A/N: (I'm alive! Further details on profile if you want 'em). Still J.K.'s world, still just playing in it.

I badly need to go back and make some editing/formatting to the earlier chapters. Will try to get around to that before next update.

If you can't for the life of you remember what this story was about: George without Fred, a story for each year to the epilogue, or just about. And this chapter, George is seeing the world a little (I apologize in advance for the awful French accents; this is not how I would write a French accent; I just spent a lot of time trying to imitate how J.K. did so. To mixed effect.).


The last time George set foot in another country, he was fifteen years old, visiting Bill in Egypt. That trip had also been his first time outside Great Britain (except Ireland, but George didn't count that). The year before that, he and Fred had gotten halfway across the Channel during one of their early jaunts in the flying Ford Anglia but turned back to beat the sunrise to the Burrow.

Charlie had wanted George to go to Romania right after Fred died. 'The mountains would do him good' or some rot, as if the fresh air could fill up his holes. George stayed home instead, digging up all the slapdash Fred-and-George projects that had never come together and trying to see them through. Those early months, he kept in his mother's sight lines as much as he could bear, and when he couldn't, escaped to the shed, where his father put all his grief into piecing Sirius Black's flying motorbike back together. Arthur Weasley was a man who could be quiet, and so he was the only person, besides Harry Potter, who George felt it was all right for him to be quiet around, instead of trying to fill the seeping silence with running babble, to assure everyone he was all right, he'd live and all.

They'd had the motorbike in its altogether and shining come Christmas of that first year, to give back to the boy who'd saved the wizarding world, with a little help from his friends.

It was odd, to think of how long ago that was now. Because that was After Fred. And Fred never seemed long ago.

George refused to believe he ever would.

The motorbike, though, he'd all but forgotten. Harry had made a point of telling George and Mr. Weasley it would come in incredibly handy in his early Auror missions, even though they hadn't restored all the button features Mr. Weasley had so excitedly included when he'd prepped it for the run from Privet Drive. George wasn't sure how long it had taken for the joy of fixing and inventing things to come easily to his father again. It had taken George several years, locked up in his shop, for trying to create something funny to actually be fun again.

George kicked down the ratcheting lever of Harry's motorbike. His brother-in-law had offered it in loan for the haphazard world tour George had not-quite-planned, and George hadn't hesitated to accept it. Harry may have made use of it in his brief bachelor days at 12 Grimmauld, but for years now the motorbike had simply sat as a sentimental monument in the Potter family garage…and Harry had always been more at home on a broomstick anyhow, never really wanting roar and ruckus.

The motorbike finally kick-started with a rumble, smoke churning out the exhaust pipe. George grinned, toeing the shift lever into the right gear and giving the bike some throttle.

He lifted off into the waiting night, taillight winking goodbye to home.

Cast in the lights from the surrounding lower town, the stone walls of Caracassone looked almost white from a distance. The blue of the turrets made the fortified town look like an enchanted castle straight out of Beedle the Bard, low, long, seeming almost dainty compared to towering Hogwarts.

George had brought the bike to the ground out in the countryside, a mile or so away. He made his approach on the old French roads. He felt more and more at ease as he passed under each squared-off arch of iron set at intervals on the bridge crossing to Carcassone. The metal of the bike caught the light of the old-fashioned Muggle lanterns held in a decorative twist at the top of each arch.

Under the very last arch, Gabrielle Delacour sat shimmering on the side of the bridge looking out over the River Aude. She wore a belted trench coat and fitted bell-shaped hat, both of the palest blue. She did not look over at the sound of the approaching motorcycle.

He pulled over to her side and puttered to a halt. "I like the hat," he said.

She swiveled, even in surprise moving as fluidly as water. "George!" she cried, making the G's of his name sound slushily soft. Before he could even swing his leg properly off the bike, she had flung her arms around his neck, kissed both cheeks, and darted away so she could circle the bike appraisingly.

