Disclaimer: I don't own Harry Potter.

A/N: Oh. my. god. It's finally finished! I've been working on this story for ages now, and I have to say I'm really proud of it. I hope you'll enjoy it!


Countdown

12 months: May 2, 1997

"There's a letter from Ginny," George announces, having (naturally) thrown the paperwork at Fred and sifted through the personal letters himself.

"Open it, then, you git," Fred says, tearing open an important-looking brown envelope, scanning the contents and throwing it into the fire. "Why'm I always landed with bills duty?"

"Because I'm the handsomer one."

"Ha! Only according to –" Fred breaks off quite suddenly, feeling the inexplicable stab of heartbreak that always comes to him when he thinks the particular name. George drops the letter and stares at him, his bright brown eyes far too calculating. "Only according to you," Fred finishes lamely.

There are times when he wishes that George was less able to read him; this is one of them. His twin is wearing the look that means I will figure you out, and Fred silently vows that he will never let George know this one secret of his.

"Well, then? What does she say?"

George's eyebrows are going higher and higher as he reads the letter; his eyes have widened and he looks like he's not entirely sure whether to laugh or shout. "Our little sister has a new boyfriend."

"Nothing new there," Fred smirks. "Who is it this time? Seamus Finnegan? Cormac McLaggen? Zacharias Smith? Neville Longbottom?"

George looks up and shakes his head. "Harry Potter."

Fred is silent for a few seconds. Then – "You're taking the mickey, right?"

George passes him the letter. Scanning it, Fred sees that the name 'Harry' features quite frequently, always slightly larger than the rest of the text as if Ginny cannot quite contain her excitement when she writes the word. He groans. "This is bad."

"Why?" George asks fairly. "Better than that prat Thomas. We know Harry, and he'd never hurt Ginny."

"Why can't she just stay celibate for life?" Fred demands, tossing the letter onto the table. "Save us a lot of trouble."

George laughs. "I'm with you on that one, mate."

Exactly a year later, George isn't laughing – but that's a story for another day.

-FW-

11 months: June 2, 1997

"More beetle eyes," George calls from the cauldron, stirring frantically.

Fred bats the steam away from his eyes and makes his way over to the store cupboard. "How many? We're almost out."

"A few should do it."

Fred takes a handful of the little black balls and drops them into the cauldron. Together, they watch as the murky red mixture turns a perfect rose pink, shimmering peacefully in the dim light from their wands.

"Has it worked?" George asks cautiously after a few minutes.

Fred sits down on the floor next to his brother. "We'll have to get Verity to test it later, but it looks like it has."

George yawns and rests his head on Fred's shoulder. "It's almost midnight, you know."

"Really?"

George nods. "It doesn't feel like it, does it? But anyway… next time we're inventing, I want to try something a bit more serious."

Fred blinks, surprised by the grave tone in his twin's voice. "What's that?"

"An antidote to common poisons," George says, sitting up straight and looking Fred dead in the eye. "Like a bezoar, but easier to administer – Harry said it was really narrow with Ron, he couldn't get him to swallow it…" He breaks off in a shudder and Fred wraps a comforting arm around his shoulder.

"A bezoar would be the key ingredient, then," he muses out loud. "We'd need a way to liquefy it…"

"Maybe start by grinding it into a powder and melting it?"

"No, they only work when solid."

"But if you add stewed Mandrake to it –"

They do not notice when the clock eventually strikes midnight, nor do they pay attention to the steady tapping of the second hand. Tick, tock.

-FW-

10 months: July 2, 1997

Someone knocks on the Burrow's front door. Immediately there are thumps on the stairs, followed by Ron yelling, "She's here!"

"Could he be any more obvious?" George asks, flicking his DA Galleon into the air and catching it again.

Ginny, curled up on Fred's bed with some wedding invitations she should be addressing, laughs. "You should have seen him this year at school."

Fred frowns. "Wasn't he dating that chick Lavender?"

Ginny shakes her head. "Just an attempt to get Hermione jealous. He really is that clueless, you know."

