The barman this afternoon is Stewart, a pleasant-faced young man you know from your days at Hogwarts. He smiles and lifts a hand in greeting when you settle at the bar.
"Afternoon, Bell. Bit early for you to be in here, isn't it?"
"Oh, you know. It's been that kind of week."
And it has. Four days ago your latest girlfriend – she'd lasted all of two months – cast you off for one of her exes; a woman who, from every account you've heard, has all the mental capacity of a mountain troll and only slightly better hygiene. Then, last night, you made the ill-considered decision to visit Angelina Weasley, where you'd casually mentioned your newly single status. That had been all the information you'd planned to share on the subject, but you'd had a few too many drinks and before the night was over Angelina had used all her newly maternal cunning to pry every last one of your fears and insecurities about relationships from your previously sealed lips. You'd regretted each confidence even as it passed your lips, mentally writhing in humiliation, but there had been no stopping you. It had been horrendous in every sense of the word, akin to watching a person splinch herself.
To top it off, today your boss mistook your hangover – you'd refused to spell away your headache this morning as punishment for making bad choices – for post-breakup heartache and demanded you take off after lunch and get an early start on the weekend.
Which is how you ended up here. Lingering hangover be damned.
"What'll you have, then?"
"A Fizzy Bludger, if you please."
"Merlin, Bell." Stewart makes a face and pretends to gag. "You know you're the only one who drinks that goblin's brew, don't you? You're the sole reason we keep it stocked."
The good-natured complaint isn't anything you haven't heard before and you lift your hands in a helpless gesture. "Not my fault your regulars haven't the taste of a garden slug. Used to be alcohol wasn't worth drinking if it didn't take the hair off your tongue."
"Burn a hole through your tongue more like." Stewart shakes his head. "One Fizzy Bludger coming right up."
"Make it two, on me."
At the sound of that voice, as unexpected as it is familiar, you snap your head around to see Alicia Spinnet, your best friend, settling on the bar stool beside yours. You blink confusedly at her as she sets her purse on the bar and turns toward you, one side of her mouth quirking in a small, oddly subdued, smile.
"What are you doing here?"
"I came to see you." She moves a hand toward yours, like she wants to take hold of it, but the trajectory changes and abruptly she's slapping your shoulder instead. The impact, more like a blow than a friendly greeting, makes you sway and you have to press yourself hard against the edge of the bar to keep from overbalancing. Alicia doesn't notice and continues on, her eyes searching yours with an uncharacteristic intensity. "I stopped by your desk at the Prophet but you were gone. On my way out I ran into Will, and he mentioned you might be here."
"Lucky you ran into him, then."
Alicia frowns, like she thinks you're being sarcastic, but, truthfully, you are just this side of ecstatic and it's all you can do to keep from jumping off your stool and hugging her until your arms seize up. She's always a welcome sight, but after the drama of the last few days seeing her is an actual relief. You don't know why you didn't go to her in the first place – okay, that's not true – but you wish you'd thought to call on her yesterday, just to visit. If there's anyone in the world who can cheer you more than Alicia, you've yet to meet them. Considering you don't know if you'd be able to stand living in a state of perpetual giddiness, you're glad you haven't.
"So, how are you?"
"Good," you say, because now you are.
You smile, and, it takes a few moments, but eventually you notice that Alicia isn't smiling back. In fact, she's still frowning and staring at you so intently you're overcome with the urge to fidget. You start to ask if there's something bothering her, but you're interrupted by the arrival of Stewart.
"Blimey, I've made three-course meals with less ingredients. Something to keep in mind when you leave that tip." Stewart places the tall glasses in front of you and smiles, a bit wickedly Katie thinks. "Made just how you like them, Bell. Guaranteed to melt your innards. Please enjoy, ladies. If you can," he adds for Alicia's benefit before heading back to the other end of the bar.
You turn back to Alicia, your elbow nearly taking out both your drinks in your haste. "You're making me nervous," you say, without preamble. "Mind telling me what's going on in that head of yours."
