Share a room with Hermione Granger?
I can't do that. I felt my face fall before Mum had finished speaking. I managed to change the droop to a nod. I had faced Tom Riddle and lived. I could face Hermione Granger and my insides would die only a little more.
"But why are we staying at the Leaky Cauldron?" I asked. "Won't it be fearfully expensive?"
"The Ministry is paying," said Mum briskly, "as a favour to your father. It owes him a few. And Hermione will be staying with us because her parents can't afford to take two days off work. They seemed quite relieved when I said we'd see Hermione safely onto the Hogwarts Express."
Mum didn't say that our family owed Hermione Granger a few favours, but it hung in the air between us. It was my fault that Hermione had spent five weeks of the last year unconscious in the hospital wing. If Mr and Mrs Granger were to feel comfortable about sending Hermione back to Hogwarts, they had to see that most wizards were safe, responsible people.
I wish Hermione wouldn't come back to Hogwarts. I squashed that self-centred thought and pulled out Charlie's battered old school trunk. Ron's last-year books were stacked in one corner, and I began removing the titles by Gilderoy Lockhart, because this year the DADA syllabus had changed (again). Last year's robes still fitted … more or less ... and it would be all right to ask my parents for a couple of new quills. I really needed a new cauldron, one with a thick, solid bottom, but I knew I couldn't mention that to Mum and Dad.
For all my wishing, nothing went hopelessly wrong. Our family moved inexorably towards the new school term without flaw or hitch from the moment I locked the lid of my half-packed trunk to the moment the Granger family burst into the door of the Leaky Cauldron. Hermione was looking brown and radiant. Dad paid for a round of drinks and asked Mr Granger excited questions about street lamps, batteries and televisions. I lifted my nose from my tumbler (of milk, because Dad said I was too young for butterbeer) and stole a glance at Hermione. The very sight of her untidy curls sent a stabbing pain right through my ribs.
Think: it's my fault that she lost five weeks of her life. But I was not feeling guilty.
Think: she's taking up all Ron's attention. But Ron and I had lived on top of one another all summer, so in fact I was glad of a break from him.
Finally Mr and Mrs Granger announced that they had a train to catch ("How do those eckeltrick trains work?" asked Dad). They hugged Hermione goodbye and disappeared through the front door. The rest of us filed out through the back door to Diagon Alley.
"Come on, Hermione," Ron shouted, "let's go and find Harry!"
Stab. Even as Hermione protested, "Wait, Ron, we should buy our books first – " I was processing the truth.
Hermione Granger was Harry Potter's girlfriend.
"Slow down," said Mum. "We need to take you to Ollivander's first, young man."
As Mum propelled us towards Ollivander's, I feebly rationalised that not-quite-in-third-year boys don't have girlfriends. Harry probably didn't think of Hermione that way. Not yet.
But Hermione was Harry's best friend. They did everything together. They told one another everything. She might as well be his girlfriend already. No other girl would have a chance.
Especially not a silly, prattling dupe who had broadcast her adoration to the whole world before Harry had even had the chance to decide whether or not he wanted to be friends (no wonder he had decided he didn't!), and then been tricked by Tom Riddle into attacking the whole school so that Harry had been forced into battle against a basilisk in order to save her life …
"This one!" Ron's shout broke into my thoughts. I shook myself. Tom Riddle was over, and nothing else could be as serious as that. Ron was waving a fourteen-inch willow wand above his head, and a shower of scarlet stars was swirling out of its unicorn-hair core.
"Oh, look, Ginny," said Mum, "answer your friends when they wave at you!"
Friends? I stared wildly, knowing very well that I had no friends. The waving girls were Vicky Frobisher and Sarah Hooper. By the time I had timidly waved back, they had disappeared into Madam Malkin's. I knew I would never dare suggest that we follow them into that forbidden palace – Mum might think I was hinting. And, really, the old robes did still fit.
All last year I had hoped and hoped that Vicky and Sarah would want to be friends with me. They had been kind, never telling me directly that they didn't want me sitting down next to them in lessons or tagging along after them to the Charms Club, always sharing their sweets or including me in conversation. But they had never taken any initiative in inviting me along. In the end I had realised that I couldn't interfere between two Best Friends like that, so I had stopped following them around. Vicky and Sarah had become even kinder when they realised that I had given up, but not in a way that had encouraged me to try again.
Just as I could never interfere between Harry Potter and Hermione Granger. They were Best Friends. They might share their sweets with me, but they would never share their secrets.
Next we went to Flourish & Blotts, and Ron immediately asked after Harry Potter. Everyone knew Harry, of course, and the manager confidently stated that he had not been here today. Hermione began flying around the shop, gathering armfuls of books, while Mum frowned at our list. Ron was taking up Care of Magical Creatures and Divination, Percy was studying History of Magic (a subject that neither Bill nor Charlie had taken to N.E.W.T. level), and we all needed new DADA texts.