George grins. "Oh, we know. Emotional range of a teaspoon, and all that."

"But enough of ickle Ronniekins's non-existent love life," Fred adds. "What's going on between you and a certain Harry Potter?"

What he expects is for Ginny to blush as red as her hair and tell him that it's none of his business; instead, his sister drops her gaze to the invitations and mutters, "Nothing."

"What's the matter, Gin-kins?" George asks her, in tune to her moods as always. He puts a hand on her shoulder, and after a moment Ginny flings herself at him and wraps her arms tightly around him, drawing a shuddering breath.

"We broke up," she mumbles. "After the funeral." She sounds so miserable that Fred's vision goes blank with rage for a moment – without him thinking about it, his wand is in his hand and he is ready to curse Harry Potter to kingdom come for daring to hurt his little sister.

Never mind that he isn't actually in the room.

George's eyes show a similar emotion; his arms have tensed around Ginny, and sensing this she pulls away from him a little. "It's not the way you think," she says hastily, upon seeing her brothers' murderous expressions. "He didn't dump me – well, he did, but he didn't mean to, and he was just trying to be noble!"

"Eloquent, sis," George says, smirking. She giggles a little, and he continues: "Why would Harry dumping you be noble?"

Ginny pauses for a moment, before saying, "They're not coming back to school next year, the three of them. Harry's got some mission that Dumbledore left him he has to do."

"Leaving?" Fred says, horrified. His little brother leaving school with Death Eaters everywhere just waiting to snatch up a blood-traitor… he shudders.

"Fred, these three have faced a lot," George says calmly. "You worry too much."

Fred stares at him, white-faced. "You're not telling me you're okay with this?"

George's eyes go wide and Fred can see the tumult of emotions inside them, the fear and worry and protectiveness all mixed up together. He realises that it was a rather stupid question.

"I don't like it either," Ginny says, "but – there's no stopping them, is there?"

Fred sighs, not willing to concede the point but knowing that she's right.

"So," Ginny continues, "Harry said that I was already enough of a target by being a Weasley, and he wouldn't endanger me more. He's just trying to protect me; I didn't want him to, but his mind was made up. We haven't properly broken up. We're just waiting for the war to end."

She looks at them, her bright brown eyes fierce and blazing, and Fred realises that somewhere along the way she has stopped being a little girl and turned into something resembling a woman. The thought scares him more than he cares to admit.

George, however, simply laughs and kisses Ginny's head. She smiles contentedly and leans against him, and Fred looks down at the duvet. He will never acknowledge the little knot of jealousy in his stomach, but it always hurts him that Ginny turns to his twin before him. He tries so hard, but she will always love George just that tiny bit more. Just like Angelina. Just like, he fears sometimes, even his mother.

Much, much later, he can only thank Merlin a thousand times over that Ginny loves George as much as she does, because at times she is the only person who can keep him afloat.

-FW-

9 months: August 2, 1997

"Where's George?" Fred asks desperately, looking around the crowded kitchen. "Where is he?"

Half the family groans as one. They are beginning to get used to Fred's ridiculous overprotectiveness, stemming from the night he saw his twin lying covered in blood and unconscious, but it still irritates them. Right now, he couldn't care less.

"I asked 'im to run and get my shawl, Fred," Fleur says patiently. "'E will be down in just a minute."

Sure enough, George comes into the room, holding the white silk by one finger and tossing it to Fleur as quickly as possible. Fred tries not to make his sigh of relief too audible.

"Is that everything, then?" Bill asks, looking around at his wife. She nods. "We'd best be off, then."

"Where is the house, anyway?" Ginny says curiously.

"Ah, Gin," Bill says, reaching out to ruffle her hair. "If I told you that, it'd ruin the surprise when you come to visit, wouldn't it? Come on, Fleur, we'll have to make two trips to Apparate all this over."

"Couldn't you stay just a little more, Bill?" their mother asks mournfully.

Bill shakes his head, not looking particularly regretful. "You can't make room for all of us here, Mum. And we can't do work for the you-know-what while Ginny's here; it'll put her in too much danger."