The apologetic smile sent your way sparks a flash of unwelcome insight, followed quickly by foreboding, and your body stiffens with tension.
You already know what's coming when Alicia says, "I suppose you should know I spoke with Angelina today and -"
Suspicions confirmed, all the joy you felt upon seeing Alicia curdles beneath a surge of monumental embarrassment.
"Ah, that would do it," you interrupt, Alicia's mood suddenly making sense.
Alicia sounds sympathetic, coddling, and you want to groan in agony. She is not allowed to pity you.
Without thinking, you reach for your Fizzy Bludger and bring it to your lips. The electric yellow liquid scorches its way down your throat – Stewart wasn't lying when he said he'd made it just the way you like it – but the pain is a welcome distraction.
"Now, don't be like that." Alicia covers your hand with her own, tries to guide the drink away from your mouth, but you're not having it. "It's not the end of the world, you know. If what Angelina told me is true, she doesn't deserve you."
Thankfully for you, Alicia has no clue what she's talking about. At the moment you could not care less about the break up with Lucy. Even when thinking about it had bothered you, it was more the situation in general than the woman specifically.
No, what's upsetting you now is that Alicia – the absolute, very, complete last person in the entire world you want to discuss your romantic shortcomings with – knows how hopeless you are.
And it's not that you don't like talking about personal things with Alicia. You do. In fact, she's a wonderful confidante – for other things – but there are many good and valid reasons why you have always refused to speak with her about your relationships. Not the least of which being that she is always so put together and confident in her personal life; a professional at having meaningful long-term relationships with proper girlfriends. The kind of relationships that, in comparison, expose yours for the immature, pleasure-seeking jaunts they are. Which, in turn, wreaks havoc on your self-esteem.
And if your reticence might have just a tiny bit to do with the fact that you fancy the knickers off Alicia – literally and figuratively – and you don't want her to know exactly how terrible you are at relationships, well, it's hardly worth mentioning. It's not like you're her type.
Mouth and throat officially numb, you slam your glass back on the bar and motion to Stewart – who has been staring at you from the other end of the bar with an expression that looks exactly like horror – for a refill. He shudders visibly when he collects your glass and only the knowledge of Alicia's eyes on you stops you from doing the same.
The stuff really is goblin's brew.
"That was interesting," Alicia says dryly. "Are you sure you don't want something else? Maybe something a little less potent?"
"No," you say, your voice emerging like a strangled rasp from your abused throat, "I don't think so."
Alicia doesn't say anything more but, imagined or not, you hear the unspoken censure in that single word and it makes you bristle. Combine that with your current distress, and there's no stopping your snotty, "I can handle my liquor, Alicia."
The words come out even harsher than you intended, and you know it's only because you feel cornered, but you can't bring yourself to soften them. Not for the first time today, you wish you'd had the foresight to swear Angelina to secrecy. Made her sign a contract in blood or something. It had been truly idiotic of you not to anticipate her telling Alicia, and the knowledge that Alicia likely knows everything you blubbered last night makes your skin itch.
Alicia's only response to your rare display of temper is a murmured, "I didn't say you couldn't," and the part of you that is deeply traumatized by all of this – which accounts for nearly all of you at the moment – is annoyed at her nonchalance, wishing you had an excuse to lash out and vent a little bit more.
"I don't know why you ordered that," you say a moment later when Alicia, taking a sip of her Fizzy Bludger, barely lets the glass touch her lips before making a face and setting it down. "You're always saying what rubbish it is."
"Clearly I wasn't thinking." Alicia smiles but you notice it's a little tight at the corners. "And calling it rubbish is an insult to rubbish."
"Stop drinking it then," you say, knowing full well you sound like a petulant child. "No one's holding a wand to your head."
Alicia sighs heavily, clearly annoyed now, maybe even a bit hurt. Instantly you feel guilty, ashamed of yourself for trying to goad her into an argument just to distract yourself from your own embarrassment.
