For Want of an Ear

Jedi Goat

Disclaimer: I don't own Harry Potter.

Chapter 25 – The Beginning

George and Harry were released from the hospital wing three days after Lord Voldemort's return to power. By then, rumours about the third task's denouement had already spread like wildfire through the corridors. Madam Pomfrey had to recruit a Prefect to guard the door of the hospital wing and dissuade the continual stream of well-wishers and curious onlookers; Colin and Dennis Creevey, in their earnest, were turned away as many as five times per day, carrying armloads of Honeydukes sweets.

As such, Fred hadn't seen his brother since the night of the task when at breakfast Dumbledore issued the announcement. The Headmaster waited for the Gryffindors' long sighs of relief and shaken smiles to subside before commanding, "As eager as you all may be to welcome your classmates back, I must ask that you leave them alone. Above all – and I know this may be difficult for some of you – none of you are to ask Mr Potter about what might have happened, what he might have witnessed the night of the task. Now, please: do not allow me to keep you from your breakfasts."

Dumbledore sat back down at the head table. A few of the Gryffindors applauded their appreciation of the announcement; in its midst, more whispers broke out.

Fleur Delacour and Viktor Krum had returned to their schoolmates earlier after a thorough check-up with Madam Pomfrey; neither had been seen alone since. Fleur conspired constantly with the Beauxbatons girls; Viktor seemed to enjoy the spike in his fame less, and often appeared to be brooding.

In the meantime, Ron, Hermione, and Fred had taken it upon themselves to divert the worst of the rumours. No, You-Know-Who was not hiding in Hogwarts; no, he couldn't show up in the Great Hall tomorrow demanding they hand over Harry Potter: there were security precautions on the castle – hadn't anyone read Hogwarts: A History?

That morning, while the Great Hall was still echoing with the breakfasters' whispers, the three rose together and, on a silent signal, took their leave. They made it up the stairs to the hospital wing before most diners were thinking of leaving.

The oak door slammed and Madam Pomfrey glanced up accusingly. Eleanor Fawcett, a pretty Ravenclaw Prefect with curly auburn hair, started toward them.

"He's my brother!" Fred snapped when she made to usher them out.

Eleanor ceded. "All right, but, quietly –" she tried.

"Thank you," said Hermione pointedly, since the two boys were already making a beeline for George and Harry's beds.

When she rejoined them, Harry glanced up and offered a thin smile. It was enough: Hermione flung herself at him in a tight hug. After a moment Harry recovered from his surprise and returned the gesture. When she pulled back, she studied him carefully: Harry was perhaps a little paler, the bags under his eyes a little deeper than the last time she had seen him, but he was still smiling wanly.

"How are you feeling?" Hermione ventured. She stepped aside so Ron could grasp Harry's hand. After a moment of sheepish hesitation, he gruffly hugged Harry, too.

"Better, now," Harry deemed, patting Ron on the shoulder. As he released him, Ron shot a quick glance sideways, his ears red, but the twins did not seem to have noticed his sentimentality. Indeed, Fred's eyes hadn't left George's face: he grasped his brother's shoulders and stared at him. Neither seemed to know what to say.

Then Hermione glimpsed the look in Fred's eyes. She'd never seen Fred look quite so serious: his face had tightened and fear and relief struggled for prominence in his widened eyes. Somehow, it petrified her.

But George only reached up, taking Fred's head in his hands so that their foreheads touched together. "I'm all right," he said, "solemnly swear." Then he smiled and broke the spell.

Fred jolted back to the present. He pulled back and shot a suspicious look at the fourth years that was a little too reminiscent of Ron's reaction.

Hermione turned away and pretended not to have seen them, and Ron, turning to Harry, announced suddenly and a bit more loudly than necessary, "So, you hungry? Can't imagine you've had much up here."

And so, despite three of them having already breakfasted, they descended to the kitchens together. In the absence of the whispers and stares, the Gryffindors relaxed. They offered a few updates on what George and Harry had missed, and they all laughed when a beaming Dobby brought out a red-and-gold frosted chocolate cake he had baked especially to celebrate Harry's recovery.

Halfway through the cake, George turned on his twin: "What the hell happened to your arm, Fred?" Since the morning following the third task, Fred had been sporting a light splint on his right wrist.

