A/N: Fair warning: For those of you who are here because you liked Love and Levity - You may very well hate this one. It doesn't have anything like the lighthearted, romantic tone of the original. This is a story about the toll that the war will take on the survivors, focusing on how George deals with grief. To repeat the warning in the summary, this deals with the death of multiple beloved characters.
Don't say I didn't warn you, and thanks for sticking with me so far.
Oh, and none of this is mine. In fact, I suspect she'd be angry if she found out I was ruthlessly killing such wonderful characters.
George Weasley hesitated at the bottom of the hill, sizing up the narrow pathway in front of him as if he were confronting Mount Everest. Actually, he had already confronted Mount Everest, not two months before, and it hadn't been nearly as daunting as climbing this hill. Granted, if he had been forced to actually climb it, like those mad Muggles seemed so fond of doing, it would have been a different story entirely.
He wondered for a moment, if he wouldn't prefer that climb to the one he was about to make. Summoning a little Gryffindor courage along with a deep breath, he took his first step up the winding path.
He found Luna sitting quite still on a garden swing, watching the thick white clouds drift slowly across the sky. A light breeze caught her hair, lifting it off her shoulders and causing it to flutter along with her sheer white robes. She looked so fresh and pure and serene that he felt his heart swell up in his chest, making it difficult to breathe.
"Hello, George," she said without turning around. There wasn't a note of surprise in her voice, nor did she follow it with a reprimand - not even giving him a reproachful look. She'd hardly moved at all.
She began to sway on the swing and he knew her well enough to know that the small movement betrayed her agitation. He walked up to her, lightly placing his hand on the back of her head. She sighed, but otherwise remained silent.
"How are you, Luna?"
"I'm well, George. How are you?"
Liar. Both of us feel like shit and you know it. "Okay, I reckon."
"How long have you been back, George?"
"About five minutes."
She took a long time to speak again. "You came to see me first? Before your family?"
"Well, yeah, I…yeah."
"Oh," she said, so quietly that he had to strain to hear her.
"Luna…" He walked around to stand before her. She raised her eyes to look at a spot somewhere on his chest and continued to swing back and forth.
"How long are you staying, George?"
"Uh…" He hadn't really expected her to put him on the spot like that, especially when she wouldn't look at him and give him some clue as to her feelings. "Dunno…"
"Oh," she said, in that same quiet voice and then said, seemingly out of the blue, "Are you hungry?"
"Huh? Oh, no, not really. Hey, listen, Luna…"
"What did you come back for, then?"
"To see you," he said warily. She sure as hell wasn't making it easy for him. He hadn't really expected her to just throw her arms around him, but still…
"You really need to go and see your family, George."
"Why, what happened?" he asked urgently, crouching down to search her eyes. "Did anything else happen?"
She focused his left cheekbone, more than likely in order to count the freckles. "What's happened already is more than enough, I'd say. And they've been rather worried about you. Frantic, really."
He squirmed with guilt. "I am going to stop by there. I just…"
"You're dreading it. And you thought that I'd go a little easier on you for leaving than they would."
Ouch. Ten points to Ravenclaw, he thought."No, that's not it. I wanted to see you. I've missed you."
"Have you?" She had that vague, misty tone in her voice and George hated it.
"Luna…" He reached out to touch her face but she remained perfectly still, looking up at him with little apparent interest. "I love you."
She looked down at his feet. "That's nice. Have you been to the shop yet?"
George was about ready to scream with frustration. "No, I told you, I came here first. Wait a minute, did you say…What shop?"
She laughed, just a little louder than the situation warranted. "Your joke shop, George. Weasley's Wizarding Wheezes."
"But who…? It's still running? Why? How?"
"Of course it's still running, George. Lots of people still think that laughter is a good thing. And, of course, there have been lots of celebratory fireworks. We did win the war, after all."
Luna let George's muttered remark hang in the air for a long time before murmuring, "I think it was." Her voice grew louder. "And I imagine that my father would have thought so, too. Not to mention your mother, and—"
"Stop!" George interrupted. He raked his hand through his hair until it stood on end and fought the urge to bolt back down the hill, this time disappearing forever.
"Where…where have you been, George?" she asked after an uncomfortable silence.
"Around…" George waved his hand dismissively.
The crease between her eyes deepened. "You didn't used to keep things from me, George.
"Sorry," he sighed, thrusting his hands in his pockets. "What…what have you been up to, Luna?"
"Oh, not a whole lot. I spent a great deal of time here, after—well, after you left."
"Well, yes, at least for a while, anyway. Eventually people started coming out to see me. Ginny first, and then your brothers and Hermione. Hermione and Ginny came by a lot. They kept asking me to come by the Burrow for dinner. Ginny is trying to teach Hermione to cook, so they would bring me leftover food, too. Ginny said I was losing weight."
George swallowed a lump in his throat. "Luna…"
She continued, "Finally, Hermione came by and…well, actually she yelled at me a bit. She had this notion that I needed to start up The Quibbler again, and she was really quite insistent. She seemed to feel that The Prophet was something of a tool for the new Ministry and that alternate publications were needed."
"I'll bet she did," George said.
"Well, eventually, she got her way, of course. Actually, what did it is that she convinced Harry and Ronald—well to be honest, I don't think she had to work hard on Ron, but I think that Harry was quite resistant to the idea. I suspect that Ginny might have had something to do with his change of heart…"
She shook her head and continued with her previous thought, "At any rate, the three of them gave an interview about everything they'd done to defeat You-know—Voldemort. It really surprised me how many copies that issue sold. Of course, there was a very interesting article about Unctuous Uglogs left over from dad's files, too."
George was so happy to hear Luna saying something relatively normal that he nearly grabbed her, pulling her into his arms. He hadn't realized, however, how starved for information he was, so he nodded for her to continue.
"So, with all of the success of that issue, I decided to keep the paper going. It's not quite the same as it was during Dad's day—in fact, some of our old subscribers have written to complain, but it's really good in a different way. Hermione has an editorial column where she talks about things like Ministry propaganda or creature rights, or Muggle protection, and she really seems to enjoy it. Lee Jordan has a Quidditch column. Oh, and Lavender Brown—do you remember her?" She continued without waiting for a response, "Anyway, she gives out advice to the lovelorn, and there are personal ads attached to it. There are a lot more lonely people out there than I realized, especially now…"
"Luna," George started, but she pressed on.
"I've hired Colin Creevey as a photographer, and he's got a lot of good stuff left over from the war—he actually won an award for that picture of Neville standing over Bellatrix LeStrange's body…you may have seen it, where he looked so shocked, and sad, and…well fierce. It always makes me cry. And occasionally Professor—or, rather Remus Lupin contributes an editorial about various issues, and he did a concert review, too, which turned out to be really funny; apparently he got dragged to it but really enjoyed himself. So we have all that on a regular basis, and your dad has been helpful too, offering us Ministry leads and sometimes allowing us to interview him. And then, of course, we always feature one of Dad's old columns…" Luna drifted off for a moment, distracted by a cloud that passed over the sun, shuddering at the sudden drop in temperature.
The cloud passed and she continued, "So, I've been rather busy, actually. As I said, Ginny and Hermione stop by a lot, and Colin has been coming by with dinner or wine or flowers every few days. Neville, of course, stops by once a week and comes to the paper to take me to lunch, too. But mostly, I've been alone up here."
She'd certainly given him a lot to think about, and not all of it made him completely comfortable. He mentally kicked himself for never even considering that someone else might try to swoop in and take his place. He was beginning to think that a little Creevey arse-kicking might be in order when it occurred to him that he had nobody to blame but himself. For lots of things, really. He sat down on the ground in front of her, resting his elbows on his knees. "Yeah, well…right. So, Luna, do you know…how are my dad, and the others?"
She looked directly at him then, just for a second, but her expression seemed a little hard, which didn't suit her at all. But the moment passed, and she answered in an oddly breezy tone, "Well, sad, of course. But extremely busy, too. Your dad is working as hard as ever. The Ministry is a bit of a mess, and the worst of the old sycophants are grasping for positions, but your father has really earned people's respect for his good sense. I wouldn't be surprised if he weren't nominated for—but I should probably let him tell you that himself."
"I'll bet a hundred galleons that Percy is right in the middle of all the grasping," he muttered darkly.
"Oh, no," she said. "Percy quit the Ministry months ago."
"What? You're joking! What happened to him?"
"Nothing, really. Except, well…I think he was a little disgusted. He called them all vultures. Actually, he wrote a rather brilliant editorial; I published it last February. I never realized that Percy could be so passionate about anything…but then again, he is a Weasley, after all …anyway, it generated a lot of mail, mostly positive."
In spite of his bitterness, George was intrigued. "So is that what he's doing, now? Writing?"
Luna looked at him as if he were exceptionally thick. "No, George, he's running your shop."
"WHAT?" George was on his feet in an instant. "No fucking way! He—"
Luna interrupted, "He feels he owes it to Fred, George."
"He damn well—"
"He saved your life, George."
"But then it hit—"
"It wouldn't have, if Fred hadn't been trying to save you, too. Percy couldn't see him. Fred was just a blur coming toward you."
"I didn't want him to save me!"
