Chapter 1: On the Cards
The paper shop, one that had been standing for – according to the owner – over one hundred years always had a steady flow of customers. The owner of the shop, an ageing man had no need to come into the shop personally and instead had an army of part-time workers watch the shop for him. And from the moment I could start working, I spent each of my school holidays manning the shop. The years spent working had made me familiar with many of the regular customers that walked through the doors of the shop. And it was for that very reason that I wasn’t fooled by the young boy standing in front of me.
As I rang up his crisp packet at the till the bell at the top of the door sounded and I looked up at the noise. My eyes darted instantly to the open door where an all too welcome customer stepped in, but this time there was no sign of his usual companion. The man navigated easily through the shop, heading straight towards the aisle of chocolate and I couldn’t help but smile at just the sight of him.
The boy I was serving cleared his throat, making me look back to him. I waited to see what else he wanted when he cleared his throat again, gesturing to the packets of cigarettes displayed behind me. “And a packet of those.”
“Who are you trying to kid, Aaron?” I asked, unimpressed as I crossed my arms and stared down at the kid.
“What?” he complained.
Narrowing my eyes, I demanded, “ID?”
The nerve of the brat; he didn’t look anywhere near the correct age. But that didn’t stop him reaching into his pocket to draw out a fake ID. My eyebrows rose in surprise as I took the ID, making a show of looking between his face and the ID picture. Reaching beneath the counter, I took out a pair of scissors and cut it in half.
“What the hell are you doing?” he exclaimed, eyes growing wide as I handed him back his destroyed fake ID.
“The next time you try and use one of them, maybe do it when the server isn’t your brother’s best friend?” I suggested dryly, watching him frown at my words. “If you just pay for you crisps and leave without a fuss then I won’t tell your mum about your smoking. Deal?”
“Fine,” he grumbled, paying the exact amount of money and storming out of the shop.
“Honestly,” I muttered under my breath, opening the till to put the money inside. What the hell did he think he was doing? He was still a kid, and whilst I promised not to tell his mother, I needed to tell someone. His brother, maybe? Aaron was always more likely to listen to his brother over anyone else and technically that way I didn’t break my half of the deal either.
“The nerve of kids these days,” George piped up as he drew closer to the counter and held out the chocolate bar for me to scan. Without looking at him, I took the chocolate bar and rang up the total. Once he had paid for his chocolate, I went to hand him his receipt only for him to take my hand.
“Really?” I asked with a sigh, even as I fought a smile. Finally turning my eyes to his face, I gave up trying to hide my smile when I saw his grin. “You’re disturbing me, George.”
“Even though I purposefully chose a time when the shop isn’t busy?” he asked, glancing pointedly around the almost empty shop and letting go of my hand. “Can’t you appreciate the effort I made to come and see you?”
“I can appreciate it,” I assured him, leaning against the counter. A teasing smile played around my lips as I added, “I’m downright flattered that you spend so much time thinking about me.”
He grinned, mirroring my position and leaning towards me. “Good to know that the effort’s not in vain.”
“So,” I began expectantly. “Let’s see it then.”
My words had him straightening up and I watched with anticipation as he reached into his coat pocket to retrieve a set of playing cards. My eyes dropped to his hands where he shuffled the deck and it was only at the sound of his chuckle, that I raised my eyes to his face.
“You’re trying to figure out the trick again,” he chastised. “That takes all the fun out of it.”
“Well I’ve never managed to work it out anyway,” I muttered with a pout, watching as he spread the deck of cards out on the countertop.
Crossing his arms over his chest, he gestured for me to pick a card and I did so all whilst keeping my eyes on his face. But, as always, there was no sign of a tell. Randomly picking a card, I looked at what I had picked but when I went to put the card back, he shook his head. Furrowing my eyebrows slightly, I watched as he took another card from the deck and held it out towards me.
“This isn’t your card, is it?” he asked, making me even more confused.
“Of course it’s not,” I said slowly, looking between the card I was holding and the one in his hand.
The sight of the obvious lack of understanding on my face had his smile growing even more. “Watch carefully.”
