Disclaimer: All characters, settings and concepts you recognise as part of the world of Harry Potter belong to JK Rowling. I just like to play with her ideas

Note: Before you say Allie is completely AU, I will point you to the line in Half Blood Prince, page 307 (British/Australian addition) where George mentions "a very pretty girl in the paper shop..."

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There is no pain so great as the memory of joy in present grief

- Aeschylus

The closest that George Weasley could come to comprehending loss, was that he had an ugly great tear that gashed across his chest, weeping blood and misery every so often, to match the wound where his ear once was.

Loss was that patch of mold that crept across the ceiling over the dinner table, spreading so slowly and surely that no one noticed it until it had overrun the room. Loss was a swarm of doxies, slowly but surely nibbling away at their entire existence until everything around him began to crumble into little pieces: memories, reminders, a photograph, a noise in the dark that sounded like his brother's snore…

And this loss was contagious: it permeated everything and everyone he had ever known.

The dinner table was silent, heavy under its weight – until his mother accidentally called him Fred, and it was all he could do to escape.

- - -

Hands stuffed deep into the pockets of his trousers, George surveyed the surrounding hills and fought his rising despair. Moments ago, he had burst out of the back door of the Burrow, intent on escape. Ever since the Battle of Hogwarts, nothing had been the same – and nothing was going to be the same, ever again. They'd won: Voldemort was gone… but George couldn't help but feel guilty in his knowledge that he would exchange this victory for his brother's life, without even a moment's hesitation, every single time.

No one could look him in the eyes anymore. He'd moved back home immediately: their flat above the shop in Diagon Alley was too painful a place to be, for now. Everywhere he turned, he found constant reminders of his partner in crime, his best friend, his twin… And George couldn't cope with all that, just yet. Every time his bedroom door opened, he would glance up, unable to suppress his continual expectation that Fred would lope through the door, grinning. The mirror lay covered, now: even to look at himself was a constant, painful reminder of what he had lost.

Mum couldn't look at him without tears appearing in the corners of her eyes; his father too could only gaze longingly at his face, the ache in his heart painfully clear. No parent should have to bury a child: and yet, to make matters worse, it was as if Fred's ghost wandered the house as George, a constant reminder of what the Weasley family had lost.

Nothing would ever be the same again.
And no one understood.

No one understood what he had lost.

There would be no more pranks, no more mysterious explosions, no more escapades to the village… No more laughter, no more lazy days in the back room of the shop together. Only memories.

George watched as his worn shoes followed the equally worn path, threaded along the valley, a little river of dust that turned to mud when it rained.
It might have been minutes or hours. He had lost all sense of time now: all he knew was that it passed, sometimes slowly, painfully, and other times so quickly he scarce had time to draw breath.
Time should have stopped, the day Fred died. It continued, to spite him, forcing him to go on, when all he wanted was to live in that one, single moment, before the curse had hit.

"I do say, are you all right?"

George turned, startled, to find he was at the village now, a lone, stationary figure staring blankly around the park, as though he wasn't really seeing it.
There was a large, brutal burn mark in the yellow slide. That had been Fred, years and years ago, before Hogwarts, when they'd blown up…. Merlin, he couldn't even remember what had caused that burn-mark now.

A girl stood beside him, blinking up at him enquiringly. She rested her long arms on the Gryffindor red bicycle, waiting.

George gave a jerky, non-committing nod. "Yes – sure."

Her brow furrowed beneath her fringe, the colour of the muddy brook that bordered the playground on one side. Her calculative gaze seemed to settle on the left side of his head, but only for a moment, and when she glanced back to his face, the girl met his eyes easily, as though his ear was still there. Suddenly, a look of recognition flashed across her face.

"You're one of the twins, aren't you? Fred or George? I don't know if you remember me? I'm Allie Pickering – from the paper shop?"

George did remember; he and Fred had spent many idle afternoons in the village, and Allie in particular had been very taken with his and Fred's card tricks.
Allie looked up at him expectantly, blinking her blue eyes patiently. George surrendered a small and very reluctant smile, to be polite.

"George. I do remember, yeah – how've you been, Allie?"

Allie shook his hand, shrugging. "All right. I haven't seen you around for a while. Been busy?"

George considered telling her, but in this moment, in Allie's mind at least, Fred was still alive and well, and George savoured the presumption.

"Yeah, really busy. We started our own joke shop up in London a few years back," he told her casually.

Allie's eyes lit up. "Really? That's brilliant, you'll have to take me there some time."

"Sounds like a plan," he replied, more out of habit than anything else.