"Right, then," says their father with forced cheerfulness. "I'll help you to take your things over, Bill."

The family troops outside to watch as Bill, Fleur and Dad each pick up as much luggage as they can. They walk a little outside the wards, Dad stopping to tell the Ministry official currently watching the house where they are going, before Disapparating.

Fred is shocked when his mother sits down abruptly and starts to sob. "Mum!" Ginny says, crouching down beside her. "What's the matter?"

"All my children are leaving," Mum whispers miserably. "B-Bill's moving out now, and Charlie, you'll have to go back to Romania, and P-Percy hasn't spoken to us for years, and Fred, George, you'll go back to London soon, and Ginny will return to school, and Ron…"

"We'll stay," Fred says quickly. "George and I will stay 'til September, Mum. Don't worry."

"I will too," Charlie says, and the look of gratitude the three of them are rewarded with is worth it.

-FW-

8 months: September 2, 1997

Charlie left for Romania earlier in the morning and the house now seems empty and quiet. Fred keeps on waiting for Bill to come strolling down the stairs with a grin, or Ginny's laugh to fill up the room, or even – Merlin forbid – for Percy to start talking about cauldron bottoms again.

"Stay," his mother says softly, staring at him with brown eyes that have lost their glimmer. "Please."

Fred swallows painfully. "We can't, Mum," he says. "We need to get back to the shop, and the Order –"

"You're too young," she says, now sounding almost crazed with desperation. "You're only nineteen, this isn't your war, you can be safe here!"

"Did you know that Tonks is pregnant?" Fred asks, and his question is abrupt enough to cut her off. She nods.

"We're fighting for that baby, Mum," he continues. "We're fighting for the little boy that Fenrir Greyback murdered in April. We're fighting for everyone who was killed in battle – Dumbledore, Sirius, Cedric Diggory. We're fighting for Ginny, Mum. We're fighting so that she can be safe."

"That's a pretty little speech, Fred," his mother says quietly. "Save it for someone who does not care whether you live or die."

"Mum," Fred says insistently. "We have to go."

He turns and runs up the stairs to his bedroom, trying to stop the few sharp tears burning in his eyes at the stricken look on his mother's face. George is in their room, having finished packing their bags – he is sitting on his bed, looking around with an uncharacteristically bleak expression on his face. Fred sits down next to him, waiting.

"We'll come back, won't we?" George asks softly after a while, twisting to look Fred in the eye.

Fred takes his hand and squeezes it once. "Yeah," he says. "We will."

It's a promise, and those are dangerous things to make in wartime; unlike others he's made, though, this one will come true.

-FW-

7 months: October 2, 1997

Fred wakes up screaming and screaming and screaming – there are tears running down his face, not that he knows it, and all he can say is "No – no – no…"

Then arms wrap around him, warm arms that he knows, and a hand is rubbing circles on his back as he hides his face in his twin's shoulder. He's still shaking all over, the horrible images from his nightmare fresh in his mind, and it takes a while for his breathing to settle.

"I'm here," George murmurs. "I'm right here."

For now, Fred wants to say. He only stops himself because the best thing to do with this kind of fear is to bury it, to pretend it doesn't exist and go on smiling every day as if it's not haunting you all the time.

After a few minutes, George sits back and stares at Fred, taking in his tear-streaked face and the wild terror in his eyes. "This is the third time this week, Fred."

Fred reaches up to place his hand over the hole where his brother's ear should be, a constant reminder that he failed to protect him. That's what the nightmares are usually about; a few more centimetres to the side and –

"You don't know what it felt like," he says wretchedly. "I – I th-thought you were d—"

He can't say it, can't acknowledge the terrible fear that has been stalking him since that night. George sighs and hugs him again. "But I'm not," he says gently. "I'm here. It's over."

"But for how long?" Fred whispers before he can stop himself.

