“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.”
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