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I became aware of another presence while shuffling through books in the Restricted Section of the library. I had permission to be back there – he did not. I wasn’t the least bit surprised that he had somehow gotten past Pince, but I did shriek a bit to look up from a moldy old spellbook and find his face several inches from mine, crouched on the floor next to me.
He raised an eyebrow, obviously amused.
“Bloody hell!” I glanced quickly around us, hoping Pince wouldn’t come running. In a much lower voice, I whispered, “What are you playing at? You scared the doxies out of me.”
Fred disregarded this. “What are you doing hiding back here? I’ve never seen you in the library before.”
I seized a book from a pile of them at my side, shifting my knees slightly so that the rough carpet wouldn’t make them sore. “Looking for a remedy for Algerian Foot Warts.”
The responding snort was so loud that I smacked his shoulder with my book to shut him up. “Not for me,” I hissed. “It’s for Delphine. And don’t repeat that, or she’ll hex me.”
“Why doesn’t she just go to Pomfrey?”
I made a tut-tut sound, leafing through illustrations of various foot fungi and wrinkling up my nose. “She’s too embarrassed, of course. Everyone would find out – you know how Alice Whitman likes to blab.”
“So naturally, you two thought it would be much wiser to come up with some half-baked potion or whatever by yourselves, ignoring the fact that you’re inexperienced sixth-years and not considering any possible consequences.” He winked at me. “Very stupid. I approve.”
I turned away, allowing my fringe to fall over my eyes so that he wouldn’t notice how wide they were growing. It was a knee-jerk reaction; I could never hide the quickening pulse, the widening eyes, or the ugly red blotches that cropped up on my neck. Good thing I had enough hair to cover that up, or else my blushing would definitely betray how nauseous, yet pathetically excited I was feeling. “Speaking of people who are never in the library,” I mused while perusing a picture of a nasty-looking hag with three legs, "what are you doing in the Restricted Section?”
“That sounded accusatory.”
“Well done. We're on the same page, then.”
Fred scoffed, flipping the ginger hair out of his eyes with a toss of the head. The action reminded me of a horse shaking its mane. “Must I need an ulterior motive? Perhaps I just wanted to educate myself with the knowledge of...” he selected one of my chosen books at random and turned it right-side-up, squinting slightly, “…how to rid flesh of unsightly and gruesome ailments before your limbs fall off.”
“Give me that.” I snatched it from him. “And you never come to the library to read. You go to the library to sprinkle itching powder over all the desks.”
He began to laugh, and then abruptly stopped. I could feel him studying me. “How did you know about that?”
I couldn’t stop my eyes from snapping up to his now. His light brown gaze was darker than usual in the dim lighting of the bowels of the Restricted Section, and they looked almost serious. Intense, even. But just as I was beginning to sweat, his face broke into a wide smile I knew very well. I would never admit to anyone how much time I wasted studying his features, unconsciously smiling whenever he smiled and earning quizzical looks from anyone who happened to be around me. I looked like I was suffering the side-effects of one of Fred and George’s Daydream Charms, which weren’t yet in public circulation and I had been stupid (and desperate) enough to volunteer testing. “You stole some of it, didn’t you?”
“Oh, sure,” I said with forced breeziness. “Bottled that sucker right up.”
“For Whitman, right?”
I nodded vaguely. “No one likes a gossip. I put it all over her pillow.” This was actually true, but due to my fear that he would revert back to the topic of me following him around Hogwarts, I tried for a change of subject. “So what are you really doing here?”
Fred gave me his most genuine expression. “I’m teaching small orphans how to read.”
I rolled my eyes. “How saintly of you. Allow me to bask in your halo for a few moments.”
Fred hesitated, thumbing through another tome. Both of us were examining books without actually absorbing their content, pretending to read. My motivation stemmed from an inability to look at him without leaving my mouth hanging open for several minutes (until it tasted like I’d brushed my teeth with a pair of wool socks). His, I imagined, was because he was about to relay a secret. “I’m searching for information on invisibility,” he finally said, trying to sound nonchalant.
He leaned closer, grinning in that contagious way of his. “We’ve got this idea for Headless Hats.” He mimed picking up a hat and plopping it onto his head. “See? And then your head would just disappear.”
I stared at him. “Why would anyone want their head to disappear?”
“Well, you never know, there could be all sorts –”
“You would look like an idiot, going round without a head. I can just imagine Nearly Headless Nick – he would be drafting up all sorts of petitions to ban it, saying it offended him. Not to mention Umbridge –”
“Oh, relax.” He wiped a strand of my hair away from my face, so casually that I suspected he wasn’t even aware that he’d done it. “We’ve sorted all that out. I can order everything under Trelawney’s name and no one will suspect. Not even Trelawney.” He smirked, satisfied with himself. “We could always leave a few bottles of sherry on her desk to distract her and then whisk the boxes right out from under her nose. But no matter, we’ll intercept it all before anyone gets a whiff of it.”
My skin tingled from where he’d touched it. I had no idea whatsoever of what he’d just told me. I hazarded a smile, hoping a vague nod would suffice. “Yeah.”
“So, listen…” He was still toying with the pages of a book, staring blankly at the carpet. My breathing stalled, heart thudding violently in my chest.
“You!” a shrill voice rang out. It was Madam Pince, standing with her shoes planted far apart, shaking a finger at Fred. He sprang to his feet, backing away against the shelves with a smile dancing on his face.
“Irma,” he said charmingly, arms outspread as if to hug her. “How long it’s been!”
“Yes!” she responded, and I thought to myself that she was being considerably loud for a person who was so obsessed with silence in the library. “I’ll tell you how long, Weasley. You and your twin checked out one of my books two months ago, and have yet to return it. Thieves!”
“Actually, it’s one of Hogwarts’ books, not yours,” he couldn’t resist adding, and she whipped her wand out. “Oi! Go easy on me! I've ingested a lot of interesting things today and I might be flammable!” He held up his hands, palms-out, in a gesture of surrender, although he was still steadily walking backwards down the aisle between shelves. “And you’ve got the wrong man. Fred is the one who took that book. And clearly, I am George. Don't worry, I'll give him a piece of your mind when I see him.”
"I told you before," Pince growled. "You're both banned. No more stealing library property, leaving them abandoned under your cauldrons and your..." She screwed up her face, trying to remember what children used in school these days. "And your inkpots! Just waiting to be ruined. I have no doubt that you've ripped all the pages apart."
I felt a smile twist my lips. Pince looked ready to cry at the prospect of her beloved books falling prey to an unwatched bottle of ink. Fred’s eyes darted to mine, alight with mischief. “It's been lovely chatting with you, Wright! Tell Hornby I said good luck with the foot.” And with that, he whipped around and clambered over the iron gates separating the Restricted Section from the rest of the library. I watched Pince chase after him, waving her wand and shouting. She pointed the tip of it at me when she got to the library door.
“I’ll be right back to kick you out in a minute. Stay put.”
Taking my cue from Fred, I gathered as many books as I could carry and dashed through a different passageway. I could hear her yelling after him through the wall, and hoped I might run into him in another corridor somewhere. He’d evidently chosen his escape route well, however, and had very quickly disappeared.
“A seventh-year boy is staring at you.”
Delphine elbowed my plate, and I dropped a strip of bacon. “What?”
I followed her gaze. “Fred or George Weasley. I can’t tell one from the other.”
I certainly could. It was Fred, and as soon as we made eye contact, he shifted his attention to Lee Jordan. I saw George’s eyes flicker to mine for a fraction of a second before he smiled slightly and joined in their conversation. Fred didn’t turn back to look at me again, so I picked up my bacon once more. I suddenly lost all my appetite, however. My stomach was churning with butterflies and hyperawareness, and I took a sip of pumpkin juice for lack of anything else to do.
“He’s doing it again.”
“Who’s doing what again?” I asked in a bored voice, although I immediately glanced up at the Gryffindor table through my eyelashes. Once again, he turned away as soon as he caught me looking.
“Well, now he’s not anymore,” Delphine grumbled. I wiped nonexistent crumbs from my robes, jumpy and nervous.
“I think you’re imagining things.” I concentrated steadfastly on my glass of pumpkin juice, tracing the condensation with one finger. I wondered if anyone else could sense how tense I was. Every movement I made seemed dramatized, clumsier.
“And now he’s doing it again!” she cried indignantly.
“Stop looking at him!” I whispered, but I couldn’t help peeking at him out of the corner of my eye. As predicted, he was swiftly overcome by a severe case of whiplash and tilted his face up to gape at something extraordinary on the ceiling. “Merlin, this is ridiculous,” I muttered. “I’m going to class.”
“Then I suppose I’m going back to the common room.”
“Can I have the rest of your toast?” Delphine shouted after me as I made my way out of the Great Hall.
Instead of heading back to the common room, I swerved to the left when I entered the Entrance Hall and pushed through the doors outside. The air was fairly freezing, a perfect excuse to wear the badger scarf Gran knitted for me. I was just about to turn around and head down to my dormitory to find it, when I saw the doors to the Entrance Hall open once again. There was a burst of raucous laughter and talking inside, and then Fred shut it behind him, leaving us standing alone together on the bridge.
I spent several seconds wondering if I was supposed to resume walking or if it would be odd to just stand there and gawk. I settled for staring over the sparse treetops, trying to appear lost in thought. I was so busy trying not to be lucid of my environment that I didn’t notice when Fred joined me.
“What are we looking at?”
“What? Er –”
“How’s your friend? Delphine?” He jiggled his foot. “The one with the…thing.” We looked at each other lamely for a second, and both started to laugh.
“Allow me to reintroduce myself,” he said with a grin, and stuck out his hand for me to shake. “Fred Weasley. I promise that I’m not usually this awkward.”
“Hollis Wright,” I responded with a smile, accepting his firm handshake. “And I promise that I’m always this awkward.”
His expression froze for a moment, and he let go of my hand and reached into his pocket, revealing a Galleon. He turned it between his fingers. “Ahh.”
“What is it?
“Oh, it’s nothing. I just have to be somewhere in half an hour.”
I twisted a lock of hair, dubious. “And a Galleon told you this?”
“Yep.” He didn’t explain further, jamming both hands back into his pockets. “So, listen… I’m going to be hanging around inside the Owlery tomorrow morning at five. It could be entirely coincidental if you also happened to show up in the Owlery at five. What say you? I have a lovely surprise planned.”
I opened up my mouth to speak, and his smile widened. Fred walked backwards – it’s amazing he didn’t topple over the bridge, at the rate he was going – and retreated briskly into the Entrance Hall. “So that’s a ‘yes’, then? Brilliant. I’ll meet you in the morning!”
I turned around to face the treetops once more, staring without seeing. I couldn’t hinder the exhilaration that was slowly bubbling up inside me like Felix Felicis in a cauldron, or the giddy (and slightly loony) smile that crossed my face. “Meet you in the morning,” I whispered to the closed door, and then happily bounded off across the bridge to its opposite side, scarf completely forgotten.
Oh, dear God. Dear God. Dear God.
I cast one last desperate look at my parents before boarding the scarlet train, the panic transparent on my face. My mother waved halfheartedly, and Dad looked just as helpless. They stood out in the crowd in their Muggle clothes, but Gran burst between them, grinning cheerfully. Magic had skipped a generation, completely missing my Squib father and surprising me with a letter several weeks ago.
A letter from Hogwarts. Gran was so elated, she bought me a cat. Unfortunately, Cecil had no intentions of allowing himself to be stuffed into a cage, and was currently sprawled out on my bed at home, soaking up sunshine streaming through the windows and leaving me completely by myself on this frightening new journey. Traitor.
“Write to us, Gardenia!” another woman was calling, waving her hat at a dark-haired girl who was hanging halfway out one window. The girl clapped her hands over her face and shrank down below the glass, invisible.
“Write to us, Hollis!” my mother shouted as well, since she was in such a flutter in this strange magical environment that she couldn’t think of anything original to say. Mum was wary of owls; she hated it when Gran used them for communication. I wondered what she would think of an owl zooming through the chimney and landing on the breakfast table, helping itself to a bit of her cereal and sticking out a leg for her to detach my future letters.
I dragged my trunk up the steps, clanking it over each one and gritting my teeth from the effort of heaving its weight. There was a passel of students gathered at the very front, bent over each other to examine something one of them was holding. I hopped up and down, trying to peer over their heads. “Excuse me,” I said. No one listened to me. “Excuse me? I need to get through…”
An arm plunged through the crowd and gripped my collar, pulling me and my trunk through a group of students already dressed in their black Hogwarts robes. I emerged on the other side, gasping and pawing at my messed-up hair, and looked up to see the pinched face of a willowy red-haired boy.
“A first year, I presume?” he asked pompously, surveying my attire. I glared incredulously. “Well, come on then. I’m a fourth year, I can locate a spot for you.”
“Oi, Percy!” another red-haired boy shouted, sticking his head around the corner of a train compartment. The Hogwarts Express was moving, and I pressed my hand against one of the many doors to prevent myself from falling down after the initial takeoff. “You’re not a prefect yet, you can’t go round giving orders to ickle firsties.”
The boy named Percy started arguing with him, and I stared around me in nervous disbelief. The dark-haired girl I identified as Gardenia sauntered past me. “Where’s the food trolley?” she asked to no one in particular. “My sister said there's supposed to be a food trolley full of sweets.”
“Hi,” I offered hopefully, shuffling forward. She turned to acknowledge me, smiling slightly. “Gardenia, right? I’m Hollis.”
“Agh.” She ducked her head, eyes darting furtively around us as if afraid that people would notice her interacting with me. “It’s Alice,” she hissed.
“Alice? But those people…wasn’t that your mum? On the platform? She called you ‘Gardenia’.”
She leaned closer. “I hate that name, so I’m calling myself ‘Alice’.”
“Oh. Are you a first year, too?”
“Yeah.” She was still glancing around eagerly, trying to locate the famed trolley of sweets. I unconsciously clung to her arm, relieved to have found someone to talk to.
“Want to find a compartment together?”
“Oh.” She bit on her lip, hazel eyes reflecting how furiously she was thinking. “Sorry, but I’ve got to find my friend. Her name is Orchid, maybe you’ve seen her. She’s got blonde – oh!” She tore away from me, heading down the opposite end of the train toward a girl with hair as yellow as straw, who was beckoning to her with a gap-toothed smile.
It was the freckled, red-haired boy who’d taunted Percy, and he was standing outside a door with his fingers clasped firmly around the handle. I could hear someone inside beating on it, trying to open it up and get out. The boy’s hair was sticking up wildly, half of it coated with a strange green-colored slime, and he looked utterly nonplussed about relaxing against the door, clenching the handle shut to prevent whoever was inside from escaping.
“No,” I replied feebly. “I just…don’t know where to sit. I don’t know anyone.”
“Tons of people don’t know anyone. That’s the general way for first years, you know. I’m sure there’s lots of other kids sitting by themselves in compartments, just as scared as you are.”
“I’m not scared.” This was definitely a lie. The person on the other side of the door was beating violently against it with their fists, shrieking curse words. The boy pretended not to hear it, bending one leg behind him to rest the bottom of his shoe against the door.
“You ought to be. This is what we do to first years.” He inclined his head at the door, and was about to speak again, but was drowned out by a string of vulgar language that sounded like it was coming from an exceedingly outraged little girl.
He shrugged. “Because. That’s traditionally what second years do to first years. You’ll see what I mean next year.”
I clutched the handle of my trunk and edged away, not desiring to be locked up with a screaming person, all for the crime of being a year younger than him. “I’m going to go find a free compartment.”
“Here, try this one.” He released his grip on the door handle and it swung abruptly open, knocking whoever had been fighting to get out onto the ground. I stood on tiptoe to see over his shoulder and found a small girl splayed on the floor, glasses askew. One of her brown pigtails was lopsided, the ribbon falling out, and she was wheezing from too much heavy breathing.
“Welcome to Hogwarts, Hollis,” he chuckled.
I was about to ask him how he knew my name, and then remembered introducing myself to Gardenia/Alice, and immediately clammed up with embarrassment. He didn’t expect a response, it seemed, because he caught the eye of a boy with dreadlocks who had smashed his face up against the glass of a compartment door opposite the one he had been guarding; Dreadlock Boy was puffing out his cheeks, crossing his eyes, and his tongue was smearing across the glass.
“Lee!” the boy called warmly, heading over to join him.
“He locked me in here!” the girl with brown pigtails yelled. Her voice was gratingly high-pitched. I winced and angled my face away from her. Certainly, there had to have been other compartments available. “I was looking for my brother,” she went on. “I was just shouting and shouting for him and I couldn’t find him. And so I shouted again and that boy –” she shook her finger at the compartment Obnoxious Second Year had vanished into – “stuffed me in here! Just wait until Archibald hears about this, he’ll be so angry.”
I coughed. “Archibald?”
“Yes,” she glowered. “Archibald!” She reared her head back, mouth gaping open as she squeezed all of the power of her tiny lungs into making her voice as loud as hell. “ARCHIBALD!”
“Shut up, Delphine!” A boy with a face as round as the girl’s next to me appeared in the open doorway. He sighed disparagingly, offering the girl a hand so that she could scramble to her feet. “I told you before, Delphine. While we’re at school, you’re only allowed to call me ‘Archie’.”
I slid into a corner, eyes widening. Changing your name seemed to be priority number one at Hogwarts. I was positive that this sort of barbaric stuffing-children-into-compartments and screaming would never be allowed at Durmstrang. My cousin went to Durmstrang, and she said it was top-notch. Gran, being the bossy old hen that she is, put her foot down when I requested to go there, too. “Hogwarts was good enough for me, and Hogwarts will be good enough for you.”
Archie left and Delphine slammed the door shut behind him, and then proceeded to sulk across the small room. She sank into a chair. “This is the worst day of my life.”
The door flew open again and this time Gardenia/Alice stormed inside. “Have you lot seen a boy around this high –” she raised her wand to indicate the height of a person about a head taller than herself – “Red hair and freckles. Really pushy?”
“Yes,” Delphine piped up indignantly.
“There are loads of pushy boys with red hair,” I interrupted, crossing my arms and fixing my focus on the blur of trees whooshing past my window. “Check the train yourself.”
Her eyes narrowed to slits. “All right,” she replied coolly. "Fine. I will."
When she was gone, Delphine turned to me, lips pushed out in puzzlement. “Who was that?”
“Gardenia,” I said. “We don’t like her. She has gnats in her hair.”
“Really?” Delphine gaped at the place where the girl had stood a few seconds ago, stupefied. “I didn’t see any.”
“They’re invisible. And they carry lots of diseases – all kinds of them. Rabies, scabies, melanoma… Plus, she’s had her nose Charmed. I can tell. It’s much too dainty and doesn’t match the rest of her face.”
“Wow.” Delphine was utterly convinced. I decided that I liked her.
We chatted for the rest of the train ride, swapping predictions about which House we would be Sorted into (I was certain I would be in Ravenclaw, and she was adamant about Gryffindor), and whether or not we would get to see any elves. My Gran swore up and down that she had seen one once when she woke up in the middle of the night, after having fallen asleep at the common room table. Ever since hearing that story, I was consumed with the idea of catching one. Delphine was soon in agreement that it was definitely the most important task to conquer.
“Can we make them do things for us?” she asked, eyes bright and glittering.
“I want one to do my Potions homework for me. Archibald said Potions is the hardest subject.”
I pondered this. “I reckon you could.”
“And the food,” she said after we’d both changed into our Hogwarts robes. “I wonder how many meals we’ll get.” I was trying to listen to her, but the reality of my situation was swiftly looming over us, and I couldn’t help but quiver with anxious anticipation. Hogwarts. I was really going to Hogwarts. Another witch in the Wright family! I began to do a little dance on the spot, and Delphine started to clap her hands even though she didn’t know what we were excited about. She was a very shrill person.
“We’re almost there,” said a voice, and we both glanced over our shoulders. It was the pretentious-looking boy who’d yanked me across the train earlier, Percy. “Try to wait until the rest of the train empties, so that you won't be elbowed about. And you must be on your best behavior. It's your duty to the school to represent yourselves as well as you can manage.”
“Who does he think he is?” Delphine mumbled through her teeth.
Across the corridor, I saw the door opposite ours yawn wide open. The obnoxious freckled boy who had teased Percy and then locked Delphine in our compartment. He waltzed into the narrow corridor like he owned it, smiling hugely. Before my nerves could smother the opportunity, I greeted him.
“Thank you, by the way.”
He looked down at me, raising his eyebrows. "Who...?" He scratched his head. "What for?"
“I'm saying thanks for helping me out earlier – sort of. With helping me find a compartment...in a way.”
“Err.” He lifted his gaze to the group of boys plastering themselves against the glass window on his compartment door. I distinctly heard someone inside snigger. “You’re welcome?” He clapped a hand on my back. “Any time, mate. I’ll let you know when you can return the favor.” He then melted into the throng of students beginning to bustle around, trying to get a good look at Hogwarts. Keen to get a glimpse of it myself, I followed after Delphine.
“Let’s find Archibald,” she advised. “He’ll be able to get us safely into Hogwarts. Who knows how hazardous the trip might be? I heard that the whole school is sitting at the bottom of a black lake.” She shuddered, tugging on my wrist. “Come on, Hollis. We’re probably going to have to do some risky swimming.”
A/N: The ‘Rachel’ you see belongs to TenthWeasley and her Hogwarts-era story Leaping Obstacles. Give it a read. ;)
Fred Weasley was lingering around the corner when Delphine and I sauntered outside, leaning against the open door. Filch was eyeing him suspiciously – the sort of glance someone might give to a wet stick of dynamite.
“What’re you doing, Fred?” George called to him from ahead. His brother made no response, and stuffed his hands into his coat pockets. He followed closely behind Delphine and me, separated from his brother by three different groups of friends. I noticed George twisting his head over his shoulder every now and then, throwing Fred curious expressions. “Fred!” he finally yelled, waving his arm. “Get up here!” I wasn’t sure whether Fred mouthed an answer or indicated something with his hands, but George gave up and fell back from Lee, Rachel, Angelina, and Alicia, allowing us to pass him so that he could join his twin.
“These trips to Hogsmeade would be much better if we had a train to transport us,” Delphine complained through fogged-up glasses. “It’s too cold!”
“Really?” I answered, my attentions fixed on a point several feet behind us. I tried to maintain a normal pace, warring between the impulse to slow my feet so that I could eavesdrop on the Weasley twins and the instinct of my legs to run whenever I was keyed-up. “I think walking is the best part of the trip.”
“We do plenty of walking in Hogwarts,” she muttered, her pink-tipped nose poking out from many layers of bulky scarves. She was eternally afraid of catching cold, as she despised the side effects of Pepperup Potion, and went to extreme lengths every winter to avoid becoming sick. “All of those blasted stairs…”
“Mmhmm.” I was trying to listen to whatever Fred and George were discussing in quick, low voices, but couldn’t hear them over Delphine’s loud whinging.
“I also find it appalling that we don’t have chaperones,” she went on, kicking stones out of her way. “Cedric was supposedly killed by You-Know-Who, wasn’t he? And it all happened in the maze. Which means that You-Know-Who was here, at Hogwarts. He could reach out and kidnap any one of us. We could be next.”
“I don’t think You-Know-Who was hiding inside the maze, Delph,” I corrected irritably. The image made me think of a tall vampire in a black top hat, which was for some reason always how I had evisioned He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, crouching behind a row of shrubbery as the four Champions jogged in confused circles around him. “The Triwizard Cup was a Portkey, don’t you remember?”
“Sounds awfully fishy. I still don’t know if I believe it.”
I shrugged. “I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe you should ask Harry Potter.”
I instantly regretted mentioning him, because Delphine burst into a fit of girlish giggles. “Harry Potter! Did I tell you how I ran into him after his Transfiguration class last week? That girl was with him again, that bushy-haired know-it-all from Gryffindor, and I took care to push her extra hard.”
“That’s rude,” I scolded. “I don’t care how much you fancy Harry Potter, that doesn’t give you permission to just –”
“Hark!” a voice trilled. Two ginger heads appeared on either side of us, and George pulled Delphine’s hat lower over her eyes.
“Geroff –” she pawed at the air with her mittens, baring her teeth in a growl.
“What did I hear about fancying Harry Potter?” Fred taunted, keeping stride with me. I could feel his laughter tickle my neck, and became convinced that I was blushing quite as crimson as Delphine was.
“Don’t you dare!” Delphine’s voice was shrill. “You two are horrid.”
“Nah, I’m all right,” George assured her, pulling her hat down over her eyes again so that she was reduced to a wriggling mass of scarves and static-y hair. “He’s the one you’ve got to watch out for.” He jerked a thumb at Fred, whom I could sense was watching my reaction.
“Have you got a thing for The Boy Who Lived, Hollis?” he teased in a whisper. “You like your men young and Chosen, do you? Well, it's better than Montague, at any rate.”
I elbowed him in the ribs. “Shut up, Fred.”
There was a pause, and I caught a significant exchange of looks between the twins. “George! Fred!” Lee shouted from the group of seventh-year Gryffindors. “Come on! Don’t you remember what we’re doing today?”
“See you later,” Fred told us, and forged ahead. George followed behind, looking like he was biting back laughter. I wondered what he had found so amusing.
“Too cold for October,” Delphine sputtered. “No chaperones. Breakfast was much too rushed – I don’t even see why. It’s not like we haven’t ever been to Hogsmeade before. If there’s a queue outside Gladrag’s, I’m not going into it again. I told you, Hollis, they’re all rude in there. The counter lady thinks she’s so much better than everyone else. I swear, when I told her I was in Hufflepuff, she bewitched the price tag of those earmuffs to be more expensive because she thought she could pull a fast one on a Puff.”
I looked at her. “Huh?”
“What are you looking at?” She wiped her glasses with a bit of drooping scarf. “Are you looking at those Gryffindors?”
I linked my arm in hers, smiling. “Have you noticed Harry Potter’s hair today?”
This successfully distracted Delphine Hornby, as she zealously began an account of Harry Potter’s various hairstyles throughout the past week, and which ones she preferred (this depended on how much his hair stuck up in the back, apparently). Despite the fact that she had never been gutsy enough to speak to the boy, Delphine knew much more information on him than seemed appropriate. I kept my eye on the back of Fred Weasley’s ginger head, allowing Delphine’s continuous flow of Harry-related opinions to drift through one ear and out the other.
We soon made our way past the Hogsmeade Station, and chose also to bypass The Three Broomsticks in favor of shopping. “Zonko’s!” I announced cheerily.
“Honeydukes is closer,” Delphine argued, pulling me off to the left side of the road toward a shop emitting smells of caramel and apple cider sweets. Edible Bats flapped their wings around the store’s interior, squeaking.
“Oh, come on,” I urged. “Whenever we go into Honeydukes we end up staying in there for an hour. Let’s go to Zonko’s first, please. We can look for something to put into Alice’s and Orchid’s pillowcases.”
“Ooh!” Delphine brightened instantly at this prospect, and we set off for the joke shop. I was determined to get my hands on some Belch Powder. I could put it into her tea – in a Nose-Biting Teacup, of course – and listen delightedly to Alice’s belches during Potions on the following Monday. I grinned vindictively. I’d long forgotten exactly why I loathed the girl, but we seemed to have created strong enemies in each other. Delphine and Orchid, ever so persuadable, grew to hate each other as well just because they wanted a nemesis of their own. Truthfully, we all enjoyed hating each other too much to give it up.
A parade of students straggled around the street corner, making their way to The Hog’s Head. The Hog’s Head? That was an odd choice – the place was extraordinarily dodgy. “Maybe the Three Broomsticks was full,” Delphine commented, also watching them. George pulled open the pub’s door, allowing Rachel, Angelina, and Alicia entrance. He was about to follow them when Fred touched his sleeve. They both turned their heads in our direction, where we were loitering uselessly outside Zonko’s. I whipped around immediately, yanking Delphine by one of her scarves into the shop.
“Hey!” Delphine coughed, doubling over a cauldron filled with Stink Pellets. She tore at a scarf that had tightened around her throat, choking her. “You almost killed me. You’re paying for all of my Pepper Imps when we get to the sweetshop, just because of that.”
“I always do,” I reminded her with a grin. It was true: Delphine was a tightwad with her Sickles, and was eternally plotting ways to get other people to buy stuff for her. I’d seen the bottom of her trunk – it was layered with pocket money she’d been saving up ever since she was ten. The girl was loaded.
Moments later, while Delphine and I were examining a kit of Grow-Your-Own-Warts and debating its effectiveness, the shop’s bell tinkled again. A familiar pair of voices drifted along the merchandise, sending my pulse racing.
“Hurry up,” George warned edgily.
“It’ll only be a minute,” Fred responded. He sounded distracted.
“Maybe a trick wand instead?” Delphine asked, her high-pitched voice suddenly muffled in my ear. I gained control over my frozen muscles, trying to be casual. What was the matter with me, anyway? Couldn’t I be in the same store with Fred Weasley without going completely loopy?
“Contains ingredients imported from Algeria,” Delphine read. “That’s good, right? It sounds like it would be black-market material or something, so it’s bound to work. I wonder how we could do it…”
“Right.” I cleared my throat, bending over the warts kit. “We could...well…” This was pathetic. I couldn’t even think properly. I read the instructions on the back label several times before the words actually sank in, trying to ignore the easy footsteps of the twins. They split up – one of them bolted upstairs, and the other was browsing around a revolving rack displaying Fanged Frisbees nearby.
“Right,” I repeated, clearing my throat again. “We could coat her hairbrush with this, and then she would get them on her scalp.”
“And Orchid, too,” Delphine reminded me. “Don’t forget Orchid. She’s such a boggart...I’d like to burn her hair curlers…”
Quite aware that it would take about two seconds for the warts to be removed by Madam Pomfrey in the hospital wing, we began to giggle to ourselves about the hilarious scene of Alice and Orchid covered in giant warts. “I think we should put this on their lipstick,” Delphine suggested. “Mouth warts? Now there’s a sight.”
“Ooh!” I cried, bouncing excitedly. “Their shoes! We could dust their shoes with it!”
“But then no one would see them.” She scrunched up her face in disapproval. “Where’s the satisfaction?”
“They would walk funny,” I explained, wobbling along in a zigzagging line to mimic how Alice would look. “And we don’t need everyone to see evidence of our prank. As long as we know it’s there and causing them discomfort, that’s all the satisfaction we need.”
“For you, maybe,” she grumbled, lowering the package back onto a table.
My eyes slid past a shelf stocked with Self-Enlarging Spiders (the louder you scream, the bigger they grow!) and locked onto a set of light brown ones that were watching me through a gap in the shelf. Fred. We smiled sheepishly and severed the gaze, meandering anticlockwise around the shop until I was the one standing behind the Self-Enlarging Spiders and he was by the Grow-Your-Own-Warts.
“You like these?” Delphine inquired, selecting one. “I wonder if they’d recognize them, though. They’re awfully fake-looking.”
“Well, that’s because they’re not moving yet,” another voice cut in. Fred appeared behind us, reaching out to take the box from Delphine. “Just say its name, and that sets it off.”
“They have names?” Delphine answered incredulously.
“Of course. How else would they work?” Fred flipped the box around. “This one is called Timblehopp.”
The spider’s legs began to squirm, and its body doubled in size. The arachnid remained tightly strapped to the inside of the box with a series of plastic wires, but it was still creepy enough to make me shriek in a very embarrassing way. Even Delphine laughed at me, and she herself had fallen backwards over Fred’s shoes and bumped her head on a talking jack o’ lantern.
A smile tugged at the corners of Fred’s lips as he replaced the spider to its home. “Timblehopp,” he said again, and it shrank back to its original size, motionless. “Realistic enough for you?”
“I was impressed,” Delphine admitted. “That’ll be fantastic to set on Alice and Orchid.”
I swerved to penetrate her with a Hades-worthy scowl, and Fred leapt on Delphine’s slip of the tongue. “What is this I hear? My, you girls are just festering with gossip! First it’s Harry Potter’s many lovely qualities, and now you’re planning to unleash the terrors of Timblehopp on two unsuspecting Hufflepuffs?” He made tut-tut noises with his tongue. “I can hardly believe my ears.”
I was going to deny this when my less-than-tactful best friend intervened.
“Orchid Strauss isn’t just a Hufflepuff,” Delphine spouted angrily, clenching her hands into fists. “She’s the bane of my existence! And she keeps rearranging stuff in the loo, putting my toothbrush into a different drawer all the time. It’s maddening.”
“I know!” She folded her arms, glaring sourly at the spiders. “It would serve her right to wake up with a ton of spider babies in her blankets.” I didn’t bother to tell her that these gag items could not physically reproduce, since I’d already ruled them out as an option ever since they caused me to release a blood-curdling scream (and lots of unattractive flailing) for all the world to hear.
“Girls, girls,” Fred chided. “You’re thinking small-scale. There’s such opportunity here! You should try my Puking Pastilles – they’re sublime.”
“We don’t really want them to puke,” I said reasonably, even though Delphine looked like she didn’t quite agree with me.
“Meet with me later,” he urged. “I have loads of products you might find favorable.”
