Disclaimer: Harry Potter is the property of JK Rowling.
Author's note: It's quite unclear from the books what the status is re: the magical governments of the United Kingdom/Britain/Ireland. Since the Ministry of Magic appears to be a branch of the government of the United Kingdom, I've gone ahead and assumed that there's also a magical branch of the Irish government. The fact that it's the British and Irish Quidditch League complicates that a bit, but since there's only one Quidditch team based in the Republic of Ireland, and since most (all?) of the British and Irish League teams were founded prior to 1922, I didn't think it was too far-fetched to run with it being a UK institution rather than being split between the two countries.
Alicia Spinnet was in love. End of story, full stop. She'd never been happier. She was hearing the siren song of domesticity. They were discussing moving into a flat together. Love. This was it. She knew it. She was positive. She'd no reservations – of course not. Why would she stay with someone who she'd reservations about? She was sharing her life with the right person, she was. And she was getting quite tired of everyone she knew disagreeing with her.
"All I'm saying, Alicia, is that I don't think you should move in with him." Angelina had to lean across the table to be heard in the crowded pub, and for a second, Alicia considered pretending that she hadn't heard her friend at all.
But she couldn't do that to Angelina, who was looking better than she had for ages and sounding just a tiny bit like her old self. "Jack suggested it, you know, it's not as though I was haranguing him about making more commitment," Alicia informed her.
"No, I know you weren't," Angelina said, pausing to take a gulp of her beer. "I just think…I mean, is he right for you? Jack Sloper?"
"You're still upset because he was a rubbish Beater at school."
"Please, I'm not that bitter," Angelina replied with a roll of her eyes. After a pause, she added, "Though he really was abysmal. I mean, really bad."
Alicia swirled the remnants of her pint around in the bottom of her glass, ignoring this last comment. "He's a good man, you know. Jack."
"It's not that, it's…" Angelina made a face. "Sometimes things just don't seem right, you know?"
Actually, Angelina was sort of the queen of knowing when things didn't seem right – she'd gone out with a string of blokes, some of whom had seemed perfectly nice, but in the end she always ditched them, always with a vague, it just wasn't working. "Well, I never said I was going to move in with him," Alicia said, feeling defensive. "Just that he asked. And I'm thinking about it."
Angelina raised an eyebrow and took another drink, then glanced at the door as something caught her attention there. "Oh, Oliver's here."
Quickly, Alicia glanced over her shoulder. Sure enough, Oliver Wood, burly, handsome in that way that only professional Quidditch players were, had just walked in. She tried to ignore the wiggling feeling in her stomach and the little skip her heart gave. Turning back to Angelina, she said, "Oliver doesn't like Jack."
Her friend agreed with a slight nod but didn't say anything, as Oliver was determinedly making his way towards their table.
It was stupid, really, Oliver disliking Jack, and it was sort of her fault. It was all down to a conversation they'd had just before going into the Battle of Hogwarts, when emotions had obviously been running high and no one knew if they were going to see anyone else ever again. So maybe she'd made a hasty, silly promise to Oliver that had got lost in the blur of celebration and grief following the Battle. Maybe she'd said she was going to break it off with Jack, especially when he'd not come with her to the Battle. That had been then, and the whole world, everything, had been insane, but it had been incredible how quickly everything had returned to normal. Too normal for pre-Battle promises to have any bearing on real life, which seemed to be an unspoken truth between her and Oliver, but still…still, he'd never liked Jack.
"All right, Johnson?" Oliver asked as he sat down, sans invitation, at their table next to Alicia. And then, with a lingering look, "Hi, Alicia."
She tried to answer in as normal a voice as she could, but the conversation she'd just been having with Angelina conspired to make it come out sounding tense. Jack and Oliver just didn't mix, not even in casual talk.
Oliver was eyeing Angelina. "You look different, Johnson."
"Better than you did last time I saw you," he amended after some consideration.
"I gussied up on the off-chance you might come by, Wood," Angelina said sarcastically.
There were a lot of things Oliver didn't know about Angelina, and it surprised Alicia to hear him notice an improvement in her appearance. There had been an improvement. Her eyes didn't look quite so shadowed anymore, and that wan-ness that she'd been carrying in her face since the Battle and flushed to more of a normal hue. That kind of unexpected perceptiveness in Oliver had always intrigued her. On the outside he was so single-minded but he did pay attention. He did. Sometimes.
"How's your team, Oliver?" Alicia asked.
"Oh, please don't get him started," Angelina groaned.
Oliver seemed to ignore her as he answered, "Good. Fantastic. Extra training for the next two weeks to get ready to face her—" he jabbed an accusatory finger in Angelina's face, which only made her purse her lips in wry amusement, "—and the Harpies. Weasley's almost as good as you, Johnson." A look flashed across his face that Alicia rather thought was pride. "Almost."
"Well, I'll take that as a compliment," Angelina drawled.
Turning his eyes to Alicia, he said in what she thought was far too casual a tone, "I was up at your office today. Couldn't find you."
Because she'd been out to lunch with her boyfriend, discussing the possibility of co-habiting. She left her excuse at, "I went out for lunch."
Part of her hated this. Oh, who was she kidding – most of her hated this, that her SO was persona non grata when she was with Oliver, and not because she was worried about how he might react, but because she felt a weird, acute embarrassment whenever they spoke about him. And it wasn't that her relationship with Oliver was awkward, but certainly some of the easy comfort between them had gone. They didn't joke like he and Angelina did.
She missed that.
"It's loud in here," Oliver remarked, shouting himself and causing Alicia to giggle.
"Well, you're only making it worse," she pointed out.
He flashed her a grin and that made her go tingly from head to toe. Which only made her want to slap herself. You've got a boyfriend, Spinnet, she mentally berated herself.
A boyfriend who had apparently walked right into the pub without any of them noticing, because suddenly Jack Sloper's hands were on her shoulders. "Guess who?" he asked.
Alicia tilted her head upwards, "Jack! I thought you weren't going to be here for another hour?"
He was forced to sit across from her, as Oliver had taken the neighbouring chair. "I was, but I figured I'd come down early. You're happy to see me, right?"
The wheedling tone in his voice was the same one that she'd heard when he'd brought up getting a flat together at lunch. "Of course I am," she replied. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Angelina studiously peering down at her pint, as though she was divining in it some way to make her exit.
"Wow," Jack said, looking around at the table's other occupants as though he'd just noticed their presences, "how's my luck that I end up sitting in a pub with two nationally famous Quidditch stars?"
"Don't remind Wood," Angelina said with a twitch of a smile. "He won't rest till he's internationally famous."
Oliver shot her a disgruntled look and Alicia had the feeling he'd rather not be drawn into the conversation. In fact she knew from experience that Jack's arrival always heralded Oliver's departure, and she quickly got up to forestall that, at least until she returned to the table. "I'm for another pint; Jack, Oliver, can I get you anything?"
While Oliver shook his head, Jack said, "Yeah, check to see if they have some of that wine I like, would you? That sweet stuff that you buy. Thanks, love."
"Sure," she replied as she started towards the bar, weaving her way around tables and chairs filled with laughing and talking wizards and witches. She spotted one of her co-workers from the Department of Magical Games and Sports on the other side of the pub and waved. The barman had his hands full with the evening crowd and Alicia had to stand and wait for a few minutes, absently drumming her fingers on the polished wood of the bar.
A series of "Excuse me's" and "Sorry's" came from behind her, and she turned to see Oliver pushing his way through the tables to reach her. "Got to go," he said shortly. "Early day for me tomorrow."
She nodded understandingly, though she couldn't help feeling disappointed. "Don't wear yourself out with all that extra training," she warned him.
He gave her an incredulous look, as though she were mad even suggesting that he wouldn't, but then he mollified his expression somewhat and said, "That's not really the point, but...right." She just smiled and shook her head at him, and he lifted a hand in a gruff sort of wave. "See you."
On an impulse, she reached out and put a hand to his shoulder to stop him, though it cost her her spot at the bar. "Oliver," she said, "you never mentioned why you were looking for me at my office today."
"Oh." Oliver gave a roll of his powerful shoulders. "I was going to ask if you were free to have lunch."
Every so often Oliver did that – showed up at her office with some totally out of character request. She'd always wondered if he often came to London during the day or if it was…well, she didn't want to say her drawing him there, but at the same time… "Sorry I wasn't there," she said, really regretting that she hadn't been. And that didn't make sense. Yes, she loved seeing Oliver, but she'd been with Jack, having a conversation that she'd been wanting to have for ages. Wasn't that better? Yes, of course it was. Obviously.
