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Lying Josephine by writeyourheartout

Format: Novel
Chapters: 7
Word Count: 37,395
Status: WIP

Rating: Mature
Warnings: Contains profanity, Strong violence, Scenes of a sexual nature, Substance abuse, Sensitive topic/issue/theme

Genres: Drama, Humor, Romance
Characters: Harry, Ron, Hermione, Arthur, Bill, Charlie, Molly, Fred, George, OC
Pairings: Other Pairing

First Published: 06/11/2010
Last Chapter: 08/09/2017
Last Updated: 04/07/2018

Summary:




After Fred's death and a series of mishaps, Josephine finds herself posing as Fred's former girlfriend for just one night to help the Weasley's move on. But when she grows attached to the warmth of having a family again, she finds herself unable to walk away and forced instead to live life in her lie.

YOU CAN FIND THIS STORY AT AO3 AND HPFANFICTALK UNDER THE SAME PENNAME


Chapter 1: Introduction: Boxes
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WITH THE SITE CLOSING DOWN, YOU WILL STILL BE ABLE TO FOLLOW THIS STORY AND ITS UPDATES AT ARCHIVE-OF-OUR-OWN AND/OR HP-FANFIC-TALK UNDER THE SAME PENNAME, SO I HOPE I WILL SEE MANY OF YOU THERE! ^.^

 

 






 

 

Today
December 26, 1998



I suppose I deserve this... In the past few months I have lied my way through life. I've used every person who cared about me, and I have created a world that was never meant to exist for myself. I could try to argue that I did it for them, too, but we all know of that untruth. And in the end, we have all lost…

I most certainly deserve this.

One look around my barren house is all it takes to feel the full weight of my mistakes. The suitcase in my hand drops in sync with my first tear, and it doesn’t take long for the others to follow. They cascade in steady streams down my paling cheeks, pooling together at my chin before dropping silently to the floor.

A sob rips through my chest and I am bitter, though not entirely surprised, when I hear the absolute hopelessness the sound is made of. The rest of my body soon follows, caving in on itself until I become nothing more than a pile of shaking limbs on the floor of the loneliest home in the world.

But like I said, I deserve this.


*


May 9, 1998


Precisely one week ago today, the dream of vanquishing the greatest evil the wizarding world had ever known had finally become a reality. Light had pierced the darkness, good had conquered evil, and the souls of the victors - the survivors - were overwhelmed by a wave of hope for the future.

I never did celebrate.

There was this second - this singular shining moment - in which I too experienced the overwhelming sense of relief that comes with impossible victory. But all traces of joy were at once ripped away with a single glance at a broken body - at his broken body. And so I never celebrated -- I’ve lost too much.

I stand at his funeral, encased by a sea of mourning friends and family, all dressed in black. Yet, despite the crowds of mourners, I am still alone.

Heavy, hot, useless tears meander down my reddened face, but I do not try to stop them - worthless though they are. Crying, to me, has never been a sign of weakness, but rather one of strength. We are taught and told that tears are for the weak, for those of us not strong enough to keep emotions at bay, but I believe it is that reason alone that makes crying such an act of courage. Knowing how people will judge you, but choosing to do so all the same -- that is strength.

But, as I allow the tears to fall, I do not feel strong. Not at all.

My best friend is lying in a box.

The sun has no business being out today. Its rays should be restrained by an impervious wall of black clouds pouring torrents of unforgiving rain, blinding us with lightning, and deafening us with thunder. Yet, there it is; high in the sky, bright, yellow, and warm. The happy sun is shining away...

When the droning Ministry officiant draws the funeral to its conclusion, the masses begin to uproot and mingle, offering their mutual condolences to one another. I do not linger. Instead, I walk away, concealing myself behind a large chestnut tree. And I wait.

Hiding behind a tree does not offer optimal comfort or dignity, but I adjust myself anyway and prepare to outlast the other mourners. And as I sit and wait for the crowd to disperse, I am plagued by one continuous thought:

Fred Weasley is lying in a box.




 














A short intro to give you a feel for the story. Chapters will get longer.

Special thanks to my brother, Nick, for helping me to edit without sparing my feelings, cause that's how siblings roll, and also to 1917farmgirl for always being an extra set of eyes, as well as a wonderful and reassuring friend. ^.^

Thank you for reading, and I hope to see you in the next chapter!
♥ Tanya


Chapter 2: Promises, Promises
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December 18, 1997


“Jooooooosephine,” Fred whines my name, pleading his case for the thousandth time. “This is absolutely ridiculous.”

He wants me to crack. He wants me to give in and tell him he’s right and that I will finally comply with his request.

But I will not, and he knows this.

I let out a soft sigh, understanding that he is right: this is ridiculous. I am ridiculous. But I also know that I will never be persuaded. (I don’t like to be made a fool of.)

“Jo,” he begins again with humour in his voice, brushing aside my silence, “I know I’ve said this a thousand times before, but... I’m worried about you. I mean, it’s just not healthy harbouring all these feelings for me…” He grins.

I quirk an eyebrow in his direction, my best excuse me? face displayed across my features. He chuckles in low vibrations at the expression, which he’s learned to read so well.

“Kidding, kidding! Put the daggers away,” he chides. “I’ve got to tell you, though, I still don’t understand... Why him when you’ve got all of this in front of you, eh?” Fred asks, gesturing with a flourish to his body and throwing me a cheeky wink; the devil’s grin on his lips. “I mean, I am obviously the better looking twin.”

I give a quiet laugh. Git.

“Must be because I’m taken, yeah? Is Angelina what’s getting in the way? Or perhaps you’re simply bonkers... You know, I probably shouldn’t cross that option off the list just ye- Oi!” he cries out, not quite escaping a Canary Cream to the head.

I meet his glare with doe eyes; the absolute embodiment of innocence.

“You’re so full of it, Jo!” he shakes his head and lets out my favourite laugh in a single booming ‘Ha!’, rubbing the area of impact before tossing the dessert back at me. I dodge it expertly. “You know, what I really don’t understand is how you can be so beyond bloody obsessed with George and only want to be chummy with me! Most people can’t tell us apart when we’re wearing our bleedin’ nametags, but the way you look at us… Blimey, you’d think he was a Witch Weekly model and I was a ruddy house elf! Ha! Perhaps I really should alert St. Mungo’s of you; let them know you’ll be cracking any day now…”

We talk this way; Fred speaking in long run-on sentences that turn into monologues, asking questions that he’ll only end up answering himself. Because he knows that I will not, and yet refuses to deny me the conversation and inclusion. And it strikes me still as funny, even to this day, how we ever got to here; how we found a way to work; how we didn’t even have to try.

We could  be our own comic.




 

Loud Mouth and the Mute!
Join the ever-sonorous Fred Weasley and his ever-reticent side-kick Jo,
as they take on Love, Laughter, and Social Anxiety.




 


I smile at the thought until the new tone in Fred’s voice pulls me back.

“Hey Jo,” he says, all playfulness gone, “In all seriousness, I really am worried for you.”

My eyes drop to escape Fred’s surprisingly powerful gaze, choosing instead to linger on my restless hands, which fiddle uselessly with an Extendable Ear. I do my best to maintain a neutral expression.

I don’t have to see his face to know which look he’s giving me now. Brotherly is how it is best described: That brotherly look which makes me feel cared about; that brotherly look that makes me feel like this single person left in my life is enough; that brotherly look that tells me I do still have a family, and it’s in him.

I sigh because I already know he is worried for me. He tells me all the time. I want him not to be; I want him to understand that unrequited love is bearable -- if only just. I want him to accept that as much as I love his twin, I don’t ever want him finding out. I harbour no fairytale hope that one day I will be more than just an employee to George Weasley. Instead, I will continue to love him from afar and be grateful for the opportunity.

But this is the single thing Fred does not understand about me, that I am honestly okay with simply loving George from afar. And so Fred worries.

“So I’ve been thinking…”

I waste no time in deciding that Fred Weasley thinking is never a good sign, and my eyes narrow, returning to his own with scepticism.

“Hey, don’t give me that look; I’m allowed to have a proper think now and again, thank you!” he quips in retort at my uneasy expression, a playful glint returning to his eyes. The corners of my mouth twitch and I can’t suppress the grin that breaks through, no matter how wary of the approaching conversation I am. “So about this thinking of mine… I’ve kept your promises, Josephine.”

As soon as the words are dropped I feel all humour leave me.

This is about George.

“I’m certain you recall a little... agreement we struck back when I first hired you, yeah?” Fred speaks in his most business-like manner, nose upturned as he paces back and forth. “Let’s see if I can remember all of the bullet points, yeah? First, I promised to never say a word to George about your ridiculous obsession with him -- the one exception, of course, being that if he were to flat out ask me if you love him, I would not lie outright to him and be forced instead to answer truthfully.” He ticks each point off on his fingers and ignores my rolling eyes at the word ‘obsession’. “Second, I promised never to instigate a conversation about you, never to bring you up in a conversation, and to pretty much ignore our friendship altogether whenever George is around. And third, I promised that if George ever brought you up himself, I would do my best to steer the conversation away from you and replace it with a new, entirely Jo-free topic. All of that so I could hire you and laugh as you ogle my brother freely each day at work, yeah?”

My eyes narrow. I do not ‘ogle’ him... He’s just very pretty.

Fred looks at me for confirmation on whether his words have summed up our deal to its full extent, and is satisfied with the reluctant nod of my head.

“I don’t enjoy deceiving my brother, Josephine. And while I never lied to him, I have withheld some truths on your account, and that’s not something I take to lightly when it comes to George. I’ve never said a word about your feelings, I’ve never instigated a conversation about you to him, and I always steer the conversation away if he brings you up. So,” he continues, tone lightening significantly, “I think it’s about time you return the favour.”

He gives a small laugh at my new expression, seeming to enjoy the evidence of fear now etched upon my face.

“You see, my love,” he nearly shouts, his boyish charm back in full force, “the New Year approaches and, alas, I have come up with the perfect resolution for you!”

Since when did my resolution fall under his jurisdiction?

“It’s very simple, really. I want you to talk.”

I’m confused. I do talk...

“I do talk…” I say in a small voice that is quick to betray me with a throaty crack. Damn him.

Fred gives me his widest Cheshire grin.

