Author's note: I swore I'd never write HP fic, but this one begged to be written (especially since my family pestered me until I gave in and churned this out). The ending JKR gave Fred and George just seems wrong, and I felt the need to make things a little better. So here's my little bit of candle-in-the-dark. This, for me, is what really happened after DH, and I hope I'm not alone in thinking that this is a better ending for everyone.

(Edit: Please see the note at the end of the story for recent edits.)

Fox Ears

Swiftly, quietly, Charlie cut through the dark grass, jogging a few steps to catch up with the determined stride of his younger brother. Just ahead of him, his form barely more than an outline against the new summer sky, George plunged almost noiselessly along the downward slope, his legs carrying him at what seemed to Charlie like a deathly pace. There was no sound above the light wind, no smell but the early summer loam soft beneath their boots, and there was a thickness to the air about them, as though the very dark itself was alive, and watching.

Abruptly, George changed directions ahead of him, and Charlie checked and stumbled, but managed to keep his footing. The wet grass slipped beneath his boots, and he skidded a few feet, catching himself on one hand before pushing off again to follow his brother. He said nothing; George had said nothing since the day that…since that day…and Charlie knew that George would say nothing now. In fact, until this night, George had not so much as looked another person in the eye, and when Charlie had awakened not a half hour ago to see the deadened eyes of his brother looking down into his, he simply got out of bed, and he followed.

He wasn't sure where this wildly loping chase had begun. He felt like he had been chasing George for a week now, darting after him when the others were flitting away, seeing the things that the others seemed not to see.

"Leave him be," their father instructed quietly, woodenly, as George had sunk immediately into himself, shutting out everyone and everything around him. There had been no outburst from him, no action, no sound. Charlie didn't know what everyone had expected (or dreaded). Maybe they had expected some kind of wailing, or some kind of savage, horrified response at the sight of his twin's unmoving body, or maybe crying at the least. But George did none of this. He had simply knelt by Fred's head on that day, one hand on his twin's hair, eyes vacant and a little glassy, as though someone had slapped him, hard.

It took a while to sort things out after that. There were bodies to be tended, the rubble to be cleared as they searched for the missing, wounds to salve, and people to herd into quiet, ordered groups. There was shock, Charlie remembered, and grit everywhere – people crying, and stumbling into each other's arms, and laughing, and uttering ragged cheers over the sounds of others sobbing. It wasn't right, and Charlie couldn't make sense of it at first, because of all of the confusion and the horror of what should have been such a happy day. Voldemort was gone, and here was George, sitting by Fred's head, his eyes as vacant as his twin brother's.

It was like a horrid vision, something unreal. Of course, they all felt that way. But it was wrong – more wrong, somehow – that it should be Fred lying there, and not someone else. It should have been someone else – maybe Ron, or Bill, or Charlie himself. God in Heaven, Charlie would have rather it had been himself. Because it was somehow so unutterably wrong that it was Fred lying there, his still body sucking George into motionlessness, like a Dementor sucks away the soul. The twins – the twins, dammit – were so alive, so vibrant, and here they were, suddenly and abruptly still, and it felt to Charlie like the entire world had stopped on its axis. He had not known until that moment just what Life looked like when it went dark. Because it was like it wasn't Fred lying there, it was like Life itself was lying there, so still, and it seemed to Charlie like someone had simply reached up to the sun and shut it off.

He didn't cry. Neither did George. He simply felt himself pulled into action, someone tugging his elbow and asking his help to shift this, and move that. He remembered hearing the ragged cheers echoing through the castle halls, and seeing people rush into each other's arms, amazed and exhausted and jubilant, but all he could feel was a stinging in his chest as he tried to breathe, and couldn't. It wasn't until two days later that he stopped dragging breath through his lungs as though he had just run up a mountain. The Healers said it was from all the dust and grit he had inhaled, but he knew it was because of the sight of George sitting there so calmly on that day, one hand on Fred's hair, while the whole world danced around him.

He couldn't say that Fred was…he couldn't say it. Neither could George. Everyone else said it, but not Charlie, not George. Perhaps that was why George woke him tonight, his fingers like ice on Charlie's shoulder as he shook his older brother gently awake. Maybe that was why George wanted Charlie to follow, because Charlie wouldn't say what George couldn't say. Because for reasons that Charlie did not understand, he simply could not bring himself to say it either. Fred was not…he wasn't.

"George?" Bill tried prodding their younger brother, when they brought Fred's body home. George showed no interest in the body, no interest in anything. He said nothing, did nothing, ate nothing. Neither did he respond to Bill's hand on his shoulder. He simply shrugged lightly, and slipped like an eel away from his eldest brother's hand. No one else tried that day.

But in turn, they all did try. Charlie watched them. Over the last few days, one by one, they tried to talk to George, tried to cry with him, weeping on his shoulder, pressing their faces to his hair. They held him, for so long as he would permit it before sliding away, they pleaded with him to say something, even shouted at him in their desperation to see some kind of life. Their Mum couldn't stop crying, and had to be pried off of George's shoulder almost every minute as she wailed, sometimes calling him 'George', sometimes calling him 'Fred'. Ginny was a constant river of tears, alternately giving George space and invading his silence with demands that he talk to her. Ron was much the same, sometimes a flurry of action, comforting Harry and Hermione, while trying to press food and a blanket and words on George's ears – ear – and then just as suddenly sinking into a vacant stupor, too riddled to know what to do. Their dad sat with George, not saying much, but often George would simply get up and shift rooms, to be away from whoever was trying to be with him, so that did little good. Bill tried, being Bill, being the family rock as it were, but George steadfastly refused to acknowledge him or anyone. Percy, in his guilt, did not even try.

This went on for days. Through it all, George said nothing, and Charlie watched him and said nothing, too. Because there was something going on that the others couldn't see, or wouldn't. There was something going on behind George's eyes, though it took time for Charlie to put his finger on it.

He supposed that day came when Harry tried talking to George. It was three days ago, a few days after the battle, when Harry made his attempt. Charlie had been sitting with George all this time, not saying much himself, and not even really aware of what he was doing. He supposed, now that he looked back, that he'd been watching George like a hawk, only it hadn't seemed so then; it had only seemed somehow desperately important that he not take his eyes off of George, as though there was something brewing, a storm coming, and Charlie didn't want to be taken unawares.

"George?" Harry tried that afternoon. It was bright out, and the birds were chattering horribly, while the clock inside the kitchen ticked like gunshot. Harry settled himself opposite George on the porch, where the distant twin had been sitting and staring at nothing.

Charlie sat cross-legged on the ground, tracing lines in the dust with a twig as the chickens pecked aimlessly behind him. His mum was inside watching George from the dim of the house, while Ginny hovered in the yard, somewhere between wanting to swoop in and wanting to run away.

"George, I…" Harry faltered, and tried to catch George's eye. "I'm…I'm sorry," he said quietly. "I'm – I'm so sorry…"

He reached out a hand, but George said nothing, and only leaned away, just enough to be out of reach.

Harry withdrew his hand and placed it back on his knee. He bowed his head, his dark hair glinting in the warm sun. "I understand," he said softly, "if you…if you hate me. I know – I mean – it's…all my…my fault. That he died."

"It's not your fault, Harry," Charlie heard himself say. His voice sounded too loud, and a little too rough.

Harry shook his head, and said, "Yes, yes it is, I – I mean, he – shouldn't have been there. Or if I'd – somehow –" he stammered, still shaking his head. But Charlie cut him off before he could say any more.

"Leave him alone, Harry," Charlie muttered, looking up from the patterns he was tracing. There was that look again behind George's eye, that odd look that Charlie couldn't quite fathom, and Charlie suddenly wanted nothing more than for everyone to leave George alone.

"Charlie," Ginny gasped, drifting near Harry's shoulder, "he's just trying to…to help."

"No, he isn't," Charlie said firmly, hearing the edge to his own voice. "He's here to feel better. He's here for George to tell him that everything is ok, and Harry can go home and sleep at night, and marry our sister, and have a nice, long, happy life, because after all, it's not Harry's fault. Which it isn't," Charlie added, realizing that he was starting to shout now, and drawing footsteps from inside the house. "It isn't his fault, but it's not George's job to tell him that, and for God's sake, he ought to get the hell off of our porch and leave George the hell alone and stop asking George to make him feel better, the damn selfish smarmy git!"

"Charlie!" Molly breathed from just inside the screen door, her eyes wide and red-rimmed and angry. Harry stared at him, shocked, and Charlie could see the tears beginning to well again in Ginny's eyes, but he didn't care. He didn't care because there, just behind the glassy expression on George's face, Charlie finally recognized what it was he had been trying for days to nail down. He had seen it many times before, could have kicked himself for not seeing it until now. Because there, plain as the summer day around them, Charlie could see that George was thinking.

Abruptly, and effectively forestalling the argument that threatened to bloom into something ugly, George got up from the porch and walked away, not angrily, but not slowly or even aimlessly, and at once Charlie was seeing it. George's silence wasn't shock; it was a bid for time. It made sense. The withdrawal, the refusal to make anything real with words, the refusal to connect was nothing more than a simple attempt to think, and to come up with a solution. Because as long as George didn't actually say the words, "Fred is dead", then it wasn't so, and perhaps – perhaps – he could think of a way to do the impossible. He was thinking, Charlie could see, not of how to cope, but of how to do something far more drastic.

