Footsteps dashed down the stairs and away along the corridor.
‘Ten points, Vane!’ Harry yelled over the crowd, tapping his wand against his silver prefect’s badge. ‘I saw you legging it out of that passage!’
A flicker of yellow caught his eye as the staircases shifted.
‘And whoever you were kissing in there dropped their tie!’ He drifted down the steps and grabbed the end of a Hufflepuff tie, pulling it out of the trick step and stuffing it into his pocket. ‘Although I’m pretty sure your boyfriend’s in Ravenclaw…’ Harry sighed. ‘Poor guy will probably find out you’re kissing other boys eventually, I guess.’
Ron barged his way through a crowd of first years, ushering Hermione through the huddle. ‘Stopping milling about on the moving stairs, midgets. Do you want to fall to your deaths like Sally-Anne?’
Harry frowned. ‘What happened to Sally-Anne?’
‘No idea, mate.’ Ron shrugged. ‘Nobody’s seen her all day. Heard some blonde girl a couple years below us joking that she fell off the moving staircases, but I’m pretty sure that’s made up.’
Hermione let out an exasperated sigh. ‘You literally can’t fall off the moving staircases. They’re really cleverly enchanted. And if you jump, the ones underneath will catch you. It’s a school not a death trap.’
‘Have you heard anything about her, Hermione?’ Harry asked, heading down toward the Great Hall. ‘I don’t really know Sally-Anne.’
‘She’s pretty popular,’ Hermione replied. ‘Part of that gaggle of Hufflepuff girls that like to hold court on the Astronomy Tower at lunch and gossip.’
‘Oh. Them.’ Ron grunted. ‘They’re annoying.’
‘Yeah, well, their gossiping is why there are so many stupid stories,’ she said. ‘Sally-Anne’s probably just sick. You can’t get swallowed by trick-steps.’
‘You can’t?’ Ron asked.
‘No.’ Hermione rolled her eyes and accelerated toward a gap on the Gryffindor table. ‘They only open up when someone puts a foot in, anything else and they stay a normal step.’
‘You’ve been reading A Hogwarts History again,’ Harry muttered, checking the nearby jugs for something that wasn’t pumpkin flavoured.
‘Every time I open it, I find something new and interesting,’ she replied. ‘It only happens when I do it looking for something else, I think it might be enchanted.’
‘Don’t you have an Arithmancy project?’ Ron asked. ‘Or something like that.’
‘I have arithmancy to work out for my Potions project. Which you also have to do, Ron.’
He paled. ‘I knew that.’
‘Sure you did, mate.’ Harry laughed. ‘I do as well, but I’m still figuring out how to go about mine.’
‘Yours is going to be amazing if it works, Harry.’ Hermione tipped salad onto her plate and munched on a slice of radish.
‘Hermione!’ Ron grabbed the table edge in horror. ‘You’ve eaten Luna Lovegood’s earrings.’
‘Shut up, Ronald.’ The corner of her mouth crooked into a smile. ‘You make that joke every time you see a radish.’
Harry grabbed a sandwich off the stack and bit the corner off. ‘Tuna…’ He wrinkled his nose and dropped it onto his plate. ‘Why does this castle always give me tuna?’
‘Have you done any more on your project?’ Hernione asked.
He reached for another sandwich and peered at the filling. ‘That’s more like it. Can’t go wrong with ham salad.’
She sighed. ‘Harry…?’
‘No the only bit that’s actually due before the holidays is the first couple bits. I’ve done those.’ Harry took a bite of his sandwich and grimaced at the fishy taste. ‘Why is it somehow tuna? I hate this castle.’
‘It tries to encourage you to eat what you need.’ Hermione inspected his sandwich. ‘Which apparently means tuna.’
‘Doesn’t even make sense.’ Harry put it down and eyed the stack. ‘They’re just going to turn into more tuna sandwiches again, aren’t they?’
Ron grinned. ‘Probably.’
‘Just eat one, Harry, and it’ll stop.’
‘No, I refuse to be coerced by this castle. Not until it provides me with something nicer to drink than pumpkin juice.’
A jug of red juice appeared.
‘Neat.’ Harry reached out a hand.
The jug slid away across the table.
‘Oh I have to eat the sandwich first, do I? You know that’s blackmail?’ He picked up a tuna sandwich and took a huge bite, chewing a couple times and swallowing.
‘Maybe when you finish your project you can drink what you make and see if you get something other than tuna.’
Harry laughed. ‘If it works well enough to drink, I’ll do it and play Every-Flavour Bean Roulette. See how lucky I am.’
‘Maybe you’ll be lucky enough to ask out Lavender Brown,’ Hermione teased. ‘Or stumble upon some other pretty blonde girl who’s less loud.’
‘Pretty bold thing to say for someone who told their first boyfriend to be careful because she wasn’t like all the other girls.’
Hernione scowled. ‘You weren’t my first boyfriend. It doesn’t count. We didn’t even kiss.’
‘I didn’t think you wanted to because you weren’t like all the other girls.’ Harry chuckled at the flush rising on her cheeks. ‘And you trod on my feet at the stupid dance, too.’
‘How do you even make that potion?’ Ron leant his head on his arms and yawned. ‘I’m just going to do something nice and easy and get myself a pass.’
‘Luck,’ Hermione said. ‘But our textbooks don’t give any details, that’s all in the Restricted Section.’
‘I asked Professor Snape, but he won’t give me access until after the holidays,’ Harry replied. ‘My mum said that it’s a really delicate potion and the recipe is different for everyone.’
‘That sounds like a right pain,’ Ron said. ‘Why can’t it be the same for everyone?’
‘Because that’s how it works. If I throw a bunch of leeches, poisonous mushrooms and nightshade into a cauldron, what would you expect to come out?’
‘No idea.’ He shrugged and scrunched up his freckled face. ‘Wouldn’t drink it though, probably die with all that in it.’
‘Exactly,’ Harry said. ‘Because we all believe those things are bad, we all brew some kind of poison. But with felix felicis it’s about luck which is much tricker. Remember when Seamus tried to make it before OWLs because he thought if he drank it he’d not have to revise?’
Ron snorted with laughter. ‘Didn’t he just spend hours hunting for four leaf clovers and give up?’
‘Harry means that he tried to put things that he believed were lucky in and mix them up,’ Hermione said.
‘Which is pretty much what you do, only it’s way more complicated.’ He finished his sandwich and snatched the jug off the table with a triumphant grin. ‘I’m going to go and ask about the arithmantic stuff, mum won’t bother me over Christmas if I say I’m working on that.’
‘You mean you’re asking Professor Snape?’ Hermione pursed her lips. ‘You’re not going to risk your final grades on those ghosts…’
‘You’re just mad they don’t like you enough to give you hints.’ Harry gave her a wave and hurried upstairs, weaving through the crowded corridors and banging on the bathroom door. ‘Are you two in there?’
‘Of course we are,’ Myrtle called back. ‘We can’t go anywhere else because of him.’
He twisted the door open.
She floated through the cubicle doors, shaking her pearl-white fist at the wall. ‘Because someone thought they were cool and edgy and murdered me.’
‘I said I was sorry.’ Tom drifted from the wall. ‘I’d had a bad day.’
‘Oh he had a bad day—’ Myrtle’s voice rose several octaves ‘—oh that makes it all okay then!’
Harry sighed. ‘Not this again. It was fifty years ago. He hasn’t done anything to you since.’
Myrtle growled. ‘Because I’m already dead!’
