Disclaimer: Harry Potter is the property of JK Rowling. Title from The Kills song of the same name.
Future Starts Slow
"Shh! What if he's here?"
"He's not, I've told you, he's out getting another order of Doxys—"
"Ouch! Ron, that's my foot!"
"Ow! Stop, stop, we're there!"
"The door, for goodness' sake, Ron—no, stop, I'm at the landing!"
"We can't all three—ow, Harry, we won't all fit!"
"This is ridiculous—Lumos!"
Light flared in the pitch black staircase, illuminating three wizards in their late teens, one of whom, the speccy git who'd just trod on Ron Weasley's ankle, was holding a lit wand. The three of them were standing, in various degrees of discomfort, on a small landing outside a closed door. The only witch amongst them (who had somehow wangled a few nights away from Hogwarts during the Easter break from Professor McGonagall) was pushed up against the door, Harry Potter was teetering on the edge of the first step, and Ron was sandwiched between them.
"Are we sure we've dismantled the security jinxes?" Harry asked, taking a step back onto the next-lowest step before he fell onto it.
Harry stared at him. "What's that 'er' for?"
Ron shrugged. "Well, you know George, he's a bit…well, he likes a laugh, doesn't he? So it'd be like him to put something sneaky up here in case we tried something like this."
Raising her eyebrows, Hermione said, "Ron, the only way he'd have got the idea that we're going to try something like this would be if you'd told him."
"Which I didn't," Ron hastened to inform her.
"Still, better safe than sorry," Harry said. "I don't fancy getting hit with any combination of jinxes that George will've come up with."
Hermione nodded curtly and pulled her wand out, muttering under her breath as she waved it around the door. Finally, she lowered the wand and looked over her shoulder at them. "Nothing." Then, turning to face the door again, she put her wand to the lock and said, "Alohamora."
The lock clicked and she turned the knob, then swung the door open. Ron noticed she didn't exactly rush in, but when nothing happened, she stepped forward into the flat, Ron and Harry following her. "He's not here," she announced after a visual survey of the flat.
"Of course he's not; didn't I tell you he's out—"
"No offence, Ron, but you also told me he didn't have a Jelly-Legs curse on any of the merchandise," Harry said, his legs giving a little wobble as though to punctuate the statement.
"Well, I thought he'd got rid of it," Ron replied, aggrieved. "Thought he'd got tired of forgetting his own security jinxes and spending ten minutes wobbling about like a prat every other morning while he was tidying up the shelves."
Hermione's nose was wrinkled in faint disgust as she looked around. "Ron, do you ever suggest to George that he might tidy up a bit?"
"No," Ron replied. "Why would I do that?"
In response, she just sighed, then swept her wand over the room. Ron supposed the amount of dirty laundry that rose up into the air was fairly impressive, and there were actually a shocking number of books on the floor, considering how rarely George and Fred had been seen with even one at Hogwarts—not to mention the dishes scattered around the room, after they'd traveled through the air to the kitchen, formed a teetering tower in the sink. Hermione said, "Aguamenti," and the sink quickly filled with water, but, to Ron's great amusement, she couldn't get the dishes to start washing themselves, no matter how many times she spoke the incantation. Finally, she sighed and said frustratedly, "Harry, do you mind doing the dishes?"
"She's rubbish at householdy spells," Ron muttered to Harry.
"I heard that, Ron."
Ignoring this, he peeked into the bedroom and noted with interest the hamper that had pulled itself out of the closet, unfolded, and which was now accepting dirty laundry into its depths. "I dunno if George even knows he's got that," he remarked.
Hermione sniffed as she carefully marked the places that all the books were opened to, then stacked them neatly and pushed them under a rickety table next to the couch—there were no shelves, of course. "Ron, did your brothers get OWLs in Potions?" she asked idly.
Thinking back—it seemed ages and ages ago, and really it was, wasn't it—Ron said, "Y'know, I dunno…"
She was looking at the spines of the books. "Only, they're quite good at it," she said musingly. Then, she shook herself. "I mean, Fred was, George is…" Her expression turned sad.
