Disclaimer: Harry Potter is the property of JK Rowling. Title from 'Sincerely, the Phoenix', by The Ethnographers.
"Ron, have we got any Boomslang Skin on order? Or possibly any laying about somewhere, in some supremely clever place which I've completely forgotten that I put it in?" George peered critically at the potion that was currently belching forth thick smoke of an ominous slick purplish-green colour. "A bit more of it and I think the Polypills'll be just about ready—"
"If this is 'just about ready' I shudder to think of who's testing your products."
George whipped his head around at the voice. "Oh," he said, "it's you."
"Oh, very nice, George Weasley. 'Oh, it's me', indeed." Angelina Johnson took a step into the tiny room that George referred to as the 'laboratory'—always with a mad cackle—so she became more than just the slim silhouette she'd been against the better lighting outside. Her eyes were locked on the smoking potion. "Is that combustible?"
"Er, possibly. Most things seem to be, round here." Somewhere in the back of his mind, a small voice hissed at him that he should stand up to greet a woman—at least this woman, Fred's ex-girlfriend, or ex-fiancée, or whatever they'd been. Before the hissing could become full-blown shouting (and the little voice did have an uncanny resemblance to his mother's), he did as it was suggesting, having to catch his chair by its back before it toppled over. In the normal course of things, he'd let the potion do whatever it was going to do, but the previous week that'd resulted in boils that exploded with neon orange pus—Ginny had snickered that they matched his hair—and that wasn't something that he particularly relished inflicting on Angelina. So before they found out if it was combustible, he pulled his wand from his back pocket and muttered, "Evanesco."
The potion disappeared, though the thick smoke lingered. Angelina waved a hand in front of her face, coughing and swiping at her eyes, which appeared to be watering. "How are you then, Weasley?"
"Corking, Johnson. Really smashing," George deadpanned. "What brings you here? Haven't you got training?" There was something in his voice that sounded standoffish, even to his own ears, and he resolved that the next words out of his mouth wouldn't carry it. It was just—what did she mean by it, dropping in when he'd barely seen her since—well, in the last year and a half?
She crossed her arms over her chest like she was shielding herself from something—him, he thought with a start—and said, "You look it." She eyed him. "You don't look so lopsided now."
"You must be used to my saintly side." He paused to give her an opening to react to that. She didn't. "And thanks, I think. How are you?"
She only shrugged and, without looking at him, took another step inside and turned to study the walls. They were lined with rickety shelves that were piled high with supplies and half-finished inventions. "What was that potion, anyway?"
George watched her straight back as she read handwritten labels. "It was supposed to be a less potent version of Polyjuice Potion. Polypills, we're calling them. Ten different faces and you'll never know which one you'll get. I keep trying to convince Harry to let us use his but he seems oddly averse to the idea."
"Whose faces are you using, then?" she asked suspiciously.
"Oh, you know, celebrities. We're tweaking each one, though, so you'll get Shacklebolt with a mohawk, or Viktor Krum with pink hair." For another moment, he watched her. "We're still debating You-Know-Who with a pig snout and purple beehive hair-do. Ron and Harry think it's a laugh; Hermione says it's too soon." That had been the general breakdown as far as You-Know-Who products had gone since the Battle when he solicited advice from his friends. George knew that he and Ron were taking their revenge in the only way they really could. The mockery didn't ease the pain of losing Fred all that much, but George sought refuge in laughter, because he felt closest to his absent twin then. Anyway, it was who he was—he laughed so hard he cried sometimes, and on the day of Fred's funeral he'd cried so hard he'd laughed, and it had seemed completely apropros. Fred would've appreciated it, anyway. He'd got mixed reactions from his family, though even Mum had given him a watery smile in the end and clung to him and called him her brave boy, and he'd said, "I dunno about that, Mum," and in his head he'd gone on I only lost an ear, Fred went and lost his whole bloody life just like Uncles Gideon and Fabian.
Angelina turned around with an appreciative expression on her face. "I think I agree with Ron and Harry."
"Yeah? Want to be a tester?" He was only half joking.
"You know, believe it or not, I make good money with this whole Quidditch thing. I'm not really looking for any extra work."