“Your Wheezes?” Delphine remarked dryly. “Yes, I’ve had the luxury of picking up a Nosebleed Nougat once. It was dreadful, I hope you know.”
“Really? Excellent. How long did you bleed? Did you get any headaches? Fever? Nasal congestion?” He whipped a notepad out of his pocket, sticking a quill between his teeth. “Any unexplained dizziness or dreams about Lee Jordan naked?”
“Fred,” someone else said, and I saw George lounging by the door with his arms full of Zonko’s shopping bags. “Let’s clear out. We’re going to be late…”
“Oh,” Fred replied, his mouth twitching in slight disappointment. “Right. Coming.”
He nodded his head at each of us. “Seven o’ clock. I’ll meet you outside the portrait of the Fat Lady, and I can let you into our common room.”
“The Gryffindor common room?” Delphine squealed. “We’re going to get to see the inside of the Gryffindor common room?”
Fred departed with one last smile, joining his twin as I stood there listening to Delphine’s tangents about what their common room would look like. “I heard there’s a living, breathing lion in there and they let it sleep on one of the sofas!”
We ended up purchasing a kit of warts and spent the following hour filling bags with Acid Pops and Chocolate Frogs. We also swung by Scrivenshaft’s so that I could get another bottle of ink, since I’d wasted all of mine by tipping it into a tube of mascara that fell out of Marietta Edgecombe’s handbag in Potions.
The whole time we lurked around Hogsmeade, the streets seemed to be rather deserted. I didn’t see Cho Chang or any Weasleys – and was reminded about fifteen times that Harry was nowhere to be found, either. I was somewhat crestfallen because I didn’t get to see Fred again, but my spirits rose when I remembered our planned meeting for later that evening. Buoyant and hands laden with Hogsmeade loot (most of it a complete waste of Galleons, to be honest), we headed joyfully back to the castle.
“Did you write that Herbology essay yet?” Delphine inquired happily, sucking on a Jelly Slug. “I need to copy it.”
“What?” I groaned. “Oh, Delph. I was waiting to copy yours.”
“Want to rock, parchment, sword for it?” she offered.
I knew I would lose this – I always lost because Delphine cheated by waiting just a margin of a second after I showed mine to show hers. I grudgingly indulged her, however, and we came to a halt in the middle of the road. Around a great curving path, I could see a bit of the Black Lake and the entrance doors to Hogwarts, thrown wide open. A tiny dot of a person I assumed to be Filch was lording over the entrance, pacing back and forth impatiently and waiting for students to return.
“On three,” I said, and we each held out a hand. “One, two –”
A pair of cold hands slipped over my eyes. “Agghh!”
“Easily spooked,” the person mused.
I wrestled out from underneath the hands. “Of course I was spooked, George. You bloody snuck up from behind me.”
“Is that ‘rock’?” Delphine questioned, motioning to the fist I had curled my fingers into. “Because I had ‘parchment’…which means that you’ve got to write the essay.”
George looked surprised, but he was grinning widely, head cocked to the side. “How did you know who I was?”
“I heard your voice, you dolt.”
“That’s not what I meant. How did you know that I’m George?”
I stared at him. “But you are George.”
“Yes, but how did you know that I’m George and not Fred?” Fred looked ready to interject, having been standing just behind his brother, but George somehow sensed this and held out an arm to silence him. “Our own mother can’t even tell us apart half the time.”
My mouth dropped open, and I had to think speedily. “Well, would you rather I called you Forge or Gred like other people do? I can tell the difference, that’s all.”
“But we’re identical,” he insisted.
Fred was staring hard at the castle.
I smirked at him, tugging on Delphine’s wrist. “Not entirely identical, George.” I twisted her around and we continued walking – me feeling self-satisfied, and Delphine a bit puzzled.
“What was that?” she whispered.
I bit my lip, picking up the pace a little so that they would be left far behind. “That was a turning point, my friend,” I told her with a brilliant smile.
I yawned, twisting my neck to survey Delphine in the desk to my right. She was dependably asleep, her chin propped in one hand and her Charms textbook settled in front of her face as a barrier. Her efforts at discretion failed, however, since she was snoring softly and a bit of drool was dribbling from her twitching mouth. A fly looped twice around her head, landing on a yellow ribbon that tied one of her pigtails. I watched it trot across her hair, over her cheek…aiming right toward her open mouth.
“Huh? What?” Delphine bolted upright, bloodshot eyes snapping open. She blinked and rubbed them behind her glasses, and finally seemed to realize where she was. Her hands shielded a sheet of parchment that she had placed there on the pretense of taking notes; it was littered with elaborate hearts and the words Gilderoy Lockhart, as well as Harry James Potter a few times. I wondered how difficult the charm to animate her doodles would be. ‘You are invited to the wedding of Harry and Delphine Potter’ would look terrific on a little banner that disappeared and reappeared. “What?” she repeated blearily.
“You were asleep.”
She shifted her book just a centimeter to the side to block Professor Flitwick from view, and closed her eyes again. I turned my attentions back to the window where I had been gazing before, allowing Flitwick’s cheerful drone to pass over my head like the warm breeze outside.
It was nothing short of amazing that Delphine could fall asleep in the middle of class, what with her incessant worries that she would be the next victim from the attacks. There were rumors about a secret chamber in the school, and that one of the students was running around wearing a mask of the Muggle prime minister, cursing people into oblivion. After Justin Finch-Fletchley (someone Delphine had been prone to admiring in the common room every evening) was attacked, she became convinced (and more than a little paranoid) that the “masked lunatic” would come back for someone else from our House.
“It’s only a matter of time,” she had informed me wisely. “And if you want my opinion, it’s that friend of Harry’s with the big teeth. Everyone knows she’s clever enough to get away with it.”
I sighed again, wishing we could have a lesson outside in the sun like we had been nagging him about for ages. Flitwick always said, “Perhaps next lesson,” but it never materialized. I was beginning to suspect that we would never be able to convince him, as he always skirted around the topic with, “It’s a touch too hot out,” or, “It’s just a touch too cold. I think we’re better off in here.”
I could just imagine practicing Charms by the Black Lake, stretching out on the grass. It would be so comfortable and sunny, even if the weather was still slightly too cool…
I sprang to my senses, startled. Cho Chang was hanging halfway across the aisle, tapping my arm with her quill.
“There was a fly on your mouth,” she whispered loudly.
I smacked at my face with both hands, and she struggled not to laugh. “It’s already gone.”
“Thanks,” I muttered, burying my face in the cool surface of my desk. I could see tiny grooves of years and years of quills scribbling away over that desk, leaving indentations of words. In the top left-hand corner, I could clearly make out my own name – Hollis Wright – living proof that I had suffered through horrendous amounts of homework. Several inches down, there was the incantation for the Imperturbable Charm layered over decades of various other scratchings. My grandmother very well could have contributed to some of it, and her grandfather before her.
We Wrights were dwindling in our magical bloodline, as being born magical nearly always skipped a generation with us. It stung our pride a bit to not have one of those popular families blooming with witches and wizards, and it didn’t help that we always ended up in Hufflepuff. It made us seem weaker, like Wright magic was dying out. I’d been told before that it was our own fault for being such a mass of blood-traitors.
“I’m sure you can notice the effects,” Flitwick was saying. “Instead of burning to death, it would feel more like a balmy, windy sensation. Like a day at the beach.” He grinned broadly at his audience, looking like he would rather enjoy the effects of a Flame-Freezing Charm himself.
He was right, too. A bright orange fire had been conjured in thin air, levitating over a deep pewter cauldron. Flitwick trained his wand on the mass, even though it wasn’t going anywhere, and we all watched the flames ripple and lick the air. It wasn’t hot, really…it was nice. Almost as nice as dozing on the Great Lawn instead of being cooped up in a stuffy classroom.
The room wavered slightly, growing quiet. It was easy to imagine that I was curled up in an armchair in my cozy common room, watching one of the bright yellow lamps bobble and sway on the ceiling…
There was something cold on my skin.
It was the first thing I registered, before I even opened my eyes. I became aware of a warm hand resting on my arm, and something pointy running alongside it in circular motions, tickling me. I opened up one eye first, and then the other.
There was someone sitting next to me at my desk, their chair shoved right up beside mine. The shivering tip of a quill looped up and down my arm, and with a feeling of deep dread I connected the quill to the hand of a familiar redhead.
Fred Weasley was drawing on me.
He looked like he was pretty into it, too. His eyes were narrowed in concentration, his nose scrunched up slightly. It would have been a fascinating character study, like watching a renowned artist dabble in paints, if it hadn’t been for the fact that his canvas was my skin. “Oh, hell,” I groaned, lifting my head up to inspect the damage. A wiry old man with a long beard was dancing along my arm, brandishing his wand and smiling toothily.
Fred paused to look up at me through his eyelashes, flashing a smile. “Have a nice little nap?”
“It was lovely,” I answered with a yawn, stretching out my arms. There was a crick in my neck, and my back was stiff from hunching over. I suspected that someone had put something in my mouth, because my tongue tasted like pepper. “How many classes did I sleep through?”
“Just this one, and you’re only about thirty minutes late. I hope you aren’t supposed to be in Transfiguration, or McGonagall’s going to hand you over to the centaurs to use as target practice.”
“I’m missing my free period, actually,” I grumbled. He looked a bit crestfallen at this, as though he’d hoped to see Professor McGonagall storm into Flitwick’s classroom at any moment, threatening to expel me.
I glanced up at the minuscule wizard, who was poking his head over the top of a desk in the back of the room and assisting two students with practicing Cheering Charms. “Ooh, really? Cheering Charms?” I perked up, interested. “Fourth years get all the good ones.” I rubbed at a welt on my cheek from where I’d fallen asleep on top of my wand. “I can’t believe Delphine didn’t wake me up. That troll. Tomorrow she’s getting a mouthful of flies and I’m not saying anything. And Flitwick, too!” I lifted a hand to my mussed-up hair. “Thirty minutes! Blimey.”
“Flitwick didn’t wake you up because of what day it is. No one woke you up because of what day it is.”
“What day is it?”
“My birthday, now that you mention it. What did you get me?” I tried to scoff, but my throat was on the hoarse side and it sounded more like a pig snorting. “But besides that, it’s April first. We decided to let you kip for a while right here as a joke. And of course, I wasn’t going to wake you up, even though you were sitting in my seat. At my desk. Where I normally am productive and do much waving-of-the-wand.”
“Ahh, Miss Wright!” Flitwick chirped. “Glad to see that you enjoyed Charms enough to stick around for a lesson with fourth years.” He turned back to the students he was mentoring and Fred let out a snigger.
I mustered up a decent glare. “My free period! I could have been checking on Imogen. I’ll bet she needs taken for a walk, the poor thing…” I looked all around. A few Gryffindors and even a couple Slytherins were watching my reaction on tenterhooks. “Bah.”
“Not so smug now, are we?” Fred relaxed in his chair, one of the corners of his mouth lifting in a self-satisfied grin. “That’ll teach you to nick my wand.”
“Nick your wand? What’re you on about?”
I stared at him.
He stared back.
A particular memory clicked into place and I burst into laughter. “Are you kidding?” I rasped. “You can’t be serious. That was – Merlin, that was last year! You’re still wound up about that? Upon my word, Weasley, you are a petty little man.”
“I never forget when I have been wronged.” Fred smiled, eyes flashing. He looked more devious than usual, what with the sunlight pouring through a cracked window from behind him enveloping his hair and making it gleam like actual fire. “Payback. Now don’t rub your arm on anything before that dries or it will mess it all up.”
I lifted up my arm and examined the ink art again. “That’s not too bad, actually.”
“I think it’s my best work. Hold still for a second.” I froze so that he could apply the finishing touches on Dumbledore’s hat, and we both leaned back to admire it.
“It needs a caption,” he mused. He held up one hand to blindfold my eyes, and with his other, he dipped his quill into a peculiar little bottle of ink I hadn’t noticed before and began to scrawl. His hand was warm and I could smell something like cedar lingering there. It gave me visions of the Weasley twins untangling their way through the Forbidden Forest – which they were clearly not allowed in but obviously went to, anyway – and I found myself smiling. I, too, snuck out to the Forbidden Forest at least twice a week. Granted, I was usually with Hagrid, but still…
“All right,” Fred told me merrily. “Now you’re free to enjoy what’s left of your free period.” His hand fell away from my eyes and his face was close to mine, alight with mischief.
My left arm said ‘FRED IS LOVELY’ underneath a moving doodle of Albus Dumbledore flexing his biceps for an entire month.
So you see that little review box down there? It’s hungry. It’s got tiny little dinosaur arms that are wiggling around all excited because it wants feedback. Please feed the dinosaur. It only takes a few seconds. :)
“Happy Christmas!” I sprang through the air like a flying squirrel, landing on top of Delphine. Ripping the quilt away from her face, I bounced around until she produced some proof that she was alive. “Come on, wake up!”
“Worst Christmas ever,” she sniffed sleepily, poking her eyes open. “No date to the Yule Ball for tonight. I’m almost certain I’ve caught Black-Speckled Fever. And to top it all off, we’ve still got The Cows with us.”
Orchid snorted from her own bed, knowing exactly who Delphine was referring to. Alice and Matilda made no noise from behind their closed hangings – they were still asleep.
“Cheer up,” I encouraged, handing her a pair of glasses that had chilled nearly to ice on the nightstand. “And only dragons get Black-Speckled Fever. Besides, I’ve got fantastic news on the Ball dates front.”
She sat up so quickly that her head wobbled with dizziness. “Did Harry ask me?”
I patted her shoulder. “Sorry, love, but no. I’ve just been down to breakfast, and there was a bunch of people there who still didn’t have dates. So we put our names on a list and shuffled them up, and now we’ve all been sorted into pairs! Well, except for this poor Slytherin girl – the numbers weren’t completely even. But you and I are saved!”
Delphine beamed at me. “Who’s mine?”
I dug a napkin out of my pocket and unfolded it. “Eddie Carmichael. He’s a Ravenclaw in our year.”
She wrinkled up her nose. “Isn’t he the one who likes to hide in the alcove outside the girls’ toilet and try to trip people?”
“Err – I’m sure he’s grown out of that. Anyway, I’ve got Adrian Pucey from Slytherin, who’s a shade worse than yours, so no complaining. Now open up your presents and meet me down at Hagrid’s,” I instructed, sliding off the bed. “I’ve been up for hours – I’ve already opened mine. Thanks for the gloves, by the way! I’m off to try them out right now.”
Delphine mumbled something incoherent, her mouth already stuffed with Chocoballs, and I left her there to scowl at Orchid from across the room, arms wrapped protectively around her hoard of Christmas sweets.
I floated up the circling dungeon stairs and headed outside into a soft blizzard. The sky was white and heavy, weighed down in fog, and tiny fibers of snow dusted my coat and black gloves like powdered sugar. Hagrid was outside, dumping out a tankard of brown liquid I could only assume was also responsible for his blotchy, red complexion. My eyes traveled up to his hair, which was snarled and matted in places; bits of broken teeth from a comb were hidden throughout his hair and beard. Since when had Hagrid ever tried to comb his hair?
“Well, don’t you look spiffed up?” I mentioned slyly, sliding past him into his hut.
“Ah, it’s nothin’,” he grunted, waving an enormous hand. I saw him glance at the Beauxbatons carriage, his eyes as dreamy and swirling as memories in a Pensieve. I bit down on my tongue so that I wouldn’t laugh. “What’re you doin’?”
“I’m checking on Ingrid.”
I kneeled on the floor next to Hagrid’s huge bed. The gap between mattress and floor was high enough off the ground that I didn’t have to tilt my head to peer underneath. I pulled out a long white shoebox, the lid dented in the middle from where Fang had once stepped on it. “There we are.”
“What, you don’ trust me?” Hagrid asked testily from the doorway. “I jus’ checked on her not two hours ago.”
I swept off the lid, smiling brightly at a furry ball curled up in the middle of a nest of rags. I scooped her into my hands, inspecting her eyes and ears and blunt snout. Ingrid was the product of something very much banned by the Ministry, and certainly not allowed on Hogwarts grounds. The law had never stopped Hagrid and me from cross-breeding animals, though. In Ingrid’s case, we had paired a niffler with a murtlap. So far, she resembled a niffler much more than a murtlap, although something rough and purplish that prickled like barnacles was beginning to sprout from her back.
“And how is Ingrid today?” I cooed. She twitched her nose, beady eyes staring anxiously up at me. She had come to associate me with poking and prodding, and occasionally being dangled upside-down so that I could study how her muscles wriggled. She was, however, one of my most cooperative subjects for sketching.
There was a notebook stowed in my trunk that held about sixty-seven sketches and basic information on all of the animals we had ever examined. Not all of them were mixed-breeds; most were normal animals we had found in the forest and taken in, studying them and training them to act differently from the rest of their species to see how they would adapt. I had taught a jarvey how to sing and a gnome how to eat with a fork.
My eyes narrowed on a patch of brown crumbs in one corner of the box. “Hagrid, have you been feeding her your rock cakes again?”
“She loves ‘em! Eats ‘em right up.”
“Hagrid,” I groaned for the millionth time. “Just because she will eat them doesn’t mean that she should.”
“Nifflers eat cakes and murtlaps eat rocks,” he responded hotly. “Put two an’ two together, why don’t you? I’ve been aroun’ fer years before you were livin’, Hollis. I know what I’m doin’.”
I rolled my eyes. Hagrid and I frequently bickered over methods of raising these experimental creatures, but out of a necessity for a partner in crime, we put up with each other as best as possible. If we rubbed each other the wrong way too much, I would hide Ingrid’s box under my own bed for a few days until he realized how beneficial my help was, and then he always relented and promised that we could try my ideas, too. He was too soft on these creatures, and hated not being able to see them. This worked out for me, since Alice had a nose like a bloodhound and was going to discover my illicit activities someday. And if that happened, I would get expelled and would probably live out the rest of my days in Hagrid’s bathtub, assistant to the gamekeeper.
“Does she drink pumpkin juice?” I asked curiously, massaging the creature behind her ears. Her fur was splashes of cinnamon and brick-red – it was utterly fascinating. I couldn’t wait to see what she would look like when she was fully grown, and whether or not she could produce Essence of Murtlap or if she could locate treasure like her niffler mother.
“Sure, but she likes ale better.”
My neck snapped around so fast that I thought I could feel a bone fissure. “Jus’ jokin’,” he added with a broad grin. He ambled out the front door with Fang at his heels. “I’m goin’ out here for a mo’ to take a look at Maxime’s horses. I reckon you can let yerself out when yer done.” I waved without looking up, going about my business. We had a professional relationship, Hagrid and me.
I had just finished changing Ingrid’s bedding and nudging several fat pink berries up to her paws when Delphine entered, armed to the teeth in scarves, hats, and coats. It was amazing that she could move at all with such bulk. Yellow rubber gloves had been stuffed over at least two pairs of normal gloves, and they reached all the way up to her elbows.
“Precautionary,” she informed me, clapping them together. “I haven’t forgotten those Skrewts.”
“Don’t worry, it’s just Ingrid; although you might need them for the graphorns.”
Her eyes bugged out. “Those monsters that you keep penned up in the Forbidden Forest! They’re still alive? Merlin, I thought they would have all killed each other by now!”
I laughed. “Kidding. Hagrid sold them. And I’m done here, so we can go back to the castle if you want.”
The grounds were currently engaged in warfare, with snowballs arcing from one snow-fort to another. “Don’t you dare!” Delphine shouted at Ron Weasley, who had reeled his arm back and looked ready to fire. Harry Potter was crouching in the snow beside him, eagerly shaping a snowball. Behind them, Hermione Granger rested against a tree with her arms crossed.
“Ugh, it’s her,” Delphine whispered mulishly.
“Don’t get your wand in a knot,” I advised. “I hear that she’s got a thing for Viktor Krum.”
Delphine huffed, still looking surly. “Everyone’s got a thing for Krum. I don’t really see the appeal.”
I didn’t remind her that she had instantly formed an attachment to Krum the second we got wind that he was part of the Durmstrang lot; she’d asked for his autograph and he’d told her, “Maybe later,” and she had been so insulted that she was now determined to hate him.
We carefully picked our way around the flurry of white ammunition whizzing back and forth. The Weasley twins were exuberant, catapulting snowballs with magic. We had gotten as far as to the door when an enormous wet mass splattered all over the back of my coat, sliding down inside my boots like sludge.
“Hey!” I cried, hopping up and down. “Cold! Cold!”
Delphine whirled abruptly around, shaking her fist in Hermione’s direction. “You cowards! You’re not supposed to attack an opponent when their back is turned!”
“It’s only snow,” George laughed. He did a little dance. “How ‘bout that aim, Fred?”
“Corking job, George. I feel honored to have witnessed it.”
Delphine squinted in anger, curling her hands into fists. “I’ve got this,” she assured me. And although I tried to stop her, because it really was just a snowball and I wasn’t bothered by it, Delphine doubled over and ran like a madwoman down the path toward two very shocked-looking Weasleys. Roaring like a savage warrior, Delphine bowled George right over into the snow and then forced him to swallow a mouthful of it.
Fred was clutching at a stitch in his side from above them, pink with laughter, because he was actually the one who had thrown it.
Matilda Clark smiled sweetly at her reflection in the mirror, petting one of her glistening mahogany ringlets. We were queuing up behind her in the loo, waiting for a turn. All four of us were repulsively plain in comparison to Matilda, who was dressed in a rich green gown that accentuated her willowy frame. The buttons were made from rosewood and carved into the shape of tiger lilies.
The rest of us looked awkward standing next to her, with Alice’s pointy shoes and Orchid’s potion-fried hair and Delphine’s crinkled silver dress. I had hoped for something blue to wear, to bring out my eyes; or perhaps gold because it usually set my strawberry blonde hair in the best light.
Tonight, I looked more like a bird than anything else, because my mother had sent me a dress decorated with fuzzy lavender feathers. They were long around my neck and shoulders, bouncing when I walked. The middle was composed of a shiny garish pink color, and then the hem of my sleeves and dress were once again consumed with fuzzy purple strands. I couldn’t get the ones around my neck to lie flat – several stuck up from static, tickling my throat like jellyfish tentacles.
When Matilda decided that she was just as perfect as she already knew that she was, she sauntered back into the Yule Ball. She worked a different social circle than the rest of us, spinning around with her glamorous head in the clouds and everlastingly oblivious to the four other girls who shared her dormitory. We all spent a few minutes silently cursing Matilda’s parents for conceiving her.
“Hag,” Alice muttered when she was gone, standing aside as Orchid dusted her nose with an oversized powder puff.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m having fun,” Delphine chirped happily, jabbing one of her dangly earrings to make it jiggle. “Eddie’s such a gentleman. I asked him to get us drinks and he actually did it! And he didn’t forget mine!” She sighed contentedly. “I should ask Professor Dumbledore if we can have a ball every year.”
“It’s just because of the Triwizard Tournament,” I said. “And I think it would be a nightmare to have balls every single year. My bottom’s stiff from sitting in a chair all night.”
“Why haven’t you been dancing?” Her forehead crinkled in concern. “Where’s Adrian?”
I shrugged lamely. “Last I knew, he was sneaking out onto the grounds with that Patricia girl from Slytherin.”
“You can borrow Eddie for a few songs, if you like,” Delphine offered generously. “I don’t mind sitting down for a while. Or we could all sit down together at a table and talk about O.W.L.s or something…”
“I’m fine,” I told her, opening up the door. We followed Alice and Orchid, who were walking with linked arms in front of us (neither of them had snagged dates, so they went with each other), back into the festivities. I paused at the open entrance, looking on at George and Angelina. The latter had spent the better half of the ball with Fred, and seemed to have switched partners.
Cho Chang and Cedric Diggory rotated under a bough of mistletoe, smiling at each other in a way that would be sure to make steam curl out of Delphine’s ears. Cho looked much less reserved than usual, and Cedric’s cheeks were flushed, dimples stretching all around his mouth. I found his teeth to be a bit mesmerizing, as there were so many of them and they were so dazzlingly white; and it was only when I heard Delphine muttering jinxes at Cho that I snapped to attention.
Fred was sipping from a goblet with his tie loosened as far as he could yank it, gazing around the room with a devious expression that I had come to recognize and be wary of, with good reason. His gleaming eyes caught mine and I quite literally envisioned Gran’s face in my mind, telling me to make a run for it. Delphine was pestering Archibald now, trying to introduce him to Eddie (who looked very much like he would rather be anywhere else), and I resolved to sneak off to bed.
I got as far as three steps before a finger tapped my shoulder.
My eyes closed for a moment before I turned around, already worried. “If you’ve got water balloons, they’d better at least be lukewarm.”
“Water balloons?” a voice repeated. I opened my eyes, and sure enough, it was Fred. “So suspicious,” he mused, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet with both hands shoved inside his pockets. He was always stuffing his hands in his pockets, which just made me more suspicious. It led me to believe that he had stolen goods tucked away in there, or something equally seedy.
My guard immediately flew up. There are two facts that I never forget: Don’t eat anything you find in Snape’s storeroom, and never trust a Weasley twin if you can’t see what he’s doing with his hands.
“This offends me deeply,” he said. “It’s Hornby’s influence, isn’t it? Her paranoia has finally spread to your brain.”
I surveyed him. “Fair enough. Show me what you’ve got in your pockets and I’ll apologize for the skepticism.”
He grinned and withdrew his hands. His palms were loaded with Dungbombs.
“Good Godric,” I couldn’t help but laugh. “Why have you got Dungbombs in your dress robes? Who takes Dungbombs to a ball?”
“I do,” he said, tipping them back into his pockets. He brushed the residue onto his robes and gestured to the boisterous crowd in the Great Hall. “So much opportunity! Doesn’t anyone else realize…?”
“Look in there, Hollis. Who do you see?”
I humored him by scouring the room. There was Delphine, who was tagging along after Eddie, who didn’t seem to be aware of her presence. I saw Harry Potter and Ron Weasley skulking in chairs off to the side, neither of them appearing too chuffed. Cho was talking to Marietta and Cedric was wandering over to one of the Christmas trees, following Rachel Alexander with his eyes. Roger Davies was looking pretty fit…
“I see everyone,” I told him finally, giving up on the riddle.
“Exactly! Everyone’s in there. And if everyone’s in there...” He pointed at the Great Hall, his eyes leveling meaningfully on mine. “Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? The rest of the castle is empty. Deserted. There are so many rooms just waiting for Dungbombs and no one will ever know who did it. Even Filch is busy in there twisting about like he’s having a seizure; he’s been practicing with his mop all week.”
I perked up, intrigued. “So you’re going to go drop Dungbombs everywhere?”
“It always helps to have an accomplice,” he remarked with an encouraging smile. “As I remember it, you and Pucey weren’t exactly having a party of things. So if you’re not busy with anything else…”
“What’re we chatting about?” George inquired, scuttling over to poke Fred’s neck with his wand. Fred’s mouth dropped open in surprise, and he looked around as though he’d already forgotten what he was saying.
“Dungbombs,” I supplied. “Fred’s got some in his pockets.”
“Do you?” George smiled approvingly, dragging Angelina over by the arm. “Excellent. Want to take part in a childish prank for a bit, Johnson?”
“What sort of prank?”
She wrinkled up her nose. “That explains the smell.”
George wasn’t listening to her. “What’s the plan, then, Fred? Are we going to leave the fine students of Beauxbatons a lovely surprise in their carriage? I reckon it’d be –” He suddenly stopped talking, and the twins just stood there for a quiet moment, staring at each other. “Angelina, did you say that you wanted some Christmas cake?”
“I already had some.”
“Well, let’s get some more.” He seized her arm once again and they went back into the Great Hall, Angelina fussing noisily the whole way about being jerked all over the place against her will.
“Well, then.” Fred examined his wristwatch, grappling for something to say. “Are you up for it?”
“Sure,” I replied confidently. I had already begun plotting taking a few Dungbombs for myself to use against Matilda.
We began to ascend staircases at random, tossing Dungbombs through portrait holes and gleefully watching them explode before continuing onward. Other ones we placed very gently on the ground; unsuspecting students and staff would inevitably step on them later, and when they did, it would make a terrific squelching noise followed by a cloud of putrid gas. When we reached a portrait that led to the seventh floor, Fred opened it up and stuck one foot inside to hold it in place. “After you.”
“What are we doing?” I whispered, keeping my voice down even though no one besides portrait people could hear us. He only grinned. We zigzagged through corridors, passing a tapestry of Barnabus the Barmy. He didn’t even hesitate outside Flitwick’s office, or the Divination classroom. When I realized what Fred’s real goal was, I laughed derisively. “Are you kidding? We’re not going to be able to get in there.”
Fred approached the gargoyle flanking Dumbledore’s office. “Pumpkin pasties,” he declared firmly. The gargoyle didn’t move.
“Peppermint humbugs. Licorice Wands. Crystallized mangoes. Toffee tarts.”
I leaned against the wall. “We’re not going to get in. And even if we did, what would you do? Put Dungbombs in Dumbledore’s nightcap?”
“Of course. And besides that, don’t you want to have a look around? You’re not curious to see what our brilliant Headmaster does with all the time he spends shut up in there?” He swerved his attention back to the gargoyle, determined. “Sugared violets. Chocolate éclairs. Cockroach Clusters.”
“Fred,” I said, my voice colored with warning. He glanced up and followed my line of vision. Mrs. Norris was slinking around the corner, her bulbous yellow eyes unblinking as they watched us. I could practically hear Filch screaming already, running in circles like an idiot. Students sneaking around on the seventh floor! Students out of bounds at night! Mrs. Norris’s tail switched evilly, eyes glinting like torches. Fred swore.
“I’d love to punt her through one of the Quidditch goal hoops,” I murmured.
“Come on,” he ordered, and grasped me by the elbow.
“You Weasleys,” I grumbled as he pulled me a bit faster than I could physically move down a hallway. “You’re so pushy. Your legs are a lot longer than mine, I can’t keep up.”
“You’re going to have to, unless you want Filch to find the trail of Dungbombs we left in all the corridors and empty classrooms.”
“I’ll tell him that I was Imperiused. Filch will have no trouble believing that you were the only criminal at fault here.”
“You’ve been paying too much attention in Defense Against the Dark Arts.” He glanced over his shoulder several times, still walking speedily, and twisted my body right into a tapestry. I braced for a broken nose, and the impact of slamming into concrete.
Nothing happened. I emerged in a space roughly the size of a broom cupboard, with moss on the slick walls. A narrow black stairway wound down through the levels below, dark as a tunnel.
“See that?” he asked, pointing at the stairs. “Leads straight to the dungeons. It’s best not to light your wand, though, so as not to attract any special attention. You never know who’ll pop up.”
I gaped at the hole in the floor. “How did you know about this?”
His mouth twitched and he pressed his lips together, stifling a very provoking smile. I blew a strand of hair out of my eyes, irritated. “Well, if you’re going to be all secretive, then I won’t give you the satisfaction of being curious.”
The journey down was steep and damp, and the eternal spiraling in circles gave me a horrible headache. Although I could hear the soft metal pings of Fred’s shoes clanging off the metal steps, I was distrustfully beginning to wonder if we weren’t going into the dungeons at all, but into a secret chamber full of bats and lizards as some sort of horrible joke. “Fred?” I called out.
“Right here.” He was much closer than his echoing footsteps had indicated.
When we reached the dungeons, I saw with a flood of relief that there were no bats or slithering reptiles in sight. It was the same section of the dungeons I navigated every single day. Fred’s first instinct was to find Professor Snape’s classroom and toss Dungbombs into his cauldron, but I successfully changed tack and suggested looting the kitchens. Professor Snape was scarier than a three-headed-dog, and I did not want to make him angry.
Fred was easy to persuade – easier, I guessed, than it would have been had George been present. Fred and George lived to entertain each other, each of them always trying to outdo the other. If one of them made the other smile, it was a satisfaction; if they laughed, it was a victory. But in George’s absence, the mischief was somewhat diluted and Fred became slightly more tame.
“I haven’t seen Dobby in a while,” he said thoughtfully, and conceded to visiting the kitchens. “Too bad about not getting back at Snape, though. He took ten points from Gryffindor at breakfast this morning because I made strips of bacon dance along the staff table. Docking points on Christmas! Bacon should be allowed to express some holiday cheer through doing the salsa without fear of oppression. It’s prejudice against pork, that’s what it is.”
He tickled a pear in a painted bowl of fruit on the kitchen door, and it swung open at his touch. I got the feeling that Fred and George probably came down here often. It was astonishing that Filch hadn’t managed to get Dumbledore to expel them yet.
“Treacle tart?” Fred asked. A sea of elves milled around us, carrying mountains of dirty plates so high that they wobbled unsteadily, their chins jutting out over top of cooking bowls and goblets still sloshing with remnants of pumpkin juice. “Chocolate?” Fred went on, unfazed by the elves’ activity. “What do you like?”
I was about to say that I fancied something with strawberries when a voice carried through the corridor on the other side of the door.
