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Chapter 7 : This Is For
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May 2, 1998
Weasley's Wizard Wheezes has become a haunted version of itself.
Desolation darkens every corner of the shop; a thin layer of dust and an oppressive layer of isolation remain its only constant companions. Even the floorboards seem to protest the lack of foot traffic upon them lately, squeaking in faint objection with every step I take, as if to ask, why only you? The emptiness left in its wake after being forced to shut down and board up make moments spent alone in the deserted building feel all the more wrong. But this is the way it has to be, I remind myself. The war would need to end before any semblance of normality could return.
With no end in sight and nothing more to be done for today, I ready myself to leave both this place and my futile thoughts on it behind; my monthly visit coming to another bitter end.
I scan over the transferable white-board a final time, but still there are no new messages from Fred or George. And though it shouldn't be a big surprise, with our underground-mail-only service a relatively slow business, it still makes me worry when not a single new note comes through all day. I can only weakly hope that their silence is not an absent sign of trouble.
Just let them be okay, I request of no one in particular. It is the same request I make to the same old nobody every day.
I meander slowly towards the little closet located on the second story of Weasley's Wizard Wheezes. When the shop shut down nearly a year ago now, one of the final precautions put in place had been to turn the tiny room into the singular safe apparition spot in the building, so that only those who knew exactly where to apparate could enter at all, protecting the shop (and anyone inside) from would-be intruders. Pausing briefly at the window, I glance out through a crack in its boarded up exterior and onto the empty streets below. Diagon Alley is a ghost town; I its only resident. My chest tightens and I feel a hollowness in my bones. I wonder if perhaps it weren't all so close a reflection of my home-life, the surrounding desolation wouldn't weigh so heavily on my heart. But what can be done? Nothing for now. And so I complete my journey to the closet.
Turning the handle of the secluded little room, I open its squeaky door and step inside before closing it securely behind me. But as I search my pockets for my wand, things go terribly awry. Out of thin air, something hard and heavy hits me square in the face with so much force that I am knocked to the ground and buried beneath the-
He scrambles to remove himself from on top of me, which is not exactly easy in a room barely big enough to hold one of us alone.
"What are you doing here? Working? Don't you know what's happened?" I shake my head no in response, only half-registering the fact that the lack of light won't allow for him to see it. Not surprisingly, he manages to understand me anyway. "Hold on, I'll tell you in a bit once we get out of this closet. George is on his way in next, and as much as I'm sure you'd love for him to land on top of you, this is simply neither the time nor place."
With Fred unable to see my shocked expression in the dark, I make a rare choice:
"Not funny," I mumble, as Fred locates the doorknob. A moment later we spill out into the hallway, a tangle of limbs.
"I'll have you know," Fred says to the floor, "that funny happens to be my fourth greatest quality; beat out only by handsomeness, awesomeness, and modesty." I let out a laugh - proving him right in the process, I think, somewhat bitterly - but sober when Fred turns concerned eyes on me. "Oh shit, Jo; your face!"
It isn't until after he says it that my thoughts return to the throbbing sensation in my head. I bring a hand up slowly, using gentle fingers to press lightly upon my upper lip, and immediately feel the wet, sticky blood.
"I think I broke your nose... Here, follow me. I'll get you cleaned up best I can," Fred says, grabbing my arm and pulling me behind him. When we reach his office, he clears a small space on his desk before instructing me to sit. I do as I'm told, hopping up lightly onto its surface, still gingerly holding my bloody hand protectively over my even bloodier face.
Fred flicks the overhead lights on with his wand, while using his free hand to contemporaneously flip the switch of his desk lamp. He readjusts the angle, bending it back at the neck, until it's pointed directly at my face. I squint at the sudden brightness. Once my eyes readjust, I see his wand now aimed dead-center of my face. He takes my hand gently and moves it out of the way, giving it a squeeze. He doesn't let go. "Ready?" he asks. But there's a knock at the door.
My hand immediately returns to covering my face in an almost involuntary reaction, obstructing George's view of my disfigurement. I drop my head as well and stare hard at the floor; the slump of my shoulders a silent plea of don't look at me don't look at me please stop looking at me...
George says nothing, but I know without seeing the expression on his face: his head cocked to one side, curious eyes squinting slightly, lips barely parted in gentle wonderment, eyebrows pinched just so and causing little wrinkles to gather at the brim of his nose...
Fred answers the question those features form.
"Oh, hey, look! Jo's here! Something I found out by apparating on top of her face!" His voice is too loud; the humor he means to instill feeling forced. It's odd and uncommon and wholly distressing. I close my eyes and turn my head away.
"Blimey," is George's only response before he moves on to another topic. "What abou-"
"I need to fix her up and let her know what's happened first. She doesn't know yet. If you start searching for what we've come for, I'll join you in a tick, yeah?" Fred asks rather vaguely in a single rushing exhale. George nods in an uncharacteristically serious way and is quick to retreat back out the door.
