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Chapter 6 : Brave Face, Kid
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July 29, 1997
I know that something's wrong long before I see them.
It's written in the odd hour of this too-early morning, in the reluctant presence of every weekday and weekend employee, in the hushed whispers between uncertain co-workers, in tensed shoulders and strained necks and shifting eyes and shuffling feet and -
There's this moment when it lifts - the dread, the fear, the anxiety - because suddenly... Fred.
Fred walks in and he is simply... Fred. A little rumpled around the edges, a touch tired from the hour, but still a grin turns the corners of his mouth; a light dances in his eyes. And I think maybe - maybe - I am wrong. All is well. It must be. It is. Isn't it? Yes.
A collective gasp echoes around the room the moment George comes into sight, all long limbs and tired eyes and damages. Yet still, beneath it all, a smile. And somehow that breaks me more. More than alabaster bandages wrapped tightly around his ear; more than tilted halos of fraying edges and rusting, bloodstained fabric.
The others rush towards him, forming a staggered semi-circle of worried looks and bombarding him with questions. But I can only stare. Wide-eyed. Unblinking. No reservations. No self-preservation. I am an open book. Were he to look at me, he would see everything. He would see me. Bare and raw and real and everything I try so hard to hide away. The anger, the pain, the sadness, the desperation, the love... Mostly the love.
Fred's quiet, sudden voice in my ear takes me by surprise.
"You'd better wipe that look of desperate concern off your face, kid, or he's gonna figure you out."
I hear the words, but even they cannot shake me.
"Come on, come over here," Fred says, gently taking me by the arm and steering me towards the checkout desk, turning our backs on the others and saving me from myself.
When we reach the counter I lean against it instinctually, my elbows on the surface, my head bowed slightly, with eyes wide and wet and frightened because terrible things are happening all around us. But this is the first time it strikes me just how very unsafe - how very not-actually-untouchable - George Weasley is. A fear for Fred follows quickly, because it just as easily could have been him. Some tears manage to escape at the thought, and I am shaking slightly, but trying still to hold my composure when Fred's arm wraps around me and lips press to my ear.
"He's okay, Jo. Really, he is."
His voice is calm, steady, a whispered beacon of hope for me to cling to, and his warmth spreads even further with the comforting squeeze he gives my shoulder. "D'you know the first thing he did when I saw him hurt? Huh?" he asks, a hint of a smile now in his voice. "He made a joke, Jo. I mean... a pretty rotten one, yeah, but still! A joke. And ever since then he's been off and calling himself all 'distinguished' or some rot, strutting about like no left ear is the damn-near greatest thing in the entire bloody world, the prat... You see? He's okay."
Fred's voice is a plea of believe me, Jo, please, and I try to, I do.
It helps - the trying - even if I can't quite accept the words as truth. Still, the shaking stops, as do the tears, and Fred's grip on me loosens when he feels me calming. Soon enough he lets me go completely to lean instead against the counter and mirror my position. All except for the eyes. I can feel their worried gaze on me, patiently waiting to have the look returned. And so I swallow hard and give him what he wants.
I hate it, though, when he looks at me like this, with sadness and concern and just absolute pity. (Though, of course, he would never admit it.)
"You know," he begins again, voice softer and gentler than it's been all day. I brace myself for impact. "You could try to ask him yourself how he is. You... you could tell him - that you care - so you wouldn't have to hide the fact that you're devastated he's been hurt. You could - you should - tell him. You should tell him that you love him, Jo. For him, not for you. It's nice to know you're loved."
My chest tightens painfully as I whisper my sad truth. "I am not so selfless."
We grin a bit sadly at each other in response.
When a final tear escapes, Fred reaches over swiftly and wipes it from existence for me. "Okay?" he asks, and I nod. And though neither of us truly believes it, still he smiles and says, "Okay. Because we have something to tell you, and it's going to change a lot of things. Best put on your brave face, kid."
I do my best to.
With a hand on my shoulder, Fred guides me back to the others. He pauses just outside the semi-circle of employees and ruffles my hair before leaving to join George up front and center. And in true Fred Weasley spirit, he is quick to grab everyone's attention.
