There came a soft click and then a creak of hinges as someone eased open the door, and Fred quickly pretended to be sleeping. It was Charlie, Fred knew. He was checking on them for what was probably the hundredth time that night. But then, Charlie had been checking on them a hundred times a night since the day of Fred's re-Fredding (as George called it, and as Fred called it under pain of a serious thrashing), and Fred had long grown used to it.
There was a pause, and a quiet sniff. Charlie was still getting over his bronchitis, which he had sustained courtesy of his stay at Azkaban, and which made him a little less stealthy at these late night checks, though it didn't deter him from making them. For a minute, he stood there, breath rattling a little in his chest, and giving off the faint smell of cherry cough drops. Then the floorboards creaked, the door eased shut again, and Fred's older brother padded quietly back down the hall.
When Charlie was gone, Fred listened for a moment, but heard nothing except the soft, chanting rhythm of the crickets outside. Then, when he was sure that Charlie wasn't coming back, Fred sat up again, his eyes falling once more on George.
Blankets tucked around him despite the warm night, George slept on his back, motionless except for his breathing. He'd always been a sound sleeper, but this was different; this was the sleep of someone very ill, and instead of his usual occasional toss or turn, George lay almost eerily still, so much so that it made Fred anxious. Swinging his legs over the side of his bed, Fred leaned forward, listening to his brother's slow breathing, reassuring himself that George was only resting, nothing more.
George's recovery was slow. The Healer said that it would take time, but Fred didn't like it one bit. He didn't like how utterly still George was in his sleep, when he could manage to sleep. Mostly, if he slept, he slept in fits, face fevered with pain, and Fred didn't like that, either. He also didn't like the green tinge George's bruises had taken, even though the Healer said that this was a sign that his brother was beginning to mend. By day, Fred found himself fussing like a girl, feeding George on broth, fluffing his pillows, airing out his covers, brewing him nasty concoctions of tea recommended by the Healer, applying the awful-smelling salve to his side, and wondering why everything that was good for you had to smell like a combination of dank mold and wet socks. He changed George's bandages, kept him cool when he sweated, and swaddled him in blankets when the fever turned to chills. He even helped him with the less pleasant sorts of tasks, like helping him to the loo, or propping him up under a cold shower when the sweats got too bad, and then a hot shower when the fever turned once more.
If Fred was offered any help by the rest of his family, he just about bit it off at the wrist. Though he tolerated everyone visiting George, (mostly), Fred Weasley had turned downright dragonish about his twin's care and handling, and if anyone disturbed George in any way, or mussed his bandages, or disarranged his blankets the least bit, Fred would find himself flying into a terrible fit. He'd even pleased himself to make Herminone cry on one occasion, though somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew that he'd probably feel bad about it later. For now, however, he remained nothing short of cantankerous, and the family wisely (if grudgingly) gave him a very wide berth.
By night though, things were different. The bustling stopped, and the carrying on, and most blessedly, people stopped trying to stop by. It had been several days since Bill had brought George back from Azkaban, and more than just the family had stopped in to wish him well, a fact which annoyed Fred just about out of his skin. He didn't even know why. He should have been elated to see Lee, and Angelina, and Oliver, and Verity, and the dozen or so other people that stopped in to check on George and himself. But he wasn't. He tried a bit more to hide it with non-family, but he knew they picked up on it anyway. They knew that Fred didn't want them there, and if they'd asked why, he couldn't have told them.
He only knew that he wanted George to himself. Not just to himself, either, but without anyone else around. He just…he wanted some peace and quiet, and to sit with George, and, for reasons he didn't quite understand, to watch him while he slept.
Quietly, Fred got up, and settled himself into the squashy armchair next to George's bed. For a moment, he simply watched him, watched the absolute stillness of his face, not even really sure of what he was watching for. Impulsively, he reached out a hand to straighten George's blankets, then without really thinking, drew them aside to have another look at his brother's ribs.
Even by moonlight, he could make out the awful colors. The black had turned to vivid purple, indigo around the edges, while mottles of green ran through the entire mess. He'd had three ribs broken, one in multiple places, and the Healer said she'd had a time keeping one of the bone fragments from perforating his internal organs. She'd done her job well, and now it was mostly a job of keeping George from infection while his crushed side mended. But Fred didn't like it, didn't like the look of it, didn't like that the damage was so extensive that a simple mending spell wouldn't put it right. George had some healing to do, they said, and though it would take time, he would be fine. But still, Fred didn't like it.
