A bead of condensation trickled down the side of his glass; it hovered on the napkin, sparkling in the soft light of the floating glass lanterns and soaked into the white, spreading into a small, damp circle.
Harry poked the ice cubes around with the tip of the slim red straw, listening to the quiet clink against the glass.
I don’t think she’s coming. Harry dipped a hand into the pocket of his dragon-leather jacket and pulled out a gleaming silver sickle. Heads I stay. Tails I go.
He flicked it up into the air. ‘What will it be?’
Slim fingers plucked the sickle from the air.
‘Who are you waiting for, little boy?’ A soft French accent drifted over his shoulder.
‘A girl.’ Harry swivelled, dropping the thin straw back into his drink. ‘Wasn’t sure she’d really come.’
Fleur smiled down at him from beneath a blue-ribboned black beret, bouncing the sickle across her knuckles. ‘What kind of girl is she? Worth waiting for?’
‘The sort of girl you miss before you even meet her,’ he murmured.
Fleur’s smile widened and she slid the sickle across the glass surface of the table. ‘That was good.’ She flicked a speck of dust off the black cotton of her short, dark dress. ‘Does it always work?’
‘I’ve only tried it once, but it seems like it’s not completely flopped so far.’ He offered her a shaky smile, taking a long, quiet breath through the fluttering in his stomach. ‘Is this the moment I buy you a drink?’
Her soft, high laugh stilled every table within earshot. ‘I can get my own drink.’ Fleur hooked a finger over the lip of his glass and whisked it away across the table. ‘See?’ She stole the last half in one smooth go, throwing her head back to bare the elegant black choker around her neck.
‘Nice.’ Harry chuckled and swept the sickle back into his hand, tucking it into the pocket of his jeans. ‘At least I got my sickle back.’
She flashed him a warm smile and crunched an ice cube, swallowing the pieces. ‘Now, where to start? Some boys like to talk about themselves and all the brilliant things they’ve done or are going to do? Can you impress me, Harry?’
‘I once managed to win a game of quidditch by swallowing the snitch,’ he said. ‘Not sure anyone else has ever done that.’
The corner of her mouth crooked up. ‘Ah, self-deprecation. But is it the smarter ploy of the narcissist with his eyes on the prize? Or the defence mechanism of the shy and nervous?’
Harry’s stomach trembled. ‘Definitely the narcissism. I’m dreaming of fame and glory. I have since I was just a kid.’
‘That’s what the shy boy would say.’
‘Or a clever narcissist.’
Fleur laughed. ‘A narcissist you are not, I’ve ruled that out.’ She swept her beret off and dropped it onto the chair, shaking out a cascade of silver-blonde hair. ‘I’ll bite, Harry. Buy me a drink.’
‘What do you like?’
‘Oh no—’ she wagged her finger at him with a glimmer of mischief in her bright blue eyes ‘—if you’re the man fate has meant for me, you would know what I like to drink. Serendipity would grace you with good fortune.’
‘Of course. Who am I to disagree with such flawless logic?’ Harry pulled his wand out and tapped the tip on the table. ‘Let’s see…’ He studied the menu shimmering in the glass surface.
There are lots of drinks.
Harry trailed his finger down the list. ‘I think something sharp, but a little sweet, too,’ the words slipped off his tongue, smooth and easy as honey pouring from a spoon. ‘Something aesthetic.’
‘A pretty drink for a pretty girl?’ Fleur hid a smile behind her hand. ‘If I had a sickle for every time I heard that line, I could have married Bill Weasley and his debts after all.’
Harry laughed. ‘A bramble, I think. There are clearly some sharp thorns, if nothing else.’
‘A bramble isn’t a bad choice.’ She glanced down as the menu faded out. ‘How are Bill and his family? Do they speak of me fondly.’
He frowned. ‘Not exactly, as I recall.’
Fleur laughed. ‘I’m sure. Boys always think they’re the only one playing the game, especially when the girl’s younger than they are. It’s a cruel shock when reality catches up.’
‘What an unwise thing to tell your date,’ Harry murmured, staring down the front of his grey t-shirt. ‘Perhaps now you’ll only get the one.’
‘You should be proud, Harry—’ she leant back as their drinks floated down onto the table ‘—you’re the only person I’ve said that to before the moment I walked away from them.’
‘It sounds more like the kiss of death, to me.’
Fleur smiled. ‘Already hoping for kisses? Well, what boy wouldn’t, I suppose?’ She leant forward over her drink in a wash of soft honeysuckle and sweet cherry. ‘Tell me, Harry, what would you give me for a kiss?’
His breath hitched. ‘I can probably manage another good line if you give me a few moments to think.’
She laughed and leant back. ‘I’m afraid I’m not so easy. Words are very cheap. I’d rather find out if you’re just another boy who wants to play and will sulk or shout when he loses at his own game.’