"Mmm," she said, hands on her hips. "Que fantastique. I thought we might take the train to Paris, for zat you might see the countryside, but a motocyclette—much, much better. When may I drive?"

"Can you drive?" George said, trying to recover his balance both literally, since he had yet to get both feet on the ground, and figuratively. Gabrielle, twenty now, had grown up a little too well; he pitied the boys of Hogwarts days to come if Victoire and Dominique favored the veela side.

She flashed a pearly smile. "I am a verry quick study."

Oh, he'd bet.

"You know what, I've never much gone for faint heart or denying fair ladies," said George, gesturing grandly. "Take her away, Gabri."

Within a few minutes, George was very glad he hadn't yet told her the motorbike could fly. All that could really be said for her driving was her enthusiasm and that she did figure out how to accelerate. And if George had to put his hands over hers to take over the steering, it wasn't what he'd call a hardship.

Mercer and Apolline Delacour were frighteningly happy hosts and, though George had been brushing up his non-existent French, eager to practice their English, which had been steadily refining since their daughter married an Englishman.

"Oh, no, no, no, you must stay more than a night or two, s'il te plait," Apolline said, handing George yet another wine glass in one hand and sending the dessert tray floating before him again with a flick of her wand. "And another macaron, you must- zey are the originals! The macarons of the French Revolution! In ma famille, we keep the secret, we keep it pure."

"They're almost too good-looking to eat," George said. "But how could I say no to you, madam?" He took another one of the colored cookies, feeling the slight twinge of disloyalty he always felt when comparing a meal in another house to one in his mother's. Not that he believed a better meal existed than in Molly Weasley's kitchen, but the presentation in Apolline Delacour's, with little flames dancing all around the table and the finest silver on display, was a whole other world.

"No one can say no to Apolline," Mercer Delacour said warmly. Both Delacours insisted on George calling them by their first names; it felt very strange and made George feel a stab of oldness, but at least moving from "Monsieur" to "Mercer" wasn't asking too much. "And she is right. Stay 'ere longer. How did it come to pass that you 'ave not seen our France before? You must 'ave a week, in Carcassone alone, and then, Avignon, all of Provence—a month, for Paris! Gabrielle can tell you everywhere to go."

"Bah, Gabrielle can show 'im," Apolline said. "She is, ah, en vacances. You might say, between ze work."

Gabrielle, seated at George's elbow, sipped her champagne. "Do not let my maman make you think me lazy, George Weasley," she said. "I am finding my place, zat is all. Sadly, I receive proposals for marriage, often; for sensational work, verry seldom."

"I'm expanding Weasley's Wizard Wheezes internationally, actually, so if you were at all interested, Gabri, we could talk shop later," George said, so automatically he surprised himself.

Gabrielle set the champagne glass down so haphazardly it spun, and George had to reach out to keep it from spilling. She was suddenly looking at him so very intensely he found himself alarmed.

"Oh, George!" Apolline suddenly clapped her hands, and her whole face lit up; George momentarily felt as if he was looking at the Apolline Delacour her husband must have met many years ago. Her hands then flew out in wild movements as she spoke, which only made her the more dazzling. "Of course she would be interested! She 'as quite a brain, our Gabrielle; ze men, zey forget that so easily, with ze women in our line."

"Maman," Gabrielle said, a little sharply and a little more embarrassed.

George was now blushing; the full attention of a half-veela like Apolline was a heady thing, even if she was his mother's age.

"Eet ees time for our after dinner stroll," Mercer said, his cheeks aglow too at his wife's delight. He touched her hand, stroking it. "You will 'ave to see the gardens later, George. You should talk, now, and finish the champagne. It ees a good year, is it not?"

"So far," George said, belatedly realizing Mercer meant the bottle. He'd had a few more glasses than he'd meant to; he needed to watch that. He'd been more careful with alcohol, in recent years, sticking to the lighter stuff only.

