Chapter 4 : Breakable Girls and Boys
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The door to the stock room flies open suddenly and I cannot help but to jump in startled surprise.
"Jo! Here you are! I've been looking for you for a bloody hour, feels like!" Fred announces dramatically. Surely he is exaggerating, but he wouldn't be Fred if he did not. He is rosy cheeked and slightly out of breath as he crosses to the somewhat cluttered counter a few feet behind me, a small cardboard box balancing carefully in his left hand. He pushes some stray objects aside and clears a space for whatever it is he has brought before setting it down.
"What are you doing back here? Working?" he asks incredulously. I raise my eyebrows at him in a way I hope reads as 'obviously,' but he is quick to ignore it, brushing the look away with a flippant gesture of his hand. "I figured you'd be out on the floor hiding behind some shelf or other - especially after I found George napping on the check-out desk. He's pretty adorable when he sleeps, if I do say so myself. Honestly, you're missing out! Though there may be drool, I can't be certain."
I stubbornly remain at my station, ignoring the heat that creeps up my neck at Fred's statement, determined to finish putting away the last of the Muggle Trick Playing Cards before paying him any further attention.
Naturally, he grows impatient.
"Would you quit being a good employee for half a tick? D'you think I hunted you down to watch you restock? I want to show you something! Come here!"
I shoot him a furtive glance at the expectancy in his voice before holding up a single finger to say, 'Gimme just one minute, would ya?' and turning back to the final few packs left unorganised. I can feel his eyes boring into the back of my head as he does his best to wait me out, but not ten seconds later is he pressed absurdly close to my side.
Other than the slight tightening of my lips, I'm able to feign indifference from his proximity. In my periphery, however, I can just make out the way his features narrow dangerously into the ever wary expression Fred dons whenever he is preparing to ruthlessly pester a person into submission. Determined though I am to keep my resolve, I know only too well of his expertise in the art of annoyance.
"Hey," he says. Just the once; slow, unassuming, almost innocent in its nature.
"Hey," he says again, an echo of the first.
He pauses again.
"Hey," he says, a third time now, and it starts to grate.
And then Fred takes a final pause before he - with an exaggerated breath - attacks.
"Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey-"
His voice the very definition of monotonous; every word an exact replica of the one that came before.
"Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey-" he continues on relentlessly, with no end in sight. With everything in me, I continue to act as unaffected as is possible because I know that, at the very least, my lack of acknowledgement will frustrate him in return. But soon enough he ups the ante of our little game by bringing a sharp finger to my upper arm and accompanying each 'hey' with a hard poke.
"Hey, hey, hey, hey-"
Poke, poke, poke, poke.
On and on he goes and I am breaking, though still remain stubbornly attached to my task; a task which is becoming more and more difficult to do properly.
We both grow impatient as we wait for the other to crack first.
He changes the game again when the poking in my arm shifts from its continued position to other spots nearby. At first I am grateful, as the one area had become quite tender, but when Fred begins casually poking me where he knows me to be ticklish, I can no longer remain impassive. Soon I am squirming and squeaking and failing to keep a straight face. I swat at his hand, but he continues on, relentless. Even now that he has my full attention, he still doesn't give up.
"Stop!" I finally giggle out, swatting his hand away a final time, and immediately he does.
He gasps and fakes a look of shock. "So she does have a voice!"
I roll my eyes, but he misses the action as he crosses the room once again, turning to face me as he reaches the opposite counter.
"Now get over here or you're fired!" he announces with a smirk, bouncing on his heels impatiently. I cross to him until I too am hovering over the box. "That wasn't so hard, now, was it?" he asks, giving me a pointed look. Of course, I am not so easily influenced these days by his would-be stern expressions, and so instead of feeling guilty, I elbow him the ribs. "Oi! Watch it, you! And can we please focus on me now?"
I nod my head slightly and gesture to the box. The floor is yours, Fred.
"Right-O! Well, you see, Christmas is just 'round the bend, yeah? And George and I have this arrangement wherein our gift exchanges absolutely cannot be something so simple as 'purchasable', and rather must be home-made instead. And in this here box lies the finished product for what I'll be giving George this year. Thing is, it's a bit... different than what I might make him usually. To be honest, it's a bit more... sentimental than it is funny, which is not exactly my area of expertise. Usually I wouldn't show my gift to anyone before hand, but... you know, I just...wanted, er..."
