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Love Breaks The Noble Spirit by Hippothestrowl

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Format: Novel
Chapters: 40
Word Count: 260,938
Status: COMPLETED

Rating: Mature
Warnings: Mild Language, Strong Violence, Scenes of a Mild Sexual Nature, Substance Use or Abuse, Sensitive Topic/Issue/Theme, Contains Spoilers

Genres: Drama, General, Romance
Characters: Harry, Ron, Hermione, Snape, Neville, Luna, Ginny, OtherCanon
Pairings: Harry/Ginny, Ron/Hermione

First Published: 06/08/2012
Last Chapter: 05/12/2013
Last Updated: 05/12/2013

Summary:


Harry & Ginny's love was understated in Hallows. They knew they should separate but love can break the noblest of ideals. This tells you what secretly happened between the two.


Chapter 1: The Lovers' Medallion
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He's dead. Ginny Weasley sat up in bed clutching her pillow tightly and rocking back and forth. The bad dream's feeling drew her like a magnet - though her reason claimed it false. She fumbled at her throat; found what was there - and now her head was nodding firmly in conflict with the pitching of her body. He's alive!

She swung herself out of bed and walked to the window, discarding the nightmare and her pillow on the way. There was just enough moonlight to see the orchard where they had played Quidditch together. Twisting around, she stared at the empty place on the carpet where they had stood and kissed. He was right there. Her medallion was next. Out it came on the slender chain around her neck. While it was there she knew he lived. It was too dark to read but she knew his last message by heart: 3 OK. Later.

When he had had to leave her, the grown-up self had known what was sensible and performed it well for his sake but now the little baby self was hurting unbearably. Dying by his side would only be frightening - it would not ache and ache inside like this.

She couldn't lie down. She couldn't stand up. She couldn't go downstairs. She couldn't look out the window. There was no escaping the pain.

There was a sound; a footstep on the landing outside. The door opened silently and she knew the person coming in was her mother. No use hiding. The figure stared at her standing there in the darkness for just a few moments then came forward and held her for a long, long time.

"Did you think I didn't know?" whispered Mrs. Weasley.

"What can I do, Mum?" Ginny whimpered. Her voice conveyed the misery that her dark-standing figure had only implied.

"Only wait, Ginny. All we women can ever do." Her arms tightened a little around the young girl. She had never referred to her daughter as a woman before. Ginny wanted to be just a little girl with a grazed elbow to be kissed better - now she was aware of her mother's own sorrow so she returned her squeeze.

"Come on - cup of tea and a chat," whispered Mrs. Weasley, guiding Ginny to the door. "There are a few tricks you learn about waiting."

"Do they help?"

"No."

They sat in the kitchen and talked about events - not directly about Harry. The only light was the flickering glow of a coal fire above which a large iron kettle happily swung, quietly whistling to itself. Ginny was pouring them both a second cup when she yelped and slopped tea on the tablecloth.

"ah ... ah ... ah ..." Ginny thrust down the teapot and got up, excitedly waving her arms, trying to control herself.

"Ginny! What is it?"

"Nothing." Ginny turned, thinking hard. "Just gotta go to the loo, Mum." She dashed off.

Thinking of you. Ginny had lit a candle in her room and was staring at her medallion, reading the tiny silver disk over and over then holding it to her face like a lover's hand. The ornament stopped its trembling, seemingly satisfied its magical message had been conveyed. He's thinking about me right now. Ginny stayed as long as she dare but she had a secret to keep. The long red hair was pushed aside while she touched the emblem with her lips, Me too, then once the kiss was sent, Ginny went back downstairs.

Her mother had charmed away the spilt tea and was sitting there again, waiting in the semi-darkness.

"Sorry, Mum - I'll make some more." Ginny took the teapot to the kettle, trying to hide both her face from the fireglow and a beating heart from her mother. When she sat down again she could see her mother was still holding her wand.

"Lumos."

Ginny lowered her head but she knew the game was up. The teapot was forgotten where it lay on the table.

"You're in touch with him aren't you?" said Mrs. Weasley, searching every inch of Ginny's radiant expression.

""Can't say, Mum." She still held her head down, unable to suppress her rapture.

After a while Mrs. Weasley spoke again, "Ron?"

"OK - they're all alright."

Ginny looked up when she heard her mother take a deep breath. Her Mum was crying. Ginny got up and put an arm around her shoulder.

"Ron'll be fine..."

"Reckless!" Mrs. Weasley wiped the tears from her face with the side of her hand.

"Ron?" queried Ginny.

"Harry!" exclaimed Mrs. Weasley. "Don't you realise they'd... hurt you to get anything you might know?"

There was a slight noise upstairs and they both looked to the ceiling but it was no more than a moan from the ghoul in Ron's room.

"Listen - you must not tell anyone else - not even your father!"

"But... Yes, Harry said no one must know."

Mrs. Weasley's expression clouded again when she heard Harry's name. She got up and paced the kitchen as far as Arthur's chair near the mantelshelf. She stood there muttering now and again, "Rash! Reckless!" and then came back.

"Ginny - I have to... I'm going to do something... You'll have to trust me..."

"Don't be silly, Mum - of course I trust you."

Mrs. Weasley paced back to the chair.

"We need to hide your... - I mean when... something happens... You're a dead giveaway. You can't go acting like that when you get back to Hogwarts." Mrs. Weasley absent-mindedly adjusted the chair's rotation to the angle her husband preferred.

"How? Not Obliviate, Mum - please Mum!"

"No. Not that."

"What then?"

"I need to fix... It's your feelings, Ginny... Let me think a while..."

"No Mum! Please! - I'd rather hurt. I'd rather hurt than not feel what I feel for him..."

Mrs. Weasley stared at her daughter who was looking distraught. She shook her head and came back smiling to Ginny at the table. "It's only about showing excitement at the wrong moment. It's something we did during the first war. It won't stop a powerful wizard searching your mind but at least you won't... you won't wet yourself every time you... hear something."

She leaned over and raised her wand towards Ginny. "Look at me Ginny."

"Legilimens."

Ginny stared at her mother. There was no effect she could detect except a sense of great familiarity. She waited.

"It's done."

"That's it?"

"You won't react when... it happens." Mrs. Weasley paused. "You've got your...?"

Ginny saw the direction of her mother's gaze, nodded, and raised her wand.

"You have to Obliviate me, Ginny."

"No Mum!" Ginny jumped to her feet. "What..."

"You have to do it, Ginny - then go back to bed. Leave me here. Pour me a cup of tea first, love. Shame to waste it."

"Do it good, Gin."

Ginny hesitated, then, "I will."

Afterwards, she left Mrs. Weasley there and made her way back up to her room wondering if there would ever be a day when she could tell her Mum about their little night-time chat. Mrs. Weasley sipped her tea - she was wondering why she had got up in the middle of the night and why there were two cups. Then she started worrying about Ron again - if he was safe.

—oOo—


"Harry? It's me."

Hermione tapped gently on the door to Sirius' bedroom at 12 Grimmauld Place. It opened a crack and Hermione pushed her way in.

"Oh yeah - I'm decent. Just come in why don't you?" said Harry in his shorts.

"How long do you think he'll take?"

"Kreacher? Who knows... Seems to me that Dung is not the kind of person anyone might find easily," said Harry. "Why?"

"Oh... nothing..."

"Look, that's not the reason you're here is it, Hermione?"

"No, I just wanted to make sure the medallion is--"

"You said never to speak of it again! You were the one who nagged me remember?"

"I know - that's what I want to talk about." Hermione hesitated. "You must Obliviate me, Harry. We have to be absolutely sure."

"Hermione! You'd never--"

"We can't trust that... If I were... under duress. Nobody knows what I'd do. Or if my mind was searched..."

Harry sank down onto the edge of his bed at the thought of Hermione being in the hands of the enemy.

"I wanted... The reason I came here... I want to know it's working alright first. Has Ginny got the hang of it now you think?"

She dragged the only chair in the room across and sat down nearer to Harry.

"Oh yes - It took a while to explain just using short messages but--"

"It was all I could do, Harry. There's no--"

"I know, I know. I'm not complaining. It's great, Hermione! You did a great job! Just saying..."

"And you see Ginny's image engraved on it?"

"Yes - and she sees mine. They both have a house on the back."

"Not always, Harry! There's a ship to show when someone's travelling; a marquee for temporary shelter; a castle if you're a guest; and... a portcullis means... I thought it would be--"

"It's a nice touch, Hermione," said Harry. "Pity you can't... What do you see again, exactly?"

"Harry! You're supposed to remember! Roman soldier and erm... Bowl of flowers on Gin's."

"Yeuk! No wonder it slipped my mind!" said Harry. "Still, main thing is - it works."

"And it erm... It comes through like... it should?"

Harry grinned. "Oh yeah!"

Hermione punched him playfully on the arm. "So... it's... I thought it might just be symbolic... From the book I mean... They say things that..."

"It's a kiss alright, Hermione," said Harry.

Hermione folded her arms in her lap and stared silently at Harry. She halted a quizzical expression that was forming on her face and asked casually, "So... What's... How does it..."

"What's it feel like you mean?" smirked Harry.

Hermione's offhand expression flushed slightly. "Well, just so... just for academic reasons you understand - so I know I got it right." She tried to look around the room but her eyes rivetted back onto Harry's face as soon as he began to speak.

"Well, you just think what you want to say then... It's just like a kiss, Hermione - but without the physical if you know what I mean," said Harry. His expression turned more serious. "It's that deep feeling you feel inside when you kiss the one you love except no lips; no soft fingers caressing your face; no..." Harry stopped. Hermione was lost in his description, hanging on his every word. Harry thought of offering her a handkerchief to wipe away some imaginary drool but instead he said kindly, "Bless you, Hermione Granger, for saving me from going completely mental. I don't think I could carry on without--"

Hermione blinked and broke away. "Oh, it was nothing." She stood up. "And it... won't..."

"You'd have to make your own," smiled Harry.

"Me?" huffed Hermione. "What would I need one for!" She walked to the door then stopped and turned around.

"How'd you get it to her anyway?"

"Put it in her bed - just before the wedding," said Harry,"with a message on it: Kiss and Wait."

Hermione smiled and her head tilted to one side for a while - then she turned a sigh into a shrug and turned back to the door.

"Hermione?"

"Yes?" Hermione spun round again.

"Aren't you forgetting something?" Harry jiggled his wand in the air. "Obliviate?"

"Oh... yes... Well you can hardly do it here can you?" said Hermione. "I mean, if I suddenly found myself in your room I'd probably run screaming--"

"Oh thanks!"

"You have to... You have to wipe everything - everything I know about charming a lovers' medallion," said Hermione, slightly tearfully. "I've already destroyed the book. It might be..." She paused for a long, long time. "I think... It might be... It's... It was... possibly the only one in existence."

Harry stared silently. He could see she felt some deep sense of loss from her expression.

"Can you wait till I'm asleep, please Harry?"

Harry looked at her. "Sure. Sure I will."

"Oh, and make sure Ron doesn't see you or he'll go mental--"

"What's it got to do with him?" said Harry with a grin.

"Oh, nothing."

"Night, Hermione."

"Night, Harry."

—oOo—


Chapter 2: Secrets and Ties
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Ginny stared gloomily at the seat opposite, waiting for the train to start its sombre journey. In years past she would have been glad to find a vacant carriage she could share with her friends but now the emptiness of the Hogwarts Express signalled the end of an era. This was the start of her sixth year at Hogwarts - and it would be without Harry. She fingered the slim medallion at her throat but knew she ought not to overuse it. She released it quickly as more students passed by in the corridor.

With a shrug of her shoulders, she resolved for the umpteenth time not to mope. She reminded herself how fortunate she was to share a connection with Harry so never should she feel completely alone. He was thinking of her as often as she of him - always - or rather, there was always a place, a sentinel at the centre of her thoughts, around which her feelings revolved.

The carriage door slid noisily open, coinciding with a dreamy voice, "Wait, Neville, I just need to let out a glumbumble. Poor thing must be buzzing around trapped in here with the window closed."

"Nothing there - come on, just push on in," said Neville.

"Oh I'm sure there must be or there wouldn't be such a frown I'm sure."

Ginny was by now grinning despite herself. "Luna! ... Neville!"

"There, you see? It must have flown out now," said Luna. "Hello, Ginny, good holiday?"

Without hesitation, Ginny dismissed the question with a "fine, thanks! - you?"

"We were a little sad at the beginning with the funeral and all but Professor Dumbledore wouldn't want us to lose heart now would he? And poor Fleur's wedding reception was spoiled by those terrible people." Luna answered wistfully. "I told Neville what happened."

Neville glanced at Ginny to see her reaction then turned away. He hoisted his own and Luna's bags up onto the luggage rack above the seat opposite Ginny and there they both sat down, smiling at, but really examining, Ginny's expression.

"He's not coming back is he?" said Neville finally. "Thought he wouldn't - he'd be crazy to. I knew Hermione couldn't."

"Poor Hermione must be very frightened," said Luna.

"How did you... What do you mean?" asked Ginny, with a puzzled look on her face.

"Daily Prophet," said Neville. "She's in the list of Muggle-borns wanted for interrogation - you must have seen it, Ginny?"

"Oh, yes - of course."

Luna looked at Ginny with a curious expression and Ginny dare not directly look back. She knew the Ravenclaw girl had a sharp, intuitive mind and could deduce a world of meaning from a few innocent words. Fortunately, the train lurched into motion at that moment and Neville spoke.

"Where's Ron, though?"

"Oh - he's very sick," said Ginny in a carefully measured tone, looking out of the window as they passed the few white-face parents that were waving goodbye to their loved ones. There were two strange men in dark robes, one scruffy with long hair and the other short and thin, staring straight at her as the train sped away but Ginny continued, "Spattergroit. Nasty. 'xpect he picked up a fungus or something in the garden."

Neville looked at Luna but she did not exchange his look. Ginny had the feeling they had been discussing Harry's friends before they came aboard but Luna did not challenge Ginny; instead, she said brightly, "Don't use toad liver - I'm sure that won't work. Too unbelievable."

"So... your last year, Neville!" said Ginny to change the subject. "You'll be busy with your NEWTS."

"Oh - do you think things will be normal at Hogwarts?" asked Luna. "You know Professor Snape is headmaster don't you?"

"Yes, but Professor McGonagall will keep things running smoothly won't she?" said Ginny. There was a trembling at her throat but she continued without even a blink, "Headmasters sort of work in the background don't they - so we should see less of Snape not more."

"Those people at King's Cross - Ministry people and... Death Eaters," said Neville.

Though platform nine and three-quarters was out of sight, Ginny twisted around to look out of the window, pretending to look back down the track so as to obscure herself from the others. She raised one sleeved arm to rub at the window to hide herself still further.

Neville continued, "We can expect they'll be interfering at Hogwarts too. It'll probably be like it was with Umbridge."

"That's a curious amulet," said Luna, looking at the reflection in the window as Ginny tried to read its message.

"Oh, this - it's a medallion - got it when we were out shopping." Ginny said casually. She turned back but she didn't look directly at Luna.

"Would you like to read my Quibbler?" said Luna. "I find people like to read when they don't want to make conversation."

"Yes, alright - no! Sorry Luna, I didn't mean to..." Ginny looked at Luna, unsure what to say. Luna had a knack of penetrating right to the heart of things sometimes.

"Oh, now I can see it properly, it's not really a very good picture though is it?" said Luna, forthright as ever. "I could charm it to something nice if you want?

"No, that's alright. I like the... bowl of flowers."

"Oh - is that what it is?"

Ginny dare not look at the Ravenclaw girl. She could not detect any sarcasm in Luna's voice - nor was that Luna's way - but was it possible she had seen through the charm? More likely she had just sensed there was something more going on than was apparent. Ginny wondered if she, herself, was just over-reacting and Luna was but innocently interested in the unusual ornament; after all, she often wore strange jewellery herself.

Neville looked back and forth between the two, bemused by the conversation but Luna spoke again, looking directly at Ginny in a reassuring manner, "It's alright with me, Ginny - truly."

Ginny stared at Luna. She knew she wasn't talking about the bowl of flowers. Luna now appeared to dismiss the medallion from her thoughts and turned to Neville.

"There's an article in here that might interest you, Neville," Luna said, flipping through her magazine, but out of the corner of her eye she was watching Ginny stand up. "We were very happy she did this - she's a trusted friend."

Ginny was aware of the other two discussing something in the Quibbler as she opened the door to the corridor. "Won't be long."

She went to the end of the swaying carriage but the door was flagged engaged. The corridor twisted around the toilet so there was a private corner where she had a minute to her self but she only needed a few seconds to read the edge of the silver disk.

With you.

Ginny smiled, kissed the medallion I know. and returned to the carriage.

"That was quick," piped Luna, glancing up at Ginny then she turned back to Neville. "Look, you can have this copy if you like - I've got more. It's sensible advice don't you think?"

"Thanks, Luna, yes, it's very interesting," said Neville, as he took the Quibbler but he was looking at Ginny as she carefully closed the carriage door.

The train lurched and began to slow down. Ginny swayed about as she refound her seat then patted her neckline to make sure her medallion was below it. This did not go unnoticed and Luna was looking at her when she spoke, "It's just practice really. I'd practice and get into a routine If it were me - so it's less noticeable. No need to ask awkward questions of her."

Neville had his head down as he folded the magazine open at a diagram of a rather ugly-looking bush. "Yes, Emeline Mortimer's very complete - pruning seems easy enough but it looks much neater the more you get the hang of it. I'll show this to Professor Sprout next chance I get."

Ginny was glad Luna didn't work for the Ministry's intelligence department. Again she tried to change the direction of the conversation, "Why are we stopping, I wonder?"

"I expect they think Harry's going back to school," said Luna coolly.

Neville snorted.

The train ground to a halt with a long, sustained screech then after a while they could hear doors slamming and the train jolted into forward motion again.

Ginny was ready this time when footsteps stopped at their compartment and the door was slid open - she needed to be. It was the two men from the platform - they must have apparated ahead.

"He's n-- not here!" said Neville nervously, standing up to confront them and thankfully obscuring Ginny from their stares. "He'd have to be as s-- stupid as a... D-- Death Eater wouldn't he!"

Ginny could sense the men were still there from Neville's stance but they remained silent then eventually moved on. Neville slammed the door shut.

"You're very brave, Neville." said Luna examining his face closely as if she had found some great treasure. His cheeks coloured with astonishment but Luna did not seem to notice. She turned away to gaze out of the window. "Oh look! There's a white horse! Did you see it? I'd love to ride a white horse, wouldn't you? They're very gentle creatures mostly but they can be very fierce when they're protecting the females."

—oOo—


"Accio Prophet," murmured Harry Potter very softly. It slid neatly out from under the arm of the wizard who was about to enter the Ministry building and under Harry's cloak without the worker being any the wiser. Harry pulled back into an unused doorway then stared in disbelief at the headline:

SEVERUS SNAPE CONFIRMED AS HOGWARTS HEADMASTER


He felt sick with anger as he read the article and almost threw the newspaper down onto the pavement in disgust. Perhaps he should warn Ginny? Likely she would already know - the paper was the morning edition. He looked at his watch then at his medallion. It showed a three-masted schooner but he already knew she'd be on the Hogwarts Express. He pictured her there as he had several times during the last few minutes. She'd be with Neville and Luna for sure - yes, they would all know about Snape. But now he was thinking directly of her again he wanted so much to have a reason to contact her. He knew he ought not because she might not be able to get away for a while and so worry in case something was wrong. The more he resisted, the harder it became. What could he say, anyway? 'Guess you know a murderer is now headmaster?'

He shook himself firmly and resolved to do the right thing and give his full attention to his surveillance of the Ministry. Yet he did not. He sighed, then smiled in resignation. The pull was too great. Why should I need a reason? He put his medallion to his lips. With you.

He waited but there was no immediate response and he suddenly regretted being so impulsive. Ginny had told him that Mrs. Weasley had given her protection against showing any emotion when he reached out to her, but still... After a few more minutes he cursed himself for a fool; Ginny might not be able to...

There was a tremor from the little disk in his hands and he felt her kiss. The message appeared straight away, I know.

—oOo—


The tunnel into which dashed the Hogwarts Express added no security but somehow it inspired conspiracy. As the dim lights came on, Ginny leaned forward to the other two.

"I need your help."

Neville answered first and in a very serious manner, though he had trouble hiding his excitement, "Anything, Ginny - it's Dumbledore's Army isn't it? Getting it going again?"

"We have to find some way of fighting back - doing our bit - doing what we can for... to resist them," said Ginny. "Luna?"

"It must be wonderful to be in love," said Luna dreamily. "Inspires you to do great things, I expect."

"Luna! We're talking about the D.A." said Ginny.

"Yes, of course we are," said Luna. "I was just thinking we need an inspired leader - someone who thinks like Harry - who's close to him."

"Will you help?" asked Ginny, somewhat perplexed.

"Oh I'd love to! It will be exciting - and we'll be meeting with everyone again!"

"Luna - it'll be dangerous," said Neville.

"Oh yes - isn't that what I said?"

Ginny and Neville exchanged glances.

"Luna, don't you ever get scared?" asked Neville.

"Of course. I was very timid at the Ministry when the Death Eaters attacked us. I'm not a Gryffindor."

"Timid?" laughed Neville. "Well, if that's timid then I hope I don't get attacked by lots of timid people any time soon!"

"We need to organize, work out a plan of action..." said Ginny. "Neville, will you take Harry's place - be leader?"

Neville and Luna looked wide-eyed at one another and virtually spoke together.

"But you're the leader, Ginny," said Neville.

"Yes, I thought we'd just agreed that?" said Luna.

Ginny stared. She had not expected this. "But Neville, you're the oldest..."

"Everybody looks up to you, Gin. I'd be useless," said Neville.

"I'm sure that's not true, Neville," said Luna kindly. "You'd make a wonderful leader - but right now we need Ginny."

"That's settled then," said Neville, sounding relieved that he wasn't to be the new 'Chosen one.'

"First thing is to arrange a meeting; see who's interested," said Ginny. "Have you both got your Galleons?"

"Oh yes," said Luna and Neville pulled his out of his pocket and held it up proudly. Luna continued, "but we'll need more because I think the D.A. will be even more popular now, don't you think?"

"That will be difficult..." said Neville.

"It's fine," said Ginny, "Hermione showed me how to do the Protean charm so--"

"You've seen, Hermione since the wedding?" said Neville excitedly.

"Well... no, early in the holidays she--"

"It's all right, Ginny," said Luna. "We know Hermione and Ron must be with Harry - well it's obvious really isn't it?"

Ginny looked dumbstruck.

"Where else could they possibly be?" Luna added. "Of course, if Death Eaters are too stupid to realise - well, we shan't be telling anyone, shall we Neville?"

Neville was shaking his head because his answer was made inaudible by the train's whistle shrieking and a few moments later the Express hurtled out of the tunnel and daylight flooded back into the carriage.

"You're not on your own, Ginny," said Luna softly, when the train whistle had fallen silent again. "Our friendship ties us all together."

Ginny became as quiet as the whistle for a while.

"So, what's the first step, Ginny?" said Neville. "What will you tell the first meeting? Need to prepare..."

"First, we determine the situation at Hogwarts. Then we listen to everyone's ideas. Then we act."

The three looked resolutely at each other, drawing comfort from themselves and conviction that they were not helpless and they would find some way of helping the fight against the Dark Wizard. But as they would find out... It would not be easy.

—oOo—





Author's Notes


Citations: The quoted Daily Prophet headline regarding Snape's appointment as headmaster is taken from Deathly Hallows, Chapter 12 by J.K. Rowling.

The description of Death Eaters boarding the Hogwarts Express to look for Harry was inspired by a similar scene in the movie Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by Warner Bros, Entertainment, Inc.

Although it was in the movie, I could find nothing in the book about Death Eaters boarding the train looking for Harry but it kind of makes sense and maybe it happened. I'm trying to stick to canon so everything will happen as it does in the Deathly Hallows book but with the extra fiction of Harry and Ginny's relationship. We know Harry's point of view and what happened with him so that will be touched on only lightly when he contacts Ginny, etc. Much of the extra story will therefore likely be Ginny's POV. However, it probably won't be a complete, detailed, Hogwarts DA thing - I plan to focus on the interaction between Harry and Ginny as far as possible.

Comments and reviews are welcome and very encouraging. Thank you.
:)

 

- Hippothestrowl







Chapter 3: Leading
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There was something unpleasant about the look of the Carrows when Snape introduced them at the opening banquet in the Great Hall. Whereas Snape himself seemed merely devious, mysterious, heartless and cold, Alectus and Amycus Carrow both seemed to actually exude dark evil. Their eyes were empty of all but cruel, pitiless arrogance and Ginny loathed the new teachers on sight. Learning that they would be in charge of discipline at Hogwarts was very worrying but that was not all that was disturbing Ginny.

She looked again with dismay at the message on her medallion: Avoid Snape's stare. He may see within. Ginny was at the Gryffindor table in the position Harry usually occupied. Perhaps there was some comfort in clinging to every reminder of him or possibly she satisfied a sense of duty within herself - as if keeping his place for him. She was holding her class schedule up high to cradle and conceal the silver disk. It was not herself she was concerned about but Neville who was seated next to her. Neville had a new-found courage that was still immature, even reckless at times. His anger at Snape for murdering Professor Dumbledore overrode his fear of the former Potions and Dark Arts master when fright might have been the safer state of mind. Right now Neville was returning the headmaster's gaze with a cold hatred that would have unnerved anyone of less mental fortitude.

"Neville!" hissed Ginny, hiding her medallion within her grasp, "look at me!"

Neville, startled, turned to Ginny. Ginny thrust her schedule under his face and with a forced smile intended to allay any suspicions of the headmaster, said, "Don't look at Snape! Pretend to read my schedule."

"Why not, Ginny?" said Neville. "I'm not scared of him any more."

"I know you're not - but perhaps you should be. He's expert at Legilimens you know. Harry's told me this before - I almost forgot."

Neville's eyes widened. "But..."

"It helps him if he has eye contact. Don't give him any advantage."

"Ah - right - but I wasn't thinking about--"

"It's not only what you're thinking about! Perhaps he can get deeper; see what we know and our memories." said Ginny. She felt Harry's kiss again and the silver medallion, still clutched in her hand, trembled once more. "I don't think he can go too deep without us feeling it but still... we need to be careful - warn the others."

"Right!" Neville struggled to avoid glancing back at the headmaster, seated at the head of the Great Hall in Dumbledore's old seat. "How do we... What do we..."

"We'll have to work something out - look at my ears or something instead of my eyes," said Ginny.

"Hair's too long. Can't see your-- Right. Look elsewhere." Neville fixed his gaze on the side of Ginny's head. "How's this?"

"Looks odd," said Ginny. "Try moving around over my nose, forehead - anywhere but my eyes."

"Right!"

"And around the room - you don't have to stare at my nose all the time!"

"No nose - it's a bit awkward, Ginny."

Ginny sighed. "We just need to practice so it doesn't look too unnatural." She pulled her schedule back from Neville and used it again to shield her medallion while she read it.

Me. Danger tomorrow. Do not worry.

Ginny looked around. Luna was engrossed with pouring custard over a jam sponge at the Ravenclaw table but there were plenty of other people gazing about who would think it odd if it looked like she was kissing her schedule. She would have to be patient before she could answer Harry's message but she could not help but be anxious and fret over what he might be planning. Was he intending to kill Voldemort the very next day? Why was he telling her now?

"Ginny?" said Neville.

"When we get back to the common room I want us to start asking around the old D.A. members - who's with us..."

"Tonight? We've not even unpacked!" Neville nearly dropped his dessert spoon.

"No point in waiting. I want to get going."

"Yes, of course. ... Yes, Harry wouldn't wait..."

Something banged heavily on a table at the front of the Hall and they became aware that everyone but themselves had fallen silent.

"Let me make one thing quite clear." Snape was on his feet addressing the entire Hall but glaring in particular at Neville and Ginny.

"Discipline at Hogwarts has been very lax these last few years." Snape paused. "This ... will ... NOT ... continue.

"In particular ... Anyone found consorting ... or conspiring ... with known criminals will be heavily punished.

"It is known ... I repeat, known ... that Harry Potter was seen running from the scene of the murder of our former headmaster, Professor Dumbledore who was much loved by us all ... not least ... by ... myself."

An angry murmuring and muttering flew around the entire gathering, including the teachers. Neville stirred in his seat, almost as if he was about to leap to his feet, but Ginny grabbed his arm. She herself felt Neville's revulsion of Snape but they needed to think carefully before doing anything foolish.

"SILENCE!" Snape's command was not as authoritive as Dumbledore's had been but nevertheless, everyone quietened down.

"If anyone ... knows of the whereabout of the criminal ... Harry Potter ... they must report this immediately to ... me.

"No doubt ... there are those amongst you who might wish ... to take the law into their own hands. ... This is understandable, ... given the enormity of his crime. ... But ... this will not be tolerated. We are a peaceful, law-abiding community and Potter must and will face a fair and just trial. Therefore ... resist your own impulses and report to me any information you might have about the boy ... OR ... any information you might have about ... anyone else's knowledge about him." Ginny felt sure he was looking directly at her but she stared only at the Carrows. While Snape was dangerously sharp-witted, Ginny felt the two Death Eaters looked rather dull and ignorant. They did not look the type to be able to penetrate anyone's mind very successfully. Perhaps they might be a better target for the D.A. resistance.

Snape continued standing for a few seconds, glaring around the hall at everyone before finally sweeping away towards the exit doors followed by his deputies, the Carrows. A general muttering broke out and rapidly grew into a hubbub as students discussed what had been said. The remaining teachers did not quell it - indeed, were part of it as they debated the situation amongst themselves. But when some students prepared to leave, Professor McGonagall stood up and called for attention.

"Hogwarts students! This will be a difficult year for many of you. Your heads of house will be available if any of you need advice but things will not be the same as before and I would advise caution." She paused for a few seconds before continuing.

"Many students cannot... will not be able to attend this year. To make up class numbers you will notice that some years are merged into the same lessons. We, the teachers of Hogwarts, expect senior students to... look out for those younger than themselves."

There was silence throughout the hall until McGonagall finished, "Merlin's good fortune be with you all."

"She sounds worried," said Neville.

"With good reason," said Ginny.

Seamus, who was sitting next to them and talking with Parvati and Lavender, turned to Ginny, "Why'd Snape want to protect Harry from vigilantes?"

"Because," said Ginny, in a matter-of-fact manner, "You-Know-Who wants to murder Harry himself. He needs to prove himself to his followers."

"He'll have to find him first," said Neville grimly.

"Why - where is he then?" asked Parvati.

"Nobody knows," said Ginny.

"He's smart. Gone into hiding where no one can hunt him down." said Seamus, nodding his head.

"I don't think he's on the run," said Neville. "I reckon he's up to something."

"Like what?" said Seamus.

"Don't know but... something," said Neville thoughtfully. "He won't just lie low; not Harry Potter."

Ginny felt a thrill at the admiration she sensed in Neville's voice but she remained silent, dwelling only on the message she had received from Harry. Harry will be in danger tomorrow. How can I support him? ... One thing I can do is not distract him with any unnecessary messages while he's at risk.

"Ron is the same," said Lavender, wistfully. "He's a fighter. He--"

"Ron is sick in bed!" snapped Ginny, then, in a more controlled manner, "He's very ill and... I'm really worried about him. I don't think he'll be back at Hogwarts for weeks - perhaps not this term."

Lavender stared. "So... He'll be back next... But what about..."

"Hermione?" supplied Ginny, not showing any surprise at all. "She's Muggle-born. She must have gone into hiding with her parents."

"So she's not... they're not..."

Ginny could see Lavender was digesting this information but before she could ask any further questions, Ginny got up abruptly and was surprised to notice a cluster of Gryffindors rose with her. She was suddenly aware that all those within earshot had been listening in on every word she had exchanged with Neville and Seamus. There was something different from previous years. There was an eagerness in the way they were looking at her - looking up to her. Did they think she had some great plan worked out? Could they possibly suspect she was in touch with Harry? Looking to Harry through her? To lead them from darkness into light? She shrugged and marched back to the common room with them all following. It felt very odd.

"Get started, Neville," said Ginny, when they had all entered their common room. "I'll join you in a minute."

"Me?" said Neville. "Why don't you... Right... me."

Ginny turned into the reading room and hid herself behind a tall shelf where she pulled out a huge dusty volume to obscure herself and the medallion further. She gazed at the disk and the message it still showed around its perimeter:

Me. Danger tomorrow. Do not worry.

For a long minute she tried to think what to say; considering what might be helpful or useful to Harry. Neville could be heard talking loudly around the corner and she knew he'd be drawing the few remaining D.A. members together again to gauge their attitudes and seeing if there might be any new recruits. She turned her attention back to what she was doing. What to say? Finally, Ginny kissed the disk and sent it with the message,

Safe till Prophecy. Tell me after.

As Ginny went back into the common room the talking fell silent and she could see everyone's eyes on her, including Neville's.

Romilda Vane spoke first, "So, is Harry not--"

"This is not about Harry!" snorted Ginny, then she steadied herself. "We're sure Harry will be out there... doing something. Nobody knows. But we know Harry and we know how strongly he feels. We can be sure he won't be lying back doing nothing. The thing is, Harry is not here. It's just us. It's up to us to do anything we can. We know Harry would if he were here."

"But what can we do anyway? Snape's in control and Death Eaters for teachers." said Seamus.

"Death Eaters!" exclaimed Parvati. "What do you mean?"

"The Carrows! Didn't you see them? They--" said Neville.

"I didn't know they were Death Eaters!" cried Parvati. "How can we fight Death Eaters?"

"Well obviously, we're not going to attack them in class, are we?" said Neville. "Anyway, Why'd you think you joined Dumbledore's Army? to play tiddly-winks?"

"We were learning Defence against the Dark Arts! Learning how to defend ourselves!" said Parvati.

"We can take them," said Cormac McLaggen. "They're spineless cowards all of them."

"McLaggen! What you doing here?" said Ginny. "Thought you'd left?"

"Yes, well, I decided... to do more studies... Advance myself, that sort of thing."

"You failed your NEWTS didn't you!" roared Seamus. "You've got to redo your seventh year!"

McLaggen quickly became red-faced. "I wanted to anyway!"

"Yeah - course you did!" smirked Seamus.

"Enough!" cried Ginny. "Does this mean you're in, McLaggen?"

"I'm considering it," he said.

"Well consider this while you're at it - I won't stand for any of last year's Quidditch nonsense," said Ginny firmly. "No bossing people around! I'm in charge and Neville here and Luna are my seconds-in-command - that's it!" Neville looked sideways at Ginny at this last remark but he didn't get a chance to say anything.

"Loony? Loony Lovegood?" cried Romilda. "How can she be--"

"Because she's ten times smarter than you is why!" cried Ginny, "and she fought Death Eaters at the Ministry - and last year when they murdered Professor Dumbledore. Anyone else here think they're good enough to step into her shoes? Hands up anyone who's fought Death Eaters!"

There was silence for a while. "Thought not," added Ginny.

"How can they both be second?" scoffed McLaggen. "Only one person can be--"

"Because I say so!" stormed Ginny. "They are co-equal deputies, alright?"

"Listen, we're not talking about fighting," continued Ginny. "We want to set up a meeting to find out exactly what we can do to resist Snape - to raise morale and wipe those stupid smirks off their faces..."

"And practice," broke in Neville, again looking sideways at Ginny and being reassured by her nods he continued, "We'll be carrying on duelling practice - learning new spells - so we can defend ourselves if we have to." He looked squarely at Parvati when he said this.

"Remember how it was when Umbridge was here," said Ginny. "It's bound to be at least as bad and probably worse. Do you want that? So think about it till tomorrow. We'll arrange the first meeting to discuss things properly. It's not just Gryffindors - there's Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs too. Then you make your decision."

—oOo—


"What is it, Harry?" said Hermione. "Is it your scar? Again?"

"Nothing. No, not this time. It's nothing. Just thinking." Harry thought hard. Somehow he had to control his reactions when he felt Ginny's kiss. He sighed and went to the mantelpiece where he fiddled with some old metal ornaments.

Hermione exchanged looks with Ron but said nothing. Harry managed to sneak out his medallion and read it while pretending to look at a little brass goblin with a tiny bell inside. The ornament glared and squirmed a little as if to say "Well? Are you going to ring me or not?" and Harry hastily dropped it back on the shelf and turned to the other two.

They had been discussing their plan for tomorrow and just finished Kreacher's treacle tart. They were physically well fed but still felt empty inside.

"Are you absolutely sure about this, Harry? Tomorrow?" said Hermione.

Safe till Prophecy. Harry was thinking about Ginny's message. Somehow it was reassuring - as if the Prophecy was too big and too important to be intended for an escapade in some Ministerial office. He knew that made little sense and yet why did the Prophecy not say 'Only one can survive but by the way he has seven lives.' Why was there no prophecy for all the other people that Voldemort killed? He marked me as his equal - his equal. So let's level the playing field so it really is equal. Maybe that's intended.

"Harry?"

Harry smiled. He felt a little more confident about the next day. "Yes, Hermione - tomorrow we steal back the locket from Umbridge."

—oOo—


Ginny had spent every spare minute looking at the portcullis displayed on her medallion. It had begun as a small gateway but now it was huge. Harry had told her that signified increased danger near or within an enemy stronghold but only when it showed a dungeon did it mean capture. At least the spiked gate was still partly open; she hoped that meant there was a way out for Harry wherever he was. Her eye was distracted by an image in the book in which she was shielding the disk. A fat Muggle was disciplining his child. Ginny lifted her eyes away from the book but not to pay attention to anything that the teacher was saying.

"It's no surprise that Muggles are continuously at war with one another somewhere in the world when they all raise their children in such a brutal fashion," smirked Alecto Carrow. She was a short, stocky woman with dark hair severely tied back and an almost continuous expression of contempt.

The first ten minutes of this Muggles Studies class had been shocking; Muggles were being portrayed as ignorant, stupid, and disgustingly unhygenic. After that, Ginny had just resigned herself to letting the nonsense wash harmlessly over her; now was not the time for action but she could see Seamus was looking furiously at the teacher.

"Me dad never beats me," cried Seamus. He looked outraged. "He's less strict than me mam if anything."

"It is sickening when a witch or wizard mates with a Muggle but at least they keep them under control." said Carrrow. It sounded as if she had rehearsed the response.

Seamus was on his feet in an instant; he was furious. "Me dad doesn't need controlling!" he shouted. Neville, sitting next to him, dragged him back down to his chair.

"Ten points from Gryffindor!" smirked Carrow. "Any more outbursts like that Mr. Finnegan and it will be detention!"

She muttered something as if to herself but she did it loudly enough that everyone could hear. "I suppose this bad temper is understandable."

"What's that supposed to mean! - because I'm half-blood I get annoyed when someone insults me family?" roared Finnegan.

"Detention, Mr. Finnegan! Seven o'clock sharp. Don't bring your temper - it will not be tolerated." Carrow glared at him and there was something sinister in the way she continued, "If you cannot control yourself then you will find we have ways of doing it for you."

Neville and Ginny exchanged glances but decided to remain silent for the rest of the lesson. When the lunch bell went they were glad to get out.

At lunchtime in the Great Hall, there had initially been the usual chatter but Snape had ordered silence again. This lasted less than a minute then students were whispering to each other under cover of a sandwich or a pie.

"What d'you reckon, Ginny? Blood Quill?" said Neville out of the corner of his mouth.

"What?" Ginny looked up; she had not been following the Gryffindor's conversations but had spent most of the time with her face buried in a large, slim volume called "Twenty Charms You Should Know." It was ideal for hiding her medallion yet not heavy.

"Seamus' detention. What do you think he'll get?"

"Probably start with a big soapy scrub up then ten hot showers and then he'll have to take a pledge of peace and swear he'll never go to war."

"Not funny," snapped Finnegan.

"Perhaps not," whispered Ginny, "but it's all ruddy stupid anyway. I just ignored her." She returned her gaze to the silver disk concealed within her book. She was concerned that the portcullis image was now immense and fully closed. Great chains crossed it from side to side to make it clear that it was locked.

"You're turning into a regular Hermione Granger, Ginny!" murmured Neville. "It's me what's taking NEWTS this year."

Ginny slipped her medallion back below her neckline and closed her book. "Just doing a refresher. Last term seems ages ago. So much has..."

"Where do you think you are going, Lovegood!" barked Snape so loudly that several students near the front visibly recoiled.

"Oh! I've finished eating I'm just going to talk to some friends," replied Luna chirpily and continued walking over to the Gryffindor table.

"If you've finished then you may leave or return to your own table," snarled Snape. He raised his voice a notch to indicate he was addressing everyone. "Students will not fraternize with members of other houses in the Great Hall."

"But should we not encourage co-operation between the houses in these troubled times?" asked Luna innocently.

"Sit... Down... or... Go," said Snape, "or Ravenclaw will be co-operating with the other houses by forfeiting five house points. I shall not warn you again."

Luna started to turn but waved at Ginny as she did so then went back and sat down at the Ravenclaw table. The wave was not lost on Ginny.

"Three fingers - three definites," said Ginny. She looked across to Ernie Macmillan at the Hufflepuff table. He had not missed Luna's wave either; he was holding up four fingers. Ginny smiled and nodded. "Four Huffs, three Raves, plus Luna and Ernie is nine."

"What about this evening for the first meeting, then?" said Neville.

"No, I'm... Well, Seamus has detention for one thing," said Ginny. She didn't like to say she wanted to be free to keep watch when Harry was safe again. "Let's make it tomorrow at seven-thirty. I'll set the Galleons then Luna and Ernie can pass the message to those who've not yet got them."

It was early afternoon in Charms before Ginny was finally relieved to see a sailing ship had replaced the portcullis on her medallion - yet no message from Harry. She fretted through the remaining lessons of the day. What if he's sick? Or unconscious? It was evening in the common room as she and Neville and others waited for Seamus to return from his detention that a tremble at her throat and the sense of Harry's presence and his warm affection touched her.

"I'm in!" snapped Finnegan as he entered the Gryffindor common room. "Count me in!" His face was dark as thunder and his eyes were red and sore.

"In?" said Neville, "you mean the D.A.? - thought you were already in!"

"No, well - I'd been thinking about it..."

"So, what happened?" said Ginny. She was already on her feet ready to go and find a corner where she could read Harry's message so she was slightly annoyed that Seamus had arrived at that very moment.

"Blood Quill; banned from Hogsmeade this weekend; and a nasty little spell called Itchysquirms."

"Hogsmeade!" squealed Romilda and Lavender, "it's a Hogsmeade weekend?"

"Yeah - and I'm sure they only did it so they could ban me from it," grumbled Seamus, rubbing the back of his hand.

"Not as bad as I'd feared," said Neville.

"Not bad?" snapped Seamus, "You want to try it! See how long you last!"

"What is it? Itching powder kind of thing?" said Ginny. "Fred and George might be--"

"Your skin crawls. All over. It's like being... crawled over by a million bugs." Seamus shuddered. "Even my eyes... But that's not all..."

"Oh no - I hate creeping things," said Romilda. She brushed some imaginary insect off her sleeve and hugged herself as if she had suddenly gone cold.

"What else?" said Ginny.

"Amycus - he--"

"Amycus was there as well?" said Neville.

"Both of them. Alecto - she casts the squirmy thing. I don't know what it's called. I call it itchysquirms because that's what it feels like." Seamus hesitated before continuing. "He... he gets into your mind. You see... You see things... Dark... it's like their... all over you. You can't... I... I gave in to them..." Seamus threw himself down in an armchair and buried his face in his hands.

There was stunned silence throughout the common room. Ginny spoke first. "What did you tell them, Seamus?"

Seamus looked up, startled. "Nothing! What do you... I..." His face flushed as he struggled to tell them. "I apologized... to Alecto. I begged her forgiveness. I told them... me dad was a..." He hid his face in his hands again and turned away, ashamed.

Ginny went over and put a hand on his shoulder. "They've shamed themselves not you. You can't be... Don't feel badly about yourself if you couldn't stand the spell any longer..."

"Spell? Me? It wasn't me that time!" Seamus looked at everyone again. He realised he'd not explained himself very well. "It wasn't me. They did it to me first but I wouldn't give in. Then they did it to a... first-, no, second-year he is now. That little Huff with the big ears - you know? Davey something. He was crying. They wouldn't stop till I gave in..."

Ginny sank down into the chair next to Seamus. "You're dad would be so, so proud of you Seamus." Seamus turned to look at her. His eyes were shining but he had managed to fight back his tears. He didn't speak but Ginny hoped that what she saw in his expression was a little relief from his inner torment.

"They can't do that!" said Romilda. "They shouldn't be allowed."

"You see what we're up against don't you!" shouted Neville at everyone in the room. He was furious. "They're evil. We have to fight them! Anyone who doesn't stand up to them is as bad they are! You don't need to fight them in a duel but everyone needs to do their bit! We have to find ways to deal with this! Think about it. Think about tomorrow night's meeting. If you're not with us then... Well, you have to live with that for the rest of your life."

Ginny suddenly remembered Harry's message and she stood up. "What Neville said. Think about it overnight. Make sure everyone you speak to knows about it. You lose nothing by coming to the meeting and discussing what action we can take. Think on it..."

She left them and went upstairs to the girls' dormitory and sat on her bed, face glowing with a mixture of emotions. She was alone. Everyone had crammed into the common room to listen to what had happened and she could hear raised voices down there still. She took out her medallion and looked at it.

3 Safe. Ron hurt. Recovering. I need you bad. Wish this was over. BwithU.

Ginny could feel Harry's misery like a stone in her heart and her brother's courage slapped her in the face as she realised he might have died while she had hardly thought of him. She burst into tears but suppressed her sobs so no one could hear her. She struggled to bring herself under control and dried her eyes in case anyone came upstairs and saw her. She sat for many minutes distracted by the heated discussions that were taking place down in the common room. What to do? A fragment of what someone was saying downstairs caught her attention and she straightened up; her eyes widened. She did not hesitate for long before her kiss was on its way to Harry.

Hogsmeade this weekend. Stile. 11:00am. ?

—oOo—





Author's Notes


Citations:
'Only one can survive' and 'He marked me as his equal' are based on similar statements in 'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,' Chapter 7 by J.K. Rowling.

I suppose I should have said this story assumes you are familiar with all the characters and events of Deathly Hallows. I mostly only give hints where we are in the original story or it gets boring retelling the same old stuff. Harry is wearing the locket horcrux now so is feeling especially low. The stile is at the end of the road out of Hogsmeade where Harry, Ron, and Hermione met Sirius to take him food in GoF.

Comments and reviews are welcome and very encouraging. Thank you.
:)

 

- Hippothestrowl






Chapter 4: Hogsmeade and Heaven
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Ginny could feel her heart beating rapidly with excitement as she approached the Entrance Hall on Saturday morning. Luna greeted her.

"Hi, Ginny. Isn't Neville coming to Hogsmeade?" She looked hopefully over Ginny's shoulder.

"He'll be here in a minute," said Ginny, "Professor McGonagall is having a quick word with him."

"Oh, he's not in trouble is he?"

"No - she spoke to me earlier as well. Told me about the owls being monitored but I think she knew we'd already heard. Just cautioned me to be careful really then nodded and smiled. I can't imagine what she thinks an innocent little girl like myself needs to be careful about." Ginny grinned. She was positively beaming with anticipation of meeting Harry. Her only concern was how to get away from the others to meet Harry. Luna looked closely at her; studying her face.

"That's a very pretty dress. What colours are those?" said Luna.

"Oh, it's fawn and saffron," said Ginny, pulling her light travel cloak more closely around her. The weather was slightly cool but not unpleasant and the cloak was not essential.

"Ginny, would you do something for me?" asked Luna.

Ginny looked startled. "Of course, Luna. What's wrong?"

"Oh, nothing wrong," said Luna. "It's just that - this is very rude of me but would it be possible for me to have some time with Neville? On our own I mean?"

Ginny stared. "You and Neville? Has he..."

"No. But I'm hoping that if you're not there he might." Luna smiled and took out the Spectrespecs from her bag and started to put them on. "He's very sweet don't you think?"

"Erm... Yes, well, I can't say I really... Yes I suppose he is. Yes of course he is."

"I thought so," said Luna, nodding and putting away her Spectrespecs. "Wrackspurts. Do you feel all sort of fuzzy and warm and confused and excited all at the same time?"

"Well... yes I do actually."

"Oh! Hello, Neville!" Luna waved excitedly past Ginny.

"Hullo, Luna. Everything all right?" said Neville, brightly.

"Well, Ginny's mum is meeting her later to get any messages. Parents do worry so much when they don't get an owl every five minutes don't they?" said Luna chirpily. "How long do you think you'll be, Ginny?"

"Erm... well, I..." Ginny struggled not to look astonished at Luna's fabricated story.

"Don't fret if you can't get away quickly - I know what parents are like - you'll be able to catch us up later. We've got all day," said Luna. She turned to Neville who looked crestfallen. He had been looking forward to an outing with friends.

"Sorry, Neville - you'll be stuck with just me for a while but perhaps we might take tea together or a butterbeer - what do you think?"

"Well, I..." It took Neville a few seconds for this turn of events to sink in. "No - that's fine. I mean, yes."

"I'm sorry, Neville," said Luna, looking closely at his confused and unenthusiastic expression. "It's a shame that Seamus is not allowed out isn't it? It will just be you and me on our own ... together."

"Sorry? Wh--" Neville's face suddenly brightened. "No need to be sorry, Luna. It will be nice. Better actually. We can talk later anyway, Ginny, right?"

The three linked arms and strolled down to the village together. It was difficult to tell who was the happiest: Ginny, Luna, or Neville.

—oOo—


It was pleasantly sunny but the road out of Hogsmeade was deserted when Ginny reached the stile. She folded up her travel cloak and shrunk it into her bag then tugged at and straightened her dress hoping she was presentable. She looked around anxiously then at her watch. Five to Eleven! He'll really be here any minute! She looked back to Hogsmeade as she had several times on her walk but no one had followed her.

"You look wonderful."

Ginny spun around. Harry was near the stile, sliding off his invisibility cloak. Ginny shrieked and flung herself at him. They stopped kissing only when the distant bark of a dog reminded them their paradise was earthly.

"Walk with me," smiled Ginny. Harry helped her over the stile but he did not release her hand when she alighted close to him. They strolled along, fingers entwined, away from Hogsmeade, away from worries and responsibilities, in soaring freedom together and, for once, oblivious of all but themselves. Their words were few while they laughed and giggled together at their blissful escape.

"I've got a confession," said Harry lightheartedly.

"Tell me!" said Ginny.

"I walked along with you for a bit before you even got to the stile."

"No!"

"Yes! Couldn't speak. Just wanted to watch you. Couldn't believe you were real."

"Right! I've got a confession then too," said Ginny, squeezing his hand a little tighter.

"Mmm... You're not Romilda with a dose of polyjuice are you?"

"When I snogged Dean that time in the corridor I knew you always took that shortcut. I was trying to make you jealous."

Harry stared at Ginny for several seconds before he recovered. "You hussy! Fine - how about this then. That last time Dean pushed you going through the portrait hole..."

Ginny's eyes widened like saucers and her mouth gaped. "How..."

"That was me and Liquid Luck," grinned Harry. He pulled out a corner of the invisibility cloak from his rucksack to indicate how he had done it.

While Ginny was still staring with astonishment, Harry continued.

"When we played Quidditch in the orchard with Ron and Hermione that time when you thought I'd broken my wrist - I was just trying to impress you with my dive."

"How could you? You didn't even like me then!"

"I always liked you Ginny--"

"I mean you didn't fancy me then so--"

"No, I only thought I didn't," said Harry. "I mean I didn't know I did."

"What's that mean?" laughed Ginny.

"I mean it was only recently I was thinking of that and I remembered. I just did it. I didn't really hurt my wrist much at all but when you looked so concerned I... I kind of... liked it. Without knowing why I mean. So I went along with it. Then Hermione spoilt it by mending my not-broken wrist," said Harry then he added hastily, "Don't tell her I was pretending!"

Ginny became silent for a while. Harry waited.

"I did some pretending myself," she said eventually. "Sometimes when I snogged Dean I pretended it was you"

"Yeuk!" Harry poked a finger in his mouth and mimed vomiting. "Only sometimes?" Then, sensing Ginny's seriousness, he became thoughtful himself.

"Harry?"

"That time when you were kissing him... afterwards I tried to imagine it was me."

"Oh, Harry. I wish I'd never--"

"So you owe me big time," grinned Harry.

"Well, you owe me for the wrist thing. Not only the wrist - when you crashed... for a second I..."

"I didn't fake the crash! That really was an accident! I'm not going to deliberately dive into the ground just to impress a hussy who likes to make boys jealous, am I?"

"You didn't know I was a hussy then!" laughed Ginny, "and anyway, you crashed because you were showing off to impress me."

"Did it work?"

Ginny grinned.

"Did it work?" Harry persisted with a laugh.

"Of course it did. You always did."

For the next hour they walked leisurely along, their chatter punctuated with noisy laughter and silent kisses, but as midday came and went their thoughts were inevitably drawn to when their time together would end.

"When do you have to go back, Harry?"

"Another hour. I told Hermione and Ron I needed some time to myself. They think I've gone for a walk through the-- Gone for a walk."

"You have to be careful where you go - well, you know that. You were right about Hogsmeade - it's not safe. Wish we could go back for a pasty or something."

"Oh don't!" moaned Harry, clutching his empty stomach.

"Why? You hungry? Oh, Harry, you're hungry! What are you... Wait!" Ginny dived into her bag. "I was in Honeydukes earlier with Luna and Neville. Here's a monster chocolate bar - here, tuck in - but don't eat the eyeballs - they're gross!"

"Thanks, Ginny! This'll be appreciated. Perhaps I can arrange..." Harry hesitated then offered the chocolate back. "I can't take it Ginny."

"Course you can! I can get more!"

"No, I... I can't. I simply can't. Not while... I couldn't face..."

"It's Ron and Hermione isn't it? ... And you can't share it with them?"

"How would I explain it? They can't know about us being in touch. Ron would kill me. Nobody should know anyway. It would put you at great risk." Harry felt something grand stir within himself. Like a majestic stag on a harsh, stony slope it struggled to climb to the surface of his attention. He let it fall back into the darkness.

"But Hermione knows."

"Not now she doesn't."

Ginny stared at Harry then slowly put the chocolate bar back in her bag.

"The other day... Whatever you did - just tell me... Was it... successful?" she said.

Harry nodded emphatically but remained silent.

"Good. Be encouraged by that," said Ginny firmly. "And what about Ron?"

"He'll be alright. Splinched - but he'll be OK."

Ginny raised her medallion, sailing ship uppermost. "You're on the move - last few days. Will you be able to find food?"

"We'll manage." Harry looked up and smiled earnestly." We really will make do. We're finding our way. Don't worry, Ginny."

They came at last to a fast stream that flowed from the hills and they sat on its bank, quietly watching the water twinkle and flash by, spraying up gentle droplets as it leapt and dodged the softened rocks strewn along its bed.

"Harry, did you manage to get..."

Harry looked at Ginny, then remembered. "Sorry, Ginny, there's no way I can get my picture taken where I am now but I brought you some other things, look. I brought what I could."

He drew a few small items out of his rucksack; inconsequential things, a tiny bottle, a small, weathered book, a piece of old parchment, not his precious image which she wanted so dearly. He held them up, about to explain, earnestly seeking her approval.

For a few moments, Ginny's eyes seemed to capture the bright sparkles of the nearby waters but she blinked several times then reached down for her bag lying on the ground where she sat.

"I went in Wizzages earlier." She took an envelope out of her bag and pulled out a photograph which she handed to Harry. She watched him intently as he studied the portrait, saw him smile when her picture did, tilt his head with hers.

"You look glorious - you look just like you do now which is great!"

"Well, since I only had the photo taken an hour or so ago that's not surprising!" laughed Ginny. "Here - let me put it away to keep it clean - it's getting spots of water on it."

"How come Colin couldn't do it?" said Harry, as he handed it back.

"He's Muggle-born, Harry, him and Dennis. They're probably on the run. I hope they are anyway."

Harry stared into the racing waters, lost for words. He was thinking of the prisoners he had seen at the Ministry. How many other Muggles-born were in hiding? Ginny, seeing him deep in his reverie, slid the picture back into its envelope and carefully put it away in his rucksack.

Harry was still holding his pitiful bits and pieces, too caring about her feelings to either offer them or put them away.

"What'd you bring, Harry?"

"Oh, might be of use... there's a polyjuice - we had loads but we've... anyway, doubt we'll need it again - we can spare one easily."

Ginny took the small bottle and feigned pleasure which did not deceive Harry for a moment.

"And I... I duplicated this story book of Hermione's. She seems to like it but... Well anyway, I wanted to bring you something but we're... miles from anywhere really." He felt rather small now as he offered the book.

"It's great! And a souvenir - to remind me of..." Ginny knew the book; had read it hundreds of times. Every witch child knew The Tales of Beedle the Bard but she thought probably Harry would not know that. She opened it. It was written in runes, totally obscure to her, so she closed it quickly before he noticed but she saw the flash of recognition in his eyes. "Thanks. It's lovely."

"And this should be helpful. No use to me now." He opened up the parchment and Ginny knew before he activated it that it was the Marauder's Map.

"No, Harry!" she said firmly. "I won't take it. You already told me you liked to see me safe on it."

"But..."

"You still do, don't you?"

"With all my heart," said Harry miserably. "I just thought..."

Ginny saw then what he had tried to give up.

"I'm happy knowing sometimes you are seeing me on it, Harry. That's more important than using it for some escapade isn't it?"

Harry smiled and nodded and folded the map away in his rucksack.

"You just take extra care though - moving around Hogwarts and--" Harry stopped, caught by some thought, then continued, "What about you now? What's it like with Snape as head?"

"Horrendous. We've organised the D.A. again, starting... Well, not a lot we can do yet but we're making protests - graffiti and suchlike. We're practising again - Neville's great! He's teaching duelling to the younger ones! We both are - and Luna too. We have to be careful though..."

"What do they do, Ginny? Are they doing that Blood Quill thing again?"

Ginny remained silent.

"Ginny?"

"Worse. Punishment spells in detention. Different things."

"Oh, Ginny..."

Ginny looked into the flowing waters but she knew he was searching her face with his eyes.

"Speak to McGonagall - what's she say?"

"There's not much the other teachers can do. Nothing really. She's warned us to be extra careful..."

"Ask... Ask Flitwick."

"Same."

"No, I mean, he's a good sort. Ask him if there are any charms that might offset what they do... And Madam Pomfrey! Ask her if there are any... What about potions? Who's teaching that now? Is it Slughorn still?"

"Yes, but..."

"Ask him. Ask him if there... Tell the teachers exactly what's happening. Ask if they can provide any spells, charms, potions - anything to... You see it might be possible... I'm thinking of like a sedative or a pain-suppressant or... Depends what they do..."

Ginny gazed with admiration at Harry. "That's a great idea! We might be able to fake it! In detention I mean. Pretend the punishment is worse than it really is. There are no-feeling charms and daydream spells and... there's loads of things we might try!"

She became quite elated as she pondered the suggestion. "Why didn't we think of this before? I wish I could tell them about you Harry - the D.A. would be so thrilled if they knew you were still behind us... Well, anyway..." She sighed.

—oOo—


They parted sadly yet each uplifted by the other's support. Harry was so grateful that Ginny didn't pester him with questions he could not answer nor become all weepy and inconsolable; Ginny for her part relied stoically on her own interpretation of the Prophecy - she felt sure her man was destined to win through. Yet she hoped fervently she might find some way to help him carry that burden.

When Ginny, on her lonely walk back towards Hogsmeade, crouched down beside a scruffy thorn hedge and wept bitterly she did not know Harry had invisibly followed her to make sure she was safe. She did not know he smothered his own sobs when he saw her suffering. She did not see the pride in his eyes when she finally struggled to her feet, dried her eyes and said aloud to herself. "OK, Weasley? Finished have you? Right - let's get on with it then." and marched off, head high, to join Luna and Neville.

As Harry prepared to apparate back to Ron and Hermione he pushed his invisibility cloak deeply into his rucksack and felt something very large and hard at the bottom. It was the photograph envelope and beneath it was a bar of monster chocolate.

—oOo—





Chapter 5: Best Laid Plans
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Happy now being in love with you. Ginny was now cleverly cloaking the medallion with a flow of her hair so she could daydream over Harry's messages. To know she made him happy brought light to the days that now darkened Hogwarts. His affectionate kiss still lingered within her and she felt a contentment she could turn to when trouble stirred around her. Neville gave her a gentle nudge to draw her attention back to their lesson. Ginny sighed. She wished she could respond to Harry's message immediately but she knew she should wait until she could be alone: looking was one thing but kissing something in her hair several times a day before an audience of curious students would hardly go unnoticed.

"To really get the Dark Arts you've got to have a wide variety of hexes, jinxes, and curses." Amycus Carrow paused for effect, watching his class closely, then added, "Unforgiveables is not the only dark stuff."

He was standing at the top of the short flight of steps that led up to his office as if to dominate his students from on high. One hand grasped the stone rail and the other clutched the edge of his robe as he gazed proudly outwards like a Roman emperor addressing his legions from a palace balcony. Yet as soon as he spoke, his uncouth manner contradicted his lofty stance.

"You see, you can deform the fool to get him out your way. Busted fingers means he ain't going to handle his wand no more and he can't dodge your next curse if his feet or knees is twisted."

"Not everyone gets it - this curse is hard to learn. But that's good - likely your victim can't do it back at you! But when you've got the hang of it then it's dead easy and real quick. And they can't get rid of it - it's tough to counter this curse. Only the best wizards got the knack, right? So you're one up, right from the start. The idiot can't hang about waiting for it to wear off can he? And usually it hurts so that's a ruddy distraction for 'im right there! He's yours for the taking!" He gave a nasty wheezy giggle.

"Right - let's have a volunteer."

Carrow's gazed around the classroom. He seemed to relish the sight of students avoiding his eye contact, cringing down into their seats, hoping they would not be noticed. His attention finally alighted on Luna who was gazing out of the window, unconcernedly watching a cloud pass by.

"Lovegood! Get yourself over 'ere!"

"Mmm... sorry?" said Luna. "I was distracted for a while..."

"Yeah - well, I'll sort out your dozy daydreamin' soon enough - and your attitude. Get here - now!"

Luna said serenely, "I'm happy with both thank you. Would anyone else like to volunteer instead?"

Neville's hand went up. Ginny sitting beside him tried to drag down his arm but she knew it was too late. Several Slytherins sneered including Crabbe and Goyle who were making comments to one another. Draco Malfoy seemed withdrawn and nervous, however, and he looked away.

"Ah! two - even better!" smirked Carrow at Neville and Luna. "Here - now! Both of you."

Carrow turned and walked down the curving steps to meet them. While he was not looking directly, Luna whispered, "Sorry, Neville."

Carrow gloated over his victims while he thought for a moment. "You do too much stargazing, Lovegood - get ready to defend yourself." He had already pointed his wand at Luna's face and now gave a subtle turning motion ending with a wide pull away. "Detorqueo!"

Luna's eyes closed up like peas. She cried out and reached blindly in front of herself.

"Always in the dark ain't you?" sniggered Carrow. The Slytherin crowd roared with laughter.

"Your victim's a sitting duck so you can do what--" Carrow raised his wand but he never had a chance to use it for Luna had, unnoticed, turned her own wand in the direction of Carrow's voice.

"Expelliarmus," said Luna as quietly and casually as she could and Carrow's wand was plucked out of his hand and fell at his feet with a clatter.

"You little whelp!" bellowed Carrow. He glared angrily at Luna and stepped forward as if to strike the blind girl but then seemed to think better of it and brought himself under control.

"Yeah, well if it were for real you'd be quick and stealthy - not tell 'em what you're gonna do, would you?"

He picked up his wand and stepping silently to one side he cast a nonverbal tripping spell. Luna went down in a heap and Carrow sniggered. As she tried to get up he pointed his wand again. Down she went again.

"You're s-- sick, you know that?" said Neville to Carrow. He helped Luna to her feet and placed her hand on his arm.. "Hang on, Luna."

"Five points off Gryffindor for that wisecrack!" snarled Carrow. "You gotta big mouth, Longbottom - Detorqueo!"

Neville's lips bloated out like a bright-red bicycle inner tube and he staggered back, feeling his face.

"Bloo obble gobe doo bell!" burbled Neville angrily.

Most of the Slytherins erupted into applause and howled their approval; everyone else remained silent - impotent to help and glad it wasn't them.

His fun over, Carrow frowned at the unfortunate couple. "Right - back to your seats and maybe if you don't cause no trouble I might use the counter-curse."

Neville guided Luna back to her seat next to Terry Boot.

"Wob baibs, Bebby," babbled Neville.

"Swap babes? What d'you mean?" said Terry, confused.

"Baibs! Baibs! I wob bu bib wib Buba!"

"Sit down, Longbottom! - in your own chair!" A curse hit Neville from Carrow's wand and his left leg twisted like a stick of barley sugar. He tumbled headlong into the aisle between the desks. He clambered back to his own seat next to Ginny, wincing in pain and falling several times along the way.

"Now everyone's gonna do this on the one next to you," said Carrow. The students groaned. "You won't get it at first but I'll come round and set you right till you do. Look at me wand carefully - but it's not just how you shift it about - how you feel matters as well - you got to be nasty with it." He repeated the wand movements several times for everyone to observe then he walked around checking the students' attempts.

Neville contented himself with aiming his wand ineffectively at Ginny and mumbling "Bee-blorbleeoh." Ginny, in turn, rotated her wand in every direction but that which Carrow had demonstrated and muttered viciously to herself.

None of the students succeeded to so much as turn a pimple but Ginny took careful note of the counter-curses that Carrow used on Neville and Luna near the end of the lesson when the teacher made a final threat:

"For homework you've gotta learn it proper. Anyone who don't - you'll be volunteers next lesson so I'll keep doing you till you get it."

—oOo—


Harry fell silent and flung himself down on a stool in a corner of the tent. The three had been arguing for half an hour - going round in circles and getting nowhere.

"But why don't we--" Ron began - but shut up immediately when he saw Hermione shaking her head ominously.

Me as usual. Always me they expect to have all the answers, thought Harry miserably. He was bitterly disappointed in everyone - especially Ginny. For over two hours he had awaited her response. He dug out his Marauder's map again. He could see she was in a class but that seemed no excuse. Damn you! You might think of me once in a while! If only he could go back there and see. Doesn't she realise how hurtful it is to keep me waiting!

His scar began to prickle and he turned from the other two and braced himself for the expected pain. He grimaced at the bland tent canvas wall - it was as meaningless and empty as his entire life seemed to have been. He felt oppressed and confined; things were not going well. He did not hear Hermione quietly approaching.

"It's Ginny, isn't it?" she said very softly so Ron would not hear. "That's the real reason you want to go to Hogwarts."

"No it's not!" snapped Harry. "You-Know-Who went back--"

"But he didn't get the job, did he?" said Hermione. "So he never got the chance to hide a horcrux there. We've been through this over and over."

"ALRIGHT - fine then!" said Harry, "Forget Hogwarts."

Hermione face twisted in anxiety. She could see Harry's pain but to give in to him and return to Hogwarts seemed suicidal.

"Might as well try the orphanage then," said Ron.

"Ron!" raged Harry, leaping angrily up from his seat, "For the last time I tell you he wouldn't--!"

"Take it off, Harry," said Hermione. "Take the locket off, now!"

Harry stared at her. "I've only had it on an hour!"

"Nearly two!"

"I'm not... Why should--" Harry muttered incoherently.

"It's affecting you more though, isn't it?" said Hermione. "Give it to me. Give it to me while we go to the orphanage. Just for a few hours - see how you feel."

"Oh take the damn thing then!" spat Harry. He almost flung the locket at Hermione. She held it for a while, looking at him.

"Better?"

It seemed almost as if a great black stone had been lifted from him and Harry nodded groggily like a man waking up from a bad dream. His hand clutched at his throat, seeking his medallion but he stopped himself. The other two were looking at him strangely.

"Fresh air - give me a minute."

He dashed out of the tent, sought his silver disk, and sagged to the ground with relief when he saw his last message to Ginny, Happy now being in love with you.

Waves of emotion swept through him and remorse tore at his heart. Though he knew the horcrux had made him do it, he was sickened that he had thought badly of Ginny. He hated the evil locket more than ever. It had only been chance that he put it on after using his medallion and not before. He must warn Ginny. No, when I wear the locket I must first tell Ginny I won't be able to--

"Harry?" It was Hermione from the tent.

The medallion trembled. Right there in his shaking hand it trembled and Ginny's gentleness kissed his soul. Hot tears spilled down his cheeks.

My love always supports you. Only ask.

"Harry?" Hermione again. There was concern in her voice. "We ought to go."

"Minute..." said Harry weakly.

He kissed the medallion. Ginny. Need your strength. badly. often. cannot answer yet.

He regretted his message immediately. The burden he placed on her was too much - but he let it go. He wiped his face with his sleeve, gritted his teeth and went back to the others.

"I'm alright now," he said. "I'll take it back - I'll take my turn."

"No, Harry," said Hermione.

"Yes - I have to, Hermione. Give it back... Please."

Hermione reluctantly handed over the locket. Harry put it on, grasped Hermione's arm, and looked across at Ron expectantly.

The Apparation to London was a waste of time. Harry had known it would be but at least they eliminated the orphanage from their list of possible sites that might contain a horcrux; perhaps Ron and Hermione would stop nagging him now. He felt irritable for the whole trip - even worse when they returned. Yet he found if he grasped both locket and medallion he could read Ginny's words freely because Ron and Hermione thought he was inspecting the horcrux. Her simple words comforted him and helped foil the anxieties of the dark object; they kept him sane and focused. I am with you.

How she was doing it he did not know. What risks she took through the day he dare not think. He lived in her kisses. We shall come through this together. He did not analyse but absorbed their meaning like a prayer. He would not answer her while he wore the horcrux - though he seemed not so irritable as before. Their medallions were sacred to them. It would be a blasphemy to risk a harsh word to fester in her thoughts.

"Think you can open it then?" said Ron, as he watched Harry's endless preoccupation with the locket in his grasp.

"I reckon so, I think maybe parseltongue should do it," said Harry as he read between his fingers, The love between us cannot end. "I'm not that bothered to be honest. We'll figure it out once we find out how to destroy it."

Ron looked at Hermione in surprise and she rolled her eyes and shook her head. He gave a wry smile and wolfed down the last of his egg sandwich.

"Yes, that really is the end of the eggs," said Hermione, worriedly. "There's half a loaf but we'll need to scavenge again tomorrow."

Harry suddenly tumbled off his chair impulsively and dived for his rucksack. "I just remembered something. I got some chocolate ages ago - you know, for emergencies. I'd forgotten."

He handed it over to Hermione who looked a little puzzled but said nothing. She turned to Ron whose eyes were bulging. "This is to be rationed - one square at a time - to supplement what we have - and only then when we've not got enough."

She ignored his protests, tucked the chocolate away in her beaded bag and looked at her watch.

"It's time, Harry," she said.

"That's alright. I can manage a bit longer if you like."

"It's twelve hours. Stick to the plan. My turn. Hand it over."

Harry took off the locket and felt a welcome relief. He handed it over. Apart from his scar prickling now and again, Harry felt better than he had for some time. "I'm just going for a stroll for ten minutes - get some fresh air," he said.

After he had stepped out into the fresh evening air, he could hear them talking as he stood just outside the tent for a while breathing in the woodland scents.

"Have you noticed he's acting a bit strange, Hermione?"

"I think he's just handling the horcrux better, that's all. It affects different people different ways."

"Even so..."

Harry smiled to himself. He looked at Ginny's previous message then pondered what he might tell her. Finally, he knew...

Back with you. You carried me. Thank you. Love you.

He sent his tenderest kiss and smiled up at the friendly stars as he wondered what she might be doing in this shared moment. Sweet Ginny. Gentle Ginny...

—oOo—


"We've got to make those rat filth pay!" roared Ginny, banging her hand on the only table in the Room of Requirement and making everyone jump. "What Carrow did to Luna and Neville was just plain evil!" She looked angrily around at the gathering before her then sat back down. All the old D.A. members were there who could still be at Hogwarts and there were some new, eager faces. They knew this would be a serious discussion because all were provided with chairs in classroom formation. Neville had thought up this room and made it more secure and with extra exits.

"Leanne, you said you had an idea," said Ginny, taking out her notebook and a go-anywhere quill. "Oh and Luna and Neville also have come up with a really good plan - let's do that first."

"Hope it's nothing to do with changing parts of the body," laughed Terry.

"Well, it is to do with deflating someone's ego," said Luna, joining Ginny at the front of the room to face the others. She dumped her school bag on the table and pulled out a round cosmetic case which opened up like a flower at her touch. "Behold!" She lifted out the powder puff and held it up dramatically for all to see.

"So... this disguises the effects of giant noses and twisted ears?" said Ernie.

"You definitely don't want to use it on your face," said Neville, getting up and joining Luna. "You see Luna had this terrific idea to--"

"I got Daddy to print out these posters..." She dived again into her school bag and dragged out a pile of large paper sheets. She held one up. Neville handed round a few.

"It's Snape!" laughed Seamus. "How'd you smuggle these in?"

"Inside Daily Prophets," said Luna. "Nobody thinks to check inside them."

Ginny remained stone-faced as Harry's longed-for kiss touched her heart. Perhaps her quill trembled just a little as she looked around for an opportunity to read his message, but otherwise she showed no indication of the euphoria that swept through her.

"It's a wanted poster!" said Anthony.

"WANTED FOR THE COWARDLY MURDER OF PROFESSOR DUMBLEDORE," read out Parvati. "SEVERUS SNAPE."

"We'll never get away with this," said Anthony.

"That's where Neville's part comes in," said Luna excitedly. "Neville, you explain it!"

"Well, it was Luna's inspiration really," said Neville. "I would never have thought of it my--"

"Get on with it, Neville!" grinned Seamus.

"Right - there's a bookworm called Liburina - it's really microscopic, more like algae or mould. You sometimes find decay and overprinting in books in old bookshops - that's Liburina; it messes up the print something horrible," said Neville, excitedly.

"What use is that then?" said Parvati, "if it ruins the posters?"

"Wait - years ago they used it to digest newsprint from unsold Daily Prophets so they could re-use the paper. Only it didn't work very well because although it absorbs the print it really feeds on the paper - anything organic really - dirt, slime." Neville laughed. "You might say it has a snack while its reading the news!"

"You must be joking, surely?" said Anthony.

"Erm... yes - that was a joke," said Neville, flushing slightly, "but the thing is it also absorbs the print - I don't mean just the ink, I mean the shapes of the letters and all that as well as the paper. At the Prophet it kept regurgitating the news over and over so they finished up with different days all over one page. It's not really any good for that... Anyway, if you scrape it off after it's had a good meal you can use it to get the page back - it's very hardy and I've dried out some to form a convenient powder..."

"It's going to... poo Snape onto posters?" said Padma, wide-eyed. "- Awesome!"

"Sort of," said Neville. "Only you don't even need the actual posters! That's the best bit!"

Ginny looked at all the puzzled faces. "It's easier if you show them, Neville."

"Yes, well, watch..." said Neville. "I've made up lots of powder already... Luna?"

Luna skipped eagerly to the wall. She tickled an area with the fluffy brush then after a last grand flourish, stepped back with a little giggle to admire her invisible work. Neville tried to monitor the results carefully but found himself diverted. He had noticed an appealing freshness in the way Luna did the most mundane tasks. Here she was merely looking at a drab, grey wall yet one foot was tilted neatly against her opposite ankle; her head was turned just so - betraying the cusp of a precious smile; and honey hair bedraggled the line of her neck and shoulder like playful surf frozen in a golden sun. It suddenly struck him that she did not know this - she had not learned to pose like the other girls. Neville blinked and tried to think about black mould.

Ginny had been shown the demonstration before. While everyone's attention was diverted, she slipped away to the equipment shelving and pretended to busy herself finding something while she read Harry's message.

Back with you. You carried me today. Grateful always. Love you.

She stood there half-hearing the others talk behind her. Ginny's eyes were unseeingly upon the shelf paraphernalia: a dummy wand, a broken target charm, an old whistle - but she was dwelling inwardly on Harry's words and his lingering kiss. It was sheer joy to know she had supported her man; had been of use to him.

"Nothing's happened," said Ernie, after they had waited half a minute.

Neville chuckled. "That's the best bit - gives you ages to get away... Keep watching..."

Another half a minute passed with no visible effect and several of the group were becoming restless.