"Nevertheless, Percy must have thought it was pretty important to do so. And so did Fred, apparently."
"I WISH IT HAD BEEN ME!" George shouted.
"I don't," Luna said, staring at him solemnly, not even flinching from his outburst. "I wish neither of you had to die. I loved Fred; how could I not, loving you like I do? And Percy is devastated. He would have saved both of you, if he could have. But really, George, the only person you can blame in this is Rookwood, and you and Percy made certain he paid for it, didn't you?"
"I should have killed him myself," George said darkly.
"Trust me, George, eventually you'll be glad you didn't. But you really need to talk to Percy because he's carrying around a load of guilt he doesn't deserve."
"Yes he does!"
"No - he doesn't, George. I'll always be grateful that he saved you. You need to thank him."
George chose to ignore that statement, changing the subject to something he felt more certain about. "Why the hell is he running my shop, anyway?"
"Because you aren't. And Fred can't. And Angelina - well, she could, but she tires so easily, and she is well aware that Percy has a better head for business than she does. Profits are sky high, and he – Percy, I mean - is hardly even taking a salary. He says he's doing it to support Angelina and the baby because Fred can't—"
"Didn't you know? She's due in – I don't know – August, I think. Percy seems to think that he owes it to Fred to take care of them – I really think he'd marry her if she'd only say yes – but she seems to think he's only doing it out of some sense of obligation. She's tried to explain that she and Fred had eloped before - well before, anyway. Still, he insists that the baby needs a father. And, of course, he's absolutely fallen in love with Angelina. I mean, why shouldn't he? She's the most beautiful pregnant woman I've ever seen; she looks like one of those ancient fertility goddesses - and poor Percy…Well, you get the picture. I think, perhaps, eventually he might wear her down."
George sat down weakly next to Luna on the swing. She continued, "He is rather handsome, in a very different way than Fred, of course, and he seems to be more…approachable than before. Well, that's understandable if you think about it; he's realized that he's capable of making mistakes - rather large ones - and he is running a joke shop, too, so that has improved his sense of humor. That isn't to say that the shop is running perfectly without you, George. It's definitely missing something. New products are needed or the competition will pass it by, but if you've come back to take over…"
She looked at him out of the corner of her eye. "Have you, George? Come back to take over again, I mean?"
He stared out at the view in front of him, at a loss for words. Finally he said, "I never imagined that it would still be running. It seems…wrong."
"It seemed wrong to let it fade away. It meant a lot to a lot of people. I worked there too, for a time. Every Saturday, actually, so that the others could spend time with their families, but I couldn't after a while. It was too sad."
She turned her head so that there was no possibility of George seeing her face.
"Luna," he began, but she interrupted him.
"So, that's about all the news that I can give you. There's more, of course; engagements, and at least one wedding - besides Fred's, I mean. But those things aren't really for me to tell you about." Without any warning, she stood up in one fluid motion, and said, much to George's dismay, "It was very nice of you to stop by, George. I hope I'll see you again, maybe after you're settled."
He stared up at her, mouth gaping. "But, Luna…"
"Go to your family, George. They're really quite desperate to hear from you, you know."
"But I need to talk to you, Luna."
"No, George," she said sadly. "I don't think I'm quite up for it right now. Why don't you come back when you've got a better idea of what your plans are?" She bent down and kissed him lightly on the cheek, then walked soundlessly to the back door, closing it behind her without sparing him a backward glance.
George turned on the swing, staring at the closed door for a very long time. He wondered if she was still hovering on the other side of the door, feeling as empty and hurt as he was.
Some time later, George found himself sitting on a log at the edge of the pond at the Burrow, remembering a similarly warm summer day, years before. He'd found Ginny sitting in the very same spot, staring out at the water and brooding over Harry. She'd worried that something dreadful would happen to him, and she'd probably also fretted over Hermione and Ron, and likely the rest of the family, too. But Harry was always her primary concern.
Fortunately for George's sister, Harry had emerged from the rubble eight months before, dazed and bleeding but still whole. For Ginny, it must have been enough. But it wasn't enough for George, in spite of his joy and relief when hours later, they'd found Luna buried under a collapsed staircase, pinned by the body of Alecto.
He'd felt as though half his heart had been torn from his chest. He couldn't comprehend - not even now - how the rest of his family could even think about eating around the kitchen table of the Burrow without his mother's food being served. He couldn't imagine Christmas without a visit from Charlie, or at least a letter filled with Charlie's detailed and exiting accounts of the dragon camp. And just how they could stomach opening up the joke shop was far beyond his comprehension. He never wanted to look at it again.
And so George had run, and he'd kept on running, and the gaping hole in his chest never completely healed, leaving him bleeding and empty from grief. He'd thought that removing himself from the constant reminders of his family would allow him to come to terms with his monumental loss, but it only made him flounder. He was, if anything, more bitter and angry than before.
The only solution he'd been able to think of was to see Luna, to soak up her calming presence. Maybe if he saw her, just for a moment, finding her as lovely and wise and understanding as before, he might not feel so lost. But he'd learned, to his profound disappointment, that she'd changed and he had nobody to blame but himself. He'd hurt her, and she didn't seem to trust him anymore. She'd closed herself off to him.'
Go see your family, George.' What on earth was there left to see? The Burrow, such as it was, didn't exist anymore. Mum had seen to the rebuilding, and she had done a brilliant job, improving it to the point that it looked like a real home and not an uneven stack of building blocks while still retaining the cozy warmth of the old house. But how could it still be 'the Burrow' now that Molly was gone? How could anybody even look at that old clock knowing that three of its hands would never move from 'lost' again? How could anything ever feel funny, or exciting, or even remotely interesting without Fred to share it with?
"Hello, George," came a deep, gentle voice, and George found his shoulder gripped by a warm hand, smelling of ink and battery acid. He could feel the slight tremors of the hand through his thin tee shirt, but his father's voice was remarkably steady.
"Hi, Dad," he answered, and he felt his eyeballs prickling with tears.
Arthur took a seat on the far end of the log, clearly trying not to overwhelm George. They sat in silence for a long time.
"Have you eaten, son?"
"Yeah," George lied, not wanting to think about the Burrow's kitchen, let alone be confronted by it.
"Ginny has been working on a pot of spaghetti sauce. She's made much more that we need, but that is the way your mother taught her to cook. It was just supposed to be the five of us. However, I suspect it will turn into a much larger group by dinnertime once the news of your return gets out."
George decided to ignore his father's unspoken request for an impromptu family reunion, at least for a bit. "The five of you?"
"Well, Ron and Hermione have a cottage just over in the village, and Harry has actually been staying here, preparing for the—anyway, that's Ginny's news, I should probably let her tell you herself."
"I don't…I really just came by to see you, Dad, and maybe Ginny—I don't think I'm up for more than that." George bit his thumbnail in an unconscious gesture.
Arthur took a long time to reply. "Well, George," he sighed. You may very well not be ready…but I somehow doubt that'll stop them from coming. Everybody has been worried sick about—"
"I don't want a family dinner, Dad."
"Well, then, why don't you just go on into the house, maybe have a lie down, or a shower. You can rest, and I'll bring you food, and then when you're ready, even if it takes a few days…"
"I won't be ready. Not now - not ever, Dad. I don't want to sit at that bloody table and pretend we're still just this happy family, because we aren't anymore, and we never will be again!"
Arthur rubbed his temple, replying in a quieter than normal voice. "We may not be as happy as we were, son, but we are still a family – and we still love and need you, now more than ever."
"That's an odd question, George…"
"No it isn't. What am I to this family, if not one of the twins? What do I do if I don't feel like making jokes, pulling pranks? Not one of you has any idea just who the hell I am without…"
"Yes we do, son. You are a very important member of this family and we've ached for you just as much as we've ached for the others. If anything, it hurt more because you chose…" Arthur broke off, shaking his head.
"And now you've come home, and we're not going to let you leave us again, You're a son, a brother, an uncle and a friend, and much more to us than half of a set—you always have been. And if you think that a family can't be rebuilt on top of grief and loss, you've completely forgotten your family history. Your mother and I only had each other, and we built something truly magical on top of it all." Arthur looked every inch a Gryffindor lion at that moment, even though his eyes glittered with unshed tears.
"Dad," George said, blinking back his own tears impatiently. "How can you stand it?"
"Because they would be furious if they found you'd thrown away what they fought for, George."
George did finally go inside the Burrow, walking directly upstairs and into the shower, then into the new version of Bill's old room. He lay down on Bill's frayed coverlet, finding that the scent of the house, the essential feeling of home, hadn't quite left the Burrow. Before he knew it, he'd drifted off to the best sleep he'd had in months.
When he woke up, the moon was high in the sky and he found a plate of food on the dresser, which he devoured without actually tasting anything. He found himself inexplicably sleepy while looking at the empty plate, and drifted off again.
Some time in the middle of the night, he awoke to a warm body curled up against him and he realized that Ginny had fallen asleep at the foot of his bed, just like she used to when they were kids and she'd had a nightmare. He searched her face, finding unmistakable evidence that she'd been crying in her puffy eyelids, but also finding that she looked healthier than she had the last time he saw her - that she'd put on weight and her hair was thick and shining again. He pulled an afghan from underneath Bill's bed, and covered her with it, kissing the top of her head and inhaling the flowery scent of her shampoo. George buried his head in Bill's old pillow, finding that he couldn't completely stem the tide of tears in his eyes by blinking. He fell asleep holding Ginny's small hand in his own.