Ginny had said it many times. After growing up with the twins, if she had learned one thing, it was that, if you have enough nerve, anything is possible.

Which was crazy, of course. But the twins were crazy, and Charlie had seen them do things before that they shouldn't have been able to do. So he followed George, and he watched.

It started that day. George shifted swiftly from sitting and staring at nothing to scribbling feverishly on bits of parchment, thumbing through books with single minded focus, gathering bits of things that made no sense to Charlie at all. He reminded Charlie of Percy and Fred at once, so focused he almost looked pained, and Charlie decided wisely to simply keep an eye on him and stay out of his way. Several times, the family would look in as George sat on the edge of his bed, head bent over some book or parchment, and try to ask what he was doing. But Charlie was acting as a guard now, for reasons he didn't really know, and he would not let them in.

"Leave him be," was all he would mutter, and he must have looked imposing, because even Bill kept away. They let George be, and for two days, he darted about the house, gathering bits of things, rummaging books in Percy's and even Bill's old room, doing Merlin-knew-what, and all with that fierce light in his eye. And all the while, Charlie watched.

Then, two nights before the funeral, Bill accosted him. They were both sitting outside on the porch, drinking beer and saying mostly nothing. Bill and Fleur were staying at the Burrow; everyone had gathered together for comfort, and no one was willing to leave, not until after the funeral at any rate. Now it was late, and the funeral was two days away. Everyone had gone to bed except Bill and Charlie. Even George had gone quiet in his room, and now the two eldest Weasley brothers sat in companionable quiet, and watched over the quiet yard.

They had sat like that a while, and Charlie was just beginning to feel the creep of tiredness ease into his shoulders when Bill spoke up. "What's he up to?"

Charlie didn't answer right away. He wasn't ready to hear what Bill wanted to say. "I don't know," he said at length. "Something."

"What do you mean, 'something', Char?" Bill twisted his scarred mouth. Charlie could just make him out in the dark. "You've been following him all week. You're the only one he'll tolerate being within ten feet of him. You can't tell me what he's been scribbling about?"

"I don't," Charlie shook his head, unsure how to fend off his older brother, "I don't know. I really don't. I haven't gotten that close to him."

"Charlie…" Bill's tone held a note of warning, and Charlie knew that his brother meant well. He and Bill were close, and Bill was only trying to protect them all, but there was something about George's actions that Charlie instinctively felt the need to protect. "I'm afraid –" Bill continued, "we're all afraid – he might try to do something stupid."

Charlie didn't understand quite why he was shielding George. Most likely, George was trying to do something a bit foolish, and it was Charlie's job as George's older brother to stop him, to protect him. But he couldn't. Shaking his head, he said simply, "Let him be."

"And let him get up to Merlin-knows-what?" Bill asked. "God, Char, he's scaring everyone."

"I know," Charlie replied softly. "But at least he's stopped being catatonic. At least…" He shook his head again, and said, simply, "Bill, I think we ought to just let him do whatever it is he's planning to do. I don't know why. I just do."

"That's nuts," Bill replied shortly.

"It's not nuts," Charlie replied, elbows resting on his knees as he watched the soft flare of fireflies. "You know, they've accomplished some pretty crazy things."

"Yeah, like bringing someone back from the dead?" Bill asked, an edge of bitterness to his voice. "That's crazy, Charlie, and someone will have to stop him – not them – him. God knows what he's getting himself up to."

"I don't know, Bill," Charlie mused, turning and turning the bottle in his hands. There was something about that light in George's eye, something that gave Charlie a quiet thrill of hope. "I know it's a little off to think he could bring him back, but…it's George."

Bill turned to look at him, the starlight barely lighting his features. His face was unreadable, but Charlie could feel the weight of his stare. "Charlie…" Bill began, his voice a little too gentle, but Charlie cut him off before he could start dishing out the pity.

"I'm not nuts, Bill. I mean," he let out a breath, and took a swig of his beer, then said, "I mean, what if…?"

"What if what?" Bill shot back, the sorrow in his voice twisting quickly into irritation. "Charlie, get real. What in Merlin's name do you think George can do? Stuff some insane wake-up candy into Fred's – body's – mouth, and…and what? I mean, God, Charles, he has to come back down to Earth sometime and face all of this. He can't just stay…like he is, and you can't go around encouraging him."

"I'm not, Bill," Charlie held up a hand to forestall the rest of Bill's speech. "I'm just watching him, I swear. It's just, I think, until he's ready, no one should try to force him to stop doing what he wants, or to face anything he doesn't want to."

"You mean like Harry?" Bill eyed him shrewdly. Charlie rolled his eyes and took another swig of beer. "Yeah, that was a nice bit of hollering you did earlier at the kid who just saved the universe and everything."

"He was bugging George," Charlie replied mulishly.

"He was trying to apologize."

"To make himself feel better," Charlie retorted.

"Kid's not perfect," Bill replied, and turned his gaze back toward the fireflies. He took a long drag on his bottle, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, the scars on his face and arms showing like white, spidery lines in the half-light. They sat like that a while, just watching, and occasionally drinking. At length, Bill said, his voice quiet but strange, "You taught them to tie their shoes on this porch."

Charlie looked away, not ready to talk about them like they weren't them anymore. He wasn't ready; it wasn't real, and besides, there was that light in George's eye, that glint that made Charlie feel like something could happen, something…unexpected. And of course Bill was right; he was a little off his top to even think like this, but if not him, who else would? Bill had Fleur to take care of, not to mention the burden of being eldest, and the one holding everyone together. Their mum and dad were too deep in their grief to do anything but try to function, and somehow it fell to Bill, as it always did, to help out and take care of the thousand little details, like what everyone would eat, and where everyone would sleep, and whether Fred would want to be buried in a Frosty Silver or a Bergamot Sunset colored casket. And of course Percy was no help at all, guilt-stricken and avoiding George like he did. Ron was no help either, because Ron pretty well fumbled everything, and usually just ended up blubbering on George's shoulder. It wasn't that Ron was an idiot or anything. Mostly, he'd just never quite grown up, and George just didn't need a younger brother right now. And Ginny? She tried, hard. But she had Harry, and it was a bit much for one girl to save two men at once.

Men. Charlie snorted to himself, and remembered the keen look on Fred's face those years ago as Charlie showed him how to make the bunny ears, and cross the loops, one over the other. George hugged Charlie's other knee, looking on with rapt attention as Charlie instructed Fred on the finer points of shoe-tying. One day when they were five, they had suddenly wanted to tie their own shoes, and had pestered, cajoled, and otherwise mauled Charlie until he showed them how. Why Charlie? Why not Bill, or Mum, or Dad? He didn't know. He only knew that if he didn't want the little hellions on his case for the rest of eternity, he'd better suck it up and just show them already.

"Why's it bunnies?" Fred had demanded, foot jutted out for Charlie to demonstrate, his laces all askew from earlier attempts to tie the things on his own. "Why not lions?"

"Or foxes?" George piped up.

"Stop squirming," Charlie elbowed Fred as he straightened the laces so Fred would have an easier time tying them. "And it's because bunnies have long ears. Foxes don't have long ears."

"Dogs do," George pointed out.

"Yeah, and dogs are foxes," Fred put in.

"No, I mean," Charlie shook his head, "ok, dogs and foxes are in the same family…"

"HA!" The twins shot him identical, smirking grins.

"But, dogs are not foxes," Charlie tried to explain. "They're not the same thing."

"But they bark –"

"And yip –"

"Like foxes –"

"And scratch –"

"And roll –"

"Like foxes –"

"And get fleas –"

"And," George added, one hand splayed out as if this explained everything, "like you just said, they're family."

"So dogs are foxes," Fred finished.

Charlie sighed, having long ago gotten used to losing arguments to his little brothers. "Ok," he started again, quite willing to admit defeat if it would make them shut up for twelve seconds running, "So you make the fox ears, and…"

They listened to the rest with rapt attention, and learned to tie their shoes in one sitting. Charlie didn't think much of it at the time, but he did notice a few years later that it took Ron much longer, and even Ginny (who was wily from the cradle on) took several teary-eyed tries before she mastered the skill. Probably no one else realized what their shoe-tying prowess truly meant, because after the twins, Charlie became Shoe-Tying Instructor-in-Chief. But he supposed now that it should have registered with someone that the twins could do just about anything they set their mind to.

Which is what made Charlie believe that look in George's eye. He knew, without asking, that George had something up his sleeve, and though he desperately wanted to ask George what he was planning, Charlie also felt that to try to make George talk would be to break the spell and even cause him to fail. It was as though George was on some invisible tightrope of silence, and any deviation might cause him to lose his concentration, and to slip. So he resolved to say nothing and simply watch, and he was about to tell Bill so when at once there came the clear pop of someone Apparating.

"What the hell was that?" Bill stood up, wand out.

"I don't know, I think," Charlie craned his neck up, his own wand at the ready as he searched the upper floors for any sign of movement, "it came from upstairs."

Fully alert now, and tense, Bill instructed quietly, "Go upstairs and check to make sure everyone's there. I'll check around outside."

"Bill –" Charlie started, fear gripping him at the thought of Bill going out alone.

But his older brother was already moving. "Now, Charlie," Bill ordered, and disappeared into the dark.

Charlie took the stairs quickly and quietly, counting heads, silently pushing open doors, so as not to wake and scare anyone. But it was as he thought; the sound had come from George's room, and his little brother was gone.

