I am very pleased to tell you that your catalogue is finished. Or perhaps I should have said catalogues, because I made two of them. I hope you like them. They are very colorful. Or rather, one of them is, but the other is much more dignified. Would you like to come and visit me at The Quibbler offices some time tomorrow? I borrowed Dad’s printer to create a rough draft, but I need to print up a few corrections tomorrow. Plus, my father wants me to write out an advertisement for Pielkenrood’s Purple Pretzels, so I will be busy there for a few hours in the morning. You can use the Floo if you like; just say, ‘The Quibbler,’ and you will come out in our reception area. Please come before three, though, because Dad has a meeting then and he has been curious to meet you.
‘Dad has been curious to meet you.’ Bloody hell, I’ll bet he has. Luna probably had announced to her dad over pancakes one morning that she suspected that George Weasley, fully-grown wizard and semi-respectable businessman, wanted to corrupt his innocent daughter. Wait, that wasn’t right. George didn’t want to corrupt her. Really he didn’t. Yes, he was drawn to her. He found himself thinking of her occasionally since the last time he'd seen her. Okay, maybe more than occasionally. But just the fact that he struggled with it, that he knew that she ought to be off-limits to him - at least for a few months - ought to have counted for something.
At least he hadn’t just grabbed her that night and learned for himself the answers to the questions that had been driving him bonkers ever since…well, for a while, anyway. Neither George nor his twin had ever been known for their restraint, so it really was quite admirable, when you thought about it. And he really did have a lot of questions about her that needed answering.
For example, what would her lips taste like? It wouldn’t be the spearmint taste of the tooth flossing string mints that every other girl he had ever kissed had somehow managed to discreetly pop into her mouth just moments before George had made his move. George had never been fond of the taste of spearmint, come to think of it. Luna, he was sure, would be different -- perhaps tasting of the butterscotch candy that she had offered him as they walked down Diagon Alley. Or pineapple, like the scent that he noticed in her hair while they were dancing. Or maybe even like the salty tang of Gillywater, the drink that she had chosen out of WWW’s drink dispenser.
And what would she say after they kissed? Would he manage to stun her into solemn silence, or would she make another of her odd observations, something like telling him that his hair reminded her of orange Fwooper feathers?
Regardless, it was all pointless speculation because he was not going to kiss her. Not any time soon anyway. And there was no reason to worry about meeting her dad, because he had nothing to feel guilty about. He had simply been kind to a strange and lonely girl -- an acquaintance from school who was also a friend of his sister. All he had really done was ask her to dance and let her spend the day in his shop when she was bored and friendless. She had volunteered to take on his catalogue project. He hadn’t asked her. She seemed excited about it, actually. Leave it to a Ravenclaw to choose to take on extra work like that. Well that was the Hufflepuff ideal, really, but a Ravenclaw would have looked upon it as a challenge, and they seemed to like those. But then again, Luna wasn’t your typical Ravenclaw, was she? Just as George knew that he wasn’t the embodiment of all things Gryffindor.
But the point was she had asked him if she could do it. Besides, he was going to pay her. So her dad had no reason to be angry. And since when had George ever been afraid of an authority figure? He hadn’t even been this nervous when Umbridge managed to force Fred and him into a corner. Then again, he hadn’t actually cared what Umbridge thought of him. Nor should he care what Luna’s dad thought of him. And he didn’t really. However, he did like the fact that Luna seemed to think he was worth something as an individual, and her dad might say something to change her mind. Scratch that, no he couldn’t. Luna, more than anybody else George had ever met, knew her own mind.
He wrote a reply, sending it off with the same owl, in which he let her know that he would arrive around lunchtime and expressed the hope that she would be able to come back with him to make a proper presentation to Fred. He reckoned that the least he could do was to offer to take her and her dad out to lunch. It was probably the very last thing on earth that he would have chosen to do under normal circumstances, but it would certainly start things off on the right foot.
Besides, there had only ever been three adults whom George had never been able to charm into liking him. One was Dolores Umbridge, who’d had poison running through her veins. The second had been Filch, and who cared about him, really, other than that psychotic cat? The last was Professor Snape, although George had occasionally caught a flicker of a smirk at the corner of Snape’s thin lips during some of George and Fred’s better pranks. Also, he could have sworn that he had seen grudging admiration in Snape’s eyes as George and his twin had kicked off on their broomsticks on that very last day of school. But that could very well have been explained as satisfaction at never having to deal with the twins outside the Order again. And considering the subsequent events of that horrible night, late last spring, grudging amusement or admiration was the very last thing that George wanted from Severus Snape.
