"Padma, my Luna and I have been invited over for supper at the Burrow this evening, and I would like for you to accompany us." Mr. Lovegood announced, as casually as if he had dropped a newspaper on a front stoop and not a bomb on their afternoon tea.
Padma froze, a biscuit halfway to her mouth. "The Burrow? Where the Weasleys live?" She repeated dubiously.
"That is what I said." Mr. Lovegood was looking at her with a combination of fatherly expectation of obedience, the shrewdness of a lawyer preparing for an argument, and the fascination of a scientist wanting to test out a hypothesis. It was alarming.
She shot a sharp, desperate glance at Luna but found no ally there, as Luna looked not the least bit surprised or concerned. In fact, she looked more excited than Padma had seen her since that time a few weeks ago when she found an animal print in the woods she claimed belonged to a umgubular slashkilter (Padma had no wealth of knowledge about magical creatures beyond knowing to stay far, far away from anything Hagrid would consider a pet, but she found herself skeptical of Luna's identification nonetheless. Still, it was nice to see Luna so happy about magical creatures again… a surreal return to what Padma would have never expected to call normalcy in her life).
Padma's eyes narrowed as she recalled Luna's cheerier than normal demeanor the past week since a clumsy owl had arrived with a letter for Mr. Lovegood, and began to suspect this was a planned ambush.
"This evening?" She asked with feigned surprise. "I never thought Mrs. Weasley would be the type to send out supper invitations so last minute."
Mr. Lovegood didn't bat an eye. "I believe Arthur Weasley was in charge of the event notifications, as the letter came in his penmanship, and while the man is a good friend of mine he can get rather distracted."
Here Luna and Padma did share a meaningful glance at Xenophilius Lovegood calling someone distracted.
"Does the invitation include me?" Padma asked carefully.
The slight pause Mr. Lovegood gave before his response was all the answer she needed. "Not specifically by name…"
Padma sighed, feeling both relieved and resigned. "Mr. Lovegood, do they even know I'm staying with you and Luna?" She frowned a little. "Does anyone know?" It would be strange if no one knew where she was and no one had tried to find her, but it would also be comforting. This little house had become her sanctuary, and she was starting to panic at the thought of leaving it.
"Of course people know." Mr. Lovegood said. "Minerva McGonagall, for one, and Kingsley Shacklebolt -"
Padma was already shaking her head. "Do the Weasleys know you're my legal guardian? That you're the legal guardian of an accused murderer?"
Luna and her father both frowned deeply at Padma, but she was frowning herself, something churning in the back of her mind, a thought half-formed. "Legal guardian." She muttered. "Mr. Lovegood, have I ever asked you why…"
"Don't try to change the subject, Padma." Mr. Lovegood said calmly, taking it upon himself to refill her teacup. "Here you go," He said as he handed it back to her.
Padma absently took a sip, trying to pin down whatever it was that was troubling her, but as usual Mr. Lovegood's tea soothed her tumultuous mind. She shrugged, letting it go for now, and returned to the conversation at hand. "Mr. Lovegood, I don't think it's a good idea for me to go to the Burrow tonight." She said, trying to sound firm, like a grown woman who was capable of making her own decisions and not like a emotionally unstable sixteen year old.
The kindness in Mr. Lovegood's eyes was almost unbearable to look at directly. "Padma, you can't hide out here forever. It's been over a month since we came here, and you have not once left. You'll never heal if you don't start to live your life again." He said gently. Padma stiffened, but before she could argue or run away, he continued. "When my Pandora died, I isolated myself, and me and my family suffered because of it." He said, glancing at Luna, who looked sad but supportive. "I didn't want anyone's help or worse, their pity. I just wanted to be as alone as I felt. And I got my wish." He said bitterly, eyes haunted. "And it nearly cost me my daughter. If not for Harry Potter, and sheer dumb luck, my Luna and I would not be sitting here." He said fervently. "But we cannot sit here forever, Padma. We all must begin to live again. I will not let my happiness or the happiness of my daughter rely on sheer dumb luck ever again, when we can take it for ourselves." He vowed.
