Two weeks, three days, four hours, and nineteen and one-half minutes.
That was how long Harry had been dodging what seemed to be the majority of the female population of Hogwarts. It was exactly that long ago that Professor Flitwick had announced at the end of Charms class that Hogwarts would be celebrating Valentine's Day this year with a ball. Three different girls had ambushed Harry after class. He had stammered and stuttered and managed to utter a lame excuse to each of them before dashing madly back to his dormitory, where he found Ron pacing back and forth across the room, talking to himself.
"Should I, or shouldn't I? I should. But she probably wouldn't.... Why would she? I'm nobody special, not like...." Ron trailed off as he noticed Harry staring at him in exasperation. "What?"
Harry rolled his eyes. He'd had enough of this nonsense over the past three years. It was time for Ron to face facts.
"Ron, for Merlin's sake. You should. She will. Just bloody ask Hermione to the dance already, will you, and stop being such a prat!" Harry was smugly satisfied by the shocked look on Ron's face.
Ron opened his mouth as if to protest, but all he could manage was an indistinct squeak. Harry sighed and gave up in disgust. Bloody hopeless, he thought.
Harry smiled now, pleased that Ron had finally proven him wrong. The evening of the announcement, Ron had steeled himself to ask Hermione to the Valentine's Ball in the middle of the common room, cheered on by his fellow Gryffindors. Hermione's smile as she accepted had been beautiful, and Harry couldn't be happier for his best friends.
However, that didn't change the fact that he BLOODY HATED VALENTINE'S DAY! Maybe it was different in the wizarding world, but as far as Harry was concerned, it was merely a flimsy excuse for merchants to hawk candy and flowers. After his disastrous experience at the Yule Ball two years ago, he'd be damned if he would make a fool of himself at another Hogwarts ball with a bubble-headed female who wanted nothing more than to show off the Boy Who Lived to her giggling gaggle of friends.
No, he was boycotting Valentine's Day this year, all by himself. He had it all planned out. By now, everyone should have left Gryffindor Tower to attend the ball. All of the professors should be attending as well, which gave him the perfect opportunity to do a little night flying down at the Quidditch pitch, with none the wiser.
Harry had already changed out of his school robes into jeans and a dark jumper. Even if someone did happen to be patrolling the grounds, he should easily escape detection. He grabbed his Firebolt and made for the door, then turned back and grabbed his father's Invisibility Cloak and the Marauder's Map, just in case. He hurried down the staircase but stopped short of the common room when he heard voices.
"Oh, Dean, thank you. They're beautiful."
Ginny and Dean. Harry debated between waiting on the staircase until they left or donning the Invisibility Cloak and slipping past them. Impatient, he decided on the latter. The cloak was big enough to shield him and his broomstick from view. Harry tiptoed as quietly as he could across the common room but was brought up short once again by Dean's next words to Ginny.
"Happy Valentine's Day, Ginny. I love you."
Harry froze in midstep, waiting for Ginny's answer, even though he knew it was wrong to be eavesdropping on such a private moment. He wasn't even certain why he cared. Dean was a pleasant fellow, and Ginny seemed happy with him. She was always smiling whenever Harry saw them together. It was a bit annoying, really, the way her eyes were continually fixed on Dean, bright with happiness, never wavering.
Except now. Harry realized that Ginny hadn't spoken, and he couldn't help but turn to watch. Dean was smiling hesitantly at Ginny, waiting, but Ginny hadn't said a word. Harry's chest began to hurt, and he realized he was holding his breath. He exhaled softly when Ginny spoke in a quiet voice.
"Oh, Dean. I don't know what to say."
It was an answer one might expect from a girl in love, overcome with emotion. Only, Ginny's eyes were bright with unshed tears caused not by happiness, but by sorrow and pain. Harry's chest continued to ache, even though he was breathing steadily now, but he couldn't look away.
Dean's smile faded slowly as comprehension dawned across his face. "You...you don't...." Dean trailed off, unable to complete the thought, but Ginny understood just the same.
She shook her head slowly. "I'm sorry, Dean. I care for you very much, but...."
The two of them stood in silence for what seemed an eternity to Harry, but he feared that if he moved, the unfortunate couple would become aware of his presence. He was stuck.
Finally, Ginny spoke again. "Dean, I don't feel very well. I think I'm going to go back to my room and lie down. I'm sorry."
As Harry watched, Ginny reached up to hug Dean, who stiffly returned the embrace. She then whispered something that Harry couldn't hear. Dean nodded in response, leaned down and kissed her on the cheek, then walked out of the common room without another word.
Harry remained frozen in his spot across the room, hoping fervently that Ginny would return to her dormitory so he could leave without being discovered. He was mystified when, after several long minutes, she instead left the common room through the Fat Lady's portrait. Harry immediately followed out of concern for her well-being, or so he told himself as he walked silently behind her at a distance. He wondered where she was going.
Maybe she's changed her mind and gone to find Dean?
That thought didn't sit well. He liked Dean, but...this was Ginny. Dean wasn't good enough for her. As far as he was concerned, no one was.
Harry was prevented from answering his own question by the realization that he had let Ginny get too far ahead of him. He couldn't be certain what direction she had taken, but he had a hunch. Given that everyone else in the school was at the ball, the Astronomy Tower would be deserted tonight; it was the perfect place to go and have a good cry. As he swiftly climbed the steps to the tower, he removed the Invisibility Cloak and slung it over his shoulder, not wanting to startle Ginny. But when he reached the top of the tower and stepped outside, she wasn't there. Harry tried to quash the disappointment he felt as he considered other possibilities for Ginny's whereabouts.
"Make one move and you will live to regret it," said a dark, throaty voice from behind him.
Harry could feel a wand tip being pressed into his back. Fortunately, he recognized the voice, though its owner had tried hard to disguise it.
"Ginny, it's me," he said.
"Harry?" Ginny lowered her wand from Harry's back. "What are you doing here? You frightened me, bursting out here like that. You're lucky I didn't hex first and ask questions later."
Harry turned around to face her and noticed that her face was streaked with tears. He had no idea how to explain his presence or what to say to her. Instead, he stepped up onto a parapet, then pulled Ginny up beside him. He mounted his Firebolt, then offered his hand to her.
"Come with me," he said.
To his surprise, Ginny didn't hesitate but mounted the broom in front of him without a word. Together they glided smoothly away from the castle. The moon was new, so the only light to guide them was the faint glow from the stars. It was enough, however, and as they ascended higher into the sky, Harry grew bolder, increasing their speed to match the racing of his heart.
"Harry, you're going too fast!" Ginny screeched, as they dove lower to swoop around the Quidditch pitch.
Harry immediately slowed but commented, "Come on, Gin, you fly circles around everyone else during practice."
"That's different," she retorted.
"Why?" he asked, laughing.
She looked back at him in exasperation. "Because I'm the one doing the flying then!"
Harry grinned and sped up once more. When Ginny began to protest again, he slipped an arm around her waist. "I won't let you fall," he promised, gripping her ribcage lightly with his fingers.
"Stop that!" Ginny laughed. "It tickles!"
But she made no move to release his grip. He held her that way until she signaled it was time to return. After Ginny dismounted, she hugged Harry fiercely, then kissed him on the cheek.
"Thank you," she murmured.
It wasn't until after she had left that Harry had the presence of mind to reply, "You're welcome."
Boycotting Valentine's Day was the best idea he'd ever had.