And so I did. I watched as he reached into his pocket and withdrew the wand he used for all of his tricks and as always, he muttered some words that I didn’t even hope to understand. My eyes, riveted to the card held in his hand, looked uncertainly towards him when nothing happened. Did it not work?
“Not this card,” he said gesturing to the one in my hand, “that one.”
Wondering if I had missed something, I did as instructed and looked back to the card I was holding only to gasp. The card – a queen of hearts – had changed into a picture of a rose.
Glancing curiously at George, I could only ask, “But how –?”
He chuckled at my blatant mystification and simply tapped the counter as he pushed away from it, “You can keep that one, Barrett.”
I looked back to the card in my hand. But how could that have happened? He’d hadn’t touched the card since I picked it up, so it wasn’t as if he could have switched the cards either. The sound of the bell ringing again had me looking to the door where he was preparing to step outside again.
“Wait,” I called out, not caring that some of the other customers in the shop were giving me strange looks. George, knowing that I was talking to him, glanced back at me with a cheeky grin. “How did you do it?”
“Magic,” he said with a wink before he disappeared into the busy street.
Early morning shifts were killer. Not only did I have to wake up at some ungodly hour in the morning, but I also needed to restock the shelves in time to meet the newspaper trucks which would be arriving with today’s papers. By the time the truck had arrived with the shipment of papers, the cold winter air had already stripped me off any remaining sleep. The truck driver hopped out of the front to hand me a clipboard, so I could sign for the delivery.
“Barrett!” a voice called out as I handed the clipboard back to the driver. As the older man went to open the back of the truck, I looked down the road to the approaching figure. My eyebrows rose in surprise; the last thing I’d expected to see so early in the morning was George with his scarf wrapped around his neck. At a particularly gruesome gust of wind, I shivered and watched as he tightened the scarf around his neck.
“What are you doing here?” I asked when he stopped at my side.
“Thought you might need some help,” he explained, offering to take two of the newspaper bundles into the shop for me. Before I could even try to decline, he stacked the two bundles on top of each other and carried them inside. With the truck driver carrying the rest, I trailed uselessly after the men.
Once the newspapers had been set on the counter, the truck driver left without a word and I headed into the back of the store to turn the kettle on. As the water began to boil I started to sort the newspapers into their corresponding display boxes. George worked silently at my side, helping to sort out the newspapers and as the kettle sounded, I excuse myself without a word.
Disappearing into the storeroom to make two cups of coffee, I returned with the two steaming mugs and handed one off to George who was leaning against the counter as he waited for me.
He took a sip as I fitted my hands around the mug, warming them and taking a moment to enjoy the silence. The school term had already begun and for the kids that walked to school, the shop was one of their first stops as they stashed up on all the sugary things that they could possibly need for the day. The silence was literally the calm before the storm and I was going to enjoy it for as long as I could.
George, not knowing about the terror that was going to descend on the store in less than an hour, cleared his throat before asking, “Your module results; have they come out yet?”
I groaned, reminded of yet another source of stress in my life. “Not yet – they’re supposed to be published within the next few days.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he assured me quietly, reaching out to put a hand on top of mine and squeezing it gently. “I’m sure you did well.”
“I’d better have,” I muttered, raising my mug to my lips. “I can not afford to take a resit.” Shaking my head, I straightened up and looked curiously towards the taller man, “Onto less stressful topics; how’s your shop doing? Sometimes I see how relaxed you and Fred are and it makes me think that I made the wrong decision by choosing to go to uni.”
“That’s only because the pair of us are good at hiding how stressed we are,” he said with a nonchalant shrug but there was something about the distant look in his eyes that told me there was something much more pressing going on in his life compared to my waiting for my university grades. “This is currently the most stressed I think I’ve ever been.”
“Want to share?” I offered gently, not wanting to startle him from his thoughts. “They say that sharing tends to halve the burden.”
“It’s nothing,” he dismissed, straightening up and smiling a smile that was so fake that I almost called him out on it. “We’re just trying to create a new product for the shop but it doesn’t seem to be working out properly.”
“I can’t offer to help because I know nothing about creating products,” I said with a bashful smile, “but what is it? I might know someone that can help.”