Ron didn't call attention to her gloomy turn. "Yeah, well, they'd've jumped at the chance to be rid of Snape, anyway. I sort of remember George saying the exam was a piece of piss but he and Fred wanted to use the time to work out how to finish off the Ton-Tongue Toffees."
They heard Harry snort from the kitchen and a little frown appeared on Hermione's face. She still didn't approve of the by-now-infamous test on Harry's cousin, maintaining that it really could have been dangerous. Ron didn't tell her about half the stuff he and George tried on themselves.
"Well," Hermione said briskly, "as clever as your brother is—" ("Shall I tell him you actually said that, Hermione?" Ron asked gleefully) "—I would think he could work out that he needs to speak with your mother."
Ron groaned as he enchanted a broom to sweep up the majority of the dust on the floor. "I'm sure he has, and I don't blame him for putting it off. You saw what she was like the other night; well, she was worse when George and I went round the week before."
With a shrug, Hermione commented, "I just don't think it solves anything, the way he acts."
"What about her?" Ron asked incredulously. "She's a bit mental, even you have to admit."
Hermione raised an eyebrow at him but didn't answer, instead opening up her purple, beaded handbag and beginning to pull balloons out. "You can start inflating these," Hermione said, shoving them into his hands. Then the look she was giving him softened and she stepped forward to kiss him. "Ron," she said quietly, "I think the way you've been looking after George is really sweet. And this is a brilliant idea."
Ron felt his face flush to the tips of his ears and he mumbled, "'M really not looking after him; just helping about round the shop for awhile." He was glad she thought it was a brilliant idea, though—they were here on his insistence after what had occurred the two nights ago when they'd gone round the Burrow. Hermione had wanted to say hello to his parents, and Harry had come along because he hadn't been for awhile. Ron encouraged this because Mum was always bound to cook something extra if Harry was there.
The three of them had sat in the kitchen with Mum while she'd cooked, and everything was fine until the subject of the following day had come up—seemingly innocently, seemingly just to remark that since Fred and George had moved out, the first of April was a much less stressful day. But then Mum had said, "Ron, dear, your brother isn't answering my owls about his birthday supper tomorrow; would you have a word with him tonight?"
"He won't come," Ron had said shortly.
"I know he doesn't like me fussing over him, but I thought if you—"
"Mum," Ron had repeated, "he won't come. Trust me."
For a long moment she hadn't answered, keeping her back to them while she concentrated on the stew bubbling on the stove. He'd seen Harry and Hermione glance at each other out of the corner of his eye, and then his mother had spoken, bursting out vehemently, "He will come, if I have to go to that shop and drag him here myself! He can't spend his birthday alone, not when it's the first since—" But she'd broken off there, and Ron hadn't missed the way her shoulders had shaken before she'd got them under control.
"Mrs Weasley, I think Ron just means…well, George wants some time to himself tomorrow," Hermione had said in a nervous tone.
"Exactly," Ron had agreed, grateful to her for helping.
Then, Mum had startled all of them by wailing, "But he's by himself all the time, now!" prompting Ron to mutter, "What am I, chopped Flobberworm?" Either because she hadn't heard him, or was ignoring him, she'd gone on, "I can't bear thinking of him all alone tomorrow, when it should—there should be—"
To Ron's horror, his mother had obviously started weeping, and he was terrible at knowing the thing to do to get her to stop. That was Bill and Charlie's job, and Dad's, obviously, but he was out in the shed—George had shown a surprising talent for it but of course he wasn't there. "Oh, Mum, don't cry—" he'd said, torn between going to comfort her and appealing to Hermione for further help.
Luckily, at that moment, Dad had stepped into the kitchen, wiping oil off his hands with an old rag. In a flash, his eyes had taken in the scene, and he'd looked at Ron and asked, "What—?"
"It's George," Ron had said quickly, trying to get in the explanation before Mum got even more upset.
