Her head resting lightly against the window, Ginny gazed out at the streaming landscape.
The low hum and soft rhythmic jolt of Hogwarts Express was causing her eyes to droop.
Her return to school at the end of the summer was a bittersweet one. While Ginny was thrilled to be able to see Neville and Luna again, not to mention her professors, she worried about leaving The Burrow. The spoiled Quidditch game with Harry aside, it felt like this last summer was the calm before a particularly vicious storm. She couldn't quite finger where she got the notion, but past events lent credence to her hunch that most bad things tended to happen during the school year.
Upon arriving at Hogwarts and receiving her time-table, she felt her fears had been confirmed.
Despite the fact that she had six older brothers who had been through their O.W.L.s, Ginny found herself shocked by the number of classes she would have to take.
"Let's see the damage," Ron grinned good-naturedly and held out his hand.
She passed him the slip of paper in a slight daze.
He let out a low whistle.
Harry leaned forward, reading over his shoulder. "Wow…almost as bad as Hermione," he said, his words muffled by a mouth full of mashed potatoes.
At the sound of her name, the other girl raised her head from the book she was reading. "Don't listen to them, it wasn't that bad."
"Says the girl with eleven perfect O.W.L.s."
"It's not a far cry from your seven."
"Seven passes. Passing is a far cry from perfect."
"Well, it's nothing to scoff at, Ron."
"Compared to your performance, it is."
She sighed and returned to her book. "Fine, then."
Ron, however, was not to be outdone. "I scoff."
"Ron!" The attempt at sounding irritated failed miserably given the fact she was clearly trying not to laugh.
He nudged her playfully but she continued to ignore him, flipping the page of her book.
He did it again and her book moved a fraction of an inch.
She moved it back.
Wicked smile plastered on his face, he nudged her repeatedly until she could no longer read the bouncing pages. Instead of leaving altogether, she simply gave in and started nudging him back.
This activity escalated until the nudging turned to out and out shoving and Hermione almost fell off the edge of the Gryffindor table in laughter.
Ginny watched with detached amusement and Harry cast them an odd look before his green eyes met her own. He threw her a small half-smile, which she returned before looking back down at her time-table.
She had seen enough of the needless drama that erupted around teenage girls and boys to have long since vowed that she would never ever do anything to interfere with someone else's romance. It had kept her nose clean from many things, including the aforementioned display, which she viewed as a part of the ‘ongoing Ron and Hermione fiasco'.
Although, if she was being entirely honest, she would have to admit that she secretly hoped that fiasco would result in marriage as she had always wanted a sister and despite her occasional condescension, Hermione was her top choice.
Looking up, she felt her heart give a slight lurch as her eyes fell on the new arrival. Michael Corner grinned back at her. Despite the fact that they had long since broken up, he had still been her first boyfriend and she doubted she'd ever quite get over that.
"Michael! How was your summer?"
"Not bad," he shrugged affably. "Parents were a bit of a nightmare after all those Ministry warnings so I didn't get to go on that trip I was planning, but other than that, it was decent. Uneventful."
She grinned. "Same here. Sort of your standard, boring summer. Was a relief, actually." Ginny paused when she noticed that someone else at the table was all but staring at Michael.
"Hey, Harry." Michael nodded casually.
"Michael." He imitated the motion.
Ginny's eyes flickered from one to the other as they exchanged mindless pleasantries and she wondered what that was about.
Then it hit her.
Gripping her glass a bit harder than strictly necessary, Ginny took a long sip and tried to quell the dark feelings bubbling up.
Somehow, no matter how hard she tried, some aspect of her life ended up revolving around Cho Chang. First Harry was obsessed with her, now Michael was dating her. And, as much as she tried not to, there was a part of her that simply resented the hell out of it.
Glancing over at the Ravenclaw table, it wasn't difficult to locate the beautiful Asian girl. Soon Ginny found herself scrutinizing the back of her head and wondering, yet again, what all the fuss was about.
There was a time, when she was younger, that she wished she could actually be just like her. Luckily, that desire had quickly faded.
Clearly, Cho was beautiful and a very skillful Quidditch player, however, that fit the description of many girls at Hogwarts. As far as Ginny could tell, she wasn't a particularly good conversationalist and kept somewhat vapid company. As common knowledge dictated, she had a tendency to cry a lot but was nice in a perfectly non-descript way.
All in all, it simply made no sense. There was no substance behind the mystique. Yet, it seemed that any boy Ginny was attracted to automatically gravitated towards Cho.