“It’s confidential I’m afraid,” he said a little reluctantly as he mimed zipping his lips shut.
“A lot of things seem to be,” I murmured, “you won’t even tell me where this shop of yours is.”
“If I tell you too much about me then you won’t be interested,” he shot back quickly, raising an eyebrow teasingly. “Admit it; part of the reason I’m so interesting to you is that I’ve got a whole man of mystery thing going for me.”
“True,” I agreed, finishing the rest of my coffee. “The other part being that you never seem to run out of tricks to show me.”
“Speaking of tricks,” he said, putting his empty mug on the counter and reaching into his pockets to draw out another deck of cards. “I have another one to show you; I spent ages working on this one.”
“Well then,” I said, watching as he fanned the cards out and had me pick one, “impress me, Weasley.”
Once I had chosen a card, George gathered the rest of the cards into a single pile and set them aside. I watched as he reached into the back pocket of his jeans and pulled out his wand. He adjusted my hold on the card, so it laid flat on my open palm before pressing the tip of his wand to it. There were a few murmured words and within seconds the card began to fold in on itself, easily changing into a swan right before my eyes. My eyes widened in wonder as I looked carefully over the swan. God, some of the things he was capable of doing –
“You know,” I murmured quietly, raising my eyes to his waiting ones, “sometimes your tricks make me want to believe that magic is actually real.”
He laughed at that, looking over his shoulder as the door to the shop opened. I set the swan aside, wondering if I’d gotten my first customer for the day but it wasn’t a customer. Instead, it was Fred, who stepped into the shop and instantly approached his brother.
“There you are,” he exclaimed, clapping George on the shoulder, “I was looking everywhere for you; I should’ve known you’d be here.”
“What are you doing here?” George asked his brother as Fred turned towards me and greeted me with a smile.
“We need to head to the shop,” Fred said with a roll of his eyes. Looping an arm around his shoulder, Fred went to pull George away as he said to me, “I need to take my brother back now.”
“Wait,” George protested, struggling against Fred’s arm as he called out to me, “You’re heading back to uni again, right? I won’t be able to see you again?”
“Not until the next holiday,” I agreed, watching with an amused smile as Fred continued to try and pull George away and somehow George manoeuvred out of his arms and had his brother in a headlock.
“Wait a minute you tosser,” he hissed to his brother before turning to me with a smile. “I’ll see you then?”
“You know where to find me,” I called out; it was now George’s turn to pull Fred out of the paper shop.
Another term at university passed and I headed back home for the holiday. With my return home, my shifts at the shop had started up again and my first day back had passed far too quickly. It was almost time to close the shop up and I was more than a little disappointed that George hadn’t turned up at all during the day. I had expected to catch even a five-minute glimpse of him but I tried to lower my disappointment by reasoning that he couldn’t always take time out of his schedule to come and see me. God, just wanting him to do that made me unbelievably needy.
Once I had finished serving the final customer for the day, I looked at the clock and let out a relieved breath; it was almost time to close up for the day. Walking out from behind the counter, I headed over to the door to lock it when, as if I wasn’t seconds away from closing, George waltzed into the shop. He was all smiles as he drifted past me and I tried to hide my smile. Forcing myself to sigh, I turned to watch him as he walked straight towards the counter.
“You’ve got two minutes George, I’m starting to close the shop down.”
“I’m not here to buy anything,” he explained as I turned to sign to closed.
“What are you here for then?” I asked, joining him at the counter before going to the till. Emptying the till and walking into the storeroom, I placed the money in the safe.
“I’m here to walk you home,” he called out from the front of the store as I closed the safe.
“I’m sorry?” I asked, almost not believing what I’d heard as I joined him in the storefront. “You’re here to do what?”
“Have you seen how dark it is outside?” he asked when I stopped beside him and watched him for a long moment. He just watched me with earnest eyes and I couldn’t help but laugh slightly.
“Fine, whatever, let me finish locking up and then we can get going.”
He waited without a complaint and instead watched patiently as I made the last few checks before gathering my coat. Once I had locked the shop, George was at my side and we both began to walk. Almost instantly he linked his arm through mine with a charming grin and I rolled my eyes, moving to pull my arm away. He held firm and I relented, walking in silence beside him.
