Chapter 5 : Eye of the Storm
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October 12, 1996
He knocks only once before entering tonight.
"You seen George?" is his introduction, spoken through the small crack in the door he's now created, allowing just enough room for his head to peek through. I shake my head no. "Where's he gotten off to, then?"
I throw Fred a quick glance before shrugging my shoulders. For once I've no idea where George might be, too confined in my office for the past half hour to be keeping proper tabs. The closing of the store each night means resigning to this space and going over the days sales and receipts. It's a small room with only a desk and some stray chairs to keep me company, but it's enough for the work that I do. The enchanted receipt paper used at check-out keeps count automatically, and so it's simple enough for me to balance the days profits with ease, sufficiency, and a minimal amount of time.
I'm almost done for the night, but with my eyes and mind focused strictly on my work, I still can feel Fred hovering nearby. Even in silence he is hard to ignore. And if there is anything I have learned over the past few months working here, it's that a hovering Fred Weasley always has something to say, and he absolutely will not leave until he has said it. With that in mind, I reluctantly mark my progress before setting down my quill and looking expectantly to him.
"You don't know?" he asks in mock surprise. "You don't know?" I narrow my eyes. "And just how is that possible when he's George and you're you? You're slipping, Jo. I'm terribly disappointed." He shakes his head slowly at me. I counter it all by showcasing two fingers. "Oi!" he laughs out in surprise. "How delightfully vulgar! Must be rubbing off on you after all," he boasts with a wink.
"Arse," I say.
"Stalker," he counters.
We grin stupidly at each other.
He's right, though, I suppose, as it is the first time I've used the gesture, and it would probably continue to remain deplete from my arsenal if the twins weren't both so fond of it.
Soon enough, however, the look on Fred's face changes from one of ridiculous, nonsensical pride to something more thoughtful, almost conflicted. I eye him curiously, shifting a bit as he stares me down with that calculating expression, feeling oddly exposed. "Right," he suddenly announces with a nod, and steps more completely into my office, seeming to have come to some sort of conclusion. With a quiet click, he shuts the door behind him and fixes me with his most penetrating stare.
"We're both aware of the fact that I hold very valuable information about you, yes?"
"Hrrrngh," I say dumbly.
Fred lets out a booming laugh. "Sorry - aha! - I swear that wasn't meant to sound so threatening! Your face, though - ahaha! - bloody brilliant."
I visibly relax at the admission, unease turning to annoyance as I suppress the urge to hex him bald. He continues chuckling at my expense until I shoot him an exasperated glare. Eventually he sobers. "What I meant was- See, I was just thinking that, well... I've somewhat a secret my own, is all." I raise my eyebrows. Go on, they say. "Usually I'd chat with George about it, as it's not the sort of thing I like to rattle off about to just anyone... But seeing as he's nowhere to be found, well - I guess what I'm trying to say is that, just... can I tell you a secret?"
The question is surprising. It's not that I don't consider Fred and me to be friends of sorts, but our relationship before now has been solely based on my feelings for George and the entertainment it provides him. Days in the shop have been little more than an array of one-sided stalker jokes, with the occasional work-related question or request. It's been fun and simple and entirely superficial, never touching on the more personal matters (the possible exception being when he admitted to testing a new itching powder on various private regions of his body - which, in retrospect, may actually have been more personal than any secret he could have). But the idea - the possibility - of scratching beyond the surface, of breaking outside of this one-dimensional rapport, of potentially calling Fred with complete and utter confidence a friend... it just sounds so very... nice.
And so I nod.
Yes. Please. Tell me your secret.
"Great!" he exclaims, rocking back onto his heels and looking a tiny bit anxious. "Well, er, thing is..." he begins, now rocking up onto his toes. When he lands flat-footed once more, he sighs heavily before dramatically throwing his arms up in the air and announcing, "My girlfriend is crazy."
Articulate as ever, I simply blink.
"Yes, girlfriend," he answers the unasked question with a nod, "Though that may not be the right word to describe us at the moment, seeing as she dumped me this morning. Might not even be the right word to define us half the time, seeing as she dumps me quite regularly. Might be more fitting to say something more like... I'm seeing someone. Sometimes. I'm sometimes seeing someone. Yeah, that's about right, I reckon. Sometimes seeing someone. Been sometimes seeing someone. Someone crazy."
