"Shut it, Weasley!" Daniel Burnett tells his friend firmly, punching him on the arm.

"What?" Arthur looks confused as he rubs his arm and scowls at Daniel. "I wasn't saying anything."

Carlo Peres laughs. "He doesn't mean shut up saying anything," he explains slowly and carefully, as if speaking to an idiot or to someone recovering from serious illness. "He means shut your mouth. You were gaping at her again. Practically drooling."

Arthur reddens, and protests, but he knows it is true. He can't keep his eyes off her.

"He's looking over," Sally Spendlove reports from her perch on the table in the corner.

Monica Springer giggles and bends her head over her parchment, although she is not actually working. "Is he? Are you sure?" she demands.

Sally nods and appeals to Molly, who is scribbling industriously at her Charms essay, apparently oblivious to what her friends are saying.

"Wake up Molly, and tell Mon I'm telling the truth. He is looking this way, isn't he?"

Molly sighs and lays down her quill, but looks up obediently, craning her neck to see round Sally. She is just a few seconds too late.

"Who? Arthur?" she asks, as disinterestedly as she can manage. "He's not looking; he's talking to Daniel and Carlos." She picks up her quill again, and starts writing. "Can I finish this now?" she asks irritably. "I care about my grades if you two don't."

Molly cannons into Arthur the next morning on her way to Herbology. She is late, and he is equally late heading for his Transfiguration class. Molly's bag and its contents go flying and she finds herself – ridiculously and disproportionately – on the verge of tears. She ducks her head as she scrabbles her books together, hoping he won't see. Arthur is equally busy collecting up her ink and quills and appears to notice nothing untoward.

"I'm sorry," he says, as he hands her things back to her. "I wasn't looking where I was going. I didn't hurt you, did I?"

Molly shakes her head wordlessly and they go their separate ways.

She thinks he scarcely even looked at her during the whole encounter.

The notice about the Yule Ball goes up in the common room the following evening. Yule Balls are traditionally reserved for the Triwizard Tournament – but since that hasn't happened in any student's memory, someone (probably Professor Dumbledore in a fit of festive spirit) has decreed that they can have a Ball anyway. Suddenly, the halls and common rooms are alive with whispering about who to invite, and who is going with whom.

"You'll have to actually ask her you know, Art," Daniel points out kindly to his friend, two days after the notice goes up. "Unless you've suddenly become a Legilimens and can do it by thought transfer."

Arthur groans. "It's alright for you," he complains. "You and Rhoda have been together since you were about six, and Carlos can take his pick of any of his fan club. It's harder on us ordinary mortals."

Carlos grins unsympathetically, not denying his undeniable superiority in the girl-attracting department. "Just go and do it," he advises, giving his friend a shove in the direction of the table where Monica, Sally and Molly are sitting. "The worst that can happen is that she turns you down." Arthur looks at him with a pained expression, and Carlos laughs. "It won't kill you if she does," he says bracingly. "Just go and do it. Get it over with."

Arthur can feel his face and ears reddening as he crosses what seems like a mile of carpet between where he was sitting with his friends and the table where the girls are. He is uncomfortably aware that Carlos and Daniel are watching his every move. But he makes it without tripping over his own feet, and manages to stumble through his request.

Monica gives him her kindest smile. "I'd love to come with you, Arthur," she says.

Arthur no longer cares that his face is scarlet and that his friends are laughing at him. Monica Springer, the best-looking girl in the school, the girl he has had fantasies about since before the summer, is going to the Yule Ball with him.

He is the happiest boy in Gryffindor tonight.

Molly behaves very well. She tells Monica how happy she is for her. She listens to her endlessly repeating how good-looking Arthur is, how gentle, how nice. She puts up with the inevitable "What on earth am I going to wear?" conversation. And if she sheds a few quiet tears in the privacy of her four-poster at night, no one knows it but herself.