“I’d have come earlier,” George began out of nowhere, “but we were really busy, we had a lot of things to sort out and I couldn’t leave Fred to deal with it all. He’d have killed me if I tried.”
He still hadn’t told me where the shop actually was, I thought as I eyed him contemplatively. Feeling my stare, he glanced curiously at me and I hurriedly looked away. “If you were so busy then you’re probably tired now. You should have just gone home and rested for a while.”
“Nah, I think I made the right decision,” he insisted as we turned into my road and walked the final metres towards my house. “After all, I had a date to keep with you.”
“Date?” I repeated questioningly as we came to a stop outside my house. Turning curiously towards him, I raised an eyebrow when he looked at his shoes, unable to meet my eyes for a few seconds.
Stilling himself, he swallowed thickly and raised his eyes to mine. For a moment I thought he was going to tell me to head inside but I wasn’t going to miss whatever he so clearly had to say to me. Instead, I tucked my hands into my coat pockets and rocked on my heels slightly.
“I like you,” he said finally after summoning all his courage.
I fought a smile, as I assured him, “I know.”
He didn’t get it and instead shook his head with a sigh. “No, you don’t understand – not as a friend.”
“I know,” I insisted firmly, watching as understanding dawned on his face. “Goodness George, did you really think you could keep that from me? You’ve been searching me out for almost 2 years; I’d have to be really thick not to know how you feel about me.”
He grinned sheepishly, rubbing the back of his neck. “Well once our new product has been finished, then we can go out on a date. If – if that’s good for you?”
I was silent for a while, enjoying how uncharacteristically nervous he looked. He watched me anxiously until I smiled and took a step closer to him. Rising to my toes I pressed a kiss to his cheek and when I lowered my heels back to the ground, I stared up at him with a grin as I said softly, “Deal.”
Lunchtime was amongst one of the busiest times of the day at the shop. Many of the workers would take the chance to spend their lunch hour in the shop to buy the paper that they’d forgotten to get during the morning rush to work. And usually, during the school term, the students would somehow manage to sneak out of school, choosing to forgo their school dinner in favour of whatever they could find in the shop. But now, during the holidays the number of students seemed to double as even the pupils that usually didn’t dare skip out from school, joined their more rebellious schoolmates.
The queue in front of the till was long, almost curling around one of the aisles and the sound of loud complaints had me looking further down the queue. Spying a red head of hair as they cut the queue, I couldn’t help but shake my head incredulously. George needed to be careful; kids nowadays were lethal and I didn’t think they’d have a problem with thumping him for cutting in line.
“What on earth are you doing?” I demanded with a heated hiss when he finally reached the counter. “If you’re just here to speak to me then jump over quickly and let me deal with this line.”
He stared at me for a moment, almost not believing what I’d said but he jumped over the counter anyway to join me. Turning my focus back to the waiting old lady, I handed her the receipt with an apologetic smile. She muttered under her breath about good-for-nothing youngsters before turning to leave and I made a face at her back.
“Was there a reason you came running into the shop?” I asked as I began to deal with the next customer.
“Ah,” he said as if just remembering and with excitement in his voice, he leaned in towards me to whisper, “the product is working. It’ll be in the shop once it reopens.”
“The shop’s closed?” I questioned suddenly, looking at him with furrowed eyebrows.
George cursed under his breath as if he couldn’t believe what he’d just let slip and it was only when the customer that I was supposed to be serving pointedly cleared their throat that I looked away from him. “The actual shop is currently closed but we’ve got mail orders at the moment. The store just needs some redecorating.”
“That’s a relief,” I said with a small sigh as I eyed him from the corner of my eye. “So, what was this about the new product then?”
“It’s working now,” he said as he propped himself up against the counter, watching as I dealt with one customer after another. “It took so much work to get right.”
“That’s good news,” I said with a smile even as my mind was stuck on wondering whether he’d said anything about the store closing down before. But if he had, then he wouldn’t have looked so annoyed at having just admitted it to me, would he?
“Do you remember our deal?” he asked suddenly and I didn’t need to look at him to know that he was grinning.