Mercer held out his hand to his wife and she allowed him to draw her up. Arms linked, they made brief farewell and removed to the garden, silhouettes out the window in the French moonlight, her tall shapely figure leaning into Mercer's rather less impressive one.

Gabrielle, reclaiming her glass and her cool composure, poured them both more champagne with an air of relief. "Zey are not verry discrete," she said.

"They seem verry happy," George said, catching himself mimicking her accent. He resolved to cut it out.

"No, seelly," Gabrielle said. George eventually translated that as "silly," as she let out a light laugh. "In trying to, ah, pair us off."

"Us?" he said, startled. "In the sense of employment? That's logical enough—"

"In the sense of romance," Gabrielle said smoothly.

George coughed on his champagne. "Now that is seelly," he said, correcting, with an extra cough, "Silly. I'm old—"

"Bah, you are not thirty," Gabrielle said, waving it off.

"—we're practically related—"

"We are not, though," Gabrielle said. As George simply stared, she added, "My parents like you, they like your family, to them, as you say, ees logical enough." She let out a peel of laughter at his expression and kept giggling into her champagne flute as she said, "Tell me more, George, about thees 'international expansion' of yours."

"It's more 'gradual world domination,' really," he said, resuming his comfortable tone. But to be on the safe side, he set down his champagne.

Gabrielle was not only an excellent tour guide, but something of a tonic. George could not remember the last time he'd had a true flirtation, no serious undercurrent, just teasing and coy glances and laughs with no expectation on either end. It was how things used to be, for him, but he hadn't found it in England in years, even when he tried in Muggle bars (there was always questions about the ear, and he never felt comfortable wearing the stupid falsie.)

He did, in fact, remember his last real flirtation, with a lurch, over chocolate croissants with Gabri in Paris. Verity, of course; Verity who he and Fred hired more for the lark of a pretty, slightly older girl working for them than for need of help, Verity who'd stayed upbeat through every shop chore and flirted back with remarkably good humor. Verity who tried so hard and so nervously to help George when he first went back to the shop alone, Verity who then seemed so underfoot and mawkish he had fired her without a thought. That was… not well done of him. Verity had never had quite the magic she needed for Hogwarts, though she'd gotten home-training; the job meant the world to her. And his lousiness was compounded in that he'd slept with her, for the one and only time, that same week.

Of course, Verity ran his Hogsmeade branch now; business replies to Verity, along with postcards for the nieces and nephews, were the only correspondence George had sent out on his vacation so far. Beyond rehiring and promotion, every form of apology and years, now, stood between now and then, but chariness, on both sides, lingered. They were friends, more of an 'at last' than an 'again', but the old lightness between them was lost, forever.

"George," Gabri said, reaching over the café table with a napkin and a smile, "you have chocolate, everywhere."

"My chin isn't everywhere," George protested but let her dab his face clean.

She tapped his chin before leaning back. "So solemn, Monsieur Weasley," she said. "Denier for your thoughts?"

"You put me in mind of another smart blonde," he said, trying for a devilish grin. (Fred was always better at those. Even with the extra years for practice, George still felt he couldn't match it).

"If it ees smart blondes you favor," Gabrielle said, tapping her fingers on her coffee cup, "remember, my cousins live in Paris. You 'ave met them. "

"The veela cousins?" George said. "From your seest—sister's wedding? I think I'd remember if you mentioned that."

"Did I not?" she said innocently. "Who did you think we were meeting for drinks, for the shopping?"

"More of your friends." They'd been crashing on futons of her school friends throughout the countryside, in Lyons, in Orleans. Gabrielle Delacour was a popular girl.

"My cousins, zey are also my friends," she said. "…To, ah, a point. You will see, this afternoon."

"Today?" George said. "Give a fellow more of a bracing period next time. A pack of ladies with beauty like yours might just boil this poor aging wizard's English blood."

