Percy took a breath, steadying himself, and walked into the main atrium of Gringotts. Goblins milled everywhere behind the counters, arguing in Gobbledegook, while wizards in dark blue robes, under the displeased gaze of supervising goblins, carried boxes full of treasure out of the building. The oldest vaults—those belonging to known Death Eaters and their families—were being scoured for curses and objects carrying Dark Magic. Bill had been placed in charge of the operation and was working closely with their father’s team in the newly developed Department for the Detection and Confiscation of Dark Objects.
Percy pushed his horn-rimmed glasses up the bridge of his nose and approached one wizard who had divested himself of the box he had been carrying.
“Excuse me—I’m looking for Bill Weasley?”
“He’s through there,” the wizard said, nodding towards an open door down the corridor. “His office is on the right, you can’t miss it.”
“Thanks,” Percy said, heading down the corridor. He found the office at once. The sign on the door read:
WILLIAM A. WEASLEY
Percy raised a hand and knocked on the glass, pushing the door open as he did so.
“Perce!” Bill said in surprise, lifting his feet off the desk and getting up. He embraced him happily. “How are you? What are you doing here?”
“I, er, I thought maybe if you were free we could get some lunch,” Percy shrugged. “My treat.”
Bill chuckled. “Sure, Percy. Are you okay?”
“I—I’m fine,” Percy replied. “At least—I think so.”
Now Bill frowned at him. “Something I can help with?”
Percy was beginning to feel very hot around the collar. “Look, let’s—let’s just get lunch, all right?”
“Sure, okay,” said Bill. He turned back to his desk and picked up his cloak. “Is it still bloody cold out?”
Percy nodded. “No snow, though.”
“Well, it’s been a weird season. When was the last time it snowed?” Bill asked as they left Gringotts.
“A bit in November, maybe?” Percy asked. “I can’t remember.”
The curbs and cobblestones of Diagon Alley were glistening with the cold rainwater that dripped from the eaves and rooftops of the stores. A strip of blue sky was visible in the thick gray clouds overhead, almost assuring them that there would be no snow.
“Shall we go to the Leaky Cauldron?” Percy asked, his breath coming out in huge clouds as they walked along the alley.
“Sounds fine,” Bill answered.
It was warm and comfortable inside the pub, and Percy quickly spotted a table towards the back where they could talk in private. They placed their orders with Tom and sat down.
Bill was watching Percy closely. “What’s going on, Perce?”
Percy cleared his throat; he could feel his nerve to say what he had intended to say faltering. “Nothing, really. I mean—well, nothing serious.”
Bill frowned again, deepening the scars that covered his face. “You know I don’t believe that, right?”
Percy sighed heavily. “I need advice,” he said lamely.
“All right,” Bill replied evenly. “Advice about what?”
Percy hesitated. “Do you remember Penelope? She’s my ex-girlfriend…”
Bill’s face lit up eagerly. “A little Yuletide dating trouble, eh?”
“No,” Percy said, his neck growing hot. “I—I think she’s trying to set me up with her cousin.”
“That’s…interesting,” Bill said, clearly fighting to keep the laughter from his voice.
“The thing is…I’m trying to—get back together with her,” Percy confessed.
“No,” Bill said sarcastically, and Percy gave him a scowl. “All right, all right. But she’s trying to set you up with her cousin. Maybe you can bring both of them to Christmas, and we can all give you a little help—”
“Very funny,” Percy said sourly.
“Oh, I’m only joking,” Bill said, shoving Percy’s elbow. “But I’m not sure how much advice I can give you, Perce. Are you sure this girl—”
“Are you sure Penelope likes you?” he asked.
Percy looked down at his hands. “No,” he mumbled.
“But you still like her?” Bill asked, sounding as though he were trying to be patient.
“Yeah,” Percy said immediately. “I mean—yes. I think so.”
Now Bill laughed. “All right, Perce, come on. What is this really about?”
“I don’t think I should come to Christmas.”
