This wasn't the way it was supposed to happen.
Everybody knew, of course, that George Weasley would be right as rain just as soon as he found a good woman to help him through his pain. Or the right man, depending on who you asked.
Odds were, it was going to be someone he already trusted, they all thought. Suddenly he would see through his fog of grief and realize that someone like Katie, or Alicia, or even Lee was the very thing he needed to help him feel whole again. He'd tried, of course, but this one seemed determined to pretend Fred had never existed and that one talked about him too much, making more of their friendship with his dead brother than George bloody well knew was warranted.
He'd practically lived with a Muggle named Amber for a few months, but it hadn't done any good. Something inside him appeared to be broken, and he had a tendency to be a right bastard to the very people who wanted to help him the most. He was completely aware of what he was doing; he just couldn't seem to help himself. That cruel little devil that had always lurked deep inside the mean part of his brain seemed to have taken over, and the only explanation he had was that the pain inside him was more than he could bear. He had to share it.
His friends and family were remarkably patient and understanding, but even they had their limits. Mum tried to ease his pain with food, Dad tried to engage him in rebuilding Sirius' motorbike. Percy tried to make the ultimate sacrifice and invited George to share his flat so that he wouldn't have to face Fred's empty room every night. Ron wanted to help him reopen the joke shop, and Ginny tried to get him interested in training to become a professional Beater. All of which sounded like about as much fun as detention with Dolores.
Bill (or Fleur, to be specific) gave him the one thing he reckoned he actually did need. An escape. They hadn't called it that, of course, they called it a visit to one of her cousins (one Fleur probably thought would mend his broken heart, no doubt) but it meant getting away from all of the infernal hovering. Plus, the food was good. They'd taken him sightseeing and to a couple of good bars, and he'd thought, as he was sitting at a bistro sipping on a cafe-au-lait, that as he was already in a foreign land, it might be fun to visit another one. Anyway, he'd heard the beer in Germany was good, and Katie had a cousin who was more than willing to lend out her sofa, and then he'd heard the food in Italy was good, and Verity's sister had a nice guest room, and then he'd heard that the scenery in Prague was amazing, and Alicia's best friend was going to University there, and before he knew it, he'd been gone for six months. Of course, one (decidedly not fun) month had been spent in hard labor at Charlie's camp, but after that he'd hitched a Portkey with the camp's Magizoologist to an affiliated camp in Sweden, where he could once again be completely irresponsible, family obligations be damned.
And here he was.
In the dark.
Because the zoologist in question (who'd only been staying for the night before she went on to Newfoundland) had forgot to mention that in December, daylight only lasted for a few hours. And the camp was practically empty, because most normal people didn't hang around a remote camp during the holidays, in the dark, if they could help it. They went home to their families. The skeleton staff that was left appeared to be a band of misfits, or at the very least, anti-social. And he couldn't possibly get another Portkey for three days, when the camp manager returned after Christmas.
So he was alone, in the dark, his only company a handful of people passing through the camp's common room from time to time who looked at him suspiciously if they looked at him at all. And dragons, which had never been as exciting to him as they had been to his older brother. There were other animals too, he'd heard, on the far end of the camp, but considering the blizzard outside, he wasn't curious enough to look. He read magazines that were clearly written by people who thought that animals were far more interesting than people. Which was rubbish, as far as George was concerned. He liked people. He liked making them laugh. He liked being the center of attention. He liked laughing at their foibles and he liked flirting with the vast majority of them. Without people around, George Weasley was a very dull boy.
So he drank, because hey, the one thing they did seem to have was plenty of Firewhiskey. And when he'd drunk more than he'd drunk in a very long time, he passed out on the common room's sofa where he had very bizarre dreams.
So when he opened his eyes to find Loony Lovegood standing over him, it had hardly been a surprise, at first.
"Hello, George," she said, as if it was the most natural thing in the world to find an old classmate sleeping on a remote Swedish sofa.
George blinked, trying to think of something to say. "Luna?" he managed, and it had been no easy feat, considering that his mouth felt as though it was filled with cotton. "What the hell are you doing here?"
Luna frowned, and he wished he hadn't sounded so belligerent. Actually, running into someone he knew was not entirely a bad thing. Of course, she was completely mad, but he'd always sort of liked that about her.
"You've been drinking Firewhiskey," she said, wrinkling her nose. With anybody else, it might have sounded like an accusation, but with her, it was more of an observation.
George sat up, rubbing his eyes. He could have been asleep for ten minutes or ten hours, it was hard to tell. "What time is it?"
Luna pulled out a pocket watch. "Seven forty-three."