Against all her expectations, Molly enjoys the ball. She goes with a mixed group of unattached Gryffindors and Hufflepuffs, and dances with more boys than she can keep track of. She laughs with Sally, and with Perdita Pardoe of Hufflepuff (who is empty-headed and flighty, but good fun on occasions like this). She groans along with the rest at Gideon and Fabian's jokes, and goes as far as to deny that they are related to her after a particularly bad one. And all evening she makes a conscious effort not to look at Arthur and Monica, who seem to be the victims of some sort of Sticking Charm which makes it impossible for them to separate from each other.

Until the last dance, when her eyes seem to find them if their own accord, and she feels tears pricking.

"Want to dance, sis?" Fabian doesn't give her a chance to reply, but grabs her hand and tugs her onto the dance floor. As they whirl around he leans forward and whispers, "He's an idiot, Arthur Weasley. Monica's all fluffy blonde hair and look-at-me. You're so much nicer. And not just because you have the advantage of having me as a brother."

Molly laughs slightly shakily, but cannot think of an answer. She does not ask Fabian how he knew what she was feeling. He has a knack of being scarily all-knowing at times, especially where his sister and brother are concerned.

"So are you going out with him or not?" Sally demands. The Gryffindor fourth year girls are getting dressed a week or so after the beginning of term, and the chatter in the dormitory dies down as everyone waits for Monica's answer.

Monica groans and flops back down onto her bed. "I don't know," she complains. "I thought we were, but he's hardly spoken to me since term started."

"Maybe he's just shy," Diane Donahue suggests. "He does go bright red and stutter like an idiot every time you're near him."

Monica smiles complacently. "Yeah, he does, doesn't he?" she says. "That must mean something."

"It's Hogsmeade this weekend," Sally says. "Say something to him that sort of assumes you think he's going with you and see how he reacts."

"Like what?" asks Monica, who may be pretty, but is sometimes slow on the uptake.

Sally rolls her eyes. "Oh, use your brain, Mon!" she admonishes her friend. "Just ask him where you are going to meet on Saturday morning or something. That's a broad enough hint, even for the dimmest of boys."

"Arthur's not dim!" Monica protests. "Is he, Molly?"

Molly shakes her head. "No of course he's not. But you should try what Sally says. Then you'd know where you stand."

"So would I," she thinks, but she does not say it out loud.

Of course, Arthur is delighted to be going to Hogsmeade with Monica.

"Of course he is," Molly tells herself firmly as she looks out her scarf and gloves in the girls' dormitory. "Of course he is. And you should be glad for her. She's your friend. Your best friend."

She checks the mirror before she leaves the room, uncomfortably aware that Sally is waiting for her in the common room, and that she will inevitably spot any remaining traces of the tears Molly could not hold back after Monica skipped off happily to meet her date this morning. She had made a quick escape to the bathroom and stayed there until the stern talking-to she gave herself about pulling herself together and being happy for Monica had some effect.

Now she thinks she will be alright and get through the day without disgracing herself. Unless Fabian says something too perspicacious or Gideon makes the wrong joke about lovebirds…

Molly gets through the day – although she has a sticky moment when she spots Arthur and Monica sitting at a table in the window of Dolores Dingle's Teashop holding hands and gazing into each other's eyes. She suddenly remembers she needs a new quill and hurries Sally off down the road to Scrivenshaft's to save herself from looking at them.

But in the days and weeks that follow, she cannot help but see them. It seems that every time she goes into the common room, Arthur and Monica are there, squashed into the big chair in the corner, apparently glued together and oblivious to everything else going on around them. She thinks bitterly that she seems to be under some sort of haunting curse, because it is not just in the common room she encounters them – it is in the Library, in the stands watching Gryffindor flatten the Ravenclaws at Quidditch, in every corridor she walks along. And if she does escape the two of them together, Monica is there, holding forth on how wonderful Arthur is, how much she loves him, how this is definitely the real thing.

Molly has given up crying in private about how unfair it is, how much she would like to be the one going out with Arthur, how she would like to hate Monica – though she can't, because she is her best friend. She is almost resigned to it now. Arthur loves Monica. He will never look twice at her. That is just the way it is.

