Ginny jerked her head up in surprise. She was sitting in the Great Hall on her own. While most students liked to catch up on each other's holidays on the first day of term, she preferred to be alone, now that Harry was gone. Of course, her comfortable silence had to be disrupted by one of Hogwarts' most talkative people (the portraits included!) - standing in front of her was Lavender Brown, looking unusually forlorn.
"Oh. No, not at all."
An awkward silence followed once Lavender sat down on the hard bench. Strange, Ginny thought. I've never really spoken to her before. Why would she want to sit here?
It wasn't like she had nowhere else to go; Ginny saw Seamus looking at Lavender's back for a second before shrugging and turning away. Ginny'd never had any kind of friendship with Lavender. Not in the mood for conversation, she dug into her food - she could eat like Ron if she wanted to - and pondered what she knew about Lavender.
To be honest, very little.
Lavender was in Harry's year and had made herself well known throughout Hogwarts during several tantrums, all of which had concerned Ron The Hypocrite, her ex-boyfriend. And of course, she was never to be seen without Parvati Patil, with whom she liked to watch boys, giggling hysterically, or to exchange the latest horoscope.
No, definitely not Ginny's first choice as a friend.
"You know, if you say this brilliant incantation, Deleo Crassi Saturati, all the saturated fat turns into low-fat margarine," Lavender broke the silence. "I always find that Hogwarts food is much too greasy, don't you- "
Lavender was chattering on, apparently warming to the subject. Lavender and Parvati were always obsessed with diets. They would love Fleur. Ah well, Bill wasn't about to share. Ginny had reluctantly accepted their marriage over the summer; as if she had a choice now that even Mum was on Fleur's side. The wedding had been rather nice, in the end.
But then Harry -
She didn't want to think about that right now. She'd even prefer listening to Lavender. Putting on a vaguely interested expression, she turned back to her.
"- so, Parvati's cousin, Jasmine, sweet girl, by the way, told her about it. Actually she got it from Binada Binns, professional stylist, you know. I wonder if she's related to Professor Binns. He could do with some styling, but does that work for ghosts? I suppose they're stuck with their shape. Anyway, Binada's husband was thrilled when she did it for several weeks. It's so much better than all the dieting tips from Witch Weekly. Especially for problem areas like the bum." She paused to find Ginny staring at her, bemused.
"Not that you need it, if course," she added hastily, misreading her silence. "You have a perfect figure. Parvati and I -"
This was even harder than listening to Hermione when she was advertising S.P.E.W. What was Lavender talking about - food, professors, stylists, newspapers, and "problem areas?" Deciding to put a stop to it, she interrupted Lavender.
"Yes, I know. You two always exchanged tips during meals."
This seemed to cut Lavender short. But no, there she went again.
"So, have you heard from Ron and Harry lately? And Hermione? I mean, you must have seen them over sum-"
"Yeah. But no, I haven't. Sorry to disappoint you."
Ginny could feel anger building up inside her. So that was why she had come. Did she just want to be the first to hear some news and spread some new gossip? Struggling to keep her expression neutral, she turned away from Lavender. It wouldn't do to have an argument - she would only be the centre of attention. And if there was one thing she did not want, it was the entire Great Hall questioning her about Harry's activities. As if she knew what the others were doing, anyway - apart from staying as far away from her as possible.
Shutting away any memories of summer, she stared at her plate. But the pumpkin stew didn't look appealing anymore, now that Ron and Harry occupied her mind.
Trying to control her anger, she stabbed viciously at a piece of meat. Trust Lavender to bring back everything she wanted to forget. It had been difficult enough to compose herself after Dumbledore's funeral in June so that no one would notice what was wrong. Now, one month after their departure, her self-control was wearing down.
She had known all along that they would be leaving. Even on the train ride back home, she had known that the threesome was closer than before, hiding a secret. Harry had been staring back at Hogwarts as if he wanted to memorize every tiniest turret of its silhouette. Hermione had been watching him worriedly. Trying to break the heavy atmosphere, Ron had told Ginny all the useful secrets they had ever found out about the castle. That had finally given the game away - Ron usually kept everything to himself. Only the knowledge of not returning would make him loosen up.
A small smile tugged at her lips at that particular memory. With a start she noticed she must have been staring at her plate for about a minute with a vacant expression. No wonder Lavender was looking at her anxiously. She seemed to sense something was wrong, and tried to amend whatever mistake she had made.
"I didn't mean to interfere. But Ron and I were quite close, after all, though we didn't end it on best terms. I did think about how I behaved over summer, you know. Witch Weekly was right. They said about relationships between school friends, like Harry and you, that it's..." Lavender blushed and paused. "I should just shut up, shouldn't I? I suppose you don't want to hear about your brother's love life ... or have me discuss your own. I've never been able to be quiet when I wanted to. But, Ron and I ... See, even now ... Oh, hell..."