Fred rubbed at the back of his neck with his left hand and grinned, reiterating his story. "Fell down the stairs."

George, of course, didn't believe him for a second, but they all laughed anyway, and Hermione was careful to avoid George's eye for a while afterward.

None of them, though, brought up the darkness lingering at the back of all of their minds. They merely grinned and laughed at one another as if to say, Well, we're alive, aren't we?

Eventually, and a lot fuller than they had arrived, the five Gryffindors trooped back upstairs to join the rest of the school for the presentation of the Triwizard Tournament winnings. No face in the Hall – Beauxbatons, Durmstrang, or Hogwarts – was anything less than subdued. The applause that heralded Harry's acceptance of his prize money from Cornelius Fudge was hollow; the Minister of Magic himself seemed to wish he was anywhere else.

No one was in the mood to celebrate with the thought of Voldemort hanging over their heads like a black storm cloud. Instead, at their dismissal, the students rose as one and moved in a whispering current for the open doors.

Harry returned to the Gryffindor table, staring dejectedly at his sack of gold. Fred and George rose to clap him on the shoulders. "Hey, Harry," George said quietly, "everything aside, it was still great competing with you. That there's for earning a Hogwarts victory, no more, no less, and we can be proud of that at least. Yeah?"

Harry looked up into his weak smile and held out his hand. "To be honest, I was bloody terrified, going up against you, and Viktor, and Fleur. You all had the experience. I didn't have a clue what I was doing half the time. But, having seen firsthand what you've gotten through," Harry allowed a grin, "promise me that next time, you'll be on my side."

George chuckled and grasped Harry's hand. "Anytime you need it, Potter," he swore.

"And don't forget me," objected Fred, grabbing Harry's other hand and shaking it briskly. "You don't think I'm gonna let George keep stealing all the glory – ah, sorry –" The bag of Galleons had slipped from the crook of Harry's arm and clattered against the stone floor. Fred snatched it up again and tossed it back to Harry with a grin. "You might wanna hang onto that."

"Thanks," Harry mumbled. An odd look had come upon his face and he opened his mouth just as a voice spoke up behind them.

"Ah, there you are, Harry," Professor Dumbledore said amiably. The Great Hall had emptied around them and he stood next to the Gryffindor table, eyes crinkling in a smile. He looked from Harry to the twins, Ron, and Hermione as he said, "Forgive me for the interruption. If I might have a few minutes of your time in my office, Harry, there are questions of a serious nature that must be addressed before too much time passes."

"Er...all right, then." By the way Harry's smile vanished, he knew Dumbledore wanted details about the night of the third task. He glanced apologetically at the others. "Well – I'll see you in the common room?"

The Weasleys and Hermione nodded. Harry followed Dumbledore's sweeping footsteps out of the Hall, and in their wake the remaining foursome joined the straggling crowd headed back to the dormitories.

Hermione noticed Fred starting to lag when they neared the moving staircases. She lingered, letting Ron and George get a half floor ahead of them before Fred reached her side. Without a word, he reached for her hand. Hermione smiled and didn't protest.

The afternoon slipped away in quiet hours in a corner of the common room. Every now and then, Ron craned his neck toward the portrait hole, only to be disappointed when another student shuffled through. Harry had been missing for a few hours now, Hermione thought as Ron's brow furrowed after another fruitless check and he leaned with forced concentration over his chess board. For the first time since anyone could remember, Ron was losing his match: though if George, his opponent, knew it, he seemed to be more interested in the bandages on his left arm.

Hermione took her moment of distraction to stretch. She had a thick Defence tome in her lap: as soon as their exams had finished, she had hunted the library for Defence Against the Dark Arts books, the fruits of her labour now lining the table in front of her. She had assured Harry and Ron it was research to further their nightly gatherings – "Because we'll be needing those now," she had reminded them, and the storm cloud settled over their brows.

Hermione looked around. Beside her on the couch, Fred was flipping through another one of the Defence books, but he was not so studious: his leg twitched now and then, impatiently, against hers. Across from them, Ron and George waged their one-sided chess match; Ginny curled in an armchair next to Ron, absently stroking Crookshanks on her lap.