I try to blink away my surprise. It's not as if Fred isn't a perfectly datable bloke, only that as someone so generally substandard in the art of subtlety, it's rather a wonder he's been able to keep a relationship so undercover.
When he looks up to gauge my reaction, I simply raise my eyebrows, inviting him to continue.
"D'you know Angelina Johnson?" he asks, and while I do have a vague memory of her from Hogwarts - Gryffindor, chaser, feisty, pretty - Fred barely pauses long enough for me to give him a half-nod before barrelling onward. "She really is rather crazy - have I mentioned already? - though I suppose a good kind of crazy... But sometimes not. Like this morning, for example. Got into a bit of a... minor spat." I throw him a sceptical look. "Moderate quarrel, then," he concedes. I am still unconvinced and so I stare at him harder. "Fine, Jo, fine! It was a great bleeding row of a thing! Are you satisfied? Bloody sadist." I throw him a grin. He sighs, but continues. "She thinks it's all my fault, too - which of course it is - but she's taking it all way too seriously! She needs to lighten up sometimes, and I was just- I was trying to show her- Look, what happened was this: I was staying at her place, right? And she's always such a grump in the morning. So I, being the practical person I am, decide that if she woke up to a top-notch joke, she'd be a peach! Anyway, two of my favourite things to tease her about are the fact that she still sleeps with her childhood teddy, and that she's got a hilariously extreme fear of clowns. And I mean, with that sort of information, it was really only a matter of time before she woke up snuggling a clown in lieu of her bear, right?"
He looks at me with laughter in his eyes. I stare back horrified.
"The look on her face - if you'd have seen it - ahaha! - blimey - too good! Though, of course, she didn't think it was very funny, which is where the whole thing turned into a row..." he trails off, sobering slightly.
My jaw is on the floor.
"In my defence, I did censor myself a bit! Originally the clown was meant to throw a pie in her face too, but I thought that would be... you know, crossing the line and what not..." Finally something akin to guilt flashes across his face. "Perhaps I did miscalculate quite where the line was drawn."
I consider yelling, ya think!?
"Whatever!" he cries out dramatically, penitence short-lived, "I stand by my choices! I still maintain that she needs to loosen up! She can be, just- just so infuriating sometimes! Things are going great, then I try to have bit of innocent - well, mostly innocent - fun and suddenly she's walking away again! But do you know how I charm her into taking me back? With more jokes and pranks! Except now instead of 'tasteless and horrible', they're 'funny and endearing'! I mean, how's a bloke supposed to know where the line is?" he practically shouts, arms flailing about theatrically. "You women are impossible!"
I shake my head slowly, equal parts dumbfounded and bemused. Then, from seemingly out of nowhere, his ridiculous dramatics coupled with the absolute absurdity of his logic catches up with me until an irrational giggle slowly bubbles to the surface, echoed almost immediately by a chuckle of Fred's own. And without really knowing why, something within us both snaps until we are each so overcome with uncontrollable fits of laughter, we're forced to cling to the wall for support.
"Blimey," he eventually says, wiping away a tear as we slowly calm. His last few chuckles are soon replaced by an honest and open look of thoughtfulness.
"I love her though, I do," he tells me, quiet yet intense, and it's obvious how very much he means the words. "And bless her, she loves me back, the nut... But we kinda hate each other too, you know? It's great. Except when it isn't. But it's mostly great. She's a pistol, I tell you; a right firecracker. It's exciting not having anyone know outside of George - and you, now, I s'pose. Something about the sneaking around, the trying not to get caught... I've always fancied that sort of thing." We each let out a soft chuckle at the truth behind that statement. "And like I mentioned, we break up so often it's practically routine. But no one ever really wants to hear about those sorts of things... I think it's best kept a secret for everyone's sake, really. For now, at least."
I nod my head in understanding as we sit in companionable silence. When I look up next, it is to see an almost introspective expression on Fred's face.
"Ah damn it, now I miss her," he admits defeatedly. "I've got to apologize, don't I?" My face tells him, duh. "Right. I'm gonna go fix this, then. Good talk!" he tells me, pushing himself up from off the wall. "Oh, and hey!" Fred pauses midway to the exit, stopping to look back at me with traces of laughter in his eye. "I know you're, like, a crazy gossip, but could you try to keep this to yourself?"