"I'll send an owl next time to warn you I'm coming," he said, smiling.
"Excellent," she replied, then added, "Maybe this week?"
For a second, he hesitated, and then he said, "Maybe."
With that, he left, and Alicia watched him walk out the door before she returned to the bar for Jack's wine. By the time she got back to the table, Angelina and Jack were deep in conversation – at least, Jack was. Angelina was, now and then, glancing to her left and right as if looking for an escape route. "What took you so long, Alicia?" Jack asked jovially when she sat down. Before giving her a chance to answer, he said, "Angelina and I were just reminiscing about our Hogwarts days. I was saying it was a bit of a lucky thing that the Weasley twins and Potter got banned from the team the year she was captain. I mean, it gave some of us other aspiring players a chance on the team; an opportunity to test out our skills. And look at Ginny Weasley, she got a chance to play and now she's with the Harpies! Not to mention we'd barely spoken before I made the team."
"I suppose…" Alicia said doubtfully. She couldn't quite see how losing your fantastic Seeker and Beaters who'd played with an uncanny connection could be classified as a 'lucky thing', but he did have a point about Ginny and the two of them meeting.
"Yes," Angelina said dryly. "Nothing quite describes the Weasley twins like 'replaceable'." The note of bitterness in her voice came through loud and clear, loud enough for even Jack to hear it, and he didn't usually pick up on her subtleties. Of course, she wasn't bothering to be subtle at the minute.
"I didn't mean—" he began, but she waved a hand and got to her feet.
"I know you didn't." She looked at Alicia and said, "That's my cue to scarper."
"Can't you stay?" They'd planned this as a night out for the two of them before Jack's planned arrival later in the evening. He'd been doing that – coming early when they'd clearly arranged a later hour for him to arrive.
Angelina shot her a humourless smile. "You two enjoy each other's company. You know me, past a certain time of night and I'm gloomy."
Before Alicia could respond, Jack said, "Well then, we'll see you soon, Angie!"
Alicia flinched and saw Angelina grit her teeth and grind her jaw several inches to one side, but she just nodded curtly and left. Turning to Jack, Alicia said, "Don't call her that."
"Angie. She hates it. The only person she ever let call her that was Fred Weasley."
Jack looked offended. "How was I supposed to know that?"
"You weren't," Alicia replied, while thinking a bit guiltily, but you should know that you and Angelina haven't got a nickname sort of relationship. Jack shrugged and dropped the subject, and they did ostensibly have a night in which nothing particularly gloomy ever came up. But Alicia couldn't help missing both Angelina and Oliver's company, which she felt she'd lost far too early in the evening.
Alicia spent Saturday cleaning her flat, a task she dreaded because she'd never been much for household spells. Without fail, she'd do it half by hand and half by magic, and she was never certain which was the more exhausting of the two. On Sunday, she allowed herself to sleep late, letting the sun come through her bedroom window and shine across her eyes for an hour or two before she finally got up, took a quick shower, and sat down to have a couple pieces of toast for breakfast while she read the Daily Prophet.
Eventually, her perusal finished, she flipped it closed with a contented sigh, and then her eyes fell on a busy advert for Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes on the back page. It was hard to believe they needed the advertising; the place was packed every time she was inside, and as far as she could tell George had never hired anyone except that poor Verity who'd practically run the shop that first summer after Fred had died, so he wasn't even paying wages to anyone else. As the image danced under her gaze, it suddenly occurred to her that she'd not seen George Weasley in well over two months, that she didn't know how he was; in fact didn't know anyone who knew how he was.
Well, what better way to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon than a bit of shopping?
She made sure to Apparate to a well out-of-the-way corner of Diagon Alley, because her aptitude for it wasn't necessarily the greatest. She had, after all, landed on top of Oliver when she'd Apparated to the Hog's Head that first of May. He hadn't seemed at all put-out.
It was only a few steps to the front door of Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes, and when she opened the door, a small firework shot towards the centre of the shop and exploded over the till. Normal wizards just hung a bell on the door. Not the Weasley twins. Making her way in that direction, she quickly came upon George. The hole in the side of his head always made her recoil for a moment – he'd always kept his hair short enough that it was visible – but clearly not as much as the young wizard standing at the rack of trick sweets, who was staring open-mouthed at the young, ginger-haired man sitting casually with his feet propped up on the counter.
"Hullo, George," she said to get his attention, waving slightly.
The front two legs of his chair landed on the floor with a thump and he jumped to his feet, beaming at her. "Alicia Spinnet, to what do I owe the pleasure?"
She came around the counter and hugged him before he could stop her. "Realised I'd not seen you in awhile. How are you?"
"Well enough," George replied with a shrug. "You? How's the Ministry?"
She studied him to see if that was true. There were dark shadows under his eyes, but his smile had seemed genuine enough. "Excellent," she replied. "We're working with the Irish An Roinn Spórt Draíochta-"
"Blimey, I'm flattered you think I speak Irish, but I've not got past Welsh yet," George remarked, looking amused.
With a laugh, she said, "Sorry, my opposite there's an Irish speaker. It's the Department of Magical Sport. We're working with them to try to bring the Quidditch World Cup to Ireland."
"D'you get to travel?"
"A fair amount."
His eyes flicked to the boy at the rack of sweets as he said, "Glad one job at the Ministry's worthwhile— oy, you, do your parents know they're about to buy that for you?" George said, demanding the last bit of the boy, who'd been attempting to quietly open a box of Canary Creams. The boy was so startled that he dropped the box, and George pulled out his wand, flicking it so that the box floated upwards and fitted itself back into place.
Alicia raised an eyebrow as the boy retreated outside. "Do you always terrify your customers?"
George waved a hand dismissively. "Ron caught him trying to nick a Headless Hat the other day and bellowed at him for a good five minutes. As you can see, he didn't exactly learn his lesson."
"I thought learning one's lesson was countermand to the idea of Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes, anyway."
At that, George laughed. "It's true, we'd probably be out of business if parents started learning any kind of lesson from coming here."
"Maybe it's because you're funny," Alicia remarked, picking up a trick wand. "Maybe parents actually appreciate you as well."
He looked outrageously flattered. "I knew there was a reason that I was still waiting for you to say you'll go out to dinner with me."
Alicia had to stifle a giggle. "George, you know I'm seeing Jack."
"Jack?" George asked, pretending cluelessness.
"Jack Sloper," she reminded him.
"Jack Sloper? That rubbish Beater that Angelina replaced Fred with?" George looked ridiculously shocked for a second while Alicia shook her head. Always this business about Jack being awful at Quidditch.
"Yes, that Jack Sloper," she replied. "And speaking of Angelina, you should see her sometime." Once the words were out of her mouth, she clamped her lips together, standing very still until he reacted. She wasn't even sure what had made her say them; honestly they'd come out without much thought at all. She knew that Angelina was a difficult proposition for him, a stark living and breathing reminder of the fact that Fred was gone and she was Angelina Johnson still, when she certainly would've been a Weasley by now. And she knew it was the same for Angelina. But Alicia had a feeling, deep down, that they'd do one another a world of good, and maybe that was what had made her speak up, despite the fact that Angelina had a tendency to act as though the name 'Weasley' was unspeakable. George was better, but not by all that much.
To her relief, George didn't look upset. He hesitated for a long moment before answering, "I don't think Ange much wants to see me."
"Bollocks," Alicia said immediately, though she couldn't help but squirm uncomfortably at the look George turned on her. "I mean, Angelina doesn't always know what she wants. She works too hard."
"And you think she needs the relaxing presence of a Weasley twin?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Something like that." Alicia rolled her eyes a little. "Between her and Oliver, all I ever hear about is training. And sometimes I swear it's all Angelina does. She's up in Ballycastle all the time, even when she doesn't need to be."
George tapped his wand on the counter idly. "The constant work helps," he said, and she would've found it cryptic from anyone else. Angelina had said it enough times, though, that she could fill in the rest herself – if you were working, you weren't thinking, and if you were tired from working you weren't thinking, because if you were thinking, it was about Fred. It had been awhile since Angelina had given her that lament – though she still spent too much time training. It was probably habit by this time.
"Maybe being around people who miss you would help, as well," she said gently. George raised an eyebrow, probably at her insinuation that Angelina missed him, and suddenly, Alicia was struck by an idea. "Go to her next match." A further idea struck her. "We could all go to her next match. Ballycastle's playing Puddlemere United – that's Oliver's team—"
"I know who he plays for," George said, sounding amused.
"Anyway, they're playing Saturday next. We could go, all of us, the old gang. And Jack loves Quidditch, obviously."