‘Perhaps I’m just lonely and hoping to finally find someone who’ll love me for who I am.’
‘Words are easy. If I told you every promise I’ve been whispered between kisses by a boy we’d need to have countless dates just to cover them all.’ Fleur leant her head to one side. ‘And then you’d have no time to whisper empty words to me as you helped me out of my dress.’
‘I’m beginning to think you’re not quite the girl I was expecting to see.’ Harry sipped his bramble, wincing as the sharp tang stung a small cut on his lip. ‘All thorns and no flowers.’
‘There’s another good line in there about flowers and how they should have thorns.’ Fleur’s smile hovered on her soft rose-pink lips; its light died somewhere before it reached her eyes. ‘A boy said it to me once. A few times, actually. He had a lot of those sort of lines. I’ve listened to them over and over. I can still hear them in his voice when I close my eyes and wonder what was going on in his head.’
A strange note of familiarity struck him. ‘I’ve heard it before, too.’ He leant back. ‘I think.’ ‘I’m not sure where, though.’
‘Well, it doesn’t matter right now.’ Fleur swept a stray lock of silver hair off her face as it slipped over her eye. ‘Tell me, Harry. If I said all the right things, laughed at your jokes, batted my eyelashes, and then invited you home with me, would you come?’
‘Without a hesitation.’ He took a long sip of his drink. ‘But I don’t think you will.’
‘I suppose this is when I get to watch you walk away then.’
‘No.’ Fleur’s smile returned and she plucked the straw from her drink, dropping it into the empty glass. ‘No that’s not what I want at all.’ She downed her drink in one gulp. ‘A bramble…’
‘Not a fan?’
‘Oh no, it’s my favourite, actually.’ She spun the glass around on her finger. ‘A boy bought one for me in a bar just like this after a few nice lines. I liked the taste, then. Now I enjoy the irony more.’
‘Bill?’ Harry asked. ‘Isn’t there an unwritten rule about talking about old lovers on dates?’
‘You never struck me as one for rules.’ Fleur let the glass wobble to a halt on the table. ‘But no, you’re right. I wouldn’t usually talk about former lovers, but this boy was different. He left an impression.’
‘Do I know him?’
Her smile faded. ‘Perhaps not as well as you think you do.’
‘Well, he must have been some boy.’
‘He was the sort of boy you miss before you even met him.’ The corner of Fleur’s mouth crooked. ‘And when he walked away, I couldn’t figure it out. Did he just win his game and decide it was time to move on to the next? Or did he run because he remembered the words he whispered to me between his kisses and realised what they meant?’
‘If I see him again, I will,’ she murmured.
‘So where does that leave us?’ Harry asked. ‘One forgettable drink and an awkward goodbye to dwindle into an uncomfortable memory?’
‘No.’ Fleur stood up and crooked her finger. ‘Finish your drink, Harry. I want to hear what you whisper to me. And I’m sure you want to see what’s under this dress.’
Harry’s stomach fluttered and he tossed back his drink. ‘Where are we going?’
‘My place.’ She hooked her beret off the seat and set it on the top of her head, tugging it down to a jaunty angle.
‘That’s cute.’ He laughed. ‘That hat, I mean. It really works.’
‘Thank you.’ Fleur smiled and led him out into the cool night. ‘Perhaps when everything else comes off, I’ll keep that hat on. Would you like that?’
‘It’s certainly an appealing image.’ A but hung on his lips, coiling on the tip of his tongue, trembling in time with the sick feeling bubbling up in his gut. ‘And—’
‘And?’ She took his hand. ‘Are you ready?’
No. No this isn’t right. Harry tugged his hand free as she vanished with a loud crack. This is the same as it always is.
‘All thorns and no flowers,’ he whispered, staring down at his feet. ‘I don’t want to get tangled up in your arms.’ A faint twinge bit into his temple. ‘I know where that leads.’
Little drops of water dotted the smooth glass table, shining in the light of the floating lantern hovering above his head like a scattered handful of diamonds.
I need to stop doing this. Harry pushed his glass with one finger, tilting until the vodka trembled in time to the beat of his heart on the lip of the glass. It’s not working.
‘You’re not meant to pour it over the table.’ Fleur slid into the seat opposite him, her hair caught in a loose knot about a cluster of pink orchids; a stray curl of platinum blonde escaped to hang over the shoulder of her river-blue dress, shining in the light of the drifting glass lanterns. ‘It’s for drinking.’
He snorted and picked the glass up, taking a long sip. ‘Oh don’t worry, I’ve figured out what to do with alcohol of all forms. Unless it tastes like aniseed, you drink it.’
Fleur smiled. ‘And if it does taste like aniseed?’
‘Pour it away or give it to someone else.’ Harry feigned a shudder. ‘Horrible stuff, aniseed.’
