Chapter 1: The Shop
"Yeah." Fred nodded from George's left. "Wow would be the word."
"It's...well, it's...yeah. Wow."
There really wasn't any other word they could think of to more aptly describe the crumbled heap before them. Up and down Diagon Alley, everywhere they looked, the scene was the same. Some few shops were mostly untouched, and some were in the midst of being rebuilt, but most were like this: utterly blasted, foundations cracked, and some even caved in altogether. It was strange, seeing the familiar street like this, and even in the bright, early morning air, George had to suppress a shiver. Diagon Alley, for lack of a better way to say it, had an air of neglect and abuse. Windows knocked out like missing teeth, doors hanging before the black, yawning holes of abandoned shops, the place seemed lonely, eerie maybe, and a little sad.
They had decided last evening that today was the day to see about their shop. George was mostly healthy again now, aside from a tender rib or two and some residual shortness of breath, and he and Fred had concluded that they couldn't put it off any longer. It wasn't that they didn't want to come down here, necessarily. In fact, it was all they could talk about for the last few weeks, as they sat on George's bed while he recovered from his stay at Azkaban, and planned how they would rebuild the place, restock their depleted stores, and even add a new product or two. But the thing of it was, actually coming down here, and not just talking about it, but actually setting foot down Diagon Alley, meant facing things they'd rather all forget. Sure, the war was over now, and everyone had pulled through despite a few rather close calls. But they were weary, worn through, really, and neither Fred nor George had felt ready just yet to sift through the mess the war had left in its wake.
It was one thing to know that their shop was in shambles, and another thing to see it. Sort of like ripping off a scab, really, which you had to do of course if you wanted to get at the pus underneath. But for a while there, it had just been nice to let a scab remain a scab.
But then, last night, things were suddenly different. Last night, they'd all eaten outside at the long table, the fireflies rising in slow arcs of light around them. They'd stuffed themselves with their mum's cooking until even Percy had had to loosen his belt, and it had finally just seemed to click, like it was just finally time to go back to the shop. Everyone - especially Ginny - had volunteered to come down with them as soon as they'd brought the subject up, and the twins had welcomed the support. But there was something about seeing the place for the first time - their place, which they'd scraped together over the years into something of a home - that they'd wanted to see together, just the two of them, before they let anyone else in. So Charlie was sent off to collect breakfast, while Ginny and Harry had been dispatched to collect a few supplies, and now Fred and George stood side by side, silent in the rubble, as they stared at the remains of their home.
There wasn't much left. A blast had all but caved in the front, and though the structure was still sound, the walls were bowed in ways that George was sure brick was never supposed to have been moved. Absently, he wondered what kind of spell would have warped the entire building like that, and it chilled him to see the effects of such a bizarrely devastating spell. Toeing a scrap of what looked like the twisted remains of the pygmy puff cage, George shivered a little in the light morning wind. He wondered what happened to the little creatures, and felt a pang of guilt at not having been able to save them.
"Do you think," Fred spoke up, breaking the silence with a sort of weak gesture at the mess, "maybe you should bless it or something before we go in?"
George frowned at the scene before him, at the crumbling brick on the west corner, the spider-cracked glass in the front window, and the shreds of old posters blinking feebly in the debris strewn about the front of what was left of their shop. After a moment of thought, he solemnly uncapped his coffee, dipped his fingers in the hot liquid, and sprinkled the ruin before him, chanting in a low and reverent tone, "Wizardus dominus platypus-poo. In nomine latte et cappuccino et three shots of espresso." Out of the corner of his eye, he observed a bit of a flat look on Fred's face. "What?" he shrugged, all innocence as he recapped his drink.
"Platypus-poo and three shots of espresso?" Fred asked, eyebrows raised.
George grinned, and took another sip of his coffee. "Just covering all bases."
They stood like that together for another minute, the wind rifling through their hair as the sun gained strength down the length of the street. He could see Fred out of the corner of his eye, flicking a gaze at the side of George's head where his
right ear used to be. He didn't like it when Fred did that. It made George feel strange, seeing Fred look at him like that, like he was an outsider now, different, marked. But there was nothing for it, really, other than to wait for Fred to get over it. Never mind that George had been Holey for over a year now, and Fred should have long ago gotten ahold of himself. Or so one might have hoped.
"I guess we should get on with it then, yeah?" Fred spoke up after a minute, his voice almost seeming too loud in the early morning air.
