A/N: This takes place after the events of Fox Ears, so please read that story first if you don't want to be confused.
Update 2/21/08: Edited, new (hopefully more accurate) title, and new ending added.
The dark lay close against him as Bill sprawled, half-drowsing in his tangle of blankets. Around him, he could hear the soft sounds of his brothers breathing in their sleep, interrupted by the occasional rise of Charlie's muffled snores, or of George mumbling, or of Fred shifting against the grip of some dream. It was late, and even the crickets had finally gone quiet, leaving the four brothers with only the wind against the tent flaps, and the faintly glowing lines of the tent seams as the early summer moon began its rise above the orchard trees.
It was only three days since Fred's return, and they'd had little sleep. Bill wondered at it, knowing that he should have been exhausted. They had been up late the night of the party – so late that they'd only finally found sleep after the sun had started to rise. After few hours, they'd been up again, everyone full of too much adrenaline and glee to really rest, and it wasn't until well after midnight of that day that they'd gone to bed again. For some reason, neither Fred, George, nor Charlie had yet slept inside the house, preferring instead to camp out in the orchard, where they seemed to have some kind of secret understanding between them. They seemed perfectly happy to be with the rest of the family during the day, but somehow at night, when they slept, they seemed only to want to be near each other, and it wasn't until this night that Bill had managed to persuade them to let him join them. No one else was allowed, and secretly, he felt a bit amused by this little mafia his younger brothers had formed. Amused, and…something else. Watchful, maybe, even if he wasn't sure why.
Breathing deeply in and out, Bill rolled and stretched, settling himself more snugly into his blankets. They'd foregone sleeping in beds, the four of them, preferring instead to drop off where they lay after a night of swapping jokes and stories. Near Bill's head, he could just make out the outlines of the twins' heads, and beside him, Charlie sprawled on his stomach, head pillowed on one arm, snores muffled by the pillow that the twins had stuffed over his head. Smiling a little to himself, Bill mentally gave the twins credit for sheer balls. Baiting, pranking, or otherwise threatening Charlie Weasley's quality of sleep was not a sport for the faint of heart.
George mumbled in his sleep again, twitching and muttering "obliviate" a few times before going still again. According to Charlie, he muttered that spell a lot in his sleep, probably a leftover loop of thought from the day he'd rescued Fred, but still, it was a bit worrisome to Bill. He supposed that it would just take a bit of time for George to work through having lost and then regained his twin, but it bothered Bill that the whole business still gnawed at his little brother, hanging over him like a cloud.
"Alright, G?" Bill had asked the younger twin last night, after they'd grudgingly admitted him to their little party. The sun had long gone down, and George, Fred, and Charlie had retreated to their tent for a last few laughs around the campfire before turning in. They had very stubbornly proclaimed their little campsite off limits to non-SWC, (whatever in Merlin's name that was), and it had taken some serious cajoling from Bill to get them to let him join them. He finally managed it, but not before being made to solemnly swear with his hand placed on a Holy Puking Patille (which had been sanctified by George through a ceremony involving Dr. Pepper as a substitution for Holy water) that he would repeat nothing he heard, describe nothing he saw, and would not make a hog of himself over the snacks.
So swearing, he found himself admitted to their little circle, and sat now next to George by the fire, both of them watching as Fred and Charlie attempted to levitate a mess of graham crackers, chocolate, and marshmallows into the flames. "Yeah, never better, mate," George answered him lightly, then furrowed his brow at his brothers. "Oy, not too close. Toasted, Fred. Not charred."
"Yeah, yeah," Fred waved him away. "You say that about all of our experiments."
"And if memory serves," Geoge replied airily, as he leaned back on his arms, "the last time you yeah-yeah'd me, we both ended up with our eyebrows on fire."
"Oh yeah," Fred grinned up at his twin, allowing the levitating charm to wobble a bit. "Atomic Hairballs. Still haven't perfected that one."
"Atomic Hairballs?" Charlie grunted. "That's disgusting."
"It's for people not as tragically handsome as ourselves," Fred patted Charlie amiably on the shoulder, and poked his wand at the fire, lowering the mess of sweets a little closer to the flames. "Pop one of those Atomic Hairballs into your mouth, and you'll have flaming red hair for as long as you suck on it."
"Literally," George added, "flaming. It goes out as soon as you spit the thing out – or when you've sucked it gone – but the part we haven't figured out is how to keep your actual hair from catching fire."
"Thus the flaming eyebrows," Fred finished, looking devilishly pleased, and Bill found himself (not for the first time in his life) thanking his lucky stars that he hadn't been born as Fred Weasley's twin. Some days he didn't know how George managed it.
"But – Merlin's pants, Fred – you know what?" George turned a keen eye on Bill, smile widening in a way Bill didn't particularly like, "we should test it on Bill. Long flaming hair would be wicked."
"Yeah, the Amazing Flaming Bill!" Fred's eyes lit up, dangerously bright.
"No, no, no Flaming Bill," Bill replied firmly, unconsciously edging away from George just a little, and making George's grin widen. Never mind about pitying George; he was just as bad, for Merlin's sake.
"Oh, come on, Bill," he leaned in, face a mixture of wolfish innocence, "it doesn't hurt."
"...much," Fred added in an undertone, eyes glittering behind the campfire.
In unison, the twins began making chicken noises.
"No, no way in hell, no." Bill wasn't one to have his courage called into question, but he wasn't about to voluntarily light himself on fire, either, for cripe's sake.
The chicken noises grew steadily louder, but Charlie stepped in before the demon spawn could get too out of hand. "Now, now, we are not setting Bill on fire," he declared in his easy-natured way, and though the twins groaned in obvious disappointment, that did seem to be the end of it. There was something about Charlie that was both imperturbable and immovable; once he put his foot down, the discussion was as good as over. It hadn't always been so. But something about the last week had forged a new sort of respect between him and the twins, and to Bill's surprise, he found that they more or less (mostly) listened when he spoke. "Now, on the other hand," Charlie continued, and raised his eyes from the campfire to give Fred an appraising look, "If we tried it on Percy..."
That launched them into an animated discussion about whether they could modify the spell to make rims of Percy's glasses catch fire in addition to his hair, and they were off again, laughing and plotting and talking about absolutely nothing of consequence. While he did understand about not hogging the snacks, Bill wasn't quite sure why they had made him swear to repeat nothing he saw or heard. Mostly, they had spent the night quibbling about the doneness of a quality s'more, and whether the twins should incorporate the American camping snack into their joke shop's line of sweets. Now that Bill lay in the dark with them sprawling in peaceful sleep around him, he was no closer to understanding just what was making them seem so happy by day, while by night they banned together like fugitives. Outside of the details of Fred's rescue, they hadn't really said much about the week they'd spent together afterward, and though they had probably done nothing more than camp and swap stories, he couldn't help but notice a new and almost desperate need between the three of them to stick as closely together as possible. Probably, it was just a reaction to everything that had happened, and something they'd get over in time. But it still concerned Bill just a little, and he figured that it couldn't hurt just to keep a weather eye on the trio. It was his job, after all; always had been.
He sighed. Maybe Fleur was right. Maybe it was nothing, and here he was sleeping out here with his brothers when he could be in his bed and pleasantly wrapped up in the arms of his Veela wife. Not that he minded the chance to spend time with his brothers, especially now that the war was over and there were fewer shadows to jump at, but between an old quilt in a smelly tent and a warm bed with a gorgeous woman in it, he'd pick Fleur any night of the week. Besides, if truth be told, the war might be over, but it made him nervous to be away from Fleur any longer than he had to. He had her to think of now, first and foremost.
Rolling over again, he settled himself in for what seemed like the hundredth time, and closed his eyes, his mind racing too fast for such a late hour. With a sigh, he decided as a last ditch effort to actually try counting sheep, and was just making a mental note to swear off all caffeine for the next few days when at once all the muscles in his body tightened. At first, he didn't know why, and he lay still, quite suddenly alert as the hairs on the back of his neck slowly raised. And then he heard it, just softly, just there beyond the walls of the tent. There was someone or something outside.
Quickly, trying to make no sound, Bill tried to reach for his wand, and as he did, there came the soft, slow rasp of canvas as someone peeled back the tent flap, taking care to make little noise. For one wild moment, Bill wondered if it was just Fleur, or maybe even Ginny, but then the sharp, unfamiliar smell hit him, and alarm swept through him like a shot. Whoever they were, there were many of them, and they were even now sliding silently under the flap and into the tent.
"Char," Bill whispered, low, and grabbed his brother's shoulder, but the gesture was too late. Charlie snorted in surprise, and jerked awake, but even as he blinked around at Bill, ropes sprang from nowhere and snaked around Charlie's body, tying him fast.
"Protego," Bill snapped, rolling to avoid another spell, and scrambled to his knees. The shield charm shimmered faintly in the air before him, hovering in a dome above his brothers, and giving off just enough light for Bill to make out the group of men surrounding them all. To his shock, he saw that they were Ministry Law Enforcement, but even as his jaw sagged open, something hit him from behind, and knocked his wand out of his hand.
Too late, he realized they had surrounded the interior of the tent, and were able to catch him from behind. Rolling beneath his attacker, he tried to shout, but found himself all but smothered with his own pillow. Thrashing, he caught the man in the face with the back of his head, and heard the other grunt low in pain, but then there were other hands grabbing him, clutching his hair, and dragging him backwards with the pillow still over his face.
They struggled for another minute, Bill nearly able to get a hand free, but then just as quickly as it had begun, it was over. He choked in surprise as a gag was shoved roughly into his mouth, and tied behind his head, while ropes from an Incarcerus charm slid over his body and bound him tight. Then he was dragged to his knees, and found himself deposited in a row with his brothers, who were similarly bound.
Twisting, he tried to look at them, but a sudden fist to his face knocked him sideways again, blinking and shaking his head. He coughed, trying hard to work against the gag, wanting only to know if his brothers were ok, but the gag was cruelly tight, and he could make no sound. Beside him, he could hear Charlie and the twins struggling, but that, too, was abruptly cut off by the sound of someone hitting them in their faces.
Above him, someone let out a sharp, irritated sigh, and then Bill felt his hair twisted painfully as someone pulled his head back. "Lumos," the voice muttered, then a weather-beaten face lowered into his line of vision, and peered at him closely. Hair close-cropped an iron-gray, he wore the badge of a lead officer on his right shoulder, and as his yellow eyes searched Bill's face, Bill felt the eerie creep of recognition. Those were wolfish eyes.
Bill jerked, instinctively not wanting to cooperate, and tried to twist away, but someone wrenched his hair tight, making his eyes water. Blinking, he tried to shake free anyway, growling senselessly and trying to ignore the sharp pain at the nape of his neck, but at once he was silenced by a heavy backhand to the face that all but wrenched him from his knees.
At this, Charlie let out a muffled roar, but was knocked aside by a fist to his ear. Shaking his head, he swayed on his knees, stunned, and making the twins beside him gape for one glimmer of a moment before they launched into a violent protest of their own.
It was over in seconds. The twins suffered a few solid hits apiece, one officer even going so far as to boot George heavily in the ribs, making the younger twin grunt painfully, and bringing Fred up short. "That's right," the lead officer said coolly as he jerked Fred upright and planted him forcibly back on his knees. "More noise, and he'll get more of the same. Now hold 'em still."
Once more, Bill found himself dragged to his knees, where he was presented to the lead officer. All of them were gagged, and each one was being held by one of the officers, none of whom Bill could make out in the gloom. "Now, let's try this again." Grabbing Bill's long hair, he yanked Bill's head back cruelly, and peered closely into his face. "This one's the werewolf. Next."
He pushed Bill roughly aside, and moved on to Charlie. Grabbing his short hair, he yanked Charlie's head up into the light, and peered into his face. Nodding to himself, he leaned over to inspect Charlie's arm, where he ran a thumb briskly over an old, shiny burn. "This one's a match. Take him."
At that, the twins set up fresh protest, twisting and growling against their gags, but they were rewarded only with another couple of cuffs to the head, and another harsh boot to George's ribs as Charlie was dragged kicking and snarling out of the tent and into the night. Bill twisted in his own bonds, halfway between going after Charlie and helping the twins – though he had no chance of doing either tied up as he was – but the officer holding him grabbed his hair again, and shook him painfully into submission.
"Ah, yes, she said these two would give us the worst of it," the lead officer was speaking again, "and don't you," he directed a hard gaze at Fred, "think I'm threatening you just to hear myself talk." He jerked a thumb toward George, while Fred kept up a low, steady growl, his eyes bright with hate. "If I say this one gets a broken rib every time you cross me, and he gets a broken rib. Now hold still, and this will be over in a second."
Fred did anything but hold still, and thrashed like a marlin when the officer grabbed for his head. It took another two men to hold him, and even then he only stopped his struggles when they made good on their threat and aimed a few more savage kicks at George's side. Even Bill struggled anew at that, but it was no use, and after a few more cuffs to the head, the only thing Bill heard was the ringing in his ears, and the quiet sound of George spitting blood into his gag.
"Right then," the brisk voice was saying again, "be a good boy, and give us a look." Breathing hard, Bill raised his head in time to see Fred's hair being yanked roughly back, so the officer in charge could inspect both sides of his head. "This one has both ears. Take the other one."
With a strangled cry, Fred jerked again, hands clawing desperately behind his back to free himself from the ropes, but he was bound too tightly, and George was already being dragged forcibly out of the tent and into the night air. Faintly, Bill heard the sounds of people Apparating, and he just caught the last, muffled noises of George's resistance when that, too, disappeared with a pop.
"Good then, that's settled," the senior officer strode before the two remaining Weasleys, and produced a bit of parchment, which he gave a cursory glance before flipping it to the floor. "I'll be sure to add resisting arrest to my report, which won't help their case at all, I shouldn't think." He drew himself up, and gave a curt nod to the few officers who had remained to keep hold of Fred and Bill, "Family has been notified, subjects in custody. That's it then, good night."
With that, Bill found himself suddenly slammed to the ground, where he coughed, momentarily stunned. Heavy boots stepped around him and out, and beside him in the dark, Fred raged and frothed behind the gag, as the last of the law enforcement wizards Disapparated outside the tent. And just as quickly as they had come, they were gone, and two of Bill's brothers with them.
Fred was beside himself, and Bill knew he'd have to move quickly, or his brother would injure himself trying to get free. They hadn't bothered to undo either Bill's or Fred's bonds, but Bill hadn't spent years as a curse breaker for nothing, and knew well enough not to panic. With the spell casters gone, the Incarcerus spell had already begun to weaken, and as Bill methodically worked his fingers through the knots at his back, he could feel the ropes slipping until, some minutes later, they came suddenly loose around him. Scrambling, he tore at his own gag, spitting and choking a bit as he ripped it out of his mouth, and he pounced on Fred like a cat.
"Be still," he snapped, when Fred only struggled more. Fred wasn't an idiot; most likely, he wasn't even in a panic. He was simply in a pure, blind rage, and Bill knew he'd better keep a good hold on him once he set him free. It took a minute, considering that Fred was growling behind the gag, and shaking hard with anger and frustration. But at last Bill undid the knots, and Fred burst into action beneath him like a rodeo bull out of the chute.
Clawing at his gag, he spat hard, then let out an unintelligible string of curses that even Bill, versed as he was in the art of expletives, couldn't quite make out. "KILL the sodding – bloody son of – GEORGE – BLOODY mother's SONS –"
But Bill had a good hold on the scruff of Fred's shirt, and wasn't letting his brother anywhere near a wand. Instead, he inched himself forward, snarling Fred and all, until he could reach the bit of parchment that had been left behind. It was too dark to read, but fortunately the officers hadn't taken their wands, and he thought he knew where his had landed. "Fred," he shook the back of his brother's T-shirt. "FRED."
"WHAT?" Fred snarled, twisting and clawing at Bill's hand at the nape of his neck. "Let go!"
"Fred, we need to read this," Bill explained calmly, though he felt inwardly as Fred did, that the seconds were slipping away.