“I do,” I assured him, turning towards him with a hesitant smile. “But the thing is –”
He cut me off with a groan as he buried his head in his hands. Peeking up from between his fingers, he asked, “But what?”
“The entire holiday’s gone George, I’m heading back to uni in a few days and I’ve got family things planned out the entire time until I head back.”
He made a face, burrowing his head into his hands again. I glanced away from him, handling another customer but once I had given them their receipt, I eyed George contemplatively. Leaning down towards him, I whispered in his ear, “The first Saturday of the summer holiday in the coffee shop on the corner of the street? 1 o’clock? How does that sound?”
Drawing away from him, I watched as his head snapped up and he agreed eagerly, “Definitely.” We shared a smile and he straightened up to add, “If I don’t turn up then it’s only because someone died or something.”
I rolled my eyes, swatting his arm as I turned to deal with the ever-growing line of customers. “Now get out of here; I need to finish dealing with this line.”
“I’ll be waiting,” he promised me as he jumped over the counter again and I watched as he walked towards the door, waving at me as he went.
The customer cleared their throat pointedly and I snapped my attention away from George with an apologetic smile. “Sorry about that; let me just ring these up quickly.”
I waited with growing anticipation for the summer term to come to an end and I welcomed the final week with open arms. Hell, I was even looking forward to sitting each of my exams because it meant that I was just one step closer to the end of term, to seeing George again. And once the end of the term arrived, and the holiday was finally here, I spent the week fretting over what to wear. I wasn’t normally the sort of person to fuss over my clothes in such a such a manner. Thinking back to it, I was certain he’d seen me in my rattiest clothes when I’d been forced to turn up for an extra early morning session. But that didn’t mean that I didn’t want to make a good impression on him. After all, this date had been a long time coming, and after months of waiting it was just around the corner.
The anticipation of the date led to me actually arriving at the coffee shop early, not that I minded. Instead, I took my seat at one of the tables by the bookshelf. In order to fight the urge to constantly check my watch, I grabbed a random book from the shelf and began to flick through it before ordering some tea. As I settled into my seat, I picked up the book again and began to read it in earnest. The teacup was settled silently in front of me and I made it about a chapter into the book before realising that I’d managed to lose track of time. Looking in surprise to my half-empty teacup, I glanced at my watch with a frown. Where was he?
Marking my place in the book with my finger, I glanced out of the window as I wondered just where George was and what could have been keeping him for so long. The temptation to rise to my feet and leave was there but surely, since we’d both waited so long for this, there must have been a legitimate reason for why he’d been unable to come? And it wasn’t as if waiting just a little longer for him would do me any harm.
Looking back to the book in my lap, I tried to continue reading it again. At first, I only managed to get a few sentences in before my eyes would stray to the window in search of George but eventually, I managed to lose myself in the book again. The pages flew by as I lost myself in the story of a government conspiracy and the man tasked to take it down. But as I managed to make it a good way through the book, I suddenly remembered where I was and for what reason. Closing the book resolutely, I looked at my watch with a deep frown. He was almost two hours late. Setting the book aside with a frown, I looked out of the window and studied the passing crowd as if expecting to find him walking towards me.
Gnawing on my bottom lip in concern, I couldn’t help but wonder whether something had happened to him to make him not show up. George wasn’t the sort of person to behave so unreliably; if he planned something he stuck to it, so where exactly was he now? If he knew he wouldn’t have been able to make it, then he’d have definitely told me so that I wouldn’t have been waiting around for him like a fool. God, it wasn’t as if I could reach out to him either; I didn’t even know how to contact him.
With one last glance at the name of the book I had been reading, I made a mental note to buy the book from the local bookstore. Rising to my feet with a sigh, I grabbed my bag before leaving the coffee shop. Part of me tried to rationalise that I had just been stood up by him; I should have been angry, mortified even. But I wasn’t. Instead, I was simply worried about him and I wondered what reason there was that could have held him up. Even now, I was just simply worried about him.