When he woke up the next day, there was no sign of his midnight visitor other than the toast and sausages left on the dresser, surrounded by Bill's old Quidditch figurines. George picked up the pair of Beaters, which Bill had charmed to have red hair, slipping one of them in his pocket. He dreaded going downstairs but couldn't stand his own company enough to stay in the room alone.
He made his way down the stairs with a great deal of trepidation, hoping that he would not have to face a room full of Weasleys without caffeine-laden fortification. The house was abnormally silent, however, and he made it into the kitchen without coming across a single other person. Once there, he poured himself a cup of tea, grabbed another sausage off the sideboard, and went into the sitting room. He tried to walk to a comfortable chair without actually resting his eyes on his mother's clock or her knitting basket, which was, remarkably, still sitting next to her rocking chair. He swallowed the lump in his throat and sat down warily. He looked over at the settee and discovered it to be occupied by a sleeping figure with a familiar mop of unruly black hair.
He felt his heart stop and wondered why the sight of an old friend sent him into such a panic. He got up as quietly as possible, tiptoeing across the room to the door.
"Nice try, Weasley."
George sighed and turned around. "Oh, hello, Harry. What d'you reckon?"
"Trying to catch up on sleep."
"No, Auror training." Harry sat up and rubbed his eyes. "And then I got back and Ginny wasn't in her room, or mine, so I had trouble falling asleep. But…you probably didn't need to know that, did you?"
George didn't have the energy to take the bait, nor to take the mickey out on Harry. "Ah, well, could be worse I suppose. I hear you're staying here now?"
"Oh, yeah. Tried getting my own place, but the reporters...you know. Anyway, this is the closest thing to a home I've ever had. I'm gonna marry your sister, George."
"You know, I had a feeling it might happen. Seems like fate, yeah?"
Harry grinned. "That or luck. Have you seen Luna yet?"
George shifted on his feet. "Uh, yeah. She's not…I'm not…I guess neither one of us is ready to deal with…I reckon I've got a fair bit of shit to sort out first. Anyway, Harry…I'm really glad…that things are working out, that you can have a normal family now. You're good for her, and she won't put up with you getting all wanky and depressed. You'd just better not hurt her any more than you already did, alright?'"
"I won't, George." George turned to leave the room but was stopped by Harry's voice again.
"Oh, and, George…You know how you feel about Ginny? That's how I feel about Luna…Well Luna and Hermione, really, but I think Hermione can pretty much take care of herself. But Luna…you've got some work to do there. You'd better treat her right or let her go. She deserves better."
George frowned and nodded, leaving the room as quickly as possible.
The next member of George's family that he saw was Bill, who came by to drop off his son for the evening in order to allow him to take his wife to a Gringotts function. Arthur hadn't come home yet, so George stumbled upon Bill playing with two-year-old Fabian Cedric (poor kid) on the garden swing. George couldn't believe how much his nephew had grown in half a year. Bill gave him a warm hug in greeting, but after a few polite questions, they descended into an uneasy silence. Bill kept looking at his watch and finally George insisted that he was more than capable of watching a toddler until Arthur or Ginny returned home. Bill left warily, not entirely certain how his son would behave with an uncle he barely knew, but was rather desperate for some alone time with his wife. He needn't have worried. Fabian managed to wrest from George the first genuine smiles he'd worn in months. They threw a Quaffle back and forth, chased garden gnomes and played hide-and-seek in the orchard.
George had to actually swallow disappointment when he heard Arthur and Ginny calling out to them from the Burrow. He dutifully brought his nephew back to the kitchen for a snack. Ginny stood in a corner, waiting until Arthur led Fabian out into the sitting room before she approached George. She didn't say a word, just gave him a hug worthy of Hagrid.
"Missed you, Ginny," George said through the lump in his throat.
Ginny lightly smacked the back of his head. "Don't ever do that again, you git. We need you here."
George couldn't respond, so he just hugged her tighter. After a while they broke apart and George sat uneasily on the edge of a kitchen chair. Ginny seemed determined to make him comfortable, assuming that he already knew about her impending wedding and chattering happily about her plans. She managed to completely avoid saying anything that would make him uncomfortable and didn't expect much more than one-word responses from him and for that she earned his gratitude.
Like a colorful butterfly, she flitted around the kitchen, fixing him a drink (surprisingly stiff, actually) and getting started on dinner. From time to time she would touch him as if reassuring herself that he was not a figment of her imagination; mussing his hair, patting his back, or squeezing his hand.
Eventually Harry came in the door, with his hair tousled and sleepy-eyed from his nap. Before they could get through one excruciatingly long kiss, George excused himself, saying that he was going for a walk in the village. Ginny managed, as his mother had often done, to extract a promise that he would bring back a few items from her grocery list, and George found himself back on the road upon which he had trod at least a thousand times. He tried not to think about how strange it was not to be walking it with Fred, and it helped when he remembered that he had walked it with Luna many times too, when the days were too beautiful to waste on apparition.
He considered making a slight detour to her house, but wasn't quite prepared to face her again. Still, the excursion was enjoyable, in fact it was just what he needed to get rid of the excess energy he'd been feeling, not to mention a relief from the claustrophobia of the house and all the people in it.
He came home to find nary a sign of Ginny, nor was Harry or his father around. He tried not to think about what Harry and Ginny might be getting up to with everybody gone, and decided against going back to Bill's old bedroom. He poured himself a drink and took it out to the garden swing, where he had a full view of the kind of glorious sunset that could only be seen from the Burrow.
By the time he returned to the kitchen, Ginny and Harry were back from wherever they had gone and were now joined by Ron and Hermione. Hermione ran up to him and threw her arms around him but Ron held back, merely shaking George's hand awkwardly. George could probably have teased his brother into a more welcoming mood, giving him a hard time about marrying a girl he'd once called 'a nightmare,' but he didn't really have it in him. He piled some food on a plate and took it up to Bill's room, mumbling that he was tired.
He lay on Bill's bed, listening to the happy group below him, and felt like hitting something - so he punched the pillow a few times. Finally, he fell asleep with a ten-year-old Quidditch magazine on his chest.
The next day George woke up far ahead of everybody else and took an old broomstick out for a sunrise flight. Once the sun was up, he flew around aimlessly, not at all surprised to find himself approaching Luna's house. He saw smoke coming from her chimney and felt a dead weight settle in his stomach. With a sigh, he circled his broom around her house once and returned to the Burrow, which to George's relief was empty.
George helped himself to the eggs and bacon that Ginny had left out for him, then he settled down on the sofa for a nap. He dreamt about the very first D.A. meeting, which in the dream was inexplicably attended by Percy's old girlfriend Penny. He was woken up abruptly by a vaguely familiar voice, which said, "Oi, Weasley! Get your lazy arse up and hug me, because I sure as hell can't bend down low enough to hug you!"
George sat up and blinked in surprise. In front of him was Angelina, grinning from ear to ear and looking absolutely gorgeous. Enormous, but gorgeous nevertheless. Ignoring the stabbing pain in his chest, and plastering on a smile, he scrambled to his feet and strode to her, arms open.
"Hello, love." He put his arms around her carefully, uncertain where to position his body against her protruding stomach. However, she proceeded to crush him closer, and he was startled to receive a sharp jab from the small person within.
Angelina must have felt it too because she laughed and said, "He knows his uncle, I reckon, and is determined to get the first word in."
"He?" George felt a lump in his throat
"Yeah, he. And I suspect he's going to be either a football player or a beater. Possibly both." She patted her stomach affectionately.
George stared at her and shook his head. "I'd been told earlier that you looked like a goddess, and they weren't exaggerating. Damn, Angie, you're a sight for sore eyes."
"As are you, stranger." Angelina grinned and pulled away. She looked him up and down before adding, "I've got to sit down for a bit." She lowered herself to his mother's knitting chair with a decided lack of grace.
"Can I get you something?" he asked. "Water, pumpkin juice, lemonade?"
"Water, if you don't mind. Pumpkin juice makes me ill."
"Right, then. Don't go anywhere." He started to head for the kitchen.
She called out after him, "That's what I ought to be saying to you, you wanker!"
Between the stabbing pain in his chest and the lump in his throat, George was a bit of a mess. He leaned over the sink, trying hard not to retch, or to kick the pipes in frustration, or (worst of all) burst into tears.
After a few minutes of deep breathing to clear his head, he poured a glass of water, dropped a couple of cubes of ice in, (he seemed to recall that his mother and Fleur had complained about being uncomfortably hot while pregnant) and walked back out into the sitting room. "How've you been doing, Angie?"
She just stared at him for a bit before answering, "Probably about as good as you, at least at first. But I'm a lot better now. Having people around helps."
"Does it?" George looked away from her penetrating gaze and found his eyes drawn to her stomach.
"Yeah, it does. Of course I was forced to pull myself together, wasn't I?" She placed her hand on her belly possessively. George focused on the contrast between her plain gold band and her dark skin.