"Dunno." George cocked his head, considering the mess before them. "Suppose someone's hexed it?"
"Oh, yes, and we should definitely run to Bill like a couple of girls. Oh, Bill," Fred affected a high voice, and clutched his coffee in mock terror, "please come save Georgie-porgie from the scary-scary joke shop. I think there's a mad rubber chicken on the loose in there."
Making a face, George pulled out his wand, and began to maneuver through the rubble. "Oh, move over, and stop being a git."
"But that's my specialty," Fred grinned as he hurried to catch up. "Git-ness. Git-ocity. In fact, it's my middle name: Git-eon."
George snorted a laugh, and almost turned his ankle on a loose brick near the door. "Now look what you made me do."
Catching him, Fred steadied George's elbow for a moment, while George righted himself and wobbled over a crumbling pile of ash-covered brick. It almost looked like someone had magically multiplied the stuff, there were so many crumbled bits of mortar and stone lying about, some of it obviously from their shop, some probably from the shop next door. It took them a moment of teetering on brick piles, Fred's fingers digging into George's elbow more to keep himself upright than to offer support now, but at length they found themselves on what was left of the front stoop, and staring at the splintered remains of the shop door. There was a pause, in which they shared a glance. Then with a shrug, Fred simply pushed the door aside, and for the first time in what seemed like an age, they were home.
It was, in a word, shattered. Both twins stood blinking in the dim for a moment, their eyes adjusting to the almost lightless interior. Then George lighted the tip of his wand, and Fred let out a long, low whistle at the carnage around them.
There was almost nothing left intact. Boxes were smashed, shelves overturned, and the floor was smeared with a cesspool of random powders and liquids. Near what used to be the register was a crazed pile of wood splinters that George realized were the remnants of the Reusable Hangmen. Candy of all shapes and colors lay melted and smeared over every surface in the room, as though someone had simply thrown every bit of the shop's candy into the air and then set the room ablaze to melt the lot. Only one shelf remained standing, and even that was only barely standing. Teetering crazily to one side, it held only a row of strange vapors that George wasn't entirely sure he could identify. Most impressive of all, however, was the swamp that held court in the bay near the front window, obviously leftover from a spilled Portable Swamp, and George couldn't help a bloom of pride at the sight of a few chiggers, still dancing resolutely in a shaft of morning light.
Clapping a hand onto George's shoulder, Fred's face held an odd look, but it wasn't entirely without humor. "Well, we expected as much, didn't we?" he said, his tone almost carefully light, though his face held a bit of a grimace.
"Almost warms the cockles," George added wryly, still staring around at a cluster of fake wands that had transformed into bouquet of halibut and egg beaters, "knowing they took the time to do it right."
"Exactly." Fred tipped his head, and added with a bit of a mock sigh, "I mean, honestly, you just don't see this level of service anymore. These were quality henchmen, George. Quality."
"Almost leaves a guy feeling a little touched," George replied.
"In the head," Fred slid him a sly grin as he moved off toward the swamp, bending down to say hello to the chiggers, and George was immediately struck by how very much like their father Fred was. Both of them were just a little bit mad.
Sauntering further into the shop, George stepped carefully around the mess, making sure to avoid the mystery vapors as he inspected the complete disaster that had become of all of their hard work. He supposed, if he wanted to put a positive light on things, he might feel a small, grim bit of pride at being considered by the Death Eaters with such obvious gravity. He stared around, unsure whether to be proud, or scared, or something else entirely. "Merlin alive, Fred, who knew Voldy's lot would take a joke shop so seriously?"
"I know," Fred frowned, poking almost meditatively (if Fred were given to meditation) at a stand of reeds. He seemed thoughtful for a moment, mouth downturned as though he were on the verge of saying something. But he hesitated, and after a moment, said with what seemed like an almost forced brightness, "But did you see this swamp? It hasn't faded a bit. You know, George," Fred straightened, dusting his hands on his pants leg, as his eyes took on a bit of a thoughtful gleam, "We could really branch out with this kind of thing. Miniature typhoons, tidal waves for the bathtub, portable Saharas -- the list really is endless."
Before George could reply to this, (or to ask what Fred had really been about to say), Fred was already up from the swamp, and rolling on as he strolled through the broken shop, poking at this and that, skirting whatever looked sketchy. "And the fireworks, George, if we incorporated some of the charms we used to make the swamp, we could modify them into a living forest fire - or a real-life solar system, complete with a realistically burning sun."
