Bill Weasley stumbled through semi-darkness, his boots crunching on the snow. He was lost, exhausted, and had just begun to panic, when he heard his brother’s voice. "Bill! What are you doing here – no, never mind, just get your head down! Get in here, you idiot, quick!"
Bill ducked and jumped recklessly into the trench where Charlie, looking frantic, was waving for him.
"Charlie," he gasped hoarsely, breath steaming in the freezing air. It had been a sickening two-day trip through Dark curse shields to get to his brother. He reached out with both his hands to clasp Charlie’s cloaked shoulders.
"You look like hell," was Charlie’s cheerful greeting. "Damn, but it’s good to see you." Charlie had a gift for being cheerful in the worst possible circumstances and Bill hated to ruin it – he hated to be the one who wiped the perpetually boyish smile from his brother’s face. But he’d come all this way and the news had to be broken. Charlie was the only one who didn’t know.
"Charlie, I came to tell you..." But the words wouldn’t come. Bill felt like he was underwater. His knees were buckling. His teeth were chattering. This was surreal.
"Bill?" Charlie’s smile had faded; he looked tense now. He opened his mouth as if to demand more information, but he seemed to change his mind abruptly. He shook his head. "No, let’s just get you inside," he said calmly.
"Inside?" Bill asked blankly, looking around. It wasn’t yet pitch dark on the fields, and Bill had been looking out for a campsite as he’d approached. He hadn’t seen a thing. In fact, he felt horribly grateful to have found Charlie at all – he’d been searching for dragons as his landmark. The dragons were nowhere to be seen.
Charlie, however, pointed along the trench to where it turned in the ground. "We follow this into the side of a hill. Nice big cave, fits a ton of us."
"Then what in hell are you doing out here?" Bill demanded roughly. "By yourself, in the middle of the night – don’t you know you’re putting yourself in danger –"
Charlie put an arm around Bill’s shoulders. "Calm down," he said, beginning to steer Bill along the narrow trench. "I just came out to check on the dragons." He grinned.
Bill glared at him. "Liar. How can you check on dragons when there aren’t any out there?"
Charlie’s grin just widened as they continued to walk. "Brilliant, isn’t it?" he whispered.
"Diversion Enchantment. You can’t see the dragons, but Bill, you’re lucky to be alive. You walked right under their noses, getting to me. They’re all around us."
"Great. Thanks for warning us all."
"Oh, give it a rest," Charlie said lightly. "The spell just got set up yesterday – we’re still testing to make sure it’s stable before the witch who did it can move on to another camp." Charlie wagged his eyebrows. "And wait till you see the witch who put it up. Bit of a Diversion Enchantment herself, she is."
Bill let out a short, hard laugh. He doubted Charlie would care much about knocking about with witches when he knew what had happened. Bill’s heart was cold and heavy, and he wished with all his might that there were some way to put off the news. But they were at the mouth of the cave already.
"Welcome to wartime dragon keeping," Charlie said, proudly swinging an arm forward through the crevice. "You first."
Bill walked in, grateful to be inside again after two days in the cold. He looked up and around him, immediately impressed with the cave’s size – it was twice the Great Hall in proportion. The mountain must have been completely hollow. Rock arched high overhead and firelight glistened on its wide, damp walls. Scattered in its corners and across its crags were sleeping bags and keeper-gear of all kinds; dragonhide gloves, Unburnable broomsticks and flame-repellant robes were tossed about in random piles.
The keepers themselves were gathered in smallish groups around several different fires. Most of them were men, young and strong, like Charlie.
"How are they, Charlie?" one of the nearest ones called from where he was eating supper. Beside him, a black-haired female keeper looked up from cleaning her equipment and fixed Charlie with a questioning look.
"Beautiful, Mick," Charlie called back to the young man, shooting the girl a reckless grin. "Can’t see scale nor claw of ‘em. Hidden completely, I think."
The young dragon keepers nodded, satisfied, and resumed their activities.
"What?" Bill asked vaguely, focusing on his brother. The haze of disbelief that still lingered in his brain made it difficult for him to process the situation. But when he met Charlie’s eyes, he knew he could put off his purpose no longer, and he felt a rush of nausea so strong that it threatened to make him physically ill. "No," he managed. "Look, just get me to wherever it is you sleep. We’ve got to talk privately. Now."
Charlie’s smile faltered badly after that, and Bill didn’t blame him. His own voice was full of something terrible and unspoken. Everyone had lost somebody in the last few years, but so far their family had been lucky – so far they’d been untouched.
