“I know it’s not my business, but…I don’t think you should skip Christmas.”
“—It’s not your business.”
“All right, then, you git.” She kisses him. Why? “I think you’ve had enough of the firewhisky for tonight—”
“Ange, stop. I’m working.”
“Look, George, I—”
“Why’d you even come over? I thought you were seeing Alicia tonight.”
She looks hurt. Be nice. Smile at her. Good boy.
“Change of plans?”
She’s still hurt. Why is she still hurt? Put down the bloody quill and focus on her.
“You really don’t remember?”
“I—I can’t say.”
“George, I was at St. Mungo’s. They were treating my arm…You said you would meet me.”
He forgot. He always forgets.
“It’s all right.”
Apologize to her. Now.
“What do you want for dinner? I’m not all that hungry, but—”
“—I can always make you something. Those potions—”
“—really do something to my appetite. How about—”
“Angelina, why are you putting up with me?”
An impatient sigh. A kiss above his missing ear. It burns white-hot where her lips touch him.
“No, Angelina, seriously. Why are you—why do you bother?”
Her patience is being tested; he is the one testing her, pushing her as far as she can go. Stop it.
“You know why, George.”
“No, actually, I don’t. I don’t know why you’re bothering with me, when—when you can—”
“George, let’s not do this. You’re tired. You’ve been drinking—”
“Don’t tell me what to do!”
Her patience snaps; it’s never been very flexible.
“I’m not, and you know it.” A sigh. “Maybe I’ll come back in the morning. I’ll—”
“You don’t want to do that.”
Yes, she does. YES, SHE DOES.
“Yes, I do.”
“No you don’t! You don’t want to come back and deal with me again tomorrow! It’s not good for you. I’m not good for you.”
“Do you have any idea how selfish you sound?”
That voice, like ice. And he’s still talking. What an idiot.
“I’m not being selfish, I’m trying to protect you—”
“I’m coming back in the morning. We’ll talk about this tomorrow.”
“Will everybody just stop being so patient with me? Can you all just stop pitying me and leave me alone?”
He’s shouting. Why is he shouting? Stop shouting at her!
“Believe me, George, no one pities you. Especially not me.”
“All right, then. Bye, George.”
“I’ll see you.”
Those are tears—real tears. And he has made her cry.
“Don’t look so miserable, George. I’m giving you what you want. I’ll leave you alone, now.”
She chokes on the last word. Blinks. Her tears fall, and she wipes them away with her good hand; the other is in a sling, from the appointment he forgot.
The door closes behind her.
George kicked the foot of Fred’s bed, staring down at the unmade tangle of blankets and sheets. He hadn’t slept in the bedroom for months. In fact, he hadn’t changed a thing about it from the way it looked in March, when Bill had come crashing in at three in the morning, because Harry, Ron, and Hermione had turned up at Shell Cottage with four escaped prisoners and a dead house-elf.
When Fred was still alive.
“Bill, do you want ze blue cloak, or ze black?” Fleur called, running a hand through her hair and frowning critically at the stacks of clothing she had arranged on their bed.
Bill, smiling and toweling his scarred face clean of shaving cream, came in the bedroom and kissed her cheek. “You don’t need to pack for me. I’ll take care of it. We’re not leaving until tomorrow.”
“Oh, I am not packing for you,” Fleur replied, scoffing at him as she wrapped her arms around his waist. “I am trying to figure out ‘ow many of my clothes can fit in your bag.”
Bill raised his eyebrows, laughing. “Oh, really?”
Fleur put on a deeply thoughtful expression. “Eef you take ze black, I weel ‘ave more space…but ze blue ees warmer.” She batted her eyelashes. “You don’t mind being cold, do you, chére?”
Bill rolled his eyes. “Of course not.”
“I didn’t theenk so,” she replied with a giggle, wrapping her arms around his neck. She kissed him, closing her eyes, clinging tightly to him—and then he pulled back. She lifted her eyebrows. “Bill?”