As Fred struggles to find his words, the realisation of what he's trying to say hits me. He is nervous; he is doubtful; he is afraid that this attempt at being anything less than over-the-top with his humour will result in a disappointed George.
There is something so very humbling about this.
"What I mean to say is that... If you could maybe take a look first... Let me know it's not, you know... complete rubbish..."
I look up into Fred's anxious eyes, a very rare expression of discomfort on his face, before reaching out to give his hand a gentle squeeze.
Of course I will look at this for you.
Fred gives me a lopsided grin before running a nervous hand through his hair. As my fingers peel open the cardboard flaps atop the box, however, I can feel it in the air as his anxiety shifts into eager anticipation. Gently I brush aside a few packing peanuts until I reveal the top of something clear and spherical. I lower my hands on each side of the object until I have a firm hold and carefully lift; slowly, steadily. It's heavy and I think it must be fragile as well, and when I finally bring it into the light, I can see that I am right. I set it down softly onto the counter before moving my hands away.
It is beautiful.
No larger than a softball, an ornate glass orb sits atop a rectangular oak base. The craftsmanship alone is worth pause, but the sentiment of what lies inside takes my breath away. As detailed and accurate as the real thing, scaled down so that it might fit in the palm of ones hand, is a small replica of the shop, of Weasley's Wizard Wheezes. The colours just as vivid, the building as meticulously designed, the aura of pure joy that radiates from its appearance alone nearly as powerful as the real thing. My eyes dance in astonishment at the beauty of the present and I cannot suppress the smile that creases my lips.
I feel Fred shift at my side and know he is waiting for a response. I turn my eyes to meet his and smile wider, setting one hand on his own and bringing the other to my heart.
"Wow," I tell him.
His shoulders relax as he smiles back at me, but quickly ruins the moment when he boasts out a cocky, "Exactly the reaction I expected." He throws me a wink.
I let go of his hand and lower myself down to eye-level with the globe, taking it all in once more, until Fred says, "Turn it over." I spare him only the briefest of glances before doing exactly that.
As carefully as can be managed, I use both hands to slowly tip the sphere until it is entirely upside down. No snow gathers at the top, but I only pause briefly at the realisation before righting it once more. The moment it's centred, it comes to life. A burst of miniature fireworks shoot off from within, dancing through the air and above the shop in patterns I am only too familiar with. For this is no ordinary fireworks display, but a tiny duplicate of Weasley's Wildfire Whiz-bangs. A shockingly pink Catherine wheel bursts with a high-pitched explosion just as a tiny Profanity Pistol spells 'twat' across the sky, and I cannot help but to chuckle at the vulgar display. My laughter quiets only when a recorded version of Fred's voice begins speaking seemingly out of thin air to ask, "Why was McGonagall seen running away from Dumbledore?"
My eyebrows immediately raise as I brace myself for the punchline.
"Cause he asked her if she'd help him give new meaning to the Shrieking Shack!"
I redden immediately, still not perfectly used to Fred's sometimes obscene sense of humour, but find myself unable to keep a giggle at bay. Fred lets out his own vibrant "Ha!" before asking me if I 'geddit?' I cover my eyes in response, trying desperately to shake the visual.
"Do it again!" he insists, a wicked smile on his lips, and though I know I'm certain to regret it, I placate him still.
This time it's a fire-breathing dragon that erupts from the small bang of the little firework, followed swiftly by a Riot Rocket that circles the building, leaving a trail of sparkling silver stars behind it. Fred's voice rings out again and I prepare for another inappropriate joke.
"Why do they call her Moaning Myrtle?" he asks, and already I am cringing. I give Fred a side-ways glance and see that, even now, he's barely suppressing his laughter. "Because apparently she's a Howler!"
"A-a-a H-Howler! Ha!"
Fred is nearly doubled over with laughter at his own joke. His right hand clings desperately to the counter top for balance while his left rests gently on his labouring stomach. When his fit calms down to a state of simple chuckles, he looks at me expectantly and I roll my eyes.
"Oh, come on, that was bloody hilarious!"
"Terrible," I tell him, shaking my head slowly, though laughing lightly myself, the hypocrite I am.
"You should really learn to appreciate this particular brand of humour, as George is rather fond of it himself, you know," Fred says with his nose in the air and a smile on his face. Soon enough, however, he sobers entirely and shuffles a bit awkwardly before asking me softly, "So what do you think? I just thought, you know... first Christmas after opening the shop together..."