It is only after he makes his exit that my head clears enough to recognize that the oddities displayed by each twin - strained speech, hurried words, wired movements - might actually mean something. And what are they even doing here in the first place? I think. Don't you know what's happened? Fred had said. And only now do I consider that whatever it is might be bad...
Fred reaches his hand up once more to brush my own aside, but I block the movement in its tracks, taking hold of his wrist and forcing it to a stop. I pin him with a look that begs for explanation. When he meets my eyes this time, there is a strange mixture of emotion all at once upon his face: worry, excitement, resolve, hesitance, mischief, determination, fire.
What are you saying, Fred?
"It's war, Jo. A battle. At Hogwarts."
The words settle over me like ice; their grip of cold fingers wrapping around my chest tighter than a straitjacket. And while Fred's mix of feelings range everywhere from anxiousness to exhilaration, I myself am filled with but one startlingly, suffocating emotion:
"It's okay, Jo. Go home. I know you're not a fighter," Fred tells me, voice gentle as ever, almost making it okay for me to actually follow the request. God only knows that home is where I - for once - want to be, and not at war. I am not built for battle. Even so, the guilt is unable to remain entirely hidden from my face, and Fred pinpoints the trace of it without hesitance; his years of reading my silences have trained him well. "Josephine, I mean it. Really. You're a bloody awful shot with an offensive spell, and while your Shield Charm is pretty great, you can't just stand in the middle of a battle field doing nothing but throwing out Protego's! And if George and I hadn't popped in to grab supplies, you'd never have even known what was going on to begin with, so... And besides, you'd be one less person I'd have to worry about keeping safe out there. So please. Stay."
And with every word I am more and more convinced of exactly why I should stay behind; let Fred and George and all the other stronger, braver, more selfless people fight without me.
"Now, about this nose of yours..." he presses on before I can either concede or object. "I'm gonna be honest with you, Jo: it's not your best look." The smirk on his face causes the corners of my mouth to curve up at each end, and I can't help but think what a miracle it is that even in a moment like this, Fred can still bring joy. "Here, just... hold still and I think I can get it back on straight..." he begins again, pointing his wand at the bridge of my nose. It's from entirely the wrong angle for this particular injury, but his lips form the words faster than I can stop him, and so in a split-second decision, I force my head to the side with a high-pitched squeak, narrowly avoiding the bright orange streak of light. The spell instead hits the subsequent wall with a heavy thud, leaving a sizeable dent in the plaster.
Fred blinks stupidly.
"I would ask why you jumped aside, but the wall really tells the whole story, doesn't it?" Fred asks, shooting me a guilty look, a chuckle low in his throat. I give him a dry half-smile in response before rolling my eyes and reaching for my own wand.
Bending at the waist, I pick up a small mirror perched on the far end of the desk and hold it up to my face, angling my wand until I'm staring down the barrel of it. I begin by cleaning up the blood from my skin and clothes so that I may see the damage better. When I do so, Fred rolls onto his heels sheepishly. "Ah, yes, good thought there, Jo..." Next I silently reattempt the same spell as Fred, only this time with the correct placement and a much gentler motion, until my nose forcibly snaps back to its original position. Once reset, a small cut upon my upper lip becomes visible and I reseal the skin so my reflection shows but a faded scar. When I am satisfied with my healing job, I set both my wand and the mirror down, eagerly preparing to give Fred a rather obnoxiously braggy look. But when my head lifts, I am caught off guard by the expression on his face; one that is not at all light or playful, but full of some new found understanding.
I don't like it one bit.
I like it even less when I realize what he's thinking.
Healing. One of my few talents.
"Healing..." I say quietly.
"You're damn good at it, aren't you?"
"One of my few talents."
"It doesn't mean... It doesn't mean you have to-" but I cut him off with a sharp look. Because yes, yes it does mean exactly that. I nod to him somberly, fear spreading through me like fire in my veins. I may not be able to fight, but I can heal. And if healing just one person on the good side means saving a life or giving somebody a second chance to get up and fight again... then I have to be there. I can contribute to this war after all, and how very much I wish that it weren't the case.
Fred hangs his head low and sighs, his brow furrowing with worry at our sudden silent understanding. Without even looking at me again, he abruptly closes the distance between us, wrapping his arms around me tighter than ever before. Instinctively I bury my head in his neck and hold him like a lifeline. His grip tightens as reality settles around us. I can't keep a chill from running down my spine.
Too soon, Fred releases his grip to plant a kiss on my forehead. He takes a step back, looks me dead in the eyes, and gives the stiffest of nods.
Here we go.
June 30, 1998
I saw a picture of it once.