"Did he know?" he asked.
"About the baby? Not at all. I had a feeling, but I wasn't going to tell him until I was sure. I reckoned he had enough on his mind. Plus, I didn't want him getting annoyingly protective on me."
"Maybe if he'd known…he wouldn't have done what he did." George said, trying not to sound bitter but failing miserably.
He felt irresistibly compelled to meet Angelina's eyes and he wondered if she using some sort of spell on him. The magic surrounding her was almost palpable as it was, and he could tell by her face that she found his remark offensive. However, she only said, "Yes, he would've," and left it at that.
The silence between them stretched on for an uncomfortably long time. Finally, she spoke again, in a conversational tone; "Your family's been great, of course. They would have taken me in, if I'd let them, but Fred did manage to save a bit of money even after he bought the house. And I've been working at the shop—"
She paused, and seemed unsure of herself for the first time since she'd arrived.
George stepped in; "I hear its doing well. I'm glad, I suppose. It'll give you an income, and—"
Angelina seemed to really get offended about this. "It's yours, George. Everybody worked their arses off for you, and because they knew that Fred would have been devastated if the place closed permanently. You of all people ought to understand that! If he saw - if he'd known you'd abandoned it - abandoned your family, he would have throttled you!"
"I can't do it!" he yelled, feeling the guilt eating at him like a maggot.
Angelina sighed. "Listen, George. Fred—Fred died too soon. It's completely unfair, in fact, it's a fucking tragedy, but…The joke shop meant a lot to him. And if you let it go, well, that's like letting another bit of him die. That shop, and this baby—they're parts of him that can go on. And I'm going to bloody well see that they both thrive, and you're going to help me. You're going to make this kid the best damn uncle that there ever was, and you're going to teach him to play Quidditch and you're going to make him laugh, and tell him all about his dad, because nobody - not even me - could do it as well as you can. And you're bloody well going to make that shop world famous, too, because you owe it to him - and not because he tried to save your life, but because you loved him!"
Angelina's eyes were glistening with tears but her face was as fierce as a warrior's. Or a mother lion, George thought, as he bit the inside of his cheek to keep from losing control of his emotions. He felt the weight of responsibility come down on his shoulders and knew that she was right, though he didn't particularly like what it was going to mean for him.
"I reckon—I really ought to go down and take a look at the shop one of these days," he conceded.
"No time like the present," she said.
"Uh, well, actually, Angie, I was about to—"
"Finish your nap," she interrupted. "And as it's nearly closing time – the shop ought to be fairly empty. Why don't you put on your shoes and we can floo there together."
"I don't—I don't want to go into the flat," he insisted.
"Alright then, we'll floo to the Leaky, and walk."
Muttering under his breath, George obeyed.
I can't do this, he chanted in his head over and over again while he followed Angelina down the length of the Alley (marveling at how fast she was even when burdened with a decided waddle.)
He tried not to look at the windows as they approached the joke shop but he got an impression of eye catching, controlled insanity, just as it should be. Angelina held the door open for him, and with a deep breath he walked inside.
Glancing around as his eyes adjusted from the bright sunlight, George was absolutely floored by that familiar feeling of pride of ownership he'd always felt before. To his surprise, the place really hadn't changed that much. Yes, it was a little more organized, and there were less of the defense products on display than before, but the essential carnival atmosphere was still very much evident. George realized that he'd been terrified Percy would've ruined it. His eyes were drawn to the counter where Percy, whose auburn hair didn't clash quite as spectacularly with the magenta robes as Fred's had, stood frozen in the act of wrapping up a parcel. The silence dragged on for what seemed like an eternity.
"Hello, Perce," George finally managed.
"George," Percy said, his voice wavering. "I'm…it's really great to see you."
Percy continued to stand there, frozen, wide-eyed behind his glasses, and George felt a blinding flash of clarity. He swallowed his resentment and a fair bit of pride, walking over to his brother and giving him an awkward one-armed hug. Percy returned it just as awkwardly, repeating George's name in a choked whisper.
Upon breaking apart, Percy immediately started babbling nervously, telling him about the package he was mailing (assorted gags for a Ministry retirement party) and mentioning what a busy week it had been. George listened with half an ear, trying to control his conflicting emotions.
Angelina, who'd remained quiet through the whole exchange, mentioned that she needed to go down the street to the apothecary and left before either of her brothers-in-law had a chance to object.
Percy began talking about some of the changes that had been made in the store, sounding hesitant and slightly deferential, and it occurred to George that Percy must consider George to be his boss. To George, it seemed as if the world had been turned upside-down, which indeed it had, and he wondered how he was ever going to find his place in it. One thing that he knew in his gut, however, was that Percy needed reassurance from him, so George did his best.
"It's really—everything looks great. You've done so much…thanks, Perce."
"Oh," Percy said with a small cough. "Don't mention it. I…anyway, it's a great shop. I never realized how…special it was...before, I mean. And everybody thought it needed to open up again, and since I didn't have a job…"
Percy busied himself with straightening up a nearby display. "Oh, there's one thing. Some of us decided, when we opened the shop… well everybody - the customers, I mean - asked about you, and I didn't want them to think that somebody had bought you out or something, so we put that up…"
George turned to follow Percy's pointing finger, and found himself confronted by a blown up photograph of he and Fred in their beater's uniforms, laughing and pushing at each other. He felt the world drop from beneath his feet and tried very hard to not run out of the store and away from everything.
Percy seemed oblivious to the change in George though, and continued, "For a while, lots of people left cards and letters underneath it. I've saved all of them, if you ever want to…"
He broke off as he noticed George passing his hands over his eyes, then covering up the gesture by running his fingers through his hair.
"Yeah, thanks, Perce, that's really cool. I'm just going to...pop my head in the office for a bit, if you don't mind."
"Oh, of course. I'll just…finish up this order." Percy practically sprinted back to the counter, leaving George to hurry to the small office in the back. George found himself regretting his choice of refuge rather quickly though, as he entered the room and found himself flooded by memories. It had hardly changed at all.
Percy had contrived to magically expand the room just enough to add a third desk, made of gleaming cherrywood (and perfectly organized, in stark contrast to the other two.) George leaned wearily on the edge of his own desk; looking down at Fred's and trying not to lose control altogether. He made his way over to Percy's desk, glancing over the completed order forms in the 'out' box and the profit-and-loss statement, weighted down by a calculator and an ink pot. He opened up a file labeled 'payroll,' passing his eyes over a couple of Verity's stubs to find one of Percy's and shaking his head at the ridiculously small amount that Percy had decided to pay himself.
Why the hell is this family so bloody fond of self-sacrifice, George thought. He grabbed a couple of files and sat down on his own chair, reminiscing about the first time Luna had visited; how she'd leaned over his shoulder and made the hair at the back of his neck stand up. He shook his head at his own stupidity.
After half an hour of poking around the office, (mixed in with a fair bit of melancholy and even more self-recrimination) George had made a few decisions. He re-entered the main area of the shop just as Percy was putting up the 'closed' sign. George coughed, causing Percy to spin around, startled.
With a deep breath, George began. "So, Percy, I've been doing some thinking, and I reckon I've come up with some solutions. Of course, I'll have to talk to Angelina because I don't know how Fred left things in his will, but I doubt she'll object. First of all; I think that Verity has earned more than a salary after all these years, and Lee - even though he was never a full time employee - he really helped us out in the beginning, and I understand, lately, too. So I want to give them a share in the store. I was thinking of dividing ten percent up between them, which is really sort of pointless since they're married, but I just want to put it in writing that they each get some."
Percy nodded his understanding but still looked a little bewildered.
George continued. "So that still leaves ninety percent, and I think it would be fair if we divide it by thirds."
"Th-thirds?" Percy said, the crease between his eyes deepening. "I don't under…"
"You, me, and Angelina."
"I am well aware that I tried to let it all go to crap, but I'm still taking into consideration all the work I put into it before. And I am going to come back; I just need a few more days to get my shit together."
"So Angelina gets Fred's share and you'll get a share for bringing it back from the dead. I thought maybe we could each take on a different bit of the business - well, you and me mostly at first, and then Angelina, depending on how she's feeling once the baby's born. I thought that maybe I would work on product development and manufacturing, and you could deal with the business end and she could handle the marketing."
"But…" Percy still looked a little bewildered but George also saw a bit of excitement in his eyes.
"I'll set it all up with a lawyer tomorrow. As long as... you do still want to keep doing this…now that I'm back? I mean, it wasn't just something to do until you found another job?"
"Oh, no…I'd hoped, I guess, that you would hire me permanently. I didn't expect to like it as much as I do. There are so many things I've wanted to do…like expansion. I know you were going to take on Zonko's old store, and that it fell apart when so many parents didn't send their kids back to school, but I really wanted to take another look at that. And then, possibly, something in Ireland, and then further…Fleur thinks we should have something near Beaubaxtons, but I was thinking that she might be overestimating the French sense of humor. I thought, perhaps, Amsterdam and Hermione mentioned New York as a possibility…" He broke off somewhat sheepishly.
