Title: The Valley of Unrest
Author: kaly (razrbkr@juno.com)
Homepage: the shadowland -- kaly's Fan Fiction http://www.geocities.com/kalyw
Rating: PG13
Archive: ask and ye may receive.
Classification: angst, character death
Warnings: angst, character death, guilt, misery. All that fun stuff. AU -- note - alternate universe (nothing in book two or beyond applies)
Spoilers: HP1
Characters: Focuses on Harry and Ron. All Weasleys are involved.
Timeframe: summer after FIRST year

Summary: Could an accident tear the Weasleys apart and cause Harry to lose his best friend?

Feedback: please, I've been working on this story off and on for ten months now. Was it worth it?

Thanks: Lots of folks helped with this story at one point or another over the last ten months. First off, to Glenna who has read every part of this I've managed to write since day one and betaed the entire monster in just under two days. Couldn't have finished it without ya ;) Second, to my former roomie and HP junkie Taleyana - who also read the bits as I ever so slowly wrote them and threatened me to finish it. Third, Kris, who although she just read the books this month was willing to give it a read and point out a plot hole or two ;)

Notes: This is gen-fic. Ron and Harry are twelve. It is a character death story and one character does die. I'm not saying who other than it is neither Harry nor Ron. I like angst -- this is angsty, I hope, but according to my beta there is a light at the end of the tunnel. It is also an AU. It veers off from canon sometime in the summer BEFORE HP2 -- nothing other than book one applies.

Disclaimer: I am not JKR. I'm sure she likes it that way.


The Valley of Unrest


The noises from the basement had been growing louder and more intriguing for the past two hours. The longer Ron sat near the top of the stairs, the more he longed to know exactly what it was that his brothers -- Fred and George as usual -- were up to. It was hardly a secret that the twins were prone to pranks and the occasional joke based venture.

It was strange; Ron often wanted to know what they were doing. For once, however he was truly sick of always being left out. That morning it had been like a strange feeling in his chest -- he wanted to be a part of the joke. For no doubt they had something planned. Any time he had asked in the past, the twins had always laughed, joking about how their little brother was far too young to take part in the *serious* fun.

Ron scoffed at the idea. Young. He had finished his first year at Hogwarts. He wasn't a little boy anymore, no matter what they said. A small voice in the back of his mind observed he was acting like a baby -- pouting on the steps -- but he squelched that voice.

Chewing on his lower lip, Ron stood. He winced, stretching out the cramps he had gained from sitting on the stairs for so long. As he did so, his eyes never left the closed door at the bottom of the passage. Finally he took a deep breath, steeling his courage.

The closer he got to the basement, the louder Fred and George's voices -- no matter how they tried to quiet them -- became. When he finally stood on the last step, his breath caught in his throat. Now or never. The thought resounded in his head.

Knowing the door was locked -- and that there was no other way in -- Ron raised his hand. He paused momentarily before pounding on the wooden surface. His only chance lay in the twins fearing it was their mother who stood behind the door and not him.

Reaching up as high as he was able, Ron hit his fist against the door. He held his breath as the noise from inside went quiet; he had no choice but to wait.

A moment later, the door cracked open. Fred's worried face, complete with a forced air of innocence, appeared in the space. Taking advantage of Fred's distraction, Ron's pushed on the door, sliding into the dark basement before his older brother had the chance to realize what was happening. The momentum caused Fred to fall against the door, pushing it closed once more.

Hands clutched into fists at his sides, Ron stared at his brothers. Both George and Fred stared back at Ron, as if unsure what they were seeing. George, standing on the far side of a large cauldron, opened his mouth then closed it quickly, remaining silent.

Stalemate.

It wasn't quiet but for a moment. Ron barely had time to turn wide eyes toward the bubbling cauldron before a red faced Fred finally found his voice. "Out, pipsqueak!" He pointed toward the door for emphasis.

Tearing his eyes away from the thick green smoke that almost blocked his view of George, Ron looked at Fred. "No. Why can't I be in on your prank?" Hands on his hips, Ron was the picture of youthful indignation.

"Ron, we've had this discussion a hundred times," George said. "You're too young."

Not quite growling at the placating tone in his brother's voice, Ron rolled his eyes. "I'm not a baby. Why do you have to treat me like one?"

Fred, with a smudge of... something Ron couldn't place on his nose, tossed his hands up in the air. "Because you're acting like one. Now go before you really do get Mum down here." He gestured toward the upstairs. "Don't you have chores to do?"

Ignoring Fred, Ron took a step toward the far side of the room. "No," he replied absently over his shoulder. "Mum's next door, anyway." Stepping up to the cauldron, he peered over the edge. "What is this stuff? What's it do?"

Walking around the edge of the blossoming smoke, George put a hand on Ron's shoulder. Leaning down till his mouth was near Ron's ear, he said, "Just a little something we dreamt up. Pour it on your food and it talks!"

Knowing far better than to trust the grin on George's face -- or the glint in his eyes -- Ron groaned. "Now you're just pulling my leg."

Still grinning, George tilted his head toward the door. "Out, Ron."

"It's boring out there. Percy's still hiding in his room, I heard another owl leave earlier. Ginny's with Mum and Harry hasn't answered any of my letters all summer." Ron managed to stop staring at the frothing concoction before him and look at the twins. "Why can't I stay with you?"

Hand over his heart, Fred sighed melodramatically. "I am well prepared to suffer for my art." George hid a scoff at that comment behind his hand, which Fred readily ignored. Fred took a deep breath and continued. "However, the wrath of Mum I will not face for you." At that, he poked Ron on the chest. Winking, he added, "Pipsqueak."

Glowering, Ron shrugged George's hand from his shoulder. "Would you quit calling me that?" Taking a step closer to the cauldron, he said, "I could help. You never know."

George reached out to pull Ron away. "Stay away from that. If you get hurt Mum will kill us both."

Ignoring his brother, Ron jerked away from the touch, throwing himself off balance. Wide eyed, half a cry torn from his lips, he tumbled forward -- toward the cauldron.

"Ron!"

Time slowed down. He heard Fred's cry. Saw George's hand reach out to grab at his waist. Felt a burning pain shoot up his arms as his hands hit the boiling cauldron. Watched the cauldron begin to wobble unsteadily.

There was a rush of heat as the low flames that rested below the cauldron bloomed outward, enveloping Ron. He couldn't breathe. Couldn't see.

The next thing Ron knew, there was something around his chest. Instead of falling forward, he was twisting around and flying backwards across the room. He crashed into something soft -- Fred, he realized a second later before tumbling onto the floor.

Again he heard Fred cry out, but this time it wasn't his own name Ron heard. It was George's. The sheer panic that ran through the word forced Ron's eyes open. Once he did, he wanted nothing more than to close them again but he couldn't. No matter how much he wanted to block out what lay before him...

The cauldron had fallen over, spilling its contents onto the floor. The flames had leapt up, turning the far wall a ghastly green. In the middle of it all lay George, facedown and motionless.

Fred's cry still echoing in his ears, Ron couldn't blink -- not even as the smoke blurred his sight. As he watched, Fred ran headlong into the flames in an effort to reach his twin. Moisture burned at Ron's eyes, the tears that slipped free cutting trails through the soot that coated his cheeks.

The fire still raged, filling the room with a thick, greenish-black smoke. Ron coughed, gasping for breath as he watched the tableau unfold before him. Fred finally reached George, wrapped his long arms around his chest and pulled him away from the center of the inferno.

The smoke thickened, so much so that Ron could barely see a meter in front of his face. It was a blessing and a curse -- he could hear Fred's continued frantic cries, but could no longer see either of his brothers.

It was becoming harder and harder to breathe even on the floor where Ron was. He struggled to stand only to collapse onto his knees. The jarring pain from the impact brought fresh tears to his eyes but he didn't care. He could scarcely feel the burning in his eyes over the burning everywhere else.

He tried to listen for the twins but couldn't hear anything over the dull roar in his ears. Somewhere deep in his mind he knew that they needed to get the basement door open. As if in response to his thoughts the door suddenly swung open. Light flooded in from the outside and momentarily blinding him.

He blinked, as much because of the smoke as the light, and was barely able to make out someone standing in the doorway. Percy, he realized somehow. He must have heard the noise from upstairs.

Managing to crawl on his knees, Ron wasn't sure how close he was to finally reaching the door when he doubled over. His arms clutched around his chest as a wracking cough tore up from his lungs. Gasping amid the coughs, he glanced toward the doorway -- just long enough to see the silhouette of Percy helping Fred carry George from the burning basement.

He had barely enough time to realize what he was seeing before he couldn't breathe for coughing. He collapsed onto the floor, his energy drained, curling up on his side. Tears of frustration and pain marked his cheeks, as his body continued to be wracked by heaving coughs.

The thick smoke was escaping into the stairway, wisps of fresh air were struggling to sneak into the dark room. But Ron didn't realize any of this, for he was focused on only two things: trying to breathe and the fact that he had seen his brothers get out. Maybe George would be okay. Surely he would be. Ron couldn't shake the image of George lying, unmoving, on the floor.

Guilt was already gnawing at him.

Ron clutched at his sides as his vision began to blur at the edges. He knew he had to move, but he couldn't. It was as if weights were holding him down. The last thought he had before the world turned to black was that George would be okay.

He had to be.

~~~

When he had first heard strange noises from downstairs, Percy had rolled his eyes, turned the page in his book and proceeded to ignore them. He had little doubt Fred and George were up to trouble, but for the moment was inclined to stay as far away from that trouble as possible.

As the noises increased, so did Percy's annoyance. It finally annoyed him to the point that -- when he was finally able to make out voices above the racket -- he closed his book. With a long-suffering sigh, he left his room and headed toward the basement.

He was at the top of the final set of stairs when a wall of heat hit him. The litany of complaints that were streaming through his head continued to grow as he drew closer to the basement. Whatever they were trying to do, it was certainly a bad idea. Where Fred and George were concerned, that was one thing of which Percy was always certain.

Mouth opened to yell, he raised his hand to pound on the door -- and stopped. Even without opening the door, the acrid smoke caused him to cough. In the moment's delay of indecision the noises from inside grew more distinct. When he heard Fred cry out, Percy put both hands up on the door and pushed inward.

At first it refused to budge, but Percy dug his shoulder into the wood, finally forcing it open. For a moment he stood stock-still, transfixed. He blinked quickly as a wall of smoke rose to flood past him into the clear air beyond.

Coughing, Percy held the sleeve of his robe over his mouth and strained to see with watering eyes past the darkness and the fire that was raging. Hearing Fred's near-frantic cries, he stepped into the boiling hot room, his complaints all but forgotten.

It was only seconds later that he found Fred, fumbling toward the door with George in his arms, though it felt as if he had been searching the darkness for hours. He opened his mouth to ask what had happened, but when he was finally able to see his younger brothers the words died in his throat.

"Let me help you," he finally rasped, taking one of George's arms from Fred. If Fred heard him, or even realized he was there, he gave no sign.

The walk up the steps was a slow one, the unconscious twin's weight loading them down. Finally reaching the top, Percy guided them into the main room and the couches that rested there. Careful not to jostle George, Percy and Fred placed him onto the largest couch as gently as possible.

It was then that Percy had the chance to think long enough to really look at his brothers. Each was covered in soot; even their normally brilliant red hair appeared as black as pitch. George's robes were burned, livid scorch marks covering all he could see of his arms. And on his head was a horrid gash from his left ear across the temple.

Then he realized... He wasn't breathing. Percy froze, his eyes wide. George wasn't breathing. Percy put a fumbling hand to his neck. No pulse. No breath. Sucking in a stuttered sob, the horrible truth struck home. Percy blinked quickly, shaking his head roughly from side to side. His mind didn't want to process what he was seeing.

Percy looked from George to Fred, Fred to George and back again. His own breath was fast, shallow gasps he couldn't control. There was no doubt in his mind that he needed to stay calm -- but that part of his brain wasn't in charge at that moment.

There was an emergency spell that even underage magicians were allowed to use. He waved his wand, running on instinct. "Healious Attractus." The charm to signal any nearby healer performed, Percy dropped his wand and fell to his knees beside George.

He should do something, anything. There was some sort of trick the Muggles had, to make people breathe again, but he couldn't remember it. Percy thought to run for their mother, but didn't want to leave Fred.

"How?" Tears burned his eyes. "What..."

There was a spell... A spell that made you breathe again. It was a dark art, they weren't supposed to use it, but... Damn, he cursed silently, what good was it being at the top of his class if it didn't help save George?

There wasn't time to answer before the door burst open and a healer Percy recognized, but didn't know by name, hurried into the room. Percy was pushed out of the way, not so gently, by the woman in her haste to reach George's side.

"What happened?" she asked over her shoulder.

The gasping question seemed to startle Fred, who tore his gaze from the unmoving form of his identical twin. He looked at Percy for a long moment, as if deciding what he was seeing, or what he should say. As he stared at his disheveled brother, Percy couldn't believe the depths of pain he saw in the once-sparkling green eyes.

Fred shook his head mutely, turning his attention back to George. The fine tremors that had been running along Fred's arms as they carried George up to the main floor grew worse until he was shaking helplessly -- his hands tangled in Percy's robes. A low, painful wail seemed to bubble up from Fred's chest to fill the silence.

Fred continued to shake his head side-to-side, not seeing anything except his brother. "No." The painful whisper practically tore from his shredded throat. "No, no, no, no..."

"Well?" the healer demanded, continuing to poke and prod George as she did so.

"I don't know," Percy admitted, staring slack jawed at the woman. As he stared, holding onto Fred, he felt numb all over -- his panic sliding into disbelief.

She muttered as she waved her wand over George's chest. The boy's chest gave a lurch, but settled back onto the couch. The healer cursed, digging through her bag before pulling out a potion bottle. Percy thought it was familiar, but didn't know why. He continued to stare as she administered a dose into George's mouth, massaging the throat muscles as she did so.

When nothing happened, the healer waved her wand over George once more, this time muttering a different spell. When there was no response, she sagged back onto her heels.

Suddenly a loud noise echoed from the main door, followed by a brash cry. "What on the earth? What's burning?"

It was followed by their sister's voice. "It stinks in here..."

Their mother's voice carried into the room. "Percy? What is all this smoke about? If those twins have..." There was a pause, just long enough for Mrs. Weasley to reach where they were. Percy had enough time to turn when he heard their mother gasp.

"George!"

Percy stood up quickly, seeing the panic on his mother's face as she practically flew across the room, dodging the healer.

"I'm sorry," the healer said, giving Mrs. Weasley a sad look. "There was too much damage..."

Mrs. Weasley dropped to her knees beside George, reaching so that she could place one arm around each twin. Tears were already soaking her round cheeks. A distant part of Percy's mind realized he couldn't remember the last time he had seen his mother cry.

"Percy?"

Hearing the small voice call his name, he turned just in time to see Ginny walking into the room. "No!" His sudden yell startled the girl and he moved quickly, blocking her view. She couldn't see what had happened, he wouldn't let her. Almost frantically, he gestured toward the stairs with a rough wave of his hand. "Go up to your room, Ginny."

The girl shook her head, tousling the long red curls. "No, Percy. What's going on? Mum? What's wrong?" She struggled to see around her brother. "Why's she crying, Percy? Why're you so dirty?"

"Just go up to your room, Ginny," Percy repeated wearily. "Please." The sounds of their mother's tears and Fred's steady, monotonous refusal were tearing at him. He put his hand on her shoulder, forcing her to turn from the room. Guiding her to the stairs, he pointed upward. "Go."

She opened her mouth to argue, but seemed to think better of it. With a huff and a last glare at Percy, she turned and fled up the stairs. A few seconds later, the sound of a slamming door echoed through the house.

Sighing, Percy turned to go back into the room where the others waited when suddenly his mind cleared for an instant. In their hurry to get George away from the flames, they had just let the flames themselves go.

Sparing a moment to find his wand on the floor, Percy ran toward the basement. Surely this qualified as reason enough to completely break the rules against underage magic. Deep down the irony of the thought struck Percy as funny.

Again he held the sleeve of his robe over his mouth and nose, blinking against the harsh smoke. Once he reached the door, he pulled out his wand and searched his mind for the right spell. "Extinguous." A sudden burst of wind ripped through the room, followed by a swirling mist of something similar to water, only heavier.

Pausing to be sure the flames were indeed dying, Percy remembered a small window hidden high on one of the walls. Pointing his wand in the right direction, he said, "Dissendium." The window flew open and a single ray of sunlight cut through the smoke that poured through it.

With the fire out and the smoke clearing, Percy coughed as he glanced around the room. It was in a shambles -- cauldron overturned, soot clinging to every surface, moisture dripping from the spell he had used to extinguish the fire. He closed his eyes and let out a long breath.

Dropping his wand into his pocket, he stepped further into the room to make sure that all of the flames were indeed out. A glance to the far left caused him to freeze in place. He blinked, wondering if his eyes were playing tricks on him.

"Maybe it's just an old robe," he muttered under his breath as he walked over toward the blackened pile of cloth. "No one else was down here..." Percy added, but if it was just to convince himself of the idea, he didn't know.

Lowering himself onto one knee, Percy reached out his hand only to find it shaking. Coughing against the remaining smoke he touched the robe gingerly. A lance of panic, similar to when he'd first seen George draped across Fred arm, pierced his heart.

"No..." It was more breath than word, pulled from his throat as he nudged the robe away from the slackened face beneath it. His fingertips ghosted across the soot-covered skin, tears biting at his already irritated eyes. "No, no, no. Ron..."

Ron took a ragged breath and Percy gasped with relief. "Ron?" Anxiety filled his voice, his earlier numbed state lost. A tear not borne of the smoke and heat slipped from his eye, marking his cheek.

The smaller boy groaned softly, but didn't move.

Percy rearranged the robe covering Ron so that he could get an arm under both his knees and back. He winced at the cruel burns that marked his hands and arms. Holding him close to his chest, Ron's head lolled against his shoulder. Percy crossed the basement as quickly as possible -- careful to not jostle Ron too much as he climbed the stairs, his chest tight with worry.

Walking into the bright living room, he blinked against the sudden light. He didn't need to see, however, to hear his mother's broken sobs. Within seconds his vision had cleared and he placed Ron on the second couch so the healer might look at him. Could save him.

Percy moved just in time to hear his mother's cry. "Ron!"

