If anyone other than George had suggested meeting in Cardiff, I'd have said no. I almost said no anyway. My head told me: don't go. My heart had other ideas.
When I arrived at our pre-arranged meeting place ten minutes early, I discovered that Carntexp Lane had changed almost beyond recognition. The only familiar thing about Cardiff's magical street was the rain. I had not been back to the Welsh capital since the Battle; the city was too close to Caerphilly and my past.
The old red brick Welsh Office building which had stood for centuries at the entrance to the magically hidden lane had been demolished during Thicknesse's regime. The Welsh Office had been closed, permanently, and the last time I'd been in Cardiff the site had been derelict and rubble-strewn. Now, however, it was the site of a sweeping modern structure of glass and steel, a building which would not have looked out of place on a Muggle street. The "permanence" of Thicknesse's closure had lasted no longer than the fall of the puppet Minister and his master. When Minister Shacklebolt took over, rebuilding had been a priority.
I had Apparated into a heavy April shower, seen the unfamiliar building, and spotted the wide glass canopy in front of it. It was an obvious place to seek refuge from the downpour, so I joined the half-dozen other people standing there. I was in front of the new Welsh Office; the words Swyddfa Cymraeg – Welsh Office were carved in Welsh Slate above the entrance to make that fact abundantly clear.
I stood in contemplative silence, watching the rain dancing on pavement flags of the same gray slate as the sign and losing myself in bittersweet memories. For several self-pitying minutes I silently contemplated my all too brief Quidditch career and the twists and turns my life had taken in the following years. That was when he arrived.
'Hey, didn't you used to be Angelina Johnson?' the man called. He seemed to have appeared from nowhere. I would have assumed that, like me, he'd arrived by Apparition, but I had not heard the tell-tale pop. He wore expensive looking dress robes, and looked rather unsteady on his feet.
It was only six in the evening, but he sounded very drunk. His shoulder length jet black hair was wet from the rain and it was plastered to his skull. I looked closely at his swollen and blotchy cheeks and uneven yellow teeth. His face, particularly when combined with his beer gut and his startlingly large and red nose, seemed to indicate that this was a man who was no stranger to excessive quantities of alcohol.
'No,' I told him.
'Are you sure?' he asked. 'You look a lot like her.'
'That's because I am her,' I said.
As he closed the distance between us, lurching and swaying like a storm-tossed ship, I thrust my hands into the pockets of my raincoat. My right hand found my wand, and gripped it tightly. A girl can't be too careful when she's approached by a strange-looking man in an unfamiliar town.
'You just said you weren't,' he accused.
'No, I didn't.'
You did,' he protested, stopping directly in front of me and staring up into my face. He was crook-backed and bandy-legged, both of which helped make him appear shorter than he actually was. The fact that I was in heels also accentuated the height difference, easily enabling me to look down my nose at him. I looked him in the eyes; they were almost the same grey as the pavement, and bloodshot. He seemed to be having trouble focussing on me, and a miasma of stale booze swarmed noxiously around him like mosquitoes on a stagnant pond. He looked drunk, he sounded drunk, and he was acting as if he was very drunk. I was, however, unconvinced.
'No,' I said. 'You asked if I used to be Angelina Johnson. I didn't "used to be" Angelina Johnson, "used to be" implies the past, and that I'm now somebody else. I'm not somebody else.'
I tightened my grip on my wand. I wasn't really worried about him, not now I'd seen him up close, but I didn't want him to know that. The other people sheltering under the canopy were watching, but no one seemed interested in "rescuing" me from the smelly drunk who'd accosted me.
His face contorted as he cogitated on the conundrum I had presented him. His eyes creased in the corners and, just for a second, I wondered if he would crack. When he didn't, I again looked down my nose and tried to show my utter contempt for him.
He straightened his face and started again. 'Are you Angelina Johnson?'
'Yes,' I told him.
'Glad we cleared that up,' he said. He pointed a finger at me. 'You're Angelina Johnson. You used to be a Chaser for the Catapults!' He identified me triumphantly, proclaiming my identity to everyone else within earshot. At that point, the others began to take more interest.
'It may surprise you,' I told him, gritting my teeth at his mention of the Catapults. 'But I already knew that,' Once again I saw the creases in the corner of his eyes.