Shortly past four o'clock, the portrait hole swung open again. This time, all five unconsciously glanced toward the newcomer. Hermione felt Fred's leg tense, but it was not their friend who stepped into the common room; it was Professor McGonagall. Their Head of House held a stack of envelopes.

"Oh – that'll be our final marks," said Ginny, gingerly dislodging Crookshanks. Since no one else had moved, she headed over to collect their letters.

Hermione exhaled a long breath she hadn't noticed she'd been holding. Glancing up, she noted George had also stiffened and had to be reminded by Ron that it was still his turn.

Ginny returned from the growing crowd around Professor McGonagall and passed out their envelopes dutifully. The last one, labelled 'Harry Potter', she let fall on the table by Hermione's books.

"Hermione, she said this is yours, too."

Hermione glanced up when Ginny handed her a second envelope. Turning it over, she glimpsed the official purple seal of the Ministry of Magic, and her heart leaped. Fred cast aside his half-open letter to peer over her shoulder.

"What's that?"

Hermione did not answer him immediately. She slit the envelope, unfolded the short letter, and read it; a small smile reached her lips. "Oh, this? It's nothing... In May I appealed to have my Underage Wards removed. This will allow me to use magic outside of school, unsupervised."

"Suppose I can't get one, too?" said Ron, eyeing the letter.

Hermione grinned: it was a surprisingly foxy look. "Well, do you have a clean track record, a letter of recommendation from a professor, and top marks?"

She went on brusquely, "Anyway, I'm technically not encouraged to use magic – they just consider me responsible enough not to go around breaking the Statue of Secrecy."

She giggled at Ron's disgruntled expression and accepted Ginny's congratulations. Fred advised her not-so-jokingly to start raising a little hell, and she did not dignify that with acknowledgement. Instead she looked over at George; he winked.

Well, Hermione thought, a "little hell" is the least of what we'll be doing, if everything works out.

She was distracted from the sobering thought by a strangled noise from Fred. Looking over, she gauged that he had finally opened his letter; he was staring, mouthing wordlessly, at the print.

"What now?" Ron lifted an eyebrow.

"Bloody hell...I got an O, in Defence."

"Oh." George looked at his own letter in mild interest. "Me, too."

"Same here," said Ron.

"And me," said Ginny.

Hermione only beamed while the Weasleys exchanged high-fives. It seemed their nightly gatherings had been a success so far. She would have to see if Neville and the others had fared as well.

Meanwhile, the twins had swapped letters. Fred glanced over George's marks and swore again.

"Bloody hell, George, whenever did you find the time to study this stuff?"

"I didn't," George said blankly.

Now curious, Hermione looked over Fred's shoulder and read off a line of 'Exceeds Expectations' in Care of Magical Creatures, Herbology, Transfiguration, and – by some miracle – Potions, followed by 'Outstanding' in Defence Against the Dark Arts and Charms. She hid a smile.

"It's all natural talent, I swear."

"Yeah, well, you watch your newfound 'talent' or you'll wind up with a shiny badge, you will," Fred warned, chucking the letter back at him.

George smirked. "The world wouldn't consider, Fred."

"Oi –" interrupted Ron. He half-rose from his seat. Hermione turned and her heart leaped; a familiar figure with a mop of black hair approached their cluster.

Harry sank down on the couch next to Fred and offered a wan smile. "What're we all talking about?"

"Oh – end-of-term marks showed up." Fred pointed helpfully at the remaining letter. "And Georgie here's growing a big head. I warned him not to write to Perce, I did –"

"And Freddie's being a drama queen, as usual," George cut him off. "So? What did Dumbledore want?"

"He wanted to know what happened." Harry picked up his letter and plied it absent-mindedly in his lap. He reiterated what he had told the Headmaster in a dulled whisper; the Gryffindor five listened in silence. Hermione listened with one ear while she watched the others' expressions. George didn't look at anyone, of course, and fussed with the loose bandages on his arm. Fred stared at his twin; his leg had stilled against hers. Ron paled and made the disgusted and sympathetic faces for all of them. Ginny remained quiet, transfixed on Harry, and it struck Hermione suddenly that she, too, had faced Voldemort before and understood what he was going through.