Of course, that didn't tell him if it was morning or night, but at that moment, the teakettle went off, and Luna hurried to the stove. George scratched his head and rose to his feet, following her to the kitchen area.
"Would you like some?" Luna asked, getting down a teacup.
"Yeah," he said. "Thanks."
Luna hummed softly as she moved about the kitchen, fixing the tea. George tried to make out the tune, but it was like nothing he'd heard before. There was something strange about the way she'd greeted him, too, or the way she hadn't greeted him, instead, treating his appearance at her remote outpost as an ordinary occurrence. Even more, she was the first old friend he'd run into who hadn't managed to inquire nervously about his mental health within two minutes of greeting him, carefully avoiding bringing up Fred in any way.
As she handed him a cup of tea, George straddled a chair.
"So, what are you doing here?" he asked.
"I'm studying to become a Magizoologist," she said.
"Brilliant," he said, and wondered what it was that made her seem so altered. He hadn't known her all that well, but he remembered an odd, cheerful bird who tended to laugh too loudly at his jokes and pop up at the oddest time to make uncomfortably direct observations.
She was definitely quieter, and there were dark circles under her eyes, as if she'd been up all night. Her eyes were still as misty as ever, but now she seemed sad, more than anything. Not that he minded all that much-it was sort of nice not to be the person that everyone felt the need to cheer up.
"How long have you been here, then?"
"Since July," she said. "Not long after I left school."
"I never knew you were into dragons. My brother is, too. Always has been."
"Not dragons, so much. Actually, I only work with them when the camp's resident dragon expert is otherwise engaged. I work more with the other native creatures. Bowtruckles, Doxies, Horklumps, Mooncalves...you know."
George didn't know, as a matter of fact, but her face had brightened up a bit with each creature she named, so he nodded, encouraging her to continue. When she didn't, he asked," What's a Horklump?"
"Sort of like a mushroom," she said and left it at that.
"So, d'you have any of those-what were they-Crumple-horned Snarkies you told me about?" The longest conversation he'd ever had with her had been during Bill's wedding, and he'd remembered her waxing rhapsodic about the creatures.
"They don't exist," she said, and her lips tightened before she got up to fetch the milk from the cold cupboard.
"But-" George trailed off. He wasn't sure what it was about her that seemed off, but something was definitely wrong. And though his first impulse was to ask her, he knew how annoying it could be when people were always enquiring about your physical and mental health. It could have been anything. She could have a cold, or she could still be trying to deal with the war, or she could have just broken up with somebody, or it could have been bloody PMS for all he knew.
"So, have you always wanted to work with animals?" he asked as the silence dragged on.
"Oh, yes," she said, and for a brief moment, her face lit up, and George found he rather liked it when she smiled that way.
"I'm going to go looking for a Mooncalf tonight. I call her Bertha. She's somewhere on the far edge of the property." Luna looked at him seriously for a second. "They only come out of hiding during the full moon, you know."
"Yeah right," George said, though he didn't know, not really. Perhaps he had learned it at school, but half of what he'd learned at school had seeped out of his head over the course of the war, only to be replaced by more useful information-like how to blow up Snatcher headquarters and how to put on a top secret wireless program on the run.
"Anyway, she's expecting, and I'm hoping to document the birth. No one has yet, you know. They're very shy."
"That sounds...brilliant." Actually, it sounded utterly disgusting, but there was something in her eyes that George identified with, like the way that he felt when Fred got one of his brainstorms. He hadn't felt like that in some time. (Which was sort of the reason why Ron's idea of starting up the joke shop again had seemed like a laughable idea at the time, but that was another story altogether.)
After a pause, Luna asked, "Would you like to help?"
Actually, tramping around in the bitter cold, looking for some mad pregnant cow was just about the last thing he wanted to do, but she was looking directly at him and he found himself staring unto her unblinking eyes and mumbling, "Yeah, right. Sure. That sounds...I'd love to."
Obviously, he hadn't come as prepared as he might have for wandering around in the snow. He'd expected cold-he'd spent seven winters in Scotland, after all, but this was something else entirely. When he'd pulled on the winter coat and boots he'd stuffed into his rucksack, he watched as Luna covered herself enough to where only her eyes and the tip of her nose were visible
Minutes later, he followed her out the door and straight down the center of the camp. After about ten minutes, they'd passed a hut about the size Hagrid's-almost completely buried in snow and with a ring of icicles descending from the roof.
"That's where we live," Luna said.
"Milton and I," was her reply.
Well, George thought. There went any vague plans to have a bit of a flirt with her. Of course, he'd always thought she was a little bit weird, but she was reasonably attractive, and more importantly, now of age, and though she didn't seem in good humor tonight, he knew (that at least in the past) he'd been able to make her laugh, which in his experience was the first step toward pulling a girl.