I roll my eyes and he throws me a wink before reaching for the handle. It isn't until the door has all but shut behind him that Fred suddenly returns, poking only his head inside in a spot on imitation of his earlier arrival. He looks intently at me through narrowed eyes before enthusiastically announcing what I can only describe to be the most random, peculiar, and thoroughly off-topic of declarations:
"It is my firm belief that true friendship does not require such trivial formalities as knocking!"
He then nods, points a finger at me, and is gone again in a flash, leaving me alone to ponder over what the hell that could possibly mean.
Needless to say, I make no concrete decisions about the potential significance behind his odd choice of departing words. Still, I can't help but to wonder if maybe my earlier hope was not quite so farfetched; that he might potentially see me somehow differently now. Perhaps in opening up to me, we've begun some sort of... something. Something more. Something greater. Something a little less like amusement and a little more like friendship. That maybe now there will be a kind of permanency in each other’s lives - one that will no longer require things such as conventional propriety.
Of course, maybe it meant nothing at all.
In any case, he no longer knocks.
June 10, 1998
"How is he?" Verity asks the moment I re-enter the floor.
As I cross to where she stands behind the register, fiddling over what looks to be a messy pile of paper scraps, I glance around to see that the rest of the room has been restored to its former glory; clean, restocked, and organized, almost as if the earlier hurricane of customers had never happened at all. Thank goodness for magic, I can't help but to think, for without it I feel certain we'd all have been here til midnight. As it stands, every employee sans myself and Verity has gone home.
When I reach Verity, she raises her eyebrows and gives me a gentle, but prodding look.
I shift my gaze down to stare at my shoes, as if searching for the answer in their worn out laces. How would you be? I want to say, but it feels irrationally hostile. Verity is a nice enough girl, though I only know her so well through the small exchanges we've shared in passing, and her curiosity regarding George feels like nothing more than a genuine concern. I think back on the scene I left behind and say the first word that comes to mind.
Or is it shattered? Crushed? Destroyed? Is he a ghost? A shadow? A shell? Maybe he is all of those things, I don't know. All I do know is that he is no longer whole.
"Poor thing," is all she offers on the matter. I nod.
A small silence greets us, but is broken after Verity throws a cautious look my way.
"Josephine, I..." she begins, running an anxious hand through her short blonde hair. Her hesitation makes my fingers twitch. I give her a gentle, but imploring look, and she shuffles her feet before continuing. "Thing is... we ran out of enchanted receipt paper 'round noon. And from there I... well, I sort of had to improvise." She shoots a worried glance at the counter and suddenly the messy pile of paper scraps situated there begins to make sense. "The line was just so long that I couldn't be bothered to write everything down on my own, so... well, I ended up borrowing Mickey's Quick Quotes Quill - which wouldn't be so terrible, except you know just how loose an interpretation those things make, and now..." she trails off, reaching towards the counter to grab two scraps of paper set aside from the main collection, eyeing each warily. "It called our Patented Daydream Charms 'legal hallucinogens' and in parenthesis wrote 'the prudent-persons psychedelic'. And the only other one I've been able to figure out so far was for our Self-Writing Quill, which it called 'the poor-persons me.'"
I can't help but to giggle at the absurdity of the situation. As inconvenient as it may be, it's still far too ridiculous to keep a straight face. When Verity notices my genial reaction, the tension in her shoulders releases and she lets out a small laugh of her own.
Eventually the humour does fade.
"I'm sorry," she says with the utmost sincerity. "It's all my fault, I know. Should've checked the stock before we even opened, and then using the Quick Quotes Quill on top of that... I know I've made a real mess for you. But look, I can stay. I will stay, help you sort these out."
In this moment especially I can appreciate just how kind a person Verity truly is. She looks so very tired, though, and I can only assume that there's somewhere else she'd much rather be than stuck here at work with her taciturn colleague, shuffling through nonsensical scraps of paper. And so I give her a sincere smile before saying, "Go home." Both her smile and relief are immediate, and she whispers a genuine thank you before heading out the door. I retreat to my office, pile of misfit receipts in tow.
Time passes slowly as I play detective with the papers, separating them into piles of those I've both solved and accounted for versus those I've been unable to decipher. When I look at the clock to see that more than an hour's gone by already, I glare mutinously at the only half-sorted stack before me.
And then the door swings open.
Hello again, George.
"Oh, blimey- Sorry, I didn't... Thought everyone had gone home. Figured the light was left on accidentally..."
