A/N: I'd like to thank all of you for your wonderful support, especially the people who regularly took the time to review just about every chapter, including CrzyAngelchic, Flameonurass-TruSC, sassyne, and obsessedmum. And thanks as well to everyone else who reviewed and made my first fic a truly awesome experience. I enjoyed the ride. If you read the story, please be so kind as to tell me what you thought if you haven't already. Anyway, without further ado, the conclusion.
Disclaimer: Haven't owned any of the characters and places recognizable from the Harry Potter series, and still do not.
Chapter Sixteen: New Beginnings
"Good morning," George said in surprise, shielding his eyes from the brightly lit shop. He'd woken up some fifteen minutes previously; he vaguely remembered Celia waking him up to tell him that she was leaving and that he would need to get up for work soon. He must have gone back to sleep after that, because the next time he'd looked at his clock, it was already eight-thirty. He'd planned to go down and unlock the door for Lee and run back upstairs to shower, but the shop was already open.
"I was here early," said Lee with a grin, "figured I might as well get started." Lee tossed the keys to George, who caught them deftly in his hand. "Figured you'd have been – er – up late last night what with your anniversary and all." He gave George a knowing smirk.
"Actually, we ended it," George admitted.
"Oh," said Lee, his smirk fading. "I'm really sorry. You okay, mate?" He looked very much concerned, nervous almost, as though worried his friend might not be able to handle such a loss.
"Fine, actually," George replied. He meant it this time. "I'm going up to shower. I'll be back down."
He returned upstairs to the flat, where he shed his pajamas and tossed them haphazardly across the unmade bed. A scalding shower was able to wake him in a way that not even the bright lights from the shop had been able to. He'd started to prefer longer showers, fancying them some sort of small vacation from reality. But he was already late, and Lee was already there, so he didn't indulge himself.
Once he stepped out of the shower, he dried himself off and threw a towel around his waist as he went to the mirror to brush his teeth. He picked up his toothbrush, but only got it halfway to his mouth when he stopped. For the first time in years, he looked at his reflection—really looked at it. His face and torso looked thin, puny, and pale, and it was quite clear that he hadn't shaved in a couple of weeks. It was pathetic. He couldn't see how Celia had managed to put up with him for as long as she had.
He slowly lowered his arm, letting the toothpaste slide off his toothbrush. What was he doing? Here he was, twenty-five years old, and he had nothing going for him. The store wasn't the same source of pride and joy that it had been when he and Fred had first created it. He'd all but ruined his love life. And he'd pushed away just about every friend he might have had. Damn, if it all didn't feel so pointless.
He contemplated his reflection further. Was it too late to somehow change things? There had to be, somewhere in him, the energy to pull himself out of the hole he'd dug. There had to be some reason for him to decide there was something out there waiting for him. He was wilting in what should have been the prime of his life. Wasn't there a way out?
When he'd finally stopped dwelling on his image in the mirror, he finished getting dressed and headed back down to the store. In the half hour since he'd left it, it had gotten packed. He'd forgotten that school started up soon, and kids would be on the prowl to find innovative ways to cause trouble during the year. Who was he to deny them? After all, this was why he and Fred had opened the shop in the first place. The legacy lived on, even when George felt like giving up.
Resigning himself, he threw on the standard WWW robes and went out to face the music. He took the cash register over from Verity so that she could restock and manage the displays. And as he sorted out the coins inside, he felt soothed, a little. It was easier to remember why he had sacrificed so much to be able to do this. Lee gave him the thumbs up from where he was across the room, helping the customers. George grinned back, feeling genuinely good for once. Fred would have been proud.
It was time for work.
He was counting money and bagging items at top speed. He was so efficient that he could do this without so much as looking at anyone, though he tried to manage a smile and a "Thanks, come again" as each person left. He was so caught up in the rhythm of the work that when someone refused to adhere to the pattern by not handing over the product for him to bag, he felt a jab of annoyance.
"How can I help you?" he said a tad impatiently. He finally looked up at the customer… and his heart stopped.
"By taking a minute to say hello to an old friend," she said simply.
The feeling of satisfaction had evaporated on the spot and was replaced by something else entirely. All the color left his face, and he stared wide-eyed at the disconcertingly familiar face before him. It couldn't be. It wasn't. How could it be? Maybe he had just been hoping so hard that he'd convinced himself that she was here.
He tried to speak, but his throat seized up and all that came out was, "Merlin."
The woman – the hallucination – the dream slowly straightened and removed the pair of sunglasses from her face. "Hi, George. Listen, I… I know you said we shouldn't see each other, and I-I've tried to stay away. But I…" She cleared her throat. "I couldn't. I had to see you."
George stared, his face a mask of incredulity.
