As Ginny Weasley watched the Derbyshire hills roll greenly past, she mused that her fifth year wasn’t starting out at all as she’d hoped. A flurry of giggles announced Romilda Vane and her nasty crew as they flitted by on their way to the next carriage. With a grunt, Ginny pressed herself against the glass. For once, she was happy to be ignored.
Her reunion with Dean had gone more or less according to plan: a good, long snog, and some giggles of her own. Comparing a cold and foggy summer in the country to a cold and foggy summer in the city. But then Seamus had come in, along with Lavender, Parvati, and Padma, and all any of them had wanted to talk about—even Dean—was what had happened at the Department of Mysteries, and had Harry really fought You-Know-Who, and had they really escaped from over a hundred Death Eaters?
And as the questions went on and on, and as she’d tried politely—her mum would have been so proud—to change the subject, to let them know that, really, she didn’t want to talk about it, no one took the hint, not even when she began to ask Dean about West Ham’s chances in the up-coming season. When Padma started to talk about the death of Susan Bones’s aunt, speculating that perhaps the raid had been led by Sirius Black, You-Know-Who’s lieutenant, to murder somebody important at the Ministry—perhaps Madam Bones—Ginny’s stomach lurched, and she excused herself quickly. Dean had asked if she was all right, but when she shrugged, he turned right back to the conversation.
She needed to work some things out with Dean, that was clear.
This summer had been—for all of the misery of the end of her fourth year—quite lovely. True, the weather had been dreadful. True, Phlegm had invaded, disapproving of everything that Ginny did, sneering at everything that Ginny loved about her home and her family, and—most unpardonably—stealing Bill away. True, Ron’s and Hermione’s mutual stupidity had grown past the entertaining phase and into the really irritating.
But Dean’s letters and his drawings, his stories about his family and the goings-on in Hammersmith—it had kept her happy and sane for two solid months. When she’d hinted this summer that she didn’t really want to talk about the events at the Ministry, he’d been quick to pick up on it. What was his problem now?
Probably the others’ excitement, Ginny supposed. Made sense. And she didn’t blame them. The raid had been front-page news for weeks in both the Daily Prophet and The Quibbler, pushing even Fudge’s resignation below the fold. Still...
It would be nice to be back at the Burrow, Ginny thought, watching a farm flash by. Perhaps the only boyfriends she was really capable of having were those who were a hundred miles away. It had been so lovely and simple this summer.
And Harry had come. And that had been...
Harry’s face when I told him I was going to sit with Dean: as if someone had taken his new puppy away from him. What...?
Was he sitting alone? Perhaps she could... But no—he was a big boy. And Hermione and Ron wouldn’t be patrolling the whole ride up. Maybe he was sitting with Romilda and her gang. Ginny smiled, knowing how Harry would hate their squealing and their primping and their constant establishment of their little internal pecking order. It drove Ginny around the twist; she could well imagine how it would infuriate Harry.
Oh, Harry. Such a good bloke. Such a good friend. Too bad he was an utter dunce when it came to girls.
The door at the front end of the carriage opened, a blast of sound momentarily filling the corridor. Ginny didn’t bother to look up.
“Uh, no. Not a Virginia, actually. Ginny.” The boy stood there, his face set in an odd, puzzled sneer. “So,” Ginny said, sure she didn’t want to hear what he was considering saying, “how was your summer?”
“Not as eventful as yours, from what I hear.”
Oh, Merlin, Ginny thought. Here we go again. “Look...”
“So what really happened in June?” Smith’s pale eyes glittered intently. “You can’t believe what you read.”
“No, you can’t,” Ginny said, turning back to the window as dismissively as she could manage.
“Well, of course, I knew that whole thing about you, Loony Lovegood and Loser Longbottom actually going at it with a bunch of Death Eaters was utter nonsense. I mean, really, it’s not as if any of us were really trained last year, and—nothing personal—but aside from Dennis Creevey, I can’t imagine any of the D.A. I’d have less wanted to take along to fight a bunch of Dark wizards.”
Harry, yelling at me that I shouldn’t come. Ron’s face when the brains latched onto his arm. The agony and terror of trying to outrun Nott on a broken ankle. Bellatrix Lestrange’s insane laughter. Hermione looking pale and dead. Neville, chin set. Luna, fierce. Harry...
Poor Harry. When he realized he had led them all into a trap, Ginny had almost thrown her arms around him. Of course, it would have been a rather stupid thing to do. “Look, Smith, I really don’t want to talk about it, all right?”
He nodded, as if his suspicions had been confirmed. “Of course, of course you wouldn’t.”