"Sounds really great, all of it, Perce. I just…dunno if I'm up for hashing it out right now. And I think…I'm actually going to try and hurry over to the Quibbler and see if I can't catch Luna on the way out. D'you think you can find Angelina and say goodbye for me?"
"Oh, of course."
"And Percy," George put his hand on Percy's shoulder. "Thanks again. I really mean it." He left before Percy could stammer a reply.
George strode quickly up the alley, fueled by adrenaline and, just possibly, a sense of hopefulness that had been missing for a very long time.
She's there. Or somebody is; the light's on. All you have to do is walk inside. But it could be somebody else. Or it could be her, and she could just blow you off, like she did the last time.
He decided to wait, to see if he could catch her coming out the door. After about ten minutes though, he felt a little ridiculous (if not like something of a stalker) and walked back down the alley in disgust. George contemplated heading home but realized that he would probably arrive right in the middle of dinner. In no mood to discuss his day with a crowd, he took a seat at a corner table in the Leaky.
Tom, the old bartender, had died over a year ago. He'd been trying to protect some random Muggle from a Death Eater attack right outside the door of the pub. The place had been taken over by Stan Shunpike, who found that people tended to find tales of his harrowing false imprisonment and the small part he'd played in the final battle much more entertaining than any of his earlier (and taller) tales had been.
George had always had a soft spot for Stan, who'd joined the Order a little late in the game, but had been a valuable member nonetheless, if only for comedic value. Thankfully, though, Stan had managed to pick up some of the instincts of a seasoned barkeep and was wise enough to realize that George was in no mood to reminisce.
George was sorely tempted to take a room at the Leaky for the night, if only for a bit of privacy, but knew that his family would be hurt by even so brief of an abandonment. At close to midnight, he trudged up the walkway of the Burrow, entering it to find only his father awake.
Arthur patted him on the back and offered him food, explaining that Harry had been the chef du' jour and that he was nearly as good a cook as Ginny was. George obligingly took a small sample, but admitted to his father that he'd had a long, draining day and was about to fall asleep on his feet.
He slept much better that the night before, but woke up disconcerted by some very vivid dreams about Luna as she'd looked the night before he'd left. The dream had been pleasant enough, but as he regained consciousness, his guilt about the way he'd used her and left her returned with a vengeance. All plans of going to see her again were abandoned.
George decided while in his (cold) shower to get to work on the decisions he had made yesterday with regard to the store, so he dug up his most presentable robes and apparated to a spot just around the corner from his lawyer's office
By the time he left, two hours later, he'd not only set things in motion in regards to the ownership of the shop but also reworked his will, leaving Luna's share as he'd had it before but transferring Fred's share to Fred's unborn son. The hopefulness that he'd felt when leaving the store the night before was back, in spite of the fact that erasing Fred's name from his will had felt like ripping his own arm off.
The first impulse he had as he walked out the door was to try and find Luna, but his stomach reminded him that he'd forgotten breakfast, so he went to the Leaky Cauldron to eat. He was halfway through a plate of beef stew when he felt a hesitant tap on his shoulder. He turned around to find Hermione, looking like she hoped he wouldn't bite her head off.
He stood up and leaned over to hug her "My baby brother's long suffering wife - fancy meeting you here! Tired of listening to the Cannons lose every Saturday afternoon?"
Hermione laughed. "No, actually, I've been working."
George sat back down, motioning for her to join him. "Isn't the Ministry pretty much closed on Saturdays?"
"Yes, which is exactly why I like working then. It's quieter."
"Or maybe you're just a workaholic, like that bloke I spent the morning with." He motioned for Stan to come over and take her order.
After she finished with Stan, she asked. "Who did you spend the morning with, George?"
"Lawyer," George said, and took a long, drawn out gulp of ale, hoping he wouldn't have to elaborate.
Hermione searched his face, obviously burning with curiosity, but too polite to pry. Finally she said, "A lawyer who doesn't keep banker's hours - must be a workaholic, indeed. Are you planning on suing somebody?"
"No, just updating my will," he threw out, knowing that it would shock her.
She looked stricken. "George...you're not…you'd better not be thinking of doing something stupid, after…everything. Stupid and selfish, actually…and cowardly, too…and—"
George stopped with a wave of his hand. "Nothing like that, honestly. I just took…yeah, Fred's name off it, and changed it to the baby. If I were going to kill myself, I'd have done it a long time ago, Hermione."
She sighed, then pursed her lips, bearing a startling resemblance to McGonagall. "Good."
"And as far as doing something stupid, I may have done just that, but I think it will turn out to be the right thing in the end. I made Percy a partner."
"So that means that you're going to stay on...keep it going, then?"
Hermione clapped her hands together. "Oh, George, that's wonderful! I'm so thrilled, I can't wait to tell Ron!"
"From the looks of it, he'll probably take it as bad news," George pointed out, remembering Ron's barely suppressed anger from two nights before.
Hermione's face fell. "Oh, that. He sort of took it personally, I suppose. He doesn't understand how you could leave like that when everybody needed—"
She broke off, looking embarrassed. "He'll come 'round eventually. Just give him time. This thing with Percy – it'll help, actually."
"Maybe," George conceded. "But that's not why I did it."
"You didn't…you didn't do it because he…saved your life, did you, George? Because he—"
"No," George said firmly. "He's earned it. I reckon I might actually find him useful after all. I sure as hell don't have a head for business. And, I seem to have lost my 'Advertising Executive,' so I'm gonna have to convince Angie to take on the job."
"Lost who?" Hermione looked confused for a moment, but the answer came quickly. "You mean Luna, don't you? Do you honestly think you've lost her, George?"
"Looks like," George replied.
Hermione shook her head vehemently. "You haven't lost her, George. She's the most loyal person I know. Well…apart from Ron, maybe. And Neville too, but I'm going off on a tangent. The point is - I mean, did you see her? Did you try?"
"Of course I tried! She was the first person I went to. She wouldn't even look at me. She just sent me home."
"Well, that's just about the smartest thing she could have done, actually. Not rejecting you, I mean, but sending you home. You couldn't expect her to trust you when you left your family frantic with worry, could you? Did she tell you not to come back?"
"No, actually. But she was so cool…"
"Luna was always cool, George, at least when she was pretending her feelings weren't hurt. You can't expect her to welcome you with open arms when you disappeared like you did. You've got to earn her trust again."
"It's not just the leaving, Hermione. I did some things; I really treated her badly before I left. I don't know if we're going to be able to…"
Hermione pursed her lips again. "Well you'd better try. You'd better try again and again, because you owe her that, George. She loves you."
George sighed, hoping to change the subject. He asked Hermione a few questions about her work, and sure enough, she was off on a tangent, babbling happily. George was able to listen to her with only half an ear, and finished the rest of his meal quickly. They got up to walk out together and Hermione asked where he was going.
"Home, I reckon," he replied. "But I don't know what for. There're too many people there. Maybe I'll just walk around London; mix with the Muggles a bit. I used to like doing that on a Saturday night."
She glared at him. "Go to Luna's, George."
He shuffled his feet, staring at the cobbled street. "Yeah, maybe I will. Say hello to Ronnikins for me. Maybe you can shag him into a better mood."
Hermione snorted in response, but stepped over and kissed him on the cheek. "Go to Luna, George."
He walked up the Alley to the Quibbler, but hadn't really expected to find anyone there. He could have apparated directly to her house, but he chickened out, instead walking back to the Leaky and going out the front door onto the Muggle street.
An hour or two of exploring London didn't manage to make things any less confusing for him. On most weekdays, he could have enjoyed the sight of them rushing to and from work, but on a Saturday everything seemed to be about family, or - worse yet - love and sex.
He sat down on a park bench, watching people playing with their dogs, with their kids, and sometimes with each other, snogging on blankets or benches or even up against trees. He tried to focus on the dogs, hoping to be amused, but there was really only so much arse-sniffing between canines that could be endured in a day. He decided to focus on the kids instead. That entertained him for a while, at least until a mother with ginger twins arrived, and even though it felt like a hole was being carved into his gut, he couldn't keep his eyes off them. This is bollocks, he thought.If I'm going to put myself through this kind of pain, I might as well go and see Luna.
Once again, he found himself at the bottom of the hill, staring at the pathway. Once again, he had to steel himself to take the first step. This time, however, the swing was empty, and he had to force himself to knock on the door.
The door opened even though there was nobody behind it. He heard her voice, as ethereal as ever, call out, "Come in, George, I'm in the kitchen."
He took another deep breath and wandered through the sitting room to the kitchen, where she stood with her back to him, peeling a carrot while looking out the window.
"Luna," he said hesitantly.
"Hello, George. It's good to see you."
Not that you've actually looked at me, have you? "Yeah, same here. Although I'd rather not look at the back of your head."
"Oh." She turned around, carrying a pan full of sliced carrots and placed it on the stove. "Are you hungry, George?"
Why does everybody seem to want to feed me? "Er, not really. I came to see you, actually."
"That's nice," she said vaguely. "Have you been to see your family yet?"
"Yeah, that's where I've been."
"Oh." She sat down at the table across from him, looking toward him, but not focusing on his face. "I imagine that made them happy," she prompted.
"Yeah, reckon so. Or maybe it didn't. I can't take all of them at once anymore. I don't know how to act; it's as if they're waiting for me to make a joke, so we can all forget what happened and move on."
