Chapter 5 : Two for Joy
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Chapter Five - Two for Joy
fantastic image by Hobbit' at tda.
The new neighbors are Muggles.
All the tenants of my building are shocked by this revelation, discovered when the two young men carry in an ancient Muggle television and ask amiably how and why my downstairs neighbor is pointing a wooden stick at a newspaper and shouting odd words. When the man’s boyfriend comments on the pictures moving on the front page of the paper, all the suspicions are realized.
Rumple, the scheming landlord, pops by after receiving several owls whose owners told them to peck at his ears until he came by and explained. He raps on my door as I’m about to run to check on business at the shop.
“Ah, Miss Burp-”
“Miss Burke, actually. Can I help you?” I ask, staring down at him appraisingly. Rumple is an odd little wizard, with tufts of hair and mean, shrewd little eyes. He often smells distinctly of cat litter. “I believe I’m up to date on my rent, the goblins should have taken care of it.”
“Yes,” Rumple says, looking a little pleased. He smiles at me and this reminder of my excellent qualities as a tenant. “I have just been delivering a notice to the other tenants to inform them the empty flat has been filled by a Muggle couple- lovely lads, really. So no magic in the hall and the street, or you’ll have the might of the Ministry down on your head for violating the Statute of Secrecy and doubtlessly win a much less roomy cell in Azkaban than this flat. That’s all, cheerio.”
He attempts to close the front door, but I stick my foot in the way. “Erm, Mr. Rumple, this is a wizarding building. In a magical neighborhood. You simply cannot take on Muggle tenants like this.”
Rumple raises a long-haired eyebrow at me. “I never thought you were prejudiced as such, Miss Burke.”
“I’m not prejudiced,” I say through gritted teeth. “My mum was a Muggle, for the sake of Merlin and Jesus. But you’re the one who has to take responsibility under the Statute, for letting them rent a flat here in the first place. This is a magical neighborhood- I have no idea how they got in, it’s supposed to be very difficult to enter for non-magical folk- and inevitably, they are going to see magic.”
The landlord huffs. “The economy is tight at the moment,” he says haughtily. “Beggars cannot be choosers, and unless you are willing to make up the difference lost by leaving the flat empty, I see no other solution. But I will be sure to inform the gentlemen downstairs not to come knocking at this flat for any neighborly kindnesses.”
I let him storm out this time, and hear the sound from the corridor of his knocking on the door of the witch who lives next door. Sighing, I grab a ballpoint pen and write on my hand to pop by the new neighbors later and offer my welcome to the building, though I’m quite sure they won’t last for long.
Rumple’s visit makes me a little late, and by the time I reach Borgin & Burke’s, the former is already in, sorting through some new merchandise.
“Wotcher, Verity,” he says wearily as I enter, wiping my feet from the morning dew on the mat. “Could have used you twenty minutes ago.”
“Sorry, there were some complications,” I say, ducking under a large glass chandelier dangling from the ceiling which was surely not here two days ago when I was last in. “What’ve you got?”
“Bloody wares Judah brought back from Europe,” Borgin grunts. I raise my eyes to the ceiling questioningly: Borgin nods grimly. “Pure Venetian glass. The story is that each little bead can capture and contain a ghost: don’t want a load of ruddy Italian spirits shaking up me shop so I reckon we ought not to shake it around too much.”
“Just in case,” I pipe up. The corners of Borgin’s dry lips twitch.
“This is mostly junk,” he sighs after a little. “Can you figure what to make of this thing, girl?” He tosses me a small leather pouch: I rub my fingers against it and smell it for good measure, then gently tug it open and peer inside. Normally, I would use my wand to cast some identification spells, but I don’t want to admit to Borgin that my magic has not yet quite returned to me, though there are small hints and clues which seem to offer up hope.
“It might be Moleskin,” I say after a moment. Such a thing would be quite useful, as they prevent anybody but the wearer to reach any contents kept inside. “Worth a pretty galleon, I should think.”
Borgin purses his lips. “I should have paid to send you abroad to go treasure hunting,” he says quietly. “Judah has no eye for quality. He told me earlier that thing had an Undetectable Extension charm and didn’t mention anything about the material. Those wolves across the Channel must have devoured him up with their pretty stories and lies.”
I peek inside. “I highly doubt this has an Undetectable Extension Charm, though I’ll test it later for more magical properties. So how is the family reacting to the return of the prodigal son?” Before he can answer, something catches my eye: something gleaming white in the morning sun trickling through the gray clouds. “Borgin, Judah didn’t bring that… that wallet thingy?”
Borgin glances down, and shakes his head. “An old Scotsman came in yesterday and said you spoke about purchasing it. I took his word for it and got a deal.” He picks up the skin pouch, peering at it. “Said it had some significance, but I got a bargain from it.”