~~~

Ron groaned. He heard his mother calling his name, but tried to roll over and stuff his face down into his pillow. It was summer break, why did he always have to get up early? It simply wasn't fair.

Pain rushed through him and he gasped roughly as his eyes shot open. He tried to sit up, but hands on his shoulders kept him from doing so. "Wha..." He tried to speak, but the words wouldn't come. His throat felt as if it was on fire, shredded and torn.

Fire.

Memories flooded back with a crushing force. Ron struggled against the hands that held him, needing to see George. He had to be okay. He needed to know he was okay. Looking up at Percy -- for that was who was holding him down -- realization struck. He saw pain in the familiar eyes. As if knowing what he felt, Percy stepped to the side and Ron was finally able to see what he was searching for.

George...

No.

Tears filled Ron's eyes, his jaw quivering when he looked from George to Fred and then Percy. He shook his head, unable to think much less speak, not wanting to believe what his eyes were telling him. There was an unfamiliar woman hovering nearby, watching him as if she expected him to collapse again. A healer then, part of his mind supplied.

Percy shook his head, but before he could say anything, Mrs. Weasley rushed back into the room. Seeing her youngest son awake, yet more tears filled her eyes. Within a moment, she had wrapped him in an embrace -- blocking his view of the others -- her sobs shaking both of them.

Ron pressed his face into his mother's shoulder, fighting against the silent tears that streaked down his cheeks, wetting his mother's robe. He shook his head, over and over, denying what was burned into his memory. Words repeated in his mind, relentless and cruel.

His brother was dead. It was all his fault.

Gasping, Ron pulled away from the smothering embrace. Pain tore through his arms, causing black spots to fill his vision, but he swallowed it down. White streaks cut through the soot that remained on his face, his hair sticking in all directions. He refused to look at his mother's consoling, grief-ridden face. He refused to meet Percy's tear-bright eyes.

The thought of again looking at George caused his stomach to turn, nausea rolling within him.

It was, instead, Fred's face that Ron sought out. It was Fred he needed to reach out to, but Fred wasn't looking at Ron. Fred's attention, he realized, went no further than the body that lay before them all. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Ron thought Fred looked remarkably like a puppet whose strings had been snapped. Totally un-Fred-like, as it were.

As if feeling Ron's pleading gaze on the back of his neck, Fred turned slowly to look at his younger brother. The green eyes, normally bright with chaos and jokes, were hard and cold. Unforgiving. Ron gasped, the breath catching in his raw throat. Percy opened his mouth to say something, but seemed to bite the comment off after a dark look from Fred.

"Get out."

Ron blinked, fresh tears biting his eyes. He opened his mouth, closing it before opening it again. Still, no words came. His chest was tight and he felt cold, even though he somehow knew the room to be overly warm. Ron shuddered, unable to look away from Fred and the dark smudges hollowing the area beneath the dead stare. Ron tilted his head to the side, a single tear slipping down his right cheek.

Fred's jaw clenched, his cold eyes glancing at the others in the room before again freezing Ron in their sights. Fred looked away long enough to glance at where George lay and swallowed nervously. For the smallest of moments, the ice melted in his eyes, only to be replaced by a soul deep pain. Percy winced. Mrs. Weasley reached out to her son, but was rebuffed.

As though seeing the renewed pain in their mother's eyes, Percy reached out and laid his arm across her shoulders. Mrs. Weasley didn't look away from the grieving twin, nor did Ron.

"Fred?" Ron's hoarse voice squeaked slightly, but couldn't hide the plea within it.

Hearing his name, the twin blinked. All traces of pain disappeared, again replaced by the hard glint of anger. "Why are you still here?" It was only a whisper, but one that sent chills down Ron's spine and caused Mrs. Weasley to reach out to her son once more.

"Fred..." She laid a hand on his arm. "Don't..." He cut her off, brushing her hand away, with a matching shake of his head.

Ron stood, barely managing a cry when his legs folded beneath him. He landed hard, on his knees, and when Percy reached out a steadying hand, Ron batted it away. Even as he did so, his attention didn't leave Fred.

From where he was kneeling, several feet away from Fred and George, Ron reached out a shaky hand. "Fred?" The disbelief colored his voice, and he swallowed audibly. "Geo..."

"Don't," Fred interrupted him, voice yet to rise above a whisper but cutting all the same. The temperature in the room seemed to fall suddenly with Fred's glinting eyes. "Don't even say his name."

"Fred..." Mrs. Weasley said, reaching over to place a hand on Fred's arm. She swallowed her own tears. "Being angry with Ron won't bring George back." He didn't reply, merely continued to stare. "It's not Ron's fault."

Ron looked between them, confused. In a childlike voice he asked, "Mum?"

It was obvious, even to Ron, that Mrs. Weasley was torn between her children, each hurting in their own way. The shaking in Ron's shoulders continued to grow worse, until Percy finally wrapped his youngest brother in a warm embrace, careful of the barely healed burns that had been tended to while Ron was unconscious. There was a thanks in their mother's eyes, directed at Percy and he nodded. As he held onto Ron, he closed his eyes against the tears that rested there.

Fred shook his head and turned away from the others. His attention focused only on George, he said, "Get out, Ron. You don't belong here."

"Fred!" Mrs. Weasley's voice allowed for no argument. She knew he was hurting, they all were. That alone broke her heart, but looking at her youngest son, and the dejected expression she saw there, enough was enough. "Don't ever speak to your brother that way."

Fred shook his head, staring at Ron for a long moment before turning away.

"He's not my brother."

~~~

The rest of the day passed in a blur. There was a sudden influx of people into the Burrow -- both those Ron recognized and those he didn't. Ron marveled at his arms, the lack of burns or scars. The lack of pain, which had become oddly familiar, hurt worse than the pain itself had.

As soon as he was able to stand he had fled the main room. Fled the over-concerned healer. Fled his tearful mother and a worried Percy. Fled George -- who had since been moved from the couch -- and Fred, who had not even looked at his younger brother since his earlier out burst.

Ron's room became his refuge -- for the moment. He sank onto his bed, knees pulled up to his chest and arms wrapped around them. The noise from below echoed up the many staircases. He could hear Ginny's endless questions. He recognized the sound of his father's voice, worn with grief though it were.

At one point, someone knocked on the door to his room. He realized who it was a moment later when a small voice asked, "Ron? Can I come in?"

The door handle jiggled, but a chair wedged under it kept the door from opening. When he didn't say anything, rather pressed himself as far into the corner as possible, he heard Ginny's sigh as she waited a minute and walked away.

Closing his eyes, Ron pressed his face against his knees. Flashes of memory from what happened in the basement filled his mind.

Fire. Smoke. Falling. George...

"No!" The cry echoed off the walls. He jerked his head up, hitting it against the wall for his trouble. Eyes wide, panting, he ignored the pain that flared through his head and looked around the room. Tears slipped unbidden down his face and he couldn't catch his breath -- he could only manage gasping stutters around the lump that was lodged in his throat.

The sight of George lying on the couch was all he could see. The thought that it was his fault that his brother -- his *brother* -- was dead, because of *him*... It was all he could hear inside his head.

Ron had no idea how long he had been hidden away upstairs before the constant smiling of the many Cannons' posters that lined the walls began to aggravate him. What began as a barely noticed annoyance finally erupted into full-scale anger. Whether it was at the players in the posters or himself, he wasn't ready to think about yet.

Standing up quickly, so quickly he half doubled over when his head began to spin, Ron reached out his hand to the closest of the posters. With hardly a second thought he ripped it from the wall. The sudden burst of energy filled him, and he looked to the other posters that now stood eerily still around him.

In a flurry of motion, Ron tore through the room pulling the many posters from the walls and ceiling. When that wasn't enough, he ripped them into shreds, littering the floor with the thin ribbons that remained. When the walls were bare, Ron stood in the middle of the chaos, gasping for breath, his chest heaving with exertion.

His eyes glazed over in fury as he looked at the ratty wallpaper that had once been hidden beneath the smiling wizards. A strangled cry tore from his throat as he attacked the faded paper, gouging long tears into it with his fingernails. Ron didn't pause when the splintered wood dug into the skin under his nails or the nails themselves splintered and ripped away. He didn't see the red streaks that marred the paper.

All he could see, rather, were the cold, accusing eyes of his older brother. All he could hear was the sound of Fred's voice as he told him to leave. That he wasn't his brother.

And all he could think was that Fred was right.

Struggling to breathe, Ron looked around the room. For the first time since that morning he truly saw the wrecked remains of his bedroom. The thought occurred to him that he didn't deserve it. Not his room. Not his family. Nothing. What does anyone deserve when they kill their own brother?

Black spots danced at the edges of his vision, and he swayed slowly. The room tilted beneath his feet and within a heartbeat the floor was rushing up to meet him. He barely even had time to think that he didn't belong there.

He was no one's brother.

~~~

p2

When Ron woke the sky outside his window was dark. He had no idea how much time had passed, or what time it actually was. Oddly enough, he didn't really care.

He looked around his room through eyes made stiff and puffy by tears. The small space was a shambles -- remnants of once bright posters and long dull paper cluttered the floor. The comforter was pulled from the bed, pillows thrown randomly around the room.

Ron rotated his head trying to work the kinks out of his neck. Spending part of the night on the floor -- although by no choice of his own -- had made his back sore. After stretching his arms up over his head, his gaze fell on his hands, or rather, the dried blood that covered his fingers. He knew he should care. That didn't mean he did.

Dropping his hands to his sides, Ron gazed listlessly around his room. His thoughts from before -- that he had no right to be there -- were never far from his mind. Even as the idea was the primary thought in his mind, another was forming.

He had to leave.

Shaking his head, he tried to think about what he should do. Should he really leave his home? Run away from what he had done? He thought about the look on his mother's face earlier. The look in Fred's hollow eyes before he hadn't been able to look at him any more. It was then that Ron had his answer.

Before he was even moving across the room, the boy was deciding what he would need to do. He couldn't think of where he would go. There wasn't anyone he could run to, they would all hate him once they had heard what he'd done. It wouldn't be long before everyone hated him for killing his own brother.

Might they even take him to Azkaban? At the same moment he shuddered with fear, apathy swelled in his heart.

Ron shook his head, trying to focus. His head was throbbing, his vision blurred around the edges. Clenching his hands into fists, he willed the pain to go away. There wasn't any time for it if he was going to leave before anyone thought to look for him.

The ratty bag he carried his books in at school was under his bed, and he grabbed it after a moment's thought. A wistful feeling came over him, causing his stomach to twist. He was going to miss Hogwarts, but there was no way he would be able to go back. Not now -- not ever.

He held the bag in clenched hands, before pulling open the top drawer in his chest. Not really thinking about it, he grabbed another robe, a shirt and pair of pants. He didn't know where might need to blend in, and he hoped the clothing was similar enough to what the muggles were wearing.

Coughing, he grabbed his wand and dropped it into his pocket. Illegal use of magic was the least of his problems, however it couldn't hurt to be careful.

The idea crossed his mind that he should probably find something to eat, but his stomach rebelled at the idea. Ron clutched a hand across his midsection, willing whatever might still be in his stomach to stay there. He supposed that eventually his appetite would return, but he would deal with that whenever it happened. It wasn't as if there was all that much extra food to spare around the Burrow. He should leave what was there for the rest of them -- the ones who deserved it.

Once his stomach was settled, he straightened. Casting a long glance around the only room he had ever known, Ron sighed. Almost belatedly it occurred to him that if he was going to make it very far in the world on his own -- either the wizard one or the muggle world -- he would need money of some sort. He groaned. He didn't have any money of any sort.

As he stood there, trying to decide what he should do, a thought occurred to him. Sadly, he opened the small box that held his few keepsakes. Inside was his battered chess set and a few other knick-knacks he had been given. Nestled among them was a small pouch made of velvet.

He touched it almost reverently, chewing on his lower lip. Closing his eyes for a second, he took a deep breath, ignoring the pain in his chest the action caused. Picking the pouch up from the box, he slowly opened the drawstring and let the contents slip out onto the old desk.

In the faint light, two chess pieces -- a queen and a knight -- glinted softly. No one knew that he had them, even though many knew about the trials that he and his friends faced to get them. Each had an inlaid jewel that glowed a soft blue from within, but only if you knew exactly where to look for it.

Once, they had been giant -- transfigured by Professor McGonagall to help guard the Sorcerer's stone. Once, Ron had faced the queen in a game of strategy that helped Harry to save the stone. Since, they had been reverted to their original form. The crystal was the only proof of what they really were.

Ron closed his eyes. One more thing he didn't deserve to keep, sacrifice or not. Returning the pieces to their pouch, he placed it into his other pocket. Hopefully someone would want to buy them, for they were all he possessed of any value. No matter how badly he wanted to keep them -- how badly he wanted to believe he had earned them -- it wasn't a choice anymore.

That settled, Ron cast a final glance around his room. Scabbers was sleeping on his pillow, but he decided against taking the rat with him. After all, he hadn't done anything wrong; surely the family would keep him. His mother would probably be angry about the mess. He closed his eyes sadly. What was one more transgression against him?