"Georgie's dashing heroics and battle-scars aside," he butts in animatedly, arms gesticulating wildly, "I reckon you all know what this truly means, eh?" Fred points a long finger at George's bandaged ear.
George throws an arm around Fred before finishing the thought himself. "Means they have no excuse to confuse the two of us anymore!"
"Ha! Right you are!" Fred shouts over the chuckling employees, as George smiles my favorite smile. The sweet, sinful kind...
When the laughter dissipates, however, a sobered atmosphere takes its place.
"Right. To business, then," Fred begins, his shift in tone and demeanor foretelling the serious nature of whatever is to come. "Well, first things first: thank you all for coming in at such an odd hour and on such short notice." The others feel it too, I can tell, for the room is electric with anticipation. It's George who finally says it.
"We're closing the shop."
A tone-deaf symphony of panic erupts around me. Fred and George are quick to do damage control, recapturing the room with a unanimous "Oi!"
What follows next are the explanations:
"...been targeted, you see; our big ol' family of blood-traitorous gingers... ...putting you all in danger, having you work here so openly... ...have to board the place up, make it look like we've shut down for good... ...want to continue undercover... ...anyone willing to help out... ...keep going as a mail-only service... ...need people to sneak into the store... ...send out supplies for us... ...no obligation, of course... ...can't do it ourselves... ...leaving, to go undercover... ....please help us..."
The words wash over me like a spell, a dream, a nightmare. Oh, and if only it were true, if it were anything other than reality, because this cannot be happening. This is my home. More than any other place, this is my home. And now... Closed. Fred. George. Leaving. No. Please, no...
When they ask for volunteers, for those willing to help under the cloak of secrecy, only I remain quiet. No one else so much as hesitates, only me and my fears alone remain. And Fred is watching me, I know it, I can feel him willing a response from me. And I want to say no, because I am me and I am weak and I am frightened.
I give him what he wants, anyway. I look up, into his eyes.
....please help us...
June 17, 1998
There is something about silence.
It has always felt like home to me. Like comfort, like serenity, like simplicity. It makes sense to me, the silence. Existing just as nothing - or maybe just as a lack of somethings - and it comes with no strings attached, with no expectations to be broken. And I don't know why exactly, but that has always been comforting to me. Most people seem to dislike the same silence that completes me. It worries them, or bores them, or drives them to the brink of insanity. But I love it; I need it; I do. Perhaps because I was raised in it. It is my oldest friend, my most reliable companion. I can think in silence. I can be me in silence. I am free in silence...
George has not spoken to me in over a week. And his silence is killing me.
It's a dance that we are in. A dance around each other. He steps right, so I step left. I step forward, so he steps back. We move away together, skirting around each other in perfect unison; a poorly choreographed duet of solos. And in retrospect, it shouldn't feel so strange, so foreign. Not when I've been performing this routine for years, now, on my own; not when my whole life before last Saturday was nothing more than endless weeks of muted, sidestepping waltzes. And yet... this is a whole new kind of silence. Because for the first time it's not just me avoiding him, it's him avoiding me... and that is so very different. And so very worse.
Today has not been so bad, though, at least, as most of it's been spent in my office - somewhere George almost never pops up - and so it's easy to pretend that only I am doing the avoiding. That is, of course, until the door swings open, just long enough for him to slip inside before shutting it with a bang and a steely cry of, "Hey!"
George says the word like an accusation, and it chills me to the bone.
"Do you know what these are?" he asks, waving about a small pile of familiar looking envelopes. When recognition sinks in, my mouth runs dry.
I don't understand it. Because I know - I know - I did everything right. I did everything the same way I always do. For I am nothing if not a creature of habit. Except...
"These were supposed to go out yesterday," he says, a controlled edge to his voice. "Clearly they didn't, and now none of our payments made it in on time! D'you know what did arrive on the dot, though? The bloody late-fees each company here just charged us with!"
I must look beyond terrified at his raised voice, because he seems to soften during my following silence.
"It's- I'm not- Look, I know we only just got back into the swing of things, but - just... why didn't you send these out? They were in the outgoing mailbox and everything..."