‘I’m not very fond of it either.’ She leant her head to one side. ‘Was that a clever ploy to narrow down the list of drinks you intended to offer to buy me?’
He laughed. ‘No, I just thought I was being funny. Although, I suppose if you really want to be entertained you can buy me a drink with aniseed in it and watch me try to politely avoid touching it.’
‘Aren’t you mean to be buying me a drink to impress your way into my bed?’ Fleur reached out with one hand and stole his glass, raising it to her rose-pink lips. ‘Hmmm…’ She licked her lips. ‘Not bad, but not my favourite.’
‘Well, if you’ve got your heart set on something, feel free to buy it for the both of us.’ Harry shrugged. ‘I don’t think we need to stick to the exact rules of dating. I’m pretty sure they’re not a real thing anyway.’
The corner of her mouth curved up. ‘How about a bramble? Something sharp, but a little sweet.’
Harry blinked. ‘Sure…’
‘Is something wrong?’ A brief glimmer of amusement flickered through her blue eyes. ‘You don’t like gin? Or drinks with thorns?’
A strange sense of unease fluttered in his stomach, the hairs prickling on the back of his neck. ‘No. I quite like a bramble. Sweet and sharp is good.’ He squished the odd little niggle in his gut. ‘Every flower should have its thorns, right?’
Fleur’s little smile curved into a broad smirk. ‘If I had a sickle for every time I’ve heard a line about flowers from a boy, I could buy us all the drinks in the world.’
‘Sorry, cheap lines are the best I can do.’ Harry grinned. ‘Give me a few moments and I’ll see if I can think of another one that’s not about flowers.’
‘I’ll take your word for it.’ She leant forward. ‘How about a bramble then, Harry. Heads I pay, tails you do.’
He laughed and dug the sickle out of his pocket. ‘Sure. Why not?’
Harry balanced the silver coin on his thumb and flicked it high into the air; it pinged off the lantern and hit the wall.
Fleur plucked it out of the air and bounced it on her palm. ‘My turn to buy, it seems.’
‘I won’t say no.’
She pulled her wand out and tapped the table, skimming through the drinks list. ‘There we go.’ Fleur tucked her wand away and slid the sickle back across the table. ‘How’s work?’
‘Same old, same old.’ Harry grimaced and tucked the sickle into the pocket of his jeans. ‘I pop up at all those lovely occasions surrounded by people who remind me an awful lot of my muggle relatives. It sort of saps all the faith I have in people right out of me.’
‘You didn’t want to go be an auror?’
‘Too many rules.’ He gave her a rueful grin and a shrug. ‘I’m terrible with rules.’
‘I can’t claim any great fondness for them either,’ Fleur murmured.
‘What about you?’ Harry frowned, hunting for some recollection of what she did. ‘Are you still at Gringotts?’
‘Not since a couple of years,’ she said. ‘No, I’m into experimental charms now. It’s very interesting. We’ve been developing a new type of charm, where the magic is tied to the observation of a single incident. If it happens, the charm is broken, if it doesn’t, the magic continues to do whatever it’s meant to do.’
‘What would you use that for?’ Harry asked. ‘It does sound really interesting. Better than my tiresome socialiting, that’s for sure.’
Fleur’s lips quirked. ‘It’s just work. And everyone knows talking about work too much on a first date is a faux pas.’
He held up his hands. ‘At least I didn’t talk about old girlfriends.’
‘Should I ask?’ She leant her head to one side, the pink orchid petals fluttering over her ear. ‘What kind of girls do you normally date?’
‘I don’t really have a specific type, I’m afraid, but I guess there’s something I’m kind of looking for.’ Harry caught a faint gleam in her blue eyes. ‘Are you testing me?’
A soft laugh escaped Fleur. ‘Just a little bit, Harry. Will you forgive me if it works out for the best?’
‘I’ll trade you a kiss.’
Harry chuckled. ‘It’s a deal.’
Their drinks floated down onto the table. Harry poked the ice cubes around the glass with the tip of the slim red straw, watching the condensation trickle down the side. A faint twinge bit into his temple as it soaked into the napkin beneath the glass.
‘I thought you liked a bramble?’ Fleur took a long sip.
He dropped the straw and took a drink, letting the sweet, sharp taste wash over his tongue. ‘I do. I was just wondering what to say.’
‘Going to ask me about the boys I usually date? It would only be fair. I asked…’
‘Red-heads, right?’ Harry grinned and straightened the shoulders of his dragon-leather jackets. ‘Or cool guys in leather jackets?’
Fleur tilted her head back and laughed. ‘Nice, Harry. Blurring the lines between yourself and Bill very nicely, there. You opened the door very smoothly. Points to you.’
