Author – Dzeytoun
Category – Angst/Drama
Rating – PG 13
Disclaimer – Main characters and background owned by J.K. Rowling
A/N: For everyone who wonders why Bill seems to be acting differently than he did in Here be Monsters, remember that this takes place before he learns of the contents of the prophecy.
Chapter Seventeen: Ice Cream Man
Tuesday, 25 June, 1996
11 32 GMT
England is a cold country. It's odd how I always used to laugh at people who complained about rain and mist and cool winds. Weather was weather, how could it be any other way? But after my time in Egypt I can't seem to get warm anymore. Well, not without help, anyway. Sometimes it's a glass of firewhiskey, other times its – well, let's just say that Fleur has many, many talents.
The sun is shining brightly as I walk out of the employees' entrance at Gringott's and stroll around to the front of the building. It is a beautiful, warm day in June, but still I shiver. Egypt isn't to blame this time, though.
Diagon Alley is filled with small knots of people, some scurrying hurriedly along, huddled together as if against a fierce winter gale, others gathered in tiny groups talking in low tones. Everywhere I see papers, mostly copies of the Daily Prophet with its blaring headlines about You-Know-Who's return, but also a surprisingly large number of editions of The Quibbler. A pall of fear hangs over the Alley like a low fog. More than a few people look ready to hex anyone who moves too quickly or speaks out of turn.
Florean Fortescue's isn't doing a large business. It might be the time of day – most people don't eat ice cream for lunch. But I think it also has to do with the latest developments. Reading about the recent events in the Department of Mysteries is certainly enough to kill any impulse toward frivolity or "childish" indulgence.
Dad is waiting for me at a small table near the main counter. He rises as I approach, and I am shocked at how small he looks. His entire body seems to droop, and his shoulders are slumped and rounded, as if he simply does not have the energy to hold them square. Still he manages a smile that contains its old brightness. "Bill," he says simply, a world of love and care packed into my name.
Now I feel warm. Dad has a way of doing that. I may be a professional curse-breaker, I may be a man who loves firewhiskey and dancing and pleasant female company, but whenever Dad speaks in that gentle, loving tone I might as well be five again. Odd, how the "traditional" run of things was so backwards in my family. It was always Mum that I turned to for practicality and whom I feared when I transgressed. It was Dad who provided stability and comfort and peace. Well why not? They both just did what they were best at.
I reach over the table and take his hand because a grown man doesn't hug his father in public. "How are you, Dad? I'm glad you could get away from the Ministry."
"Nobody at the Ministry is going to miss me today," Dad says, his features lightening. "Sit down. I got your favorite."
I look down at the table where two bowls sit. The first is filled with Dad's favorite pumpkin-rasberry-cinnamon mix, and another has heaping gobs of strawberry ice cream with strawberry sauce. The red is ... I reign in my imagination firmly. You can't let yourself get carried away by suggestion in the curse-breaking business. Many curses have a strong component of arcane parasitism, feeding on the power of the victim's own fear and wild terrors. I quickly pick up my spoon and take a bite to emphasize my control of my fears. It is, of course, excellent.
Dad digs into his dish as well, and thus we sit for several minutes, enjoying each other's company in companionable silence. When he has finished about half of his ice cream, Dad puts his spoon down and looks at me pensively. "Have you seen the twins lately, Bill?" he asks.
"Which ones? The Big Twins or the Little Twins?" I know which ones he means, but the question has become automatic over the past few months. I can't remember precisely when it started, shortly before Dad had his run in with Voldemort's snake, I think. We had long accepted as the natural order of things that whenever you said "Fred" at our house the name "George" always followed closely. It was never "Fred" or "George" but ALWAYS "Fred and George," or "George and Fred," as the case may be. Just a few months ago somebody, I think it was actually Charlie in one of his letters, made the observation that one cannot now mention "Ron" without "Harry" popping up in the same sentence. Very soon we started to refer to the "Big Twins," Fred and George, and the "Little Twins," Ron and Harry. I wonder how Ron will take it when he gets home for the summer? Well, being "Harry's twin" has to be better than being "Ronniekins."