For over an hour they wandered around the farthest flung corners of the camp (coming up against at least two magical boundaries), looking for a spot that a nesting Mooncalf might think a good place to give birth with no luck. George had never been so cold in his life.
They'd tramped over frozen ponds and streams as the wind blew relentlessly over them, prickling George's skin like a million tiny needle points. The sky was dark and there were so many clouds that George couldn't even make out a single star. He was miserable, but Luna seemed unaffected by the cold, still humming that strange, haunting song, casting detection charms from time to time.
When she finally stopped, he'd begun protecting his face from the bitter cold by bending it into the collar of his coat, so he nearly collided with her. "Er, sorry..."
"Shh-" Luna held her hand up in the air. George hadn't heard anything, but as he looked around, trying not to make any noise, he noticed that the wind had died down a bit, and the moon had finally come out from behind the clouds. The only thing he could hear was the sound of his and Luna's breathing in the stillness.
But there, off to the east, he heard what she might have heard-a mournful moan that sounded an awful lot like the ghoul he'd heard above his bedroom at the Burrow.
"Over there," he started, but Luna was already off like a shot, and he raced to catch up with her.
They found the Mooncalf under a rocky outcrop of a nearby hill, protected from sight by a row of young pine trees. George couldn't remember what the creatures were supposed to look like, but this one was pale and her eyes were sunk into her head-possibly from pain or illness, for she did look very ill indeed. It was hard to imagine that her spindly legs would support the mass of her body, but her feet, rather than being the hooves of a normal cow, were large and flat, (which might well have helped keep her balanced.) She let out another piteous moan, and Luna sank to her knees in front of the creature. She was clearly having a bad time of it, and her distended belly was contracting in a way that looked incredibly painful.
"Hello, Bertha, sweetheart," Luna murmured, reaching out to stroke the side of her flank. The Mooncalf looked terrified, and George suspected that if she had any strength left, she would have been long gone before they had gotten within half a mile of her. Again and again, Luna stroked her, whispering soothingly, until finally the calf laid her head back down and closed her eyes in apparent exhaustion. Luna turned to George.
"Warming charms, please."
When he stared stupidly at her for a moment, she added, "You did say you wanted to help?"
"Oh, yeah," he said, and as he complied, Luna moved over to lift the Mooncalf's tail and get a better look at the damage, so to speak. By the time George finished the charms, Luna's gloves were off and her left hand was slick with what had to be some sort of a lubricant. His mouth dropped open as he watched her move closer and insert her hand inside the poor calf nearly to her elbow.
"I thought you grew up on a farm," she said, looking like she was trying to focus and his questions were irritating her. The expression didn't suit her; he was more used to her looking bright and cheerful-or at worst, unfocused and distant.
"The baby is turned the wrong way, we have to help her."
Quite frankly, it sounded like about as much fun as a Celestina Warbeck concert, but a proper Gryffindor wasn't about to turn down a damsel in distress, whether human or bovine (and in this case one of each kind.)
It was a messy, sticky, smelly business, no doubt about it, but two hours later, the cold was completely forgotten as George was cradling the ugliest newborn he'd ever seen in his life (counting Ron, who had strongly resembled a garden gnome), softly singing it the lullaby his mum had always sung to Ginny.
The newborn stared at him with bulging silver eyes as Luna tended to his exhausted mother. "What shall we call him?" he asked.
"What do you think?" Luna replied.
"Dunno. I'll have to think about it."
"Well, think about it while you transfigure some of those leaves into blankets, then."
"We need him warm if we're going to take them back out there, away from the charms."
"Where are we taking them, exactly?"
"Back to the camp. She's too weak to care for him, just yet, and without her, he'll die of exposure."
They must have looked an odd little procession, levitating Bertha the Mooncalf and her offspring (what were Mooncalf calves called, he wondered?) But eventually, they made it back to Luna's hut, (which looked far bigger on the outside than it did on the inside.) It was, in fact, equipped with a sort of infirmary, and Luna greeted each of her patients by name as she made her way to a large holding pen in the very back. There was no sign of the afore-mentioned MIlton, but George supposed that if he had been here, he'd have gone out to help Luna in the first place.
Eventually, Bertha's temporary nursery was set up to Luna's satisfaction, and Otto, as George had decided to call the calf, was happily feeding at his mother's breast. "Is he going to be all right?" George asked.
"Yes, I think so," Luna said, and dropped down into a chair, exhausted. Her cheeks were still pink from the cold, and her eyes were brighter than they'd been earlier in the commissary, and George was remembering why he'd always thought she was sort of oddly attractive.