I scowl, recoiling from the reviling object. “He played you,” I inform Borgin. “But that’s alright. We’ll sell it for more, and preferably soon.” I ask Borgin to place it in the window, where it is obscured from the interior of the shop by a large, dusty book open to an image of a witch being burned at the stake.
We sift through the other objects, and Borgin tells me about Judah’s return. Apparently he’s brought a friend with him, also an Englishman (I roll my eyes at how relieved the old man is about this fact) and plenty of tall tales to enthrall his mother and sisters. When I ask why Judah isn’t here, helping us sort through the wares he was quite excited to sell, his father explains sourly that his son is still in bed, tired from his long Portkey journey back from Barcelona, despite that being several days ago.
I can’t say I’m disappointed to be missing any interactions with Judah: while he’s a charming enough person to the subjective observer, to me he is a threat to my inheritance, to what I have worked so hard to build through my years working in the shop. There had been an incident during my last visit where he had suggested I was responsible for stealing a very old and very valuable handheld gaslight with dangerous powers when lit: the accusation made my relationship a little tight with Borgin even after the lamp was found tucked away in the back room. It was too risky to file complaints and call in Aurors to mediate situations of theft and trickery in Knockturn Alley: they might come in looking for a lamp and leave with several contraband items.
Penelope had disliked Judah too: she called him snide and smooth. Then again, he had tried (and failed) to flirt with her. While I quite liked being shown attention by handsome men, Penelope was apt to throw it off. I thought that perhaps the reason she liked Percy Weasley so much as that he was too shy to properly romance her.
The day passes quite uneventfully: I tell Borgin about the Muggles moving in downstairs and he scowls and agrees how preposterous it is to expect a house full of magical tenants to hide their magic or suffer the law just because the landlord was desperate.
“Would you sell to Muggles if they came into the shop?” I ask Borgin, watching as he waved his wand at the broom and it set to sweeping and dusting. The broom itself was an old racing broom dating from the sixteenth century, but had proved worthless as it had never been bought or owned by anybody famous. The broom bided its time until a buyer came by being the best cleaning instrument Borgin & Burkes owned.
“I’d sell to any bloke so long as he didn’t complain about the consequences,” Borgin mutters in response. I smirk at this: quite likely he’s banking on the fact that a Muggle wandering into Knockturn without a wizard escort is quite unlikely. There have been incidents in the past with Muggles coming into contact with our products: having fingers bit off by fanged pocket watches, or the confusion when the gilded mirror gives advice on the viewer’s hairstyle. Then again, these aren’t truly our problems: the Ministry can deal with the wandering Muggles.
Borgin is an odd little man. He seems to look older by the way, the lines of his pale, thin face creasing upon themselves, his hair growing thinner and paler like a creature who never sees the sun. I worry about him sometimes, long to help him by grabbing his arm to help him step over the steps leading to the door, reassuring him that I will do the lifting and cleaning that cannot be done with magic. A lifetime of working hard has aged him, weakened him: sometimes I wonder if being in the presence so many mysterious and often dark objects over the years has toyed with his health due to pure exposure.
The day passes quickly, with a few questionable characters stopping by to admire with quiet eyes the chandelier brought by Judah. I let Borgin handle the business end and congratulate him on an excellent sale which adds several golden galleons into the magically warded safe while I conduct some more thorough examinations on the new merchandise. At the end of the day, Borgin gathers the contents of the safe to deposit in his vault at Gringotts – it’s prestigious and old enough to require a perilous journey via goblin-guided cart, but not so deep as to come within the smoky sighs of a dragon. Probably for the best: I imagine Borgin would be quite uncomfortable. He’d find it difficult to silver-tongue a dragon the way he does with wizards.
“Do you think it’s disgracing my friend’s memory, to go out partying so soon after her funeral?” I ask Borgin as we clean up for the day and straighten up the shrunken head display. “I’m meant to go to the pub down towards Diagon with some mates tonight.”
“Nasty face on this one,” Borgin comments analytically, fixing a long-haired, twist-mouthed shrunken head to the wall. Indignant, the thing snaps at his fingers, little brown teeth gnashing. “I celebrated your father’s life by visiting the Leaky Cauldron for a few of his favorite pints, every day for six months.”
I smile wryly, and try to imagine what Penelope would say were she here. Stop being so pathetic and dependent, Verity, I imagine her scoffing, hands square on her hips. You’re hardly mourning me anymore: you’re enjoying your own misery. Get out into London and do something interesting, for both our sakes.
“What if I get really drunk and start crying hysterically and can’t stop?” I ask, absently arranging the fanged quills. “Ouch!” One of the quills smugly gobbles down the small sliver of my skin it’s managed to rip off.
Borgin sighs, the voice of a man long-plagued by a demanding wife, an arrogant son and two needy daughters.
“Don’t you have friends and a boyfriend to be discussing these things with, girl? I have a meeting to get to: don’t forget to sweep tonight.” But as he leaves he smoothes his hand over my head gently, a fatherly, comforting gesture. I can’t help but smile.