"Nobody wants to forget it, George. You couldn't if you wanted to. But you do have to move on."
George couldn't imagine a time when it would hurt any less.
She continued. "They all helped each other though their grief. That's why they seem so much happier than you do. If you'd stayed, you might be feeling very differently about all this.
How the hell would you know? "None of them can understand what it feels like to lose someone like Fred…" He broke off, hating the sound of his voice.
Luna replied quietly. "Your dad lost his wife, George. Bill lost his best friend. Not everybody was as close to Fred as you were, but they didn't love him any less than you did. And besides, I think you're forgetting; you may have lost three people you loved, but you still are really very lucky to still have family left that loves you. Some people have nobody at all who loves them.
It didn't take much for him to realize she was talking about herself, and George felt like the most selfish bastard on earth. "I love you, Luna. And I didn't leave you, not forever, anyway. And I'm never going to leave you again, I swear."
Luna gave him a sad smile and changed the subject. "Did anybody tell you about the monument, George?"
"Yes, it's really very nice. They unveiled it about a month ago. There was a lovely little ceremony. It's too bad you missed it."
He really didn't want to talk about some bloody monument, but he tried to be polite and said, "That sounds cool. Where is it, at the Ministry?"
"No, it's in front of the gates at Hogwarts. If it had been at the Ministry, it might have been a different thing altogether. People like Sirius Black and Professor Snape might not have made it on there, not to mention creatures like Grawp, and Dobby, and some of the werewolves that were on our side. The Order actually funded it - not the Ministry.'
"Oh. It's got names on it? Of people who fought?"
"No, just the ones who died. I was thinking of visiting tomorrow. Well actually, I plan to visit one Sunday every month, to leave some flowers. Would you like to come with me?"
George really had no desire to even look at the blasted thing, but he instinctively knew that this was something of a test as far as Luna was concerned. Maybe sending him back to his family had been a test too. He found himself saying, "Yeah, sure, that sounds great. You want me to meet you here?"
"No, I don't think so. Let's meet in Hogsmeade, where we used to meet. Nine-thirty would be nice." She rose from the table, opening up the back door. "And thank you for coming by, George. It was really very nice to see you."
George knew when he was being dismissed. That didn't stop him from bending over and kissing the top of her head on the way out, but he reluctantly obeyed her unspoken request to leave.
Could have gone worse, I suppose. And, come to think of it, this is really sort of like a date, if you look at it upside-down and sideways - or you at least you could make it into one if you get her to eat with you at the Three Broomsticks after.
George really had to dig though his things trying to locate another respectably clean set of robes. He found himself remembering fondly how his mother somehow managed to sneak in and get his laundry done and put away every time he came to visit without even being asked. After a while, he decided to chuck the robe idea and wear some of the nicer of the Muggle clothes he'd picked up during his absence.
By shouting a greeting from the front door to the group in the kitchen, he managed to make it out of the house fairly quickly and onto the main road in Hogsmeade with five minutes to spare. He dashed into the flower shop and picked up the first bouquet he saw, made up of yellow roses and purple irises. He still had a minute or two to spare, so he slipped into the bakery to pick up a couple of cups of tea and some croissants.
Luna appeared at nine-thirty on the nose, greeting George with a vague, "Hello."
"Hey, Luna. You look nice," he said, eyeing the uncharacteristically dark robes she was wearing.
"How nice of you to say that, George," she said, adding, "I didn't get much sleep last night."
That makes two of us, then, he thought. They made their way down the street, past Zonko's boarded up windows and the familiar hanging sign in front of the Three Broomsticks, starting up the slope to the Hogwarts gates. The sight of the familiar towers becoming more visible through the breaks in the trees filled George with a strange mixture of comfort and dread. He stared down at the ground, wanting to reach for Luna's hand but not entirely certain how she'd react to it. He was a little startled, therefore, when she interrupted his musings with, "Isn't it beautiful?"
He assumed that she was talking about the recently repaired castle, but was suddenly confronted by a very tall white obelisk in front of his eyes. On it were carved hundreds of figures in bas-relief - mostly humans - but he recognized at least one giant, not to mention a mermaid, a centaur, and a house-elf. A circular wall, extending just over George's head, behind which a ring of fountains sprayed, surrounded it. There was a single line of words carved at eye level, extending the circumference of the wall. Surrounding the monument was a circular patch of grass, and beyond that was a gravel driveway. George could just picture the thestral-drawn carriages surrounding the monument and dropping off the students in an orderly fashion. He sure as hell wouldn't find them to be invisible anymore. He wondered if anybody would.
George hung back from the monument, not wanting to approach it too closely. He noticed that flowers had been placed all around the base of it, some in various states of decay, some fresh, and some putting off the distinct scent of the ever-blooming charm.
"The names are not in alphabetical order," Luna said quietly. "They thought that would just seem like any list from the newspaper. They put them in the order that they died so that it would be something of a timeline, like a history of the war." She walked directly to a spot on the wall. "See, George; the first name is Bertha Jorkins. Then you have that Muggle, Frank Bryce. Next come Cedric Diggory, and then Boderick Bode, and then look; here's Sirius Black. Here's Emmeline Vance. After that, there are some people I hadn't really heard of, but then, here, there's Albus Dumbledore. There's always an orchid left here for him, not an ever-blooming one, but a fresh one. I don't know who does it. After that, there's a lot more names I don't recognize."
George really wished she would stop talking, because he didn't want to follow her any further around the circle. He felt nauseated as it was. She ran her finger along the names of those she didn't know, occasionally saying a name that both of them knew out loud. Finally she came to her father's name and stopped, tracing the letters lovingly. She placed her bouquet on the ground and stood up with a sigh. George wished, with all his might, that she would stop there, but she continued. He knew what was coming next, and sure enough, she whispered 'Charlie Weasley,' a moment later.
"Come and see it, George," she said, and he reluctantly obeyed. The letters seemed to sear his retinas, but he found himself tracing them with his fingers. Luna put her arm around his waist and stood there with him for a few moments before pulling him along gently. He wanted to resist because he didn't want to see what was coming. More names he didn't know, and there it was - Sturgis Podmore, and then Molly Weasley. George swallowed the lump in his throat, leaning his forehead against the letters. The marble felt remarkably cool against his skin. He laid his bouquet of flowers on the ground below. Luna slid her arm up to his shoulder and squeezed, tracing the letters of his mother's name with the index finger of her other hand.
George sighed, trying to control his emotions and then resisted her attempt to pull him along further a few moments later. Eventually, he stopped resisting, and he saw a few more names of people he had worked with on occasion, but never got a chance to know really well. He saw Hermione's father and Harry's uncle, who'd died when the Death Eaters stepped up their attacks on Muggle relatives of wizards.
When he saw the name of one of his former dorm mates, he knew he'd gotten to the last day. Luna traced the names of some of her Ravenclaw classmates. George ran his fingers over the name of Alicia Spinnett, remembering how he'd once run his hands over her body. By the time he came to Fred's name, his nerves were stretched to the breaking point. He'd known it was coming, but still, the letters were a shock. He tried to blink back the tears, but they started coming too fast. He tried to bite his cheek to keep from making any noise, but still, a choked sob escaped from his throat. He slid down the wall and buried his head in his arms, his tailbone pressed against the cold marble. Luna sat down next to him, placing her hand on his back and not saying a word.
He took great gulping breaths, feeling like he was pinned beneath a slab of concrete. Luna slid her arm around him and pulled him into an embrace. At first, it seemed to make things easier, but eventually, he felt like his body was being squeezed to death. It took him a minute to realize that she had apparated them both away from the monument and back to her house, directly onto the floor in front of her sofa.
He stayed in her embrace for a long time, but eventually started feeling a little embarrassed about his behavior. He pulled away from her and rubbed his eyes with his fists, sitting back against the sofa. "Why did you make me do that, Luna?"
"I didn't make you do anything, George."
"Yes you did, you kept pulling me along, and …I didn't need to see that. You think I don't know they're dead? I think about it every minute of the day!"
"Yes, I thought you probably did. But I also thought, once you'd connected with your family again, that it might be less often. I thought you'd find other things to think about, too, and then maybe you might not be so angry. And the reason I wanted you to go there is to get some perspective. You're not the only one who feels like they lost everything. Every one of those people had loved ones that mourn them every day. But they moved on. They decided to keep living life instead of running away from it."
"I wish I could, Luna, but I'm just…lost. I don't know who I am anymore. Nobody knows who I am. They just know Fred-and-George, and that doesn't exist anymore. I'm half a person, really."
"I know who you are, George. And I think that Fred would have been really angry if he heard you calling yourself half a person. He didn't try to save your life just so that you could be miserable for the rest of your life, mourning him."
"Maybe he just didn't want to have to go through this himself," George muttered, hating the words that were coming out of his mouth.
Luna didn't respond, and was quiet for a long time after that. She rose up to sit on the sofa, and George, not wanting to strain his neck to keep looking up at her, followed suit.
Finally he spoke again. "I'm turning into a right bastard, aren't I?"