At once, the smile vanished from Bill’s face, but he said nothing.
“I really don’t,” Percy continued, shaking his head. “I was talking about it with Penelope. She told me I was being stupid, but I just don’t know. I don’t know if Mum and Dad will want me intruding.”
“Bloody hell, Percy,” Bill growled. He fixed Percy with a glare, then glanced away, seeming to take a moment to collect himself. Then he took a breath and said, “I don’t want to say this in a way that’ll hurt your feelings, because I know it wasn’t easy for you, either, but do you have any idea what Mum and Dad went through from the day you left?”
Percy felt shame burn in the pit of his stomach. “I know I was horrible. I know, okay? I was awful, what I did was the worst thing that could’ve happened.”
“Well, no, that’s where you’re wrong,” said Bill, raising a finger and pointing at him. “The worst thing that could’ve happened has happened. They lost one of us. Fred is gone. And—I don’t know—I feel like I’ve got a different perspective on it than you have, Perce—maybe it’s because I’m married, maybe it’s because I’m starting to understand some things—”
He broke off, and Percy stared at him.
“Look,” he continued, swallowing hard and leaning his elbows on the tabletop. “Mum and Dad are in the best shape they can be right now, and that’s not true of all of us. And if you think for a second that Mum doesn’t know George is doing everything he can to avoid the rest of us, or that you’re so confused that you’re finding all your troubles everywhere but where they actually are—I mean, Perce, I know you were gone a while…but you know Mum.”
Percy swallowed a lump in his throat and looked away.
“I know you’re upset, and you’re going through—well, a lot, right now,” Bill said quietly. “I don’t think any of us are going to be the same after…you know.”
The moment of Percy’s arrival in the Great Hall, six months ago, bearing Fred’s body in his arms, seemed to hang in the air between them.
“But the thing is, you can’t run out on us again,” Bill said frankly. “I mean, you just can’t, especially not now. Penelope sounds like she’s pretty smart, and it sounds like she’s told you exactly what I’m saying right now.”
“I don’t know how to…act,” Percy told him. “I don’t know what you’re all expecting from me.”
“We’re not expecting anything, Percy,” said Bill, raising his eyebrows in surprise. “We don’t need you to be in control of everything, because I can tell you, that’s not true of anybody else. We just want you to come back for Christmas.”
Percy nodded. They were both quiet for a moment as their drinks arrived.
“And for your information,” said Bill, “You don’t have a prayer of stopping me from telling Charlie about your little love triangle.”
Percy laughed reluctantly, and Bill smiled, too. “Fine. At least my love life’s got a little excitement in it. What are you and Fleur doing for the holiday, you married old codger? You can’t hold her hostage in England forever.”
“For your information, you scrawny git,” Bill chuckled, “we’re going to France on Saturday, and we’ll be there for her parents’ big party that they always host on Christmas Eve. So we’ll be missing the first part of things at the Burrow, but we’ll come back on Christmas morning.” At that moment, Tom arrived with a tray of food. When he had given them their lunches, Percy paused and didn’t pick up his fork. Bill looked up from his rare steak, frowning mid-chew. “Percy?”
“Do you really think I shouldn’t bring a date?”
Bill laughed so hard he choked, and Percy continued, “Because I was thinking, maybe Penelope’s cousin is a Slytherin or something, and then we’d all really have something to remember.”
It was costing Molly quite a lot to get through this day, and she didn’t know why. It got to the point that she found herself napping four or five times completely against her will—in the middle of folding laundry, or chopping apples for mince pie. The pain in her back, though it was no longer as bad as it had been the day before, seemed to have relocated to her neck. She wanted very much to chalk it up to stress and say it was nothing, but Arthur came home at midday, having taken the next two weeks off as a holiday, and found her sleeping in her rocking chair in the living room, her knitting on her lap.
“All I’m saying is that at no point in the last forty years have I seen you take a nap,” Arthur said, when she waved it off. “I don’t think—no, Molly, not even when you were pregnant with Ginny!”