Ginny hoped that he’d simply wander on to wherever it was that he’d been going before. Instead, he stood next to her, staring out at the countryside. Ginny considered leaving, and then, obstinately, decided to stay. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.
Are we in Nottinghamshire yet? Luna would know...
“You know,” Smith said after a silent minute, “I think the whole thing was cooked up by Fudge’s rivals—Dumbledore’s faction. They’d wanted to discredit the old boy—well, everyone always thinks the worst of a Hufflepuff, no matter how well they’re managing. So they hatched this wild story of Death Eaters at the Ministry and the Chosen One and Dumbledore’s Army riding to the rescue. Of course, we know just how impossible a tale like that really could be.”
Floating through the planets, curses flying past. Unable to walk, certain that I’d failed, that my brother was dead, that I’d failed to do for Harry what he had done so willingly for me, watching the red light of the Stunner flashing towards me....
“You know, this whole thing is ridiculous,” Smith droned on, “the Chosen One, the Boy Who Lived. What’s so bloody special about Potter, after all? I mean, what did we learn? I got an A on my Defense OWLs, but come on, I could have done that in my sleep. Really, it’s all about Dumbledore and his Muggle-born rights crowd. They’re making it seem as if all pro-Purity wizards are part of that lunatic fringe with the Death Eaters. It’s just silly. I mean, You-Know-Who and his lot are dangerous enough, but it’s not as if they’re a real threat to the government. Dumbledore’s just trying to grab power, of course. Look at the way he tussled with Umbridge. Undignified.”
Ginny’s stomach was lurching again, and she could feel her face reddening. “Look, Smith, really—”
“I knew those meetings would be a total waste of time, but Susan and Hannah would want to go—the girls get so silly about politics, and they’re all gaga over Potter anyway. I mean, anyone could see that he was mostly smoke and mirrors, that he didn’t really know that much more, or any more, really—”
“Smith—” Ginny’s fists were beginning to clench.
“Zabini and I were talking about it the other day, and we both decided that this absurd power play between Potter and his gang of Muggle-born lovers and Malfoy’s radical pro-Purity people has to end, that we need to find pure-blood wizards and witches who can appreciate just what’s going on and not get caught up in all of this bloody posturing. Ernie is such a prat of course, Dumbledore’s man through and through, and Justin, of course, being a Muggle-born himself—”
“SMITH. STOP.” Ginny’s fingers had inched towards her wand, in spite of her attempts to stay calm. “How the bloody hell did you ever become a Hufflepuff? I thought you were all supposed to be loyal and thoughtful—”
Staring down at Ginny with laughable hauteur—having Phlegm around had been helpful for Ginny’s vocabulary—Zacharias Smith spoke with acid clarity. “I am in Hufflepuff,” he said, “because I am Hufflepuff. I am Helga’s direct descendent. Who belongs in her house if not her heir?”
Closing her eyes so that the berk couldn’t see them roll, Ginny took a deep breath. “How nice for you,” she muttered finally. Loyalty. Harry and Neville and Luna stepping in front of me when that mad Lestrange bint threatened me with the Cruciatus... “And you’re running this by me, why?”
“Ah,” Smith said, and suddenly he sounded like nothing more than a sixteen-year-old boy. “Well, Blaise—that is, Zabini and I were talking about things, about ways to promote pure-blood unity, you see, and we both decided... That is, you’re quite a fine example of what we stand for, you see. Old family, excellent connections, if not the wealthiest, terrific with a wand, good student, and certainly not hard on the eyes... And I, erm...” He gulped.
“Smith,” Ginny said, biting her cheeks, “are you asking me to join your group, or are you asking me to be your girlfriend?”
Color flooded back into the angular face and he looked back out the window. “Well, both, I suppose. I realize you’ve had some rather unfortunate associations, but really, I’m quite willing to overlook that.”
“Really?” Again, Ginny’s stomach clenched—in anger, this time. “How kind of you.”
Smith waved his hand negligently—noblesse oblige. “Of course, all of that rather laughable pottering after Potter was just your youth, and Michael Corner, well, we know how convincing someone of his extraction—”
“I’ve got a boyfriend, Smith. One I’m very happy with.” So shove off.
“Really?” The nose tipped up dubiously, sniffing. “Who?”
“Dean Thomas, not that it’s any of your business.”
Ginny had never seen Zacharias Smith laugh; his expression rarely shifted away from annoyance or boredom, but now he flopped his head back and brayed. “THOMAS? Oh, Merlin, Virginia, you really are wonderfully unpretentious.”