"Right. Brilliant," he said, sort of relieved, or at least happy he hadn't spent three hours freezing his bollocks off in vain. "So I guess I'll just..."
"Thank you for your help," Luna said, getting to her feet with some apparent effort.
"Oh, no, don't bother, I'll just..."
"Come by and see us tomorrow," Luna said, and she smiled at him (a real smile this time, one which actually reached her eyes), George's lips went dry and he felt an odd squirming in his stomach. He wasn't sure he liked the feeling.
"I will," he said gruffly. "G'night, Luna."
"Good night, George. I'm very glad you were here tonight."
Once he'd returned to the main part of the camp (and poured himself a double Firewhiskey and soda), he dropped back onto the ratty sofa. It didn't take all that long to fall back asleep this time. Instead of thinking about Fred (and his family back home and all of the things he should have been doing if he could only get his head on straight), he was thinking about moonlight and haunting melodies and eerie, oddly beautiful magical creatures, both human and bovine.
When he woke up, he wasn't entirely convinced it hadn't been a dream. The blood and other assorted bodily fluids coming from his (now rank) coat convinced him otherwise. Oh, well, he thought, it was high time he did his laundry anyway. And while he was at it, he noticed that there was a pile of dirty toweling and bedding in the camp's washing room. Well, he thought, it was only fair he did a bit of work to repay them for the food and booze he'd consumed, right?
And while he was waiting for it to dry, he thought that since he was already hungry and sort of sick of the pot noodles they seemed to have an endless supply of, he might as well do a proper fry-up, right? The frozen cupboard was positively stuffed with fish (probably former inhabitants of the frozen lake that bordered the camp).
The overpowering smell of fried fish managed to bring two members of the skeleton staff out of their respective rooms. As it seemed churlish not to share, George threw more fish on, and one of campers (Ramon) began chopping potatoes, and the other (Swen) made tea, and more people joined them, and before long, George was sitting around the table with a scraggly band of misfits, laughing and drinking and learning all about the inhabitants of the camp, the politics involved in running a camp, the constant scrambling for funding, and the animals themselves.
None of them knew Luna all that well, so when they heard that she was a war hero back at home, they couldn't have been more astonished. Apparently, she rarely came around and when she did, she shut up like a clam, so she'd been a mystery to them.
Later that afternoon, just as the sun was beginning to wane, he walked over to spend time with Luna and Otto. Luna greeted him absentmindedly-she was busy feeding Flobberworms to a vicious-looking lizard-like creature, but George went over and sat down on the floor with Otto, who actually seemed happy to see him.
He'd brought Luna some leftover fish and chips, and while she thanked him politely, she explained that she was a vegetarian. George felt sort of stupid, not knowing that, and somehow felt slightly guilty for all the fish he'd consumed, because he was pretty sure she was the sort who had made that choice based on a love of animals more than for dietary reasons. The feeling ended when she took the fish she'd rejected and fed it to a nearby Clabbert, who tore into it with razor-sharp teeth.
"This is Gizmo," she said. "When he came here, he was nearly dead. Ever since Clabbert pustules have been proven to cure Spattergroit, wizards have really started hunting them. Sometimes they don't even bother killing them first. They just stun them and cut it off of them, which almost always kills them anyway. Gizmo survived. I'm studying him to find out why."
Sure enough, the odd-looking creature (which resembled a cross between a monkey and a frog) had a nasty looking scar in the middle of his forehead. George remembered having used Clabbert pustules in one of the Skiving Snackboxes, and felt a knot of guilt squirming in his stomach. Then Oscar smiled at him, showing a jagged row of terrifying teeth, and he decided to put the thought out of his mind.
Luna introduced him to all the animals in her care, and when he asked where the mysterious Milton was, she explained that he was spending the holidays with his family. George wondered why Luna's apparent boyfriend didn't feel the need to bring someone he lived with along on such an occasion, but he didn't feel comfortable asking.
By the time they got to the last one, it was quite dark, and George's stomach was growling perceptibly. Luna invited him to supper, where she made a curry so delicious that he didn't even miss the lamb he was used to having in it. They shared a bottle of wine, and he told her stories about his travels, and he couldn't remember how long it had been since he enjoyed a day more. And he was nearly sober.
That night, as he lay in bed, he decided not to request a Portkey when the camp manager returned. Not right away, anyway. He was already going to miss Christmas with his family, so there was no hurry to get home (his mum was already going to kill him) and besides, he felt a sort of responsibility for Otto and his-well being.
