Chapter 3 : The Clearwater Remains
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Breathtaking image by easterlies. @ TDA.
April 1996, Oxfordshire
The dead man’s name was Aaron Holden, half-blood, twenty-something years old. A bright blond head shines in black-and-white sunlight, a paper and ink smile flashes across the obituary page, bright in the fulfillment of life.
Mr. Holden tragically passed away at his Yorkshire home this Monday. A valued photographer for the ‘Daily Prophet,’ his unfortunately short life leaves behind a legacy of splendid journalism. He will be dearly missed by his sister Amy and parents, Frederick and Alison Holden.
The pristine, white china teapot rattles a little as it grates against the cup. Unsure of whether to step in or not, I lay down the Prophet and watch as Mrs. Clearwater precariously finishes pouring my tea. Her hands are white and corded, shivering with a cold that exists somewhere beyond this brisk, tidy room.
“Sugar, Verity dear?” She asks politely, and I smile and remind her two. I’m round the Clearwaters out of a hybrid of duty, curiosity and grief, seeking solace from the last person ready to surrender it.
“Thanks, Mrs. C,” I tell her, and a small smile perks at her lips, remembering the many cups of tea she has served me in the past, and the third presence in the room who drew warmth like a shadow around her, that presence who is missing now. If I glance from the corner of my eye I think I see her, a flush on a white cheek, the one-dimpled grin, the curtain of long, dark hair falling across her face as she pushes it back in frustration, the impatient cross of her bare, tanned legs.
Penelope was beautiful, though she was also much more. She was kind, and a perfectionist, and opinionated. She was selfish, and proud. She had a terrible sleep schedule, and used to wake me up with the scratching of her quill in the night. She liked to dominate the conversation. But all of this, of the essence of Penelope will be forgotten in favor of her young beauty, the pretty, immortal corpse she left, forever frozen at nineteen. She is beautiful, but nothing else.
Pay attention, Penelope chides in my head, and I return my gaze to Mrs. Clearwater, meeting her knowing eyes. Perhaps she, too, finds herself lost in another dimension of memory. This is important, Verity. The empty space within my body, left bereft from her absence, seems to thud.
“Mrs. C,” I begin hesitantly, hating the way the question is dipped in awkwardness, my jumbled thoughts unable of producing anything subtle or coherent. “You mentioned on the phone… that there had been another death. Did you mean… is it connected to…”
Mrs. Clearwater gently pulls the Daily Prophet back across the table, peering down at it sadly. Her fingers softly trace the outline of the laughing face of Aaron Holden, a man she never knew, the faceless grief of his own mother taking shape beneath her touch, flesh to paper. Like Penelope, Aaron must have been many things, yet he will only be remembered as beautiful and ruined.
“They asked me about him,” she murmurs, eyes fixed. “Your policemen, those… Aurors. They told me he’d been… murdered, and they believed the deaths were linked.” She meets my confused gaze. “But the paper doesn’t say anything about that. It just says he passed away, that’s all. It’s all they said in the announcement for my daughter. Nothing about danger, about hate. Verity, honey… if something is stirring in your world, something that took my Penny, why aren’t they telling people about it? Why don't they have any leads on who hurt her?”
My heart thuds. Unwillingly, my mind goes to other articles in the paper, with the serious, be-speckled face of my old headmaster. Dumbledore, Dopey or Dangerous? Of a thin teenager with cracked glasses, walking, head down, from a hearing at the Ministry. Potter’s absurd claims a desperate bid for attention. Boy Who Lived gone Loopy.
“I’m sure everything’s fine,” I tell Mrs. Clearwater, and instantly forget it. Of course, nothing will ever be fine for her. “I mean… I’ll keep a look out, let you know if I hear anything… the Ministry says everything is alright.” I finish weakly, staring at my reflection in the window: a wide-eyed blob with a halo of blond, light against the rainy Oxford street, stones a sandy brown speaking of a refined kind of wealth as the water drips through.
She purses her lips and nods, patting my arm kindly. “Penny left a lot of her things here, papers and notes and such. Would you… I can’t bring myself, you see. The Ministry has already been through, but if there’s something useful in there...”
“Of course,” I agree, relieved to be able to do something. “Really, if there’s anything I can do. Write the obituary for the wizard papers, clean out her things… you need only let me know.”
Penelope’s room looks the same, perfectly preserved in the state of teenager before she moved to a flat in London. Walls painted in Ravenclaw colors, a silver-embossed raven stretching and flapping wings of cloth from a rich blue flag. It gives me a knowing, critical look as I let myself in, breathing in the familiar scent of rosemary laundry liquid, of the stale air of a room left unopened and smells left to stir. Yet there are signs within the room of disturbance: the small indent in the bed, on the disarranged pillow, as if someone has some to this room and lain on the bed, buried their face in the pillow and wrapped their arms around it to stifle the sobs.
