"The dragons didn't keep me awake last night," Ron said at breakfast the next day, as he stuffed an entire triangle of toast in his mouth.
"'Course not; everyone knows you could sleep through an earthquake," Seamus said.
Harry had heard the dragons roaring and the occasional bursts of flame as well, but they hadn't interrupted his sleep. It was good to know Hogwarts was being protected.
"Well, I didn't sleep a wink," Hermione said wearily as she looked over her new timetable for sixth year. "Looks like we have Defense Against the Dark Arts first thing this morning."
"Yeah, at least it's not Professor Bicycle teaching it," Neville said with a grin.
"Hey, that's what I heard this summer," Seamus said, liberally shaking salt on his eggs. "You know how these rumors can get out of hand."
"I'm still disappointed it wasn't Professor Otto Bus."
"Or Luca Motive."
"Or Ariel Plane."
"Shut up! That joke was old yesterday," Seamus said with a red face. "Besides this new bloke has a stupid name too--Quentin Trimble. Doesn't inspire a lot of confidence does it?"
"He did write our first year textbook on the Dark Arts," Hermione pointed out. "He must know loads of theory."
"Good thing they're bringing in Ministry Aurors once a week to teach us the practical stuff, that old fossil doesn't look like he has enough energy to pick up a wand."
"Just because he's old, Ron, doesn't mean he can't be an effective teacher," Hermione shot back.
Ron shrugged. "I suppose so. But he is old – and I'll bet he's dead boring like Binns."
"Why are you so prejudiced against old people?" Hermione asked. She laid her knife and fork across the plate and glared at Ron pointedly. "You'll be old someday."
"Maybe I won't," Ron said with a grin, leaning back with his arms folded over his chest.
"Maybe I'll die young-now there's a choice – should I die young and beautiful or old and wise?"
"Neither," Seamus crowed, "since you're young and stupid now, I don't see how you can grow to be old and wise – and as far as beauty goes – "
"Stop it!" Hermione's hands struck the table, so that all the plates clattered. "Don't talk like that! I don't want to hear about anyone dying – ever!"
All conversation ceased and the smiles slipped off of their faces.
Hermione looked at all their sober faces and said in a whisper, "Just don't –" Then she abruptly stood up and hurried from the hall.
Harry looked at Ron questioningly.
"She's had a rough summer, Harry. She's been really worried about – everything." Then he too got up to leave. "I'll go talk to her before class. I shouldn't have joked around in front of her."
Seamus and Neville were determinedly eating, looking at their plates.
Harry sighed. The first day of classes was not getting off to an auspicious start. He looked over at Ginny, but saw that she too, had left with her friends. They hadn't exchanged one word, although she had smiled at him when she first sat down. Now he wondered if he should have gone over to sit with her. But he had been in the middle of breakfast. Then the timetables were passed around, and one thing led to another. Now he was alone with the sound of Hermione's sad whisper echoing in his ears.
Ron must have known what to say to comfort Hermione because she was able to correct Professor Trimble twice during the course of their first lesson. By the time they were sitting in their usual places in the common room, she seemed to be back to her inquisitive self.
"Harry, do you have a lot of homework tonight?"
He came out of his reverie with a start. "Um, not too much, why? Do you need something?"
"No, but you haven't done a thing all evening except stare across the common room at the fifth years." Hermione was smirking at him.
Ron looked up from his charms textbook at this turn of conversation. "Yeah, what happened with you and Ginny? You looked happy enough at the feast last night."
Harry wasn't sure what had happened. He had tried to talk to her all day, but Ginny was constantly surrounded by people Harry didn't know, and he hesitated to intrude. Why didn't she come over and talk to me? he wondered.
Harry shrugged. "I dunno – she seems busy, I guess."
"Harry she's waiting for you to talk to her," Hermione said impatiently.
"You think so?" he asked, idly making random dots with his quill all over his charms homework.
"She's not going to tag along after you. You have to put some effort into this, you know."
"What if – what about her friends?" he asked, not really sure what he was trying to find out.
"What about them?" Hermione looked thoroughly exasperated by now. "They aren't dragons, you know. They can't harm you."
"But Ginny could, if you don't shape up," Ron warned. "She doesn't have a lot of patience with idiots."
Harry put the quill down. Didn't he know the truth of that? He was being an idiot – he realized that now after talking to Ron and Hermione.
His mind made up, he walked over to the fifth year table, wondering if everyone in the common room noticed his destination. He glanced quickly back to see Ron and Hermione watching him with indulgent expressions on their faces – much like proud parents did when their offspring did something particularly well. That rankled as much as the thought of Ginny being angry with him. Am I really so socially inept? he wondered.
Yes – I am, he thought as approached the silent table, not having the foggiest idea of what to say. Fortunately the girls were absorbed in their homework, and didn't notice him.
"Er-Ginny? Could I talk to you?"
Ginny looked up blankly, taking a second or two for her eyes to focus on his face.
"Oh!" she sounded genuinely surprised to see him standing over her. "Ok."
