The waiting room fell silent as Mr. and Mrs. Weasley followed the Healer through the double doors and down the corridor to George's room. Relief was palpable in the air because everyone knew that if George had made it this far and if their parents were being allowed to see him, he was most likely out of danger. As the doors swung shut behind them, the attention of those in the room returned to the newcomer.
"Hello, Percy," Lupin said quietly.
No one else in the room seemed particularly happy to see the ambitious young businesswizard, but Lupin avoided all of their eyes and looked straight at Percy, his gaze one of compassion rather than condemnation.
"Professor Lupin," Percy responded shakily, bending to retrieve his glasses from the floor and repairing them with a slight wave of his wand. "Is it true about...about Fred?"
"Yes," Lupin answered heavily. "Fred was killed early this morning." Once again, Lupin's voice broke as he said the words, and he reached out and grasped Harry's shoulder as if he felt a sudden need to be in physical contact.
The effect of the former professor's words on Percy was obvious. His already pale face lost whatever color it had left, and he staggered backwards as if from a blow. He looked from one redheaded, freckled face to the next, looking for comfort, for absolution. He found little, but saw only faces that mirrored his own in their grief and horror. His eyes finally rested on Harry, who was startled to note a desperate, almost pleading gleam to them.
This did not seem to be the same Percy who had sent back his Christmas jumper the previous year, or the same Percy who had sent Ron a letter warning him against further association with Harry. This Percy was every inch a Weasley, needing to be with the others, especially when something had happened to one of their own. This was the Percy who had hurried off to send an owl to his parents when Ginny had been taken into the Chamber of Secrets, and this was the Percy who had stayed up all night with the rest of them, waiting and hoping that Harry and Ron would bring her back.
It was this final thought which moved Harry to forgive Percy of all that he had done. No matter what had transpired in the previous year, two facts were certain: this was war, and the Weasleys were family. He glanced up at Lupin, who nodded slightly as if he had read Harry's mind and released his hold on the young man's shoulder.
His mind made up, Harry strode forward, avoiding eye contact with Ron, who was staring at him in stunned disbelief. As he reached Percy, he stuck out his right hand and looked him straight in the eye. He did not smile, but neither did his face hold any hostility.
Percy took a moment to recover before he reached out shook Harry's hand. "Thank you," he whispered.
Harry nodded at him and returned to his place beside Remus Lupin. Bill, Charlie, Ron and Ginny stood silently and still for a few moments, glancing at one another uncertainly. It could not have been clearer that they were unsure of what to do about Percy. If he had shown up at any other time, the other Weasley children would happily have hexed him into next week, but with the loss of Fred so horridly fresh and the grief so overpowering, they knew that they needed togetherness.
Ginny was the one who finally broke the strange stillness. Giving her other brothers a glance clearly warning them not to say one word against what she was about to do, she squared her shoulders and approached Percy. She did not bother to wipe the tears from her face as she stopped right in front of him, and for a moment they simply stared at one another. Finally, with a strangled sort of sound, Ginny threw her arms around her brother's neck and wrapped him in a bone-crunching hug. It caught Percy so much by surprise that he took a moment to respond, but when he did it was with such sincerity that everyone in the room was taken aback. Percy, who had never been very affectionate, was hugging his little sister back so fiercely that his arms where shaking.
Although the Weasley boys did not seem quite as eager to forgive Percy, there was no hostility that afternoon, and all of them, especially Charlie, became warmer towards him as they waited for their parents to return from George's room.
A full two hours passed before the double doors opened once again to reveal Molly Weasley, her eyes bloodshot, her face pale but still stoic. She knew she still had children to care for, children who needed her to be strong for them, children who needed her reassurance. With these thoughts at the forefront of her mind, she smiled weakly at the waiting faces and waved off Albus Dumbledore as he courteously offered her the chair in which he had been sitting.
"No thank you, Professor Dumbledore," she said softly, and then turned her gaze to the others. Her eyes gleamed with unshed tears, but her voice did not break as she told them, "George is expected to make a complete recovery. He needs to rest today, but you may all see him tomorrow morning. Your father is with him now."
Bill, Charlie, Ron and Ginny all gathered around their mother, softly asking questions even as they reached out to offer and to receive comfort. Percy hung awkwardly back, once taking half a step towards them before he stopped, trying not to look at his family. Harry almost felt sorry for him, but even though he had already forgiven Percy's misdeeds from the previous year, he could not help but think that Percy deserved to know what it felt like to be the one excluded. He would have to earn the trust of his family once again, and from the looks of things, it was not going to be easy.
Mrs. Weasley, however, had different ideas. She broke away from the others after only a couple of seconds, turned, and wrapped Percy in a motherly hug. She didn't speak, but she held him for longer than usual, rocking slightly, the top of her head barely reaching the tall young man's chin.
"Mother, I..." Percy began.
