This is for the "Christmas Cards 1997 Challenge" at the Sober Universe, set by the inimitable respitechristopher.

Shell Cottage

Christmas morning, stupidly early

Dear Charlie,

Before you say it, I know that Christmas morning is a ridiculous time to be writing a Christmas card, which will take a day or so to get to you, even if I had or could get an owl, which I haven't and can't. Consider it said. I agree. I'm writing it anyway.

Because I have to say all this to someone, and I know I can trust you not to go blabbing to Mum (or anyone else for that matter).

Ron was here. Yes, you read that right. Ron was here. He's gone now, about half an hour ago. I heard the crack as he Disapparated, and there's a note on the table: "Found them. Thanks. Ron."

I realise none of that makes sense to you. You probably think I've finally flipped, gone totally off my rocker. Maybe if I try and explain it to you, it'll start to make some sort of sense to me

Okay, so five weeks or so back, we're woken up at one in the morning by someone hammering on the back door. Someone banging on the door at that hour of the morning is never a good sign. As things are now – well, you know… So we leap out of bed and grab our wands and go downstairs – I try to get Fleur to stay upstairs until we find out what's going on, but she won't – and by the time we're downstairs whoever it is is banging on the door again. And I yell, "Who is it?" and they answer, "Ron!" And I go to open the door, but Fleur grabs my arm and says something in French which I don't catch, but the gist of which is "blithering idiot!" (dead right), so I ask through the door who had a parrot called Polperro, and Ron – because it is Ron of course – says, "Uncle Bilius. Can I come in now?"

So I open the door, and there's Ron, shivering, and two inches taller than he was at the wedding (do you think he's ever going to stop growing? He's taller than me as it is) and filthy and with a cut on his cheek and blood on his shirt and looking – well, desperate is about the closest I can get to the look on his face. And I stand there gaping at him for a full minute, because – well, there's just no way he's supposed to be here, and he's looking at me like he expects me to yell at him or something, and eventually Fleur decides that neither of us is going to say anything, so she'd better. So she says, "Come and sit down. I will make some tea," as if it's the most natural thing in the world, and Ron's just come round for a drink and a chat or something and it isn't one in the morning, and he's not supposed to be on the run with the most-wanted person in the wizarding world.

And Ron comes and sits at the table and Fleur puts a mug of tea and a plate of Mum's mince pies in front of him. (She's probably glad to get rid of them. She says mince pies are "abominable", which sounds much more dramatic – and much sexier – in French than it does in English.) And I manage to get out, "What the hell are you doing here?" and Ron says he had a row with the others and walked out on them, and he wanted to go back almost at once, but he fell in with some Snatchers, and by the time he got away from them it was too late, he can't find them, and he can't go back, and he's the world's biggest idiot, and don't yell at him because however badly I think of him it can't possibly be worse than how he thinks about himself. And he looks like he's about to cry, and he looks so bloody young– he's only a kid, Charlie – and Fleur (bless her) murmurs something about going back to bed and goes upstairs before Ron actually does burst into tears. And, for a wonder, he lets me put my arm round him, but I don't say anything because I can't think of anything remotely sensible to say under the circumstances. And after a bit, he calms down and pulls away from me and tries to pretend he hasn't been crying at all in a very Weasley-ish way. And I suggest that bed might be a good idea, and he nods, and I find him some pyjamas and he goes to bed in the spare room.

And he's been there for the last five and a bit weeks… Well, he came out for meals, and occasionally when I bullied him into coming out to talk to us for a bit (not that he'd say much) or to listen to the radio when Potterwatch was on. But mostly he was in his room trying to figure out a way to get back to the other two and beating himself up for running out on them in the first place. I have to admit I was mad at him for that, but what the hell could I say? He was miserable enough without me nagging at him, and it wouldn't have changed anything. And of course he flatly refused to say what they'd been doing because "Dumbledore gave them a mission and they weren't supposed to tell anyone". Honestly, Charlie, a bunch of kids – what the hell was the old man thinking of?

I tried to persuade him to let Mum and Dad know he was here and safe, because of course they're worrying themselves sick about him and the other two. Mum's lost weight and her hair is greyer, and Dad looks older every time I see him. If they knew Ron at least was okay it'd be one less thing for them to worry about. But Ron flat out refused and said if I told anyone at all he was here, he'd leave right then. So what could I do? At least I knew he was safe with us… I raided his room at The Burrow when Mum was out one day to get him some clothes and stuff since he turned up here with nothing but what he was wearing. And Fleur and I told Mum and Dad we were staying here for Christmas because we wanted to spend it on our own – looks like that's actually going to happen now Ron's gone.

I wish I knew where and why he'd gone. I heard him moving around in his room earlier, and then a crack outside which must have been him Disapparating, and there's the note on the table and his stuff's gone from his room. Hell, Charlie, I hope he really has found the others – though for the life of me I don't see how he could have – and hasn't hared off on his own for some mad reason. Do you think I should tell Mum and Dad he was here now he's gone? Ignoring the fact Mum will almost certainly kill me for not telling her earlier, will it be worse for them to know he was safe at least for a while when he could be anywhere at all now? I guess I'm going to have to tell them – you'll probably be able to hear Mum shrieking from there.

Everyone else is as okay as you could expect under the circs. The twins are irrepressible as always, though even their cheerfulness slips now and again, and Fred still hasn't stopped making jokes about George being one-eared. (I think he's a lot more bothered about it than George is himself, to be honest.) They still seem to making a small fortune with the shop, even though half the Alley is shut down these days.

Ginny won't talk much about what went on at Hogwarts this term – though she did make the story about trying to nick Gryffindor's sword from Snape's office into one heck of a yarn – but you can tell from the look in her eyes that it's been bad. I know Mum and Dad don't want to send her back after Christmas, and I'm with them on that 110%, but what else can we do? We're in enough trouble as Blood Traitors as it is without breaking the law like that. Plus Ginny herself would probably rebel – they seem to have some sort of resistance group going there from the little she will tell me, and it seems our Ginny is one of the leaders. She would be of course.

Dad said he sees Perce at work now and again, but he still cuts him dead. Honestly, Charlie, how did he get to be quite such a git? Perhaps we should have been nicer to him when we were kids.

Mum and Dad themselves are soldiering on bravely of course. What else can they do? What else can any of us do? Fleur is an angel in human form, and I don't know what I'd do without her. (Okay, okay, I can see you rolling your eyes from here.)

1998 just has to be better, doesn't it? Though part of me can't help feeling that with a family the size of ours, statistically speaking the chance of us all getting out if it must be pretty low. I was going to say "getting out of it in one piece", but I only have to look at George with his one ear, or see the look in Mum or Dad or Ginny's eyes, or – hell – look in the nearest bloody mirror to know we're past the "in one piece" stage already.

Dammit, this must be the most depressing Christmas card anyone has ever written. Just as well you probably won't get it until the New Year sometime. Don't slit your wrists when you read it. Just come over here and murder me instead – it'll save Mum the trouble when she finds out about Ron.

Happy Christmas Charlie – even if it is a bit late.

Miss you, bro,