It was exactly as I imagined.
I stood beneath a striped awning outside of Madam Malkin’s that sheltered me from the early spring thunderstorm, eyes flickering all around me and waiting for someone to approach, to curse, to take me away where I would never be seen again. Rain swept sideways across the overhanging fabric, pouring down in thin waterfalls to flow along the gutted street.
Diagon Alley was not busy, presumably because most people had been scared away from loitering in public places since the war became a serious threat. And despite it all – despite the months I had spent in hiding, all alone in the wilderness with only a wand and a wireless for company – here I was. Standing across the street from Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes at Number 93, loitering. Daring someone, almost, to find me.
I took a tentative step, my drenched boots splashing in the dirty puddles, pushing ripples outward. Without a last look up and down the empty road, I lowered my hood from my face. If anyone hiding in the shadows recognized the head of strawberry blonde hair, cut much shorter now in an attempt at disguise, no one moved. My heart thumped palpably in my chest, waiting just a few seconds longer than necessary. Come and get me, something whispered in the depths of my mind.
Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes was the lone speck of color in Diagon Alley, the only shop still living and breathing as if the war was not happening, and there was no such thing as consequences. Having Apparated in London and walked here, I had witnessed plenty of damage. Florean Fortescue’s, Ollivander’s, and Scribbulus Writing Instruments were all boarded up with strips of rotting wood haphazardly nailed to their doors and windows. Gambol and Japes Wizarding Joke Shop appeared to have been put out of business, and no wonder. Fred and George had always been impervious to the worries that affected everyone else, and it shouldn’t have come as any surprise that they were still thriving, even in this climate.
I had finally emerged, after months of wasting away all by myself. After everything I had gone through, all communication with my world severed to protect myself and others, I simply couldn’t stand it anymore. I had to make sure that this shop was still standing; I had to see it for myself, at least one last time. This was not the Diagon Alley of my memory, but a ghost town crushed with gloom and defeat; all save for this one shop that glittered through the haze of rain and fear.
Chaos was silent, the threat of danger clinging to molecules in the air like poisonous fumes. Only a handful of businesses were still trying to function against the grain – but for every chary-eyed shop owner, there were five or six more that had fled. I knew this because their lights were off and dusty signs had been switched around in the glass windows with rushed messages scrawled across them: ‘Out to Lunch’. ‘Sorry, we’re closed today’. ‘Happy Christmas, we’ll see you in the New Year!’
The glass windows of Quality Quidditch Supplies had been shattered to splinters, and a door to the apothecary beside it had been ripped off its hinges and was currently leaning against an abandoned secondhand robe shop. Everywhere my eyes swept, there was brickwork and rubbish and months-old receipts travelling aimlessly in the circulating wind. And six shops down, floating directly above Wiseacre’s Wizarding Equipment, the Dark Mark moved against the battering downpour, emitting a faint, sinister glow. A bright WWW flier lifted off the ground in a sudden gale, tearing blindly across the roof of the still-lit shop. Screwing up my eyes against the weather, I thought I could make out movement from within.
Allowing my attention to stray to the ground, I watched the water trickle across the toes of my boots and waited with bated breath once again for shrieks and a bolt of furious light – Impedimenta, maybe. I’d heard from a small group of fellow fugitives that Dirk Cresswell was captured with Petrificus Totalus. I wondered idly if I might live long enough to see what Diagon Alley would look like when it was rebuilt after the war.
“What are you waiting for?” I murmured out loud. Whether this was directed at myself and the shoes that refused to keep moving forward, or at the Snatchers I knew were lurking around every corner on this street, I couldn’t be sure. No longer restrained to Knockturn Alley, the sewage of society was now running afoul of the place, blasting people’s homes and livelihoods apart without batting an eye.
Crushed glass from the gas lamps that lined every twist and turn signified that they'd destroyed them in efforts to keep Diagon Alley smothered in darkness. They were soulless monsters in a downward spiral. Pitiless. I represented little more than a couple of Galleons, maybe. My wand burned in my pocket, protesting being so near to foreign hands who wanted to take it away from me.
A distant clang rose from the bowels of Fred and George’s store and I found myself, with no warning whatsoever, swallowing my resistance and trudging through the rain. The ground shook with thunder, livid, and I caught my gaze slipping unconsciously to a poster plastered sideways over the window of Obscurus Books. A familiar face stared uncertainly at me as I walked by, blinking through the flashes of cameras. Undesirable Number One.
For the first time in days, I remembered that everyone I’d ever loved was pinning their hopes on Harry Potter, on a boy who was even younger than I was. Just a teenager, and he’s supposed to save us all.
He was probably dead.