George studied her for a moment. She looked good in that way that people who desperately wanted everyone to think they were fine looked—and Angelina pulled it off better than most, casually gorgeous even in jeans and a sweatshirt. She was wearing her hair longer these days, and natural, so that it fell around her face and shoulders in tight, unruly ringlets. But there was a look in her eyes, a buried grief that he recognised from his own attempts to do the same with his own grief, that spoke volumes. To him, at least, but then he'd been her friend for over a decade, and she'd been the first one at Hogwarts who could tell them apart (she'd learnt the difference on the train whilst he and Fred had shared a compartment with her and Lee). Anyway, she didn't fool him.
And she'd never said how she was.
Angelina cleared her throat. "The shop looks really good, by the way. I've um, I've come in now and then."
"Stop and say hello sometime, then, will you?" George said, feeling a bit daft the minute the words were out of his mouth. That was what she was doing, wasn't it?
Angelina shifted on her feet. "Well, that's what I'm doing, isn't it?"
"S'pose so." He paused, a pause which turned into an hesitation, and then he said, "Angelina, I can't help thinking maybe I should have—you know—seen you sometime."
This came out sounding so stupid and inadequate that he almost added a very un-Weasley-twin-esque stuttered addendum to the end of it, but Angelina just shrugged. "You've seen me. Anyway it's not as though I can't handle it, George."
It. Right. That little detail of Fred being dead and gone. Fred had made it clear that he was ready to stop messing about with Angelina's feelings; that when the war was over he was going to marry her; that they'd already talked, the two of them, and come to some sort of understanding. George still remembered the funny look that Fred had got on his face after they'd all managed to escape the Death Eaters at the end of Bill and Fleur's wedding, when Fred had remarked, "You know, it's the strangest thing, but none of Fleur's cousins are half so pretty as Angelina." Privately, George had agreed—still did—but out loud he'd said, "Spell-addled, are you?"
"No. I mean, yeah." George shook himself. "I mean, you look really good, Ange." That just made it sound as though he was expecting her not to. "As always." He didn't generally find himself stumbling over his own words, or at a loss for what to say, or nursing a tendency for babbling. Suddenly, faced with Angelina Johnson, he was afflicted by all three. "Hey, I'm a bit busy at the minute, but do you want to—I dunno, grab a pint at the Leaky Cauldron sometime? Catch up?"
He'd felt certain that this was a safe question—she, after all, had come to him; made the effort to find him all the way in the back of the shop—so he was shocked to see her turn pale. "Er, maybe." Her voice sounded odd. Strained. "I'm—er—quite busy, you know; Quidditch, but I'll...well, maybe."
Now he was just confused. "Why did you stop by, again, Angelina?"
There was a look on her face that was half frightened. "Just to say hello." She took a step back towards the door and glanced over her shoulder. "Anyway, George, I've got to go. Er—nice seeing you."
Before he could return the sentiment, she'd whirled and departed, and he was too bewildered by her completely confusing behaviour to do anything but stare at the now empty doorway.
After a second, Ron poked his head into the laboratory—insert mad cackle—his eyebrows raised at George. "What did Angelina want?"
George's brow stayed furrowed as he answered, "I've no idea."
In some ways, George Weasley was better than people thought he was. It had been one year, seven months, and five days since Fred had died, and he'd actually had to glance at a calendar to come up with the exact count, which he supposed was a good sign. He'd stopped drinking so much. He socialised with his friends—better than socialising with strangers, anyway, which he'd frequently done when he'd been consuming vastly larger amounts of Firewhiskey than were advisable.
People seemed to think he couldn't bear to hear Fred's name mentioned, as though somehow he'd forgotten his brother was dead and by reminding him they'd send him into a downward spiral of grief. He'd shouted himself hoarse at Alicia Spinnet on the subject one of the times she'd started a sentence with 'Fr—" and then immediately stopped, looking horrified. Those vast amounts of Firewhiskey had been involved. Eventually Oliver Wood had intervened, threatening to punch George in the face if he didn't shut his effing mouth, a threat which George had taken very seriously, as Wood's massive fist had suddenly appeared at his eye level. The next morning he'd shown up at Alicia's flat with flowers (Hermione's suggestion) and an apology; Alicia had hugged him and said, "Fred probably wouldn't want us pretending he hadn't existed."
