Bill fumbles with the keys for a moment, until he finally closes his fingers on the right one and opens the lock with a low click.
The small flat inside is just as he left it, though he can already tell that the windows have borne the worst of the sandstorm that swept through Cairo some weeks ago. He feels a strange twinge of nostalgia; though nobody enjoys sandstorms, the thought that he probably won't be here for the next one makes something in him clench.
He closes the door behind him and leans against it for a moment, dropping the large, empty suitcase he's carrying on the floor. The charmed Muggle contraptions that he installed around the living room—the beaten-up fridge and the teetering lamp—were once his pride and joy. He used to take pictures of them with Ahmed's camera and send them to Dad, whose greatest fascinations were not the Pyramids or the Sphynx, but rather the wonders of Bill's living space.
He crosses the room to one of the windows and pulls the blue curtain aside. Soledad installed it, one week after pulling an all-nighter on the floor of his flat, poring over her Ancient Runes assignments—I feel like the professors here speak in hieroglyphics, she'd grumbled—and it's really the only evidence that she ever was here. Bill wonders how she is, wonders if she has found a husband among her fellow Spaniards, which she didn't find in him.
With a sigh, he turns to his closet. He's taken half of his clothes to London already, but left behind robes more appropriate for the heat of Egypt. He isn't entirely sure what the use of taking them with him is, but he might need them again, someday—and the thought of leaving them behind… no, he'll take them.
He pulls everything out onto the ground, along with the books piled on the shelves nearby. He's missed them; he'd been midway through The Extended Account of the Battle of Megiddo, but hadn't thought it worth carrying along for what he had thought would only be a few days spent between the Burrow and Hogwarts.
Feeling suddenly lightheaded, he flicks his wand towards the tall, slightly battered lamp. It lights up, wavering golden light falling across the room. A book still in his hand, he sits down on the bed he hasn't touched in weeks. The covers are slightly dusty—the roof has always collected sand and cobwebs. It seems strange that something so ordinary could still be taking place when everything has changed.
He forced himself to keep his fear at bay on the journey from Hogwarts to the Burrow. His father had been preparing for work, awaiting the announcement of the winner of the Tournament—they had promised to owl him as soon as the Third Task ended. Clearly, the Prophet had not yet sent out its latest issue. Bill was glad; it was better for him to get the facts first, before the press distorted them as it pleased.
Cedric Diggory is dead. You-Know-Who… he's back.
He will never forget the look in his father's eyes when he told him. The shock that materialized on his face, followed by the rush of fear, of defeat, and the weight of years—years of fighting battles and watching death tolls rise and hiding from a terrible, terrible threat….
And Bill had not missed how his father's gaze had strayed towards Ginny's room.
Bill drops the book onto the dusty covers and rubs his face once, twice, as if to ground himself in reality. That's over, now. There's no use in focusing on the past or on dangers that might come. The fact is—Voldemort is back, and no amount of worrying will help change anything. There is only one thing that he can do.
Nausea rolls through him suddenly and he grimaces. The room is warm, the bed—even with the dust—inviting. The magnets on the refrigerator are cheap plastic alphabet letters, charmed to spell out his to-do list for the day. They haven't moved yet; they sit still at the edges of shriveled newspaper clippings from the times his colleagues—and sometimes Bill himself—have appeared in the Cairo Times for their curse-breaking achievements. They won't move until he decides what to do.
The pile of clothes and books seems to glare at him in the half-light.
He gets on his feet, and instead of returning to what he previously put his mind to, seizes the keys again and leaves the flat, locking it behind him.
Karim's restaurant is a noisy, slightly grimy place; all cheap napkins and scratched furniture and greasy table edges. Kabab grills behind the counter, the sizzling sound the most appealing in the room, even with music beating in the background. A few groups of people—a family, a group of college-aged boys, a tired-looking couple—sit at tables. There's some of the usual staring; despite having lived in the neighborhood for some years, few have really gotten used to Bill's red hair, his fang earring or his usual odd apparel. He hasn't even really bothered to change out of his robes. People think he's eccentric already—they must chalk it up to him being a foreigner.
