Chapter 1 : February 1996
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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.