A/N: I've definitely stolen a couple of lines from Doctor Who, but whatevs. Thanks to everybody who reviewed The Abandoned Boys, and the next chapter of Before the Dawn probably won't be up before Monday. Anyway, hope you enjoy this - let me know what you think!
Ginny separates herself from the others in the kitchen and walks into the lounge.
There is a half eaten sandwich resting on the arm of the sofa, the bite marks curving like smiles.
She knows whose sandwich that was, and it is another reminder of the dreadful reality.
People are still celebrating, up and down the country, and she can't really get her head around it. He's gone, and so are Lupin and Tonks, and people are celebrating. Voldemort's defeat seems like a trivial matter when compared to the loss they have faced that night. She's not undermining Harry, oh no, not at all, but there will come a time when she can truly appreciate the significance of this night.
Now all she can do is stare at the sandwich.
"Shame," he said, when the call to battle came through. "Bloody nice that."
He put the sandwich down, drew his wand and grinned at George.
George beamed in a way that he never would again.
"I'm coming too," Ginny said, taking her wand out.
The pair of them glared at her.
"No you're not -"
"Not a chance -"
"You must be mad."
"I'm not going to stay here and wait!"
"You're going to have to - we're not letting our little sister go and start duelling dark wizards!"
"No, we want to save some for ourselves," Fred winked, but Ginny showed no amusement. "We'll be back before you know it, all right?" he kissed her on top of her head, patted her on the shoulder and disapparated.
He's wondering how his room's gotten so messy even though he's been on the run for the last year. Clearing it out gives him something to do, he can keep his mind focused on something other than the piece of his soul that's missing. The corners of his mouth are turned down as he chucks dirty clothes into a dusty corner, and he wrinkles his nose when he does the sniff test on a shirt that was hovering over the line of doubt. He throws it onto the pile with the rest of the unwashed items, then sits down on his bed heavily, cradling his head in his hands.
The more Ron tries to ignore it, the more it grows in his head, like a tumour, pressing in on his brain, making him take note.
He almost wishes he was in the tent again, in the middle of nowhere.
He almost wishes Voldemort was still alive, and the final battle was yet to be had.
But then they'd just lose somebody else - that was the trouble with a big family. The more people you love, the more you have to lose.
He slides off of the bed and onto his knees, pulling a huge, dog eared pile of comics towards him.
The Adventures of Martin Miggs, the Mad Muggle.
The growth in his head swells beyond reason, the pang in his heart tearing through him with all the ferocity it had when he'd first seen his lightless eyes.
"Oi, pea brain! Come 'ere!"
Ron obeyed, attempting to climb onto the worn brown sofa, patterned cushions scattered wherever there was room. After watching him struggle for a short while, Fred relented, and lifted him onto the seat next to him.
"You'll like this," he said. "It's a comic."
"Comic!" Ron repeated joyously.
"It's about a muggle, and his name is Martin Miggs. Can you say that?"
Fred rolled his eyes. "Look," he opened the page, and Ron's eyes widened, trying to take in the fresh colourful pictures. In one frame, Martin was pictured with a swollen bandaged thumb - he'd had to use a hammer to put a picture up, and it was very silly because he could have just used a sticking charm if he'd been a wizard.
Ron reached out to grab at the pages and Fred held the comic out of reach.
"No! Don't grab it, you'll tear the pages!"
Ron shrunk back, hands resting in his lap. After a reproachful look, Fred scooted closer to him so they could both see.
"This is Martin's house," he said pointing at the picture. "And he lives in Wibble Street..."
"Close enough..." Fred sighed.
He's spending more time at home now. It's a poor attempt at making up for the past three years of stony silence, but it is an attempt nonetheless.
Besides, they need to keep what's left of their family together.
He's being more helpful than he's ever been in his life, and he knows his mother has noticed, despite everything. She squeezes his arm every now and then, when he offers to prepare lunch, or wash the kitchen floor.
Percy just wants to make things right, but they've all forgiven him already.
He feels almost as if he can bring him back, by being the brother and son he should have been, even before everything kicked off. He was never a pleasure to be around, he knows that now, such is the gift of hindsight.
He picks up his wand and waves it at the pile of dirty dishes next to the sink.
It squawks loudly and turns into a rubber chicken.
Percy sits down at the table and cries.
The bangs and the crashes are louder than ever - the floor shakes with every boom that sounds, the pictures on his walls rattling with the sheer force of it all.
He closes his eyes and counts to ten.
By the time he reaches four, the entire house shakes so violently that the glass of pumpkin juice sitting on his desk wobbles off of the edge and smashes on the floor, orange liquid soaking into his socks.
