Sticks in a Bundle
Title: Sticks in a Bundle
Disclaimer: I don't own any of them.
Setting: Summer after Harry's 5th year and definitely AU.
Author's Note: I realize that there is no shortage of stories out there dealing with this particular plot device: the Dursley's cross the line in their treatment of Harry and someone must come to his rescue. I have resisted the urge to write this, telling myself there was really no need when so many had already been done before. However, the more I've browsed and read, the more I noticed a pattern. In almost all of those stories, it somehow always ends up being Snape who does the rescuing, or the healing afterwards. No offense to brilliant authors everywhere who have done this, but that's just not the relationship I would like to see cultivated. So, finally, I broke down and wrote my own. I humbly present my own interpretation to you…
Warnings: This story contains scenes of abuse as well as mild language. It is also completely AU from book five onward.
Sticks in a Bundle
"Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable."
Fred looked up from the account book he was checking at the sound of his brother's voice.
"Lee just called through the Floo," said George, taking a seat on the edge of the desk where his twin was working. "Said he's got to back out of tonight's plans."
Fred scowled. He and George had been working like house-elves these last few months getting their shop up and running while still finding time to invent new products, visit the Burrow often enough to satisfy their mum, and help the Order out with a few tasks now that they'd been allowed to join as junior members. All that work with no play was starting to take its toll on his temperament, and he'd been excited to get out with his twin and their best friend.
"Did he say why he's standing us up?" he asked rather grumpily.
"Yeah. Remember his older sister, the one who's pregnant?"
"Well, apparently kid number five decided tonight's the night, and Lee got pressed into baby-minding duty for the other four."
Fred winced, deciding that maybe he could cut his friend some slack. A night spent changing nappies and playing "dollies" instead of plotting mischief with his best mates was probably not high on Lee's list of favorite activities either, even if he did adore his nieces. With a sigh, Fred stuck his quill in the account book and closed it, pushing away from the desk to lean back in his chair.
"So, now what are we going to do?" he asked his twin. "We've already closed the shop early."
George, still sitting on the desk top, slid back to slouch against the wall then put his feet up on the back of the second chair. "I dunno," he said. "I reckon we could track down Katie, Angelina, and Alicia."
"They're all in Wales visiting Katie's Gran, remember?"
"Darn, that's right."
They fell silent for a minute. It wasn't that the two of them couldn't think of adequate entertainment. They'd been doing it for their whole lives, and as twins they had a built in best friend, but Fred at least had been looking forward to a little extra company tonight. From the way George was acting, he knew his twin felt the same.
"We could go to the Burrow," suggested George.
"I reckon," said Fred indecisively. Ron and Ginny would be more than willing to engage in a little Quidditch, and he had to admit spending time with his younger siblings wasn't nearly as annoying as it used to be when they were younger. "But we're already going for dinner tomorrow, and I want to go out somewhere. Besides," he said as he remembered something else, "Dad's working late tonight, and so's Bill."
George sighed and let his head fall back against the wall with a thump. "There's always the Leaky Cauldron," he said without any real enthusiasm.
Fred didn't answer. He knew neither of them really wanted to spend their night off in the pub. They could do that anytime.
Then suddenly George raised his head again, the spark of mischief alive in his eyes.
"What?" Fred asked, recognizing the gleam.
"Let's go visit Harry," his brother said with a grin.
Fred's face instantly split into an identical smile. "Brilliant!" he said. "It's been three weeks since school let out. Bloke has to be going mad with those barmy Muggles!"
"Not to mention wallowing in guilt over the Department of Mysteries fiasco," added George sagely. "You know how the kid is."
Fred nodded, completely unable to understand why all the adults kept insisting sending Harry back to boredom and isolation at his aunt and uncle's house each summer was the best thing. All it did was make the boy moody and depressed. "Bet he'd love a visit."
"And his relatives will hate it," said George, smiling evilly as he got to his feet rubbing his hands together.
"We can show him all our new products since he hasn't been to the shop yet," Fred added, feeling the thrill of a good prank coming back. "And, with any luck, test a few of them on those gigantic gits he lives with! That ought to make his day."
"Ah…" sighed George, eyes glinting in Fred's direction.
Fred caught the glance and the unspoken communication that always passed between them.
"It's great to be of age!" they finished together, laughing.
"Think the Order'll get cheesed at us?" George asked as they left the back room and went into the front of the shop. "Showing up at the abode of the precious 'Boy Who Lived' without permission?"