But that was really not worth thinking about much -- it got depressing. The point was that George was well aware that he could be a charming bloke. And seeing as how Luna (with her characteristic blunt honesty) was probably filling her father’s head with unsavory stories about her ‘new friend George’s’ hi-jinks at Hogwarts, it wouldn’t hurt to get the introductions out of the way early, making an attempt at a good impression. Better that than allowing Lovegood to imagine all sorts of dreadful things about one of those notorious Weasley twins.
However, the more George thought about it, the more startled he was to realize that he and Fred had actually become…marginally respectable. Certainly, they had made a success of the store, and personally, George was becoming about as dull as it was possible for a co-proprietor of a joke shop to be – all he ever really did was work, eat, and sleep anymore.
And he came from a well-respected family, too, at least from the standpoint of a non-pureblood fanatic type of person. Jack Lovegood had been a Hufflepuff, from what George had heard, and he appeared to stand firmly behind Dumbledore and all that he had represented, so that wasn’t an issue. The point was (as long as you didn’t put too fine a point to it) that any father ought to have been happy to let George Fabian Weasley take out their underage daughter. Not that George had any intention of taking Luna out, really. It was just a matter of being prepared for any possibility. “Constant Vigilance,” as Mad-Eye would say.
Besides, he had been considering doing a little advertising in The Quibbler, too. People who read that magazine had to have a good appreciation for the absurd, and that sounded like George’s kind of customer.
George dressed with more care than usual, but told himself that it was out of respect for a potential new business relationship. He’d had every intention of wearing his more somber black dragon skin jacket but, in a fit of rebellion and denial, chose a lurid green one instead. Setting that aside, he threw his maroon work robes on over everything, hoping that Fred wouldn’t take too close a look at his brother’s clothes or the state of his hair.
George found himself on edge for most of the morning, accidentally spilling his tea over a stack of invoices and scolding Verity for adding too much leech juice to her very first attempt at Nosebleed Nougats. At quarter to noon, he picked up his jacket and headed toward the fireplace, calling out, "Oi, Fred, I’m off to lunch."
"Wait up, George, I’ll go with you."
"No, you’d better stay here, Verity is still working down in the cellar. I’ll bring you something back. Anyway, I’ve got a meeting."
"Without me? Who’re you meeting with?"
"None of your business," George snapped.
For a moment, Fred looked almost hurt, but then he got a calculating look in his eyes. "Oh, yeah, right. I know who it is."
Damn! George could feel the tips of his ears heat up. He tried to sound nonchalant. "Oh, you do, do you?"
Fred’s eyes narrowed. "Think you can keep secrets from me, little brother?"
"Wouldn’t be the first time."
"That’s what you think."
"That’s what I know."
Fred looked curious. "What d’you think you’ve kept hidden from me?"
"Like I’m going to tell you. Anyway, if you must know, I’m meeting with a possible advertiser."
"I don’t want us to be in The Quibbler! Only nutters read that rag!"
"Nutters are our best customers, you prat! And have you forgotten that The Quibbler was the only paper that had the bollocks to print the truth about Harry and Voldemort last year? It seemed to do a hell of a good job of getting the word out about that, didn’t it?"
"Whatever, little brother. You and I both know that this has nothing to do with advertising."
"It has everything to do with it! Luna took on our catalogue project last week."
Fred looked at him incredulously. "Are you mental? She’ll be so busy writing about… Snargalumps or some such rubbish that nobody will know what product they are looking at!"
George felt a wave of anger wash over him. "Oh, piss off! I’ll bring it back later and you can see for yourself. And then I guarantee that you’ll owe me - and her - an apology."
"And I’ll be able to see you mooning over Loony Lovegood for myself then, too, won’t I?" Fred said slyly.
"Stop calling her that! And I am not mooning over her. She’s lonely and could use a friend. Nobody even bothers trying to get to know her and she’s really clever - not to mention brave and loyal and…a hell of a lot of fun!"
"Oh, yeah, not mooning over her at all, are you?"
"Yeah, just like you’re not being dragged around by the leash by Angelina, are you?"
Fred paled visibly. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"It means that what I do and who I am friends with is none of your goddamn business!" He turned angrily, taking another step toward the Floo.
George stopped, thrusting his hands into his pockets, and turned, not quite meeting his twin’s eyes. "Listen, mate, I’m really sorry. I just…hell, I don’t know. I need you to back off a little, okay? I’m just…I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, but I need.…" He broke off, not wanting to give too much away, but Fred seemed to understand.
"Yeah, I know. Don’t worry about it, mate. I’ll see you later. Try to remember to bring me something to eat, will you?"
George stepped up to the fireplace with trepidation, wondering if the entire world would be able to read his feelings as easily as Fred could. But no, that’s Fred, and Fred is different. George had accepted long ago that Fred was nothing less than a small part of himself. Actually not all that small, when you thought about it. There was no point in trying to hide things from Fred, though it was sometimes tempting to try. That stubborn Weasley independent streak made George crave something that was just his own, that nobody could touch, or belittle, or nudge him into feeling uncertain about.
