The morning-after pixies were tap-dancing on my brain.
It was their insistent "tap-tappity-tap" which woke me. My head throbbed with the familiar noise of too much Firewhiskey, but on that particular morning there was an unfamiliar echo to the noise. It seemed that the pixies had brought a percussion section with them, "rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat".
My tongue was dry and my entire mouth was burning hot. Too much Firewhiskey does that. Charlie once told me that if you drink enough Firewhiskey, you don't get a hangover. I've experimented rigorously, but I've never managed to reach that state. I think he was lying.
That's when I heard the grunt. It was a decidedly female grunt, and it was right next to me. It appeared that I had brought someone home with me. I wondered who it was.
As my memories of the previous evening were still hidden behind flickering flames of Firewhiskey, there was only one way to find out. I didn't want to do it, but I had no choice; if I wanted to find out who was lying next to me, I would have to look.
I forced my eyes open and allowed the unwelcome light to attack my eyeballs; the morning sunshine set off a firework display of burning bright colours as my hangover fought back. When the fireworks finally fizzled out I tried to focus on the face next to me. Her hair was dark and her features, while not unattractive, were jutting and angular. I'd certainly woken up next to worse sights.
I recognised her, but I couldn't remember her name. My alcohol-befuddled brain wasn't in the mood for thinking, but I gave it no choice. Familiar-face was … who the hell was she?
She was what's-her-name!
That wasn't much use; I was remembering who she was, but not her name. She was Neville's ex-girlfriend and Michael Corner's too. I'd seen her at a few parties but never paid her much attention, because Ginny didn't like her. My brain dredged up the rumour that she'd been with Terry Boot, too; though, so far as I could remember, that had been very short-lived. So, now I knew who, sort of; all I had to do was remember her name. Perhaps if she spoke, her voice might give me a clue.
I had no idea what to say to her, "Morning, whoever you are," was an option to be used only if all else failed. Instead, I didn't say anything; I merely belched as loudly as I could. It was a good one; it came up from my toes, hot and fetid.
'Eurgh! There was no need for that, Georgie,' she said. She sounded rather petulant, but she rolled onto her side and gently stoked my cheek.
The belch hadn't put her off, then.
iGeorgie, I shivered, surely I didn't tell her to call me Georgie. I couldn't possibly have been that drunk, no one calls me Georgie, not since I stopped being a twin. Unfortunately, hearing her voice hadn't helped me to identify her. What is her name, and how do I get rid of her?
'What time are we leaving for your parents' house?' she asked.
Merlin, I'd invited her to The Burrow for Sunday lunch! I must have been insanely drunk, I decided.
She sat up in my bed, revealing a slim, pale back and reawakening some vague recollections of the previous evening. She'd been bloody enthusiastic, I remembered that. But what was her name? Why was I thinking of her as a vain girl?
Not vain, I realised, Vane.
That was her name, she was Ronalda Vane.
No, she didn't share a name with Ron, she couldn't possibly, that would be…
Not Ronalda. Was it Brunhilda? No, not Brunhilda, either.
Romilda, that was it, Romilda Vane.
'What's that noise, Georgie?' she asked me.
I wondered how in Merlin's name she could hear my hangover. I must have looked as stupid as I felt, because she provided me with the answer.
'It's at the window,' she said.
It wasn't my head, it was a bloody owl.
I sat, turned sideways and carefully placed my feet on the wooden floor of my bedroom. Fortunately, it didn't move. I thought I was safe, but the moment I struggled to my feet I discovered that I'd been transported to a ship's deck, in a stormy sea. The floor beneath my feet was pitching wildly, but I eventually managed to stagger and sway over to the window. I pulled back the curtains. Diagon Alley was quiet, but it always was on a Sunday. It was a clear and sunny morning, so I stood for a few moments, looking out and waiting for the floor to stop moving.
Rat-a-tat, went the owl. I cursed it and, fumbling with the catch, I slid the casement window upwards. I tried reaching for the envelope, but the owl was still annoying me. Now, it was stubbornly refusing to stay in focus. I eventually managed to snatch the envelope from its beak.
Turning away from the window I looked at the envelope. It was a card. Someone had sent me a card on my birthday! No one sends me birthday cards; everyone knows that I hate birthday cards.
The floor had finally stopped moving and the world was beginning to come back into focus. The morning-after pixies were still dancing, but they'd taken their tap shoes off, and were syncopating in their socks. In addition, their no longer mysterious percussion section had finally flown away.
The envelope was addressed to "George Weasley, Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes, Diagon Alley, London," and I recognised the long, looping scrawl. She never sends me a card; she'd stopped sending them after our ... after my … fifteenth, long before I decided that I didn't like my birthday.