"They better not," huffed Fred, stuffing some of their newest line of sweets into his pockets. "He's being protected not imprisoned. You'd think he'd be allowed visitors."
"Bet his aunt and uncle object," said George.
"Oh, I should hope so!" replied Fred. "My whole evening will be ruined if they don't."
Smiling at each other again with expectant delight, Fred and his brother walked out of their shop and locked the front door.
"A couple of streets over from his house then?" George asked. "So as not to throw all of the Order's nice wards into a tizzy?"
"Right-o brother-o-mine," replied Fred. "Lead on." He gestured magnanimously forward with one hand.
Grinning madly, they both turned once on the spot and disappeared with a loud pop.
"How do Muggles stand this?" Fred asked his twin ten minutes later as he stared around in disgust at all the cookie-cutter houses with immaculate yards and gardens. "Everything the same and so neat? I'd go barmy!" They'd been walking through one identical street after another, their disbelief growing with each house they passed.
"Percy'd love it," commented George dryly.
"And Percy's always been an expert on good taste," Fred scoffed. "Look, here it is," he added as they stopped in front of a house indistinguishable from its neighbors except by the number four on its front.
"Reckon they remember us?" George asked with another evil grin.
"I'll be horribly offended if they don't," Fred replied. He was really looking forward to this. Baiting and tormenting Harry's relatives would be almost as much fun as taking on Snape or Filch with the added perk of hopefully cheering Harry up at the same time. "I mean how many devastatingly handsome pairs of redheaded twins could they have met in their lifetimes?"
"Exactly," said George smugly.
Minds full of impending mischief, they walked together down the path and up the porch steps. Their plan was simple really: knock on the door and see who answered. If Harry did, they were home free. If one of those apes he lived with did then it was Fred's job to get his foot in the door and his wand subtly out while George ever so politely said they were there to see Harry, make sure he was all right and everything… Hopefully the sight of the wand – which Fred of course wouldn't use but they didn't know that – as well as the reference to the not so veiled threat from the train station three weeks ago would gain them entrance to the house.
With a wink at his brother, Fred rapped smartly on the polished door then, grinning like a schoolboy, stepped back to let the fun begin.
A minute later when they were still standing there in silence, his grin started to falter. George glanced at him before he stepped forward to knock again.
"You reckon they're not home?" his twin asked.
"Either that or they saw us coming and they're hiding," said Fred, frowning at the door. "Oi! Harry!" he called on a whim. "Open up!"
Still no one answered. George moved off the porch to peer into the front window.
"It's awful dark in there," he called over his shoulder to his brother. "I don't reckon anyone's home."
"Harry's not supposed to go anywhere," muttered Fred, confused. He could see the Muggles taking off, but Harry going with them…
"Yeah, and Harry's so good at following rules," replied George coming back onto the porch.
"True." Fred grinned again. It was one of the reasons they liked their brother's friend so much – he wasn't too fussy about boring things like orders or rules. "We should leave him a surprise," he suggested wickedly. "Let him know we came by."
George broke into a feral grin of his own. "Up in his room, where we know he'll find it but won't catch it from his relatives because of it." He pulled out his wand, but Fred reached out and stopped him.
"No," he cautioned, slipping a simple Muggle hairpin out of his pocket. "Let's do it the hard way. Then the Order won't even know we were here, and neither will Mum or Dad."
"Too right, too right," said George, bowing slightly. "I'll keep watch. Do it quickly before folks notice us."
It was evening and no one seemed to be about, but Fred couldn't help feeling a little exposed as he worked the hairpin into the door's lock. It didn't diminish the thrill of adventure, but it did make him hurry. After all, they wanted to cheer Harry up not get him in trouble, and, strictly speaking, the Order probably wouldn't exactly approve of them breaking into Harry's home – especially if they were mistaken by neighbors as cat-burglars and someone called the please-men. That would be a fine mess…
Fred was good at this, however, and it was only a few seconds before he heard the distinctive click of the lock opening. He grinned at George as he turned the door knob.
"Makes you wonder how Muggles manage to keep anything safe without magic, doesn't it?" whispered George as they slipped through the door and closed it softly behind them.
Fred had entered this house exactly two times before, and both times the only descriptions he'd been able to muster for it went along the lines of "too clean," "unnatural" and "boring." Standing in the entryway lined with picture after picture of Harry's porky cousin, he knew his opinion hadn't changed a bit.
"Come on," he said, eager to get out of the hall. "Upstairs."
"I know," said George with a roll of his eyes.