But his uncertainty could not be blamed on Fred, could it? His uncertainty had been there all along. Because feelings this strong were scary. They didn’t sit well with George’s sense of self. Nothing had mattered this much before. Nothing, other than the war and family, really. And that was the trouble, wasn’t it? Luna was already beginning to feel uncomfortably close to something like…well…family, at least in his heart of hearts, in spite of the fact that nothing had really happened yet. Shouldn’t Katie or Alicia - who had not only been housemates of his but also teammates - have felt more like…family? Alicia, however, had not been proven to possess the requisite loyalty that a potential Weasley family member needed to pass muster (Fred had indisputably demonstrated to George that Alicia neither knew nor cared which Weasley she had been kissing). As for Katie: sweet as she was, she would have completely disappeared in the Weasley throng.
These feelings, though – they weren’t just admiration of Luna’s finer qualities, and pretty eyes. They had more to do with the fact that she ‘got him’ in ways that not even his twin did. More importantly, he was beginning to understand her in a way that…well, he imagined that only her father did.
She pulled at him – the way that the moon pulled at the ocean -- and he found himself wondering why he was bothering to try to resist her. It seemed inevitable, really. He threw down a handful of sooty black powder, saying, "The Quibbler!" in a firm voice laced with anticipation.
George didn’t know what to expect, but the vision that had crept into his head most often about The Quibbler’s offices was a dreary little upstairs room containing little more than a bespectacled Jack Lovegood writing above a desk strewn with half-scribbled parchment. Perhaps there would be another reporter or two, equally bizarre and staring blankly into space as they pulled strange and fanciful stories out of their heads.
What he got, however, was an elegant reception area with an attractive and professional-looking secretary offering him a silver brush with which he could clean the soot off his clothes. Apparently she had been told to expect him, because she said, "I’ll tell Miss Lovegood that you are here, Mr. Weasley." Then, after looking around cautiously, she whispered, "I just love your Patented Daydream Charms. Bloody brilliant!" With a wink and a smile, she disappeared through a door.
George sat down on a dark blue settee embroidered with golden palm fronds. He looked around the room, taking a closer look at the framed paintings on the walls. They reminded him of some illustrations he had looked at in an antique Care of Magical Creatures textbook during one of Professor Kettleburn’s detentions.
The door reopened and George looked up to meet Luna’s eyes, feeling that little twinge in his gut, which he chose to attribute to nervousness. She was wearing some sort of light blue, floaty summer robe and had pulled her hair back at the nape of her neck. He wondered if she had taken as much care in her choice of clothes as he had. He hoped she had, because he liked the results.
He arose from the couch and she glided over to him, standing on tiptoes to kiss him on the cheek. "Hello, George, I’m really glad you could come."
It took a moment for George to find his voice, but he managed, in a deceptively casual tone, "No problem, Luna. I’ve been looking forward to it."
She blushed a little and said, "That’s nice. Would you like to come in and have a look around?"
"Yeah, sure. Never been to a newspaper office before."
"Not even with Lee Jordan?"
"No, not yet, anyway. Too busy." George followed her through the door, where he found a large, sunny room containing about twelve desks, piled with papers, certainly, but conspicuously missing bodies sitting behind them. There was a distant buzz coming from a closed door in the back of the room, and George speculated that a magical printing press was probably running behind it. Another door was open against the back wall, and through that, George could see the somewhat familiar figure of Jack Lovegood, a longtime neighbor. He was sitting at a desk and studying a stack of parchment, his large eyes made even larger by thick glasses, causing him to resemble a startled owl. Luna took George’s hand gently and led him toward the office. Mr. Lovegood looked up at their approach, his eyes – impossibly — widening even further.
"He’s here, Daddy," said Luna, and Mr. Lovegood, after a brief puzzled stare, blinked and said, "Oh. Right. You’re one of Arthur’s boys, aren’t you? One of the twins, I’ll wager. You look like your uncle Fabian."
Most people avoided the subject of Molly Weasley’s murdered brothers like the plague, and George, having never met them, didn’t know how to respond. He reverted automatically to his mother’s oft-drilled lessons on polite conversation. He held out his hand and said, "George Weasley, sir. Nice to meet you. Dad has always said good things about you."
Mr. Lovegood blinked again. "He has? Oh, that’s nice. Good man, Arthur. Molly, too, although she’s not a man, is she? Good woman. She brought us food. Lots and lots of food. Enough food to feed us for over a month after-" He broke off and stood up to enthusiastically shake George’s hand, which George had been holding out for what seemed like ten minutes.
"Right," said Mr. Lovegood. "So, what can I do for you, George?"