"Shhh," Mrs. Weasley interrupted him, finally breaking away and looking up into his eyes, holding both of his hands. "None of that matters now. All that matters is that you're here...you're safe." As she said these words, she thought of the son she had lost that morning, and the tears threatened to spill over. Her chin quivered for a moment, but instead of crying, she smiled at Percy and squeezed his hands.
As the tears fell freely down Percy's face, Mrs. Weasley beckoned to Bill, Charlie, Ron and Ginny. Harry hung back as they all gathered once again around their mother, but when Molly noticed that he had not joined them, she pulled him gently aside.
"Harry," she said, looking straight into his green eyes, "thank you for saving George." She pulled him into a hug, and when he tried to speak through the lump in his throat, she whispered, "If it hadn't been for you, we would have lost both of them." She hugged him again and turned away so he would not see the grief to reveal itself on her face.
Molly Weasley felt as though she would die from the pain of the loss of her fourth-born son, but as she returned to the others, no sign of weakness showed on her face. She would be strong for her children.
George was released from St. Mungo's three days later, his blood having finally been replenished to the Healer's satisfaction and the results of the combined curses seeming to have worn off. Other than a slight limp, he was in perfect physical health.
His spirit, however, had suffered a blow far worse than the injuries his body had sustained. From the moment of conception, George had never been without his twin for more than a short amount of time. They had always functioned as one, had done everything together most people could not even tell them apart. Whatever pain was being felt by the rest of the Weasleys, including Molly, was not even a fraction of the hurt that was coursing through George's soul, for he had not only lost a brother, but a part of himself as well.
Fred Weasley was buried in a small, simple ceremony in the Weasley family graveyard only a short distance from the Burrow. If the funeral had been announced, there was no doubt that the small pasture behind the Weasley home would have been filled with hundreds of mourners, for Fred and George had always been immensely popular and had grown even more as their joke shop became a success. Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, however, had conferred and had decided that such a large crowd would be too much for George, who had only just been released from St. Mungo's.
As Fred was laid to rest on the snowy morning of December thirtieth, the only people in attendance were the eight remaining Weasleys, Harry Potter, Hermione Granger and the members of the Order of the Phoenix who had been closest to the family: Remus Lupin, Minerva McGonagall, Nymphadora Tonks, Kingsley Shacklebolt and Albus Dumbledore. Although the family knew that friends such as Lee Jordan would want to pay final respects, they felt that with events unfolding as they were, it was better to keep things small. Apart from George's condition, any sort of large gathering would be certain to attract Voldemort's attention.
Harry could feel the immense sadness of the Weasley family, could see it etched in every pale face as they huddled together in the bitter cold. George looked stunned and disbelieving as he stared down into the grave where his twin's coffin had been magically lowered only moments before, and Mr. and Mrs. Weasley had given up all attempts to be stoic as they wept openly, supporting one another. Harry hung back a bit, staying with Hermione and Lupin on the other side of the grave. He felt as though he had lost a brother, and the familiar feeling of grief mixed with anger boiled inside of him like a thick and potent potion. He swore, once again, that he would put a stop to Voldemort's reign as soon as he was able.
When the ceremony was over and each person present had tossed a handful of frozen soil into the grave, they trooped silently back to the Burrow, where a meal was waiting, having been prepared by the Hogwarts house-elves to spare Mrs. Weasley the labor.
They ate the delicious meal silently, hardly tasting it. After they had finished, the members of the Order slowly left, each offering a comforting word to the grieving family before disapparating. Soon the only people left were the Weasley family, Harry and Hermione even Remus Lupin had gone. George retreated to his room, and after a moment, Mr. and Mrs. Weasley followed. Bill and Charlie kept one another company in the tiny lounge where the Christmas tree still stood as a cruel reminder of the joy they had shared only days before. Percy seemed uncertain, sitting alone at the kitchen table, his head bowed in grief. His family had forgiven him and welcomed him back, but he had been gone for so long that some of the closeness he had once shared with them was gone.
Hermione led Ron gently back outside for a walk. She had been at his side almost constantly since the morning after Christmas, responding kindly but firmly in the negative to her parents' insistence that she come back home. She was a great comfort to Ron, and their relationship had grown to new depths as he dealt with the loss of his brother.
Ginny was still being strangely distant to Harry. She did not seem angry, and she had let him hold her, but Harry could easily sense that she felt awkward and ill-at-ease with him. He thought he understood why she knew he had witnessed her brother's death, and even though she had said she did not blame him for it, she was having trouble dealing with the fact that he had seen the whole thing and had been unable to stop it. Considering that Harry himself was having trouble dealing with this, he could hardly blame Ginny for her reticence. Acting on Hermione's advice, he had tried to give Ginny space when she needed it, but had also continued to try and comfort her in any way that he could.
When Ginny shook her head slightly at him as she got up from the table and followed Hermione and Ron out the back door, Harry headed slowly up the stairs to Ron's attic bedroom, nodding at Percy on his way out of the kitchen. He wanted time to be alone to think about what had happened. There was no way around it Fred's death had been at least partly his own responsibility.