"And burn down London maybe?" George put in, as he carefully shook a few bright purple droplets from the bottom of his sole. Merlin knew what potion that might have been.
"Ok, yeah, rubbish idea. I'm just thinking out loud," Fred waved him off with a grin, though his eyes were still a little clouded, as though despite his sudden rambling about products, his mind was on other things.
A few minutes passed in which time Fred, humming tunelessly, resumed his rummaging, and George found a few broken bits of candle, which he lit along the countertop near the remains of the register. Immediately the room took on a more cheery glow, illuminating the debris strewn around the broken remains of the register. "Ooh, Fred, look at this," George called his brother over, and held up a half-eaten box of Skiving Snacks. Tsk'ing, he raised his brows and said, "I wonder which Death Eater it was exactly who found himself with unending intestinal upset."
Emitting a snicker, Fred examined the remains of the box. "Not too bright. Whoever it was only ate the bad half of these three." He looked up, face bright with his special brand of glee. "Of course, some U-No-Poo would have put him right."
"Well," George shrugged, smirking, and gave the box an airy toss, "too bad they blasted that particular display." Sobering a bit, he glanced toward the back of the store, where the anti-dark-arts products had been. "Suppose they got into the back?"
"Dunno," Fred frowned, and dropped the few Hangman sticks he'd been inspecting. "We left it pretty well hexed. I mean," he maneuvered around a fallen shelf, shoes crunching over the remains of a Punching Telescope, "not to sound completely big-headed --"
"--of course not, not us--"
"--but between you and me, we do know how to set a trap or two." Wand out, Fred was already muttering the counter-jinxes to some of the defensive spells they'd set up around the room, and George wasn't surprised when he saw the telltale, blue-green shimmer of a Vanissi charm being removed. A difficult charm to set up, the Vanissi charm would teleport anyone crossing its boundary to a place chosen by the wizard who set the trap. As George and Fred had chosen someplace far out in the middle of the Atlantic, they couldn't be entirely sure now whether any poor, unsuspecting Dark Wizard had been caught in their trap, though George supposed the innards of some shark might tell the tale.
Once through the last of the spells, (the order of which both Fred and George had laboriously memorized, so they could be sure to remove them all after the war), Fred reached out to pull back the curtain, and found to their mutual surprise that the room was largely untouched.
Cautiously, (well, cautiously for Fred at any rate, which pretty well meant he didn't fling himself in like a paratrooper), Fred stepped further in, with George close behind him, and both took a quick stock of the Shield products, Decoy Detonators, and Darkness Powder, among other things that had been the real bread and butter of their business. Even in the dim, they could see the neat stacks, the subdued gold lettering along the sides of the boxes, and the hanging rows of Shield Cloaks, as orderly as if they'd been left only yesterday. "I can't believe it's all still here," George shook his head in surprise at their untouched stores, completely nonplussed. To be fair, despite all outward appearances, both he and Fred were actually alarmingly good wizards. But against Voldemort's followers, George hadn't really expected their defenses to hold.
Frowning, as though thinking the same thing, Fred stood looking around the oddly intact room. "Strange. Maybe whoever broke into the shop just ran out of time before they could get in the back room."
"Or were just randomly sacking the place," George put in, "and couldn't be bothered with cracking any real security."
"No," Fred shook his head, sounding puzzled. "You'd think they'd want to get into here if anything." Fingering a cloak, he let the material fall again, and then brightened a bit, saying, "You know George, on the other hand, it is entirely possible we're just better wizards than even we thought."
"Don't say that so loud," George pulled a grimace. "Appearances and all."
"Right," Fred smirked. "We'd hate for people to discover that we're dead sexy and brilliant. How would they live with us, for one?"
"A nightmare, for sure." George blinked slowly, face dignified with mock horror. "Not to mention the ruin of our reputations."
"And how," George added, "would we sell our products to the miscreants of tomorrow if we're suspected of having actually studied anything ourselves?"
"We'll, you've studied," Fred tipped an accusing look George's way. "I've managed to maintain our most honorable standard of brilliance without books."
George raised both brows, knowing that Fred's "brilliance" was helped in large part by George's learning from said books. "Yes, Fred, I've actually read a book. Or, well, parts of books at any rate. However," he smiled nicely, holding up a finger, "let us not forget that nothing is a crime until one is caught."