He followed Charlie to the back corner where a sleeping bag lay open next to a small fire. Still frozen from traveling outdoors, Bill went toward the fire’s warmth at once, passing by Charlie’s makeshift table of flat rock as he did so. The table was piled three feet high and gear of all sorts lay tumbling across it. Sticking out from underneath Charlie’s wand belt was an old newspaper clipping.
Bill recognized it, grabbed it up at once and stared at it.
All nine of the Weasleys waved up at him from it: himself, his five brothers, his sister, his mother and father – together. They were standing in front of a pyramid, looking sunned, freckled, and beaming. And so young – Ginny still looked like a baby, at twelve, and so did Ron at thirteen. And so did Percy, wearing that damned obnoxious fez. Percy, whose Head Boy badge glinted even now in black and white. Percy had been just seventeen in this picture.
Bill felt a dry sort of seizure creep up in his throat and he turned to Charlie, who was watching him, motionless. There was an odd, fixed terror on his brother’s face.
"Bill," he said slowly, "it’s one of us. Isn’t it."
It wasn’t a question.
Bill locked his eyes with Charlie’s, and made himself nod.
"Dad," Charlie managed, barely moving his mouth. But before Bill could set his brother straight, there was a voice behind them.
"Pardon, I do not wish to interrupt, but Sharlie, did you see ze dragons, or non?"
Bill turned slightly toward the voice and waved his hand at it, without taking his eyes from his brother’s. "Later," he muttered. "Later."
The girl stepped up beside him and drew herself up entirely. She tossed a sheet of hair over her shoulder and glared at him. "I was not speaking to you," she said coldly, before turning to Charlie with a blinding smile. "Sharlie? I need to know eef it iz working. I ‘av been asked to leave tomorrow morning for ze next camp, but not unless –"
"I said later," Bill barked, turning on her completely as anger rose up in his voice.
The girl, surprisingly unruffled, peered up at him. "’Aven’t I met you?" she asked curiously.
But Bill had lost his temper. "Are you deaf?" he yelled. "GET OUT!" He pivoted away from her to Charlie, who was still motionless, still waiting for the news to hit. Bill had never seen him so pale and he knew this had to be done as quickly as possible, for both their sakes.
"It’s not Dad," he communicated in a, low, rapid tone, prepared to have it over with. "Dad’s alive. It's Percy."
Charlie clenched his fists until the knuckles were white.
It was done now. All of them knew.
Charlie continued to stand stock still, his eyes painfully dry. "How?" he asked evenly.
Bill continued in the same low, even tone. Better to do it quickly, he thought. Better to get it out. "Fudge asked him to meet with the Death Eaters – for those peace talks that idiot was trying to set up. But Percy wouldn’t go. He thought it might compromise Dad and us – our whereabouts. He knew they’d question him. But Fudge wouldn’t listen to him - said he didn’t care about what happened to the Order. Said we were all setting ourselves up for a fall anyway. Percy ended up leaving the Ministry over it."
Charlie was white all over except for his freckles, which were eerie, almost, against his pallor. Bill wished he didn’t have to continue.
"Perce left the Ministry?" Charlie’s voice was far less steady now.
"Yes. He’d finally had enough. He was going back to Dad – owled him to let us know he was leaving his office and coming home."
"He was trying to get to Dad – that’s when he got caught. He crossed right through a Dark line, you know how those curse shields –"
"He was never any good at anything invisible." Charlie was tight-lipped by now and his eyes were glassy. "He walked into them. Just like that."
"Yes." Bill stopped. He couldn’t say the rest of it. The next part of what he had to tell was too awful.
"And then what?" It was the inevitable question.
Bill shook his head pleadingly and looked at Charlie, the answer sticking in his throat. "I can’t."
"You have to." Charlie’s struggle to remain calm was awful to watch. "Torture?" He couldn’t even manage the word. His voice had cracked.
Bill nodded faintly. "Cruciatus," he whispered. "They tried to make Percy give us up. He knew where everybody was, and they knew he knew it. And when he wouldn’t say a word... the way Snape tells it, they forced him to take Veritaserum. But what Snape gave him wasn’t a Truth Potion at all. Percy realized that he wasn’t being controlled, and he lied about where we were. Snape told us that Pettigrew killed him as soon as the words were out of his mouth."
"No – but if Snape was there, why didn’t he step in and –"
"It wasn’t his fault. He was furious he didn’t have a chance to do anything about it."
"Lie!" Charlie’s face had contorted with rage and disbelief. Bill understood his brother’s reaction; he had been quick to blame Snape, too.
"Charlie, no, listen to me - Snape’s done nothing but compromise his own safety. He won’t even be able to leave Hogwarts grounds until this war is over. The Death Eaters must’ve checked Percy’s information by now and Voldemort has to know it’s false. They’ll be after Snape with a vengeance."