Harry's mind kept up a cadence of if onlies' as he headed up the many flights of rickety stairs. If only he had been able to wake himself and get help to Diagon Alley in time...if only he had somehow foreseen the danger...if only...if only. Harry knew that Fred's death had not been his fault, but he could not help thinking that he should have been able to stop it.
By the time he reached the top of the stairs, Harry was feeling nearly lifeless in his grief and self-doubt. No sooner had he flopped onto his camp bed, however, than he the familiar warmth of his amulet on his chest, alerting him that Remus Lupin wanted to speak with him. Harry considered pretending not to notice, but after only a moment of hesitation, he clasped his fist around the amulet and used the now-familiar form of telepathy to greet Lupin, who had returned to Grimmauld Place to prepare for the upcoming full moon.
George closed the door softly behind him before he collapsed onto his bed, lying on his side and facing the simple wooden bed which had so recently been occupied by his twin. Fred and George had not been living away from the Burrow for long, and now, as George lay staring at the empty bed, he wondered if things would have been different if they had stayed. Neither of them had wanted to; yearning for independence and adulthood and totally consumed with their new shop, they had been eager to fly the coop and live on their own. Molly had warned them that safety in numbers was important, but they had brushed her aside. If they had just listened, Fred would be right here, right now...
George's eyes welled with tears and he blinked furiously, swallowing fiercely to quell the lump in his throat. Flashes of the battle at Weasley's Wizard Wheezes and of the green light that had raced towards his twin's unflinching face came unbidden into his mind. Under the full body bind, he had been unable to turn away as Fred was killed, but he knew he would not have been able to even if had been able.
Even today, after Fred's funeral, George could not really believe that he would never see his twin brother again. It just didn't seem real.
"He's not coming back," George whispered in an effort to force himself to believe it. "Fred is not coming back. He's ..."
Even to himself, George could not say the word "dead." It was too final, too irrefutable, to apply to someone who had always been less of a brother than an irreplaceable part of his own soul. As this thought slowly meandered through George's mind, refusing to be banished, he could hold back the tears no longer, and he lost all reserve as he sobbed for his twin.
He did not hear the door creak softly as his mother and father entered the room, nor did he see them approach his bed. At that moment, George was conscious of nothing but his own pain. He did not respond as Molly sat on the bed next to him and placed a comforting hand on his back, not bothering to stifle her own tears, nor as Arthur placed a hand on his shoulder, squeezing him firmly.
"George, darling," Molly crooned softly, bending to press her wet cheek to his as she spoke, moving her hand in small circles on his still-cloaked back. George did not reply to her, but his sobs grew quieter is he shifted his gaze to his mother's tear-stained face.
Arthur moved to the other side of the bed and took a seat opposite his wife, sandwiching George between them as he continued to lay disconsolately on the bed. "George, my son," Arthur began, but before he could continue, Molly uttered a soft cry and pulled George into her arms like she had when he was only a small child. She held him tightly, both of them sobbing as they rocked back and forth. After a moment's hesitation, Arthur gathered his wife and his son into his arms and held them both.
Parents and son stayed in this embrace for some time whether a moment passed or an hour no one knew or cared, but eventually the sobbing quieted and the three pulled apart, wiping the remains of their tears from their blotchy and swollen eyes.
"Mum...Dad..." George began, his voice cracking. "I'm so sorry...I..."
"Oh, George," Molly said softly, stroking his cheek. "Don't think that. Don't ever think that." Her voice grew stronger as she talked to him. "It's a miracle you survived, and none of this was your fault, none of it."
"You fought bravely and well, son," Arthur continued, and swallowed hard, willing his voice to stay strong. He knew what he needed to say next. "And you have more work to do now, George."
Molly nodded in agreement. After having talked to several of the Healers at St. Mungo's, they knew that in addition to allowing him time to grieve, they also had to help him resume his life. George Weasley had to learn how to live again. The night before, they had agreed on their course of action. Molly squeezed her husband's hand, lending him strength. The truth was, the Weasley parents' hearts were as broken as their son's, and they, too, wanted nothing more than to wallow in their own grief, to not have to face a world without Fred in it. The Healer, however, had cautioned them that they must force themselves to resume living, and quickly, for with every passing day, George would withdraw further into himself.
"Work?" George said weakly, looking at each of his parents in turn. This was not what he had expected. Surely they didn't expect him to return to the shop? He fully intended to close it forever and had no desire to run it without his brother at his side.
"Yes, dear," Molly said gently but firmly. "The shop is being repaired and cleaned thoroughly, and it will be ready for business soon."
"No, Mum," George answered. "Leave it closed. I don't want it."
"I'm afraid that's not possible, George," Arthur said mildly. "Imagine what Fred would say if you closed the shop, not to mention your customers and your investors." Saying Fred's name was hard for Arthur, but he continued doggedly, with the conviction that he was doing what was best for his son. "You've got to be strong, son. You can't sleep away your days. Reopen the shop and keep inventing."
