Ginny flung open the door and ran out to meet Bill and Fleur as they came up the snow-dusted path to the kitchen door. "Bill!" she cried. "Fleur!" She leapt into Bill's arms, and he caught her expertly, spinning her around.
"Ah, Happy Christmas, Gin!" he roared, swinging her back down to the ground. "Where is everybody?"
"Opening presents, of course," she said, hugging Fleur. "How was France?"
"Eet was wonderful," said Fleur, sharing a secret sort of smile with Bill. Ginny resisted the urge to roll her eyes, and instead smirked at Fleur.
"Come on, we've all been waiting for you!"
"We the last ones here?" Bill asked, shedding his cloak as they entered the kitchen.
Ginny paused in the act of picking up a tray of doughnuts, meeting his eyes. "No." Bill seemed to know instantly who was missing, and looked at Fleur nervously. "But he'll be along," Ginny added confidently.
"Well, what 'ave we missed?" Fleur asked, coming to help Ginny by preparing a pot of coffee.
Ginny snorted. "Well, Mum's had dragon pox—"
"It wasn't bad," Ginny interrupted. "She's fine. She just had a bit of a cold, the other day."
"Why didn't anyone write to us?" Bill demanded.
"Because you were having a lovely Christmas Eve with Fleur's lovely family," said Mum's voice from behind them all.
Ginny smiled at her as she came into the kitchen. She beamed and kissed Bill, then Fleur. "Oh, I'm so glad you're back! Was it a wonderful party?"
"Molly, you are all right?" Fleur asked, and Mum laughed, kissing her cheek again.
"Of course, dear! I'm just fine. Come in, come in! It finally snowed a bit last night," she said. "It's absolutely frozen out! Come in where it's warm and open your presents. Ginny, will you bring the coffee and doughnuts?" She led Fleur by the elbow into the sitting room.
"Mum," Bill said slowly. "Wait a moment—"
"Bill," said Ginny sharply. He looked around at her, startled. "Don't," she told him warningly. "She's better. That's it. Understand?"
He stared at her for a moment, then nodded and came over to help her carry the tray of coffee cups. Ginny led the way into the sitting room, which was overflowing with chatter. Mum sat in her rocking chair, laughing with Andromeda, who was wearing her newly unwrapped scarf. Dad, Charlie, and Darya were all admiring their gifts; Darya looked positively overwhelmed, and couldn't stop thanking Ginny's parents.
Percy and Ron were comparing their Christmas sweaters to Hermione's, which had, once again, proved Ginny's longstanding theory (supported by Fred, George, and Ron) that Mum always made the best ones for the people who weren't related. Hermione was beaming, and Ginny caught her eye; she had always wanted a Weasley sweater, and the powdery blue one that Mum had made for her, decorated with white and silver stars, was particularly beautiful.
Ginny set down the tray as Bill wandered over to Charlie and Dad, but she went straight to Harry, who was sitting on the floor with Teddy. The baby had bright green hair today (one of his favorite shades), and wore a set of equally green corduroy overalls, under which was a striped red and white shirt and a pair of bright red socks.
"He looks like an elf," Ginny snorted, as she sat down beside them. Teddy squealed with delight at seeing her and kicked his chubby feet happily.
"Yeah, but he's a cute elf," Harry said, holding Teddy up and waving one fat fist at Ginny. "Besides, if he's anything like either of his parents, I don't think he'll let us get away with dressing him like this for long. Better enjoy it while we can, and hang onto the photos for blackmail."
Ginny laughed and took Teddy, holding him up over her head, jiggling him gently back and forth. "Your Uncle Harry would never embarrass you," she cooed, and Teddy giggled, wriggling his arms and legs wildly. "No, he wouldn't…" She brought him down and held him in her lap.
"Are we ready for Teddy's gift?" Mum called, and Ginny nodded, reaching for the little basket she had brought downstairs.
"You don't need to take care of it, Andromeda," Harry said quickly, and she laughed. Teddy reached out a fat hand and touched the basket Harry held out to him.
"What is it, Teddy?" Ginny asked. "What is it?" She reached out and flicked open the basket's latch. The little blue Pygmy Puff inside poked his head up suddenly and peered at Teddy, squeaking shrilly.
Teddy gave a shriek of fright and grabbed onto Ginny's neck, trying to scramble away, and everyone in the room laughed.
"Oh, poor thing!" Molly cried.
"You're right, Harry, you can take care of it!" Andromeda told him over the laughter.
"No, look, Ted," Harry said quickly, picking up the Pygmy Puff. He held it against his cheek, smiling idiotically as Ginny disentangled herself from Teddy's grasp. "Ted, look—nice Puff…what a nice Puff…"
"Uh?" Teddy asked, looking up at Ginny with tear-filled eyes.
She smiled at him and took the Pygmy Puff from Harry. Teddy gave a grunt of fright, but gazed at the little blue cloud of fur that Ginny held in her palm.
"It's a nice Puff, Teddy, see?" she said. She took Teddy's hand and brought it to gently pat the Pygmy Puff. "So nice," she said.
"Oh, how cute," Hermione squealed, as Teddy's hair turned the same bright blue as the Pygmy Puff, and he shrieked with laughter. Then she caught Ginny's eye. "Why don't you let me take him? You can give Harry your gift, Ginny," she said.
"Ooh, a gift," teased Charlie; he sat with his arm around Darya, who elbowed him.
Ginny turned scarlet. "We'll be right back," she said, passing Teddy and the Pygmy Puff to Hermione and Ron. Bill wolf-whistled, and Ron looked very surprised and disgruntled. Ginny knocked her knee into his shoulder as she passed.