Charlie stood mute for a moment in the wake of this argument, shaking his head as if to rid it of a thought that wouldn’t leave.
"But –" he finally managed, "you’re still telling me – that Percy–"
Charlie didn’t speak further. Suddenly, without warning, his strong, muscular frame seemed to collapse inward. He dropped onto his sleeping bag, slumped forward and let out a hard, hollow sob. "I kept thinking," he choked. "I tried not to, but I kept thinking – I mean, there’s nine of us – our odds are just terrible. But when it comes right down to it –" Charlie was almost unintelligible now. "Bill, it’s Percy. It’s you, then me, then Perce. Shit. I taught him how to ride a broom. How could they? How could they –"
Bill fell heavily to his knees and put his arms around his brother, who was quickly losing control. At another heaving sob from Charlie, Bill felt two days of unshed tears rushing upward from his gut, splitting his chest, tearing out of him.
What the other keepers in the cave thought of them was immaterial to Bill. He held onto Charlie and grieved for the brother he’d lost.
Hours later, after everyone else in the cave was long asleep, Bill remained awake. He watched his brother. Charlie breathed shallowly, his face still pale with shock and grief. Even as he slept, the loss of a brother was written in his expression; he looked as though he might cry again at any moment. Bill stared at him, crouched down, and poked their fire with unnecessary violence.
"Don’t you bloody dare die, Charles," he muttered. "Don’t you –"
"I am intairrupting again?"
Bill’s head snapped up. The girl was standing there, the one he’d hollered at earlier, the witch who was casting the Diversion Enchantment. But she looked different. Earlier all he had noticed was a lot of blond hair and a flashy sort of smile. Now, though, she looked drawn and pale, her hands were trembling, and her eyes were puffy from crying.
She was, without contest, the most beautiful girl that Bill had ever seen.
"I am sorry," she was saying in a small voice, "if I ‘ad known.... I should never ‘av been so forward."
Bill was on his feet. He wasn’t quite sure how he’d gotten there so quickly. The girl looked at him, slightly surprised and obviously wary. She stepped back.
"No," he said quickly, holding out a reassuring hand, realizing that she must think he was about to bite her head off again. "I’m the one who’s sorry – I had no business yelling at you. You were just there at a bad moment."
The girl nodded and held her hands up in front of her, cupped together, as though she wanted to offer him something, but couldn’t. "I am," she finally said, "so sorry about your bruzzer."
Bill blinked. He didn’t quite catch what she meant. "My what?" he asked, reflexively.
The girl frowned a little, bit her lip apologetically and tried again. "Your bruzz – your bruzz-er."
His brother. Then she had been listening. For some reason, the miscommunication made Bill smile.
"Thanks," he said quietly. And then, without knowing why he said it, he asked, "Do you want to see a picture of him?"
It was an odd thing to do – show the old newspaper clipping of his family to this stranger. But he did it anyway, stepping close to the girl so that they could look at it together. She put a finger on the image of Percy and shook her head.
"Young," she whispered, and looked up at Bill. "I met ‘im, you know. ‘E was vairy smart."
"You met him?"
"’E judged ze Triwizard Tournament and introduced ‘imself at ze Ball."
"Oh, so then you were at Hogwarts?" Bill couldn’t remember a French student ever studying at Hogwarts, but knowing the open way in which Dumbledore had run things, it certainly wasn’t impossible.
The girl smiled sadly, however. "Non, I was ze champion from Beauxbatons." She looked down at the picture again and spoke very softly. "I saw you, as well. You came to watch ‘Arry. Zat is why I remembered you, before."
Bill looked at her profile, surprised. He’d only been at Hogwarts for one afternoon of that tournament, and that was nearly three years ago, now. But he didn’t do the math aloud for her – she was already blushing slightly. He didn’t know what to think of it. Mostly, he wondered how he could have missed noticing her. It wasn’t like him to be in the same room with a girl like this, and not notice.
"And I met zis one," she murmured, putting her finger on Fred, "and zis one," she touched George. "And Ron," she said. Bill noticed that she grinned a bit when she touched the picture of his youngest brother, before moving her finger to the picture of Ginny. "Vairy pretty girl," she said absently.
Bill swelled. "Yes, she is, isn’t she?" He had an almost paternal sort of pride about Ginny. "Smart, too."
The girl nodded. "Like Gabrielle," she mused.
"My sister." She retracted her finger from Ginny’s image, and dropped her hand.
"How old is she?"
"She would ‘ave been in ‘er first year, zis fall."
"Would have been..." Bill said, cold realization creeping over him.