"Fred and George," Dad says with a small smile.
"I saw them last week. The shop is almost is shape for the grand opening."
He takes another couple of bites of his ice cream, not really looking up. "They have come to dinner a few times since leaving Hogwarts, but ... well, Molly hasn't really gotten over their latest stunt."
"I know, Dad." Mom has been alternating between rage and tears ever since George and Fred made their dramatic exit from school. To tell the truth, I've felt much the same way – not that I actually cry, mind you. But whenever I think about it, I feel a combination of anger and intense sadness, both of which make my eyes sting. The anger has predominated ever since I browbeat them into telling me what Umbridge had been about to do. I quickly turn my mind away from that image as my fingers begin to tremble, rattling the spoon against the side of the ice cream bowl. Mom and Dad don't know about that yet – and I really don't want to think about what will happen when they find out.
I mean its not like they don't have enough to think about already. It's not like we all don't have enough to think about.
"Molly hasn't given up on the idea of them taking their NEWTS."
"Yeah, I know. But, Dad," I sigh heavily, "let's be honest. It isn't likely that they would do all that well on NEWTs anyway."
Dad shakes his head, but with a wry expression. "I agree. But Molly's got a real bee in her bonnet."
"I just don't think arguing with them will do any good," I say. "I've tried. I said that, with Umbridge gone, I'm sure Dumbledore would make some arrangements. It isn't as if people haven't taken NEWTs late in the past."
"No luck?" Dad asks.
"None. I even said I would help tutor them a couple of nights a week over the next year, though God knows where I would find the time!"
He shakes his head again. "The things we do for family, Bill. But you and I are very familiar with that, aren't we?"
"Yes, we are, Dad." I grin and take a final bite of my ice cream. Strawberry ice cream brings back so many memories of Dad, and of the things that have happened with our family.
In fact, one of the most important days of my life featured strawberry ice cream. I suspect Dad is referring to that day in his oblique way. I was eight, as I recall. The First War was in full swing, and I remember feeling frightened all the time. I didn't really understand what was going on, but I knew that there was deadly business taking place outside the house. Even at eight, I understood the world was a dangerous place.
Dad and Mum weren't around much. Dad was constantly at work for the Ministry, while Mum scurried about comforting friends and pulling shifts with various overwhelmed charities. When they were at home they both constantly wore worried expressions. Things weren't going well. There had even been some talk of sending Percy, Charlie, and I out of the country (the twins were still too young).
Mum was gone that day, for once on a personal errand to visit Gladys Mitchell, a friend who had been wounded badly in a battle with Deatheaters. She had taken Charlie along to entertain Gladys' own six-year-old son, and the twins went as well because even then she had learned the dangers of letting them out of her sight. Gladys would be killed two months later, and her husband would move with their children to Canada, but that tragedy was still in the future. On that summer night only Dad and Percy and I were in the house. I wanted Dad to play with me, or at least talk to me. But he was enjoying a rare break from his duties with the Ministry, and was playing at dismantling some electronic contraption or other. After a couple of half-hearted attempts to get him to put it down, I settled down to sit at the kitchen table and pretend I was interested as he unscrewed connections, unraveled wires, and chattered to himself happily.
Suddenly Dad looked up, muttering to himself about needing another screwdriver. He flashed me a grin. "Stay right there, Bill. I'll be back in a second!"
"Ok, Dad," I replied wearily.
He bustled out to the shed in back. Ordinarily he would have been working out there, but as Mum was gone he had taken the chance to usurp the sacred kitchen table. I was starting to feel hungry, but hadn't yet got uncomfortable enough to mention food.
A piercing shriek echoed through the house. Percy, who was a few months short of his third birthday, had been sleeping upstairs. He wasn't sleeping anymore. Another shriek rang out. Looking over at the back door, I saw that Dad did not seem to have heard. Forgetting my promise, I slipped off the chair and ran up the steps to the room where Percy had been resting.
He was sitting up in the bed, his hair tangled and tears streaming down his face. His breath came in ragged gasps. I called his name softly, but he jumped and yelled again.
