A/N: Based on RowanWinterlace's "A Different Set of Twins" prompt on r/HPFanFiction. The Carrows are in Harry's year for story purposes.
Harry slouched against the wall beside Ron and watched hundreds of students in robes of all colors mill about the entrance hall, their voices melding into an excited hum. His gaze strayed toward the corridor into the dungeons as he wondered, not for the first time, whether he had made a mistake.
"They might not show up," Ron said, sounding almost hopeful.
"Don't say that, of course they will." Harry tugged at his tight collar. "They have to. I've got to open the dance and everything."
"That's your problem, mate."
He shot Ron a glare.
"Hey, I feel for you, I really do," Ron said with an unrepentant smirk. "It's just that, did you have to invite the Carrows of all people?"
He sighed; they had been over this. "You were the one who whinged about all the good ones being taken. It's not like they're bad looking or anything."
Ron looked at him incredulously. "That's not the problem! Have you ever seen those two smile? Hell, have you ever seen them blink?"
"And those stares!" Ron shuddered. "Sometimes I wonder if they're even human."
Harry glanced toward the dungeons, and his eyes widened. "Ron—"
"I'm just saying, watch them during Potions—"
"Ron," he hissed.
Ron followed his gaze and stiffened. Two pretty, dark-haired twins had emerged from the dungeons and halted just inside the chock-full entrance hall.
Harry pushed off the wall and raised his arm to wave. At once, two pairs of grey eyes pinpointed him. The sisters linked arms and cut through the crowd, everyone scooting out of their way without being asked. He shifted on his feet as their eyes bored into him. Ron had a point.
The twins approached, unlinked their arms, and curtseyed. "Good evening," they said in unison.
"Evening," Harry mumbled, his gaze alternating between the two. Identical pale, emotionless faces. Dark brown hair falling straight to slender shoulders. Their flowing dress robes differed in color—bottle green and navy—but that didn't help when he didn't know which one was which. "Er, both of you look great." He elbowed Ron.
"Y-yes," Ron stammered. "Smashing."
"Thank you," the girls chorused. One added, "You look handsome too."
Harry forced his lips into a polite smile as he struggled to determine which of the two was his date. He glanced at Ron in an attempt to communicate his dilemma, but his best mate was peering at the twins with something akin to terror and backing away. He cast his gaze about the hall before perking up.
"Um, Flora," he said, studiously not looking at the girls, "they'll be wanting the champions up front."
"Of course, Harry," said the twin in bottle green. She squeezed her sister's hand. "Enjoy yourself, Hestia."
The twin in navy robes nodded and sidled up to Ron, who gulped and fidgeted with his frilly cuffs. Her sister positioned herself at Harry's left. He mentally patted himself on the back for his cleverness.
"Shall we?" he said, gesturing toward the closed doors into the Great Hall.
Flora slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow without a word. He glanced at her in surprise, looked away when their eyes met, and began walking. His nostrils flared as he caught a whiff of her subtle floral scent.
In his flustered state, he barely watched where he was going, yet the crowd parted before them like first-years before Hagrid. He saw Professor McGonagall wave to him from a corner and brought Flora over. The other champions and their partners were already present.
"Potter, Miss Carrow—I was about to look for you," McGonagall said. "The champions will be making a grand entrance, the headmasters decided it would only be proper..." And she began arranging them into a procession.
"Alright, Harry," Cedric said, brushing past him.
He nodded, avoiding looking anywhere near Cedric's date. "Cedric."
McGonagall ushered him and Flora to the tail of the procession behind Krum. Harry's gaze slid over the surly Bulgarian and his date before flicking back. His jaw sagged.
She turned and beamed at him, her teeth conspicuously even. "Hi."
"You look different," he blurted out. With her periwinkle dress and tamed hair, it was no wonder he hadn't recognized her at first.
She fidgeted with a strand of hair that had escaped the knot at the back of her head. "Bad different or good different?"
"Definitely good," he said, looking her up and down.
Hermione flushed and ducked her head. Flora's fingers clamped on his upper arm hard enough to make him wince. He looked at her in confusion. Her mild expression was rather at odds with her vice grip.
Hermione coughed and looked meaningfully from him to her.
"Oh—Flora, meet Hermione. She's my friend." He grimaced; that much was obvious, wasn't it?
"Nice to meet you, Flora," Hermione said with a smile.
"Pleasure to meet you, Hermione," Flora said without one.
Harry released a breath when the grip on his arm loosened, feeling as if he had just tossed exactly the right ingredients into his cauldron to prevent an explosion. Hermione's smile wavered under Flora's unblinking stare, but she valiantly kept it up. She opened her mouth, but then the doors into the Great Hall groaned open, and the crowd surged past them in a great mass of color and noise.
Once everyone was through, McGonagall shut the doors and directed their procession closer. Harry rocked on the balls of his feet as he listened to the muffled noises from inside. Music played, and someone made a loud announcement. McGonagall swished her wand, and the doors swung open. He almost lost his nerve when hundreds of eyes peered their way, only lurching forward at Flora's nudge.
Applause thundered in his ears as he trailed Krum and Hermione between rows of students. He tried to stand taller, painfully aware that he was a scrawny fourteen-year-old among adults.
"Cedric Diggory, representing Hogwarts!" boomed Lee Jordan's voice. "Fleur Delacour, representing Beauxbatons! Viktor Krum, representing Durmstrang! And Harry Potter, representing Hogwarts!"
A camera flashed in his face, and he tripped over his feet. Scattered laughter rang out. He wanted to sink into the ground. Flora clasped his arm tighter to help him regain his balance, her eyes fixed forward and her head held high. He took a shuddering breath and straightened his shoulders. Before her calm, his nerves seemed silly.
They strolled onto the gleaming dance floor in the middle of the Great Hall. He wiped his sweaty palms on his robes. Undeterred, Flora guided his right hand behind the small of her back and clasped his left. The orchestra struck up a waltz, and off they went.
Awkward and bumbling as he felt, his body remembered the steps, and as they shuffled around without incident, the tension drained from him. It was thanks in no small part to Flora, who followed his shaky lead without hesitation. If only she stopped staring; he didn't know where to look.
Other couples soon streamed onto the dance floor. He steered away from Hagrid, who was stomping about with Madam Maxime, and grinned at Vector, who twirled around the much shorter Flitwick.
The music stopped. He swiftly let go of Flora and stepped toward the round tables along the edges of the hall, then glanced back. She stared, unmoving.
"Er," he said, "fancy sitting down?"
"I would like to dance," she said.
He rubbed the back of his neck. "Well, I'd rather..."
She tilted her head. "Don't you want to dance with me, Harry?"
The music restarted. He glanced longingly at the tables, then squared his shoulders and took Flora in his arms. Her lips quirked up, so briefly he thought he might have imagined it. He found himself smiling as he spun her around. This wasn't so bad, now that everyone's eyes weren't on them.