"Not too long, you two!" Mum called, and there was another shout of laughter from Bill and Charlie.
Ginny rolled her eyes, still holding Harry's hand as he pushed open the back door.
"My present is in the garden?" Harry asked her, shivering.
"No," she said. "Be patient for a minute." Ginny pushed open the door of the shed. They entered, but then she stopped and faced him seriously. "I wanted to give this to you away from everybody else, just in case you didn't like it," she told him. "And it's completely fine if you don't, all right? Just say so. I won't be angry or anything, but I want you to be happy with it. That's the most important thing, all right?" Her voice was getting high-pitched and nervous, so she stopped talking and stepped aside.
Harry stared in shock at the silver cage, which Ginny had topped with a bright red bow. The little owl inside was wide-awake and hopping on the spot, hooting ecstatically.
"If you don't like her, I can take her back, or get you something different," Ginny blurted out, when he was silent for nearly a full minute. "I bought you a scarf in Hogsmeade, it's really nice! Really nice, I got it at Gladrags…" she trailed off meekly, watching Harry.
"She's beautiful, Ginny," he said, and his voice sounded constricted. "I love her."
"Well, good, because she's your new girlfriend, you've just about killed me with anxiety," she said, making an exaggerated expression of relief. Then she smiled. "I'm so glad you like her."
"Have you named her yet?" Harry asked.
"No," said Ginny. He gave her a skeptical look. "Well…I was thinking…she looks like a Stella to me."
Harry smiled. "All right," he agreed. "Stella it is."
She beamed. "Let's take her inside. My brothers won't leave me alone if we aren't back soon."
"Wait, just one second," Harry told her. He reached into his pocket and produced a small box. "Happy Christmas, Ginny."
Ginny gazed down at the box; it was from the jewelry store in Diagon Alley that she knew only by the display windows and the dreamy expression that Mum got whenever they saw it. "Harry," she murmured.
"Open it first, and decide if you like it," he laughed.
She lifted the lid. Inside, on a small square of velvet, was a minute, round silver pendant in the shape of a phoenix. A small ruby was embedded in its tail. "Harry," she said again, her hands shaking suddenly, so that she almost dropped the box. She placed it on the worktable, holding her hands over her mouth.
"Do you like it?" he asked quietly.
She looked at him, tears filling her eyes, and nodded. "It's beautiful. Thank you. Thank you so much!" She threw her arms around Harry, hugging him tightly, and he laughed.
"Here," he said, drawing the pendant out by its chain. "Let's see it."
Ginny pulled her hair aside, shivering as Harry fastened the clasp behind her neck. She touched the phoenix, which was no bigger than the nail on her little finger. "This is beautiful, Harry. Thank you."
"You deserve it," Harry replied, blushing a little. "I saw it and thought of you."
Ginny rubbed her eyes quickly and sniffed, smiling at him. "Now we really need to go back in," she said. "We'll never hear the end of it."
"Come on, Stella," Harry said, picking up the cage, and the owl fluttered around excitedly, hooting. Ginny wrapped an arm around Harry's waist, and they walked together back to the house.
"Hermione, I know that now might not be the best time for this, but…" Ron took a steadying breath. They stood in the scullery, the door to the kitchen half-closed behind them. "I need you to know that I have a plan."
Hermione raised her eyebrows. "A plan?"
"Right," he said. "I promise, I'll take care of this, somehow."
"Ron, what are you talking about?"
He closed his eyes. "I failed my qualifying exams." Hermione clapped her hands over her mouth. "I can't continue into the second term. Harry's results are under review, too, and it doesn't look good."
"Ron, you can't be serious!"
"George said he'll let me keep my job as long as I need it, and he's going to offer one to Harry."
Hermione was shaking her head as she clutched her face. "I can't believe this is happening. What about Kingsley? Or Hestia? Haven't you spoken to them?"
Ron shook his head sadly. "I don't think they're going to be able to help."
"Oh, Ron," she said. "I'm so sorry. I know how badly you wanted this. But why didn't you or Harry say something before? You've been letting me and Ginny believe you were doing so well!"
"Er," he stammered, "Well, we—"
The scullery door banged open and Ginny stuck her head in. She looked torn between fury and laughter, and snapped at Hermione, "If Ron's telling you he failed his exams, don't believe him! He and Harry both got perfect scores in dueling." Then she slammed the door shut again.
Hermione looked confusedly at Ron. "Wait, what?"
"Bloody hell," he groaned. "I told him not to try and trick Ginny!"
"Ronald Weasley!" Hermione screeched, hitting his shoulder. "You didn't fail at all! You were lying!"
Ron chuckled, putting his hands on her elbows. "Sorry. We wanted to have a little fun with you."
"I'm going to kill you!" she said, giving him a shove.
"Oi!" he cried. "Did you hear the part where I actually got a perfect score on something?" Hermione blinked, looking momentarily stunned. Ron laughed. "I'm not tricking you this time, I promise." He reached into his pocket and produced his scores, along with Hestia's note.
Hermione took the parchment. "Ron!" she gasped. "This is amazing." Then she looked up at him, beaming. "I'm so proud of you!"
Ron laughed as she threw her arms around his neck. "Always the tone of surprise."
"Shut up," she retorted, giving him a kiss.
The scullery door opened again. "All right! Everybody out!"
Hermione pulled back, blushing bright red, and Ron felt his ears go scarlet. They squeezed past Mum, who was shaking her head impatiently. "Honestly, the pair of you…"
Ron cut through the kitchen, where Fleur was helping Dad finish the mince pies. He and Hermione passed the kitchen table. Ginny and Harry sat with Charlie and Darya, building a house of Exploding Snap cards. Ginny smirked at Ron, and he made a face back at her.