A week into February, Molly is late for Herbology again and runs bang into someone as she rounds the last corner to the Entrance Hall. Both their bags go flying, and as Molly stoops to retrieve hers, she is cursing the luck that this will make her even later than she already is, and cursing even more the fact that the person who has almost knocked her off her feet is Arthur Weasley. Can't he leave her alone, for Godric's sake?

Arthur for his part, having picked up his own bag and a handful of scattered quills, is looking at Molly with something approaching revelation. Up to now she has been nothing to him but "Monica's friend". Suddenly he is realising that she is a person in her own right, and a remarkably pretty one at that.

"What?" Molly asks irritably, looking at his open mouth and reddening cheeks. "What's the matter?"

Arthur closes his mouth with a snap and shakes his head. "Nothing," he mutters. "I mean, I'm sorry I ran into you. Are you okay?"

Molly glares at him. "Yes, I'm fine. But I was late already, and you've made me later. Look where you're going in future."

This is grossly unfair, as the collision was at least as much her fault as his, but Arthur decides not to answer. For some reason he doesn't seem able to think of anything coherent to say. And his feet seem rooted to the floor. He is still standing in the same place, his face red and his expression slightly spellshocked as Molly turns abruptly on her heel and sets off rapidly out of the door for her lesson.

"Well, tell her," Carlos says in exasperation, two evenings later in the dormitory as the boys are getting ready for bed. "Just tell her you don't want to go out with her any more. It's not that hard."

Daniel grins as his head emerges from the pyjama top he has just tugged on. "Carlos should know. He chucks girls on a pretty regular basis. Though why you should want to chuck her after mooning after her since before the summer is beyond me."

"Ah," Carlos says, laughing, "Wanting something is so much better than actually having it. So the wise ones say…"

Arthur groans and throws a pillow at him. "What the hell do you know about wise ones, idiot?" he demands. "It's not that I don't like her any more, it's just… Oh, I don't know." He rolls over so that his back is to his friends, and refuses to discuss the matter further, despite them persisting in niggling him about it for a full fifteen minutes more.

The truth is that, while he still likes Monica, while he still thinks she is far and away the best-looking girl in the school, he has discovered that he wants more than a pretty face and a vague liking for someone. He is discovering just how self-centred a beautiful girl can be, how clingy Monica in particular can be, how – he has to be honest – how remarkably thick she is on occasion. He doesn't dislike her, but he is getting fed up with having to spend almost every waking minute with her. He doesn't think love is supposed to be like this.

But he has the disadvantage of being one of those people who are so fundamentally nice that he doesn't like to hurt anyone. He knows – and he hopes he is not being vain in this – that Monica really cares for him. He knows that if he tells her he no longer wants to go out with her, he will hurt her. And he doesn't want to do that.

But he knows too that he can't go on like this much longer.

(He ruthlessly suppresses all thoughts of Molly Prewett from his brain. Yes, she is very pretty, with a lovely smile and gorgeous eyes and hair. Yes, she has a lot more spark to her than Monica could ever manage. But she is Monica's best friend. Even if he somehow freed himself from Monica, she would be out of bounds. Anyway, there is no way that a bright and popular girl like Molly would look at a gawky, shy, tongue-tied boy like him. He must not think about her.)

"You don't care about me, Arthur Weasley! You only care about yourself!" Monica stops and draws a shaky breath before delivering the killer line. "You're dumped!" With that, she bursts into tears and heads for the girls' staircase, the faithful Sally and Molly hot on her heels. (Molly glances back as she reaches the foot of the stairs. For someone who has been very publically ditched, Arthur looks remarkably cheerful, if slightly embarrassed at the scene he has just been part of.)

Monica is face down on her bed, her shoulders heaving with sobs. "How could he?" she gasps. "How could anyone forget Valentine's Day?"

