Harry stood, horror-struck, watching the Dementors swarm as Ron’s feeble Patronus flickered out of existence. He fought down the panic that wanted to overtake him, phantom green streaks of light flashing in his mind over a sickly, speeding, rushing sound.
“You have permitted your friends to die for you.”
Slamming his eyes shut, he took a deep, steadying breath whilst rubbing his scar. He’d been trapped in a similar situation with Duncan months ago, and he knew Ron didn’t need him tearing in there in a panic. What Ron needed was a cool, level head to get him out.
“There!” Owen said, pointing at the dim light of the fading Patronus.
Harry nodded. “It’s Ron’s. EXPECTO PATRONUM,” he bellowed.
He watched as Prongs charged into the clearing, scattering the swarm of Dementors as it ploughed a path down the centre. Owen’s bear Patronus raced in after it, followed by several others cast by the handful of Aurors on the ground, and the members of the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures. Harry was wryly grateful that they’d at least assigned people who could actually cast them.
“Do you see him?” Owen asked, his eyes squinted as he tried to peer into the dense wood.
Harry shook his head, his eyes never leaving the spot he’d seen Ron’s Patronus fade. Despite the worry churning in his gut, his hand remained quite steady as he held his wand aloft, ready to cast another should Prongs fade. He’d already completed his shift, so he felt drained, and the voices in his head were growing stronger standing this close to the Dementors.
“We’re going to form a chain,” Owen said, directing the others. “We need to keep them moving back as we go in until we locate Weasley. I want those who are beginning their shift to take the lead. Diggory, you keep your people at the perimeter to ensure none of them escape.”
Amos Diggory, looking pale and put-upon, nodded faintly, directing his people into position.
Harry wanted to be in the lead, or at least have Owen there, but he conceded that Owen was right. They needed fresh Aurors at the front, even if there were only a few of them. Harry was chomping at the bit to get to his friend, but he couldn’t risk Ron’s life. He took his place in the queue, and once again cast Prongs as he began moving forward.
Heart thudding, Harry’s eyes scanned the surrounding area. He’d give anything to see that familiar mop of red. Ron was tall, so his hair should be visible by now. The fact it wasn’t meant he was probably on the ground, and Harry’s stomach lurched unpleasantly.
‘Hang on, Ron,’ he thought as he inched forward. Duncan was behind him, and their eyes met briefly before Duncan cast his fox Patronus. It darted in between the legs of the larger animals, all racing toward the same spot, urging the Dementors back from the trail the Patronuses were blazing. There was still no sign of Ron.
“These Dementors don’t act like the others I’ve seen,” Harry said urgently. “They don’t hunt in a pack. We could be driving most of them back while a lone one attacks Ron.”
“Focus on what we can control,” Owen said harshly. He was bringing up the rear, and his eyes moved constantly, scanning the area for a sudden attack. Harry was reminded vividly of Mad-Eye Moody. He wondered if all Aurors eventually became that paranoid. Or perhaps, it was only the ones who survived.
“Is that a light?” Duncan asked, his voice higher than normal.
Harry squinted into the foliage. There was faint, misty light shining through between some dense ferns — not a corporeal Patronus, but definitely a hazy mist.
“Yeah. Owen, over there,” he said, pointing to the fading light. “EXPECTO PATRONUM!”
Prongs emerged once again, charging in the direction Harry had pointed. The line of Aurors changed direction, all casting Patronuses of their own whenever another faded. Harry wanted to push them to make everyone move faster, but he knew he had to proceed with caution. They were outnumbered in here.
“I’ve got him,” a wizard in the front called back. Harry squinted and felt a jolt when he realized it was Neville.
“Hold your positions,” Owen barked, and the line of Aurors remained in place. “Potter, you go. If he’s able, get him on his feet and begin backing out. If not, get him out anyway, and we’ll hold the line behind you.”
Owen knew that Harry would be the best judge of Ron’s condition, but Harry couldn’t be happier that he was the one who’d reach Ron first. He quickly ran alongside the group of Aurors, all warily keeping watch and casting Patronuses at any Dementor that attempted to come closer.
Ron lay crumpled on the ground, his eyes mere slits, and he didn’t move or show any recognition as Harry approached.