"He came to see me, Daddy, remember? I’m going to show him the catalogue."
"Oh, yes, of course. She’s really quite talented, you know. Like her mother. Well, Luna dear, I must finish the Square-Gobbed Nimnit article. We wouldn’t want our readers to be taken unawares, would we?"
"That’d be a tragedy, wouldn’t it?" added George. "Oh, and sir, I wanted to ask if you and your daughter would enjoy taking a lunch with me."
"Would your mother cook?" asked Mr. Lovegood without a pause.
"Er, no. I was actually thinking of a restaurant."
"Oh. Well, that would be nice too. But Molly’s food would be better. You can tell her I said that, if you like."
"So, will it be this weekend?"
"Er, well, I was actually thinking about…today."
"Oh. But I have this article…"
Luna interrupted. "I must go over this catalogue with George anyway, so why don’t you wrap things up while we’re doing that, Daddy? Then we can all go together when you’re done."
"Right. Good idea. I’ll see you in a few minutes."
Luna led George away to a desk that sat next to a window. Featured prominently on it was a photograph of a lovely, laughing young woman of about twenty-five with bright blue, cat-like eyes and long, wavy blonde hair. She was holding a wide-eyed little girl of about two on her lap. The little girl was wearing a daisy-chain necklace that matched the daisy crown in the woman’s hair. The mother pointed toward the camera, and the little girl stared at it solemnly until her mother blew raspberries on the little girl’s neck, sending her into paroxysms of giggles. The mother then kissed the little girl’s cheek and they waved at the camera together.
"That’s my mother," Luna said unnecessarily.
George replied, a little awed, "She was really beautiful! Not that …I hope I didn’t sound like I was surprised. I didn’t think you got your looks from your dad, after all."
Luna’s eyes widened, and she blushed, looking away.
It hadn’t quite come out the way that George had intended, and he tried to divert her attention. "She knew how to make you laugh, didn’t she?"
Luna smiled fondly. "She made everybody laugh. Dad said he thought it was her goal in life. That and finding a cure for…"
"For anything. Lots of things. She was working on dragon pox and scrofungulus and lycanthropy when she died. I never did find out which one she was experimenting on when…"
"Yeah," George interrupted. "She sounds really cool." He wasn’t entirely comfortable discussing someone who had died as a result of a failed experiment, given the number of experiments he and Fred performed on a daily basis. He looked around at her work area with interest. There was a wireless playing eerie, orchestral music on a shelf above the desk. Scattered around the top of her desk were a box of owl treats, a half-finished bottle of butterbeer, and a neat stack of parchments. There was also an ornamental glass bowl filled with butterbeer corks, several thick hardcover books, a dog-eared paperback novel (the Muggle kind), and a small cactus-like plant, something that George thought he recognized as a very young Mimbulus mimbletonia.
"Nice plant," he said, nodding toward it.
Luna smiled brightly. "Oh, that’s Vinnie. My birthday present from Neville."
"Well, we decided to name it together a few days after he gave it to me. Plants tend to thrive if you talk to them, so it’s not a bad idea to give them a name."
Her smile widened and she looked at the floor. "Oh, well…You see, Vincent Crabbe poured a glass of spoiled pumpkin juice into my school bag at lunch one day. He had also tripped Neville in front of most of the Slytherins on the same day. So we -- Neville and I, I mean -- were talking about it at the library, and we decided that the plant favored him a bit. Especially when you consider that the plant has a particularly foul defense mechanism."
George barked out a laugh. "Perfect. Some day, when you’ve got a bit of time on your hands, I’ll tell you all of the things that Fred and I’ve done to Crabbe and Goyle over the years, and maybe it’ll give you a laugh."
She raised her eyes to his. "I think I’d rather hear about the time that you and Harry attacked Draco Malfoy for insulting your mother -- and Harry’s. I really enjoyed that. I think…I think that that was when I started to fancy you."
George coughed and looked back at her desk. "So, anyway, the catalogue…"
Luna snapped to attention. "Oh, yes...why don’t you have a seat?"
George rotated the chair of the desk in front of hers until it was facing her desk and sat down. She handed him a leather portfolio, which he opened up eagerly.
The parchment on the front page had a bright blue background, but then it slowly changed to sort of a turquoise, then green, then greenish-yellow, then bright yellow, then orange, then red, then purple, and back to blue. The ink color of the words, ‘Welcome to Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes,’ changed also, always to the opposite color on the color spectrum as the parchment background.
"Wow," he said, exhaling with a low whistle. "That’s…brilliant."
"Open it, George."
"Yeah…" He flipped to the first page and saw a group of their products arranged in a grid, with each square in the grid containing a small picture and a blurb describing the product. Luna swept around the desk and, for the second time in a week, stood behind him. She reached over his shoulder to touch her wand to one of the products. The picture and text immediately took up the whole page, becoming much easier to see. With another tap, she reduced the size of the picture again.