“Oh, don’t be ridiculous, Arthur, I’ve taken naps,” she answered impatiently, already on her feet and hurrying around the kitchen to get something together for lunch.
“Have you eaten today?” he asked seriously, and Molly glared at him.
“I have, thank you for your concern, and if you haven’t noticed, I’m cooking right now!” she retorted. Arthur seemed cowed for a moment, and Molly closed her eyes, shaking her head. She came around the counter and put her hands on his shoulders, kissing his cheek. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. Do you promise me you won’t overreact?”
“When have I ever done that?” Arthur asked, rather sulkily.
Molly laughed. “I think I might be coming down with something. That’s all. And I don’t want you to worry about it, because whatever it is, it’s not serious in the slightest.”
“Are you sure?” Arthur frowned. “I’m worried about you.”
“Arthur, I know you are,” she said, exasperated. “Really, I do, but whatever I’ve caught is just a little thing. It’s not anything to worry about.”
“I just think I’d feel better if you’d come to St. Mungo’s with me, just to be sure—”
“For heaven’s sake, Arthur,” Molly snapped, feeling her patience break. “Please don’t treat me like a child!”
“Molly, your health is a serious matter!” Arthur insisted. “Yours is, and mine is, and the kids’ is, and it’s doing you no favors to sit back and ignore it if you’re sick!”
“I’m done discussing this, Arthur, you’re being unreasonable,” said Molly, turning away. “Your lunch will be ready in about ten minutes. Go and wash up.”
“I’m being unreasonable—!” Arthur exclaimed. “Molly!”
But Molly wouldn’t look at him. She heard him give an exasperated sigh and march out of the kitchen and up the spiral staircase. She dropped a pan in the sink violently.
“Ginny, you’re going to set the desk on fire.”
“Oh—sorry, Luna,” Ginny mumbled, putting down her wand and forcing herself to sit still. She watched Luna, who was concentrating deeply on conjuring bright blue, portable flames in copper bowls that sat on their desks.
“I can’t believe Hermione’s been able to do this since she was a first year,” Ginny grouched, leaning forward and resting her chin on her arms to glare at the bowl.
“Hermione is something of a genius,” said Luna, jabbing her wand at the empty bowl before her, “although I am a bit surprised at how difficult this is.”
“A little less chatter, ladies,” called Professor Flitwick from where he stood atop his stack of books at the front of the classroom.
“Sorry, Professor,” Ginny answered. She lowered her voice and looked at Luna again. “I really just want to go home.”
“Do you really?” asked Luna, turning her enormous eyes on Ginny, who frowned; she was in no mood for sarcasm. “It’s just today, tomorrow, and the next day,” Luna said soothingly, as her wand gave off a spark. She smiled. “And considering Harry and Ron came to see us all just a few weeks ago, I would think you could hold on that long.”
“It’s not just Harry,” Ginny mumbled, and Luna smiled dreamily.
“I know. But it really is just a few days more, and ignoring your schoolwork isn’t going to make it happen more quickly,” she said. “You try,” she added, nodding to the bowl on Ginny’s desk. “I’m going to look at the spellbook one more time.”
Ginny sighed heavily and glanced across the classroom, where Hermione was chatting with Lavender and Parvati, all three of them having successfully completed the charm several times each. All of last year, Ginny had thought that she could never want to see her family so badly, and yet she had been proven wrong.
The Carrows were gone; Hogwarts was rebuilt and healing; Quidditch was back on with Ginny as the newest Gryffindor Captain; Hermione, Ron, and Harry had returned; and everything—almost everything—that was wrong had been put right. But how she wanted to go home!
Perhaps it was her imagination, but all of her parents’ letters this term had had a slightly melancholic tone, and Ginny had felt so much pain for them that she had had more than one nightmare in which she came home to find her mother back to the awful state she’d been in during the weeks after Fred’s funeral. Her outlook had not been improved by Hermione’s announcement the night before in the Gryffindor common room that Herbology lessons had been cancelled for the week. In private, she had told Ginny the truth; Professor Sprout, who hadn’t been well for most of the term thanks to the same curse that had nearly killed Hermione two years ago, seemed to have had a relapse of some kind. At least, that was what Hermione believed, and it certainly made sense.