After a few more dances, she stepped back and fanned at her face. Her cheeks were tinged pink.
"I am quite hot," she said.
To his surprise, there was disappointment mixed in with his relief. "Let's take a break."
Locating a blob of maroon at the tables, he made to go that way before hesitantly offering his arm to Flora. She promptly looped her hand around his elbow. Grinning, he weaved off the dance floor.
Ron was slouching in his chair and staring morosely at the dancers. Hestia sat across from him, her back straight and her hands clasped in her lap. Every now and then, Ron would glance at her and twitch as if surprised she was still there. He hadn't noticed Harry and Flora until the chair Harry drew up for her scraped the floor.
"Mate, can you believe Hermione?" Ron exclaimed, gesturing at the dance floor. "And that sleazeball Krum, getting his hands all over her!"
Harry blinked; he had never heard Ron say anything negative about his favorite Quidditch player before. Scanning the crowd, he found Hermione dancing with a distinctly not surly Krum. They were perhaps closer than the dance warranted, but nothing to raise eyebrows at. He looked back to Ron, who peered at him as if expecting vehement agreement.
"It is a bit inappropriate," he said diplomatically. "She's fifteen and he's of age."
Ron's face darkened. "I can't believe I almost forgot that. Oh, I'm going to give the two of them a piece of my mind."
He opened his mouth, then closed it. Ron didn't appear to be in a state to listen to reason. He looked around the table. "Anyone fancy a drink?"
"Gillywater, please," Flora and Hestia said.
Ron flinched and threw them a leery glance. "Butterbeer for me."
Harry rose, elbowed his way to the drinks table, and returned with four glasses. Ron was still glaring at Hermione, while Flora and Hestia appeared to be having a conversation with their eyes. At least he hoped it was a conversation and not a Dark ritual.
"Thank you, Harry," the girls said when he set the Gillywaters before them.
His answering smile wavered. Their indistinguishable voices speaking in unison was eerie. "No problem."
He handed Ron his drink, sat down, and took a contented sip of his butterbeer. The girls exchanged a look. Hestia indicated Ron, then Harry with her eyes. Flora pursed her lips and inclined her head.
"Harry," she said, "would you care to dance with my sister?"
He quickly swallowed the drink and looked at them in turn.
"Please?" Hestia said, the word at odds with her composed tone.
He glanced ruefully at his butterbeer, then at Ron. "Do you mind?" Say you do. Say you do.
Ron blinked, then tittered. "Go ahead. Better you than me, mate."
"Traitor," he muttered, rising to his feet.
He wiped his palm, damp from the glass, on a napkin, and proffered it to Hestia. She laid her small hand in his and sprang to her feet so briskly the hem of her robes fluttered around her calves. Bemused at her enthusiasm, he led her to the dance floor.
He found himself comparing her to Flora as they danced. The same pale face framed by dark hair. The same high cheekbones and thin nose. Hestia lowered her gaze under his scrutiny. Perhaps they weren't entirely alike.
"This one's steps are slightly different," she said.
"Huh?" he said, realizing just now the tune had changed.
"I'll lead," she said. "You go slow, slow, quick, quick..."
Resigning himself to his fate, he allowed her to steer him around. By all rights, the experience ought to have been mortifying, yet he was somehow enjoying himself. Was it because of her casual grace, or the way she remained unflappable no matter how many times he stepped on her toes?
The music ended before he could unravel the mystery. Drawing back, Hestia inclined her head.
"Thank you for the dance," she said.
He smiled. "Cheers."
Turning to their table, he froze when he came face to face with Flora. Hestia gave her a slight nod and weaved away, while Flora planted a hand on his shoulder. He suppressed a sigh. So his trials continued.
The night went by in a blur. Whenever one sister grew tired, the other would pop up and take her place. On several occasions, he spied Hermione approaching, and heard Ginny call out to him, but each time, Flora or Hestia happened to whisk him away.
Before he knew it, the tower clock outside struck midnight, and the orchestra ended their halfhearted tune. Seated at the table with the twins at his sides, Harry stretched out his legs and groaned.
"It's over, huh," he said.
"Time flies when you're having fun," Flora said monotonously. Her skin was flushed and her hair in disarray, but she sat with perfect poise. "Would you take me on a stroll through the gardens, Harry?"
"I would like that too," Hestia said, "but my date is nowhere in sight."
He eyed the few couples still swaying on the dance floor. Now that he thought of it, he hadn't seen Ron for a while.
"Sorry about that. Ron's not a bad bloke, it's just..." He gestured vaguely.
"Then it's only fair that you escort me," Hestia said, scooting a fraction closer.
There was a moment of silence before Flora dipped her head. "It's only fair."
Shrugging, he finished his drink and rose. Flora and Hestia wasted no time attaching themselves to his arms, and they sauntered together into the entrance hall.
Professor McGonagall was keeping watch by the exit. Her eyebrows climbed her forehead at their approach. "Don't be out too late, Mr. Potter, Misses Carrow. The doors will be locked soon."
"Yes, professor," said the three of them.
A chilly breeze swept over them as they stepped out into the grounds. The crescent moon added its light to that of fluttering fairies, illuminating the rose bushes and setting the ice sculptures aglimmer. In spite of the cold, the lawn was green and lush under their feet.
"It's breathtaking." Flora's eyes glinted as they took in a sculpture of Father Christmas, yet her tone was so bland he couldn't tell if she was truly impressed.
Hestia nodded, her gaze roving around.
Taking the girls at their word, Harry slowed down so they could have a better look. As they languidly rounded a corner between rosebush hedges, wet smacking noises reached his ears. He glanced around yet couldn't place them.
Arriving at a fork, he picked right at random. A grotto filled with giggling fairies came into sight. He halted in his tracks. Roger Davies and Fleur Delacour sat on a bench within, glued at the lips. Fleur's ethereal gown was hiked up her legs, and Roger's hand was groping her thigh.
Flora and Hestia put their hands over their mouths and gasped. Coming to his senses, he swiveled around and fled down the other fork. For a while, no one spoke.
"Out in the public!" Hestia said at length.
"The veela must've charmed his wits from him," Flora said.
Harry remained silent, his cheeks still hot. The girls exchanged a glance, then looked up at him.
"You're not defending her," Flora said.
"I heard he resisted Professor Moody's Imperius Curse," Hestia said.
"Your willpower must be very strong," Flora said.
He grinned, taking the compliment at face value despite her flat delivery. "It's no big deal."
They circled the gardens and reapproached the castle. Three boys were loitering by the end of the hedges. As they drew closer, Harry recognized Malfoy, Crabbe, and Goyle. Crabbe's piggish gaze landed on Harry, and he elbowed Goyle.
"Oh great," Harry muttered. He patted his robes, trying to recall which pocket he had put his wand in. His heart sank at the thought that he might have left it at the dorms.