Allie nodded seriously. "Right – well I'd best be getting home then, before dark." She gestured to the sun, which was indeed sinking. Later than he thought, not that it mattered. But Allie was speaking again. "And you'd best make a start of it too."

George nodded. "Probably. Good night then."

Allie climbed onto her bike, grinning. "Yes, good night. Say hi to Fred for me!"

George watched her ride away, feeling all at once sad and relieved.

"Allie says hi," George murmured into the night, more to Fred than anyone else. It was his way of asking forgiveness, really.
It had been nice, to pretend for a few minutes that he wasn't gone.
George turned and made his way back through the hills. As soon as he could be sure that no one could see, he turned on the spot and Apparated back to the Burrow.

- - -

As George approached the house, footsteps heavy, he heard muffled voices. Harry and Ginny, sitting on the back step, talking. They stood when they saw him, and George couldn't miss their entwined hands.

"Hey," Ginny greeted him softly. "I wouldn't go inside right now, if I were you. Amos Diggory has just 'popped over to pay his respects'."

She scowled and George turned his gaze from his sister to Harry, eyebrows raised.

"She's right," he agreed. "You don't need to be in there. Besides, Ron and Percy are in the kitchen."

Ron, much to the disappointment of his parents and Hermione, did not seem to so ready to forgive his wayward brother as the rest of the family.

"So what are you doing, then? " George asked, sighing.

Ginny gestured to the back step. "Waiting it out."

George nodded, gesturing for Harry and Ginny to resume their places before taking the step below them.

He glanced up at them, distracted. "So are you two… er…"

Ginny met his eyes unwaveringly. "Yes, we are," she told him proudly, tossing her hair back like a mane.

George blinked. "I hope you know what you're doing, mate," he addressed Harry easily.

"George!"

"George? Is George home?"

Mrs. Weasley's voice carried through the house and out into the garden, making George wince. As one, Harry and Ginny groaned.

"Run," Harry advised him quietly. "We'll cover for you."

- - -

Some days, it was too much effort to get out of bed. Instead, he lay there in the darkness, Fred's face in his mind's eye, watching him apprehensively.

He knew it was Fred for the simple fact that his twin still possessed both his ears.

Sometimes, it was easier to forget than to remember. Those were the times when he descended into dreams of his past life, full of hearty pranks and brilliant schemes. Of Wizarding Wheezes and collapsible swamps, Catherine Wheels and mayhem.

To exist now inside all this grief was an alien concept for George, who had been raised on a steady diet of laughter and mischief.

So George allowed himself to become consumed by memories. He would lie for hours at a time, conversing with his mind, which formed the shape of his intangible brother before him. Other times, when the words ran out and his voice became hoarse, he would simply observe the moving images, of twin boys no more than ten with soot-streaked faces and toothy smiles, Quidditch matches and night time escapades, of racing down hidden corridors (courtesy of the Marauders) with Filch in hot pursuit.

Only now, the hidden corridors existed only in his imagination, as did the second, fire-haired child.

"George. George?"

Someone was shaking his shoulder gently, and he peeled open his eyes to find Harry leaning over his bedside with a tray of food. It was obviously his turn to oversee George's meal, for Mrs. Weasley had them all rostered for the task, now days.

Harry watched in silence as George ate, emerald eyes unreadable.

George finished, pushed the tray away and leant back once more to close his eyes.

"George?"

Out of simple courtesy, George opened an eye.

Harry gripped the trap in both hands, his face hopelessly awkward. "Listen," he said quietly, almost urgently, and his voice was low, as though he feared to be overheard. "Dumbledore… Dumbledore once told me – it does not do to dwell on dreams, and forget to live. Look, I know it isn't really my place to say, but… everyone's struggling, George. I don't think your family could cope if they lost you too."

George blinked, but remained silent. Instead, he simply nodded – a nod that Harry took as a dismissal, for he gave George a ghost of a smile and carefully left the room.

The next morning, George Weasley got out of bed, threw open his curtains and watched as light spilled into the room. Then, he joined his family at the table for breakfast.

- - -

Mum was crying again. George watched her, swallowing hard, as she leant over the kitchen sink and cried. Great sobs shook her body, face crumpled behind her hands.

His eyes stung, and without a further word, he left the house, running blindly out through the gate and toward the hills, breathing in great, sharp gasps that pained his chest, as though the air itself, and his ability to breathe, was setting fire to his throat and lungs.

It had been all his stupid fault, of course. He knew that today of all days, he should have lain low, succumbed to the steady, dull ache that was Fred's absence. Now, that ache beat louder and louder the further he ran, until George realised it was his heart.