"He won't come to his own birthday supper!" Mum had wailed, though, cutting him off. "Oh, how can he bear—my little boy—"
"Molly, Molly," Dad had murmured, going to her immediately and encircling her with his arms. Ron had started edging out of the kitchen, not keen on seeing his parents in this mode.
"He can't spend his birthday alone, Arthur!"
"He's twenty-one tomorrow; you've got to let him do what he wants to. He's an adult, Molly."
Harry and Hermione had already retreated to the living room, where they'd sat on the couch. Clearing his throat to cover up a fresh outburst of sobbing from Mum, Ron had plopped next to Hermione, whose hand had moved to his leg. "It is awfully depressing to imagine him spending his birthday alone," Hermione had said softly. "Especially this birthday."
"Hermione, you don't understand," Ron had said. "He nearly took Harry's leg off the other day just for mentioning it."
"I think it was an accident," Harry'd said fairly. "He looked like he was aiming for that big cobweb that's been up in the corner of the window for weeks. I think I just surprised him."
The three of them had sat in silence for a minute, and luckily the weeping from the kitchen had quieted down, though Ron could still hear Dad's low murmuring. It was no wonder George hated coming to the Burrow, really. Christmas had been…well, it could have been worse. Thing was, George was good at the shop; really he was good anywhere but home; Mum was right that he didn't like her fussing over him but she kept doing it.
Hermione had a point, though—it was a bit depressing imagining his prat of an older brother treating his birthday like any other day, only instead of sitting around playing a few rounds of Exploding Snap at the end of it, or going to the Muggle chippie just outside Diagon Alley, he'd just go straight upstairs to his flat.
"Hey," Ron had said suddenly, and he had remained pleased with himself for the idea right up to this very moment, "so he doesn't want any fuss. He doesn't want to come here. Why don't we throw a party for him?"
"Ron, I don't think it matters who does it; I think he just wants to be alone tomorrow—" Hermione had started, but Ron shook his head to interrupt her.
"No, that's the thing, we can do it the next day. So it's not like we're making a big deal out of it, see? But George—that great git, he loves having his birthday, he'd get to the next day and realise what a colossal mistake he'd made holing himself up, so this way he can—" Ron had been about to say stew, or mourn, or feel sorry for himself, but all of those made it sound as though he begrudged George doing them, which he didn't, because he missed Fred every day as well. "—well, right, and then he still gets his birthday."
Hermione had looked at him with a sort of respectful surprise, as though hearing a plan like this out of his mouth was completely unexpected. Maybe it was. Harry had just looked thoughtful. "That's a good idea," he'd said musingly. "Could we make sure he's gone for a few hours on Thursday?"
"I think that's the day the Doxys are coming in," Ron had said. "And he always spends at least an hour picking up other supplies while he's at the distributor."
"So you can guarantee us an hour," Hermione had mused. "That should be enough time to decorate the flat and bring some food in." She'd looked suddenly delighted. "And I can use that new cake recipe that I've wanted to try!"
"Er, Hermione," Ron had said, thinking quickly to say this in the right way, "we'll be so busy with the…with the decorating—you'll probably have loads of charms that you'll want to do—we don't want you going to all the trouble of baking a cake, as well. We'll just buy one." Otherwise, if Hermione's last experiment with baking was anything to go by, they'd be picking their teeth up off the table.
That cake, bought from the bakery recently opened up by Eloise Midgeon ("Amazing how her acne's cleared up, isn't it?" Ron had said as they'd left with it, earning him a sharp elbow in the ribs from Hermione), was currently being carefully removed from Hermione's bag. "Oh, good," she breathed when she saw that the box hadn't sustained any damage, "I was afraid the books might have fallen on it."
"Don't forget the takeaway!" Harry reminded them from the kitchen.
"Not much chance of that," Ron said, grinning as the smell of curry came wafting out of the bag. He set to work inflating the balloons, which were, of course, a Wheezes product. The inflated ones would, every so often, go zooming round the room, bouncing off each other and Ron and Hermione's heads. Some of them flashed different colours, some had fountains of sparkles in them, and some made rude sounds at random intervals. While he worked on that, Hermione set the food out—the feast for eight ("Because," Hermione had sniffed, "Ron and George eat enough for six people") from the Indian takeaway that Ron, George, and Harry had discovered several months ago and had been visiting frequently ever since (when they'd picked the food up, the girl that worked at the till had asked Ron with a hopeful casualness, "Where's your brother? The one with the missing ear?" so Ron would have to remember to tell George that).
