Bird droppings and dust covered the beams. A sour must stung Harry’s nose. Owls snoozed among the rafters, huddled away from the slim rays of light that pierced through the cracks of loose tiles and shutters.
Very romantic. Harry caught the faint sound of footsteps and edged away from the door, casting the disillusionment charm. Not really how I would’ve pictured a date, if I’d done much picturing, but then again, it’s not a date, is it?
‘That is an even better disillusionment charm.’ Fleur Delacour stepped into the owlery. Her wand rested in her hand. Her eyes fixed on Harry.
The corner of Harry’s mouth twitched. ‘How did you notice?’
Fleur Delacour tilted her chin into the air. ‘I am aware of the weaknesses of the charm.’ A soft smile crept onto her lips.
‘I suppose I owe you an apology for laughing back in the Great Hall–’
‘I would rather know why you thought it was funny.’
Harry shrugged. ‘I was laughing at Ron.’
Fleur Delacour’s eyes narrowed. ‘And the first time?’
‘First time?’ he asked.
‘When you were with that dark-haired girl and I was being accosted by boys.’ Her summer sky blue eyes focused on a point somewhere in the centre of Harry’s head. ‘You laughed at me. I don’t like being laughed at.’
‘Katie said something funny.’ Harry suppressed a thin smile. ‘I wasn’t paying too much attention to what was happening in the hall. I was in my own little bubble, I’m afraid.’
‘Ah.’ Something flickered through her blue eyes. ‘Then consider my company tomorrow an apology for overreacting. I thought you were laughing at me.’
A poor apology. His thoughts came in a familiar, smooth, high voice. She’s not doing it for me and she has a very high opinion of her company, too.
‘If it were an apology, I wouldn’t accept it,’ Harry said. ‘But your part in destroying my relationship with Katie was much smaller than everyone else’s anyway. You were just the catalyst. She’d’ve done something like it eventually anyway.’
Fleur Delacour studied the ceiling. ‘It is destroyed?’
‘I think so.’ He sighed. ‘It certainly won’t be the same. I’ve firewhiskey and Roger Davies to thank for that. And the two of us, of course, though mostly me.’
‘More her.’ Fleur’s eyes didn’t leave the ceiling. ‘She had every right to be angry with me, but it was obvious you’d no idea what was going on. Perhaps it’s for the best it’s over, but if it’s not, well, the more it hurts to win, the more satisfying it is.’
Perhaps. Harry took a deep breath. I still shouldn’t have defended you. Salazar would say I was trying live up to unfair expectations again.
‘Shall we go?’ Fleur asked. ‘This tower smells worse than I remembered.’
‘Where would be better?’ Harry followed her down the stairs, keeping his distance. ‘The Great Hall?’
A soft, gentle laugh left Fleur’s lips. ‘Are you hoping to twist the knife in Roger Davies heart or that girl’s?’ She dallied for a step, closing the gap between them. ‘If we see them, perhaps I’ll let you hold me close for a moment.’
Harry’s skin prickled as the warmth of her skin washed over his. He paused in his stride until she was a few steps ahead. ‘Thanks, but no thanks. I’d rather avoid spending long in the hall with you, too.’
‘I might think of somewhere else as we walk, though I admit I’m not fond of Hogwarts. It is cold, grey, and wet.’ Fleur took a long route back to the castle, one that avoided passing by Beauxbatons’ carriage was.
Harry glanced at the cold, clear winter sky as they entered the castle. ‘I think that’s just Britain. We get a few good days in summer, but the rest of the year’s a toss up between overcast or raining.’
Fleur’s smile reappeared, then faded. ‘I hope you don’t think less of me for using you as a shield, Harry.’
‘I’m a veela. I attract a lot of attention. If I could, I wouldn’t attend this Yule Ball at all, but having a date capable of keeping his wits is far preferable to the alternative and it will ward off most of the others who’d pester me for dances.’
They stepped through the doors into the Great Hall. Heads swivelled in their direction.
Harry chuckled. ‘I don’t know who they’re staring at now.’
‘I do.’ Fleur sniffed and turned up her nose. ‘Look at them. So weak-willed. The slightest touch of my magic and they lose themselves.’
Harry noticed the glazed look in their eyes. ‘I know somewhere most people don’t?’
Fleur stepped into his space, brushing his arm with her shoulder. ‘Let’s go.’