"Bloody hell! How…?"
“Oh, it’s really just a simple spell. Daddy’s going to start incorporating it into the magazine. What gave me the idea was this thing that I saw in my Muggle Studies class. They called it a Comqueter."
"Oh, yeah, I think I’ve heard of those."
"So anyway, George, can you see this small box here?" She pointed toward the bottom right corner of the blurb.
"If you tap it like this” - one tap of her wand, and the box instantly darkened - "once, or twice, or however many times…." She reached over his shoulder and turned pages until she reached the last page of the book, where there was an order form. The product she had checked off, Fever Fudge, had a neat number one marked next to it, and at the bottom was a total price, which included the cost of the Snackboxes and the owl fee.
"Blimey, Luna… you’re brilliant! This is so much better than I ever would have…how am I ever gonna thank you?"
She smiled. Actually, she beamed, pink-cheeked. "Well, you can start by taking Dad and me to lunch. That was a really nice idea."
"Oh, yeah, sure. Do you think he’s ready yet?"
"Let’s find out," she said, and began to walk toward her father’s office. George followed, gathering up the catalogue and putting it away again.
Just before she reached her father’s door, she turned back to him with a secretive smile and said, "Of course, George, if you really want to thank me, you might want to reconsider that kiss I asked you about last week."
With that same solemn wink that she'd given him at his brother’s wedding, she turned and entered her father’s office, leaving George standing near the doorway, sporting a pair of bright red ears.
George wondered, as he signed the check, if he had ever had a more entertaining meal. Or a more bizarre one. He began to think of it as two musicians, both of whom were playing completely different songs but who occasionally came together in perfect harmony, only to veer off onto different melodies altogether. He had a little trouble focusing on each line of conversation at first and coming up with the correct responses for both, but eventually he developed a rhythm of his own that complemented both of them.
Of course, their waitress’ apparent determination to flirt outrageously with George (turned out that she was one of WWW’s most grateful customers) added a few awkward moments. To George, flirting back was an almost instinctive response, but one look at Luna’s face had him toning it down considerably. It wasn’t anger or jealously on her face, but more of a calm acceptance with a little sadness, and it really bothered him to see it.
Suddenly, a disheveled and out of breath middle-aged wizard with thinning red hair rushed up to Mr. Lovegood, panting, "Jack, you must come now. I’ve had a report that Severus Snape has been spotted in Blackpool."
George looked up from the bill instantly, meeting Luna’s wide eyes. Mr. Lovegood stood up so quickly that his napkin went flying across the floor and he knocked over his water glass. Luna set it back upright and calmly began siphoning away the water with her wand.
"I must go. Very nice to meet you, Fabian. Thank you for lunch. Good-bye."
George stared at Mr. Lovegood’s retreating back. Finally, he turned to Luna and said, "Uh, Luna, d’you think…was that bloke on the level? About Snape, I mean?"
She took a long time thinking over his question. "Well, I have no doubt that he received a report. Whether it was credible or not... I suppose that is what Daddy is going to find out."
"Oh, right. Listen, Luna, I’d better get going, too." He stood up and threw down some Galleons on top of the bill, looking around distractedly. He did, however, remember to pull out Luna’s chair for her and hold open the door onto the street. His mother had certainly lectured him about it him often enough, and a few of her lessons had stuck. After stepping outside, he automatically turned and began to walk in the direction of his shop, but was distracted by Luna’s voice from a distance.
He turned to find her hesitating near the door of the restaurant. "What’s wrong, Luna?"
She gave him a sad smile. "I just wanted to say goodbye. I had a lovely time."
"Where are you going?"
"Back to The Quibbler," she answered.
George was confused. "But I thought you were going to come back to the shop with me."
"But…you said wanted to go back alone."
George was fairly certain he had said nothing of the kind. "I did?"
"Yes. You said ‘I’d better get going.’"
For George, who always assumed that he would be welcome in any place he chose to grace with his presence, her uncertainty was a little hard to comprehend. It was clear, however, that she needed a little reassurance. "Oh, right. I meant we. I want you to be there when I show your work to Fred."
"Of course. And…I guess I was kind of looking forward to…"
"Uh, spending the day with you. Or at least part of it, anyway."
Luna beamed, and with a happy intake of air, she glided toward him and slipped her hand into his. He also took a deep breath, partly from relief, partly from trepidation. He squeezed her hand and they walked down the street together. His mind returned to the other problem at hand.