Her friends watched as she put her quill down and followed him to the wall of doors leading to the dormitories.
Ginny leaned against the wall with her arms crossed in front of her. "Finally decided to talk to me today?"
"No – yes – I mean, I've wanted to talk to you all day."
"Really? We've seen each other at three meals. And we've been in the same room now for the past two hours," she said in a cold voice.
"I know – stupid of me, I should have come over sooner."
"Why didn't you? You know my friends. They're all really nice."
"Ginny, I don't know your friends."
"Of course you do; they all know you." Then she clapped her hand over her mouth and her eyes opened wide. "You don't know them. I just realized." She stared at him a minute and then she put her hand on his arm. "Oh, Harry, I'm sorry – no wonder you didn't want to come over."
Ginny looked truly contrite. And, Harry couldn't help but notice, truly appealing. The candlelight from the sconce above made fascinating golden glints in her hair. "No, it's not your fault – I reckon I have to meet your friends sometime."
"I shouldn't have been so hard on you." Ginny's eyes searched his face and then she asked in a hesitant voice, "Are you irked?"
He smiled. "Not even miffed." How could he be upset with her when she looked so… very … He tore his eyes away from her lips and stood up straighter.
"Well." She was blushing a little. "Why don't you eat lunch with us tomorrow? I'll introduce you to everyone."
"Ok," he said, not really sure what he was agreeing to, since the only thought in his head was why the Gryffindor common room had to be so–common.
"I should get back to studying," she said. "Tomorrow at lunch – right?"
"Right," he repeated watching her return to her table. Somehow he knew that he would not be sleeping well that night, and it wouldn't be dragons keeping him awake.
The next day Harry turned up at Ginny's section of the lunch table as planned. He was dreading the introductions and realized that his fears were well founded when he saw the looks of surprise when he sat down next to Ginny.
"Hi." Ginny smiled as she looked into his eyes.
"Hi," he couldn't help but smile back–even with an audience it was nice to just be sitting next to her.
She finally looked away from him and told her curious friends, "This is Harry Potter."
"We know, Ginny," said a tall dark-haired girl who was looking rather amused.
"Harry, this is Rose."
Harry said hello, feeling a bit silly.
"And this is Jeanne–she's the one who lost her cat in Kings Cross Station."
Jeanne fluttered her hands. "Oh – that was just terrible. Good thing that Muggle boy got him out for me. Mr. Boots was so scared. I had to talk to him almost the entire train trip to calm him down. He's very sensitive, you know." Harry was so strongly reminded of Mrs. Figg, that he hoped his sympathetic look didn't turn out to be a smirk.
"And that's Diane." Diane was an apple-cheeked blonde girl who seemed to be busily cutting everything on her plate in half.
"I'm trying a new diet. You can eat anything you want, but just a half of a normal portion," she said as her knife sliced through a pea.
"Um –" Harry couldn't help himself. "Wouldn't it be easier to just put half the peas on one side of the plate, instead of cutting up each one?"
Diane shot him a look of disgust. "Another benefit to cutting everything up is it takes time –and that is time not spent eating."
"Diane is really good at dieting," Jeanne spoke up. "Last year she lost ten pounds."
Diane beamed with pride.
Harry was at a loss. Diane didn't look as if she needed to be on a diet, but if he said that, then it would sound like he was ogling her figure. If he congratulated her, she might think that he was saying she was really a fat cow back then, and it was a great thing she finally lost some weight. Or if he wasn't very enthusiastic then she might think she had to lose even more. He settled for an indistinct noise in the back of his throat.
Luckily it was the right noise, because Diane went back to the tedious job of halving all the vegetables on her plate.
"So, Harry –" Rose said, looking at him shrewdly, "what brings you to our little end of the table."
Here it comes, he thought. "I just wanted to sit with Ginny for lunch."
"Makes a nice change," Rose agreed with raised eyebrows. "You know that was my great-gran you helped out at Kings Crossing."
"Oh – um – is she all right?"
"She's fine. She and my gran thought you were such a nice boy – incredibly sweet."
Ginny's foot nudged him gently on the ankle. He felt his face burn.
Happily, Jeanne didn't feel the need for conversational segues. She began talking about two people Harry had never heard of. "Well, then Roderick looked across the room and finally spotted her – after a year's absence, a life-threatening wound, and a torrid love affair with that Healer – what was her name?"
"Olga," Diane said, not lifting her eyes from the pat of butter she was dividing.
"Right – Olga-the-tart. Anyway, Fiona looked up at the same time and their gazes locked. She completely forgot that she had just miscarried another man's baby – that she had been a hostage for a hundred days – all she remembered was that she loved him."
"Oh." It was a collective sigh from all the girls. Harry was completely bewildered. Who on earth were Roderick and Fiona and Olga? Somehow he didn't think they were students from Hogwarts.
"Um–what are you talking about?"
Jeanne looked at him in surprise. "Haven't you heard of Days of Destiny? It's the longest-running soap on the Wizarding Wireless."
