The week leading up to Christmas had been, for the most part, bright and happy. Even though Harry had been given a few days off from his training, his time was more occupied than it would have been had he been at the Ministry eight hours a day, sitting in a stale-smelling classroom and learning about what was to be expected of him when (and if, as they stressed repeatedly) he became an Auror.
First, he had gone up north to see Oliver Wood, who was enjoying a bit of fame from his latest successful season with Puddlemere United. They had met up with Katie Bell, Alicia Spinnet and Angelina Johnson and spent hours in a small, crowded pub down the street from Oliver's rather impressive flat, reliving key plays and general good times from their days on the Gryffindor Quidditch team.
In between rounds of drinks and gales of laughter, there had been silences, brief in length but obvious nonetheless. During these, Harry found himself thinking of the Weasley twins, whose absence was the only thing keeping the reunion from being complete. George was at the shop in Diagon Alley, "working himself mental," to quote Ron. Fred was… well, though Fred was with them in spirit, Harry would have given almost anything to have him with them in the flesh instead. By the looks on the faces of his former teammates, he knew that they were feeling the same way.
Despite that, Harry had a smashing time visiting with Oliver and the girls. When it was time to leave, they all hugged him in turn. Katie, who he saw once or twice a week at the Ministry (she had just started working in the Floo Network Authority office and often passed Harry in the hall or saw him in the elevator), kissed him on the cheek. "Send me an owl if you and Ginny are looking for something to do on New Year's." He promised that he would, if not on New Year's then soon after.
Alicia was next. She threw her arm around him (the other was holding a glass of firewhiskey in the air to prevent spillage) and wished him a Merry Christmas. "You'd better write!" she said loudly in his ear. "You know where to find me!" Harry, in fact, did not know where to find her, but he assumed that Pigwidgeon could. She gave him noisy kisses on both cheeks that knocked his glasses askew (she was a little drunk). He thanked her and moved on.
Angelina smiled at him and she enveloped him in a tight hug. "Take care, Harry." she said, holding him at arm's length like Mrs. Weasley sometimes did, usually before proclaiming that he must not be eating properly. "We'll see you soon." He agreed. There was a look in her eyes that he couldn't entirely interpret, but he had the idea that this was the first night in a long time that Angelina hadn't spent by herself. He squeezed her hand and turned to face Oliver.
Oliver did not kiss him, but he shook his hand heartily and thumped him on the back. "It's great to see you. Come back any time, Harry. You have to visit when the season's on-- I'll get you great seats!" He leaned over and regarded Harry with a serious expression. "And bring George with you next time, will you? I've sent him owls, tried to get him up here a few times. But he always has an excuse. I'm a little worried."
Harry nodded. "I'm seeing him a few days. I'll let him know you're asking after him."
"Thanks mate. Take care of yourself, and I'll see you soon." At this, he hugged Harry and, once again, pounded him on the back with such force that Harry would have taken out his wand if it had been anyone else.
The next evening, he and Ron had met up with Dean Thomas, Seamus Finnegan and Neville Longbottom in The Leaky Cauldron. Seamus and Dean had been spending a lot of time in Muggle bars over the previous months and kept persuading the others to order ludicrously named drinks from the harried bartender, who had to stop and thumb through an ancient-looking pamphlet each time they called for something new. Seamus was quite partial to something called an Irish Car Bomb, which involved dropping a flaming shot glass of what looked like tan milk topped with cola into a glass of something black and foamy that Harry vaguely remembered as being called Guinness. Over drinks such as these, they talked about good times old and new and traded some good-natured ribbing, especially once Neville admitted that he had spent some time in Costa Rica around Halloween. With Luna Lovegood.
"Luna Lovegood?! Oi, you picked a right nutter for your girlfriend, mate." Ron pushed his fresh, foaming Car Bomb across the table to Neville. "My condolences."
"She's not my girlfriend." Neville said, ears turning red as his former dorm mates hooted and laughed. He finished his drink, and the shot glass clinked against the sides of the empty pint. He frowned into the bottom, but didn't move to pick up the glass that Ron had passed. "Besides, she's nice."