I bend down and run my fingers over the softness of the carpet, where I had sat for hours after my mother’s funeral, Penelope weaving soft braids through my hair and feeding me tea and biscuits. The familiar, beloved book of the history of Transfiguration, favorite pages bookmarked with tidy Post-It notes. Pictures of Muggle and wizarding celebrities alike line the walls, the former encased in their still tombs, smiles a little too bright.
The box of Penelope’s things stands lonely on the tidy desk, a solitary ark of answers and questions. Tentatively, I reach my hand in and pull out a notebook, filled with the familiar pretty, rounded writing. Her name, signed with a flourish, decorates the inner cover.
Shoving the memories to the side, I nestle the box in my arms and head down the stairs, accepting a kiss on the cheek goodbye from Mrs. Clearwater. The rain has stalled, and the air has that moist, heavy quality about it, as if promising that this is only a stolen moment of peace, that the rain will return with renewed ferocity. I walk slowly towards the town centre, to the Christ College which is outfitted with a fireplace hooked up to the Floo network. My wand thuds dully in my pocket. It’s only half-ten in the morning, and already the day is heavy. But at least I have lunch with Gemma to look forward to.
A Few Hours Later
Stopping to fluff up my short blond hair in the reflection of the cracked gold sign, I power-walk back through Knockturn, nodding hello to a couple of the regular suspects and accidentally elbowing a tall, sinister looking witch wearing a very conspicuous pointed hat. I’m already five minutes late for my lunch with Gemma.
When I finally slip in the door of The Hunted Unicorn, she’s already waiting for me, leaning back in her chair and surveying the room thoughtfully, like a lioness readying herself for the hunt. The choice of prey isn’t very appetizing, however: The Hunted Unicorn is your typical, off the beaten track English pub, significantly cheaper than the Leaky Cauldron because of it’s location right behind Gringotts and shabby decor. The place is often frequented by goblins and bankers on their lunch breaks, as well as the assorted mix of gossiping white-haired men that once seems to find in a variety of English pubs, who appear to be the current clientele. At the moment, the interior is pretty stark, a babbling group of middle-aged men chatting over a row of empty pint glasses and overflowing burgers and chips.
My eyes adjust to the musty interior of the pub, the sweet smell of beer intermingling with dusty wood to invade my nostrils. When Gemma sees me, she immediately rises and holds out her arms. Gratefully, I descend into them, taking a quick inhale of her brisk, fruity scent. Gemma, 24 of Devonshire, former Gryffindor and filled with London-lust, works at a small vintage clothing boutique just off Diagon Alley. I notice that she’s wearing three different floral patterns, but somehow makes it look stylish.
“Darling, I was so sorry to hear about your friend,” she whispers, pulling away gently. “It’s just so, so tragic. Are you getting by?”
I nod stiffly and take my seat, absently pulling down on my shirt bottom to make sure it’s reaching the top of my jeans.
“Thanks,” I say mechanically, but then remembering that this is mad, wild Gemma, I add, “but I really don’t want to talk about it, not now. We haven’t seen each other for over two weeks! How’s everything at the shop?”
“Oh you know me,” Gemma drawls, brushing her long dark fringe out of her eyes. Each fingernail is painted a different color. “I’ve been bored as hell without you to chat with. The other girls there are such bores, they never have any useful gossip besides the boys they fancy and the clothes they can’t afford on our meager minimum wage.”
I waggle my eyebrows at her. “Because you never discuss the boys you fancy, eh?”
Gemma blushes a little, and I observe my friend. If you examine each individual feature, they’re not quite pretty: her eyes perhaps point a little to the side, her nose a little too long, her mouth wide and uneven. But somehow each mismatched piece fits together to create this great explosion of person, who’s raucous laughter, wicked eye and brazen confidence mask a kind, desperate sort of soul. We met when I first started working at Borgin and Burke’s and was blowing my new wages on some fresh threads. She helped me collect a vintage pair of earrings, and upon realizing I worked nearby we became fast friends, comrades among the long-suffering serving retail class of the Alleys.
“How is that scrumptious boyfriend of yours, anyway?” She adds, looking a little dreamy. I chuckle at this description of Sebastian, who is still the gawky, serious boy of Hogwarts in my head, no matter how others might perceive him.
“He’s… being Sebastian, you know? Trying to save his own skin while looking like he’s saving everyone else’s. He’s been sweet with me, though, through all of…” I wave my hand vaguely. Gemma catches on and nods thoughtfully.
“Well, if I had a future husband lined up like that, I’d dig in the claws and hang on, love.”
I wince. “Who said anything about a husband? I’m only nineteen, for Rowena’s sake. Plus, I don’t think Sebastian’s exactly husband material. I’m really not in any rush to shack up.” I furtively glance over my shoulder to ensure that Seb or one of his banker cronies hasn’t wandered inside in time to witness this expression of doubt. Somehow, I don’t think he’d appreciate it.
“But you’ve been together-” Gemma’s protests are interrupted by the arrival of the waitress, a tall, busty brunette with bright red lipstick and thin, dark hair that frames her sharp-boned face. I dislike her on instinct until she opens her mouth.