My eyes narrow. Git.

“I want you to talk more, Jo, and to other people than just me… and to George. It’s way past time to make it happen. Okay?”

I take a deep breath and exhale slowly, knowing that Fred is right, though the idea of talking - to George especially - terrifies me. But he is right. My family would be sad to see me so alone without them… So I nod. Yes, fine, you win.

I am surprised when he doesn’t smile wide at me for my acceptance without argument and instead gives me a hopeful look that I know cannot be leading anywhere good. “Great! But, erm, I’ve just got one more small, itsy-bitsy, teeny-tiny little resolution for you…”

Oh no.

“I want you to tell George how you feel before next New Years.”

Nope.

“Josephine, don’t look so terrified!”

A strangled noise that vaguely resembles that of a drowning cat reaches my ears and I am only half-aware that it is I who created the strange, gurgling sound. I probably would have found the whole ordeal quite comical if it weren't so terribly mortifying.

Fred approaches me slowly, his features rearranging with unknown purpose until the moment they all come together and suddenly - ah! - he’s thrown down the gauntlet by pulling the world’s most unfair card into play... Puppy-Dog Eyes. His hands land on either of my shoulders, wide-set blue eyes looking straight into my own with that dopey expression, his lower lip jutting out in an ever-so-slight pout before whispering, “Please?”

No. No. No, no, no. Say it, Josephine! Say no! No!

Gah! I’m sorry, Fred, but… just...

No,” I finally manage, resolutely, shaking my head.

“Fine,” he replies shortly, all traces of innocence dissipating with the word. “Well then, I guess it comes down to blackmail.”

My face falls.

“If you don’t tell him, I will. And I know I promised not to say anything, so put your eyes back in your head before they end up on the floor. My dearest Josephine! I will not break my promise to you. I promise to keep that promise -- recognising, of course, the fact that said promise was ‘I will not say anything to George’. But! I never said I wouldn’t... I don’t know… write him your feelings?”

My chest tightens.

“I’m doing this for your own good, Jo! Now, you can either leave it up to me, and I swear that I will not hesitate to do it today if I can help it, to out you for the stalker you are, or…” he says slowly, a stupid smirk on his stupid face on his stupid head, “you can take the next year, plan out how you want to tell him about all the naughty things you want to do to him, and do it on your own terms and in your own time. Provided that that time is before next New Year, of course.”

I should have known he’d do this. Too smart for his own good, that one. (Well, for my own good, at least.)

Caught somewhere between a laugh and a cry, I - once again, and much more reluctantly - give in. If George is going to find out anyway I would much prefer it to be on my terms than on Fred’s, and not dealt with until next year, rather than today. So I nod. Yes, fine, you win again.

Fred lets out a loud whoop! of excitement before throwing his arm around my shoulder and laughing at his successful extortion. I want to punch him.

He turns to look at me, grinning like a fool: “So you promise then?”

I sigh heavily and try to be optimistic at my new circumstance before nodding again and whispering, “Promise.” His grin widens and I suddenly want nothing more than to deflate his stupid big head. I know that if I didn’t love George so much, then Fred’s victory wouldn’t be quite so huge, and he wouldn’t be quite so unbearably smug. So, very quietly, and while trying to convince myself as much as him, I say “Maybe I’ll stop loving him in a year.”

Ha… Who am I kidding?

“Ha! Who are you kidding?”

Git.

Fred laughs before mussing up my hair with the hand that isn’t slung over my shoulders. I try to scowl at him, but the corners of my mouth betray me by lifting upward. Why can I never stay upset with him? “You, my dear Josephine, will never stop loving him. Us Weasley twins, well, we’re unforgettable, irreplaceable, and not-stop-loving-able… or something.”

Bloody good-for-nothing git.

His smile remains wide on his face, blue eyes dancing with excitement at the thrill of having backhandedly won. “Just think, Jo: this time next year, it could be me with Angelina, and you with George.”

I quickly find myself daydreaming, lost in that thought, and can’t help but to imagine how incredible that would be. But then the door to the back room of the shop swings open.

Hello, George.

I should go.

I cannot stop my eyes from connecting with his, feeling them widen in the frightful manner they always seem to when he’s around. Fred once told me that every time George comes by I look like a frightened dementor caught in Patronus light. I assume the description is accurate enough, though neither of us has ever actually seen a dementor’s face. I can only imagine it mustn’t be a pretty picture; of me or of a dementor.

Far too late and all too soon I break my gaze. Shrugging off Fred’s arm from around my shoulders, I walk quickly from the room without a word. After all, my promised resolution doesn’t start for another thirteen days.


*


May 8, 1998



I hate this.

Memories of Fred replay continuously through my mind. This particular one is most persistent. I realise now, hiding behind this tree, waiting for the crowd to disperse, with Fred lying in a box only some feet away, that it’s because of the guilt.

I was supposed to talk more, to more than just him; to George. I’d promised... I promised Fred to try and I didn't. I haven't. Not with a stranger, or an acquaintance, or an old roommate, and most certainly not with George…

Was I a bad friend, Fred? I never meant to be. I'm sorry.

Fred Weasley is lying in a box. How’s that for  irony? The over-the-top, life-of-the-party, vivacious, prankster-in-chief, loud, hilarious, bordering on obnoxious, rule-breaking, explosive, larger-than-life-itself Fred Weasley… is lying in a small, confined, wooden box.

It doesn’t make any sense.

How could such a big head fit in such a small box?

I almost laugh at the thought, knowing Fred would have appreciated the attempt at some humour -- even at his own expense. But it's a short-lived high.

The longer I remain hidden, the further my thoughts spiral down, until my brain is utterly spinning from searching for logic in this scenario. Eventually I stop trying at all. Finding justifiable reasoning would still leave me without my friend.

My thoughts turn to this tree I’m so artfully stashed behind; how it lacks both emotional and physical comfort. Thankfully it’s not much longer before there are no more voices, no more sobs, nothing but silence.

I can go to Fred now.

My steps are slow and unsure. The heels of my shoes click and clack on the stone path leading to his body, sounding off like tiny bullets in the contrasting quiet. Small voices from within the funeral home grow louder the closer I come to Fred. They are the only other noise to be heard in this place, and I understand that the Weasley’s - or what remains of them - have retired inside for the time being.

And then I arrive at the dark cherry wood coffin. It sends a shiver down my spine; I force myself to breathe. Resting atop it, beside roses and various bouquets, stand three pictures sealed in obsidian frames.

The first photo from the left is of Fred by himself: a picture meant to represent just who it is that rests lifelessly inside the casket. He’s smiling, his eyes alive with laughter and freedom as he puts on a show for the camera, occasionally winking cheekily. I give a small, surprising smile before moving on to the second photo.

This picture shows his family, many of whom I recognise from Hogwarts, though I doubt any of them would remember me. I know each of his sibling’s names and faces, though his family is so large that it’s difficult to distinguish who’s whom among the redheaded collage of relatives. I can recognise his mother and father too, having seen them around the platform during the beginning and end of each school year, and at Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes a few times as well. They seem like lovely parents to have. There are other relatives in the picture that I am unfamiliar with, however: grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and in-laws, I assume. I feel ashamed that a small amount of envy races through my veins at such a large, loving family, when Fred will never experience that again, either. I suppose we have that in common now, too.

I see the third, and final, photo and my heart skips a beat – or perhaps a thousand – as my eyes take in Fred standing next to the person who brought us together in the first place, the reason we bonded and became so close, the one who we both loved above all others: his twin brother and the unrequited love of my life, George Weasley.

It’s almost an involuntary reaction when my hand reaches toward the third picture of the two twins. My fingers lightly trace the frame on the side as if it were so delicate it might shatter with the pressure. I feel the wetness building in my eyes again. I can’t help but stare at the two of them, happy just to be in each other’s presence, tugging on the other’s tie, mussing up one another’s hair, being brothers, twins, and best friends with such ease.

A tear spills from each of my eyes. I cry for both of them. It must not be easy being the one who’s gone, but it cannot be any easier being the one who’s left behind.

My hand finally moves from the frame to rest gently on the casket.

I should say something. But what?

Fred always talked to me. Almost everything he learned of me, of my life, was by his asking questions I could simply nod or shake my head to, as opposed to me speaking of myself, explaining to him who I was. I think he enjoyed figuring me out for himself. He would  tell me that I was a mystery to him, caged in by silence, but brought to life by it, too. I never understood why he ever found me interesting,-- I’m too simple to be exciting to someone as full of life as Fred is.

Was.

I should say something. But where do I begin?

“Hello, Fred…” I say in a low whisper. An appropriate way to begin, but where to now? I never was any good with words.

“I never was any good with words, Fred. But I’ll try.”

I inhale slowly once more before deciding what I want him to hear -- to know.

“Fred… You kept every promise. You never made me talk. You always let me listen. You were my best friend, and not just because you were my only friend. You loved me… Thank you for that.”

A tear spills over and gravity pulls it to the dirt in a silent splash. I swallow hard before forcing the next words out.

“I love you,” I whisper, and suddenly another wave of intense guilt passes as I realise I should have said that more. “I-I should have said that more, Fred.”

A strangled sob escapes me as fresh tears fall, and the world narrows to a point. It feels stripped of all its joy, of all its wonder, all its colour, and just leaves me here to rot in the remaining black, white, and grey existence. It is only the creaking of the funeral home door that pulls me back to actuality.

I abruptly cut off my sobs with a sharp inhale and turn my head with a snap when I see that it is him.

Hello again, George.

Immediately he spots me, alone with his brother, a hand curled around their photo, tears covering my face, eyes wet and wide and connected with his own.

Breathe, Josephine.

We are caught in this moment. His expression heart-breakingly miserable, body tense, hands resting in the pockets of his finest black dress robes, eyes tired and heavy with dark circles beneath them -- big and blue and looking less alive than his brothers’.

He is beautiful.

I want to hold him. I want to run away. I want anything but to see him so… broken, helpless, alone.

And suddenly his expression falters. His eyes lighten, his body relaxes, and the look on his face is no longer without hope. It's as if he has breathed in, and in that breath found reason, hope, life.

Perhaps it’s because he sees me and realises that he is not the only person who lost their best friend. Somehow, that thought is comforting to me as well. Until he takes a step forward.