"Come with me," Hermione said, tugging his hand. "I have your present."
She led him into the sitting room. Bill and Andromeda were playing with Teddy by the window, but Hermione went to the hearth and sat down. "I've wanted you to have these," she said, "For a while."
Ron stared at her. Her hands were trembling slightly as she picked up a box and held it on her lap. Then she looked up and smiled at him. "Those robes…I can't believe you remembered."
"You like them?" he asked. "They fit?"
Hermione's eyes narrowed shrewdly, but she smiled at him. "They're perfect, Ron." He beamed. She returned her attention to the box in her lap. "So," she said. "These are yours. I didn't want you to have to look at them in front of Harry."
Ron held his breath, and she placed the package on his lap. He lifted the lid. Inside was a tied parcel of twenty or so envelopes. The top one bore his name.
"You don't need to read them now," Hermione said. "But there's one for every day you were gone."
Ron picked up the envelopes, running his thumb along the stack. "Hermione…"
"It's everything I should have said to you ages ago," Hermione said seriously. He looked up and met her eyes. "What happened was my fault, too, and Harry's, and—well, now it's over. We deserve to wrap it up."
"Thank you," Ron said. "Blimey—Hermione, thank you." He hugged her.
She pulled away, and Ron distinctly saw a few tears in her bright brown eyes. "But here's the catch, Ron," she said raising one finger warningly. "I'll do this once and only once, as long as you promise the exact same thing."
Ron felt a lump rise in his throat, and blinked quickly. "All right," he said. "I promise."
Hermione smiled and kissed his cheek. "I love you," she murmured in his ear.
"Buh, buh, buh. Buh!"
Ron looked down at Hermione's knee. Teddy had come crawling over, babbling animatedly, and held up one hand for Hermione. She bent down and scooped him onto her lap. He giggled, cramming his fingers in his mouth. One of his socks had gone missing, and Ron looked around worriedly; Harry had mentioned that Teddy's new favorite thing to eat was his footwear.
"Oh, look at this," Hermione said to Ron, squeezing the baby in a warm hug. She kissed his now-brown hair softly.
"He loves you," said Andromeda; she came over carrying Teddy's sock, and held it out to Hermione. "Could you keep an eye on him for a moment? Bill said he would show me the garden."
"Of course," Hermione cooed, rocking Teddy on her lap. Andromeda walked away, and Teddy gave a little shriek of laughter, grinning widely. He snatched at Hermione's sweater. She laughed and hugged him tightly again, then looked up at Ron. "What is it?" she asked.
He had been staring blankly at Hermione holding the baby for several minutes. At last, he blinked. "Nothing," he said, taking the little red sock from Hermione and tugging it on Teddy's foot. Hermione looked amused. Ron shook himself, feeling his neck grow very hot. He averted his gaze quickly.
"Bah!" Teddy shrieked.
Bill looked at his mother, who seemed pale and tired as she wiped her forehead on her sleeve, directing Fleur in preparing the ham. "How bad was she?"
"Not very," Charlie told him. "I've seen worse. She was in bed for a day, but she's feeling a lot better."
"Really?" he asked. "You're telling me the truth?"
"Relapses are normal," Charlie said with a shrug. "I'm surprised it took her this long to have one, actually, considering we all had it at one time or another."
Bill released a slow breath; he always felt more assured when he could talk about these things with Charlie. "All right," he muttered. "If you're sure."
"She's fine," said Charlie. "And she'll feel a lot better once Christmas is over." He drained the last of his mug of tea as Bill looked over to the kitchen.
"Besides, I'm more worried about some other things," Charlie said, lowering his voice and looking at Bill significantly. Bill nodded.
"D'you reckon there's something we can do about George?" he asked, turning slightly so that he shielded their conversation from his parents, Andromeda, Darya, and Fleur, who were all at work along the countertop.
Charlie shook his head, staring down into his mug. "I don't have any idea."
"Is he at the shop?"
"I'd guess so. Unless he's taken off somewhere," Charlie said.
"You're not talking about George, are you?"
Bill looked up; Percy stood beside the table, looking anxious. "Yeah, Perce, we are. Sit down."
"I was thinking," Percy said, seating himself beside Charlie, "Maybe we can go to London to talk to him."
"I don't know about that," Bill said, but Charlie was frowning at Percy.
"No," he said, "That might actually work. I mean, we're the oldest, and if he's doing what he did all summer, we could try to talk him out of it."
"I doubt it."
"Oh, bloody hell," Bill groaned.
"What?" Ron demanded, sitting down next to Percy. "I want to help."
"So do I," said Harry, joining him. "George should be here."
Bill looked over at the kitchen; Fleur caught his eye, frowning curiously. "All right, look," he said, turning to face Harry and his brothers again. "We'll go down to London, but let's leave one by one. We'll meet in front of the Leaky Cauldron in fifteen minutes. Understand?"
"Fine," Ron said, "But you should know about—"
"Right," said Charlie. "Percy, you first."
Ron leaned forward. "Bill—about Angelina and George—"
Percy looked around, clearing his throat and standing up. Then he darted out of the kitchen, to the living room. Bill shook his head. "He was always bad at things like that. All right. I'm going to tip Fleur off, so someone here knows what's going on, but no one tells anybody else, understand? I don't want to get Mum and Dad excited for no reason if we can't get him to come back. Charlie, you go next. Harry and Ron, wait until I leave."
Bill didn't stop to answer Ron, but wandered over to Fleur as Charlie got up and left the kitchen.