"He'll love it," I say, because of course he will.
At the words, Fred immediately brightens, a rather arrogant expression returning to his features as he throws a casual arm around me. "Well, of course he will! I made it, didn't I?" he says, smiling down at me with his cheekiest grin before giving me a loving squeeze.
Utter, utter git.
June 10, 1998
I want to run away.
Crowds of people swarm the store as we run out of items left and right. Nothing has been restocked since the shop closed a month ago, because why should it have been? Those tasks were meant to be executed throughout this day, as we slowly integrated ourselves back into this life. Open shop quietly, readjust to old routines, find our way again; that had been the plan. Yet somehow word had spread.
Everyone is here.
It's too busy to run away. Instead I run around the store, picking up and dropping off items onto sold-out shelves as the self-listing pad of paper with out-of-stock items follows persistently by my side, growing ever longer.
Suddenly I find myself stuck behind a crowd of young girls swarming the WonderWitch display. George passes close by but is soon met with his own impenetrable wall of people. He makes no attempt at all to move through them. Stuck though we both are, he doesn't see me in the sea of shoppers and so it's easy to study him without fear of being caught. His hair is a mess, tousled about in every which way, and his eyes are worn and tired, stressed and sad; his mouth a thin line. He has given up on today.
I wish there was something I could do, but I wouldn't even know where to start.
During our stalemate, George's eyes dart up to the clock on the wall and I wonder what he's thinking. Two minutes are left, but back before the shop shut down, the twins never did abide strictly to the closing time, at least not while eager customers still remained. They were always willing to stay late if it meant putting a smile on another person's face. However, George's penetrating stare tells me that perhaps he cannot see it through today.
When the clock does strike eight and we are both still stuck as ever, George takes immediate action, pointing his wand at his throat before muttering, "Sonorous."
"Attention shoppers," his weary voice booms out, quieting the crowd. "The shop is now closed for the day. There will be no extended hours tonight, so please make your way to the exit immediately. Thank you."
A collective uproar follows the announcement, but no amount of angry protests sway his decision. He is done.
Begrudgingly they exit, dropping any unpaid goods onto the floor in a petty form of rebellion. A few teenage boys even run out with their arms and pockets full of stolen trinkets, but when the anti-theft alarm rings out, George doesn't seem concerned about hunting them down, only about hustling all last-minute stragglers out. He follows the crowd to the exit and, as soon as the last person disappears out the door, he slams it shut. Some speedy wand work later and the lock clicks into place before he rests his head with a heavy thud against the wall. His shoulders rise and fall in time with his strained breathing while each remaining employee stays silent, still, unsure. We simply wait. For what? I don't know. Does anyone?
After a moment, George lifts his head from the wall and runs a fevered hand through his hair. Soon after he turns on his heel and walks briskly across the room as we stare at him in silence, following his trek until he reaches the hallway and turns the corner. Seconds later a door opens, only to be immediately slammed shut.
"Oh my God..."
My co-workers whisper in disbelief. "Let's just, er... tidy up as best we can, yeah? Get out of his hair as soon as we've fixed this mess," Verity suggests from behind the check-out counter. Nobody hesitates in taking the advice and soon everyone around me is fervently cleaning.
I try to join in, but a voice in my head - a voice which sounds an awful lot like Fred - insists that I leave the mess for now to go check on George instead. He needs somebody, it tells me. Fred is who he needs, of course, but there is no Fred anymore. There is only me.
There are so many reasons as to why I should not be the one to check on George. Except... Fred. Fred would be so angry with me if I did not go after him. Fred would not forgive me if I left George to suffer on his own. I don't want to disappoint Fred. I don't want George to suffer.
I cannot let George suffer on his own. And I cannot disappoint Fred.
Suddenly I am moving.
My heart races quicker with each step to his office, to him. It is Fred's voice in my head that propels me forward, his Gryffindor bravery trying desperately to work its way into my Hufflepuff heart. And all too soon I am there.
Knock, Josephine. You have to knock.
I raise my hand, slowly, unsteadily, curling it into a fist. A deep breath. Another deep breath for luck. And a third simply to postpone the inevitable.
Knock, Josephine! And this time it is Fred's voice rather than my own commanding the action. And so I listen.
Once. Twice. Three times I knock.
Nothing. Nothing but silence.
If it were up to me, I would walk away now. How easy it would be to use this silence to my advantage, to say that it is excuse enough for me to turn around without obligation to return. Because I did try. I did knock.
