Harry's stomach started rumbling when the clock showed half past twelve. Snape, who had not spoken at all since setting Harry his task, finally looked up at ten past one.
"I think that will do," he said coldly. "Mark the place you have reached. You will continue at ten o'clock next Saturday."
Harry stuffed a bent card into the box at random and hurried out of the door before Snape could change his mind, racing back up the stone steps, straining his ears to hear a sound from the pitch, but all was quiet... It was over, then...
He hesitated outside the crowded Great Hall, then ran up the marble staircase; whether Gryffindor had won or lost, the team usually celebrated or commiserated in their own common room.
"Quid agis?" he said tentatively to the Fat Lady, wondering what he would find inside.
Her expression was unreadable as she replied, "You'll see."
And she swung forwards.
Harry's heart sank before he could get a clear view of the common room. Winning the Quidditch Cup would have been celebrated by a loud, raucous party. But no such noise greeted him. When the door had completely opened, he stood at the doorway for a few minutes, not daring to step forward and draw attention to himself. As he scanned the room, he only saw expressions of misery. Everyone's eyes were cast downward as students clustered in small groups and conversed in low tones. Eventually, his eyes found Ron and Hermione, who sat next to each other in a somewhat secluded area in the back of the room.
Hermione happened to look up at that moment, her eyes widening when she saw that Harry had finally returned. Reluctantly, he took a few wary steps into the room. As more and more heads swivelled to look at him, he increased his pace until he reached his best friends. He sat down as casually as he could, hoping that Ron's tall frame would obscure him from most of the glares he was getting.
"How bad was it?" asked Hermione, trying to avoid the obvious bad news, although this morning's detention was not the best topic of conversation either.
"It could have been worse," he replied with a shrug. "He made me recopy old detention records — most of them belonging to my dad and Sirius." Harry shifted in his seat, trying to think of something else to talk about.
"Three hundred to two ninety," said Ron after a few moments, in response to the question Harry had not wanted to ask. "Ginny missed out on getting us the Cup by a fingertip." His voice was unmistakably despondent.
Harry turned towards the fireplace and exhaled depressively. "Damn."
"For a while, I really thought we had a chance," Ron continued, although his voice lacked its usual vigour when he was discussing Quidditch. "I think I blocked as many shots as I let through."
"One more than you let through," added Hermione, her voice sounding a bit weary.
Ron's cheeks reddened slightly, but he ploughed on. "The Chasers were fantastic, even without Ginny — and she was doing a great job too. She avoided the Bludgers really well, allowing our Beaters to focus on using them against the Ravenclaw Chasers. And she had to foil two chases for the Snitch before our lead was large enough for her to go after it herself."
"It sounds like you might not have needed me after all," replied Harry. "What happened?"
"I'm not really sure. Ginny obviously saw it first and used it to her advantage — her first dive was almost as steep as one of yours. But Cho's got a good broom, better than Ginny's anyway, and went straight after her. Ginny did a great job of keeping up with the Snitch as it tried to shake them, but the longer the chase went on, the more time Cho had to make up ground. Eventually, they both made a grab for it at the same time. It happened so fast, I couldn't tell who had the better angle on it, but..."
Harry frowned. Ron could not bring himself to say the words, which was probably better anyway. As had been happening all morning, even during detention, Harry's thoughts came back to Ginny. She was an amazing flyer, it was one of the things he admired about her, and if she hadn't caught the Snitch there was no guarantee that he would have been able to do it either. He wondered how many of their housemates recognised that fact.
Still, as much as he tried to rationalise the situation, he did feel guilty. If Gryffindor was going to lose the Cup, they should have at least been able to do so without having to wonder, "What if?" And if he was feeling this guilty, how was Ginny taking everything? Did she blame him, like many of the other Gryffindors obviously did? And if so, was her Weasley temper flaring up? Was she sulking? No. He had never known her to sulk, regardless of the circumstance. Whatever she was doing, he probably should not get involved.
"Where is she now?" Harry asked tentatively.
"Why do you want to know?" said Hermione with an arched brow.
"I thought... I just thought she might need some cheering up."
"From you?" she continued slyly.
"From anyone," Harry responded sharply.
"I dunno, mate," said Ron unexpectedly. "You know how we Weasleys can get sometimes. It probably wouldn't hurt to give her some time to cool off."
Harry nodded reluctantly. Even if she were here now, what would he say to her? He was contemplating asking Hermione to try to get her to come down anyway when a most unwelcome voice broke his concentration.