Charlie hurried back down the stairs, ghosting through the house and out the screen door, closing it gently behind him before he leaped the porch steps and onto the grass. Coming around the corner of the house, Bill raised his wand instinctively, then dropped it, and at the sight of Charlie's face, said simply, "Oh, hell."

Charlie blinked at his older brother, feeling his face drained of color. Letting George do as he pleased safely at the Burrow was one thing; letting him vanish into the night air was another. "Oh, God, Bill." He did not need to tell Bill that George was gone.

"Bleeding hell," Bill grated, mouth twisted into an ugly frown as he raked his fingers through his hair. "God only knows where he's gone, hell,HELL…Where would he have gone, that little prat?"

"Hell if I know," Charlie growled, quietly so as not to wake anyone inside. "Bleeding Saint Francis, he could have gone anywhere."

Bill let out an explosive sigh. "Well, that's just great. That's just all we bloody well need is two dead twins to bury on Saturday. You don't suppose he went off to go –" His voice twisted off, cracking a little, and Charlie put a hand on his brother's shoulder.

"No," he said quietly, "no." He squeezed Bill's shoulder, trying to steady him, trying to steady them both.

But Bill wasn't to be placated, and pushed Charlie's hand off of his shoulder. "We have to find him," he snapped. "Now, before morning, before Mum…"

"Ok," Charlie spread his hands. "Ok, we just have to think. The shop…Hogwarts…his friend Lee's?"

"He's not even talking to his family – he wouldn't go to Lee's." Bill was stalking the front yard now, wand clenched in his fist. "Ok," he turned, planting his feet, "you check the shop, and I'll check Hogwarts. And – God, I don't know where else – we'll meet back here if we don't find him. Then we'll – we'll look again until we do. And Charlie," Bill added, a desperate light to his eyes, but he paused, as though unsure or unwilling to say what he wanted to say. He stayed like that for a moment, long legs rooted to the earth, clenching his wand, but in the end, he only said in a low, voice, "Just bring him back, Char."

But as it turned out, there was nothing to bring back. They searched all night, Apparating out, and meeting back at timed intervals. First they went to Hogwarts and the shop, then Shell Cottage and Hogsmeade. After that, enough time had passed that there was no reason for haste, as they had no hope of stopping him now from doing whatever it was he was doing, and they woodenly agreed to search together. They checked the wizarding morgue where Fred's body was being kept, as well as various places they knew the twins used to haunt, including (out of desperation) Lee Jordan's house, though they were careful to wake no one. But when at last the sun crept up over the horizon, they still had not found him, and they knew they had no choice but to go back to the Burrow.

That morning everything turned to hell. "What?" their mother shrieked at the news, hands flying to her face. For a moment, everyone stood in a stunned, crooked ring around the kitchen, and Charlie thought for just that second that they might all have a quiet, reasonable discussion about what to do next. But in the next moment, the yelling started, and Charlie found himself quite suddenly in front of the firing squad.

"Oh, Charlie, what have you done?" his mother moaned, half sinking, half falling into a chair, and beginning to sob in earnest.

"What – I didn't –"

But he got no further, as everyone started shouting and crying at once. It was like all the tension that had built up over the week had suddenly exploded, and with George gone, no one felt the need to hold back. Somehow it turned out that it was Charlie's fault that George had gone, Charlie who should have stopped him, Charlie who knew what George had been up to all week, and no matter how he tried to tell them that he had no idea what George was doing or where he was, they didn't seem to care.

"You've been wi-with him!" his mother shouted between sobs. "You're the only one – h-he let near! He – you – Charlie where did he go?"

"Mum, I swear!" Charlie protested, "I don't know –"

"Son," his father spoke up from his mother's side, as he rubbed a hand over and over her back, "it's not your fault, but – Charlie, if you know anything, where George –"

But he was drown out by Molly's sobs, as she buried her head in her arms on the kitchen table, moaning, 'Not both of them, not both of them' over and over again. It was too much, and Charlie started toward her, wishing he could magically produce George, or failing that, comfort her any way he could, but the others wouldn't let him. There was suddenly shouting from all sides, about how he should have known, should have watched George better, should have seen this coming, should have warned everyone, and probably something about how he should have prevented Fred's fall in the first place. It was unfair, and Bill tried to defend him, but it was also hopeless. It was as though he were ten again, and being yelled at for letting the twins out of his sight in the apple orchard. "They're fine, mum," he'd tried to reason back then, having found them again, muddy but no worse for wear. But he couldn't say that now. He couldn't say 'they're fine, mum', and there was nothing he could do but stand there and take the yelling.

It went on for a long time, though the heat on Charlie eventually dissipated into everyone generally bickering amongst themselves about who should have known, and who could have watched better. Someone even snapped at Percy that if it hadn't been for him, Fred would be here, and no one would be standing around the kitchen and wondering where George had gone, and whether he was still alive. It was a horrible thing to say, and Charlie didn't even really register who said it, but it made Percy stumble from the room, white faced and horrified. Ron went after him, while Hermione sat shaking in the corner, and everyone else kept shouting. Over it all, Charlie could hear his mother's wracking sobs, as she alternately moaned their names, Fred and George, Fred and George, over and over.

It was crazy, shouting like that. His family wasn't like this. It wasn't like them all to just lay blame or attack each other – not over matters this grave. But there had been a week's worth of tension building, and now that George was gone, everyone could only think the worst. Only the worst. But eventually, the shouting dwindled, as people left the kitchen in ones and twos, at last leaving only Charlie and Bill and Fleur, who sat on a chair halfway down the table, her eyes fixed on a knot in the wood. Charlie felt suddenly shot all through. Exhausted, he met Bill's eye, but there was nothing to say, and nothing to do now but wait.

It was the day before the funeral, and there was nothing to do. The preparations had been taken care of already, and now everyone simply sat, and waited, and watched. No one ate or slept. No one spoke. They did go out searching again for most of the day, or at least Bill, Charlie, and their father went. Everyone else was ordered to stay. But in the end they found nothing, and they came home again to a general feeling of despair.

Night came at last, and everyone simply went to bed. It was as though there was just nothing else they could think to do. Charlie wished he could comfort them somehow, or make it right. He wished he could simply go out to the apple orchard and find his little brothers, and bring them back and say, 'they're fine, mum'. But he couldn't, and so he just said nothing, and everyone resolved to search again if George didn't show up at the funeral the next morning.

He also wished he could tell them about the little feeling of hope, this inexplicable feeling that George was about to do the impossible. But if even Bill wouldn't believe him, then Charlie saw no reason to try anyone else. Because it wasn't much of a hope, and it felt as though, if enough people stamped on it, it might just flicker out.

So he said nothing, and went to bed. He didn't think he'd sleep, but the combination of all the yelling and the tension and having been awake for two days and a night was enough to put anyone out, and soon he was distantly aware of his own snoring.

And then there were those cold fingers on his shoulder, and when he opened his eyes, the fervent gaze of his brother George. George put a finger to his lips, and simply handed Charlie a bundle of clothes and his boots. For a moment – a moment only – they locked gazes, but Charlie knew not to speak, not yet, and without another pause swung his legs over the side of the bed, dressed in silence, and followed George quietly out of the house.

Now they were trotting along a line of trees, the scent of pine strong and fresh on the light wind, and though Charlie wondered why they didn't just Apparate, he found he didn't mind. It was refreshing – no, exhilarating – to stretch his legs after so much fear and tension, and he found himself smiling in the dark as he hurried after George's retreating back, knowing that they were going somewhere, because George had come up with something. He didn't know why he knew these things, and had no reason to think that George could perform a miracle any more than a pig could teach himself to fly. But Charlie hadn't watched George and Fred master the art of shoe-tying in one day for nothing, and he found himself feeling, irrationally, that whatever George had in mind was really going to work.

They turned down another lane in the wood, the trees opening to admit them into a tiny clearing, and George at last turned around to face him. Slightly out of breath, Charlie stopped a pace away, and waited. At first, George said nothing, as though testing Charlie, to see what he would or would not say. But at length he seemed satisfied that Charlie wasn't going to say anything stupid (at least not immediately), and he said in an abrupt, businesslike tone, "If you say one bloody word about what Fred would have wanted, I swear I'll hex you back to Romania. I don't need to know what Fred would have wanted, because I know what Fred wants, and that is to continue living. So if you have anything spectacularly stupid to say, now's the time."

It was a bit startling, hearing that tone. Charlie didn't know what he'd expected, really, but not this. It was the same old George, no more, no less, and certainly not the sight or sound of someone deep in grief. He didn't even seem like someone in denial. He just seemed like…George. So at length Charlie simply shrugged, and said, "Nothing stupid yet, but I'll let you know if I feel something bubbling up."

George nodded, as if satisfied with something he'd suspected. "Good. Because you're the only one who hasn't been prattling on at me all week as though Fred were somehow in the past tense, and as it turns out, that's rather a good thing. Because I need your help."

This statement should have been some cause for alarm, but Charlie suddenly found that he had already made his decision to go along with whatever George had planned, no matter how crazy. "Ok," he nodded.

