Fred is dead. Fred is dead and Bill keeps expecting him to pop back up, cheerful laughter on his lips.
"Don't tell me you believed that?" he'd say, because of course, his death could only be a joke, could only be a trick.
But it's not a joke, and it is not a trick.
Bill stares at his little's brother body, too still and too pale, and some part of him dies inside, grows cold and hardened. His shoulders tense, and he thinks, I will help them, I will carry them if I have to.
It is good he thinks that, because mere moments later his mother collapses down, sobbing, and not even their father can hold her together, not with the way his hands are trembling.
His siblings huddle closer, but they too look shaken, deathly pale. The war is over, the battle is won — but Bill's war?
That one is just beginning.
They all go back to the Burrow eventually. They're all covered in dust and blood and tears, but somehow it only registers with Bill once they've Apparated back home.
"I — I should leave." Harry's voice shatters the silence, but before Bill can say anything, Ginny grabs the boy's hand and hisses at him.
"Don't you dare," she says, and there are tears in her eyes. "Don't you dare leave."
Ron and Hermione, who are half a step behind, look to be in complete agreement. Even Molly manages to drag herself out of her grief for long enough to insist that Harry stay, but the smile she gives him is feeble and trembling.
Charlie is waiting for them inside, pacing anxiously. He stops the instant they open the door, but Bill can see his eyes counting heads and coming up short.
(Fred is still at Hogwarts. With so many dead, there really are no other places they can bring him to yet.
George has stayed with him, and their father with him. Bill longs to be with them too, but they couldn't have all stayed.)
It's clear Charlie is at a loss — Percy is here, but the twins aren't, but their father isn't. He's growing paler by the second, and Bill steps forward just in time to catch him as his brother's knees fail him.
"W — What happened?" Charlie stutters, fingers curled painfully tight around Bill's forearm.
Their mother bursts into tears again, and Charlie whispers, "Is Dad…?"
He doesn't seem to be able to finish the sentence. Bill doesn't blame him.
He feels more than he feels Fleur's hands come to rest comfortingly on his shoulders, and he allows himself a moment to sip from her love. He opens his eyes and stares into his brother's panicked, wild blue eyes, and says, "Dad's fine. So is George."
That is a lie — George isn't fine. George may never be fine again. But that's not what Charlie is asking about.
Voiceless, Bill only shakes his head.
Charlie keens as Bill pulls him into a hug. Soon, the rest of their family follow.
They're still not fine, not even anywhere close, but Bill thinks that they can be, with enough time.
With a lot of time.
Fleur's steady presence by his side reminds him that he used to be fine, at least.
The first thing Bill does once they entangle themselves is to insist everyone grab a shower.
Cleaning or scrubbing spells, he insists, are no substitutes.
He ends up getting the last shower. He leaves his family in his wife's hands — almost all of them have, it seems, stumbled back down to the living-room, haggard and exhausted, but clean.
Bill takes his shower cold, and tries not to feel as though the world is crumbling underneath him.
He thinks he does an alright job of that.
Dinner is silent that night. They all help out with the cooking, and those that can't set the table.
Even so, it is a somber affair. Silent and tense.
Stifled sobs still echo through the silence, but they all pretend not to hear, and once dinner is done, they move to the bedrooms, one by one.
No one touches the door to the twins' bedroom. Bill helps make the beds — they have to add one in Ron and Ginny's rooms, and Bill pretends not to notice when Harry stays with Ginny and Hermione with Ron instead the more traditional boys to the one side, girls to the other.
Charlie goes to Percy's room — they still call it that, even if Percy hasn't lived there in years.
"You'll be okay?" Bill asks in a whisper as Charlie climbs the steps.
Charlie shrugs, but he nods. He rests a hand on Bill's shoulder, steadier than anything Bill feels. "I'll be fine," he says. "You can stop worrying about me."
"I'm your big brother," Bill retorts, the familiar answer falling from his lips. "It's my job to worry about you."
Charlie snorts and shakes his head, but his eyes shine with gratefulness. He squeezes Bill's shoulder once and lets go. When the door closes behind him, it sounds almost final.
