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Aboard the Hogwarts Express: by Ada & Splatt
Summary: Harry begins his 6th year journey to school as usual, aboard the Hogwarts Express. But a need for solitude leads to an interesting conversation with Ginny, and ultimately an unexpected realization for one of them.
Rating: PG – very mild language
Classification: Hint H/G
Disclaimer: All characters and names used in these fics are the legal property and creative work of JK Rowling and/or Warner Bros. We are making no profit from these stories, merely having fun. In other words, please don’t sue us!
Harry Potter edged his way along the train, squeezing round groups of students who were still milling up and down the corridors looking for seats. He caught a brief glimpse of Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, his two best friends at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry. In all honesty, they were hard to miss: Hermione with all that bushy brown hair; and Ron, towering over all the other prefects, his shock of flaming red hair acting like a beacon. Harry couldn’t help a reluctant grin from forming as he edged around an abandoned trunk and moved past more brimming compartments.
Hearing Ron belting out instructions to younger students further down the train, Harry mused whether, if Ron wasn’t careful, he was well on his way to becoming Head Boy; he seemed to be approaching his role as prefect this year with a whole new attitude. He’d even done some of his homework during the summer holidays without Mrs. Weasley having to resort to magic to make him get on with it.
At first, Harry hadn’t been sure what to make of it, until Hermione had wisely pointed out that without Fred and George around to torment or tease him, he would probably enjoy his responsibilities this year. Harry hoped it had the same influence on Ron’s Quidditch-playing, which while ... legendary … could hardly be called first-class to date.
Harry shrugged. What did it matter to him? He’d not been made a prefect last year, and nor had he this time, and he had to admit that now he could see why Professor Dumbledore had made that decision. He had other responsibilities, slightly bigger things preoccupying his mind. Being a prefect or not – well, it just didn’t seem important now, in the whole scheme of things.
Grunting a reply whenever he was spoken to, which was noticeably more often than this time last year, Harry continued to make his way down the train, hardly even stopping for the people he knew: first Ernie MacMillan and Hannah Abbott, then the Creevey brothers, and lastly Katie Bell, the new Gryffindor Captain. Harry let out a sigh of relief as he reached the guard’s van at the end of the train. He slipped unnoticed through the door, slid it closed behind him and then paused to let his eyes adjust to the dim light.
There were no windows in this carriage, just slats where strips of filtered sunlight peered through, casting a sparkle on the dusty air. Harry wrinkled his nose, and then let out a heavy breath of relief. He was alone, in the dark and quiet. All that surrounded him, judging by the aroma, were the cages full of magical creatures: owls, rats, toads and cats. He could hear rustlings, and mewing, the occasional scratching of claws on metal or wood, and now and again a throaty croak. As his sight adjusted to the dusky light, jewel-bright eyes flashed at him from all corners and Harry whispered softly, “Don’t mind if I join you, do you?” before feeling his way between the larger cages and finding a gap against the wall of the carriage where he could sit down. For some reason, he always found comfort in being alone in a cramped, dark space.
A sudden jolt told him that the Hogwarts Express had started to pull out of the station, and he heard the loud, cheerful whistle echoing from outside. As the train gathered momentum, fresh air started to slip through the slatted panels, and shadows of passing buildings made the thin bars of light inside the carriage flicker rapidly, like an old cine film.
Harry sat up and pulled off jumper; it was a warm September day, and despite the breeze it was quite stuffy still inside the guard’s van. He scrunched the jumper up into a mound and sat back down on it, wriggling his shoulders against the hard wooden wall in an attempt to find a comfortable position. He was just about to close his eyes and let his mind wonder, when he heard something. With a muttered expletive, he pulled his legs up close to his chest and crouched down low in his nook between the cages.
Someone else had slid open the door into the van.
* * * *
Ginny Weasley tugged the door to the carriage shut with a satisfying thud. She heaved a heavy sigh, shoved her hair irritably over her shoulder and turned to embrace the darkness and solitude of the guard’s van.