Why’s she doing that? Harry’s stomach shifted and the hairs on his skin prickled. Why won’t she stop doing that?
Harry led her to the seventh floor. ‘I’ve never brought anyone here before, you know. You weren’t the first person I’d’ve expected it to be, either.’
Fleur blinked and swept her silver hair over her shoulder. ‘No? Not even your friends, or Katie?’
‘Not even them.’ Harry gestured at the blank space of wall opposite Hogwarts’ worst tapestry. ‘This is the Room of Requirement.’
Fleur pulled her wand out and closed her eyes. ‘Hmmm. I can’t sense any magic.’ She narrowed her blue eyes. ‘If you were anyone else, I’d suspect you were about to try something that would result in me cursing you very thoroughly.’
Why am I different? Because I’m supposed to be a hero? Harry bit his tongue.
‘Imagine the room you want to be in,’ he said. ‘The Room of Requirement will provide. It has to adhere to the laws of magic, though, so no food and so forth.’
A slender, elegant door appeared. A light shade of blue paint covered everything but the metal handle and silver runes glowed in small circles across its surface.
‘How ingenious.’ Fleur twisted her wand round with white-knuckled fingers. ‘I suppose we should go in.’
A neat silver and blue blanketed bed sat amongst packed bookshelves. Stacks of tomes towered from the ivory carpet to where an elegant crystal flower light glowed with gentle, white light. Dozens of tiny, enchanted items ornamented both shelves and stacks. Two silver-haired girls smiled and laughed in the photo beside her bed. Two pairs of bright blue eyes shone from the frame: one set of summer sky, the other touched by storm grey.
‘Gabby.’ Fleur’s blue eyes tightened behind her veil of silver hair. ‘My little sister.’
But nobody else. Harry glanced round the room. Just you, and her, and all these books and trinkets to fill the time.
‘You can change the room from within,’ he murmured.
The ceiling shifted into a high, arched vault. Long, tall windows of thin glass stretched down either side. Harry saw mountains and a sparse woodland of gnarled, short pine trees.
‘Beauxbatons’ Gallery,’ Fleur said. ‘We have no Great Hall, only an open forum. When winter comes, this is where large groups gather.’
‘I can understand why you don’t find Hogwarts attractive.’
‘It isn’t as beautiful a place, but we don’t have a room such as this, either.’
I think that’s the only compliment I’ve heard from you.
Fleur twisted her heel back and forth on the floor. ‘Tell me, Harry. Do you know how to dance?’
‘No.’ Harry’s gut churned. The hairs on the nape of his neck prickled like mad. ‘I’ve never been all that keen to be the centre of attention.’
But I’m always stuck there, just like I’ll be stuck dancing at the Yule Ball.
Music began to drift from the corner of the room.
She must really want to dance. Harry hid his grimace. Because I really don’t want to dance and I’m fairly sure the room just picks the strongest desire from the two of us.
‘My date will have to dance. I will not be laughed at by everyone. If you can dodge a dragon, you can avoid standing on my feet.’ Fleur stepped in close to him. Her breath brushed against his chin. A sweet, sharp scent caught Harry’s nose. ‘You just need to learn the steps… and voila!’
Harry kept very still. His heart picked up, thudding against his ribs like a prisoner’s fist against the bars of their jail. ‘I suppose I’ve no choice, if we’re opening the Yule Ball.’
Fleur studied him with a strange gleam in her eyes. ‘You really don’t like the closeness, do you?’
No. The music drifted on, a cheerful, fast-paced assault on Harry’s ears. I don’t see why everyone always has to get so close to everyone else.
‘No.’ He took a step back from her. ‘I don’t.’
She measured the gap between them with her eyes. ‘Are you afraid? Or just not used to it?’
Harry frowned. ‘Does it matter? It makes me very uncomfortable.’
Fleur’s expression softened. ‘I can try and alleviate your discomfort, if you like. You won’t feel it so much if you pay attention to me and let my magic guide your thoughts.’
Her magic. The allure.
‘I’ll be fine.’ He twisted his face into a bright smile.
Fleur’s eyes narrowed. She reached out and took his hands, drawing him close against her. ‘These are the steps,’ she murmured. Her breath washed over his cheek in a sharp, sweet rush of burnt holly leaves.
