It takes George at least a week to even start talking again properly, beyond occasionally stumbling over, "No, I'm fine, yeah, I, I'll be, yeah."

He can't stand to be around his family. He can't stand to see them hurt, and to hurt so much more and not even be able to talk about it. He gets as far away as he can as soon as he can, retreating back to his little flat in Diagon Alley above the joke shop. He shuts the door to the other bedroom firmly and makes himself a cup of tea and falls asleep on the couch without drinking it.

Summer is long and quiet. He doesn't really think, he just does things. He isn't really sure if he has money. He seems to be eating. Maybe he has something left over from the shop.

He tries reading books about losing a family member, but he just ends up wanting to throw them across the room. The feeling isn't like losing a limb or any of the other stupid, useless, not enough metaphors the books talk about. It's more like a huge, sudden hole opening under some part of him he never knew existed.

He took it for granted that he was half of a pair. Now he's not even half of anything. He wonders if Fred somehow got more of their life, because now that he's gone, George can't find anything left at all. He reaches out and tries to feel, but there's nothing there to feel.

Angelina comes to see him, three weeks after the war is over. She doesn't say much. She's been his friend since forever, so she wants to keep in touch, but she says she can't look at him without . . . Yeah, he knows. He can't look at mirrors without. He's glad she doesn't want to stay longer. Distance is better than the reverse.

It feels like something's missing, something that always used to be there at the corner of his eye, just barely in sight. It's the opposite of feeling like someone's looking over his shoulder.

Ron comes by, only once. There just isn't anything to say. George can see the strange guilt in Ron's face when he talks about Fred, almost like no one but George is allowed to miss him. George wants to say, It's not like that, but all he does is offer Ron tea and try to tune him out.

Harry doesn't write or visit, oddly enough. After thinking about it, George decides that he's probably dealing with something even larger and more painful that George is. He doesn't want to push it, so he doesn't ask anyone for details. Maybe everyone needs time. Maybe time heals everything. Lately, time feels like it's scraping painfully over gravel, burning him and dragging him along.

Bill is busy being torn between the grief of the war and the joy of the life he's putting together with Fleur. He comes by once, but George pretends not to be home.

Mum and Dad drop by once, and it takes Mum's fists banging on the door to make George finally open it. It's been long enough that she's recovering. George couldn't have made himself look at her otherwise. She bustles around his flat and cleans things and cooks things and makes the rooms feel almost alive again. Dad doesn't say much, and George can see how much older he looks. Mum ends up crying into her tea and leaving soon after, hugging George and making him promise to write.

It's Charlie who eventually tells the others to stop coming by. "I told them you need time, but that they should still visit once in a while," he tells George when he shows up on his doorstep, trying to smile. "To see that you're eating properly." George is insanely grateful. He just wants to be left alone until he figures out how he feels. Charlie spends the night, though. He's the first to do so, and George feels his breathing fill the flat until it feels like it will burst. He can't decide how he feels about that, either.

Ginny doesn't visit, probably at Charlie's insistence, but she writes him every week, long letters full of her life and her grief and her picking herself back up again. She tells him it's all right. She tells him he's being an idiot, he needs to come out and talk to people again. He reads the letters. He even tries to write back, but there's nothing to say.

Summer is almost at an end before Percy visits. George never expected him to. He's not sure why. He's not surprised that Percy takes so long to come. Maybe Percy feels like he doesn't have the right to be guilty, more so even than the others. However, when he does show up, George finds that it's exactly what he's been needing. Percy raps sharply on the door and when George doesn't open it, he blows it open and stands in the doorway indignantly. "Open," he says, "the fucking door."

George finds himself smiling. It doesn't feel as strange as he expected it to. Wow, Perce, he thinks.

"You look awful," Percy says briskly. He steps inside without any hesitation. "Charlie told us to leave you alone. I told Charlie to go to hell." He pinkens a little.

George smiles even wider. This feels good. It feels almost right. Then the stabbing pain of realizing that it can't ever be right again hits him hard enough that he stumbles backwards into a chair at the table. Percy sits down across from him. And waits.

"You saw him die," George says finally. His voice comes out hoarse and he wonders how longs it's been since he actually spoke.

"Yes," Percy says. He shifts nervously in his seat, like he's not quite sure what George is going to ask him.

George isn't sure either. "Um," he says, "Is there anything I . . . I should know, or . . . or anything?" He doesn't know what the hell he's looking for, besides closure.