She knew she shouldn’t be letting it bother her; after all, “following in Percy’s footsteps” no longer had an appeal within the Weasley family, and it was over a year since her mother had used Percy as an example of what she’d hoped her younger children would turn into. Ginny grimaced. Poor Mum, she was trying to come to terms with the fact that Fred and George were turning out to be far more successful in life than precious Percy any day.
But Ginny herself … well, she felt a double-burden where her mother was concerned. Not only was she the youngest of 7 children, but also she was the only girl. And although her Mum had said nothing to her, she knew – Ginny knew – that her NOT being picked as a prefect this year had upset her.
“Damn it!” Ginny cursed under her breath. She peered into the gloom, letting her eyes adjust gradually in the flickering shafts of sunlight. It might be calm and solitary in here, but it was decidedly smelly, and very warm. She sighed again, but less heavily. It wasn’t as if she was bothered for herself. She hadn’t really expected to be made a prefect, but seeing her Mum pretending not to notice, catching her surreptitiously double-checking the school envelopes when she thought Ginny wasn’t looking, to see if anything had been missed …
But deep down, if she was really honest with herself, although she wasn’t disappointed, part of her was … annoyed? No, frustrated, perhaps … and a little unsettled. Because what might it mean? Did it mean that Dumbledore didn’t trust her? Did he wonder if her experiences in her first year, her possession by the memory of Tom Riddle, would somehow show up at some point in her future – as a weakness? Or was that just her? Because that was what had been preying on her mind ever since she’d received her school letter – she hadn’t been hoping or expecting, because she hadn’t really given it much thought. Not until it didn’t happen, and she’d seen the quickly shielded expression in her Mum’s eyes. Now she couldn’t stop wondering – how tiresome.
Ginny started to make her way across the wooden floor, skirting round the larger cages stacked in the center – she could see the ideal spot where there would be a place to sit, with her back to the carriage wall – a gap between the stacks of cages - she’d be able to stretch out her legs and she wouldn’t have to be sociable. Because right now, Ginny didn’t feel remotely like spending time in company, all she wanted was her own thoughts.
She tugged her jacket off as she crossed the floor, giving the sleeve a violent yank as it refused to let go of her wrist and then she tossed it into the space between the cages so that she could sit on it. Only it didn’t seem to hit the floor. Eyes widening, Ginny stared as the dim shape of a person rose out of the space between the cages - a person who was now dangling her jacket in front of her. A sudden shaft of sunlight flickered through the wooden slats of the carriage and glinted on a pair of round, wire-rimmed glasses: Harry.
Harry waved the piece of clothing that had landed unceremoniously on his head a moment earlier from side to side, his eyes meeting the startled gaze of Ginny Weasley, who then choked on a laugh before saying, “Bloody hell, Harry! You half scared me to death! I couldn’t see you tucked down there”, and she snatched her jacket back from his unresisting hand and started to fold it up.
Harry had risen slowly to his feet, chewing thoughtfully on his lip. The last thing he’d wanted was to be disturbed, he seriously wasn’t in the mood for company, but for some reason he was aware that his head wasn’t particularly bothered by this intrusion. He’d become fairly used to having Ginny around, after her involvement in the DA last year and his lengthy stay at The Burrow this summer. What was more, he felt an inexplicable bond towards anyone who’d known and loved Sirius.
Ginny had finished folding her jacket up and was now watching him curiously, head tilted to one side. She was smiling a little, but Harry had the feeling that she wasn’t really in the mood for chitchat either. As a result, he wasn’t sure what to say – it would have to be either something incredibly trivial about the weather or to ask her outright what she was doing in the guard’s van with the animals.
Therefore, he was little surprised himself when what actually came out of his mouth was, “You okay?”
Ginny grimaced and shrugged, glancing round the semi-darkness of the van; she looked back at Harry, as if realizing there was no option but to answer, and sighed.
“Yeah, I suppose so …” She paused, frowned, and then added: “How did you feel when Ron was made prefect, Harry?”
Harry stared back at her, his mind a complete blank. It wasn’t that he couldn’t remember how he had felt, it was just such an unexpected question.
“I – er …“ Harry shoved his hand through his untidy black hair. He re-adjusted his glasses on his nose and peered down at her in the gloom. “I was … sort of … why do you want to know?” he ended up asking.