As quietly as possible, he moved the chair away from the door. He pulled it open and glanced out into the dark hallway. There was no one to be seen, he had no doubt they were in their rooms -- if not actually sleeping. Thinking of this, Ron crept along the hallways and stairs as silently as he could. He made sure to skip over the squeaky stairs, and avoid the one that made a loud clapping noise.

Soon enough he was standing at the main door. He looked over his shoulder, still able to smell the smoke from the basement. The main room, which had so recently held almost everyone he loved, was empty and dark. The door at the top of the basement stairs was pushed tightly closed. Ron wondered when anyone else would ever go down there.

A shiver raced up his spine as he realized what was happening. He was leaving and didn't plan ever to return. He opened the door and stepped out into the night. A half moon lit part of the sky, making it so that he could see across the yard. One foot after the other, he began the slow process of leaving all he'd known.

Again tears bit at the backs of his eyes but he blinked them away, shrugging his bag over his shoulder. After all, why cry when it's for the best?

Why cry when you're only getting what you deserve?

~~~

When dawn finally began to approach, Ron was half-concerned to see dark grey clouds building on the horizon. However, instead of worrying about it, he pressed onward. Even when the first large drops of rain began splattering the ground around him, he ignored it.

Some odd hours after leaving the Burrow, he still had no idea where exactly he was going to go. There was no question that first he needed to trade in the chess pieces, if he could find someone willing to buy them. Then... He wasn't sure what he might do then.

One thought had broken through the shadows that had filled his mind. He needed to at least say goodbye to Harry.

Ron didn't expect him to understand what he had done. Honestly, Ron feared that Harry wouldn't want to be his friend anymore. The last part saddened him almost as much as what had happened already. Never before in his life had Ron had a real best friend. Now he was going to lose the one he'd found just as he had lost everything else.

It was for the best, Ron tried to remind himself -- to tell Harry goodbye and then leave for parts unknown. Maybe he would go to America or into Europe. Somewhere no one knew what he had done. Somewhere no one hated him.

Ron shook his head against the steady rain, shivering as the wind picked up and bit into his skin. He paused for a moment, trying to figure out where he was. Several minutes later he still had no idea and decided just to keep walking. It occurred to him that there were easier ways to get to Harry's aunt and uncle's house than walking. But first he would have to be able to pay for them.

Continuing to wander along the roads, Ron watched as the houses and businesses slowly began to stir. Once, when he was young, his mother had told him that each dawn could bring with it a new hope. Ron shuddered, clutching his arms across his chest both at the weather and the knowledge that his mother was wrong.

The dawn hadn't brought anything with it at all.

~~~

Finding a shop to sell the chess pieces at had been easier than Ron expected. It wasn't the first town he had walked through that day, and it wasn't quite dark when he stumbled onto the small building.

The sign that rattled in the wind, occasionally slamming against the store's wall, labeled it a collector's shop. A quick glace through the window -- at the contents that lay inside --showed it to be owned by a wizard, not a muggle. A small part of Ron -- one that was still thinking logically -- knew that he had to risk selling the pieces to a wizard. No muggle would think the chess pieces anything of value.

The door jingled as he opened it and stepped inside. Ron gasped at the warmth that waited there. It had been so long since he had felt anything but cold and wet. After standing motionless for several minutes, enjoying the heat, he winced at the large pool of water around his feet.

He had just began to wonder how he might mop it up when a short grey haired man appeared behind a counter in front of him. Ron looked up, expecting the shopkeeper to be upset about the mess, but was surprised to see something else in his brown eyes.

"Don't just stand there, son." The man waved a chubby hand. "Come closer to the fire, you look chilled to the bone."

Ron found himself unable to argue with the obvious statement, though he did shake his head. The man smiled before walking around the end of the counter and over to Ron. "Right over here. We'll get you warmed up." When he placed a hand on Ron's arm, the old man gasped. "You're frozen through!"

After being led to the fire, Ron gratefully sank down in front of it. For several moments he stared into the flames -- their orange glow over laid in his mind with a haunting green from his memory. He started, as if remembering where he was, and when. He looked up at the shopkeeper with wide eyes.

"I'm sorry..." Ron gestured toward the door.

The man shook his head. "Think nothing of it. Little harm can come from a bit of muddy water." Reaching for a teapot, he poured an amber liquid into a small cup. "Here, drink this. It will help warm you."

Warily, Ron accepted the tea. He cast a long glance at the man before slurping the warm tea greedily. He couldn't remember the last time he had eaten anything, and the aroma was too inviting to pass up.

A short time later the cup was empty, and Ron looked at the older man sheepishly. "Thank you," he said, returning the cup.

The man nodded, taking the cup. "You're welcome. Now, why are you out in such weather, young man?"

Avoiding the question, Ron reached into his pocket. The velvet pouch was sodden from his journey. The man's gaze followed the motion, watching as Ron opened the bag and pulled the chess pieces from within it. Ron turned the pieces just right, so that the stones glowing within them were visible.

"How did you..." With wide eyes, the shopkeeper looked between the chess pieces and Ron's face. He shook his head. "Where did you find these?"

Ron shrugged. "I've had them for a little while now." He hoped that the other man wouldn't press the issue; he doubted he would believe him. Perhaps he'd believe them stolen. "I was hoping you might be interested in them."

He reached out a hand, almost touching the knight before looking at Ron. "May I?" When Ron nodded, he picked up the knight and turned it over in his hands. "I've heard of these. Never expected to see one."

"Would you want to..." Ron cringed, hating what he had to say next. The chess pieces were special in their own way -- even if one of them *had* knocked him unconscious. "Want to buy them?" he finally finished.

The man shook his head, causing Ron's heart to plummet, but finally said, "Why would you want to sell something like this, son? Why not keep them?"

Ron wouldn't meet his eyes. Instead, he focused on the pieces. "I don't need them anymore," he lied. He stared at them longingly for a few seconds before finally looking up. "Well?"

"Okay," the man said. He considered the boy for a long moment, appearing to be lost in thought. "How does three galleons, twelve sickles sound? For the set."

"Yes, sir," Ron replied almost listlessly. Wizard money would serve his purpose until he decided where he was going -- or could figure out how to trade for muggle money. How much it was, he suddenly didn't care. Having money wasn't all it was cracked up to be anymore. Not when it was taking you away from everything you knew.

"Thank you."

The man dropped a hand onto Ron's shoulder. "Wait here by the fire, I'll go and get them." Again Ron nodded, not watching as the man disappeared around behind the counter. On his lap, the now-empty pouch lay forgotten.

When the shopkeeper returned, he dropped the coins onto the bag. "Here you go." Ron nodded. The man looked closely at the boy sitting in front of him, noting the bright eyes and flushed cheeks. "Are you feeling well, son?" When Ron didn't reply, he shook the boy's shoulder softly. "Son?"

Suddenly Ron sprung to life. "I'm not your son," he replied, his glassy eyes suddenly hard. Some of the anger deflated as he mumbled, "I'm no one's son." Before the shopkeeper could say anything, Ron shoved the money into the pouch and replaced it in his pocket. "Thank you for the tea. I really should go."

The man glanced out a small window and shook his head. "It's after dark and still pouring down rain." He paused, watching the boy as he swayed on his feet. "And I think you're ill, too."

"I'm fine," Ron replied, shaking his head. He skirted around the man, still shaking his head. "Thank you." With a half-hearted wave, he ducked out the front door and into the gloomy night.

~~~

The shopkeeper watched the boy leave and continued watching through the window as he hurried down the street. The man sighed, rubbing a hand through his hair. Digging around in his robe pocket, he found a quill. A few moments later he found a piece of parchment and scribbled a quick note.

Whistling, he walked over to an owl cage near the back of the shop. After explaining to the owl about the letter, he opened the window and watched as it fluttered out into the driving rain.

Closing the window, he turned back into the shop. A moment later he picked up the two chess pieces and placed them on the counter. How was it that he had stumbled upon Arthur Weasley's boy?

~~~

The rain continued to pour down throughout the night. Ron pressed onward; the only plan in his mind was that he had to see Harry. He owed Harry, at least, a goodbye. The heavy weight of the galleons in his pocket, when compared with the chess pieces, constantly reminded him of what all he had lost.

Everything had spun madly out of control and he had no idea how to stop it.

A low rumble of thunder sounded far off in the distance. Ron had hoped the rain might let up, but wasn't surprised when if anything it only grew worse.

He sneezed, almost doubling over with the effort. His head swam and Ron braced his hands on his knees when found that he couldn't stop coughing. It was a struggle to breathe, and suddenly he found himself tilting off balance to land on his hands and knees in the mud.

His shivers worsened instantly -- he had landed in a puddle of muddy water on the side of the road. Raising a hand to rub it over his face, it occurred to him that the gouges on his palms should be hurting. There were thin traces of blood -- cuts left by the rocks hidden in the water -- washing away in the rain. He realized then that his hands had gone numb at some point, they didn't hurt. They didn't feel like much at all.

For long moments he sat where he fell. Ron knew he should at least get out of the standing water, but as it was continuing to fall from the skies a part of his brain argued that it made little difference where he sat. And if he were to be honest, he was too tired to move.

A sigh escaped his lips, triggering another cough. When he regained his breath, he ran a hand through his rain-plastered hair. It would be easy to just lay down, a part of him thought. Just sleep for a little while. His eyes were beginning to fall closed, staying that way longer and longer each time he blinked.

After several minutes of sitting by the street -- lost in a feverish daze -- he remembered what it was he had to do. He had to see Harry. It was this thought that bade him to press onward -- to climb to his feet and move sluggishly down the street.

How far away was Privet Drive anyway?

~~~

Harry was startled awake by the sound of something fluttering against his window. Squinting, he glanced at the window only to see nothing but darkness. A second later, his glasses pressed on his face, he saw what had woken him. An owl. The first owl he'd received all summer.

The owl that hovered outside the window was soaked through, the driving rain which had begun before he went to bed had yet to lift. An odd feeling in the pit of his stomach squelched any happiness at the thought of finally getting a letter.

Even before the thought had time to form -- who on earth would be sending an owl in such weather? -- Harry was unlatching his window. A second thought -- what would happen if his aunt or uncle heard -- was pushed to the back of his mind.

The bars that covered the window proved a problem, and the large owl seemed to glare at Harry for the inconvenience. Reaching out through the bars, Harry grasped the owl just enough so as to pull the parchment from his grasp. When it made a disgruntled noise, Harry muttered an apology as he reached over to Hedwig's cage and pulled out a small piece of food.

"I'm sorry, boy, it's all I have," he whispered so quietly it was almost inaudible over the falling rain. The owl hooted softly before flying away, back off into the night.

Harry shivered, his arms and face wet with the rain. He quickly unrolled the parchment, only to realize that his glasses were covered in water. Wiping at the moisture with his sleeve, he managed to see well enough to make out the splattered words. He didn't recognize the handwriting, which ruled out a greeting from either Ron or Hermione.

~~Harry. Please forgive me for sending this letter so
late. We hope it finds you well. I know how close
you are with Ron, and that is why I needed to contact
you. Something horrible has happened.~~

Harry's eyes closed of their own volition. *Something horrible...* The words repeated silently in his mind. It was a long moment before he opened his eyes and again tried to focus on the words. His hands shook, making it even harder to read the letter.

~~There was an accident earlier today, at the Burrow.
Fred and George were up to something, I'm not sure
what. Ron was with them and something went wrong.
George was killed.~~

The boy slumped onto his bed, staring off into space. George? His mind rebelled at the thought. Not George. How could Ron's brother be dead? What about Fred? Question upon question circled in his mind, causing his vision to swim.

He was certain he did not want to read the rest of the letter. But he had no choice.

~~For whatever reason, Ron apparently thinks that it
is his fault, what happened to George. He's gone Harry.
Ran away and so far nothing our parents -- or anyone else
-- has done has been of any help. Mum and Dad were so
upset about George, and then we realized Ron was gone...~~

Harry's heart was pounding. Ron was gone? The tears that had burned the backs of his eyes minutes before returned. He blinked quickly, merely succeeding in causing the moisture to overflow onto his cheeks. Instead of brushing it away, Harry ignored the tears and took a deep breath.

~~I think Ron may try to find you. I know that he
hasn't been able to get a hold of you this summer.~~

He's tried? Harry thought.

~~If he does show up there, Harry, you have to convince
him to come home. Or contact us. No matter what he
thinks he has or hasn't done, he belongs here. This is
home, Harry, we need him here as much as he needs to
be here.~~

It was simply signed Percy Weasley. There was a small part of Harry's mind that wondered at the mere thought of Percy taking the time to write him. From what he knew of the middle Weasley, he was surprised he would have taken such initiative.

That thought was, however, brushed aside in the wake of everything the letter had revealed. George was gone and Ron... Ron had left. Harry cast a long look at his bedroom window, silently willing his friend to appear. There was no reply, save a low rumble of thunder off in the distance.

The letter finally fell from nerveless fingers onto the rumpled sheets of his small bed. The paper was forgotten, it's message anything but. Moving to stand in front of the window, Harry rested a hand on the pane of glass.

"Where are you, Ron?" he asked his own reflection. His reflection didn't answer.

~~~

It was late in the night - sometime between midnight and dawn, Ron wasn't sure -- when Ron's legs again collapsed from beneath him. As he sat in the middle of the road, weak with coughing, he half wondered how it was his parents hadn't found him. As it were, he was grateful the shopkeeper he had spoken to hadn't recognized him.

The thoughts had barely had time to form before he flinched. Shame colored his cheeks and he began to shake harder. Why would they be looking for him? And if they were... Flashes of fire filled his vision. It wouldn't be good for any involved if they found them. They probably hated him. Fred certainly did.

Not that he was concerned anyone would know *which* Weasley he was, if they even cared. But it was possible they would know he was one of the Weasley family. Hair as red as theirs wasn't the most common to be found.

Catching his breath for a moment, Ron turned his face into the rain that pelted the ground around him. He knew so far he had been lucky. However, Ron wasn't willing to bet how long his luck might hold out.

Ron sneezed and for the first time since fleeing his home, he tried to think of what he should do next. Finding Harry -- that was high on the list. But how to go about it? At the rate he was going, it would take ages to reach Privet Drive.

It was then he remembered Charlie telling him about the Knight Bus. Of course, when their mum had heard what tales Charlie had been telling her youngest son, chaos had broken loose. As a result, Ron had always been curious about the mysterious bus that his mother was so against his riding.

Ron thought back to what his older brother had told him. How was it you went about signaling the bus again? It had been so long before, and the memory was hazy. Suddenly inspiration struck and Ron carefully pulled his beaten old wand from his pocket.

Standing, trying to hold himself as still as possible, he reached his arm over his head -- wand extended toward the sky. Seconds ticked by, becoming a minute. Ron was about to lower his hand and accept that if he was going to see Harry, he would have to walk the entire way, when there was a loud bang and brilliant light.

Ron jumped at the noise and flinched seeing the smoke that billowed -- it was far too similar to before...

He winced, ignoring the memories that sought to steal the breath from his lungs. Ron dropped his hand to block his eyes against the sudden light. His eyes watered for a moment, before he could finally focus on the triple-decker, purple bus and take in the lettering on its front.

Ron's mouth gaped open when a man jumped out of the bus and into the rain. The stranger -- complete in matching purple uniform -- held out a hand to Ron.

"Welcome to the Knight Bus. 'Orrible weather you've found yourself in this eve. Woss you doin' out in t'at?" He gestured toward the inside. "Climb aboard, now."

The tone was friendly, and Ron could feel the warmth inside the bus from where he stood. He shook his head -- as though to be sure he wasn't imagining the bus after being out in the rain for so long. When it was still there a few seconds later, he nodded and took the offered hand.

"Thank you."