He knows George can't answer that positively – in a war, optimism is thin on the ground – but nevertheless, his twin begins to rock him gently, until the soothing motion makes his eyelids heavy again. He wonders what leads people to believe that he is the stronger, more independent of the two; half-asleep and leaning on his brother, he knows with sudden, startling clarity that he will die without George.

After a while George begins to pull away – feeling a surge of fright, Fred wraps his arms around him. "Stay," he whispers, and, as always, George does.

-FW-

6 months: November 2, 1997

It's nearly one o'clock and as such most customers are drifting out of the shop for lunch; Fred has just finished bagging up goods for the final witch in line when a powerful wave of shock rolls over his mind. He blinks in confusion, glancing over at George standing at the shop window. Usually, it takes a very strong emotion for the other twin to be able to feel it – whatever George has seen has taken him completely by surprise.

Once the customer has left, he hurries over to his twin, noting the tense line of George's shoulders and the stiff way he holds his head. "What is it?"

His question is answered as he draws closer to the window. Outside, Diagon Alley is mostly empty, but there are still a few shoppers milling around. Undesirable No. 1 posters are plastered over various surfaces, and most people pay little to no attention to them: however, one man is standing beside one, a faint frown on his features. Then Fred sees the gawky build, vivid red hair and familiarly pompous stance.

"The Prat," he mutters. "How long has he been here for?"

"Only a couple of minutes," George answers in a low voice. "I saw him right away – he's not that great at blending in with the crowd, y'know."

"Of course, it helps when there isn't a crowd to blend in with."

"Naturally."

Percy turns away from the poster, biting his lip. His blue eyes widen when he sees Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes in all its eye-watering glory, various products spinning or flashing or exploding in the window display. To Fred's surprise, he isn't wearing the disdainful expression that his younger brothers' pranks usually put on his face; rather, he seems almost… panicked. Sad, too.

For a moment Fred is confused, wondering what has got into his brother, before George gives a shaky little half-laugh and turns to face him.

"He wants to come back," he says softly. "He wants to come back."

"Will we let him?" Fred asks, because he's still not sure he can forgive Percy for all the pain he has put the family through, their mother's tears and their father's resolutely white face.

"Yes," George says firmly. "We will." And Fred knows that it's true, really. He may be angry with Percy, but he can't hate him.

Their brother turns away from the display and catches sight of them, standing in the shadows and watching. His face drains of colour and he takes a few steps backwards, his eyes lingering on the side of George's head.

Of course, Fred realises. He doesn't know.

George has tensed again, as if he might wave to Percy or call out to him, but before he can do anything Percy has Disapparated.

It's a soap-bubble moment, of course, and the Evening Prophet shows their brother walking behind the Minister looking quite as composed as usual, but Fred knows. Percy is cracking.

-FW-

5 months: December 2, 1997

"Surveillance duty," George complains for the millionth time. "Surveillance duty."

"Hush, George," Fred says distantly. "That's Malfoy Senior – and Yaxley with him, I think…"

George duly notes down the names and then rolls over to face Fred. Seeing as they are currently lying on a rooftop watching the entrance to the Ministry, this is a perilous activity, but Fred decides to let it pass to focus on the probing look in bright brown eyes identical to his own. "Why don't you care about this, Fred?" his twin asks quietly.

Fred stares up at the sky, a pale, wintry blue. "It's not the end of the world if we're put on surveillance every now and then."

"Three weeks solid isn't every now and then. And you used to hate it, before Dumbledore died –" He breaks off, his eyes widening in realisation.

"Before you were hurt," Fred says softly, not daring to look at his twin.

He can feel a prickle of emotion coming from his right, just strong enough to register at the back of his mind, but he has no idea what George is feeling – at least until his brother props himself up on one elbow and stares at him. Sorrow.

"I'm not a child, Fred."

"I know," he says, trying so hard to keep the wretched tone out of his voice, but George can tell. George can always tell.

He pulls Fred into a brief, one-armed hug – hard to do when you're lying on a rooftop, but he manages – and sighs. "You have to stop worrying like this."

"I can't," Fred says, feeling his breath beginning to come faster again as the images race to the forefront of his mind. He forces them back.