Percy shakes his head. "It . . . It happened so fast. I'm not quite sure what even . . . Um. Sorry." He looks like he's about to cry.

George won't be able to stand it if he does. He feels a sudden surge of anger, and he stands up too fast. "I should have been there," he says fiercely. "I should have known."
Percy starts to speak, but George doesn't want to hear any more empty, stupid reassurances. He's around the table and holding Percy by the collar before he knows what he's doing. Percy blinks at him for a second. "You're alive," he says.

George feels like he's been holding his breath since the war ended and he's suddenly letting it out. He sags against Percy, dropping to his knees. He doesn't remember if he's cried in all this time, but it doesn't matter, because he's crying now, dizzy and sick and relieved. Percy rubs his shoulders hard and says, "It does get better."

Percy ends up staying a week, but he's got a job and some sort of relationship and some sort of life out there, and he needs to get back to it. He leaves George with a promise to write and a few hundred complaints about the dustiness of the flat.

George lets himself relax a little. Maybe it does get better. He's not sure what he believes.

And then suddenly, it's fall, and the air smells like dry leaves and smoke. George doesn't really feel better or worse, but he wants to change something, so he starts doing things.

He sends an owl to Ron.
I'm thinking of opening the joke shop up again.

He doesn't sign it. He doesn't want to feel the singleness of his name alone on the parchment.

Ron writes back a very long letter, full of relief and ideas and desperate cheerfulness. George realizes that he hasn't seen anyone since Percy's visit.

The nights are getting cold. Geroge has sometimes thought about how easy it would be to die too. Too easy, he's decided, and unfair. Fred didn't choose it, so why the hell should he?

He starts drinking too much coffee and wearing nice sweaters. He's not sure what he's trying to prove, one way or the other.

In late October, George starts to open his blinds more often. It's completely gorgeous out, and he almost cares. The leaves blow through Diagon Alley and pile up on the cobblestones. Ron has promised to pay him a visit soon to open up the shop again. That gives George something to look forward to. There's still one letter he has to write, though.

Almost immediately after the end of the war, Lee Jordan tried to cheer him up. George punched him in the face and told him he never wanted to see him again. Now, though, everything hurts less, and George wants to see him again.

The letter takes him a long time to write. It doesn't feel right to joke, but he's not good at being serious. He ends up writing,
I hope you're not permanently damaged by that punch, mate. How about coffee sometime?

He does sign his name, this time. He doesn't know what he means by permanently damaged. He means Lee's face. He means them. All of them. Both of them. Whatever it is now.

Lee doesn't write back. Instead, he shows up next afternoon, wearing an ugly scarf and an uglier jacket and standing in the doorway as if he isn't sure he should come in.

George hugs him. "Hi."

Lee relaxes and even smiles. "Hi." His dreads are gone, and George isn't sure whether it makes him look older or younger.

"Coffee?" George asks. "Or we could go out for it."

Lee shrugs. "Bit windy out. Let's stay in."

George makes coffee and wants to scream. They shouldn't be so formal with each other. They never were before. He knows it wasn't the punch that changed things. When he sits down at the table and shoves a mug at Lee, he doesn't really remember how to make conversation.

Lee drinks his coffee in silence, brow slightly furrowed. Finally, he says, "Should we, uh, talk about it?"

George takes a deep breath. He doesn't know what to say, not even in his head, but he owes it to Lee to at least try. "I just, I'm not me. It was always we. It always will be. Only now it can't be. So don't tell me I can do this. Don't tell me I can cope. Don't think I can just stand up and go out there and fight like a man, because I'm not. I'm half a man." It comes out stilted and strange and unsure.

"I," Lee says, "George, I know. I mean, I know. I don't get it, but I know. I'm not going to try to make it better. I know it's probably not. Uh. Getting better."

He's looking at George like he doesn't want to get hit again, and George finds himself on the verge of laughter. "You're wrong," he says.

Lee still looks worried. He keeps twining and untwining his fingers around his coffee cup. "Is that, uh, enough? For now?"

George didn't think it would be, but. "I," he says. "Could you, maybe, stay? Because then I think then it would be. Enough." Please, he thinks. It doesn't have to be forever, or even for long. I just need somebody to tell me what I'm doing.

Lee nods and even smiles properly. "You even had to ask?"

George laughs, and he finds himself tearing up stupidly. He hasn't been sure of anything lately, even the things he should know. Now, though, Lee is here, smelling like spices and fall, that is enough.