It looked odd and sloppy and unstable in the photo - all messily stacked additions of room atop new room - and I couldn't quite understand how a home like it could exist. Strung together inaccurately with almost nonexistent support in places, it felt more like a pile of precariously balancing boards than at all like a safe space of habitation. But even then, with quiet uncertainty dancing beneath the surface, there was a feeling about it... like every worn down panel, every splintered support beam, every askew roof-tile existed not only out of practicality, but as a marker of memories. And now... now... the smell of freshly baked bread and cinnamon pie and savory spices I cannot quite place waft out through open windows and fill up my lungs. A sign in the front yard reads The Burrow, and I have never experienced anything so spectacular before in my life. Even Hogwarts pales in comparison for me now, for this - this - is Magic.
I saw a picture of it once, but it is nothing compared to the reality.
"Are you ready?" George's voice cuts through my thoughts, breaking me from my reverie and reminding me why I'm here.
No, I want to say. Of course I am not ready.
"Josephine?" he prods, the name still foreign on his tongue. It makes me flush with unease.
"I'm scared," I tell my shoelaces.
"Hey," George whispers beside me, the gravel crunching beneath his feet as he moves closer. I take an involuntary step back. "They've already made up their minds about you," he tells me gently, a reassuring kindness in his voice. "They want to like anyone Fred liked, so... you're already liked," he insists. "You're gonna do great. It's gonna be fine."
I swallow hard and nod stiffly, willing myself to believe. And then he's moving again, this time towards the door. Lump in my throat and heart in my hands, I follow.
He knocks at the door twice before letting himself in. "'lo?" he calls out with enthusiasm. "We're here! Mmmmm. Smells good. Mum?"
The door opens up right into the kitchen, where the smells from outside intensify delectably. Even with my stomach in knots, I cannot deny the allurement of an honest-to-goodness home-cooked meal.
As I glance around, my nerves go temporarily forgotten. I am awestruck by all that surrounds me now. To my left a dozen eggs line up to crack themselves into a bowl; to my right a pot of simmering gravy stirs itself with a wooden spoon; an airborne pie flies cross-kitchen to sit itself upon the open windowsill, and I am mesmerized by a house breathing with life, as corporeal as lungs. Something about the chaos makes my chest tighten in both joy and envy. This is where the twins grew up, I think, soaking every detail in as my imagination fills the gaps: this table maybe where they'd eat breakfast every summer; these cupboards where suppose they’d planted their first stink bomb; the sink where perhaps they'd help their mum tidy dishes (though that one rather may be quite a stretch). I wonder how many times they ran through this door, plotting and planning and living and being, and I can picture it all so clearly...
I'm shaken from my daydream by the sound of quick-approaching footsteps. A moment later and Mrs. Weasley is paused at the opposing door frame.
She looks different now than she did when I last saw her, at Fred's funeral. Thinner, maybe, with hollowed cheeks and sunken eyes. Not quite the ghost of her former self, but certainly not so whole as before. It is both fascinating and terrible to me, this physical manifestation of a mother's loss. I find a sick, twisted comfort in her devastation that makes me crawl with guilt. Still, her eyes brightly shine with untampered love when she sees George -- so bright they almost chase away the underlying darkness. And even more incredibly, they shine just as splendidly when they switch to me instead.
"Mum, this is Josephine."
"Oh, my dear..."
In a flash she approaches, a ginger blur in an apron rushing swiftly toward me, dress billowing behind in the wind her speed creates, and a crinkly-eyed smile lighting the way. When her arms wrap me up in a warm embrace, my body tenses reflexively. George watches us closely from a few feet away before releasing a sigh that clearly says, Mum, what did I say about the hugging? But before he can move to pull her off me, the heaviness in my arms lifts, and I wrap them lightly around her torso. She holds me tighter still and I feel safe and relaxed and almost... home. She smells of flour and vanilla and spices and motherhood, and hugs me like I matter.
"Alright, mum, let's- let's not overdo it with the hugging just yet," George warns. "You'll scare her off."
"Sorry, dear," she whispers. "I'm just so pleased to meet you." Mrs. Weasley takes a step back, but leaves her hands on my shoulders, looking me up and down. "You are so lovely," she announces matter-of-factly, smoothing down my hair as her eyes fill with water. My throat tightens in response, and I can barely swallow, let alone force out a thank you, and instead hope that my rather dumbfounded smile is acceptable enough.
"Mum..." George warns again, as Mrs. Weasley blinks away tears.
"Right, of course," she says, and smooths down my hair a final time before shaking herself from the mood by announcing, "Food's about ready -- maybe ten more minutes. Why don't you introduce Josephine to everyone else? They're all around here somewhere. Out back, I think, as that's where we'll be eating. I've set up the big table for us all. And if your father's out there playing with that Muggle contraption again, you better tell him to put it away before I come out."
"Aye aye, mum, will do," George says before planting a kiss on her cheek and heading for the other end of the kitchen. "This way, Josephine!"
It feels wrong to leave her having not said a word, and so I swallow thickly and force a few out. "Thank you for having me, Mrs. Weasley."