"That's right, Potter, go hide behind your friends."
"You have something to say, McLaggen?" responded Harry hotly, looking up to face the boorish Gryffindor.
"Not much of a captain, are you? Deserting your team when they needed you the most..."
"It's not like Harry wanted detention," said Ron, standing up. Hermione instinctively put a hand on his arm to try and calm him down, and he did not shrug it off. From the corner of his eye, Harry thought he saw Lavender Brown rushing up the staircase to the girls' dormitory.
"You would have done the same thing if someone tried to use one of the Unforgivable curses on you," said Hermione. "Although, I doubt you would have been as successful in defending yourself."
"Assuming that's what really happened," responded McLaggen with a smirk.
"What are you on about?" said Harry.
"Just that there never seem to be any witnesses when you have one of your little adventures. Are we supposed to just take your word for it that everything happened the way you say it did? Draco's up and about, but word is he'd still be in the hospital wing if Snape hadn't been there."
Harry paled at the reminder of the cause for his absence from the match. "Is he going to be all right?"
"From what I hear, he won't even get a scar — no thanks to you."
"I told you, it was an accident!"
"Why would he lie?" interrupted Ron, who was turning redder by the second.
"Are you kidding? Look at the attention he's always getting!"
"Trust me," said Ron evenly, recalling the first task of the Triwizard Tournament. "He doesn't want it."
"You would say that, being his best mate and all," said McLaggen dismissively. "It's not like he's denying anything right now, though, is he?"
Ron was about to issue another argument, but Harry stopped him.
"That's enough," he said in a firm voice, taking McLaggen's attention back from Ron. "If you want the fame that comes with being an orphan, you're welcome to it. Personally, I'm a little fed up with being targeted for death all the time. Maybe you'll take to it better."
The tall seventh-year finally shut his mouth, although his tight-lipped frown betrayed his desire to answer back.
"Right. Now, does anyone else have a problem with me missing the match?" Harry asked the room. "Now is the time to speak up."
If Harry thought the room was quiet when he first entered, the silence that settled on the common room at his words was suffocating. It was probably only half a minute, but it felt like a week, and no one moved a muscle. Harry had not spoken to a group of students so authoritatively since his time leading the D.A., but it was apparent that the skill was there when he needed it.
"I'll take that as a 'no.' I am sorry for missing the match. But from what I hear, our team made a game effort anyway. If you've got a problem with it, you can blame me, because I do as well. But you're not going to blame Ron, or any of the Chasers or the Beaters, and you bloody well better not blame Ginny Weasley."
Harry paused to give his words time to sink in.
"Are we all in agreement, then?" he said as he panned the room. Still no one dared speak a word.
"I'll take that as a 'yes.'" Harry turned around and sat back down, considering the matter closed.
An hour later, Hermione and Ron had retrieved their books and were working quietly on their Transfiguration homework. Despite Hermione's urging, Harry refused to get up from his seat. He continually stared at the staircase to the girls' dormitory, willing Ginny to come down. Even after being forced to relive the Marauders' most unsavoury moments and having to face his housemates for letting them down, her absence was perhaps the biggest disappointment of his day.
Ginny Weasley hated brooding, which was ironic because it was one of Harry's favourite pastimes. Ever since Harry had saved her in the Chamber of Secrets at the end of her first year, she had been making a conscious effort to be a woman of action, rather than a bystander. But this morning's match had put a temporary damper on that ambition.
As she stared at the ceiling of her four-poster bed, she reviewed the chase for the Snitch in her mind for what must have been at least the tenth time — but again she could not think of what she could have done differently. There really was no guarantee that going directly for the Snitch was the wrong tactic. Had she delayed even another second, Cho could have seen it and eliminated whatever advantage she originally had. Her high-speed chase of the little winged ball was an example of textbook flying, with some Weasley flair thrown in for good measure. She probably could have been called for blatching a couple of times, but apparently she had done a good enough job of disguising her flying to throw Madam Hooch off the scent. She shook her head in frustration. She had done her job. No one could say otherwise — except for catching the bloody Snitch.
She replayed the last few seconds of the match in her mind. She really thought that she was a few inches closer to the ball than Cho when she made her final lunge, but she could not swear to it. She could still feel the faint flutter of its wings on the palm of her hand. She had been so close! But you couldn't stop yourself from blinking, could you? Even Dobby had to blink once in a while. It must have been Fate. Maybe she had not been meant to catch it. Deciding that she had been deliberating over the matter long enough, she rose from her bed and set her jaw, ready to face the common room with her head held high.