Padma was silent, diminished under the weight of his words. She was struck with shame at her own selfishness over the past month. She glanced at Luna, who was far too still in her own chair. Little things began to whisper at Padma, things she had noticed but not given a second thought. Like how Luna hardly spent any time indoors, and when she did it was with every possible door and window open, and as much light as possible. How she always sought out Padma's company or her father's, filling any silence longer than a few seconds with chatting or singing or humming. How Mr. Lovegood kept his scars covered with sleeves and armbands, but how he constantly fidgeted with them as if he could hardly stand their presence, like they were restraints themselves.
Luna and her father had been captured and held hostage for months last year. Luna had no physical scars, as a healthy pureblood witch worth more alive and well than hurt or dead. But Padma had no doubt Luna had been scarred and forever changed by her captivity.
Now they were free, but they had taken in Padma, who was in essence a criminal on house arrest. Had her presence imprisoned the Lovegoods yet again, shackling them to her life, half-lived as it was?
Shame swelled inside of her, turning her stomach over and choking her. "I'm so sorry -" she began in a trembling voice, but it was Luna who stopped her.
"No, no, no!" She said strongly, reaching out to touch Padma's arm. "You have nothing to be sorry for, Padma. Daddy and I absolutely do not regret helping you and we never will. You are my friend, Padma. I want you here. Having you here helps me heal, too. But we need more than just each other."
"We need community, and friendship, and family." Mr. Lovegood affirmed. "Especially now, after the war. The Weasleys have always been good to me and my Luna, even when I was not worth calling a friend. Pandora would have been ashamed and saddened by my actions, and I do not intend to disrespect her memory anymore, or I will be soundly hexed when I get to the afterlife." He said with a fond, proud smile as he spoke of his late wife. Luna giggled, delighted by the anecdote about her mother.
"Therefore," Mr. Lovegood concluded grandly, "If the Weasleys invite us to supper, we will attend. And I think you should too, Padma."
Padma felt her fear all the more sharply in the face of Mr. Lovegood's resolve. "I… I don't know if I can." She said helplessly.
"Yes, you can." Luna said matter-of-factly. "You are a Ravenclaw, Padma, and Headmistress McGonagall claimed you as a Gryffindor. You can do anything."
Despite herself, a smile wobbled its way onto Padma's face. "When you say it, it sounds like it's true." She said. Luna looked pleased.
"How about this," Mr. Lovegood suggested. "I will owl Molly and Arthur and ask if their invitation is extended to you as well. If they say yes, you will come, but if it is at any moment too much for you, we will make our excuses and leave immediately and have some tea and dirigible plum pie. Does that sound like a good plan?"
No, Padma thought.
"Okay." Padma said.
Mr. Lovegood nodded approvingly, and the next few moments passed peacefully.
But Padma's mind had snagged on something Mr. Lovegood had said, and after mulling it over a bit she decided to broach the subject out loud. "Mr. Lovegood…" she began tentatively, "Do you really believe in the afterlife?"
Mr. Lovegood put down his teacup, looking surprised but thoughtful. "I believe in a great many things no one else does, and probably never will." He mused. "Why then should I not believe in an afterlife, and a good one at that? If I'm wrong, I lose nothing. If I'm right, I gain everything." He smiled. "Do you believe in the afterlife, Padma?" He asked then, posing it like this was simply one of their many academic theory discussions.
Padma looked away, fingering a thin crack that streaked across the side of her teacup, cutting through the hand-painted decorations like a scar. "I don't know." She murmured. "Sometimes living just this one life seems like too much to bear." She said, tracing the chain of Parvati's necklace even as she traced the crack in the teacup. "I don't know if I could handle anything that might come after."
Afternoon tea ended quite shortly after that, and Mr. Lovegood wasted no time in contacting the Weasley and asking for their express permission for Padma to attend their gathering.
Of course, the ever hospitable Molly Weasley said Padma was welcome and she was more than a little offended that Xenophilius thought he even had to ask, as any guest in his house was a guest in hers, even though she appreciated his manners and wasn't he such a gentleman? Her sons could learn a thing or two from him...
Padma listened to all of this as it came from the Howler she sent (Howler seemed to be her default form of communication even if she wasn't howling, and Padma decided it was a good thing that she wasn't a muggle because the world probably wasn't ready for a Mrs. Weasley with a telephone), a little overwhelmed and touched.
Padma yet again mourned the fact she was underage, because if this was only a taste of what she was in for at a Weasley gathering, she wasn't sure she could get through the event sober.