The girl’s sheet of silvery hair hid her face, as she nodded her head. "You read about ze town of Mont Ste. Mireille," she stated softly, matter-of-factly.
"Yes, of course," Bill replied, horrified. Everyone knew about it. It had been one of the Death Eaters’ first organized strikes on a wizarding population outside of Britain – and it was one of their most awful. All the children in that area had been taken, and none returned. Worse, the strike had been for no particular strategic purpose; its aim had merely been to terrify the continent and to show that the Dark army was advancing at full strength. Horror and intimidation. The kind of thing that Voldemort apparently took pleasure in.
The girl stared at the photograph of the Weasleys a moment longer before taking it out of Bill’s hand and turning to him. "Your bruzzer died vairy bravely," she said quietly. "Zat ‘elps." She placed the picture on Charlie’s strange stone desk, lifted her chin, and looked dully toward the mouth of the cave.
Bill had his arms around her before he knew what was happening. All he knew was that he wanted to be closer to her, to share comfort with her – he knew how nightmarish it was to lose like that and to have to go on fighting.
The girl stiffened in his arms at first, but after a moment he felt her palms on his chest. She lay her face sideways between them, under his chin, and abruptly her body relaxed almost to the point of perfect limpness. Taking this as a sign of trust, he pulled her closer and let his cheek rest against her hair. Neither of them moved for a long time, and Bill had the sensation that he had been anchored momentarily, safe from a storm.
When the girl did move, finally, it was only to lift her head. "I ‘av to go outside," she said, her voice unsteady. "I ‘av to check on ze Diversion before tomorrow."
"Then I’ll come with you."
And Bill did so, following her out of the cave and back down the wide, dark trench. It didn’t seem nearly as cold, now, and he leaned back comfortably against the dirt wall. He waited silently while she pointed her wand out above the ledge to test the strength of the Enchantment she had cast. She cursed, in French, whenever a weak pocket revealed a flash of gleaming, visible dragon, and said several spells that Bill had never heard to seal the links.
He watched her work, finding himself fascinated. Bill had seen work like this done many times before, yet somehow, the sight of this woman building Charms in thin air was riveting. He wondered what she’d say if he told her that he broke spells like this right back down for a living. The idea of it made him grin. He raised his wand when she’d walked off a few steps and wasn’t looking, and he barely whispered a spell. He saw the Diversion tense up and shimmer, but fall immediately and invisibly back into place. She was good. The spell was solid and strong.
It took her an hour to finish. When she had done, she walked back to Bill in silence and let her head fall softly onto his shoulder. The gesture was unhesitating, and felt oddly right.
It was strange, he thought, reaching up naturally to stroke her hair, strange that this could happen. His brother was dead. Her sister had disappeared. Tomorrow he’d have to go back beyond the shields he’d come through, to get back to the Order and see Sirius for further instructions. The whole world was shifting. It was the last moment in which he would have expected to find this wordless, wonderful connection with a woman. Yet here it was. It pulled at his gut and he couldn’t seem to stop himself from obeying.
"I never got your name," he said suddenly, knowing as he said it that it hardly mattered.
The girl remained where she was. She had relaxed against him and was breathing softly, as if in sleep. "Fleur," she mumbled into his shoulder.
"Fleur," he repeated softly, testing it out. At the sound of her name, she picked up her head and looked at him. The effect on Bill was rather dizzying. Her eyes were unrelentingly blue, only inches away.
"Well it’s nice to meet you," he managed huskily, bending his head as he spoke, "Fleur."
Their mouths met. And suddenly Bill wasn’t certain if any of it was real: the war above the trench, or the girl in it with him. He lost track of reality after that. He was honestly never sure how he got back into the cave, and when he woke in the morning, it was a mystery to him that he was somehow in a sleeping bag beside Charlie’s. His memory felt addled.
And the girl, he discovered over breakfast, was already gone.
"Moved on to her next assignment, and we’ll certainly miss her," Charlie joked feebly. Bill watched his brother try to work his mouth into a grin, fail, and shrug at the floor. He looked entirely wiped out.
Bill paused. He felt his timing couldn’t be more inappropriate, but he had to ask. He had to know.
"Do you know which camp she went to?"
Now Charlie grinned all right – weakly, to be sure. But it was Charlie’s grin. "Love in the trenches, eh?" he jibed. "Going to follow her, William?"
Bill didn’t answer. Because the truth was, he thought he might. And Charlie must have read it in his face, because his own expression became more serious.
"Don’t Bill, please. It’s too dangerous the way things are. You can’t go risking your neck." He shook his head ruefully. "Damned veela – they do love to see men risk their necks."