"Thank goodness it's only one DADA text each this year," said Mum. "Let's look in the second-hand section. Careful, Ronald!"
Ron did not need to be warned. He was holding a book that appeared to have bitten him. The assistant held out a pillow case into which Ron dropped the book, then a second pillow case for Hermione. "No good putting these monsters in a bag together," he said. "They'd kill each other before you even reached Hogwarts."
The shop door bell jangled as Mum was paying for the books, and in walked Emma Bailey and Katharine Stimpson.
"Hello, Ginny," said Emma cheerfully. "Do you know where to find Goshawk's book?"
"Silly, she won't be buying it," said Katharine. "There hasn't been a new edition for ten years. I'm using Patricia's old one."
"You're lucky, saving all that money on hand-me-down books," said Emma.
"No, you're lucky, having all your text books looking so shiny and new," said Katharine.
"Oh, Ginny's met up with some more friends," said Mum briskly, just as I had decided that Emma and Katharine were speaking more to each other than to me. "It's certainly your day today!"
I put the new books into my bag, not troubling to explain that Emma and Katharine weren't really friends either. They were already pulling brand-new books off the shelves. My new DADA book had its cover completely loose from its spine: it was the kind of book a Weasley could afford.
"Now can we go and look for Harry?" asked Ron impatiently.
Mum waved them off. Hermione glanced back at me, but Ron did not. They were going to look for Harry without me.
I glanced through the window of Quality Quidditch Supplies even though I knew I would never own my own broomstick. Harry flew like a swallow. There was a crowd of schoolboys goggling at something in the window display and when I moved a step in the shop's direction I knew what it was.
A real, live, new-release Firebolt, taking up the whole display. Even Mum could not stop herself from staring.
The boys turned their heads, and I realised I knew all of them: Jack Sloper, Andrew Kirke, Howard Dingle and Rhys Jones.
"Hello, boys," I said politely. "That's not real, is it?"
"Of course it's real!" protested Howard indignantly.
"The Irish International Side bought seven of them from this very shop!" said Jack.
"Price on request," I read. I turned away again, feeling queasy. That one broom probably cost more than our family's entire sweepstake winnings.
"Weren't those boys in your class?" asked Mum. I nodded, leaving her to wonder why I hadn't been friendlier. But none of them had ever taken much notice of me … and it hurt to look at that beautiful Firebolt …
Mum started to worry about money again when we entered the Apothecary. We could hand-me-down text books, but there was no escape from the need to buy five separate sets of potion ingredients. While I was staring wistfully at the unicorn horns I realised that someone else was staring too. Was the whole world trailing me through Diagon Alley? This time it was Colin Creevey.
"Hiya, Ginny, don't you just wish you had a unicorn?" he asked cheerily.
I smiled non-committally. Colin was the one classmate who had been consistently friendly to me last year. It was my fault that he had spent six months unconscious in hospital, yet he had never held it against me.
"It would be hard to smuggle a pet like that into Hogwarts, don't you think? It would be scared of all the people. You couldn't keep it indoors. But there isn't really any kind of stable or paddock outdoors. A unicorn might even try to escape to the Forbidden Forest and get hurt. Feeding it would be a problem too. All the same – "
"Unicorns do live in the Forbidden Forest," I interrupted, just so that Colin knew this wasn't a monologue. "My brothers told me. The other creatures don't seem to be much of a threat to them."
Colin looked relieved. "Really? They live there, and they're more or less safe? I wonder if we'll ever see one? Because you can't really keep a creature like that in captivity at all, it would pine away. But it would be the most brilliant pet …"
Before I could say anything else, Mum had swooped down again, bulging bags full of basic potions supplies. "And another of your friends! They're everywhere!"
"I'm Colin Creevey," he held out his hand to be shaken. "Pleased to meet you, Mrs Weasley."
"Nice to meet you too, dear. Now come along, Ginny, I think we have just enough Sickles left to invest in a few quills. I don't know how Percy wears out his so fast, it must be all those long essays he was writing over the summer ..."
I nearly pointed out that Percy had intended to use his own allowance to buy his new quill (he wanted some kind of special ink-efficient unbreakable-nib swan's feather) but I realised in time that this could give Mum unhelpful ideas. If she bought an economy set of a dozen plain common-and-garden ones, I could always beg Percy to hand his share over to me.
We nearly bumped into Fred and George, who were emerging from Gambol & Jape's as we passed. Their bags were bulging. Fred winked at me and hissed in a stage whisper, "We'll show you after dinner, Ginny."
"Frederick Weasley, are you planning to waste your O.W.L. year fooling around with …"
I tuned out of whatever Mum was saying. George relieved me of my heavy book bag in exchange for his bulging sack of toys. We also met up with Percy a little beyond the Post Office, so we all entered the Leaky Cauldron together just as the clock was striking five.