I reached out with one stiff hand and watched my fingers curve around the doorknob, callused and cut in places from thorns. My other hand still gripped the wand in my pocket, unwilling to let go of the one thing in the world that might save me from Azkaban. I’d gotten much better at Stunning in recent weeks, having practiced on birds; and I figured that since luck had been on my side thus far, it might grant me a two-second advantage over any predators who’d memorized faces on the roster of Wanted for Questioning. Their greed for money and importance rendered them blind to the reality of what they were doing when they dragged people, screaming, off to the Ministry. Animals, the lot of them. Savages.
The interior of the store was warm and dry, smelling sweet – like pears, maybe. I wandered down a narrow aisle, noting the cleanliness, the sultry tones of Glenda Chittock’s voice drifting in the background through a gramophone. The soles of my shoes padded silently across the carpet, and every product my gaze lingered over increased the blurriness in my vision.
There was a stack of enchanted magazines, all of the pages blank – Take a simple survey and it will write up funny stories about you and your friends! There were Edible Dark Marks rotating on a Lazy Susan and Skiving Snackboxes that made grotesque sound effects when I walked by them. I let my knapsack drop to the ground and touched a purple glass ball sitting proudly on display, tempting buyers with visions of pirates and romance.
There was evidence, everywhere, that life goes on. While I spent my evenings shouting ‘Accio fish!’ at frozen riverbanks and huddling with strangers inside cramped tents – strangers I didn’t even know the names of, but who had saved my life over and over, me helping them and them helping me in any way we could for mutual hopes at survival – Fred and George Weasley were sitting complacently behind a counter in this store, racking up the revenue. Probably still smiling and joking, like always.
Some things never change.
My brows knit together as I brushed my fingers over the merchandise. Decoy Detonators: Buy two, get one free if you promise to use them against Headmaster Slitherus Snape. Other products made mockeries of the Ministry – For twenty Galleons, temporarily change your Patronus to look like Umbridge! Scare your siblings! Frighten your friends! I shook my head, sighing internally. Amusing though these items may be, Fred and George would wind up dead in a gutter somewhere if they didn’t stop.
An image of a man in a holey coat flitted in my mind’s eye, rolling back one sleeve to show me a jagged line on his wrist. It was the sign that we showed each other to indicate we weren’t with the Ministry, that we were safe and trustworthy. It was drawn on the flesh of outcasts who still put their faith in Harry Potter – it was his sign. I absentmindedly rubbed my own wrist, smearing the ink of a lightning bolt-shaped design concealed there.
It felt like I had been walking thousands of miles to get here, my thoughts trained obsessively on this one special destination and I didn’t even realize it until just this moment. And now that I was here, wandering unnoticed between shelves stocked with Reusable Hangman boxes and Shield Hats, it felt like I had unknowingly ended up somewhere else entirely. I wasn’t anywhere at all; I might’ve been dreaming in a makeshift camp very far away, with the cold soil seeping through my clothing and the morning dew glistening on my closed eyelashes. Surely, I was still asleep.
The aisle ended and I was left standing in the middle of the open floor, watching a display of trick wands popping into gag gifts on an advertisement tacked over the register. And right below it, George Weasley was watching me with large, stupefied eyes, one of his hands hovering over a till where he had been counting coins.
“Fancy meeting you here,” I mused. My voice was throatier than I meant it, scratchier. If I sounded slightly out of practice, I imagined that it was nothing next to the mess I must have looked like.
George’s mouth popped open. “Look at who’s suddenly shy,” I added, slipping a Neville Nougat (give them to your mates and they’ll drop everything they try to pick up for hours) in my pocket and not caring whether or not he noticed. I couldn’t repress the faint triumph that came from seeing him in such a bewildered state. “Close your mouth, George. You’ll catch flies.”
A long minute passed before he managed to gather his senses enough to bellow, “Fred!”
No one responded to his call; I found myself strangely calm as I watched the range of emotions cross his face – surprise, bafflement, disbelief – and without severing his gaze for even a second, he angled his jaw slightly to the left and roared again, “FRED!”
From over the railing on the second level of the store, a voice that was similar to his but not quite the same shouted, “What?”
George’s eyes gleamed. “Come here.”
Anxiety chose that moment to begin pumping through my bloodstream. I could feel my heartbeat in my temples, in my wrists – in every pressure point. Quite suddenly, I felt almost as though I was going to throw up. A cool sweat broke over my forehead, lending a sickly sheen to my already-damp skin.
“I’m busy,” Fred replied, his words laced with annoyance. “One of us has to pack these faulty Punching Telescopes back into the boxes, and since you’re not doing it –” My stomach churned at the sound of him, right there above me, just out of sight. Every breath in my body was sucked out like it had been evaporated by the sun.
“Fred,” George cut him off, his voice sharp. “Hollis is here.”