"Fiona and Roderick are destined to be together, but things like amnesia, Time-Turners, wonky love potions, and evil forces keep them apart." Rose said with a smirk. "It's been going on for about fifty years now. I think the bloke who plays Roderick must be a thousand years old at least."
"Oh, he's not that old," Jeanne protested. "Besides, you don't see him. You can fantasize about what he looks like–and he's not a thousand in my dreams!" she said with a giggle.
"Fiona's new though," Diane said as she deliberately speared a half a pea with her fork.
"It took a while to get used to her. She has a lot more spirit in her voice, and I think the writers took advantage of that. She used to be kind of shy, but now she tells old Roderick off when he strays too far."
"Oh, but in a nice way, of course," Ginny said, joining in with enthusiasm. "He really needs a strong woman, not some hero-worshiping clinging vine who has to be rescued every five seconds."
Harry couldn't believe it. Ginny – the Ginny he had known for years – the Ginny who could coolly walk into the middle of Quidditch season and replace him as Seeker – who could hang wallpaper and hex her brothers beyond recognition – was now ooing and ahing over a ridiculous radio show.
"I don't know," Jeanne said pushing her plate aside. "I think she could overdo that tough girl act. I mean, Roderick wants to be needed–he is a Healer after all."
"And an Auror, and a Quidditch star, and a Potions Master," Rose pointed out.
Ginny waved that away, "Yes he's too good to be true, sometimes –"
"Sometimes! Honestly, that show is beyond the bounds of reason." Rose said, shaking her head.
Ginny turned to Harry. "Rose isn't a true believer."
He could feel himself wanting to laugh. "Believer in what? Super wizards who are susceptible to amnesia?"
Rose snorted in agreement, but the rest of the girls answered in unison, "Do you believe in destiny?"
"That's how they start each show," Ginny explained.
He did laugh then. "I see I've stumbled upon a mysterious cult, and I'd better leave before I'm brainwashed, too."
Rose glanced at her watch. "So should I. It's time to go to class anyway."
All the girls stood up. Diane was looking forlornly at her neat piles of vegetables.
They called out, "Nice to meet you, Harry," as they went in different directions.
He turned to Ginny. "That was interesting."
She laughed. "You did just fine. Although I don't think we're going to let you talk about Days of Destiny ever again."
"Can't I make fun of it – just a little bit?"
"Absolutely not," Ginny said as she gathered her things. "Teasing about DD is banned at the Burrow. Mum loves that show. I've been listening to it as long as I can remember."
"Where are you going?" he asked, taking her books.
"Good – I have Care of Magical Creatures, we can walk together."
As they headed out into the drizzle, Ginny asked, "So what did you think of my friends?"
There's a loaded question, Harry thought. "Um – they seem nice enough."
"They are nice. I like them because they don't gossip. Luna is like that too."
"Yeah." He could see why Ginny would feel that way; he didn't like gossip either.
"But – I'd rather talk to you – just you – if you know what I mean."
She stopped and faced him. "I know." They were outside of the greenhouses now. The mist was hanging around them, and there were miniscule beads of water glistening on Ginny's hair. In the quiet gloom everything seemed insubstantial but her.
She broke the silence. "I'll see you at supper?"
"I wish." Reality was intruding yet again. "I just found out this morning – you can't tell anyone – I'm going to be taking lessons with Dumbledore. It's some kind of magic they don't teach here normally."
"Oh." Ginny frowned. "Just on Tuesdays?"
"No," he sighed heavily thinking of his busy schedule to come. "No, I'm also to have lessons in Apparating, and then when Quidditch starts…Well, it looks like afternoons and evenings will be all booked up. I won't have a chance to see you too often during the week."
"Well," she hesitated. "What about…from now on…lunch is just for the two of us–no friends?"
"That's a good idea," he said with relief. As selfish as it sounded, he wanted time alone with her.
"Really?" She started to smile. "You think that's a good idea? I thought you'd want to be with Ron and Hermione."
"I think they can spare me for an hour each day."
"Good," she said gravely. Her eyes were like dark pools.
When she looked at him that way, the only thing he wanted to do was to lean over and very gently touch his mouth to hers. He took a deep breath. "I should go."
Then he glanced at the greenhouse and saw that the windows were steamed over with condensation. For once they had no audience. Even though they were standing in the mud with their books between them, he took the chance to kiss her. While her cheek was cold and damp, her lips were warm, so warm that he felt fire flash through his entire body.
There was an answering spark in her eyes as she murmured her good bye and slipped into the greenhouse.
Harry was late to Care of Magical Creatures, but no one seemed to notice, since all of the students were staring nervously at the blue dragon behind Hagrid's house. He must have missed the introductory speech because Hagrid was now dividing them into groups for projects. It seemed each group was to observe a different magical creature and keep a detailed journal.
Hagrid lead their group toward the lake.
"Hagrid," Hermione asked, "why are they so loud at night?"
"They're jus' miss'n their home. Some of 'em are quite young and miss their mothers. Not this un though." He beamed and swept his hand toward the enormous Norwegian Ridgeback in the paddock. "Norbert knows his mummy."