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All That Stands in its Path

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When Molly finds three beds empty and the car missing out of the garage, she’s not convinced her picture won’t end up in the newspaper under a headline that reads ‘Local mother of seven slays three.’”

She spends the next hour until sunrise attempting to rein in her frantic worry, peering endlessly out of the kitchen window in hopes of spotting that wretched Ford Anglia, wringing her hands so tightly in her flowered apron she manages to pull a couple of threads loose.

The car finally, finally, falls out of the sky just as the first red rays of sunlight burst through the trees surrounding the Burrow. The boys tumble out of the car and Molly has just enough time to register that they are all safe and whole before, relieved of the worry of her sons dying in a fiery crash, her rage descends upon her once again, and she storms straight out the front door.

She shouts for what feels like days, feeling the terror leech out of her bones until she is spent, and then she turns to Harry, who is watching her silently, his eyes wide and his body tense. He takes several steps back from her and she sees that he is slightly taller and much thinner than he had been when she’d met the boys at the train station at the end of term four weeks ago. There is a distinct wariness about him, and her voice softens slightly as she says, “I’m very pleased to see you, Harry dear, come in and have some breakfast.”

In the house, her sons settle into their seats grumpily, but Harry sits on the very edge of his as though poised to run, looking around the room curiously, observing.

“I don’t blame you, dear,” she assures him, and a little of the tension drops from Harry’s shoulders. She rolls almost a dozen sausages onto his plate; he still doesn’t say a word. “Arthur and I have been worried about you, too. Just last night we were saying we’d come and get you ourselves if you hadn’t written back to Ron by Friday. But really,” she adds to Ron and Fred and George as she serves Harry several fried eggs, “flying an illegal car halfway across the country – anyone could have seen you – ”

“It was cloudy, Mum!” Fred tries, but her anger has not quite fizzled and she snaps at him to keep his mouth closed while he’s eating.

“They were starving him, Mum!” George cries, and she snaps at him too, though, glancing at Harry, she cannot blame them for believing such a thing – the poor boy really is awfully skinny.

Wondering, she cuts Ron’s friend a slice of homemade bread and begins buttering it for him while he works on his eggs.

...

Having Harry in the house is an interesting experience, Molly finds, and it comes with a bit of a learning curve.

The second morning after Harry arrives, Ron comes down from his room alone, relaying the message that Harry will be right down, he’s in the bathroom, and joins them at the breakfast table. After a while in which Harry’s seat remains empty, Molly looks up curiously from the cooker to the stairwell and gets a small start.

Harry is sitting there on the stairs tucked against the wall, hugging his knees, watching them all intently. He doesn’t seem to notice Molly’s eyes on him, and she takes a moment to study him. The expression on his thin face is something almost like hunger, though he isn’t looking at the food. He is watching them, her family, she realises.

Harry watches Fred tease Percy playfully, watches Ron load more scrambled eggs onto his plate, watches George accidentally spill orange juice onto Arthur’s newspaper. Harry shrinks back farther into the shadows, as if bracing for some sort of explosion, but seems to relax again as George offers a careless ‘sorry, Dad’ and Arthur calmly sops up the mess, chuckling.

He looks on as Arthur checks his watch and announces he’ll be late for work, and as her husband rises from his chair he gives George’s shoulder a squeeze, drops a quick kiss onto Ginny’s hair. Harry cocks his head to the side ever-so-slightly at this, like a puppy, and Molly would be tempted to smile if not for the funny pit forming at the bottom of her stomach.

Arthur leaves for work and Molly calls Harry’s name, and though her voice is gentle, the boy starts guiltily as though he’d been caught doing something extremely naughty. She holds up a plate full of bacon and toast for him to see and places it in front of an empty seat. Harry creeps silently down the rest of the stairs, gifting her with a small smile and a quiet ‘thank you’ as he sits down next to Ron, and easily settles into a conversation with the twins. Satisfied, Molly clears Arthur’s empty plate and sets the pots and pans to scrubbing themselves, wondering some more, and hoping that the pit in her stomach does not mean what she is starting to suspect.

...

