"I don't believe you, it's all your fault, Name your price, you can be bought. Tears are endless, grief unbound, Finally my peace I've found."
"Stages of Grief" S. Eussit
July became August in a flare of heat, but the Burrow remained a place of cool distance. Harry had known his birthday would be overshadowed by the pain of Percy's disappearance, and had insisted that no one was to worry about a celebration. Molly had still baked a cake, and for a few hours there had been happiness, but it was becoming clear that cracks were forming within the normally united Weasley family.
Ron's mum barely spoke, her face pale and strained as Arthur left for work early and came home late. He had been appointed Acting Minister of Magic, but Harry didn't think his absence was simply because of his crowded schedule. The man, always so strong in his beliefs, was blaming himself for his son's death and was hiding from the rest of his family.
The twins were doing what they always did, trying to keep everyone's spirits up, but even the two notorious pranksters weren't their usual selves. Bill and Charlie had taken some leave, but their lack of activity only made it worse. They would pace and fret, torn between ill-suppressed rage and disbelief.
Ron and Ginny were the only two Harry felt he could relate to anymore, and as he padded downstairs on the first morning of August, he saw the two of them already up, sitting at the kitchen table and talking in low voices.
Without any urging Harry started the breakfast, doing it the Muggle way. He was well aware that he could use magic, having finally reached the legal age, but he wasn't confident in his skill with household charms. Besides, old habits died hard, and somewhere deep inside he felt he should still be slapping greasy bacon onto the Dursleys' plates.
'Mum was going to do that,' Ginny said softly, taking the spatula out of his hand. 'It might be a good idea to let her. She seems happier if she's looking after us.'
'Are you sure?'
'It's the only way she knows how to cope with it, mate, trust me.' Ron smiled, but it was mirthless and hollow, almost painful to see, and the ginger-haired boy turned back to the parchment in front of him.
Ron was writing to Hermione again, a daily exercise. Harry had felt the absence of his intelligent friend, but he knew it could be nothing compared to what Ron was going through. Hermione was helping her parents move house and decorate it to their tastes. She had insisted it was something she had to do.
'I've got to make my home again and reassure Mum and Dad. I'll be with you soon.'
The quill scratched across the parchment as Pig twittered and flitted around the kitchen, watched by Genie's bright yellow eyes. In the tight silence, Ginny prodded the bacon and turned it over, letting it spit and sizzle in the pan.
'Do you think it hurt?'
'What?' Ginny asked, glancing quickly from Harry to Ron, who had asked the question.
'The Killing Curse. Do you think–' he swallowed nervously, 'do you think it hurt Perce?'
'Ron, you don't know if You-Know-Who used it!' Ginny scolded, plonking herself down in the chair opposite him. Harry watched as the two siblings stared into each other's eyes, communicating in a way he couldn't begin to understand, before turning back to the stove.
'It doesn't hurt.'
His own voice was loud in the quiet kitchen, and suddenly he felt the heat of several gazes on his back. He poked the frying breakfast half-heartedly before looking over his shoulder.
Molly was standing in the doorway, her eyes intense with something Harry couldn't identify. She drew her self up straight and smiled gently, a glimmer of thankfulness in her expression, as though she understood what he was trying to do and appreciated it.
'You don't feel anything. It's quick and painless. I promise.'
'But your scars –' Ginny's voice was choked, and, as always when such things were mentioned, her eyes darted to the lightening bolt resting between his eyes.
'They only hurt afterwards. When it happened, I felt nothing. If Percy is dead, he went peacefully.'
'You sound so cold,' Ron mumbled as Molly walked into the room and squeezed her son's shoulder, 'like it doesn't even matter.'
'The people who matter are those left behind. You're the ones the Killing Curse has hurt,' Harry murmured.
Molly took the spatula from him wordlessly and moved a bit of hair out of his eyes before turning to deal with the breakfast. Oddly maternal gestures like that always made Harry feel slightly uncomfortable, but he was grateful for them nonetheless.
Ginny took his hand as he sat down, weaving her fingers in between his and leaning her head on his shoulder. With a weary sigh, he rested his head on hers and shut his eyes, wondering why he felt so worn out.