Just as she had started to work out the means to conduct an experiment on the subject (locate cute boys, make a list, have them meet Cho, take notes on the subsequent drama) the sounds of shuffling broke her out of her stupor.
Ron was standing up, bag on his shoulder and leg half-slung over the bench. She turned to see that Harry and Hermione were already partway to the door, deep in conversation.
Michael had disappeared entirely.
Pushing back in her seat, she regarded her brother. "We're leaving?"
He avoided her eyes. "Well," he coughed, "Harry and Hermione and I wanted to discuss…stuff….with Hagrid and we wanted to be back before it got too dark…"
"Ah," she said softly. "Well then, I suppose I'll see you in the common room when you get back."
"Right! Right." He looked relieved and shot her a mildly apologetic smile before running off to catch up with is friends.
So. This was how it was going to be.
Aside from the fact that her lips were pursed into an unnaturally thin line, Ginny looked outwardly calm. Inside, her mind was reeling. She supposed it wouldn't be so bad what with them going into their exclusive Three Musketeers clique all over again-if only they hadn't been so different during the summer. She had got so used to going along with them that she had started to feel like an equal. The momentary hesitation she felt before following them on outings gradually disappeared when she realized she didn't need to be expressly asked to join.
So, her brother's not-so-subtle disinvite felt like a cold slap and made her feel like she was 11 years old all over again. As though she were some irritating fourth wheel tag-along. Goodness, this was a terrible start to the school year.
"Now, here's a pretty question…if Harry and Michael ever dueled for your affections, who do you suppose would win?"
Ginny didn't need to turn to look at the source of the dreamy voice. She couldn't ever claim to understand the way Luna Lovegood's mind worked, but having grown up with a father with the oddest predilection for Muggle objects, Ginny had become quite accustomed to eccentricities. There was something almost comforting about them.
Giving Luna's question serious thought, she sighed. "Cho Chang would, as I imagine she'd run off with the victor."
Luna nodded charitably at her. "Good answer."
"H-Hi all." Neville Longbottom took a seat on Ginny's other side, fiddling with a spot where his robes were caught on his shirt button.
So, the scene was now complete. She felt a surge of anger. Two separate but decidedly unequal threesomes.
Neville tugged on his robes so hard that the button flew clear off. Luna went to go retrieve it for him.
Ginny merely fumed. How dare her brother make her feel less worthy than his friends? Make ANY of them feel less worthy? She, Luna and Neville had fought as well as they could last year at the Ministry and they didn't deserve being relegated to second-class citizenship. Neville, especially. He had stuck with Harry right through the thick of the fighting when no one else was left to help and, had the Order not shown up when they did, she had no doubt that Neville would have died protecting him. Buggering bastards.
"I read that article you did in your father's magazine this summer, it was quite…well-written."
Ginny glanced at Neville and realized he wasn't addressing her.
"Why, thank you," Luna responded. "I didn't know you subscribed."
"Oh, I started after you all printed that expose on Harry."
"Understandable. That was our biggest seller."
"B-but your article was really grand," he continued enthusiastically, "and informative. I didn't know that Professor Umbridge was such a talented belly dancer…"
"It's a little known fact."
"You'd never think to look at her."
"She does hide it well."
"How do you go about researching something like that?"
They were all but leaning over her lap to speak with each other, so Ginny gently extracted herself and said something about needing to retrieve something from her room.
The rather gooey look Neville was giving Luna wasn't wasted on the youngest Weasley as she wandered off, rubbing her temples. A vicious headache was starting right behind her eyes and it seemed that her body was reacting in sympathy to her emotions.
Though she wasn't about to begrudge anyone else the happiness that had proved so elusive to herself, she still felt vexed by the thought of a relationship between her two friends. It seemed Ginny was rapidly becoming the group pariah and she wasn't quite sure what she'd done to deserve it. Perhaps her brothers had all used up the standard niches at Hogwarts and the only part left to play was that of social outcast. Despite herself, she smiled at the morbid thought. Such drama so early in the school year was truly unhealthy.
Crawling through the portrait hole that evening, after a predictably exhausting first day, she felt her spirits dashed again. There were several dozen students crowded around, chattering loudly. Her intention to curl up and enjoy the company of a good book by the fire didn't appear to be an option any more.
"Ginny!" Colin Creevey beckoned her over "Look at all this." He waved a cardboard box in the air, "Sample gift packages from Fred and George's new shop. Everyone got one."