"Touché," Fred grinned, and offered him a mock bow, though not without another surreptitious glance at George's missing ear, which made George turn away and pretend not to notice.
"Well," Fred drew a breath in after a brief moment, his hands on his hips, "bugger it. With the post-war mop-up, people are still in the market for this stuff. We'll sell this and use the Galleons to refinance the shop."
"But we're letting Bill have a poke at it first," George cautioned, and grabbed Fred's shoulder to back him out of the room before he could venture any further inside. "Never know what kinds of traps someone could have set if Voldy's lot did get in here."
"Good point," Fred conceded, and allowed himself to be pulled out of the room, and toward the back steps leading up to their flat.
Once upstairs, they found their flat to be mostly untouched. Fred had visited it a few weeks back, but his stay had been less than a minute, (as he had been on sort of a rampage at the time), and he hadn't really had the chance to look around. Now that they could take their time, they found the place largely as they had left it. A few book cases had been knocked over, as though someone had given the place a cursory search, and then moved on before making any real mess. The damage to their shop and flat really did seem like more of a case of random vandalism than any true Death Eater attack, and outside of an unfortunate incident while opening a jar of months-old mayonnaise, neither George nor Fred ran into anything resembling a leftover trap.
After that, it was back downstairs again for a last look-round at the shop. George's stomach was beginning to grumble now, and he was starting to feel it was time to see how Charlie was getting on with Operation Breakfast. Knowing Charlie, he'd eat half of it before arriving at the shop, but at this point, George was hungry enough to down half-eaten leftovers, whether it smelled of dragon or not.
"Well," George piped up after they'd done some last poking about, "fancy finding our dear Charles? I'm starving."
Fred didn't immediately answer him, and George dusted his hands off, looking around to find Fred standing with his head bent over a twisted bit of scrap. Turning it over and over in his hands, Fred looked as though he were trying to figure out which way was supposed to be up -- or at least which way would have been up had the thing still been remotely intact, or even identifiable.
"Oy, Fred," George prodded, maneuvering around the row of vapors again as he made his way over to where Fred was standing, his stomach rumbling louder now, as if to emphasize the point. "Give it up for dead, mate. Probably just some leftover shelving. Unless it's edible, then I'm all ears. Fred?" he asked, when his twin still didn't answer.
Head still bent, Fred turned the scrap over one last time, before stopping to simply hold it in his hands, while he stood motionless, and frowning deeply. Around him, their war-shattered store lay in dusty heaps, and against the backdrop of candle-flecked dust, Fred's pale skin and red hair stood out like a shout. He said after a minute, his voice sounding a bit forced, "Yeah. I'm hungry, too."
But instead of moving, Fred only continued to stand with his head bent over his bit of scrap, his eyes mostly covered by a shaggy red curtain of bangs. Frowning, George studied him, waiting. He knew if he gave it long enough, Fred would either crack some joke and dash off for breakfast, or give up the fight and just say what was on his mind. It was why they'd come down here just the two of them, really. It was brittle business seeing one's home -- well, their whole life, really -- all in shambles, and Fred had been working up to some outburst for days. Naturally, George supposed that finally seeing the shop might put Fred over the edge and get him to give up and admit he'd been stewing on something. But then again, this was Fred, and anytime Fred was the least bit forthright with his feelings, George was sure there was at least a cold front moving through some part of hell.
The weather in Hades aside, it wasn't that George didn't care about Fred's feelings, whatever they were. On the contrary, to say that he cared about Fred was possibly the king of all understatements. It was just that, with Fred, when it came to things that really, truly bothered him, getting Fred to finally spit it out was like trying to net fireflies. You could make no sudden movements, and know when to stand still, but if you were patient enough, eventually you'd scoop one right into your jar.
Or, well, that was the nice way of saying it. To be frank, sometimes sifting through Fred's emotions could be like trying to catch blast-ended skrewts. But honestly, the analogy wasn't as nice, and a skrewt in a bell jar would probably end up erupting into a lot of flames and flying glass. But then again, this was Fred, and maybe that was a bit more accurate than fireflies.
