Harry wandered the dark corridors with no real aim in mind. Curfew was just around the corner, and he had neither his map nor cloak, but he didn't feel like returning to Gryffindor tower and facing Ron and Hermione yet. They were good friends, but lately, they just didn't seem to listen.
Frowning, he looked around and found that his legs had carried him to the basement corridor decorated with still life paintings of everything from humble snacks to extravagant feasts. Oh well, he could do with a bite to eat. He slunk toward a low-hanging portrait of a fruit bowl and tickled the pear, making a face at its shrill giggle, then yanked the doorknob it had morphed into and stepped inside.
Warm air smelling faintly of freshly baked bread wafted over him. A small fire crackled gently in the great fireplace on the opposite side of the room, illuminating the currently unladen counterparts of the five tables a floor above. Most of the house-elves were absent, no doubt resting before the breakfast rush tomorrow.
He took half a dozen steps inside before he noticed the girl. It wasn't because she was inconspicuous—her long blonde hair and bright blue eyes would've turned heads in a crowd—but she sat in a shadowy corner, still as a statue, a spoonful of something white and fluffy frozen halfway to her slightly ajar mouth.
"Um," he said.
Her face didn't so much as twitch. Had her eyes not bored into him with such intensity, he might've thought her petrified by a basilisk.
"Um." He took a step back. "I'll just leave you to it."
With the sound of a chair scraping the floor, the girl moved. He blinked. One moment she was sitting in her corner, and the next she was standing before him, the bowl of what he could now identify as ice cream clutched in her hands, blue eyes staring into his from an uncomfortably short distance.
"Don't," she said.
"W-what?" He patted his pockets for his wand, trying not to make it too obvious.
She looked down, took a breath, then met his eyes. "Don't tell anyone."
He gaped. Her lip was trembling, and the knuckles of her slender fingers had gone white from clutching the bowl. Was she serious? Who would he even tell—and, more importantly, why?
The handle of the spoon clinked against the rim as the girl's hands shook. "I understand," she muttered, so quietly he suspected it wasn't meant for his ears. "Have to buy your silence. But how..." Her brows furrowed.
"Um..." He seemed to be saying that a lot, but he rather thought it justified given the situation.
Her gaze followed his to the bowl, and her frown cleared. "Very well," she said ruefully, spooning up some ice cream, "if that's what it takes."
Harry was about to speak his mind at last, but could only sputter as the spoonful was shoved into his mouth. He jerked away, the spoon almost sliding out, then froze as a creamy, minty coolness flooded his taste buds. Without thinking, he licked the spoon clean.
She drew back, peering at him anxiously.
"It's... it's good," he said, feeling chocolate chips melt on his tongue.
A breathtaking smile came over her face. "Isn't it? My god, it's like winter fairies having an orgy in my mouth. Tori and I made a pact, and I thought I could endure for a few weeks, but it just made me crave the old mint and chocolate more and more until I ended up getting the elves to make me some in secret. You mustn't tell her, Potter—she's been obsessed with watching her figure, what with her birthday party coming up, and I reckon she would curse my ears off if she found out I was stuffing my face while she... oh god." She clammed up, staring at the spoon in her hand with something akin to horror.
For some reason, the image of tiny winged figures writhing in a sweaty pile was the only thing from her frenzied babble that stuck in his mind. He pressed his lips together to smother a laugh.
Her gaze lifted to his face, widening to almost comical proportions. "Sorry!" she squeaked, and thrusting the bowl at him, ran off.
Harry swiveled in time to see her disappear into the corridor with a swish of blonde hair and black robes. He stared at the door for a minute, then contemplated the cool bowl in his hands. The three chocolate-flecked scoops it held had partly melted, forming a creamy puddle on the bottom. Licking his lips absently, he sought out a chair.
It wouldn't do to waste food, after all.
"That sounds like Daphne Greengrass," Hermione said. "She's a Slytherin in our year."
"Huh." Harry reclined on the couch, watching the snowflakes fall outside the arched windows of the tower. "Doesn't ring a bell."
"Harry, really, it's been six years... Although I suppose you no longer have any classes together." A speculative expression crossed her face. "Where did you run into her, anyway?"
"Er... near the dungeons." He tried to sound nonchalant. "I was just curious. We haven't even talked or anything."
"Hmm," Hermione said, sending him a piercing look. "Well, I'm not surprised you haven't. She's got a bit of a reputation, you see. They call her the Ice Queen—"
He snorted. Ice Cream Queen, more like.
"What's so funny?" Hermione asked, planting her hands on her hips.
"Nothing," he said quickly, "only it's a bit of a silly nickname, isn't it?"
"Oh, I suppose. She lives up to it, though." Huffing, Hermione sat down beside him and crossed her arms. "She never smiles, and I don't think I've ever heard her speak outside answering Professor Vector's questions. It's like we're all beneath her."
Harry hummed noncommittally. All he could think about was the smile Greengrass had given him yesterday.