The man nodded. "Stan Shunpike is the name. Conductor to the Knight Bus." As Ron stepped onboard, Stan following close behind, the door slammed shut. "'Choo 'ave a name?"

Ron nodded and opened his mouth to reply before thinking better of it. He tried to smile, but couldn't quite force the expression. "Cedric Hingles, sir."

The man's head tilted to the side. "Can't seem to recall ah 'Ingles..." The conductor shook his head and smiled crookedly. "Eh, never mind. Can't be expected to know the whole lot of wizards in England."

The bus seemed to rattle, accompanied by another loud noise, as it lifted away from the street. Ron looked around the interior with wide eyes -- it was almost as peculiar as the outside. Shivering, he ran his hands over his lower arms. Even inside the warmth of the bus, he couldn't seem to get warm.

"So, goin' somewhere, are 'choo?" Stan asked, looking over Ron's shoulder.

Returning his gaze to Stan, he nodded uncertainly. "Privet Drive? Do you know where that is?"

Stan almost looked offended, Ron noted. "Of course, sir. Ern and I know how to find most any place." At Ron's confused look, Stan gestured toward the front of the bus. "Our driver, Ernie Prang."

Ernie nodded to Ron, before turning his attention back to the stormy sky.

Ron shifted on his feet, forcing himself to look at the other man. "How much for the lift?"

"Eleven sickles." He paused, looking at the bedraggled boy. "Tho firteen gets ya 'ot chocolate. If 'choo don't mind my saying so, young sir, 'choo look as if 'choo could use it."

Stomach grumbling and still cold, Ron recalled how much the shopkeeper had given him. Resigning himself to no hot chocolate, he pulled the money pouch from his pocket. With a glance inside, he pulled out eleven of his twelve sickles. "Here you go, sir."

Stan gave Ron an appraising look. "Sure 'choo don't want 'ot chocolate?"

Dropping his gaze, Ron shook his head. "No thank you, sir."

The conductor gave him another long look before nodding. Gesturing to Ron's robe, he added, "'Choo might consider changing out of that wet robe, 'tho, Cedric."

Ron glanced down at his clothing. Wet or not, the conductor was right. He was going to Privet Drive and he would have to blend in. Wizard robes were probably not in fashion in the muggle world. He fingered the bag on his shoulder and looked around the bus' interior. "Anywhere I might change?"

Stan nodded toward the back of the bus. "Right back there, 'choo can use the facilities."

Ron sneezed, managing to grin shakily. "Thanks."

~~~

After changing, Ron must have dozed off -- though he had no memory of falling asleep. All that remained from that time were disjointed images. Fred and George. Percy's tearful eyes. His mum...

The next thing he knew Stan was shaking him by the shoulder, a shoulder that was already shaking.

"We're 'ere, Cedric." Ron blinked against the vague images and the pain that went with them, willing himself to stop trembling. He stretched his arms up over his head. A quick glance around revealed nothing but dreary black skies. As if reading his mind, Stan grinned. "Right down there." He pointed out the window and down.

Ron stood, wobbling unsteadily for a moment before resting a hand against the glass to steady himself. Looking out through the window, row after row of small houses could just be seen below -- all lining amazingly straight streets. Ron couldn't help but think they all looked far too alike and rather dull.

Shaking his head in hopes to clear it, Ron was hit by another wave of dizziness. When he would have otherwise fallen, he felt the other man's hand on his arm. "'Choo okay, Cedric?" Ron nodded, although he felt anything but okay. "'Choo sure? 'Choo look awful red."

"I'm fine," Ron managed to force past a scratchy throat.

See Harry. Say goodbye. Then get sick. Then hide. The ideas fell one after the next in his mind. And he nodded to himself in silent agreement. Find Harry.

Again there was a loud noise, and Ron felt the floor fall out from under him slightly. He clenched his hands into fists, his stomach twisting with the turbulent ride. Soon enough they were on the ground and Ron couldn't help but be relieved. A sheen of sweat beaded his forehead and he wiped at it absently while waiting for Stan to open the door.

"'Ere 'choo go. Privet Drive."

Ron nodded, not quite managing a smile. "Thanks, Stan."

When he stepped out of the bus, he was barely turned around before he heard a concussive booming noise and the bus was gone. For a minute Ron simply stared at the long street in front of him. How was he going to figure out which house was Harry's?

He tucked his bag -- full of half-dry clothes and his robe -- over his shoulder and took a deep breath. Privet Drive wasn't that long, he decided. Ignoring the rain -- it was becoming quite an easy thing to do -- he began walking along beside the houses, trying to pick one.

The silence was strange. Although he was slowly becoming used to the silence and solitude, even if it did go against everything he'd known. He wasn't quite halfway down the street when the memories hit suddenly. The memory of *why* he was alone. George lying in a pool of fire. Smoke billowing all around. Fred's cold eyes blaming him.

Ron swallowed, forcing air past the tightening in his chest. Hands pressed against his knees, he finally managed to breathe -- pushing back the dizziness that threatened to overwhelm him. Trying less successfully to push the memories away, Ron stood. He could fall apart later, he told himself.

After half an hour he stood on the sidewalk in front of one particular house. He wasn't sure why he thought this was the right one; something in him just made him think it might be it. He took a steadying breath and carefully began to sneak around the back of the house. After everything Harry had said about his awful family, the last thing he wanted to do was wake them.

Soon enough he was standing in the back yard, staring at the uppermost window. There was a faint light from inside it, causing Ron to pause. But again, something in him just felt *right* about this house.

At a loss as to how to get Harry's attention, Ron kicked at a small rock near his foot. The sound of it clinking against something unseen in the darkness gave him an idea, and he quickly scanned the small yard for another stone. Finding one, he picked it up and palmed it.

Another glance up at the window to judge the distance, Ron tossed the rock toward the glass. He held his breath at the small noise the impact made and waited. He wasn't waiting for long.

~~~

p3

After Percy's note, Harry found himself pacing as quietly as possible in his tiny room. But the noise had disturbed Hedwig and Harry had been forced to at least sit down. And although his mind was running nonstop, he eventually fell into a fitful sleep.

Within it, he was assaulted by images of Ron. Of a life without the best friend he had ever known. One particular dream -- featuring Professor McGonagall's charmed chess set -- caused Harry to sit up straight in his bed, panting for breath. Gasping he fell back against the bed, awake and as uncertain as ever.

The small tapping against his window caused him to jump. However when he glanced out through the window, Harry didn't notice anything and thought perhaps he had imagined it. He sunk back onto the bed and ran a hand through his hair. The last thing he needed was to be imagining things on top of everything else.

When he heard the noise again, this time he was sure he hadn't just imagined it. Ignoring the rain, he pulled the glass open and leaned forward as far as possible with the bars that covered the window.

There was the dullest flash of lightning, and Harry gasped. Standing in the middle of the yard below him was Ron, soaked through and shivering so badly Harry could see it from the attic. Ron gave a half-hearted wave and Harry felt all the air drain out of his lungs. For a moment he was lightheaded, unsure what he should do.

Then suddenly he was galvanized into action. Grabbing his wand -- which he had smuggled out of his trunk before the Dursley's had locked it away -- he pointed it toward the heavy lock on his door. The rule about underage magic seemed rather unimportant right then. The lock was keeping him from helping his friend and to Harry that friend mattered more.

The lock sprung open silently, and Harry pulled the door open as quietly as possible. With a glance around the darkened hallway, he pulled the door closed behind him. Quickly he descended the stairs, careful to avoid the squeaky one so as to not wake any of the others in the house.

The lock on the front door was easier to get past, and soon Harry was rushing around the side of the house. He barely spared the time to notice the rain had stopped. When he came face to face with Ron -- who was shaking terribly -- Harry's eyes widened.

"Ron?"

The other boy smiled sheepishly. "Hi, Harry. Sorry to bug you." Harry shook his head, his mouth opening but no sound coming out. He was even more surprised when Ron actually laughed, a dead, chilling sound. "You look like a fish, Harry."

Harry gaped at Ron. "I look like a fish? You look half drown."

Why Ron was out in such weather in the first place rushed back, and Harry's face paled. Ron, apparently realizing what was going on in Harry's mind, shook his head angrily. "They said something didn't they?"

Taken aback, Harry shook his head. "Who?"

Ron threw his hands up. "You know well who. My family." Suddenly the anger deflated, leaving Ron to almost fall into himself. Harry couldn't help but think he didn't even look ten, much less twelve. "They told you what I did." The small voice was so quiet Harry almost missed it. Missing the pain within it, however, was impossible.

"I'm sorry," Harry whispered, swallowing nervously.

Ron looked up at Harry, his eyes haunted. "So am I." Tears stood out in Ron's eyes, and he rubbed them away roughly. "So am I," he repeated mostly to himself, looking away. Ron cleared his throat, again meeting Harry's concerned gaze. "I wanted to say goodbye." His voice was rough with tears.

Harry shook his head, refusing the words. "No..."

As if not hearing Harry's protest, Ron pressed onward. "I have to go away, but I didn't want to leave without..." He coughed, his shivering increasing. "Without at least telling you goodbye."

"You can't go."

The quiet denial shook Ron, causing him to look closely at his friend. "What?"

Harry continued shaking his head. He looked at Ron, begging him to understand what he was trying to say. "You're my best friend. You can't just go away."

The redheaded boy almost laughed, somehow looking pained at the same time. "I'm the last guy you need for a best friend." He shoved his hands into the pockets on his pants. "Stick with Hermione and the others in our class." He smiled then, the light almost -- but not quite -- reaching his eyes. "You're Harry Potter."

"I know who I am," Harry all but growled. Ron was always one of the few who knew who he really was -- beyond the name and the legacy and he couldn't help feeling frustrated. "That doesn't mean I don't need you. After everything I've lost... I won't lose you too."

The silent admission almost shocked Ron. It was the last thing he expected. As a result, he looked at the ground. "You don't need me." When he turned back to Harry, his green eyes were pleading. "I killed George, Harry." The tears returned to his eyes and he sniffled. A lone sob broke free from his chest. "I killed my brother. What if I..."

Harry took a step toward him, laying a hand on his arm. "Ron..."

Ron shook off the touch, stepping backwards. "No, Harry."

"You should go back home." Harry tried another tactic, realizing it was the wrong one the moment the words left his mouth. "I mean..."

"I know what you mean." Ron looked up at the sky, as if willing the rain to begin again and drive the tears away. He shook his head, before stifling a sneeze. "I can't."

It was impossible not to see the trembling that shook Ron's entire body. Harry knew that Ron needed to get out of the cold -- he was as pale as a sheet, but his cheeks were a brilliant red. He would have to be blind to not see how sick his best friend had become.

"Ron..."

He was interrupted when Ron began coughing violently. The boy doubled over, one hand on his knee for balance, the other over his mouth. A second round of the harsh coughing threw him off balance -- and chest first onto the ground.

Before Harry could blink, Ron had gone from standing to laying on the ground, curled into a ball. He shook himself, trying to decide what he should do. After a moment's indecision, he kneeled next to Ron, trying to turn him over. When Ron didn't fight against him, Harry was instantly alarmed.

A second later he realized why -- Ron had fallen unconscious.

~~~

Getting Ron up to his bedroom had proven quite the challenge for Harry, but he couldn't just leave him out in the rain. Manhandling his best friend's unconscious body was one thing. Doing it without making a mess or waking his relatives was another challenge entirely.

But somehow he managed, and it wasn't yet dawn when he pushed his door shut behind them. He placed Ron on his bed, dropping the soaked bag onto the floor beside it.

A few moments later -- after wiping off his glasses so he could see to write -- Harry picked up a piece of parchment and scribbled out a quick note. Rolling it up, he tied it closed and unlocked Hedwig's cage. The owl hooted softly and Harry brushed her feathers with one hand.

"I need you to take this to the Weasley's, Hedwig." Hurriedly, he tied the paper to the owl's leg. "Take this to Percy," he repeated. The owl made a noise, as if disgusted Harry believed she hadn't understood the first time. "Now, be quiet, okay?"

Harry slipped back out into the hallway. A minute later, he stood next to one of the few windows in the house he could reach that would actually unbolt. He went about setting Hedwig free as quickly as possible and returned up the stairs to his room.

When he got there, he used his wand to throw the bolt on the door. Ron was still asleep -- albeit restlessly. As Harry stood there, watching over his friend, he was able to hear Ron mumble quietly as he tossed. The words were hard to understand, but occasionally one would be clear. George. Fred. Fire...

Harry closed his eyes against the images Ron's words brought to mind. He still didn't know what had happened. He wasn't sure he truly wanted to know.

He didn't know how long he stood there, close enough to Ron if he should need him. It couldn't have been too long, for dawn soon came and went. The regular noises of his so-called family rising and getting about froze Harry's blood. What would they do if they found Ron hidden in his room?

Pressing his eyes closed he pushed the thought away. Ron was buried under what blankets Harry could manage from his own meager belongings. Maybe even if they did look in on Harry -- which normally would be doubtful -- they wouldn't see Ron.

The rain returned during the day, sheeting down from the slate grey sky. It was highlighted with dazzling streaks of lightning and rumbling thunder, each of which caused Harry to jump, worried that they might wake Ron who had been sleeping if somewhat uneasily.

Harry found himself wishing he knew how long it would take for Hedwig to reach Ron's home. Having never been there he had no idea when Percy might receive his owl or when a reply might come. Looking at Ron, concern filling him, Harry hoped it would be soon. Even though Ron's sleeping made the ruse easier, it worried Harry that he hadn't woken.

~~~

Percy read the letter that had been brought to him by a grey owl three times. Each time he looked at it again, hoping to find more information than the time before. A part of him was relieved to have the knowledge it provided at all. The rest wanted more.

Clenching the parchment in his fist, he walked downstairs to where his mum and father were huddled in the kitchen. He noted their clasped hands and solemn faces. Losing George and then Ron was taking its toll.

The fact that they had somehow uncovered nothing about where Ron was -- merely the clock pointing toward danger -- only added to the weight they bore. Percy shook his head. How could one boy disappear so easily? A flash of lighting lit the window and he silently cursed the weather. It was the only explanation he could think of.

The tall boy stood in the doorway watching his parents for a moment before walking away silently. He clenched his jaw and followed the hallway to a small study where the two eldest Weasley sons had retreated earlier in the evening. Both had arrived as soon as they could, after word of George, and then Ron, reached them.

Bill and Charlie's hushed whispers halted when Percy walked into the room and pushed the door shut behind him.

"I know where Ron is."

Matching sets of wide green eyes looked at Percy in shock, Charlie half standing in that moment, asked, "How? Where?"

Percy held up his hand and slid into the chair next to Bill. "He's at Harry's."

"You're certain?" Bill asked in a low voice, his earring glinting in the low light.

Nodding, Percy handed him Harry's letter. "He got there before dawn this morning. Harry's owl just arrived with this."

The two elder Weasley brothers read the letter as though it were a lifeline to their youngest brother. Which in a way it was. "We have to go get him," Charlie said. Fixing his brothers with a steely look, one that was normally reserved for dragons in the wild, he nodded toward the shed. "Get the car, Bill."

The joy that might otherwise come with driving their father's flying automobile was dulled by why they were actually going for a flight in it. So instead of smiling, as he might otherwise have been wont to do, Bill merely nodded silently and left.

After he did so, Charlie looked at Percy. "I expect you'll be wanting to go?"

Before he could reply, there was a question from the doorway -- which Bill had left open in his haste to leave.

"Go where?"

Percy looked over his shoulder to see Fred standing there. "To fetch Ron," Percy replied, meeting his younger brother's hardened gaze. There was a glint of something in the darkened eyes at that. Relief? Percy blinked and it was gone as quickly as it had come; again leaving was nothing but anger. Fred's insistent bitterness was most perplexing, and painful at the same time.