"It'll work - just give it time," said Neville anxiously, "You see the mould needs damp - not much - everywhere's got a tiny amount of moisture even in a desert but it just takes longer for the mould to grow if it's a fairly dry place. We tried it in a steamy bathroom and it was nearly instant!"

"It's working!" squeaked Hannah, pointing at the wall.

An area of the wall was becoming lighter and lighter. There was no detail for a while but gradually a clear white rectangle emerged smothered in dark patches which gradually sharpened into large black letters and an unflattering picture of Professor Snape.

Everyone gaped at what was clearly a wanted poster apparently painted straight onto the wall.

"Merlin's hat!" said Ernie. "So..."

"So... we don't need to carry around incriminating posters," said Luna. "All the girls can put one of these brushes in their makeup and daub a wall here and there."

"That's not all!" said Neville, "It's really hard to get rid of this stuff even with cleansing charms and even when you do - it spreads itself - it's like mould after all. It's really hard to get rid of magical mould - you can't just scrub it off. Once we've got plenty of it spread around then as fast as they try to remove it - the next day there'll be more without us even adding it!"

"You are totally brilliant!" said Hannah, beaming admiringly at Neville.

Ginny absent-mindedly came back with the whistle. It had seemed familiar somehow. The joy on her face fortunately mingled with the excited faces and general enthusiasm in the room as Luna used the transforming spell to duplicate the cosmetic boxes and handed them around to the girls.

"Just remember to get far away from the area as soon as you've used it," said Luna.

"Don't want to sound negative but what exactly is the point of all this?" said Ernie.

"The point is they want to oppress us, control us, and intimidate us," said Neville. "We're not going to let them! We're going to show them they can never, ever break us. It keeps us together in a fellowship and helps to organise in case we're needed."

"Needed? For what?" said Zacharias.

"To help Harry, of course, you wally!" said Ginny.

"Why don't you face it, Harry's abandoned us - he's looking out for himself," replied Zacharias.

Luna spoke up, "If you really think that's true then you should go and join the Death Eaters because without Harry, we're all lost."

"Luna's right," said Neville. "Harry is planning something, I'm sure of it. We need to be ready. Every little bit we do now prepares us - or would you rather we all split up and do nothing? Each be one separate, frightened little child? Together, we support one another; who knows what we might achieve? We're only just starting really; finding our way; still looking for new suggestions we can try."

There was a stirring amongst the group as they pondered these thoughts. Nobody protested. There were a few puzzled faces but there were many nods and positive expressions of encouragement.

"Leanne, what was your idea?" said Ginny, trying to keep things moving.

"Well, not much really." She began to redden. "Seems silly now - after Luna and Neville's plan..."

"Well, let's hear it anyway," said Seamus.

"Burping powder." said Leanne almost inaudibly.

"Belch powder?" smirked Seamus. "That old thing? Been in Zonko's for years. Fred and George do it now."

"No, let's hear Leanne," said Ginny. "How did you plan on using it?"

"I just thought it would be fun - make the Carrows looks ridiculous," said Leanne. "You know, put it on their food."

There was silence.

"How?" said Michael Corner.

More silence. Leanne fidgeted in her seat.

"Are you going to walk up to them at breakfast in the Great Hall and sprinkle it on their cornflakes?" smirked Seamus.

"Before that..." offered Leanne timidly, wishing she had never mentioned the idea.

"Nobody can get in the kitchen can they?" said Anthony. "And anyway, they'd know who'd done it."

"Crabbe's always getting in there," said Leanne. "That's why I thought it wouldn't be difficult. He's pretty stupid so..."

"Well, the Slytherins have their common room down there so they're practically next door--"

"So do we," said Leanne meekly.

"So..." said Ginny.

"I think it's a wonderful idea," said Luna. "It's perfect."

"What is?" said Ginny.

"Well, what Leanne said," said Luna serenely, looking around as if puzzled at everyone's lack of comprehension. "Well don't you see? Leanne's idea is to use polyjuice potion to imitate Crabbe then charm the powder with his wand and go down into the kitchen and tell the house-elves that the headmaster and his deputies want this magical security putting on all their food in future so they don't get poisoned."

Everyone stared, including Leanne.

"I knew that," said McLaggen.

Parvati squealed with laughter which set everyone shrieking and joking loudly. "Can you imagine Snape's expression when they start burping in the Great Hall!"

"What about Crabbe when they check his wand!" said Ginny.

"Leanne, you're a genius!" cried Michael.

Ginny fumbled with her notes while the yelling and shouting continued then she looked at her watch. "Next on the agenda, as some of you know, I'm going to..." The excited voices were drowning her words. She suddenly noticed the whistle in her hand. It was Harry's whistle; the one he had used when he led the D.A. two years before. Ginny blew it long and hard then continued in the ensuing stunned silence, "I'm going to speak to Professor McGonagall and Luna is going to ask Flitwick and Neville's asking Slughorn and Sprout - oh and Madam Pomfrey of course, about things we can use during detention."

"Like what?" said Zacharias.

"Yeah, wondered why you'd turned up, Smith," said Ginny with no attempt to conceal her disdain. You decided yet whether you're going to sign up?"

"Depends what else the D.A. gets up to. No point in risking one's neck recklessly is there?"

"Or at all, according to you," said Ginny, "but OK to come and see what you can get out of it, right?"

"Were you thinking of shields, Ginny?" said Ernie.

Well, maybe if there's an invisible one... I wondered about pain-killers and I know there's a daydream spell and..."

"There's a hex that causes a numbing sensation!" said Lavender. "I remember reading about it in the library last year when I was looking for something for... erm... hyperactivity."

"Was that so you snogged Ron less... or more?" sniggered Seamus. Lavender glared at him.

"Probably so Ron snogged better," said Ginny. She instantly regretted saying it. Last year's jibes now seemed mean considering the dangers Ron was braving.

"Ron's a perfectly good kisser thank you for very much," said Lavender scornfully but she noticed a flicker of worry passing over Ginny's face.

"Well he's had enough practice," laughed Romilda.

"Sorry, Lavender - see if you can find that numbing thing again and we'll try it out," said Ginny.

Lavender stared for a few seconds at Ginny's unexpected courtesy then wailed, "He's dying isn't he?" She began sobbing. It seemed half the others were asking what it was all about and half were explaining Ron's illness.

"No - he'll be fine, I'm sure!" said Ginny, wondering how best to restore order then blurted out, "I'll mention you asked when I go home at Christmas."

"Oh would you?" blubbered Lavender, big eyes shining. "Tell him I... Tell him I miss him, still."

Ginny nodded, wished she had not taken this route.

"Tell them about that pollen I mentioned," said Neville.

"Oh yes, Neville thinks there's some pollen that causes a feeling of detachment." Ginny was glad of the chance to get the meeting back on the rails.

"No, it's definite but I'm not certain how it works," said Neville. "I think it makes you feel like you're out of your body so when they're hurting your body it's like watching someone else."

"What about when you go back inside your body afterwards?" asked Ernie. "Say you'd had to use that Blood Quill?"

"Erm... not sure. I'd think it's - probably still as sore as hell!" laughed Neville. "I guess your mind could stay out for a day or two until the body has healed."

"But wouldn't people notice?" said Zacharias.

"Not in your case, no," laughed Hannah.

"Anyway, well, there must be all sorts of possibilities for relieving the punishments but we need to make sure they're not obvious so we can use them over and over. We'll know better when we talked to the teachers." Ginny shuffled through her notes.

"Right, any other suggestions?" She waited for a while then continued, "If there's nothing else to discuss I want us to practice Carrow's distortion curse so--"

"What!" said Zacharias, loudly. "Thought we weren't--"

"If we don't then we'll be in for more demonstrations," said Ginny. "I'd rather we choose our own thing rather than let Carrow do it - how about curling hair or big eyebrows - that shouldn't hurt?"

"Finger nails!" said Romilda, "I always wanted long nails but mine split so easily."

"I know what I want," smirked Zacharias.

"How about shrinking Smith's foul mouth?" said Parvati.

"Watch it, Patil!" said Zacharias.

"Save it for the Carrows, you lot," said Neville.

The chairs were quickly whisked away and the group split into pairs to practice the distortion curse. Ginny was showing Luna who had only seen the wand movements once. Hannah had asked Neville for help because she said she felt unsure about the incantation itself. Padma and Parvati were squabbling about their eyelashes and Michael was trying to impress Romilda with an excessive flourish of his wand that nearly hit her in the face.

After twenty minutes though, they were all rather discouraged. Only Susan Bones and Zacharias Smith had managed even slight changes on each other: Zacharias' skin was now a sallow yellow while Susan had become noticeably more shapely.

"He was right about one thing - it's difficult," said Seamus.

"Difficult to master, he said - but easy when you know how," said Ernie.

"We don't hate each other enough," said Luna abruptly and rather loudly. She and Ginny had stopped trying to curse each other and everyone else soon joined them. "Don't you see? This is why he's set this assignment. He wants to divide us; make us hurt one another; make us... more like them."

There was a shocked silence as they all digested this suggestion.

"We need to practise on someone we don't like then," said Hannah, looking at Zacharias.

There was an outburst of suggestions and a mix of laughter and anger but Neville called a halt. "You're all forgetting - this is the Room of Requirement. If we really need something then it provides it. I thought up this room so I only have to think about what we really need."

Someone pointed at the magical training dummies in the far corner of the room.

"They're transfiguring!" cried Parvati. "...into the Carrows and..."

"Snape! Bagsy a Snape!" squealed Romilda.

They all found it easy to think hateful thoughts at the training dummies and soon succeeded in producing jug ears and fat butts on them. Once they had begun to get the feel of casting the spell, most of them found they could cast it on each other by thinking up hateful thoughts.

"It's rather like making a patronus only backwards," said Luna after she had finally managed to increase Ginny's height by a few inches.

Getting rid of the effects was not so easy and most of them set out for their common rooms with strangely-altered appearances which might not fade for hours. Ginny had only managed to counter-curse the spell once when she transformed Seamus' long fangs back into normal teeth.

Ginny could sense something was wrong as soon as she saw the expression on the Fat Lady's face.

"Next week's password will be Cumulonimbus" said the portrait. She gave a huge, melodramatic wink.

"Thundercloud - Plan B," whispered Neville, "Seamus, Ginny, me, Romilda, we go in - rest of you - Scatter and return!"

They braced themselves for that which awaited them within the Gryffindor common room; it could not be good.

—oOo—


Chapter 6: Something Lost, Something Found
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Seamus, Neville, and Romilda paused behind Ginny at the threshold of the Gryffindor common room; a heated argument was taking place within.

"Let me remind you, Professor Carrow, that I am head of this house and--"

"Oh leave it out will you! I'm deputy headmaster and I'll go where I ruddy well want!" Carrow glared at McGonagall. "Where the bludgering 'ell are they then?"

"How should I know? It's well before curfew and they are free to study, use the library, consult other teachers walk in the grounds..."

"All of 'em, though? All of 'em?"

"As you can see, it is not all of them - there are several Gryffindor students who--"

"Most of 'em then! I want to know what they're up to! I want to know where they are!"

"Well, why don't you ask them yourself?" McGonagall gestured towards the entrance where Seamus, Ginny and her friends were just strolling in.

Carrow spun around. "Where you been?" he thundered. He looked over their shoulders. "Where's the others?"

"What others?" said Ginny, "Us four've been doing our homework together."

"Oh yeah? You've a reading room for that. Or in here! What's wrong with here?" bellowed Carrow.

"Well, we didn't want to damage anything--" said Neville

"Magic! You been doing magic!"

"Of course," sneered Seamus, "this is a school of magic; they teach magic here."

"Don't get smart with me, lad!" said Carrow, raising his voice a notch. "What you been up to? What magic?"

"Why, the homework you set us, Professor," said Ginny.

"Professor Carrow!" protested McGonagall, "you mean to say you've set these children--"

"Where?" demanded Carrow, "Where you been?"

"Fourth floor corridor," said Neville. "It was empty - seemed a safe place. We didn't want anyone to get hurt."

"Liar!" said Carrow. "I went everywhere! You weren't up there!"

"You mean you saw the pulverised vase?" said Ginny. "We're really sorry about that. We left a note. We'll pay for it of course."

"You've broken that old vase on the fourth floor?" said McGonagall. "It's worthless. Good riddance, I say. Well I think that settles it, Professor Carrow doesn't it? Unless you want to go up there and check?"

Ginny had moved closer to Carrow. He had never noticed before but she was appreciably taller than he was and did not behave guiltily at all - nor did she seem afraid. He looked around. He was closely surrounded by Gryffindors. Longbottom was broader and stockier than he remembered. Carrow was not intimidated but he felt wrong-footed.

"Well... Maybe I missed the fourth floor." Carrow hesitated. "Where's the others then?"

Ginny and Romilda looked at each other and shrugged.

Neville looked Carrow squarely in the eye. "I think I saw Lavender with McLaggen heading for the library earlier. She said she had to return a book. You might still find them in there; those two read a lot."

"Leave it," muttered Carrow. "Just..." He didn't finish because as he swept away towards the exit, Lavender and Cormack McLaggen burst over the threshold.

"Oh Romilda!" squealed Lavender. "I've found this lovely old book about, erm..." she looked at the tatty book she held up, "It's about... fungus... and - yes, fungus."

"Outa my way, you!" Carrow pushed past and disappeared into the corridors outside.

"Well!" said McGonagall folding her arms sternly. "That was quite a performance! I do hope you all know what you're doing!"

She looked around at the students gathered around her. She spoke as sternly as ever but Ginny thought she heard a note of concern in her tone. "I don't know what you're up to but you must realise this is not a game - they are utterly ruthless you know."

She paused for a few seconds. "That graffiti the other day - 'Dumbledore’s Army, still recruiting' - It was sheer dumb luck that Professor Snape did not recognise the handwriting before it was removed." She stared hard at Ginny who looked innocently back at her.

"And the stink pod outside the headmaster's office?" She shook her head slowly in disapproval. "It's not everyone that knows putredinem virgultum remains ripe for only two or three days at the end of September." She exposed the full force of her glare onto Neville who blanched and took a step back.

"You do understand what I'm saying?" She looked back and forth amongst them all. "If the people responsible - whoever they may be - continue making these foolish mistakes then it's just a matter of time..."

"Don't worry, Professor," said Ginny. "If we find out who's behind this we'll make sure they don't do it anymore."

"Thank you, Miss Weasley," said McGonagall. She looked at the top of Ginny's head, now slightly above her own. "You seem to have grown up all of a sudden."

McGonagall turned to Romilda. "Really, Miss Vane, don't you think you're wearing rather too much makeup than is appropriate for this school? False eyelashes and lip gloss are not considered--"

"I'm not wearing any cosmetics at all, Professor," beamed Romilda, flashing a smile full of perfectly-polished white teeth.

"I see..." She took a second look at Neville's pullover which was stretched to bursting over his massive chest. "Homework?"

"Yes, Professor," came the happy chorus from all sides.

As she walked back to her office, McGonagall thought deeply about the exchange. She knew she ought to be pleased her students had given in yet she could not suppress a sense of disappointment that they had done it so readily. Her stride slowed almost to a stop and a grim smile spread across her face as she remembered what was actually said, foolish mistakes ... they won't make them anymore. She shook her head and continued on her way.


—oOo—


Ginny and Neville waited nervously at the top of the stairs leading down to the basement. The distortion curses had worn off overnight and they were both their normal size again but they might yet attract the attention of suspicious Slytherins. Only ten minutes remained of their lunch hour. Ginny fingered the whistle that hung from a thin cord around her neck. One soft pipe would signal danger to their friends below.

Ginny was wondering if she would regret trusting McLaggen with a quarter of her one precious polyjuice potion. She didn't doubt his courage or his ambition but he could be a bit of a prat at times. Still, he had been the most eager to volunteer for Leanne's burp powder plan and Ginny was reluctant to demotivate anyone in the D.A. He was also the nearest in size to Crabbe which meant he only needed to swap robes after changing. It seemed an awful risk though for what seemed more and more like a silly, childish prank. She pulled a face and slowly shook her head.

Neville seemed to read her thoughts. "Snape's a murderer, remember. He killed Professor Dumbledore. It's not just for a joke - we're telling him we're here. He'll never crush us - never!"

Ginny nodded and smiled. She couldn't manage without Neville and Luna's support - all the D.A. needed one another. She slowed her thoughts and listened. Footsteps!

Leanne and what looked like Crabbe were coming up the stairs towards them.

"Was it alright? How'd it go?" whispered Neville.

"No problem - but fifteen minutes was cutting it a bit fine." McLaggen gave a lop-sided grin. He still appeared mostly like Crabbe but his face was twisting oddly as the effect of the polyjuice potion started to wear off. "I left the whole pouchful of belch powder with one of the elves and you know how they are - he was eager to help."

"And you used Crabbe's wand on it first?" asked Neville.

"Of course!" said the Crabbe-like McLaggen. "Leanne did it before - like you said."

"Where's the real Crabbe now?" asked Ginny.

"Still sleeping like a baby!" said Leanne happily. "He had a row with Goyle out near the lake and Goyle got annoyed and went off towards the greenhouses. Crabbe was sat against a tree chucking stones at the water. I hexed him from behind the tree. When he wakes up he'll just think he dozed off. I grabbed a hair from his head and I stuffed one of yesterday's fudge cakes down at the bottom of his bag below his books. I doubt he'll even notice it before supper."

"And I just nicked one from the kitchen in front of half a dozen elf witnesses and put it in my own bag," Crabbe-McLaggen boasted as he pulled out a fudge cake then promptly started to stuff it into what remained of Crabbe's copious mouth. By the time he had pushed the last morsel in, he was completely McLaggen again and started switching his Slytherin robe for a Gryffindor one.

"That is revolting," said Ginny. "Watching someone eat while they are transfiguring from a big mouth to a normal mouth is now on my list of things never to watch again."

"Uh I wo' unn -ree," spluttered McLaggen. "Eheewai - ha oo eehaw e ebbyens." He swallowed hard then pulled a face. "I think the caramel taste got left behind in Crabbe's mouth. "All I got was stodge and calories."

"Good job, you two," said Neville. "The evening meal should be interesting!"

There was an almighty crash echoing from a distant corridor. They could faintly hear Filch yelling, "I'll flay yer! See if I don't!"

"That'll be the first of the wanted posters," said Ginny with a smile.


—oOo—


Ginny stared moodily at her medallion and her most recent message to Harry, Thinking of you. Stay strong. She was worried about him. Over the last week there had been several occasions when he had been unable to communicate for hours but relied on her moral support. She was glad to do that with encouraging words at those times. He praised her for helping him to get through his day but it troubled her that he might be depressed or suffering so often and she did not know why - nor would she ask. He wasn't in serious danger - the sailing vessel on her medallion told her that - but she worked hard to think how to raise his spirits. If only she could give him more concrete help but she had no idea what he was doing or what he might need. Likely there would be at least one or two more Hogsmeade weekends before Christmas - perhaps she might at least ask him if there was anything else he could use - like a book from the Hogwarts library or more food or...

She glanced across at Luna. Though sixth and seventh year students were sharing the same Charms class, Flitwick had improvised different lessons for each. Luna was deeply absorbed in a little box which she had successfully charmed to have a lid on each of its six faces. Every lid gave access to completely different contents. Neville was next to her trying to study Volume Three of Charms: Principles and Practice in preparation for his NEWTS exams at the end of the school year but Ginny could see his attention kept wavering to the girl at his side.

Ginny sighed. Neville always seemed to sit with Luna now so she often couldn't sit with either of them. Seamus was alright but she knew he only sat with her because Dean could not be here and anyway, he was also buried in his Principles and Practice book. Everything was mixed up. Why couldn't she be sitting with Harry...

Ginny glared at her own box which stubbornly resisted having anything more than three lids and the six contents kept getting muddled up. "Stupid box!" she muttered to herself. She tipped out her test pieces: a thimble; an old peppermint; two buttons - one blue and one red; a piece of broken Snitch that had got bludgered during Quidditch practice; and a curtain ring she used to pretend Harry had given her when she was little. Why was she carrying that old thing about! She re-read the instructions on the blackboard once again and threatened the box with her wand.

There was a sudden commotion and the classroom door flew open with a crash.

"Mr. Filch!" squeaked Professor Flitwick. "Would you please refrain from disturbing my students while they are studying?"

"Sorry, Professor," said Filch, somewhat chastened, "I'm here for Miss Lovegood - Headmaster wants to see her right away." An evil sneer spread across his face as he looked around the class. "Urgent, he said."

"Very well," said Flitwick, "Wait outside - I'll bring her out."

He gestured to Luna to join him at the side of the class. "Miss Lovegood, what's this about? Are you in trouble?"

"I don't think that's possible, sir," said Luna, "I've done nothing wrong."

Flitwick considered her carefully. "You realise there is very little I can do if you..." He paused.

"Miss Lovegood, is there anything, anything at all you would... that Professor Snape should not know?"

"I'm sure there must be many things, Professor." Luna looked Flitwick unflinchingly in the eye.

"Professor..." It was Filch from the doorway.

Flitwick looked at Luna for a few seconds. Finally he made a few subtle movements with his wand in her direction then said, "So be it. May I suggest that... some might consider it confrontational to return someone's stare - it is not always wise."

"Thank you, Professor; I do understand," said Luna, "I'm sure everything will be fine."

"Off you go then."

Luna looked back from the doorway at Ginny and Neville's anxious faces. She gave them a smile and went off with Filch.


—oOo—


"Come!"

When Luna entered the headmaster's office she was not surprised to see Professor Snape was flanked by the two Carrows standing on either side of his desk; all three were trying to look imposing. They must be afraid of me! Luna smiled to try to reassure them.

"Sit down!" Snape said curtly, indicating the chair in front of his desk. Luna sat and tried to shrink herself down as low as possible. She thought it might make them feel more comfortable.

"You know why you're here?" demanded Snape.

"Yes sir, I think I do!" said Luna brightly.

Snape looked puzzled for a moment. "Well?"

"Is it for the award?"

"Award? What are you talking about?"

"Professor Flitwick said the first student who accomplished the full six lids charm would be awarded twenty housepoints," said Luna. "I think he's over-generous, don't you?"

"Miss Lovegood, are you trying to be impertinent?"

"Oh no, Sir. I like Professor Flitwick. I did not wish to be rude about him but--"

Snape held up his hand to silence Luna. A shadow fell across his face. He had known this interrogation would not be easy with this quirky young Ravenclaw.

"Is it not true that your father is a publisher?"

Luna opened her mouth to answer but Snape raised his hand again and continued.

"And is it not true that he is able to print posters?"

Again he silenced Luna before she could speak. They had not been questions; he had been making a point.

"Bag! Now!" snarled Snape. "Empty it out on my desk!"

"I don't think I should really..."

"Miss Lovegood..." said Snape icily, "if you continue to annoy me then perhaps a month of detentions might teach you better behaviour. Empty ... out ... your ... bag - NOW!"

Luna tipped out her bag. It had contained a great many things including an open custard powder pack; one of Fred's uncatchable clown jokers that promptly bounced around the office shrieking with laughter and reciting dirty jokes; a couple of pungent gurdyroots; several hundred magical paperclips that searched around and clipped themselves to anything they could find; a bottle that promptly smashed, spreading black ink all over the desktop; a super-expanding-glue sachet which burst and sprayed instant-drying paste everywhere; and some tiny little winged snap beetles that scurried to the desk edge then launched themselves to every corner of the room where they proceeded to loudly snap their wing cases.

"Why you little guttersnipe!" said Alecto, raising her wand, "Just give me five minutes to elasticate her backbone!"

Snape stared hard at Luna but she avoided his gaze by focusing her eyes past his curtain of black, greasy hair onto the more-friendly sorting hat and the cabinets and shelves behind him. She remembered having a really long chat with the hat while it was trying to sort her into Gryffindor. Poor thing knows every student who ever came to Hogwarts yet he must be dreadfully lonely up there. They should get a nice little lady's bonnet to sit with him. She gave the hat a friendly smile.

Snape blinked. He could make no sense of her thinking at all nor find any way through the jungle of strange ideas that seemed to infect the surface of her mind. The headmaster made slight movements of his wand in her direction and his puzzled expression deepened. There was something woven into her mind that made progress impossible without alerting the girl - or even causing damage - and he had no wish to do either. After a few seconds he gave up and said, "You might suppose that you are being clever but let me tell you that are on very thin ice indeed."

He turned his wand to the pile of items spilled upon his desk and began to probe them magically.

"This?" he picked up an inky, custardy, scrap of parchment between the tips of his thumb and forefinger.

Luna looked startled. "That's private. I often write down my thoughts - things I think about."

Snape's lips curled into a sneer.

He flipped his wand and the parchment unwrapped itself in mid-air. It appeared to be blank except for a heading that Snape read out with increasing revulsion and decreasing speed as though it was slowly dawning on him that he had a slug in his sandwich, "Weasleys' ... Wizard ... Wheezes ... Wacky ... Wit ... Waffler."

Snape touched his wand to the document. "Reveal ... your ... secret!"

"It only talks to me," said Luna, "it likes me I think."

"Perhaps..." said Snape, "you could... enlighten us." He floated it across under Luna's nose.

"Reveal it!"

Luna raised her wand. "Loqui ad me!"

Nothing happened.

"Well?" said Snape.

"That never works," said Luna, then seeing Snape's eyes flare she added, "Utter all utterances utterly."

The parchment seemed to take a deep breath, expanding into a screwed-up ball then spoke in a voice that sounded remarkably like George Weasley yet was very Luna-like in manner, "I wonder what all those silly Death Eaters will do once Harry has killed You-know-who. I expect they'll be glad not to be slaves anymore. Poor things look so scared all the time."

"Stop that prattling!" shouted Amycus. "Stop it now!"

But there was no stopping the parchment. In fact it seemed to swell up with enthusiasm as it warmed to its task, "But if they were free they wouldn't really know what to do with themselves. Of course, most of them will finish up in Azkaban amongst all those horrible Dementors. But the rest won't--"

"Make her stop it!"

"--the rest won't have any purpose to their lives at all. All they do all day is feel unhappy because they haven't got any real friends or anyone they can trust. I wonder why they want to always be so unhappy? I wouldn't if it were me. I'd want to stop doing silly things all the time. And their poor children turn out the same too - take Slytherins for instance,--"

"Destroy it, I say!" said Amycus. He raised his wand.

"Doesn't matter what they threaten because their pranks always go pear-shaped. Haha! that's really funny! A crabapple going pear-shaped! Haha!--"

The parchment fluttered and convulsed with prolonged laughter. Amycus' wand flashed something rather bright and ominously orange towards it. The sheet flared and curled briefly then its ashes fluttered to the desktop. Snape glared at Amycus then he turned back to Luna.

"Wand!" he snapped. He held out his hand. Luna gave him her wand and Snape touched its tip with his own wand.

"Prior Incantato!"

Something like a faint, glowing shadow in the shape of a small cube flowed out from Luna's wand. Its six sides flipped open together leaving nothing but six different types of ghostly nut that hovered after the seemingly-boxless lids.

"Nuts!" said Luna happily and clapped her hands with delight.

"I can see what they are, Miss Lovegood. What on earth are they for?" said Snape.

"Well, squirrels eat them for one thing..."

"I mean, why are they in this box?"

"Oh that's simple. I put them in there."

"But why did - Oh forget it!" Snape gave up trying to understand.

"Before that - see what she done before that," said Alecto.

"Prior Incantato!"

Something much larger was coming out from the wand; large, dark, and batlike it bloated out into a full-size hazy replica of Professor Snape himself but with a huge nose that overbalanced it, causing it to lean over comically then rock back repeatedly.

"Deletrius!" shouted Snape hurriedly and the fake Snape disappeared. He repeated the Prior Incantato charm over and over but each time another big-nosed Snape came out.

"What ... is ... this!" he demanded. "How many more--"

"Oh I'm sure there are hundreds, Professor. It's homework you see. Professor Carrow set us this to practice. I think it's rather good don't you?"

Snape had had enough. "Out! Get out!" he yelled, thrusting Luna's wand back at her.

"Accio my bag and everything in it except the ink and the glue!" said Luna as she walked backwards to the door. "Oh, and the custard."

"OUT!"

Luna listened outside the door for a while.

"I told you, she's a menace - like her father!" said Amycus. "They oughta be locked up."

"That cur should be put down!" shrieked Alecto. "I'll do it!"

Snape raised his hand to calm things down. "She is an ... extremely irritating ... wildly eccentric ... unfocused ... scatterbrained ... nitwit - incapable of stringing together any serious, logical thoughts - but she is harmless."

Harmless? That's a bit unfair, thought Luna as she skipped down the stairs. The last thing she heard from above was a high-pitched, squeaky voice saying, "--as the actress said to the bishop!"


—oOo—


Harry lay back happily on his bunk, lazily digesting the early evening meal. The meagre scraps he was fed during his early childhood made him appreciate the generous helping of rabbit stew all the more and while Ron was wearing the horcrux, he could relax completely. He was gazing dreamily at Ginny's picture and thinking how fortunate he was. His eyes roamed every square inch of the photograph, only departing the image occasionally to look upon his medallion and Ginny's most recent message. Wherever the day sends us, we come back to each other. As he filled his mind with the thought, Ginny smiled at him. He knew she was smiling just for him and that made it special.

His daydreaming was shattered when a quarrel flared up around the bend of canvas that led to the kitchen area. Harry swung his legs over the side of the bunk and sat up to listen.

"Why me again? Why can't--"

"Harry did it yesterday! Oh for heaven's sake, Ronald! If you knew the trouble that Muggles went to when washing dishes you wouldn't grumble so much!"

Harry visualised himself leaping like a knight in shining armour to help Ginny wash a mountain of dishes; he would never hesitate, never complain. She would reward him with kisses. Everything would be wonderful. He laughed softly to himself. His thoughts of Ginny lifted his spirits so that these daily domestic tiffs seemed of little concern.

"Yes, but I summoned the bloomin' rabbits, didn't I? I spent over an hour first though, searching for them--"

"And who skinned and gutted them?"

"That's only a spell. Anyone can do that. I was on watch last night. I only got four hours sleep!"

Harry sighed and went round to them. "Fine. I'll do them. I'll do the dishes. Ron, go and get some rest - you've earned it."

Ron looked annoyed that his quarrel had somehow been sidestepped without him gaining any satisfaction. He muttered something and went off to the sleeping area. Hermione watched him go. She looked troubled.

"It's just the horcrux, Hermione," said Harry, trying to find some words to comfort her. "Ron can be a prat at times but he's not that--"

"I know." Hermione sighed, gave Harry a faint smile, and turned to the dishes.

Harry dragged up a chair. "Here m'lady. Rest you. Thine humble squire will carry out his duties." He started hovering pots and pans and cutlery from different directions into the tub.

Hermione smiled and sat down. "A squire is not that sort of servant, Harry. Anyway, what's got into you lately?"

"I'LL TELL YOU WHAT!" stormed Ron, bursting back into the kitchen. He was holding up Ginny's photograph. "What the hell is this!"

"Hey! That's mine!" shouted Harry, striding forward and trying to snatch the picture from Ron's grasp. A stew bowl, halfway through its flight to the washtub, fell with a crash to the ground.

Ron pushed Harry away and swore at him. "I thought we'd agreed you'd have nothing more to do with my sister!"

"It's just a photo, Ron," said Harry. "Give it here!"

"Just a photo? It could be Ginny's death sentence if you're caught with this! What in Merlin's darkest curse do you think you're doing?"

"Give it back, Ron," said Harry, more fiercely, "now!"

Ron gripped the edge of the picture with two hands as if to tear it up but hesitated when he saw Harry's wand pointing at him.

"Harry! NO!" cried Hermione. "Ron, let's... all calm down... talk this through."

"What's to talk?" Ron looked across at Hermione. "You think it's alright to have this?" He waved the photograph angrily at Hermione.

"I didn't say that, but..."

"But what? Let's hear it then..." Ron paused. " Oh, I get it. You want to side with Harry as usual. Who cares about--"

"Ron - NO! It's..."

"Then what?" Ron held up the picture. "The photograph, Hermione; Ginny's fate - you decide!"

"Well, I..." Hermione looked very distressed. Her eyes turned to Harry. "I'm sorry, ... I think Ron's right. You shouldn't have brought this along. I think you should destroy it."

Harry stared in disbelief. His happy mood was over. Despite the recent dinner he felt a desperate emptiness opening up deep within him. He held out his hand towards Ron who stepped forward uncertainly and gave Harry the picture.

Harry looked one last time at Ginny's photograph. She smiled and her brown eyes seemed to search his face. There was no accusation in those eyes; only love and trust. He paused then said softly "Best not to look, Ginny." Those same eyes widened in fear - then they closed and she nodded her agreement.

"I can't," he said. His voice was flat, lifeless.

"Harry, you have to..." said Hermione.

"I mean... I mean I can't... myself," said Harry. "One of you two do it."

He dropped the photograph and walked out of the tent just as the weak daylight gave up trying to struggle through the clouds and the weary sun sank below the rock face against which they had camped. He strode away but not quickly enough. He heard Ron's incantation, "Incendio!" and had a mental image of Ginny's face curling up horribly in the heat - then no more.

He found himself descending a stepped, well-worn sandy path outlined by coarse grass. It led to an ugly shoreline of broken rocks and a fat pebble beach spoilt by lines of concrete blocks and tangled wires. Further along this shore, a young Muggle couple, clearly lovers, strolled arm-in-arm as if they walked the streets of Paradise. They did not seem to see the despairing twilight mist starting to gather as a death-shroud upon the bleak landscape - nor the vicious seabirds tearing like vultures at discarded trash for their last meal before darkness set in. Were they completely blind to the flat grey sky and high gusts that whipped the sea crests to angry spittle?

Harry turned in the opposite direction from the foolish pair and sat himself upon a rotted wooden post - remnant of some old breakwater - and took out his medallion. Here was an engraving of Ginny that no man, no magic, could ever see or take from him. As he stared at it, his imagination coloured through the silvery metal; it saw her smiling brown eyes looking back; the long flaming hair resting softly against her creamy countenance; the red lips that could smile only at him and none else.

They were right. He had known it all along - had known at the moment that Ginny had given him her likeness to carry with him that it endangered her. Why had he not rejected it immediately? Were his feelings for her so selfish; so unconcerned for her welfare? He had been as blind as those Muggle lovers. He picked up a cracked stone and flung it towards the surging tide but it fell far short and clattered sharply along until it was lost forever among the pebbles.


—oOo—


The evening meal was a memorable occasion. To begin with there were additional large blank banners along the walls but all the students knew there were wanted posters behind them that Filch had not yet managed to remove. The banners, being blank, stood out starkly like a proclamation and drew attention in their own right. Furthermore - they were definitely becoming discoloured and Neville grinned.

"By breakfast they'll all be overrun by Liburina," he said. He looked at Seamus and Ginny and the others and grinned, "They'll turn into giant wanted posters! They'll have to cover them with even bigger banners! Can't wait to see this place in a few days time!"

He paused. Luna had caught his eye from the Ravenclaw table. She pointed at her watch. Neville looked at his own watch and nodded. During Charms, Luna had explained a supplement to Leanne's burp plan and it ought to be triggering any time now. A sudden loud and prolonged belch from the Hufflepuffs' table signified it had started.

A faint apology was drowned by an even louder burp from the Ravenclaw table.

"SILENCE!" bellowed Snape without getting up. But the vulgar sounds seemed unstoppable and every half a minute or so from either the Hufflepuffs, Ravenclaws, or Gryffindors they erupted. Only the Slytherins seemed untroubled by wind - but they were now laughing so hard at the other three houses they were almost drowning out the unwanted sounds. Crabbe and Goyle in particular had tears streaming down their faces and their sides shook so violently they had to stop eating for a while.

Snape stood up and put his wand to this throat to amplify his voice. "THIS ... WILL ... NOT ... CONTINUE! IF ANYONE, I REPEAT, ANYONE--" He did not finish what he was saying because he, himself suddenly erupted an amplified belch that threatened to lift the roof of the Great Hall. His eyes bulged and he clutched at his mouth as a lengthy series of burps prevented him voicing the counterspell to his Sonorous charm and the mighty burps echoed around the hall like cannon shots.

Alecto and Amycus Carrow joined in the fusilade almost immediately and were quickly running around like headless chickens, so painfully violent were the belches. The chaos that ensued only came to an end when the headmaster and his deputies gave up and made an undignified exit back to their own quarters. The sounds of their departure was heard throughout the Hogwarts corridors for some time.

McGonagall smiled at Flitwick. They had both noticed that none of the remaining students were afflicted anymore. "Strange that, don't you think, Filius?"

"It doesn't surprise me in the least, Minerva," squeaked Flitwick with a grin.

After the meal, Ginny, Neville, and Seamus met up with Luna in the Entrance Hall.

"That went well!" said Neville, "We're having a little celebration for Leanne later if you fancy a sneaky visit to the Gryffindors' common room, Luna."

"Oh - that will be fun. Yes, I'd love to. Business first though, don't you think?"

"Yes, but what's this all about, Luna?" said Ginny. "We got your message. Why just us four?"

"Can't talk here," said Luna. "Let's split up and meet at the Room of Requirement in say... ten minutes?"


—oOo—


Ginny, Neville, and Seamus dragged together a few chairs in a rough circle with Luna. They looked at her expectantly.

"The D.A. is for uniting us together, raising morale, resisting Snape and his Death Eaters, and practice and training," began Luna.

"And supporting Harry," said Ginny, firmly.

"Yes, and supporting Harry," repeated Luna. "Ginny, tell the others what you told me at Bill and Fleur's wedding while we were dancing - about Harry's birthday I mean."

Ginny looked startled. "Well, Scrimgeour was there. I thought it--"

"Scrimgeour? He's dead!" said Seamus. "You don't believe that story about him resigning do you?"

"No, before that - it was the day before - on Harry's birthday."

"The Minister for Magic was invited to Harry's birthday party?" said Neville incredulously.

"Not invited - he just turned up."

"What did he want with Harry?" said Seamus.

"Well, he... He brought Dumbledore's will. Professor Dumbledore left something each for Harry, Hermione, and Ron. We were all looking at them just before dinner. We couldn't think why he left them anything."

"What were they?" said Neville.

"There was a Snitch for Harry, a book for Hermione, and a thing to put out the lights for Ron."

"That's all?" said Seamus. "Were they special or something?"

"We thought they might be," said Ginny. She hesitated. "I wasn't really told anything so I..."

"Go on, Ginny," said Luna. "We're all trusted friends here."

"I was worried about Harry. I knew they... Late that night, they thought--"

"Who?" said Neville.

"Harry, Hermione, and Ron - they went up to our attic. They thought the rest of us were asleep but I knew they were up to something. I crept up and listened at the door."

"Ginny!" grinned Seamus. "Ginny the spy!"

Ginny smiled. "Yeah, I had to counterspell a Muffliato so I could hear - that only raised my suspicions!"

"So what did they say?" said Neville.

"Well, I didn't find out anything much. I think Hermione's book might have a secret message. But the snitch had some words on it - 'I open at the close.' - but they couldn't figure out what it meant."

"We could search the Hogwarts library!" said Neville. "Maybe it's a spell or something!"

"I never thought of that!" said Ginny. She stood up. "I'll go now. It might be important. I've wanted desperately for something to help Harry."

"Ginny, wait," said Luna quietly, "there was something else wasn't there?"

Ginny paused in mid-stride. "No, there was Gryffindor's sword but Harry never got that. The Ministry kept it I think. They've got no right!"

"The Ministry haven't got it, Ginny," said Luna.

Ginny stared at Luna then sat down again. "You know where it is? Merlin's hat, Luna! You know where it is?"

"Professor Snape has it. I saw it in his office."

Ginny was thunderstruck as she digested this information. At that very moment, she felt a tremor at her throat and the sense of Harry's kiss. She stood up once again and began to pace up and down. At the furthest extent of her walk she paused as if in deep thought. She raised her whistle visibly to the others but she was looking at her medallion behind the curtain of her hair,

So sorry, Ginny. She was startled for only a moment. She sensed his true feelings from the kiss and she did not care what he might have done, only that he was hurting. She kissed her medallion. Harry, it's alright.

"Ginny?" said Neville.

Luna cautioned him to wait. "She's thinking. Give her time."

After half a minute, Ginny dabbed her eyes and gave a little cough. She knew her mum's spell only hid her immediate dramatic reaction to Harry's kiss - not on-going feelings; now she felt sure her face showed her mixed emotions. As she turned, she shouted out excitedly, "This is wonderful!"

She rejoined the others. "I've figured it all out. Professor Dumbledore left Harry the sword for a reason. I think it's to kill You-know-who. We're going to get it for him."

There was absolute silence for several seconds. A wall torch flickered and crackled; the shadows of the four friends danced around them on the Room's stone-slabbed floor.

"Impossible!" snorted Seamus. "Are you serious? It's in Snape's office! You can't just walk in and get it. And after that? Even if you got it - then what? We don't know where Harry is and even if we did we can't get out of Hogwarts."

The other three remained quiet, looking at one another.

"Oh, come on!" said Seamus. He sounded exasperated. "You're not really thinking of--"

"It's simple, really," said Luna. "We want to help Harry. Professor Dumbledore wanted to help Harry. Professor Dumbledore left Harry the sword. We get the sword. We give it to Harry."

"Yes, but..."

"It will be very dangerous, of course," mused Neville. "Need lots of planning..."

"We probably don't have lots of time - only about three days actually," said Luna.

"Why, Luna?" said Ginny.

"Professor Snape is intelligent but he's not very imaginative. I doubt he'll change the password every day or randomly - nor will he leave it the same for a long time like a month."

"You think he'll change the password at the end of the week?" said Neville. "So, why not wait until Monday then try to find out the password so we've got more time?"

"You'll never find out the password," said Seamus. "Even the teachers don't know it."

Ginny looked hard at Luna. "You already know it don't you?"

Luna smiled. "Mr. Filch whispered but he couldn't get it right so he had to repeat it twice and he got annoyed. It's funny how people talk louder when they get annoyed isn't it? I pretended to daydream but really I was listening very carefully. It's 'Solanaceae.' "

"Deadly Nightshade!" said Neville. "I bet he always uses the latin names of potion ingredients! Most students don't use those."

"So, we might be able to guess future ones," said Ginny.

"Possibly - but I wouldn't rely on that," said Luna. "Anyway, it will be just as difficult to try to steal the sword in three months time as it will be tomorrow so we might as well do it quickly."

"Luna!" said Neville. "We can't rush into this. We need time to think out a plan."

"Here's my plan: We just go up and get it," smiled Luna. "and isn't it better to do it while the headmaster is away?"

"But he's not away is he!" said Ginny, "Is he?"

"You mean the belch powder!" said Seamus. "How much did they put in?"

"Oh, plenty," said Luna. "They'll have to go to St. Mungos to get it cured - unless they want to burp for days and days. It's not well known but Agamemnon died of the belches. Daddy said his corpse was still twitching and rattling when they laid him in his sarcophagus. That's why they had to leave an air hole in the top - remember?"

"That's not right, Luna," laughed Seamus. "Everybody knows his wife killed him."

"No, that's just a fanciful story I'm sure. She got the blame. It's very sad."

Neville grinned at Ginny but Ginny was deep in thought. "We can bring it here - to this room - until we... work out how to get it to Harry. Neville - you could hide the sword under your robe to get it here - you're tall enough."

"I'll do it then," said Neville, with only a second's hesitation. "What's the best time, Luna? Should I go during lunch break?"

"I'm going too," said Ginny, firmly. "This is for Harry. I want to be there."

"Unbelievable!" said Seamus, shaking his head. "You're going to try to steal the Sword of Gryffindor from the headmaster's office. You know how crazy that sounds? Playing jokes is one thing but they'll send you to Azkaban for this!"

"I'd be really unhappy if you two went to Azkaban on your own," said Luna, "when I was the one who found the sword. I know exactly where the sword is so I should go too."

Seamus hesitated.

"You shouldn't come, Seamus," said Luna firmly. "Four is too many - and we need someone to cover for us."

Seamus looked relieved. "It's not that I wouldn't... but this scheme is..."

"Lunch break then," said Neville. "But we'd be missed. How can we... If we go straight after - before afternoon lessons..."

"No, they'll be less than a day at St. Mungos I should think," said Luna. "They'll have to stay overnight but they might be back in the afternoon - perhaps even by lunch. We should go very, very early before breakfast - before anybody's about."

The conspirators talked at length for the next half an hour before finally calling a halt and returning to their common rooms. Ginny couldn't sleep that night. As the reality of their plan sunk in she became fearful of the consequences. She was excited too about the possibility of seeing Harry again and presenting him with the sword. How his face would light up! Her thinking oscillated back and forth between disaster and success. Eventually sleep took over. Tomorrow promised to be eventful, one way or another.


—oOo—




Chapter 7: Out of Reach
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How can I tell her? Harry sat on an old canvas chair hugging a week-old Daily Prophet for company and thinking of Ginny. How could he tell her he had been careless with her picture and it had been destroyed? Worse: how to say he had knowingly put her at risk simply because he was so unhappy without her that he cannot... Cannot what? Think straight? Function efficiently? Fulfil the Mighty Tasks of the Chosen One? He knew it was none of those. He knew deep down it was only because he wanted to be with her.

After an hour the seat had begun to press and pinch uncomfortably yet it was not as painfully awkward as the atmosphere within the confines of the tent. He glanced sideways out of the corner of one eye. Hermione's head was angled steeply down into a book she was holding like they were bolted together. Harry couldn't remember hearing a page turn all evening so he doubted she was reading anything but her own anguished thoughts. Ron was sat at the canvas entrance, staring outwards into the night. Sometimes he looked at his watch but otherwise he was almost as motionless as Hermione. Occasionally, Harry suppressed a shiver as a cool breeze entered through the gap but he was reluctant to complain; in fact, disinclined to speak at all. In a sense he wanted to. He wanted very badly to apologise but he'd left it too long and it could only get harder to make the first effort at reconciliation.

Harry turned his chair half-sideways and twisted himself around to face the calendar hanging on the tent post almost behind him. He regretted it instantly. His intention had been to fake looking at the dates while furtively examining his medallion but he knew he'd given an unwanted signal of even deeper rejection to the other two by turning his back on them. He looked down briefly; the medallion showed a castle on the back as usual so he was reassured Ginny was not in serious danger. He turned the disk over to remind himself of her message around the perimeter Harry, it's alright. He absorbed it and committed it to his thoughts; it was something positive upon which to dwell.

He flipped the calendar sheet a few times and pretended he was studying it. He noticed each date passed had been ticked through in Hermione's neat handwriting with here and there a small coded notation - presumably to indicate a plan and its outcome. Harry looked with dismay at how little they had achieved. It was almost the end of September - two months since they had fled the wedding party - and it seemed they had made no progress at all. He turned the pages forward and their emptiness of any plans at all seemed to shout the futility of what they were doing. He tried to dismiss his negative feelings by filling his mind with Ginny's words once more then resolutely turned his chair back to face inwards.

How had Ginny managed to forgive him when she did not even know what he had done? She must have taken some trouble to have her photograph taken for him and now it was destroyed forever. He tried to imagine how it might feel if instead it had been Ginny who had apologised to him; if she had been as broken-hearted and regretful as he now was. He knew the answer immediately. He stood up and braced himself to speak.

Ron was looking at his watch once more. He got up and turned around, pulling off the locket as he did so. If he noticed that Harry was already standing he gave no indication of it but walked over to Hermione and said gruffly, "Your turn, I think."

Hermione did not look up but she reached out blindly and took the horcrux. Ron's face softened with both relief and regret as he let it go and he turned away with mixed emotions.

Harry forced himself to speak. "Ron... Hermione... I'm sorry. You were right. I was wrong. I should never have had that picture. I don't know what I was thinking."

Ron paused on his way to the sleeping area, gave the faintest nod at Harry, then continued his journey. It was not much but Harry felt his effort had not been entirely wasted.

Hermione half-looked up, trying to gauge Harry's expression but uncomfortable about looking straight at him - then she sensed he was facing the direction where Ron had gone. Harry's medallion trembled and Ginny's kiss pushed everything else into the background. His face must have lit up like a child on Christmas morning because Hermione threw down her book, came swiftly over, and hugged him. Harry, with a faraway look and a radiant smile on his face, half-hugged her back - unsure of the situation. He was still happily dwelling in the sense of Ginny's presence yet concerned that Ron might come back any moment and find Hermione in his arms and him with a silly grin on his face.

"What's going on, Harry?" she whispered, stepping back to look at his face again. He tried, dreamily, to turn away but she grabbed his shoulder. "I've seen that dopey look a couple of times before."

Harry said nothing. What could he say? He had apologised for the photograph but he had the bigger secret. If they knew he was actually in touch with Ginny - had actually met with her and hoped to again - what would they do?

He suddenly remembered that Hermione was the one who had originally thought of the idea - had created the medallions for Ginny and himself when she saw their distress as their birthday kiss was interrupted. She would be more than understanding of his connection with Ginny! - though not to meeting with her. A puzzling thought crossed his mind, How could she possibly have obtained and charmed the emblems so quickly? The tent flap shook a few times and another gust of cool air made its way inside the tent, making Hermione's Bluebell flames flicker slightly in their jar.

"It's magic, isn't it?" said Hermione, bringing him finally out of his reverie. "It can only be magic."

She put the locket around her neck but he could see her gaze was on the chain at Harry's own throat.

"What is that, Harry?" She had a determined, not-to-be-put-off look on her face.

"What, this?" he said, fumbling the medallion out slowly to give him time to think. His voice fell to a soft whisper. "It's... a secret..." He exaggerated the word secret to make it sound humorous and harmless. "Promise you won't tell Ron... Ginny gave it me. It's just an amulet thing - it reminds me of her - cheers me up when I look at it."

"A picture of a Roman soldier cheers you up?"

"Yeah, well... Just a joke... between Ginny and me. She says I'm her knight in shining armour and this is the nearest she could get. It's a laugh... makes me laugh. Makes me feel better when I think of her. Sometimes when I just think of her I feel happier." He looked closely at Hermione's face to see if she believed him.

Hermione wasn't laughing. She knew how useless Harry was at lying to his friends - probably because he had so little practice. Yet she knew some part of what he said was truthful - and it did seem to make him happy. She smiled and touched his face affectionately. "You're secret's safe with me, Sir Knight."

As she turned away her words struck a chord within him. You're secret's safe with me, Sir Knight. His heart sank with him down, down, down, into his unfriendly chair. He now knew the only way she could have made the medallions so rapidly - they had never been charmed for him and Ginny at all. Harry sensed the depth of Hermione's real sacrifice and her long-held secret. In his mind's eye he saw so clearly the young Ron when they had played through McGonagall's giant chessboard in their first year at Hogwarts. Ron had truly become her brave knight in shining armour. Had that been the beginning? - the seed of her love for him?

Harry looked across at Hermione who had stooped down wearily to open an old blanket chest. She must have made the medallions during the weeks before they left - not for him and Ginny - but for herself and Ron. She would have foreseen the possibility of separation during their search for the horcruxes. Poor Hermione - she could no more bear to be apart from Ron than I can from Ginny. Harry had taken the medallions from her without a thought and even cast the spell that hid the knowledge from Hermione herself.

It was Hermione's turn for the night watch. She wrapped a blanket around her shoulders, went out into the darkness, and smiled back just before she thoughtfully tied the tent flap behind her to keep out the cold air.

Harry gazed at that canvas flap for a long time after she had left. How long had she spent researching this special variant of the Protean Charm? Had she squirmed with embarrassment when thinking how she might present one of them to Ron and explain the necessity of the kiss with some feeble excuse? Oh, it's part of this ancient spell, Ronald. Yes, I know it's silly but I was unable to change it and we need some way to communicate. Perhaps in the end she had abandoned her plan out of shyness - or at least shelved it for some hoped-for future. And then, finally, she had forsaken her own hopes and dreams for Harry's and Ginny's sake.

Eventually and inevitably, thoughts of Ginny came to the forefront of his mind again and he looked down to read her message.

Good news! Tell you tomorrow!


—oOo—


It was still dark as Ginny and Neville walked quietly together through the hallways of Hogwarts. At the corner of an upper corridor they watched carefully. A flickering movement told them they had spotted someone hidden under a Disillusionment charm standing close to a statue.

"Luna?" whispered Neville.

"What if I'm not?" came Luna's sleepy voice.

"Then we're in trouble," said Ginny. "Come on, I can't wait to get this done."

Ginny led them to the next corner and they peered round. Now they were actually committing themselves she began to feel apprehensive.

"If I were a murdering headmaster I'd have concealed a Death Eater sentry right there next to the gargoyle," whispered Luna, "especially after someone left a stink pod there once."

"Yeah, wonder who that could have been," murmured Neville.

"Homenum Revelio!" whispered Ginny, softly, and pointing her wand down the passageway.

After a few seconds they decided the corridor was safe and they marched up to the gargoyle which opened one bleary eye at them but remained silent.

"Solanaceae," said Luna.

The gargoyle lazily turned aside and went back to sleep.

"See you in a few minutes, Neville," said Ginny. She felt uneasy about proceeding without him but someone had to keep watch and Ginny was determined that she would be the one to take the sword for her Harry.

"I'm coming up," said Neville firmly. "Makes no difference. If I keep watch here and someone comes, you're trapped up there anyway."

"Remember the portraits then," said Luna. "Silence when we get up there and stay Disillusioned."

The stairwell was gloomy - lit by a single torch that flickered in the updraft of air until the gargoyle lurched shut behind them. The illumination scarcely reached up to the door on the topmost landing and they hesitated when they reached it. Did headmasters rely solely on the password - or would the door be locked as well? Ginny raised her wand but Luna reached out and turned the handle. The door silently opened.

The headmaster's office itself was in complete darkness save for the pale rectangle of the doorway which Neville left open behind them. Not one ray of moonlight penetrated the narrow tower casements to relieve this blackness but the rhythmic breathing and the occasional faint snort of the sleeping portraits reassured them they would not be observed if they risked a small light.

"Dubia Lux," murmured Luna. A tiny glimmering strand of palest turquoise feathered like spider silk from the tip of her wand. It illuminated nothing in the circular room until Luna wafted it downwards to produce a small pool of light in front of her near-invisible feet. She followed it to the desk, now cleansed of its stains, and to the wall beyond it. She heard Neville stub his toe on a carpeted step but he made no outcry except for a stifled grunt and the portraits continued to slumber.

With her wand, Luna raised the glowing thread upwards and its tiny circle of luminescence silently climbed the wall. When it reached the glass cabinet that hung there, all three of them gasped. The Sword of Gryffindor had caught the faint light and returned it tenfold in glorious silvers and reds, flashing and flaring its ancient glory. It was an impressive sight against the black void of the room.

As Luna played the light over the sword, it illuminated the frame of the painting above it and perhaps the portrait stirred in its sleep. Luna knew whose portrait it was.

"Professor Dumbledore, sir," whispered Luna, "have we your approval?"

There was no answer and Luna dare not speak more loudly. Luna hesitated.

"Alohomora," whispered Neville, but the cabinet remained firmly shut.

"Wait," murmured Luna, unsure for some reason - but she was not heard.

Ginny had eyes only for the sword which glittered enticingly inches in front of her. It should be Harry's - she was sure of it! She placed her hands on the glass but could reach no further; so near and yet so far.

"Let's try the desk," whispered Neville, "maybe there's a key."

"If it just needed a key then the unlocking charm should have unlocked it," said Ginny without looking round but Neville was already tugging at the top drawer. It was unlocked but stiff; it scraped audibly in the silence as it slid open.

"Who's there?" It was a voice from one of the portraits.

The three youngsters froze motionless and silent.

"Go back to sleep, Phineas," grumbled another sleepy voice.

"I tell you there's someone in here!"

"What's that?" a third voice.

Another, deeper voice joined the exchanges, "Is it morning, already?"

"We have to go," whispered Luna.

"Fetch help - someone fetch help!" cried yet another voice.

Ginny could not leave without the sword. Her desperate desire to help Harry overpowered her common sense. She pointed her wand carefully at the glass and murmured as softly as she could, "Muffliato. Reducto."

The sound of the glass cracking and fragmenting to the ground was muffled by an unpleasant buzzing sound which did not escape the notice of the portraits at all. They lapsed into silence for a few seconds as if shocked. Ginny grabbed the sword handle and hefted the sword out of its case. She held it for a moment, feeling its weight, reluctant to relinquish it - but eventually she guided it to Neville. He hid it beneath his invisible robes and she saw it vanish from sight.

Luna extinguished her meagre light as they rushed out the doorway, leaving behind a renewed clamour of shouts and cries from the portraits. They crept down the stairs as stealthily as they could and Luna pushed ahead to check the corridor was still clear. Ginny's heart was racing.

"Solanaceae," Luna whispered and the drowsy gargoyle moved slowly aside. Fresh air surged in to refresh their confidence and raise their hopes. Luna poked her invisible head out then breathed excitedly. "Nobody here!"

"We've done it, Ginny!" whispered Neville.

Ginny took a deep breath. She felt a strange sensation of something unpleasant swooping over her, as if she were thrown into darkness for a moment. She had experienced that spell long ago when she and Ron had raided the Burrow's larder and she knew what it meant: they were discovered.

"Finite ... Incantatem."

It was a voice not from ahead of them but behind and above them on the stairs. It was cold and clinical. They knew that voice and it sent a chill through their hearts as they were revealed. It was the voice of Severus Snape.

He was stood, robes spread in the stairwell updraft, like a great black bat, silhouetted by the flickering torch beyond him. They could not see his expression but he could identify each of their white faces. He spoke slowly and carefully yet they could hear from its tone that he was not only angry - he was shocked.

"You will all come up to my office... NOW!"

All of Ginny's hopes died in that giddy moment. Her vision of Harry's astonished joy and admiration as she bestowed her mission-critical gift would never take place. Voldemort would not be slain. Harry would despise her for failing him - for failing the world. All was lost.


—oOo—


"What's up! What's happened!" said Ron, startled as Harry dashed into the tent and made a beeline for the sleeping area. Ron had his wand out in a moment. He abandoned the kettle he had been waiting to boil and ran to the tent entrance as if expecting a horde of Death Eaters to have been chasing Harry.

"Nothing!" Harry called back, "s'alright!"

"What's going on?" came Hermione's sleepy voice as she raised a tired head from her pillow.

"Alright? Alright you say?" said Ron as he went after Harry. He found him foraging in his footlocker. "I thought it was You-know-who at least!"

"It's nothing," cried Harry, though his expression was one of great anguish. He had retrieved something from the chest and held it close to him as he dashed back to the tent exit. "Just want to check on something - I'm still on early morning watch." He disappeared out into the darkness.

"'Nothing,' he says," said Ron to Hermione who had just joined him, a blanket hugged around her nightclothes. She had had little more than an hour's sleep and felt exhausted and dull. The locket she still wore did not help. Ron stared hard at Harry's footlocker, his mind whirling.

"What? What is it?" said Hermione hoarsely and rather grumpily.

"Dunno, I'm trying to think what he took."

"Oh, it's probably just that old Prophet for heaven's sake!" Hermione said scathingly. She headed back to her bunk.

"Wasn't the Prophet," muttered Ron to himself. "He's not going to race Merlin's Might just to read that lying rag for the twentieth time."

He went to the canvas flap and pulled it to one side to peer out. He could faintly see Harry sat on the old stool they had placed against a tree; he was reading something but it was too dark to see if it was a newspaper.

Harry peered sideways at Ron silhouetted at the threshold of the tent; Ron disappeared back inside when he saw Harry looking at him. Only then did Harry light his wand and examine his Marauder's Map.

Ginny, Ginny, where are you, Ginny?"

He couldn't find her quickly - she was not in her dormitory. Harry felt fear's icy fingers trying to grip him. He looked again at his medallion. There was no mistaking that it was a heavily-chained portcullis that was engraved there. He had been looking at the disk almost every half an hour and he was certain it had been a castle the last time he had looked. He turned the disk over and looked at the message but he knew it could not have changed from last night or he would have felt her kiss. Good news! Tell you tomorrow! What had she meant? Had it anything to do with the danger in which she was now placed?

Should he try to contact her? He knew he should not. If she was in danger then any distraction might put her at greater risk. He looked at the other side again. The portcullis was changing as he watched. A terrible despair sank to the very pit of Harry's stomach. The new image was sharply etched and quite clear - it was a dungeon. He snatched at his map again and scoured it with his wandlight held close.

There! She was in the headmaster's office! She was Snape's captive! What did it mean? Detention? It was not yet Five-thirty in the morning. What had happened?

He yearned to fly there; to break in, wand held high and dispose of anyone who stood in his way - but Hogwarts was magically near-impregnable. The tunnel from Honeydukes? The Shrieking Shack passage? But Hogsmeade he knew was patrolled by Death Eaters. Surely he could slip by, wearing his invisibility cloak? Then what? Break into Honeydukes and get into the secret passage? What if it was all a trap anyway? He stared miserably back and forth from map to medallion and back again. There are others there!

He looked closer. Neville and Luna were with her. He sagged back with relief against the tree. There was some comfort in knowing she was not alone in her plight. Perhaps it had been some illicit trip outside of curfew; a high-spirited graffiti mission or a potions raid. Grimly his thoughts turned to punishments and he recalled with a shiver the fearful detentions she had only hinted at without detail. He prayed she had taken his advice and was able to ease her pain with a charm.

He looked at the other footprints: There were two he did not know, both named Carrow. The surname seemed familiar but he could not recall Ginny mentioning them. Perhaps he had read about them in the Prophet. He looked again: Amycus and Alecto. He remembered those names very well and he shivered in the cool air. They were two of the Death Eaters present when Dumbledore was killed - murdered in cold blood by the one other person whose footprints were present: Severus Snape.


—oOo—


"Where is it!" demanded Snape. He was furious. As he waited for an answer he looked threateningly at each of the students in turn. A single candle stub sputtered in a holder on the wall. The only other illumination was from the new fire in the hearth; the headmaster's face was sinisterly lit from below by the green glow of the floo flames. His anger grew. "The sword - who has it?"

"I reckon we oughta do it the hard way then--" snarled Amycus from the shadows. "--search 'em!"

Neville stepped reluctantly forward. He drew the sword out from under his robes and laid it on the headmaster's desk. There was something surreal about the bright flashes from its surface in the darkened room - the weapon seemed to magnify the slightest amount of light that fell upon it. The great blade had a presence that declared itself dominant and threatening; even Snape's self-control took a few seconds to recover.

"The Sword of Godric Gryffindor--" he said as he gazed upon it. He looked entranced. He blinked before continuing, "--a priceless artifact owned for centuries by this school which--"

"It's Harry's!" stormed Ginny. "Professor Dumbledore left it to Harry Potter! You have no right to it!"

Luna almost winced. She nudged Neville at her side; he spoke quickly, "We wanted it for the Gryffindor common room! It's a Gryffindor relic! It ought to be in our common room."

Snape ignored Neville. He looked directly at Ginny. "And just how did you intend to present him with 'his' sword?" There was sarcasm in the exaggeration of the word 'his.'

Luna chipped in, "We intended to hold it for Harry until he--"

Snape ignored Luna too. "Miss Weasley, where did you go during your recent visit to Hogsmeade?"

"Shopping," said Ginny. "I went in most of the shops, Honeydukes, Wizzages; and we lunched in the Three Broomsticks. I went for a walk."

Even to Ginny, it sounded like a prepared statement. Snape looked thoughtful then shook his head. He slowly raised his wand then pointed it at Ginny. "Legilimens!"

Ginny swayed and Neville caught her. He held her upright and looked round for a chair but Snape persisted with his invasion of her mind. She was ravaged with vivid streams of memories flashing through her mind beyond her control or wishes. Pleasant or painful, she could not avoid any, and the swings of emotion affected her reason for a while...

She was playing Quidditch on a borrowed broom... Her mother's favourite sugar bowl had slipped through her hands to the floor and she was hiding, frightened, in the shed outside... She was at King's Cross meeting a dark-haired boy wearing glasses; he seemed special. His name was...

"No!" Ginny struggled mentally. She began to get glimpses of being back in the headmaster's office but Snape was too powerful and she was overwhelmed with her own recollections again - now centering on Harry. There was no way to break free so she did the only thing she could - she clung to her strongest feeling of all and held on tight; a feeling she had endured for a long time: the unsatisfiable, painful yearning to be Harry's - to belong to him. For years she had wished to be accepted by him, wanted by him, loved by him - but he did not return her love. Day after day her one hope had always been to be at his side. The emotion was amplified stronger and stronger until it completely consumed her then...

Suddenly she was fighting for air, sobbing, leaning against Neville and he was shouting at Snape, "Stop it! Stop it! You're hurting her!" Luna dragged a chair near and Neville helped Ginny to sit down where she covered her face with her hands. She was shaking. Luna put an arm around her shoulder.

Snape had already desisted. He had found what he wanted to know.

"She is pathetically besotted with the 'Chosen One' but ... he has no feelings for her whatsoever and, indeed, avoids her - she has no idea where he is - that much is ... clear... However..." He paused then turned back to the three students. "Should there be any future attempt to ... contact Potter ... All three of you are banned from Hogsmeade... for life."

"You can't do that!" yelled Neville.

"Do NOT tell me what I can and cannot do, Longbottom - you are in enough trouble as it is." Again he paused then continued. "In any event... it scarcely matters now. I am recommending you all be sent to Azkaban for a term of... at least ten years."

Neville and Luna looked aghast.

"And the Ministry and the law courts are obedient to the will of You-know-who." said Luna. "If you--"

"As headmaster of this school I do have some infuence at the Ministry. I have no doubt they will aquiesce to my suggestion." He sat down behind his desk and clasped his hands in front of him.

"You do not seem to realise the seriousness of your crime. Each of you has shamed your family name. Tomorrow, the Daily Prophet will denounce a Weasley as a common thief. The name of Longbottom will be dragged in the mud. As for the Lovegood line--"

"We'll be living martyrs!" said Luna excitedly. "This is wonderful! I always wanted to be a martyr and we don't even have to die!"

"Won't seem so wonderful when you're in Azkaban," cackled Alecto. "'Wonderful' is drained right out of you! You'll beg to die!"

Snape stared thoughtfully at the young Ravenclaw. "Perhaps ... there might be an opportunity for redemption."

He took the Carrows to one side. They lowered their voices but did not seem bothered that they could still be partly overheard by the youngsters.

"This is ... inconvenient," said Snape. "The Dark Lord will not wish to risk any uprising before he is ... prepared."

"'Uprising?' What uprising?" said Amycus. He sounded annoyed by Snape's abrupt reversal.

"There are enough ... supporters who--"

"Blood-traitors!" spat Alecto. "Mudbloods!"

"Nevertheless ... who support a cause in which they believe - no matter how misguided. Children locked up in Azkaban for trying to steal the Sword of Gryffindor - symbol of noble convictions and courage? This situation - if handled correctly by the enemy - and believe me, they will leap upon this opportunity to rally recruits - could be just the spark they need to set the flame."

Amycus snarled in annoyance. "What then? We ain't--"

"What I propose is a compromise," cut in Snape. He moved closer to the Carrows and his voice became a whisper. He spoke to them at length before finishing, "And if we're lucky they might not ... survive."

"Why not just finish 'em off right now!" growled Amycus.

"If we were to begin such a practice against the students then their parents would be up in arms and we should have no students at all next term - if not sooner. The Dark Lord would not be pleased. However, we cannot be blamed if any suffer a genuine accident can we? Trust me, there are worse deaths in... that place... than even Azkaban can offer. And if not, the on-going threat of imprisonment should keep them ... in line."

"Well, I like it!" grinned Alecto. She gave a wheezy giggle as she looked at the worry that lined Neville's face contemplating Azkaban. The thought of Luna being drained of her vivacity was hard for him to bear. If only I had done this on my own then--

"But--" began Alecto

"They can still be sent to Azkaban at any time, should they ... transgress again," said Snape more assertively. He turned to the three youngsters. Ginny was still sitting and feeling very deflated.

"It was m- my idea," said Neville loudly. "It was j- just me that took the sword. Luna only came to the f- foot of the stairs to try to stop me and G- Ginny was not even--"

"Maybe we'll give your girlfriend a medal then, how's that?" scoffed Alecto. She giggled noisily. "Is that how it is? Noble Neville tries to win the heart of loyal Luna."

"In m- my d- dreams! I m- mean..." stuttered Longbottom, confused. "That is, in your dreams. I m- mean..."

"The Carrows shrieked with laughter and Neville flushed a shade of crimson.

"So, some truth at last," sneered the headmaster. "However noble your intentions, Longbottom, to save your beloved, it is too late for such a ruse to be taken seriously."

"You Death Eaters are very wicked and cruel to mock such good intentions!" said Luna. She was looking at Neville but he had turned his face away with embarrassment. She moved closer to him and took his arm. The Carrows jeered.

"Give her a kiss then, 'ickle Neville," smirked Alecto. She had found a weakness and made it a weapon.

"Enough!" snapped the headmaster. He paused then began to speak very slowly to the three students as if to relish every morsel. "Your punishment will be fourfold. Firstly, and most importantly, I shall be recommending to the Ministry a sentence in Azkaban of no less then two years - such--"

There was an outcry from Neville and Luna but Ginny seemed too despondent to care.

"--such sentence to be suspended until further notice. Be assured, this term can and will be carried out at some future time if ... you ... step ... out of line." He eyed them severely, noting their reactions.

"Secondly, you are all banned from Hogsmeade visits ... for life.

"Thirdly, Your parents will be informed of your crimes."

Behind Snape, Amycus was using his wand to repair the glass case. Neville noticed the sword still lay upon the desk. Crazy ideas raced through his mind. He still had his wand. He would seize the sword and run - but how far might he get? - and he could not leave Luna and Ginny. Perhaps he could stun Snape and the Carrows quickly with the support of Luna and Ginny. He stared at Ginny. She was slumped down in her chair, barely paying attention to what was going on around her. He looked at Luna, close by his side and still clinging onto his arm. She was gently shaking her head and frowning slightly at him. She had seen the way he had been studying the sword.

"Fourthly: detention. The groundsman, Hagrid, has an extremely risky assignment this week. He is to venture deep into the Forbidden Forest to replace ... certain ... delicate herbs and other ingredients ... which seem to have ... disappeared from our stock cupboard." He looked accusingly at Neville. "You will all accompany him."

Neville's face lit up and he opened his mouth to speak.

"But students are not allowed in the forest!" cried Luna, burying her face in her hands and stepping hard on Neville's foot. "There are terrible creatures and... deadly plants... we might be injured... or worse." She kept one eye half open and peeped through a gap in her fingers.

"Then you had better be extra careful then hadn't you?" sneered Snape. He turned to the sword. "And if ... any of you should be tempted ever again... Perhaps it might be prudent to put this relic completely out of reach of master thieves like you." The sarcasm dripped off his tongue. "A Gringott's vault should be sufficient challenge even for such reckless adventurers as yourselves."

He was watching Ginny closely as he said this, and if he looked for a sign of future ambition thwarted, he was not disappointed. She seemed to shrink even further within herself at his words. Completely out of reach - Oh Harry, what have I done? Her hand started involuntarily to move to her medallion but she diverted it to wipe her wet cheeks. The slight movement was not lost on Snape.

"What is that?" he demanded. Ginny looked up. He was pointing his wand directly at the finely-linked chain at her throat. "Accio!"

Snape plucked the medallion out of the air. "Perhaps now I shall get to the bottom of this." He turned away and began examining the medallion with his wand.

"NO!" screamed Ginny and lunged after it but Amycus was swift and hit her with a leg-locker curse. She fell heavily and her head collided with the edge of the desk. Neville helped her back to her feet but she was leaning heavily against him.

"It is very shameful to steal someone's sentimental possessions," said Luna quietly. "I feel sorry for you, Headmaster."

"OUT! Get them out of here!" called Snape over his shoulder and the Carrows were quick to push them out of the door then slammed it shut on them.

Luna hushed Neville then once again, listened at the headmaster's door.

"What have you found, Severus?" said Amycus. "Let me see that."

"I thought it must be... something. It is ... however ... no more than a worthless, insipid amulet - not magical at all." Snape paused. "Nevertheless, should any of those three cause further trouble - I wish to know of it. I will deal with them my--"

He fell silent and Luna, fearing he might come to the door, quickly joined Neville helping Ginny down the first step.

Neville and Luna had to support Ginny but they could not get her down the stairs safely. Neville finally managed to counter the leg-locker curse but she seemed to be in a daze. Their failure had been enough to weaken her spirit and the Legilimens attack had harmed her mind but to have been the cause of making the sword unattainable to Harry had broken her heart. Now, with her medallion taken, it seemed as if her very soul had wandered.

"Ginny? said Luna, as she and Neville helped her along the passageways, but Ginny did not seem to know her.

"We should take her to Madam Pomfrey, I think; she'll know what to do," said Luna. "There is something dreadfully wrong and we ought not to leave it."

"We're not supposed--"

"Oh, the new rule is only for harm done during detention punishments," said Luna, firmly. "There's no rule against going to the Hospital wing for headaches and things."


—oOo—


The worried-looking woman leading a young girl out from the ward looked like a Muggle to Luna. She was dressed in their strange clothes and walked like a Muggle at any rate. She certainly had good reason to look troubled. The little first-year's face was swollen and the child was limping slightly. She clutched her mother's hand tightly. Luna wondered if she were fully Muggle-born. Perhaps that was why they were slipping away before dawn. Luna hoped for the child's sake she was half-blood.

More than a normal number of the beds in the ward were in use but their occupants were all still asleep this early in the morning. Neville had a feeling that many of them should not strictly be here but the Matron had a way of hiding some of her cases from the Carrows.

Madame Pomfrey took one look at Ginny and sent a house-elf to fetch Professor McGonagall - then she briskly set to work. By the time McGonagall arrived, the Matron had a good idea of the nature of the problem and had begun treatment.

"Her mind is sorely bruised, stressed, and confused, Minerva," said Madam Pomfrey. "It is outrageous; a Hogwarts headmaster using such invasive--"

"Can it be healed though, Poppy?" said McGonagall.

She peered closely at Ginny's face. The young girl looked ashen and her expression was completely blank. She was sitting on a bedside chair in the hospital wing with a large blanket around her. Her eyes were gazing into the distance and almost closed. On the small table ahead of her were the remains of a basket of overripe grapes and other fruit nudging a decorative bowl filled with sadly-wilting flowers. Behind the sorry-looking blossoms lay a little book. Luna could not quite see the title but Ginny saw neither the book, nor flowers, nor rotting fruit at all. Luna and Neville sat on the bed, watching her anxiously.

Madam Pomfrey shook her head. "That damage, though unpleasant, will heal naturally in a few hours, but that is not the root of the more serious problem - though it may have partly triggered it. She is in deep shock caused by some other emotional trauma. It is likely she relived some extremely distressing memories but they would not cause this degree of..."

Pomfrey turned to Neville and Luna. "Did she fight the intrusion?"

"I'm sure she would have." said Luna. "It's very personal and private inside someone's mind. I'd want to lock the door."

"Perhaps she clung to some strong memory to resist him," said McGonagall. "That can help."

"But a good memory would not upset her like--"

"I was not thinking of a pleasant memory, Poppy! - I rather thought something extremely distressing," said McGonagall. She looked at Neville and Luna. "Do either of you two know what that might be?"

"I cannot say," said Luna.

"Cannot, Miss Lovegood?" snapped McGonagall. "Not even to... help your friend?"

"I..." began Luna. For once, the Ravenclaw girl was lost for words.

"The details of such a memory would make little difference to resolving this, Minerva," said Pomfrey. "I have done what I can but now she needs time."

"If she is not much improved by the end of the day then I fear I must send for her parents," said McGonagall. "You two had better leave - let her get some rest."

"It is not rest but... it might be helpful if... someone close to Miss Weasley could talk to her - talk her out from wherever she is lost. I think if--"

"I'll stay, if I may," said Luna quickly. "I'd like to talk to Ginny."

Luna looked at Neville and he nodded his understanding. She waited until they were all gone and she was alone with Ginny. She remained silent for a long time, deep in thought. After a while she sighed then began to speak.

"Dear Ginny, dearest Ginny," she whispered, hoarsely. "I hope you can hear me where you are..." She broke off to dab at her eyes with a handkerchief, took a deep breath, then continued.

"There is something I've always wanted to tell you, Ginny. When Mummy died it was the saddest thing I ever knew; so sad it frightened me. I didn't want to live. I think I was a ghost inside. Daddy took me to meet someone... He took me to meet you."

Tears now rolled freely down Luna's cheeks and she gave up on the handkerchief and held Ginny's hand.

"I never had a friend before - not a proper on-going, regular friend. I didn't even know we are all supposed to have friends. You were my first. You were a lovely friend to me but I wasn't a friend to you. I wasn't really a friend to you until you shooed away my ghost and I could live again."