Not really knowing what I was trying to do, I padded up to his bed and sat down on the edge. "What's the matter?" I asked, more abruptly than I had intended. He looked at me and rubbed his eyes with the backs of his hands.
"Bad man," he gasped.
"There isn't any bad man here," I said.
"Bad man!" he cried again, his tears beginning afresh.
I had no idea what to do. "DAD!" I called frantically. Percy just cried harder. Finally, I scooted closer and opened my arms in an awkward imitation of Mum or Dad.
Percy scrambled forward and wrapped his arms around me so tightly I could hardly breathe. Patting and rubbing his back hesitantly, I gasped, "Ouch, Percy. It's OK, I'm here."
"Sowwy," he whispered between sobs, loosening his grip ever so slightly.
To my amazement I found that having Percy huddled against my chest didn't feel so bad. In fact it was sort of ... nice, in a weird and rather wet (because of his tears) way. Tightening my own grip into something that could only be called a hug, I started to gently rub circles on his back and whisper soft comfort words. As I rocked him back and forth he stopped crying and gave a few gentle hiccups.
"Sowwy," he said again.
"It's all right." I assured him. "OK now?"
"Yeah." He looked up at me and grinned. Even back then, Percy didn't smile much. But when he did he looked really... well, cute. But I was totally unprepared when he released my middle and threw his arms around my neck. His cheek felt warm and silky soft against mine. His moist breath tickled my ear. "Wuv you," he whispered. "Wuv Bill."
"I love you, too, Percy." I said gently.
After another few moments, Percy let go and crawled sleepily back under his covers. I tucked him in and waited until his eyes closed and his breathing became gentle and regular. Then I got up and walked out into the hall.
Dad was standing near the head of the stairs. I had completely forgotten I wasn't supposed to move! I started to say something, I'm not sure what, but he put his finger on his lips and beckoned me to follow. I knew what was coming. Dad always delivered his lectures from the stairs. That way he could look me in the eye without bending down.
I trailed after him, head hanging. I wanted to tell him that I hadn't meant to disobey. Even more, I wanted to tell him I was frightened, too. Mum's friend had gotten hurt. What if something like that happened to him or Mum? What if they left us alone? The very thought made my mouth as dry as sand.
"Bill," he said softly.
I came to a halt, still looking down. I opened my mouth to plead my case, but then just closed it again. What was the use?
Then his arms went around me and I was lifted up and pressed against his chest. I automatically looped my arms around his neck, just as Percy had put his arms around mine. I felt the roughness of his whiskers on my cheek, and breathed in the comforting, musky scent of his aftershave.
"How would the best big brother in the world like some ice cream?" he whispered. I looked up and felt my heart swell almost painfully as I saw his eyes filled with love and pride. I didn't trust myself to talk, so I just nodded.
He carried me downstairs and, true to his word, cleared his Muggle toys off the table and produced my favorite strawberry flavor from the cold box. Then he spent the remainder of that long, wonderful afternoon playing my favorite games and chatting with me as if I was one of his grown friends, even going so far as to answer my questions about the War. And that look of loving pride never left his eyes.
That day I had one of life's most important questions answered. I knew who I was. I was the world's best big brother. I would do anything to justify and live up to the love and pride I had seen in my father's eyes.
Now I sit and look at Dad – older, wearier, and sadder, but still the man I love and admire so much – and wait for him to speak. We have finished our ice cream and are sipping lemonades in companionable silence.
"The Little Twins aren't doing so well, Bill. Especially Harry." Dad's expression is dark.
"I'm not surprised, Dad. I'm really, really sorry, but I'm not surprised. Is he taking it very hard, about Sirius?"
"Ron and Ginny say that he is." Dad's expression is dark. "I haven't spoken to him yet. Neither has Molly."
I'm surprised at that. I would have thought that Mum would have rushed to comfort Harry first thing. Well, right after making sure Ron and Ginny were all right, anyway.
My surprise must show on my face, because Dad raises a hand wearily as if to forestall a protest. "Molly wanted to talk to him, of course. But we thought it best to let Remus approach him first."
That makes sense. Remus and Harry share a special bond, now. The bond of the loss of Sirius, best friend of the one and godfather of the other.