'Why d'you stop playing?' he asked. 'You was good. I was a Catapults fan when you was playing. D'you wanna go out for a drink with me?'
'I got injured,' I told the git sharply. 'And while I'd really love to go out for a drink with you, I'm waiting for someone.'
'Is it yer boyfriend?' he asked. 'Have you got a boyfriend, Angelina Johnson? What's he like?'
'I am meeting someone,' I told him. 'Someone I hadn't seen for a long time, until last weekend. I suppose that you could call him a friend, although pain-in-the-arse-I-used-to-know-at-school might be a better description. And he's male—well he is when he isn't being a complete girl, which, now I think about it, is most of the time. So, if you want to be generous to him you could call him a boy, and a friend. He's short, fat, incredibly ugly, extremely stupid and, it seems, pathetically desperate to find out what I really think about him.' I said, spitefully staring into his startled face. 'And now he knows, doesn't he, George?'
The man burst out laughing and straightened up. As he did so he reached into his mouth and pulled out a set of large, misaligned false teeth, revealing a very George-like grin.
'How did you know it was me?' asked George.
'I recognised your shoes,' I lied. I wasn't about to tell him the truth, that the wet black hair plastered to his skull betrayed the fact that he only had one ear.
He looked down at his feet in surprise.
'You had me worried when you first shouted at me, George,' I admitted. 'But when you got close, I was certain that it was you.'
He grinned, chuckled, and stepped forwards. His arms outstretched for an embrace, but I stepped back. I wasn't ready to hug him.
'The bloodshot eyes were a good touch. They would have fooled me for another few seconds, except you made one mistake.'
He looked curiously into my face.
'You forgot to change your after-shave,' I said vindictively. 'Eau-de-stale-Firewhisky, it's a smell I've associated with you ever since The Battle, and it really doesn't suit you.'
The look of abject misery on his face made me regret those words almost before I'd finished saying them, but I couldn't wind back time and undo them. I'd simply have to deal with them; and so would George. He stared at the pavement and shuffled his feet. As I watched him, I remembered why I was there.
A week earlier I'd met him in a graveyard, in the graveyard where his brother was buried, to be exact. I had just walked out on my boyfriend, not the reaction he'd expected to his proposal of marriage. George was simply hiding from his girl of the week. We'd each, for our own reasons, found ourselves at Fred's grave and we'd had our first real conversation for almost three years. It had been our first real conversation since the funerals after the Battle.
The sun was low in the sky, and the gravestones were casting shadows which were almost as long as the graves they marked. The Battle was years ago, but George still missed Fred. I'd been thinking about Martin's face, about the look he gave me when I said no, and blaming Fred for my dilemma.
As the sunlight slowly seeped from the sky, George and I were within a whisker of an argument. In the middle of our increasingly heated exchange I, rather cruelly given where we were, told him that his brother was a manipulative git. In return, George accidentally confessed that he'd always fancied me. I told him that Fred probably knew that, which didn't help matters.
George and I were in a situation we'd been so many times over the years, so we did what we always did. In order not to talk about our feelings, and in an attempt to avoid an escalation of the argument, we moved sideways into a stupid bit of teasing and banter. We'd both been crying. I was brushing a tear from George's cheek, and he was holding my hand against his cheek when his girl of the week had interrupted us.
'He's mine,' she screamed at me. 'Leave him alone, you bi…'
She got no further. I lost my temper, hit her with a Tongue Tying Curse, and then put her in a full Body-Bind.
'Let's go,' George said, looking worriedly down at the supine figure lying on the grass between two graves.
'Go?' I finally snapped. 'I'm not going anywhere with you, George Weasley! You are without a doubt the biggest…' His expression was enough to make me stop. He was stung and hurting from my venomous words, so I tried to regain my calm. I pointed down at the girl. 'This is your mess, George. This is another one of your many messes. You love to create chaos, but you never stick around to witness the consequences. You are not going to run away with me. You're going to stick around and face her. It's your job to tell her what an arse you are.'
'But…' George began. I glared him into silence.
'Sometimes, when you roll out of the way of one Bludger you roll into the path of the other one,' I reminded him. 'You have to learn to take the hits and keep playing!' Even as I spoke I wondered if I could follow my own advice. It was so easy to simply give up.
'If I stay, and sort this out, will you go out with me?' he asked.
'Piss off,' I told him.