She mentioned this to Luna, hoping to maybe make the girl smile or laugh because if she was helping Luna heal, she thought she could try humor out. Even if she didn't feel much like smiling or laughing herself, a world where Luna was laughing was a better world for everyone.
Luna did giggle, a balm to Padma's soul, then said thoughtfully. "I seem to remember Ron somehow getting firewhiskey for a party once, or so Ginny told me. Maybe he can give you some."
Padma blinked. "Ron." She had only just begun to prepare herself for interaction with Mrs. and Mrs. Weasley, and though it was probably thick of her she hadn't thought about running into her former classmate.
Luna seemed to know where her thoughts had gone. "I should probably prepare you… Harry and Hermione have been staying with the Weasleys. They'll probably be there tonight, too. I'm very excited to see them, but I know you might not be."
Padma was starting to hyperventilate a little inside at the thought of all these people, but she was determined not to spoil this for Luna. If Luna needed it, she would get through it. "I'm not excited, exactly." She said honestly. "But I think it will be… good."
For you, Luna. I'm doing this for you.
Luna beamed at Padma's tentative enthusiasm. "It will be." She assured her. "I know it."
They apparated onto the Weasley's front lawn, scattering a group of garden gnomes that cursed them and the air blue at the sudden and unwelcome invasion of their territory.
"Oh, look, Daddy, I think that's the gnome that bit me at Bill's wedding!" Luna pointed, delighted. "Maybe he'll bite you too, Padma." She said hopefully, as she skipped after her father towards the front door.
Padma eyed the gnome warily, who looked more like a grizzled war veteran than a lawn ornament. "Maybe…" she said slowly, glaring at him as to clearly communicate you'd better not.
The gnome grinned viciously at her, his mouth full of broken and discoloured ceramic teeth.
Padma staggered backward as another ruined mouth stretched in a crazed smile flashed through her mind like lightning.
Patils! Blood traitors!
Laughter like howling winds caught her thoughts in a tornado, and lost as she was in a storm of terror, she unconsciously raised her suddenly burning hand towards the perceived threat.
The gnome snarled something at her.
"Get away from me!" Padma screamed desperately, although the words tore from her throats as a hoarse whisper. Fire erupted on her palms and a jagged bolt of magic arced through the air, searing Padma's eyes white.
When her vision cleared seconds later, the memory of Bellatrix no longer held her hostage and she wondered if everything that just happened was a figment of her demented imagination, if not for the complete absence of garden gnomes and the tiny, smoking patch of earth about twenty feet away from her.
"Padma?" She turned toward the fall of warm light from the Weasley's open front door, where Luna and Mr. Lovegood were waiting with a short, plump middle aged woman with with fluffy red hair Padma recognized as Molly Weasley, all oblivious to what had just transpired.
Molly Weasley was fussing endlessly over the Lovegoods, patting Luna's cheeks and squeezing Mr. Lovegood's hand in between her bear hugs. "Luna, just look at you! You're so beautiful and grown up, you look just like your mother! Oh, but you're so thin, child, has your father been feeding you enough? Oh, and Xenophilius, as I live and breathe, it is just so wonderful to see you! We're so happy you could come! Everyone's so excited to see you two… oh, Padma!"
Padma, who had been approaching this intimidating scene of affection rather hesitantly, had finally reached the front door and was promptly pulled into a hug by Mrs. Weasley. She was overwhelmed by the strength of the woman's arms, and the sensation of being warm and safe and surrounded by the smell of baking cookies and clean laundry that quickly banished the shaking of her limbs and slowed her racing heart, the remnants of her flashback fading into dormancy.
It had been so long since she had been hugged like this, as only a daughter can be hugged by a mother, and she felt tears pricking at her eyes.
Mrs. Weasley stepped back before the hug could get to be too much, hands staying soft and strong on Padma's shoulders, hazel eyes bright and rich like honey crinkling at the corners as she smiled at her. "Padma, you dear sweet girl, you have just been through so much more than anyone should and still look at you, so strong and lovely!" She said the words as easily as breathing, as if she really believed them despite not knowing Padma at all, and Padma could only stare at her, overwhelmed.
"Oh, goodness!" Mrs. Weasley suddenly exclaimed, looking upset. Padma froze. "What in heaven's name is wrong with me, keeping you out here on the front step in the cold like you're strangers!" She shook her head at herself.