"I also don't need you backing out on me," George continued, "and prancing back to mum like a little nancy and ratting me out. I don't need you to tell me that what I'm about to do is dangerous, and I don't need you to try to stop me. So let me know right now if you're in or you're out, because I have business to attend. It'll go better if I have you with me, but if you spend the whole trip buggering things up in an attempt to keep me from harm, then I need to know that now so I can get on with things – a-alone."

His tone slipped on the last word, as though he'd never spoken it before. And truly, perhaps he hadn't, at least not in reference to himself. Charlie peered at him, gauging him, and wondering if George simply wanted Charlie along because he reminded his little brother of Fred. Of all the family, Charlie now most closely resembled George, and he wondered if it was a comfort to his little brother to have Charlie along if for no other reason than that. But he knew that time was short, and George was waiting, eyes alight. Charlie held out his hand. "I solemnly swear that I shall bugger nothing, nor prance, nor rat like a nancy. I'm with you, George."

And at that, the most glorious grin spread across George's face. He took Charlie's hand, and shook it heartily, almost as though meeting him for the first time, as in a way, he was. "Excellent chap," he replied, and clapped Charlie on the shoulder with his free hand. Charlie could feel the grin on his own face. "Now, brother mine, the plan." With a flick of his wand, he summoned a suspiciously familiar rucksack from the bushes, and began rummaging its contents. "Nicked it from Hermione," he began by way of explanation, gesturing to the bag. With a yank, he produced a shimmering bit of cloth, and held it up for Charlie to see. "Nicked this from Harry, let's see…" Rummaging again, he came up with a few more bits, and then straightened to hold each piece up in turn.

"Time turner, nicked from McGonagall's office, or," he shrugged, "ruin of an office. They're getting around to cleaning it, but none too quickly yet, and security's lax. Or, well, lax-ish anyway. I overheard about Hermione using this a few years back to get to her classes, and wondered if Hogwarts wouldn't keep one on hand in case of any other bushy-haired bookworm over-achievers decided to try to murder themselves by way of overloading on classes. Turned out I was right, and good thing, too."

Charlie whistled, low, and wondered at the quantity and quality of things the twins seemed able to 'nick'. "So," he cocked his head, "an invisibility cloak, and a time turner."

"And," George added with a flourish, holding a piece of Ton Tongue Toffee between a thumb and forefinger, "a portkey. Beginning to put two and two together?"

A bit of a grin threatened to tug at the corner of Charlie's mouth. "George, that's…well, it's brilliant. Simple, but…"

"Don't say it," George said airily, and stuffed the candy into his pocket as he heaved the rucksack over one shoulder. "May I remind you that you did just recently swear not to be a nancy, and that includes moaning about how dangerous this is. If I wanted Mum along, I would have brought her."

Charlie held up both hands, his grin spreading. George's confidence was infectious; it always had been. "Right, fine, you win. How silly of me."

"Indeed," George nodded, and then grabbed hold of Charie's arm. "So, ready for phase one?"

"Ready," Charlie replied, and suddenly felt himself jerked through space and time as George Apparated them both.

It seemed like a long trip, and when at last their feet touched down, Charlie found himself in another wooded glade, though by the smell and feel of the air, they were far from home. It was still dark, and there was a chill to the air despite it being early summer. Charlie rubbed his arms reflexively, shivering a little, but happy for the first time in a week, and feeling lighter than he could remember feeling in what seemed like an eternity.

"Now," George said briskly, and unshouldering his pack, "you'll have to put this on. I'll need my hands free, so you'll have to play the pack mule."

"Oh, I excel at pack mule duties," Charlie assured him as he pulled the straps over his shoulders. "You do realize I'm the only one in the family who didn't inherit brains, so my athletic skills have to count for something."

"Nonsense," George waved a hand at him. "Just because you weren't a big enough prat to follow in Bill's and Percy's footsteps and end up Head Boy." He shuddered. "The horror of it happening twice in our family, and then Ron made prefect. Ugh. It was mortifying."

"You do realize I did end up a prefect as well," Charlie admitted, adjusting the straps out a bit.

"Well, we try to forget that," George assured him, still referring to himself in the plural tense, "seeing as you did make up for that by being Quiddich captain. And anyway, no one's perfect."

"Well," Charlie grinned, "I do try."

"And you've inched just one step closer to our delightfully tarnished standards just by coming out here with me tonight." George winked. "I knew there was something about us short Weasleys – light on the academics, but possessed of a certain brilliance, not to mention shocking levels of charm."

"Don't forget good looks."

"Ah, makes you almost pity Bill, Percy, and Ron. Now," George rubbed his hands briskly together, perhaps because of the cold, perhaps because they were shaking, "for the explanation. It took me a few days to come up with this, a sad fact for which I'm sure Fred will gladly take the mickey out of me, but I admit to being off my game at first. But then I got to thinking, and what do you know, but that this wonderfully simple little plan began to click. A few trips through Bill's arithmancy books, a trip to the site in question to get the coordinates for the portkey, a few nicely rounded equations, and voila," he spread his hands, as though he was explaining nothing more than how to fry an egg, "we have a foolproof re-Fredding. Almost like a reboot, but to explain such a Muggle concept to you at this moment would take more time than we currently have, so you'll just have to trust me that my analogy is spot on.

"Because you see," he continued, with a glance at his watch, "I have timed this to the exact moment of our dear, sweet Fred's little 'incident. And 'timed' is the correct word because, as you have most likely already deduced, being a short Weasley like ourselves and therefore possessed of our special brand of brilliance," (Charlie nodded and pretended to preen), "we are going back," he held up the time-turner, "in time."

"To a very, very specific time, I gather," Charlie joined in, quite contentedly playing along. Really, this was quite a simple plan, barring a few details here and there. But he knew the twins, and the twins were never intimidated by details.

"Ah, yes, a specific time indeed. And a specific place. To regain for ourselves a very specific Fred."

"And how," Charlie cocked his head, crossing his arms, "do you plan to deal with the other people, specifically, who happen to have been on the scene at the time of this…incident?"

"Ah, you see," George smiled charmingly, and Charlie saw at once the exact brand of charm that made his brother an irresistible salesman, "that is why the very earliest wizards invented these." With a small flourish, he held up and displayed his wand. "You see, wizards – that's you and me – use these cute little stick thingys to perform this thing called magic, which allows us to, you know, transfigure things and modify people's memories."

"Is that right?" Charlie affected an intrigued stance. "And exactly what is it that you'd like me to do with my little stick thingy?"

"Well, you're not my type, but don't sell yourself short, Char," George raised his brows, with a flick of a downward glance.

"OY!" Charlie glared.

"Right," George grinned. "That was below the belt."

Charlie rolled his eyes. "Nice pun."

George shrugged, all innocence. "Well, you did walk right into that one."

"Ok, ok," Charlie dug out his wand, and held it up for George to see. "This stick. What would you like me to do with it?"

"Well, nothing," George replied, all business again. The sky was no lighter, but there was a shift in the air that told Charlie of the coming dawn. It was nearly time now. "What I need you for is to carry that pack, which holds all necessary supplies, and to play backup in case of emergency. We'll both be under Harry's cloak at first, but all three of us won't fit under there, and I imagine that Fred may not take too kindly to the two of us popping out of thin air to grab him. I mean, don't get me wrong – I'm rather fond of Fred – but he can be a damn bloody nuisance in a fight, especially when grabbed from behind. So your job will basically be to Fred-wrangle while I mop up the mess. Then, provided he hasn't turned you into a toilet seat or something equally unfortunate, we can all politely get the hell out of there and come back here to lay low. I've checked this place out; it'll be safe, and I've cast all the necessary defensive spells around it already."

"Fred-wrangling," Charlie nodded, pleased. "You do realize that I have something like a black belt in this particular art. Years of practice, you know."

"Which is why you got the job," George replied with a breezy wave, his eyes fixed on his watch. He looked back up, a sharp gleam now lighting his eye. "Less than a minute. Let's get under the cloak and inside the time turner."

It was a tight fit, especially since short Weasleys, as it turned out, were rather broad in the chest and shoulders. But as long as they jammed themselves together and bent their knees a bit, Charlie found that it covered them nicely. He also found, now that he was lodged tight against his little brother, that despite his outwardly cool demeanor, George was shaking from head to foot. Reaching around behind him a bit, Charlie found George's arm, and gave it a firm squeeze. "This will work," he said quietly.

To which George replied in a tight voice, "I know." And then the portkey flared to life, and Charlie was once more jerked into the air.

The castle materialized around them, dark and eerily quiet. There was only the wind to greet them, and the large hole that still gaped like a raw wound along the ragged castle wall. Rubble was lay everywhere, the remains of a deadly blast, and though the bodies were gone, the violent stains remained. "Bloody mess," George muttered. "They'll have a hell of time cleaning this up. Nevermind, this is the place, and now…it's time.

Once again the world went crazy around them, though now instead of being jerked, Charlie watched the world begin to spin. Images flashed by, smearing across his vision, making his head hurt, making him blink. But then it was over, and they plunged into darkness again, and into the frantic pitch of battle.

Explosions heaved the floor beneath their feet, and Charlie felt George stumble into him, all the wind knocked out of his body. Stunned for a moment, George coughed and thrashed, trying at once to regain both his footing and his wand, and then suddenly voices were ringing against the stones.

"Hello, minister!" Charlie could hear his brother Percy yelling somewhere ahead of them, "Did I mention I'm resigning?"

Someone laughed, George – no, Fred, it was Fred – and said, "You're joking, Perce!"