"Fred," George says insistently. "Stop."

Fred turns back to the road below, not answering.

"You told Kingsley to put us on surveillance, didn't you?"

Again, Fred doesn't answer. He doesn't need to, this time. George knows.

After a protracted silence from his twin, however, he turns around to see George sitting very still, his gaze fixed on Fred. His face is unreadable.

"Are you angry?" Fred asks cautiously.

George shakes his head, then pauses, nods, and shakes it again. "I just – you should have told me."

Fred flinches at the disappointment in his brother's voice. "I'm sorry," he says, sounding very small even to his own ears.

George reaches out to hug him again, warm and comforting as always, and Fred lets himself relax. "You have to stop worrying like this," George repeats. Fred resolves to try.

-FW-

4 months: January 2, 1998

The firelight flickers across the room, a sore contrast to the mood prevalent in it. Fred's parents are snoozing on one sofa; he and George lounge on the other one. Fred is trying – and failing – to read a book, while George simply stares into the flames, lost in thought. Ginny is curled up in an armchair, fiddling with her nails. Every now and then, Fred glances over at her to see an ever-more acute expression of distress on her face.

"I don't want to go back," she announces suddenly.

George looks up, startled. "Ginny –"

"I mean it," she says softly. "I don't want to go back there. I don't want to hear the children screaming and see Luna's empty chair everywhere I go and I don't want to fight anymore."

Fred reaches over and squeezes her shoulder gently. "Don't go."

Ginny stares at him uncomprehendingly; he shrugs. "Tell Mum and Dad that you don't want to go anymore. You don't have to. We'll tell the school that you've caught dragon pox from Ron. You can be safe."

Her eyes are wide with longing for a moment before she shakes her head. "No."

"Listen to him, Gin," George says softly. "He's right."

"No," Ginny repeats. "No, you don't understand."

"Understand? What's there to understand?" Fred demands. "We don't want you to go back and you don't want to go back – so why should you?"

"Listen to me, Fred –"

"They've hurt you, haven't they?"

Ginny's eyes widen, and he can see the answer written there as plainly as if she were George. A very deep, old sort of rage begins to rise inside him.

"You don't understand," Ginny continues softly, staring at her hands. "I don't want to go back, but I have to. They need me. The DA needs me. The people we are trying to protect need me. The war needs me."

"You're sixteen years old!"

"And the first years are eleven," she snaps, looking back up at them.

"This isn't your fight, Ginny," George says gently. Fred wishes his voice could be that calm, that reasonable.

"It has to be," she whispers. "There's no one else."

Unable to bear the desolate expression on her face, Fred walks over to her and wraps his arms around her. There are no shuddering sobs this time, only deep, even breaths. She is unnaturally still.

George scrambles over to them and lays a hand on Ginny's shoulder. "We've put some free merchandise in your trunk," he says. "Peruvian Instant Darkness Powder –"

"Shield Cloaks –"

"Skiving Snackboxes –"

"Mostly for the younger ones, we know you don't like to use them –"

"And Decoy Detonators too –"

"You'll be much better prepared this time, Gin, promise."

Ginny looks at the two of them and smiles. "Thanks," she says, and the single word carries a lot more weight than it should.

-FW-

3 months: February 2, 1998

A few weeks of unrelenting mist and fine drizzles have given over to a violent storm, rain lashing at windows and lightning periodically brightening the sky. Every sensible person has retreated inside, started a fire and curled up with a mug of hot chocolate and the WWN. Fred and George Weasley, however, are not sensible people.

"Merlin, it's cold," Fred says, leaning against the deserted shop window.

George joins him, staring up at the peeling letters on the sign of Ollivander's wand shop, and grins. "Want to go inside?"

"Not on your life."

They stand there for a while as the rain batters them and the heavens rage at the world in general, not speaking but simply being. Sometimes, that is enough.