‘You’ve had plenty of practice, I’m sure.’ She spun the slim red straw over and over in her fingers. ‘At all your socialite gatherings with those pretty noble girls and ambitious politicians.’
‘But not on a girl like you.’ The words tasted familiar as they slipped through his lips.
‘And what kind of girl is that?’ She crunched an ice cube between her teeth with a small smile. ‘I’m not noble or a politician, but boys do tell me that I’m pretty…’
Harry’s stomach fluttered, twisting itself into a tight, trembling knot and words tumbled from his tongue. ‘The kind of girl you miss before you even meet her.’
Fleur’s smile widened. ‘Is that your favourite line?’
‘First time I’ve thought of it, actually.’ He took a sip of his bramble and a long breath through his nose, settling the little niggle of nervousness. ‘Did you like it?’
‘It’s a good line. It might’ve sounded sweeter whispered between kisses, though.’
Harry grinned. ‘I guess I’ll have to try harder to get to the kisses part before I bring it out next time I’m at one of those parties.’
She drained her drink in one smooth go and set the glass down. ‘What do the girls at those parties do after you’ve bought them a drink and said something clever?’
‘Well, I suppose I’d teasingly suggest I ought to collect on that kiss.’ Harry shot her a grin. ‘But given as you did the drink buying, I think that’s your line this time.’
The corner of Fleur’s mouth crooked up. ‘Cute, Harry. And clever.’ She tapped a finger on the lip of his glass. ‘Drink up, then. If you want to collect on that kiss, you’ll have to come with me.’
‘Oh?’ He finished his bramble. ‘Where are we going?’
‘I suppose that depends on you.’ Her smile faded before its light touched her eyes. ‘But we’ll see, won’t we?’
The unease prickled down his spine, rippling through the rising hairs on the nape of his neck. ‘I’ll do my best. I can at least offer cheap words and easy lines along the way.’
Fleur stood, smoothing out her blue dress. ‘I’ll find a way to get more than that out of you, Harry. I’m a stubborn girl.’
‘That’s the same mistake all the other girls made. Words are all there are, I’m just as shallow as all the other socialites I’m afraid.’ Harry laughed and swung himself out of his chair, ducking the floating glass lantern. ‘A couple clever lines, a drink and a smile, and that’s all it takes to get a kiss out of me.’
‘Oh I don’t think that’s quite fair.’ Her lips curved into a faint smile as she led him through the tables and out into the cool night. ‘But let’s see what you whisper to me between those kisses, maybe some of the truth might spill out.’
No it won’t. The little knot of unease tightened, snapping taut. I need to stop playing this game. It doesn’t help at all.
Fleur extended a hand, taking a loose hold on his wrist. ‘Let’s go back to my place, I owe you at least one kiss, right?’
A cold, sick feeling settled in Harry’s stomach and he tugged his wrist free. She vanished with a loud pop.
‘No.’ He breathed out the disquiet into the night and lowered himself down to sit on the cool pavement, letting its chill soak through his jeans. ‘You don’t owe me anything. It’s not meant to be like that. I’ve had enough nights like those.’
Harry spun the thin red straw on the glass table, sweeping the condensation into a circle and watching it creep together. The light of the floating lanterns glinted on the melting ice cubes in his empty drink.
‘How many times have I done this?’ he muttered, ignoring the faint throb of his headache. ‘It’s stupid to keep doing the same thing.’
‘Stupid to keep doing what?’ A soft French-accented voice drifted over his shoulder. ‘Making a mess on the table?’
‘It doesn’t exactly help with anything.’ Harry glanced up into soft blue eyes. ‘Hello, Fleur. You came after all.’
‘You look cheerful.’ She offered him a small smile, folding her arms over her chest; the white of her dress shone in the light of the floating lanterns. ‘Too many of those fake, fancy parties?’
‘Something like that.’ He wrinkled his nose. ‘I don’t like them much, but it is what it is, better I’m helping than I’m not, you know. And I can usually find something to laugh at.’ Harry chuckled. ‘Or someone.’
‘I’ve seen the papers. All cheap words and smiles for the cameras.’ Fleur took the seat opposite him, shaking her silver-blonde hair out and sweeping it back over her shoulders. A pair of sparkling opal hearts hung from her ears, gleaming in the lantern light. ‘I can’t say I’m fond of sweet nothings.’
‘Nothing you get with easy lines like those is really worth having,’ Harry murmured. ‘But if they weren’t forced to at least keep up appearances, who knows how awful they’d be.’
‘Well—’ Fleur’s lips curved into a smile ‘—I suppose you’ll have to offer me something with a little more substance to it, Harry. How about buying me a drink?’
Harry snorted. ‘Are you sure? I could manage a few clever lines first? I’ve got some good ones.’
‘Something about flowers?’ She laughed. ‘Every boy seems to think I’ll be impressed with flower lines because my name is Fleur.’