Molly has seen Harry’s good manners firsthand. She fondly remembers him asking her how to get onto Platform 9 ¾ and how he had sincerely thanked her for the fudge and the jumper she had sent him for Christmas (six months after the fact, no less!) but as the days go by, she comes to see there is more to his good manners than simply being polite. Harry possesses a certain…gentleness of spirit. A knowledge of the value of being decent to others that seems almost out-of-place in someone so young.

She notices (of course she notices) how taken Ginny is with Harry. Her daughter’s talked of little else all summer, and leaving this out, the amount of things Ginny has knocked over in Harry’s presence if proof enough of her infatuation.

Molly remembers well what it was like to make a fool of yourself in front of a boy you fancied (though she and Arthur have been married over twenty years, she still finds it difficult to let go of the time she had spilled Butterbeer all down her front out of nerves during their first Hogsmeade outing together) and she feels a hot prick of empathetic embarrassment every time Ginny accidentally sticks her elbow in the butter, or sends her plate crashing to the floor.

The first few times it happens, Molly braces for Harry to laugh at her, to tease her, for she has long experience of twelve-year-old boys, and even the good ones are just children, and children laugh at things they think are silly. But he never does. Her sons snicker, if they happen to notice, as siblings are often wont to do, but not Harry. He simply smiles kindly, or pretends not to be aware of her little accidents, or ignores Ron and Fred and George when they tell him to just give Ginny an autograph already. Harry endures her staring, though it is becoming increasingly apparent to Molly that he does so with great difficulty; he does not seem to enjoy being the centre of anyone’s attention. Molly says as much to Ginny privately and suggests that she might want to try to do it a little less – her daughter is mortified, but Molly shares a conspiratorial wink, and Ginny giggles, her embarrassment slightly soothed.

It still comes as a bit of a surprise one day, however, when Harry’s kindness stretches beyond this passive consideration for Ginny’s feelings.

Ginny, utterly distraught by an incident during lunch in which she had tripped over herself and landed straight in Harry’s lap, has been shut up in her room all day, and nothing Molly says through her door convinces her to end her self-imposed exile. Ron and the twins are in the sitting room, admiring the shiny Nimbus 2000 broomstick Harry is carefully polishing, Molly doing her knitting in the corner. She can’t help but notice Harry glancing up at the ceiling every now and again, like he might see through it to the floors above. Finally, Harry bites his lip, sets his broomstick gently back to the floor, and disappears up the stairs.

Five minutes later, he is back with a blushing, silent Ginny in tow (and Molly is pleased to have Harry at the Burrow, but if there is one drawback, it’s that she hasn’t heard her normally-very-talkative daughter’s voice in what feels like ages).

“You can have a go on it, if you want?” Harry tells her, scooping up his Nimbus and holding it out to her. “I don’t mind.”

Ginny blushes an even deeper scarlet at this and looks almost afraid to touch it, but in the end she takes the broom reverently from his hands, and then the five of them are racing out the front door, Fred and George hollering after the others that they’re the eldest and deserve the next two turns.

It puts Molly in an exceptionally good mood well into the evening, and later she tells a grinning Arthur the whole story, because Harry Potter is friendly and sweet to her little girl, and for this, she is unfailingly grateful.

...

Harry is also, Molly decides, a walking paradox. A puzzle wrapped up in a skinny little black-haired, green-eyed package, and the unraveling of the mystery that is the Boy Who Lived is a painstakingly slow process:

He perks up, seeming just as happy as the other children when Arthur’s hand on the enchanted family clock moves from ‘work’ to ‘travelling’ to ‘home’ and smiles when the man walks through the door, but he keeps his distance, orienting himself, apparently unconsciously, so he can see exactly what Arthur is doing (she realises, eventually, that Harry does this when she is in the room, too, though it takes her a little longer to figure it out).

Harry is a bit young yet to be called ‘handsome,’ but his features are striking – bright emerald eyes, wild hair, a face that’s all sharp angles – and Molly supposed his parents must have been quite good-looking to produce him. But he seems altogether unaware of any physical charm he might possess. At least, it appears this way to her, what with his tendency to try to blend in with furniture, as it were, walking so quietly into a room she sometimes doesn’t realise he’s there, tucking himself into the corner of the sofa or the stairs, staying out of the way.

