She first heard his stories, though she didn't recognise the moment for what it was at the time, in a small boat on the lake outside Hogwarts castle, on their very first day at school. It was something about the squid, about where it lived under the lake or how many Hogwarts students it had drowned or some outlandish theory like that. Alice didn't remember exactly what the story was, but she never forgot the look on his face when he told it. Frank Longbottom was a born teller of tales.
And he never stopped. In fact, the stories grew even more elaborate as they got older. By third year they had grown to include the 'real' origin of nearly every magical creature they studied, and by fifth at least half involved the sacrificing of virgins (in both real and figurative ways). Arthur Weasley once told her, during one of their late night chats over hot chocolate in the common room, that the more Frank's mother encouraged him to become a practical and upstanding young man, the more fanciful his stories got.
It was only once they reached seventh year, a time long past when she should have noticed herself, that Arthur pointed out that most of the time, Frank was telling his tales to her.
"Have you got any idea what that is?" said Alice, stretched out along a sofa in the common room and listening to an odd sort of warbling coming in the open window again, not quite singing and not quite not.
"Ah, that," said Frank, nodding sagely from his perch on an overstuffed armchair. "That would be the sound of the mermaids singing their annual mating song. You hear those little trills here and there? Like that one, just now? That signals the sort of mate they're looking for."
"What a load of nonsense," laughed Alice. "Mermaids indeed."
"It's their love song," Frank insisted. "And only here at Hogwarts, at this time of the year, do they share it with any witches or wizards. You'll not hear music like it anywhere else in the world."
Alice rather hoped she wouldn't, but Frank had his eyes closed and was swaying to the sound and she didn't have the heart to tell him she questioned whether or not it was even music.
"Hogsmeade weekend coming up," he said after a few minutes of comfortable silence, while flipping the pages of a book called Aquatic Plants of the Sahara. "Do you think you might go down for this one?"
"I've got Quidditch," she said. "I'll have to go next time."
"You haven't!" said Frank, closing the book with a sharp bang. "Eoin Flannery's talking about picking up all his Christmas gifts early, and he hasn't said a thing about Quidditch."
"Not the whole team, just the chasers," said Alice, pulling a face. "Gordon finally made the team this year and he's not ever played a match before. I said it would be all right to go his weekend; I've been to Hogsmeade before and I'll go again."
"All right, but you're missing out," said Frank. "Honeydukes is bringing out their new line. It'll have to be something special to top last year's."
"You'll have to bring me something, then," said Alice. "I've already promised to be there and I'll not back out now. If we want a chance at the Cup this year we've got to get Gordon up to standard quickly."
"Ravenclaw's the best they've been in years," said Frank. "Gryffindor's got a real challenge ahead."
"You needn't remind me," said Alice, tossing a balled up bit of parchment at him, "but that's all right, I like a good challenge."
"You and me both," he said. "I've got to get to the library before Eoin thinks I've forgotten about him. You just keep listening to those mermaids. Maybe they'll even share some secrets with you in the end."
"Go," said Alice, balling up another piece of parchment in anticipation. "I'll see you at curfew."
"Maybe you will and maybe you won't," said Frank before disappearing out the common room door.
Alice's hair was stuck to her forehead with sweat and she was convinced that any of the charms she'd used that morning to try to keep it in place were thoroughly defeated by the sheer exertion of the practice.
"You looked good up there," said Frank, lounging against the stands and waiting for her as she left the pitch.
"Weren't you supposed to be at Hogsmeade?" she said, pulling her gloves off to push her hair back off her face. "Something about a feast for the senses at Honeydukes?"
"Didn't take long to load up on chocolate," said Frank, shrugging and then holding up a copy of Ninety-one Defences Against Common Jinxes and Hexes. "I had some revising to do besides. How was practice?"
"Well, I don't think we're going to get completely clobbered by Ravenclaw," she said, "but it's going to be close. If we win, it'll be because Godric Gryffindor himself decided to return to Hogwarts and hop on a broom to help us out."
