Fred steered the car into the garage, landed as quietly as he could, and turned off the engine.
"All right, now everyone be quiet," he whispered. "We don't want to wake anyone up."
However, the five boys had no sooner stepped out of the exhausted automobile than a loud voice shot through the silence.
"DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT TIME IT IS?" thundered a plump red-haired woman from the doorway to the house. "DO YOU KNOW HOW LONG I HAVE BEEN STANDING HERE WAITING FOR MY CHILDREN TO RETURN WITH THEIR FATHER'S CAR?!"
"Sorry, mum," said one of the twins jauntily, "But we had to go pick up Harry, you see."
"They were starving him," Ron tried to explain, his voice smaller under the crushing gaze of his mother's wrath. "We had to get him out of there."
"It's true," Harry spoke up in defence of his friend. "The Dursleys are like that."
Mrs. Weasley had always kept a secret affection for Harry because of his lost parents, so he held more sway over her than she would ever admit, which Harry must have known full well. Her expression softened almost instantly, rage vanished. "Oh, you poor dear. why don't you come on inside and I'll get you some dinner," she told him, ushering the helpless boy into the house in a thoroughly motherlike manner. Turning back to her own sons, she glowered, "now don't think that means you'll be getting out of this one. You three are in a lot of trouble."
At this point she finally noticed Edward climbing out on the other side of the car. "Who is that?" she snapped suspiciously.
Ron glanced over at the alchemist. "Mom, this is Edward, a, er, friend of ours," he explained. Ed was somewhat amused at his use of the word "friend" but made no comment. "He's been staying with Harry, so he had to put up with the Dursleys, too."
"Nice to meet you, ma'am," Ed offered politely.
Mrs. Weasley sniffed disapprovingly at Edward's long blond hair. "Well, at least you have some manners," she remarked dryly. "Come inside and I'll see if I can find something for you as well. You three, however," she continued, glaring at Fred, George, and Ron, "can go right to bed without supper."
The twins immediately began to clamor in protest. "But that's not fair!" Ron cried. "You let Harry have supper."
"Harry, she retorted, "has been cooped up with those people for weeks and deserves at least a decent meal. The three of you have been here all summer and should know better that to go gallivanting off in your father's enchanted car in the middle of the night. Now, upstairs, all of you."
Grudgingly the boys obeyed, their feet shuffling rebelliously on every stair.
Edward followed Mrs. Weasley into her kitchen, where Harry was already starting a second bowl of soup. "Sit here," she instructed, pointing to one of the many chairs crowded around the table. As Ed did so, several dishes and an enormous pot of soup flew through the air, landing neatly on the table before filling a bowl with the soup and then flying off again. Noticing his startled reaction, Mrs. Weasley commented aside to Harry, "New to magic, is he?"
Harry nodded. "Edward says he's an alchemist," he explained around a mouthful of soup. Mrs. Weasley seemed not to notice Harry's lack of manners. "He didn't even come to Hogwarts until late last year."
"Is that so?" she mused, interested. "I didn't know alchemists still existed."
Edward bristled at the jibe but quickly calmed himself. Standing up, he asked evenly, "I'm kind of tired. Do you have a place I could sleep?"
Mrs. Weasley seemed surprised at the sudden change of subject but merely answered, "There's a couch over there in the corner. I would offer you Ron's room, but I expect that Harry would want to stay there. Besides, we have a ghoul in the attic, and he tends to make a lot of noise at night."
"The couch is fine, thank you," Edward replied. "Oh, and you're right about that ghoul. I don't like ghosts very much."
Some of them wore faces he recognized.
The following morning was havoc. First, Ron's younger sister woke up early and discovered Edward sleeping on the couch. She immediately screamed to her mother that a stranger was in the house. Her shrieking woke up the rest of the household, including Harry and Ron, who sleepily explained that, no, he wasn't a stranger, he was a friend of Harry's and would be staying for a while. Then Mr. Weasley, who had only just come home and hour before, walked into the room and demanded to know what was going on. Once explanations were made yet again, Mr. Weasley went back to his room to sleep, and Mrs. Weasley started making breakfast since no one else felt much like sleeping after Ginny's ear-splitting wake-up call.
