"Is it just me, or are people getting a little too into the Valentine's thing this year?" Ginny asked, glancing around the Gryffindor common room. It had been decked out with pink and red streamers and balloons, along with an enchanted miniature quartet that persisted on playing romantic music at all hours of the day.
"I've noticed," Hermione sighed. "Come on, we'll be late for breakfast, and I hear we're getting heart-shaped pancakes today."
Ginny rolled her eyes. "But what about the poor house-elves having to make the pancakes?" she teased.
Hermione looked sheepish. "I know, I know. But it's only once a year - and it is such a lovely Valentine's Day treat . . . especially when there's no chance of a card, or any kind of romantic gesture," she added pointedly, hoping to make Ginny feel mildly guilty by reminding her that she was single, while Ginny was very much part of a couple. Granted, it was being part of a couple which consisted of her and Colin Creevey, but Colin had grown-up a little in the last few years, and several of the girls considered him to be attractive . . . and at least Ginny had someone.
Not that Hermione was bitter. Oh, no. Just because it was Valentine's Day and people had been talking about nothing else for weeks on end. Who are you taking to the Ball? What are you getting so-and-so for Valentine's Day? It had been nothing but giggle-and-sigh, giggle-and-sigh from everyone.
Everyone who was in a relationship, that was.
"I'm sorry," Ginny said softly, touching her arm.
Hermione smiled. "It's okay. You know I don't really care." She'd been trying very hard to keep up an act of not minding that she was going to be single on the most romantic day of the year, and that no one had invited her to the Valentine's Ball. The last thing she wanted was for anyone - even her best friend - to feel sorry for her.
"If you say so," Ginny said lightly, and Hermione knew she hadn't been able to fool Ginny. It was to be expected, in one way, since they were so close, and yet she resented Ginny seeing this weakness, this pathetic aspect of her. She didn't particularly want to be clingy and needy, but the hype of Valentine's Day was getting to her this year.
Maybe it was that Ginny and Colin were together, and the way they acted around one another. Maybe that was it. She'd been used to it being just her and Ginny. Just the two of them, with no need for anyone else. Occasionally one of them would develop a minor crush, and they would giggle about it for a while, before moving on and forgetting all about it. Last Valentine's Day, they'd spent the night sitting in the common room, curled up beside the fire, munching on Bertie Bott's Special Edition Valentine's Day Every Flavour Beans, and talking about how everyone made such a big deal out a day that wasn't special at all, and that it was silly to be so desperate for a boyfriend, especially when you had good friends.
Yes, that had to be it. She was just feeling a little bit left-out because Ginny was now part of the Valentine's-celebrating group, the world of couples, and she was left on the sidelines.
Don't think like that, she scolded herself. But she had to admit that it was a bit upsetting that no one had asked her to the Ball.
They arrived down to the hall, to discover that Hermione had been right. Heart-shaped pancakes were being served. They sat down, Colin joining them within a matter of minutes. "Happy Valentine's Day," he beamed at Ginny, handing her a heart-shaped box of chocolates with a red ribbon.
"Happy Valentine's Day," she echoed, smiling at him. "Thank you!"
Hermione bit viciously into her pancake, staring at the table. Happy couples. She hated them. And it felt as though she was surrounded by them - everywhere she looked, people were smiling in a silly, infatuated way at one another, or holding hands, or kissing, or giggling at some private joke.
"I'll see you later," she said to one half of the Ginny-and-Colin unit, getting up from the table.
"Okay," Ginny nodded. "You're coming to Hogsmeade, aren't you?"
Hermione considered it. She had been planning to go, of course, but suddenly the thought of avoiding all the happy couples seemed more appealing.
"Probably not," she said lightly. "I have a lot of work to do."
"It's the weekend, you should relax," Ginny replied.
Hermione sighed. "I will. After I've finished the work."
She made her way to the library, which was guaranteed to be quiet and peaceful - a far cry from the common room, anyway, she thought. She'd lied to Ginny - she didn't have any work to do - but it never hurt to get an extra bit of study in. She sat down at a table with a comforting pile of books and began to read.
When she read, she could forget about everything else. She could have spent the whole day hidden away in the library, if Ginny hadn't peeped in and walked over to her. "You do not have work to do," she said firmly.
"I have to study," Hermione protested.
"You're hiding. Come on. Come to Hogsmeade. It'll do you good."
"I really should stay -"
"Please?" Ginny wheedled. "For your best friend?"
Hermione sighed and then smiled. "Okay. I'll come."
She set her books aside and she and Ginny joined the crowd heading for Hogsmeade. Hermione was still aware of the fact that almost everyone seemed to be paired off, but somehow it didn't seem so bad now that Ginny and Colin weren't gazing adoringly at one another.
"Where's Colin?" she wondered.
"I sent him off with his friends," Ginny smiled. "He's happier with them, I'm sure."