"You never know," said Frank, falling into step with her as she headed for the showers. "There's a story about that, you know."
"I knew there would be."
"Of course, he didn't come back to help win the Quidditch Cup, he returned to help vanquish the foes of Hogwarts. But I'm sure that in a certain light they're very nearly the same thing."
"Very nearly," said Alice, giving him an indulgent smile. "So how did Eoin's shopping go? He didn't buy his girlfriend one of those terrible rings from that old witch selling them in front of The Three Broomsticks, did he?"
"I haven't any idea," said Frank. "I left before he really got started."
"Right," said Alice, "you had all that revising for Defence Against the Dark Arts to do. As though you won't get top marks in the class again."
"I get top marks in the class because I do all this revising," countered Frank, "and as you said, there are only so many times you can go to Hogsmeade before you've seen everything. All I needed to do was stock up at Honeydukes and pick up a few other things and I was finished. So that loop you did up there today was new, did you just come up with that?"
Alice paused a moment to look at him curiously. "Just how long were you watching?" she asked. "I tried that one out ages ago."
"Long enough to see, it seems."
"It didn't work out quite like I planned," she went on after a moment, starting to move forward again. "Better I tried it out in practice than in the match."
"This seems to be where I leave you," said Frank as they reached the doors, tucking his book back under his arm for the walk back up to Hogwarts castle.. "See you at supper, Alice."
It was nearly one in the morning when Alice crept out of bed and headed down to the common room in her striped pyjamas. It wasn't a surprise that Arthur was already waiting for her. It would have been more of a surprise if he hadn't been.
"I've already got Bitsy getting us some hot chocolate," he told her, looking up from what looked like a perfectly ordinary Charms text but which Alice suspected secretly concealed a Muggle periodical.
"I couldn't sleep," said Alice unnecessarily, though it wasn't entirely true. She'd slept soundly for a full four hours, but when she had something on her mind the dead of night was the time when she couldn't seem to settle.
"I heard Frank skipped Hogsmeade to watch you practice," said Arthur.
"He didn't," said Alice, "he came back early to do some revising while he could get some peace and quiet. He might've passed by practice on his way in, that's all."
"Sure he did," said Arthur, "and I passed by the Prewett estate this summer because I liked the architecture."
"Oh honestly, Arthur, he's my friend," said Alice. "Is it so odd that he might want to come by to watch me practice? It's not the first time."
"No, it's not, is it," said Arthur knowingly. "In fact, he's come by any number of times to see you play. And to revise with you, and I believe one time he said he was going to 'study the giant squid' when you were out with Ellie by the lake."
"I'm not thick, I can see where you're going with this," said Alice, drawing her knees up as she sat there on the sofa. "But it's absolute nonsense. He probably told you he was going to see the giant squid because he didn't want to tell you he likes to listen to the mermaids singing."
"Mermaids?" said Arthur. "Merlin, what kind of stories has he been telling now?"
Alice laughed and looked up at the window through which she'd heard the strange song. "We were revising the other day when we heard something outside," she said. "Frank tried to convince me it was secret mermaid songs, of all things."
"Mermaid songs," said Arthur. "Now there's a romantic notion if I ever heard one."
"Romantic," scoffed Alice. "You haven't any idea what you're talking about."
"Haven't I?" said Arthur. "Then what are you doing down here past midnight tonight?"
Alice didn't have an answer for him. At least, not one she was ready to admit to. Fortunately, before enough time had passed that she needed to say something, Bitsy arrived and Alice was free to sit and sip quietly and let these strange new thoughts marinate.
It was possible, just barely possible, that Arthur was right. And it was possible that Alice had known it all along.
"You're going to be late and you haven't even got your robes from the wardrobe yet."
"Do you think I ought to wear my hairpins today?" Alice blurted out. Not only had she not put her robes on yet, missing breakfast, but she was still lying atop the covers of her bed thinking about her conversation with Arthur the night before. "The ones with the pixie wings."