When Harry concluded with the Aurors' sudden arrival, Hermione took it up to inform him and George about events in the ward. When she had finished telling them about the Order's gathering, the conversation tapered off at last.

"They're the ones who fought him last time. They'll know what to do," Ginny concluded with determination that none of them really felt.

Restlessly Fred stood and paced to the window. The afternoon sun blazed high in the clear sky; Hermione blinked owlishly and wondered if brewing storm clouds might have been more appropriate.

Fred braced his hands on the sill and gazed out across the green grounds. "So this is it. This really means war, then."

He received no answer; he did not expect one.

"You know, last time... You lot won't remember, you were too young, but I remember the fear. Mum and Dad couldn't hide that from us. We'd hear them talking in the middle of the night. George, you remember, we'd sneak out to the landing and listen. We didn't understand what it all meant at the time. I think... I think I get it now."

Hermione didn't know what to say. George rose and followed Fred to the window. He turned back, his elbows propped against the sill, and grinned weakly back at them. "You know, Potter, we meant what we said earlier. We're not letting you take him on alone."

"Yeah," Ron interceded, clapping a hand to Harry's shoulder. "We're all with you, mate."

"And me, too," said Ginny, a fierce light shining in her eyes.

Hermione smiled. "You can count on all of us, Harry."

Harry could not answer to their display of loyalty immediately. He gazed down into his lap and clenched his fists around the letter. After a moment, Hermione realized his hands were shaking.

"All of you..." Harry managed at last. "...I can't ask you to put your lives on the line for me –"

"This is our war, too, Harry," George said steadily.

"– and I can't force you to back down, either –"

"We won't back down," said Ginny.

"Because we're your friends, Harry," Hermione said with a smile.

"– and I know that," Harry concluded flatly. He exhaled in defeat and lifted his head, meeting each of their gazes in turn. "Fred, George...Hermione...Ron...Ginny...I need you. I need all of you, and Neville, and Seamus, and Dean, and Luna, and all the rest."

"We'll be there," said Ron.

A wry smile tugged at Harry's lips and he looked downward again at his rumpled letter. He seemed to be struggling with one last admittance. Hermione waited, and they were rewarded.

"...Thank you. All of you."

Hermione felt tears prickling her eyes as she looked at the one who would be known as The Boy Who Lived To Twice Defy Him, and she was the one to reach out for him then and clasp his hands. "Oh, Harry... We would have done it, even if you hadn't asked."

The eve of their departure from Hogwarts heralded the plentiful Leaving Feast. Stepping into the Great Hall that night nearly gave George a heart attack: the long banners hung from the ceiling bore Hufflepuff's gold and black badger. Then, belatedly, he remembered.

"What, missing the old colours, are you?"

George turned his head and stared numbly at a beaming Cedric Diggory. His heart was still hammering his ribs to burst.

Cedric set his hands on his hips. "It's not a bad look at all. Better than looking at green all year, anyway, don't you think?"

"Guess so," George deemed weakly, and was pleased that his voice sounded somewhat natural. Cedric grinned to let him know that he wasn't making too much fun of him and then wandered for the celebrating Hufflepuff table.

"What's a matter, Georgie? You look like you've seen a ghost." Fred emerged from the crowded doorway behind him; George suspected he had been waylaid by a certain Miss Granger again.

George resurfaced with his usual grin. "Well, Freddie, I have." And with that he steered Fred toward the distraction of food.

It wasn't until they were well through with the mounts of delectable desserts that Dumbledore saw fit to interrupt them. He rose and surveyed the Hall with solemnity; the last of the chatter died away.

"By now, most of you have heard word of what happened the night of the twenty-fourth." Dumbledore scanned their pale faces in the candlelight and dipped his head slightly. "I am here to put an end to the rumours: Lord Voldemort has indeed returned."

The murmur rippled through the crowd like a unanimous shudder. The thought of Voldemort's leering eyes drove off the last of his appetite, and George pushed away his treacle tart.

Dumbledore waited for the Hall to quiet. "Some have advised me not to tell you this; but I believe, in these times, truth should outweigh any temporary comfort that lies might provide." He raised his voice. "As of now, he is out there, gathering his forces. It is unknown when or where he will choose to reveal himself next. In the meantime, I assure you, Hogwarts has every intention of providing a safe environment for all of our students in the fall."