“I’m late for work,” he said, kissing her gently.
Fleur’s heart sank. She could see it in his face; he was not interested in anything more intimate than a goodbye kiss for his busy day. “All right. ‘Ave a nice day.” She turned back to her suitcase and began sorting her clothes again, swallowing a lump in her throat.
His hand touched her arm. “Fleur…”
She looked up at him, beaming. “I weel ‘ave steak for you zis evening, chére. ‘Ow does zat sound?” He looked pained, and she resisted the urge to set him right and stop him from getting even an inch farther from her than he already was. She was too ashamed.
“That sounds perfect, pretty girl,” he murmured in her ear, pulling her close to him. “You are perfect.”
No. She wasn’t. Fleur smiled, but suddenly, in her heart, she wanted him to leave her alone. “You should go,” she whispered. “I love you.”
“I love you, too,” he replied, kissing her cheek, and she smiled at him. He grinned, picked up his cloak and briefcase, and left. Fleur held her breath; the front door closed, and she sank down on the bed, shaking with sobs.
“Do you want tea, dear?”
Molly shook her head, already removing her cloak as she walked through the living room. Arthur followed her. “What about some soup? The Healer said chicken soup would help,” he said hopefully.
“No, thank you,” she said, brushing her hand against his arm. “I’ll just lie down, and take my first potion.”
Arthur looked very upset. “Are you sure?”
“That’s what they said to do,” said Molly, giving him a faint smile. She stopped, halfway up the spiral staircase. “Arthur, I am glad you made me go.”
He shrugged. “That’s why I’m here.”
She smiled briefly and continued up the stairs, cloak in hand. She arrived in hers and Arthur’s bedroom, where she sank onto the bed, sighing heavily. Dragon pox.
Of all things, dragon pox. How much more ridiculous was she to become? Of course, she would be fine. Mild recurrences of the illness like this were quite normal, especially in stressful environments. Actually, the Healer had been surprised that with seven children, it had taken her this long to have a relapse. And she should be pleased, he had said. She had come to him at precisely the opportune moment; she would take a few different types of potion and be right as rain in time for the New Year. Yes, she would have to take it slowly until then, but with the stress of the holidays behind her, she would be perfectly well.
Molly looked down at her hands, twisting her wedding band on her finger. Just at the time when she had felt strongest, ready to face whatever difficulties the coming week promised—dragon pox. She felt like a fool, and worse, she felt like an old fool. She knew Arthur had been trying to help, and every rational part of her was saying that she had to be sensible and appreciate the fact that she had not become seriously ill; that she would be able to have the holiday with her family, rather than in a hospital ward. But Molly, at this precise moment, could not bring herself to appreciate anything.
She was angry that her son was gone, angry with Arthur, for forcing her to see the truth, and most of all, angry with herself, because a very resentful, dissenting part of her knew that it was fully her own fault she was sick. She had not taken care of herself properly. She had wanted so badly to be strong, to bring her family together for what she had put in her mind as an end-all, be-all event, and now she had failed. After all her belief in her own healing over Freddie’s loss, she was not healing at all.
There was a soft knock on the door, and Molly sniffed and wiped away a few tears. She lay down over the blankets, turning her back to the door, and closed her eyes. She heard Arthur walk in softly. A moment later, a weight sank onto the bed beside her, and his hand brushed against her hair.
There was silence for several moments, and Molly felt herself relax under the gentle rhythm of his fingers combing her hair. Then, he began to hum. The weight disappeared as he obviously stood up, but he continued to sing, almost under his breath.
“…If you do it right…”
Molly felt a blanket being draped over her. Arthur leaned down and kissed her softly, before walking back to the door. He was still humming, whispering the words.