Wondering how they had managed to bribe the house-elves into delivering them and reckoning that Dobby had probably played a hand in it, she started to join the group but stopped in her tracks when she heard a first year say, "Is that a chocolate?" just as someone else began screaming.
Torn for a moment between saving everyone a load of trouble by retrieving Madam Pomfrey herself versus simply hiding in her room until it was all over, Ginny chose the latter when another student started quacking.
She sprinted upstairs and shortly thereafter felt genuine relief as she slid under her bedcovers and sank into the soft mattress. Pulling her blanket firmly over her head, she reckoned that things would look infinitely better in the morning.
They just had to.
True to form, life did indeed improve and Ginny was soon immersed in her classes.
She found the practice of allowing older students access to newer equipment and some of the more esoteric restricted books incredibly appealing.
In a way, Hermione had been right. O.W.L.s really weren't that bad… yet.
On the social front, it turned out that she, Neville and Luna weren't completely forsaken by Harry, Hermione and Ron but it was still clear that there was a split in the group.
Their tendency to disappear together in a secretive huddle would set Ginny's teeth on edge, but she kept her mouth shut. She wasn't quite sure how to articulate her frustration, so an outburst wouldn't do her much good.
The other development (or non-development, as the case may be) was her realization that yes, Neville and Luna did really like one another. Unfortunately, his painful shyness coupled with her spacey demeanor meant that progress towards anything beyond the platonic was slow. Almost gut-wrenchingly slow.
Ginny couldn't count the number of times she felt as though she were watching a particularly annoying scene from a play in which the entire audience was in on the big secret, but the script called for the actors to continue stumbling around blindly in order to sort things through.
Rubbing her burning eyes, she reached for her quill.
By the looks of it, she only had a few more inches to go on her Potions essay. She was lying on her stomach on the floor of the Astronomy tower and had been for the past two hours. Her arms felt numb from leaning on them for support and, despite attempting to change position several times, her neck was throbbing.
She would need to find a way to conjure herself a more comfortable position next time. Normally, she wrote her essays in the library or the Gryffindor common room and only came to the tower for solitude, but Ginny had increasingly found herself drawn to the place.
Signing her name to the bottom of the parchment, she flipped onto her back, exhausted but happy to be done.
She had just started to drift into a light sleep when the soft sound of footsteps filled her ears.
Harry's voice sounded hushed and worried.
She opened an eye at him but otherwise didn't move. "Yes?"
"Sorry. Didn't mean to wake you. I came in and saw you on the floor and I thought that-I mean-I wasn't sure you were okay."
She knew what he had been about to say and stared at the ceiling for a few moments before responding. "It's all right. I'm sorry I scared you."
They never spoke about what happened in the Chamber of Secrets and this was the first time he'd come close to mentioning it. Aside from the occasional nightmare, Ginny had all but come to terms with the events of her first year. Her way of dealing had been to intellectualize the experience and file it away as useful information for later. Sharing with Dumbledore had also helped enormously. Where Harry was often reticent to speak with the headmaster, Ginny had leaned heavily on him and felt much more at peace for it.
Sometimes she felt like urging Harry to do the same, but stopped herself because the advice seemed a bit too intimate and their friendship too fragile.
The question was a rhetorical one so she merely tipped her head to look at him and smiled.
"Mind if I join you?"
"Not at all." Her voice reflected her surprise, but if he noticed, he chose not to acknowledge it. She hadn't the foggiest idea what he was doing there in the first place, especially because he hadn't brought any homework with him. She had simply assumed he would leave when he found her there.
In contrast to the grace he normally showed, Harry stumbled to the ground next to her with all the elegance of a falling cow.
The exhaustion radiated from him and deepened their mutual silence.
She could just see the sky from out the top of the window from her position on her back and the outline of his profile from where he sat cross-legged next to her.
She thought back to the end of the summer when they had lain out in the yard with Ron and Hermione, staring up at the sky and just enjoying the stillness of things.
Ron had proven to be a bit less comfortable with the quiet and had often filled it with mindless chatter, but Ginny loved those moments. She knew that Harry's brooding silence tended to drive his best friends insane, but for her, it meant she could spend time with him without any pressure to come up with something witty or interesting to say. As much as it pained her to admit it, she was still somewhat tongue-tied and self-conscious around The Boy Who Lived.
"Where were you this afternoon?"
She was startled when he broke the silence and somewhat confused by the question.
"Where should I have been?"
"Well, at Quidditch practice."
"Oh, that," she sighed. "Katie told me that since you'd been cleared for play, I was on the reserve list and could try out for an open position next week."