Ginny looked like she was about to reply, but a lurch of the carriage had them both grabbing onto the nearest cage for support.
“Is there somewhere we can both sit? It looks a bit cramped in there,” Ginny nodded in the direction of Harry’s shoulder, indicating the small space where he’d been sitting when she’d arrived.
Harry looked around; the place was stacked so full of cages it was impossible to imagine anywhere that offered anything quite as civilized as a seat.
“Hold on,” he grabbed his crumpled jumper from the dusty floor, eased past Ginny and started to explore further up the carriage. He was aware that Ginny was following behind him; he heard her curse under her breath as another lurch of the train threw them both sideways again.
“Harry!” he turned on hearing Ginny’s call; she was spreading her jacket out on top of a couple of large crates, the nearest one of which appeared to be marked ‘Sapperthwaite’s Sensationally Soft Sawdust.’ “Will this do?”
He walked back to where she now sat cross-legged on top of her jacket and grinned. Shaking out his jumper, he spread it over the crate of sawdust and sat down. The only problem was there was now no escape. He’d come in here seeking solitude and time to think, and she’d come in here obviously not seeking company either, and here they were, in the semi-dark, in company and with the remains of an eight-hour journey ahead of them …
Harry settled himself side-on to Ginny, lifting his left leg up and resting the heel on the edge of the box. He grasped hold of his knee in order to keep his balance as the carriage moved and swayed around them. He was aware that Ginny was gazing off into space, some unknown thought on her mind, judging from the frown that creased her brow, but as the silence stretched on between them, he found he wasn’t sure where to look. If he turned his head to look right at Ginny, she might think he was staring, but if he kept facing forward, he was actually staring straight into a stack of cages full of various pets, and then she might think he didn’t want her to continue with whatever thought it was she’d started to share with him.
For a brief second, Harry wished fervently that Hermione were there to spur the conversation on, but even as he thought it he realized how out of place Hermione would be in this situation. She’d be too concerned about whether or not they had permission to be there, probably, to concentrate on passing the time of day in gentle conversation. He threw Ginny a quick glance; she just fitted in somehow. It didn’t seem to matter to her that they were in the guard’s van, tearing along at breakneck speed, surrounded by all the strange smells and noises of several dozen assorted magical creatures. She didn’t seem to care either that she was perched on a crate of ‘Polly’s Premium Parrott-dropping Potion’. He tried to image what Hermione would be saying if she’d had to travel to school in this situation – no doubt she would have read about different modes of travel somewhere – and as for Ron, well he’d be complaining about the smell or the hardness of his seat …
Suddenly, Ginny broke the silence, “I didn’t want to be a prefect, see? Honestly - not even a little.”
Harry raised his eyebrows, and, for want of a better response said, “Oh. Okay.” Then, because he thought that might have sounded a bit abrupt added, “Really?”
Ginny nodded and said sullenly, “Really. But the problem is, it says something, doesn’t it? That I wasn’t asked?”
Harry didn’t know the answer to that so he didn’t respond and it didn’t seem Ginny expected a response. “I mean everyone except Fred and George has been made prefect –– but, well it’s just so obvious why the twins weren’t. It makes me think it must be obvious why I wasn’t asked too.”
“Er … but didn’t you just say you didn’t want it?” Harry suggested tentatively.
Ginny’s tone of voice already hinted at her being disgruntled. He’d seen a lot of Ginny this summer, and he knew that if he trod recklessly, he could actually end up making things worse.
Ginny sighed loudly and shoved her hair back over her shoulder again. “But that’s the point, Harry. Don’t you get it?” Harry was about to say no, he didn’t, but again, Ginny obviously didn’t expect a response, because she went on. “I didn’t want it; I didn’t even think about it; it was only when I didn’t get it, that I wondered why I didn’t … get it, that is. I mean Ron, bloody RON is a prefect … and I get much better marks than he does and at least I make some effort with my homework … but I didn’t want it, I just need to understand why I wasn’t given it.”
“Dumbledore said he didn’t ask me because of Voldemort and -” Harry started to say.