He readily forgives Fred with an easy shrug after the older boy accidentally hits him square on the nose with an apple they’d been using as a Quaffle, sending blood streaming down his chin. The boys bring him back into the house and Molly mops him up expertly, healing his bruised nose with a wave of her wand. But as he sits there with his chin in Molly’s hand, he notices he’s dripped blood onto the floor and apologises profusely, a wariness bordering on fear in his eyes, as though he expects her to be more upset at him for dirtying her kitchen than at the fact that he is hurt in the first place.

Harry is skin and bones and sometimes after he’s finished his first helping of supper, he eyes the dishes on the table with an ill-concealed yearning. But no matter how many times Molly tells him he is allowed to eat as much as he likes, and no matter how many times Ron sets the example next to him by wolfing down his own meals, Harry never takes seconds or, heaven forbid, thirds unless Molly spoons it onto his plate. Like he is hesitant to eat a lick more than his share unless given express permission.

The boy enjoys a good mess – he openly appreciates the Burrow’s overgrown garden and thrives in the type of chaos that can only come from housing six magical children under one roof, and the clutter and jumble of Ron’s cramped attic bedroom doesn’t seem to give him a moment's pause – yet he always makes sure to clean up after himself immediately, never leaving a book or a plate or a crumb in his wake….

All these things, all these little pieces, start to coalesce into a bigger picture and at night when the children have gone to bed, Molly wonders, over and again, what sort of people Harry’s aunt and uncle really are. She had met them both when they’d picked Harry up from the station, and she vividly remembers the bitter taste the brief encounter had left in her mouth. Harry’s uncle had seemed so unpleasant, so abrupt… she recalls with a pang Harry coming up to her at the start of term, alone and lost and looking for the proper platform…how odd that was. Had his family just left him there? Left him, an eleven-year-old boy, in the middle of London to fend for himself?

George’s accusation rings in her ears: “They were starving him, Mum!”

She had assumed this was another of her children’s tall tales, an exaggeration. An excuse and an explanation for taking their father’s illegal flying car out for a nighttime adventure…but now, she remembers Ron saying Harry had been locked in his room, and she thinks about all the other things she has learned about Harry, and suddenly she is not sure her sons’ stories have been embellished at all.

She knows there are families with secrets, ones who shouldn’t be responsible for young lives…homes where children suffer…but that has always seemed as something Other, something that doesn’t, that could never, happen to people she knows. She thinks of the babies she has birthed and raised, and she cannot fathom how anyone could ever, ever mistreat a child, especially one like Harry, small sweet boy that he is.

It worries her. And it worries Arthur, who has noticed these things as well.

The boy has no bruises (of which they are aware), but this does not mean he has never had them, and whether he has or hasn't, it does not diminish the fact that there are other ways, perhaps even more painful, Molly knows, of making someone hurt.

But as such there is unfortunately no indisputable evidence of maltreatment she could take to someone who might listen, and Harry shuts himself up like an iron fortress the few times Molly tries to broach the subject of his relatives with him, and in the end all she and Arthur have are their own indefinable, half-formed suspicions.

Molly tries and only somewhat succeeds in contenting herself with the thought of inviting Harry for Christmas, knitting him another jumper that fits, and seeing him again next summer, and with knowing that in the here and now she can wash his clothes and heal his scrapes and make sure he eats.

The one thing that gives her hope is that, despite Harry’s strange and telling idiosyncrasies, he radiates a particular daring resilience.

He is quite a clever little boy, as it turns out.

He can tell Fred and George apart with little effort, something half the family has yet to learn how to do. His sharp wit makes itself known every now and then, in the form of lightning-quick sarcastic jabs and expertly aimed one-liners that startle her at first, coming from such a quiet, polite little thing, but which make Ron and the twins roll around in their seats with laughter. She can’t help but smile to herself, either, at some of it, though she would prefer it if his particular brand of humour wasn’t so freely self-deprecating. Harry notices things, too – sees, observes, absorbs – like the night Arthur misplaces his glasses, and Harry gets up silently, wanders straight into the kitchen, and comes back, spectacles in hand, holding them out to her delighted husband.

Arthur is further and endlessly delighted by Harry’s innate knowledge of all things Muggle, and the two discuss subjects like aeroplanes and television and batteries every night over dinner. Her husband’s obsession with Muggles and their strange inventions might drive Molly up the wall, but he and Harry both seem to enjoy these discussions so much she leaves them to it without protest.