Ginny sighed, poking at the bowl halfheartedly with the tip of her wand.
Luna leaned over, watching her. “Go on. You can do it,” she said softly.
“Can I help you find anything?”
Ron turned, feeling his ears burn scarlet. Madam Malkin smiled at him. “I—er—I wanted to—I think you might have—”
She frowned a bit, looking politely confused. “Have what, dear?”
“I think you’ve got my girlfriend’s measurements,” Ron said in a great rush.
“Oh,” Madam Malkin laughed, and Ron felt himself turn even brighter red. “Well, give me her name—now wait a moment—you’re Ronald Weasley, aren’t you?”
“Er—yeah, I am,” he said, going redder by the second.
“Are you—oh my goodness! But people have been saying that you and Hermione Granger—” It was Madam Malkin’s turn to blush.
“Rita Skeeter’s still writing for Witch Weekly, then?” Ron asked, shifting his weight uncomfortably.
“I’m sorry, that was terribly rude of me,” Madam Malkin apologized. “I believe I do have Miss Granger’s measurements from a set of dress robes she purchased. Were you looking to find her a new set?”
“They’re this sort of a gray-blue, I think,” Ron said helplessly. “She saw them this summer. I just know she likes blue. She looks really nice in it.”
Madam Malkin smiled warmly. “I know just the ones, I believe I have them in the back.” She hurried over to her desk and produced a thick folder full of parchment and flicked through it, looking for the right page. “Here she is.” She produced one sheet and consulted it for a moment before nodding. “I’ll be right back.”
She bustled off and returned within a few minutes, bearing the flowy, beautiful blue robes. “I can have them tailored for you by tomorrow, dear,” she said as she held them up.
Ron grinned. “That’s perfect—oh.” He had caught sight of the date at the top of Madam Malkin’s measurement sheet. “That’s from two years ago?”
Madam Malkin frowned, pushing her spectacles up the bridge of her nose and looking at the parchment. “Yes, it looks like it. I wouldn’t worry, dear. It’s really just you boys who keep growing, girls are much more sensible about their heights,” she teased, chuckling.
Ron smiled a bit stiffly. “It’s just that I think she’s a bit smaller, now.”
Madam Malkin looked startled, and rather sad. “Oh. Well, of course, dear…well, why don’t I tailor it just a bit smaller, and if there are any problems, I’ll make the alterations for you right away. You just come right in.”
“Okay,” Ron said slowly, reaching for the moneybag with the money he had withdrawn that morning. He recalled Hermione’s disappointment when the robes—for Hogwarts, her dress robes, and everything else—that she had left at the Burrow had not fit her, even after a full summer of regular meals and natural sleep. He would hate to bring her robes that reminded her of anything she didn’t like to think about, and her appearance as a result of their time on the run (though she played it down, ignoring her own unhappiness by citing people like Bill and Lavender Brown) was a sensitive subject.
Ron laid fifteen Galleons on the counter, and Madam Malkin smiled. “You know, dear,” she said, “If it comes up, you could mention that every single time someone has purchased these robes, they’ve had to come back and have it tailored. It’s the French style, I think it just runs overlarge. Isn’t that strange?”
Ron blinked, and she winked at him. “Right,” he said. “Um—thanks.”
“Your change,” she replied, placing it in his hand.
“Thanks,” he said hurriedly. It wasn’t until he was halfway down the alley, almost back at Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, that he saw he had gotten five Galleons back.
“Blimey,” he murmured, staring at the gold for a moment before reluctantly slipping it into his pocket. He felt the simultaneous discomfort and pleasure that came from his association with Harry and with the end of the war. Part of him wanted to go back and insist that he pay the full price, but Hermione had long since explained to him that for the foreseeable future, they—she and Harry, included—were going to have to get used to being thanked in any manner of strange ways.