"Sure she's nice. She's also barking." Ron said, seizing his glass back from Neville and gulping down the contents, which looked like they were beginning to curdle.
Harry opened his mouth to switch the focus of the conversation, perhaps ask Neville about his trip, but an errant chuckle escaped. He cleared his throat and tried again. "So what did you do in Costa Rica, Neville?"
The possible implications of this question sent Ron, Dean and Seamus into roars of laughter, and the flush spread from Neville's ears down to his neck, until his face was practically Gryffindor scarlet. However, he seemed happy to tell them about all the interesting plants he'd seen, which he described in loving detail until Ron was begging to change the subject.
As he laughed so hard that tears streamed out of his eyes (Dean had just done a stellar impression of Luna Lovegood on the beaches of South America, trying to catch nargles, followed by one of Ron at the Yule Ball, sulking in the corner), Harry thought, with fleeting yet surprising anger, that this is how his school days should have been, all the time.
Finally, the following day, Ginny came home from her last year at Hogwart's, and he had gone to meet her at King's Cross station. Though she could Apparate, and in fact did so regularly, appearing at his doorstep on random Hogsmeade Saturdays, she had chosen to come home for the holidays on the train-- something about it being her last year. Mr. and Mrs. Weasley were on holiday for Christmas, so she was going to be staying with George and Ron in the flat in Diagon Alley.
When she stepped off the train, Harry hung back, watching as she adjusted her bag over her shoulder and made her way through the crowd, stopping every few metres to say hello to someone. Her smile was so quick, so genuine. He felt lucky, and even more so when she spotted him and ran, hair flying back and an enormous smile lighting up her face, landing in his arms and kissing him full on the mouth. He had seen her only ten days beforehand, when she had spent a rainy Saturday sitting with him in his small kitchen, drinking tea with her schoolbooks open, studying for exams in between conversation topics. Still, having her in front of him, home for the holidays, knowing that he would see her nearly every day for the next week… nothing beat that feeling,
"Hi." he said, taking a step back to look at her.
"Hi." she replied, pushing her hair behind her ears with her gloved hands and smiling once again. "Thanks for meeting me here."
He took her bag from her and they set off onto the street, chatting as they made their way to Diagon Alley. The sky overhead was a pale gray and the air was cold, sharp, and smelled of impending snow.
"How's your holiday been so far?"
"Good." He told her about seeing Seamus, Dean and Neville, and about visiting Oliver Wood and the girls of Gryffindor Quidditch, skimming over the part where Oliver had expressed his concern about George. Even though Ginny had often mentioned how worried she was about him over the past months, he didn't know how she would react to the news that he was avoiding almost all of his old friends. "Katie told me she went up to Hogwarts a few months ago and caught a match. She said you were nothing short of amazing."
"Did she now? That's sweet of her. How was Alicia?"
He smiled. "A bit tipsy."
"She seemed alright. A little distant sometimes. But good." he added in a hurry.
They were in Diagon Alley by this point, which was filled with all manner of magical folk trying to finish their holiday shopping. Ginny slid her hand into Harry's as they meandered through the crowds. There were many familiar faces in the throngs, most of who stopped for a moment to exchange greetings. Those that didn't stop simply stared, but Harry didn't mind too much. He was happy just to have Ginny on his arm.
The crowd shifted, and she emitted a small squeak. Coming down the alley towards them was Draco Malfoy, wearing a long dark cloak and some sort of fur hat pulled over his pale hair. His face had filled out a bit since Harry had last seen him, sitting at the Hufflepuff table in the Great Hall after the battle, bleeding from the forehead and looking pale and stricken as people had started bringing in the dead.
On his arm was a girl Harry had never seen before, almost as tall and just as blonde as Draco himself. Her expression was soft, though, her face freckled and rosy-cheeked like she had just ran a kilometer or had a belly laugh. She wore a pink quilted coat and a pastel-striped ski hat that looked suspiciously Muggle, much to Harry's astonishment.
Draco said something to the girl, and she laughed. It sounded like bells. At this, Draco himself smiled. He looked… happy. Harry was gobsmacked. Maybe Draco had changed since that night.