Apparently, that sort of thing happened in the Burrow every day. Compared to the slow crawl of Dursley time, in this place the time seemed to rush past, gone before you knew it came. Harry spent most of his free minutes with his friend Ron, talking about magic and school and quidditch and avoiding some of the twins' more dangerous pranks.
Edward, on the other hand, spent his hours perusing the Weasley family library. Mr. Weasley's books were mainly about people called Muggles, which seemed to indicate the non-magical population of the world, but there were also several old spellbooks with instructions for casting simple charms. If he were ever to return to his home, Edward knew that he would have to study magic, and the only way to do that was to start at the beginning.
The spells seemed simple enough to perform, but whenever Edward tried to cast one the magic eluded him. It was a daunting task. Finally, one day Ed became so frustrated that he threw the pillow he was attempting to levitate across the room, barely missing a delicate hand-painted vase.
"Trouble?" came a voice behind him. Startled, Ed whirled around to find Mr. Weasley standing just a few feet away.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt," Mr. Weasley apologized.
Ed forced himself to relax. "No, it's okay. I was just about finished anyway."
Mr. Weasley glanced at the floor thoughtfully. "You know, Edward," he began, "When I was your age, I had trouble learning magic, It was a little embarrassing, of course, to be unable to perform even the simplest Summoning Charm in front of my family, my friends, and later, my classmates. Everyone was convinced I was a Squib, completely unable to use magic. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't do it. I would often practice by myself for hours, but it didn't seem to help."
Even though he was pretty sure he knew where this was going, Ed was interested. "So, what fixed it?"
"I found a teacher," Mr. Weasley said simply.
That was not what he had been expecting. "A teacher, huh?" Ed smiled nostalgically. "I guess that makes sense. Even Al and I could only study so much by ourselves. Maybe magic and alchemy aren't that different after all."
Mr. Weasley respectfully remained silent, keeping his questions to himself.
Returning to the present, Ed continued, "So, are you saying that you'll teach me how to do magic?"
"If you like," replied Mr. Weasley. "I won't teach you if you don't want me to."
For a moment Edward's pride as an experienced alchemist resurfaced, whispering that he had no need for a teacher; he had alchemy, and that was enough... But he swallowed it back.
"Mr. Weasley," Edward said, "I would be honored if you would take me for your student."
Mr. Weasley smiled and clapped a friendly hand on the blond boy's left shoulder. "At least until the school term begins," he amended. "But actually, Edward, that's not why I came here. The truth is, I have a favor to ask of you."
"What are those?" Edward inquired warily, pointing to the potato-like object struggling in Fred's hands.
"It's a gnome," Mr. Weasley told him. "Rather pesky creatures, I daresay, always destroying our poor garden. Every now and then we have to get rid of them or the plants won't grow."
"So you want me to help you kill them?" Ed asked, perplexed.
Mr. Weasley blanched. "No!" he cried. "As pesky as they are, I could never bring myself to do that. We just make it hard for them to find their way back. Here," he demonstrated, carefully picking up an escaping gnome, "Watch closely. You just swing the gnome 'round your head, like so, until it's quite dizzy, then you fling them over the hedge as far as you can," he narrated, tossing his gnome well over the hedge's top. "While this may seem a bit harsh, Harry, it really doesn't hurt a bit, and they return faster than you think."
Harry? Ed thought, puzzled. He turned to see the black-haired boy standing next to Ron a short distance away. He hadn't even noticed the two of them coming.
Harry pushed up his glasses and said nothing.
The garden was completely infested with gnomes, so Edward had no problem keeping busy. In a way, he was glad for the work, and it was a welcome distraction from the troubles normally occupying his mind.
"Nice one, Edward!" called Fred encouragingly.