He had known better; of course he had, but the need, for once, to not be overwhelmed with despair had driven him out of isolation – and the first thing that Mum had done was burst into tears.

George collapsed against the hillside, sinking into the long, sun-warmed grass as he squeezed his eyes shut, clawing at his chest. Slowly, his breathing slowed into a steady, soothing rhythm and the swell of emotion began once again to ebb. It would be back, George knew, as steady as the tide itself, but for now he had some relief.

"Happy birthday to us, happy birthday to us…"

There: he'd done it.

He was another year older, and so far from being any wiser that it was laughable.

And Fred… Fred, who would be forever twenty…

"It's your birthday, is it? George – right?"

George startled, eyes snapping open as he sat up. He had not realised he had company. Swallowing, Moody's 'constant vigilance!' echoing in his mind, he swiped the back of his hand across his eyes, hoping that she assumed the sun had made them water.

He leant forward to meet Allie's eyes. She crouched beside him on the grass, checking for dampness, before leaning back and stretching her legs out before her.

"So," she said conversationally. "If it's your birthday, what are you doing up here?"

For a complete stranger, she was unusually forward. Not that George didn't expect for girls to be blunt with him – Merlin, he didn't think he'd ever meet anyone so blunt as Angelina Johnson, or for the matter, his own sister! And yet, from someone he knew very little of…

The strangest thing of all was that coming from Allie, the question did not seem so intrusive as if it had come from anyone else.

"Thinking," he replied absently, his eyes unconsciously measuring her. She had, he noted, a rather pointy nose. "What about you?"

Allie indicated the bottom of the hill, and George saw her bike resting there amongst the long grass. "Just going to visit my grandmother, and then I saw you. Figured I should make sure you were still alive."

Although unintended, the words compressed against his chest, suffocating, tearing at George's heart. He ducked his head, trying to hide the anguish undoubtedly written across his face.

Nevertheless, Allie seemed to realise something was wrong. Tentatively, she placed a hand on his lower arm.

"What ever happened to that brother of yours, George?" she asked softly, and although George had many brothers, there was no doubt as to whom she spoke of.

"He died," George replied shortly, voice barely louder than a whisper as he stared out across the countryside, toward the tumble of trees that indicated the Burrow.

"Oh," she replied, even quieter, without feeling the need to elaborate. Instead, she slipped her hand into his and gave it a gentle squeeze. "I'm sorry."

George sighed, summoning his courage to meet her eyes. They were concerned, something George found strangely touching, and he managed a small smile of reassurance. "S'alright."

She returned his smile tentatively as he squeezed her hand in reply.

Allie hesitated. "George," she said, haltingly. "I – I know it's your birthday… and I can't begin to imagine what you're going through, but…" It seemed that suddenly, words were no longer enough. George watched, dazed, as Allie leant over and placed a gentle kiss on his lips.

"Happy birthday," she breathed, squeezing his fingers one more time before gently untangling their hands and setting off down the hill without a backward glance.

George watched her go thoughtfully. It was funny, he thought, that she, the perfect stranger, was the first to wish him that. A gentle breeze danced across the hillside, brushing against his lips as it passed.

It hadn't been much - a small, simple gesture – but on today of all days, it made all the difference.

"Who was she?"

George sighed as Ron's voice appeared behind him, quiet yet commanding. Standing up, he turned to face his youngest brother, eyeing him sardonically.

"Of all the people Mum could send, she chose you? Not even Ginny?"

Ron shrugged. "Couldn't find her, she and Harry have vanished without a trace," he suddenly scowled, before adding fairly, "At least I didn't interrupt. So who is she?"

"A girl Fred and I met once, in the village. Allie."

Ron grinned. "A Muggle, then? Just wait until Dad hears!"

George raised his eyebrows, shaking his head.

"I don't think you want to do that," he chided his brother gently. "Not if you don't want Dad to be entertained by the story of the time you and Hermi-"

The colour drained swiftly from Ron's face. "You've got nothing on me, and you can leave Hermione out of it," he retorted hastily, and although the matter was not raised again, George had the distinct impression Ron was going to keep his mouth shut.

They made their way back to the Burrow in a companionable silence. As Ron preceded him up the back stair, he paused and turned, meeting George's eyes steadily.

"By the way – happy birthday."

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Note: I hope you all liked this. It's been in the works for quite a while now, and there is a second installment coming shortly. I'd love to hear your thoughts, and reviews are always greatly appreciated!

Thanks for reading,

Lexie

P.S: See this line? "Her calculative gaze seemed to settle on the left side of his head, but only for a moment. " It isn't mine! My lovely friend Paddy suggested the addition in a review!