If Ginny understood, or even heard Luna's words she gave no sign.

"You drove away my ghost just by being a friend. One person can mean everything to us but the ghost doesn't ... know that everyone else is worthwhile too and--"

Luna could not continue. Her eyes alighted on the last of the fruit in the basket - no doubt abandoned to their fate by a former patient.

"Mummy ... loved ... apples ... and pears," she gasped tearfully. "We always had lots but I remember once there was only one apple left by the end of the week. Mummy was hungry. She went to get an apple. I said I wanted one too. She didn't cut it in half - she gave me the whole apple--" Luna broke down for a long time before beginning again.

"She gave me the whole apple..." repeated Luna with a desperate, faraway look in her eyes. "That was the last thing she ever gave me. I wish she hadn't have been hungry when she... passed away." Luna screwed up her eyes tight and stopped talking. There was no one to see her poor little body shaking as she sobbed all alone at the unbearable memory that would never go away.

"I told Daddy it was sad that you had to share your mummy's love with all your brothers when I had had Mummy all to myself. Daddy said that's bad Arithmancy. He said even if Mrs. Weasley had to divide an apple in seven for all her children to get a piece, love cannot be divided; it can only be multiplied - so she can give all her love to all of them - and plenty to spare."

Distant voices indicated someone else had entered and was speaking to Madam Pomfrey.

Luna looked at Ginny and said softly, "I hope your ghost goes away, Ginny. Please, please come back to me. I hope you think I'm worthwhile enough to come back to. Don't listen to that silly ghost and it will go away."

As Luna looked at Ginny's face she noticed something. It was a delicate chain at her throat, softly rising and falling with her breathing. She looked at the bowl of flowers on the little table and she suddenly understood.

"Ginny! Ginny!" she whispered loudly. "He never took your medallion! The headmaster never got it - he only got what he saw!"

Perhaps Luna only imagined she felt a slight increase in pressure from Ginny's hand in hers and a little colour coming back to her cheeks because there was no other indication that Ginny had heard Luna at all.

Footsteps approached and Luna looked up.

"Miss Lovegood, we have something that might help." It was Madam Pomfrey. She was pouring a a few drops of potion into a shallow bowl. With her was Professor Slughorn who sprinkled on some powdered herbs. He flicked his wand several times over the brew while softly uttering a long incantation. Meanwhile, Madam Pomfrey dragged the side table a little closer to Ginny then cleared a space between the fruit bowl and the flower basket. She picked up the little book, tossed it onto the bed then put down the small bowl of potion, now steaming, on the table.

"The Vapours of Life are very reinvigorating," said Slughorn enthusiastically, "but exceedingly difficult to prepare. St. Mungos is the only other place that manages to maintain a stock - for cases of coma and so on. Its key ingredient is the fluff off a fairy's wing - it's very uplifting."

"No!" cried Luna. "Do the fairies--?"

"Oh, don't fret yourself, young lady; the fairies offer it voluntarily in exchange for exclusive use of their glades and proper respect of fairy rings and suchlike; they quickly regrow their fluff."

"Thank you, Professor," said Madam Pomfrey, "for going to all this trouble--"

"Oh it was not I who prepared this potion; I merely did the final enchantment," said Slughorn. "I thought you knew - it was the headmaster who produced this concoction. He said it might be needed in the hospital wing."

The Matron and Luna exchanged astonished looks.

"Huh! A case of guilty conscience if I am not much mistaken," huffed Pomfrey.

"That wicked man has no conscience," said Luna scathingly. Her eyes were still red from weeping. "He only wants Ginny fit to serve her detention."

Slughorn and Pomfrey looked rather shocked but said nothing.

"May I stay a little longer, please," said Luna. "I'd like to see Ginny getting better."

"Your first class is with me this morning, is it not?" said Slughorn.

"Yes, Professor."

"After that, I think it wise if you resume your normal lessons then perhaps return here during the lunch break.

"Are you not going to breakfast, Miss Lovegood? It's almost time." asked Madam Pomfrey. She glanced hopefully at the fruit but what was left was not fit for consumption.

"I'll be alright, thank you. I can't eat, anyway."

"Very well."

The two walked away. Slughorn called over his shoulder. "Don't get too near that bowl, young lady - or you'll not sleep for a week and be dancing to all your lessons!"

Luna, still sitting on the bed, moved slightly away. She bumped into the little book laying on the bedspread. She could see the words on the cover now: Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. She thought it a very strange title indeed and wondered if the Muggle mother had brought it for her daughter and then forgotten it in her hurry to leave. Better to save the child and lose the book than the other way round thought Luna.

Luna turned her attention back to Ginny and decided she must not be impatient and should give the potion time to work. She looked anxiously at the clock but time seemed to be crawling along. She kept picking up the book, reading a little, then putting it down again. After almost an hour there was no sign of improvement in Ginny's condition and Luna began to despair. If only Harry was here. Luna knew he'd forgive Ginny and everything would be alright she was certain.

More and more she kept looking at the chain that held Ginny's medallion. She felt sure it held some secret connection but what? She had seen Ginny hiding it behind her hair while she looked at it many times. Perhaps that was all that was needed.

She took hold of the chain, gently pulled out the medallion, and held it up for Ginny to see. The image on it was just a bowl of flowers to Luna but she was convinced that was not what Ginny could see. Whatever it was, Ginny did not respond. What was wrong? Luna tried to remember if Ginny did anything else. She had not used her wand nor uttered any incantation. She had moved her head down close to it sometimes.

That was it! Luna's face lit up. She now knew what to do. Very carefully, she brought the disk up towards Ginny's face. Was she holding the real medallion? Or only a self-conjured fake? She hoped the conjuration was only when it was taken away. She touched the silvery disk to Ginny's lips.

"Please, Harry. Please help Ginny. Help her, Harry - no matter what."

Not a flicker of emotion crossed Ginny's face. She stared straight ahead.

"The flowers are so beautiful. Thank you Luna," said Ginny.

Luna was startled. She turned swiftly to see the bright yellow lilies, purple carnations and huge white daisies that now flourished in their basket; she saw the succulent grapes and plums, bursting with goodness; and slowly - slower even than the clock on the wall - she saw Ginny's face relax into a sad little smile and her eyes were now upon Luna.

"Harry says he loves me - no matter what."


—oOo—








Chapter 8: The Gathering
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Harry prowled back and forth the short distance between tree and tent, raging silently at himself. The sky was lightening in the east but Harry's dark night continued within him. Hospital wing! What foul injuries had Snape inflicted that Ginny needed healing treatment! Several times he fought the near-overpowering urge to try to reach her - to be at her side. Ought he to tell Ron his sister is hurt badly, perhaps dying? Should he confess all? Might Hermione give him some good advice? What should he do?

He sensed that Ron had occasionally peeked from the cover of the tent flap but he had not ventured out. Hermione would still be sleeping after her earlier night watch. The Marauder's Map never left Harry's hands and he stopped his pacing to study the map yet again. Luna was still with Ginny but Professor Slughorn was there now too. Slughorn! It must be serious if Madam Pomfrey needed extra help.

He examined his medallion. It displayed a portcullis, confirming Harry's fear that her ailment was dangerous. What if it were fatal? - and if I was not there with her? His face screwed up with anguish at the thought. He tried to reassure himself with memories of the times he had been in the hospital wing and out again within hours or days. He recalled Ginny's broken ankle being fixed in seconds after their Ministry battle. She's in good hands. He tried to relax and took in his surroundings which were just becoming more visible as the faint daylight increased.

An early mist softened both trees and sounds but the silence was being gently broken by the calls and chatter of distant birds. The drifting smell of toast burning told Harry that Ron was spoiling their remaining loaf. Harry became aware of how hungry he was himself and the feeling mixed itself with a sense of guilt as though he had a duty to lose his appetite while poor Ginny suffered.

A scraping sound suggested Ron was removing the worst of the charred surfaces off his slices so perhaps all was not lost. His head appeared, poking out from the tent together with an arm extended to offer a plate arrowed by a cloud of vapour rising in the cool air.

"Harry?"

"Sure, why not. I'll come in for a bit though."

Harry joined Ron at the table. He raised his eyebrows in surprise. "Didn't think we had any beans left."

"Last tin."

Harry looked across to the darkened sleeping quarters. He could just see Hermione's bushy head on her pillow. He looked back at his plate and hesitated.

"Saved some," said Ron, waving his fork towards a large bean can and the remains of the loaf which he had carefully re-wrapped and placed on top of their empty food cupboard near the stove.

As Harry dug into his beans on toast he kept glancing at Ron. He's Ginny's brother; my best friend. He can be considerate at times. It's just that blasted horcrux...

"You and Hermione..." Harry began, without thinking where he was headed.

"It's not the same!" retorted Ron.

"What?"

"Ginny's underage. And you're the Chosen One. It's not the same. You're the main target."

"Oh, thanks, Ron." Harry stared at him, his meal forgotten for the moment. He could tell Ron had been stewing over something and it wasn't the beans.

"Hermione..." Ron hesitated. "She... she's old enough to make her own decisions. It's not me that's endangering her like you and Ginny. Anyway, we couldn't manage without her."

Harry crunched on his toast thoughtfully. His mind was still on Ginny back in Hogwarts' hospital wing but talking about other things helped ease his fretting a little. "You've been worrying if Hermione's put herself at risk because of you? So... you and she are now...?"

"What? No - she's Hermione isn't she - just one of us."

"How'd'you mean, Ron?" said Harry, "like, one of the guys kind of thing?"

"Yeah - well... she's not like the other girls at Hogwarts is she?" said Ron. "For one thing she doesn't dress up in silly girly frocks and stuff - she dresses sensibly; she's practical."

"What about the Yule Ball?"

"Yes, but she wasn't all frothy and sissy though was she?" said Ron sounding more enthusiastic. "She was more like... more of a mature, feminine look don't you think? Did you notice how she had her hair up? Those two little blue pins with the curved ends that almost met? She looked very elegant." Ron forgot the forkful of beans that had begun its journey to his mouth for a while and tomato sauce dripped onto the table as he stared into the distance.

"And she doesn't posture and swagger about," he continued, spluttering through the eventual mouthful of beans. "She does use cosmetics now though - but in a really subtle way so it looks natural. You wouldn't even know unless you looked closely."

"Do you, Ron?"

"Do I what?"

"Look closely?"

"Well - she's with us all the while isn't she? You must have noticed her lips - I think it's a kind of pastel corally thing she uses on them." Ron paused. "And neat eyebrows - you can't miss her eyebrows and her eyes, surely?"

Harry thought for a while. Only Ginny's face came to his imagination. He couldn't remember offhand what Hermione's eyebrows or her lips looked like. "Red I suppose..."

"Her eyebrows?"

"Her lips, I mean, you wally - and blue I guess, blue eyes."

Ron stared at Harry as if he were mad. "We're talking about Hermione right? - Hermione's got soft brown eyes."

"Well, she's certainly helpful and resourceful," said Harry, scooping up the last of his beans and pushing his plate away. "This food for instance, she--"

"And reliable - turns up on time, that sort of thing," said Ron, still with a faraway look.

Harry wasn't listening. He sensed the fluttering of his medallion and turned his head away from Ron as he rejoiced in Ginny's kiss. He was shaking slightly with excitement and relief as he took his half-empty cup over to the kettle as if to make more tea. He scanned the message on the silver disk.

Please, Harry. Please help Ginny. Help her, Harry - no matter what.

His cup rattled in its saucer. Harry steadied himself and carefully lowered the cup onto the cupboard before he dropped it. It was Ginny's thoughts yet he knew that must be Luna's words. Has to be. How? Must be Ginny's listening to Luna. What has Ginny done? Is she afraid to speak to me directly? His mind whirled. He didn't care what she had done so long as she was going to be alright. She needed his help. The only help he could give was the support with which she had sustained him while he wore the horcrux locket. He raised his cup as if to drink but he was kissing the medallion.

Ginny, I love you - no matter what.

"Make me another while you're there will you, Harry?" said Ron as he carved into more toast on his plate.

"Sure," murmured Harry.

He brought a new cup of tea back to Ron at the table but kept his own cup with him and continued on towards the tent exit. "I'd better get back on watch."

Ron looked up from stirring his tea and nodded, his thoughts still elsewhere.

In the dark shadow of the sleeping section, Hermione remained curled up in the fleecy blanket on her bunk with just her head showing. Her eyes were open. She was completely still and her face was without expression but she was looking at him. Harry stopped walking, expecting her to speak but she remained silent. She continued to look at Harry for a few seconds longer - then closed her eyes. It was as if it had never happened; as if Hermione had been asleep all along.

What did that mean? Had she heard what Ron had said about her? Or seen me kiss the medallion? Or sleep watching? Like sleep walking only with just the eyes? He took a deep swig of tea then ducked quietly out of the tent so as not to disturb her.

It was a little brighter outside now. Harry sat, sipping at his tea, with the Marauder's Map open on his lap and his medallion in his hand. The map showed that Ginny was still in the hospital wing but the portcullis was gone from the medallion to be replaced by the castle. She's out of danger! Ginny's OK! The physical tension in his body eased away immediately and he felt he had been clinging to his last breath for hours as he released it slowly and heavily - steaming his last gulp of hot tea out into the early autumn air.

But something still troubled Harry. He could not quite put his finger on what it was. Then he remembered. Ron had been wrong; Hermione's eyes were a very dark grey. He relaxed a little more and almost grinned. He would wind up Ron next chance he got. Yet somehow, he still felt a little disturbed. He still could not quite put his finger on what it was.

Later, when he took his turn with the horcrux, he did not trouble Ginny for her support. He found himself out of sorts and tried to keep out of the way of the others as far as possible. Hermione had been a little grumpy when she had got up anyway. She hadn't slept well after Harry's noisy intrusion and bad dreams had left her tired and snappy even after removing the locket.

"Why didn't you fold the can lid back down, Ron? Keep the germs out." was all she said when Ron made her a late breakfast. The inevitable burnt toast didn't help. Ron looked so chastened that Harry didn't even have the heart to needle him about getting her eye colour wrong.

He took Hermione's bag out scavenging on his own and summoned a duck right out of the air, stunning it when it was close. He hesitated about wringing its neck then used the killing curse and blamed it on the horcrux. He had Hermione's 'Edible Roots and Fungi of the English Countryside' book but did not have much luck until he stumbled across a field of potatoes which, even though they were not listed in the book, he figured were fair game.

He cast the Disillusionment charm to hide himself since he'd left his own rucksack behind. It was more convenient anyway than wearing a cloak while digging up potatoes. He kept to the edge of the field and wondered why the farmer had been so foolish as to plant this close to woodland. Wild animals, perhaps badgers, had already visited and wastefully uprooted several plants. Harry made an attempt to emulate the way they had dug under and torn up the root system but he doubted it would fool close inspection. He really did not care anymore. He wished he had Ginny's supportive messages but she needed him now and he would not let her down.

He laboured until he was weary and irritable. He'd done enough and Ron and Hermione could hardly complain since he was doing all the work and had walked miles to get here. He decided to Apparate back as near to the tent's protective spells as possible but startled a wood pigeon underfoot when he arrived. It got the same treatment as the duck. He should have been pleased with the day's haul but he just felt annoyed that it was all so much effort to get a meal while the others took it easy. Now he could see the tent he apparated straight to it and plunged inside.

From her excited chattering it was clear that at least Hermione had brightened up considerably and it looked like she and Ron had been playing chess. Even Harry's inexpert eye could tell from the board that Ron had probably let her win. Stupid git. Why'd she pack him something and all I get is to borrow a book about fungus? He was extra-annoyed to see them step apart as he burst in. He dumped the bag noisily on the floor and the spuds rumbled around inside. Let them stay hungry for a bit longer. He knew they would have been talking about him again. Who cares? I have Ginny. His scar began to prickle unpleasantly but he refrained from rubbing it. Why give them the satisfaction?

Without asking, during the next few days, when he was not wearing the horcrux, he kept sending Ginny supportive messages. It's alright no matter what. I'm with you. Eventually came the day he could see she was out of the hospital and taking classes normally but he did not become impatient that she had not yet told him what cheeky prank they had played on Snape to get him so riled up. Like all players, she had had plenty of Quidditch injuries so maybe a fractured rib, though painful for a short while, had been worth it. He still longed to see her again though. He gave his medallion an extra long kiss.

L2BwU. Tell me soon as there's Hogsmeade.

He received a couple of general 'I'm OK'-type messages and eventually, Crabbe framed! Party RoR tonight! Harry lay on his bunk grinning. She was a Weasley alright. He kissed his medallion. Enjoy! And think of me? and he quickly got back, Harry who? HaHa! Yes, she was Fred and George's sister. When she disappeared off the Marauder's Map that evening he was not concerned; he knew the Room of Requirement wasn't plotted. He was a bit jealous he wasn't there with her but he liked the idea of her having a good time for once.


—oOo—


"Thing is, ter stay close - yer don't wanna be wanderin' off," said Hagrid. He looked at each of the youngsters in the detention group in turn to make sure they were paying attention. The gathering showed a mixture of excitement and apprehension.

Ginny murmured an incantation and Harry's whistle jumped to her lips. She gave three soft toots and Hagrid nodded his approval. "That'd do it, Ginny. Keep us together. This way, then!"

Their trip into the Forbidden Forest turned out to be moderately uneventful. Ginny, Neville, and Luna were all surprised to find Crabbe on the same detention for the burp powder frame up.

"I know it was you, Weasley," he growled as the skirted around a large fallen tree. "I'll get you for this."

"Yeah? - you and who's brain?" snapped Ginny, drawing her wand across her throat menacingly. "Malfoy not with you now is he? Lots of accidents happen amongst these trees, disappearances - worse."

Crabbe's face blanched but he took a bigger stride forward to put himself a half-pace ahead and Ginny didn't argue. The back of his head was preferable to the front. Not that anyone could see much. The moon was almost full but it was not yet very high above the tops of the trees and while the upper canopy foliage was beginning to shine a strange silvery green, at ground level all detail was lost in shadow.

Ginny was stuck with Crabbe for a while. She tried to pretend he was Harry but that lasted about five seconds. Hagrid led the way with Fang at his side but all she could see of them were vague darknesses moving past the dim vertical trunks of the trees. Luna and Neville followed up behind.

They walked mostly in silence for a while, murmuring occasionally to each other, acutely aware of the dangers that might lie just out of sight on either side. Neville eventually struck up a conversation about the more friendly magical creatures that inhabited the forest and Luna's interest kept them chatting and relaxing together over the next half an hour.

"It was really sweet what you said, Neville," said Luna finally with a smile not wasted in the gloom because he could hear it in her voice, "dreaming about me, I mean."

"Oh - yeah. I meant..." Neville was glad the darkness hid the sudden heat he felt in his cheeks.

"Were you really trying to win my heart?" she asked. He could hear a gentleness in her voice now and an even bigger smile. Neville decided she was not mocking him.

"Erm... I didn't want you to get the blame for the sword. It should have been just me."

"Oh."

"No, I didn't mean... I mean..."

"It's alright, Neville; we can be just friends."

"No... Well, would you l- like to go w- with..." Neville hesitated then finished lamely. "I was g- going to ask you next... Hogsmeade."

"Oh, what a pity," said Luna solemnly then she added more brightly, "Perhaps after Christmas they'll relent and let us go again! What do you think?"

"Yeah - perhaps so. I enjoyed the last one." Neville sounded like he did not believe they would ever see Hogsmeade again. His voice became more excited. "Still - Ginny had a good idea but..."

"What was it?"

"Mmm.. Not sure if I should say. I think she's a bit ashamed about not getting the sword - I mean about it being locked away in Gringotts. She thinks she'd made things worse for Harry - even impossible."

"I thought so too," said Luna wistfully.

As they proceeded deeper into the forest, the moonlight finally crept down to relieve the darkness a little - though the ground litter was still in shadow. Ahead of them, Luna and Neville could now see glimpses and flashes of the head and shoulders of Ginny; she was stomping sullenly along, still slightly behind Crabbe who continued to lurch after Hagrid without looking back.

"I think I'm being watched, Neville," said Luna suddenly.

Neville stopped and looked around. "Where? Animals you mean?"

Luna cast the revealing charm but they detected nothing.

"Some creatures do follow herds - and we're last," said Neville nervously. "They probably were identifying what creatures we are; singling out the weakest. We're not their natural prey so they've moved on."

"Yes, I felt I was being... identified... singled out."

They hurried after the others.

"What was her idea?" said Luna, after a long, but not unpleasant, lapse in her discussions with Neville.

"Sorry?"

"You said Ginny had an idea - about Hogsmeade was it?"

"Oh yeah - no - it's if we ever see Harry in the future I think she'd rather we didn't mention you know - about the sword - nor this detention. He's got the Map, remember? Ginny wonders if he might notice she's disappeared. She said if he ever asked, we're to say we had a party in the Room of Requirement--"

"She doesn't need to tell Harry fibs," said Luna sadly. I wouldn't - if it were me."

"You mean if you were Harry's girlfriend?" Neville sounded a bit despondent.

"Yes. I think if I ever had a boyfriend I'd want to always tell him the truth. I'm not attractive like Ginny though so it might not matter."

"'Course you are! I m- mean... What makes you think that?" Neville helped Luna over a badly-broken section of the trail. "I m- mean... You're... nice looking."

"Thank you, Neville. I think you're nice looking too."

Neville knew that Luna was just being kind so he tried to divert to a new topic. "What sort of ingredients do you think Hagrid's looking for?"

"That's a wonderful idea!" said Luna abruptly, a sudden thought giving her the opportunity to prevent Neville changing the subject. "We could have tea parties in the Room of Requirement - just until we can go to Hogsmeade again. I mean, pretend we're in Hogsmeade. I'd like--"

"Wait here! Do not move from this spot!" Hagrid's dark shape growled back at them. He moved forward slightly to the right of the direction in which they had been travelling in what was, for him a stealthy thud, thud, thud, until the sound became too faint to hear.

"What do you think, Luna? He sounded worried."

"Oh, I think he's just being cautious." She tried again. "We could say we need a little tea room with--"

"What is that oaf up to?" Crabbe was becoming more and more impatient. He stared through the trees as if he believed Hagrid could silently have returned. It was far too dark to see much although the higher foliage was now all shimmering silver in the full light of the moon. Away from the moon's glare, thousands of stars clung silently to the great black bowl of the sky.

Neville looked directly overhead, taking in every leaf and creeper he could recognise. "See that, Luna?" He pointed at the numerous triangles of scruffy moss-like material that were picked out in greens and blues by the light of the moon beyond them. They clung to every branch as far as Neville and Luna could see, their surfaces glistening and gleaming like particles of the moon itself. "That's Merlin's Beard that is. Very delicate - crumples away soon as you touch it. Used to uncloud the mind of false thinking like in Poet's No-block, Veritaserum, and even Felix Felicis. I think that's on Hagrid's list."

Luna looked at the awe and respect in Neville's upturned face, brightly glowing in the moonbeams.

"How do they gather it then, Neville?"

"Accio and Pack I think. Handy for all sorts of--"

He broke off when he heard Ginny's low cry. "Get back here, Crabbe!"

But Crabbe would have none of it. He was edging forward cautiously along the same route that Hagrid had taken. The shrubs and bushes were squeezed between the trees much more thickly here but Hagrid had forced a way that was hard to miss.

"Let him go," said Neville. "Get himself in more trouble - serve him right for using that belch powder on poor Professor Snape." He grinned to himself at his own joke.

"But he might distract Hagrid don't you think? Or cause him a problem?" said Luna, taking a few steps after Crabbe, trying to keep him in sight in the darkening undergrowth.

"Vincent!" she called in a low voice." She took a few more paces in his wake. "You might disturb Hagrid. I think you should come back." She strode out quickly to catch him up then suddenly cried out and came stumbling back, clutching her arm. Ginny ran to her.

"It's alright," said Luna. "It was a big branch sprang back at me. I don't think he meant it."

"Let me look," said Ginny. Neville lit his wand.

Luna's sleeve was badly ripped and she pulled it up out of the way to inspect her arm. "It's very painful - but it's not broken," she said.

Neville winced. The flesh of her forearm, which she had raised to protect herself, was badly torn and bloody. "It's bruising up very badly too, Luna," he said. "We'd best get you back to Madam Pomfrey."

"We'd never find our way back without Hagrid - not before morning," said Ginny. "I can deal with it."

"Episkey's not enough," said Neville firmly. "Matron can fix it properly."

"Why'd you think I persuaded her to hold me back a couple of days in the hospital wing?" said Ginny. If she winked, they could not see.

She began to move her wand over the wound all the while chanting softly, melodiously, "Vulnera Sanentur."

"She taught you that?" Neville sounded incredulous as he watched the damaged tissue repair itself completely and quickly and the skin healed over.

Ginny rummaged in her bag and brought out a small bottle of Dittany which she applied to finish it off and prevent scarring. "Good as ever," she said.

"Thank you, Ginny," chirped Luna, smiling at the new skin in surprised delight.

"She gave you Dittany?" said Neville.

"A good supply - and other stuff. Neville, I took the opportunity to stock up and learn the basics of advanced field healings. We can expect worse from the Carrows as time goes by."

Ginny turned to face the way Crabbe and Hagrid had gone. She crouched down and murmured a quiet incantation. "He meant it all right."

They waited a little longer but Hagrid alarmed them all by thundering in from a different direction. "Centaurs - and lots of 'em. They're a ways off but we best circle about." He looked around. "Where's that great lump got to then?"

Ginny blew softly on her whistle and they heard Crabbe stumbling and cursing back towards them. "Ouch!" There was a heavy thud and more cursing before Crabbe finally reappeared.

"Blasted log wasn't there before!" said Crabbe, limping along and rubbing his shin.

"That's for Luna," murmured Ginny. More loudly she said, "I'm sure Matron can heal it up for you - tomorrow."

"Yer great prune, Crabbe - what'd I tell yer?" said Hagrid. "Right, we'll head this way - and keep tergether like I said."

"What about that, Hagrid?" said Neville, proudly pointing upwards at the mossy tangles above.

"Moonshine? Not worth the bother, Neville," said Hagrid. "The' grows that silvery salve on farms these days by the bucketload. See, it grows on tha' Fool's Beard real easy - tha's how yer know, see? Tricked a lot o' idiots 'as that Fool's Beard - thinkin' 'twere Merlin's Beard." He gave a deep chuckle and added, "Come on, then, best be goin'."

Neville turned his face away from the moon to keep his embarrassment in shadow and thrust his hands dejectedly into his jacket pockets. Luna lagged behind as they started out and he wasn't sure if she was kindly giving him some space or just avoiding him. After a while though, he felt a little hand take his arm; it was Luna walking along with him. He felt comforted. It was good that she was so dreamy at times; it seemed she had not noticed what Hagrid had said.

* ' * ' * ' *

It was still dark the next morning when they trudged wearily back to Hogwarts. They had found most of the herbs, roots, and other items for which they had searched. Hagrid had conjured up some improvised camp beds but they had managed only four hours sleep so hoped to grab another hour or two before breakfast in the Great Hall. At Hagrid's cabin, the half-giant prepared to part company with them. He offered up his collecting bag. "Who'll take these to Professor Snape for me then?"

Ginny scowled and Neville faltered. "I thought..." Crabbe had slunk off without a word into the darkness.

"I'll take them," said Luna brightly. "I don't mind."

"Good girl," said Hagrid. "Tell him ter take care with tha' left' pocket though. Them stingers is right nasty."

"Oh, I will."

Back in her dormitory, Ginny was just laying down to sleep when Harry's kiss and the tingle of her medallion made her sit up again. Excitedly, she read his message.

Great 2CU again! Good Party?

Ginny smiled as she again lowered her head to her pillow and snuggled into her warm blankets. She touched the silver disk to her lips.

Wish you had been there. Harry. Harry. Harry.

She fell asleep during the kiss.


—oOo—




Chapter 9: The Trysting Stone
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When the morning's rain finally resigned itself to a melancholy end, the view did not improve. If there was a more dismal landscape than the one that Harry Potter now faced, he had never seen it. He saw no reason why Hermione should ever have visited this grim old quarry. He had only been told that, when younger, she had hiked here with her parents. The ugly pit was long-disused; that much was evident from the wet, stringy weeds that clawed out of the cracks between its shattered stones. Yet at the higher levels, overlooking this unnatural chasm, wind and rain had scraped the rocks, leaving bare, unwanted slabs, rejected even by mosses and lichens. Upon one such puddled rock lay Slytherin's locket.

That Harry had placed this dark object, and what it contained, in this dead, unforgiving place, seemed appropriate. He wished he might leave it here forever or hurl it down to smash against the quarry floor. He could not - but at least he was taking an hour's respite from its malevolent influence.

Wearing the cursed pendant always made him irritable and anxious to some extent but when Harry had again started thinking hateful thoughts about Ginny it became so unpleasant he had felt compelled to take it off. The artifact would not be out of his sight though, and he was ever-alert to snatch it up if need be. It was slightly risky but the relic had finally broken his resolve when he had begun to question Ginny's faithfulness. For many minutes he fought those feelings until, disgusted, he separated himself from the evil thing.

Harry had been so filled with concern for Ginny, and so delighted at her recovery, he had not cared what she had done. Over a week had passed, however, and he was curious about the matter and why she had not explained her plea for help. The warmth of his relationship with Ginny, the honesty of her kisses, his certainty of her character - all these evoked an unshakable trust. He reminded himself, rather guiltily, that he had not yet told her about the destruction of her photograph. There's a reason she's not told me. Give her time, Harry.

He yearned to see her again; surely another Hogsmeade visit must not be far off! He would not press her however, but continue to offer his unquestioning support. He put the medallion to his lips. Ever thinking of you Ginny. Strong 4U

He was still thrilling to the kiss he shared when he spotted two distant figures waving to him from far along the winding depths. He waved back - though he knew protective spells hid him from their view. Ron and Hermione would take another ten minutes to ascend the access ledges left when the quarry's northern face was cut. This vantage assured Harry he was unlikely to be surprised by unwanted visitors.

With a sigh, he slipped the locket back around his neck shortly before they reached him.

"Any luck?" he called.

He could tell from the shake of their heads they would all be going hungry that night.

"The guest house is gone, Harry," said Hermione, as they drew near. "I'm sorry. We found quarrymen's houses in ruins - not even sure if it's the same place."

"Anything else?"

"No rabbits, no trees, no river, no mushrooms, no nothing," grumbled Ron.

"It's not how I remember it," added Hermione apologetically.

"It's alright - don't worry."

Hermione looked at Harry in surprise. She had prepared herself for bitter responses.

"I took it off for a while," said Harry, by way of explanation of his good humour. "I kept watch and I never let it out of my sight." He gestured towards the flattened slab that lay like a table top before him - a table that would not be dined upon this day.

"We'll start on the chocolate tonight, then," said Hermione. "It will have to do until tomorrow. We'll find somewhere better."

"Yeah, like next door to a twenty-four-hour café," muttered Ron.

"I remember a river in Wales," said Hermione, frowning as she tried to recall old memories, " - we'll go there."

"That's good - we'll get a fish or two..." said Harry, hoping to cheer up Ron but Ron scowled. He ducked behind Harry into their tent which was pitched next to the last remnants of a broken-down workman's hut, itself wedged against a sheltering rock face.

"He's never had to go hungry like this," whispered Hermione, trying to excuse his sour disposition.

"Neither have you," said Harry. "If he wants to be unhappy then I'll go out tomorrow and he can have the locket; see how he likes it."

"Harry, he--" Hermione looked really miserable.

"I've not even seen a bird fly over," said Harry, looking unhopefully upwards and trying to divert Hermione from talking about Ron.

Hermione took a few steps. She was unsure whether to go into the tent with Ron or remain with Harry outside. It was not raining but everywhere was damp. Without a meal to prepare she was at sixes and sevens.

"Here, take my seat," said Harry, standing up from his stool and stretching his legs.

She gratefully eyed the folded blanket Harry had been using as a dry cushion. The young girl had been walking for hours and her legs ached.

"I'd better go in..." she replied after a few seconds' hesitation. She turned away into the tent.

Fine! thought Harry, I'm sure you two have got lots to talk about...

Harry plonked himself back down on his stool again and looked out over the quarry access and the grey skies. He had a couple more hours to go on this watch until Ron would take over and Hermione would wear the horcrux. He considered taking the locket off again; this was the most secure location they had ever found. He decided against it unless it became too difficult to wear. He resigned himself to a period of gloom.

His mood was lifted by the touch of Ginny's kiss and the trembling of his medallion.

With U2. Strong 4U2. Something to tell next we meet.

Harry smiled. Now he knew why Ginny had not told him. She wanted to tell him when they were together. It must surely be just a week or two and then there would be another Hogsmeade... He began to visualise her face - seeing him, seeing her. Even in his imagination, the look in her eyes touched him so deeply, it evoked warmth and joy in his heart.

"Cup of tea, Harry?" It was Hermione with a warming brew.

Harry's smile deepened. Things were looking up.


—oOo—


The Students of Hogwarts did not have to wait even two days for the next Hogsmeade visit.

"This D.A. meeting is only going to be a short one," said Ginny. "Sorry it was so sudden but you've probably all heard in the last few hours that tomorrow is a Hogsmeade weekend," said Ginny. "We think Snape's announced it at the last minute deliberately so we don't have much time to plan anything--"

"Should have thought of that before then," smirked Zacharias Smith.

"You're right - WE should have, shouldn't we Smith? We're all in this together, remember? Anyway, as it happens, we do have a couple of things already thought out."

"Why is Snape allowing any Hogsmeades at all?" asked Lavender. "And this one's sooner than expected so at this rate we'll have more than normal!"

"We've thought of a few reasons," said Ginny, grimly.

"So they can get us out of the way, you reckon?" said Michael.

"Yes - they might use the opportunity to sneak around - probably even go through our things," said Ginny, "that's why we've now got these footlockers."

Ginny gestured to the long row of chests against the back wall of the Room of Requirement. The Room was accumulating more and more equipment as they were needed.

"It's Neville's idea and the Room delivered what we need as usual! So, if you've got any stuff the Carrows and Snape shouldn't see, then move it in here; this place is secure."

"I think they've also done it so we believe they're not as bad as they seem," said Terry. "Look, although they like to hand out punishments I don't think that's an end in itself - that's not why they're here. Their real purpose is to persuade us to believe in what they believe - or else control us. Ideally, they just want everyone to obey them. You-know-who wants to strengthen blood purity not to punish or destroy it. You'll notice the Hogwarts' food is just as good as ever - and they've not increased study periods or homework."

"Exactly." said Ginny. "If we all thought and behaved like Slytherins then life at Hogwarts would be tolerable. I mean, the cruelty in Dark Arts is never aimed at Slytherins is it? And Muggles Studies is a joke - speaking of which, Hannah, have you got your 'True Muggles Studies' set up yet?"

"Not quite. We - Seamus and I - have given up on the spare classroom idea and are going for small extra study groups within common rooms. That way they can disperse quickly and unnoticeably if necessary. We've got some of the old Muggles Studies textbooks but we're only doing a cut-down set of lessons - telling the basic truth while at the same time training kids to pretend to go with Alecto's teaching."

"So, what's the hold up?"

"Well, we're still copying the important sections from the books so we've got something to work with but also, we still need somebody to teach in Ravenclaw - a half-blood I mean or someone who has lived with at least one Muggle like my mum or Seamus' dad." She looked meaningfully across at Terry Boot and caught his eye.

"Told you - I'm no teacher," hissed Terry nervously.

"No - but you're a D.A. member," said Neville. "We're all here to do what we can for the cause - to resist and oppose them until the ultimate downfall of You-know-who."

"I know that but I'd rather fight than teach, quite frankly," said Terry.

"Then fight Muggle ignorance!" Neville said loudly. "Hannah lost her mother because of it. Isn't that worth fighting for? For your Muggle parent?" Neville gave him a questioning look. Hannah looked at Neville; there was curiosity in her gaze. She hadn't known that Neville even knew about her mother being killed by Death Eaters in the previous year.

Terry gulped. "My mother - It's my mother too who's the Muggle in my family. I suppose, when you put it like that..."

"I'll help you get started," said Seamus. He laughed. "I'm no teacher meself - but how hard can it be? They're only small groups - mostly first and second years."

"Right - that settles it. Huffs, Raves, and Gryffs - anyone volunteer to teach True Muggle Studies to the Slyths?" said Ginny with a grin.

"I'd like to try," said Luna, raising her hand. "We had a Muggle stay with us once for a whole week. He kept a tiny little brush in our bathroom. Daddy said he'd seen him trying to eat it with peppermint sauce but he could never get it all in his mouth no matter how much he tried."

Only a few of the gathering laughed; the rest stared in horror.

"Luna!" cried Ginny. "I was joking!"

"I think it would be fun teaching little Slytherin children," said Luna, with a dreamy smile on her face, "but I wouldn't teach them to eat brushes, I don't think."

"It's the big children I'd worry about," said Neville. "Sorry, Luna - we can't spare you to the Slytherins. We need you alive--" He stopped abruptly and grimaced as he realised what he had said. Ginny rescued him.

"There's another reason why they allow Hogsmeade visits," she said. "It's so they can cancel them as punishments."

"Yes, they cut mine," said Padma, glumly. "Last detention I was told my next Hogsmeade was scrubbed."

"Right - and not just you," said Ginny. "They've stopped lots of us - some just the once, some for the whole term - and some of us, as you know, for life." Ginny glanced briefly at Neville and Luna who were at her side.

"They can't legally do that you know," said Susan.

"They can do what they want, Susan," growled Seamus.

"Well, I mean, it's difficult for them," persisted Susan. "It's built into the statute and I think they try to appear to stick to the main rules. One term is the maximum ban."

"McGonagall banned me for the rest of the year when Sirius Black stole my Gryffindor passwords," said Neville, "and Umbridge stopped Harry!"

Yes, but technically it's not legal," said Susan. "It's an old law that nobody remembers. It's to get past another law about lengthy imprisonment. In a way, we were all prisoners here even under Professor Dumbledore if we could never leave the grounds for more than three months. Only the Wizengamot can legally imprison anyone for longer."

"Yeah, well try telling Snape that," snapped Seamus.

"I already did," said Susan. "Or rather, I spoke to Professor Sprout and she told him. She said he seemed to be annoyed about it - which means he's considering it. I think he'll probably back down. I doubt he'll go to the trouble of getting the law changed for something this trivial - that will need a full meeting of the Wizengamot - especially when there are lots of other forms of punishment."

"He can just ban us again when he feels like it," said Neville.

"I think Ginny's right," said Luna. "They like to stop people because they enjoy it so the more times they can stop us then the more fun for them: stop us then let us go again then stop us again at the first opportunity. It's cat and mouse really; the cat lets the mouse go so it can pounce on it again."

"You think this is really possible?" said Neville, turning to Luna, "that we might be able to go to Hogsmeade again?"

"I think we have a real chance next year," said Luna brightly, staring straight into Neville's eyes. He blinked. Ginny rescued him again.

"We haven't got much time," she said. "Ernie's already organising supplies - don't ask me how he's getting them past Filch--" Ernie waved an empty potion vial in the air to suggest he was going to do some switching. Ginny continued, "--but what I really want to discuss is an idea that Hannah had last time - about the wands. Hannah?"

Hannah stood up to applause from the other Hufflepuffs. She took a bow with a smile. "As you know, the headmaster fought fire with fire and is using a grey fungus to obscure the wanted posters we've set up. I volunteered to help Neville--" Hannah leaned and smiled in Neville's direction and a slow flush crept over his face. "--with the extra ingredient we're going to put in the new posters that will make this fungus nearly invisible."

"What's this got to do with wands?" said Parvati.

"The existing posters will need modifying and that has to be done by hand," said Hannah. "I volunteered to help Neville--"

"Seems to me you do a lot of volunteering to help Neville," smirked Seamus.

Hannah smiled. "I do what I can in a good cause."

"I bet you do," muttered Smith.

"So what's it got to do with wands?" persisted Parvati.

"It's risky to use our own on things like this. The headmaster can easily check our wands to see what spells they have cast recently. So my idea was to get some spare ones--"

"Don't tell me you volunteered to help Neville get some more wands?" laughed Seamus.

"No. You don't suppose the D.A. and the Order are the only organisations resisting You-know-who do you? Certain persons, for instance, have been tracking down Snatchers and--"

"Snatchers?" said several people at once.

"Honestly, don't you know what's going on at all? Snatchers are gangs that hunt down so-called 'Undesirables' and Muggle-borns and hand them over to the Ministry for payment."

"That is sinful, I think," said Luna sadly, "to take money for doing such an evil thing..."

"Yes, well, as I was saying, certain persons--"

"It's your dad isn't it, Hannah?" said Terry, then added hastily. "Sorry! Didn't think."

Hannah glared at Terry then continued, "Certain persons attack and disarm Snatchers..."

"You must be very, very proud of the certain person, Hannah. He's very brave and very good," said Luna quietly.

Hannah stared at Luna. She glanced back and forth between her and Neville and for some reason she seemed to be trying to stifle some emotion.

"He's... yes, I am," she finished, meekly.

"Long story, short, Hannah and I are meeting... a certain person... tomorrow behind the Three Broomsticks and bringing in a few spare wands," said Ernie. He winked.

"They won't work well for everyone - they'll never be as good as your own," said Hannah. "We'll... everybody can try them out and see what works best for who. Some will be very good indeed. You'll still have your own wand but use one of these for special missions."

"What we're going to do," said Ernie, "Hannah and I are going to win the wands from... a certain person using Expelliarmus - he ... or she ... won't resist obviously. Then when we decide who gets what they can capture them off us. That way they work better because the wands accept their new master,"

"We'll keep them here when not in use," said Ginny. "This is the most secure place in the castle. Neville has defined the requirement very strictly. We needed a room that You-know-who's supporters cannot find or enter or even know about. Even if anyone accidentally mentioned it to someone else they still wouldn't be able to find it."

The meeting broke up shortly thereafter and they dispersed. Ginny was feeling rather low about being banned from Hogsmeade. She held back to be on her own to send another kiss to Harry. Missing you. Harry's kiss came back almost instantly, My thoughts always with you.

Ginny still carried her troubled heart as a desire to set things right with Harry. As she walked the hallways alone then, her thoughts were elsewhere. But the young girl's awareness was wrenched back to the here-and-now by a faint sound nearby; too brief for her to be sure of its direction.

It is likely her footsteps would have obscured the noise if she had been walking normally but drawing attention to oneself was no longer safe in the passageways of Hogwarts. D.A. members tended to move stealthily and silently when solitary and above all, they listened for Slytherin prefects. Ginny paused mid-stride, straining to hear the sound again and locate it.

The passage ended immediately around the next corner and she could see nobody behind her so she turned to her destination: the side entrance which led up to the next floor. She stood with one foot on the first step, listening up the stairway. Someone talking! But it was not from above. The voice came from around the bend further along the same corridor so Ginny started up the stairs to get as far away as possible. Yet curiosity soon made her stop on the winding steps. She turned. She knew the hallway she had come from ended in a blank wall behind the bend; it was haunted anyway. Why would anybody be round there?

"Sure it's ... ? ... enchanted one?" It was nearly inaudible but that voice was no ghost; it was Draco Malfoy.

Ginny sneaked back down the first few steps and listened again.

"But 'ow many stones could there be like that!" This was a different voice and Ginny recognised it instantly. Crabbe! She crept a little nearer...

"And nobody saw you?"

"Told you, that Loony one came after me an' I thwacked 'er good with a branch! 'agrid almost led me to it - didn't even need to leave the others for more than a few minutes. You were right - it was the same area as the 'erbs what Snape told you of."

"About time I had some good luck for a change." Malfoy sounded bitter. "You marked the way? They didn't see?"

"Course I did. Only a revealing spell can show 'em."

There was a short silence. The echoes died. Ginny heard herself breathing hard.

"When you going?" asked Crabbe.

"Not until next week. I want to see Greengrass alone again first; see how she still feels about me. It's best if we both go."

"No choice is there? She's got to go with you, ain't she?"

"Ideally, but it's not vital. It knows where your feelings are directed."

"You really 'ope it will 'old you two back with each other?" smirked Crabbe. "She was a bit--"

"'Naught shalt love e'er sunder,' - that's what it says in Secret History."

"Din't do them much good did it!"

"They were unfortunate for other reasons but the enchantment still helped them understand one another; kept them together. It doesn't make you immortal you idiot! Go and check on Goyle."

Crabbe laughed and there were footsteps. Ginny darted back up around the first bend of the spiral stair and looked back. It was just Crabbe; he was heading back down the corridor alone. She listened for Malfoy's footsteps but heard nothing. What's he waiting for?

Another voice, this one thin and spectral, came from around the corner.

"This humbled swain doth wish thee prosper in thine endeavour, master Draco," said the voice.

"Adgar!" snapped Draco, "You startled me!" then less harshly, "Thanks anyway. She means a lot to me."

"Ah! Dost thou yearn so for thy beloved? Fear not; the tryst shalt bind thine hearts; not even death hast parted me from my blissful Ellyn. E'en now she awaits me and I shalt not tarry with thee."

"And it works for everyone who--?"

There was silence. Ginny waited. Curiosity eventually overcame her and she crept to the corner of the hallway and looked around. There were less than six strides of corridor - the length of its ancient balcony window - terminating in a grubby, tapestry-covered wall. The bay had long since been half-stoned up and the two lengthy block steps leading up to it now functioned as a bench. Draco was alone; sitting, head in hands, and looking rather mournful.

"Maybe Malfoy does have feelings, after all," said Ginny.

"Weasley!" Draco's wand was drawn surprisingly quickly but Ginny already had hers pointing at the Slytherin.

"Truce?"

Draco slowly lowered his wand. "Well, if it isn't the failed sneak-thief! What did you hear? How long have you been listening?"

"I'm no thief, Malfoy. The sword rightfully was given to Harry." Ginny put her wand away.

"Won't be much use to him now then will it? Did you really think he was going to fight the Dark Lord with just a sword! Everybody's laughing about it down in our common room." Draco attempted a laugh of his own but it was dry and weak and his head was lowered again.

"I wouldn't laugh if I were you, Malfoy. Your fate is tied up with Harry's."

Draco's white face jerked up to look at Ginny. "Now what are you talking about?"

"I know your family's mud with You-know-who these days. You made it worse with your bungled effort to murder Professor Dumbledore." Draco glared at Ginny and started to rise to his feet but Ginny rapidly continued. "Don't deny it - Harry was there, watching and listening. Isn't it true you would benefit if you could hand him over to your Dark Lord?"

"You know where he is?" Draco froze halfway to standing; his expression was somewhere between astonishment and hope but both soon faded as Ginny replied.

"No idea. Do you seriously think Harry would tell me?" Ginny looked around the small stretch of corridor; it was almost like a tiny room with an open doorway. Even Filch did not come here and the dusty old tapestry on the wall, furthest from the flickering torch at the turning, was grey and faded. It was almost dark outside and the half-filled window was as filthy as the hanging fabrics that remained on either side. "What you might not realise is that Harry is your best hope - he is the only one who can deliver you from your slavery..."

"I am not a slave!" He drew himself to his full height.

"You're worse off than a house-elf and you know it!"

The Slytherin looked stunned. He sank slowly back down onto the stone step. "You're mad if you think Potter can defeat the Dark Lord..."

"Why'd you think there's a prophecy?" said Ginny quietly. "If there is the remotest chance that anyone could defeat your master, who'd you think it must be?"

Draco stared, apparently lost for words for once.

"Think about it, Draco." Ginny slowly backed out of the side-corridor. "If anything happened to Harry..."

As she disappeared around the corner she called back to him, "Give my love to Daphne!"

"Daphne? What are you talking about?" Draco came to the corner.

"Don't worry, Draco - the secrets of your heart are safe with me - for now."

"Well you're wrong - it's not Daphne."

Ginny laughed as she headed up the stairs.

What just happened? Ginny ascended the winding stairs to the next floor. She had acted impulsively without thinking. She usually regretted such spontaneity but this time she had a warm feeling inside. Had she struck a blow for Harry? Had she sowed a seed of doubt in Malfoy's mind? She had been dejected all morning; now she was almost whistling as she hurried along to Ravenclaw Tower.


—oOo—


Ginny banged the door knocker hard. She knew what to expect from the door to the Ravenclaw common room and felt she ought to assert herself from the start.

"Nobody knows where it is yet all go to it every day. Nobody knows how to do it but everyone does it daily," said the eagle knocker.

She glared at the knocker. "The loo?"

The eagle remained silent. Ginny imagined she might have seen one bronze wing give the tiniest flutter of disdain.

"Walk? ... Breathe? ... The dinner table?" Ginny thought for a while. "The next seat! Everybody sits down everyday somewhere!"

"Oh, hello, Ginny. I forgot my library book again. If you've come to cheer me up there's no need - I'm not troubled."

Ginny spun around to see Luna coming up the winding stairs.

"Just the opposite," said Ginny, "- I've come for you to cheer me up - what have you got to be miserable about anyway?"

Luna grasped the knocker and gave it a very light tap on the door.

"I think if you treat it nicely and don't hit it too hard the questions are so easy it lets in anyone - it's a flaw in the system."

"Nobody knows where it is yet all go to it every day. Nobody knows how to do it but everyone does it daily," said the eagle door knocker.

Ginny laughed and was about to say it was the same question as was given to her when Luna said, "See what I mean? I'll let you do this one just for practice."

Luna moved both her feet across the edge of the top step and balanced there, arms outstretched, and wobbling slightly.

"Mmm... no, that's OK," said Ginny, suddenly admiring the sculpted ceiling above the stair. "I already worked it out. You knocked so it's only fair to let you answer."

Luna stepped forward, put her head on side and looked dreamily at Ginny. "Sleep - we can only wait for it to take us."

"Most attentive of you," said the eagle and the door opened.

There were only a few Ravenclaws in their common room at this hour and they took little notice of Ginny and even less of Luna. Anthony Goldstein raised a hand in greeting but he didn't come over.

Luna picked up an age-blackened tome from a narrow table standing against the circular wall of the room. She exchanged the book for one already under the seat cushion of a long blue leather settee and sat down upon the seat.

"Just sitting on these sofas can be a bit tiresome without a good book don't you think?" she said as Ginny joined her.

"Luna, did you say you were down in the dumps? What have--"

"Oh, no, I was only concerned that I think Death Eaters were watching me in the Forest and probably going to kill me. It's because the headmaster finds me so annoying you know - I can't think why - it can't be because I forgot to warn him about the stingers in Hagrid's bag because that was after and his fingers are nearly better anyway and also Neville and I are very fond of one another but he needs a nudge but now we can't go to Hogsmeade it's difficult and also my library book has expired so many times and Madam Pince was very snippy with me so I have to get this back right away."

"Kill you! Did you say kill you!"

"Oh no, she'll only fine me a Knut a day but that's good because now we can't go into Hogsmeade I can't spend the money on anything else so that's worked out quite well, really." Luna gazed out of the tall casement window next to her. "I wonder if he's in the Herbology gardens? I wonder what he's thinking--"

"I mean, the Death Eaters!"

"Oh that - yes. It does seem likely doesn't it? Why waste time trying to prove who is posting posters and writing graffiti and having detentions over and over when they can just guess and dispose of you quietly with no fuss. That's why Professor Snape didn't send us to Azkaban. He was hoping a manticore or something would conveniently gouge us in the forest - I don't mean convenient for us but for the headmaster - and the manticore of course."

"You don't seriously think they would do that do you?"

"Well, they hate the Lovegoods because Daddy publishes the truth about Harry and most people find me irritating so I would if it were me - wouldn't you? If you were a Death Eater I mean?" She flipped through the pages of her book. "It's a pity you cannot just renew books but have to return them and wait for them to be put back on the shelf and then take them out again. It seems a waste to me. Do you think it's a waste?" She closed the book. It was covered in dark green leather with silvered, embossed lettering, "Magicalogic - a Study' on the front. Luna picked at the flaking silver with a striped finger nail and shook her head.

"Nobody's going to kill you Luna," said Ginny firmly. "Trust me on this."

"Ginny, you have been feeling especially low ever since we lost the sword wondering how to explain to Harry. You imagine he'll first look devastated then gallantly pretend he is not but secretly think badly of you and be everlastingly disappointed in you. Prolonged despair is an indulgence."

"Don't say that!" Ginny frowned at Luna then looked downwards. Luna had an uncanny knack of getting right to the heart of things and could be annoying at times.

"You've done nothing wicked. Harry loves you. He won't hate you no matter what," said Luna firmly. She laid down her book then grasped one of Ginny's hands between her own and resisted Ginny's feeble attempt to pull away. When Ginny wouldn't look up, Luna added, "You listen to me, Ginny Weasley."

Ginny's eyes widened and she looked up. Luna looked very stern.

"You disgrace Harry when you mope like this. He deserves better."

"How dare you!" Ginny thrust away Luna's hands and leapt to her feet, her cheeks flaming. "I've tried--"

Ginny's raised voice caught the attention of a couple of Ravenclaw students and a few heads appeared at the girls' dormitory doorway overhead.

"If Harry had lost the sword for you then you would not hate him," cried Luna standing up and grabbing Ginny's arm as she was turning to leave. "You belittle him when you suppose he would hate you. When you love someone you--"

"What would you know about it!" shouted Ginny, then regretted it instantly when she saw the look on Luna's face.

"Well, just think about it," said Luna, faintly. She hurriedly passed Ginny and headed out the door. "I have to return my library book. I really do."

"Luna, I didn't mean..."

Ginny slumped back onto the over-soft sofa and sank deeply into her feelings - then she noticed all the faces looking at her. She turned her head away and stared down, trying to think.

DARING ESCAPE FROM MINISTRY!


She looked, trying to focus, unable for a few seconds to comprehend what she was looking at. She blinked a few times. It was a page from a Daily Prophet peeping out from Luna's library book; perhaps she had used it as a bookmark because it was covered in Luna's scribbles - between the lines and in the margins. Ginny teased it out a little further.

REBELS RELEASE MUGGLE-BORNS!


On 2nd September last, a great many Muggle-borns were rescued from the Ministry by three daring Ministry workers rebelling against...

As she read the article, her thoughts shot back to the first day of the school term and Harry's message: Me. Danger tomorrow. Do not worry.

Ginny shrieked and leapt to her feet. She jumped up and down, waving the book for sheer joy. She suddenly remembered where she was. It seemed as if every Ravenclaw in Hogwarts was silently looking at her.

"Sorry! - forgot her library book!" she giggled, and ran after Luna.

"Wait up, Luna!"

Luna was already way below on the stair but she stopped and turned. "Would you like to help me take back my book, Ginny? You'll see what I mean then. Madam Pince won't be so hard on you if you take it back unless you are late with lots of books like me. I know that's difficult to believe."

"Luna, I'm sorry - I'm so sorry - please forgive me," said Ginny, as she reached Luna and took her by the arm, "but I have to ask you something."

Luna looked puzzled. "Oh - you mean the hurtful thing you said - you only spoke without thinking. It's true in a way - what do I know about romance? I know I feel sad sometimes that Neville is not sure what to do but I think it's best to be patient, don't you? I don't want to undermine his male confidence by taking the lead so I'm giving him time. He's quite resourceful. I'm sure he'll think of something. I'm not wrong am I, Ginny? You do think he's attracted to me?"

"He... I..."

"You're not sure. Come on. Madam Pince probably will murder me if I don't get my book back then that will save the Death Eaters the bother."

Ginny ran after Luna again. She lowered her voice as some students passed them going the other way, up the stairs. Luna stopped again - this time to gaze wistfully out of a window in the direction of the gardens.

"I am sure, Luna. It's obvious. He's... To be honest, I thought you two were already a couple."

"Only when we're together; then we're lovely. The problem is getting us together."

They continued their journey down the stairs of the Ravenclaw Tower.

"I'll help you!" cried Ginny. "I'll... I'll think up something and help you."

"Ginny! Would you? Really?"

"Of course! That's what friends are for!"

Luna smiled.

"So... You forgive me?"

Luna's faced clouded over. "I'm sorry, Ginny. I can't." She paused for a few seconds as Ginny stared, almost tearful before Luna continued, "I think you would need to do something really spiteful - intentionally hateful. Yes... Then I could hate you and then you could beg my forgiveness and then I think, yes, then I could probably forgive you." Luna beamed.

"So... You don't hate me for what I said?"

As they walked along to the library, Luna tried to remember what had been said. "Oh, you mean about me being completely ignorant about romantic feelings? Not at all. Come on. If I can renew my book perhaps there's a later chapter about feelings. You never know with Magicalogic - it can be quite mysterious; not like ordinary logic at all. Look at this page on-- Oh." She looked at her empty hands with a puzzled expression on her face.

"Looking for this?" said Ginny, holding up the library book.

"Ah - you see how mysterious it is!"

"Luna, do you know what this is?" Ginny pulled out the Prophet sheet.

"Oh - you've lost my place," said Luna gloomily. "Not to worry - It took me eleven days to read to there so if I renew it and read for eleven days I should be in the right place shouldn't I? - so no harm done."

"No - this article - have you read it?"

Luna glanced at the sheet. "Oh, lots of times. I shall have to rewrite it I think."

"Rewrite? You mean... For the Prophet?"

"Oh, it's not a Prophet - it's a draft Quibbler page in disguise. Daddy asked me to proof-read it and comment--"

"But don't you realise who did this?"

Luna looked again at the loose page but she was really remembering it in her mind. "You think... Harry?"

"Of course it is! Remember him at the wedding?"

"He was Barny... They had Polyjuice! Oh they are so brave to try to rescue all those people!" Luna's eyes flashed as she and Ginny stared, wide-eyed at one another and grinned. "Only..." Luna hesitated, deep in thought.

"What?"

"Well, how will that help vanquish You-know-who?"

"I think they were after the sword! Scrimgeour was nosy about all the things that Dumbledore left. I bet Harry thought..."

The Gryffindor girl lapsed into silence.

"Was he very upset afterwards?" asked Luna.

Ginny thought for a few moments. "No! He said it was successful!"

"Well then..."

"Oh, Luna! Do you think they might have taken another sword by mistake?"

"I hope not. Imagine if he tries to slay You-know-who with the wrong sword! That would be terrible." Luna looked closely at her friend. "Ginny, you must tell him about--"

"I know, I know..."

"And we should not tell anyone the real reason," Luna finished. "Daddy will be so disappointed."

"You mean... Oh no! I see what you mean! If you publish about him being after the sword then You-know-who will know he's after it!"

"We'll only say the intrepid raiders heroically saved the Muggle-borns as an act of defiance to humiliate You-know-who and the Ministry. 'Intrepid' is a lovely word. I'd say Hermione and Ron are very intrepid. Or do you think 'fearless?'. Yes, that should do it. I'm not going to even tell Daddy about the sword." She scribbled on the sheet with her go-anywhere quill.

"No you can't mention Ron and Hermione! Ron is supposed to be ill in bed and Hermione is supposed to have run away to Australia."

Luna sighed then brightened up considerably and wrote some more on the Prophet sheet, "Harry Potter recruits new army! Raids Ministry in daring rescue mission! That should do it. Nobody could believe just three people broke into the Ministry and rescued all those people anyway!"

As they entered the library, Ginny noticed Goyle lounging against a bookshelf. She could not ever remember seeing him in here before. The way he was obviously looking at them while pretending not to, made Ginny wonder if there might be something in what Luna had said about her being watched.

Whatever system Madam Pince used, much of it seemed to be in her head because she accepted Luna's overdue book from Ginny without comment when Ginny laid the fine on the counter and Luna slipped theatrically behind a bookshelf. Goyle slammed his book down beside Ginny's on top of her Knuts and knocked a couple of them onto the floor.

"Wanna rent this book. How much?"

"Wait your turn, young man - have you never borrowed a book before? The only charge is a fine for overdue books not for borrowing them! Now, pick up Miss Weasley's coins and join the queue!"

"Oh yeah! Sorry, Miss Weasley."

Goyle bent down to gather up Ginny's coins. Ginny's brain froze. Goyle being polite? She grabbed his book out of the way to get at her other coins.

"Hurry up, young-- What is your name, young man?" said Madam Pince.

Goyle mumbled something from the floor.

"Gregory Goyle! Don't you think you should tell Madam Pince your name's Goyle, eh Goyle?" smirked Ginny.

When Ginny rejoined Luna behind the bookshelf Luna was already surveilling the returns counter to see when her book would be returned to the shelves.

"That's odd. He's not taking his book. I expect he doesn't know when you borrow something you take it with you. Unless he's forgotten it already. Do you think that's possible? To take out a book to borrow it then forget to borrow it?"

"What?"

"Gregory Goyle."

Ginny looked back the way she had come. "Anything's possible with Goyle."

"Perhaps he was going to read about Wrackspurts," said Luna. "That makes sense. He's probably suffering from Wrackspurts but they made his mind so fuzzy he forgot."

"No, he was getting Hogwarts, a History..." Ginny seemed thoughtful for a few moments. "Luna, do you know if there is a Secret History of Hogwarts?"

"Wrackspurts won't be in there either I shouldn't think."

"There is one then?"

"I should think there are lots of them in here. You notice when people are studying they sometimes do not turn the page and they have to keep reading the same one over and over because their minds are muddled."

"I meant... Never mind, I'll ask Madam Pince. I'll catch you later maybe."

The title that Ginny was looking for did exist but it was the familiar name of an extensive portfolio of papers stacked in boxes in a back room. Madam Pince warned Ginny that the work was protected which the girl took to mean had spells cast upon it so nothing could be removed from the library. Although it seemed a disorganised mess at first glance, there was a book amongst it all - a handwritten log full of notes indexing the collection. The whole thing was such a jumble that it was almost curfew before Ginny found the parchment she sought. Alone in the library's backroom, by candlelight alone, she read it aloud to herself--

"This yeare of 1569 uncover'd an abiding chronycle of yore relateth yet trusteth by Lacedrew himselfe. Two scholars grievously loste to this school & familie both. These two deceaseth: Miss Ellyn Martha Holbrook & Master Adgar Waryn Stockley, of syxteen & ten months & seuenteen & a monthe respectively, plungeth from an balcony said hath collapsed by magicks foul else mistakenly employ'd. Same accounte hath sure knowledge of an blessing effecteth that day at Harken Trysting Stone near our owne good Forest these two being sweethearts & inseparable. Said Miss Ellyn later curseth by an wrongged else covetous suitor, one Thurgis Bowett, also of seuenteen years & some months, did plummet down & so Master Stockley likewyse drawne by his griefe, his ardour, & his devotion did follow. This tragedie not loste to our memories. Said Bowett detected & detained for his black curse, gutted, weighted, & hung to his dystress till quite dead, his soul rotteth in helle hereafter."

Attached to the parchment was a clipping from a nineteenth-century copy of The Daily Journal of Magical Events--

"The Harken Trysting Stone, ancient and enchanted, is now overrun by the spread of the trees and not used much these days, being no longer on the edge, but deep within the Forbidden Forest, smothered by maid's hair fronds, skullcap foliage, and Merlin's beard. Its origins are lost to history but certainly it was a Muggles' meeting place and many betrothals would have begun at its side. The charm was placed upon it by the great wizard Harken in the 10th century. Harken was said to have had his heart broken by causeless disaffection so he charmed the stone that true lovers would not be parted by misunderstandings. Carved into the rock are his words: 'Naught shalt love e'er sunder.'"

She used the Geminio spell to duplicate the information and slipped the copies into the top of her bag so Madam Pince wouldn't grumble.


—oOo—


Ginny walked back to the Gryffindor common room, thinking deeply. If this stone still existed then all her doubts about Harry might be resolved; it could bond them despite her failures. A big smile spread across her face as she entered through the portrait hole. Seamus, Neville, Lavender, Parvati - all the girls were there and drew close when they heard Ginny's cheery shout.

"Looks like Luna brightened you up then!" said Neville, as he saw her come in. "She's good at that."

"No - yes - look, Neville - everybody - I've got some good news..." She slumped down to sit on the rug before the hearth and dumped her bag at her side. It had been a busy couple of hours and she was tired. Neville handed her a cup of hot chocolate and everyone flopped into chairs to listen to her. She explained about the break-in at the Ministry and how Luna had been revising an article in the Quibbler disguised as a Prophet. There was a great roar of approval from everyone around her.

"This it?" said Neville, excitedly, taking the clipping from the top of Ginny's bag and settling himself down beside Ginny to read.

Seamus punched the air. "I knew he'd be doing something!"

"But there's more! We have to keep this secret though!" Ginny wriggled into a more comfortable position on the rug and took a deep gulp of her drink. "We think he was probably after the sword!"

The hubbub died away to silence as everyone remembered how the sword was now out of reach.

"I'm going after it," said Ginny suddenly. "It's the only way. Harry needs it. It's my fault. I'm going to get it."

Silence continued for a while until eventually Seamus spoke. "Ginny - you know it's not only impossible but certain to put you in Azkaban."

"I don't care. There has to be a way. If Harry and Hermione and Ron can get into the Ministry and rescue people right from inside the courtroom then we can get the sword out of Gringotts," said Ginny, excitedly. "We'll make it happen! Who's with me?"

The silence continued and the gathering started to disperse.

"Sorry, Ginny, but this is..."

Ginny stared in dismay. Her elation dissipated like the steam off her drinking chocolate. Only Neville remained at her side. She looked at him for support.

"What's this?" he said softly.

"That's not it! That's..." She snatched the old cutting about the Trysting Stone away from Neville.

"It's another foolish dream isn't it?" Neville looked very concerned and Ginny turned her head away to drink some more chocolate.

"What's happened to you Ginny? You still think Harry will be disappointed in you because you lost the sword? You think he'll stop caring for you just because of that?"

"'Just!' It's just the only weapon that might slay You-know-who - that's just all!" cried Ginny. "Don't you see?"

Neville did not answer.

"I can't help how I feel," said Ginny miserably. "I have to do something. The Trysting Stone will clear away any doubts he might have about me..."

"It's Snape isn't it?" said Neville, finally. "When he harmed your mind it brought up some terrible doubts - emotional pain you can't shake off? Is that it?"

Ginny stared at Neville, not wishing to remember what he was asking.

"It was my worst nightmare magnified a thousand times," she said simply. "It was hell."

"I'm sorry Ginny, but magic spells shouldn't be used to meddle with love. Love finds its own way--"

"How about you then!" snapped Ginny.

"What? W- What d- d'you mean?"

"You think you--" Ginny stopped herself. She remembered how she had hurt Luna's feelings and how she had promised to help her with Neville.

"Sorry, Neville, but... Don't you think... You and Luna..."

"Well, it's..." Neville shifted uncomfortably on the rug. "It's difficult - with Hogsmeade being banned and--"

"It's not all about Hogsmeade is it! There must be some excuse you can make to meet - it would mean so much to her." She risked a glance back at Neville. He was staring at her, somewhat flushed in the face.

"Has she said--"

Ginny cut him off so as not to break Luna's confidence. "She's said nothing but it's obvious isn't it? When she's with you? Can't you think of something? It's the weekend tomorrow - two free days. Take her for a walk or show her a new fungus or..."

"I'll... right... I'll think of s- something."

They sat silently for a little while but it was not quite so awkward between them now.

"Ginny?"

"Yes?"

"Don't hate me for this but... I still... you should think about this tryst thing more before you..."

Ginny leapt to her feet. "Don't spoil it for Merlin's sake! I was happy when I found it - for the first time in..."

"Ginny..."

"Fine! I'll find out more, first!"

She needed information and there was only person she knew who would have first-hand knowledge. She swerved away and headed out up to the fifth floor passageway.

"Ginny! It's past curfew!"

"To hell with the blasted curfew!" Ginny called back.

The short section of corridor was empty. Ginny stood on the topmost step, grabbed the highest stone of the partly-blocked window, pulled herself up on tiptoe and peered out through the heavily-leaded glass. The balcony was still there but part of its parapet was destroyed and the surrounding stonework blackened as if by a blasting curse.

She decided she could afford to wait half an hour. Hauntings do not usually stray too far. She considered this the worst of places to be condemned to haunt. Small and devoid of interest, she thought anyone might go mad to spend eternity here. Even the ragged tapestry was so faded it was almost indiscernible. Its magic must have long dispersed for it was static. Nor were there ladies or gentlemen; nor animals or buildings - it seemed but a plain vertical shape with a central mark. Perhaps there was lettering...

Rejoice in love already bloom'd,
And praye for...


Ginny had a strange sensation that she was being watched.

"What dost thou here?" snapped a thin, spectral tone.

She spun around in alarm but it was only a ghostly boy. She remembered the voice from earlier; it must be Adgar. His robes were archaic; there was a thick ruff around his neck and the green trim told her his house.

"Oh shut up!" Ginny was annoyed at being alarmed for no reason - especially by a Slytherin, even though this was the person she had come to see.

"Oh, charmed not am I to acquaint myself with thee, Mistress Weasley." said the youth. "Master Draco didst say thou wert churlishly disposed."

"You're the boy who jumped off - after Ellyn fell, aren't you!" said Ginny.

"And ten thousand times more wouldst I make that leap for my beloved," cried the ghost, his eyes sparkling with emotion.

Ginny lapsed into silence for a few moments, studying the boy's sad expression. "You must have loved her very much."

The ghost returned Ginny's stare. "Love doth sway me alway - as Ellyn lovest me still these seven hundred dark winters and forty-five. Why comest thou here? Thou seekest to undermine the Malfoy allegiance dost thou! His forebears wouldst groan at--"

"Tell me about the stone - the Trysting Stone."

"Ha! t'will not find a lover for thee, fair Mistress. Nor charm and hold a victim that loves thee not."

A sudden chill swept over Ginny. She dare not reveal to a Slytherin that she was loved by Harry Potter - yet she needed to confirm that the Trysting Stone could prevent that love fading when Harry learned that she had lost the only weapon that might defeat Voldemort.

"A friend..." She faltered. "...Two friends of mine are already in love," she said, "But--"

"And thou seekest but what? That faint circumstance not separate their hearts? That chance not spoil their true devotions? If contrarily, thou wasteth thy days in a very shallow thing."

"So, it's true then? It really works?"

"'Tis truth - The Stone doth bind them that lovest aright. It doth clear their minds from deceits and falsehoods that might persuade them one 'gainst the other."

"And you don't need both of us - I mean them?"

The youth stared. "What sayest thou? With but one then the tryst is for the other - seest thou not? Only thine lover will ne'er forsake thee but thou mayest forsake him--"

"My friend's lover you mean."

"Thyself, thou couldst falter even yet. 'Tis needful the other shouldst fulfil his task at a different hour."

"Her task I think you mean. My friend's girlfriend."

Ginny was warming to this youth. Sure, he was only a Slytherin but now the weight which had pressed upon her since their attempted robbery of the sword seemed not only to lighten but to uplift her. And this boy ghost, as the bearer of her solution, seemed much more pleasing to her than when he had first startled her. And after all, since he had thrown himself down to his death for love of his sweetheart, he must have a good heart for all his sharp manner - even Draco seemed now to have warm feelings albeit restricted to Daphne Greengrass. My God you'd have to be on fire to fancy that high and mighty soandso!


—oOo—


"It's really kind of you to invite me to your den for a weekend surprise, Neville," smiled Luna. She had been doing a lot of smiling on their walk to and through the Herbology Gardens.

"I know you like magical creatures so..." Neville sounded reassured by Luna's enthusiasm but there was still a trace of doubt.

"This is my den - where I keep my things - trowels and such like. Professor Sprout let's me use this section."

Luna looked around then back at where Neville was facing. A corner of an old flowerbed bordered onto a greenhouse. Several shelves held pots, tools, and boxes. There were various shapes wrapped in newspaper and a pile of Daily Prophets lay at the side for future use. A couple of cracked tubs filled solely with neat, black compost and surrounded by broken pottery, stood in the dirt. A rickety slat-chair backed onto the shelving and the tiny area was fenced off by a long floorboard angled across from a barrel to a dead abelia at the back wall of the garden. Neville lifted off this plank and laid it aside.

"It's... lovely."

He looked surprised and risked a glance at Luna then back at his corner. The young man scratched his head. "I didn't think you could see very well. It's only a few weeks now but I've been keeping it apart for a few hours every day and watching it carefully."

"I expect... it must be very special to you..." said Luna hesitantly. She wanted so much to give him space for his own feelings and not be too blunt.

"Yes, I'm quite pleased with it so far," he said, staring into his little corner. "It drives you crazy with worry. I've reached the stage of dipping my finger in milk. You'll know about these things better than I do, of course."

Neville absentmindedly held up his right forefinger and Luna stared. Her smile had been replaced by a very serious expression.

"Is it a little septic?"

"No it's - guess what! I've a Ragdoll - seriously!"

"You have a rag doll?"

"Yes! - it doesn't do much yet though. It doesn't even squirm when you pick it up - well you know how lifeless they are - but it doesn't hurt birds and mice and rats - that's the thing isn't it?"

"Yes, I should think that ... would ... be..."

"If you'd like to sit on the chair you can play with it if you like."

"No, that's alright, Neville..."

"Would you like to stand on a plant pot then? I often do."

Luna went white in the face and she said with a tiny squeak, "No thank you."

"You're not very tall are you. Are you sure you can see properly?"

"Oh, my vision is fine, Neville."

"Here, let me put this board down so you don't sink into the muck..." Neville brushed roughly at the seat of the chair with his hand then opened a Daily Prophet onto it. He held out his hand to Luna which she grasped and Neville guided her onto the seat. She looked around nervously.

He picked up a big open box from one of the shelves and placed it at Luna's feet.

"It's a kitten!" squealed Luna. "Oh, it's adorable!" She leaned down and picked up the creature which immediately went limp and gazed at her appealingly. She cuddled and stroked and examined the bundle of white fur and eventually it stood up on her lap and looked around inquisitively.

"Oh sorry, yes - did you think it was fully grown? I thought you were acting a bit odd." Neville laughed with relief. Luna could be very strange at times.

"Her mother, Flywixel, will teach it where to take the vermin - I think they give them a good talking to and warn them not to come back but I'm not sure about these details of enchanted Ragdoll cats."

"What's her name?"

"Dippity - well it's Serendipity really but we got tired of saying that pretty quickly."

"It's kind of you to let me see her. She's just so CUTE!" She hugged the kitten to her face and kissed its nose. "I don't ever want to let you go, do I? ... Do I? ... Know I don't!"

"Well, to be honest, there was something else I wanted to say to you - something important..."

"Oh, really." Luna stuffed the kitten back in its box and sat upright, banging her head on an overhead shelf.

"It's important. I've been meaning to ask for a while..."

"Yes, Neville?" Luna folded her hands in her lap and tried to show Neville she was giving him her full attention.

"She didn't want you to know... but I didn't actually promise not to say anything..."

"Who?"

"Ginny. She's still not properly recovered from Snape's invasion of her feelings. To keep Harry's love for her hidden from him she clung to her most unbearable fear - all those years when Harry did not return her love. The Legilimency intensified it; it almost drove her mad; nearly killed her - but it convinced Snape that Harry still doesn't care for her. It broke her spirit - she sacrificed it for Harry. She knew if Snape told You-know-who the truth then Harry would surrender to the dark wizard to protect her."

Luna rose from her seat and joined Neville on the footpath. Her eyes shone with unshed tears. "So that's why she's filled with doubts about Harry. She's in awful conflict. She knows he loves her but her deeper feelings deny it."

She look at Neville for a time, deep in thought. Something like horror and despair then flooded her expression and the tears rolled down at last. "I said some terrible things to her, Neville, cruel things," she sobbed. "I... th- thought I was helping her... I wanted to slap her in the face to stop her moping about the sword... stop her doubting Harry. I'm ashamed."

Neville put his arm around Luna but he could think of nothing to say to comfort her.

Luna added solemnly, "There's more. She's also badly frightened that the sword is so important he still must try to steal it no matter what the consequences."

"From Gringotts? Don't be silly. Even Harry wouldn't be that stupid."

"That's what scares her most of all, I'm sure. She afraid of Harry being caught because of her own failure even more than Harry not loving her anymore."

"Well, I think it's how Harry will feel about her that scares her most. She wants me to go with her... She wants to use magic - for herself and Harry I mean. To sort of... Well, I said it was stupid. Harry loves her anyway." Neville paused and Luna's eyes widened as it sank in what he was saying.

"What has she done, Neville?" Luna stood back from the youth to study his face. She rubbed away her tears and focused on what he was about to say.

"She says there's an enchanted trysting stone in the Forbidden Forest - near where we went the other day. She wants me to go with her. She daren't ask Hagrid and it's too risky on her own."

"This is wrong, Neville. She shouldn't rely on magic. They couldn't love each other more than they do already. She must learn to trust--"

"That's what I told her but she says she won't be able to bear seeing his face when she tells him..."