As they walked through the dim, quiet house, Fred felt a vague uneasiness settle around him. He couldn't pinpoint where it was coming from, or why, but the little hairs on the back of his neck were starting to stand up. At the foot of the stairs, George gave him a glance that told him he felt it, too. Something was wrong here. Wordlessly, they both drew their wands before they climbed the stairs. By the time they reached the top and stood in front of Harry's room, both twins were glaring furiously, their good moods vanished and replaced with a cold, protective anger.
Harry's door was shut, but that wasn't what had Fred and George slowly filling with rage. It was the fact that it was locked with no less than five different deadbolts.
"You reckon Harry just really wants to keep his stuff safe?" George asked quietly, no hint of amusement in his voice.
"No," answered Fred darkly, chilled by the shadowy slit of a cat-flap that seemed to stare at him as he remembered a night four years ago when he and his brothers had rescued Harry from that very room. The fact that Harry had been locked in had bothered him, but not overly much. He was fourteen, after all, Ron and Harry twelve. The thrill of the adventure had pushed everything else from their minds, and he'd never really thought on it again. Perhaps he should have.
"Harry?" he called, a sudden understanding filling him. "Harry, are you in there, mate?"
No answer came back through the locked door, and Fred felt relieved. He really didn't want to think of Harry locked in that room.
"We should go," he said to his twin, still smoldering.
"We're going to tell Dad about this, right?"
"Five locks on Harry's door? Oh, I think Dad really needs – " He broke off abruptly when he heard a sound from behind the door, barely audible and hastily muffled, that chilled him to the core: the rasp of a smothered cough followed by the delicate clink of metal on metal.
Furry erupted inside Fred again, the fury and protectiveness only a sibling can feel for another.
He turned to rip the locks from the door only to find George already twisting them, a look of cold murder on his twin's face.
The smell struck Fred first as they swung the door open, foul and disturbing. He cringed despite his best efforts, fighting the urge to gag. Then he glanced around and his nausea rolled even stronger.
It was the same room he'd seen before but even more Spartan and less inviting: wardrobe with broken doors hanging crookedly, scratched and dented desk and chair, metal bed with a bare, sagging mattress… There was a bucket in the corner where the stench was strongest and, Fred noticed with fury, the bars were back on the window. A snowy owl perched in a padlocked cage in the far corner. Other than that, the room was completely empty – except for Harry.
"Merlin, Harry!" cried Fred, stomach swimming as he stared. The younger boy was sitting cross-legged on the bed, a single ratty blanket draped around his legs as he leaned back against the wall, face painted in resigned embarrassment. His shirt and glasses were missing, and Fred gaped at the bruises, cuts, and welts that decorated his friend's chest, arms, and face.
For several painful moments the three of them just stared at each other, no one sure what to say. Finally, Harry broke the stillness himself as he looked away.
"Hey, guys," he said in a raspy voice.
"What the heck, Harry?" blurted George, eyes blazing with anger.
Fred couldn't agree with his brother more. His mind was reeling, trying to process what he was seeing and how on earth it could have happened. For three weeks Harry had been sending letters to the Order, to Ron and Ginny, even to them, saying everything was just fine…
"We came to vis-" He shook his head, still stunned and furious. "How long have you been in here?" he demanded.
"Long enough," Harry rasped, voice full of self-loathing. "Is Ron with you?"
The way he asked it, Fred could tell he desperately hoped the answer was no. Fred shook his head again, forcing himself to walk farther into the room. George didn't move from the doorway, still frozen in shock and anger.
"Your uncle?" he asked, gesturing with his head at – well – everything. Harry nodded, unwilling to meet his eyes.
"How?" asked Fred. Harry was a more than qualified wizard even if he was only fifteen, and Fred couldn't see how Harry would let himself get into this situation, Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery or not.
"How could I face Voldemort three times and get away but let a great oaf of a Muggle lock me up?" finished Harry bitterly.
Fred scowled at the tone of the words but didn't correct his friend because that was essentially what he was asking.
"He jumped me," said Harry quietly – shamefully – as he stared down at his blanket covered lap. "Everyone confronting him at the station made him furious, and he smoldered all the way home. I knew he was going to be unpleasant for a while after that but well…he was angrier than I thought." The boy paused to cough roughly, and Fred's scowl deepened even more. "I was," Harry continued a minute later, his voice ragged, "hauling my trunk up the stairs when he came up behind me. He had me pinned in a headlock before I could even think of reaching for my wand. Reckon he knocked me out then because I woke up locked in here without a wand or any of my stuff…"
George let loose a string of profanities as Harry finished before composing himself enough to ask, "So, you've been shut in here this whole time?"