A strangely familiar weight hung on his tongue. ‘Have you got thorns, too?’
‘Every flower needs its thorns,’ Fleur murmured. ‘Especially a pretty one, right?’
‘I take it you’ve heard that line before.’ Harry chuckled. ‘Bill?’
‘No.’ She shook her head. ‘Bill was terrible at clever lines. He was very honest. I liked that, until I didn’t.’
‘Another boy then.’ Harry pulled his wand out of the pocket of his jacket, snagging the tip on his white t-shirt. ‘No doubt there’ve been a lot of them who’ve tried those sort of lines on you.’
Fleur smiled. ‘I’ve only dated a few boys, actually. I’ve got a bit of a romantic streak to me, serendipity wins you more points than good lines.’
‘I guess tonight’s going to be a bit of a disaster then.’ He tapped the table, flicking through the drinks list. ‘Here you go, I’ve found a drink with thorns—’
A little shiver rippled through him and a sharp twinge bit into his temple. ‘Yeah, do you like them?’
Her smile widened. ‘My favourite, actually.’
‘Guess I got lucky.’ Harry flashed her a grin. ‘Does that count as serendipity or are we still on track for catastrophe?’
‘We’ll see how it goes.’
‘If it’s really bad, I can always obliviate myself.’ He shrugged. ‘I can go share a ward in St Mungo’s with Lockhart, at least there are no silly parties there.’
A bright little gleam of humour shone in Fleur’s eyes. ‘I know the Memory Charm inside and out from work, so if you’re worried about making a mess of it, I can help. I can do all sorts of clever stuff with that charm.’
‘I’ll pass, if it’s all the same to you.’
Her lips crooked. ‘What if it’s not?’
A pair of drinks floated down onto their table. Fleur lifted hers, stirring it with the thin red straw and taking a long sip. Condensation ran down the side of Harry’s and hovered on the napkin, sparkling in the soft light of the floating glass lanterns; it soaked away, spreading into a small, damp circle.
‘So, if you’re not fond of cheap lines, how are you going to impress me on this first date, Harry?’ She scooped an ice cube from the glass with the tip of the straw and crunched it between her white teeth. ‘What happens next?’
‘I don’t know.’ He plastered a smile over the little flutter in his stomach. ‘How disconcerting. Normally I can rely on some classic socialite party behaviour to keep things going in a familiar vein until we’re comfortable enough to go for what we want.’
‘Worried what happens if it all goes wrong?’
Harry chuckled. ‘No, I think we established I’d obliviate myself into St Mungo’s if that happened. A blessing in disguise, really. There are all sorts of things I’d like to forget anyway.’
Fleur set her drink down with a small smile. ‘Worried about what happens if it all goes right, then?’
He blinked. ‘Why would I worry about that? That usually means a good night…’
‘I’m not sure.’ The warmth of the smile faded from her eyes. ‘Maybe we’ll find out tonight.’
‘That sounds like a third date sort of activity.’ Harry mustered a grin through a strange sense of unease. ‘What happened to that streak of romance?’
‘Oh it’s not going anywhere.’ Fleur leant her head to one side, spilling silver hair over one shoulder of her white dress. ‘I’m very stubborn.’
‘I suppose I’d better hope for an awful lot of serendipity very quickly then.’
She took a sip of her drink, toying with straw. ‘Why don’t we play a game? I say one honest thing about me and you say one thing about you.’
‘What happens when I run out of things to say?’ Harry asked, smothering a little flutter of anxiety.
‘Well, they have to be honest and they have to be important and interesting.’ Fleur murmured. ‘So you should have at least enough things to say to play for a little while. And who knows, Harry, we might discover we have something in common.’
‘Who gets the honour of going first?’
‘Hmmm—’ a small smile played at the corners of her mouth ‘—let’s toss for it, shall we? Have you got a sickle?’
Harry dipped a hand into his jacket and pulled out a silver coin. ‘Just this one. I keep meaning to take it out of my pocket, but I never remember to.’
‘Heads you play, tails I do,’ Fleur said. ‘Fair?’
‘Fair.’ He tossed the coin up, watching it spin with a soft sense of unease; the hairs prickled on the back of his neck and rose along his arms. ‘Tails.’
She snatched it from the air and held it out on her palm. ‘Heads.’
‘Damn.’ Harry wracked his brain. ‘I guess… something interesting or important about me…? How about… I don’t really like all the socialite stuff, dancing around with words and smiles is just exhaustingly hollow, but then nobody likes it when you’re earnest or honest, either. Like you said about Bill, everyone likes it until they don’t.’
The corner of Fleur’s mouth twitched. ‘I don’t much care for clever lines, not when they don’t have anything behind them. If someone makes me a promise, I expect them to keep it.’