A steady heat climbs up my neck without invitation. I avert my gaze to my lap where my fingers now fiddle nervously, embarrassed and all too certain that I look an awful tired mess; my only small consolation being that he too looks rather frazzled.
"What're you doing here so late?" he inquires, still frozen in the door frame.
Unable to answer audibly - to the disappointment of Fred, no doubt - I meekly gesture to the scattered papers laid out before me. This causes George to step further inside, the door quietly shutting behind him as he approaches the desk. After reaching for one of the torn bits of parchment, he brings it up close to his face. Brilliant blue eyes dart back and forth across the paper, heavy brow furrowed in concentration, hair and clothes adorably tousled, and oh my God this room is too small, help me.
"Oh," I hear him whisper. I peer at his face as inconspicuously as possible to see a look of dawning realization there. He sets the note back down and brings a hand to the back of his neck, tilting his head as he scans the messy table. "I forgot to restock the receipts, didn't I? I'm sorry. That was always- always..."
The words he doesn't say hang heavily between us.
Fred's job. I know.
"I'm sorry," he tells me again, "for forgetting." His gaze lingers on the desk and I allow myself to study him more closely, noticing for the first time a puffy redness around his eyes. My chest tightens painfully. When he looks up again, I look away, and he shifts awkwardly in response. Then, without so much as a word in warning, he crosses to my side of the table before drawing up a chair and seizing a handful of receipts.
"No need to look so shocked," he tells me with a half-grin. "After all, it's my fault you're stuck with this mess; least I can do is help out, yeah?"
I try my best to shake the expression from my face, begging my voice to wake up and say that his generosity is truly unnecessary and to please leave me alone or I will surely die. Naturally I fail to communicate, and so instead I, in a desperate plea for more space, shift my chair away from his as indiscreetly as possible. If he notices the act, he doesn't say.
We work together wordlessly. It is absolutely deafening. Even in silence he is impossible to ignore.
I allow my hair to fall out from its tucked position behind my ear so that it can act as a shield to obscure my view of George. Although of course I know how very near he still is to me, the small wall I've built between us does help to keep my hands from shaking. When he reaches forward to sort a scrap into a pile, my eyes linger on his thin, pale wrist and long, gentle fingers. With each occurrence, I grow more thankful for my protective layer of hair.
Suddenly the sound of shuffling papers beside me quells. Irrepressibly curious, I brave a quick glance in George's direction, moving aside the thick curtain of my hair to see him sitting quite still, holding three of the make-shift receipts before him like a ragtag hand of cards. After chuckling to himself for a moment, he sets the stack down and slides them over to me. When he retracts his hand, I lean forward to read:
Foul bowel-scented something; smells scarily authentic.
Product of the faecal variety; made of substances unknown.
This item is crap. Literally.
"For the first time," George says once I've finished reading, "it's come to my attention that we may actually sell too many poo-related products." I grin at the table as George lets out another laugh. "Could it not have been more specific, though? I mean, the products do do - haha, doo-doo - sorry - they do do different things; they serve separate purposes! But the way this thing describes our stuff makes half the items sound interchangeable! Like, this 'faecal variety' one could be anything: the Fart-Attack, Deja-Poo, Poo-tion, Poo d'Etat, U-No-Poo, Faecal Treacle, the Bowel Towel... the Bowel Trowel... I mean, honestly, I don't know... I don't - I don't know how..." George trails off unexpectedly, his words coming slower, voice dropping to just above a whisper. He blinks once before admitting, "I don't know how we're meant to get through this."
In the silence that follows, I wonder if perhaps we are no longer talking about receipts.
"This is... I'm sorry," he says, fiddling mindlessly with one of the scraps. The sincerity of his words is undeniable. And while I want to scream out how absolutely I do not blame him - for this, for anything, ever - all I offer is a shrug. He forces a half-smile in return. "No, really, I'm sorry about all this. And, er..." he begins again, his voice softer, almost uncertain. "I'm sorry about... about earlier, too."
The memory - of his office, of Fred's voice, of the snow globe, of its shattering - flashes through my mind and I swallow thickly.
There are so many things, so very many things, that I wish I could say to him now. The words, words that never before have come easily, flood my mind with rapid fervour, and still I am outwardly tongue-tied. Three words, I try to convince myself; I can handle another three words. And so even though it's the most obvious statement in the world, even though it is superficial where I wish it to be profound, even though it offers no actual wisdom or comfort or consolation, still I force myself to slowly say the inconsequential remark:
"You miss him."