He had to decide who was the best person to contact about this Snape business, and he had to make contact quickly and subtly, so as to avoid Luna’s watchful eyes. He could either leave her with Fred while he popped his head into the Burrow’s Floo, leaving it to his mum to handle, or pull Fred aside and ask him to do it for him. He decided to do it himself, at least as far as contacting the Burrow. He couldn’t count on Fred taking Mr. Lovegood’s information seriously, although he hated the idea of exposing Luna to Fred’s sarcasm without his presence. He was a bit - no, very - nervous about how Fred would treat Luna as it was, but hoped that the utter brilliance of her work would garner a little grudging respect. But still, the ‘Snape problem’ had to be taken care of quickly, so…
He realize that his silence must have appeared a little odd, but when he looked over at Luna, she just smiled at him and continued looking around the Alley, humming under her breath. Her hand was still enclosed in his, and the feeling of it, so much smaller and softer than his own, somehow made him feel so happy that he couldn’t think of a thing to say.
Finally, they reached the door to the shop, and she let go of his hand as they entered. He thought about reaching for her hand again, once through the door, mostly to reassure her, and partly just to prove a point to Fred, but it was clear to George that Fred had been watching him as they walked up. He and Verity were sitting behind the counter, mouths agape. George put his hand on Luna’s shoulder and said, "Fred, you’d better prepare yourself -- this catalogue is going to knock you right out of your green and orange striped socks."
Fred recovered quickly. He met George’s eyes with a knowing look, but approached Luna with a warm smile, saying, "Which only goes to prove that my little brother doesn’t know me half as well as he thinks he does." He leant toward her and continued conspiratorially, "They’re purple and orange. And they’re decorated with Bludgers, not stripes. But how much d’you want to bet I could tell you what color underwear he’s wearing?"
Without missing a beat, Luna replied, "I think I’d much rather find that out for myself, but thanks anyway."
Fred stared at her, open-mouthed for a moment, then let out a great burst of laughter. Luna continued to stare back at him, her expression serene, but the corners of her mouth twitched a bit and she finally gave in and laughed along with Fred.
George grinned, feeling just a little bit relieved, but he remembered that he needed to slip away for a couple of moments. "Luna, why don’t you show him your work while I pop off to the loo?"
George handed her the portfolio he had been carrying since before lunch, which she took with a smile and a questioning look at him.
When George returned, he found Luna hovering over Fred in an almost identical scene as the one he had taken part in that morning. Luna was eagerly explaining how the catalogue worked and demonstrating with her wand. Fred was reacting in the same way that George had, but only slightly more astonished than his brother had been. However, there were a few crucial differences in the scene. One was the addition of Verity over Fred’s right shoulder. The other was that Luna didn’t brush against Fred at all. She seemed to be making an effort not to.
George breathed a sigh of relief, feeling that somehow Luna had managed -- in ten minutes at the store -- to open up a world of possibilities. It was going to be okay. She had gained Fred’s respect and was quickly earning his grudging admiration. It was just a matter of time before she would be rewarded with his friendship, too. And that made things easier, didn’t it? But it also made it scarier, too, because whatever obstacles he had chosen to think of as keeping her off-limits seemed to be melting away, and he was finding it impossible to stop thinking about her.
George had always been secretly baffled by Fred’s continual insistence that nobody on the planet compared to Angelina. He had been even more baffled by Ron’s six-year obsession with Hermione. Bill’s situation was a bit more understandable; he was older, for one thing, and there was that whole ‘veela’ aspect, after all. But suddenly, and reluctantly, George was beginning to ‘get it.’ And even though Fred was George’s age and Ron was even younger, it didn’t seem right to George to have feelings like this at just barely nineteen. Worse yet, Luna was not even seventeen. Not to mention, there was a war on, and both of them had a lot of evil people who considered both of them mortal enemies.
And he hadn’t even snogged her yet, which was probably the best thing to do at this point, because (he hoped) it could all just be due to the fact that he hadn’t ever resisted the urge to kiss someone before this. Once he got it over with, out of his system, maybe he wouldn’t feel so drawn to her. (Somewhere in the back of his mind, a little voice told him that this plan could backfire, and that giving in to the urge to kiss Luna might create an even stronger urge -- an urge to shag her – but he decided to ignore that voice.)
Luna chose this moment to turn and look at him, giving him a warm smile, and he approached the trio huddled over the catalogue. He said, "So, Fred, was I right?"
"You were right, George. This is…perfect."
"Well, not quite perfect," added Luna. "We have discovered a few mistakes, but they can be easily set right."
George pulled up a chair and the three of them -- actually the four of them, because Verity had a fair bit of insight to offer -- spent the next several hours perfecting the catalogue in between customers. The afternoon flew by; before George was even aware that the sun was no longer shining brightly into their front window, Verity got up to tap the ‘open’ sign with her wand.
"Goodnight Fred, George, Luna," she said, gathering up her things.
"Hey Verity," said Fred, "any chance you can drop off the purse at Gringotts on your way home?"