This was true. On their twentieth birthday they had, for the first time, considered the fact that they might die. That one of them might die. And that the other would have to go on living. "Make sure there are prettily weeping Veelas at my funeral," George had said, "but keep Mum from crying too much."
"Likewise," Fred had replied. "And I'll need fireworks. Loads and loads of fireworks. If the bloody Death Eaters destroyed the stock then hold off the funeral till you can make more. Think you can put on my headstone, 'Sorry girls, you'll have to make do with George'?"
It had been both amusing and terrifying, and then amusing again as their funeral requests mounted in absurdity, but underneath the conversation there'd been a palpable current of prayer that each of them wasn't the left-behind twin.
The fireworks he'd managed. Hopefully Fleur, her mother, and sister had been good enough for prettily weeping Veelas. They had all wept very prettily. More prettily than George, for sure.
Sometimes he wondered if Fred would have handled all of it better. He didn't think so.
"She drinks a lot, you know." Ginny's voice jolted George back to the present and he looked at his sister, startled. This was, in fact, news to him. So he and Johnson had something in common. Or she had something in common with twenty-year-old George. Twenty-one-year-old George was the very picture of sobriety. Ginny had threatened him with her Bat-Bogey Hex, which hadn't overly troubled him. Then Harry had said she'd found some way of making it longer-lasting. That hadn't much troubled him, either, as he was one-third into a bottle of Firewhiskey at the time. Then Harry had sat down, moved the bottle out of the way, and said in a way that had made him listen, "George, you've got to stop this."
And he had. Not all at once, but somehow, in Harry's insistence that he understood, there was something that rang truer than everyone else's. Stupid, really. All his siblings had lost a brother as well. But there it was.
"Angelina?" Harry asked. "No way. She was always so..."
"Mental?" George supplied.
"I was going to say driven."
The three of them were lounging in Harry's sitting room—George pointedly pretending not to notice the fact that Ginny's personal effects were scattered throughout Grimmauld Place—drinking Butterbeers, each of them relaxing after their respective long days. It was about a week after the odd encounter with Angelina, and he'd mentioned it off-handedly, knowing Ginny was the one amongst them who'd the most contact with her.
"Yeah, well." Ginny glanced at George sidelong and hesitated before saying, "She took Fred's death really hard."
Gesturing towards her with his mug of Butterbeer, George commented, "You don't need to tiptoe round the subject, Gin, it's not going to shatter me. I know he's dead."
Ginny glared at him. "I'm so glad to hear you say that now."
Harry held up a hand for peace between the siblings. "How do you know how Angelina took—it?" he asked Ginny.
Pursing her lips and giving George a speculative look, she answered, "I see her drinking. And I assumed it was Fred."
"Because you walked in on them at Auntie Muriel's," George remarked.
Ginny leant back into the couch. "He was just lucky it was me that walked in and not Mum or Auntie Muriel. Honestly, bringing girls there."
Harry guffawed and George caught his eye with a grin. "I'm glad someone could find—er—some happiness back then," the younger man snorted. "Where were you?" he asked George.
Taking a swig of Butterbeer, George replied, "In the kitchen trying to keep Mum and Auntie Muriel from going upstairs. That one couldn't stop giggling madly when she came down."
"To get over the revulsion," Ginny said, though she was smiling. "Knowing that your brothers get up to things in bed—"
"You want to word that more carefully or you'll make people think Percy and I've got something going on," George interjected.
Ginny made a disgusted face but finished, "—is not the same as knowing what they get up to in bed, and who with."
"Likewise," George said, then, looking at Harry, added, "Though I assume my sister hasn't got up to anything in said apparatus."
Harry looked frozen for a second and Ginny snapped, "Oh, shut it."
With a grin, George said, "Just my joke, Harry. Anyway, it's better this way; I've known you since you were eleven so there aren't many character flaws you've kept hidden."
"At least they're out in the open," Harry said dryly.
"Exactly! Saves a lot of tedious checks into your background."
Harry put up with this ribbing with a good-natured grimace, as he always had. Then he said musingly, "I never realised Fred was serious about anyone."
George shrugged. "He wasn't till that year. You know, war-time romance or whatever." He'd had no such thing himself. For awhile at school he'd gone out with Katie Bell, but there'd always been more friendship there than anything else and it had just sort of ended, no hard feelings on either side. There'd been a few girls since then, but none after he'd lost the ear. There wasn't anyone worth the worry—him worrying about her, that was, and her worrying about him.