As I lock up and leave the shop, a sound of quiet thumping startles me. I look up to the small space beneath the awning of Borgin & Burke’s and see two startled birds push off into the darkening night sky, fluttering their wings frantically. I wonder if the magpies are keeping a nest there, perhaps collecting coins and little shiny trinkets to clutch close to themselves. As I walk home, the magpie nursery rhyme rings in my mind, like it did the day Penelope died and a single magpie fluttered across my path.
One for sorrow, two for joy.
“You can come as well,” I tell Sebastian, voice hinged with as much sincerity as Professor Snape offering to help the House Elves bake cookies. The horrible false tone of my voice sets him off immediately.
“I don’t see why we can’t just stay in and watch a film,” Sebastian says, tossing me my dress without being asked. I stick my legs into it and tug it up.
“Because we see each other every night and I’ve been neglecting Gemma,” I inform him. “And because my television only works half the time because of all the magic around. Zip me?”
Sebastian obliges, and I turn to face him, hands on my hips.
“How do I look?” I giggle despite myself. “Would you ravish me?”
Sebastian flops down backwards on the bed. I hear him groan but turn away so that I can’t see his face. “Why don’t you do something with your mates from Gringotts, if you’re so hung up about being left alone?”
“Maybe I will,” he responds, voice muffled by a pillow. “If you had a bloody owl I’d arrange it all now.” I smile and, melting a little, give him a little kiss behind the ear. Our relationship is all annoyance and tenderness, irritation and that rational, continuous love that has kept us together for over three years. Surely all relationships go through mundane phases like this. The day spent exploring our London last week seems eons away. Those sorts of days are always over far too quickly.
I wave at the picture of Penelope grinning from the living room, and she gives me a little cheeky grin. All in all, I clean up decently: my shoulder-length blond hair not sticking up for once thanks to the blowout charms, my long legs, which are my best feature if I do say so myself, stretched even longer in the strappy black boots. The best thing about buying clothing at Muggle shops is that no other witch risks wearing the same outfit. I tug a light cloak around my shoulders – a cloth and leather creature, which, according to the peddler who sold it to Borgin, is supposed to repel simple jinxes and spells – and close the door tightly. I tuck my wand inside my cloak as I pass the door on the second floor which holds the new Muggle neighbors, just in case.
Thank Merlin I live close to Knockturn, I think to myself, enjoying the sophisticated clicking of my heels on the cobbled stones. I pretend for a moment I am a Muggle celebrity out for a night on the town, drawing the looks of all the mere civilians (in Knockturn’s case, the bums and peddlers and criminals, but such is life).
The moment is broken when the heel gets trapped in a loose stone, but well, no matter, I quickly right myself and decide to pretend like no one noticed. It’s only the usual characters patrolling Knockturn at night: Crabby Carl and Old Wendy are probably about. If I lived any farther I would have had to ask Sebastian to Apparate me, since my wand is still rather useless, or taken Muggle public transportation, which is mildly entertaining at times but not preferable at night.
The music wraps itself around me as I enter the pub. As Drey promised when she invited Gemma and I, tonight is Irish night, and two fiddles, a banjo and a flute bray out a lively and playful melody. The last of the diners are wiping the last bits of residual ketchup from their plates, and tapping their feet to the sound of the music as they drain their pint glasses. The bar is the busiest part of the wooden room, and I see Drey’s dark bob bound up in a messy little bun on the top of her head, glasses perched above her fringe and tendrils of hair dangling over her ears. It’s warm inside the pub, with the smell of beer and the chatter of people who wouldn’t want a better place to be.
I peel my eyes for the leprechauns Drey promised, but the pub is packed with people. A few drunk folk linger by the clear space near the musicians, while one fairylike girl twirls in the middle, her blond head leaning on her shoulder as little golden lights trickle out from the tip of her wand.
I take off my cloak and drape it over a hook shaped like a beckoning hand, and look around for Gemma. But I find him before I see her.
George is standing at one of the high-up tables, leaning on his elbows and beating his fingers against the amber liquid-filled glass. As I watch, he smirks and takes a large sip just as Fred, levitating four drinks in front of him, moves through the crowd and sets the drinks down on the table in front of George and their friends.
Very odd, I think to myself, how simply I can tell the twins apart: perhaps there is something in how they move. George is lanky and careful, while Fred seems to sway with more movement, like a body with puppet strings pulling him in four different directions. But the greatest clue to identifying which twin is which happens when George looks up and catches my eye from across the floor, and his face seems to brighten as an undisguised grin spreads across his face and he beckons me over with a flapping hand.
And so I worm my way through the crowd of people, apologizing as I knock the pointed hat off a stout wizard and nearly tripping over a very tiny man who might have been identified as a leprechaun if he hadn’t squealed and disappeared so quickly. When I reach the twins, they’ve already got a beer waiting for me.