The twins glanced at each other and let go of his arms. Flora slipped her fingers down her modest neckline. Hestia stooped, pinched the skirt of her navy dress, and lifted it. Harry caught a glimpse of a lacy garter around her pale thigh and a thin black wand tucked behind it before Flora thrust a hand in front of his glasses.
"S-sorry." He squeezed his eyes shut. "What are you—"
"Potter!" Malfoy's voice rang out. "How dare—urk."
He cracked open his eyes and goggled. Malfoy lay on the ground, moaning. Crabbe crouched over him, while Goyle doubled over and clutched his stomach, looking green in the face.
Hestia smoothed down her dress and returned her hand to his arm. The wand he had spied was nowhere in sight.
Flora too clasped his arm. "It's getting cold."
He realized he had been standing there gawking. "Er, sure, let's go."
He tensed as they passed Malfoy and his goons, but it was for naught: only Crabbe was in a condition to move, and he quickly shrank back under the twins' combined glare. As they neared the entrance, sounds of retching drifted to their ears. Harry grimaced. Hestia glanced at him, then away, then at him again.
"That was brilliant," he said. "But aren't you worried Malfoy's going to try and retaliate?"
"Whatever do you mean?" Flora asked. "He must've eaten something bad. Have you seen us do anything?"
"Well, no, but..."
"If he isn't careful," Hestia said, "he might eat something bad again."
A shiver went down his spine at her apathetic tone, and he made a mental note to never get on the twins' bad side.
They entered the castle and headed toward the dungeons. When he paused before the stairs down, the twins released his arms and swiveled to face him.
"It was a lovely night," Flora said.
Both sisters chorused, "Thank you."
"It was?" he asked. There wasn't a hint of guile in their faces. "Er, I had a good time too."
"Splendid," Flora said. "Shall we do this again?"
Hestia turned sharply toward her. "Why you?"
"He is my date," Flora said. "Let me know, Harry."
"Me too," Hestia said, jutting out her chin.
Flora rounded on her and narrowed her eyes. Hestia tapped her foot. Something seemed to pass between them. They laid their hands on his shoulders, stood on tiptoes, and pecked his cheeks, leaving him gaping like a fish.
"Let us know," they said. As one, they grasped the sides of their robes and curtseyed. "Good night, Harry."
Linking hands, the sisters strolled down the stairs. They had already vanished in the shadows by the time he finally found his voice.
"Good night," he called weakly. "Thanks for coming with me—us—you know."
Harry feared there would be rumors after the ball, but most people seemed to assume he had only invited the Carrows to fulfill his obligation as a champion. His housemates looked upon him with sympathy, as if he were a hapless boy, who got dragged around by a pair of Slytherins for their amusement... which, come to think of it, wasn't too far off the mark.
The harassment about his alleged cheating too died down. Most days, he could walk through the school and not see a single "Potter Stinks" badge. He hadn't paid it much mind at first, simply grateful for the respite, but when a Slytherin boy he only knew by face bumped into him in the hallways, recoiled, and scampered off, a suspicion arose in his mind. The Carrows had been willing to raise their wands against their housemates. Could they be involved?
Despite his suspicion, he never mustered up the courage to approach them. Whenever he stole a glance at the Slytherin table during dinner, he would shortly find himself fixed with a pair of wide, unblinking stares. As the days dragged on, he sensed the sisters' gazes on him more and more often, until he began timing his meals so he wouldn't run into them.
He was naive to expect that would keep them away.
It started out like any other Potions lesson. He slunk into the classroom, cast a cagey glance at the Slytherins, and made a beeline for the usual desk, Ron lagging several steps behind. Slinging off his bag, he slumped on one end of the bench.
A patter of footsteps was his only warning before Flora and Hestia appeared on each side of the desk. He unconsciously scooted to the middle to keep his distance. Taking that as an invitation, the girls settled down on either side of him, clasped their hands on the desk, and looked at him with matching polite expressions.
"Hi." His head swiveled between the two. "Er, Flora, Hestia."
"I'm Flora," said the one on the right.
"I'm Hestia," said the one on the left.
"My bad." He glanced from one to the other. Both wore hairpins to keep their hair away from their faces, but while Flora's were plain black, Hestia's were ornamented with tiny Celtic knots. "Um..." He looked beseechingly at Ron, who dithered nearby, his mouth ajar.
The twins turned to him too. "Excuse us."
Flora added, "You don't mind, do you?"
Their voices weren't any frostier than usual, yet Ron squeaked a "no" and fled into the Gryffindor side of the classroom without a backward glance. The twins rummaged in their bags and began laying out their potion kits. Flora swiped her fingertip along the desktop, inspected it, and whispered a cleaning spell. Hestia silently handed Harry his bag. He looked around helplessly.
Rescue came in the form of Hermione, who strode over and cleared her throat. The twins' heads rose to consider her. Harry glanced over his shoulder and saw Ron flash him a weak grin four desks away; so he had gone to call reinforcements.
"Why are you sitting with Harry?" Hermione asked without preamble.
"We want to speak with him," Flora said.
"We have something to ask," Hestia said.
Hermione frowned. "A Potions lesson is hardly the place for a chat."
"We never see him otherwise," Flora said.
"We looked," Hestia said.
He ducked his head in shame.
"Well, you're being a bother," Hermione said. "Right, Harry?"
The twins went very still, then slowly turned to face him. Their wide grey eyes bored into his.
"Are we bothering you, Harry?" Flora asked.
"Tell us if we are," Hestia said.
"We will leave and not come near you again," Flora said.
"No!" He coughed into his fist. "No, it's not like that." Realizing most of the eyes in the classroom were on them, he dropped his voice. "Can we talk later? In private?"
The twins nodded.
"After class, then," Flora said.
"Great." He gave her an expectant look, but she didn't budge from her seat.
"Oh. I thought..." Hermione fidgeted with her hands. "I'm sorry for assuming."
"Apology accepted," the twins said in concert.
Hermione flashed them an uneasy smile, then stormed over to Ron wearing a scowl. The twins resumed arranging their supplies. Resigned, Harry dipped into his bag for his knife and cutting board. His elbow bumped Flora's, and he murmured an apology.
"That's alright, Harry."
Setting the tools atop the desk, he bent down to close his bag and stiffened when his leg brushed Hestia's. "Sorry."
"That's alright, Harry."
He squirmed in his seat, keenly aware of their closeness. "Um," he whispered, "could you scoot back a bit?"
"There's no space," Flora said.
"It can't be helped," Hestia said.
He glanced dubiously to his sides but decided it was futile to argue. As he fiddled with his knife just to have something to do, the twins seemed to inch even closer. He narrowed his eyes suspiciously, but their expressions remained perfectly nonchalant.
The doors slammed, and Snape stalked in with a billow of black robes. He waved his wand on the move, causing the chalk to begin scribbling instructions on the blackboard. It was a few steps after he swept past Harry that he did a double-take.