"Oh, Josephine, please, call me Molly, won't you?"
I nod and smile before walking briskly from the room, certain already I'll not be able to call her that.
"Not so bad, eh? You okay?" George asks immediately, eyeing me with concern, and it stops my heart a moment. I shrug, unsure of everything. "Alright, well... onto the rest of'em, yeah?"
Another two doors and we exit into the backyard, greeted by a sea of flaming red-headed Weasley's and a single stand-out brunette.
"Oi!" George shouts, announcing our arrival and leading me toward the faces now turned our way. I do my best to hide behind him without being close enough to touch, but he is quick to slow so that he may walk beside me instead, bending his head slightly to ask again if I'm alright.
I nod and try to smile reassuringly, but mostly just feel sick.
"Heya, Georgie!" somebody shouts.
"Greetings! 'lo! Everyone, this is Josephine," George gestures with mild flourish as we come to a stop before the small crowd.
A collective chorus of hello's echo around me. George takes it upon himself to introduce each member by name, going down the line; unaware that though none of them recognize me, I know of them all by heart. There's Mr. Weasley first, whom George introduces as pops, but who asks me to call him Arthur instead. (I expect I will fail at that as well.) Ginny is next; short beside her father, but taller than me, with something fierce in her eye, and a kindness there too. Percy actually reaches out to shake my hand, and while he gives a polite smile, it doesn't quite meet his eyes. I can't help but feel shaken by his obvious skepticism. Charlie looks more enthusiastic than anyone, however, and gives me a brilliant grin. He offers me his hand as well, but rather than shaking it, brings it to his lips. George swiftly whacks him on the back of the head. "None of that; she was Fred's, you cretin." It feels odd to hear it worded that way, and I hope my face isn't as pale as it suddenly feels. I swallow hard and try to shake it off in time for Bill: tall and attractive, even with the scarring; a natural ease about him I wish I could convincingly mimic. And then there's Ron, who looks about as comfortable as me. He gives an awkward half-wave and clears his throat, but says nothing. Lastly, there's Harry Potter, who George had previously explained has been living with the Weasley's since the war ended. He is all messy black hair and bright green eyes that have seen more terrible things than any one person's ever should. Still, his expression is soft and friendly and I wonder how he isn't broken. I'm struck with the sudden hope that when we all sit for dinner, it will be him on my other side.
"And that's everyone!" George concludes. "Mum says the food'll be ready any minute now. And speaking of mum," he turns eyes on his father, "she says you ought put that moorer thing away before she's out here; else she's leaving you for Hagrid."
"Now there's a threat I wouldn't take lightly, pop," Bill chimes in with a lazy grin, hands casually resting in his pockets.
"He does have all his hair, after all; which is more than can be said for some of us, eh?" Charlie adds, leading to a round of laughter.
Mr. Weasley simply grins. "I have one word for you all," he announces above the giggling, eyeing each of his sons with a pointed look. "Genetics."
And that shuts them all up.
"Cheers," Mr. Weasley adds, nose in the air, before turning on his heel and heading in the direction of a rather ordinary looking lawnmower.
Harry chuckles softly alongside Ginny, who is nearly doubled over with laughter, while the rest of the Weasley's sport newly slumping shoulders, the wind taken out of their sails. Ron looks positively sullen as he runs wistful fingers through his still-thick locks.
After a pause, Charlie redirects the conversation. "So Josephine," he begins, causing my own half-smile to fade fast as all eyes turn back to me. "You met Fred at Hogwarts or at the shop, then?"
"Why don't we wait to bombard her with questions until after we're all sat down," George interrupts. "You know mum's just gonna make her repeat it all anyway."
Charlie looks as if he’s about to protest when the back door of the Burrow bounces open. Instead of a person, however, a long line of floating dishes play follow-the-leader with a tray of jacket potatoes. When the parade of food tapers off, Mrs. Weasley (now sans her apron) exits the door, wand held high, directing the plates expertly so they arrange themselves with precision on the rectangular tabletop, ready to be devoured.
"Smells bloody brilliant," Ron says, following the dishes with his eyes and licking his lips; potential hair loss forgotten.
"Everyone please take a seat, take a seat," Mrs. Weasley eagerly requests of us all. No one needs to be asked twice. "Josephine, dear, you'll sit right here, won't you?" she asks, pointing at the chair directly opposite her own. I agree with a nervous smile to do whatever she may please.
George - lovely and considerate and kind - pulls the chair out for me, and uses the opportunity to send another reassuring look before taking his own seat.
Once everyone settles, I take note of our new arrangement: George is to my right, and Bill to my left, with Mr. and Mrs. Weasley sat directly opposite us. Ron, Harry, and Ginny stay together on the far right side, while Bill and Percy fill out the final chairs to the left.
