“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.