'Have you done your exams?' Ron asked quietly. 'Hermione told me to remind you that they're due in a week.'
'I've already sent them off.' Harry opened one eye and looked at his friend. Ron met his gaze solidly, and a small grin, this time alive with true emotion, lay on his lips.
It seemed like ages ago that Harry and Ginny had shared their first kisses on the train home from Hogwarts and Ron had interrupted and cheered like an idiot. Harry had half-expected an unending torment of teasing, but to his surprise, there hadn't been much. Fred and George had taken a shot or two, but it was only to be expected, and Molly's stern words had shut them up in no time.
A clatter of claws at the windowsill made them look up to where a delivery owl was scratching at the panes. There were two parcels tied to its leg, and it seemed irritated at being forced to wait. Molly relieved it of its burden and slipped a few coins into its pouch before passing one envelope to Harry and slapping the Daily Prophet down on the table without giving it a second glance.
Harry frowned at the tidy scrawl on the envelope, not recognising it. In one swift movement he slit it open and took out one sheet of parchment, and a smaller note addressed to Molly. He handed it over wordlessly and read his letter, a faint frown on his face.
I'm sorry for not writing in so long, but what with the events at the Ministry we've been rushed off our feet. I wanted to reassure you that we are all fine. There were a few injuries, but none of us were on duty the night of the attack.
It seems that I may not be able to see you again until you arrive back at Hogwarts. You've been told to be careful, so I won't reiterate the warning. I hope you're well, and I'm here if you need me. I keep the mirror with me always, just in case.
p.s. Moody says thanks.
He winced at the old Auror's thanks for looking after the Weasleys. Harry let his eyes rove around the room, finally resting on Ginny's downcast face. He'd not helped them at all. He'd tried to, but he was clueless. They didn't seem to want to talk about it, and he wouldn't know what to say; in any case, it seemed hopeless.
He read over the letter again and smiled. He'd known Remus was safe, but Tonks had been injured during the recovery operation, as had a few others. At least it seemed they were on their way to recovery. He hadn't expected to see Lupin during the holidays, especially not after the attack. Somehow it was enough to know that he was alive.
'Dumbledore's coming over tomorrow, he wants to strengthen the wards,' Molly said quietly. 'He's done so much for us, and I don't know what to do in return.'
'That's the third time since we left school,' Ginny mumbled, 'does he know something?'
'I don't think so, only keeping us safe, dear.'
'Don't worry,' Harry whispered, squeezing Ginny's hand reassuringly, 'better that he's here doing the wards than leaving us to our own devices, right?'
'I suppose, but is he doing it for us, or just for you?' she asked, her face carefully emotionless as she watched him.
'I don't know; I think it's for everyone. The wards are staying once we go back to school. He doesn't want a repeat of what happened in the spring.'
Ron signed his letter and blew on the ink, tapping the quill against the table in impatience. He was about to attempt to catch Pig when a soft hoot at the open window caught his attention. Hedwig fluffed up her feathers and extended a foot, revealing a small slip of parchment tied to it.
The knot was a mess, suggesting someone wanted to send it in a hurry, but didn't want it to get lost. It took scissors to free the paper in the end, and Ron handed it to Harry almost immediately.
'Not for me, it's from Hermione.' Harry smothered a laugh as Ron snatched it and read it through, his face slowly breaking into a smile.
'Mum, can Hermione come over for the rest of the holidays?'
'Of course, you know you don't even have to ask. Besides, it will do us all some good to see her again.'
As Ron sat down to add a reply to his letter, Molly threw the ruined breakfast in the bin, apologising all the while. 'I wasn't really concentrating, could you have cereal? I – I really ought to keep busy. Tidy up a few of Percy's things maybe.'
Harry looked up at the lilt of pain in her voice. 'I can do it if you want, I mean, it might be easier –'
'No dear, he is, he was my son. It's got to be done.'
'Why don't you leave it until we know what happened? He might still be alive.'
'I know he's not,' Molly whispered, her eyes unfocused with tears. 'I'll – I'll give you a call if I need any help.'