"Sorry," you mumble, probably just loud enough for Alicia to hear. "I don't mean to be such a harpy."
Which is big, fat a lie of course, but it's hardly Alicia's fault you were so gone that you couldn't keep your mouth shut. Nor is it her fault that Angelina relayed everything you'd said. This whole awkward way you're feeling right now might not even be completely Angelina's fault, considering you never told her not to repeat what you'd said to anyone. Especially not to Alicia.
It's no secret your friends think you have short-lived relationships – though calling them relationships might be giving them airs – because you like them, and don't want to be bothered with anything more serious at this stage in your life. They honestly believe you have a queue of women always waiting to bed you, and that you have spent the last ten years cutting a swath through the female population of Great Britain.
There are days, you admit, when you enjoy knowing they believe you capable of that kind of appeal. But it's hardly accurate. The simple truth is that you've always attracted women who are looking for a brief, exciting time without the stress of trying to build something lasting. Or maybe that's the kind of woman who has always attracted you. Either way, until last night, you'd never said or done anything to indicate to your friends that you weren't completely satisfied with your lifestyle. Angelina had likely been so shocked by your words that she couldn't help but tell Alicia for danger of exploding.
Still, you silently vow never to talk to Angelina again. At least, not about anything good. It's going to be the weather and Ministry news from now on, and it will be no less than she deserves.
"She didn't really say the only thing that made your relationship worthwhile was your tongue, did she?"
That question yanks your mind right back to the present and you squeak a horrified, "Alicia!" while whipping your head around to see if anyone overheard. Thankfully you're quite isolated, with most of the pubs other occupants huddled in corner booths. "That was a private conversation between myself and Angelina," you finally choke out, unable to think of any other response.
"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have brought it up." Alicia's fingers play distractedly with the strap of her purse. "But Angelina said you were upset and – I just want to make sure you're all right. I'm here for you, you know, if there's anything you'd like to talk about."
Her voice is low and sympathetic and, once again, you feel vulnerable and pathetic in the worst way.
"Like what?" you ask, defensive. "A part from my not being able to hold onto a girlfriend, you mean?"
"Katie." This time when Alicia reaches for your hand she actually takes it. You're half tempted to pull away, not just out of spite, though that, too, but because holding Alicia's hand always make you feel like you're being reckless, doing something that is bound to get you in trouble. But, as usual, you can't resist the temptation and leave your fingers grasped in hers.
"It's not a bad thing to talk about your feelings," she continues, voice and gaze earnest. "If you don't want to, that's one thing, but sometimes I feel like you don't think you can talk to me."
As an accusation it hits the mark – though not for the reasons Alicia probably thinks – and the guilt nearly makes you cringe. Since you can't assure Alicia she's imagining things and not have it be an absolute lie, you settle for squeezing her fingers and offering a small smile.
But, of course, Alicia sees the empty gesture for what it is. "Okay," she says, sounding resigned. "We don't have to talk about Lucy anymore, I promise. And I'm sorry for saying anything in the first place, but, I would like to ask you one thing. Just one," she says when she catches the look on your face. "And I'd like an honest, non-sarcastic answer. Will you give me that?"
Considering you've already been more disagreeable to Alicia this afternoon than you have in all thirteen years of your friendship, you can't bring yourself to deny her request, no matter how nervous it makes you.
"What do you want to know?"
"I just want to know..." Alicia trails off and actually manages to look as uncomfortable as you feel. She clears her throat and shifts closer, searching your face. "Did she break your heart?"
The words sound more like a challenge than a question and, just for a second, you wish you were heartbroken. Not because you want the pain of a broken heart, you aren't that masochistic, but because having one would mean your relationship with Lucy had actually meant something. That the last few months had been about more than having someone to shag whenever the mood struck.
But you're pretty positive those were the only two things the relationship was about. Same with the three relationships before that.