'Okay,' he said. 'Will you meet me for dinner? No strings, nothing, I just want to talk to you, Angelina. Please?'
'I'll think about it,' I told him.
'We used to be friends,' he said sadly. 'What happened?'
'Fred!' I told him firmly. I Disapparated and left him to it. The flowers, and the invitation to Cardiff, arrived the following day. I waited for four days before replying. I wanted to make him sweat.
As we stood under the sheltering canopy, I realised that I was still making him sweat. Underneath it all, behind the jokes and quips, George was a sweet guy. He wasn't as calculating and thick-skinned as his twin. Was all this my fault? Was I punishing George for allowing Fred to ask me out? That was ridiculous. I hadn't seen George in years, not to sit down and talk to. I'd told him to stop running away from his problems. He was trying. He wanted to talk to me, and I was giving him a hard time.
'Sorry,' I said. 'I shouldn't have been so rude. But you asked me the Quidditch question, George, and I get pissed off with people who ask me the Quidditch question. You should know that.' Unfortunately, I could not sustain the apology. 'So, are we going this wonderful restaurant you told me about, or are you going to run away from me?' I added.
'Merlin, Angelina, you never let up, do you?' he observed ruefully. His bloodshot grey eyes stared into mine and he shrugged in resignation. 'Just give me a minute to tidy myself up,' he said. 'And what do you mean "the Quidditch question"?'
I sighed, and flicked my hand dismissively, trying to deflect the question into the future. Was it possible that he didn't know? He did not press, so I simply watched and waited as he began to discard his disguise. If he really didn't know, he'd find out when I took off my coat. I decided to once again try to make peace with him.
'Who did you model the hair on?' I asked, nodding at the lank black mess on his head. 'Snape?'
George chuckled, grabbed the hair, and lifted it off his skull to reveal the unmistakeable ginger of his own hair. Pulling a cloth from his pocket, he wiped the blotchy make-up from his face, revealing his freckles. He then opened his mouth and removed the two pads which had been bulking out his cheeks. I watched in silent fascination. The next to go was the false nose. As he pulled it off he threw it at me. I caught it, and almost screamed. It was very realistic; it even felt soft and fleshy.
'It's made from something called platex,' George told me. 'The Muggles use it to disguise themselves. Weird stuff, isn't it? But not as weird as this!'
As he spoke he was poking a finger into his eye. When he pulled it out, there was something stuck to it. He lifted it up to my face, allowing me to examine it. It was a tiny, thin, transparent and floppy dome, and there was a trace of fine red lines and a grey disc etched on it. He looked up into my face and smiled. One eye was hazel and clear, the other grey and bloodshot.
'It's called a compact lens,' he told me as he carefully placed it in a plastic container. He then repeated the procedure with the other eye.
'Doesn't it hurt?' I asked.
'Surprisingly, no,' he said, 'at least, not when you get used to it. A lot of Muggles use them instead of wearing glasses. These ones are simply bloodshot, and they change my eye colour.'
George took off the over-sized robes he was wearing, revealing a large bag which formed a realistic-looking beer-belly. He rolled everything, including the false belly, inside the robes and then dropped the lot into a small bag which was much too small to hold them. The moment he closed the bag, the smell of booze vanished. He dropped it into his pocket.
Finally, the real George Weasley was standing in front of me. He was wearing a smart Muggle suit and a rueful expression.
'That looked like a lot of work. Why not use magic?' I asked.
'I misjudged you,' he told me. 'I expected that you'd suspect something. But I thought you would assume I'd used magic and try to dispel my disguise. I should have realised that you would play along with me. Plus I wanted to see if I could fool you. I'm thinking about trying to sell this stuff to the Auror Office. Ron thinks I'm crazy, but a disguise that isn't made up from enchantments or potions can't be dispelled or magically washed off; I reckon Harry might think it's useful.'
'Even if he does, why would he buy this stuff from you? Harry is perfectly capable of walking into a Muggle shop and buying it himself. Probably more capable than you are.'
'Damn, I hadn't thought of that,' said George, shaking his head.
'You never think, George,' I told him. 'That's the problem. You asked me out, practically begged me! And then when I arrive, you're already here. Normally, that would be fine, but no! You're wearing a disguise and you try to make a fool of me. What sort of an idiot would pull a stunt like that on a first date?'