There was a muffled crash – something had slipped through Fred’s hands onto the hardwood floor. The rattling noise was replaced by a piercing stillness that consumed space and words and many years of memories. Silence enveloped the store, seeming to dim the lights. My right hand rose to my throat, fingers curling in trepidation. Thump, thump, thump went my heart under my palm, speeding along at a dangerous speed.
And then he was there, looking over the balcony at me. From the expression in his eyes, I felt like he wasn’t just seeing the Hollis who stood before him with shorter hair and a bruise on her chin; he was seeing me at eleven, at fourteen, at sixteen. He was seeing me at the Yule Ball and passing by him in the corridors at Hogwarts, trying to hide a smile. He saw me standing on one of the stone benches in the courtyard, balancing myself with both arms outstretched as if it were a tightrope. Everything inside of me was hanging in the atmosphere for him to see, and it was almost as if he was seeing more of me than I could.
Fred’s figure wavered, blurry from tears I couldn’t suppress, as he wordlessly descended the staircase. I quickly wiped away the moisture with my right hand, as my left one was still gripping the wand in my pocket so tightly that the tendons grew numb. All I could think about was the fact that he was safe. He’s safe, he’s safe. He’s all right. It was the most wonderful feeling in the world.
My brain was only vaguely aware of George stealthily disappearing through a storeroom door behind the counter, but I couldn’t devote much attention to it. Fred’s eyes were locked on mine, lips parted as if not quite believing what he was seeing.
I was finally here, after what seemed like years, and he was right in front of me. Fred hesitated, drawing in a shaky breath; he reached out to touch my shoulders, to pat my sleeves as if checking to make sure that I was more than smoke and mirrors. His own eyes were glassy with emotion, and I watched him lift his hand to his mouth and observe me with fingers pressed against his lips. It was terrifying to see Fred Weasley this vulnerable, and I wanted to say something – anything – to diffuse the intensity of the situation. Before I could figure out how to speak, however, he gently took my face in his hands and kissed me.
It was sweeter than I’d expected, being so accustomed to his rambunctious spirit. My head spun in a daze, trying to wrap itself around the possibility that any of it could be real. His soft lips, his shortness of breath. He had slid one of his hands through my hair and the other was on the small of my back, just resting. I kept my eyes closed for several seconds after he pulled away, and opened them to observe his smiling face.
“Hi,” I greeted in a squirrelly pitch that could rival Delphine’s.
The responding one was full of wonder. “Hi yourself.” He wiped his eyes and grinned more broadly, realizing at last that I was not going to disappear. I let him tug my arm out of my pocket so that he could take my hands in his – the ridges from my wand handle had worn marks into my skin. His warm fingers entwined through mine, pulling me closer to him.
“You’re taller than I remember,” I said, tilting my head back. His hair was shorter, too, and he was wearing a brand of cologne that reminded me of every businessman I’d ever met. I wasn’t surprised he’d been attracted to it – the label signified success, wealth, ingenuity. Everything he had strived for since he was a teenage boy and wanted to rise above the Weasley’s stigma of being poor. It was the cologne one wore when they wanted to impress. “How’s your family?”
The expression in his eyes turned serious. “How’s your family?”
I shook my head, desperately trying to push that question away from the very damaged part of my heart that worried constantly. “I have no idea.”
He looked horrified at himself for having asked. “I – I’m sure they’re all right. And Delphine is doing fine, if you haven’t heard. I saw her last month. Her brother’s missing, but they’re holding out hope that he’s just been Obliviated and he’s lost somewhere…”
I squeezed my eyes tightly shut. “This isn’t happening,” I murmured. “It can’t be.”
He inclined his head to rest his forehead against mine. “I’m so sorry, Hollis.”
The danger of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named and the Death Eaters was inescapable. After years of fantasizing about this moment with Fred, of spending sleepless nights looking forward to the chance of such an encounter, we couldn’t permeate the air with beautiful words or promises of safe futures or declarations of any sort. There was nothing to speak of except war and the people we knew and loved, because the war had taken frivolities away from us.
War had crept into every corner of our lives until nothing else meant anything. All of the lovely ‘remember that time we…?’ and the ‘so would you like to come upstairs and…?’ words we might have said, if this conversation had occurred at a more innocent time in our lives, dissolved superficially on our tongues before they were spoken aloud.
But some things didn’t need to be said, not outright. I could feel all of it in the way that his fingers brushed the tears away from my eyes, and in the feather-light kisses that traced along my cheekbone until they finally met my mouth. And I told him things in this way, too. I let him know how terribly I’d missed him, and how much I needed to hear him laugh – to be the one to make him laugh.