Over the following weeks, Harry's mind kept returning to the incident, and he would often duck into the kitchens for a late snack even when he wasn't particularly hungry. He wasn't sure whether he was relieved or disappointed when every one of his forays ended with him pigging out on admittedly delicious treats with no one but overexcited elves keeping him company.
His eyes began to stray during dinnertime, meticulously avoiding the Ravenclaws to search the table beyond for a head of pale blonde hair. Whenever he found her, Greengrass would be seated at the farther end of the Slytherin table, straight-backed, consuming her dinner with regal poise as conversations unfolded around her. It was difficult to reconcile this image of cool beauty with his memory of a flustered girl with a smudge of chocolate on her lips.
After she was done eating, she would dab her lips with a napkin and lay it atop her plate. Her gaze would lift and scan the hall, so fleetingly he thought he had imagined it at first, before she would rise and stride off without a backward glance. He wasn't the only one to occasionally eye her retreating back, but no one ever called or chased after her.
Harry would then return to his cooling meal, invariably more puzzled than before, and make half-hearted attempts to quell Hermione's and Ron's incessant bickering. Greengrass never noticed him watching.
Or so he thought.
Her small yet strong hand latched onto his upper arm as he was leaving the Great Hall, Ron and Hermione having gone ahead on one prefect duty or another. Before he could so much as protest, he was dragged into a cramped alcove off the entrance hall, Greengrass squeezing in beside him. He tried to extricate himself, but his knee brushed her leg, and he drew back.
She peered at him from inches away, a hint of pink in her cheeks, her chest heaving lightly. The look might've been cute on someone less mad.
"Potter," she said, "what do you want?"
"What are you on about?" He glanced out of the alcove. People kept filing out of the Great Hall, but no one was looking in their direction.
"You keep staring." The grip she had on his arm tightened to the point where Harry was certain it would leave a bruise.
Heat rose in his cheeks. "I—I wasn't..." He gulped at her glare. "Sorry—Daphne Greengrass, right? Hermione told me who you were—Hermione Granger, you're in Arithmancy together. Um, I didn't mean anything by it. It's just that the last time we met... I mean, you ran out on me and..." He gestured vaguely. Damn, had someone hit him with a Tongue-Tying Curse?
"I see." She let go of his sleeve. "That makes sense."
She ducked her head, her voice dropping to a murmur. "I suspected you might still be angry... So you go asking around about me, observing, trying to figure out my weaknesses... Pansy always said the Gryffindors had it in for us..." Her head whipped up. "Alright, Potter, it's your victory. Spit it out."
He flattened himself against the wall. "I don't understand what you want from me."
"That's my line," she said. "What will it take to buy your silence?"
An incredulous laugh bubbled up in his throat, but her grim expression didn't change. He opened his mouth, choked back a chuckle, then tried to speak again. "You're misunderstanding something, Greengrass. I don't particularly want anything from you."
Her large eyes blinked. "Really?"
"Really." Flashing her a smile, he added jokingly, "Although I wouldn't say no to you feeding me more ice cream—"
"I understand." She nodded somberly.
He released a relieved breath. "Good."
"Meet me before the main staircase at three p.m. this Saturday." Sidling past him, she tossed her hair back, spreading a light flowery scent through the air, and strolled off.
"Hang on, that's not..." The hand Harry had extended toward her retreating form sagged. Recalling the taste of the dessert she had foisted off on him, he smacked his lips. It hadn't quite measured up to treacle tart, but Hermione always said it was important to broaden one's horizons.
Harry loitered in the entrance hall watching students stream past. Clustered in pairs and small groups, sporting mittens and mufflers, everyone was eager to enjoy the last Hogsmeade weekend before Christmas. Whenever Filch grumpily checked another group off his list and the heavy double doors creaked open to release them, a gust of frigid wind would intrude into the castle, making Harry shiver. At least Greengrass and he would only be going as far as the kitchens.
Muted chimes of the tower clock reached his ears—once, twice, thrice. Rubbing his hands together, he craned his neck.
The voice nearly made him jump. Whirling around, he came face to face with Daphne Greengrass. Of course, she would come from the dungeons and not the stairs.
"Greengrass." He eyed her thick woolen scarf and knit cap dubiously.
She nodded as if that concluded the niceties and strode toward the small line that had formed before Filch. Harry gaped before hastening after her.
"Er, just so we're clear," he said, "where are we going, exactly?"
She sent him an uncomprehending glance. "Hogsmeade, obviously."
"Yeah. Obviously." He glanced helplessly over his shoulder, wondering if he should double back to the dorms for proper winter wear, but Filch was already waving them closer. He would just have to tough it out.
"Hello, Mr. Filch," Daphne said, stepping forward. "Greengrass and Potter."
Filch squinted at them, then at his list, his grubby fingertip sliding down until he located their names. "Everything's in order, miss." He reached back and nudged the door open, letting in more cold air.
Inclining her head, Daphne stepped outside. Harry lingered at the threshold, astonished by Filch's display of civility.
"Go on, then!" Filch barked.