“Sorry to interrupt you, ladies, but can I grab you any drinks?” Her smile is timid and her voice sweet and genuine, as if she’s nervous to be speaking with us despite our obvious physical inferiority. I glance at Gemma.
“Er, yes, I’ll have an ice tea, and could I also get the fish and chips? With extra ketchup?” I ask, and the waitress smiles.
“Sounds good." The Quik-Notes Quill and notepad hovering at her shoulder scribble down my order in bright purple ink, a stark contrast with the plain pub. "I love ketchup! Can't eat chips without it, though this lot prefer mayo.” She gestures dismissively in the direction of the sticky-fingered group in the corner.
I laugh. “I thought I’d request it now instead of being forced to ask you to go back and forth from the kitchens bringing me more portions.”
The waitress laughs again, a loud, authentic sound. “You will never know how much I appreciate it. Anything for you, love?”
With a few more discussions about food the waitress has won over both Gemma and I, the former of whom is usually even more judgemental when it comes to attractive women folk. The waitress, who introduces herself as Dray, insists that we reconvene the coming Friday at the pub for live music, featuring an Irish wizarding band refuted to draw real Leprechauns to the show.
“More importantly,” Gemma adds, grabbing our new friend’s sleeve. “Will there be attractive, single men there?”
“Perhaps, if you like leprechauns,” Dray retorts, then grins and does a funny little shimmy with her hips. “You girls will love it: everybody who works down Diagon shows up and everybody fights over buying the next round. I’m working the bar, but only for the first half of the night. You have to come, I'll give you free pints!” She twirls away towards the kitchen, waving at a pack of pot-bellied wizards who have strutted inside the pub.
“Should we go?” I ask Gemma, twirling the lemon about in the ice tea Audrey has sent over our way, along with a complimentary plate of cheese-smothered nachos. Gemma scoffs and stuffs a mound of cheese and salsa into her bright red mouth.
“Well, I’m definitely going. It’s been too long since I had a good pint- not to mention a good snog." She winks cheekily at me. "And you should come too, Verity,” she says, her voice softening and fingers lightly grazing my arm. “It will take your mind off… everything.”
I wonder suddenly what Penelope would think of Gemma and this new girl, Dray, loud, confident women who toy with men and love without conditions and lack any sense of their own importance. I never thought to introduce Penny and Gemma, and now it’s too late.
Gemma’s story is of being over-shadowed by the charming and the beautiful, overlooked by her parents and her peers. Mediocre intelligence, carefully constructed beauty easily ruined by the wrong colour lipstick or heels of the wrong height. So Gemma chose to reinvent herself, emancipated and earning her own Galleons, saving up for the pretty, wild clothes and hunting for the perfect boy to complement her, to whom she could truly confess that she hadn’t always been like this. It took me only a bottle of wine to extract this story, her bright eyes blinking back the fear of being unimportant.
That night, I lie awake for hours, the box of Penelope’s papers on the desk a silent presence in the room, thickening the air and causing me to thrash beneath sweaty sheets, finally throwing them to the ground in a twisted mess. I open the window, peering into the street below. Two men are having a whispered argument, their angry faces flickering in the oil lamps which light this historic area, ever-burning thanks to the wizarding inhabitants. I am filled with an unexpected nausea for the world my father’s blood has pulled me into, a realm in which issues are resolved with a flash of light, lethal and legal, in which every individual over the age of eleven is prepared to cause serious harm with a murmured word. My own magic has deserted me, yet here I am, surrounded by objects once owned by dark wizards yet subjected to my use, unable to defend myself yet unable to escape. As the taller man pulls out his wand I turn away, shutting and latching the window tight.
Did Penelope defend herself? She, like me, had been raised in the Muggle world, nurtured and safe. Neither of us knew the pain of loss, of being hunted, of the dark forces which assembled beneath the surfaces of society, of magic which made everything simultaneously possible and impossible. Perhaps the implications of the extent, the horror of magic did not truly sink in until it stole my best friend without apology. Magic itself does not know mercy.
Sticky and stressed, I fall asleep with my body wrapped around a pillow, dark hair and laughing eyes flashing through my dreams, hiding in the bend of a corridor, the remains of Penelope vanishing into the ancient stones of Hogwarts.
Hogwarts, Fifth Year, June
It was our fifth year, one of those flavourful Hogwarts years when my mother's illness was a terrible knowledge that could be put away in a box and worried about only over the holidays, before our Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher went mad and tried to steal a precious object Dumbledore had hidden in the dungeons and was fought off by little Harry Potter, before the Chamber of Secrets was opened and changed everything. The castle was a safe haven, a glorious portal into the magical world which seemed to enclose and fit us like a glove. This was the year of the O.W.Ls, of late nights spent over hot chocolate in the common room poring over Transfiguration books, my head bent closely to Sebastian's, his fingers drumming a piano rhythm on my leg, the year I first learned to fly, screaming and clinging to a rickety school broom as my friends laughed, faces blurred shapes against the green floor of the pitch.
Most importantly, it was the year of Penelope Clearwater and Percy Weasley.