“You alright, Verity?” George says over the music, hesitating before bending down to give me a quick hug of greeting. I’m most likely one of the tallest girls in the pub, but he still makes me feel tiny. I notice, however, as we clink our glasses together, that he has very skinny wrists.
“Fancy a sweet, darling?” one of his friends asks, holding out a little sweet in his hand with a wicked grin on his face. George frowns and shakes his head at him. Fred smirks behind his hand as the friend tucks the sweet back into his pocket.
“Thanks for the drink,” I tell him, puzzled. George smiles bashfully and introduces me to their two mates. The one who offered me the drink, Lee, is a black boy with dark curls sprouting around his head and a cheeky grin: he shakes my hand and shoots what I think might be a pointed look over my head. The other smiles at me shyly: he’s short and stocky, with round blue eyes, very pale eyelashes which conceal his blinks, and an earnestly red face.
“Midas, our accountant,” Fred says proudly. “We’re out to celebrate our very first investment from Gringotts- all thanks to ickle Mizza here, of course.” He spins around to casually put his arm around a girl passing by and whisper something in her ear.
“Midas will do, mate!” Midas cries out over the music, his face turning, if possible, an even more florescent shade of pink. George makes a show out of looking away and turning his eyes to the ceiling innocently, his arm brushing against mine in the process.
“It’s fantastic to hear you’re getting the financial matters for the shop sorted,” I tell George. “I can’t wait to see how it looks when it’s all set up.”
Fred whirls back around, flashing a bit of parchment – undoubtedly the girl’s owl information, whether real or invented – grinning proudly.
“Ehh, Freddie boy!” George says loudly, beaming at his brother and holding up his glass in a cheers. The others do the same, with Fred pretending to fan himself with his hand and blink flirtatiously like a twentieth century starlet. The girl whose information Fred snared glances over her shoulder and rolls her eyes.
I peel the crowd for Gemma, finally spotting her dark head bobbing near the bar. “Listen, I’ve got to go say hello to my friend,” I say. George frowns. I sigh and, leaning on my tip-toes, put my mouth up to his ear and repeat the statement. His ear turns red.
Smiling at the boys, I weave my way through the crowd to find Gemma clustered by Drey, who is pouring out a row of shooters which glow purple and green in the torches which light up the pub. Drey grins at me, her white teeth shining. I notice, taking a large sip of my beer as she leans across the bar, that she has a slightly discoloration on her front tooth, all the more obvious because the perfection has been marred.
Gemma grabs my arm and squeezes. She looks pretty, her long, dark hair curling down over her bare shoulder. “Were you just talking with the Weasley twins?” she asks, glancing over to George’s table. “I didn’t know you were friendly with them – all the customers have been going on about their shop in Diagon.”
“It’s quite the eyesore,” Drey says, laughing. “Have you met one of the leprechauns yet, Verity? Let’s drink to the little folk – they are excellent tippers.” She slides a shooter towards each of us.
Gemma and I are soon rather pleasantly warm from the drinks and pleased by our new friendship with Drey. The girl has mastered the art of being an excellent bartender while also being an entertaining friend, dropping by our spot on the bar to whisper little anecdotes and tidbits about the regular customers. An owl swoops over my head to deliver a letter to the girl making the fairy lights flow out of her wand on the dance floor: the dancer unfurls it and then scrunches up her face, tossing it over her shoulder where it hits the flutist in the nose, causing an unfortunate screech.
“She’s wicked cool,” Gemma says in my ear as Drey points her wand at the taps, setting each one to pour a glass at once. With another wave, each glass slides through the air to its respective drinker, the Knuts and Sickles being tugged out of their palms and into Drey’s.
At the twins’ table, the empty glasses are filling up the space. I don’t catch George looking at me again, and feel a little nervous about returning. Gemma soon catches the attention of a thin, blond man wearing spectacles and dress robes with old-fashioned frills, who makes a half-hearted attempt to include me in their shouted conversation while having a difficult time keeping his eyes from Gemma’s face – and possibly lower, but I prefer not to contemplate that fact and let her have her fun. From what I can tell, neither of them have any clue what the other is trying to say.
I watch as Drey does the rounds of the tables, hovering a tray full of empty glasses. As she passes, I see both Fred and Lee straighten, Fred bending his head close to her. Drey smiles playfully and winks at him: I admire her confidence when I would feel rather lost in the crowd. Fred and Lee nudge one another. George, I notice, is staring down at his drink with a distant expression.
I resolve to work up my nerve and go speak with him soon. In the meantime, Gemma drags me to dance with her, to the amusement of her spectacled suitor. We make a joke of it, clapping our hands in the air and trying to make eye contact with the fiddlers, who wink at us. They look very flushed and rather Irish, I think, quickly adjusting Gemma’s glass so that she doesn’t tip beer all over herself.