Anyway, if truth be told, you'd think it would be the other way around, George always found himself thinking. You'd think it would be George who was the one prone to long, slow agonizing, and who had difficulty saying the things that were truly important to him. But for George, it wasn't quite as hard as it was for Fred. Honestly, George was pretty straight-forward, and though both twins could be accused of being unabashedly blunt on almost any topic, it was George who was able to be blunt even on the deeper levels. Not so with Fred. No, with Fred, it was more complicated; there was more pride involved for Fred, for one, more vanity, if George did say so himself. And maybe, if George were bothering to be honest, it just plain went a bit deeper with Fred than it did with most people. Maybe the sheer violence of all of Fred's emotions -- be they triumph or hilarity or anger or fear -- was merely testament to how deeply he felt about everything.
The rest of the family probably didn't really understand about Fred, George figured. To be fair, they probably did their best to understand him, but to put it plainly, they weren't his twin, and so they just didn't see what George could see. They didn't see that when Fred was shaken, it took him a good deal longer than it took most people to put himself right again. Maybe that made him weaker, or maybe it made him deeper on the whole; George didn't know, and he didn't care. He only wished he knew what to do to stop Fred from being so afraid all the time. But he didn't. And now Fred was different, and George was helpless, and the only thing he knew how to do was wait for Fred to say the things he needed to say.
"Fred..." George prodded gently when his brother hadn't spoken for several minutes, and at the sound of George's voice, Fred shook himself a little, his head jerking upward a fraction as though George had wakened him.
"M'sorry," Fred muttered, and tossed the bit of scrap aside. He fumbled a minute, looking like he wanted to put his hands in his pockets and run them through his hair, both at the same time. In the end, he settled for leaning against the counter. Avoiding George's gaze, he looked up, but only to look around the shop, his eyes moving without seeing.
George sighed, but gently, and came to lean against the counter next to Fred, his arms crossed over his chest. This was why they'd come down here together, just the two of them at first, so they could get through this without the others seeing.
"It doesn't bother you?" Fred asked quietly as he stuffed his hands in his pockets, side by side with George.
George looked at the dusty floor by his feet, knowing what Fred meant without his having to say it. "Of course it bothers me," he answered, his voice sounding hollow in the quiet room. Of course it bothered him, seeing what he would have had to come back to, what it would have been like for him without Fred. How could he have ever rebuilt a joke shop with Fred...gone? A joke shop, ha ha, the fruit of their short life's labor, serving as a cruel, eternal reminder of the twin he would never see again, outside of the bathroom mirror. Of course it bothered him, even seeing it now, with Fred beside him, alive and whole again.
"So?" Fred flicked him a glance. "Would you have gone on with it?"
"Without you?" George snorted, looking Fred in the face fully now, his brows knitted, his face incredulous. "Merlin, no, even though you know everyone and their uncle's dog would have told me that 'it's what Fred would have wanted'."
That last part came out more bitter than he'd meant it to sound, and George was surprised at the stab of anger that went through him at the thought. But Fred only shook his head, and said quietly, "I wouldn't give a rat's hat what I would have wanted at that point. I'd be -- Merlin's pants, George." George had scowled deeply at Fred's near-use of the 'D' word, and Fred backpedalled now, brows knitted. "I'd have been de-Fredded, wouldn't I? Ok? It's what I was going to say, sheesh. Anyway," he ploughed on, despite George's stormy face, "what I was going to say was that it wouldn't have mattered to me what I wanted, because it'd matter more to me what you'd want, wouldn't it? So what would the point be nagging you about it anyway? Merlin's left nut, George, it would have been your life."
"Yeah?" George shot back, realizing now how angry he still was about the whole thing, how scared, how it was all still so raw. "You think it would have been my life? Well, think again, mate, because for the rest of my life it would have been about what you'd have wanted, and what you'd have thought, and how my face reminded everyone of you. And no, Fred, I wouldn't have gotten over it. Not ever, not for a minute. Because without you --"
He broke off, not sure if he was angry with Fred, or what his family would have been like, or how his life almost was. Fred was here, and whole, despite the war, despite all that had happened since, and yet, for George, it was like it could still all be taken away. Fred had been taken away once, and now that it had happened, he wasn't so sure that it couldn't happen again.
Neither of them spoke for a moment. Neither one of them needed to. They both knew what the other thought, how the other felt about the whole thing, how much the other one was afraid. George talked more in his sleep now, muttering his bad dreams aloud for Fred to hear. And Fred, sometimes he stayed up well into the night, talking to George when he thought George was sleeping, telling him everything he was afraid to say in the light. They were still afraid, both of them, both afraid of losing each other, and George wasn't sure if they would ever stop being afraid again.