But that was all he heard, because George was pushing him aside, and there came a sudden, violent flash of purple light as his younger brother commanded, "Accio Fred."

An explosion rocked the air, blasting Charlie off his feet, and he cried out as something heavy landed on top of him. There was scramble, and then someone roaring in a panic, or anger, and then the sure feel of someone kicking soundly him in the ribs. Scrambling, Charlie pushed the hood back out of his eyes, and was rewarded with the sudden, sharp yelp of one of the twins. Oh, Merlin, was that Fred in front of him or George? Beyond caring, he made a lunge, and tackled Fred (or George) to the ground, yelling, "It's me! Fred, it's me!"

"You mankey git," Fred thrashed, kicking out a foot and catching Charlie sharply in the knee.

Hissing, Charlie tightened his hold, and growled, "Fred, you fecking little prat, it's me. It's Charlie, dammit, ow!"

Above him, he could hear George's spellwork, launching rapid-fire at the scene before him. "Fred, what –?" he heard Percy's voice, confused, as George shot a memory charm his way.

He hit home, and Charlie wrenched himself around in time to see Percy stumble back a few steps, his eyes gone soft and hazy. But then Harry shouted, and jumped up from where he lay, wand trembling hard in his hand. "That's not Fred," he shouted. "Look at his ear!"

"George?" Ron attempted, to stumble forward, rubbing dust out of his eye, but Hermione pulled him back.

"Protego!" she snapped as George fired a memory charm at her, and George swore as it bounced aside.

"Guys, it's us!" Charlie yelled, still keeping a strangle-hold on the struggling Fred. "Fred, dammit, Fred, will you stop kicking?"

"If it's you," Harry shouted back, "then why are you attacking us?"

Ron raised a shaking finger at George. "He's been Imperiused."

"No, I haven't," George groused back, and fired a quick, neat shot at Hermione, whose eyes took on a sudden, glassy shine as the charm hit home. "You just have to trust me."

"With you shooting at us?" Ron squawked, and took a step back toward Harry, wand raised. "No thanks, mate. I mean, you're my brother and all, but –"

"RON," Charlie barked, Fred's throat still comfortably lodged in the crook of his elbow, "put your wand down NOW."

"Oh, God," Ron moaned, and gestured with his wand. "Oh, God, it's Charlie's head, Harry. And he's got your cloak."

"Ron," Charlie grunted, and shifted so he could get his wand around the obstinately struggling Fred, "we are not Imperiused, and we are not trying to hurt you. Now put your wand down before I come over there and bang your ears."

Hesitating, Ron's wand tip wavered, and it was all the opening George needed. With a flick of his hand, he sent something skittering across the floor, and Harry and Ron had just enough time to look down at the Decoy Detonator before it went off in a sudden flash of light and noise. Ron and Harry staggered back, keeping their feet, but stunned for just one brief moment, which was all the longer George needed. Cooly, he raised his wand, and Charlie watched his little brother snap off the final spell.


And just that quickly, it was done. The body of one of the Death Eaters had been transfigured to look like Fred, and when Percy, Ron, Hermione, and Harry came around, they would still find their dead brother. Everything would happen exactly as it happened one week ago, and Charlie felt a sharp pang at the thought of them going through it all again. Of course it wasn't happening again; it simply hadn't happened yet. But that didn't keep him from feeling a sudden surge of unspent grief threatening to swell through him.

Fred's continued struggles, however, brought him suddenly back into focus, as George rushed over with the portkey. "Hang onto me," he muttered, as shouts sounded down the hall. Footsteps rushed nearer, and in a moment, they would be seen. But Charlie hadn't spent his childhood wrestling Fred for nothing, and George was…George after all.

Briefly, they locked gazes, and then Charlie grabbed George's arm, and the portkey flared to life.

"What the bloody hell are you two playing at?" Fred roared and kicked away, tumbling into a tree on impact, and thrashing as his robes caught at the branches.

Charlie rolled a few times, jarring himself painfully, and finally came to rest in a tangle with George, who kicked him accidentally in his attempts to get to his feet. "Ow, George, hell, your elbows –" Charlie grunted, and rolled with a groan onto his back as George finally disentangled himself and launched himself with a spattering of sod and grass toward Fred.

"Hey, just stop –" Fred attempted, wand raised, but as Charlie pushed himself up into the sitting position, he saw that Fred didn't have the heart to curse his twin, even if George was Imperiused.

With a low cry, George crossed the last few steps between them and, ignoring Fred's wand, simply grabbed his twin around the neck. For a moment, Fred wavered, looking like he might just win the battle to stay upright, but then the pair sank to the ground, George sobbing, and Fred looking like someone had knocked the wind, sense, and everything else right out of him.

For a long moment, they sat like that, George unabashedly and uncontrollably weeping, and Fred simply trying to stay upright, his face pale, dirt-streaked, and stunned. The light was growing now, and Charlie could just make out the pattern of Fred's freckles underneath the ghost-colored dust. Someone's blood had matted his hair – his or someone else's, Charlie didn't know – and his clothes were torn and charred, not that it mattered a whit to George, whose head was buried firmly against Fred's neck.

Slowly, tentatively, Fred lowered his wand to the grass beside him, and raised his hand instead to pat George gingerly on the back. "Are you – George – are you – ok?"

But George only cried harder, and tightened his grip, reminding Charlie forcibly of their mother. Confused, Fred shifted his gaze to Charlie, who simply drew his legs up beneath him, and said quietly, "Everything's ok now, Fred. But you should probably let him cry it out for now."

George was a long while crying, and no wonder. Fred didn't understand, and Charlie found suddenly that he couldn't explain, and could only wait his turn to grab Fred into his arms and try hard not to cry.

He didn't really succeed. Well, he grabbed Fred when George pulled back a bit – only a bit, mind, as George seemed to have no intention of letting Fred out of arm's reach any time soon – and the three of them huddled like that for a while, George crying again, and Charlie crying now, despite the distant feeling that he should probably have a better hold of himself. But for a week now, neither he nor George had shed one tear between them, and they couldn't help it now, not now that they had Fred safely ensconced in a strangle hold between them, and George had at last worked his miracle.

When they parted at last, Fred rubbed his neck, and shifted his eyes between his brothers, puzzled but willing to trust them. He glared at George, though there was a softness behind the glare, and he did not pull away. "Now what's going on, you loppy git?"

George snorted a laugh, then followed with a dry sob, and reached out both hands to grab Fred by the face. "Fred," he breathed, tears streaming down his face again, "Fred," he repeated, and then he was off again, sobbing with his arms wrapped so tightly around Fred's neck that Charlie thought he saw Fred's skin turn a faint shade of blue.

George carried on for a bit, until Fred finally managed to pry him off, though not without a strict promise not to venture any further than George could reach out and grab him. This seemed to mollify George somewhat, and at length they both let Fred to his feet, which took some time since they'd been sitting on his legs, and Fred's entire lower body had gone numb.

"Well, I didn't like these robes anyway," Fred managed, as he surveyed the wreck his clothes had become.

"It doesn't matter," George smiled weakly, and dragged in a long, wobbling breath. "I brought you another set. And – and tea. And – and, oh, God, Fred…"

"Ok, ok," Fred muttered, mutely appealing to Charlie for help as George grabbed him again.

"I knew there was a reason he brought me along," Charlie muttered, though not without a shaky breath of his own as he pried George once more off of poor Fred. "I mean, I knew we were on a rescue mission, but I didn't realize I'd have to save you from George."

"Shut it, Charlie," George snapped, but he was smiling, and scrubbing at his face with the back of his hand. "And while you're at it, why don't you make yourself useful and put up the tent?"

"Ah, yes, in the rucksack, I presume?" Charlie asked, lowering the sack to the ground so he could inspect its contents.

"You presume correctly," George hiccupped, and Charlie noted that it was a good thing indeed that George had brought him along, or there'd be no one to set up breakfast. Because he just wouldn't take his eyes off of his living twin.

As it turned out, George had planned most splendidly, and had thought ahead enough to provide an excellent breakfast for the three of them. Now changed into new clothes, and his face scrubbed by a suddenly Molly-esque George, Fred sat cross-legged with his brothers around a merry fire while he ploughed happily through a plate of bacon, tomato, and eggs.

"Now," he said around a healthy mouthful, "are you two going to explain what the hell is going on, or are we just going to continue with our little break from the battle and have another cup of tea? Not that I would say no to the tea – or some more bacon, mind, as I'm absolutely starving – but it does seem unfair to all of those unlucky sods back there doing the fighting."

The sun had risen by now, casting the world around them with a warm, golden cheer. There was hardly a cloud in the sky, and outside of their copse of trees, the downs spread about them in a sea of billowing grass, wild for miles and breathtaking. Charlie still wasn't sure where George had taken them to hide out, but he had to give his little brother credit for good taste.

"Well," George was saying, entirely composed now, and acting as though he hadn't just been blithering his eyes out on his brother's shoulder for the last hour, "let us just say that I am the best brother you ever had, and that I have seen fit to grant you your fondest wish."

"And that is…?" Fred asked, face almost politely dubious.

"To be," George answered with a thoughtful sip of his tea, "alive."

Fred screwed up his face. "Come again?"

George grinned nicely. "No, brother mine, that's what you just did. Behold," he raised his cup in toast, "our re-Freded Fred, entirely Fredded once more, brought back from the land of non-Fred to live most Freddily for the rest of his long and excellent days."