Ginny picked at her food, silently congratulating Lavender on doing something sensible and stopping at last.
"Harry and you - I just realized," Lavender started again. "Harry and you ... You must really be missing him."
"You know, he was different before the summer holidays. Before Dumbledore's death."
"Parvati and I always thought you two were perfect for each other..." Lavender sighed. "We used to do Romantic Rummy. Look into the future of Hogwarts couples, you know. You and Harry were so cute together."
Ginny's plate looked like battlefield.
"Dear Professor Trelawney didn't seem to agree - her Eye detected the King of Spades casting an eye on the Knave... How right she was."
Ginny couldn't help thinking that if Trelawney didn't see a future for her and Harry, well then... Her own hopes did a somersault. Harry will come back ...
Finally, Lavender drifted off into silence, gobbling up her mashed potatoes, all thoughts of dieting forgotten.
Suddenly realizing what she was doing, Lavender determinedly lay down her fork. For want of anything to do, she inspected her nails, which were painted an interesting shade of purple.
Ginny observed her in silence. Lavender's mouth was twitching ever so slightly and she seemed pale - surely not because of an excessive diet?
Maybe she and Parvati were trying out a new one.
But where was Parvati?
"She's not here any more." - Oh God, had she spoken out loud? - "After Dumbledore died, her parents took her and Padma away. They had wanted to last year, and now..."
Only then did Ginny realize that Lavender was simply lonely. No wonder - she must be one of the very few Gryffindor seventh years left. Of course she wanted to know about Ron, Harry and Hermione; it was not just for the sake of gossiping with Parvati.
Among those left, Neville was probably not cool enough for Lavender. Shame on her. Then there was Dean, the annoying git... Ginny wouldn't blame anyone for avoiding his company. But Seamus was nice enough. Hadn't he and Lavender gone to the Yule ball together, some years back? That hadn't worked out, apparently. Though today she had caught him looking over at them several times now... God, I'm starting to think about gossip, too.
So Lavender was the only girl left. Abruptly, Ginny realized she felt sorry for her. As the youngest child in her family, she knew what it felt like to be alone. When she was ten, she had even tried to run after the Hogwarts Express, willing it to take her along. Harry had told her later that he had always remembered her as that little girl, until...
Not even Lavender deserved to be left behind, alone. Feeling she should give her a chance, Ginny attempted to restart the conversation.
"So, what have you been doing during summer?"
"Nothing much," came the glum reply. "Witch Weekly seems to have gone down the drain, lately. They're mostly printing articles on security nowadays. Would you believe it? When I buy a paper I want to read about the latest hairdressing spells, at least! And the radio has cancelled my favourite show, "Broken Hearts," for an old bore interviewing ministry officials.
"So I kept thinking about last year. And about Ron... Does he ever talk about me?"
You wouldn't want to know. Won-Won is glad to be rid of you, Ginny thought, yet she said, "Well... no, not really."
"I thought so." She paused, but then continued: "I suppose he and Hermione are together, now? She used to be terribly jealous."
"The last time I saw them, they - " Ginny broke off.
"You haven't seen for a long time, then? So they really are gone," Lavender said shrewdly. "There was news about the 'Chosen One departing for new adventures.' I suppose you can't talk about it. Strange, isn't it, to be left behind? Now I understand why Parvati was annoyed when I was with Ron. It is lonely."
She looked over at where she used to sit last year with her best friend.
"Everyone is leaving. Even the teachers are fewer now. Did you hear they're reducing the number of subjects taught at Hogwarts this year? History of Magic will have to go. There was even talk of abandoning Divination! Scandalous."
"You're still doing it then? I never chose it, took Arithmancy instead. Harry used to say it's all waste of time."
"He didn't have the Eye, as Trelawney rightly said. But, the great ones often cannot do Divination... Firenze said something about the difference between making a prediction and having a vision. Between Seeing the future and wanting to shape it, you know... He himself rather fancied observing events, not acting. Though I suppose Harry'd rather change them."
Ginny was surprised at this flash of insight coming from Lavender.
"What else did he say?"
Lavender looked at her. "He said that you could never be sure of what is coming. And that you have to keep hoping for better times."
She paused, shaking herself slightly.
"Anyway, I must be going. Muggle Studies."
Lavender stood up, looking around as if she was waiting for someone to appear behind her.
They should form a companionship of left-behinds, Ginny thought. C.O.L.B sounded rather good, didn't it? Hermione would love it.
Lavender wasn't a bad person, if she wasn't talking about horoscopes and diets.