There was a pause.
"Well, that's unfair," he finally said.
"No, not really. They only chose me because you were unavailable."
"Yes, but you won us the Quidditch Cup last year. Fat lot of gratitude they're showing now."
She shrugged into the darkness, "I have enough trouble keeping up with O.W.L.s this year. I might not try out anyway."
"What?" He sounded shocked, "You have to try out! Alicia and Angelina are both gone, so we're down two Chasers. You've got the perfect build for that."
It was vaguely disconcerting that Harry noticed she had the perfect build for anything, but Ginny kept that particular thought to herself. "S'pose I'll think about it. Might be nice to have something to do instead of studying in the library all day."
"Ruddy right, it would," he responded cheerfully. "You know, I'm glad that you're talking to me nowadays."
She mulled over the statement briefly before venturing a response.
"Is there a reason why I shouldn't be?"
He chuckled. "No, I meant…you know…talking instead of…well, hiding."
He had noticed. Although she hadn't been sophisticated enough to take pains to hide her infatuation with him her first year, the subject was still a cause for discomfort.
"Oh. Okay," she managed weakly
"That came out stupid…sorry." He sounded embarrassed.
Desperate for a change of topic, she rushed over his apology. "No…it's…well, I'm glad you could spend part of the summer with us instead of with your horrible relatives."
At this, Harry let out a bark of laughter, making her jump.
"Wasn't all that bad, actually. More of an annoyance than anything else."
Ginny's brows knit in confusion, "But your cousin, Dudley…"
"Is completely terrified of me. He thinks I'll use magic on him. Fat sod couldn't catch up with me anyway, even if he did want to try something."
She could hear the smug edge to his voice and couldn't help but smile into the darkness. There was something decidedly intoxicating about Harry's recent roguish behavior and she felt herself respond to his words as warmth pooled in her stomach. Her physical reaction was perhaps the most disturbing shift in the way she regarded him. Before, the mere sight of him had her red for hours, stammering endlessly and tripping over herself. Her heart would flutter in her chest like an overactive hummingbird and she would feel nothing but that unpleasant, blushing heat.
Now, she found her responses less extreme, but no less intense. There was an almost lazy desire that licked at her when she observed him. When coupled with often her cool admiration of his Quidditch skills, she found herself left with thoughts she knew she shouldn't be having.
Perhaps her brothers were right, girls really did prefer the deviants. Then again, if that were true, it was only a matter of time before she would feel compelled to find Draco Malfoy and snog him senseless. Truth be told, Harry was simply starting to act like a typical 16-year-old boy and, as exasperating as that could be at times, it was normal. She reckoned that if anyone deserved some slack for being normal, it was him.
"So what brings you up here, anyway?"
At this, she heard him remove his glasses, setting them with a clatter next to her head. "Well, I just came back from practice with my ears ringing from Katie's screaming." He paused. "I thought Wood was a pain, but Katie is just barking mad. She's much worse than Angelina ever was. You should have heard her. In fact, I'm surprised you didn't hear her. Dogs in Galway must have heard her."
Ginny snorted. It was almost a relief that the twins had left Hogwarts as she had no doubt they would have simply egged her on. Speaking of deviancy, it was no wonder that her brothers all did so well with women. Except, perhaps, for Percy. But that was because he was a bookish prat. Ginny chalked up Ron's relative inexperience to his fixation on Hermione. Based on conversations in the washroom, she had rather nauseating, detailed information on what several Gryffindor girls wanted to do with her youngest brother.
"Anyway, the common room is just too bloody noisy. Hermione is on a rampage about something or another that Ron has done and Ron has taken over our dormitory room to complain about Hermione to Dean. Slytherins are camped out in the library and I suppose I just needed somewhere that I could hear my own thoughts."
"Well, if you want privacy, I could always leave…"
"No, it's all right. You were here first. Besides, you're the first person that I've come across all day that hasn't been unbearable."
"Ah. How gratifying to know that my efforts haven't gone to waste," she responded dryly.
"Oh…well, it's not that I don't enjoy your company, it's just that-"
"I'm teasing, Harry."
He could hear the smile in her voice and so stopped. Soon thereafter, the mood shifted back to silent contemplation.
Though curiosity gnawed at Ginny, she refused to spoil the moment by inquiring further after his day. She did not feel comfortable having lengthy conversations with him yet, nor did she feel fully honest in their budding friendship.
Fortunately, she also did not feel the weight of Harry's eyes, veiled from moonlight, as they regarded her carefully in the shadows.