“Find the dress you were looking for, Ron?” George snickered from behind the register as Ron let himself in the front door of the shop.
“You’d better hope so, it’s your Christmas present. The color’s really going to bring out your eyes,” Ron replied. George snorted and rang up the customer who had just approached the counter. Ron waited until the witch was gone and faced George.
“I mean it, I think you’d look gorgeous in blue,” Ron said. George smirked and shook his head. “Are you staying at Mum and Dad’s on Christmas Eve? Harry and I are heading over to stay at the Burrow as soon as we pick up Ginny and Hermione from the train on Saturday night.”
George coughed suddenly, several times, and scratched the back of his head. “Haven’t decided.”
Ron raised his eyebrows. “You’re coming, aren’t you?”
George looked harassed and nodded his head in a strange sort of way. “‘Course I am,” he mumbled.
“Excuse me, have you still got those Daydream potions?” A short wizard in violet robes had approached the counter. “My daughter just loves them.”
“That’s you, Ron,” said George, nodding to the wizard. “We’ll be happy to help you out, sir.”
“Thanks,” said the wizard, as Ron, frowning, led the way upstairs as George purposefully diverted his gaze.
“Can I help?”
Bill approached the Welcome Witch’s desk, almost jogging—his lunch with Percy had made him late in returning to his desk, and he was now nearly half an hour late for this appointment. “Er—yeah. Wilson, here to see Healer Mackintosh for a follow-up.”
“You’ll want his office on the fourth floor,” said the witch in a bored voice, pointing to the stairs. “Next!”
Bill hurried up the stairs, keeping his head low; he did not want to be seen. He arrived quickly at the Magdalena Morrow Maternity and Consultations Ward and asked the first nurse he saw for Healer Mackintosh.
“Straight ahead, on your right, sir,” said the witch, giving him a smile.
“Thanks,” said Bill hurriedly. He continued up the ward, which was illuminated by green, golden, and red crystalline bubbles that dangled all along the ceiling, hearing the sounds of happy, laughing families and crying newborns. His heart twisted a little, but he pushed it away as he came upon the Healer’s door.
“Ah, Mr. Wilson,” said Healer Mackintosh, looking up from the Quick-Quotes Quill to which he was dictating. Bill’s pseudonym had been quickly dispensed with yesterday, when he had recognized Bill from a Daily Prophet article on his family. “I thought you’d forgotten! Thanks for coming back.”
“No, sorry to be late. Thanks for being so quick about it,” Bill replied. “Really, I just want to get to the bottom of this.”
Healer Mackintosh shuffled through his papers for a moment and then frowned at a piece of parchment thoughtfully. “Well, I must be honest with you. There’s nothing to get to the bottom of.”
“What?” Bill asked, stunned.
“You’re a very healthy, perfectly normal twenty-eight year old man,” said Healer Mackintosh with a shrug. “The attack that has scarred your face and which, you say, affects you negatively during the full moon doesn’t appear to have had any impact on your ability to have a family.”
“It hasn’t?” stammered Bill, feeling a sudden swell of elation. “But—but that’s wonderful!”
“You really oughtn’t be surprised, you know. Even true werewolves are capable of breeding,” the Healer replied, and Bill felt a small twinge of annoyance at his dismissive tone; Teddy Lupin was hardly the byproduct of some werewolf’s breeding. “All I need to tell you is to relax. This phase will pass very quickly, and I’m sure you and your wife will be expecting a baby before you know it.”
“Right,” said Bill. “Thank you, thank you very much.”
“Always happy to give the good news,” said Healer Mackintosh, rising to shake his hand. Bill, feeling more lighthearted than he had in months, left the ward and strolled out of St. Mungo’s. Just as he was thinking of stopping for lunch at the Leaky Cauldron, his happy bubble burst. Why hadn’t he thought to ask?
If he was not the problem, did that mean that there was something wrong with Fleur?