"Does he?" George said, a mischievous innocence in his tone. "He rather seemed to hate the sport at school. Made me hate it, at the very least."
"I don't know if Beating is the art form you seem to think it is," she said a little primly. "Anyway, George, it'd be fun." She refrained from pointing out that he looked like he needed to have some fun.
George raised his eyes to the ceiling, like he was appealing to some god of better sense to guide him. Alicia didn't know why he bothered; he and Fred had never had much sense. Finally, he sighed. "Alicia," he began, and she could already tell what he was going to say.
Quickly, she cut him off, appealing, "George, please. Please. We never see you anymore."
He looked around the shop and started to sigh, then stopped himself. "Saturdays are busy for us, Alicia; I dunno if I can get away—"
"As busy as Sundays?" she asked, echoing his glance around. Maybe they did need the advert; there was hardly anyone in the place.
He put a hand to the back of his neck and looked at her sheepishly. "Got me there."
"Slow time of year?" she asked sympathetically. The pre-Hogwarts rush was well over, and Christmas mail orders hadn't begun yet, and George looked, honestly, bored out of his wits.
"It'll pick back up in a few weeks," he replied. "Always does."
She put her hands on her hips. "Well, until then, you need some entertainment. Please come, George."
After a long moment, he just snorted a little with laughter and said, "All right, yeah. I'll come."
"Brilliant!" she exclaimed. "I'll send an owl with the ticket – and yes, you can pay me back if you really want to," she said, seeing him open his mouth and anticipating what he was going to say.
George smiled. "Saturday next?"
Another Wildfire Whizbang shot towards the till as the door opened. Alicia moved to leave as a family entered the shop, and as she did, George said to her, "Hey – I'm looking forward to it."
Alicia grinned brightly. "Me too!"
It had been one round of meetings after another all morning, and Alicia had been carrying everything she needed for each different one around with her. All in all, her arms were tired, she was quite ready for a break, and, she thought as her stomach growled loudly, lunch.
She entered her office and cast her eyes over her desk, noting that it was piled with work that had accumulated that morning and that there were five or six different messages waiting for her. One of her coworkers poked his head into her office just as she was about to set everything down on the desk. "Hey, Alicia," he said, "Wood from Puddlemere United stopped in to see you."
For a second, she froze. "Wood? Did you let him leave?" she asked, horrified that she'd missed him again.
"I didn't know you were expecting him."
But she was already out the door again, still carrying everything from the meeting as she dashed out into the corridor. "I wasn't!" she shouted back.
Oliver wasn't in sight, and on a hunch she hurried towards the lift. He'd never wait, he'd just leave straightaway. She supposed she didn't even know how long ago he'd stopped in, but now that she was already looking for him she didn't want to go back and ask.
Suddenly, she rounded a corner and caught sight of his tall form down the other end of the corridor. "Oliver!" she yelled. His head turned and she broke into an awkward jog. When she caught up with him, she gave him a hug in lieu of a proper hello. He seemed surprised – he always did in these situations, as if he couldn't imagine that his old friends had enough affection for him that they'd drop what they were doing and fling their arms round him, usually making arses of themselves in the process. She supposed she probably was. She still had the stack of folders dangling out of one hand, a roll of Spellotape round her other wrist like a bracelet, and a quill stuck behind her ear. Both the folders and the Spellotape thwacked Oliver in the head. The quill just became dislodged and fell to the floor.
He bent over and picked it up, twirling it in his fingers for a moment before he handed it to her. "I sent an owl," Oliver said, sounding mildly affronted.
With a smile of thanks, she took it and said, "Did you? I've been in meetings all morning; I've only just got out."
"Oh. Well, no worries," Oliver began.
Before he could go on, she said, "Please say you're taking me to lunch. I'm famished, and I could use some decent conversation instead of endless bureaucracy."
He laughed and replied, "Yeah, that's why I came. I haven't seen much of you lately."
"No," she agreed. "I'm surprised you could get away from your extra practises."
The slight reddening of his neck must have been her imagination, because it was gone as he said, "Even Quidditch players need to eat. So I'm told, at least."
"Well." Alicia straightened her stack of folders and said, "We could just eat in the canteen here, if you'd like." That seemed easiest, and with less opportunity for…miscues. Nothing much could be read into two friends eating in the Ministry canteen. But then, she thought, why was she even worried about such a thing?
When Oliver expressed his acceptance of this plan, the two of them returned to her office together, where she finally left her things off on her desk, and then took one of the lifts down to the canteen. "The treacle tart's quite good," Alicia advised him as he loaded his tray up with food and she teased him about eating so much, adding that she'd not been able to since she'd left Hogwarts and Quidditch.
Once they'd paid and sat down, Oliver pulled a thick envelope out of his back pocket and handed it to her, saying, "I wanted to give you these."
Alicia took it and peeked inside, seeing tickets to the Puddlemere United versus Ballycastle Bats match. Once she'd invited George to it, she'd sent Oliver an owl letting him know they'd all be there to watch. "Oliver, I was going to get these, you didn't have to—"
"I get loads of free tickets and haven't got anyone to give them to," Oliver shrugged. "Anyway, don't thank me just yet – they're not very good seats."
"Well, still, you didn't have to go through the trouble." She opened the envelope a bit wider and counted out the tickets, saying, "George, Jack, Katie, Lee, me, and what are these two extras for?"
"In case Lee and Katie want to bring anyone. Is that all right, or do you need more?"
"No, that's brilliant, thanks again." She fingered the tickets once more before putting them away and tucking them into one of her pockets. "You're the best, Oliver, really," she said, watching him for his typical reaction to a compliment like this, which was obvious and amusing discomfort. Sure enough, she was rewarded by him avoiding her gaze and fidgeting.
"They're just tickets," he mumbled. Then, looking back at her, he said, "So tell me what you're up to here, then. Why the meetings all morning?"
Making a face, Alicia replied, "Would you believe the Ministry wants to meddle with Hogwarts Quidditch?" Oliver looked horrified. "I know, it's ridiculous; and we've just had all these meetings discussing complaints parents have sent in to us – increasing awareness of the dangers of Quidditch injuries, game becoming more violent and whatnot – McGonagall's furious, I'm sure. They wanted her down to participate in one of them. They want her 'input' on any measures that they might want to put in place."
"I'll bet she liked that," Oliver said, grim amusement on his face.
With a devilish grin, she replied, "I believe the nicest thing she said was 'perhaps the sore losers from a particular House which I shan't name ought to spend more time training and less time whinging about how unfair their loss of the Quidditch Cup was last year'."
"And do they ask what you think?" he queried.
"Sometimes." She took a large bite of her cottage pie. "I'll be the one to liaise with the school governors if it gets to that point – which I'm sure it will – but that's where it'll die." When Oliver raised his eyebrows enquiringly, she explained, "I happen to know that several of the governors are avid followers of the school tournament." With a grin, she added, "When Demeter Grundlethorpe found out I was on the team that broke Slytherin's seven year winning streak, I thought she was close to adopting me." Confidently, she shook her head. "No, they want the game played just the way it was when they were at school. But I don't know if the Ministry will ever learn not to meddle at Hogwarts."
Oliver was finishing off half a roast chicken before he started in on a leek and goat cheese tart. Raising his eyebrows at her, he said, "Er, you work for the Ministry, don't you?"
Alicia shrugged. "I came here because even pre-War, things seem to've got a bit…mismanaged. It just takes awhile to turn things around." She almost added that she knew she was just in the Department of Magical Games and Sports and that she wasn't going to change the world there, but that she just wanted to make some small difference. She'd got used to defending her career path to Jack, who always said if she wanted to affect things she should go into a department that mattered.
"I admire that," he said thoughtfully, and to her relief. She could tell he meant it. "Me, I'm not good for anything but Quidditch. Dunno what I'll do once I'm too old to play, really."
She tilted her head at him. "Oh, don't say that." With a grin, she added, "As long as you don't take too many hits to the skull with a Bludger, you're quite a good wizard."
Returning the grin, Oliver remarked a bit slyly, "Says the witch who accidentally Summoned Professor Flitwick to herself during her OWLs, then mispronounced a Banishing Charm badly enough to turn it to a Sticking Charm."
"How do you know about that?" she asked, mortified. Fred and George had howled, howled, with laughter, so much so that they'd been asked to leave the Great Hall until they got themselves under control. Even Angelina, just behind her in the queue for the Charms practical, had had to stuff her knuckles into her mouth to stifle her furious giggles as Alicia had fumbled to Unstick Flitwick's face from – well, an extremely awkward spot. She didn't think she'd stopped blushing until the following day, and the twins hadn't stopped asking her to perform the same spell on them until she'd seen the backs of them at King's Cross. Actually, that wasn't quite true – Fred had greeted her with the same question the following September, at which point a well-aimed kick in the shins from Angelina had shut him up on the subject.