"But - it's Valentine's Day. Shouldn't you two be inseparable? More so than you already are?"
"That sounded bitter," Ginny noted.
Hermione reddened. "Sorry, I didn't mean -"
"We're not that bad, are we?"
"No, you're not," Hermione replied automatically, and then realised it was true. Compared to the other friends she had in relationships - like Ron and Hannah Abbott - Ginny and Colin didn't flaunt what they had at all, really. It was just that - well, it was Ginny, and she missed having a best friend around all the time.
"We're not even that serious," Ginny continued, and then - "I'm thinking of breaking up with him."
Ginny shrugged. "It's not working out. He's nice. He really is. He's a good friend - but that's it."
"When did you decide this?" Hermione asked, still puzzled. Not that there wasn't a certain part of her that was glad to hear that the cutest couple at Hogwarts were breaking up, but it seemed a little sudden.
"A while ago," she said casually.
"You never mentioned anything before."
"It's not like you tell me everything," Ginny said quietly.
"I tell you . . . almost everything," Hermione said defensively.
"Apart from anything about Valentine's Day," Ginny said.
"You could've told me that me going out with Colin bothers you," she muttered.
"Bother? It doesn't bother me," Hermione protested.
"Oh, really? I saw the look on your face as soon as he sat down beside us. You couldn't wait to get away."
"It wasn't that. It's just - oh, you don't know what it's like. Everyone seems so happy and so in love, and it's hard not to be a part of that." She felt as though she was whining, and hated herself for it.
"It never bothered you before."
"Yeah, but - but that's because I always had you. You and me, not caring about any of this stuff. And now you've got Colin, and I - don't have anyone."
Unexpectedly, Ginny threw her arms around her friend. "You know I love you, right? You're the best friend a girl could ask for."
Hermione returned the hug, and smiled. "I love you too."
Draco Malfoy stomped past. "Get a room," he muttered over his shoulder.
"What's your problem, Malfoy?" Ginny called after him. "No one sent you a card?"
Draco didn't respond, but kept walking on, hands shoved in his pockets. Hermione suspected that Ginny was right, but a part of her felt sorry for Draco. Even though he wasn't the nicest person around - and had never been anything other than obnoxious to her - she could relate to feeling left out of the festivities.
They wandered around Hogsmeade for most of the afternoon, stopping into the Three Broomsticks after they'd finished shopping. To Hermione's surprise, she saw Professor Snape in there, talking in what appeared to be a very intimate way to Madam Rosmerta. The thought of her scowling potions teacher having any sort of a love life made her shiver. It just seemed - wrong.
"When are you going to tell Colin?" Hermione asked Ginny, sipping her butterbeer.
Ginny sighed. "I don't know. I can't tell him tonight, obviously - I mean, that'd be just too cruel."
"On the other hand, I'm not looking forward to tonight. He'll expect me to dance with him all night, and I just want to have fun."
"You could pretend to be sick," Hermione suggested with a slight smile. "It's mean, but at least you wouldn't have to spend the evening with him."
Ginny grinned. "I could. But I'd better just get it over with. Then I'll have a talk with him tomorrow, try to let him down gently." She gulped down the rest of her drink. "We should be getting back soon, shouldn't we?"
On the way back, she noticed Harry and Draco looking unusually friendly. She couldn't recall the last time she'd seen the two of them within ten feet of one another without insults being thrown. And now they were walking side by side, without any apparent hostility.
"What's going on there?" Hermione murmured, nudging Ginny.
Ginny looked at the two boys and shrugged. "That's odd. Unless - you know, I did see Harry buying a card today. And if I'm not mistaken, Draco has it in his hand right now."
Hermione's mouth dropped open in shock. "Harry and Draco?"
"What, just because they're two boys? Honestly, Hermione, you can be so . . . narrow-minded at times. They like each other. You don't need to look so disgusted at the idea," Ginny exploded.
Hermione stared at her for a moment. "Actually, I meant that they've spent the last six and a half years hating each other with a fiery vengeance."
"Oh," Ginny said softly, blushing. "Of course."
"Do you really think I'm narrow-minded?"
"No, I just - I just overreacted, I suppose."
"I'm happy for them."
"Harry and Draco!" Hermione said, somewhat amused.
"Oh. Of course," Ginny blushed again. "Sorry, I'm - I'm off in another world."
"Let me know when you come back to this one," Hermione smiled.
They arrived back at Hogwarts and almost immediately people began rushing off to get ready for the Ball. Hermione wondered whether to go or not. It wasn't much fun being alone at these things, but it wouldn't be much fun staying upstairs on her own either.
"Are you going to go?" Ginny asked, as if reading her mind.
"I don't know," Hermione said honestly.
They had reached the Fat Lady, who - like everyone else - was getting into the spirit of things by dressing in shades of red and pink, with hearts dotting her dress. "You should, you know," the Fat Lady said conversationally. "You don't want to be spending Valentine's Day locked away in your room, now, do you?"