"Ees everything all right?" she murmured, without turning from the countertop, where she was supervising the potatoes that were peeling themselves.
Bill smiled, wrapping his arms around her waist, and kissed her neck. "We're going down to London for a bit," he whispered in her ear. "We want to talk to George."
Fleur looked at him, startled. "Ees zat a good idea?"
"We have to," Bill replied. Fleur smiled sadly and nodded. "Can you keep my parents distracted? We'll try not to be very long."
"Of course," she promised.
"Thanks," he said, kissing her gently.
"Not near the food, Bill!"
He turned around. Ginny and Hermione had appeared in the kitchen doorway; Ginny held Teddy on her hip as she smirked at Bill. "Don't be a brat," he told her genially, pulling her ponytail as he passed. He caught Harry's eye as he left the room; Harry nodded once.
George jerked awake, and the butterbeer bottle he had been holding slipped out of his hand, onto the floor. He looked around, confused and bleary; he had been so exhausted last night (he vaguely recalled getting in bed at around four o'clock in the morning, after spending hours upon hours in the lab) that he seemed to have fallen asleep in his own bed, rather than the couch.
He looked over to Fred's bed. It was unmade and empty as ever before.
"Bloody…ouch," he muttered, rubbing his face hard. He looked around. It had to be the early afternoon. What had woken him?
George groaned and hoped very sincerely that he was imagining the sounds of his brothers' voices yelling down in Diagon Alley. He pulled his pillow over his face and tried to sleep again.
Then the singing started.
"GOD REST YOU, MERRY HIPPOGRIFFS, LET NOTHING MAKE YOU SAD!"
George stumbled out of bed to the living room and flung open the window overlooking Diagon Alley.
"REMEMBER HAGRID LO-OVES YOU, AND MALFOY IS A PRAT!"
Down in the cobbled street below, Bill, Charlie, Percy, Ron, and Harry were gathered. Harry and Ron were shouting Sirius's version of the Christmas carol at the top of their voices.
"PLEASE SAVE US FROM UMBRIDGE BECAUSE SHE IS A MAD OLD BAT!"
"What the hell d'you think you're doing?" George shouted. "People live around here!"
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Bill shouted back.
"O-O, TI-DINGS OF CO-OMFORT AND JOY, COMFORT AND JOY!"
"Yeah, you don't get rid of us that easily!" Charlie yelled at him. He was tossing a stone menacingly up and down in his hand. George had the sneaking suspicion that the thuds he had heard earlier were those projectiles Charlie had thrown at the building.
"O-O, TI-I-DINGS OF CO-OMFORT AND JOY!"
"SHUT UP!" George roared. "I'm coming down!"
"Finally!" Charlie shouted, rounding on Ron and Harry. "Can it, you two, or I'm jinxing your lips shut!"
Fuming, George slammed the window shut, yanked on his robe, and stormed downstairs. He flung open the front door and saw all five of them gathered around, looking expectant. "Well, are you coming in or aren't you?" he demanded, sweeping his arm inside.
Bill grinned and strode in the shop, followed by Ron, Harry, Charlie, and Percy, who didn't meet George's gaze. George felt a twinge of irritation, but shut the door behind them. They gathered around the register.
"So what d'you want?" he muttered, crossing his arms. "Something, I expect."
Charlie lifted his eyebrows. "Well, my goodness me, George, I'm just not sure. I guess it'd be nice if, I don't know, maybe you came to Christmas."
George glanced at the others, who were staring at him—all except for Percy, who was examining a shelf full of Decoy Detonators. "Can't make it, sorry."
"Shop doing a roaring trade?" Charlie asked, looking around. "Have lots of people in on Christmas Day?"
"I'm working on a project," George lied easily. "And I've got bills."
"You paid those the other night," Ron interjected, and George threw him a filthy look.
"I'm not coming," he said simply. "Mum and Dad don't need me around this year, and neither do the rest of you. Obviously things are pretty chummy if the four of you—" he gestured at Ron, Bill, Charlie, and Percy, "—can team up like this. Doubt you're all pining for me. And Harry, what the hell are you even doing here?"
"Consider me Ginny's representation," he said fiercely, glaring back at George.
George paused. "What's Ginny need representation for?"
"Well, she doesn't, but she's at home with Mum," Charlie explained. "Our mum."
"You don't say?" George asked sarcastically, but Charlie took a threatening step forward.
"She's had dragon pox. Did you even open my letter, or did you just drop it in the fireplace?"
George frowned. He had, in fact, cast aside more than one letter from his family—two from Ginny and one from Charlie—in the last few days. "What?"
"Bloody hell, George," Charlie muttered, walking away. He waved a hand. "Somebody else talk."
"She'll be all right," Bill explained. "But she's not feeling well right now. And she's at the Burrow, getting Christmas dinner ready for us anyway. For all of us."
"Sure about that, are you?" George asked, flaring up. "All of us?"
"George," Percy said loudly, and everyone looked around. "Knock it off."
George's anger was bubbling out of control. "You're a fine one to tell me that," he spat, but Percy didn't falter. George shook his head in disgust. "You've all made your point; you can go. I'll talk to Mum later."
"Do you honestly think you're the only one who misses him?" Percy demanded. He pointed between himself, Bill, and Charlie. "That we somehow don't know exactly what—"
"No, you don't know exactly what I'm going through," George shouted. "You don't, Percy, and you can't! And I don't even expect you to, it's not like you were around long enough to even talk to him again!"
"Enough, George," Bill interrupted warningly. "That's not fair."