This wish was granted about an hour after I arrived at Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, when George rapped on the door of the storeroom behind the counter and asked very loudly if he could please come out, because his bum was sore from sitting on boxes and he was fairly certain that he heard something moving around in the cobwebs. He also commented that we were kissing quite noisily, which was of course not true.
The war had leeched itself onto every facet of our lives, including my precious time with Fred and our conversations. My fifteen-year-old self would have been incredulous at our sober discussions, talking late into the night about subjects far from romantic – namely, news and Potterwatch and all the things I didn’t know about, having been isolated for so long.
“Harry Potter,” Fred said to me several hours later as he unwrapped a pumpkin pasty for himself, “is still alive.” We were sitting behind the counter in the dark, resting against the wall and talking, still, about the war. He was trying to explain the Order of the Phoenix to me, and snippets he’d heard about their resistance to the new regime. “Remus Lupin thinks that –”
My eyebrows shot up and I couldn’t help but interrupt. “Remus Lupin? The professor who turned out to be a werewolf?”
“That’s the one,” he replied good-naturedly, brushing a few strands of my hair away from my eyes. “He thinks that if Harry were…you know…” He trailed off, unable to consider it. “He thinks that if anything happened to Harry, the Death Eaters would have spread it publicly by now, to make those of us who are trying to fight feel like we’ve already lost.”
“Would you still fight?” I wanted to know. “If anything bad ever happened to Harry, I mean. I’ve heard that he’s the only one who stands a chance against You-Know-Who.”
Fred paused, studying me. “Of course I would. Harry might be The Chosen One, but he’s only one person. If enough of us rally together, we do stand a chance. We’ve got to end all this.” His brown eyes leveled on mine, the pupils dilated so far in the darkness that his irises were nearly swallowed in black. “We’re going to win.”
“Do you really believe that?”
“I have to. My little brother is out there with Harry and Hermione right now, doing God-knows-what…trying to find weaknesses in You-Know-Who, I reckon. Sometimes I wish I could’ve gone along with them so that I could feel less useless. At least they’re doing something, and here I’m not making any kind of real difference. I’m not a part of the Order. I don’t know much about what’s going on. I’m just…” He trailed off, glancing around the room at rows and rows of joke merchandise.
“You’re giving people hope,” I told him, squeezing his hand. “You make them laugh, and they need that. It’s one of the things Harry and your brother are trying to protect, you know? Laughter and nonsense, and having fun with your friends. Normality.”
He gave me a small smile. “I’ll keep doing it, then. You look like you could use a good laugh.”
No matter how amazing it felt to sit on the dark sales floor of Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes in the world where I belonged, wrapped securely in Fred’s arms, I knew it would expire before the sun came up. If our night together had given me anything, it was the renewed hope that there was something waiting for me worth fighting for, worth hiding for. And because I refused to be the person who finally landed Fred in trouble with the Ministry, I had to go back to the woods. I would listen for news about my family and Delphine and the Weasleys, wandering around in a frame of mind where time was irrelevant, news was scant, and Snatchers abundant. I knew I could get through it.
“No,” he had argued harshly, eyes wide. “Please don’t leave. I can hide you somewhere.”
“I’ve seen what the rest of Diagon Alley looks like,” I told him in turn. “Blood means everything and mine’s not good enough. If you get caught hiding me, you’ll get in trouble too.” We could both see that we weren’t going to change each other’s minds, but he still had to try.
“Go to my Aunt Muriel’s house. She’s got plenty of room –”
“And what?” I cut him off. “Put your aunt at risk? Do you know what happens to people who try to outsmart the Ministry? Didn’t you hear about what they did to that goblin? No one’s safe. There are people in our government that are trying to kill a boy who is barely of legal age. He’s only a seventh year and they’re going to kill him if they get him. I don't care what they try to tell us, that's exactly what's going to happen to him. They'll put him on a silver platter and hand him off to You-Know-Who. So what would stop them from doing something awful to me, too?”
“They can’t touch you,” he said firmly, voice rising as he stood with one hand against the door, barring my exit. “You’ll be with me and no one will ever get you because you’re going to stay here and I’m going to keep you safe –”
“No. I have to go.” I grappled with the doorknob, eyes bright and wet. “They want my wand, Fred. I can’t let them take my magic away from me.” Fred’s arm fell to his side, clearing my path. If I didn’t leave now, I never would.
“Hollis.” His tone was soft and pleading. “Stay.”
But I did not stay. Because I had to bank on the hope that keeping away from Fred would increase his chances of safety. I would not have been able to leave that store if I’d allowed myself to think about anything except for the unspoken promise that there would be someone waiting for me when it was safe to show my face in public again. Someday, I thought, it will be safe for us. And I’ll tell you just how much I didn’t want to leave you.
There are three chapters left before this story is finished. Thank you for reading, and as always, reviews are very much appreciated. :)
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