"Yeah, you're a natural gnome-tosser!" George echoed. "Are you sure you've never done this before?"
"Nope, never," Ed replied, grinning as he wiped his forehead with his left sleeve.
Suddenly their expressions changed. "What, is there something on my face?" he asked jokingly."What's wrong? Guys?"
Ron pointed at the young alchemist's dangling right arm. "Um, Edward? There's a gnome on your hand, you know."
Suprised, Edward looked down to see a spud-like mass clawing at his glove. "Hey!" he protested, "Get off! Winry will kill me if you scratch that up!" He tried to scrape the thing off with his left foot, but despite his best efforts, the gnome refused to be dislodged. Frustrated, Ed tried to stun the gnome by whacking it against his thigh, but the gnome was smarter. As soon as Edward lifted his hand, the gnome let go and landed on Ed's left leg, just above the knee, where the automail ended.
Then it bit him, hard.
Edward tried to stifle the scream of agony, but part of it escaped. Through the haze of pain he grabbed the gnome with nerveless metal fingers and hurled it with as much force as he could muster. Considering the Weasley's reactions, he must have thrown it pretty far.
"Wow, Edward," spoke a twin in an awed voice. "I've never seen a gnome fly that far before."
Mrs. Weasley, on the other hand, had more motherly concerns.
"Oh, my!" she exclaimed, completely forgetting that she wasn't very fond of the young alchemist. "You poor dear. Does it hurt much?" she asked sympathetically, rushing to tend Edward's injury.
He shoved her back, all good humor gone. "I'm fine," he said through gritted teeth. "I don't need your help. I can take care of this myself."
"But if you would just let me look at it-" Mrs. Weasley persisted.
Edward again pushed her hands away. "No. I told you, I'm fine," he insisted, clamping his left hand over the wound. As much as it hurt to see her injured expression, he had no choice. He could never let her see his true self, built of metal and pain. He couldn't let any of them see.
Limping off toward the house, he replied, "Go ahead and finish without me."
As he hobbled away, Ed heard George whisper, "It's too bad he got hurt. He was our best gnome-thrower."
Mr. Weasley quietly shushed him.
Edward took a small hand towel and ran it under the water. Hobbling over to a nearby chair, he carefully rolled up his dirt-encrusted pant leg, gingerly lifting it away from the drying blood on his thigh. He winced as he placed the damp towel over the wound's opening. Sighing in both relief and pain, he leaned against the chair's wooden headrest.
"That's the problem with automail," Ed murmured to himself, rubbing his knee. "It's incredibly strong, but you can't feel a thing."
Ed started to his feet, forgetting the pain. "What are you doing here?" he demanded furiously.
Harry's hand self-consciously flattened the hair over a scar on his forehead. "They sent me to find you," he mumbled. "Mrs. Weasley thought you might have some trouble bandaging that by yourself." His gaze drifted lower, attracted by the dull shine of steel. "What's wrong with your leg?"
"Nothing!" Ed retorted automatically, shoving the black cloth down over his metal skin. "Is that all, or will you be leaving now?" the alchemist asked pointedly.
"It's like that time when we were in the devil's snare, isn't it?" said Harry, slowly remembering. "Your arm looked like that, too. It's like they're not really your limbs at all. How is that possible?"
"I said go, kid. It's not a request."
Harry had a sudden flash of insight. "Does this have something to do with your brother?"
Edward's right hand, which had been gripping the arm of the chair he was sitting in, now clenched so tightly that it split the heavy wood into a thousand splinters with a loud crack.
"LEAVE!" he roared, his voice deafening in the silence.
Harry's eyes were wide with fear, and he scrambled to obey, stumbling over himself in his haste to escape the alchemist's wrath.
Immediately Edward regretted his actions. "Nice work, Ed," he cursed to himself. "You've scared him off. How are you going to protect the kid if he tries to run every time he sees your face?"
Sorry about the late update. I've been...busy. I hope you enjoy and merry late Christmas!