Over the next few days, he settled into something resembling a routine. In the mornings, he went on assignment with the Dragon handlers, and most afternoons (and some evenings), he helped Luna with her menagerie.
Christmas arrived, and the campers had a nice little party, with everybody contributing a traditional Christmas dish from their own country. Luna brought a Dirigible Plum pudding, which was the strangest thing George had ever eaten, but he found it sort of grew on him.
When the rest of the campers returned, the camp was all a-bustle, and the manager-a tough, wiry little man who didn't suffer fools lightly-informed George that if he was going to stay, he was going to be put to work. Not that he minded all that much. In fact, it was precisely what his older brother had done said to him back in Romania, but this time he liked knowing that he was being allowed to stay on his own merits, and he worked even harder to prove himself.
Besides, he liked the fact that he dropped into bed at night and fell asleep straightaway due to physical exhaustion. It made for better nights of sleep and mornings without hangovers (which he had to admit had happened far too often since his brother's death). And besides, he really was enjoying spending time with Luna. Or Otto, rather, who was growing by leaps and bounds as his mother recovered. He was fascinating to watch-he moved in a strange pattern that might have been preparation for the complicated dances that Mooncalves performed on each full moon. Not that George took advantage of the camp's reference library to read up on Mooncalves, mind you. Really.
But anyway, he had to admit that he liked hanging out with Luna, too, especially once he found out that 'Milton' was in fact the seventy-eight year old son of Newt Scamander, the noted Magizoologist. He was an exceptionally talented Magizoologist in his own right and an animal rights activist, and the sole reason Luna had come to the camp. She'd wanted to learn from the best.
Apart from constantly declaring that he wanted to set up Luna with his grown-up son, Rolf, Milton's relationship with Luna appeared to be strictly professional. Which sort of complicated things for George, because he wasn't quite sure what to make his overwhelming urge to spend time with Luna and he found himself thinking about her far more than he was comfortable with. Quick flings were one thing, but he had a feeling that if he ever decided to pursue her, he would be in a great deal of trouble.
Far more quickly than George could have predicted, February arrived, and then just as quickly departed. He was getting used to the scarcity of daylight, but each day seemed to be a little longer than the day before. As he was able to spend longer periods of time outdoors, he had to acknowledge that the scenery was spectacular. The mountains were rugged, the air smelled of pine, and the beauty of the sunlight glinting off the slow quite took his breath away.
About once a week, Luna would make her tour of the far reaches of the camp, where the wild animals lived in a magically protected preserve. He followed her around as she looked for their nests and burrows, aided by the tracking charms she had put on many of them. George followed her on these excursions, helping make note the progress that the various creatures were making, examining them for signs of illness, sometimes even helping to feed them and clean up their waste.
Luna seemed to change as the weather got milder. She smiled more often, though George still had a bit of trouble getting her to laugh. The shadows remained under her eyes and he wondered if she had trouble sleeping, like him. He wondered a lot of things about her; in fact she was beginning to make him completely mental with the unanswered questions surrounding her and her vague dismissal of any personal questions George asked.
It was Milton who finally helped him solve the mystery. He mentioned visiting her father over the holidays, as she'd requested. It was an offhand remark, but the look of apparent pain and embarrassment on Luna's face as he said it got George's curiosity up.
Later, he pulled Milton aside. "So, er, how come you visited Luna's dad? Why didn't she go?"
Milton's ruddy cheeks darkened, as though the question bothered him, but he glanced guiltily over at the door Luna had just exited and answered, "Oh, I'm sure she wanted to, son. But both of us couldn't be gone, and she wouldn't hear of me missing the chance to meet my newest granddaughter."
Well, that made sense, George thought, still trying to puzzle out her earlier embarrassed reaction to the subject when the older wizard continued, "And of course he doesn't actually know she's there, does he? Such a pity."
"What?" George asked. "Is he-dead?"
"Would that he were," Milton answered, shaking his head. "It quite broke my heart. And the ward is full of them-empty shells-and they live on, you know, sometimes for years."
"There were so many of them," Milton recalled, nodding. "Feeding on the sorrow of the war, breeding at an astonishing pace. My father firmly believed that all Magical creatures have an important and place in this world, but for the life of me, I just can't see that that filth has anything to offer the planet but misery and pain. Unless, of course," his gazed hardened as he met George's eyes," unless you're the sort of person who wants to use that pain and misery as a weapon, which I am ashamed to say our Ministry was willing to do long before it was officially taken over by villains. Most uncivilised, if you ask me. At any rate, dear Luna's father had made himself some powerful enemies..."
George stared at him, aghast, remembering how Lovegood's reckless bravery in speaking out through the Quibbler had inspired him and Lee to start Potterwatch.