He goes back to the kitchen — he'll clean up if his mother's left for bed already, and he'll keep her company if she hasn't. Fleur is probably still talking to her family in France through the Floo, but he knows she'll join him once she's done, and they'll camp out in the living-room for the night.
He finds Percy staring at the twins' door, unblinking. His fists are clenched tight by his side, and Bill wouldn't be surprised to find blood there, should he open his hands. His heart aches — Percy is back, at last, and yet there is no part of him that can truly rejoice, no part of him that isn't also tainted by this ugly, ugly grief.
"It should have been me," Percy states suddenly. His voice is toneless, as though he was merely stating a fact of like — I should be dead — but Bill can see the helpless anger in the line of his shoulders. "It should have been me."
"Do you think we would have mourned you less?" Bill asks, partly because he's genuinely curious as to the answer, partly because he doesn't think the angry retorts that are also on the tip of his tongue would help.
Percy startles a little, as though he either didn't think anyone was there or didn't expect the question. He doesn't turn away from the door, but eventually his shoulders fall, just a little. "No," he admits, almost a whisper. "But you should. I was…"
"You were an ass," Bill agrees. "But you came back. You came back, and you're our brother. You're still Mum and Dad's son. That it was you or Fred, or, or anyone else… That was just bad luck."
Percy's lips quirk up into a bitter, humorless smile. "Bad luck," he repeats. "It should still have been me."
A flash of anger, bright and violent, surges through him. Bill grabs Percy's shoulders and pulls him into a tight hug — for some reason, his brother lets him, barely resisting and tucking his head against Bill's shoulder, like they had sometimes done when they were kids.
"I'm glad it wasn't you," Bill whispers urgently into his brother's hair. "I'm glad you're still here, that you're still alive."
Bill doesn't know how long they stay like this. His neck grows wet, and when Percy pulls back his eyes are red. His brother acts like nothing happened though, and Bill decides to let him.
"I think Charlie set up a second bed in your room," he says instead, and he also pointedly doesn't notice the flash of surprise on Percy's face.
Percy nods and starts to go up. Bill waits until he's gone to climb down.
He finds his mother in the kitchen, like he had half expected. She's not doing anything though, just staring at her wand.
She'd killed with that wand just a few hours ago, he remembers.
Bill steps toward her quietly and gently forces her hands down. "Hey Mum," he says. He can see her shoulders trembling with quiet sobs, but when she turns toward him, she's trying to smile.
Bill's chest aches. He pulls her into a hug — how many does this make? He's lost count.
Hugs are supposed to make you feel better, he knows — they did, before — but this just hurts.
But it seems to help his mother, because she stops trembling, eventually. When she steps back, her smile is tinged with as much gratitude as grief, but that's still something.
"Go," he says. "Get some sleep. I'll finish up here."
She must see in his eyes that this isn't up for debate, because for once she just relents, and nods. She pats him on the cheek once. "You're a good son, Bill," she states. "Thank you."
Bill smiles, and tries to ignore the way that makes his heart ache. But he just squares up his shoulders and nods back. "Of course."
He hears Fleur before he sees her, but like always, the mere sight of her is enough to lift his spirits, even just a little.
"Need a hand?" she asks, nodding toward the pile of dishes.
Bill sighs in relief. "If you don't mind?" He can already feel the tension leaving him.
Together, they make short work of the stack of dishes and put away the leftover food. However, instead of going to bed — and Merlin knows how much Bill wants to, because this day has been a nightmare and a half and the future doesn't really promises to be any better — they just stay there, breathing in the quiet.
Fleur is tucked against his side, her head on his shoulder, and for once Bill doesn't even mind that her hair tickles his chin every time she breathes.
"It was good, what you did," Fleur says. Her accent is more pronounced now than it was earlier, and Bill can hear the exhaustion in her every intonation.
He hums back. "It wasn't enough."
She takes her hand in hers and raises it to her lips, pressing a soft, lingering kiss to his knuckles. "It was the best you could do," she replies, letting their hands fall back, fingers intertwined. "It was all you could do."
Bill exhales slowly. "Maybe. But it still doesn't feel like it was enough."
Fleur nods against his shoulder. She tightens her hold on his hand and doesn't say anything else.