"Good to see you, Mr. Weasley, good to see you."
The man in the street stood a head taller than George and looked startlingly different than he'd remembered. The man that had worked the floor at Zonko's had had fat pink cheeks like an overgrown infant, a fussy little beard, and a penchant for loudly patterned shirts under his robes. This man had dark robes, a long goatee that tapered into two points, and a pale, gaunt face. He looked like a mortician.
"Thanks for having me up." George replied, trying not to stare as he shook the proffered hand.
"Well, I recognize you from your old Hogsmeade Saturdays, and naturally we've had acquaintance via owl, but I don't believe we've ever met officially in person. Thessalonius Zonkonowksi, but, of course, you can call me Zonko."
"Mr. Zonko, I'm George Weasley. A pleasure."
"Believe me, son, the pleasure is mine." They stood silently for a moment, the older man smiling expansively. "Shall we go have a look at the property?" he asked graciously.
Zonko gestured up the wide road, where George could see The Three Broomsticks at the outskirts of the village. They fell into step together. "Nice day for a broom ride." he commented, tilting his head toward the Nimbus that George carried. "Did you fly all the way up here from London?"
"Oh, no. My brother arranged for a Portkey for me to Doncaster, and then I flew the rest of the way."
"Ahhh, I see. I was going to say, you must have left at dawn to get up here on time on that Nimbus."
"Yeah, I'm not that punctual."
Zonko laughed. "I know what you mean, lad. One of the main reasons I don't want to come out of retirement is because I've grown accustomed to sleeping until noon, if the mood strikes."
And marching through the fiefs and hamlets, calling for the townsfolk to bring out their dead, George thought wryly, sneaking a look at the smiling man with the sombre fashion sense. "I don't blame you," was all he said aloud.
High Street was fairly deserted at this time of day, with most of the shops still closed or just opening up. Zonko knew the history on nearly every building they passed, including what kind of goods they dealt in and the current proprietor. Outside of Scrivenshaft's, a man with a very large falcon on his shoulder nodded at Zonko, who returned the gesture before continuing the tour.
"Of course, we don't get the same volume as you do in Diagon Alley, but business is steady. More so, now, I imagine, than when I took in my shingle." Zonko sighed. "But there's still life in the old place yet. I'm eager to see it revived."
They passed Honeydukes, which had not yet opened for the day, and a tiny candy-pink building, where a plump old witch with something like a doily pinned to her grey head was using her wand to charm the window boxes, cajoling the flowers to open. A few steps beyond the small apothecary was a wide, short building, whose display windows were boarded over. The thatched roof was in bad repair, and dry leaves had accumulated ankle-deep in the alcove outside of the front door, which also had boards nailed over the glass insert. Above, a faded, weather-beaten orange sign still advertised "Zonko's Jokes and Novelty Items." George stood in the street in front of it, trying to remember how long it had been since he'd seen it last.
"Doesn't look like she used to, does she?" Zonko asked after a moment.
"No." George replied quietly, staring up at what looked a bird nest in the moulding above the sign.
"Well, come on in. Let's have a look around."
Zonko pressed the fingers of his wand hand against the lock before pointing at it and speaking. "Alohomora."
The door swung open on screaming hinges, and George stepped uncertainly into the shop behind Zonko, who busied himself lighting the lamps. The shelves and cases were coated with a thick layer of dust and grime, and it looked like someone had literally beaten a path from the front door to the counter, with shelves broken and displays overturned. China pieces littered the floor at George's feet, and he laid his broomstick against the wall and crouched down to inspect them. He recognized the polka-dot pattern as having belonged to a particularly pricey pair of Nose-Biting Teacups.
He aimed his wand at the remains of the teacups. "Reparo." They stirred feebly, but did not come together.
"Sadly, it's been too long for that to work." Zonko said, raising his voice to be heard above the squealing as he closed the door. George straightened up, possessed by the sudden urge to find a dustbin into which he could vomit. Zonko seemed to sense this. "It's been a long time since you and your brother, Godric rest his soul, were in my shop, George. A very long time."
"Yes." he answered, trying to swallow away the film of dust that seemed to be coating his throat.
"I've only been in here twice myself, since that day when I had to leave. It's a shock to the system still, seeing it like this."
"What happened? Why did you have to close so quickly?"