"I'm sorry," she said, misinterpreting his silence. "I'm not here to intrude or anything, I promise. I was talking to Lee, and he told me about your… about the person you're seeing." She bit her lip, obviously looking for a response that he didn't give. "Okay," she said slowly, "I've seen you. I'll just… go." Clutching her purse close to her, she turned tail and began making her way back through the crowd.
Hallucination or not, George wasn't going to let her leave again. Before he was even aware of it, his feet carried him away from the register and the line of confused people still waiting to make their purchases, and towards Angelina. He threw his arms around her, pulling her tightly to his chest. It was everything he'd ever imagined. He could feel her arms around him, feel her trembling beneath him… It was all so real, but it felt like the greatest dream he'd ever had.
"Angelina," he said, his voice rougher than he'd expected. He relished the way her name rolled off his tongue; he'd forgotten how nice it sounded, and how fitting it was for her. "Angelina, I can't tell you what it's been like. I've missed you more than you can imagine."
"I'm pretty sure I can," Angelina replied, wiping her eyes. He noticed how much smaller she seemed, and there was an air of fatigue about her. He pulled her back into his embrace with feverish desperation, and she clung to him in return. They embraced for what felt like years, but George felt as though he might never let go.
"I was afraid you might never come back," he said. He was surprised by how difficult it was to talk. He was overwhelmed by powerful emotions he'd forgotten how to feel, and even forgotten he was capable of feeling. His head was spinning was the surrealism of it all.
"No, I—I thought I needed to stay away, because I knew that I would still…" She hastily looked away.
George gently took her face in his hands. "What?" he prompted her.
"Look, I didn't come back to cause any trouble or anything. I thought I would just see you and leave. You're busy, and that bloke over there looks like he'll curse you if you don't get back over to the register."
"I don't care. I've been waiting for this for four years. Please don't leave."
"No, you don't understand. You're probably… You've moved on. You don't need me sticking around and hanging the past over your head."
"What on earth's given you that idea?"
"I mean, your… your girlfriend wouldn't want—"
George shook his head dismissively. "Angelina Johnson, if you think there's anyone in the world who could ever replace you, you're a lot crazier than I ever gave you credit for."
She looked up at him, hope glimmering in her eyes. He thought about all the times he'd thought about seeing her again, holding her again, kissing her again… God… were her lips just as soft and sweet as they had been? Could he let himself live through this moment without finding out?
His lips crashed down upon hers, tears, skin, lips, tongue, colliding and mixing and sliding together in a hot haze of euphoric passion. Either it was the most incredible feeling he'd felt in his life, or he had forgotten what incredible feelings felt like. This was real, and she was here. He'd never leave.
Bystanders had other thoughts, however.
"Oi! Get a room!" someone shouted, jerking them somewhat back to reality. It had been so easy to forget that other people were there too, people who could see them, but not share in the tremendousness of the moment.
"Come," he said quietly. He took her by the arm and led her to the storage room, where he closed the door. Lee could take care of the customers. He wasted no time in pulling her back into his arms.
"George," Angelina said as his lips sought hers again. A moan escaped her as she tried and failed to pull herself away. She had spent so long denying herself of him that it seemed her body wouldn't tolerate another second of it. His arms felt so strong and secure and familiar around her body. Her breaths came in sharp gasps for the few seconds their lips parted, but not nearly long enough for her to collect enough of her wits to tell him what she needed to say.
"G-George," she said again, trying to ignore the feel of his lips on her neck. "Listen, I… I came to say goodbye."
This caught his attention immediately. His head snapped up, and she saw the horrible fear and dread in his eyes. "Goodbye?" he repeated.
"I'm leaving tomorrow," she said shakily. "I'm going away."
"Away?" he repeated again, a feeling of trepidation slowly filling him, more powerful, even, than the feelings he'd just experienced. "You're leaving?"
She could see how much she was about to destroy him, and she couldn't do it. She knew how horrible their separation had been for her, and she could see in his face that it had taken a toll on him as well. She couldn't leave him, not when their time together was so short and so sweet compared to the eternity of misery they'd both endured for the past four – almost five – years.
"No," she said softly. She ran her fingers gently through his hair. "No, I don't have to. Not now." Just so she understood that it was worth it, she pulled his face back to hers and kissed him again.
This time, George did not kiss her back. "Angelina, what are you talking about?"
She sighed. "While I was away, I played reserve Chaser for Puddlemere. And they offered me a spot on the team, which means I have to do a mandatory year-long training in Banbridge. But I can't leave you again."
"Angie, don't be stupid. This is what you've always wanted. You can't give it up just for me. It's my fault for letting you leave in the first place."
"You don't be stupid, you don't have to punish yourself—"
George cupped her face gently in his hands, his eyes blazing into hers. "This is your lifelong dream. I can't take that away from you. Listen to me. Angie… Angelina, I love you. What kind of person would I be if I let you give that up? A year is nothing compared to what we've been through. Just – just promise me one thing."