Ginny said, a bit sadly, "I always try to say hello or get her to come round for dinner sometime, but Angelina's very…" She hesitated, searching for the right words, and George wondered whose benefit that was for. "Well, she's very closed off. Friendly, but distant." Then, she added thoughtfully, "I wonder why she came to see you, George?"
"We used to be friends." George had wondered the same thing and had really hoped Ginny would shed some light on it.
"Used to be," Ginny said pointedly. "Maybe it wouldn't have been the worst thing if you'd kept being her friend."
"Merlin, you're making me feel a bit guilty for not looking in on her." As though he hadn't already felt guilty. Every time he saw her, he felt that little twinge. But it was hard.
Rolling her eyes, Ginny said, "Catching on, I see. But she's not a convalescent, George. Looking in on her, honestly."
"A bloke tries to say the right thing," George sighed, looking to Harry for support, who shrugged and looked at Ginny with such gloopy adoration that George had to glance away or risk being sick.
"Well, you know we're playing Ballycastle next week," Ginny said. "You could come to one of my games for once and 'look in on her' while you're at it."
"Maybe I will," George said. "I hear you're halfway decent."
"What would I do without brothers to keep me humble?"
"I dunno, but I shudder to think of the state of your ego if you didn't."
"Did you want to have dinner with us?" Ginny asked pointedly. "Keep this up and you won't be."
George grinned. "My stomach would never forgive me."
"God forbid that relationship sours."
Getting to his feet and stretching, Harry said, "Yeah, and it's Chinese takeaway night, so you don't want her kicking you out. The eggrolls at that place in Diagon Alley aren't very good."
"No, they're rubbish, actually," George agreed.
Shrugging on a jacket, Harry asked, "Gin, do you want the Singapore noodles?"
"Please. Thanks, love," she said, shooting him a bright smile.
"Want company, Harry?" George asked.
Harry grinned. "That's all right. You'll want to work out where we're meeting Ginny after her game next week."
"Absolutely no male solidarity," George grumbled.
There was something absurd about the hero of the Second Wizarding War walking down the road to get Chinese takeaway. And he did it sans wand, though George could see him hesitate over leaving it. But he did, to prove that he could—probably as much to himself as anybody else. Two years ago no one would have dared leave their house without a wand, and it had been getting pretty near the point where most blood-traitors barely dared leave the house at all. And forget Halfbloods and Muggleborns—if they'd been smart they'd gone into hiding. Come to think of it, he seemed to recall Angelina mentioning her parents staying in St Kitt's. It was one of the days they'd done Potterwatch together, and as they'd sat in the dark room, curtains drawn over all the windows, waiting for Lee to come back from having a smoke, she'd told him in a desperately casual voice that her parents were after her to join them there.
He'd taken a swig of the Butterbeer they were sharing between them and asked, "Are you going to?"
She'd shaken her head vehemently. "How can I?" He'd just nodded. She couldn't. The same way he and Fred couldn't just sit in Auntie Muriel's attic and hide. The same way Lee had quit his job at the WWN and was risking everything running Potterwatch. The same way hundreds of witches and wizards were resisting in whatever small ways they could. Then she'd picked up the Butterbeer and held it to her lips, before lowering it and saying, "Don't tell Fred, yeah? I dunno if he'd want me to go or stay. And I don't know which one I want him to want."
George had crossed his heart with a finger. "Your secret's safe with me."
He hadn't a clue if she'd ever told Fred. He'd always wondered why she'd told him. Maybe she'd known he'd only ask what she meant to do.
The idea that she'd told him something that she didn't want to tell Fred; the realisation of the friendship that had existed between Angelina and him which had lapsed, and probably when both of them needed it most, made him cross his arms over his chest and give Ginny a measuring look. "All right then," he said, "I'll come. Get me a ticket?"
Ginny rolled her eyes but smiled, and nodded.
The match was hard fought, but in the end the Harpies won by eighty points, their Seeker scooping up the Snitch in a blur of green just inches ahead of the Bats' Seeker, who pulled up out of her dive looking murderous. George, Harry, and Ron imitated some of the more spectacular moments from the match as they strolled towards the changing rooms, where Ginny had said she'd meet them outside of. Then George turned to mimicking Ron's imitations, which caused his brother to turn beet red and take a swipe at him (some things never changed, he couldn't help musing). He wondered if Angelina would actually be there, and that made him wonder if he shouldn't act slightly more like the supposed adult that he was.