Fred can tell the precise moment George's thoughts take a darker turn and he is drawn to the subjects much as he wishes to avoid them: is Ron out trying to take shelter in this weather? Is Percy holed up somewhere in the Ministry, deaf to the crash of thunder? Is Ginny standing alone at a window, perhaps, watching the storm and praying that it will drown out the sound of her friends' screams?

He glances sideways at his twin and feels a rush of gratitude – despite everything, George is still here, and Fred will give his life a hundred times over before he allows things to be any other way.

George meets his gaze and smiles, his eyes glinting devilishly. "Race you back to the shop," he says, whirling round and taking off down the alley. Fred shouts in protest and flies after him. The wind in his face makes his eyes water and tears a laugh from his throat.

Three months from death, Fred Weasley's hair is damp with rain, his eyes gleam with adventure and his smile is brighter than the vanished sun – but all good things must come to an end, eventually.

-FW-

2 months: March 2, 1998

"That was brilliant," Lee enthuses, putting his recording equipment away. "Really brilliant."

Fred beams. There is a dizzy thrill running through him, the euphoria of knowing that he has done something useful. Something good.

"Do you have wards up around your house, Lee?" Remus enquires. "If the Death Eaters haven't already come calling, they certainly will now. You were very… outspoken."

"Oh, that was all me, Professor," Fred grins. "Erm – sorry to put you in danger, though, Lee."

His friend shrugs. "I've had wards up for ages. No corpse-munching maniacs are coming anywhere near my mother. It's you two I'm worried about."

"You don't honestly think we haven't got security?" George, speaking for the first time, raises an eyebrow and stares at Lee.

"George," Kingsley says calmly, "are you aware how many people know who run Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes?"

He shrugs sheepishly. "Lots?"

"The whole country," Remus says evenly. "If anyone identifies you, you're in a lot of danger, even with wards."

"But George didn't do anything," Fred protests.

Lee rolls his eyes. "Like they care! Besides, you're identical, if they pick one of you up they probably won't even bother checking which twin they've got. Just be safe, okay?"

Fred, paralysed by the thought that his rash actions could hurt his twin, says nothing, but George answers for him: "Okay."

Lee relaxes. "Come on. Let's listen to the broadcast again." He pulls out the tangle of recording equipment again, and in a few minutes they are all crowded round the table listening to their own voices. The room is warmly lit, the sofas are soft and plush and the millions of photograph-Lees on the walls beam down at them. It is a room made for happiness.

Fred tries his best to forget.

-FW-

1 month: April 2, 1998

It's a lovely day – the sun shining benevolently down on sweeping green fields, the sky eye-wateringly blue. Fred paces restlessly around the breakfast room, aching to go outside.

"Sit down, boy," Great-Aunt Muriel snaps. "You're making me dizzy."

Fred favours her with his best evil eye but perches on the window-seat, as far away from where she is sitting as possible. In a room as vast as this one, it isn't hard.

From the breakfast table, his father and Ginny give him sympathetic looks. George sends his plates to the sink with a flick of his wand and rises to join his twin at the window. Fred rests his head on his shoulder.

"Nice day," George murmurs after a while.

Fred looks outside longingly. "Yeah."

"Can you feel it? The storm?"

Fred looks up, startled by the strange quality to his twin's voice. George's eyes are very wide and he has clenched his knuckles so hard they are turning white. "I think…" he begins hesitantly. "I think it's coming. Soon."

"Too soon," George whispers. "I'm scared, Fred."

Fred realises with a jolt that this is the first time George has spoken the words aloud for a long time. In the sunlight, his twin looks smaller and more vulnerable than he has ever seen him before; a fierce wave of protectiveness rises up in his chest.

"We still have time," he says, surprised by the unsteadiness in his voice. "We still have time."

Exactly a month, as it happens. One month filled with waiting and apprehension, but also with laughter and the simple, youthful joy of being alive. One month filled with lasts.

Fred has already had several lasts: he has written his last letter, invented his last product and shed his last tear. He still has a month, though. He still has time to live.

So it is not quite the last, but the penultimate time that he will wrap his arms around his twin and say, "I love you."


A/N: What did you think? Please tell me in a review!

~Butterfly