And then it hits me.
Speaking feels impossible, but I make myself do it anyway. "F-Fred..." I stutter out before taking a deep breath and trying again. "Fred, he... he always sent them."
Again I find myself at odds with silence, because this one feels unbearable.
"Fred?" George finally asks, his voice a breathy whisper, and he turns sad eyes to the floor. I chance a glance at his face and watch as it changes from devastating grief to overwhelming desperation to pure, unadulterated fury. In a flash we trade places - his eyes pin me down while my own lock onto the floor - and I brace myself for the storm I know is about to follow. "Fred always sent them?" he nearly seethes in disbelief. "Okay, well, Fred isn't here anymore, is he? He isn't here anymore, and so he can't send them out like he used to do for you, and so you have to do it now! Okay? If Fred did something before, he doesn't do it anymore because he can't! Because he is dead! So you have to do it. How do you not - How can you - I - Just - Just! ...Bloody hell! What's the matter with you?"
Breathe. You have to breathe, Josephine. He's mad at the world. And who wouldn't be? This isn't about you. He's broken - he's just broken - and he needs this, he needs it, he needs somebody to fall apart on, he needs you.
And though of course it's the truth, it does not hurt any less.
He lunges forward suddenly and I can't help but flinch when he knocks down a pile of file-folders from my desk to the floor, scattering them everywhere. Afterwards, he simply turns over his shoulder and beelines for the door, slamming it sharply in his wake and leaving me utterly alone.
Tilting my head back slowly, I will the fresh tears in my eyes to settle - to not give in by falling down my face. And looking up at the ceiling, I can't help but to think how none of this should be happening to either of us.
Damn it, Fred. You should be here. This isn't fair.
My tears refuse to listen and slide down my cheeks, but I'm quick to wipe them away.
Returning my gaze to the floor, I begin picking up the spilled folders and placing them into the filing cabinet, rather than back on the desk. When I kneel down to grab the final few, however, I hear the door reopen with a squeak, only to click shut again with determined gentleness.
Quiet footsteps make their way towards me, where I wait crouched down low, still frozen to the spot. The person's last few steps slow in their approach until at last stopping directly by my side. I know now that it is George who has made a return. My grip tightens on the folders reflexively when he moves to kneel down beside me, and I can't stop myself from angling my head away from him, too afraid of what I might find if I turned to face him.
I feel him staring at me, though. Silent and still, but piercing all the same. And when finally he breaks the silence, it is to ever so gently whisper, "Hey."
I can hardly breathe.
He continues just as sweetly.
"Everything - everything - that I just did... and said - I... I didn't mean any of it. Not one word," he tells me, voice low and soft and far too close, but full of determination to make me believe. "I am so, so sorry."
We are both still again; still together. My heart beats heavy in my chest and he is just too close and I cannot breathe and somebody help me this is too much please. But still I nod and try to smile so that he knows, at the very least, that I have heard and understood him; that I know he did not mean it. I am fine. We're fine. It's fine. Everything is fine.
Space. I need space. And so I resume the final step of picking up the folders, when George reaches out a hand and takes me by the wrist.
"Leave them, I've got it," he says to me, though the words barely register - what with my brain short-circuiting at his sudden touch. In a moment of panic, I drop the files back onto the floor and yank my arm from his grasp with a determined twist. Though clearly taken aback by my behavior, he lets me go without a word.
In mere seconds I'm across the room, a solid ten feet of space between us now. I keep my back turned to him and simply listen as he shuffles about, restacking the final few folders and placing them back onto my desk with a quiet thud.
He pauses but for a moment. Then-
He says my name so sweetly that my eyes flutter closed at the sound.
"Please, I- I am the ultimate prat. Just... the biggest bloody arsehat that ever did exist. Which - if you knew my brother Percy - is really saying quite a lot. But please, please believe me when I say I didn't mean it, I really didn't. And I am truly, very sorry."
I don't - can't - turn to face him. Still, I nod my head regardless and simply hope he understands.
