"What do you mean?"
Silence. Damn it, he thinks. She seems to read his thoughts. The entire room seems to hang in the balance, even though they've been in the kitchen for a while now and the elves look as busy as ever.
"I got all night, monsieur."
He sighs, conceding. "Fine. This is the best coffee I've ever had."
Her smile couldn't possibly be wider. It's so absolutely smug…
"However," he rests the drink briefly over the wooden table, "I'm not certain that it is so because of the beans or the fact that it was prepared on my island. By one of our finest chefs," he nods lazily towards Dobby, who seems on the verge of a joy-induced heart attack.
"I will let slide the fact that you called it your island," Fleur quips, clearly amused underneath her serious posture, "because… and this, I must admit… is true. It was wonderfully prepared, Dobby, thank you!"
The elf excuses himself, tears in his eyes, to the words "Miss Harry Potter's friend is so kind!" Fleur looks at Harry, concern in her eyes.
"Don't worry, if anything, he's about to crack his skull with excitement over your compliment."
"Shouldn't we worry about that?" she almost leaves her chair. Harry quickly places a hand over hers, and feeling that it might have been awkward (because, well, it was; what was he thinking?), he just as quickly pulls it back.
"I used to, but nowadays I accept that I can't change him. And he heals like there's no tomorrow, so… let him be happy, I guess."
Fleur returns to her mug, looking sideways now and then to verify for blunt sounds coming from near walls. Harry smiles fondly. She may not know much about elf behavior, but she treated one like she would treat anyone else. And this is the girl I thought to be pretentious and snob not that long ago…
"You've never been around elves much, have you?"
"Maman is always very strict about their 'efficiency' at our house," she admits somewhat sadly, "so we hardly ever see them, but my sister is fascinated with them ever since she read about their existence. I noticed once that she leaves small chocolates with thanking notes for them at her room. In the morning, the chocolates are there, but the notes are gone. I've always encouraged Gabi to continue doing so."
There's something in the way her sister's name comes out of her mouth; it speaks of a higher love, something Harry cannot quite understand, even though he feels a good share of it. He suddenly thinks of Padma and Parvati. "You and your sister seem pretty close", he comments, sipping coffee.
She eyes the mug; and simple as that may be, it's one of the most beautiful things Harry has ever seen. "Gabrielle is… I can't put into words. Did you ever look at someone and you wished nothing bad would cross that person's path? That all she knew was happiness, every second? She's a kind spirit, truly free from sin, like a child should be." And after a pause, concluded: "She is everything that I can hope to be on my very best day."
To his prolonged silence, Fleur tilted her head sideways. "Oh, it's nothing," he apologized, "it's just… beautiful. How you talk about her."
"I don't suppose those Muggle relatives of yours are that caring," she said, only somewhat apologetically. He raised his eyebrows, thankful for her lack of unnecessary pity. He hated being pitied.
"What?" she smiled behind the fumes of coffee gently dancing in front of her. "When it comes to you, there's much needed separation between what's fact or fabrication, so… are they, I mean…"
"Don't search too hard for a word, they're just… them. A family of Muggles, as fearful and mistrusting as they come. It's just how they're wired."
"Doesn't that bother you?"
"It used to… more so when I was younger, because… well," Harry rested his mug on the table, eyes fixed on it in contemplation, "when you're a kid, a part of your happiness ends up associated with the happiness you see on other people, on how happy you assume they are… you know? And what I saw around me at school, the neighborhood..."
Harry stopped himself. Where is this coming from…?
"Hm? Oh… sorry, I was just thinking about it all… I don't think I ever did much. You have a habit of doing that," he half-smiled, "making me think."
"Good. Maybe next time you're facing a dragon you'll have the presence of mind not to challenge it for a flight duel," she said raising her mug in salutation and rolling her eyes as if to say "Lunatic…"
"Please… you're just sour because you didn't think of it first," he laughed. She's such a piece of work…
"Yes, of course, Harry Potter… that's exactly it. Shame on me for not trying to dive head first into a dragon's mouth," she scoffed theatrically, laughing a few seconds later as well.
"But that's just it, you know," he resumed, "I used to be so mad at them for some things and nowadays I realize they were just… scared. It's not that I forgot what they did… I just get it a little more."
"So you'd jump in front of a spell for them, now?" she asked.
"Flawed as she may be, my aunt is still blood. My mother's blood." His tone was solemn and for a second the kitchen was very quiet. Then… "As for my uncle and cousin, well… it really depends on the spell."
Harry discovered yet again how he appreciated Fleur's laugh. She delicately poured more coffee for both of them, and Harry noticed her mouth twitched into a smile as Dobby returned to his errands at the kitchen, apparently unscathed and happy as he'd ever be.
The conversation went on for a while: Fleur had a natural gift for leading into new subjects and Harry had been a decent listener his entire life. Thing was, and he wouldn't realize until a while later, that he was participating much more than he usually bothered to do with anyone other than Ron or Hermione.