"Has he spoken to him yet?" I ask.
"I don't think so." Dad sighs. "Remus isn't taking it well, himself."
I'm not at all happy to hear that news, but I can't say that I find it shocking. "I'm going to see Ron and Ginny this afternoon, Dad. Do you think I should try and speak with Harry?"
Dad stares at the tabletop. His instinctive desires and his better judgment are at war, I see. "Do as you think best, Bill. But try to talk with Dumbledore first."
I don't reply. There is something else coming, and I am sure I know what it is. I have never been more wrong.
"I am worried about Dumbledore. I think he is making an enormous mistake."
"Dumbledore?" My mouth hangs open just slightly. "What kind of mistake?"
"Where to begin?" Dad says softly. "I think he is on the verge of destroying Harry, and himself."
"Dumbledore is a very strong man, Bill. He has very strong feelings."
"Yes," I answer slowly, "but what has that got to do with destroying Harry? Do you think he dislikes Harry?" That certainly is not the impression I've gotten second-hand from Ron and others.
"Oh no," Dad smiles sadly, "the opposite in fact. I think he loves Harry. But it is so very easy to destroy the things we love." He looks so sad I am afraid that he is going to break into tears.
"I don't understand Dad," I confess.
"Dumbledore has tried to hold onto Harry so tightly that I think he has broken him. It is an easy thing to do." He blinks rapidly, but luckily does not actually shed tears. I'm not sure I could stand that.
"How? How has Dumbledore done that, Dad?" I speak more forcefully than I intended. Frankly, I am somewhat shocked by the turn the conversation has taken.
"I think I'll shut up now, Bill. Maybe I should just let you draw your own conclusions."
"Okay, Dad." I feel like I'm being sent on a dangerous reconnaissance mission.
Dad sits in silence now, his eyes slightly unfocused. I wipe my hands on my jeans and chew my lower lip. I want to say silent, I want it so bad I practically have to wrench my jaws apart to speak. But I am the world's best big brother, and I have to try to fix this. That's what best big brothers do. We fix things.
"Dad," I say heavily, "how are things with Percy?"
His head droops and he rubs the bridge of his nose wearily. I am stunned at how old he appears in that moment. He looks so very old, and so very sad.
"Worse than ever, Bill."
"How can that be? Now that Fudge admits You-Know-Who is back..."
"It isn't making any difference." Dad rests his forehead on his palms. "In fact Fudge has gotten so angry and paranoid that I'm surprised he hasn't sacked half the Ministry. And Percy is backing him to the hilt, as usual."
"How can he do that?" I splutter.
"Percy is very stubborn," Dad answers, smiling wanly, "especially when he thinks he's right."
"How can he think he's right? He's just been proven wrong!"
"I know, I know," Dad holds up his hands as if to ward off an attack, "but he does not see things that way. Actually, I think he refuses to see things that way. It would mean throwing away the faith he has staked so much on. He is saying that the Ministry was perfectly right to be "cautious." At least that was what he was saying yesterday when I managed to corner him for a grand total of ninety seconds."
I run my hands through my hair. In all the confusion of the last few days, I've put off my usual six-week trip to the stylist and my mane is getting long and shaggy even by my standards. Percy, once my beloved cute little brother, is now a walking wound. I think one of the reasons I have been avoiding the Burrow these days is the Percy-shaped hole sitting at the table, dominating our conversation and even our movements. Leave it to Percy to figure out a way to dominate by absence! If I wasn't so angry with him I would be proud. To be truthful, I'm still proud, angry or not.
"Do you want me to talk to him, Dad?" I ask reluctantly. I have no desire to beard that particular lion. But the world's best big brother can't shirk his duty.
"I don't think it would do any good, son, I really don't."
I manage not to sigh in relief. "I assume he's been to see Ron and Ginny?"
"No," Dad answers darkly, "he has not."
"Have things been THAT busy at the Ministry?" I ask, the upward lilt in my voice betraying my shock.
"They've been insane," Dad answers softly, "but I don't think that's the reason."
"Politics?" I spit, slamming my fist down on the table so hard the dishes rattle. A young couple two tables over look up in surprise.