"Do you even still have those?" Ellie asked her, pulling out her wand to put the finishing touches on her own elaborate hair. It was, as always, immaculate. "I haven't seen you wear those since last Christmas."
"And now you want to wear them to Charms?"
"You're always saying I ought to do something with myself," said Alice, sitting up and rummaging through her knick-knack box. "Didn't you tell me just yesterday that I ought to try a hair-straightening charm?"
"It's the fashion right now," said Ellie, "and you've got the hair for it. But the hairpins... they're a bit third year, don't you think?"
Alice paused before she overturned the whole box. She didn't care all that much for cosmetic charms and jewellery and frilly robes, and she hadn't realised that the only decorative hairpins she owned might be terribly out of fashion. She wasn't sure she owned anything that could be termed fashionable at all. "I haven't got time to learn a new hair charm right now," she said finally, slamming the box shut again. "Have you got any other ideas?"
Ellie paused and gave her a quick once-over. "I'm not sure what you're going for," she said, "but you might want to consider combing your hair today. Just a suggestion."
Alice hardly even knew what she was thinking anyway. She hadn't ever made herself up for lessons. She hardly even made herself up for special occasions. And just because it had suddenly occurred to her that there might be someone interested in her didn't mean that ought to change. But she still ran a brush through her hair a few times and found a dark ribbon to tie it up with.
"That'll do," said Ellie with grudging approval, "though if you're getting dolled up to meet that Ravenclaw boy out under the Quidditch stands, you might want to go with robes that are a little lower cut."
"Eleanor Binghamton!" Alice admonished her. "I'd do no such thing, least of all with him. Where did you even get that?" Alice was one of the cleverer students in her year, but she honestly had no idea where people came up with these things sometimes.
"Everyone knows he fancies you," said Ellie. "I know you've got other things on your mind, but one would think you'd notice these things at least some of the time. And besides, I know perfectly well you're not prudish. You're the one who told me about that shop off Diagon."
"If I thought every boy I was friends with fancied me, I'd have a head so big I'd not be able to get through the common room door," she said.
Alice had always known she was a bit plain, especially compared to some of the other girls in her year, but it had never bothered her. She had her studies and Quidditch and some of the best friends a young witch could ask for, and there would be plenty of time for other things once she left school. Boys her age went after the pretty girls, and really it just saved her the trouble of dealing with it.
"Yes, well, that's why they fancy you, isn't it?" said Ellie. "Now put on your robes and grab your books."
Alice pulled on her standard student robes - no embellishments, no adjustments, nothing anything like what Ellie might suggest - and checked herself just once in the mirror.
"Another couple of years of patient coaxing and I might even convince you to try cosmetics," said Ellie before tugging on her arm. "Come on, or we're both going to be late."
They met in the corridor outside charms, because despite the fact that Frank sat at one corner of the room and Alice sat at the other, they always managed to gravitate towards one another sooner or later.
"Good job today," she said, and for a moment she considered making the sort of pose that Ellie would have made, but the ribbon was enough of a concession to that sort of thing for her. "Flitwick looked pleased."
"Flitwick looks pleased every time we manage not to cause a minor explosion," said Frank. "I hear you got a higher mark on your Potions essay than I did."
"You heard, did you?" said Alice as she slipped her books into her shoulder bag. "Don't you mean you peeked?"
"Heard, peeked, it's all the same in the end," he said. "I'll have you know I practically slept in the library when I was writing that one. I haven't any idea how you could have beat me."
"Oh you haven't, have you?" said Alice. "No one could ever possibly top you, is that it?"
"Oh, I know you can top me, I just haven't any idea how you did it this time. I poured my blood, sweat and tears into it."
"Not literally, I hope," she said, "or that might explain it right there. Or maybe I'm just better in Potions than you are."
"Perish the thought," said Frank, grinning at her. "Blow a cauldron up one time and everyone starts thinking it's your weak subject."
"I can't imagine how they could have come to that conclusion," she said, hoisting her bag up onto her shoulder and being careful not to dislodge the precarious ribbon. "Are you coming back to the common room?"