So much for being invincible. They'd landed on their feet so many times, George figured that when they were kids, they'd thought things would never be any different. But then Fred was de-Fredded, and things were different, and it was like the protective charm over them both was broken. Fred had tried a few weeks back to reason that since George had put things right by re-Fredding Fred, they'd ultimately landed on their feet again anyway. But at that, George had railed at Fred so viciously and so long that (to Fred's eventual relief), George had lost his voice, and hadn't bothered to try to speak to Fred again for days. Fred didn't know how it had been. Fred had almost lost George, but George had lost Fred. And that was a world of pain that Fred would never, and could never know.
And maybe that's what really set them apart. Maybe it was that, when Fred was gone, a part of George had died. He'd been de-Georged, and never re-Georged again, so unlike Fred, there still lay a piece of him missing, sort of like his ear cut away, but invisible, so that everyone just thought he was perfectly whole. Maybe that really was the big difference between them now, and maybe that was what made George feel just a little cut off, a little separate. Because Fred could never really know how it felt to be alive and dead at the same time.
And that made George angry. Not because he wanted Fred to feel pain, but because, in a way, he still felt that by dying, Fred had gone and left him behind.
Again, out of the corner of his eye, he saw Fred flick a glance at the right side of his head. It was almost compulsive with Fred, and just now George found that he couldn't stand it. "Would you stop that?" he snapped, voice sounding harsh even to himself.
"Sorry," Fred mumbled, and looked away. "It just -- it bothers me."
"I can see that," George growled, rather a bit too pointedly.
Fred uttered a short, quiet sigh, mouth downturned. He said, "It's just...I'm sorry, George. I don't know why it bothers me so much. It just...I just...I don't like being different. From you, that is."
Softening a bit, George dropped his scowl, and looked away. "Yeah. Yeah, I know."
"Well, it's not like things are any different," Fred burst, as though being quiet this long were simply too much for him. Turning on George, he threw his hands in the air, face animated with his worry and frustration. "I'm not going anywhere, George, and neither are you, so you can stop hollering at me like a great git, for one. And for another, it's not my fault that I don't like you missing an ear. It's just that I don't like being different. It makes me feel different, and I just...I want things to be like they were, and I wish you'd stop worrying all the time, and...I just..." He swept his gaze around the shop, shaking his head as he took it all in. "And I just...I just don't want this place to always remind you of what things would have been like--"
Here, he broke off, his eyes suddenly bright. Fred swiped a vicious hand across his eyes, scrubbing away any tears before they could fall. "I almost lost you, too, you know," he added. "In Azkaban, yeah, but...but in the war, too. I mean, if I'd died, hell George, you think 'going onward' would have been all that without you? Not to sound mental, well, aside from the fact that I am a bit off, I know that, but George, I am you. We're us. I mean, George, we're..."
Here, he faltered and looked away, trying to hide the fact that he was scrubbing at his face again.
"Fred..." George put a hand on Fred's shoulder, "...I know. I know what you mean." It was a lame thing to say, but it was the only thing. He did know what Fred meant. He knew it completely. They were Fred and George, no more no less, indivisible. One without the other simply wasn't complete.
Collecting himself, Fred said defensively after a minute, "I mean, not that I'm trying to sound all deep or anything, so don't get any big ideas. It's just...I mean, if I said that to anyone else..."
"...they wouldn't get it," George finished for him, and pulled him back around so they were facing each other again. "Fred, I know. They'd think you were being mushy, and God forbid you say anything like that to mum..."
"God, she'd be ghastly," Fred pulled a face, looking like he was thinking of retching a bit.
"Fred," George leveled his twin with a look, "I get it. I do. I am your twin, and in case you've forgotten that fact, I think there's a mirror around here somewhere to prove our uncanny resemblance, plus or minus an ear. Trust me. I get it. You just can't explain it to a non-twin how..."
"...how awful," Fred finished, "just how bloody awful it would be." And just then, behind the fear, George thought he detected a glint of guilt behind Fred's eyes.
"Fred," George knitted his brow, not letting Fred look away again, and he said gently, "it's not your fault, you know. That you almost --"
"Don't say it," Fred shook his head, looking down, anywhere but at George's face. "Don't ever say that word again, not ever. I'm not -- I'm not leaving you again." He looked up, his face touched with sorry. "Ever."
George looked at him for a moment, then said, meaning it completely, "I know. And I'm not leaving you, either."
