Author's Notes: This story is set in Melkior's Meddle AU. You don't have to read Meddle to understand this one-shot, but it would probably help. I recommend it, regardless.
Thanks to Chreechree, Melkior, Jonathan Avery, Rhetor, and Sherylyn for lending their talents to this story. Thanks especially to Melkior for letting me play in his sandbox.
Every animal in the physical world is governed by two basic instincts. When faced with a threat, be it potential or real, the animal will either fight or flee. There are endless mixtures and variations of those two reactions, which an observer might label as many other things. Courage, caution, cowardice… these are all labels.
Nature does not care about labels. By nature and in nature, an animal will only fight or flee.
Yet there is something different about those creatures called 'sentient.' What is it? What quality allows them to transcend animal instincts and react in new and unpredictable ways? What lies at the core of ephemeral traits such as personality, wisdom, and optimism? What separates Man, the most sentient of creatures, from a common animal?
Ginny was not sure when she had fallen asleep.
That was okay. She usually did not remember falling asleep. One moment, she would be lying snug in her bed in the tiny room that was just hers. Her father would be sitting next to her bed reading her a story. His voice would be soft and deep and full of everything Ginny knew was good and wonderful and strong in the world. Then she would be asleep. She might dream or she might not, but she slept. When she woke up in the morning, she would feel energetic and happy. She would know that she had slept without wondering how she had come to be asleep.
This night was different. She still did not remember falling asleep, but she knew that she was not awake. If she were awake, she would be yawning and stretching and stumbling to the bathroom before breakfast. Instead, she stood in the middle of a meadow in her nightgown. Her mum would never allow her to stand in a meadow wearing her nightgown, even though Ginny often wanted to play in it all day. Her long, flowing nightgown was one of the so-very-few things that were just hers, and she loved it.
Ginny stood in the middle of a meadow, under a bright, warm sun, wearing her nightgown. She was dreaming.
She had dreamt before, of course. Castles and brooms and unicorns and hot cocoa and snowball fights and brothers who never told her she could not play with them. Those were dreams. Wonderful dreams, but she only remembered them after they were over. She had never felt awake in a dream before. She had never known that she could either walk through the meadow and smell the daisies growing nearby, or she could run the other way. She could pick a flower or leave it. She got to choose.
Ginny walked over and smelled the daises. They smelled just like real daisies, but no bugs crawled and buzzed amongst the blossoms. Better than real daisies, then, but not as good as daisies that Bill picked just for her and gave her in a big bundle. Nothing was better than those.
She looked around at the rest of the meadow. It was a very nice meadow with tall grass, warm sunlight, and a light breeze. Patches of flowers decorated the rolling grass, and tall trees guarded the distant edge. All it needed was a pond to be really perfect. Then there was a pond. It rippled cheerfully and sparkled in the sun a few yards from her feet.
Ginny was thrilled. She knew that the pond had not been there before, but it was absolutely wonderful now. Not only could she make her own choices in this dream, she could actually control what it looked like. She had never had such an incredible dream before, and she immediately wanted to have a lot more of them.
Nearby, a small holly tree rustled. Ginny thought there was probably a gnome hiding in the lower branches. Sometimes, she got to play with gnomes when her mother was not looking. She chased them and they chased her, but somehow none of them could ever catch each other. It was great fun. One day, when she was grown up, she would let the gnomes stay, and they would play together whenever she wanted.
Ginny walked around the tree to find out if the gnome wanted to chase her or if she should chase it. On the other side, however, there was another holly. She frowned at it and then walked around that one, too, but there was a third tree there. There had only been one before. How could there be so many of them now? She had not meant to change one tree into a whole cluster of them.
Her face set, Ginny leapt forward between two of the trees. She thought the pointed leaves would scratch her, but they did not. She only felt a gentle brush against her skin, and then she was standing in a clearing. It was surrounded by holly on all sides, just like it should have been, but it was a lot bigger than she expected. Ginny nodded. Magic could do that.
A movement on the other side of the clearing caught her eye. Looking closely, Ginny could see another person crouching beneath and amongst the branches of the largest tree. Ginny cocked her head and stepped closer. The branches rustled as the person backed further into the gloomy greenery.
Somehow the light changed, and the shadows vanished. It was a boy who was hiding in the tree, she could tell, even though the leaves hid most of his features. He was a little bigger than Ginny. Most people were bigger than her unless they were babies, but he did not look too much older than she was. He might have been five. If he said he was then she would say she was almost five. Almost five was just as good as really five.
Ginny tried to say hello, but she did not. She had no idea why, but she simply did not speak. She thought about it, and she tried it, but it did not happen. That was okay. She did not have to talk all the time. Instead, she raised her arm and waved at the boy.
He flinched. He looked like Fred had when Mum had caught him using Bill's wand. Fred never flinched when someone waved at him, though. Fred waved back. Ginny waved again, and he flinched again.
Ginny frowned. Why was the boy scared of her waving? She was not scary. She did not have cauliflower growing from her ears like Ron had last week. That had been a little scary. But she was not scary. She lowered her arms and frowned as she thought.
The chickens got scared when she waved, but she only waved because she wanted them to go away. If she did not wave, then they did not get scared and they did not run away. In fact, if she sat on the ground and was really still, they would ignore her and stand right next to her as they pecked seed up from the ground.
Resolved, Ginny walked forward to the middle of the clearing, a few yards from the boy. He pushed further back into the holly tree, but she ignored that. Instead, she sat cross-legged in the centre of the open area. The grass, which had been tall and speckled with flowers before, was now short and neat and soft.