I can hear him exhale wearily as he crosses to a chair, collapsing into it with a heavy drop. And I know I'm making things worse, exacerbating his guilt, by remaining as I am - turned away from him; silent. So, with everything in me, I force myself to turn.
His head is in his hands and his eyes are closed tight. The look of anguish on his face is near enough to stop my heart. And I know I have to say something, but... what? I never know. This is for him, though, not for me, and so I say all I can think of.
"No, it isn't," he counters immediately, lifting his head to look right at me. I shift uncomfortably at his gaze. "It is anything but okay for me to keep taking things out on you. You don't deserve it and I keep doing it anyway and I'm sorry."
The look in his eyes is so honest and tragic and desperate that when he moves away to rehang his head in his hands, I force myself to say something - anything - just... more.
"I'm angry, too," I whisper.
He's slower to respond this time - a small quirk of an eyebrow, a slight parting of lips - before rotating his body in my direction once more. Again I shift under his penetrating stare, but hold my ground this time. Until...
My eyes widen in surprise at the blatant skepticism in his voice.
"I'm sorry, that - I just meant... You don't exactly seem like it."
It cuts like a knife, his admission; flooding me with guilt, crushing me with shame. Have I not been mourning Fred properly? Does George think that I don't care?
"I- Wait, I didn't mean it like - that's not how I meant - what I, just - Jesus, I'm such a fuck-up - I meant - you just - you just seem so... so... okay!"
The words feel just as wrecking.
"Shit. No. I just- I'm not saying that you are okay - that just because you seem okay means that you actually are okay," the words rush out of George's mouth in a hurry to explain himself. "I just... I know you were closer to Fred than I ever knew about. In fact... it sometimes seems like you were just as close with him as me... So then, just... how are you just so... okay? Not okay-okay, but, like... how are you holding it together so well? I mean, if you're angry, why don't you ever seem angry? I keep losing my shit all over you and you just take it like it's... okay! Like Fred didn't die and like I didn't just make it seem like it was your fault! Is it just... are you really that much stronger than me? Cause I don't understand. How are you surviving?"
Oh, George... Beautiful, sweet, broken George... I've had a lot of practice.
My eyes stay glued to the floor as my eyebrows furrow together tightly, lost in thought of what to say.
"Even right now..." George begins again before I can think up anything of my own. "After everything that just happened - that I just threw at you - you're just, like... taking it. Just... taking it and dealing with it, as if it wasn't a horrible, shit thing that just happened. And just... just... How do you do it?" His voice is a plea; his expression a desperate cry of help me please. "If you're angry, just... how are you able to... control it? Because I can't. I feel like I can't. I feel - I just - I am so... lost."
He holds his gaze - so open and honest - with wide, pleading eyes, and I have never felt so helpless.
"I... I don't..." I search desperately for something of value to say.
What are the words? Jesus. I... I'm not okay, but how - how - do I make him see? Make him understand?
"It... I'm not... It's just..." - breathe, Josephine - "Sometimes... Sometimes silence is a cry for help."
George blinks. And again. Then releases a held breath and says, "Well... for your sake, I hope that's not true. And if it is... then you're a hell of a lot more fucked up than I am."
And suddenly I am laughing - quietly, to the floor, mouth closed, shoulders shaking - because something about his words ring so perfectly, terribly true. George lets out a surprised chuckle of his own at my reaction, and - oh - I have missed that sound...
When the both of us sober, an unsure silence settles in, and suddenly thoughts I've been plagued with since our conversation last week crop up in mind with almost urgent persistence.
This is your chance to say something, Josephine. Do it now or you may never...
The thought sends a shiver down my spine, but Fred's voice in my ear propels me forward.
"Best put on your brave face, kid."
I do my best to.
"George," I whisper, uncertainty curling the ends of the word. He lifts his head up and gives me a surprised look.
"I think that's the first time you've ever called me by my name," he says, and something about the way his voice lifts at the end makes my heart race. He smiles kindly at me and I smile sadly back, because I know his words are true. Still, he turns his chair to face me more fully, as if to say go on.
"Have- Have you heard yet from Angelina?"