"Read what? And let go, for crissake – Bill, dammit – George." Still stuttering with rage, Fred directed a nice, friendly elbow to Bill's stomach, which made Bill double over, momentarily too pained to breathe. But he managed to keep his hold, and used his momentum to propel them both toward his wand, where he landed, panting, one hand still firmly twisted into the back of Fred's shirt.
"Read this," he snapped. "Lumos." The tip of his wand lit, and Fred stopped struggling as Bill held the parchment up to the light. It read,
By Order of the Senior Undersecretary to the Ministry of Magic:
Mr. Charles Gawain Weasley and Mr. George Fabian Weasley are to be placed under arrest,
and are hereby ordered to attend without delay a hearing to determine the details of their pre-trial incarceration in Azkaban.
Charges include, but are not limited to the following: theft of a ministry-owned time turner, illegal use of a time-turner,
and tampering with the legally established and defined Timeline.
Subjects are to report without delay to their pre-trial hearing.
Signed, with respect,
Dolores Jane Umbridge, Senior Undersecretary to the Ministry of Magic
For one clear, cold second, Fred went absolutely still. Then like a shot, he was up and out the door, and sprinting hell-bent into the night.
It was a good thing that Bill knew how to keep his head. His heart hammered, but outwardly he managed to stay collected as he gathered up the other three wands with a summoning spell, and darted out the door of the tent and after Fred. Without a wand, his brother couldn't go far, and he unfortunately seemed to realize that just as Bill was emerging from the tent. Not five paces from the door, Bill suddenly felt something slam into him as Fred tried to run back inside, and a quick, fierce struggle ensued over what seemed like nothing at all. Then at once Bill had Fred by the back of the shirt again, and shook him to make him be still.
"Let go," Fred warned, jerking to get away from Bill, but Bill had him fast, and silently thanked God that Fred hadn't quite yet grown to Charlie's bulk, or Bill would have had a worse time of it. As it was, Fred had almost managed to wrench himself away again, and Bill tightened his grip, wishing hard for backup.
"Just – FRED – hold still, dammit, ung—" Bill grunted, mouth twisted as Fred caught him in the stomach again with an elbow. Gasping, he leaned against Fred for a moment, who was still jerking with all of his strength. "Got – uhng – to get Dad."
But now Fred had caught sight of the wands, and was eying them with a keen light. Taking advantage of Bill's momentary breathlessness, Fred made a lunge, but Bill managed to keep them just out of reach. "Give me our wands!" Fred growled, lunging again, this time managing to knock all four wands out of Bill's outstretched hand.
Clattering to the grass, the wands rolled in four directions, and Fred pounced. "Fred, wait!" Bill made a grab for his brother, but Fred was too quick, and then, with a pop, he was gone.
Bill swore with abandon. Breathing hard, he raked his hair out of his face, and stood panting for a moment as a slow feeling of horror seeped through him. He had no idea what had just happened, and he staggered now between terrible shock and the almost tangible wish to murder Fred. Swaying, he looked about him for one moment more, almost at a loss, suddenly stripped of three of his brothers and feeling more helpless than he could remember feeling in years. He let out a chuff of breath, reeling. Then at once he was himself again, and with a shake, he leaned down to scoop up the remaining two wands.
Thinking of Fleur, he summoned his patronus, a lean, long-legged wolf, and sent it to his father's room with a message:
Ministry Law Officials have taken Charlie and George on Umbridge's orders. Fred gone after them. I'm going after Fred.
Not knowing what else to say, he simply raised his wand, and then Apparated at once to the Ministry.
It seemed the likeliest place to start, and he found himself thanking God for the second time that night as he came across Fred within minutes. He made no attempt to grab him, and instead dashed with him through the ministry courtrooms as they both searched frantically for their brothers.
"Subjects must report without delay," Fred panted as he quoted the summons, his bare feet slapping against the cold stone floors. "That means now...must mean the hearing is now. In the middle of the night, the sodding sons of bloody pigs..." He trailed off in a jangle of muddled curses as he jerked open one door after another. The halls were dark, and only the night guard had delayed them long enough to sleepily question their business, and offer very little in the way of help. No, he had not seen anyone brought in for questioning. No, they don't come through the front when they bring in subjects. No, he was damn well not going to help them a whit, as he was quite content sitting half-asleep at his post, thank-you-goodbye.
Or at least that's how he treated Bill, who had then brushed past him and started his frantic search for Fred, before Fred could get himself into trouble. Bill wasn't trying to stop Fred from finding George and Charlie, but he did rather hope to keep Fred from blowing anyone up in his attempts. He knew Fred. He knew him all too well. And given the recent events of his re-Fredding (as George put it), Bill knew that Fred was now well beyond his usual state of mere volatility.
"Wait, I hear something," Bill skidded to a halt, jamming his toe painfully against the cobbles. Down the next hall, they heard voices and feet hurrying toward them, and as they bounded forward, Fred and Bill nearly collided with their parents.
"What happened?" Molly half-shrieked, making to grab for Fred, but Fred brushed her off, and Bill was already on the move again.
"No time, come on," he called over his shoulder, and the lot of them hurried onward, singleminded.
Bill was afraid that there wasn't much time left, and he filled his parents in on what had happened as they raced down the cobbled halls, poking their heads into door after door. But after a few more wrong turns, they at last heard something, and as they neared a door at the end of the hallway, Bill could clearly make out the buzzing of a self-satisfied and sweetly high-pitched voice.
With a last burst of speed, all four Weasleys burst through the door in a rush of elbows, and before he was even in the room, Arthur blurted, "Say nothing!"
For this, he earned a bit of a withering "we're-not-that-thick" look from George, who together with Charlie stood with his hands bound behind him in the middle of the stone courtroom floor. Above them, Dolores Umbridge presided, her hands clasped daintily (or so Bill assumed she thought) before her, as she sat surrounded by a court secretary and several members of the Ministry Law Enforcement squad. He had never seen her in person before, and now, as he looked up at her wide, flaccid face and smugly glinting eyes, he felt a sharp stab of dislike.
"Well, tut, tut," Umbridge clicked her tongue at them. "A little late aren't we? We were informed, were we not, of our family members' arrest?"
"In-informed?" Arthur stuttered, sounding alarmingly like Fred in his anger. "You mean ambushed in the middle of the night, beaten, tied up, and left with a notice they couldn't possibly read in the dark? How dare you –?"
"Speakers for the defense," Umbridge interrupted, eyebrows arched high, a little smile playing about her pouchy mouth, "were given their chance at the beginning of the hearing. If you had something to say, you should have been here on time."
"You have no legal right," Arthur shot back, "to show up at our home, brutalize my sons –"
"Brutalize your sons?" Umbridge tittered, holding one of her stubby-fingered hands to her mouth in what was obviously meant to be a coy display. For Bill's part, he felt slightly nauseated at the sight. "My officers tried peacefully to bring the subjects in, but as they decided to resist arrest, slight force was necessary."
"Peaceful? You call that peaceful?" Fred barked, face white with anger, and Bill saw their father quickly put out a restraining hand on Fred's shoulder. But by then, Molly had worked her way around to the side of the room where she could get a better look at Charlie and George, and if Fred had anything to else say, it was drown out by his mother's low moan.
"Oh, my boys," she put a hand to her face, and Bill caught Umbridge's smile at the display, a sight which made his stomach clench, and which gave him a sudden, sharp understanding of just why the rest of his family hated her so much. The old hag was enjoying his mother's pain. "Oh, Charlie, George…what did they do to you?"
Sidling, Bill joined his mother, and his heart sank at what he saw. He had not really registered his brothers' state of dress at first – or his own or Fred,'s for that matter – having been too rushed and distracted, but what he saw now made him pale. They had both been taken in their night things, and though it was warm enough outside, he saw that they stood shivering now in the cool, lower rooms of the Ministry. George had on a pair of cotton shorts and a tank top, but Charlie had fared worse, and was wearing only a pair of thin, striped pajama bottoms. His chest was bare, and Bill could see the goose bumps rippling his flesh as they both stood in their bare feet and shivered. Worse, the left side of Charlie's face was swollen and bruised, as though they'd worked him over some more after the arrest, and Bill could see the pattern of deep, black bruises under George's thin, white shirt. Worst of all were the lines of blood that seeped slowly out of George's mouth, and the way he stood, leaning slightly against Charlie, and obviously trying hard not to show that he was in terrible pain.
"It's ok, Mum," Charlie mumbled, and shot Bill a look. It wasn't ok.
Molly's eyes had welled with tears, and she hadn't taken her hand from her mouth, much to Umbridge's obvious pleasure. Putting his arm around his mother's shoulders, Bill canted a glance up at Umbridge, and felt the rise of absolute loathing.
"George?" Fred appeared at Bill's elbow, his face gone white as Bill's own felt. The thunder had momentarily gone out of him, and as Fred and George locked gazes, Bill saw such a look of pain and fear pass over Fred's face as he had never seen in his life. George offered a tremulous smile, and gave a one-armed shrug on his good side, as if to tell Fred not to worry, but he said nothing. Bill wondered if he could.
"So, yes, then, the charges have been read," Umbridge continued, as if the Weasleys had not just stampeded into the courtroom and disrupted her monologue, "and I move to recommend that the subjects, given their prior criminal record, be restrained at Azkaban until the date of the trial."
"Prior criminal record?" Arthur demanded, sounding more horrified than angry. Face unreadable, he tore his eyes away from his sons only after a long moment of staring. "What on Earth are you talking about?"
"Oh, well, it's all here," Umbridge smiled coyly, holding up two files for them all to see. "These two," she indicated Fred and George with a dismissive nod, "were guilty of many offenses while under my excellent and regrettably too-short tenure at Hogwarts. While this one," she indicated Charlie, "has been cited in illegal dragon-trafficking. Of course, if their parents had better raised them to–"
"That's a load of crap," Fred snapped, building steam again, and looking in his rare state like he was working up to a good blow-out.
"Be quiet," Arthur muttered, and tightened his grip on Fred's shoulder until Bill was sure that there would be bruising. Raising his voice and lifting his hard gaze toward Umbridge, he said, "Whatever my sons may or may not have done while at Hogwarts has no bearing on a criminal record, as they were students at that time. And Charlie was never involved with illegal trafficking."
"Oh, but I beg to differ," Umbridge purred, with a flick of a gaze toward Charlie. "I have young Charles' records right here, and you might be surprised to know what they contain."
"I'll bet we would," Bill muttered, "and so would Charlie," and earned surreptitious a jab from his father's elbow.
"And as for your…twins…" she let the word roll of her tongue as though talking about something distasteful or unnatural, "…while their record may not be permanent due to their status at the time of transgression, it does allow me extra leeway to hold young George until trial, given his already-demonstrated propensity toward lawbreaking."
"And wh—when is the—the trial date?" Molly stuttered. She had begun to cry softly, and had not yet taken her eyes off of the wretched state of her sons.
"Oh, you know the legal system, especially what with the war having just ended, and everything being in such disarray." Umbridge sat up, and busied herself with unnecessarily shuffling the files before her. "Could take months, maybe up to a year. One can never tell."
"A year," Fred gasped, eyes locked wretchedly onto his twin.
Umbridge tittered a sigh, a smile tugging at the corners of her wide mouth. "Oh yes. Or longer."
"You can't do this," Arthur put in, jaw set as he glared up at the horribly smiling woman above them. "Wrongful arrest – hearing in the middle of the night. There's a legal process –"
"Which I assure you," Umbridge smiled nicely, "I am following. As a few unfortunate deaths during the war have left me as the head of the Wizengamot, I have full legal authority to take action as necessary, especially in such cases as would threaten the stability of the new Ministry. And as we all know, tampering with the Timeline – especially when those still loyal to he-who-must-not-be-named may still be at large – is rather a serious offense, possibly punishable by a lifetime sentence." This last line she directed toward Fred and George, and smiled broadly as she watched them standing across from one another, gazes locked, George's face pale with pain and shock, Fred's face a study in building anguish.
"Although," she added, and turned her attention to Charlie, who she smiled at in a way that made Bill's stomach unexpectedly turn, "there could be reprieve for the one who…might not have been involved? Maybe he was simply…dragged into something he didn't understand?" Not quite surreptitiously, she flicked her gaze down and back up Charlie's shivering, partly-clad body, and Bill quite suddenly felt that he might be sick.
"Say nothing," Arthur ordered Charlie and George, repeating himself, and sounding (if it were possible) even more revolted and angry than Bill. Was Umbridge…ogling…Charlie? "These charges are ridiculous, and you both have the right to legal representation before having to speak to any charge."
"Of course," Umbridge tipped her head, still staring forwardly at Charlie and acting as though Arthur had said nothing, "if it turns out that you were involved, that could make it very difficult for you to ever work with dragons again. I think they do pretty thorough security checks for dragon keepers, don't they? It would a shame for such a promising young man to suffer a lifetime ban from handling the dragons he love so much." Smiling, she fluttered her eyelashes, and Bill thought he saw Charlie's face turn a faint shade of green that had nothing to do with the threat the old hag was making. "All you have to do," she finished, "is tell us everything that George did on the ninth of May, and you can go free, with all charges dropped."
She waited, but if she'd been counting on Charlie to fold, Bill knew she'd be in for a very long wait. A mulish look passed over Charlie's face, and he stared back at her, eyes narrowed to green slits, and giving her his silence as an answer.
She stared at him a moment longer, a look of disappointment passing briefly over her face before she collected herself again, and Bill snorted, realizing that she really had actually expected Charlie to cringingly hand George over. "Well," she said, sounding more disappointed than she should have let on, and Bill wondered (with another acid lurch in his stomach) if she'd been hoping to privately interrogate Charlie herself, "you may always reconsider. I hear that Azkaban is a little cold, given its location in the North Sea. Do let me know if you change your mind while enjoying your stay."
"Wait," Molly spoke up, "you don't…you don't mean to send them dressed…like this?"
"But of course," was Umbridge's smiling reply as she gathered her papers and made to stand, a move which was hardly dramatic, given her height. "We have no time to dally. Off they go."
She gave a dismissive gesture, and the silent officers that had flanked her during the hearing moved to grab Charlie and George by the arms. "Wait!" Molly was growing frantic now, and yelling over Fred's increasing snarls, "I can Apparate home, get them clothes –"
"Mrs. Weasley, don't be silly. There is positively no time," Umbridge rolled her eyes a little, a smirk on her face as she glanced at her watch. "We have business to attend, and this hearing is at its close."
"But it's four in the morning!" Bill shouted over Fred, who was hollering and fighting hard to get away from Arthur. "What can you possibly have to do?"
At the sound of Bill's voice, Umbridge turned him a cold look, and stated in an entirely new and very unpleasant tone, "I will not tolerate half-breeds in my courtroom. Be silent or be held in contempt."
"Of what?" Bill snapped back. "The hearing is over."
"Quiet, Bill," Arthur put a hand on Bill's arm, and in doing so, lost his hold on Fred, who had been struggling frantically to get at George.
"Be silent, werewolf," Umbridge hissed, and Bill watched a wave of loathing pass over her broad face.
But he could make no reply, as he was jostled by Fred, who had launched himself over the low stone wall, and was already firing spells at the retreating officers. Caught slightly off-guard, the man holding George's arms gave a strangled cry and fell to his knees, covered in welts. But before Fred could do any more damage, Arthur had leaped the stone wall and had grabbed him from behind, grappling with his wand hand.
"George!" Fred shrieked, enraged, wand sparking toward the ceiling as George was hauled forcibly away. Pained as he was, George was suddenly putting up a terrific fight, and Bill saw in his eyes the same kind of fear he'd seen in Fred's. They weren't ready to be parted. Not yet, and not like this.
"Bill, help me," their father grunted, struggling hard with Fred. But Bill couldn't do it.