Zonko chuckled, but it was not an amused sound. "'Quickly' isn't the word, George, it was more like 'instantaneously.' As it happened, the owner of The Hog's Head, bloke named Aberforth, came running in here one night in the fall, right when things were starting to get really peculiar. Seems he'd overheard a patron whispering to another that the Death Eaters were planning on paying me a visit--"
"But why?" Zonko smiled, and George realized that he was rudely interrogating the man who owned something that he very much wanted to buy. "Er… sorry."
"No need for apologies, it helps to tell my story. I'm sure you feel the same way-- the more you talk about your brother, the better you feel."
"Oh, uh, absolutely."
"Good, good. Don't forget that. Anyhow, it seems as though He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named was searching for a man called Gregorovitch."
George's heart skipped a beat. Ron had spoken to him of the search for the Deathly Hallows, albeit very briefly.
Zonko did not seem to notice that George recognized the name. "He was some sort of potioneer, or something or other, and Voldemort wanted him for some reason. For whatever reasons he did anything, I don't know, and I'm glad of that! But this Gregorovitch proved elusive. So they started doing some research, and somehow came to uncover that my mother's maiden name was Gregorovitch.
"No relation, of course, my mother is from Russia-- went to Durmstrang, incidentally-- and this one, the one that the Death Eaters wanted, was rumoured to live near Tábor, but her name was Duscha Gregorovitch, it was there in some book they'd found, and they were interested. So Aberforth comes running in, tells me that the Death Eaters are on their way to 'question' me, and I've got to go. Thankfully, the shop was empty at the time-- not many customers during that period in time, see-- so we extinguished the lamps and put the 'closed' sign in the window, and he pushed me out the back door. I didn't wait around, no, I went home and got my wife, and we left."
"Where did you go?"
"We left Europe altogether, and went over to the US. We met up with some wizards in the city, and they were able to help us stay low, passed us information when they could, even got their hands on a few issues of The Daily Prophet for us, it was rather remarkable. The day after Voldemort was defeated, they arranged a Portkey back here to Britain, and here I am. My house was torn apart pretty well, but they left the shop mostly intact, assuming, I believe, that I had made like a fair amount of other shopkeepers in the country and stopped opening up after they dragged Florean Fortescue away."
"Wait-- if you were out of the country for so long, how did Fred and I manage to get letters to you?" George asked, thinking about their first bid to buy the shop.
Zonko nodded towards the door. "That man we saw with the falcon on the street, Scrivenshaft, quietly arranged to handle my mail. But enough about me. I know that you and Fred kept your shop going, even when Gambol and Japes stopped opening up. And I always hoped, that when things settled down, perhaps we three could all sit down and talk business. It saddens me that your brother can't be here with us today, George, but I still want you to consider my offer. I want this place to live again, and I think that only you can give her the breath that she needs."
The two men looked at each other. Zonko's face, even with the many changes the years had made, was as jovial and lively as George remembered from back when he had been dispensing top-of-the-line practical joke advice as he packaged up their purchases, occasionally slipping a few free packets of Belching Powder in with their Dungbombs. George felt odd, a combination of nostalgia and mould as well as a tickling sensation of guilt at the base of his skull. Zonko obviously felt strongly about selling the shop to him, that much was crystal clear. But it would be a massive undertaking, buying and renovating this place.
"Do you mind if I look around?" he asked.
"Certainly not, George. Take a look at anything that catches your fancy. Soon enough, it may belong to you anyhow. "
And so he began a slow circuit of the room, studying not just the bushel baskets of Frog-Spawn Soap and Hiccupping Sweets, but the state of the structure itself. Everything was dusty and smelled stale, but there was hardly any sign of water or spell damage, outside of the locks on the safe and the storeroom, which were warped beyond recognition.
"Scrivenshaft boarded up the place after the Death Eaters came through, and put a new lock on the front door to keep out looters. Of course, that was back before Hogsmeade came to be under martial law." Zonko remarked, with bitterness in his voice. "I doubt anyone but myself has been in here for at least a year."
George nodded, then proceeded into the storeroom. In addition to the merchandise that was arranged on the sales floor, there were perhaps a dozen boxes in the small space, as well as a petite desk under one of the high, narrow windows near the ceiling. He prodded the nearest box with his toe, peering inside as the flaps fell open.
There were neat packages of Hiccupping Sweets lined up inside. He remembered, quite unrepentantly, being seven or eight years old, rummaging through Charlie's school trunk over summer vacation, and Fred pulling out a bag of the brightly coloured candies. Once they had realized that the candies caused a spectacular case of hiccups, the possibilities had seemed nearly limitless. He smiled to himself. These innocuous-looking little sweets were probably why Auntie Muriel had written the twins out of her will. The first time.