Almost absently, he touched his own side. There was still a bit of bruising where Charlie had kicked him, but nothing like this. Charlie had been careful, had kicked him with the flat of his foot so as to do less damage while leaving a bigger bruise, and had stopped shy of really hurting him. He'd even cracked one of Fred's ribs, but it was nothing serious, and a mending spell smoothed out the bone in seconds. There had been no fragments, no crushing, no internal bleeding.
Carefully, he drew George's blankets back around him, and sat with his elbows on his knees. Reaching out, he brushed a bit of hair out of George's eyes, careful not to wake him, and thinking that his brother's hair was getting a bit shaggy. So was Fred's own, most likely.
"You're a one-eared git," Fred informed him, voice so low he could barely hear himself over the lull of the crickets. "You know that, don't you?" George's left ear - his only ear - was pointed toward Fred, so Fred couldn't see the awful hole on the right side of his head. But he could see it in his mind's eye, stark as ink on paper. "You know I almost didn't let the Healers re-grow my ear. Well, for a minute anyway. But you and I both know I'm too vain for that - not as bad as Bill, mind you - but still. Not that I couldn't get girls even with one ear, so it's not like you should worry about it either, you great prat, because honestly, you're almost as good looking as me."
He let the words hang in the air, unanswered. Of course George wouldn't tell a soul that he worried a bit over his looks now, worried that girls might be disgusted or, worse, that they might pity him for his lack of an ear. Fred caught his brother sometimes giving himself sideways looks in the mirror, mouth downturned in scrutiny, so Fred knew it bothered him at least a little. Not that he ever showed it, and not that he'd admit it even to Fred. George was George, after all, and he had his pride.Anyway, if truth be told, George's missing right ear probably bothered Fred far more than it bothered George. When he'd seen it for the first time - that alien, gaping hole - Fred had felt like someone had punched a hole in his world. He felt laid bare, and for the first time in his life, vulnerable.
"I don't like it that they can tell us apart now," he told his brother, voice still low so as not to wake him. "Actually, I hate it. I know you know that, but...I mean, I really hate it, George. More than I've told even you." He didn't know why exactly, but being different from George made Fred feel like he was walking around in his underwear, exposed somehow, unprotected. There was safety in being an identical twin, safety he hadn't even realized that he'd had, until one night it was suddenly gone.
It sounded mental. What was being an identical twin going to protect him from anyway? Ok, so they couldn't fool their mum anymore, or constantly swap identities, and so what? So it was fun while it lasted, always their favorite joke, and they'd had a good laugh. It shouldn't bother Fred so much that George's ear – and their shield of twinness – was gone.
But it did, and Fred found that George's missing ear made him feel single now, like...like just Fred. He didn't like being just Fred. He wanted to be 'Fred and', mostly because that meant that the 'and' would always be followed by 'George', and if he was just Fred, then he wouldn't always be followed by George, and that bothered him more than he could say. In the end, it made him feel like an entirely different person altogether, because really, he wasn't just Fred; he was 'Fred and', always had been, and he found that he never wanted to be anything else.
"It's just, that," he explained to George, who lay unmoving, face peaceful in sleep, "it makes me feel like I'm someone else now. I haven't changed, but we have, and we're...I dunno, you know, more...we than I, you know? And it makes me feel like we're less we now.
"Which is completely raving, I know." He dropped his chin into his hand, elbow propped on his knee. "You turn loppy, and here I am, going all starkers on both of us. It's not like it's a big thing; it's not. So you lost an ear. So what? It could be worse." It almost was.
"I mean, it's not like I'm scared or anything," he shifted gears. "I mean, we've been over this, right? Just because you lost an ear doesn't make us, you know, doesn't mean anything..."
But it did mean something. It was the first time in their lives that they weren't invincible. It was the first time in their lives that something had happened to George, and not to Fred, too. For the first time in their lives, they had started down separate paths.
"Ok, well, it's not like we would have done anything different, right?" Fred asked, voice growing a little heated. "I mean, we're not a couple of nancys. We wouldn't have skived off the war just because of one bad omen, and hey, you brought me back anyway, right? You and – and Char –"
He halted, throat grown suddenly tight, and he blinked away toward the window, embarrassed despite the fact that no one could see him. "Hey, you're the cryer, all right? Not me," he pointed out, as though it were somehow George's fault that Fred's eyes had suddenly misted up. "It was always you running to Charlie with your big, scary nightmares when we were kids. I only followed because you never could sleep without me." Of course Fred had never been afraid of bad dreams or stupid stuff in the closet, but if George ran off to crawl into bed with Charlie, then Fred had to crawl into Charlie's bed, too, because that's just what Fred did. It was his way, to be with George, even when he himself didn't need the comfort of sleeping against the solid warmth of his big brother.