I suppose it began at the Prefect duties. A Gryffindor in our year, Percy had been an outspoken, proud presence in our shared classes, a lanky figure moving across the Dining Hall. When she was first assigned a patrol with him, Penny was indignant, her natural competetiveness being flared by this most stern and ambitious of boys, a serious expression coating his fifteen-year old face and making him appear years older, like he had seen and scorned other worlds. It only took a few weeks until Penelope's attitude towards Percy suddenly changed: she began to apply lip gloss and mascara for her patrols, grinning stupidly at me then snapping back into her prim self when I asked knowingly about Percy. Something had ignited between them, whether it was a drive for perfection and self-improvement, a staunch appreciation for following the rules or simply a love for history and politics, I am not quite certain.
Penelope changed: she bounced around the corridors, smiled sappily at Filch as he sent a suspicious look her way, her quill scratching with sappy love poetry long after the rest of us in the dorm had put out textbooks and torches to rest. Always the perfect prefect, she left to meet Percy in empty classrooms and secluded corridors, returning before curfew with time to spare and her hair tied back in a neat bun. Sebastian and I bonded over trying to catch them at it, giggling at the idea of Penelope's lips pressed against Percy's as we tested to see if the other truly wanted that as well. It was Penelope, the love-struck and sudden relationship expert, who finally sat both Seb and I down in the common room, informed us that it was about time we got together, and watched satisfactorily as my hand tentatively reached for his.
"You two were made for each other," she said, pleased with herself. "I always knew it. I've already started planning my maid of honour speech."
If Penelope said it, it must be so. She invited Percy to our study sessions as the exams approached, sitting primly on opposite sides of the table as they discussed the exact dates of the European Witching Accords, quill-free hands a chaste distance away. Perched on Sebastian's lap with his arms wrapped around my waist, we snickered to each other, caught in the excitement of being a new couple and convinced that our relationship was the superior: the more passionate, the most in love. In front of Percy, Penelope never seemed to display her excitement as she did when we were alone.
The only time I saw a glimpse of her true relationship with Percy happened by pure fluke. Dashing back to the common room minutes before curfew, I stumbled upon them in a tiny corridor, pressed against a wall, whispering love-words that brushed against my ears as I rounded the corner.
I peeked over to see her arms wrapped around his neck, playing with the collar of his robes, the bright Prefect badge discarded so their bodies were pressed against each other without hindrance. Percy kissed her, no sign of the familiar pinched look clouding his features, looking almost handsome in the candlelight. Penelope’s body relaxed into him, trailing kisses across his neck and finally landing on his mouth, and with that his body tensed and he held her closer, hands moving synchronized up and down her back, tracing little circles on her shoulder blades. She smiled. I had never seen her looking so young and carefree, so unusually happy. I disappeared before she knew I had seen. I never told her I saw.
Knockturn Alley, 1996
The morning is rainy, and Knockturn Alley is bleak and empty in these early hours. Tugging my black raincoat tightly around me, I accidentally step right into a deep puddle, soaking my foot past the ankle and curse loudly. I glance about to see if anyone has noticed, but meet the eyes only of little Bess, a child ghost who haunts the corner by the old antique shop.
Local lore has it that in the late 1700s, the building was home to a cauldron maker and his family, who catered to the wizarding quarter of London. Even wizards were struck down by the great bubonic Plague outbreak of 1775, the bodies eventually simply piled into mass graves, many old pureblood names mixed in with Muggle corpses. The small wizarding hospital was shut down in the early days, leaving those who could fly or afford Floo powder to escape the epidemic and leaving the poverty-ridden wretches to wait like sitting ducks in a rapidly quarantined city.
The cauldron maker and his family arranged to escape London, yet the day before their arranged departure found their little daughter trembling with great pox marks on her face and neck. Desperate, and knowing the Ministry authorities would never allow them to leave had they known the child was a carrier, they tucked her in at night and locked the door of her tiny room. The next morning, when the daughter awoke and tried the lock, her screams were met by the echoes of an empty house, and she shouted and clawed at the door before dying in a feverish agony a few days later.
When the disease passed and the exiled began to return to their London homes, the cauldron maker and his family found both the body and the ghost of little Bess waiting for the parents who had abandoned her. Ever since, she has occupied that corner in petulant attendance, staring back solemnly at curious passers-by in Knockturn with her tongue stuck in her mouth, never chilled by the London rain despite being clad in a white nightgown, the bricks of the Victorian building brown and clear through her transparent body. I collected Bess' story from the locals and the library, though when I tried to speak with the ghost herself she only stared back at me with those abandoned, empty eyes. Bess, like me, was abandoned by her parents.
As I pass, I wonder again how little Bess lingered in this world as a shade of her former self, a silent observer to two hundred years of activity. Does she watch and judge on the progressions of the people who inhabit these streets of her youth, so familiar yet so changed? When I first began at Borgin and Burke's I wondered if my father might have chosen to haunt the shop he so loved in life, waiting for the inevitable appearance of the little daughter he had left behind. If Penelope were a ghost, would she seek me out, bringing the answers I so craved? Would she be as all-seeing and all-knowing in death as she was in life? Would she look at those she had loved - myself, Sebastian, Percy - with the same accusing eyes as the ghost of little Bess facing down the parents who had locked her up and let her die alone? On the day of her lonely death, did a single magpie haunt them from the corners of their eyes, crying a requiem to their guilt?