"You've brought laughter to so many," Molly said softly. "I may not have thought opening a joke shop was important when you first began it, but I can see now that laughter is more important than ever. You could not have a more important job if you were the Minister of Magic himself."
"I can't do it," George said, not meeting her eyes. "Not without Fred. We did it together, Mum. I can't do it alone." His voice dropped to a whisper and the tears threatened to spill over once again.
Molly and Arthur exchanged a quick glance, and at an almost imperceptible nod from Molly, Arthur got up from the bed and left the room, quietly closing the door behind him.
"You won't have to do it alone, George," Molly said, still speaking softly and gently. She could see that George was at least engaged in the conversation even if he was not yet agreeing to go back to his shop, and she did not want him to curl back into himself. "You will never be alone."
"It's not the same, Mum," George muttered. "I love all of you, but Fred..."
"I didn't mean that it would be the same, George," Molly corrected him. "But as long as you are a Weasley, you will never in your life be alone, and you have a heavier mantle of responsibility than ever now. You must not only continue your work, but Fred's as well. It's what he would want you to do."
"I know, Mum, but I don't know if I can," George replied, looking away from her. What she had said was true and he knew it, but that didn't change the hollow feeling that threatened to overwhelm him, the huge black hole where Fred had been.
"You can, George," Molly responded, and they both turned as Arthur entered the room once again, followed closely by Percy.
"I'm sorry I couldn't stay, Harry," Lupin said regretfully.
"It's all right, Moony," Harry responded automatically.
"Is it really all right, Harry?" Lupin asked. "Or perhaps I should say, are you really all right?"
"Fine," Harry told him dully, knowing full well that this response would not satisfy his guardian.
"Talk to me, Harry," Lupin said gently, and Harry could picture the concerned look on the older man's face as well as if they were sitting across from one another. Lupin continued, "Tell me what is going on inside that head of yours."
Harry didn't answer. How could he possibly explain what he was thinking to Lupin when he wasn't really all that certain of it himself? Besides, he felt that if one more person told him that he bore no responsibility for Fred's death, he would scream.
"Harry, I am going to tell you one more time, and I want you to listen: no one bears any fault for what happened in Diagon Alley other than Voldemort and his Death Eaters. No one. You mustn't blame yourself, Harry."
Harry still didn't respond, but Lupin could feel his irritation even through the connection fostered by their amulets. It was the same problem that they had had every time Harry witnessed someone's death, made all the more poignant by the fact that the victim was Fred Weasley. He sighed. He had not wanted to play this particular card, but at the same time, hoped that it would shock some sense into Harry before he continued down the slippery slope of self-doubt. Harry could not afford that now, with the war escalating and Voldemort growing stronger and more menacing each day.
"Harry, do you blame George for Fred's death?" Lupin asked, his tone brutally blunt.
Harry sat straight up. "No!" he replied angrily. "How can you even say that?"
"It makes more sense to blame George than yourself," Lupin replied, willing himself to keep his emotions quelled so that Harry could not sense how much he hated himself the moment the words had been said. "George was there. You weren't."
"Lupin," Harry said, his voice low and furious, and Lupin winced as he always did when Harry addressed him like that. "Don't say that. Don't ever say that. It wasn't George's fault he did everything he could! He did everything right, he "
"Of course he did, Harry, unless you believe that George could have dueled Bellatrix Lestrange, Lucius Malfoy, Antoin Dolohov, and Voldemort himself and won."
"Of course he couldn't have," Harry raged. "No one could, except maybe Profess " He stopped in the middle of his sentence as the realization of what Lupin was doing hit him. How could he have been so stupid as to think that Lupin actually blamed George for what had happened? His guardian was actually trying to provoke him into staying that no one could have stopped the attack, but in Harry's opinion what Lupin had tried to do was lower than low.
"That wasn't funny," he said, his voice laced with bitterness.
"No, it wasn't," Lupin replied. "But surely you can see that no one could have stopped Voldemort and his followers from doing what they did. There were simply too many of them. It's a miracle that Fred and George lasted as long as they did, and that George survived. And he wouldn't have, Harry, be sure of that, if you hadn't raised the alarm in time."
"It's not the same!" Harry shouted aloud, forgetting for a moment the telepathic nature of his conversation with Lupin. He glanced towards the door, but at this point he was too furious to really care whether or not he had been overheard.
His fist was clenched so tightly around his amulet that it was surprising that the small bottle did not shatter. He concentrated hard and virtually shot his next statement at Lupin, who staggered visibly in the basement kitchen of Grimmauld Place. "That was a dirty trick, Lupin."