"She's going to see him?"

"She must mean when he comes back. I don't know. If he returns it will all be over won't it? Perhaps she means a message. Maybe she has an owl that can get to him!"

"Possibly..." Luna looked up and down the length of the garden but she was not really seeing anything. "What are you going to do?"

"Well, I'm going with her, of course - she's my friend. But--"

"How does she know about this?"

"One of the ghosts told her - and the library, I think."

"Which ghost?"

"Hmm... Adgar something or other. He was a student in Slytherin here yonks ago."

"When?"

"Hundreds of years I should think."

"No, when are you going, I mean?"

"Later this morning. We're taking a lunch. It has to be today or tomorrow because the weekend is the only time we can go in daylight. It's over four hours there and back."

"Neville, can you put her off until tomorrow?"

"I'll try but--"

"I'd like to... look into it myself - I have to dash! you don't think I'm being an interfering busybody do you, Neville?"

"No, no, of course not, Luna," said Neville, then more excitedly added, "This is why I wanted to talk to you really - because you get more ideas and - well, you're a Ravenclaw." He smiled at her appreciatively and Luna thought she saw something else in his expression. She gazed back at him. He did have a wonderful smile. She liked it when he looked at her.

"Luna?"

"Do you think one day we might ever get to--"

"Hogsmeade? That's what I was thinking but..." Neville gave a wry smile of disappointment.

Luna jerked herself back to the present. "I really must fly... Yes, I'll go now and see what I can find - thanks for showing me Dippity and erm... your den."


—oOo—


It was late in the morning when Luna raced up the Gryffindor Tower.

"Password?" said the Fat Lady.

"I don't actually... I'd like to speak to someone please," said Luna to the portrait.

"Sorry, I only deal with passwords. You'll have to wait for someone to come in or out and ask them."

"But it's jolly urgent business. Couldn't you--"

"Sorry. Passwords only. If we let in everyone with 'jolly urgent' business then we'd have... a lot of... people inside wouldn't we?"

Luna decided to wait. She spent the next ten minutes trying to guess the password.

"Noble Valour? Death or Glory? Right is Might?"

"Not even close."

"Can you give me a clue, then?"

"What you doing here, Loony?"

She twisted around. It was Draco Malfoy.

"She has some jolly urgent business," snapped the Fat Lady. "Password?"

"I need to see someone quickly," said Malfoy. "Get off your fat arse and fetch them will you?"

"Well, I never!" The Fat Lady turned her back on them and folded her arms in annoyance.

"What's up with her?" frowned Draco.

Now, see what you've done," said Luna. "You've upset this nice Fat Lady and so you'll never get inside."

"Hell with this. Give someone a message then!" Draco snarled. He didn't even pause for the portrait's or Luna's response. "No - wait."

He scribbled something down on a notepad, tore out the page then looked around, biting his lip.

"I expect it's extremely private so you don't want me to read it so you'd like to politely ask me if you can borrow one of my scented envelopes from my bag, wouldn't you?" said Luna.

"Something like that." Malfoy glared at Luna.

"Very well. But I want it back when you've finished with it," smiled Luna.

She took out an envelope and handed it to Malfoy. He pushed his note into it, sealed it, wrote on it, then handed it back.

"There - you can have it back now; I've finished with it."

He did not smile but spun on his heels and strode off very quickly as though glad to get away. After a while, Ginny looked at the envelope. It said URGENT! For the attention of: Miss G. Weasley.

Luna stared in dismay. She just sensed there was some connection with Ginny's plan.

"I say, that looks jolly urgent," said the Fat Lady, who, by now, had turned around again. "What a pity."

"She's already gone hasn't she?" said Luna, dismally. "I'm too late."

The Fat Lady nodded sympathetically. "Just moments before you arrived. If only you'd known."

"Oh well, thanks for your help anyway."

"Not at all," preened the Fat Lady, "that's what I'm here for."


—oOo—






Chapter 10: No Curse Destroy
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The first Saturday morning in October was rather cool but that was not the reason why Amycus Carrow was rubbing his hands together. His smug expression indicated some sinister satisfaction that was nothing to do with the weather. Nott and Goyle had informed him that every Gryffindor had departed the castle. Most had gone to Hogsmeade; two had been detained by Alecto; the rest were in the Hogwarts grounds. A weak sun broke through the dull clouds only sporadically but students were glad to escape for a few hours from the confining atmosphere of the Death Eaters regime. Not that Carrow considered such feelings; he was merely pleased to be rid of the troublesome brats for a time.

He walked quietly up the steps of the Gryffindor Tower, confident that at last he would find evidence against those who resisted the Dark Lord's will. The headmaster had demanded the password from McGonagall for him and no one now stood between him and what he sought. Or so he thought.

Way above him, Luna Lovegood was beginning to slowly walk down the stairs of the Gryffindor Tower, thinking hard. She took out a handwritten page of an ancient Gryffindor House Journal she had copied from the library and read it yet again, though she knew what it said.

Gladde tidings the present weeke in which this Journal doth declare & recorde an betrothal to blesse our great House. Master Adgar Waryn Stockley & Miss Ellyn Martha Holbrook, sweethearts ever, bothe being sixthe years & moste eligible, wish & desire to be joyned in matrimony next yeare, God willing.

She pushed it back into her bag and thought a little more. Something was very wrong. She felt sure that Neville had said Adgar was in Slytherin. She looked at the envelope in her other hand then raised it cautiously to her nose. Its scent had changed to danger; there was a mix of sulphur, smoke, fear, and darkness. Draco's message to Ginny ought not to wait. She carefully prised it open, taking care not to tear it, and read the words that were written upon the single sheet within it. There were only four but their significance was chilling:

Stone cursed. Trail false.

There was no time to waste; Ginny had to be stopped before she used the Trysting Stone. The girl ran as fast as she could down the remaining steps - straight into Amycus Carrow, pushing him off-balance on the narrow, winding stair.

"Lovegood!" gasped the Dark Arts professor as he grabbed Luna by the arm. "What the blasted bladderworts you doin' 'ere?"

"Oh, visiting a friend," said Luna breathlessly.

"Lies! There's nobody up there!" His snarl echoed around the confined space of the stone stairwell and a nearby wall torch flickered as he ended with a wheezy cough, trying to get his breath back - or perhaps to hide that he had had a fright.

"I couldn't get in. The Fat Lady will--" panted Luna, wincing as the man tightened his grip.

"Wassat?" he cried, snatching Draco's message which she still clutched in her hand. His face twisted into a leer as if he felt sure that he had found her out in some roguery.

"I was... going to leave a message..."

Carrow turned away from Luna and stared at the note in the light of the torch. There was a puzzled and a disappointed look on his face. He examined the envelope too then, with an expression of curiosity, he sniffed at it. "Disgustin'!"

He thrust them back at her, irritated that he had not found any excuse to punish the girl. "Detention! Now!"

"Sir?"

There was a few seconds of silent face-twisting as Carrow tried to think of a reason.

"For loiterin' where yer shouldn't." There was a smirk on his face as he contemplated where best to send her as far away as possible while he continued up to the Gryffindor common room. He seemed to enjoy the power he had over students.

"Kitchen! You'll scrub twenty - no, fifty pans. I want 'em lined up, shining, for my inspection when I go down later!" he frowned. "And five thousand lines I must not loiter where I ought not. Yes, that should do it."

"But, Professor--"

"Wand!" he cried. "Gimme yer wand. Yer'll not use magic ter 'elp yer. Collect it later. He held out his hand and Luna despondently handed over her wand.

He smirked gleefully at his captured trophy then he glared at Luna.

"Well? Wotcha waitin' for? Kitchen's that way!" he said, using Luna's precious wand like any common stick to point down the stairs.

It was with a worried expression that Luna entered the Hogwarts kitchen. A fat little house-elf with big scruffy ears asked her if he could be of assistance.

"I need fifty pans, please."

"Certainly, Miss." The elf snapped his pudgy fingers and various pans started to jump, hop, fly, and float onto a lengthy wooden table which stood at one end of the great kitchens. The clatter caught the attention of two other elves at work on next week's menus and they looked up from their desk in annoyance. Nobody else was present at this hour.

"Oh, they're supposed to be dirty, please," said Luna, looking at her anxious face reflected in a shining copper lid.

"Hogwarts will have no dirty pans until after the lunchtime feast, Miss." The elf looked rather offended. "Would the young Miss like for Truggle to... make them dirty?" He shuddered and wrapped his arms around himself as if he needed comforting after such a dreadful thought.

"Could you perhaps... No, wait. That's alright. Would it be possible for you to line them up along this table? Professor Carrow will come to inspect them later. Can you spare them?"

"Can Hogwarts spare a few pans such as these? Hogwarts has as many pans as Hogwarts needs. It will be an honour to have these pans inspected. Might Truggle beg a favour of the young Miss?"

"Yes, of course."

"Would it be permissible... since they are to be inspected... Would it be acceptable for Truggle to polish them up extra bright? The young Miss wouldn't... perhaps... mention this?" The elf gave a timid little laugh and bit his lip like a mischievous little boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

"That would be wonderful, Truggle. I promise I will not say a word," said Luna with a smile. "Oh, I have an idea. Let me take the blame. If Professor Carrow asks then you can say I scrubbed and polished them. Is that alright?"

The elf's eyes lit up. He wrung his hands in supplication and begged the young Ravenclaw girl for more requests that he might better compensate for her generous promise and her unbelievable willingness to admit it was she who had polished the pans.

"Very well. May I sit at this table then for a while?" she said. "I have some urgent writing to do. Do you have parchment please? Enough for five thousand lines?"

"Yes, Truggle is so grateful to be able to help the young Miss." He eagerly snapped his fingers again. The other two elves and their carefully-worded menus scattered as their desk burst open and sheets of parchment flocked together into the air and flew across to the table.

Luna sat down and set to work. She was very glad that her Quibbler's Go-Anywhere Reporter's Quill could write out as many copies as needed of anything she wrote. She left the pen scribbling away the remaining four thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine lines and accepted Truggle's promise to return it to her when it was finished.

The elf seemed to be almost tripping over himself to help. Luna whispered one last request in his copious, floppy ears and Truggle rapidly filled a small sack for her to take away.

When Luna finally entered the Forbidden Forest she knew it would be near impossible to catch up to Ginny and Neville. She set out at a trot through the trees, heading in the direction she remembered from their previous trip with Hagrid. Her sharp mind had noticed that here and there, the half-giant had bent or broken a leaf stem or twig to mark the trail. Her woodcraft was not good enough to spot them all but the few she saw were reassuring.

It was soon evident, though, that there were other, less natural, markers. Slightly ahead, the trunk of a beech tree had a faint purple glow around its base. She recognised what it was and reached instinctively behind her ear. This was when she first became aware of her vulnerability. Carrow had her wand and she was alone in the Forbidden Forest. A series of magical markers must have been invisibly cast by Crabbe on their previous return. Ginny and Neville would have used a revealing spell but its effect was fading and without a wand, Luna could not reveal them again. She had to hurry while they still glimmered.

The sun continued to struggle occasionally through the thin clouds but was not very helpful where the trees grew thickest. The girl dodged and weaved among the trunks and undergrowth, eyes ever-alert for signs of her friends' route, and always watchful for danger.

Luna was now very much out of breath. She did not seem to be gaining on her friends; the purple glows seemed almost as pale as before. Furthermore, she was worried that she had not seen any bent stems for some time. She stopped and gazed around, trying to get her sense of direction. Although the midday sun had, once again, hidden itself behind the dirty skies, the brightest area indicated its approximate direction to the south.

Her stomach growled at the thought of missing lunch. She stopped and considered the sack that Truggle had given her. It contained food - but not for her. Why had she not taken the opportunity to get a packed meal for herself as well! She looked around again, trying to recall the direction she had taken during their previous visit here with Hagrid. She could come to only one conclusion:

They're going the wrong way.

Luna dropped the sack and sat down beside it amongst the fallen leaves to think for a while. She did her best thinking sitting down. She pondered what Draco had written: False trail! They had been sent to who-knows-where - or possibly a longer, roundabout route to the Stone. Yes, that seemed more likely since the original intention must have been that they reach the stone. Perhaps this was Crabbe's idea of a joke - to cast the markers far and wide as he walked back.

She did not even stir while she observed the next marker fade to nothing. Grimly, she untied the sack; she would have to search the forest from above.


—oOo—


When Ginny and Neville finally stumbled into the clearing wherein stood the Trysting Stone, they did not know it. Although the glade was free of trees, it was consumed by other foliage which tangled the way and obscured the enchanted rock. A flock of starlings took flight at the couple's intrusion and a small creature, the size and colour of a fox but with far more legs, leapt to safety in the thick, tall grasses and leafery. It glanced back for a few seconds, its eyes shining in the gathering gloom, then it was gone.

"Merlin's Beard!" said Neville.

"What's wrong?" said Ginny, clutching his arm. The afternoon was over. Although the clouds had mostly thinned away, they were fiery-lit by the last sliver of sunset hidden behind the black-silhouetted trees. The evening star proudly took its place above the fading hazy glow to the west to herald the brightening moon.

"No - that mossy stuff is Merlin's beard. I think we're in the right area. It was one of the things we got before, remember? It doesn't grow everywhere."

Neville and Ginny began clearing a way with their wands and the wild plant growth parted reluctantly before them. They stopped. Ahead of them a tall, thin, pale rock pushed upward through the darkening shroud of foliage; it was twice as high and wide as Neville but not deep. Like a friendly old grandfather, its face was softened by age and it was leaning forward slightly as if to welcome them. Shadowed beneath this overhang were the densest ferns and knotted shrubbery hampering access to the great block.

"What now?" asked Neville.

Ginny struggled and writhed around to its spine, clearing away the vegetation that swathed part way up the pillar. She found what she sought. A cavity had been carved into the stone, just below shoulder height. She peered in and saw Neville blasting away the growth from the front of the rock. They grinned at each other through the hole.

"There's something written this side - carved in," he said. He read it out, "'Naught shalt love e'er sunder.'"

Ginny went back round to join him. Now that the moment had arrived she hesitated.

"Shouldn't Harry be here, though?" asked Neville.

"No, he can come later for me - but he doesn't need to; I'll never stop loving him; I'll never be disappointed in him. The Stone will know it's him; it knows your feelings. No, this time it's just for Harry - so he'll understand me; so he won't be disappointed in me; so his love will not fade."

Neville knew when not to argue. He looked hard at the Gryffindor girl, at her shining eyes and the hope therein. He knew Snape had burnt the fear and doubt into her and she could not help torturing herself. Perhaps this stone really will help.

Ginny reached out for the great rock. How many couples had stood here to be enjoined in love she wondered. She gazed upwards, admiring the shape and sense of magical power, feeling the emotion enshrined in it by the many.

There was something else there, high above them, beyond the very top of the stone. It was caught in the last, highest, softly-suffused rays of the forgotten sun, star-bright against the darkening sky.

"Harpy!" shrieked Ginny, pointing upwards.

Neville followed Ginny's frightened stare upwards. Several great creatures were circling, wings beating heavily, descending from the last of the light, down into the earth's darkness, lower and lower, directly towards them.

"Thestrals! - they're thestrals!" cried Neville. "You can't... How can you see them?"

"It's Luna. I see only Luna," Ginny said finally, as she recognised the girl in flight. As the figure sank slowly down, so did Ginny's feelings. This could not be good.

"Ginny! Stop!" cried Luna as she alighted from what seemed to be nothing. "Am I too late?"

"Luna! Why have--" said Ginny as she walked sullenly to meet her - but she knew why and there was a growing resentment within her.

"It's wrong! It's bad. You shouldn't do this, Ginny."

"You've come all this way to tell me that again?" said Ginny. "You don't understand--"

"Ginny, Ginny - I do understand. I know it hurts but--"

"No you don't!" Ginny's voice rose in volume.

"Adgar was a Gryffindor not a Slytherin!" said Luna. "He--"

"I saw him! I talked with him! He's Slytherin alright - you're just saying that to stop me!" Ginny was becoming more agitated. The disturbing view of leaves and grasses being invisibly turned aside and trampled underfoot did not help. She knew they were thestrals but the sight was still unnerving in the deepening gloom.

"No, look!" Luna reached into her bag to pull out the clipping but pulled out the envelope instead.

"And it's cursed! The stone is cursed! Draco says so! Look!" She held out the envelope but she could see - and smell - that it had changed. It was unaddressed and its fragrance was sweet Jasmine again.

"Draco is just trying to stop me! He'd say anything! He's going to use the stone himself! You don't believe--" Ginny looked towards Neville but he had stood awkwardly away, not wishing to take sides; both the girls were his friends.

Luna pulled Draco's note out of the envelope. It, too, was without writing.

"He must have used a read-once quill," said Luna dismally.

"You've been had, Luna. He just said it to send you on a wild goose chase," cried Ginny, her face flushed with annoyance. "I've made up my mind. I have to do this!"

She turned, kicked aside a dead branch that tore at her ankles, and stomped back towards the stone.

"No, Ginny!" cried Luna. She sounded desperate and now she, too, looked to Neville for support; He shook his head doubtfully, wishing he were somewhere else.

The Ravenclaw girl ran after her friend and took her by the shoulder but Ginny wriggled away from her grip and shouted angrily at her, "Will you stop interfering! Just leave me alone!"

Luna was clutched by a dreadful fear. She fell to her knees and watched as her friend thrust her arm through the hole in the Trysting Stone. Ginny held herself there, waiting, unsure what to expect or what was expected of her. Luna felt adrift in a sinking ship; down, down, down, sank her heart.

Nothing happened. No storm gathered. No great wind sprang up. No thunderclap signalled disaster.

"You see!" cried Ginny exultantly. "You see!" She held up her arms and hands as if to show she was still in one piece; altogether whole and well. Perhaps she had felt some of Luna's doubts after all; perhaps her need was so great she did not care about any risk.

"But it might take hours to see its effect," said Luna. "The original charm may still be there. The curse could gradually overcome it..."

"Now you're just inventing things to put yourself in the right!" yelled Ginny. "Why can't you just accept you make mistakes like everyone else? You've spoilt this for me." She folded her arms in a tearful huff and turned her back on Luna. It had to work. It just had to be right - for Harry. It just had to.

"Perhaps... perhaps I was wrong..." said Luna, mostly to herself, and more with hope than conviction. "What do you think, Neville?"

Neville had become deeply absorbed in his thoughts. He had very mixed feelings. It seemed to him that Luna was the most intelligent and considerate of people but at the same time he hoped dearly that she was mistaken. He looked at the Ravenclaw girl; he had been pondering what she had done. Without thought for her own safety she had risked venturing alone into the Forest to find and help her friend. His fondness for the girl had grown this year and he wondered why he had ever hesitated to tell her so.

"I don't know, Luna but..." He turned to Ginny who still had her back to both of them. She was staring at the aperture in the Stone, wondering what was to happen; wanting something to happen. "Ginny, I'm sure Luna is only trying to help; you ought not to be annoyed at her. I respect and admire her for what she is trying to do. Ginny, I care for her very much. Can't you... apologise to her? Please? If only for me?"

Ginny turned and glared at Neville. Then her countenance softened as she saw Luna's chastened expression. She sniffed deeply and went over to hug the girl. "Sorry, Luna. I just get so irritable. I can't seem to help it - but it will be different now, I promise. I've just got a good feeling about this."

The three spontaneously sat on the ground and talked for an hour as it grew completely dark. Ginny lit her wand and gave Luna her spare baggy jumper to keep out the chilling air. The Ravenclaw girl had not eaten since breakfast and Neville gladly shared the food and drink they had brought with them. Ginny regretted becoming annoyed with Luna and made every effort to send kind words her way. As she fussed over her, Neville smiled; he hated to see Luna unhappy and was delighted to see the two girls had made up. All three of them seemed to grow closer together as they sat there; perhaps it was the proximity of the Trysting Stone and its love charm; perhaps it was that this had been a meeting place for thousands of years and that had its own magic; or perhaps it was simply that the lasting bond between them made it easy to forgive and forget.

The scene evoked a timeless, mystical comradery as the three tiny figures huddled agreeably together, chatting quietly at the dark picnic. The pale blue of Ginny's drifting wand-light silently complemented the silvered moon's ambience to illuminate the face of true friendship. All manner of small creatures were drawn to this, the centre of the enchanted glade; fireflies and fairies, tiny elfin creatures sensitive to all good feelings; scampering dormice and blue lace bats and living things of light and air, all curious as to why their domain felt safer, gentler, near these three magical folk. And to these three, the memory of this meeting would live within each of them for the rest of their lives.

None of the three noticed the two faded figures standing watching them from the dark trees. Nor did they hear the faint sighs even in the silence of the evening. If they had looked in that direction they might, perhaps, have seen they affectionately held each other around the waist - but they would not have seen the sorrow in their eyes.

Eventually the three friends had to prepare to depart. Ginny went back to the Trysting Stone. It seemed, even to Luna as she watched, that the tall monolith, partly-lit, partly-silhouetted by the fat crescent moon, did not look threatening at all but seemed to exude a warm welcome. Ginny rubbed her hands over the softly-worn rock and spoke quietly, "Thank you."

Luna turned to the three thestrals that were standing patiently nearby. She pulled down the sack of meat that one of them carried and began to feed them. Neville went to help.

"Luna, we had a lovely time here, didn't we?" he remarked.

"It's this place, don't you think? It's very special."

There was a short pause.

"Hogsmeade was special too wasn't it?" he murmured. He needed her answer.

"Yes, Neville." Luna had cast the last piece of meat that she held but she did not reach for more from the sack. She wiped her hands as she watched the thestral eating.

"Luna, I promise, no matter what - I will... That is, if you're willing... I will take you to Hogsmeade next year if the ban is lifted. Just you and me."

"That will be lovely." Luna turned to Neville and stepped closer. The moon was behind him; his face in deep shadow, but her own brightly-illumined face was near enough to reflect upon him - enough to see his hopeful smile.

Neville gazed at Luna. Her gentle expression shone in the silvery light and her eyes were bright with love. The tenderness and trusting look he saw therein touched him deeply and he reached for her hand.

Harry's kiss took Ginny by surprise. It was deeper, longer, more loving than anything she had known before and it seemed it would not end. She had been holding onto the tall stone, smoothing over its friendly texture with her hands and reluctant to leave it - but the trembling of the medallion pulled her into something higher. In a dream, she glanced over her shoulder. Neville and Luna seemed more absorbed in each other than in feeding the thestrals; the creatures had found the forgotten sack for themselves. Ginny lifted the medallion and turned it to catch the light from the luminous sphere which she had cast over the place where they had all sat entranced together. She could feel Harry was still kissing her. She saw the words flow and keep flowing as she touched the silver disk to her own lips while he still did too.

The Sword! I heard all. You cannot guess how marvellously you helped. Bless you, my Ginny. I will tell. Willow - tomorrow. Bring lunch!

Ginny was exultant but not a trace of that bliss showed upon her face as she turned to walk slowly back to the other two.

They had no reason to speak so softly but Neville kissed Luna's hand and whispered to her, "I wish we could meet sooner - a proper date I mean."

"We can," Luna breathed back. "The Room of Requirement can be a romantic tea room just as easily as a war room."

"You have to really need it, not just want it, or the Room doesn't work," said Neville, breathlessly.

"Oh, we need it very badly, don't you think?"

Neville leaned forward the last few inches...

Ginny called, "Luna - when you took the herbs and things up to Snape the other day - was the sword really gone?"

Luna saw her own moonlit face clearly in Neville's dark eyes; felt his warmth close and welcoming. Someone had spoken. The words were separated in Luna's mind; they did not join together. She blinked. The moment was gone; the words connected. "Yes, the glass case was empty." She turned, reluctantly, towards Ginny. "Why?"

"Nothing. Just wondered..."

The flight back to Hogwarts on the backs of the thestrals would have been memorable of itself, but Ginny's feelings were flying even higher. It had been a wonderful evening. That Harry was not now, nor ever could be, disappointed in her, she knew now it had always been thus; she felt it to the uttermost. No magic can create true love; no curse destroy. And she was to meet with him tomorrow; touch him; hold him; be held by him; be really kissed by him. She glanced across at her friends as they all flew like gods on invisible steeds through the stars. She was closer than ever to them both and she sensed they were to each other at last. Yes, it seemed a day of rebirth and Ginny would save its last kiss until she was tucked up in bed, snug and warm. Love you forever, Harry. Love you always.


—oOo—


Chapter 11: Leapfrog
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Chapter 11


Leapfrog




A low, thin mist was resting silently on the grounds of Hogwarts the next morning. Neville, still half in his pyjamas, gazed from a dormitory window at the distant shrouded trees, lost in his thoughts. He was so immersed in his reverie he scarcely noticed the owl that swooped up out of the sea of vapour and made itself comfortable on a stout branch at the Forest's hazy edge.

"Socks out me boots," said Seamus, rummaging through the chest at the end of his bed. "Can't see anything taken though."

Neville did not respond. Outwardly, yesterday's magical tryst now seemed wonderfully surreal; inwardly, the very essence of friendship seemed to have been revealed and that was his most precious memory. And he had finally shared his feelings with Luna and even promised her a date. He laughed softly as he wondered why it had seemed so difficult before. She had seemed way above and beyond him before but now their friendship was so close, reaching out to her had been a joy.

"Neville?"

Neville turned, trapping underfoot the remaining leg of his partly-removed pyjama bottoms. "Only my Remembrall is missing and I don't need it these days anyway."

"I thought you lost that years ago?"

"Did I?" murmured Neville, turning to look out the window again.

"You're getting as dreamy as Loony these--"

"Don't call her that!" snapped Neville, whirling around and stumbling.

"Alright, keep your jamas on!" said the sandy-haired youth. "Bit touchy this morning aren't we?"

The reminder started Neville dressing again then, hearing voices from below, he and Seamus went downstairs. Ginny was talking to Ernie near the portrait entrance; he looked agitated.

"Hannah's not back," said Ginny, turning to Neville. "She--"

"Back from where?" said Neville, sharply.

"We got the wands from Hogsmeade," panted Ernie. "Hannah and I went to try one on a wanted poster--"

"We hadn't planned that yet!" grumbled Neville.

Romilda and Lavender, coming sleepily down from their dorm, glanced across at the raised voices then veered away to join Cormac and Parvati in the seats nearest the fireplace.

"My fault," said Ernie, breathing heavily. "It's so quiet ... this early, we thought..."

"This is the worst time for that," said Neville. "Best to do those when everywhere is busy - cast the spell as you go by and when anyone notices you've gone and there are so many people about it could be anybody that did it."

"Yes, but there's no delay with this like with the original posters - the fungus turns transparent immediately."

"When was this?" asked Seamus. "She's probably back--"

"Only twenty-five minutes ago but..." Ernie was still gasping for air as if he had done a lot of running. "We split up when ... we heard footsteps. It should only have taken her five minutes to get back to our common room." He took a couple of deep gulps of air. "I'm going back there now ... see if she's returned yet. Thought you should know..."

"I'll come with you," said Neville.

"Me too," said Ginny. "I need to visit the kitchen anyway."

As they set off down to the basement, Neville said, "Did she have time to ditch the wand you think?"

"It was me - I cast the spell on the poster. I've hid the wand in our common room until I can get it back to the Room."

"That's something then," said Ginny. "They'll check her wand and it'll be clean. So long as they don't--"

"Don't say it!" said Ernie, miserably.

Susan Bones passed them on the stairs. "She's back OK - no worries." She glanced at Neville then turned to Ernie. "She'll tell you what happened, Ernie. I'm taking the wand back to the Room." She indicated up her sleeve and Ernie nodded his thanks.

Ernie halted at a big stack of barrels in the kitchen corridor. "You'll have to wait here. Nobody but a true Hufflepuff ever gets into our common room."

Neville felt annoyed; he glared at Ernie. "Hurry up then - it's only half an hour or so to breakfast." Neville and Ginny grimaced at one another and Ginny rolled her eyes.

They watched Ernie tap a few times on a barrel. The front opened up and he went through and it closed behind him.

Neville turned to Ginny to grumble but she was already walking along to the kitchen, "Well, since she's OK, I'm not waiting, Nev - I'll catch up with you later."

Ten long minutes passed during which Neville fidgeted and fumed on his own.

"Merlin's Patience," muttered Neville, looking at his watch. He knocked on the barrel. "Come on, Ernie--"

He never saw where it came from but his eyes were suddenly stinging and he was soaking wet. There was an acrid smell of vinegar in the air. Neville spluttered and grabbed for his handkerchief. He could hear someone coming out but he couldn't see.

"What did you try to get in for?" It was Ernie's voice. "Tergeo!"

Neville's eyes were still sore but he was dry and the odour started to fade. Eyes still watering, he blinked at Ernie. "Where's Hannah?"

"She's alright - just a bit upset. It was Snape. He let her go. She's--"

"Well... can't I see her?" moaned Neville. He rubbed his eyes to try to relieve the soreness.

"What for? She's fine."

"Well, I just wanted to see she's..." Neville tailed off, unsure why he wanted to see Hannah. As one of Ginny's lieutenants he felt responsible; Hannah was a faithful D.A. supporter. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Ginny coming out of the kitchen with a small, lidded basket. She signalled to him she was going back upstairs.

"He took her down to Potions - made her drink something but it--"

"What!" Neville lowered his voice quickly. "What potion?"

"It was nothing. She said she felt very odd, that's all."

"Veritaserum! He's got more truth potions now. We got ingredients from the Forest."

"No it couldn't have been Veritaserum because he asked her what she was doing in the Great Hall and she--"

"You went to the Great Hall!" Neville was getting more and more agitated. D.A. members casually doing risky missions without consultation did not seem a good idea.

"Yes - no problem. She said her watch was wrong and she was coming to breakfast."

"Ernie! He'd check--"

"You think we're completely daft don't you? We set our watches an hour fast before we went." Now Ernie had got past his guilt and was getting a bit irritated himself by Neville's interrogation.

"So... he bought that, did he? Sounds a bit--"

"He checked her wand - it was fine. After he used the potion he seemed to believe her. He never even noticed the poster - there are so many of them in the Great Hall."

"Seems a bit half-witted to me. Are you sure he didn't use an idiot potion on himself?" Neville said sarcastically. He kicked one of the barrels irritably then backed off quickly when he recalled the vinegar trap. "And she's OK?"

"Yes, she was a bit shaken up and the potion made her uncomfortable but she'll be alright. She's getting over it."

"But she wouldn't see me?" Neville said glumly. He was still feeling miffed about the whole thing.

"I forgot to mention you were here." Ernie looked puzzled. "We never let anyone in. It's a big tradition. Why'd you need to see her?"

"No reason, I guess!" said Neville angrily. "Just because we're trying to run the D.A. efficiently and professionally and after all we've said in the meetings, you run off on your own with this cavalier approach like it's a game or a harmless prank. You don't impress me with this sort of thing, Ernie - she might have been badly hurt or--"

"IT'S NOT ME THAT'S TRYING TO IMPRESS YOU!" shouted Ernie.

Ernie fell silent. Neville stared at him then quietly said, "What?"

"Nothing." Ernie turned to go back into his common room. "Forget it. I messed up. It was entirely my fault not Hannah's. It won't happen again."

"Wait!" Neville grabbed Ernie by the shoulder. "Just hold on a minute..."

Ernie shrugged him off irritably. He didn't enter the Hufflepuff common room but neither did he turn around to face Neville.

"Ernie, I'm sorry, but I need to know what's going on," said Neville. "What aren't you telling me?"

Ernie kept quiet for a long time. Neville waited.

"It was all Hannah's plan," Ernie said finally. He turned around. "You think we Hufflepuffs are careless don't you? You know nothing. Hannah spent hours planning this with four of us. We went over every detail with great care. Susan had some information last night from one of the elves that Snape and the Carrows were leaving very early this morning to go to the Ministry for something. The coast would be clear. Even so, Hannah meticulously planned the approach and four different escape routes. It was her idea to set the watches fast. It was her idea for me to take the safest way out because I had the wand. She thought of everything. She worked hard on this..."

"So, why'd it fail then," said Neville sullenly.

"It was only by chance. Snape should have left by then. We think something went wrong with the floo connection in the headmaster's office - maybe even just ran out of floo powder - so he was on his way down to floo from his old office." Ernie looked hard at Neville and added with a tone of annoyance, "Anyway - it didn't fail completely did it? We fixed the poster and we got away with it."

"Alright, alright - so she took a lot of care. It still doesn't excuse not consulting with us. Ginny is leader; Luna and me, we're--"

"YOU WEREN'T HERE WERE YOU!" snapped Ernie. "All three of you had gone off all yesterday without saying where or when you'd be back! Is that any way to run an army? Susan got the info that they'd be away - it was a chance not to be missed. We wanted to call a meeting but--"

"Merlin! - you're right," said Neville thoughtfully. "We shouldn't have just gone without telling someone in the D.A. But why didn't you and Hannah simply tell me just now? Why so secretive?"

Ernie paused before answering. "Because she was too embarrassed to face you."

"What? But you said..."

"You don't get it do you, Neville? Hannah is a very thorough, practical person. She does a lot of the boring, less-glamorous, D.A. jobs nobody else wants to do. Who do you think organises the tea and sandwiches at meetings? Who do you think sets out the chairs and tables, quills, notes? Or clears them away if we're practising? Passes around messages the Galleons can't handle? Who keeps the equipment and tools in order? Who checks the supplies? She does it without complaint. She gets no thanks."

"Sorry... I didn't..." murmured Neville.

"Exactly," said Ernie. "Probably why she's so keen to take on more serious tasks so you..."

"So I what?"

"Neville, if you don't know by now, I'm not going to tell you," said Ernie, tapping the barrel again and disappearing inside without another word.

Neville stared at the closed barrel for a while wondering what on earth Ernie had meant. Eventually, he shook his head and made his way back upstairs. As he walked back to the Gryffindor common room he puzzled over his own feelings. Something felt unfair but he wasn't sure what. The young man shrugged his shoulders but the niggling feeling remained. There were already one or two students in the corridors going early to wait for the first meal of the day. He brightened up a little as he remembered it was Sunday so there were no classes.

Ginny wasn't back in the common room yet. He waited with Seamus for another ten minutes then decided she'd probably made her own way directly to breakfast.

Neither Snape nor the Carrows were in the Great Hall for the first meal of the day. Professor McGonagall rather sniffily announced they were all at a Ministry meeting until after lunch. Neville took that as a good sign: Susan's information had been correct. He could see Susan talking to Hannah but they were both facing away from him so he could not catch their attention. He wondered whether to slip over there. It was traditional to sit at your house table but in years past, Dumbledore and McGonagall had never objected if a few friends sat together. He stared at the back of Hannah's head. Ernie was right - he hadn't really appreciated all that she had done for the D.A. She wasn't as knowledgeable as Hermione or intuitive like Luna but as he began to recall, she had always been a hard and loyal worker and very reliable. After quite some time they still hadn't turned their heads his way. He pondered resentfully whether Ernie had said he, Neville, was annoyed at them and they should keep out of his way.

"Toast getting cold," smirked Seamus.

Neville was holding a forgotten cup of tea and almost spilt it. "What? Oh yes..."

He brought his attention back to his breakfast and began munching thoughtfully. Ginny interrupted his reverie. "Neville, can you cover for me at lunchtime?"

"Sure - what's happening?" said Neville.

"Ernie and Hannah are going into Hogsmeade again for more supplies and I have something of my own planned."

Seamus looked up from dunking his eggy soldier with a questioning look.

"They're what!" Neville spluttered, choking on his cold toast.

Seamus laughed.

"You were the one who set it up with them and told me, remember?" said Ginny. "Friday night, preparing for the D.A. meeting? You remember Friday don't you? Comes before Saturday. Today is Sunday."

"Oh, yes, I forgot..." Somehow, when they had first arranged it, splitting the supply visit into two visits seemed like a good idea. Now he was not so sure.

"Is that alright then?"

"Have to be, I suppose," said Neville glumly.

"What? Well, if that's how you feel then Lavender or Parvati might do it."

"Do what?"

Ginny and Seamus looked at each other. Seamus was grinning but Ginny was looking bewildered.

"Cover for me," said Ginny. "I need a Gryffindor who's staying in to say I was in my dorm with an upset stomach all lunchtime."

"Oh that - sure."

Ginny looked doubtfully at Neville. "Only if you're stopping in the common room so if anyone asks later you can say I never left..."

"Ask Parvati," said Seamus, still grinning. "Not sure that Neville's with us today."

"What? Course I am." Neville looked back and forth between the two. "Sorry, Ginny. I wasn't thinking. All this homework piling up. Worry, worry, worry. In fact, yes, I do need to catch up so I'll get sandwiches and stay in."

"So, what are you planning?" said Seamus to Ginny.

"No, sorry, it's a one-off - just me."

"Is this D.A. business?" asked Neville.

"Not really... but sort of... No." Ginny hesitated. She had hoped not to have to use an excuse. " No... It's family. Private."

Seamus voice dropped to an awed whisper. "Merlin's curly toes! Fred and George? They're lobbing some Whiz-bangs over the fence?"

"Maybe," said Ginny, glad of the misdirection. She got up hastily. "Anyway, I've homework to do this morning. See you later."

Neville stared through the space where Ginny had stood. His gaze had fallen on the Ravenclaw table and Luna's normal place was empty.

"Where's..." His mouth was left gaping.

"Luna? She went out ten minutes ago," said Seamus.

"Why?"

"Nothing for her here is there?" said Seamus. He was not grinning now. "She's been trying to signal you."

"What! I didn't notice. Wonder what she wanted..."

"Try reading the note she left you while you were... worrying about your homework."

Neville looked down to his side where Seamus was indicating. An envelope lay there.

"Why didn't she say something?" said Neville picking up the envelope and examining it as if to divine what was inside.

"She did," said Seamus. "You ignored her."

Neville jumped to his feet. "Why didn't you tell me!"

Neville stormed out. Seamus called after him, "Don't have a go at me because you left your brain asleep when you woke up this morning!"

As Neville ran angrily up the stairs of Ravenclaw Tower, a first-year girl passed by him on her way down.

"Hey, is Luna up there?"

The girl froze on the step below him, intimidated to be addressed by the notorious Neville Longbottom. She shook her head.

"Is that a no or a don't know?" scowled Neville.

"Library," she said in a frightened voice, pointing down the stairs. The girl was beginning to visibly shake.

Neville sighed and his countenance softened. He saw himself trembling as a first-year when he had been confronted by Snape. It was not a happy memory.

"Sorry, didn't mean to snap at you." Neville did not feel much like smiling but he tried. "So, she's gone to the library? Or you mean you're on your way to the library?"

The girl nodded anxiously, eyes wide. Neville realised he hadn't the slightest idea how to reassure the child.

"Does that mean 'both?'"

She nodded again, eyes widening even more. Neville thought if her eyes grew any larger they would pop out. It occurred to him that perhaps it was because he was towering over her. He walked down to the step below her and went down on one knee. He reached out awkwardly to put a comforting hand on her shoulder.

"It's alright - honestly. I'm not--"

The girl recoiled from him and burst into tears, covering her face with her hands.

"Neville!" It was Luna coming up from below. She took in the situation in a moment.

"I d- didn't... I was j- just..." flustered Neville.

Luna crouched, put her arms around the little girl and rocked her back and forth slowly. "It's alright, Emmy. This is Neville. He's a friend. He won't hurt you."

Luna looked at Neville and mouthed the word "Go!"

Neville tried to read Luna's expression but couldn't. He started to say something but seeing Luna meant business he retreated slowly down the stairs feeling suddenly mind-weary. The day seemed to be crumbling around him and he felt too empty to know or care what to do with it. The ancient, winding steps were badly worn - rounded down by a thousand years of hurrying students - and as he reached the bottom he palmed at a window ledge to stop himself swaying. He peered out of the narrow aperture for a long time wondering what next. The morning mist was clearing and there was a hazy sun but he didn't feel like walking out there. A backlog of homework waited untouched but he knew he would not be able to concentrate. The sound of scampering feet could be heard from above. Luna came into view, hopping the sloping stones easily from long practice.

"Oh, thank you for waiting for me," she said with a dreamy smile. It was just Luna, same as ever. Neville realised how confused his thinking had become. Luna saw his puzzled expression.

"She dropped her quill and ink case."

"What?"

"in Alecto's class."

Understanding started to dawn in Neville's mind. "Detention?"

"She hurt her," said Luna. "Alecto used the torture curse on poor little Emmy..."

Neville winced his eyes tight-shut, sniffing in a deep gulp of air, fighting back emotion. He sank down onto the last step and blew his nose on a hastily withdrawn handkerchief. He sensed Luna had sat down next to him; the deeply-worn stone leaning them together. He could feel her warmth and he could smell flowers - but the fragrance was not hers. He had crumpled up something in his hand. He was still holding the unopened envelope. Luna spent a lot of time looking at Neville's face whenever she could. She did not miss his guilty look.

"Oh, you've not had time to read it yet. That's nice. It's a surprise. I didn't want to disturb you at breakfast because you were doing some important thinking."

Neville opened it up.

My lovely Neville,

I'm preparing something specially for us in the Room. It needs lots of thought so I can't finish it this weekend but next one perhaps.

It won't be as perfect as Madam Puddifoot's but it will be close, and I want to do the lighting just so, and murmurs and sighs - they're really hard to get right without sounding silly. It will be just you and me at first but later we might let others enjoy it unless you want it just for us always?

Thank you. Thank you for being my boyfriend.

Your Luna.


Neville shed the rest of his misery into the hankie to stifle his sobs. Luna put her arm around his shoulder.

"Sorry, Luna," he muttered as he fought to control himself.

"You're wonderfully emotional. I dislike hard people without real feelings don't you?" said Luna kindly. "It means you'll always think of others feelings; it promises that you'll always care about me."

"Always, Luna. Always."

They embraced sitting on the bottom step of Ravenclaw Tower and they kissed properly for the first time at last. That's just how it happened.

"Perhaps we could go for a walk after lunch," said Luna, standing up to see out of the window at the weather. "One o'clock is a nice time I always think, don't you?"

"Sure - One it is then! Let's meet on the steps of the Entrance Hall." He got up from the step and stood beside Luna to look out of the narrow window. The side of his face was touching hers. He whispered softly, "And if Snape's not back for lunch, perhaps I can sit at your table as well."

"You don't mind sitting with me in there?" she breathed back.

"Mind? Lots of kids have sat at other tables over the years. McGonagall's OK."

"Not with Loony Lovegood though is what I meant."

"Merlin! You don't think I'd..." He stared hard at Luna but he knew she didn't know anything about being sarcastic - nor was she seeking sympathy.

Neville turned to face up the stairs and shouted, "HEY! I'M WITH LUNA - ME, NEVILLE LONGBOTTOM! ANYONE GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT?"

Luna knew most everyone was still having breakfast, but she was happy all the same. She whispered earnestly, "May I ask another kiss, please? It was very nice."

Neville didn't answer. He gently kissed her nose; he kissed her eyes; then his lips eventually found hers. Perhaps the happy couple heard, far off in the castle, the sound of students coming out from the Great Hall, but if they did, they didn't care.


—oOo—


Luna felt sad when Neville didn't come to lunch in the Great Hall but she didn't blame him. Everyone knew he was very forgetful. She made herself smile as she thought about one o'clock. She was glad she had chosen that time. Nobody can forget One. she thought. Luna finished writing a message to her father then slipped away early, the meal untouched.

Plenty of students had taken packed lunches out to take advantage of the last of the year's moderate weather. A few shrieking first-years were playing wizard's leapfrog not far from the Hogwarts' entrance. Most were using move charms to sneak over opponents and reach the witch's hat; stealing a few innocent hours of enjoyment while the Death Eaters were away. Luna smiled and watched them for a while before continuing her journey; she regretted not having had playmates when younger.

She did have a special friend however, waiting for her at the Forest's edge, past Hagrid's cabin, so she strode out purposefully, enjoying the fresh air and the hazy sunshine.

On the way, she spotted Ginny on her right, far in the distance, circling past the Whomping Willow towards the trees beyond - then she lost sight of her. Luna stopped her journey, turned, and blinked hard. It seemed peculiar for Ginny to be there. Had she reached the trees? Luna loved puzzles; she liked to work things out.

There was a strange sound from the direction Luna had originally been heading; she knew enough about magical creatures to recognise a call of distress. As she started to whirl away, she glimpsed the Willow had begun to move behind her.

Ahead, way past Hagrid's cabin, something swooped low and the weak sun picked out a flash of white in the greenery. Luna knew at once what it must be. She began to run towards it, glancing back only once, and briefly, but the great willow tree was still.

A tawny owl clawed around the ground, flapping its wings and looking at something before it, hidden in the scrubby wild grass.

"Audrey! Leave her alone!" Luna slowed to a walk as she drew near, hardly able to believe her eyes. The owl had calmly settled herself and had her head on one side as if listening. Luna had never seen a cat talking before - especially not to something that was about to eat it - and this cat was only Neville's small white kitten. They were not miaows, nor were they purrs - but something in between that uttered from the throat of the tiny animal.

"Well," said Luna as she joined them, "I see you two have made friends - but Audrey, you really ought to keep to the safety of the trees like I told you."

She knew the owl's name was Audrey because she had written down a name on each of twenty-six pieces of paper in the owlery and the owl had snatched at the first one she offered. Poor Audrey had been abandoned by her previous owner and tended to snatch and hang on to things quite a bit.

Luna picked up the little kitten and its head and limbs flopped as helplessly and appealingly as any ragdoll. "Dippity, you don't fool me with that act - you're as tough as an old boot aren't you? - but you should not stray from the gardens until you're older. I'd better take you back. I expect you're hungry."

She tucked the limp kitten into the top of her bag from which she then removed a rolled up piece of paper. She thought long and hard about her puzzle and even frowned once or twice before adding to the message which she had already written upon the note. Then she carefully rolled it up again, nodded to herself that she was satisfied, then crouched down. The owl held out its leg and Luna attached the paper roll most carefully.

"Audrey - it's for Daddy. It's very, very important but I trust you completely. You must stay below the treetops until you reach the far side, then you'll be safe. Don't come back with his answer until next Saturday, remember? I can't always get to the forest in the week. And never, ever, go to the owlery until I've removed the message."

The owl blinked lazily (which Luna knew meant maybe) then its great wings opened and it skimmed away across the ground and disappeared into the trees. Luna sighed. The owl liked to assert itself but she knew it was only teasing and would deliver the message carefully.

Luna looked down at the white furry bundle that was exploring her bag then headed for the Herbology Garden.


—oOo—


Ginny had waited until she had strolled near to the treeline before casting the concealment charm upon herself but now she could no longer suppress her excitement. The girl's long red hair streamed out invisibly behind her as she sprinted towards the Whomping Willow looking anxiously for some sign of Harry. She knew not to get too close but where was he? Ginny had learned all about the Willow, of course, from Ron. She paused breathlessly, looking for the knot on the tree's trunk that she knew would make the tree safe.

She edged closer and had just spotted what looked to be the knot when a great branch came sailing around towards her; apparently the tree was not fooled by the Disillusionment charm. The young girl stepped nimbly back out of range as the tree became more agitated, careful not to lose sight of the knot. Her eyes widened as it seemed a pale root suddenly reached up to touch the knot. It was no root. The tree stopped its gyrations; a bespectacled face appeared beside the arm.

"Ginny? That you?"

"Harry!" whimpered Ginny, launching herself down towards him. Harry dragged her down into the gap in the roots and, without even room to sit upright, they lay in the earth, hugging and kissing one another.

"Ouch! What's that?" said Harry. He propped himself away on one arm, his head pressed up against a roof of matted roots.

"Basket. You said to bring some nosh."

"Brilliant! I could eat a horse," said Harry, wriggling off his cloak.

"Well, that's lucky then," laughed Ginny, lying back and looking up at him. She quickly rubbed some of the grime off her face with an even dirtier hand then countered her Disillusionment Charm.

Harry gazed as her beaming, happy, grinning expression came into view, seemingly dazzled for a while. "Ginny." He shook his head slowly as if he could not believe the reality that lay before him.

"Well," said Ginny after a while, "how'd I look?"

Harry plucked some crumbs of soil from her hair and smiled. "Best thing I've seen since Hogsmeade - yeah - I heard about your ban..."

"Harry..."

"Come on; talk about that later." He squirmed backwards down a slope and Ginny followed. Once they could half-stand, he gave her a quick hug then kept his arm around her waist as they walked, bent over in the low tunnel.

"How much time can you spare, Harry?"

"Couple of hours or so. Can't leave Hermione alone any longer than that. I'm supposed to be out scrounging from a Muggle farmhouse I found. We've got some Muggle money. They won't turn us in - don't even know what's going on. Anyway, we keep moving almost every day."

"Ron out scrounging too, then? I suppose you do better separately? More chance of one of you being successful, I mean."

"Sort of..." Harry hesitated. He could not tell Ginny that Ron had deserted them. Despite all that had happened, he could not betray his friend. They stumbled along in silence for a while, Harry dwelling bitterly on Ron's departure.

"Fact is, Ron's being a bit of a git - goes off on long walks by himself."

Ginny groaned. "Why am I not surprised?"

"We had a row - about nothing as usual - about me not knowing enough... Well, reckon he thought it would all be easy..."

"He'll come round; always does. He's quick to offer help but not so eager if he gets bored. Give him plenty to do and he'll thrive again."

Harry left it at that. What could he say? Her brother was not coming back? - that he couldn't come back now they had moved on to locations unknown to him? - unfindable by him? How could she tell her family? Her father? Harry's heart shrunk as he considered that he, himself, might one day have to confront Mr. Weasley with this shameful news.

They climbed up into the Shrieking Shack and used cleaning spells on each other. Ginny looked around; the room was empty but free of dust and dirt.

"Oh, this is not too bad... Way Ron told it--"

"I Apparated into here about fifteen minutes early. I did some spring-cleaning - downstairs anyway. I repaired a table and some chairs in the kitchen and vanished all the junk - a palace fit for my queen..."

Ginny's face softened to an expression of tenderest affection. "Harry, We've got to do some really serious snogging or I'm going to just--" She didn't finish.

They stood holding one another, murmuring silly things between their kisses. They didn't stop as they stumbled, clumsily clinging together, out across the hall and into the kitchen. Nor did they stop when Harry collapsed down onto a wooden chair with Ginny on his lap. They only stopped when somewhere outside a clock chimed a quarter past noon to remind them that time was precious.

"We're actually in Hogsmeade right?" said Ginny. She suddenly started to her feet in alarm. "Harry! They patrol - they patrol Hogsmeade endlessly casting revealing spells and testing for..."

Harry was grinning. "S'alright," he said. "I've got pretty good with some spells of Hermione's. Before I did the spring-cleaning I set up protective spells - they can't detect us here and it's magically sealed anyway."

Ginny relaxed a little and went to the boarded up window to find a crack from which to peer out. Down the slope she could look down upon this side of Hogsmeade; all seemed quietly normal. She turned around, seemingly satisfied. Harry was looking at her.

"What?" she said.

"Just like looking..." Harry was smiling.

"Harry... there's something--"

"Me too."

"I was scared to tell you--"

"Me too." Harry stood up. "I'm not scared anymore, Ginny. I absolutely know now you won't hate me."

"Never!" Ginny's eyes were shining. "Harry, you don't even need to tell me if you don't want to."

"Your photo - the one you gave me - it's destroyed. Ron found it. He was right. I should never have carried it around. Our medallions are protected but if a dark supporter had seen that picture of you then your life wouldn't be--"

"Is that all?" Ginny eyes shone even more, and a single tear trickled down. "I thought perhaps you and..."

Harry was puzzled for a few seconds then his expression turned to one of amazement. "Hermione?"

"I'd still forgive you, Harry... I did forgive you, Harry."

But Harry had already strode across and embraced her tightly. "Ginny Weasley - it'll never happen. I've been thinking about you, you, you, every day. I don't think more than a few minutes has passed when I've not thought about you - and even when I'm not thinking about you - you're still there. I can feel you in my mind... all the time."

"Sorry, Harry. I never really believed it but... I felt your heartbreak when you said you were sorry. I actually sensed it through the medallion. Have you noticed that?" Harry was nodding as Ginny continued, "I thought it was something huge - something terrible you'd done."

"Listen, Hermione's a dear, dear friend. I wish - Oh, how I wish I'd had a sister like her to share things with instead of being dragged down everyday by the Dursleys. But you... You're Ginny. I am so glad you're not my sister. Heavens! - I suffered agonies of guilt over the photo; I don't think I'd have survived... anything worse."

"So... just a photo... You must have really loved that silly photo!" Ginny laughed her relief.

"Just a photo - but it was precious to me."

Ginny fell silent for a while. They were still holding one other, finding comfort in each others' arms. "Harry... mine's worse - much worse."

"It's alright - I know everything."

"No, you don't." Ginny stood back from Harry; she wanted to give him some space when she told him even though she knew he would not hate her - not since the Trysting Stone. "It's out of reach. The sword - they've put it in Gringotts. It's all my fault."

Harry was smiling and shaking his head.

"I'm so sorry, Harry. But I'll help you get it. Just tell me what to do... Anything... We can do it. You and me. Somehow..."

Harry continued to smile. "Don't tell anyone this, Ginny, but the sword that was put into Gringotts is a fake. We overheard a goblin who worked there - and believe me, they know a fake."

"A fake?"

Harry nodded.

"So where's..."

"Don't you see? Dumbledore didn't trust Snape completely after all! He's put the real sword somewhere for me - somewhere he knows I'll find it - but if you hadn't tried to steal the one at Hogwarts I'd never have known. I'd forgotten about the sword to be honest and--"

"But I thought that's what you were doing all this time? Searching for the sword?"

"No, no, we're... Something else. But even if I'd thought of the sword I would probably have eventually got myself killed trying to get into Hogwarts! In one night you not only saved me from that but taught me that Dumbledore definitely wants me to have the sword - so he must have put it somewhere where he knows I'll find it. I just know he would have." Harry was jubilant. "I've been bursting to tell you, Ginny!"

"So I..."

"So, you did good, Ginny. Thank you. I can't tell you what the sword is for but you've helped immensely."

Ginny just looked at Harry. She had felt free after the tryst but this was far better - like something had been pressing upon her heart and now had been lifted off forever. She had helped Harry. She had been of use and not a liability. Her heart began to sing.

"I told you I love you - no matter what," said Harry simply. "It's something... My feelings... How I feel about you is something separate from anything you might do."

"I know." Ginny continued to look at Harry.

"What?" he said.

"Just like looking..." She was smiling now.

Their resumed kisses were, once again, broken by the Hogsmeade clock, this time chiming half past the hour.

"Fancy a horse sandwich?" grinned Ginny, breaking away and heading for her basket.

"Anything, so long as I can eat it with you." Harry pulled out his wand and cast a spell at the kettle on the hob and it quickly began to steam. "Hope you brought tea?"

"Of course. And lots of other stuff..."

Ginny laid out the contents of the basket on the table: heaps of sandwiches, pies, half a ham, puddings, cakes and buns and fruits.

"Wow! There's enough to feed a dozen people here, Ginny!" said Harry, grabbing a sandwich and wolfing several large bites.

"So, not too noble to eat this time?" laughed Ginny.

"Mmm... tastes like chicken."

"Amazing what they can do with horses these days isn't it?"

"I can take most of this back to Hermione," said Harry, as he seized a pork pie, then added, "... and Ron. "It looks great! She'll hope I come back with some homemade goodies from the farmhouse. I won't even need to explain. This shack is a sort of... farmhouse... and I'm scrounging, right?"

They enjoyed the meal together and ignored the clock's next chime but eventually had to plan ahead for their departure. The remains of the food and drink went into Harry's rucksack.

"We can do this most weekends if we're careful," said Harry. "It'll be like our own..."

Ginny grabbed Harry's hand. "How long have we got now?"

"We've still got thirty or forty minutes."

"Come on then, let me show you our dream mansion. Two hundred enormous rooms downstairs and with sleeping accommodation for two hundred guests upstairs."

"Sure that's not two up, two down?"

She pulled Harry back across to the tiny parlour with the hole down to the passage leading to the Whomping Willow.

"This is the great hall where we receive all our hundreds of visitors. There are ten house-elves at attention along each wall and and a coach and four for every guest waiting in the copious grounds outside.

"Yeah - really in the ground I should think," laughed Harry.

"Through here we have..." Ginny drew Harry back into the kitchen, "... our magnificent banqueting hall. The table, which seats two thousand, is so long it disappears over the horizon."

"Probably will disappear into the floor when the boards give way," grinned Harry.

"Then across to..." Ginny pulled Harry back to the parlour and waltzing him around it, "just one of our seven ballrooms, each with its own orchestra."

"Erm... we've already done this room. Isn't this the--"

"No we haven't," insisted Ginny with a grin refusing to let him go; not letting the dance end. "Now to our wondrous entrance hall. Note the diamond chandeliers above and the gold fittings on each of the seven hundred doors."

Outside, the Hogsmeade clock chimed the hour then struck One.

"We have the largest grandfather clock ever made - so big we keep it outside. It is so accurate that we condescend to allow Father Time himself to visit yearly to adjust his hourglass."

Harry laughed, greatly enjoying seeing Ginny so happy.

"As we ascend the grand white marble staircase, requisitioned from an emperor's palace in the Himalayas..."

"Must have brought the dust from the Himalayas too then - I've not cleaned upstairs!"

"...this tour would not be complete without we show you just one - the greatest of our thousands of bedroom suites - the master bedroom with its lavish forty-poster bed."

They waltzed up the creaky wooden stairs and into the room where Harry had first encountered Sirius Black - but he was not thinking of that right then. In the middle of the room he pulled Ginny fiercely to him. As they kissed and turned together, their little dance swept out a circle in the dust on the floor. They were too absorbed to notice. But Ginny could not overlook something else; her D.A. Galleon was getting very warm in her pocket.

Ginny burst out laughing. "Of all the times to call a meeting!"

She pulled out the coin.

"D.A.?" groaned Harry with a wry smile - but Ginny's smile had disappeared.

"Snape coming. Flee."

She had read it out loud tonelessly, not understanding - like she was reading a boring potions label. Then it sank in - for both of them.

Harry rushed to the window boards and peeked out through a crack. "Death Eaters! - moving in - four of them - it'll take them a while to get in..."

He slapped the side of his head in annoyance. "I never cleaned up here! I never intended coming up here! There's no magical concealment! That's how they've detected us!"

Harry cast cleaning charms to hide their dusty footprints as they ran down to the kitchen. He grabbed his rucksack, grateful that they had packed it early; Ginny drew her wand and used the vanishing spell on the empty picnic basket. They glanced around. It was obvious that the place had been used by someone, but not by whom.

In the parlour, Ginny gave Harry another kiss, unsure whether it might be the last one, then she cast the Disillusionment charm upon herself once more. They were still looking at each other, trying to memorise every feature, as her face disappeared and Harry drew on his invisibility cloak. Then, holding hands, they started down the hole and along the crouch-way.

"What do we do about Snape? He'll come this way," whispered Ginny.

Harry thought for a few seconds as they stumbled forward as quietly as they could, clinging to each other not just for comfort but to stay in touch invisibly.

"Have they taught you Apparation yet?"

"Not till next year."

"Keep holding onto me, then - and be ready. We'll have to go... well outside Hogsmeade. I don't know how we're going to get you back into Hogwarts. They'll know you've been missing anyway. Maybe you shouldn't--"

"No - Neville's covering for me. I'm in bed with an upset stomach and never gone past him out of Gryffindor Tower."

They stopped and listened.

"Who sent the message?" said Harry.

"Luna."

"Where would she be? How long have we got? How'd she even know? You didn't tell her about us?" Harry sounded even more alarmed.

"Harry, she's Luna. She worked it out on the first day back that we were in touch."

"What!"

"She's not mentioned it to a soul - not even Neville knows - and she knows nothing about today though."

Harry squeezed her arm a little for silence to listen some more but they heard nothing in the low, dark tunnel.

"Why'd she send the message then?"

Ginny remained silent for a while, thinking.

"She must have seen me walking to the Willow. Somehow worked it out."

"You didn't just... No, I watched you; you walked well clear of the Willow to the trees before you concealed yourself. How could she know?"

"Perhaps she saw the Willow moving?"

"She saw you go to the woods, then she saw the Willow move? That's it? From that she deduced you and I..."

"Shush... She must have been outside. Seen Snape going to the Willow. She put two and two together."

"So he should be here by now..."

Harry cast a revealing spell. Far ahead there was something in the tunnel - at the very limit of the spell's range.

"It's him. I just know it." Harry gripped his wand angrily and pointed it ready.

"No, Harry!" hissed Ginny.

"He murdered Professor Dumbledore!"

"But you can't, Harry. You can't murder in cold blood."

Harry lowered his wand. "He'll detect us here, any second - as surely as I just detected him."

"Leapfrog!"

"What?"

"Apparate me past Snape - this soft earth will muffle the sound and he'll only be casting to reveal what's ahead of him not behind. We'll still be outside the Hogwarts boundary so you can Disapparate from there. I can be back in the castle while he's still floundering around in the shack wondering who's been there."

Harry did not wait. He knew that at any moment they could be detected. Ginny gripped his arm so tightly it hurt. Harry turned on the spot.


—oOo—


Luna was waiting on the steps of Hogwarts entrance hall as Ginny ran invisibly up them. She was looking dreamily at the clouds that had been gathering all day.

"Luna," whispered Ginny. "It's me. Thanks for the warning - and thanks for keeping watch."

"Oh, hello, Ginny. You've got a smudge on your nose, did you know? I'm not really keeping a lookout; I've got a date with Neville. He's just a little bit late - but he'll be here, I'm sure. Isn't it a pity there are not so many owls flying about. I expect they're all on secret missions somewhere we can't see them."

Ginny stared, remembering Neville's breakfast promise. "Luna, he's covering for me. He can't... He couldn't have come. He promised me earlier he'd stay in the common room. It's not his fault. He promised me."

"That's alright. I knew it must be something important. Nobody can forget One - it's the first number you learn isn't it?"

"I'll send him down - soon as I get up there - I've had a stomach upset for the last few hours but I'll be better in exactly..." Ginny looked at her watch only to see it was still invisible. "... about thirty-eight minutes."

"Sorry to hear that, Ginny. Hope it doesn't hurt too much. Tummies can be very funny can't they? I'll wait here for Neville. I know he'll be here soon." Luna looked up at the skies again then said happily, "He's my boyfriend you know."


—oOo—






Chapter 12: The Owl and the Pussy Cat
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Chapter 12


The Owl and the Pussy Cat




A large tawny owl perched on a branch at the edge of the Forbidden Forest. She had watched her mistress take away lunch with great interest. The wise bird knew she could catch all the food she needed in the forest - there were plenty of tasty mice to be had - but still... She did not have to return from her delivery for a week, so a few hours before departing would not matter. The owl blinked.


—oOo—


Sunday afternoon with the Dursleys had usually been a boring experience but it did not match for gloom the one that Harry Potter was now enduring. Hermione had scarcely acknowledged his return. She took no apparent interest as he quietly stocked their cupboard with the food that Ginny had provided. There was no pretence of reading the book she held on her lap - for it lay unopened. Her face remained averted towards the blank canvas wall and Harry knew that even if she was not actually crying, she was always very close to tears.

He suppressed a rising sigh: every action, every sound appeared to carry more significance. Harry, himself, had also begun to miss Ron a little but as soon as his thoughts dwelt on his friend he quickly became annoyed at what seemed like his betrayal. In addition, Harry had to put up with indigestion after indulging in all the food that Ginny had provided. He knew he had overdone it but it had been the first substantial meal he had eaten in a long time.

Yes, his stomach no longer growled that it was empty but he knew Hermione must still be hungry. Harry examined the contents of the cupboard. The youth felt reluctant to prepare anything hot - in his mind's eye he saw it going cold while Hermione was distracted by grief. A salad ought to be safe enough.

Years of servitude in his aunt's just-so kitchen struck him as worthwhile for once. The young man prepared the vegetables, cut some slices from the ham and added a little cheese. The tray he placed on a chair which he carefully manoeuvred close to Hermione without intruding on her silence. He paused for a few moments looking at the back of her hair which somehow seemed the closer and more intimate because of the great emotional distance between them. She was totally alone in her pain where no one could help her. Again, he stifled a deep breath that might be misunderstood, then went outside to give her some space: he did not want Hermione to feel guilty about eating during her distress.

A stool stood close to the tent but he lifted it a little further away before sitting down. As he settled himself, he pulled up his collar against the wind which moved, unchecked, through the heather around him. His hand touched Slytherin's locket. After returning from the shack at Hogsmeade he resolved that Hermione would have to suffer its influence as little as possible. She slept much better without it and didn't complain about bad dreams. He knew Ginny would help dispel his own anxiety and depression that the horcrux would inevitably evoke.

He gazed down the hillside upon which they were camped and resolutely dug his hands into his pockets to wait and watch. His thoughts cycled through his pity for Hermione, his annoyance with Ron, then inevitably to Ginny's welfare and desire for her company. The castle engraved on his medallion had told him she had returned safely to Hogwarts; at least he need not worry about her. He was wrong.

As ever, he thrilled at Ginny's kiss, yet almost at once, sensed her alarm. He saw the dungeon engraving even before he began to read:

Need U bad. B strong 4 me.

The stool was knocked sideways down the slope as Harry leapt to his feet, fumbling for his map. He stared in dismay when he realised where Ginny was headed.


—oOo—


The stairs up to the headmaster's office were as dimly lit as ever and once past the central torch, Ginny could safely peek at her medallion in deep shadow without being seen by the Carrows behind - or Snape in front.

Staying with U thru this. ICU. Strong 4U

His on-going kiss was more than hand-holding; it seemed to give her the strength and courage to face whatever lay in store. Perhaps rather, it gave heart to the courage she already possessed.

"IN!" Ginny could see Snape pushing Neville and Luna ahead of himself into the headmaster's office.

Three chairs moved themselves soundlessly before the desk and Snape, walking behind it, wordlessly indicated the three youngsters should sit. Alecto Carrow took up position off to one side, her expression a mix - only a Carrow mentality could display fury, malice, and delight all at the same time. Ginny glanced back at the door. Amycus stood guarding it; his face showed both a gloat and a glare, as if he were daring her to try to escape.

"The time for games is over," said Snape ominously as he sat down. "Someone, perhaps more than one person, has been... out of bounds. Confess and I shall--"

"But we've not--" began Neville.

"SILENCE!" cried Snape. "Enquiries have been made and I am satisfied that most of the usual suspects can reasonably account for their whereabouts. Many are still visiting Hogsmeade... However, that leaves you three whom I have left till now so as to be more certain. There is... no doubt in my mind that... at least one of you is... guilty."

He stared at them in turn but his gaze was not returned. Luna was smiling at the Sorting Hat. Neville eyes were directed past the side of Snape's long dark hair at the empty sword cabinet behind. Ginny's head had sunk low, blocking out her surroundings and living in Harry's on-going kisses. Snape glared at her.

"I will start with you as the most likely -- You WILL look at me, Miss Weasley!"

Snape's wand moved slowly and Ginny felt her head forced back against her will. Neville jumped to his feet instantly. "You'll have to kill me."

"What!" snarled Snape, he turned sharply to Neville - but he could no longer see the timid child he used to dominate.

"If you try that again on Ginny - what you did before," said Neville very firmly, "then so long as I live and breath I shall take the first opportunity to end your miserable life - no matter what the consequences."

Snape appeared too astonished to speak for a second or two but Alecto's wand flashed quickly, almost before Neville had finished. "Crucio!"

Neville staggered and sank to his knees. Snape recovered and Alecto's wand arm was flung up and back.

"DESIST!" cried Snape, "I want them coherent, you fool!"

Luna helped Neville onto his chair. The torture curse had lasted only a second but the shock to the body and mind was traumatic and weakening.

"How dare you threaten me--" began Snape.

Luna stood up to face Snape. "I too, pledge. You'll have to kill me as well."

Ginny was alarmed and sprang up beside Luna. "There's no need!" She stared venomously directly at Snape. "I have nothing to hide - but now I know a way to resist you! I've done it before. This time I shall not yield. It will kill me but I will not give way."

Snape's face, already pallid, turned even whiter and he gripped his wand ever more tightly. "What... makes you think I have any interest in whether you--"

"The truth will spread far and wide," said Luna. "The world will know."

"And how do you propose that might--"

"It is already out there," said Luna, "should anything happen to us; if all three of us were to disappear..."

"WHAT!" roared the headmaster, jumping to his feet and leaning forward angrily over his desk. "--What have you done!"

Luna spoke as though reciting from some future history, "The Great Uprising of 1997 began when three innocent young children, all of long-established pure-blood families, were murdered by the known Death Eater, Severus Snape, Headmaster-by-force of Hogwarts, merely because of a false charge of being out of bounds. Thousands of witches and wizards thronged to the Cause, eager and willing to fight back against the dark forces of evil that openly murdered their offspring." She quietly lowered herself to her chair. Ginny sat down with her. Neville tried to sit upright. He twisted and stretched his limbs to test them and rubbed at his head and face; the pain had been everywhere.

Alecto was still massaging her sore wand arm and remained silent, leaving Snape to deal with the situation. Amycus at the door spluttered and muttered but kept his distance. Snape sank down into his own chair and stared at the Ravenclaw girl.

"You silly, meddlesome fool," he snarled eventually." You have no idea what you are doing. Do you seriously think that you three have special privileges? That you are somehow, safe?"

"We are for now," said Luna quietly.

"That can change," said Snape, rising to his feet again. He turned to a cabinet behind him and drew out a polished mahogany box which he placed on his desk.

"There are other ways of getting at the truth." said Snape.

He lifted the lid off the container. It contained several potion vials. Neville's eyes widened.

"I see you recognise Veritaserum, Longbottom," said the headmaster. "We'll start with you. A few drops of this will loosen your tongue."

He turned to Alecto. "Hold him... and no more than that."

Alecto's wand arm flashed and her eyes glittered at the chance to act. Neville felt himself invisibly gripped and his jaw gaped wide.

"It's alright, Neville, I've heard it doesn't taste nasty at all," piped up Luna with a smile.

"QUIET! You will be next," the headmaster snarled as he applied a few droplets to Neville's tongue.

Snape recorked the vial and waited. A strange feeling passed over Neville and his eyes widened and lost focus. He wondered if he could fight the potion somehow.

"Now, Longbottom, you will answer me," said Snape. "Tell me what you did when you went into the Shrieking Shack around lunchtime."

"I did not go to the shack - I've never been in the shack," said Neville. His voice sounded distant, alienated. "I stayed in the common room studying from late morning till well after lunch. I didn't go out. I never even went to lunch."

"Then you will have seen Weasley leave, did you not?"

"I never saw her go out." Neville felt a rush of gratitude towards providence that he had been a little late getting to the common room. "Earlier, she told me she was sick."

"You saw her?"

"No - only the girls can get into their dormitory."

"How convenient." Snape thought for a moment. "But you must have seen her when she returned?"

"She came down from the dormitory, later, yes."

"I meant when she came back from outside!" the headmaster snapped.

"I never saw her come in from outside." Neville recalled that Ginny whispered as she had passed him but all he had seen was a smudge of dirt going by.

"You must have! Where were you seated? How could you--"

"I sat in my favourite chair near the fireplace. I had a clear view of the entrance. I was facing it."

Snape was clearly perplexed. This was not what he had expected. He turned angrily to Luna.

"But Professor Snape, you saw me on the Entrance steps! I could not have been elsewhere--"

"NEVERTHELESS - you will take the serum. No exceptions."

After receiving the drops of liquid, Luna uttered happily, "Oh, it really isn't unpleasant at all!"

Soon after that she slumped back in her chair and her eyes closed.

"Lovegood - you will answer me truthfully. You were seen at lunch in the Great Hall but you left early. Tell me why you left and where and when you went."

"I left the Great Hall because I was very sad that my boyfriend hadn't turned up as he had promised," began Luna. "I thought perhaps he had forgotten. He can be very forgetful at times."

Neville had not yet recovered. He still felt very odd as he tried to look sideways at Luna.

"I don't want every foolish detail of your immature sentiments!" growled Snape. "The essentials will do."

"I went outside and walked around near the forest then to the Herbology Gardens and finally I got back to the Entrance Hall steps to wait for my date. I got there very early but he was late. I waited over forty-five minutes."

"You don't seem to have much luck with your boyfriends do you, Lovegood?" sneered the headmaster. "When did--"

"I wouldn't say that. I think I'm blessed with a wonderful boyfriend." Neville squirmed weakly in his chair.

Snape waved a hand dismissively. "When did you see Miss Weasley come in - at what time?"

"I never saw Ginny come in."

Snape gritted his teeth. "I repeat - you must have seen Weasley come in did you not?"

"No - I definitely did not see her."

Snape frowned and turned to Ginny. "You may have covered your tracks well but you cannot cheat this..." He held up the Veritaserum.

Ginny closed her eyes tight and focused on Harry's kisses but she could not resist when she felt herself bound and Snape applied the drops of Veritaserum. Eventually she sagged back in her chair and her eyes opened, distantly staring.

"Whom did you meet at the Shrieking Shack today?" Snape said immediately.

"Nobody. I did not meet anyone at the shack."

"Who..." Snape thought for a moment. "Whom did you see at the Shack today?"

"Nobody. I was never at the shack."

Snape stared. "When and where did you last meet with Harry Potter and what took place at that meeting?"

"I last met Harry Potter at Professor Dumbledore's funeral when he said he did not want to speak to me ever again."

Now it was Snape's turn to sink back in his chair. He stood up eventually and went over to Alecto, signalling to Amycus to join them.

"It seems I was... wrong," murmured Snape thoughtfully.

"Some blasted, bludgerin' sparkwaver got in there!" said Amycus."The 'ob was still warm; the floor weh' swept!"

"No doubt - and not, I think, anyone from this school..."

"P'raps 'e was on 'is own?" said Amycus, "Potter, I mean?"

"Perhaps... Possibly not him at all. There are plenty of runaways and wanderers looking for a place to hide. They must have..." Snape paused. "From now on... Make sure there are anti-Apparation jinxes set up in Hogsmeade."

"Can't durin' the day - too much business goin' on."

"At least at night - and seal off the passage to the shack - close all the passages."

"'ow? The Castle conjures 'em up - they're enchanted. Won't be easy..."

"Find a way!" snarled Snape. "Find a way before the start of the new year! They cannot be removed but they can be blocked. Post a Death Eater in the shack until then; it is a weakness - but it might be of use to us. And patrol the physical boundaries of Hogsmeade - all ways in and out. If Potter is sighted I want him brought straight to me!"

"Thing is, a report 'as been sent to the Dark Lord," wheezed Alecto anxiously. Fear shone in her eyes.

"Some animal could 'ave got in!" said Amycus, "a rat..."

"You would attempt to deceive the Dark Lord?" said Snape.

"We din't tell 'im it was Potter, did we?" persisted Amycus. "We on'y reported somethin' in the shack. We could stick a dead... There's that blasted little cat gets out the garden I seen it - we can stuff that in there and blast the beggar!"

Neville squirmed a little in his chair and waved an arm weakly. "No!"

"I will have none of it," said Snape. "Do as you will."

"What about these three?" said Alecto, her eyes gleaming with hope.

"When they've recovered, they can go. I've had enough of them," said Snape. "I don't trust them at all but they were not involved in this. However... we must tighten up security. Issue a new decree forbidding gatherings of more than two students - or any unauthorised groups or societies - within the castle, the grounds, or Hogsmeade - anywhere!"

Alecto beamed and rubbed her hands together.

"I'll get the kitty - or it's mother." Amycus headed for the door. "Gotta do it quick before I send word,"

"The mother's a good ratter," pleaded Alecto, running after him. "The garden'll be overrun with vermin! You know how I 'ate 'em! Next thing there'll be in 'ere! The kitten's useless! What use is a kitten?"

"Alright, alright, kitten it is," said Amycus as they went out the door and down the stairs. "Else a rat'll 'ave to do."

Neville floundered about in his chair trying to protest. Ginny and Luna were still slumped in their seats. Snape went back around his desk and put away his potions. He thought for a long while before he spoke.

"It has been brought to my attention that the maximum length of any ban on Hogsmeade visits is one school term. I shall, therefore, lift your current ban at the end of the year. However... let me caution each of you. You may be under the mistaken impression that you can defy my authority and get away with it. I will give you this last warning. You have gone way beyond what will be tolerated in the future. This is not a game. Any further misdemeanours or... any kind of provocation or troublemaking ... and no impotent, childish threat against myself will save you. Is that clear?"

The three continued to flop limply in their chairs but Snape knew they had heard and understood him. He swept his wand across them. "Out! Get out of my office. I do not want to see you in here again!"