‘The kiss of death for me, then. I’m used to girls just looking for excuses to do what they want. A clever line and a smile and why not, Harry?’
‘I did warn you about the romantic streak. And the stubbornness.’
‘You absolutely did.’ He laughed and took a sip of his drink, enjoying the sharp, sweet taste. ‘I can’t hold it against you, either. Must be nice, to believe in that sort of thing.’
Fleur’s blue eyes sharpened. ‘Don’t you?’
‘I think I’d like to,’ Harry said. ‘But it’s easier said than done.’
‘Too many girls who whispered pretty promises between kisses and disappeared afterwards?’ She leant forward. ‘Is that the sort of girl you think I am, Harry?’
He stared into her blue eyes, a strange weight on his tongue. ‘No.’ Familiar words welled up from some dark corner of his mind, spilling from his lips. ‘I think you’re the sort of girl you miss before you even meet her.’
Fleur’s lips curved into a smile. ‘That’s a nice line. It had a little something behind it, didn’t it?’
‘It did?’ Harry laughed. ‘I think you’re giving me far too much credit.’
‘Sometimes I do wonder,’ she murmured. ‘But we’ll see.’ Fleur finished her drink and stood, crooking a finger at him. ‘Want to come and see how much I like that line, Harry?’
A nervous little flutter swirled in his stomach, knotting into a tight trembling ball. ‘What’s it worth, a kiss?’
Fleur smiled. ‘A second chance, maybe.’
‘A second date?’ Harry tossed his drink back and stood, dabbing condensation off his fingers onto the front of his white t-shirt. ‘I haven’t had one of those in ages.’
‘Didn’t you want any second dates with your party girls?’
He blinked, a sharp throb ringing through his skull. ‘No… no, I don’t think I did. It was all cheap lines and easy smiles and…’
‘I’m not a romantic, despite all the lines about flowers.’
Fleur held out her hand. ‘Well, we’ll see.’ She took his wrist in her warm fingers and led him out into the cool night. ‘I think we should have a second date, Harry. Don’t you?’
The knot in his stomach squirmed and fluttered, a soft thrill coursing through his veins. ‘Of course.’ He flashed her a grin. ‘Who could pass up a second date with a girl as pretty as you.’
‘Let’s go back to mine.’ She offered him a coy look through her lashes. ‘Perhaps, once you’ve tasted everything I’ve got to offer, you’ll be able to make up your mind about whether you want a second date or not without distractions.’
A strange unease settled in the pit of his stomach, a sharp, rough, choppiness churning like a stormy sea. ‘Didn’t you want to keep playing our game?’
‘Oh I don’t think our little game is going to end yet,’ Fleur murmured. ‘Ready, Harry? You don’t look nearly excited enough for a boy who thinks they’re about to find out what’s under this dress.’
I’m not excited. I’ve done this all before at a hundred parties. It always ends the same.
Harry pulled back his hand. She disapparated with a loud crack.
A bittersweet little ache twisted beneath his ribs. ‘Huh, it kind of hurts…’ He poked at his chest with a wry smile. ‘What’s wrong, Harry, did you really think it would be any different this time?’
Yes. Harry sank down onto the pavement and wrapped his arms around his legs, staring into the blue denim stretching over his knees. For a moment there, it felt like it might be.
A bead of water formed on the ice cube at the top of his empty drink, swelling and trickling down into the thin pool of water in the base of the glass.
Slim fingers stole the ice cube from his drink. ‘There you are.’ Fleur slipped the ice through her rose-pink lips and crunched on it. ‘Were you worrying I wasn’t going to turn up?’
‘A little bit.’ Harry straightened up. ‘I was probably a few minutes away from tossing a coin over leaving or not.’
‘Well—’ she spread her arms, letting her baggy hoodie hang off her ‘—here I am.’
‘Here you are.’
‘What now, Harry?’ Fleur dropped into the chair opposite him and crossed her legs, brushing the torn knees of her jeans. ‘You invited me here… What were you hoping for?’
A strange weight hung on the tip of his tongue, drawing together into oddly familiar words; they displaced the light-hearted little line on his lips. ‘I’m honestly not sure. Something different, maybe.’
‘How about a cute line to break the ice?’ She smiled. ‘My name’s Fleur, surely there’s a clever quip about flowers you could make?’
‘No doubt.’ A weird unease shivered through him. ‘But you’ve probably heard those all before, right?’
‘Over and over.’ Fleur pulled her wand out of the pocket of her hoodie and summoned the drinks list. ‘Bramble? That’s all thorns and no flowers.’
‘Sure.’ Harry offered her a rueful grin and ignored the prickling at the nape of his neck. ‘I’m sorry, this is probably a terrible first date. I can’t quite seem to find the desire to play all the usual games.’