"Nonsense, Molly, it's a beautiful night to be greeted by a beautiful lady such as yourself." Mr. Lovegood said gallantly.
Padma's eyebrows shot all the way up her forehead in shock. Even Luna looked startled.
"Oh, Xenophilius, you charmer!" Mrs. Weasley laughed, swatting at his arm. "Don't you tease me!" She scolded, wagging her finger at him. Mr. Lovegood smiled bashfully.
"Ah, now that's the ol' Phil Lovegood I remember from school!" Arthur Weasley chuckled as he joined them, an easygoing smile on his jolly face. "You always were popular with the ladies, eh Phil? Spreading that good love around?" He joked but there was a wholesome air about him that took the lewdness from the joke, making it seem simply goofy.
Phil? Padma mouthed at Luna incredulously, who shrugged as she giggled at her father from behind her hand.
"Arthur Weasley!" Mrs. Weasley shrieked. "You watch your mouth! His daughter is standing right there! You're going to have them think I've raised a family of animals!"
"You're the one who hasn't invited them in yet, darling." He said mildly.
"Oh, dear!" Mrs. Weasley exclaimed. Padma and the Lovegoods were unceremoniously herded into the house, Mrs. Weasley bustling them into a brightly lit hallway cluttered with what seemed like dozens of shoes and jackets, Mr. Weasley chatting with Mr. Lovegood about something he was tinkering with in his workshop.
"Luna!" Someone cried, and Luna was practically tackled to the ground by a comet with flaming red hair trailing behind.
"Ginny!" Luna said joyfully, returning her friend's hug enthusiastically. Padma stepped back to let them have their reunion so she could take in her surroundings.
She was standing in a spacious living room containing a motley assortment of chairs and sofas and lamps, with an equally varied assortment of people occupying them. Most seemed to be Weasleys, given the abundance of red hair. There was a general air of cheer and a default level of noise, but overall it was rather more subdued than Padma had expected.
Ginny and Luna were being watched with smiles all around, particularly by one group of three people that Padma immediately recognized with a queasy roll of dread.
Hermione noticed her first, light brown eyes widening before she turned and urgently elbowed Ron. "Oi!" He exclaimed. "What was that for, 'Mione?" The brunette rolled her eyes and gestured towards Padma.
Ron glanced over and his own eyes bugged out comically. "Padma!" He blurted out, immediately turned as red as his hair as his reaction attracted the room's attention.
Padma stayed quiet, waiting for them to get their rather dramatic reactions out of the way. Gryffindors. Some part of her was able to sigh with familiarity. Never the most tactful or subtle lot.
"Oh, Padma!" Ginny said with an easy smile on her stunning face, shooting her brother a pointed glare as she reached draw Padma into a quick hug that was almost as unexpectedly pleasant as her mother's, and only the slightest bit awkward. "How are you?" She asked, her face freezing immediately after the words left her mouth, cringing. "Merlin, what a terrible question to ask." She said bluntly. "I'm so sorry. Anyway, welcome to our home, hopefully no one else will embarrass themselves as thoroughly as me and Ron just did." She joked.
"Well, if it makes you feel any better, I think your dad made a dirty joke about my daddy in front of us just now." Luna said cheekily.
"For the love of all that is magical," Ginny groaned theatrically and covered her face. "I swear I'm adopted."
"I hope you're adopted." Ron countered, dodging another elbow thrown by Hermione. He caught the weaponized arm in one hand and drew the bushy-haired Gryffindor into his arms, smacking a kiss on her cheek as her expression went from irritated to blushing.
Padma blinked as Ginny loudly complained about them being gross even as she stepped back towards the final member of the group to lace her fingers with his.
Harry was regarding his friends fondly but with the baffled expression of someone who is still adjusting to a change. So the apparent romance between Ron and Hermione was a new development, then.
Padma found the corners of her mouth lifting a bit. It's about bloody time. She thought. According to Parvati and also anyone with eyes, those two had been dancing around each other since second year.