Two weeks into Harry’s stay, Arthur gets up from the table after one of these long, involved conversations, this one about an appliance Muggles use to warm bread, and Harry grumbles something about not mixing knives and toasters that Molly doesn’t fully catch, but it makes Arthur genuinely laugh and he ruffles Harry’s hair as he passes by on his way to the sink. Molly does catch the way Harry gives a tiny start at the touch, and sees his expression after Arthur’s hand falls away from his hair. His face doesn’t shift much, but his big green eyes widen slightly, staring at Arthur’s back with a curiously intent, almost grateful look that reminds her of how he reacts when she places a second helping of food in front of him, and it makes her heart ache.

She tries to hug Harry more, after that.

Or at least, she does her best to show him more physical affection (and only when he can see it coming, she’s learnt not to surprise him – he doesn’t always react badly, but the one time she puts a hand on his shoulder from behind and he nearly leaps a foot in the air is enough to make her a little more cautious). For when everything’s said and done, she manages only one brief hug, after he’s completed all of his summer assignments for school, and the poor boy is so embarrassed he blushes all the way to the roots of his messy hair.

So she steps back and takes it a little easier on him. Patting his hand gently when he tells her ‘thank you’ for lunch, placing her palm on his back as she nudges him out of the door to play with the others, lightly giving his shoulder a squeeze as she deposits a pile of laundry into his arms and directs him to the linen cupboard.

That’s another thing, Harry’s insistence on helping with the chores. He seems incapable of sitting idly still when Molly asks Ginny and the other boys to help, even though he’s a guest in their house, and no one would expect him to clean, or de-gnome the garden, or put the linens away. But he does it happily, and she is forced again to wonder where on earth this child came from.

Harry is quiet, and too solemn for Molly’s liking, but now and then he offers a true smile, the ones that reach his eyes, and Molly treasures them all.

The one she holds most dear happens on the day she is preparing lunch alone in the kitchen, Ginny having run off to beg the twins to let her fly with them, Ron and Harry lying on the floor in the sitting room playing Exploding Snap. As she’s slicing up ham for sandwiches, she hears the telltale boom of combusting playing cards, and even though she knows the game is not really dangerous, she sets down her knife to go check in on them. She pushes open the sitting room door, and Harry is sitting there giggling at Ron’s surprised face and singed eyebrows.

Ron starts laughing too, and her mother’s heart is suddenly overcome with love for her youngest son, and gratitude that he has found this, a friend to play with, a companion, like Bill and Charlie had had each other, like Fred and George do now.

Percy is another story, and she admits silently to herself that she wishes her ambitious, studious, proper sixteen-year-old up in his bedroom might have found such a thing when he was younger – she is proud of him, so proud, that he has achieved so much in school – but she wonders sometimes if that has come at the cost of having real friends. Though she supposes there’s still time for him to make some, to meet new people, his life is only just beginning after all. And he has been so cagey this summer, has sent so many letters with his new owl, Molly is starting to think the hours in his bedroom are perhaps being spent writing to a mystery girl, and she is both hopeful and terrified at the thought.

Harry giggles again, and thoughts of her third-born fade for the moment as she watches him. Her heart lifts at the realisation that this is the first time she’s seen him look his age.

He may be a small thing, shorter than Ron and scrawnier by far, but there is something inexplicably world-weary about him. An old soul, people might say, and Molly had never quite been sure what such a person would look like, until the day she met the Boy Who Lived in a dingy train station on the way to school. But as he sits there, laughing with Ron, Harry’s lovely, stunning green eyes sparkle, there is no other way to describe it, and he finally, for a moment, looks exactly like the twelve-year-old boy he is supposed to be.

Molly closes the door to the sitting room quietly, unwilling to disturb their fun, and withdraws back into the kitchen to finish fixing lunch.

She can see Ginny and the twins out in the apple orchard through the open window as she stands at the sink. A soft breeze blows through, bringing with it the summer smells of grass and sun-warmed meadowsweet, the boys’ laughter still echoing from the other room, and she closes her eyes in one of those rare sweet moments in which she finds herself purely and wholly content, thinking, knowing, that this is how it was always supposed to be.

...