As she left her bedroom and found the stairs, she could already make out some commotion from the common room. It sounded like arguing. One of the voices sounded very familiar. Harry hated talking to large groups. What could have moved him to do so now? She crept down the stairs as quietly as she could. She was nearly within view of the bottom of the stairs when she was finally able to make out some words.
"...blame Ginny Weasley."
Ginny froze in place. That was unmistakably Harry's voice. If anyone would know, it was her. Harry could not have just said those words, could he?
"Are we all in agreement, then?" Harry's voice continued. Ginny's heart sank. And then it sank even further when no one spoke up to defend her.
She silently backed up the stairs, making sure no one had seen her. When she reached the entrance to the fifth-years' dorm, she rushed inside and practically leaped onto her bed. She closed the curtains to her bed and threw up a hasty Silencing Charm. As she clutched a pillow to her face, she tried to will herself from crying, but a lone tear escaped and rolled down her cheek. She bit her lip, cursing her weakness. She had rarely cried since the summer after Harry rescued her from the Chamber, telling herself that she needed to be stronger. A woman of action would not cry like a weak little girl. But a woman of action probably would have caught the Snitch.
During the next week of school, the gloom that had settled over Gryffindor Tower dissipated very slowly, making it difficult for Harry to move on from the disastrous events of the previous weekend. It seemed that even the heavens had conspired against him, as almost every day saw some form of rain descend upon the Hogwarts grounds, forcing Harry to remain indoors and deal with all manner of derision. Although most of his housemates had forgiven him, he still received his share of insults from the Slytherins, who couldn't help but revel in his misfortune, and some of the Ravenclaws. A few of them were actually quite creative and probably would have made him laugh if they had been attacking someone else. But the worst ones were those who didn't say anything at all. Those were the ones who let the fear in their eyes say everything they thought about him without a single word.
As usual, the Hogwarts rumour mill had worked overtime to spew out multiple falsehoods on his confrontation with Malfoy. Some stories had him conjuring snakes and setting them on his rival. Others focused on the fact that the fight took place in the girls' loo and put various perverted twists on the tale. And some even said that Harry had used Gryffindor's sword to cause Draco's wounds. But the real story was spoken relatively rarely in comparison. He pondered briefly on McLaggen's words from the day of the Ravenclaw match. How many others doubted him because of jealousy or some other reason?
Ron and Hermione had been great, of course, constantly reminding people of everything Harry had done to stand up to Dark Magic, although Hermione was a touch more tactful than Ron. But they were only two people. What would have really helped was to have someone who was really charismatic on his side. Someone who drew people's attention when they walked into a room. Someone who had friends in the other houses and could use their influence to turn back the effects of the rumours. Someone... like Ginny.
Unfortunately, he had barely had even two glimpses of her in the past week. Her absence was especially striking because he had become accustomed to spending time with her. He repeatedly reviewed his memories of the weeks after her break-up with Dean trying to figure out how he might be able to get into her good books again as well as to just remember what it was like to be near her. Not being able to do so now left his life feeling empty at a time when he sorely needed the opposite. He wondered if she was avoiding him, but that did not seem like something Ginny would do. The Ginny he knew liked to meet things head on. If she was avoiding him, there had to be something he was missing.
It seemed like he was missing a lot of things these days. Ever since he had retrieved the memory about Horcruxes from Professor Slughorn, very little had gone right for Harry. His potential relationship with Ginny had taken a giant step backwards. Gryffindor had lost the Cup. Half of the school thought he was dangerous... again. His investigation of Malfoy's secret mission had gone cold. He even heard very little from Professor Dumbledore these days. He wondered briefly if it was an after effect of using the Felix Felicis. Was Karma taking back what the potion had given him?
He sighed as he looked up and realized that he had taken a wrong turn. He stared out a nearby window and noted that it was raining yet again. He hoped the weather turned for the better soon. He could really use a sunlit day.
Three weeks after The Ravenclaw Tragedy, as some of the Gryffindors were now calling the incident she wanted to forget, Ginny was doing her homework at a table by herself in the library. Since The Tragedy, most of her housemates had avoided her, and by extension so did students from the other houses, the only exception being Luna Lovegood. But with her being in a different house, their shared times were few and far between. There had been a couple times when she had revised with a couple Gryffindors from her year in preparation for OWLs, but overall, her life had become quite lonely. As much as she did not want to think about it, Ginny's days had become eerily similar to those of her first year when she was under the influence of Tom's diary. It was a stark contrast from the days prior to the match during which she was often surrounded by friends and Harry's presence had become increasingly and wonderfully prominent.