Percy slams his quill down on the desk, knocking over his ink pot and swears, shaking the spilled ink off of his hand. He opens the door, ignoring the black hand print he's left on the knob and throws open the door to their room with all the force he can muster.
They're wearing identical grins, their hair standing on end as though they've been electrocuted. They're each sporting a pair of flying goggles, and their faces are blackened with soot, as are the walls, windows and floor.
Nothing, it seems, has escaped their wrath.
"Will you two give it a rest?" he yells, and his anger only amuses them. "I am trying to work!"
"Sorry Perce!" they chorus, and he knows the instant they say it that they don't mean a word of it.
He returns to his room, slamming the door behind him, unaware that in a few years time, he would give anything and everything to hear an explosion come from that room.
There is an empty chair.
It's not unusual - the kitchen table has always had varying numbers of guests crammed around it, sometimes only a couple, sometimes nearly two dozen. An empty chair has never given him this feeling before.
It's made even more noticeable to him, and everyone else eating silently, by the fact that the empty chair is the one next to George.
Charlie sets his fork down on the side of his plate, louder than he intended.
The noise startles Ginny, but George doesn't seem to have heard it at all.
He takes a sip of his pumpkin juice, eyes scanning the table. Everybody's looking at their plates.
George hasn't even made a start on his food.
Give him dragons any day. He'd rather take on a thousand of those than deal with this. If taking on a thousand dragons could bring him back, then he'd be there already.
He's well aware, however, that no gesture, no matter how great or dramatic, can do a damn thing about his brother's death.
The simplicity of it doesn't make it any simpler to deal with.
It just makes him feel helpless.
"Grip it tight or you'll fall off!"
George was wringing his hands impatiently, leaning against the apple tree in the paddock. They only had one good broom between the two of them, and as always it was Fred's go first.
"Your turn in a minute mate, all right?" Charlie winked at him, and George grinned excitedly.
"How do I steer?"
"Erm..." Charlie bit his lip. It had always come naturally to him, there was no real way of explaining it, but he couldn't just send Fred up there and tell him to go for it, he'd end up in Malaysia.
"You're seeker on the Gryffindor team and you don't know how to steer?" Fred asked smugly. "Blimey, did nobody else try out?"
Charlie rolled his eyes. "You just have to do it subtly, no sudden movements. Just adjust your grip a little bit, it's more of an instinct."
"How can I adjust my grip if I'm supposed to hold on tight?"
He was asking questions to be difficult now, and Charlie made a mental note to start with George next time.
"Just kick off, but don't go too high. Mum'll kill me."
"And you too."
The grin vanished.
He kicked off the ground confidently, and rose far too high in the air. Within a few seconds he was speeding towards the opposite side of the paddock, Charlie watching in horror as he drew dangerously close to a telegraph pole.
But Fred had already turned around swiftly, and was swinging the broom left and right as he headed back towards Charlie, yelling excitedly.
"This is brilliant!"
He landed hard on the ground, stumbling a little as his feet remembered that it was no longer the broom's job to support his weight.
"My turn!" George said, running forward and taking the broom from Fred.
"I'm gonna be on the team," Fred said, his hands resting on his hips, chest puffed out. "Just you wait and see."
Everything is different.
It's hard to pinpoint what's actually changed, apart from the obvious. The house is the same as it ever was, and meal times are still a cluttered affair. The fire still roars in the hearth and the sofa still has the same squashy welcoming look it's had for the past twenty five years.
There is something missing, again, apart from the obvious. It's almost like someone's crept into the house and moved things around, changed things, like some absurd game of spot the difference.
Bill doesn't like staying for long. He prefers to return home to Fleur, to their little isolated cottage by the sea where he can pretend it hasn't happened.
It has happened though, and he has to come to terms with it. But that can wait. For now, he sits and makes small talk with his mother and father, both of whom have aged disproportionately in the last week. He eats his slice of cake dutifully, though all the flavour has been sapped by it, though he's not sure whether it's his mother's cooking or his own taste buds that have been affected most heavily by the incident.
It's so quiet. They're talking and still the silence bears down upon them, like they're stuck inside a rapidly deflating balloon. It's pressing in on all sides and Bill has never known anything like it. Even when all the others had been at school and he'd dropped by to visit, there were still echoes of them, each and every one of them.
His echoes have gone now, and they've taken the others with them.
It's not only Fred that died that night.
"Head Boy," Fred said, pulling a face.
Bill looked down at his new badge, then back at Fred. "What's wrong with being Head Boy?"