“See? That’s what I mean. I don’t think it’s that I follow the twin’s code of practice – I mean to say, it’s not like I’ve been caught … yet - so it can’t be for the same reasons they weren’t asked, can it?” Harry wisely held his tongue and watched Ginny chewing thoughtfully on her bottom lip, a frown still creasing her brow. He bit back a smile as he realized there was a light brown smudge on her nose – it reminded him of when he’d had his first journey on the Hogwart’s Express with Ron all those years ago.
“See, I had that connection with Voldemort as well, back in my first year. And I know your connection with Voldemort this year was much, much worse. I mean, yes he was like – sort of using you, just like Tom Riddle used me – but at the end there when he actually … – and for me it was just possession by a memory of his younger self – so I see that yours was more – well, dangerous …” she paused again, it was really as if she was thinking out loud, and not aware that he was there any more. It was because of this sensation that Harry didn’t interject with the thought that was uppermost in his mind right then: how could she think he’d been in any more danger than her? Hadn’t they both been close to death? Hadn’t they both needed saving by someone else at the time?
“… but that was years ago, so it shouldn’t be for that, should it?” This time Ginny seemed to want a reaction to her question. She fixed her eyes on Harry and waited. “Harry?”
“Well, sometimes Dumbledore knows more than we realize, doesn’t he?” Harry ventured, not sure which area to cover first: Ginny’s stunning ability to emulate the twins at times or their shared possession at one time or another by Lord Voldemort.
“Hmph.” Ginny didn’t seem too impressed with his response. Before he could say anything else, however, she was off again: “Do you think Dumbledore knows something about me? You know, about what Tom Riddle did to me? About what it might mean for me in the future? In the way he knew about you, about what those dreams and visions you were having over the years might mean, what they led up to last year?”
Harry blinked rapidly. He looked away from Ginny for a moment, staring at the rattling cages opposite him. He was a little taken aback by Ginny’s sudden switch to his past experiences, which had culminated in the last year with Voldemort possessing his body in that final confrontation at the Ministry for Magic. He didn’t realize she was aware of the whole history of it: his dreams – both day and night – progressing last year to full-blown visions controlled by Voldemort’s manipulation of his mind, but then she had always been around, hadn’t she? All along – just in the background … and last year at Grimmauld Place there’d been no real privacy.
Harry sighed and turned his head to look at Ginny again. She was watching him expectantly, not at all fazed by his delay in responding. Her obvious candor took away any sting, any reproach. She was merely trying to relate her own experiences to his.
He grimaced, shrugging his shoulders at her. “I dunno, Ginny. Just lately I feel like I never really knew Dumbledore at all. Who knows what’s going on inside his head?” He shoved a hand roughly through his hair, as if he needed something to do with his hands, and adjusted his wire-rimmed glasses, which had slid down his nose yet again.
Ginny said “hmmmm” in a tone of agreement and turned her head to the side; she appeared to be trying to catch glimpses of the scenery through the slats in the dusty carriage walls – flickering bands of sunlight kept drifting across her lightly freckled face.
Harry mulled over what she’d just been saying, trying to reason it out with the same detachment Ginny had done. He remembered how Tom Riddle had said that the more the young Ginny poured her heart out to him through the Diary, the more Tom Riddle poured himself into her – that’s how he had grown stronger and she had weakened. But instead of Riddle destroying Ginny – her dying and him coming back to life – the reverse had happened. The memory of Tom Riddle had been permanently erased, and Ginny had fully returned … hadn’t she? Harry frowned – was she right? Did Dumbledore know something they didn’t about the outcome of that encounter?
He watched her profile, could see that a myriad of thoughts were chasing themselves around in her head – her face was a picture of everything she was trying to rationalize.
Harry racked his brains, trying to work out what Dumbledore might be thinking, trying to see how Ron could be a prefect but not Ginny. What had Dumbledore said to him? He’d thought he had rather too many responsibilities, too much going on to burden him with such a thing. Did Dumbledore think Ginny had ‘too much going on’? And if so, what did it mean? A sudden cold hand clutched at Harry’s insides. Was Ginny going to have to face some sort of repercussion for what she experienced all those years ago? Was there really something lying dormant within her that was going to resurface and threaten her?