"Not so poor, not so aged. The English blood, I cannot help you there, and if the countryside of France has not braced you for beauty, nothing will," Gabrielle said. She adjusted her hat. "But watch your tongue. In every sense. My cousins are more, ah, pure veela than me. Provoked, zey will bite."

George raised an eyebrow. "As if you wouldn't."

She flashed her pearls. "Ah, George. You are beginning to know me well."

After their morning meal, she took him about the city, from the Eiffel Tower, since it had to be done, to the Champs-Elysees.

Then they started shopping, in tiny alleys still secretly tucked amid the widened boulevards, in bits of old Paris still hidden behind the new. George did not even mind the occasional clothes shop. It came from not having finer things growing up, he supposed, how much he liked dapper jackets and well-fitted dress robes, and he had a soft spot for strange ties and funny hats. Mostly, though, he was taking notes at the potioneers and eyeing the novelty shops with a critical eye and attention to French humor. He thought his line of masks, allowing for brief mistaken identity, not lasting long enough to commit a crime or get particularly naughty, might go over well.

He was getting Gabrielle's opinions on ridiculous hats when a fluting voice rang out.

"'Ello! Poil de carotte!"

"Here zey come," Gabrielle said. George turned.

Three women carrying bags were sweeping toward them down the broad avenue, drawing dramatic attention in their wake. They wore small, stylish hats like Gabrielle's, but George remembered them in far more dramatic toppers, decorated with enchanted birds and fancy flowers. They did not appear to have aged a day since Bill and Fleur's wedding.

When he was twenty, George had thought them sophisticated and mature. At eight-and-twenty, he saw them as barely older than Gabrielle, women only just flitting past their teenage years. In reality, they were probably twice his age.

They stopped before him and Gabrielle, posing imperiously. "I remember you," the one in the middle said throatily. "It was Fred, no?"

"No," said George.

Gabrielle said something in hasty French that George couldn't follow, looking over at him sharply, but George found himself smiling. No one had called him Fred in years.

"No, zis was one was mine," the veela on the right said, tossing her shining hair. "Ze other one had both his ears."

"Ah, yes. I remember it well."

George, trying not to laugh, dug through his memory. "Selphine?" he said to the one who had claimed him. He glanced at the other two. "And…I seem to be so blinded by your presence that I find myself at an utter loss."

"'Appens all the time," the veela on the left said with a dismissive wave. "Gabrielle, introductions."

Gabrielle arched her brows, which appeared less silvery and simply ash blonde in contrast to her full-blood relatives. They practically glowed. "George. My cousins, Aurore, Helaine, and Selphine—who I theenk you recall well enough."

"Mesdemoiselles, it is criminal how long I've gone without experiencing your radiance."

Gabrielle scoffed.

George turned his head toward her, mouthing "Too much?"

She signaled 'a smidge' with her thumb and forefinger.

"Let us 'ave drinks," Selphine announced. "You may carry our bags, George."

"I'm so honored," George said drolly, as the veela cousins handed over their shopping. He was still impressed by their beauty, but perhaps because he'd gotten used to the Fleur effect years before, he was not that impressed.

Their company startled the hell out of the customers of a burger bar. George trailed in the wake of the ladies, who strolled right to the back and opened up an out-of-order restroom door that actually led to a café that looked like it hadn't changed in two hundred years. Gabrielle explained it dated back to the plotting of the1832 wizarding riots, barely covered up by a small Muggle insurgence, which led directly to establishment the present French Ministry's first incarnation.

"Not married," Selphine observed, lifting his hand; while Helaine, who had wandered off with Fred so many years ago, inquired something of Gabrielle in French.

"Oui, a Katie?" Gabrielle, with a look at George, clearly kept to English for his benefit. He resolved to modify that false ear of his to provide translations. "Zey are on a break."

There was a chorus of "bahs" to the break, while Aurore asked, eyes narrowed, "Is he for you, Gabrielle?"

Gabrielle shrugged, mildly, throwing up her hands dismissively. All three of the cousins pressed suddenly closer.