"Wait," he held out a hand, and vaulted lightly over the low wall, eyes fixed on George. "Can't you see he's hurt?" he demanded roughly, pressing forward, despite being deflected by the officers. Two of them pushed him back, holding him at bay while they dragged George and Charlie away, but Bill only fought harder, suddenly unable to stand the sound of Fred's panicked voice, or the sight of George's side, black beneath his shirt. Anger shooting through him, Bill struggled now with fists and elbows, desperately grabbing for his brothers as the crush of officers kept him at bay. "He's hurt!" he repeated, shouting now, angry as Fred was, and fighting hard. "Can't you see he's hurt? Can't you see?" But they only ignored him, shoving him back, their faces dispassionate even as George dripped blood on the cobbles. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Umbridge and her secretary passing through the other door, though he saw her pause, smiling, to drink in the scene, and Bill felt the hate bloom in him, black and cold. Then she was gone, and with a last wrench, the officers managed to drag George and Charlie bodily into the hall. "George, Charlie!" Bill bellowed, breath coming in ragged gasps now as he fought, and he heard Fred's furious cries behind him, calling George's name between curses.
But at once the struggle was over, the door slammed shut, and they were left alone, the four of them, in the cold, gray room, with the sound of their mother softly crying as Bill banged his fists on the door.
Fred was in a state. It had taken the combined efforts of Arthur and Bill to drag him bodily from the ministry, through the Floo network, and into the kitchen of the Burrow. Once there, Arthur had immediately gone back to the Ministry, and had left Bill alone to wrestle with Fred.
It was difficult work, and Fred seemed to have no end of energy. Worse, Bill was in a state himself, and was of half a mind to let Fred go, and follow him screaming all the way to the North Sea. Out of the corner of his eye, he barely registered his mother's disapproving eye, as though Bill had done something positively scandalous, and he thought, remotely, that it must have been so. It wasn't like Bill to lose his head in any situation, but neither was it fair of his parents to expect him to always keep cool. Oh, sure, it was fine for Fred to rage; Fred was Fred after all. But it wasn't fine for Bill, and never mind that his favorite brother – and best mate – had just been hauled, half-naked, away to freeze in Azkaban.
Snarling, he gave Fred another wrench and wrestled him finally into a chair, where Bill used his own blooming anger to help him wage his fight. Fred was wicked in his zeal, but Bill could feel the anger churning in himself, slow and thick and lasting, and he felt it crawl through him like iron, lending him strength. He wasn't angry with Fred; much the contrary. But they were fighting each other now, spending their anger the only way they could, whether it made sense to anyone or not.
"…don't know what you were thinking," their mother was saying, her eyes bright and angry as she worked up her own head of steam. Around them all, the family had started to cluster, despite the early hour, most likely roused by Fred's liberal shrieking.
"What's going on?" Percy demanded, wrapping his robe more firmly around his narrow chest.
Wrestling, one knee in Fred's groin and not caring if it cost him the ability to ever father children, Bill snarled, "Would you hold still?"
"Get off me, get off!" Fred kicked, sending the table skidding back, and raking his fingernails down Bill's forearm, deep enough to draw blood.
Their mother stood just to the side, looking halfway between darting forward to help and sinking back against the countertop to cry.
"You bloody git!" Bill's eyes flew wide at the long scratches, so similar to the ones Fenrir Greyback had made. With a snarl of renewed rage, he flung himself at Fred, grabbing his shirt in both fists and shaking him.
Fred twisted, sliding off the chair and ending up in a tangle with the Bill on the floor. Above them, Fleur gasped Bill's name, and everyone started forward at once, but there was nothing for it, and anyone who got in the way now would only get the wrong end of Bill and Fred both. For several long minutes, they wrestled, wands utterly forgotten. Twice, Bill banged Fred's head against the table, and in return, Fred managed to pull out several handfuls of Bill's hair, an act which insulted Bill's vanity on such a surprisingly deep level that he boxed Fred in the ear as hard as he could. Stunned, Fred gave his head a shake, eyes momentarily glazed, and Bill made the mistake of loosening his grip around Fred's throat just enough for Fred to lean down and sink his teeth into Bill's arm.
This was enough to make Bill fire off a string of curses that made even Ginny gasp in consternation. With a savage shove, he knocked Fred back, and sat panting and nursing his bleeding arm. "Merlin's bloody sack, Fred, do you not have a filter?"
"Yes," Fred roared back, face flushed and contorted, "I have George!"
For a moment, they sat panting, Bill bleeding, Fred so red in the face that his freckles seemed to stand out white against his cheeks. Then at once the fight seemed to drain out of them both, and Fred almost seemed to wilt there on the floor, and he cast his eyes downward, face crumpling. For a moment, he almost looked like he was going to break down and cry. But that wasn't Fred's way, and instead he only leaned forward to press his eyes to his palms, elbows propped on his knees.
"Fred…" Bill started, putting a hand out to Fred's arm.
But Fred only let out a ragged breath, and pushed Bill's hand away. Distraught, he leaned away, palms pressing hard into his forehead now, as he let out a choked sound, though still he didn't cry.
Despite Fred, Bill reached out for him again, and this time met no resistance as he put a hand on Fred's hair to sooth him, sadly aware that there was nothing he could say.
"What…what happened?" It was Hermione who finally broke the shocked silence.
Neither Fred nor Bill stirred to answer, and only stayed there on the floor, Fred beside himself, Bill helpless to do anything but sit with him. So it was left to their mother to fill the rest of the family in on Charlie's and George's arrest and hearing.
"That…that oldhag," Ginny hissed, fists balled, eyes full of tears. "She…she can't do this. She can't."
"This is…awful," Ron breathed. "God…" Out of the corner of his eye, Bill saw Ron exchange glances with Harry, then shift forward, as though wanting to comfort Fred. But Fred was not to be comforted, and Ron, sensing this, did not try. Instead, Fred only sat with his head in his hands, suffering only Bill to touch him.
"Bill?" Fleur's gentle voice sounded near his ear. He hadn't even seen her cross the room to lean down behind him. "You are bleeding…ze both of you. And you must…you must get up off ze floor." She tried to touch a rag to his face, but he wasn't ready to be fussed over yet, and he gently pushed her hand away.
"Bill?" Ginny prodded, sounding a little afraid, and Bill felt at once useless as everyone peered at him. The sight of Charlie and George, cold and horribly bruised, floated in his mind's eye. And now the family gathered around, confused, and frightened, and Bill felt the anger blooming in him again – not at them, never at them, but at the world, and at his own helplessness. It felt like the world had spun away from him, and here was his family, looking to him to make it make sense, and he couldn't. Lowering his eyes, he gazed Fred, wretched and bleeding, and at that moment, Bill would have given anything to trade places with George.
But there was nothing for it, and Fleur was touching him again, as though prodding him back to the present, and at last Bill tore his eyes away from Fred. Gathering himself, he made to stand, and hauled Fred up with him, gently now, then sat him carefully down in a chair. He sat down heavily himself then, his limbs feeling made of lead. Behind him, he could feel Fleur's fingers as she combed through his hair, concern all but radiating through her hands as she gathered his hair away from his face. He flinched a little, his head sore from having his hair wrenched a few too many times in one night, but this time he let her do as she wished. With a sharp sigh, he leaned forward to rest his elbows on the table, while she gently tied his hair back at the nape of his neck.
"Fred?" Hermione started, but got no further. At the sound of her voice, Fred simply leaned his elbows on the table, and buried his face in his arms with a miserable sound of his own.
Everyone looked at one another, blinking, unsure, but at length, Bill said, his eyes still downcast, "Listen, all of you. There are no more Dementors at Azkaban, so we have that comfort at least. Dad is at the Ministry right now. We will sort this out." He paused, his head and arms beginning to throb. His blood was cooling, and he was starting to feel all of the bangs and scrapes. "The best thing we can do right now," he continued after a moment, "is to just sit down and have breakfast while we wait for Dad to come back."
It was a hollow speech; he wanted no breakfast. But it did its work. With only one more glance passing between them all, everyone quietly found their chairs while Molly pressed Hermione into helping her with the toast.
The sun had begun to rise now, casting the kitchen into a kind of wan light, and everyone ate in steady silence. Fleur sat beside Bill, not touching her food as she dabbed tentatively at his wounds, obviously trying not to fuss overly much, yet wanting to. Bill ate nothing, and neither did Fred, who had merely turned his face to rest his cheek against his arms, his eyes staring at nothing. He was already building up a head of steam again, Bill could see. It was just that way with Fred.
When everyone else had eaten, they all sat with their tea, waiting. At last, Percy broke the silence. "I'm sure," he said haltingly, as through trying (and failing) to sound comforting, "that Shacklebolt can help. I do believe, at any rate. And it's not…not as though Dolores is entirely unreason—"
But at the sound of Umbridge's name, Ginny let out a hiss, Harry's face went stark white, and Fred lifted his head a little to fix Percy with a glinting eye.
"What – I didn't – I only meant to say –" Percy tried, then faltered into silence. To be fair, he probably had been trying in his way to sound reassuring, but Bill thought he was making a rather miserable go of it.
Before anyone could roll over Percy too badly, though, Hermione piped up, "D-did she…really make them go t-to Azkaban…in their night things?"
Miserably, Bill nodded, and Fred let out an explosive sigh, obviously beside himself. Images of George's bruised side and blood-streaked mouth flashed again through Bill's mind.
"But they'll freeze," Hermione put in, then uttered a little strangled noise, as though wishing she could retract what she'd just said.
"But why…would she do zis?" Fleur asked, fingers lightly stroking Bill's hand, as if for reassurance. "It iz vairy dangerous…zey could catch cold and worse."
"To get at us," Fred snapped, still not looking at anyone in particular, his jaw set a little to the side. "She's just needling us, and – God – the way she was raking Charlie over." Fred swallowed convulsively, and looked like he might actually be sick.
"Raking Charlie?" Harry asked, brows furrowed.
At once, Fred and Bill exchanged glances, and didn't dare look at their mother. They'd hoped she hadn't noticed this part. "Yeah," Bill muttered at last, and with another flick of a glance at Fred (who looked a little green around the edges), "I think she, uh, fancied Charlie a bit."
"UGH," Ron and Ginny groaned in unison, while even Percy had the decency to look mortified.
"That's sick!" Ron looked perfectly ready to retch. "That's…UGH!"
"What a –" Hermione was flushed, and there were tears standing in her eyes. "What a power-mongering hag. Who does she think she is, presiding over a court of law, and – and – treating Charlie like –"
"It's just another way to get at us," Bill said repressively, hoping to stall the conversation before it got too out of hand, and keeping a wary eye on Fred. He wasn't looking very steady. "She's only trying to get a rise out of us any way she can." Fred made a disgusted noise at the back of his throat, and lay his head back down.
"That dirty old bint," Hermione grated, mouth twisted downward, and earning a 'Hermione!' from Ron.
"Well," Fleur spoke up, voice cool, and Bill recognized her attempt to quell a bad topic before it got out of hand, "everyone knows zat Charl can take care of 'emself. So ze 'orrible woman made eyes at 'eem. It iz wrong, oui. But people look at me all ze time, and I am not bozzered. So I am sure zat it does not bozzer Charl."
"But you're not tied up with your shirt off when people look at you," Ginny put in, a bit caustically.
"Ginny," Bill put a hand up, sighing tiredly, "all Fleur is saying is that it's not a big deal. And it's not," he added for everyone's benefit. "So the old cow gave Char the eyeball. I'm sure we'll have a good laugh about it after all this is behind us, yeah?"
"It's still disgusting," Ginny replied, picking moodily at the tabletop.
"Oh, who cares about the old bat eye-shagging Charlie? What about George?" Fred glared around at everyone, eyes bright and bloodshot, nostrils flaring, his anger not quite covering his fear. "What about George?" he repeated, voice quiet now.
No one had an answer for that. Through the whole conversation, their mother had sat quiet, stirring and stirring her tea, as if lost in thought. She did not speak up now, either, though her spoon stopped stirring at the mention of George.
Bill would have put an arm around Fred's shoulder, but he wasn't sure whether Fred would tolerate it, or reward him with an elbow to the eye. He suddenly wished Charlie were here, knowing that his favorite brother could have put Fred to rights, and could probably have even kept Fred under control while they worked out how to rescue George. Charlie had always been the go-to guy where the twins were concerned, while Bill had always been pants at handling the little villains. As it was, Bill could see that Fred was building toward another blowout, and he wasn't sure he could keep Fred from running off to do something violently stupid, a fact which left him feeling a little ashamed. Maybe a little guilty, too. He should have been a better brother to George when George was working out how to rescue Fred. He should have believed in him, like Charlie did.
A fresh pang spread through him at the thought of Charlie, and of George, and he almost reached out to Fred, not to comfort him so much as to be comforted. He was supposed to be able to fix this. He was Bill Arthur Weasley, eldest brother, family rock, rock star superhero…wasn't he? Shouldn't he be able to do as Charlie had done, and help Fred get George back? Except, it seemed that all he could do was punch Fred around a bit, and now sit here with their tea gone cold and feel exceedingly useless.
With a scrape of his chair, Bill suddenly stood, and put a hand on Fred's shoulder. "Come on," he murmured.
But Fred only shook him off with a shrug and a miserable scowl. "Leave me alone, Bill."
"Fred," Bill lowered his voice, suddenly wishing only to get Fred away from everyone's stares, where he could breathe, where Bill could assess the damage, "just…come with me. Please."
For a moment, Fred seemed to consider whether to tell Bill to sod off. But at length, he only pushed away from the table with a bit of a wobble, and reeled for a moment, suddenly unsteady. But Bill put out a hand in time to catch him, and Fred didn't resist as he steered his little brother from the room and up the stairs.
It was refreshing to get away from everyone and the stifling mood in the kitchen, even if their escape was only to the bathroom. Once Bill had Fred seated on the counter, he opened the window to let in some of the morning air, and then set himself to rummaging the medicine cabinet. Finding what he needed, he put the kit on the counter, and set to working on Fred's face.
"Hold still," he murmured, as he dabbed at particularly nasty cut, probably sustained when Bill had slammed Fred's head into the table.
Fred offered him a tired scowled. "My left ear is still ringing, you know."
"I'm sorry, Fred." Bill felt a fresh wave of anger at himself, hardly knowing now why they'd been fighting, and wondering what had possessed him to hit his little brother so hard. Wonderful big brother he was. Lovely temperament, too.
"And my head hurts all holy hell." Fred seemed bent on petulance.
"Well, if it makes you feel better," Bill leaned in to make sure he'd thoroughly cleaned the cut, "I think you've scalped me, chewed through my arm, and raked off half my skin."
Fred seemed to consider this for a moment, eyes a little dull, and Bill wondered if he'd given him a concussion. "Actually," he said at length, "it does a little. As long as it hurts."
He looked to Bill for confirmation, and Bill reassured him that his wounds did in fact hurt. This seemed to satisfy Fred somewhat, though not much, and his face still looked like storm clouds distantly brewing.
"Why were we fighting, anyway?" he asked after a minute.
Bill sighed as he carefully applied some ointment to a cut. "You were trying to go after George, and I was stopping you," he explained, voice quiet, and wondering now if he'd done the right thing.
Fred said nothing, and shifted his gaze slowly out the window, his eyes far away. Taking advantage of Fred's momentary calm, Bill finished cleaning and tending his brother's face, then moved on to his head. Rifling through his brother's short hair, he found and probed a swelling cut, and Fred flinched hard. "Found it," he muttered.
"Very funny." Fred's voice sounded strained, and almost distant. Bill was just wondering if Fred was just tired, or if the blow to the head was more severe than he'd thought, when Fred suddenly heaved him aside, lurched toward the toilet, and threw up something that looked rather frighteningly like half-digested s'mores. Hovering, he leaned one-handed against the top of the toilet, threw up again, then flushed and wandered back to the counter, where he dragged a hand slowly across his mouth.
"Gross," was all Bill could think to say, and got him a glass of water, which he had to feed him, as Fred had suddenly gone a bit wobbly. Some big brother he was, allowing two of his brothers be seized from under his nose, and now bashing Fred's head in so badly he'd been concussed. One hand on the side of Fred's head, he watched his brother take water, and then propped him up as he leaned over and rinsed his mouth into the sink.
Sighing, he set the glass down, and lay his hand again on the side of Fred's head, carefully so as not to jar him. "I'm sorry, Fred."
The other nodded, then winced, as though the movement was too much. "S'ok."