"I'm sorry, Harry," Lupin said, and his voice contained a hint of pleading urgency to it now. "I truly am. But don't you understand how important it is that you not waste time with self-doubt and blame now? Don't you understand that those are the very signs of weakness that Voldemort preys upon? You've got to stay strong, Harry, and not lose yourself in this. Voldemort is coming out into the open, which means he has grown strong enough that he no longer feels as though he has to hide. He's known the Prophecy for months, but your situation has never been more dangerous."
"That doesn't give you the right," Harry began, but he found that he could not really complete the thought. He felt incredibly stupid for falling for Lupin's ploy. How could he have actually considered the possibility that anybody blamed George for Fred's death?
"Harry," Lupin said, and his voice had lost the pleading tone and had a steely edge to it now. "It is my job to keep you safe, and frankly I am past caring what you think I do and do not have the right to do. As long as you are blaming yourself for Fred's death instead of placing the blame where it belongs, you are making yourself vulnerable, and that is not something I am prepared to tolerate. If you won't be strong and get past this for yourself, then do it for the rest of us."
Once again, Harry did not respond. He was rather taken aback by this abrupt change in tone, but somewhere, in the deep recesses of his mind, he knew that Lupin was right. Childishly, though, he was not prepared to admit it, so he remained silent.
Lupin waited for a moment, and when Harry said nothing, he sighed once again. "Just think about it," he said, his voice becoming weary. "I have to leave you now and get prepared for the full moon, but I want you to think about it, Harry. I understand how you are feeling. I just want you to fight." With that, the amulet Harry still clutched tightly in his fist went cold, and he knew that his guardian had broken the connection.
Hundreds of miles away, in the basement kitchen of Grimmauld Place, a weary-looking Lupin sat heavily at the large oak table. He hated any kind of animosity between himself and Harry, but this time, he knew that Harry did not have the luxury of a weeks-long recovery. The war was going in full-force, and he feared more every day that Harry's day of reckoning was not far off the horizon.
It was with a growing sense of dread that Harry cast the silencing charm on himself that night, after having spent most of the day alone in Ron's bedroom while Ron was out with Hermione. Even Percy seemed to have left the house, and Harry had only caught a glimpse of Mr. and Mrs. Weasley going into their own bedroom after they emerged from talking to George.
He had heard nothing from or about Voldemort or his followers since the attack on Weasley's Wizard Wheezes, and since he knew the halt had not been called out of respect for Fred's memory, Harry expected to see another attack sometime very soon.
Nothing happened that night or the one after that. The New Year had not been celebrated with any of the usual fanfare or even the traditional toast. Most of the inhabitants of the Burrow had simply wished one another good night and gone to bed well before midnight.
The third morning of the year dawned cold and cloudy with a light dusting of snow falling on the already snow-covered grounds of the Burrow. As Harry stretched and quietly cast the counter-charm on himself, he was thankful once again that because there were adult inhabitants at the Burrow, it would be impossible to detect exactly who was performing magic and he did not need to worry about any kind of censure from the Ministry.
Harry was up before Ron that morning. Hermione was not expected at the Burrow until sometime after lunch, having finally given in to her parents and consented to spend some time at home before school resumed at the beginning of the following week, and Ron was taking advantage of her absence and having a lie-in. Harry left the room quietly, Ron's snores echoing down the wooden stairwell before he eased the door closed.
This morning, Harry was planning on finding Ginny and seeing if she would talk to him. Although he was unlikely to admit it to anyone other than himself, Harry missed her more than he ever would have imagined that he would. After a quick shower, he went downstairs into the small kitchen, smelling the familiar smell of bacon frying as he descended. It took him a moment to realize that he had not smelled breakfast cooking since Fred's death, and he sincerely hoped that it meant Mrs. Weasley was feeling a bit better.
Molly had indeed resumed her customary place next to the stove and was presiding over the preparation of breakfast with her usual watchfulness. She greeted Harry with a smile and a brave "good morning, dear," but Harry noticed that her smile still did not reach her eyes.
"Good morning, Mrs. Weasley," Harry said, yawning a bit as he sat down at the table.
"How are you this morning?" Molly asked anxiously, her hands shaking slightly as she transferred bacon from the frying pan onto a plate lined with a clean tea towel.
"I'm fine," Harry answered truthfully. "Has everyone already gone?"
"Charlie's still here," Molly answered. "He's got to go back to Romania later today; his holiday is almost over. Bill and Arthur have gone to work already, George and Percy are at the shop, and Ginny and Ron are still sleeping." The tone of her voice as she told Harry where everyone was evidenced just how closely Mrs. Weasley had been monitoring her family's movements since the attack, and he suspected that she had recited the same list to herself several times already that morning.
"Percy went with George to the shop again today?" Harry asked, somewhat surprised. George had gone back to the shop the afternoon after the funeral, escorted by Percy for safety reasons,' Mr. and Mrs. Weasley had said. They had found much of the necessary work to repair the shop had already been done by the twins' friends. Perhaps it was the sight of the shop that had snapped George back a bit from the precipice on which he had been standing since Fred's death, or perhaps it was the obvious devotion of their friends and family, but he had already started to throw himself back into his work.
