~ Chapter One ~
George smiled softly from the shadows in front of Grimmauld Place as Fred slipped out the front door and grinned mischievously in his direction. George felt the flutter in his stomach as the sly glint in his twin's eyes focused on him. He hoped the novelty of their new relationship never stopped speeding his heart and softening his grin.
"Well brother..." Fred started towards him.
"...that went quite well..." George continued with a step out of the shadows.
"...if I do say so myself!" They finished together with matching smirks of accomplishment before leaning forward and quickly pressing their lips together. They straightened up then, eyes sharp and expressions somber.
"Best be off..."
"...while the opportunity presents itself."
"Ready Fred." Wands held aloft, the two brothers clasped hands and disappeared with a swirl of their cloaks.
Harry Potter's brow was creased in concentration and a single drop of blood glistened where his teeth bit tightly into his lower lip. He knew the consequences of his Aunt or Uncle hearing so much as a whimper from his room as they walked past on their way to bed; he'd take a sore lip over that any day. It was this threat of punishment as much as the stiff muscles, blistering sunburn and dark blotches of bruises (courtesy of his cousin Dudley) that made even so simple a task as removing his shirt an excruciatingly slow and painful process.
Harry exhaled harshly in frustration, annoyed with himself when he could hardly raise his arms enough to remove the shirt. He thought distractedly that he had heard a crack from somewhere down the street, but before he could try to identify the sound he heard rustling from Hedwig's cage and froze with his shirt still over on arm and around his neck. He turned to look at her and did his best to smile reassuringly. Her wings were ruffling in indignation and her eyes, as they gazed at the new marks on his body, were round with remorse and bright with anger. She opened her beak and Harry tensed in fear, a sharp gasp echoing in the room. He needn't have worried. Uncle Vernon had locked him in his room without food for three days the first time his owl had woken the Dursleys. It had broken his heart to see her hanging her head in guilt until he was finally let out, and no matter her temper she had yet to make the mistake again.
Harry relaxed his shoulders (now throbbing in pain) and sighed in relief. He smiled thankfully at her before carefully removing his shirt the rest of the way, and grimacing down at the hideous purpling blotch of skin that had been his left side before becoming well acquainted with Dudley's foot that morning.
"Bloody hell, Harry." Two voices whispered from the doorway, and Harry spun around in shock.
Fred and George appeared in the shadows of a swing set with a soft crack. They had found that apparition, like many of the things they did, was easier when done together. Their eyes darted quickly about, thankful to be the only ones around, and they slipped their wands carefully into their pockets. It had been three years since they had seen the playground from the front seats of their father's enchanted car. The same gut feeling that had found them "borrowing" the car and rescuing Harry from his relative's house all those years ago had convinced them to make this visit in the first place.
With their wands stored safely away (they weren't about to pull a Dobby and have Harry arrested for underage magic), the two turned as one and hurried down the street. They stuck to the shadows, years of sneaking making any verbal communication unnecessary. In no time, they were slinking past the hedges in front of number 4 Privet Drive and, with a last assessing glance around the street, onto the front porch.
A lifetime of breaking into places they weren't meant to be, even as children, taught the twins the fine art of lock-picking long before they had magic at their disposure (as they had demonstrated for Harry during their first trip to his Uncle's house). Fred snickered when George had the front door swinging open in ten seconds flat, and only turned it into a satisfied smirk instead at George's warning look as he held a finger to his lips and stepped over the threshold.
Both boys rolled their eyes in disgust at the fat boy repulsively displayed in pictures all around the room before creeping silently up the stairs. George once again worked soundlessly on a lock with Fred smiling on. This time, however, his twin shared the smile which was much warmer. There was no sound behind Harry's door, and both boys were looking forward to the happy surprise on the younger boy's face when they woke him.
The twins looked up at the same moment, a door swinging open soundlessly for the second time that night. Their smiles vanished instantly.
"Bloody hell, Harry."
Harry's back, neck, and shoulders were so blistered they were actually bleeding in places. A spattering of bruises at various points of healing crossed the lower half of his back, and even from behind each of his ribs was clearly protruding. When their words shocked the younger boy into spinning towards them, George couldn't hold back a soft cry of despair. Seeing Harry's terrified glance at the open door, Fred quickly pulled his brother into the room and shut the door behind them. A soft hand on his twin's arm enough to quiet the other boy.
"Fred? George?" Harry's careful whisper was laced with disbelief. "What in Merlin's name are you doing here?"
George spoke first, forcing a smile and seemingly determined to make up for his earlier reaction.
"Haven't heard form you this summer..."
"...thought we ought to check up on you..."
"...you being our silent investor and all..."
"...and to bring you a gift..."
"...first of many..."
"...to say thanks." This last they said together, George pulling out a small bag from an inside pocket of his cloak and handing it to Harry.
"New Weasley invention," he explained. "Extendable ears."
"We couldn't be doing any of this without your help, mate." Fred added sincerely.
Harry's mouth had twitched into an involuntary smile as the twins effortlessly filled in each others' thoughts. He took the bag from George, not yet opening it, but letting his fingers trace meaningless patterns across the smooth material.