Eventually, Gemma gets lured away by Spectacles and so I worm my way back through the crowd to find George and his mates. Lee has his arm around Midas, patting him on the shoulder in a way that sets me to thinking that they’re in the process of bonding, though Midas still looks a little green around the gills.
I feel a grin spread across my face as I sidle in next to George.
“Are you having fun?” I shout up at him. “I was just dancing for a while – you should have come and danced.” The words feel a little stilted, but I’m not even sure he heard me.
He looks a little pleasantly surprised, and starts to say something as he tips his head towards me, when Fred bangs his glass on the table. I startle and look up at the other twin: his face has darkened, brows furrowing and setting a sea of angry wrinkles across his forehead. He nudges his twin and gestures with a flip of his head towards the doors, which are open and letting in a quick chill from the night beyond.
The twins seem to be caught in a sort of telepathic staring contest: Fred grits his teeth as his jaw hardens, and George seems to shake his head slightly, his brown eyes serious and stern. I turn towards the doors and notice a series of young people entering, laughing and bringing the wind in with them, in sharp black cloaks that look expensive. Among them is the shockingly red head of Percy Weasley, who seems to survey the pub silently before stepping in and shaking hands with another mate.
Ministry workers, is my first thought. Why would Fred and George be upset to see Ministry workers?
“That prick,” Fred says angrily as the music settles and the performers announce they’ll be “taking a wee break to wet the pallet.”
I lean against George gently. “Isn’t that your brother? Are you in a row?”
“That’s one way of putting it,” George says. He glares at Fred, who is watching Percy lean across the bar and say something to Drey. “Our older brother has just turned into his royal pratness and dares to show his face, here –“
“Well, it is a public house,” Midas, the accountant from Gringotts, butts in. He smiles at me. “I thought I recognized you – aren’t you Sebastian Deleau’s girlfriend?”
I glance up at George, who is looking away and appears not to be listening, but staring in Percy’s direction. “Yeah, that’s me. I didn’t know you two were mates.”
“Mates,” Midas chortles. “We’ve crossed paths a few times – I recognized you from the Gringotts benefit banquet last year. Deleau’s in with goblin liaison offices these days – I’m not quite flashy enough for them.”
“Oh, well, pleasure,” I say, unsure how to react to this. The workings of Gringotts politics are quite unknown to me. I remember Sebastian telling me how the Weasleys were applying for loans to Gringotts, and how he didn’t think their business had much of a chance. I decide to ask Sebastian about Midas when I see him next.
Gemma whirls by me, dragging Spectacles by the arm. “Sven and I are going out for a smoke,” she calls to me as the smell of perfume wafts past. She mouths something over her shoulder and points at Spectacles excitedly.
“I didn’t catch that,” I cry out after her, giggling.
“He’s from Sweden,” a voice says.
I look up. “Pardon?”
“She said, ‘he’s from Sweden,’” George prompts, and grins. “Is that what all the ladies are going for these days? Balding blokes from the continent?”
“Maybe not all of the ladies,” I say, and blush immediately. “Listen, I don’t want to pry, but Fred is making a beeline for the bar and he has his wand drawn, and I don’t think it’s to Levitate a tray of drinks.”
George swears loudly and sets out after his brother. “You’ve got to stop distracting me,” he says over his shoulder, brown eyes meeting mine. I watch from a distance, but Fred only leans over the bar and whispers something to Drey: she pauses contemplatively, eyes darting from Fred to Percy, who is standing a little ways away and looking at anything but his brothers, and then nods firmly. Fred tucks his wand away. George stops in his tracks and Lee breathes a sigh of relief.
“Thank Merlin, I was sure he was going to hex him here and now…”
“Why?” I ask curiously. I can sense a sorry and would prefer to hear it, but something encourages me to shy away from pestering George for it. Lee stares at me, his dark halo of hair narrowly missing a torch as he swivels back.
“Who are you again?”
“Sebastian Deleau’s girlfriend, you twat,” Midas says, as if Lee should know who Sebastian is. He takes a large sip of a beer: I’m quite positive it wasn’t his. “Now shall we go and romance the lovely ladies who aren’t already snapped up by, erm, blokes?” He smiles at me apologetically. “I wouldn’t mind an introduction to the pretty bartender, in fact.”
“Then make sure to give her a nice tip,” I say smartly. I smile at them and decide that I am going to go say hello to Percy: he is an old yearmate of mine, after all, and we haven’t crossed paths much in recent years, not since he and Penelope split up.
Penelope. The name crashes down on me with a wave of guilt. I have forgotten her for the past hour, forgot that while I’m here being frivolous and carefree she’s lying in Oxfordshire, in a cold and lonely grave in a cemetery far away from the city, surrounded by worms and the other recently deceased and entombed. How lonely she must be. The thought makes me slightly sick, but my rather tipsy brain encourages me to shove the grief away, compartmentalize the pain to be unleashed like Pandora’s box some other time, in a more appropriate place. And so I allow this, reconciling to cope with the guilt later on. I wonder fleetingly if other people categorize and contain their pain like this.