Harry could understand George's zeal well enough once George had returned to his shop and continued the work he and Fred had started two years before, but he was confused by Percy's sudden interest. From what Harry could gather, Percy had been going to work with George each morning before going to his own job at the Ministry and stopping back before apparating to the Burrow, where both he and George were staying for the time being under their mother's insistence. Harry made a mental note to ask Ron about it later on, for Mrs. Weasley had busied herself once again at the stove, scrambling several eggs and buttering a stack of toast for Harry, Ron, and Ginny.
Five minutes later, Ginny stumbled sleepily into the kitchen, but before she could take her place at the table, Mrs. Weasley asked her to go wake Ron for breakfast. Ginny turned with just the slightest of smiles to Harry and went back up the stairs, returning momentarily with Ron, still in his pajamas and looking highly grumpy. Harry greeted him, but knew better than to say much until his friend was a little more awake.
The three teenagers ate silently for awhile until Mrs. Weasley broke the silence, saying in a would-be cheerful tone, "What have you three got planned for today?"
"Hermione's coming later today," Ron answered, having been brought back to life by the big breakfast and a large goblet of spiced pumpkin juice. He made a slight face. "She wants to start revising for some of our classes already."
"She's got the right idea, Ronald," Mrs. Weasley said, and Harry was actually pleased to note that some of the customary sternness had returned to her tone as she addressed her youngest son. "Have you started revision for your O.W.L.s yet, Ginevra?" she asked next, turning to her daughter.
"No, Mum," Ginny replied quietly. "I was planning to start after the holiday."
"All right, dear," Molly relented a bit. "Just make sure you do remember, your O.W.L.s will determine what classes you can take for your sixth and seventh years, and what career you can pursue. It's important, Ginny."
"I know," Ginny replied. "May I be excused?"
Molly nodded, but Harry noticed that Ginny had eaten very little, and she didn't say anything as she left the table and headed back up the stairs to get dressed. Harry and Ron finished eating and put their plates in the sink. Just as they were about to leave the kitchen, Harry saw Ginny come back down the stairs, take her cloak from the hook by the door, and head into the back garden. After a moment's hesitation and a gentle nod from Mrs. Weasley, Harry took his cloak and followed her.
Ginny had already disappeared into the woods by the time Harry closed the back door behind him, but from the direction of her footprints in the snow, he guessed where she had gone.
He was right. Five minutes later, his cheeks rosy from cold and his bare hands freezing, Harry reached the small tree house that Ginny had taken him to only days before and called to her. She didn't reply, but Harry heard small noises from above that sounded like sobs. After another moment's hesitation, he proceeded up the wooden ladder and through the hole in the floor. He saw Ginny huddled in the corner, her arms wrapped around her knees and her cloak wrapped tightly around her, tears running down her face. Harry suspected that she had been coming here often, and mentally rebuked himself for not having followed her before.
"Ginny?" he asked tentatively as he climbed into the small room. "Are you okay?"
"Leave me alone, Harry," Ginny replied, her voice trembling and laced with tears.
"No, Ginny," Harry said gently, remembering well how Lupin had responded to him when he had been grieving over Sirius's death. He approached her cautiously and sat down next to her, wondering what he should do next and wishing he had asked Hermione for advice before he had followed Ginny out here. "Erm..." he started awkwardly, "do you want to talk about it?"
Ginny remained silent but for the small catches in her breathing that told Harry she had been crying pretty hard.
"Ginny," Harry said, desperately trying to find a way to make her feel better. It made his heart ache to see the pain in her eyes, for he had grown to love her above all others.
"I just..." Ginny began.
"What is it, Ginny?" Harry prompted.
"I never thought...Fred..." Ginny replied softly, and her eyes welled up again. "I know this is war, Harry. I know that. The things you've seen...all those people. But still, I never thought..." Her voice trailed off.
"You never thought it could happen to your family?" Harry finished for her.
"No, I never did," Ginny whispered. "I've been so worried about you, Harry. I knew he was coming for you...and you've had to see all these terrible things he's done...but then, it wasn't a stranger...it was Fred...and you saw..." She screwed up her face in an effort to maintain her somewhat shaky control over her emotions.
"I did see, Ginny," Harry said, willing his voice not to shake. He had been right. Even Ginny blamed him for Fred's death. "Please believe me...if there had been anything I could do..."
"Oh, Harry!" Ginny exclaimed, suddenly throwing her arms around him and burying her face in his chest, sobbing unrestrainedly for a few minutes before she choked back her tears and continued, "You couldn't have done anything. You couldn't have...I just wish...I wish..." She began sobbing again, holding onto him as if he were the only anchor to safety she had left.
Harry was glad she was opening up to him, but he wasn't quite sure how to deal with her outpouring of feeling. He held her tightly and patted her on the back, kissing the top of her head. He still wasn't sure exactly why he had been being so distant with him, but as he continued to hold her until her sobbing once again began to fade, he decided he didn't care.