"Hear, hear," Charlie laughed and raised his own cup in toast, while Fred scowled at them both, his face somewhere between exasperation and understanding.

"Do you mean to say," he asked, "that I was dea—"

"What I mean to say," George cut him off before he could say it, "is that I didn't quite fancy the prospect of being 'and George' the rest of my life, and set out therefore to rectify our misfortune. Your misfortune was that you had been de-Fredded, and mine…"

He trailed off, voice tight, and Charlie finished for him, "…was being de-Fredded. So you'll forgive us if we felt the need to sort out that particular situation. You know the blast, the one that went off just as we grabbed you?"

Fred nodded, and Charlie didn't need to explain any further. "So," he said, "I take it then, since you both seem to know so much, that my…de-Fredding," he inclined his head politely in George's direction, and received the same in kind, "…happened some time ago?"

"A week ago, to be precise." George was again in command of his voice. "Or rather, about an hour ago, since I haven't time-turnered us forward again, and am not entirely sure I want to do that just yet, since we need some time to plan your re-entry."

"So you –" Fred faltered, then started again, "so I – you know, de-Fredded – and then, a week's gone by, and now you skipped back and grabbed me out of time just before the de-Fredding, and –" He gazed at his twin with a look bordering on awe. "—George, you holey sod, you're brilliant."

George looked decidedly pleased with himself.

"You brought me back to life?" Fred half-stated, half-asked, his voice gone completely serious now. He sounded as though he were halfway between incredulity and a dawning understanding of just how awful the last week must have been for George. "You mean…I was –"

"Fred," Charlie cut in softly. He raised his eyes to meet his little brother's. "Please don't say it."

"Yeah, don't," George added quickly, though just as softly, and Charlie watched a look of understanding pass immediately over Fred's face.

Reaching out a hand to each of them, their small fire crackling gladly in the middle of them all, Fred said, "Upon my honor as a short Weasley, it shall never pass my lips." He squeezed their arms, and then let go to take up his tea again.

Charlie snorted in surprise, though George only turned him a mild expression. "What? You think I gave that 'short Weasley' designation only passing thought? Charles, please, it's long been Fred's and my opinion that we shorties got the long end of the straw, so to speak, and long ago inducted you into our club. Didn't we tell you?"

"Yeah, didn't we tell you?" Fred echoed, grinning.

To which Charlie replied with another raised tea cup. "Well, then to short Weasleys," he proclaimed, a grin firmly stretched across his own face, "may our brilliance, good looks, and excellent charm continue to make Bill, Ron, and Percy secretly feel inadequate by comparison."

"To short Weasleys!" the twins joined his toast, and all three clinked mugs over the fire before happily falling to the rest of their breakfast.

They ate until they could barely move, but it didn't matter, as George had come well prepared, and there was no shortage. After that, they lay around the dwindling fire as the sun grew warm around them, and their overstuffed stomachs slowly settled back to something resembling normal size. George, Charlie noted, seemed to feel no shame in pillowing his head on Fred's shoulder, and neither did Fred try to shove him off.

They talked as they lay there, explaining the whole course of events, though leaving out any part, of course, that would require them to say the words 'Fred' and 'dead' in the same sentence. Fred listened quietly, one arm crooked lightly over George's chest, as they told him what the last week had been like. They left out the worst parts, and tried not to go into too much detail, but Charlie figured Fred got the picture fairly clearly, and understood far too well how awful things had been for the Weasley family since the battle.

This made him want to return right away, of course, but George wouldn't have it, and Charlie backed him up without a second thought. It would be hard enough going back, they explained, what with everyone's high emotional state. Add a suddenly re-appearing Fred into the midst of the currently charged Weasley atmosphere, and there were more than likely to be some pyrotechnics. So, better for everyone involved if Charlie, George, and Fred cooled their heels for a few days – maybe even all week – at least until Charlie and George had gotten their heads on straight enough to deal with the reactions of the entire family.

Additionally, it was explained to Fred (who, not being an idiot, deduced this already) that they couldn't go back at least until after George and Charlie Disapparated on the eve of Fred's funeral. (At this point, the word 'funeral' was then barred as well as the word 'dead', and Fred solemnly added the word to his growing list of things he was forbidden to say.) If they went back any earlier, of course, it would throw off the entire course of events, possibly even causing George to not come up with the plan to get Fred back, and then Fred would be back to being de-Fredded, and they would have polluted the timeline (more than they had already), and something else like the world spinning off its axis would probably occur. Or something like that. Everyone knew time travel and messing with time was dangerous, but Charlie had to admit that neither he nor George gave a whit, so long as they had Fred back.

Of course this lead, naturally enough, to a long discourse from Fred about how he should arrive at his own funeral, and whether it would be funny or fateful to pop up from his casket and shout "Surprise!" at everyone present. After adding 'casket' to Fred's list of forbidden words, both Charlie and George convinced Fred that this course of action would probably end up with him being de-Fredded again by way of a severe beating from the entire Weasley clan. So the idea was stricken from the list, and they set about trying to come up with something else.

"Great Merlin's balls," Fred exclaimed sometime past lunch, "it took you an entire week to put this plan together, and you didn't even come up with a plan for my re-entry?"

"Well, I was a bit preoccupied," George put in mildly, pulling and flicking bits of grass. He, Charlie, and George all lay on their sides, warming themselves in the sun, and generally taking advantage of the chance to simply rest. "You know, being de-Fredded does take the wind out of a person's sails."

"Hm," Fred nodded sagely, propped up on one elbow and chewing a blade of grass. To that, he offered no snappy comeback, which was either a sign that he knew how hard George had taken things, or of how tired he was, or both. "So," he put in after a minute, "how do we make our entrance? I mean, obviously we can't go back until Saturday morning, which is the day of the – yeah, I know, George, keep your shorts on – the day of the sadness party, ok? Sheesh. Anyway, I mean, so we can't go back until just then, so is it better to let them just get on with it, and show up after, or try to show up in time to stop it altogether?"

"Well, it's all planned," Charlie put in, "so people are going to show up, whether you show up or not, so I don't really see the need to hurry and get there beforehand."

"Though," George stabbed a blade of grass in Charlie's direction, "it'll lessen the impact a bit if we give them a heads-up in private, before the crowds start gathering. Let Mum get it out of her system early, and then let the crowds stand between us and her the rest of the day. Save us all a few tear-soakings, that will."

"Good point," Fred nodded. "Though there is something to be said for catching her in public. She's less likely to go into full-on hysterics then."

"Tuh," Charlie snorted. "You haven't seen her this last week. She'll get one look at you, and it won't matter who's watching. It'll be a wonder if there's anything left of you by the time she's done squeezing your neck off your shoulders for you."

"Yeah, well you two saps wouldn't know anything about that, would you?" Fred smirked at them both, though neither George nor Charlie seemed to feel inclined to look sheepish about it, and really, Fred's smirk wasn't very caustic.

"Well," George replied, reaching out to ruffle Fred's hair for him, "either way it'll mean a soaking for you, so you better steel yourself no matter what."

"Him steel himself?" Charlie rolled his eyes. "It's us we'll have to worry about, most like. By the time we get back, our beds will have been empty, and you can mark my words, there will be some shrieking over that, even when we do come back with Fred in tow. And, somehow it'll be all my fault that," here he pitched his voice higher in imitation of his mother, "you let my poor, sweet Georgie-poo do something so horribly dangerous. Charlie Weasley, I raised you to look after your little brother, not to fling him into harm's way." He made a face. "And then I'll be soundly beaten about the head and shoulders with whatever she happens to be carrying. You mark my words."

"Well, mate," George smiled not unkindly, "it won't be the first time we've gotten you into trouble."

"Or the last," Fred grinned, foxlike, a blade of grass jutting out from his teeth.

Charlie smiled softly at them both. "And thank God for that."

They slept well that night, George having brought along a tent nicked from who-knew-where, and which was nicely appointed with beds, complete with down mattresses, quilts, and feather pillows. The tent was large enough for them each to have their own compartment, but none of them wanted that, of course, and instead they clustered their beds in the middle of the main room, and slept all in a row, despite the twins' complaints about Charlie's snoring.

It was late the next morning when Charlie finally woke to the gentle sound of the wind against the tent walls. Above him, sunlight played on the canvas roof as the outlines of tree branches bobbed, their leaves shushing in the wind. He was confused at first, and felt the awful clench of some memory that he'd rather forget, something he knew he must face and couldn't, before recalling that he didn't have to face it after all, and that yesterday's events were no dream. Fred was back, and the grief that had threatened to burn through him suddenly subsided into a tired feeling of contentment.

Rolling over, he opened his eyes to see Fred laying with his eyes open, one hand behind his head as he watched the tent ceiling shifting against the wind. Still asleep, George lay curled on his side, his back jammed up against Fred's ribs, and his head pillowed on a lump of quilt, where he was drooling steadily as he breathed softly in and out through his mouth.

"Morning," Charlie managed quietly, and scrubbed a hand over his face and through his hair. Dropping his arm, he let out a sigh, trying to blink away the sleep. "Sleep well?"

"Well as I can with His Holeyness shoved up my side ," Fred answered in a low voice, taking care not to wake his twin.

Charlie managed a weak grin. "Need me to haul him off you?"