Ginny'd said she'd try and find Angelina but had cautioned in the same breath that Ange had a tendency to rush off. George could understand that. There'd been a not-so-distant time of his life when he'd had the same tendency, because sometimes one's supposed friends set a mob of eager and well-meaning acquaintances on one, and no matter how well-meaning they were, it was all too much. But, he reminded himself, he was doing this because it was the right thing, because Angelina was supposed to be his mate. And sometimes your mates needed a kick in the arse. He certainly had.
As they rounded a corner in the corridor, George fell back behind Ron and Harry slightly. Ginny and Angelina were standing outside the visiting team's changing room, chatting easily. Ginny had changed into ordinary clothes, but Angelina was still in her black and red Quidditch robes. As the three of them approached, Angelina turned and looked their way, saying delightedly as she saw them, "Harry, Ron!" and striding over to snake their hands enthusiastically in greeting. Ginny rushed to embrace Harry—maybe the other way around—and the two of them shared a kiss. George kept his own hands in his pockets for a moment but then raised one in greeting as Angelina's eyes fell on him. For a second, she didn't do anything but give him that same half-frightened look that she had two weeks ago, but then she seemed to shake herself and offered him a small smile. "Hullo, George," she said.
He'd never seen her up close in her Ballycastle robes and so he'd never seen how confident and poised she looked in them. If anyone had ever questioned her career path, they only needed to look at her now to see she'd chosen the right one. "Nice game," he said in response.
She snorted dismissively and shrugged, "Words better suited to your sister."
"Oh, he'd never say any such thing to me," Ginny said without rancour.
George stepped over to her and lifted her right off her feet in a massive hug. "Magnificent flying!" he cried grandiosely before returning her to the ground and Harry's arm slung casually round her shoulders. He had to look away from the warm look that Ginny was giving him, knowing that he probably hadn't fooled anyone with his extravagance.
Angelina looked genuinely pleased to see Harry and Ron, bombarding them with questions about what they'd been doing since she last saw them. Of course no one actually said the words 'since I last saw you', since for all intents and purposes, the last time the three of them had really seen each other was at a funeral. It was always an awkward conversation, that first one after the mutually experienced funeral. George thought he'd got most of them behind him but occasionally he'd run into someone—it had been Ernie MacMillan last month—whom he just hadn't seen, and then there was always that moment as both parties thought back and recalled when the last time they'd spoken had been.
She seemed fascinated by Harry's Auror training, though winced sympathetically at the idea of three extra years of training before the qualification exams. George let his mind wander, keeping his eyes on Angelina's face whilst considering whether to introduce the new Daydream Charms now or to wait until the spring. Ideally he'd have liked to have got them out several weeks earlier so they'd have had a full Christmas season to sell, but WWW would most likely recoup a good part of the R&D costs just by having them available for Christmas—
"And I suppose there's never a dull moment at Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes," cut across his reverie. Angelina was addressing Ron, but he caught a quick flicker of a glance in his direction.
"When he's got me doing the ledgers it's plenty dull," Ron replied.
George snorted. "You can be demoted to sweeping, if you'd rather. Your maths are pretty rubbish, anyway."
Angelina looked like she'd been startled, against her will, into a smile. "You've not learnt how to be nice, still, I see," she commented to George.
Waving a dismissive hand, Ron said, "If he wasn't a tosser I'd know there was something seriously wrong with him."
"More seriously wrong, as the case may be," Ginny said with a smile.
Putting a hand to his heart and rolling his eyes dramatically ceiling-wards, George said, "What incentive have I got to be nice when I put up with such abuse?"
"Don't let them fool you," Harry remarked to Angelina.
"No," she said, sounding amused, "I don't."
"Any plans for Christmas?" Harry asked her.
Her eyes swept over them, Weasleys and Potter-who-may-as-well-have-been-one, and she said, "Just a quiet day with my parents, probably." George could practically hear her thoughts—or maybe they were his own—if things had been different she'd probably be spending this Christmas at the Burrow with a wedding ring already on her finger. To her credit, she showed none of this on her face. But that was Angelina, wasn't it? Never one to be overly emotional, that was her. He'd never have blamed her for showing her hand, though.