"The Triwizard Tournament's intent was to further and promote magical understanding. In light of what has happened, I believe those ties are more important than ever before." Dumbledore paused and looked down the Hall: at the Beauxbatons students whispering at the Ravenclaw table, at the Durmstrang members with the Slytherins, and, finally, along the head table, where Karkaroff and Bagman's seats lay empty. "Every guest in this Hall," Dumbledore proclaimed, "will be welcomed back here at any time. I say to you all: in light of Lord Voldemort's return, we are only as strong as we are united and as weak as we are divided."

Dumbledore concluded his speech without fanfare and sat once more, surveying the Hall with solemn thoughtfulness. All around them, students were beginning to rise and bid last goodbyes to out-of-house friends. Beauxbatons girls cried as they embraced Ravenclaw hosts; eagerly Ron dragged Harry off for a last glimpse of Fleur; numbers and addresses were exchanged and couples embraced in the aisles.

George wasn't hungry, but he didn't feel like braving the crowd, either, so he prodded at the tart for a while longer. Fred and Hermione sat with him.

"Dumbledore's right, you know," Hermione was saying quietly. "We'll need this togetherness – all of us. Oh..."

George glanced up. A hunched, dark-haired figure had shuffled into their midst and had touched Hermione's shoulder. "Excuse me," said Viktor Krum. "I vas only vondering..."

He cleared his throat and seemed aware of the twins watching; he pulled a crumpled bit of parchment from his pocket and lifted his head a little. "If you vould maybe vrite to me, this summer. You are very nice girl, Hermy-own-nee, and I vould be honoured if you vould."

Hermione beamed. "I'd love that, Viktor. Here." She tore a scrap of parchment from her bag and scribbled her address. Viktor, meanwhile, turned to George.

"If you vould not mind, vould you vrite, too?" the Bulgarian Seeker asked with an almost sheepish grin. "I am asking Fleur and Harry too. I am glad ve competed. You are brave man, George. Brave, and maybe little crazy."

At that, George laughed. "I'm less brave and more crazy than I look," he swore as he took the parchment and quill from Hermione. "And, if you don't mind, could I have your autograph? For my brother Ron."

They promised to keep in touch and bid goodbye to Viktor. He shook hands with George and Fred (who was busy trying to ignore him) and swiftly kissed Hermione on the cheek. Then he shuffled off to where Angelina was visible in a group of sixth years.

After he was gone, Fred burst out, "That bloody prat, he likes you!"

"Well, yes, I am generally likeable," George conceded.

Fred shoved him. "Not you. Granger."

Hermione let out a long-suffering sigh and shared a look with George. "Even if he does, I told him I already have a boyfriend."

"Did you tell him how immeasurably handsome and witty he is, and that he knows Muggle martial arts?" asked Fred.

Hermione hid her smile. "Not exactly. He's...rather convinced it's George."

Fred's fork hit his plate with a clatter. "What?"

George grimaced and got to his feet. "Thanks a lot, Hermione. Just when I was looking forward to the train ride."

"Start running," growled Fred.

George shot Hermione a last accusing look before he obliged, and ran for his life. It probably didn't help that he know knew the full and slightly embellished story of how Fred had knocked out Ludo Bagman with his bare hands.

Hermione shook her head and only watched with a half-exasperated, half-amused smile while Fred chased George from the Hall.

A warm summer day greeted the Hogwarts Express's journey back to London. A breeze stirred the pages of the Daily Prophet as Hermione unfolded the newspaper, and upon sighting the front headline she smiled. She nudged George and he leaned over her shoulder to read,


In light of several late rumours as to the return of the dark wizard You-Know-Who, the Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge has seen fit to vacate his position. Upon questioning Fudge's staff, his resignation was stated to be in regards for "his personal health", and assured not to be in correlation with current events. Fudge was unavailable for comment...

"Well, that's certainly interesting, isn't it?" George smirked. He passed the paper around for Fred, Ron, Ginny, and Harry – who had been playing Exploding Snap – to see. "Dumbledore was right."