Ginny and Harry were more of a surprise, as she remembered Parvati gossiping about the redhead's allegedly passionate and brief relationship with Dean Thomas, but no one else, even though many boys had admired the brilliant and feisty girl. It was a surprise, but she unobtrusively studied their interaction and saw how Ginny drew him into the conversation with easy affection, not letting him brood. Harry had always been a bit of an outsider during their school years, simultaneously isolated and sensationalized by troubles and tragedy no one had been able to relate to at the time. It was nice to see him like this. He looked lighter, and somehow quieter, as if his ghosts had been laid to rest.
In turn, Harry seemed to ground Ginny. The girl who had been so shy and odd her first year then quickly blossomed into an intimidating force of nature, wild and beautiful; was somehow softer and sweeter but no less bright with Harry. She was both more and less: more herself, but a less guarded version.
It was still surprising, but Padma decided it made sense. She found herself genuinely happy for them, as happy as she could bring herself to be. If anyone deserved to find peace and happiness and normalcy after the war, it was them.
Harry's startling green eyes flickered over to her and when he caught her staring, he paused before offering her an awkward but amiable smile, more of a lifting one side of his mouth than anything else. "Hi, Padma." He said, his voice cutting through his friends' chatter.
Padma sought out Luna's face where she was receiving what looked like a genuinely warm hug from Hermione. Luna gave her an encouraging nod. "Hello," Padma said, trying to sound normal and friendly, but her voice came out soft and shy despite her efforts.
They all seemed to soften at her obvious nervousness, but no one really seemed to know what to say. The silence stretched on, emphasized by the nearby ticking of a clock.
Luna's blinding smile started to fade slightly, and Padma scrambled for something to say before her friend's happiness could be dimmed. "Um," she began eloquently. "I like your house." She blurted. "It has nice… garden gnomes…" she grimaced.
There was a short, painfully silent pause.
Then Luna giggled.
Ron immediately snorted. "Yeah right, Padma, no one likes those bloody gnomes, but at least you've never had to degnome the garden before. Oi, Harry, remember last week when Mum made us do it and that little wanker with the yellow hat managed to get on my broom and fly around the house?"
Harry raised an eyebrow. "Yeah, I remember. I was there." He said drily.
"I wasn't." Luna said helpfully. "I want to hear the story, please."
"Ace!" Ron said, shooting the shorter girl a crooked smile at her eagerness and formal request. "See, this is why we need to have people over more. You tossers know all my stories. I need a fresh audience. So anyway, Luna…" he said, launching into the hilarious but entirely unbelievable story of his and Harry's garden degnoming adventures.
Padma only half listened, simply relieved that the focus was off her. Her presence had been accepted by her former classmates with shocking ease. She wondered if they had even heard about what had happened, what she had been accused of.
She hoped not. Not as to deceive them, but she knew Harry Potter at least a little bit, and she didn't want him to blame himself for her sister's death. He had carried too much on his shoulders for too long. This was hers to carry, and hers alone.
Her hand unconsciously came up to cover her necklaces. Hermione's eyes flickered over to her at the movement and her intelligent gaze zeroed in on the jewelry around her neck. Her eyes flashed with recognition, then with sadness, and Padma remembered Hermione had been Parvati's roommate for a few years. She had probably seen all of her jewelry at one point or another.
A feeling of defiance welled up inside of her, she didn't know why. Why is that dirty little mudblood eyeing your necklace? Something hissed from deep within the chasm inside her. Does she want to steal it? How dare she!
Padma was horrified at herself. She had never had a remotely hateful thought about Muggleborns in her entire life, besides the vague notion that she didn't really understand the world they came from, a world without magic.
But that word had never once crossed her mind. What was wrong with her?
Hermione' sad eyes were now troubled and she looked ready to say something, but Padma spoke first.
"Excuse me." She asked the group in general, flushing when their eyes all flew to her. "May I please use your washroom?"
"Sure." Ginny said, oblivious to Padma's turmoil and Hermione's concern. "Down the hall, third door on the right. Do you want me to show you?"
"No, thank you." Padma said quickly. She smiled, trying to look normal and capable of navigating this house without incident. Ginny shrugged and smiled back.
Padma hastened her exit, only slightly aware of Luna quietly asking "How is he?" and Ginny's heavy sigh and reply of, "Not good. He's… he's terrible, actually. You probably won't see him at all tonight."
Padma didn't go to the bathroom, instead she took advantage of everyone's distraction to slip out the front door again. She wasn't leaving, she just needed some air and some distance from the suddenly oppressive amount of people and noise.