Zonko appeared in the doorway, stroking the left point of his goatee. "Mostly just little things back here. You're welcome to look."
"Oh, no, it's fine." George said, still looking down into the box. "Just remembering the first time Fred and I used these. We hope-- hoped our Skiving Snackboxes would work half as well." Finally, he turned to Zonko. "What's your asking price?"
"For the sweets?"
"For the shop."
"I plan to put it on the market for 3750 Galleons, just for the building. The items would go for an additional seven-fifty. However, George, I will sell everything to you, the property as well as all the products, for 2250."
It was a mind-boggling bargain. They had paid just shy of a thousand Galleons, a combination of Harry's Triwizard winnings and their own savings, for the building in Diagon Alley. It had been in an abysmal state, thanks to the prior tenant's backdoor peddling of "exotic" pets, and had required a good deal of work just to get it ready to be fitted for shelving and displays. The rest of the money had gone into their own line of products and things like shop robes and signage. And now, here was a prime space on a main street, just steps from his target clientele, as well as an established line of quality joke ware. Zonko was practically giving it to him at that price. He'd recoup the expense during the first Hogsmeade weekend.
And yet, another shop meant longer hours, more paperwork, and another staff. Sure, he could tap Percy for a speedy approval on a Long Distance Commuter apparition licence, but just thinking of all the time it would take just to get Zonko's ready for re-opening under the Weasley name made him tired. And he'd have to do it alone this time. There would be no Fred to share the load, to make the time go by quicker.
Six months-- hell, one month ago-- he would have already invited Zonko to accompany him to his vault at Gringotts, would have owled Bill the night before to have him on standby, waiting to approve a speedy transfer of funds. But there was more to think about now. Now, he was a family man, or close to it, and though it unsettled him to think how quickly he'd grown accustomed to the role, the fact remained that he liked coming home to a clean flat, a warm meal, and a smiling… well, whatever Paige was. It made the place feel like home again, a feeling that had somehow eluded him in the ten months that Ron had been camped out on the sofa. It lessened the blow of coming through the door to Fred's resounding absence.
Not that it had been a smooth transition. Ron was barely present these days-- he showed up to work, but slept elsewhere five nights out of the week, either at Grimmauld Place, George guessed, or Hermione's, or a combination of both. One nights he slept in the flat, he came in late and left early, making himself a bed in the front office and locking himself in, not speaking or even looking at either of them.
There had been a terrific row just before he'd left to get Paige. Not that George could blame Ron for being angry, he'd just sort of announced to him an hour beforehand that a pregnant Muggle would be joining them, to be followed shortly afterward by an infant who may or may not be a Squib. What he hadn't expected-- foolishly, perhaps-- was the continued anger. He'd every intention of trying to smooth things over with Ron, but had not yet had the opportunity. In the shop, Ron spoke to George only through Verity. They'd been busier recently, what with the nicer weather, which left him with little time to try and talk sense into his brother--
"I'll just leave you to your thoughts." Zonko said graciously, surprising George out of his reverie. He followed the man back out into the shop.
"Sorry about that."
"Please, no need for apologies. You'll need time to think. I understand."
"I appreciate that. And I'm afraid I won't be able to give you an answer today. I have to talk to my family before I'm able to make a decision."
"Certainly. Is there anything else I can show you, tell you, while you're here?"
George's eyes swept the shop. It was all here, practically as he remembered it, save for the gloomy, artificial light and the handful of broken objects on the faded Persian carpet. "When are you putting it up for sale?"
Zonko nodded. "I plan on putting it on the market on the first of June. That is, unless I hear otherwise from you."
The first of June. Six weeks. "All right then." He held out his hand. "Thank you, Mr. Zonko, for the opportunity. I hope we can speak again soon."
They shook hands. "As do I, George. As do I. Would you like me to accompany you back to Hogsmeade station?"
"No, thank you. It's been awhile, but I remember the way."
With one last look at Zonko's Jokes and Novelty Items, he retrieved his Nimbus and left the shop. All the others were open now, and a few groups of shoppers drifted in and out. He walked quickly up High Street, keeping his eyes open for Hagrid or McGonagall or anyone else he recognized, but there were few people out. At the top of the street, he glanced at The Three Broomsticks, momentarily contemplating stopping in for a pint, but it was already past noon and he still had a long trip ahead of him. He mounted his broom and kicked off.