Without another moment to spare, everyone around me begins digging into the food with untamed enthusiasm; the total and absolute comfort of their actions making me feel all the more out of place. But then Mrs. Weasley reaches across the way to take my plate up herself, scooping piles of everything for me and commentating over the clatter with things like: "you're far too thin, so I'm giving you extra casserole," and "you'll absolutely love this Yorkshire pudding - my great grandmother's recipe." I do my best to not look terribly overwhelmed.
You can do this, Josephine. Just nod and smile and nod and smile and nod and don't look like you're having a panic attack and smile.
When all the plates are full - my own a medley of savory eats in tower form - Mrs. Weasley cries out, "Tuck in!"
Collective sighs of satisfaction echo around the table as first bites are eagerly taken. Though my stomach is still in knots, I know better than to keep a proud cook waiting, and so I skewer a small slice of Welsh rarebit onto my fork and, feeling Mrs. Weasley's anticipatory eyes on me, raise the utensil to my mouth and take a bite. The exceptional textures and flavors leave no need for a forced reaction, my blissful expression the first truly honest thing I've done all day. She practically beams at me in response before saying, "Now if there's anything you don't like or think tastes a bit off, you'll tell me about it, won't you?"
I nod and smile some more as casual conversation begins circulating around us. Mr. Weasley asks Bill how Fleur's visit home is treating her - "Fleur is Bill's wife," Charlie explains from across the table as Bill cuts up an exceptionally rare bit of steak. At the opposite end, Ginny tells Ron and Harry about her latest letter from Hermione, whose parents are apparently considering staying in Australia. This prompts Ron to ask, "Why's she writing you all this over me?" Harry catches my eye and sends a comforting grin. I know that as at-home as he looks here today, he must at one point have had his first Weasley meal, too. And so I try to return the look. Percy scrutinously inspects the pile of peas on his spoon while Mrs. Weasley admonishes George for setting his elbows on the table. "...and in front of such polite company, too!" she chides, comparing his poor manners to my own, all the while unknowing that my decent decorum is much more heavily influenced by the desire to keep from accidentally brushing arms with George.
As ravenous consumption slowly morphs into mild grazing, Mrs. Weasley finally asks the question surely everyone's been waiting for: "So Josephine, dear... would you mind telling us about you and Fred?" Though gentle and soft, the entire table hears the words, and a hum of tension quiets all.
This is what you're here for, Josephine, I remind myself. For Fred. For George. For all of them.
And so I nod. Yes. Of course I will.
"I know so little about it," she continues, the words a stab of guilt in my gut. "Perhaps we could start with how you met?"
George shifts beside me, fingertips drumming a tempo-less beat upon his thigh in a discreet exhale of nervous energy. Still, his face is relaxed as he throws me a look that says you can do this you can do this I know you can do this.
And so I try.
"Well," I begin, in too soft a voice. I clear my throat before continuing with words slow and concise and deliberate. "I knew of him from Hogwarts already. You couldn't exactly attend and not know who he was." A few thoughtful chuckles are released at the practiced words. "He didn't recognize me, though, when I came in to interview. Which makes sense, really. We did have a few classes together, but I was never quite as..." - memorable - "attention-seeking as he."
"You don't say?" Bill chimes in drily, eliciting another quiet round of laughter. I wait for it to fade before continuing, hoping my words don't sound rehearsed as they are.
"After they made such an impression with their exit -- the fireworks, the grand departing words, and the flying away with no looking back... I just thought it might be nice to be near them again." The half-truth makes my chest tighten sorely. George's fingers quell their persistent drumming. "I saw an ad in the paper for the shop and decided to apply. He hired me on the spot..." - well, sort of, I think, right after the world's weirdest interview - "and I suppose it all grew from there."
When I lock eyes with Mrs. Weasley again, it's to see a look of total enrapturement and hope etched upon her features, and I know she must be so desperate to believe it all true -- to know that her son truly lived and loved before he died. My heart breaks at the thought, stab of guilt returning. She opens her mouth to perhaps inquire further, but it's Percy who beats her to it.
"Are you always quite so bashful?" he asks, an accusing bite to the words.
"Percy!" Mrs. Weasley scolds.
"What?" he continues anyway, disregarding the warning tone. George is tense beside me as my stomach fills with lead. "I can't be the only one thinking it. It's an unconventional pairing, her and Fred."
"Shut it, Perce; you don't know what you're talking about," George retorts, immediately at my defense. But I can hear the twinge of worry in his voice, wondering if all's about to fall through on us. Still, Percy persists.
"It's no secret that Fred had a type, and that she doesn't fit it at all. Our family has status these days; it's proper foolish to approach such facts with ignorance. Even George had very little to offer on their relationship when first he sprung the news. Why? Why did nobody know of this affair until recently? Why was it held secret? And what's in it for her?"
Quick and clever though George always seems to be, he is at a loss for words in the here and now. For we'd prepared with memories and stories and background details, with meshing time-lines and histories so as to never contradict my "facts" with theirs; yet somehow we forgot such obvious particulars as why. Did we think they would all be so easy to convince as a forlorn Mrs. Weasley? Or that no one would be bold enough to call bullshit outright? The only foreseeable issue was meant to be me...