She sighed as her eyes found a nearby window and noticed the rain. Again her mind had found its way back to Harry. Despite her misery, she had found something positive to hold on to. Apparently, Harry already regarded her as an equal. Otherwise, he would not have expected her to catch the Snitch. But therein lay the problem. She had let him down when she let Cho beat her to it, and he had washed his hands of her in front of the whole common room.
And so it was because of him that what was going on now was much worse than what she suffered when she was younger. This time it was not because of the sadistic actions of a Dark wizard. This time it was because of someone she had always trusted to look out for her, even when he was hung up on some tart like Cho Chang. The memory of that horrible moment in the dormitory stairwell vividly intruded upon her mind's eye yet again. She still had trouble believing that he had turned all of Gryffindor against her. And yet, she saw the proof every day in the common room... at meal times... and even now, here at the library. Students regarded her warily, as if they didn't know what to make of her. It almost seemed like some of them wanted to say something to her, but weren't quite sure what those words were supposed to be.
"Ginny, thank goodness I found you."
Bugger. It was Hermione. She and Ron were just about the only ones who had made no attempts to steer clear of her. But try as she might, she could not forget or forgive their silence after Harry's painful edict, nor could she calm the roiling in her stomach that she felt each time one of them approached her.
"Can we go somewhere and talk?" asked the bushy-haired witch.
Before she could stop herself, Ginny exhaled dramatically and turned away. It wasn't the most mature thing to do, but as much as she longed for some company, Hermione was certainly not at the top of the list. Right now, she and Ron barely ranked above Draco Malfoy.
"Right. That's exactly what I'm talking about."
Ginny turned her head back to glare at Hermione and was not surprised to find the other girl staring back with a determined look on her face. And so began a contest of wills between two of the strongest minds at Hogwarts. Several students looked up from their books to watch the duel. Even Madam Pince cast them a brief glance, but moved on since they were not causing a disruption. The only thing missing was Fred or George starting up a book on who would blink first. Neither moved for several minutes. Hermione held fast, resolute in her desire to mend the situation. Ginny was a simmering volcano, barely mining the full reserve of her Weasley stubbornness.
"Ooh, a cat fight. Can I watch?"
Both girls broke eye contact to find Cormac McLaggen flopping into one of the empty seats at the table and putting his feet up. He ignored their heated glares, as well as that of Madam Pince, with a waggle of his eyebrows. Finding some common ground, Hermione helped Ginny gather her things and in a few moments they left the library together.
Several minutes later, Ginny had no idea why she was still following Hermione. She could easily mumble an excuse and find a quiet place to finish her homework, but she realized that a part of her was ready to vent some of her frustration. She would have preferred having it out with Harry, but perhaps Hermione would be a good practice target. Ginny was distracted from these thoughts when she realised they had passed several suitably empty classrooms. Curious, she finally broke her silence.
"Where are we going?"
"Surely you haven't already forgotten what's up there."
A light dawned in Ginny's mind as she concluded that they were headed for the Room of Requirement. Despite herself, she admired Hermione's thoughtfulness. They were definitely going to need privacy for this... chat. A random classroom would have been wholly inadequate.
The two girls paused momentarily as Hermione performed the necessary ritual to open the room. As she followed the older witch into the room, Ginny remained civil, asking, "So, what type of room did you request?"
"I mentally focussed on 'a room where I could talk with Ginny Weasley, and no one could eavesdrop on us.'"
Ginny's eyebrows went up involuntarily.
Hermione shrugged in response to her unspoken question. "I wanted to make sure no one could accidentally come into the room until we were finished with it."
Ginny nodded her head once in acquiescence.
"Now then, shall we?" said Hermione as she seated herself in one of the chairs provided by the room.
As she sat down, Ginny took in the room. It was considerably smaller than the one in which they had held the D.A. meetings, but not uncomfortably so. The walls were covered with a rich, burgundy material that looked like velvet, but she could not be sure. Underneath their feet was a thick, cream-coloured Oriental rug, decorated in the centre with two black dragons chasing each other's tail. On top of the rug, two cosy armchairs were positioned to face a fireplace and each other. Hermione lit a fire from her seat with a sharp Incendio and then turned to Ginny to break the ice. Actually, she shattered the ice and dove in.