He circled around and flew as close as he could to Hogwarts, waving on the minute chance that Ginny was looking out a window, and could recognize him. Then he climbed higher, getting some cloud cover between himself and the ground. Conditions were nearly perfect for flying, though the wind at that altitude was still rather frosty. He brought his elbows in and settled low on the broom, in a racing stance that even Oliver Wood would be proud of, and set off towards London, some 600 miles away.
A few hours later, he was ascending the creaking stairs of the flat, stiff and achy from the long trip. Pig began to hoot as he reached the landing and rested his broom in the corner, leaning back to try to work out the knot that had formed between his shoulder blades. Paige peeked out from the kitchen as he entered.
"Hey, how did it-- what happened to you?"
"What do you mean?" he asked, wrenching off his trainers and dropping them by the sofa. The place smelled good, like lemon oil and food.
"You're soaked." she said, dabbing at his arm with the dishtowel in her hand. "Is it raining?"
"No. I flew." he explained, heading for the bedroom to change his clothes. She sauntered after him.
"So why are you wet?"
He pulled his t-shirt over his head and tossed it onto the floor, where it landed with a thick, moist sound. "Had to stay above the clouds. Can't let you Muggles see me." he teased, casting around for something to wear. She handed him a set of folded pyjamas-- freshly laundered, by the smell.
"Oh." She shook her head. "Sounds needlessly complex."
"No way. Straightforward. Easy. Twice as fast as anything you could do." She began to protest, but he cut over her. "Come on. How fast can you drive?"
She shrugged. "I don't know, I've never driven a Lambo or anything, but… straight stretch of road, no traffic, no cops, I could do a hundred and ten, easy."
"Awww, bless." he said, patting her head patronisingly, grinning as her eyes narrowed. "You'd be up to Hogwarts in six hours. I made it down here in under four. Flying's much faster. You should come for a ride after…." He gestured vaguely in the general direction of her abdomen.
"I think I'll pass. I don't even like planes." A soft ringing sound came from the direction of the kitchen. "Oh, good. Come on up front, tell me how it went."
"'Twasn't half bad." he said, following her back into the kitchen, where he looked up at the light fixture with a bemused expression. "How in the hell did you get the lights on?"
Out of the myriad little problems that living with a Muggle presented, the light situation was one of the most frustrating. He hadn't anticipated it. The first night she spent in the flat, when she had come back from the bathroom, carrying a towel and looking utterly bewildered. "How am I supposed to turn on the lights?" she had asked, and then he had realized-- she lacked a wand to touch to the wall. He had turned the lights on for her. Afterwards, he'd had a stroke of genius.
"Here, I'll teach you how to do it." he'd said as she returned to the sitting room, handing her his.
She had looked at him warily, then down at the wand, and back up at him before finally saying, "Um, I'm not sure."
"Come on, it's easy." he'd said, standing behind her and taking hold of her wrists, like he was teaching her to hit a Bludger. "Just touch your wand to the wall here--" As soon as the tip of the wand had made contact with the wall, a shower of angry sparks had erupted and the wand had flown across the room, almost blasting through the small kitchen window. That had been the last time she'd tried to use it, and he couldn't say he blamed her.
"Oh, uh, Ron put them on for me." she replied, sliding a pan out of the oven. The kitchen was flooded with the smell of roast beef.
George paused in the act of popping the top off of a bottle of butterbeer. "Well, that's unexpected. He was here?"
"For all of ten seconds. He came in, changed his shirt, turned the lights on in here and in the living room, and then left again. I didn't even get the chance to tell him that your mother stopped by-- oh, are you okay?" she asked, concerned, as he coughed and choked on his mouthful of beverage.
"My mother was here?" he spluttered, wiping his mouth.
"Yes, this morning."
"Oh, Godric." he said, closing his eyes and pressing his hand to his forehead. "What did she say?"
"Just asked if you were in. I told her you were in Hogsmeade, and she said she'd forgotten. Then she asked if Ron was here, and I said he wasn't. She told me she was your mother, but I'd already guessed, you all look exactly alike. I asked if she wanted to come in and wait, but she said no--"
"Who did you say you were?"
"She didn't ask, and I didn't offer."
"Oh, well, that's good."
"Great. Anyway, she told me to have a nice day, and left. She seems so nice!"