"George gets to reminiscing sometimes," Oliver replied, looking amused.
"I'll bet that's one of his fondest memories," she said darkly.
"D'you know, I think it is."
His tone made her meet his eyes, and at his obvious struggle to retain a serious expression, her mouth twitched in laughter. Trying to maintain a straight face, she said, "I must admit, I always rather got the feeling that Flitwick had a certain fondness for me after that—"
Oliver snorted into his pumpkin juice and Alicia clamped her hands over her mouth to keep from bursting out into uncontrollable laughter. For several minutes, they couldn't look at each other without becoming faintly hysterical, but finally Alicia gasped, "Oh, Merlin, that was so awful; I can't believe I just as good as called Flitwick pervy."
With a cough that sounded suspiciously like a disguised laugh, Oliver said, "You're ruining my memories of Charms lessons, you are."
She took a deep breath through her nose. "Sorry. I'm ruining my own memories of Charms lessons." She giggled a little. "But you know, he didn't mark me off for it. I think he felt so terrible for me, listening to Fred and George go on, that he didn't want to make me feel any worse." For a second, she and Oliver looked at each other, and Alicia felt a weird catch in her chest at the way his eyes held hers. Then, her watch pinged at her, breaking the moment – whatever the moment had even been. "Oh—damn." She glanced at it and then back towards Oliver apologetically. "That's my lunch over."
He stood up and grabbed her tray before she could. She smiled her thanks as they exited the canteen and he deposited the trays in an almost-full rack, which promptly sped off towards the kitchen where the trays could be washed. As they walked towards the Atrium, Oliver described the antics of Puddlemere United's eccentric team captain, whom Alicia had to admit could give even Oliver a run for his Galleons. When they reached the long, polished black hall, they stopped and looked at each other.
"Thanks for coming," Alicia said.
"Thanks for finally showing up at your office," he said, grinning a little.
She swatted at him. "Touché."
Oliver laughed – she liked his laugh, it was deep and infectious, maybe because she didn't hear it all that often. Even he seemed surprised by it half the time. "Listen," he said, "about Saturday, you're all welcome to come to the after-party, you know."
"Really? All of us?" She'd been invited before, by both Angelina and Oliver, but she'd never brought more than one person with her – Jack.
Oliver shrugged. "Of course."
There was another moment of silence between them, the silence that always prefigured their good-byes, like neither of them could quite work out how to manage a proper one. Alicia settled on hugging him again. This time, she felt him return it, and she had to cut off at the knees her shiver at the pleasant strength in his arms. "Well then," she said, taking a step back, "good luck if I don't see you again before the match."
He nodded, said, "Thanks," and then she backed up a few steps and waved before she remembered that she was supposed to be getting back to her office. As she waited for the lift, she threw a glance back over her shoulder. Oliver was in line for one of the fireplaces, and he was still looking at her.
Saturday next came quickly. Alicia and Jack met George as they were all entering the stadium, the two of them exchanging greetings with him before they were swept inside with the crowd of excited fans. George read them off the row and seat number from their tickets, and they made their way up a number of steep staircases until they reached the right concourse. Their seats were about midway up the stands and halfway to Puddlemere's goal hoops and afforded an excellent view of the pitch.
Lee Jordan and Katie Bell were already in the stands, waving exaggeratedly. Katie hadn't brought Roger Davies, who she'd been going out with for a few months. "Where's Morag?" Alicia asked Lee as she, Jack, and George took their seats.
"Eh, I threw her over," Lee replied with a shrug. "We were from different generations; had nothing in common."
George idly took a handful of Lee's popcorn, despite the latter's loud objections. "And he's got his eye on Verity."
"Verity?" Katie asked. "As in your shopgirl, Verity?"
"That's the one. Barely legal, she is," George remarked with a devilish grin.
"Come off it, Weasley, you hired her; barely legal my arse," Lee shot back, grinning as well.
"He asked her to come today," George continued, oblivious to Lee's comment, "but she said it'd be too weird hanging round me outside the shop."
Katie snorted. "I don't blame her, George, you'd only embarrass her."
"Well, of course!" George exclaimed as though this were obvious. "She works for me, doesn't she? It's part of the job."
Before anyone was able to respond to this, the horn signaling the beginning of the match sounded, and one by one, first Puddlemere United's, and then the Ballycastle Bats' players were introduced. All of them cheered particularly loudly for their friends, and Lee let out a piercing enough whistle that Angelina actually looked down at them. And then the match began, and the players were off; Puddlemere in blurs of blue and gold and Ballycastle in black and red. The Ballycastle Chasers made it clear early that they outmatched Puddlemere's, as they zoomed right down the field and scored with hardly any difficulty. "Ooh," Lee winced; "Wood's not going to be pleased about that."
George pulled a pair of Omniculars from his pocket and looked through them, fiddling with the focus and speed. "Anyone?" he asked.
Alicia hesitated and then said, "Sure, for a moment, if you don't mind." George shrugged that he didn't and handed them to her, and she put them to her face, panning over the coloured blurs of the players to Puddlermere United's goal hoops. Oliver had a look of deep concentration on his face and Alicia was captivated by that intensity, as she always was. As she watched, one of Ballycastle's Chasers attempted a score, and Oliver threw himself to one side to block the Quaffle. His athleticism was hypnotic to watch – he'd been a brilliant Keeper at school but since going professional he made it look artistic, the way he knew where the Quaffle would be long before it got there. He put even Angelina at a disadvantage, since as her Captain at Hogwarts he'd known her style of play well.
As the action moved to the other side of the pitch, Oliver fiddled for a moment with his forearm guard, tightening the laces, and something about the way he did it – with that peculiar grace that he had in the air – made her heart pound painfully for a second.
Quickly, she returned the Omniculars to George, drawing a quirked eyebrow from him from the way that she practically shoved them back into his hands.
Luckily for Oliver, Puddlemere's Chasers answered without giving up another score. Momentum seemed to swing in Puddlemere's direction, and it quickly became apparent that if Ballycastle had the better Chasers, Puddlemere had the better Keeper. The game progressed in a back-and-forth shoot-out, with tactics becoming dirtier on both sides, particularly from both sets of Beaters. Ballycastle was down by ten and looked to be scored on again, when suddenly Angelina intercepted the Quaffle and went racing towards the opposite goal hoops.
In response, one of Puddlemere's Beater sent a Bludger hurtling towards Angelina, and Alicia covered her eyes with her hands while the crowd either cheered or booed, depending on their loyalties. "I've got to admit," Alicia said, peeking out from behind her fingers just in time to see Angelina score, much to the delight of the present Ballycastle fans, "it was much less stressful playing Quidditch for me than it is watching it."
Jack poked her on the shoulder. "Say, Alicia, I'm running to the loo."
"Oh—right, see you soon, love," she said a bit distractedly, focussed on the match.
George was watching Angelina through his Omniculars and Lee asked, "Does she look as fit on that broomstick as she always did at school?"
"Why else would he be watching her?" Katie asked slyly, and an abrupt flush rose into George's face behind the Omniculars, which he promptly dropped down to his lap.
"Well?" Lee demanded. "If you're not going to say, hand those over."
Hanging onto them, George said, "Can't have you putting them to such lascivious use, can I?"
"Shut it, you three, she's just scored again!" Alicia said, clapping wildly.
Their heads quickly whipped around just in time to see Oliver throw the Quaffle back into play. This time, Puddlemere retained possession of it into Ballycastle's territory. Without taking his eyes off the game-play, George remarked, "That woman could play for England. Angelina, I mean."
"Thanks for the clarification, we thought you meant Wood," Lee said with a sarcastic grin.
Suddenly, there was a collective gasp from the spectators, and both teams' Seekers went streaking past towards Puddlemere's goal hoops. Lee snatched the Omniculars from George before the latter could stop him, his mouth hanging open a little, and then yelled, "Ballycastle's got the Snitch!"
George pounded him on the shoulder. "I can see that!"
Ballycastle's fans roared as their Seeker rose up into the air, the Snitch clutched triumphantly in her fist. The rest of the team zoomed across the pitch to join her in a flailing mass of black and red. Alicia couldn't help grinning, though she yelled, "I never worked out who to cheer for!" Half the reason she went to her friends' matches was to see the fervid, all-consuming elation on their faces when they won. The present one was no exception – even from a distance, the transcendent happiness on Angelina's face was obvious.