Shivering from these uneasy thoughts and the cold rain drumming on my head, I twirl my key in the brass lock of the shop and deposit a pile of Penelope's papers on the counter. Here, among dark objects collected and displayed from all over the world, I can exist in a place free from judgement, where it is the stories of others and not my own that is of importance. Turning the carved wooden sign from 'Closed' to 'Open,' I perch on the chair behind the counter and begin to sort through the dreaded papers, moving my fingers over the ink.
The sheets of parchment appear to be in no particular order, beginning with notes Penelope has taken on an article that appeared in the 'Daily Prophet' nearly three years ago. The story announces that the Hogwarts students who had been Petrified had been revived, and included a proud photograph of Professor Sprout, my old Herbology teacher, proudly clutching a huge pile of chopped mandrakes, their little hands hanging limply and swaying slightly in the breeze outside the greenhouses. Penelope always had a bizarre interest in the incident in our sixth year, particularly due to her own involvement, and little notes appear in the margins. No quotes from Dumbledore. Reads one cramped line in her familiar hand. No mention of the cause? Writer questions lack of answers. Unable to find anything of interest, I love through the next few papers, my searching becoming more and more hopeless and distracted as I begin to hope for any customer to enter the shop and distract me- perhaps George Weasley needs more illegal products?
A small collection of parchment reveals several lines of notes in Penelope's hand under the title Piece for M. M. After scanning the pages, I notice one woman's name underlined three times in Penny's firm black strokes, and etch the letters onto my own notepad, unsure of it's significance, adding Bertha Jorkins, 1995 to the list of people, places and dates which have appeared in Penelope's things. I sigh, wondering if Mrs. Clearwater expects me to report on my progress, or if these papers are simply her way of lending me a form of closure. All this has done is open up more questions. If Dawlish and the other Aurors couldn't find anything in Penelope's notes, how can I be expected to?
Behind the parchment, Penelope's face stares up at me, causing my heart to give a small leap inside my chest. Carefully, I cradle the small photograph in my hands, peering at the little snapshot of the past it presents. My friend's face, the familiar controlled and pretty smile gleaming from between two curtains of long dark hair. As I watch, she nibbles at her lip, eyes darting to the left at the boy who stands beside her, a broad arm cast around her shoulders. He looks strangely familiar, though I can't quite place his paper and ink features. Both figures beam at the unknown photographer, young and alive against a backdrop of a busy city bridge, anonymous people bustling behind them, a pub with an obscured name poking through. A tall, thin sculpture pierces the sky behind them, sunlight glimmering off its silver edges. Penelope leans her arm against the stone railing of the bridge, her eyes meeting mine with that knowing look of photographs and portraits.
My attention shifts again to the strange boy in the picture, who is so inexplicably familiar. I don't recognize him from Hogwarts, or from the multitude of characters who wander into Borgin and Burke's. Turning the picture over, Penelope's handwriting beckons to me, eager to reveal the next secret, the beginnings of a clue.
Aaron and I, taken by Christian Haynes. August 1995.
I suddenly recognize the boy in the photograph, who had stared back at me from a similar picture only a few days earlier. He is Aaron Holden, the man who had died and who the Aurors had questioned Mrs. Clearwater about, who had died mysteriously like Penelope.
But who was Christian Haynes? I peer again at the back at the photograph. In another colour ink, in an untidy, scrawled hand, Penelope has added another note beneath his name, three words that I didn't notice the first time around, as if they have appeared only for the sake of my scrutiny.
Speak with Christian.
After an unexciting morning, I am relieved at the shop by Borgin, who is avoiding his hectic home as Mrs. Borgin prepares for the approaching return of the prodigal son, Mr. Borgin's eldest. As he shoos me, clearly hoping for some peace and quiet, I adorn my raincoat and wander towards Gringotts, hoping to catch Sebastian for a quick tea in which he can unburden his work woes and distract me from the piles of questions Mrs. Clearwater has burdened me with.
Gringotts is as impressive as that first visit when I was eleven, anxious and eager, my hand buried in my mother’s cool grip. Still, nine years later, I pretend for a moment I am that child again, catching Mum’s eye as she smiles down at me, her face high and bright against the flashing light through glass. She was healthy and beautiful, then, excited to introduce me to the world of my father, anxious to let me stray from her loving, sometimes over-bearing protection, cancer already beginning to slip through her body like a serpent, poisoning the carefully made-up skin, the white, easy smile.
