Light fell from the window, illuminating her bushy brown hair. He watched as she turned around the corner, the hem of her robe swishing out of sight.
Should I ask her?
No, you shouldn't.
But then, someone else might ask her.
Why should you care? She's your brother's best friend!
But I want to go with the prettiest girl in the school!
There are a lot of pretty girls in the school.
None as pretty as her!
Time was running out. He would have to ask her now, or never. But was it the right choice? No, it's not. She's your little brother's best mate! And besides, she's two years younger. Then a voice at the back of his head said, So? It's not the end of the world; it's only a ball. But Fred fought the urge to run after her. He had to make up his mind. Maybe it's not such a good idea to ask her. Yes, that was true. Fred settled with that thought. But just as he was about to walk in the opposite direction, back to the Common Room, a sudden image popped into his mind: Hermione dancing with a tall man, then moving closer...so close...too close... He shook his head, unwilling to finish the scene.
He ran to the right, to the corridor she disappeared from, a few moments ago. Where is she? he thought. He could not see her. He kept on running until he saw a small figure that belonged to a girl. There she was, heading for the staircase. Fred sprinted faster, full of excitement. In fact, he was a bit too excited that he didn't notice the little girl coming his way. They bumped into each other, and the first-year stepped away, looking nervous.
''S-sorry,'' she squeaked, and sped off.
Blasted girl. He looked up and found Hermione already at the top of the stairs. Fred followed her. She still had her back turned, not knowing a redhead was right behind her. He was so close now. But still, he was unsure... Then the image of Hermione with the tall man resurfaced, and Fred found himself swelling with anger and—could it possibly be?—jealousy. It was stupid for him to get mad at an imaginary person. But what did it matter? He held up his chin, straightened his back, and with a last impulse...
...he called her name.
She dropped her bag in surprise, and its contents scattered upon the floor. She stooped low to pick them up, and Fred hurried over to help her.
''Oh, hi,'' she greeted, a small smile etched upon her face. Fred grinned.
''Hello to you, too,'' he greeted back. They quietly picked up Hermione's things until there was only a book left. She was about to place a hand on it, and Fred saw his chance. He made to grasp the book, but ''accidentally'' clasped her hand instead. Perfect, he thought. Fred Weasley, Master of Romance.
''I-I'm sorry,'' murmured Hermione, pulling her hand away. He noticed a tint of pink in her cheeks.
''No problem,'' said Fred as he handed her the book. She stuffed it in her bag, her bushy hair covering her face. It seems she doesn't want him to notice her blush. But too late. Then, like the gentleman he is, Fred gently relieved Hermione of her bag and suggested to carry it for her.
''Oh, no! It's okay...really.'' She tried to snatch it back from him, but failed. Well, she didn't put in much effort anyway. In fact, it appears that she was happier to have the gorgeous Weasley carry it for her. Typical girls. But he liked it, nonetheless. ''Well...if you insist...'' She smiled at him, her teeth slightly showing. And he noticed something different...
''Hermione, your teeth...'' There was definitely something different in her smile.
''Oh!'' she exclaimed. ''I had Madam Pomfrey fix them for me. You didn't really expect me to keep those fangs, did you?''
Fred laughed. ''I always thought your front teeth were big, but I never considered them 'fangs'.''
Hermione looked confused. Then realization dawned on her. ''It's not that!'' she chuckled. ''I meant the fangs that stupid Malfoy git gave me.''
''What do you mean?''
''You see, Malfoy sort of hexed me—''
''Yeah. He was aiming for Harry, but hit me instead.''
''That little bastard...'' Fred always thought the Malfoy brat was bad, but to hurt Hermione...his Hermione...it was unforgivable.
His anger must have shown, because Hermione said softly, with yet another smile, ''I'm glad you care.''
He felt heat rise up in his cheeks. But that's impossible, he reflected. I, Fred Weasley, master of pranking, romance, trouble-making, and practically everything, never blushes. But he was wrong. Already, Hermione was giggling at the patch of red on his face.
''What?'' he demanded.
''Nothing,'' she replied.
They walked together for a while, not meeting anyone along the way, which relieved Fred. The pair made small talk, discussing the Quidditch World Cup, the Triwizard Tournament, and eventually the Yule Ball. It was this change of topic that sent Hermione lost in thought. Fred used this moment to make his final decision. Should I ask her now? Or should I wait? But he asked himself, what else is there to wait for? Um, I don't know, the right time, maybe? But when was the right time? Having no answer, the question haunting Fred's thoughts spilled out.
''D'you want to go to the ball with me?''
Hermione stopped abruptly, and he almost collided with her. Worry overcame Fred. Perhaps he should have waited for the right time. But really, when was the right time? Her answer would still have been the same...or would it? Then she turned around to face him. Her eyes were sad, and there was no smile on her lips; he already knew her response before she could say it.
''Oh, Fred—I'm so sorry, but somebody else already asked me. I'm really sorry...'' Hermione's voice was shaking, and Fred could almost feel the sorrow in it. But maybe it was his sorrow...who knows? Probably both.
Pain surged through Fred's chest. But it was not normal pain. It wasn't physical. Yet it hurt more than anything he had ever felt...No, wait—it didn't. But it did hurt a lot.
''Oh,'' he muttered. ''Okay.'' He tried to hide the disappointment in his voice, the emptiness inside him, but failed. And, of course, Hermione noticed it. She looked like she was on the verge of crying.
''Fred, I'm really sorry. I mean it.'' And from her tone, he could tell she was serious.
Fred felt his throat go dry. ''It's okay, really.'' He gave her back her bag, and started walking away. Just as he turned his back, a new emotion coursed through him. It hurt too, and he suspected it was more emotional pain. Go away, pain. Can't you see I'm in pain? Then he realized it wasn't pain; it was shame. He left her there, all sad and confused and hurt. And just thinking about her expression hurt him, too. What else could hurt him, hmm? Knowing who her partner to the Ball is? Yes, that would hurt him much, much more. So of course, being the idiot he is, Fred asked her just that.
''Who're you going with?''
Stupid! Why did you say that? He really didn't want to know the answer. ''Uh—don't answer that,'' he said apologetically. Fred smiled, and continued walking, putting distance between himself and Hermione. He didn't care who she's going with (actually, he does); it's knowing that she agreed to go with him, chose him, even, didn't wait for someone else to ask her, that upset him. And also that the mystery bloke was obviously faster, didn't hesitate, in asking her, unlike Fred. After, all, 'the early bird catches the worm'.
It seemed like the universe was against Fred when he heard Hermione's reply. Though several paces away, with a quiet, cracked voice, he could hear her quite well. He wished he hadn't.
Suddenly, the tall man in his imagination had a face: the famous face of international Quidditch player, Viktor Krum. Simply hearing his name would make girls drool. Of course. Nobody could turn him down, not even witty, clever, snappy Hermione. Not even the Fred Weasley would stand a chance against him. He never actually imagined disliking Viktor Krum. Although surprisingly, Fred found himself hating him. Yes, it was insensible to hold a grudge against someone just because they're taking your crush to a ball. But Fred has had enough.
Without a second thought, he ran. He ran as fast as he could; as far as his feet would carry him; away from the pain that awaited him if he stopped.