“Hello, Verity,” Percy says primly as I reach him. He shakes my hand, and his palm is a little damp from the condensation from his drink. “I trust you are doing well.”
“I’m alright,” I say, wondering if he is going to mention Penelope or her funeral. “How is the Ministry treating you?”
“Brilliant, brilliant, I really couldn’t be happier,” he says proudly. “Of course, I always was quite sure that the Ministry would suit my skills perfectly. The Minister is a most wonderful employer, he’s sure I’m slated for a promotion soon!”
I resist the urge to roll my eyes, thinking that he hasn’t changed much. “That’s great. I’m still working at my dad’s old shop, down in Knockturn – no chances of promotions there, really…” I laugh, feeling awkward. Percy and I were never technically friends, and I’m a little glad of that fact, as to have this sort of stilted conversation with a former friend would be quite uncomfortable.
“Lovely,” Percy says. “So, did I see you over there with my brothers? Where’s Sebastian these days?” His face looks as if he might have smelled something vile.
“Yeah, Seb is out with his own mates tonight,” I say politely. “I didn’t know this was a Ministry hangout.”
Percy shrugs his thin shoulders. “We are celebrating a new deal signed with the French Ministry concerning a crack-down on, erm, broom trafficking.” He glances back in the direction where I last spotted Fred. “You know they’re just eighteen, yeah? Isn’t it a little odd, consorting with lazy Hogwarts dropouts? Pardon my language, but Fred and George are very troublesome.”
“Interesting way to speak about your family, Perce,” I say frostily in my best Penelope imitation. Percy blinks, and looks as if he is about to say something when we are interrupted by Drey waving at him, brandishing a bit of parchment from beyond the bar. She nods to me, and whirls her finger in a little swirl beside her right ear. The bar is indeed quite busy: I don’t blame Drey for being stressed.
“Look,” Drey says, voice rising over the chatter as she leans across the bar and stares at Percy. “This is the tab for Weasley, somebody has got to pay it and I am specially trained to identify leprechaun gold so you had better not-”
“-quite preposterous, I blame those no-good-”
“-I’m sorry, but-”
As Percy splutters I move away and grab George’s wrist. The musicians are starting up again, playing a lively jig, and he tugs me out into the cloak area.
“I’ve got to leave, Fred told the bartender to charge all the drinks under Weasley to Percy’s tab,” he says, rather vindictively. “I should hide before he and his Ministry mates hex me. Would you like to come outside, or are you going to find your mate?”
“I’ll come,” I say quickly, and wrestle my cloak out from the large assemblies. Tugging it over my shoulders I follow George out onto the small outdoor area, fenced in and thick with smoke. One couple are snogging, the girl’s back pressed against the wall and her hand buried in her boyfriend’s rather long and shaggy hair. Two men in Muggle business suits are puffing away on cigarettes, but the smoke spewing out of their mouths is purple and green. A small collection of older ladies are staring up at the smog-shielded stars. To see the stars in London is very rare.
“I’m sorry about that,” George says. “We’re all in a bit of a row and Fred gets really angry when he comes up in conversation. Mum cries all the time when Percy’s name is mentioned and we were just round there today, so Fred couldn’t handle being there with him. Me either, come to think of it.”
I can’t help it: a small smile creeps its way across my face. “That’s sweet, George.”
“Nah,” he says, flushing. He pulls something out of his cloak pocket and starts to fiddle with it: the thing looks like a mechanical spider. After a moment he shoves it back and shifts a little. “If you understood what he’s done, you’d be angry as well. Perce is lucky that Fred only meddled with the tab: we’ve got some products at the shop which would we well fun to try out on Percy. In fact, he was one of our first test subjects, I’m sure the ruddy bleeder wouldn’t mind another go.” He laughs, a harsh sound.
“I went to school with Percy, and he’s not a terrible bloke,” I say slowly, thinking of what Penelope might say to mediate the situation were she here. “He was with my best friend for a long time and she quite fancied him – and she could see clear through most people. He’s got a good heart, I think.”
“Yeah. Well, better Percy show up at the pub than a Death Eater, I suppose,” George says. But the din from inside is muffled out here in the air, and there are slight murmurs and stares from those who have overheard his words. The kissing couple pull apart and exchange looks, then return inside, the girl pulling her shaggy-headed boyfriend’s hand. The smoking man in the suit has another idea. Tossing his cigarette to the floor, he steps on it as he moves over to where we are perched.
“You might consider not running your mouth, me lad,” the man says warningly. “Decent folk don’t appreciate hearing lies when we’re just out for a nice pint.”
“Well, I’m not lying,” George says defiantly. I notice that his hand has strayed towards his pocket. “You-Know-Who is back, and those too thick to believe Dumbledore are going to be the first to suffer.”