Harry focused on the placement of her feet, the tug of her hands, the rhythm of the steps, and the beat of the music. He pictured the circle of dark ink on its pale page and clung to its image like a lifeline. His heart ceased its pounding, but Fleur’s presence in his arms burnt against his skin like a branding iron and a small sigh slipped from his slips
Fleur’s lips quirked. ‘Do you know how many boys there are within these walls who would like to take your place?’
‘I’m not them.’ Harry mustered a grin. ‘What about girls, too? I’m sure there are probably a few of them who’d be envious.’
Fleur smothered a small smile. ‘No. I suppose you’re not them.’ She guided him across the room in step with the music. ‘You know, Harry, you remind me of a girl I used to know.’
A friend? Harry recalled the lone picture frame in her room as Fleur spun beneath his arm. Does she have any friends? Or maybe it’s her little sister?
‘What was she like?’
‘Lonely. Busy parents and no real friends.’
Harry half-stifled a flinch. ‘Just lonely?’
Fleur pulled his hand back to her waist and favoured him with a soft smile; the one he’d glimpsed next to Gabrielle’s. ‘No. She was different. Better. Envied. Hated. In the end, being perfect was all she had left and winning was the only way to prove it. But you know a little about that now, don’t you, Harry?’
‘It does sound a bit familiar.’ Harry forced the brightness back into his smile and stretched his lips into a wide curve. ‘I–’
‘Don’t smile at me like that.’ Fleur dragged their dance to a halt. ‘I don’t share myself readily, Harry. Don’t – don’t treat it like it means nothing.’
Guilt chewed at his gut. ‘Sorry.’
The music faded away.
‘Why did you ask me to be your date?’ Harry asked.
‘I have to go with someone.’ Fleur weighed her words as if they were made of gold. ‘You and I aren’t so different.’
So the girl is her. Harry felt things fall into place. She thinks like Salazar does. She believes she’s better than most and spends all her time seeking a connection with someone worthy.
‘Similar enough, I suppose. Fleur Delacour is seen through a rose-tinted lens. I fall underneath my own shadow.’
Fleur tossed her hair back over her shoulders and smoothed it down with both hands. ‘I’m glad your name came out of the goblet, now.’
‘You are?’ Harry grinned. ‘You might change your mind when you come second.’
A small smile curved Fleur’s lips. ‘I will come first. As always.’ She stepped back from him. ‘You did not enter, did you?’
‘No.’ Harry sighed. ‘Things like this always seem to happen to me.’
‘Do you know how an age line works?’
‘Professor Dumbledore explained it to me a little. It detects the age of your magic.’
Fleur shook her head. ‘That’s a very basic explanation. Still, nobody younger than seventeen could’ve crossed the line, so you couldn’t have entered your own name.’
Harry laughed. ‘You believed me all this time? Who’d’ve guessed?’
‘Albus Dumbledore’s too powerful to have one of his wards broken by any student, you couldn’t have crossed.’ Fleur’s smile faded to a frown. ‘Do you know how the Goblet of Fire works?’
‘It selects names.’
She laughed. ‘It selects the best possible candidate of the names it accepts from a list of criteria chosen by its creator, but, most importantly, it can’t be lied to. If I tried to put another’s name in, I’d fail. I might regret it, too. The goblet’s old, old enough to carry some vicious curses.’
‘So nobody but me could have put my name in.’ Harry’s stomach plummeted. ‘But I can’t have put my name in because of the ward, so that doesn’t make any sense.’
‘Nobody who wasn’t called Harry Potter and was above the age of seventeen, but such a scheme is far-fetched and seems unlikely.’
I’ve come across some pretty far-fetched schemes here, but I think I’m probably the only Harry Potter nearby.
‘My cloak’s not been missing, either.’ Harry scowled. ‘But then how did my name come out at all?’
‘Your cloak?’ Fleur’s smile reappeared. ‘An invisibility cloak can’t conceal you from an age line, Harry. Your friends are wrong.’
‘My former friends are more right than they realise. My cloak’s an heirloom capable of bypassing the line, my godfather said so and Dumbledore confirmed it.’
Fleur blinked. ‘I would very much like to see this cloak, if you don’t mind.’
‘It’s one of the very few things I’ve left of my parents, I’m afraid.’ Harry sighed. ‘Dumbledore assumed I used it.’