"Erm…yeah," said Harry with an embarrassed grimace.
"Bloody heck, Harry!" cried Fred finally, unable to stop it. "Why didn't you answer just now when we called through the door? We almost walked away and left you here!"
"Wish you would have," mumbled the younger boy causing Fred and George's eyes to bug out in disbelief.
"What! Why?" they cried in unison.
"Look at me!" replied Harry, finally raising his voice and meeting their eyes. "Would you want your mates seeing you like this?"
Fred felt a little of his anger slip at that, but only a little. He was bloody furious that someone could do this to his friend, especially someone who was supposed to be Harry's family. Harry was another little brother to them, an honorary Weasley, and no one did something like this to a Weasley brother without dire consequences.
"So, what was your plan? Spend the summer locked up while Dursley used you as a punching bag then show back up at Hogwarts on September first and pretend nothing happened?" growled Fred.
"Something like that," said Harry with a shrug. "He knew he'd have to let me go for school or there'd be trouble. It was only two months; I could handle it."
Fred shook his head in disbelief.
"Come on," he told Harry firmly. "We're leaving and you're coming with us."
Harry didn't move, just gave a bitter, hollow laugh that turned into a fit of coughing.
"What?" asked George, finally coming into the room.
"Good luck with that," said Harry tiredly in his dry voice. Fred wondered when he'd last eaten or had a drink of water.
"What do you mean?" asked George darkly, his eyes narrowed.
Harry didn't answer, just twitched the blanket covering his legs letting his skinny, bare feet and ankles come into sight, and Fred saw what he'd missed before – a pair of metal shackles were locked around Harry's ankles, a chain leading from them to the bed frame, a bed frame that Fred finally noticed was bolted to the floor.
"Are you kidding me?" Fred blurted, running a hand through his hair and taking a step backward, unsure of his ability to keep his temper under control.
"They have you chained up?" growled George, eyes flashing dangerously.
"Show us your hands, Harry," ordered Fred grimly.
With a sigh, the skinny, black-haired boy withdrew his hands from where they'd so far stayed hidden under the blanket. A pair of dull, metal manacles were wrapped around his thin wrists. It bothered Fred more than he could say that he wasn't even surprised.
"For some odd reason, the Durlseys don't seem to trust me," Harry muttered. "Reckon I can get through five locks on my door."
Fred knew he was trying to make light of the situation, desperately embarrassed they'd seen him like this, but it didn't work. It just made Fred even more upset, and he found himself suddenly unable to contain his anger. With a curse, he whirled and slammed his fist into the wall. It hurt like Hades, which was exactly what Fred wanted because he was dangerously close to losing it altogether.
When he turned around again, Harry was staring at him oddly, as if unsure of how to take this side of him.
"We're leaving." Fred said firmly. "Now." He pulled out his wand and pointed it at the offending pieces of metal.
"Wait! No!" cried Harry, lurching forward with his hands outstretched toward him in pleading.
"You want to stay here?" asked George incredulously.
Harry glared his way, rolling his eyes. "No, of course not," he snapped. "I'm not mental. But I don't want to get expelled from Hogwarts either!"
"You won't be doing the magic, Harry," George replied slowly, as if he were explaining something to a very young child. As they were talking, Fred raised his wand, prepared to get Harry out of those things whether he protested or not, but Harry saw him and jerked to the side again.
"No!" he yelled desperately. "It won't matter! The Ministry detects magic going off in this house and I'll be hauled in for another hearing and probably shipped off to Azkaban when it's over this time. I can't chance it!"
"Fudge now knows you were telling the truth about You-Know-Who," Fred tried to reason.
"Yes, which just gives him reason to hate me even more because I've made him lose face. Besides, I'm not even sure it's safe to leave; the protective magic might not have kicked in yet."
"Protective magic?" scoffed George, eyeing Harry like he'd gone round the twist. "You call this protection? Harry, this is abuse! It's criminal – against the law! Any law, Muggle or Magical!"
"Yeah, and it's posh treatment compared to what I'm likely to get from Voldemort if I leave too early and he gets his hands on me. I'll take house arrest at Privet Drive with a slap-happy uncle over guest of honor at a Death Eater party any day."
Fred closed his eyes in frustration, wondering just when things had become so blasted complicated. Harry was fifteen years old! How the heck could it possibly be right that he was arguing the finer points of a summer of abuse over the possibility of torture and death? This situation was beyond Fred's ability to cope with and he knew it.
