled bitterly, shaking his head. “Their magic is different from your magic, mate. There’s nothing you can do to protect me. I know this is hard to hear, but I’ve got to be back in Hogsmeade by twelve tomorrow.” George opened his mouth, ready to remark, when Fred anticipated what he was going to say and reminded him, “No Floo. No Apparition. Remember what I told you? Nothing that can be picked up on by magical or Muggle authorities. It’s got to be by broomstick, which means I need a solid six hours to get there.”
George examined his wristwatch, stricken. They had been talking for hours, catching each other up to speed with no regard for the time. Plum clouds now tinged the stars, five o’ clock in the morning bleeding into six.
“But that’s – that’s now.”
Fred wiped his eyes, turning away. “I wasted so much damn time, George. It was so stupid, messing around in Norfolk, waiting so long to come here.”
George’s responding voice was higher-pitched than usual. “You have to leave? Right now?”
“Yes.” Fred stood to his feet, neck sore from twisting it around to view George all night.
“Wait.” George shoved him back onto the ground, ignoring Fred’s indignant swearing. “Hang on. Just…let me think of something.”
Fred rubbed his lower back, resentful. “We can’t think our way out of this one.”
“We can think our way out of anything, you idiot!” George shot back. “That’s the beauty of having brains. I don’t like your pessimistic attitude, by the way.”
He threw ideas at Fred, who gave him specific reasons why each wouldn’t work, before George slumped onto the grass next to his twin. The reality that there was no hope, that Fred was leaving, sank in with a cold, heavy feeling. “At least let me fly back with you. That’s hours that we’ll have together to talk.”
Fred shook his head again, which irritated George greatly. “No?” he snapped. “Then why did you come at all, if you’re just going to go right back?”
“Because that’s how it works!” Fred shouted, storming to his feet. He stomped out of the orchard and into a glowing dawn, breathing rapidly. The cool air, the sky’s stain of blue and purple that could have passed for dusk, speared right through him with a moisture that promised of rain.
He wheeled around on George, who was right on his heels, and stopped him with one outstretched hand. “You don’t understand,” he repeated for what felt like the eightieth time in just a few hours. “I know that it’s not fair, but imagine what you’re doing to me right now, tempting me with ideas to go see Mum and Dad and everyone. Do you have any idea how long I’ve thought about that, about how wonderful that would be? But the thing is…if I try to escape, I know without a shadow of a doubt that they’ll find me. This is all I get, this meeting right now. And I’m not even supposed to have this.” He gestured to the air between himself and his brother, eyes watering from a combination of stinging wind and his heartbreak at seeing George’s hurt expression.
George watched him miserably, chin trembling. “But I have more stuff to tell you,” he said, arms dejected at his sides. “Reconstruction of Hogwarts is underway, did you know? And they’re naming the seventh floor corridor after you.”
“I know,” Fred said with a smile. “You already told me.”
“I did?” George wracked his brains, trying to think of when he had covered that subject earlier in the night.
Fred leaned in to hug him, to say goodbye, and George’s face bore the telltale sign of wanting to stall the moment, delay Fred’s departure for several more minutes. “This isn’t fair,” he said desperately, abandoning all poise as he wrapped his arms around Fred in a tight, shivering hug. Fred felt the warm trails of George’s anguish against his cheek, mingling with his own tears. He sniffed, eyes rimmed with red.
“It’s not,” he agreed.
“I’ve missed you,” George went on, voice breaking. He was barely audible even though he spoke so close to Fred’s ear. “Nothing is the same with you gone.”
In an upstairs window at the Burrow, Molly Weasley’s tired, puffy face appeared. She took a deep breath and lifted the sash high over her head, leaning out into the early morning breeze. The world was a rich blanket of indigo, colors muted without the sun to highlight them, to make them brilliant. The outline of two people stood on a hill not far from her property’s hedge. The strangers were the same height, same shape.
She sucked in a breath, watching.
Logic told her that the clock was faulty, old. Fred could not really be home, and George had announced he was going back to London last night. Therefore, it was impossible that the two identical figures could be her sons… She peered closer, halfway wanting to run down the stairs and out the door so that she could be sure, absolutely sure; but another part of her mind quieted this, telling her that they would surely disappear if she severed her gaze on whatever it was she might or might not be seeing.
She stood utterly still in the overcrowded bedroom that once belonged to Fred and George, curtains flapping on either side of her, while the figures embraced. She wanted to believe it was true, no matter what her better sense told her. And as the two people held each other, her eyes blurred over and they became one instead of two, impossible to detangle, to extricate from one another.
“I have to go,” Fred said resignedly, finally wrenching himself from his brother. His eyes were wet.
“We’ll see each other again,” George said at length.
“Yes. I promise we will.”
Fred struggled to keep his composure, which he could feel slipping. He didn’t want his brother to see the turmoil raging in his heart, and so he walked resolutely down the hill, not looking back over his shoulder for more goodbyes that would just make the pain worse.
His flame of red hair dissolved into the dawn with a Disillusionment Charm as he took flight on the stolen broomstick, soaring high over the Burrow one last time.
The return trip passed in a haze of recollected thoughts and memories, periodically punctuated by torrents of rain. He would be pushing it by the skin of his teeth to return Aberforth’s broom before planting himself next to the signpost in Hogsmeade. All things considered, he thought himself lucky to have survived such a long trip on Aberforth’s flimsy twig: With as shoddy as that broom was, he wouldn’t have been surprised if it had stopped working a mile over the Irish Sea.
After swooping into Hogsmeade, it was all he could do to dart into the village and leave Aberforth’s broom with its rightful owner before dashing back just in time to greet the depot attendant’s swarthy, grinning face. A Portkey of a little green doorknob was clutched in his hand.
“Was it worth it?” he asked Fred.
“Ahh, mostly.” Fred tried to smile, admiring his wand with a critical air. “It’ll feel wrong for a while, going back, but I suppose I’ll just have to get used to it. Can’t have everything.”
The station attendant clapped him on the back. “Congratulations on your win, by the way. Maybe you can go back in another three hundred and sixty four days, yeah? Try for another win?”
Fred laughed, envisioning doing it all over again in a year from now. “Yeah, that’s the plan, actually.”
“Got six seconds, better get your hand on this,” the other man replied. “It’s hectic in the Clock, I tell you. Madness. You’ll see what I mean – it’s hard to tell which way is up, rate things are going, and it’s damn near impossible to concentrate on my job with all the noise. Must say I was glad to have an excuse to come back here and collect you.” The attendant winced as Fred touched a finger to the Portkey, the two of them crouching side by side. “Say, mate, what happened to your ear?” He pointed at a dark little hole in the side of Fred’s head where an ear was supposed to be.
“Oh, that?” Fred fiddled with the hole, smiling crookedly. “Got blown off by a greasy-haired git.”
The Portkey rattled, radiating a pearly bright blue, and then both of them vanished.
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