‘I wish I’d just killed me,’ Tom muttered, burying his face in his hands. ‘The only silver lining is Dumbledore lets me tutor people sometimes. I always did want to be a teacher.’
‘I think you would have failed the duty of care part!’ Myrtle shrieked, zipping into one of the taps and vanishing.
‘Potter.’ A soft murmur caught his ear.
Harry swivelled on his heel, sloshing his jug of red juice close to his shirt. ‘That’s me.’
Sharp, cool, blue eyes studied him from behind a rogue lock of blonde hair. It dangled over one slim eyebrow, brushing the tip of her nose, swaying and fluttering at her lips with each breath.
Who needs felix felicis, Hermione?
‘Is there something on my face?’ He pulled the bathroom door shut behind him, glancing down at the green and silver stripes of her tie. ‘Or is there something I can help you with that the Slytherin prefects can’t, Miss…?’
She turned her nose up and pointed one slim finger across the hall. ‘Let’s talk in there, Potter.’
‘You can just call me Harry. I’d call you something, but you’re going to have to tell me your name for that.’
‘Daphne—’ she swept into the classroom ‘—Daphne Greengrass.’ Her cool blue eyes flicked to the corridor. ‘Close the door.’
Harry quirked one eyebrow but dragged it shut behind him. ‘I think I had a dream that started like this once. There was some vague nonsense about marriage contracts, but most of it involved kissing a pretty blonde girl in an empty classroom.’
‘That’s not going to happen.’ She wrinkled her nose and tugged at the small dark red crescent hanging from her right ear. ‘Ever.’
‘Yeah, I didn’t think I was that lucky.’
Not yet, anyway. Maybe if I ever manage to ask Lavender out.
Harry leant onto the sunlight-dappled desk and took a drink from his jug, enjoying the sweet taste of apples and raspberries. ‘Hmmm, that’s much better than pumpkin. Want some, Daphne?’
‘No thank you.’ Daphne’s forehead creased. ‘I was wondering if you’d heard about Sally-Anne Perks, Potter?’
He sighed. ‘She’s not been swallowed by a trick step. Or fallen off the moving staircases.’
The corner of Daphne’s mouth twitched and she swept the stray lock of hair back over her ear with her little finger. ‘Do you know what has happened to her?’
‘No.’ Harry took another gulp from his jug. ‘Are you one of her friends from the Astronomy Tower gossip club?’
‘Well, I have no idea. I only heard about it just now at lunch. Sorry, I can’t really help.’ He shrugged, hunting for something to say as Daphne’s silence stretched on. ‘Why all the secrecy?’
‘I don’t really wish to be seen associating with a Gryffindor like you, Potter.’ She gave him a wide berth as she strode around him and opened the door. ‘Good day.’
Harry drifted out and watched her green and silver patterned skirt disappear around the corner. ‘Hmmm.’ He made his way into the bathroom opposite and set the jug down between the sinks, battling a small twist of irritation. ‘I feel strangely like I’ve just been entirely dismissed.’
Tom hovered over the white tiles. ‘It’s just children being children. They grow out of it, mostly. It was the same when I was here. If you didn’t have money or a nice family or something like that, they just didn’t care about you.’
Harry scowled. ‘She was very pretty. Probably has a nice family and lots of money.’
An amused smile spread across Tom’s face.
‘Shut up.’ Harry wrestled with the little niggle of his stung pride. ‘Why would anyone care about talking to someone from a different house? No, I’m not buying that. It must be something to do with me. But then why talk to me at all?’
‘What do you know about your new crush?’ Tom leant his head to one side. ‘Would you like to ask Myrtle about girls again? Have you asked Lavender out?’
Harry glared through the ghost at his own reflection in the mirror. ‘Also no.’
‘Well, that’s good. That means she won’t be upset if you ask out this new girl.’ Tom steepled his fingers. ‘Or, if she’s waiting, maybe she’ll hear about you and this girl and give you a hint she’d prefer she had your attention instead.’
‘Stop… plotting,’ Harry muttered. ‘I think Daphne is just really anti-social, I can’t even remember seeing her before.’ He crossed his arms. ‘I’m going to call her Greengrass.’
‘That’s good. That means she’s probably not got every boy in the school trying to impress her.’
‘You wouldn’t say that if you’d seen her,’ he replied. ‘She’s very pretty.’ The little niggle wormed its way deeper. ‘Why doesn’t she like me? I’m pretty sure I’ve never done anything to her. And why come talk to me about those silly rumours if she has a problem with me?’
Makes no sense. Harry shoved his hands into his pockets and found a ball of soft fabric. She doesn’t even know Sally-Anne.
He pulled the ball out, tossing the Hufflepuff tie over the sink. ‘Oh, right. Forgot I found that.’
Dark red blotched the tie’s yellow stripes.
That looks like blood. Unease fluttered in the pit of Harry’s stomach.
‘Romilda got lipstick all over the poor guy…’ He smothered the unease. ‘Wonder if it’s got a name on it.’ Harry flipped it over and untwisted the label. ‘S A Perks.’ A little chill crept down his spine. ‘That doesn’t seem good…’
Harry doodled four leaf clovers around the edges of his parchment, watching the ink spread through the fibres of the page in the gloom of the dungeons.
‘Stuck?’ Hermione crushed dried seeds in a mortar and pestle. ‘Did you figure out the arithmancy?’
‘Yeah… kind of.’ He stared into the dark blotch and set down his quill. ‘You know anything about Sally-Anne, Hermione?’
‘Nobody’s seen her. All her stuff is gone.’ She set her mortar and pestle down. ‘She’s not at school anymore, but nobody really knows why.’
‘I meant about her,‘ Harry said.
Hermione frowned. ‘Why the sudden curiosity?’
‘I found her tie in the trick step. It’s got a big red blotch on it.’
‘Probably nail varnish knowing that lot,’ she replied. ‘Want me to have a look and tell you if it is?’
‘Yeah.’ He studied his thumbnail. ‘I just thought it looked a lot like blood.’
‘The trick steps are harmless, Harry.’ Hermione sighed. ‘Do you have a bit of claustrophobia you never told me about? Get stuck in a small space as a kid?’
‘Like what? A cupboard?’ He snorted. ‘I’m an only child, I have a huge bedroom, remember.’
Ron snickered. ‘Yeah, Hermione, you should remember Harry’s bedroom well.’
‘Shut up, Ronald.’ Hermione flicked a seed at him. ‘You have to finish writing your plan out in the next five minutes, so stay out of this.’
Professor Snape strolled through the class waving a jar of ashwinder eggs above his head. ‘Please do not leave these lying around at the back where they might get forgotten about. If a first year eats one and explodes, I will have wasted a lot of time grading their work this year.’
‘Does that mean we can blow them up at the start of next year?’ Pansy asked.
‘While it would save me some time grading, Pansy, it’s generally not good teaching practice to let your students blow themselves up.’ Professor Snape held out the jar, the wedding ring gleaming on his finger. ‘Go put this back on the top shelf, please.’
She grabbed it with a grin and skipped into the store cupboard.
‘Five minutes!’ Professor Snape sat on the front of his desk and straightened his dark robes. ‘For those desperately trying to finish their plans before the end of the lesson — yes, Ron, I am looking at you — I will accept them in my submissions box any time until Friday. Any later and you drop a grade band.’
Ron perked up. ‘Extra couple days. Nice.’
Harry packed his things away one at a time, watching the hands creep around the clock. ‘You never said if you know anything about Sally-Anne?’