—oOo—


"We were dead lucky to get away with that!" gasped Neville breathlessly as he anxiously ran down the stairs with Luna, "Snape didn't realise, when he countered the effects of the Veritaserum it healed the shock of the Crucio as well. He's not as smart as he thinks."

But Luna wasn't listening. She had stopped and was looking back up towards the headmaster's office. "Ginny!" she hissed.

Ginny had learned something from Luna, and that was that very interesting things might be heard eavesdropping at the threshold of the enemy. Not that she planned it but when you hear your foe talking in a room you know to be empty of anyone else then curiosity has to be satisfied - even if it kills the cat.

"In that case I'll have to proceed without your agreement!" Snape sounded angry.

There was another voice but so faint that Ginny could not hear the words nor even who it might be. Had someone flooed into Snape's office as they left? More likely one of the portraits had been voicing an opinion; there were plenty of former headmasters that supported the dark side of magic.

"That would mean the entire plan fails because of one foolish student!" There was silence for a few seconds then Snape's voice continued, "It has to be done. There is no other way. The removal of one infuriating, interfering brat who is constantly looking for trouble, or, if you prefer, there is the possibility that none may survive - you do realise that don't you? The Dark Lord's wrath is unlimited!"

The faint voice spoke again but Snape cried "Enough!" after which not a sound could be heard.

Ginny's face was white as she turned to follow Luna and Neville who were staring back up at her, signalling her to come down quickly. They had one thing on their minds. They ran down and out of the Entrance Hall and towards the gardens with Ginny lagging behind, deep in thought.

"I don't think we're in time," said Luna, "Oh, how I wish I could..."

Luna stopped and the other two halted with her. She was staring far ahead. A very large bird was swooping down towards the Herbology Gardens.

"...fly," finished Luna.

They resumed their race, with mixed emotions but they did not get very far. Heading out from the gardens they could see Luna's tawny owl, and clutched in her talons something very white and very fluffy.

"Dippity!" cried Neville, raising his wand, but unsure what to do.

"Oh, I don't think we need to worry," said Luna chirpily, "they've got nine lives you know."

The bird circled around towards them and Luna called her name. Audrey the owl came in to land at Luna's feet and released the kitten from its great talons. She did not wait to listen to much of Luna's gentle scolding however, but swept away rapidly towards the Forest.

"Did that owl wink at you?" Ginny asked Luna.

"Don't be silly," said Neville, as he scooped up Serendipity, "owls can't wink."

The three slunk back into the corner of one of Hogwarts Castle's great buttresses as the Carrows headed by them muttering something about, "gotta find a bloomin' dead rat from somewhere now..."

While Neville and Luna examined the kitten, Ginny turned in to face the corner and kissed her medallion.

Safe. Thank you. But never Hogsmeade again.

"Dippity's fine. I can't believe how lucky we've all been," said Neville to Luna. "Attacked by your owl but she's survived! And I think it's us that's got nine lives too. Snape asked all the wrong questions. Imagine if Ginny had really gone to meet Harry in the shack instead of getting Whiz-bangs! He should have asked if you'd been up to no good! He's not really very clever at all." Neville laughed and slipped Dippity into his pocket.

Ginny turned around and looked at Luna. "Yes, just imagine..."

Luna was studying the sky again. "I think it's going to turn colder," she said. "You can tell when all the clouds start to huddle together to try to keep warm. It looks bad." She shuddered suddenly and hugged herself as if she felt a chill.

"I'll catch up with you two later," said Neville as he turned away towards the gardens. "I'm going to find somewhere safer."

"They're not likely to want another kitten soon, Neville," Ginny called after him.

"I mean safer so Dippity can't get out again - at least until she's a bit older!" he called back.

Ginny rounded on Luna. "Well?"

Luna looked blankly at her.

"Come on, how could I lie to Snape?" said Ginny.

"You remember when we went with Hagrid collecting ingredients, I lagged behind as we were about to return?"

"Not really - oh yes, I think so. What were you up to?"

"Gathering Fool's Beard."

"What for?"

"Well, if you wipe off the silvery stuff it's exactly like Merlin's Beard."

"And?"

"Merlin's Beard is used for?" prompted Luna.

"Veritaserum! You diluted the Merlin's Beard! You mixed in Fool's Beard and gave it to Snape!"

"Well, he was distracted by the Stingers for a while," smiled Luna. "Unless you actually test Fool's Beard, you cannot tell the difference."


—oOo—






Chapter 13: The Unbreakable Curse
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Chapter 13


The Unbreakable Curse




Luna had been right. The clouds did huddle together and the weather certainly turned colder over the next month. The atmosphere inside Hogwarts too, was rather icy - most particularly in the Carrows' classes. Ginny and Neville had advised D.A. members to be extra cautious and low-key. The wanted posters were still successfully reasserting themselves and occupying Filch's time. The castle itself became eager to re-position staircases and walls to the inconvenience of the Carrows and McGonagall's smiling to herself suggested she had had a hand in that. Neville had persuaded Flywixel, the garden's resident cat, to divert the occasional rat towards Alecto's bedroom and the teacher's red-rimmed eyes and nervous disposition told him when she had suffered a sleepless night. But on the whole, there was a cooling-off period that matched the drop in temperature outside.

"Pass the syrup, would you please, Gin?" asked Seamus. "Can't have me breakfast porridge without some."

"Mmm...? What? Oh right..." said Ginny, sliding it over. "Thought you were sweet enough, Seamus."

Ginny's bacon sandwiches were only half-eaten. Since eavesdropping on Snape, Ginny had often become fretful but she kept it to herself for Harry's sake. Now, the focus of her attention was on supporting him and she was glad to do it. Why and how it helped she did not know. What occupied his time she could not guess. The hours in which he called for her to be strong for him were now more frequent. His burden was now hers too and she never hesitated to empower him with her words of encouragement and the sense of their togetherness. His success was paramount so she tried to ignore her own worries and concentrated on Harry.

She looked around the Great Hall. There was a subdued atmosphere at all the tables. Neville, sitting next to herself and Seamus, was definitely looking down in the dumps. Ginny looked over to the Ravenclaw table but she knew Luna would not be there. She had become chronically ill during this time. There was no accounting for it. Sporadically, she felt headaches, confusion, depression and was very weak for several days at a time. Matron could not explain it. Bed rest and Pepperup Potion in the hospital wing resolved the ailment within a few days but it kept reoccurring. Luna wailed that the Ministry were summoning Umgubular Slashkilters to drip a slow poison into her belly button at night from the ceiling but nobody took her seriously. She pointed out that these creatures hate the smell of hospitals. This was the reason, insisted Luna, why she recovered.

Her main concern was that she had not been well at any of the five weekends that had passed her by and so she had not seen Audrey, her tawny owl in all that time. She was not concerned about the owl feeding itself - the Forest was teeming with small creatures - but she wanted to read her father's reply to her messages.

Neville visited her in the hospital wing of course, but he was getting more and more forgetful and distracted so the number of these visits dwindled, and he could generally only get there in the evenings after classes had ended.

"I've brought Dippity along," said Neville, on one of the ever-rarer occasions he called in to see her. It was Halloween night and Neville had hurried to the hospital wing immediately after the final lesson of the week. There were to be no official decorations in the Great Hall but the D.A. had plans for mass-conjuring huge flocks of bats and instant-grow pumpkins. Hagrid and Professor Sprout had covertly helped with these. Luna had been looking forward to this so Neville hoped the kitten might allay her disappointment at being hospitalised yet again.

Neville cast a furtive eye around for Madam Pomfrey then sneaked the young cat out from under his robes.

"Oh, she's growing!" said Luna, stroking the white fur and tickling the cat under the chin.

"Flywixel is already teaching her how to drive out vermin," said Neville, earnestly. "They are very patient with them. Dippity is not daunted at all by rats as big as herself and she just keeps explaining to them until they understand not to come back. Ragdolls can be surprisingly stubborn when there are no Muggles about."

They were silent for a while watching Dippity play with Luna's nightcap. Neville was beginning to look dejected.

"Neville, I'm sorry about... our date. I've not been able to get to the Room of Requirement properly yet to finish it off - and I want it to be perfect before I bring in the food and drink... and I've so much homework backed up." Luna was looking very sorrowful. "The D.A. comes first, of course, so even when I'm well... How are you managing there without me?"

"Well, we've slowed things right down for now. Hannah's standing in for you - she's very good at organising things... You should see all the giant candles she's got for tonight's feast... It's going to be great! This'll shake them up I can tell you!" He tailed off as he saw Luna's expression.

There was a long thoughtful silence.

"Hufflepuffs are hard workers aren't they?" Neville said brightly all of a sudden.

"They're killing me, Neville," said Luna quietly. Her lip quivered and her head dropped despondently.

"Luna! You don't really think th--"

"You don't believe me either do you?"

"Well, look... L- listen, they can't... W- why would..." Neville leaned closer, trying to think how to answer, how to comfort her.

"Would you remember, me, Neville?" said Luna. She sounded more and more mournful.

"Luna! What do you mean? Remember you? Luna - it's the depressions you're getting. This is not you talking."

"If anything happened to me - would you... Neville, could you promise me something?"

"Nothing's going to... Of course, Luna - anything." Neville reached over and took Luna's hand. With a shock he found her skin was damp and there was a feverish look in her eyes. He looked around frantically for the Matron.

"Would you write me down - in a nice book perhaps - so you don't forget me. I don't think I could bear it if you forgot about me."

"Madam Pomfrey!" shouted Neville, rising to his feet, still clutching Luna' wet hand and reluctant to let her go.

"It's not your fault," persisted Luna. "You can't help being forgetful."

Neville felt her grip go limp and she sagged back on the bed.

"Matron!" screamed Neville - but she was already hurrying over.

Madam Pomfrey took one look at Luna and shooed Neville out under protest.

"Is she dying? What's happening to her?" he cried, as he pushed Dippity into the big pocket on his robes.

"Out!" Madam Pomfrey wasted not one word more on the young man.

As Neville walked unwillingly out of the hospital wing he kept looking back but the matron had drawn curtains around Luna's bed. As the door swung shut behind him he turned and abruptly found himself almost nose to nose with Alecto Carrow. There was something especially sinister about her. Perhaps it was her silence; possibly it was that she was just standing there in the middle of the corridor, watching; most likely it was the evil sneer indicating the delight she was taking in his sorrowful expression. He was too upset to care much about her at the moment.

Neville ignored her and passed by without any word of exchange from either of them - yet Neville sensed she had turned and was watching him go with malicious glee. Once out of her sight, his feelings overflowed and he ran. He ran as if trying to escape the terrible image in his mind of the real fear he had seen in Luna's eyes as she lost consciousness. Were those eyes closing forever?

He found Ginny in the Gryffindor reading room. He had observed that she often spent time stood in the corner behind the bookshelf, toying with her hair while browsing. It seemed odd but girls often do strange things he had noticed. Parvati was sat at a table reading, chewing on her quill, and making notes. Everything was so normal. Neville felt like the world was coming to an end yet nobody knew.

"Ginny... Ginny, it's bad..." said Neville, his eyes shining with unshed emotion. "It's Luna - she's very sick this time. She's passed out or..."

Ginny gripped his arm and fear flashed across her expression as she stared hard into Neville's face. The girl turned instinctively as if eager to dash off to the hospital wing.

"Matron's looking after her - best wait," said Neville, holding her back. "You don't believe Luna's story about Slashkilters sent by the Ministry do you?"

Ginny sniffed her disdain - but she looked very worried.

"She told me in the Forest she thought she was being watched" said Neville mournfully. "- I told her it was just animals... Just animals, I said. Do you think--"

"I thought it was me," said Ginny suddenly.

"What?"

"When we came out of Snape's - I heard him talking--"

"What! There was nobody there! Did someone floo in?"

"I think it was one of the Slytherin portraits. I... we were so busy with trying to save Dippity I let it slip my mind. Truth is, I was so happy after we visited the Trysting Stone I didn't want to think about it."

"What did Snape say?"

"Something about a plan and discussing whether to... remove me or all of us!" Ginny stressed the word 'remove' and looked meaningfully at Neville.

"Why just you? Are you sure he meant you?"

"Well, he didn't actually--"

"So, it could be me - more likely me I think," said Neville.

"No, I think he meant me. I think he knows I'm the D.A. leader."

"I knew you'd been worrying about something!" exploded Neville suddenly. " - but that was a month ago! Why didn't you say!" Parvati looked up from her book and Neville turned his back and lowered his voice to a hoarse whisper. "All the D.A. must be informed!"

"No! They'd be terrified - and what can anyone do! I was certain it was me he meant but I pushed it out of my mind. I thought he was going to expel me at the first excuse he got. If he didn't he thought You-know-who might... do something... worse to anybody they thought might be in the D.A."

Neville was thoughtful for a while then he said firmly, "You actually want to get expelled, don't you."

"No! Why would--"

"You want to search for Harry - I can t- tell you're p- preoccupied with him," said Neville. "You keep coming round here to be on your own... I know you're missing him. You want to go and help him don't you?"

There was a slight commotion from the common room. Seamus' voice filtered through. "He's in the reading room, Professor."

Neville turned and saw Parvati looking at someone round the corner but she was tentatively pointing at Neville.

"Mr. Longbottom! I want a word with you!" It was Professor McGonagall.

McGonagall glanced around the room, and the look she focused on Parvati and Ginny didn't need any words; they both moved out quickly from the room to give the professor and Neville some privacy. Ginny held back just outside the doorway and Parvati pulled a face, grabbed her arm, and tried to tug her away. Ginny shook her head vaguely; she was listening intently to what she could hear from inside the reading room.

"I don't know what you're involved with Mr. Longbottom, but it has got to stop!"

"Professor?"

"Don't act the innocent with me, young man. You're killing Miss Lovegood and I am not going to let that happen!"

Parvati's eyes practically popped out of her head as she and Ginny gaped at one another. McGonagall seemed to divine their presence for she came storming out suddenly with a dazed Neville in tow. She glared at the two girls. "Haven't you two got homework to do before tonight's feast!"

Ginny's stare followed the departing figures as they went out through the portrait entrance. She was aware of Seamus and some others were coming over and Parvati was explaining what had happened. Ginny ignored them and dashed upstairs to her dorm to be on her own. Romilda was already sat on her bed but with her back to Ginny, absorbed in writing her diary.

Ginny hesitated. She yearned for Harry's sympathy but as soon as she had picked up her medallion she realised she was being childish. She could not keep leaning on Harry for every little emotional upset; on the contrary, it was her task to help him - he had been asking for and receiving her support for the last few hours anyway. She straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin - then kissed the medallion long and hard.

With U always. Strong 4U. Love U.


—oOo—


"But I've not done anything, Professor," blurted Neville. "I don't... I wouldn't--"

"I don't believe for one moment you are doing it intentionally," said McGonagall, "but tell me what you do know."

"Know? I don't know anything about it. She just keeps getting sick..."

They were in McGonagall's office next to the Transfiguration classroom. McGonagall's wand flashed quickly towards Neville and he flinched.

"Keep still," snapped McGonagall.

Her abrupt manner indicated how worried she was. She guided her wand over the youth who stood puzzled and anxious, if not fearful. He well knew McGonagall's power and she was not to be trifled with in this mood.

The professor frowned and put away her wand; she seemed disappointed.

"Matron informs me she has been checking her records and finds that Miss Lovegood's condition has worsened after each of your visits--"

Neville gasped and looked rather unsteady on his feet. McGonagall indicated a chair next to him and he sat down very slowly.

"She has also asked Professor Flitwick who informed her that you and Miss Lovegood normally sit together in Charms class - is this true?"

Neville nodded. "I sit with her in... every lesson where I can. And we meet every Friday evening in the library."

"That might explain why she is worse on weekends. It also suggests that... interaction is key."

"Professor?"

"You are, I hope at least, busy studying in classes but when you meet in the library, I take it you don't go there to read books?"

Neville reddened slightly and McGonagall nodded. "I thought so."

Madam Pomfrey entered at that moment. She raised her hand to quieten Neville's questions and said, "I've put her into deep rest for a day or two. Miss Lovegood's condition has stabilised but she needs time to recover from... earlier." She looked sternly at Neville then looked at McGonagall with a questioning eye.

"By all means, Poppy. I found nothing myself."

Madam Pomfrey spent some time - far longer than McGonagall had, passing her wand over Neville using varying movements and with different chants.

"Am I cursed?" said Neville suddenly.

"That is what we need to find out," said Pomfrey. She wrote something on a small piece of parchment and handed it to Neville.

"What's this?" Neville examined the writing; it appeared to be a London address.

"I want you to memorise it because I am going to destroy it shortly," said Pomfrey.

McGonagall snorted and threw her hands in the air.

"Miss Lovegood's life may depend on it," added Pomfrey.

Neville stared at her for a few moments then began to study the address. He turned over the parchment and began reciting the address to himself over and over. Finally, he nodded. Pomfrey flicked her wand, and the parchment vanished.

"This magic may be very dark indeed. There is nobody we can trust now at either St. Mungo's or Hogwarts with the knowledge to uncover it. You must visit this address. They will know what to do. You are expected."

"But Matron, how can--"

"The holidays will be upon us sooner than you think. Until then... You have to keep away from Miss Lovegood."

"But Christmas is weeks away!" Neville stared as this information sank in. It was like the pronouncement of a prison sentence.

"I can't talk to her all that time--?"

"No visits, no meetings, and you should keep as far apart as possible in class," said Pomfrey. "No talking; no messages; no looking at each other. It's important; it's not just about nearness, it's about how you... react to each other. If... when Miss Lovegood recovers I shall be telling her the same. If she suffers a relapse then... we shall have to completely separate you. Now I must return to my patients."

"What about Miss Lovegood?" said McGonagall, "Did you detect anything?"

"Only that the symptoms are magically induced. I don't think there is a curse on her - not that I can detect - I can't be sure though. I shall be sending her to see my contact in London during the Christmas holidays as well - to make certain."

"Thank you Poppy," said McGonagall as Madam Pomfrey disappeared out through the door. McGonagall turned to Neville as he tried to follow. "Not so fast, Mr. Longbottom."

She sat down behind her desk and indicated the chair in front of it. Neville lowered himself slowly onto the seat, facing McGonagall's glare with difficulty.

"Now, perhaps, you will tell me how you might have come to be cursed?"

"But I--"

"No buts - I'm sure you must have some idea - some suspicion at least. You know something."

Reluctantly, Neville explained about the Trysting Stone - but he left Ginny out of it, implying that it concerned only himself and Luna. He looked McGonagall straight in the eye when he said they had received an anonymous warning afterwards that the Stone was cursed. As McGonagall was drawing breath to ask, he quickly added that the message had destroyed itself. McGonagall sighed.

"You are very foolish, Mr. Longbottom. You have broken so many school rules that I hardly know where to begin. Tampering with cursed objects is so risky that even trained Aurors have been known to lose their lives - not to mention venturing alone into the Forbidden Forest! - It is forbidden you know!"

"Sorry, Professor."

"You're becoming as dreadful as Harry Potter - and as terrible I might add - walking into the most frightful dangers without a thought for your personal safety - or for the consequences! What your grandmother would think--"

McGonagall hesitated, staring, eyes-wide and tight-lipped at Neville's brightening expression. He looked ecstatic and was struggling to speak.

"Th- tha- ... k'you, P- Prof--"

"It wasn't meant to be a compliment you blitherin' idiot!"

Neville blinked but he seemed oblivious of what McGonagall had said.

"Get a hold of yourself, Mr. Longbottom - this is serious. I suppose you think you're ready to take on You-know-who now, do you? Well, let me tell you, young man, you're getting carried away with..."

She tailed off. Neville's eyes were far away. He looked as if a lifetime of doubt had been lifted off from his shoulders. McGonagall shook her head. She turned to look at her calendar.

"This cursed artifact is too dangerous to remain in the vicinity of the school. Fortunately, tomorrow is a Saturday. You will meet me and Professor Flitwick at six-thirty in the morning at Hagrid's hut. It's a pity you didn't do better in your Apparation test - you will have to lead the three of us to the Stone. Do you think you can remember where it is?" McGonagall's eyebrows raised several notches to indicate her doubt.

"Certain," said Neville. "Are you going to vanish the Stone or transform it into something? - it's huge!"

McGonagall sighed. "Have you learned nothing in your Transfiguration lessons? Size does not matter one jot except in your belief. In any case, if, as you say, it is of great historic value then I hope either I or Professor Flitwick can break the curse and leave the Stone as a harmless piece of rock. I am not hopeful though - we may have to vanish it or destroy it somehow." There was a sudden melancholy look in her eyes and in her tone. "If only Professor Dumbledore was still with us - we need an expert..."

She became very thoughtful for a few seconds then looked at her watch. "We'd better hurry or we'll be late for the Halloween feast. I've had enough shocks and surprises for one day."

"Erm..." began Neville, wondering frantically if there would be time for Hannah to perhaps reduce the number of bats planned for the Great Hall to below a thousand.

McGonagall stopped in the doorway and turned back to look at Neville. "Well?"

"Nothing... Just... Nothing."


—oOo—


Hermione was never quite the same. She had cried for weeks after Ron left and scarcely participated in anything other than the routine of eating and sleeping. But time heals all and slowly, very slowly, she became more communicative. Harry still refused to let her wear the locket as often as he did - and not at all while she slept. She was the better for a good night's sleep. They did not mention Ron's time share of the Horcrux but made up part of the difference by hanging the dark object from a branch or laying it down very carefully where they could snatch it up in an emergency.

At last, she was reading again - and not just trying. She had resumed in earnest her study of The Tales of Beedle the Bard and eventually they were both tentatively discussing likely locations for the Sword. Harry's original enthusiastic belief that Dumbledore must have placed the Sword where Harry would find it now started to test his faith - and his patience.

Harry shivered as the evening breeze stiffened from the east. Once again, they had pitched their tent on a wooded hillside but this one was a sloping maze of daunting brier thickets and scrub; at least the wind was not so severe as on yesterday's open moorland. They were camped above a long and meandering shallow pool - a clean water mere into which poured a succession of rivulets that weaved down the hill past their campsite. From these rushing streams they had successfully summoned several small trout and, having eaten well, they were both almost relaxed in their conversation.

"Do you suppose we might ever see Hogwarts again, Harry?" asked Hermione, as she looped an extra sweater over her back to keep warm in the cool air. It was already dark and they had started a fire for light and warmth. It was preferable to being cooped up in the tent - and safer to keep watch outside.

"Not certain I want to anymore," said Harry. "There are so many... bad memories."

"But there were plenty of good times weren't there?" said Hermione, trying to smile a little. "There were happy hours around the fire in the common room and warm, summer days walking the grounds."

"It's painful to think of--" Harry stopped himself; he saw it would not do to dwell on melancholy feelings. "--some of the detentions and exam revision and potions lessons - but yes, there are many wonderful memories - Quidditch for instance."

"Hagrid's Blast-Ended Skrewts!" laughed Hermione.

It was the first time Harry had heard Hermione's laughter in more than a month and he joined in quickly - hoping it didn't sound forced. He had a feeling she was making an effort to be lighthearted and he wanted to help her.

"Fluffy!" grinned Harry. "And the giant chess game! We'd never have made it without--"

"How nervous you were when you first began to teach the D.A.!" Hermione had abruptly changed the subject, Harry noted, away from Ron. "You were good at teaching you know."

"That poor rabbit!" exclaimed Harry, "When we were down by the lake - you know -when I was teaching you that spell. What exactly did you--"

"A fox. I made it remember itself as a fox. Then it saw its own tail and went spinning around chasing itself dizzy!" Hermione rocked back and forth on her stool with peels of laughter.

"Draco as a ferret - I mean a stoat - or was it a weasel? I can never remember the difference," smiled Harry. "He's obnoxious whatever he is!"

"Professor Dumbledore taught you that spell, didn't he, Harry?" Harry could see she instantly regretted mentioning it - as if unsure how Harry might feel about that time with Dumbledore.

"No - he... He gave me no help with that at all. He left it all up to me how to get Slughorn's altered memory - or rather the original memory. No, ...erm, Ginny's dad, Mr. Weasley, taught me during the holidays. He's always using those charms - you know, when Muggle artifacts get misused and Muggles see things they shouldn't. I didn't tell him exactly what it was for, of course. I thought if I understood how Slughorn had changed his memory I might find a way to undo it. I practised on Goyle you know--"

"You didn't!"

"Yes, when he was coming out of a toilet I changed his memory so he thought he was just going. He turned around and went back in! After ten minutes of that he didn't know whether he was coming or going!"

Hermione shrieked with laughter. It was good to hear. "Toilets - Moaning Myrtle! - Oh, and you remember Nick's Deathday Party!" she cried.

"I've been trying to forget it," smiled Harry. He was struggling to remember memories where Ron had not participated and, he fancied, so was Hermione. The more they tried, the more the thought of him - and the more they realised both of them were doing it too.

The nearest gorse bush shook with some strong gusts of wind and Hermione used the distraction to go and make more tea. Harry eyed the locket where he had twisted its chain around the back of a canvas chair. He reached for his medallion instinctively as he did so many times a day. Castle - Ginny was still safe.

"Harry! It's Halloween! Did you know!" Hermione called from the tent.

Harry put his head on one side thoughtfully, thinking of Ginny. He kissed his medallion.

Happy Halloween from a secret admirer.


—oOo—


For once, Ginny, Neville, and Luna could not be blamed for a D.A. protest. The unauthorised festivities had already begun when Neville entered with McGonagall and Ginny arrived moments later from visiting Luna in the hospital wing.

It seemed to Ginny that Professor Flitwick was nonverbally casting protective charms over every bat and pumpkin because Snape and the Carrow combined seemed unable to vanish them without the risk of reducing the entire Hall to ruins. The smirk on Professor Sprout's face too, suggested the pumpkins had the Gemino curse for every attack only duplicated them. What had been expected to be a five-minute fun protest became an on-going festival to which Snape eventually seemed resigned. The floating banners inscribed Happy Halloween! We're still here! made it one of the D.A.'s greatest shows of resistance ever.

"How is she?" said Neville. He did not need to whisper for the tumult of flapping wings, popping pumpkins, and crackling candles made it unnecessary. There was also a suspicion that an increasing number of gnomes were chattering away beneath the tables - and, of course, everyone was furtively talking behind a cupped hand or a raised goblet.

"She was fast asleep all the time I was there," said Ginny. "She looked peaceful enough."

Ginny stared hard at Neville. "What was McGonagall on about, Neville? - you killing Luna?"

"They think I'm cursed," said Neville morosely. He muttered something that Ginny couldn't hear because of the racket around them.

"What did you say?"

"I can't see her again. I can't see Luna again."

Ginny looked even harder at Neville. "They can't do that! They've--"

"I'm making her ill - it's me that's making her ill. I can't go near her."

Ginny blinked, trying to make sense of what he had said. "But they can fix it can't they?"

"They don't know." A gnome sneaked from behind a jack o' lantern, stole one of Neville's roast turnips and ran off giggling. Neville scarcely noticed. He was staring through his plate of food rather than at it.

"But how?"

"I told them... I had to tell McGonagall about the Trysting Stone..."

"What!"

"Had to... Luna's life might depend on it." Neville looked up and added hastily. "I didn't mention you."

Ginny remained silent.

"We're all going tomorrow morning early - me, McGonagall, Flitwick, and Hagrid - see if they can break the curse on the Stone."

"They believe it?" Ginny was astounded. "But... It helped me and Harry. It... You mean just because we were near it? We're all cursed? I was the only one that used it! What about Harry? Is he safe?"

"I don't know, Ginny, I'm sorry. They don't know."

"So if they break the curse on the Stone - does that mean we're all safe?"

"No - that just makes the Stone safe for anyone else in the future I think."

Ginny's mind was in a whirl. She disentangled a bat that was fluttering in her hair and cast it over her shoulder absentmindedly, ignoring Romilda's squeal from behind. Should she warn Harry? What could she say? What could he do? Was he safe right now? She lowered her face to curtain it with her hair and inspected her medallion. It showed a sailing ship; he was still safely on the road. It trembled as she looked and the words appeared, "Happy Halloween from a secret admirer. He sounded well and Ginny was comforted by that thought. She decided to say nothing for the time being.

"Neville, we need to find out more about the Stone. What's wrong with it. Why are you cursed? And why is it only affecting Luna, not you? Did you put your arm through the hole?"

"No - I did clean the vegetation away from it though - I might have put my hand inside. Yes, I did - to pull away the weeds and creepers and..."

"But why am I..." Ginny gasped and her eyes suddenly sparkled in the flickering candlelight. "So that means... I can't see Harry ever again! He's not sick now - I mean he's probably not sick now but if ever I see him..."

Ginny thought furiously. She had seen Harry since. It had been the day after she had used the Stone. She lowered her head again and kissed the medallion. Were U ill after shack?"

Harry's answer came back almost immediately. Yes. Too many pork pies. It was worth it!

"Ginny?"

Ginny clutched hard on her medallion. It was inconclusive. It was true he had eaten rather a lot. She remembered worrying how hungry he must have been. She had to know.

"Ginny?" Neville had abandoned his meal. Ginny hid away her medallion and looked up.

"Ginny, where did you get that clipping from - the one about the Stone?" he said. "You're right - we need to find out more. How can I help?"

They spent the rest of the early evening scouring the Secret History and the library books in general but their search was fruitless. They found no other mention of the Trysting Stone other than what she had discovered before. They were both at a loss where to turn to next. They resolved they would have to make more thorough searches through the library over the coming weeks. It was not a happy prospect.


—oOo—


Harry hugged his mug of cocoa with both hands and shivered as he peered down towards the dark surface of the pool which was beginning to ruffle and spray as the wind increasingly gusted. The streams and brooks which fed it seemed more excited too, glittering palest blues and silvers in the wand light he had cast up. He looked down the slope and felt reassured their camp was way up above the pool should the waters rise during the night. He would have liked to have gone down to see the mere closer but the gravel bank that separated thick thorn patches from the nearest rivulet was loose stone and earth held together by twisted roots - not really a trail at all. He certainly would not want to explore it at night.

"Looks like the storm's finally coming in, Hermione," he said. "Are you still sure you want to do the night watch? I don't mind if--"

"You can't do it all yourself, Harry," said Hermione. "You did it last night and you only got four hours sleep this morning."

As she spoke, Harry could see a squall rushing across the pool towards them. He turned and dashed for their shelter, trying not to spill his hot drink. "Take cover! It's coming!"

Hermione smiled from her seat on the watch chair and cast a charm upon her heavy storm cloak. It hung so large and loose around her that Harry fancied she had a book hidden inside its canopy-like folds.

Crouching just inside the tent entrance, he looked out, sipping the remains of his cocoa and watching Hermione. When the rain hit the campsite it steamed off her impregnable spell producing a warm, sparkling aura around her. She drew her face back deep inside her hood and pulled in her arms. Dim light from her wand leaked out from sleeves and neck to give a curious, spooky glow.

Satisfied that Hermione was well protected from the elements, Harry drained the last of his hot beverage, exchanged goodnights with her and went sleepily to bed.


—oOo—


Early on the Saturday morning Neville felt sure he was being watched from the darkness around him. He hurried forward through the trees to keep up with the others. Although it was the main trail into the Forbidden Forest, the leaves underfoot were sodden and muddy from the overnight storm and even though the rain had now stopped it still dripped from the branches and twigs and down his neck at every opportunity.

As he squelched along he recalled Luna's same anxiety in this forest. He regretted now that he had not really believed her when she had voiced that concern, I think I'm being watched, Neville. As he pursued the scurrying feet of Professor Flitwick and the heavy stomp of Hagrid leading the way he pictured to himself how it might be if death took Luna from him - and because of him. He shook his head and drops of rain sprayed aside. Not going to happen he murmured to himself.

He resolved that so long as his presence might harm her, he would never, ever, go near the girl. He cared for her more than his own happiness and to be the cause of her demise was so unthinkable he had already accepted without question that they must separate if no solution were found.

He was shocked by the realisation of how simply he had accepted the inevitable. The idea of never seeing her again did not seem to distress him as much as he might have expected. He was very sad, yes - but why was he not grieving? why no emotional agony? no tears? He knew that he loved Luna deeply. Yes, but are you IN love with her? said a voice in his head.

Neville stopped abruptly on the trail. The others halted also and turned around to look at him.

"Something's following us," said Neville.

McGonagall, Flitwick, and Hagrid, all looked back along the track.

"I'm being watched."

Flitwick cast several revealing spells. "Nothing there but animals, Longbottom."

"Yeh get 'undreds of creatures aroun' 'ere, Neville," Hagrid called from the front. "Don' yeh be--"

"Magical creatures?" said Neville.

"Well o' course theh's magical, Neville," chuckled Hagrid. "This is th' Forbidden Forest, after all."

"Mr. Longbottom, we must get on." McGonagall shooed Hagrid ahead of her and the big man turned and resumed their walk. Neville sighed and continued after them. Almost immediately, they stopped again. There was a figure up ahead on the track.

"Ah, Mr. Weasley," said McGonagall, "glad you got my message. How are you now?"

Bill Weasley brushed his fingers over the scars that Fenrir Greyback had inflicted upon the side of his head. "I'm fine." He looked over the group. "Ginny not with you?"

"She's not involved with this," said Neville, perhaps too abruptly.

"You're her friend, Neville Longbottom, aren't you," said Bill, striding forward to grip his hand. "I remember you from the Astronomy Tower fight. Tell her from me to be careful. I don't like her being here at Hogwarts to be honest." He turned to the others. "What's it like in the school now?"

"About what was expected with Death Eaters running the place," scowled Flitwick. "Not much we can do though. How is young Ronald?"

"Bitterly regrets he... he's still sick. Yes, very ill." Bill looked sharply at Flitwick, then at McGonagall, but he could not tell what they were thinking. "Ginny - you'll...?"

"We'll keep an eye on Ginny, don't worry, Bill," said McGonagall. "We keep telling all the students to stay out of trouble and not antagonise the Death Eaters." Her eyes tightened as they focused on Neville.

Bill nodded at her. "This Stone - you said it was cursed? How recent?"

McGonagall pointed him to Neville.

"We don't know," said Neville. "The Stone is very ancient."

"Right up yeh street then, eh, Bill?" said Hagrid with a grin. "If anyone can break th' curse - reckon you can! Come on, we get off the trail here."

"There's markers, Hagrid - we need to reveal them," said Neville.

"Don' need no markers, Neville," said Hagrid, pushing his way past a thorn bush. "If it's near where we wen' before, I'll find it alright."

As they disappeared into the denser thickets off-track, that which had been watching them persisted no further. Its great eyes watched for a while and it listened as they trudged away out of earshot. It knew one of them to be a friend but the others it did not trust. It blinked, then, swift as the wind, it returned to the forest's edge. It would have to find another way to do its duty.


—oOo—


"Harry! Wake up!" Harry felt himself being shaken and being splashed with water. One second later his hand had reached out to grasp his wand. His glasses he put on only moments later. He stared at his agitated friend as he quickly swung out of bed.

"They've found us! We have to leave - now!" Hermione was already rushing around casting spells to pack everything away and shedding droplets wherever she turned.

"They can't see through our protections but it's just a matter of time," continued Hermione. Her face was shining wet and her hair was plastered back.

"I think my charm failed during the night," she moaned as she squelched off towards the entrance with her bag in her hand.

Harry did not waste any time with questions. He had already pulled on his jeans and was into his jacket almost before Hermione ran out of the tent. He could see it was still dark out there but the noise of the storm had subsided and the only sound was from the rushing, gurgling, waters nearby.

"Horcrux! Hermione?" was the first thing he said as he joined her outside. She pointed at her throat and was about to point to the sky but she saw she did not need to. Harry could not fail to miss the ominous sign; it was the Dark Mark, almost on top of them.

If Harry had not been fully awake before then, he certainly was now. He gasped in shock as he stared up at the skull and serpent sign. It was so close it had to be somewhere near the pool. He looked down along the bank, straining to see anything - a light, a glimmer - there was nothing but a thin moon that had broken through the angry, ragged clouds to give shape and outline to bushes and cascading streams. He could hear Hermione behind him summoning the tent and its contents into her bag.

"How many? Did they see you?" said Harry, spinning around and rushing to Hermione's side.

"I've only just seen the mark - I'm not waiting to find out any more -- here, grab my arm."

There was a puzzled look on Harry's face as they Disapparated together.


—oOo—


Audrey the owl took up her position on a high branch facing the great castle of Hogwarts to wait. Yet she was troubled. To her leg was attached something of great importance - that much she knew - but its mistress had not returned for a complete moon. Audrey well understood that she must not return to the owlery. Only one possibility remained: she knew two friends who met every day.

She flew low and fast, skimming the wet grass, until she reached the gardens. It was still early morning and there was nobody about. The great wings flapped once more.

It took some time before she espied that which she sought - then she swooped silently as any efficient predator might drop on its prey.

CRASH! The owl slid down off the angled frame and fluttered, dazed upon the ground for several seconds. Chicken wire was unknown to the creature. She fluffed up her feathers and resolved to try again - but there was no need.

Serendipity sat, completely unconcerned, watching her from the other side of the wire. Audrey held out her leg, still not comprehending the nature of the mesh that separated them. The little kitten seemed to be thinking for a while then it trotted of to the far end of its open run and into a large doghouse-shaped structure. Her face appeared at a tiny window, miaowing to the owl.

Audrey was on the ground; this was not her territory and she glanced nervously around before scurrying and fluttering along to join the kitten. She listened intently at the opening, then turning to one side, pecked dexterously at a latch that held shut a tiny door into Dippity's enclosure. As the latch fell away, out came the kitten.

Together they gnawed and clawed at the message attached to Audrey's leg until it came away at which point the kitten ran back with the message into its enclosure and the owl obligingly refastened the latch. Satisfied that she had delivered her message to a reliable friend of her mistress, Audrey flew back to the edge of the Forbidden Forest.


—oOo—


"I think it was just one of them," said Harry, casting a bright wand light high so he could better examine the walls of the great cave in which he now stood. "What is this place? Is it--?"

"Why only one? Anyway, there'll be scores of them there now." Hermione looked at Harry. She was still dripping and looked dreadful. "Did you think I was too hasty! Harry, I don't care even if there was one Death Eater or a hundred, we--"

"No, no - I don't think you were hasty at all - but with hindsight, I wish... I'd have liked to have checked. I really think there was only one. He came up from the pool area and somehow detected us. Then he probably didn't fancy... I mean, he wouldn't know how many of them there were, would he? We could have had twenty Order members in the tent for all he knew. He went back down to the pool to cast the Mark. I saw his muddy footprints there and back."

"It makes no sense, Harry--"

"I tell you I saw them, Hermione. We never went down there did we? There were definitely footprints - deep footprints. The streams overflowed in the night - it was all mud."

"I mean, why the Mark? We were in the middle of nowhere. The Mark in the sky might not be seen for weeks - months! That's why I chose that place - nobody goes there but fishermen and it's off-season until... I don't know, springtime anyway. Why not... use the Mark on his arm? It doesn't add up."

"He wouldn't be sure who we were perhaps? Or maybe... maybe he wasn't a high-up Death Eater - not all of them get the brand, do they?"

"Harry! You're not thinking we should go back?"

"No way! - No, I'm... just trying to figure it out, is all."

"Our job is to find the Horcruxes not fight Death Eaters!"

"I know! I know! I'm agreeing with you! Don't let's..." Harry paused as he looked at his friend and grinned; she looked a complete mess. "Hermione, you're still soaking wet!"

"Tell me about it!" moaned Hermione. "Come on, let's get the protective spells--"

"No. First things first. To hell with the shields for a minute." Harry pointed his wand at Hermione and cast the hot-air charm. She staggered backwards slightly before the warming blast and her hair frizzed up like a great ball of fluff.

"Better?" said Harry. "Don't want you going down with a chill."

"Thanks, yes." Hermione walked off to the cave entrance to begin casting concealments.

"How come your spell to keep off the rain failed?" called Harry, as he dug the tent out of Hermione's bag.

"Don't know." She looked back. "Harry, I'm sorry - I was so warm and cosy that I dozed off - I'm really sorry."

Harry's eyes bulged. "That must have been when the Death Eater came up!" He shuddered, but it was not the cold. "How did he not see you!"

"I'd finished reading. I'd put my light out - I'm sorry, Harry."

"Don't worry - I'm just glad you're alright! It's difficult to be watchful twenty-four hours a day with just the two of--" He broke off, not wishing to remind Hermione of Ron's absence.

Harry joined her at the cave entrance. He could glimpse crashing waves beyond a wide bank of coarse vegetation that struggled for a place on the stony ground. She saw his look and remembered his earlier question. "Campers only come here in the summer. It's not a deep cave - not even potholers are interested in it. Bit boring really."

"Sounds good to me then," said Harry, trying to get a better glimpse of the sea beyond the swaying curtain of wind-blown grasses. "Think there are any kippers swimming about out there? I'm ready for breakfast."


—oOo—






Chapter 14: The Stray
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Chapter 14


The Stray




Day after day, Xenophilius Lovegood watched the grim skies with increasing fear in his heart. A month had passed without a glimpse of an owl from his daughter. All he saw was a solitary wren that flew down each day to his over-planted vegetable patch to peck at the scraps he had left out for the snails. Xenophilius turned to go back inside but stopped on the path. Through his open front doorway he could hear the printing press bumping and clattering away, eagerly pouring out the increased demand for November's Quibbler. He could not top last month's report of the raid on the Ministry but conjecture and hearsay went a long way with Xeno's readers and kept hope alive in these dark times.

The man sighed and turned round yet again, looking towards the garden shed that lurched against his old, disused barn - but not really seeing it, thinking hard. He had always known the risks he took himself but not until now had he worried about his daughter's safety. Why had she not responded to his last messages?

He took a few tentative steps forward then stopped again. This time he really was looking at the shed - yet seeing it as it had been. The structure had begun its service quite differently; rebuilt more than once, and the barn which had been added later, now supported it. To begin with, it had been a stone and board shack he had built for himself and his wife until he magically constructed a true dream dwelling. After their daughter was old enough it became her playhouse and when she outgrew it and left for Hogwarts then the shack withered gracelessly into a general-purpose garden junk store. Now its blue and yellow paint was peeling sadly and its slumped and leaning contours were barely recognisable as hat-shaped anymore. Even the barn complained during the night as it creaked and softly groaned with the burden against its south wall.

A fluttery-ragged scarecrow called out from amongst the potato plants, "Are you going to stand around there all day?" It's thin, crackling voice brought Xeno out of his reverie.

"Bagstaff," said Xeno, "I might be needing your broom."

"Oh no!" creaked the scarecrow. "I'm comfortable now, settled in for the winter ahead. What's so important it can't wait until next summer?"

The little wren, attracted by the rasping utterances, hopped up onto the end of the scarecrow's arm and began pecking for insects in the protruding straw.

"Luna," replied Xeno. His tone was flat, matter-of-fact, but the stuffed-sack-head twisted its coarse threads into a sympathetic expression and waited to hear more.

Xeno seemed undecided. The scarecrow squirmed around to see where he was looking and the wren fluttered and danced to the other arm. One eyebrow, a mere few stitches in the fabric, moved upward slightly to signify understanding. "Don't just take my broomstick - take me with you. I can't stand being without it anyway."

"You prattle too much, Bagstaff - and this is a covert rescue mission."

"How else am I supposed to scare away the birds? Pretend to be a non-moving Muggle? Oh, yeah - like that'd work. Anyway, our early expeditions were always stealthy."

"Last time I was just a treetop away from a Snorkack--"

"No you weren't. It was just a--"

"You drove it away with your babbling, Bagstaff." Xeno turned on his heel and headed back to the house.

"I can steer the flitfloat - you know that!" the scarecrow twittered after him in its thin, woody, croaky voice. "A broomstick alone can't do that!"

"We'll see..."

The wren hopped along Bagstaff's arm and began to chirr and chatter into the small hole torn in the side of his head.

"Too cold for you," said the scarecrow. "--unless..."


—oOo—


"What we going to do about the wall posters, Ginny?" said Parvati. "Only there's--"

"Hang on, Parv - injuries first," said Ginny, opening her bag and turning to a small queue of walking wounded. "What's up, Smith? Got a friction burn on your mouth?" She smiled at the other D.A. members who had gathered together at one of their regular brief meetings.

"Haha! Very funny. Got a kicking from Zabini and his thugs..."

"Was that yesterday evening? Out after curfew again?"

"No - but it was after curfew when they'd finished. I used the Dittany on the bruises but I've still got a pain in my knee."

Ginny moved her wand in a slow circular pattern and chanted softly. "Ligament. No problem." She cast a simple healing charm at the joint. "Draw one dose of Dittany to top up your pack - no more than one!" She turned to the rest of the group.

"Everyone got their emergency packs topped up? - if not, see Hannah now."

"Me next?" came a pleading voice. "It's urgent!"

"Alice? What you been up to?"

"Broken fingernail," the girl replied tearfully, clutching her right hand with her left.

Ginny rolled her eyes and sighed as she turned to the next in line. "Somebody lend Alice a nail file, please!"

"No, it's... broken..." She held out her arm.

"Merlin!" cried Ginny, as she saw the injury. "Sorry, Alice, I thought you meant... Who did that?"

"Crabbe tripped me on the stairs and it ripped it half off when I fell. It will grow back won't it?"

"Sure it will. It'll take all of ten seconds I should think," said Ginny, dabbing at the finger tip with Skele-Gro.

There were three left of the group to be treated: Seamus and Romilda were holding up Nigel Wolpert. His face was badly swollen and he was swaying.

"Is he...?"

"Mandrabane. He took some to get through his detention last night and I gave him my dose as well this morning. He was in a lot of pain," said Seamus. We used Dittany on the bruises that are hidden but... well... You know what would happen if his visible bruises magically disappeared."

"Yeah, he'd get another detention. He should have come straight to me last night--"

"He didn't realise it was this bad till last night's Mandrabane wore off - nor did we," said Romilda.

"Can you understand me, Nigel?" said Ginny.

"I'b allbide, hon'stly. Jus' sibe of by faith a bib... I lotht a tube." He swayed a bit more and Seamus and Romilda helped him to a chair.

"What did they do to him, Seamus?" asked Ginny gently, as she checked the side of his face that was most heavily swollen.

"Cruciatus - but he played up the writhing on the floor a bit too much and rolled onto Goyle's boot." Seamus looked angrier than he sounded.

Ginny winced. "Small fracture in the left jaw. Tooth missing. Romilda - help him sip this Skele-Gro. He'll be OK. Leave the facial bruises to heal naturally. Give him quarter doses of Mandrabane for a couple of days. Remember to top up his pack and your own before we leave."

"Thought you said they only wanted us to believe in what they believe, Terry," snarled Seamus angrily across the room to Terry Boot.

"They do - but the Carrows target anyone who's the slightest trouble - he laughed at one of them."

Ginny looked closely at Nigel's face. "Nigel, I want you to look miserable for a few days - think you can manage that? No cheek, get it? They'll leave you alone then."

"Day seb Mubbles is halb-wibs. My bes' freb's a Mubble ad he mobly beebs be ab chess."

"We're running low on Skelly - Hannah?"

Hannah Abbott was marking up a check list on a large board and examining everyone's personal supply. She had calculated minimum potion doses so everyone carried just enough and none was squandered. These she concealed within buttons and hollow quills and even charmed, double-ended, ink bottles. She looked rather worried and distracted but turned when Ginny called.

"Where did you get the last batch, Hannah? We'll need some more --and Dittany."

"Madam Rosmerta - but--" began Hannah.

"Rosmerta!" barked Smith. "Isn't she the one--"

Hannah haughtily ignored him and continued answering Ginny, "--there won't be another Hogsmeade for two or three weeks we reckon - no way to be sure. We'll have to use what we have even more sparingly unless you can beg some from Matron to tide us over."

Zacharias Smith wasn't to be put off. "Didn't she help Draco when he tried to kill Dumbledore?"

"Rosmerta is completely reliable!" said Hannah, stamping her foot. "She was under the Imperius curse. She couldn't help herself. She was absolutely gutted afterwards. She's more willing to help than anyone!"

"Guilty conscience," muttered Smith.

"Whatever - she's done more for us than you have, Smith!" cried Hannah.

"That's not difficult," said Lavender.

"Rosmerta spends hours making up these potions," snapped Ernie at Smith. "Blood-Replenishing Potion in Cherry syrup and soda bottles, Pumpkin juice is Slughorn's Mandrabane concoction, goat's milk is Skele-Gro, and Quenchocoluscious is Dittany. You can't tell the difference unless you actually drink some."

"Right," said Ginny. "It's nearly lunchtime so we've got to be quick. Private Muggle Studies - how are they going?"

"Great," said Seamus. "Terry came up with the idea of extending the lessons to explain why everything the Death Eaters teach is evil and wrong. We call them DASTARDLY classes - Defence Against Subversive Two-faced And Downright Lying Yobs!"

"And how to look innocent in their classes - pretend to take it all in but not believe it," said Hannah, excitedly. "It's mostly the first-years who were being deceived before."

"Good work," said Ginny. "Thanks everyone - I know Harry would be really impressed with you all. Word does get out so there is a good chance he's heard some of the things we're doing. Right, I think that's all--"

"No - the posters," cried Parvati. "You've seen how Snape's now conjuring up false wall surfaces to hide them and because they are just images, no mould can grow on them."

"Sorry, Parvati - yes, I forgot. "Don't think we can do much until Neville gets back."

"We don't think he'll be able to do anything," said Padma. "So we've thought up another idea - extra pages into library books! These are just copies - you can keep them while you think about it." She opened up several books she had with her and passed them around.

"We asked Professor Flitwick and he came up with a charm we can put on books--" said Parvati.

"They can be anything - wanted posters, Quibbler articles - anything we want!" said Padma, passing Ginny an ancient copy of 'Pagan Rituals and Ceremonies' with a picture of Snape in a cooking pot being prodded by the spears of some fierce-looking, blue-daubed warriors.

Ginny examined the new page. It was not numbered but otherwise looked exactly the same as the other pages in colouring and wear and tear. The sheets were yellow with age and stained with centuries of fingerprints. "This is excellent! Parvati - Padma, why don't you get together with Hannah, Terry, and Seamus and do some of these with instructions from their DASTARDLY classes - spread the word!"

"You want us to go ahead then?" said Padma.

"Yes, it's great - go with it!" said Ginny, "and have a word with McGonagall to tell Madam Pince to look the other way. She won't like her precious books being tampered with but she likes the Carrows even less."


—oOo—


"How'd it go, Neville?" asked Ginny. She was refusing to even look at her lunch now that Neville had arrived back from the Forbidden Forest.

Neville reached for some pie and scrambled eggs. "McGonagall's going to teach me and Hannah to Apparate properly," he said excitedly. "On the return, she Apparated me right back near the edge of the Forest - Hagrid's staying behind to clear up the area - weeds and that. It's paved underneath all that vegetation - all around the Trysting Stone it's like an old Muggle place where they--"

"What about the Stone? Is it--?"

"Bill did it! McGonagall got your brother to Apparate onto the main trail and meet us! He said it was a very old dark curse but he's broken it so the Stone is safe now."

"Bill! How was he?" said Ginny with excited interest.

"He's great - he said to tell you to be careful. He worries about you."

Ginny felt a wave of affection for her elder brother. "Wish I could have come along. What about--"

"Gran'll be pleased if I can learn to Apparate properly. It'll be really useful! And Hannah can--"

"Neville! Has Bill only removed the curse from the Stone? - not its effect on you? What are you so happy about?"

Neville stopped with a forkful of egg in mid-air. He had only just rushed back from the Stone and the significance of the curse still upon himself had been pushed to the back of his mind. "I was... I was just excited about being able to... Apparate properly one day..." He lowered his fork and dropped the eggs back on his plate. "He... Bill couldn't trace anything on me."

"In case you're interested," said Ginny sarcastically, "Luna is progressing well but Matron is still keeping her in deep sleep, perhaps for a day or two." Ginny looked harshly at Neville. "What's got into you, Neville?"

"Don't be like that, Gin. -- I... I f-- forgot."

"You forgot about Luna?" Ginny's look of astonishment was not faked. "I'd have thought the first thing you would ask when you got back would be--"

"No, not forgot, exactly - of course not, but..."

"Why's Hannah taking Apparition as well?"

Neville's expression lightened a little. "Well, she didn't do very well in it last year either. So, I asked Professor McGonagall if she would give us a refresher and practice course - for emergencies, we wouldn't be licensed of course."

"I meant, why... Lots of kids didn't do well so how did Hannah get chosen for this? She never said anything to me earlier."

"Hannah doesn't know yet. I remembered her being very disappointed same as I was - so I asked the Professor," Neville said earnestly. "I'm sure she'll be delighted!"

"You remembered Hannah being disappointed over six months ago about poor Apparition results but you don't remember that your girlfriend nearly died a few hours ago because of you and she's still unconscious in the hospital wing?" Ginny paused before continuing and as she did so, she felt Harry's kiss. She was very practised now in glancing at the medallion under cover of her long hair.

"It's not like that... You're seeing it all wrong..." said Neville but he did not sound very convinced.

Ginny automatically continued her original train of thought with Neville while staring at Harry's message in concealed horror. "Have you considered how Luna will feel when she is told she might never be able to be with you again?"

"I hadn't thought about it..." said Neville glumly.

She didn't hear him. Her mind was elsewhere. Ginny was worried but didn't show it. The anxious girl got up quickly and walked out of the Great Hall to find a quiet spot to think about Harry's message. Neville took her departure as condemnation and stared after her. "Ginny... I..."

Ginny rushed upstairs to find a place nearby to be on her own. Every nook and cranny was either occupied or overlooked by someone. She wished she had gone directly to Gryffindor Tower; now she was heading a long way around. She found a wall niche in the fifth floor corridor and squeezed behind a statue of Godfrey the Gross to stare at her medallion:

Safe now. Don't worry.

What did he mean? Ginny spent every moment she could checking her medallion. It had never shown him to be in danger. She had relied on it so far never to be faulty. How could an enchantment malfunction? It was not possible if it was bewitched correctly in the first place and she knew Hermione would have got it right. A thought, deep down, nagged at her until she felt forced to acknowledge it, Could it be the curse? She kissed the medallion:

Harry? How? You were never shown in danger.

Just sending the message brought no relief; patience would be required until Harry could answer. Ginny resigned herself to waiting and decided to go to the Gryffindor common room. She eased out from behind the statue and looked around for the quickest way: it was the fifth floor - not far from the short, side corridor where she had spoken to Malfoy and Adgar. Surely, if anyone, the ghost boy should know something about the curse.

She went around the corner and sat down on the stone steps, wondering if the ghost would show.

"Adgar? You here?"

There was no answer so she decided to wait a while. A quick rummage in her bag found the copy of the cutting and she read it out loud to herself:

"Miss Ellyn later curseth by an wrongged else covetous suitor, one Thurgis Bowett ... she did plummet down"

It sounded like she had been cursed later - not by the Stone itself. Or perhaps that's what was believed at the time.

Ginny's patience lasted almost an hour but the ghost never appeared. Her thoughts had turned to Malfoy. What did he know? According to Luna, he had tried to warn her. If only she had paid attention... He had wanted to use the Stone himself but he must have later discovered about the curse.

It seemed strange when she thought back: she had never actually discussed the Stone with Draco - though she had mentioned Daphne Greengrass in parting so he knew she had overheard his conversation with Crabbe. But why would he try to warn her of the curse? Why would he think she might want to use it - unless... He set the whole thing up!

Ginny's partly-stifled shriek echoed around the empty corridor. Why had she not seen this before? It was obvious. It had all been one of Draco's vicious plots - to harm Harry! Crabbe and Goyle - they were all in on it. They knew her route and had staged the conversations for her to overhear! She leapt to her feet, both angry and fearful. Yet he must have relented after I told him that his fate was tied up with Harry's. At least he tried to stop me. Yes, but only to save his own skin. Still...

Ginny was furious with Draco but at the same time, a fair share of Gryffindor fair play was rooted within her. Perhaps he had taken a risk by trying to warn her and thereby help Harry. She should pay Draco a visit.

By the time she had descended to the basement, Ginny's anger had subsided and she had become nervous. A couple of Slytherin girls in the corridor were eyeing her. This was their territory. Ron had once told her the way in to the Slytherin common room but she did not know the password. This trip had been foolish; she turned on her heel and started back.

"Not so fast, Weasley, you slag!" The two Slytherins were blocking the corridor. The one with the mouth was Millicent Bulstrode, a favoured prefect, and she closed in rapidly to Ginny. "Come to visit the boys, did you? Well, let's not disappoint them!"

Ginny's hand reached for her wand but Bulstrode was big and powerful and had her arms quickly gripped. "Get it open, Hilda."

The other girl went to the blank wall and muttered something that Ginny couldn't hear. A door opened and Ginny was pushed roughly through.

"Look what we got here, lads!" said Bulstrode.

There were only half a dozen people in there; they all had a faint greenish tinge to their faces from the weird Slytherin illumination. Astoria Greengrass was flirting and snogging rather theatrically with Blaise Zabini; she looked annoyed when he turned to leer at Ginny. Crabbe and Goyle were talking to a girl Ginny didn't know and they seemed unsure what to do. They both looked to Draco but he was staring despondently at Blaise and seemed thoroughly miserable and disinterested in anything else. He had probably had an argument with Daphne Greengrass because she was sitting with her back to him talking to a first-year - another Slytherin that Ginny didn't know.

Daphne looked up. "What's she here for? What do you want, Weasley?"

"Caught her sneaking outside," said Bulstrode, gripping Ginny's arms even tighter and giving her a shake to emphasise her capture.

"I came to see Draco!" flared Ginny. "Might have known you Slytherins know nothing about hospitality."

Crabbe called out something vulgar and there were a few jeers but Draco looked across at the sound of his name, seeming to notice Ginny for the first time.

"What is it?" snapped Draco. "Why'd you come here?" But he gestured to the armchair opposite him and Bulstrode pushed Ginny over to sit on it.

"It's about the Stone." Ginny glared at Malfoy. "I shouldn't have bothered..."

Draco's greenish hue went slightly paler and he looked around nervously. He got up and indicated with a movement of his head to follow him across the room. He pushed Ginny into a corner and leaned an arm against one wall, partly trapping her. On her other side was a black, glass-fronted cabinet sporting goblets and other silverware. Again, Ginny's hand instinctively went to her wand but she thought better of it.

Draco was glancing over his shoulder. He forced a grin as if this were a friendly meeting. Ginny had the feeling he was trying to make Daphne jealous.

"That won't do you any good, Draco. You won't win her that way."

"What d'you know about it!" scowled Draco, easing back a little, not crowding her so much - but still confining her with his arm stretched to the wood panelling.

"I need to know about the curse... Trade?"

"What have you got that I'd want, Weasley?"

"I can help you with Daphne."

"Daphne? Is that what you think?" he snorted but Ginny saw his eyes flicker involuntarily towards Blaise.

Ginny followed his eye line. "Astoria?"

"Keep your voice down!" snarled Draco in a loud whisper.

"What is she? About twelve?"

"She's fifteen - not that it's any of your business."

"Well she's acting like twelve." Ginny stared at the girl; Astoria was glaring at Ginny like she wanted to rip her eyes out. Blaise had been pushed aside. "Merlin's Hat! I get it now. She's--"

"You get nothing!" snapped Draco, moving to block Ginny's view. "I thought we had something going at one time but she..."

"Let me guess, her elder sister didn't like it?"

"Partly that - mainly stupid arguments about nothing that mattered," said Draco bitterly. "Now she's not interested."

"If you think she's not interested then you really don't know much about girls do you, Malfoy?" smirked Ginny, standing on tiptoe to look over Draco's shoulder. Astoria had flounced down in a chair and was looking daggers at Draco's back. "I can help you there."

"How?"

"You'll tell me what you know about the curse? About how it works I mean?"

Draco hesitated. He took his arm from the wall and stood back, giving Ginny space.

"I don't know much myself. All I heard was it brings bad influences that work against the couple that use it - the opposite of how the Stone is supposed to work. You'd have to ask Adgar Stockley--"

"I went up there earlier. I waited but he didn't show."

Draco stared at Ginny then something dawned in his eyes. "That wasn't Adgar, you idiot! That ghost was Thurgis Bowett - he was the one who cursed the Stone! You'll get nothing out of him."

Now it was Ginny's turn to stare. "Then..."

"You didn't--?" Draco's eyes widened. "You didn't use the Stone did you? I sent you a message! That pathetic Loony - I gave her a message for you!"

"I'd already..." Ginny averted her eyes. "I didn't believe it... the message. I... I didn't want to believe it."

"So... Potter...?"

"How would I know? Likely he still doesn't fancy me."

For a moment, Ginny thought she saw real fear in Malfoy's eyes.

"More likely he's dead, you wart! The effect of the curse is unbreakable! Holbrook had a nasty accident didn't she?"

"Who?"

"Ellyn Holbrook - the girl who fell from the balcony."

An icy-cold feeling settled in Ginny's stomach. She pushed past Draco but he grabbed her arm, pulled her close and growled angrily into her ear, "We had a deal, remember!"

Ginny couldn't think straight; her mind was filled with the threat of death against the one she loved. Harry's kiss came at that moment and Ginny stared uncomprehendingly at Draco whose face was too close to hers for comfort.

"You were going to help me with Astoria," prompted Draco through his teeth.

She suddenly remembered why she had come there. "The curse on the Stone - it's been broken. You can now use it safely."

"You're certain?" Draco did not hide his astonishment. "Weasley, if you're lying I'll--"

"I'm no Slytherin!" she said contemptuously, wrenching herself free and striding out for the doorway.

When she got back to the Gryffindor common room she turned straight towards the reading room but Neville waylaid her in the doorway.

"Not now, Neville," said Ginny. "I've got to--"

"Wait - it's about Luna!" Neville held up a small, tightly-wound, roll of parchment in front of her eyes. Even in her distracted state she could see it had 'Luna - Urgent' marked on the outside. Ginny stopped.

"Where's that from?"

"Dippity - my kitten gave it me."

Ginny blinked. Then she blinked again. "Your... kitten... gave you a message for Luna?"

"Well, Dippity's not written it herself of course - she's just delivering it," said Neville, as if that made it easier to believe. "Luna's owl gave it to her to give to me to give to Luna."

"Your cat told you this?" said Ginny, shaking her head slowly, hoping he would say no.

"Not in so many words. Look, she--"

"Cat's don't use any words, Neville!"

"This one does! She's a Ragdoll!"

Ginny gave up trying to understand. "What's it say - the message, I mean, not the cat."

"Well, that's it - it was sealed, private. I asked Madam Pomfrey and she says Luna is still asleep. I could ask Professor McGonagall but it might be something to do with the D.A. or--"

"Open it," said Ginny decisively. "It's marked urgent so we should open it."

"I already did," said Neville, sheepishly. He looked over Ginny's shoulder into the reading room and, seeing it empty he pushed her in and guided her to a chair but she didn't sit down.

"There are two messages, both from her father. One is confirming that if anything happens to us three he will publish an announcement that we've been murdered by Snape - like Luna said when we were in his office."

"I thought she was bluffing!"

"So did I!"

"I though she only said that to get us out of his office alive!"

"So did I!"

"And the other?"

"She must have asked him to research the curse on the Trysting Stone - apparently he's got lots of old archives as well as plenty of contacts - that's what he does - ferret out information, I mean."

"Yeah, usually about things that don't exist," muttered Ginny under her breath.

She grabbed Neville's arm and gave him a warning look. A rather plump first-year girl had been hovering around the entrance to the reading room but a glare from Ginny sent her scurrying away.

"Anyway, I did find out something," said Neville very excitedly.

Ginny sank down onto the chair and pulled down Neville onto the one next to hers. "Tell me."

"We need to ask Adgar," said Neville enthusiastically.

Ginny stared, then her shoulders sagged and she slumped a little forward with her arms onto the reading table. "Is that it? I already knew that."

"Adgar and..." He unrolled the parchment and peered at it,"... Ellyn - Ellyn Holbrook."

Ginny's lips were a thin line. "And they are... where exactly?"

"Don't know."

Ginny rolled her eyes and Neville examined the document again.

"No, wait. ...their ghosts to be found frequenting the chapel room at Hogwarts."

"Ah! Now we're getting somewhere!" said Ginny, sitting up straight again. "Where is it?"

Neville buried his face in the parchment again then finally emerged to speak very meekly, "He doesn't say."

Ginny sighed. "Well, there's no chapel now so it must have been converted. Could be anything now."

"Well, it can't be any of the classrooms or any of the rooms we use, can it?"

"Why not?"

"We'd have noticed if there were a couple of ghosts interrupting Potions all these years I think."

Hope lightened Ginny's expression. "That's right - it must be one of the unused rooms. If only... If only Fred and George were here or..." Her eyes widened as she remembered she had not yet read Harry's message. "Neville, would you excuse... Would you... Why don't you check out the library for a start - ask Madam Pince for anything about a Hogwarts chapel."

"Right," said Neville, rising from his chair and walking to the doorway, "I'm on it. And you...?"

"I'll... I'm going to... think ...for a bit."

As soon as Neville had left she went to her corner behind the bookshelf, grabbed a copy of 'Maggoty Intestines or Rat Vomit: Which is Best?' then checked her medallion.

Had a scare. 6am. 2early4U! :)

Ginny quickly sent a reply:

"No - I was up early. Were you ill?"

Harry's answer came back almost immediately. In fact, they exchanged many messages. He was puzzled why she kept asking if he had been ill and became suspicious that she was sick and afraid she had infected him. It took a lot of kisses and a party of giggles before he was reassured this was not the case. He told her there had been a false alarm early that morning but he could not say what.

Ginny was more resolved than ever to uncover the truth about the curse. She spun around to leave. There was the chubby first-year girl sitting staring, bug-eyed at her. The girl quickly averted her gaze back to the pile of homework that lay before her when she saw Ginny glaring back.

Ginny dropped 'Maggoty' on top of the girl's papers. "Funniest book I ever read," she said on her way out to join Neville in the library.

She was not so amused after she and Neville had wasted the rest of their Saturday afternoon fruitlessly hunting for references to Hogwarts chapel.

"Why would they even have a chapel room in a school anyway?" grumbled Ginny, as she pushed away the last of the books she had retrieved from the shelves.

"Things were different hundreds of years ago," said Neville. "Perhaps the students who stayed celebrated Christmas and Easter in it."

"I doubt anyone will be staying with Snape and the Carrows this year," said Ginny. "I'll be glad to go home."

Neville closed his copy of 'Sites of Historical Sorcery' and sighed. "It's hopeless, Ginny. We've eliminated likely books and unlikely books - that just leaves the near-impossible ones."

"We'll wait for Luna to get better. She's the smart one," said Ginny. "If anyone can come up with some new ideas it'll be her."


—oOo—


On the morning that Luna finally awoke, Hogwarts was hidden in a thick November fog. Birds and other creatures were hushed; owls did not fly; the chopping of Hagrid's firewood was left for a better day. Silence seeped through the hospital ward windows in which the girl had lain asleep for three whole days and this strange quietness drew her out of her slumbers as surely as any sudden noise might have done. Not that her awakening was rapid; quite the contrary. She lay for many minutes in that luxurious, happy, dozy state between sleep and responsibility - aware that she was cared for - aware of someone holding her hand.

"Neville?" she whispered softly - still far off in a lazy half-dream.

When she finally opened her eyes it was Emmy who was there. Little Emmy who, afraid of losing her only comforter, had visited morning, noon, and night, to sit with Luna. A shininess sprang to the girl's eyes but Luna, in her moment of waking, in that twinkling where either great folly or inspired wisdom might express itself, saw there something other than tears.

"Emmy... Emmy... Why... are you here?" Her voice, unused for days, was faint and weak.

"I thought you were going to die!" sobbed Emmy. She let go of Luna's hand to throw herself violently onto the helpless patient and into a big hug. Something she had been clutching in her other hand fell; it was a miniature doll - a Muggle doll. Luna watched it slide sadly down the slope of her pillow.

The wind had been knocked out of her by the embrace but Luna managed to gasp, "No, I meant... why are you here... at Hogwarts?"

Emmy stiffened for a moment, then sat up, looking at Luna's face.

"Would you like to show me your dolly?" added Luna, looking for some way to bypass the girl's obvious reluctance.

"Can't. Don't know how."

Luna looked hard at her friend's face then finally said very quietly, "You're only ten years old aren't you, Emmy?"

Emmy hesitated an even longer time. Luna waited.

"Seven."

Luna let out a deep breath. "How is this possible? How did you do this? Why?"

Again, the younger girl stalled. "Someone helped me..."

"There's only one person I can think of with the ability to transfigure you and your doll and the position and place to smuggle you in here..."

"Professor McGonagall," said Emmy. "I ran away from Brack and Sweeting's but--"

"Brack and--?"

"--the waif's home - but Professor McGonagall has me on her special list. She came after me. She said I was bright enough to pass as eleven - said I'd likely get in Ravenclaw. She invented some magical parents' names for me but really I must be Muggle-born to be in Sweeting's."

"But Hogwarts is now the worst--"

"It was before. It was before Professor Dumbledore died. Professor McGonagall thought..."

"Does she know they... hurt you?"

"No. There's nowhere else for me to go. This is the safest place to hide. I didn't want to tell her in case..."

"Listen - you've heard of the D.A?"

"Yes, everybody has."

"We have some charms and potions. I'll see you get some Mandrabane - it stops it hurting when they do bad things - but you have to pretend it hurts; you understand?" Emmy nodded and Luna continued, "Look in my bag over there. Take mine. It's only one dose. I'll get some more. But try to stay out of trouble until... We need to find somewhere you'll be safe."

"Don't send me away, please Luna! Don't send me back to Sweeting's!" She flung herself on the older girl again and Luna's arm came out from under the bedclothes to pat her on the back. She didn't ask why the girl would prefer the Carrows to the waif's home. She didn't want to know.


—oOo—






Chapter 15: End of Dreams
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Chapter 15


End of Dreams




Harry Potter sighed. It was Hermione's turn to hunt and scavenge for food and she was getting herself ready. Not that she would be likely to find much in this rough scrubland except perhaps rabbits. There might still be some edible berries but the terrain was too open and dry for mushrooms. No trees grew here so nuts were off the menu too. Yet it wasn't the prospect of limited food that made Harry dispirited: it was the contemplation of an entire morning without company or purpose. What was worse, because there was no cover he had to be extra alert on his watch. He would have to wear the horcrux locket shortly and there was nowhere to put it down safely. No distinctive rock, stump, or post gave focus so to lay it on the ground or hang it on a low shrub risked losing it simply by walking away ten paces.

A shriek from behind him sent Harry running, wand raised and ready. He dived into the tent and from the sound of flowing water he knew Hermione was in their tiny washroom. As he burst in, Hermione squealed again. She had her top off but her back was to the door and the big bath towel hanging across her shoulders she hurriedly pulled down over her bare arms. "Harry!" She glared at him.

"Sorry!" said Harry, slightly pink in the face and turning away. "I heard you-- Are you hurt?"

"What?"

"Your arm - looks sore."

"Oh... it's nothing - I scraped some skin off scrambling for those chestnuts yesterday. "My perfume - really makes it sting..."

Harry's body, tensed for action, relaxed and he grinned as he went out. "You must be the only hunter who wears scent when she goes out on safari."

He closed the door behind him and heard Hermione's muffled exclamation through it. "I'm a witch, remember! The rabbits come to me!"

Harry knew she couldn't hear him but he muttered as he left the tent, "You've still got to find where they are though." He plunked himself down on his stool amongst the clumps of grass and coarse weeds and looked vainly around for some relief from the bland view. He knew it could only get worse once he wore the horcrux. He did not look forward to it and had nothing to distract him from its effects.

When Hermione finally came outside she was wearing a light jacket to keep out the cool November air. She handed over the locket.

"What books did you bring Hermione?"

"Well, there's 'Ruination of Asbesh,' 'Seventeenth-century Potion Recipes,' 'Hogwarts: a History,' of course..."

"Never mind - I'll just sit here and envy being in Binns' class, I guess. You'll probably find I'm completely mental by the time you get back."

"Why so gloomy, today?" Hermione checked her bag and appeared satisfied.

"Just this place, I guess."

"Well, you go out searching then - it's no picnic."

"No - you had half the night watch and hardly slept before that - you look tired. I told you not to sleep with that damned thing--"

"I forgot - it was only two hours on the couch anyway - it's hard to organise the shifts with just the two of--. I'll never, ever, do it again, I promise."

Hermione was so emphatic that Harry looked at her strangely for a few seconds before responding. "You must get some sleep this afternoon, Hermione. I'll try to manage the horcrux all day. We'll find a better place tomorrow - an island or something where we can put it down safely for longer. I hate having it on me."

"Harry, do you think you've changed - do you feel different at all? I mean, any lasting effects after wearing this horcrux on and off for weeks?"

"No - only when it's actually around my neck - then it gets worse and worse. Why do you ask? Do you feel different?"

"Me? No - but..."

"But what?"

"Nothing. I'll be glad when we've destroyed it." Hermione shuddered and zipped up her jacket tighter around herself. "I'll try to get back early then we'll talk again about where we might find the sword."

"Look forward to it," said Harry, even more miserably as Hermione set out. The horcrux was already beginning to darken his mood further; he would definitely need Ginny's help today.


—oOo—


The burden of explaining to Luna could only be Ginny's and she was not looking forward to the encounter. How do you tell someone that they cannot be with the one they love? Ever?--Draco had said the curse was unbreakable. Ginny grimaced as she walked down the hospital wing corridor and her feet began to drag. Luna had always sounded so excited, so enraptured whenever she spoke of Neville that there was no doubt about the depth of her feelings. The cruel truth would break her heart, of that, Ginny was sure. Perhaps if she came back at lunchtime... The ward door opened and Madam Pomfrey emerged.

"There you are, Miss Weasley! She's been asking about Mr. Longbottom. I can't stall her forever and it's best if you--"

"I understand, Matron," said Ginny.

"She's still weak. Try not to... upset her."

Ginny frowned at Madam Pomfrey wondering how she was supposed to avoid doing exactly that. "Perhaps if we wait until she is stronger?"

Madam Pomfrey held the door open and her jaw tightened; there was no escape. Ginny felt she was wearing lead boots as she pushed through into the ward. She heard Pomfrey striding swiftly away - leaving her to her fate. Coward!

"Ginny!" It was a weak cry but it was Luna, awake at last, head turning on her pillow to see her friend. Ginny hesitated just inside the threshold, watching as Luna's gaze looked past her to the empty doorway behind. There was disappointment in her eyes.

"He's not coming, Luna." Ginny resumed slowly walking towards Luna's bed. The room was unoccupied apart from one heavily-bandaged patient being tended by Pomfrey's assistant at the far end.

Luna's face was expressionless. "He'll be along at lunchtime I exp--"

"He's not coming at all." There. She had said it flat out and it had not been too difficult. Ginny held her breath. She reached the bed and stood there waiting.

Luna smiled wanly. "He's so forgetful. I don't mind. He's Neville."

Ginny exhaled. "Luna - Neville can't see you..." She couldn't say the word 'ever.' She hesitated. "...for a very long time."

She could see Luna struggling to find an explanation that made it not matter; that made it not hurt. She saw her fail; saw her eyes sparkle at last and a blink released some silent teardrops.

"I'm so sorry, Luna." Ginny sat on the bed and leaned over to try to embrace her friend; comfort her. It was an awkward consolation, cocooned as Luna was in Pomfrey's neat, tightly-tucked blankets. Luna's hand wriggled out from beneath the sheets and rubbed her tear-streaked face. Ginny pushed her hankie into the hand and shared in the movement of trying to wipe away the sorrow.

"Somehow... somehow I knew he didn't love me - not like--"

Ginny sat up and shook her head too vigorously. "No, of course he does!" The lie came out involuntarily. Until that moment even Ginny was not consciously aware of what she had sensed deep down. Luna's weak smile told her they were sharing the same realisation. Yet Ginny felt forced to persist in the evasion. "It's not like that - he's been ordered to stay away. He's cursed by the Stone and it's making you sick - they'll find a way to fix it!"

Luna could only slightly shake her head but Ginny saw in her expression that her words were not believed. "A curse cannot destroy true love, Ginny, you know that. He never was in love with me - not romantically. He's just very caring and affectionate."

Ginny was unable to answer.

"Ginny, do you sometimes... write about me? In your diary, perhaps?"

"I don't keep a diary anymore, Luna. Never again."

"Oh."

"Why'd you want me to write about you?"

"It's the Ministry--"

"Oh, Luna, you don't still believe Umgubular--?"

"No - but they'll try something else you see - now they know Slashkilters won't come into the hospital. It's good in a way because Neville won't be distressed and he's better off with Hannah anyway. It's good..." Luna tailed off and her eyes faded into the distance.