George had been looking more and more gloomy as I spoke, right up until my final two words. The grin which split his face when he heard them was like a Bludger blow to my heart. I didn't want a relationship. It was too soon. I'd walked out on Martin only a week earlier, I needed time.
'First date, eh?' he said. Reaching into his jacket pocket, he pulled an umbrella from it. 'Let's go,' he suggested, opening the umbrella with a flourish. 'The table isn't booked until seven, but we can sit in the bar until then.'
He smiled, and held out his hand hopefully. I compromised by simply linking with him, and we strode off down the street.
The restaurant was only a hundred yards away, and the moment the door was opened for us, I knew that it oozed class. From the muted décor to the immaculately dressed staff, everything proclaimed that this would be an expensive evening. We were greeted by a smiling young Asian girl who, like all female members of staff, wore sleeveless black robes and a claret-coloured apron.
'Good evening, Mr Weasley. Good evening, madam,' she said, glancing down at the reservations book. I watched as she took in the fact that we were wearing Muggle clothes. If she disapproved, then there was no sign of it in her face. 'Your table will be ready in twenty minutes, Mr Weasley. Will you wait at the bar?'
'Yes, thanks, Youki,' said George. He took off his coat and handed it to the girl. She turned to face me, and gave me an appraising look.
'Welcome to Demery's, madam,' she said. 'May I take your coat?'
'Does he bring many girls here, Youki?' I asked sharply as I shrugged off my coat and handed it to her. 'And do you see any of them more than once?' Her wide-eyed and worried reaction to the questions was enough of an answer.
'I'm going to have to work very hard to impress you, aren't I Angelina?' George asked, giving the girl an apologetic look.
'You? Work hard?' I snorted sarcastically. 'That'll be the day.'
As George's laughter echoed around the foyer, I slipped off my coat and handed it to the girl.
George stopped laughing. 'Wow!' he said appreciatively. I was wearing a calf-length floral print dress with a halter neck. I'd spent a long time choosing the dress, and although I'd hoped for a reaction from him, I was surprised how much his appreciative look was stirring my emotions. I tried not to show my satisfaction. Instead I strode past him and headed for the bar.
As I took the lead, I heard him inhale sharply. As I'd planned, he'd seen my scar. Ever since the Battle it had become a first-date tradition with me. Wear something backless, let them see the scar. Whatever they said next was important. I didn't want pity, or sympathy, but I was never certain what I did want.
Martin had said nothing. He had never, ever, mentioned the scar. But he had never mentioned my Quidditch career, either. For a moment, I lost myself in memories of my ex. Just like my Quidditch career, Martin was now my past. Poor Martin, yet another good man I'd hurt.
The good man following me through the door, poor lost George, said nothing either; he simply stepped alongside me, guided me to the bar and asked what I wanted to drink. When I told him, he bought two small Butterbeers. As I slid onto a bar stool, he handed the barman a Galleon. He got almost no change, proving how expensive the place was. The night was going to cost me a fortune.
'No one mentions my ear, you know,' George said conversationally.
'Why should they?' I asked, deliberately misunderstanding him. 'It's a perfectly ordinary ear.' I reached over and tugged at it. 'No one mentions my ears, either.'
'Not that ear,' he said, chuckling, 'the other one.'
'You don't have another one,' I reminded him. 'Snape cut it off, the slimy git. But you should have expected that, after all, he was called Sever us.'
George burst out laughing. 'True,' he agreed. 'Why didn't I realise? Although you shouldn't blame him, he did it by accident; if you believe Harry.'
'Do you believe Harry?' I asked. 'I know that he keeps telling everyone that Snape was on our side. It always seemed bloody unlikely to me.'
'If Harry says it's true, then it's true,' George told me, shrugging. He reached up and stroked the flesh where his ear had once been. 'Sever us…' He chuckled again, and then stared into my face, suddenly serious. 'People stare at me, you know. It's fascinating to watch them. They can't take their eyes off my missing ear, but they never mention it, either. Do people ask about your shoulder?'
'Not often,' I admitted. 'But unless I'm in a backless dress, no one sees it.'
'So, you must have wanted me to see it,' he said wisely.
'The Battle?' he asked me.
I again nodded.
'I didn't know, sorry,' he admitted. 'I didn't know much… Not after Fred…' He stared into my eyes. 'How?' he asked.