Hermione poured her ground seeds into a vial and stuck the stopper in, pounding it in with her fist. ‘Popular. Gossipy. Kind of bitchy, too, to be honest, she could be pretty nasty to people she thought she was better than.’
‘Anyone really hate her?’
‘Not really.’ She tucked the vial into her cauldron and swung it into the cupboard with a laugh. ‘Do you think you’re investigating a murder?’
‘Well, it is a red blotch.’
‘There are a lot of red things.’ Hermione glanced around and edged closer, lowering her voice. ‘If you miscounted the days or it came early, there might be a good reason why a girl might get a bit of blood on her, Harry.’
He grimaced. ‘On her tie?’
‘Well, if it was a surprise and you didn’t want to have blood all down your legs where everyone can see.’ She tossed her hair over her shoulders. ‘Paper towels aren’t very soft, Harry. You don’t want to shove them anywhere sensitive.’
‘Alright. Alright.’ Harry held his hands up. ‘I’m being stupid. I get it. Please stop talking about periods now.’
Hermione laughed. ‘Boys are so squeamish.’
‘I would try to defend us, but Ron screams at the sight of spiders and Neville faints at the sight of blood.’ He shoved his cauldron alongside hers. ‘I think I just got caught up in the rumours.’
It was Daphne Greengrass being all mysterious, that’s what did it. Harry weighed up asking Hermione. No. She’ll just tease me about liking another pretty blonde girl.
‘We can probably go when Ron’s sorted.’ Hermione swung her bag over her shoulder.
‘Yeah…’ He ran his eyes over the class. ‘This is the only Potions set, right?’
‘Yes,’ she replied. ‘There’s one set for all our electives now, Harry except defense and charms because everyone does them.’
I guess Daphne is in a different set for those. And takes other options.
Ron stuffed his plan into his bag. ‘There. Done for now. Let’s go.’
They headed out and up the stairs, pausing as the section of steps swung across toward their side.
‘Do you still want me to look at that tie?’ Hermione asked.
‘Yeah, probably.’ Harry shrugged. ‘It’ll make me feel better knowing it’s nail varnish.’
‘Or apple and blackcurrant juice,’ Ron said, stepping onto the stairs. ‘Someone bribed the house elves with dirty laundry to get rid of the pumpkin juice on the Hufflepuff table.’
‘Unfair,’ Harry muttered as they hurried off and across to the Fat Lady. ‘I had to eat a whole tuna sandwich.’
Hernione laughed. ‘It was good for you.’ She turned to the Fat Lady. ‘Courage.’
Harry shook his head as they squeezed through the passage into the warm common room. ‘With a password like that, anyone can get in.’
‘At least we can get in,’ Ron said. ‘That stupid door knocker keeps locking first years out of Ravenclaw for getting the riddle wrong three times.’
Hermione sighed. ‘If you tap it and say whatever word they use, it has to let you in. Not everyone has time to answer a riddle.’
‘Huh.’ Ron frowned. ‘Didn’t know that.’
‘Me neither,’ Harry said, starting upstairs.
‘Hey Harry!’ Seamus crouched on the stairs, lining up a thin wooden track. ‘Me and Dean have finally got it working.’
‘You know you’re still going to get friction burns?’ Hermione asked.
‘You said earlier.’ Seamus grinned. ‘We’ve got it sorted, charmed the whole thing. The track goes the whole way up to our floor, too. Spent all afternoon on it.’
‘I’m amazed nobody has tripped over it,’ Harry said. ‘You might want to get something for the landing.’
‘Quiet day.’ Seamus waved a hand outside. ‘Everyone went to play quidditch. Just us and Neville.’ He patted his track. ‘Want in?’
‘Harry likes his skin on his body,’ Hermione said. ‘Right Ron?’
‘It’ll grow back,’ Ron said. ‘You made it go all the way up to the top?’
‘Yeah.’ Seamus laughed. ‘Basically done, but if you want to wake Neville up from his nap, you can come help us make a pile of cushions at the bottom.’
‘Deal. He’ll wake up when he hears the door anyway, nobody can sleep through that.’
Harry followed the wooden track up the stairs.
‘This is actually quite good charm work,’ Hermione muttered. ‘No joins or bumps and it looks like they’ve made it slippery somehow.’
‘So it’s safe?’ Ron asked.
Harry twisted the rattling handle of their dorm door open and tiptoed around Neville’s bed. He pulled open the tap drawer and found a pile of quills and folded parchment.
It’s gone. He dug around. I left it right on top.
‘Afternoon.’ Neville sat up and yawned.
‘Has anyone come up?’ Harry asked.
‘Not in here.’ Neville rubbed his eyes and kicked his sheets back. ‘Seamus and Dean woke me a few times running up and down the stairs though.’
‘They’re almost done,’ Ron said. ‘We just have to pile the cushions at the bottom.’
‘Harry?’ Hermione picked her way across. ‘You got it?’
‘It’s not here.’ Harry slid the drawer shut. ‘Someone’s taken it.’
Ron pointed at the window. ‘Could have flown in.’
‘And nobody saw?’ Hermione asked.
‘It’s five floors, Ronald. And the stones were put together with magic, there’re basically no handholds.’ Hermione turned to Neville. ‘You didn’t hear anyone?’
‘Nah, if they came in, they were really sneaky to not wake me up with that stupid door handle.’
‘Weird,’ she said. ‘You definitely had it, Harry?’
‘Just asking.’ Hermione held her hands up. ‘Because if nobody could have pinched it, and I don’t know who would even know or want to pinch it, it seems more likely you left it somewhere.’
‘Well, I didn’t.’ Harry scowled. ‘I think.’
The only person I told was Hermione. And Tom. He shook off a creeping sense of unease. I must have lost it or something. Somehow.
‘Not that way…’ Harry shook his head and pointed along the corridor. ‘Over there… Seriously, how have you been here for an entire term and still can’t find your classes.’
The gaggle of firsties scuttled off under their huge backpacks.
‘Oi!’ A girl yelled. ‘Greengrass!’
Harry twisted around.
A group of older Hufflepuff girls surrounded a flash of blonde hair. He drifted over, peering through the people for a glimpse of blue eyes.
‘You think it’s funny to tell people Sal got swallowed by a trickstep?’ Hannah Abbot snapped. ‘Let’s see how you like it, weirdo.’
Harry paused a few steps below and cleared his throat. ‘Want to repeat that, Hannah?’
She flushed. ‘Er… hi Harry?’ Hannah batted her eyelashes. ‘We’re just messing with our friend.’
‘Oh, that’s okay. Why don’t you all hop up a step then? Just for a laugh, you know.’
‘But…’ Hannah wilted and stuck her foot into the trick step. ‘Fine….whatever, Mr Prefect.’
Her friends snickered and stuck their feet in too.
‘Not you, Greengrass.’ Harry unstuck the slim leg beneath the green and silver skirt. ‘You come down here.’
A small, blonde-haired girl crept out from behind the others, staring hard at the floor.
Not Daphne. Faint disappointment gnawed at him. Oh well.
‘Come in here.’ Harry ducked into the nearest classroom.
She shuffled in after him. ‘Am I in trouble?’
‘Not as much as they might be.’ He frowned. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Astoria,’ she muttered.
‘Astoria Greengrass?’ Harry nodded. ‘I know your sister.’
Astoria’s head snapped up, mis-matched green and blue eyes wide. ‘You know Daphne?’