As the stands began clearing out, Alicia looked around at the three of them and said, "Oliver had mentioned that we'd be welcome at the after-party, if any of you lot are interested."
"I'm always game for a party," Lee replied immediately, standing up. "Katie?"
"Is that an invitation, Lee?" she asked archly.
"Sure, since Verity wouldn't come to avoid hanging around her mental boss. Speaking of," he said, looking over at George, "you'll come, right?"
For the first time that afternoon, George looked awkward. "I dunno—"
"C'mon, George," Lee said exasperatedly. "If nothing else you should chat up Ballycastle's Beater – well fit, she is, what's-'er-name – Khan, that's it. Mehreen Khan."
George looked torn. "Seven?" he asked.
"Eight," Lee informed him.
"Pigs," Katie scoffed, catching Alicia's eye with a shake of her head and a smile. Alicia felt a bursting happiness that her old friends might have a night out together for once, instead of Angelina nipping off to avoid exchanging more than two words with George, if he was there at all, and if he was, the rest of them feeling so badly for him as the night wore on that inevitably, no one had any fun. Last time it had happened, George had stood up, cast Silencio on the lot of them, and proceeded to shout without interruption about how he was bloody sick of being treated like a convalescent and he didn't need everyone else feeling sorry for him when he felt sorry enough for himself, and that he went out with them to have a good time and if they couldn't manage that then not to bother. Then he'd stomped off, without lifting the charm, and it took them ages to do it themselves without speaking the incantation.
A glance around at them seemed to make up his mind, and he said, "As long as there's a dead sexy woman in there, I'm game."
"What are we?" Katie said defensively.
"Taken, aren't you?" George replied, putting a hand to his heart. "And my sterling morals prevent me from making any moves on a happily-coupled woman."
As though to remind her of this fact, Jack returned from the loo at that moment, hooking an arm round her waist. "What now?"
Something about the way he'd sidled up to her made her feel off-balance, and she took a step away from him so she didn't plunge to a night at St Mungo's while all her bones reknit from a hundred-foot fall. "Well, shall we go in, then?"
"Where are we going?" Jack asked.
"The after-party for the match. Remember, I told you Oliver invited us," Alicia reminded him.
"Brilliant, I'd love to talk to some fellow practitioners of the craft," he said. At the blank looks he got from everyone, he said, as though it was the most obvious thing in the world, "Beaters. My old position at school."
"Ah, right," George said.
"How could we forget, mate?" Lee added.
Alicia had to remind herself to glare at Katie to get her to stifle her laughter a bit better. Truthfully, she'd had a moment of difficulty doing it herself. "Well, come on then, you lot. Oliver said he'd let security know who we are so they'll let us in."
As the group began leaving the stands, Katie remarked a bit snippily, "Of course, they'd let Lee in anyway, seeing as he's a celebrity these days."
Lee put a hand to his face, pretending to blush. "Oh, Katie, the legions of adoring fans are nothing compared to just hearing you say that."
She smirked. "Then I hope it won't devastate you too much knowing I don't mean a word of it."
Laughing, Alicia asked, "Are you still bitter that he didn't actually introduce you to Aidan Lynch?"
"Wouldn't you be if he'd promised?" She directed this last word towards Lee, who seemed to suddenly find the Puddlemere United scoreboard quite fascinating.
Alicia agreed that she'd probably be a bit put-out, and she let Jack guide her through the stands with his hand on her elbow. Something made her glance over her shoulder, though, and she noticed George lagging behind them. "Go on ahead; I'll catch you up," Alicia said to Jack, to which he shrugged and followed Lee and Katie. Alicia went back to rejoin George, who was watching the teams shake hands before going back to their respective changing rooms. For a moment, she just stood next to him, but then she asked, "You all right?"
George shot her a grin that was, nevertheless, laced with sadness. "You know she was going to marry Fred, don't you?"
Alicia knew. "Yeah."
He didn't say anything for another minute. "You're right. I should see her sometimes." Then, he looked at Alicia. "Don't tell her how much I miss her."
Raising her eyebrows, Alicia asked, "How much do you miss her?"
"Mm. No way, Spinnet, I know you'll tell her."
Alicia gave him a sidelong look and smile. "You know she misses you, as well."
At that, George glanced at her in surprise. "Yeah?"
"But she made me swear not to tell you how much," she continued, her smile broadening cheekily. Then, she turned and gave him a hug. "I'm proud of you, George Weasley."
He snorted and returned the hug with one arm. "Me? What've I ever done to make anyone proud? You should hear my mum; still drops hints about opening up a more respectable shop."
She let go of him and just smiled in response, and the two of them hurried to catch up with Jack, Katie, and Lee. They caught up as the three of them were descending the stairs. "What were you two doing?" Jack asked as she rejoined him.
She shrugged. "Just talking."
The conversation ended there as they reached the large suite that already held a number of social luminaries, the players who'd gone to the party straightaway instead of the changing room, and British and Irish League dignitaries, plenty of whom Alicia knew from work. For the first fifteen or twenty minutes she chatted with the last, introducing George to them (Katie and Lee disappeared after she elbowed him sharply and demanded that he introduce her to Merton Graves, the Weird Sisters' cellist), though most of them already knew him. Her supervisor informed George grimly that he'd been the victim of several Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes products.
Jack spotted an acquaintance of his father's from the Department of Magical Law Enforcement and excused himself in the middle of the conversation to say hello, which left Alicia and George by themselves once they'd extricated themselves from greeting her co-workers. Alicia got a glass of wine for herself and a beer for George, who asked, "What, nothing stronger?" as she handed it to him.
She sipped at her wine and raised her eyebrows. "Get pissed at home. Not here."
He guffawed. "Right, Mum." Then, glancing around, he said, "No Oliver yet."
"And no Angelina," she added, prompting a sidelong look from him.
Any continuation of that line of thought was cut off by Jack's return. He was finishing off a Firewhiskey and Alicia cringed a bit – Jack didn't exactly hold his liquor well. He slung an arm round Alicia's waist and kissed her cheek sloppily, but then he swayed back and said to George, "So, see much of Harry?"
George looked startled to be addressed. "Harry Potter?"
"The Chosen One, right?" Jack asked jovially.
Alicia willed George's eyebrows to come down just a bit from his hairline. "Yeah, Harry and I get on pretty famously," George replied, and Alicia knew, because she knew him, that the twitch at the corner of his mouth was him spotting an unsuspecting victim. "Why do you ask?"
It was surprising enough that Jack had either forgotten, or never known, Harry Potter's close ties with the Weasleys, but the next words out of his mouth surprised her even more. "Well, say, next time you see him, tell him I'd like to catch up. I—" He paused to wave at someone on the other side of the room, giving George the opportunity to mouth to her soundlessly and with a touch of gleeful amusement, Catch up? All she could do was shrug helplessly, being that Jack looked back towards her and George after a second. "He was always quiet about what he did in the Battle of Hogwarts. I mean, obviously we all know he took care of You-Know-Who! But what else did he get up to? Always fascinated me, the Battle. Really interesting piece of Wizarding history."
The fact that Jack had been drinking didn't really excuse this comment. Alicia looked at the ceiling, and then her feet, but she still saw George's face freeze abruptly. And she didn't know if Jack didn't notice, or just didn't care, because he went on, "Never really could get Alicia to talk about it much. You were there as well, George – what was it like?"
Any hint of a smile had fled from George's face and it only looked chilly now. "Loud," he said shortly.
"Yeah. You know, curses being shouted all over, bits of the castle being blown up—" His face hardened even further. "Loud."
"Oh." Jack's expression faltered a bit.
"Unless you got into a corridor where the fighting'd moved on from. Then it was dead quiet. Literally, you know, as the Avada Kedavra'd don't tend to be the most talkative bunch."
"Er, George, how's Harry getting on with his Auror training?" Alicia cut in, trying to dispel the frosty turn the conversation had taken. "Jack's father works for the Department of Magical Law Enforcement."
"Say," Jack said, and she wasn't quite sure if he was being intentionally oblivious to her or not, "there's Cicero Williams; think I'll have a word...be back in a tic..."
And, drink in hand, he walked off, leaving a disgruntled Alicia and, she suspected, a severely irritated George Weasley standing by themselves. For a second, they stood in silence. Then, George said casually, "Really is a tosser, isn't he, your boyfriend?"
She knew he completely deserved it, but for a second, all Alicia could do was gape at him. "Excuse me?"
