"Remind me again why I agreed to this?" Rose gathered up the front of her dress robes to avoid tripping over the hem as she ascended the staircase leading to the ballroom. A couple in matching robes trimmed with peacock's-tail feathers swept past; when the ballroom doors opened to admit them, Rose could hear the buzz of conversations and a few notes from a band warming up.
"Because, dear cousin, I needed a date to help me fend off all the birds, and you needed something to get you out of your flat so you could take a holiday from brooding for a few hours."
"'Fend off all the birds'?" she hooted, quirking an amused grin at James. "Aren't we the strutting rooster tonight." Her smile faded. "Anyway, I have not been brooding."
"Right." He drew out the word, turning one syllable into several. "Have you forgotten which family you were born into? Even Louis has noticed that your joie de vivre has gone au revoir since you showed Philip the door."
"Has he really? Louis, the lord of La-La Land, whose head is so far up in the clouds he forgets what House he belongs to? Who wouldn't see a dragon before him even after it set his hair on fire?" James nodded. "Have I truly been that bad?" Another nod. "Oh dear," she said sadly, pausing near the top of the staircase to blink back the stinging tears of regret that had just sprung to her eyes.
James, who'd been waiting on the landing, bouncing on the balls of his feet, hurried down to her level to throw an arm across her shoulders and give her a squeeze. "Aw, love, no one's blaming you for it. Who could? After all, you'd been moony-eyed over that knob Manchester since your Sorting, and then to break things off with him for good a month before your wedding? Of course you're going to be a bit of a Moaning Myrtle for a while! Anyone with half your heart would be!"
He grasped her shoulders and turned her towards him, looking deeply into her eyes. "But it's been three months now, and I really miss my favorite cousin. I miss her swearing like a goblin at Quidditch referees whenever they make bad calls, I miss the way she can out-argue nearly everyone in our family, I miss the way she never takes any cheek, not even from Uncle Charlie, and I miss hanging out with her at the Leaky Cauldron on weekends. If I have to spend one more Friday with no one to get pissed with but Fred or Lucy or my pinhead of a brother, I'll go spare." He leaned close. "Please, Myrtle, let me have Rose back."
"You poor dear," Rose said with a small smile, rolling her eyes at James' theatrics. "To imagine the suffering you've endured on my account."
"Indeed," he said, his lips curving upwards. "I hope you appreciate what torment it's been."
"Thank goodness I have you to enlighten me."
His grin broadened. "Well, someone has to. Merlin knows, everyone else is afraid you'll zap them with a Jungle Rot Jinx." He released Rose's shoulders and held out his arm, crooked at the elbow, for her to take. "So, whaddya say, cousin? Shall we go in there and show everyone that not even a broken heart can extinguish the Weasley flame?"
Unable to help herself, Rose snorted with laughter. "James, you are too much, do you know that? No wonder women are helpless to throw themselves at you." She let him lead her up the remaining steps to the ballroom entrance, where an elf in a garish waistcoat and spats stood sentry, checking invitations as the guests arrived.
James sighed with mock exaggeration as he handed the elf his invitation. "I'm a martyr to my own sex appeal, Rose. It's a curse, but someone has to bear the burden."
It felt good to laugh and to joke with James, Rose thought as they entered the ballroom. As much as it pained her, she had to admit he had a point: ever since she'd called off her wedding to Philip Manchester three months ago, she'd become almost hermit-like, tucking herself away in the sanctity and solitude of her flat and avoiding contact with others as much as possible. She'd even stopped attending family dinners because she just couldn't cope with the exuberance and energy that all her aunts and uncles and cousins brought to the table. Thankfully, while they'd expressed their concern, Mum and Dad had respected her need for time and space to get over Philip and kept their distance. Dad and Uncle George had even allowed her to do the joke shop's bookkeeping from home, sending her each day's receipts by owl post, though she still had to meet with them twice a month so they could review and reconcile all the accounts. Apart from them, her only regular contact for the past several weeks had been with James and Nana Granger.
She hadn't felt lonely at the time, Rose mused, but despite her initial reluctance to accompany James tonight she had to admit that it felt good to be out of her flat, rather than curled up in her pajamas with a novel and a cup of tea her only companions, listening to the patter of rain against her window and the distant sounds of traffic, her thoughts inadvertently turning to Philip. The dress robes that Aunt Ginny had ordered for her (no doubt in collusion with James to get Rose to agree to come) and her new haircut, which she'd got on a whim yesterday afternoon, helped further boost her spirits.
Best of all, James had done some checking this afternoon and confirmed that Philip and his new girlfriend were in the States, so there was no chance of an awkward reunion.
