When they got down to the entrance hall, Harry found Cho easily, as most people had already entered the Great Hall.
"Sorry I'm late," he said as he reached her. "Ron needed some moral support."
Cho smiled. "He doesn't look like he needs any now," she said, her eyes following Ron and Hermione as they crossed the hall. "Do you think they'll notice anyone else the whole night?"
"Probably not," Harry said, taking her arm lightly. "But I think I should be near by, just in case a blow-up happens." Cho didn't look too happy at that - no one wanted to be near Ron and Hermione when they argued - but she didn't protest, so they went into the Great Hall as well. The tables were set up for dinner, like last year, and like last year, there were menus to order from. Hermione did look at bit upset at that, but Ginny, who sat beside her, put her hand on her arm and said something in her ear that made her calm down.
The only problem with the seating arrangements that Harry could see was that he was opposite Ginny. Try as he might to pay the proper amount of attention to Cho, he kept watching Ginny out of the corner of his eye. Cho noticed, of course, but all she said was, "Hmm...I wonder if Ginny likes crystals?" which did have the effect, besides making Harry blush, of getting more of his attention. True to Cho's prediction, Ron and Hermione mostly talked to each other, so Harry hoped that they would finally settle things, and the atmosphere around them might get a little less tense.
Cho seemed fine throughout dinner, and Harry was glad that she was putting her demons behind her. They didn't talk all that much, but he did try to act normally, and to be a more attentive date to Cho than he had been last year to Parvati. At one point, he caught Parvati's eye from where she sat at the next table over, and gave her a deliberate salute. She laughed, but just shook her head before turning to her own date. Harry hoped she had fun this year. Cho saw the little by-play and, once he explained what it was about, seemed thankful for the opportunity to talk about last year. They were just two friends, supporting each other through a tough time.
Harry realized that Cho hadn't recovered completely, though, when the supper tables were removed, and the room cleared for dancing. Everyone walked to the edge of the dance floor, but then stopped, looking around.
"Who's going to lead the dancing?" Fred said, asking the question on everyone's mind. The champions had, last year. He turned to Angelina. "Interested?"
Before she could answer, Dumbledore stepped out into the middle of the floor.
"The faculty will dance the first dance, and then all the students may join in," he said. His voice sounded like he wanted to laugh. "It's a Sadie Hawkins dance."
"What's a Sadie Hawkins dance?" Ron asked.
"It means the women ask the men," Hermione said, then sucked in her breath. They all followed her gaze to see Miss Stuart leading Professor Snape out onto the dance floor. Hermione looked like she was having trouble breathing, and Ron just managed a "Blimey!", but Harry and Ginny laughed so hard they had to hold onto each other for support.
Finally, Ginny managed to take a breath. "Oh, that's so like Miss Stuart!" she said. "I wish Remus were here to see it, he'd approve whole-heartedly."
"Yeah," Harry said. "But I'm glad Sirius isn't here." He gave another chuckle, then realized that he was still holding onto Ginny's arm. He let go quickly, glancing around. Cho was watching him, a half-smile on her face, but Colin was glaring at him. He took a step towards Cho just as the music started.
"No!" Hermione said after a few bars. "It can't be...it is! Oh, this has got to be Dumbledore's idea."
Everyone else looked at her in confusion.
"You don't recognize it? Honestly - am I the only one who listens to classical music?"
Everyone else nodded.
"It's the Grandfather's Dance from The Nutcracker. Isn't that hilarious?"
Ginny and Cho smiled, and Ron managed a fake chuckle, but Harry just shook his head. They all watched the teachers as they promenaded around the dance floor to the stately music. Snape looked like he could happily chew glass, but Miss Stuart winked at them as they passed, which made Ginny giggle. Professor McGonagall, though, almost looked like she was crying on Professor Moody's shoulder, which sobered all of the group, and many of the teachers looked like they were determined to enjoy themselves for tonight, at least.
After the teachers' dance, the Weird Sisters broke into a more lively tune, and the students flowed out onto the dance floor. Cho, though, took one step onto it and almost crumpled. Luckily, Harry caught her, and the group brought her back to a small table.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," she said, trying to stand up on her own. "I don't know what came over me, but I'm fine now. Let's dance, Harry."
She certainly didn_92t seem fine to Harry, especially with the tears in her eyes. "Are you sure you don't want to just sit here for awhile?" he asked.
She gave a small sigh. "Well, I suppose I'd better. You all should go enjoy the dancing, though."
"Don't be silly," Harry said. "I'm staying with you."
Hermione and Ginny wanted to stay, too, but Cho wouldn't let them. Finally, they left, to Ron and Colin's relief.
"I'm really sorry, Harry," Cho said as soon as they were gone. "I thought I could do this, I really did. But when I stepped onto the dance floor, I suddenly seemed to see Cedric, and I just couldn't..." She trailed off, her voice full of tears.