‘If I’d known about it, so would I.’ She pursed her lips. ‘You’re not going to like this, Harry. Albus Dumbledore made it impossible for anyone to enter you, but still read your name out…’
Ice lanced through Harry’s chest and down his spine. It swirled through his blood like a hurricane. Every year, I encounter danger at Hogwarts under the nose of Albus Dumbledore. Every year, I almost die. He’s been trying to quietly destroy his accidental horcrux from the very beginning!
The deep, hollow numb consumed his fury, washing it away like a sandcastle in the tide. ‘Huh. Well, I’m sure he’ll be overjoyed when I win.’
‘When you come second.’ A small smile played around the corners of Fleur’s mouth.
‘Have you progressed anywhere with your egg?’
Not at all. Harry kept a straight face. I should really do something about that.
‘I solved it a few days ago,’ he said.
‘What solution did you come up with? I thought your plan for the first task quite ingenious. A simple charm and plan, you solved the problem and gave away little of your ability.’
Harry laughed. ‘If I told you, it’d rather undermine my chances, no?’
‘I suppose that’s true.’ Fleur’s delicate eyebrows arched into a gentle vee. ‘I won’t be able to convince you that I’ve already found one of my own and am just interested?’
‘You might. I don’t think you’d lie to me, but I still won’t be able to tell you.’
Mainly because I have no idea what the clue is.
‘Caution is to be admired,’ Fleur said. ‘I’m not offended. I’m fond of winning, if I needed a solution to a problem, I might well try to pry some details out of you.’
‘Do you know if either Cedric or Viktor have figured it out?’
‘Why would I know?’ Fleur smoothed her uniform and took a seat on a chair that appeared beneath her. ‘I’ve barely spoken to either of them.’
‘You knew about my cloak.’
Fleur’s smile didn’t waver. ‘I was curious about my competition. However, as far as I know, neither of them have done anything more than decipher the clue. I would assume Viktor Krum at least has a plan, though, since he’s started spending a lot of time in Hogwarts’ library.’
‘You don’t seem very worried about them.’
‘Cedric Diggory is an exceptional student and clearly a talented wizard, but he’s overestimated himself by entering this tournament. He simply lacks the same will to win that we have. Viktor Krum knows what it means to win, but isn’t one for planning. Igor Karkoroff can only compensate for that so much.’
‘Young, but prodigious and powerful, with a will strong enough to win it, and capable of cunning.’ She patted him on the shoulder. ‘You’ll make a very good runner-up, Harry.’
Harry pointed at her hair. ‘I think silver’s more your colour than mine, Fleur.’
‘The Triwizard Tournament trophy is silver, Harry.’
So it is.
‘What about you?’ Harry asked. ‘What makes you better?’
‘I am more complete than any of my rivals save perhaps you, but my experience is greater than yours and I’m just as talented. Provided the tasks do not exploit my natural weaknesses too much, I will win.’
‘You’re very confident.’
I wonder what her natural weaknesses are? Something to do with veela?
‘I take pride in winning and being the best at my school, Harry. It’s been a long time since I’ve failed at something I’ve competed in. You’ll be just the same, if you aren’t already.’ She raised a finger. ‘Don’t mistake my pride as a dismissal of others, though. I may be better than most, but I still respect talent and have my own equals and betters in turn. Even if I’ve not met them among our peers.’
‘So modest,’ Harry quipped.
‘I think I should return to the carriage, now.’ Fleur rose from her seat, then paused a few steps from the door. ‘I should warn you there are those, amongst Beauxbaton’s students at least, who believe I’ve charmed you into going with me after stealing you from your previous girlfriend. If your school is anything like mine, those rumours will spread.’
‘I don’t care.’ He offered her a grin. ‘I’ve not noticed anything charming about you yet.’
Fleur laughed. ‘No? You must be the only boy in the country to think so, then.’ Her forehead creased. ‘I’d like to see if my allure has more of an effect on you at some point, though. It’s interesting for me. I’ve never really had anyone to properly test it on.’
‘If you like. Just don’t make me do anything particularly embarrassing when I do succumb.’
A bright gleam entered her blue eyes. ‘No promises, Harry. Don’t forget, we’re still rivals.’
I won’t forget. Harry’s thoughts came in Tom Riddle’s soft, smooth whisper. And if you turn out like all the others, I won’t forgive you, either. Not when you told me you were different.