"We'll fix it," Bill assured him, gently patting his hair. "I'll fix it. We'll get them back, and George will be ok. I promise."
"Ok," Fred nodded, then swayed, and slowly slumped forward against Bill's shoulder in a dead faint.
"Good," Arthur said to Bill's surprise, when he found out about Fred's concussion. "At least he won't go haring off to the North Sea anytime soon."
"Dad -" Bill knitted his brow, a bit taken aback.
But Arthur held up a hand to quell him. "I know you didn't mean to, Bill. But it's probably best that you did, under the circumstances. This is a stickier situation than I'd thought, and the last thing we need is Fred on the rampage."
With a sigh, his father scrubbed a hand over his face, and then dropped into one of the kitchen chairs, his whole frame etched with exhaustion. It was mid-morning, and he had only just now come back home, and he looked nearly worn through. Molly put a plate in front of him, but he only bothered to pick listlessly at the steaming eggs, despite his wife's protests that he needed his strength. With a beady look, Molly turned and began busying herself with reheating the tea pot, while Arthur poked half-heartedly at his food, and the rest of the Weasley clan (minus Fred, who still hadn't wakened) perched around the table to hear the news.
"The good news," he began, after braving one or two mouthfuls, "is that Umbridge seems to be operating on a hunch. I looked into the matter as best I could – talked to a few friends down in legal – and the charges seem entirely trumped up. From what I can tell, there was talk after Fred's party, some speculation on the rumor mill about how we really got him back. One thing led to another, and someone brought up the possibility of a time turner. Umbridge caught wind, and filled in the blanks."
"But...why?" Herione asked. "I know she's a hateful old troll, but..."
With a sigh, Arthur leaned back in his chair, done with making any attempt at his breakfast. "Well, that's where the bad news comes in, I'm afraid. I spoke with Shacklebolt, and it seems that, with the war only just ended, the Ministry is making a concerted effort to round up any of Voldemort's stragglers. That includes anyone who might try to make an attempt to bring him back, and the use of Time Turners is at the moment strictly forbidden. Anyone caught using one without official authorization is to be placed under immediate arrest, and is meant to face severe consequences." At this, he heaved another sigh, eyes fixed on his cooling plate. "Messing with time right now would be extremely dangerous. So they mean to make an example of anyone they catch doing it."
"So..." Ron put in, "...it's not just to get at us then? It's...I mean, she's got a real reason? Not that..." By degrees, Ron's face fell. "Dad, we can't let them stay at Azkaban, especially with George…you know."
Their father looked quite grave, but not defeated. "No, we can't, son. And I don't intend to."
"But, Mr. Weasley," Harry spoke up, "it's not like George did anything terrible. I mean, he only went back for Fred, and anyone could understand that, couldn't they? I mean, it's Fred and George." He said the last part as if it should have explained everything.
"Under normal circumstances, it might," Arthur nodded. "But there are several things against us. First, there's the very real fact that George did, in point of fact, use a time turner without authorization."
"But he didn't know about the Ministry rules at the time," Percy put in, trying to help.
"Like that would have stopped him," Ron mumbled, earning a murmur of agreement around the table.
"Secondly," Arthur continued, "there is the trouble of the Ministry's current stance, which I fear is none too lenient on anything that could prove a security risk. When I said that they mean to make an example of someone, what I mean is that they are actively looking for someone of whom to make an example. They want to put people's minds at rest, make them feel that the Ministry is properly mopping up after this war. And if they have to put a few young men in prison to do it…"
He trailed off, while everyone digested this bad bit of news. Bill watched as it dawned across everyone's faces just how serious George's and Charlie's plight truly was.
"And third," Arthur finished quietly, and not entirely managing to keep the bitterness from his tone, "is that no matter how low a person Dolores Umbridge may be, she is, in fact, the present head of the Wizengamot."
Silence fell at that, while everyone stared, mouths slightly open, looking utterly horrified. And then the noise broke out like a tide.
"But they can't do this!" Ginny slammed her fist down, clattering the silverware on her plate, and making Bill's head hurt. "George and Charlie aren't criminals."
"Dad, can't Shacklebolt -- ?" Percy started to ask, but was drown out by Ron and Harry complaining viciously about Umbridge, and demanding to know how she might be overthrown. Ginny was on her feet now, while Hermione babbled something about looking up ways to oust a judge on grounds of personal bias, and Fleur made an impassioned plea for George's and Charlie's immediate expatriation to France, as the 'Eengleesh Ministry was full of clowns and fools', or so she put it. Bill watched them all, watched his silent mother, and he felt the anger in him turning again, slow and purposeful. But anything he had to say was drown out by Arthur, as he pushed himself to his feet and banged his fist on the table.
"Enough!" he shouted over the noise, and they all fell quiet at once. "Enough." He straightened, fingertips before him on the table, his face a mask of calm collection, though Bill knew that the truth lay somewhere underneath. "We are going to be calm, and we are going to think this through. I have already spoken to Shacklebolt, and he has agreed to help us, but you all must understand that this is a very delicate situation. I don't want any of you to do anything rash, and that especially includes Fred. Speaking of which," he turned a look at Bill, "are we sure that he's still asleep?"
In answer, Percy tipped back his chair, from which point he could see into the living room, where Fred had been laid out on the couch to rest, cleaned up now, and wrapped up in his robes. "He still hasn't moved."
"That's good," Arthur nodded. "Very good." Heaving a sigh, he hung his head between his shoulders, looking as tired as Bill had ever recalled seeing him. It was enough that they should have gotten through the war, much less losing Fred (even if only for a while), but now they had this to deal with, and Bill wondered if his father had enough strength reserved for what lay ahead. Arthur was not a young man, and enough should have been enough.
"Dad," Bill reached out to put a hand on his father's forearm, and Arthur canted him a look, eyes rimmed with weariness. But he was not finished yet, and gave Bill as wan smile as he patted his son's arm, and seated himself again.
"Now," he said, when he'd settled himself, "what I need everyone to do, first and foremost, is to remain calm. For everyone's good, we are going to stick to the story we told at the fu -- at Fred's party," he corrected himself. "I trust that you all understand what kind of problems this could cause, if what George did became common knowledge. No," he held up a hand to forestall protests from Ron and Harry, "it was not wrong, what George did. But think about it: what if the Diggorys heard about how George got Fred back, and wanted to do the same for Cedric? Think about the trouble this could cause in the timeline. Think about the trouble that would be caused if all of the people who wanted back their sons, their daughters, their wives, husbands, and so on went back in time to get them." He looked around, and Bill watched as everyone sort of slowly nodded, understanding despite their stubborn expressions. No one regretted what George had done; that was clear. But they understood the complications it could cause. If everyone in the wizarding world suddenly wanted to go back in time to regain the people they'd lost, the timeline pollution would be unimaginable. Who knew what the world would be like when everyone was done? For all they knew, such a widescale pollution could even cause the Battle of Hogwarts to be lost, and when everyone got back to the present, it could be to find England ruled by Voldemort, and the rest of the world under the shadow of his threat.
"Well," Ginny said, when the silence had dragged on, "George was careful, and I'm not sorry we got Fred back."
"But others wouldn't be careful, Gin," Bill explained, understanding completely, though he was of the same mind as his sister. To hell with the rest of the world, really; they had Fred, and that's all anyone really cared about the matter. That, and now getting Charlie and George back in one piece.
"I know, Bill." Ginny crossed her arms on the table, hands wrapped around her elbows, mouth downturned. "I'm just saying what everyone is thinking."
Their father nodded. "Yes, Ginny, we're all glad Fred is back. Believe me. But that doesn't mean that George didn't cause some trouble by going back in time to get him."
"You mean a bunch of gossiping nags caused the trouble," Ginny retorted. "George didn't do anything wrong, and no one saw him, Dad."
"Half the trouble in the world is from gossping nags, Gin." Bill sighed, and scrubbed a thumb between his eyes, elbow on the table. Why could the world not just leave his family alone? "It's always been that way, always will."
"Mr. Weasley," Hermione put in, face troubled, "there's no chance that the Prophet could print this story…is there?"
Bill frowned, his stomach gone cold at thought, but his father was already shaking his head. "No, there is some good news there, or at least we're hoping. Shacklebolt has issued a gag order on the matter, and has let Umbridge know that she's currently under review. That should be enough to keep her quiet for now."
"But why doesn't he just sack her outright?" Harry demanded. "She's…she's tortured kids, for crying out loud, and Merlin knows what else she's done. And now…now this." He gestured toward Bill, whose face was still bruised from the previous night's attack, though he mused that at least half of those were probably from Fred.
"I wish he could," Arthur replied quietly, "but it just doesn't work that way, Harry. The Ministry has always approved and backed the things she's done, so to hang her, Shacklebolt would have to hang the Ministry. That's the danger of allowing evil people to do your dirty work; you become guilty – guiltier – by association and by giving them your approval. And in the end, a court of law would have to find Umbridge innocent on the grounds that she was only following Ministry orders." He paused, finger tapping against the table, his shoulders sloping as if under a very great weight. "The Ministry has allowed some terrible things, and now George and Charlie are suffering from the effects of an organization who legally cannot get rid of the evil within itself, simply because it has spent so much time approving that very evil. Dumbledore was right about Cornelius Fudge, and this," he finished, "is the legacy he left behind."
Everyone looked crestfallen, but Hermione was slowly nodding, face sad. "Yes, that makes sense. They'll probably be able to sack her – eventually – but it will take too much time to help George and Charlie."
"Exactly," Arthur nodded at her. "Which is why we need to work around her for now. It's a bad situation, but it's not hopeless, not at all. Keep in mind that Shacklebolt is on our side, and that carries a lot of weight. There's also an investigation being conducted by the head of the Ministry Law Office." He sighed sharply. "He believes us that the group of officers who attacked the boys last night used unnecessary force. Of course they're saying different, and Umbridge claims that she knew nothing of any undue force being used. But George's and Charlie's injuries tell a different story. That should help us, especially if this whole thing comes down to a matter of public appeal."
"What about George's injuries?" Bill asked quietly, seeing again in his mind the black bruises, stark enough to show through his shirt. He remembered the look on George's face, the drawn gaze of someone who knew that there was something wrong inside him.
"That," Arthur replied with a tight sigh, and Bill could see that he was schooling himself to be calm on this point, "is something we will find out. Apparently," and here his tone turned wry, "George and Charlie's in-processing status has been 'mixed up' – Umbridge's doing, obviously – and Shacklebolt is having to press the issue himself to find out their condition. But rest assured, the Azkaban Healers will look at George and Charlie when they're admitted, and I believe they will be issued prison attire as well as any necessary medical attention. So they won't freeze, and George," Arthur put a hand briefly on Bill's arm, "will be fine."
The last part he said a little too forcefully, enough to let Bill know that his father was worried, but he let it pass. No need to worry everyone else by telling them just how bad George had looked.
"Ok, so then, we stick to the story," Percy attempted to get them all back on track. "We mistook a body for Fred's, while Fred was lost in the medical system after the battle. It's not that terribly far-fetched, really."
"It's sort of brilliant, actually," Hermione put in. "Since George did actually transfigure that Death Eater's body to look like Fred's, no one can say we didn't have reason to think it really was Fred. And it really would be the kind of nasty thing a Death Eater would do, to transfigure a body into looking like someone from our side. It would be an effective sort of psychological warfare."
"Right," Arthur was saying. "To be honest, we can't prove that Fred's supposed head injury kept him lost in the medical system for a week. But on the other hand, no one can prove that he wasn't. The post-war chaos is a perfect cover, and Umbridge will be at a stalemate on that point at least." He adjusted his glasses, and swept a look around the room. "I know," he said almost haltingly, "that it's not right to lie. We've always taught you children that. But in this case…"
"We know, dad," Ginny finished for him, and gave him a tiny smile. She wasn't a baby anymore; none of them were, and they understood.
Arthur nodded, and gave her a tired smile in return. "Right then, so the first thing Shacklebolt is doing is to move up the date of the trial. Umbridge's plan was to make us wait as long as she could, while George and Charlie rotted in Azkaban, but Shacklebolt is able to block her on that, at least. He's busy, but he said that he would see to that this morn—"
Before he could finish, a tawny owl swooped through the open kitchen window, dropped a letter squarely in the middle of the table, and without so much as a pause, banked in his flight to arc back over the table before disappearing with a swish of wings back out the window.
For a moment, they all stared, and then Percy reached for the letter. "It's addressed to the Weasley family," he announced.
"Well, then, open it." Arthur sounded more tired than ever, and leaned back in his chair with his eyes drooping, his elbows propped on the armrests.
Unfolding the parchment, Percy held the letter to the light from the window, and read:
By Special Request of the Minister of Magic:
The trial date for Mr. Charles Gawain Weasley and Mr. George Fabian Weasley
has been affixed for the 19th of June at nine-o-clock in the morning.
All advocates for the Defense will please report promptly.
Additionally, please note that the court will grant leniency in the case of Mr. George Fabian Weasley,
owing to his regrettable health, and grants that should he pass before the hour of nine-o-clock on the date of June 19th,
he should not be required to stand trial.
Signed, with respect,
Dolores Jane Umbridge, Senior Undersecretary to the Ministry of Magic
"What?" Molly spoke up now, voice hoarse, her face white. "What?"
But Arthur only stared at Percy, face as pale as his wife's. "Oh, God –" he started, then stuttered to a halt, before continuing in a shaking voice, "Under no…circumstances…do we let…Fred…read that."
But Fred, it seemed, had wakened at last, and was leaning painfully now in the doorway, though his eyes were hard and bright as he locked onto Percy. "Read…what?"
"Fred, stop!" Arthur shouted, everyone scrambling to hold onto Fred. They'd had to tell him; not telling him would just make him assume the worst, and either way he'd launch himself into a frenzy, which was of course exactly what he was doing now. Clawing, he elbowed Percy in the side of the head, jarring his glasses loose, in his attempts to get to Bill.
"Give me our wands!" he demanded, his nap obviously having restored to him some alarming bit of strength.
"Fred, no, it's what she wants." Arthur was pleading with his struggling son, who was putting up a remarkable fight. "She wants you this upset; she wants you to do something rash, to prove her right. She wants you to give her a reason to keep George locked up."
"I don't care," Fred shouted, and threw Harry off of him before shouldering into Ron. "I'm not letting him die!"
"Fred!" Arthur shouted, as Fred twisted past Ron, and made for Bill, who had been standing back from the crush. There had been too little room for Bill to maneuver into the fray, but now Fred made straight for him, and all but knocked him off of his feet.
With a grunt, he staggered back, crashing into the mantle and jarring his shoulder while Fred grappled with him, desperately trying to reach his wand. Bill still had all four, now safely tucked inside his robes, and now Fred clawed at the catches, ripping the cloth even as Bill tried to wrench himself away. Behind Fred, Bill could see the family moving in to intervene, and Fred must have seen them, too, because in the next instant, Fred lunged for the Floo pot, threw himself bodily into Bill, knocking them both into the fireplace, and cried, "Number ninety-three, Diagon Alley!"
In a flash of green flames, they were gone.
Coughing, Fred stumbled out of the fireplace into his flat, and gained just enough of a head start that Bill lost hold of him. With a leap, he cleared the couch between himself and the kitchen, yanked open the kitchen drawers so hard he pulled them completely out of their slides, grabbed a knife, and launched himself back toward the fireplace.
"Fred –" Bill held up a hand, not knowing if he wanted to slow his brother down, or just forestall being tackled, but Fred paused only to snatch a blanket from the couch and two brooms from beside the hearth, and then he bowled Bill into the fireplace again.
"Lítla Dímun!" he cried, and flung down a handful of powder.
The flames roared around them, and Bill felt himself pulled into the Floo network once more. For an instant, he thought he saw his father's face, passing them in the flames, but even as Arthur was arriving, Bill and Fred were gone again, and now their family had no way to find them.
Bill was on his own.
For a moment, they simply lay in a heap on the cold stone hearth, breathing hard and aching. Fred uttered a low moan, sounding strangled, and Bill wondered if he'd hurt himself in the fray. But then his brother merely rolled to his side, dragged himself to his knees, and crawled away as far as he could before he retched onto the cobbles.