She leant her head to one side, a small smile playing on her lips. ‘No, no I think I actually quite like this one so far. It feels much more honest. Less dancing around. It’s different.’
‘Different to what? All the other many dates you’ve been on?’
‘Different from all of them but one,’ Fleur murmured. ‘And that boy left an impression.’
‘Oh?’ Harry gave her a little grin. ‘Care to give me a hint about what I should do to sweep you off your feet?’
She laughed a soft, high laugh. ‘Why not?’ A sharp little gleam hovered in her blue eyes. ‘He was very honest.’
‘Was it Bill?’
‘No.’ Fleur shook her head. ‘A different boy.’
‘What kind of boy?’
Her smile curved into a broad smirk. ‘The sort you miss before you even meet him.’
A strange pang knifed through Harry’s heart. ‘That’s a pretty good line. Makes me feel like he was what you’ve always been looking for. Top marks.’
‘Thank you, it’s his line.’ Fleur held out a hand and took the drink floating to her. ‘He bought me a bramble, actually. First time I ever had one. It came with a silly line about flowers and thorns, but there was laughter in his eyes as he said it, like that stuff was all some private little joke to him.’
‘What happened?’ He sipped his own drink.
‘Well, we’ll see.’ She stirred her drink, listening to the quiet clink of ice cubes against the glass. ‘We talked for a while to begin with. Ice-breaking things. Work. Hobbies. Old lovers. You know how it goes. At first he was all silly lines and private laughter. It annoyed me, watching him laugh at me behind his little quips, so I challenged him to be honest.’
‘We tossed a coin over it. He lost.’
‘Weird first date.’
‘I’ve been on a lot of weird first dates,’ she said. ‘He seemed… tired when the laughter of his in-jokes faded away, like he was just trudging through the motions of a date because he didn’t know what else to do, but he was honest. And so was I. He seemed to like that.’
‘Do you miss him?’ Harry drew lines through the cool condensation on the side of his glass. ‘Would you rather be here with him? I don’t mind if you prefer to go, at—’
‘At least I’d be being honest?’
A little twinge bit into his temple. ‘Yes.’ Harry took a long sip of his bramble. ‘So what happened?’
Fleur’s lips crooked into a smile. ‘He talked about himself a lot.’
‘Ah, a classic narcissist.’ Harry shook his head. ‘Sounds almost as bad as I am.’
‘You’re not a narcissist, Harry,’ she murmured. ‘There was a little something about that boy I really liked. I’m not sure what it was. He had a nice little line he whispered to me. And he wasn’t laughing when he said it, we were too busy kissing. I think he really meant it.’
‘What was it? I can always use some good lines. The more over the top the better, really. Those girls just eat it up, even though they find it just as stupid as I do. Seeing how ridiculous I can make them is all that gets me through some of those work parties I go to.’
‘I can imagine—’ Fleur’s smile widened a fraction ‘—but I think I’d rather keep it for myself. It was meant for me and I’m romantic like that.’
‘Fair enough.’ Harry frowned. ‘So why are you sitting here with me and not somewhere with him?’
‘Because after that little line, he seemed to realise what he’d really said.’ The light of the smile slipped from her blue eyes. ‘I kissed him some more, took him home, but everything he murmured to me between our kisses afterward was just easy words, like we’d gone right back to the beginning. And then in the morning afterward, he walked away.’
‘Sounds like he just played you.’ Harry shrugged. ‘Well, I’m pretty simple. I drink, I go to silly parties and smile, and that’s about it. Nothing to worry about with me.’
‘Those silly parties, you go to them, you buy a girl a drink, you smile, you feed her a few lines about flowers, then you go home with her, right?’
‘I used to,’ he admitted. ‘I got bored of it. It all just started to feel the same. The same ritual. The same kind of girl. The same meaningless ending. Almost – almost like I was looking for something in the same place over and over, even though I knew it wouldn’t be there.’
‘Have you tried looking elsewhere?’
‘Well, I didn’t meet you at one of those parties, so maybe this counts.’
‘Let’s say it does.’ Fleur hid a smile behind her hand. ‘What would you do if I turned out to be what you’re looking for?’
‘I have no idea,’ Harry admitted. ‘I don’t actually know what I’m looking for to begin with. I guess I just hope I know it when I see it.’
She finished her drink and stood up, tossing her hair over her shoulder. ‘I know a way to find out. It’s one you’ll enjoy.’
Harry took a sip of his drink to still the twist of unease knotting in his stomach. ‘How romantic…’ He flashed her a grin as he swung himself out of his chair. ‘But who could say no?’
‘Who indeed?’ Fleur murmured, taking his hand. ‘Forget the bramble.’ She led him out into the cool night. ‘Now… how to do this?’
‘My place or yours?’
The corner of her mouth twitched. ‘That’ll do. Let’s toss for it, shall we? Get that sickle out, Harry.’