Harry and Ginny spent the rest of that morning in the tree house talking, their arms wrapped around one another as they remembered Fred in their own way. Ginny told Harry some of their family stories from her childhood.
"I remember the first time they pranked me," Ginny said, smiling at the memory. "I was only about three, and they were five, and it was really hot outside...unusually so. We were in the back garden while Mum did housework, and she had asked Bill to look after me.
"Bill, of course, went off to do something else as soon as she wasn't looking, and left me, Ron, and the twins alone in the garden. We weren't allowed to leave the area just beyond the house, but I was happy enough picking flowers for my hair and chasing the garden gnomes."
Harry smiled at the picture of a very young Ginny chasing the funny little gnomes through the garden, and he impulsively kissed her forehead.
"Anyway, Ron was playing on a toy broomstick, and Fred and George told me that if I took one of the garden gnomes a necklace made out of flowers, it would grant me three wishes. Of course, I believed them and set to work making the most beautiful flower necklace I could make." Ginny smiled again. "I didn't know yet what the smell of flowers does to a garden gnome in close proximity, or that it is the reason why they like to set up housekeeping in Wizarding gardens."
"What does the smell of the flowers do?" Harry asked with interest. He didn't know much about garden gnomes except that they were a nuisance and that Mrs. Weasley would often required her children to rid the garden of them as punishment for misbehavior.
"Shh...you'll find out." Ginny giggled a little then, but immediately stopped, as if she had suddenly remembered that she was not supposed to be happy. Her expression sobered but at a slight squeeze on the shoulder from Harry, she continued, "Anyway, after I finished the necklace, I went off in search of a garden gnome, heading towards one of their little holes under Mum's plants. As soon as I got close, not one, but three gnomes came running out of the hole, and I held the necklace out to them." She stopped, and it seemed as though she was trying hard not to burst out laughing at the memory.
"What happened then?" Harry prompted when she hadn't spoken for a moment.
"The first gnome grabbed at the necklace and it broke, leaving him with several flowers and me with the remains of it in my hands. I didn't know what to do at first, and I started to cry. Then, I felt something grab the bottom of my robes, and before I knew it I had about ten garden gnomes climbing up my robes trying to get at the rest of the flowers!" Ginny laughed then, a real laugh, and Harry smiled broadly. Her laugh was like music to him, and he had missed it.
"You see," she said, still laughing, "flowers are like liquor to garden gnomes, but they often have trouble getting them because they are too short to reach them and the stems of the flowers aren't stout enough to climb. When Mum came out of the house a few moments later to check on us, I had gnomes climbing all over me, grabbing at the flowers I'd put in my hair earlier and the ones I had in my hands, and I was just standing there, giggling fit to burst. Fred and George, of course, were nowhere to be seen. Oh, when Mum found out what they had done..."
Even Harry had to laugh at the thought of the expression on Molly Weasley's face when she saw her small daughter covered in garden gnomes. He stopped, however, when he noticed that Ginny was no longer laughing and her face had gone pale.
"Ginny?" Harry asked in concern. "What's the matter?"
"It just doesn't feel right," she said softly.
"What doesn't?" Harry asked, slightly confused.
"Laughing. How can we laugh when Fred..." Her voice trailed off.
"You don't think Fred would want us to laugh?" Harry asked. This was one of the many things that Lupin had told him time and again after Sirius's death...that Sirius would not want to be remembered with sadness. "Ginny, Fred spent his whole life making everyone laugh. Why would he want us to stop now?"
Ginny nodded and smiled tremulously at Harry, and by the time they left the tree house to head back to the Burrow for lunch, their hands were clasped tightly together. Although you could still see the grief written plainly on both of their faces, each was much happier than they had been just a few hours before.
The rest of the week at the Burrow passed rather more somberly than usual. Mrs. Weasley was back to her cooking and housework and Mr. Weasley was back at work, but both of them looked older and paler than they ever had before and it was easy to see how hard they were trying to help their children cope with Fred's death. Mr. Weasley's smiles seemed forced, and he often lost focus when he was playing chess with Ron and would sit staring into the fire until Ron reminded him that it was his move. Mrs. Weasley would disappear at times, and all of them suspected that she spent a good deal of time in her room, thinking about Fred.
Hermione, although she was still staying with her parents, came to the Burrow daily, and at her insistence Ron, Ginny, and Harry had all started revising for their spring classes. It was a way to pass the time, to be sure, and Harry suspected that was part of the reason why she was nagging so much about it.
Ginny and Harry spent nearly every waking moment together. Their activities varied, but more often than not they could be found in the tree house, talking and holding one another. They had not gone any further than that...Ginny was not in the mood, and Harry remembered with a pang how Fred and George had caught them there and had warned him against hurting her. Following Hermione's advice, he was careful to move at her pace, and not ask anything of her that she was not willing to give.