But George was staring at Percy. He knew clearly that this was misdirected anger, that he meant almost nothing of what he was saying, but Percy had been the first to shout at him, so he would shout back. "It's about as fair as Fred dying when he stayed loyal, and Percy just ditched us!"
Percy turned positively white, and his eyes seemed to go blank. "I—I'm going—outside. I'll—" he broke off, looking confused, and hurried out the door.
George closed his eyes, dropping his head. "Damn it," he muttered through his clenched teeth.
"That," Ron said slowly, "was not on, George."
"Shut up," George snapped at him. He opened his eyes and glared at Bill. "I don't know what you expected from coming here, but I'm not coming back with you. You can all have your nice Christmas without me, and I'll see you after the New Year."
"George," Harry said. He seemed to have decided that it was his turn to take a shot. "We're all sitting around the Burrow, wondering where you are. Your parents—"
"Don't need to be worried," George snapped. His anger had chosen a new target. "Seriously, what the hell are you doing here?"
Harry didn't even blink. "Your family's taken me in for years, for everything, not just Christmas. You and Fred did, too."
George felt a stab of guilt and turned away from Harry.
"Look," said Ron, "You don't need to do it for us. You can be angry at us, actually, if that helps, but Mum spent an entire day in bed. When has she ever done that?" he demanded. "You owe her! She's been putting herself through hell trying to get this Christmas together."
"I'm done talking about this," George interrupted loudly. He looked between his three brothers and Harry. "Blimey, you all look like I just said I'm never going to see you again. That was Percy, remember?" he snapped, and he regretted saying it immediately, but it had the desired effect. No one spoke for a moment. "Tell Mum I'll see her next week."
Bill stepped forward. "George."
"Get out," George snapped. He stepped aside and held the front door open.
Harry, Ron, and Charlie looked at Bill, who nodded once. They filed silently out of the shop.
Bill stopped at the door, fixing George with a firm, but kind stare. "This isn't over, George."
"Bye, Bill," he muttered.
He marched away from the door, shaking his head angrily. He walked all the way to the back staircase and was halfway up before he remembered that he hadn't locked the door. He hurried down, raising his wand.
"Happy Christmas, you idiot."
George slipped down the last few steps in shock.
Angelina stood in the doorway. Her arm was still in a sling. She wore a blue cloak over her pajamas and robe, and she looked furious.
"What are you doing here?" he demanded.
She arched an eyebrow. "What do you think?"
George rolled his eyes. "Did my family put you up to this?"
"No one puts me up to anything, George," she retorted. "My dad and I were at Alicia's, being miserable, and your sister sent me a really interesting note."
"She was talking all about how you abandoned them for Christmas, and lied to your mother about it, too," Angelina continued over him. She put her free hand on her hip. "What the hell are you thinking? You know Fred would've punched you by now, don't you?"
George glowered at her. "Bye, Angelina." He turned to go upstairs. "You can let yourself out."
"Don't you shut me out, George Weasley!" she shouted at him.
He whirled around. "Don't shut you out? You? Oh, you're kidding me!" He hurried down the steps again. "How about that stupid fight? You called me selfish, you acted like I didn't care about you at all!"
"Do not put all that on me, George," she said in her most dangerous voice. "I was angry, and so were you. I said some things I didn't mean, but I most certainly meant that you were being selfish. You were." Her eyes narrowed. "And you know it, don't you?"
"Doesn't matter!" George said. "We said we'd help each other!"
Angelina blinked slowly. "We can help each other. And we will. Starting right now. I'm making sure you get back to the Burrow—"
"What about my gift?" George shouted at her. She stepped back, frowning.
"I sent you a gift, and you didn't even open it! You sent the bloody owl back, no note!" he yelled.
Angelina blinked. "Wait," she said. "You sent me a package? Yesterday?"
"Yes," George said furiously.
She looked a bit confused for a moment; then she bit her lip, stifling laughter. "Oh," she giggled. She fought for a moment to make her expression slightly more sympathetic. "Oh, George, no. Come on, you have to know, no one in their right minds opens unmarked packages nowadays!"
He stared at her. Angelina laughed out loud.
"I'm sorry," she gasped. "It didn't even say my name! How was I supposed to—oh, my—you can't be serious!"
"Will you quit laughing?" George demanded, and Angelina made a valiant effort to stop doubling over with laughter—she failed. George felt a small, reluctant twitch at the corners of his mouth.
"George," she panted, "I'm sorry, but how was I supposed to know? I had no idea who it was from! I mean, honestly. Best-case scenario, it was some stranger mailing me bubotuber pus, or something. Worst-case scenario, a Death Eater gift-wrapped a curse for me! How was I supposed to know it was from you, anyway? Why wouldn't you put a card on it?"
George felt himself turn red, and he slowly started to smile. "You—you didn't reject it?"
Angelina came closer. "Only because you're a terrible secret admirer, and I seem to be the only one who learned anything from Katie's mishap with that stupid necklace."
George gazed at her. "Er…d'you…d'you want…your present?"
Angelina shrugged. "That depends. Can we talk?"
George swallowed. He was feeling very overwhelmed by emotion at the moment. "Did you say you were being miserable…over at Alicia's?"
"The worst houseguest you've ever seen," she told him. "Even my dad was glad when I left."
He laughed weakly and nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, we can talk."
She smiled, taking his hand in hers. "All right, then."
"Now what?" Charlie grumbled. "Now I know he's just sitting there, I'm angry."
Bill nodded and put a hand on Percy's shoulder. "You all right, mate?"
Percy gave a tight grin. "I sort of expected that." It wasn't a lie. Percy had anticipated an outburst not unlike the one he had just experienced for quite some time. Nonetheless, he felt heartsick and ill, hearing George's words echo in his head.