But it is not up to me.
Do I knock again, Fred? Or do I simply enter, now?
He would enter, of course. He would force his way into someone else's life if that's what he believed they needed. And if he were here now, if he were standing where I stand, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he would enter. In this moment I almost wish I didn't know Fred so well, for I may otherwise have escaped what I now know I must do.
My hand shakes as I reach for the doorknob and twist.
It's unlocked and makes a small squeak as its hinges are slowly swung open, just wide enough for my slim frame to squeeze in before I quietly close it behind me. I look up.
If he noticed my entrance he certainly doesn't show it, ignoring my existence entirely. I am perfectly okay with that.
He is preoccupied, distracted; pacing backwards and forwards in a tight circle beside his desk. His hands fidget often with the hem of his shirt or the pockets of his trousers, and sometimes with nothing at all but the air, unable to still, unable rest. His breath is laboured from the brisk pace he's keeping; his ears burn a brilliant red. There is a thin sheen of sweat on his forehead while his hair is as untidy as I've ever seen it.
He is beautiful.
Do I make myself known? Do I turn around and leave as if I were never here at all? Do I simply watch and wait? I am good at watching and waiting, and so I do exactly that.
Suddenly George stills, and I go rigid. He stops beside the desk, turning to face it with downcast eyes before leaning forward to rest both hands on the surface for support. Soon his eyelids flutter closed and, when he exhales heavily, his entire being seems to shrink, as if he's just breathed the life right out of him. My heart breaks at the thought. He stays here a minute longer, small and defeated, before shifting his weight onto the left hand alone. His right hand makes to move in the direction of (what I presume to be) his hair, but gets caught on the way by one of his many trinkets on the desktop. Though I cannot see the object from where I stand, it only takes a second before I learn exactly what it is that's he's tipped over.
A voice - Fred's voice - fills the room.
"Hey George," it says, so casually cruel, and my heart clenches painfully as George goes pale. Once an object of humour, beauty and accomplishment, the snow globe is now nothing more than a haunting reminder of all that has changed, of all that has been lost, of Fred. "Someone asked me how adjusting to the loss of your left ear's been going," the joke begins. The short pause that follows before the punchline rings out seems to spark an outraged fire in George and, squeezing the globe so tightly his knuckles turn white, he draws his arm back and throws it against the wall.
"I told them you were all right no-"
I cannot help but to gasp at the symphony of noises. The sound is like thunder when it hits the wall, like rain when its many shards pour to the ground. And in a second it is over.
I stand frozen, unsure of everything.
George too is frozen. The echo of breaking glass seems to still him so absolutely that I wonder if he's even breathing. Finally he does release a held breath and his shoulders slump forward in resignation.
I don't know if he heard my gasp or if he simply catches me standing silently in his periphery, but soon he has turned surprised eyes on me, his shock quickly turning into a faint expression of guilt and embarrassment.
"Shit," he says.
I'm unsure of exactly how I'm able to stare unblinkingly back at him, usually too afraid to catch his eye for a mere second even, but I cannot look away. He is holding me there with his steady gaze. I don't know how long we look at each other this way, shocked and embarrassed and completely at a loss for what happens next, but eventually George does falter and looks to his feet.
"Sorry," he softly says.
It is easier to keep my eyes on him now, with his attention ultimately elsewhere. He soon looks over at the shattered snow globe and water-stained carpet before crossing to it slowly, wearily. He hovers briefly beside the mess before bending down on one knee to clean it up, gently picking up larger pieces with his right hand and setting them lightly into the palm of his left; his wand forgotten on the desk behind him.
His movements are slow and deliberate, but still I am taken by surprise when they end. Though his back is turned to me now, I still hear the shaky breath he releases and can only just see when he brings his right hand up to cover his face; his left hand clenches tightly around the glass gathered there and he stays unmoving in the new position.
Suddenly the act of remaining across the room while George struggles nearby is no longer an option. My feet carry me forward before my mind can talk me out of it. I am silent as ever and almost certain that George has no idea that I'm now stationed beside him. His tightly closed eyes are only just visible through the gaps between his fingers; his breath is short and unsteady as he tries to hold himself together. When I look at his left hand, tightly formed into an angry fist, I see a small trickle of blood slowly weeping down the side. I close my eyes as tightly as his, willing myself to bend down beside him and loosen his grip.