Again, her gaze flickered towards George, but she asked Harry, "You? Spending it with this lot, I imagine?"
"Probably my godson and his grandmother as well," Harry nodded. Ginny looked delighted by this, as though she hadn't heard yet.
"I didn't know you had a godson," Angelina remarked. Detectable in her tone was the skirting of the issue of where this godson's parents were. That was a type of tact everyone had had to learn in the last year and a half.
Harry's eyes positively lit up. "Yeah, he's going on two in April, but he's already doing magic—little things, you know, but he did manage to get his sippy cup to fly across the room the other day when he wasn't supposed to be having any more juice. Oh, and he's a Metamorphmagus, gets that from his mum; supposedly he's been doing that since practically the minute he was born—"
"Angelina, have you got three hours?" George asked. "Because get Harry started on Teddy and that's easily how long he can expound on the subject."
"It's sweet," Ginny assured him, kissing his cheek. Then she fixed her eye on Angelina, and George wondered what, exactly, his sister had in store, because he knew that look very well and it normally meant that something was being planned for someone that they may not like, though Ginny would well go on that it was for their own good. "George and Ron are having a bit of a Christmas party at the shop this week; you should come along."
This party was news to George, and judging by the startled glance that Ron threw at Ginny, it was him as well. He was tempted to say that they'd changed the location to Ginny's flat so she'd be the one forced to arrange a party that no one had been planning on, but he needn't have worried, because Angelina immediately shook her head. "Oh, thank you, but I'm busy; can't come, I'm afraid…"
"You're busy all week?" Ginny asked. "The week before Christmas? You could just pop by, surely?"
Angelina's demeanor changed so rapidly that George seriously considered, for a moment, whether she mightn't have been switched out for someone else, and he'd missed it while he blinked. Where before she'd been easy and relaxed—enough; George could still tell she wasn't entirely—she became suddenly tense, stammering out something about maybe extra training, not to mention Christmas shopping, and before any of them could so much as say, "Happy Christmas, anyway," she'd vanished into the changing room.
For a moment, the four of them stood there, as though a sudden, violent storm had just passed by. Then, Harry said, "You know, George, I reckon you're right. Angelina might be mental."
With Christmas over, life settled into dreary winter rains and much use of Mum's annual jumper. It was a cold January, and the heating at 93 Diagon Alley had always been a bit dodgy. George vowed to have it repaired, or maybe replaced, depending on the cost. Lee told him he just needed someone to keep him warm at night, but Lee was full of tidbits of this nature since he'd started going out with Morag MacDougal. George had told him to shove it, which had been unfair, but Lee had shrugged it off.
Christmas itself had been better than the previous year. Mum hadn't burst into tears once. Percy had brought his girlfriend, Audrey Wells. Fleur looked even more radiant pregnant, a feat which had prompted Hermione to remark in a low tone to Ron, George, Harry, and Ginny, "She's going to make the rest of us look bad," at which point Ron had turned a delicate shade of green. Not that he was fooling anybody—it was plain as the hole in George's head that Ron and Hermione were headed for matrimonial bliss, though George couldn't blame Ron for objecting to pregnancy being brought into the conversation so early. Luckily Hermione had noticed and said, "Honestly, Ron—it was a joke."
Maybe the best part of Christmas was that George had refrained from biting anyone's head off, which he'd done the previous year for no real reason other than that he was angry and lonely and grieving. Percy had borne the brunt of it, as George had spewed every last hateful thing he'd thought about his older brother in the past seven months—that he'd been with Fred when he'd died, that they'd had to lose Fred to get Percy back and that George would've kept Fred, thanks very much. He'd stayed up hours later than everyone else scrubbing mashed parsnips out of the wood floor, and he'd done it without magic because it had felt right to do so, because there was no spell to clean up the mess of his life.
Percy had joined him just past one o'clock in the morning. "Perce—" George had begun, well sobered up by that point, but Percy had waved a hand for him to shut it, and he had. "Think I haven't thought the same things?" Percy finally asked, sounding like he was choking a bit.
"I don't really think those things," George had said quietly.
Percy'd looked at him. "I know."