Snorting softly, Fred smiled out the window, watching the leaves just outside shift in the light breeze. "I bit Bill; you saw that. Pretty good bite, too." Snorting again, this time at himself. He ran a hand over his mouth, then propped his chin in his hand again. "Crazy thing to do – bloody rotten thing, too – like he doesn't have scars enough already. But he was keeping me from going after you, after they took you…you know, away, and…
"…and you know, while you were napping today, I was looking through some of Bill's Egyptology books and – yes, I do read, George, I know it's a shock – and it's not like they were much more than legends and stuff, but there was a story in there about a mummy that got brought back to life. I mean, real nut-job stuff, I know, but…you know, if there's any basis in fact, maybe they can put a mummy back together, then, you know, maybe they can do your ear…"
He trailed off again, musing over this bit of fact, wondering if there was anything to it. He supposed he ought to ask Bill, but he wasn't quite ready to be laughed at yet. Not that Bill was too bad about that kind of stuff; on the contrary, he was usually pretty good about listening with a straight face. But on the off chance that he'd laugh or just outright roll his eyes at Fred's notion that an old myth about a mummy could help re-grow George's ear…well, Fred just wasn't quite ready for that.
"It's just…" he went on, shifting gears again, "…I haven't even shagged Angelina yet, so I wasn't anywhere near being ready to die. And don't try to act like you've shagged anyone either, because I know you haven't, no matter what you say." He smirked down at George, as if waiting for some retort, though George only slept on, face slack. "I mean, here I am, young and rolling in Galleons, and a sweet girl nicely wrapped around my finger, and wham – some wall hits me head on, and say good-bye, Fred. Except, there you were, grabbing me out of thin air, so it didn't really happen, but it did happen, or you wouldn't have spent a week moping about it like a big sap, and so you see, you think it didn't affect me, but it did.
"It did, George. Because the minute I looked in your face that day – when you grabbed me so hard I thought you'd pop my neck right off my shoulders, and thanks so much for that, still have the crick in my neck to prove it – in that minute, I saw you…saw the look on your face, the most awful look…" He blinked, eyes stinging, probably from being tired. "…like you'd never be whole again, like you'd died, like…"
Like he'd died. Like George had died, not just Fred. Like George had died, but lived on, walking around in a clay body like some kind of mummy, moving, and walking, and eating, but not living. It was like – that look in George's eye – was like looking into the well of the dead.
And it scared Fred. It scared him because it was the most awful thing he could think of, to see George without Fred, to see his twin brother after he'd lived through a week of being only George, and knowing that it was the worst thing that ever could have happened to either of them, or that ever could still happen. Being only George, or only Fred, was like being severed from life, only worse, because there would be this whole, long, life to live through, yawning before him like a dark hole, with no 'and', with just…Fred. Just Fred.
Fred. He said it in his mind, rolling it around, trying it without the 'and'. And he didn't like it. And he didn't think George would like it, either.
"Because it shouldn't be 'George' anyway," Fred rolled on, explaining himself to his sleeping brother, as though he were making perfect sense. "Properly speaking, it should be 'and' George, because anything else just sounds…weird. It sounds weird, George, just…weird, and I'm not having it. I'm not having just 'Fred', or just 'George', and that's just that. And you'll have to deal with that, and hope your future wife likes me, because I plan on living next door. And I am coming over every morning," he added, adamant, as though daring George to say otherwise, "to make chocolate banana pancake surprise, just like you like them. I'll even make sure the 'surprise' isn't too gross, for your wife's sake.
"But George, you have to understand, it's not just about the pancakes. It's not even just about your ear, though I'm hoping to talk to Bill about that, if he's in a decent mood, and if I can catch him without Percy hanging about. It's about…well, I don't know what it's about, but it's sure as hell not that I'm afraid, because I'm not.
"It's…" he spread his hands, elbows on his knees, "the thing is, I won't be without you. It's not that I just can't be without you, or don't prefer to be without you. What I mean is, I won't – meaning, will not – be without you. I can't. I saw that look in your eye when you brought me back, that look, like someone had lopped off more than just your ear, and I have to tell you, Georgie, I'm just not willing to ever feel how you must have felt to get that look. Maybe I'm a great chicken. If so, I guess I don't care. Point is, I'm not going through that. I'm not losing you. I'm not getting that look in my eye, so you can just get used to the fact that I am going to follow you wherever you go, and I'm bringing my pancakes with me.
