There had been no trick-or-treating in Ottery St Catchpole that evening. Nobody was willing to leave their house at night anymore; indeed, most people weren’t leaving home at all in recent weeks, even refusing to go to work. Fear had cowed the magical community into silence over the last couple of years. Arthur had grown used to working alone in his office at the Ministry, and although he was overwhelmed by work, he couldn’t blame his colleagues for their absence. He himself had been nervous of leaving the relative safety of The Burrow that morning, even for the couple of hours he’d needed to catch up on paperwork. The news that he and Molly had received the night before, of the murders of Edgar Bones, his wife and their children, had echoed in his ears whilst he sat in the silent office.
Molly, keeping herself busy in her anxiety, had spent the afternoon organizing an evening of fun and games for the boys. As far as Molly and Arthur were concerned, their children deserved all of the excitement Hallowe’en could offer, and if that meant casting extra muffliato charms over the house and raiding the dressing up box for an evening, then so be it. Molly, it turned out, had outdone herself. For a few hours that evening, Arthur had felt lighter, happier- almost carefree- as he’d watched the boys bob for apples, follow a treasure hunt, and generally make a lot of noise and mess.
Now, as he made his way slowly up the rickety stairs of his home, he finally began to feel tired. A little boy dressed in a roly-poly pumpkin costume, snored gently in his arms, lips parted and sticky with raspberry jam. Arthur had already herded a boisterous little Quidditch player, a sleepy green dragon, and two hyperactive vampire bats to bed. He could still hear the floorboards straining as the twins bounced up and down on their beds, and he wished he’d not let Fred and George have his share of the Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans.
As he passed an open doorway, Arthur paused. A tiny old man was sitting forlornly on the bed, blue eyes worried behind a great fluffy pair of eyebrows and a long white beard. Arthur stifled a laugh, aware of the sleeping toddler in his arms.
‘You know, Percy, I thought for a second that you were old Filius Flitwick!’
The little wizard looked up at him.
‘Daddy! I’m Merlin, not Filly Fidwig!’
This time, Arthur couldn’t help himself and he laughed loudly. Ron stirred in his father’s arms and Arthur tried to hush him, suppressing his own laughter.
‘What’s wrong, Percy? You look worried.’
Percy folded his arms, letting the long sleeves of his robes fall over his little hands.
‘I didn’t get my reading lesson today; everyone was too busy! I tried reading to Ron, but he kept rolling away, and Mum was too busy with the baby…’ His cotton wool eyebrows furrowed in consternation. ‘I don’t want to miss it just because it’s Hallowe’en!’
Arthur felt his heart swell in affection for his earnest five year-old son.
‘Okay Perce, just let me put your brother to bed and I’ll give you a bedtime story. Does that sound good?’
A smile seemed to bloom behind the fluffy beard, and Percy nodded excitedly. After Arthur had wiped the jam from his youngest son’s face and placed him carefully in his crib, he crept back to Percy’s room. Molly had clearly taken the twins in hand, for quiet had finally fallen over the house.
Percy was now in his pyjamas and had tucked himself into bed. The long beard lay neatly folded on a bedside table, but the little boy seemed to have forgotten about the eyebrows. Smiling through his weariness, Arthur sat down on the bed and leant over to gently peel the bushy eyebrows from Percy’s patient, freckled face. The boy giggled.
‘Oops! Thanks, Daddy.’
‘What would you like me to read tonight?’ asked Arthur, surveying the pile of books stacked neatly on the bedside table. ‘We’ve got that Muggle book I found…’
‘Mum read ‘Noddy Goes To Toyland’ last night,’ Percy interrupted.
‘Ah. Okay, how about ‘Polly the Prancing Pygmy Puff’?’ Arthur laughed as Percy pulled a face of disgust. ‘Well then, how about a classic? ‘Babbity Rabbity’; my dad used to read that to me.’
‘I like that one.’
‘Okay then, ‘Babbity Rabbity’, it is.’
Arthur suppressed a yawn as he reached for the slim volume of ‘The Tales of Beedle the Bard’. Percy shuffled under the covers, closed his eyes, and sighed.
Arthur smiled and began to read. He’d only been reading for a few minutes when Percy had impatiently opened his eyes and sat up.
‘Daddy, you’re doing it wrong! You keep reading the wrong words,’ the little boy huffed, ‘and the voices aren’t that silly!’
Arthur realised that he had indeed been misreading some of the words through his bleary, tired eyes. Chastened, he passed Percy the book.
‘I think you’d better read it to me instead.’
Keen to show his father his progress, Percy began to read aloud, pausing only briefly over the longer words, and emphasizing the names and words that Arthur had mispronounced.
Arthur listened proudly, allowing his son’s voice to lull him to a state of utter calm. He was gazing absentmindedly out of the window, enjoying the way the stars were blurring before his eyes, when something streaked through the night sky, towards the house. His heart began to pound; an owl speeding towards his home at this time of night surely couldn’t be bearing good news. He thought again of the Bones family, and felt his stomach lurch slightly. Steadying himself, he placed a hand on the coverlet of Percy’s bed, and found his fingers closing around a little foot. Percy continued reading doggedly, and Arthur made himself focus on every single word. He watched his son’s chest rise and fall, saw the boy’s brow furrow as he unravelled a long word.
‘...and the wizards and witches of the kingdom were safe and happy forever after.’
‘The End,’ whispered Arthur.
‘The End,’ Percy agreed.
‘That was lovely, Percy. You’re getting very good at reading. We might have to find you some new books!’ said Arthur, bracingly. He took the book from Percy’s hands and laid it on the bedside table. He hoped his son couldn’t hear his heart pounding.
‘I’d like that,’ said the little boy happily, snuggling once more beneath the covers as his eyelids began to droop. ‘N’night, Daddy.’
‘N’night, Percy,’ Arthur replied, kissing him firmly on the top of his smooth red hair. He reached across to turn the bedside lamp down to a soft glow. He sat for a moment in the darkness, listening to Percy’s contented sigh, then rose to his feet and padded out of the bedroom, closing the door quietly behind him.
As he made his way down the stairs, wincing at each creak of the oak boards, Arthur grew aware of a dull ache in his back. He was only thirty-one, but fatherhood had aged him. No, he thought suddenly, war has aged me. Fear, dread, and loss had taken their toll on him; his children were keeping him young. Molly was keeping him sane. He found her sitting at the kitchen table with baby Ginevra sleeping soundly against her chest. A letter lay, unfolded, on the table in front of them. Molly’s face was pale and her eyes wide; a pair of pointed cat ears protruded from her curls and the tip of her nose was painted black. If it weren’t for the dread in the pit of his stomach, Arthur would have laughed.
He stared at the letter, recognizing the handwriting of Emmeline Vance, an old acquaintance and a member of the Order; two years ago, she’d been the one who’d come to break the news of Gideon and Fabian’s deaths to Molly. Arthur didn’t have to ask the question out loud.
‘It’s the Potters,’ said Molly, looking up at him, her voice cracking, ‘He got Lily and James Potter.’
Arthur felt his face drain of colour. He’d met the Potters, liked them very much. Oh God, he thought, feeling sick, they had a baby. He sank into the chair opposite Molly and held his head in his hands.
Molly pushed the letter across the table with a shaking hand. ‘There’s something… else,’ she said quietly.
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