"You've been avoiding everyone since the last Quidditch match."
Ginny bit back the angry words on the tip of her tongue. It was probably because of the way the room was decorated, but she felt inclined to play along... for now. "I haven't been eager for your company," she said primly.
Hermione frowned. Apparently, Ginny was not going to make this easy for her. She sighed, preparing for the task at hand. She had been handling stubborn Weasleys for almost six years now; one would think she had learned how to deal with it. Ginny was usually more reasonable than her brothers, but the other side of the coin was that when she dug her heels in, she was more difficult to move than all of the Weasley boys put together.
"You'll have to help me understand, Ginny. I know you were upset about the outcome of the match — we all were — but that doesn't mean you have to suffer the consequences alone."
Ginny bit her lip, barely reining in her anger. "Harry should have thought of that before turning the entire house against me."
"Just because some Gryffindors have misinterpreted—"
"Spare me the excuses. There was no room for interpretation."
Hermione's face paled as she came to a realisation. "What did you hear?" she asked in a soft voice.
Hermione waited a few moments for Ginny's anger to calm a bit before continuing, but Ginny spoke again.
"At least you're not trying to deny it. Thanks for that, I suppose."
"He was just trying to—"
"...place the blame where it belongs. Yes, I think it's worked out rather well, don't you?"
"But it's not Harry's fault that—"
"How can you say that? No — actually, I do know how you can say that. You three stick together through everything. I get it now; there's no room for anyone else."
"What are you talking about? Harry cares for you!"
Ginny scoffed. "Maybe he used to, but that stopped the day I lost the Snitch."
Hermione shook her head, as if she hoped it would change what she was hearing. She just could not fathom where Ginny had come up with such outlandish ideas. It was almost as if she was only choosing to listen to... oh, no... bloody hell.
"Ginny, what did you hear that night?" Hermione asked, more forcefully this time.
"You already asked me that," snapped the younger witch.
"Please... just humour me. Even 'the brightest witch of her age' is a little slow on the uptake sometimes."
Ginny narrowed her eyes suspiciously at her friend. Inside her mind she debated back and forth for a couple of minutes before replying. "It's not hard for me to remember. I was coming down the stairs hoping to talk to who I thought were my friends and move on from the loss when I distinctly heard Harry say, 'Blame Ginny Weasley.' And then there was silence. No one — not even you — spoke up to defend me. I went right back to bed. Everyone's been avoiding me since then."
Hermione covered her face with her hands and groaned.
"That's what I thought," said Ginny. "I think we're done." And she stood up from her chair and began walking towards the door.
"I think I've been more than patient with you. Unless you've got something good to add, I'm leaving."
Taking advantage of Ginny's turned back, Hermione drew her wand and cried, "Petrificus Totalus!"
She then rushed to catch her friend before she could hit the floor. As she eased her to the ground, she said, "You're heavier than you look."
Ginny stared daggers at her.
"Right. Not helping. Look, I'm sorry about this — I really am. But this was the only thing I could think of to make you stay and listen."
Hermione made sure she was settled on the floor before continuing. "I'll admit, you did not hear incorrectly that afternoon..."
Ginny continued her death glare.
"...but you didn't hear everything either. Harry's exact words were: 'If you've got a problem with it, you can blame me, because I do as well. But you're not going to blame Ron, or any of the Chasers or the Beaters, and you bloody well better not blame Ginny Weasley.'"
Ginny's eyes widened at the revelation and then softened. Warily, Hermione stepped back, pointed her wand and said, "Finite Incantatem."
Slowly, Ginny sat up and wrapped her arms around her knees. Then she banged her forehead against them a couple times in frustration. She tried to digest what Hermione had just told her. Harry had defended her? Why had it been so easy for her to think the worst? She had been emotionally spent from the outcome of the match, but there had to be more to it that she wasn't seeing. She should have known better, and she had paid a heavy price for it. Her eyes began to moisten and she shut them tightly to try to stop them. She had lost the battle with her emotions the last time she had started to cry, but she wasn't going to lose this time.
When she felt she had finally composed herself, she looked up and regarded her friend. Hermione had a sympathetic look on her face, but she kept her peace, content to let Ginny take the lead.
But Ginny said nothing. She had too much to ponder. This was not something that mere words would be able to fix.
The first eight paragraphs were taken directly from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, pages 498-499, U.K. edition.
"Blatching" is defined as "Flying with intent to collide." See Quidditch Through the Ages by Kennilworthy Whisp.