I'd never bothered to tell her not to send a card because she didn't, and anyway, I never saw her. I hadn't seen her in almost a year, not since last May. I'd see her this May, too, if I went to the memorial service.
Curious, I opened the envelope and pulled out the card. I recognised it immediately. It was a vile yellow colour, and the "Happy Birthday" message flashed magenta and mauve. I decided to open it cautiously, but my fingers still weren't up to the task, and it fell open.
It still worked, even after eight-and-a-half years.
The open card farted the "happy birthday" tune. It had taken Fred and me weeks, and a steady diet of sprouts and baked beans, to make that card. The final "you" was long and drawn out, and one of Fred's finest.
'How disgusting,' said Romilda. 'What sort of idiot would send a farting birthday card?'
I ignored her, chuckling at the memory. Me and my twin would, because it's funny, especially when it's perfectly in tune, which is a lot harder to achieve than you'd think. I read the message on the inside. A neat rectangle of paper had been Spellotaped over our original message.
I found this at the bottom of my school trunk when I was clearing out the flat. It still works! Impressive!
Happy Birthday, George
I lifted up the paper and read the original message beneath it. It was in my handwriting, and I could still remember writing it. My hand was still shaking wildly. Too much booze, that's all, I told myself.
to the world's most beautiful Chaser,
Happy 15th Birthday
from your secret admirer (so that's not Lee, then)
She'd known who'd sent it of course. Let's face it, who else would have sent her a farting birthday card? She'd thanked us for the card, but hadn't retaliated, at least not until our fifteenth birthday, six months later.
She'd been clever, she'd convinced someone else to print the envelope, and she hadn't asked Katie or Alicia, she wasn't that stupid. Her retaliatory envelope had been addressed to "the good-looking Weasley twin", and to guarantee maximum chaos she'd sneaked into our dorm and placed it on the floor, exactly halfway between my bed and Fred's. I'd spotted it first and picked it up, but Fred had snatched it from me saying, "Can't you read, it's for me!" We'd fought for it.
Fred had won, he usually did. But, when he'd opened it, it had filled our dorm with rank green smoke. The stench had been horrendous, worse than a dozen Dungbombs.
'Evacuate' Fred had shouted as he threw the card aside and sprinted for the door.
'Smells like someone already has,' I'd said, and we'd left the room crying tears of laughter.
I stared at the card and chuckled at the memory. I wondered what had happened to her stink-card. I was certain Fred had kept it. That card had been a neat trick, better that the one I was holding. I have no idea how she did it. Noises were easy enough to trap inside a folded card. Ginny had managed that as a second year, but smells! We'd tried, and failed, to duplicate that card.
Romilda interrupted my reminiscences. She lifted the card from my hand and stepped up close.
'You're daydreaming, Georgie. Don't forget about me,' she said. 'It's your birthday, so you deserve a treat.'
She was naked and so was I. And she was very willing. What was I supposed to do?
I'd stopped listening to Romilda before Mum served us our dessert. Sunday lunch had been a disaster. If it hadn't been my birthday, I think I'd have been politely asked to leave. Apart from my presents, my birthday lunch had been an even more miserable affair than usual.
During the main course, roast pork, Hermione sat stiff-backed and straight, Ron glared and Harry rolled his eyes. If that wasn't bad enough, Ginny smiled politely, something which frightened me even more! As Romilda's inane chatter continued, Mum was replying through gritted teeth.
Midway through the main course Dad said, 'We need to talk, George.'
That's when I knew I was in real trouble. When Mum let's you know she's unhappy with you, it's just another day. When Dad lets you know, it's really time to take notice; it's you iwill/i be sorry, it's Unbreakable Vow and very sore bottoms time.
Romilda was unstoppable, and had the hide of a rhinoceros. She had ideas for the business, for my business. She would help me reach my full potential, and help the business reach its full potential. I needed her; she'd be good for me. That was annoying; unfortunately, it got worse. She dispensed beauty tips to Fleur, cooking guidance to Mum, hair care advice to Hermione, and Quidditch suggestions to Ginny. The last resulted in the highlight of the meal, Ginny's demonstration that she didn't need any help.
'You should practice with smaller goal hoops, try to hit a tiny target,' said Romilda.
Ginny was at the opposite end of the table. She immediately flicked a forkful of mashed swede along the length of the table, dropping it right into the centre of Romilda's cleavage. Neither Mum nor Dad scolded Ginny, and both Percy and Audrey laughed; if there had been any doubt about Romilda's unpopularity (and there hadn't been) it would have ended then. Unfortunately, Romilda was completely unfazed. It turned out that she had an inflated idea about the size of her boobs, too.