"Everything." Fred folded his arms, looked at George, and he did the same, just to satisfy him. When Fred turned his attention back to Bill, George relaxed his arms and turned the page in the magazine he was reading, occasionally looking over with mild interest.
"Not everything is wrong with being Head Boy," Bill argued. "I get a shiny badge, people do what I say, I get a private bathroom..."
"And everyone knows you're a goody two shoes..." Fred continues, copying Bill's tone. He rolls his eyes and his arms drop sulkily to his sides. "I always knew Percy would be Head Boy, he's boring like that, but I never thought you would."
"Well maybe Dumbledore thinks I'm the best in the school."
"Maybe he's just trying to make you feel good because he knows we're going to outdo you once we start school."
"Yeah yeah," Bill said, waving a dismissive hand at him. "I'll believe that when I see it."
He rummages through his tool box, searching for his screwdriver. He needs the small one, with the yellow plastic handle but it seems to have gone astray. At last he spots it, and plucks it from the mess of wrenches, spanners and hammers. His eyes focus through the pair of reading glasses perched in the end of his nose, and he tightens the tiny screw, tongue sticking out the side of his mouth in concentration.
Arthur feels as though he's being watched, but nobody's there, he knows that.
He knows where the gaze is coming from too, but he won't meet its look.
He keeps his attention fixed on the screw, but his hand slips, and the screwdriver sends the minuscule piece of metal flying into a crate on one of the shelves that's overflowing with gears and cogs and plugs and sprockets.
Giving up, he sets down the radio, sighing heavily, hands moving to cradle his head.
Eventually, when he thinks he can just about face it, he pulls the photograph towards him.
Fred's flaming red hair is sticking up on end, his teeth are still a little too large for his young face. He would grow into them eventually, but as a ten year old, they only made his smile more noticeable. He's waving wildly from within the confines of the image, unaware of what the future holds, its dangers, and that he is already halfway through his desperately short life.
Arthur takes the moment to exercise some private grief. He's alone, he doesn't need to be strong for the others now. Just as long as Molly doesn't find out, just as long as George doesn't find out. They need him more now than ever, and it will do no good if he crumbles so soon, so easily.
He wishes he could disappear into the photo, that his children could be young and untainted by the war forever, but no. Everything comes to an end, and everything must die.
He just never expected it to happen to Fred.
The second one was on its way, and Molly looked more tired than he had ever seen her. He was supposed to be holding her hand, they were supposed to be in it together, but all he could do was hold his newborn son in his arms, and stare at him in wonder.
"Hello Fred," he whispered, and the baby's eyelids fluttered open, revealing two shining blue mischievous eyes.
George was making fast progress, and Arthur placed Fred back in his crib, taking Molly by the hand and trying not to wince as she squeezed it with a vice like grip.
It was over much more quickly than Fred's birth had been, and soon Arthur and Molly were holding both boys between them, gazing at them quietly.
It was not the time for words.
Fred twisted his head to look at George, and reached out one puffy little fist to touch him gently on the arm. George squinted at his brother and touched his fist against Fred's.
She's sorting through the freshly laundered clothes, trying to match up jeans and jumpers to the correct owner's pile. Ron's is the highest, a toppling tower of garments, all thrown into the wash bin after he'd returned home and unpacked his things.
She loads the next lot into the washer and sets it going with a flick of her wand. The noise of the water swishing around the clothes is a helpful addition to the silence in the house. Everybody's home, even Charlie, but the silence makes it feel as if she's all by herself.
Molly pairs the socks, dumping them out into roughly even piles. It doesn't really matter who gets which pair; they'll all put holes in them eventually.
It takes her by surprise, when she picks it up and turns it around.
The large knitted 'F' on the front of the jumper leaves her feeling like she's been punched in the chest. She's not really aware of whether she's breathing or not, nor does she notice the hot prickle of tears in her eyes. All she knows is the dreadful ache in her heart that spreads to every inch, through every vein, nerve, and cell of her body. Her legs won't move, and after a few moments she realises that she is swaying gently on the spot.
She grips the counter with a shaking hand, the jumper falling back onto the pile of unsorted clothes softly. She doesn't know what to do. The body that is supposed to be wearing the jumper is buried deep within the earth, suppressed even further by the weight of the masses of flowers laid down before his marble head stone.
What does she do with this jumper that won't ever be worn again?
She can't throw it away, she wouldn't dare. It belonged to her son. But she shouldn't put it back in his room, what if George were to find it?