He shook his head to rid himself of the thought. It was counter-productive and it certainly wasn’t something he could air right now, not with Ginny’s thoughts already spiraling like they were. Harry focused on the earlier part of the chat: her natural ability to use magic to … overcome the occasional obstacle. He thought about her part in last year’s schemes – the Extendable Ears, her stunning Bat-Bogey Hex on Malfoy – Harry suppressed a grin – the Garroting Gas diversion so that Harry could communicate with Sirius ... her participation in the DA, joining the Gryffindor Quidditch team as Seeker, her insistence in accompanying them to the Ministry to save Sirius …
Harry studied her profile carefully for a minute, and then said, “You know, I wouldn’t be so sure that just because you haven’t been caught yet, Dumbledore doesn’t know what you’ve been up to. He usually has a pretty good idea of what goes on around school.”
Ginny sighed heavily, turned back to face him and clasped her hands loosely in her lap. “Nice try, Harry. I just don’t buy it. I mean, he definitely knew Ron was breaking rules all over the place with you – for years – yet Ron was still asked. It can’t just be because of bending a few rules … can it?"
“What I was going to say earlier was that Dumbledore also said he didn’t ask me because he thought I had too many other things on my mind.”
Ginny seemed to give that some thought; then she smiled, “Nope, nothing there. I don’t have any deep dark secrets, no alternate identities. Although Luna is starting to hint that she thinks Crookshanks and I are one and the same – the fact he’s a boy and I’m a girl doesn’t seem to register with her. She just says,” here Ginny adopted a wide-eyed, mystical expression and uttered in a fair imitation of Luna’s otherworldly voice: “yes well that’s what they always said about the Crumple-Horned Snorkack and the Muffalump”.
Harry gave a snort and watched the two screech owls in the nearest cage chattering at each other. “Why don’t you ask him?”
“Ask Dumbledore why he didn’t make me a prefect?” Ginny smirked. “I don’t think so!”
Harry shrugged, “That wasn’t what I meant. Ask him if he knows anything you should know... just...ask him. I’ve made that mistake once too often already – sometimes it’s best to ask.”
Ginny’s initial reaction was to dismiss that idea soundly, but almost immediately Dumbledore’s voice seemed to fill her head from a memory she often suppressed. She stared at Harry without really seeing him, remembering. “He came to see me in the hospital after you destroyed Tom Riddle’s diary” she said quietly.
Ginny paused. She hadn’t intended to share this with Harry, but... well – he was staring back at her, more intent on her than was normal. A sudden thought of what he was going through rushed across her mind, his loss, his frustration and despair. Biting back another sigh, she continued:
“He was very kind and quiet... and wary.”
Ginny frowned and stared down at her knees. Perhaps wary wasn’t the right word. “I’m not sure how to explain... it was as if he were holding back, being...”
Ginny raised her head and looked straight at Harry.
“My parents were mostly worried- but they were also scared of what I’d got myself into - so it was like they weren’t sure how to talk to me about it - what to say. It wasn’t like that when Dumbledore came to visit. With Dumbledore it was like he knew what to say but I remember thinking, he wanted to say more than he did. And before he left he sat with me and I remember I couldn’t look him in the eye at first. But then he just sat there for so long I finally did and he looked sad and tired and …“
Ginny laughed out loud. “I remember I actually asked him if he was alright and he smiled back at me, patted my hand and said that if I ever needed to talk that I should go to him.”
Then, Ginny’s brown eyes widened as she continued to stare at Harry. “You know, now that I think about it, he said that very seriously... he squeezed my hands, I mean to say - it’s as if he really wanted me to remember it.”
Harry could see that Ginny was shocked by the memory she’d just recalled, and what the significance of it might be. Suddenly, the carriage tilted as the train rounded a corner, and they both threw out their hands to steady themselves on the crates they were sharing.