And just like that, a month passed in which there was neither hide nor hair of George. My inability to contact him left me floundering, trying to think of some way to reach out to him but there was none. There was no number to call, no address that I could drop round to in case I wanted to find him, and no place of work for me to visit. Instead, I was convinced that he would turn up to the shop eventually and had taken to looking up whenever the bell on top of the door rang when someone entered. But so far there was no sign of the man.
As I started to scan the items placed on the counter by one of the customers, my head snapped up almost painfully at the sound of the bell. Straightening up instantly, I turned towards the sound and I swore that my heart stopped for a second at the head of red hair that walked into the shop, turning curiously in search of something. But, as the man drew closer, my shoulders dropped when I realised that it wasn’t George and I had needlessly gotten my hopes up again. Turning back to the customer that I was supposed to be dealing with, I finished ringing up their total and once they had paid for their items and left, I rubbed a tired hand over my face.
A throat cleared making me lift my head and my eyebrows rose a little in surprise when I realised that the redheaded man had approached the counter. He waited patiently as I straightened out and took the chance to look over him. Something about his features was very familiar.
“Can I help you?” I asked tentatively, my eyes lingering on the fang earring he wore.
“Miss Barrett?” he enquired and at my nod, he straightened out to his full height. “It’s nice to meet you; I’m Bill Weasley.” My eyebrows rose a little at the introduction and he guessed correctly, “You’ve heard of me?”
“George told me about you once,” I explained slowly, “said you were his eldest brother.”
“That’s me.” He sighed, glancing around the empty shop before asking, “Can you spare some time to talk to me? I think we have something rather important to talk about.”
“I can close the shop for a while,” I said instantly, coming out from behind the counter. “It’s almost time for my break anyway.”
“If you don’t mind.”
Walking past the taller man, I switched the sign on the door to closed before gesturing for him to follow me into the back of the store. Reaching the storeroom, I cleared some space for him to sit on one of the stools and hovered uncertainly.
“Would you like some tea? Coffee maybe?” I left the offer hanging and nodded slightly when he shook his head and gestured for me to sit on the stool beside him.
Settling down next to him, I watched him for a long moment and wondered what it was that he had to say. He claimed that it was something important and yet he wasn’t in much of a hurry to actually tell me. Unless it was something that he needed to prepare himself for? God, had something happened to George?
Unable to stop myself, I rubbed my hands awkwardly on my trouser legs as I asked, “George – is he alright?”
“Honestly?” Bill asked and at my nod, he sighed and shook his head. “He’s physically fine but he rarely eats, he hardly sleeps and he doesn’t come out of his room.”
Frowning at his words, I wrung my hands together in concern. “Has something happened, or –”
“We –” Bill suddenly clammed up, his voice breaking midway through the single syllable word. I straightened up in my seat, looking around to see if there was something I could offer him. But he didn’t need it. Instead, he took a moment to gather himself, taking in a shuddering breath. When he cleared his throat and spoke again, he sounded much more composed as if he hadn’t been on the verge of tears simply moments ago. “We lost Fred.”
My breath left me in a gasp and a chill ran through my spine. That had been the last thing I’d expected to hear from him. Questions instantly sprung to mind; I wanted to ask how it happened, whether he’d been ill or if it was some sudden accident but I kept the curiosity to myself. Instead, I let the silence lengthen and deepen for a moment longer before speaking with as much sincerity as I could muster.
“I’m really sorry for your loss.”
Bill nodded simply, because how else were you supposed to respond to those words? Taking another moment for himself, Bill raised his eyes to mine.
“George has taken it the worst – which is understandable. The pair of them have never been separated. We’ve all tried to get through to him but I don’t think he’s listening.”
“And you want me to try?” I guessed, and he nodded. “I don’t really know how I’m supposed to be helping. I haven’t seen him in weeks.”
“Leave that to me,” Bill insisted as he rose to his feet. “I can’t say when, but I’ll get George to stop by the shop sometime soon. And when he does come, treat him like you normally would. That’s what he needs the most right now.”
When George finally did turn up to the shop just over a week after Bill’s visit, I hadn’t realised that it was him. I had, at some point, stopped expecting for him to turn up and as a result, I hadn’t been on the lookout for him. He had gotten as far as actually going to pay for his items – two chocolate bars and today’s paper – before I had glanced up at his face and realised that it was really him. My eyebrows rose in surprise as I looked over his features, taking in the signs of weight loss and his eyes that lost some of their light.