I suspect George and I share the same distressed thought of what now?
The pregnant pause breaks with Mr. Weasley's rueful words.
"I can't say I wasn't wondering something similar myself," his very even-toned voice admits, my heart sinking ever lower. It is the hopeless expression George fights to obscure, however, that propels me forward.
"I can explain," I state firmly, with newfound determination. "We kept it hidden," I begin slowly, hopeful my hesitance isn't painfully obvious, "because..." - you can do this you can do this I know you can do this - "work?" No, don't say it like a question. "Work," I try again, confident k clipping the word. "He was my boss... and I his employee. It's a generally frowned upon dynamic. And..." - what was it again he used to say about Angelina? - "...it was exciting. Keeping it secret, sneaking around. Like pulling a long con."
Someone snickers softly, but the rest remain unstirred, so I continue pushing forward.
Wracking my brain, I think back on our friendship and how very strange it always did seem to be, while still making oddly perfect sense. What would Fred say? I ask myself, trying to channel his savvy in a desperate bid to bridge gaps. Why did we work as friends, Fred? And as soon as the question enters my head, the answer becomes obvious. "I know that on paper it reads unorthodox, but... you must know how much Fred enjoyed being center of attention? And with me, he never had to fight for it."
Another charged silence follows, rattling my bones, but then -
"Makes a lot of sense, now you've said it," Bill grins beside me, his words a catalyst to an outburst of mirth. The table as a whole seems to exhale the tension, and even Percy looks begrudgingly less affronted.
"Good enough for me," Mr. Weasley nods, raising his glass my direction before taking a generous sip.
Beside me I feel George relax his shoulders, and again I think we must share the same thought of safe for now.
"So," Ginny asks through a mouthful of mash, ignoring Mrs. Weasley's pointed look of disgust, "do you have any favorite stories of him, then?"
Countless, is my foremost thought. George had mentioned the likelihood of his family requesting tales, and so I'd dug through my arsenal of shared moments, categorizing favorites a grieving family might appreciate best. A surprising amount of relief rushes through me at the familiar topic, happy once more to be back on script.
"I remember the first time we really talked," I begin, tucking loose strands of hair behind my ear, and keeping eye-contact with the parsnips. "At the interview. He asked the strangest, least-pertinent questions imaginable, like how attractive did I find him, or what sort of fruit I considered myself to be. He said he was a mango; whatever that meant..." Someone snorts at the remark, but it strikes me suddenly how perhaps I should have asked him for the meaning. Just to know. Just to have it. Just to keep as another piece of him. Even if it held no actual significance, at least I would have known. Because now I never will.
Keep your focus, Josephine.
"I remember the moment we became more than just boss and employee, but friends. He asked for advice... on another girl, actually. No one had ever really come to me for real advice before. And it kept happening. There was this one time he was making an elaborate Christmas gift for George - a terribly vulgar replica snow globe of Weasley's Wizard Wheezes, that was somehow also really sweet and lovely and beautiful. He cared so much about being certain the gift was just right. I remember thinking then how he was so much more than just some ridiculous, funny, slightly mad person, but actually brilliant and thoughtful and good. Smart, too, of course, the things he'd come up with, the stuff he'd say. How sharp and quick-witted he could be... And he got me," I think out loud, barely registering the fact that rehearsed sentences and stories have somewhere along the way morphed into spontaneous recollections; for once, the words come easily. "He knew who I was without even trying. And it was really nice... having someone understand. He was sort of the best of everything, really; a lot more than most people gave him credit for. Everyone just sort of saw him as fun, funny, attention-seeking Fred - some one-dimensional prankster with a double and no shame - but... those people really missed out on the person behind the facade. He even tried to keep me from the final battle that last day... Said I'd be one less person he had to worry about keeping safe. He made me feel happy and - and loved and - and like maybe I wasn't quite so alone. He was my best friend," - no, Josephine; he was your boyfriend, remember? - "I mean- What I meant is he was more than just my boyfriend, but my best friend, too. He knew my flaws… and liked me anyway. And he made me... better. And... I really, really miss him."
It takes a moment to come out of the nearly fog-like state of my thinking out loud; the world slowly reforming as I become aware of my surroundings once more.
When I finally look up, I am horrified to see the tear-stained face of Mrs. Weasley staring unblinkingly back at me. In a rush, I scan the others, none of whom seem to be crying, but several of whom blink watery eyes my direction.
"I- I-I'm sorry," I stumble out dumbly, feeling embarrassed and small. "I- I- I-" I try again, but this time am cut off.
"Don't you be sorry," Mrs. Weasley nearly demands, sticking me with a fiercely determined look. "It is... truly wonderful to hear such beautiful things about my Fred. So don't you be sorry. And thank you, Josephine" she adds tearfully, "for sharing with us."