"Flouting the rules again, Potter?" Snape's black eyes skipped over the twins and glared at him. "It's two to a desk. Find another partner or work alone."
Harry stared at Snape, then glanced at the twins, who showed no intention to leave. What did the professor expect him to do?
Flora spoke up. "Allow us to supervise his brewing for today, sir. We can't bear looking at his technique anymore."
"It's abysmal," the sisters chorused.
Snape made a face like he had bit into a lemon. "That much is true... Very well. I expect results." With a final glare at Harry, he stalked off to the front of the class. "Today you will be brewing the Calming Draught. The instructions are on the board. Begin."
Harry just gaped until Snape's glare homed in on him again. Fishing out his wand, he busied himself lighting a fire under the brass cauldron Hestia had set before him. Never had he expected anyone to get away with breaking Snape's rules, not even a Slytherin. He looked to Flora with awe.
"Don't tell me you have something over Snape?" he whispered.
She didn't look at him as she arrayed the necessary ingredients. "Don't be silly, Harry. Professor Snape is very exacting about his craft. It must pain him to see a student underperform."
"Right," he said with a wry grin, "my abysmal technique."
"We don't think your technique's abysmal," Hestia said. "We just said that so Professor Snape would let us stay."
"Yes, I gathered that—"
"It is quite bad, though," Flora said. "Excuse me for being blunt."
"Your timing and knife handling in particular," Hestia said.
"I guess that's—hang on, have you been watching me?"
"Your desk is up front," Hestia said quickly.
"It happens to be in the line of sight between us and the blackboard," Flora said, her finger hovering over the bundles of herbs and jars on the desk. "Motherwort, valerian root, bat spleen, pickled moondew. We need fluxweed oil."
Hestia rose to her feet. "I'll fetch some."
Flora nodded, and leaning over Harry, stuck her wand into the cauldron. At her whisper, water poured forth, filling the cauldron up to the first notch on its wall. "Aqua, thirty ounces," she said, seemingly to no one.
He gave her a bewildered look, but she was making a notation on a parchment and didn't acknowledge him.
Hestia returned with a bottle of oil. "I'll prepare the bat spleen," she said without a hint of squeamishness. "Would you chop the valerian root, Harry?"
"Sure," he said, glancing at her immaculate nails. He had expected a well-groomed witch like her to turn her nose up at the nastier ingredients, not volunteer to work with them. Pulling his pockmarked cutting board closer, he slapped a tangle of roots atop and hacked away.
"Harry," Flora said, "the instructions call for chopped valerian root."
He glanced at her. "I'm on it."
She cocked her head. "It's closer to diced."
"Er... there's a difference?"
"Excuse me," Hestia said from his left. She pulled the cutting board over and held out a hand for his knife. It danced in her fingers, neatly slicing the roots into centimeter-long chunks. "This is chopped." The knife blurred, clacking against the board and producing finer slices. A heady smell wafted up. "This is diced."
He furrowed his brow. "And that matters?"
"Dicing gives you more surface area, and thus a faster reaction," Flora said. "That is usually desirable, but not when it comes to the Calming Draught, which has a long stewing phase."
"Ah." He contemplated the fruits of his labor glumly.
"Two minutes," Flora announced, dropping a clump of leaves into the bubbling water and picking up a stirring rod. "Motherwort, three scruples. Five clockwise stirs."
His head swiveled to her, then to Hestia, who had raised his knife and was eyeing its discolored blade.
"You ought to take better care of it," she said.
"It cuts fine," he said defensively.
She reached back and plucked a single silky strand from her head. Holding out the knife, she set the hair atop. It hung limply from the blade. She put his knife down, and without looking, pulled hers out of her bag. Its gently curved blade gleamed, and when she laid her hair across, it fell to the desk in two halves.
"See?" Hestia whispered, lifting her knife higher. The silvery blade reflected in her eyes, and her face was more animated than he had ever seen it. "Nice, isn't it?"
He shifted in his seat. "Y-yeah. That's sharp."
She flipped the knife and handed it over. "Try it," she said, then set to vanishing the pieces of her hair.
He lined up the roots with his fingers and measured out about half an inch with the knife. Chopped, not diced. Was that about right?
Hestia seemed to sense his uncertainty. "May I?"
He bobbed his head, thinking she was offering to take over. Instead, she sidled closer and laid her left hand on his wrist, her right snaking around his back to adjust his elbow. His breath hitched as she pressed against him.
"Get a firm grip. Rest the tip against the board." Her breath tickled his ear. "Rocking motion, back and forth."
His cheeks burned as he struggled to focus on her instructions.
"Six and a half minutes," Flora said loudly. "Fluxweed oil, one drachm."
Hestia let go of his hand and drew back. He fancied he saw a hint of color on her cheeks, but when she spoke, her voice was as collected as ever. "Much better."
He kept on chopping machinely. The knife Hestia had lent him sliced through the stringy roots with barely any resistance, and even to his inexperienced eye, the cuts were smoother.
Hestia retrieved a cloth from her bag and rubbed his knife. "Clean it after each use, especially after cutting corroding ingredients. Yours is also due for a sharpening. You'll get more predictable results with a whetstone than a spell; I can teach you how to use one. And to top it off, there's this polishing powder that gives silvered blades a lovely sheen..." Her hand stopped and she turned to him. "Tell me if I'm boring you."
He smiled shakily. "No, I reckon this is the most interesting Potions lesson I've had." He was being honest. The tip of the knife inches away from his chest had nothing to do with it, really. "Show me that—that polishing stuff sometime."
Hestia stared at him, then averted her gaze and pressed the knife into his hands. "I'll polish your knife any time, Harry."
"Eight minutes," Flora said. "Bat spleen, seven drachms."
"Bat spleen, seven drachms," Hestia echoed, spooning slimy organs into the cauldron.
"Thirteen counter-clockwise stirs," Flora said, doing just that. She glanced at Harry. "Valerian in five minutes."
"It's ready," he said.
And so the lesson went on. Whenever the twins pointed out his mistakes, they would immediately show him the correct way. It felt like he had learned more from them in an hour than from Snape in a year.
Even their peculiar habit of logging everything began making sense when the pickled moondew had to be added in three separate portions, and he nearly chucked in a fourth. A log certainly helped avoid the confusion that frequently arose when there was more than one brewer to a cauldron. He still shuddered at the last year's memory of Neville tossing in an extra palmful of Shrivelfig and causing an explosion bad enough to blow out their eardrums.
At least half the class were still fussing over their cauldrons by the time Harry and the twins took theirs off heat. He fished his textbook out of his bag and checked the description. Their draught was just the right shade of blue.
He grinned. "Brilliant work, you two."
"You too, Harry," they chorused.
Ten minutes before the bell, Snape stood from his desk and began making his rounds. Having cleared the ingredients and tools off the desk, Harry waited for the professor's evaluation with a rare sense of confidence.