Karim, however, only seems glad to see him. "William!" he cries when Bill approaches the counter. He's a Muggle in his late forties, slightly muscular, the hard lines of his face twisting into an impossibly friendly smile. He hastily washes and dries his hands from the meat he's been handling, and returns to shake Bill's hand. "Back from England?"
"Yeah." Nausea stirs in his stomach again. "How've you been?"
"Business is as usual. You missed the sandstorm; lucky man."
Bill grins. "I noticed. My windows are a mess."
"We have been scrubbing for days now." Karim chuckles, shaking his head, and reaches for a skewer of spiced beef. "The usual?"
"That would be great," Bill replies, reaching into his pocket for Muggle money.
As Karim counts his change, calling to his son over his shoulder to come and handle the grill, he glances up at Bill inquiringly. "Are you staying for a while?"
Bill knows he doesn't mean the restaurant. "I don't know," he replies, and not for the first time, wishes that he could tell Karim the truth. "Something has come up… at home."
"Ah, family," Karim says with a slow nod, looking sympathetic as he hands Bill's change to him.
"Your mother wants you back, no?"
Swallowing, Bill smiles ruefully. "I think she'd prefer it if I stayed away."
As the kabab sizzles on the grill, Bill takes a seat at a table against the wall. He brought part of the family here almost two years ago, when they visited—only Fred and George, Ron and Ginny: he hadn't trusted his father to not remark loudly on the curious Muggle artifacts.
Ginny had been smaller then, less self-assured, sometimes appearing red-eyed with no explanation. There was a strange quietness about her, only supported by the way the rest of the family seemed to walk on eggshells when she was concerned, silence falling like a heavy blanket of secrets.
Oddly enough, Ginny herself was the one who told him.
"I can't talk to Mum or Dad about it," she told him quietly as they sat under the stars in the outskirts of Giza, desert winds whipping around them as their brothers played Exploding Snap inside. "It just makes things worse."
And looking at her, it was almost impossible to imagine her doing the things she told him, strangling roosters, writing messages in blood, writing to a strange man in a book… to Voldemort…
"I just wanted to get away," she said, as if she felt the need to give an explanation, sounding matter-of-fact even at the age of twelve. "It was nice… to be able to get away."
And even though she was eleven years younger than him, only about to start her second year at Hogwarts while he had been working in Egypt for years, he understood her with sudden, overwhelming clarity.
Because curse-breaking wasn't what brought him here—not really. He'd been looking for a reason to leave for years, for a path that would take him far from everything he had known and push him into the wider world. To be successful, to be independent… to be alone.
He's never really minded being far away from family. Sending letters back and forth, sometimes Floo-ing… it has been enough.
But he has been doing the same thing she had been trying to do… to get away.
And when they finally walked back to the cabin they were staying in, under the mingled light of lanterns and the full moon, he saw the strong line of her small jaw and the uprightness with which she held herself. She still looked like a child, but she no longer held herself like one.
Before they crossed the threshold and enter the rest of the family's line of view, he put his arm around her shoulders and hugged his little sister tightly.
In the following year, he spent endless hours turning the past he hadn't experienced—hadn't even known about—over and over in his head. He sent Ginny letters full of stories about breaking into tombs and riding camels with Ahmed, and received hers full of anecdotes about her Second Year. And he never, ever shared with her the questions he kept asking himself, desperately.
Would it have helped if I had been there for you?
Should I have been there?
But he stayed in Egypt, because Egypt was home.
Rachel and Dominic arrived sometime later from Ireland, followed by Soledad from Spain, and his flat was a place of friendship, his life a story of adventures that didn't even need embellishing for Ginny to enjoy them, his priorities work, adventure, maybe even women.