Ah, all was right with the world again.
Squeezing through the gap before the caretaker could shut the doors in his face, he was greeted by wind cold enough to chill him to the bone. Sticking his hands down his pockets, he caught up to Daphne, who waited for him before setting off across the grounds. A thin layer of snow crunched beneath their feet, glittering in the sunlight peeking through the clouds.
Glancing her way, he cleared his throat. "So... what are we going to Hogsmeade for?"
Slowing a little, she gave him a mystified look. "To fulfill your demand." Her eyes narrowed. "Is this some kind of a test? I keep my word."
He opened his mouth, then closed it again. "No, nothing of the sort. Can... can you take anything I ask at face value for now?"
Daphne pondered his request for a time, then said solemnly, "Very well."
He perked up; so this bizarre life form could be reasoned with. "Why Hogsmeade? I thought we'd just nip down to the kitchens."
"Because the limited edition flavors are only available around this time of the year," she said in a tone one would use when speaking to a particularly slow child. "I thought you liked ice cream."
"Er, I wasn't aware." His dedication was lacking, clearly.
Unease crossed her face. "I just assumed... I hope you find it to your liking."
"It'll be fine, I'm sure." He wasn't picky, after all.
They were fast approaching a row of hooded carriages, for which Harry was grateful as he was losing the feeling in his fingers. The thestrals in the harnesses stood deathly still, their black hide taut over the bones beneath, only an occasional puff from their nostrils betraying their nature as living creatures.
The crowd milling about the carriages parted before Daphne and Harry like a sea, trailing them with curious eyes. Paying them no heed, Daphne strode up to the foremost carriage and turned to him expectantly.
He blinked. She stared. He glanced at the carriage in confusion. She tapped her foot.
At a guess, he pulled open the door. That seemed to be the correct choice, because Daphne edged closer to the steps and stuck out her mittened hand, palm down. Giving her a bewildered look, Harry hesitantly raised his bare hand to meet hers. Daphne's hand came down on his heavily, and she assisted herself into the carriage.
He stared as she made herself comfortable until a gust of wind made him shiver and climb hurriedly inside, where he settled on the seat opposite hers. What a mystery. One moment she seemed perplexed by the simplest things, and the next she acted like a haughty noble out of a historical drama.
The door he had closed swung open without warning, revealing a quartet of pink-faced younger girls.
"Hi, could we squeeze in?" the lead girl chirped, then shrank back as Daphne turned to regard her. "N-never mind, sorry!"
The door slammed shut, and the carriage jolted into motion. Before the thestral took them away, Harry heard a barely hushed voice pronounce, "Potter's going with the Ice Queen!" to a chorus of happily scandalized gasps.
He grimaced. "Aren't you worried people'll get the wrong idea?"
"What do you mean?" she asked blankly.
"You know—us going to Hogsmeade together. Sharing a carriage. Holding hands?" His tone grew a little more desperate as each successive detail failed to elicit more than an expression of mild befuddlement.
"Holding... Ah. What wrong idea could anyone get from that? My father assists my mother, sister, and me all the time. It's just common courtesy." Uncertainty flashed over her face. "Isn't it?"
He squirmed under her stare. "I guess." What did he know, anyway? Regular people didn't ride carriages drawn by skeletal winged horses either, but there they were.
Mollified, Daphne turned to watch the outskirts of the Forbidden Forest passing by the window. He studied her profile, her pale cheeks reddened by the cold, the hair flying out from under her cap tangled by the wind, until she glanced askance at him, and he quickly looked away. He feared she would accuse him of hatching some evil plan again, but she did not, and so the ride went by in relatively comfortable silence.
The thestral trotted to a halt at the edge of the village, and without being prompted, Harry leapt out first and assisted Daphne out of the carriage. When she gave him a barely-there nod, he couldn't help but feel a little giddy. Odd, that, when she had told him it was just manners.
Daphne set course for the main street, marching over the icy cobbles with confidence while he lagged a step behind. They passed the pub and the icicle-eaved houses in the village's center before she ducked into a side alley and paused before a small teashop. Harry's elation faded; the shop's signboard was hidden underneath gaudy Christmas ornaments, but he didn't need to read it to know where they were.
"We're going to Puddifoot's?"
"Best ice cream outside of Mr. Fortescue's," Daphne said reverently and pushed the door open.
He glanced around, tempted to escape by latching onto the first acquaintance he saw, but the alley was lamentably empty. Resigning himself to his fate, he followed inside.
If he thought the outside gaudy, it was nothing compared to the interior: a Christmas tree stood in each corner, decorated with glass baubles that clinked as golden cherubs fluttered from branch to branch playing their minuscule harps, and red candles floated overhead bathing the place in a hazy light. His glasses fogged up immediately, but freezing as he was, he welcomed the warmth.
Daphne was already making her way toward an empty table deep in the back, passing underneath clumps of white berries hanging off the ceiling without batting an eye. Harry took care to evade the mistletoe, and thus arrived later and slightly out of breath. He had the presence of mind to draw her a chair, to which she inclined her head and smoothed her robes before taking her seat.