"What?" Bill asked sharply, his heart doing a swift, unpleasant knock on his ribs. "Veela? Is Fleur a veela?"
"Part," Charlie answered. "Not sure how much, but definitely part. Mick over there is a Species Specialist. He told me the minute she arrived. Why?" Charlie nudged Bill with an elbow. "Get you, did she?"
Bill winced, thinking back on his behavior of the night before. It seemed she had gotten him, indeed.
"Do me a favor, Charlie, would you?" he asked briskly, pushing his breakfast away and facing his brother.
"Do a Love Charm repellant on me."
"A counter block? What, now? You’re joking."
"Now. And make it permanent, if you know how."
"Come on, Bill, is that really necess–"
"Yes. Can you do it, or do you need me to show you?"
Charlie sighed and waved him off. "No, I know this one. Sit still."
He pulled his wand and raised it. Bill sat back, feeling as though he’d been cheated out of something. Well, he might have fallen for it once, but it wasn’t going to happen again. There wasn’t time for that kind of weakness. People were dying, and Bill felt suddenly disgusted with himself for having been distracted in the first place. There were too many important things going on for him to get sidetracked. And that’s all he had been, he told himself staunchly. Sidetracked.
He shut his eyes and let the magic work on him.
"Bill? ... Bill. ... BILL!"
Bill tossed slightly in his sleep. He felt a hand grab his wrist and begin to shake it unceremoniously around. He groaned and fought against the hand at first, feeling groggy and slightly panicked. He tried to open his eyes. Who had hold of him? Why were they shaking him?
"C’mon you sad prat – get – UP! Right, that’s it, I’m feeding you to the Horntail."
At these words, the world fell more into place, and Bill felt a sense of relief. The Horntail. Dragons. That was Charlie’s voice. This was just Charlie, tossing his arm around like a puppet. He was in Romania with his brother and everything was safe; the war was over and it had been for a week. He had only been having the nightmare again.
His surroundings established, Bill sighed, deciding to go back to sleep for awhile. This was a difficult job, however, when his arm was being tossed up onto his face. It was also very difficult to ignore Charlie’s voice, which continued to bellow above him.
"WILLIAM ARTHUR WEASLEY. Light of my life. Get the hell off my couch, you lazy bastard, you’ve got an owl and Dad’s in the fire."
Bill barely opened his eyes. He squinted up at his brother. "Funny – I was just dreaming about you," he croaked.
"’Course you were, doesn’t everyone?" Charlie grinned, setting an owl free through the window, then pacing back over to the couch. "Here." He dropped a roll of parchment directly over Bill’s face, forcing him to catch it on reflex.
Whether Bill liked it or not, the sudden movement did much to wake him up. He groaned, threw his long legs to the floor, and got to his feet, shaking the dream out of his brain for the umpteenth time, and wondering if the details of what had happened in the war would ever dull for him. The nightmare certainly hadn’t dulled at all. It had forced him to relive on many nights, with bizarre clarity, the retelling of Percy’s death, and the pain was as sharp now as it had ever been.
That whole night was still as sharp as it had ever been.
Determined to forget the dream in all its aspects, Bill blinked sleepily down at the scrolled letter in his hands, realizing that it was marked with the Gringotts seal. He unrolled it and scanned it quickly.
Dear Mr. Weasley,
At this time, I realize that you are scheduled to return to your usual post at the Egypt branch of Gringotts Bank. It has come to our attention, however, that your skills are more necessary elsewhere at the present time.
As you are certainly aware, Gringotts of London has sustained serious damage to both its physical and magical dimensions and must be rebuilt. However, due to the interference of Death Eaters with the bank’s magical shields, many employees are hesitant to return. It is impossible to begin reconstruction on the bank itself, therefore, until all signs of Dark magic and possible curses have been investigated and destroyed.
We therefore ask you to consider a temporary transfer to Gringotts’ London branch, effective immediately. Please notify us of your decision by return owl as soon as possible, so that we might forward the necessary papers.
Head of Gringotts’ Curse Breaker Division, Geneva
Bill stared at the letter, not sure what to make of his reaction. Hope and resistance rose up in him all at once.
He had been staying with Charlie for a week now, taking a pit stop with the dragon keepers in Romania, hoping to get a little rest with his brother before returning to business. But he’d realized in just a week’s time that the idea of returning to business made him a bit sick to his stomach. He wasn’t ready to go back to Egypt.
Usually, Bill loved Egypt. He loved the heat and sand, loved the challenge and isolation that his job brought every so often, loved being on his own in the world and making his way in it. But circumstances lately made him pine to stay at home. His body was tired from war and his mind was, too – the idea of returning alone to his flat, and working in his office as though everything had gone back to normal... well, it just didn’t sit right.