“Ron,” Harry said, kneeling beside him and shaking his shoulders slightly. “C’mon, Ron. We’ve got to get out of here,” he said, his eyes flickering to the silent woods around them.
The air had gone still, and even the light rain fell silently. It was eerie, and Harry would be happy when they were both back outside the perimeter.
“Can you hear me, Ron?” he asked, pulling his friend to a seated position.
“‘Arry,” Ron said shakily, his voice slurred. “‘Luddy ‘ell.”
“I know, mate. Stand up,” Harry said, grinning. The relief that swept through him made his own knees weak. He tugged Ron to his feet, but Ron could barely support his own weight, and his head lolled against his chest.
Harry slung Ron’s arm over his own shoulders and wrapped his arm around Ron’s waist. “Hang on. We’re going to do this together.
He kept his wand clutched in his hand even though he couldn’t use it whilst supporting Ron. He had to trust the others to cover him while he lugged Ron out, but he felt better having it in his hand, anyway. They’d only gone a few steps when Ron’s knees buckled. Harry hoisted him back up and supported his weight with his hip. Ron was bigger than Harry, and he felt his feet sink into the mud as he tried to support him.
“Watch out,” Owen called, and Harry jerked his head in time to see several of the Dementors moving toward them from opposite angles.
Ron could yell at him later for ruining his macho image. He dropped his friend lightly to the ground and aimed his wand. “Mobilicorpus,” he said, and Ron’s body rose in front of him. Ignoring Ron’s feeble complaints, Harry used his wand to move him forward, following behind at a jog. His feet squelched in the mud with each step.
The Dementors were moving in from all sides, and the Aurors gathered in a small semi-circle behind Harry, using their Patronuses as a shield. They were no longer trying to urge the creatures back, but simply keeping them away as they made their escape.
It felt as if it took ages for Harry to get Ron’s invisible stretcher past the perimeter, and he kept moving him several more meters before resting him on the ground. The other Aurors all moved past the Charms, then turned as one to work with Amos’s people to cast another round of Patronuses to keep the Dementors inside.
“Here,” Harry said, shoving a chunk of chocolate into Ron’s mouth. Ron’s eyes were closed, but his jaw moved slowly as he devoured it.
“All right, Weasley?” Owen asked, standing over them.
“Yeah,” Ron slurred. “Any mrrswees?”
“Potter, I want you to accompany him to St. Mungo’s. The Ministry is sending someone here with a Portkey. They’ll alert the hospital to expect you,” Owen said, turning to address the other Aurors. “The rest of the first shift is to take a Portkey back to the Ministry. No one is to Apparate. Do I make myself clear?”
The others nodded their agreement, moving towards the Portkey that would take them to the Ministry.
“What about you?” Harry asked, frowning.
“I’ll cover Ron’s shift until they send a replacement,” Owen said shortly. “Ah, here’s your Portkey now.”
A small witch with an unfortunately prominent nose approached them and handed a folder to Owen. “Just open it to activate, sir. Director Robards said he’ll have your replacement here post-haste.”
“Thank you,” Owen said, handing the folder to Harry. “Take care, Weasley.”
Ron nodded. Harry placed Ron’s hand on top of the folder, then wrapped his own hand around both, opening it. The scenery blurred into a sickening swirl of colour as the magnetic pull behind his navel dragged them both forward.
They landed in a small, secluded room at St. Mungo’s, a medi-witch already awaiting them. Since Harry had been kneeling when he’d touched the Portkey, he didn’t have to worry about stumbling once they arrived. The medi-witch pushed him aside without thought before she hovered Ron onto a bed and began waving her wand above him in a series of complicated manoeuvres.
Harry took a deep breath, allowing the adrenaline that had been fuelling him to drain. His shoulders sagged as he moved toward a nearby chair, sinking onto the lumpy cushion gratefully. He knew he ought to inform the Weasleys that Ron was all right, but he honestly didn’t have the strength to cast another Patronus. He leaned his head back against the wall and let the medi-witch conduct her exam in peace.
He must have dozed off, because he startled awake at the sound of a Healer’s voice close to his ear, “Mr. Potter.”