“Filch,” I hissed, just as Fred whispered, “Mad-Eye!” We crept over to the door and pressed our ears against it, straining to listen. A high soprano pitch wafted along, growing quiet as the portrait leading to the Hufflepuff common room opened and closed after them.
“Oh, it’s just that horrid Matilda Clark,” I informed him, my tone vicious.
“Horrid, is she?”
“She sings constantly,” I began to rave. “She wakes me up every morning because she showers at ungodly hours and sings the whole bloody time. It makes me want to ram a broomstick through my ears.”
“Who exactly is Matilda Clark, anyway?”
I studied him, wondering if he could possibly be genuine. It was a ridiculous thought – someone not knowing who Matilda was. All of the boys knew who Matilda was. Or at least all of the girls thought that the boys knew… My train of thought grew fuzzy. “Don’t you know anything about Hufflepuffs?”
He smirked. “I know that some of the younger ones can be easily persuaded to lick a chalkboard if they’re told that it makes them immune to Peeves.”
The door cracked open from beneath our hands, shoving us backward. We stood against the wall like shadows, waiting. The infiltrator shut the door behind them and turned around –
“Delphine!” I leapt over, clamping a hand over her mouth. “Damn it, Delphine! Shhh!”
She staggered back, pointing wildly. “Hiding behind the door! What – what’re you –” She shut up, running a tongue over her bottom lip. She puckered up her mouth, tasting a flavor that I would certainly never want to sample myself. Fred and I both winced, waiting for her to realize…
“Holy Helga,” she whispered, white as milk and looking ready to faint. She swayed on the spot. “You’re trying to poison me. You’ve gone evil!”
“It’s Dungbombs,” I laughed. “Don't worry, stink pellets are harmless.”
“Dungbombs?” she shrieked, spitting on the floor. She pawed at her lips, trying to wipe it all off while still blowing raspberries, sending spittle flying everywhere. Fred made a face, shielding himself with one arm. “You got that filth – on – my – face. It’s in my mouth. Oh my god, it’s probably in my stomach by now, creating diseases…”
“Bloody hell,” Fred muttered absently. “I thought you were Moody. He always finds me out whenever I’m trying to have some fun.” He rubbed his forehead with the back of one hand and then twirled his finger in a circular motion over one eye. “It’s that magical eye of his. He can see everything.”
Delphine’s eyes narrowed to slits, darting from our caught-in-the-act expressions to our dirty hands. “What are you two doing in here?” Her voice was peppered with suspicion. “I thought that maybe you had gone to bed, Hollis. I was just about to make Archibald dance with you, and I looked around and you were gone.”
“You’re exactly right, I was on my way to bed.” I whipped the door open, sidling past her. “I just got a bit lost. I think I’ll be going now.”
“Don’t you want something to eat?” she asked, puzzled. “I was just about to get some pudding…”
“Nope. Not hungry. Tired. Dead tired. See you later!” Before I shut the door, I caught a glimpse of Fred standing utterly still, his expression confused. I found my nerves speeding along even faster than my feet as I ran to the Hufflepuff Common Room. My heart was beating against my chest in sharp, quick bursts.
Stupid Yule Ball. Stupid Dungbombs. Stupid fuzzy feather dress. I threw myself under the quilt in my four-poster bed without knowing exactly why I felt so nervous and jumpy, and it took ages for me to fall asleep. By the time the other girls trickled into our dormitory, my bed hangings were pulled tightly shut and I was still staring at my eyelids, thinking about Delphine’s irritating appetite.
When I woke up the next morning, it finally dawned on me that I had developed a crush on Fred Weasley.
Not sure why this story has decided that this chapter must be called chapter seven, but it's supposed to be six. :) Which probably goes without saying but I'm just throwing it out there anyway.
The whispering in the corridor sounded like a swarm of bees, and Delphine and I caught a whiff of their conversation as they drifted by our compartment on the Hogwarts Express.
“It’s Harry Potter!”
“Harry Potter? The one who defeated You-Know-Who?”
“Are you sure it’s him?”
“Of course I’m bleedin’ sure! He’s got the scar and everything.”
“Holy Harpies!” Delphine yelped, turning to face me. “Maybe he’ll be Sorted into Hufflepuff.” She wrestled some hairpins out of her pocket and jammed two of them between her teeth, twisting her hair back into a knot. “Do my glasses look all right? I get a new pair every year. These ones are a bit trendier, I expect.” I didn’t notice any difference between last year’s glasses and the ones now sitting on her face, but I didn’t burst her bubble.
Even though my grandmother was a witch, my father was a Squib and my mum was a Muggle; therefore I didn’t know quite as much about the legendary Harry Potter as everyone else did. It did strike me as strange that someone as powerful as Harry Potter could possibly be younger than myself; for some reason, I had always envisioned him as someone who lived thirty or more years ago.
In my mind, he was either the smiling cherub from old photographs or a knightly sort of gentleman, riding around on a white horse and performing good deeds as the slayer of all things evil. The thought that I would be able to Apparate before the person who single-handedly finished off You-Know-Who before he could talk made me want to giggle.
“Ooh, let’s take a peek,” Delphine urged, clamping a hand around my wrist and squeezing hard. Curious myself, I allowed her to shuffle me down the train where a spry group of third years were gathered around a narrow glass window on a compartment door. Their heads were so stuffed over the space that it was a miracle they could see anything besides each other’s hair.
“I predict Ravenclaw,” Angelina Johnson told them dryly. “He’s got that look about him.”
“You’re just saying that because he wears glasses,” one of the Weasley twins chided.
“Kind of stringy looking,” Rachel Alexander added, smearing the blond fringe out of her eyes so that she could see better. “You know, I’m a bit disappointed. After all the ruckus I’ve heard about him, I half-expected the boy to be glowing or have a gilded crown permanently attached to his head or something.”
“He looks…normal,” Lee Jordan remarked, mirroring his friend’s disappointment. “Merlin, I hope he doesn’t get Sorted into Hufflepuff. That would be the embarrassment of Europe.”
“Hey,” I called out, wounded, but no one paid me any notice. They were all busy shoving at each other for a better angle.
“Maybe his Sorting will be a special case,” Second Weasley Twin suggested. “Maybe they’ll give him a sword and ask him to do something fancy with it.”
“You’re probably right,” Lee replied sagely. “I bet they’ll bring in a goblin and make him wrestle it for a sack of treasure.”
“Care to place some weight on that wager?” First Weasley Twin mused in a lowered voice so that the girls couldn’t overhear. “Because I reckon they’ll drop him into the Black Lake and see how well he fares with battling a hippocampus.”
“Two Galleons?” Lee murmured out of one corner of his mouth, eyes not moving from the window.
First Weasley bit his lip. “How ‘bout we make it two Sickles instead?”
“He’s going to be in Gryffindor for sure,” Second Weasley pressed on loudly, flicking Alicia in the ear so that she would move. “I heard that our House got both his parents. You know how the hat likes to keep it in the families.”
“Dream on,” Delphine told them snobbishly, pushing through with her shoulders of steel to get a good glimpse for herself. “Oh yes, he’s got Hufflepuff written all over him. His nose is exactly like a Hufflepuff’s usually is, you know.” She clapped her hands with glee, excited breath fogging up the window. “And he’s cute, too. Move over, Cedric Diggory. You’ve got some competition.”
I ducked under Delphine to see for myself, and rolled my eyes. The boy was small and scrawny, with dark, messy hair and knobbly knees. He looked more like someone who would build miniature models of the solar system in his spare time than a savior of the wizarding world.
I’d seen many different portraits in books about what expert scholars thought he would grow up to look like; he didn’t even remotely resemble the god with ebony curls and broad muscles who rode an iron-grey hippogriff everywhere. His mate, however, who was sitting right next to him, more so matched the descriptions in conflicting theories saying that Harry was supposed to be flame-haired. For a second I wondered if perhaps Ginger was Harry Potter.
Apparently, so did Delphine. “He’s exactly like I pictured,” she swooned. “All those freckles on his nose! And it looks like he has a spot of dirt on it, too…”
“Are you mad?” Second Weasley Twin laughed. His twin caught on and they doubled over each other against the doorframe, roaring with laughter. “That’s our brother Ron, you nutter!”
I snorted. “I don’t think Cedric’s got much to worry about,” I assured Delphine. “That kid looks like a strong wind might do him in.”
“Oh, hush,” Angelina reproached. “I think he’s adorable. Look at his little round glasses!”
Delphine, who was both mortified by publicly labeling the wrong boy as Harry Potter and also offended that anyone could suggest glasses were adorable, stomped back into our compartment and slammed the door shut behind her.
“Come on,” Rachel said to the others at last. “I would hate to be gawked at by a bunch of strangers. Let’s go put our robes on.”
They wandered off, and I slipped into the spot vacated by the snooping third years. I was always a bit nosy – definitely something I inherited from Gran – and couldn’t help ogling a bit before the rest of Hogwarts got the chance to fatten his head with showers of compliments and attention. This year was bound to be vastly different from last year, what with a celebrity strutting the corridors.
“Where’s his scar, though?” I whispered to myself, tilting my fingertips onto the glass. I felt rather like someone staring through an aquarium, tapping on the sides to make the fish scatter.
“His hair’s covering it,” a voice responded. It was Weasley Twin, hovering behind my left shoulder. “What? No judging. I’m curious, too.”
His hair was a bit longer this year, flipping out around his ears. He was taller, too. I watched his eyes light up on an object behind me, and I turned to see a plump, brown-haired boy I did not recognize slogging slowly through the corridor, eyes glued to the floor. “Trevor?” he whispered frantically. “Trevor?”
“Ahh,” Weasley Twin cackled, leaning close to me. “Fresh meat. Here’s your chance.”
“What do you mean?”
He nodded at the boy, waggling his eyebrows as if trying to convey something obvious. “Remember what I told you about tradition? You’re a second year now. It’s absolutely essential that you assert your second year dominance by locking that kid in a compartment.” He pointed at a compartment across the way from Harry Potter’s. The lights weren’t on and it seemed to be empty. “That there would be an excellent choice.”
My mouth dropped open. He patted me firmly on the back. “Go on! You know you want to. He’s practically begging for it, being all alone and vulnerable out here.”
“That was you last year!” I cried accusingly, folding my arms. “Which one are you, anyway? Which Weasley, I mean.”
“Fred. And don’t forget it.”
I narrowed my eyes. “I won’t.”
The brown-haired boy was edging nearer, hunching low to the floor and searching desperately with his eyes for something. Fred’s gaze slid to mine, and he raised an eyebrow. I dare you, his expression seemed to say.
“But how do I lock it?” I whispered. “I don’t have my wand on me.”
“Here, you can borrow mine.” He gradually unveiled a spiraling wand that looked like it might be rowan, and slipped it into my hand behind our backs. I felt myself smile. Oh, he was much too trusting, much too sure of himself.
In one quick movement, I jumped behind Fred and grasped his shoulders, shoving him into the empty compartment. “Hey!” he yelled. “What are you doing?” He made to turn around, but it was too late.
“Colloportus.” The lock clicked, effectively sealing him inside with no hopes of escaping.
He gaped in astonishment, mouth hanging open. I laughed freely at his predicament, rapping on the window with his wand. “Well, would you look at that. Now you’re all locked up and no longer a danger to the poor first years. Gosh, I wish I could do something. I seem to have forgotten how to unlock doors…” I squinted. “What is it? Moraloha? Alomoraha?”
His eyes were wide, but Fred knew how to appreciate a good trick and he began to smile. “Okay, okay, I’ve learned my lesson. No more torturing first years. Now let me out.”
I studied him thoughtfully, using the tip of his wand to scratch my head. “You know, I really don’t think that’s going to happen. I think I like you better in there. Your voice is all muffled. Have you ever heard yourself? You and your brother are the loudest people in Hogwarts. It can be borderline obnoxious, especially when I’m trying to read the Prophet and you lot are pouring syrup down each other’s robes and whatnot.”
“Oh, don’t even talk to me about loud,” he debated through the door. “I’ve heard your friend Hornby. She’s like a bloody banshee.”
“What was that?” I cupped my ear. “Can’t quite hear you in there.”
“You’re bluffing. You’re not seriously going to leave me in here.”
I threw his wand up in the air and caught it again, pretending to analyze it. “Nice wand,” I gloated. “What’s the core, by the way – vampire fangs? Hippogriff feathers? Now that I think about it, I’m definitely getting a dragon heartstring vibe here – it’s all swishy and pliable, good for Charms work. I think I’ll keep it. Thanks for the offer.”
His eyes were as round as Fizzing Whizbees. I began to walk away, and he beat on the door. “Hey! That’s my wand! You’ve got my wand! Come on now, cut me a break.”
“Okay,” I relented. “If this first year here can perform the spell that lets you out, then you’re free.” I handed the wand to the round-faced boy who kept calling for ‘Trevor’. “Here you are, then. Good luck.” Just before sliding open the door to my own compartment, I glanced over my shoulder, still laughing at his flabbergasted face smashed up against the glass. “That’s for Delphine!”
A/N: Just wanted to give a massive THANK YOU to all of you lovely people who have favorited this story and left reviews. Some of you have favorited me as an author as well and I can’t even tell you how spectacular that feeling is. It fills my heart with warm fuzzies. ^_^ Thank you for reading.
“This feels like a bad idea,” Delphine whispered in my ear. “We haven’t even been informed ahead of time about what we’re going to be testing, and I saw the fine print about risks on the bottom of those fliers. For all we know, this could be an initiation for some kind of evil gang.”
“Do you want Galleons or not?” I hissed in exasperation.
Her face puckered. “Well, of course I do –”
“All right!” George clapped his hands, beaming at the short row of people who had responded to the Weasley twins’ most recent fliers. Delphine and I, along with a pair of second year boys, were sitting on hard chairs in Moaning Myrtle’s loo. “Not a bad turnout, for the second week. You fine lads and ladies are going to be sampling a very new and very exciting product of ours.”
“Right,” Fred announced, walking briskly into the room. My stomach flipped. “The process is simple. Just do what we ask, answer a few of our questions, and you’ll get a Galleon each.”
“Why are we hiding in a girls’ toilet?” one of the second year boys piped up.
“Err –” George hesitated, and then resumed a deceptively reassuring grin. “Let’s just say that there’s a rather bossy Gryffindor prefect who will make our lives much more difficult than necessary if she gets wind of this.”
“Right,” Fred pressed on, rubbing his hands together. His eyes glittered with enthusiasm. “Let’s get down to it, shall we? Today you are going to be testing our latest invention – the Patented Daydream Charm. Well, it’s not quite patented yet. But it sounds much more official that way.”
“In essence, it is a top-notch fantasy come to life, available for your eye pleasure during otherwise boring moments you would rather not sit through – History of Magic, for example.” George plunged his hand inside a green and white striped Honeydukes bag that once held Peppermint Toads and withdrew four balls about the size of Trelawney’s crystal ones, each of them a livid purple color. I collected one from him and turned it over in my hands, realizing that it was designed similarly to those Muggle fortune toys where you’re supposed to ask it a question, give it a shake, and then a vague answer floats to the surface.
“You like it?” Fred asked me knowingly, grinning. “I’ve got to hand it to those Muggles – they’re really inspiring. You just give it a shake and your incantation pops up; and then you have to do a bit of wand-waving and it lasts for a predetermined length of time, always expiring as soon as you’re finished. And the beauty of what we’ve done here is that if someone steals it, it won’t work for them. It only gives you the incantation if it knows it’s been paid for – these ones excepted. Even if the thief knows the incantation from memory, it’s unusable unless the actual words are floating right-side up.”
“Exactly,” George cut in. “And once the time limit is reached, your incantation vanishes and you can’t use it again. You’ve got to buy a new one.”
“So if you could –” Fred began.
“Just give them a little shake –” George added.
“You’ll get your incantations,” they replied simultaneously. “Bottoms up!”
I did as instructed. The ball had a round glass piece fitted into the top, which allowed the insides to be visible. It was filled with a gaseous, smoke-like substance, curling and undulating and wispy blue in color. A small white triangle slowly made its way to the top, and I watched as the words Lucem Somno formed of their own accord. I recognized it as Fred’s handwriting.
“From the second you voice the incantation, the countdown to expiration begins,” George informed us.
I glanced uncertainly at Delphine and tapped the ball with my wand. “Lucem Somno.”
The room around me grew fuzzy, melting away my consciousness like anesthesia. Delphine and George wavered until they faded into a blurry wall of white; the only person besides myself who remained in the scenery was Fred, whose outfit had inexplicably transformed into baggy brown trousers and a puffy white shirt. Three buttons on his shirt were left undone, and a collection of necklaces with heavy gold medallions hanging from them spilled out. A dragon-hide pirate’s hat with gold-plated scales sat atop his head.
Behind him, an image was painting itself before my eyes – black, rolling clouds. Lightning. And the earth was moving under my feet…I was rocking back and forth, unsteady on sea legs. Quite suddenly, my surroundings made perfect sense.
“This way, Hollis!” he crowed, leaping over jagged holes gouged all over the floor of the top deck. We dodged cannons, laughing as we ran with our large trunk of gold and silver hanging between us.
“Give me back my treasure, you scoundrels!” Captain Frogface boomed, shaking her fist in the air. Her eye patch was askew and I could see that all the rumors weren’t without foundation – her eyes were as black as pitch – they were said to mirror the color of her soul. “Filthy stowaways! You’ll never get out of the Bermuda Triangle alive!”
“Watch us!” Fred hooted, his mouth spread in a devious grin.
I could scarcely hear him over the chaos. People were fleeing the ship in droves – diving overboard in every direction and trying to swim as far away as possible. I watched as whirlpools and gigantic octopus tentacles sucked them down into the sea. Frogface’s ship – Tarantallegra – began to creak and groan as it curved anticlockwise. There were wild cyclones spinning out at sea, screaming with wind circulating through fast-moving droplets of water. The shrieking sounded like banshees.
“This is going to get difficult,” Fred shouted. “But we didn’t hide for three weeks in a boiler cupboard to back out now! Run faster, my love!” Cannons fired away, knocking masts into other masts and sending cracked wood splintering down upon us. The cannonballs were like something out of a nightmare; instead of being little brown balls, they were enormous, jagged shapes. It took a moment for me to realize that they were people, their wrists and ankles shackled together to indicate that they were prisoners.
Frogface's mast was effectively pulverized, sending everyone into a panic. Alice the Evil let out a girlish scream and Fred heaved the stolen trunk of jewels up to his chest.
“If you have plans to leave me here and hoard all that treasure to yourself, I’ve got two fists that say otherwise,” I growled.
Fred laughed. “Cool your knickers. I’m only trying to give your arms a rest.”
The pack of bodies was suffocating, our weight pushing the boat further down into the water. We were revolving in circles, churning between cyclones. I watched one of them suck a pirate right off the boat and fling him into space. Fred and I held onto each other, propping ourselves up against wreckage while bodies continued to drop from out of nowhere, sliding down from the opposite end of the tipped boat to fly into the water below. Unfortunately, we'd made quite an error in the direction we'd chosen to flee.
Inferi appeared in thin air, ripping apart the boards of the boat to get at us. They began to engage in combat with the fiestier pirates while everyone else ran around with their arms flailing in the air, screaming nonsense. They were all floundering under pressure, succombing to the Inferi and their flesh-eating teeth; several shrieked from the direction of the cyclones, drowning. It seemed that everyone not clinging to debris for dear life, all balance thrown off by gravity, was drowning. I would never drown, of course. My swagger alone would keep me afloat.
“You no-good, low-down, two-faced snake!” I shouted, hoping he could hear me. “If it’s the last thing I do, Fred ‘Forbidden Love’ Weasley, I’m going to get revenge on you!” I scowled all around me, shoving everyone out of my way and even knocking a few of them to the ground. An Inferi reached out with one shaking hand and I round-house kicked it in the face, making it fly over the ship’s rail and into the water. “Yeah, and stay out!” I yelled.
I would get that damned treasure, one way or another.
Another of Frogface's cannons went off, exploding amid cheers that we'd knocked a huge chunk out of the opposing side's ship. One of Frogface's buccaneers, Four-Eyed Delphine, was manning the cannons and holding her head up high, back rigid and defiant. I was impressed (and slightly perplexed) that she was so determined to go down fighting, especially since she was the most ill-equipped of their lot to do so with both of her legs being wooden pegs and all.
“Scalawags!” Captain Frogface bellowed. A team of Inferi was strapping her to the underside of a life raft. “There are criminals on my ship! Stealing my treasure! After them, you nimrods!”
I caught a glimpse of Fred’s anxious face in the throng, searching me out. His hand still gripped one handle of the trunk, thank bloody goodness. Our eyes met and he raced toward me…
Just then, a raven-hued hippogriff swooped across the ghost of what had once been a mast, pawing madly. The crowd scattered – it was much thinner now, and I could see a tangle of limbs out at sea that indicated that people were now fighting against Inferi – and the hippogriff landed elegantly before us.
“Come on!” Fred hollered gleefully, waving at me.
I didn’t need telling twice. Fred flung himself and the treasure over the creature’s side and helped to haul me in front of him. We grasped the glossy black feathers and the hippogriff beat its hefty wings, rising over the steadily sinking boat. I could feel Fred’s arms around me – I turned my head to face him and he smiled widely.
“We did it!” I said triumphantly. “I never doubted you for a second!”
“With some help from S.S. George," he whispered in my ear. "What ship shall we sink next?” There was a softness in his eyes and he pressed a hand to my cheek, leaning forward…
A haze washed over the scene and dissipated, making my head wobble with vertigo. I refocused my vision and saw that Fred was examining my face. “Side effects are mostly normal,” he murmured, ticking off something on his checklist. “Vacant expression, mild slumping, and much more drooling than usual.”
“That was intense,” I said, turning to the others. “Very exciting.”
Fred knit his eyebrows in confusion. “What do you mean?”
“I thought it was perfectly wonderful!” Delphine sang. “You know, I was doubtful at first, but I really loved it. I could have stayed on that boat with Harry forever.” George took notes as she spoke. “There was a band singing for us and we fed the seagulls bits of our bread crusts.”
A feeling of deep unease rose from the pit of my stomach. I certainly hoped no one expected me to divulge who else starred in my daydream or what it was about – the mere thought of it made my stomach tighten up, queasy and agitated. I glanced down at my Daydream Charm ball, and noticed that the little floating triangle inside had drifted down to the bottom; the wispy blue substance had been replaced by inky black liquid. I sloshed the contents around, but the incantation did not reappear.
“Harry and I were just finishing our dinner,” Delphine reminisced happily. “It was such lovely weather, too. We had the entire top deck to ourselves and I was just saying that I fancied a walk to gaze at the stars when I snapped out of it.” She glared at George. “I want another one.”
“You can have as many as you can pay for when it’s available to the general public,” George declared. “It seems that we’ve got them about sorted, too – the rest of you saw similar images, correct?”
“Oh, yes,” one of the boys gushed. “Matilda Clark and I were together at the railing and dolphins were jumping out of the water. It was great.”
Delphine rolled her eyes. I distinctly heard her mutter something about Matilda being a promiscuous buffalo.
“I was lying on the top deck, watching the sun set,” the other boy added. “It was really relaxing. That Ravenclaw girl in third year that I like was serving me iced pumpkin juice from a diamond-encrusted goblet.”
“Brilliant,” Fred replied, evidently pleased. He glanced up at me expectantly, and I could feel my face start to heat up. “So, Hollis, was your daydreaming experience satisfactory?”
“Ehh…it was….” I grappled for something to say. “It was nice.”
George chuckled. “I’ll bet it was. Care to share any details with us? Did the person your imagination brought with you retain all of his normal characteristics?”
I could have sworn I saw Fred’s eyes narrow slyly. I could feel warmth prickling my neck. In about two seconds, Delphine was going to say something embarrassing, I could just sense it. “You still have drool on your chin!” she cackled.
She never lets me down, that Delphine. I wiped at my face, shooting her the darkest look I could muster. “Well, actually, I didn’t daydream about anyone.”
Delphine gave a very loud snigger. “Anyone?” George repeated.
I chose to look at the wall, my neck flushing so furiously that it felt like I was burning. Even Moaning Myrtle was gazing at me strangely; Fred tilted his head to one side, skeptical. “I was alone,” I said lamely. “I was eating…mutton.”
“Mutton?” George was quick to pounce, his quill at the ready.
“Loads of mutton.” I nodded my head, trying to be casual. “Definitely. It was fabulous, I had a whole table of it to myself and everything. Yeah.”
“And you were completely alone?” Fred questioned, his eyes glinting oddly. “This is interesting, indeed.” He folded his arms. “We might have to try it again, then. Just to see if anything changes.”
“Err.” I looked from one twin to the other. “I forgot until just now – my memory was all foggy. But Montague was there.” I wasn’t even sure how that name had popped into my head – but the second it entered my brain, I spoke it aloud.
“Montague?” Fred choked. “You had a fantasy about Montague?”
“Sounds more like a nightmare,” George said lightly. “You’re supposed to experience a serene, peaceful cruise on a luxury ship with someone you find attractive. So as long as you can attest to witnessing that scenario, we unfortunately cannot judge you for your poor taste in men.”
I picked at my sleeve nervously. “There might’ve been one or two pirates –”
George’s eyes widened. “Pirates? Now there’s an idea!” He scribbled frantically on his clipboard, eyes alight.
“– and also a couple of dead people hanging around…”
“You’re sure it was Montague?” Fred interjected, studying me intently.
“Well, I want another one!” Delphine spouted. “As soon as possible. Only I thought it was too short. There wasn’t enough time for Harry and me to have a proper snog.”
Fred pretended to gag. “This prototype wears off loads quicker than the real version,” George explained. “So yours were only ten minutes long, because of the time restraint here. Speaking of which…” He examined his watch. “We’ve got to be going – we’re meeting with another group of testers in the Trophy Room in fifteen minutes and we like to be prepared.”
“So if any of you experience any side-effects later on, be sure to let us know all of the gory details,” Fred ordered sagely. They were both so businesslike that I wanted to laugh. “But take care not to mention this to…oh….say…Umbridge. Or anyone else, for that matter.”
“In other words, keep your traps shut!” George finished brightly. “Because we’ll just deny everything and then switch out all of your shampoo with Bulbadox Powder. And quite possibly replace your teeth with toadstools.”
One of the second year boys gave a tiny squeak.
George passed out a round of shiny Galleons. Delphine ran her expert fingers over her coin, determining whether or not it was a fake. When she was content that it was not, she pocketed it greedily and allowed her eyes to drift to my own Galleon, her face filled with deep longing.
Delighted with their spoils, the two second years left Moaning Myrtle’s toilet in fantastic moods. Delphine, although happy with her money, was still pouting because she couldn’t continue her star-gazing hallucination with Harry Potter. “Can’t I have just one more?” she pleaded with George, perched behind his shoulder while he packed the clipboards into his schoolbag. “Shouldn’t there be a discount for people who test your things? It’s a lot to ask of someone – trying a dodgy product when you don’t know all of the effects yet.”
“You just tried one for free,” George said tersely over his shoulder, “and we paid you for it!”
I turned away, facing the door, and discovered Fred standing very near to me. My heart thumped violently, and he leaned in and whispered, “It wasn’t really Montague, was it?”
I couldn’t answer. My mouth dropped open, frozen and stupid. Fred grinned. “I thought not.”
George joined him, briskly exiting the room. “Cheers!”
“Oh, look at this,” Delphine remarked, pointing at a wrapped sweet on the floor.
“Eww. It’s been on the floor in a loo.” I motioned toward the door. “Come on, let’s go.”
Astonishingly, she bent over and picked it up, sliding it into her pocket next to the Galleon. “If they won’t give me more of these daydream-y things, then I’ll just take one of their sweets,” she informed me happily. From behind her, Moaning Myrtle floated around one of the taps, smiling maliciously at the back of Delphine’s head.
I crawled on my hands and knees behind Delphine, trying to ignore the freezing puddles of slushy water numbing my fingers and staining right through the knees of my trousers. “This is absolutely ridiculous,” I muttered. “The things we do just to see Harry Potter.”
“Shh,” she commanded, scooting along faster. She poked her nose over the stands, looking all around. “We need to get up higher.”
“We can’t,” I beseeched. “They’ll see us. Can we get into trouble for this?”
“Of course not. We’re not on Ravenclaw or Gryffindor Quidditch teams, and besides, it’s only practice. I’m certain that anyone can watch if they want to.”
“Then why am I lying down?” I brought my head up and she promptly pushed it back down, concealing me from view and grinding my nose into a patch of melted snow.
“Because,” she hissed. “Do you want to get eaten by a dementor? Now come on.”
We made a scramble for the top of the Quidditch stands and then threw ourselves down flat on the surface where feet are supposed to rest, huffing and puffing. “Did anyone see us?” she breathed, slithering along on her stomach. Her tone was vaguely hopeful, as if she would have enjoyed having Harry Potter catch her lurking around while he practiced Quidditch.
“I don’t think so?” I wiped the hair out of my eyes and squinted. “They’re just now walking onto the pitch.”
“Oooh,” Delphine squealed. “There’s Oliver Wood – he’s in seventh year now, isn’t he? And there’s Angelina Johnson and Alicia Spinnet…and the Weasley twins…they’re all fifth years now. Katie’s a fourth year, like us –”
“I already know this,” I interrupted, staring nervously at the sky. “You don’t have to narrate; you’re not Lee Jordan.”
“And Harry Potter is a third year…” She sighed dreamily.
“You don’t think that the dementors will try to come onto the pitch again, do you?” I wondered aloud, hunching my shoulders together and propping my weight onto my elbows. “Like they did in November during the Quidditch game.”
“Poor Harry, falling off his broom,” Delphine lamented. “Although I was happy for Cedric, catching the Snitch. He gets such flack for being good-looking. All of the boys say such rude things about him…especially those nasty Weasley twins.”
I sniggered. “Cedric can handle it. He’s got people like Matilda to build up his ego whenever one of the boys makes a comment.”
“Still,” she went on, glowering, “they’re obviously so jealous of the attention Cedric gets. If Harry wasn’t on the team, I would definitely be rooting for Ravenclaw to win tomorrow.”
I wasn’t listening, I was still tracing the clouds for any signs of black hooded figures. Out of the corner of one eye, I saw Delphine retrieve a handful of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans from one of her pockets and bring them to her mouth, chewing thoughtfully and never allowing her eyes to leave Harry Potter’s figure.
“Doesn’t he ever brush his hair?” she complained to herself, popping more Every Flavor Beans into her mouth. “Wait a minute – is that – Holy Hobgoblins!” She grabbed my shoulder and shook it aggressively. “It’s true! Harry’s got a Firebolt!”
My head snapped back to attention. “What?”
“I heard people talking about it, but I thought it was just a rumor. I broke into the Quidditch shed last month and didn’t see any Firebolts in there –”
“You’re right,” I murmured, helping myself to one of her Every Flavor Beans. “That’s a Firebolt. He’s going to sweep the board with that thing.”
“The rest of his teammates are going to look so slow in comparison,” she added gleefully, watching in fervent expectation as the Gryffindor Quidditch Team kicked off of the frost-compacted grass. Just as predicted, the others appeared sluggish next to Harry, who zoomed straight up into the clouds like a firecracker. “Look at the twins,” she snickered. “Their Cleansweep Fives look like they’re barely moving! And that George is an idiot, hanging upside-down on his broom, showing off…”
“That’s Fred,” I corrected out of habit. I made to swipe some more Every Flavor Beans from Delphine’s hand, but she swatted me away.
“I didn’t get to finish my breakfast, and you did,” she reprimanded. “And how do you know for sure that that’s Fred and not George?”
“You eat too slowly,” I insisted, making another grab.
Delphine dumped the last of her sweets into her open mouth and covered my eyes from behind. I flailed. “Hey! Your fingers are sticky!”
She removed them. “All right, now that they’ve moved around a bit, can you tell me who is who?”
“What are you talking about?” I was watching the skies for dementors again.
Delphine gave a dramatic sigh. “The twins. Can you tell one from the other now?”
I gazed across the pitch. Harry was chasing after the Snitch, swooping low to the ground. Oliver hovered above them, analyzing Harry’s progress and looking happier than I’d ever seen him in my life. Alicia and Angelina had stopped focusing on the Quaffle and were both admiring Harry’s broom, too; my eyes strayed to a ginger-haired boy protecting Oliver from getting smacked in the head with a Bludger – George. Katie was calling to Oliver to look out.
Separated a bit from the rest of them was Fred, who swung his bat at a Bludger rolling lazily by. A crack split the air, and the Bludger was sent soaring across the pitch. Fred grinned to himself, not paying the least bit of attention to what was going on behind him.
“That’s George,” I told her, pointing at the twin trying to keep a Bludger from knocking Oliver’s head off. “And that’s Fred over there.”
She evaluated me, a crease developing between her eyebrows. “How do you know that?”
I pondered her question, which I hadn’t really given much thought to before. It was simply another useless fact my brain stored – just like how I could always tell the difference between letters my mother wrote in the morning and letters she wrote in the evening. “Because one of them once told me that his name was Fred, and I never forgot. Even when I can’t see their faces, I always know who’s who.”