"You did?" Harry said. "You don't think that someone - Malfoy, maybe - cast a spell to make -" He broke off, because Cho was shaking her head.
"No, it's just grief, Harry. I thought I was getting over it, but I guess I'm not."
"Well, you're here, aren't you? That's a step," Harry said. He looked out over the dancers and winced to see Ginny and Colin. At least it was a fast dance, so they weren't too close. "Do you want to talk about Cedric? Would that help?"
"Are you sure you don't mind?" Cho asked, looking up into his eyes. "I'd...really like that."
So they talked about Cedric. Since Cho didn't seem to want to look at him while they talked, it left Harry's eyes free to watch the dancing. He saw Fred and Angelina disappear into the enchanted rose gardens, then come scurrying back with Snape on their heels. Apparently, his dance with Miss Stuart had left Snape needing a scape-goat. George and Brenna looked awkward with each other to begin with, but as the night went on, they relaxed and seemed to have fun. Harry tried not to keep tabs on Ron and Hermione, but he couldn't help noticing that they, too, disappeared, though he didn't see where or when. And he deliberately kept his eyes away from Ginny, though he could at least tell that she danced with a number of different boys, not just Colin. All of his friends seemed to be having fun, and Harry tried to be happy for them. He tried not to think of Voldemort and what was waiting for someone on Christmas Day.
Harry learned more about Cedric that evening than he had ever wanted to know, but he was glad that he could help Cho. She certainly got more animated as the evening went on, and that had to be a good thing. Just as he was about to suggest that they might actually dance, a commotion broke out at the edge of the dance floor. Harry jumped to his feet, because at the center of it were Ginny and Draco Malfoy. He started to go towards them, but Cho caught his arm. He looked down at her, and she shook her head at him. He opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, the music stopped. Apparently, the Weird Sisters wanted to hear what was happening, too.
"Draco, I said no, and I meant it!" Ginny was saying. "I didn't want to come to this ball with you, and I don't want to dance with you. What part of 'no' don't you understand?"
"Of course you want to dance with me," Draco said, sounding like he honestly believed what he was saying. "How could you not?"
"Easily," Ginny said. She turned away from him, but he reached out and grabbed her arm. Harry tried to run to her then, but Cho tightened her grip on his arm. She was much stronger than he had expected, and he didn't want to hurt her, but he really needed to get to Ginny. Where's Ron?Or Fred, or George? Why aren't they here? he thought. And why aren't the teachers doing something about this? He looked over to the head table. Professor McGonagall was standing, her eyes flashing from that far away, but Professor Dumbledore's hand was on her arm, just like Cho's on Harry's.
"Let me go, Cho," he said, his eyes drawn back to Ginny and Draco. "I need to help her."
Cho actually laughed. "Ginny doesn't need your help, Harry," she said. "She's a pretty girl; I'm sure someone taught her the Pepper Spray Charm."
Harry glanced down at her - he had never heard of that charm - but he couldn't keep his eyes off of Ginny. She seemed to have collapsed in Draco's arms, which he took as an invitation to kiss her. Just as his lips touched hers, though, he was propelled back with such force that he knocked over Crabbe and Goyle, who were standing behind him. Everyone around him laughed, and he quickly picked himself up, snarled at Ginny - who just glared at him - and left the Great Hall, his useless bodyguards and Pansy Parkinson following behind him.
Ginny looked around the room quickly, ignoring the applause she had garnered, searching for someone. Harry raised his other hand to wave at her, but her gaze passed right over him. He expected that she was looking for Hermione, who also seemed to be nowhere around, but, instead, she headed towards Fleur, who swept her into a hug. Harry sat down weakly, and heard Cho chuckling.
"So that's who taught her," she said. "I'm not surprised she knows it, but I am surprised that Mrs. Weasley didn't teach Ginny herself."
"What was that?" Harry asked.
"The Pepper Spray Charm. It had another name years ago, but some Muggle-born witch renamed it after some Muggle repellant, and the name stuck."
"Yes, but, what does it do? It looked like Ginny collapsed, and then, suddenly..."
"That's because it was her first time using it. At least, I assume it was. See, Harry," Cho said, leaning towards him, her eyes alight, "the Pepper Spray Charm requires a witch to be absolutely certain that she doesn't want her attacker near her. If she has any doubt, any at all, it won't work."
"And Ginny had some doubt? About Draco Malfoy?" Harry couldn't believe it. He didn't want to believe it.
Cho shook her head. "No, but it takes more concentration the first couple of times. Ginny needed to focus all her energy on the spell, so she stopped fighting Draco for a moment."
"Wow," Harry said. He was going to say more, but just then, Ginny herself came towards them.
"Harry," she said as soon as she was close enough, "would you mind terribly dancing with me?"