"You're here now, that's what matters," Bill said firmly, and Percy nodded shortly. Then Bill sighed. "I think—and I don't like being the one to say it—but we may need to just go back home."
"I wouldn't count on that," Ron said. "I told Hermione and Ginny where we went."
"Oh, thank Merlin," Harry sighed in relief.
"Because," Ron said loudly, "If they did what I asked—" He looked up from his watch. "There she is. Hi, Angelina!"
Percy turned to see Angelina Johnson, wearing a cloak over her pajamas and bathrobe with her left arm bound up in a sling and bandages, looking positively enraged as she came storming down the cobbled street. "Where is he?" she demanded of Ron.
"In there," he told her, pointing. "Reckons we aren't waiting for him to come home. Thanks for coming!" he called, but she was already shoving open the shop door.
Percy looked at Ron confusedly. His expression was mirrored on everyone's face except Harry's. "What's going on, Ron?" he asked.
Ron shook his head. "Long story."
"I wonder where the boys have gotten to," Arthur said, looking around; the house had quite suddenly gotten very empty. He looked around; Andromeda and Fleur were helping Molly prepare the crust for the pies, and Ginny sat between Hermione and Darya at the kitchen table, with Teddy on her lap.
"I think they said they wanted to play Quidditch, Dad," Ginny called.
He frowned, nodding.
"Arthur?" He turned. Fleur was looking nervously up at him, chewing her lip. "I don't mean to—eh—put my nose wair eet does not belong, but Molly seems to be rather tired." She pointed over her shoulder.
Molly was leaning against the counter, laughing with Andromeda, who was putting a pie in the oven. Despite her smile, she looked very ill. He came over and put a hand on her arm. "Molly?" he asked. "Can I talk to you in the living room?" he asked.
She looked at him, smiling, and glanced at Andromeda. "One moment, dear, I'll come back."
"Of course, take your time," Andromeda said, who was washing her hands free of flour and dough.
Arthur followed Molly out of the kitchen and faced her. "I don't want you to get upset," he said, "but—"
"I don't feel well," Molly said immediately. "Believe me, I know." His jaw dropped, and she gave him a faint smile. "Try not to look too shocked when I tell you you're right, dear, it makes me feel guilty." She sat down on the sofa, putting her feet up. "I need to rest for a few minutes, at least."
"Let me handle the cooking, Mollywobbles," he said, kissing her cheek. "I'll call you if trouble comes up."
Molly tipped her head back, sighing. "I can help if you need me," she said. "Just let me have a minute."
"All the time you want, sweetheart," he said, kissing her again. He picked up a blanket on the back of the couch and covered her.
"Is Mum all right?" Ginny whispered as she squeezed past him in the doorway. She still held Teddy. Arthur nodded, smiling.
"Why don't you go and sit with her?" Arthur suggested. He took Teddy up in his arms, bouncing him. The baby giggled, waving his arms ecstatically. "She'll like that."
"Okay," she replied. She glanced at Molly, who was already dozing off, and Arthur kissed her cheek.
"She's well looked after, sweet pea," he promised her, and she nodded, going to the living room.
Harry looked down at his watch; not only was it freezing cold out, it was getting late, and they would be expected back at the Burrow for dinner soon. "Are we sure this'll work?" he asked Ron.
Ron shrugged, looking up at the sky, which was full of heavy clouds that promised snow. "If Angelina can't make him see reason…" he trailed off, clearly not wanting to voice the alternative—that there was always next year.
And Harry didn't like that prospect at all. He knew all too well that too much time alone wouldn't get George past being this angry. He glanced at Bill and Charlie, who were pacing up and down the sidewalk before Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes, and then at Percy, who was sitting on another shop's windowsill a few feet away. "Bloody hell, it's cold," he muttered.
Ron nodded in agreement, stamping his feet as their breath fogged in the air. "Wish it'd just snow again. Last night's is practically all melted."
"Hey," Harry said, pointing across the alley. The shop door swung open and George emerged, hand in hand with Angelina and looking more clean-shaven and well put-together than Harry had seen him in weeks. He looked pale, and both he and Angelina had very red eyes, but they were both smiling nervously.
They approached Bill and Charlie. Percy, Ron, and Harry ran over to join them.
"Well, here he is," said Angelina, one arm around George's. "All nice and clean."
George elbowed her gently. He looked up at Percy, extending one hand; Harry had a sudden, fleeting memory of Fred performing the same gesture in the Room of Requirement. "I'm sorry, Perce. I didn't mean it. Forgive me?"
Percy hesitated for a moment. Then he took George's hand. "Happy Christmas." He yanked George into a tight hug that he could not escape. Harry distinctly saw Angelina turn and wipe her tears away.
"We should go," Harry said. "Your parents are going to get worried."
"Ange?" George asked, and she met his eyes, nodding.
"I'll come along," she promised.
"I want to get everyone's gifts together, though," George said. "Will you trust me to come a bit later?"
"You did your shopping for us, Georgie?" Charlie asked.
"Hardly," Angelina scoffed. "I've got the gifts at Alicia's house. We'll come to the Burrow as soon as we can." Everyone nodded, but almost automatically, they all looked to George.
"I promise," he said. He smiled, and Bill, Charlie, and Ron all gave joyful yells, burying him under hugs.
Harry shook his head in amazement. He looked at Angelina, who was beaming. "How's the arm?"
She looked at him. "A lot better, now."
"What did you say to him?" Harry asked, shaking his head. Angelina said nothing, but winked at him.