But this temporary transfer to London would only prolong his return to Egypt, making it more difficult in the long run, and Bill wasn’t one for taking the easy way out of a hard road ahead. He rolled the letter up carefully and tapped it on his palm. If he didn’t accept the transfer, then he was scheduled to return to Gringotts of Egypt in the morning.
"C’mon, Bill, Dad’s waiting to speak to you." Charlie hollered.
Bill nodded. He could talk to his father about it right now. He dragged his feet into the front room of Charlie’s bungalow and stood before his father, roll of parchment in one hand, scratching his head with the other and yawning. "Hi, Dad."
"Bill." His father looked at him, a mixture of amusement and pride showing in his tired face. "It’s good to see you."
"You, too – what’s happening in London?"
At his simple question, his father’s face tightened. Arthur swallowed hard and Bill felt himself stiffen, slightly. His father looked almost... afraid.
"Did both of you see yesterday’s Prophet?"
Bill exhaled and nodded at Charlie. "Sure we did. Was that all factual? The Dementors really won’t act as guards anymore?"
Arthur shook his head gravely. "They won’t."
"You know, there has to be a way to destroy those things." Bill looked at Charlie. "What d’you think?"
Charlie shrugged. "Dunno. I’ve got a mean Patronus, but that’s it."
Both Bill and Charlie turned to their father. His voice was quiet and defeated.
"It’s gotten worse."
The hair on the back of Bill’s neck stood up. "What d’you mean? What’s happened, Dad?"
"I..." Arthur paused, and drew breath. "It’s going to be in the papers today, and on the WWN in a few minutes but I wanted to..."
"Tell us." Charlie sat on the floor in front of the fire.
Bill crouched beside him. "Go on."
Arthur appeared to brace himself - only his head was visible in the fire, but Bill knew his father’s face so well that he could anticipate him somewhat. Whatever was coming next, it wasn’t good.
"Do either of you remember the name Ida Dunnes?"
Bill nodded immediately. "Auror in Dumbledore’s heyday, wasn’t she? Around the time Grindelwald was taken down."
Charlie turned to him, his face incredulous. "You remember everything you’ve ever read, don’t you?" he muttered.
Bill shrugged. Arthur continued. "She’s retired now, and living on Lewis Island in a town called Stornaway, about forty miles south of Azkaban. Very mixed town - high wizarding population in an area where there are a lot of Muggles. Though of course the Muggles don’t know it, for the most part. A lot of intermarriages in that area, though, which is... interesting..."
Arthur trailed off, his voice flat, and for the first time, Bill realized his father’s eyes were bloodshot. He exchanged a brief, worried glance with Charlie. Their father was nothing if not easily sidetracked by the meeting points of the Muggle and wizarding society, but today the subject seemed to be giving him no joy.
"Right, Dad, go on. What happened to Ida Dunnes?"
"Nothing." Arthur sighed and pressed his eyes shut. "Ida is alive and well. She was in her local pub last night when a few Muggles came in complaining of a sudden chill and saying it was a bit cold for July. Ida didn't think much of it, until her little grand nephew came running in from outside, pointing and looking frantic, going on about a Dementor down the road."
Bill felt his breath catch. "No," he muttered quickly. "No."
"Well, Ida took off at high speed in the direction her nephew was pointing, and came right across it. It was descending on a small boy outside the boy’s home."
"Is he –" Bill couldn’t bring himself to finish the question.
"The boy is fine. But his mother was destroyed. She’s soulless. She was lying at her son’s feet by the time Ida arrived, and Ida told us that the boy was sobbing. Too young to do anything else. Watched his mother get Kissed right there in front of him." Arthur’s face was very nearly gray.
Bill felt his bones go cold at the idea of such a sight. He remained crouched next to Charlie, but could think of nothing to say.
"I thought that Dementors... didn’t have the same effect on Muggles?" Charlie attempted weakly.
"Muggles can’t see them, though I’d reckon they could still get Kissed if they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. We don’t know. I don’t want to know. In any case, this woman was a witch. She was obviously caught unawares. Just playing with her son, not expecting..."
Arthur’s head gave a slow, miserable shake.
"Ida drove the thing back across the water to Moody, who’s now established a tally of sorts so that we know how many Dementors there are. We need to know right away if one gets loose. It’s just so damned difficult to count them – we think we’ve got them all, but how to be sure? Even if we do, they can’t be counted if they keep on hiding in the shadows. Not only that, but we’ve got to get those prisoners out of there. I knew it was bad, but this is far worse than I’d expected. They’re all in immediate mortal danger, where they are."
