As Harry cracked his eyes open he noticed that the sun was creating the same reddish glow he'd seen before he'd gone to sleep. Through the blur he couldn't be sure whether this was because the sun was setting or he just hadn't been asleep for very long and it was still daybreak. As he stirred himself to reach for his glasses a rustle broke the silence and he heard Ron speak.
"About time mate! I thought you were going to sleep all of today as well!"
"Shush Ron! It's barely dawn!"
Harry sat up, startled. He seemed to be in his dormitory judging by the blurry red hangings on the four-poster he was in. By the colour of the light, he judged it was dawn. Hermione most definitely should not be in his dormitory at dawn.
"Oh I am so glad you're awake, Harry!" said Hermione. Her beaming face came into view as Harry located his glasses and hastily shoved them onto his face. She was definitely in his dormitory at dawn. "Mrs Weasley's going to barge in here and wake you herself if you didn't wake up soon. I think she wants to feed you."
"How long have I been out?" Harry asked.
"Just a day; it's morning again, but you'd better hurry up. I don't know how much longer Kreacher will be able to hold mum off."
"Kreacher?" he asked, wondering why the house elf would want to hold off anyone from feeding him. His stomach grumbled rather loudly, as if in answer to his question.
"Yeah, he's determined to ensure that no one disturbs 'Master Harry'," explained Ron. "He's like a little sentinel at the bottom of the boys' staircase. Dad had to conjure sleeping bags for all the boys to use in the common room. Kreacher only let us up here after half an hour of Hermione persuading him. Ginny was not impressed."
As Ron explained all this Hermione tactfully retreated behind a rather large tome allowing Harry to emerge from his bed and rummage about for his robes.
"Is anyone else up yet?" he asked. He was hungry and not particularly interested in talking with anyone before breakfast.
"Apart from Mum, nope," said Ron. "We could go now and avoid everyone else. Breakfast should be on in the Great Hall any minute now. Reckon Mum's right. You look a bit peaky, could do with some fattening up." Ron eyed Harry critically and out the corner of his eye Harry saw Hermione raise her eyebrows as she gazed at him as well. He sensed their next question and stiffened before Hermione spoke.
"Exactly how did you convince Voldemort you were dead Harry? I mean you look bad, but not that bad," she asked. Harry could almost see the cogs turning in her head. Her eyebrows were drawn together the way they did when she was working on a particularly tricky Arithmancy problem and she'd narrowed her eyes as if inspecting
him under some sort of microscope.
"Gee, thanks Hermione." Harry didn't want to discuss it right then, especially not with Hermione in the analytical mood she was probably in – given the way she was tapping her finger on her leg. She did that when she was trying to solve a problem lately. Harry didn't know whether to be grateful it gave him a clue or annoyed because it was a truly irritating habit. He didn't think he could take analysis on an empty stomach. Ron seemed either to sense this or was equally unwilling to discuss anything on an empty stomach and Harry did not miss the look he and Hermione exchanged as Harry hesitated.
"I don't want to talk about it," he mumbled and lapsed into a broody silence. When his and Ron's stomachs rumbled in unison, Harry sighed and headed for the door.
"We'd best rescue your mum from Kreacher then … or will we be rescuing Kreacher from her?"
But Mrs Weasley was not in sight as they exited the boys' staircase into a common room strewn with sleeping bodies. Harry saw Mr. Weasley surrounded by Bill, Fleur, Percy, and Charlie. He gathered that Mrs Weasley and Ginny were in the girls' dorms and wondered briefly where Fred and George were before he remembered that Fred was gone and couldn't be there. Not even the sight of Neville, Seamus and Dean curled up together under one of the study tables next to the window could shift the melancholy feeling that settled in his stomach. Dennis Creevey was huddled in the foetal position near the dormitory stairs. As he stood there, gazing at Dennis's tear streaked face, Kreacher bounded into sight.
"Master Harry! Master Harry! You've been asleep for so long, you need to eat! If you don't eat you'll fade away into nothing!" Kreacher launched into a seemingly endless rant and began pushing and pulling Harry towards the portrait hole.
"Dunno why we were worried about mum trying to feed you up. He's got her beat!"
As they got to the portrait hole Harry noticed the occupants of the room begin to stir.
"Stop, stop Kreacher! I'll go and have breakfast gladly, I'm hungrier than a hippogriff but let's go to the kitchens, all right?" Harry didn't want company and he knew the occupants of Gryffindor tower were probably only some of the castle's occupants who would seek him out if he went to the Great Hall for breakfast. Kreacher acquiesced and promised to go on ahead and arrange for food while Harry, Ron and Hermione made their way more sedately down to the painting and tickled the pear to gain access to the kitchens.