At that moment, an older witch laden with shopping bags darted across the road in front of the couple, eyes fixed on a bargain. Malfoy's female companion crashed right into her, sending packages falling to the street. The blonde girl immediately apologized, and dropped to her knees on the street, collecting fallen items and checking for damage, repairing the broken things with a wave of her wand. Draco, however, did nothing but ask the older woman, in a particularly loud voice, if she intended to watch where she was going in the future, standing with his arms crossed and watching with disdain as the older witch collected herself.
Harry and Ginny exchanged looks. Perhaps change was a slow process for the Malfoys.
"Are your parents visiting Charlie for the holiday?"Harry asked as they continued on.
"No, he's spending Christmas with some friends in Romania. Last I heard, he has some sort of girlfriend."
"Well, Bill and Fleur, then?"
She shook her head. "No, they're spending it with her family this year. I'm… I'm actually not sure where Mum and Dad are. Somewhere strange, Nova Scotia perhaps? I'm not sure. I thought it was odd; they're not wanting to be together this year. But I suppose…." she trailed off, a foggy sort of look on her face as she stared ahead. Harry followed her gaze. Just ahead was Weasley's Wizard Wheezes, doing a brisk business on this particular day. However, it wasn't the sight of the streams of people entering and leaving the shop that was extraordinary. It was what lay to the side of the door, beneath one of the shop windows. Ginny broke away from Harry and walked closer.
Piles of flowers lay like snow drifts on the ground, stacked up to the display window on the left of the door and spilling out into the street in front of the shop. The odd potted plant sprouted from the multicolored mound like an oasis. Flickering candles were set along the windowsill and floating lazily in front of the glass, a fair amount of them with ribbons of red and gold tied around them. There were cards and envelopes, some attached to candles or bouquets, others tucked in the decorative iron bars that crisscrossed the front window. As Harry approached, he could see that things like "We miss you, Fred" had been written on them. A large banner was draped over the flowers closest to the door, depicting a red-haired Quidditch player and the words "Fred Weasley, always in our hearts", and a Gryffindor scarf was wrapped around the bottom of a large, leafy green plant.
Ginny was stooped beyond the floral reaches, reading a card that was tucked between the red leaves of a poinsettia. He wanted to say something, but his mouth seemed to have shriveled up.
"That's something, isn't it?"
Harry looked up. Ron stood in the doorway of the shop, hands stuffed in his pockets. "People started leaving flowers there last week. George thought they were just being messy, he tried to clean it up at first." He smiled a bit at this.
Ginny looked up at her brother, who smiled at her ruefully before continuing.
"But the next day when we opened, there was twice as much. And the next day, even more. Every day, there's more. There have been people from all over. People who didn't even know him. And loads of people who did." Ron's voice hitched here, but he cleared his throat and went on. "McGonagall was by yesterday, she left that." He pointed to a very large display of white flowers and ivy, tied with a red tartan ribbon. "Owls have been stopping by at all hours, too." He gestured to a strange yellow and blue flower that looked like the head of a crane. It was growing up out of a clay pot set on the ground, and had turned towards the glow of one of the small candles. "Luna Lovegood sent that one."
They stood in silence for a minute, then two. There was a terrible ache in Harry's midsection, one he hadn't felt this acutely since the summer. Fred Weasley's funeral had been the last, after the dust of the battle had settled. And even though he, Harry, had lost so many people that he had loved in his short life, there had been something particularly appalling about being present while a family that he loved dearly, almost like they were his, buried one of their own, one that had been like a brother to him.
Behind Ron, witches and wizards came and went through the open door, all of them stopping for a few moments to look at the memorial.
"Ron?" A round-faced witch with short blonde hair that Harry recognized as Verity, the Weasley's sole employee, appeared in the doorway. She looked nervous. "Ron, George wants you to shut the door." She smiled quickly at Harry. "He said to let Harry and your sister come inside where it's warm."
"Right." Ron mumbled in reply. He motioned for Harry to follow him inside, and, with his arm around her shoulders, guided Ginny through the door.