He opened his eyes to find George staring at him, his own thoughts mirrored on his brother's face. They needed help – an adult, an Order member – and his mind immediately went to the man he'd turned to for answers all his life.
"Go get Dad," he told George. "I'll stay with Harry."
George opened his mouth to argue – hotly from the look of it – but then abruptly closed it again. Of the two, he was the one least likely to lose his temper and cause a scene, and they both knew it. The last thing Harry would want was more people than were needed knowing about all of this. "I'll be back as soon as I track him down," George said instead. "And I'll bring bolt-cutters," he added with a wink to Harry that fell flat because of the furry still shining from his eyes. He shared one last meaningful glance with Fred and then turned and practically ran from the room.
"Well," said Fred after his twin had left, "can't say I approve of what you've done with the place." He was trying to put Harry at ease, take the tension out of a situation that was highly uncomfortable for both of them.
"Yeah, well, I was going for a sort of retro, Tower of London kind of feel," said Harry, playing along. "I'm not sure I quite captured it, though."
"You got one part right, mate," said Fred with a grimace, approaching the offensive bucket in the corner. "Excuse me while I make this place a bit better for both of us." Without looking at Harry, knowing the kid would be blushing deeply with shame, Fred grabbed the bucket and hurried to the loo where he left the whole thing after slamming the door shut. Let the Muggles have to deal with it. And speaking of Muggles…where were Harry's relatives anyway?
"Harry?" he asked as he opened the window in his friend's room, trying to air out the sweltering, rancid place. "Where are your aunt and uncle?"
"Dunno," replied Harry. "Uncle Vernon just said they'd be going out of town for a while. That was three days ago."
"Three days!" blurted Fred, gobsmacked. "And you've been in here… No food or water…"
"They left me some water," Harry replied with a shrug, gesturing to a jar on the floor. Fred glanced at the jar; it was bone dry. He shook his head.
"This is ridiculous," he growled. No wonder the kid was still just sitting there; he'd probably pass out from starvation if he stood up. "I'll be back with food. Stay here."
Harry laughed, and Fred realized what he'd just said. "You know what I mean," he muttered. "You need anything else?" he asked as an afterthought. "Bandages, pain potions?" Harry really looked awful, covered in welts and bruises, but the boy just shook his head.
"Right," said Fred sarcastically. "And I'm Head Boy." He rolled his eyes once more at Harry then left the room, taking the stairs two at a time.
The kitchen was dark, and he fumbled around for a minute before he remembered an old conversation between Hermione and his dad about light switchers. He found one and flipped it then looked around.
It was the cleanest, most pristine place he'd ever stood in. Metal, Muggle appliances glinted without so much as a fingerprint on them. The table and workplaces shone, and the floor looked polished for royalty. It was impeccable, and he hated it – hated the fact that the Muggles could care so much for a boring, old room like this and so little for the living, breathing boy upstairs.
With a few choice words he reserved for times he was out of his mother's hearing, he started rooting around, digging through drawers and ransacking the cupboards and fridge to find something for Harry to eat. Sadly, there wasn't much; the Muggles had apparently cleaned out most of the perishables before they left, and Fred's cooking skills were far from desirable, especially without the help of his wand. Finally, he located some eggs in the door of the fridge and some rather stale bread.
Obstacle number one conquered, he almost had to resort to running back upstairs to ask Harry how to turn the cooker on but random experimentation with knobs and buttons eventually paid off. With the eggs frying in a pan he'd dug up, he turned his attention back to the bread. He was really, really tempted to mutter his mother's toasting spell to try and make it more palatable but managed to refrain. If Harry's paranoia proved true, it would be bloody awful for his friend to get dragged in for a hearing over toast. Best not to risk it.
He pawed through the fridge once more, not caring about the mess he left in his wake, and eventually came up with a jar of marmalade. It would have to do.
With vindictive pleasure, he dug out a setting of what had to be Petunia Dursley's best china and slapped the eggs and bread on the plate. He filled the largest jar he could find with water, checked to see that he'd turned the cooker off, added a few more items to the mess he was purposefully leaving behind, and then picked up Harry's meal and climbed the stairs.
Harry hadn't moved when he came back in the room, but Fred saw him perk up at the sight and smell of food.
"This'll have to do until we can get you back to the Burrow and Mum can start fattening you up properly," said Fred as he handed the plate and jar to Harry. He frowned as he noticed the boy's hands shaking. "Drink first. You need fluids."