The news made his own hopes lift slightly: with a Minister capable of action, George thought, maybe the wizarding world would actually be prepared for Voldemort this time around. Wouldn't that be a shock to the Dark Lord?

"D'you think that Shacklebolt guy might take the post?" Ron asked hopefully. Since Harry had told them of his rescue at the Aurors' hands, Ron had had nothing but praise for the Auror division. George made a mental note to get Ron in contact with Percy's new boss; he was most certainly suited to that sort of career.

Since George had survived the third task, their plot to retrieve Hufflepuff's Cup from Gringotts was going strong. Some conferring with Sirius over the mirrors last night had led to a date in early July, a few weeks before they were due to arrive at Grimmauld Place. Then, after that, there was just that ugly snake between them and Voldemort.

It was happening all so quickly.

Sirius had one last word for him: he had been gathering the Order, as commanded, and had seen Bill and Charlie join their numbers. Not so predictably, though, was when Sirius grinned and said, "...and Percy came around about an hour afterward."

Well, George reckoned, it was beginning to look like Fred would have to live with Percy in their lives, after all. Personally, George didn't have much sympathy for him at the moment.

The Gryffindors played Exploding Snap and speculated about the Order's next move long into the afternoon. A smaller article in the Prophet, which Hermione discovered after lunch, describing Ludo Bagman's sentence in Azkaban for fraud, was wondered about only briefly. Then the Hogwarts Express was pulling into the station and the crowd of waiting parents filled the window.

George had already hauled his and Hermione's trunks out into the corridor when Harry said, "Fred, George – wait a minute."

Ah, there we go.

George was careful to stifle his smirk before he turned back. Hermione gave him a knowing look, but she hustled Ron and Ginny down the hall with a claim that she saw their mother waiting.

When the three of them were alone in the compartment, Harry dug in the corner of his trunk and removed his sack of Triwizard winnings; he forced it into George's hands. "Take it."

"What?" said Fred blankly.

"Take it, and get inventing with your joke shop," Harry repeated firmly. "You deserve it, the way you've been working this year. It should've been your name on that Cup, George. But, no, that's not it, either... I could do with a few laughs. We could all do with a few laughs. I've got a feeling we're gonna need them more than usual before long."

"Harry –" George began. Even after all this time, he had no words to thank him; but Fred summarized his thoughts simply.

"– you're absolutely mental," he finished in awe. "Absolutely, bloody mental."

"Maybe even worse than me," George chipped in and grinned. "Harry, you know, anytime you need a favour..."

"Don't worry about it. You don't owe me anything, except for that bet you still haven't paid me," said Harry. "Consider it for a good run for the Cup, all right? And don't tell your mum where you got it."

"You kidding?" grinned Fred.

But George, in another odd spur of the moment, tossed the gold to Fred and instead grasped Harry by the shoulders. "We mean it, though," he said. "Prize or no prize, we're bloody serious. We're on your side, mate."

Fred nodded, weighing the gold in his hands. "Just give us a call, we'll gladly pummel your enemies and whatnot."

"But we will not play matchmaker," George warned sternly. "So mind you work up the guts and ask her out yourself, got it?"

Harry looked a little confused and more than a little dazed by their vehemence, but when the twins pressed him, he solemnly swore. Then Harry tired of their antics and shoved them from the compartment so he could lock his trunk in peace.

George stepped down into the meandering crowd and inhaled the smoggy air. Going home, he thought contentedly. It felt strange to think he'd be going back to the Burrow, but it was somewhat heartening, as well. There was much more freedom out of Hogwarts's halls, and he was looking forward to seeing mum and dad and Bill and Charlie, and yes, even Percy again.

Next to him, Fred had been wise enough to hide the gold and was now craning his neck, searching the crowd. George knew who he was looking for and barely refrained from rolling his eyes.

"Meet you on the other side?" he suggested. Fred nodded distractedly, and so George set off on his own search.

It did not take long to find the large clump of Hufflepuff sixth years. George stopped and cleared his throat.

"Hey, Diggory."

"Hey, Weasley," Cedric echoed genially. In an odd show of benevolence, he bid his friends goodbye and walked with George to the barrier. "Let me guess – you're George?"

"The one and holey, yes," George concurred solemnly.