Unbelievably, the person who was attracting the most interest in the Weasley household was none other than Percy. According to George, the usually serious businesswizard had been spending more and more time at Weasley's Wizard Wheezes, going over their books and even making suggestions for new products. Although George had returned to work and was running things as well as possible without his brother, he was prone to periods of crippling depression, and he confided to Harry and Ron one night after Ginny had gone to bed that it was Percy who usually brought him out of it.
"Seriously, mates, I don't know what to make of him," George told them seriously. "It's so hard to do this without Fred, but whenever I get to thinking about closing the shop, it seems like Percy always shows up with something to talk about that gets me on the right track again."
"Percy does that?" Ron asked incredulously. For his part, even though he treated his brother with civility bordering on friendliness, he had not accepted Percy back into the fold yet. He was still too angry at the grief the ambitious young man had caused his family and friends over the past year and a half.
"Yeah," George replied. "It's not the same, you know, without Fred..." George's voice broke, and he took a moment to compose himself before he continued, "But you wouldn't believe some of the stuff Percy's come up with, and he's made some changes in the way the money is handled that have already made a difference."
"Is Percy going to quit his job at the Ministry and come to work with you?" Harry asked, noticing that to even suggest that Percy might be thinking of leaving the Ministry was something he would never have even considered before.
"No way!" Ron commented.
"I don't know," George said ponderingly, "but I have to say that I wouldn't really mind much if he did. He's not a barrel of laughs, Percy, but he's still got a lot of good ideas. Besides, I get the impression that things are not going well for Minister Fudge. I don't know how long Percy would have his job anyway."
"What do you mean?" Harry asked. He knew that Cornelius Fudge had lost a lot of popularity over the fact that he had spent a year pretending that Voldemort had not returned, but he had not gotten the impression that his job was in jeopardy. Who would be the new Minister if not Fudge?
"I don't really know," George replied. "Percy hasn't said much, but I get the impression that the Minister's office has been getting so many Howlers that they had to hire someone just to receive all of them."
"I think it would be a good thing if Fudge got the sack," Ron said fiercely. "He's a git, that one."
"Yeah," Harry agreed. If nothing else, "git" seemed to be an appropriate word for the current Minister of Magic, and it probably would not be a bad thing to have a new one.
George yawned. "Listen guys, I've got to get to the shop early tomorrow. Percy wants to do a complete inventory before we open. I think I'll turn in."
Harry and Ron wished George a good night, and then headed up the stairs to bed themselves. They were returning to Hogwarts the next morning, and they, too would have to be up early to make it to the Hogwarts Express by eleven. After Ron was safely snoring, Harry cast the silencing charm on his throat once again, this time almost hoping that he would find something out, see something. Though he was relieved that Voldemort and his Death Eaters had seemingly decided to lay low for the time being, Harry found their continued silence disconcerting in the extreme.
The somber mood in the Weasley household continued as they got everyone off to the train with a minimum of confusion. Harry noticed that Mrs. Weasley held all of them a little tighter and a little longer than she had before, and she implored them all to be safe. He could see the tears in her eyes as they all boarded the train with their trunks.
The news of Fred's death had been reported in the Daily Prophet, of course, so everyone on the train knew about it. Ron, Hermione, and Ginny came back from the Prefect's compartment unusually quickly, saying that the Head Boy and Girl had excused the three of them from patrolling the corridors during the train ride. They passed the long journey quietly, Ron and Hermione sitting close together on one of the bench seats, Harry and Ginny on the other.
It did not take long for people to start coming by the compartment. The first was Neville, who knocked tentatively on the sliding door before coming in. "I'm...really sorry about Fred," he said, looking down at his shoes.
"Thanks, Neville," Hermione said when no one else answered. Neville left quickly, clearly feeling awkward and not knowing what to say, but all day, a constant stream of students stopped by to offer their condolences.
"I wish they'd stop," Ginny whispered after Ernie Macmillan and Hannah Abbot had gone.
"They don't know what else to do," Hermione said softly. "They care about you two, and they all knew Fred. They feel like they've got to say something."
"There's nothing they can say," Ron said rather more fiercely than he had intended. "What do they think they can say that will make things better?"
"They know they can't make it better, Ron," Hermione said, her tone gentle rather than scolding. "They just want you to know they care, that's all."
"I wish they wouldn't," Ron muttered, and Harry couldn't help but agree. No one wanted this kind of attention, but the stream of students didn't stop coming until the train had stopped in Hogsmeade and the four of them found a carriage to themselves back to the castle. Once again, they passed the ride in silence, mostly just wanting to return to the Gryffindor common room and to their dormitories.
This was not to be, however, for as soon as they had made it up the long walk and into the Entrance Hall, Professor McGonagall met them, her expression grim.
"Mr. Potter," she said without preamble. "Professor Dumbledore wishes to speak to you immediately."
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