“You’re strange, Hollis.”
I shrugged. “No argument there.” We were quiet for a spell, watching Oliver release the Snitch and Harry repeatedly catch it, his success dousing the rest of the team with frequent bouts of delight. I had never seen Oliver so ecstatic – he was torn between clapping his hands until they fell off and bullying his team to shut up and keep practicing over and over again.
“Cho’s got a Comet Two-Sixty,” Delphine mentioned with a smirk. “Rotten luck for Ravenclaw.”
We spied on Gryffindor’s practice session until the foggy moon dropped low in the night sky, tilting heavily, and Oliver Wood was sufficiently satisfied that his team was invincible. Delphine smiled, the stars reflecting in her glasses. A gust of cold February wind blew her fringe away from her face and she leaned forward, daring to peer closer because of the cloak of darkness that protected the stands where we hid. “Just look at him,” she said softly.
I glanced down at the group, who had disbanded from the huddle where they’d been talking (Angelina and Alicia were visibly shivering). Harry and Ron remained where they were, and Harry pressed his Firebolt into Ron’s waiting arms.
George carried his broomstick behind his head, holding it with both arms and swerving from side to side so that both ends narrowly missed whacking Angelina and Katie on both sides. Oliver darted ahead of them, still rampant with energy, and had disappeared into the black shadow of trees.
Fred walked the center of a slender strip of moonlight, his shadow colossal. I remembered how remarkable Delphine had found it that I could tell the Weasley twins apart, no matter which angle or lighting they stood in. From up in the stands, I thought to myself that from this view above, seeing him bathed in silver so bright that it reminded me of a Patronus – silent and calm and with his hair windswept from flying – it was a good angle for him.
“Isn’t he beautiful?” Delphine murmured, resting her chin in her interlaced hands.
“Well, I wouldn’t go that far,” I responded, watching Fred travel along the ribbon of silvery white to the edge of the Quidditch pitch. “But you know, he’s really not that bad.”
Just before falling out of view, Fred turned his head in our direction. I ducked immediately (Delphine was busy focusing on Harry, who was patiently waiting while Ron Weasley zoomed around on his Firebolt), but I could have sworn… For a few fleeting moments, it seemed almost as if Fred had known all along that we were up there.
Just as most of the school predicted, Cho Chang was no match for Harry Potter and his new Firebolt. Gryffindor smashed Ravenclaw the very next day, and could be heard celebrating by anyone strolling along the seventh floor corridor (or so a few nosy first year Hufflepuffs told us) late into the night. Our House was quiet as usual, seeing no reason to join in the scarlet-and-gold joy, and most of us retired to our beds early. It was peaceful right up until I awoke to see Alice Whitman bending over me, her face mere inches from the tip of my nose.
“Flamel’s foot!” I hollered, shrinking away from her. “What are you playing at?”
“I heard some seventh years talking down in the common room,” Alice whispered, her face as pale as her dressing gown. “Sirius Black. He’s in the castle.”
“What?” Delphine cried, trying to jam her glasses onto her face upside-down.
I studied Alice, still sleepy. “You’re winding me up,” I decided, closing my eyes again. “You’ve got some serious issues, Gardenia, if this is how you get your kicks.”
To my surprise, she didn’t boil over at my use of her real name. “I’m not making it up!” she yelled shrilly, clenching her hands into tight little knots. “Sirius Black was up in Gryffindor tower, inside the dormitory for third years.”
Delphine made a noise like a cat that had just had its tail shut in a door. “Gryffindor!” She clutched at her heart, weak with fear. “Third years! Harry Potter! Blimey!” She fell back against her pillows, paralyzed.
“Do you reckon Black was angry that Gryffindor won the Quidditch match?” Orchid inquired, scratching at one of the curlers attached to her scalp.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Matilda scoffed, yawning hugely.
“No one asked for your opinion,” Orchid snapped. Her eyes were bloodshot and hateful. “And you never know what could motivate someone like him to attack people. Maybe he supports Ravenclaw.”
“He’s a mad mass-murderer,” Matilda shot back. It was uncharacteristic for her to listen to the four of us, much less speak to us. She must’ve been too tired to realize that she was gracing her inferiors with her notice. “He doesn’t care about bloody Hogwarts Quidditch teams.”
“You say that like you know how he thinks, Orchid hissed into the darkness. “What say you, Clark – have you been practicing the Dark Arts lately? Have you got a thing for men recently escaped from Azkaban?”
“Hush up,” Alice groaned.
“No!” Orchid sat straight up, pointing a finger at Matilda, who simply looked bemused. “This is proof! She’s on Black’s side. She knows what he’s up to – they’ve probably been conversing like a couple of old pals all this time, and she was the one who let him inside the castle on Halloween. Remember the portrait that got slashed to smithereens?”
“I’m getting up,” I told them flatly, “and going down to see about all this for myself.”
“I’m coming, too!” Delphine chimed, throwing herself out of bed. “Wait for me, Hollis. I have to find –” she dug around in her sheets for a pair of slippers (Delphine kept tons of things hidden under her coverlet) and hopped around in circles until she was breathless, trying to put them on. “All right! I’m ready!”
As soon as we entered the common room, we found Professor McGonagall and Professor Sprout interrogating the students who had already been sitting out there on the sofa. Several others trickled down from various round tunnels, curious to know what had happened. Professor McGonagall looked shaken.
“If you see anything at all that warrants alarm, Macmillan,” she said to a slim boy still in his pajamas, “come find a member of staff immediately. Presently everyone in the castle remains accounted for and unharmed, and the most efficient way for it to remain so is if you stay in here and be calm and alert.”
“I want someone to stay down here with us,” Susan Bones shouted tearfully, squeezed next to Hannah Abbott in an armchair. “I think we should have some kind of protection.”
“You can protect yourselves by staying put and not letting anyone into your common room,” McGonagall answered stiffly, her mouth set in a very thin line. “If something happens, you’ve all got perfectly decent lungs. Put them to good use and scream as loud as you can. It worked with Ronald Weasley, so it might just work again.”
Professor Sprout ended up fetching Mrs. Norris to “guard” the frightened crowd now sitting on the floor with their knees tucked to their chests. Filch was supremely distressed about this, and he could he heard shuffling in the corridor outside the portrait for several hours, muttering irately. Mrs. Norris, however, seemed to enjoy the attention she was receiving from the younger Hufflepuff girls. No matter how much I despised Filch and Mrs. Norris, it was a small comfort to have them near. They were the first line of defense for Hufflepuffs, albeit a pretty weak one.
“I’ll bet Slytherin have got gargoyles to protect them,” Zacharias Smith relayed to Alice in confidence. “And you can bet that Gryffindor is armed with statues and probably Dumbledore himself, too.” I pictured the wizened old wizard standing firmly in front of the Fat Lady’s portrait, feet planted far apart and bracing himself for battle against a knife-wielding lunatic.
Everyone began to discuss what they would do if Sirius Black broke into the Hufflepuff common room (which, as the late hours accumulated, became increasingly more possible in the eyes of my fellow students). “I would conjure ropes with Incarcerous and tie him right up,” Megan Jones claimed, eyes wide and glistening. “It’s really not that hard – I’ve done it before to my brother when I was nine years old. And then I could just nick his wand,” she snapped her fingers, “like that. And then I suppose we could taunt him for a bit before Dumbledore came down and carried him off to the dementors.”
Their collective knowledge of curses and hexes was pooled together, each of them voting on which spells would be the likeliest to keep him from turning us all into mounds of ash. After half an hour of this, Delphine wryly brought it to their attention that not a single one of them carried a wand; they all swarmed back to their dormitories to grab wands and anything that might be used as a weapon – toothbrushes included.
“Cave Inimicum,” Matilda announced knowingly from across the room. She was lying sideways in an armchair, her bare feet dangling over the edge. She twirled a strand of hair with one finger. “It’s a standard defense spell.”
No one seemed to hear her. “Is it true that if you say an Unforgivable Curse backwards, it’s twice as powerful?” someone wanted to know. “That’s what my cousin said.”
“Can you imagine the reward?” a second year with curly brown hair commented, her eyes glistening with awe. “What’s the bounty on his head? Ten thousand Galleons, right? And we’d probably get our pictures in the Daily Prophet – front page.”
Wayne Hopkins was a bit more zealous. “I would Crucio him.” He jumped up on the sofa, brandishing his wand at an invisible foe. “Crucio!” Nothing happened, not even a spark from his wand – but Hannah Abbott still screamed, anyway.
“You absolutely would not use that spell,” Macmillan stated over the uproar. “You heard McGonagall. I’m in charge. I’ll just set up a force field around us and do a Caterwauling Charm. If he steps one toe over my force field, the alarm will go off and all of the professors will come running.”
“She didn’t say that you were in charge,” Justin Finch-Fletchley argued, but his voice was promptly swallowed up by Mrs. Norris’s meowing – she was making a show of her disapproval for all of the loud voices.
“He’s not going to physically step over the line, you ignorant git,” Alice called over the din. “He’s Sirius Black! He’ll use Avada Kedavra!” They began to quarrel back and forth until a loud sound like something hitting the door stirred in the corridor outside and made them all hush up. It was probably just Filch, pacing because of separation anxiety with his cat, but it succeeded in scaring everyone into silence.
“What do you think is going on up there?” Orchid asked to no one in particular. She was drifting along, arms hugging her chest while Delphine hopped up and down excitedly next to me. “Do you think Cornelius Fudge is up there right now, looking around for him?”
“Who knows,” mumbled a fifth year boy named Geoffrey. “No one ever tells Hufflepuffs anything.”
It was several long hours later until Professor Sprout opened up the common room door (producing several great shouts of terror and also many snores from all around) and announced, with very tired eyes, that Black had escaped Hogwarts once more.
A/N: So if you haven’t caught on by now, this entire story is told out of chronological order. This means that you’ll have to pay extra close attention to the dates, and to clues that tell you exactly where Hollis is at, parallel to Harry in the books. Thank you for reading, and please leave a review if you have time. :)
“Wright,” someone spoke up from behind me. I turned, my schoolbag slipping off my shoulder and landing heavily in the crook of my elbow. It was Professor Sprout, looking as frazzled as always. She smiled genially at me and extended a thin green envelope.
“What is this?” I asked, examining it. Dirt from Sprout’s hands had done a terrific job of smudging it and I couldn’t tell who the addressee was.
“I’ve got to get back to my class,” she said, her eyes bright and apologetic. “Would you be a dear and send this on up to Professor Umbridge’s office?”
My nose wrinkled up in distaste. “Umbridge?”
She sighed, turning her head to survey a suit of armor situated next to one wall. “She’s got this new policy of overseeing lessons, but she can’t make it to all of them. She’s having teachers inspect themselves when she can’t attend.” Sprout shook her head irritably. “There’s a daily quota of five things we must find about our teaching styles that can be improved upon, and we’re supposed to report every student who does not appear to be paying attention…” she trailed off, waving her hand to indicate the unimportance of such matters to her.
“All right,” I replied slowly. I’d seen these envelopes stacked up on McGonagall’s desk, growing in number as she didn’t seem to be using them. In fact, McGonagall had taken to setting her mug of tea on top, leaving lots of rings behind to soil the paper.
“Thank you,” Sprout said briskly, patting me on the head. I could feel dirt crumbling away from her fingers and sliding down my hair. She looked extremely relieved that she wouldn’t have to interact with Umbridge herself. “I would have just done it later, but we’re supposed to do this after every single class and I forgot to send it along with a student after my last class.” She waved, already hurrying away.
I glanced down at the envelope again, cursing myself for choosing that particular walking route and getting stuck with such bad luck.
The office that accompanied each year’s Defense Against the Dark Arts professor was located on the second floor, which was inconvenient for me since I was on the first floor, preparing to go down to Hagrid’s; I grudgingly turned around and headed in the opposite direction.
When I reached the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, I found it empty. I was thoroughly tempted to leave the envelope sitting on her desk at the front of the room, but soon found my eyes wandering up the narrow winding staircase attached to one wall. The door to her office was above, and invitingly cracked open about a foot. Yellowish diffused light from an interior window poured through, and before I could gather up my good sense, I found myself on the staircase, one hand gripping the rail.
Inside the office, Lee Jordan was seated in a chair that faced Umbridge, looking mutinous. Behind him (and separated by a wide berth) were Fred and George Weasley. Wrapping my fingers around the doorframe and poking my nose farther inside, I could see Umbridge glowing happily behind her desk. She was writing on the margins of a salmon-colored pamphlet and smiling to herself.
Ahh. So I wondered.
A few days previously, Fred, George, and Harry Potter had gotten themselves banned for life from Quidditch when Draco Malfoy began taunting them about their respective families. Although I could see that Malfoy was just bitter because the Gryffindor Quidditch team was so successful at winning matches, Harry and George had lost their tempers and started punching him. Fred was only restrained from joining them by Alicia, Angelina, and Katie, who had all grabbed a hold of his arms. I would never forget the thunderous expression on his face – that uncharacteristic anger.
Wanting to get revenge on Malfoy, the twins and Lee Jordan holed up together in a corner of their Gryffindor table during breakfast and jinxed Draco’s lips to sprout into an enormous yellow beak. When a few Ravenclaws began to laugh and noticed Lee smiling giddily, they pointed toward the Gryffindors and Malfoy realized what had happened. He promptly relayed all of this information (in what was likely a colorful and exaggerated story) to Umbridge, who had no problem whatsoever in issuing detentions without proof.
Fred, who occupied the chair closest to the door, was slouching in his seat and staring insolently at Umbridge, grinding his teeth together. George gazed out the window toward the Quidditch pitch while his right hand was at work scribbling across a sheet of parchment. Lee was the only one paying any attention to his task of writing lines, although he made sure to shift his weight from side to side often so that lots of rusty squeals emitted from his chair.
George seemed to realize that they were being watched, and swerved his head in my direction. He cast a sidelong glance at Fred, who was still glaring at Umbridge. “Pssst.”
“Is something the matter?” an unnaturally sweet voice asked, penetrating the gloomy silence in the room.
Fred opened his mouth, looking ready to shoot off a remark that was likely to get him into more trouble, and George cleared his throat. Fred instantly shut his mouth; it was apparent that George had given him a signal of sorts and Fred trusted his judgment implicitly, without having to give it a second thought. “Nothing at all,” George responded brightly.
Umbridge beamed, her flabby face broadening to look all the more like a toad. As soon as she diverted her attention to her pamphlet once again, Fred angled his face toward George just a fraction and raised one inquisitive eyebrow. George nodded slightly, flashing his eyes toward where I stood.
Fred turned about in his chair, looking surprised and not at all displeased to see me hovering just outside Umbridge’s office. I grinned. He returned the grin, glancing furtively back at Umbridge before meeting my eyes again and giving me a wink.
He exchanged looks with his brother, who nodded. Fred faced the front once more, lacing his fingers in a professional sort of way, and watched Umbridge through his eyelashes. He gave a loud, bark-like cough.
Ahead of him, Lee took this as his cue to make a gurgling sound. Umbridge snapped her head up, piercing him with a beady stare. Lee gurgled again, somehow maintaining a straight face, and George blocked his mouth with his hand so that no one would see him grinning. Fred gazed down at his desk, the corner of his mouth turning up into a smile.
“Urghurrrgh,” Lee wheezed. He coughed loudly, never severing eye contact with the lines he was writing. More gurgling rose up in his throat, and soon he was beginning to sound like Cecil did whenever he was preparing to square off with another neighborhood cat.
Umbridge’s eyes narrowed.
“Mr. Jordan –”
Lee gave a very obviously artificial sneeze, aiming the spew right at Umbridge’s desk. George was now shaking with silent laughter. Umbridge’s teeth snapped together and her face had taken on a rather pinched look. Fred leaned his forehead against one hand, eyes darting to mine for a moment, and he coughed again.
“URGGHHHLUUURGHH!” Lee shrieked at once. It was highly impressive; the boy’s expression was bland and solemn, his hand still scribbling words. Every now and then he paused to shake out his left hand, which was odd because he was writing with his right hand – but I chalked it up to him trying to be more annoying. Presently, George looked very much on the verge of losing it.
“Mr. Jordan!” Umbridge snapped. “That is enough.”
“That is enough,” Lee repeated sternly under his breath.
“What was that?”
Lee glanced up at her, his features etched with surprise. “Did you say something, Professor?”
Her eyes were slits. “I advise you to focus on your punishment, Mr. Jordan, and to keep your mouth shut.”
Several minutes later, Lee gargled his nonexistent mouthwash again.
“Jordan!” Her voice rose sharply, and she slammed both pudgy, ring-adorned hands onto the immaculate surface of her desk. “You’ve just earned yourself another detention for tomorrow.”
“That’s entirely unfair,” Lee argued, “seeing as how I didn’t open up my mouth at all. It was shut the whole time. I think it’s pretty evident that I’m ill over here. You should fetch Pomfrey and have her take a look at my throat –”
“Last warning,” Umbridge snarled. Taking full advantage of her distraction, Fred tore the sheet of parchment sitting before him in half, scribbling words onto one of the pieces. He then crumpled the parchment into a small ball and clenched it in his fist.
“– or, you know,” Lee went on, “you could come over here and take a look for yourself. I’ve got loads of orifices that you could examine.”
“Detention for the next three nights.” She shuffled her papers primly, as if doing so would assert her authority and make it known that she would not tolerate any more nonsense.
Lee widened his eyes, the picture of sarcastic innocence, and resumed his lines. Umbridge studied him for a full minute before concentrating solely on her pamphlet, her expression both savage and triumphant. Fred waited until she was sufficiently distracted to throw his balled-up strip of parchment in my direction – it bounced through the doorway and landed lightly next to my shoe.
I bent over and picked up the crumpled note, heart beating rapidly with expectation. Just as I had dared to predict, it was yet another relay from his anonymous and deeply secretive “friend”:
He says that you are looking exceptionally lovely today, and that you should definitely stop sitting next to Wayne Hopkins during dinner because Wayne Hopkins is a prat with stupid hair and even his mother wishes he would take a permanent holiday to Spain.
I rolled my eyes and motioned for him to toss me a quill. His eyes swerved to Umbridge, and never looking away from her, he reached into his schoolbag and lifted a quill from it. This was an odd gesture, since he already had a perfectly good quill lying right there on top of his ripped parchment, unused. I watched as he knocked the quill from his bag off the desk with one elbow. It spun across the floor toward me, the clattering disguised by George’s loud and impeccably-timed cough.
“Aagh!” Lee shouted. Umbridge’s lips curled away from her bared teeth, gripping the pamphlet in her hands so tightly that I thought she might split it down the middle. “Sorry,” Lee spoke without emotion. “Thought I had a nargle on me.”
I retrieved the quill and wrote on the back of his note:
You can tell your friend that the only reason why Hopkins sits anywhere near me during meals is because he thinks he has a shot at Matilda Clark. Delphine has repeatedly told Matilda to move down the table, but until the blessed day comes when Matilda listens to anything Delphine says, your friend will just have to live with it.
I paused, smiling to myself.
And please tell him thank you for the compliment. I wear the same plain black robes every single day, but every Tuesday this amazing phenomenon occurs and I look twice as ravishing in them.
I tossed the note back to him and he read it eagerly, smiling in amusement as I knew he would. I kept the quill for myself, however, since Delphine had stolen my best one, and Fred did not respond to my note using the quill sitting inches from his left hand. I hesitated, wondering if I should just leave Sprout’s envelope sitting on the floor for Umbridge to find later, and take off before I got caught loitering there.
Before I could make up my mind, Fred could no longer resist himself. He raised one arm and coughed into his sleeve.
“CAHHHH.” Lee rasped in a knee-jerk reaction, clutching wildly at his throat and kicking his feet out as though experiencing some sort of possession by a demonic creature. “Cahhhhhh! Caahhh!”
George spilled out of his chair, giggling uncontrollably, and Fred had to cross his arms over his desk and bury his head into them to muffle the laughter.
“That’s it!” Umbridge hollered, jumping to her feet so quickly that she knocked over her cup of tea. Half of it sloshed down the front of her skirt and the rest was quickly staining her pamphlet. She began to cross the tiny room to give Lee a piece of her mind and just so happened to snag my presence with her peripheral vision.
Her back straightened. “What are you doing here?”
I recoiled from the sting in her tone, but pushed the door open wider. “I was sent…to give you this…” I offered feebly, holding out the green envelope as far away from myself as I could while still keeping it between two fingers.
“Pomona, I presume?” Umbridge muttered to herself, snatching it away from me. She nodded knowingly, raising one eyebrow in disgust. “Always late, and never completely filled out.” She reached into the envelope and pulled out a page of lilac parchment. “Hem hem. These are the weakest answers I’ve ever seen – it’s astonishing that she can read at all; with the way that she writes, one could easily believe her to be illiterate. I think that the Minister will certainly have something to say about this.”
During the brief interval while Umbridge was facing me and analyzing Sprout’s report, Lee had dug out his wand and transformed the foul woman’s teacup into a toad. Fred chanced a swift glimpse at Umbridge before taking out his own wand and adding a gaudy pink bow to the top of the toad’s head.
“That will be all, then,” Umbridge dismissed me curtly, turning on her heel to storm back to her desk. I had no doubt that she was already forming a letter to Fudge in her mind, demanding that Sprout be sacked. I was just bowing myself out, the door almost closed, when I heard a strangled shriek and froze with my fingers still curled around the knob.
Numerous kittens batting balls of yarn from their porcelain plates on the walls began to squall with displeasure, stretching their necks out and yowling. Umbridge’s face was as red as hot coals. “You three!” she yelled, shaking a stubby finger at them. “You can forget about any plans you may have for the next two weeks. Detentions for all of you, and much more if I can manage it. And the Minister will definitely be hearing about this…this vicious insubordination.”
Lee was still occupied with his quill and parchment, unperturbed and pretending he hadn’t heard her. George was staring at one of the yowling kittens hanging over his head and looking like he would quite enjoy throwing something at it. Umbridge began to write furiously on a notepad – probably a vehement letter to the Minister. Fred glanced back at me, grinning wickedly. “Worth it,” he mouthed.
“In fact,” Professor Burbage went on, “witches are twice as likely to marry Muggle men than wizards are likely to marry Muggle women. Polls indicate that wizards prefer a mate who can clean and cook and care for the house using spells, and witches have more patience for mates who can’t contribute to the household with magic. I advise you to put this in your notes – we’ll be covering this for N.E.W.T.s.”
I wasn't fussed about my Muggle Studies N.E.W.T.s – the only subject I could be bothered to pay proper attention in was Care of Magical Creatures. As I had no intentions of snapping my wand in half and living as a Muggle, I decided to continue gazing out the window, tuning out Burbage’s voice.
The weather was dark and dreary, more like night than afternoon. Rain sloshed down the glass windows, distorting the view outside. I tapped my blank parchment with a quill, wondering how I would even be able to see well enough to write. Wind whistled through cracks in the wall, blowing roughly across the tarnished candelabra on Burbage’s desk and making the flames flicker sideways. I doubted Burbage noticed – she was every bit as oblivious as Binns – and if the candles blew out, she would plow right through with her lecture as usual, talking to the darkness.
Normally on a day like this, I would have fallen asleep just like Orchid (who was sitting directly in front of me) and the majority of my seventh year classmates. Today, however, I couldn’t focus on anything except for a dull ache that persisted somewhere behind every thought, every action of my day-to-day life. It was very much an emotional ache, and lately it had gotten steadily worse since the end of the previous schoolyear.
“Just write whenever you miss me.”
“I’m not going to miss you.”
He laughed. “Of course you will. I’m too charismatic to not be missed. Don’t worry – I’ll be able to tell whenever you’re missing me, anyway.” He tapped his temple, smiling. “I have a sense for these things.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Oh, really? From Diagon Alley, or wherever it is that you’re going, you’re going to be able to sense when I supposedly miss you?”
He looked at me for a moment, ignoring Umbridge’s wild screeches from the Great Hall. He tossed an unlit firework up in the air and caught it, threw it up and caught it again. My arms were crossed tightly over my chest, my teeth clamped tightly together. He knew that I was a lot more disappointed than I was letting on, I could tell by the way the mischievous glint had gone out of his eyes.
“Expulsion!” Umbridge was hollering. “Expulsion for every single Weasley in this school!”
Fred glanced over his shoulder and turned back, clutching his broom handle. Quick as a flash, he leaned in and kissed me on the cheek. “Write,” was all he said, looking uncharacteristically serious. And then he hopped onto his broom and spiraled through the Entrance Hall doors, shooting straight above the treetops next to his brother. I watched a gigantic ‘W’ blaze in the blue sky, listening to the cheers rippling across the Great Lawn. Fred and George tore through the haze of fading fireworks, igniting more applause. He paused just long enough to say something to Peeves, but I couldn’t hear it over the din. I pushed through the crowd, desperate for a closer look, but he was already gone.
I touched my cheek, swallowing. My quill tapped the blank parchment again – the quill he had given me last year – and I was already writing the words in my mind. So, you were right… Here I am, throwing in the towel nearly a year later and admitting that you really are too charismatic to forget. Merlin, you are going to get such a massive kick out of this… I could already picture him smirking, turning to his brother in delight and remarking that he had finally succeeded in turning Hollis Wright into a sappy pile of sentimental mush. I narrowed my eyes.
I stared at the blank parchment, envisioning the pathetic words I might have written, and my pride began to flare. I shouldn’t give him the satisfaction. I was still miffed that he had left Hogwarts early. And these days he was so busy with his joke shop; he’d probably forgotten all about me. What if he had forgotten all about me? If he received a letter from me out of the blue, he might just throw it away without reading it. Or maybe George would tease him about it and they would treat it like a grand joke, amusing themselves over how pitiable I seemed.
I could see his face in my mind, those light brown eyes, that infectious smile…
My quill had already scrawled it. I held my breath, staring at his name. This was absolutely ridiculous.
I shoved the parchment away from me, folding my arms, my hands pinched into fists so that I couldn’t be tempted to write more. “There are many theories that tell us that witches like the feeling of caring for a man, of being more powerful than him,” Burbage droned on. “This may very well be why Muggle men more so appeal to witches than the appeal of Muggle women to wizards. It is similar to the way Healers sometimes fall in love with their patients. They enjoy the nursing, the coddling. They like to be depended on and appreciated. Muggle men are somewhat helpless next to their witch wives, needing them if they ever need magic done.
“Muggle women do not like that helpless feeling – of having to rely on their wizard husbands. I’m sure that Muggle men don’t enjoy it much, either, but witches seem to adore being needed. They enjoy being able to do things for their husbands that their husbands cannot do for themselves…” A bolt of lightning illuminated the black sky, flashing eerily over Burbage’s profile.
I rolled my eyes, allowing my attention to wander. I stared at a kink in Orchid’s curls, inwardly sniggering because of the way her tongue lolled out of her mouth while she slept.
My eyelids drooped, growing heavy. The soft candlelight bathed the lower half of my right arm in shimmering orange, which had somehow slid off of my desk and was hanging over the side. It felt pleasantly warm, despite the cold draft flowing steadily from the left side of the classroom.
Tap, tap, tap.
My head flew up, alert. I slowly opened my eyes, searching for the noise. Had I fallen asleep? Perhaps I had imagined the tapping sound. I yawned and shook my head rapidly from side to side, trying to wake up. Professor Burbage was shuffling through her notes, clearing her throat as she struggled to find something interesting to say.
Tap, tap, tap!
I turned to the window, squinting through the rain. A large shadow beat insistently against the windowpanes. Even through the gloomy storm, I recognized wings on the creature and the outline of something hanging from its leg. My eyebrows shot up in bewilderment, glancing from my Muggle Studies professor – who was still talking in her usual tone despite the howls of the wind and the rumbling thunder – to the falcon waiting for me to open the window.
As speedily as possible, I crept to the window and unlatched it, allowing the bird entrance. He flew straight to my desk and rested, his leg still tied to a heavy, square parcel decorated in Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes green and orange wrapping paper. The bird preened its wet feathers, dripping all over my parchment; I slid into my chair, caring little about whether or not Burbage noticed the falcon in her classroom. I positioned my arm so that the bird’s sharp talons wouldn’t be in any danger of scratching it, and unfastened the parcel from its leg.
Leisurely, and with a wary happiness bubbling up inside me, I peeled back the wrappings to reveal a white box and an enclosed note.
I heard that you missed me. Maybe this will help.
P.S. How do you like the falcon? Her name is Silloh.
The most ostentatious bird you could manage, I thought to myself with a small smile. I lifted the flap on the white box and opened it, peering inside. I found myself somewhat surprised by what I found. For obvious reasons, I had expected something to explode – smoke, a loud bang, maybe a cracker that shouted obscenities when you tugged on the end of it. I did not anticipate a familiar purple ball.
The oddest part was that the incantation, Lucem Somno, was already floating right-side up in the ball, not invisible until shaken as I had remembered. Not wanting to waste more time that was already ticking away on the Patented Daydream Charm, I rapped it with my wand and uttered the words written in Fred’s handwriting – more rushed and slanted than normal, as if he’d been in a hurry while he was making it.
Ahead of me, Orchid Strauss’s hair glimmered for a few wavering seconds, and then I inevitably slipped away into a scene entirely different from the dark classroom.
I was on the Quidditch pitch, strolling aimlessly alongside a section of stands that was usually inhabited by Ravenclaws during matches. It was nighttime, and the air was frigid, and overhead the sky was dotted with stars as bright as diamonds. Even though I knew he would be there, my heart did a somersault when Fred materialized in the dream directly in front of me. He popped into thin air, not missing a step as he walked, as though appearing here was the most natural thing in the world.
I followed behind, and it was a scene so dissimilar from what I had unconsciously anticipated that I involuntarily slowed down. “No pirates?” I remarked aloud. Frosty puffs of air escaped my lips, floating up into the night like a fog.
Fred turned around, observing me with a grin. His hair was shorter than it was when I had last seen him, and his hands were (of course) shoved inside his pockets. “Were you hoping for some? Maybe Montague blowing you kisses from the crow’s nest?”
“Ha, ha,” I responded dryly. “I’d hoped you’d forgotten about the Montague bit by now.”
He shook his head. “Not a chance. There's a reason why George and I stuffed him into that Vanishing Cabinet, you know.”
We stood there awkwardly, me swinging my arms and staring determinedly at the moon. “So.” I gestured around the pitch. “Why here?”
He watched me for several quiet seconds, deliberating something in his head. “Don’t you remember?” He scratched his jaw. “Or maybe you wouldn’t…”
“There’s something familiar about it,” I admitted.
Fred gestured to a row of seats farther down from us. “You were there.” His hand spun like a sundial and he pointed at the entrance to the pitch. “I was there.” He glanced back at me. “Any sparks of recollection here or am I completely making a fool out of myself?”
My hand flew to my mouth. “So you did know we were hiding up there!”
He laughed. “Of course I did. Hornby was practically falling out of the stands, desperate for a better look at The Chosen One.” He clucked his tongue. “She gave you away.”
I huffed, unsure of what to say. “Well.”
“Well.” The responding voice was soft, nervous.
In the split-second frame of time between voicing the incantation and being swallowed up by a dream, it had settled in my mind that this daydream was going to be something meant to amuse me. Something absurd or laughable – maybe even cheeky. The sweetness of it all took me very much by surprise. I studied him and he exhaled deeply, his brown gaze straying to the ground as he took a casual step in my direction.
“Are you real?” I inquired, starting to hope in spite of my better judgment. I knew it couldn’t be possible. I was sitting at my desk in Muggle Studies, not wandering around a Quidditch pitch. And yet, it all felt so lucid. Unlike my last experience with a Daydream Charm, I knew exactly what was going on. I knew that I was dreaming, and he looked so very real, so very lifelike; I wanted to reach out and touch his hand, to see whether or not he would vanish…
“You see me walking, don’t you?” He adopted an earnest expression and took several deliberate paces forward.
“Well yes, but –”
“You hear me talking, don’t you?” He raised his arms, spreading them out. “You tell me, Hollis. Is this real?”
I sighed wistfully. “It can’t be. I know that you’re imaginary.”
“The loveliest things always are.”
We walked next to each other as we circled the pitch, me mostly watching my feet and attempting to ignore the plunging temperature while he tried to catch my eye. “So,” I said after awhile, finally daring to meet his gaze. “How is business going, imaginary Fred?”
His eyes lit up. “Incredible. We’re thinking about expanding to Hogsmeade – perhaps as soon as next year. We’ve pretty much got the next two years mapped out, actually. We’ve got loads of products in the beta stages now, and they’ll be out in time for the winter holidays.”
“Shrinking Christmas Trees. Yule logs that scream when you try to burn them. Trick sweets that stick to the inside of your mouth and can’t be swallowed for hours…”
“Sounds lovely. Percy must be so proud.”
A very ugly look crossed his face. “Still?” I asked, horrified. “You’ve got to be joking.”
He shook his head curtly. “No. I’m not fussed, really, but my mum’s having a rough go of it.”