"Oh come on, she does. She's so cute and red-haired and little."
"Though she be but little, she is fierce." he intoned darkly, and she laughed. "Seriously. I'll tell you about it sometime." Paige knew that he had been involved in a magical war that Fred had died in, the first anniversary of which was coming up, but he had yet to give her a history lesson; she still marvelled over things like self-inking quills and owl post.
He sat down at the small kitchen table, picking up a heavy copper-topped battery that lay on the tabletop. These were everywhere nowadays, powering the weird plastic radio that had been in her tiny bed-sitter and assorted other odd little things that she had brought with her. There weren't many devices, but there were still an awful lot of batteries. His father would have a field day the next time he was over.
A few moments later, she set a plate down in front of him. "Are you going to tell her?" she asked quietly, sliding into the seat across from him with her own supper.
He nodded. "Yeah. I just… let's get through the next couple of weeks. She's got a lot on her mind."
"I understand." she answered simply.
George offered her a smile, which she returned. "Thanks."
"So, you still haven't told me yet. How was your meeting?"
"Oh, it was good. I like Zonko as much as I ever did, and he seems to really like me. He's offered the property to me at the bargain of a lifetime, and everything seems to be in pretty good shape. It's still all boarded up, but nothing seems damaged."
"Did he go out of business?"
"No. He… closed. During the war."
"Oh." After a moment, she continued. "George, was your war… kind of like the Holocaust?"
"In the forties, a bunch of guys from Germany killed something like six million Jewish people. They didn't fit in with their idea of a perfect race."
He made a noncommittal sound, tenting his fingers in front of his face. This wasn't really a conversation he was particularly eager to have; it had been a long day. "Something like that."
Biting her lip, Paige nodded, turning her attention back to her food.
"I promise I'll tell you about it, one day soon. You should probably get used to other things first, like hexes, and giants. They're key to the story."
He raised an eyebrow at her. "You're odd, you know?"
Shrugging, he responded, "Well, you're pretty much fine with the fact that I just flew six hundred miles in three and half hours, on a broom, through the clouds, from an invisible Scottish castle. Giants, though, you have a hard time with."
"I don't see what you're getting at." she replied with a smile.
The rest of the meal passed easily. As usual, he mostly talked, and she mostly listened, interrupting occasionally with questions. The evening's topic had started out at Hogsmeade and had turned to other Wizarding enclaves, and then he found himself describing the Burrow in loving, soppy detail, down to the engine parts his father had hidden in the shed and the way the kitchen smelled when his mother really got going.
Embarrassed, he trailed off. "So what about your place? What's it like where you're from?"
She shook her head. "I'll tell you about it some other time. I want to hear more about yours."
"Well, I expect you'll see it for yourself, soon enough." he said, momentarily worrying that this was a lie. "What else do you want to know?"
"Tell me about your family again."
Easy enough. "Well, there's Mum and Dad--"
"How long have they been married?"
"Hmmm… going on about thirty years, I think. They eloped during the first war."
"There's been more than one?"
"Mmhmm." he answered, continuing quickly before she could ask more. "And then there's Bill. He's twenty-nine, and works as a curse-breaker for Gringotts--"
"The bank up the street? What does a curse-breaker do?"
"Yeah, the bank up the street. And a curse-breaker breaks curses so that the bank can get at gold and treasure and stuff. He's been all over, but does most of his work in Egypt. Loads of stuff there, mind, always tombs and pyramids to be plundered."
"Yeah, we went to visit him there once, about six years ago. It was wicked. Remind me to show you pictures. So, yeah, Bill's married to Fleur, a girl from another magical school--"
"How long have they been married?"
He smiled. "You writing a book, or something?"
"No. I just think it's fascinating."
"If you say so. They'll have been married two years, in August. She works for Gringotts too, part-time, but does record-keeping. No kids yet." he said, anticipating her next question. "And then there's Charlie. He's twenty-seven, and works with dragons in Romania."
"Oh yeah. Breeds 'em and everything."
"Dragons?" she repeated.
George grinned. "Dragons. You know, great scaly gits who breathe fire."
"I can see a field trip will be in order. Yes, dragons."
She stared at him across the table, eyes wide and shiny. "Wow." she breathed after a long pause "Are you serious?"
"As a killing curse." His amusement faded quickly when her expression did not change. "Oi, Paige, are you all right? Your feeble Muggle mind isn't going go off or anything, is it?"