It's barely a whisper, spoken to the table, but I feel him stiffen beside me and know that he has heard. More than simply hearing, however, I hope he understands the hidden depths of the shallow words, all the things that go unsaid. It's okay to miss him. You're allowed to miss him. You're allowed to be sad, to be angry, to break snow globes; to be anything you need to be because you miss him. I miss him, too. You are not alone. I love you.
No, not that one.
"Well," he eventually says, an edge of forced nonchalance to his voice and hollow laugh against his lips, "not as much as I miss my left ear."
I cringe immediately at the joke, shuddering at the emptiness his once vibrant laugh now holds, desperately hoping to never hear the sound again.
It only a takes a moment in the newly strained atmosphere for George to break the silence.
"Jesus, I am- I'm very sorry. That was a really shit thing to say, I know. Blimey," he says in a rush, sliding forward in his chair until he's perched on its edge. "It's just... it feels like- like when I don't joke about things, even with the darkest of humour, it's like... I don't know how- how to... explain."
Desperate and frustrated and inarticulate as he now is, he brings two fingers up to the bridge of his nose, closing his eyes and looking suddenly so very young and so very lost. When he finally looks up again, he takes a deep breath before what feels like a months’ worth of repressed thoughts come spilling from his mouth:
"Ever since... just, ever since it happened, most everyone seems to treat me in one of two ways, right? Either they expect me to be the biggest mess of anyone - just damaged to bits, beyond repair - or they expect me to somehow be the strongest, the- the person who holds everyone's spirits up, the... eternal comic-relief! And I don't- I don't know which end of the spectrum I'm truly on, or who exactly I am at the moment, only that I don't- I just... I don't want to be that first person, and I cannot be the second." He pauses to catch his breath, hands tightened into controlled fists. Soon enough he carries on. "Even with my family it feels that way. Don't get me wrong, because I love my family, I do, but... it's just hard sometimes, to be around them; to be around anyone, really. On the other hand, being alone isn't exactly... it's... it's just that... now when I'm alone, I'm just... just so... alone. More alone than alone has ever been before, because alone used to mean alone with Fred. And now it's just... alone."
He breaks again, this time to shoot a searching glance my way. Somewhere between my staring intently at the table and being unable to look him directly in the eye, I settle for gazing at the laces of his trainers to let him know that I truly am listening. Please go on, the gesture suggests, and so he does.
"Been spending most of the past month at home, cause avoiding being here alone just seemed like the best thing for me. But now that I'm actually back here, feels like it might be easier to stay... Blimey, that made me sound like such a prat, eh? Though, truthfully, I don't think they'd mind a break either... cause I can tell, you know, that every time they look at me, they see him, too..."
"But worse than anything's been my mum. Gods, that makes me sound even worse! It's just that she's sort of driving me bonkers because she's always talking about it; she never gives it a rest when I'm around! Sometimes I just want to do my best to ignore it, to pretend like things aren't the way that they are, but I can't escape the reality when she's constantly going on about Fred as if he didn't live at all; as if he never experienced anything while he was alive. It's like she can't not talk about it - how he'll never get married or have kids or know what it's like to be in love..."
At the last admission my head snaps up, a look of pure confusion on my face. But before I realize just what I've done, George is already looking at me through narrowed eyes. I try to quickly fix my face into an emotionless mask, but I can see the cogs turning in his mind as he slowly figures me out; his calculated expression soon morphing into one of understanding. "Merlin's beard," he says with trepidation. "You know about Angelina?"
It is a statement more than a question, really, but still I nod; yes.
"I don't... I don't mean this to sound how I'm afraid it's gonna sound, but- just... He really must have been closer to you than I ever thought he was. To have told you that, I mean... Sort of thought I was the only one who knew..."
My stomach drops at the words, plummeting only further when I see the mix of emotion on George's face; flashes of confusion, disbelief and betrayal all there, hidden poorly beneath a mask of contrived neutrality. A guilt unlike any other painfully clutches at my chest. I know what he is thinking, know just how he is feeling, and I want nothing more than to grab him by the shoulders, shake him hard and scream: This doesn't change anything; you are no less special; you are no less significant for not having been Fred's only confidante. But the words stay locked inside as I will the ground to swallow me whole, all the while glaring daggers at the uncooperative flooring. And what is worse than anything is the knowledge that if I hadn't made Fred promise to keep secrets from George, he would already know of how close Fred and I had been, and it would not be coming as a shock to him now - now when there is no Fred to offer any closure.