"I feel I ought to be alarmed," George said, over their silvery heads, "but somehow I can't quite muster up the fear."

"Zat would be the veela pheromones," Gabrielle said, very dryly. "If men could fear us, how would we catch them?"

"The sewers, tonight, for you," Selphine announced.

"Plan to use me up that quickly, do you?" George said. Gabrielle wasn't wrong; it really was difficult to muster even a jolt of concern.

"Non, non," Helaine said, her lips so against his ear George wondered what Fred would think, "the best of the dancing, it is all under ze ground."

"You dance divinely," Selphine purred. "I remember zat well."

Perhaps he was a smidge concerned. And he'd never felt more out of dancing practice.

The surprisingly high-ceilinged sewer clubs of Paris—they went to three—lived up to everything the veela cousins promised and then some. There were steaming drinks floating overhead that would plummet into one's hand after he paid—and George paid for all the girls' drinks, all night. Gabrielle did try to insist on getting a round but he told her the very thought offended him. It did, in fact, since he knew, despite the fine dining silver and grand old house, the Delacour family was not flush in fortune; the Triwizard Tournament money of bygone days would have meant nearly as much to Fleur back then as it had to him and Fred.

There were dancers with tattoos that writhed along with them, a Greek stag party who all seemed to have some satyr blood, pounding remixes of old Hobgoblin songs, and wall graffiti that glowed in time to the beat. Selphine took off with one of the Greeks— so much for nostalgia— but to George's surprise, the other three seemed content to be twirled and spun in by just him. Gabrielle taught him the Charleston and some other twenties dances she'd picked up at a dance hall that had never quite left that decade; they'd go there tomorrow night, she said. George ended the evening surprisingly sober, but with Gabrielle's bell hat on his head nonetheless.

Gabrielle was a little less sober, her accent thicker under the alcohol. "You could have gone 'ome with Aurore," she said, as they walked arm-in-arm up out of the exit along the Seine and crossed a bridge to their boutique hotel, adjoining rooms. "She never ends a night before seex in the morning. You saddened her, I theenk."

"I try not to sadden anybody. I'm in the opposite business, you know."

"I was a leetle girl then, I do not remember," Gabrielle said, abruptly and seemingly apropos of nothing. "'Ow you were, once. But I 'ave seen pictures, and 'ow your brothers are. For a joking man, your eyes do not smile. Never, never—"

At this point George had to grab Gabri's waist to keep her from toppling out of her heels and into the river; he kept a better grip on her as they kept walking.

"Really, never?" he said. He meant to say it lightly but some anxiety bled through.

"Eet es irony, I theenk," she said. "The funny man, who ees never happy—irony, no?" She frowned up at him, reaching out to touch his clenching jaw. "I was not trying to sadden you, either."

"Sometimes the truth is the real joke," George said. "Even horrible things are funny, from the right angle. Laughing at them's no different, except for the bad taste it leaves in your mouth."

Her hand slid from his jaw to cup his face, and George stopped walking.

"Would it help to kiss me?" she asked, in a very thoughtful tone of voice.

George thought about it. And then he thought some more. He was pretty sure there was far too much thinking going on. Between the moonlight glinting off the Seine and shimmering on every fine strand of Gabrielle Delacour's fair hair, he shouldn't have been thinking at all.

"I can't say it'd hurt," he said, too late. Her hand already drifted off his face, and up, to reclaim her hat.

She took his hand and leaned back against him with an "Mmm." And they walked the rest of the way back to the hotel in companionable silence, where he showed her to her room and went to his own.

He lay awake for a few hours, feeling very old and wondering if Fred would have kids by now, and how many, and what names. George, of course, had no doubt who Fred would have had kids with.