"Thank you. You didn't need to... thanks." Harry's voice was even softer this time, and the twins glanced at each other, knowing they had to ask and knowing with just as much certainly that Harry wouldn't want them to. After the silence had stretched on for several long moments, Fred stepped carefully towards Harry. Making sure to maintain eye contact as he stretched out his arm, he waited until the last moment to lower his gaze and ghost his fingertips over the terrifying bruise on Harry's left side. He couldn't help thinking that these marks made quidditch injuries look tame, and even then there was magic to swiftly heal the wounds. Fred didn't miss Harry's sharp breath at even that small contact.
"You look like shit Harry."
Whether it was relief at Fred not questioning him with careful pity or the shock of the twins' arrival finally setting in, Harry let out a loud snort of laughter and quickly clapped a hand over his mouth. Despite the gravity of the situation, both twins grinned at their young friend while they all held their breath, waiting to hear the sound of Vernon's large clumpy steps thumping down the hall. There was no sound after several moments, however, and Harry visibly relaxed. He hesitated a moment longer, but after one more quick glance at each of them, shrugged and said, "Dudley introduced me to his new shoes. I don't see a grand friendship in our futures."
"Fat porker" "Stupid Git," the twins muttered together with matching winces. Harry chuckled soundlessly and nodded while pulling a clean shirt out of a cardboard box from under the bed. He seemed to debate with himself for a minute before tilting his head towards them and asking without eye contact,
"Mind giving me a hand? My shoulders are a bit sore, the other one was a bitch to get off."
Fred felt his stomach churn as his fingers brushed the abused flesh on his friend's side. He knew Harry, though, and pity was the last thing he'd want.
"You look like shit, Harry." He smiled at the boy's snort of laughter and somehow knew his twin would be sporting a matching grin behind him. For a kid with so much going against him, Harry had always been remarkably resilient.
Lost in thought, he almost missed Harry's soft request to help him with the clean shirt. George stepped past him, tenderly guiding the smaller boy's limbs through the material. For once, Fred saw some good in the over-sized clothing his friend wore.
As his brother frowned in concentration, gingerly trying to avoid the many injuries as the boy continued to flinch at even the gentle contact, Fred swore to himself he'd find a way to help Harry.
"Your prat of a cousin introduce you to his footwear often then?" George's question was soft and his tone easy, but Harry didn't pretend to miss the point. He took a moment to consider his answer, but seemed to be cautiously considering the twins' concern.
"Why do you ask?"
"To know just how gruesome to make his death." Fred dead-panned, and Harry couldn't hide the amused sparkle from his eyes. It didn't last however, and Harry was clearly still searching for the right answer from his visitors.
"Did Dumbledore send you?" Neither twin was sure just what Harry was really asking, but figured they owed him honest answers either way.
"Nah, had to sneak out, mate..."
"...not that that's a rare occurrence for the two of us..."
"...a side hobby, one might even say..."
"...but we tend to avoid giving the Headmaster an itinerary of our plans..."
"...particularly the less-than-allowed ones." Twin grins flashed at him, and Harry sat down on the small bed, motioning for the other two to join him so his voice wouldn't have to carry as far.
"The Dursleys have never been the 'loving-family' type. I've been Dudley's punching bag and entertainment as long as I can remember, and there's a reason I accidently inflated my Aunt third year with only verbal provoking; my cousin may be the only one to actually hit me, but my Aunt and Uncle are masters at insults. I'm sure you already know that I don't eat the greatest here... me being allowed to eat sort of comes as a second thought, one often forgotten. Not to mention locking me in my room for days at a time is a particular favorite as far as punishments go." The twins caught each other's' eyes, the hard glint of fury reflected in both sets.
"But if it always happens..."
"...why not tell someone?" Even whispered, Harry's bark of laughter was harsh and bitter.
"Like who? Ron and Hermione listen with sad eyes, rant in indignation, then tell me to go tell Dumbledore. Dumbledore asks if my Aunt or Uncle physically harm me or I feel my life is threatened, then smiles indulgently when I say no and encourages me to 'be agreeable and look for the best in people.' Then he offers me a lemon drop. Remus and Sirius both insist I'm safer here, and even if I told them exactly why I hate it here...they've risked and lost too much because of me already, I won't endanger their lives even more." Harry finally looked up at them, fierce challenge in his eyes. It quickly turned to confusion, though, as the twins just blinked patiently at him. "Well?" Harry eventually prompted.
"Well?" The twins echoed back in unison after sharing a perplexed look.
"This is usually the part where someone pushes me to tell someone else." Fred's brow furrowed as he answered carefully,
"But you just told us why you weren't going to do that mate." It was Harry's turn to watch them blinking, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Slowly, the twins seemed to realize what the problem was and their eyes softened.
"We're not going to ignore your decisions..."
"...you're a big boy..."
"...and Merlin knows you can take care of yourself..."
"...you get enough of that from other people." They finished together. Harry nodded solemnly, and the twins were amazed at how much that simple respect meant to him.