George eyed her, then swallowed a mouthful of beer. "I mean he's a bit of an arse. Haven't you noticed?"
She closed her mouth and shifted uncomfortably. "He's my boyfriend, why would I think he's an arse?" Then, she said, feeling as though she needed to apologise, if Jack wouldn't, "He'd never have said those things if he hadn't been drinking."
"Oh, I've never liked him," George said cheerfully. "I just thought I could get away with admitting it after that."
With a sigh, she asked, "Is it because he took Fred's place on the team seventh year?"
"Primarily, but it doesn't escape my notice that he's a miserable git you should've sacked off ages ago."
Alicia glared at him. "First Angelina, now you – apparently no one thinks I'm capable of managing my own love life," she grumbled, though it didn't escape her notice that she'd not bothered arguing with him. Frankly she didn't blame George – honestly, what had Jack been thinking? The Battle of Hogwarts was an interesting piece of Wizarding history? Was he completely barking mad?
"Speaking for myself – can't for Angelina, obviously – it's Sloper I find objectionable." George stared after him with great dislike. "Seriously, Spinnet, you can do better. You haven't got any brothers, yeah? Consider me as fulfilling that role."
Alicia put her hands on her hips. "Oh really, George Weasley?" In response, he raised a laconic eyebrow, and she went on, "You make it sound like there's someone waiting in the wings."
George opened his mouth to reply, then shut it again thoughtfully. He took another swallow of beer and then said, in the same sort of innocent tone that he'd used the first (and last) time he'd offered her a piece of Fever Fudge, "You know, I've always thought – I mean, it's always surprised me a bit, you and Wood not..." He hesitated, as though trying to think of the words to put it delicately.
Before he could – or rather, before he tried, failed, and settled on something inappropriate – she said, "You know, if I invite you out, you really should be nice."
He didn't look remotely chagrined. "Tell that to your great twat of a boyfriend there."
She bit her lip. "He didn't mean anything by it."
"Fair warning, Alicia – if you marry that sod you may never see me socially again."
"He's not that bad," she said out loud, though inside her chest had tightened with panic at the word 'marry'. Who'd said anything about marriage?
"Ha!" George crowed. "There, that's the nicest thing you can say about him, isn't it?"
Alicia drew in a deep breath to argue with him that that wasn't true at all, but when the time came to speak, no words came to her. In fact, what she really wanted to ask was what she and Oliver had not done that surprised him. Before she could get to that, either, though, she looked out at the throng of people gathered in the room and spotted Angelina, fresh from the changing room, coming towards them. Furthermore, Alicia could tell, from the way that Angelina's steps faltered when she saw that George was standing there, that she hadn't seen him until just then. Alicia silently begged her not to turn around and Angelina obliged, and then she shot a quick look at George out of the corner of her eyes. Besides the fact that his fingers seemed to be clutched around his bottle of beer more tightly than was necessary, Angelina's approach didn't seem to be bothering him.
When Angelina reached them, Alicia thought that the silence might get awkward, so she was prepared to carry the conversation, but George said immediately, "Congrats on a brilliant win; I can't imagine it's easy playing with Oliver staring you down out there."
For a second, Angelina looked like something had her tongue, but then she swallowed and smiled. "Thanks. And no; it's a bit nerve-wracking out there with him, actually. Keep expecting him to bark at me like he used to do in school."
"Rather like a mad hippogriff?" George asked.
"Do hippogriffs bark?" Angelina asked, raising an eyebrow.
"I dunno; I see no reason why they shouldn't, though."
They stared at each other for a moment, and then Alicia had to juggle her wine as, abruptly, it was nearly knocked from her hands by Angelina's flailing limbs. Alicia didn't quite see how it had happened but somehow the two of them were locked in a tight hug and it was quite unclear if either of them was ever going to let go.
There was a muffled, "—missed you," from Angelina, and George just made some inarticulate sound in response. When they did finally pull apart, there was a suspicious brightness in Angelina's eyes, which she swiped at and asked, "George – forgive me for being a prat?"
He just smiled. "Obviously. Likewise?"
Angelina returned his smile and echoed, "Obviously."
"Well," George said, as though nothing had happened, "Wood's still got that tendency to shut himself in the changing room, I see."
Clearing her throat, Alicia said, "Lay off poor Oliver, would you? You know how seriously he takes it."
"I take it seriously as well, Alicia, but losing a Quidditch match is nothing to contemplate suicide over," Angelina pointed out.
"Though that's easier to say if you've just won," George said with a grin.
"Infinitely," she agreed.
Obviously, they didn't need her to move the conversation along, and she surreptitiously began edging away, saying, "I'll be back soon," with very little intention of actually doing so. She was about to join Katie and Lee, on the other side of the room, and look for Oliver on the way, when Jack swooped in on her and said, "Alicia, there's someone here I'd like you to meet."
"Oh..." she said, but let him lead her away. During the course of the night she was taken for Jack's wife on more than one occasion, and when, eventually, he asked if she was ready to go, he took her hand and all she could think was Alicia Sloper. It sounded like some sort of ski resort, not like a proper name. She looked around the room for Oliver, but still didn't see him, so she sighed, "Yeah, all right, let's go."
"Your place or mine?"
She almost said she wasn't in the mood and just wanted to go home and go to bed by herself, but instead she suppressed another sigh and said, "Yours."
They went out into the corridor to Disapparate, and as usual, she stumbled on the landing in his flat. Jack went immediately to the couch to flop down, but Alicia stayed on her feet, feeling as though she was...well, she didn't even know. She felt restless and she wished she'd said she'd wanted to stay longer; wished she'd told him she'd see him later, or maybe the following day.
"George isn't much fun anymore," Jack said casually as he sprawled out on the couch. Through the shock at hearing this said, she could also hear that he expected agreement from her.
"Of course he is," she said immediately. "He's always a laugh."
"Seemed awfully mopey to me."
Defensiveness made her tone harsh, so harsh that she actually surprised herself. "He's not mopey, Jack. For Merlin's sake, he's been through horrid things." And anyway, George had been more like his old self today than he'd been in ages. Two years to be exact. She thought back to the afternoon and evening. There had certainly been times that George had lapsed into silence, content to be on the sidelines in a way that he'd not been as a teenager, but overall he'd been more cheerful than she'd seen him since Fred's death.
Jack's tone grew waspish as a response to the bite in hers. "We all lost people. Dolohov killed my cousin, didn't he?"
It was true, Jack's cousin had been killed by Dolohov. It had been just after they'd started going out, and she'd tearfully offered to attend the funeral with him. She was sure that between the two of them, those had been the most tears shed for the Sloper cousin who'd never been mentioned since. Nevertheless, she tried reining her annoyance back in and saying calmly, "I don't really think it's the same thing, but I'm sure we'd all like it if George could…I dunno, cheer up a bit, be more like his old self I suppose…" She hated herself for saying the words. Why was she saying them? What business was it of Jack's how long George needed to mourn? Anyway George was doing fine, he was never going to be the same but he was getting on, wasn't he? And he'd seemed to really enjoy the match and the party afterwards; she needed to remember to thank Oliver again for all the tickets…
"I think maybe you all encourage him," Jack was saying. "I mean, the way you never bring up the Battle, I'd think it'd do him some good to just talk about it—"
"You weren't there, Jack," she interrupted. So there was that old wound resurrected. "You've no idea what it was like, seeing all the Weasleys—" Ron and Ginny and Percy, and Charlie who she remembered from her second year at Hogwarts, and the tall young man with Fleur Delacour had to have been Bill, and Mr and Mrs Weasley, and George, oh, George. "—it's not as simple as just…talking and getting over it." Fred had been her dear friend too, but somehow that had got lost the night of his death, because she'd had to hold Angelina up when her friend had seen what You-Know-Who had taken from her and her legs had wobbled and refused to bear her weight. Somehow it hadn't really hit Alicia that Fred was gone until his funeral, and then she had cried and cried and promised herself that she was going to be a good friend to George, and Jack had left to get something to eat for them but got distracted by Viktor Krum, and it had been Oliver that had found her sobbing on a chair and sat next to her and rubbed her back and not talked until her sobs had turned to hiccoughs, and then he'd finally said quietly, "Fred would've laughed if he'd seen you crying like that." And she'd said, "I know but it's so awful that's he's gone," and Oliver had just offered her his handkerchief, which at any other time she'd have laughed to see that he even owned, and which she'd forgotten to give back to him and had found stuffed into her robes later that week. Jack had asked whose it was and she'd not been able to stop herself from flushing, and something made her say she didn't remember instead of just being honest, that her old friend and Quidditch captain had lent it to her.