She went around the side of the house and leaned against the wall, closing her eyes and taking deep breaths. When she felt somewhat centered again, she very cautiously searched for the source of that shocking ugliness that had surfaced when Hermione looked at her.
She found nothing, only emptiness.
That… that wasn't me. That isn't me. She told herself, refusing to think on it further. It was just a fluke, another messed up thought from her messed up mind.
I shouldn't be here. Padma thought darkly. I shouldn't be around people.
The sound of her name made her eyes snap open, but after a wild look around she realized she was still alone and the voice was coming from the window above her.
The voice that answered was undoubtedly Mr. Lovegood. "...I don't know Molly." He sighed. "I don't know what to do. I was never the best father to Luna when she needed me, and now I'm responsible for two traumatized and hurting girls, one of whom is practically a stranger."
A stern, feminine voice she couldn't quite make out protested.
"No, Molly, it's true." Mr. Lovegood answered who must have been Mrs. Weasley. "I'm not trying to be pathetic, I'm just all too aware of my failings. Still, I'm trying, and I think at least with Luna things are getting better. But Padma… she's the perfect houseguest, of course. Very quiet and clean and perfectly sweet. Not to mention intelligent, we had quite the stimulating discussion about the reliability of wizarding history when it comes to historical events such as the goblin wars or the giant wars… she made some fascinating points about historical bias, particularly European Wizard bias -"
Padma felt something inside her warm at her guardian's praise of her.
"Phil," Arthur Weasley interjected gently. "You were saying, about Padma?"
"I just don't know how to help her, and I don't even know if I can." Mr. Lovegood said heavily. "She's going through something I can empathize with but just can't understand. Her own twin, murdered in front of her, and she wakes up wounded in the hospital wing just to be accused of killing her sister by her former classmates and professors. Then after an utter sham of a trial, she's not found guilty but nonetheless stripped of her wand, her magic, her home, and sent to live with people she barely knows with no assurances of her future beyond a cursory 'we'll be in touch'."
"...just awful!" Mrs. Weasley proclaimed, her voices growing louder and sharper as she got closer to the window Padma was under. "I tell you, the next time I see Kingsley Shacklebolt, I'm going to give him a piece of my mind! Or my wand!"
Padma found herself smiling at Mrs. Weasley's unconditional protectiveness.
"If not for my Luna, I fear the girl you met tonight would be a mere shell, if not dead herself." Mr. Lovegood said bleakly.
Padma's body twitched violently.
"You think she would hurt herself?" Arthur Weasley asked seriously. "Or worse?"
"No… I don't know." Mr. Lovegood said. "She said something today over tea, about life sometimes seeming too much to bear, but I don't think she meant that she was trying to, er, leave it. Besides that, there's been no signs that I can tell, but I'm no healer. She's obviously depressed, though." He sighed again, something deep and sad. "People who have been through what she has… sometimes it gets to be too much. I thought about it, after my Pandora died. Only Luna kept me going. But when I was captured by the Death Eaters, and they told me Luna was dead, I almost - well, it's nothing short of a miracle that I'm still here."
Padma thought of the scars he kept covered, and wondered if they really were from restraints after all.
"Oh, Xenophilius," Mrs. Weasley's voice was thick with emotion.
"I'm - don't worry, Molly, I'm fine now." His voice was muffled. Padma deduced he was receiving one of Mrs. Weasley's hugs. "More than fine. I have my daughter, and my freedom. But I'm not sure if I have myself, sometimes."
"What does that mean?" Arthur asked and Padma could hear Ron in the way he posed the question, but with more kindness than Ron might have managed in his confusion.
"I mean, how am I supposed to help my daughter and Padma when some days I wake up thinking that I'm still in that cell with shackles on my hands and feet, and I can't get out of bed for hours? Or the days where I forget simple things like how to properly make tea or even what day of the week it is? How can I be a good father when I feel like half a man?"
There is a long, heavy silence that Padma feels like a physical weight on her shoulders. Sorrow for Mr. Lovegood wells up inside her like thick, freezing water.
"Here." Mr. Weasley says. A chair scrapes backward and footsteps creak across the floor. A drawer is dragged open and contents are rifled through. The steps return and a chair groans lightly under someone's weight as they sit down. "This is the address of a mate of mine, a cormentor."