“Is that a threat, boy?” the man asks coolly, drawing his own wand and idly holding it between three fingers. George’s face is a fine shade of red: he clears his mouth to speak.
“He didn’t mean it,” I cut in quickly before the situation can escalate. “I’m really sorry… you know, just well merry at the mo’. No hard feelings, yeah?” The smile I sketch across my face is reserved for the rough traders and peddlers who come into Borgin and Burke’s looking for a deal. “Please?” I add for good measure.
The man seems to grunt, he doesn’t put his wand away, but moves past us, giving George a sidelong glare. As soon as he is out of sight, I relax, glaring up at the redhead.
“Why would you go saying things like that? Are you honestly looking to start another fight?”
He shifts uncomfortably. “Look, Verity, you consider yourself to be quite bright, yeah? Well, I know Harry Potter quite well, and if he says he saw You-Know-Who come back last year, then I believe him. And you should too.” He looks down at me, a little pleadingly.
I soften a bit. “I don’t think you quite understand that believing in a demon coming back to life isn’t exactly desirable for most of us,” I say quietly. “I mean, if you were going to tell me Santa Clause was back from the dead, or… or my father was alive again-”
He smiles a little sadly. “Verity, that’s not-”
“Sorry, it was an inappropriate thing to reference,” I say steadily. “Hear me out. Perhaps if you saw You-Know-Who, then the fact would be indisputable. But as it is, well, can you blame me from preferring not to worry about him being back unless it’s more than just a silly rumor?”
George scowls: the angry expression seems alien on his friendly, pleasant face. I tell him that I’m going to head out – I have to open the shop in the morning, and my friends have already disappeared. He insists on walking me home, and I shrug, though I know that I’m far more experienced with dealing with Knockturn Alley than he.
“I didn’t know you had a boyfriend,” George says with enhanced cheerfulness. “What’s he like, then?” We step through into the small archway which separates Knockturn from Diagon Alley. The streets appear empty, but I’m sure that the inhabitants of its corners are lurking in the shadows.
“He’s alright,” I say, then laugh and blush. “I mean, he’s a great person. We’ve been dating since my sixth year. I’m sorry, perhaps I should have mentioned it.”
“No reason for that,” George says. He draws silent as we move through the darkest part of Knockturn, where the upper stories of the houses seem to obscure the smog-ridden sky. The slight heels on my boots click quite loudly on the pavement. From the place where little Bess’ house once stood, I see a flicker of white, like the child ghost is watching us, hovering behind the stones with her lonely eyes and her thumb stuck beneath her top row of pearly teeth.
George jumps as we reach the end of Knockturn, where the alley turns into the street holding my own flat. A form materializes in front of us, a dark, hooded form with wrinkled hands and great folds of cloak which billow and encompass her.
“Good evening, Wendy,” I say, wondering if she can smell the alcohol on my breath and feeling a slight pang of guilt. Unlike me, Wendy does not have the luxury of casually drinking with her friends. She drinks to forget, and far more sinister concoctions than a few pints of Irish beer. I shuffle my fingers inside my purse and draw out a bronze Knut, dropping it firmly into her hand.
Wendy smiles, or perhaps she grimaces, and silently moves aside. It is rare that she speaks to me when I am in the company of another, and particularly a stranger whose nervous demeanor betrays him as an outsider. We move past her, and George peers back over his shoulder nervously, tripping over a rubbish bin in the process. The bin moans and grunts and shuffles back up, as if the very thing is alive.
“What the bloody hell was that all about?” George breathes, regaining his balance. He looks down at me sheepishly and nudges me gently with his hip. “Aw, shut it, Verity.”
“If I’d known you were so jittery around Knockturn I wouldn’t have let you walk with me,” I tease, pinching his arm gently.
He shudders. “Wicked creepy, that.”
“Yeah, well I gave a coin to Wendy because she’s the sentry of the night. We paid her because she and the other inhabitants allowed us undisturbed passage across the alley after a certain hour. It’s a sort of unspoken agreement.”
George frowns. We have passed the first few gaslights with mark my road as a Georgian relic, and his face shines pale and handsome in the quaint light. The feeling of having the road to ourselves is quite odd: only a few lights glimmer from behind the curtains of the houses.
“Well, this is me,” I say, gesturing up at my own house. All the lights are out in the other flats, and a lonely air breathes through from under the old wooden door. “Cheers for walking with me, it was nice.” I smile up at him. “Though I suppose we could have just Apparated.”
“Apparating after consuming alcohol is quite hazardous, according to my mum,” George says promptly, then glows pink. “I mean, erm, in the name of being manly it was only right to walk with you, my fair damsel in distress.”
I snort. “Speaking of hazardous, do you have any Knuts for the passage back through Knockturn? I’d best give you one.”
George frowns. “I really can’t accept this.”