Madam Puddifoot waddled over, her hair done up in a bun and her plump face creased in an enormous smile. "What would you like, m'dears? We happen to have some new flavors of—"
"Dark chocolate gingerbread ice cream, large, please," Daphne rattled off before directing an anxious look at Harry. "Will that be satisfactory?"
"Um, sure." Truth be told, he would've preferred something hot, but Daphne looked like she might've started crying if he said no.
"Splendid, oh, splendid," cooed Madam Puddifoot, clasping her hands as she beamed at Harry and Daphne in turn. "Coming right up, dears."
Daphne tilted her head quizzically, but Madam Puddifoot was already plodding toward the counter, humming something that sounded suspiciously like "A Cauldron Full of Hot, Strong Love". Harry couldn't be certain, since the melody was interrupted every few seconds by huffing breaths.
He considered Daphne. She was staring straight ahead, not so much at him as through him, as she tapped a finger on the table.
"So... you come here a lot?" he asked.
She twitched, and the dreamy look in her eyes was replaced by the usual cool glint. "Whenever the opportunity allows."
"Alone?" he guessed.
"My sister joins me on occasion, although she prefers the company of her friends." Her brow creased. "Why do you ask?"
Harry looked around pointedly. Every table was occupied by a couple. Hang on, was that Bulstrode and Creevey—never mind, some things were best left unknown. He turned back to Daphne, who just gave him a blank look.
"Forget it," he said with a sigh.
Daphne nodded slowly, but she was now peering at him as if he were a riddle to be solved. He shifted in his seat, regretting ever bringing up the subject.
Fortunately, it didn't take long for Madam Puddifoot to return. Wheezing a little, she set down a bowl filled with scoops of rich brown ice cream topped with candied ginger, cacao nibs, and drizzles of chocolate syrup.
"Here you go," she said cheerfully. "It's on the house."
Daphne's hand froze midway to her pocket. "I'm perfectly able to pay—"
Madam Puddifoot waved her off. "Nonsense, dear, I won't hear a thing about it! It warms my heart to see you finally bring someone along."
"If... if you insist," she said.
"I do indeed. You have fun, now, and give me a shout if you need anything else." Gracing her with a smile, Madam Puddifoot shuffled off.
Daphne's stumped expression cleared when she took in the contents of the bowl. She began pulling it to her side of the table, then frowned.
"The proprietor appears to have made a mistake," she said. "I'm used to ordering just for myself, but it would be common sense to ask us both what we wanted, or at least to bring each of us a a portion of the same. How peculiar. This never happened when I was here with my sister."
Harry swallowed. "She must've thought we were, you know... a couple."
Lifting her gaze, Daphne blinked at him, then let out a dry laugh. "Oh, nice joke, Potter."
He winced, then masked it by adjusting his lapels. That stung.
"We shall make do with what we have," she declared. Picking up one of the spoons, she neatly scooped up some ice cream and extended it toward him. "Come closer, Potter, I can't reach."
He goggled at the spoon in her hand, then at her expectant expression. "I can eat myself—"
"Don't try and trick me. If I don't do this, your demand won't be met." The spoon advanced inexorably as she leaned over the table.
He hesitated. The spoon began shaking slightly in her extended hand, and a droplet splashed onto the tablecloth below. Grimacing, he bent forward and captured the spoon with his mouth. His eyes widened at the taste, and he licked off the morsel before drawing back.
The spoon dipped into the bowl once more before returning. His back prickled from imagined stares, but when he glanced around, he found that no one was paying them any heed—well, no one save Madam Puddifoot, who turned away to hide her smile.
Come to think of it, such sights must've been commonplace here.
He took the proffered spoon into his mouth, properly savoring the taste this time. It wasn't bad, not bad at all, and some part of him even found that being hand-fed by a girl enhanced the experience. If only she looked more like she was enjoying herself instead of fixing him with that unflinching stare.
"How is it?" Daphne asked.
"Delicious." He might have to reconsider his opinion of this place.
"Describe the flavor," she ordered before shoving another spoonful into his mouth.
"Hmm... creamy and chilly." That didn't seem to impress her. "But it's got a bit of a spicy kick to it. Sort of lingers in your mouth."
She gulped, her gaze flicking from his face to the bowl. "And the chocolate?"
"Er..." He desperately thought back to the cooking shows Aunt Petunia occasionally watched on the telly. "It's like, rich and velvety... gets more intense as it melts. And the little bits on the top are crunchy... with, um, a hint of bitterness?"
Daphne gurgled. At his incredulous stare, she covered her mouth, her cheeks flushing. "Excuse me."
He eyed her thoughtfully. "You know you can have some too, right?"
Her head rose so quickly he feared she had given herself whiplash. "I can?"
He suppressed a smile. "I thought that was obvious. This is too much for me alone, anyway."
"Yes... yes, of course." She gave a nervous laugh, then gingerly laid the spoon atop the rim of the bowl on his side and picked up the unused one.