"I don't think I ever congratulated you about the Tournament, did I? Nicely done."

"Thanks. Harry was better, though," said George without hesitation. He suspected he would never tell anyone that the only one of the four to complete the Tournament had been him. He doubted anyone would believe him, anyway.

" doing anything this summer?" George asked as they waited their turn for the barrier.

"Yeah, actually," said Cedric. "Dad's taking me backpacking across the country. For my eighteenth, and all."

"You like that sort of thing?"

"Yeah." Cedric grinned. "Been camping every summer as far back as I can remember. The Muggle way, if we can. Anyway," they had passed through the barrier into King's Cross Station, and George sighted his mum waving at him, accompanied by Percy, "I'll see you in the fall, I suppose."

"Yeah. And have fun backpacking, Diggory."

George watched Cedric greet his parents and wondered how two minutes had taught him more about Cedric Diggory than six years of classes together. He shook his head wonderingly and walked back to his mother's waiting arms.

After the customary hugs, Mrs Weasley said, "Now, then, we're missing someone, aren't we?"

George looked around. Ron and Ginny were saying their goodbyes to Harry, and promising to steal him away from his Muggles, but Fred was nowhere in sight. Shortly his mum was distracted again as she offered her hugs to Harry.

"Well," said a voice in his ear, "I suppose this is goodbye for now." Hermione had arrived, a little out of breath, and subtly tugging at the hem of her shirt. George raised an eyebrow at her and then glanced to where Fred was now suffering the hug treatment.

"Oh, don't look at me like that," Hermione huffed. "We just said goodbye."

George wisely let the matter go. "Still working on him, are we?"

"Making progress." Hermione grinned and her cheeks went pink. "I'll see you later, then?"

"Yeah. I'll owl you."

Hermione stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek, which made his ear turn red. Then she was off to say goodbye to Ron and Harry before taking her leave with her parents.

There was still a long way ahead of them, George thought as the merrily chattering Weasley family started out of the station. His misadventures as Hogwarts champion had only been a distraction from the true work still ahead of him: Voldemort was on the rise, the majority of his Horcruxes were awaiting destruction in Grimmauld Place, and he had yet to see how the wizarding world would handle the Dark Lord's return. And, George smirked, by the looks of their new investment, he and Fred had a busy summer ahead of them already.

He didn't regret it one bit.

The Weasleys stepped from King's Cross into the hazy summer air, and at that opportune moment Fred decided to tackle him from behind. He hooked his left arm around George's neck and cheerfully ruffled his hair.

"Just imagine the possibilities, Forge! The two of us, no more pesky underage magic restrictions, two whole months of complete and utter freedom..."

"Yes, Gred," George said, ducking and salvaging his tousled hair. "Freedom. You, me, and the world to conquer. Sound like a plan?"

"You just read my mind, Georgie."

"A particular talent I have... I'm considering taking up Divination next year, too, care to join me?"

"Oi! Not if I lop off another one of your ears you don't!"

"Aw, Freddie, you know I'm still working out how to regrow mine..."

And so it began, again: and, laughing and bantering with Fred, George didn't care in the least that Voldemort was seething out there somewhere; he even didn't care that he was less one ear. For the first time in long months, all was well.

To be continued...

Author's Notes:

Don't be fooled! This is not the end. :P

Hello again, everyone, and my apologies for my hiatus... This last month I have been fervently working my summer project, an original piece of fantasy fiction. I have learned that I get a better portion of writing done when I shut myself away from email/Facebook/the Internet in general. :P On the plus side, I finished off at 127k and I believe I may have the start of a series on my hands. (Oops?) In all honestly, though, I'm pretty excited about it.

Now, for FWE-news: we've finished GoF! (Yay!) Next update should see the beginning of OotP. After some debate, I have decided to keep the next "book" going under the same story heading, so you won't have to go looking for it. Expect some changes, especially with the Fudge-resignation and a certain Dark Lord on the loose. Well...we'll just have to see how George handles that, won't we?

And now, I'd just like to take this opportunity to say thanks to everyone reading this. Thanks for all your inspiring, helpful, and sometimes downright hilarious comments, and for sticking with my erratic updates! You guys are awesome!