My boots click on the marble floors, the great vaulted ceiling glimmering high above my head. Gringotts is a place of ancient prestige, where voices and gazes must be lowered: the very air is stale and smells of must and money. Like an iceberg, the elaborate lobby, dotted with imposing statues of Greek figures dying in agony, masks the real mass, inhuman layers of vaults disappearing deep beneath the surface of the earth, an alien city in its own right guarding coins and priceless treasures like the chambers of a Pharoah’s tomb.
Quills scratch in stern silence, and a pair of goblin eyes appraise me as I grab the nearest wizard security guard, touching his arm gently to draw his attention. He turns, eyebrows raised in a questioning offer that is nearly polite.
"Hi, sorry, I was just wondering if you could take a message for me and see if my boyfriend, Sebastian Deleau, is available?" The security wizard looks slightly annoyed, as if about to tell me he is not a messenger bird, but zips his lips and heads through an ornately carved door behind the cloth barrier separating visitors from staff. He re-surfaces a few minutes later to inform me Sebastian is in a conference.
"And when will he be finished?" I ask, admiring the polite chimes in my own voice.
"Dunno." The wizard gives me a dismissive look, and I take this as a cue to turn and seat myself on the hard dragon hide benches that line the great atrium, crossing and un-crossing my legs and admiring a large chunk of black stone in the marble flooring.
Easily bored, I examine my wand in the semblance of being occupied, giving it an experimental wave out of habit, wishing I had a Muggle mobile phone or set of Gobstones with which to distract myself, or at least a notepad on which to doodle lists of things I should be getting done. The richly set bench is stern and unwelcoming, and I fidget, ignoring the emotionless glances of the goblins at work. The dragon hide stretched over the seat is carefully smoothed and cured, and I run my fingers, wondering about the dragon forced to surrender his skin.
Gringotts is quiet today, but not for long. No more than seven minutes have passed when I see out of the corner of my eye a tall, red-topped figure strolling across the marble floor of Gringotts, his shoes making slight tapping noises that echo. I sink back in the hard seat and glance up: he’s not looking at me. I glance down again awkwardly and pretend to jump in surprise when the familiar voice travels across the lobby, slicing gaily through the solemn, thick air.
“Er, hi George,” I say brightly, blushing the shade of what I assume resembles a mildly ripe tomato. “Fancy seeing you here, er, today! In Gringotts,” and I motion around to our setting as if I’ve just realized where I’ve been waiting, with nothing but depressing thoughts and an acute sense of loneliness for company.
George Weasley smiles warmly at me, his earnest brown eyes twinkling, hands fondling the bag of coins he’s holding in front of him like a talisman. Again, I am struck by his uncanny handsomeness, the confidence and charm that lingers around him. I want to examine him from all angles, calculate the square angle of his jaw, count the freckles on his nose, but I chase these strange thoughts from my mind. Truth is, he's been present in my thoughts ever since his venture into the shop. I even glanced down Diagon Alley hopefully while stepping up the entrance of the bank. Gemma would laugh if she could see me now, and the image convinces me there's a blush giving my thoughts away.
“We’ve gotten some advances from investors,” George explains, jiggling the bag. He seems oblivious to my awkward examination, a friendly smile fitting a familiar pattern. “We thought it’d be best to deposit it before anybody got a little too Galleon-happy.” He turns towards the desks of goblins and looks expectantly at me. “Fancy keeping me entertained in line?”
I shrug and follow him to the short queue, deciding that Sebastian isn’t going to show up any time soon.
"You can give me some backup with the goblins, they absolutely despise me," George murmurs happily, bending his head down towards me ear.
"And what did you do to deserve that?" I inquire, raising my eyebrows at him.
"Let's just say I had some questions about the potency of goblin eyelashes in forgery charms," George mutters back, his eyes amused. "'Ol Fierlbock was a little spooked." He gestures towards a wary-looking goblin who appears relatively young, his long hooked nose, trailing across his desk as he gives George a dirty look. I giggle loudly, stifling it quickly as the tall, serious witch in front of me gives me a haughty look. In the dusty rafters of the ancient bank, my laugh echoes warmly among the cold stench of old money.
"Mr. Weasley," the goblin at the desk says evenly, a cold tint to his nasally voice. George deposits the bag of coins on the desk with a resounding thud.
"We shall like to deposit this sum in the Weasley Wizarding Wheezes vault," he says, straightening his shoulders and puffing out his chest in feigned importance. "Promptly, my good chap."
The goblin seems to refrain from rolling his eyes, inhaling sharply. "Key?"
George sticks his hand in his pocket- I notice he's wearing Muggle jeans which fit his long form nicely, then hastily raise my eyes- and extracts a shiny key that looks freshly minted, glinting silver. The goblin examines it warily, nodding to another goblin circling about, then pulls the bag of coins towards him.
"Does Mr. Weasley wish to enter the vault himself?" Despite the formal address, the goblin's voice is nearly mocking, cold voice lingering on the word 'mister.' George seems oblivious to this. He shakes his head, drawing away from the high desk.