Forcing himself up, Bill worked his way painfully over to Fred, who shoved him off the moment he tried to touch him. "Fred," he pleaded, quietly, "you're not well…"
"Yeah? George is worse," Fred snapped, voice cracking a little, and he dragged the back of his hand across his mouth before pushing himself up to sit back on his knees.
Still breathing hard, Bill looked around them, wand in his hand, but there was no one there. He'd never been here before, but he knew the place well; every wizard in England did. They had come to Lítla Dímun, a tiny green island among the Faroe Islands, and waygate to Azkaban.
The stone floors around them were green-tinged, and velveted with moss, particularly near the dark, heavy wooden door. The same dark wood stood in thick beams along the walls and over their heads, looking stout as tree trunks. No lamp was lit, nor fire; the place was cheerless and deserted. The air smelled of salt, and there was a chill that seemed to gnaw into Bill's muscles as his blood cooled. He pulled his cloak more tightly around himself, and wondered with a fresh pang if Charlie and George had been allowed anything warmer to wear.
"Fred?" Bill returned his attention to his brother, who was swaying a bit on his knees, one hand to his head.
But Fred waved him off, and pushed himself to his feet, where he took two staggering steps before righting himself against the wall. Turning, he held up the kitchen knife, gleaming dully in the low light, and said with a kind of deadly calm, "Give me my wand."
"Fred…" Bill levered himself up, narrowing his eyes a little as he got to his feet. He didn't like to think what Fred planned to do with that knife. "Please, listen to me," he held up both hands, approaching him slowly, and eyeing Fred's knife with more than a little fear, "Fred, this is what Umbridge wants. George is probably fine…and if you do something stupid, it'll just make it look more like George is guilty."
"Yeah?" Fred narrowed his eyes, face white, his lips almost bloodless, "well, I'm not willing to bank on 'probably', and knowing Umbridge, George isn't fine. Now I'm asking one more time: give me my wand."
"Fred, please…" Bill's gaze flicked to the knife and back to Fred, wondering if his little brother planned to attack him, wondering if Fred had finally gone over the edge. Fred had always been volatile, and now with the knock on his head, there was no telling what he was thinking. "Just…give me the knife, ok?"
But Fred's only response was to further raise the tip of the blade, while he lowered his head like a bull, and when he spoke, it was in a tone that Bill had never heard before. He said, voice low, and steady, "Give. Me. My. Wand."
"No, Fred –"
But Bill got no further, as at once Fred steeled himself, mouth pressed into a thin line, and then plunged the knife down over his right ear.
"Fred!" Bill launched himself forward even as Fred let off a horrible noise of pain, all the blood gone from his face as he gave the knife one last desperate wrench, and then sagged with a grating cry against the wall, the shreds of his right ear fallen to the ground.
"Fred, no – my God –" Bill clutched at him to keep him from falling, his own mouth sagging open at the well of blood now pouring in spurts down the side of Fred's face. "Oh, God…Fred, my God –"
"Just…mop it…up," Fred managed through gritted teeth, his eyes squeezed shut, his blood-slicked left hand still clutching the knife.
For a moment, Bill reeled, the hot blood seeping into his own clothes as he tried to keep Fred upright, shock making him unable to do anything but stare, horrified, at his little brother. The blood was coming fast, and there was so much of it, staining everything.
"Bill –" Fred grated, shivering, and at once Bill shook himself from his reverie.
He fumbled for his wand, and slid Fred carefully down to sit against the wall. He was a curse-breaker, well used to sudden injuries, and trained well enough in emergency measures that he shouldn't have stalled into a panic like this. But Fred wasn't a co-worker, or even himself, and as Bill raised his wand to mutter the healing spells, he found that his hands were shaking hard. He didn't know why, as the war had given him chance enough to see horror after horror – including his own face in the mirror after being mauled by Fenrir Greyback – but there was something about what Fred had just done that unnerved Bill to the quick, and made him at once angrier and more afraid than he could
recall being in his life.
Eyes still closed, Fred sagged against the wall while Bill cleaned him up, using spells to stop the bleeding and clean the blood from the floor and their clothing. Hands shaking, he gripped his wand until his fingernails bit into his own hands, drawing blood, and only then did he sit back to observe his work, and force himself to loosen his grip.
It surprised him, how angry he was, with Umbridge, with the Ministry, with himself. In what kind of world was there so little justice? In what kind of world did those in power maul the innocent until there was no innocence left anymore? In what kind of world did his little brother need to maim himself to save his twin, and even then if he succeeded, what kind of men would be left of them both? There was such great evil in the world, and now Bill's own little brothers – the very ones who had been so small and brimming with life only a scant few years ago – they now knew of it. And they could never go back to being as they were. They could never go back to being those boys whose only fear was thunder, or bees, or monsters in the closet. They were young men now, whose eyes had been opened to evil and fear, and Bill had failed to protect them.
"Fred," he whispered, putting out a hand. He touched the side of Fred's face, where his right ear had been, and felt as though Fred had cut away more than just a piece of himself. The ear lay on the ground, bloodless now, and preserved by one of Bill's spells. But it lay like a shout against the dim cobbles, white and cold, like a slip of Fred's innocence cut away.
"M'ok," Fred mumbled, rallying. He opened his eyes, then blinked slowly, eyes focusing onto Bill's face. He drew in a deep, wobbling breath, face set, "I'm not going back. Not...without George."
Bill stared at his little brother, his face so close he could see streaks of green and gold in the blue of his irises, as though his eyes – and George's eyes – had stubbornly insisted on not just one, but on every color. Hands still shaking, he held the sides of Fred's face, staring at him as though, if he stared hard enough, he could reverse what Fred had just done, even reverse what had been done to them all.
But he couldn't. He couldn't fix it; he had failed, and the world had spun out of control around him, and there was no time turner he could use to put it all right again. Slowly, he sat back, and took his hands from Fred's face, as Fred sagged against the stone wall, his face almost weary past hope. And then at once, very clearly, Bill knew what he must do.
If he was caught breaking into Azkaban, it could mean the end of Bill's career, his life with Fleur, his freedom. And at once, he did not care. It may have been Charlie's job to sooth the twins when their tempers were out of control, to calm them when they were upset, to quiet them when they would behave for no one else. But it was down to Bill – and no one else – to protect them. It was Bill's job to protect them all, and if it meant that he must give up his life, then he knew, without fanfare, without even much emotion, that he would do it. He would not see the twins separated again, not like this, not when they'd just gotten Fred back. If Fred was willing to cut off his ear to save George, then Bill was willing to do much more. It was his right as eldest brother, after all.
With a breath in and out, he held Fred's gaze, and said steadily, quietly, "No, Fred, you can't go back without him."
A change came over Fred's face, a look of pure relief, and Bill knew at once the gravity of his decision. If he had dragged Fred back home, he could see now as he looked into Fred's face, that his little brother never would have forgiven him.
With a frown, Bill sat back on his heels, eyes still fastened onto his little brother as he considered the job before him. "They'll probably be well guarded," he said finally, mulling over their situation. "And it is Azkaban prison you're talking about breaking into."
"I know," Fred nodded, then closed and opened his eyes in a slow blink. "But…if memory serves…I believe you're something…of a curse breaker?"
Narrowing his eyes, Bill regarded Fred intently as he ran this through. True, Azkaban would be as well-guarded as the Ministry could manage, but there were gaping holes in their security now. The Dementors were gone, all available law officials had been pulled to mop up after the war, and there was a very good chance that that the Azkaban warden had had little time to reorganize the prison's defenses. If ever there was an opportune time to break into Azkaban, this was it.
Of course, this was exactly what Umbridge was hoping they would do. But Bill doubted she'd thought of them doing anything but rescuing Charlie and George. In his mind's eye, he could see her small, piggish eyes, cunning but without imagination, and he doubted suddenly that she would have thought of Fred and George simply switching.
Gathering himself, he uttered a short, sharp sigh as he crossed his arms, and said, "I take it that, unlike George, you have nothing resembling a plan, other than the vague notion to simply fly over on a broomstick and hope that your big brother has a few tricks up his sleeve."
In reply, Fred gave him another slow blink, and managed to look at once wretched and resolute. "Well, even I'm allowed to have an off day…once in a while." His speech was a little slow, but the blood was returning to his face by degrees. He was a bit knocked about, but Fred did look like he might just manage a broom. "Besides," he added, "it's your fault…banged my head…you owe me. Lanky git."
"Tuh," Bill snorted, and tucked a few hanging strands of hair behind his ear. "You bit me, you little wank."
"So?" Fred actually had the nerve to look pleased with himself.
"So you fight like a girl," Bill grunted, as he levered Fred carefully to his feet, where his little brother swayed for a moment, one hand on the wall. He hung his head between his shoulders, face gone white again, but after throwing up on Bill's shoes, he seemed to rally nicely.
"Sorry," Fred mumbled, without sounding greatly as though he meant it.
Ruefully, Bill patted Fred's back. "Well, not to worry, I suppose you'll be running out of s'mores soon enough."
"Not likely," Fred hiccupped, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "I think I ate something like around ten or fifteen last night."
Bill looked at him quite seriously. "You're disgusting. You know that."
To which Fred replied with a watery smile. "I do try," he shot back, voice light if a bit weak. Bill would have turned then, to help Fred out the door, but Fred held him back, one hand on the front of Bill's robes, pausing them both. He waited a moment, eyes a bit distant, and Bill was just wondering if he was going to throw up again when he said, simply, quietly, "Thank you. For helping us."
Bill smiled, if a bit wistfully, and put a hand once more on the side of Fred's face. "That's my job, baby brother."
Once outside, they both squinted against the sudden brightness of the sun. By its position, Bill guessed that it was somewhere near noon, the most perfectly horrid time to try to break into anywhere, but he guessed they were stuck with it. Fred meant to move now, and anyway, maybe the best time to storm a fortress was when the guards least expected it. Sheer stupidity sometimes made for the best tactics.
Azkaban itself was situated some distance into the North Sea, but visitors came to the Faroe Islands to check in before being allowed onward to the prison itself. Because no one was expecting them, there had been no one at the waygate, probably because they were short staffed, given the present disarray at the Ministry. Bill took this as a good sign, and as they skimmed northward over the ocean, he felt as though they just might pull this off.
He'd taken the liberty to Disillusion both of them as well as their brooms. It was the best he could do on short notice, and he hoped it would suffice. He'd also given Fred his wand back, and now that he'd safely (not to mention morbidly) tucked Fred's ear safely into his robes, he wished he'd given the wand to him sooner. A slicing spell would have made a cleaner cut, and though Bill was sure that a Healer would be able to reattach or re-grow Fred's ear, he wasn't sure how pretty it would be now that he'd taken a kitchen knife to it like a great prat. Bill only imagined what George's reaction would be.
It was an hour's flight over the water. Usually, visitors took the Floo network from the waygate onward to Azkaban itself once they had been cleared, but Bill and Fred didn't dare do that. So they were stuck instead with flying, and after not too many minutes, Bill was glad of his cloak. It was cold with the wet ocean wind in his face, and since they had to fly low so as not to be seen against the sky (as even a Disillusioned person glimmers a bit), the spray made his hands slippery on the broom handle. He also had the trouble of having to right Fred a couple of times, as Fred seemed just short of falling off into the sea, which of course would be wonderful luck if he did, as Bill would have a time trying to fish out his Disillusioned corpse. What instrument exactly his mother would use to murder Bill for losing Fred over the Atlantic, he didn't like to think.
At last, the prison loomed before them, and they veered low to come in over the rocks. Dark against the slate sea, the rocks formed a jagged moat around the tower of the prison itself, and as the sea washed against them, great sprays of water leaped into the air, cold and hissing. At first, they simply circled a few times, while Bill took stock of the grounds. There was really no chance of getting in on the lower levels, as those seemed to be the most heavily guarded. Wand out, Bill probed the place with different revealing spells, some simple, some archaic, some learned only from spending time breaking curses in the bowels of Egypt. To his relief, he found that there were weak spots where the spells had been neglected, and he hoped that this was a sign that their luck would hold.
"There," he raised his voice over the wind, though trying not to shout. He didn't want to raise an alarm. "That busted ledge, just below the ninth floor. Land there."
Whether Fred replied, he couldn't hear over the crash of water below, but Fred's shimmering outline did veer to follow as Bill made for the broken ledge. There were great cracks in Azkaban tower, probably from the mass Death Eater escape before the first Battle of Hogwarts, and Bill was glad to see that no one had yet managed to make repairs.
On landing, he grabbed Fred's arm and pulled him in, fearful that Fred's state would cause him to topple over the edge. But Fred felt steady enough, even if Bill couldn't properly make out his face under the Disillusionment charm. "Alright?" he made his voice only just loud enough.
"Where do you suppose they are?" Fred asked, taking care to keep his voice as low, too.
"Don't know," Bill shook his head, and looked over his shoulder into the gloom of the interior. "You going to be ok while we search?"
There was a pause, then a tremor through Fred's arm as Fred presumably nodded. "Yeah. Lead on."
Brooms in hand, and still Disillusioned, Bill and Fred made their way carefully through the crack in the wall, and down into the cell beneath them. They had to let themselves down along the wall, dropping the last several feet onto the stone floor below. Bill wondered how they'd get back up, exactly, especially if George was in a bad way, but he supposed they'd cross that bridge when and if they came to it.
Once inside, Bill went to work. His anger had cooled, for the moment at least, and he found that once he was busy stealing along the corridors of the prison, it wasn't very different from what he did at work. Deftly, he sprang several traps, allowing them both to ease without notice through doorways and up stairwells, and after not too many minutes, he fell into the same sort of concentrated rhythm that made him such a good curse breaker. It also became a bit easier as he began to understand the design of the place. He was too experienced to let his guard down by any stretch, but he found after a while that there was a pattern to how the traps were set, and that the prison wasn't designed to be a puzzle so much as a simple series of barriers. Anyone with a wand who knew what he was doing – or, well, anyone who worked as a curse breaker and was at least somewhat talented, as Bill was – could move through the place without too much trouble, so long as he didn't become too complacent. Really, Azkaban was set up to keep wandless people in, and though he ran into more than a few obstacles to deter against break-ins, he noticed that these weren't as numerous as the simple alarm spells designed just to keep the prisoners in their places.
Even so, it took them some time to find their brothers. Azkaban was vast, there were more than a few guards to skirt, and after an hour, Bill began to regret his boycott of breakfast. It wasn't so much a complaint, really, as a need to keep his senses sharp, and now that hunger was making him a bit lightheaded, he started to worry that he might slip and trigger some alarm. But just as he was beginning to wonder if they shouldn't try to find the kitchens, Fred grabbed his arm, and hissed, "Listen."
At first, there was nothing. But then the sound came again, and Bill at once recognized the wonderfully welcomed tones of Charlie's murmured voice.
Nearly springing a trap in their excitement, Bill and Fred worked their way down a long corridor, checking for guards and seeing none. At first, Bill was inclined to be wary, and wondered if this itself were a trap. But then Fred was rushing toward the bars of the last cell, where he let out a low, choked sound of misery.
Inside, Charlie stiffened, his eyes gone narrow, his arms tightening protectively around George, who lay against him where he sat, both of them wrapped together in one thin blanket. They both looked terrible, and Charlie was still wearing only his thin pajama bottoms, but it was George who looked pale as parchment, and Bill could see that he'd turned for the worse. "Wh-who's there?" Charlie demanded, jaw set.
"George?" Fred murmured, abject at the sight of his twin.
Knitting his brows, Charlie flicked his gaze around outside the cell, unseeing. "Fred?"
"It's us, Char," Bill spoke up quietly, one hand on Fred's shoulder to steady him. "Disillusioned."
Heaving a sigh, Charlie tried to sit up a little, but he was shaking so hard from the cold that moving seemed to be hard for him. "Ab-bout time," he said, teeth chattering, voice low and thick with worry. "George n-needs help."
"We know," Bill said, hand still on Fred's shoulder. He checked the hallway again, hoping that they'd be left alone long enough to do what they came to do. "We're here to make a switch, but there isn't much time. Fred," he gave Fred's shoulder a bit of a shake, trying to draw his attention, "get away from the bars. We have to get in."