'Very funny, Ginny,' said Romilda, her tone that of a weary mother addressing a recalcitrant child. 'But you should have chosen a smaller target.' She was looking directly at Hermione as she spoke. After Romilda's earlier comment about Hermione's hair, Harry and Hermione were forced to hold Ron down. I'd known then that I'd have to leave early. I also realised that if I dumped her off somewhere and came back alone I'd get an earful from everyone, and have to face Dad.
Mum's biggest weakness is that she's so tolerant—with guests—family (and these days that includes Fleur, Harry, and Hermione but, despite the ring, not Audrey, not yet) would never have been allowed to behave the way Romilda did. When Mum cleared the dessert bowls Romilda was in full flow, explaining the failings of the Ministry to Percy and Audrey. I didn't interrupt her quickly enough. Bill and Fleur left immediately, claiming that Victoire was tired. That was when I lost the last grain of sympathy Mum had left for me. Her only grandchild had been taken away, and it was my fault.
The Famous Four went next, Ron and Harry claimed "Auror business", but Hermione and Ginny made an excuse about fixing Hermione's hair and left with them; it was obvious that they were all going off somewhere together. I hastily interrupted Romilda, who was now telling Audrey how cold, wet and dreary Yorkshire was, and, before Percy and his Whitby lass could to make their escape, I told Romilda that we had to leave. She wasn't happy, but I said something about the business, and dragged her away from the kitchen table.
I threw some Floo powder onto the fire and took her back to my flat. As I whirled away I saw Mum smile gratefully at me. At least now she could talk weddings with Perce and his fiancée.
Romilda was like shit on your shoe: easy to pick up; difficult and unpleasant to get rid of; and leaving an unpleasant, lingering, smell which simply wouldn't go away.
She was clinging to my arm as we left my flat. I got her outside, into Diagon Alley, and locked up. As we walked I tried dropping "go away" hints. They simply bounced off her. I considered telling her, simply saying "It was a one night stand. Okay, it extended to this morning, too, but…" but I couldn't.
I'm not a complete git; I don't like making girls cry, although I'm very good at it. After the scene Caroline had made last year, I didn't want to risk a commotion, not in a public place.
As I took her into the Leaky Cauldron she tried to hold my hand. I wouldn't let her, so she simply kept a tight grip on my arm. She thought I was going to buy her a drink so I decided to be rude to her, I told her that I'd had enough, and if she wanted a drink, she could stay, and she could pay. She thought I was joking, so I kept walking, straight through the pub and out into Muggle London.
As we stepped outside, I started to explain that I wasn't joking, but Romilda's lips began to quiver and I was certain that she was going to turn on the waterworks. I shut my mouth.
Caroline had been bad enough, but after Verity, after Christmas, I simply didn't want to go through the tears and anguish again. I'd never promised anything to any of my girlfriends. Verity had simply assumed more than she should. The fact that we stayed together for three months simply meant that I was enjoying myself, nothing more. I was convinced that Verity's hysteria wasn't my fault, even though Ginny said that it was.
I needed to get rid of Romilda subtly; unfortunately, I wasn't feeling subtle. I was desperate. Fortunately, Dennis saved me from my foolishness and he wasn't even there.
'I've got to go, I'm meeting someone,' I said in desperation.
'Another girl,' she said suspiciously.
'No, a friend of mine, Dennis Creevey,' I assured her.
'Little Dennis? He's your friend? I don't believe you,' she sneered acidly. 'I know he was in Harry's club, but he wasn't at the battle; he was just a hanger-on. He was in my year, in my class. You're famous and wealthy, Georgie. You've got an Order of Merlin, second class. Why would you hang around with a nobody, a weird little Muggle-born creep?'
Instead of arguing, I gave a noncommittal "tell me more" grunt. She was digging herself a hole, I would let her, and I would bury her in it.
'He was always going on about cars and engines and comtupors. He even told me he had a play station; he was still playing with a toy train set when he was fourteen! And he was never away from that brother of his, they were inseparable, it was creepy.'
'It was almost as though they were twins,' I told her, trying to sound both hurt and tragic. 'I'm meeting him at my brother's grave. Why do you think that is?'
I was only partly lying. I was seeing Dennis, but not until later in the evening, and I never visited Fred on our birthday; I couldn't.
Her face fell. I'd finally pierced her hide, I'd finally silenced Romilda. She released me and stared up at me. She was going to apologise, so I acted immediately.
'I never want to see you again!' I told her dramatically. I turned away, dashed across the road into a narrow alley, and Disapparated.