Hermione tried to smile. "No, of course not." Although would it really be such a bad idea? "Cupid's arrow," she said, and the frame swung open. They stepped into the common room.
"Please come," Ginny said. "It'll be fun. Really. We can avoid all the couples and just enjoy ourselves, just you and me."
"And Colin," Hermione reminded her.
"And Colin," she sighed.
Hermione retreated to the seventh year girls' dormitory, where Lavender and Parvati and the others were preening themselves in the mirror. She ignored them - not too difficult a task, as they were far too busy with their own reflections to pay attention to the roommate-who-hadn't-got-a-date-to-the-Ball - and began looking through her clothes, wondering what to wear. She had a number of dresses, but most of them had been worn before. Not that it really mattered, she supposed, she wasn't trying to impress anyone. Yet the part of her that always needed to have everything right made sure that she looked suitable before going down to the Great Hall.
She saw Harry and Draco together, mouths pressed together, lost in one another. She really couldn't get used to the idea of the two of them together, she sighed, and was reminded of Ginny's outburst earlier. She wasn't narrow-minded, was she? She'd always considered herself to be open to new ideas, and the thought that maybe she wasn't upset her slightly.
"Stop staring," Ginny giggled, coming up behind her.
Hermione twirled around. "I wasn't, I - oh, Ginny. Wow." She'd never seen Ginny look so stylish and - well, beautiful before. She was used to seeing her friend in her robes or in casual outfits, but not in such elegant clothes, in a dress that clung to her slender figure and made her look like a woman rather than a schoolgirl.
Ginny shifted her feet nervously. "I feel kind of awkward in this."
"You look beautiful," Hermione said. "Absolutely beautiful. Wow."
Ginny smiled. "Thanks. You look great too, you know."
Hermione rolled her eyes, doubting it very much, but let it pass. A new song started up, and people began to dance. Hermione edged towards the wall, but Ginny stopped her, taking her hand. "Come on. You're not going to hide away all night. We're going to dance."
Hermione half-smiled. "You're getting terribly bossy, Ginny."
"I had an excellent teacher," Ginny shot back. It was a fast song, and she was tossing her hair all around the place. Hermione watched, wishing she could just let go like that, and throw herself into the music.
Once it was over, a rather familiar blonde-haired boy took over the microphone.
"Please tell me Malfoy isn't going to sing," Hermione murmured to Ginny.
"I think he just might," Ginny replied, looking horrified at the thought.
"I'm going to sing," Draco announced in his typical arrogant fashion.
Hermione and Ginny tried not to laugh.
"Uh," he continued, "this is for" - his face softened somewhat - "someone special. So, yeah, here we go."
"I did it today," Ginny whispered to Hermione as Draco began to sing. Quite well, surprisingly enough.
"You did what?" Hermione asked, confused.
"Broke up with Colin," she said. "I know I said I wouldn't, not today, but - I had to. It wasn't fair to him."
Hermione put her arm around her friend's shoulder. "You did the right thing."
"Maybe," Ginny said softly.
"You did," Hermione repeated firmly.
She couldn't help but notice that Draco's song was reinforcing the couples-only idea, as everyone around them paired off. Beside them, Ron and Hannah were kissing. Ginny glanced over in their direction. "Oh, I really don't need to see that," she muttered, turning back to Hermione, and resting her head on her shoulder. "I don't want to know what my brother does, thank you very much."
"I'd better distract you, then," Hermione smiled, slipping her arms around Ginny's waist. "Come on, let's dance."
"It's a slow song," Ginny murmured, but she moved in all the same.
"We don't have to -" Hermione said awkwardly, realising how she might have come across.
"No, we'll dance," Ginny said softly, resting her head on Hermione's shoulder again. Hermione could feel Ginny's breath on her bare skin, raising goosebumps, but not in an entirely unpleasant way. It was comfortable, soothing.
When Draco finished singing, there was applause, and the sound of the clapping broke through the dreamlike of their movement. "It's over," Ginny said.
"Yeah," Hermione said, not wanting to move.
"I'm comfortable here," Ginny giggled.
Hermione smiled. "Me too." Another slow song started, and they moved again, ever so slightly. Hermione tentatively moved a hand to stroke Ginny's hair. Now she could feel Ginny's lips on her skin, softly kissing her shoulder, her neck, and then -
They stared at one another for a moment. Hermione wondered if Ginny was thinking the same thing as she was, that a kiss on the lips was something special, something that couldn't be written off later as a mistake or a misguided attempt at consolation, but something definite and decisive.
That a kiss can change everything, and maybe not for the better.
She could feel her heart pounding, her mind swirling. She'd never kissed a girl before, barely even kissed anyone, and what on earth was she doing behaving like this towards her best friend?
And then her lips were on Ginny's, and she suddenly realised that she knew exactly what she was doing.