Neither of us speak, move, breathe in the moments that follow; far too lost and overwhelmed and just poignantly aware of how uncomfortable we truly are around one another. But when the silence reaches the point of just unbearably painful, George finally takes initiative and forces our way through it.
"Er, well- so anyway... Uh, yeah, back to, er... I- My mum! Right. My mum, she- she never knew, though, 'bout any of it, is all, so... yeah." He clears his throat awkwardly, but continues none the less. "I have tried to tell her, though - the truth, that is. Course, she thinks I'm just lying to placate her or something, and - well, seeing as I haven't anything to prove it by on my own, there's only so much I can do... Did end up writing Angelina - a few times now, actually - but she hasn't responded, and no one I've talked to has seen her since the funeral, so... It's all rather a mess right now. And I - I don't even know which is worse: my mum thinking Fred never knew love, or my knowing the truth and being unable to convince her. It all just feels like... I can't win."
He shrugs at the admission, clearly trying for indifference. We sit in a far less uncomfortable silence now, and I stare unseeingly at the hands in my lap, going over everything I've learned today, until suddenly I'm shaken from my thoughts by a shocking question:
"Did you see it happen?" George blurts out. He gapes at his own bluntness, and soon looks inordinately sheepish. "Oh God, I'm sorry. Oi, what a stupid thing to ask! It's just- I was thinking about... I remember seeing you there, at the battle, nearby, with Fred a few times, and I just thought maybe you two... stuck together or something. I even thought... well, at the time I sort of thought when I saw you there that... maybe he'd be safer? Thought maybe you'd fight beside him and I wouldn't have to worry quite so much. I'm sorry, and you obviously don't have to answer that. Don't know what's come over me - must've swapped tactfulness with Ron..."
I don't know exactly what it is that compels me to do it (perhaps some manifestation of my guilt from earlier), but words of explanation suddenly bubble up and out of me before I even make the conscious decision to let them.
"I didn't fight," I say, and the moment it hits the air I wish to immediately take it back, because for the life of me I will never understand why I would choose to lead with that.
"You... you didn't fight?" George asks, his entire demeanour changing along with his hardened voice. "But... but you were there," he accuses, "so what do you mean you didn't fight? You were at Hogwarts! So what, I mean, did you just - you just left? Is that- is that what you're saying? Because how could you have been there only to not fight?"
Every word of his is enunciated with deliberate, biting force. My jaw flaps wordlessly as I stutter and stammer over consonants, desperately searching for words of explanation as he stares me down with a mix of total disbelief and absolute repugnance, until finally I am able to form a coherent thought, voicing it at a whisper. "I... am a terrible dueller. I can't fight, I am awful at it. But... but I cast good shield charms and- and I - I can heal well. I didn't fight because I... I was protecting and healing only. I'm sorry."
He hangs his head immediately, looking about as ashamed as I feel. "You - You don't... You don't ever have to apologize for that. I'm sorry. I'm a bleeding idiot." George closes his eyes and swallows hard before looking at me again with desperation in his eyes. "I know - I know - I have, just, no right to ask this, but if... if you were there casting shield charms... where were you when Fred needed protecting? Why wasn't he protected?"
"Fr-" I start to say, but his name makes my throat go dry and I abandon it half-spoken. I swallow hard before finally admitting the truth. "He made me promise to follow you."
His entire being seems to diminish at the confession, almost folding into itself in shock; his eyes so wide and innocent, it makes him look smaller, younger, scared. "Me?" he asks, voice barely above a whisper and with so much fragility it makes my heart skip a beat. "He... he made you promise to follow me? Me?" he asks again. And though his fragile demeanour is still present at the surface, I can see beneath his exterior to the anger within. "But why would... He needed... Why would you listen to- Why would you do- Why would you promise that? Why would you agree to that?" And now he is shouting and standing abruptly and kicking his chair away in frustration, and after a moment of frantic pacing, he turns to look at me again, the faintest trace of wetness in his eyes. "He needed protecting! He was the one who needed the protecting, not me! What's the matter with you?"
I let him yell. He needs this, I know. He is a lightning storm that's been brewing all month, pent up and suppressed and unable to find an outlet, now electric with fury. I will take his thunder. Even storms tire eventually.