“…Boil you up some hot, strong love…keep you warm tonight…”
The door closed with the tiniest snap, and Molly held herself tightly beneath the blanket Arthur had given her, forcing her tears back. The Healer had been surprised that with seven children, it had taken her this long to have a relapse. He didn’t understand. Seven children hadn’t exhausted her; six had.
Darya laughed aloud at something Ilya said, and Charlie stood a few feet away, watching her. The sunlight, cold and clear this morning, caught in her hair and turned the brown to gold. They were the only outdoor staff in the preserve. Normally, a skeleton crew ran things on weekends, but a Swedish Short-Snout had scale rot, and Ilya had called upon Charlie and Darya to help him Stun the dragon and treat it.
Darya knelt and laced up one of her fireproof boots, still beaming up at Ilya, who was making her laugh again with some story. Charlie had never gotten the hang of Russian. He knew a few words, but not much more. Still, he couldn’t help but wish that he was the one making her smile that way, that he had not been such a coward…
He stamped his feet, rubbing his gloved hands together, and approached them.
“You’re ready?” asked Ilya, clapping him on the shoulder. “Ve should take care of her.”
“Ready,” said Darya as she stood up. She smiled nervously at Charlie, who tried to do the same. His mouth was too dry.
“Last time I saw her, she was this way,” said Ilya, pointing in the direction of a wooded area. He, Charlie, and Darya all lifted packs of medical supplies onto their backs and set off. It took a little more than an hour to find the dragon, and when they did, she was in no mood for visitors, and worse, they had made the mistake of following her to the location of her nest.
“Duck!” Charlie yelled, flattening himself to the ground and yanking Darya down with him just in time to avoid a jet of blue-white flame.
“Are you all right?” shouted Ilya’s voice from across the clearing that the dragon had just scorched.
“Fine!” Charlie shouted. Darya got up, shoving her hair back out of her face. “What do we do?” he asked her; she had studied dragon breeding, and was the general authority on how to deal with nesting mothers.
“I don’t think we’ll be able to get her out of the clearing,” said Darya, poking her head around the tree that she and Charlie hid behind. “Her wings look like they won’t work until we treat them—and she won’t leave the eggs now she’s seen us.” She looked at Charlie, thinking hard. “We’re going to have to Stun her from here.”
“We can’t even see her eyes,” Charlie said, as Ilya approached, keeping low in the bushes. “If we miss, she’ll breathe fire again, or accidentally crush the eggs.”
“You’re fast with your spells,” Darya said, drawing her wand. “We can Stun her.”
“Da,” said Ilya, drawing his own wand. “Ve haff to try.”
“Trust me,” Darya said, smiling at Charlie. She leaned out from behind the tree again, where the Short-Snout was curled protectively around her nest, her eyes wide open. Her pupils were little more than slits as they darted about fearfully. “On three. One—two—”
The dragon gave a roar as the three jets of red light soared directly into her right eye. Her tail lashed out, smashing through the trees where Charlie, Darya, and Ilya were hidden.
All three of them dove out of the way of the falling tree. Charlie spat out a mouthful of dirt, scrambled to his feet, and looked around; the dragon had been subdued. The eggs weren’t even cracked.
“Brilliant,” he said, just as he heard a moan of pain.
“Charlie!” shouted Ilya.
His heart racing, Charlie ran over to where the tree had fallen. Darya lay on the ground; her leg was pinned under a particularly heavy branch. She was awake, but chalk-white, and she looked furious.
Ilya was near the branch, his wand pointed at it. He said something to Darya in Russian, and she nodded. “Charlie, come here,” she called to him, holding out her hand. “This is going to hurt.”
Charlie did as she said and knelt beside her, taking her hand. She squeezed his tightly, bracing herself. With an almighty crack, Ilya severed the branch that pinned Darya and used a Levitation Charm to send it hurtling twenty feet away.
“Ah,” Darya muttered, her eyes closing as the pressure that had undoubtedly been numbing her broken leg disappeared. She swore in Russian, and Charlie felt his hand losing circulation.