"Not at the moment." she said, shaking her head. "Sometimes you tell me something that just seems… I don't know, too crazy." She smiled. "But carry on."
"Are you sure?"
"All right." he said cautiously, keeping an eye out for any signs of swooning or puking. "Charlie's the one getting married in June, to Elizabeth, a girl he met in Romania. Then there's Percy. He's twenty-three. He works at the Ministry for Magic, like my dad, and Hermione, and eventually Harry."
"Is he married?"
She nodded. "I understand complicated."
"Well, I'm not even sure that I follow it myself, but he has a live-in that's pregnant by another bloke, but they're planning on raising the kid themselves."
"That is complicated. When is the baby due?"
He shrugged. "I don't know. August?"
"So it'll be close in age to ours."
This had not occurred to him. "Uh… yeah. Looks like it."
"Does your family know about that?"
"Not my parents…." he trailed off, realizing that she was getting at something else. "Our situation is a little different."
"Well, Penelope and Percy have known each other since Hogwarts, she's a witch--"
"Your family isn't going to like me because I'm not a witch?"
He shook his head vigorously. "That's not what I meant. My family's the biggest bunch of blood traitors in recent memory, they won't care about that. It's… it's been a really long, weird year for us. Especially for me. People treat me like…" he trailed off, sighing. This was the worst. "Look, believe it or not, I understand that it must make you nervous that I haven't told a lot of people. But you're here, and so am I, and I'm not going to run off and leave you to do this by yourself. I'll tell my family, and you can get to know them and hopefully grow to tolerate them, but I have to ask that you let me do it on my own schedule."
They sat in silence for a long time. The expression on Paige's face was unreadable. Finally, she nodded. "Yes, George, I respect that. I'm sorry if I seem pushy, but…."
"It's all right." He reached across the table and laid a hand on top of hers, squeezed it quickly, and withdrew. "Do you want to know about the rest of the Weasleys? I'm just getting to the best part."
She smiled. "Sure."
He leaned back in his seat, feeling as though a crisis had been averted. "Next comes me, and Fred." His stomach tightened, but he gritted his teeth and continued on. No more of that, not tonight. "And you know how old we are, and what we do, and how we're the best-looking out of the whole lot."
"Good then. That brings us to Ron, who you have the displeasure of sharing this humble abode with. Ronnie just turned nineteen, and he works with me. He's fawned over Hermione for ages, but they've been together for about a year now. You met her, right?"
"Well, she's busy working at the Ministry, and Ron's being a total wanker these days, but I imagine you'll see her around sooner or later. And then there's Ginny, who you've met as well. She's eighteen, and is still at Hogwarts, but she'll finish in June, and I can already tell that she harbours a deep-seated desire to manage a branch of Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes."
"Well, no, but that doesn't mean I'm not going to try to convince her. And that's all of our lot." She reached across the table for his empty plate and stacked it on top of hers, then got to her feet and brought both dishes to the sink. "Wait, where are you going?"
"Will you turn the bathroom light on for me?" she asked. "I feel kind of grimy. I cleaned out Pig's cage today."
"But don't you want to tell me anything?"
"It'll be my turn tomorrow."
He got to his feet and followed her to the bathroom, where he turned on the light for her. "We've got to come up with a better way to do this. How about we try getting you your own wand? It might work better."
"How about I buy a camp lantern?"
He wandered back out into the sitting room as the sound of running water rose in the pipes. It was strange that he had gotten so used to having an extra person in the flat in just ten days. Granted, Ron had hardly ever been present over the week and a half, but Paige's presence was more useful. She was almost always doingsomething, cleaning or cooking or knitting or reading or, to Ron's chagrin, playing music. "Why does everything have to have a bloody soundtrack?" was the longest sentence he'd spoken in recent memory, having grumbled it angrily to George one night before locking himself in the office.
Having someone else sleeping next to him was odd, especially someone who seemed unable to stay in one position for more than a minute, but even as he was getting kicked and elbowed, it was rather nice not to feel so wretchedly lonely on nights when sleep eluded him. Their relationship was a slippery thing; they weren't overly affectionate or even intimate, but he enjoyed having her around, and especially enjoyed watching her reaction to the magical world.
On the first day, after a short trip on the Underground with a few boxes of her things, he had led her down Charing Cross Road, careful to stop just beneath The Leaky Cauldron's sign. "Look." he'd said, pointing up.
Her mouth had dropped open, and he had smiled, satisfied, until she turned away, saying, "I think I forgot to turn off the stove!"