Snape paused before their desk and stuck his beak of a nose above their cauldron. Coaxing a blob of the potion to float up with his wand, he examined it against the light.
"Acceptable," he ground out. "Let's see you repeat the feat without hand-holding next time, Potter."
"Yes, sir," Harry said.
He tried not to grin when, instead of vanishing their draught, Snape summoned an array of vials to bottle it in. He didn't think he would ever enjoy Potions, certainly not as much as Flora and Hestia clearly did, but he could understand the satisfaction of a job well done.
The bell rang, and with relieved groans, the fourth-years filtered out through the door. Flora and Hestia waited out the rush before sidling out from behind the desk. As Harry walked out into the corridor, they took up positions at his sides.
Ron and Hermione were waiting by the door, standing quite far apart. Ron opened his mouth, then, under Hestia's stare, swallowed back his words. Hermione shook her head at him.
"We're about to have dinner," she said, eyeing the twins uncertainly.
"Go on ahead," Harry said. "I'll catch up to you later."
Ron appeared shocked that he would voluntarily subject himself to the Carrows' company, but Harry figured he could explain the circumstances later. Waving goodbye, he took off deeper into the dungeons.
The twins fell in step, seemingly content with following wherever he went. Sending them surreptitious glances, he tried to collect his thoughts.
A lanky Slytherin boy emerged from behind a corner ahead. His eyes widened in recognition of the trio, and throwing himself against the opposite wall, he hastened past. The twins' heads pivoted, tracking his retreat.
Harry sighed. He was fairly certain he had seen the boy sporting a "Potter Stinks" badge several weeks ago, but it was now conspicuously missing.
"The bloke looked terrified," he remarked.
"Pay it no heed, Harry," Flora said. "Hestia and I have a strange reputation."
"People think we're scary," Hestia said conspiratorially.
"Fancy that," he said with a laugh. "Only, I've been getting similar reactions."
Flora was silent for a moment. "I'm certain it's nothing."
"Thing is, people have been getting hurt." He began ticking off fingers. "Zacharias Smith got kicked by a suit of armor in his, uh... well, it looked really painful. Ernie Macmillan fell into a heap of Hippogriff dung during Care of Magical Creatures. And they say Malfoy was found passed out, his hands switched for his feet." It was only because he was watching Hestia so closely that he noticed her chest puff out a little. "You two wouldn't know anything about that, would you?"
"We don't even know most of those names," Flora said.
"Accidents happen," Hestia said, staring blankly ahead.
He choked back a laugh. "Are you saying Malfoy swapped his limbs by accident?"
"Magic can be unpredictable."
He groaned. Coming to a halt, he glanced around to make sure they were alone, then fixed Flora and Hestia with what he hoped was a stern look. "Alright, come clean. Why are you doing this?"
They returned his gaze impassively.
"We're not," Hestia said.
"But if we were," Flora said, "it would be to show that we care."
He gaped. "Come again?"
"A thoughtful gesture is a great way to show interest," Hestia said as if reciting.
"A thoughtful gesture?" he spluttered. "Ernie was traumatized!" Malfoy and Smith, presumably, were too, but who cared.
Flora cocked her head. "He stopped being a pest, didn't he?"
"Not that we did anything," Hestia reminded.
Harry rubbed his forehead. He had to admit, the peace and quiet was nice. "I do appreciate the gesture," he said dryly, "but I'd prefer not to hear about any more accidents."
The sisters nodded matter-of-factly. "You won't."
"Will you go to Hogsmeade with us now?" Flora asked.
He goggled. Did these two strike fear into the hearts of the Hogwarts populace because they wanted to go on a date?
"We like you," they chorused, stepping closer and looking up at him.
Heat rushed to his cheeks, and his mouth raced ahead of his brain. "Yeah, alright." His brow knitted. "Hang on, do you mean all three of us? Is that... I dunno, normal?"
"I don't believe so," Flora said. "Do you mind?"
He opened his mouth, closed it, thought some more. Flora's and Hestia's faces didn't betray a thing, but their eyes watched him with unnerving intensity. He swallowed. If he chose one, he was certain the other wouldn't be happy—and he recalled very well what happened to those who made the Carrow twins unhappy. And besides, their combined attentions during the Yule Ball had been far from unpleasant.
"I suppose not," he said.
The sisters exchanged a swift glance.
"Excellent," Flora said. "Meet us in the entrance hall at three o'clock next Saturday."
"Got it," he said, wondering what he was getting himself into. "See you there."
Harry rubbed his smooth chin, the reflection in a murky mirror by the dormitory door mimicking the motion. He had just shaved his peach fuzz for the first time and was feeling very manly.
"Do something about your hair, dear," the mirror said. "It's a bird's nest."
Frowning, he combed it with his fingers, but it remained a mess.
"Don't fret," Hermione said from where she was seated on Ron's four-poster bed. "It looks good when it's a little wild."
Sending her a grateful glance, he nodded. He had been miffed when Ron dragged her over to help convince him dating the Carrows was a bad idea, but to his relief, she seemed content to watch him and occasionally offer advice. He took it to heart. Hermione was a witch, and thus knowledgeable in their mysterious ways.
Ron made a frustrated noise. "Since when do you care about your hair? Listen, mate, you need to see Madam Pomfrey right away. And if she's not there, Snape."
"For the last time," he said, turning around, "they haven't slipped me a love potion. Not all Slytherins are evil."
"It has nothing to do with them being Slytherins," Ron cried. "They're creepy! Sorry, but they really are! Those hollow stares... speaking together, never showing emotion... like dolls out to steal your soul." His face reddened at Harry's snort. "Come off it, you can't tell me the pair of them aren't bloody terrifying!"
"Yes. Yes, they are." A grin spread across his face as he stared off into space. "It's kind of cute."
Ron sputtered. "Cute? Cute?" He whirled to Hermione. "Amortentia, it has to be!"
She giggled. "He's not under Amortentia, Ron. He's in love."
"No, I'm not!" Harry frowned as he buttoned up his robes. "Am I?"
"Maybe not love—but you like her, don't you?" She furrowed her brows. "Is it Flora or Hestia?"
His fingers froze over his top button. "I... I'm not sure."
Hermione's smile disappeared. "Harry, that's rude to both of them. They're their own persons."
"Could've fooled me," Ron muttered.
She shot him a glare before facing Harry. "You should make your feelings clear before it gets serious. Don't lead them on."
He gave her a puzzled look. "But they were the ones to invite me."
"Only because you wouldn't speak to them after the ball, right?"
He hummed noncommittally. "We'll see how today goes." It seemed silly to voice his fears about the twins' reaction to him picking one over the other when he had spent the past half an hour assuring Ron they wouldn't drag him off to the Forbidden Forest and sacrifice him in a ritual.
Ron looked at Hermione, then at him, and threw up his hands. "It's your funeral."
"And I better get on with it," he said cheerily. "See you later, yeah?"