Harry was aware that Ginny’s left hand was clutching onto the edge of the crate, gripping it tightly. He blinked; her hands were small – well, so was Ginny – but not as small as he remembered the young Ginny Weasley, how she had looked to him her first year, how tiny and frail she’d been after Tom Riddle had almost killed her. Something he’d spent all summer trying to accept suddenly popped into his mind. He’d found it very difficult to accept Dumbledore’s reasoning at the time, how it affected him, but he felt he ought to say something.
“Perhaps he thought you were too young to hear what he wanted to say then... so perhaps he’s been waiting for you to come to him – and that he’ll take that as a sign that you’re ready … for whatever it is that he wouldn’t explain to you back then.”
Ginny looked away from him. “So what do I do? Raise my hand during the feast tonight? Ask McGonagall if I can talk to Dumbledore because he might just have some secrets he’s been dying to share with me?”
Harry recognized her frustration – Dumbledore was hardly easily accessible to the students; he’d experienced it enough himself in recent years, like when he desperately needed to reach Dumbledore because Mr. Crouch had turned up on the edge of the Forbidden Forest and Snape was stopping him. The password to his office was never freely available to students, not even to Harry himself. But then he recalled last Easter, and how Ginny had come up with a way for him to talk to Sirius about his Dad ….
With a start, Harry realized how much he wanted to help her, like she had helped him. “Someone told me, not so long ago, that anything’s possible if you've got enough nerve.” He watched her carefully – her curtain of red hair was hanging against her cheek, so he couldn’t read her face any more.
But slowly he saw Ginny raise her head and look back at him - a mischievous grin was tugging at the corners of her mouth, and not for the first time he could see her striking resemblance to Fred and George.
However, before either of them could speak further a sudden noise over near the door made them both sit up straight, ears straining. A clank of keys and gruff clearing of a throat sealed the matter: the guard was coming through.
“Quick!” Harry jumped down off his crate and motioned at Ginny to follow him. They stumbled as quickly as they could towards the very back of the van, swaying with the motion of the train, and squeezed into a narrow space behind the last line of cages. Harry could hear his heart hammering in his ears, although he had no idea why he was so panicked about being discovered.
Obviously they weren’t supposed to be there – the prominent sign on the door saying “Train Staff Only – Strictly No Students” was hard to miss – but it wasn’t as if a train guard was going to be the toughest thing he’d ever faced – not in the overall scheme of things. As he thought about this he had the insane desire to laugh out loud. He struggled hard to suppress it, but couldn’t stop his shoulders from shaking.
Ginny turned around with difficulty from where she was pressed up against the cages and threw him a look: it was quite clear; it said, “Stop it!”
“’ello, ‘ello my pretties,” an ancient voice came drifting through the stuffy air. The guard was checking on the contents of the cages. Harry could hear increased rustlings and chirruping, the occasional mew of a cat, as the guard made slow progress through the carriage.
“What now?” hissed Ginny. She had flattened herself against the wall of the carriage, their shoulders and arms were jammed that tightly together in the small space that Harry had a sudden mental image of them both pinging out of the space with such force that they flattened themselves against the opposite wall. He grinned; perhaps he’d just been watching one too many cartoons at the Dursleys.
“Well, if I had my cloak with me, we could have used that …“ Harry whispered, then choked back another laugh as he heard Ginny’s snort of disbelief.
“And if I could actually reach my wand, I could use that …” he added, and then turned his head to look down at Ginny as he heard her ‘tut’ loudly.
“Nice, Harry, very nice. Full of bright ideas, aren’t you?” Ginny glanced up at him and seemed to sense what he was about to say next, “Yes, yes, I know. ‘Anything’s possible if you've got enough nerve'.”
He grinned at her, but he saw the makings of a smile on Ginny’s face freeze at exactly the same moment he realized they were no longer alone. Slowly, they both turned their heads and encountered the steely glare of what Harry decided must the oldest train guard ever.
Ginny didn’t even need to stop and think; there was a very good reason why her Mum was the only one in the house who managed to punish her. The wizened and elderly man glowered at them both from surprisingly bright eyes behind round, wire-rimmed spectacles. He didn’t seem to know which of them to turn his piercing glare upon first. He held a bunch of ancient looking keys on a sparking metal ring and he was shaking these at them and drawing in a ragged breath in preparation for the lecture he was no doubt about to start. Ginny concentrated on letting her eyes fill with tears and arranged her face into a picture of innocence (something Fred and George, for all their schemes, could never quite master).