It took a moment to draw Fred away from staring at his twin, but in the end Bill managed to get him to stand back a bit, and performed a spell to make the bars temporarily immaterial. Once inside, he and Fred both flung themselves down, where Bill drew Charlie into a swift, one-armed hug, and Fred, visible now, bent over George to put his hands on both sides of George's face.
"Cold." He looked up, eyes searching Charlie's face.
"The prison m-medics have b-been to see him," Charlie explained, stuttering with cold, "b-but there's l-little th-they can do h-here." He shifted his eyes to Bill, looking angry. "Th-they r-recommended sending him t-to St. Mungo's, but ap-pparently we've been r-restricted b-by Umb-bridge as d-dangerous cr-riminals."
Bill snorted, angry, but his eyes softened at Charlie's state. "Here," he muttered, and waved a warming spell over both of his brothers, and Charlie uttered a sigh of relief.
"God, thanks," he closed his eyes for a moment, shuddering. "It's been absolutely bloody freezing in here."
As it turned out, they had at least been given proper Azkaban robes, but Charlie had doubled his up over George's, and wrapped them both in their only blanket, trying to keep him warm with what little body heat he had left. Bare chested and hunched with chill, he looked about as miserable as Bill had ever seen him, and Bill felt the ebbing tide of anger in him begin to rise again.
"Merlin –" Charlie gaped, catching sight of Fred now, eyes wide at his missing ear. "God, Fred, tell me you didn't."
"I did," Fred raised a beady look, "and I don't care if it's permanent, so save the bloody speech."
"Right, well, no use lingering," Bill spoke up sadly, and wished there was more he could do for Charlie. It pained him to see his favorite brother so wretched, but he had George to think about, and several floors of traps to navigate on the way out, probably with his unconscious brother weighing him down the whole way.
"I know," Fred muttered, already pulling off his robes. He kicked off his shoes and socks, and stripped down to nothing before pulling George's clothes off of him. It was a bit rough, trying to dress an unconscious person, but with Bill's and Charlie's help, Fred eventually managed it. "Here," he tried handing Charlie a set of Azkaban robes, but Charlie turned him down.
"It'll look suspicious if I put them on now," he said, though he looked a bit wistful.
Fred seemed to regret this point, but resigned himself, and put the second robe over himself. He paused then, looking thoughtful, and said, "You're going to have to kick me."
Charlie narrowed his eyes. "Come again?"
"Well," Fred explained, and it was his turn to look a bit unhappy now, "I can't very well play the part of George without a big, bloody bruise in my side, can I?" He frowned, considering his unconscious brother, who Bill was holding now against the cold. "You'd probably better break one of my ribs while you're at it."
They argued back and forth for a minute, but only for a minute; it was clear that Fred was right, and Bill figured that if he was willing to cut his ear off, there was nothing to stop him from going the whole nine and having his ribs bashed in.
"All right then?" Charlie asked, brows knitted, mouth twisted with dislike. Fred sat in front of him, his left side presented, while he held his breath, jaw set.
"Go ahead," he said tightly, and before he could really set himself, Charlie dealt him a crushing blow to the ribs. "Ugh," Fred grunted hard, pain etched on his face as he wilted, gasping. He let out another harsh sound as the waves of pain traveled through him, and Bill made a mental note never to get on the wrong side of Charlie. He'd kicked him hard.
"Sorry," Charlie murmured, and was already up and supporting Fred. "I figured one good one…better to just do it right, yeah?" His face was flushed with worry, but at length Fred held up a hand, nodding slightly through the pain.
"M…kay," he managed, and turned a wincing look up at Bill. "Better go now."
"Fred…" Bill started, suddenly loath to leave him.
But Fred shook him off. "Take George – go –" Then he sagged against Charlie in another faint, and Bill and Charlie were left alone.
"He has a concussion," Bill warned, as he heaved George up and over his shoulder, careful not to jar his bad side. "Long story, but keep in mind he's been passing out and throwing up a bit."
"Go, go," Charlie waved him away. "He'll be fine. Just get George to the Healers."
"Charlie…" Bill hesitated, hating this, hating everything.
But Charlie wouldn't let him linger, and with a last warming charm for his brothers, Bill left them behind him while he started the long journey with George back home.
By the time Bill managed to drag himself, George, and two brooms out of Azkaban, the sun had sunk low over the horizon. Thankfully, George hadn't wakened, so Bill reasoned to himself that he would at least not have to suffer any pain from being carried around like a bag of rocks. On the other hand, however, it worried Bill that George was so utterly still. But he forced himself not to think of it, and only pressed doggedly on, until he'd managed somehow to drag them both up to the ledge on the ninth floor, where he bundled George onto a broom, and sat down behind him, holding his little brother tight.
The flight over the water was long and cold, more so, since Bill had give up his cloak to wrap George in another layer on top of Fred's clothes and the blanket Fred had brought from home. Even so, he was afraid it wasn't enough, but he pressed on, and did not allow himself to think too hard on it.
He almost missed Lítla Dímun, covered as it was now in a thick fog, and when at last he touched down, he could barely move his arms and legs. With a low gasp of pain, he landed, George clutched tightly in his arms, and he crumpled to his knees, chilled completely through. For a long minute he knelt there, panting with cold, and he was just wondering if he'd have the strength to drag them both up the steep incline and into the waygate, when he heard a sound that turned his bones to ice.
There came, from ahead of him, the deep, rattling rasp of Dementors breathing.
With an involuntary moan, Bill shrank back, as an icy blackness began to steal through him, robbing him of any joy. He could feel it; the darkness, the cold, they seemed to encompass the whole world, and as he turned his horrified gaze down on George, he saw at once what he had failed to see all through the long flight from Azkaban: his little brother was dead.
"No," he moaned, mouth open and twisted, "no, no…" He reached for his brother, his fingers so cold that they would barely open, but George did not stir, not even when Bill shook him. Bending low, he put his ear to George's heart, keening now, feeling the death hovering, wondering just when he had died, whether it was in the prison, or over the water, or due to some way that Bill had jostled him. "No," he wept, openly now, shaking and rocking as he picked George up to hold him in his arms, his brother's skin like snow.
Then at once he felt a pulse, just the smallest flutter, and the illusion broke, if only a little. George wasn't dead; it was only the Dementors, making him see death where there was none.
Angry, Bill raised his eyes, and saw three black shapes closing in on him, looming like starless pitch, and the cold closed over him again like a fist. George was dead; it was all for nothing; Fred may as well have died at Hogwarts; Charlie was slowly freezing; it was all for nothing…
With a start, Bill brought himself to with a snarl, then checked himself, knowing that anger wouldn't help him here. Desperate, he cast through his thoughts, trying to find joy, trying to unearth from within himself a reason to live in this black world, with its evil, its casual neglect, its wars, its death. He found himself sobbing again, as the darkness grew, and the shapes melded into one, the three figures looming so close now that he could no longer separate them. They were the world; they were the sky, black as nothing, and Bill felt sure that if only he could breathe for a moment, if only he could think, he could remember a time when there had been sunlight, and warmth, and –
"Bill?" George whispered, stirring, and it was all that Bill needed.
Love. Images of Fleur flared into his mind, teasing him in her very French way, tossing her hair in that way that always moved him. He saw Ginny, riding a broom, her long red hair flying like a comet tail behind her; he saw Percy, breaking into a smile; he saw Fred, alive again, Charlie, wrestling with Harry and Ron, his parents, able to sleep sound at last, now that the war was done, and…
For one brief, bright moment, Bill looked down at his little brother, who looked back up at him, eyes calm with faith. Then he raised his wand, and said, "EXPECTO PATRONUM."
The long, lean wolf sprang from the end of his wand, snapping joyously at the fleeing Dementors. Bill sank back down to sit, George held firmly against his side, and watched as his patronus made several bounding, joyful circuits of the clearing, scattering the Dementors out over the sea. The mist above the patronus caught and reflected its dazzling light, making the tiny island seem to glow like a pearl. It raced around twice more after the Dementors had gone, joyous and wild, and then it turned Bill one last, tongue-lolling grin, before it faded into the deepening mist.
At length, it was George who broke the silence. "Wow…good one…Bill."
"George," Bill breathed, and hugged him, though not too tight, as George made a distinct noise of pain. "George..." Bill pulled back to inspect his little brother. "Are you ok?"
Faintly, George shook his head. "I don't…think so," he replied honestly, his breath coming in deepening gasps.
"Then we have to get you home. Come on." Bill scooped him up, careful of his injuries, and began hurrying them both as quickly as he could up the slope.
"Fred…?" George managed, his voice strained.
"Fred's fine," Bill grunted under the cold and strain, stumbling a little and causing George to utter a little cry of pain. "Just hold on…hold on, George…"
But George's head was lolling now, and there was blood, spilling in a little stream out of his mouth.
"George, please," Bill muttered as he staggered through the door of the waygate, and almost fell to his knees. Rallying, he heaved himself forward, supporting George's weight fully now, and stumbled with the last of his strength toward the fireplace, where he just managed to reach out a hand toward the tin of Floo powder. "Please," he whispered one last time, though to George or to God, he didn't know, and then he sent them both spinning home to the Burrow.
"Well," the Healer emerged from George's room, looking harried, "he's stable for now, though I've had to give him my entire stock of blood replenishing potions. I'll want to see him again in the morning."
It was late, and Bill, Molly, Arthur, and Fleur all clustered in the hallway outside of George's room, while the rest of the family waited below to hear the news. Bill's mother, of course, had been horrified by what Fred and Bill had done, and as she stood with their father now, she seemed to waver between relief at being able to tend to George, and the murderous wish to give Bill what for.
"You did what?" she had hissed, on hearing the news of Fred's now-missing ear.
"He cut it off himself, Mum, not me," Bill had tried to explain, to no avail.
"And you didn't bring him directly back?" If a look could make someone burst instantly into flames, Molly's eyes would have done so to Bill exactly then.
But as Bill had thought about how to answer her, he found suddenly that he couldn't explain. All he'd said was, "No, Mum…I didn't."
That was all they'd had time for, and by then, Arthur had sent for a Healer, who had spent the last few awful hours with George, while the rest of the family waited in uncomfortable silence. Now that she had emerged, Molly, Arthur, Fleur, and Bill and pressed around, wanting to know everything.
"There's been some internal bleeding," she explained, "actually, a lot of internal bleeding. He should have been seen to right away. I will, of course, make a note, Arthur. As this treatment is off the record, I won't submit his files just yet, but if the time comes that you need them…" she looked very coldly angry, "…George's neglected health care will be very damning indeed."
"Thank you, Sarah," Arthur nodded, relief threatening to give his face the barest hint of color. "I…I owe you…"
But she only shook her head, and said with a weary sigh, "You don't owe me anything, Arthur. Anyone who would leave a young man in that kind of neglect…" Again, she shook her head, her tired eyes alight with anger. "This was abuse, pure and simple. The arresting officers broke his ribs, causing them to damage his internal organs. Another few hours…" She trailed off, then straightened herself with a sharp sigh. "In any case, he's stable, for now. But under no circumstances are you to move him."
"We won't," Molly promised, still clutching her husband's arm. "Will you come back in the morning?"
Sarah nodded. "First thing. But if he has any complications during the night, call me immediately."
"We will," Arthur assured her, and after she left them with a few more instructions, detailing what he could eat and drink, and whether he was permitted to visit the loo (he was not), Sarah let Arthur usher her to the door.
With the Healer gone, the hallway lay blanketed in silence. Molly locked eyes with Bill, angry for once beyond words. And for once, so was Bill.
After a moment, he said, "I'll stay with him."
"No, you won't," she started, voice low and thick. "You've done enough."
But Bill only brushed past her, face set, and to her open-mouthed surprise, he muttered, "I'd like to see you stop me."
Behind him, Fleur paused for one startled, uncomfortable moment, before scuttling after Bill and into George's room, where they shut the door with a resounding click.
"Bill?" Fleur touched his cheek, fingers tentative, after he had been silent for many minutes.
He did not answer her, but only watched George sleeping, his brother's face very pale by candlelight, his freckles standing out sharply against his tired face. Even in sleep, George looked exhausted, as he lay wrapped in bandages and blankets, a long-lasting warming charm hovering over him in a faint, orangey shimmer. Tired himself, Bill had sunk into the squashy chair next to George's bed, where he sat now with Fleur next to him, perched on the armrest, her eyes dark with concern.
"Bill, please, I 'ave been so worried."
Slowly, lethargically, he raised his gaze to look at her, and he tried to smile, but didn't quite manage it. "I'm fine, love."
"You are not fine," she frowned, her lovely mouth twisting downward, her blue eyes almost black in the dim as she touched a finger to the scars on his cheek. "You are like a ghost, and zese bruises…" she furrowed her brow, eyes watering. "Bill, I do not like it when you come home like zis."
"I know, love," Bill replied quietly, exhausted.
With a long, slow sigh, Fleur fell silent, though she continued to trace Bill's scars, one by one, running her fingers softly over his face. Gently, she brushed back the loose strands of his hair, and tucked them behind his ears, before kissing him lightly on the temple. "Are you hungry?" she asked, at last.
To his own surprise, Bill nodded.
"Bon," she smiled, and kissed him again, before letting herself lightly to the floor. "I get somezing for you zen."
Quietly, she let herself out of the room, and in no time was back, carrying a tray with a pot of tea and sandwiches. "Non," she admonished when he tried to sit up. "Sit. I will take care of you."
"Fleur –" he tried to protest, but her flashing look cut him off.
"What, must I sit wiz your family and worry sick all day, only to 'ave you tell me non when I try to take care of you?" She snorted prettily and gave her hair a toss, looking for all the world like a tempestuous silver mare. "You 'ave 'ad your turn, monsieur; now I 'ave mine."
Head high, as if daring him to refute her, she settled herself with the tray, perching again on the armrest, and Bill gave in, letting her do as she wished. He had thought himself weary past eating, but he hadn't eaten all day, and he found now that he was famished. It was a bit humbling to be fed bits of sandwich by a bossy quarter-Veela, but he supposed, in the end, there were worse things that one could suffer.
As she fed him his second cup of tea, he leaned back with a satisfied sigh, realizing as the hot liquid bled through him how clenched his muscles had been. Slowly, with the hot tea seeping into him, he began to relax, and as he did he felt his lids lower, despite his attempts to stay awake.
The clink of china told him that Fleur had set aside his cup, and he felt her settle in next to him, her body warm against his side, easing him. Sighing, she lay her head against his chest, and pulled a blanket from the arm of the chair around to cover them both. For many minutes, they sat like that, silent and watching George as he slept, the blankets rising and falling over his chest as he breathed slow and deep.
At last, Fleur broke the silence by saying, very quietly, "You should not be so angry wiz your muzzer. She worries so much."
Bill sighed. "I know. I'm not – I'm not angry with her. It's just…" He trailed off, not knowing how to say it. "You didn't see Fred's face. You didn't…" He let out a soft snort, realizing that even now his anger was rising again. "You don't understand…what he looked like…"
She lay quiet against him, not taking her eyes off of George, unbothered by the heat in his voice. "You 'ave been angry," she observed quietly, "since ze end of ze war. You would zink zat you would be angry during ze war, but non, only when ze war ends."
It was not a complaint, or even an accusation; it was only an observation, and her voice was so gentle that he knew she was only making note of him, telling him what she saw. Frowning, he eyed George, taking in his brother's bandages, his pale, haunted face, and Bill felt the sadness twisting in him, less angry now than sorrowful. It wasn't right, that George should be so. It wasn't right that he should have lost an ear, a brother, nearly his own life. It wasn't right that he should be beaten, dragged away into the cold, and left to die at the casual whim of some awful, unhappy woman who chance had made head of the Wizangmot. It wasn't right that it was Bill with him now, and not Fred. It wasn't right that he'd lived through years of fear, that instead of the sunny years at Hogwarts that Bill had seen, George had seen torment and death.