"Come on, boys, your mother's going to panic!" she shouted, shepherding them all towards the back of the Leaky Cauldron. Harry laughed, following them. Then George ducked under Angelina's arm, hanging back for a moment.
He approached Harry. "Look—"
"Don't worry about it," Harry interrupted. "I'm dating your sister. You have to give me grief. I'll just put it on the list."
George's expression was momentarily unreadable. Then he grinned widely, throwing an arm around Harry's shoulders. "Good. Hope you're ready for some serious examinations, Potter—it's not just anyone we let hang around Ginny."
Harry patted his back. "I know, mate." He pointed at Angelina. "She came back," he said.
George looked startled. He looked between Harry and Angelina's back; she was chatting animatedly to Ron, a few steps ahead. "Yeah," he said. "She did. Ginny and Ron got her to do it."
Harry shook his head. "I wouldn't be sure it was just Ginny and Ron."
George looked at him, his expression inscrutable once more. Harry smiled. He was used to the missing ear now, but he was not used to this pensive, thoughtful George. He supposed that it would come with time.
Charlie led the way into the Burrow; Percy, Ron, Harry, and Bill followed him.
"Where have you been?" Darya asked him immediately. She sat at the kitchen table with Andromeda, who was holding Teddy on her lap.
"We had to get some shopping done," he muttered.
Darya frowned. "What are you talking about?"
Andromeda got up, carrying the baby away to join Harry, who was eating a roll by the counter. Charlie turned slightly and faced Darya. "We went and got my brother."
Darya lifted her eyebrows. "George?"
Charlie smiled at her. "Yeah. We're going to let him surprise my mum at dinner. Where is she?"
"She is lying down," Darya told him. "Ginny is with her."
"Is she all right?" he asked.
"I think so," said Darya. "Your father seems to be happy. See?"
Charlie looked over to the kitchen. Dad and Fleur were laughing as they checked on the cooking ham, which was filling the kitchen with a delicious smell. "Okay," he said. "All right—that'll work."
Darya bit her lip. "Charlie," she said slowly, "I think George will recognize me."
Charlie stared at her. "What?"
"I went to his store," she whispered. "When I went back to Diagon Alley—it was stupid of me."
She sighed. "I thought maybe I could talk to him…I just wanted to see if—"
"You wanted to bring him home?" Charlie asked, utterly stunned.
"Everyone was so worried, but I was being stupid. It was none of my business," said Darya. She blushed furiously.
"No. You're amazing," he said, hugging her tightly. "Thank you."
Darya laughed. "I wanted you all to be as happy as you have made me feel. I love your family," she said. She kissed his cheek gently. "Happy Christmas, Charlie."
Molly sat on the sofa with her eyes closed, warm and comfortable, combing her fingers gently through Ginny's hair.
"Mummy," Ginny murmured. "Do you want something to eat? Dad's got dinner ready."
Molly nodded, without opening her eyes. "Thank you, darling. Are the boys back?"
"I wouldn't mention Quidditch for a while. Apparently Harry just lost to Charlie," Ginny laughed, and Molly smiled. The weight against her side that was Ginny leaning on her disappeared; Molly heard her leave, and opened her eyes.
The sitting room was empty; she could hear the sounds of everyone in the kitchen, chattering as they served themselves dinner. There were far too many to squeeze in at the table, so they would be eating anywhere they could find space in the sitting room. Molly straightened her blanket, sitting up to make more room on the couch for everyone else. She picked up her wand and flicked it, raising the fire in the grate so that it crackled warmly.
"Are you feeling better?" Andromeda asked. She was walking in with Teddy in one arm and a plate of food in her free hand.
"Much better," Molly lied.
Andromeda smiled and sat down beside her. "Oof—Teddy, darling—" The baby was trying to wrap his fingers in her hair, and she nearly dropped her plate.
"Here, I can take him, Mrs. Tonks," Ginny said, reappearing from the kitchen. She set down the two plates she carried and smiled at her mother, sitting down cross-legged on the floor. She pulled Teddy into her lap, and handed her mother a plate.
"Oh, what a sweetheart you are," Molly smiled, as Teddy burbled at her.
Teddy yawned hugely, reaching up one hand for the end of Ginny's ponytail.
"He likes your red, Ginny," Andromeda teased her, and Ginny smiled. Molly watched as more people joined them in the sitting room. Ron, Hermione, Bill, and Fleur seated themselves all along the spiral staircase; Darya and Charlie sat on the hearth with Percy; Arthur came in and sat down in his chair, winking at Molly, who tried to smile for him.
Ginny offered Teddy a tiny spoonful of mashed potatoes, which he ate gratefully, beaming at her as it dribbled onto his chin. Molly rubbed her forehead; she had quite a headache, but it was nothing compared to the pain in her heart. Even surrounded by all of these wonderful people, she had the terrible sensation of absence—Fred was on her mind, of course, but George's absence was stuck in her heart like a knife.
"Here, Mrs. Weasley," said Harry, holding a glass of eggnog before her as he put a second glass beside Ginny.
"Thank you, Harry dear," she said, smiling at him. "Sit with us, won't you?"
"Sure," he grinned, as Ginny handed Teddy over. Harry tucked the baby against the crook of his arm as he sat down next to her.
"Can I have everyone's attention?" Arthur stood up before his chair, holding up a glass of firewhisky. "I'd like to make a toast," he said. He looked first at Molly, who smiled faintly, and then at all of their children, and then at Harry, Hermione, Andromeda, and Darya.