Emotions warred on Ron's face before he sprang to his feet. "I'll walk with you."
The three of them descended the stairs. After bidding Hermione goodbye, Harry crossed the common room with Ron in tow. His eyebrows rose when Ron followed him through the portrait hole and to the main staircase.
"I don't need a bodyguard," Harry said, a little exasperated.
"Huh?" Ron shot him a distracted look. "No, I want to apologize for ditching Hestia. If you're dating, I'm bound to see her around, and my heart can't take much more of her stare."
"Oh," he said, surprised. As far as he recalled, Hestia hadn't been angry, but with her, one could never tell. "Good luck."
Ron's ears reddened as he stared ahead. "Reckon she and her sister are going to murder me?"
"Don't be daft. They're actually sweet when you come to know them better."
Ron sent him an incredulous look. "Are you sure that's not a love potion talking?"
He snorted and walked unhurriedly down the stairs. It had been a quarter to three when they left the dorms, and it might be weird to arrive too early. Glancing over the banister, he tried to make out the students milling in the entrance hall far below. Then again, it wouldn't do to be late. He sped up. Ron followed at his heels, too preoccupied to notice his jitters.
Descending to the ground floor, they paused at the base of the staircase. Couples and groups drifted past them and toward the exit, where Filch stood checking each student against a list. Cold air intruded through the ajar doors, making Harry grateful for his foresight to don his scarf and gloves. The sky outside was steely, and fine sleet was coming down.
Ron exhaled and leaned against the wall, folding his arms. Harry hovered nearby, glancing toward the dungeons every now and then. When a Slytherin boy scurried into the entrance hall and cast a wary glance backward, he knew the Carrows were near.
Sure enough, twin pale faces soon loomed in the shadowy hallway. Two pairs of grey eyes unerringly sought Harry out, and the sisters strode toward him. A gaggle of upper-year girls who had been chattering in the middle of the hall scooted aside, and an abrupt hush fell. He grinned at his approaching dates. It was less reputation and more sheer presence.
Flora and Hestia didn't return his smile, but their steps quickened, and their joined hands swung between them. Halting before him, they spoke in unison. "Hello, Harry."
His smile widened. "Hello, Flora, Hestia."
They stared at him, then swiveled their heads to Ron.
Ron gulped. "Er, Hestia?" he said to the closer twin.
"I'm Flora," she said.
"I'm Hestia," the other said.
Harry perked up; that had been his guess.
Ron faced her. "Look, I'm sorry. About the ball, I mean. I had some stuff on my mind, but... I was a right prat."
The Carrows peered at Ron in silence. A bead of sweat trickled down his temple as he tried to keep eye contact with Hestia.
"I accept your apology, Ronald," she finally said.
Ron deflated like a balloon. "Great! Great. Um, have fun." He clapped Harry on the shoulder and beat a hasty retreat.
The twins watched him flee. Upon reaching the staircase, Ron glanced back, saw them staring, and stumbled, barely catching himself on the banister. Despite himself, Harry snorted. The twins' demeanor took some time getting used to, but they weren't that scary.
The girls' gazes swiveled to him. He regarded their outfits. They had both draped long black cloaks over their school robes, but their heads and hands were bare.
"Aren't you going to be cold out there?" he asked.
Flora eyed his scarf for some reason. "We'll be fine."
"Thank you for asking," both said.
He glanced outside with a tad of concern. "If you're sure."
The twins separated and flanked him. His head pivoted from one to the other before he started toward the exit. He feared Filch would make them stand there for minutes while he double- and triple-checked his list, but when they neared the doors, the caretaker stood aside without comment.
"Good day, Mr. Filch," the twins chorused.
Filch blanched and motioned them through. Harry hid his grin as they crossed the threshold. Had he known having the Carrows at his sides had such an effect, he would have asked them out earlier.
The icy wind stung his face and whipped Flora's and Hestia's dark locks. They sped to the row of carriages, the ground slushing under their feet. He made for the doors of the closest carriage, but the twins overtook him and marched to its horseless front, where they proceeded to caress the contours of something imaginary.
He gaped at the spectacle, then looked around. Luckily, the nearby Hogsmeade-goers preferred to squeeze into the remaining carriages rather than share with him and the Carrows.
The twins looked at him even as they continued petting at the air.
"Come, Harry," said one, extending a pale hand. He had a hunch she was Flora, although he didn't know where it came from.
He walked up uncertainly. Flora grasped his wrist and guided his hand upward. His palm encountered something coarse, like a damp tarp, and he gasped. When muscles rippled underneath, he realized he was touching something alive. An animal.
"They're thestrals," Flora said to his unasked question.
"I wish you could see them." Hestia looked at the air before her with a serene expression.
"It's better if you don't," Flora said.
"But they're beautiful," Hestia said.
He opened his mouth but thought the better of it. Something told him not to ask why they could see these thestrals when he could not.
There was a deep snort, and a gust of moist air washed over his palm. He jerked his hand away.
"It likes you," Hestia said.
"I had a feeling it would," Flora said, patting the thestral. "Please take us to Hogsmeade."
He opened the carriage and helped Flora and Hestia inside. They lifted their robes daintily with one hand, climbed on, and perched down beside each other. With a last look at the invisible thestral, he clambered in and plopped on the opposite seat. It was a relief to be out of the sleet.
"What do they look like?" he asked as the carriage rolled into motion.
"Sleek angles and grace," Hestia said, a faraway look in her eyes. "With wings like black sails."
"Beautiful," both said.
"They sound like it," he said with a smile.
The sisters exchanged a small nod, but he couldn't tell what it meant. When their stares converged on him again, rather than get discomfited, he sat back and considered them in turn. The grounds rolled by the window as sleet pattered on the roof of the carriage.
"So, what shall we do first?" he asked. "Are you hungry at all?"
"Famished," the twins said.
"The Three Broomsticks, then?"
The twins looked at each other, then back at him. "How about the Hog's Head?"
His eyebrows shot up. There were rumors about the Hog's Head, and none of them suggested it would be a good place for a date.
"It's less noisy," Flora said.
"Alright," he answered before he could stop himself. So much for showing initiative as Hermione had advised him.
Another look passed between the twins, and their lips curved up ever so slightly. Oh well, as long as they were happy.
The thestral soon trotted to a halt, and they climbed off. Harry trailed Flora and Hestia down a twisting side-street, curious about their destination. He pictured the Hog's Head as a wild sort of place, where hooded rogues gathered to make shady deals, so he couldn't help but feel disappointed when they arrived before what was little more than a windblown shack.
Flora pulled open a crooked door below a carving of a hog's head. The darkness hit him first, then a sour smell of spilled beer. The scant sunlight couldn't penetrate the grimy windows, and most of the illumination came from guttering candles scattered about. The crusty sawdust on the floor looked weeks old. A lone patron brooded over their tankard in a shadowy corner.