But Fred only shrugged. "Nah. I don't mind it. I mean," he added philosophically, "I could think of people I'd rather wake up to find Hermetically sealed to my ribcage – beautiful women, specifically, mind you – but all in all I'd say it could be worse."

"Well, then," Charlie grunted, levering himself up from his bed, "I'll just of find a convenient, tree-shaped loo, and maybe see about some breakfast."

"Now that," Fred's mouth slid into a smile, "might get me out of bed."

Charlie made some unintelligible grunt in reply, and stumbled outside into the late morning air. He wasn't a morning person by any definition, and a week's worth of stress, plus several sleepless nights, had made him a bit lethargic this morning. Yawning widely, he found a suitable tree, took care of business, and ambled back to the tent to start a fire. This, he could do in his sleep, being well used to roughing it, and by the time Fred emerged, tousle-haired and yawning, Charlie was just putting on the bacon.

"How's your cooking?" Fred eyed the skillet with some amount of skepticism, apparently fearful of what Charlie might do to the poor bacon sizzling so nicely within. "You haven't lost your touch living out in the sticks in Romania or anything, have you?"

But Charlie waved the question away. "Fear not, baby brother. Mum forced me and Bill to learn this stuff so well it's ingrained permanently in my skull. This brave side of bacon is perfectly safe in my care. Just because Percy's pathetic doesn't mean I am."

"Ah," Fred plopped himself down and yawned again, "good man. I'd hate to have to kick you out of the SW Club for ruining as fine a bit of bacon as this."

Charlie shot him a flat look. "Well, being the first short Weasley, and therefore the founder of the SW Club – not to mention still being bigger than you and well able to hand you your happy, freckled ass – I'd say you'd have a time kicking me out."

Fred mulled this a moment, and then granted him his point. "I suppose it does carry some weight being the club's founder."

"Thank you," Charlie smiled nicely, and turned the bacon over to sizzle afresh. He glanced back toward the tent. "George still asleep?"

"Yeah," Fred leaned back on his arms, "he's out. Crying a bit last night again after we all went to bed."

"Yeah, well, he didn't cry all week, you know," Charlie pointed out, poking the contents of the frying pan. "Didn't say anything until yesterday, actually. Not a word."

Silence fell between them for a moment, Fred watching the fire, Charlie absently tending their breakfast, while canting glances at his little brother. It made him feel like grinning stupidly, seeing Fred sitting there, or maybe bawling again, which he adamantly promised himself he would not do, or maybe both. It seemed unreal – everything, not just Fred being back, but Fred being gone in the first place – and Charlie realized slowly that the grief he'd felt churning over the last week would have to be dealt with after all. Whether now or in time, he'd have to wrestle with the loss of his little brother, and maybe even wrestle with the shock of having him back. It was a good thing – a brilliant, wonderful thing – seeing Fred back, but Charlie realized suddenly as he looked at him now that it was just as big a shock as having lost him in the first place.

Fred looked up, catching him looking, and offered a wan smile. His freckles stood out sharply against his pale, tired face, his hair glinting red and gold in the morning sun, and he looked so alive, so real that Charlie wanted suddenly to gather him up and not let go. But he went back instead to poking at the bacon.

"You ok, Char?" Fred asked, reaching out a hand to pat Charlie's arm.

Charlie nodded mutely, his vision blurring for a minute, but he covered by turning to get plates, and began loading them with bacon.

Fred watched him, looking pale and tired himself as Charlie began cracking eggs into the pan. "Char?"

"Yeah?" Charlie scrubbed quickly and surreptitiously at his eyes with the back of one hand. He shot a quick smile at Fred, but was betrayed by two more tears falling over his cheeks.

"Is everyone ok?" he asked, face a mixture of concern and something else Charlie wasn't used to seeing on Fred's face. Worry.

Nodding, Charlie answered, "Yeah. No. We will be. You…people will need time, I think."

"It's been hard." It wasn't a question.

"Worst thing I've ever been through." Charlie looked up at him, eyes bright again with tears he couldn't help. "Worst thing any of us –" he faltered, drew in a ragged breath, then ploughed doggedly on, "Worst because it was one of you. It's – it's awful – to say – but, Fred…" He trialed off helplessly.

"Seeing George every day for the rest of his life," Fred supplied for him, understanding. "You mean seeing my face every day, but having it not be me, and seeing George – well, suffer."

Charlie nodded. "Yeah. And – feeling like – it should have been me instead of –"

He broke off again, but Fred saved him the embarrassment of grabbing Fred into a hug by grabbing Charlie around the neck instead. Sighing, Fred tightened his grip, while Charlie shook with silent sobs, one hand behind him to support them both, the other hand still holding the dripping spatula.

At length, Fred let him go, and sat down next to him while Charlie scrubbed hard at his swollen eyes, and tried with little success to save the burning eggs. "You –" he choked, voice still painfully tight, "—my little brother –"

"Yeah, well," Fred replied, his voice strangely tight, too, "we can't go losing the president and founder of the SW club, now can we? So I'm glad it wasn't you. Besides," he put in sagely, "if it hadn't been me, George would never have thought up his brilliant little rescue plan. I mean, it takes a twin to go to such drastic measures, right?"

Breath still shaky, Charlie nodded. "Right." He didn't care about the logic of it; Fred was back, and that was all that mattered.

Canting a worried glance over his shoulder at the tent, Fred leaned in toward Charlie, voice low. "Will he be ok?"

Charlie sighed, and reached out to settle an arm around Fred's shoulders. "Fred," he gave his brother a squeeze as he expertly flipped the blackened eggs onto three plates, "as long as you're here, he'll be fine."

It wasn't too long after this that George emerged, probably smelling the lovely smells of breakfast, and plopped down, yawning hugely, to accept a plate for himself. He complained mightily about the ruin Charlie made of his eggs (music somehow to Charlie's ears, and to which he replied simply by blinking back tears and ruffling George's hair), he helped his brothers down three pots of tea, and even dragged out some Cauldron Cakes for dessert. It was good to see George's appetite back, not to mention Charlie's own.

They rested again that day, and talked mostly about nothing. They told stories around the fire, reminiscing about growing up in the crazy Weasley household, laughing at how many times the twins got Bill, Charlie, and Percy into trouble. When he was a boy, Charlie had thought there could be no better thing than to finally move out of the house and be away from the wicked little pair of twins who stuffed eels in his shoes, dumped water on him while he was sleeping, lit his Quiddich books on fire, and managed to get him into trouble a thousand times over for getting lost, dirty, bruised, or a hundred other things while they were under his care. It was Charlie's job to look after them (well, and Bill's, to be fair), and Charlie couldn't wait to finally get away from the hell-boys, as he called them. But now, sitting with them under the fine summer sky, and listening to them laugh and poke fun at each other, he couldn't think of anything more perfect than being with them.

They took that day, and the next few after that, to sort things out. Mostly, they just sorted out how to be together again. It was only a week that Fred had been gone, but it seemed like a year, and it took time to get re-adjusted to each other again. For George and Charlie, it was a matter of believing that Fred was real, and wasn't going away. This was a bit of a nuisance for Fred, whose twin refused to let him out of his sight, even to use the loo. George did turn his back at these times, of course, but he wouldn't go away, strictly, and Charlie didn't blame Fred for finding this to be a bit oppressive. Not that Fred really seemed to mind. He'd been scared, too, after all, even if he hadn't had to deal with the week when he'd been…gone.

For Fred, it was mostly a matter of getting used to the idea of having been, well, de-Fredded, and coming to terms with what he'd be facing when he went home. It wasn't the initial meeting that would be the trouble. Of course there'd be some carrying on, probably for days. But after that, there'd be everyone coming to grips with the upheaval of him leaving, followed by the (wonderful but still stressful) upheaval of him coming back. It would be a shock as large as the shock of losing him, and he'd have to deal with that. Even more, he'd have to deal with the fact that everyone had changed just a little while he'd been gone. It had only been a week, but you don't lose one of your little twin brothers and not come out of it scarred up a bit, even if he does come back. Fortunately, though, Fred understood that, and seemed ready and willing to deal with it. Of course, he was Fred after all, and able to deal with pretty well anything (short of the obvious, but it seemed that the only thing Fred would ever have to mourn was George's ear).

So they took some time to pretty well get to know each other again. It seemed absurd, him having been gone only a week, but it was what it was. They had changed. The world had changed, drastically so, even over the course of one short week. And everything would be fine again, but it would take a lot more time than it took to tear things apart.

Then, finally, the time came when they had to go back, and when it did, they found they were ready. A week of camping had taken the ghost out of their skin, and as they stood surveying the site one last time, Charlie noted with relief that both the twins had a bit of a healthy glow about them again, and their freckles seemed warmer and a bit less drastic now that their skin wasn't so deathly pale.

"Got everything?" he asked George, as they poked one last time around the site. They weren't disorganized by any real stretch, but it was safe to say that three guys camping for a week got to strewing things around a bit.

"Think so." George poked through a clump of grass with his toe, while Fred completed a circuit of the site. "Though I doubt Mum will like the state her iron skillet's in now that you've scummed it up with a week of your cooking."

"I don't recall you complaining when you were stuffing your gullet with my cooking," Charlie shot back. "Besides, speaking of the skillet, maybe you'd better let me keep hold of it. Might be able to block some of the hitting."