"Where will you put them?" Charlie asked at once.
"Damned if I know. Anywhere that they can’t get out. Which is nowhere that I know of."
"And where’s the boy?" Bill demanded.
"With his father. His father was indoors. He’s a Muggle. Blaming himself for not being outside to do anything about it – as if he could have." Arthur sighed. "It wasn’t his fault. As far as fault goes, you should be aware that his wife’s predicament will blamed on me in all the news. I just wanted you boys to hear it from me, first. Now I’ll need to go speak with –"
"Blamed on you!" Bill found his voice at once and shot to his feet in outrage. "I’d like to know why!"
Arthur gave a brief, unnatural laugh. "Because I’m here. Because it was my responsibility to keep those creatures out on the island. If we’d just known a day sooner - just a day sooner - that they weren’t going to stay put with the prisoners, then we could’ve had an eye out. But as it was, they didn’t get noticeably restless ‘til Friday and Moody didn’t establish a watch system until Friday night, and by then the thing must've already escaped. We’re just lucky it had to travel over water to get to Lewis. They travel more slowly over water. Otherwise it might’ve done much more damage, in a wizarding community of that size."
"This isn’t your fault," Bill averred, his teeth clenched. "You didn’t know and you’re doing what you can. I’m coming up there."
"Bill, now, that’s not why I –"
"I’m coming too." Charlie was on his feet. "And I’m bringing my team, Dad. I know they’ll want to give a hand."
Bill stared at his brother. "What? You’ll leave dragon keeping? You can’t be serious."
"It’s no more shocking than you leaving your curse breaking is it? And anyway, d’you think I’d pass up an opportunity to work for the Minister of Magic?" Charlie made a mock-bow to their father. "Not a chance."
Arthur shook his head swiftly. "No. Don’t get big ideas, boys. Somebody had to step in for Fudge and there wasn’t time for proper procedure after that strike on Diagon Alley last year. I’m just here when no one else wants to be, that’s all." He fixed Bill with a serious stare. "And I don’t want you feeling pressured to relocate. You’ve both got your jobs and we’ve all got to move on with our lives."
"I know." Bill toyed with the roll of parchment in his hands for a moment. "But Dad, if you don’t get help up there, then everybody’s getting to move along with their lives except for you." He held up the parchment. "This is from Gringotts. They want me to accept a temporary transfer to London. Effective immediately."
"But that’s brilliant!" Charlie cried at once, clapping Bill on the back so vigorously that he nearly sent him into the fire. "Are you serious? Oh, we’re definitely coming, Dad. We can take a flat in Diagon Alley, the two of us. And maybe Mick’ll be interested in coming along – and a couple of others from my staff would be great help, I know it. The apprentices’ll have to stay and train where they are, but I bet I could talk my assistant into coming back to England for at least a little while - "
"Crowd the flat all you like, but you can sleep on the couch," Bill jested, reaching around to rub his lower back, where it was a bit sore from having spent the week on Charlie’s sofa. "Dad, if you want us, then I’ll accept this transfer today. We can be there as soon as I get my new identification."
Their father clearly did want them; he was smiling, and it was the first time Bill had seen a real smile on his father’s face in quite some time.
"Are you sure you want to accept it, Bill?" Arthur asked, not quite managing to conceal the hope in his voice.
Bill weighed his options briefly. He could go back to Egypt and continue to live his life as it had been before the interruption of war. Or else he could go back to England and assist with the rebuilding of Diagon Alley, possibly giving some help and comfort to his father at the same time.
He met his father’s eyes and felt his decision come swiftly and clearly, bringing him comfort, too.
"Absolutely," Bill replied, smiling. "I’m coming, Dad."
Relief flooded Arthur’s expression as he turned his eyes on Charlie. "And are you -"
"Dad, I’m sure," Charlie interrupted, grinning.
"Well," Arthur said quietly, "since you’ve made up your minds, I don’t mind telling you I’m glad you’re coming. Both of you," he said, his voice a bit raw. "And your mother – well she’s going to love knowing that you’re both nearer home, for a while at least. She’ll be so happy when I tell her, it’ll be hard to keep her quiet."
"Well then don’t tell her!" said Charlie suddenly. "We’ll go home with you to the Burrow the day we get to London and surprise her!"
Bill was on it in a flash. "Only, do tell her you’re bringing home a couple of colleagues. That way she’ll be prepared, and not spend the whole time cooking when she’ll want to be fussing over us and telling me to cut my hair."
Arthur beamed at the two of them, his eyes now slightly wet. "You’re good boys," he said, in the same raw voice. "I’ll see you when you get here. I’ve got to get to Ron and Ginny at Remus's before they hear about this on the wireless. And I’ve got to get to the twins. And then –"
There was an abrupt pause. Bill knew that his father had been about to say Percy’s name. It was only natural, after all. There had always been seven of them.