He lingered at the threshold, but when Flora and Hestia pranced in, he had no choice except to follow. The two commandeered a rickety table and motioned him to take a seat. He eyed a weathered stool and sat gingerly.
A tall, gaunt man who had been lurking behind the bar trudged over. When the candle on their table cast its flickering light upon his lined face, Harry couldn't help but gasp. Dumbledore—but no. The barman did have the same bright blue eyes, but his wiry grey beard was shorter, and his large nose straight.
"You rapscallions just won't leave me alone." The barman's voice was gruff, but a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. "The usual?"
"Please, Abe," the twins chorused.
"And him?" The man shot Harry a less-than-friendly look.
Harry averted his gaze. The barman's eyes were just as piercing as Dumbledore's.
"The same," Flora said when it became evident he wouldn't answer.
The man grunted and trudged off. Harry watched him duck through a door behind the bar before turning to the twins.
"Steak and kidney pie," Flora said. "He only makes it around this time of the day."
"What?" He shook his head. "Never mind that. That man, he looks just like Dumbledore!"
"His brother," Hestia said.
"Don't mention the headmaster within his earshot," Flora said. "He'll spit in your food."
He cast a wary look toward the bar, hoping his voice hadn't carried. Abe reemerged shortly levitating three steaming plates.
"Thank you," the twins said when he set them down.
"Don't know what you see in my pies," Abe grumbled, but he didn't look unhappy.
The girls picked up their utensils and dug in. A pungent smell wafted through the air as they broke the pies' crusts. Their eyes narrowed with relish. Then they both paused mid-bite and looked askance at him.
Realizing he had been staring, he scooped out a piping-hot forkful of his own pie. His eyes widened as he bit into the flaky crust and the savory filling. Not bad.
"That looks delicious," Flora said, staring at his plate.
"Delicious," Hestia echoed.
He glanced at his meal, then at their identical ones. Bemused, he nudged his plate across the table. "Um, try some if you like."
The twins exchanged a glance and reached out to spear some offal with their forks. "Thank you." For some reason, they didn't sound nearly as enthusiastic as before.
"Oi, kid," Abe called.
Startled, he turned to the bar. Abe pointed at three dusty bottles of butterbeer atop the counter, then pulled out a glass and proceeded to wipe it with a rag. Harry slunk over.
"You be good to them, you hear?" Abe said in an undertone, his gaze fixed on the glass. "They're not a bad sort, whatever others may say." He snorted. "Not that they need protecting, those two."
Harry looked up in surprise. "I will, sir."
Abe spat on the floor. "Leave the 'sir' at the door. It's Abe."
"Got it." He picked up the bottles. "Cheers, Abe."
Abe grumbled and waved him off.
Flora and Hestia had put their heads together and were peering at something beneath the table, but when he neared, they straightened up. Flora's hand dipped into the pocket of her robes with a crinkling sound.
"Here you go." He set two butterbeers before them.
"Thank you," the twins said.
Retaking his seat, he flicked his wand at the cap of his butterbeer to pop it off and took a long draught. The bottle might have been dusty, but its contents tasted none the worse.
"What are your hobbies?" Hestia asked.
He swallowed hastily. "Er..."
"That's not quite right, Hestia," Flora chided. "You ought to make small talk first."
"I see," Hestia said. "Nice weather we're having."
He stared at the foggy window, through which a patch of leaden sky was barely visible.
Hestia leaned an inch forward. "Nice weather we're having, right, Harry?"
He bobbed his head. "Yeah. Lovely."
"By the way," she said, "what are your hobbies?" She glanced at her sister, who gave a slight nod.
"Well," he said, amused at the byplay, "I like Quidditch. Flying in general, really."
"I enjoy bladesmithing," Hestia said.
"I enjoy calligraphy," Flora said.
"That's nice—er, bladesmithing?" He gaped at Hestia. "Don't tell me you made that Potions knife yourself?"
She nodded. "Under supervision."
"That's amazing." His gaze darted to her delicate hands. He had always imagined blacksmiths as burly men, but he supposed size didn't matter when one had magic.
Hestia opened her mouth, but then Flora spoke up. "What's your favorite color?"
Losing his train of thought, he worked his jaw. "Erm, gold, I guess." He chuckled when the twins ran their gazes over him. "I'm not wearing it or anything. I just think it looks nice, you know?"
"I'm partial to black," Hestia said.
Grinning, he eyed her cloak and robes. "I could tell."
"I also like purple," Flora said. When his gaze flicked to her, she added, "I am wearing it. Underneath."
"Oh." His cheeks heated up as his mind veered off in a dangerous direction. He took a swig of butterbeer to cover up his embarrassment.
"Want to see?" Flora asked.
His drink went down the wrong pipe, and he broke into a coughing fit. Flora nonchalantly stuck her leg out and hiked her cloak just above her ankle-high boots. He blinked his watering eyes, feeling rather stupid.
"Nice socks," he choked out.
"Thank you." Flora tucked her leg back under the table. Given her placid expression, it was difficult to suspect her of teasing him.
Hestia piped up. "What's your favorite dessert?"
He cleared his throat. "Treacle tart's good."
"I love sticky toffee pudding," Hestia said.
"I love trifle," Flora said.
The questioning went on until they finished their pies. He didn't mind answering, even if it felt like an interrogation at times, and ended up learning as much about the girls as they did about him.
Harry gallantly paid for the meal, and they left the dingy pub side by side. The sleet had stopped, but the sky was still overcast and beginning to darken.
Flora and Hestia hugged themselves and trembled. "So cold."
He inhaled a lungful of crisp air. It didn't feel colder than when they arrived. "Should we head back?"
"I fancy a walk," Flora said.
"Me too," Hestia said.
"But..." He looked to his left, then right. "Are you going to be alright?"
"My neck is so cold," Flora said, "I might fall ill."
He gave her a perplexed look before his hand rose to his scarf. "Would you, er, like to put this on?" He unwound it from his neck.
"How thoughtful," she said. "I'd love to."
He held out the scarf, but she only leaned toward him. Catching on, he gingerly looped it around her neck. Flora tugged it tighter to herself and inhaled.
"It's so warm," she said, her voice muffled by the scarf. "Thank you, Harry."
He looked away to hide his blush. "You're welcome."
Hestia observed with pursed lips. Sensing his gaze, she shivered, cupped her hands, and blew into them.
His lips twitched in amusement. "Want to wear my gloves?"
"Are you sure?" she said, her eyes wide and innocent. "I'd love to."
He produced a pair of knitted gloves from his pocket and extended them, but Hestia stuck out her hands palm-down and wouldn't take them. Fighting embarrassment, he eased the gloves onto her hands one by one. They were baggy around her fingers and drooped at her wrists.
"Thank you, Harry," she said, bringing her gloved hands to her cheeks.
He grinned. "Don't mention it."
"Harry's going to be cold," Flora said, watching her sister like a hawk.
Hestia raised her chin. "You took his scarf."