Help him, Josephine; you have to help him.
Ever so slowly I lower myself down and, as gently as can be managed in my nervous state, touch his hand.
His shoulders jump ever so slightly at the contact; his eyes reopen and turn to stare at me once more. Surely my resolve would buckle if I dared to meet his gaze now. Instead I force my eyes to remain on the task at hand, desperately willing my breath to keep steady, for my heart to beat in silence. Of course, it has never quite listened to me before.
His hand is warm to touch. I slide my fingers just below the tips of his own and urge them to bloom open for me. He follows my lead and relaxes them back, exposing the shards of bloodied glass within. I swallow the lump in my throat and reach for my wand before wordlessly siphoning off all signs of red. Then, lowering his hand to the carpet, I gently tip it sideways and allow the pieces to fall out, making room for me to see the severity of his cuts. They are shallow, superficial, easily remedied, and so I quickly heal each back together until all that remains are lightly faded pink scars. I hold the back of his hand in my own; I set my wand to the side; I gently run my fingers along each healed mark to check my work.
Never have I touched him like this before, nor truly ever at all. Even in passing I am always so careful to maintain my distance, to keep my space, so that even to brush arms against one another would be nearly impossible. And now here I am, holding onto his hand, running fingers across each crease and fold, under the illusion of inspecting his wounds...
Too long, Josephine.
The reality of my actions hits me so suddenly that I practically throw his hand away from my own.
His eyes never leave my face.
Upon release, I shift my gaze to the floor. Moving much quicker now, I reclaim my wand and give a silent flick in the direction of the glass, holding steady until the sphere takes shape again; all of the inner pieces that made up the shop seem to have miraculously survived the impact. Another tap of my wand to the top of the globe and the water refills itself. Lastly, I remove the still-damp stains from the wall and carpet until, by all appearances, it's as if nothing happened here at all.
I can feel George's eyes follow my movements closely, but the usually articulate boy continues to watch in silence.
I'm unsure if Fred's recorded voice has been fixed in the repair, but I do know that now is not the time to test it. Carefully as can be managed, without ever tipping the globe too far in one direction or the other, I stand up and cross back over to the desk, setting it back down into its original position among the other trinkets. I can feel his eyes still on me and cannot help but to linger here now, with my back turned to him. If I face him now, what would I do? What would I say? I've said nothing yet.
Fred would be so angry if I continue in only silence.
You have to turn around, Josephine. You have to say something.
Reluctantly, I obey.
My eyes keep to the floor as I fiddle nervously with my fingers, but still no words leave my mouth. George's silence continues to stretch on as well, until it feels as though the silent standoff will never end.
Finally, I dare myself to glance in his direction and see that he is standing now, an almost blank expression on his face, but beneath that vacancy is the smallest hint of... something. Surprise? Curiosity? I cannot place it.
I wonder if he is as lost as I am. I think he must be.
And yet it feels as though he's looking for something... For what, though? I don't know. All I do know, in this moment, while looking into his drawn eyes, is that just like the glass that shattered, he is so very breakable.
No, that's not right.
Just like the glass that shattered, he is so very broken.
So say something, Josephine! Say it now.
I have nothing of any importance or depth to say, no words of comfort to offer him. Even if I were an articulate person, I would still be at a loss for words here and now, because what do you ever say in moments such as these?
"Are you okay?"
It's quiet, of course, but he hears me.
Our roles reversed, George stares at me, wide-eyed and silent, before slowly nodding. Of course I don't believe him, because of course he's not okay, but for today, for now, it's the best that either of us can do. And so I nod in return, dropping my eyes back down to the floor and away from him.
Three words is enough for today, I decide.
Twisting on the spot, I head straight for the door, and swiftly open and close it without a moment's hesitation. I am finally free.
Author's Note: Thank you so much for reading, if you've made it to this point! Four chapters in on my first novel and it's incredible to see people coming back for more! Special thank you to 1917farmgirl and pixileanin for their continued support and helpful editing eyes! Another thank you to marauderfan and HerMrsPotter for immediately jumping at the chance to get this story to 100 reviews when I posted a status about how near I was! And thank you to anyone and everyone who has favorited this story or left a review or shared it with a friend! I am truly touched. :)
If you do have a spare moment, I'd really appreciate some feedback! I promise the review box doesn't bite. ;)
P.S. Chapter five will be entering the queue this weekend, so I hope to see you all again soon! Yay! :-D
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