The boy did not ignore her. Ginny could not see his eyes, but he was definitely facing her. She shrugged. If he was afraid of her, he could stay in the tree. She did not mind. She wanted him to come out, though.
In response to an idle thought, her kazoo appeared in her lap. Lifting the simple instrument to her lips, she sang wordlessly into it. The boy jumped, but when she did it again, he remained still. Encouraged, Ginny slowly sang out the tune of Jingle Bells. When she was done, she played it again. It was not as good as when her father sang at Christmas-time, but she liked it. It was obviously music, and she could hear the words clearly in her head.
While she played Jingle Bells for the fourth time, the boy cocked his head to one side. During the fifth time, he took a half-step forward and stood just inside the protective holly. Finally, when Ginny was playing Jingle Bells for the seventh time and getting bored with it, he stepped out of the tree completely.
Ginny's song faltered, and she gasped. The boy's interested look flashed to one of caution, but he did not go back into the tree.
It was him. The him. Ginny was sure of it. Who else had green eyes and black hair and a scar like lightening? He was wearing round glasses, which Ginny had never seen in any book, but perhaps he had just got them. Percy had just got glasses, too.
Harry Potter. She was dreaming about Harry Potter, and she had walked right up to him and played Jingle Bells.
Harry Potter had defeated You-Know-Who. The books said he had ridden dragons and fought trolls and swam across the whole ocean. Daddy said the books were not always right, and of course Ginny believed him. She knew that Harry Potter could do those things if he wanted to, though.
But what was wrong with him? He looked too small to fight a troll. He looked like a troll would swallow him in one bite. The book did not end like that.
He still stood in front of the tree, staring at her. His eyes had seemed so much brighter in the books, and his face looked sad. Sad and scared.
Ginny hated when people were scared. She hated being scared herself, and that made her feel bad for people when they were scared. Harry Potter should not be scared. He should be happy.
Ginny would cheer him up, she decided. She could do it for every single one of her brothers, and she bet she could do it for him, too. She wanted to be his friend anyway, and they could not become friends if he was sad or scared. Maybe if she made him happy, then they could fight the trolls together. And she had always wanted to ride on a dragon. Then maybe she could teach Charlie.
Ginny smiled. Most people smiled back when she did that, but Harry Potter did not. He blinked at her. Ginny tried to smile bigger, to make her smile take up her whole head like Bill said it could. Still he did not smile back, and her expression faded. She would have to try harder.
To help her think, Ginny pulled her hair over her shoulder and put the end of one long strand in her mouth. Her mother always told her not to chew on her hair, but her mother was not there. Besides, Ginny's hair had been in a messy ponytail when the dream began, and now it was loose and smooth and shiny. If her hair could change like that, she reckoned it could survive a bit of chewing.
Harry stopped blinking and cocked his head to one side as they watched each other. He looked like he was staring at her mouth, which was really strange, but then his gaze drifted to the rest of her hair where it hung in front of her, almost brushing the grass.
So that was it. He might not smile when she smiled, but he liked her hair. Most people did, and some people could not resist touching it. She did not usually mind. She rarely met people who were mean or unkind, so only nice people got close enough to touch her hair. They would pat her head or curl a lock around their finger, and then they would smile and keep right on talking to one of her parents.
Smiling again, Ginny gathered her hair together and held it out towards him. His face did not change at all, but his eyes followed her hair, and his right hand twitched. She nodded encouragingly, but he did not move.
Ginny stood up slowly, still holding her hair out to him. Offering her hair to someone felt quite odd, she thought, but at least he was not running from her. She walked forward a few steps and stopped just close enough for him to touch her hair if he wanted to.
Harry Potter blinked some more, staring at the red mass in her hand. He scowled, as though thinking hard. Then, slowly, his hand rose. He put out one finger and touched its tip to the end of her hair. Ginny did not move as he first prodded her hair and then petted the last few inches, still using only that one finger.
As he touched her hair, his expression faded. He no longer looked scared, and he was not quite so sad. He looked the way Charlie looked when he talked about a really good Quidditch match at Hogwarts. Not happy, exactly, because Charlie wanted to play, not just watch. Harry looked like he wanted something and could not quite find it.
Well, finding her hair was easy, Ginny decided. She moved her hand over his and let her hair slide out of her grip. It brushed the back of his hand and fell away at first, but he quickly turned his hand over and cupped his palm to catch the slithering strands. It was a game Ginny played sometimes, pouring her hair from hand to hand and enjoying the soft, sliding feeling of it on her skin.
Harry looked up at her as he held her hair, and his eyes were wider and brighter than they had been. Before he could look away, Ginny smiled her very best smile.
This time, finally, he smiled back. It was not a big smile. His lips curved up only at the corners. His eyes, however, almost glowed. Ginny had never seen someone with such green eyes, and now they were fixed on her and shining with something wonderful.
Ginny learned something in that moment. Harry was not a boy who spoke with his mouth or his face or his hands. Harry spoke with his eyes. His eyes said that he was not scared or sad, that he was as happy as he had ever been. She had made him as happy as he had ever been.
She felt shy, but she did not understand why. Still, she kept her back straight and held his gaze as she tugged her hair out of his grip. Taking a deep breath, which she hoped he could not see or hear, she reached out and put her hand in his upturned palm. Friends, she thought as loudly as she could.
His fingers tensed for a moment, but then they closed around her smaller hand and squeezed. She smiled more widely still, and his grin grew in response. His eyes said Friends.
What makes humans different? It is nothing more or less than curiosity.