“Darya?” Ilya asked, kneeling over her. “I vill take you to the first aid—”
“What are you doing?” she demanded. “What did we do all this for? Go to the dragon!” she said angrily, shoving his shoulder. Then she looked up at Charlie. “You take me.”
Their eyes met, and Darya seemed to plead with him. Come on, Charlie, he thought. Come on.
“Sure,” he said, placing one arm behind her shoulders and the other under her knees. Darya wrapped her arms around his neck, and Charlie was sure she gave him a flash of a smile.
“I’ll get her treated, and then come back if you need me,” he said to Ilya, who was looking rather put out.
And Charlie marched off through the trees with Darya in his arms.
Ron was just leaving Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes early for the day, preparing to stop by Madam Malkin’s to pick up Hermione’s new robes. His breath puffed out in the air before him; it was freezing cold, but still it had not snowed. He drew his cloak tighter about him and turned, deciding to hurry through the cold rather than linger in it—and then he smacked straight into someone.
“Ouch! Watch it—oh—”
“Angelina?” Ron asked. He had slammed into her, causing her to drop all of the bags she was carrying in her free hand. The other, the one that Greyback had clawed, was in a sling. Ron scrambled to pick up her things while she bit her lip, hard, and took several slow, deep breaths, holding her injured arm. “Blimey, Angelina, I’m really sorry—are you okay? Can I help you with any of this?”
“I’m fine,” Angelina said, forcing a smile. She took the bags from him. “Thanks, Ron.”
“Er—how are you?” he asked awkwardly, and she nodded, looking anywhere but his face.
“Fine, thanks—er—sorry, I can’t really stay and chat. I’m sort of in a hurry—got to return this gift,” she said. She flashed him another hollow smile, glancing up at the Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes sign. “See you around.” And quickly, she ducked around him, starting off up the street in the opposite direction of the way she had been walking before.
Ron stared after her; the bag she carried came from a store at the far end of the alley, quite a ways from Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes. He frowned, feeling thoroughly confused. He was going to have to ask Hermione about this.
“Hermione?” Ginny bit her lip. Hermione was hunched over her Arithmancy book, wearing the expression that everyone in Gryffindor House took as the warning to avoid her at all costs. The common room was mostly empty, for it was quite late. Ginny cleared her throat. “Hermione?”
She looked up, apparently startled out of her concentration, and stared at Ginny for a moment. “Hi.”
“Hey,” Ginny replied, sitting down opposite her. “I wanted to ask you something.”
Hermione closed her book, rubbing her eyes in an exhausted sort of way. “Sure, Ginny, what is it?”
“Well…first of all, why are you doing homework the night before we go home?” Ginny chuckled.
“Oh.” Hermione looked startled. She glanced down at her closed book, as though she hadn’t realized she had been studying. “I was—”
“Reading ahead, yeah,” Ginny agreed, smirking at her.
Hermione sighed and stretched, leaning back in her chair. “All right. I’ll relax.”
“That would be a first,” said Ginny, and Hermione smiled.
“What did you need, Ginny?”
“I was thinking of going to Diagon Alley, after we get back, to get Harry’s Christmas present,” she said.
Hermione frowned. “I thought you bought him that scarf? That was lovely—”
“No, I did,” Ginny agreed, “But…I don’t think that’s what I want to give him. It—it doesn’t feel right.”
Hermione lifted her eyebrows. “It doesn’t feel right?”
“You know what I mean. He’s—I want this to be a special Christmas for him. He deserves it, and a scarf…that’s not what I want for him. I feel stupid for even buying it.” She laughed, but Hermione seemed to understand.
“Hm.” She drew a slow breath, looking shrewd. “Well…would you like to know what I got Ron?”
Ginny tilted her head to one side. “You bought that broomstick kit, didn’t you?”