The thought of Oliver was like a hook in her stomach physically pulling her away. She'd wanted to see him tonight, wanted to stand round and just talk, and maybe they'd have got a few moments to themselves and that would've been nice, she wouldn't have had to watch her every move so she didn't make Jack feel strange, but instead Jack had wanted her to talk with some bloke he'd only just met, someone in the Ministry department that he wanted her to transfer to so she'd make better money, and that was completely ignoring the fact that she liked her job, she didn't want better money, at least not right now; her job was interesting and besides, Oliver always seemed genuinely fascinated, so she didn't know why Jack was always after her to change careers.
Jack was looking at her with narrowed eyes. "You seem to've been spending an awful lot of time talking about George Weasley lately."
She didn't think this was fair at all, as it had been him that had brought George up. "What exactly is that supposed to mean?" she snapped.
Maybe Jack hadn't known exactly what he'd meant when he said it – maybe he hadn't meant to say it at all, but he had, and now he was stuck with it. "What's going on between you two?"
Giving him a befuddled look, Alicia said, "Between George and me? Are you serious?" The scowl on his face told her that he was. "Jack, that is so – you're being ridiculous. I haven't the slightest attraction to George Weasley; he's not my type at all—" No, her type had always run to the tall, and a bit of muscle never hurt either—
"Oh, so you've got a type now?" he asked.
"I only mean I've never thought about George that way; he's my mate, for Merlin's sake, Jack; anyway it's Angelina I'm after him to get together with—"
"There's that, too," Jack said. "You're always so concerned with everyone else's lives and trying to make all of them happy. Remember me, Alicia? Your boyfriend? I reckon you've not even thought about what we talked about at lunch last week because you've been so damn caught up in meddling in everyone else's business."
Alicia stood frozen for a moment. She had never had what she'd thought of as a decent trait thrown back in her face like that. Didn't everyone want what was best for the people they cared about?
Suddenly, she just wanted to be out of there, and that physical pull to be with Oliver asserted itself again. With no further words and a loud crack!, she Apparated to Puddlemere's stadium, hunting through the building until the noise led her to the post-game celebration. A different pair of security wizards were standing outside the door, and they barred her entry, despite her insistence that she knew two of the players, she worked for the Department of Magical Sports and Games, and anyway, she'd been there earlier and had barely been gone for twenty minutes. She was drawing a breath to get into the argument one more time with them, when suddenly, her eyes fell on Oliver. Their gazes met and he pushed through the throng until he got to the door, where he asked darkly, "Were you cheering for her or me?"
"Er," she said.
Oliver waved a large hand and said to the security wizards, "I know her," at which they finally stood aside and let her in.
Now that she was here with him, the last thing she wanted was for him to see that she was upset, so she forced down the sting of what Jack had said. She thought she'd need to be careful not to let on how sad she was feeling that her boyfriend of over two years had said such things to her, but to her surprise, being at Oliver's side as they ambled through the party calmed her nerves and her pounding heart and eased away her pain.
"We're always meeting each other in loud venues," Oliver observed. "Do you want to go somewhere quieter?" When she nodded in acquiescence, he said, "There're suites upstairs with bars in them. Smaller than this. How does that sound?"
"Perfect," she said, following him out past the security wizards and up a broad staircase until they came to a hemispherical lobby with Puddlemere's insignia done on the floor. Corridors branched off from it and down one, she caught sight of George and Angelina walking slowly, deep in conversation. George's hands were jammed in his pockets and Angelina had her sweatshirt draped over her arms so she was only in her t-shirt and jeans. Alicia grinned and caught up with Oliver as he opened up a door just off the lobby. "I'm surprised George is still here," she remarked as they entered the darkened room, which he lit up with a swipe of his wand.
It looked out over the Quidditch pitch from the perfect viewing height, and she moved automatically to the long bank of windows providing that view. Oliver joined her and commented, "He seemed pretty keen on Angelina's company when they found me down in the changing room."
"Oh, Oliver, they didn't need to drag you out from there?" she asked, stifling a giggle.
"They didn't need to, but they did. Old habits, they said. You wouldn't think Weasley'd still be so strong, just running that shop."
Alicia did giggle then. She could picture the scene perfectly. "At least that means you were downstairs to get me in."
"True," Oliver said, and then glanced at her. "That was worth it." Then, he asked curiously, "What are you on about with Weasley and Johnson, anyway?"
"I think they'd be good together. I wish they'd just spend some time together again, at least," she replied, which made him smile. There was an odd quality to it, like he'd heard her but not really heard her, and there was a funny look on his face. "I like seeing my friends happy," she added.
"You do," Oliver agreed. "You're very…very nice. I've always liked that about you." That funny look was still there. "Listen, I meant to thank you earlier. For coming to the match."
Alicia shrugged. "Of course; I like coming."
"I guess I mean thank you for coming to all of them. All the ones you've been to. I – um – it's nice seeing a familiar face down in the stands. I mean, I suppose there are loads of familiar faces in the stands, but what I mean is it's nice seeing you there, and…" He trailed off and cleared his throat and Alicia watched him, feeling…hopeful. Instead of continuing, though, he just cleared his throat again and said, "Can I get you anything to drink?"
"Is there any wine?" she asked, trailing after him as he went over to the bar and trying not to feel disappointed. She didn't even know what she'd been hoping for. As he went round the other side of the bar, she leaned against it, and when he produced a bottle, he asked, "Red all right?"
"Fancy," she remarked, reading the label. "Of course it's all right. When else am I going to have this vintage?"
"You're always welcome at these things," Oliver said in answer as he found two glasses and poured the wine in a rich, burgundy stream.
"Oh, no. I wouldn't want to be an imposition."
He slid a glass to her. "And you're never an imposition."
"Hm. Well, maybe I should get you to take me to posh restaurants, then."
Oliver looked at his wine as though he didn't know quite what to do with it and said, "I would if I thought you'd say you'd come. I assume Sloper'd object." In response, Alicia made a noise, though it wasn't articulate enough to really be considered an answer of any kind. Finally, Oliver swallowed a mouthful of wine. "Angelina says you're moving in with him. Sloper," he said, studiously keeping his eyes elsewhere.
"She didn't." She hadn't. Couldn't have done.
Oliver glanced at her. "Are you?"
She had. The two of them were going to have words. Maybe Alicia hadn't been quite as sneaky in her attempts to push Angelina and George together as she'd fancied herself being and this was Ange's idea of revenge. Something seemed caught in her throat that was keeping her from answering, but finally she swallowed it and squeaked, "I—" She put a hand to her throat, cleared it, and tried again, "I don't know. I don't think so. Earlier I thought I was, but now...I dunno. I think…" She stuttered to a stop at the look he was giving her, one that made it quite difficult to concentrate on what she was saying. It was all his intensity but turned towards her. "I've just started wondering if we have all that much in common."
"I never thought you did," Oliver said in a tone that was halfway between gruff and something else, something like – she peered at him – panic?
"We do," she said a bit too weakly for her own liking. But then, did she really have all that much in common with someone who'd be so insensitive about one of her oldest friends? This time it was George Weasley, but what about when it was her own family? Or her? How could she stay with someone if she was constantly wondering when he'd cease finding her fun? And the rest of it, questioning her affection for him – with George, of all people, it was hardly believable…though there was that flutter for Oliver, wasn't there; maybe a bit more than a flutter – and how could he say that she didn't think about him? He'd accused her of caring too much about her friends, and thinking back on it, maybe there'd always been a bit of resentment, like on Angelina's birthday last year when she'd been planning a party for ages, and three days before Jack had got them reservations at that posh new restaurant, Haruspex, in Bath. Well, of course she'd said she couldn't go, and he'd been sullen for days.
"Oliver," she began suddenly, "am I too nice?"
"Sorry, what?" he asked, looking confused.
She bit her lip and said in a small voice, "I mean, I'm only wondering if I spend too much time meddling in other people's lives and should get on with my own, and, um, Jack…"
He was staring at her. "What bloody shite-for-brains person told you that you're too nice?" Her silence made him ask, "Sloper?" When she glanced quickly at him, that seemed to be all the answer he needed, and he swore under his breath before taking her hands in his. He hadn't washed up well after the match – there was still dirt in the creases of his palms. He looked like he wanted to say something, but nothing came out, and so he just stood there clutching her hands in his larger ones. His palms were a little sweaty.
"You said I'm very nice earlier," she said, her voice still sounding too small to her ears. "But you said you liked that about me."