"You took his gloves."
The sisters locked eyes. His head whipped from one to another as he wondered if he should intervene. Abruptly, Hestia tugged off her right glove and handed it to Flora, who slid it on. They proffered an ungloved hand each to him.
"For warmth," they said.
He blinked, then tentatively took their hands. Their cool, slender fingers curled around his palms. He stood still, glancing from left to right, before setting off to the main street. People meandered about, congregating around the shops and the pub. Some gave Harry and his companions a second glance, then quickly found something else to look at.
At Flora's suggestion, they ducked into Honeydukes, where she bought Toothflossing Stringmints for all three of them. It wasn't his favorite, but he didn't want to be rude and left the shop sucking on the minty sweet.
As they leisurely circled the village, he found himself grinning. Had anyone told him a month ago that he would be strolling through Hogsmeade hand in hand with the Carrow twins, he would have called them barmy.
"Anywhere else you'd like to go?" he asked after they had gone past pretty much everything Hogsmeade had to offer.
"The Shrieking Shack," the twins said as if having anticipated the question.
He stumbled a little. "Haven't you seen it before?"
"Yes," Flora said.
"No," Hestia said.
They stared at each other, then said in concert, "Not with you."
"Er, alright then."
Getting his bearings, he cut through an alley to the edge of the village. The path up the hill atop which squatted the Shrieking Shack was empty. It figured: while every third-year came here during their first Hogsmeade weekend, the novelty quickly wore off.
Flora and Hestia interlaced their fingers with his and quickened their pace. His eyebrows rose. The Shrieking Shack wasn't much to look at, especially a second time.
Ascending the hill, they halted before an askew fence and took in the house's boarded-up windows and caved-in roof. Perhaps because of the snowy winter, it was even more dilapidated than he recalled.
"It's so ominous," Flora said in a tone one would use when talking about the weather.
"I'm scared," Hestia said.
They shuddered dramatically and hugged his arms. Despite the frigid wind, he suddenly felt very warm.
"It's not actually haunted," he said. "The rumors started because Professor Lupin would come here on full moon during his Hogwarts years. He was my father's friend, you see."
"I never knew," Flora said, squeezing his arm. "Thanks for telling us, Harry."
"I wish Professor Lupin still taught," Hestia said. "I once asked him about the right way to gut a Grindylow, and he showed me after class. Professor Lockhart would just turn green and excuse himself."
"He always brought such interesting exhibits," Flora said.
Harry chuckled. Now that he thought of it, the Carrows had always been the first in line to the tanks holding Dark creatures, not batting an eye even when a toothy Grindylow or a Kappa slammed against the glass.
They stayed by the Shrieking Shack awhile, and he spoke a little about his father and his friends, but the worsening wind soon chased them off the hill. Flora and Hestia clung to him until they crossed the village and arrived by the awaiting carriages. Once again, they got one to themselves.
The girls patted the thestral in thanks before climbing into the carriage. When he sat down opposite them, they exchanged a look and relocated to his sides. He squirmed a little as they sandwiched him. Then both of them laid their heads on his shoulders, and he went very still.
The carriage jolted into movement. He swiveled his gaze left and right and saw that Flora's and Hestia's eyes were closed. Relaxing into his seat, he studied their faces, their hair tousled and their cheeks rosy from the wind.
Before long, they were back at Hogwarts. As the carriage slowed to a halt, the sisters simultaneously lifted their heads.
"Your shoulder is very comfortable," Flora said.
"Better than a kelpie hair pillow," Hestia seconded.
"Glad to hear it," he stammered, not meeting their eyes.
Leaping out onto the mushy ground, he assisted first Hestia, then Flora down. As Flora climbed down, a parchment fell out of her robe pocket. He stooped to pick it up.
"Hey, you dropped..."
He stared. Written at the top of the parchment in flourished cursive was "Flora's and Hestia's Date Plan". Heart-shaped bullet points followed below. Bond over petting animals. Candlelight meal. Learn each other's likes and dislikes. Appeal to his protective instincts—
Flora's dainty hand snatched the parchment and shoved it back where it had come from. She fixed him with her blank gaze. "Thank you."
"Er—sure." He offered her a weak smile.
Flora kept staring until his smile faded. He stuck his hands down his pockets, pulled them out again.
"How much did you see?" she asked evenly.
"About halfway, I guess." He chuckled nervously. "It's kind of flattering. That you put in so much effort, I mean."
Her gaze searched his face, then flicked behind his shoulder. She gave a tiny shake of her head.
He whirled around to glimpse Hestia tucking something into her sleeve. Her expression was as unruffled as always, although she didn't quite meet his eyes.
"Er... you weren't about to Obliviate me or something, were you?" His laughter died away when he saw her cheeks pinken. "Seriously?"
"Sorry, Harry." She pulled her cloak tighter over her robes. "Force of habit."
"I wouldn't have let her," Flora said, patting his arm.
"I wouldn't have done it," Hestia said.
"Forgive us?" they said in unison.
"Not that I would've done anything," Hestia reminded.
His gaze alternated between them. Despite himself, a smile tugged at his lips. He really needed to stay on his toes with these two.
"I will," he said, "if you teach me to draw and stow my wand that quickly."
The twins' stances relaxed. Flora took his hand, then Hestia, out of tune with each other for a change, and they steered him toward the castle.
"To start with, don't keep it in your trouser pocket," Hestia said. "It's obvious when you are reaching for it, and it's not secure to boot."
"Your wand sticks out a lot since it's so big," Flora said.
He coughed and threw her a sidelong glance. "I'll—I'll keep that in mind."
Hand in hand in hand, they walked through the ajar doors, crossed the entrance hall, and descended into the dungeons. No one seemed to want to separate, and in short order, they arrived at the entrance to the Slytherin common room. Without thinking, he halted.
"The location of our common room is supposed to be secret," Flora said, glancing at the stretch of stone wall hiding the entrance.
"Er..." His gaze darted around as he debated whether he should play it off as a coincidence.
"You're craftier than our housemates give you credit for," Hestia said.
"It's nothing." He scratched his cheek. "I could sneak you into the Gryffindors' sometime if you'd like."
"We'd love to," the twins said.
He grinned. The girls peeled off the gloves and handed them back, warmed by their hands. Flora unwrapped the scarf from her neck and fingered it.
"I enjoyed our date very much, Harry."
Flora slung the scarf around the back of his neck and tugged him lower. His eyes widened as her cool lips brushed his. He slowly closed his eyes, stooped a fraction. So soft.
Hestia gasped. "We're in public!"
Flora drew back, her eyes fluttering open. "Right you are."
He didn't have time to be disappointed, because Hestia wedged in between them, clutched the scarf, and standing on her tiptoes, kissed him.
"We're in public," Flora said coolly.
Hestia pulled away. The twins stared at each other, then looked up at the dazed Harry and chorused, "Let's find somewhere private."