Hermione waved a hand. “That was a lie,” she said. “Parvati and Lavender wouldn’t leave me alone about it, so I lied. I think I bought one of those for Harry when we were about thirteen.” She leaned forward. “I don’t mind telling you, though.”
“Of course not,” Hermione told her. She swallowed, blinking quickly. “Last year, while we were gone, Ron and I had a sort of falling out. A big one.” Ginny opened her mouth to say something, but Hermione kept talking. “It wasn’t very pretty, but it happened, and now I understand why it did. Or, I understand it more clearly than I did before. Ron and I have talked a lot about it, and…well, here.”
She reached into her bag and pulled out a stack of letters, tied together with a red satin ribbon. They were all sealed, but the first one bore Ron’s name in Hermione’s neat script.
“What are they?”
“There’s one for every day that we…fought. It’s a lot of things I should have said to him, and didn’t. So I wrote them down, not that long ago,” said Hermione, who had gone very pink.
“Most of them are apologies. Some of them are things I wanted him to hear from me. Others, I was just angry, remembering things he’d said,” she continued. She smiled at Ginny, who handed her the letters again, feeling stunned. “Have I mentioned that he makes me mental?”
Ginny snorted, and Hermione grinned, leaning forward to touch her arm. “I don’t know if this is something you really want to hear, Ginny, if it’s uncomfortable, but you know I love him, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I do,” she replied. “And believe me, I’ve got no problem with it, nor has anyone else in my family. It’s a really beautiful gift, Hermione. Ron’s going to love it.”
“I hope so,” said Hermione. “I owe him—a lot.” Her eyes went blank for a moment before she shook her head. “So the gift is really just—letting him in, a bit. A bit more, anyway.”
Ginny sighed, looking over to the flickering fire, where two second year girls were sharing a bag of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans and taking turns shrieking with disgust and delight. She lowered her voice. “We tell each other everything,” she said significantly, “So what do you get for…well, for a boyfriend like that?”
Hermione frowned, as though she knew that that was not what Ginny wanted to say.
Ginny fidgeted. “You know what I mean.” For a boyfriend who literally died to save your life, and mine, and everyone else’s. Hermione was still staring at her, and she sighed heavily. “I can’t give him anything like what he’s given me.”
And then, to Ginny’s great annoyance, Hermione laughed. “What?” Ginny demanded.
“Honestly? Oh, for goodness’ sake,” Hermione said exasperatedly, rummaging through her bag again. She produced another folded-up piece of parchment. “Now, I’m not showing you this, you understand me?”
Ginny took the letter that Hermione held out. “O-okay.” She unfolded it. It was from Harry.
“Read the last lines,” Hermione said, pointing, and Ginny obeyed.
By the way, talking about Christmas, I have no idea what to get Ginny. Any ideas? I know this sounds stupid, but I don’t think I can give her anything that’ll be as good as what she’s given me all this time.
Anyway, let me know if you think of anything. Still got a few weeks left! See you soon, Hermione.
Ginny turned red. “Merlin’s pants.”
“You’re both being silly,” Hermione said wisely, taking her letter back and folding it. “Harry is going to love anything you give him, Ginny, because he loves you, and you love him. And besides,” she added, her smile fading slightly, “We’ve all lost so much…we’d be fools not to take the gifts we do get.”
Ginny’s eyes stung with tears, so suddenly it surprised her, and she hurriedly wiped them away. “Bloody hell, Hermione, what did you say that for?”
Hermione beamed through tears of her own. She smiled and rubbed Ginny’s arm, which still lay on the table. “Because sometimes even you need to be reminded that we can still be happy.”
Ginny stared over at the fire for a moment, composing herself. “I don’t know why you put up with me and Harry always badgering you for advice.”
Hermione laughed. “That’s what I’m here for. Your own personal owl post.”
And in that moment, it hit Ginny. “Yeah…you are,” she agreed, though her mind was already a thousand miles away, working furiously.