We were quiet again, and I sincerely regretted bringing Percy up. I decided to try to salvage the conversation by changing the subject. “So if this is only a dream,” I said to him, “then I can say whatever I want? And the real you will never know?”
Fred grinned widely, and I noticed that his hands weren’t in his pockets anymore. His left arm was mere inches from brushing my right one. I felt a pleasant shiver shoot down my spine. “You can take that chance,” he replied, his undertones layered with insinuations.
My eyes were wide. “Are you saying that there is a possibility that the real Fred Weasley will somehow know what goes on in this dream?”
He waggled his eyebrows. “Who knows? I’m pretty brilliant. And I wouldn’t put it past myself to spy. I did invent the Extendable Ears, you know. Curiosity is sort of my thing.” When I only continued to gape at him, he laughed. “I’m only joking, Hollis. Nah, he hasn’t got a clue. But I’ll bet he’s just dying to know what’s going on inside that head of yours right now.”
I looked at him sideways. “This is all just a hallucination, isn’t it?”
His expression was sober. “You know I’m not real, Hollis. I’m a projection of your memories, and your brain’s best guess as to what I would realistically say and do. But that doesn’t make what I’m saying to you any less real.”
“What do you mean?”
We resumed walking, and the tips of his fingers trickled along the back of my hand, much too close to be coincidental. “What would you say if I told you that he designed everything about this daydream? Everything except for you yourself, of course. The Quidditch pitch, the stars, and how we’ve been walking in circles for ages and we’re not the least bit tired. My outfit, the types of things I’m saying – all of it, designed on purpose.”
“I would say that you’re a bloody genius.”
Fred squared his shoulders, lifting his jaw imperiously. “Well,” he drawled in his best Percy voice, “I am ‘the next big thing in business’, according to Transfiguration Today. George, too, of course, but my name is always written first because I’m the better-looking one.” He gave me a playful nudge. "Right?"
“Fishing for compliments?”
“If I have to. It’s as easy as feeding flobberworms here to get you to look at me.”
I emphasized his statement by continuing to stare resolutely at a goalpost. A smile twitched at my lips. “If I look at you now, it will only make me miss you more when I wake up.”
He let out a triumphant laugh. “A-ha! And so she admits it!” I nodded along, rolling my eyes, and he continued his self-congratulations with gusto. “I don’t blame you – I’m always in my own thoughts, as well. Luckily I’ve got a twin, so I get to look at myself all day long.” He drifted off, rubbing the back of his neck with one hand. “I should have written to you more often this year. Most of the time I was just waiting around for you to write instead, and then it became this awkward thing and whenever you did write a letter, I worried that returning it instantly would make me seem eager.”
“It’s been an odd year,” I agreed.
“Yes it has. Very out of sync, aren’t we? Communication is a two-way street and both of us are just sitting on the pavement, reluctant to be the first to admit…”
My eyes darted nervously to his. “Admit what?”
“Admit that it’s dead depressing to have you shut up in Hogwarts for months at a time while I’m off in London. Admit that we’re both waiting for you to be finished with your seventh year so that maybe we can have a shot at…whatever this is.” He waved at the space between us, frowning slightly. “I know that I didn’t imagine you looking at me when I still went to school here. I can clearly recall you sitting at the Hufflepuff table at dinner and looking over at me every so often. I was watching you, too, of course, which is how I know this.”
I stopped walking, shoving my hands into my pockets and kicking sourly at a rock wedged in the dirt. “Stop telling me this. It’s just my subconscious making things up, and putting ideas in my head’s not going to do me any favors. I’ve still got months to bear until I’m out of here, and I’d like to be at least semi-sane by the end of it.”
My skin began to tingle. I raised my hands and flexed my fingers, puzzled. “Oh, that means the dream is ending,” he told me, looking disappointed. “This will all disappear in a few seconds, then.”
I finally met his eyes – those beautiful eyes that I saw everywhere I went – and opened my mouth. I wanted to say something important, something meaningful; something to convey how much I had missed him at Hogwarts and how boring school was when he wasn’t around to fill up the corridors with laughter.
Fred’s lips twisted into a sly smile, his figure growing blurry and indistinct. “Was it better than the pirates?”
I opened my eyes. Professor Burbage’s voice spilled through the air, punctuated by Orchid’s nasally snores. Lifting my head off of my desk, I turned to see that nothing had changed in the classroom during my period of unconsciousness. It was as if time had ceased to tick while I walked along the frozen grass with Fred. I gazed out the window now, my heart sinking when I saw the empty Quidditch pitch. Rain lashed against the path where we had just been walking, streaking the windows and dotting the ground with brown puddles.
Fred’s falcon was perched on a cabinet in one corner, evidently asleep. I wondered how I would manage to transport him back to my dormitory, since I couldn’t force him back into the rain. The poor thing, delivering packages for Fred in this downpour.
I began to slip the Daydream Charm back into its white box when I saw the incantation – Lucem Somno – still bobbing under the glass peephole, and the gaseous substance inside had not been replaced with black liquid. Another note I had not previously noticed was tucked into a corner inside the box. I lifted it to my face and peered hard, trying to decipher the script in such horribly dim lighting.
This one has a permanent charm on it. It lasts forever so that you can look at my glorious face over and over again for twenty minutes at a time. Feel free to send a letter back describing how dreamy I looked.
I picked up my quill, poised to pen him a tale about Montague feeding me grapes at our summer house in Venice, just to rile him up. My fingers stiffened around the instrument before I realized why; I dropped the quill, staring incredulously at the harmless blue feather while a revelation began to spin the cogs of my sluggish mind. A stupefied smile drifted across my face.
So. He charmed his own name with this quill to inform him every time I wrote it, did he?
I thought back to the day he had handed me that quill. I was naturally suspicious, of course, but Delphine was eternally pilfering my own stock of quills and I was nervous about going down to Potions without one. After making him swear that it did not spit water or turn into a rubber chicken, I became too attached to the lovely blue feather to consider any other shady qualities. This explained how he knew I was thinking about him… I shook my head fiercely, stunned that Fred Weasley was still capable of shocking me.
“Don’t worry – I’ll be able to tell.” He tapped his temple, smiling. “I have a sense for these things.”
Oh, you devious thing, you.
I leaned over my parchment, eyes shifting toward the traitorous blue quill. Somewhere out there right now, Fred Weasley was about to stop everything he was doing, heart beating like a drum as he became aware of the quill’s signal. My eyes were alight with glee and the quill scratched four letters onto parchment.
Let’s see how you interpret this, you sneaky, spying little snake. I began to write, repeating the same word over and over; I wasn’t going to stop until the entire page was filled up and I had sufficiently confused Fred Weasley.
Fred Fred Fred Fred Fred Fred…..
“I don’t want to use Wheezes against The Cows,” Delphine muttered darkly, sitting on her knees while digging around inside her trunk. “Remember last month? We were first in line to test their beta products and look at what happened.”
“No one told you to pick that sweet up off the floor.”
“They dropped it on purpose, Hollis, you know they did.”
I fixed my gaze on the window, unable to defend the virtues of Fred and George when I knew that she was probably right. “I don’t know, I think it would be amusing to see that sort of thing happening to anyone other than us.” I nudged her in the back with my foot. “Like Orchid, for example.”
Delphine paused mid-rummage, allowing herself to smile with evil satisfaction while she relished the image of Orchid Strauss bleeding profusely through the nose. “True.”
I bit my lip to repress a smile, knowing I had her right where I wanted her. “And we already agreed that we would meet him tonight at seven.”
She screwed up her face in thought. “Really? I thought that was George.”
I rolled my eyes and she straightened up suddenly. “A-ha!” I flinched slightly at the high pitch of her voice, and she held up a ragged pocket-sized book with half of its cover chewed off (probably from those puffskein-glumbumble creatures I had bred in third year). How to Jinx Without Getting Caught.
I raised an eyebrow. “Really, Delphine? When has that book ever worked out for us?”
“We’re older now,” she insisted. “And wiser. If we combined these jinxes with that Grow-Your-Own-Warts Kit we bought today in Hogsmeade, then it’s foolproof. Alice and Orchid will finally be taken down a few notches.”
“If we’re really that much older and wiser,” I replied lazily, stretching out over Matilda’s empty bed, “then maybe we should stop trying to ruin their lives. It never works anyway.”
Delphine flipped through the book, scoffing. “I don’t think we’ve reached that level of maturity quite yet. Trust me, Wright. I know exactly what I’m doing.” I smiled at her use of my surname. She always called me ‘Wright’ whenever she was taking herself very seriously.
Despite her pleas to hide out in our dormitory all night, I managed to drag my best friend out of the Hufflepuff common room and through the mess of stairways and corridors to the entrance of Gryffindor Tower at seven o’clock. Both of us wore silk ties in an effort to appear professional, with our hair slicked back into businesslike ponytails. Fred leaned nonchalantly against the wall next to a portrait of an exceedingly obese woman in a pink dress. He smirked smugly at Delphine as though trying to rub it in without words that she needed his help. Delphine and I glanced at each other, expressions stoic and our noses pointed snootily up in the air.
“How do you do?” she greeted him coolly, extending a hand for him to shake. Fred looked down at her hand as though not quite knowing what to do with it. He prodded it with one finger until she let it drop to her side.
“Come on, then,” he told us, turning back to the fat lady. “Mimbulus mimbletonia.” Over his shoulder, he said, “You didn’t hear that, by the way.”
We shuffled uncertainly inside the Gryffindor common room after him, gazing curiously around at the many squashy-looking armchairs (which Delphine dependably remarked on, frowning sourly) and the red and gold decorations. It was similar to our common room far below, except messier. The portraits on the wall were askew, the occupants buzzing about to talk to each other and eyeing our yellow-and-black scarves with shrewd, judge-y expressions.
Fred came to a standstill in front of a cozy fireplace, tilting his head significantly toward a large cardboard box resting on one of the tables. “Here we have it, ladies, as promised. Inside this box, you will find the answer to whatever joke, prank, or otherwise seedy intentions you may have against your peers.” He opened up the flaps and took a quick inventory of the box’s contents. After a moment’s consideration, he lifted an electric blue feather from its depths and stuffed it inside one pocket.
My co-conspirator wasted no time in shoving her nose into the box and surveying it. She pulled out a mess of broken-looking toys: wands that turned into rubber chickens, card decks that sprayed you in the face with ink whenever you lost a game, custard creams that appeared slightly wrong in color; along with flesh-like ears with long bits of rubber strings attached to them and shimmering pink bottles with purple rocks as stoppers. She examined one of the bottles, the surface so close to her nose that I was tempted to thunk her in the back of the head so that it would hit her glasses.
Fred’s eyes glittered. “You don’t want to breathe that too much.”
She swallowed and shakily dropped the bottle on the table. She then proceeded to toss the jumble of assorted products aside in such a blithe manner that I could hear Fred grind his teeth together. He stared at her face as though very much desiring to strangle her.
“Not good enough,” she said decidedly, one of her hands still curled around a pink bottle. As planned, this was the part where we would bluff. I stepped forward to join her, wrinkling up my nose in distaste at the variety.
“I expected more,” I sniffed haughtily. “We’re not impressed with your presentation, Mr. Weasley. Not impressed at all. I’m beginning to think that you and your brother don’t deserve the reputation you’ve got as Hogwarts’ most organized jokesters.”
“Hey, now!” He crossed his arms, face flushing irritably.
Delphine pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose before folding her arms in a very exaggerated fashion. “Where’s your other stock, Ginger?”
Fred stared incredulously at me, and then at her. “What other stock?”
“Under-the-table merchandise. Things that would make Umbridge’s kidneys explode just by hearing about them. I’m referring to your secret black-market goods that blow up corridors and make ash and fire fly everywhere. Boom!” We both winced at her shrieking pitch. “Hurry up and talk before I change my mind.” She snapped her fingers impatiently and I stepped on her foot, trying to signal that she was close to going too far.
Fred slid a hand behind his head, frowning. “You know, maybe you can’t be trusted with Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes. Blowing up corridors? Honestly, Hornby.”
“Oh, don’t you even,” she snapped, poking a finger at his chest. “I’ve heard you and your genetic match talking before when you didn’t think anyone could hear, and I know for a fact that you’ve got loads of other stuff you’re not showing us.”
“What are you talking about, woman?” He threw his arms out in frustration, voice rising. “I’ve included a sample of everything!”
“There are fireworks and portable swamps! I’ve heard you, Weasley. There are swamps and I want one. Don’t toy with us.”
“We need something with power,” I agreed, nodding vigorously. “Let us see it, then.”
Fred looked taken aback, as though I had turned on him. “What I’ve got right here is perfectly satisfactory,” he huffed. “What, are you trying to kill someone? It’s not like I’ve got the resources of a Death Eater. You lot are awfully choosy, and you clearly cannot see the value in this selection.”
George popped his head into the common room, smiling broadly. “But of course you have Death Eater resources, Fred. We’ve nicked loads of stuff from Sirius Black. Don’t tell me that you’re holding out on this fine pair of Hufflepuffs. Go ahead, show them our potions that make people sprout extra heads.”
Delphine’s eyes looked ready to fall out of their sockets. “Sirius Black?” she squeaked. “You’ve stolen things from a murderer?”
George snickered. “We’re tougher than we look. So don’t fool yourselves into thinking that you can actually barter with us.” He chuckled, tapping a flap on the cardboard box. “You won’t find anything better than what we’re offering right here. Now you have twenty seconds to purchase something or I’ll double the prices.”
I examined my fingernails, smoothing out my face to be unreadable. “Perhaps we should just take our business elsewhere, Delphine.”
Fred let out an exasperated sigh, grazing one hand through his hair. He and George exchanged looks, and George’s mouth twitched slightly. I could tell that he wanted to knock our heads together. “I suppose you leave us with no choice, then. What say you, George?”
George’s face was solemn. “Their skills are obviously superior to ours. As you said, they leave us with little choice...”
Delphine’s head snapped up, eyes greedy. Fred leaned in close. “We do have…something.”
“Yes?” She looked ready to foam at the mouth, but I caught a telltale glint in his eye that made me instantly wary.
“There are…” George cleared his throat. “Sensitive and top-secret products hidden away. Not here, of course. We couldn’t risk being found out, so they’ve been very carefully placed elsewhere.”
Her pupils dilated, and she hovered eagerly next to George’s ear as if trying to literally see the information inside his head. “Where?”
“The Forbidden Forest, of course.” Fred elbowed him in the ribs. “I mean, in the dungeons. Snape’s…desk.”
“Of course! Top drawer, you can’t miss it.”
Delphine fumbled around inside her pockets and revealed a stack of shiny gold coins. “Hey!” I cried. “You said that you were all out of money. I just paid for your Cockroach Clusters.”
“I like crunchy textures,” she spouted defensively in response to a nasty face George made. “Now, how much for these top-secret thingies?”
“Ten Galleons,” the twins answered at once. Delphine obediently set to counting coins, and I grabbed her arm and abruptly spun her around, leading her to a corner of the room.
“Delph,” I murmured in her ear, facing a slender bookshelf, “they’re winding you up. This is all they’ve got, right there in that box. They’re not hiding anything anywhere.”
Her mouth dropped open. “They’re lying?” She balled up her hands into fists, face contorting with fury. “I knew it! But I’ve seen Snape fiddling about with his desk before. Maybe they’re not lying…” She narrowed her eyes at Fred and George, who were barely containing their silent laughter. “Maybe they just want me to think that they’re lying, and they’re secretly psyching me out, because they want Harry Potter all to themselves and they can’t stand that I’ve seen their lair.” She glared at the empty sofa. “There’s no lion in here, either. That Granger girl probably made it all up, trying to get attention.”
“Probably,” I agreed sagely. Fred was watching us, his mouth turning up at one corner. George whispered something in his ear and they both laughed. This only served to anger Delphine, who marched straight over to them.
“I’m not giving either of you any of my money!” she told them, drawing herself up to her full height. “Or Hollis’s money, since at least three of these Galleons are hers.”
She ignored me, prattling on. “We don’t need your Wheezes. I’ll start my own joke company. It will be way more successful than yours, and everyone will see how foul you really are. I’ll start rumors –”
George raised an eyebrow. “Oh, really? And just what are you going to say, Hornby?”
“I’ll tell everyone that you got a tainted shipment of something dangerous. I’ll say that I tried one of your Puking Pasties –”
“Whatever. And I’ll tell Umbridge that I almost died. I’ve got a weak complexion, she’ll believe it. There are spots on my arms, they look like freckles but they’re not. I’m positive that I got them from that stupid sweet that made me bleed all over the place. I had to lie in bed for hours because I didn’t have the strength to lift my head off my pillow. It was probably that tart Granger’s idea, with her huge hair…”
While they engaged in a battle of wits, Fred caught my eye and grinned. It was clear that George was only trying to rile her up, and as usual, Delphine took the bait. Fred pinched my sleeve between two fingers and pulled me aside, turning his head to examine the wall as if trying to seem like he wasn’t speaking to me. It was all very espionage, despite the fact that no one else occupied the common room and we weren’t in much danger of being heard over Delphine’s piercingly loud voice, anyway.
“So, listen,” he began casually, still studying the wall. “I have this friend. And it just so happens that he has mentioned an interest in you.”
“He?” I repeated quickly.
Fred allowed a small smile. “That’s right.” I saw George’s eyes slide over us for a brief second, and then he said something to Delphine about her glasses being too large for such unnaturally tiny eyes. “He told me to tell you that he thinks you have hair like butternut squash.”
“What?” I burst out laughing.
He shrugged. “He’s not that great with words. Pretend it’s something more romantic.”
I nodded. “Yeah. Will do.” I chewed on the inside of my cheek, scrutinizing him. He was still staring resolutely at the wall, looking somewhat anxious. “Why doesn’t your friend just tell me this himself?”
Fred weighed this question carefully, allowing his eyes to rove over the ceiling to the opposite wall, still avoiding mine. “He’s nervous, I reckon. Blokes really aren’t that good at this sort of thing. It would probably fall a bit short of your expectations if his voice was cracking the entire time he was trying to speak to you. And besides that, I don’t think he wants you to know who he is quite yet.”
I shoved my hands in my pockets, mirroring him. “Well, then. I suppose that this just goes to show that boys aren’t quite as brave as they like to seem.”
Fred puffed out his cheeks, even more uncomfortable than before. “Err…maybe,” he said after a while, his voice barely audible. “But that doesn’t mean that he’s a wimp or anything.” He straightened his shoulders, suddenly emboldened. “Actually, he’s pretty amazing. He once saved an entire village from a mad python that escaped from a zoo. A zoo for mad pythons.”
“Did he, now?”
“Yes, he did. And he used a sword. It was three feet long and weighed more than an adult beaver. So how’s that for brave?”
We stood there rather awkwardly, me clamping my teeth over my tongue to stifle a smile, until Delphine hopped over to me, displaying a wrapped sweet in one hand. “I think you’re right about them lying to us about the secret products,” she announced happily. “But at least he gave me a free toffee!”
I sighed, shaking my head. “Oh, Delphine.”
This chapter is dedicated to a group of fantabulous puffins I frequently rave with.
Leave all your love and your longing behind
You can’t carry it with you if you want to survive
- Dogs Days Are Over, by Florence + The Machine
I waited until the sky peeled away its vulnerable layers of white and cerulean to stop running. When the atmosphere fell into a deep haze of pink, I gave myself pause for breath. But it wasn’t until twinkling stars lit up the remote, widely-yawning sky that I stumbled into a tiny clearing and allowed my knees to collapse. Frightened tears had long since fused to my skin, the confusion still apparent on my face. A year ago, the fact that my parents were not magical themselves meant absolutely nothing. Today – right at this moment, with the ghosts of Snatchers still haunting the winds – it meant absolutely everything.
My wand, my wand. I will not let them take my wand from me.
The ground was hard here, the soil tightly compacted with ice. I glanced around at the treetops, absently thinking that the stars could be porch lights, and the scurries of birds and other creatures were the footsteps of people. It was lonely, sleeping with my back bent against the iron rail of a water tower; or against a barn door while dogs barked menacingly from their houses just over the hill.
Some nights I didn’t even sleep at all, and I just walked. Aimlessly, and in circles, because there was no safe place to stop. There was no one I could trust enough to take me in, and no one I hated enough to bother with my presence. The nightmare of having my wand snapped in half flickered to the forefront of my mind for a brief moment before I pushed it away.
I had no idea where my parents were or what would become of them. It was something truly terrifying to be all alone by myself in the wilderness, with no idea where I was or where I was heading. All of the places the most familiar to me were forbidden – my parents’ home in Wales, Gran’s cozy summer cottage on the outskirts of Bath. Hogwarts. Diagon Alley. Hogsmeade. I ticked off the areas where I was no longer welcome, surprised that I was so very detached from reality that this no longer caused me pain. Still, I had better luck than others.
The people who had almost caught me were only Snatchers, after all. It was not my first run-in with their halfwit lot, and probably wouldn’t be my last if my boots kept on making such loud squelching noises in the rain. Thankfully I’d also come across kindred runaways while on the lam; I’d burned my fair share of bonfires with the random Muggle-born witch or wizard, providing a full night of human companionship and information-swapping.
I’d recently crossed paths with an older man named Ted and was sorely sorry that I had decided to split ways. Two was company, certainly, but it was also a liability. When you get to talking, you stop listening for all the things you cannot hear. You lose an edge over the enemy, who are always listening.
Since parting with Ted, many afternoons were spent trying to catch up with him, even though it was probably a lost cause. He could have Apparated anywhere by now. Still, a goal was the one thing keeping my feet moving forward. I had to have a goal floating somewhere in the back of my head, spurring me onward, or else I would be forced to take stock of the miserable situation I was in. And then I would feel more lost than ever.
The air was frigid and uninviting, the temperature plunging steeper and steeper with every half hour. I pulled the collar of my coat closer to my face, lifting it over my nose. Even with the moon glowing above me and even though the Snatchers I’d narrowly missed were surely asleep by now, I couldn’t stop myself from moving. It was bloody exhausting. I’d been moving for weeks. It was mindless action, pushing one foot in front of the other. I’d walked across entire towns without really looking at them. The more Muggle they were, and the more alienated I felt, the safer that meant I was.
Finally, when I located a tall spruce with enough space underneath to admit a person ostracized from her entire world, I rolled underneath and settled myself around the branches. Could I chance a fire? I would surely freeze to death without one. Still, the facts remained that I had not paid proper attention in Charms. How was I supposed to know, at the time, that my life could come to depend on portable flames? I would have to make do like a Muggle and find some firewood; but not quite yet. My first priority was news.
When I was at last in a manageable position, I rifled through my knapsack looking for the familiar silver box. It was sharp-edged and cold – colder than my fingers – with wintry condensation glistening on its surface. I bent in half over the object, straining my eyes in the darkness. Fear was rampant in my brain, turning every twig cracking and animal shifting in the forest into predators. The fear of being caught by Snatchers, however, was not enough to stop me from withdrawing my wand and whispering, “Lumos.”
It was a risky game I played. All throughout Hogwarts, when other students were learning defensive spells of actual use, my head was across the grounds in the Forbidden Forest, thinking of cross-bred creatures. I supposed it benefited me in the small way that roaming through dangerous woods was second nature; on the other hand, the only shield charm I had experienced any lasting success with was Protego Totalum, and it was flimsy at best.
“Hestia,” I whispered, tapping the wireless with my wand. I wasn’t surprised when it didn’t work – it would be stupid of them to use the same password from weeks ago. I’d missed the last Potterwatch program, having been busy hiding from a woman who looked suspiciously like a witch, and had been trying to guess passwords for the past few nights. I’d been straggling along the pavement in Edinburgh, following the scent of something delicious and wondering if I had enough Muggle money to buy it.
From out of nowhere, a woman in a tartan scarf with a bronze eagle sewn into it strolled out of a bank into the street. I panicked, thinking it might be the Ravenclaw emblem, and dove behind a rubbish bin. I’d huddled there in the grime and mud, completely still, for over an hour. By the time I’d gotten up again and resumed walking, the scent had died and most of the stores were closed.
“Scrimgeour,” I tried again. “Mad-Eye. Harry Potter. Scar head.” The radio made no twitch of recognition. I sighed, thinking perhaps to go another route. “Fizzing Whizbees. Blood lollies. Acid Pops. Peppermint Pasties.” This was no good. Now they were beginning to sound like passwords to Dumbledore’s office…
I racked my brain for all the words associated with The Boy Who Lived and The Order of the Phoenix, a mysterious group of people still resisting You-Know-Who’s regime; however, I knew very little about them. The most I knew about Harry was hearsay from Delphine’s mouth, most of it long forgotten. My heart seized in my chest at the thought of my best friend, safe and warm with her family far away. “Hagrid. Gryffindor. Godric Gryffindor. Seeker. Snitch. Broomstick. Expecto Patronum –”
The chilly velvet night was abruptly permeated with fuzzy static. “Well said, River,” a light, affable voice replied. It coated my skin with a layer of frost, the goosebumps springing to life along my neck and spine. “Speaking of which, I bring news tonight that Augusta Longbottom has been in contact with a member in the Order of the Phoenix, and she is doing pretty spanking well considering her age and situation. Three cheers for Neville’s gran!”
I listened to George’s casual tones drift through one ear and out the other, the world around me wavering and indistinct. It felt like someone I knew in another lifetime was sitting directly behind me, breathing over my shoulder. It made my bones tingle and I stiffened somewhat with frightened tension, being very alone and yet not alone at all. The voices of two of my schoolmates broke across the moonlit snow, thrumming through crystallized spruce boughs and disappearing into the sky like smoke.
I wished I was important enough to contact the Order, too, even though I wouldn’t know the first place to look. They sounded like important people – a community for witches and wizards who had no reason at all to hope, who still joined swords and hoped together. All of them must be deeply affected by this war, losing their family and friends left and right. Yet, they were resilient and continued to fight. I wanted to immerse myself in their company and protection, and to be a part of something that was making a dent in the enemy.
“Best thing I’ve heard all day,” Lee answered. “I know that sometimes it can feel like there is little reason to believe in a silver lining. But if we continue to show faith in Harry Potter, and if we continue to help each other in these dark times and lend a hand to our Muggle neighbors, we can win this.”
“We certainly can,” George replied. “We’ve sustained many losses, but we’ve quietly taken out bits and pieces of the opposition. You won’t have heard of it, but the Order has successfully reversed an Imperius Curse on a junior Death Eater by the name of Patrick Hampton. This isn’t something to turn your noses up at, lads and ladies. No achievement in the fight against Snake Face is a small one.”
I closed my eyes, my numb fingers curled as if in prayer over my lips, waiting. Say something about Fred. Tell me your brother is okay. George’s words were like taunts, hovering just on the edge of torture.
“Well said!” Lee sounded jubilant. “Unfortunately, being the depressing gits that they are, Death Eaters don’t sleep. The truth is that no matter how much we press back against the darkness creeping in from all sides, deaths of the innocent continue to surface.”
“I’m unsure of the specifics,” George cut in, “but I do believe that this month has been a bit better than last month’s death toll so far. That’s not saying much, since we’re only a week into February. Still, it’s something to hold onto.”
“We have another guest with us tonight, actually, who can deliver news on that front,” Lee added. “Rapier?”
“Evening, River,” someone spoke, and my eyes flew open. I stared dazedly at the unassuming little radio, its steely silver-blue lights flickering feebly like the stars. “The Order has uncovered three more deaths since the last Potterwatch.” I touched the radio without realizing it, as though the cold metal could somehow bring me closer to the person speaking through it. For a fraction of a second I lingered over Fred’s piercing brown eyes and wondered if maybe, possibly, he was looking down at a microphone somewhere and thinking of me as well.
“The first two are a young Muggle couple from Greater Hangleton. It’s still undergoing investigation – not publicly, of course, since Death Eaters have gained control over all main media outlets. It appears that the husband was murdered with the Killing Curse. His wife, however, showed signs of more sinister magical damage. We could go around in circles asking why this happened, folks, but we already know the basics of it. They were Muggles. Death Eaters don’t need a reason beyond that.”
“Horrible,” Lee remarked. “And to address something else I forgot to mention earlier, please do not go vigilante on these people if you’re unarmed, outnumbered, and underage. For Merlin’s sakes, children, stay away from people wearing masks. Nothing good ever comes from people in masks.”
“Not to mention the fact that their breath is probably dead rancid from all that death they’ve been eating lately,” Fred said. “Let’s not go around looking for tossers in back alleys, yeah? Some of them might actually be faulty Floo Powder salesmen in disguise, and we all know how hard it is to get rid of those dunderheads. I ran into one once and before I knew which way was up, I was walking away with a bag of regular sand and ten Sickles were missing from my pocket.”
“They always smell nice, though,” George replied thoughtfully. “I think they spend it all on cologne.”
Fred’s voice flowed through my veins, soothing and vibrant and warming. The effect of hearing him was as instantaneous as firewhisky, and I listened hard, drinking up the sound of Fred. Hearing that he was all right was all I needed; the hope for believing he was okay had been fueling my vigor these past several months. It was something I had been waiting very desperately to hear. Even after Potterwatch ended tonight, however, I would not be easy. I wouldn’t be easy until the next Potterwatch. And then the Potterwatch after that.
In fact, I wouldn’t be easy until I saw Fred Weasley again in the flesh, and knew with certainty that he was going to make it through this horrible war unscathed. This ever-present fear depleted my energy, waiting painfully for the day to come when his name was read across the radio by someone else; on the list of victims that always had everyone holding their breath, waiting and hoping they would not hear their loved ones called out. Every time, you know you’re going to hear a name. But you pray to whoever or whatever you believe in that you will not be too well-acquainted with it.
“The third victim is someone several of you listeners might recognize,” Fred went on gravely. It was so uncharacteristic to hear his tone tempered with such gravity. He wasn’t often serious, but when he was, it was extremely sobering. I reflected angrily on the Death Eaters, ruining everyone’s lives, killing people and ripping families apart. Sending those with defected bloodlines on the run and imprisoning others. Look at what they’ve done to us.
“This young lady was a Hufflepuff in her day at Hogwarts, and only a year younger than myself,” Fred went on. “A classmate of a very good friend of mine, actually, so this strikes close to home.” He hesitated and said, “Gardenia Whitman was murdered on Sunday and her body was discovered in a train compartment. It appears that like many other tragedies, she was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, and got into an altercation with one of You-Know-Who’s lovely mates.”
My heart gave a spasm, eyes locked on a blurry tree branch. I idly watched the green needles whisper back and forth, beautiful with snow like varnish them. “Some of you might know her better as Alice. They say that Hufflepuffs are good and loyal and unafraid of toil, and I believe that definitely rings true tonight. Let us all have a minute of silence for these fallen friends, Muggle and magical alike.”
It felt like my ribs were going to crack from the sheer amount of pressure my heart was exerting. I saw Alice flash through my mind’s eye when she was eleven years old, waving to her parents on the train platform. I saw her angry, snapping eyes when she found a mess of toads in her trunk…I saw her biting the end of her quill in the common room, focusing on a Transfiguration essay. There she was in the train on Sunday, two months from her nineteenth birthday and with everything to live for. Gone in the blink of an eye.
I couldn’t understand how I had gone three whole days without feeling something, without knowing. Walking and walking through forests, running from Snatchers, and all this time, Alice was dead. She would never see the stars I was seeing now, would never breathe this air again. And tomorrow, it could be me. “Alice,” I whispered. “Oh, Alice.”
“As for that other Hufflepuff friend of mine I mentioned,” Fred announced, cutting through my vague conscience, “I hope that you are taking care of yourself, wherever you are…” He trailed off, a blend of sadness and bleak optimism. The letter in my pocket burned a hole through the fabric, the handwriting always rushed but still somehow legible, asking me how I was. Asking me to please, please respond.
Contact was not something I could risk. How could I lead an owl directly to him? There was no way of knowing how closely the skies were being monitored. Certainly, living in such a large family of blood-traitors, Fred would not be treated kindly by Death Eaters. I would never put him in such peril due to my own selfish desire to assure him that yes, I did receive his letters. Yes, I am surviving.
“As for the man of the hour, we’re still marching alongside you,” Lee said. “No news is good news, we have decided, so keep safe and constantly vigilant. Godspeed, Harry Potter.”
“Godspeed, Harry Potter,” Fred and George echoed solemnly.
I squeezed my eyes shut tight, folding in on myself as though that would help me melt away; make me reappear somewhere bright and happy with a grinning Fred staring down at me. It was cruel, everything that the Death Eaters had taken away. If it weren’t for them, who knows what could have happened between Fred and me… I gripped a snow-submerged root for balance, tilting my head against the tree bark. It smelled sweet and strong, filling my head with something dizzy.
I had read and reread his letters until I could quote them in my sleep, wishing bitterly that I could respond to them and feeling something inside me curl up and float away into ash every time I had to turn the messenger birds away without a response. He wasn’t completely in the dark, however. Fred had good reason to believe that I was alive, for not a single night passed into sunrise when I did not etch his name into a rock, a tree, or the side of a building with his bewitched blue quill. Every night, I gave him a sign that I still existed. I knew now that he waited for it.