I found myself at Hexworthy cemetery. I'd been concentrating on my escape from Romilda, not my destination. That's a very dangerous thing to do. I suppose I was lucky not to splinch myself.
Hexworthy is about thirty or forty miles west of the Burrow. The cemetery lies well outside the Muggle village, on a Dartmoor hillside. Dad says that Weasleys have been buried there for centuries. The gravestones bear him out.
I visit Fred regularly, but never on our birthday, on my birthday, because it's too depressing. But, there I was, standing at the cemetery gates, looking at rows of stones, some bright and new, some so old and weathered that the names were unreadable. One day I'd be in there, too. And one day my gravestone, and Fred's, would be weathered and unreadable and no one would know who we were.
I wondered where to go. I didn't dare go back to The Burrow. Could I risk going back to my flat, or would Romilda be waiting for me? As I considered my options, I looked beyond the cemetery, out over the rolling moors. Wistman's Wood wasn't far away, and it was a good place to be alone and miserable.
I was about to Disapparate when I saw her. She'd been crouched down in front of a grave, in front of Fred's grave I realised, but she must have heard me Apparate.
The first thing I saw was the top of her head, her tightly braided jet black hair. It was enough, I recognised her before she turned and stood, before I saw chocolate skin, before she rose to her full, imposing, height. The sight of her held me. I should have Disapparated immediately, but I was rooted to the spot. She turned and stared at me.
'Hello, George,' she said.
'Hello,' I said.
Then there was silence.
'Did you get my card, or, should I say, your card?' she asked.
'Yeah, er, thanks. No one sends me cards,' I informed her.
'Am I no one?' she asked.
'No,' I said, but I couldn't think of anything else to say. The silence returned, hanging heavily on the air.
'Well, I'll be off, then,' I said. 'Bye.'
'Off? You've only just arrived!'
'Yeah, well, things to do, you know how it is,' I told her.
'No, George,' she said. 'I don't know how it is! I know what it is; it's your twenty-third birthday. How is it exactly? Why come here, and leave immediately? Are you scared of me?'
'Of course not,' I lied. 'I came here by accident; I Disapparated without thinking about my destination. All I wanted to do was get away from… to get away from … somebody.'
'And then you saw me, and decided to get way from somebody else,' she said.
We were standing about twenty-five yards apart, and neither of us had moved. I looked down at my feet, trying to make sure that they weren't going to walk towards her.
'No,' I protested, 'It's not like that.'
'Liar,' she said. 'You were running away from a girl, and when you saw me, you were going to run away again, weren't you?'
I nodded, because she gave me no choice.
'I wouldn't lie to you, Angelina,' I speak her name for the first time in years and the unfamiliarity of it frightens me.
'You can't run forever, George. You can't possibly leave here without saying hello to Fred on his birthday, can you?'
'I thought you'd want to be alone with him,' I told her. 'After all you, and him, you were…'
'You were his brother,' she says. 'I was nobody, only some girl he snogged for a few months.'
'You were more than that,' anger and resentment boiled inside me. 'You were the love of his life, and you chucked him!' I said. 'You broke his heart.'
'I was what? I chucked him?' Angelina strode angrily towards me. 'Are you really that stupid, George?'
I looked down at my feet again. They hadn't walked towards her, but they were refusing to back away, either. I had taken root. She raised her hand and slapped me hard. I didn't even try to dodge the blow and the loud smack echoed around the graveyard. I realised that I was crying, but not from the, admittedly eye-watering, force of her blow.
'Fred told me…' I begin to protest, but Angelina was crying too, and suddenly I had doubts.
'Fred told you,' she said. 'Always honest, wasn't he?'
'He…' I was forced to stop. I couldn't say the words. I couldn't tell her that "He wouldn't lie to me," because he would. I knew it, and Angelina knew it too. I'd lied to him, too, but they weren't serious lies, they were just a bit of fun between twins. They didn't mean anything, did they?
We were on our way back to the Gryffindor Common Room. We'd just finished a letter to Bagman when Fred asked the question. 'We need to get dates for the Yule Ball, Georgie. Any idea who you're going to ask?'
The three Chasers were just ahead, they'd opened the portrait. I stared at them, at Angelina, but I didn't say anything. We followed them in.
Ron, Harry and Hermione were huddled together, as usual. Ron was building a card castle out of Exploding Snap cards. I tried to convince him to let us borrow Pigwidgeon. Fred was more interested in baiting Harry and Ron about their lack of dates, even though we didn't have dates, either. I sympathised with them. Fred didn't.
He shouted over, asked Angelina, and she said yes. 'You were going to ask Katie, weren't you?' he asked me later.