It was then that I remembered Bill’s words and the concerned questions that I wanted to ask, died down. Instead, I made myself smile teasingly at him, “Well if it isn’t the man who stood me up and disappeared without a trace.”
He winced, suddenly reminded of our planned date as he put the exact money for his purchases on the countertop. Clearing his throat, he spoke hesitantly, “I’m sorry – about that, I –”
“It’s alright,” I assured him when it became obvious that he was struggling to find a way to tell me what had happened without telling me the truth. He clearly had no idea that Bill had already told me everything. “I know there must have been an important reason for why you didn’t turn up that day. Don’t worry about it George, I was only teasing.”
“Good,” he said promptly, gathering his things and turning as if to leave the shop.
I watched him turn away, taking a few steps before I blurted out, “Want to see some magic?”
The absurd question had him halting in his step, clearing wondering if he’d misheard my question. Turning slowly towards me, he raised an eyebrow as if to silently ask me to assure him that his ear – where the fuck was the other one and why hadn’t I noticed that sooner – was working. The case of the missing ear would have to wait, for now, I just needed him to stick around for a little longer.
Taking his silence as an answer, I pulled out the deck of cards that I’d hidden under the counter. “So? Want to see some magic?”
George returned to the counter, looking between the deck of cards and me. Biting his bottom lip unsurely, he sighed before saying, “Go ahead.”
With a relieved smile, I opened the pack of cards and pulled them all out before warning, “I haven’t been trying this for long. So, if it doesn’t work out you can’t make fun of me.”
“I won’t,” he assured quietly.
“Promise?” I prompted as I shuffled the cards rather haphazardly.
“I promise.” He set his chocolate and newspaper aside and crossed his arms, watching as I fanned the cards out on the counter.
“It won’t be anywhere near as good as your tricks,” I warned him again.
“Well try it anyway.”
“Fine.” Clearing my throat, I gestured to the cards, “Go ahead and pick one then.”
Reaching out instantly, he picked one of the cards from the middle of the pack and stared at it for a moment. Gathering the rest of the cards into one pile, I had him place his card back on top of the pile and as I shuffled the cards back up again, trying to remember the trick that I was supposed to use for it. Once I was done, I picked one of the cards and held it out for him.
“Is this your card?” George looked between my face and the card, hesitating to answer. Frowning, I said forcefully, “Answer truthfully.” He shook his head and I pouted, whining, “But I practised for hours. I guess I’m not meant to use magic.”
My comment, one with very little weight, managed to earn a short laugh from him. The sound, a very welcome one, took the pair of us by surprise and George halted halfway through it. I bit my bottom lip cautiously, watching as he lost himself in thought once again.
“I haven’t laughed in a while,” George admitted eventually, words nothing more than a mumble that I was somehow able to understand. “Or smiled, at that.”
“Fred wouldn’t have wanted that,” I murmured hesitantly, voice trailing off when he looked at me seriously, eyes boring into mine.
“Bill told you,” he eventually guessed and at my answering nod, he sighed heavily. “He always was a meddling bastard.”
“He just wants the best for you,” I defended uselessly, quietening down again when his eyes grew even heavier on me.
He was silent for a long moment and I lowered my eyes to the countertop where I drummed my fingers against the surface. His eyes hadn’t left me yet and I was struggling not to squirm under their intensity.
“That drink we were going to go for,” he began suddenly, making me raise my eyes to his. “Is it too late to go now?”
“Now?” I repeated, stunned. “As in now, now or –”
“Or when you get from work,” he amended. “At the coffee shop on the corner of the street?”
“I might be a little late – by the time I swap shifts with –”
“I can wait,” he assured me. “I think it’s the least I can do to make up for last time.”
Chapter 2: Epilogue: 5 Years Later
It might have taken a very long time – years – but I was finally able to visit the joke shop to see just what it was that George had pumped his every waking moment into achieving.