Harry came out to help once he was finished with the dishes, and together he and Ron dug decorations out of Hermione's bag, floating them up to the ceiling and walls and affixing them there. Hermione had enlisted the someone to draw a lion on a large banner reading, 'HAPPY BIRTHDAY GEORGE'. She'd subsequently charmed the lion to go racing across the length of the banner and roar at the other end, represented soundlessly as lines lazily spiralling out of its mouth. The banner would go up last so as not to be obscured by anything else—currently it was folded neatly on the floor.
It took them some time to put up everything else, Ron feeling certain that some of the more absurd items would be bound to cheer George up. He'd not been himself the day before, the first of April. George's overly-hearty laughter had been the first clue that he was trying extra hard to treat it as a normal day—and failing. There'd been a few times when Ron had come upon him looking gloomy and miserable, but as soon as he'd realised someone else's eyes were upon him he'd grinned in a horrible sort of way and acted like nothing out of the ordinary was happening. Every conversation had had a brittle undertone to it, and when the last customer left that night, George had said, "Well, say hello to Hermione for me," and vanished upstairs to his flat. Ron had stood in the darkening shop for a moment, wondering if he should, despite their plans, go after him, but he decided not to, knowing that it wouldn't help.
The rest of the flat decorated to their satisfaction, Hermione levitated one end of the banner towards the ceiling. Suddenly, they heard footsteps on the stairs, and they all turned to look at each other in horror. "You said an hour!" Hermione hissed, catching the other end of the banner as it fell.
Harry checked the watch Mum had given him for his seventeenth birthday. "Yeah, well, it's been two."
Before further conversation could continue, however, the door swung open, and all three of them whirled guiltily to face George, who was standing in the doorway, his hand halfway to where he kept his wand stowed in his back pocket, and a befuddled look on his face.
There was a long moment of awkward silence in the room, finally broken by Hermione. "We thought you might like to be alone on your birthday," she said meekly.
Emboldened, Ron said, "Yeah, but we didn't want you thinking no one remembered."
"So happy birthday, George," Harry finished.
"Just a day late," Ron added.
George stared around at them, an unreadable expression on his face. Ron could feel Hermione tense beside him, the end of the half-hung banner clutched tightly in her hands. George surely wouldn't hex them. Would he?
Just when Ron thought he was going to have to say something else, George's face cracked into a broad grin. "You lot," he just said at first. Ron felt relief expand in his chest. He'd been pretty convinced that this had been a good idea, but there was always the possibility with George, these days, that he might not react the way you expected him to. Ron had, for instance, fully expected to see his brother, his outrageous and infuriating older brother who'd shown about as much sensitivity over the years as a Blast-Ended Screwt, crying at Fred's funeral. He hadn't. Instead he'd come upon George the following week, leaning against the wall in the corridor at the back of Wheezes sobbing—great, heaving, ragged sobs—and Ron had stopped, stared, and tried to back out unheard and unseen, but it had been no good. George had looked up and met his eyes, and Ron had started to stutter out an apology, but George had just shook his head, wiped his sleeve across his nose, given a watery laugh, and said, "No, I'm the one who's ruining my image, here. No worries, bro."
That had been when Ron had offered to help with the shop. He'd given it a lot of thought over the preceding days, told Hermione and Harry his plan (they'd both agreed it was a good idea), but he still expected George to say not a chance. Ron got it, he'd never been in on the joke, but he was still going to try. And George had shocked him for a second time that day by saying simply, "Yeah, all right," and that had been that.
Currently, he was just shaking his head while he looked around his flat. "I dunno what shocks me more, that you were actually perceptive enough to work out that I didn't want any guff yesterday—not you, Hermione, I know you're perceptive—or that you actually went to all this trouble."