Cho burst out laughing. "That's a horrible way to ask a boy for a dance!" she said.
Ginny blushed, but stood her ground. "Fleur told me that I needed to dance with someone, so I wouldn't get it into my head that all boys are like Draco Malfoy." Harry could hear the hatred in every syllable of his name. He hadn't known that Ginny could feel that much hatred about anyone.
"Yes, that's a good idea," Cho said. She looked thoughtful for a moment, but then smiled a little wickedly. "But why Harry?"
Ginny turned so pink that Harry was almost blinded by the contrast between her hair and her skin. "Fleur said to pick someone I felt safe with," she muttered, not looking at Harry.
"But...what about Colin?" Harry asked, looking back and forth between the two girls. Cho was enjoying this, he could tell, but he didn't know why.
Ginny swallowed, hard, and then looked up at him. "I feel safer with you," she said.
"Oh," was all Harry managed to say. He wasn't entirely sure he liked that, though he told himself that he should like it, but if she needed to feel safe, safe he could give her. He couldn't say no to Ginny, even if it meant leaving Cho, who also needed him, alone.
He stood up, but looked worriedly back at Cho. She seemed to understand.
"I'll be fine, Harry, you don't have to watch over me every second," she said. Harry was still unsure of what to do, but just then, Bill Weasley came up to them.
"Cho, will you dance with me?" he asked. "Fleur had to go be teacherly, and she told me to go dance with the second prettiest girl in the room. Ginny's out of the question, of course, so I came straight to you."
Harry watched as both Ginny and Cho blushed and smiled. I've got to learn how to say things like that, he thought. Maybe Bill will give me lessons.
The four of them headed for the dance floor, and it was only then that Harry realized that the song just beginning was a slow song. He hadn't counted on being that close to Ginny, but he tried to act normally as they took their place beside Seamus and Lavender. He followed Ginny's lead, so when she put both of her arms around his neck, he put both of his around her waist. He didn't allow himself to do what he wanted to - pull her close - because she wanted to feel safe, and he didn't think that would make her feel particularly safe. He saw, out of the corner of his eye, that Professors McGonagall and Moody were dancing quite close to them. Sure, he thought. Now that it's too late, and Ginny's quite safe. He looked down at her, smiling, he hoped reassuringly, into her anxious eyes. After a moment, she sighed, and closed her eyes.
"This is nice," she said. "I just love this song."
Harry turned his attention to the music just as the words began. He didn't recognize it - it wasn't a normal Weird Sisters song.
"What is it?" he asked.
Ginny opened her eyes, and he was surprised to see tears in them. "This Is the Time, by Billy Joel. He's an American Muggle musician. I hadn't heard it either, until I went to Miriam's this summer." She sighed again. "Someday, I want a relationship like that."
Harry listened again. Someday we will both look back, and have to laugh. We lived through a lifetime, and the aftermath. That sounded pretty good to him, too.
Ginny suddenly gasped. Harry whipped his head around to follow her gaze, and saw Cho crying on Bill's shoulder. He let go of Ginny to go to her, but Ginny locked her arms tighter around his neck.
"Harry Potter will have young witches falling all over him!" Harry turned his head to glare at Seamus, which was nothing to the look Ginny was giving him. Lavender looked like she wanted to laugh, but instead she smiled at Ginny, and dragged Seamus away.
Harry turned back to Ginny to see her biting her lip. "I mean, if you really want to go to Cho, then of course you should go," she said, loosening her death grip on him a little. "But she needs to cry, and Bill's a very safe person for her to do it on. And he's very good at comforting crying girls."
Harry shrugged. "I just thought - I mean, I'm her date..."
"That's exactly why she couldn't cry on you," Ginny said, looking up at him earnestly. "She wouldn't want to ruin your evening."
"Oh," Harry said, shaking his head. "You know, Ginny, I don't think I'm ever going to understand girls."
Ginny giggled. "We're easy to understand, really."
"Oh, yeah? Then why did Ron take so long to understand Hermione?"
"Because Ron's Ron," Ginny said. "And, besides, he worked it out in the end, didn't he? Do you see them anywhere around here?"
Harry looked around, and he didn't. "Tell me they didn't have a fight."
Ginny grinned. "They didn't."
Harry started to grin, too. "So, we're not going to walk into another scene like the one I walked into last year after the ball?"
"I doubt it. We might walk into a completely different kind of scene, but not that one."
Harry thought about that for a moment. "I don't think I want to walk into any kind of scene."
Ginny giggled, and put her head down on his shoulder. Harry could barely believe it, but he let himself pull her a little closer and close his eyes. He knew he shouldn't be enjoying this - he shouldn't be having fun at a ball a few days before Voldemort's attack - but, then, Ginny had told him to relax. He would listen to her. Maybe this ball thing wasn't so bad, after all.