Harry obeyed without protest, sipping slowly at the water until he had downed half the jar. Then he turned gratefully to the food. Fred thought about asking if they had starved him all summer as well but realized he probably wouldn't like the answer; the boy was literally skin and bones. Fred could easily count his ribs.
"So," said Harry around a mouthful of eggs as Fred pulled the desk chair over by the bed and straddled it, "which one are you?"
"Which twin?" Harry explained, holding back a cough. "Fred or George?"
"Fred," he answered, puzzled. Harry was one of the few people who rarely had trouble telling them apart.
Harry seemed to read his mind because he quickly added, "Three weeks without my glasses, mate. I'm not seeing so great at the moment."
Fred let slip a little curse at that. "Where are they?" he asked.
"Gone. Uncle Vernon probably binned them along with my clothes."
"Your clothes! You're starkers!" cried Fred, highly alarmed by that last bit of information.
Harry grimaced. "Not quite," he said. "He left me my shorts, and if this ever leaves this room, Fred Weasley, I will hex you into next year."
"My lips are sealed." In any other situation, Fred would have taken the mickey out of the kid, but contrary to popular belief, he did have a sense of moral decency. He would never exploit Harry's suffering and pain like that.
"So?" he asked, changing the subject. "All the letters we've been getting? Did your uncle write them?"
"No, I did."
Fred raised an eyebrow. "And you said everything was peaches and cream when it obviously wasn't because…?"
"Because Uncle Vernon said he'd kill Hedwig if I didn't and stood over my shoulder as I wrote them so I couldn't slip anything in." Harry's words were bitter again. "I tried to convince her to just stay with Ron, hoping maybe it would give him a hint if she didn't leave, but she refused to leave me here alone. She came back every time even though she knew Uncle Vernon would just lock her back in her cage until it was time for the next letters." He finished speaking abruptly as a round of coughing he couldn't hold back finally took him.
Fred frowned at his friend. "Want me to let her out?" he asked, showing Harry the hairpin.
The other boy nodded, still coughing.
"You don't sound so good, Harry," Fred called over his shoulder as he went to the bird's cage. "Are you sick?"
"It's just a little cold," Harry rasped with a wave of his hand. "I'm fine."
Fred snorted but didn't comment. Harry was far from fine, and the sooner they got him out of this place and safely back at the Burrow the better.
When the lock on the cage fell off into his hands and he opened the door, the snowy bird inside made a beeline for the boy on the bed. She settled gently on his shoulder, nipping protectively at his ear.
"Hey, girl," said Harry softly, feeding her a bite of his eggs. "Go to the Burrow, okay? Stay with Ron."
She nipped him one more time and brushed his hair with her feathers before fluttering to the windowsill.
"Can you help her through the bars?"
Obligingly, Fred went to the open window. "Is she going to bite me if I squish her?" he asked his friend.
"Nah," Harry grinned, a grin that looked very out of place amongst the bruises on his pale face.
After a minute or so of careful maneuvering and turning, Hedwig slipped between the bars on Harry's window and sailed off into the night.
"All right, now it's your turn," said Fred, sitting down beside the bed again. "Give me your hands," he ordered, holding up the very helpful hairpin for the third time.
Harry set the empty dishes aside and slid forward to the edge of the bed where Fred could reach him better. "You can try." He shrugged, holding out his chained hands. "But I doubt it will work."
"Why?" Fred asked, feeling his furry flare up again as he noticed bruised and raw skin around and under the metal cuffs. If he ever got his hands on Harry's uncle…
"Uncle Vernon did something to them after he put them on – poured something into the locks."
Gently, Fred turned the cuffs around in his hands, inspecting them, and he quickly saw that Harry was right. The small hole where the key should have fit was completely filled with something hard. His hairpin was useless; these weren't coming off without those bolt-cutters – or magic.
He let out a particularly colorful curse as he lowered Harry's hands again. "You sure your uncle's not a Death Eater in disguise?" he growled, temper flaring.
"Pretty sure considering even saying the word 'magic' is enough to send him into a fit. I reckon he just suspected someone –" He eyed Fred knowingly. "– might have taught me to pick locks."
Fred didn't smile. "Yeah, and what were you going to pick them with in here, your fingernails?" he growled.
"Come on, Fred," said Harry, frowning at him. "It's not that bad. Yeah, I've had a few weeks that haven't been much fun, and Uncle Vernon went a little overboard this year, but it's not like I haven't missed meals before, or been locked in my room for a while. You can stop acting like you're all shocked and offended on my behalf."