‘Not all that well. We spoke once.’
‘Oh.’ Her shoulders sagged. ‘Well, yes. I’m her younger sister. The one with the funny eyes.’
‘They make comments about them?’ Harry sat on a desk, swinging his feet from it. ‘Don’t listen. There’s nothing wrong with your eyes. They’re very pretty.’
Astoria turned pink. ‘It’s a blood malediction,’ she mumbled. ‘Someone cursed one of our ancestors to make all her children like him after she rejected his proposal.’
‘How petty.’ Harry rolled his eyes, thinking of Daphne’s cool blue stare. ‘So you got a green eye out of it?’
‘It’s very mild,’ she muttered. ‘The curse happened a while ago, so it’s really rare for it to appear or fully take hold.’
‘Just unlucky then.’ He patted her on the shoulder. ‘They’re just jealous. You’ve got something that makes you special and they want to be special too. I’m sure there are way worse reasons you could have heterochromia.’
‘They don’t leave me alone,’ she whispered. ‘Sally-Anne stuck me to a gargoyle on Monday and left me there for an hour so I got detention.’
‘Oh I’m going to talk to them,’ Harry promised. ‘And if it happens again, tell a teacher, or me, or even your sister.’
Astoria shook her head. ‘I can’t tell Daphne.’
‘No?’ Harry chuckled. ‘Too embarrassing? Well, come find me or a teacher then. Promise?’
She nodded her head. ‘I promise.’
‘You go to class before you’re late.’ He caught her mismatched eyes and grinned. ‘I’m going to leave them in the trick step so they’re late and get detention too.’
Astoria giggled and skipped out.
‘Right.’ Harry strode back onto the stairs. ‘Couple of questions for you lot. Why do you think it’s okay to incessantly torment her?’
‘She said Sal got swallowed by a trick step!’ Hannah retorted. ‘We haven’t seen her since she snuck out to meet the boy that slipped her that note. Nobody has!’
‘Sally-Anne left long after you started picking on Astoria and if something had actually happened to her we would all know. The teachers would have said.’ He smothered a flutter of unease as the red-blotched tie welled up from the back of his mind and waved their protests away, pulling his wand out. ‘Thirty points from Hufflepuff. Each.’ He tapped his wand against his prefect badge. ‘Good luck explaining why your constant bullying of Astoria has set your house halfway back to zero.’
‘That’s not fair!’ Hannah cried. ‘You can’t do that!’
‘I can.’ Harry pointed his wand at the step. ‘Confundus. What I shouldn’t do is leave you all here so you’re late and get detention. But I still can…’
‘What!’ Hannah blurted, yanking her foot. ‘No. Harry, come on. We’re sorry. We took the joke too far, but we didn’t mean to upset her!’
‘I’m glad you understand that.’ Harry tucked his wand away. ‘It gives me confidence to know I won’t hear about this again.’ He strode off, ignoring their shouting.
Sally-Anne snuck out to see a boy and vanished. Snuck out of the common room? Or the school? Harry froze, a little knot of anxiety tightening in his gut. I should ask someone. Just in case.
He hurried down the corridor to the gargoyle. ‘Cockroach Cluster. Fizzing Whizbee. Liquorice Allsorts.’
The gargoyle stepped aside and he leapt up the stairs to the old, worn headmaster’s door.
‘Professor?’ Harry knocked. ‘Is this a good time?’
The door creaked open and Professor Dumbledore stuck his head and half his long silver beard out. ‘Ah, Harry. Do come in.’ He pulled the door open and wandered back to his desk. ‘Was there something you needed?’
‘Some of the Hufflepuff girls said Sally-Anne hasn’t been seen in a few days…?’
‘Ah…’ Professor Dumbledore smiled. ‘Yes. I’m afraid Sally-Anne is in St Mungo’s. She collapsed on a midnight excursion to meet an unnamed boy and was taken straight there. Her family informed us she is still in hospital but that’s all we’ve been told.’
‘So she’s okay?’
Professor Dumbledore plucked a sherbet lemon from the bowl on his desk and unwrapped it. ‘I got the impression her family were worried, as one would expect, but not overly so. Naturally, the school has decided upon a more exciting series of events.’ He chuckled and popped the sweet in his mouth. ‘It’s always the trick steps and the moving staircases that get blamed. Although my personal favourite is that our very mild-mannered and kind Professor Snape is a vampire and attacked her.’
Harry laughed. ‘Professor Snape? Attack someone?’
Professor Dumbledore smiled. ‘Indeed, Harry. I don’t think I’ve heard him raise his voice in almost ten years now, but the school does love its little stories.’ He sucked on the sweet, clicking it against his teeth. ‘Please don’t inform anyone of Sally-Anne’s predicament. I’m sure she would rather tell everyone herself when she returns and no doubt fears of dragon pox or more serious maladies might spread if people hear she is in hospital without being told why.’
‘Of course not, sir.’ Harry flushed. ‘Thank you for telling me. And sorry for wasting your time.’
‘No need to apologise. I’m glad to see you were concerned about a fellow pupil.’ Professor Dumbledore smiled and patted his beard. ‘You’ve been an excellent prefect.’
‘Thank you, sir.’ Guilt stabbed at him. ‘I should go, sir, just in case there’s anyone I need to let out of a trick step.’
An amused gleam hovered in the headmaster’s blue eyes. ‘Have a good day, Harry.’
The broom cupboard burst open and Romilda stumbled out, giggling and straightening her skirt.
‘Vane…’ Harry snorted. ‘Why is it always you?’
Her boyfriend gulped. ‘You’re not going to put us in the trick step all night are you?’
Romilda swiped smeared lipstick off her face and shrugged. ‘Boys like me.’
‘Twenty points.’ Harry tapped his wand against the badge. ‘At least put up a silencing charm next time, Vane. You using your little girl voice as you give him a handjob is going to haunt my nightmares.’
Romilda turned bright red. ‘Please don’t tell anyone about that.’
‘If I tell everyone the whole school will know and I’ll never be able to repress the memory.’ He laughed. ‘Go to bed. And make sure to listen to your boyfriend about being careful with your long nails.’
Her boyfriend hovered. ‘Er…’
‘Why are you still here?’ Harry asked. ‘I’m going to take twenty points off you too.’
‘No, for sneaking out to get a handjob from your girlfriend at eleven in the evening.’
‘Jealous?’ Her boyfriend sneered. ‘Do you even have a girlfriend?’
‘Jealous of someone digging their nails into my dick?’ Harry laughed. ‘Yeah, I’m dying of envy.’ He put on his best falsetto. ‘Are you close? You’re so big.’
He flushed. ‘Fuck off, Potter.’
Harry raised an eyebrow.
‘Shit. Sorry. Don’t take more points. Hufflepuff is already dead in the water because of Hannah Abbott and her stupid friends.’
‘Just go to bed. Your bed.‘
‘Right.’ He stomped off down the stairs. ‘Night, Potter.’
Harry chuckled. ‘Fear my great and terrifying authority, lowly students, for I can take away a small number of glass rocks in a big hourglass.’
A quiet laugh drifted over his shoulder.
He whirled around.
‘Good evening, Potter.’ Daphne’s cool blue eyes measured him from three steps up, the stray lock of her blonde hair casting a faint shadow over her face.
‘Yeah, I’m still going to have to take twenty points,’ Harry said. ‘But good evening and thank you for being so polite.’
‘I came to find you.’ She descended a step, her bare feet padding over the smooth stone. ‘I don’t care about house points.’