“Look, you berk,” Ginny growled, knowing that yelling at him was the least dangerous of the things she wanted to do to Smith just now, “he’s three times the wizard you are. I’m—”
Smith’s eyes contracted and his face took on a predatory grin. “Yes, well, I suppose I know why a pure-blood girl like you would be interested in a Muggle-born like Thomas.” He leaned close to Ginny; she could smell the Bay Rum on his cheeks. “What if I promised you that you’d hardly be disappointed with my endow—”
Ginny’s wand was out and the curse had left her lips before she even had time to register what he was saying. Some part of her knew what was coming and spared the rest by snapping. Green, flapping shapes ejected themselves from Smith’s nose and beat at his face; he loosed a high, shrill scream. Just like Malfoy.
The compartment door behind Ginny opened, and she whirled around, ready to defend herself. Instead of Malfoy and his cronies, however, or even Smith’s friends, whoever they might be, Ginny was confronted with the figure of a rotund, velvet-waistcoated wizard with an enormous, gray, walrus moustache. “Marvelous! Simply marvelous! That, my dear, is the very best Bat-Bogey Hex I’ve seen performed in decades. Wonderful! Red hair—you wouldn’t be an Evans, would you?”
“Uh, no,” Ginny mumbled, thinking the last thing she wanted was for this madman to know her name. “Sir, I should really—”
“Not related to Harry Potter, then?” He pouted, but took Ginny’s arm in a soft but surprisingly firm grip and yanked her into his compartment, leaving Smith squealing in the corridor.
“No, uh, no, just—”
The wizard cast a quick finite on Smith, whose eyes sprang wide in shock and shame before he ran off; another flick of the chubby man’s wand, and the compartment door slid shut. “I suppose that was one of old Hebzibah Smith’s great-nephews. Thin blood, thin... Now, let’s see,” the wizard mused amiably, “aside from one lovely Muggle-born I once taught, most of the redheads of your hue that I’ve come across in our world have been Weaselys or Prewetts. Are you one of those families?”
“Yes,” came a smooth, bored voice from further back in the compartment, “that’s the youngest Weasley. Ginevra.”
No one knew her name. Ginny stared back into the corner of the compartment; it was Blaise Zabini. “Uh, yeah,” she said, her eyes still on Zabini, on his dark skin and high cheeks. “Yeah. Ginny, though.”
“Well, Ginny,” the older gent burbled, “what a pleasure to see such excellent wand work in such a young pupil! Are you—what, it’s been a few years since I’ve taught, you’ll have to forgive me—perhaps a third year?”
Ginny bit down on her rage—she still hadn’t calmed herself from Smith’s assault.
“No,” Zabini offered, his voice still bored, though his eyes were locked on her. “She’s a fifth year. Gryffindor,” he added with a sneer.
“Are you now!’ the old wizard laughed amiably. “My, my, you must forgive me, as I said it has been a while. Ginny Weasley, then. Father would be Arthur Weasley, yes?”
“Yes, and Molly Prewett, I remember, really such a shame—not that your father isn’t quite a lovely man, my dear, of course, but she quite excelled in my lessons, and the Prewetts were of the first rank. However, omnia vincit amor!” The man plopped a sweet into his mouth and offered Ginny one. When she shook her head, he gestured for her to take a seat beside him—beside McClaggen, the monstrous Irish git of a sixth-year—no, he’d be a seventh-year, now. “Please, Miss Weasley, sit. Most impressive. Did you see that, Belby?”
A weedy looking boy next to Zabini stared at Ginny as if she were a Thestral. He nodded tremulously.
“Well, my dear,” the old tub said, “it truly is a pleasure, truly. I taught your mother. Your father too, of course, but your mother was most promising. Such a shame... Well, omnia vincit... I am Professor Slughorn. Perhaps they’ve told you something about me?”
From the smug expression on his overstuffed face, he clearly expected her to say yes. So she did.
“Of course, of course! Well, Dumbledore needed a teacher so I shall be filling in again this year. Marvelous hex, my dear!” He plopped down beside her, squishing her against the enormous McClaggen. Across the compartment, Zabini continued to stare at her. Slughorn continued, “Well, my dear, I am so glad that you will be joining our little group! A girl of talent like yourself—and you’ve had some exploits, if I remember, yes? Well, one certainly must get to know such people better, eh, Belby?”
The weedy boy smiled uncertainly—a grimace—and the compartment lapsed into a momentary silence, the sound of the rails beating a tattoo beneath them.
It was broken when the compartment door slid open. At first, Ginny was afraid it was Smith, coming to accuse her, but...
No. It was worse.
It was Neville.
And Harry. Looking as if she’d stolen his puppy.
Yes. Ginny’s fifth year definitely wasn’t starting off as she’d hoped.