"You knew?"

"Oh yes. I was pretending to myself very, very hard because it was so nice to think it was me he loved but really I-- I knew all the... while... It was all pretend, I suppose. I don't th- think I c- can ever--"

"You can! Of course you can! There'll be someone for you--"

"But... I w- wanted N- Neville," whimpered Luna, yielding finally and fully to her emotions.

Then she did cry; really cry - and Ginny had to hold her tight as Luna was racked with uncontrollable sobs. Ginny wept with her long and hard; even Harry's unexpected kiss did not comfort nor distract her. Luna must have felt the tremor of the medallion too, pressed as it was against both their throats, because she begged Ginny to leave her; to answer Harry.

Ginny refused but somehow found herself hurrying away, glad to escape yet ashamed of deserting her grieving friend and fully confused by her own feelings. She glanced back as she pulled the door shut behind her. The ward assistant had come forward to tend to Luna; perhaps she would bless her with another sleep potion.

In the corridor there was only a shallow alcove to hide in but Ginny did not care. There was no one about so she lifted up her medallion ready to kiss it; ready to say, So sad. Need you, but the silver did not touch her lips. Harry's words, blurred by her tears, were already upon it:

Difficult morning. Need your support all day.

A wave of selfish resentment flowed over Ginny. Her emotions cried out to be comforted. Two things then happened together: an inner sense, a memory of something not quite right came to her - it was a dark threatening figure - and Harry kissed her again.

Please, Ginny. It's bad.

Fighting the alarm that threatened to overwhelm her, Ginny wrestled her feelings to a standstill, made herself strong again. She closed her eyes and kissed the precious disk:

Together. Always. With you, Harry. - your Ginny.

Harry's gratitude came back instantly and there was a flow of feelings between the young couple as when she had been at the Trysting Stone. Without asking for help, Ginny was reinvigorated, refreshed, in control of herself again.

The dark, threatening figure - she knew who it was now. She recognised that short, stocky stature and the way she swaggered about. It had not been the ward assistant who had come to stand at Luna's bed; it was Alecto Carrow.

A quiet fury took hold of Ginny. She did not hesitate; she cast a concealment spell upon herself and opened the ward door a tiny crack. The Death Eater's wheezy giggle as she taunted and laughed at Luna in her distress was way beyond what any Weasley could ignore. Ginny still held her wand - and her temper was as fiery as her hair.

"Confundo." She snarled the charm through clenched teeth and the power of her feelings drove the spell to hit Alecto hard. The sick, sadistic laughter stopped instantly. The Death Eater became too confused to understand where she was or comprehend what she saw. She stared around her with a puzzled expression and she began to babble.

"Silencio... Depulso... Obliviate."

Ginny was still at the half-open doorway, hidden by her concealment charm. She stood aside as Alecto, face distorted by doubt and now completely dumbstruck, passed by her.

Luna did not speak, did not call Ginny's name; she knew there was another patient in the ward. Ginny came forward and whispered to her.

"Banished to wander outside. It'll be hours before she recovers but she'll never remember she came to the hospital wing."

"Ginny - your wand. You used your own wand?" breathed Luna. Ginny's sharp intake of breath told Luna she was right. "Go to the Room. Get one of the spare wands. Make sure it's one that has not been used by the D.A. yet. Use it as your own for a while just in case they check."

Ginny breathed out again.

"Ginny, thank you - but will you do something else for me when you go to the Room?"

Ginny nodded numbly then remembered that Luna could not see her. "Of course." She had to bend low to hear what Luna whispered next.

* ' * ' * ' *

Ginny had made a promise to Luna yet she hesitated before the wall, working up her resolve. Eventually she began to pace. The little door that appeared was homely and welcoming. Warm, yellow lights and softly-distorted images flickered through a pebble glass panel and a brass rabbit-head knocker invited her in with a smile. The door swung open.

Pleasant music quietly filled Ginny's ears as she gazed around at cream-clothed tables decorated with glimmering candles and place settings that seemed to beg the visitor to choose them. The tables were unoccupied yet were without any sense of emptiness or abandonment. Respectful, attentive figures moved always slightly out of direct view; they were a blend of eager service and perfect discretion. The room was very large but its low ceiling and soft lighting made each area seem cosy.

In a far recess, outside of the main lights, in a glow of its own, was a table, fractionally more secluded, more intimate, more romantic than all the others. Ginny could not resist being drawn towards it.

There was room only for two in this alcove and upon the red-cushioned L-shaped corner seat sat a tiny, blue, gift-wrapped parcel. On its label, Ginny could see Neville's name pathetically surrounded by hearts. Above, mounted between the wall-candles, were simple paintings: children at play; a country scene; a mountain view. Upon the table, a music-box opened and began to play for a tiny, dancing mannequin that looked puzzled and lost its step when it saw only Ginny.

The whole space was so filled with touching, naive elation, so Luna-esque, that Ginny turned to flee from her rush of emotions but then stopped and looked back. She stopped to do what Luna herself could not bring herself to do; to do what she had promised her.

"Evanesco." Ginny invoked the vanishing spell as quietly as she could but the result was as brutal: the gift was no more, gone forever. Around her, the Room sensed it would never be required; the tables faded away; the lights slowly dimmed; the music ended abruptly; the dream died.

* ' * ' * ' *

Over the following weeks, no wands were tested. Alecto had returned to the school thinking she must have taken for a walk. Nobody had missed her except for her Muggles Studies class and they did not complain.

During this time, Luna resumed her lessons and did not fall ill again. She could not block out Neville from her thoughts but indulged the same self-deception that had convinced her that Neville's love was true - this time to pretend their separation did not matter. Yet she noticed he never forgot to kindly hang back from entering classes to let her choose her favourite seat first; could not fail to see his struggle not to glance towards her; saw how he avoided sitting with Hannah so as not to hurt Luna's feelings.

If Neville's love was not romantic, she'd have taken it anyway. He was caring, considerate, and his occasional forgetfulness, his vulnerability, appealed to her. Despite her pretence, she now thought of Neville more than ever. She ached with yearning for his company - to comfort him - and be comforted by him. So dreary were these weeks that she envied Alecto's loss of memory and longed for what she felt was inevitable.

That she was still being watched she had no doubt. That she would not live to share her life with someone as caring as Neville, she was certain. That she was resigned to her fate did not mean she was not frightened. She was - and badly.

"I'm sure you're imagining it, Luna," said Ginny. "You've not been directly involved with any D.A. actions for a while."

Ginny hugged her robes about her as she walked with Luna towards the Forest edge. It was the first Saturday in December and the morning was cold.

Luna glanced sideways at her friend. "Did you come to see me in the hospital - while I was still asleep I mean?"

Ginny looked back at her. "Of course I did! I came everyday!"

"Who else was in the hospital ward - was anyone else ill?"

"No, it was empty apart from... there was someone injured brought in. You don't mean in Madam Pomfrey's secret room do you? There are usually three or four in there, hidden from the Carrows."

"No - in the main ward. Which day? Which day was someone brought in injured?"

"Erm... The first day - it was Halloween - I came before the evening meal - not long after Neville said you were very ill."

"Who was it?"

"Oh Luna! You don't think the injured boy was spying on you do you!" laughed Ginny. "He could hardly--"

"Who was it?" persisted Luna.

"No idea. He was bandaged up like he'd been hit by a swarm of Bludgers. They carried him in on a stretcher."

"He was bandaged before he came into the hospital wing?" said Luna. "Don't you think that's odd? Who would bandage someone up and then take them to hospital? How did Madam Pomfrey examine him?"

"With great difficulty I should think!" laughed Ginny. "Come on, Luna! He was well out of it."

"How do you know it was a boy?"

"It wasn't a teacher! He was tiny - a first-year I'd think."

"Small and fat?"

"Luna - if he was a spy they'd have kept him there."

Luna stopped walking to look more closely at Ginny.

"What?" said Ginny. "He'd left the next day. Some spy!"

"He came in heavily bandaged yet was gone the next day? You saw him go?"

"The ward was completely empty the next morning, I remember. I picked up a nightcap off the floor near your bed and looked around. There was nobody else so I decided it must be yours. I put it in the drawer of your bedside table."

"Dippity had been playing with it. I completely forgot it. After I was dismissed from the hospital I went straight back to look for it. It was only a few minutes later."

"And?" said Ginny. "Look, I'm sorry, I thought it would be safer in there."

"And... the bandaged patient... was just leaving - ten minutes after I had left. They didn't expect me to come back. Arrived immediately after me - and left immediately after me."

"So he had to go back into hospital again." Ginny sighed. "Look, patients often have to keep going back for treatment..."

"Yes, of course - you're right," said Luna as they reached the fringes of the Forbidden Forest. "Oh look! Here's Audrey!"

The great tawny owl dropped lazily down to the ground from a sturdy beech tree and nibbled affectionately at Luna's feet; she was just too big to perch comfortably on the young girl's shoulder. Her mistress bent down, detached the scroll from the owl's leg and began to read.

"What does your dad think about it?" asked Ginny, curiously, as she gave Audrey a few owl treats.

"I've not told Daddy - he was worried enough already when I didn't answer him for a long time." Luna studied the message carefully then nodded to herself and bit her lip. Her face clouded.

"What is it?"

"Ginny, can you keep a secret for me?"

"Of course, Luna. What's happened?" said Ginny, now quite concerned by Luna's expression.

"I'm not coming back. I'm never coming to Hogwarts again." Luna's voice tailed off to a faint whimper. "I won't see any of my friends again..."

Ginny gaped uncomprehendingly.

"I never told you that Daddy was going to come and rescue me when Audrey didn't appear for a long time. When I got better, we decided it would be safer to wait a few weeks until Christmas - it would give him more time to find somewhere safe we can carry on printing the Quibbler." Luna paused, then continued despondently, "I won't be coming back after Christmas."

"Luna! Oh please, no! I'm sure you're--" Ginny felt sick at the thought of Hogwarts without Luna.

"Ginny, I know you don't believe me - but... promise me you won't forget me. And don't tell... anyone - they'll only be upset."

Ginny was very disturbed by the seriousness of Luna's manner. "We'll watch out for you, Luna! The D.A.--"

"No - they'll believe me even less. They won't want to--"

"They will if I tell them to!" said Ginny, fiercely.

Luna shook her head. She looked so sad that a sudden fear gripped Ginny.

"Oh, Luna! You're not thinking of... You don't want them to kill you, do you?"

Luna remained silent.

"Luna - you're hurting terribly because of... Neville - but--"

Luna attached a note of her own to Audrey's leg. "Goodbye, Audrey!" She said it with such finality that Ginny flared up.

"Luna! Stop this! I'm telling the D.A. no matter what you say. I'll make sure there's always someone with you between classes - wherever you go in Hogwarts! We look out for each other!"

"They're determined, Ginny. I don't think you can stop them. Remember we said the D.A. should not take unnecessary risks?" Luna watched as Audrey flew off into the Forest without a backward glance.

"You really think they'll... kill you?"

"Oh yes. I suppose they'll throw me off a mountain or into the sea - I'd like to see the sea again."

"They won't!"

"Ginny, they are ruthless. Here at Hogwarts they are trying to control us. But they know now they can never control me. You-know-who's position is getting stronger. I think they might wait until next year. They'll just squish me like a bug eventually."

Ginny's eyes widened in horror. "You must tell your father to come and get you! What did you tell him?"

"I told Daddy not to worry and I'll see him at Christmas; it's only a few weeks."

Ginny thought about this as they silently walked back to the castle.

"You're trying to protect him aren't you? You think if he comes here that he'd be in danger. How could he possibly get you out of Hogwarts? - you can't go through the gate because of the protective spells and the Dementors."

"Daddy had a plan. He's very smart."

"Luna! He believes in Snorkacks for heavens' sake!"

"Exactly. He's very clever."

* ' * ' * ' *

"We've two new D.A. applicants," whispered Seamus. "I can speak for one of them because she's a Gryffindor in my DASTARDLY class but the other one's a... Slytherin."

"You're joking!" snapped Ginny in a low voice, as she stopped spreading marmalade on her breakfast toast. "Aren't you?"

"We don't have any rule against taking in Slyth--"

"We don't need a rule!" hissed Romilda, keeping one eye on the watchful gaze from the head table in the Great Hall. "What would Harry think if we let a Slytherin into Dumbledore's Army!"

"It's too risky, Seamus," murmured Ginny. "Who is it, anyway? Someone trustworthy I hope. Maybe Draco? Goyle? Snape?"

"Har! Har! No, it's that sixth-year who started this term. His family's always had a home tutor but now it's compulsory to attend Hogwarts, he's--"

"He's just started here?" said Neville. With an inner sigh, he put aside the message from his gran that he had been reading. It was nice to hear from her but she couldn't say much more than to remind him to change his socks now all the owl messages were being monitored. He looked at Seamus. "Sounds like a spy, to me. How'd you know he wants to join?"

"He spoke to me in the library - said he'd been waiting to get me alone. He's taking a big chance you know. If the other Slytherins found out--"

"We'd be the ones taking a chance," said Ginny. "Tell him to go join the losers. Tell him--"

"He hates the Death Eaters - and he hates most of the Slytherins. Look, I'm not saying he's a saint - he thinks Muggles are inferior - but he's not stupid either. He says it's obvious what Alecto teaches in Muggles Studies is nonsense. And..."

"What?" prompted Ginny.

"He had a friend - a Muggle-born. A good friend - a good witch he says."

"Had?"

"They put her in Azkaban. Sixteen years old and they put her in Azkaban."

There was silence for a while. Then Seamus added in a very tiny voice, "She died. Just a few weeks... and she died. Lost the will to live."

"That's dreadful," grimaced Lavender. She struggled inwardly to imagine dying from pure misery.

"It's a great emotional cover story," said Ginny. "Very clever."

"You don't believe it, then?" said Seamus, his eyes narrowing.

"I don't know. Even if I did..."

"If I was getting someone to infiltrate us I'd use a Ravenclaw or a Hufflepuff," mused Neville.

"That's what they want you to think," said Ginny.

"What I was wondering," said Seamus, "is we set up a test or something - don't tell him anything important."

"What sort of test?" asked Ginny.

"Dunno."

There was further silence, broken only by the crunching of toast and cornflakes.

"I've an idea," said Neville. "There's that spare classroom on the fourth floor. Let's have some dummy meetings there - just me, Ginny, Seamus, and erm... Luna... or... me. We play it down. Make out the D.A. is not very active now. He can-- What's his name, anyway?"

"Edmund Trevett."

"Trevett? I've heard of the Trevetts - but they're very reclusive. I didn't know they had a son," said Neville. "Well, Trevett can start by feeding us information about anything the Slytherins are up to. Tell him nothing - you've not told him anything have you?"

"No - course not. Do I look like a fool? Everybody knows there's a D.A. but that's all."

"We could get him to do small tasks like that plan to hex Snape's wig," said Ginny.

"It's not a wig," scoffed Romilda. "You can tell."

"It will be after it's hexed though," smirked Ginny.

There was plenty of half-stifled laughter at the Gryffindor table and they had to end the discussion when the headmaster rose to his feet menacingly and glared at them.

* ' * ' * ' *

"Ginny, can you hold back a minute?" Breakfast was over and students were piling out of the Great Hall and trudging off to their first lesson of the day. Neville hadn't got up.

Ginny was on her feet, checking her bag. She looked at Neville in surprise then sank back down into her chair. "What's up?"

"I'd like for... Could you... would it be possible for you to assign Hannah as temporary acting second-in-command in the D.A.?"

"No way, Neville!" Ginny looked across to the Hufflepuff table but Hannah Abbot had already left. "You can't just--"

"I mean, instead of me - in my place I mean."

Ginny stared at Neville.

"It's just until after Christmas," said Neville, then added, "hopefully. I mean, if--"

"What's this about?"

"Look, we can't carry on with me and Luna together in the D.A. and... I don't want to keep her out." Neville hesitated. "Ginny, she's not got any friends except us really - well not me now..." Neville's head drooped. "It'd be better if Luna goes to D.A. meetings and I keep away."

Ginny remained silent. Neville's face brightened slightly and he raised his head. "If they can break this curse on me at Christmas then it'll be alright after that - hopefully."

A sigh escaped Ginny's lips. "We don't know that for sure... We need to search again for that chapel... I asked Luna but she was as puzzled as we were. To be honest, I don't think she cares anymore--" Ginny stopped abruptly, aghast at what she was saying.

Neville shook his head. After a while he resumed. "It's hopeless. We looked everywhere. What more can we do?"

"Well, we can hardly go around asking just anybody. I asked Seamus. Did you ask Hannah? Are you... together with her yet?"

"No... Not yet... I..."

"You don't want to hurt Luna, do you?" Ginny smiled and patted the back of Neville's hand. "You are a... You're a good man, Neville. Hannah is very lucky."

Neville's face brightened even more. "I'll talk to Hannah today. I think she understands about Luna - but I'll talk to her and explain properly. I'll... talk to her. Yes... I'll... talk to her. "


—oOo—






Chapter 16: The Kissing Gate
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Chapter 16


The Kissing Gate




The frost that touched and tested the stones of Hogwarts Castle did not last much beyond first light and was almost gone as Luna looked out quietly from Ravenclaw Tower, her thoughts far in the distance.

Michael Corner broke the silence. "We'd better get going."

Luna nodded. "It's good of you to--"

"That's what the D.A. is for," said Padma sleepily as they headed out of the door, "though I hadn't expected such an early start."

She walked beside Luna, not speaking much, as they escorted her to the fourth floor corridor. Michael kept his distance, moving far ahead and pausing at each bend to look back. He held his wand ready, hidden under the folds of his robe but apart from a couple of wandering ghosts they didn't see anyone. When they reached the passageway he went to the far end and crouched in the shadow of a tall urn, looking back.

Padma stopped just before she and Luna reached the door to the disused classroom.

"You're not coming in?" said Luna.

"Ginny's orders," said Padma, offhandedly, tucking herself tightly against a pillar to one side of the door. "We'll be here when you come out - but concealed." She moved her wand and cast the charm upon herself. "Apparently there's a new recruit she doesn't trust yet to know everybody."

Luna nodded then entered silently; the others were sitting around a single candle flame hovering above four desks that had been pushed together. They had already begun discussions. She stood in the shadows near the door and watched for a while, assessing the new volunteer in the dim, flickering light.

Edmund Trevett was scowling as he looked around the disused classroom; he did not notice Luna in the darkness. An old wall clock tried to strike the half-hour but its chimes were muffled by years of grime and dirt. He shuffled his feet in the dust on the floor then turned back to the three students facing him.

"Well, I must say, I'm disappointed."

Ginny glared at him and was about to speak but Trevett continued, "Let me get this right--" He ran a hand through his thick, black hair. It sprang back neatly into place like the bristles of a soft, dark brush. "--you want me to consort with house elves, gain their trust? Why don't I just order them to tell me--?"

"Because they're on our side, you prat!" Seamus said. "They're friends, get it?"

"But they're just elves..." Trevett looked perplexed. "Then you want them to give me access to the headmaster's shampoo? Not for some grand takeover or assassination but... to turn his hair into a wig so we can humiliate him? It's plain childish. What good will that do?"

"It's part of the protest! A show of resistance!" said Hannah, flushing at their efforts being ridiculed.

"But we could use the opportunity to poison him - get rid of him for good!"

Ginny was shocked. "Are you out of your mind? We'd be no better than they are!"

"And You-know-who would be very upset, don't you think?" piped up Luna as she moved forward to join the debate. "We'd soon have lots more Death Eaters here and they would not bother about proof. Dumbledore's Army would be... finished."

Trevett looked startled. "And you are?"

"I'm Luna. I must say, you're not a very good spy. Don't you think you ought to be more... well, agreeable?"

"Luna!" cried Ginny.

"I'm no spy!" Trevett replied fiercely, rising from his seat. "Is that what this is about?" He looked around at the others and so did Luna.

"If he's a spy then he knows we're testing him and if he's not then it doesn't matter." Luna did not smile. She turned back to the Slytherin.

"They're going to kill me soon," she said. Her voice was quite flat. "--or worse."

Everyone was now staring at her.

"I'd prefer a quick death to Azkaban."

Trevett's dark eyes suddenly shone and he visibly sagged. He lowered himself down into his chair.

"I'm sorry, Edmund. That was cruel of me - I know about your friend but I don't have much time," she said. "You see, I have someone protecting me wherever I go - I'd like you to be permanently on that escort."

"Luna! Are you mental!" cried Ginny. "He's--"

"I want you to save me, Edmund."

Everyone was now looking at Trevett who was gaping at Luna in amazement. Eventually he nodded faintly. Finally, he stood up, walked to the door and opened it. He looked back at Luna for a few moments; then he slipped out, closing the door behind him.

"Well... that went well," said Seamus.

* ' * ' * ' *

Padma stiffened. She silently cast a nudge charm in the direction of Michael then turned back to study the stealthy figure she had spotted lurking behind the statue of Destiny. All she could see were a couple of eyes glinting now and again. They seemed to be focused on the classroom entrance.

The door swung inward at that moment and Trevett emerged. He hesitated in the doorway before he finally closed the door and walked off slowly towards the stairway at the side of Destiny. The figure there dropped to a crouch and squeezed partly behind the statue, its eyes averted or closed. Trevett seemed preoccupied for he walked straight by and proceeded down the first few steps. There he stopped and flattened himself against the side wall.

Padma stifled a cry as she felt breath on her neck. "S'me," whispered Michael. They watched, fascinated, as Trevett crept slowly back up to the top of the stairwell and the dark figure came out from behind the statue and started to creep towards them.

They raised their wands but before they could do anything they heard the whisper "Incarcerous." The dark figure started to whirl around but was too late. It collapsed into a twisting heap as ropes entwined it, gagged but growling muffled expletives. Beyond the sorry pile, Trevett advanced, wand in hand. He raised his other hand, palm outward towards them. Despite being hidden by concealment spells, he seemed to know they were there.

Trevett backed off and obscured himself with the same charm before lighting his wand. As he crouched over the fallen figure, Padma let out a yelp and came over to them. "Neville!"

"Ah!" said Trevett, nodding invisibly to himself.

"He's one of us," said Padma, unnecessarily. "Sorry, Nev - what you doing, slinking about?"

Neville mumbled something from behind his gag and Michael chanted "Finite Incantatem," to reveal them all and release Neville.

"I was waiting for Luna to leave so I could speak to Hannah!" spluttered Neville as he clambered to his feet, rubbing his arms and legs. He looked at his assailant. "You must be Edmund Trevett - where'd you learn that trick?"

"My grandmother. She used to teach here long ago."

"Let me guess - Defence Against the Dark Arts?"

Trevett nodded.

"How'd you know we were here?" asked Michael.

"This young lady's talc is scented - honeysuckle, peach, and bergamot, I think - and I felt the warmth of her body as I passed by."

Padma went scarlet and looked around as if searching for a hole in which to bury herself.

"Welcome to the D.A.," said Neville, reaching out and shaking Trevett's hand. "You've got my vote!"

There was the sound of a door handle and Neville scurried towards his statue. Luna emerged and looked around.

"Oh - I see you've all made friends." She leaned towards Trevett but she was gazing over his shoulder at the statue. "Tell Neville he can go in now."

As she, Padma, and Michael went off in the opposite direction, Trevett beckoned to Neville. "Girl trouble?"

"Something like that," said Neville. He shoulders drooped slightly as he recalled why he was there. He was extremely tired and the darkness beneath his eyes gave that away.

Edmund looked closely at Neville in the gloomy corridor. Neville had the feeling he was being evaluated. There was a long silence before the Slytherin finally spoke.

"So... you've broken off with her?"

"Kind of... It's a long story..."

"She's... She found someone else?"

"No, no - it's... complicated."

Edmund stared some more at Neville before finally turning on his heel and striding off towards the stairs without another word. Neville looked after him. What in Merlin's name was that all about?

As Neville entered the classroom, Seamus and Hannah were just coming out. Neville reached out to grab Hannah's arm but pulled back, self-consciously. "Hannah, can I talk to you? Have you got time?"

Hannah's eyes lit up. "Of course, Neville - we've got well over a quarter of an hour. What's--"

"Just give me a few minutes then we can go down to breakfast together." Neville suddenly realised how that sounded and his face went slightly pink.

Now Hannah unabashedly took Neville's arm and turned back with him into the room. "You look dreadful by the way. Hangover?"

"Let's just say it was a long night - not to mention I met our new D.A. member outside. Being cursed before breakfast doesn't agree with me."

"See you later, Neville," smirked Seamus as he closed the door on them and walked away.

Ginny was still sitting down. Her head was turned away and her face was hidden by her long hair. She seemed startled when they came in.

"Sorry, Ginny," said Neville, "are you--"

"S'alright - I'm only sorting out my books for History class." Ginny suddenly became very interested in rifling through her bag and spilling out nearly everything in it. "I didn't quite finish my homework..."

She pulled out quill and ink and parchment and looked slightly flustered as she was trying to open two books at the same time. She looked up at Neville and Hannah. "Oh! Are you...?"

"I was just going to erm..." Neville began.

"We were--" said Hannah, "--going to... talk..."

"Oh - yes..." Neville's face lit up as he had a sudden inspiration. "Hannah, I was going to ask you if you knew where Hogwarts' old chapel room is."

Hannah looked surprised. "Chapel?" Disappointment clouded her features and she said rather sharply. "Never heard of it. There isn't one."

Neville looked dismayed and confused for a moment. Hannah seemed to pick up on that for her face softened and she sat down on one of the chairs around the cluster of desks. "Let's think about it for a few minutes..."

He sank down slowly into the seat between Hannah and Ginny, unsure how to proceed. Ginny wondered whether to excuse herself and leave them to it but she wanted some privacy to contact Harry. She had only sent half a message: A Slytherin wants to kill... She shuffled through some more of her books as if she were studying them but she was listening intently.

"There are supposed to be some ghosts--" offered Neville, trying to keep the sticky discussion going. Hannah's eyes lightened.

"Of course!" she said, "- we can ask our house ghost. If anyone knows about chapels, he should."

Ginny looked up. Hannah grinned at Neville. "The Hufflepuff house ghost - the Fat Friar - you must have--"

"Oh yes," said Neville. He glanced at Ginny. "Why didn't we think of that!"

Hannah turned to Ginny. "You're looking for this chapel too?"

"It's a... kind of... joint project, yes," said Ginny. There were a few seconds while everyone stared at everyone else.

"You look awful, Neville," said Ginny, to break the slight unease.

"Tell me about it," said Neville tiredly.

"Wait here," said Hannah. She got up quickly and went out, leaving the door open. Presently, they heard a low whistle and she came back in and stood by the door, smiling. "He's often up and down the stairs at this time of day."

He glided in through the wall. "No need to hold the door for me, young lady! - Ah, a committee meeting!"

"Friar, we were wondering... erm... Take a seat."

The Fat Friar bowed slightly towards Hannah for the courtesy and slipped through Neville onto the opposite vacant seat. Neville shuddered at the sudden chill.

"Hope this chair can stand my weight!" laughed the monk, clutching his portly sides and making them wobble.

Hannah rolled her eyes at the others. Ginny got the impression she had heard the joke too often.

"What we wanted to ask you, Sir," said Neville. "Do you know if there is a Hogwarts' chapel and where it is?"

The Fat Friar beamed. "Chapel? Oh yes, there certainly is - but where, I know not. I, myself sought it two hundred years ago as a young student. A little prayer can be a great source of comfort after a difficult Potions class you know! You should--"

"Yes, yes," interrupted Hannah, quickly. "If we could find it then--"

"But how do you know it exists?" said Ginny.

"Oh, it has often been mentioned through the centuries." The Friar's eyes looked distant. "It was pagan originally, of course, but seems to have disappeared shortly after it was converted and sanctified. What a waste! It would be nice to conduct a few services - perhaps a funeral or two."

"Disappeared?" said Neville. "You think it was magically hidden? Why?"

"No one knows. There was a... terrible tragedy." The old clock struggled to chime a quarter to the hour. The Friar's eyes suddenly opened wide. "Lord! Is that the time!"

He leapt up and glided backwards through the wall. "Can't miss breakfast for any--" His voice was cut off as he disappeared.

Ginny cried out in exasperation, "But he can't--"

"Eat - I know," said Hannah. "He's always like that. Just likes to torment himself watching I suppose. Probably why he's stuck here actually."

"So, we're no further forward," said Neville, gloomily. "We've searched the corridors and endless books..."

"Well, if it was pagan originally then perhaps we could see if there's anything on that in the library," said Ginny. She did not sound very hopeful.

"I suppose you've already looked through the one Padma gave you?" mused Hannah. "I can't really think of anything else."

"What one Padma gave me?" said Ginny.

"That pagan book she gave you."

Ginny shook her head. "She never gave--"

"It's right there in front of you," said Hannah, beginning to laugh and pointing at one of Ginny's scattered books. "Snape in a cooking pot, remember?"

Ginny stared down at a fat old tome titled 'Pagan Rituals and Ceremonies' and understanding started to dawn in her eyes. "That thing! I've been carrying it around all this time! No wonder my bag felt heavy!"

The three clustered around and turned a few of the thin, decaying pages.

"It'll take us a week to go through this," said Neville. He looked at the clock; they had less than fifteen minutes to get down to the Great Hall. Ginny drew her wand.

"Accio Page about Hogwarts Chapel!"

There was a tearing sound and a page ripped itself out from within the book and fluttered at its side.

"Oh," said Ginny. "I didn't think of that... I thought it would just open..."

"The book's only a copy, remember," grinned Hannah, pouncing on the loose sheet. She read it out loud as they all leaned in close, trying to read it with her.

"One of the finest pagan shrines was on the fifth floor of Hogwarts Castle."

Ginny's medallion trembled and she felt anxiety in Harry's kiss.

"Though very small, the heathen shrine was used for several centuries by a few students whose families still clung to the old ways."

Ginny leaned naturally towards the page and pushed Neville a little closer to Hannah before pulling quietly away; they didn't seem to notice her. Silently she stood putting away her books and pretending to listen to Hannah should either of them look up. But neither looking up nor moving their heads apart was something they seemed inclined to do.

"The Harken Tapestry records the conversion of the shrine to a chapel for more general use in 1413. Sadly..."

Ginny tip-toed out of the room and slipped behind the statue of Destiny to look at Harry's message:

I'm here - A Slytherin wants to kill who?

Ginny's head jerked back in shock and she quickly kissed her medallion:

Here? Where? What do you mean?

I'm at the gate.

Ginny was already running. She cast a concealment charm upon herself and raced down the stairs to the Entrance Hall. Students were beginning to throng towards the Great Hall for breakfast so she had to avoid a few collisions but within minutes she was outside and heading for Hogwarts' gate.

The dawn was gloomy - the sun hidden behind the Forest and thick, grey clouds. She could barely see the gate in the distance. Her heart was pounding. Harry is there! Harry is there! All thought of chapels, breakfast, lessons, the Carrows, even of surviving - all was forgotten in her blind haste to reach the one she loved above all else.

The curse which hit her came from the side. She struck the cold ground hard, her legs like jelly, and rolled, all the wind knocked out of her. Two figures approached.

"Homenum Revelio!" It was Draco. By his side was Astoria Greengrass.

"Well, well, well - if it isn't the Weaselette. - what you doing out here?" he snarled. "Up to no good I'll bet."

"It's not curfew now! I was out for a walk! Is that a crime, Malfoy?" said Ginny, tried to rub some stability back into her legs.

"Liar!" spat Astoria. "You were running! That's how we heard you! Why did you use a concealing spell then?"

"Because of people like you!" She gave up on massaging her limbs and reached for her wand.

"Expelliarmus!" The wand was barely in her grasp when it flew to Draco who caught it then gleefully swaggered about waving it in front of Astoria. "What shall we do with her, Astoria?"

"Apart from a month of detentions, you mean?" smirked Astoria.

"Give it back, Draco!" cried Ginny from the ground. "I've done nothing wrong!"

"I suppose you were running to keep fit? Is that your excuse?" said Draco.

"I was running because I didn't want to be late for breakfast, you prat!"

Draco looked quickly at his watch. "Hell - we'll miss it if we don't hurry, Astoria."

"The wand, Draco! You owe me!"

"I owe you nothing! We're quits, remember!"

"What's she talking about, Draco?"

"Nothing. Come on..."

"You've not told her?" said Ginny, sensing an edge she might use against him.

"Keep your mouth shut, Weasley."

"What's she mean, Draco?"

"It's alright - I told you about the Stone, Astoria."

"What's it got to do with her?"

"She..."

"It was me that told him it was safe to use the Stone. It was me that brought you two back together."

Astoria stared down at her. Draco glared. He grabbed Astoria's arm and turned on his heel and headed back to the castle with her.

"My wand, Draco!"

"Consider yourself lucky you get no detentions, Weasley!" he called back.

Ginny scowled. Then she stopped and became thoughtful. Then she smiled to herself. It was not her own wand; it was the spare she had been using for the last few weeks. She rolled over onto her stomach looking in the direction of the gate. She began to crawl with her arms, dragging her useless legs behind her. It took only a few minutes of increasingly painful scratches to realise that an hour of worming along would not even get her halfway.

—oOo—

Luna Lovegood looked carefully at her D.A. galleon as she spooned alphabet creatures into her mouth. She wondered if Edmund Trevett was as clever as she had heard and as quick as she hoped. That he was watching her carefully from the Slytherin table she knew, so, once certain nobody else was observing her, she formed the word 'Go!' with her lips and flicked her eyes to the door.

Trevett had few friends even within his own house so he needed no excuses and no one was interested in his movements. Luna watched him leave out of the corner of her eye as she looked again at her Galleon.

Luna. Need your help. Urgent. Outside. Ginny.

After allowing a half-minute to disassociate herself from the Slytherin, she scraped up the unicorn swimming in the last few drops of sweet milk from her cereal bowl. The huge plateful of hot, buttered toast would have to wait. She cast a warming charm upon it.

Luna shared at least one thing with Edmund: she also could stand up, and fiddle with her bag, and even scrape her chair back, with few to take any interest in her. She spoke to Padma and Michael on the way out to tell them to stay and finish their meal because Edmund would accompany her.

Outside of the Great Hall, the moment she could not be seen or heard from within, she began to run and could see that Edmund was running with her. He asked no questions until they were outside the castle entrance.

"What gives?"

Luna was scanning the ground and soon saw what she sought. "Edmund, can you wait here and watch out for me, please? Ginny needs my help; she may be badly injured. It looks like she's been attacked - she might need some... privacy."

She set off at another, faster run, the milk and corn puffs sloshing uncomfortably in her stomach, towards the figure laying on the ground. Edmund Trevett watched her go. The matter-of-fact way she had spoken of her friend being attacked was unnerving; and the body he could see lying in the distance confirmed it was no fairy tale. If he had had any reservations about the seriousness of her previous claims, he now dismissed them.

Luna saw a movement, an arm raised, and relaxed and slowed ever so slightly as she drew near.

"Hello, Ginny. That's a funny place to lie down."

"Hello, Luna."

"Looks like you're in a fix."

"Jelly-legs - and Draco took my wand."

"You missed breakfast," Luna said, setting down her plate of toast on the grass.

"Harry's here."

Luna looked about in surprise. "That's nice - I'm glad he's well hidden. Ginny - don't tell him about me."

Ginny looked puzzled. "Wh--"

"He has enough problems I'm sure without worrying about me."

Ginny nodded. "Luna - my legs if you would."

"Oh, yes, of course - Finite!" She gave an extra flourish with her wand that wasn't necessary but she enjoyed doing it and Ginny struggled up to a sitting position.

"That Trevett over there? - can you get rid of him?"

"Yes, we'll go back inside now. Enjoy the toast and give my love to Harry. Tell him I... No, just give him my love." Luna turned and walked back towards the castle entrance, signalling to Edmund that he should go back inside.

When Ginny reached the gate she had a wry smile for the young man on the other side who was removing his invisibility cloak.

"Ginny? What the hell was that all about? Are you alright? I couldn't do anything through these shields. What's going on? Who's being killed? Why--"

"Good to see you too."

Harry smiled. "I take it everything is OK again, Gin?"

"Sorry, Harry, I was interrupted when I was sending that message. I meant to say, 'A Slytherin wants to kill Snape - whatever next!' We have a Slytherin who wants to join the D.A."

"Are you mental? Have they--?"

"'Me mental? What about you! You're crazy coming here! Weren't there Dementors at the gate? And how will you get away?"

"Only two. And I can Disapparate from here because I'm outside Hogwarts." Harry was eyeing the plate of toast Ginny held.

"Hungry?" Ginny held out the toast.

Harry looked at it longingly through the protective charms that made the gate impregnable. "I wish!"

"Guess I'll have to eat it all myself then," grinned Ginny as she crunched on a slice.

"What was Draco up to? That was him wasn't it?"

"Playing the superior prefect as usual. He took my wand - don't worry, it was a spare. I've got my own stashed away."

"Foul git - I'll take his bloody wand one day - see how he likes it," snarled Harry.

He watched Ginny eat for a while. "Wish we could meet..."

"We are meeting," Ginny spluttered on her toast. "Merlin! This is really good!"

"It's not quite what I had in mind. I wanted to..."

"Wanted to what?" said Ginny nonchalantly stuffing herself. "Mmm... yummee!"

"Not had a proper snog in ages..." grumbled Harry.

Ginny burst out in a fit of giggles and nearly choked on her toast. She put the plate on the ground and came close to the gate, putting her hand to cover Harry's pressed up to the other side of the shield charm.

Her eyes widened. "I can feel the warmth! The heat comes through like the light!"

"But no touch..." said Harry, wryly.

"Come on, give me your other hand too - mine are cold from lying on the ground."

"It was frosty early on; your hands do feel cold."

Ginny pressed up close to the wrought iron and whispered. "But my lips aren't..."

The two lovers kissed through the protective spells of Hogwarts and looked into each others eyes. The moment came when it seemed the old castle wards relented to this affection and their lips really touched. Or perhaps it was simply old magic overpowering the new.

"Ginny... You know, there were a couple of times when we used the medallions... something happened."

"I thought that was you doing it."

"No, I think it's when we both kiss it at the same exact moment and... there's some pressing need - some strong emotion - it's like Legilimency - only feelings and words mixed together."

"I think we have a pressing need right now, don't you?" said Ginny.

They practised for quite some time before they got it right - and then they practised some more to make sure. Ginny suddenly pulled away, fear and confusion in her eyes.

"You're alright!"

"Hey - thanks, Gin - you're not bad yourself," grinned Harry, his face still pressed up to the metal, his lips puckering.

"No - I mean..." She backed further away. "I shouldn't have come!"

"Ginny? What's wrong?" Harry was alarmed now.

"You don't feel... ill... or anything?"

"Always with the sickness thing. Ginny, what's this about? Cards on the table, remember?"

Ginny's shoulders sagged and she looked thoughtful. "I never did tell you, did I?"

"Tell me what, Ginny! I know about the sword - you said."

"No - it was when we did that - Snape..."

"What?"

"He... invaded my thoughts..."

Harry cursed and his face twisted into one of hatred. "I'll..."

"I had to put up a defence - so he wouldn't know your feelings for me." Ginny's eyes remained dry; she could finally talk about it unflinchingly. "I had to focus on my most powerful feeling - it was my worst fear - all those years when I thought you wouldn't ever... want me. It not only blocked him - it convinced him you didn't care about me."

Harry stared. "Ginny... I always cared about you."

"I know."

"This was when you fell ill wasn't it - when you were in the hospital wing?"

"Yes. It... affected me. The pressure, the... intense focus of his mind - you know what it's like yourself - it multiplied that fear. My old doubts started hurting again... only far worse."

"Ginny - you need never, ever doubt me. I love you."

"I know..." Ginny gave a wry smile. "But I did something silly."

Harry waited.

"There's a magical trysting stone deep in the Forest. I thought it would clear away the doubts - it did clear them away! But the Stone was cursed. I was scared it might have..."

"I'm fine, Ginny - really." Harry smiled and jerked his head to tell her to come near again.

"All that's behind us now. Look, I have to get back to Hermione. Feed the birds with your toast, Ginny. Even when I'm gone - you know we're always together."

Ginny smiled. "It'll be Christmas soon. I'll be at the Burrow. I always go for a walk every morning at ten and in the evening at five down the lane towards Ottery..."

Harry pushed his glasses back towards his raised eyebrows. "I didn't know that."

"Well, I've not started yet always going for a walk have I?" laughed Ginny, then her grin faded. "You've not got anything planned for Christmas, have you?"

"No - not even thought about it."

They shared one last kiss through the gate and after Harry had Disapparated, Ginny circled around the fringes of the Forest, throwing scraps of charm-warmed toast to the sparrows, wood pigeons and others. The tiniest of the birds fought with the best of them, risking the sharp beaks to get a share without much success. Ginny sat down upon the forest litter and coaxed it to the slice she held. As it fluttered gratefully onto her forearm and began pecking at the toast, a very large bird above Ginny attracted her attention.

"Audrey!" Ginny stared thoughtfully at the great tawny as she flew down to a low branch at her side and took the half-slice the girl offered. The owl brought no message but Ginny had her schoolbag with its quill and parchment - and there were still ten minutes until the first lesson...

—oOo—

When Ginny had left Neville and Hannah to go to Harry at the gate they had scarcely noticed. Deep down, it seemed to Neville that he had been working towards this moment for a long time but now he lost the will to move. He could see the words about the pagan shrine and hear Hannah speaking them aloud but all he was aware of was the soft breath that carried them; the delicacy of the hand that moved down the page; and the binding magnetism of her presence.

She stopped talking and they stayed with the silence. Neither of them knew or cared if she had reached the end of the text. Both were paralysed by the stillness of joy. Finally, Neville heard himself speaking.

"Hannah... what I really came here for..." he began. There was no hurry. To Neville, it seemed he had forever.

Hannah tilted her head slightly, the better to see his face. He was still so young but his features and his demeanour were reformed by old bruises and new challenges. There was a tiredness around his eyes though they were clear and unwavering as he returned her gaze.

"The real reason I cannot see Luna anymore... is because... my true feelings have been... uncovered."

He paused to give Hannah time to stop him if she wished, then he continued.

"Hannah, I've been wanting to tell you. " He sounded slightly formal, like he had the words prepared, but he only hesitated a moment at the edge of his courage, then dived in. "I've always liked you but the more we've talked together the more my... fondness for you is... has grown."

Hannah remained silent and for a few moments he wondered if he was mistaken about her - but he was prepared for this eventuality. "Would you... encourage my affections or--?"

Hannah smiled and spoke one word. "Wow!"

Neville froze as he realised what a prat he had sounded like then relaxed when he saw that Hannah was not laughing at him.

"You said all that really well." She meant it.

"I was up most of the night practising."

"I thought you looked weary - hope I'm worth it."

There was concern in her tone but whether for him or herself, Neville could not tell. He suddenly, desperately, wanted to hold her hand but instead gave her his broadest smile and trusted she saw her answer there.

"So... what d'you think?" he asked. "Would you, you know - we could do things together?" Then, emboldened by her lingering smile he added quickly, "Would you be my girlfriend?"

Hannah's Hufflepuff practicalness took over. "Would you still want to avoid letting Luna see us together?"

Neville frowned slightly but there was only one answer. "Yes... For now."

"And you think it's worth us trying to see if--?"

"I don't need to try, Hannah - I know."

"You thought that with Luna."

"So - now I know the difference. I love Luna - I'd do anything for her - but I'm in love with you." He instantly realised he'd said it without intending to. "It took magic to--"

"Magic cannot create love, Neville." Was there a flicker of doubt in her tone? Yet she was still smiling - and her eyes were now shining.

Neville reached down into his bag. He fumbled slightly then came up with an empty hand which he held out.

"Magic can reveal things though, Hannah - show you what's already there."

He murmured something very softly, like an ancient poem, and a small red rose appeared, laying across his palm.

"It's everlasting - you can crush it, destroy it, but of itself it will never wither."

Again, Hannah's mouth formed the word "Wow!" but this time no sound escaped her lips. She and Neville were still very close together. She took the rose then hesitantly breathed in its fragrance, all the while keeping her eyes on his face.

He laughed. "I've got nothing else rehearsed so I'll probably start babbling real soon. So... if you want to think about it... if... Erm..."

There was no time for her to think about it because she was in his arms before he finished speaking. They kissed and both felt a new purpose in their lives; a common centre they could share. The old clock dully struck the breakfast hour but they did not hear it. And Neville was finally holding Hannah's hand.


—oOo—






Chapter 17: The Informer
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Chapter 17


The Informer



As Ginny made her away back to the Castle, munching on the last slice of toast, the little bird followed her, cheekily swooping down again and again to grab a crumb before taking flight again. Happily distracted by its charm she did not notice the dark, sinister figure waiting for her upon the entrance steps.

"Miss Weasley - where might you have been at this hour?" It was Snape - and with more than his usual quota of suspicion.

Ginny looked suitably startled - for indeed, she was. "Feeding the birds." She began to be grateful now for the droppings that soiled her school robes and for the cheeky little bird that once again, dove in and pecked at the toast in her hand.

"Feeding... the... birds..." Snape uttered, looking for some meaning in the excuse but not seeing any. "What on Earth for?"

"Well... the happiness of the birds for one thing."

"Happiness of...? - of what practical use is that may I ask? Can it clean a cauldron? Can it teach you anything... useful? Miss Weasley, do you ever stop to listen to yourself when you make these outrageously-illogical statements? Have you the slightest idea how nonsensical you sound?"

"I suppose it's of no use whatsoever... to some." Ginny shook her head slowly in wonderment then endeavoured to get past the headmaster.

"Not... so fast - where is Mr. Longbottom?"

"I wouldn't know--" then, remembering he was not doing any D.A. work nor breaking any school rule that would cost more than a few now-worthless house points, she added, "Oh - he may be doing some... homework with Hannah Abbot up in the spare classroom on the fourth floor. History I think - he said something about Pagan studies..."

"Indeed? I shall... of course, investigate..."

"I recommend you knock on the door - they both work hard but they are very... good friends."

Snape's eyes narrowed. "Perhaps then, you can explain where Mr. Finnigan is? It does seem that the Gryffindor table was rather empty of... Gryffindors this morning."

Ginny looked genuinely puzzled. "I thought he had gone to breakfast."

"You... thought..." The little bird alighted on Snape's head and he instinctively drew out his wand and wafted it away with a curse which narrowly missed. He looked thoughtful for a few seconds then reached into his robes and drew out another wand.

"Yours, I think?" He thrust the wand towards her which she recognised as the spare that Draco had taken. She took it and some surprise must have shown on her face for Snape said, "This is a school of magic. We do not confiscate the most essential tool that is used... properly... for that purpose. Tell me, Miss Weasley - you seem to have carried out an extraordinary number of trapping, tripping, snaring, and similar curses over the last few months have you not?"

Ginny stared blankly for a while, thinking hard. She made a mental note to make sure the other Snatchers' wands became heavily used for more innocent spells. "Dark Arts... Homework..."

"But Incarcerous is a transfiguration spell, is it not?" Snape's eyes gleamed.

"Extra studies as well. Professor McGonagall insisted I revise."

"Now, I wonder why she would do that?" Snape said slyly. There was a hint of a trap closing. "Because although Incarcerous is technically a transfiguration spell it is taught only in Defence Against the Dark Arts classes."

Ginny thought furiously but was unable to answer. He stared hard at her face for a while before saying, "You may go."

As Ginny flounced past him to show she wasn't scared she stumbled on the steps and he added without turning around, "Tread very carefully, Miss Weasley. We wouldn't want anything... untoward... to happen to you, would we?"

A chill went up her spine, thinking about those words as she trotted towards her first lesson. Luna seemed so certain of her own fate that it brought home to Ginny just how vulnerable they all really were here at Hogwarts. And now, another of their friends had gone missing...

During the rest of the morning, most of the D.A. spent every spare moment between classes and every free period searching for Seamus. It was not until Ginny had finished wolfing down a rapid lunch and was returning to Gryffindor Tower that she saw him. He probably was grimacing but his face was so swollen and bloody it was hard to tell. At least he was walking - well, stumbling along anyway - while leaning on Terry Boot's shoulder. Ginny sent out a message on her D.A. Galleon to inform everyone he had been found.

They sat Seamus in an armchair. A couple of first-year girls ran out squealing at the gore. Romilda fussed around, wiping his face and helping him to drink cold water while Ginny chanted some healing spells. The spare wand didn't work as well as her own wand but it helped for now.

Neville burst in through the portrait entry and came straight over to the others.

"Alecto..." muttered Seamus, his jaw not moving freely. "Usual ... curses."

"All morning?" cried Neville. "Wonder it didn't kill you! What was it for?"

"Found out ... DASTARDLY ... classes."

"How? How'd she know?" said Neville. "How could--?"

"Did you have-- You did have a chance to use your Mandrabane?" cut in Ginny.

"Yeah but ... was beginning ... wear off ... Snape..."

"Snape? He was there?" said Terry. Parvati was using a cleansing charm on the shoulder of his robes where Seamus' bloody hand had gripped.

"Came in ... at end ... angry ... Stopped her..."

"...before she finished you off!" said Neville. He looked at Ginny in alarm. "It's getting worse, Gin."

Ginny shook her head in disbelief. Harry's visit at the gate had lifted her spirits but now she felt the burden of responsibility weighing heavily again. "We have to hang on, somehow - but... One thing we'll increase the Mandrabane dose that everybody carries."

"Funny this happened just after Trevett got involved with us, don't you think?" said Lavender.

"He didn't know anything about the DASTARDLY lessons," said Neville. He turned to Seamus. "Did he?"

"Not from me," muttered Seamus.

Ginny said, "Anything he could have found? Any -- Where'd you keep the books and stuff?"

"Mostly ... Room. Got papers ... my bag" said Seamus, gasping with the pain.

"Where's your bag?" asked Ginny.

"Alecto."

"Oh, Merlin!" said Neville. "Why'd you--"

"Was taking ... revised ... to Huffs."

"But Carrow only saw it after she had already got you? So... Was Trevett anywhere near you - before then?"

"Told last night ... 'bout the meeting ... this morning. Did he ... turn up?"

"Yeah - he was there alright," said Neville ruefully, rubbing the bruise on his hip where he'd fallen in the corridor.

"It can only be him," said Ginny fiercely, still clutching her wand and brandishing it rather dangerously around. "I trust everyone else - Smith's a prat but I can't see him doing this. Anyway, he'd have shopped Ernie, surely?"

"Not necessarily," said Neville, "- he'd probably avoid anyone in his own house. He knows - we all know - about Seamus and Terry doing these classes."

"Anyway, I don't think it's his style," said Ginny. "He's a low life - lie low, keep out of trouble, generally whinge about everything everyone else is doing - that's him. Why would he risk the combined venom of a D.A. lynch mob? Likewise, McLaggen - big mouth but courageous and loyal."

What about Gylda?" said Romilda.

"Who?" said Ginny.

"Gylda Pyke. First-year - she was taking his classes."

Seamus nodded. "Seem... nice ... bit silly." He cringed at another stab of pain. "In D.A. ... anyhow."

"Since when?"

"Since ... other day ... told you. Same time ... Trevett."

"Don't remember. Don't know her."

"You've seen her around," Romilda said. "Kind of... slow on the uptake, if you know what I mean, so tends to keep to herself. Short and fat. Fair, curly hair."

A sudden chill gripped Ginny like an icy band around her heart. She sank down into the chair next to Seamus.

"Where is she, Romilda?" Ginny said, weakly.

"She ran out when Seamus was brought in."

"She was watching me in the reading room," Ginny said. "I knew there was something odd about her. And she was moved in to watch Luna in the hospital wing - the exact days." Then she added bitterly, "I didn't believe Luna."

"Terry! Romilda!" cried Neville, heading for the door. "We've got to find her quickly!" The three of them ran out through the portrait entrance.

"Won't ... know much," mumbled Seamus. He shook his head but stopped quickly and clutched at his neck.

"Sorry, Seamus," said Ginny. "Let's try some extra healing. Want some more Mandrabane?"

"Uh uh," he said, taking care not to shake his head. He pointed at the side of his throat and jaw which was swelling up badly and heavily discoloured.

Ginny checked again with her wand. "The tissues are savagely bruised." Her head swivelled quickly to look about the common room. "Nigel! - did I see Nigel around?"

"Here!" piped up Nigel Wolpert, springing out of a chair at the back of the room.

"Do us a favour - can you nip to the Room and get Fred's bruise paste? It's a big pot - thick yellow stuff--"

"I know it!" He dashed for the exit, glad to be of use.

"And my wand - can you get my real wand while you're there? Know which locker is mine?"

"Yep! I'm on it!"

She turned back to Seamus. "That'll fix it quick. Really powerful." She looked at the time. "First lesson in about half an hour. It should be mostly healed by then."

There was a commotion at the entrance and Neville came in with Terry behind and the little first-year girl sobbing between them. Romilda followed them in.

"Hiding in the outer toilet," said Romilda, glaring at the child.

Ginny examined the youngster's face closely as Neville guided her to a chair.

"You're-- What you say her name was?"

"Gylda Pyke," said Romilda.

"That right?"

The girl nodded and rubbed her eyes with a fist to dry them.

"What you been up to then?" asked Ginny. "We know - we just want you to say it."

Ginny still held her wand and now she raised it. The girl squealed and cringed down into her seat. Ginny put her wand away quickly, her eyes widening. She hadn't really intended to use the wand for anything other than as a warning to show she wouldn't stand any nonsense.

Neville put his hand on Ginny's shoulder. "Let me."

"Gylda," he said, "have the Carrows threatened you?" He crouched down to be as non-intimidating as possible; he recalled how terrified Emmy had been of him on the Ravenclaw Tower stairs.

The girl nodded but didn't look up.

"That doesn't mean much," said Romilda. "They threaten everyone."

"They made you... do things?" coaxed Neville.

The girl peeped up at Neville but didn't answer.

Neville sighed. "Look, nobody here is going to hurt you. We just want you to tell us what happened - then it's over. They told you to watch us didn't they? Listen to everything that we say?"

The girl hesitated, then nodded again.

"And you were in the hospital wing on - Ginny, remind me, when was it?"

"Halloween."

"On Halloween and the days after?"

The girl shook her head and lisped. "No Thir - wathn't doin' nuthink."

"I saw you there," snapped Ginny.

The girl's shoulders slumped and her head lowered again.

Neville raised his palm to Ginny to ease off.

"We're not going to hurt you even if you were in there, Gylda so you might as well tell the truth. Ginny saw you. Did the Carrows ask you to do it? Was it Alecto?"

The child nodded but again, did not look up. "Athked me, yeth. Not wickid not. Din't do nuthink."

"You didn't actually tell them anything?"

"No" The girl shook her head rather too vigorously.

"But you told them about Seamus' classes didn't you?" said Neville. "It's... we know it's hard for you but tell us."

"Thamuth' clatheth, yeth." The girl kept her head down and clasped her hands around it as if to shut out the world.

"You told them? You told the Carrows?"

"Yeth," she said. "Can I go now?"

Nigel came in at the moment and quietly gave Ginny her wand and the healing paste which she began to apply to the side of Seamus' jaw.

Neville sighed. "Don't you think you ought to apologise to Seamus? Look at him - and he was trying to help you - to teach you the truth - risking himself for you."

"Thorry, Thamuth," whimpered the little girl. She remained staring down at the floor - or perhaps her eyes were closed.

Nobody spoke for a while.

"You can't be in the D.A. now - you know that? And Seamus is stopping his classes now because of you - you understand?" said Neville. He shot a glance at Seamus and gave a quick negative frown and a tiny shake of his head to indicate he didn't mean it.

The girl looked up quickly at Neville but then lowered her face again without speaking.

"You understand?"

"Yeth."

"And if the Carrows tell you to spy on us again you tell them we know about you and we won't let you - we'll have to... keep away from you. You understand?"

The girl looked upwards and down quickly then said sadly, "Yeth."

"Anything you've not told us?" said Terry.

"Thpeak Perfether Mdogenal?"

"What?" said Neville.

"Thpeak Perfether Mdogenal?"

Lavender cut in, ""McGonagall! She'll be furious. She's the last person you want to see!"

The girl starting crying again.

"This isn't right," said Neville. "Can't one of you girls help her?" He draw Ginny to one side. "She needs help."

"Help? But how? How can she be helped in here Neville? And there's no way out - even we can't get out. She's... Look we cannot trust her; lives are at stake. Just one wrong word..."

In the background they could hear the girls talking. Parvati sighed. "Not me - hasn't she got any friends?"

"Only Spotty," giggled Romilda.

"She means, Eloise," grinned Lavender, nudging Romilda in the ribs.

"Eloise Midgen?" said Terry, with surprise, "Thought she left early last year after all the talk in the Prophet about You-know-who being back?"

"Oh wake up, Terry," sneered Romilda, "Everybody had to come back this year didn't they? It's compulsory."

"Alright, alright - don't get 'em in a twist - it's only that I don't remember seeing her this year," said Terry.

"Yeah, well, she's changed - had her nose fixed while she was away - and her acne - and she's... older. Fancy her then, did you?"

Terry muttered something that sounded noncommittal like, "She was alright."

"Then what do we do?" said Neville in a low tone, drawing Ginny further away from the others.

"I don't know!" said Ginny curtly. "Look, we'll have to leave it for now. Nobody's to talk to her--"

"Oh, Ginny..."

"I mean, nobody's to tell her anything... secret. Which means you can't talk to her much at all - you can't relax with her around - one slip... We'll have to figure something out." Ginny stopped. She shook her head. There was a bad taste in her mouth. They could hear the others still talking in the background.

"Where is Eloise then?" Terry asked Romilda. He felt more and more uncomfortable as he looked at the sobbing Gylda.

"Probably hiding in her dorm," said Lavender, as she headed towards the stairs. "She's still as shy as a mouse. Some things never change."

Lavender had to practically drag Eloise Midgen downstairs to try to comfort Gylda. With good reason: Eloise felt rather awkward in front of everyone else's gaze. She stood back from the youngster and they exchanged words but Eloise was out of her depth when it came to trying to comfort someone. She was more the sort of person who needed comforting herself. Her usual strategy was to hide from emotional confrontation so at the first opportunity she hoped to get Gylda back to her dorm out of the spotlight.

"Erm... Are you alright, Gylda?" she whispered then coughed nervously, not looking at the others.

"Not wikkid am I, Elloweeth?" sobbed the chubby girl.

"I think you just made a mistake, Gylda. You didn't mean it did you?"

"Din't mean it, no."

"Come on, we'll go somewhere quiet," said Eloise, taking her arm and guiding her to the girls' stairs.

"Everybody haith me now, Elloweeth?"

"Nobody hates you, Gylda. I don't hate you. They're just... worried."

Romilda, Lavender, and Parvati, meanwhile were observing Terry Boot whose eyes were practically popping out of his head as he watched Eloise disappear up the stairs with the younger girl. If her quiet personality had attracted him when she was a spotty youngster with a bent nose, now she was an attractive young woman, he was transfixed.

"You can put your tongue back in, Boot," smirked Romilda.

Terry glared at her before turning and sweeping out of the portrait entrance with as much dignity as he could muster.

* ' * ' * ' *

There was an unpleasant atmosphere in the common room for the rest of that week. It had been a sad episode in the noble history of Gryffindor House and everyone felt it. Most of the students had been drawn to listen in to the interrogation and the general feeling was frustration; they wanted some punishment to be handed out but felt too sorry for the pathetic youngster to satisfy that feeling. Sympathy or no - the mood had changed and even conversations about the cold weather now tended to stop abruptly if Gylda Pyke passed nearby.

It had been merely fortuitous that no normal D.A. meeting had taken place since Seamus had proposed her and in fact, because she had not yet signed up she was not technically a true member. So she knew none of the members other than was common knowledge nor had any idea of where they met. The increased worry about the security of the D.A. led to a new rule that unless there was some exceptional circumstance, all recruits should be quarantined for a month or two and given limited access to information and knowledge of other members.

The Gryffindor DASTARDLY classes had to be reorganised more secretly. Seamus resumed teaching but out of sight in his dormitory with just the boys while Romilda, whose great-aunt was a Muggle, took up the duty in her dorm for the girls.

In these few days, things seemed to return almost to normal. Seamus recovered fully but was permanently scarred. Neville and Hannah snook away for walks together during lunch breaks but they kept apart in lessons where Luna was present. Luna kept her distance from Neville but they did occasionally look at one another and once even smiled without any return of her illness.

Now that Ginny was happily looking forward to seeing Harry at Christmas, and having seen that he was unaffected by the curse on the Stone, she slowly forgot about the chapel. Likewise, Neville and Hannah were preoccupied with one another and searching for the lost room was pushed out of their thoughts too. Neville forgot why they even wanted to find it. Naturally, he did not forget Luna, but avoiding her had become more routine than tragedy - at least for him.

—oOo—

Xeno Lovegood stared at the message in alarm and his eyes shot to the signature again. If Ginny Weasley was worried about Luna's safety then he knew to take it seriously. It was only a couple of weeks to the end of the school term but a lot could happen in that time. He scribbled out his intentions on the nearest scrap of parchment and carefully tied it to the patiently waiting owl's leg.

"We've got to bring my Luna home, Audrey," he said. "Get some food and rest then make sure she sees this."

As the owl flew out of his open front door he strode out after her, both heading directly for the old storage shed. The owl veered gracefully around the dilapidated construction and into the open barn where there were always owl treats up on her favourite ledge.

"Is it...? Are you going to--?" creaked Bagstaff, the scarecrow, as Xeno passed by.

"Yes - and I'll need you... to navigate."

Bagstaff's broom head, which protruded like hair up through his bag-head, bristled in anticipation.

Xeno's sense of purpose sagged when he squeezed open the shed door. The chaos of years of accumulated junk faced him all at once. It was apparent that a whole section of shelving had rotted and collapsed under the weight of too many cans and pots; his precious flitfloat was crushed.

The man stood to one side after casting a banishing spell and watched the unwanted pieces of the clutter flying out of the door to form a large heap to one side of his cabbages. He resigned himself to sorting that lot out another year.

He ventured inside again to look at what remained. The canvas was hopelessly torn but was replaceable as were the ropes and cords which had all rotted. The bent and rusted metal struts needed more thought. Two brooms looked to be intact - though he'd need to do some careful testing of their magical properties. Another, the largest, he was unsure of, while a fourth lay splintered and cracked irrecoverably. A simple Reparo mending charm was not enough for these magical objects but if the dubious one still held its enchantment then perhaps he could reinforce its physical shape. Yet even with Bagstaff at the helm, he needed one more working broomstick.

"Audrey!" he cried at the threshold to the barn. "Sorry, old girl, but this is urgent."

The large tawny opened one sleepy eye and scrabbled back and forth on the edge of the open half-loft before dropping down at Xeno's side as he scribbled a note on a scrap of parchment. He opened a small money bag at his belt and pulled a face as he looked at the contents. Finally, with a sigh, he pulled out a few galleons and put them in a pouch which he attached, with the note, to Audrey's leg.

"Take this to Make-Do's in Diagon Alley. Don't go to Broomstix and definitely don't go to Quidditch Supplies - I can't afford their prices!"

As the owl took flight, he called after her, "Make sure it's self-delivery!"

He turned to the pile of metal and wood in his shed, grimaced, then took out his wand. It was going to take some time and a lot of magical ingenuity to repair and reconstruct even the parts that remained...

—oOo—

Something was troubling Hermione Granger; that much Harry could tell without difficulty - but what exactly, he had no idea. He speculated whether his prolonged hunting trip that morning, only to return with naught but a Daily Prophet and bread and milk he had exchanged for a few coins on someone's doorstep - could that be annoying her? He could scarcely inform her he'd been snogging Ginny through Hogwarts' gateway. No, it couldn't be that, he knew; both of them had often been delayed when out scavenging and often returned with nothing but a miserable expression and aching feet.

Leaning back in his chair, Harry surveyed the wood carving he had been chipping away at with a wand charm for the last hour. He sighed gloomily. Art and crafts were just not his thing - panther or hippopotamus there was no telling. He slung the graceless chunk back in the heap, selected another piece of firewood and tried to visualise it as a horse.

That Hermione had partly come to terms with Ron's departure he was sure - or at least, resigned herself to it. Possibly this was a relapse as the reality of it had finally sunk in after two months but it seemed unlikely. It definitely wasn't the horcrux because he was wearing it this evening. Ginny was sending her kisses almost twice an hour. He had to keep nipping to the loo or the washroom to read her supportive messages and keep a positive frame of mind to combat the effects of the dark object.

A sudden idea struck Harry like a bright light. The washroom! He cast his mind back to that embarrassing moment when he had burst in on Hermione. Yes, her strange mood seemed to date from then. Was it possible she thought he was coming on to her? His eyes widened as a second idea burst upon him like a thunderbolt. Was it possible her affection for Ron had taken a new direction and it was she who wanted to encourage Harry? Was that really why she had shrieked to draw him into the washroom? He jerked sideways on his stool and almost fell off. Hermione's book of Spells for Pastimes slid off his knee onto the floor.

Hermione looked up from reading the Prophet with one eyebrow raised. "Got the fidgets?" She grinned and went back to the article she was reading. "No hope for you I'm afraid, Harry. The dreaded fidgets are incurable."

She wasn't mad at him. She wasn't avoiding him. No, it wasn't him. Harry's shoulders relaxed with relief. And yet... she was kind of withdrawn in a subtle way. He looked closely at her. She was hugging a thin shawl around her shoulders like a security blanket. Now he came to think about it she was also always wearing that thick, long-sleeved, high-necked green top he hated yet the charms kept the tent nice and cosy despite the wintry weather outside. He himself was almost too warm in just his tee-shirt. It was as if she were trying to keep something out... Was it him? Did she fear he might become a crazed monster, cooped up with her, month after month?

"Hermione?"

There was a few seconds pause before she looked up. "Mmm?"

"Erm... You know... like we're good friends... best friends really?"

"Of course!" Hermione smiled. "What's up with you this evening? First the fidgets, now the--"

"No, but... It's nothing more than that - you know that, right?"

Hermione stared then a big grin spread across her face and she folded up the newspaper to hide her embarrassment. "Of course, you silly. Look, Harry, you need to get out more!"

She got up and went over to put on the kettle. She seemed her normal self - yet somehow she was still... huddled within.

"I mean, you know I love Ginny - I can never love anyone else that way."

"Oh for heaven' sake, Harry," snapped Hermione, whirling around to face him, her eyes sparkling with tears. "Why do you think I've been studying the missing people list for the last hour! And the prosecutions! And those sentenced to..."

Harry stopped his attempt at magical carving and stood up. "Sorry - I... I'm sorry, Hermione. It's just that you seem..."

"Look, there's nothing wrong!" shrieked Hermione. "Nothing more than usual that is!"

She flounced back to her chair and picked up the Prophet. She seemed to be reading from the first page again, the tea forgotten.

Harry sat down and resumed his attempt to inflict some beautiful concept onto the length of hard oak he held. For half an hour there was an uncomfortable silence broken only by Ginny's kiss which helped him through.

After another twenty minutes he held up his carving and examined it ruefully.

"Cows have horns, Harry," said Hermione, trying to break the stalemate with a helpful suggestion.

"It's supposed to be a horse," muttered Harry.

"Oh - well, it's not... bad." Hermione paused then added brightly. "Would you like me to have a go for you?"

"No, I want it to be from..." He tailed off. "I wanted to see if I could make something."

Hermione stared. "It's for Ginny isn't it? Might have known - it's her patronus right? You're going to send her a Christmas present!"

Harry struggled to answer.

"That's a wonderful idea!" Hermione came over. "She'll be thrilled and it won't give anything away. She'll know it's from you."

"Except it's an ugly fat cow..." said Harry, throwing it back onto the firewood pile.

"Look, you're going about it all wrong," said Hermione, briskly, grabbing a hunk of wood. "Let me show you again. It's almost entirely in the visualisation. If you can't clearly visualise a horse then it won't work. Start with a simple shape. It's the thought that counts. A beautiful abstract shape like an egg or a pyramid done well is better than a badly done horse... How about--?"

"--a stick of firewood?" grinned Harry, grabbing a big fat slice of a gnarled branch and holding it up. "It's a masterpiece!"

"--a paperweight, I was going to say. A smooth, rounded, pebble shape is nice..."

"Could it be a... heart-shape?"

"Well... that's more Valentine-ish don't you think?"

"Yeah but... OK. Just thought..."

"Harry, you could send Ginny a housebrick and she'd love it; you know that. If you want to send her a heart for Christmas then that's fine."

"But how can I make it more... Christmassy?"

"Perhaps, holly or... the thing is to visualise - and think of Ginny too - then your heart will really be in it and it will be personalised."

"How'm I supposed to think of three things at once?" said Harry, menacing the stick with his wand.

"Concentrate - but relax at the same time."

"Concentrate AND relax?" moaned Harry.

"It's a... relaxed focus - I'll leave you to it for a while," said Hermione, "so as not to distract you. I'll make us a snack - chestnut sandwiches - wonder if that would work if I blend them with something?" She meandered off to the kitchen bay and began looking at the interior of the almost-empty food cupboard.

It took Harry five minutes to stop glaring at the firewood and become bored. Either his focus was too relaxed or he concentrated so hard he couldn't relax. He shook himself and resolved to try to concentrate properly. He began the chant. It was almost hypnotic, watching the flakes and splinters of wood fly off. In the hazy background he could hear Hermione tinkering around with crockery and cutlery and he could smell the glorious aroma of hot chestnuts...

Ginny's kiss swept through his reverie just as he heard the kettle come to the boil. Fine flakes of oak sprayed away before his eyes but with Hermione's back to him he was only looking at Ginny's words: Just for love...

A lump came to his throat and he glanced up at the remains of the firewood and his eyes widened. Yet beyond the focus of his eyes, something was still troubling Hermione Granger.

—oOo—

Professor McGonagall could be quite intimidating when she was using the word 'preposterous' and she was using it now - a lot. "Are you quite sure about this, Miss Lovegood?"

Luna nodded solemnly. "Emmy was very distressed for days afterwards. We've been helping her avoid giving them any excuse ever since." She glanced sideways at Professor Flitwick who was also nodding.

A look of pure fury crossed McGonagall's face and her fist clenched and crushed the quill with which she had been writing. She rose from her desk but after a few seconds she sank back down again and seemed to bring herself under control.

Luna went on, "I make sure she always has Mandrabane and knows how to use it now."

"Mandrabane?" McGonagall looked at Flitwick who shook his head.

"It's a potion that Professor Slughorn prepared for us specially - it suppresses the pain and helps us pretend. Even the torture curse is bearable if you've sipped Mandrabane."

McGonagall shuddered. "I knew, of course, some of the things that are taking place here but Emma Brocksby... She is supposed to be under my protection. I've let her down badly..."

Luna spoke quite firmly, "She ought not to be here. It's bad enough when first-years are being hurt."

The eyes of McGonagall narrowed and she stared at Luna. "But Miss Brocksby is a first-year..."

Luna did not answer but looked unblinkingly at McGonagall.

"You... know, don't you?" said McGonagall. "She should not have told you... I got her to swear not to reveal her age to anyone."

"Oh, she did not of herself. I sensed something in her eyes and in her manner - it was only in one particular moment - that she was younger than she looked. Anyone as dense as the Carrows would never detect the truth I'm sure. I challenged her and she admitted she was only seven years old."

Flitwick looked uncomfortably down at his shoes. McGonagall's gaze switched to him.

"You knew about this, Filius?"

"Miss Lovegood only informed me this evening - which is why I insisted we come to you, Minerva. Miss Brocksby is in my house - you should have told me--"

"The less that know the better!" snapped McGonagall. "She is not the only child on my..."

"Special list?" Luna finished for her.

"Times are very difficult..."

"Why in Merlin's name, Minerva? Why bring such a young child to Hogwarts at a time like this?" Flitwick's respect for McGonagall softened his tone but he was clearly repressing some earlier anger that threatened to surface again.

McGonagall's jaw tightened and her lips thinned. "She came from a small waif's home for runaways, rejects, and abandoned children of... difficult... magical backgrounds; squibs and Muggles-born mostly. The conditions were not very good even before the return of You-know-who but after the Death Eaters took over Brack and Sweeting's... She was the only one I managed to save..." The elderly teacher paused and sighed. "Where could she go? I had a week before the start of the new term and it was chaos immediately after Professor Dumbledore's death. I barely slept..." She lowered her head despondently.

"Miss Lovegood has a plan," said Flitwick.

"I'd like to hear it!" McGonagall's head came up and she looked towards Luna.

"This weekend is the final Hogsmeade visit of the term and--"

"First-years are not allowed to visit Hogsmeade, you know that."

"But pets are," said Luna, quietly. "Anyone can take their pet. I thought perhaps an Angora - or a Persian longhair would be quite nice. I like Persian longhairs - their faces are so cute."

McGonagall thought hard for a while. "It's true that Transfigurations are difficult to detect... But you are still banned from Hogsmeade, Miss Lovegood - who will--?"

"Padma's volunteered."

"And then what? It's one thing to--"

"Padma will have a sachet of Mandrabane under her tongue if she's caught - she knows the risks."

"I meant..." McGonagall stared at the young girl's matter-of-fact attitude. "I meant, if they successfully get out?"

"Madam Rosmerta of the Three Broomsticks has offered to take her in - she has... magically-concealed rooms few know about. She is extremely willing to--"

"When did... How do you--?"

Luna hesitated but then flung McGonagall's own words back at her, "The less that know the better."

"You seem to have it all worked out, Miss Lovegood," said McGonagall, tightly. "Very well - I'll give it consideration and decide by Friday."

Flitwick walked Luna back to Ravenclaw Tower. She wondered how to break away politely so she could ask Ginny to tell Neville. She had her own safety to consider too. She kept looking around for Edmund Trevett - he usually wasn't too far away. He took his duties very seriously; she was impressed.

She pulled a copy of Charmed - Or Is It? from her bag, wondering whether to divert to the library, when a movement caught her eye and she spotted Edmund down the corridor they were passing.

"Oh! There's my friend!" she said, holding up the book as if taking it from Flitwick then scampering off towards Trevett. "Thank you, Professor!" she called back. Flitwick shook his head and went on his way.

"I was worried when I couldn't find you." said Edmund.

"It's alright - I was safe with Professor Flitwick."

"What'd he want?" muttered Edmund, casting a concealing spell upon himself so as not to be seen with Luna by other Slytherins too often.

Luna held up the book then put it away in her bag without comment. "Edmund - would you mind walking me to Gryffindor Tower first - I'd like to see Ginny. I won't be long in there. I'm sorry, I hate to put you out..."

"No, that's alright; I don't mind."

As they neared the Fat Lady's portrait, Luna wondered whether to use her D.A. Galleon to get Ginny to let her in but at that moment the portrait swung open and Neville was coming out.

"Luna!" He backed off, looking for somewhere to run but there was nowhere obvious without brushing past her.

"Erm... Did you... How'd it go?" he blundered into a conversation rather than stand there like a dummy. He was fidgeting back and forth on the soles of his feet, clearly agitated - as though he expected Luna to collapse any moment because of his proximity.

"Wonderfully - it'll be fine I'm sure. I wanted to tell Ginny for you."

"So you really are going to Transfigure her out then? That's great!" Neville led her back inside.

Ginny ran forward when she saw Luna; there was a questioning look on her face. Parvati followed close behind.

"She's going to think about it - but I'm certain that means yes," smiled Luna.

"So what will she be? A rabbit?"

"Didn't decide yet - I'd like a cat."

"Padma wants a puppy!" said Parvati. "She's the one taking the risks. She's the one who'll--"

"It's up to Professor McGonagall, really," said Luna, sweetly. There was a trace of a grin and Parvati just knew they'd finish up with a cat. "Yeah - right," she said, grumpily.

"For Merlin's sake - it's only for a few minutes," said Neville. "What's it matter if it's-- What?" Everyone was staring at him.

"What are you doing here, Neville!" cried Ginny, her gaze darting back and forth between him and Luna.

Neville's eyes widened and he ran off towards the dormitory stairs. "Sorry, Luna - forgot!"

"Are you...? How you feeling, Luna?" asked Ginny. "Are you--?"

Luna was looking sadly after Neville then murmured to herself, "I feel fine..."

Suddenly, her big eyes opened wide. "I feel fine!" she cried and ran after Neville.

"Luna!" Ginny started after her.

Neville was sitting despondently on the side of his bed looking down at the floor. He looked up when he heard someone come up the stairs.

"Luna! What're you doing!"

He jumped up and backed futilely against the far wall but Luna closed in. She took both his hands in hers.

"I need to know," said Luna. She stood there, close to him, hearing Ginny come up the stairs behind her. Neville was transfixed like a deer in headlights - his back pushed up the wall as if he wanted to levitate out of his shoes but was frozen in horror.