The kitchens seemed busy and quiet all at the same time. It was as if the house elves who busied themselves preparing mountains of food were far off in the distance. The area by the fireplace was an oasis of calm in comparison. Just before he sank into a plush armchair in front of the fire Harry noticed they weren't alone. Sitting in a chair just to the left of the glowing embers and cradling a steaming mug was George. Harry froze in his tracks. An icy fist clenched his heart and the dull feeling from the common room moved up from his stomach and settled around his heart making his
"What's up mate?" Ron asked Harry. His voice shattered the stillness and George looked up. Harry could see the tear tracks that streaked through the dirt and dust still on his face and as he gazed at them his eyes filled and tears began dripping down his cheeks once more. Hermione pushed past Ron and Harry and approached George, kneeling in front of him.
"George," she questioned softly, "would you like us to go?" George shook his head carefully but did not speak as his face began to crumple and his hands began to shake. Hermione carefully extricated the mug from his hands and set it on the hearth before folding George into a hug as he began to weep loudly on her shoulder. Ron strode quickly over to them, crouching and pulling them both into a hug, his tall frame overwhelming both the other two, shorter figures. Harry wasn't sure what he should do but before he could decide anything he heard footsteps behind him. Turning, he saw Bill and Charlie walking backwards watching Percy's attempts to extricate himself from the portrait frame through which they had come. He was having little success and appeared to be stuck.
"I really don't know how you two knew how to sneak into the kitchens," he was muttering. "Really I would have expected better; Prefects, both of you."
"Don't look at me, Percy. I was a model student," insisted Bill. "I had no more idea than you! Ask Charlie how he knows!" Charlie raised his hands in mock surrender.
"Seriously Perce," said Charlie, "I was at Hogwarts with the twins for two years, they might not have confided in you, but how long do you think it took them to find the kitchens?"
"Fred found the door handle first term," said George hollowly. Bill and Charlie started and spun around while George's voice appeared to jolt Percy free from the portrait frame. The effect was the same as if George had been standing behind Percy and pushed him through. Percy fell onto the stone floor with a thud.
"George, Mum's been looking for you," said Bill softly, joining Ron, George and Hermione in front of the fireplace. He nodded at Harry and Ron. "I think she'll be relieved we found you lot as well. Hermione, can you go and tell her we found you all, so she can stop worrying?" Hermione nodded, carefully extracting herself from Ron and George. Harry moved to follow her when Charlie shot out an arm, detaining him. Harry raised his eyebrows at him but Charlie only shook his head imperceptibly and then jerked his head in Bill's direction. Harry followed Charlie and Percy to the fireplace where Bill conjured another two chairs and produced a bottle of Firewhisky from a pocket in his robes.
"What am I going to do Bill?" George asked plaintively, turning a tear streaked face towards them. Percy's protest at the production of alcohol died on his lips.
"We toast," said Bill. "We drink to our brother and give him the best send off he could have … and then we rebuild and we go on. We go on living for him. We make this world something worth dying for, and we never forget him. Ever. That's what you're going to do."
As he spoke, Bill conjured six glasses, handed them around and began pouring Firewhisky into each one. Ron held out an arm to George, hauling him to his feet. George composed himself a fraction and raised his glass.
"To rebuilding, to living, to brotherhood, to Fred."
"That's it little brother, get that down," Bill said as he pulled Harry down into a seat. Harry's throat burned and his eyes stung but he wasn't sure if it was from the Firewhisky or because of what Bill had said.
Harry felt a warm glow as he looked around at his companions and he knew that it had very little to do with the Firewhisky. The six of them passed the morning in front of the fireplace in the kitchen. They were fed copiously by solicitous house- elves and polished off the bottle of Firewhisky while they shared outrageous stories about Fred.
"Remember when he was trying to start the car, Ron?" said George. "He was half asleep and kept refusing to start it because he thought it would be too noisy!"
"That was the whole point," chortled Ron. "We had to start the car to make it fly and go and get Harry." Ron was a little inebriated and nearly fell off his chair as he tried to throw an arm around Harry's shoulder.
"He was a good driver though," sobbed George. "He made it all the way to Surrey and back." Ron nodded carefully.
"Remember that time he made my Head Boy badge say 'Big Head Boy'," said Percy and it sounded for a moment as if he considered that to be a fond memory. "He was so smart." As Percy dissolved into Firewhisky induced tears George sat up straight.
"Hey! That was my idea!"
Bill told a story that none of the others could remember involving baby Fred, six spoons and a bucket of dirt and Ron recounted all the times Fred had turned him blue, pink or into a toad. At one point Harry wondered dimly why Mrs. Weasley hadn't come to fetch them, Hermione seemed to be taking an awfully long time but he was distracted in his musings by Charlie who had broken a lull in the conversation.