"Ooh, gosh, I’m sorry, I’m going the opposite direction, and I’m going to be late already. I could do it before work tomorrow if you like…"
"Nah, don’t worry about it. I’ll do it."
George looked up. "Got a hot date, Verity?"
"Because that’s like the, what…?"
"Fifth…" supplied Fred.
George continued. "Yeah, fifth time this week that you have rushed out of here in a hurry."
"Not that we’re counting or anything," added Fred.
"Plus, you seem to be doing a lot of blushing lately…"
"Yeah, like right now…"
"Not that we mind…" George said.
"Actually, it makes you even prettier…" Fred added, waggling his eyebrows.
"But…we wondered if it had anything to do with our good friend Lee."
"Because George thought he saw you tangling tongues with him outside the Leaky last week."
"Bugger!" Verity muttered under her breath.
George grinned wickedly at her. Ten points to Gryffindor. "No, I didn’t see that -- just snogging. But what you two get up to in the privacy of your own flat is really none of my business…"
"Oh, sod off, you two’re like a couple of nosy old ladies!" she said, throwing her cloak over her shoulders.
Fred assumed his most innocent expression. "Us? No, we’re just a couple of romantic blokes, glad to see a little more love in the world, especially between two of our favorite people."
"Speaking of which, send him our love," called out George.
"You can kiss him for us, too," added Fred.
With a completely insincere evil look thrown in their direction and an expertly executed rude hand gesture, which might have been a bit more sincere, Verity disappeared through the door with the twins’ laughter ringing out behind her. They looked at each other, grinning.
"That’s twenty you owe me, big brother."
Fred conceded reluctantly. "Yeah, I suppose so. But you know, that still doesn’t mean that at one time she preferred-"
"Shut, it, Fred, or I will call you a sore loser."
Fred sent his brother a sly glance. "Yeah, but I was right about the other thing…"
"Shut it, Fred!" George muttered under his breath.
"What other thing?" asked Luna, her face alight with curiosity.
"Well…" started Fred.
George, his ears crimson with embarrassment, sent urgent, telepathic death threats to his brother.
"Yeah, well, maybe I’ll leave it to him to tell you someday," said Fred mercifully.
Luna’s face fell then, and George wanted to throttle his brother for forcing him to make her feel left out. The words came out of his mouth before he even stopped to think about them. "Actually, what Fred is hinting at -- trying to embarrass me in front of you -- is that last week he insisted that I fancy you."
"And he was right."
"Oh." Luna’s face went pink, Fred’s went white, and George felt fairly certain that his was beet red.
"So, anyway, I think it’s time to go," George said, mustering up a nonchalant expression and a breezy tone of voice. "Say ‘hi’ to Angie for me, Fred."
"Yeah, okay, mate. See you later. Nice to see you again, Luna; don’t be a stranger."
"Of course not, Fred. I have to bring the final draft of the catalogues, anyway. Goodnight."
They walked in silence for a while, and this time, the silence was not as comfortable as usual. George wondered what could have possessed him to blurt out what he had. Part of it, he supposed, was a desire to render Fred speechless. Part of it had been in defense of Luna’s potential hurt feelings. Then again, he realized, it had been a very ‘Weasley’ thing to do.
"Is "Angie" Angelina Johnson?"
"Huh? Oh, yeah."
"She’s a very nice girl. Is she Fred’s girlfriend?"
"I reckon she is, though I’ve never heard him call her that. But yeah, they’ve been spending a lot of time together."
"Do you feel left out?"
"When he is with Angelina, you are left alone. Does that bother you?"
"Uh…no, not really. I mean, we don’t spend all our time together like we used to but that’s bound to happen; we’re both busy with work and…stuff."
"Plus, I am sure that you both are busy with …," she lowered her voice, "the Order of the Phoenix."
He stopped in his tracks. "The what?"
She just looked up at him with a mildly inquisitive expression.
"Where did you hear that name?"
"My father is a reporter, George."
"But he’s never mentioned anything in The Quibbler, has he?"
"He knows better than to do that, George. It would do far more harm than good. But he’s known about it for a while now. In fact, he would have tried to join a long time ago if it weren’t for me."
"You stopped him?"
"No, I encouraged him to join, actually, once I realized that I probably knew half the members. But he won’t join while I’m still in school; he doesn’t want to leave me an orphan. And, of course, they won’t take me until I am out of school, will they?"
"Uh, no, I reckon not."
"But, he would have no problem passing on interesting items of information that come across his desk. He just needs someone to talk to about it. I told him that Professor Lupin was probably his best bet, now that Professor Dumbledore is, well…gone. But Professor Lupin is not the easiest person to find, is he? Anyway, George, perhaps you can tell whoever you talked to about Professor Snape this afternoon what my dad would like to do and where to find him. Or maybe you could be the person he talks to. That way I would get to see you even more often. But I know you’re really busy. Or maybe you’re not, with Fred gone so often."