My heart stops, eyes widen, breath hitches. Please don’t. Please stop. He doesn’t understand that if he crosses to me I will no longer be able to breathe, and my lungs already burn enough from Fred.

And then I am saved.

The door swings open again, this time for a shaking Mrs. Weasley.

“George…” she whispers in a strangled voice, which causes George to immediately turn at the desperation the single word holds. And without hesitation, I run.

I could have Apparated back to my house - I could have Apparated anywhere, honestly - but instead I run back to my tree, my refuge.

As soon as I am hidden behind the trunk of the giant oak, I peek my head around just enough so that I can watch George with his mum. They embrace tightly as one of Mrs. Weasley’s hand rubs soothing circles on George’s back, the other stroking his hair. The moment is so bittersweet, and once again I find myself envious. Envious watching a broken child be held in the way only a mother can -- in a way that I have never been.

When did I become so selfish?

This isn’t about you, Josephine. You need to accept that. Fred is gone. This is about anyone who ever knew him. This is not about you.

I continue to watch the tender moment from afar. The two bodies shake slightly, and I know their tears have returned once more. George is crying. Now I am crying. We are all crying.

It isn’t long before they break apart. George gently places an arm over Mrs. Weasley’s shoulders and they turn once again towards Fred. And George looks confused.

As they begin their walk, his eyes trace the now deserted area, and I duck my head back behind the tree as they make their way toward my hiding place. It's only then that I understand it is me who he is searching for.

My heart flutters.

He remembers me.

Soon the sound of footsteps changes from slapping of pavement to swishing of grass as the two make their way toward Fred. And when the sound of soft feet ceases, it's replaced by a fresh sob from Mrs. Weasley.

"Oh, Fred…" she whispers.

George is silent. I am silent. We are silent together.

The refuge I had previously found in this tree has shifted. I am trapped by it now instead. It has betrayed me, forcing me to listen to the sounds of a mother mourning. This was supposed to be my freedom, so how I did I become its prisoner? I don't want to hear this; I don’t want to hear the heartbroken sounds of a mother crying for her child - crying for her child the way a mother never cried for me.

I sound so selfish... What is wrong with me?

This isn't about you, Josephine!

I know.

Let her cry.

I know.

You are not the only one who lost him…

I… I know.

I look down in shame, but try to block out the sounds of suffering anyway, until the time finally comes for George and his mother to leave once more.

I really must escape now, but there is one last thing to be done.

Quicker than before I approach the casket; just me and my friend again. With one hand back on the coffin, I fix my eyes on the portrait of Fred.

“I miss you, Fred. Everybody misses you. You are missed.”

My voice surprises me with its steady confidence, and before Apparating away, I speak a final time.

“I will keep my promise.”











 
















Author's Note:
Thank you for reading. I sincerely hope you're enjoying the story so far. ^.^


A huge thank you has to go out to my brother Nick for helping me with the giant editing overhaul I've been meaning to do with this chapter since about the beginning of time, as well as to 1917farmgirl, who is always there to be an extra set of eyes and to calm the voices in my head that tell me 'it's not good enough -- must keep editing!' She's a huge part of the reason this story ever gets new chapters.

Special thanks as well to theelderwand1 and xtinjsc for pushing me to write this original chapter way back in the day and helping me in moments of desperatation!


Chapter 3: Nice to Meet You
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June 20, 1996


It is vaguely stalkerish what I am doing here, although perhaps not quite so... vaguely.

I could still leave if I wanted; disappear out the front door, unseen by either, before my name is inevitably called. They would move on swiftly enough in my absence.

Do I want that?

My fingers fiddle nervously with the worn scrap of torn newspaper in my hand; an article featured in the Daily Prophet just over a week ago, now. Casting my eyes downward in indecision, I turn the clip over in my hand and, in a desperate search for guidance, reread it for the hundredth time.

EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY: WEASLEY'S WIZARD WHEEZES

#93 Diagon Alley

That's right, folks; you've read correctly! And congratulations on a job well done at that! For it's not much more than an ability to read that we require here at Weasley's Wizard Wheezes! You might be thinking to yourself that at five Knuts per word to advertise in this paper, we must be doing quite well; and you'd be right! Which is exactly why we need your help! Dear reader, on 20th June your favorite joke shop will be holding open interviews for a variety of excitingly standard positions! Those wishing to apply for Check-Out or In-Store Demonstrator jobs will be interviewed in the downstairs offices with George, and those applying for Stock Room, Sales Associate or Advertisement jobs will be interviewed in the upstairs offices with Fred. So brush your teeth, shine your shoes, and throw on your luckiest pair of knickers, and we'll see you on 20th June! Interviews will begin at 10am; bring a resume, a suitable amount of bribery sweets, and your favorite joke.


I close my eyes in defeat.

Is it truly possible that I've become so dependent upon the idea of George Weasley living in the periphery of my life that I've convinced myself I might somehow fit in here? That I could somehow miraculously pull this off? To the very core of my being, I am nothing less than a laughably unsuitable match for a joke shop.

I should go. I would go, except... it has been so long.

Over two months have gone by since I last saw them; since I last saw him. They had left so abruptly from school back in April, with the dramatic flourish capable only by the two of them, that I had not had any time at all to prepare for their departure. So much of me had been wrapped up in George Weasley for so long that when they left without warning, it was as if an immeasurable part of who I was had been ripped away, without any hope of returning. I couldn't concentrate on anything but the loss, irrationally consumed by it. My already poor grades fell further, my imagination grew restless and dull, and my heart grew far heavier than it had been in years; since I had first begun this charade. As hopelessly pathetic as it all was, watching him from afar had been my favourite past time, and without him... It had been so lonely.

It has been so lonely.

And so here I am. Caught in between the chance to implement myself once again into the background of his life, or make the decision to walk away and remain in a world far too separate from his own.

I sigh softer than a whisper, slowly opening my eyes. Of course I know the answer, however weary the attempt to attain it may be.

Before I can once again go over my plan for the day, however, a voice cuts suddenly through my thoughts.

"Josephine Adaire?" it asks.

My name rings out with so much enthusiasm that I almost do not recognize it. Startled by his sudden appearance, I can't help but wonder how someone as wholly loud as Fred Weasley could have crept back into the waiting room so perfectly undetected.

Of course, it's not something that should matter at this particular moment, as he waits expectantly across the room of interviewees, looking for someone to acknowledge themselves as the person attached to the aforementioned name.

I stand after briefly checking the surrounding area for any accidentally misplaced odds and ends, careful not to leave anything behind and be caught even more unprepared once inside his office. As I cross the waiting room, I glance up to look Fred in the eye and smile politely at him. My stomach does the smallest of flips as I take in his appearance. So many days have gone by since last seeing either twin that I am rusty at my ability to quickly tell them apart; the small differences no longer perfectly defined as they were back when I saw them every day. However, while my eyes may have been ever so slightly fooled, my heart knows for certain that this is Fred, and so I say to him, "Hello."

Too quiet, Josephine.

I scold myself internally before trying again, this time with a bit more confidence. "Hello."

"Hello there, Josephine!" he practically yells. I flinch slightly at the sheer volume he produces before shaking the hand he has now extended towards me. He gives me a smile that I consider to be a cross between comforting and devilish. "Right this way!" he continues, still far louder than is necessary, throwing an arm around my shoulders and guiding me into his office.

Once we are both inside, he removes the weight of his arm to point instead at a lone chair sitting opposite his desk. "Go ahead and have a seat right there!"

Nodding accordingly, I make my way to the designated spot as Fred closes the door behind us. Tucking a few loose strands of hair behind my ear, I sit down obediently. That is until something mortifying happens.

Cutting through the air with the subtlety of a foghorn through a peaceful night's sleep, the chair beneath me lets out a terrible, resounding noise that has far too accurately emulated a thunderous fart; the sound horrifyingly unmistakable.

I jump abruptly from the offending furniture, determined to put a bit of space between us before turning to face Fred, carelessly releasing and scattering my folder of papers in the process.

"Merlin's beard, woman..." is all he can say.

My eyes are huge as my mouth tries desperately to find the words in which to explain that I had not been the one to make the sound, but the chair! The chair is to blame! Of course, rather than simply explaining this like a normal functioning human being, I find myself instead doing a rather accurate impression of a fish. Unable to form a thought clearly, I simply point weakly at the appalling object, bringing my other hand up to cover my growing embarrassment.

And then I hear the laughter. Quiet and contained at first, but quickly picking up pace and volume as control is lost. Peeking out from between my fingers, my eyes once again find Fred and I watch as he loses his composure, one hand on his labouring stomach and the other holding tightly to the door frame, propping him up.

I lower my hand as the pieces slowly come together.

Really I should have known, should have expected it the moment I decided to be interviewed a week ago. I can't help the resigned sigh that escapes my lips.

Fred's laughter subsides a bit and is replaced by his own entertained thoughts. "That was by far my favourite reaction of the day; only the second one to drop something, but the first to be completely shocked into silence! The facial expression is what takes the cake, though. Bloody brilliant!" he laughs, wiping a tear of joy from beneath his eye.

I give him a strained smile, not quite over my humiliation yet, before kneeling down to gather up my strewn-about papers. With just a few strides, Fred closes the distance between us and joins me on the floor, still chuckling lightly. As I reach for the final dropped item - the newspaper clipping - he only just beats me to it.

"Thank you," I reply quietly, reaching for the snippet.

Suddenly I am overwhelmed with the sense of déjà vu as a distant memory stirs.

"Do I know you?" he asks without releasing the scrap, despite my newly acquired grip of it. "You look familiar."

Does he remember it, too?

I am taken back to a day long ago, the day it all began, but never would I have expected him to recall the event as well. I look him in the eye and try to find the words, but he grows restless before I am able to.

"Hmm, maybe not. Must just have one of those faces, eh?"

He lets go of his end of the newspaper before standing up and crossing to his own chair, explaining to me that I can take my seat again. Weary though I am to do so, I lower myself much more gently onto the soft fabric so that this time it lets out no more than a small puff of air. "Those are our newest creation, by the way!" he says, referring to the farting chair with boyish enthusiasm. "Sort of a spin on the Muggle whoopee cushion. It comes with a variety of different flatulence-inspired sound effects - I won't tell you how we acquired such noises other than by mentioning that a handful of truly sinister ingredients were digested in turn between myself and George - and it refills itself automatically! Plus, other than the flatulence, it's a perfectly functioning piece of furniture. Five Galleons each: a steal!"