Ron sent his reply off and rubbed a hand across the nape of his neck, looking after his mum's departing back. 'I'd help, but I know she doesn't want it. We might as well go outside, stay out of her way.'
'I'm going to go to my room for a while. If Hermione's coming it needs tidying anyway.' Ginny gave Harry a peck on the cheek, giggling despite herself as he turned his face to receive it on the lips. 'I'll talk to you later.'
'That's disgusting,' Ron muttered, trying to hide a grin, 'snogging my sister in front of me.'
'Eurgh, don't use that word, it's horrible,' Harry said, wrinkling his nose.
'Yeah, and besides, it wasn't a snog, it was just a kiss – no tongues involved.'
Ron gave a mock shudder. 'Please, no talk of anatomy when it's related to my sister. It's just weird.'
Harry chuckled as he followed his friend into the garden. The Burrow's lands were uneven, rolling into dips and small hills. The outlying fields were disused, and the long grass wavered invitingly in the breeze. Climbing over a fence, they strode into the middle of the sun-baked meadow, the long stems reaching up to their waists.
'It must be great living here,' Harry said, pulling off a seed head and letting the kernels fall to the wind, dancing with the zephyrs up into the sky.
'It's all right, not much to do though. I mean look at me, I've done all my homework already.' Ron's smile faded. 'But mostly that was to take my mind off Percy.'
'It didn't work, did it?'
They both lay on their backs, staring at the oceanic sky. The fronds wavered in the wind, swaying into the frame of blue. It would have been idyllic. For a moment, Harry could almost forget about Voldemort, about death and the dark side of life, and simply lay there, the sun on his skin.
'How did you ever manage, or even begin to cope over the past year? I mean I've only lost my brother and you – you've lost everybody.'
'I was too young to remember my parents or really grieve. With the Dursleys I felt more guilt than grief, and with Sirius it was – well, I didn't really handle it last summer at all, did I?' Harry sighed.
'But you didn't have anyone with you then. I mean, we've got each other, but you were alone.'
'I just tried not to think about it, same as you've done. It didn't work, but it helped me get from day to day. Sirius wasn't family though, I mean he was the hope of one, but I didn't grow up with him, not like you did with Percy.'
Ron rolled onto his front, pulling at the grass as though he had something on his mind. 'Last year, when all those attacks were happening, I made a list of people I couldn't stand to lose. Percy wasn't on it. Now it's happened and I feel like such an idiot. How could I have ever thought that it wouldn't hurt, just because of what he did?'
Ron turned his head away as his voice broke, and wordlessly, Harry reached into his pocket and handed him a clean tissue before sitting up and cautiously putting a hand on his friend's shaking shoulder. He couldn't think of anything to say as Ron choked on ill-contained tears, trying desperately to hide his grief. Normally Harry would have felt embarrassed by another's tears, but now he just felt helpless.
The whisper made Harry shiver. It was dark and cold. There was no trace of happiness within it, and in its aftermath, the sobs were violent, as though the pain went deeper than Harry had ever imagined.
'I'd hug you, but I think Hermione would get jealous.'
As jokes went, it was lame, but Ron spluttered anyway, chuckling faintly through the tears.
'I know it hurts, and it won't really ever go away.'
'I know, I've only got to look at you to see that,' Ron replied, sitting up and rubbing his bloodshot eyes. 'It's just Percy was such a pig, such a complete idiot in the last year or so, but even so, I still miss him.'
'He was a good brother; he just made some bad choices. That's all,' Harry said.
'But he insulted you, and you're so much more important to me than he was. Is that wrong?'
Harry shook his head and smiled faintly, wondering if he had any more tissues with him. The one he'd given Ron was pretty waterlogged.
'What am I going to do if You-Know-Who gets you?' Ron wondered aloud, his words chilling the heat of the day. 'I couldn't stand to lose you or Hermione.'
'You're not going to. Don't think about losing people, I know it's hard, but try to appreciate the present and not worry about the future.'
'Is that what you're doing?'