Fred would have married first. (Fred always did things first, and faster, and let George do the extra thinking.) And maybe, since in some small ways he'd still have lost Fred, to his new family, George would still have come to Paris and gone dancing with Gabrielle Delacour and thought her too young and gorgeous for him but not cared. That George, thought this George, would probably have eloped on the spot and brought Gabri home to show her off, like a new dragon hide jacket. He'd have very easily made her happy, since that George would have been a happy guy. It would have been very easy for that George to be happy with her, young, stunning, charming, everything any bloke would want. And he already knew how stunning Delacour-Weasley progeny turned out.

George got up, opened his suitcase and his room service tray from breakfast, and spent a few hours inventing trick silverware that fired food into the face of the person trying to eat it, at varying velocity depending on the food type. He eventually fell asleep on the hotel room floor, surrounded by cutlery, a wand in each hand.

A week later George let Gabrielle fly the motorbike to the Switzerland border. They did not get arrested and she didn't crash, even though her tendency for sudden dives and midair donuts probably shaved a decade of his life.

"I 'ope you are serious about opening the shop 'ere, and not going to forget all about me after you leave, Monsieur," Gabrielle said, by way of farewell. "How you say, ah— we have a verbal contract about my job, and you never want to enter a game of vengeance with a part-veela. It ees known."

Somehow, George found Gabrielle's ruthless side her most flattering. "Find the right property to place 'Weasley et Weasley, Farces pour Sorcier Facetieux,' and Verity will wire you all the funds needed for acquisition. No hustle required. Me, myself, is out of the business till this time next year."

"For a trip of pleasure, your mind is still much on the business," Gabrielle commented. "Work on that, George."

He would miss those slushy G's she gave his name. "It's easier with you, you know. You could come along with me to Romania, you know."

Her eyes narrowed. "Somehow, that does not sound like an invitation."

George shrugged, leaning against the motorbike. "It is if you like."

"With me about, you would not embark on aventures," Gabrielle said. "I have seen that, these weeks past. If I was your aventure passionee, per'aps then. I did theenk—but no. We do not suit like that, do we, George?"

He grinned. "If I was seven years younger, and a bit better-looking—"

"Pffft. You are—how you say, a catch. 'Andsome, wealthy—"

"How fast Galleons make a girl overlook the lack of an ear." George winked.

"It ees a mark of bravery," Gabrielle said sternly.

"More a mark of bad aim—"

"Men with scars are sexy."

George laughed. "Maybe we ought to rethink this not-suiting thing—"

"I do not stay where I am not 'appy for long," Gabrielle interrupted, "and I frustrate too easily. Trying to make you happy— I theenk it would break my heart. I could, of course, 'ave seduced you and broken your heart. But then my seester would break my head."

"She'd break a lot more of me," George said. And then Bill would break what was left of him. He could have gotten away with marrying Gabrielle Delacour, but not with messing around with her. He liked her too much for that, anyway.

She laughed like silver and tossed her hair. "Visit more. I 'ave many more friends from school 'oo would appreciate meeting a war hero." Gabrielle winked back at him. "Zey appreciate men with Galleons, too."

She kissed his cheeks in goodbye; he left her with Verity's address, some sample WWW products from his suitcase, and love to Victoire and Dominique and Louis, since she'd probably see him before he did. Then he turned on the bike's invisibility booster and took off over the mountains.

Charlie came down on his weekend to meet George early, in Crete. After a night carousing through the bars, they caught up in George's expansive beachfront hotel room. George tossed a ball of yarn from hand to hand while Charlie rummaged curiously through his business suitcase.

Charlie raised an eyebrow when he pulled out a bow and arrow, pulling back the string to test.

The bow and arrow were from Norway. The bow had runes so it would never miss; the arrows were runed to never hit. It made each shot a hazard to life, limb, and everything damageable within six miles. A trick Quidditch set, with runes hidden on Bludgers and Quaffles, was already blooming in George's mind, along with the suspicion those sets might raise concerns from the Department of Games & Sports. George regretted not taking Ancient Runes back at Hogwarts, when everything he was actually interested in had come so easily. It had seemed like so much boring work back then, not something he'd want to put to use later, until he was actually in the Nordic countries himself. There was so much potential there: one giant rock rune in Denmark hid an entire fjord, that translated as the Cunning Place, home to one of Europe's oldest all-wizarding villages.