"Nah," Fred spoke up, as he wandered over to clap Charlie on the back. "See, we plan to use you as a shield to soak up some of Mum's hysterics, so a giving you something to hide behind just won't do." He grinned. "You'll just have to take it like a short Weasley."

Charlie snorted. "You'll be burying me by sunset."

"Better you than us," George replied with an airy look, then paused, as if registering what he'd just said. "I mean –" he faltered.

"Nah, you're right," Charlie covered for him. "As president of the SW, I do have my responsibilities."

George's mouth twisted in to a wry smile, somewhere between fondness and still-fresh sorrow.

"Ok, ok," Fred rubbed his hands together, looking very much as George had done, the night they left to rescue Fred. "Let's get this over with, shall we? I'm hungry, and if we let her get it out early, maybe she'll have time to cook us some lunch."

They had decided after much discussion to simply show up the morning of the – sad Fred party – since showing up in the middle of the night would be too confusing, and could possibly cause people to start firing off curses at their heads in the dark. So they Apparated to the head of the lane leading down to the Burrow, and as the morning sun slowly gilded the edges of the trees, they made their way down the road and toward the front gate.

Halfway there, they saw the front door open. It was Bill, standing with his feet rooted to the porch, his wand half-raised. A cluster of people followed, all jamming up behind him as he refused to move, and as they lifted the latch of the front gate, Charlie, Fred, and George were faced with the silent, deathly throng of the Weasley clan.

No one moved. For a minute, everyone just stared, blinking. And then Fred, with a shrug, simply held his arms out from his sides and said in a weak voice, "Surprise?"

All hell broke loose. "FRED!" their mother screamed, and flattened Bill as she hurled herself over the front porch and onto Fred's neck, actually knocking him down. "Oh, FRED, FRED!" she wailed, laying across his chest and clutching his neck, much as she had done the day – that day – though now instead of laying still, Fred was struggling to breathe.

"Mum, gah, MUM –"

But it was no use. Everyone was crying, and yelling, and trampling Fred, George, and Charlie in their efforts to get to Fred. All three of them were knocked down, and Charlie found himself being hugged and wept upon, as well as George, as everyone took turns choking the life out of them all and generally turning their shirt fronts into a lake. Words like 'How?', and 'Is it really you?', and 'FRED' rang through the air in such a wild and jumbled mess that it was impossible to answer anyone right away, and there was nothing for it but to subject themselves to being mauled.

It went on like that for a long time, people laughing, and sobbing, and grabbing Fred so hard Charlie thought he saw a few bruises forming. Not that it mattered. They'd sort Fred's injuries out later, and for now it was probably doing him good to get the idea of just how badly he'd been missed.

At length, though, everyone did draw back a little, though not much, and demanded an explanation. Grinning, George told them what he'd done, which only caused their mum to shriek again, and grab both the twins painfully around the necks, and sob into their shoulders an incomprehensible string of words.

Charlie wasn't disappointed, either. When she came around again, and was able to sit back enough to draw in a few ragged breaths, she fixed her second-eldest son with a fiery gaze, and launched into a tirade about how he should have kept George out of trouble. He'd seen it coming, so he didn't really mind, and all he really registered was something about 'blah blah, bad Charlie', and he didn't even really care when she proved him right by hitting him soundly about the head and shoulders with her apron, which had fallen off of her in the tangle of hugging.

But his dad came to the rescue as always, pulling Molly off of Charlie long enough to inflict her on Fred again, much to Fred's dismay. Then everyone interrogated George and Charlie again, wanting the story over and over, as everyone cried, and laughed, and made hearty attempts to end Fred's life again by hugging him nearly to pieces.

"Oh, the funer—"

"MUM!" Charlie, George, and Fred all shouted at once.

"That word," Fred explained shakily (having barely gotten his breath back, and having to massage his neck), "is on the list of forbidden words. You can't say it."

"List?" She sniffed, still shaking. "What list?"

Charlie grinned. "We'll explain later. But you can't say that word."

"Or the 'd' word," George added.

"Ok, fair enough," their father spread his hands to quiet everyone, and helped Molly to her feet. "But we do have – lots of people coming – so we'll have to figure out what to do about them."

"Easy," Fred grinned. "We just turn it into a surprise party."

That made everyone laugh.

As it turned out, Fred's suggestion was exactly what happened. Charlie almost felt sorry for him, what with being shrieked at and sobbed upon for the better part of the day, but he didn't feel too sorry. Served Fred right for putting them all in this state in the first place by going and getting himself de-Fredded. But George did take pity on him and brought him a new shirt a few times, when the current shirt got too soggy to wear. He also made the rounds with Fred, and got hugged and sobbed on possibly just as much as Fred, making Charlie take up the shirt-bringing duties whenever George got too damp.

Everyone was there. The Lovegoods, the Diggles, the Diggorys, the Jordans, professors, friends, family, members of the extended Weasley clan, even a few Veela, and one very jubilant Angelina Johnson. It was almost sickening, seeing the number of kisses being showered on Fred (and George), but it was fitting. Charlie could see that Fred was in no danger of being a lonely man, and it made him smile.

It was a bit bizarre, and a bit confusing at first, what with everyone showing up in black, and not understanding what all the shouting was about. As newcomers arrived, somber in their stately mourning robes, throngs of others would already be shouting and sobbing in joy at the sight of Fred, alive and well, and there were a good many puzzled looks. It fell to everyone to explain, and by the end of the day, Charlie could repeat the story by rote. As the bit about the time turner would have been a bit awkward to explain (not to mention the questionable legalities thereof), their father thought it was best to say that the family had mistaken a body for Fred's, and that Fred had suffered a blow to the head, and had been lost for the last week in the confusion of the post-battle medical system. It was a bit far-fetched, but as there was still a nice lump on Fred's head from the battle, and as everyone was too happy to see him to really suspect the Weasley family's version of events, the tale went off without a hitch.

It was also helpful when, after watching the black-cladded masses clustering in confusion, Ginny had the bright idea to haul out some of Bill's and Fleur's leftover wedding decorations. So instead of a funeral, the whole affair turned into something of a strange party, complete with fairy lights and gold bunting and colored streamers. Bill took the liberty of transfiguring the formerly-black hangings into a shocking shade of magenta, and the food that had been meant for the wake turned out to be a fine buffet for the party. Their mum practically sprinted back and forth with more food and drinks, so elated and bursting with relief and joy that she poured her sobbing efforts into feeding everyone until they could barely move. Ron found some music, and Percy bewitched part of the yard to resemble a dance floor, and actually led the first dance, gyrating and making a fool of himself until he was flushed and choking between laughter and tears, glasses hanging all askew. Fred had declared that there was nothing to forgive him for, of course, and after hugging Fred so fiercely that Fred had emitted a little squeak of pain, Percy seemed to come out of his shell with abandon.

Possibly the only thing that would have made the party better was a display of fireworks, but as the twins' supplies had been scattered and depleted, they didn't have much to launch outside of a few feeble sparklers. But it didn't matter. There was something about the raggedness of the party that felt right to Charlie. Everyone was happy and sobbing at once, their black robes clashing with the magenta hangings, and it just felt right.

Near nightfall, after the party had raged all day, George finally found Charlie sitting on the front porch. With a tired smile, he took a seat next to his older brother, and offered him a beer.

"All right, Char?" he asked, flicking the cap off of his own drink.

Charlie smiled, draped an arm over George's shoulder, and gave him a one-armed squeeze. "Never better."

"Cheers," George raised his bottle, clinking it together with Charlie's, and they both drank.

Sitting close, his arm still around George's shoulder, Charlie watched as Percy led some kind of conga line, his hips gyrating wildly and without a single hint of gracefulness. He really was a horrible dancer, but it didn't stop the hundred-or-so people in line behind him, hip-wiggling and kicking out with equal fervor. Sometime during the day, Fred had acquired a set of magenta robes, a grilling fork that had been transfigured into a scepter, and a truly revolting crown that someone had placed on his head in a sort of hilarious re-Fredding ceremony, over which George had presided as Saint and Pope. Now, his royal cape whirling, his scepter flying to the beat of the music, Fred took his place at the head of the line, where he led the dance as a drum major leads a marching band.

It was a fairly mortifying sight. And it was wonderful.

George sighed. "We'll be alright." It wasn't a question. But Charlie knew he needed reassurance even so.

"Yeah," he smiled, and squeezed his little brother's shoulders again. "We'll be fine."

They sat like that for a while, watching the awful dance, drinking, resting, free now from horror. At length, Charlie turned to George and said, "You know, I taught you and Fred to tie your shoes on these steps."

At that, George snorted a laugh, and canted a grin Charlie's way. "Yeah, I remember that. Fox ears, right?"

"Yeah," Charlie grinned, and then laughed, and drank, and everything was finally ok. "Yeah," he said, with another squeeze, and pulled George close to press his face to the top of his little brother's head, "Fox ears."

A/N (1/21/08): People have rightly pointed out that the issue of the time turner could cause some legal troubles for George, so I have fixed this with a few lines near the end of the story. However, I do plan to address this issue in the next story, which I'm currently writing.

Also, thank you so much to everyone has taken the time to read, review, and support this story! It made me feel better writing it, and I think by the comments I'm receiving that I wasn't the only one who took Fred's de-Fredding a bit hard. I hope this helps, and I plan to write more, so stay tuned. Thanks again, and may the re-Fredding be with you!!!