Luna remained silent, and he remembered that she was the person that he'd probably hurt the most directly with his anger. He found himself filled with remorse, thinking about his behavior of six months before, not to mention in all the months since. He knew that he had some making up to do.
"Listen; Luna. I meant to say this from the beginning - about that night, you know…before I left. I'm really, really sorry for what I did."
She turned towards him with startled eyes, still maddeningly silent.
He continued, "I was so angry - it was like there was this animal inside me. But I never meant to take it out on you, or use you like that. I was a real bastard, and I know I hurt you, and that was part of the reason that I was afraid to come back."
"You're apologizing for that, of all things?"
George gulped and nodded, feeling like some slimy thing from a jar behind Snape's desk.
Luna shook her head. "You didn't do anything that night that hurt me, and you didn't use me. If anything, we used each other."
George felt as if the earth had opened up beneath him. "What?"
She looked away toward the window. There was the slightest hint of pink in her cheeks. "I've read that after a battle, that sort of thing happens a lot. People want to feel alive, I suppose. I wanted to feel alive, and I thought that's how you felt, too, George."
"But I was awful!" he sputtered incredulously. "I was a…you deserved something more special your first time. You deserved something more than a nasty little room at the Hog's Head and you deserved someone who would have been gentle, and loving, and…"
"It was exactly what I wanted, George. I wanted you, and I wanted to feel something, anything besides shock and horror. Even the pain felt good, somehow. You didn't hurt me until I woke up the next day to find that sad little note on the dresser."
George squirmed in his seat. "I'm sorry."
She continued, matter-of-factly, "I thought it must have been a joke, and not a very good one, so I went home, and waited for you to come back. It wasn't until your family started coming by, frantically looking for you that I realized that you weren't joking. And that you'd left it to me to tell them that you'd left, too."
"I'm so bloody sorry. I thought you'd hate me for what I did to you."
She went on as if he hadn't spoken, "And not a note, not a word from you for all that time…"
"I kept writing letters, but I couldn't finish. And I kept thinking that I should ask if you were…well, I guess I was afraid I'd come back and find out that I'd knocked you up, and I was in no position to deal with that, so I just kept putting it off."
Luna sniffed, looking down at the floor beneath her feet. "I actually wished you had left me with a baby. In fact, I was really very sad about it the next month. I didn't want to be completely alone. Is that why you came back, to see if I was?"
George tried to catch her eyes. "No, I came back because I needed to see you again."
"And what about your family, George?" she asked quietly. "Didn't you need to see them again?"
He shook his head. "It wasn't the same thing. You—I knew you saw past 'the twins' but my family—I don't know how to deal with them. I don't have anything to offer them because I'm just this pathetic, miserable bastard who sucks away all the laughter in a room, and I used to be the bloke that brought the fun with him."
"Nobody loved you because you were funny, George."
He snorted. "That's a load of crap if I ever heard one."
Luna leant over to pick up a toffee from the glass bowl on the table. "It's true, George. The people that really loved you - your family and friends - loved you because you were kind, and loving, and brave, and good. Funny was just the icing on the cake. Everybody would understand if you never make a joke again – they'd still love you. If you'd stayed you and your family could have mourned Fred together but by leaving you made them mourn you, too, and that was really unfair. I think they'll be willing to overlook it in the end, though; they love you enough."
George really didn't want to talk about his family any more. "Do you still love me, Luna?"
She gave him a sad smile. "I'll always love you, George - in a way. But I don't trust you very much."
He felt like he'd taken a Bludger to the stomach. "I'm so sorry, Luna. I never stopped thinking about you. I tried, but I couldn't"
"Then why did you stay away so long?" she asked.
"I reckon...I just couldn't breathe with people hovering around me, smothering me with hugs and giving me those pitying looks. I knew that it would only get worse."
Luna shook her head, looking down at her hands. "Some people would give everything they had to be cared for like that."
This was not going at all like he'd hoped it would. "That's not what I mean, Luna. I love them and all; I just needed to be away from them."
"You could've taken me with you. I wouldn't have hovered, and nobody would've missed me. We could've run away together."
And it would've been great, if only I hadn't been convinced you that thought I was a monster, he thought, mentally kicking himself for jumping to conclusions."I was a horrible person for a while there. I was miserable and angry - starting fights and biting people's heads off for asking me the time of day. You would've hated it."
"I wouldn't have cared, George. What did I have here, with you gone? You may have lost a lot, but I lost everything. You were the only family I had left."
George started to reach for her hand but wasn't sure how she'd respond. "I'm sorry, Luna. I'm so goddamn sorry. I wish I'd taken you with me, but at the time—I thought you probably hated me for what I'd done. I'll do anything to make it up to you, if you'll just give me a chance."
Luna shook her head. "I can't, George. I've finally gotten to the point where I feel relatively normal. I'm happy now. I don't ever want to hurt like that again."
"Luna, I swear; I'll never do something like that again. I'll always be here for you." He did reach for her hand then, but she pulled hers away.
"You can't promise that, George. No one can. I'm better off this way. I have friends; I have work. I don't need those intense feelings anymore. I don't want to put my heart in someone else's hands."
George started to panic. "Well that's too bad, Luna. I'm not going to let you walk around in a fog like you used to. It would be a bloody waste of a life, and it wouldn't even stop bad things from happening to you. Your feelings for me aren't going to stay buried; you've already shown me in dozens of ways that you still have them. So yell at me - hit me - I deserve it; I was a prick. But there's no way in hell I'm going to let you push me away."
Luna fixed her eyes on her silver-painted fingernails. "Please leave, George. I don't want this anymore."
He ignored her request and put his arms around her, burying his face in her neck. She remained limp and silent in his embrace.
"Luna," he pleaded, taking her face in his hands. She kept her eyes on a spot beneath his chin.
"Look at me, damn it!" he insisted, tilting her face up toward his.
Luna finally met his gaze, her eyes misty and unfocused.
He kissed her then, desperate for a reaction from her, but she remained still. He kissed her again, with more and more intensity, gripping her arms roughly until she finally sobbed, "I cant!" and pushed him away.
She scrambled away from him, sliding to the floor below the couch, but he followed, trying to pull her back into his arms. When she halfheartedly pushed him away again, he held her closer, kissing the top of her head. She whispered, "Go away, George."
"No," he said stubbornly.
George kissed the top of her head again, sliding his fingers down her hair to the middle of her back. He felt a damp spot spreading out on his collar and realized that she was crying.
She must have realized that he could feel her tears, because she looked up at him with furious, liquid eyes and said, "I hate you, George Weasley! I hate you for doing this to me. I hate you for sneaking off like a coward. I hate you for leaving me feeling so empty inside. You left me with nothing, you selfish bastard!"
Now that's more like it, George thought, even though her words felt like a knife twisting in his gut. "I know. I'm going to spend the rest of my life making it up to you, I promise." He pulled her onto his lap and held her tightly, which only made her cry harder, her sobs causing her body to quake in his arms. To his profound relief, however, she didn't try to push him away again.
He continued to hold her, stroking her hair until her body calmed. "I love you," he said, but she only sniffed in reply. He summoned a handkerchief with his free hand, slipping it under the curtain of her hair. She made use of it, but still refused to look at him.
George sighed, figuring that as long as she stayed in his arms, it didn't matter if she never talked to him again. A random thought flashed into his brain. "I saw a Crumple-Horned Snorkack."
Luna raised her head, looking up at him through reddened eyes. "You did? When?"
"About six weeks ago," he replied. I actually tried to catch one, but he got away."
She blinked. "Why did you want to catch a Crumple-horned Snorkack, George?"
"For you, actually. I didn't want to come home empty-handed."
Luna stared at him for a moment, and then a slightly hysterical laugh escaped her lips. "You went looking for them? In Sweden?"
"Of course in Sweden. Where else was I going to find one?"
"H-how long did you look?"
"Oh, about three weeks, maybe four. I eventually had to give up when it rained for six straight days. But I did take a picture."
She sat up at that. "A picture? You got a picture?"
George felt the tiniest seed of hopefulness begin to take root in his heart. "Sure did - maybe more than one. I haven't got it developed yet, though. Had to use a Muggle camera and I was thinking about asking Hermione or that Creevey kid to help me figure out how to do that. I thought, now that I have a general idea where they are, we might go back there some day. I reckon I'd like camping out a lot better if you were with me. I might even enjoy the rain."
Luna seemed to be reading his mind because she immediately blushed. She didn't object, though, so he took that as a good sign. He lifted her chin up, and she lowered her eyes. "Don't do that, Luna, " he said. "I've missed looking at you. I've missed the way you used to look at me."
Her eyes remained stubbornly downcast, so he kissed one eyelid, then the other, brushing the last traces of her tears away. He lowered his mouth to brush his lips across hers, closing his own eyes and cupping her face with trembling hands. She didn't resist, but she didn't exactly participate, either. He gave it another try, and then another. His third kiss ended with her sliding her arms around his neck, which made him absolutely dizzy with hope.
Don't push her too far, Weasley, he thought, and he did his best to keep his kisses gentle and chaste. She was the one who changed things by opening up her mouth and deepening the kiss. Trying to ignore his pounding heart and spinning head, he plunged his hands into her hair, exploring her mouth with his tongue. She sighed in response, and he scrambled up onto his knees, pulling her with him, never taking his mouth off hers. He slid his hands down to her waist, molding her body against his.