"No you didn't." he'd said, taking her wrist and gently turning her around, pointing straight up. "Look. Do you see that sign?"
"But there's not--"
"Shh. Just look."
She had looked up, at what he was directing her attention to, and had looked long and hard before her eyebrows shot up in surprise. "It's a witch, with a crooked hat and a kettle--"
"Cauldron." he'd corrected.
"Cauldron." she'd repeated. "What is this place?"
"The Leaky Cauldron. Best place in London. Well, at least out here. Come on." And he'd opened the door and ushered her inside.
The pub had not been crowded, and everyone in there had looked rather normal. He'd been hoping for a diverse, even threatening, clientele to rival his first trip inside, but Paige still gaped in disbelief as Tom had sent a pair of gillywaters flying through the air to a witch and wizard sitting at a table by the fireplace.
"Come on." he'd chuckled, nudging her along and into the tiny courtyard in the back. Before she could ask why they were lurking behind the rubbish bins, he'd taken out his wand and quickly tapped the bricks in the blank wall in front of them.
She had sworn loudly as the bricks turned and twisted, revealing the large archway leading into Diagon Alley. He'd had to push her forward onto the cobbled street, and she hadn't even noticed the wall closing behind them. It had been a relatively slow time of day, but there were still people everywhere. She had stared, wide-eyed, at everything in sight, from the spire of Gringotts up ahead to the large display of hooting, flapping owls in front of Eeylops'. Slowly, she had turned to him.
"This is… real?"
"And… I've been here before?"
"I must have been pretty drunk not to notice." she whispered, turning again to stare out over the scene.
"What do you think?" he asked after another long pause.
"Well, come on then. You'll want to see it all."
They had meandered through the shoppers, slowly so she could stop to look at everything. At some point, she had given him the bags she was carrying and went up to the window of the apothecary, staring in through the glass at the bottles upon bottles of potions lined up on dusty shelves. From there, she'd come to a stop in front of Gringotts, gaping up at the snow-white marble building.
"Can we go in?" she had asked breathlessly, reminding him of Ginny as a small child.
"Can we go home and drop all this off first?" he'd responded, nodding down at the armloads of her stuff he carried.
"Oh, sure. Sorry." She'd taken back the bags and set off again, turning this way and that in a vain attempt to take in everything all at once, from the people on the street to the names of the shops to the displays of goods in the windows.
Other shoppers had paused and smiled at her saucer-wide eyes and occasional squeal of delight, and George'd felt rather like a proud father, remembering vaguely his and Fred's first trip into Diagon Alley, and the clearer memories of Ron and Ginny tearing down the street, turning in circles to try and see everything there was to see.
When they had approached Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes, she'd stopped again and literally gasped, grabbing for his arm with one hand. There, she had ogled the window display of miniature fireworks for a solid minute.
"This is yours?" she had finally managed, in a strangely strangled voice.
"This is the shop."
A loud pop from the vicinity of the fireplace made George jump into the air, stunned. There stood Lee Jordan, grinning down at him. "Hey George, how's it going?"
"You nearly gave me a bloody heart attack, you foul git." George said, swallowing hard in attempt to rein in his galloping heart.
"Sorry, mate. It's raining pretty hard out there. Didn't feel like waiting for you to open the door."
"A little warning would have been in order."
"Apparently. I didn't expect you to be ready for bed at eight o'clock at night." Lee answered, dropping onto the sofa and gesturing to George's striped pyjamas.
"Yeah, well, I just flew down from Hogsmeade."
"Flew? You're mental. I couldn't manage that."
Lee's choice of words started the wheels turning in George's head, and he turned to look appraisingly at his friend. "About that--
At that moment, the water from the bathroom cut off, leaving behind the steady drumming of rain on the roof. Lee looked up as the bathroom door opened.
"George, I--" a female voice began.
George was facing away from Paige, and winced as Lee's eyebrows shot up. He whipped around to find her standing across the room, wrapped in a towel and dripping wet.
"Why hello." Lee said, in an overly suave voice that George had never heard before. "I'm so sorry to intrude. Please forgive me."
"Oh, um, no problem." she replied, turning a rather impressive shade of cerise. "Let me just go get… dressed." And with that, she scurried back into the dark hallway.
"Who was that?" Lee asked eagerly as they heard the sound of a door being firmly closed.