"What d’you think you’re doin' ‘ere, you lot?” he narrowed his eyes at Harry. “You think you can get up to something in ‘ere? You can’t kiss a girl out in the open like normal people?”
Ginny blinked rapidly and threw a quick glance up at Harry. He was red-faced and mouthing something that refused to come out. However, the guard must have weighed them up quickly and decided they didn’t exactly look like they were there for romance. He frowned fiercely and turned to Ginny instead.
“‘ave you been messing with the animals? ‘Cos if you ‘ave..."
The Guard faltered, noticing for the first time Ginny’s tearful face, and she launched into her story before he could finish his sentence, "Oh no! Not at all! We weren't hurting the animals I swear, we love animals, don’t we Harry?"
She didn’t wait for Harry to mutter “Errr …“ before continuing, letting her breath hitch a little.
"It’s my toad, my toad is missing! I've never had an animal and this was the first year, you see - and I'm a fifth year now - but this is the first year my parents could afford to buy me an animal and I've wanted one ever since I was little, an animal of my very own."
Ginny sniffed loudly for effect, and the old man blinked his bright eyes and dropped the hand holding the keys to his side.
"I can't stand the thought of my toad, who’s so young and all alone in the world, lost somewhere on this train... what if someone steps on her? What if she falls off the train? What will my parents say?" Ginny was warming to her theme now – she knew for a fact this man loved animals, just from his chatting to them only moments ago.
"Now just a minute young lady, calm yourself now; there’s no need for all this..."
Ginny drew a breath, and let a few tears fall down her cheeks.
"You don't understand! My friend and I have looked for her everywhere - what if one of those owls over there got her?!" The poor guard looked stunned and threw a worried glance at the screech owls busily preening in their cage. Ginny took the opportunity to look quickly up at Harry, who was unfortunately staring at her tear- stained face and looking even more shocked and confused than the guard. Ginny tried not to sigh - why were males so terrified of tears? She gave him a quick wink before crying, "Harry, how scared must Dolores be?"
She watched as Harry's face registered the point she was making, the shock being replaced by what appeared to be a desire to laugh. She elbowed him sharply in the side to warn him not to burst out laughing and turned quickly back to the guard, drawing attention away from her partner in crime.
"Dolores is my toad, you see - she’s small and green and … well, a bit on the ugly side. And to be very honest I think she might also be a little touched in the head – nervy. So you see, I've got to find her straight away!"
"You know, I think I heard something back in my compartment earlier, we really ought to check back there, Ginny, just in case your... toad is just … er … under something." Harry's voice was a bit strained but at least he seemed to be keeping his amusement in check.
Ginny nodded seriously, as if this was most sensible advice anyone had ever given her, wiping her cheeks with the palms of her hands.
"Do you really think so? Oh, yes, we must go and see. Excuse us, please …" she gave the bemused guard the benefit of her best watery smile, but he was already backing away as far as the cramped conditions would allow.
"Yes, yes, righty ho, you go and do that, and I don't want to see neither of you back ‘ere.... without... permission."
Ginny forced herself out of the space she and Harry had jammed themselves into, grabbed Harry's hand and dragged him behind her as she followed the shuffling guard back down the carriage towards the door.
“Absolutely; understood. I was just SO worried about Dolores – I’m sure you understand?"
The guard nodded his wizened head and stood aside so they could pass him, watching Ginny warily, as if he feared she might break into further hysterics.
"Go on with you, out, out. Shoo!"
He slammed the door shut behind them and they heard it lock emphatically. Ginny looked up at Harry, and as soon as their eyes met she grinned triumphantly.
"Very impressive," said Harry. Ginny released his hand and struggled into her jacket.
"I have to admit that wasn't my best performance – I haven't done fake tears on demand since I was ten and I got caught writing a letter to Fred encouraging him to send me a Hogwarts' toilet seat."