"I’ve told Penelope already," Arthur finished quietly. "Talked to her when I spoke with your mother."
Bill nodded. "See you tomorrow, then, Dad."
"Good." His father’s face cheered, a little. "When you get here, come straight to the Ministry."
"To the Minister’s office?" Bill asked slyly, raising an eyebrow at Charlie, who grinned expectantly.
Their father chuckled. "All right. Yes, that’s where I am, say what you want to say about it. Just get here."
With a ‘pop’ Arthur was gone.
"Hard to believe, isn’t it?" Charlie asked, still grinning into the fire. "Our dad."
Bill laughed. He, too, was unused to the fact that his own father was in a position of such high authority. But even if Arthur made light of his situation, Bill knew he was the Minister of Magic. It made sense to Bill to know that the remaining Ministry officials answered to his father. They all trusted him after what he had done in the war. He had organized the Ministry from the inside for Dumbledore and then for Sirius, and he had made the way clear for the Order of the Phoenix to operate without interruption for as long as he could.
Of course, that hadn’t always won him approval; many people had been against the Order, during the war. Many had been advocates of Cornelius Fudge. But now that the war was over and the Order had proven instrumental in ending three years of strife, its naysayers were few and far between. Moreover, everyone knew that Arthur Weasley had been present at the moment of Voldemort’s defeat. Everyone knew what had happened to Lucius Malfoy. The fact that people were now looking to his father for their cues, Bill reflected, was only natural. His father had always been willing to do what others backed away from, and that was especially apparent now, as he headed up a Ministry in ruins.
"Dad was always right for it," Bill mused, "it’s just that he wasn’t ambitious like Fudge and the rest of them. And Mum was right, thinking that Fudge was prejudiced against Dad just because of his concern for Muggles..." Bill trailed off and hesitated before continuing. "You know, it’s probably wrong to say this, but we’re far better off without Fudge in there, now that everything’s got to be rebuilt. The Death Eaters weren’t doing themselves any favors when they got rid of him."
Charlie nodded in quiet reply. "Still, it’s not right what happened to him."
"No. I didn’t say it was."
Bill’s stomach still lurched when he remembered getting news of the Diagon Alley strike. Under pretense of agreeing with Fudge that peace talks were a necessity, Death Eaters had been admitted into the Ministry buildings. Many of those buildings now stood in shambles. Fudge had been murdered without ceremony, and his offices raided for information. The Diagon Alley post office had been entirely blown apart in an effort to slow wizarding communications, and many owls and people had died. And in that terrible chaos, the Death Eaters had managed to force their way into Gringotts – slaying goblins as they went. They’d broken apart the upper vaults with Dark magic, corrupting a magical protection system that would be ridiculously difficult to restore.
Bill sighed at the mere thought of what it must be like now, at Gringotts of London. Knowing goblins the way he did, he assumed he’d be in for a rough time of it in his new position. Goblins weren’t trustful creatures to begin with, and now that they’d been personally attacked, Bill imagined that they’d be positively murderous toward anyone new in their midst. The fact that he had worked for years at the Egypt branch of Gringotts wouldn’t mean a thing to the London goblins. In London he would be treated as a stranger and eyed with suspicion and contempt.
Still, he was going. There was no question. He was going to be whatever help he possibly could be to Gringotts - and to his father.
"Hey, Charlie," he asked suddenly, remembering what his father had said about the news, "where’s that wireless? I want to hear what they’re saying about Dad."
Using his feet, Charlie shoved aside an enormous pile of clothes to reveal a rickety little wizard’s wireless. He flicked his wand at it, and a small, badly received female voice buzzed from the hole in its center.
"... that Arthur Weasley, unofficial and apparently incompetent Minister of Magic claimed yesterday to have the Dementor problem well in hand. Be advised that this is not the case. Last night, retired Auror Ida Dunnes -"
"Idiots," Charlie muttered, giving his wand a violent flick and shutting down the wireless in mid-sentence. "I’m not listening to that. Write your goblins, Bill, and get your papers. We need to get to London."
"Right." Bill Summoned his parchment and quill, trying to ignore the anger he was experiencing on his father’s behalf for a moment, in order to be productive. "Go round up your team and see who’s coming with us."
As Charlie yanked on his robes, Bill began to scratch out his reply to Geneva. If he sent out this owl before noon, he’d have identification in the morning. They could leave for London tomorrow afternoon.
Though suddenly, tomorrow didn’t seem nearly soon enough.