He'd thought that looking at his brother's empty eyes had been the worst feeling he could imagine, but this would have been unbearable. And as he remembered that their former neighbor had been a widower, and he'd never heard of any other children; odds were that Luna had no other family. His family may have smothered him, but he couldn't imagine dealing with that sort of pain alone. Not at first, anyway, even if eventually he'd had to get away from them.
And then it struck him-what had been missing on Luna's face-and it was something he might never have identified until it was gone. Luna had always been brimming over with optimism, even when sorely tried. No matter how mean people were to her, no matter how much they let her down, while everyone around her was cynical and jaded, Luna had always looked as though she was sure something wonderful was going to happen any minute.
After what she'd been through during the war, and then to lose her dad-
He thought back to just before the battle, when he'd run into her at Bill and Fleur's. Dean Thomas told him that they'd been rescued from Malfoy's dungeon, and that she and old Ollivander had been there for weeks, under the 'special' care of Bellatrix Lestrange. Bill said that it was too dangerous to get in touch with their families and tell them they were safe. Had she already lost her dad by then and didn't know it?
He almost wished he hadn't asked. He should have respected her privacy. Now, looking out the window at her, he had this overpowering urge to help her somehow, though he had no clue how to even go about it. It wasn't as though he was going to have any magic words that were going to ease her pain-nothing anyone said about Fred had helped a jot. It was almost funny-he now found himself in the same position as the very people who had so annoyed him. Desperate to make it better when the only thing that would make it better is having the loved one back.
But then again, maybe he was the best person to help. At least he knew what didn't work, right? If only he could get her to trust him, to open up...oh, bollocks, he sounded like those Ministry counselors who had come over after Fred's funeral to 'support the grieving heroes' He was pathetic. If he liked her at all, he should let her deal with it in her own way.
However, not long after that, an opportunity presented itself. Apparently, early every spring, Scamander and his apprentice took a trek over the mountains beyond the camp's border, strengthening the wards and documenting the plants and animals in the area for signs of disease or decimation.
When Scamander developed Troll Flu, it was determined that Luna would go alone. At least until George heard about it, anyway, and after a small amount of resistance and a few declarations that she was perfectly capable of taking care of herself. Luna agreed to the arrangement.
And so they set off, loaded down with equipment. Magic made carting around a tent (and a fully functional lab) easier by making them smaller, but it didn't make it any less heavy. After about six hours of hiking, George was beginning to wonder why he'd ever thought it was a good idea.
"Any reason we couldn't just Apparate to the top?"
"Apparition interrupts the migratory pattern of birds. This is the Horned Grebe's mating season, and they are endangered."
George grumbled under his breath. He wasn't particularly fond of birds to begin with and was even less so when their sex lives directly interfered with his physical comfort. But he knew that complaining wasn't going to get him anywhere with Luna, so he tried to swallow his irritation. She was completely mad, of course; nobody in their right mind was going to choose hiking over Apparating just to save some stupid birds. Certainly, no one back at home ever did. Besides, he'd never heard that Apparition had any impact on animals. Wouldn't they have mentioned something like that at school?
They set up camp about halfway up the mountain, and he had to admit that the food she brought was good, even if he was craving a nice fat sausage or a bit of fish to fill him up completely.
He offered to clean up, but when he began the cleaning charm on the plates, she stopped him.
"Scourgify causes pollution."
"Where do you think all those particles go?"
"Straight up in the air," she said. It's beginning to affect the weather. Even the Muggles are noticing."
George shook his head, especially when she went burying the leftover food in the ground, explaining that the rotten food would make the soil richer, and that it wasn't at all dangerous, as long as you made sure the wolves and bears couldn't smell it. Oh, well, he thought. It was her party. He was just tagging along.
The tent she'd packed was large. In fact, it was almost too large-he'd sort of hoped that he would be physically closer to Luna. Not that that was what this was about, of course. He merely wanted to help.
Which is really all he was trying to do on their third night on the mountain when he kissed her.
It was just...he'd finally managed to bring the subject round to her father, and he meant to subtly hint that he knew, and that he understood her pain, and that if she ever wanted to talk, he'd love to listen, but somehow it came out as him buggering the whole thing up. He made it sound like an accusation that she hadn't told him, which resulted in her attempting to change the subject before she burst into tears. When he grabbed her and tried to hug her, she went as stiff as a board. In desperation, he tried to kiss her cheek comfortingly, missing when she unexpectedly turned toward him, which caused him to kiss her full on the lips.
It went about as well as he expected, under the circumstances.