"Yes, Bill," Dad says wearily, "politics."
The urge to storm down the street and dunk my brother's head in a toilet is almost overwhelming. When Percy treated Mum so shabbily earlier this year I thought I would never be so angry again, only to be proved wrong when he neglected to visit Dad at St. Mungo's after the episode with Voldemort's snake. Now I find the boundaries of my patience shattered yet one more time. Searing lines of pain trace their way down my forehead and the thunder of my pulse echoes from within my eardrums. "I didn't think he would ever let that keep him away from Ron," I say softly.
"Neither did I, Bill, but then I never thought..." his voice trails off and he shrugs.
I never thought he would let that keep him away from me. That is what Dad wants to say, but he can't bring himself to voice it.
I press the heels of my hands against my eyes. Where did it all go wrong? I've been asking myself that so often these past few months. Even a year ago I could not have imagined Percy abandoning Ron. Me, yes. The twins, easily. Dad, with great difficulty. But Ron, or Ginny, or Mum? Never. Mum had been his champion in the family from the time he was born, and Ginny was the singular darling of us all. But Ron had been special to Percy. He loved Ginny and Mum, much more than he loved the rest of us. But Ron, Ron he had adored. It was the thing I used to find the most endearing about him, the way he doted on Ron, making up all sorts of excuses to play with our youngest brother, always coming to his defense against me or Charlie or the twins or even Mum and Dad. In all the baffling, infuriating things he had done this past year, the one thing I was not surprised at was that letter he sent to Ron early in the first school term. It was arrogant and prissy and completely wrongheaded, if Ron's account was to be believed, but still reeking of his protective affection for his Ronniekins.
But now he had turned his back even on Ron. I would have been less shocked if the Earth had swung loose from its axis.
And I would have felt a great deal less guilty, as well. You see, the world's best big brother was supposed to keep things like this from happening. There is a great deal I could have done. I could have stopped Fred and George from picking on Percy so much. I could have tried to get Mum to stop harping so often on Percy's grades and Percy's prospects, building resentment among my younger siblings with every word. I could have picked Percy up and shaken him until something like good sense precipitated in his brain. All of this I could have done, but I was too busy, or away in Egypt, or annoyed with Percy, or amused at the twins, or just plain didn't think about any of it except as part of the perpetual and never changing background of life at the Burrow.
"I need to get back to the office," Dad says softly. "I'm glad to see you, son. When will you be coming for dinner? It would please your mother and me very much."
"Soon, Dad. Maybe tomorrow." We both rise. He looks so very tired and sad and worried. I wish I could pick wrap my arms around him and let him lean against my hard-muscled body, drawing strength from me as I did from him all those years ago. But his pride would never allow for that, even if we were not in public. So instead I shake his hand and clap his shoulder, then watch him walk slowly away, a man bearing so much with so little help.
After he disappears around a corner I walk over to the counter and order two small pails of ice cream, Ginny's preferred Pineapple with Cauldron Crackles and Double Chocolate Frog flavor for Ron. The smiling attendant verifies the Extended Chill Charms on the containers and puts them in small bag. I hand over two galleons and then drop the change in the St. Mungo's collection box sitting on the counter. Those have been proliferating lately, and I think it's a good thing. The Hospital is going to need the money in the near future, with all the business it's likely to get. Thanking the young woman and ignoring her pointed look of invitation (I admit it, I do have a definite talent with the opposite sex) I apparate to the outer edge of the Hogwarts wards.
It is a fine day, and I stroll through the school grounds wishing that I did not have such a heavy heart. I used to love walking through Hogwarts' gardens, whether thinking or exercising or looking for female companionship or just enjoying life. Today there are many students about, celebrating the pleasant period between the end of their exams and the close of the term. But I sense no light-heartedness, no aura of celebration. The students are gathered in tight knots just like the shoppers in Diagon Alley. And like most of them they are obviously discussing current events, usually with copies of the Daily Prophet or the Quibbler spread out in front of them.