Harry's hand stretched absently for his spoon before stilling. So that's what had Daphne so flustered during their first meeting. He felt his cheeks heat up. Sharing a spoon wasn't such a big deal, right?
A steady clinking of metal against ceramic brought him out of his reverie. Oblivious to the world, Daphne scarfed down the ice cream with ravenousness that would've given Ron a run for his money, each trip of the spoon accompanied by tiny noises of pleasure.
"My god, you weren't joking," she said. "It's like someone took gingerbread and eggnog and the essence of Christmas itself, ground them up, and sprinkled chocolate on top. The spice burns a little, so you have some more to cool down, only the burn kicks in again, and you can't stop, and it's just so good." She deposited another spoonful into her mouth, then moaned and clutched her forehead. "Ow ow ow."
God, this girl was hilarious... Also quite mad, Harry reminded himself.
He watched in amusement as she wiped her eyes and resumed devouring the dessert until a mosquito-like buzz caught his attention. A tiny cherub was weaving its way through the floating candles and toward their table. Its beady eyes met his and its lips stretched into a creepy smile.
"G'way," he murmured, waving at it irritably—but the creature merely squeaked out a laugh and danced aside.
Daphne lifted her head. "What are you doing?"
"The pests like to toss around confetti," he explained sheepishly, still trying to shoo the giggling cherub away. "It's bloody annoying."
As the cherub's chubby fist rose over the bowl, Daphne's gaze went icy, and a thin pale wand appeared in her hand. The temperature seemed to drop a few degrees. Shuddering, the cherub pivoted toward her, then squealed and zipped off, bumping into candles and trailing confetti in its wake. She trained her wand on its back.
Harry held his palms up. "I don't think they're going to bother us anymore."
Daphne watched the trembling cherub get comforted by its fellows before nodding and stowing her wand. She reached again for the spoon before giving him a curious look. "Aren't you going to eat?"
He started a little. "Oh, um, sure."
Taking his spoon, he scraped some ice cream off the nearest scoop and popped it into his mouth. Sharing like this felt embarrassingly intimate, but a furtive glance at Daphne revealed her to be as unruffled as ever. Great, now he just felt silly.
"For a Gryffindor, you aren't as much of a bully as I thought," she remarked between mouthfuls.
"I was never a bully to begin with," he said indignantly.
She gave that short, mirthless laugh again. "You blackmailed me, Potter."
"Is that how you really see it?" He sighed. "It was a joke, Greengrass. You ran with it before I could say anything. I never wanted to... to force you into this."
She slowly lowered her spoon. "But you're a Gryffindor. And a Potter. Pansy and Draco always say—"
"Forget those little..." He raked a hand through his hair. "Just... think about it. Do I look like the sort of bloke to go around blackmailing people?"
Daphne's lips pursed as she appraised him as if seeing him for the first time. She stared. Then she stared some more. Harry tugged at his collar; it felt as if he was on trial. The judge better announce the verdict soon, or his heart might just give out from the tension.
A flush crept up Daphne's cheeks, and she averted her gaze at last. Her voice was small as she asked, "I misunderstood? All of it?"
Finally. "Um, yes. Yes, you did."
Clasping her hands in her lap, she ducked her head so low her hair hid her pink face. Her lips moved, muttering something too quiet to make out, until her glistening eyes rose to meet his fleetingly. "Why didn't you explain?"
"I tried!" Even to his ears, the excuse sounded hollow. Daphne scooted back on her chair, staring down at her lap. Oh hell, not another Cho situation. He was beginning to suspect this place was jinxed. "It's just that... I thought it would be a lark. You looked like a funny—a fun person to be around."
Daphne's head rose slowly. "A fun person? Me?"
He nodded vigorously. It wasn't even a lie, if almost cracking up at her antics counted.
Her face broke into a bashful smile. "This is the first time anyone has said that to me." The smile wavered. "It's not another joke, is it?"
The pang of guilt took him by surprise; he imagined kicking a puppy would feel similar. "I mean it. Coming here together was... more fun than I expected."
She looked away and toyed with a strand of her hair, her smile widening. "I think... I think so too."
They grinned at each other like a pair of loons until there was a muffled sob to their side.
"Oh... forgive an old woman her meddling," Madam Puddifoot said as first Harry, then Daphne turned toward her. Sniffling, she wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "You two looked so precious I couldn't help it. Can I bring you anything else?"
"Actually..." Harry trailed off, shooting Daphne a hesitant look. "Would you like to drop by the Three Broomsticks? W-with me, I mean."
"Absolutely not," she said coldly.
He hung his head. That's what he got for growing overconfident. Perhaps he would visit Myrtle afterward and have a nice cry. He asked, almost pleading, "May I hear why?"
Daphne's right hand clenched into a small fist as she glared into the distance. "The raspberry sorbet I had there last summer was a crime against wizardkind."