"A heart-and-mind healer?" Mr. Lovegood asked, sounding interested and maybe a bit hopeful.
"Yeah. He doesn't live in Britain but since the war is over a lot of healers are travelling back to lend a helping wand. Give him a Floo call, tell him you know me. He's a good man. I think he can help you. At the very least, he's someone to talk to. Talking about it never hurts."
"And you have us, too." Mrs. Weasley said firmly. "If you are ever in need."
"The feeling is mutual, Molly," Mr. Lovegood said warmly, then more quietly, "I believe we are all in need now, more than ever."
Padma escaped from the sorrowful silence that followed as fast as she could; a bird flying songlessly away from its forest home that had been reduced to naught but ashes and scorched earth. The fragmented storm of emotions inside of her blinded her in her flight, and as she rounded a corner and ran right into someone.
Her feet slipped on the thick grass and she nearly fell if not for the hands that caught and steadied her with lightning-fast reflexes before releasing her just as quickly.
Padma skittered back a few steps, apologies and excuses just beginning to fall from her lips when her eyes snagged on the person she had collided with and she recognized him immediately, every last breath of air in her lungs leaving her with the force of being struck by a fist. "George?" She gasped.
George Weasley stiffened at the sound of his name. He looked away from her, long red hair falling over his eyes and a bandage over the place his ear used to be. The sight of it made Padma touch her side. Now they both had wounds that separated them from their identical twins.
Wounds, and their lives.
"No one ever mistakes me for Fred anymore." His voice was an obvious attempt at nonchalance but the words came out bulky and hard, like a stone that was meant to skip over water but sank instead. His eyes cut back to her, dull and uncaring. "Guess you know what that's like, Patil."
Padma couldn't do anything but stare at him for one endless moment. She had only known them from afar, but the Weasley twins had been infamous at Hogwarts, two tall redheaded landmarks among the student body. It was rare to see them without a smile on their faces. Their faces were the kind that wore smiles best, like they were vessels of laughter and life. George almost looked like a stranger to her, as if he was wearing a mask of stone like an old and crumbling statue. He looked as though he had never smiled in his life, and he would never smile again.
(He looked, some distant corner of her memory suggested, like Professor Snape always had.)
The flat, broken emptiness in his face was so hauntingly, intimately familiar to her that she had to avert her eyes.
"No one has mistaken me for Parvati for years." She finally replied, studying her hands and their short, clean nails. Parvati had liked to paint hers or wear henna designs when she could get away with it.
"I reckon wearing different house colors helped the ignorant twinless masses." He said as if he could not care less about anything. "If one day you had switched uniforms, would anyone have noticed?"
"They would have noticed." Padma whispered. "I'm not… she was… we were never the same." She struggled to explain, and wondered why she was even trying to. "Parvati… stood out. I simply… stood beside her."
They were both keenly aware that she didn't sound jealous or bitter, just lost and alone.
"She was the - she was the better one, right?" George said, his voice cracking with sudden emotion and severing the potential cruelty from his words. "You probably joked around your -" he swallowed hard, "Their whole lives, that you were the better half. But now - they're dead and you never told them - they were the better half. And now you're just..."
He cut himself off, as if waiting for something, then when nothing happened he just froze, and his eyes seemed seemed to lose some of their color.
"...Now you're just half." Padma finished, her words an unanswered echo in a cave.
George looked at her sharply, and then his face seemed to thaw and left an expression that heartbreaking in its raw, naked loneliness. "No one has finished my sentences since -" He paused again.
Padma was silent, waiting.
"I always used to be the one to finish our sentences." He said next, and the words hobbled out quick but unsteady, a thought and feeling prematurely born into words. "Now I have to… I have to start and finish them, all on my own, for the rest of my life." Desperation, tired and relentless, eroded his voice. "I don't… I don't know if I can. I don't know if I can be alone."
Padma closed her eyes. She saw a mirror in him, could hear her reflection in his words and she wanted to run away but found herself unable to. "I know." She said.
It was a long time before she could open her eyes again, and when she did he was looking right at her.
"Yeah." He murmured. "I guess you do."
She looked away again at that, but still she did not leave. They stood there in silence, stranded in their grief, with just enough space between them for two more people.
Author's Note: next time, Weasley Family Dinner Part 2!