"Neville, do you truly love Hannah?"

He saw the pain in her eyes and he struggled to respond. Finally, he whispered, "I'm sorry, Luna - yes, I do love Hannah."

"And does she truly love you?"

Neville's reply was hoarse with emotion. "Yes, she does."

"Luna, have you gone mental?" said Ginny.

Luna released Neville and turned around. "Neville has been blessed not cursed, don't you think? so it couldn't have been his curse that made me poorly. The Ministry do use Umgubular Slashkilters. They do, you know. Daddy says so."


—oOo—






Chapter 18: Exoneration
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Chapter 18


Exoneration



By the end of the week, Xeno Lovegood was anxiously scanning the sky more often than his clock cuckooed. He had reconstructed his flitfloat as far as he could but now was feeling remorseful that he had not ordered a better broomstick and an urgent delivery service. By Friday afternoon he was desperate. Audrey had not returned either and he was worried that he might have overtaxed the poor creature. Hopefully she had found a place to roost and was catching up on lost sleep.

He checked his handiwork yet again. The flitfloat was but a triangular platform of criss-crossed boards and struts across which stout canvas was strapped. He had originally designed it to silently hunt and observe exotic creatures from above. Although a blunted Vee-shape, it did not fly as an arrow would, point-first, but the reverse. Xeno, lying prone like a doll on a kite, could look over the wide, front end and view the ground below.

The craft was no more than eight feet long in either direction so there was only room for a small travel bag if Luna was to berth on the passenger side. He looked at his daughter's sleeping bag. How tiny it seemed now. She must have been only nine years old when last they flew. An enlargement spell would resolve that issue. The stubby post in the midsection chair-backed a seat cushion but in foul weather it tent-poled a low canvas stretched overhead from the side boards. This short mast could never sport a sail - nor did the flitfloat need one...

"Sweeper Ho!" called Bagstaff from his vegetable patch.

Xeno's head jerked up. Breaking through the grey clouds was a tiny dark movement - no more than a flicker - then it was gone.

"There again! To your right, Sir!" called the scarecrow.

"I see it!"

Xeno's excitement showed in his face and he took a few steps forward as the broomstick curved down to meet him. The stitches above Bagstaff's eyeholes twisted like a frown and his bag-head puckered up into a doubtful expression. The wood of the newly-acquired broomstick was grey with age but the pole looked stout and the bristles had been renovated.

"Let's see how she handles, Bagstaff!"

Xeno took the broom for a couple of quick turns around the house and his whoops of delight reassured Bagstaff who nodded appreciatively. The scarecrow was creaking and crackling to himself, "Good, I don't want to have to carry any spare baggage on this trip."

Once the extra broom was lashed into place, Xeno was ready for Bagstaff but the scarecrow refused to have his ragged greatcoat discarded.

"But it's extra weight, Bagstaff!"

"It's part of what I am, Xeno. Don't you remember? - when you enchanted me? The magical life you bestowed on the whole construction: head, pole, arms, coat and all!"

"But..."

"And... it holds all my worldly possessions."

"You're a scarecrow, Bagstaff, what could you possibly have in there!" laughed Xeno.

"There are a few seeds that half-germinated I'm quite fond of - and some stones that have sentimental value." The scarecrow lifted his head proudly whenever he considered his stone collection. He hugged his coat closer about himself. "And it'll be bloomin' cold there, Xeno - don't forget that! They've had frosts up north already this year!"

"Very well," smiled Xeno as he summoned the scarecrow out of the ground with his wand, "you can carry that lot yourself."

He lifted the flitfloat with a hover charm then slotted the scarecrow between the main double-backbone struts with his head at the front like a figurehead.

"Comfortable?"

"Oh, yes... Do it, Xeno - cast the enchantment!" said Bagstaff, excitedly.

Xeno flourished his wand for several seconds then declared loudly, "Integrare Adimpleo!"

The flitfloat creaked a little as the whole structure adjusted and lifted slightly. It wobbled from corner to corner as Bagstaff attuned himself to the old feelings.

"Happy now, Bagstaff?"

"Say it, Captain - say it!"

Xeno sighed and rolled his eyes. "I name thee, The Serenis! Lord of the Skies! God of the Dawn! Master of the Heavens!"

Bagstaff beamed with delight. The craft lifted gently into the air and the scarecrow's intoxicated crackles of glee were cast freely to the breeze. He sobered up when they tried a short flight over the nearby fields.

"She's slow, Captain, and pulling left slightly. It's that old broom that got crushed..."

"I've braced it well - it's stronger than ever," said Xeno as he tugged his cloak more firmly about himself.

"Its magic was depleted a little though."

"Let her out, Bagstaff, let's see what The Serenis can do!" cried Xeno.

"Bagstaff?"

"This is it, Captain. This is all it's got," said the scarecrow gloomily.

Xeno's eyes widened. "But I can almost walk as fast as this!" he moaned. "It'll take us days to reach Scotland."

"Better get going then, don't you think?"

"But Audrey's not back - I don't know if she's reached her yet - if Luna even knows that we're coming!"

"She'll know soon enough."

"Very well, Bagstaff," said Xeno reluctantly.

He made one last check of his supplies then cast a spell to protect his home and another to conceal The Serenis. Finally, he was satisfied.

"Set the course, Mr. Bagstaff, if you please."

"Where to, Sir?"

"We sail for Hogwarts! - Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry!"

"Aye, aye, Captain!"

Xeno tugged his cloak even tighter as they turned into the cold wind and he cast a warming charm upon himself.

"How'd you know about the weather up north anyway?" he asked as he settled himself down into his seat and lay his head back on the mast.

"Birds, Xeno - scarecrows have to know a lot about birds."

—oOo—

"Alright! who's the joker who's Confunded my book?" Neville glared around the common room and held up his copy of 'Going Nowhere Fast.' "By Merlin, I'll... if you don't keep your nose out of my s-- stuff I'll... hex it up your--!"

"Neville!" shrieked Lavender. There were a few giggles but nobody confessed.

Ginny looked up with a grin from the Charms homework balanced on her knee. "What's wrong with it, Nev?"

"Somebody's hexed my Apparition refresher book - all the pages are jumbled out of order. Not you, was it?" Neville transferred his glare to Ginny.

"Wouldn't know how," Ginny said airily. "How's it going, anyway?"

"Not very good so far," said Neville gloomily. "McGonagall says I think about the destination alright, and I'm quite deliberate when I make my move - but I just lack the determination." He sighed.

"I still don't understand how she's doing Apparition in Hogwarts," said Seamus as he gazed out from their common room at the worsening weather. He was fully recovered now - though permanently scarred. He came shivering back to the hearth and sank into the armchair beside his friends, raising the palms of his hands to warm them before the roaring fire.

"Same as Dumbledore I suppose," said Neville. "He lifted the enchantments on the Great Hall didn't he? - for the Apparition lessons. And McGonagall was his deputy so he'd trust her with Hogwarts' protections."

"You're not doing it in the Great Hall though, are you?" asked Seamus impulsively, shifting in his chair to look at Neville but keeping his hands facing the fireplace.

"Don't be a prat, Seamus - no, we're using one of the unused chambers upstairs. There's a big one McGonagall said used to be a meeting room but she cleared all the seats to the sides so there's loads of space."

His eyes lit up. "Hannah's great! She can jump twenty feet already!" There was a look of pride on his face before he continued, "I get fed up trying pretty quickly but she just keeps working at it over and over. Drives me crazy trying to keep up with her. I think she's McGonagall's favourite." His expression ended as a frown.

"I want to join," said Ginny suddenly.

"What?" said Neville. "Why, Ginny? You'll be taking your normal Apparition lessons next year anyway."

"I want to get a head start. I want to learn everything I can that might be of use to... surviving. That's what Harry did." There was a faraway look in her eyes. "He learned Accio and Impedimenta and other stuff for the Triwizard Tournament - and he could cast a really powerful Patronus when he was only thirteen - and..." She looked around at the other two as they stared back at her. "That's what we're doing isn't it? Trying to survive?"

She looked at Seamus. "What about you? Don't you--"

"I can already Apparate can't I?" He scowled at Ginny for not knowing. "- well enough for what I need, thanks. Got me licence, anyway," he added defensively. He moved his hands away from the warmth of the fire and crossed his arms.

Ginny turned back to Neville. "Will you ask McGonagall for me? You don't mind do you? I mean, you didn't set this up so it can just be you and Hannah?"

"Fat chance of a snog with McGonagall breathing down our necks! Yeah, I'll ask her." Neville hesitated then continued, "No, why not just come up with me tonight? What's the worst that can happen? She can only say no."

...

"No! Absolutely not, Miss Weasley!" said McGonagall. "What would your parents think! I am not a qualified Apparition teacher! Both Mr. Longbottom and Miss Abbott have had their initial training and I am merely guiding and supervising their practice; it can be very dangerous which is why we have someone ever on the alert for..." She looked towards Madam Pomfrey who was helping herself to cheese biscuits and a cup of tea at the only table. She abruptly whirled around and started paying attention. Hannah and Neville looked thirstily at the single cup.

"So... Madam Pomfrey is here in case of Splinching?" pouted Ginny. Harry's kiss almost distracted her at that moment but she showed nothing of it on her face. Not now, Harry, she thought to herself. "There's worse things than Splinching! What if... What if you read about me dead trying to escape Death Eaters just because I didn't know how to--!"

"That will be enough, Miss Weasley, thank you!" snapped McGonagall. "You are hardly likely to--"

"She has a point though," said Pomfrey, coming over with her teacup to join them. "Minerva, you don't see a fraction of the dreadful injuries that I do and we read about deaths every day in the Prophet." She paused. "Frankly, none of us know whether we will survive these horrors. If it were me, I'd take a few calculated risks now to increase my chances later." She sipped at her tea but she kept her eyes on McGonagall.

McGonagall was thinking hard; her lips compressed to a very thin line indeed. "Very well, then - but--" She turned to Ginny. "You will follow my instructions to the letter! Not one tiny deviation, you understand? When I say 'Go!' you go; when I say 'Stop!" you stop; and you will remain focused and attentive at all times! Is that clear!"

Ginny was nodding her head and grinning with Neville.

"Miss Weasley!"

"Focused and attentive - got it!"

The rest of that first lesson went reasonably well. Although Ginny did Splinch off a little of her hair in doing so, she finally managed a short Apparition into the hoop on the floor one step in front of her.

"Vanish that, please, Miss Weasley," said McGonagall, pointing at the tress of red hair while it was still wafting down to the ground. "We must leave no clue as to what we have been doing here."

Neville appeared to be doing much better but he was still comparing himself to Hannah who by now could Apparate around the room to any point with ease.

"Well, done, Miss Abbott!" applauded McGonagall. She looked thoughtfully at Hannah. "I would... Yes, I'd like you to try to Disapparate into the corridor outside. Poppy, would you mind stepping out there, just in case? - and to keep watch?" The matron nodded and went to the door.

"Can we really do that?" asked Hannah. "I thought we could only Apparate inside this room?"

"I set up the disenchantments to extend just outside this room - but don't try Apparating to further than the surrounding corridors - it won't work. Once you can Apparate through walls then you have all the basic knowledge for Apparating - the rest is just practice."

"Now remember, Apparating beyond solid objects is no different to Apparating through space. It is no more difficult - unless you believe it is, of course. One simply has to master that belief then the best wizards can Apparate anywhere in the world.

After Hannah had Disapparated there was a squeal from the corridor and Neville ran out.

"Hannah? You alright?"

"Calm yourself, Mr. Longbottom," said Madam Pomfrey. "It's just the tip of her nose - there, good as new." She stopped flourishing her wand and Hannah rubbed her nose and said ruefully, "That was really painful." She dashed back into the room and before Neville could join her, she had Disapparated out again. This time she clamped her hand over her mouth to suppress a loud scream. Blood was running down her arm.

"It's nothing - don't worry," said Pomfrey, tiredly pushing an anxious Neville to one side. "Just skin and a little flesh you left behind - you can repair the sleeve yourself, later."

Neville followed Hannah back into the room this time but she was gone again and shrieking again from the corridor while he was still near the doorway.

McGonagall grabbed his arm to stop him running back and forth. "Longbottom - you might learn something from Miss Abbott about real determination - she is one very determined girl."

"Tell me about it," said Neville. His expression was a mixture of admiration and envy.

"Longbottom, you should understand that Miss Abbott is not better than you - she's just more willing to keep trying and failing until she gets it right." McGonagall was pointing her wand to clean up the tiny fragments of Hannah's flesh that bloodied the floorboards of the meeting room.

"Right... Try and fail - I can do that." Neville was looking wistfully towards Ginny. She had conjured up another teacup to make herself a cup of tea and was trying to hide the cheese biscuits she seemed to be scoffing behind her long hair. McGonagall just shook her head resignedly.

Ginny. May b danger nxt wk. No worry. Is planned.

Ginny tried not to be concerned as she pondered Harry's message but she'd have to wait a little while before she could answer it. She neither questioned nor challenged him when she returned his kiss later that evening as she prepared for bed,

I will be with you.

Although she knew her message would convey positive encouragement, she herself had trouble getting to sleep that night. Ginny was normally strengthened by her own interpretation of the Prophecy: a conviction that Harry was destined to vanquish the dark tyrant. But tonight, she could not stop wondering if one day soon she might awaken to find her medallion gone - a certain indication that Harry's life had ended.

When her disturbed mind finally yielded to sleep, she dreamed of Apparating through wall after wall right across the world to be at his side. There she found a monstrously fat Gylda Pyke, robed as Santa Claus. Harry sat ravenously wolfing hot buttered toast, oblivious to the plump girl who lay in his bed treacherously calling for Voldemort. Yet somehow Ginny could not alert Harry; the final wall was a monolithic silver disk towering between them and through which she could not penetrate. She threw herself at it, head first, over and over again like a demented Hannah Abbot, but Harry was forever out of reach. Perhaps it was only too many cheese biscuits.

...

When Ginny awoke with a dreadful headache the next morning, the flimsy tendrils of her dream dispersed like gossamer in a fresh breeze once she saw her medallion was safe. She sent her first kiss, lay back, cast a healing spell to clear her migraine then, with a start, remembered Luna's plan. Ginny rolled out of bed and had barely finished dressing when Lavender poked her head up at the top of the dormitory stairs.

"Get a move on, Ginny! Me and Rommy are just leaving for Hogsmeade and Neville's already up in the owlery on watch."

The back of her head disappeared down the stairs and Ginny raced down soon after. By the time she had reached Neville, it was clear she had missed something. He was at the window, gazing through Omnioculars and looked very agitated. He glanced back when he heard Ginny arrive.

"I don't like it Ginny - The Carrows are down there as well as well as Filch. They're inspecting everyone going out." He lifted the instrument back to his eyes. "They're questioning Hannah and Ernie... Checking them with their wands...

Ginny tried to grab the Omnioculars but Neville clung on until he saw Hannah was safely through. As soon as he relaxed his grip, Ginny pulled the Omnioculars from him and pointed them down towards the Hogwarts gate. It was a shock to realise that anyone might have seen her meet Harry there if they had been watching with one of these instruments the other day. The viewer was near its maximum but she could see enough to recognise the Carrows. What spell they were casting on outgoing students she did not know.

"Where's Luna? ... Can't see her..." said Ginny.

"Don't know - she said she'd be hidden - in case of emergency."

Ginny scanned back down the queue of students and found Parvati and Padma together though which was which she could not tell at this range. She guess Padma was the one on the right because she was holding a squirming black bundle - almost certainly a cat. It had to be Emmy.

"What they doing, you reckon, Neville? The Carrows?"

"Dunno," he said, tugging back the Omnioculars from Ginny and peering through.

"Where's Emmy? Can't see her now," he muttered.

Ginny grabbed the Omnioculars back. The cat was no longer visible as Padma and Parvati approached the Carrows. "They've hidden her! They've hidden Emmy in their robes or in a bag or something! That's stupid - that'll just look suspicious."

"Wind it back, Ginny."

"What?"

"Action replay - that round knob there on the side..." said Neville, pulling the Omnioculars away from Ginny's eyes and pointing. Ginny looked through again and wound the view back then she lowered the instrument and handed them to Neville with a distant look in her eyes. "Why?" Ginny was muttering aloud but to herself. "She ran. Emmy panicked and slipped away into the shrubbery."

Neville held up his hand in alarm to silence Ginny. His head was on one side as if he were listening for something.

There was a faint voice way down the stairs. "You're certain it's her?" It was unmistakably Snape.

Ginny and Neville froze for a moment then Neville quickly stashed the Omnioculars out of sight behind the window mullion.

"Definitely Weasley, Sir." The almost inaudible whisper was Draco.

Ginny and Neville turned around as they heard the two enter the owlery. Snape was looking at Ginny. There was a very puzzled look on his face.

"What... is going on here?" he finally asked. Draco stood to one side and slightly back, wiggling his prefect badge and smirking at the two Gryffindors.

Neville dropped a screwed-up piece of parchment behind his back onto the floor but it did not escape Snape's attention.

"Hand it over, Longbottom."

Neville reluctantly retrieved the scrap. "It's private! It's..."

"Give it to me," persisted Snape. There was a malevolent look in his eye as he held out his hand and took the parchment. He unfurled it and began to read it out loud; there was a smirk in his voice.

"Dear Gran,

"Hope you are well.

"You were right about the headmaster and the Carrows. Now I've stopped causing trouble they're quite reasonable. I'm concentrating on my studies and behaving myself as you said. I should have listened to you before.

"Looking forward to seeing you soon at Christmas,

"Love,

"Neville."


Snape thrust the parchment back towards Neville. There was a undecipherable expression on his face. Approval? Disappointment? Relief? Suspicion? It was impossible to tell what he was thinking. He turned to Ginny.

"And you, Miss Weasley?"

"I'm with him," said Ginny sweetly. "Helping him send an owl."

"Helping him... send an owl," echoed Snape. "Have you nothing better to do on a Saturday morning?"

"Well, I'd like to have gone to Hogsmeade but I can't, can I?"

A sudden thought seemed to have struck Snape for his eyes widened and he stepped forward, wand raised.

Both Neville and Ginny had their own wands out in a flash and were backing away.

"Put... your wands away. I merely wish to investigate any... anomalies."

He moved his wand in a curious swerve around Ginny as he softly chanted something softly that Neville couldn't hear then, apparently satisfied, he spun on his heel and went out, followed by a grumpy-looking Draco.

"Bye, Draco!" Ginny called after him. "Nice to see you!"

As soon as he was out of sight she muttered, "NOT!"

"What was that he was doing, Ginny?" said Neville, as he ripped up his message and stuffed it in his pocket. "He seemed amazed to see you up here. It's only the owlery - why shouldn't you be up here?

Ginny shook her head. "I think it was a revealing spell. He was looking for enchantments on me..."

Neville retrieved his Omnioculars and gazed through them out of the window again. "Can't see Padma and Parvati - guess they've gone through without Emmy..."

"It's almost like he..." muttered Ginny.

"Like he what?" said Neville, turning around to look at her.

"...thought it... wasn't me at all."

There was the sound of running footsteps and before Neville could hide the Omnioculars again, Romilda, gasping for air, burst into the owlery followed shortly by an equally breathless Lavender.

"They ... were ... testing!" puffed Romilda.

"Just ... warned ... Padma ... in time..." panted Lavender, pulling off her travel cloak that she'd been wearing to keep out the cold air.

"Who--?" began Neville.

"Prof... 'Gonagall ..."gasped Romilda, sinking down onto a stone bench, oblivious of the depth of owl droppings that covered it. "-cognized ... Carrows were doing... testing transfig ... urations"

"They knew?" shrieked Ginny, angrily. Her medallion trembled but she ignored it. She had the strange sensation of laughter in Harry's kiss but her fury pushed it out of her thoughts.

Both Romilda and Lavender nodded their heads.

"How?" said Neville. "How could they have known?"

Romilda and Lavender shook their heads. Romilda seemed to be getting her breath back first. "Pyke, I reckon. Must be! Done it before - why not again?"

"I'll shake it out of her!" yelled Ginny, striding towards the door. Neville was there ahead of her, blocking the way. He held out his Omnioculars in front of him.

"No you won't, Ginny," he said firmly. "Worst she's guilty of is being foolish."

"You going to attack me with Omnioculars? Out of my way, Neville!" stormed Ginny, pulling out her wand. Lavender seemed to move as if to restrain her but the ferocity of Ginny's attitude, and perhaps her reputation, seemed to inhibit Lavender.

"Go ahead, Ginny," said Neville, unflinchingly. "Hex me."

Ginny's eyes flared and she raised her wand... but then her shoulders sagged and she lowered it again.

"You just don't get it, do you, Neville?" she said. "Emmy would have been treated as a Muggle-born. She's using a wand, Neville! She's only seven and she's a Muggle-born using a wand. Death Eaters, Neville! Death Eaters and Dementors! They won't care that she's only seven!"

"I know," said Neville, "but two curses don't make a charm! How could Gylda know, anyway? We've been avoiding talking when she's near."

"Who knows? She might have bought some of Fred and George's Extendable Ears or used some spell." Ginny yielded the doorway and moved back into the owlery, trying to think what to do. Neville followed her and frowned.

"She's only a first-year," he said, " and a bit... slow is all - not some clever super-spy."

"Not bad at magic, though, Neville," said Romilda, "according to Spotty Midgen, anyway. She's as good as any of the other first-years in Charms and Transfigurations and--"

"Don't keep calling her that, Rommy," hissed Lavender. "She's not Spotty anymore."

"--and hexes and even reasonable in DADA magic - anything that's straight magical spells, jinxes, curses," persisted Romilda. "It's just potions and history and things that need analysing or mental work where she's weak. But let her point a wand at something and... watch out!"

"So, she's dangerous?" said Ginny. "Is that... Is she just play-acting you think? That lisp? And pretending she doesn't understand things? Is that just a cover?"

"Oh come on, Ginny!" cried Neville. A couple of owls scattered away from a nearby stone niche with much flapping of wings. "She's just an innocent kid manipulated by the Carrows."

"She's got to go," said Ginny, firmly.

"What!" said Neville. "How? Where to?"

"Don't know. We can't have her here. We're not talking about merely sneaking to the teacher and saying someone cheated in their homework - someone might be tortured or even die because of her. What family has she got?"

"Her dad's long gone; abandoned his wife when Gylda was born," said Romilda, contemptuously. "Her mother's a Muggle and is scared of her - it's enough to drive anyone loopy."

"She's not loopy, Romilda!" stormed Neville, slamming his Omnioculars down on the recently-vacated perch. There was the sound of glass and metal crunching. "You don't know what you're talking about! Just because people... take a bit of time to... grasp things... doesn't mean..." As he spoke his attitude seemed to deflate and his chin fell to his chest. He turned his back on them all and stared into the empty niche.

The memory of seeing Neville's parents at St. Mungo's flashed vividly into Ginny's thoughts. "Neville..."

"Just go. I'll... be down in a minute."

Ginny signalled silently to the two other girls to go with her; they looked perplexed.

"Don't..." said Neville, over his shoulder, "Just... go easy on her, will you?"

Ginny nodded as she went out but Neville didn't see it. She told the two girls she'd catch up with them then slipped away to find a quiet spot to read Harry's words:

Feeling good. I'll tell u y 1 day.

She thought for a long time, letting her own temper seep away slowly, listening to footsteps echoing from distant corridors then finally dying away. She replied:

Was in foul mood but OK now. Tell u 1day

Ginny had scarcely got back to the Gryffindor common room and got Eloise Midgen to fetch down Gylda Pyke before Neville burst into the room through the portrait hole. His entire mood had changed and he looked excited.

"I've brought Luna with me!" he cried exultantly. "I've explained it all to her! - she'll know what to do!"

Ginny and the others stared silently first at Neville and then towards the girl at his side. Neville felt the weight of their puzzlement and scepticism and his excitement fell flat like the end of a bad joke. Luna was gazing dreamily around at the furniture and fittings of the circular room and didn't even seem to see the other students. Her eyes suddenly lit up and she went and flopped down on a sofa at the back of the room.

"Oh, these are much more comfortable than ours! Ours are too soft! This is just... perfect!"

She bounced up and down on the seat. "You don't even need a book or anything!"

"Luna..." began Neville cautiously as he saw the frowns gathering around the room. "We... I wanted you to... have a word with Gylda - remember?" He signalled to the worried-looking girl to come over with him to Luna.

Luna's eyes, always big and round, widened even more. "Oh yes! Come and try!" She looked at Gylda and patted the seat beside her. "Are all the seats like this? What do you think of them? My name's Luna. What's your name? You must be Gylda. I'm Luna."

Gylda Pyke sat cautiously beside Luna who now kicked off her shoes, pulled up her feet and sat cross-legged. "Try like this - it's even better. How do you normally sit? What's your favourite way?"

"Thith way," said Gylda, tucking her legs up into a sideways position.

"And how long can you sit like that without moving? I once sat for fifty minutes in our room then I had one fidget but I had two books underneath the cushion. One was a book about dragons and the other - I forget but it was a big one. I think I could sit here for more than an hour easily without any books at all, don't you?"

"I think tho too!" said Gylda warming to Luna's enthusiasm.

"And your name is?"

"Gylda!"

"And I'm...?" Luna looked looked puzzled as if trying to remember.

"Luna! You're Luna!"

"I think the hardest seat in the world to sit on for a long time must be a flying trapeze at the circus don't you think, Gylda?"

"Yeth, a trapeethe, yeth!"

"When you were at the circus you rode on an elephant didn't you? That must have been uncomfortable too"

Gylda looked puzzled. "Thirkuth. On a elephant."

"You remember - I saw you there. You rode the big one. You were very brave!"

"Yeth - thirkuth. On a elephant."

"How many times did you ride it round the ring? I counted ten times! You were very dashing!"

"Ride a elephant?"

"How many times did you ride? Ten times?"

"Yeth - ten timeth - on a elephant."

"There never was a circus was there?" said Luna, suddenly serious - but with a quiet, reassuring smile.

"No thirkuth - no."

"And no elephant?"

"No - wathn't there a elephant?"

"And the Carrows never made you do bad things did they?"

"Carrowth - no. Not bad thingth."

"You never told them about Seamus' classes did you?"

"Thamuth' clatheth, yeth."

"You told them?"

"Yeth. Told them yeth."

"No, you didn't tell them at all did you?"

"No, din't tell no one. Din't thay to anyone. Theecret"

"Are you sure? You did tell them didn't you? Or didn't you?"

Gylda looked eager to answer the question but seemed puzzled. "Yeth... Did I tell them, Luna?"

"How many beds are there in the hospital wing, Gylda?"

"Hothpital wing?"

"There are five-hundred beds aren't there?"

"Yeth, five hundred bedth."

"And somebody poorly in every one. That's five-hundred patients isn't it? It's very sad isn't it?"

"Yeth. Lotth of poorly patienth ith thad."

"You spoke to them all didn't you? When you were in there?"

Gylda shook her head.

"You remember - I was there - I saw you there - and we talked to all the hundreds of patients. You remember?"

"Yeth, talked to them. Hundredth."

Luna put her arms around Gylda. "You've not done anything bad at all, have you, Gylda?"

"No, nuthink bad. Not done nuthink."

"Have you ever been in the hospital wing, Gylda?"

"No - not in the hothpital wing. Ith it in Thaint Mungoth?"

Luna now appeared to notice the other students for the first time. Some looked shocked, others rather chastened, at what they'd heard.

Seamus whispered sideways out of the corner of his mouth, "Ginny, I thought you'd seen her in the hospital wing?"

"Didn't get a good look - and she was heavily bandaged round the head," murmured Ginny.

"You jumped to the conclusion it was her," said Neville.

Ginny nodded and her cheeks flushed. "Sorry," she said, in a tiny voice, glancing briefly around the group.

"Not us you should apologise to," said Neville, softly.

Ginny forced herself over to the back sofa; apologising was not something that came easily to one used to the tough, rowdy give and take of a family of seven siblings. She sat down next to Gylda, on the opposite side to Luna.

"Sorry, Gylda," said Ginny in a hoarse kind of voice. She tried to add more but she couldn't think of anything but bad excuses. Nor could she ask for forgiveness because she felt she deserved none. Nor could she leave because just "sorry" seemed inadequate.

She sat there as Neville, too, came over and said sorry, followed by Seamus. Pretty soon, most everyone there had stepped forward with an apology and still Ginny sat there, trapped by a need to atone. She could not meet Luna's eye nor look directly at Gylda.

"Nobody haith me, now, Ginny?" Gylda said.

"Nobody hates you, Gylda."

"Ekthept Mummy."

Ginny swallowed. She felt like she was sinking into a terrible pit. "She's scared, Gylda. Some Muggles are scared of magic. Perhaps you can tell her at Christmas not--"

"Dothn't want me for Chrithmath," said Gylda sadly.

Ginny could hardly speak. "You're staying alone at Hogwarts over Christmas?"

"Hogwartth, yeth."

Now Ginny did meet Luna's eyes but saw no answer there.

"Thpeak Perfether Mdogenal, now? Will thee thtill be furiouth?"

Luna spoke again at last, "Did Professor McGonagall tell you to go to her if you need help?"

"Need help, yeth - thpeak Perfether Mdogenal."

Luna looked across Gylda to Ginny. "I just left her with... the cat and Professor Flitwick."

Eloise Midgen pushed forward and spoke without being prompted for once, "I'll take her. I'll go with her."

"Will you tell McGonagall what's happened? Tell her..." Ginny hesitated as she was rising from the sofa then her voice went very quiet. "Tell her it was all my fault."

Eloise nodded and walked with Gylda to the portrait entrance.

"Ginny, we all--" began Neville.

"No, I was the one who..." She waited until Gylda and Eloise had gone out before continuing despondently, "I was the one who said she was spying on me in the reading room. I was the one who said she was in the hospital ward."

"Then who was?" said Romilda.

"Who was what?" said Ginny.

"If it wasn't Gylda in the ward, who was it?"

Ginny looked thoughtfully at Romilda. "We need to watch out for another short, fat kid."

Neville noticed Luna slipping away towards the exit, almost unnoticed. "Luna? You alright? You look a bit..." A sudden realisation hit him and he took a step backwards. "It's not the curse is it?"

Luna gave Neville a weak smile. "No - I just feel rather sad sometimes."

After she had gone out, Neville pulled Ginny to one side. "We've got to find that room - that chapel; figure this curse out once and for all. Maybe that's what's making Luna sad."

Ginny looked at Neville as if he were slightly mad. "Neville... it's you that's making her sad. It doesn't need a curse. Every time she sees you - but can't have you, it's like a knife through the heart. It's a physical ache. Believe me, I know."

Neville looked up to the ceiling as if seeking an answer from the heavens. "What can I do, Ginny?" What in Merlin's name can I do for her?"

"Come on, let's look for that chapel. Take your mind off it. Whose got that pagan book? Hannah?"

Neville turned inward, furiously trying to recollect what they had done with it. Finally, he said, "We'll have to ask Hannah when she gets back from Hogsmeade."

"Oh, Neville! Try to remember!" cried Ginny. "Think back; it's only a week or so ago. You were reading it with Hannah..."

"I... I didn't really... I wasn't paying much attention to the reading bit to be honest, Ginny."

Ginny sighed. A thought occurred to her. "You didn't leave it up there did you?"

"Might have..."

Neville followed Ginny up to the old classroom. Only a slight gloom filtered in through the grimy windows from the wintry sky so Ginny lit her wand.

"There's the book! - the pagan book," said Neville. He picked it up and flipped through as if the page they wanted might leap out at him. He laid it back down on the desk. "Hannah was sitting here... She was holding the page... She was... She must have put it down here... He smoothed the palm of his hand over the nearest desktop. "Must have... she had the rose in her hand..." His gaze was faraway.

"You gave her a rose?" smiled Ginny. She looked at him with fresh admiration, wondering where the old Neville had gone - yet seeing something of that boyishness in this young man. "That is so... romantic."

Neville blushed and pretended to examine the book again. "Just a... little one - with an enchantment so its petals will never wilt - it'll last forever..."

"Like your love." Ginny had a dreamy look about her. "Wish Harry..." she stopped herself but Neville picked up on what she had begun.

"He'll be back - no worries," he said. "You'll have all the time in the world for getting roses."

"I was thinking more of giving. It'll be something personal - he's had a dreadful childhood." Ginny looked wistful, staring blankly towards the grimy window.

"Ginny?"

"Merlin!" She strode forward and used the scouring charm on several of the window panes and looked out and upwards.

"What is it, Ginny?"

"We're on the fourth floor, right?"

"Y... yes..."

"That's the balcony. Across this little courtyard - up there on the fifth. That's where it all happened." There was a kind of reverence in her tone.

"Where what happened?" He joined Ginny and peered up through one of the panes.

"Where Ellyn Whatsaname fell. You can see where-- Neville! What if it never was a curse but Thurgis Wotsit just... Oh, Merlin! I never really thought about it before. You see where the stone parapet's smashed? I saw it out the window from the other side. It looked like it was blasted by a curse. What if... What if... he murdered her? I mean direct - not by a curse on the Trysting Stone at all? I mean, she was supposed to just have had bad luck from the curse and fell... Luna said you were never cursed didn't she!"

"But the Stone was cursed, Ginny," Neville said firmly, as they went back to the four desks in the middle of the room.

"How can you be sure?"

"Your brother Bill. He definitely found the curse - and broke it."

"Oh yeah, of course... then it makes no sense. We have to find that page - you sure it was just here?"

"Not absolutely - don't you remember seeing it when you came back, Ginny?"

"I never came back, Neville."

"Sure you did - later on. End of breakfast. We nearly forgot to go to the first lesson!"

"Neville, I never came back."

"At the door... Didn't you come to the door and stand there? Thought I heard you. Must have been the Fat Friar then..."

"The Friar? Leave breakfast early?"

Ginny thought furiously for a seconds - then she sank down slowly onto one of the chairs. "Snape!"

"What?"

"It was Snape! And it's all my fault... again." Ginny's shoulders sagged. "What was I thinking? He asked me where you where. I thought it would be harmless to tell him you were here doing homework. I didn't really think he'd bother actually."

"Snape watched me snogging Hannah Abbott?" Now Neville slumped down onto the chair beside Ginny, muttering almost inaudibly. "That was our first kiss; our special, precious moment together..."

"He's got the page," grumbled Ginny to herself. "Snape took the page."

"Don't tell Hannah!" murmured Neville.

"What's he up to?" she was thinking out loud.

"No, wait. That must have been an hour later..." Neville scratched his head and thought deeply, mumbling to himself, "We'd finally stopped kissing and cuddling... Hannah had conjured a crystal vase with some water for the rose. I said it didn't need any. She said it looks nicer. Started talking about how her mum had always loved cut flowers. I thought I heard you at the door but all I was thinking about was how glorious Hannah looked bustling about... just doing stuff... It was really dark with only that one candle flame. I said we'd better hurry or we'd be late for Charms. Hannah panicked - rummaged through the papers in her bag..."

"It's alright, Ginny!" he cried.

"This is awful, Neville," said Ginny.

"What?"

"What?"

"We'd stopped kissing when Snape came!" said Neville.

"Hope so - after an hour!" said Ginny. "Listen - we've got to find that chapel door before Snape does. What can you remember about what was on that page?"

"Nothing," Neville said solemnly. "Nothing whatsoever."

Ginny's voice was equally low. "Then we're lost. There's no way of retrieving it from Snape - no way at all."


—oOo—






Chapter 19: Harry Potter Must Live!
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Chapter 19


Harry Potter Must Live!



"I have never been so ashamed to be a Gryffindor as I am right now!"

The speaker had her back to Neville and Ginny but they knew the voice was McGonagall's. The pale, silent faces beyond her told them that their common room had witnessed a frightening broadside from its head of house. All eyes swivelled to Neville and Ginny as they entered through the portrait hole and seeing that signal, McGonagall whirled around, fury writ deep in every line of her features.

"YOU TWO! - With me - now!" She stomped past them and out.

Neville had just time to see Seamus slashing his hand across his throat to warn him they were both for the chop, before turning to follow the professor. Never had he or Ginny seen her this angry. Filch approached in one of the corridors "Your visitor, ma'am? Is--?" but McGonagall stormed past him as if he were not there and the bewildered caretaker stared open-mouthed after them, his question unfinished.

McGonagall's office was, as Ginny expected, tidy and well organised; not a book or a quill was disarranged; even the glowing coals in the fireplace seemed to have been neatly positioned. The only thing out of place was the half-open door leading into a back room which McGonagall quickly closed and muffled with a charm - but not before Ginny glimpsed Gylda playing Spell-Spills on the floor. With her was a tiny child clutching a doll. Ginny wondered how and why McGonagall had smuggled in visitors. Was her mother there, out of sight? Some parents, Ginny knew, liked to visit Hogwarts with their offspring before deciding whether they should attend - but why this year of all years?

Ginny caught a whiff of dragon leather and the chair behind the desk creaked and squeaked as McGonagall dropped into it. The professor slammed her arms flat ahead of her on the desktop, hands gripping the polished walnut. The single candle on the otherwise empty surface guttered for a few seconds then recovered, illuminating the teacher's face as a fiery, flickering mask. She looked for all the world like a lioness preparing to spring on her prey. And 'spring' seemed the right word, Ginny thought, for the elderly teacher remained silent except for heavy breathing - as if gathering herself, coiling herself up. Ginny exchanged nervous glances with Neville but he looked as puzzled as she felt.

"I need... your help." McGonagall let out a long exhalation of air as she looked at them both. This was not the sermon that either of the two youngsters had been expecting.

"Professor...?" said Neville. His voice was surprisingly steady considering that inside he was trembling.

"Miss Brocksby and Miss Pyke." McGonagall had declared it as a headline.

Having prepared herself at the desk, McGonagall now abandoned it and went to the window gazing out, apparently perplexed as to how to continue. Neville and Ginny waited. They looked at the two chairs placed in front of the desk, glimpsed sideways at each other once more, then mutually decided to remain standing.

Finally, McGonagall uttered a biblical flood of words as if to make up for her earlier hesitation, "They cannot remain here but I see no way to help them to leave - short of duelling to the death with three Death Eaters. Frankly, I am at the end of my tether.

"Almost everyone will be leaving for the Christmas holidays next week - even the staff. Nobody wishes to remain with those..." McGonagall tailed off and Ginny had the impression she was stifling some unspeakable words.

"Do not doubt for one moment that I would be unable to force an escape; the Carrows are very average duellists from what I have heard. But I would be quickly replaced and you would have a new Death Eater to teach you Transfiguration. That must remain my last resort.

"I - will - not - have - those - children - here - beyond - this - term!" McGonagall pounded her fist into the opposite palm as she stressed each word and her countenance was frightening.

Neville spoke almost inaudibly in a trembling voice, "We're sorry about--"

McGonagall swept on, ignoring, or perhaps not hearing, Neville's attempted apology, declaring to herself perhaps, more than her audience, "My first duty is to the school and to the Order! There is a storm coming, make no mistake about that - and I want to be on hand when it breaks!"

She steadied herself and her focus came back to the two students in front of her.

"Then there is the problem of providing a safe house. None of the Order members is suitable. Tonks and Lupin - well, they will have their hands full; the Weasleys--" She eyed Ginny as she said this, "are being watched; Mundungus is out of the question; Kingsley is now on the run..."

"Mr. Shacklebolt? He's--?" started Ginny.

"Yes - sadly he was uncovered by a taboo curse and your father, Miss Weasley, is now the only reliable contact we have within the Ministry. So that leaves only Miss Lovegood's recommendation. Owls are not safe. The Floo network is monitored... Miss Weasley, do you know if Madam Rosmerta would be willing... and able... to take two youngsters into her care? Otherwise, I still have time to visit Hogsmeade myself today to see her."

Neville butted in, "Hannah says that Madam Rosmerta is really eager to help. She's very upset about being forced to help Draco under the Imperius curse. She'll grab at any opportunity to make amends - to prove herself! And she has several connected rooms hidden by charms."

McGonagall looked closely at Neville for a few moments. "Very well, then... But there is still the immense difficulty of smuggling them both out. As I'm sure you are well aware, the Carrows are now testing everyone, including myself, for unexplained magical effects - both coming in and going out of Hogwarts. Transfigurations, Polyjuice, Conjurations..."

"Can you not open the gates yourself, Professor?" asked Neville.

McGonagall's eyebrows elevated themselves several notches. "Disenchanting Apparition pockets within Hogwarts is one thing, Longbottom, but any breaches or raising of Hogwarts defences is immediately brought to the attention of the headmaster. I will only open them if I have to break out myself with the children."

She looked at the two Gryffindors for a while then resumed her seat behind her desk, beckoning them to sit down in front of her. "Which leaves you two..."

"Us?" Ginny was crossing and uncrossing her arms awkwardly. Neville was trying to stop himself nervously twiddling his fingers.

"I have consulted Professors Flitwick and Sprout and neither can find a stealthy way past the Hogwarts magical defences - which is as it should be I might add. You, however, have proved yourself resourceful in the past and I'm hoping you might have some ideas." Her tone conveyed the impression that she did not really have much hope at all.

Ginny was shaking her head but Neville said firmly, "We'll have to discuss this and let you know, Professor. If we can work out a plan--"

"There's no time!" snapped McGonagall. "They must leave today. That blitherin'... That is, Mr. Filch blundered into my office earlier and saw Miss Brocksby. He assumed--"

"Who?" asked Ginny, thinking of the child she had seen in the other room.

"Miss Emma Brocksby - who did you think we were talking about?"

"Emmy? That's Emmy!" cried Ginny. "I knew she was only seven but... she's smaller than I thought."

"The reality is a bit of a shock isn't it?" said McGonagall, then continued, "Mr. Filch assumed she was a visitor. There is a chance he might mention it to... someone. At any moment... A concealment charm will not be enough should the headmaster search my rooms..."

McGonagall rose again and began pacing. After looking at one another for a third time, Ginny and Neville stood up and their eyes followed the professor back and forth.

Finally, it was Neville who spoke, "Professor, we can conceal them - at least until we can come up with a plan..."

"Where?" McGonagall stopped pacing and faced Neville but there was not much hope in her expression.

"Can't say - best not to say," he added hastily before continuing. "Nobody will find them where we hide them; the Castle itself will make sure of that."

McGonagall did not feel insulted; she was impressed. "And they will be together?"

"Yes, Professor."

"I've observed in just the short time they've been together here that they do tend to support one another. Let me explain..." McGonagall paused before continuing.

"Gylda Pyke often gets imagination and reality confused - but she is very willing and that makes her vulnerable. But understand this, she has a good moral sense of right and wrong and is not so timid when her path is clear to her. The Sorting Hat knew what it was doing when it placed her in Gryffindor.

"I had cast charms upon both the girls at the start of term to make them, shall we say, less noticeable - but it was not infallible." Again she paused.

"You should secure their belongings from their dormitories - it must appear that they left Hogwarts sometime this weekend. Frankly, with the charms in place, the Carrows might not notice their absence for a few days."

She thought for a while longer before continuing.

"Very well, then Mr. Longbottom, if you are certain you can conceal them until we can find a way to get them to Hogsmeade..."

She countered the silencing spell on the side door and just as she was opening it there was a peel of giggles from the two girls within. Gylda was delicately hovering the final critical spill from the jumble on the floor.

"How'd you keep doing that!" cried Emmy. They both fell silent as they noticed the door opening.

"Girls, Miss Weasley and Mr. Longbottom will escort you to a safe place for now while we... find you a new home."

"Thpell-Thpills?" said Gylda impulsively, her mind still absorbed in the game. She looked longingly at the puzzle box lid.

McGonagall sighed. "You can take the Spell-Spills - you might be needing something to pass the time. Books too, I shouldn't wonder." She looked at the two older children who nodded their affirmation.

Emmy and her doll were concealed with a Disillusionment charm and McGonagall escorted them all part way. Ginny ran off to get food from the kitchens while Neville led Emmy and Gylda to the wall outside the Room of Requirement. He strode back and forth, thinking hard of their need for a room suitable for two young girls to remain hidden for a while. And entertained! - and that nobody else can ever find! he added in a hurry as a door began to emerge in the stonework.

The room was sunlit from a cheerful, but false window and the primary colours reminded Neville of his old nursery. There were shelves of books and open-lidded boxes overflowing with games and toys. A couple of doors led to a shared bedroom and bathroom. The box of Spell-Spills crashed to the ground forgotten...

—oOo—

Harry's scar was prickling again. His hand went instinctively to rub it then he glanced to see if Hermione was watching. She was sitting hunched up in her chair as usual, withdrawn into herself. A book lay half-open against the tent wall at her side as if it had fallen there.

He turned to look at the fading daylight that still crept into their shelter, pressing his palm against his forehead to ease the pain. There was nothing he could think of to comfort his friend. Years of living with the Dursleys had not taught him how to express the compassion he felt.

Two days before she had accepted they should visit Godric's Hollow. Harry still felt surprised she had so readily agreed. But he had wanted to leave yesterday while she had insisted on waiting while they 'worked out a good plan.' But he couldn't pester her, not while she seemed so fragile. He had to be patient - give her time to think it through.

He went to the tent entrance and looked out. Hermione had seen frost the day before. A sudden icy breeze made Harry step back into the tent and he closed the flap. He shuddered then sighed. If only they could get a move on. There had to be something he could say... He drew a breath to speak but whether Hermione sensed that or whether it was coincidence, she spoke first.

"Harry, we've got to be extra careful," she began, looking up at him from her seat. "I think a middle-aged couple would be less noticeable, don't you?" She examined him closely, perhaps expecting some objection but Harry was nodding; he would agree to almost any conditions just to get going.

To be sure, she repeated what she had said the day before, "You-know-who will be focused on spotting someone who might be Harry Potter - if we're lucky perhaps they'll only look out for a single, younger man. But they'll be used to families and older villagers meandering about the village so--"

"Yes, I'm not disagreeing, am I, Hermione?" He immediately regretted that he sounded impatient and seeing her bite her lip he tried to soften his words, "Good idea, actually."

Apparently mollified, she continued, "And when we rehearse--"

"Rehearse?"

"Harry, I told you before - we need to practise Apparating and Disapparating together under the Cloak - to polish it up so we know exactly what we are to do. Not only going there - I mean so we can depart rapidly if we have to. It would be disastrous if we got split up."

She rose from her chair and took a few steps while she thought for several seconds. "And we go when it's dark - not too late of course or we'll be out of place - but as soon as it gets dark in the early evening." She muttered something to herself about being less noticeable.

"You're really worried about this trip, aren't you, Hermione?"

"Of course I am!" Now it was Hermione being snappy. "You should be too. We've done nothing but think, think, think, about where horcruxes might have been hidden - and about where the sword could be. Don't you suppose You-know-who and his supporters are giving just as much effort if not more to wonder where you might turn up? Think about it, Harry!"

Harry grimaced but again nodded his agreement. "So... who do we go as?"

"While we're still near a town, I'm going back to that supermarket again tomorrow. I'll get some hairs from the most boring-looking middle-aged Muggles I can find; that'll be easy enough. Not tall - so we can fit under the cloak and--"

"Make sure they're not mixed up!" cried Harry. "I don't want to be an old woman!"

"Well, neither do I." There was a rare hint of a smile on Hermione's face as she looked at the Basilisk-slayer's alarmed expression. "Don't worry, I'll take care. Harry Potter - an old woman? I don't think so!"

—oOo—

"Ginny, I know it's early," said Hannah, "but I got you this self-inking quill for Christmas."

Ernie and Hannah were back from Hogsmeade stashing away supplies in the Room configured for their D.A. meetings. Neville wondered about Emmy and Gylda's room but he knew the Room of Hidden Things also coexisted happily all at the same time so he was not concerned.

Ginny delighted in testing her quill, labelling everything in sight.

Hannah turned to Neville. "Quick-draw holster. Look - got your name on it..."

"That's great!" Neville strapped it onto his forearm under his robes while Hannah looked on uncertainly.

She scrutinised his face closely to sense his reaction. "I was hoping to give you something more personal but..."

Neville flung out his arm and his wand popped out into his hand automatically. He flourished it a few times and it disappeared again. He turned to the girl with a smile and took her in his arms. "You're my something more personal, Hannah."

Ernie poked his forefinger in his gaping mouth and mimed vomiting to Ginny who groaned, "Leave it out you two!"

"Oh - show them what your dad got you, Ern!" said Hannah, breaking off from what promised to be a lengthy kiss - much to Neville's disappointment.

"Your dad? You saw your father in Hogsmeade?" said Ginny.

"No, no - he owled me the Galleons to get this. It cost a fortune." Ernie seemed unembarrassed by his family's wealth - nor did he brag. Ernie reached up and slid his shoulder bag off and down to the ground. It conjured extensions that seamlessly merged into itself and the whole opened up as a wide, waste-high leather duffle bag full of compartments and hung with many side-pockets.

"It's a Trunkate," Ernie said proudly.

"A what?" Ginny frowned.

"A Trunkate. It's enchanted. Look..." He swung it over his shoulder again. The bag vanished its extensions and shrank immediately to a smart tube bag that hugged neatly down to his hip, almost like part of his body. The yellow and black leather became finer and was embossed with the Hufflepuff crest.

"Light too - I believe it can take half your luggage - and it fits very comfortably." He spun it off onto the floor again and it extended instantly and opened.

Ernie reached in and heaved out a large, curious device that made Neville's omnioculars look simple. Its casing sported a multitude of dials, switches, knobs and buttons. He laid it proudly on a table. "Tada! Guess what?"

"A Muggle wireless?" said Ginny. "My dad's got about three in our shed."

Somewhat deflated and surprised, Ernie tried to recover. "Ah yes, but this one's enchanted - or it will be when I've figured out Lee's instructions. It won't work within Hogwarts' protective magic otherwise."

"What's it do?" asked Neville.

"Lee Jordan? You've spoken to Lee?" said Ginny.

"Well, not directly - it came about fourth-hand. Rosmerta gave it us - but--"

"What's it do?" repeated Neville, examining all the twiddly bits.

"They light up - see that dial there?" said Ginny airily, "It lights up and you can move that pointy thing along."

"Is that all?" said Ernie, crestfallen. "I thought it did more than that."

"Let's see then," said Neville.

"Erm... It doesn't do anything now. As I say, it's not yet enchanted - only way I could bring it in past the Carrows. Nothing can work unless it's enchanted can it? Stands to reason."

Ginny had quickly lost interest in the radio. On impulse, she stepped into the now empty bag and tried to crouch but she was far too big. She looked at Neville.

"Ginny! - you don't think...?"

"Worth a try," said Ginny. They explained the plight of Gylda and Emmy to the other two,

"Gylda's never going to fit in there," said Neville, "but Emmy might."

"McGonagall can transfigure her--" began Ginny.

"Won't work," said Ernie, emphatically. "We thought about smuggling in stuff but it doesn't conceal magical effects. We tried - the Carrows spotted the self-inking quill immediately. That's why we..." He tailed off and looked at Hannah who picked up where he had left off.

"My dad had got us some more wands but..." She hesitated. "We chickened out in the end and left them with Rosmerta. And we only brought potions labelled like other, more innocent magical supplies. That's why we were a bit late getting back - Rosmerta rebottled them - we didn't want the Carrows detecting magic in Pumpkin Juice. Which reminds me - food!" She handed over a couple of packs of cauldron cakes and chocolate frogs to Neville and Ginny.

"Oh you shouldn't..." Ginny began. She looked rather uncomfortable.

"S'alright! I know you can't get out - there's always next year," said Hannah. "You can treat me to a butter beer in the Threebees."

Neville too, felt awkward. "Gran and me - we'll go Christmas shopping when I get home. I'll try and owl you something, Hannah or..." A sudden thought struck him. "Are you on the floo network at home?"

"Of course! - How else do you think I get to Kings Cross?"

They smiled at one another. Perhaps the holidays need not mean complete separation after all.

—oOo—

A light dusting of early snow had feebly whitened the outer slopes around Hogwarts the next morning. Luna was excited, her worries pushed to the back of her mind. She hadn't heard from her father for a week but while she had watched the first flakes lazily drifting down she had spotted Audrey near the trees. The great owl was unmistakable, even from the Ravenclaw Tower.

Luna shrugged on her travel cloak in the Entrance Hall. It was not long after breakfast but there were already plenty of early risers heading to the gates to spend the autumn term's final Sunday in Hogsmeade again. Christmas shopping, she thought to herself, enviously. She looked around for Edmund Trevett. He usually kept a lookout for her but she supposed he must have gone into the village with the others. She decided to chance it and headed around in a great circle towards the Forest.

It was only when she was far away from the Castle and the thin snow became more apparent underfoot that she noticed the other footprints as she glanced back.

"Edmund?" The Disillusionment spell was perfect camouflage against the bland whiteness that sprinkled the wintry grasses.

"You shouldn't go out alone, Luna - you know that." It was Edmund's voice. "I could have been anyone."

Luna resumed her walk. "I thought you must have gone to--"

"Hogsmeade? Not while I'm on duty," he grinned as he hurried up to her and began to walk alongside and slightly ahead. It was the first time she had heard him smile - though she couldn't see it. He continued, "Now next year when we--" He became darkly serious suddenly, as if remembering why he was there. After almost a minute he said, "I helped carry her out, you know."

Luna stopped walking and looked at where the young man's outline now faintly shimmered against the treeline. "What was she like?"

Edmund sighed. "Oh, rather timid - till you got to know her. Long, fair hair - not quite like yours but..."

"But I do remind you of her a bit? I'm sorry, Edmund, truly, I am."

Edmund tried to change the subject. Although he often watched out for Luna in the corridors of Hogwarts, he did not have many opportunities to talk freely to her.

"Luna, why do you keep challenging Alecto in Muggle Studies? It only annoys her and you get punished. I can't protect you there."

"It's because she says very silly things. It's curious to pretend that Muggles are filthy and ignorant and inferior, don't you think?"

"I agree all but the last. You're a Ravenclaw; you should understand why wizards are superior to Muggles - even so, I think my dog is inferior but I don't mistreat her."

"Muggles are not at all like dogs!"

"I didn't say that - but they can never be our equals can they?"

Luna laughed and shook her head. "You might as well suppose that women are inferior, mightn't you!"

"Women? Why?"

"Haven't you noticed? - most of us are physically weaker." Luna put her head on one side and smiled.

"Physically? What does that matter? they're just as intelligent and as magically powerful as men - how can they be inferior?"

"Muggles believe it - some, anyway. One of the few things that Alecto said rightly. I said we should feel sorry for Muggle ladies but she said they're all worthless trollops. I said that's not a nice thing to call someone so she called me one so I said that proves what you say is untrue so she said detention at eight."

They passed the first trees at the edge of the Forest. The snow had not been heavy enough to penetrate this wind-sheltered space so she could no longer see his footprints. Luna ignored the large owl that perched on a branch above them. She pushed on a little further until they were out of sight of the Castle behind the trees. Edmund countered his concealment charm and Luna looked closely at his face before speaking.

"I've a few... animal friends - you probably think I'm foolish making friends with inferiors." She stressed the last word but it was not really sarcastic. She opened a small cloth bag at her waist and began pulling out chunks of meat and casting them to the ground as she walked in a large circle.

Surprised by her comment, Edmund replied, "Not at all, I'm friendly towards my dog."

"Oh - what is she?"

"Bobo? She's a Basset Hound."

Luna's laughter tinkled through the trees. "Bobo? A Basset Hound? I expected a Wolfhound called Nightslasher."

Now she did see his smile. It was rather sheepish but at least it was a smile.

"Here's another friend of mine," said Luna, indicating a broad, low tree stump. She sat down on it to wait and Edmund sat beside her.

The breeze was in the wrong direction; only one Thestral came to the feast. It stayed partly-hidden behind a large bush for a while but its white, shining eyes were unmistakable and its great black leathery wings remained lifted, ready for flight. Eventually it folded them and crept from cover, timidly sniffing at the nearest hunk of beef before seizing and eating it. Luna watched it curve around, keeping its distance from the one human it did not know or trust. It cautiously ate two more pieces of the scattered meat before silently wandering off and disappearing among the trees. The cold air did not seem to trouble it despite its lack of fat and flesh, Luna noted.

They talked for another half an hour until they felt the chill themselves. Edmund cast a warming charm to blanket them. Eventually, Luna decided no other Thestrals were likely to come that day and rose to walk back.

"I have one other friend - but she's very shy of strangers..." She smiled serenely at Edmund and he nodded.

"Of course. I'll wait at the edge of the trees. Think she'll come then?"

"Oh, I'm sure she will."

"Good, then it won't be a complete waste." He wandered off out of the Forest and Luna stared at him curiously until he was lost to her sight.

Audrey flew down immediately so Luna scrambled to recover the message she bore. She read it with a mixture of delight and anguish, ruffled Audrey's soft, downy feathers for a while then bade her goodbye.

—oOo—

Neville showed Hannah and Ernie how to enter Emmy and Gylda's safe room. Ginny thought it amusing that the window now displayed a clear night sky with crescent moon - even though more snow clouds were threatening out in the real world. It seemed motherly of the Room to protect its occupants from the harsh realities beyond its magical perimeters.

The older students, perhaps driven by a need to atone, had pooled together a few goodies and these puzzle books, trinkets, and confectionery, as well as regular food, sandwiches, buns, and pumpkin juice, were pulled slowly out of the voluminous Trunkate one by one - as if Ernie was Father Christmas handing out gifts.

Ernie checked again the child-safe label on the inside of his bag before inviting Emmy to try stepping into it.

"Yes! Plenty of room!" cried Neville. "Try bringing your knees up, Emmy then your head should just about be low enough."

Ginny could see a frown beginning to appear on Gylda's pudgy face. Yet no matter how many times he tried, whenever Ernie swung the bag onto his shoulder with Emmy crouched inside, it remained full-sized; unwilling or unable to shrink with a living creature within it.

Neville stopped him eventually. "Thanks for trying anyway, Ern."

They stayed with the younger children for a while after that though the atmosphere was flatter than Ernie's bag, shrunken or not. Only Gylda seemed pleased with the outcome. Perhaps she had dreaded being left in the room alone.

—oOo—

Because some of the D.A. members had visited Hogsmeade during that Sunday, it was not until evening that a full meeting was called. Both Luna and Neville were present at the same gathering for the first time since before Halloween. Edmund Trevett was still quarantined and not yet allowed at meetings with other members so Padma and Michael had escorted Luna.

"We need our best minds on this," said Neville, looking round at the rather unpromising expressions on everyone's face after he had explained. "We need ideas; I don't care how outrageous they are, anything is up for consideration. How do we get these youngsters away to safety - out of Hogwarts and to Rosmerta's?"

There was silence broken only by faint mutterings. A few of those present stared blankly at Neville. Some had their faces screwed up tight, hoping that a solution might occur to them. Luna had gone off by herself into a corner.

"Luna?" said Neville.

When Luna came back she was smiling but they could see she was really sad. Her eyes were shining. She blinked a few times then spoke, "Daddy can save them. He's very clever, you know."

There was a pause as if expecting her to elaborate then Neville spoke, "How, Luna? How?"

"He will come. He will take them safely away."

"When?" said Ginny.

"One day next week. It depends on the weather you see." She handed Ginny the message she had received. Ginny read it to herself,

My lovely Luna,

Ginny told me she is worried about you.

I will arrive in a few days to rescue my Luna. Be ready.

Love, Daddy.

P.S. We have got bramble stuffing for Christmas day!

"It just says he'll be here in a few days," said Ginny. "He does know he can't just walk in the gate and take you away?"

"He'll know what to do," said Luna quietly. "After all, we wrote the Quibbler article: Hogwarts' Darkest Days together."

"And he'll be able to take Emmy and Gylda too?"

Luna hesitated then said, "Yes. I'm sure he can get them to safety."

"Then why so sad?" said Ginny, gently.

Luna looked at everyone gathered there. "I won't be able to see my friends ever again."

She turned slowly away and walked towards the exit.

"Luna!" cried Neville. "We'll all meet up again, somehow." He spun around. "Padma! Can you go after her please?"

Padma flounced after her somewhat huffily.

"Frankly," said Michael, glaring at Neville as he reluctantly followed Padma, "We're beginning to wonder if all this is another weird Loony daydream. I'm getting a bit fed up with it myself, as well."

After they had gone out, Neville looked at Ginny. "It's that damned curse! We have to--" He turned to Hannah. "I meant to ask you - that page - the one from the pagan book - did you keep it?"

Hannah looked bewildered for a few moments at the abrupt redirection of the discussion. "I, erm... No, I don't think... No, we left it on the desk. It should be still up there on the desk."

"It's gone. Snape has it then," said Ginny, with finality.

"What? Why?"

Neville jumped in quickly. "After we had... finished, he went up there and we're sure he must have taken it." He turned to the others.

"Right, you lot - another mission. We need to recover a page of a book from Snape. He stole it from us. We need ideas."

Zachariah Smith said, "A page from a book? What for? You expect anyone to sneak up to the headmaster's office and nick it? After what happened before with the sword? Why?"

"It might help us with Luna, you wally," snapped Ginny.

"I know how to do it," said Hannah. "I know how to do it safely."

All eyes turned to Hannah and her cheeks were burning. She averted her gaze from Neville. "I know a spell to... swap pages. I can--"

"It was you that mixed up Neville's book!" shrieked Lavender.

Neville stared back and forth between Lavender and Hannah.

"Just a bit of fun," said Hannah in a tiny voice. "I can undo it!" she added hastily. "I always meant to undo it."

"Oh no harm done, Hannah," smiled Neville. "I had a laugh about it."

Lavender shrieked again, "What! What happened to I'll hex your nose up your--!"

"I was only joking," Neville cut in quickly. He snapped at Ginny to change the subject. "You got the pagan book then?"

"Back on the shelf," said Ginny, walking over to the books that were rather untidily arranged against the side wall. She recovered the book and they all gathered around.

Neville whispered something in Hannah's ear and she giggled. She riffled through the book until she found the picture of Snape in the cooking pot, thought a moment, then cast a short spell. The page seemed to tear itself out - but it was a different page. It was the page about the Chapel room.

"Where'd the cooking pot go, though?" said Ernie.

"Wherever the headmaster keeps his secrets!" laughed Hannah. "I'd love to see his face!"

Ginny had grabbed the page and read it out loud.

"One of the finest pagan shrines was on the fifth floor of Hogwarts Castle. Though very small, the heathen shrine was used for several centuries by a few students whose families still clung to the old ways.

"The Harken Tapestry records the conversion of the shrine to a chapel for more general use in 1413. Sadly, the chapel door was permanently locked after a tragedy very shortly after as a memorial.

"Is that all?" said Neville.

"Well, we know it's the fifth floor - that narrows it down a bit," said Hannah.

"Harken - wasn't he the wizard who enchanted the Trysting Stone?" said Ginny, delving in her bag for the old log and clipping she had copied in the school library. She had read it all many times but she read it through again. "Yes, it's him! Likely he was a pagan wizard. The Stone was a pagan meeting place! So... what's it say again?"

"The Harken Tapestry--"

"Oh Merlin! I know where it is!" cried Ginny leaping to her feet. "Got to be!"

She dashed out leaving the others bewildered. Neville and Hannah ran after her. Seamus looked around at everyone and grinned. "Looks like the meeting's over!"

"Hold up, Ginny," panted Neville, as he and Hannah leapt two steps at a time upwards to the fifth floor. They followed her along the lengthy passageway that turned towards the dead end with stairs going up on the left. Ginny walked towards the far turning that looked like a recess.

"This is where I found, Draco - where the boy ghost was," she said to the other two as they rounded the corner. Ginny ran to the stone steps that lay before the long, half-bricked-up balcony window and peered out and down. She could just about get her nose above the blocked-up lower half. "Look - I told you - you can see where it was blasted!"

Neville clambered onto the top step and looked out but it was too dark to see much. There was only one wall torch at the turning into their corridor and its light barely reached the broken stone parapet outside. He strained harder to see, pressing his forehead against the cold glass. He thought he saw a faint flicker just off to the side from where he was looking but it might have been the torchlight quivering...

Without warning, a white face with angry eyes was silently head to head with Neville and he stumbled backwards off the steps with a cry. Its mouth was agape showing cracked, yellow teeth and Hannah shrieked as the pale, tortured features glared at her from the dark glass - then it fled.

"Thurgis Bowett!" said Ginny, herself a little shaken. "See the big ruff?"

"Ruff? I was too busy looking at its face!" cried Neville. He went to hold Hannah who was shaking as far away from the window as she could get. He could hear Ginny muttering.

"Big ruff... Makes sense... He was hung and stretched. Didn't want me to see his neck..."

"You spoke to... that?" asked Neville.

"He was pretending to be Adgar Stockley."

Ginny was still half-muttering to herself. Neville took his face out of Hannah's hair and looked forward. He saw Ginny staring at the end of the short section of corridor; she was murmuring, "It was here all the time, right in front of me..."

She advanced on the dusty old tapestry that drably hung there and began to examine it carefully. The cloth was almost to the height of the ceiling and the cords which supported it sagged badly such that the lower end of the tapestry trailed on the floor and had severely frayed. Ginny was reluctant to breath - she could smell the dust and the musty, decrepit material stank with age.

"That's the Stone," said Neville from further back and looking at the faint shape outlined on the ancient fabric; no colour was left but brownish greys and greyish browns. Hannah, still in his arms, turned to look.

"Neville, Hannah - help me with this." Ginny pointed to the lettering she had only vaguely worked out before when she had been interrupted by the boy ghost.

"Rejoice in love..." said Neville, hesitantly.

"Let me," said Hannah. She pulled out a piece of parchment from her bag and began writing down what letters she suspected and any similar possibilities. She became so engrossed that the other two left her to it.

"Does she ever give up?" murmured Ginny.

"She never gave up on me, that's for sure," smiled Neville.

"Got it!" said Hannah, turning to the other two. "This has been added to the tapestry much later, you can tell! It's a warning!"

"Rejoice in love already bloomed,
And pray for sure it not be doomed,
Guilt be thine, and thine alone,
That thrusts this curs'ed trysting stone
"

"Shouldn't that be 'trusts'?" said Neville.

Hannah went back to the tapestry to check. "No, definitely, 'thrusts.'"

"Which means..."

"That you are erm... are not guilty," said Ginny, "- because you only touched the stone - you didn't thrust your arm through like I did. That's the whole point isn't it? Normally, for the full tryst, you push your arm right through and grasp your lover's hand?"

"But where does this get us?" asked Neville. "How does it help Luna? Has she been affected at all?"

"There must be more," said Ginny, looking afresh at the tapestry.

They spent the next hour exploring every square inch of the tapestry but apart from a few exultations and exhortations here and there, they found no further information that was readable. The tapestry was in a very distressed state; if there was anything more written on it then likely it was lost to history. Hannah was on her knees but the lower part of the tapestry was crumbling in her hands.

"What if it's written on the back!" cried Neville, suddenly.

Hannah laughed and turned up the bottom corner. "Tapestries are woven - it's the same on the back as the front except mirrored." She smiled up at Neville but he was not smiling back.

"Hannah, you wonderful, wonderful girl!" said Neville, slowly - looking down at her and over her shoulder.

Hannah's face went hot and she averted it to look at the back of the fabric. "I thought it was obvious really." Apart from it being slightly brighter and slightly less grey, the weave was an exact mirror of the front - there was no backing silk.

"The wall, Hannah - the wall."

Hannah turned her head. There was stone edging in the wall behind the tapestry. It was bricked up but clearly there used to be a doorway there.

"The Chapel!" shrieked Ginny, coming round Hannah's other side to get a better look.

Their attempts to gently remove the tapestry ended in much of it being torn amidst clouds of choking dust - but there, behind where it had hung, was a blocked-up, arched doorway.

"Looks like this was blocked up much later," muttered Neville. He ran his finger over the mortar.

"Well it couldn't have been earlier, could it?" smirked Ginny. "It was done in medieval times."

"No - much later as in... last week!"

Ginny groaned. "Snape! - but why?"

"The door was permanently locked but likely we could have opened it," said Neville slowly, trying to think what it meant.

"So he made sure we couldn't get in - but why? And why use modern stones? He could have made it blend perfectly," said Ginny, running her hands over the impenetrable blocks. "So near and yet so far."

"So.. we... He didn't want--" Hannah jumped excitedly. "Listen, he doesn't know about our Room - the Room of Requirement. Perhaps he thinks we've just been looking for a secret room we can use for D.A. meetings!"

"I think you've nailed it, Hannah," said Neville, "and he... he's rubbing our noses in it! He made it obvious so we know he did it!"

Neville sighed. "But what do we do now? Windows? What did it look like from across that little courtyard?"

"Don't remember looking at windows," said Ginny. "I suppose we could break one of these windows and climb out on the balcony..."

"Not with that... thing out there!" shuddered Hannah.

"Let's try round the corridors - see if there was another door," said Neville.

"Neville, we'd have seen it by now..." said Ginny, rolling her eyes but Neville was already striding away with Hannah following.

"You realise where we are?" said Hannah slowly.

"Yeah, in a fifth-floor corridor," said Ginny.

"No - yes - we normally come the other way round so you don't recognise it." She pointed down a side corridor. "Look down there."

Neville looked and scratched his head. "All looks the same to me..."

"That door down there is the meeting room where McGonagall's been giving us Apparition lessons - but we're at the other end of this corridor."

Ginny was the first to run; the others were hot on her heels. They burst into the meeting room and looked at the far end. There was a suggestion that a dais or small stage had stood there once. The back wall had several recesses and narrow supporting stone pillars. Between two of them was the possibility of an old doorway, two feet above the floorboards.

"But this is all solid stone too," moaned Neville. "We're no better off."

There was a sharp snap and Neville spun around. "Hannah?"

"McGonagall has left the disenchantments in place," said Hannah from way across the other side of the room. "Probably difficult to keep setting them up and removing them for every session."

"Now wait a minute," said Neville, somehow trying to assert himself. "You're not thinking of going through there are you?" He pointed back at the wall.

"No, I was thinking more that WE are going through there!" said Hannah.

"We can't be sure the disenchantments extend that way," said Ginny.

"Then no harm done," said Hannah. "I'm going anyway. If Gryffindors are too scared then let a Hufflepuff lead the way."

"You think we can do it?" Ginny asked nervously. "I've only Apparated once - and that was only a step forward."

"Well, this is only a few steps. Oh for Merlin's sake! There's no difference! It's just as easy to go through twenty feet of solid rock as twenty inches of space! You with me or what?"

They hesitated, thinking of the pieces that had been shredded off Hannah when she first tried going through a wall. Neville looked at Ginny and rubbed his nose meaningfully. After another sigh from Hannah they finally shuffled uncomfortably to line up on her left.

"Listen," she said. "If you can't be really determined to do this for Luna then I don't know what else will make you determined. Think of Luna! That's what being determined is all about - think about something important then you'll feel really determined to Apparate."

She looked at Neville. He lifted his chin and squared his shoulders. Hannah looked at Ginny on her other side who nodded.

"On three then... One... two... three!"

At Ginny's first and only Apparation it seemed the room had instantly moved back a step but this time she felt oddly squeezed through blackness. She swayed slightly as the compression let go. Cold stone underfoot told her that a shoe and part of a sock was missing but otherwise she felt whole. The darkness lifted and her eyes began to adjust...

An ethereal blue-green radiance, a primeval glow, reminded her of the Slytherin common room but this light was much softer and gentler. It bestowed its grace upon every surface of a strange scene. The room was no more than half the length of the meeting room they had left. Against the far wall rose a low, white-clothed altar adorned with a simple wooden grail. A pewter candlestick on each side of it cast pools of orange and yellow to add warmth to the illumination. Before the altar knelt two silent, motionless figures and to Ginny they appeared to have frozen in that pose. But the plainness of the altar front beyond the couple disguised their translucency and only slight movements of their silvery surfaces indicated a ghostly nature.

As the youngsters' gaze fell upon these twin spirits they had an impression of intruding into something intimate, sacred, and ancient. Ginny sensed Neville sinking to his knees and Hannah with him. For a few moments Ginny resisted, but a growing sense of wonder touched her heart, melted it, and she, too, yielded her stance.

A fragrance less rich than incense soothed every breath and the hushed, sustained notes of an angelic chorale caressed their ears. The small woodland creatures depicted in the fine stained-glass windows browsed amongst the branching lead cames like a slowly-flowing, multi-coloured stream.

Presently, the heavenly choir lapsed into silence and the figures arose and turned to reveal the sad expressions of a maiden and a youth. Their attire looked Elizabethan and Ginny, getting up off her knees, knew immediately who they must be. She stepped forward; Neville and Hannah moved with her.

"You're Adgar and Ellyn."

"We canst not aid thee," said the ghostly youth as the couple glided towards the three. "Why didst thou not believe the tapestry warning!"

"It w- was hard to--"

The maiden now spoke and her voice, though faint, was firm and insistent. "Our mourners didst sew, at our entreaties, that none but us would e'er suffer so again."

"We grieveth for thine lost love," said Adgar, looking directly at Ginny.

"But he's not lost! He's fine!" cried Ginny then swiftly added with a sideways glance at Neville and Hannah, "...at least, I'm sure he must be. He has to be!"

"The curse, as venom, taketh with certainty in its own time," said Ellyn.

"No!" shrieked Ginny. "It can't be true!"

"Bowett hast taunted us these many years!" cried Adgar. "Only thine own demise canst tilt this dark cup from thine lover's lips." He turned his head towards Ellyn. "As did my beloved for me."

"You fell... on purpose?" said Neville, incredulously, looking at the maiden.

She turned swiftly away and her long gown flowed palely behind her. With her back turned she sighed. "Alas, 'tis so. My sin mayhap, doth trap me in penance here forever."

Adgar spoke, "Thine act, that layeth down thine own life that I shouldst live - canst be no sin, Ellyn."

At the sound of his voice, she turned and came back to him.

He continued mournfully, "Mine be the sin - to follow thee. For thine own curse had endeth with thine parting. No, mine act was selfish - to love thee more than life..."

Ellyn turned to the visitors and never had they seen such sorrow in anyone's eyes. "Wedded were we to be, here in the same good light as the trysting day."

"Bowett didst scoff once the deed wast done," snarled Adgar. "Mayhap didst think I wouldst surrender mine life first - that he might take Ellyn for his own." He bowed his head low. "And mayhap I doth wish I had..."

"Never!" cried Ellyn. "Eternal penance with thee weigheth less than a mortal yoke to such as he!"

Hannah glanced worriedly towards the stained glass windows but saw there only the woodland creatures who now stood silently listening.

Adgar saw her glance. "Evil canst not enter this sacred place. He forever haunts the court below where none now tread; the Bloody Baron will ne'er give him leave to dwell elsewhere."

"But a loving sacrifice should not bring punishment - it's not right!" said Hannah. "Why can you not go on? What holds you here?"

Ellyn stared sorrowfully at Hannah. "Our troth doth chain us here. Our hearts didst ever yearn to marry so. Such desire bindeth. I didst choose death to save my beloved e'er we wed - thus canst it never be."

"So my death is the only thing that can save Harry?" said Ginny, faintly.

Neville turned. Ginny's face was pale and cold in the eerie light. "Ginny! What're you saying! You can't be thinking--"

"Harry MUST live - you know that!" she said.

"Worse there be than death," said Adgar. "The black curse bringeth evil in guises many."

"Then... he might not die?" said Ginny.

"Alas no - in its stead he might suffereth that which most he doth fear." Adgar shook his head as if he had had long years to contemplate his own fate.

Ginny sank to the floor, her face lowered.

"No, Ginny! I won't let you!" shouted Neville. "I'll... I'll lo- lock you up! I won't--"

But Ginny was murmuring to herself, lost in some inner hell of guilt and fear. "Poor Harry... All that he has gone through... He wasn't even there. Didn't have a choice. It was me - I did it."

"Snap out of it, Ginny!" shouted Neville, shaking her by the shoulder.

Hannah spoke, "I don't understand - weren't we trying to help Luna?"

Neville stared at her for a few moments then turned to the ghosts. "We have another friend. She became very ill. We thought it was because I touched the Stone..."

Ellyn spoke, "If thine arm reached through--"

"No, I only cleaned away the weeds!" said Neville. "I never put my hand right through the hole - but she was unwell whenever I went near her after that!"

Ellyn turned to Ginny who was still lost within herself on the floor.

"Ginny!" said Neville. She looked up. Her face was sick with worry, her eyes dark with pain.

The maiden spoke. "Wast thy lover ever in thine thoughts?"

Ginny turned to the ghost, nodded, and said tearfully, "Always."

"Think thou!" said Adgar, "At the tryst! Search thine heart! Who thinkest thou of?"

"Why, Harry of course!" cried Ginny indignantly, and rising to her feet again. "He's the only one I've ever cared for."