Harry looked up, disconcerted, into the face of an older Healer with a neatly-trimmed grey beard and kindly light blue eyes. “Your friend is going to be fine. We’ve given him a Strengthening Solution and a hefty amount of chocolate. He’ll most likely sleep for several hours. We’ll examine him again once he awakes, and if his vitals are fine, he can be released. I might recommend a dose of Strengthening Solution for you, as well.”
“I’m fine,” Harry said automatically.
The Healer grinned, the corners of his eyes crinkling. “I highly doubt any of the Aurors who’ve been working long-term with the Dementors are fine, Mr. Potter. You’re going to be sitting in that chair for a few hours — might as well take care of you while you’re at it.”
Harry straightened up in the uncomfortable hospital chair, his gaze automatically straying to Ron, who was snoring lightly on the bed. He turned his head from side to side to work out the kinks in his neck.
“Yeah, all right,” he said, wanting to cause the least amount of fuss possible.
“Excellent. I’ll send the medi-witch back with your potion. Oh, and Mr. Potter — I’m an old man who never had much use for gossip. I’d like to thank you for all you’ve done — for all of us.”
Harry met the kind blue eyes, searching for any sign of deception. Finding none, he nodded and averted his eyes. Since Rita’s arrest, he’d received even more attention — mostly those curious about his supposed Dark magic connections. Every once in a while, however, there was someone like the Healer who sincerely wanted to express gratitude. Somehow, it was the latter that always made Harry more uncomfortable.
The Healer seemed to understand. He patted Harry on the shoulder and left the room. A moment later, a medi-witch entered carrying a phial that she handed to Harry. She pulled her hand away quickly, and her eyes did the familiar upward glance at his scar, looking almost scared of him. Before she could speak, as he knew she would, the door burst open again and a frantic Mr. and Mrs. Weasley bustled into the room.
“Oh, Ronnie,” Mrs. Weasley said tearfully, hurrying toward her sleeping son.
Mr. Weasley grasped her by the arm and held her back. “Don’t wake him, Molly. The Healer said he’ll be all right.”
The medi-witch gave one more furtive look at Harry, “I’m supposed to stay to be certain you take that.”
Harry grimaced but downed the contents and handed the empty phial back to her, wincing at the horrible taste.
“Are you all right, Harry?” Mrs. Weasley asked, her eyes roving over him, searching for a wound.
“I’m fine,” he said once the medi-witch had left the room. “They’d put the entire Auror department on potions if they could.”
“Well, I don’t blame them. Being around those foul creatures so often isn’t healthy,” Mrs. Weasley huffed. She pushed him back down as he attempted to stand. “You stay there.”
“Kingsley sent us an owl telling us there had been an incident. What happened?” Mr. Weasley asked. “Have any of the Dementors escaped?”
Harry shook his head. “The transfer went well. Ron was one of the Aurors on the ground waiting to assist Diggory’s people in securing them. Somehow, he didn’t get out before we arrived. Someone miscounted.”
“Damn,” Mr. Weasley said, scowling.
“That sounds like a very careless mistake,” Mrs. Weasley said, looking cross.
“I’m certain that’s exactly what the Daily Prophet will report in the morning,” Mr. Weasley said, sighing. Since Rita Skeeter’s arrest, the Prophet had been highly critical of everything the Ministry was doing — or not doing was more the way they liked to report it.
The potion he’d taken was beginning to work, and Harry felt his exhaustion receding. He sat up straighter in his chair, glancing over at the sleeping Ron. He felt better simply checking that he could see the steady rise and fall of his friend’s chest.
The door to the room burst open again, and Harry looked around to see Percy and George rushing inside. George, his usually jovial face awash with fright and desperation, tried to run toward the bed. Mr. Weasley stood and grabbed him by the arm.
“He’s all right, George. They gave him a potion to let him sleep for a while,” Mr. Weasley said quietly, keeping a tight grip on George, who was panting.
“They said… They said… I thought,” George said incoherently. He was pale, and Harry noticed he was shaking.
“He’s going to be fine,” Mr. Weasley said, keeping his voice calm and soothing. “Why don’t you sit down? We don’t want to wake him yet.”
He led George to the empty chair beside Mrs. Weasley that he had been sitting in only moments before. George collapsed into it, burying his face in his hands. His shoulders began to shake.
“Oh, Georgie,” Mrs. Weasley said, tears filling her own eyes. “I was afraid of that, too.”