They'd been much closer since then.
It was lunchtime now, and George had braved the damp chill of the January day to walk to the Leaky Cauldron for some of Tom's infamous pea soup. He scooped up the steaming bowl with one hand and his pumpkin juice with the other. Food in hand, he headed towards the quieter end of the Leaky Cauldron. There'd been a time in his life where he'd've wanted to be in the centre of things, to make sure he was seen and particularly heard; it was publicity for the shop and he enjoyed it besides. These days, though, he just wanted to eat a quiet lunch. Helped that he'd left his magenta robes back at the shop in favour of something more understated. Some days he went back but Ron had noted that when he did that, he didn't exactly take any kind of lunch hour, it was more eating as he walked round, and the day he'd accidentally left pea soup close enough for the Pygmy Puffs to get at it—well, the offspring they'd produced after that had been interesting, but neither George nor Ron thought they were going to be the next craze in magical pets.
As he made his way to his favourite corner, a dark head of hair buried behind a Daily Prophet caught his eye, and he veered sharply towards it. "All right, Johnson?" he asked casually.
Angelina abruptly laid the paper down on the table, looking surprised to be addressed. "Oh," she said, "it's you." Quickly, she added, "Tom normally puts some sort of charm around the table so no one will bother me."
"Right, you being a famous Quidditch player and all." George stood in front of her. "I'd know that head anywhere, though. No charm of Tom's is going to fool me."
There was a wary expression on Angelina's face. "Do you come here often?" she asked.
"Every once in awhile," he drawled. A smile twitched at the corner of her lips and George took that as a good an invitation as any to sit down, which he did. "I've been ejected from my own shop for the time it takes me to eat my lunch."
"I'm shocked you'd let Ron do that."
George dipped his spoon into the soup and took a swallow of it, then answered, "I'm getting more amenable in my old age."
She closed the Prophet and gave him that small smile again. "You were always amenable, George."
"Yeah?" he asked.
Watching him eat his pea soup for a minute, she said, "I always thought you were easier-going than Fred."
"One of us had to be. Pure accident that it was me, I assure you."
He was surprised she'd brought Fred up first. Then again if he was going to be brought up it certainly wouldn't have been by George; he could never quite forget the expression on her face at the funeral, like that presence, that sense of self, that quintessentially Angelina Johnson spark and fire in her eyes had gone out.
There was a cup of pumpkin juice at her elbow, which she picked up and drank from. Hiding her discomfort? Anyway it troubled him a bit, looking her in the eye here and now, because that spark and fire didn't seem to have found its way back entirely. Merlin, Fred gone a year and a half. He hated to think about anyone living even remotely like him through all those months.
Noticing the clean plate at her other elbow, he cracked a smile and said, "You know, one of these days we should actually go out and spend some proper time together, instead of fifteen minute intervals."
There was a flash in her eyes, almost like the Angelina of yore. "Going somewhere, are you?"
"Told you, Ron wants me out while I eat. And I see you've already enjoyed your lunch. Don't imagine you'll be hanging round much longer."
She looked to the empty plate, like she'd forgotten about eating at all. "You take time off, then? You never used to."
"Well, things are a bit more settled now. Ron can handle them." He paused to think before adding fairly, "And Verity's been there so long that she could probably run the place better than Ron or me, anyway." If she thought he hadn't noticed her neat circumvention of an answer just there, then she had another think coming. "So what do you say; have lunch with me sometime? Say next week?"
"Mm," she said noncommittally, sipping at her pumpkin juice again. "How was your Christmas?"
"It was good; Fleur finally got Mum to switch off Celestina Warbeck when she faked contractions, but if that's what it takes to keep old Celestina quiet in our house, Fleur's figure is really going to take a beating." George fixed her with an even stare. "Are you going to answer me or not?"
Looking startled, she asked, "Sorry?"
"Lunch. Next week. Whatever day you're free; I'll make time." George watched her brow knit. "It's an easy question. You say it like this: yes. Or no. Whichever you prefer."
Bitterness didn't sound good on Angelina, but that was exactly the tone of her sharp exhalation. "It's not an easy question," she muttered, almost too low for him to hear. "I don't know if that's such a good idea," she said.
At that, George let his frustration at her evasiveness get the better of him. "Bloody hell, Angelina, if you've got a problem with me then just say it," he snapped.