My heartbeat was loud and painful, struggling to extricate itself from the vice-like melancholy washing around it. Drowning it. I couldn’t afford to slip away in self-pity; I had forced myself to keep my chin up thus far. I was still alive, after all. Fred was still alive – heart pumping, lungs breathing, lips moving with a stream of speech that my unfocused ears garbled until they were faded into the distance. As long as we were in the same world, I would always be able to come home to him someday. We would find each other, if we both made it through this mess.
I swallowed thickly, the tears flowing down my cheeks. The tears were warm, at least, and it was cathartic to be able to cry. Fred’s searing gaze was forcibly frozen in my mind; I couldn’t listen to anything being said on the radio. The hum of voices persisted in the background as I wiped away the wetness. It was then that I remembered that I couldn’t feel my hands.
I needed fire and heat, or else Fred would be repeating my name aloud on the next Potterwatch. I couldn’t imagine what sort of things would be going through his mind if he had to read Hollis Wright off a list, informing my family and Delphine and himself, all at once, that I was gone forever.
I retrieved the familiar blue quill from the bottom of my knapsack, the feathers stiff and stuck together. After unscrewing the lid on my bottle of ink and wincing at the state of the liquid congealed within, I scoured the bark for a proper place. On a spot of soft brown between a knothole and a branch, I wrote his name. Fred. He was all over Britain, in places he would never see. Under rocks. Scrawled across dirty newspapers. Even on the bottom of my shoe, once or twice. And somewhere out there right now, he was once again reassured of my safety. Hollis Wright is still alive.
With a sinking heart, I switched off the radio and slid out from underneath my tree and its shallow protective enchantment. The silence swallowed me in its black jaws, consuming me with even more loneliness and uncertainty of the future than before.
I rolled over in my tangle of sheets, glowering at the shrill clock rattling madly on my bedside table and wondering why in the world it was going off so early on a Sunday morning. I could see through the enchanted windows (since our dormitory was far too deep underground for actual windows) that the sky outside was still dark and cold, the panes of glass fogged up with a recent snowfall. It had to have only been… I squinted at the numbers with tired eyes, the back of my mind stirring with something I had somehow, impossibly, forgotten. It was a quarter to five.
I’ll meet you in the morning. The words trilled in my memory, so clear they were nearly tangible.
I sat up so quickly that all the blood rushed to my midsection, causing my woozy head to smack right into one of the wooden posters surrounding my bed. I grabbed at the yellow bed hangings for support, probing the smooth wooden floor for my shoes. From the left side of the room, Delphine gave a soft grumble in response to Orchid unconsciously whistling through the gap in her teeth.
“Cow,” Delphine muttered in her sleep, burying her head into the pillow. I smiled fondly at her, locating my trainers at last. I had certainly not planned on meeting Fred while still wearing pajamas, but apparently I had slept through fifteen minutes of my magical clock blaring the latest track (which was bewitched so that only I could hear it) by The Smeared Blisters – a parody of the popular band The Weird Sisters – and this left me with barely enough time to scrape down to the Owlery to meet Fred.
To meet Fred. I was meeting Fred! At five in the blooming morning! Merlin’s pants! I could barely contain myself as I quickly yanked a brush through my hair and slipped into Matilda’s black cloak with silver fastenings – I was a pro at spilling things on myself and didn’t want to ruin my own cloak. If anything just so happened to damage her clothing, it would of course be only an unfortunate coincidence…
Slipping past a peacefully sleeping Alice, I made sure to kick her slippers underneath Matilda’s bed before I left the room. And then as swiftly as I could manage without clomping conspicuously through the halls like an elephant, I made my way upstairs and outside into the bleak early morning. In retrospect, as fast as I was lumbering, it was a miracle that I hadn’t roused the attention of Filch (and subsequently Umbridge).
When I finally wound my way up the path to the Owlery, I spied (with enormous relief) a shimmering, weak light spilling across the rounded walls teeming with snoozing owls. That bluish light matched the one presently igniting the tip of my wand from Lumos. Up until that moment, I had been half-preparing myself to find the place cruelly deserted, with the derisive laughs of Fred and George ringing off the ceiling of the Gryffindor boys’ dormitory. My better sense knew, of course, that despite his love for making fools out of people, Fred wouldn’t have pulled a fast one on me. Not like this.
And he was waiting. “Hello there,” Fred's greetings filtered down through the stone window, just as I was about the mount the steps leading up into it. “I was beginning to think you weren’t going to show.” He grinned widely and my heart gave a sudden leap. I tightened my cloak more tightly about my chest, as if that would prevent my aforementioned organ from jumping out and hopping up the stairs like a bullfrog.
George’s face popped up beside his – an almost mirror image, but with much messier hair. “Stay down there for another minute, Wright.”
“Why?” I called, instantly suspicious.
“The grasshopper never asks the questions. She just obeys the sensei.”
I rolled my eyes and shifted my weight against the exterior of the Owlery, hopefully rubbing dirt and leeches and a variety of other unfavorable things into Matilda’s cloak. The evil toad, with her scads of O’s and her expensive hair cream and that collection of raspberry éclairs she refused to share with the rest of us…
I leaned back and gazed at the tiny stars, shining from places so far away that it made me feel lonely and small, and listened to the whispering drones of Fred and George as they debated something.
“Not too close to the pumpkin patch. We don’t want to wake Hagrid.”
“So you think we should –”
“No,” the other interrupted, perhaps following his brother’s line of vision out the window. “Not there. The Whomping Willow will beat you half to death.”
“Then I’ll just stand close to the Owlery, so that you lot can have a better view. After I light them I can make a run for it behind those boulders over there.”
“You can’t be right next to the Owlery,” the other retorted in a hushed voice.
“Because.” He muttered something unintelligible. I perked up, listening; but no matter how hard I strained, I couldn’t make out the stream of garbled words. The sound of their hands rummaging through boxes filled the silence for a short while, punctuated with rapid murmurs too low to hear.
“You’re a right pain in the arse in the morning,” George grumbled to himself. “Okay, then. Boulders it is, and you’ll just have to live with it.” He poked his head out the window, eyes bleary and not quite awake. “You can come up now!”
“Wait!” Fred rushed down the stairs and ran around the other side of the Owlery, oblivious to my confused expression. “It isn’t ready yet!”
He disappeared and I watched his dark figure emerge on the roof of the Owlery moments later, having somehow scaled the wall of it. He began to Summon things from inside the Owlery with his wand, lifting a few boxes and bags with the familiar Honeydukes label through the air and into his waiting hands. “All right!” he shouted jovially. “I’m set. You can come up.”
Squinting through the black veil of night, I called, “Have you got a broom or something? And I swear on Cecil’s nine lives, Fred, if you’ve got Dungbombs up there that you’re planning on throwing at me –”
“Don’t worry, he’s saving that part for later,” George replied amiably, brushing by with a large box weighing down his arms. I was distracted by my qualms and possible conspiracy theories for a minute, watching him set down the box not too far from the Owlery. He began to withdraw colorful, pointy packages from it, lining them up in a neat row in the moonlit snow. From his perch high above, Fred called my name. I craned my neck to see him and he gave me an encouraging wave.
“There’s a ladder over there.” He pointed behind him. “Hurry, before it gets light out.”
I could already distinguish a watercolor tinge to the horizon, staining the sky with muted ruby and indigo. Quickly I circled the Owlery and spotted the tall metal ladder slanting against it. Fred waited for me to climb the frozen rungs, watching George’s progress below with keen anticipation.
“What exactly are we doing?” I questioned, wobbling around on the roof and gripping crevices between the stones to keep from sliding down off of it into the rocky soil below.
“Testing,” Fred answered, patting the spot next to him and looking rather pleased with himself. “Weasley’s Wildfire Whiz-Bangs, at your service.”
“Fireworks?” I gaped at him, pointing accusingly. “Delphine told me you had those! And you denied it! Oh, you dirty liar.”
He grinned shamelessly. “We didn’t have all the kinks sorted out yet at the time Delphine brought that up. I couldn’t very well let you have merchandise that wasn’t guaranteed to not blow your head off. So this –” he gestured to George, who was now setting sparks to the tip of something yellow and round with his wand, “– is our third round of testing. Hopefully it’s functioning correctly this time.”
“You’ve done this twice before?” I marveled, surveying a variety of Honeydukes sweets positioned in a nest behind us. “I can’t believe you haven’t been found out yet.”
“Well, we have to experiment while everyone’s asleep, generally.” A slow whistle streaked the atmosphere, and my eyes followed a thin blaze of light traveling upward in a vertical jagged line. It rose higher, higher, higher at a skewed angle – and then it exploded with a crackling burst of blinding diamonds. Three fiery outlines of phoenixes rained down over Ravenclaw Tower, illuminating the glass dormitory windows with pearly sheens. “I thought you might like to see it.”
I dug a Chocolate Frog out of the pile, but then envisioned getting chocolate fudged between my teeth and thought better of it. “Dinner and a show?” I mused, ignoring the persistent growls of my stomach as I replaced the Frog back to its box.
Fred returned the smile, absorbing my reaction to the firework show with satisfaction. “Something like that.”
The fireworks were impressive in diameter, shooting high and far enough away that they showered over the Quidditch pitch, the greenhouses, and quite possibly the front gate. “So…” he began carefully. “How goes Delphine and her Algerian Foot Warts?”
I gave a loud cough. “Lower your voice. If George overhears, he’ll never stop giving her grief about it.”
Fred waggled his eyebrows. “That’s half the fun. And I’m dead curious – how did she manage to acquire this particular affliction?”
I glared at him, mouth twitching. “We both blame you, actually.”
“Me? What – how? What’d I do?”
“Remember a few months ago when Delphine and I came to you and George, looking for your Wheezes to solve our Alice and Orchid problems?” His eyes flickered to mine as he smiled wider, indicating that he certainly did remember that. I struggled to focus on the conversation at hand and not on the curve of his lips, which was proving itself to be a difficult feat. “When the two of you taunted her with your tales of secret items that didn’t exist, it pushed us to go a different route. Earlier that day at Zonko’s, we had purchased –”
“The Grow-Your-Own-Warts Kit,” he supplied at once, watching me intently. “I remember.”
“Yes.” I felt awkward with his eyes on me, but not unpleasantly so. It felt like I might melt a little under the smolder of it. “Delphine got this genius idea to sprinkle the powder in Orchid’s slippers in the middle of the night, while everyone was asleep. However…” I bit the inside of my cheek, trying not to laugh at the recollection of the look on my best friend’s face when she realized Orchid had woken up early for breakfast and stolen her slippers, leaving Delphine with Orchid’s. “It backfired on her.”
“Naturally.” Another boom penetrated the starry sunrise, prompting George's sudden whoops of delight. We observed him dancing around the grounds, strutting victoriously like a peacock.
“So over the past few months, it’s been steadily getting worse and she can’t figure out how to get rid of them,” I went on. “She could tell Pomfrey, but she’s terrified Pomfrey will tell Umbridge. She doesn’t want to get into trouble, but most of all, she doesn’t want Orchid to find out that she’d failed in trying to ruin her life.”
“She has very solid priorities,” Fred remarked sagely.
“Delphine’s hoping that Umbridge will somehow get sacked so that she can come clean about it without the fear of public ridicule.”
He nodded as a firework blossomed into the shape of a glittering orange dragon, its nostrils snorting fire into the snowy wind. The embers took remarkably long to fade into the velvet sky, reminding me once again that Fred and George were a lot more intelligent and organized than many people gave them credit for. “We’re all hoping Umbridge does something to get herself sacked," he said. "And I hope it happens soon, so that I’ll get to witness it.”
I gave him a searching look, and I could tell that he immediately regretted what he’d said. “What I mean is…” He scratched the back of his head, fumbling around behind him. “Would you like a Pepper Imp?” He held up a small bag of them with a guilty expression, and I narrowed my eyes on the product, pushing it away with a guarded frown. At this point, the sparkling fireworks had all but blended into the background, for all the notice I paid them.
“Don’t you lie to me, Fred Weasley.”
His eyebrows shot up and he fought the urge to smile, having never been able to take me too seriously. It was probably due to all those times he’d bumped into me while I had my arm stuck hopelessly inside the helmet of a suit of armor; or some animal I had stupidly brought into the castle had six inches of my hair down its throat as we brawled on the floor of the dungeon staircase.
Fred regarded me, his countenance taking on a mischievous quality.
“What?” I said rather snappishly. Instead of being wounded by my venom, however, he clapped me on the back with one hand, causing me to release a loud oomph.
“If I told you, Hollis, you would probably talk me out of it.”
“Okay, then. I promise I won’t try to talk you out of it.”
He shook his head, smiling knowingly as he turned to skim his gaze over the top of the Forbidden Forest. I watched him rap his pale knuckles against the Owlery roof, suddenly at a loss for words. “George and I might leave school early –”
My mouth flew open, and he quickly pressed two fingers to my lips, eyes widening with something serious. “Might. I said might. We’re just going to wait and see how things go. Our business is looking fairly promising. All of our data points to a successful career – a real one. We’ve got the premises pretty much nailed down, and it’s even got a flat above it for us to live in. And on top of all that, George thinks that if we quit Hogwarts before the year is up, we’ll be prepared for the early summer rush. There will be all sorts of kids getting off the Hogwarts Express in London and we could take advantage of it.” He was speaking in a rush, looking away from me while he pictured all of it in his mind, and I knew that he was desperately trying to convince me that it was a good idea.
“When they get off the train platform, their mums and dads will be right there in London, and it seems reasonable that since they will already be in the vicinity, they might want to do a bit of shopping in Diagon Alley. Therefore, if we do leave – if – then we’re toying with the idea of making the last day of the school year our grand opening. We’ve got special products just for ladies that we think will be a big hit…” I didn’t hide my incredulous reaction to this last statement, coming quite close to snorting, but he didn’t notice. He was too wrapped up in the prospect of a glorious future in the joke business.
“We’re going to launch a line called WonderWitch, with love potions and things of that nature.” He finally dared to meet my eyes now, and his were filled with such a desire for approval and wariness to let on how eager he truly was; and there was absolutely nothing I would have said to taint his excitement.
“What do you think?” Fred inquired at last. I could tell that he wasn’t sure whether or not he wanted to know my response.
“I think I’d like to push you off this roof,” I answered calmly. “For not telling me about these love potions. If I come by on your grand opening, will you give me one at a discount?”
His lips curved into a genial smile, and he seemed to glow with the way that the sun was rising from behind me, lighting up his face. A slight wind stirred in his hair and he said, “Do you really need one?”
I bit my lip, eyes sliding to his collar as the warmth began to wash up my neck. Several seconds later I realized I had been holding my breath, but I didn’t want to be conspicuous about exhaling all in one gust. Turning slightly to the side, I put my hands around my mouth as though yawning and readjusted my lung function.
“So I thought it might be a decent time to tell you that my friend was watching you on Friday.”
“Oh, yeah?” My response was too quick, leaking poorly-concealed enthusiasm.
Trying very hard not to grin, Fred said, “Yes. You were coming out of Herbology. Your hair was doing that flappy thing. It had a nice effect.”
He twisted a lock of my hair between his fingers and made it dance around. “You know, from the wind.” I snickered and he smiled sheepishly, looking down at his lap. “Well, he’s easily impressed by these things. Bit of a gibbering sod, actually. But he wanted you to know that he thinks there is a lot to admire. Stares at you all the bloody time.”
He didn’t look awkward or embarrassed at all, oddly enough – on the contrary, he was quite cheerful. I gave him a tentative smile and he winked cheekily, reaching behind my back to retrieve an Extra-Sour Licorice Wand. Ripping it between his teeth, Fred flashed his eyes suggestively and I had to pull the drooping scarf around my neck higher to hide the hot red patches cropping up.
“He thinks it’s high time the two of you were properly introduced.”
I gave such a start to this that my left hand knocked over the box of Chocolate Frogs, sending them hopping all over the roof. I was thankful for the distraction; it gave me something to focus on when I said, “He wants to meet?”
“Yes, he does,” Fred replied brightly. “He’d love to get a few things off his chest.”
“Oh, you know.” He stretched his arms behind his head and leaned back, lying down to stare at the swelling sunrise. It was a haze of pink and gold and the softest blue, but I couldn’t enjoy any of it. My heart was skipping like stones over a lake, my stomach all wibbly-wobbly. “He thinks you’re just tops. Stunning. Enchanting. He likes that you sometimes do things without properly thinking it through, like the time you found that tablet of toilet bowl cleaner in Filch’s cupboard and –”
“Ate it,” I finished lamely, scowling. He began to laugh, and I gave his shoulder a light slap. “Shut up, it looked like a sweet. Everyone knows he confiscates sweets, so it wasn’t completely unreasonable to assume.”
“Hornby’s influence at its finest,” he continued, still beaming brilliantly. “My friend has an appreciation for that sort of spunk. Or idiocy. Whatever you want to call it.”
“Let’s call it spunk.”
“Right.” He paused, considering something. “And he likes that thing you do when you’re reading and you frown all serious-like, now that you mention it. He likes your name, too, even though you can’t really take credit for that.”
“I will accept it on my parents’ behalf,” I said solemnly. “Dad works with the Muggle postal service and he saw a letter addressed to someone with the last name Hollis. He liked it and Mum liked it too, and there you go.”
He nodded as though he would try to remember this information. The ghost of a firework shimmered in the sky over Hagrid’s hut, burning the image of three W’s into my brain. “So when am I going to meet him?” I asked quietly.
“This coming Saturday, in Hogsmeade. The Three Broomsticks.”
I was suddenly extremely fixated on my wristwatch. This coming Saturday, I repeated in my head, mentally breathless. Valentine’s Day. Never in all of my years at Hogwarts did I ever want Fred to be a liar more than I did now. All arrows pointed to him, and lately he had become so comfortable and so careless about the subject that he had no problem whatsoever in inventing things his ‘friend’ said about me, several times in a single conversation; his hints were growing more obvious and blatantly Fred-like by the day. Despite my well-calculated assertions that there was no ‘friend’ at all, it would completely gut me if I walked into The Three Broomsticks and saw anyone other than him waiting there.
“All right,” I told him uncertainly, picking at a loose thread on Matilda’s sleeve. “Twelve o’ clock would be good. But how will I know which person is him? The place will be busy, I expect.”
Fred pondered this, tapping his jaw. “He’ll be wearing the most lurid robes you’ve ever seen. Festive. There will be little doubt in your mind, when you see him, that he is there for you.”
“Let me see your letter,” a bossy voice demanded. I stared at the girl with pigtails and round glasses, frowning slightly as I slid my letter back into its envelope. Unlike the older students, first years frequently received evening post well into the first few months of school. Therefore, while the majority of students went about eating their dinner as usual below the masses of twinkling candles and enjoying a pleasant Thursday evening, Delphine Hornby and I were once again accosted by enormous owls carrying words from home.
I glanced warily at Mum’s tidy script, not wanting to share its contents. I didn’t even want to think about what I had just read myself, much less allow her to see. “Why?”
“So that we can compare popularity points. Everyone knows that the more letters you get from home, the more everyone here will like you.” She shuffled her four envelopes importantly, beaming. “One from Mum and Dad, one from Aunt Doreen, one from Doreen’s nephew on her other side of the family, Theodore; and finally, a lovely long one from Celestina Warbeck.”
I let my fork drop onto my plate of steak and kidney pie, mouth agape. “What?” Manners shoved quickly aside, I reached across the table and ripped the last letter out of her hands. Flipping it right-side up, my elation fell. “It says return to sender.” I shoved the envelope back at her, disappointed. “This is your letter. You must’ve gotten the address wrong.”
“Fickle owls,” she grumbled. “But just think, Hollis – she could have touched this. I mean, she had to have, right? People like Celestina Warbeck always check their own post.” I wasn’t sure which resources she had gathered these facts from, and I raised a skeptical eyebrow.
“She can’t have received it at all, though. It says ‘return to sender’ right there in massive red ink –”
“So, anyway,” she went on loudly. “I don’t like to be boastful, so let’s talk about your letters instead. Just two, I see? Tut, tut. Come on, then. Let’s see them.”
“They’re just from my mum and gran, asking if I’ve gotten settled in yet and if I find all the subjects interesting.” This wasn’t particularly true. While Gran had indeed wanted to ensure that I was finding Hogwarts to be every bit as warm and welcoming as she promised it would be, Mum’s concerns were rather different. She was more than a little alarmed at the lack of maths and science classes on the syllabus. You should discuss finding a tutor for algebra, at least. Ask your Head of House, I’m sure he or she will be very understanding. Normal education is important and you need to know more than magic tricks to get along in the real world.
I was growing increasingly worried that she was going to pull me out of Hogwarts and plunk me back into a Muggle school. She had always assumed I would want to go to a Muggle school, despite the fact that I displayed all of the usual signs of magic from a young age – making the neighbor’s dog fly, making my lima beans disappear. Making all of my vegetables disappear, pretty much…
This past July, she and I set about purchasing my uniform and school supplies for St. Gabriel’s, the school she had attended as a girl. She was in the middle of ironing a long pair of socks for me, happily reminiscing about her old rugby team, when my Hogwarts acceptance letter dropped through the post slot onto the living room floor and smashed all of her dreams to bits.
I reflected on Mum’s recent letter again: her assumption that Hogwarts would of course acknowledge Bonfire Night and her subsequent surprise when they did not send us home to celebrate with our families for the day. Over and over her letters turned out to be questions with an increasingly agitated tone to them, and no matter how satisfactory I tried to make my returning letters, she was unmistakably shaken. On the whole, she believed that I would be much better off in a school like St. Gabriel’s, with those horrid tartan skirts and the rigid collars…
Gran wasn’t worried, despite the fears I confided in her. She just doesn’t understand. She doesn’t know much about our world, Hollis. And it was then, when she said our world, and not her world – as in Gran’s – that I realized I could never leave Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry – not for Mum, not for anything. Magic had not chosen my father, but it had chosen me. Somewhere along the way, Mum would just have to accept it.
Delphine was still talking, trying to raise her already-shrill voice so as to be heard over an ongoing correspondence between Percy Weasley, an older red-haired boy, and Orchid Strauss. “Are you finding everything all right?” he inquired, bending over her in a superior sort of way as she tried to focus on picking her waffles to shreds. “I’m going round and asking all the first years, so don’t be shy. But I thought perhaps you needed some special attention –”
“I’m fine,” she growled, her eyes darting furtively about the Great Hall. “Go away.”
Percy didn’t seem to hear her. “Because, if you recall, I’ve already found you wandering about the corridors a half dozen times, lost. I think that it would do, in these hours of great lapse in judgment, to always keep within eyesight of another person. Or perhaps I should ask McGonagall if we could get you a whistle. That way, you won’t be –”
“I’ve only gotten lost twice!” Delphine bragged, her voice so screeching that I clamped my hands over my ears. I watched her lick the back of her spoon, miffed yet again that I had found myself trapped in Hufflepuff with her. Stupid Sorting Hat.
“I’m full, so I’ll just trot off to the common room now,” I announced quietly, slipping sideways off the long wooden bench.
“Me too!” Delphine replied cheerily, stumbling off the bench as well to hurry along after me. I gave an audible groan. Delphine wasn’t always so bad, I supposed, but her shoes made click-clacking noises when she walked and she was forever drawing the notice of Peeves the poltergeist. Getting stranded in a corner with Peeves floating by was not an ideal situation, and it happened often with trouble-prone Hornby hanging about.
“Changed my mind,” I chirped, spinning around and walking in the opposite direction toward the Entrance Hall. “I’m going outside."
Delphine caught up with me, breathless and with her eyes sparkling. “Me too!”
I ground my teeth together but said nothing, passing Filch on my way out the door. For a November evening, it was still relatively sunny out. The last vestiges of autumn warmth funneled down between several lone clouds, sunlight dappling through the tree leaves in spots of pale green. Not many people occupied the Great Lawn, but Delphine and I immediately recognized one of the figures as being the very last person either of us wanted to run into. He was squatted on the ground next to one of his friends, fingers threading through the grass as if in search of something he’d just dropped.
“Oh, no.” Delphine grabbed my elbow, meaning to steer me back into the castle. “Not them, they’re horrible.”
I shielded my eyes from the overlarge red sun that was situated at just the right angle to blind me, trying to see who else accompanied the small, skinny boy I was looking at. The way we were staring at them seemed to attract their attention, apparently, and my eyes nearly fell out of my head when I caught sight of the ginger-haired boy’s mate turning around.
They were exact copies of each other, right down to the mussed, dirt-streaked hair and the pale freckles splashing across their noses and cheeks. Strolling leisurely our way, the young boys maintained a rather shifty demeanor, eyes radiant with mischief. They both grinned conspiratorially at Delphine, who let out a sharp hiss and stepped behind me to hide.
“Cheers!” The greeting was spoken simultaneously, their hands shoved deep inside suspiciously bulging pockets in their robes. They continued on their merry way and were less than five feet beyond me when I couldn’t help but –
“Holy cow!” I blurted, my mind reeling back to September and meeting one…or perhaps both of them…on the train. “There are two of you!”
“And there’s only one of you,” one of the scrawny boys responded as they wheeled around. “Which means that you’d better bugger off before we take away your House Points.”
“Why would a cow be holy?” the other remarked, scrunching up his face in thought. “That doesn’t even make any sense.”
“You didn’t know there were two Weasleys in second year?” Delphine gave an arrogant sniff, obviously gratified that she knew something I did not. “By the way, Weasleys, I asked Professor Sprout personally and she assured me that second years do not have the authority to dock points from people. So the ten points you tried to deduct last week don’t count.” She crossed her arms and stuck her nose up in the air, triumphant.
The twin on the left was fumbling in his pocket, cocking his head sideways and grimacing unintentionally due to the harsh rays of sunlight flooding his field of vision. I wondered what he was doing in his pockets.
I soon found out.
He tossed something in our direction and Delphine plugged up her nose, hopping around in a state of utter madness. “Disgusting!” she choked, fanning one arm in front of her face. The way that she was flapping her black sleeves reminded me of bats, and despite the pungent odor steaming from a round, vomit-green ball resting innocently in the grass, I couldn’t help but smile. “Horrid!” she wheezed, pointing her wand at the pair of cackling boys. “Two hundred points from Gryffindor!”
Delphine’s menacing stance of battle, however, only provoked more peals of laughter.
“You dunderhead,” one of them sniggered, leaning against his brother for support as though this was all a grand old riot. “You’re holding your wand on the wrong end.”
Delphine examined her wand for a moment, just long enough for the Weasley on the right to chuck another Dungbomb at her shoes. “No, I’m not. The handle’s right here, I’ve – hey!”
“When in doubt –” one of them sang.
“Dungbombs are always appropriate,” the other finished. They proceeded to clap each other on the backs in mutual congratulations, doing a strange little tribal dance that reminded me of a hinkypunk my gran once discovered in her garden shed.
“Now I smell all rotten,” Delphine complained. “You stupid swines.”
The boys paused their mirth long enough for one of them to say (with a swagger than indicated he fancied himself loads wittier than he really was), “Well that explains it, then.”
Delphine’s mouth pulled down in a perplexed frown. “Explains what?”
The Weasley twins exchanged sly looks, both of them gangling and awkward with so many knobby elbows and knees that they didn’t quite seem to fit themselves. “Why no one ever wants to sit next to you. It’s because you smell like dung.” They both crowed at this, thinking themselves infinitely clever.
“Leave her alone,” I declared boldly. I was feeling quite powerful – it could’ve been all the putrid gas mingling with oxygen in the air. “You specky gits have nothing better to do than throw Dungbombs – which I might add are banned from Hogwarts – at my friend here?” Delphine’s head snapped up at the mention of the word ‘friend’, and a lopsided smile began to form on her previously enraged features. “Shoo! Or else!”
“Oooh, they’re banned!” one of them teased in a lofty, girlish voice, and they both started pulling obscene facial expressions. “What you going to do? Tell on us?”
“Yes,” Delphine shot back, her pitch so high that dogs in Australia could probably detect it. “I will tell Professor Dumbledore myself, and I will have you buffoons expelled. I will also tell Professor McGonagall, and Professor Snape, and Mrs. Norris, and –” she racked her brains, trying to think of any other intimidating figures with clout she might not have mentioned. Just as we were all distracted, watching Delphine attempt to formulate vicious threats inside her head, the giant double doors of the castle pushed open and out walked Cedric Diggory.
There was nothing Delphine could do to hide it. She’d fixated herself on the poor second year boy from the moment she laid eyes on him in the common room; presently, it looked like her knees were about to buckle in a swoon.
“Diggory?” one of the Weasleys chortled. “Predictable choice. I dunno, though. They say Hufflepuffs are pretty useless, eh, George?”
“Too right you are,” the other responded cheerily. “I have it on very good authority that their intelligence is on the same level as trolls.” Beside me, Delphine was balling up her hands into fists, and the boy named George danced away from her like a pogo stick. “Don’t get offended at me. These are just facts. I mean, badgers. Really. Your House is represented by a badger. I don’t understand how you lot can sleep at night with such a sorry mascot.”
“Well I don’t understand how you lot made it past your first year when you’re surrounded by such idiots.” Delphine’s hands were on her hips now. “With what’s-her-face who always has her head shoved inside a book like she’s trying to eat it, and Flea Jordan, and –”
“Come on, Delphine,” I ordered, linking my arm in hers. Lifting my jaw imperiously at the boys, I spun on my heels and narrowly missed colliding with a tree. I pretended not to hear their snorts of laughter.
“I really do not like them,” Delphine said as we made our way down a steep hill toward the gamekeeper’s hut. “They think they’re so funny.”
“Well, they are a little bit funny.” Delphine gave me a wounded look, and I quickly amended, “But they’re nutters, yeah. Definitely nutters. We should keep clear of them.” Tossing my head over my shoulder for a brief second, I noticed that the twins had already scampered off to join their friends.
The shy-looking girl with blonde hair did indeed have a book in her hands, true to her reputation. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted Cedric making towards her as if he wanted to say hello, but she kept walking along, absorbed in her book, easily ignoring him due to the raucous shouts of the Weasleys and Lee Jordan (who had nicked a Quaffle somehow and was trying to do fancy Quidditch poses with it). Cedric stood there for several perplexed moments before he ran a hand through his hair and went off to join one of his mates. Delphine stared after him longingly, memorizing his hair with her eyeballs.
I was so busy thinking about Delphine and her tendencies to get possessive about boys she had positively no chance with that I missed my footing on the rocky slope and dove through the air, tumbling head-first into Hagrid’s vegetable patch.
A behemoth of a dog with drool trickling from its jowls padded over to me, sniffing curiously. “Ouch,” I grumbled, rubbing a tender spot on my scalp. Come this time tomorrow, I would have a lump the size of an egg there. “Stupid rocks.” I scowled at the hill I’d just fallen down. “You’d think that the staff could have done something about those. It’s downright dangerous, and the adults have a responsibility to keep us safe.”
Delphine nodded gravely. “You could have died.”
“Yes, I could have.” Brushing the dirt off my clothes and feeling both embarrassed and highly peeved, a second snout poked between two pumpkins. It was long and purplish and attached to a slim face with fur like lilac peach fuzz. Its eyes were set far apart, like a fish’s, and they reflected a green color from the foliage it was obscured in. I remembered a book of Gran’s I once found, with pictures. The graphorn’s eyes absorb the colors of their environment. If they’re standing next to a red wall, their eyes will become red. If they’re in a forest, their eyes will flicker between browns and greens and yellows.
My lips parted in wonder and I reached forward with one tentative hand, feeling the tight little knobs on the back of its head. The graphorn had to be only months old, since its horns were still so underdeveloped. Just a little foal… I was gripped with a sudden desire to keep it, to take care of it and watch it grow.
“What is it?” Delphine asked. The pitch in her voice startled the baby graphorn and he retreated a few steps.
“It’s a graphorn.” I stroked its neck where the fleece was thick, grey, and curly, trying to soothe its skittishness. “Look at its hooves and fur, Delphine. It’s so clean. Someone’s been taking good care of it, but I don’t see how that would be allowed at Hogwarts. Graphorns can grow up to be extremely violent, after their horns are fully grown. You have to keep them separated from each other in high-security paddocks, or else you’re basically asking for a blood bath.”
“Huh.” Delphine examined the creature, disinterested.
“Fancy how it got here...”
Just then, a deep, bellowing voice called out, “Edgar!” Footsteps shook the ground, pillaging my way. In two swift seconds, the graphorn foal and I were completely thrown into shadow due to someone enormous blocking the sunlight. My eyes traveled slowly up twin boots the size of small boulders. “Edgar?”
Hagrid finally noticed my presence, and his beetle-black eyes traced my arms to the graphorn. It nuzzled me with its nose, making a strange noise not unlike a purr. “These aren’t allowed at Hogwarts,” I mused quietly. Hagrid simply stared, his expression sinking. I tilted my face back, grinning mischievously. “Do you have any more of these?”
It was exactly as I imagined.