So had Fred, and that wasn't right either. It wasn't right that the twins, and Ron, and – God – his little Ginny should suffer when Bill could do nothing for them, could do nothing to prevent them from learning about the kinds of evil that no child should ever see. He frowned, knowing he should be glad only that they were all still alive, but he wasn't. He wanted more. He wanted them to remain as they were: unaware of the kinds of things that would drive Fred to cut off his own ear, break his own ribs, and lay himself down to shiver in the dank holds of Azkaban. He wanted them to be whole again, like they were before the war, and what he wrestled with now was the knowledge that the darkness would always be in them, carved into their memories like shadows in dark corners. They would never be whole again, not like they were before. And evil would always be with them, in their memories, in their souls.
Lowering his eyes, he stared at the scars on his hands and arms, seeing in his mind the slashes across his face, forever marking him. He had been glad to take these scars, thinking that at least it had been him, and not Fleur, or Ginny, or his brothers. But it had dawned on him now, especially since the end of the war when the world was supposed to have suddenly burst into the happily-ever-after, that they had all been marked so. Bill wore his scars on his skin, but the others wore their scars deep inside their eyes, in the heavy, solemn knowledge of the nature of evil.
"I just want it to stop," he found himself saying, as though he'd spoke these things aloud. "I want to make it stop."
"You want what to stop?" Her voice was a soothing rumble at his chest.
"Fleur," Bill tried to explain, tried, and knew that he couldn't, not fully, "he cut off his ear. With a kitchen knife – the extra one Mum gave them when they moved out on their own. The one with the flowers on the handle." He didn't know why the details were important, but they stood out now in his mind, the orange-and-brown flowers on the fading ivory handle, smeared and slippery with Fred's blood. "And…and Charlie broke Fred's ribs for him – he had to – and we all just…did what we had to do, and Fleur, I don't –" He broke off, uncertain, then said, "—I don't want them to have to do what they have to do. I – I want…"
"…zem to be 'appy," she finished for him.
"And it doesn't stop," he rolled on, nodding, still staring at George, and sort of babbling now, "because one minute Fred is dead, and the next he's back, and then they take George and Charlie away, and all George ever wanted was Fred back, and who can blame him? Who can blame George? But people – people would blame him, just to feel better, just to feel like the Ministry was doing its job, putting people in prison even when they didn't need to go, just so some poor saps down the way can feel safer even when they're not – even when they'renot safe, Fleur." He paused, casting about, not making sense even to himself. "Because no one is safe, not us, not anyone. We used to be. We used to not know about dark lords and werewolves, but we know now. They know," he gestured at George with his chin, "they know, and they ought not to know, and I ought to be able to protect them from knowing.
"But I can't," he went on. "I can't protect them, and I don't know when it stops. I don't know when the Umbridges of the world finally go away, or when the next Voldemort will rise, or whether Harry will always wear that hooded look he has. He didn't use to have that, not when I first met him. He didn't used to, and Ginny didn't used to, either. But they do now, they both do, and I can't take it back for them. I can't add that to these scars I have, and take it away from them. I would if I could, but I can't.
"And why," he rolled on, "do Charlie, George, and Fred still sleep in that tent together? Why are they out there, like three kids afraid to sleep in their own beds? I mean, we all hit about ten years old, and we realized that there are no monsters under the bed, or in the closets either, but those three…but everyone…it's like everyone is waking up and realizing that we were right when we were kids, and whether we turned ten and stopped believing in them or not, the monsters have been there all along, under the bed, in the closet, in the courtrooms, in the schools...
"God, Fleur," Bill took in a long breath, and let it out, shaky and hissing, "it's like they all have monsters under their beds again, and this time, if I tell them that monsters don't exist, I'm – I'm just lying." He shook his head, feeling the steam easing out of him, feeling the sorrow setting in, and the helplessness. "I want – I want to make the monsters go away. I could always make the monsters go away before when they came crying to me. Always. And now I can't. I can't."
He fell quiet, while she stroked his chest with one hand, over and over, soothingly. Together, they continued to watch George sleeping, neither one of them saying anything, taking comfort only in each other's warmth and company. Bill was half-afraid that Fleur would try to say all of the things that people like to say when confronted with such a speech: that his brothers would be fine now (which there was no guarantee that they would), that they weren't really changed (which they were), that there was no such silly thing as monsters (which of course there were). But she said none of these things, and when she spoke at last, it was only to say, very softly, "I am sorry."
At that, he felt something loose itself inside him, like a breath he had been holding too long, and he tightened his arms around her, pressing his nose to her hair to let out a long sigh. He would have cried, or maybe should have, but he did not. He only let out his breath for what seemed like the first time in years, and he breathed the scent of her in, heady and fresh, and at that moment, loved her more than he had ever loved her before.
"I love you," he said, his voice thick against her hair, his arms wrapped around her, holding her to him.
"Je t'aime," she murmured back, her face pressed against his chest, her fingers clenching his shirt.
They sat like that for a time, holding one another. The candles burned low at George's bedside, making the darkness thicken. But Bill was warm, with Fleur so close to him, and the soft glow of the warming spell over his brother cast them all in a dreaming light. With a shaking sigh, Bill closed his eyes, and at last, utterly spent, he floated into sleep with Fleur pressed close beside him.
They woke to the brisk sounds of the Healer, who proclaimed George a touch better, though she still strictly forbade him from doing anything more than laying flat on his back and having weak tea and biscuits. Groggy, and a little sore from sleeping in a chair, Bill sat with his elbows on his knees, observing the examination, and wondering whether he'd have to wrestle George to keep him in bed when he woke up. He also wondered what George would say when he was told about Fred's ear, and all that Fred had done. But that was a topic best left for a better time, and Bill issued orders that he not be told until he was strong enough to hear it – or better yet, until Fred and Charlie were back.
Ron replaced Bill and Fleur as George's watcher, and Bill made his way downstairs while Fleur had a shower. When he got to the kitchen, he found his mother banging around, setting up breakfast, and generally being a bit more forceful with the egg pan than was necessary.
It was early still, and Bill and Molly were alone. "Anything I can help with?" he asked, after a moment of pained silence.
Savagely cracking eggs into a bowl, his mother shook her head. "No."
Bill frowned, watching as she cracked another egg, and hurled the shell into the trash. He knew what she was feeling, and he didn't blame her; he felt the same himself. "Mum…" he began again, paused, not knowing how to say it, then saying simply, "…I'm sorry, Mum."
The savage egg-cracking stopped, and Molly put her hands down on the countertop, her back still to her eldest son.
Bill said, "I do my best, Mum. To protect them."
"I know you do," she said softly, still not turning.
"But sometimes…I fail."
She turned, leaning against the counter, eyes still downcast. Images of Fred, cutting off his ear, seemed to hang in the air between them. She said after a minute of quiet, as if to herself, "You shouldn't…have to protect them. I shouldn't expect you…you're not…" she shook her head, "…not their parent."
But Bill didn't mind; he really didn't. He had been born first, and it felt like nothing more than the most natural thing to take care of his brothers and sister. It wasn't his choice to be born first, to be saddled with so much responsibility, but now that he had been faced with it – the true, awful, heavy nature of it – he found that he didn't mind at all, not really. To step into leadership was nothing more or less than his place. It was who Bill was.
"I don't mind it, Mum," he said, meaning it truly. "I just wish I was better at it."
At that, Molly crossed the space between them, and put her arms around Bill where he sat, tears running down her face and into his hair. "Oh, my Bill," she whispered, "my boy…"
But Bill shook his head. "Not anymore, Mum," he told her quietly, and knew that it was so. It scared him, to think of all that had happened, of all that might still happen – the evil, the horror, the pain – and to know that he had not been able to protect them all. But he also knew that it was right that he should try, and even if he should fail, it was Bill Weasley's place to step into headship now, and to stand between his family and anyone who would try to hurt them. He was not a boy anymore, and he had not been one for some time. Only, he was beginning to recognize it now, and he knew without words, without any fanfare, that this was simply what it was to step into being a man.
"It's ok, Mum," he patted her shoulder as she tightened her arms around his neck. "It's all going to be ok." He drew in a breath, and let out a long sigh, as he let her cry, and was, for that moment, at peace with himself.
As things turned out, Umbridge was more calculating than clever, not to mention being of the opinion that she was above the law. Because of this, she didn't cover her tracks as well as Bill might have in her place (if he'd been inclined to be a squashy, evil toad), and it was put together very quickly exactly who had set the Dementors at Lítla Dímun. That in itself – not to mention the results of the Law Office investigation, which proved that she had indeed instructed them to use unnecessary force, and which resulted in the suspension of several officers – was enough to have her suspended from the Wizengamot, pending further investigation. Which meant, most probably, that she would ultimately be removed from any real position of power, but the Ministry did have to act within its own constraints, and that would take some time.
Happily enough, however, this meant that Umbridge was replaced before Charlie's and George's (now Fred's) trial date, and the whole matter was settled out of court. Umbridge had no real evidence with which to charge George or Charlie, and in light of that, the new head of the Wizengamot – a wizened little man with a sort of dry humor behind his eyes – declared the charges to be frivolous, and saw to it that they were immediately dropped. He also initiated an investigation into Umbridge's conduct throughout the affair, and Bill was quite eager to hear the results of that. Hopefully, when the Ministry was done looking into the old toad's recent conduct, she'd find herself demoted to janitorial detail.
George made only a slow recovery, though at the news of Fred's switching with him, he did in fact have to be held down and threatened severely with a full body bind before he would agree to lay still. Bill didn't bother telling him about the ear thing, as he still thought it best to leave that for another time. Fred was impulsive, but George was the more tenacious of the two, and if George was riled up enough, Bill knew he could make Fred's earlier tantrum look like a tea party by comparison. When he was mad enough, George Weasley had all the delicate sensibilities of a rabid freight train on the rampage.
It took a while to get Charlie and Fred all the way home. There was some red tape involved with getting them released, and everyone had to be careful still to pretend that Fred was George, and vice-versa. The story Bill told the authorities, when questioned about the Dementors, was that he and Fred were going to try to visit George and Charlie, and when they'd arrived at Lítla Dímun, the Dementors had been waiting for them. Fred's (really George's) injuries, he'd stated, were the result of them both trying to run away from the Dementors, and suffering a bit of a fall down to some rocks. After Bill had scattered the Dementors with a patronus charm (actually true), he and Fred (actually George) had made their way back to the Burrow, where they sought medical help. No mention was made of ever going near Azkaban itself, and as to Fred's (actually George's) missing ear, Bill said it had been sheared off in an unlucky accident with the hearth at Lítla Dímun, when they had been scrambling to get away from the Dementors. He even had the detached ear to prove it.
Fortunately for everyone, George was unconscious during this tale, and didn't have to bear the news of what Fred had done until much later, after his brothers had finally been released from St. Mungo's. George was allowed at least to sit up by this time, and when Fred and Charlie limped into the room, George's face lit up like fireworks.
"Fred!" he cried, then winced at the effort, even as he tried to get up. Wisely, Bill held him down, though not for long, as Fred – two-eared again after a re-growing charm – clamored immediately over Bill and onto the bed, where he grinned fiercely at George, and grabbed him around the neck despite George's protests of pain.
"Char," Bill grinned at his other brother, who had settled himself heavily on George's bed, sniffling and looking a bit red about the nose. He was wrapped in what looked like about twenty seven blankets, and Bill could see him shivering despite the warm summer air.
Charlie smiled back at him, then sneezed six or seven times, before saying stuffily, "I hab brodchidis. But id's ok. I bet a gute durse."
"And by 'bet a gute durse'," Fred explained, sitting now comfortably next to George on the bed, "he means 'met a complete fox of a nurse who Fred saw first, but disregarded his brother's dibs, and hit on her shamelessly'. It was pathetic, honestly."
Still grinning, Bill raised a brow at Charlie. "Oh? Do tell."
Matching his grin, Charlie sneezed again, then said, "She'd cubbid by later to check od be."
"Translated," Fred supplied, "said fox is stopping by later to ooh and fawn over poor idgy Charlie-kins." At that, he made several disgusting kissing noises, plus a few unnecessary gestures to show his disgust. "Stupid lucky git."
So there was a silver lining to the whole thing after all, because it turned out that the 'gute durse' was in fact as every bit as pretty as Fred had described, and it made Bill happy to see Charlie so delectably fawned over. He was sure that his brother had no trouble attracting girls – bulging, dragon-taming muscles and flat abs did tend to guarantee female attention – but the girl who was currently perched next to him on the couch and feeding him soup wasn't just attractive; she looked at him with that sort of look, and Bill wondered if Charlie might have stumbled onto something more than a new girlfriend. Her dark hair caught up in a loose ponytail, she made some pretense of having to check his temperature for the hundredth time, and lay her hand against his forehead, surreptitiously combing her fingers through his short, red hair. Oh yeah, Charlie was a stupid lucky git, all right. Stupid, lucky, and beaming up at her like an idiot.
Fred still hadn't told George exactly what he'd done, and though Bill watched George's suspicion grow by degrees, he knew that George was smart enough to know that Fred was saving that particular story for when George felt a bit more up to choking him. It wouldn't have been fair, really, to lay that on George when he was too sick to really give Fred what for. And by the look lurking around the fringes of George's face, he knew that's exactly what he was storing up for his twin.
"You see, Bill?" Fleur's voice spoke up next to his ear. They were sitting together in one of the recliners, trying not to be too obvious about watching Charlie, and simply enjoying each other's company.
"See what, love?" he murmured, his eyes almost closed, as he enjoyed the scent of her.
"Zat zey are happy," she answered softly, sweetly. "And zat good zings come out of bad zings."
Opening his eyes a little, Bill looked over at Charlie again, his favorite brother, best mate, and generally the best person he knew. Charlie sneezed explosively, and shivered in his blankets, his nose red and eyes watery. But there was Giselle, soothing his forehead again, feeding him hot tea, and bronchitis or not, Charlie looked about as sinfully pleased as a cat basking in the sun.
"Hm," he grunted, smiling a little, though not ready yet to concede her point.
"Zey would not 'ave met," Fleur pressed him, "if Charl 'ad not gone to Azkaban and gotten so sick."
"Mm hm," he closed his eyes again, though he was smiling now, and felt a bit lighter, knowing that she was right. Good things did come even out of the bad, he supposed. Sometimes very good things. He supposed if the war hadn't driven him away from his beloved Egypt and back to England, he never would have met the French woman now so comfortably nested in his arms. And perhaps now Charlie had met his own Fleur.
"But what about Fred and George?" Bill asked, hardly seeing what good the ordeal had done them.
"Oh, do not worry about zem, mon cher," she answerd, her fingers playing with the ends of his long ponytail. Zey are - how do you say - larger zan zis life. Besides, zis is not over for zem."
"Oh no?" Bill quirked a brow.
"Non," she smiled, voice sly, and Bill wondered what she knew. "Non, I have zis feeling. You wait, and you will see. Zis is ze way of your twin bruzzers. Zis iz zeir way, to have ze last laugh. You wait, and you will see it."
There was another thing, interestingly enough, that came of the whole ordeal, and it turned out that Fleur was right. It was only weeks later, during the investigation regarding the Dementors, that a very useful and interesting fact was uncovered. To say that Bill was beside himself was an understatement; to say that Fred was ecstatic was to say that TNT was only slightly flammable.
What came, interestingly enough, of the investigation into Umbridge's dealings with the Dementors, was a connection – or perhaps a debt was a better way of putting it – that the Ministry didn't know she still had. As it turned out, the Dementors in question were working on Umbridge's orders, on the promise that she would continue to give them people on whom to prey. To hide their presence, she had sent them to live in the Forbidden Forest, a fact which was described to them, with no small amount of displeasure, by a delegation of very angry centaurs.
It seemed, according to them, (and to Harry, who had seen her carried off), that the centaurs had in fact held Umbridge prisoner on grounds of trespassing on their lands, and attacking their people (a fact which Harry also quite vociferously confirmed). The Minister of Magic at the time (Cornelius Fudge) had issued a verbose and flowery appeal for her freedom, and had promised many things in exchange for her return, including – but not limited to – reparations for the attack (which they wanted not in monetary sums, but in access to restricted, ancient Ministry texts), a promise that wizards would no longer trespass on their land, and last, but certainly not least, that Dolores Jane Umbridge would be punished according to Ministry law for her unprovoked attack.