"Uh, still pretty busy, actually. And to be honest, Fred doesn’t see Angie near as often as he’d like to. She has to train a lot."
He stopped walking. There were things that he wanted to say, and he couldn’t quite figure out how to get started. "You know, Luna, nobody else has ever really thought to ask if I minded Fred and Angelina."
"No?" Luna had stopped when he did, and was currently examining the Alley’s most boring widow display with apparent interest. She continued, "Sometimes it seems like people miss things that are so, well, obvious to me. But then again, I think I may have noticed because I was worried…"
He stepped closer to her. "About what, Luna?"
She looked up at him through slightly lowered eyelashes. "Are you spending time with me because you’re lonely?"
"Well, I know you can’t really be lonely with a family like yours and all your friends, but I just wonder…"
"If feeling left out has anything to do with it? Perhaps you think that because that Fred has a girlfriend, and now Lee is with Verity…"
"This isn’t the first time that Fred has had a girlfriend, Luna. Granted, this’ll probably be his last girlfriend - I mean, they’ll probably get married some day, but…"
"Well, let’s just say I’m not looking for someone to replace Fred. I’m spending time with you for a lot of reasons. That’s not one of them. To be honest with you, if I was just looking for a girl to fill the gap, it wouldn’t have been hard to find one."
"No, it wouldn’t. Lots of girls liked you at school."
"Yeah, well they might have thought my jokes were funny, or they may have been Quidditch fans, or wanted to be with one of ‘the twins.’ None of them ever really wanted to get to know me."
"That’s not entirely true, George. I mean … I did overhear a conversation in the girls’ bathroom one day on ‘how to tell the twins apart.’"
"Well, they got it all wrong, anyway. They didn’t see the real differences between you. And mostly they were concerned with taking off your-"
George interrupted her as quickly as possible. "Yeah, you know what? I reckon I’d probably rather not know."
Shaking his head at the absurdity of teenaged girls in general, he looked closely at the one in front of him, whom everybody else thought a little absurd. He realized that no matter how he put the things that he wanted to say, she would listen and understand because that was the kind of girl she was. "Anyway, I really want you to know that the reason I have been spending time with you is because I want to. I like you a lot. But I also think that we should probably take it, well, slow…mainly because of the age difference…and the war, and…"
"So are you saying that you’re not going to kiss me tonight, then, George?"
"Uh, yeah. Well, I was actually thinking that maybe in a couple of months…"
She raised her eyebrows and smiled; in fact, it almost seemed as if she was about to laugh at him. And suddenly he wanted to laugh at himself, for saying something that the impulsive prankster that he’d been only a few years ago – hell, only a few months ago – would have dismissed as utter rubbish. Actually, it sounded more like something Percy would say -- and that simply wouldn’t do at all. He found that he couldn’t hold back his laughter, and neither did she. And then, just as suddenly, he found himself reaching out to her and taking her face in his hands, fingering the wisps of hair that surrounded it. He looked into her eyes, and the laughter in them quickly disappeared, along with the misty, unfocused look she always seemed to have. Her eyes were brimming with hope and happiness and yearning. That knot in his gut seemed to be constricting his entire body until he finally bent his face down to brush his lips across hers, and then it dissolved into a spreading warmth.
George opened his eyes to find her staring at him, which he’d rather expected, but he’d pictured a dreamy expression on her face. Instead, he saw eagerness and determination. She slid her arms around his neck, then moistened her mouth and kissed him enthusiastically. It was clear at first that she didn’t know what she was doing, but she learned quickly, and by the time they pulled apart, he was left out of breath and a little dizzy.
"I think it must have been Neville’s fault, after all," she said breathlessly, and this time she did have that faraway expression on her face that he had expected.
It took him a moment to figure out what she was talking about, but when he did, he laughed out loud. "Yeah. I don’t reckon I’d have noticed if you’d had a whole stampede of Nargles in your hair."
Her tone got a little more serious. "And I am afraid that neither of us would have noticed if a gang of Death Eaters or Heliopaths were lurking around the corner. I think I’d better be getting home now, George, it’s nearly dark."
"Oh, yeah, right," he said, and held out his hand for her to take again. As they neared The Quibbler offices, he spoke again. "Listen, Luna -- d’you want to go and get some dinner at the Leaky or something?"
"I’d really enjoy that, George, but I must get home to make dinner for Dad."
"Oh, yeah, right," he said, more than a little disappointed.
"Besides, I’d really like a little time to myself to think about all of this. This sort of thing doesn’t happen every day, you know."
"No, it doesn’t," he said, and he was fairly certain that neither one of them was thinking about anything as simple as a couple of kisses.