Passing through the familiar doors I take the well-remembered route to Madam Pomfrey's domain. I had never been too good of a customer for our redoubtable nurse, but Charlie more than made up for me with his abundance of Quidditch injuries. And now the Little Twins are easily setting a family record – if not a Hogwarts record. I walk into the ward just in time to hear a strange kind of popping coming from near the far end, followed by a soft shriek. I hurry forward.
"Ron!" Hermione's exasperated voice comes from behind a large divider, "quit that!"
"Why?" my younger brother answers in the same innocent way he always meets Mum's inquiries about broken items or missing food.
I pass around the divider just as Hermione reaches over to swat Ron. Ginny is sitting on a nearby bed, obviously suppressing laughter. A very fat woman that I recognize from the papers as none other than Madam Umbridge is lying near by, staring about with fear clouding her eyes.
"I see you really can get into trouble anywhere, Ron," I say loudly.
"Bill!" Ginny yells.
I put the box down on an unoccupied bed and fold my sister in my arms. She giggles softly and runs her hands through the ends of my hair. "Has mum seen you looking like this?"
"Mum's seen me looking worse," I say mildly.
"Yeah," Ron says, "but I wouldn't go home without getting a trim, if I were you. The letters Mum sent yesterday were pretty angry sounding."
"The Howlers you mean, Ron," Hermione says primly. I note, however that the look she bestows on my brother is not exasperated, but rather exceedingly fond.
"That is correct, Miss Granger," a familiar voice declares. Madam Pomfrey appears as if ffrom nowhere and surveys her domain with pursed lips. "Now, what's all this? Madam Umbridge!" She walks over to the fat woman's bed, shaking her head.
Umbridge says nothing, but allows Madam Pomfrey to resettle her on the mattress. Her eyes are darting from side to side like those of a wary and frightened rabbit.
Ron is grinning maliciously in Umbridge's direction. Hermione reaches over and slugs him lightly, appearing apologetic when he jumps.
I quickly unpack the ice cream. Madam Pomfrey looks over and frowns with disapproval, but does not interfere. Fortescue's has included some disposable bowls and spoons with my order, so I pass them around.
"I'm sorry, Hermione," I say, "but I didn't know what you liked. If I had I would have brought you something – and Harry, too."
"I'll share with you, 'Mione," Ron says quickly. I stare in frank amazement. Ron, offering to share Double Chocolate Frog ice cream? Ginny catches my eye and gives me a twinkling smile.
"Leave some for Harry," I say automatically as they start splitting their treat.
"Oh, I'll save some of mine for Harry," Ginny volunteers.
"Does he like Pineapple with Cauldron Crackles?" I ask.
"H'rry liges ehmmy ih'md gof ih'ream," Ron answers around a mouthful of Double Chocolate Frog, "Heee 'umph hit!"
I take that to mean, "Harry likes any kind of ice cream. He'll love it." I have long grown used to deciphering Ron's mushy words, as he seems to have something in his mouth at least one time out of three.
I make pleasant and meaningless conversation, carefully observing the three convalescents. Ginny seems completely recovered – at least in body. There is a dark shadow of worry on her face, but considering everything that has happened I'm not surprised. Hermione on the other hand seems to have aged a few years. She has lines of weariness in her cheeks and her eyelids droop as if she is constantly mulling over dark, unhappy facts. Still, I suspect that she will recover – mostly. Ron, however – Ron fills me with dismay. There is something bright and brittle about him, something that bespeaks fragile denial of the terrible reality that surrounds him. His grin is too broad and his voice too cheerful.
I toy with my spoon, keeping my head down lest the agony of indecision I feel show on my features. I am the best big brother in the world. It's my job to fix things. But I am afraid, terribly afraid, that if I confront Ron he will shriek in angry denial of the truths I speak. He will shriek and then he will shatter. If we were alone I would try it, and if he cried and howled I would take him in my arms, pride be damned, and caress him until he quieted. But we aren't alone and I swallow my fear in order to give a too-broad grin of my own.
After we finish I give the empty bowls to a house-elf undoubtedly summoned by Madam Pomfrey to ensure we do not clutter her sterile kingdom. As I help Ginny return most of her ice cream to the chilled box (she has only eaten about a quarter of it), I take the opportunity to brush my lips against her ear and whisper "It will be alright, you'll see."
