A/N: Not abandoning this! I was away last week. Next update to come sooner rather than later most likely since I'm seeing the movie again tomorrow. : ) Inspiration will return immediately, I'm sure.
Bill sighs and looks longingly at the small but comfortably appointed living room in Shell Cottage. This is home, yes... but he knows he needs to go to that other home. The Burrow. The place that didn't used to hold such dread for him. He wishes it didn't now. But every time he thinks about going back there these days, he feels a pit in his stomach. The only thing that helps is the reassuring pressure of Fleur's hand in his. He knows she understands how hard this is for him. He's starting to think she might be the only one who does.
But he knows this is no one's fault but his. He's become so epically good at hiding his feelings from his family that no one else could possibly know how badly he's taking this. But they shouldn't have to know. He's the eldest. It's his responsibility to look out for the others. It always has been. No one has to look out for him. He has Fleur. He'll be fine. He just... he just has to make it through another day.
When they get to the Burrow, Fleur notices with a pang how Bill has to deliberately square his shoulders before he walks inside. She, too, wonders what they will see when they walk through the door. Over the past few days, they've seen all sorts of things when they've walked in, and none of them have been pleasant. And today is no exception.
Molly is standing over the sink, her wand trembling in her hand as she attempts to clean up after an obvious poor attempt at lunch. There is just too much food left over for a Weasley meal, but Fleur knows that her mother-in-law's shoulders aren't shaking because of the lack of interest in her cooking. No, her shoulders are in a perpetual state of motion these days, much to her children's dismay because none of them knows how to deal with this version of Molly. Ironically, they're much calmer when she's her usual frenetic self.
Bill swallows with a click and then, taking a deep breath, walks over and wraps his arms around his mother, squeezing her tightly, ignoring the tears that are dropping into the soapy water.
"Morning, Mum," he says, straining to keep his voice level and just managing to succeed. "Where is everyone? Lunch finished?"
Molly nods and sighs. "Yes, dear. Just cleaning up." Her voice shakes, but she's managing to talk, and that helps Bill step away and smooth down his ponytail.
He's looking anywhere but at her reddened eyes as he mutters something about going into the other room to see the others. As he stumbles through the door, Molly catches Fleur's eyes, and she sighs.
"I'm sorry," she says softly. Gesturing vaguely to her face, she mumbles, "I wish I didn't make this harder for him..." But Fleur crosses the room to her mother-in-law and shakes her head sharply.
"No," she says firmly. "Stop 'zat. Eet ees not your fault zat zees is 'ard for Bill. Eet would be 'ard whether he saw you just now or not."
After a moment of silence, Molly nods. "It's true," she muses. A thought seems to occur to her, and she says, "Maybe if he talked to ..." But she trails off, and Fleur does not know what she was about to say.
The living room is surprisingly empty when Bill wanders in, and he walks the length of it and straight out the other side. He doesn't want to go back into the kitchen where his mother is still not herself, but there are too many things in this room that he might see that he does not want to. He notices that the door to the shed is ajar, and he heads in that direction. Poking his head inside, he calls "hello?" hesitantly. It's the first time he's been out here in ages, and he feels himself relaxing slightly when he hears his father's voice shout "hello" from somewhere deep in the recesses. Bill walks in and closes the door, smiling faintly at the motorbike that Arthur is still, inexplicably, tinkering with. It's never going to fly again; everyone's agreed on that, but Arthur can't seem to stop trying to figure it all out.
When his father emerges, blinking and then smiling at his eldest son, Bill actually finds himself smiling back before his face falls back into its recent more accustomed scowl.
"What are you doing out here, Dad?" he asks, and Arthur motions toward the bike, sheepishly ducking his head.
"Don't tell your Mum. It's just an easy way to pass the time these days. Helps to keep my hands busy." He shrugs even as he's drawn back to the motor. He peers into it, and Bill leans again the cabinet behind him, crossing his arms and watching his father, wondering as he always does at his equanimity. He wishes his own were that natural. He feels like he has to fight everyday to even seem remotely as calm as Arthur always does.