"No." You shake your head and wonder if Alicia hears the wistfulness in your tone, hoping she doesn't. The last thing you want from her is another attempt at a heart-to-heart. "My ego's been better, of course, but my heart's fine."
Alicia seems to mull your words, no doubt taking in your light tone and self-deprecating smile. After a while she nods, looking genuinely relieved when she says, "I'm glad."
The atmosphere between you changes, and the ensuing silence feels easy as you each sip at your own drink – Stewart had dropped off your second Fizzy Bludger and backed away slowly – and look at nothing in particular. After a while you throw a quick glance at Alicia and you notice she seems preoccupied, her brow furrowed thoughtfully. Unavoidably curious, you wonder if you should ask her if there's anything she would like to talk about. But good sense prevails quickly. At the moment you, Alicia, and anything resembling a discussion about feelings should not be mixed. And, if Merlin is kind, Alicia will keep her promise and pretend to forget about the conversation she'd come here apparently so keen to have.
"What's next, then?" Alicia asks, interrupting your musings in a casual tone.
It occurs to you that Merlin may not wish to be kind.
"Sorry?" you ask, not sure what she means.
"You know, to get over this bruised ego of yours. What do you plan to do?"
This definitely doesn't sound like leaving the subject alone and you start to say so, but decide it isn't worth it. Instead you give Alicia a grin and, hoping you sound more confident than you feel, say, "Well, I'll just have to get back in the game, won't I? Start looking for my next ex-girlfriend straight away." You ignore Alicia's frown. "Best cure there is."
"This soon?" Alicia asks, sounding doubtful.
A long pause follows your words, not nearly as companionable as the last one. Alicia is staring at you again, one elbow up on the bar, cheek propped against her fist, and you can tell she is chewing on the inside of her bottom lip. The look in her eyes is almost identical to the one she leveled you with when she first entered the pub, direct and appraising, and another spark of alarm goes through you.
"Yes?" you ask, resigned now.
"So, you're just going to jump back on the broom? So to speak."
"Yes," you answer slowly, aware the word comes out of your mouth sounding like a question.
"And you don't need to, you know, get over anything? Pull a few random girls from the pub before you can stomach being serious again."
Reading between the lines, you think Alicia might be trying to ask if you are a heartless ghoul.
"Not really, no." Lucy wasn't so much a girlfriend as a friend with benefits, only, even then, she wasn't so much of a friend. "It was never serious, really," you continue with a shrug, "we didn't even see each other much."
Alicia nods once, firmly, then opens her mouth to say something. Only she doesn't make a noise. Instead she closes her mouth with a sharp snap, eyes widening. She turns away from you then and, as you watch, takes a long drink of her Fizzy Bludger, not even gagging when she swallows. When she's finished she sets the glass back on the bar with exaggerated care, closes her eyes, and takes a deep breath.
You're seriously alarmed now, about to ask Alicia what's the matter, and the potential subject be damned. But before you can she is looking at you again, her expression more determined than you've ever seen it.
"Does this mean," she says, after another deep breath, "that you're ready to take applications, as it were?"
You blink. "Excuse me?" you ask, not sure what Alicia's getting at, not even sure you heard her correctly.
"You know." Alicia leans toward you, her gaze so intense you can't look away. "From women eager to help you get over your bruised ego."
At that, Alicia's eyes not so subtly roam the length of your person and, for a split second, your mind goes completely blank.
When her gaze finds yours again, all you can do is stare back, open-mouthed. You clear your throat, twice, trying to dislodge the glut of confusion that has lodged in your throat and cut off your ability to speak. But it doesn't work and, as the silence lengthens, you note that Alicia has begun to look like she's either going to toss, or you've finally convinced her you're completely daft. Not that she doesn't have cause to think that last bit, of course, because for a moment there you thought she'd implied that she wants you. Physically.
Which is impossible because she is her, and you are you, and in all your years of friendship she has never expressed any sort of interest in you beyond friendship. Never ever, not even once. Considering you've spent the last seven years looking for the slightest hint of a sign, you would have noticed.