I nod and smile politely.

"Soooooo, Josephine Adaire," he says, scooching his chair forward until he can comfortably rest both elbows on the desk. "Did you bring a resume?"

Leafing quickly through my folder, I hand him the rather unimpressive document. He scans it quickly enough, letting out a few 'tut's and 'mhmm's as he does so, before looking back to me. "It says here you graduated Hogwarts this year?" he asks, surprised.

I confirm the statements validity with another nod and smile. He looks at me more closely now, as if trying to place me. If he does figure it out, however, he doesn't mention it, and goes back instead to looking at the paper in his hand. I don't believe he has, though.

"So it looks as though if we hired you, this would be your first job? Nothing wrong with that; we like'em fresh out of Hogwarts! Before we go any further, though, I would like to ask you just a few rather basic questions. Standard things; nothing too difficult, I promise. Ready?" he asks before taking a barely-there pause, continuing onto his first inquiry before I have consented. I nod anyway.

"First question!" he calls out, and I steel myself for a standard query along the lines of 'What are your three worst qualities?' Do I name actually poor qualities about myself? Or do I make up a fault-that-isn't-really-a-fault, like perfectionism? And what if he asks what my greatest strength is? One look at my Hogwarts report would tell him that I haven't many.

As my mind shoots off in a million different directions, I am stopped in my tracks when Fred asks this:

"If you were a fruit, what kind would you be?"

If I were... a fruit? The look he gives me is entirely dead-pan and so I cannot tell if I have truly heard correctly. I open my mouth, close it, open it again and say, "Sorry?"

"Sorry?" he asks with a puzzled look on his face. "That's not a fruit." Before I can even attempt an explanation he cuts me off with, "But interesting answer. I myself am a mango. Next question!" he shouts.

I am lost. Why is it that when his oddness and humour is used on others I can follow along as if I am inside of his head, but as soon as the tables are turned in my direction I feel lost in a maze of confusion and self-doubt?

"Which Quidditch team do you support?" he inquires. His quill is poised in anticipation over a bit of parchment that I assume holds the list of bizarre questions. Unfortunately, having grown up Muggle, Quidditch teams outside of the Hogwarts Houses is not something I'm particularly familiar with. However, I can just recall a former roommate of mine in the Hufflepuff dorms who was a fervent supporter of... Oh, what is their name?

"Erm... the Montrose Magpies?" I ask rather than answer.

"Wrong!" he shouts, immediately shutting down my answer; something I did not think he would be able to do given the nature of the question. "The correct answer is the Falmouth Falcons. Aaaaand moving swiftly along: Question three! On a scale of one to ten - one being the lowest, ten being the highest - how attractive am I?"

Do not blush, Josephine.

While I may have been without a clue on the first two, I am at least smart enough to understand what answer he is looking for now. "Ten?" I ask, scolding myself for not having said it with a bit more assuredness.

"Hmm... I was looking for a firm eleven, not a sceptical ten... but I'll allow it." Fred marks it down on his parchment as I fervently hope that the list of questions is almost through.

"Last question," he announces, setting his quill and scroll down onto the desk and giving me a rather intense look. Thankful as I am to be down to the final inquiry, I can't help but feel as though his concluding question will leave me even more hopeless than the others. But, to my surprise, he asks what I have been preparing for all week:

"What position were you hoping for, Josephine Adaire?" he asks, taking his time to lean back casually in his chair.

I feel a pang of envy at his level of comfort and can't help but wish that his continuously carefree attitude would have rubbed off on me after all this time of observation. Especially now, knowing that this is going to be the hardest part. Because truthfully, I am not actually applying for any of the positions listed in their advertisement. And that requires explanation; explanation of course, not being my strong suit, as it depends upon a lengthy number of words in order to be understood.

Luckily (and with good reason) I have rehearsed the speech for this particular question many times since first deciding to apply; thoroughly practicing its delivery, carefully memorizing the words, meticulously studying every detail until it became almost second-nature to me.

All I can do now is hope to remember it.

"Actually," I begin slowly, eyes averted in anxious timidity, "I was hoping to help with the finances." I pause to gauge his reaction, glancing at his now much more curious look. Beneath the unsure expression, however, he seems to say 'go on.' Choosing my words carefully, I continue: "My father used to run a shop as well, and he was very good at it. It was a Muggle store, but he taught me well about how to properly structure a successful business, and a lot of the same principals still apply for your shop. I've drawn up a business model for you here," I tell him, taking a few more pages from my folder and passing them to Fred, who takes them, seemingly intrigued. "I did some research and found that the company you're using right now as a supplier is actually costing you more than these other options would." I gesture modestly to the packet in his hands before continuing. "There's a graph on the last page that represents how I think your income would increase while your expenditures would decrease if you were to make these changes. I believe that if you hired me to run your finances, I could earn you, on average, a ten to twelve percent savings quarterly."

I breathe out heavily, grateful to have made it securely to the end of my speech; and I am only partially concerned about how rehearsed the words may have sounded while being spoken.

Fred looks taken aback, a surprised grin on his face. He rifles through the papers again in what I hope to be a positive way. The waiting for his response is truly nerve-racking and I do my best to channel my anxiety through the twisting of my fingers, until finally he speaks.

"Right-o! Well, this is all quite impressive, I must admit," he begins and I feel the relief flood through me; that is until his initial statement is followed by the word "But..." Oh, 'but' is never good. "Look, I'm just going to ask, because I have to know: Why are you really applying here?"

I look to him in complete shock. Am I really that transparent? How do I even begin to answer that seemingly simple, though endlessly complicated question? Certainly not with the truth!

As I try to gather my thoughts and keep the worry off my face, Fred continues of his own accord, with a rather goofy and light-hearted expression.

"Maybe I've gone bonkers, but... I mean, you seem nice enough, it's just... Blimey, you don't exactly seem at all the type to want to work here! For starters, you haven't laughed at a single bloody joke or gag I've done; which is clearly ridiculous! I might even take it offensively if I wasn't so sure that everything I did was actually funny!" He smiles and even laughs a bit, but somehow I suddenly feel very guilty; the fact that he doesn't seem bothered in the slightest by my non-existent laughter and a potential ulterior motive hardly puts my mind at ease. "Sooooo, Josephine Adaire... Why do you really want to work here?"

I contemplate the truth. I contemplate a lie. I contemplate another lie that is sadly even worse than the first lie. I have just begun to consider simply walking out of the room when suddenly I am both saved and in further need of rescue with the same unanticipated event of the door abruptly swinging open.

Hello, George.

"Oi!" Fred calls out, gesturing wildly with both arms, "I'm in the middle of an interview here!"

"Yeah, sorry; only be a tick!" George says, his voice as deep and melodious as I remember it to be. I can't help but to stare at first, breathing in every detail that I have so sorely missed over the past two months. Whatever small part of myself from earlier today had blurred the lines between Fred and George has all at once become a sharpened focus, a precise detector of every minuscule distinction. His flaming red hair appears slightly tousled as his eyes dance with the enthusiasm of someone on a mission; his slightly more elongated face holds the expression of a kind but excited person, smiling as though he has a secret that others would die to know; tall and broad and with a perfectly placed beauty mark resting on his neck.

Fred is nice, but he is no George.

I am frozen.

He shuts the door behind him, walking in long strides until he reaches a quaint little cupboard behind Fred, who spins around in his chair to face his twin, and I am thankful that on his journey over George has chosen not to look my direction.

"What're you doing in here, then, Georgie?"

"Oh, you'll be pleased to know," he responds enthusiastically, his back remaining turned to both Fred and I as he vigorously searches through the remnants of the cabinet. "I've found two potential In-Store Demonstrators and have decided to pin them against each other in a sales duel! I'm giving them each three products to demonstrate with. The last one is going to be these faulty buggers here," he explains, extracting two odd looking contraptions that I am completely unable to identify or even begin to understand. He turns to face in our direction, though he keeps his eyes on the objects he's holding, examining them closely. "Neither works properly and, as you're well aware of, these bloody things smell absolutely rotten when used incorrectly, so it should be both interesting and hilariously entertaining to see how each of them handles it. And, erm, don't go spreading this around or nothing, but I already know I'm hiring them both; just want to have a bit of fun before I tell'em," he grins deviously at his twin before sparing a glance up at me.

'Run!'
is the first thought that irrationally pops into my head, but the small part of my brain that has managed to continue functioning logically is still in pursuit of a job here. And so 'Run!' quickly turns into 'Hide!'

Hide I can do.

In an act of sheer desperation, I make an almost involuntary movement forward in which I pretend to put the folder in my now outstretched hand on the desk in front of me, but instead miss the mark by a mile, allowing the file to teeter off its axis and fall instead to the floor. I immediately follow its descent, crouching down as low as can be managed behind the desk; and I am profoundly thankful that my extraction from the farting chair has been an inaudible one.

I will not move from this spot.

I hear the scuffling of feet and the movement of Fred's chair sliding slightly on the carpet before there is a small, pregnant pause of complete silence.

"Erm..." one of them remarks soon after; George, I think. He follows the confused admission by quietly whispering, "I think I've frightened your interviewee."

"Would'ya look at that..." Fred muses just as softly, so it's a struggle for me to hear. "What exactly did you do?"

"I don't know, just looked at her, I thought..."

"Bizarre. Any of your interviews go something like this?"

"Worst I've had was a kid looking to work Check-Out who thought three plus five was eleven. Perhaps we shouldn't have been quite so lenient in our article. I mean, we did more or less say that the ability to read was our only requirement."

"Actually, this girl here did present something rather intriguing- You know what, I'll tell you later, I think you're gonna have to leave if there's any hope of her resurfacing."

"Yeah, all right, we'll catch up later," George concludes, clearly trying to suppress a chuckle. I hear as his footsteps hurriedly make their way back to the door, which quickly opens and shuts behind him with a small click.

Freedom.

Except it isn't really, because now I have no choice but to face Fred. I have no idea what he's thinking, I have no idea what he'll say, and I have no idea what I will say either. And so, without even the slightest hint of hope, I gather up my folder of papers and slowly force myself to stand.