5 YEARS LATER
It might have taken a very long time – years – but I was finally able to visit the joke shop to see just what it was that George had pumped his every waking moment into achieving. And it was the ring on my finger that meant that I was actually able to see the shop that managed to exceed my every expectation. Well, that and my signature on a piece of binding paper.
Although, now that I thought back to it, wasn’t George technically cheating every time he stopped by the shop I used to work at? The tricks he used to pull off were on another level and how was I supposed to know that he was using actual magic? I mean, after all, I was a muggle – was that the right word? That was beside the point; I’d spend days wracking my mind in an attempt to understand the tricks he pulled off but all this time there was no way that I’d have known the answer anyway. Because legally I wasn’t allowed to know.
“You know,” I said over my shoulder to the man who was steering me by the shoulders around the shop, insistent on showing me every part of it, “last night I wouldn’t have believed in magic. If that damned piece of paper hadn’t told me all about it. I’m still trying to get my head around it, truthfully.”
George chuckled, the sound buried into my hair as he clearly recalled the almighty shriek I’d let out when ink had suddenly appeared on the paper I’d signed only seconds before. The prick had teased me relentlessly for my reaction and only when I went to storm out of his house, did he actually settle me down and explain to me the truth that he’d been forced to hide from me for years. The betrayal I’d felt at him hiding such a big secret from me had been brief and it was easily overshadowed by the awe I felt.
His hold on my shoulders tightened, bringing me to a stop and turning me to face him. “Signing that paper means you can’t leave me,” he said gleefully and I rolled my eyes, making sure he saw the motion.
“As if you’d ever let me,” I muttered under my breath as I picked up one of the products from the shelf and raised it to eye view.
The product, wrapped in a rather inconspicuous box, was rather light to hold. According to the description written in the back, the box contained a small dropper full of liquid and just a single drop of the solution would give the consumer an uncontrollable fit of giggles. And depending on the amount of the solution consumed, the duration of the giggling fit would vary. I smiled slightly; just imagining my grumpy next-door neighbour happening to drink something with some of this mixture into it was hysterical. Maybe I’d have to buy some of this to test it.
“This was one of Fred’s,” George said from behind me as he snagged the box from my hand to replace it on the shelf. Coming up behind me, his arms came around me to fix the display on the shelf. “He came up with the idea halfway through the war; claiming that people needed a right laugh during the darkest times.”
“It’s ingenious,” I agreed, turning towards George who was staring at the boxes with that faraway look he always got when he spoke about Fred. It was definitely better than the haunted glaze that used to take over his eyes until just a short while ago. Maybe in another few months, he would be able to talk about Fred without needing to spend some time soothing his emotions.
“Fred was always the idea man,” he explained quietly, blinking away his thoughts and smiling at me as if to reassure me that he was ok. “He always came up with ideas that I would never be able to think of. Normally we’d work together on making a product work but he tried to work on this one alone except he couldn’t quite make it work. After the battle, I decided that I needed to make this one work because it was the last idea he’d come up with. That’s what I spent all those weeks locked up in my room doing, working on this thing here. I’ve got so much that I owe to him and it was the least I could do for him.”
Realising that he had something more that he needed to say, I turned into George when he wrapped an arm around my waist to pull me into him. He pressed his forehead to mine, eyes closed as he took a moment to calm himself again.
“We wouldn’t even be together without him,” George murmured quietly as if worried about how I would react to the revelation.
“What do you mean?” My whispered question had him opening his eyes and drawing away from me but only far enough for him to brush a hand over my hair in a gesture meant to soothe.
“The night before the battle we both knew that there was a chance we wouldn’t make it out,” he admitted gravely, fighting the urge to frown. “Or even worse, that only one of us would make it and we made a promise to each other in case that happened. Fred made me promise that I’d work things out with you, that I wouldn’t stay alone. I’m not very good at that you see – being alone. I’ve always had someone by my side, first it was Fred and now it’s you.”
My throat tightened at his words as I forced myself to keep the tears at bay. Smiling up at him, I tilted my head towards his and pressed a kiss to his lips.
“I’ll help you fulfil your promise with Fred,” I reassured him, watching as my words brought a smile to his lips.
And that was my promise to Fred; that I would never let George become alone again.