The night before the children are set to return to Hogwarts, Molly climbs the stairs to Ron’s bedroom as she has done every evening before, leaving Arthur to finish tucking Ginny in and to make sure she’s got everything she needs in her school trunk. (Their little Ginny off to her first year at Hogwarts tomorrow! Molly can hardly believe it, and her heart is both pleasantly light and remarkably heavy at the same time.)

She reaches the attic bedroom at the very top of the house and knocks, pushing the door open. Ron and Harry are just climbing into bed, sleepy and heavy-lidded, when she enters. The twins no longer permit her to ‘tuck them in’ and she suspects Ron is nearing such an age – he and Harry will be teenagers next year, she thinks with something like dread – but Ron has not yet complained too awful much about her coming in to say good night, to make sure he and Harry are washed and brushed and changed, and she will take that as the gift it is for as long as she can.

She sits down on the edge of Ron’s bed, brushing a stray lock of his bright red hair off of his face. “All packed?”

Ron nods, stifling a yawn behind his hand. “Mmhm,” he mutters drowsily, and pulls his covers up to his chin.

Molly smiles, running a finger over his cheek. “Sleep well, then, we’ve got an early start tomorrow.” Ron nods again and turns over, getting comfortable.

She moves on to Harry’s side of the room and sits down on his camp bed, too.

She hasn’t done this on previous nights, and hopes she isn’t overstepping one of Harry’s invisible boundaries, but he doesn’t seem uncomfortable, only a little surprised, and he moves back automatically to give her room as she settles onto the cot.

He stares up at her fixedly, wrapping his blankets more tightly around himself.

“Have you got your trunk all ready? Packed everything you need?” she asks, and he nods dutifully. She gives him a smile, the same as Ron. “Good boy,” she murmurs softly, and lightly pats his knobby knee over the blanket, making an effort not to display the way her heart twists at how much he glows under the praise. “Sleep well,” she whispers and, after a small hesitation, leans down and sweeps his messy fringe from his face, pressing a kiss to his forehead.

When she pulls back, Harry’s expression is not unlike that of a deer caught in headlights, awed into stillness. But when she smiles at him again, the corners of his lips lift a little, grinning back, his bright eyes glued to her face, only the smallest hint of colour in his cheeks. He shifts a little under his covers, his shoulders hunching forward, pressing his body deeper into the mattress.

As she gets up, she reaches down one more time to slide Harry’s glasses off his nose, folding them carefully and placing them on the bedside table. She waves her wand, dousing the lamp, and heads for the door, whispering, “Goodnight,” into the darkened room.

Ron’s sleepy voice mutters the perfunctory goodnight from his bed, and Molly has almost closed the door when Harry, who usually leaves it up to Ron to say it for the both of them, whispers, “G’night.”

Almost inaudible, uncertain, but still there and Molly pauses and looks back.

Ron’s soft snores have already begun to the fill the room; there’s a patch of moonlight streaming in through the window, dimly illuminating Harry’s cot. His eyes are still on her, but they slip closed within seconds, and she shuts the door quietly behind her.

...

Molly climbs into bed next to Arthur, sighing heavily, her mind going over all the things that need to be done in the morning to get everyone out of the house on time, to catch the train at King’s Cross that will carry her children away from her once more.

“They’ll be alright,” Arthur says softly, kissing her temple, like he’s done every year since they’d first sent Bill off to Hogwarts over a decade ago.

“I know,” she admits, completing her part of their little ritual.

She lies awake for a while longer, thinking of Percy, well on his way to becoming Head Boy; of Fred and George, confident and charming and so steadfastly devoted to one other; of Ron, funny and bright, with two best friends he adores and so much potential waiting to blossom; of Ginny, her only daughter, who’s got a fire burning hot and bright within her.

She thinks of Harry, brave and quiet and clever. She thinks of the weight they’ve managed to put back on him over the last month, of his slow, tentative acceptance of her family’s affection, and of the way his eyes had lit up as he sat playing cards on the sitting room floor.

She thinks of how she had kissed him goodnight, and how she is not sure the Harry of four weeks ago who had shown up with her boys at sunrise in a beat-up flying car would have allowed it. She thinks of his soft voice whispering, “Goodnight,” the first one he has ever given her.

The pit at the bottom of her stomach eases a little, and she turns over, Arthur nearly asleep beside her, and she thinks that, yes, she’s quite sure her children really are going to be alright.