I laugh. “Why? It’s only a Knut. Well, I suppose as inflation is up one coin is worth about two quid, but it doesn’t matter.” George stares at me as if I’m speaking Italian. I sigh. “Look, just take it and you can pay me back later. Besides, what am I supposed to tell Borgin if one of our favorite new customers goes missing because he didn’t pay his dues in Knockturn one night?”
“Very well,” George says, eyes glinting. For a moment he pauses, and then: “Listen, Verity, you still don’t believe me about You-Know-Who, do you?”
“Not a whit,” I say.
“Cheeky,” he says cheerfully. “Alright, well meet me at the shop at seven o’clock on Monday, yeah? I’m going to prove it to you that something is going on.”
I don’t care to admit it aloud, but my heart races a little. “Yeah, I’ll meet you then,” I say quietly, hopping up onto the lowest step and stretching out my arms. “Well, come here, mister!”
George steps forward and wraps his arm around me in a slightly tentative hug. I smile against his chest and breathe in the smell of beer and air, before gently pulling away.
“Have a lovely night, George,” I tell him, and scamper up to the third floor, out of breath and warm and pleased despite myself. The whole night has been a wild array of elbows and voices and thickness in the air, but this last part was clear as day. Again, I find myself thinking of the magpies.
The next morning, I force down five glasses of water, three pieces of toast, and take a warm shower, and feel quite fresh despite a slight headache pounding at the very recedes of my skull. I pick up two coffees at the vendor’s down the road and nearly spill coffee all over the cobblestones as I struggle to balance my umbrella and the cups in my other hand.
To my great displeasure, when I enter the shop I find two young men rifling through the collection of antique wizarding newspapers, not wearing gloves and holding their lit wands quite close to the precious and delicate yellow pages. Scowling, I set down the coffees on the desk, shake out my umbrella and tuck it into a gnarled umbrella stand which is shaped like a troll’s foot and possibly the ugliest thing alive, which is why Borgin has been unable to sell the bloody thing for the past decade since he bought it off a dark-haired young man looking to sell off family heirlooms.
The shrunken heads go to shrieking when they see me: after all, today is cleaning day, and I had threatened to comb through their hair with one of the instruments of a beauty set reputed to belong to Marie Antoinette before her own pretty head was chopped off. This alerts the two men to my presence.
“Hello, Verity,” Judah says, rising to his feet and sneering at me. He quickly re-arranges his features into a charming smile. He’s quite big and burly, with slicked back blond hair beginning to thin in a sharp widow’s peak, and tiny features which make him look like a buff rat. His voice sounds like he’s been washing out his mouth with oil. “I understand we missed one another yesterday – Father said you weren’t particularly impressed with the products I brought back from the continent.”
“Oh, did he?” I say innocently, taking a sip from my coffee. “Well, I trust your travels went well, despite the rather disappointing stock. Judah.” Usually, I reserve calling people by their given names when I actually like them. I can’t bring myself to say Borgin as an insult, so instead I have turned my cunning familiarity with Judah into a way of asserting my power over him.
Judah’s lip curls. “Yes, well, perhaps my father is getting a little soft in his old age.” He looks around the shop, unimpressed. “I was hoping to find some things to sell to private collectors and museums – waiting for rich customers to wander into the shop clearly isn’t proving successful in this modern day. My mate here was optimistic that there might be something interesting in these old papers – sadly, we have thus far been disappointed.”
I grit my teeth, thinking that he’s the more repulsive person in the world. My headache pounding lightly against the back of my skull doesn’t help with inspiring a bit of jovial generosity. “I think it’s best to discuss with Borgin before changing things rather drastically, Judah. Things go quite well the way he and I have been running them.” Idly, I pull out a cloth and a spray bottle with water from beneath the counter and set to polishing the mirrors on the old Cabinet which stands quite dusty in the corner.
Judah raises his eyebrows, keeping his voice cold and mocking. “I’d have you remember that I probably know my father far better than you, Verity. I mean, he is my father – if you had a father then you might be inclined to argue.”
I bite my lip and glance at his friend, who is watching the whole scene with an expression of mild interest. He has very dark hair and very pale skin, calm eyes and high cheekbones. I think to myself that he looks a little like a very polite lizard. There’s something a little familiar about him, I think. Deciding not to bother waiting for Judah’s introduction, I walk over to the table. Cringing a little at the finger marks on the old newspapers, I stick out my hand.
“Verity Burke, co-owner. Welcome to Borgin & Burke’s.”
The young man’s reptilian smile curls across his face. He stands up and takes my hand firmly. His touch is very cold.
“Christian Haynes at your service. It’s lovely to meet you at last.”
AN: I do not own the magpie rhyme. I don't own Pandora's box: the idea is taken from Hesiod's 'Works and Days.' Erp, there was a lot of dialogue and a lot of sidelong flirting going on here. I promise the next chapter will be more exciting! :) Thanks so much for sticking with this story.
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