Speechless, Harry stared at her, then at Madam Puddifoot, who bobbed her head promptingly. Oddly encouraged, he turned back to Daphne. "Shall... shall we have more ice cream, then?"
"With pleasure!" Her shoulders slumped suddenly as emotions warred on her face. "Oh, but my sister will never let me hear the end of it if she finds out I was gorging myself while she was doing her best... But this is the last opportunity to have the cranberry and white chocolate chip this year..." She worried her lower lip.
"My dear, everyone knows it doesn't count if you share it with a special someone," Madam Puddifoot said wisely.
"It doesn't?" Daphne peered at her as if she were an angel descended from the heavens.
"That's right. Sit tight, it'll only be a minute." Stooping to pick up the empty bowl, Madam Puddifoot used the opportunity to give Harry a wink.
"You must stay, Potter," Daphne pleaded. "Until we try at least two more flavors. Maybe even three?" Her lips parted slightly and her eyes glazed over.
"Er, sure," he said with a sidelong glance at Madam Puddifoot. He could've kissed the woman—well, maybe not for real, but it was the sentiment that counted.
"Will someone please pick up their mail already?" Ron exclaimed. "That bird's creeping me out."
Lifting his head from the third draft of his Transfiguration essay (the first two having been rejected by Hermione), Harry looked around the common room. A great horned owl had alighted on the sill outside a window and was peering at him with round yellow eyes that seemed to admonish him for not noticing it sooner. Ignoring Ron's startled "didn't mean you, mate", he sprang up from his armchair, skirted Hermione, who was nose deep in her Arithmancy book, and went over to open the window.
It was only when the frosty breeze hit his face that he realized the mail might not have been meant for him, but he needn't have worried—the owl flicked its ear tufts as it sized him up, then stuck out one leg to which a small scroll was tied neatly with a length of cord. His heart did a little flip. No envelope meant a short journey.
"Thanks, big guy," he said as he untied the letter.
The owl hooted and took off. He watched it veer toward the Owlery with mounting excitement before closing the window and unrolling the scroll.
Dear Mr. Potter,
I would like to arrange a meeting with you in the courtyard at six p.m. this Thursday to discuss some personal matters. If this is not convenient, please let me know. Otherwise, I shall be waiting at the specified time and location.
He barked a laugh; that was so her. Suddenly, an arm was slung around his shoulders, and Ron's grinning face loomed close.
"Someone's awfully happy. Who's it from, mate?"
"No one." Rolling the letter up, he was about to pocket it, but Ron yanked it out of his hand. "Oi, give that back!"
"Let's see who this 'no one' is," Ron said gleefully, using his gangly stature to keep the note out of Harry's reach. "Aha! It is from her... Blimey, a bit stiff, innit? Like something McGonagall would write."
"That's private, Ron," Hermione chided, walking up.
Harry's arms fell to his sides as he gave up on recapturing the letter. "You'd sound more convincing if you weren't peeking over his shoulder."
Hermione had the decency to blush. "We're just worried, Harry. You never showed any interest in Greengrass, but we return after the holidays and suddenly you and her are the talk of the school."
"I told you it wasn't like that. It was just..." Ice cream and misunderstandings.
"But you're still going to meet her, aren't you?" she asked slyly.
He rubbed the back of his neck. "Well..."
"'Course he is!" Ron said. "You don't just decline an invitation from a looker like that."
"Even though she's a Slytherin?" Hermione's tone was suspiciously innocent.
Ron waved dismissively. "Slytherin, Shmytherin. Who cares?" He faltered a little under their stares. "I'm just saying—there are Slytherins like Malfoy, and then there's... her."
"Oh?" Hermione said coolly. "So houses don't matter as long as it's an attractive witch we're talking about?"
"More or less, yeah," Ron said with a shrug. Turning his back on the sour-faced Hermione, he handed Harry the letter. "Gotta say, you sure know how to pick 'em, mate. What personal matters will you be discussing, I wonder?" He wagged his eyebrows.
Hermione made a disgusted noise. "Honestly, that's all you think about—and what are you smiling for, Harry? Ugh, you two are such boys."
Exchanging a look, Harry and Ron broke out in laughter. After a moment or two, Hermione cracked a smile as well.
"Good luck on Thursday," she said.
"Polish up that old Potter charm, eh?" Ron said, elbowing him.
Harry grinned. "Cheers." As much as he was looking forward to meeting Daphne, he had a feeling he was going to need all the luck he could get.
Harry pulled his collar higher around his neck as he scanned the shadowy colonnade along the edges of the courtyard. The elegant columns did little to shield him from the elements, but it was a blessing in disguise: no one would be out for a stroll in this weather.
A faint voice drifted to his ears, and he pivoted, spying a black-robed figure with billowing blonde hair under one of the arches. His lips stretched into a smile, and he gave a glance at the clock tower before heading that way.
Ducking underneath the arch just as the clock began striking six, he halted in his tracks. Daphne was engaged in a hushed conversation with a shorter, curvier girl who shared the same shade of blonde hair and blue eyes. Upon seeing him, the stranger grinned, her slightly upturned nose lending her a mischievous air.