At first I cannot look at Fred and simply stand humiliated before him, but when his silence becomes too much, I spare him an anxious glance only to immediately regret the decision. Head resting heavily on his hand, mouth agape in a goofy smile, and eyes dancing with barely contained glee, he is the very image of a man doing his best not to laugh in the face of a person already embarrassed beyond their limits. However, I have to wonder if perhaps the laughter would be less painful than the gaping stare.

The silence continues to stretch. In my upright discomfort, I forget what has happened earlier in the day and, gripping tightly to my folder as if it is a lifeline, I sit hard on the chair behind me, which greets my presence with the booming explosion of another fart sound.

Prrrfffffffftt!

And that's the end of it for Fred, who can no longer contain his laughter, and it bursts from him with the force of a cackling hyena holding a megaphone. He is beside himself, immediately keeling over with one hand gripping tightly to his stomach as the other continuously slams down heavily on the desk; heaving breaths of air are inhaled and exhaled so quickly that I am certain he will soon hyperventilate. No longer able to watch him, I bring a hand up to cover my mortified expression and can feel how very warm to the touch my face is; presumably a brilliant shade of red, as well. All I can do now is to sit and wait for Fred's overwhelming laughter to subside, to slowly die down into a tapered chuckle, which eventually it does. Or at least it calms enough so that he can force a few choice thoughts out.

"Wh- Wh- Wha- Oh, blimey - What the h-h-hell w-was that?" He struggles through his giggling to complete the question, which I hope is meant to be rhetorical seeing as I have no intention of answering it. Still, it only deepens my humiliation and I bring my other hand up to my face as well, leaving the folder to rest precariously on my lap.

Fred's laughter continues to die out slowly, every once in a while joined by the odd word or two; "You h-hid! Ahaha G-George! Ohoooohoho hahaha The faaaaaart! Ha! So f-f-funny! Eeehehe Ohohaha W-why did you hide-" He cuts himself off suddenly, sobering immediately. I peek through my fingertips to see what has stopped him in the middle of his seemingly euphoric fit only to find a curious expression on his face. He looks to the door in concentration, then back at me, then to my resume, to me again, the door, and then:

"Oh. My. God."

Slowly he turns his now baffled expression on me, his jaw hangs slack as he gapes in clear shock. "Oh my God," he says again, eyes still stuck on me. I am starting to really worry now, especially when he tells me, "I've just figured it out!" I keep my hands in place over my eyes, the cracks of my fingers growing narrower as if acting the part of a shield, preparing for what is to come.

Fred leans forward in his chair, painfully slow in his movements, surely milking his new-found knowledge; knowledge that I hope with all of me is not what I think it may be. But alas...

"Well, drape me in purple velvet and call me Dumbledore: You have a thing for George!"

My hands drop heavily back into my lap. I stare at him horrified for only the briefest of seconds before grasping my folder with both hands and standing back up abruptly.

It is over. I have lost. I never really had a chance, but now it is official.

This time I do run. Without another word, I make a break for the door.

"Merlin's pants, I'm so right!" I hear Fred shout over the scraping sounds of his chair; his voice full of unadulterated joy; his heavy footsteps now headed in my direction. "Wait! No, no, don't go! Hold on, would you? I'm seriously considering hiring you now! Don't run off!" He is right on my heels and, just before I reach the door, his long arms stretch out to hold it shut in the same second that I roughly tuck my folder up beneath my arm and my own hands reach for the handle. And though he is obviously much stronger than I am, it does not keep me from wrestling fiercely with the doorknob.

He lets out a single booming 'Ha!' before continuing on with his revelation. "See, I knew - I bloody knew it from the second you popped in here that there was something going on! 'Cause there was no way you were ever applying here simply because it was your heart's true desire to help out in a joke shop! This is so absolutely about George, you sly, clever, devious little minx, you!" He smiles down at me with an expression that is almost proud. "Perhaps you're a bit more fit to work here than I first gave you credit for, coming up with a scheme like that! This is too brilliant!"

My head feels close to exploding as my hands continue their hopeless efforts for freedom via the doorknob, until Fred says, "Oi! Would you quit messing about with the handle? People are going to think I'm keeping you captive in here!" I give him a look that says, 'Well, aren't you?' and he is quick to reply with, "Which is exactly what I'm not doing."

I do reluctantly concede, understanding that my efforts are futile. I untuck the folder from beneath my arm and hug it to my body, head hanging low in defeat.

"So, I have to know: What exactly was your plan?" he asks with a chuckle. When I don't answer, he decides instead to begin a guessing game. “I mean, he was in here for just a tick, barely glances at you, and you literally felt the need to hide behind a desk! How were planning to work with him? What, were you just gonna hide all the time in the back rooms? Maybe live permanently under a Disillusionment Charm? Were you hoping to just watch him? Do your bit of accounting now and again and spend the rest of your time ogling him from behind the shelves like a complete loon?"

I swear I keep my face neutral, but am obviously incorrect because Fred gains some sort of truth from me. "Wow, that's... You must really, really like him. It's actually kind of sweet. But mostly stalkerish." And though he laughs with good-natured amusement, the remark is a bit too accurate for my already extremely worn down comfort level, and I feel again that desperation to flee.

I yank again at the doorknob, but Fred continues to block the exit, and so my revisited struggle with the handle proves to be just as ineffective as the last.

"Would you stop trying to escape, already? Cause, look, since first walking in here, you really have quite grown on me! It's like my favourite chest hair - which also happens to be my only chest hair: At first it was sort of laughably embarrassing, but now I'm quite fond of it! I like you! I mean, you're a bit off your rocker, but I genuinely am enjoying this all way too much to just let you wander off, never to be seen again! So come on, you nutter; let me hire you!"

Is he crazy?

"Are you crazy?" I practically hiss, looking to him in disbelief, honestly certain that screaming the thought with my eyes alone would not have done it justice.

"Well, depends on who you ask, I reckon. But Jo - can I call you Jo? I'm gonna call you Jo - Jo, if I can set aside my pride for a moment here, I can admit that perhaps George and I are not the most... responsible people on the planet, and I do quite believe that we'd actually benefit greatly from you with your business model alone! Not to mention that if I hired you, I assume situations like what happened earlier will be inevitable, like, daily, yeah? I mean, blimey, I'd be entertained for... ever, really. Forever!"

I cannot work here with him knowing. Fred knowing means it is inevitable that George too would find out - and sooner rather than later if I know Fred Weasley; which of course I do. While I have stopped the fruitless pulling and tugging at the door, my hand remains perched on the handle, and I know that he knows that I have not changed my mind.

I am sorry, Fred, but I cannot stay.

"Right-o, flattery will clearly get me nowhere with you," he announces and I scrunch my eyebrows sceptically. What flattery? "What? I'm fairly sure there was a compliment in there somewhere. Didn't I call you a nutter? I love nutters!" He winks deviously at me. I bring my chin down to my chest, closing my eyes in emotional exhaustion. He pauses for a moment and I wonder if it is because he feels badly now for the distress he is causing me, or if he is simply having a think. Naturally, it is the latter.

"You know, I think I've figured it out. Let me give this a go, here, if I may. The facts are this: Firstly, you like George. Obvious, I know, but bear with me, young doubter! Secondly," he continues, ticking off each point made on his fingers. "You like him enough that you'd rather face your somewhat, erm... crippling fear of being 'round him rather than not having him about at all, yeah? And thirdly, when you came in here to be interviewed earlier today, you had every intention of taking a job if we were to hire you. So with all of that in mind, my question is this: What exactly happened between then and now that made you change your mind?" He takes a brief dramatic pause, a teasing grin on his face as we lock eyes. "And the answer to that, Jo, is quite simple," he says in a low voice, his eyes dancing with eager excitement as he slowly moves closer to me, expertly milking the moment. And even though I already know what he is going to say, he is so good at creating anticipatory tension that I am almost forced to break away from his intense gaze. But finally he speaks. "Me. I'm what happened."

I have to admit that I am impressed by his deduction skills, though I am even more surprised by how easily he is able to understand me and my thoughts without so much as a word.

"Oho, I know that look. You're impressed, aren't you?" he teases. "I know, it's hard to believe: smashing good looks, brilliant sense of humour, and top notch intelligence? Can one man truly be so gifted? It's okay to feel overwhelmed in my presence, for I am quite impressive. Thank you for noticing," he winks cheekily.

I roll my eyes.

"Oi, watch it!" he warns playfully. "Moving forward with what we know! The only problem here seems to be that you're afraid I will tell George that you're harbouring less than decent night-time thoughts about him, yes?" I can feel my face grow hot with embarrassed blushing, so I bring a hand up for coverage. "So what if I simply swore to you not to tell? Honestly, if it's the only thing stopping you from working here, I can keep my mouth shut! Granted, you're not exactly subtle and he will probably figure it out for himself, but I can promise to not be the one to tell him!"

It would almost sound like a good deal to make if the other participant were not Fred Weasley. I know too well of his ability to work around the system, to find a loophole, and to seize opportunity backhandedly. I cannot let him do that to me.

I am sorry, Fred. No.

"You are clever, aren't you? Fine. What if I also swear not to bring you up in conversation? For example, I won't run off to find George after we finish our interview here and retell the story of this truly bizarre experience; and I won't say to him in the middle of a slow day at work 'Hey, look over there at that large-eyed bird stalking you like you're prey!' And so on. I'll promise not to draw any attention to you at all, okay?" He looks at me hopefully. "How's that?"

I am still uncertain.

"Gah!" Fred exclaims, running his hand through his hair restlessly; his expression a combination of someone who is both immensely frustrated and delightfully challenged. "All right, okay, all right!" he yells out, preparing for what I assume to be his final case. "What if on top of all of that, I can even go so far as to actively change the subject when you are brought up? Okay? Are you pleased yet? I will not out your secret, I won't talk about you ever, and if George brings you up, I'll steer the conversation in a different direction completely, and more or less just ignore your existence entirely while he's around! Is that what you need? Because fine! I will do all of that, okay? Are you happy now? You mad, needy woman!" He looks half-crazed and half-amused, and he lets out some laughter at the insanity of it all.

And damn it all... he's got me.