"This has been an unforgettable year. There have been some really, really wonderful things," he said, nodding at Harry, who turned a bit red. Molly reached out and rubbed his shoulder. "And there have been a lot of less than wonderful things," Arthur continued, a quaver in his voice. "We lost friends, family…people we loved very much, and still love." A few sniffles sounded around the room. Andromeda reached for Molly's hand and held it as Arthur's eyes lingered on Teddy. "We've all been changed, permanently. But I think that the important thing we need to remember now is that we're together now. We're here, and while I can't speak for the rest of you, I plan on staying here."
There was a rumble of gentle laughter around the room, but Molly had eyes only for Arthur. Out of the corner of her vision, she could see a tear sliding down Ginny's cheek, and Hermione leaning on Ron's arm. Fleur had hidden her face in Bill's sleeve as he gently rubbed her back. Arthur met Molly's gaze, and she saw tears in his eyes.
"I love you all, even if I've just met you," he teased Darya, and she laughed, wiping away a tear quickly. "I love you all very much, and what an amazing Christmas present, to get to be with you." He looked into Molly's eyes, and she gave a tiny sob. Arthur raised his glass, and across the room, everyone did the same.
"Happy Christmas, and a wonderful, prosperous New Year to all of us."
"Happy Christmas," came the rumbling reply.
Twelve heads (everyone except Teddy, who was gnawing on his fingers) turned to the kitchen doorway, and Molly felt certain that she'd just been electrified.
There were several long beats of silence as she rose slowly, almost swaying on the spot, entranced at the sight of George standing before her, looking very embarrassed. Then, she burst into tears and with a great, gasping sob, she dashed at her son.
"George!" she cried, wrapping him tightly in her arms. "Oh, my baby—you're home! Oh, Georgie!"
"Hi, Mum," he murmured in her ear, hugging her just as hard; he was trembling. "How are you feeling?"
"My baby," she whispered, feeling tears fall as she squeezed her eyes shut. She swayed on the spot, rocking him back and forth. "Oh, Georgie…thank you, darling, thank you…"
"Don't thank me," he mumbled, looking down at the floor as he drew back. "I don't deserve it."
"Angelina!" Ginny cried, and from the kitchen, Angelina Johnson appeared. She had her left arm in a sling and she looked very nervous.
"Hi, Mrs. Weasley," she said shyly, giving her a small wave. "Happy Christmas."
Molly stared at her for a moment, and then gasped, "Oh, you wonderful girl!"
Angelina burst out laughing as Molly hugged her, as well. When she finally pulled away, the entire room was staring in some disbelief at Angelina and George, who had come and taken Angelina's uninjured hand in his. Molly looked around at the boys, who were all looking sheepish.
"Quidditch, hm?" she demanded, wiping her cheeks. "I should've known that was nonsense when you took Percy with you."
And Bill and Charlie burst out laughing, as everyone got to their feet and greeted George, hugging him, kissing Angelina's cheek; for the first time in days, Molly beamed.
Hermione leaned on Ron's shoulder as they gazed downward from their perch on the spiral stairs at the peaceful scene below. Mrs. Weasley sat chatting with George and Angelina on either side of her rocking chair, while Mr. Weasley held Teddy in his lap. They were both soundly asleep. Harry and Andromeda were chatting quietly by the fire. Ginny leaned against Harry's knees, her eyes closed.
Bill and Fleur were stretched out side by side on the hearth, asleep in the warm glow of the fire, and Percy played a game of chess with Charlie, who was getting help from Darya.
"I think that was the nicest thing you could've done for your mother, Ron," said Hermione quietly. "It's been a long time since I've seen her smile like that."
Ron shrugged, looking awkwardly uncomfortable. "It wasn't just me," he mumbled.
"Still," Hermione said, resting her head on his knee. "This is something we're all going to remember for a long time." Ron didn't say anything, and Hermione looked up at him. His eyes were full of tears as he stared down at his knees. "Ron?" she said softly.
He shook his head quickly, rubbing his nose hard. "Nothing. I just—I don't realize—never mind." He took a breath and nodded at Hermione, who was not fooled.
"It's hard not to miss him, when we're all together like this," she said quietly, feeling her chin tremble just a bit. "It's all right."
Ron's lip quivered, and he kissed her forehead. "Happy Christmas, Hermione."
"Happy Christmas, Ron," she murmured. Her gaze shifted and she smiled, surprised. "Ron...it's snowing. Look." She raised a hand and pointed at the sitting room window. Outside, a steady stream of fat white snowflakes could be seen drifting lazily onto the window sill.
"Finally," Ron sighed, linking their fingers together and grinning.
A faint humming seemed to be coming from the sitting room below. Hermione peered down. Fleur had woken up, and she and Bill now leaned against the hearth together. Her eyes were closed, but she was humming a soft tune. Bill chuckled and sang badly, "We wish you a Merry Christmas—"
"We wish you a Merry Christmas," sang Ginny, giggling and opening her eyes.
Others looked up, catching on. Hermione grabbed Ron's hand and together they called, "We wish you a Merry Christmas…"
"And a happy New Year…"
Hermione laughed, and tears filled her eyes as she looked down at Harry; the sitting room was waking up into a soft chorus of song, some people smiling and laughing, others singing along. Mr. Weasley startled awake, clutching Teddy as he looked around confusedly. Mrs. Weasley was beaming again, singing along with Andromeda, as Angelina elbowed George teasingly, trying to make him chime in.
Angelina, Ginny, and Fleur were still singing the loudest. "Good tidings we bring, to you and your kin. Good tidings for Christmas and a Happy New Year!"
"We wish you a Merry Christmas—"
"We wish you a Merry Christmas—"
"We wish you a Merry Christmas—"
"And a Happy New Year!"