The shop was indeed warm, and pleasantly busy. It looked much as Harry remembered it from the last time he had been inside. Suddenly, it seemed like a very long time had passed, though it had scarcely been a year. Behind the counter, George was talking to a pair of young wizards, who couldn't have been older than ten or twelve. He looked very tired, with brownish shadows under his eyes, and very solitary, empty air beside him in the place where his twin should have stood.
He was conversing with the miniature wizards about what products they'd likely require for their second year at Hogwarts, eventually reaching behind the counter and producing two lists. He checked off some items, scrawled something across the bottom of each, then folded them and placed them in each of their bags. Finally, he smiled at the boys and handed them their purchases. "Now, gentlemen, have a happy Christmas and don't do anything I wouldn't do." he said with a quick wink.
They said good-bye and exited the shop, waving over their shoulders. George waved back, smiling after them. Then, he turned to Ron, Harry and Ginny.
"Come on, what's this?" he said, smile disappearing as he looked down at Ginny, who was looking solemnly up at him. "I don't look that bad, do I?"
"You look ghastly." Ginny said thickly.
"It's nice to see you too." he replied, looking taken aback as she left Ron's protective grip and moved to George, throwing her arms around his middle and hugging him fiercely. For a moment, he looked stunned, then softened as he wrapped his sister into a hug. "Ginny," he said gently. "Take it easy. It's okay." He looked from Harry to Ron, as if one of them could offer some sort of help. "Let's go upstairs. Get you settled. You've probably had a long trip."
After speaking briefly to Verity, who eyed the crowd with something like terror, George led Harry and his siblings back outside. A light snow had begun to fall, and had covered the memorial outside with what looked like a fine dusting of sugar. They passed it without comment and went around to the back of the shop, where George had taken them upstairs to his very messy flat.
Harry hadn't stayed long after that, though he'd wanted to remain and be some sort of comforting presence. It hadn't worked well, and he'd left feeling like rubbish. He felt as though he, of all people, could offer some sort of advice or encouragement to make the pain a bit more bearable, but there was nothing that crossed his mind that he could bring himself to say out loud. Somehow, everything he thought of seemed trite or insincere.
Sometimes, when he and Ginny were alone, they talked about such things. She sometimes cried when they did, which was at first startling, as it was so uncharacteristic, but had soon come as something of a relief for Harry, as Ginny seemed to find these talks healing and cathartic. It was never easy, but, the last time, she had taken Harry's hand in hers and looked at him, smiling though her eyes still shone with tears. "I know that I'll never, you know, get over it. But I know that he wants us to be happy, and to remember him and laugh. I want to get to that point. And I'm glad that I have you here to help me."
Three times, Ron had broached the topic of Fred with Harry, and they had talked, at length, about his life and death. However, Harry had never talked with George about his twin's passing, and there seemed to be no good way to raise the subject.
A day passed, with an owl (Pig, naturally) from Ginny, who had sent a brief note to confirm that he'd be coming to the flat on Christmas. He'd responded that of course he would be present for Christmas and to let him know if she required anything in the meantime. No sooner had he sent Pig on his way then another owl appeared at the window, even before he could shut it. It was a large tawny that he had never seen before, with a thick brown envelope attached at the leg. Harry relieved the owl of the envelope, and without ceremony, it flew out the window again into the cold.
The envelope was addressed simply to Mr. Harry Potter in a familiar script. He frowned at it, and then tore it open. A slender white envelope fell out onto the small kitchen table, and a folded sheet of paper. He raised an eyebrow at the sheet of paper and unfolded it.
This envelope arrived last week. We trust you know the addressees.
He lifted the other envelope, which was addressed in blue ink to Fred & George Weasley, c/o Harry Potter, 4 Privet Drive, Little Whinging, Surrey. It had a stamp on it marking at as airmail-- Muggle airmail-- and no return address.Harry stared at it, feeling as though he should know what it was. However, he had no idea. He shook his head and continued reading the note.
We hope this finds you well. Merry Christmas. The Dursleys.