Heads nod in agreement all around the table, a few soft echoes of thank you circulating along with them. And maybe it's the warmth of their reaction, or the desperate need of a break, or just a sudden desire to know more more more about my very best friend that leads me to ask, in barely more than a whisper, "Could you tell me some stories about him, too?"
Tales of Fred begin pouring out immediately; the joy of keeping his legacy alive rushing from them all like a dam fit to burst. Mr. and Mrs. Weasley talk about the first time Fred showed signs of magic: just six months old when he caused an entire sticky-toffee pudding to fall from the counter and spill all over Percy -- who adds in flatly, "a troublemaker right from the start, he was." Ginny reminisces about her first week at Hogwarts, in which Fred hexed some Ravenclaw bullies poking fun of her oversized robes by dousing their own with Bulbadox powder. Charlie speaks of playing Quidditch in the yard with his siblings, and Fred's talent for making the bludger hit him in the exact same tender spot of his arse. Bill tells of the time he received a Howler mid-date of Fred speaking in a girl's voice and accusing Bill of cheating, all because Fred felt the girl wasn't good enough for him. Ron shudders as he recounts the day Fred turned his spaghetti into writhing octopus legs, and even Harry offers up a bit about Fred's penchant for spelling swears in his alphabet soup. The table laughs without restraint, and I smile at the knowledge that even now, through the lasting tales of his past, still Fred can bring such uninhibited happiness. There's something beautiful about it. More than that, though, I can't help but note how every story described is one of specifically Fred, and not of Fred and George. The distinction makes my heart swell with affection for them all. And though George doesn't offer any stories of his own, he smiles wider than anyone.
By the time the anecdotes are replaced with quiet contemplation - dessert all but vanished and sun low in the sky - we rise as a collective to make our way back indoors.
"We definitely need to have company over more often," I hear Ron comment on the walk over. "Mum always saves the best stuff for company."
Ginny snorts before retorting, "Yeah, cause that's the take-away from today."
I can't help the small smile that follows her words; a warmth I'm unsure I've ever known before wrapping me up in its secure embrace. But as the beginnings of departure unfold before me, I realize with startling alarm -
I don't want to go.
Just one night, to ease their minds, to help Mrs. Weasley, to give them some peace... that's all this was ever supposed to be. But when Bill says he's headed back home, stopping to wish me good night in a tight one-armed hug, or when Ginny throws her arms around me and says thanks again, Josephine before heading upstairs with Ron and Harry - who wave awkwardly from the staircase, lopsided grins a sign of their sincerity - or when Charlie actually lifts me off the floor with his enthusiasm, or when Mr. Weasley plants a kiss on my cheek and says don't be a stranger, or even when Percy shakes my hand, an apologetic look in his eye, it feels immobilizing to know that this is all I'll ever get.
And then Mrs. Weasley, the perfect picture of motherhood, holds me close as she can manage, unloading a beautiful stream of consciousness into my ear: "-thank you so much for coming, dear, you just have to come back again, any time you like, any day at all, you just stop in and we'll feed you right up, and don't you let George work you too hard at the shop, and don't forget that we do brunches every Sunday, if you're available half-past ten, and you're always welcome to stay the night, too, of course; we can make you up a bed any time of year, always make room for you, dear, no trouble at all-" On and on she goes, barely breathing all the while, with my arms wrapped securely around her withered frame, as I silently beg don't let me go don’t let me go...
"Mum!" George interrupts in hopes of rescuing me, unaware of the how little I want or need him to now. "Honestly, woman, it's a little much. Let her breath!"
His words have the desired effect, causing her grip on me to loosen with close to no hesitation. And as she wipes fresh tears from her rose-red cheeks, I think don't let this be it don’t let this be it please don't let this be it...
"You'll take her home, George?" she asks, though it is not really a question. "Make sure she gets back safe."
Before I can object, he is at the door, holding it open for me to step through. I reluctantly make my way to the exit, but when I reach the frame, I pause, turning to face Mrs. Weasley again. Locking determined eyes with her, I state with quiet sincerity, "You have a beautiful family." She gives a final watery smile before I turn once more on my heel and step out into the night. George's footsteps echo softly from behind as the door gingerly shuts and we are left alone again.
The night is quiet and calm and we walk slowly down the path that leads away from his house, for no real reason other than to put a bit of distance between ourselves and the Burrow. When we slow near the end of the trail, I break the heavy silence to deliver another message to my shoelaces.
"You don't have to take me home."
"Actually," George counters, shifting his weight back on his heels, "I was hoping maybe we could chat a bit at your place? If you don't mind me tagging along, of course."
The suggestion makes my eyes widen big as saucers and my jaw fall slack; the idea of him in my house almost paralyzing in its terror.
But still, I cannot deny George anything.