“We got your owl at the shop,” Percy said, looking pale and drawn. “We just left. I didn’t even lock the shop.”
Harry stood up quickly, guiding an unresisting Percy to his chair. “I’ll go back and lock up,” he said, feeling he was intruding and desperate for an escape.
“You’ll come right back?” Mrs. Weasley asked, sounding panicked.
“I… Well…” Harry said awkwardly.
“I want you to come back. We all need to be here together,” Mrs. Weasley insisted, her eyes imploring him.
He couldn’t say no, so he nodded before hurrying from the room. It only took him a moment once he reached the Apparition point to pop over to the shop. It was mostly empty, although a few scattered customers remained, looking around curiously.
Harry moved behind the till and cast a Sonorous Charms to amplify his voice, “Sorry, folks. Shop needs to close early today. Please bring your purchases up now.”
“Mum! Mum — that’s Harry Potter!” a young girl squealed excitedly.
It only took Harry a few moments to clear out the last of the customers once he grudgingly agreed to sign a few autographs as he rang up their purchases. After they were gone, he scrawled a quick note to Ginny. Errol, the Weasley family owl, was still there and resting on a perch. He hoped he’d be up to the journey. Ginny would hate to find out later and think nobody thought to inform her. He told her Ron was fine and what had happened. He also said to share the news with Hermione and not to believe anything printed in the paper tomorrow.
He was able to Apparate back to the hospital within a half hour, happy to be out of the shop. He’d had the uncomfortable feeling of being watched the entire time he was there. Of course, the shop’s customers had all been staring at him avidly. He wished people would stop doing that.
When he arrived in the hospital room, Bill and Fleur were also there. Fleur looked as if she was glowing, more radiant than Harry had ever seen her, and that was saying a lot. It took him a moment to drag his eyes away, and once he did, he found Bill smirking at him.
“Pregnancy apparently doubles the Veela effect,” he said, amused.
Harry flushed and looked down, taking note of Fleur’s prominent belly, which she was caressing with one hand. “Oh, stop eet, Bill,” she said, pushing her husband aside. “‘Allo, ‘Arry.”
She quickly kissed him on each cheek before taking the chair Bill had conjured for her. George leaned his head against the wall behind him, pale and glassy-eyed.
“Hi, Fleur, Bill,” Harry said.
“Shop all secure?” Percy asked.
“Yeah,” he said, nodding. “Only I didn’t reconcile the till. I sent Errol to Ginny and Hermione, though.”
“Good idea,” Mr. Weasley said. “Ron should be home before they’re even aware he was here.”
Harry glanced over at Ron and saw that he was still asleep, his mouth hanging open slightly as he drooled onto the bed linens. This was such a typical scene during their time in the Hogwarts dormitory, he had to smile.
As Fleur began sharing some details of the nursery with the group, Harry sidled over to the empty space of wall next to George’s chair, and leaned against it. George didn’t look around.
“Thanks for taking care of the shop,” he finally said, not meeting Harry’s eyes.
“No problem,” Harry replied. He didn’t say anything more, giving George time to collect himself. Eventually, the older wizard raised his eyes to meet Harry’s. His mouth opened and closed several times, but he was apparently unable to voice the words.
“S’alright, George,” Harry said quietly. “It all came back to me, too, when I saw his Patronus alone in that enclosure.”
“I was back at Hogwarts again,” George said, his voice raw.
Harry nodded, keeping his eyes forward. “Me, too.”
George nodded, but some of the tension that had been holding him so rigid seemed to leave his body. After a few moments where they didn’t speak again but listened to Fleur and Mrs. Weasley discuss baby care, George finally muttered, “He owes us both a drink.”
Harry grinned. “Too right.”
Harry remained in the little room with the rest of the Weasleys until Ron woke up an hour later, unsurprised to find them all there and looking for food. They all returned to The Burrow where Mrs. Weasley whipped them up a feast to celebrate Ron’s narrow escape. Harry found he was glad Mrs. Weasley had insisted he return to the hospital room after he’d closed the shop. Worrying together was much more bearable than worrying alone.