Rage surged through Fred and he lurched to his feet, running hands through his red hair. "Harry, I am shocked and offended!" he cried, pacing the tiny cage of a room. "You may think this is normal behavior, which in itself makes me furious, but I can tell you it's not! It's bloody wrong and I'm ready to murder someone for doing this to you! So don't tell me not to be upset, that everything's okay, because I can't guarantee I won't lose it." He glanced back at Harry who was again squinting at him curiously as if seeing him for the first time.
"Is it still so hard for you to believe that people care about you?" Fred asked seriously.
Harry appeared to think on that for a while before he answered. "No," he finally said quietly, "I reckon not, but it is a bit weird to be having this conversation with you. Usually it's Hermione, or Ron, or maybe Lupin."
"Hey," said Fred throwing his hands up quickly, "we only came by to visit and terrorize the Muggles. We didn't know we'd be walking into this!"
Harry laughed. "Yeah, sorry about that."
"Oh, don't worry," replied Fred, glad to see the younger boy laughing even if he was still disturbed by Harry's casual acceptance of his situation. "Payback for our lost evening will be extracted when you least expect it," he promised with a wink. And when you're looking human again, he thought.
"I'll keep that in mind," chuckled Harry. "Now, are you going to sit down or do you like pacing my room?"
Feeling some of his rage drain away again, Fred came back to the chair and once more straddled it. He'd done everything he could for Harry at the moment; the least he could do now was refrain from yelling at him while they waited for George to bring help.
"So, how's the shop going?" asked Harry, sliding back on the bed to lean against the wall once more, wrapping the blanket securely around him.
"Brilliantly!" said Fred, leaning forward on the back of the chair, unable to stop his enthusiasm. "We're even thinking we might have to hire some help soon to keep up."
"That's great!" said Harry with real excitement. "I hope I get to see it."
"Of course you'll get to see it. Without you it never would have happened."
Harry held up his hands ruefully. "I'm a little tied up at the moment, mate," he joked humorlessly. "But maybe next summer, if my uncle's not so ticked off."
"Bugger that, Harry. You think we're going to leave you here after all this? I don't care if You-Know-Who himself tries to stop us, you're coming with us tonight. We'll have you back at the Burrow in a couple of hours, so stop talking like that. Once we've had a Healer look at you and Mum's had a few days to stuff mounds of food down your throat, we'll give you the grand tour. You can – "
He cut off abruptly as they both heard the sound of a door opening downstairs.
"Vernon, dear, don't forget the food Marge packed," a woman's shrill voice rang out from below. "It wouldn't do to let it sit in the car and spoil."
Harry's aunt, Fred knew at once. The Muggles were home. He glanced at his friend to find Harry had gone horribly pale.
"Get out of here, Fred!" Harry hissed, tossing the blanket off his lap and over the dishes Fred had brought up. "Get out and lock the door! They can't know you're here!" He was sliding off the bed as he spoke to stand resolutely on shaky legs, his chains clanking as he gripped the footboard to stay upright.
"No way!" Fred hissed back. "I'm not leaving you alone with them!"
A man's voice now drifted up from downstairs, calling for someone to be careful with the luggage.
"I've been alone with them my whole life; I can handle it!" Harry spat, eyes desperate. "But he'll kill me if he finds out you were here! Please!"
Fred felt a sinking in his gut as he remembered the mess he'd left downstairs. "Too late, Harry," he said quietly. "I left food out down there."
Harry went from white to grey and swayed alarmingly. As if on cue, they heard a deadly silence from downstairs followed by a furious roar.
"Get in the wardrobe!" Harry cried, actually shoving him.
Numbly, not sure what else to do, Fred went to it as they heard thundering footsteps approaching the stairs.
"And promise me no matter what happens, no matter what, you won't do any magic!"
"Harry, I – " Fred started.
"Promise me, Fred!" Harry hissed, completely panicked. Fred was afraid he was going to fall over.
"All right, I promise!" he cried, alarmed. There was pounding up the stairs now so he hastily ducked into the tiny wardrobe and just managed to pull the door shut before Harry's uncle burst into the room.
As Fred watched through a tiny crack, Vernon Dursley marched across the room and greeted his nephew with a resounding slap across the face. The crack of flesh on flesh split the room as Harry lurched backwards, only his vice-like grip on the bed frame keeping him upright and only the promise Harry had extracted keeping Fred from bursting out of his hiding spot.