With every ounce of strength left in me still, I take the smallest of steps forward before offering my hand. When he takes it - soft fingers sliding gently between my own until our palms are pressed close together - my heart beats so very loudly in my chest, I have to turn away from him in hopes he won’t hear the heavy hammering. Concentrate, I tell myself, refusing to allow panic to win, and unwilling to accidentally splinch one or both of us. It takes every small fragment of will-power I possess, but when I twist, I can feel the ground shift beneath me in an unmistakably familiar way. George's hand clenches firmer still around my own, and I know I've done enough to ensure safe arrival. The second we land, I pull hastily away, folding my arms across my chest and tucking my hands into the crevices created there.
"Wow," is George's immediate response. I cringe, certain the comment pertains to my loss of any semblance of composure, until he adds, "This is really nice!" When I brave a look up, it is to see him scanning the excessive flora the surrounds us in the giant garden that is my backyard.
My answering smile is somewhere between nervous response and genuine delight. Still, I say nothing, leading him to the back door of the house in silence, my hand hesitating briefly on the handle before swallowing hard and pushing through.
This entrance opens into the too-big sitting room, that looks nothing like its namesake. Bare white walls and not a piece of furniture in sight, to an outsider it would seem as if nobody lived here at all. Which is really almost accurate. The only sign that the home isn't completely abandoned are the cardboard boxes stacked high in the far corner.
"New place?" George inquires.
I shake my head no.
"Moving out?" he tries again.
I shake my head no.
He presses no further.
"Okay, well..." he pushes forward, a genuine tone to his voice. "I just wanted to say thank you again for what you did today. And that I think it really helped. Haven't seen mum so like herself in a long while. And everyone else seemed a bit better, too..." George trails off, expression pensive, words soft, but with quiet contentedness humming just beneath the surface. "You did great, by the way," he continues, and I feel his eyes on me now. "Even saved my arse a couple times. Which reminds me: sorry about Percy. Really wasn't expecting all that... But hey! We made it through anyway, yeah? Thanks mostly to you. And look - don't worry about my mum trying to pull you back for more. I'll keep her from pestering you for visits - make sure you never have to go through all that again."
My chest tightens at the thought.
Drained and exhausted and over-spoken though I am, a desire stronger than the need for silence propels me forward now.
"We could, though. Do it again. If it's what they want... I- I could. I would. Do it again." And with a surprising amount of boldness, I add, "We should do it again, George. It's what they want."
"Oh," he responds, clear surprise on his face, but I can tell already that he is simply not sold. "Well, it just... it gets too complicated, is all," he counters, looking suddenly as exhausted as I feel, and I think perhaps today has been as stressful on him as it was on me. "We already did what we set out to do, right?" he questions, without really asking. And though it hurts me deeply to admit, I know that it is over, and I must accept this conclusion. "Things can go back to normal now."
The word rings in my ears before landing heavily in my stomach.
"Anyway," George continues on with a shrug, "best be going."
Without warning, he takes an uncertain step forward, looking as if he might try to hug me goodbye. I fight the immediate urge to rapidly flee, but still lean away some when a hesitant hand reaches toward me. It settles softly upon my upper arm, where it goes on to give a gentle squeeze before retreating once more. The warmth of his hand lingers as I stare dumbly at my shoulder. By the time I regain my senses, he is at the door.
He pauses there to look curiously over his shoulder at me.
"Hey, um... What you said about thinking it might be nice... to be near us again after school... Was that true?"
There's something almost hopeful about the way he asks it. And while it's not so much a lie as it is a much stripped down truth, I sort of half-nod in response, lifting my shoulders to my ears in a noncommittal explanation.
He hums a quiet hmm, ghost of a grin on his lips, before turning back again to complete his journey outside.
I watch through the window as he turns on his heel, and with a pop, he is gone.
A patch of dirt I've never known what to do with before takes his place in my direct eyeline. I stare hard at the spot, illuminated by soft moonlight and scattered stars, and reconsider my options for the empty space.
What belongs there? I ask myself for the thousandth time.
And I think, perhaps a mango tree.
Been quite some time, huh? Do I bother with apologies, or are we all used to me by now?
I struggled so hard for so long to finish this chapter, terrified to go from having only written Fred, George, and Jo, to - in a single scene - writing the entire Weasley family plus Harry. Every time I tried to write or edit, I became overwhelmed with self-doubt; frozen with fear at the thought of butchering so many beloved characters. And quite frankly, I'm still nervous! Your reviews and responses matter so much to me, and I hope beyond hope that I did decently. Please let me know in the reviews, if you have even just a moment to spare, what you thought about this chapter. It is easily the most frightened I have ever been to post. And thank you for your continued support of this story. I promise that, though the updates may be slow, I will see this thing through to the end.
Special thanks, as always, to 1917farmgirl, for being my cheerleader, my buddy, and my second pair of eyes.
This chapter is dedicated to Fin; a longtime fan and friend, who knows my flaws and likes me anyway.
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