She got embarrassed, he apologized, and for the next twenty-four hours, they avoided looking at each other as much as possible. That night, he never did make it to sleep. What the hell had he been thinking? Why the hell was he even here? She clearly didn't fancy him; more often than not he was just in her way. And at this point, they were stuck together, unless he wanted to piss her off more by Apparating away.
Two days later, he made another colossal mistake by asking her when they were going to see the Crumple-Horned Snorkacks.
"They don't exist," she said, and she actually sounded a little irritated this time.
"But I saw this book in Milton's library, and it said-"
"It's a fairy tale," she said, and though he'd have liked to argue (it had been in a Magical Creatures textbook for Swedish students, after all) he decided not to irritate her further. He was trying to get her to trust him, and arguing wouldn't help his cause.
"I'm sorry," he said after she'd managed to set up the tent, fix dinner and clean up, all on less than twenty words in his general direction.
What was he apologizing for, anyway? For believing in Crumple-Horned Snorkacks?"
He was just desperate to get back to where they had been when the silences between them were comfortable. Which was sometime before he kissed her, wasn't it. "I really wasn't trying to make a move on you the other night. It was honestly-"
"I didn't think you were trying to seduce me, George,"
"No! I mean-"
George flinched at the hurt look she gave him when he denied it so vehemently. "Not that...I mean, I've certainly thought about it, but..."
George supposed that telling her about his noble motives was not going to go so well for him at this point. Apparently she found his sexual advances more welcome than his attempts to console he. Which was certainly something to think about...
"Why are you here, George?"
She could have been asking about why he'd asked to tag along, and she could have been asking about why he'd come to the camp. Hell, for all he knew, she could have been asking about what he thought the meaning of life was. None of which he had an answer for. "I thought...Maybe I thought we needed each other-"
He was afraid to look at her face.
He looked up at that, not sure whether to laugh. But she was apparently serious.
"Sexual contact can have powerful healing effects, of course. Rumor has it that after the battle, more than fifty percent of the survivors were engaged in some form of sexual activity, and it ended up helping to heal the castle itself. And last year, when we'd escaped the Malfoys, Dean and I..."
"I don't want to know about it," George interrupted tersely.
He didn't want to hate Thomas, really. He had no right to. And yet, there it was. He was fucking jealous just thinking about it. As much as he'd have liked to think that he was in this for unselfish reasons, or that he was sure that he was just what she needed, the fact was that she was just what he needed. And not just for sex, not really, but because when he was with her, he saw past his own problems. When he was with her, he wasn't 'George, half a man, everybody's pet project.'
"I think I love you," he said.
Luna looked away, smiling sadly. "No, you don't.
Undeterred, George moved closer to her, taking her face in his hands.
"I mean it."
Luna searched his eyes for a moment sighed, and George felt his chest expanding with hope. Then she turned away and sighed, completely deflating him. "Maybe you do," she said. "But love...I don't want love. It hurts too much when it's gone."
George remembered that feeling all too well. When the pain consumed you so much that you prayed for it to kill you, vowing that you'd never again love so much when it could be snatched away in an instant.
He couldn't promise her that she wasn't risking pain. He knew it all too well. How hard had he pushed away his parents, his brothers, his friends, even poor Amber, afraid to let them get too close? Fred would have told him that he was a fucking coward, and he knew it.
"It's worth it," he said and bent lower to kiss her, brushing his lips over hers again and again until she opened her mouth to him.
George pulled her onto his lap, slanting his head to kiss along the lines of her neck. He could have named the exact moment she gave in, he could feel the relaxing of her body against his, and he exhaled in relief even as she sighed in pleasure.
He laid her on the ground beside the fire, taking advantage of the cushioning charm he'd placed there (over her objections) before they started cooking. He kissed along her body, taking time to drink in the sight of her skin, lit by campfire, and her eyes, looking down at him, dark with desire.
He'd never before taken this kind of care and time, but then, he'd never met someone so determined to distance herself emotionally from the experience, and he'd never been so determined to prevent her from doing so. Every sigh, every shudder, every involuntary ripple of her skin was a hard-won victory. When he finally slid inside her, she cried out, and he clung to her warmth as he moved against her, feeling her soft breasts against his chest, and her thin arms encircling his body, feeling her legs circling his buttocks as she took him in as deeply as possible.
"I think I love you," she whispered, as she shivered and her body spasmed around him. George buried his face in her neck, curling around her protectively even as his ears roared and his brain exploded.
He didn't want to leave her warmth. In fact, he thought he might never want to move again. It felt as though his entire body had emptied inside her. Luna was stroking his spine, and he could still feel small pulses of her pleasure around him. Figuring she was probably too relaxed to object, he Summoned a blanket and pulled it over them.