Harry was astounded. Found him well?Merry Christmas? He'd never been on the receiving end of such a sentiment made by the Dursleys. Maybe he'd go visit Privet Drive one day in the new year. Bring Ginny. Just as soon as he finished attending Hagrid's inauguration as Minister of Magic. And afternoon tea at Professor Umbridge's house. And the wedding reception of Professor McGonagall and Lucius Malfoy.
He chuckled a little and pushed the note across the tabletop, turning his attention once more the airmail envelope. Again he picked up and read the address. Who did he know that knew how to use Muggle post, but didn't know that he was living in London? Hell, who did he know that didn't know Fred Weasley was dead? Luna Lovegood? No, that made no sense. She'd been there that night, and at the funeral. Plus, she regularly wrote to Ginny at Hogwarts as well as the Burrow. Ludo Bagman? The twins had written to him during their sixth year. No, he wouldn't use Muggle post and, besides, why would he write to them care of Harry? With each name he thought of, the more unlikely they seemed.
"You stupid git." he said to himself a moment later, having just been trying to remember Dean Thomas's mother's name and wondering if the envelope could have come from her. Well, there was one way to find out whom it was from. And that was to take it with him the next day and let George Weasley open it.
He tossed the envelope on the table and got up, shaking his head. He still had presents to wrap, not the least of which was Ginny's.
Christmas dawned bitterly cold and overcast.
Harry slept late, as he had all week, and left for the flat above 93 Diagon Alley just after noon. Though he could have easily (and warmly) Apparated, he chose to walk. The streets were nearly silent, but, a few minutes into his walk, the church bells began to chime. They tolled with each step he took, and at that moment everything was perfect. Harry felt good, and, for the thousandth time since the previous May, he felt alive.
Another ten minutes into his journey, Harry was feeling a little too alive in the frigid air, and he was happy to see The Leaky Cauldron just up ahead. He rapped on the window as he passed through the alley, waving to the few occupants inside, and, a moment later, was standing in Diagon Alley.
The shops were all closed, of course, and the street was almost empty, but in many windows above the shops lights burned and wreaths hung. Just within sight was the memorial outside of the shop, the enchanted candles like pinpoints in the distance. Harry hurried towards it, his cheeks stinging in the cold and his lungs beginning to burn.
Still, he paused before going around to the side door, saying a silent work of thanks in the stillness outside the shop, to Fred, and Colin, and Lavender Brown, to Lupin and Tonks, Moody, to Sirius, and Dumbledore, and finally, to his parents. Then he disappeared around the corner, leaving Diagon Alley quite empty again.
A large boxwood wreath now hung on the side door, a red-and-white striped ribbon tied around it. Harry smiled, recognizing Ginny's touch, as he knocked. The door flew open a moment later, and there she stood, in a simple brown dress and a light blue shawl that had the distinctive look of an original Mrs. Weasley creation.
"I'm glad you're here." she said as way of greeting.
Ginny stepped back to let Harry inside. The stairway was warm and dimly lit. From above, he could hear Pigwidgeon's excited hooting. She closed the door behind him and kissed him on the side of the mouth. "Did you walk?" she asked, reaching up to touch his cold face with the back of one of her warm hands. The other was firmly holding a glass of something dark, red, and fruity-smelling.
"I did. Wine?" he asked, indicating her glass.
"Mmmhmm. Left over from that bottle Hermione brought over when she got back from holiday. Why did you walk?"
He shrugged. "I just... wanted to. Why are you drinking wine?"
She smiled, a slow, teasing smile. "I just wanted to."
"Oi, Ginny, don't make him skulk around in the doorway." Ron had appeared above them on the landing, hands in the pockets of his jeans, looking slightly leprechaun-esque with his flaming hair and the dark green jumper he wore. He smiled broadly at Harry and waved him upstairs. "Hi Harry, Merry Christmas. Come on up."
Harry obliged, making his way up the steps with Ginny behind him. "Merry Christmas, Ron." Harry said, returning the grin as he arrived on the landing and stared through the doorway. Ron seized his hand and pumped it firmly.
"The place looks... great."