"I'm not sure what you mean," you finally croak, hoping the direction of your thoughts – your delusions – hasn't registered on your face.
If possible, Alicia looks even more ill. Or disgusted, it's still hard to tell. Her head tips back and she looks up at the ceiling, though what she's trying to discover by looking up there you have no idea. All you know is that your heart feels like it's pounding in your throat and if Alicia doesn't say something soon you'll be the one who is sick, and it will be all over her shoes.
"Oh hang it," she says, jaw clenching. "This is why I don't do innuendo, I'm complete rubbish at it."
"You are," you agree, though you don't really have a clue what you're saying. At the moment all you can do is hang on her every word because – you're still not sure you should even think it – this might be happening.
You literally have to resist the urge to pinch yourself.
"All right. Thing is, I fancy you."
The words are delivered bluntly, almost blurted, and they're loud and clear and leave absolutely no room for misinterpretation. The antithesis of innuendo. In response, you grip the bar, terrified you might have drunk enough Fizzy Bludger to cause hallucinations.
"I know it must come as a shock," Alicia rushes on, and you notice that she's gripped her hands together in her lap. "You've probably never thought of me..." she swallows and shakes her head, discarding the train of thought, "but the truth is, I've wanted to say this to you for quite some time. I've waited because...well, for a lot of reasons. But after talking with Angelina," she shakes her head again, "I don't know. I just know I don't want to wait anymore."
"You want me."
It's not a question, more like a dazed announcement to the universe, but Alicia takes it as one.
A laugh bubbles up your throat, one of pure delight, but you swallow it back just in case it comes out sounding unhinged.
"And you want us to try a relationship? A proper one?" you ask instead, not quite sure what is driving you to press. This is Alicia after all, the only thing she has are proper relationships. But maybe you simply need to hear it again, have it spelled out just so you can be sure you're not hard of hearing or presently delirious.
"Yes. I know us being friends means there's a bit more at stake, but I think we should give it a go anyway. I know you don't usually go for the whole long-term thing but if we do this -"
You hold up a hand to silence Alicia's concerns. If there is one thing she does not need to worry about, it's you not being into the whole 'long-term thing' where she is concerned. You're convinced that if she knew just how long and how badly you've wanted something to happen between the two of you – and have it work out for the rest of your lives – she'd probably be embarrassed for you.
"I know what you and Angelina think, but I'm not some," you wave your hand, "serial bed-jumper. I'm perfectly capable of having an actual relationship with someone."
You decide it best not to mention you've never had anything remotely resembling an adult relationship during the whole of your life. You're pretty sure Alicia is well aware of that fact, and all signs point to her being willing to give you the benefit of the doubt – there's no way you're going to try and talk her out of it.
"I wasn't going to say you were incapable. Just that you've been uninterested in them."
"So, are you?" Alicia blushes and your heart turns over. "Interested, I mean?"
Seeing Alicia's uncertainty, it occurs to you that you've been too dazed to give her any indication of your feelings. Since that will not do, you get to your feet, toss four galleons onto the bar – probably three too many – and offer your hand to Alicia.
"Would you like to get out of here?" you ask, even though you already know the answer because Alicia is smiling and standing with you and taking your hand. The feel of her warm palm as it fits against yours, the anticipation that tightens your gut, are almost enough to make you groan aloud.
And it's probably way too soon, way too presumptuous, but you don't care; you're going to Disapparate with Alicia and take her right to your flat. Into your bedroom and directly next to your bed if you have enough wits left to manage it.
Let Alicia make of that what she will.
"Just so we're clear, this means you fancy me too, yeah?"
Alicia's smile turns amused and you figure she's probably noticed that you're all but panting with excitement – it would be hard not to – and you'd be more ashamed by that if you weren't so preoccupied imagining all the ways you were going to show her just how much you fancied her.
"That might be putting it mildly," you manage, deciding to hold off on declaring your undying love in a relationship that is only about two minutes old, "but it'll do."