Charlie went through George's pile of multi-colored brevi bags, from Italy. (George hadn't exactly taken a direct route from France.)

"Don't touch the black ones," George warned, looking up from his yarn.

"Not presents for the kids, I take it?" Charlie asked, watching sparks fly up the gold bag. He'd be touched with a bit of extra luck tonight—nothing like Felix Felicis, but not too shabby, either.

"Not these ones," George said, "though I sent a protective one to Ron, for Rose's cradle." He'd planned his departure for just a couple months after Rose's birth, not just to see the baby himself but to make sure he left when Ron would have time to keep an eye on the shop again.

"Ron with a baby," Charlie said, his hands stilling. The last time he'd gotten home was Ron's wedding, when James Sirius Potter was still the latest model off the Weasley tree. "Somehow that's even stranger to think about then Ginny with one. Two, pretty soon."

"The baby brigade marches on," George said wryly.

Charlie shook his head and pulled out George's stacks of Belgian and Swiss chocolate. "What will this lot turn me into?"

"A happier person," George said. He threw the ball of yarn across the room; it spooled out, yards and yards off the stuff coming off it. He tugged on the end of it and it rewound. There was enough of the stuff to leave a trail through most of Hogwarts castle, never mind a labyrinth.

"And it's not part of your U-No-Poo line?" When George shook his head no, Charlie, without further thought, popped a piece of the Belgian chocolate into his mouth. His eyes widened as he realized George had answered literally. "Is this Cheering Charmed?" he asked, pointing at his full cheeks. "I thought you'd knocked off using those."

"I have," George said. "This is Fortifying Chocolate. Remedy-plus. About to take a test? Feeling dark blue? Running for your life? Need a boost to conjure that Patronus? Grab a Wheezy Bar."

"Name needs work," Charlie said. He took another piece of chocolate, poking at the suitcase again. "But good stuff. Hey, is this the cursed bracelet you wrote me about, the one that expands a fellow's—"

"Gloves on before handling that," George said. It was an ancient witch's curse for an unfaithful lover, one that insured, very creatively, he would not be sowing wild oats again. It was impressive magic, a rather hilarious punishment that twisted wish fulfillment to work against its subject; it was also very difficult to break and ultimately cruel. It was not quite as disturbing as the potions behind the conception of the Minotaur, which George had investigated this past week, but equally, it was very interesting magic George had no idea how to use in a nice way, let alone an entertaining one. Yet, anyhow.

Charlie used one of George's spare robes to push the bracelet far away from him. "You really do have a hell of a mind," he remarked. "Just think, if you ever took an interest in dragon breeding, what you could—"

"Sounding like Mum," George sang out. "But more bent on dragons."

Charlie made a face which, in fact, was an exact mirror of their mother's displeased expression. "All right, all right," he said. "But next time you're trying to come up with merchandise that sells, remember, dragons. Dragons are the height of cool."

"You've been saying that for as long as I can remember," George said affectionately. Charlie always wanted dragon toys and read dragon books and talked about applying dragon-flight principles and hunting patterns to Quidditch games— that last part, even Oliver Wood thought was a bit out there.

Charlie grinned. "It's still true. You'll see, back at the sanctuary. If anyone in the family were to get it, I reckon it'll be you."

George, surprised, hoped Charlie was right.

Charlie gruffly cleared his throat and turned back to the suitcase. "Is this a crystal ball?"

"Oh, yeah. I plan to reinvent them…"

A week later, George's bare arms and his face felt sunburned and were turning bright red, from the heat of the air around dragon fire. He had his wand out and held over his head, controlling an invisible leash around the neck of one of the Romanian Longhorns circling miles overhead. Injured dragons, as they healed, needed flight time, a controlled amount each day before they were fully released back into the preserve. They also tended to be, as Charlie put it, "a mite snappish." It was a Hagrid-level understatement.