"What about the time Fred stuck me to the ceiling," he said taking a swig from his glass. "Damn good spell that and he taught it to Ginny. That might come in very handy for our little sister. It's a good place to stick the boys that are bothering her."
"Fred told me the other day he had a great idea about what to do next time Ginny admits to having a boyfriend," confided George. "She's been avoiding that question all year. Fred was really close to getting it out of her too. I could feel it! No idea how long it'll take us now, we'll have to start from scratch." Harry froze and Ron burst out laughing. Charlie looked thoughtful.
"What do you think he was going to do to the bloke, George?"
"No idea, I think it involved fireworks and enclosed spaces though," replied George. "Always had a fondness for fireworks did our Fred."
Bill and Charlie nodded as if this were a perfectly acceptable solution to a small insect infestation while Ron caught the look on Harry's face and simply laughed harder. For his part, Harry began to sink as far into the plush chair as he could manage, trying to remain completely inconspicuous and wondering how he was going to escape.
"I really don't think Ginevra is going to go for this idea fellows," said Percy slowly, enunciating every word carefully. Harry thought Percy might possibly be drunker than the rest of them put together. "If she finds out you are plotting anything she'll Bat Bogey you in a heartbeat."
George conceded that this may very well be a valid point and the Weasley brothers sank into a contemplative state with Ron punctuating the silence with muffled laughter that none of them, in their drunken stupor, thought to question.
"Do you think she's got a bloke right now though?" Charlie broke the silence. "I mean it's been a bit of a rough year, lots going on. Maybe we've got time to prepare? Our plans could be executed swiftly if we have a little time to prepare."
Harry sprayed a mouthful of Firewhisky over an unsuspecting George and some stray droplets caused the fire to flare up. Suddenly Harry was as sober as a judge and looked rather fearfully at the five fully grown wizards he was sitting with. Make that four. Ron hardly looked fearsome as he renewed his vigorous laughter rolling on the hearthrug.
"You all right there Harry?" asked Bill solicitously. "Mum'll probably kill us if we get you two really pickled. Come to that Fleur might have a bit to say to me …"
Amidst gentle ribbing about his married status Bill motioned his brothers to their feet, vanished the glasses and the extra chairs and slung an arm around George. As he led George back to the door of the kitchen Harry swore he heard Bill say that they would finish Fred's last work and find the slimeball going out with Ginny and deal with him good and proper. Ron's laughter echoed throughout the kitchen and as the portrait swung shut Harry heard Percy ask Ron if he hadn't flipped his lid completely and what on earth was so funny.
There was no way Harry was going anywhere near those boys.
He wasn't sure exactly how long it was until he heard the painting swing open and Mr Weasley entered. He scanned the room.
"Ah there you are Harry," said Mr Weasley. "Seems Ron was right, you've not gone far after all. Got the womenfolk in a knot upstairs there."
"I'm sorry Mr Weasley," Harry apologised. "I didn't mean for anyone to worry."
"The boys thought you were with them," explained Mr Weasley. "But considering they are a wee bit tipsy … well, I'm not surprised they didn't realise you weren't there. They're carrying on something shocking about ferreting out 'the slimeball' and defending Ginny's honour. I'm really not sure I want to know about that." Mr Weasley said all this conversationally, as if his sons getting drunk and seeking revenge on slimeballs who sought to dishonour their sister was an everyday occurrence.
"They want to finish the project Fred was working on before he died … er, identify Ginny's latest boyfriend and finish him off," explained Harry. "Um … I really couldn't be a part of that."
"Oh I'm sure they'd welcome your help there Harry. They see you as their brother, you know," said Mr Weasley and Harry thought he heard a hint of humour in the other man's voice but when he looked Mr Weasley seemed old and weary, the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes etched deep on his pale face. There was very little humour in his face and he looked like a man who had the weight of the world on his shoulders.
"I'd not be so sure about that if they knew," muttered Harry. He paused and watched as Mr Weasley stood there looking into the fireplace. "I'm sorry Mr Weasley, about Fred. I – I …" He trailed off, unsure what he was trying to say, unsure what he wanted to say.
"I know, son," said Mr Weasley gently, the grief on his face becoming more prominent. "I know. Now I came down here to let you know you've got a visitor. Best come up and see."
Harry was not at all keen on entertaining visitors and wondered briefly if he could avoid it, but the look on Mr Weasley's face stopped him. It was clear that he should go and see this visitor and so he wearily rose from his chair and moved towards the portrait frame that marked the doorway leading from the kitchen back to the halls of Hogwarts.
"Harry?" He turned back at the sound of Mr Weasley's voice. "Thank you, son, thank you." Harry just looked sadly at him and nodded before climbing through the kitchen entrance to go and greet his mystery visitor.