Ginny stepped out of the fireplace into the warm familiarity of The Burrow’s kitchen and moved out of the way to accommodate Hermione’s arrival. It was an unprecedented Thursday night visit during the school year, but then again, it was an unprecedented event. They were here to celebrate George’s birthday — just George’s birthday. Ginny took a deep, shuddering breath as she looked around the kitchen. There were pots bubbling on the stove, and she could see a beautifully-decorated cake sitting on the credenza. It had purple icing with orange writing, matching the colours of the shop. Somehow, it looked incredibly lonely in its solidarity. In the past, the first of April had always included two cakes.
Ginny’s stomach clenched. Mum’s cooking or not, Ginny didn’t think she’d manage to eat anything. There was something alive clawing at her insides and threatening to get out. She thought she’d even prefer being back at Hogwarts doing Transfiguration homework than being home right now – and anyone who truly knew her knew how much she struggled with Transfiguration homework.
“Ginny! Hermione!” her dad said warmly, entering the kitchen and hugging the girls in turn. He wore an apron over his head and tied loosely in the back. He hurried over to the stove to stir one of the pots as he spoke. “Wonderful of Professor McGonagall to let you come. I know it’ll mean a lot to your mother.”
His voice was brittle, and his movement around the kitchen appeared rather manic as he bustled about to the various pots.
“Where is Mum?” Ginny asked warily, looking around the empty kitchen. The presence of the cake, at least, indicated her mother had been involved in the preparations at some point.
“Er… she’s having a lie down, but she’ll most likely be down once she hears your voices,” her dad said. “We’ve both been looking forward to seeing you all. The house has felt empty with all of you out on your own.”
“Let me help you with that, Mr. Weasley,” Hermione said kindly, taking a stack of plates from his hands and beginning to set the table. She used her wand to summon all the cutlery.
Dad walked over and hugged Ginny, squeezing her tight like he did when she was small. She rested her head on her father’s shoulder, furiously blinking the moisture from her eyes and wishing this wasn’t so hard.
“Is someone in charge of getting George here?” she asked gruffly, her throat aching. She wouldn’t put it past her brother to blow them all off and celebrate his first birthday without Fred with a bottle of Ogden’s rather than the rest of them. She was even tempted by the idea.
“Percy is bringing him right from the shop,” her dad said. “He took the day off at the Ministry to stay with George.”
“That was a good idea,” Ginny said, nodding. “So, did you make all this?” She could remember her father cooking on rare occasions growing up when Mum had been ill, but those times were few and far between. The kitchen smelled like Mum.
Her dad shook his head. “Your mother started it, I’ve just been keeping it going once it became too much for her.”
“I can help,” Ginny said, taking a spoon from him and beginning to stir. She saw the looks exchanged between her dad and Hermione and rolled her eyes indignantly. “I’m not going to cook anything new. I think I can be trusted to stir.”
“Of course, you can,” her dad said, kissing the top of her head as if she were five years old. It only soured her mood further. She was still feeling touchy about her parents’ attitudes on the Quidditch try-outs. Would they ever acknowledge that she was no longer a little girl but an almost fully-qualified and of-age witch? Somehow, she doubted it. They’d never acknowledged that she’d stopped being a child some time during her traumatic first year at Hogwarts, why should leaving Hogwarts make a difference?
The kitchen door opened, and Bill held it wide as Fleur waddled in with a hand on her lower back. There was absolutely nothing graceful about the way Fleur moved as she entered the kitchen and sank onto a chair. Ginny knew the satisfaction she felt was petty, but it wasn’t easy to have a sister-in-law who was part Veela, either.
Hermione brought Fleur a cup of tea, and the blonde smiled gratefully. Bill walked over and peered into the pot Ginny was stirring.
“Hi, squirt,” he said, leaning over and kissing the top of her head just as her father had done. Ginny spun around, aiming the spoon at his chest and only vaguely aware it wasn’t her wand. Bill’s eyes widened in surprise.
“Don’t call me ‘squirt’,” she muttered, suddenly feeling embarrassed by her over-reaction. “I’m not five.”
The corner of Bill’s mouth quirked up in amusement. It only irritated Ginny further to know it was because she was acting like the child they all thought she still was. She gritted her teeth.
“Duly noted,” Bill said mildly, turning toward Hermione. “Hello, Hermione. How are your NEWT preparations coming along?”