Fred stiffened, but didn't reply. Instead he glanced back at Charlie and turned and walked out of the study and up the stairs. When Percy turned back around to face Charlie, there was a sadness in Charlie's eyes he had never seen before. Somehow it made his big brother look old.

He wished he had never seen it.

~~~

It seemed an age before night finally fell upon Privet Drive. Harry was almost shaky with relief when he heard the Dursleys going to bed. The familiar, if annoying, snores echoed down the hallway.

He had been dozing when he heard another noise outside his window. Glancing up, Harry jumped back quickly. Blinking, he wasn't sure if he should believe his eyes. Just beyond his window there was the rear end of a car floating in midair.

Something akin to understanding flooded him when he saw Percy's face just inside the back hatch of the car. Harry hurried to open the window, glancing around outside to see if anyone else was up and about to see such an odd spectacle. Surely Aunt Petunia's gossip circle would love such a sight. He tried to convince himself there was no one else awake as Percy popped open the door.

"Hey, Harry."

Harry nodded, glancing back at Ron. "You got my letter." Relief flooded through him. "Hedwig?"

"She's at the Burrow." Harry nodded again, not quite sure what to make of a place called the Burrow, but willing to go with it for the time being. "Ron?"

Harry gestured over his shoulder -- moving aside to let Percy see. "He's still out. Has been all day. Can you help me get him downstairs?"

Percy nodded. "Yeah." He gestured over his shoulder with a tilt of his chin. "Bill's driving, but Charlie can help."

Harry tried to see into the car where Percy pointed, but couldn't see through the darkness. A moment later there was a sparkle of light and a tall redheaded man -- what Harry imagined Ron would probably look like in a several years -- appeared next to him.

Charlie nodded a hello to Harry, but his attention was focused on his little brother. Even from halfway across the room it was impossible to miss the shaking that wracked the thin frame under the one thin blanket Harry had. A weary look on his face, Charlie walked over and kneeled next to Ron, brushing the damp red hair away from Ron's fevered brow. Gently, he hooked his arms under Ron's neck and knees before lifting him from the bed.

Glancing over his shoulder, Charlie said, "I can get Ron. You get your things. And bring your trunk. You can come home with us."

"Okay," Harry replied, shocked, but unwilling to turn down such a gift. Not allowing himself time to think he hurried to gather both his belongings and Ron's. Moments later he stood beside Charlie, arms loaded with bags and Hedwig's cage.

It was then he realized Charlie was waiting on him. Sheepishly, he looked at the door and then the older Weasley. "The door is locked from the outside," he explained in response to Charlie's silent question.

A flash of... something crossed the other man's face. However rather than discuss it, Charlie reached into his robe pocket and pulled out his wand. A second later the bolt was sprung and they were walking down the main stairs.

"Careful of the bottom step," Harry whispered -- one ear warily tuned to the sleeping people upstairs. Charlie nodded mutely in reply, stepping over the last step with ease.

When they reached the front door Harry unlocked it as quietly as possible. Standing to the side, he let Charlie walk through first. However he was taken aback -- there was no car hovering just beyond the porch. Just as the thought had begun to form there was a flicker of light and Harry realized he could see *inside* the car, but not the outside.

He shook his head, wondering for the moment if his eyes were playing tricks on him. It was Percy's voice, which broke him from the distraction. "Where are your things?"

Harry watched for a moment as Charlie eased Ron into the car, laying him across the back seat before looking at Percy. Gesturing toward the bags and cage, he said, "This is part. The rest is in there." He indicated the locked cupboard by jerking his head.

Percy took the bag and cage, and glanced at the cupboard. "Can you get in there?"

Harry frowned. "Only with magic."

"Bill?" Percy whispered, the noise carrying just far enough to get his brother's attention. Charlie was too busy checking on the practically lifeless Ron to hear.

Harry watched as a door appeared in the sky, and Bill jumped out of the car. Long ponytail bouncing with the motion, he walked over to Percy and Harry. "Percy?"

The redheaded Prefect pointed at the half-hidden door. "Harry's things are in there. Could you manage a spell to get them?"

"Okay, stand back." He muttered a curse and pointed his wand at the tiny door. A second later it swung open slowly. "There you go," he said, glancing at Harry. "But we need to hurry."

Percy and Harry nodded and soon the three of them had worked the trunk into the back of the magical car.

"All ready?" Bill asked, from behind the wheel. When they nodded, he looked at Harry. "Should you tell your family goodbye?"

Harry looked at him with empty eyes, shaking his head. "They'll just be happy I'm gone."

~~~

The trip back to the Burrow was mostly spent in silence. Those in the flying car -- even Bill who was driving -- seemed to be focused on Ron.

Nor did the oppressive silence lift when they arrived at the peculiar house. Harry entered the dwelling with wide eyes, but far less enthusiasm than he might otherwise have. At that moment, he was too worried about his best friend to be very curious.

They had barely touched the ground when the two elder Weasley's rushed through the front door. "Bill! Charlie! Percy!" The names rolled off Mrs. Weasley's tongue. "What did you think..."

She was silenced when Charlie climbed out of the car, Ron's still form in his arms. She gasped; rushing forward -- touching Ron's face and hair, as if assuring herself he was really there.

It was as if a switch had been thrown. Gone were the recriminations, replaced with orders of another kind. "Take him upstairs, Charlie. Use our room." Charlie nodded, ducking into the house without a backward glance.

When Bill and Percy moved to follow, Mrs. Weasley blocked their path. "If you're so determined to fly the car, then make yourselves useful and go get Madame Ublis."

The Weasley boys nodded silently. Harry watched as they turned and left, only to find himself standing alone on the porch. Mr. and Mrs. Weasley had hurried into the house after Charlie and Ron.

Unsure what to do, Harry sat on the porch and waited for Bill and Percy to return.

~~~

Bill and Percy were back in what felt like no time at all, or maybe it was a lifetime. Harry couldn't make up his mind. There was a tall, spindly woman Harry didn't recognize in the front seat of the car.

Leaving the doors on the car open, they rushed into the house. Still uncertain as to his place, Harry followed behind Percy and Charlie. As soon as they were inside the house she was sprinting to the room where they had taken Ron.

Harry recognized the room as Ron's parents -- mostly from Mrs. Weasley's comment downstairs. He wondered briefly why they wouldn't take Ron to his own room, but was distracted from the thought by the healer's voice.

"How long has he been unconscious?"

Her question was directed toward the Weasleys, and Charlie turned to Harry. "Do you know when it happened, Harry?"

"Um..." Harry swallowed nervously, feeling six sets of anxious eyes settle on him. Until then he had been doing his best to act invisible. "Since this morning. It wasn't long after I found him."

The healer turned her piercing gaze back to the small redheaded boy. She pulled one eyelid open and then the other. "Still. It could be worse," she mumbled, mostly to herself. Tapping her hand on her leg, she gestured toward the door. "Why don't you wait outside? I'll tell you when I'm done."

Harry opened his mouth to protest, but after a quick headshake from Bill, he remained silent.

Mrs. Weasley took a step forward. "I'd prefer to stay." Although there was the remains of tear tracks on her cheeks, her eyes glowed with determination.

"Alright," the healer said with a nod. Leveling a long look at the other Weasley boys and Harry, she again pointed toward the door. "But the rest of you. Out. You'll know soon enough how young Ron fares."

It was the last thing Harry wanted to do -- after what Ron had said, what had happened --letting Ron out of his sight was almost out of the question. He felt a hand on his arm and looked up, following the arm to see Percy staring at him sadly.

"Let's go, Harry," he whispered.

He tried to shake his head, but felt himself being led from the room anyway. The last glance he had of Ron was the healer leaning over him, and speaking quietly to Mrs. Weasley.

~~~

"Why are you here?"

The rough voice caught Harry off guard, causing him to jump. He looked across the room to see Fred standing in the doorway. After being run out of the other room, he, Percy and Charlie had retreated to the main room. Mr. Weasley had disappeared upstairs, Bill following in his wake.

When Harry didn't answer right away, Fred stepped into the room. "Well?"

Harry managed not to flinch at the cold tone, barely. Looking at Fred, he realized this wasn't the happy prankster he remembered from the previous year at Hogwarts. It was as if he had been replaced by someone else entirely.

Licking his lips, Harry cleared his throat. "I came with Ron. I wanted to be sure he was all right."

"Ron," Fred growled. The larger boy glanced over his shoulder, toward the stairs that led to their parents' room. "I should have known he'd crawl back."

The words sounded dead, and Harry shivered. He couldn't believe he was hearing the cold tone. This wasn't Fred, he decided. This was someone who looked like Fred -- but was changed drastically.

It was the lingering scent of smoke hanging on the air that brought home to Harry *why* Fred was so changed. He closed his eyes for a moment. George... Harry wasn't sure what he had expected to find at the Burrow -- Fred upset, certainly; even crying, possibly; but angry to the point of hatred? Never.

Before he had time to think any further, Charlie broke him out of his daze. "He didn't crawl back." Harry winced at the sharp tone. How had it happened that the Weasleys were falling apart? "We had to drag him back, practically."

Harry looked over at Fred, who stood motionless -- his hands clenched into fists and jaw locked tight. Without a word, the middle brother turned and left the room. In his wake, Harry could only stare after him. The spell was broken by Percy, who sighed softly.

"We're falling apart," Charlie said in the silence that followed, running a hand over his face before retreating from the room.

Percy glanced over at Harry, a sad look in his eyes. "Everything's different now." Harry swallowed around a lump in his throat when Percy whispered, "Everything."

~~~

Sometime later, while the healer was still with Ron, Harry ventured out of the main room. Unsure exactly where he was going, he walked up the stairs and past the room he had so recently been inside. There were the sounds of muffled voices, but Harry couldn't make out what they were saying.

Walking blindly, he followed the twisting hallways and stairs, no real destination in mind. His hands stuffed into his pockets, he was staring more at his feet than in front of him when he suddenly walked into a wall. At least, what he thought was a wall.

Looking up, Harry found himself pressed nose first into Fred Weasley. And the look on the older boy's face was a strange apathy but if he looked closer he would swear he saw grief and anger hidden there as well. Before that moment, Harry would have doubted those three could co-exist in the same eyes.

"Looking for something?" The voice wasn't as cold as it had been earlier, but neither was it the welcoming voice of the boy he knew.

Harry shook his head. "Not really."

Fred blinked, and for one unguarded moment Harry thought he saw something besides anger. For one fleeting instant, there was a wariness and unimaginable pain. It was gone so quickly, however, that Harry was left to wonder if he had imagined it.

When Fred didn't say anything in reply, Harry looked at his feet for a minute. "I'm sorry," he whispered. Risking a glance at Fred, he blinked sheepishly. "I know..."

"What do you know?" Fred snapped, turning and disappearing through a doorway to Harry's left.

Harry stood motionless for several seconds, taken aback once again. An unfamiliar anger suddenly burned in his chest and he followed Fred. It turned out to be a small room with matching beds -- one made, the other not.

"Fred..."

The boy almost growled, voice low with warning. "No, Harry." But Harry persisted.

He stepped further into the room, not quite standing in front of the bed Fred had dropped onto. "I do have some idea," he added quietly. When Fred made to reply, Harry held up one hand. To his surprise, Fred relented, allowing Harry to speak. "I may not remember losing my parents..." He paused, taking an unsteady breath. "But I do know what it's like not to have any family that cares."

Fred blinked. "It's not..." Though there was still anger in his voice, some of the venom was missing from his words.

Harry nodded, dropping his gaze to his hands. "I know. It's not the same. I don't mean it to be." Taking a deep breath, Harry turned his attention to a small window between the two beds. "Ron's my best friend, Fred."

"Harry..." Fred interrupted.

With a shake of Harry's head, Fred fell silent. "No, Fred. I know you blame him. And I don't know exactly what happened." He thought for a moment. "I'm not sure I want to know. I do, however, know one thing for certain."

Fred coughed, clearing his throat. The physical aftereffects of the fire had yet to dissipate entirely. He asked in a softer voice, "What's that?"

Harry blinked, the backs of his eyes burning as he remembered Ron collapsing in the muddy grass. When he spoke, the words were rough with tears. "Thinking he kil... hurt George was killing him too, Fred." Harry sniffed, looking Fred in the eye. "I think maybe it still is."

Shaking his head, Fred looked away from Harry's searching gaze. From what Harry could see of his expression, there was something different there. He opened and closed his mouth several times before speaking. "I don't know..."

The younger boy sighed warily. "Do you want to live with the chance otherwise?" Fred looked at Harry then, startled. "I know I don't want to." Harry's voice dropped to just above a whisper. "I can't lose the first family I've found, Fred. Please. Not now."

Harry knew he was pleading. He didn't care.

Harry was surprised when he saw Fred's shoulders begin to shake and his eyes clench shut. "I don't know," he repeated, his voice trembling. There was a choked quality to his voice and he shook his head and took an unsteady breath. "George..."

"I know," Harry whispered.

Fred kept shaking his head, as if unaware of the motion. "I just... I don't... Ron was so stupid. Just had to be..." He gasped between the words, unable to catch his breath and all Harry could do was watch. Fred looked at Harry then, a shattered look -- one of realization -- in his wild eyes. His voice dropped to the roughest of whispers. "What if I lose my little brother, too?"

"No." Harry shook his head, unwilling to consider the possibility. "You won't. *We* won't." He needed to convince himself as much as Fred. "We won't."

Fred met Harry's gaze, his eyes full of uncertainty and pain. "I should see him," he whispered, sniffing.

Harry thought he should smile, but couldn't manage it. "I was hoping you would say that."

~~~

The room where Ron slept was dark even though day was breaking outside, the lights dimmed almost to the point of nothing. At some point while they had been upstairs the healer had left, and surprisingly Mrs. Weasley was nowhere in sight. In fact, it seemed odd that there was no one sitting with him.

Fred paused in the doorway, not quite walking into the room. When Harry glanced over at him he recognized the look of uncertainty in Fred's eyes. Silently, he reached out a hand and laid it on Fred's arm. After the older boy looked at him with a dazed expression, Harry nodded and tilted his head toward Ron.

"You can do it," Harry whispered.

When Fred's attention again turned to his younger brother, Harry felt torn for the moment. Stay with his friend, as everything within him was demanding he do; or leave and let Fred have this time alone with his brother?

The decision was taken out of his hands when he felt Fred's hand on his shoulder. Glancing up at the other boy, he waited silently for an explanation.

"Stay." The plea, managed around shallow breaths, was whisper soft and Harry found he couldn't refuse. Nodding, Harry took another step forward, trusting Fred to follow.

The door swung shut behind them, startling both boys. Harry closed his eyes for a moment, willing his heart to quit pounding. No sleep, coupled with the events of the past days, was making him jumpy. When he opened his eyes, he found that he and Fred were standing next to the large bed. Ron's small frame seemed to be dwarfed by the substantial bed, his face paled -- matching the stark white pillowcase where his head rested.

Harry heard Fred gasp softly and managed to pull his eyes away from his best friend. Any color that had been left in Fred's cheeks had drained. Seeing the tremors that ran through Fred's frame, Harry glanced around for a chair.

He pulled Fred's hand from his shoulder, but the redhead didn't seem to notice. Quickly Harry went and dragged the plush chair from the corner over beside the bed. It didn't take but the smallest push to convince Fred to drop into the chair.

That accomplished, Harry again looked at Ron. It seemed unnatural for him to be so still and quiet. He found himself shaking his head, as if it were but an image he could force away. That he might force to be active and alive again. When he was still, Ron remained unconscious on the bed -- a testament to the foolishness of the thought.