Molly picks it up again delicately. The sleeve is fraying, a few loose strands of wool trailing down past the cuff. There is a dark burn mark surrounding a hole on the right hand side of it, a result of a botched experiment no doubt.
She closes her eyes and holds the jumper close to her chest, breathing in the scent that is still faintly there, despite the wash.
For a second, she can believe her son is in the room.
And then she opens her eyes.
"Fred, your turn!"
"I'm not Fred, I'm George!"
George never played that trick, and Molly, hands on hips, raised an eyebrow, retracting the present slightly.
"Only mucking about," he said, grinning widely, and leaning forward to take the hastily wrapped present from her.
When you had seven children, wrapping Christmas presents could only ever be a hasty task.
"I wonder what it is!" he said loudly, jokingly, squeezing the package with his fingers. They all laughed, and his eyes sparkled with glee, as though he had accomplished something great, something to be proud of.
He tore off the paper and held the jumper in front of him to inspect it.
"Blimey!" he said, "That's a surprise!"
Again, they laughed, and again Molly could see the small jolt of adrenalin burst through him.
He pulled it on, wrestling his head through the slightly too small collar.
"Thanks mum," he said, and this time it was without jest, he was not aiming to make people laugh, he was not seeking that thrill that came with being the family comedian.
He meant it, and this time the adrenalin shot through Molly, laced with pride, affection, and above all, love.
He was a trouble maker, he had caused her enough worries for a hundred children, never mind the other six, he was argumentative and sometimes went much too far.
He was perfect.
"D'you fancy a game of quidditch later?" he asks, lingering in the doorway.
Ron looks up from his pile of comics and shrugs. "Sure, I'll just finish up in here - say about half an hour?"
George nods. "I'll go and ask Ginny if she wants to play..."
He doesn't hear Ron's response, and trundles down the stairs, hand skating along the gnarled wooden bannister. It's only when he reaches the floor below that it hits him, full in the face.
It's easy to ignore going up the stairs. Once he reaches his floor, he can keep his eyes focused on the skirting boards, the carpet, anything. But coming down the stairs, it's staring him straight in the face.
Fred and George's Room.
The words echo around in his head like a whisper, a cruel whisper, reminding him of what had once been whole and perfect. He can't do anything about it though - he certainly can't bring Fred back from the dead. The sign will remain there forever, no matter how much he wishes it could be turned over or hidden in some dark dusty corner of the attic.
It could be done - it could be done so so easily.
He doesn't want to be the one to do it though. He has never betrayed his brother, and just because he's dead, that doesn't give him an excuse to start now.
He can't tear his eyes away from it, but he has to. He'll end up staying here forever if he doesn't.
The door to his right creaks open, and Percy takes one look between George and the carved wooden sign hanging from the wonky nail, and pats him on the shoulder. The force of the gesture turns George's gaze away from the door, and he is more grateful than Percy will ever know.
"Fancy a game of quidditch?" George croaks, fighting to get his voice back to a normal tone.
"Yes, all right," he says, and George almost smiles. Percy hates playing quidditch, hates flying, but the slight pompous air that is entwined with his answer would be laughter worthy on any other day, in any other universe.
Fred would have been the first to laugh.
"Fred," he whispered.
"How d'you reckon Dumbledore's going to decide which one of us he makes Head Boy?"
Fred laughed into his pillow, and on the other side of the dormitory, Lee Jordan stirred.
"It's ages away, we've got loads of time to be expelled, don't worry."
There it was, that reassuring tone that came so naturally from Fred. George could never muster it, not really. He was always the one that needed to hear it
Mostly he heard it just before they got into very serious trouble, yet every time that voice was used, that optimistic, reasoning tone, George trusted it with his life, and did exactly as he was told.
"D'you think everyone's going to expect us to be good? 'Cause of Bill and Charlie?"
Fred shrugged. "We'll make our mark, don't you worry."
"I'm not worrying," George said.
"I bet you I'll get a detention before you," Fred said, smirking at George in a challenging way. "I bet you."
"Yeah," said George, "I bet you will too."
Fred laughed and Lee coughed in his sleep.
George pulled his covers up higher and blew out the candle next to his bed.
"Goodnight Forge," he whispered.
George follows Percy down the stairs, lulled into a false sense of security by the mundane sight of the back of his older brother's head. As soon as Percy turns towards the kitchen, George sees it. It hits him just as the door sign had, and he has been doing an excellent job of avoiding looking at it until now, again, as he had with the door sign.
It is the clock.
Until now, George had no idea that clocks could be so kind.
Fred's hand is pointing at where the number six ought to be, and the label sends a wave of tranquillity flowing through George's veins.