"I've promised to help Eoin with his Defence work," said Frank, looking up the corridor at where Eoin was, in fact, lingering against the wall and looking expectant. "But I'll see you later. Who knows, maybe the mermaids will sing for us again.
She could see that something was the matter with Arthur the moment she returned to the Gryffindor common room. Not that it would have been immediately clear to anyone else, but Alice had known him all her life and could see just by how he was sitting that something was on his mind.
"We've got one last warm day today," she told him, sitting down next to him and immediately pulling the ribbon from her hair. "We could go out by the lake for a walk, if you'd like."
Arthur just gave her a sad smile and pulled the ribbon from her hands where she was already fussing with it, winding it round her fingers. "And what's this about?" he said. "Trying something new?"
"I thought it might be a good idea, after everything we talked about," she said, sighing softly. In retrospect, it seemed more than a little bit silly, that after all their years of history something as slight as a ribbon would change anything. "I'm not even sure he noticed."
Arthur shook his head, and if he still looked a bit down, at least there was some amusement to go along with it. "What exactly are you trying to get him to notice?" he said. "He already notices you."
"I thought he might notice me differently."
"He already does that too, if you ask me," said Arthur. "It's not like those stories he tells, you know. Romance isn't like that, with the hearts and the flowers and the cauldrons of burning love. You're trying to make it more complicated than it is."
"It's not romance," she protested. The word seemed so flighty, so unlike the friendship she'd shared with Frank for the past six years. "It's just something new."
"Whatever you want to call it," he said, "it all amounts to the same thing in the end. About time, too."
"We've talked about this, you know," she said. "We decided in fourth year that neither one of us was ever going to become like those moonstruck witches we used to see, not if we wanted to make it into Auror training."
"And you didn't, did you?" he said. "Except for the ribbon, you don't seem the least bit moonstruck to me. I'd've known something was wrong if you were, not that something was right."
"At least I didn't take Ellie's advice," she said, "or you'd not have recognised me when I walked in the room." Even in the blush of first recognition, though, Alice had known that Ellie's advice wasn't for her. "Is everything all right, Arthur?"
She wouldn't have asked, but Arthur generally liked to take the piss out of her, and if there was ever a time to do it this was it. But he hadn't so much as glanced at the opportunity, much less jumped at it.
Arthur didn't generally talk about things, though, and true to form he just shrugged at her. "Molly's family is overcomplicating things," he said, which was his way of saying that they still didn't approve of him and were giving Molly a hard time about it. "Love itself is pretty straightforward. It's only when other people involve themselves that things get difficult."
It was certainly advice to bear in mind, even if she hadn't the practical experience to understand it entirely.
"You don't actually need to change anything at all," he said. "All you've got to do is say yes."
When Alice crept down the stairs to the common room she found, not Arthur, but Frank, sitting there in his favourite chair with a book open in his lap. He looked up and smiled at her when she approached, as if he'd been expecting it all along.
"Arthur's sneaked out to meet Molly," he told her. "He said he thought you might need some company tonight."
"I'd only thought to get something to drink," she said, though it was a clear untruth. Perhaps someone else might not have noticed, but Frank would, and did. "I'm worried about the Quidditch match," she amended. While it wasn't the whole truth, it was enough of one that it would do. "I don't like to lose."
"No, you really don't, do you," said Frank. "Do you want to get out of here?"
"I'm in my pyjamas," Alice pointed out. And while they were warm pyjamas, they wouldn't do to go wandering around in the crisp autumn weather.
"I've brought a cloak for you," said Frank, pulling it out from behind his chair and handing it over. "Just in case. I'm a little itchy to get out of here for a little while myself."
"Just so long as we don't get caught," said Alice, pinning the long cloak around herself without further protest. "I haven't got the time to serve detention right now."
"At least you can get a lot of revising done," said Frank, "depending on who catches you. Have you got your shoes?"
Alice searched for a moment, but finally just pulled out her wand and cast a quick summoning charm. She didn't ask where they were going, and found it didn't really matter to her. The garden, the pitch, the lake, any of it would be a welcome excursion
Frank did lead them out to the lake, the autumn wind whipping the surface into tiny waves.