"I trust you can handle it and save me a trip to the vault, and I know where you old codgers are if there's anything missing!" He calls cheerfully, ushering me away from the goblin and towards the grand doors. "I'm a little clausterphobic, to be honest, not that the vault is particularly deep," he confesses in a low voice. I skip a little to keep up with his brisk stride. "Convinced they're going to try and lock me in there one day. They hate all wizards, but especially those with new gold."
"That would be awful," I acknowledge, head flooded with a sudden image of little Bess, dying alone in a locked room. I consider telling George about her.
George shudders. "My brother used to laugh at me when we were walking through the secret passages in Hogwarts, said he never had to worry about going first since I was so eager to get out."
"Did a lot of sneaking through secret passages, did you?"
He grins at me in a quick flash of teeth, hopping down from the top stair of Gringotts. "I'll tell you all about it sometime. Now, are you coming?"
I pause, separated from him by a curtain of rain dripping off the roof. "Coming where?"
"To see the shop, of course," George says, pulling up the hood of his jacket. It's too late: water has already left track marks down the sides of his cheeks. "Unless... you have something else to do?" He sounds a little doubtful for the first time, peering at me as if realizing I must have been waiting in Gringotts for a reason. I glance over my shoulder, past the sign warning thieves where the silent goblins continue their bitter vigil, and the angry security wizard paces through his route.
"I'm all yours," I tell him, and hunching against the downpour scurry along side him down the cobblestoned street.
Weasley's Wizarding Wheezes is, for lack of a better word, a mess from the exterior. Peeling lettering, perhaps the remnants of the shop's previous owners, decorates the exterior, while black paint hides the interior of the shop from the inside-out. The whole place has an air of neglect and depression, yet George looks at it like a proud father, albeit the kind of father who's about to dangle his kid in the pool by his ankles.
"We're opening the most incredible jokeshop Diagon Alley has ever seen," George informs me, pausing to admire the crumbling facade. "It's going to turn this Alley upside-down, Verity, just you wait."
I shrug, hiding a grin. "Would you like the show me the inside and get out of this horrible weather?"
"I swear Scotland didn't rain this much," George mutters, holding the door open for me. A large chunk of wood is missing from the bottom. His conviction reminds me of happy golden days spent closed in the castle: the weather certainly wasn't better, we were just less exposed to the outdoor elements.
"Welcome to London," I remind him, and stifle a gasp as I step through into the shop. Unlike the grey, abandoned exterior, the interior is ripe and overflowing with colourful boxes spilling across the floor, falling from the overstocked shelves. Twirling streamers and singing whirl-a-gigs dangle from the ceiling, giving the place the feeling of a forest canopy with every colour imaginable. A bright fire crackles merrily from the restored, grey-stone fireplace, changing from blue to pink to orange before my eyes. Little shapes and figures seem to dance within it: a tiny, flaming horse and rider gallop in a circle of curling, browning paper, so quickly that I nearly imagined it. Signs and advertisements cover some of the faded plaster walls, tacked up at uneven angles, from which grinning figures wave and hoist products in the air. A cheeky bearded man, trapped in his brightly-coloured two-dimensional prison, winks at me suggestively while holding out what looks like a foreboding, purple potion.
"Oi, Georgie, did you manage to catch-" a voice calls, and a figure clad in a red jumper emerges from behind a column of boxes. He stops mid-sentence as he catches a glimpse of me, smirking. "Oh. You alright? I'm Fred."
I smile and shake his hand, this carbon-copy of the boy who walked me here from Gringotts, the same familiar curve of the lines around their eyes, the casual slant of the thin shoulders. George pulls off his coat and tosses it over the stand, holding out his arm for mine.
"I'm Verity, I met your brother at Borgin and Burke's the other day, in Knockturn Alley."
Fred chuckles, turning to look at his brother who is shaking the water from my coat and placing it next to his on the bright purple coat stand. "Oh, don't worry, I've heard all about that trip to Borgin and Burke's."
"Er, did you figure out your product?" Fred nods cheerfully, reaching into his pocket and extracting what looks like a rather grubby sweet.
"Fancy a go?"
"I'll pass," I reply evenly, giving George's twin an appraising look. I don't quite trust the eager, mischievous grin in his eyes, suspecting he is someone who will push someone just a little too far, cut the rules just a tad too close. George moves beside his brother, shaking his wet hair at him like a shaggy dog, and Fred shoves his twin playfully. Back in the company of his brother, George seems more at ease, the words flowing easily off his tongue, their heads inclined slightly in the right direction. To my appraising eye they are mirror images of each other, the difference in whichever side you choose to peer out from.
"Well, I'll be getting out of your hair, Georgie," Fred chirps, throwing his brother what I choose to not interpret as a knowing smirk. "I'll just be off, er, sending old Mercury on his way." He disappears into the back room and returns with a rather scrappy owl, which nips at him crossly with blurry eyes. "Lee will be wanting these new sketches immediately. S'later, Verity." He bids me goodbye with a mock salute and spins on his heels, vanishing out the front door of the shop and revealing the sound of the rain continuing to pound on the stones of Diagon Alley.
I turn to George, who seems a little nervous now that his brother has deserted him and he has been left to banter alone. "Well? I fancy a tour, if you're up for some scrutiny."