Harry watched as Fred reached out a shaking hand, touching Ron's arm softly before ducking backwards quickly. A second later, he again reached forward, this time allowing his hand to lie on the cool arm.

Harry watched Fred's hesitant motions and closed his eyes for a moment. *You have to be alright Ron... Too many people need you here.*

~~~

p4

"Ron, I..." Fred paused, forcing himself to take a deep breath. He didn't know what to say. He wasn't even sure what he was feeling anymore.

Glancing over at Harry, he noticed that the younger boy had his eyes closed. A second later he opened them and met Fred's gaze. Fred gestured toward the far side of the bed. "Have a seat Harry. You should be here when he..." He swallowed unsteadily, whispering, "When Ron wakes up."

He watched as Harry nodded and slowly made his way around the bed. The distraction gave him a few moments to try and settle his thoughts. Although he wasn't sure what that little extra time would help. Nothing had made sense ever since... Fred ran a hand through his hair, fighting back the sudden push of emotion.

Taking a shaky breath, Fred tried to look at Ron. He was so pale, so dead. *NO.* The thought broke through with a surprising force. "Not dead," he whispered under his breath, so low that Harry didn't appear to have heard him. Fred shook his head, jaw clenched tight. "He's not dead, not like Ge..." Shaking, he faltered at the memory of his twin.

Harry must have heard him, for Fred found himself meeting wide green eyes. "Fred..."

Shaking his head roughly, Fred stood suddenly. He began pacing next to the bed, his heart being torn in too many directions at once. "No. He's not dead. But..." Fred looked at his littlest brother again. "Almost. But almost."

Before Harry had the chance to stand, Fred felt his knees buckle and slam in to the hardwood floor. He barely felt the spikes of pain that ripped through his legs, nor could he hardly see the sleeping form of his brother through tear-filled eyes.

He opened his mouth to speak, but couldn't. Blinking quickly, he found that the tears wouldn't simply disappear. Not anymore. For so long, ever since... Fred pressed his fists against his eyes. He couldn't breathe; there wasn't enough air in the room.

All he could see was the image of George lying on the couch. Only this time -- rather than the mind numbing pain it had once brought, it also brought another image, another pain. Forcing his eyes open, Fred looked past Harry -- who had knelt in front of him -- to where Ron lay on the bed.

*It's happening again.* The words tumbled around in his mind, an unending guilt building up from his chest until all he wanted to do was scream. It wasn't fair. *Things like this aren't supposed to happen.* The futile thoughts sought purchase, finding none.

Anger had kept him sane during the long days since his twin had been ripped away and his younger brother had run away... He had hidden behind it, lashing out at anyone who tried to come near. A part of him, deep down, was screaming that if he wasn't angry anymore there wouldn't be any other way to hold on. All that would be left was the enormous chasm where his other half was supposed to be.

But faced with the consequence of his action -- Ron lying helpless in front of him -- the anger seemed to boil away. In its place raged a pain he couldn't contain. Year's worth of memories. Day's worth of grief. Guilt...

Gasping for a breath he couldn't find, Fred ripped his gaze from Ron and back to Harry. Suddenly he couldn't stand the pain he saw reflected in those eyes. Shaking his head roughly, Fred jerked away from the concerned hand Harry had laid on his arm.

He wanted to scream. To yell; to rage until he had no more energy. Instead he remained crumpled on the floor, hardly recognizing the pained whimper that was pulled from his throat.

"I'm so sorry..."

Fred barely heard his own whispered words before the room seemed to tilt and everything faded away.

~~~

Harry wasn't aware of crying out when Fred suddenly collapsed at his feet. He must have, however, because within moments both Charlie and Mrs. Weasley ran into the room.

"What happened?" Mrs. Weasley asked, dropping onto the floor beside her son.

Harry was silent for a long moment. Mrs. Weasley looked as if she was about to ask again when Harry finally wrapped his brain around what had happened. "We came in to see Ron," he explained, not looking away from Fred. "Fred got upset and suddenly he just sort of fell over."

"Mum?" Charlie asked, kneeling next to them.

Mrs. Weasley shook her head, taking a deep breath. Cupping Fred's cheek in her hand, she looked at him closely. "He'll be okay."

Charlie stared at Fred for several seconds. "Are you sure?"

"Carry him to his room, will you, Charlie?" Mrs. Weasley asked. Harry couldn't help but think she looked... older, tired. He hadn't met her but a time or two, but it was something that seemed out of place on the family matriarch, even to Harry.

Harry stood, watching as Charlie carefully raised Fred from the floor. "I've got him, Mum," Charlie said, easily lifting the younger boy and turning to leave the room.

"I'll be there in a moment," Mrs. Weasley said as they left. When they were alone, she turned to Harry. "Look at you, you're about to fall over yourself."

Harry blinked, caught off guard by the observation. "I... But what about..."

Mrs. Weasley smiled, and Harry realized it was the first time he had seen anyone smile since arriving at the house. "I can take care of all of you, you know." Gesturing toward the door, she ushered Harry into the hallway. "You can see Ron after you've had some sleep. His room is at the very top of the stairs, on the left. Even has his name on the door." When Harry hesitated, glancing back toward Ron, she gave him a not so gentle push. "On with you now."

"Yes, ma'am," he said, capitulating to her wishes.

The top of the stairs turned out to be two more staircases, and Ron's name was in fact on a plaque on the door. Fighting the urge to knock -- for he knew no one would be inside --Harry pushed the door open.

He gasped. "What?" he wondered aloud, staring at the tattered remains that filled the floor of the room. Stepping into the room, careful not to hit his head on the sloping ceiling, he looked around.

*Did he rip the walls apart with his bare hands?*

A small cough from behind him shook him from his thoughts. He had just enough time to turn around when Bill spoke, gesturing toward the chaos with a tilt of his head. "He did this." Harry nodded mutely. Even through his doubt, he somehow had known. Stepping into the room behind Harry, Bill dropped onto the small bed. "Dad found it the morning after Ron left, when he came to wake him."

Harry found he couldn't stop staring at the room. "He must have been really upset."

"Percy said he was quiet. Ran up to his room after he and Fred had... words." Bill looked around the room, a pained expression in his eyes. "Normally Mum would never have let it stay like this. She would have gone buggers."

Harry nodded, understanding. "But with George..."

"And Ron," Bill finished, nodding. "Yeah. I guess maybe having one of us clean this up would have meant it was over somehow. That they really were... gone."

Sitting beside Bill on the bed, Harry regarded him for a silent moment. There were so many things he had been wondering about since Percy's owl arrived. Things he couldn't ask Ron or his parents.

The questions must have shown on his face. "What is it, Harry?"

"I don't know what happened... Ron never said exactly. He certainly never mentioned this." He gestured around the room with the wave of his hand. Dropping the hand onto his lap, he fiddled with the edge of his robe. "But how did he find me before you found him?"

Bill was silent for a several seconds, his earring reflecting in the dull light as he shook his head. "We aren't sure. The weather maybe. Possibly he just tried to blend in. There are far more redheaded wizards in England than just us. And muggles besides."

"But..."

"We may never know, Harry." Bill stood up, looking at the remains of the room with pain-filled eyes. "I doubt Mum would have sent you up here if she'd remembered. But with everything going on..." Bill shook his head, pressing his eyes closed for a moment.

Harry nodded, staring at Bill with wide eyes. "I understand."

Bill nodded and looked directly at Harry -- who couldn't help but notice his eyes were almost identical to Ron's. "Thank you for bringing him home." The whispered thanks was rough with emotion.

"I didn't do anything." Harry almost laughed, but it wasn't a humorous sound. "I just want my best friend here. He was going to..."

Again Bill nodded. "I know. If he..."

"He'll be okay." A determination Harry wasn't sure he felt gave his voice an edge. Perhaps it was more desperation than determination, he didn't know. Lowering his voice, Harry added, "He has to be."

Sighing, the eldest Weasley son opened the door. "I hope you're right, Harry. You don't know how much I hope you're right."

Before Harry could reply, Bill left the room without another word.

~~~

When Harry woke, just for a moment he couldn't remember where he was. However after slipping his glasses on -- and seeing the shattered remains of Ron's room -- everything rushed back.

Almost tripping in the tangled covers, Harry ran from Ron's room, the door slamming shut in his haste to check on his friend. Following the maze of stairs and hallways, Harry finally found himself outside the Weasely's bedroom. Taking a deep breath, Harry pushed the door open and peeked inside.

Ron lay on the bed, still asleep but not nearly so pale. Beside him, Fred sat in the large plush chair. The other boy started when Harry tapped his knuckles softly on the door.

"Hi, Harry," Fred said a moment later, waving the younger boy into the room. Harry nodded, glancing between Ron and Fred as he walked over to stand beside the bed. "They think he may wake up soon," Fred offered, turning his attention back to Ron.

Harry's eyes went wide, his breath catching in his throat. "Really?" He blinked, hope warring with a lingering doubt in his mind. He stared at Ron for a long moment before smiling softly. "That's great. When? Do they know?" Fred nodded, but didn't answer the other questions.

After a few seconds, Harry looked over at him. "How are you?"

The older boy shook his head. "I'm okay." Harry wondered about that -- he could see the dark smudges that had formed under his eyes. The last time he had seen Fred he had been unconscious. Harry wondered how long ago that had been. "Mum wanted you to go downstairs when you woke up. Something about dinner."

The thought of food made Harry's stomach turn. "Thanks, but..."

Harry was surprised when Fred almost smiled, but the action was more resigned than anything. "I know," he said quietly. It was strange, Harry couldn't help but note time and again -- he didn't know Fred could *be* so somber.

Again silence fell over the room, each boy lost to his own thoughts. The spell wasn't broken until Charlie stuck his head into the room. "Fred, Mum... Oh, hi Harry." Harry nodded, acknowledging the greeting. Continuing his earlier thought, Charlie went on, "Mum wants you to go downstairs."

Not looking up from Ron, Fred shook his head. "No, Charlie."

The elder Weasley son stepped into the room. "Fred, do as she asks, please."

Harry watched each of the red-headed brothers in turn. He saw Fred's clenched jaw, as well as Charlie's squared shoulders. It occurred to him that everyone in the family must be stubborn.

"She's upset enough as it is, about Geor..." Harry saw Fred flinch, and Charlie paused. Some of the fire vanished from his eyes, his shoulders dropping just a bit. "About what happened, and with Ron..." Taking the few steps across the room, Charlie dropped his hand onto Fred's shoulder. His voice dropped so low Harry almost missed his next words, "Please don't worry her even more if you can help it."

Rubbing a hand over his face, Fred sighed and relented. "Okay, Charlie, I'll go."

Fred had just stood when there was a muffled sound from the bed. Three sets of anxious eyes turned expectantly.

"Ron?" Fred gasped, again holding a vise grip on his brother's hand.

"I'll go get Mum."

Harry spared hardly a glance at Charlie's comment and hasty departure. Instead his attention was riveted to the boy in the bed. "Ron?" Harry repeated Fred's question. Ron stirred slightly in response, and Harry swallowed around a lump in his throat. He could hardly breathe, waiting to see if his friend was indeed waking.

The other boy's head shifted -- hardly at all, but it was enough to cause a smile to break on Harry's face. "Hey," Harry said, barely able to force the word from his tightening throat.

Ever so slowly, Harry watched as Ron's eyes opened -- not very wide, but enough for the building relief to wash over Harry.

"Har..." Ron's voice was raspy, and Harry cringed at the harsh sound.

Shaking his head, Harry smiled for the first time in what felt like forever. "Don't talk. Charlie went to get your Mum."

Harry easily saw the confusion in Ron's eyes at his statement. In the seconds that followed, Ron looked around as quickly as his stiff muscles would allow -- craning his neck from side to side.

Harry could place the moment that Ron realized he was indeed home again. It was followed by a look of panic when Ron noticed who was sitting beside him, silent but still clutching his hand tightly. Harry didn't doubt Ron would have flinched away from the crushing grasp if he had the energy.

Watching as the panic in Ron's eyes grew; it was obvious that Fred was struggling to talk around the lump in his throat. Harry was quiet, waiting for Fred to speak. Finally he coughed, saying, "It's okay. You're home."

Ron turned wide eyes to Harry, who could see the growing confusion and misunderstanding there. Beneath those were the questions that Harry knew Ron must be dying to ask. He could only guess what had been going through Ron's mind when he ran away and knew those same doubts would remain.

"We brought you back where you belong."

As Ron shook his head in disbelief, breath coming in uneven gasps, Harry saw Fred sigh and close his eyes. "I'm sorry..." Fred seemed more to breathe the words than speak them.

Harry looked on as Ron went utterly still and stared at Fred. Skepticism darkened his eyes when he looked from Fred back to Harry. Hating the confusion he saw there, Harry started to speak when the door suddenly burst open.

Mrs. Weasley, three children in tow -- Charlie, Percy and Ginny -- rushed into the room. Harry looked up just in time to see four excited faces, complete with cautious smiles and bright eyes.

~~~


Ron had barely begun to process the fact that Harry had brought him back home -- and that Fred was clinging to his hand as though he might disappear -- when half of his family seemed to burst through the door. It was almost more than his half-awake brain could manage to process.

He watched in a daze as they surrounded him. They all spoke at once, the words falling over one another until he couldn't understand any of it. Mrs. Weasley held up a hand demanding silence and Ron shrank back into the bed as far as he could, wary of what it was she was waiting to say.

Rather than speak, she dropped onto the bed beside him and pulled him into a smothering embrace. Ron stared at Harry over her shoulder, eyes wide with uncertainty. When he saw Harry smile at him, shaking his head slightly, Ron let himself fall into the comforting hug.

Bits of memory rushed back. Staggering along the road in the middle of a driving rain. Hiding his face when others looked at him, lest they recognize him. The Knight Bus. Privet Drive. George.

He gasped, a stuttering sob choking within his chest. He blinked quickly, looking around at those gathered in the room. Doubt and grief filled him, the memory of what he had done -- the realization of one particular face that wasn't there and never would be again.

Pulling away from his mother, Ron shook his head and rubbed a hand over his eyes roughly. His mum watched him hopefully, and his heart twisted at the tears he saw in her large eyes. He shook his head, lowering his gaze to the sheet that covered him.

"No." The whisper was so quiet even he could hardly hear it.

He didn't look up until he noticed someone else sit on the bed beside him. A quick glance and he realized it was Ginny.

"Ron?" she asked in a small voice. Her brown eyes were open impossibly wide, and for a split second it struck Ron as funny how quiet his normally excitable sister was. But he didn't laugh. He couldn't. Ginny's hand reached out and barely touched his arm. Ron found himself wondering if she feared he might break.

Shaking his head from side to side, Ron looked at each expectant face in turn. Pausing on Harry's concerned eyes before daring to look at Fred, Ron was suddenly wide-awake. The fog that had filled his mind since waking had evaporated.

Ron dug the heels of his hands into his eyes, the fragments of everything he'd hoped to forget coalescing into a steady stream of memory. He barely noted the silence that fell over the room at a strange wailing sound.