Hermione glanced at Ginny, looking alarmed. “It’s a bit overwhelming, but I’m managing,” she said breathlessly.
Ginny appreciated the effort Hermione was making. She knew at any other time the other witch would’ve launched into a diatribe about how far behind she was in her exam preparation. NEWTs were still a touchy subject for Ginny.
“And how are you feeling, Fleur?” her dad asked, taking a seat next to Fleur and resting his hand on her extended belly. “My grandchild is certainly active. He or she already appreciates a Weasley party.”
“I theenk this leetle one will never be still,” Fleur said, staring at her stomach lovingly.
The door opened again, and this time Ron and Harry entered the kitchen. Both still wore their Auror robes, and judging by the windswept state of Harry’s hair, Ginny suspected they’d been on Dementor duty. Ron didn’t appear any the worse for wear after his recent mishap, but Ginny would be happy when they were both done with this assignment.
Harry and Ron greeted everyone before Ron strode across the kitchen and swept Hermione into his arms, kissing her soundly. The colour on Hermione’s cheeks darkened, but Ginny could tell she was pleased. She kept smoothing her hands over his shoulders, as if to check he was really all right. Hermione had been beside herself when they’d received Harry’s letter that Ron had been trapped with the Dementors.
Harry stuffed his hands deep in his pockets as he walked over to her, gently nudging her hip with his own before kissing her quickly. “Hey,” he said quietly, his own colour heightened. “It’s wonderful to see you.”
Ginny felt a shiver run down her spine and wished her family were all somewhere else. She couldn’t blame him for not being as comfortable as Ron with the rest of her family staring avidly at him, but Merlin, she wanted a proper kiss.
“Oh, go on and kiss her and get it over with, Harry,” Bill said, amused. “Otherwise she’ll hex you with a spoon for treating her like a child.”
Ginny glared at Bill before placing both hands on each side of Harry’s face and pulling him down for a searing kiss. Harry’s hesitation melted away as Ginny sank into his embrace. It was with a wretch that they finally pulled apart.
“Well, then,” her dad said, clearing his throat, his eyes twinkling. “How was your day, boys?”
Ron’s head swivelled from side to side. “Is there anything to eat yet? I’m starving.”
“No one is eating anything until George gets here,” her mum said, bustling into the kitchen and taking the spoon from Ginny’s hand, shooing her away from the stove. Her eyes were red-rimmed, but there was no trace of that lethargy that had been so prevalent during the summer. Ginny was relieved. She hadn’t realized how much she’d been dreading a return to that very un-Mum-like behaviour.
Giving her hand one last squeeze, Harry turned away to help Hermione set the table.
“Ginny, slice the bread; Ron, put all those gifts in the sitting room while we eat, please,” her mum commanded. “No, Fleur, dear. You sit right there. Bill, get her another chair to put her feet up.”
Her dad sat at the table with Bill and Fleur, talking softly. When Ginny finished with the bread, she placed it on the table. Hermione had joined Ron in the sitting room, so Ginny turned toward Harry. He was folding the last of the napkins on the table, but his gaze was transfixed somewhere over her left shoulder, and he had the most peculiar expression on his face.
Ginny turned to see what he was looking at, but the only thing on the wall was Mum’s family clock. She checked George’s hand, but it still read ‘work.’
“Something caught your fancy?” she asked, sidling up next to him and speaking in a low voice.
“Fred,” Harry said, eyes glued to the clock and his voice trembling.
Ginny glanced at the clock again. Fred’s hand was still resting on ‘gone,’ where it had remained since they’d returned to The Burrow last summer. Ginny remembered the fit of tears it had caused when she’d first noticed it, and even several weeks after. Time, as it had a way of doing, had numbed her to it. She barely even noticed it anymore when she looked at the clock. She wondered if this was the first time Harry had noticed. Judging by the sickly pallor of his skin, she suspected it was, although how he’d been this oblivious to it astounded her.
“It’s been like that since Mum put it back up,” she said quietly.
Harry nodded, visibly swallowing. “I hadn’t noticed.”
“Yeah, well, you and Ron can both be dolts, but I suppose you were coping with an awful lot when you stayed here last summer,” she said fairly.