Well... no. Not always. Bill suddenly finds himself staring at the floor and blinking as he remembers the funeral again. He keeps remembering the funeral, as much as he wishes he could forget, and he remembers seeing his father cry for the first time he could ever remember.
Arthur isn't oblivious to the change in Bill's breathing, but he continues to stare down into the engine even as he says quietly, "You and Fleur are good to come as often as you do. It helps your mum to have as many of you here as she can everyday."
It would be an innocent statement. Arthur surely means it that way. But all Bill hears is "since she can never have everyone here again," and his eyes are burning much as they do when he tries to fall asleep every night. But it's safer then because the only person there is Fleur, and she's the only one he doesn't have to be brave for. He can't do this now. He can't do this to his father. He shakes his head, hardly realizing he's doing it, until Arthur tentatively says, "Bill?"
Bill knows he's inches away from a full-on crying jag, and nothing could terrify him more. He closes his eyes against the hot wetness, his mouth screwing up tightly to keep anything from getting out. If he just holds himself perfectly still...
But he hadn't banked on Arthur to realize just what was happening, and suddenly, he feels his father's hand on his shoulder, and something inside Bill breaks. He covers his face with his hands, and then Arthur's hand is on his elbow, guiding him to the bench. He collapses onto it and hunches over, trying not to make a sound and failing miserably. He wants to not think that the hoarse sobs are emanating from him, but he's helpless to stop them for a long time. When they've finally spent themselves, he lets out a deep breath but stays curled into himself, not wanting to look up and see the pity in his father's eyes.
But Arthur is sitting beside him, and Bill knows that he's waiting for him to look up, and he finds himself doing it almost against his will, his face burning. But there is no pity there. His father is looking at him with complete understanding, which only brings fresh tears to Bill's eyes. He tries to blink them away, but one slips down anyway, and he flushes furiously as he brushes it away.
"What?" he asks, hating how his voice breaks, hating how weak he sounds. This is not what's supposed to happen. He's the strong one. He's supposed to protect them all from this and help them through their tears. None of them is supposed to have to help him.
Arthur is waiting for Bill to be calm enough that he'll hear what he has to say, and when he's finally convinced that he's got enough of his attention, he says, "Bill, you needed this. Don't shake your head. You did. I know you want to help your brothers and sister. I know you think you should be strong enough to not need anyone else's help. But that's not true. That's just a job you've given yourself, and it's not one anyone else would give you. We may be used to you doing it, but that doesn't mean you have to. It's not fair to you, Bill. Fred was your brother, too."
Why is it always the use of past tense that does him in more effectively than anything else? Bill wonders almost philosophically even while knowing he's still dangerously close to tears. But he manages to nod as he chokes out, "I know." It's all he can say right now, but at least he feels like he's not entirely gone if he can manage that.
Arthur nods, too. "You need to let the others help you, too. You're not doing anyone any favors by taking all of this on yourself. You're only hurting yourself more, and I won't let you do that. You might be the oldest, Bill, but I'm your father. You can let me shoulder some of it as well. We can share the weight, all right?"
Bill nods. He has to. A lump has formed in his throat and lodged there, and he can't speak anymore. He closes his eyes again. Arthur is right. They can share it, and right now, Bill can't think of a more welcome proposition. He doesn't know why he suddenly feels so completely out of control, but he does know that this isn't as temporary as he sorely wishes it were. He lets out a shuddering breath and thinks he might be able to wrest himself back under control when Arthur's arm is suddenly encircling him.
It's the first time a member of his family has dared to embrace him since the funeral. Hardly realizing what he's doing, he turns into his father's shoulder, hiding his face in the familiar, comforting warmth, even as his tears seep into the material. Arthur's own eyes are brimming, but he simply tightens his hold on his son. He'd known Bill would need this sooner or later, but he hadn't expected him to break quite so hard.