Another silence fell, in which they could hear the pipes in the basement banging faintly, and George a stir of appreciation that at least the boiler still worked. Fred seemed to have the same thought, because he offered George a weak smile at the sound. But instead of commenting on the boiler, he said, "Do you suppose...I mean," he looked around at the shop, taking everything in, their lives, blasted and twisted around them, "...I mean, do you think we'll get to the point where, you know," he shrugged, helpless to say it better, "where we really believe that?"
"You mean," George asked, frowning, "will we ever get to the point where we're not constantly scared as mice about losing each other?"
"Well, yeah," Fred shrugged, "though to be honest, I don't think it's fair to say all mice are complete duffers."
"True," George smiled weakly. "Get my head chopped off by a Narnian, saying a thing like that." Fred gave him a chastising look, and promised not to go telling any Narnians, and George was left to answer Fred's question as best he could. "I dunno," he said, his smile fading a bit. "But I think, maybe with time." He shrugged. "You know what they say about time and all that rubbish."
"You mean," Fred put in with a thoughtful look, "like you sticking to me like a parasite, riding my glory for the next several years, and spending my hard-earned Galleons on boozy tramps until familiarity has bred enough contempt that I can happily chuck you out in the streets?"
"Yeah," George smiled again. "Something like that. Though if you're buying me tramps, keep in mind I like them boozy and easy."
Fred smirked, eyes narrowed and calculating. For a moment, it seemed like there was something else he wanted to say, but when he spoke, he only said, wryly, "You're not going to hug me again or anything? You've been almost like mum since my de-Fredding, you know."
At that, George snorted and crossed his arms again, head cocked to the side. "Oh, I'm like mum, am I? And who was the one who let slip the 'L' word when he thought I was sleeping the other night?"
Jaw dropping a bit, Fred regarded him with a dark look. "You were asleep."
"Obviously not," George smiled nicely, and Fred narrowed his eyes.
"Well, so what?" he recovered, crossing his own arms. "It's not like you don't feel the same way, you big, bloody poser."
"Yes, well at least I'm not all gushy about it," George raised his chin, and grinned as Fred scowled deeply. "Even if," he added a bit more gently, dropping his chin as he did, "I might, under extreme duress, possibly, conceivably...but only in the most dire circumstance, mind...admit that I could potentially love you, too." He added quickly, "But not within earshot of any gorgeous women."
"No, gods no," Fred looked aghast. "Not in front of women."
"Maybe in front of a court of law," George allowed, "under oath, and for a good cause."
"Well, yes," Fred nodded sagely. "I mean, sometimes for the greater good, we have to admit to things. In court. Or something like that."
"Though we make sure that this court is held in the dead of night or something," George added, "and that such admissions would in no way impugn our good reputations that we have so carefully and painstakingly tarnished over the years."
"'Ear, 'ear," Fred smiled, reciting one of George's lamer jokes. Then with a look around the shop he said, mouth downturned in thought, "So...you think we'll be able to put all this back together?"
George turned to look at the shop, at the ruin and work ahead of them. Taking stock, and ticking off in his mind the list of what they'd have to do just for cleanup, he said, "Well, if we enslave the family for a while..."
"...and that seedy little Potter kid," Fred added with a smirk.
"Yeah," George furrowed his brow, face darkening, "the one I caught snogging our sister this morning. I say we set him investigating the customers' toilet first, make sure it's not clogged or anything."
"And we can clog it first, of course," Fred grinned, "to make sure he's putting in an honest day's effort."
"Of course," George rolled his eyes, as if this had been a given. "I mean, give me enough of those horrifying breakfast burritos Charles is so fond of, and I could clog any three toilets, no problem."
Fred heaved a proud sigh, and pretended to wipe away a single tear. "Ah, George, you know I've always respected your skills."
Hands on his hips, and giving the place another sweeping look, George said, "Yeah, my gastrointestinal pyrotechnics, your nut job brand of ingenuity, a little indentured servitude from the family...yeah, I think we'll have this place back together in no time. That is," he added, "he added, "if I don't faint first from lack of breakfast."
"Yes," Fred's eyes widened, as though he'd neglected a sacred duty, "breakfast, how could I forget? I'm starving. Merlin, let's go find Charles before we faint dead away."
George grinned. "Yeah, before he eats it all and makes us buy seconds, the lousy, bottomless git."