Harry nodded absently, apparently unable to tear his eyes away from the clock. She found her own eyes straying to Fred’s stationary hand, as well. They were all gathered here tonight to support George on his first birthday without Fred, but she supposed Fred wasn’t far from anyone’s thoughts this evening. She loved that Harry felt it, too. Leaning into him, she rested her head on his shoulder, and he automatically wrapped his arm around her waist.
“Here come George and Percy,” she said dully, watching their hands move to ‘travelling.’
“Oh, just in time. Dinner is ready. Ron! Hermione! They’re here. Come on everyone, let’s shout birthday greetings when he enters,” her mum said, sounding positively frantic.
Her dad stood up and walked over to her mum, leaning in and whispering something in her ear. She clung to the front of his shirt, eyes overly bright as she took deep, calming breaths. Ginny really hated seeing her mum so rattled. It made it so much harder to hold it together when her mum was falling apart.
The back door opened and Percy and George entered the kitchen. Percy looked worried, while George appeared completely sullen. It was like they’d all used a Time-Turner to go back to last summer.
“Happy Birthday, George,” they all said in greeting. There was no masking that it sounded forced rather than cheerful.
George didn’t respond, he merely slouched into the kitchen and took a seat at the table. He was very pale, and his eyes instantly sought out the Firewhisky that was kept on top of one of the cabinets. Ginny had noticed her dad had purposefully avoided taking it down.
“I’ve made all your favourites, George,” Mum said, her voice wobbly.
They all claimed seats around the table, but it felt forced and awkward and nothing like dinner with her family usually felt. Fred and George used to celebrate their birthday by trying out new pranks on all of them. Now, everyone was acting so stiff and overly polite. It was like they weren’t even Weasleys. Ginny didn’t know if she wanted to hex something or flee back to Hogwarts, but she really didn’t want to sit here.
“Was the shop busy today, George?” Bill asked, filling both his and Fleur’s plates. Fleur appeared a little green.
Ginny shot Bill a strained smile for at least attempting to relieve the tension. George shrugged and continued to stir his mashed potatoes around his plate.
“There’s been quite a crowd, lately. A lot of mail orders before the Easter hols,” Percy said, adjusting his glasses. “We’re barely keeping up with it, and Lee’s time will be lessened severely once Quidditch season begins.”
Ginny slunk down in her chair. She didn’t want another row with Mum today. It felt too exhausting already. Apparently, her mother felt the same for she picked up her tea cup and avoided Ginny’s eye.
“This tastes like piss,” George said, pushing away his pumpkin juice. “Can I get a glass of Firewhisky?”
“George—” Bill began, but George interrupted him.
“It’s my ruddy birthday, I should get what I want. I’m already celebrating it without Fred. Why do I have to do that sober?” George asked, rising to his feet and looking as if he was about to storm from the house.
“You’re right, George. It is your birthday,” Dad said, rising from his chair and pulling down the bottle. He summoned glasses for everyone and poured measured amounts into each one. He handed them around, only skipping Fleur.
“A toast,” he said, raising his glass in the air. “To George, on this twenty-first birthday, and to his mother, for preparing such a wonderful feast for the occasion.”
They all raised their glasses, and Ginny enjoyed the burn of the Firewhisky as it went down. It at least reminded her she was still alive. George tossed back the entire glass in one gulp, but the comment about Mum seemed to mollify him for he sat back down, scowling. He pushed his plate away and crossed his arms across his chest.
George could be a nasty drunk, and Ginny suspected this day would be a really bad one if they let him get out of hand.
“Did everything go all right with the Dementors today, Ron?” her dad asked, continuing his attempts at a normal conversation.
“Yeah. We still have ‘em all contained, and we’re waiting on a date to move them,” Ron said around a mouthful of food. “It meant we’ve been in the classroom or on other cases most of the week. It’s been a nice change — ‘cept for whoever’s following Harry.”
Harry shot Ron an irritated glance before determinedly taking a forkful of a banger.
“What’s that? Who’s following Harry?” her mum asked, looking alarmed.
“You didn’t say someone was following you,” Ginny said, staring at him accusingly. They’d talked about being open with one another, and family or not, she was about to wring his neck.