‘And you couldn’t just find me before curfew?’
Daphne swept her rogue hair back over her garnet-crescent-adorned right ear and turned her nose up. ‘I don’t want to be seen associating with a Gryffindor, Potter.’
Harry rolled his eyes. ‘Not buying that at all, but whatever. What did you want, Da – Greengrass?’
‘You helped my sister with those stupid girls.’ A hint of a smile curved her lips, sending a warm glow through his chest. ‘Thank you.’
‘I think she’s right.’
‘Something did happen to Sally-Anne, Potter,’ Daphne murmured, dipping her hand into the pocket of her robes. ‘Something suspicious.’ She held out Sally-Anne’s tie. ‘Sorry for borrowing this.’
Harry shrugged. ‘How did you even get it?’
He laughed. ‘Cute, Greengrass. That’s very cute.’
Daphne’s cool blue stare pierced through him and she dropped down one more step to drape the tie over his shoulder. ‘I’d like to help find out what happened to Sally-Anne, I’ve heard things…’
‘So have I.’ He stuffed the tie into his pocket.
She froze, the lock of blonde hair slipping down across her face. ‘You have?’
Harry drew himself up. ‘I have. Professor Dumbledore told me she was ill.’
‘Ill?’ Daphne slid a step back up the stairs and rested a hand on the balustrade. ‘She’s in St Mungo’s?’
‘Well—’ a little niggle of doubt wormed in ‘—he didn’t say ill, actually. Just that she was in St Mungo’s and not to spread rumours.’
‘Oh…’ Daphne’s pale blue eyes bored into his like sharp little chips of ice. ‘Maybe I was mistaken.’
‘He didn’t say ill,’ Harry muttered. ‘Just that she collapsed. And this tie has a big red blotch on it…’
‘It could just be apple and raspberry juice. I apologise for wasting your time, Potter.’ Daphne turned away.
‘No!’ Harry flushed as she swivelled around on her heels and cocked her head. ‘I mean, I think it’s worth making sure, don’t you? What if you’re right?’
‘I suppose it is.’ She studied her fingernails. ‘What did you have in mind? I don’t want to be seen associating—’
‘Still not buying that.’ He rolled his eyes. ‘But I have to patrol, so we can’t really stay here and talk for ages now.’
Daphne’s stare froze over. ‘Hogsmeade, Potter. The Shrieking Shack. Lunchtime. Tomorrow.’ She turned on her heel and swept upstairs.
Harry watched the hem of her skirt flutter against her dark tights as she walked away from him. ‘It’s a date, Greengrass,’ he murmured under his breath. ‘Maybe you’ll even tell me why you don’t seem to like me when I’ve done nothing to you.’
Daphne paused at the top of the steps, throwing a swift glance back at him as she vanished into the dark corridors, and his heart flip-flopped in his chest.
She’s so pretty, but so chilly. Harry bit the inside of his cheek. It’s going to be cold tomorrow too. Supposed to snow all day. And my coat looks stupid on me.
He trudged down the steps, ignoring the flitting portraits and the distant grey figure of the Ravenclaw ghost. ‘I should ask Hermione about Daphne, maybe she’ll know why she doesn’t like me. Or what she does like.’
Professor Snape drifted through the Great Hall, sweeping through the sunlight streaming through the windows to the high table.
‘Harry…’ Hermione waved a hand in front of his face. ‘You aren’t eating? You said you’d be busy.’
He picked up a sandwich and fixed it with a long look. ‘If you turn into tuna, I expect some kind of compensation.’ Harry took a bite and grimaced at the taste of fish. ‘I knew it.’
A jug of apple and raspberry juice appeared on the table in front of him.
‘I hate this castle.’ He sighed. ‘It’s doing this just to mess with me.’
Hermione laughed. ‘So what are you busy doing? You’re dressed for Hogsmeade…’
Harry patted his gloves. ‘That’s where I’m going in a minute.’ He frowned. ‘Do you know anything about Daphne Greengrass?’
‘Do I know anything about a very pretty blonde girl?’ Mischief shone in her brown eyes. ‘I might.’
‘Very funny,’ Harry groused. ‘Do you?’
‘Not really. I’m not omniscient.’ Hermione reached out and picked up half his sandwich, smiling as it turned back to ham salad. ‘She’s very pretty and even more anti-social.’
Harry stared at the sandwich. ‘Feed me.’
She choked. ‘What?’
‘It might not be tuna if you feed me,’ he said. ‘It’s – er – a test of the magic of the castle.’
Hermione held the sandwich out, pink-faced. It turned to tuna.
‘Damn it.’ Harry sighed and took his sandwich back, chewing on his mouthful with a sullen glare. ‘Is that all you know about her?’
‘She does very well in theory subjects but not practical ones from the exam scores I’ve seen, but I don’t share any classes with her.’ She fixed Harry with a knowing look. ‘Probably not girlfriend material, Harry. Just ask Lavender out already.’
‘I don’t want to ask Lavender.’
Hermione’s eyebrows shot up. ‘Really?’
Harry frowned. ‘Hmmm, I thought I was lying, but I’m not sure I am…’
‘You’ve got a new crush.’ She laughed. ‘Well, good luck. I think you’re going to get a cold shoulder.’
He flashed her a grin and swung himself off the bench. ‘Who do you think I’m meeting in Hogsmeade?’
‘What?’ Hermione stared as he pulled on his gloves. ‘You’re on a date with her?!’
It’s not a date really. Harry picked up his jug and winked, strolling out into the cold breeze. And she might not even turn up. Who knows.
Snow swirled down from the dim grey sky, piling in smooth white mounds across the ground. He shivered as the breeze bit through his clothes and hurried down toward Hogsmeade.
A single set of footprints led away up to the Shrieking Shack through ankle-high snow.
‘Well, someone’s here.’ Harry winced as the cold soaked into his shoes and stumbled up the slope. ‘Someone who’s going to have very cold wet feet like me.’
Daphne sat on one of the wooden chairs in the middle of the shack, snow dusted the shoulders of her uniform.
Harry picked up one of the other chairs and brushed the snow off. ‘I am freezing.’ He took a seat, glancing at her thin, dark tights and thigh-length skirt. ‘Good at warming charms?’
She fixed him with a cool stare. ‘Better than you, Potter.’
‘I have gloves… Greengrass.‘ He balanced the jug on his lap and wiggled his fingers at her. ‘See.’
Daphne cocked her head, sending that stray lock of her hair swaying back and forth across her face, brushing the tip of her nose. ‘I don’t have gloves.’ She held up her bare hands.
Harry pulled his off. ‘Here. Even warming charms don’t work that well, you feel warmer than you really are, and you’ve been sitting out here in the cold waiting for me.’
Daphne’s lips pursed. ‘Thank you, Potter.’ She took the gloves, her ice-cold fingers brushing his.
Harry flinched from the chill. ‘You’re welcome, Greengrass. It feels like you needed them more than me.’
A faint smile graced her lips. ‘Such a gentleman.’
‘I try.’ He stuck his hands under his legs. ‘I may need them back in a bit though, or at least one, so the frostbite only takes half my fingers.’
‘You only need one hand to stir a cauldron.’
Harry snorted. ‘It takes two to chop things though and sometimes you have to stir in patterns that need two hands to get perfectly right.’
‘I don’t take Potions,’ Daphne said.
‘What do you take? You’re not in any of my classes.’
‘I prefer theoretical subjects. I don’t need to wave a wand around to be good at those.’