"Harry, will you tell us what happened to your back?" Not for the first time, their young friend broke eye contact and thought carefully before answering.
"Just sunburn..." The brothers continued to stare at him, Harry fidgeting nervously under their matching gazes. Finally, he sighed in defeat and took his glasses off to massage his temples as though warding off a particularly bothersome headache. "My Aunt has me doing chores outside, a lot. It's hot working in the sun, and I sweat. She decided I wasn't worth the extra detergent she'd have to pay for to let me wash the extra clothes, so she... she forbid me from wearing a shirt outside. You can imagine her thoughts on 'wasting' money for sunscreen for me." Fred and George were staring at him, eyes wide with shocked fury.
"That sack of no good..."
"...it can't have always been so bad?" Harry heard the pain in his friends' voices and guiltily rushed to reassure them.
"Nah, growing up it was much more neglect than anything else. Got a bit worse after the incident with Dudley's tail, and I suppose me finding out I was a wizard in general. This new evil streak really didn't show up until after last summer, when-" Harry cut himself off suddenly, a flash of regret in his eyes before he ducked his head. The twins, unfortunately, had always been rather astute at figuring out things they weren't supposed to know.
"It seems young Harry is hiding something from us George."
"But why would he do such a thing Fred?"
"I suppose if I had as kind a heart as Harry..."
"...I wouldn't want to tell me it was my fault either." Harry looked sharply from one twin to the other.
"His dear family got worse when the fat cousin was given a harmless tail, isn't that right George?"
"Makes you wonder how they'd react to watching him almost choke on his own tongue, doesn't it Fred?" Harry winced, the twins clearly having made the connection to the prank they had pulled on Harry's cousin the previous summer.
"It's not your fault." Harry insisted The twins shared a quick look before turning to Harry and saying in one voice,
"It's not your fault, either."
Fred and George were careful to creep silently past the portrait of Mrs. Black before apparating up to their room. They hadn't stopped holding hands since reluctantly leaving Harry. Only when he pointed out that Uncle Vernon was unlikely to react well if he found the twins in his house when he woke up had really pushed them out the door.
Fred felt the tremor in his twin's hand and quickly pulled his trembling brother into his arms, guiding him gently backwards until he could lower them carefully onto one of their beds. He pressed a soft kiss to the fiery hair falling over George's forehead, then tucked him against his shoulder and held him close, one hand rubbing his lower back, the other tangled into the fine hair at the base of his neck. It was one more thing that had always made them close; George's need to be held when upset and Fred's need for someone to hold.
Fred and George had spent most of the time they had left with Harry making him smile as much as possible. Right before leaving, though, they had told Harry to make sure and write, and had gotten only a funny look in return.
"We know Hedwig's locked up Mate..."
"...but she's not the only owl in the world!"
"Send a note for us the next time Ron writes..."
"...even if it does mean using that ruddy Pig!" They rolled their eyes, thinking of Ron's small, overly excitable owl. It took them a moment to realize Harry was carefully avoiding their eyes once more.
"Tell us, Harry." Fred pushed, a feeling of dread slowly building in his stomach.
"Ron hasn't written me all summer. No one has."
George wrapped his arms around his brother's neck, covering his face in barely-there kisses for comfort, knowing his brother was remembering the broken look in Harry's eyes.
"We'll fix this Fred. He won't have to keep doing this alone."
The twins waited until late the following afternoon before taking action. They knew they'd have to be cautious about bringing Harry up in conversation; they didn't want to seem suspicious (well, any more suspicious than they always seemed anyway). Mrs. Weasley was supervising the cleaning of yet another bedroom, and was drawn muttering from the room when the doorbell rang and set off a series of shrieks and insults from the front hall tapestry of Mrs. Black. Seeing their opportunity the twins sidled up to Ron while Hermione wandered down to the kitchen for a clean bucket of water.
"...bet we could make a fortune selling tickets to that..."
"...of course we'd lose it all giving refunds when her ugly face blinded the audience..."
"...almost makes you miss having Percy around..."
"...can't imagine Harry was too pleased..."
"...when you wrote him about his dear god-grandma..."
"...was he little Ronniekins?"
The approach was effective, taking Ron from laughter at the insults to shock at the mention of his brother to anger at Ron's pet name, and leaving no time to wonder why the twins cared anyway.
"Shove off, gits. I've no idea what Harry'll think"
"Aww, Won-Won hasn't told his little friend about the mean, nasty portrait yet?"
"Whatever do you prattle on about baby brother?"
"...your own life failings?"
"...nah, not enough parchment for that!" Ron's whole face was flushed from their tormenting, and the twins nearly forgot why they had started the ordeal in the first place; so distracted were they ducking as Ron threw a dirty rag too far over their heads and clutching their sides with laughter.
"I don't write Harry about anything, Dumbledore told us not too! Now piss off." Fred and George shared thoughtful looks behind Ron's back after he stormed to the corner of the room in anger. By the time Hermione returned, all three were back to work as though nothing had happened.