"That was Paige." he said, still focused on the many possibilities of taking Lee into his employ. He was loyal, relatively consistent, and had the appropriate level of interest in the merchandise. He understood the target customer. He would look marvellous in maroon shop robes. "Lee, I need to talk to you about something."
"I'd say so." Lee responded, jerking his thumb in the direction that Paige had fled.
"All right," he corrected, "I need to talk to you about two things."
But before he could say anything else, though, Paige padded back into the room, dressed and towelled off. "Oh, is it raining?" she said, looking towards the window. "I left clothes out on the line."
"Don't worry about it." George said airily. "I'll get them later. Come meet my best mate. Paige, this is Lee Jordan. Lee, this is Paige."
Lee jumped to his feet and they shook hands, trading greetings. He indicated that she should take the seat he had just vacated, and instead sat across from them on one of the overstuffed armchairs. "So, Paige, what House were you in? I don't remember you from the hallowed halls of Hogwarts."
"Oh, no, I didn't go to Hogwarts."
"Beauxbatons, then? I'm trying to place your accent."
She smiled at Lee, but her eyes darted to George, looking worried. He nodded. Might as well get it over with. "No, I'm from the US. And I didn't go to a magical school. I'm… I'm a Muggle."
To his credit, Lee just smiled and nodded. "Well, that explains why I haven't met you yet. How long have you known George?"
"Not too long." she replied simply, shifting uncomfortably.
"Paige and I are expecting a baby." George said suddenly, trying to deflect Lee's interest from her. It worked, and then some.
"I… you… Congratulations." Lee spluttered, his eyes practically boring holes into George's forehead.
"Of course, you're not to repeat this information until we break the happy news to our families." George continued pleasantly, holding an unspoken conversation with his friend with their eyes.
"I won't say a word." replied Lee, nodding firmly at George and turning his enchanting smile back to Paige. "And really, congratulations. I've known this prat for ten years now, and I couldn't imagine anyone better suited to parenting."
"Really?" Paige turned to George uncertainly, but he was laughing.
From there, the conversation eased by degrees, the three of them talking easily until Paige eventually shuffled off again, this time to bed. Lee was on his feet in an instant, pouring on the charm once more. George rolled his eyes good-naturedly, wishing her a good night as she disappeared once more down the dark hallway. As soon as the bedroom door had closed, Lee turned to him.
"You've been busy, Weasley, but I didn't think you were so busy you couldn't spare an owl to your best mate with news like this."
"Funny you should mention that, Lee." George replied, getting easily to his feet and heading for the sideboard. He pulled out a bottle of Ogden's Old Firewhiskey, two glasses, and a heavy piece of parchment written by one Thessalonius Zonkonowksi. He returned to the sofa and placed the items in a line on the table in front of them.
"What's this about?" Lee asked, mystified.
"I'll answer all your questions on two conditions. First, this conversation-- and everything I tell you-- stays between us."
"You have my word. I'll even go Unbreakable Vow."
"Not necessary. Second, you'll listen to a business proposition that I have for you." he answered, pouring out a generous helping of fire whiskey into one of the glasses and handing it over to Lee.
Author's Note: Well, we went from super short to incredibly long. Next week's update is most likely going to be a long one too, so I hope you guys are getting into the story. I find that I always take awhile to get going.
Couple of things about this week... my husband has been reading my absolute favorite fanfiction, Twin Vice Paranormal Detectives (stop what you're doing and read it now, if you haven't yet-- it defies explanation but is one of the greatest things I've ever read, period. Starkiller, you are my idol.), and has come to the conclusion that "Fred and George are kind of... jerks." I disagree, of course, but they are rather manipulative, as evidenced here, especially by George's quid pro quo with Lee at the end. Ultimately, this will come into play further down the road. I really enjoyed Paige's initial reactions to magic, but keep in mind that, as in the beginning of any relationship, they're both on their best behavior. Gah, I'm really excited to write more.
Now that I'm reading the Twilight series (halfway through Eclipse as we speak), I have to say that I really hope Paige's experiences in Diagon Alley aren't like Bella's responses to the Cullens, which I find to be kind of creepy. There's similar threads there that I wasn't aware of, and I'm kind of embarrassed by them.
Copious expressions of gratitude to those who reviewed Chapter Six: Steel-BonedSelaneen, domslove, cinroc, Babble, Strawberry xx (for her two reviews), JadeSeraph, medfanofreading, weahhh63, and Hyperlily (for her five chapter reviews!).