‘So you’re not good with a wand, then.’ Harry grinned. ‘Sounds like you and Romilda have something in common.’
She wrinkled her nose, tugging at the red crescent dangling from her right ear. ‘I don’t care to be associated with that girl. She’s messed around with more boys than half our year put together.’
‘You sound like Hermione.’ He laughed. ‘You know, when I went with her to the Yule Ball last year, she warned me I had to be careful because she wasn’t like the other girls.‘
The corner of Daphne’s mouth twitched and she lowered her hand, leaving her garnet earring swaying before her blonde hair. ‘Well, Potter, I am not like all the other girls.’
Harry rolled his eyes. ‘Yes you’re very pretty and far more anti-social than even Hermione when she’s sulking in the library. I noticed it somewhere between you looking down your nose at me and calling me by my last name all the time.’
‘Would you prefer I call you Harry, Potter?’
‘Only my mum calls me by my full name, Greengrass. Just Harry will do.’
A peal of laughter burst from her in a flash of white teeth and sparkling blue eyes. ‘If you insist, Harry.’
Harry stared, watching the snowflakes tumble down her pale blonde hair and cling to her lashes. She looks like a princess.
‘It’s rude to stare,’ Daphne murmured.
He flushed. ‘I was watching the snow. You’ve got some in your hair…’
She shook her hair out, sending white snowflakes floating to her feet, and scooped her lock of hair behind her ear with her little finger. ‘Better?’
‘You looked pretty with snow in your hair.’ Harry blinked, heat creeping across his face. ‘Let’s pretend I didn’t blurt that out.’ He glanced around at the battered walls and down into his jug at the red juice. ‘Er… drink?’
‘No thank you, Harry,’ Daphne said.
Harry took a drink from his jug. ‘It’s nice. Sure?’
‘Right…’ He balanced the jug on his lap and pulled out Sally-Anne’s tie. ‘I found this on the stairs. In the trick step, actually. And I know she slipped out to meet a boy, but collapsed and was found and taken to St Mungo’s.’
‘You know more than I do,’ she said. ‘Have you asked anyone what’s on the tie?’
Harry grimaced. ‘Damn. I meant to ask Hermione to check. She thinks it’s nail varnish or something.’
Daphne reached out a gloved hand. ‘May I?’
He handed it across. ‘Of course, my lady.’
Her lips twitched as she took it, turning it over. ‘I’m pretty sure this is either ink or juice or wine. She must have taken it off and spilt something on it.’ Daphne’s pale blue eyes studied the blotch. ‘If she snuck out to meet a boy, she might well have been taking her clothes off without great care. She was that sort of girl.’
‘I didn’t think of that.’ Harry flushed. ‘I jumped to sinister things.’
‘Blood?’ A faint smile flitted across her face. ‘If she was wearing this she’d have to have been stabbed in the neck. There’d be lots more blood than this blotch.’
‘I don’t think Professor Dumbledore would say she collapsed if they found her in a puddle of blood.’
‘And she’d be dead, not in St Mungo’s.’ Harry chuckled. ‘Unless Professor Snape really is a vampire and she’s now an undead fiend lurking somewhere in the Potions store cupboards.’
Daphne smiled and tucked the tie into her pocket. ‘Astoria will be very upset to hear Sally-Anne is a vampire, she’s scared of vampires.’
‘I’m more worried about Professor Snape, he’s grading my project. If I expose him he might fail me.’ Harry snorted. ‘Professor Dumbledore said that was his favourite rumour.’ He took a drink from the jug, spilling juice down his chin.
Her blue eyes tracked the trickle down his face. ‘Do you always carry a jug of juice around?’
He swiped the red juice off his face with his coat sleeve. ‘The castle keeps trying to make me eat tuna sandwiches, but we have reached a compromise where I eat tuna but don’t have to drink pumpkin juice.’
A faint smile crooked Daphne’s lips. ‘That has to be the most ridiculous thing anyone has ever told me.’
‘It’s true.’ Harry weighed the cold jug and shivered. ‘I might’ve preferred a hot drink today, though anything is better than pumpkin juice.’
Daphne cocked her head, measuring him with her cool stare.
‘But I’ve got Potions next, so that’ll be warm. I’m trying to make felix felicis for my project.’
‘Why?’ Harry flushed. ‘Well, I thought it would be a challenge and if it worked out I could drink it and maybe somehow ask Lavender out, but right now it feels like I might need it to get through his conversation without horribly embarrassing myself.’
‘Lavender Brown?’ She turned her nose up. ‘Doesn’t she have a bit of a reputation for going through boyfriends? Can’t you just… wait your turn?’
‘Wow… you’re really mean.’ He swirled the juice in the jug, watching the red liquid whirl. ‘Not sure I’d end up asking her out now, actually anyway. It doesn’t feel the same, thinking about it.’
And dad says you just know when you see her.
Daphne’s stare prickled the hairs on the back of his neck.
‘Of course, it’s really hard to brew felix felicis, so it probably doesn’t matter. I might get a non-tuna sandwich if I succeed though, so I really hope it works.’
Her lips twitched.
‘I feel like I’m rambling…’ Harry set the jug down and crammed his cold hands under his legs. ‘I can shut up if you want?’
‘I don’t mind,’ Daphne murmured. ‘I like the quiet though.’
He shuffled his feet. ‘Do you just really dislike me? Or is it everyone?’
‘No.’ She blinked a stray snowflake off her long eyelashes and huffed it away onto the floor. ‘I just like the quiet, Harry. It’s peaceful.’
‘Oh. I’ll shut up, then.’
A small smile graced Daphne’s lips as she stood up, shedding a small swirl of snow and scooping the lock of blonde hair over her ear. ‘Thank you for lending me your gloves.’ She pulled them off and held them out. ‘And for helping me find out about Sally-Anne, even if nothing happened to her after all.’
Harry’s fingers brushed her cold skin. ‘You can keep them for a bit if you want.’
‘It’s okay, I don’t feel cold.’ She pressed the gloves back into his palm. ‘You’re warm though…’ Her hands lingered and something flickered through her pale blue eyes. ‘Very warm.’
‘I don’t feel very warm, but you can have my extremely stylish coat if you’re cold?’ Harry dragged his courage up through a storm of butterflies, his heart in his mouth. ‘Or an arm…?’
‘No thank you, Harry.’ Daphne stepped past him out into the snow with a small smile. ‘Good afternoon.’
He watched her slim figure drift through the swirling snow, his heart hammering against his ribs. ‘Will you come find me again?’ he whispered. ‘Or am I going to have to brew felix felicis for that?’
Daphne paused out in the snow, sweeping her blonde hair back over her shoulders, and continued down the slope until the top of her head disappeared.
The cold crept in through his coat and he shivered, stamping his numb feet. ‘I guess it’s a good thing she said no, Harry. Imagine if she’d wanted to kiss you and you just tasted like tuna. That’s a dealbreaker.’
Not that she would. He poked a finger at his stomach and the little tremble fluttering within. I think I might be in love. Dad always says he just knew. And mum turned him down loads too.
‘Harry, are you dating Daphne Greengrass?!’ Seamus yelled across the common room.
Heads turned and a low murmur rang through the huddles.
‘Is it true?’ Lavender demanded. ‘Has Greengrass stolen you? I didn’t think that prissy bitch even liked boys.’
Harry flushed and fled through the passage after Ron and Hermione. ‘Okay, why does everyone think that’s a thing?’