And when he went back to England, he hadn't been thinking of Death Eaters or Voldemort… hell, it had been years since he had even heard those words, gravely explained to him by his father back when Percy hadn't even started Hogwarts yet.
But he found himself, only a few days ago, next to Ginny at the entrance hall as he returned to speak to Dumbledore. The terror was still present in his stomach, in stark contrast to the cheery sunlight of the day. The grounds were quiet, as if they weren't quite sure how to mourn Cedric Diggory's death.
And Ginny had looked up at him grimly. "Mum's been trying to hide it from me, but I already know."
He didn't know how to reply to that, so he merely nodded. She was thirteen, now, taller than she had been in Egypt, her face thinner, her figure slimmer. He already glimpsed, even as he looked at her, the woman she was becoming—strong, hardened by suffering.
Something stabbed at his heart and he had to look away.
"You know, I thought I'd be able to tell. If he ever came back, I mean," Ginny said. She was shivering slightly in the cool breeze of the doorway. "But I didn't. I found out because I heard Ron talking about it." She let out a low laugh, bemused and relieved and horrified all at once. "It's strange—I really did think I'd be able to tell."
He shook his head. "I'm glad you didn't."
"Mum's finally all right with you living so far away," Ginny added presently, her voice smooth with amusement. "She keeps saying 'at least Bill and Charlie are already out of the country.'"
He doesn't realize that Karim is at his side until his dish has been set down in front of him, the scent of grilled meat and herbs rising to his nose. When he looks up, Karim is looking at him.
"Go back, William. Keep your family safe."
Bill frowns. "How do you—?"
"I have seen a lot, living in this country," Karim says in a low voice. His face, normally lighted with a smile, is grave. For the first time, Bill sees the weight of years on the man; a hint of unspoken pain lingering in his eyes. "I know that when a mother tells her son to stay away, it is because she is in greater danger than he is." His eyes are dark and piercing. "Go home, William."
He finishes his kabab and thanks Karim. On his way up the metal staircase that leads to his flat, he pauses and looks out into the open air, the sunlight warm on his back.
Around him, Cairo continues to be its usual hot, sprawling city. Not much has changed in Bill's absence, though some constructions have been finished down the street. Muggle life always seems to move slowly when it comes to constructions and excavations.
He has considered, in the past, leaving this place. But those fantasies had always been meant to play out on his own terms—maybe he would meet a girl from another country, perhaps another continent, and continue his adventures in some tropical forest or snowy mountainside. Or maybe he would go break curses in Tibet, or Nepal. Maybe he would one day simply be tired of it all, and with a few possessions, embark on a spur-of-the-moment journey.
He had never even stopped to consider that he would one day have to go back to England. He had never imagined that there would be a war.
But he is the first Weasley son, and he can't be absent; not again.
Down the road in front of his building, two boys are riding bicycles down the sidewalk; they've always been fascinated by Bill's fang earring, speaking Arabic faster than he can manage to keep up with.
He will probably never speak to them again.
Bill joined Ginny outside just before dinner, by their tent at the Quidditch World Cup, listening to the celebrations taking place all around the camp.
"You're doing great," Bill told her, glancing up at the dark sky, which was now lighted up by the occasional firework, casting reddish stains onto the clouds.
Ginny smiled a little, and he knew that she knew what he meant. She was still holding the green rosette from the match.
"It took me a while," she replied. "But yeah, I am."
Bill watched her as she looked down and turned the rosette over in her hand.
"At first I thought it'd be better if I just didn't think about it. It was nicer to pretend that nothing had changed. But I couldn't, obviously." Ginny looked up at him with a wry smile. "There are some things you just can't run away from."
A Muggle car passes by, horn blaring, and wrenches Bill from his thoughts. His keys are jingling between his fingers. He tightens his jaw, sighs, and goes to open the door.
He starts packing.