Harry grinned, nodded, then adjusted his glasses. "Dolores the toad, huh?"
Ginny snorted, and then held her hand over her mouth to smother another laugh. "I was wondering if you'd got that."
Harry laughed and Ginny smiled back; it had been a rare thing this summer, Harry’s laughter, and for a moment she just enjoyed seeing Harry looking happy - being the one that had made him laugh. She tucked her hair behind her ear and said lightly, "Well, I reckon I've done enough moping for one day; we'd better go and find somewhere else to sit."
They started walking down the narrow passageway together, glancing into the compartments as they passed, and finally coming to a halt outside a fairly empty carriage. “This is it,” said Harry, and Ginny peered round him to see who was inside - Luna Lovegood and Neville Longbottom.
“Ah yes, the old déjà vu! Ever get the feeling we’ve been here before?” she winked at Harry and squeezed in front of him. “Just remember to keep an eye out for my toad." She reached for the door handle but Harry stopped her before she slid it back. "What were you going to do if he wanted to help you look for it?"
Ginny laughed. "I was hoping you'd have enough room by then to get out your wand and transfigure something into Dolores for me!" Ginny slid the door aside and went into the compartment, greeting a sleepy Neville, fielding Luna’s query as to where she’d been until now and threw herself into an empty seat. It was only then that Ginny realized Harry was still out in the corridor.
“Harry!” she shouted.
Harry heard Ginny say his name and called out, ‘Hold on” to her. He was aware that Ron and Hermione were approaching; he could hear their argument from here …
"They were obviously doing magic..."
"Hermione, it’s hardly the first time …"
"That’s no excuse."
"Hermione, you encouraged me to try out a spell on your first train journey to Hogwarts.” Ron and Hermione had arrived at the compartment door. “Harry, can you believe Hermione yelled at some poor first year because he was trying to levitate his trunk?"
"Ronald, if you use your own personal standards as a measure of how you perform your prefect duties, Hogwarts is going to be in trouble... hello Harry."
Harry grinned at them both and watched as they bickered their way into the compartment and unconsciously chose seats opposite each other, so that Hermione could continue to lecture and Ron could continue to wind her up.
He looked at them all, his friends – the ones who’d stood by him last year when he’d needed people far more than his own pride had acknowledged at the time.
Luna, as always on a train journey, was sat next to the window, ensconced behind a copy of her father’s paper, The Quibbler. Neville, who appeared to have fallen asleep rather suddenly, was once again nursing a quivering pot plant in his lap, and his head was slowly slipping down towards Luna’s shoulder.
Ron and Hermione sat nearest to the door, still knee-deep in their argument about the use of magic on the train to school. Hermione’s bushy brown hair seemed to be crinkling up with tension as she hotly defended herself; Ron, judging by the smug expression on his face, obviously felt he was in the right this time. Harry grinned.
The other window seat was now occupied by Ginny, who had once again taken off her jacket and was using it as a pillow against the glass. Her expression was thoughtful as she gazed out of the window, but not disgruntled, as it had been earlier. Harry smiled; he felt more content inside right now than he had done for a year. It had been fun hanging out with Ginny for an hour – they seemed to have a knack just lately for helping each other to talk things out, find solutions to problems.
He realized suddenly that she had turned her head and was looking at him. He smiled and stepped across the corridor into the compartment. There was only one space left, in between Ron and Ginny, and he moved forward to take it. Ginny smiled up at him, a warm, understanding smile of something shared between them, her brown eyes shining. And then he felt it. That lurching sensation in his stomach. The one he thought he’d got rid of. The one he used to feel when he saw Cho smiling, only before he knew the real Cho.
He gulped, trod on Ron’s foot, stumbled and almost fell into the seat next to Ginny. He could feel his face reddening, could hear his heart pounding in his ears. What the hell was going on?
“You alright, Harry?” Ginny said to him quietly as he tried to ignore Ron’s exaggerated groans as he rubbed his foot. He gave her a quick glance, swallowed with difficulty and looked away again.
“Er, yeah.” He took a steadying breath. Of course he was fine. This was Ginny, wasn’t it? Just Ginny …
THE END … or is it the beginning?