Gasping for air, fingers clawing at his own throat, Ron turned beseeching eyes to Harry. "Why?" he managed to gasp out, before tumbling back into oblivion.

~~~

Charlie blinked, certain his eyes were deceiving him as he stared at the closed door. It was that or his family really was falling apart at the seams.

Mere seconds after Ron's agonized "Why?" their mother had ushered everyone from the room. He watched, with thinly veiled disbelief as Ginny -- the youngest of all of them -- took Fred's hand and led him away with tears in her eyes.

That left only a stunned and shaken Harry standing beside Charlie.

"Was I wrong?" Harry asked, turning away from the closed door to pin Charlie with pained green eyes.

Charlie sighed, running a hand through his short red hair. "No, Harry." Dropping his hand onto the dark haired boy's shoulder, Charlie tried to reassure him. "You did the right thing. Ron's just confused." Looking longingly at his parents' bedroom door, Charlie paused. "Maybe we all are right now."

When Harry nodded, eyes not quite so hurt, Charlie felt the smallest amount of relief. Even as the second oldest, he always felt responsible for his siblings -- and it seemed to have passed on to Ron's best friend as well.

By some sort of unvoiced mutual decision, they turned and walked away. In silence, they continued until they reached the now-closed doorway that led to where the unimaginable had occurred. It seemed foreboding to Charlie, even after time had passed.

Charlie was startled out of his thoughts when Harry cleared his throat. He glanced down at Harry, watching as the young boy looked at the door and back to Charlie. "Will it ever get better?"

Shaking his head, Charlie felt his heart constrict. Looking upwards for a moment, he took a shallow breath. "I should say yes. I want to say yes." Dropping into a nearby chair, he looked straight at Harry. Judging by the other's gasp, his eyes betrayed his anguish. "But I really don't *know*, Harry."

He shook his head once more, imagining how lost he must look and hating it. He was older -- stronger. Hell he dealt with dragons everyday. He wasn't supposed to feel... Lost. Helpless.

Moisture bit at his eyes when Harry put a hand on his arm. "I'm sorry."

"What?" Charlie looked up in confusion.

Harry glanced nervously toward the basement. "Just... I'm sorry."

Although he tried to smile, Charlie knew it didn't reach his eyes. "I know. We're just... all in this together now. We have to be, if any of us are going to get through to the other side."

"And Ron?"

Charlie nodded. "Ron most of all."

~~~

Ginny was sitting in the kitchen when an owl sudden flew up to the window. It was a clear night, but she noticed the owl looked as if she'd been through a terrible storm. Stretching, she was just able to pop the window open and let the owl inside. With a soft cry it collapsed near the water bowl for delivery owls.

Concerned, Ginny gingerly untied the parchment that was attached to the owl's leg and added more food to the bowl. Once she was certain he was going to be okay, she unrolled the paper enough to see who it was addressed to. Eyes widening, she jumped up from the table and ran toward the stairs.

"Hey, watch where you're running, Gin," Bill called from where he was talking to Charlie. Sneaking an arm out to grab her arm, he asked, "What's going on? Why are you in such a rush?"

Ginny looked at her brothers with wide eyes, taking a deep breath. "It's an owl. Looks like he's been out for ages. It had a note for daddy. From a shop owner somewhere I've never heard of. Says he has Ron's chessmen or something, whatever that means. Wants to send them back for Ron. Wants to know if we knew Ron was wandering around. If something's wrong. If he's okay. Says he was wet and sick and cold and alone..."

~~~

Smiling, even through his concern, Bill kneeled down in front of Ginny. Taking hold of her hands, which were flailing in the air, he said, "Hey, Gin, slow down. Take a breath." He waited for a moment, until her chest had stopped heaving. "Can I see the note?"

Nodding, she handed it to her older brother. Bill stood, holding the curling parchment where Charlie could also read it. They had barely enough time to finish when Ginny tugged on Charlie's hand.

"Charlie?" she asked in a small voice.

Kneeling where Bill had been moments before, Charlie managed a small smile. "What is it, kiddo?"

Ginny looked back and forth between her two brothers. Seeing her eyes -- impossibly wide and brimming with tears -- Bill asked, "Ginny?"

"First George, and now... Why'd he have to run away?" Tears slipped over her cheeks, falling steadily once they'd finally begun. Wrapping his arms around her shoulders, Bill pulled his sister into a tight hug. "Why couldn't he stay here? Why'd Ron have to get sick?" she whispered into his shoulder.

Bill shook his head, meeting Charlie's eyes over the top of Ginny's head. "I don't know, baby."

"Doesn't he love any of us?" Ginny asked; her hands balled into fists of Bill's robe. She sniffed loudly, he could easily tell she was trying not to cry but that the tears refused to stop. "Why, Bill?"

~~~

Resting his hand on the top of her head, it was Charlie who answered. "It'll be okay, Gin." He half smiled, knowing that his sister hated to cry in front of her brothers almost as badly as he would. "And it's okay to cry."

When Ginny rolled her eyes, Charlie blinked in surprise. "Easy for you to say. You never cry."

Charlie watched as Bill pulled out of the embrace saying, "Why don't you take the letter to mum and dad. They probably know the man who wrote it, and what to do about it."

Reaching to the side, Charlie wiped the tears from her cheeks with his thumb. "There, no proof." He winked, causing his sister to almost laugh.

She stepped back, and both Charlie and Bill stood. Just before turning, she said, "It will be okay. You promised."

Charlie managed not to wince. Barely. As she ran up the stairs toward their parents' room, he closed his eyes for a long moment. "I hope so, Gin," he said too quietly for her to hear.

Beside him, Bill dropped a hand onto his shoulder. "Come on, lets go find where Fred's hiding."

~~~

Finding Fred turned out to be easier than either imagined it would be. It was where they found him, almost by accident -- that was surprising. They were crossing the main room, headed toward the stairs when Charlie heard a small noise from behind him.

Turning, he placed a hand on Bill's arm as he sought out the source of the noise. Something in the back of his mind, a sense he normally attributed only to dealing with dragons, told him what he sought was closer than he believed.

Quietly he walked toward the darkened stairway that led to the basement. It was the one place they had all avoided for days. There, sitting on the top of the steps, was Fred. When it looked like Bill was about to speak Charlie shook his head and gestured for Bill to give them some space. With a nod, the elder Weasley turned and continued on upstairs.

Charlie took a deep breath before approaching Fred. Scarcely daring to blink, he slid in next to his little brother and sat on the step next to Fred, but he didn't look at him. Rather, the scarred door beneath their feet held his attention.

Elbows on his knees, Charlie laced his fingers together. For a moment no thoughts would come, much less the words he imagined Fred must need to hear. If there were any such words at all.

"Charlie," Fred finally said, breaking the brittle silence.

Charlie risked a glance out of the corner of his eyes. "Why are you down here, Fred?"

The boy shrugged, not looking at his older brother. "I don't know."

Nodding at the response, Charlie reached out a hand and hesitantly placed it on Fred's shoulder. "Fred?" He felt the tremor that rippled through Fred and tightened his grip for a second. "Are you..." The pointless question died on his lips. Silently he cursed that his all his sense seemed to have fled along with everything else... normal in their family.

"I don't..." Fred shook his head roughly, angrily wiping a hand over his face. It was too late, however; Charlie had seen the glistening of tears on his cheeks. "How..." When he turned his head, Charlie's chest tightened at the grief he saw on Fred's face. "Why, Charlie?"

Relieved at the lack of anger almost as much as he was pained by the misery, Charlie shook his head, mute. Before he could question the instinct he moved so that he was kneeling on the step beneath Fred. In the same motion he pulled his shaking brother into a tight embrace, clutching at his shoulders.

Charlie felt as much as heard Fred's shuddering sobs, the heat of tears that soaked through his robe as he held him. He was unsure how long they had sat there, nearly long enough for his knees to grow numb, when he heard Fred begin to mumble.

"What?" Charlie asked, leaning back far enough to see Fred's face.

Tightening his hold on his older brother, Fred balled his hands into the fabric of Charlie's robe. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry."

"Fred..." Charlie sighed, resting his chin on the top of Fred's head. "It's not your fault."

"Ron."

Shaking his head, Charlie forced Fred to look at him. "It was an accident."

"Geo..." Fred hiccupped, choking on the word.

Clenching his eyes closed against the moisture that wanted to gather, Charlie sniffed. Once under control, he looked at Fred. "An accident. A terrible, horrible accident." Charlie watched as Fred looked down, staring at where his hands clenched his brother's robe.

"What am I supposed to do?" The question was so soft, the words so small, Charlie almost didn't hear them.

Unable to bear the anguish on Fred's face, Charlie hugged him tightly. "You forgive," he managed a minute later. Fred tensed, and Charlie felt his chest tighten. "Yourself. Ron. The rest of us. You..." Words failed him for a long moment. "You survive."

"Part of me is missing, Charlie."

"I know." But even as he said the words Charlie knew them to be a lie. He had no idea how it must feel to lose someone so close. But as he felt some of the tension leave Fred's back he couldn't bring himself to regret the false words.

~~~

It was late, Harry was sure of that much. Odd, but since everything had spun out of control he was finding it hard to gauge the passage of time. Day and night, sleep or awake. They had all begun to blur together.

Since Ron had woken earlier that evening, things were doubly confused. Harry knew he might be uneasy about returning home, but he could never have imagined Ron's reaction to his family.

Harry pressed a hand to his eyes, willing the images of Ron -- clawing desperately at his own throat, gasping for air, before sinking back into oblivion -- out of his mind. They wouldn't listen, however, and continued on unabated.

It hadn't been long since Mrs. Weasley had finally left her youngest son's side. Ginny had been falling asleep where she sat on the bed since bringing the shopkeeper's message. Their mother had taken her to bed.

The thought of what had been written on the parchment saddened Harry. That Ron might sell the chessmen he had earned both with his wits and nerve... He knew what those supposed trinkets meant to Ron. They were significant of the first time in his life that Ron stood out from his brothers' shadows.

As the night wore on, with Ron still unconscious and nothing but silence all around, Harry eventually fell into a fitful sleep. Even though he had slept for hours in Ron's room not much earlier, the ordeal seemed to be draining him.

When he woke to the sound of birds outside the window, Harry stretched his arms up over his head. For the first time since the nightmare began he wasn't confused where he was or what was happening in the first moments of wakefulness. He yawned, hearing his back crackle softly.

It was only a few seconds later when his gaze fell onto Ron's face. Expecting the other boy to still be sleeping he was surprised to find tired green eyes staring at him.

"Ron?"

When Ron looked away, Harry leaned forward. "Ron? Are you..."

"Harry," Ron managed to say in a hoarse voice. Harry waited, and a moment later Ron looked at him once more. However all he said was, "Why?"

A deep sadness filled Harry's heart. He couldn't understand -- even with what had happened -- why Ron would run away from all the people who loved him. How often, while locked away on Privet Drive, had he wished for such a family?

"It's your home."

Ron turned so that he was staring at the far wall, and Harry had to fight the urge to go and sit on the other side of the bed.

"No. It's not."

~~~

p5

"Have you been in to check on Ron?" Bill asked his mum as he walked into the kitchen.

The woman nodded, finishing with the breakfast that she had busied herself preparing. "Earlier. Both he and Harry were asleep."

Bill seemed to digest the information. "Harry's still with him, then?"

"Fast asleep, both of them."

Nodding his head, Bill snagged a piece of bread from the table. "Probably best. Harry looked as if he would drop at any moment, and that was after he slept."

"And you?" Mrs. Weasley asked, giving her son a long look.

Startled, Bill glanced up at his mother. "Me?"

Smiling sadly, Mrs. Weasley shook her head. "Grown or no, you're still one of mine, Bill Weasley." That 'her own' was one less in number that morning than the week before, she tried not to think about. Her tears were something best left not in front of the other children.

"I know, Mum," Bill said, dropping a kiss on to his mother's cheek. "I know."

~~~

An owl bearing a parcel flapped in through the open window and interrupted them. "What's this?" Bill asked, mostly to himself, as he freed the bundle from the owl. He barely spared a glance toward the owl -- which had dropped next to the water bowl -- as he examined the package.

There was no name on the outside, save the last name Weasley, which was of little help. Bill looked at his mother, but she shrugged and gestured for him to open it.

Inside there was no note of explanation, either. Instead, two small chess figures tumbled out onto his hand. Realization made his eyes wide and once more he glanced to his mother for some guiding course of action.

"Mum."

Clearing her throat, Mrs. Weasley nodded. "I believe Ron might be missing those."

"I'll just..."

"On with you now, Bill. If he's not awake already he will be soon. I'll be up shortly to bring Ron his meal. He'll eat if I have to force it into him."

A smile almost lifting the corner of his mouth, Bill shook his head. He had no doubt of the truth to her words. "Yes, Mum."

It was a short walk to his parents' bedroom, and Bill paused at hearing the muffled voices from inside. Voice, rather, he noted. It sounded like Harry was the only one speaking. He waited a second before tapping softly on the door and pushing it open.

Harry turned and looked at him, appearing as tired as he had the day before. He nodded toward Harry before looking at Ron. What he saw there, made him go cold. Pain and... fear.

"You're awake."

"Yeah," was Ron's sullen reply.

Bill nodded, refusing to be deterred. "That's good." Without waiting for Ron to reply, Bill turned to Harry. "Could you give us a bit, Harry? Mum has breakfast downstairs if you want. She'll probably find you and make you eat, even if you don't."

As he watched, Harry looked uncertainly toward Ron, as if convinced leaving him would be a bad idea. However if that was his thought, he did not voice it. Rather he nodded, stood, and giving Ron a last, long look, slipped from the room.

When it became obvious Ron wasn't going to speak, Bill sat on the edge of the seat Harry had vacated. "How do you feel?"

Ron looked at Bill, shock making his eyes wide. The look, Bill decided, might have been comical some other time. As it were, his surprise at Bill's concern was merely sad.

"I'm..." Ron shook his head, his voice uneven. "I'm okay."

Bill considered that for a moment. "Then why are you shaking as if you expect me to flog you momentarily?"

He watched as Ron swallowed nosily and dropped his gaze to stare at the blanket. "I'm so sorry," he whispered, and when he looked up, Bill was shocked to see tears brimming his eyes. It was as if some switch had been thrown, bitterness to despair in a single second.

"Ron?" he asked, his concern not diminishing.

His youngest brother sniffed loudly, his jaw quivering. "I didn't mean... I didn't." Ron gasped for breath and the tears splashed onto his cheeks. "Bill? Ge... George."

Bill's heart broke at the misery that thickened Ron's voice. "Oh, Ron." He moved quickly from the chair to sit on the bed next to Ron, wrapping an arm around the thin shoulders. Shoulders made far too thin from lack of food and illness.

"My fault," he whispered into Bill's robe.

"No!" Bill held on more tightly, clutching Ron to his side. "Never."

"I shouldn't be here."

Pressing his eyes closed, Bill drew in a shaky breath. "You are the only place you should be, Ron. You're home."

"No." Bill felt Ron shaking his head, his hands tangled in the sheet. "Don't deserve it."

"Why ever *not*, Ron?" Biting back against his frustration, Bill tried only to let his concern show. "You're home, Ron," he repeated.

"Why do you care?" Ron sat up then, his eyes bright with fever and anger. "I killed your brother!" He punctuated the words by slapping Bill's chest with his fists. His face crumpling, a sob broke. "I killed my brother."

Pulling Ron to him, Bill shook his head as he brushed a hand through Ron's hair. His own heart pounding -- nearly breaking -- Bill blinked quickly against tears. After a moment he captured Ron's cheeks in his hands so that Ron had to look at him. "You *are* my brother. I love you."

"It hurts," he whispered.

Holding him tight, swallowing against the lump that had filled his throat, Bill shuddered. "I know. It'll get better."

"Promise?" Ron asked in a small voice Bill hadn't heard since the boy was five.