I stood beneath a striped awning outside of Madam Malkin’s that sheltered me from the early spring thunderstorm, eyes flickering all around me and waiting for someone to approach, to curse, to take me away where I would never be seen again. Rain swept sideways across the overhanging fabric, pouring down in thin waterfalls to flow along the gutted street.
Diagon Alley was not busy, presumably because most people had been scared away from loitering in public places since the war became a serious threat. And despite it all – despite the months I had spent in hiding, all alone in the wilderness with only a wand and a wireless for company – here I was. Standing across the street from Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes at Number 93, loitering. Daring someone, almost, to find me.
I took a tentative step, my drenched boots splashing in the dirty puddles, pushing ripples outward. Without a last look up and down the empty road, I lowered my hood from my face. If anyone hiding in the shadows recognized the head of strawberry blonde hair, cut much shorter now in an attempt at disguise, no one moved. My heart thumped palpably in my chest, waiting just a few seconds longer than necessary. Come and get me, something whispered in the depths of my mind.
Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes was the lone speck of color in Diagon Alley, the only shop still living and breathing as if the war was not happening, and there was no such thing as consequences. Having Apparated in London and walked here, I had witnessed plenty of damage. Florean Fortescue’s, Ollivander’s, and Scribbulus Writing Instruments were all boarded up with strips of rotting wood haphazardly nailed to their doors and windows. Gambol and Japes Wizarding Joke Shop appeared to have been put out of business, and no wonder. Fred and George had always been impervious to the worries that affected everyone else, and it shouldn’t have come as any surprise that they were still thriving, even in this climate.
I had finally emerged, after months of wasting away all by myself. After everything I had gone through, all communication with my world severed to protect myself and others, I simply couldn’t stand it anymore. I had to make sure that this shop was still standing; I had to see it for myself, at least one last time. This was not the Diagon Alley of my memory, but a ghost town crushed with gloom and defeat; all save for this one shop that glittered through the haze of rain and fear.
Chaos was silent, the threat of danger clinging to molecules in the air like poisonous fumes. Only a handful of businesses were still trying to function against the grain – but for every chary-eyed shop owner, there were five or six more that had fled. I knew this because their lights were off and dusty signs had been switched around in the glass windows with rushed messages scrawled across them: ‘Out to Lunch’. ‘Sorry, we’re closed today’. ‘Happy Christmas, we’ll see you in the New Year!’
The glass windows of Quality Quidditch Supplies had been shattered to splinters, and a door to the apothecary beside it had been ripped off its hinges and was currently leaning against an abandoned secondhand robe shop. Everywhere my eyes swept, there was brickwork and rubbish and months-old receipts travelling aimlessly in the circulating wind. And six shops down, floating directly above Wiseacre’s Wizarding Equipment, the Dark Mark moved against the battering downpour, emitting a faint, sinister glow. A bright WWW flier lifted off the ground in a sudden gale, tearing blindly across the roof of the still-lit shop. Screwing up my eyes against the weather, I thought I could make out movement from within.
Allowing my attention to stray to the ground, I watched the water trickle across the toes of my boots and waited with bated breath once again for shrieks and a bolt of furious light – Impedimenta, maybe. I’d heard from a small group of fellow fugitives that Dirk Cresswell was captured with Petrificus Totalus. I wondered idly if I might live long enough to see what Diagon Alley would look like when it was rebuilt after the war.
“What are you waiting for?” I murmured out loud. Whether this was directed at myself and the shoes that refused to keep moving forward, or at the Snatchers I knew were lurking around every corner on this street, I couldn’t be sure. No longer restrained to Knockturn Alley, the sewage of society was now running afoul of the place, blasting people’s homes and livelihoods apart without batting an eye.
Crushed glass from the gas lamps that lined every twist and turn signified that they'd destroyed them in efforts to keep Diagon Alley smothered in darkness. They were soulless monsters in a downward spiral. Pitiless. I represented little more than a couple of Galleons, maybe. My wand burned in my pocket, protesting being so near to foreign hands who wanted to take it away from me.
A distant clang rose from the bowels of Fred and George’s store and I found myself, with no warning whatsoever, swallowing my resistance and trudging through the rain. The ground shook with thunder, livid, and I caught my gaze slipping unconsciously to a poster plastered sideways over the window of Obscurus Books. A familiar face stared uncertainly at me as I walked by, blinking through the flashes of cameras. Undesirable Number One.
For the first time in days, I remembered that everyone I’d ever loved was pinning their hopes on Harry Potter, on a boy who was even younger than I was. Just a teenager, and he’s supposed to save us all.
He was probably dead.
I reached out with one stiff hand and watched my fingers curve around the doorknob, callused and cut in places from thorns. My other hand still gripped the wand in my pocket, unwilling to let go of the one thing in the world that might save me from Azkaban. I’d gotten much better at Stunning in recent weeks, having practiced on birds; and I figured that since luck had been on my side thus far, it might grant me a two-second advantage over any predators who’d memorized faces on the roster of Wanted for Questioning. Their greed for money and importance rendered them blind to the reality of what they were doing when they dragged people, screaming, off to the Ministry. Animals, the lot of them. Savages.
The interior of the store was warm and dry, smelling sweet – like pears, maybe. I wandered down a narrow aisle, noting the cleanliness, the sultry tones of Glenda Chittock’s voice drifting in the background through a gramophone. The soles of my shoes padded silently across the carpet, and every product my gaze lingered over increased the blurriness in my vision.
There was a stack of enchanted magazines, all of the pages blank – Take a simple survey and it will write up funny stories about you and your friends! There were Edible Dark Marks rotating on a Lazy Susan and Skiving Snackboxes that made grotesque sound effects when I walked by them. I let my knapsack drop to the ground and touched a purple glass ball sitting proudly on display, tempting buyers with visions of pirates and romance.
There was evidence, everywhere, that life goes on. While I spent my evenings shouting ‘Accio fish!’ at frozen riverbanks and huddling with strangers inside cramped tents – strangers I didn’t even know the names of, but who had saved my life over and over, me helping them and them helping me in any way we could for mutual hopes at survival – Fred and George Weasley were sitting complacently behind a counter in this store, racking up the revenue. Probably still smiling and joking, like always.
Some things never change.
My brows knit together as I brushed my fingers over the merchandise. Decoy Detonators: Buy two, get one free if you promise to use them against Headmaster Slitherus Snape. Other products made mockeries of the Ministry – For twenty Galleons, temporarily change your Patronus to look like Umbridge! Scare your siblings! Frighten your friends! I shook my head, sighing internally. Amusing though these items may be, Fred and George would wind up dead in a gutter somewhere if they didn’t stop.
An image of a man in a holey coat flitted in my mind’s eye, rolling back one sleeve to show me a jagged line on his wrist. It was the sign that we showed each other to indicate we weren’t with the Ministry, that we were safe and trustworthy. It was drawn on the flesh of outcasts who still put their faith in Harry Potter – it was his sign. I absentmindedly rubbed my own wrist, smearing the ink of a lightning bolt-shaped design concealed there.
It felt like I had been walking thousands of miles to get here, my thoughts trained obsessively on this one special destination and I didn’t even realize it until just this moment. And now that I was here, wandering unnoticed between shelves stocked with Reusable Hangman boxes and Shield Hats, it felt like I had unknowingly ended up somewhere else entirely. I wasn’t anywhere at all; I might’ve been dreaming in a makeshift camp very far away, with the cold soil seeping through my clothing and the morning dew glistening on my closed eyelashes. Surely, I was still asleep.
The aisle ended and I was left standing in the middle of the open floor, watching a display of trick wands popping into gag gifts on an advertisement tacked over the register. And right below it, George Weasley was watching me with large, stupefied eyes, one of his hands hovering over a till where he had been counting coins.
“Fancy meeting you here,” I mused. My voice was throatier than I meant it, scratchier. If I sounded slightly out of practice, I imagined that it was nothing next to the mess I must have looked like.
George’s mouth popped open. “Look at who’s suddenly shy,” I added, slipping a Neville Nougat (give them to your mates and they’ll drop everything they try to pick up for hours) in my pocket and not caring whether or not he noticed. I couldn’t repress the faint triumph that came from seeing him in such a bewildered state. “Close your mouth, George. You’ll catch flies.”
A long minute passed before he managed to gather his senses enough to bellow, “Fred!”
No one responded to his call; I found myself strangely calm as I watched the range of emotions cross his face – surprise, bafflement, disbelief – and without severing his gaze for even a second, he angled his jaw slightly to the left and roared again, “FRED!”
From over the railing on the second level of the store, a voice that was similar to his but not quite the same shouted, “What?”
George’s eyes gleamed. “Come here.”
Anxiety chose that moment to begin pumping through my bloodstream. I could feel my heartbeat in my temples, in my wrists – in every pressure point. Quite suddenly, I felt almost as though I was going to throw up. A cool sweat broke over my forehead, lending a sickly sheen to my already-damp skin.
“I’m busy,” Fred replied, his words laced with annoyance. “One of us has to pack these faulty Punching Telescopes back into the boxes, and since you’re not doing it –” My stomach churned at the sound of him, right there above me, just out of sight. Every breath in my body was sucked out like it had been evaporated by the sun.
“Fred,” George cut him off, his voice sharp. “Hollis is here.”
There was a muffled crash – something had slipped through Fred’s hands onto the hardwood floor. The rattling noise was replaced by a piercing stillness that consumed space and words and many years of memories. Silence enveloped the store, seeming to dim the lights. My right hand rose to my throat, fingers curling in trepidation. Thump, thump, thump went my heart under my palm, speeding along at a dangerous speed.
And then he was there, looking over the balcony at me. From the expression in his eyes, I felt like he wasn’t just seeing the Hollis who stood before him with shorter hair and a bruise on her chin; he was seeing me at eleven, at fourteen, at sixteen. He was seeing me at the Yule Ball and passing by him in the corridors at Hogwarts, trying to hide a smile. He saw me standing on one of the stone benches in the courtyard, balancing myself with both arms outstretched as if it were a tightrope. Everything inside of me was hanging in the atmosphere for him to see, and it was almost as if he was seeing more of me than I could.
Fred’s figure wavered, blurry from tears I couldn’t suppress, as he wordlessly descended the staircase. I quickly wiped away the moisture with my right hand, as my left one was still gripping the wand in my pocket so tightly that the tendons grew numb. All I could think about was the fact that he was safe. He’s safe, he’s safe. He’s all right. It was the most wonderful feeling in the world.
My brain was only vaguely aware of George stealthily disappearing through a storeroom door behind the counter, but I couldn’t devote much attention to it. Fred’s eyes were locked on mine, lips parted as if not quite believing what he was seeing.
I was finally here, after what seemed like years, and he was right in front of me. Fred hesitated, drawing in a shaky breath; he reached out to touch my shoulders, to pat my sleeves as if checking to make sure that I was more than smoke and mirrors. His own eyes were glassy with emotion, and I watched him lift his hand to his mouth and observe me with fingers pressed against his lips. It was terrifying to see Fred Weasley this vulnerable, and I wanted to say something – anything – to diffuse the intensity of the situation. Before I could figure out how to speak, however, he gently took my face in his hands and kissed me.
It was sweeter than I’d expected, being so accustomed to his rambunctious spirit. My head spun in a daze, trying to wrap itself around the possibility that any of it could be real. His soft lips, his shortness of breath. He had slid one of his hands through my hair and the other was on the small of my back, just resting. I kept my eyes closed for several seconds after he pulled away, and opened them to observe his smiling face.
“Hi,” I greeted in a squirrelly pitch that could rival Delphine’s.
The responding one was full of wonder. “Hi yourself.” He wiped his eyes and grinned more broadly, realizing at last that I was not going to disappear. I let him tug my arm out of my pocket so that he could take my hands in his – the ridges from my wand handle had worn marks into my skin. His warm fingers entwined through mine, pulling me closer to him.
“You’re taller than I remember,” I said, tilting my head back. His hair was shorter, too, and he was wearing a brand of cologne that reminded me of every businessman I’d ever met. I wasn’t surprised he’d been attracted to it – the label signified success, wealth, ingenuity. Everything he had strived for since he was a teenage boy and wanted to rise above the Weasley’s stigma of being poor. It was the cologne one wore when they wanted to impress. “How’s your family?”
The expression in his eyes turned serious. “How’s your family?”
I shook my head, desperately trying to push that question away from the very damaged part of my heart that worried constantly. “I have no idea.”
He looked horrified at himself for having asked. “I – I’m sure they’re all right. And Delphine is doing fine, if you haven’t heard. I saw her last month. Her brother’s missing, but they’re holding out hope that he’s just been Obliviated and he’s lost somewhere…”
I squeezed my eyes tightly shut. “This isn’t happening,” I murmured. “It can’t be.”
He inclined his head to rest his forehead against mine. “I’m so sorry, Hollis.”
The danger of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named and the Death Eaters was inescapable. After years of fantasizing about this moment with Fred, of spending sleepless nights looking forward to the chance of such an encounter, we couldn’t permeate the air with beautiful words or promises of safe futures or declarations of any sort. There was nothing to speak of except war and the people we knew and loved, because the war had taken frivolities away from us.
War had crept into every corner of our lives until nothing else meant anything. All of the lovely ‘remember that time we…?’ and the ‘so would you like to come upstairs and…?’ words we might have said, if this conversation had occurred at a more innocent time in our lives, dissolved superficially on our tongues before they were spoken aloud.
But some things didn’t need to be said, not outright. I could feel all of it in the way that his fingers brushed the tears away from my eyes, and in the feather-light kisses that traced along my cheekbone until they finally met my mouth. And I told him things in this way, too. I let him know how terribly I’d missed him, and how much I needed to hear him laugh – to be the one to make him laugh.
This wish was granted about an hour after I arrived at Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, when George rapped on the door of the storeroom behind the counter and asked very loudly if he could please come out, because his bum was sore from sitting on boxes and he was fairly certain that he heard something moving around in the cobwebs. He also commented that we were kissing quite noisily, which was of course not true.
The war had leeched itself onto every facet of our lives, including my precious time with Fred and our conversations. My fifteen-year-old self would have been incredulous at our sober discussions, talking late into the night about subjects far from romantic – namely, news and Potterwatch and all the things I didn’t know about, having been isolated for so long.
“Harry Potter,” Fred said to me several hours later as he unwrapped a pumpkin pasty for himself, “is still alive.” We were sitting behind the counter in the dark, resting against the wall and talking, still, about the war. He was trying to explain the Order of the Phoenix to me, and snippets he’d heard about their resistance to the new regime. “Remus Lupin thinks that –”
My eyebrows shot up and I couldn’t help but interrupt. “Remus Lupin? The professor who turned out to be a werewolf?”
“That’s the one,” he replied good-naturedly, brushing a few strands of my hair away from my eyes. “He thinks that if Harry were…you know…” He trailed off, unable to consider it. “He thinks that if anything happened to Harry, the Death Eaters would have spread it publicly by now, to make those of us who are trying to fight feel like we’ve already lost.”
“Would you still fight?” I wanted to know. “If anything bad ever happened to Harry, I mean. I’ve heard that he’s the only one who stands a chance against You-Know-Who.”
Fred paused, studying me. “Of course I would. Harry might be The Chosen One, but he’s only one person. If enough of us rally together, we do stand a chance. We’ve got to end all this.” His brown eyes leveled on mine, the pupils dilated so far in the darkness that his irises were nearly swallowed in black. “We’re going to win.”
“Do you really believe that?”
“I have to. My little brother is out there with Harry and Hermione right now, doing God-knows-what…trying to find weaknesses in You-Know-Who, I reckon. Sometimes I wish I could’ve gone along with them so that I could feel less useless. At least they’re doing something, and here I’m not making any kind of real difference. I’m not a part of the Order. I don’t know much about what’s going on. I’m just…” He trailed off, glancing around the room at rows and rows of joke merchandise.
“You’re giving people hope,” I told him, squeezing his hand. “You make them laugh, and they need that. It’s one of the things Harry and your brother are trying to protect, you know? Laughter and nonsense, and having fun with your friends. Normality.”
He gave me a small smile. “I’ll keep doing it, then. You look like you could use a good laugh.”
No matter how amazing it felt to sit on the dark sales floor of Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes in the world where I belonged, wrapped securely in Fred’s arms, I knew it would expire before the sun came up. If our night together had given me anything, it was the renewed hope that there was something waiting for me worth fighting for, worth hiding for. And because I refused to be the person who finally landed Fred in trouble with the Ministry, I had to go back to the woods. I would listen for news about my family and Delphine and the Weasleys, wandering around in a frame of mind where time was irrelevant, news was scant, and Snatchers abundant. I knew I could get through it.
“No,” he had argued harshly, eyes wide. “Please don’t leave. I can hide you somewhere.”
“I’ve seen what the rest of Diagon Alley looks like,” I told him in turn. “Blood means everything and mine’s not good enough. If you get caught hiding me, you’ll get in trouble too.” We could both see that we weren’t going to change each other’s minds, but he still had to try.
“Go to my Aunt Muriel’s house. She’s got plenty of room –”
“And what?” I cut him off. “Put your aunt at risk? Do you know what happens to people who try to outsmart the Ministry? Didn’t you hear about what they did to that goblin? No one’s safe. There are people in our government that are trying to kill a boy who is barely of legal age. He’s only a seventh year and they’re going to kill him if they get him. I don't care what they try to tell us, that's exactly what's going to happen to him. They'll put him on a silver platter and hand him off to You-Know-Who. So what would stop them from doing something awful to me, too?”
“They can’t touch you,” he said firmly, voice rising as he stood with one hand against the door, barring my exit. “You’ll be with me and no one will ever get you because you’re going to stay here and I’m going to keep you safe –”
“No. I have to go.” I grappled with the doorknob, eyes bright and wet. “They want my wand, Fred. I can’t let them take my magic away from me.” Fred’s arm fell to his side, clearing my path. If I didn’t leave now, I never would.
“Hollis.” His tone was soft and pleading. “Stay.”
But I did not stay. Because I had to bank on the hope that keeping away from Fred would increase his chances of safety. I would not have been able to leave that store if I’d allowed myself to think about anything except for the unspoken promise that there would be someone waiting for me when it was safe to show my face in public again. Someday, I thought, it will be safe for us. And I’ll tell you just how much I didn’t want to leave you.
There are three chapters left before this story is finished. Thank you for reading, and as always, reviews are very much appreciated. :)
“Come on,” Delphine growled, towing me along by the arm. My shoes dug into the ground, scraping gravel as they tried to resist.
“I can’t,” I whined. “Let’s go back to the castle. I’ve decided I don’t want to go through with it. I quit, I don’t care – I’ll give you those Galleons we bet on and we can go to Honeydukes instead and I’ll buy you heaps of Ice Mice…”
“Don’t be an idiot.” She jerked harder, dragging me through the snow-filled path toward Hogsmeade. “You didn’t sleep at all last night because you were so excited about this, and now you’re just going to turn around at the last second?”
“If you’ll let go of me, yeah.”
“Not happening.” She wheezed a bit, her glasses sliding down her nose as she grappled with my arms. “We Hornbys are renowned for our brute strength and quickly-regenerating hair follicles.”
I groaned as we passed Hogsmeade Station, twisting under her grip. “It’s not him,” I insisted pitifully, my voice desperate. “I’m going to go in there and it’ll be someone else, and I’ll look like a complete prat because I won’t be able to cover up my disappointment. And then I’ll have to sit through the worst date in the history of existence, on Valentine’s Day; probably with someone awful like Terence Higgs...”
“Man up, Wright. You can do this.” This statement was enough to get me to shut up, taking stock of the situation and realizing that Delphine was being the voice of reason. The girl who nicked Orchid’s post on a regular basis just to delight in the ensuing squeals of frustration had become more rational than me. “It’s got to be him. You heard him this morning at breakfast.”
A wistful smile flitted across my face. “Yeah.”
I had been eating when Fred appeared behind my shoulder, startling me. I stared dumbly at him through a heavy mouthful of oatmeal as he leaned in close and said, “Don’t forget about the arrangements you made for today, yeah? Twelve o’clock at The Three Broomsticks. My friend’s looking forward to it.” After he walked away, I grinned broadly at Delphine – entirely forgetting the pool of oatmeal still sitting in my mouth – which resulted in cinnamon-flavored slop running down my chin and the front of my robes.
This recollection had a powerfully sedating effect; I became deadweight as I thought fondly of Fred’s lovely brown eyes, and Delphine had to struggle now to heave me along. It must have looked quite peculiar from the perspective of people milling about the village.
“You – could – walk – you – know,” she spat through gritted teeth. “He’s going to see us through the window and think you’re dead and I’m kidnapping your corpse.”
I staggered to my feet, staring uncertainly at the entrance to The Three Broomsticks. Apprehension kept me planted right where I stood, unwilling to step any further. Delphine shoved me with her bulky layers of scarves and mittens but I remained doggedly still. “What if it’s not him?”
“What if it is?” She raised her eyebrows meaningfully.
I crossed my arms and bounced up and down with a potent case of the jitters, wondering if she would Stupefy me between the shoulder blades if I tried to make a run for it. “You’re getting on my nerves,” I declared. “A lot. I’m beginning to see why George trips you all the time with that invisible string.”
She ignored this. “If you don’t go in there, you’ll never be able to tell me how men smell. I’m tired of improvising when I write diary entries, and Harry won’t let me get close enough – I’ve already tried to get a good whiff of his hair while he was aslee–”
“Got it,” I hushed her, giving her a poke in the shoulder. “Glad to know that your motivations are coming from a sensible place.”
She kicked me in the back of my knee. “Get in there! You’re being a wimp; it gives Hufflepuffs a bad name.”
“You have Algerian Foot Warts!” I countered dramatically. “And you’re rubbish at Potions!”
We wrangled for half a minute outside the window, in full view of every customer inside, until she somehow managed to open the door with the toe of her boot and topple me inside with both hands. I threw her a hateful look promising years and years of dark vengeance before she smirked and bullied her way past me. Waltzing over to a booth, she snapped up a biscuit from next to someone’s cup of tea and took a huge bite out of it, continuing to gallivant around the pub in search of more food to pilfer. “Stay with me,” I whined, trying to pinch her sleeve.
She smiled deviously and did a little dance to elude me. I watched her brush the biscuit crumbs from her fingers onto the back of someone else’s jumper; next thing I knew, I blinked and she was gone.
“Delphine!” I hissed. I could hear the tinkling of her high laughter, but she was already out of sight.
I was somewhere between very nervous and on the verge of having a stroke, my eyes dissecting the cheerful crowd. It was festive for the holiday – pink garland wrapped around table legs and there were bits of red and silver confetti scattered on the floor from where they’d once covered tables but had been brushed off by dozens of elbows. Knees knocking, I swallowed and stepped forward, peering hard for a head of ginger hair that I feared I might not see.
Montague’s bristly head bobbed through the swarm, his eyes on me, and my jaw plummeted in horror. “Oh god, no,” I whispered in a startled pitch. I began to assess practical escape routes, cursing Fred Weasley to Hades a thousand times over for setting me up with a slimy Slytherin git like Montague. “No, no, no…”
Montague swerved sharply around me, heading out the door. He hadn’t been looking at me after all… My heart still beat nervously fast, since I had been on the brink of diving behind a huddle of third year Ravenclaws for safety.
“Well that’s a relief,” a voice said from beside me. “I was beginning to worry that you really had a thing for that troll.” I twisted abruptly around to face Fred Weasley, all the blood rushing to my face. He looked perfectly at ease upon first glance, staring down at me in an amused sort of way; but there was something defensive in the way his eyes regarded me. He was bracing himself for rejection.
And then I burst out laughing.
He was wearing a pointy fuchsia witch’s hat and bright orange robes with little sparkly red hearts quite literally dancing all over them. The whole ensemble clashed horribly with his hair, which I suspected he was well aware of. “Very handsome. You are truly the envy of every man.”
Fred grinned at me and swept off his hat, dropping into a low bow. When he straightened himself upright again, he plunged one hand inside of his hat and fished out a bouquet of edible Sugar Roses. “For you, my lady.”
“Impressive,” I murmured, applauding.
“Yeah?” He tossed the bouquet of flower-shaped sweets in the air and caught it again, admiring them. “So you’re not disappointed?” His eyes slid to mine, apprehensive despite his smile. “That it’s me, I mean, and not someone else.”
A very small portion of my brain that had been destroyed by Delphine’s influence tempted me to mess with him a little bit. I mentally swatted at my best friend’s probable advice and smiled hugely at him instead. “I was fully prepared to hide under a table if it had been anyone other than you.”
He returned the smile tenfold, teeth flashing in the lamplight, and for the first time in his life he was at a loss for words.
He thrust the Sugar Roses at me with a sudden shock of bravado and slipped his hand behind my back (I assumed he had thrown the roses at me so quickly in hopes of disguising what he was doing with his arm from my notice), leading me to a couple of deserted barstools at the counter.
“There aren’t any tables left,” he told me apologetically, looking embarrassed. “I tried to get Eloise and Leanne to budge up, but they’re too busy ogling McLaggen. And McLaggen is too busy ogling the reflection of himself in his glass of butterbeer.”
“I don’t mind sitting here.” I folded my hands primly on the counter, belatedly noticing a familiar face directly behind it. My eyes narrowed warily. It was never a good sign to see a Weasley looking right at you with a roguish grin.
“Good afternoon,” George chirped, suited up in a red apron he had presumably stolen from somewhere. I glanced at Madam Rosmerta, who was chatting avidly with Professor Flitwick at a corner table in the back and completely unaware of the seventh year boy posing as a waiter. “So what can I get for you two lovebirds?”
Fred’s face fell into his hands. He made a sound like “Mmmhghhghh”, but I could see through his fingers that he was still smiling.
“A gillywater,” I replied happily. George raised his eyebrows at me. “I’m feeling adventurous today.”
Fred waved his hand, still slouching in his chair. “Butterbeer for me.” We sat there watching George move around without direction, searching for the appropriate drinks and knocking things over in a state of frenzied excitement and confusion. Finally he gave up.
“Accio gillywater! Accio butterbeer!” He presented them to us with a self-satisfied grin, the contents inside the glasses sloshing around from an overabundance of zeal. Lee Jordan popped up on my right-hand side moments later, appearing from nowhere with a crack. I nearly fell out of my chair.
“Good Godric, Lee! You can’t just Apparate next to people! No one wants to see your face so bloody close up.”
He strutted behind the counter like he owned the place, exuberant. “Cheers, ladies and gents!” he cried gleefully. “You’re in for a treat today. I’m not even going to charge you.” Lee then spilled a mountain of rubbish from his pockets onto the counter and selected a deck of cards. Fanning them out about an inch from my eyeballs, he barked, “Pick one!”
I took a sip of my gillywater and gagged on it. “This is horrible, it tastes like melted lettuce. And what exactly are you doing, Lee? Those look like ordinary cards.”
“Ordinary to you, but a novelty around here. I’m providing romantic entertainment with Muggle tricks, o’ course. Everything’s imported; I’m still trying to get a knack for them and it looks like you lot are my lap rats.”
“Lab rats,” I corrected with emphasis. “Not lap, you half-wit.”
He pushed the cards at me harder, shoving them so close to my nose that it made me go cross-eyed. “Pick a card, Wright, before I start pulling coins out of your ears. And I assure you, I’ll have to put them in there first.”
I stabbed at one of the cards with my index finger. Lee squeezed his eyes shut, tongue poking out of his mouth, and shuffled them all around. When he opened them again, he chose a card at random and showed it to me. “Was it red?”
I rolled my eyes. “They’re all red, Lee. That’s not how the trick works – you have to say what number and whether it’s hearts or –”
“Right-o.” He seized a colorful slinky and proceeded to string it between his hands and across his chest, scrunching it up like an accordion. “What’s wrong with this thing?” He examined the plastic rings, tapping them in frustration. “Why isn’t any music coming out?”
Fred turned to me. “So,” he cut in anxiously. “What’s your favorite brand of ink?”
I stared at him. “What?”
Fred opened his mouth, evidently unsure himself as to what he was trying to say.
Lee was now juggling potatoes, looking quite pleased with his success. This was probably because he was only using two at a time. I sipped more of my gillywater, attempting to drown out the hubbub in the modestly-sized room and the many voices layered on top of each other.
“Do you use one pillow or two?” It was Fred again, studying me earnestly and trying to get a word in edgewise over the ruckus George was making out of…what was he doing? I gaped at him, watching as he whacked what might have once been a fish with a spatula, leaving deep welts on it.
“There we go!” he was crowing. He pointed his wand at the fish. “Cook!” Nothing happened. “How does Mum do it?” He scratched his head. “Usually it gets all warm and tasty by itself. Cookioso!” He did a bit of wand-waving and the fish gave a small flop; he beamed at Fred and me. “Lunch should be ready soon.” I glanced back at the lumpy grayish thing lying in the skillet, frozen solid. “I’m making ingestible things! Good stuff!”
“Your least-favorite method of Muggle transportation,” Fred tried again. I noticed a crumpled corner of white sticking out of one of his fists, and couldn’t fight a giggle.
“Fred,” I began carefully, “are you reading from a list?”
He stared at me and I stared back and I could tell that he was trying to figure out a way to deny it. Finally he sighed and smoothed the paper out on the counter for me to see. “George and I compiled some questions, just in case we ran out of things to talk about.”
“But we’ve only just got here,” I remarked. “Way to rush into your safety net.”
I scanned the list. Do you prefer Beaters to Chasers? (Well of course she does. Who wouldn’t?) Have you ever tried to fly on a mop? What language do you think birds speak? I coughed when I got to one of them, hard-pressed to conceal a laugh. What’s your favorite thing about me? I repeated this one out loud, meeting his eyes. He perked up, halfway hopeful for an answer.
“Do you really want to know?” I teased.
“Of course I do. I love hearing about myself.”
I tapped my chin, feigning contemplation. “Hmm… I don’t know if you could handle it.”
He examined me shrewdly, eyes sparkling. “Let’s hear what you’ve got to say, and don’t bother to try and spare my feelings. I can construe just about anything into a compliment.”
“Done!” George announced heartily, tipping two plates our way. We examined the little mounds of cold something-that-might-be-fish. Fred poked his with a fork, and I thought it moved a little. Lee’s hands were caught inside the slinky, writhing hopelessly around in a jumbled electric blue mess. Padma Patil chose that precise moment to walk by, and he leaned his elbow against the counter, bestowing her with a cheesy wink.
“So it’s Valentine’s Day…” he began.
“Ah ha,” she laughed dryly with a flick of her long black hair, continuing past him without bothering to ask how he’d gotten trapped inside a Muggle toy. “Not for you, it isn’t.” She pushed through the doors, letting frigid air blow across the hardwood floor in curlicues of sleet and rain.
“She’s in love with me,” he chimed, oozing confidence. Parvati Patil sauntered after her sister, and he winked at her, too. She pretended not to notice. "All these birds," he told us, rolling his shoulders and examining his nonexistent arm muscles. "I keep telling them 'one at a time, one at a time', but they just can't take no for an answer..."
“What?” George inquired, distracted. I traced his gaze across the pub to Angelina Johnson’s friend Patricia, who was stirring her drink with a straw and giggling at something her boyfriend had just whispered in her ear. “Angelina’s busy with Quidditch practice right now, isn’t she? I feel bad for her. Ron looks at everyone’s heads these days and sees Quaffles instead…losing his grip on sanity.” He straightened up suddenly. “It is Valentine’s Day,” he said with conviction, addressing no one in particular. “Reckon Angelina might give me a real shot?”
“Good luck,” Lee quipped. “She’s already rejected me twice today.”
I sipped on my gillywater some more, aware of Fred’s thickening silence. I hadn’t been looking at him; he must have thought I was ignoring him on purpose. And truthfully, I was. The nerves in my stomach were so knotted up that I thought I might retch, and the nauseating gillywater I couldn’t stop drinking certainly wasn’t helping things.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him rest his chin in one hand with his elbow on the counter, turning away to stare at the wall. You idiot, I thought to myself. Do something. I could picture Delphine in my mind’s eye. She glared at me, looking ready to smack me across the face. It was a sufficiently scary image.
So quickly that I didn’t have enough time to lose my nerve, I reached across the space between us and grabbed his right hand, which had been resting against his chair. I laced my fingers through his, still staring straight ahead, still chugging my gillywater with wide, petrified eyes.
“I thought you said the gillywater was horrible,” Lee mentioned, furrowing his brow. I stole a sideways peek at Fred and saw that he was looking at me again. The corners of his lips were curving into a small smile of pleasant surprise.
Well done! I thought to myself. Alice is the shame of Hufflepuff once again, and I am the bravest in all the land. I was still internally congratulating myself when Fred leaned in and whispered, “Have I ever told you that my favorite thing about you is that I can read your face like a book?”
I paused mid-sip, chewing on the end of my straw. “Is that so?”
“Yes.” I could feel his breath on my neck. “Right now you are thinking that my robes are the most fetching robes you have ever seen in your life, and that I wore them on purpose just to seduce you. Which you wouldn’t be wrong about.”
“Mmm.” I surveyed him, pursing my lips. “I dunno, I think they could be worse. I saw a man with a dragon skin jacket once.”