He gives me an odd look before shaking his head no. "Not a word," he confides, a bitter edge to the words. "Why?"
I ignore the question. "And... your mother, how... how is she?"
"Oh. Um... Same as last week, really... Still... you know..." he trails off, leaving the thought unfinished and fixing me with a quizzical expression. I will myself to continue.
"I... It's just... I knew Fred. Very well, I mean," I begin, hoping for him to somehow channel Fred in this moment, so he might understand what I'm saying without my ever actually having to say it. George waits, however; he doesn't play the guessing game. No, he pauses instead, giving me room to continue on my own. (Damn.) "I... I've been thinking that... Well, if all your mother needs... to be happy - happier - is... is to believe that Fred had- had someone he loved... and who loved him back..." I pause again, once more wishing for George to fill in the rest of for me. Still, he remains quiet, and so I force the last of it out. "If it would help her, I... I could... pretend... to have been Fred's."
George looks at me with an astonishingly bright twinkle in his eyes. "That's quite devious of you," he admits, a crooked smile playing up his expression. "I didn't have you pegged for a girl with a plan." Heat rises up my neck at the look he gives me, and I shift the focus of my gaze to my shoelaces. "So what you're saying is that... you would pose as Fred's girlfriend to... give my mum some peace of mind, yeah?"
Eyes still on the floor, I give a small nod. Then-
I'm surprised by the question. My eyes meet his for the briefest of moments, but I pull away quickly, unable to hold his gaze.
"Not that it isn't incredibly kind of you to offer, and not that I don't enjoy a scheme as much as the next person, only... you don't even know my family. You don't know my mum. So, just... why?"
It is the most loaded of all questions. And there are so many reasons. Yet only one that I can tell him.
"Fred," he repeats, and I can see him smile sadly in my periphery. "You really did love him, huh?"
I swallow hard before whispering, "He was my best friend." The weight of the words spoken out loud makes my chest tighten.
"Mine too," George tells me.
I nod solemnly. I know.
"So, how would this work, then?" he asks.
All I can do is shrug. I haven't thought much past the initial idea, hoping George would be able to fill in any gaps if he agreed to the ruse. Because the truth is... I don't know his family... and therefore couldn't possibly know how to go about fooling them.
"It would be... I mean... It's a lot of me to ask of you," he says, but I am surprisingly quick to counter.
"You're not asking," I say.
"Right," George agrees, and I feel his gaze drift off me as he loses himself in thought. "We'll have to be careful... Make sure our stories line up; that all the details are in sync. Can't have anything contradicting, or they'd see right through it. And just one night. We... we could pull it off in just one perfectly planned evening... Yes. This... this could really work. Could really be just... brilliant." His eyes are more alive than I've seen them in over a month, full of that mischievous twinkle I used to know so well. And there is hope in them, too, made all the more glorious because it's me that he is looking at. "You're sure you want to do this?" he asks, unable to keep the ardor from his voice.
And I am. I am sure. So I nod. Yes. Of course.
"Okay. Then we'll do it." He smiles huge in my direction, and I can't help but let it infect me too. "Thank you, Josephine," he whispers with sincerity.
You're welcome, George.
Author's Note: Are you sick of me apologizing for super late updates yet? Me too, kid; me too... That said, I really am so very sorry. I am the worst. Feel free to berate me in your review. (Also... please review! ^.^)
My list of thank-yous is nearly endless, and I know if I tried to name you all, I'd leave someone out. That said... I am so grateful for the number of people who have been supportive of me and of this story and of this chapter. The fact that I'd surely leave someone out is merely a testament to how blessed I am to have way too many phenomenal people in my life. How did I every get so lucky?
I do have to give out two extra special ones this time, though, and those belong to TidalDragon and 1917farmgirl. They are the only reason I finally came back to being able to work on this chapter again. It sat around - unedited - for months and months and months. And then Kevin came in with the most incredible, inspiring peptalk when I confided in him my insecurities, and which farmgirl followed up by essentially holding my hand and dragging me through the editing process and being an extra pair of eyes, as well. So thank you both profoundly for everything. I could not mean that more.
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