"And yeah, I get it, you're hacked off at me about the ear thing," he continued, voice heated now, though he still took care to keep it low. "But it's not like I had a week to plan or anything. The old hag had you thrown in prison, and then she sent that bloody note, saying if you died, you didn't have to go to your own trial, and I just…well, I lost it. I…I lost it, and I wasn't going to have anyone stopping me from getting at you, and I knew switching was the only way, and there was Bill, keeping my wand away from me, the git, and I knew the only way to convince him was to show him I meant it. I had to do it. I had to cut my ear off, or he'd have dragged me back home, and let me tell you, after the bloody knock on the head that bugger gave me, he probably could have done it, too. I was absolutely done for.
"But George, I couldn't let you die. I couldn't. I'd…George, I'd cut my ear off for you with a kitchen knife, mate. Doesn't that tell you the whole of it? Doesn't that tell you why I did it? I guess…maybe that's a shite way of explaining it, but I don't know how to say it any other way. I'd – well, you know I'd take a flashy green light to the chest for you, mate, not to mention Van Gogh myself, and then take a kick in the ribs from Charlie, and let me tell you something, that old tosser can kick.
"So, George, I guess what I'm trying to say is that you shouldn't worry about me, and for Merlin's sake, stop rowing with me about it, because you're going to burst a kidney at the rate you're going. Bloody hell, I think you scared the ghoul with all your yelling at me, and I'm not sure it deserved that, because it's pretty well behaved for a ghoul, honestly."
With that, he faltered to a bit of a pause, and looked down at the floorboards. His feet were very white against the wood, and he could just make out the pattern of his freckles, the exact pattern of freckles that covered George's feet. He twiddled his thumbs a little, looking over the pattern of freckles on his hands, which were George's hands. After a moment, he spoke on again, though his voice was softer now, so soft he could barely hear it.
"What I'm trying to say is that I can't sleep when you're not around. And I'm scared, George." He stared at the blanket covering George's ribs, and felt the stinging in his eyes again, though he stubbornly refused to acknowledge it. "I'm scared, because I almost had to make a go of being without you, and I won't do that. I can't, and I won't. We've been through too much, and I can't be apart from you, not ever, not again. So I guess what I'm saying is that I hope you're used to having me around, because even if I had to fight ten dark lords, steal all the time turners in England, and lop off both my ears, I would come after you. Because I," and here he almost stuttered, not because it was hard to say, but because it was so surprisingly easy, "because I love you, Georgie. And that's just…well that's just that, you great, loppy, holey git."
At that, he raised his eyes from his hands to look George in the face, but his brother only slept on, his breathing deep and slow, his mouth slightly open, his hair just faintly red under the pale cast of the moon. He looked peaceful, laying like that, and at once it made Fred rather tired, as though such peacefulness were catching. Stretching, he shifted himself, then crawled up into the chair to tuck himself into a ball, where he pressed his cheek against the overstuffed chairback, and gazed rather tiredly down at his brother. Eyelids suddenly heavy, Fred yawned widely, then uttered short sigh, quit suddenly done in.
Many minutes passed, during which Fred simply watched over his twin, the words gone all out of him, like rainwater come and gone. Outside, the crickets kept up their ceaseless chant, as though offering a benediction to summer, wild hymns in honor of a sleeping saint.
"You know," Fred said at last, keeping his voice low, "Angelina said they're starting a Quiddich league – just little league stuff. We should join. Maybe get Charlie to join up with us. He's a better Seeker than Harry even, if you ask my opinion, and that's saying something. We'd have a killer team." He paused, musing, thinking of a summer playing Quiddich, and rebuilding their joke shop, and maybe seeing a bit more of Angelina. Maybe a lot more of Angelina. "Do you suppose," he asked after a bit, "if we, you know, worked out and stuff, we'd ever get built up like Charlie?"
Of course, George didn't answer, and Fred didn't need him to. It was just nice to think about…well, nice things for once, and he realized that it had been some time since he'd been able to. It had been some time since he'd looked forward instead of back, and he thought maybe that things might not be so bad now, and that they might just go on with their lives, and be…happy. He thought they might just pick up where they left off, their paths converging again into one, making them into Fred and George, with the 'and' firmly in place, and the summer stretching ahead of them, long, and gentle, with the sound of a thousand crickets singing.
Fred found, at length, that he was drifting, and at last he let his eyes slide shut, his limbs grown heavy and pleasant. He could hear George breathing beside him, and then he could hear his own breathing, keeping time, in and out, long and slow, and for the first time in many nights, they both slept deep and untroubled until morning.
A/N: Yes, I know I've pretty blatantly reused a plot device here, which is something I don't often do. But Fred needed to get something off his chest, and this was just the way to do it. So, thanks for bearing with my half-arsed ficcage. :)