"Hard to believe it's almost over, isn't it?" said Alice, as she sat down on the bank.
"Our time at Hogwarts?" said Frank. "Don't get ahead of yourself, we've still got the rest of this year and our NEWTs to finish first."
"Still, it's hard to believe all this time has passed already. I remember the day before I got on the train for the first time, how excited I was. It was all still ahead of me."
"It all still is," said Frank. "We'll finish school and get into Auror training and who knows what's going to happen after that. That's pretty exciting too. And who knows, you might get the Quidditch Cup yet."
"It'll take a miracle."
"There is such a thing," said Frank, picking up a pebble and tossing it into the lake. The ever-expanding ripples didn't call any of the lake's denizens to the surface; much like everyone in the castle, they were all fast asleep.
The silence between them was comfortable, as comfortable as it had always been, and everything really was the same, even with her newfound awareness. Alice and Frank were Alice and Frank, they way they'd always been.
"It's snowing," said Alice after a little while, holding out her hand palm up and looking up at the dark sky.
"It's about time," said Frank. "The sky's been threatening our first snow for a week. Are you warm enough?" He already had his wand out for a warming charm before she could even tell him that she was perfectly comfortable already.
"Thank you," she said instead, and sat nearly pressed up against his side.
"There's a rock on the coast where my Uncle lives that looks just like a young girl," said Frank, stretching his legs out in front of himself and leaning back on his hands. "They say that many years ago she froze in place, right there, and over time her body slowly turned to stone."
Alice could imagine him with a half dozen children at his knee, telling these same stories to wide-eyed, eager faces. Frank was going to be an amazing father one day, and that might have been an even more important thing than being an amazing Auror.
"You're the best friend I ever had," she said, and tucked her arm into his.
"Do you know that missing stone in Ravenclaw Tower?" said Frank, leaning against the wall outside the Great Hall. "The one right near the base; you nearly can't see it through the shrubbery."
"The one that was hexed during the Triwizard Tournament of 1862," said Alice. "Of course I know it. Everyone knows it."
"Aha," said Frank, "but do you know how it really vanished?"
Alice fastened the clasp of her cloak and smiled at him. "Something tells me I'm about to hear all about it."
"The year is right," said Frank, taking her sleeve and leading her outdoors onto the Hogwarts grounds, "but it wasn't the Triwizard Tournament. That was just a convenient coincidence."
"And I suppose you're the only one who knows this?"
"I have read through half the library," said Frank, "or so Arthur seems to think. No, it wasn't the tournament, it was a lovers' quarrel between John Hawthorne and his lady love, Anna Oldham."
Lady love, indeed. "A quarrel gone so badly wrong that they hexed a piece of the foundation of Hogwarts right out of existence?"
"Just the opposite," said Frank, quickening his steps. "The missing stone was apurpose, a sign of good faith and undying love. In the midst of his desperation at their senseless quarrel, John created his own secret hiding place in the castle, like the Founders before him, right at the spot where he and Anna first met. Right where he knew she still went nearly every day. And inside of it he placed a token of his love for her."
He stopped speaking right when Alice was getting into his tale. "And then?" she said.
"The last page had been torn from the book," said Frank, grabbing her hand and giving her a little spin, and only when she came to a stop again did she realise they'd walked round the castle while he'd been talking and now stood direction in front of the missing stone in question. "There's a legend now, that if you love and are loved, purely and completely, you can reach inside and discover what he left for her."
Alice didn't answer, nor did she made any movement towards the wall. Instead she just grabbed hold of his shirt and pulled him close and kissed him square on the lips.
It was ridiculous, it was all so ridiculous, that they hadn't done this already, on that day outside Quidditch practice, on the train to Hogwarts, in fifth year in the restricted section, in first year right there on the boat... it was a moment they'd been moving towards from the day they met.