"So you've come, huh," she said, jutting out her chin.
"Uh, yeah," Harry said, his eyes alternating between the girls. God help him, the weirdos were multiplying.
"I apologize, Potter—once she heard about our meeting, she wouldn't let me come alone." Daphne gestured. "My younger sister, Astoria."
"In the flesh," Astoria said, giving a small curtsy. Straightening up, she blatantly looked him over from head to toe. "Honestly, Daph, you could better... but there's no accounting for taste. This should at least allay mother's worries about you ending up a spinster."
"Tori," Daphne said, "you're misinterpreting the situation."
"Are you sure you're not the one doing that, sister? Did you or did you not go to Madam Puddifoot's together and sample every one of her limited Christmas ice cream flavors?" Astoria's voice was tinged with envy.
Harry clutched his stomach in queasy remembrance. To think, after all that, Daphne still looked like she could have eaten more. Must be some secret family magic.
"That was..." Daphne gazed off into space, the corners of her lips rising, before shaking her head. "We went as fellow connoisseurs of the finest dessert in the world. I don't understand why anyone would interpret it otherwise."
Astoria sighed exasperatedly, then stepped up to Harry, stood on her tiptoes, and cupped a hand to her mouth. His gaze was drawn to an animated Golden Snitch flitting from one green-painted nail to the next.
"See what I have to deal with?" she whispered. "You've got to take her off my hands, Potter. And don't you bother denying it—I've seen her go red-faced and run off to her room whenever our parents asked her about school enough times to know what's up."
His eyes darted toward Daphne, who was gripping her upper arm and glancing their way.
"What are you whispering about?" she asked.
"Merely reminding him to take good care of my sister," Astoria said, drawing back to fix him with a stare. If she was going for intimidation, the sparkle in her eyes rather ruined the effect. "I may not look like much, but I can cast a mean Ear-shriveling Curse. Just so you know."
"It really isn't like that," he said wearily.
"I told you not to—" Astoria's face twisted before she doubled over in a coughing fit. Pressing one hand over her mouth, she reached into her inner pocket with the other and retrieved a murky vial.
"Tori..." Daphne grasped her shoulder.
Uncorking the vial, Astoria knocked it back and gave her sister a faint smile. "Just the cold. I'll be fine." She deftly stowed the vial into her robes and jabbed a finger at Harry. "Anyway! Don't you forget what I said, mister."
"I won't," he said, deciding that arguing with the crazy wasn't worth the effort. "I happen to be rather attached to my ears."
Nodding smugly, Astoria took a step back. "I'll be watching." She pointed two fingers at her eyes, then jerked her head back as her nail poked her eyelid. "Drat. Let's pretend that didn't happen."
Harry snickered, earning a mock glare. Giving him and Daphne a wave, Astoria skipped off across the courtyard and vanished in the darkening shadows.
"Sorry about that," Daphne said. "She's a little weird."
He laughed, waving off her questioning glance. "No worries."
She stared at him for a moment before looking away, her lips pursing as she appeared to gather her thoughts. Harry waited patiently for what pearl of wisdom would come out of her mouth.
"People are stupid," she said.
He snorted. "Tell me about it."
Daphne seemed to take his words literally. "They accost me in the corridors, they pass me notes in class, they interrogate me in the common room. If I explain we aren't dating, they accuse me of lying, so I've taken to telling them it's none of their business, but that only made the rumors worse. It's irrational."
Leaning against a column, he folded his arms. "Yeah, I figured something like this would happen."
"That's right," she said slowly, "you did say that."
He resisted the urge to preen. It wasn't every day that someone sounded so impressed with him.
"I apologize," she continued. "The idea seemed so ludicrous I dismissed it immediately."
"It's fine," he said quickly. "I was the one who agreed to go with you even though I knew what to expect."
Relief washed over her face before her brows furrowed. "I still don't understand why everyone is gossiping about us. Madam Puddifoot's is always busy, but I don't see anyone bothering the other patrons."
"Well... I'm a Gryffindor and you're a Slytherin, for starters."
"I see," Daphne said as if she had been granted a profound insight.
"And I suppose there's the matter of both of us being famous in our own way." He chuckled as he recalled the lower-years' prattling. "Potter and Ice Queen, and all that tosh."
A scowl marred her delicate features. "You said you weren't a bully."
His eyebrows rose. "What do you mean?"
"Don't play ignorant, Potter. People use that moniker to mock me. I thought better of you."
"I don't think they're mocking you, necessarily," he said, but Daphne's eyes remained wintry. "Sorry. I won't call you that again, promise."
She peered at him as if gauging his truthfulness, then nodded. Harry released a breath he didn't know he'd been holding. Retreating further into the alcove, he stuffed his hands into his pockets to shield them from the stinging wind. Daphne didn't seem inclined to speak further, and the silence was growing uncomfortable.
"So," he said. "Why did you call me here?"