Of course, none of this had been done, and now that the war was over, Dementors had been set loose in the Forbidden Forest, reparations were still unmade, and as Umbridge was discovered to be still comfortably employed by the Ministry, the centaurs were ready to go to war. Honestly, when he thought about it from their perspective, Bill had to admit that they had a point. But then again, maybe he was just biased.
It was Shacklebolt, in the end, who made peace. He immediately restricted the Forbidden Forest, offered up the before-promised reparations, and, last but certainly not least, he told the centaurs in very straight-forward, non-verbose, and non-flowery language that since the Ministry had failed to properly discipline Umbridge, the centaurs were welcome to have a go.
That seemed to make them happy enough, and sometime in early June, a delegation from the Ministry was invited to witness the judgment, which the centaurs insisted on holding in a clearing just inside the Forbidden Forest. Naturally, already wary of the Ministry justice system, the centaurs had insisted on holding their own, wilder court, and Shacklebolt had quite readily and graciously complied. And really, it made a kind of sense. Where the Ministry had failed to get rid of Umbridge because it had to work within its own justice system, suddenly that very same stricture was delivering her up on a silver platter. If the Ministry had made a promise to the centaurs to see Umbridge punished, then Shacklebolt was only abiding my Ministry law – in fact, he was legally bound to do whether he wanted to or not – and now he was carrying out that promise to the letter.
Oh, fickle justice; while legal loopholes provided evil people with ways to do harm, true justice did seem to bite them in the end.
The Weasleys, of course, had been invited by Shacklebolt to the centaurs' council – Harry, too – and on a fine June evening, just as the rose-colored half-moon rose above the trees, delegations from both sides stood in a circle on the grass. One on side were the Ministry plus the Weasleys, splendid in their dress robes (except for Fred and George, who had worn instead their garish green dragon hide coats), and on the other side were the centaurs, stern and wild and stately. In the middle stood Umbridge, looking a bit shriveled now without her wand, and stripped of her position in the Ministry. A bit shabby now in the gray-and-black striped robes of a wizarding prisoner, she stood hunched and angry, her small eyes glittering from within her pudgy face, as though wavering between lashing out and expecting a blow.
Before her, Bane presided, and he leered down at her much as she had done to Charlie, though his look held nothing lascivious; rather, it was the look of someone deciding just how and when he might eat her alive. He held no script, nor seemed to follow any prescribed forum. There had been very little in the way of preamble. She had been handed over, and Bane merely stood over her now, black as the shadows between the dusking trees, his eyes cold and piercing. His voice booming as though from the bottom of a dank well, he asked, "Did you, Dolores Jane Umbridge, servant of the wizarding Minister, two years past, not trespass on our lands, and attack our people? And did you not, this past spring, harbor two Dementors within our lands, and endangering our people even in foaling season?"
Balling into herself, her eyes darting from side to side as if in search of support she could not hope to have, Umbridge paused, fuming, as if afraid to refute him and desperately wishing she could. Bill wondered what fits she had already thrown at being first arrested, and then told the news of Shacklebolt's decision to give her to the centaurs. From the looks of her, she'd all spent herself in tantrums, though she was nowhere near repentance. After a moment, eyes dark with loathing, she jerked her head in a tiny nod. There was really nothing she could say to deny her guilt.
Beside him, Bill saw George nudge Fred with his elbow, and lean close to whisper in his brother's ear, his face still cast with the pale look of someone recovering from illness, one hand supporting himself with his walking stick. Whatever he said, Fred replied with a rude snort, and grinned like a wolf back at George. Together, they turned their attention back to the center of the circle, Fred looking ferociously pleased. He had taken Umbridge's treatment of his twin about as well as a kick in the stones, and despite the voracious look on Fred's face, Bill knew it did him good to see this. It was good for him to stand here next to George, and know that justice had not deserted them.
Now Bane had raised his chin, a look of disgust etched upon his face, as though disdainful of an enemy that would not so much as look at him. "You do not deny these charges. Speak."
"I – didn't…I – n-no…" Umbridge stuttered, and flicked a glance up at the centaur towering over her, loathing lighting her face, before she dropped her eyes once more to the grass at her feet.
All around them, the fireflies had begun to come out, legions of floating lights, as though the very forest itself were applauding this wild court, so near to dispensing the justice the ordered, civilized Ministry had not.
"Then you understand," Bane continued, his voice steady and deep, and holding no warmth, "why you must bear the punishment so long withheld."
"I—" Umbridge started, mouth open, eyes halfway toward Bane's knees. She looked half-frightened, half-enraged. "How dare…" she shook her head, "how dare…any of you…" Snaking her head around, she fixed Shacklebolt with a sudden, hateful expression, her fat sides heaving in and out as she spat in anger. "How dare you subject me to this? You…usurper, you…filthy disgrace, do you…do you know who I am?"
"Enough." A tall, chestnut centaur interrupted her, Magorian, if Bill recalled his name. "You have no leave to speak to the wizarding Minister," he cut in, voice smoother than Bane's, though no more merciful. "He no longer has charge of you."
"Charge of –" she breathed, head whipping back around to face the centaurs. "No one," she shot back, apparently not quite as afraid of Magorian as Bane, "has charge of me." Small eyes narrowing with loathing, she eyed him up and down, her fists clenched at her sides, as though revolted at having to speak with a half-breed as though it were of equal intelligence. "I am the senior undersecretary to the Mi—"
"You," Bane interrupted, voice booming off the trunks of the trees, "are our prisoner, and no longer under the protection of your kind." He stepped forward, crowding her, much to the visible delight of George, Fred, and the others. "You are the lowest most craven of your kind, and deserve the respect of no one. You have committed crimes against our people, – against our foals – even against foals of your own kind. And you are now subject to us, and our decrees."
At that, at his looming presence, at the abruptness of the proceedings, Umbridge seemed to quail backward, completely out of her element. Bill didn't know what she had expected – perhaps a hearing, followed by another, followed by lengthy and comfortable negotiations – but what she was getting now was far more immediate than she had likely imagined. Surely, he mused, she could not have bought so completely into the idea of her own importance; but she had. She had, and he could see that it was only dawning on her now, that for the first time perhaps in her life, she was about to meet the thing called Consequence.
Stepping backward, she braved a look up at the centaur above her, and as he stood towering over her, his cold eyes boring into her face, Umbridge actually began to cry.
It was utterly pathetic, and Fred actually made a noise of disgust, but if the centaurs were offended by the interruption, they didn't show it. If anything, Bill thought he saw Magorian flick an understanding gaze Fred's way, and the red centaur stamped a hind hoof against the turf, obviously finding Umbridge's response to be a bit pitiful himself.
For a moment, there was silence, while Umbridge stood with her arms dangling at her sides, her wide mouth stretched down into an ugly gape. Bill wasn't sure he'd ever heard a proper 'bawl' before, but he noted that that was exactly the sound she was making now. 'Baaaaaawl', was precisely how it sounded, and as it was so far removed from any sincere crying he had ever heard, he could only hope that it would be over soon.
It seemed that no one else was inclined to feel any sort of pity, and at length, in his uncomplicated way, Bane began to pronounce Umbridge's sentence. "Therefore," he said, chin raised, and standing so tall over the crumpled, blubbing form of the wretched woman in front of him that he had to look almost straight down, "it is the decision of the Council of Centaurs, that you be subjected to us as our captive, and live out your days in hard service, until we see fit to set you free, or until the end of your days in this world."
Umbridge's bawling hiccupped to a sudden halt. For a moment, she did not speak, and only looked up at him, mouth gaping open, and reminding Bill forcibly of a toad. Then she blurted, "Live…here? W-with you?" She looked mortified, and repulsed, as though someone's dog had asked her if she would like a nice roll in poop. Beside Bill, George and Fred exchanged gleeful looks.
But Bane had no response to that; in truth, there was no response, really, other than the one he gave, which was to simply turn away in disgust and command two of the younger centaurs to grab hold of her. A bay and a dun stepped forward, and before she could even truly process what was happening, they began herding her toward the forest. The council, it seemed, was over, and without so much as a word of farewell, the centaurs were leaving.
"But…" Umbridge seemed to rally herself, and turned back toward Shacklebolt, even as she was pushed into the forest. "But you – but they can't – how dare you – disgusting beasts – " She was fighting them now, tears abandoned for anger, pushing and punching at them with her pudgy little fists, but they only herded her doggedly onward, and ignored her escalating shrieks. They did pause to acknowledge her when she managed to land a cruel kick into the belly of the bay, but in response, he wheeled, quick as lightening, and dealt her such a blow to the backside that she fell on her face in a stand of nettle. Then they hauled her to her feet and, even before she had her breath back, pushed her onward into the gloom of the trees.
Magorian had paused to have some quiet words with Shacklebolt, but when he was done, even he had gone quickly, and at once the group of wizards were left alone in the lowering evening. By twos and threes, they began to disperse, a few talking a bit anxiously among themselves about Umbridge's fate, but most smiling rather broadly. Umbridge had been a source of pain to many, many people, and there were few, Bill knew, who would be sad to hear of her fate.
One arm around his wife, Charlie on his other side, Bill meandered down the wide lawn toward Hogsmeade. It was a fine evening, neither cool nor warm, and though he sun had set, the sky still glowed lavender and rose. "Too bad, really," Bill commented, inclining his head toward his brother.
Beside him, Charlie ambled with his hands in his pockets, very fine in his dress robes, his pleasant face serene against the light summer wind. "Oh? And what's that?"
"Well," Bill grinned, "you didn't get to say goodbye to your girlfriend."
"Wh—?" Charlie blinked at him, then put together what he meant, and with a squawk, took a swipe at the back of Bill's head, much to the consternation of their mother. Something about appearances in front of the Minister and all.
Snorting in merriment, Bill ducked away from one last swipe. But if he thought himself to be safe, he had another thing coming, as he found himself and Fleur suddenly flanked by the twins, who grinned at him in such a self-satisfied way that he found it a bit alarming.
"What is this we hear?" Fred asked, hands in his pockets as he appeared beside Fleur, pace slow for George's sake, "Young Charles, already pining the loss of his love?"
Growling, Charlie fixed Fred with a beady look. "Stuff it, Fred, or I'll beat you with George's cane."
"Oh, Charlie, Charlie, don't cry," George came up on Charlie's other side, walking with his cane, "I mean, who knows? Maybe the centaurs will allow her conjugal visits."
"WHAT?" Charlie roared, face gone red, and quite suddenly Bill, Fleur, and the twins lost the ability to breathe they were laughing so hard. Leaning weakly against each other, they carried on for a good few minutes, while Charlie glared around at each of them in turn. But sadly for him, George wasn't quite yet up to snuff, and was off-limits for a thrashing. Not that Charlie wouldn't save it up for later.
"Yeah, yeah, have your laugh, you lot," Charlie grumbled when they had recovered, and were meandering once more down the lawn. "It's not my fault I'm good-looking enough to bag a hot nurse."
"Oh, Charl," Fleur, grinned, and left Bill to take up Charlie's arm. "I zink you are gorgeous, and so does Giselle. Do not leesten to zese nasty boys."
She shot a twinkling gaze back at Bill, and Charlie took full advantage of her attention, wrapping her hand more firmly around his arm, and striding out to draw her away from Bill and the twins. "Ah, Fleur," he mock-sighed, "I always knew you were a woman of taste. Why you married that gangly git back there, I'll never know; but I suppose we're all allowed a bit of charity work in life."
"Well," she shrugged, turning her radiant smile back up at Charlie, "it was eizzer marry zis Eengleesh boy, or volunteer in ze soup keetchin, and I do not like soup."
"Well, I don't like Bill," Charlie grinned back, "so that gives us something in common."
Laughing, Fleur shot another dazzling look back at Bill, before turning back to chat happily with Charlie about his new girlfriend. At once, Bill was left alone with the twins, one on either side of him.
Still smiling, Bill turned out of habit to see how George was faring, and found him smiling quite contentedly into the summer breeze. He was walking easily with his cane, showing no residual pain. Stately as a gentleman, he seemed utterly unruffled by having to use the thing until his bad side healed. In fact, he'd gone out and purchased a gold-topped, mahogany cane, and now strolled along with it, cheeky and fabulous as a high-dollar pimp. He'd even, Bill now noticed, purchased a gold hoop earring, which he wore now in his only remaining ear.
"Nice," Bill grinned, nodding at the earring.
George raised one eyebrow. "You think?" He seemed decidedly pleased with himself, (as was George's usual state), though there was a question behind his eyes, as though he was actually asking Bill's opinion.
Fondly, Bill smiled down at him, surprised to find his opinion still valued by his successful, independent, suddenly grown-up little brother. "You know…yeah," he answered honestly. "Yeah, it suits you."
"We think so," Fred put in airily, "even if he does look like something of a holey pirate now."
"I prefer 'His Holeyness, the Pirate Saint'," George put in serenely, "though family may still call me 'George'."
Bill snorted, and mused that such a title was not so very far from the truth.
"And now," Fred proffered a hand, offering before Bill what looked like a red, slightly sinister-looking gumball, "we need your opinion on this."
Bill gave the thing a shrewd eye. "And what, pray tell, might this be?"
"Oh, you remember the Atomic Hairballs we were discussing some weeks back," George supplied by way of explanation.
"You know, 'the Amazing Flaming Bill' and all that?" Fred grinned up at him, foxlike.
Bill started to push Fred's hand away, wanting nothing to do with Flaming Bill, no matter how amazing. But George held up a hand, and said, "No, no, we've perfected the recipe. We tested it and everything."
"On Ron," Fred admitted.
"And then ourselves," George added.
"And now we want to see you in action." Fred grinned up from beside him, expectant.
"Oh, I can see you doubt us," George commented from Bill's other side, "and we would prove it, but as we only have this one piece on our persons, and as I doubt you want to ingest pre-sucked-on candy, you'll just," his smile widened, Cheshire-like, "have to trust us."
Eyebrows furrowed, Bill looked from one twin to another, not entirely sure he wanted to give the Faces of Evil the benefit of the doubt. But then, here they were again, asking his opinion, and as always, he could see underneath the flippant charm that it really did matter to them. With a sigh, he held up a hand, and Fred enthusiastically passed over the candy.
"But wait!" he splayed his hands. "You have to take your hair out of the tie first!"
"Yeah!" George exclaimed, face so keenly lit that Bill wondered at his own intelligence in trusting either one of them.
Eyeing them askance, first one, then the other, Bill reached up to take his hair out of the leather thong, so it fell over his shoulders and down to his shoulder blades. He noted now that his audience had grown to include Charlie and Fleur in front of them, and Percy, Ginny, Harry, Hermione, and Ron behind. On either side of him, the twins had taken up the chant, "Flaming Bill…flaming Bill…" in low, ominous voices, rather like a drumroll.
With a flat look, he surveyed his family around him, braced himself, and popped the thing into his mouth.
At once, his hair sprang to life like flames around him, bright without burning, and the whole family burst into laughing applause. "Flaming Bill! Flaming Bill!" The chant didn't stop, and instead, the others joined in, even Percy, as Fred, Ginny, and Charlie began one of their war dances around Bill as he strolled along like a fiery totem. George, unable to dance, simply strolled along with him, somehow dignified even as he chanted.
And Bill, his long hair fluttering brilliant about him, simply sucked serenely on the candy all the way to Hogsmeade and then the Burrow, the brilliance of his newly Atomic self lighting their path back home.
Note: Oddly enough, I never edit my fanfiction. However, I was so unhappy with the original version of this that I thought it needed an overhaul, plus a new ending. It seems a bit closer to what I had originally intended now, though I'm sure it still needs fixing in a few spots. I also felt like the title was lacking, so I hope this does the story a bit more justice. (And yes, it's a complete play on 'Once and Future King', but I think it fits, despite the fact that I totally ripped off T.H. White.)
I hope this story comes off a bit better now, and thank you to anyone who gave it a second read. You're all luv.