I am certain I've hardly reacted at all, and yet somehow Fred understands me immediately. "YES!" he shouts, pointing at my face in triumphant celebration. "All right! That's how it's done!" He laughs freely and I can't help but to smile along with him. "I knew I'd get you eventually! Blimey, you're a tough sell! But listen, can I ask for one, small favour in return?" I am sceptical, but know that he at least deserves the benefit of the doubt. "Okay, so clearly you have an appalling sense of humour, and if you're going to work in a joke shop under my watch, I really must insist that we expand your funny bone! So here's the deal: I promise all that stuff we just agreed upon and you, in return, well... Look, basically, if you're going to work here, Miss Adaire, I refuse to accept more reactions like the ones I saw today! So, the bottom line is that no matter how ill-construed or poorly received they are, yoooooou... have to laugh at my jokes."

I really can't help the look I give him, the expression forming before I can even attempt to stop it; a wide-eyed, high eyebrow'd stare which more or less quite simply says, 'Seriously?'

"Really?" he counters immediately. "That's an unreasonable request? I'm straddling so many promises on your behalf that I've about torn myself a new one, and you can't so much as fake a chuckle now and again? Well then, I'm not so sure anymore that I believe you're quite altruistic enough to even deserve the fantasy of George! Humph!" he exclaims, crossing his arms and turning his nose up at me, all with the dramatic flair of a temperamental diva.

Truthfully, I am being quite selfish. I want what I want and do not want to bend on it, it seems; but that is not the type of person I wish to be. Not even at all. However, just as I am about to comply with Fred's request, he beats me to the punch.

"Okay, scratch that! Never mind it! Keep your fake laughter for all I care, because there's something else I've just thought of! I want something different from you instead, Josephine Adaire."

I suddenly feel as though I should have taken the first deal when I had the chance.

"Before I tell you what it is, however, I have to ask you..." He trails off and takes a moment's pause, giving me an alarmingly serious look. His eyes scan my own as if looking for a secret buried even deeper than the one he has already uncovered. "Jo..." he begins slowly, softly, intensely. "Do you like George, or... do you love him?"

Surely my heart has stopped.

It is one thing to harbour a school-girl crush and to have it known by others as simply that, but... love is so much deeper, is so much greater, and is so very much more terrifyingly real. And the way I feel for George Weasley is more terrifying than anything else could ever dare to be.

Of course I love him. And Fred can tell.

"Okay," he says softly. He looks at me with eyes as kind as I've ever seen them, and I cannot tell if the expression on his face is one of hope or one of pity. "Now that I know, I just have one request; and this one cannot be bent and it cannot be overlooked." I shut my eyes for the briefest of moments, and he waits for mine to recapture his own before he can continue, making certain that I understand how very much he means what he is about to say. "Part of me doesn't quite understand why exactly I'm doing this, agreeing to keep truths from George for a girl I've only just come to know. But for some inexplicable reason, it just feels like the right thing to do, and so I'm going with my gut. I'm willing to participate in these lies of omission. However, Josephine," he pauses to take a deep breath, slowing his speech down now so that every word is perfectly enunciated and perfectly heard. "I cannot and will not ever lie to George directly. I know my way around skirting truths better than anyone you will ever meet, but there is one single question that if he were to ask me, I would have to answer truthfully. So, Jo... if George ever asks me outright if you love him, I will without exception tell him that yes, yes you absolutely do."

I exhale slowly, steadily.

After everything that has happened today, after all the things I have hoped for all week, after every lonely moment I have experienced over the past two months, can I truly walk away now because of that?

No. I cannot. And Fred can tell.

I look up at him and almost defeatedly shrug my shoulders; the trace of a smile breaking through on my face. Fred needs no explanation, smiling back at me knowingly, but he requires a formal confirmation regardless.

"So, Josephine Adaire... Do we have a deal?" He sticks a hand out for me to shake, a challenging glint back in his eyes and a smug smile on his lips. I stare apprehensively at his offered extension, feeling as if by accepting I am making a dangerous deal with the devil himself. And as terrifying as it all is, I know that there is an exciting adventure being offered here as well. And so, with a slow and steady progression, I raise my arm and close the distance between our hands, locking them firmly with more confidence than I truly do possess, and subsequently sealing my fate.

Deal.


His complacent smirk grows into a wicked smile before he chuckles lightly and says, "Oh, Jo. Jo, Joey, Jo Jo Jo... This is going to be fun."

I release his hand and sigh heavily, giving him a look that I hope reads as 'You're enjoying this way too much.' But however he takes my expression, it is followed with more of the same low laughter; at the expense of my dignity, I might add. And possibly my sanity. And yet, for whatever odd and inexplicable reason, I can't help but laugh lightly myself, his unsuppressed glee surprisingly contagious.

Finally stepping out of the way, Fred takes hold of the doorknob and pulls, removing himself as gate-keeper and holding the door open for me now instead, allowing my departure. And as I exit the office, moving swiftly towards the top of the staircase, he calls out to me a final time:

"See you Monday, Josephine."

 

*


June 10, 1998


Everything has changed.

I remember well the first time I ever stepped foot inside Weasley's Wizard Wheezes. A mere 24 hours ago I may even have called that first experience my worst hour spent in the shop. The embarrassment, the discomfort, the desperation, the painful extraction of my closest-kept secret; all of it stays with me in a very human way in which I am unable to let go of such a deeply humiliating incident. I seem to have an almost masochistic inability to keep it from resurfacing, to keep myself from reliving it; a glutton for punishment is so very much who I am.

And then a day like today happens, and I can only cling tightly to the memory from almost two years ago and wish longingly that life were only so simple now.

Weasley's Wizard Wheezes had not been officially open to the public in many months, since both Fred and George Weasley were forced to abandon the shop and go into hiding. Their entire family were too well-known as blood-traitors and were all being actively sought out by those supporting the Dark Lord. Those affiliated with the shop became endangered by extension, and so the windows and doors had been boarded up and the brightest light in Diagon Alley had been extinguished.

Not that any of that ever stopped Fred and George, of course.

Never the type to back down from a challenge, the twins had still run business via mail-order. They worked as best as was possible while being consistently separated from the store and had even been lucky enough to receive help from a few loyal employees, myself included, who gambled with their own safety every so often to sneak back into the shop. Measures had of course been taken to prevent unwanted company from entering the seemingly abandoned building as well, but at the height of war, most anything was considered risky, regardless of anticipated precautions. But despite it all, the joke shop continued to thrive, refusing to accept defeat. It seemed as though no matter how bad things got, no matter how fiercely the harrowing war raged on, the twins never lost their spirit or their unshakable belief that laughter was and always would be the best medicine.

But that was before we lost Fred. That was before he was laid to rest in a box.

Fred died. George stopped. Business closed. And then it stayed closed.

That is until today.

No advertisements announcing the shop's reopening had been posted, no flyers were distributed, and other than the small, plain sign on the door that read "Grand Reopening", no one who was not walking by the building itself would have known of its restoration. Foolishly, we had all assumed that because of our minimal display the day would be calm, the customer traffic would be light, and we would all be given the opportunity to ease back into work and adjust to the emptiness that was Fred's absence.

But that is not what happened.

Today has gone by in a blurred whirlwind of madness, though I fear it is not quite over yet...






 









Author's Note: I cannot even begin to apologize enough for how long this chapter took to post, but I worked on Lying Josephine as my NaNo project and I have SO much of the final chapters written that the rest of the story should begin coming out a lot faster now! A huge thank you to anyone who has come back to read this story after having been away for so long! And I hope there are a few new viewers joining in as well!

Reviews are food for the soul. Feed me! Please? ^.^

Fun Fact: Oliver Phelps, who played George Weasley, really does have a slightly longer face and a distinguishing mole on his neck that his brother James (Fred) does not.


*Special thanks to 1917farmgirl for being a constant source of support for this story and for reading through the chapter and assuring me that it isn't the worst thing ever written!



Chapter 4: Breakable Girls and Boys
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December 17, 1996



The door to the stock room flies open suddenly and I cannot help but to jump in startled surprise.

"Jo! Here you are! I've been looking for you for a bloody hour, feels like!" Fred announces dramatically. Surely he is exaggerating, but he wouldn't be Fred if he did not. He is rosy cheeked and slightly out of breath as he crosses to the somewhat cluttered counter a few feet behind me, a small cardboard box balancing carefully in his left hand. He pushes some stray objects aside and clears a space for whatever it is he has brought before setting it down.

"What are you doing back here? Working?" he asks incredulously. I raise my eyebrows at him in a way I hope reads as 'obviously,' but he is quick to ignore it, brushing the look away with a flippant gesture of his hand. "I figured you'd be out on the floor hiding behind some shelf or other - especially after I found George napping on the check-out desk. He's pretty adorable when he sleeps, if I do say so myself. Honestly, you're missing out! Though there may be drool, I can't be certain."

I stubbornly remain at my station, ignoring the heat that creeps up my neck at Fred's statement, determined to finish putting away the last of the Muggle Trick Playing Cards before paying him any further attention.

Naturally, he grows impatient.

"Would you quit being a good employee for half a tick? D'you think I hunted you down to watch you restock? I want to show you something! Come here!"

I shoot him a furtive glance at the expectancy in his voice before holding up a single finger to say, 'Gimme just one minute, would ya?' and turning back to the final few packs left unorganised. I can feel his eyes boring into the back of my head as he does his best to wait me out, but not ten seconds later is he pressed absurdly close to my side.

Other than the slight tightening of my lips, I'm able to feign indifference from his proximity. In my periphery, however, I can just make out the way his features narrow dangerously into the ever wary expression Fred dons whenever he is preparing to ruthlessly pester a person into submission. Determined though I am to keep my resolve, I know only too well of his expertise in the art of annoyance.

"Hey," he says. Just the once; slow, unassuming, almost innocent in its nature.

He pauses.

"Hey," he says again, an echo of the first.

He pauses again.

"Hey," he says, a third time now, and it starts to grate.

And then Fred takes a final pause before he - with an exaggerated breath - attacks.

"Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey-"

His voice the very definition of monotonous; every word an exact replica of the one that came before.

"Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey-" he continues on relentlessly, with no end in sight. With everything in me, I continue to act as unaffected as is possible because I know that, at the very least, my lack of acknowledgement will frustrate him in return. But soon enough he ups the ante of our little game by bringing a sharp finger to my upper arm and accompanying each 'hey' with a hard poke.

"Hey, hey, hey, hey-"

Poke, poke, poke, poke.

On and on he goes and I am breaking, though still remain stubbornly attached to my task; a task which is becoming more and more difficult to do properly.

We both grow impatient as we wait for the other to crack first.

He changes the game again when the poking in my arm shifts from its continued position to other spots nearby. At first I am grateful, as the one area had become quite tender, but when Fred begins casually poking me where he knows me to be ticklish, I can no longer remain impassive. Soon I am squirming and squeaking and failing to keep a straight face. I swat at his hand, but he continues on, relentless. Even now that he has my full attention, he still doesn't give up.

"Stop!" I finally giggle out, swatting his hand away a final time, and immediately he does.

He gasps and fakes a look of shock. "So she does have a voice!"

I roll my eyes, but he misses the action as he crosses the room once again, turning to face me as he reaches the opposite counter.

"Now get over here or you're fired!" he announces with a smirk, bouncing on his heels impatiently. I cross to him until I too am hovering over the box. "That wasn't so hard, now, was it?" he asks, giving me a pointed look. Of course, I am not so easily influenced these days by his would-be stern expressions, and so instead of feeling guilty, I elbow him the ribs. "Oi! Watch it, you! And can we please focus on me now?"

I nod my head slightly and gesture to the box. The floor is yours, Fred.

"Right-O! Well, you see, Christmas is just 'round the bend, yeah? And George and I have this arrangement wherein our gift exchanges absolutely cannot be something so simple as 'purchasable', and rather must be home-made instead. And in this here box lies the finished product for what I'll be giving George this year. Thing is, it's a bit... different than what I might make him usually. To be honest, it's a bit more... sentimental than it is funny, which is not exactly my area of expertise. Usually I wouldn't show my gift to anyone before hand, but... you know, I just...wanted, er..."

As Fred struggles to find his words, the realisation of what he's trying to say hits me. He is nervous; he is doubtful; he is afraid that this attempt at being anything less than over-the-top with his humour will result in a disappointed George.

There is something so very humbling about this.

"What I mean to say is that... If you could maybe take a look first... Let me know it's not, you know... complete rubbish..."

I look up into Fred's anxious eyes, a very rare expression of discomfort on his face, before reaching out to give his hand a gentle squeeze.

Of course I will look at this for you.

Fred gives me a lopsided grin before running a nervous hand through his hair. As my fingers peel open the cardboard flaps atop the box, however, I can feel it in the air as his anxiety shifts into eager anticipation. Gently I brush aside a few packing peanuts until I reveal the top of something clear and spherical. I lower my hands on each side of the object until I have a firm hold and carefully lift; slowly, steadily. It's heavy and I think it must be fragile as well, and when I finally bring it into the light, I can see that I am right. I set it down softly onto the counter before moving my hands away.

It is beautiful.

No larger than a softball, an ornate glass orb sits atop a rectangular oak base. The craftsmanship alone is worth pause, but the sentiment of what lies inside takes my breath away. As detailed and accurate as the real thing, scaled down so that it might fit in the palm of ones hand, is a small replica of the shop, of Weasley's Wizard Wheezes. The colours just as vivid, the building as meticulously designed, the aura of pure joy that radiates from its appearance alone nearly as powerful as the real thing. My eyes dance in astonishment at the beauty of the present and I cannot suppress the smile that creases my lips.

I feel Fred shift at my side and know he is waiting for a response. I turn my eyes to meet his and smile wider, setting one hand on his own and bringing the other to my heart.

"Wow," I tell him.

His shoulders relax as he smiles back at me, but quickly ruins the moment when he boasts out a cocky, "Exactly the reaction I expected." He throws me a wink.

Utter git.

I let go of his hand and lower myself down to eye-level with the globe, taking it all in once more, until Fred says, "Turn it over." I spare him only the briefest of glances before doing exactly that.

As carefully as can be managed, I use both hands to slowly tip the sphere until it is entirely upside down. No snow gathers at the top, but I only pause briefly at the realisation before righting it once more. The moment it's centred, it comes to life. A burst of miniature fireworks shoot off from within, dancing through the air and above the shop in patterns I am only too familiar with. For this is no ordinary fireworks display, but a tiny duplicate of Weasley's Wildfire Whiz-bangs. A shockingly pink Catherine wheel bursts with a high-pitched explosion just as a tiny Profanity Pistol spells 'twat' across the sky, and I cannot help but to chuckle at the vulgar display. My laughter quiets only when a recorded version of Fred's voice begins speaking seemingly out of thin air to ask, "Why was McGonagall seen running away from Dumbledore?"

My eyebrows immediately raise as I brace myself for the punchline.

"Cause he asked her if she'd help him give new meaning to the Shrieking Shack!"

I redden immediately, still not perfectly used to Fred's sometimes obscene sense of humour, but find myself unable to keep a giggle at bay. Fred lets out his own vibrant "Ha!" before asking me if I 'geddit?' I cover my eyes in response, trying desperately to shake the visual.

"Do it again!" he insists, a wicked smile on his lips, and though I know I'm certain to regret it, I placate him still.

This time it's a fire-breathing dragon that erupts from the small bang of the little firework, followed swiftly by a Riot Rocket that circles the building, leaving a trail of sparkling silver stars behind it. Fred's voice rings out again and I prepare for another inappropriate joke.

"Why do they call her Moaning Myrtle?" he asks, and already I am cringing. I give Fred a side-ways glance and see that, even now, he's barely suppressing his laughter. "Because apparently she's a Howler!"

"A-a-a H-Howler! Ha!"

Fred is nearly doubled over with laughter at his own joke. His right hand clings desperately to the counter top for balance while his left rests gently on his labouring stomach. When his fit calms down to a state of simple chuckles, he looks at me expectantly and I roll my eyes.

"Oh, come on, that was bloody hilarious!"

"Terrible," I tell him, shaking my head slowly, though laughing lightly myself, the hypocrite I am.

"You should really learn to appreciate this particular brand of humour, as George is rather fond of it himself, you know," Fred says with his nose in the air and a smile on his face. Soon enough, however, he sobers entirely and shuffles a bit awkwardly before asking me softly, "So what do you think? I just thought, you know... first Christmas after opening the shop together..."

"He'll love it," I say, because of course he will.

At the words, Fred immediately brightens, a rather arrogant expression returning to his features as he throws a casual arm around me. "Well, of course he will! I made it, didn't I?" he says, smiling down at me with his cheekiest grin before giving me a loving squeeze.

Utter, utter git.




*




June 10, 1998



I want to run away.

Crowds of people swarm the store as we run out of items left and right. Nothing has been restocked since the shop closed a month ago, because why should it have been? Those tasks were meant to be executed throughout this day, as we slowly integrated ourselves back into this life. Open shop quietly, readjust to old routines, find our way again; that had been the plan. Yet somehow word had spread.

Everyone is here.

It's too busy to run away. Instead I run around the store, picking up and dropping off items onto sold-out shelves as the self-listing pad of paper with out-of-stock items follows persistently by my side, growing ever longer.

Suddenly I find myself stuck behind a crowd of young girls swarming the WonderWitch display. George passes close by but is soon met with his own impenetrable wall of people. He makes no attempt at all to move through them. Stuck though we both are, he doesn't see me in the sea of shoppers and so it's easy to study him without fear of being caught. His hair is a mess, tousled about in every which way, and his eyes are worn and tired, stressed and sad; his mouth a thin line. He has given up on today.

I wish there was something I could do, but I wouldn't even know where to start.

During our stalemate, George's eyes dart up to the clock on the wall and I wonder what he's thinking. Two minutes are left, but back before the shop shut down, the twins never did abide strictly to the closing time, at least not while eager customers still remained. They were always willing to stay late if it meant putting a smile on another person's face. However, George's penetrating stare tells me that perhaps he cannot see it through today.

When the clock does strike eight and we are both still stuck as ever, George takes immediate action, pointing his wand at his throat before muttering, "Sonorous."

"Attention shoppers," his weary voice booms out, quieting the crowd. "The shop is now closed for the day. There will be no extended hours tonight, so please make your way to the exit immediately. Thank you."

A collective uproar follows the announcement, but no amount of angry protests sway his decision. He is done.

Begrudgingly they exit, dropping any unpaid goods onto the floor in a petty form of rebellion. A few teenage boys even run out with their arms and pockets full of stolen trinkets, but when the anti-theft alarm rings out, George doesn't seem concerned about hunting them down, only about hustling all last-minute stragglers out. He follows the crowd to the exit and, as soon as the last person disappears out the door, he slams it shut. Some speedy wand work later and the lock clicks into place before he rests his head with a heavy thud against the wall. His shoulders rise and fall in time with his strained breathing while each remaining employee stays silent, still, unsure. We simply wait. For what? I don't know. Does anyone?

After a moment, George lifts his head from the wall and runs a fevered hand through his hair. Soon after he turns on his heel and walks briskly across the room as we stare at him in silence, following his trek until he reaches the hallway and turns the corner. Seconds later a door opens, only to be immediately slammed shut.

"That was..."

"Wow."

"Oh my God..."

My co-workers whisper in disbelief. "Let's just, er... tidy up as best we can, yeah? Get out of his hair as soon as we've fixed this mess," Verity suggests from behind the check-out counter. Nobody hesitates in taking the advice and soon everyone around me is fervently cleaning.

I try to join in, but a voice in my head - a voice which sounds an awful lot like Fred - insists that I leave the mess for now to go check on George instead. He needs somebody, it tells me. Fred is who he needs, of course, but there is no Fred anymore. There is only me.

There are so many reasons as to why I should not be the one to check on George. Except... Fred. Fred would be so angry with me if I did not go after him. Fred would not forgive me if I left George to suffer on his own. I don't want to disappoint Fred. I don't want George to suffer.

I cannot let George suffer on his own. And I cannot disappoint Fred.

Suddenly I am moving.

My heart races quicker with each step to his office, to him. It is Fred's voice in my head that propels me forward, his Gryffindor bravery trying desperately to work its way into my Hufflepuff heart. And all too soon I am there.