'I was attacked from behind,' I said, trying to keep the emotion from my voice. 'It was right at the end of the Battle, when almost everyone was in the Great Hall.'
'May I?' George asked. He began to stand. I motioned him to sit, and swivelled on my barstool until my back was facing him. I heard him shuffle closer.
'It must have been deep,' he said quietly. I felt a feather light touch as his fingers tenderly traced the scar.
'Down to the bone,' I said. 'I was lucky not to lose the arm. It was a Cutting Curse, apparently, the same curse which cost Mad-eye Moody a leg.'
'That's your throwing arm,' George added quietly. His hand moved up onto my shoulder. It came to rest with a lightness of touch which surprised me. The sympathetic squeeze was gentle and tender. 'The Battle changed everything.'
The Battle. I could hear the capitals in George's words. It would always be capitalised in my mind, too. And in the mind of every survivor, I suspected.
I'd had my broom destroyed, but because of the cushioning charm George had taught me in our first year, I had survived the fall. The cease fire was called as I picked myself from the ground. I had walked into the school, and discovered that Fred was dead. I had watched the grief-stricken Weasley clan, but although I'd wanted to, I had not spoken to George. As he stood and sobbed by his twin's body, not one of us had dared approach, not even Lee.
When the Battle restarted, I watched George charge off like a madman. Katie saw him too. We followed him, trying to protect his back. George had been almost suicidal in his recklessness, but somehow we'd managed to keep him safe.
When the Battle moved inside, into the Great Hall, George was trying to take on three Death Eaters. I'd been concentrating on keeping him safe when I'd been hit from behind. I'd felt a moment of blazing pain in my shoulder, and I'd fainted.
'Don't you know?' I asked, swivelling back around in my seat to face him. 'Everybody else knows. It was even in the papers.'
'I didn't read anything after the Battle,' George admitted. 'I didn't do much, and I still don't like to talk about it. Do you know who?'
'Katie thinks it might have been Bellatrix Lestrange, but it could have been anyone,' I told him. 'If it was her, it was minutes before your mum killed her.'
'Does it…' George stopped. 'Shit! The Quidditch question. That's what you meant. You can't… Merlin, Angelina, all you ever wanted to do was play Quidditch… You don't… I wondered… You can't...' There were tears in his eyes as he spoke.
'These days I have difficulty raising my elbow much higher than my shoulder,' I told him. For the first time in years my mask of nonchalance slipped. There was bitterness in my words, and it was directed at George. 'I can't play, and it's your fault.'
'My fault?' he asked startled. 'What did I do?'
I fought to regain control of my emotions. I clenched my teeth and kept the words in my head.
'You were almost suicidal, George. You fought like a madman, with no thought of defence. You wanted to follow Fred, but I was not prepared to let you do it. But I didn't save you. I fought, and was injured, all for nothing. George, at least the George I was trying to save, died. And so did my Quidditch career.'
The spite whirled and spun around inside my head, making me dizzy. George stared into my face with obvious concern. I closed my eyes.
'Don't listen to me,' I told him firmly. 'It is not your fault. All I lost was a career, you lost family.'
'We both lost everything, Angelina. We lost our futures, we lost our hopes and dreams, and we lost each other. We can try blaming Fred for that, but he's just the excuse. He's always been the excuse. For both of us,' he told me.
Then I saw the spark. He determinedly set his jaw and narrowed his eyes. It was a look I hadn't seen since we'd been at school. I knew what his expression meant, and I had to tell him that I understood.
'We haven't lost yet. We may be losing, but the game isn't over until the Snitch is caught,' I reminded him.
'You were always a bloody good captain, Angelina,' he said. 'Can we play on the same team again?'
He opened his arms to me. I fell into them, and we hugged. He tried to kiss me. I turned my head aside, but allowed him to plant his lips on my cheek.
'It's too soon,' I whispered.
'The possibility of sometime is better than a definite never,' he said, smiling.
We were still in each other's arms when Youki arrived.
'Your table is ready, Mr Weasley,' she told George.
'Can you really afford to buy me a meal in this place?' I asked George.
'Yes,' he said, but he looked aside when he spoke, and I knew that he was lying.
'That's a shame,' I told him. 'There used to be a decent fish and chip shop just down the road. I'd rather have fish and chips.'
'Let's go,' he said.