Hernone turned pink. ‘I asked Ron if you’d been talking about her, like boy stuff, but he didn’t know you even knew who she was, so I told him about Hogsmeade.’
‘Ron…’ Harry glared at the back of Ron’s head as he waved first years out of their way ‘You want to own up to anything?’
Ron shot him a rueful grin. ‘I might have mentioned it to a couple people.’
‘So the entire school thinks we’re dating now. Great. Daphne’s probably going to kill me.’
‘I’m sure it will go away,’ Hermione said, stepping over the trick step. ‘We’re going home for Christmas tomorrow anyway and it will all be forgotten when we come back.’
‘What if she really doesn’t like it? Harry groaned and stuffed his hands into his pockets. ‘I hate you, Ron.’
Ron laughed. ‘It’s Hermione’s fault too.’
‘Fine. I also hate you, Hermione.’
‘You have a huge crush on her, don’t you?’ Hermione hid a smile behind her hand. ‘Are you going to ask her out?’
‘No.’ Harry growled and stalked through the crowd toward the Great Hall. ‘I’m going to have my breakfast and if I see a single tuna sandwich then things are going to get cursed.’
‘Lavender didn’t seem very happy,’ Hermione said, hot on his heels. ‘Stolen you? Sounds like she had someone else in mind for you to be dating…’
Harry slid onto the end seat and piled sausages and scrambled eggs onto his plate. ‘Well, I don’t want to ask Lavender out anymore.’
‘So you are thinking about Daphne Greengrass.’
‘I’m thinking about breakfast.’ Harry stuffed an entire sausage into his mouth and chomped on it.
She laughed. ‘You know, I’m sure if you asked, Daphne would give you a chance.’
He grabbed the toast rack and the butter, swallowing his mouthful. ‘Let me enjoy my tuna free meal, Hermione. Go pester Ron about his Potions project, I bet he hasn’t finished that plan yet.’
Ron groaned. ‘Thanks, mate.’
Hermione crossed her arms. ‘That’s due today.‘
‘I know. I’ll do it.’ He flapped a hand in the air. ‘Later.’
A small hand tugged at Harry’s sleeve. ‘Harry…’
Harry turned and caught Astoria’s mismatched eyes. ‘Hey, Astoria. Are you okay? You haven’t come to find me because of those girls, have you?’
‘No.’ She shook her head and tugged at his sleeve. ‘Can we talk? Outside?’
‘Of course.’ Harry stood up and followed her out through a beam of bright morning sun into the corridor. ‘What do you need?’
Astoria chewed at her lip. ‘Are you spending time with my sister?’ A little gleam of worry hovered in her mismatched eyes. ‘Alone?’
‘Oh.’ Harry flushed. ‘I met up with her in Hogsmeade. We’re not dating or anything really.’ He winced. ‘Not that I wouldn’t date your sister. She’s really pretty and seems very nice, but we’re not, so – er – don’t look so anxious?’
Wait, did Daphne send her?
‘I do like your sister,’ Harry blurted. ‘She’s very beautiful and she’s got a nice laugh. And I kind of like how she looks down her nose at me sometimes. And that lock of her hair is pretty. And I really like her earring…’
And she looks like a princess in the snow. Fluttering flooded his stomach. I might actually love her a little bit.
‘I think she’s a bit out of my league though.’ He struggled with the heat creeping up his face. ‘You’re being as quiet as she is, now, and it’s making me ramble.’
‘I don’t think Daphne is a very good girlfriend for you,’ Astoria whispered. ‘She’s… romantic.’
‘She has cold fingers, too.’ Harry laughed. ‘We’re not dating, Astoria. We’ve only spoken a few times. It’s just a rumour.’
‘Okay.’ She frowned. ‘I guess it’s basically Christmas, so we’re all going home.’
‘Yeah,’ he said, nodding. ‘She’ll have forgotten all about me by next term, don’t worry.’ A cold sick feeling drowned the butterflies in his stomach. ‘Which, yeah…’
Astoria squirmed. ‘Bye Harry.’ She darted away into the Great Hall.
Well, that was weird. He took a deep breath and stuffed his hands in his pockets.
Parchment crinkled under his right hand. Harry blinked and pulled the square out, unfolding the pages. Small, slanted handwriting sat in the middle of the page.
Meet me at the Prefects’ Bathroom. Daphne. His heart skipped. That was sneaky. Did Astoria stick that in my pocket?
Harry hurried up the stairs, jumping the trick step and glancing around.
Daphne leant against the door, her blue eyes cold and hard as little chips of ice. ‘You know the password, Potter?’
Harry flinched. ‘Pine fresh.’
The door swung open and she swept inside across the white tiles to stand by the bath taps.
‘Er…’ He edged in after her. ‘So you seem kind of mad with me…?’
‘Half the school seems to think we’re dating, Potter.’ She swiped the lock of hair dangling over her face back over her head. ‘I don’t recall ever going on a date with you, do you?’
‘Yeah… sorry about that. My friends are idiots. Mostly Ron, really.’
Daphne cocked her head. ‘You didn’t tell everyone that?’
‘No!’ Harry grimaced. ‘Of course not. I said I was meeting you and they did all the rest themselves.’
‘What did you say to my sister, Harry?’
A received sigh slipped from his lips and he drifted to stand across the taps from her. ‘She was just asking about the rumours.’
‘And you said what to her?’
Harry flushed. ‘That we weren’t dating. She seemed pretty worried about you.’
Daphne’s cool stare pierced through him. ‘You were taking too long for it to just be that.’
‘Well… I didn’t want her to think I didn’t like you,’ he mumbled. ‘Like, if I’d just laughed it off, it might have seemed like I didn’t think you were worth dating. And obviously…’
His face burnt. ‘Well, you are very pretty. And you have a nice laugh.’
Daphne measured his expression with a cool look, toying with her earring.
Harry scowled. ‘Is the idea of dating me that bad. Like, I’m not Diggory or Roger Davies, but I’m not totally repulsive.’
‘I don’t want to—’
‘Be associated with me. I know. I got that. But you’re not exactly the most popular girl in the world, Daphne.’ He jabbed a finger at her, catching his knuckles on the tap. ‘And I’m not a troll, it’s not like the idea of dating me should disgust you that much.’
‘You’re bleeding,’ she murmured, her eyes dropping to his hand.
‘Bleeding?’ Harry glanced down at the red welling up through the torn skin on his knuckle and felt the soft sting of it. ‘Oh, the tap.’ He pulled his wand out and frowned. ‘What is the spell?’
‘Episkey or vulnera sanentur.’ She ran a finger along the edge of the tap and studied the smear of red on her forefinger.
‘Episkey,’ Harry muttered, watching the graze melt closed. ‘That’s better.’
Daphne dropped her hand back to her side. ‘I’m not upset, Harry.’ She flashed him a small smile, her pale blue eyes bright with cheer. ‘You’re quite sweet, actually.’
Harry’s heart leapt into his mouth. ‘Really? Is it the embarrassing rambling?’ He flushed. ‘I probably sound like a complete idiot, but you weren’t saying much so I felt like I should be saying something so you weren’t bored.’
‘Definitely sweet.’ Daphne stepped past the tap and reached up to cup his face in her cold fingers, pulling his lips to hers.
Harry’s heart hammered as they kissed, a faint copper tang lingering on his lips.
She drew back, her blue eyes sparkling. ‘You should come visit me over the holidays, Harry.’