And so George Weasley shows me around his life's work: eyes shining as I pick up Fanged Frisbee designed to bite the owner's designated enemies, grinning proudly at my wonder of Disguise Potions which I suspect contain weaker doses of Polyjuice Potion - a miracle to brew in such large supply, really. He coaxes me into sampling a Nosebleed Nougat and throws back his head in genuine mirth at my shock. I catch a glimpse of my face in a silly mirror, stretched out like the head of a horse, my eyes long and blue in their sockets as I stare in amused wonder at the conjured blood dripping from my nostrils.
"This is really incredible magic," I tell George honestly, wiping a clean cloth he's Summoned for me across my face. I jump up and perch on the counter, examining the ancient, out-of-order till.
"Want to see something cool?" He replies, darting into the back room and emerging with a small, dark red box. Depositing it on the floor in front of me, he pulls out his wand, a long, finely wrought thing. "You might want to stand back."
With a tap of his wand the box seems to surge and expand, growing quickly before my eyes as I lean back to avoid it. In less than a minute a large, red tent is standing on the hard floor of the building which will someday become Weasley Wizarding Wheezes. George beckons to me.
"Insta-camp packs, ten Galleons a piece. Come down here and check it out."
Obligingly, I hop down and follow him into the tent, which is roomy and pleasant. A messy heap of mattress, quilts and pillows adorns the floor, and I flop down on them, watching amused as George sits tentatively, a chaste distance away.
"Your real market should be selling to Muggles," I remark, remembering strenuous camping trips to Scotland with my mother as a child. "Easily portable,
"Yeah, well this old boy is still in progress, but a hell of a lot faster and cheaper than the wizarding tents on the market now. If we could only get this bloody self-tidying charm to work, that is..." He pokes at the tangle of blankets with his wand a little helplessly.
"At least you can still cast charms," I remark, the lightness of my mood overshadowed by a hint of bitterness. `I stare at the summit of the magical tent.
George sits up, leaning his head on his arm. "What do you mean?" His eyes seem to trace the contours of my face, hovering over my lips. I register his closeness, the slant of his body leaning in my direction, long, surprisingly delicate fingers scratching gently at his own slightly overgrown hair.
"I had a friend... a wonderful friend. But, she's not here anymore. And I can't do magic now, not without her. It's just... deserted me, you know?" I chew at a fingernail.
George stays quiet for a few minutes, his breath steady beside me in the tent, the light from the shop shining through. Finally, he speaks again. "Your friend, did she die?"
I nod, and seeming to sense the vibrations in the magical mattress, he exhales slowly. "I'm sorry. Is that what you're supposed to say? I've never known anyone who died, other than my Uncle Bilius, but he was well old, and nobody expected him to live past seventy anyway."
"It's okay." And in this unique, enclosed moment, it is.
"Can you tell me... if you want... what happened to your friend?" He is hesitant, curious, unsure of how to progress. George Weasley, I sense, thinks before he speaks but is plagued by ideas insistent on emerging from his mind. Curiosity is not a sin, only sometimes considered impolite. "Was it You-Know-Who?"
Puzzled, I send him a stern look, slightly dismayed that he's one of those crackpot conspiracy theorists who actually believe You-Know-Who could possibly be alive. "Don't be ridiculous."
"Penelope Clearwater, age twenty, murdered in her London flat, no mark on her body," George recites, glancing at me for my reaction. I must have flinched, for he leans back and reclines his hands behind his head, smiling grimly. "I knew it. We heard about- I mean, they suspect His involvement."
"That's insanity," I inform him, fighting to keep my voice steady. You-Know-Who, back and murder Penny... it's beyond frightening, beyond the realm of what could possibly be true. "It would be in the papers, the Ministry would be taking precautions. He's not back, he's dead. And my friend was killed by somebody, but it's not bigger than that."
George sighs, but the corner of his mouth twitches upwards mischievously. "He is back, Verity, and I'm going to prove it to you."
I raise my eyes sceptically at him, scoffing humourlessly, Penelope's face swimming before my mind. "Oh, are you going to take me to a You-Know-Who-Is-Back Security meeting? Bring me on an undercover stealth mission?"
"Something like that," George says thoughtfully, scratching his head. "I really want to you believe me. It might help figure out what happened exactly to your friend." He reaches forward, as if he's going to rub my shoulder in comfort or perhaps even draw me closer to him, but retreats, long fingers hanging limply between us.
"Why?" I can't help but ask. "Why me?"
He meets my stare. "Well, why not?"
George Weasley's eyes twinkle at me, the kind of person I want to divulge all my secrets to, who I thirst to entrust with my life.
Sebastian Deleau, busy in a conference. Percy Weasley, determined to eliminate emotion. Aaron Holden, his arm tight around Penelope Clearwater's shoulders, killed mere weeks after her own death. Christian Haynes, the unknown photographer, who Penelope had to speak with. Men she must have trusted.
Perhaps that's what makes them so dangerous to lonely girls like me.
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