James had taken Rose's hand in his and was half-dragging her across the ballroom, to where her Uncle Harry and Aunt Ginny and a few other people she presumed to be Ministry officials were gathered, all of them dressed to the nines. "I thought it best to let Dad and Mum see you right off," he explained, "so they can spread the word that Myrtle's got free of her toilet, and then you can go home early if you wish." He squeezed her hand. "Any time you're ready to leave, just let me know."
"Thanks, James, but I think I'm okay for a while."
He smiled. "Good." Then, calling out to the group, he announced, "Look who I rescued from solitary confinement," pulling Rose beside him and wrapping his arm around her waist. "I had to slay a troll and kiss a frog to do it, but she's free now."
"I'll get you for that," Rose muttered through clenched teeth as she smiled at her aunt and uncle.
"It's good to see you, Rose," Uncle Harry said, giving her a warm smile as Aunt Ginny hugged her.
"Well, your son parked himself on my sofa and refused to budge until I agreed to come. This seemed less costly than feeding him for the next eight decades, never mind the smell." She bent down to give her aunt a kiss on the cheek. "Thank you for the dress robes; I love the color."
"I thought that shade would look good on you. You look so lovely, Rose. Doesn't she, Harry?"
Rose felt her cheeks grow warm as her uncle eyed her appraisingly before giving a nod of approval. "Very beautiful."
"Thanks, Uncle Harry." She gave him a grateful smile, feeling increasingly confident about coming here tonight. In the company of people who cared about her, she knew she could drop her guard and still be shielded from making too much a fool of herself.
"I won't be at all surprised if you attract the attention of a few admirers tonight," Aunt Ginny said, her brown eyes sparkling mischievously. "In fact, I can name several eligible wizards already here eager for an introduction."
On the other hand... "Is that why James was so insistent on my coming, so you could play matchmaker?" Rose said with exasperation that was partly in jest, partly genuine. "Honestly, Aunt Ginny, you're as bad as Grandmum Weasley."
"Worse," James said hoarsely in her ear. Rose giggled.
Just then a tall, slender young man, his pale blond hair carefully swept back from his narrow face, came near and addressed himself to her uncle. As the two men exchanged words with an air that suggested an extended acquaintance, Rose turned to her cousin and murmured, "Who is that with Uncle Harry? He looks familiar. Do I know him?"
James looked in the direction she indicated. "Who, him? You ought to. It's Scorpius Malfoy."
She gasped. "It's been so long, I scarcely recognized him! What on earth is he doing here? He seems very familiar with Uncle Harry."
James gave her an amused look. "You have been out of touch, cousin."
"What do you mean?"
To Rose's abject horror, James called out, "Oi, Malfoy! How long have you been Dad's assistant?"
"James!" she hissed as the person in question turned to look at them, then excused himself from her uncle to approach. "I swear..." She tried to hide her face, with its flaming cheeks, behind James' broad back.
"Nearly three years," was Scorpius' answer. "Since I completed Auror training. But you know that," he added, clearly puzzled.
James laughed. "Of course I do; we trained up together. My cousin, however--" He nimbly stepped aside, ruining Rose's sorry attempt at camouflage. "--fritters away her life with her nose in a ledger, tallying up assets and debits even in her dreams, and consequently tends not to notice the lives the rest of us lead." Rose squeaked with embarrassment when James grabbed her hand and forced her to come forward. "You remember my cousin Rose Weasley, don't you, Scorpius?"
He regarded her coolly. "How could I forget? We were in the same year at Hogwarts. You used to trounce me in Transfiguration on a regular basis."
"I seem to recall you doing the same to me in Potions," she managed to get out. "With great enthusiasm, too."
The corner of his mouth twitched. "I suppose I did." He extended his hand to her. "It's a pleasure to see you again, Rose. It's been a long time."
Gripping his hand firmly, she looked up into his eyes as she'd been taught to do, and found his gaze, like the skin of his palm against hers, unexpectedly warm. Discomfited by the surge of humidifying self-consciousness it sparked, she withdrew her hand with a murmur and surreptitiously wiped it against her robe.
"Oh, blast," James muttered.
"Priscilla Montgomery just walked in. And she's alone."
"Oh, boy," Scorpius breathed.
Rose gave them both a puzzled frown. "So?"
James ducked down behind her, tugging at Scorpius' arm until he was standing beside her; standing shoulder-to-shoulder, they presented a wall around which James darted furtive looks before crouching back down. "So? So if that man-eater sees me, I'm lost. She'll sink her claws in me and never let go." Unimpressed with her cousin's childish antics, Rose rolled her eyes and let out a "tuh" of disapproval. When she looked over her shoulder to give him a piece of her mind, he cried out, "Don't let her see me back here!"
At that she turned to face him. "James Sirius Potter, since when do you hide from women?"