'I'm trying.' Harry pressed his fingertips to his left forearm as pain shot through it and Ron followed the gesture, his eyes widening.
The red lines were forming a clearer outline now, and Harry grimaced. 'It's Pettigrew's, it never went away for some reason.'
Ron licked his lips, tears forgotten. 'You should probably tell Dumbledore.'
'I already have. He said not to worry about it, and not to alarm too many people with it.'
Ron moved Harry's hand away and peered at it. 'Well, it's definitely the Dark Mark, isn't it. Does it hurt?'
'Only when Voldemort's calling his Death Eaters together – he did it a minute ago.'
'What do you think he's up to?'
'I wish I knew. Once I'm told what has happened, it feels like I already knew it, but beforehand I don't have a clue. If I did, I'd do something.'
Ron's fingers bit into Harry's arm and he looked up into his friend's intense brown eyes. 'Don't do anything about anyone without me, and I know Hermione will say the same thing. Promise me?'
'Because I'd rather die with you than have you die for me, you know?'
Harry didn't know if Ron's words were spurred by the emotion behind Percy's death, or his friendship, but he nodded slowly, knowing that there was no way he could keep Ron and Hermione away from it. When the time came to murder or be murdered, they'd both be there, and there was nothing he could do to stop them.
The afternoon passed in long, lazy hours. The two of them stayed in the field, talking about Ron's childhood, about his brothers and Ginny, and about the future. Dusk was approaching when a familiar, explosive sound announced the arrival of the Knight Bus beside the crooked little wall at the edge of the garden, and a strong voice said, 'There you go, Miss, here are your things.'
Harry stayed back as Ron leapt the fence and scooped Hermione into a hug, twirling her around before kissing her soundly. Crookshanks yowled from his cat basket but Hermione ignored him, resting her head on Ron's shoulder for a moment.
Harry picked up the pet carrier and slipped into the house, giving them a moment's peace as he strode into the kitchen. The table was laid for everyone, and several of the hands on the clock indicated that family was on the way. Molly stood over the stove, humming to herself as all around her, the kitchen took care of itself. The dishes were being dunked and scrubbed in the sink and tea towels were flying through the air. Harry ducked one and let Crookshanks out. The ginger tom looked at him with piercing eyes before sauntering away on his own business.
'Oh, Harry dear, can you find some wineglasses?'
'Yeah, are you all right?' he asked, as he rummaged through the cupboards.
'It helped. I know it sounds stupid, but sorting out his things made me remember things I had forgotten, and that I have a family to look after.'
Harry smiled properly for what felt like the first time in weeks, dragging out the mismatched wineglasses and putting them on the table. It had been magically extended, since the faithful trestle tables had finally met their match, and the kitchen rapidly became crowded.
Ginny slipped in and walked over to Harry, wrapping her arms around his waist and burying her face in his shoulder. He returned the embrace and tipped his head down, asking if she was all right. She gave a weak nod and lifted her face to his.
She had often complained that she could not cry beautifully, and Harry could see from the redness of her nose and the blotches over her freckles that the tears had fallen.
'You should have come to get me earlier,' he said quietly, running his fingers over her cheek.
'You were with Ron, and he really needed someone to talk to. He wouldn't say anything to me. Besides, I'm all right. I helped Mum clear out Percy's room, that's all.'
Harry shrugged. 'Just being you.'
She wiped her nose on the back of her hand and kissed him softly, ignoring Fred and George's catcalls.
Arthur, Bill and Charlie walked in together, talking about the state of the Ministry. The three of them had plunged themselves into rebuilding the place, and today it seemed they had made some progress. The mood was lighter as they sat down to the table. The wineglasses were filled as the roast was carved and gravy passed around.
Arthur cleared his throat, bringing the table into silence. He looked nervous for a moment before speaking quietly. 'The past few days have been – well, there aren't words to describe them. We've lost a son and a brother, and with him, it sometimes feels like we have lost our family too, but I can see we're all here, and Percy is still in our memories. I would like to propose a toast. To Percy, wherever he may be.'
Everyone raised their glasses high in the air and joined in the heartfelt words.