"Alice," he breathed, and she knew that he had been waiting, he'd been waiting for her, for just as long and with a lot more awareness of where they'd been going all along.
"Come on," she said, only after letting their kiss linger for oh, so long a time. It was everything a first kiss should have been, satisfying in and of itself and still a prelude to something more. To everything to come. "I'll not give Ravenclaw the satisfaction of seeing us."
He hadn't expected that, she could see it on his face, but Alice had never been so sure of anything.
"No one's got Quidditch today," she said. "They'll not be using the shed at all."
The shed in question was well within their grasp, just a short sprint away and hidden from the rest of the castle. Frank took her hand and wasted no time getting her there, and if anyone saw their flight across the grass they never mentioned it to them, that day or ever after.
"I wrote you a letter," Frank told her as he shut the door behind them and pressed his soft lips to her throat. "I told you everything."
"You what?" said Alice, breathless from the run and the anticipation and feeling a hot flush begin to creep up her body. "A letter?"
"I told you everything," said Frank again, slowly drawing her robes open. "I told you I wanted this."
Alice let him do that and more, trusting his sure hands and knowing that Frank wouldn't ever do this if he wasn't as certain as she was. It felt both exciting and inevitable.
"And you didn't give it to me?" she said, drawing off his robes as well, stripping down his layers of clothing till he was nearly bare.
"It was in the hole in the castle," he said, running wondering hands down her body, slowly, as if seeing her again for the first time. "You were meant to reach inside."
At that Alice couldn't help but kiss him again, for it was the sweetest, most romantic gesture she could imagine. Arthur had been right that this didn't have to be complicated, but wrong that it wasn't just as romantic as any story he'd ever told.
"Are you sure about this, Alice?" said Frank, his hands skimming over her breasts, handling them gently.
"I've always been sure," she said, stripping off her underpants and leaving herself completely open to him, completely trusting and utterly and completely in love with him.
He took her at her word, and his hands did not restrain themselves to any particular place, moving over her chest, her belly, her arms, and finally between her legs. Alice remained passive as he began, but as she grew warmer, as she grew more confident, she reached out and explored him as well. It as a Frank she'd never seen, not entirely, laid out as naked before her as she was for him. And she wanted to know all of it.
"I want to do this slow," said Frank, mouthing her neck, his lips close to her ear, "but I don't know if I can."
"I don't know if I can let you," said Alice. "I didn't know I was waiting for this, but I was, and I don't want to wait anymore."
She was wet and he was hard, and she let her fingers trail down his length, base to tip, learning him as he shook and moaned under her touch. As he gave her an equally thorough exploration, his fingers slipping over her and then into her, drawing out again and moving in ways that she'd only ever done to herself.
"I've always wanted to you," he said finally, and moved his hands around to the back of her hard thighs to lift her up against the wall, to slip into her as easily as if they'd been doing it forever.
They couldn't do it slow, they couldn't, and once he was inside her, holding her up with her legs wrapped round his back, they began moving together immediately. Alice reached up to grab hold of what she could, an empty broom rack, and closed her eyes as he moved inside her and rubbed against her, and if it was this good the first time she couldn't even imagine how good it was going to get.
"Alice, oh Alice," he said, moving harder and faster and she gasped as her orgasm came suddenly, more suddenly than it ever came when she was alone. He kissed her until she was breathless when he pulled away again, pushing into her hard and erratic until finally he too gasped and came to a sudden stop and pressed his forehead hard against her sweat-slick shoulder.
They stayed like that, just breathing, for so long Alice's legs began to ache, then finally he moved to let her down again, pulling only so far away that they were two separate people again and not so far that he couldn't touch her, just as wonderingly as when they first began.
"I've loved you for so long," he said, finally letting his hands come to rest at her hips.
"I know," she said, pushing her messy hair back and kissing him softly one more time. "I have too."
And then they were quiet again, touching and breathing and cooling themselves to the point where they might, at some point, be able to emerge from the shed again. Quiet, that is, until Frank leaned in and whispered one last thing in her ear.
"This is going to be quite some story one day."