Sally and Molly make all the right noises and rub her back and say yes, of course Monica had to get rid of him after that, and they really didn't blame her at all, any girl would have done the same. Molly keeps to herself the feeling that Arthur knew perfectly well what day it was, and engineered the whole thing so that he wouldn't have to be the one doing the dumping. Monica would not like to hear that. Being the in-the-right one who does the dumping is so much better than being the slighted one who is dumped.

Three days later, Molly is hurrying along the second floor corridor on her way to Charms, and narrowly avoids crashing into a group of fifth year boys just leaving the Defence classroom. Arthur is in their midst. Molly can't help but notice that he is looking at her with more than normal attention.

But she shakes herself, murmurs, "Excuse me," and heads for her lesson without looking back. Arthur might be nominally free, but he is still Monica's ex, and Monica is her friend. She must not think of him as anything but Monica's ex-boyfriend. She must not think of him.

But over the next few weeks, she finds it impossible to avoid him. He sits next to her at breakfast, studiously avoiding looking at Monica, but engaging Molly in slightly stilted conversation about the news in the Prophet or the awfulness of his Arithmancy homework. He joins her at a table in the Library, smiling at her but saying nothing in case Madam Crack throws the pair of them out for talking. He seems to be in the common room every time Molly goes in there. And she is always running into him in the corridors.

However hard she tries, she cannot think of him as just the boy who used to go out with her best friend. He is kind, he is good-looking, he is funny and gentle and sweet and… He is everything she would want in a boy, and Molly knows she is more in love with him now than she was three months ago when he asked Monica to the Yule Ball.

She cannot believe no one has noticed. To her, her feelings are so obvious that she might as well have "I love Arthur Weasley" tattooed across her forehead. But no one says anything; not even Sally, who is usually an expert at noticing who fancies whom, or Fabian, who is being uncharacteristically tactful if he does realise that his sister still cares about Arthur. Monica herself has not mentioned his name since the end of February. Molly thinks that she probably has her sights set on someone else already. Monica is never long without a boy (or two) in tow.

Halfway through March, on a showery blustery day, Molly is hurrying back from Herbology, thinking only of getting up to the common room and getting warm, when she runs into Arthur, Carlos and Daniel in the Entrance Hall. She drops her bag, which splits, sending the contents everywhere, including a bottle of ink, which shatters on the marble floor. Molly could cry. Why is this always happening to her? And why is bloody Arthur Weasley always there when it does?

The three boys are gathering up her books and quills into an untidy pile, and she just sits there on the floor and lets them. Then Carlos punches Arthur on the shoulder, Daniel bends and whispers something which sounds like, "Go for it!" to him, and suddenly the two of them are alone. Arthur flicks his wand to clear up the pools of ink on the floor and repairs Molly's bag with a second spell before he looks at her properly.

"Are you okay?" he asks softly, as she takes the stack of books he is holding out to her and shoves them back into the bag.

She nods and mutters something which might be, "Yes." Actually, she is wishing he would go away so that she can run to the dormitory and just cry. Why can't she avoid him, for Godric's sake? It really isn't fair.

"Why are you crying then?" Arthur asks, putting out an inky hand and raising her chin so that he can see her properly.

"I'm not!" Molly swallows hard, but there are tears on her cheeks and she knows it.

Arthur smiles at her. "Molly, I…" Suddenly he seems lost for words, and Molly sees that his face is glowing red. What on earth is going on?

Arthur picks up a quill that has been forgotten, and holds it out to her. "Come for a walk with me?" he asks abruptly. "Tonight? Round the lake? Please?"

Molly takes the quill and stows it away in her bag in a daze. As if from a long way away, she hears a girl who must be herself saying, "Yes, I'd like that," but she isn't sure if she is dreaming.

Arthur smiles and gets to his feet. "Meet you here at seven then," he says happily, extending a hand to pull her to her feet.

She nods wordlessly, and then he has smiled at her again, and is gone.

Molly smiles too as she shoulders her bag and heads for the stairs, but there is one worry at the back of her mind. What on earth is she going to say to Monica?