Praying he wasn't about to lie, Bill nodded. "Promise."

~~~

Harry took his time walking downstairs. For some reason he wasn't sure he wanted to be alone with Mrs. Weasley. Doubts of how he might have acted differently, gotten Ron back to them sooner, plagued him.

To his surprise when he entered the warm kitchen it wasn't Mrs. Weasley who was sitting at the large table, but rather a tired looking Charlie.

"Hi, Harry," he said, glancing up at the boy's entrance.

Harry nodded. Taking a seat at the table across from Charlie he eyed the food ravenously. After half a summer with the Dursleys, the prospect of such meals was amazing. He picked a piece of toast with jam, and swallowed a bite before speaking.

"Bill mentioned your mum would be down here."

Charlie nodded, cutting off a yawn before taking a drink of tea. "She's trying to convince Fred to eat, at the moment."

Finishing his piece of toast, Harry found a cup for his own tea. "How is he?"

"Fred?" Charlie asked, forcing his eyes open wide as if to will himself alert. "He's..." Charlie shook his head. "He's hurting, but the anger seems to have faded."

Reaching for another piece of toast, Harry considered that for a moment. "That's good."

"Yeah," Charlie said with a brief nod.

"You look tired," Harry dared to say, not wanting to overstep his boundaries. Whatever they were at the moment. "Have you slept at all?"

Leaning back in his chair, Charlie stretched his legs out and crossed them at the ankles. "What day is it?" Shaking his head with a soft chuckle, his head lolled to rest on the back of the chair. "Honestly I don't remember the last time I slept. Before..." Staring at the ceiling, he shrugged. "Before the news came about George, I think."

Harry blinked slowly. That would have been days before. "Charlie..." Playing with his teacup, Harry realized there wasn't anything he could say to that.

"We do what we have to do, Harry," Charlie said a long moment later, causing Harry to start and slosh tea onto his fingers. "Sorry," he said with a sideways glance when Harry winced.

"What's going to happen about..." Harry paused, clearing his throat. The question he wanted to ask had been tickling in the back of his mind since Percy's letter but he'd never dared ask.

Charlie sat up straight in his chair, leaning his elbows on the table. "About what?"

His stomach fluttering nervously, Harry forced the words past his lips. "About George? I mean... It's been days, now." When Charlie winced, Harry cursed his curiosity. "I'm sorry. I..."

Charlie held up a hand, forestalling Harry's apologies. "Don't, please. It's." Charlie sighed, rubbing his forehead. "It's a valid question. From what Ron told me, you don't know much about wizard custom."

Harry shook his head, unable to stop staring at Charlie. "No."

Picking apart a roll, Charlie tilted his head from side to side, the joints popping loudly. "It's not something that's been discussed really. The healer placed George in..." He coughed softly. "In a type of stasis until."

"Charlie, you don't..."

"Until the family is ready," Charlie finished, apparently ignoring Harry's interruption. Shaking his head he met Harry's gaze with a dazed one of his own. "Mum and Dad want to wait for Ron."

"And then?" Harry snapped his mouth shut. He hadn't meant to ask that.

Charlie let out a long breath. "There's a ceremony. Mostly for the family and friends."

When Charlie's voice faltered, staring off into space, Harry reached across the table and put a hand on his arm. "Don't. It's okay."

"I'm sorry," Charlie replied, blinking quickly at the moisture Harry could see gathering in his eyes.

Harry shook his head, repeating, "It's okay."

"No," Charlie said in a rough voice. "It's not, but maybe it will be. Eventually."

~~~

Once Ron had calmed down, Bill pulled the chess pieces from his pocket. They were small enough that both fit easily into his hand.

"Ron?"

The younger boy stirred, pushing away from his brother. "Yeah?"

Bill held his hand open in front of Ron, so that the boy could see the pieces. He didn't speak as he watched Ron react to seeing the treasures he believed lost.

Ron tore his gaze from the chessmen and looked up at Bill. "How?"

"The man you sold them to. He wrote to Father about it." When Ron didn't move, Bill held his hand closer. "They're yours. Take them."

"But he paid me for them."

Bill nodded. "He said they were a gift. That you might find strength in them for whatever troubles you."

As Bill watched, Ron reached an unsteady hand out to claim them. Ron didn't look at Bill as he said, "Thank you."

"Don't thank me," Bill replied, ruffling Ron's hair.

Ron rolled his eyes and Bill couldn't help but notice some of the spark seemed to be back in Ron's gaze for a brief moment. "You know what I mean."

"Yeah, I do."

Slowly stretching out his numbed legs, Bill climbed off the bed. "I better go, though. Otherwise Mum will be after me, she said something about feeding you soon." As if hearing the mention of food Ron's stomach growled loudly. "And apparently right on time, too."

There was a knock on the door, before it was opened to reveal Mrs. Weasley and Ginny, the elder carrying a tray laden with food.

"Told you," he said to Ron with a wink.

He noted that Ron still didn't look entirely certain with the situation. Bill could only hope that changed soon. For all their sakes, as much as Ron's.

~~~

The day seemed to pass slowly. After Bill left, and his mum had left with the empty breakfast tray, only Ginny stayed with him. Ron wondered half-heartedly where Harry was, or Fred for that matter, but tried not to focus on it.

"What are the dorms like?" Ginny asked, pulling Ron away from his dark thoughts.

Shaking his head, Ron let out a long breath. Ginny meant well, but she was persisting in asking questions she had known the answers to for years. "They're nice. You share them with the others in your year."

"And having a real wand?"

Ron grimaced as he recalled the state of his own handed-down wand. "Yes, Ginny."

As if sensing his thoughts, Ginny leaned back against the headboard and sighed. "It's weird, Ron."

"What?" he asked, certain he didn't want to know the answer.

When she shrugged, his stomach rolled. "Everything. I don't know." Ron opened his mouth to reply, fighting against the gaping emptiness that crushed his chest from the inside out. "Will it be normal again at Hogwarts?"

Ron shook his head, fiddling with a frayed hem on the blanket. "I don't think so, Gin."

"Oh," she replied in a small voice. She sounded so young, Ron wanted nothing more than to tell her it would all be okay. To lie and say that Hogwarts would make it okay. Only he couldn't do that. Even for his little sister, the deceit wouldn't come.

He was spared any further attempts by a knock on the door. Silently hoping it was Harry come to visit, he called out, "Come in."

Ron's hopes were dashed when it was Fred who entered the room instead. Staring at his brother, who he could so easily remember snarling at him in rage, he spoke to Ginny. Whatever happened, anger or tears, he didn't want Ginny to see it. "Run along, Gin. Would ya?"

Ginny looked about to argue when Fred added, "Please, Ginny?"

With a huff of indignation, she climbed from the bed and ran through the doorway, pausing only to slam it behind her. "She'll be okay," Ron said, watching the door for a second.

"Yeah." Fred shoved his hands into the pockets of his robe and took a tentative step forward. Ron could only watch as he seemed to debate taking a seat or fleeing the room. It was so different than how he remembered his brother from the day George had...

Ron waited a minute -- until he was unable to bear the stress of not knowing any longer -- before asking, "Fred?" He winced at how pitiful his voice sounded. He could no longer blame it on the smoke or the rain. Rather it was fear and guilt that made his voice weak.

It seemed to break Fred out of his indecision and he took the final steps to reach the chair. He collapsed into it, but his gaze was fixed on the blanket rather than Ron.

"How are you?"

Ron started at the question. Such concern caught Ron off guard; it was the last thing he had expected to hear. Ever since that morning he had been unsure if he truly remembered waking to find Fred holding his hand. It seemed so unlikely given what had happened; surely he had dreamt it.

"How...?" Ron coughed, staring at Fred as though he'd sprouted a third eye. "I'm okay."

Fred did look up then, the look in his eyes telling Ron he didn't believe him. "Honestly?"

"The healer says I should be up soon." Ron nodded along with the words. "Honestly."

~~~

Fred sagged back against the chair. When Ron had first been brought back he feared -- even amidst his anger -- that he might not get better. And although he was pleased that he would be well, that was not entirely what he had meant by the question.

"Ron?"

Fred almost flinched at the skittish look on Ron's face, and cursed himself for helping to put it there. A brief flare of anger warmed his stomach but he pushed it down. An accident. It was an accident just like Charlie had said.

Fred knew the words he should say. The only words that would help absolve the guilt Ron was so obviously feeling. The guilt and pain that had led him to run away and become so sick in the first place. However those words were stuck in his throat, refusing to budge.

Hearing a strangled sound he looked up in time to see Ron's eyes clench shut. It was of little help, though, for a tear broke free to slip down Ron's cheek. "I'm sorry," he whispered around gasped breaths. His eyes snapped open, meeting Fred's with an imploring gaze. "I know..."

"Stop it." Fred regretted the harsh tone immediately when Ron's mouth snapped shut. Sighing, Fred ran a hand through his hair. "Please don't say you're sorry."

"Fred?" Ron's voice squeaked, betraying his youth.

"Please, Ron. Don't be sorry."

Eyes wide with disbelief, Ron didn't even blink. "But I... I fell. George fell. If I hadn't..." As he spoke Ron shook his head from side to side, more tears slipping free.

Tears warming his own eyes Fred shook his head. "No, Ron."

"But you said..."

Fred winced. He knew well what he had said. The pain had been so great he could never have imagined. It was still more painful to think on what had happened than he would ever admit, but he couldn't bear watching Ron blame himself any longer. It was part of being a big brother and it was time he started acting like one and not leaving all the work to Bill and Charlie.

"I was wrong," Fred said long moments later. He took Ron's trembling hand within his own and squeezed it. "Hard to imagine, I know." The words were pieced together amid stuttered breaths. "I'm sorry, Ron."

He was ever so tired of crying and it still felt as if he might never stop. It went against his nature to be so morose. If George were there... Fred gasped at the thought, slamming the doors shut inside his mind. If Ron noticed his wandering, however, he didn't comment.

"Fred, I..."

Fred shook his head, forcing himself to look at Ron, who in turn was staring at Fred in wide-eyed wonder. "It was an accident." All the air seemed to rush out of him at the words, as though he might finally believe them. But it didn't make it hurt any less, only different. "It was an accident."

"Why?" Ron asked in a pained voice, squinting against the tears and squeezing Fred's hand. His voice became shrill. "Why?"

Fred winced, staring off into space. "I wish I knew."

~~~

It was the next day before Ron was ready to leave his parents' room. Needing the chance to connect with his little brother, and hoping to spare him being smothered by an entire clan of Weasley's at once, Percy asked his mum if he might walk Ron upstairs. And although Ginny wanted to tag alone, Percy went alone.

"Are you ready to move back into your room?" Percy asked, helping Ron to stand. He smiled faintly when Ron batted his hand away. He saw a strange flicker of emotion in Ron's eyes at the question. "Ron? What is it?"

Ron sagged back against the bed before looking at Percy. "My room. Is it?"

"In one piece?" Percy offered, watching Ron closely. When he nodded, Percy clasped Ron's shoulder. "It's fine."

"Fine," Ron repeated, obvious disbelief in his voice.

"Yes," Percy said, nodding. "It's fine. Harry fixed it up."

"Why'd he do that?" Ron asked, wonder in his eyes.

Shrugging, Percy motioned for Ron to stand and helped him to the door. "Why don't you ask him?"

"Okay."

Percy followed Ron, who was silent, through the wandering stairs and passages of the Burrow. And when it looked like Ron was tiring, he was ready to put out an arm to steady him. He knew Ron was determined to make it to his room under his own power. Even if he might not admit it, Percy could respect that.

When they reached the door to Ron's room, it opened inward seemingly on its own. A second later Harry appeared in the doorway, a hesitant smile on his lips.

"Weasley delivery service," Percy said, with a crooked salute. "Ron, as ordered."

"Hey," Harry said, standing to the side so Ron could see inside his room.

Realizing he was probably not wanted right at that moment, Percy took a step back. "I'll leave you to Harry's care," he said to Ron. He waited until Ron turned to look at him, searching out his little brother's gaze. "Okay?"

Ron nodded. "Yeah. Thanks, Percy."

With a nod, Percy turned and walked back down the stairs.

~~~

Ron looked around his bedroom -- the one he'd nearly destroyed -- with wide eyes. He couldn't believe how different it looked. It was neither the brilliant orange of the Cannons nor the rubble of earlier that week. The walls were covered with a solid, off-white paper and the floor was clean.

"Wow," he said after turning in a complete circle.

Harry stood beside him, shifting from one foot to the other. "You like it? I wasn't sure exactly what you had up before." Ron would have laughed at the glaring difference, but didn't want to risk hurting Harry's feelings.

"It's great. Thank you. I had worried..." He finally turned to look at Harry and was surprised to see uncertainty on his face. "Harry?"

He must have swayed slightly for Harry was at his side in an instant. "Sit down before you fall down."

"You'd make a great mother hen," Ron muttered, even though he did breathe a sigh of relief when he sat on his bed. He looked up in time to see a hurt look cross Harry's face. "Aw, Harry. I didn't mean it like that."

Sitting beside him, Harry nodded. "I know. It's okay." Harry appeared lost in thought for a moment before speaking again. "Are you okay?"

Ron winced. He had already grown tired of that particular question. It seemed as if everyone who saw him, from the healer to his siblings, could think of only one thing to ask. Late the night before, staring into the darkness as he recalled his conversations with Bill and Fred, Ron had finally asked himself that question. It had taken some time before he found a truthful answer.

"No," he said softly. "But I am better, and growing better yet." Ron almost laughed at the surprise in Harry's eyes his frank response caused. "What?"

Harry shook his head. "Just not the answer I expected."

Any humor he might have felt faded at his next thought. Looking away from Harry, Ron said, "Mum and Dad want to have the ceremony for George tomorrow."

"Bill mentioned something about that," Harry replied, and Ron could feel his gaze on the side of his neck.

Taking a shaky breath, Ron turned to Harry. "Would you go with me? I mean, you don't have to, but I'd like it if you would." The words tumbled out, one on top of the other and Ron winced at the pain that blossomed in Harry's eyes and he looked away. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have asked."

"Ron."

"What?" he asked, refusing to look at his friend.

"Ron, look at me." There was silence while Ron debated ignoring Harry. However in the end, he found he couldn't deny Harry the request. "You don't have to ask, Ron."

Realization dawned and Ron's mouth fell open. "Oh. Of course. Bill probably asked you already. Silly of me to think otherwise."

Harry shook his head, not quite smiling. "No. Bill didn't ask me."

Confused, Ron asked, "He didn't?"

"No."

"Charlie?"

"No, Ron."

"Then why..."

At that Harry did smile and Ron relaxed slightly. "If you need me, I'm here. Same as you were there for me on the Express and the chess board." Ron blinked slowly, hardly daring to believe the words. When he remained silent, Harry pressed on. "You don't have to ask me to be there for you. You need me. I'm here." Harry tilted his head to the side, a lock of hair parting to reveal the scar on his forehead. "Quite simple, really."

"Simple," Ron breathed, not quite believing. It was strange, really, not to be in his brother's shadow, to have such a friend of his own accord.

"And you'd do best not to forget it." Ron raised an eyebrow at that, imploring Harry to finish his statement. "I'll always be here for you. Your family will always be here for you. Just don't run away from us again."

Ron closed his eyes, hating the familiar burn of tears in his eyes. He would swear that he had cried more in this week than in his entire life prior. Taking a trembling breath, Ron stared at Harry for a minute. "I miss him, Harry."

"I know," Harry mouthed silently.

Ron looked upward, trying to banish the tears. "I keep expecting to see him in the kitchen stealing a snack or in their room working on some trick." The tears fell anyway, but Ron lacked the heart to curse them. "I don't know what to think anymore."

"You will, soon enough."

Ron was surprised by the certainty he heard in Harry's voice. He couldn't help but question it. "You think so?"

Harry nodded. "I know so."

Ron was never the most self-secure person on his best days, and he knew the feeling of that old insecurity well. "I'm glad one of us does, then."

"As long as one of us does, we'll both be okay."

"Thanks, Harry."

Harry shook his head. "Don't thank me. Just trust me."

Ron smiled, something inside of him believing there might be hope yet. Hope for him, for Fred, for their parents. It wasn't better yet, not by a long shot but maybe it would be.
Eventually.

"I trust you."

Smiling, Harry nodded. "I'm glad."