"I do," Oliver said. "Alicia, I – that is, you're always very cheerful, very caring, very, um…" He trailed off, and then, as he looked into her eyes, she saw something determined come into his. "I could kill the bastard." She'd known that Oliver disliked Jack, but she'd never actually heard him express it out loud. Habit almost made her protest; habit almost made her concede Jack's point, that maybe she wasn't sensitive enough to his needs; maybe she spread herself too thin between everyone that she cared about, but then Oliver gripped her hands a bit more tightly and said in a funny choking voice, "Alicia, that's always one of the things I've loved most about you. Most of the time I think we don't deserve you." He paused, and then added, "I don't deserve you."
She couldn't tear her eyes from his. "There's no need—deserving's got nothing to do with it. I don't bother with people I'm not keen on." As the words left her mouth, it hit her all at once – keen, yes; oh, she certainly was keen on Oliver Wood, wasn't she? The way he was looking at her – she wanted him to look at her like that for ever. She wanted to be the one dragging him out of the changing room after a game. She wanted, when he left for the night to go home, to go with him, and to be there in the morning when he woke up, and to fight for space at the sink while they brushed their teeth and to decide in the evenings if they actually wanted to eat out or maybe if they should just experiment with cooking—
Alicia's legs shook for a second as Oliver clutched at her hands and stared at her. She was in love, all right, just not with the man she'd thought. "Oliver," she began, and then, quickly, disentangled herself from his hands. "Wait here," she said suddenly. "Don't move; I'll be right back." Then, hoping he'd listen and without waiting for a response, she Apparated immediately to Jack's flat. She stumbled a little on the landing and didn't see him at first. Bollocks, what if he wasn't here?
Then, thankfully, he came out of his bedroom. "I thought for sure you'd stay angry until tomorrow."
"Jack," she said quickly, "we're through."
Her words hung in the air and he just gaped for a minute. "Sorry?" he asked, and when she just repeated what she'd said, he replied, "Alicia, look, I know you're pissed off, but you can't just—"
"I'm actually not, really," she interrupted him. "It's just I've been breaking a promise I made to someone for two years, and I realised tonight how important that promise is."
This seemed to temper his shock somewhat. "Is that it? A promise?" He laughed a little. "What is it? If you need help making good on it, I can—"
She shook her head. "That'll be rather impossible, I'm afraid." She winced sympathetically, knowing that she was about to hurt him, because she believed that in his way, Jack Sloper loved her. And up till tonight she'd believed she loved him, as well. She'd the feeling they'd only stayed together out of habit. They'd got through milestones together and she'd always thought that would be enough, but she was a bit amazed at how easy it was to end the relationship, really. Somehow she'd always envisioned histrionics for this moment – which meant she had pictured the moment, much as she'd never wanted to admit it to herself before then – but it felt so clean; she felt no remorse for the relationship that (it was so obvious now) had failed long ago. "Sorry, Jack. Really, I am. But this is over."
Just before she Apparated out of the flat, Jack stepped forward and grabbed her arm and she just barely stopped herself from carrying through with the Disapparation. "What was the promise, Alicia?"
She looked up at him, feeling wretched that she had to hurt him, because Alicia hated hurting people. "I promised I'd break up with you."
Jack's surprise made him let go of her arm, and she took advantage of that to Disapparate. The only trick would be getting back to the right room; surely most of them looked the same, it was just one darkened suite with a bank of windows after another, and—
Alicia would have hit her tailbone hard against the floor if she'd not landed on something rather softer that broke her fall for her; a rather softer something that turned out to be Oliver, whom she scrambled off of with profuse apologies. "I don't know why I'm such rubbish at Apparation," she said as he got to his feet, rubbing the spot on his side that she thought she'd jabbed her elbow into.
"You're not rubbish," Oliver said. "At that or anything."
She met his eyes. "I've been rubbish at keeping promises."
Oliver opened his mouth to respond and then closed it, licking his lips. "You're talking about what you said to me before the Battle. Alicia, I've never – I mean I don't expect you to—"
"I've done it," she interrupted him. "Broken things off with Jack. And Oliver, I've been really stupid, really mind-numbingly stupid, because I've realised tonight that I think I've been in love with you for ages." Quickly, she clarified, "I mean, the ages part is what I'm not sure about; the bit about loving you, that's completely certain." She stopped talking suddenly, and then started again with, "I really hope I'm not making a complete arse of myself—"
But before she could finish, Oliver's strong arms were around her and his mouth was on hers, and he was kissing her, kissing her. Oliver Wood was kissing her, and she was kissing him back with her hands in his hair and she'd never, ever felt this way in her life, and she wanted to cry and laugh all at once that it'd taken her so long to work out that this was what she'd wanted. She wanted to stay there forever, her head tilted back, his marvelous lips on hers, their bodies pressed together and her legs weak—
It was a long time later that Oliver stopped kissing her just long enough to say, "Alicia, I love you – and I've known it for ages."
She buried his face in his shirt and breathed in the shower-clean smell of him, and underneath it the faint musk of sweat, and her heart flip-flopped with her stomach. "So between the two of us," she murmured into his chest, "we've quite a lot of catching up to do."
In answer, he put a finger under her chin, tilting her head up to kiss her again. When they ended up back at his flat – it wasn't inevitable, but she suddenly found it impossible to let him out of her sight – they couldn't stop talking to each other. Well, unless they were snogging, which they also did quite a bit of. It turned out that in addition to being quite good at Quidditch, Oliver was quite good at snogging. And she was very much looking forward to other ways that he might show off his athleticism – but not tonight, because she just wanted to savour this moment, where everything was in front of them and she was full to bursting with happiness. They lay sprawled on his couch, staring at each other long into the night, his arms resting warm around her waist as he held her, and eventually they fell asleep that way.
Unfamiliar birdsong woke her slowly the next morning, and it took her a moment to remember where she was. Her heart swooped as she did, and for a second she kept her eyes closed, almost afraid to open them in case, by some cruel twist, the warm body underneath hers wasn't Oliver Wood, and the previous night had all been a wonderful fantasy.
When she finally did get up the nerve to open her eyes, it was to find the aforementioned Oliver Wood staring into them. "Oh," she exhaled. "You're awake. Hi."
"Hi," he said, smiling and reaching out a hand to tuck her hair behind one of her ears. "I didn't wake you, did I?"
She shook her head and stretched to give him a quick kiss, which turned into a much deeper kiss, which kept them lying on that couch far longer than she'd intended to. Eventually, her stomach gave a loud rumble, and she giggled and had to pull away from him. "That was romantic," she said, grinning and sitting up.
He stretched and climbed to his feet. "I guess that's the sign to make breakfast."
"Breakfast?" she asked, intrigued and following him to the kitchen. "I love you even more."
Quidditch memorabilia caught her eyes in the morning in the way it hadn't the previous night; and she noticed in the light of day that his spare gear was littered around the house. "There's room in your life for me and Quidditch, right?" she asked, keeping her tone casual while simultaneously wishing she'd thought of this before last night. She was, after all, in love with Oliver Wood. Single-minded Oliver Wood. Quidditch-obsessed Oliver Wood. Never-had-a-girlfriend-at-Hogwarts-because-he-was-too-busy-with-Quidditch Oliver Wood. And she, she, Alicia Spinnet, thought she was going to be the woman to domesticate him?
Oliver looked a bit alarmed. "Er, well, I dunno," he said hesitantly. "I mean, I suppose that's down to you to decide. I do—you know—play Quidditch, so…"
He looked so honestly troubled, and she knew without asking that he was worried she was having second thoughts, that she threw her arms around him. "That's all I need to know," she murmured into his ear. Then, she pulled back slightly and gave him a mischievous smile. "Anyway, I've really been looking forward to coaxing you out of your post-loss depressions."
"Yeah?" he asked, raising his eyebrows.
"Yeah. Somehow I think I might be slightly more…ah…persuasive than George and Angelina."
For a second, he looked down at her, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth, and then, without warning, he scooped her up into his arms, prompting a squeal from her. "I think you've just persuaded me that breakfast can wait."
She laughed and said, "My stomach and I aren't persuaded. Wait—" Her lips found his, and after a long moment, she said, "Okay, I'm persuaded. My stomach can sod off."
The hint of a smile on his face turned into a grin, and somehow they found their way right back to the couch again, which eventually turned to the bedroom, and they didn't fight over space at the sink too much, and she was very persuasive after his Quidditch matches, and eventually she didn't have her own place to go back to, because it was their house.
So Alicia Spinnet was in love. But it wasn't the end of the story, not at all. And Alicia Wood – that sounded like a proper name, didn't it?