She looks at me with eyes that have aged a decade since I last saw her and nods gravely. I give her shoulder a quick squeeze and hand over the box. "There!" I announce loudly, "I bet Harry will love that!"
"I hope so," Hermione says quietly, her expression clouded.
"Well!" Ginny announces with the fragile, false cheer you only hear in hospital rooms and at funerals, "Some of us have better things to do than lie in bed all day!" She picks up the box and makes ready to leave.
"I'll walk with you, Gin," I say, giving Ron and Hermione a last thumb's up.
"Remember about the stairs," Hermione says in a prefect sort of tone.
"I'll have you know," I say with deep severity, "that I was Head Boy of Hogwarts for an entire year. I think I can manage the stairs."
"Sorry," she mumbles, blushing.
I smile to show there are no hard feelings and follow Ginny out the door. We walk in silence down a couple of corridors before coming to a small seat under a bay window. She sits without being asked, and I take the spot next to her, fidgeting a little. This used to be one of my favorite snogging spots, and being here with my sister is, well strange, to say the least.
"How are Mum and Dad?" Ginny asks softly. "The looked awful when they were here! We know how…"
"They are okay," I interrupt, unwilling to be carried away on a flood of words.
"And Percy?" The tone of her voice is soft but filled with a strange mixture of pain, bitterness, and hope.
"The same as always," I say shortly.
"He didn't come." She looks down at the floor.
She absently brushes the front of her skirt, wiping away imaginary crumbs. It's a habit she picked up from Mum. "Everything here is just so… wrong."
"I know, Ginny." I open my arms slightly in case she wants a hug. She just keeps staring at the floor. "How is Harry?" I ask cautiously.
She shrugs. "Pretty bad. He doesn't talk to me."
There is a world of hurt packed into that sentence. I have the urge to track down the Boy Who Lived and break his nose for injecting that hurt into Ginny's voice. But the urge passes quickly. Harry has enough problems without an irate and illogical big brother on his tail. And he did not ask for Ginny to fasten her hopes on him. As far as I know he has done nothing to encourage her at all. Which is part of the problem, of course.
"I'm sorry, Ginny," I mutter, not knowing what else to say.
She shrugs again. "I broke up with Michael Corner."
"Did you?" I ask mildly.
"As good a reason as any to break up."
She looks up and smiles wanly. She is so very beautiful, and I wonder how many boys have tried to get her into this seat, or one like it. I repress the immediate sense of outrage that arouses.
"I don't know what Ron will say," she sighs.
"Ron will be okay. He never did like Michael much anyway, did he?"
"Ron wouldn't like anybody I dated," she answers dismissively.
I smile, even though I know that isn't quite true. There is one person of whom Ron would approve. He is short, has dark hair, and likes Quidditch.
"Mum liked Michael all right," I half lie. She didn't really know anything about Michael, but she was prepared to tolerate him for Ginny's sake.
Ginny snorts. "I don't need Mum running my life!"
"Who does?" I answer lightly.
We both chuckle a little. Much as we love her, Mum can be a bit much.
"Do you think she has my wedding planned?"
"Down to everything but the groom!" I reply. That isn't true either. Mum shares Ron's opinions about a certain Boy Who Lived. Dad told me a couple of months ago that she's started to acquire multiple skeins of green yarn. She says she is going to make a blanket for the downstairs couch, but he suspects she is soon going to start knitting little green booties – to match the grandbabies' eyes, you know.
"I really do have to go," Ginny says sadly. "I have class."
"All right, Gin." I reach forward and give her a quick hug. "It will be alright!" I'm not sure that's true, but the world's best big brother has to keep his chin up, else how would I ever help anybody else?
I see her to the head of the steps then we part ways. She hurries to Gryffindor Tower to put up her ice cream before class and I retrace my way to the gardens.
I stroll casually among the flowers, wondering what I will do next, when a soft voice calls my name. I look around and grin. "Professor Dumbledore! It's so good to see you, Sir!"
