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Chapter 13 : February 1996
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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.”
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