"Could eat a Beauxbatons horse, that one," Fred muttered, and shouldered George aside as he pushed for the door ahead of him, his special brand of vain, greedy flair propelling him as usual toward breakfast and glory both. But then at once there came an unsteady moment, in which Fred halted in his tracks, almost making George bump into him from behind, and when he turned, there was the oddest look in his eye. But before George could so much as back away in alarm (as wiser men might have done), Fred grabbed him quite suddenly around the neck, and hugged him tight, and said all in a low rush, "You're my best mate and I guess I love you but don't tell anyone, ok?"
Startled, George swayed awkwardly at first in Fred's chokehold, one foot slipping on some boxes, the other sliding in a puddle of oozing potion. But then he steadied himself, and he hugged Fred back, and said, "Yeah, me too, Fred."
And that was it. That was all that Fred had really needed to say. Maybe it was a little weird now that they felt like they needed to say this to each other now and again, but war was weird, so George guessed he wasn't really bothered. They broke apart then, each pretending to look around one last time at the shop, while Fred cast surreptitious glances outside to make sure that no one had seen. And then they went out for breakfast, and caught up with Charlie, who had surprisingly not eaten without them, and who they found sitting on a bench across the street, waiting patiently with more coffee and breakfast biscuits, and to George's delight, a bag full of breakfast burritos.
"Took you two berks long enough," Charlie muttered, and tossed George a burrito. "Been waiting ages."
"Cud 'af ea'n wifou us," Fred pointed out through a mouthful of biscuit.
"Yes, and have you pissing and moaning about how I ate half your breakfast," Charlie pointed out as he passed the coffee, a look of concern passing briefly over his face as Fred looked for a moment like he might have been a bit overly ambitious about his last bite. But the coffee washed it down, and as the color returned to his face, they all sat back to eat together, and studied the ruined shop front.
"Don't worry," Fred put in at the sight of Charlie's dubious expression. "George blessed it."
"With what?" Charlie's expression, far from looking relieved, only looked as though he wasn't sure he wanted to know the details.
"Holy coffee," George replied, eyebrows raised to give Charlie an airy look. "No worries, mate, no blood involved."
"Though we're thinking of doing Potter," Fred pointed out.
"Caught him snogging our sister this morning," George explained.
Now Charlie's expression truly did darken, and when he frowned, George almost leaned away from him. Charlie was widely known to be the soft-touch in the family, but when he was riled he could give a rampaging Horntail a run for its money, and just now, he looked a little bit scary. "Yeah, we've been neglecting our brotherly duties, I think," he said through a sip of coffee, his eyes narrowed. "Going to have to have a talk with that kid."
"And by 'talk with that kid'," Fred asked, eyes glittering, "do you mean talk with the kid?"
"In every sense of the word," Charlie turned Fred a nice look, and George, from Charlie's other side, sat back with a feeling of deep satisfaction. Having a chat with Potter was something they'd been putting off for some time now, and it felt good just then to talk about getting on with it. It felt like moving forward, like they'd crossed yet another barrier with coming down to the shop, and now they could move on, and do things like terrorize their sister's fiancé-to-be. And that felt good. Though he did hope that the kid would survive the upcoming discussion with all six Weasley brothers.
"Bets on whether he'll crap his pants?" Fred asked, not at all nicely, because, after all, this was Fred.
"Oh, I dunno," George put in, "kid who faced Voldemort in a battle to the death and all?"
"Yeah," Charlie reasoned, "but he hasn't met the collective wrath of the SWC. I say he does a log in his shorts. Galleon on it."
"Galleon against it," George grinned, not sure why he was betting on the kid holding up. Six Weasleys were nothing to sneeze at, Voldemort or not.
"Galleon on it for me, too," Fred piped up from Charlie's other side, "and an extra Galleon says he squirts the Hershey on Ron's turn. Gotta be nothing scarier than your best mate turning dragon on you. Besides, enough coaching from us, and little Ronnikins might just make a man one day."
"One day," George rolled his eyes with a grin, and sat back to work on another burrito. "With some expert coaching from me especially. Everyone knows I'm the charming twin."
Fred snorted. "Gotta make up for that ear somehow."
And just like that, they were off and moving forward again, with everything, with the shop, with beating the snot out of Potter, and George felt as he sat there in the sun eating breakfast with his two favorite brothers that it was shaping up to be a very fine summer indeed. Very fine, perhaps finest.