Daphne gave a little start. "That's—that's right. Potter." She took a deep breath. "I have a mutually beneficial proposition for you."
His lips quirked up. "Alright, let's hear it."
"I believe I found a logical solution to our problem. It might not stop people from talking, but if we match our stories, it should put the wildest speculations to rest. Taking into account that you didn't appear distraught about being associated with me..." Her hands clenched the fabric of her robes as she faced him. "We should pretend to date."
Harry's jaw sagged. He wasn't sure if he wanted to whoop or groan in frustration. Standing before him, Daphne squirmed more and more the longer he stayed quiet.
"I would treat you to ice cream," she said, not looking him in the eye. "I know the best places. Although we would have to share because then it doesn't count. I checked with Tori, and she agrees—a blunder on my part, not knowing sooner. The kitchens would do on occasion, but we would have to make a public appearance every now and then. My parents might want to meet you eventually, but I can convince them to leave well alone. I'm not opposed to interacting with your friends, although I'm not very confident in my acting." She drew a shuddering breath. "Please say something."
He hadn't even been surprised to learn her true motivation. The idea of touring Britain's ice cream parlors with her wasn't unappealing, but... Alright, second round.
"Does it have to be an act?" Despite his best efforts, his voice came out a little shaky.
Meeting his gaze, she blinked. "How else would we convince—"
"Couldn't we"—he swallowed—"do it for real?"
"Ha!" Daphne said.
He ducked his head, wishing the ground would swallow him up. Myrtle's bathroom was looking good this time of the year. Even the firsties would have learned to steer clear.
"Potter," she said in a small voice. "That was a joke, right?"
He shook his head mutely. Daphne's feet shuffled under her flowing robes. He dared look up. She was fidgeting with her hands and studiously avoiding his eyes.
"Did you mean it... in a romantic sense? As in, a man courting a woman? You and... and me?"
"Well," he mumbled, "essentially."
She glanced at him, then away, then at him again, her cheeks reddening until they practically glowed in the evening twilight. Her lips moved without a sound until she gasped and hugged herself. "I'm not easy!"
"Excuse me?" he choked out.
"My father warned me many times not to get taken advantage of," she said, taking half a step back. "If you're after my body, please give up. I believe such things should wait—maybe not until m-marriage, but five... six months of dating? I would have to ask my dormmates about the universally accepted practice. And there must be love." She nodded briskly to herself. "Yes, definitely. I'm not willing to compromise on that."
Harry realized he was smiling. "Relax, Daphne, I'm not interested in your body." He pondered what he just said. "N-not that you're unattractive or anything! It's just that I'm not the kind of person to... you know. So it's not like I'm entirely uninterested... I mean, I agree. That there should be love and stuff." Groaning, he slapped a palm to his forehead and shut up before he could dig himself any deeper.
Daphne's brow knitted. He could hardly blame her for being confused, given he no longer understood what he was talking about himself. A stifled giggle reached his ears, but glancing around, he saw no one in the courtyard. Probably just the wind playing tricks on him. The alternative—that someone might've been listening in—didn't bear thinking about.
"Alright, Potter." Her voice was barely audible.
His eyes flicked to hers. "C-come again?"
"Let's date." She tilted her head as if trying to recall a foreign word. "For real."
He gaped at her before throwing his arms skyward. "Whoo! Who's the man!"
She stared at him before her lips parted in laughter—and it wasn't the dry, mirthless laughter like before, but one he wanted to hear again and again. "You're weird, Potter."
Grinning sheepishly, he lowered his arms. "Am I now?"
Their eyes met before they both looked away. The silence that followed was laden with tension.
"Harry. I don't..." She tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear, her cheeks pink. "Should we do something couples do? It would seem... appropriate."
His gaze suddenly focused on her lips, and he couldn't wrench it away. He swallowed. "If you want to."
"Then... shall we hug?"
Any disappointment he might've felt vanished after one look at her timid expression. Opening his arms, he waited until she stepped into his embrace. He gingerly wrapped his arms around her, feeling her stiffen until she shyly returned the hug. As she rested her head against his chest, the flowery scent of her hair tickled his nose.
A squee echoed in the distance. Harry lifted two fingers to point first at his eyes, then out into the gathering darkness. There was a muffled squeak, and he fancied he could see a shadow dart behind a column on the opposite side of the courtyard.
"What was that?" Daphne asked, pulling away and looking around.
"Just the wind," he said innocently.
She shook her head fondly. "I better bring her indoors before her cold gets worse. Don't look so surprised, I know my sister." She gave him a searching look. "Shall I... write you again?"
"Er... how about we meet after dinner tomorrow? There's something I want to show you."
"Then... I'll see you tomorrow." It sounded almost like a question.
He smiled. "See you, Daphne."
An answering smile curved her mouth. She bounced on the balls of her feet, looking like she was going to speak, then abruptly turned on her heel and fled. Grinning, Harry watched her scurry off into the darkness. She must've been rubbing off on him already because all he could think about was seeing if the Room of Requirement could be turned into an ice cream parlor.