"Promise me you'll come back. I'll be fine. I can get through anything, just as long as I know you'll be back."
"I promise," she said gravely. "Promise me something in return, then."
"Promise me… promise me that you'll still be mine when I get back. Promise me you'll wait for me."
George looked at her, his eyes full of adoration, as he tenderly swept the hair out of her eyes. "I never stopped," he murmured, and their lips reconnected in a softer, less urgent kiss.
"Why did you leave?" asked George suddenly. "You left everything. Your job, your flat… you even left Alicia."
"I had to get out of here," she answered a little distantly. "I had to get away from everything that would remind me of you, because it was the only way I wouldn't lose my mind. My parents and I went up to Nottingham for a bit of a change of scenery, and I decided to take the reserve spot on Puddlemere. I figured if nothing else would make me happy, Quidditch would. And eventually Kelby missed one too many practices, so they sacked him and offered me the position.
"How have you been? What have I missed here?"
George chose to ignore the first question, assuming it was fairly obvious what its answer was. "Plenty. Harry's Head of the Auror Department, and he married my sister. Ron and Hermione got married—"
"Where is he? I didn't see him when I came in."
"He left forever ago, to join the Auror Department with Harry. Bill and Fleur had a daughter, and they're due for another baby in a few months. And Lee's still hanging in there. I was convinced for a while that he and Alicia have got something going on, but he's still denying it. Have you said anything to her since you've been back?"
"No. When I returned, there was only one thing on my mind." She looked away rather sheepishly. "You didn't mention Percy," she pointed out.
"Oh, he's the same old pompous git," he said, but she didn't miss the note of affection in his voice for his older brother. It gave her some satisfaction to know she could still read him this way. "He's doing a great job at the Ministry, Kingsley's got nothing but good things to say."
"What about you?"
"What about me?"
"What have you been doing?"
"Ahh," he said uneasily, "that's not important."
But Angelina knew what that meant. She grasped his arms, tears forming in her eyes again. "I'm sorry I left you." She smiled sadly. "I just keep messing up when it comes to you. You make it hard to think straight." She paused. "We've got a whole day before I leave…"
George gave his wand a little twirl. "And a locked door…" He gave his eyebrows a mischievous wiggle.
"Just what are you suggesting?"
She let out a playful scream as he pushed her backwards. A box fell, and several loud cracks alerted them to the fact that it was a box of wildfire whiz-bangs.
"Lovely," said Angelina as one danced near her face.
"Don't worry, it adds to the mood," George said with a grin as a great dragon breathed fire above their heads.
"Well, aren't you charming?" she said, laughing. "If this wasn't so badly orchestrated, I'd think you planned it. Well, on second thought…"
George silenced her with his lips. They spent a long time making up for their time apart, drinking each other in with their eyes and mouths and noses and hands.
"Angelina," he said after a while, his lips hardly leaving hers. "Let's get married."
She laughed as his lips met hers again. "You're mad!" she managed to slip in between kisses.
"Yes," he said, kissing her again. "What do you say?"
"I say you've gone completely and utterly insane, George Weasley," she said, still chortling.
"Is that a yes?"
Angelina pulled back from him, laughing again. Whatever nerves he was feeling after having asked the question, he couldn't help smiling; her laugh was sweet and familiar, and just the sight of her smile made him feel giddy. Her hand grazed the side of his face, and she looked at him contemplatively.
"I guess we're both mental," she said with a lopsided grin. George waited. "Yes, you silly. That would be a yes."
Angelina felt the wind blow her hair back, unraveling it from its ponytail. Her limbs were numb from cold and her face burned from the icy impact. But none of that mattered. None of it could matter. There was one thing on her mind right now, one thing in the world that mattered, and it was right there at her fingertips.
Her outstretched hand closed around the big red ball, and she used all her strength to pull out of the dive. Up and up she soared. She could barely unclench her fingers from the ball, it was so cold, and the wind ripped through her Quidditch robes as if they were sheer. She was closing in on the golden hoop. She wondered momentarily if she would even be able to lift her arm. And then it all went dark.
"Johnson! Johnson, are you okay?"
She opened her eyes. Everything was blurry and out of focus. She could feel the sticky mud beneath her, coating her arms and legs, and she was frozen stiff. The pain in her shoulder made her sharply aware that she must have been hit by a Bludger. She brought her uninjured hand up to her forehead as she tried to orient herself and her vision cleared. The first thing she saw clearly was the ring sparkling brightly on her finger, and she smiled serenely to herself.
She was alive. She was playing Quidditch. And somewhere, in a busy little shop in London, there was someone dreaming about her, and waiting for her to come home.
"Never been better."