"Don't be stupid, George," Harry said.
"Don't tell me it wasn't much trouble," George shot right back.
"I meant don't be stupid; we're happy to do it."
For the second time in as many minutes, George appeared speechless, and Hermione filled the silence by saying, "We've got dinner." She stepped forward and grabbed him by the wrist, as though afraid he might change his mind and leave, and towed him into the kitchen.
He laughed when he saw the spread and put a hand to the back of his neck. He filled a plate, then Hermione, Harry, and Ron did the same, and they went back into the sitting room to eat. George stared around at the decorations, a bemused smile still on his face, and looked delighted when one of the balloons let out a loud belch.
"Seems mad that we've not used any of our own products at our parties," Ron commented.
George sopped up curry with half a piece of naan. "Haven't had much to celebrate, have we?" he said frankly. "Other birthdays notwithstanding. We were all delighted that the two of you survived another year," he added, nodding towards Harry and Hermione.
This was too close to dangerous territory, but for a second Ron didn't know what to say to steer it away. It was going to be obvious, no matter what, that he was trying to avoid George saying 'you survived another year, and Fred didn't', but suddenly, Ron didn't care, and he declared, "I think you should ask the girl at the takeaway out. She fancies you."
Hermione looked relieved, Harry looked caught between that and amusement, and George, after looking slightly befuddled at this news, just looked knowing. But a little grateful, too. "Yeah, maybe," George said. "We are talking about the cute one with the nose ring, yeah, not the spotty one?"
Ron affirmed this while Hermione rolled her eyes. He doubted George would actually act on this piece of information, as he'd shown no interest in girls in the past year. Well, maybe someday.
The party proceeded cheerfully, and Ron knew the evening had been a success when, a few hours later, Hermione regretfully said she needed to be getting back to Hogwarts and George actually looked disappointed. Ron, trying not to flush and failing, gave Hermione a quick kiss good-bye before she Disapparated, and when Harry shortly said he'd better be going as well, George said, "What, Ron, no kiss for Harry?" Harry chuckled and shook George's hand, then vanished with a crack!, which left Ron and George alone. And that, oddly, made Ron feel vaguely awkward. Their decorations were all still up, though some of the balloons now sounded more as though they had a mild case of indigestion rather than their former impressive flatulence.
"I can take all this down," Ron said. "Or I can do it tomorrow morning, if you'd rather."
"No, leave it." George looked sad for a moment, then shook himself, opened his mouth to say something, and then closed it again. Then, to Ron's bemusement, George hugged him. Briefly, of course, but tightly, and Ron surprised himself by not hesitating to return the hug. Then George let go of him, clapped him on the shoulder, and said, "See you tomorrow."
"Yeah." Ron paused. "Hey, if you've got a spare moment, maybe go see Mum and Dad?"
Eyeing him, George asked, "Hermione put you up to that?"
"No!" Remembering Hermione's earlier disapproval, he amended, "Well, not exactly."
George snorted. "I'll go. Don't want Mum crying over me when I only live an Apparation away."
"Don't tell her I said anything to you."
"What, and break the brotherly code? Never." George hesitated, then said, "Ron—thanks again. For…" He gestured around the room. "…all of this."
Ron just grinned at him. "Don't thank me yet. You don't know where the April Fool prank's hidden in all of that." And with that, Ron Disapparated, though not before he caught the look of delight on George's face.
Things weren't all right. Ron had accustomed himself, over the past year, to the realisation that maybe they never quite would be, especially not for George. But there'd been something in his older brother's eyes tonight that had made him think that George hadn't really believed he'd even make it to his twenty-first birthday, but now that he had, maybe he could keep going, and maybe things weren't as bad as they'd been last year, and maybe they'd keep getting better.
And suddenly Ron knew, with a certainty that he probably had no business feeling (since life had taught him very well that nothing was certain), that they would get better. This was their future; this was what they'd fought for, this was why Fred was gone and they'd better damn well make it worth it. It may have got a slow start, but things were getting better—for all of them.