"He was- he was the one who needed... You shouldn't have done it. You shouldn't have listened..."
His voice tapers off, sounding exhausted more than anything. He then walks slowly to the door, but rather than exiting, he lightly presses his forehead to the frame.
I say nothing - do nothing - but wait; head down, chin to my chest, and the distinct hope that this will all be over soon.
When he does speak again it's with a gentle voice, lacking any trace of its earlier bite.
"There was a moment," he begins, words calm but clear, "during the battle, when I... I had been knocked down and lost my wand in the fall. Was about to be struck, too, but someone I couldn't see cast a shield - bloody powerful thing, too - blew the guy straight into the wall with it - knocked him out cold and saved... probably my life." Backing away from the door, he turns to face me again. "That was you, wasn't it?"
All I can do is nod.
"You saved me?" he asks again, but this time I keep my head bowed. "So... if you had followed Fred instead of me... I would be the one who's dead?" he asks, almost in awe, before repeating the words quietly to himself. "I would be the one who's dead..."
I hear him as he crosses back to my side of the room, sitting heavily once more in the chair beside me. I don't so much as flinch this time, too drained by the days hurricane of emotions, so his proximity be damned. He is still as a statue, surely processing all of this new information as best as he is able, when suddenly he says something that hurts me more deeply than any other words he has thrown at me tonight.
"It should have been me. I should be the one who's dead."
My head snaps up immediately, my whole body pulled by its force as I turn to face him fully, and for the first time all night I look him dead in the eyes. "Don't say that," I practically demand of him, with a voice so firm and forceful I hardly recognize it as my own.
He looks immediately taken aback, simply blinking at me in stunned silence as I continue to stare. But when his expression turns into one of staggering guilt I am forced to look away. Soon I feel guilty too. We are guilty together. It’s a very twisted sort of comforting.
"Sorry," we say simultaneously.
"No," George quickly continues. "Please don't apologize to me. This has been my doing, all of it. If Fred had heard any of that, he'd have hexed me blind, deaf, and dumb for a month straight at least, and I'd have deserved every second of it. I guess I just assumed... It's just that you were so close with Fred, so I - I just thought that… that you would…"
Thought what? I want to demand of him. That I would agree with you?
My heart stops at the thought.
I resent that my mind follows where George’s has led, spiralling down into the depths of which I always loath to visit, but I am here now with no escape but to complete the train of thought. And I hate to think this way, but the truth of the matter is that if it had to be one of us who ended up dead, then by all accounts, shouldn’t it have been me? Because in the wake of Fred's death, a seemingly infinite amount of people have been thrown into mourning. But if I'd gone in his place, Fred alone would have felt that loss. He'd still have had George, though, and so he'd have been okay, too. So no, George, it should not have been you, it should not have been Fred; if someone had to go, it should have been me. I am so sorry that it wasn’t.
Gods... how did we end up here? And why'd it have to be us? Fuck.
I need to be alone now. George is silent beside me, but still I need him gone. This day has been so long - too long - and I can feel the tidal wave of emotions rising rapidly to the surface.
"I can finish the rest on my own," I tell him.
My eyes stay fixed on the hands in my lap. In my periphery I can see George's head lift in my direction. I feel his eyes on my face, but he says nothing. He only holds the gaze a moment before I hear his chair scrape faintly against the carpet. He is up without a word. When he reaches the door he stalls for the briefest breathe of time, opening his mouth and hesitating before closing it once more. If he'd been considering speaking, he decides against it, only exhaling quietly to make an otherwise silent exit.
The moment the door clicks shut behind him my head falls heavy into my hands, and I, as quietly as can be managed, fall apart.
Author's Note: So... the update gap between this chapter and the previous one was not quite as short as I initially anticipated. Let's say it together: I am the worst.
On that note, this chapter would have continued to sit untouched in my drafts for awhile longer had it not been for the literally insane amounts of love, support, and relentless pestering from 1917farmgirl, Pixileanin, randomwriter, apondinabluebox, and - most mercilessly - HeyMrsPotter. This chapter is dedicated to you. Sorry I'm so slow!
Special thanks to Pixileanin and 1917farmgirl for their extra eyes on certain sections of this chapter. I'd still be going crazy editing if it weren't for your help!
That's all for now! Don't forget to favorite/review! ^.^
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