"Something wrong, Harry?"
"No, no… just had a glimpse of a mess from tonight I still have to take care of," he half-smiled.
"Your friends' fight?"
"And then some," he breathed, "but it's nothing to worry about."
At least I hope so…
Fleur started to say something, but suddenly looked at the clock nearby, a sad expression on her face. "It's a bit late, Harry… and as much as it pains me to say so, I think I should go back to the carriage."
Pragmatic, Harry sprung to his feet in a fluid motion. "Of course; your friends and Madam Maxime must be worried." And in the time of a heartbeat he added "Would you like me to walk you there? It's a bit cold, and I don't have the heart to deny you the jacket until you're well inside your 'dorm'."
Fleur gave him the biggest smile of that night. "Such a gentleman… who would know," and she took one last sip of coffee, ignoring Harry's narrowed eyes to her almost snide retort. She wove her arm under Harry's, said her goodbyes to the elves (not before Dobby handed her a satchel with varying treats made especially for 'Miss Harry Potter's friend') and they walked back into the now colder corridors, the passage to the kitchens sealing itself with a dozen smiling elves waving behind it, at the same time they polished plates and prepared cakes.
Harry's uncanny knowledge of Hogwarts' corridors was useful to avoid possible patrolling teachers or the few remaining students still up (the boy started to feel dazed with visions of his bed as well). It still didn't save them, however, from being spotted by McGonagall on a patrol, her ever vigilant eyes faltering for a second at the sight of two Champions talking and laughing together. And (of course) the Weasley twins, who waltzed through the corridors with their dates at an opposite direction and saw a mere glimpse of the unusual couple.
Boy, this will be fun to explain… I'll just pray they'll forget what they saw.
"Thank you", Fleur whispered after a few moments of silence.
Harry glanced sideways. "For not pressing on about why I was nearly crying when you found me," she added, looking straight ahead.
Harry shrugged slightly, not really realizing the importance of it. "I just figured you'd tell me if you felt comfortable about it. If not, that's cool too…as long as you know you can talk about it when you want to… you know?"
"I know," she half laughed, holding his gaze a little. They were nearing the entrance doors, still wide open. The carriage wasn't that far ahead.
"See? Got you here safe and sound. I don't know why people get the idea I'm a troublemaker."
"Says the boy who knew his way into the school's kitchen."
"Hey... people get hungry. And believe it or not, when I found that door I was a third party, not the expedition leader."
"So there was an expedition, now?"
"The less you know about it," he eyed her darkly, "the better." She laughed, their footsteps dampened in the grass.
"So what's your verdict on your first ball, monsieur Potter?" Fleur asked playfully, the carriage steps a few feet away now. Harry laughed, eying the sky, the deepened shades of blue and gray painting one of those magnificent dawns that Hogwarts constantly provided.
"I'll limit myself to saying it got better at the end," he quipped.
"That's a very good answer."
"Figured it was the right one."
Fleur smiled, kindness and thankfulness and that usual plethora of good feelings that mixed somewhere along the curve or her lips. Too quick for him to react, she hugged him.
"Je ne peux pas vous remercier assez pour ce soir." Her voice was again barely a whisper.
"That's not fair, you know," he laughed, his arms around her. "I'm barely learning the basics."
She lifted her face, tilting her head sideways. "Isn't that the truth?" And then, with a quick peck on his cheek and a "Good night, Harry," she started climbing the steps into the carriage.
Fleur was still wearing his jacket, but he made no move to retrieve it. He didn't feel that cold and he could get it later from her. Wasn't planning to wear it every day, anyway…
He twisted on the spot, starting to wonder if he should take a look at Padma and Parvati or just go collapse in his bed; it had been such a crazy night, and yet he found it hard to suppress a grin… he had half a mind to meet the twins and sleep at the Hospital Wing when something occurred to him. Thanks, Neville.
Her frame was half inside the carriage when her head turned. "Harry?"
AUTHOR NOTES: There is truly no excuse for how long it took to upload this… I truly apologize, because (and I can't stress this enough) you people are the reason I keep on writing anyway. Thank you so much for the support, for the reviews, the PMs… Life's been kinda crazy around here, but I promise (REALLY DO) that I'll try to keep the chapters coming more frequently. We must find space in our lives to do the things we love… I'm working on it…
Werewolf007, if you're still reading this, please correct my only French phrase here if there are any mistakes. I took a shot at it with very basic grammar knowledge, so… it's supposed to mean "I can't thank you enough for tonight."
This went through a lot of changes from its initial shape... I even have a small unedited piece that leads Harry to the Hospital and a small conversation with Parvati I can include here at the end, but I really wanted to finish the chapter with that line; if you dudes and dudettes feel I should include it, let me know… read, review if possible, and take care. Have a great weekend, kids. Hope to hear from you soon,