Harry dipped a hand into his pocket, wincing at the sharp throb in his temples. ‘This one?’ He held out the silver coin in his hand.
She picked it off his palm and bounced it across her knuckles. ‘Heads or tails?’
‘Which is which?’
Fleur smiled and flicked it high into the air. ‘They’re the same.’ She pulled her hand away and vanished with a loud crack.
The sickle slapped into his palm.
‘Well, now I’m just confused.’ He sat down on the edge of the pavement, balancing the sickle on his knee. ‘Why leave me after all that? I guess she’s still thinking about that other boy.’
A strange sense of absence crept in, like the quiet urge to touch the tip of his tongue to the seat of a missing tooth. She was right. It was nice to be honest.
Words of familiar weight hovered on his lips. ‘The kind of girl you miss before you even meet her.’ Harry weighed the sickle on his hand, wincing at the headache stabbing through his temples.
He flicked the coin up into the air and watched it spin. Whispers rose onto his tongue from somewhere in the back of his mind, dragging up snatches of kisses in a dark hallway, Fleur’s soft blue eyes staring into his and her quiet gasps beneath him.
‘Weird…’ he whispered as the coin fell. ‘When did that happen?’
The sickle struck the pavement and bounced away down the street.
Fleur’s small smile hovered among his thoughts as she stretched awake into morning sunlight; the light of the smile faded from her eyes as she stared at him. What’s the sickle for, Harry? Her voice shook as it echoed from the well of his mind. Why are you dressed?
The words hung on the tip of his tongue. ‘Heads I stay. Tails I go,’ he whispered.
His heart sank. And I definitely didn’t stay. I never stay.
A soft step brushed the concrete behind him. Fleur bent to pick the sickle from the edge of the road. ‘Do you remember now?’
‘Did you miss me?’
A wry laugh burst through his lips. ‘Before I even remembered I’d met you here before.’
‘Good.’ She drifted closer, a sharp glint in her eye, bouncing the silver coin over her knuckles. ‘It hurt watching you walk away. You hurt me.’
‘Only a few weeks. And only our dates.’
‘I guess I deserved it,’ Harry muttered. ‘Fair enough. I’m sorry, Fleur.’
‘I’ve heard you say sorry before. If that was what I wanted, we wouldn’t be here.’ Fleur crouched down beside him and pressed the sickle back into his hand. ‘Why did you walk away? I thought if I kept doing this, you’d eventually let it slip, but tonight was the closest I ever got after my first stroke of fortune with that coin toss. It turns out you’re really bad at being honest, even with yourself.’
‘I don’t even know.’ He stared into the shining surface of the silver coin. ‘It’s what I always do, I guess. I don’t want to keep doing what I was doing, there’s nothing to find in that corner I was looking in, but it’s all I know how to do. I guess – I guess I must have wanted to stay, because I tossed the coin. I wouldn’t usually do that.’
‘Toss it again.’
‘Are you going to Memory Charm me with it again?’
‘Toss the coin, Harry.’
Harry flicked it up.
She snatched it out of the air above his head. ‘Heads.’
He snorted and pointed at her closed fist. ‘You didn’t even look.’
‘It was heads.’ Fleur shot him a sharp look and tucked it into his jacket pocket. ‘And you know what heads means.’
Harry blinked. ‘I do?’
‘Heads, you stay.’ She cupped his cheek. ‘You said you would. A stroke of fortune, a dash of serendipity, a little something more… Everything fell into place just like it should, and you promised you would stay and give it a chance. I expect boys that make me promises to keep them.’
‘You said that line was worth a second chance…’
‘I did. It was.’ Fleur stood and held out her hand. ‘Now, this time…?’
‘I suppose this isn’t the moment for a cute line about flowers and thorns, is it?’
‘No, Harry. It’s not.’ The corner of her mouth crooked. ‘I am a stubborn girl. You said I was what you were looking for, I heard it quite clearly when you murmured that line to me, and I will not let you take it back without trying to see where it goes first.’
He dipped a hand into his jacket and held out the sickle with a grin. ‘Let me just toss—’
She laughed and apparated them away into a darkened corridor with a loud crack; the sickle bounced away across the floor. ‘Now, what kind of girl am I, Harry?’ Fleur’s lips brushed his. ‘Whisper it to me.’
A small smile spread across his face. ‘The kind I don’t intend to ever miss again?’
‘Good answer,’ she murmured.
Something clicked behind him.
‘Did you just lock the door?’
Harry chuckled. ‘So I can’t walk away in the morning?’
‘And so nobody can get in while we’re… distracted.’ Fleur’s lips trailed kisses along his jaw. ‘That would be annoying.’
‘I believe you said something about keeping that cute beret on?’
Her lips curved into a smile against his neck. ‘And nothing else…’
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