"Now that's my kind of camping," he said.
Luna giggled against his chest.
"And anyway, didn't I read that the Crumple-horned Snorkack only appears when people are extremely relaxed?"
Luna propped herself up, considering. At least she hadn't insisted they didn't exist again. As far as George was concerned, it was progress. A Luna Lovegood who'd stopped believing in imaginary creatures was just a travesty. Sort of like a George Weasley who couldn't tell a joke.
"Yes, I did read that," Luna said after a pause. "That's probably why there are so many drunk accounts of sightings."
"Yeah, which is why those accounts are often dismissed, but there are a proportionally large number of people who've found them while sleeping, mid-shag, or in hot springs."
"Hallucinations," she said. Drugs or alcohol or endorphins..."
"Well, I'm perfectly willing to keep on snagging out here in hopes of attracting one of them. You know...for science."
Luna giggled again, and George decided that it was pretty much the best sound he had ever heard. Now if only he could get a good belly laugh out of her...
Two days later, George found it.
It looked a bit like an Erumpet's horn, one of the major (and most dear) ingredients of their fainting fancies. But this one wasn't the least bit magnetic.
"They don't exist."
George's heart sank at her resigned tone. "But..."
"They don't exist. Daddy was wrong."
Never mind that George now knew that Luna and her father had always planned to take a six-month trip to Sweden in search of the creatures the month after she finished Hogwarts. Never mind that the moment he'd picked up the damn thing, he'd felt a concentration of magic that had set his hair on end. Never mind that he'd spent as much time as humanly possible shagging her in the past forty-eight hours and he still couldn't break down the emotional barriers she hid behind. Why should she? She'd lost faith in people, in love, even in magic. She couldn't see the possibilities. And George wasn't about to take that lying down.
"All I'm asking is for you to test it."
"I don't have the equipment here, and besides, it's probably just an Erumpet horn.
"In Sweden? Bit of a long hike from Africa, don't you think? Was he here on a skiing holiday, maybe?"
"Do be serious, George. There is probably a very logical explanation to this. Besides, don't you think that after all this time someone would have photographic evidence, a Pensieve memory..."
"But what if they're not-I mean, maybe they only appear in certain circumstances, Think about it, Luna, how many creatures have a defense mechanism where they disappear? Even Muggle animals can camouflage themselves, and Demiguises can actually become invisible, can't they? Think about how much crap the person who first discovered Thestrals had to put up with-I mean, animals that only appear to those who've seen death? Who would believe that? And what about Boggarts? Imagine the person who tried to study them. We still don't know what they normally look like!"
"And anyway, I saw a reference to them in several of Scamander's books, it's not just you, others have seen things, several others...
"But what can I do about it?"
"You're here, Luna. Like your dad always wanted to be! You're here! Milton told me that all of the sightings have been within a hundred miles of here. You have time and resources, and Milton's brain to pick and...Luna! D'you really think your dad would have wanted you to just...give up your dream like that?"
"I mean you owe it to him, you-"
"How do you know that they aren't carrying-I don't know, the cure for Dragon Pox, or cancer, or...you have to try-"
"George-" Luna finally stopped him with a kiss.
When he opened his eyes again, she was smiling at him, and maybe it was his imagination, but he saw something in her eyes that sort of resembled hope.
She kissed him again.
"I'll do it. On one condition."
"Anything," he said.
"Don't let your dream die," she said. "You owe it to Fred."
She was evil, she was, turning it around on him. "But-"
"Promise me, George. The world could use a few more laughs right now. I know I could."
"I don't want to leave, Luna. Not now, not when-"
She stroked his cheek and smiled sadly. "You don't belong here. It's been lovely, and I'd love to keep you here, but...you belong in a joke shop."
"Don't you see? You're not you, and I'm not me, George. We will be, someday, I believe it. You've made me believe it. But we can't fix each other, we have to fix ourselves. So go, get better. And I'll be back some day, and I'll be better, and then we'll see."
This wasn't the way it was supposed to happen.
He was pretty sure that when the hero finally realized what was really important, he was supposed to be rewarded with the fair maiden. But as George caught sight of the familiar facade of his and Fred's shop, in a far better state of repair than he'd been expecting, when he spotted his baby brother, who was on the roof, putting up an awning, he knew Luna been right. This was where he belonged. This was what he needed.
However, if Luna thought he was going to give her up without a fight, she had another thing coming. Being the boss meant he got to set his own hours, and he planned on tagging along on as many camping trips as possible. After all, he believed in Crumple-Horned Snorkacks.