“I don’t think I’m being followed,” Harry said calmly. “It’s more a nagging feeling about being watched, and since everywhere I go people seem to be watching me, I don’t think I’m being paranoid. It’s just been worse since Rita’s article.”
“Azkaban is too good for that woman now that the Dementors aren’t there,” her mum said fiercely, and Ginny had to agree. She wondered if there would be a way to get close enough for a well-aimed Bat-Bogey Hex at her trial.
“Yesterday, two secretaries from the Department of Magical Transportation nearly decapitated themselves trying to rush into a closing lift so they could ride with him,” Ron said, still shovelling food into his mouth while he chuckled.
Harry leaned over his plate, colour rising in his neck. He flicked a forkful of mashed potato at Ron. It landed on his plate, and Ron happily ate it.
“I’m twenty-one,” George said suddenly, staring into the bottom of his empty glass.
“Happy Birthday, George,” Hermione said kindly.
“Fred will never age past twenty, and now I’m twenty-one. We’ve never been different ages before,” he said hollowly, and a heavy silence fell across the table.
How do you respond to that?
Her mum began sniffling again, and Ginny felt wetness in her own eyes. She blinked furiously to dispel it. She wished she knew how to help George. This was hard on everyone, but so much worse for him. Fred had been more than a brother, he’d almost been an extension of George. It had to be like losing a limb or a vital piece of himself.
“You need to break something,” Harry said quietly.
For the first time, George looked directly at someone, and his eyes bore into Harry as if the other was throwing him a life line.
“What?” he asked gruffly.
“Breaking things helps. I broke nearly everything in Dumbledore’s office once, and he just let me do it,” Harry said. He kept his eyes fixed on George and refused to look at anyone else. “I didn’t even think how easily magic could fix it all. It just helped to get some of that rage out.”
“What can we break?” George asked, looking intrigued.
“Is it the breaking or just the exertion of throwing?” her dad asked quickly, nervously glancing at her mum. “Because if the exertion does it, the garden is infested with gnomes.”
“Fred loved to toss gnomes,” Ginny said fondly remembering his exuberance at seeing how far he could chuck them.
“He liked to see how many swear words they could utter before they landed,” Ron said, chuckling.
“We taught them most of the ones they know,” George said, brightening a little.
“Nice way to get the garden cleaned as well,” Percy said, leaning over and whispering to their father. Ginny only heard because she was sitting next to him.
They all stood from the table and filed out into the back garden. The sun was setting brilliantly, casting vivid colours across the sky. It didn’t take George long to catch the first gnome, a chubby one who was casting rude hand gestures at him.
George wound up several times before tossing it as far as he could toward the perimeter fence. Once it landed, they could hear it swearing as it scurried away. Soon, the entire family was in on it, finding gnomes and chucking them as far as they were able. Only Fleur and Hermione hung back. Hermione looked worried, but Fleur looked as if she was considering trying despite the roundness of her very-pregnant belly.
No one commented on the tears that streaked down George’s face as he threw the gnomes in a near-manic frenzy. Even Mum had joined in, her mouth set in a determined line. Harry, too, wore a strained expression as he continued to throw them.
After watching him for a few moments, Ginny sidled up next to him. “All right, Harry? This was an inspired idea.”
Harry nodded, not looking at her and throwing another gnome.
“Harry?” she asked again.
He shrugged. “George is the same age my parents were when they died. I saw their gravestones in Godric’s Hollow,” he said, his voice very low. “It’s odd to think I’ll be older than them in a couple more years.”
Ginny paused. She always thought of parents as so much older, wiser, as people who had all the answers. Not as someone George’s age. Harry’s parents had been so young. She found it rather disconcerting, so she could only imagine how it must make him feel.
“Well, if you think I’m going to be ready to have any babies at that age, you can think again, Potter. I plan on playing Quidditch for a while,” she said breezily, tossing another gnome.
Harry dropped his gnome, staring at her, mouth gaping. “I… Er… What?” he asked, spluttering.
She grinned, pleased she was able to derail him from his morose thoughts.
It wasn’t a jubilant celebration, but once they’d all exhausted themselves with gnomes, and the sky had grown too dark to see them, they returned inside for cake and to open presents. It was both difficult and cathartic. Ginny supposed birthdays would always be hard for George, but she suspected they might have just made a new Weasley family tradition.