"Need you, Luna. Please don't send me away," he said, as he broke away from her for a gulp of air.
She buried her face into the crook of his neck, saying, "No, George. Never again."
George could have interpreted her words two different ways, but decided to hope for the best. He gathered her up in his arms and carried her across the sitting room and into the hallway, opening up the first door he came to, which happened to be her childhood bedroom.
George had never been so nervous in his entire life. He knew that everything he wanted was riding on this, and he understood more than ever before how much he had to lose. He wanted to make up for that other night, for the frantic, angry coupling in that sad little room that smelled of goats. He'd mentally flagellated himself over the last few months for having waited so long, wanting to do right by Luna, and then blowing it all in a rush of grief and lust and leftover adrenaline.
Of all the places he'd imagined re-seducing Luna, a room with painted walls depicting fanciful creatures and a tulle-draped four-poster bed had been about the furthest thing from his mind. Still, it was an improvement on the Hog's Head, and he could certainly do a few things to change the atmosphere. After depositing her on the bed with another kiss, he cast a spell on the window, blocking the sunlight streaming through it.
Luna spoke to him through the darkness, "What are you doing, George? I can't see anything."
He lit the candles of the room one by one with a wave of his wand. "That was sort of the point, actually, Luna. I thought it'd be better by candlelight."
"Oh, I see. That's all right, I suppose. I like the way your hair looks by candlelight. I like it even better when there's a fire. Can we have a fire, George?"
"Bit warm for that, don't you think?"
"Maybe so. I have goosebumps on my skin, but I don't think it's because I'm cold."
"No, probably not. I've got them too."
If she wants a fire, I'm bloody well going to give her a fire, he thought, and went about making one, casting a cooling charm in front of it so that it wouldn't heat up the room. The magical creatures on Luna's walls seemed to dance in the firelight, and when he turned to her again she was beaming, with the flames reflecting in her eyes. His chest felt constricted by a sudden surge of emotion and he sat down on the edge of her bed, sinking into the overstuffed white coverlet. "I like the way you look by firelight too, Luna. You have no idea how beautiful you are to me." He reached out to brush his fingertips down the length of her hair.
"It seems strange to have you here in my room, George. I've thought about you so much in here."
"We can go someplace else," he said quickly.
"Oh, no; please stay here. It's perfect, actually. I've dreamed about you sitting there, just like that. But in my dream you didn't have any clothes on, which was really nice. Do you think that you could take your clothes off, George?"
It took a minute for George to catch his breath. I thought I was supposed to do the seducing here, he thought. "Sure, Luna. Anything you like. But only if I can take yours off, too."
With a shy smile, Luna began unbuttoning her robes. George stopped her, placing his hand over hers. "I'd like to do that, if you'll let me."
"Oh," she said quietly, and released the button she was holding, reaching out instead to touch George's face.
As he slowly undid the buttons of her robe, brief flashes of memory came to him; blurred images of the flesh he was about to uncover. He wondered if she was thinking along similar lines. He slid her robe off one shoulder, sucking in his breath as he looked at her. As he leaned over to kiss her the crescent-shaped birthmark on her neck, he slid her robe the rest of the way off, watching it pool around her waist. He sat back and traced a line from her collarbone to her navel, marveling at the softness of her skin.
She didn't say anything but reached out to finger the collar of his shirt. After brushing aside her hand, he reached around his back and pulled it off in a few quick movements, tossing it onto the floor. He looked up to see that Luna's cheeks had become flushed and her breath seemed to have quickened. She reached out to his chest, running feather light fingers over the skin, tracing the freckles. She, too, slid her hands down to his navel, but she didn't stop there; her fingers circled the top button of his trousers in an unspoken request. She seemed to be thwarting his plans for a long, slow seduction, but George was determined to give her whatever she asked of him. More quickly than he had envisioned, the rest of their clothes were piled on the floor below them, and they lay together, skin to skin, slowly exploring each other in a way that their frantic coupling had left no time for.
Logic might have suggested that Luna would be a passive partner; treating the whole thing like it was happening to someone else, but George knew her better than that. She was thirsty for knowledge and new experiences, and was more comfortable in her own skin than anybody he'd ever known.
As George lay above her, trembling with emotion and anticipation, she said, "I've pictured you in my dreams like this a thousand times, George. I see your face looking down at me, you with your hair like a halo and your body pressing against me. Someday I'd like to do this in a meadow, so that I can look up at you with the sun behind your hair. You'd look like an ancient fire god."
George smiled. Only Luna Lovegood would be taken by a flight of fancy at such a moment. Not that he didn't like her idea - in fact, he planned to make it happen as soon as possible, thinking of the meadow filled with wildflowers at the bottom of her hill. He had a fancy of his own: to lie with her under the night sky, with her hair turning silver in the moonlight and her eyes reflecting the stars. "I love you, Luna," he said.
"I love you, George," she replied.
As she welcomed him into her body, George discovered that coming home didn't always have to do with a physical address.
Luna, on the other hand, feeling as though the world had spun off its axis, learned that her mother had been telling the truth: love really was the most powerful magic in the world.
George propped himself up on an elbow, twisting a lock of Luna's hair around his finger. "Luna, will you marry me?"
"Of course, George. When would you like to do it?"
"As soon as possible," he replied, envisioning the rest of their lives tucked away in this cottage, possibly surrounded by children.
"Well, the Ministry is closed today, but we could go tomorrow, if you like."
George smiled, realizing how much he'd missed her literal translation of his words. And although he was sorely tempted by her idea, he knew it wasn't the right thing to do. "No; I reckon I owe it to my family to have an actual wedding. It'll be tricky, too, because I don't want to upstage Ginny and Harry. We'll figure it out, somehow."
"Speaking of your family, shouldn't you be going soon?"
She's kicking me out—now? he thought in a panic. "Going?"
"Sunday dinner, George."
George sighed, "Oh, bugger. I don't think I'm up for that, actually. I'd rather stay here in bed with you."
She sat up, looking at him pointedly but remaining silent.
George tried to ignore the fact that the sheet had puddled around her waist, which was making the 'staying in bed' option much more appealing. His conscience, however, agreed with Luna.
Bugger. "Oh, all right, then. But only if you come with me, Luna."
Her eyes lit up. "I'd love that, George! I haven't been since—well since before you left."
"Because they weren't my family. They were yours."
"That's…" He wanted to say 'absurd,' but it occurred to him that from Luna's point of view, as somebody who'd been the object of ridicule and rejection for the greater part of her life, it made perfect sense. "They'll be your family now, Luna. They have been for a long time, actually, but we'll make it official."
"I'd like that, George," she said, throwing her arms around him and kissing him enthusiastically, which resulted in a much later arrival at the Burrow than planned.
In spite of his newfound sense of hopefulness, George had to breathe deeply quell the nausea that kept rising up in his stomach as he walked up the lane to the Burrow. He could hear the raucous voices around the table even from this far away, and he didn't know if he was quite prepared for the inevitable onslaught of people when they walked into the kitchen.
Luna seemed to know how he was feeling, and squeezed his hand in reassurance. Sure enough, the noise level when he entered the room was deafening, but he found that he didn't mind so much after all. Everybody seemed to have gotten over their discomfort and their need to tiptoe around George, and Luna managed to take a little of the focus off of him.
After greeting everybody and finding a drink and a plate of food thrust into his hands, George was able to fade quietly into the background for probably the first time in his life, sitting back and letting everyone else do the talking. It was certainly an enlightening experience. George had usually found himself to be the center of attention, or at least he had always shared the limelight with Fred. If he was going to be perfectly honest, he knew they'd actually craved the attention. There was something really to be said, however, for being an observer. He was able to notice things about his family members that would have completely escaped him before.
He noticed that Ron seemed a little obsessed with Hermione's hair, touching it whenever he got the opportunity. He noticed that Bill was showing the slightest signs of paunch around his middle, probably from all of that rich French food he'd been eating.
He noticed that Ginny's hair was growing darker as she got older, and that it might very well end up something like the shade of Lily Potter's hair. He noticed that his father had more gray around his temples, and that his eyes darted around the table, keeping track of every one of his children the way that George's mother used to do.
After dinner, George sat back and watched as Bill and Ron played an intense game of chess, completely oblivious to the room around them. He then got a kick out of Hermione and Ginny as they sat down on either side of Angelina, both of them putting their hands on her belly and squealing with delight at the antics of the baby within. Percy, who was ostensibly a spectator of the chess game, couldn't seem to keep his eyes from darting towards the trio on the couch, George noticed. And then there was Fleur, singing softly as she attempted to rock Fabian to sleep in Molly's old knitting chair, while he struggled halfheartedly to escape. Finally, he watched his father and Luna as they happily sorted through a box of Muggle medical supplies confiscated by Arthur's old officemate, Perkins, and passed along for Arthur's amusement. George found his smile widening with each object they examined, trying to determine its use. When Arthur attempted to fasten a bedpan to his chest like a shield and Luna looked over at George, giving him that old solemn wink, he couldn't help himself.
For the first time in over six months, George Weasley laughed.