“It’s true. It was extremely pretentious – all shiny and you could even see the scales. I laughed for about twenty minutes. You should’ve seen Gran; she kept hitting me round the head with a bag of owl treats, telling me to mind my manners.” I sighed, smiling ruefully. “She forgets that I haven’t got any manners.”
“I would have liked to have seen that,” he replied, drawing a smiley face in the condensation on my glass with one finger. “Maybe I should invest in dragon skin jackets, then.”
“If it makes you laugh for twenty minutes, I’d say it would be worth it.” He wiped a lock of hair away from his eyes, temporarily sidetracking me. Sometimes I started looking at him and completely forgot to stop, and it resulted in lots of dribble on my chin and usually Delphine thunking me on the back, informing everyone within a ten-foot radius that my eyes were as glazed as a dead cow’s.
“Glurgh,” I said, sounding not unlike a zombie.
He raised his glass to mine, clinking them together. “Challenge accepted.”
“Here,” George interrupted cheerily. “Dessert!” He opened his hands and let two wrapped sweets fall from them. Even through the thick wax paper, I could see that they were a bewildering shade of mustard yellow and smelled vaguely of Stinksap.
“Don’t eat those,” Fred warned quietly, lifting a mug of butterbeer to his lips. Upon first chance, he stowed both of them in his pocket – probably to use against Delphine later. I recalled how Delphine had switched our pillowcases after she’d spilled hot chocolate on hers and thought I was asleep, and shrugged airily. It wouldn’t be my fault if she fell for another one of their tricks, after all. I had nothing to do with it…
“I think that’s it,” I told him.
A crease developed between his eyebrows. “Come again?”
“My favorite thing about you. I can always depend on you to do whatever amuses you, even if that involves luring first years into Snape’s office or spending three months trying to convince my best friend that she is turning into a werewolf with those convoluted stories and tricks you and your brother think up.”
He arched an eyebrow. “What are you saying?”
“It means that you’re always Fred, no matter where you are or who you’re with. Even I’m not immune to your pranks, despite all of my loveliness, and I suppose I sort of like that.” George was pretending not to listen and Lee had unveiled a hula hoop from his stash, currently making it levitate over the oblivious heads of Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, that Loony Lovegood girl and…I leaned so far off my barstool that it tipped on its side and I had to grip the counter to keep from falling. “Is that Rita Skeeter?”
I shook Fred’s hand, which was still entwined in my own. “Hey, what’s Harry Potter doing sharing drinks with Skeeter? She publishes all sorts of nasty stories about him in the Prophet. She thinks he’s a lunatic.” I only knew this because Delphine spent the previous year penning long, scathing letters to the reporter which I was fairly confident Skeeter did not read, and Delphine sometimes had to use me as a thesaurus for swear words after her brain grew depleted of all the ones she knew.
Fred, however, was not paying attention. George had finally drawn the observation of Madam Rosmerta, who was zeroing in on his apron from across the pub with eyes narrowed to dangerous slits. She pointed one stern finger at the door.
“Date’s over!” George announced with gusto, shedding the apron over his head. Lee was still whirling his hula hoop across the ceiling, mouth hanging open in concentration.
Rosmerta rounded on him in an instant. “Out! All of you, out!” We were all so distracted by Lee losing focus on his hula hoop and making it crash over Patricia’s head (who snarled furiously when she discovered who the culprit was) that I barely noticed Delphine’s quick hand materializing over my shoulder. She nimbly seized my bouquet of Sugar Roses and dashed back through the throng and out the door.
“What is this?” Rosmerta was inspecting our lumps of fish. “Did you pay for this?”
“It was them!” Lee shouted, pointing at Fred and George. “I was Imperiused!” He made a break for the exit, knocking over a short witch wearing a balaclava in his desperation to escape Rosmerta’s wrath.
George pointed at Fred. “It was him! He fancies a Hufflepuff!”
Fred lifted his free hand in my direction, ready to fire, but I stepped on his foot. “Don’t even try it.” He shut his mouth and withdrew his wallet, shelling out a handful of Sickles and Knuts as quickly as possible.
Rosmerta whipped George’s discarded stolen apron at us, her mouth turned down in a withering frown. “Out! Out of my pub!”
We scattered like the plague, George diving headfirst into a shoveled snow bank outside. Lee was lying spread-eagled on the icy pavement, having slipped and fallen down and apparently driven to the conclusion that getting up was not worth the effort. Delphine was sliding around down the lane from where it had rained while we were inside The Three Broomsticks and froze over the snow, rushing as fast as she could manage toward the castle with my sweets in tow.
“That was a disaster,” Fred laughed, his complexion glowing with the rush that getting into trouble always seemed to give him.
“Ughhh,” Lee moaned, wiggling his fingers in the air. “Someone help me up. I’ve broken all my muscles.”
Fred and I strolled merrily past him, all of our awkward reservations from the date falling away into the fun friendliness we were both used to. Still grasping my hand in his, Fred doubled back to give Lee a swift kick in the side before we turned down the street toward Zonko’s.
Soft evening sunlight peered over a horizon of white birch trees, staining the village of Ottery St. Catchpole with oranges and reds like fire. Two people in the front row had to shade their eyes against it to see properly, including Ginny Weasley. I glanced at her mother – her name was Molly, I was almost certain, and I recognized her immediately from seeing that frazzled expression for years on Platform Nine and Three-Quarters – and my gaze flicked to the crooked house just over the hill. Every morning, Mrs. Weasley would be able to walk to an upstairs window, throw the curtains open wide, and watch the sun rise over her son’s tombstone.
Rows and rows of chairs had been arranged here, in a flat patch of field that was just a hop, skip, and jump away from the Burrow. The Burrow. Fred often spoke fondly of it, like it was a person or a pet rather than a home. I would never get to see the inside of it. I would not sit down to family dinners with his relatives and listen to stories about Fred and what he was like as a child growing up. I might have met all of them and known them and grown to love them; and they might have taken me in as one of their own, accepting me unconditionally and exchanging small smiles whenever Fred clasped my hand in his under the kitchen table. Those memories had been taken from us before they could ever formulate, just as Fred had been taken from me.
It was one thing to hear it spoken of – on the wireless, in hushed voices all around me; it was another thing entirely to see it written, to see it etched across plain white rock sticking out of the newly dug ground. 1 April 1978 – 2 May 1998. There was such a finality to the date stamped across the grave that unnerved me – I looked all around, halfway expecting for someone else to stand up and say, “That’s it? We’ve all got magic. Let’s bring him back!”
Staring at the garden of flowers placed around his coffin, however, I knew that he would have already come back if he could, if he’d wanted to. If he hadn’t been tempted to go on to the next great adventure.
George looked uncomfortable as he squeezed down an aisle in the second row, finding a space between his father and a young man I guessed to be Bill Weasley. From this angle, I could finally see the dark hole on the side of his head almost obscured with hair that I had not previously noticed when I saw him in March. I could not bring myself to feel sorry for him and the fact that his ear had been cursed off, as I was quite certain he was not sorry himself. A permanent wound to distinguish himself as having played his part in the war, as having sacrificed, would allay the survivor’s guilt he was sure to experience in the many years to come.
The expression on his face – so fixed and hardened – made me think that he was desperately trying to keep everything in, to expel it later when he could bear to be swallowed by the grief. Lee Jordan, who sat directly behind him, reached across and draped one hand over George’s shoulder.
After many moments of silence and some shuffling around in chairs, Mrs. Weasley stood up at long last and walked, very slowly, over to her son’s coffin. Touching the dark brown surface – the very color of Fred’s eyes – she gazed at it for an immeasurable period of time. Her husband stood up, so wobbly that he almost lost his balance. “Molly –”
She held out one hand to quiet him. “I can do it.”
Even from my spot in the very back, I could peer through the maze of people ahead of me well enough to see Percy, Ginny, Ron, and Charlie linking hands. Bill, Harry Potter, and Mr. Weasley remained still and quiet, and George was hunching over somewhat, staring hard at the ground. No one was looking at Fred today; they couldn’t force their eyes in his direction. They were all looking at George. Here was one young man, alive and walking; and the precise image of his death lay within fifteen feet of him. Everyone was waiting with bated breath, it seemed, for George to completely lose it.
“The labor was twenty-two hours,” Molly managed to say, still tracing the backs of her fingers over a pattern of flowers engraved in one corner of the coffin. “Fred came out first.” She swallowed thickly, turning around. “He came first in a lot of things. He’s competitive in that way. He wanted…” She trailed off, prompting her husband’s alarm again, but he only rose just slightly in his chair before she gestured for him to sit back down. This was something she was going to force herself to endure no matter what the emotional consequences might be.
“It was clear from the very beginning that he wanted to make a name for himself. I remember when he was little – right after he’d accidentally performed his first bit of magic – he told me that he was going to make all of us rich. And he was born with a built-in best friend who wanted the exact same thing.” She took a deep breath, tucking graying strands of hair behind her ears, and shakily lifted her head to face those seated in the opposite rows. Professor McGonagall was there, ramrod straight and stoic next to a weeping Alicia Spinnet. On Alicia’s other side, a little house elf blew her nose into a handkerchief.
“I didn’t want him to fight,” she confessed, dropping her shoulders warily. My heart ripped open again and again, not just for me, but for George and Harry and Ron and Mrs. Weasley. For every single person who had ever known or loved Fred Weasley, and who, just like me, would never see themselves reflected in his widening eyes ever again.
“When Bill was small, I thought to myself that I would never have any more children until after the war ended. But the war didn’t end, and we kept expanding our family anyway. Charlie. Percy. Fred and George and Ron...” She pressed her hands to her eyes, lips trembling. “We counted ourselves lucky when we thought You-Know-Who was gone and our children were safe. My two brothers had been killed, but at least we still had our children.
“War came back over a decade later to hurt Bill and George. And then it stole Fred from us. If history has taught me anything, it is that war will return again someday, just when we all think we’re safe. And it will take away someone else who isn’t ready to go.” She shook her head, casting her eyes down. “I would give anything for it to be me instead of another child.”
All was quiet for a spell. “My aunt warned me that this would happen. She told Arthur and I that our family was too big, and that involving all of them in this war would result in one of them inevitably suffering. Those numbers that you see in battles, you know? ‘Twenty killed. Fifty killed.’ The casualties and the missing…those numbers are people. I tried to put it out of my mind. I focused my thoughts on trying to keep Ginny safe, since she’s the youngest and therefore the easiest target. We were helpless with Ron…” She lifted one arm in his direction and dropped it, defeated.
“Ronald was gone for months. We had no idea where he was or what he was doing. We just had to keep faith that it would turn out all right, and that whatever he might achieve with Harry and Hermione would be worth the torture it put our family through. The constant worrying, the constant not knowing…such a push and pull to try to rein my family in close to me, to protect them when I knew I couldn’t. Even when I had to watch all of my children – and Harry and Hermione, who I love just as much – running around Hogwarts with Death Eaters all around them, shooting spells and purposefully putting themselves in danger…I could do nothing about it.
“They get their determination from me and their goodness of heart from their father, and even if I could choose, I would not have preferred to have children who ran from war. My children are so very brave, every last one of them, and I’m talking to you, too.” She nodded at at Harry and Hermione, who hung their heads, laden with guilt. Hermione was sniffling into her wrist.
“I’m proud of them all,” she continued, her voice rising. “They fought alongside witches and wizards two and three times their age, risking everything to save the lives of innocents and to tear and claw their way through the bloodshed until we found some semblance of peace.” She wrung her hands together, drifting fitfully back and forth along the casket’s edge. “I will never know how many lives Fred saved on the night he died. I’ll never know if someone else jumped out of the way, making room for him to come through and duel. I think about it often, wondering if it might have almost been someone else…
“There are sacrifices in war. Sometimes they are people and sometimes they are ideas or material possessions or dreams. But my son died for you.” Her voice softened, addressing Seamus Finnigan. “And you.” She looked at someone sitting behind me, but I couldn’t force myself to rip my eyes from her to see who it was. “And you.” Her gaze flitted over the congregation as a whole, shining with a mother’s love that would never fade, that would be just as pure and strong in forty years from now as it was on the day Fred was born. “And me.”
There was a pause. “We’ve all lost many loved ones, and Arthur and I prepared ourselves as best as we could for the worst to happen. There was Sirius and Dumbledore and Mad-Eye... Death was all the time coming, all the time growing closer. But I didn’t think it would take my Fred.”
Molly looked suddenly bewildered, as though still in shock that he was truly dead, and shocked that she was speaking this aloud to the chairs spread with black robes and bloodshot eyes. “Surely if George is here, then Fred should be, too. If Fred is gone, then why can I still see George? All throughout his life, Fred could look to his side and always see George standing there. His best friend, his mirror image, his business partner. Always together. Inseparable.”
She sought out George in the crowd, and just like his mother, I knew that his eyes were glinting with tears. Her throat visibly tightened, constricting with emotion, and a tear trailed down her cheek, splotching the collar of her robes with a solitary dark spot. “I don’t have a single memory of one of them that doesn’t somehow involve the other. Not a single one.”
Mrs. Weasley’s eyes wandered across the rounded top of the casket, tipped back to let the sunlight wash over Fred’s face. It touched him in whites and yellows and pinks, in ways that I could not, and it was all wrong. He wasn’t smiling. His expression was stiff and stone-like, and the only animated part of his too-still figure was the careful breeze that ruffled his hair. Hot tears pricked my eyes. I hadn’t been there when he died and I couldn’t suffocate the idea that if I had been there, he would still be alive. Oh, please give him back to me, I pleaded to whomever I hoped was still listening. I’ll do anything.
“He’ll never invent anything ever again,” she lamented softly. “He’ll never get to marry or have children. He’ll never fall in love.”
George twisted around in his chair and panned the rows and rows of guests until his eyes found mine, and Lee did the same. I knew what George was telling me, silently and without words. We looked at each other for the longest time, burrowing in the safety and security of it, until his mother resumed speaking. I closed my eyes, feeling the light on my face. I thought of the sun setting over Fred’s nose and chin and lips for one last time, providing warmth in his eyelids that blood could not.
When I opened them again, Percy was trembling. Ron’s arm was around him, and Percy’s forehead was buried in his little brother’s shoulder as he wept uncontrollably. The strongest of them kept their heads held high, holding others on either side and allowing someone else to give in to their sorrows instead. There would be time later to grieve privately. The war was over and we had nothing but time to think and feel. Most of us were given our futures back again, tainted with the souls of those who had died to give it to us. My future, for the time being, was gone.
“But I would like to think that I will see him again someday,” Molly continued, wiping away moisture from her bright eyes with one hand. “And I will listen to him laugh. I will look at him for days and just listen to him talk about whatever he wants to talk about, and I’ll tell him how very proud I am – was – I mean –”
She paused for a second, finding solace in Mr. Weasley’s presence. He seemed to reach out to her from his chair, holding her hand despite the distance. Together, they were reliving the births of their children, and the years and years of memories of a family unlike any I’d ever seen before. Between the two of them, they could think back to twenty years ago when Fred and George were small, visiting the past like it was only a heartbeat away. There were sleepless nights and wailing infants and broken toys, and there were shrieks of euphoric laughter and Christmases and bedtime stories. It was impossible to be near to them all, almost together as a whole but not quite – they would never be quite whole again – and not revel in how incredible the Weasleys were.
“And I know that in a way, he’ll be proud of himself,” she trudged on, her eyes still locked on Mr. Weasley’s. “Because he got there first, before any of us, and he’ll know about everything already. He’s unlocking the secrets we have yet to learn, right at this very moment. Because Fred’s not here anymore.”
That’s right, I thought, gazing at Fred’s immobile profile. He’s off on the next great adventure. Somewhere out there, he was not stiff and stone-like. He was relaxed, peaceful, smiling. I wish I could see everything you’re seeing…I wish I was with you…
Molly crossed over to Fred’s upper half, bowing to kiss his hairline. With tremulous hands, she withdrew a small bit of parchment from the interior of her robes and began to read in a conversational tone to her son, just for him. I strained my ears to hear what she was saying.
“You walk faster than George. Even though you usually walked in step with each other, you never stood completely still. You have fewer freckles than George, and there is one on your neck that he hasn’t got. He is just a smidge taller than you. You prefer to wear collared shirts and he doesn’t. When you talk to people, you tilt your head to the left side – he tilts his head to the right. Your shoes are always tied, and George’s come undone often. Both of your eyes have a bit of hazel to them in the right lighting, but your eyelashes are somewhat longer. George has a tiny scar in his eyebrow that he got when he was staring into a cauldron in Potions in his first year and it blew up.” She folded the paper in half and wiped her eyes on her sleeve. “I’m your mother and I always will be, and I didn’t need for one of you to lose an ear in order to be able to tell you apart.”
All eyes were on George. George’s eyes were on his family, watching them crumble one by one under the weight of tragedy. His mother, his father, his brothers and sister. There was something healing in the expression on his face, because he knew things the rest of us did not. He had a link to Fred in life and in death that could not be explained or described, and he knew it, too:
Fred’s not here.
He’s in the sky, the sun, the trees. He lives on in Ginny’s compassion and George’s penetrating brown eyes, rippling through my hair in a wind like his fingers might. He was away for the time being on an adventure, looking over his shoulder at all of us with a mischievous grin and laughter dancing in his gaze.
The sun set over Fred one final time, serene and forgiving, and Mr. Weasley strode forth to close the lid. It creaked as it lowered, clicking into place with an awful loudness, and the dead boy’s parents stood over the place where he would rest for all eternity.
George stood up as well, triggering panicked glances from his neighbors, and he bent his head over where Fred’s closed eyes were concealed underneath the mahogany that would protect him from dirt and rain and ice as he rotted away. One would never move again while the other continued to walk and breathe and try to forge a path in the remains of our shattered society, one half of a whole for the rest of his life.
George had lived to see this day, and Fred had not. On the other hand, Fred was experiencing the afterlife before the rest of us, satiating all of his ample curiosities. In more ways than one, it would be an eternal competition; a joke between the two of them that no one else could be privy to witness.
Part of me wanted to jump to my feet and run down the aisle to him, tearing the lid back to check – to be absolutely sure – that it wasn’t some never-ending nightmare. To say goodbye and whisper words in his ear like his family had gotten to do. I could not whisper my goodbyes over his body and attach myself to the handles of his coffin, refusing to let go.
I could not give his mother the pain of knowing that he’d died in the middle of something beautiful, and that he could have had much more than she ever realized. And so there I remained, small and insignificant in the back of Fred’s funeral. The only man I had ever loved, with something much stronger than romance – there was friendship, and secrets, and teasing – and he was dead and I could not be with him anymore.
He’d known me at my best and my worst, my most vulnerable and most idiotic. There were pages and pages left unfilled for us, destroyed before we could find out what would happen next; but for every blank page, there was another one from the past that spelled out humor and delight. I would be one of the few privileged people Fred continued to live through. The past was living, after all. All I had to do was close my eyes and I would be in his arms again, if only within the walls of my memory.
I watched George’s fringe shift over his eyes, marveling at the luxury of life. It was the one time since I had grown accustomed to the twins’ differences that I wished I couldn’t tell them apart. It would be so easy, so numbing and lovely, to be able to sit there and pretend that it was Fred standing over George’s casket instead. As horrid as the idea was, it would have provided a comfort for me to delude myself into thinking that I was looking into Fred’s vibrant eyes, speaking to Fred, hearing his voice ring out…
Someone dropped into the vacant seat next to me. It was Delphine.
She gave me a look that relayed a great many things, eyebrows pulled together as she smiled in pity and loyal understanding. She was wearing her old Hogwarts robes, as they must have been the only black clothing she could find, and her glasses were new. Rectangular frames. She wrapped an arm around my back and pulled me into her shoulder. It was cathartic to know that there were now three people with me who knew that Fred had died with someone waiting for him, lost and ignorant in a forest. Just a few days ago, I had been fiddling with the dials on my wireless, listening…
Nymphadora Lupin, Vincent Crabbe, Fred Weasley, Colin Creevey…
And just like that, everything was gone. He was someone on a list of names – a number. He joined the ranks of those who now existed as war and death statistics. I tried to imagine what it must have been like – the framework of Hogwarts splitting apart, dust and debris raining down on them as children carried the bodies of other children and rested them in alcoves where they wouldn’t be trampled as the battle raged on.
He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named was gone at last, defeated by a teenage boy. But in his wake, the damage was staggering. The Dark Lord had taken too much with him when he left this world, including a large part of myself that I would never get back.
I couldn’t take my eyes off of George. He had been there in the midst of everything. Detention in Umbridge’s office. Throwing Dungbombs at Delphine. Whirling Angelina into the Great Hall so that Fred and I could explore the corridors of Hogwarts alone. Lighting fireworks while the two of us watched from the Owlery roof. I was thankful that he’d seen it all, for that made it feel more real. Otherwise, it might be as though I’d dreamed everything up. But with George’s gaze darting to mine every so often, expressing what neither of us could say aloud, I was not alone.
I reached into my pocket and wrapped my fingers around a familiar shape – not my wand, but a quill. I withdrew it and rolled it around in my palm. The blue feather was horribly bent – old, stiff, and nearly broken – and I had no ink to write with and nothing left to write on. My eyes starry with tears, I painted the air with unseen strokes – forming four letters that, to me, spelled out love better than the word love itself. Delphine continued to rub my back consolingly, unaware.
The wind whistled through long blades of grass while Fred’s coffin was lowered into the ground, his parents and siblings reaching out to touch each other’s elbows, arms, and fingers as they stood around the hole. Mr. Weasley squeezed George’s hand, the latter man’s face solemn and serious as he watched his brother disappear below the earth. Just as the coffin vanished from view, so did the sun. It slipped behind the Burrow, descending between green hills thatched with garnet, burning up in the twilight with vivid color. The coffin shook once when it sank to the very bottom, and this was when George began to cry, shoulders shaking like a broken person. It was painful to watch – private – and I couldn’t look at him anymore. I wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to look at him again.
Appearing from nowhere in the violet sky, a bright flash of parchment fluttered through the treetops and spun twice in the air before landing in my lap like a leaf. It was battered and dented, folded into the shape of something that might have once resembled a bird.
I stared at the scrap of faded parchment until the stinging moisture in my eyes blurred over; until I couldn’t see anything at all.
A/N: One more chapter left.
I’m sorry but I’m just thinking of the right words to say
I know they don’t sound the way I planned them to be
But if you wait around a while I’ll make you fall for me, I promise, I promise you I will
- The Promise, When in Rome
“What are you writing?” He hovered behind my shoulder, trying to see what I was doing with my quill. Hunched over an open textbook, legs crossed with my hair pulled back into a sloppy knot, I had been trying to cram in the last seven inches of an essay for History of Magic before I was unceremoniously interrupted. Alice and Orchid were being a fine pair of idiots down in our Hufflepuff dormitory, celebrating the former’s success with weaseling some nasty gossip about Matilda out of Matilda’s blithering friend Pippa; meanwhile, the common room was too loud and busy for concentration.
“Your presence is rather counterproductive, do you know that?” I mentioned, trying my best to be irritable.
“Of all the places to do homework,” Fred said to himself, stretching out in the grass and folding his arms behind his head, “you’re doing it on the Great Lawn at eleven o’ clock at night.” He made tut-tut noises of mock disapproval. “It’s past curfew.”
My mouth twisted into a smile, and I aimed my wand closer to the textbook so that the light spiraling from its tip would shine upon the pages better. “What’s the matter, Fred? Scared of Umbridge finding out?”
He snorted. “Hardly. I was more so commenting on your mental state. Which is truly mental. Even Hermione doesn’t do schoolwork outside in the dark.”
“Hermione is a foul little pockmark,” I grumbled. His eyes widened with astonishment, and I sighed wearily, massaging my forehead and temples with my hands. “Sorry. That’s the Delphine talking.” I tapped my parchment meaningfully. “This is due tomorrow.”
He studied me, a grin forming on his face. “And how long have you just been sitting on it?”
I chewed on the inside of my cheek, unwilling to answer that, and he yanked the textbook and roll of parchment away from me with a laugh. “You can work on the rest during breakfast tomorrow. In fact, I’ll hold Delphine’s toast hostage until she agrees to write it for you – she’s fantastic with pulling streams of nonsense out of her –”
“Oi,” I argued, trying to rescue my essay from him. He held it high over his head, just out of my reach, and loose bookmarks that had been marking pages for me fell out all over the place. “Give that back!”
“Hold on a moment,” he murmured good-naturedly, ripping off a small bit of my parchment at the very end of the roll. He held one arm against it while he tore the paper, carefully so as to keep the edges neat and straight.
I trained my wand on his busy hands. “What’re you doing?”
He smiled knowingly, glancing up to meet my eyes for the barest of seconds. “Always so suspicious.”
“I would be a fool not to be.” I watched him tear off another section of parchment. He handed one of them to me, but kept my quill and the other bit of parchment for himself. Bending close to it and squinting through the darkness, he scribbled something I couldn’t quite decipher and then proceeded to fold one of its corners down.
“It’s a secret communication method I invented,” he explained quietly, absorbed in the craft of folding its corners over and over with a well-practiced air. “There’s a charm George and I came up with and we like to use them on these. All you have to do is say the charm that animates them and they’ll soar around the world for months.”
“Months?” I repeated.
“If you like. They’re always meant to deliver the message written on them, but in the meantime they’ll wait for as long as you want them to. Whenever the person who wrote on it makes the conscious decision to let the receiver read it, this will fly back to the person it was written for.” His head was tilted slightly to the side, holding up the molded parchment for me to see. It had become a swan.
“That’s brilliant,” I remarked, scooting closer to him. “What are they used for, exactly?”
“Oh, anything at all. George and I use them as signals of sorts so that we can always get the timing right. Like if I have an idea about a project I think we could use for our business, but I don’t want to get caught passing notes during class, I’ll think to myself, ‘It can only be delivered when McGonagall’s back is going to be turned for at least twenty seconds straight’.” His eyes gleamed with some kind of memory. “And so I just set it aside and then as soon as McGonagall turns her back for that required amount of time, the charm somehow knows it, and it zooms off voluntarily.”
I raised my eyebrows. “I’m surprised George doesn’t mind that you’re sharing this secret with me. Usually he’s so tight-lipped about any Weasley tricks that don’t have a price tag on them yet.”
“Yeah, well, I had to use bribery. Told him I would name my first son George.” He smiled, eyes crinkling. “Worth it, though, and I probably would have done it anyway…” I was going to ask what he meant by that – if he would’ve named his son after his brother anyway, or if he would have told me about the swan messages anyway. Knowing Fred, it was probably both.
He gave it a gentle tap with his wand. “Victus Nuntius.” It sprang instantly to life, stretching out its neck and wings and wriggling wildly.
“That’s amazing magic.” I gazed at the little swan, now trapped between three of his fingers. Its wings fluttered, struggling to free itself from him. “What did you write inside it?”
He winked. “Never mind that. What are you going to write?”
“Hmm. Good question.” I swooped over to retrieve my quill, but he held it away from me.
“Here.” He pulled another quill out of the pocket of his robes and handed it to me. I didn’t trust the innocent glint in his eyes, and that unreadable expression I knew he was working hard to keep in place. “Use this.”
I eyed the quill beadily. The feather was beautiful – a phenomenal shade of bright blue. “What’s wrong with it?”
He stared past me, grinning and shaking his head incredulously. “Blimey, Hollis, cut me a break. Maybe I just wanted to give you something pretty.”
I bit my lip and snatched it up, evaluating the seemingly harmless writing utensil with a skeptical eye. “Is this going to spit water on me? Turn into a rubber chicken?” I pierced him with a sharp look. “Shoot ink all over my hands again?”
“Of course not,” he replied genially, lying down in the grass to relax once more. He twirled a few blades with his fingers, wrapping a dandelion stem around and around. “Have I ever lied to you before?”
My mouth flew open immediately, on the defense. “When I was in second year you told me that there were giant lizards with rhinoceros horns hidden in the Forbidden Forest; I was out there searching for them for hours and Delphine got pummeled by a wood nymph disguising itself as a thorn bush –”
“All right, all right,” he protested, holding out his palms in surrender. “Well, my scheming days are over. I swear on all that is yellow, black, and covered with badgers that you can trust me.”
I straightened out my parchment, tapping the pretty quill rhythmically. “What should I write, then?”
He looked at me for a long time, thoughtful. “Whatever you like. Is there anything specific you want to tell me?”
I raised my eyebrows, cottoning on at last. “Ahh. So this message is for you, then. Mmm.” I nodded sagely. “I see now. I was wondering where this would become self-serving on your end.”
He rolled his eyes. “Well, who else are you going to write to? I’m the most interesting person you know.” He deftly removed the quill from my grasp and dipped it into the inkpot. Holding it out to me, he added, “Write a message to someone you love. Someone – anyone – and they’ll receive it whenever you want them to, whether that’s in ten minutes or ten weeks or what have you.”
I blew a loose strand of hair out of my face and bent over the parchment, mulling over this for another good minute and a half before finally scrawling something out. When I was about halfway finished, I looked up at Fred through my eyelashes just in time to catch a smug smile unfurling at his mouth; he was apparently very satisfied with himself about something. Choosing not to ask any questions, I flipped the parchment over and placed it before him. “Here you go. And don’t you dare look at it. I’m not sending it for at least two years.”
“Two years?” He looked taken aback. “You’ll have forgotten all about this by then.”
“Oh, I will not. Just get on with it. And no peeking.”
He grasped my hand and lifted it up, briefly meeting my gaze, and softly kissed the back of it – so soft that it felt like something lightweight had merely landed on my skin, like a butterfly. Then he arranged my hand over his face so that it was covering his eyes. “I can do this without looking. Be prepared to be even more impressed with me than we both know you already are.”
A smile tugged at my mouth, but I was still feeling too dazed from the butterfly kiss to explore more sarcastic replies. “Show-off,” I finally muttered, but I couldn’t force much venom into it.
He only grinned, swiftly shaping the parchment into a paper swan identical to his own. I removed my hand when he was finished and took it from him, marveling at the man-made creature. “Magic,” I said softly.
He twirled his own swan, the wonder of our world’s abilities far from lost on him. “Magic,” Fred echoed. He tapped my secret words wrapped up in twists and turns of parchment. “Victus Nuntius.”
I handed the quill back to him, but he pushed it away. “Keep it, it’s yours.”
I would have objected, but I was down to my last quill; Delphine was always stealing mine and it was wise to keep an extra around in Potions class, since I had a ridiculous track record of letting my quills roll off desks into cauldrons of bubbling potion. “Now what?” I inquired.
He opened his palm slowly, blowing the swan toward me like a kiss. It arced over my head and shot straight up into the sky, eager to sail across the universe for an indefinite period of time. “And now we wait for them to find us someday.”
I let mine go as well, watching it rush to join the other paper bird; together, they swam across the swollen moon with miniature flapping wings. Iridescent clouds like powdered crystal were strung across the moon in wisps as thin as smoke, the edges glowing cerulean. We were peaceful for a moment, not a single word stirring in the night to cripple the beauty of it all.
And then he had to go and ruin the moment by twisting all about with rigid limbs bent at the elbow, doing the Muggle robot dance. I groaned, but this melted rapidly into laughter. “Where did you learn that? That’s a Muggle thing.”
He shrugged, his movements so jerky that I suspected he had no idea what a robot actually was. “I saw someone doing it once and I thought it looked like fun.” Fred then hopped to his feet and mimed sweeping off a top hat, doubling over in an exaggerated bow. “Miss Wright, could I entice you with my charm just long enough for a real dance?”
I allowed him to pull me upright, and I slid my hands into his. The Great Lawn was alive with shadows and the projection of light from high windows in every tower, glittering like topaz. We listened to the rush of the Black Lake’s tide against the shore, and the snapping and groaning of tree branches that seemed to encircle us from all around. I rested my cheek against his chest, reveling in his warmth and steady heartbeat. Our paper swans had already blended into the stars, streaking along the sky toward Hogsmeade.
“Fred, I’ve been waiting ages for you to entice me with your charm. Take forever if you want to.”
Thank you so very much, everyone, for reading. I cannot believe the responses this story has garnered and I am just so, so pleased with all of the positive feedback. Thank you to everyone who has favorited or reviewed or read. THANK YOU! I appreciate it more than I can ever tell you. I especially want to thank Jordan, Melissa, Celeste, and Rachel for their support behind the scenes. If it wasn’t for Growing Up Weasley and Leaping Obstacles, both written by Rachel (TenthWeasley), this story would not exist. She’s a very inspirational writer and I’m lucky to call her my friend.
I’d like to plug a story called “With All Things” by the talented author WitnesstoitAll, about George and Angelina. It’s a beautiful mixture of fluff, romance, drama, and everything in between, told from George and Angelina’s alternating point of views. I highly recommend it! And if you look hard enough, you just might catch a subtle mention of Hollis Wright somewhere in there. ;)
And last but not least, if you'd like to see what sort of adventures await Fred in the afterlife, click over to my completed novel "Run". He fights for the prize of 24 hours on earth but has to be the last one standing in the Devil's Duel to get it.