"You left this room didn't you, boy!" Dursley spat, eyes flashing. "Wandered around our house, touching our things, while we were gone!"
"Yeah, I did, Uncle Vernon," Harry lied in a voice Fred knew was meant to bait his uncle.
Vernon grabbed Harry by the shoulders with a grip that had to be painful. "And you've done this before?" he yelled right in his nephew's face.
"Oh, yeah," said Harry glibly. "Loads of times. All summer long. At night while you were sleeping, when you've been out…"
Vernon slapped him again, and this time Harry lost his grip, toppling over onto the decrepit bed.
"HOW?" screamed his uncle, advancing like an angry bull.
"Didn't you know wizards don't need magic to get through locks?" Harry continued, lying through his teeth even as a trickle of blood started rolling from the corner of his mouth. "We can walk through walls."
As Dursley bellowed like an elephant, Fred desperately wished Harry would shut up. He knew what his friend was doing, trying to make his uncle so angry he didn't stop to think of the impossibility of the story he was being fed and work out that someone else had to be there, but it meant that Harry was directly in his line of fire with nowhere to hide or run. Where the heck were George and his dad? Fred wondered furiously.
"How dare you!" Dursley screamed, glaring down at Harry as spittle flew from his mouth. "For nearly fifteen years we've put up with you! Lived with your freakiness! Fed and clothed you despite it! And now you repay our kindness by having your freaky friends question us, smear our reputations in public and threaten us!" As he yelled he moved to a corner and picked up a long, coiled rope of some kind Fred hadn't noticed before. Harry's eyes went wide at the sight of it although he maintained the insolent expression plastered over his bruised face.
"And now," his uncle continued to rage, building up steam as he went, "you admit to stealing from us! For years! I'm telling you boy, this is the end! I'm turning you over to the police, and they can lock you up like you deserve!"
Something flashed through Harry's eyes. "And exactly how would that be any different from life here, Uncle Vernon?" Harry spat back furiously. "Might even be better! I hear you're allowed to eat in prison!"
With an inhuman growl, Dursley lunged at the skinny, shaking boy, flipping him over onto his stomach and pinning his stick-like arms above his head with one beefy hand. Something orange flashed through the air and struck Harry's back with a crack before Fred even had time to really notice. Like lightening it snapped through the air twice more, leaving fresh welts behind and finally managing to drag a whimper of pain from Harry before Fred could shake off his shock and cotton on. Dursley was beating Harry, whipping him, while he sat there and watched!
With a roar, Fred burst from the wardrobe and threw himself at Dursley, promises be darned. Besides, magic was the thing farthest from his mind; he planned to kill the man with his bare hands.
"Fred, no!" Harry shouted from where he lay bleeding on the bed. Fred ignored him and grabbed for the orange rope. He missed, but his sudden appearance was enough to startle the huge man away from his victim.
"You bloody monster!" Fred screamed in blind fury, swinging a fist at Dursley's face even as the man bellowed, "Petunia! It's them! Help!"
Fred barely noticed a bony, horse-faced woman dash from the doorway before he was forced to duck a massive fist in return.
"Fred, just get out of here!" Harry screamed as Fred dodged a blow from the strange orange rope. He noticed the younger boy trying to pull himself to his feet again only to be knocked back down by another powerful strike from his uncle's impromptu whip.
"Stay there, you disgusting brat!" snarled Dursley. "I'll deal with you after I take care of your friend!"
Thinking fast, Fred snatched the china plate off the bed and hurled it at Harry's uncle. It struck him a glancing blow to the temple before smashing into a million pieces against the wall. Blood trickled from a cut on Dursley's head, but it didn't even seem to slow him down, only enrage him. He turned on the twin, murder in his eyes. As he advanced, Fred pulled out his wand. Promise or no promise, their lives were at stake here and it was time to leave. Before he could utter a spell, however, orange flashed in front of him and pain flared through his fingers as his wand fell uselessly to the floor, his fingers numb from a heavy blow. With a shock, he realized the orange rope had something hard and rather pointy on the end. And then he didn't think of anything but fighting for his life because Harry was screaming again and his uncle was raining blows down indiscriminately on both of them with that bloody rope.
With a howl, Fred threw himself at the huge man, trying to get his hands around his throat or swing a fist at his face…anything! Consequently, when his peripheral vision picked up a large frying pan swinging at his head he didn't even have time to yell, let along duck. As his world exploded into lights brighter than any firework he'd ever produced, his last thought was that his mum was going to be peeved with him for getting them both killed.