She jumped to her feet, her chair scraping on the floor as it almost toppled over, and he cursed himself for saying the wrong thing. "I should go," she blurted.
"Ange—" he began, but she was already halfway to the door. For half a second he debated following her, and then he leapt up as well, dodging tables and chairs until he caught up with her just outside on the other side of the entrance to Diagon Alley. "Ange, wait a minute!" She was close enough that he could have grabbed her arm but he was pretty sure she'd punch him if he tried. Mercifully, she stopped and turned around to look at him. He just stared at her for a moment. "What's going on with you?" And me, he could have added, but that implied that there was a she and him, which there was most definitely not.
She stared him down but he didn't blink, being well used to her states of high dudgeon from Hogwarts. Finally, she sighed, her shoulders drooped, and she took several steps away from the entrance to the Leaky Cauldron, to a spot more hidden from view and where people weren't staring as much. He supposed a certain amount of staring was to be expected—she, after all, was a famous Quidditch player, centre Chaser for the Ballycastle Bats and fairly brilliant at it, and he wasn't unknown himself, though he preferred the admiration of the wizardlings and witchlets in the shop to being known as one of the Heroes of the Battle of Hogwarts. After another long moment, she sighed in frustration. "Have you got any idea how—how scary it is looking at you?" Angelina demanded.
George pretended not to know what she meant. "Scary? Me? Wrong Weasley. You're thinking of my mum, or possibly Ginny." Then, because he could see how much the admission had cost her, he sighed. "Yeah, Ange. I know. And yet we keep running into each other." Strictly speaking, this wasn't exactly true, as one of those occasions had been planned, but it was fair to assume that they would run into each other. It was fair to say that they had, in the past year and a half. So what if they'd left their interactions to a mumbled hello and then an awkward good-bye? For the love of God, she had come into the shop to talk to him. He'd have loved to chalk it up to women in general, but he'd a feeling this was an Angelina-specific issue.
"The Wizarding world isn't a big place," she mumbled, not meeting his eyes.
For a minute, he let her act like a prat, refusing to look at him when she obviously wanted to. "Hey, Angelina. Just say what you want to say."
She kept up her prattish behaviour for another minute or two, and then, finally, she looked at him, drew a deep breath, and said in a rush, "You're not Fred."
"Cor blimey," he said in a flat tone. "Really? Why haven't I been told before now?" She looked gutted by his sarcasm, and he immediately felt guilty. "Ange—sorry."
Her arms were crossed over her chest again in that now-familiar shielding gesture. He really wished she didn't feel the need to do that around him. Then again, maybe he didn't make it easy for her. Certainly he hadn't just a minute ago. "Merlin help me, George, I actually missed seeing you. I lost Fred for good and then I lost you, except you're right here and I thought we could be friends, even though—even though you—" She didn't finish the sentence, but George knew what she meant—even though you look just like Fred. He supposed he didn't blame her, really. He hadn't much choice; it was his own face and he had to get used to seeing his dead brother every day, but he knew how she felt; he'd been terrified to look in the mirror for a full week after the Battle. Stupid really, it'd never been out of his mind that Fred was dead, but somehow his reflection had made it worse. He'd got over it. Angelina didn't need to.
"That's why I came to see you," she said, sounding miserable. "I thought I should be able to be a normal person; get on with my life, see my mates, you know? Except I got in there and I couldn't, George. I looked at you and all I could see was Fred, and that's…pathetic, isn't it?"
"Not really," George said in a feeble attempt at levity.
Luckily, she just ignored it. "It's not fair. To you, I mean. It's terrible of me. You don't deserve that."
She looked as though she was going to go on, but then she met his eyes and her expression twisted into something close to self-loathing—too close to it, as far as George was concerned. "I don't blame you," he said. Her expression twitched. "Look, I get it. I do. Mad as it sounds it was sort of the same for me." He thought about reaching out and touching her shoulder but didn't. There would've been something of the absurd in his inability to take a hint. "I think—I mean, I'd like to be friends again, Ange. But I get it. Too soon. Maybe it'll always be too soon."
The self-loathing melted from Angelina's face. "I hope it isn't, George. I really do."
And he didn't say it, because he could feel that it was time to let her walk away, but he did, too.