"Thank you, Bill," the Headmaster says, coming forward from under a venerable oak tree. He reaches into his robes and produces the inevitable bag of candy. "Lemon drop?"
"Don't mind if I do!" I take three, in fact, popping them into my mouth as the Headmaster falls into stride behind me.
He looks old. I mean, he always looks old, but now he looks like he feels his age. His skin has taken on the ashen undertone of a sickly old man, and his mouth, once almost always smiling, rests in a tired line. Still, his step is as spry as ever, and the twinkle is still present in his eyes, although much dimmed. "I take it you have come to visit Ron and Ginny?" he asks, and the twinkle grows a little stronger.
"Yes," I answer smiling, "and Hermione and Harry as well."
"Ah," the twinkle all but disappears suddenly, but then he pats my shoulder, "no one will ever accuse you of shirking your duty Bill, unlike some of us."
I have know idea what he means by that , but the praise makes my heart expand until it knocks against my ribcage. Professor Dumbledore is the only man other than my father whose approval fills me with such joy.
"Have you spoken with Harry?" he asks. There is something about his voice, something both odd and familiar. I can't identify it, so I shake my head slowly.
"No, sir, I have not seen him."
"He is hard to find, these days," Professor Dumbledore says mildly, but a look of intense sorrow flits briefly across his face.
Fear grips my heart, contracting it as fast as it had expanded a moment ago. Childish though it may be, I don't want to see weariness and sorrow on Dumbledore's face. He is out leader. He is our hope.
"Maybe it is best if I don't speak with Harry, right now?" I ask.
"I don't know, Bill." The tone is in his voice again, the thing I can't quite identify. And the sorrow is there on his face, even plainer than before.
Intensely uncomfortable and not a little shaken, I look toward the lake. "I hear that Hagrid has returned."
"Yes. Professor McGonagall should be back shortly, as well." He pauses in front of a statue of a centaur, cocking his head to look at the statue's proud features with an unreadable expression.
"I suppose," I say slowly, "that Harry will be relieved to have all the mystery over You-Know-Who cleared up."
"Do you think so?" He does not look at me, but keeps staring at the centaur's face, "I wonder."
"Well, Professor," I say, feeling just a teensy bit annoyed, "I didn't mean that he would be glad about Sirius!"
"I know, Bill," he looks over at me now and smiles, then closes his eyes as if in pain or weariness, "but I did mean it when I said that I don't know if Harry will be relieved or not."
I have it now, and the realization almost makes me gasp. I recognize that voice. It is the same tone Dad sometimes uses when he talks about Percy, especially when he talks about Percy the Son as opposed to Percy the Minister's Junior Secretary. It is a tone of aching, burning loss and of blame – blame of self.
We walk slowly back toward the castle as I ponder my epiphany. Dumbledore and Dad, they are so very alike. How could I not have noticed it before? I see it in the tone of their voices when they talk about the children they have lost, the air of deep sadness that has fallen over once-jovial features, the weariness that rests on shoulders that are broad and strong but not powerful enough to bear the burdens thrust upon them.
What should I do? What can I do? I am the world's best big brother, and I'm supposed to fix things. Being the world's best big brother equates, in my mind anyway, with being the world's best son. How can I see not one, but two fathers falling apart, and do nothing?
But what can I do? I don't know, and that simple fact weighs in my belly like lead.
We reach the steps of the castle and Dumbledore turns to give my shoulder a farewell pat. For the second time today I feel the urge to gather an older man into my arms, to let him lean against me and find comfort and strength and rest from the pain and burdens he carries.
Professor Dumbledore smiles one last time, then walks away, his step quick but his shoulders slumped. I want to call after him. I want to find the spell that will make everything right. There has to be a way!
He vanishes and I stand there in silence. There is no spell. There is nothing to say.
Finally I put my back to the castle and walk slowly to the edge of the grounds. I am the world's best big brother, and I can't fix things.
Fleur waits for me, and there is a bottle of firewhiskey in the cabinet above the sink of my flat. Those should be enough to get me through the night. They should be enough to erase the deep, sour taste of failure creeping down my throat.
They should be.
I apparate away, knowing they will not.