Daphne dipped a hand into her pocket and pulled out a green-feathered quill. ‘Have you got my note?’
Harry pulled it out of his pocket and handed it over. She smoothed it out on the side of the bath, rolling the quill between the smooth pale skin of her thumb and forefinger, and wrote a single line underneath her name.
‘That’s the floo address.’ Daphne folded it up and tucked her quill away. ‘Come over in the evening one day. Maybe next Monday?’
Harry mustered all his courage and took a shaky breath through the butterflies. ‘It’s a date.’
She laughed. ‘This time it really is.’
‘Will it be okay with your parents?’ he asked.
‘They’re not going to be about.’ Daphne cocked her head, sending the red crescent swaying under her right ear lobe on its little silver chain. ‘Will it be okay with yours?’
‘I’ll probably sneak out,’ Harry confessed. ‘Or tell them I’m going to see Ron or Hermione. Otherwise they’ll ask me about you for days.’
‘Then I’ll see you then.’ She vanished with a smile, sweeping her rogue lock of hair over her ear.
His parents’ voices rose up the stairs from the kitchen, their laughter drifting past the paintings and pile of coats beside the door. Harry tiptoed down, avoiding the creaking step, and crept into the hall.
The fire crackled in the grate, its orange tongues flickering over the glowing logs and filling the room with the sweet scent of burning pine.
Just have to leave them a note. He pulled out his handwritten one and slid it onto the table into the fading dusk light. And now I can sneak off. Even dad won’t know where I’ve been if I don’t get caught in the Floo.
His heart pounded as he unfolded Daphne’s note and took a pinch of Floo powder. ‘Whitefern Oast,’ Harry whispered, casting his powder into the fire.
He stepped onto a whirl of green flame and stumbled out onto a hard, cool wooden floor.
Shelves of books rose up the inside of the curved oast tower walls, gold letters on their spines gleaming in the light of the wall lanterns mounted either side of the thick, black curtains.
He glanced past the reading desk and comfortable chairs. ‘Daphne?’ His breath misted the air.
A flash of movement caught the corner of his eye.
Harry turned, his heart leaping into his mouth.
His reflection stared back from the bedroom mirror at the end of the corridor, growing larger as he drifted toward it down the corridor.
‘That’s Astoria’s room,’ Daphne murmured.
His heart lurched and he turned around. ‘You made me jump.’
She stood a few steps away in a knee-length black dress, a faint smile on her lips and one rogue lock of blonde hanging over her face. ‘Astoria’s not here. I told her I’d invited you over, so she went to stay with a friend.’
Butterflies fluttered in Harry’s stomach. ‘So it’s just us?’
‘Just us.’ Daphne spun on her heel and swept back into the oast on bare feet. ‘My parents live in the manor up the long drive, but Astoria and I have this oast to ourselves.’
She wrinkled her nose. ‘We’re an old family.’
Harry stared up at the books. ‘This is an amazing library. Are they all yours?’
‘My romance collection. I like romance.’ Daphne pulled the edge of the dark curtain forward, peeking out. ‘Do you want to see the garden?’
‘Of course,’ he blurted. ‘I help my mum with our garden. It’s mostly just pots of flowers, but someone has to chop the flowers to keep them flowering and that someone is me.’
‘We’ve got a winter garden. For the snow.’ She swept the curtain aside. ‘See?’
Snow-veiled small conifers and marble statues beyond the clear, frosted-panes; it piled at the edge of the ponds, soft and white as cotton.
Daphne bent down, the hem of her dress sliding up to her thighs, and flicked a small strip of metal out. ‘We can go out if you like? The garden’s very beautiful at night.’
She pushed the window open and stepped out into the snow. Small flecks of white drifted down past her slim shoulders, tumbling over the black silk of her dress and resting in her blond hair.
‘You’re going to get cold,’ Harry mumbled, his breath turning to clouds of mist as he stepped out after her. ‘In just that dress and no shoes.’
‘Do you like it?’ Daphne smoothed the dress out, spinning in the light of the pale, bright moon. ‘I think it goes well with my earring.’
‘You look amazing.’ Heat flooded his face.
‘You said I look pretty in the snow.’
‘Like a princess,’ Harry murmured, a trembling ball of butterflies hovered in his stomach. ‘You’re so pretty.’
‘You’re very sweet, Harry.’ Daphne held out her hand. ‘Did Astoria tell you how much I like romance stories?’
‘I think she mentioned romance in there somewhere.’ Harry took her cold fingers.
‘All the boys are always tall and handsome and kind,’ she murmured, leading him through the snow-veiled gardens. ‘And they make such grand promises. But they always keep them.’
‘I don’t read many romance books,’ Harry confessed. ‘But I wish I had right now, which is very embarrassing.’
She laughed. ‘I never really wanted to date any boys at school. They’re nothing like the boys in my books. They’re rude and annoying and they care about short skirts more than the person wearing them.’
Harry flushed. ‘I’ve only looked at your skirt once. Maybe twice. At most three times.’
Daphne’s lips twitched and she paused before a white-veiled bench between two conifers. ‘You’re not taking my hint, Harry. We’re standing in the snow under the moon talking about romance. You’re meant to come and kiss me.’
Harry’s heart lurched. ‘Sorry.’ He took a shaky breath and stepped close to her.
She tilted her chin up at him, her pink lips parting. ‘If you kiss me and it feels right, then I know we’re meant to be together. And nothing bad will come between us. Not even my family’s curse.’
‘Astoria’s green eye really doesn’t seem so bad,’ Harry said. ‘I think her eyes are pretty.’
‘She’s only mildly affected. She’s lucky.’ Daphne’s cold arms slipped around his neck and pulled him down into a long cool soft kiss.
‘Too nervous to feel cold,’ he mumbled. ‘And maybe excited.’
She leant back, the moon’s reflection shining bright in her pale blue eyes. ‘You didn’t need felix felicis to fall in love after all.’
Harry flushed, the butterflies swirling in his belly. ‘No. I guess not. Although it feels like I must’ve drunk all the felix felicis in the world right now.’
‘Even if I’m not like the other girls who mess around in broom cupboards. Like Vane? Or Brown.’
‘I don’t think they could be anywhere near as amazing as you,’ he murmured. ‘I’d much rather be with you.’
‘Then you promise? To be with me?’ Daphne pressed a light kiss to the corner of his mouth, a wild gleam in her eyes.
Harry’s heart hammered against his ribs and his breath caught. ‘I promise. Dad said he knew mum was special when he first saw her and you – you seem more special than I imagined a girl could.’
She must be the one for me. Like mum was for dad. We’ll date. And get married. And spend all our lives being happy together just like mum and dad are.
‘Special…’ Daphne’s cool lips trailed along his jaw and down his neck. ‘You’re very sweet, Harry,’ she whispered. ‘But I did warn you that I’m not like the other girls.’
A sharp pain bit into his neck and heat trickled down his skin to his collarbone.
‘Daphne…’ Icy numbness crept through him as he tried to move, fogging all his thoughts, and the feeling slipped from his fingers. ‘Daphne…’
She sighed against his neck. ‘You’re so sweet.’ Her cold fingers cupped his cheek, resting his head against hers.
The moon shone above him amongst tatters of white cloud and swirling snowflakes, bright and pale and cold.
‘It’s okay, Harry. I promise too.’ Daphne’s teeth sank into skin, two little ice needles sliding deep, and the light of the moon dimmed, fading into soft, cool darkness. ‘Nothing bad will ever come between us.’