Knock, Josephine. You have to knock.


I raise my hand, slowly, unsteadily, curling it into a fist. A deep breath. Another deep breath for luck. And a third simply to postpone the inevitable.

Knock, Josephine!
And this time it is Fred's voice rather than my own commanding the action. And so I listen.

Once. Twice. Three times I knock.

Nothing. Nothing but silence.

If it were up to me, I would walk away now. How easy it would be to use this silence to my advantage, to say that it is excuse enough for me to turn around without obligation to return. Because I did try. I did knock.

But it is not up to me.

Do I knock again, Fred? Or do I simply enter, now?


He would enter, of course. He would force his way into someone else's life if that's what he believed they needed. And if he were here now, if he were standing where I stand, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he would enter. In this moment I almost wish I didn't know Fred so well, for I may otherwise have escaped what I now know I must do.

My hand shakes as I reach for the doorknob and twist.

It's unlocked and makes a small squeak as its hinges are slowly swung open, just wide enough for my slim frame to squeeze in before I quietly close it behind me. I look up.

If he noticed my entrance he certainly doesn't show it, ignoring my existence entirely. I am perfectly okay with that.

He is preoccupied, distracted; pacing backwards and forwards in a tight circle beside his desk. His hands fidget often with the hem of his shirt or the pockets of his trousers, and sometimes with nothing at all but the air, unable to still, unable rest. His breath is laboured from the brisk pace he's keeping; his ears burn a brilliant red. There is a thin sheen of sweat on his forehead while his hair is as untidy as I've ever seen it.

He is beautiful.

Do I make myself known? Do I turn around and leave as if I were never here at all? Do I simply watch and wait? I am good at watching and waiting, and so I do exactly that.

Suddenly George stills, and I go rigid. He stops beside the desk, turning to face it with downcast eyes before leaning forward to rest both hands on the surface for support. Soon his eyelids flutter closed and, when he exhales heavily, his entire being seems to shrink, as if he's just breathed the life right out of him. My heart breaks at the thought. He stays here a minute longer, small and defeated, before shifting his weight onto the left hand alone. His right hand makes to move in the direction of (what I presume to be) his hair, but gets caught on the way by one of his many trinkets on the desktop. Though I cannot see the object from where I stand, it only takes a second before I learn exactly what it is that's he's tipped over.

A voice - Fred's voice - fills the room.

"Hey George," it says, so casually cruel, and my heart clenches painfully as George goes pale. Once an object of humour, beauty and accomplishment, the snow globe is now nothing more than a haunting reminder of all that has changed, of all that has been lost, of Fred. "Someone asked me how adjusting to the loss of your left ear's been going," the joke begins. The short pause that follows before the punchline rings out seems to spark an outraged fire in George and, squeezing the globe so tightly his knuckles turn white, he draws his arm back and throws it against the wall.

"I told them you were all right no-"

CRASH.


I cannot help but to gasp at the symphony of noises. The sound is like thunder when it hits the wall, like rain when its many shards pour to the ground. And in a second it is over.

I stand frozen, unsure of everything.

George too is frozen. The echo of breaking glass seems to still him so absolutely that I wonder if he's even breathing. Finally he does release a held breath and his shoulders slump forward in resignation.

I don't know if he heard my gasp or if he simply catches me standing silently in his periphery, but soon he has turned surprised eyes on me, his shock quickly turning into a faint expression of guilt and embarrassment.

"Shit," he says.

I'm unsure of exactly how I'm able to stare unblinkingly back at him, usually too afraid to catch his eye for a mere second even, but I cannot look away. He is holding me there with his steady gaze. I don't know how long we look at each other this way, shocked and embarrassed and completely at a loss for what happens next, but eventually George does falter and looks to his feet.

"Sorry," he softly says.

It is easier to keep my eyes on him now, with his attention ultimately elsewhere. He soon looks over at the shattered snow globe and water-stained carpet before crossing to it slowly, wearily. He hovers briefly beside the mess before bending down on one knee to clean it up, gently picking up larger pieces with his right hand and setting them lightly into the palm of his left; his wand forgotten on the desk behind him.

I wait.

His movements are slow and deliberate, but still I am taken by surprise when they end. Though his back is turned to me now, I still hear the shaky breath he releases and can only just see when he brings his right hand up to cover his face; his left hand clenches tightly around the glass gathered there and he stays unmoving in the new position.

Suddenly the act of remaining across the room while George struggles nearby is no longer an option. My feet carry me forward before my mind can talk me out of it. I am silent as ever and almost certain that George has no idea that I'm now stationed beside him. His tightly closed eyes are only just visible through the gaps between his fingers; his breath is short and unsteady as he tries to hold himself together. When I look at his left hand, tightly formed into an angry fist, I see a small trickle of blood slowly weeping down the side. I close my eyes as tightly as his, willing myself to bend down beside him and loosen his grip.

Help him, Josephine; you have to help him
.

I know.

Ever so slowly I lower myself down and, as gently as can be managed in my nervous state, touch his hand.

His shoulders jump ever so slightly at the contact; his eyes reopen and turn to stare at me once more. Surely my resolve would buckle if I dared to meet his gaze now. Instead I force my eyes to remain on the task at hand, desperately willing my breath to keep steady, for my heart to beat in silence. Of course, it has never quite listened to me before.

His hand is warm to touch. I slide my fingers just below the tips of his own and urge them to bloom open for me. He follows my lead and relaxes them back, exposing the shards of bloodied glass within. I swallow the lump in my throat and reach for my wand before wordlessly siphoning off all signs of red. Then, lowering his hand to the carpet, I gently tip it sideways and allow the pieces to fall out, making room for me to see the severity of his cuts. They are shallow, superficial, easily remedied, and so I quickly heal each back together until all that remains are lightly faded pink scars. I hold the back of his hand in my own; I set my wand to the side; I gently run my fingers along each healed mark to check my work.

I linger.

Never have I touched him like this before, nor truly ever at all. Even in passing I am always so careful to maintain my distance, to keep my space, so that even to brush arms against one another would be nearly impossible. And now here I am, holding onto his hand, running fingers across each crease and fold, under the illusion of inspecting his wounds...

Too long, Josephine.


The reality of my actions hits me so suddenly that I practically throw his hand away from my own.

His eyes never leave my face.

Upon release, I shift my gaze to the floor. Moving much quicker now, I reclaim my wand and give a silent flick in the direction of the glass, holding steady until the sphere takes shape again; all of the inner pieces that made up the shop seem to have miraculously survived the impact. Another tap of my wand to the top of the globe and the water refills itself. Lastly, I remove the still-damp stains from the wall and carpet until, by all appearances, it's as if nothing happened here at all.

I can feel George's eyes follow my movements closely, but the usually articulate boy continues to watch in silence.

I'm unsure if Fred's recorded voice has been fixed in the repair, but I do know that now is not the time to test it. Carefully as can be managed, without ever tipping the globe too far in one direction or the other, I stand up and cross back over to the desk, setting it back down into its original position among the other trinkets. I can feel his eyes still on me and cannot help but to linger here now, with my back turned to him. If I face him now, what would I do? What would I say? I've said nothing yet.

Fred would be so angry if I continue in only silence.

You have to turn around, Josephine. You have to say something.


I know.

Reluctantly, I obey.

My eyes keep to the floor as I fiddle nervously with my fingers, but still no words leave my mouth. George's silence continues to stretch on as well, until it feels as though the silent standoff will never end.

Finally, I dare myself to glance in his direction and see that he is standing now, an almost blank expression on his face, but beneath that vacancy is the smallest hint of... something. Surprise? Curiosity? I cannot place it.

I wonder if he is as lost as I am. I think he must be.

And yet it feels as though he's looking for something... For what, though? I don't know. All I do know, in this moment, while looking into his drawn eyes, is that just like the glass that shattered, he is so very breakable.

No, that's not right.

Just like the glass that shattered, he is so very broken.

So say something, Josephine! Say it now.


I have nothing of any importance or depth to say, no words of comfort to offer him. Even if I were an articulate person, I would still be at a loss for words here and now, because what do you ever say in moments such as these?

"Are you okay?"

It's quiet, of course, but he hears me.

Our roles reversed, George stares at me, wide-eyed and silent, before slowly nodding. Of course I don't believe him, because of course he's not okay, but for today, for now, it's the best that either of us can do. And so I nod in return, dropping my eyes back down to the floor and away from him.

Three words is enough for today, I decide.

Twisting on the spot, I head straight for the door, and swiftly open and close it without a moment's hesitation. I am finally free.

Goodbye, George.






 












Author's Note: Thank you so much for reading, if you've made it to this point! Four chapters in on my first novel and it's incredible to see people coming back for more! Special thank you to 1917farmgirl and pixileanin for their continued support and helpful editing eyes! Another thank you to marauderfan and HeyMrsPotter for immediately jumping at the chance to get this story to 100 reviews when I posted a status about how near I was! And thank you to anyone and everyone who has favorited this story or left a review or shared it with a friend! I am truly touched. :)

If you do have a spare moment, I'd really appreciate some feedback! I promise the review box doesn't bite. ;)

P.S. Chapter five will be entering the queue this weekend, so I hope to see you all again soon! Yay! :-D


Chapter 5: Eye of the Storm
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]






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.

Girlfriend?

"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.

"Broken."

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.

He blinks.

"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! ^.^



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.

Until.

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.

But.

Then.

I give him what he wants, anyway. I look up, into his eyes.

....please help us...

Okay.




*



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...

And yet.

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.

Oh.


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.

I know.

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.

Except.

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-

"Josephine..."

Oh.


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.

"It's okay."

"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...

"Are you?"


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-

"Why?"


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."


"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.


Chapter 7: This Is For
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WITH THE SITE CLOSING DOWN, YOU WILL STILL BE ABLE TO FOLLOW THIS STORY AND ITS UPDATES AT ARCHIVE-OF-OUR-OWN AND/OR HP-FANFIC-TALK UNDER THE SAME PENNAME, SO I HOPE I WILL SEE MANY OF YOU THERE! ^.^

 

 






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-

"Ouch!"

Person?


"Fred?"

"Josephine?"

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.

Hello, George.

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:

Fear.

"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.

(For you.)


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."

Normal.

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.













 










Author's Note:

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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