"Glorious, isn't it!" Charlie hollered, his own face an even shinier, brighter red. His hands were blistering. His own dragon, a young buck with still-healing bite wounds from a fight with a larger Horntail, kept dive-bombing him.

George had never in his life seen his older brother look happier, not even after Gryffindor's brilliant victory over Slytherin in George's first year. Charlie loved, more than anything in the world, these creatures that could kill him as easily as bat one lizard eye. It wouldn't make much sense, to most people. But George had spent enough time working highly explosive material, by hand as well as by want, all for a momentary firework, to understand.

"It sure is something!" George shouted back, jerking his wand to tug his dragon back, before it disappeared into the clouds around the Carpathian range.

After the dragons had been magically leashed together, to be led back to the clearing where the healers kept an eye on them, Charlie stopped George from following the group leaders. "We're skiving off," he said, all mischief even though he'd undoubtedly gotten permission, his boss was right there, "and hiking up this way."

George looked in the direction Charlie pointed. "By hike, did you possibly mean, 'taking our broomsticks because they're right here and I'm joking about climbing a mountain?'"

"I leave the jokes to you," Charlie said. "What's magic but a crutch, if you don't sometimes climb on your own two feet?"

They climbed and talked, about girls Bill had dated and things Ginny had gotten away with behind their backs and all the times they'd been mean to Percy or Ron, about an invitation to visit a Chinese Fireball farm, in China, that Charlie might take some leave to check out, if George was going that way ("Where do you think fireworks came from, Charlie? Of course I'm going to China. By way of Bangkok and Budapest and so forth, you do have a lot of leave, don't you?)

And they talked about Fred, in an easy sort of way, all the times he'd taken Charlie's wand and the Muggle prank things he and George had found in the village and sent away for by catalogue, and about the Battle of Hogwarts, again, if George had gone with him, if Charlie had come sooner, if one step had been different.

"It's gone fast, hasn't it," Charlie said. "When I'm home, it does seem a long time since I've lived there. But here? It still feels new to me, and the changes at home feel unreal. As if I were to go home and you'd all still be in school. Bill in Egypt, and Percy a new prefect, and you and Fred blowing things up in your room. I always think of you at thirteen, asking me to smuggle you and Fred to Romania in my trunk."

That was the longest speech from Charlie George had heard in some years, maybe even since the time he had explained why he couldn't take the twins with him to Romania, and how he was counting on them to go finally win Gryffindor the Quidditch Cup.

The air was getting thinner, the higher they went up, but cleaner, somehow, too. It almost hurt going down his lungs, in a weirdly good way.

"We said that for years, you know," George said at last. "'If it all goes bugger up, we can always go bother Charlie in Romania'. It became a joke, but at first we really used to make up what it'd be like. Make up what you'd be doing, bet on whether you'd had any important parts bitten off yet."

Charlie chuckled. "I spent most of the first year mucking up dragon dung, trying not to think about how many people told me I could play Quidditch for England."

George raised an eyebrow. "You ever still think about that?"

"Sure," Charlie said, stopping. He beckoned George out onto a rock plateau. Not far below, dragons were roving through the skies, scales glinting in the sun, larger than hundreds of men. "But I never regret it."

Besides their own breathing, there was no sound but the wind scuffling against the mountain stone and the dragons roaring to each other below. One dove, becoming a small dot plummeting to the ground, and picked something up; George suspected that a sheep was baaing in ultimate terror somewhere down there. But above, it was all mist over hilly green and river blue, stretching all the way up to where the fog slid into cloud. It felt as peaceful as it looked.

"You look happy," Charlie said, with some surprise, and great pleasure. "I told you and told you, the mountains would do you good."

George thought about telling Charlie he was sounding like Mum again. Instead he told him the truth.

"You were right," George said. He took another deep, raw breath. "I should have come here years ago."