'Yes,' I lied.
'He asked me to the Yule Ball, and we were together until the summer.' Angelina told me. 'Six months, George, and I was just seventeen. He promised that he'd write over the summer, that we'd meet. He didn't.'
'Neither did you!' I accused.
'I did!' Her warm brown eyes were filled with earnest tears as she begged me to believe her. 'I wrote two letters. I even started a third, but I didn't finish it. I decided to wait. I wasn't going to chase him.' She folded her arms and stared angrily into my face.
I believed her. I'd always admired her honesty and her bluntness. Angelina always told you what was on her mind.
'We were friends, George, you and me. What happened?'
'Fred,' I admitted, because she deserved the truth. 'It's not easy to be friends with the girl your brother is…'
The narrowness of her lips made me stop.
'Is what?' she asked. 'Did Fred tell you that we…' She clenched her fists. 'Tony was the first bloke I ever slept with, not that it's any of your damn business. Besides, that's no excuse, you're friends with Hermione. And Ron's your brother, too.'
'That's different,' I said.
'Why? Is it special for twins, am I different to your other brother's girlfriends? What's the difference between me and Hermione?'
'I don't fancy Hermione,' I said. 'I never have.'
The silence descended again. I looked at her, she looked at me. I could feel my world change. My big secret was out. I'd stood at Fred's graveside and promised that I wouldn't sully his memory by chasing the love of his life. I wouldn't be second best.
She wrote to him, he didn't write to her. He ditched her, she didn't ditch him. Tony was the first … Tony was after she left school, the year she'd joined the Tornadoes. If all that was true, then Fred had lied to me.
I wiped my tears on my sleeve.
'Shit,' she said, because one of us had to say something.
'Forget I said that,' I said. 'You've got a bloke, a good bloke.'
'No, I haven't,' she said. 'I walked out on Martin yesterday.'
'You what? Why?' I asked. 'You've been together for years, since before Harry's Millennium Party. Everybody liked him.' iExcept me./i 'Everybody thought he was going to ask you to marry him. What happened?'
'He did ask me, and I realised than my answer was no, and that it would always be no.'
'Shit,' I said.
We stared at each other. I looked at her hair, her skin, her face. She is beautiful, remarkable, wonderful, and a fraction taller than I am.
'Why come here?' I asked.
'Because I wanted to ask Fred a question, even though he can't answer. I found the farting birthday card yesterday, when I was clearing my things, moving out. I'd forgotten all about it. It wasn't until I found it yesterday that I realised that he didn't write it, you did!'
I did. I wrote: to the world's most beautiful Chaser, Happy 15th Birthday, from your secret admirer.
Either Fred was an idiot, or he knew how I felt and asked Angelina out anyway, and he wasn't an idiot.
'It was your handwriting, George. I can tell the difference. I came here to tell your brother what an evil lying git he was.'
'Fred was my twin!' I shouted angrily, but I wasn't sure whether I was angry with her, or angry with him. 'He was the best, how dare you…'
She slapped me again, tears in her eyes.
'I think, had he lived, he might have told us,' she shouted back. 'Because you're right, he was your twin, and he wasn't a complete git. But he wasn't the perfect, wonderful twin you pretend he was, either. You were both busy, working on your silly products. I think he wanted you to concentrate on the business, not on a girl.' She paused to let the words sink in. When she spoke again, it was softly.
'Just because someone is dead it doesn't magically make them perfect, George. Harry tells everybody that Snape was a hero, he saved Harry's life more than once, and he fought on our side. But he was still a rude, snide, miserable, git. Nobody is perfect, George, and Fred certainly wasn't. He was funny and clever and manipulative and sometimes, he lied.'
'Fred was not like Snape,' I snapped.
'No, you're right, George!' she said, her face broke into the wicked smile I hadn't seen in years. She clasped her hands together and simpered like some half-witted heroine in a ridiculous Regency romance. 'Snape was much better looking than both of you, wittier, suave and sophisticated. Despite being a miserable git, he was really every girl's ideal man.'
I had to respond, she was challenging me, daring me to banter.
'You're right. I was always jealous of Snape's rugged good looks and his wonderful hair,' I said. She tried not to laugh.
'With good reason,' she told me. 'All Beaters are naturally ugly, but you and Fred could have won prizes.'
I laughed. 'I've missed you,' I admitted.
'Because you always were a lousy shot,' she told me, and I laughed again.
'It's nice to see you laugh, George,' she told me. She reached forward, wiped a tear from my face, and caressed my cheek.
I grabbed her hand and held it to my face.
That's when Romilda arrived.