It certainly wasn't the first time Harry had been to the flat above Weasley's Wizard Wheezes. In fact, it had only been two days ago that he had been there last. But it was now immaculate, whereas before it had been, quite frankly, a disaster.
Ron had been sleeping on the sofa in the living room since moving in, and consequently his clothes and personal effects were always strewn all around-- on the furniture, on the floor, and, once, a very stained shirt hanging half in and half out of Pigwidgeon's cage.
Now, however, there were no clothes or Chudley Cannons paraphernalia present. The sofa cushions were straightened, the furniture dusted, and the floor swept and scrubbed. Behind the sofa, on the far side of the room, Harry was astonished to see the dining table was covered with a red-and-green plaid tablecloth and set for dinner. He wasn't sure he had ever seen it not obscured by stacks of papers, books, and dirty dishes. The door leading to the small office, which Ginny was using as a guestroom, was closed, another, smaller wreath hanging on it. Through the doorway leading to the kitchen, he could see the surfaces were shining and clean, the sink empty and sparkling.
A small but brightly lit Christmas tree was set up the far corner, next to a window in which candles burned merrily. Paper chains hung around the perimeter of the room, and stockings hung from the mantle of the tiny fireplace, in which a fire was crackling and popping. Even Pig's cage, which was set up on the low bookcase near the door, was spotlessly clean and adorned with a ring of holly leaves. The tiny owl inside was hooting and flapping about excitedly.
"Ginny did most-- ow, that hurt!" Ron was rubbing his side, where his sister had elbowed him firmly in the ribs. "Okay, Ginny did all of it. Cleaned and decorated and everything."
"Well, it looks amazing."
"Anything would be an improvement over how it looked. And smelled." she added with disdain.
"What smelled?" George walked into the living room from the hallway at that moment, running his hand through his hair, which was significantly longer now than he had kept it before losing an ear.
"This place." Ginny said, wrinkling her nose. "Before I cleaned it, of course."
"Oh, that was just the aura of masculinity. You wouldn't understand. If you did, you wouldn't have used so much lemon oil getting rid of it. Hey Harry, Merry Christmas." he said, slapping Harry on the shoulder.
"Merry Christmas, George. I almost forgot, I have something for you."
"A present? Come now, you shouldn't have. D'you think Ginny will be jealous?" he teased.
"No, in addition to gifts." Harry said as he reached into his coat and pulled out the mystery envelope.
Looking amused and mildly curious, George took it and turned it over. When he read the address, he looked sharply up at Harry. "What the bloody hell is this?"
Harry shrugged. "I said the same thing. It arrived by owl last night. The Dursleys sent it to me-- it went to their house first."
The elder Weasley stared down at the envelope, flipping it over in his hands and scrutinizing it from all angles, much as Harry had.
"What are you playing at, George? Open it." Ginny said.
"It's addressed to Fred as well." he said in a strange voice.
Ginny looked at Harry in surprise, then handed him her wine glass and went to her brother. "Let me see that." She took it from his hand and read it herself. "To you and Fred, care of Harry? Do you recognize the writing?"
He shook his head. "No."
She handed it to Ron. "Do you?"
He inspected the writing on the front of the envelope, and then started to rip it open.
"What are you doing?!" George said, crossing to his brother in two long strides and snatching the envelope back.
"What? How else are we going to know what it is?"
"I'll tell you. If I feel like it." George replied, folding the envelope and sticking it in his pocket. At almost the same moment, someone knocked on the door outside.
Author's Note: I have this story (and series) pretty well mapped out, but sometimes these things get away from me and go down paths that I don't expect. So we'll have to see what happens. Meanwhile, I think it's only fair to tell you that this story will contain an original character. Of course, I don't want to spoil the surprise, so I won't say too much about him or her, but since some people really despise OCs, I figure it'd be best to come clean now. Assuming that I haven't scared too many potential readers off, I do want to tell you that I'll try valiantly to update every Saturday, and that I plan on having a few significant storylines play out during the course of the tale. Oh, and assuming all goes according to plan, this will be the first story in a series of four. I really hope you like it-- if you do, or even if you don't, here's a subtle reminder to review. :)