"You were shouting at her," said Neville quietly.

Ginny turned to look at him. He was gaping upwards, searching his memory. "What?" she said.

"You told her to stop interfering," said Neville. "You were angry. Told her to leave you alone!"

"Who?" said Ginny, wiping a hand across her eyes.

"Luna," said Neville. "You weren't thinking of Harry at all - you were furious at Luna."

"But..."

"You said it yourself, Gin - the Stone reads your feelings. When Harken enchanted the Stone he expected lovers to only be thinking of each other at the moment they hold hands. The same must be true for the curse."

"But the Stone... helped me," said Ginny. "It removed all my doubts and fears about Harry and me..." She could not tell them about Harry's kiss, that special kiss that took place at the Stone from which point she knew that all was well.

"Ginny," said Neville, "Everything was always alright with you and Harry. You just believed in the Stone so much it made your realise there never had been any cause for doubt, don't you see?"

"But..."

"I never told you this," said Neville, "but from the moment you used the Stone, I became completely besotted by Luna; saw her in a different light. I could talk to her more freely. Don't you remember? I asked you to apologise to her?"

Neville looked at Hannah who appeared sceptical. He said, "I won't pretend I didn't already fancy Luna - but she seemed more and more wonderful from that moment on."

Hannah scowled and said rather pompously, "Magic cannot create true love."

"Exactly! That's what I'm saying. I was bewitched."

"But why would the curse do that?" asked Hannah.

"So Luna would fall even more in love with you," said Ginny, "- and be hurt more when you fell for Hannah."

"But I really do love, Hannah!"

Ellyn, who had been listening closely to the conversation, spoke up, "The curse floweth as water which doth follow these earthly contours yet reshapeth them to its purpose. It steers our loves and hopes by its persuasions to their end in a dark sea." She looked closely at their faces then added, "Your friend doth suffer now yet sails to a still greater peril."

The two young ghosts turned, and hand in hand walked back to kneel before the altar. There was nothing to mark the passage of centuries; not even the candles burnt any lower.


—oOo—






Chapter 20: The Departed
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Chapter 20


The Departed



All day Monday, Ginny's attention wavered between the plights of Luna and Harry - then to Emmy and Gylda - and she paid very little respect to the lessons in hand. She was also troubled by thoughts of Ellyn and Adgar too - perhaps because, when they died, they had been of a similar age to Harry and herself. It was difficult to envisage what it must be like - shackled in sorrow here forever. At least they were with each other, albeit in a tepid semblance of life. She drew a deep breath; they were beyond all help - but was Luna also hopelessly damned by that same curse she wondered?

After explaining about the Stone to Luna, and apologising for her own part in its evil effect, she tried, unsuccessfully, to encourage Luna to be hopeful. But Luna was not her usual, cheery self at all, being resigned to melancholy throughout their Potions lesson together.

"Be nice if it fizzed up a little, don't you think?" she said, vaguely prodding a few newts' eyeballs around in an attempt to produce a wrinkle remedy.

"It's not supposed to fizz, Luna - it's supposed to congeal into a lumpy cream," sighed Ginny, re-reading the recipe on the blackboard yet again to be sure.

"Still... I really would have liked it to whoosh and hiss and bubble for a while first."

After the final, uninspiring lesson of the day, Ginny herself struggled to remain positive for Harry's sake as she headed back to the common room with Seamus, Lavender and Romilda. If he was preparing for a risky undertaking she would give him all the support she could and not worry him with any of her problems. In particular, she had kind of promised not to inform him about Luna - he had enough worries already.

She flopped down into an armchair, pulled the last of her homework out of her bag and opened it up, groaning when she saw all the haphazard history notes. Her bag she flattened as best she could upon her knees, laid the scruffy parchments on top and resigned herself to rewriting the scribbles more sensibly - but her mind soon wandered.

There was only one thing she could think Harry might be attempting. Her thoughts went back to the days before Fleur's and Bill's wedding. Harry had let it slip he was going to try to kill Voldemort. He had denied it immediately, of course, under the pretence that he had been joking but Ginny knew he had meant it. And if he had discovered the whereabouts of the Sword of Gryffindor, and if the sword was necessary to accomplish his deathly task, then it was vital he succeed in retrieving it - far more important than anything that was taking place at Hogwarts. She felt a sudden ache - a longing to help, to make herself useful to him. She sighed inwardly and a drop of ink blobbed off her quill, causing her notes to be even more unintelligible. Was that 'Publishing of Hathmaunton Truce in 1690' or 'Punishing?'

He had said Hermione was still 'making preparations.' Ginny secretly hoped that would delay his dangerous excursion until next year because more than anything, she wanted to have time with him during the festive break. But he didn't actually agree to meet me, did he? She thought back to their meeting at Hogwarts' gate... Had he understood she desperately wanted them to see each other over Christmas? She found herself wondering how long his escapade might take. If it took the entire holiday she would never see him at all!

She let her notes slide off her knee and, as her hair hung down to hide her face while recovering them, she sent Harry a quick kiss to ask him to confirm.

She wrinkled her nose when she sat up again and scratched with her quill blindly at the top parchment. It was shameful to think of her own happiness considering that which faced Emmy and Gylda - not to mention Luna! Most of her guilty feelings for bringing the curse upon Luna had been overcome - mainly because Neville kept nagging to remind her it was Bowett's fault, not hers. They had also persuaded Padma, Michael, and the others that the threat to Luna was real and it was deathly. Four of them now guarded her wherever possible - two with, one ahead, and one behind. I'll make more time myself too - least I can do for my friend. It's only a few more days...

"Ginny?" It was Neville's voice.

"Hmm...?"

Edmund did more than his fair share of escort duty which helped enormously. Keeping up with his own studies and homework must be a real trial she reflected. She had noticed his appearance was haggard - and fatigue showed in his features as time passed - but he insisted on watching over Luna every chance he got. Surely no harm could befall her here at Hogwarts now!

Ginny forced a smile at the crackling fire and wriggled into a more comfortable position in her chair - she had a good feeling that once Luna was home and she and her father had packed off to their secret hideaway then all would be well. It occurred to her that the very first Quibbler in the new year would confirm she was safe. Yes - be positive! It might be a very good Christmas indeed, Ginny reflected: Luna, Emmy, and Gylda all safe; Harry heroically carving the Weasley's turkey with Godric's sword; and You-know-who's severed head on the front page of the Daily Prophet!

"Ginny? Are you--?"

"Sorry, Neville - I was miles away."

"Nearly time for Apparitions - we'd best get a move on," he said earnestly.

...

"Well, I must say, Mr. Longbottom, this is a marked improvement!" Professor McGonagall's expression was one of surprise as Neville comfortably Apparated the length of the meeting room for the fifth time. "Do you think you are ready to try Disapparating into the corridor with Hannah?"

Ginny could hear Neville pretending to hesitate but she remained busy trying to read Harry's message again under cover of a brief swirl of her hair: Xmas uncertain but we have till 4 Jan. She grimaced; she had been hoping for some special Christmas time with Harry. She was still pondering this when McGonagall disturbed her thoughts.

"Which of you has lost their sole?" She was at the far end of the room, holding up her wand. Hovering below it was what appeared to be a piece of an old sock. She stared at it suspiciously before vanishing it then her gaze fell upon Ginny and she walked swiftly forward.

"While it is commendable to put in extra practice - it is not recommended for beginners to try Apparating without supervision!" She glared at Ginny. "I hope you realise - that could just as easily have been your foot!

"Miss Weasley, I have heard--" she continued, "--that you have become quite adept with healing spells but I don't believe you are quite yet at the stage where you can reattach an extremity before bleeding to death!"

As if to underline her words there was a faint pop followed by a loud squeal from the corridor and Neville came hopping back in through the door with Hannah and Madame Pomfrey right behind him. "Oh, stop making such a fuss - it's just a toenail!" she said. "It will grow back in a few moments if you'll just hold still and let me at it."

"It's not that," moaned Neville, as he dropped onto one of the side benches and looked down at his exposed foot, "Gran'll kill me for ruining these new shoes."

McGonagall shook her head and pointed her wand at the hole in the front of Neville's right shoe. "If you would only practice and remember your basic spells instead of risking life and limb - Reparo - Apparating without a competent healer on hand then you'd be better prepared for--!"

Without warning, all the windows suddenly shook before a strengthening wind and the earlier light snow was replaced by heavy rain rattling noisily against the glass.

"Well," said McGonagall, "I did say there is a storm coming."

—oOo—

The bad weather continued overnight as the temperature dropped, freezing soggy slush into ugly grey ridges around the Castle. By daylight it was trying to thaw again, helped by more rain, and this made the ground treacherously slippy. Herbology had been cancelled: part of one side of the greenhouses had been damaged by a wide-branching Alihotsy brought down by the ferocious winds. Not only were pots and trays awash but the old tree had released so much fuming sap that everyone who tried to clear up the mess had been helplessly seized with hysterical giggles. To make matters worse, some of the more mobile plants had decided to stretch their roots outside and Professor Sprout was occupied rounding them up for most of the day.

Ginny and Luna had joined Hannah and Neville in the unused fourth-floor classroom, taking advantage of the extended break. Edmund had been with them but when he espied Neville pulling Christmas gifts from his bag, he slipped out the door to stand guard outside rather than intrude into the privacy of the group of friends.

The Quidditch Year Book that Neville presented to Ginny was filled with facts, figures, and glossy colour photographs in which riders on brooms performed seemingly-impossible manoeuvres. When Ginny tried to apologise for not yet being able to return the favour he explained that he had asked his Gran to send it to him.

"Luna, I want you to have Dippity, she--" continued Neville.

"Oh, she's adorable - I wish I could but I just can't," smiled Luna. "Her place is here. You shouldn't--"

"But I insist. I want you to have her," said Neville. "I'll bring her--"

"But I have to refuse you, I think," said Luna more firmly and her smile disappeared. "I'm sorry, Neville. I - don't - want - her." She pronounced each of the last words emphatically.

The buoyant atmosphere collapsed like a sad omelette after that. Neville felt rather rebuffed and glanced at Hannah who also looked puzzled. She tried to change the subject.

"We... Neville and I were wondering whether to have a... sort of little Christmas party with..." She hesitated and looked at Neville.

"Who?" said Ginny, looking from one to the other.

"Adgar and Ellyn," said Hannah, meekly. "I know it seems silly but... I thought it might cheer them up a bit."

"But they can't eat," said Ginny.

"It's not just food though is it?" said Neville. "It'll be a bit of company for them..." He tailed off.

"That's a very kind idea," said Luna thoughtfully. "Ginny told me all about them, you know. I wish I could meet them too."

"You can't Apparate though, Luna," said Ginny, unnecessarily, "and none of us can do side-along yet."

"I might try," said Hannah, excitedly. She was pleased to find there was interest in her idea of providing the ghosts with Christmas cheer. "I've not done it but I know how - and Madam Pomfrey told me it's safe if you are already competent at Apparating and the passenger is willing - it's not difficult actually."

Ginny was less enthusiastic. "Well, yes, if you really think--"

"You're wondering if they would really want us to intrude?" said Neville to Ginny.

"It'll only be for an hour or two," said Hannah.

"That's what I mean... Then we'd leave them again. An hour in eternity... It's so unfair." Ginny frowned but quickly recovered. "Don't take any notice of me - I've just been a bit miserable with... everyone's problems. Of course I'll do it!"

Now it was Hannah's turn to look a little depressed. "If only they had a regular... Like every year - make them feel part of... We could invite a few other Hogwarts' ghosts along?" she added.

"Perhaps we should ask Ellyn and Adgar first, don't you think?" said Luna. "See what they want?"

"Well we know what they--" Hannah suddenly shrieked and jumped to her feet, knocking over her pumpkin juice on the desktop.

"Hannah! What is it?" cried Neville, standing up too. His wand moved from its holster so quickly he almost dropped it.

Hannah was frozen on her feet, staring at everyone, deep in thought. "Nothing. It's nothing."

She sank back slowly onto her chair, absentmindedly drawing her wand and clearing up the spilt juice. She had a faraway, joyful glow on her face and held up her hand to delay the others speaking to her.

"Hannah?" Neville said again, re-holstering his wand and sinking back into his chair.

"That's perfect," murmured Luna. From her bag she removed a gift-wrapped package, carefully opened one end, and pulled out a medium-sized picture frame, face down. She turned it towards herself, and pulling out her wand from behind her ear, she began to softly chant in a sing-song way while Ginny's and Neville's stares wandered back and forth between her and Hannah - who was still deep in thought.

"There," said Luna finally. "I didn't quite have it right before." She pushed the frame back into its wrapping and neatly sealed it. "This is for you, Hannah."

Hannah snapped out of her reverie and took the package. "For me?"

"It's just a little portrait I did yesterday - it's much better now. It'll go nicely on your wall I should think."

Hannah gasped as she pulled out the painting - as did Neville beside her. Ginny leaned over to take a peek too.

Neville spoke first as he took the picture to get a closer look. "That's exactly how I see you, Hannah."

"It's so... lifelike - You've caught her happy face, Luna," said Ginny. "It's so alive - but--"

"Oh, it's not magical - she won't move. I just used magic to help me paint it," said Luna.

"Seems so real," said Neville, handing it back reluctantly to Hannah.

"And this is for you, Neville." Luna held out a large plain-covered book which Neville took. He tried not to look puzzled but he didn't know what to say.

"It's not very good, is it?" said Luna, matter-of-factly as Neville opened it up to find it completely blank. "I had to work on one I'd already got. It's not really a diary but you could write your thoughts in it anyway if you wanted to."

Neville looked up at Luna, remembering an earlier day in the hospital wing. "You... w-- want me to... write about you in it, don't you Luna? S- so I never... f- forget you."

"Oh, that would be nice," said Luna off-handedly as if she didn't really care one way or another. "The blank cover is so you won't be embarrassed by anyone seeing the book's cover."

Neville slipped off the plain dust cover. The book's binding itself was predominantly a fine, green-dyed Tebo leather richly embossed with every colourful image imaginable streaming lazily across its surface. Flowers swayed in an imaginary breeze. Little cottages in a row seemed inhabited by tiny folk who waved their hats at passers-by. Pixies ran after fairies below a blue sky dotted with wispy white clouds. Trees sheltered picnickers beside a beautiful lake from which leapt fat, smiling fishes, shining in the sunlight. Nearby stood Hogwarts Castle emanating a happy, magical atmosphere to accompany its cheerfully waving flags and banners. As Neville watched the scenes, more swirled into view like colours around a soap bubble: magical creatures of every kind, unicorns gazing up at Hippogriffs in flight; a fairground, a marching brass band - and more pictures flowing in behind, seemingly without end. Neville gaped with awe and delight.

"They're just some of my happy ideas. I thought if someone else could think about them then it will keep them jolly," smiled Luna. She turned to Ginny.

"This is yours." Luna held out a tiny black box resting on the palm of her hand. "It's very small isn't it? but it's the thought that counts and this one is one of my biggest thoughts."

Ginny's hand trembled a little as she took the small container and opened it. Within was a silvery bead - a thumb-sized ovoid droplet that was somewhere between an egg and a teardrop depending on from which side you beheld it, as Luna quickly pointed out.

"It's a life charm," Luna explained cheerfully. "Daddy gave it to me on my eleventh to start Hogwarts. It's very smart you see - sometimes it seems like an egg which is the start of life and sometimes it seems to be mourning the end - isn't that clever!"

Ginny stared. "Oh, Luna - I couldn't. Not if--"

"Oh, you must!" said Luna very firmly. "It's very precious to me so I don't want it lost and I know you'll take good care of it."

"I... I don't know what to..."

"I've never forgotten how you helped me when Mummy died," said Luna simply, "how you shooed away my ghost. You were my first friend - my very best friend - and that's why I also made something for you..."

Ginny's eyes were shining as she looked at Luna. "Something else?"

"Open it - look, like this." Luna moved her hand across the silvery ellipsoid and it opened up like a shell - but it was not a pearl inside - it was a tiny flame. It did not flicker or falter but burnt steadily with a warm apricot glow.

"It's enchanted. Professor Flitwick showed me how to charm it. It took me a long, long time to learn the spell but I think it was worth it, don't you? I asked him how to make an everlasting flame and he said you have to bind it to something that is everlasting and I said could it be bound to friendship and he said yes but that would be really tough so I said oh."

Ginny almost dropped the shining bead onto the desk as she flung her arms around her friend. "Oh Luna - and I've got nothing for you."

"Of course you have," said Luna brightly. "Lots of people never get a hug as good as this one."

—oOo—

"What do you mean, you didn't get any?" said Harry with a puzzled frown on his face.

Hermione busied herself around the kitchen area, not looking directly at Harry. She tipped a few vegetables into a big bowl of water and looked around for the towel she used as an apron.

"There really weren't any suitable Muggles, Harry," she replied airily, "--not that I could get close to--"

"In a crowded supermarket!" growled Harry, his features darkening even further. "I'd kinda like to visit Godric's Hollow this year not next if you--"

"Well, you go into town tomorrow then if you think it's that simple!" said Hermione. "The only couples I got near were either too tall or..."

"Or what?"

"Well... The man had a... horrible pimple on his nose. Harry, I just thought you'd not want to..."

"You got that right - but they don't have to be an actual couple do they? We just want one middle-aged man and one woman."

"Oh... well I didn't think of... I thought it would be nice if they were a real couple."

"Nice!"

"Harry! It's not that easy!" Hermione snapped back waving her fist about angrily in Harry's direction. "You can't just walk up to anyone and pull a hair out of their head without anyone noticing! I needed to spot a good one on their collar - one I can see properly matches their hair!"

"Try Accio next time!" Harry was staring at the implement she was brandishing at him. "What's that?"

Hermione paused, looking at the direction of Harry's gaze, then lowered her hand and spoke in a quieter voice. "Potato peeler and scraper... and knife - it's a combo on special offer. Sometimes I miss the old ways..." She plunged her hands into the water and grabbed a carrot.

"Fine! So we have nothing for the Polyjuice potion but we have a stupid potato peeler. Brilliant! We can go to Godric's Hollow as potatoes - I'm sure no one will notice! I was looking forward to some free time at Christmas to--"

"To what?"

Harry didn't answer. At that moment, his medallion had trembled and the uplift from Ginny's kiss reminded him he was still wearing the Horcrux locket. He ripped it off from around his neck and stared at it in disgust. The locket bounced into a corner as he flung it angrily at the top of the food cupboard. Slowly he sank into a chair next to the table and ran his hands through his hair. He wanted to see what Ginny had to say but he would have to wait until Hermione couldn't see him. He needed to cool off.

There was silence for a while, filled only by the sound of vegetables being scraped and peeled - and the occasional plunk and swish in the water - then Harry spoke, rather meekly, "Sorry." He paused. "It's that damned thing again."

"I know - don't worry about it," said Hermione drily, as she venomously gouged a big eye out from a large spud then plunged the helpless vegetable back into the water and shook it. "Bad morning?"

"Sort of..."

"You're still missing... you're still missing Ginny aren't you?" she said quietly.

"Every single day and thrice if there's a 'y' in it," said Harry gloomily. And it was true, he thought. Despite having regular magical contact it was never quite the same as having her with him all the time. Not that I'd know what that's like anyway, a grumpy voice in his head said. A fleeting moment here, an hour there - that was all he had ever known of the most precious experience he had ever had in his life.

"You're scar's been hurting again, hasn't it?" Hermione looked up from her task and waited, wondering if she was trying to be too sympathetic. How he had endured the emotional and physical pains, and the injustices, all crushing down into his short life, she could not even imagine.

"There's... There's something he's after... Something to do with my wand. Some information or something Gregorovitch had..." Harry rubbed at his forehead as he remembered the earlier vision. "He gets furious. ... He called in all his Death Eaters but they... when they couldn't help... when they made foolish suggestions... he... but they daren't leave! They stand there terrified and wait their turn to be punished!"

"They deserve what they get!" said Hermione, firmly.

"And I have to watch."

"You don't if you really didn't want to, Harry - you--"

"I want to know what he's after! Don't you see? I know you don't believe me but it's not me - it's my wand that has stopped him killing me and if he finds out why..."

They lapsed into silence again while Hermione resumed her scraping and peeling and Harry watched glumly. A slippery turnip squeezed out of her hand, splattered onto the floor and they both smiled.

"That one was yours," smirked Hermione.

"I'll give you a hand," said Harry, reassured by the change of mood and trying to make up for his earlier temper. He got up from the table and joined Hermione at the tub. "Look your sleeves are all wet!"

He grinned and tried to roll up her cuffs. Hermione shrieked "NO!" and slapped at him angrily, accidentally scratching him with the peeler blade.

Harry stepped back in surprise, sucking at the drops of blood on the back of his hand. There were a few moments of tension until Hermione realised what she had done then she dropped the peeler into the water and dried her hands on her makeshift pinafore. "Oh, Harry - I'm sorry! - let me fix it."

Harry sat back at the table, nursing his wound while Hermione drew out her wand and cast a healing spell. "There!" she said, "Suppose we start all over again?"

Harry grinned again. "O... K... Let's see... WHAT! - How dare you come back without any Muggle hairs!"

A wry smile touched Hermione's lips as she resumed her place in the kitchenette. "I meant, start over without the aggro!"

Harry laughed but it was more of a grunt in his throat. He sighed. "Do you think we'll ever get rid of that damned locket?" He went and retrieved it from the floor in the corner and put it carefully on top of the cupboard.

While Hermione prepared the oven, Harry took the opportunity to slip outside 'for a breath of air' he told her so he could examine his medallion. The rain had stopped but he did not want to dally about in the near-freezing cold air.

Hugs from Ginny XXX

Harry felt warmer immediately so he did not have to rush his return kiss,

Stay safe. Stay mine

Always

They lingered over their final kiss until the smell of Hermione's baking became too irresistible and with one final smooch he dived back inside as spots of rain began to tickle the puddles again.

Hermione had made them a shepherd's pie - and treacle tart for afters too - but as they sat enjoying the meal, Harry could not help noticing that the ends of Hermione's sleeves were still damp. She saw him looking and quickly dried them with a charm. He didn't say anything; Ginny's kisses were still fresh in his mind.

—oOo—

The next two days were colder still and the unpleasant weather did not relent. During Wednesday night, Luna lay awake, snugly listening to the freezing sleet drumming hard against the window panes of her dormitory - but that was not what had awoken her. There was a rhythm she felt did not fit. The noise of icy rain lashing against glass swelled in waves as the wind gusted and it was in a trough of relative calm that she heard more distinctly the odd tip-tapping that was not chilly raindrops. The only other occupant of the room was Felicity Eastchurch, snoring loudly - thankfully in a bed as far from Luna as possible - though the strange noise had not come from that direction.

Luna sat up and stared at the window from whence came the out-of-step pattering but the casement was no more than a dark rectangle and the single wall candle too far away to cast light through the panes. Luna swung her legs out of the cosy bed and crept forward.

A sudden squall thrashed noisily against the glass and Luna turned to a snuffle she heard behind her, across the room. Felicity's arm had blindly groped out for her wand. The girl sleepily murmured a muffling spell on herself then rolled away and sank back into her pillow.

Luna went back for her own wand and whispered softly, "Dubia Lux." The tiny glimmer of light wafted ahead of Luna towards the storm-sprayed window and she followed. There was something out there on the ledge but it sounded fainter, and, when the wind rested for a few moments, it had stopped completely.

Cautiously opening the latch she swung the window inwards slightly. Cold, slushy rain slid down the panes onto her bare feet and she let out a gasp. She recognised wicche wraenna immediately. She was used to seeing witch wrens in the area surrounding the Lovegood residence but this one was far from home - and it appeared to be dead on the sill.

After gathering up the little creature she closed the window on the storm; the bird was no more than a tiny wet bundle of feathers in her cupped hands. It was quickly dried with a spell then she slipped it inside her nightgown to warm it with her body.

She sat on the edge of her bed, softly humming the song-spell her mother had taught her until a gentle fluttering at her bosom told her that all was well. Luna went to the window and looked out again into the night. There could only be one explanation. A lone light flickered briefly on and off far away towards where she knew the trees to be. With a glance over her shoulder to make sure the other girl was fast asleep she cast her own wand light, pink and yellow, in response, and received an answering rhythm of pulsing azure.

The castle was secured for the night. There was nothing she could do until the next day so she took off her nightcap and placed it like a nest on her bedside table with the little wren blanketed within it. She left it sweet biscuit crumbs for sustenance and the remains of a cup of tea in a saucer then settled down herself again in bed and fell asleep immediately.

...

Morning brought blissful silence. The rainstorm had been driven away by freezing northerlies thick with snow clouds which for hours had been releasing their burden to obliterate the grimly-frozen slush that lay below. Having achieved their purpose, the winds rested and daylight revealed a gentler, softly-contoured landscape of virgin-white slopes pierced only by the mountain tops and the castle itself. All but the tallest trees of the Forbidden Forest were now no more than swellings in the vast snowfield.

Hagrid had burrowed his way out from the mound where his hut lay buried. He was anxious to check that this year's unicorn foals, born in the early summer months, were all safely sheltered and had sufficient fodder. Filch was hard at work trying to clear the front entrance of the castle, foolishly hoping not to have to beg for magical assistance. A few mittened younger students had already struggled out to his annoyance and were snow-shaping with their wands or indulging in snowball fights. Others watched and listened from windows, preparing to join them, Neville and Ginny among them. She looked up at the flat, pale-grey sky and the last few snowflakes drifting down.

"It's slowing - almost stopped."

"Wonder how he'll do it?" mused Neville.

Luna had already alerted them that her father had arrived and they were about to meet with her and Professor McGonagall and the youngsters downstairs. Hannah joined them on the way to the Entrance Hall and they passed a grumbling Filch who had given up and stumped inside to fetch help.

They escorted Luna, Emmy, and Gylda outside while Professor McGonagall, transformed into her tabby cat animagus, trotted along ahead. She wanted to see for herself exactly how Xeno Lovegood intended to spirit them away to Hogsmeade.

The group did not head directly towards the Forbidden Forest - they mingled about amongst the other kids and joined in the fun until they were at the far perimeter of the many squads of students hurling snow at one another. As more children poured out of the castle, it became a simple matter to use a concealing spell - one by one so as to remain unnoticed - before trudging off unseen in the direction of the trees.

The loft of the endless drifts provided a satisfying crunch as each footfall compacted the snow underfoot. Neville brought up the rear and used the Obliteration Charm to remove the deep footprints as they went. It was not long before their whispers could develop into chatter without risk of drawing the attention of the growing crowd of noisy students nearer the castle.

Hannah knew Madam Rosmerta best because of the time she had spent with Ernie Macmillan discussing supplies with her. As they tramped over and through the snowbanks pillowed on either side, she plied the youngsters with advice as to what to expect and how to behave. Emmy and Gylda were both excited and tearful by turn as they contemplated their future. Only the essentials of their luggage were being taken - courtesy of Ernie's borrowed Trunkate - because Luna had advised not all of their trunks could be carried in one trip. The rest could be smuggled out more easily late during Hogsmeade weekends next year.

Luna was the first to spot the lone figure amongst the trees and ran to greet her father with an emotional embrace. His huge mane of white hair, always recognisable to Ginny as a frothy tangle, had been raked up and back by the recent winds. His cap was missing and his grey robes badly sleep-creased.

"Good morning to you, Xenophilius," called McGonagall as she transformed back into her human form.

Xeno's eyes widened as the rest of them removed their concealment spells within the shelter of the trees. He released his daughter from their hug. "Luna! I thought utmost secrecy was--"

"Daddy - we need your help." Luna led her father away from the others and explained the urgent necessity of getting Emmy and Gylda to Madam Rosmerta in Hogsmeade. Ginny gestured to the others to hold back to give them some privacy; she wasn't sure how Mr. Lovegood might take this news.

She was right to be sceptical; his smile had disappeared and he was shaking his head vigorously. Abruptly he stopped and took a step back, eyes wide. Even from where they were, Ginny could definitely lipread the word "NO!" and when he folded his arms defiantly, things did not look good. Yet Luna seemed to be persisting and now she put her hands on her hips and stamped her foot, rather ineffectively, into the soft snow. McGonagall shuffled her own feet uncomfortably at Ginny's side and Hannah was trying to quieten the youngsters.

Luna came smiling back to them. Behind her, Mr. Lovegood seemed to have shrivelled somewhat.

"Daddy says he'll be delighted to take them," said Luna matter-of-factly, "no problem at all."

"Miss Lovegood, How precisely?" said McGonagall. "He cannot mean for them to walk through the Forbidden Forest with all this snow and--"

She stopped to watch. Xeno had paced along a few steps to where the trees were a little clearer and with his wand was summoning something down from above. It was only detectable where snow-laden branches were disturbed at its passing but nearer the ground its concealment spell was removed. It was if a shallow tent had been thrown into the air by a gale for it was somewhat ragged with splintered posts reaching out in all directions. A small, round sack at the front appeared to have a face marked upon it.

"Bagstaff!" cried Luna, moving forward to meet the descending craft. "You've done very well."

"Miss Luna! Thank you - I'm most happy to see you safe and sound!"

Luna loosened her scarf and the wren which had alerted her the night before flew straight to Bagstaff's pocket where it quickly wriggled itself inside and peeped out, chirring importantly at everyone.

Xeno kept himself busy with his wand, performing some final patching up of The Serenis. It seemed unnecessary; the splinters and tears did not affect the craft's physical and magical structure. He remained silent, his back to the others. Luna stood to one side gazing at him.

"He doesn't look too pleased about it," whispered Ginny to Neville and Hannah.

McGonagall went forward and, eyeing the condition of the flitfloat with some scepticism, spoke, "Xenophilius, are you confident this is safe? I don't want to--"

"She's fine!" he snapped then lapsed into mumbling to himself, "- come all this way ... storm's dropped ... I'm sure we can manage Hogsmeade."

"Then I will alert Rosmerta if you--?"

"Yes, yes - why not," muttered Xeno as he finished his repairs and stood back to inspect the craft.

"And how long--?"

Mr. Lovegood whirled around and there were tears in his eyes. "When we can!" He paused then resumed quietly. "Allow two - perhaps three days - we--"

"Two to three days! But it's only--"

"--We have to circle around right through the Forest again - right around to the other side of Hogsmeade... best we can do... extra weight and..."

He turned back to The Serenis and opened up the front canvas flaps widely. He cast a spell on the smallest sleeping bag to enlarge it. He stared for a few seconds at the result as if the last memento of the child Luna was gone forever.

McGonagall signalled to Hannah to bring the children forward while she cast her Patronus to send a message to Madam Rosmerta.

There was a very sad and strained atmosphere as everyone said their goodbyes and the two youngsters squirmed aboard on what they now saw was an adventure.

"Remember to thank Madam Rosmerta!" called Hannah.

"We will!" came the replies.

Luna stood in the trampled snow, her breath steaming and drifting in the cold air. She silently watched her father clamber aboard with his back to her. While Ginny turned to her to say goodbye and help her aboard, The Serenis very slowly began to lift and turn away, leaving Luna behind.

Ginny and Hannah shrieked. Ginny ran forward. "Hold on, Mr. Lovegood!"

The craft hesitated then abruptly lowered itself back down to hover just above the ground. Xenophilius Lovegood leapt out and sped back but Luna was already running towards him. He was shaking uncontrollably, his face as pale white as the snow that received his tears. They embraced and his hand rested on her hair, perhaps to get the measure of his girl and know that she was still real. Whereas before he had been hurried, now he did not seem able to leave.

Nobody else spoke. Presently he turned away and resumed his place in The Serenis. The flitfloat seemed to struggle to gain height and it was several minutes before it had finally disappeared up through the snowy branches.

Everyone's attention turned to Luna.

"You knew?" said Ginny, seeing the expression on Luna's face.

"Oh, yes," said Luna wistfully, "she was never going to be able to carry us all..."

"But..."

"I do like the Hogwarts Express anyway - it'll be fun!" She smiled at all the wide-eyed faces. "We'll make it fun! Show them we're not downtrodden!"

McGonagall spoke, and there was much doubt in her voice, "Miss Lovegood, going on their progress from here, are you sure that your father will be able to get from Hogsmeade to London in time to--"

"I can make my own way from King's Cross, I'm sure. There's--"

"You will do no such thing!" said McGonagall. "We shall arrange--"

"Come home with us, Luna!" said Ginny suddenly. "You can stop the night - more than one night and Dad and me - we can walk or floo over to your place with you once your dad is back!"

"That will be lovely - thank you Ginny," smiled Luna.

McGonagall was nodding. "That sounds very satisfactory."

—oOo—

The few days that remained passed drearily at Hogwarts, lacking the excited anticipation that usually precedes a Christmas holiday. As the last day approached, Ginny and Neville became more aware of how much they would miss Luna and the thought of returning to the school still under Snape's control dulled their prospects of a carefree break. But one event did brighten up the very last day before their departure. Although Amycus Carrow had threatened homework for the holidays, he seemed to have forgotten and none of the other teachers had set any. Furthermore, the only lessons remaining were in the morning - leaving the afternoon free to prepare for the students' departure on the morrow.

"Three-thirty this afternoon!" whispered Hannah to Neville and Ginny as she paused in passing the Gryffindor table at breakfast. "That party we talked about? All fixed!"

"Where do we meet?" said Ginny in a low voice, keeping one eye on the Carrows at the front of the Great Hall.

"Fifth floor - Apparitions room." Hannah sounded pleased with herself. "It'll just be a small gathering but I think it'll be wonderful!"

She swept over to the Ravenclaw table; Neville and Hannah could see her telling Luna who clapped her hands together and looked delighted. This earned her a scathing look from the head tables but nothing was said and she continued to talk animatedly to Hannah.

"What's she so excited about?" murmured Neville. "Always seems to see more in less, does Luna. Did we miss something?"

"She just likes parties," Ginny said. She spoke with conviction but inside she was curious.

...

Luna's cheery disposition had not faded when they met her at the threshold to the meeting room.

"This is where you do Apparition lessons?" she said as they entered. "It's jolly nice - it's like a..."

"Where's Hannah?" muttered Neville. looking hopefully along the passages and in through the open door of the meeting room. "She was supposed to be up here."

"She's bringing someone else," said Luna, as she dreamily wandered around the room, inspecting every pillar, arch, and window.

"Who?" said Ginny.

"You'll see." Luna gazed at the far end of the meeting room. "The chapel is through there?"

"Yes, we think there used to be a door between those stone supports--"

Luna looked thoughtfully at the recesses between the pillars on the back wall. "No... We're in it," she said finally.

"In what?"

"This meeting room is part of the chapel. This was where the congregation gathered. Those columns - see the arches at the top? That wall wasn't there at all centuries ago - just the open pillars through to the... Is there an altar?" Ginny nodded. "It's an altar room then. Imagine how it must have been--"

Neville gasped. Something icily cold had passed through him.

"Friar! What are you doing here?" said Neville.

Luna laughed. The Hufflepuff ghost beamed. "I have been asked here in my official capacity to conduct the--" There was a faint pop at the far end of the room.

"Friar! Glad you could make it! Everything's ready!" It was Hannah. "I've spoken to them. They are completely bedazzled!"

"Hannah, what's going on?" said Neville nervously.

"We said a party didn't we?" Hannah grinned. "We're a wedding party, of course!"

The ceremony was short, simple, yet strangely beautiful. Ellyn was glowing with joy, though nervous, finding it hard to believe her long-held desire was to be finally satisfied. Adgar seemed taller, his voice deeper. He had gained a new assurance where before he had been gripped by hopelessness. Perhaps they had rehearsed their vows through many years for they declared them faultlessly and with confidence.

They could not, of course, make use of the chapel's physical grail but the Friar had his own unearthly silver chalice. Neville wondered perhaps that he had grasped it at his own execution for it brimmed redly with wine, yet spilt naught. And though the radiant couple both drank deeply from it - to signify their willingness to share their life together and to tread one path - the cup remained ever full.

The only ring they could use was the silver promise serclett that Ellyn already wore and that had boasted its amethyst for long centuries. She gladly surrendered it and received it back from the hand of her lover during the ceremony. Ginny winced as she saw him place it on her index finger but Luna nudged her to keep looking. Adgar gently moved it to the middle finger then finally back to her ring finger to complete an ancient tradition.

Their kiss was sweet and delicate as only a ghostly contact can be. Hannah was tearful and even the Friar looked most wistful as the couple, still embracing, became more tenuous and insubstantial.

"What's happening?" whispered Ginny to Luna, who was still conjuring scented rose petals that were floating right through the happy pair. Soon there was no more than a single faint outline of light to locate the departure of their unified spirits.

"They've gone on at last, "smiled Luna happily. "Only desire bound them to this world and now they wish for nothing."

"Well, that was worth waiting for!" chortled the Fat Friar as he glided among them, his eyes ablaze with satisfaction and his cheeks more rosy - just possibly he might have quaffed at his own cup.

"It's going to be a perfect Christmas!" beamed Hannah as she slipped her arm around Neville's waist. "Just wonderful!"

—oOo—






Chapter 21: Murder on the Hogwarts Express
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Author's Note: IMPORTANT! Historically, many British train compartments had their own outer door to the platform opposite the internal one to the train corridor. This is clearly implied (in the first book at least) where Fred and George help with Harry's luggage directly from platform into compartment and that is the type I use in this story. Keep that in mind because the movies use the one-door type where the only access is via the train corridor so that might be confunding!



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Chapter 21


Murder on the Hogwarts Express




Neville first noticed Edmund Trevett's absence by observing Luna. Her glances towards the empty chair at the Slytherin's table while thoughtfully munching her cereal at breakfast were frequent. Meanwhile, Hannah had sneaked into breakfast with the Gryffindors on this last day and sat by Neville's side. He raised an eyebrow at her but she shrugged so he turned to Ginny who had also been watching and anticipated his question.

"I think he's not well."

"He's not well?" echoed Neville. "But..."

"Edmund asked me last night if I would go with Luna to Hogsmeade Station. He was as white as a ghost. Haven't you noticed, Neville? He's been overdoing it I think."

"Asked me too," said Hannah. "I didn't noticed he looked sick though."

"That's because he's been looking rough for more than a week so you're used to it." Ginny swung her long red mane haughtily back and took another bite of toast.

"Perhaps he's just doing some late packing," said Neville, cheerfully digging into a sausage.

"During breakfast?" scoffed Hannah.

"I did almost all mine last night," Neville continued between mouthfuls. "Seamus got me a new Remembrall so I wouldn't forget - look!"

He glanced at Seamus and gave him the thumbs up, then he dropped his fork and reached into a pocket on his robe. He rummaged around for a few seconds then, with a melodramatically-worried look, began searching all his other pockets. When Ginny smirked at Hannah, Neville winked and pulled out the Remembrall from the first pocket. "Got you!" He laughed. "See - it's clear."

His laughter spread softly here and there along the Gryffindor table, as though it were an unconscious signal that it was alright to be happy - they were all going home to see their families.

Someone at the Hufflepuff table was not so merry. Ernie Macmillan was a little out of sorts; in fact he was rather cross. He had accepted the loss of much of his best friend Hannah's time to Neville without complaint. Part of him was delighted for his companion but fought with feelings of suppressed resignation at having to spend more time on his own. He even accepted his being assigned, at the last minute, escort duty to Luna who somehow he struggled to disassociate from Neville's success with Hannah. After all, if Luna had won Neville's heart then Hannah would be free... He sighed. No, it was neither of those two irksome burdens that bore down on him the most this morning; it was the temporary loss of his Trunkate which irritated and inflamed his personal sense of injustice. It was true he had willingly loaned it to Emmy and Gylda when asked, but it had not then occurred to him that he would be needing it himself so soon. His father would demand an explanation at King's Cross, for it was he who had paid for the gift. And his full-size trunk was exceedingly awkward to manoeuvre even when hovered - but he couldn't do that in London in front of Muggles.

Mid-morning, when Ernie headed up the Hufflepuff stairs towards the Entrance Hall, he had a kitchen-elf in tow, happily floating a swollen travel chest behind. He hoped to draw sympathetic attention to his missing bag but because of the extra delay he was now having to rush. When he stopped at the threshold of the Castle, the elf almost bumped into him and showered him with apologies.

Ernie wasn't listening. The others had already left without him and he glared out through the Entrance doorway across the heavily-trampled snow, stamping his feet as the chilly air nipped at him. Ahead could be seen Ginny and another girl chatting as they walked down towards Hogsmeade with Hannah and Neville arm-in-arm by their side and Luna ahead of them all. Perhaps he was indulging in a little self-pity but he seemed unneeded so he held back for a few minutes. Luna had enough guards without him, he thought, though she ought to keep closer to them. He stared harder at the back of the blonde girl's head. It didn't look much like Luna, he reflected after a while...

Susan and Leanne came along behind him at that moment, laughing and giggling at his elf while they expertly hovered their own baggage themselves. He decided to join up with them for the journey. Who needed Hannah anyway? She had only ever been a companion and he had other friends.

They hadn't walked far outside when Leanne glanced back at the sound of raised voices and stopped. Ernie followed her gaze. Edmund Trevett was stood with Madam Pomfrey on the entrance steps, their breaths steaming in sharp bursts as they quarrelled about something.

Susan laughed and nudged Leanne. "Too much Christmas spirit last night."

They agreed that Trevett looked dreadful. His eyes were darkly sunken and his features pallid. Still, Ernie noted, he had a Trunkate slung over his shoulder so he must be fit enough for the journey. Most of the Slytherins coming out now boasted one of the coveted new bags too, he noted enviously, all in the same Slytherin-green livery.

Ernie glanced down at his pathetic borrowed elf. He was fruitlessly trying to poke a creased Hufflepuff tie back under the bursting trunk lid with his long skinny finger. Ernie made a mental note to be less forthcoming of his own Trunkate next time. They resumed their walk down to Hogsmeade and the train station.

...

"Thanks Louisa," said Ginny to the fair-haired girl who was climbing onto the train. The girl gave only a brief wave back and seemed glad to be going her own way.

Ginny turned to Luna and grinned. Luna looked rather rueful but she managed to smile back at Ginny and said, "I don't mind my hair dark I suppose, but I do feel cold around my neck." She tugged up her fluffy beige muffler to emphasise the point.

"It's only till we get to the Burrow," said Ginny.

"I think raven-black looks elegant on you," said Hannah, cheerfully. "Maybe next year I'll charm my hair too."

"No way!" said Neville, leading them carefully forward along the icy platform, slipping and skating about as he did so. "Come on - I'll get us an empty compartment to ourselves near the front."

The girls laughed softly together. "I let him take charge now and again," murmured Hannah behind a gloved hand.

He found one with its own outer door and climbed up directly into the compartment first to help draw Hannah up after him. He closed the door to the train's internal corridor to give them a little privacy then started organising the baggage which Ginny hovered up to him from the platform. The top of his holdall was unzipped and he showed Hannah something inside. Hannah glanced furtively at Luna as she climbed aboard backwards floating her travel chest behind her. Hannah and Neville smiled quietly together as he hoisted the open bag up onto the rack and whispered something to it.

As the Hogwarts Express pulled out of Hogsmeade station, the mood on board was initially restrained - a residue of a long autumn term under the oppressive Carrows. Ginny was snuggled up with the morning's Daily Prophet in a corner seat next to the corridor door, but she wasn't reading. She was thinking back to all that had happened since they were last aboard only four months previously: the D.A.'s successful resistance; their attempt to steal the sword; the meetings with Harry in Hogsmeade, the Shrieking Shack, and, audaciously, at the gate of Hogwarts; Emmy's and Gylda's escape; the ghostly wedding; the Trysting Stone and all the good and evil that had ensued from its contact.

She looked diagonally across at Luna who was staring vacantly out of the window at an all-white landscape relieved only by the soft, dark edges of trees and farm buildings. For a few seconds, she thought she saw Luna's eyes focus back at her, reflected in the frosted window, but perhaps she had imagined it. They had made it! Luna safe! Ellyn herself had said something about the curse using the victim's own circumstances. Well, it hadn't allowed for so many friends willing to watch over her!

Neville and Hannah were chatting happily and quietly further along the seat by her side, opposite Luna. Ginny regretted her seat being distanced from Luna. She wanted an hour to herself to start the long journey down to London and had just plonked herself down without much thought. She had assumed Ernie would be here to chat with Luna. With so many students absent from Hogwarts this term, the rest of the compartment was empty. Yet despite everything, much good had happened! This was a fine moment for Harry's kiss but it did not take her by surprise. She already had the medallion dangling expectantly, hook, line, and sinker, as she leaned into her corner. Now she could read it without even moving as Harry took the bait.

Tomorrow! I can get tomorrow! Meet me Ottery Lane 10:00am?

Ginny's heart was lifted and she pulled up the newspaper to conceal her kissed reply:

YES YES YES! big tree, old gate, half mile from turning!

Ginny sat daydreaming for a while, her head buried in the pages of the Prophet, until the trolley lady came along to draw her attention outwards. She jumped up and dropped the paper onto her empty seat to mark it while she took the opportunity to share a Liquorice Wand with Luna as a ruse to sit with her.

As usual, Luna seemed to read her intentions. "I didn't mind you sitting on your own for a while, you know. We're - people I mean - we're funny don't you think?"

Ginny nodded and examined Luna more closely. It was certainly peculiar to see her pale features framed in black; her bright, searching eyes seemed even bigger as she watched Ginny's expression in return.

"You don't know what to think or say, do you?" sighed Luna, nibbling on her half of the liquorice. "It's a difficult situation but it'll pass by like everything does."

Ginny took her hand. "I can't adjust to your not being there next year. I can't take it in. Could we at least swap messages with Audrey?"

"If only Audrey had been back in time," replied Luna, "I'd have sent her to warn your mum and dad that I'm coming. They'll--"

"They'll be delighted to have you! It'll be a surprise anyway. You'll share my room. Fred and George'll be there to - at least on Christmas day. Dunno about Bill and Fleur, and as for Percy..."

"Everything will be different. We have to wait and see what happens," said Luna mysteriously.

Ginny opened her mouth to speak but Leanne and Susan appeared at the door with an unenthusiastic Ernie behind them.

"Ready?" asked Susan. "The others are already getting started."

Drifting in through the open doorway from further along the train came a growing sound of laughter and raised voices.

"You bet we are!" cried Hannah. She and Neville jumped up and Hannah pulled down one of her bags from the luggage rack. There was a clink of bottles from within.

The D.A. were determined to have a show of defiant high spirits even if it was only amongst themselves. Within the next hour, the train became festooned with glittering musical streamers and magnificently animated Christmas decorations. Colourful paper dragonflies and humming birds searched back and forth, alighting to drink from any drips of Butterbeer or wine they could find. Even the trolley lady joined in the carol singing duels and the driver and fireman passed back shovelfuls of roast chestnuts, hot dogs, fried eggs and bacon cobs straight from their firebox.

Within the first couple of hours, the verses became more inventive and daring; the jokes more risqué. Even Ernie had forsaken his sulky mood and was chatting happily with Hannah and Neville, his Santa hat perilously askew. Luna and Ginny had exhausted themselves joining one conga line after another of mixed Gryffindors, Ravenclaws, and Hufflepuffs. Only the unpopular Slytherins remained isolated, more for their own protection from the joke hexes that were in abundant use than anything. As Ginny passed Draco's compartment she saw him talking worriedly across a drop-leaf table to Astoria Greengrass on the opposite seat. She gave Ginny a strange stare then turned to Draco who fell silent. Ginny had an impression he knew she was there but he did not look up

It was sunset before the fiery celebrations subsided to a mellow smoulder and as the air outside grew colder, the windows started to fog up a little. Neville and Hannah had returned to their compartment and were cuddled up in the window corner again reading a torn joke book and laughing frequently. Luna was playing Exploding Snap with Ginny on the opposite seat. The last rays of the dying sun spread only a tepid glow upon the surfaces of icy branches and fence posts but the expansive snowy fields kept the outer scene bright.

Every few minutes, Ginny would go to her bag in the opposite corner rack on the pretext of fetching a chocolate frog, another glass of Merrygrimp's magical wine, or to get a hankie - but really she was sending Harry kiss after kiss with words like Tomorrow is our special day or a soppy countdown message, Only 16 hours 23 minutes to heaven!

They were all in a tipsy state, cares forgotten, and looking forward excitedly to being home with their families again for Christmas. Hannah giggled as the book they were sharing slid onto the floor yet again but she was too snugly embraced with Neville to bother to retrieve it. Luna was, for the tenth time, saying how attached she was getting to her dark hair and perhaps she might keep it or try green dreadlocks and a nose ring in the new year.

Without warning, the train lurched heavily several times and Neville fell forward onto the floor, banging his head. Hannah screamed loudly. Everywhere darkened for a few seconds then the yellowish compartment lights seemed to take over. Neville struggled to get up as the train continued to swing left and right and he was aware of Ginny on the floor too, slumped back against her seat. "Just a tunnel, Hannah. They're supposed to slow down for tunnels."

From his low position, through a woozy cloud, he could see her, still sitting in the corner seat but her face was a rigid mask; her expression one of horror. She didn't seem to see Neville but was staring ahead. Her hands were clenched together as if praying for release.

Neville blinked and struggled to sober up, to make sense of what was wrong. Ginny groaned from the floor on his left. There was a blurry tumbled mess near the door and something moving there; something small and white. "Dippity?"

Neville shook his head to clear it but all it did was hurt. What was Dippity doing here? He swayed upwards at last and collapsed onto the seat beside Hannah. He took her hand but she did not respond. She began to wail. There were no tears but her face was contorted with fright.

"Hannah! Hannah! It's me!" He had no idea what to do. He summoned his wand but the magical holster was empty. The shock sobered him up a little more. Ginny was still moaning on the untidy carpet so perhaps she should be helped first. The train turned again as Neville tried to reach her and he went down on one knee. Rolling back and forth between a shoe and a broken glass nearby was a wand he recognised as his own. He seized it then felt Ginny's hand clutching his wrist. She looked confused but at least she was looking at him; Hannah's eyes had been unfocused.

"What happened? Where's my wand?" croaked Ginny. She sounded like she had a mouthful of sawdust.

"Tunnel. Stupid driver didn't slow down." He couldn't keep the doubt, though, out of his voice. Something didn't fit and he sensed it in a distant part of his mind.

Neville groped around and found Ginny's wand in a pile of clothing on the floor. It was slippery with soap from a bar that was skidding around, trapped in a pocket of debris. Its scent seemed familiar. He pressed the wand into Ginny's hand but she was looking over his shoulder.

Neville looked around too quickly and his head hurt again. There were lights and illuminated surfaces passing by the window; notice boards, huge Muggle advertising hoardings too briefly-visible to read, arches, structures, windows lit up from within and spilling their radiance on brick and stone. This was no tunnel; night had fallen abruptly... and there was not even a hint of snow or frost.

Advertising? It made no sense. There was only one place... He tried to recollect how much he had drank.

"Help me, Neville," muttered Ginny, still reluctant to release his arm.

The train was shrieking metallically on the rails and gradually slowing. There was commotion on board, bumps and clatter of students moving about excitedly and for the first time, Neville noticed the door was open to the corridor.

"Neville?"

Neville looked down. Ginny's wand hand was shaking as she tried to point it at her right leg. "Banged my shin and my knee - not broken I don't think, but it hurts like I've been kicked by a mule--"

Neville steadied her arm as she cast healing charms upon her own leg then he helped her up. They looked back at Hannah. It was obvious she was concussed or in shock. She was rocking back and forth, her hands still clasped and oblivious of events around her.

"What's wrong, Hannah?" Ginny went and sat with her while Neville looked around to see if he had imagined Dippity. He hadn't. The small white cat sat patiently waiting upon a mound of what looked like robes and footwear and... He looked up at the nearest luggage racks.

"Someone's trunk must have been flung off - a boy's by the look of it. Who--?"

"Never mind that - what about Hannah?" said Ginny impatiently from the corner behind him.

Neville muttered doubtfully, almost to himself, still trying to make sense of what he saw, "She does get hysterical... remember OWLS? ...and Apparition Tests? - no... no, course not - you weren't there..."

"Not like this, surely?" said Ginny. "She's... she can't even hear us. ... Can she?"

Neville stared at the debris one last time then, while turning around, flung out an arm to the open doorway to steady himself as the train lurched to a standstill with a lengthy screech. Doors were now loudly banging open all along the train like a broadside from a man o' war. He stared in disbelief through the window.

"We're here? King's Cross? Already?". He spun around, wincing at the pain in his head, and stumbled over a hairbrush which he kicked angrily to one side. This was not right. This was not fair. This made no sense at all.

"Ginny - we're here! We've got to get her off! Get help!" His eyes turned inward for a second as a realisation struck him. "My gran'll be here - her dad'll be here!"

"Can't be..." Ginny continued to look dazed but she helped Neville lift Hannah to her feet. She seemed to respond to physical guidance and was able to stand but Neville wasn't going to let her fall anyway.

"Dad! Dad!" shrieked Ginny. Arthur Weasley was at the window on the platform side, pulling open the door. He had seen immediately that something was wrong. Behind him was Molly.

"Mum! It's Hannah - she's upset - there was--"

"I think there was a--" Neville butted in but stopped. What had happened anyway? He was supposed to know what happened wasn't he?

They heard Arthur saying, "Molly - run for Hannah's dad - he's still down there where the Hufflepuffs are getting off."

Mr. Weasley and Neville helped Hannah out onto the platform. Ginny looked at the mess on the compartment floor for the first time and saw the cat. Vaguely, she remembered Neville saying something. She stooped down and noticed the creature was sitting on a book. It was elegant enough to catch her attention but diaries always did draw her eye ever since her experience with Riddle. Dippity scampered away after Neville.

Cautiously, Ginny lifted the book. Logbook of E. Trevett was embossed in gold on its front cover. The book was sealed with a brass clasp and the lack of a keyhole suggested a charm held it - or a curse. She couldn't open it and was reluctant to do so anyway.

"Ginny! Ginny! You alright? You look--" It was her mother climbing in to be at her side. "Whose is this lot on the floor?"

"Edmund's..." said Ginny vacantly.

"Who? Leave it all. Come on. His problem. We can't--"

"Can't leave valuables... . Shouldn't we--?"

"Leave it. Leave all your baggage. Your dad and Charlie'll sort it out. Come on, Ginny." When Ginny still hesitated she added in a strained whisper, "Ginny, there are Death Eaters on the platform - didn't you know? We want to get going."

"Charlie's here?" It suddenly dawned on Ginny what her mother had said. "Charlie?" Charlie was something from her childhood - from normality - her mind couldn't quite fit him into this surreal experience. She started to feel even more woozy and the train seemed to turn around her then tilt away.

"Well, of course, he is! Didn't you get my last owl?" Molly lunged out to support Ginny as she almost fell. "Ginny!"

"Just... bit giddy. 'm alright."

Mrs Weasley helped her daughter down onto and along the platform to where her husband was talking with Hannah's father and Neville's gran. Neville was explaining he thought that Hannah had banged her head. His gran was sniffing suspiciously at his breath.

"Come on, Ginny, I'm getting you home," said Mrs Weasley firmly. "We're taking the floo."

Ginny stood there bewildered for a few moments. "What about--?"

"What about what?" Molly said sharply. "What about who?"

Ginny shook her aching head silently with a puzzled look on her face. "Dunno. I thought... Just us isn't it?"

Everyone was exchanging anxious glances at her but Neville's gran had got Neville to confess about the party on the train. "Christmas celebrations! Too much, too young, and too early!" were her parting words as she and Neville headed for the exit. Snorting contemptuously, she barged past a couple of Ministry men and disappeared through the exit from Platform Nine and three-quarters.

The great engine noisily released a large volume of steam and a strong smell of oil, triggering some of the milling, babbling people on the platform to begin to head home. Pecking at luncheon scraps were numerous pigeons. They scuttled and spread away before the departees then circled back around, reluctant to fly from the rich feast. Ginny spotted Charlie guiding a flotilla of baggage trolleys towards the exit with his wand. She had not had a chance to speak to him yet. He glanced back just before he disappeared and waved. As he and his wheeled string of luggage faded from view with a clatter, it occurred to her that she still held Edmund's diary. Ginny tucked it under her arm and whipped out a wine-stained handkerchief. She was silently crying all of a sudden but couldn't think why.

"Owl me tomorrow, John," said Mr Weasley to Hannah's dad, who had his arm around Hannah's shoulders and was leading her slowly after the Longbottoms. "I can help get her into St. Mungos if necessary."

"No - not there," replied John Abbott emphatically. "Nowhere controlled by the Ministry. She'll be alright after a good night's sleep."

...

Certainly Ginny felt much better when she awoke the next morning. There was only one thought in her head, HARRY!

She thrust her arms into her dressing gown sleeves and raced downstairs in her slippers to see what was for breakfast.

"Morning, Ginny," came the chorus. Mrs Weasley had one hand on her hip questioningly. "Sausage or toast or what?"

"Just a few cornflakes," said Ginny brightly, then, on seeing her mother's raised eyebrows, she added, "I've not got an appetite yet. I might take a long walk later. Get some fresh air. I miss that at Hogwarts."

Molly pulled a face. Since when did Miss Sleepyhead go for walks in the morning? Still, perhaps it was part of growing up. Then she had a sudden thought. Of course - Ginny'll be doing her Christmas shopping in Ottery!

Molly crouched down and sighed. "These old slippers are about ready to throw out - worn down to the carpet they are! Oh well, perhaps I'll wait for the January sales." She tried not to look to see if Ginny was listening. Ginny was. Later on, it gave her an excuse to take the big lidded basket without being challenged.

...

Once she was out of sight of the house, a weak sun showed itself which Ginny took as a good sign. She had been glad to leave the snow and ice up north. She was too old for that nonsense now, she told herself; she was going to see her man!

She Apparated directly to Ottery and shamelessly rushed around the shops purchasing the first things that came into her head that would make decent gifts: a dreadful tie set for Fred; striped underwear for George to pay him back for last year; foundry gloves for Charlie - she always got him those; A Muggle battery charger for her dad - he'd spend hours trying to figure out what it was; and of course, tartan slippers for her mum. She was tempted by a coarse leather horsewhip for Bill but in the end, settled for a smart brass magazine rack as a shared gift with Fleur. They could always use things for their new home and Phlegm was now officially a Weasley, not a nag.

A reducing spell was needed on most everything to cram them into the basket with all the food and drink that it already contained but at last she set off to walk back along the lane to meet Harry. She was early but he was already there, boldly sitting on the gate without even his cloak. He was hunched up against the cold, sun in his eyes, squinting back achingly in the direction of the Burrow. Ginny walked quietly up and watched him for a while unnoticed.

There was a sense of power in her observing him, like a protective goddess from on high. Ginny knew with certainty that she, herself, was the object of his devotions, and the knowledge pierced her wonderfully. Yes, he was real. It was Harry Potter. A hundred dark wizards would beg to be in her shoes here, waiting to cast a stunning spell and claim the praise of their deadly taskmaster. Silently, she placed her basket on the grass verge and drew her wand. She breathed a shield spell around herself then cried out loudly, "Avocado Cadaver!"

Harry flung himself backwards but his wand was out before he impacted the soil. His curse, though, splintering through the central bar of the gate, was deflected wide of Ginny's shoulder by her shield.

"Ginny! I could have killed you!" The gate, now an obstruction between them, he quickly pulled wide, dismissing it away behind him. He was concerned for his girl, not annoyed at her.

"Yeah, and I could have turned you into a tasteless fruit so we're quits." She wanted to scold him for not wearing his invisibility cloak but she knew why he did not: he wanted normality. They both craved it; to be just a normal boy and girl together without Death leaning eagerly over them like an impatient executioner.

They exchanged looks wordlessly for a while. Harry straightened himself up in an effort to restore his dignity. Ginny removed the magical barrier she had cast between them.

They walked closer, examining each other as if they had never met before. Ginny had made sure to leave her long, silky mane of red hair laid proudly outside of her travel cloak. Harry wore what he hoped was his coolest jacket. She conveyed that strange gentle fieriness through her eyes. He looked at her squarely without posturing. They both had the same thoughts. Reality is to be savoured when one has picked at the bones of imagination for a season.

There was near-silence while they kissed. Perhaps the wind occasionally rustled the branches of the great tree that gave them cover but the distant crows were almost inaudible and not even a bicycle hummed along the narrow byway during those precious minutes.

Ginny didn't want to ask, as they repaired the gate then wandered along the inner hedgerow. "I need to be back about half past one. How long have you--?"

"Hours! Hermione's gone to town yet again to try to get... just gone to town again."

"What about Ron?"

Ginny noticed a subtle change in the way Harry spoke. "Ron... He's away too."

"He's doing something special isn't he?" Ginny's concept of Ron had risen over the last few months from irritating bossy boots to heroic warrior.

"Sort of... Can't say." Harry was glad, for once, of his promise to Dumbledore; he could hide so much under the umbrella of one big secret. "Got you something!" He added, to quickly change the direction of their conversation.

"Go you something too," replied Ginny.

"Mine's special!" bragged Harry, as they turned the corner of the field without any idea where they were going. Perhaps they were unconsciously looking for somewhere to shelter from the cold air.

"Mine's special too - more specialer than yours!"

"Yeah, well mine's personal," said Harry.

"Mine's even more personaler!"

"Well then - I have two things to give you."

Ginny, for once, was almost stumped then said, "Huh - I have... seventy-eight things to give you." She was guessing, but he wouldn't know that.

Harry gave up and grinned as they surveyed the skyline beyond the far fence they were approaching. A hill sprawled down gradually to the west but its sunlit side dropped steeply as if it had collapsed all at once and never bothered to get up. That fall was avoided by all but the toughest grasses whereas the top of the hill and most of its slope were claimed by a grand stretch of naked poplars raking the sky. Rooks and crows were visible amongst their bare branches and high above swirled more, calling harshly across the damp, earthy fields that surrounded the raised ground.

"There - off the trail," said Ginny pointing to where the trees had been axed back leaving a low pavilion unsheltered. "I'd almost forgotten."

They made their way up the slope by unspoken consent, occasionally kissing, always hand-in-hand. As they drew nearer the top, Harry could see the building's style was Victorian with eight high-paned sides, four windows of which had been boarded up more recently with aluminium. The soft brown tiles atop its polygonal roof looked sound enough for they were protected by a corroded copper mesh and crowded by numerous scientific instruments - some that Harry recognised.

"It's a weather station, I think," he said. A metal structure, almost as tall as the pavilion, stood not far from its side with even more devices and paraphernalia.

"A what?"

"Muggles use them to predict the weather."

"Muggles can foretell the future?" Ginny grinned uncertainly at Harry, unsure if he was joking.

"Sort of."

The door was metal-clad and heavily chained and the surviving windows too high to peek inside. Rust and weeds gave the structure an air of abandonment though the side tower sported implements that looked more modern. It gave out a lively hum and a satellite dish suggested its users remained distant.

"I think," said Harry, as he looked back and forth, "this is automatic - the old building's probably abandoned. Has it always been like this?"

"Fred tried to get in years ago but couldn't. He daren't use under-age magic so broke a window but it was too high to climb up - there's nothing to stand on."

They moved around to the leeward side, out of the wind, and gazed at the view while they thought what to do.

"I can probably blast it open," said Harry, defensively, "but not sure I could restore those chains after." He appeared disappointed and slightly embarrassed. Perhaps, he thought, Ginny expected the Chosen One to be able to easily deal with an old lockup. Vainly he looked down at the damp ground for a place to invite her to sit. His coat came under consideration as a cushion - it could be cleaned afterwards.

Ginny was a step or two down the slope from Harry. There was a questioning expression on her face as she looked up at him which caught his eye.

"I can't just vandalise things, Ginny," he responded to what he thought was disappointment in her man.

"No, but you can Apparate, can't you?" Her smile enlarged into a grin as he grimaced and slapped his forehead.

"Come on."

She took his arm and explained how she had learnt Apparition as they lined up in front of the door. He was impressed.

Harry had expected the interior to be filthy and full of equipment but it had been gutted of all but a couple of shelves and one small table. The walls were cleanly painted and, strangely, the entire floor was fitted with a thick wool carpet. Its rectangular boxed flower pattern, pretty but dull, was crookedly offset and did not align to the octagonal deck at all. A coarse fibre doormat lay askew by the exit and Ginny flinched as she saw their muddy prints where they had Apparated beyond it.

"Scourgify!" At Ginny's command, the entire carpet brightened up garishly-new: the flowers, pale-blue-, fiery-red-, and lemon-coloured; the leaves greener than green; the borders mid-blue.

She cast a warming charm then kicked off her dirty shoes and cleaned them too and Harry did likewise, walking around in his socks to examine the place. Not that there was much to see. The external weather devices had been cut off where cord and pipe entered through walls and ceiling; whatever they connected with internally was gone. The space gave the impression that the owner had started to convert it to a habitable shelter but abandoned the task half-way. If the modern instrument tower outside made this pavilion obsolete then it was unwanted, unused, and unvisited.

"Colloportus," said Harry, brandishing his wand at the locked door.

"What's that for?" Ginny asked.

"In case... to be sure we're not disturbed."

Ginny smirked but Harry was staring at her strangely.

"Nobody can see in and we can't see out," he murmured, then added almost inaudibly after a long thoughtful silence, "but it's a lovely view." His eyes were still fixed hungrily upon her.

For a few brief moments, Ginny thought he might be reckless and she was gripped by timidity - then recovered. "Take a seat, Harry." She indicated the floor with a wave of her arm.

Her words shook him out of his fantasy and he lowered himself to the carpet and waited. Ginny descended gracefully to his side but slightly ahead - facing him as if on a backless courting couch, her confidence balancing his uncertainty. As she leaned forward she moved across and pushed him down onto his back. She slid across his stomach and curled around to bring her upturned face close to his.

If their enforced separations had all been bitter then these moments together were the sweeter for Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley. The two halves of their universe were at last merging together at its centre. They lay for most of the hour, lost to the world and its cares, blissfully immersed in each other.

Harry knew his greatest desire, far transcending his wish to dispose of the Dark One, was to share the rest of all his life with Ginny. Yet he knew also that now was not the time to propose his vision - not with his deadly mission still to fulfil. He hoped she knew and understood. Surely she could not doubt, even without him voicing it, his intention was to belong only to her; for her to do with as she wished.

He had tried to straighten his hair back countless times during his life but he had never then trembled as he did now with Ginny's fingers attempting this same impossible task. She laughed as the tufts sprang back and ruffled them up further in surrender, kicking out and loosening the lid on the basket near her feet.

Harry suddenly reacted to the smell of sweet spring onions and a roast meat that was, for once, not rabbit. His stomach gave a little growl and the lovers both succumbed to laughter.

"Harry Potter, the great romantic," said Ginny, squirming around and reaching for the container. She was hungry herself after almost two hours walking during the morning.

Home-made vegetable soup, kept hot by charms, added its rich aroma to those escaping the basket and soon after that they were digging into a crunchy chicken and hot potato salad.

"So... you got me slippers then?" said Harry, peeking further into the basket.

"For mum. I got you--" She broke off and her face flushed with embarrassment. Her gift for Harry had seemed so perfect when she chose it in a moment of affection but now it was so obviously pathetic her mind searched for some alternative. She couldn't give him the magazine rack. Perhaps he could use the fire-proof gloves? Her own face flamed at the thought. She must have been crazy.

"Ginny? What's wrong?"

The dazzling ties and the underwear were too unthinkably ridiculous and he'd know exactly what the batter-charger was. "I haven't... I've not got it with me," she lied. "Sorry - I can't believe I forgot your present."

Harry didn't speak for a few seconds which told her he knew she was lying but he didn't challenge her. "It's OK, Gin - don't worry about it - let me show you what I got."

He looked around for his hip bag where he'd dropped it and lazily hooked its strap with his socked-foot to pull it along the carpet towards him.

"This is just a..." He pulled out a cheap half-strip of booth photos - there were only two pictures. "I went with Hermione yesterday into town - she had the other half."

He held out the photographs and Ginny took them. Harry watched her face. She looked at her two friends grinning and pulling faces at the camera. Despite the happy pose, Hermione's face looked careworn and pained beneath the frivolity. Ginny saw it immediately.

"Have they split up?"

"What?"

"Hermione and Ron - have they had a fight?"

"No, no... she's... Ginny, she's... Hermione's worried about something. Even I don't know what." Now that he'd said it out loud, it became more real to him - as if, before, he had been suppressing it down into a box labelled 'Imaginative But Unlikely Possibilities.' So it was true - she really did have a problem she was keeping to herself.

Ginny was watching his face closely. She saw him realise something and it was too subtle to be a lie.

"Have you asked her?"

"I... don't... She's a bit touchy about it. I'm..."

"She needs your help!"

"It's probably a..."

"A what?"

"A... girly thing..." muttered Harry.

"Well you and Ron are all she's got right now!" Ginny scowled and studied the photos again. "This isn't..." Her eyes suddenly went as big as saucers. "Harry! A girly thing? Surely you don't think she's..."

"Dunno."

"Well for Merlin's sake you can't just leave it. It won't go away!" Ginny became thoughtful for a minute or two and Harry remained silent. "Were they on their own together... much?"

"Loads of times - when I went out scavenging for food. That doesn't mean - look, you know how sensible Hermione is! She wouldn't--"

"I know she's head over heels in love with the big prat!"

Now Harry was thoughtful. "Look - this is ridiculous. If you could see them together - they've never even kissed I'm sure of it! Once they perhaps held hands. When I woke up they were still asleep and--"

"They were together!"

"No, no, no - not like that - it was at Grimmauld Place. We all slept on the floor. Hermione slept on seat cushions. We were in our street clothes for crying out loud!"

Ginny turned to the photos again.

"Oh come on, Ginny - you know Ron. It'll be another ten years before he even dares kiss her toenail clippings!"

"You're right," said Ginny after a while, "this is something else."

"Ginny, she's been on the road for months - we're all half-frightened much of the time. It's a burden. She's feeling the pressure."

"This is something else," Ginny repeated. There was a familiar edge about the look in Hermione's eye - something sinister - as she looked out from the photos.

"I'll ask her then," said Harry, determined to end the discussion. "At the first chance, I'll ask her flat out - but not until we've... not until we've done what we've got to do in a few days - she mustn't be distracted. What we're doing is more important."

"You look older too," said Ginny sadly, as she continued to examine the pictures. "I can keep these?"

"Sure - yeah - better hide them away though. But you can always say they were taken last summer."

"Not with you looking like Methuselah!" grinned Ginny. She broke the tension deliberately and they cleared up the debris from the meal. Ginny vanished it as they gathered so eventually, only her shopping was left in the basket.

"You're quite good with housework aren't you," smiled Harry. He was simply trying to keep the conversation light and away from discussing Hermione.

"We girls learn from our mothers," Ginny replied. She suddenly snickered.

"What?"

"'Girly thing!' - You prat! I'll show you a girly thing!" She hurled herself at Harry knocking him down again and smothered him with kisses.

"Ow! My head! Ginny!" Harry wasn't sure whether to rub his sore head with his hands or not risk losing their place where they comfortably held Ginny's hips.

"Oh, something else I've learned, apart from Apparating," said Ginny, suddenly sitting upright. She used a healing charm on the back of his head then ruffled his hair once more. "How's that?"

"Rather nice, actually." He almost received a playful punch for that remark but he was getting to his feet and going for his bag again. "I nearly forgot my main present."

He took out a lumpy shape, awkwardly-wrapped in lilac Christmas gift-wrapping paper. There was about a half-roll of Spellotape holding it all together. "Sorry," he said as he handed it over, "I'm not that great with..."

"Can I open it now?" said Ginny, unconcerned about the wrapper.

"Yes, I'd like you to," said Harry. "It's something I made. I was quite pleased with it. Something I made just for you - just for you this one Christmas."

Ginny's eyes sparkled at Harry's words and she began picking at the tape, finally resorting to her wand.

"It's... I'm not really that good at craftwork you have to realise," pleaded Harry, "so it's only a charm Hermione showed me but... It's my idea anyway."

Ginny gasped.

The wrapping fell to the floor and she held the contents up high, the better to see in the light from the overhead windows. A delicate tracery of holly leaves wreathed a heart shape, all finely-carved from rich-red chestnut, almost the size of her fist.

"It's a paperweight really," Harry explained almost apologetically bringing his heavenly vision down to the mundane tool that it was. He wasn't sure if she saw its pleasing lines the way he did.

"It's a masterpiece!" said Ginny, breathlessly. "How did you...?"

"It was the magic that did it," said Harry, recovering his enthusiasm. "I tried all evening then... I was just working on this - trying to concentrate on my idea when..."

"When what?"

"You kissed me." Harry looked for Ginny's reaction. "That's my idea but inspired by your kiss."

"Wow! Didn't know I could kiss this good!" She rotated the wood-sculpture thoughtfully then said, "I'm not taking this to Hogwarts. This will stay in my bedroom."

She enclosed it in the shredded wrappings, placed it in her basket then surrendered to her lover's arms once more.

For another careless hour, they listened to each other about anything and nothing, luxuriating in joyful companionship and shared thoughts. But time can be cruel and when Ginny glanced at her watch, Harry did the same and they knew it was almost over.

Harry said ruefully, "Shall we take a slow walk back? I can Apparate from--"

"They're watching the Burrow, Harry - they watch everyone like us."

"Oh yeah - I read about that." A sudden thought struck him. "You're not at risk are you? Coming here I mean?" He knelt down and carefully repositioned the doormat where he thought it had first been.

"Me? No - they can grab me anytime at school or..." She stopped, lost in thought.

"What is it, Ginny?"

"Oh nothing. Thought I'd remembered something I'd forgot."

"Well, I can walk three-quarters of the way back with you, anyway."

Harry lifted his bag and looked around to ensure the room was as they had found it. He glanced at his watch again and Ginny stared at him deeply, trying to memorise how he looked - knowing every time he left her might be the last. She came to a decision then committed it audibly to herself, "I have to give it you now, don't I?"

"What?"

"My gift - we might not see each other... until after Christmas."

"Thought you'd forgotten to bring it."

"You know I didn't. I was just being silly. It is silly. I hope you don't think it's--"

"Ginny, did you think it was silly when you bought it?"

"No - but it's not... I didn't buy it." She sat down again, rummaged in her bag, then dropped a tiny packet into her lap. She patted the ground by her side for Harry to sit down again.

"Harry, I want to tell you something," she said earnestly.

Harry didn't need to speak. He looked at Ginny attentively.

"Give me your hand," she said.

He reached out but she said, "No, your left."

She held it between her own two hands then continued, steadfastly looking Harry in the eye, "The very year I was born, one of my uncles died. Mum inherited something but she had no use for it herself - just kept it as a memento. When I was tiny, I used to play with it sometimes. I found out its secret. I was the only one. I was the only one who knew because it needed the special magic that only very young children express naturally. Adults tried to open it using the usual adult spells but it needed pronouncing like a two-year-old."

She hesitated but could see that Harry was not laughing at her.

"It had a secret compartment. I kept all my money in it for a time. It was really just one button but I thought it was a coin. I have something else instead I want to keep in it now just for you."

Her eyes flicked to the little packet in her lap but she still gently held his hand between hers.

"Where is it now? The heirloom I mean?" said Harry.

"It's right here, Harry." Her hands slid down to his wrist. "I know it so well, I can open it with my eyes closed." It was Fabian Prewett's watch, the one that Mrs Weasley had given Harry for his seventeenth birthday.

Ginny deftly unclasped it and slid it off his wrist. Still with her eyes fixed on Harry's face she felt her way around the surfaces of the watch then whispered, "It has to be wandless. Put your hands on mine and feel the way my fingers move - no, don't look down - look at me."

They looked closely into each others eyes while she rehearsed the delicate finger motions and Harry felt the sequence. Finally she breathed, "Perio. ... Will you remember that?"

"Perio - yes," said Harry. His mouth was dry.

She held out the watch in the palm of her hand. Its back had swung open like an oyster shell and within the back yet another door had opened. Inside the slender compartment was a tiny metal button, the size and colour of a Sickle.

"I didn't realise that was still there," said Ginny, blinking at the little object. "You can throw that out."

"I'd rather keep it if you don't mind," said Harry, hoarsely. "I never knew I was carrying tha..." He choked a little and gave a little cough to clear his throat.

Ginny opened the little packet she had brought and removed a lock of her own red hair. "This is what I want you to keep. It's a real part of me I want you to keep forever."

She placed the curl of hair around the button within the watch compartment and they gently closed it together.

"Splinched," said Ginny.

"Sorry?"

"It came from my very first Apparition."

Before Harry kissed her, he smiled and said, "Ginny - you sure went to to a lot of trouble to trim your hair for me - I'll get you scissors next year."

Near the end of the lane, they exchanged one last embrace. Harry promised he would come again whenever he could over the holidays. He took one last hard look at her face, memorising every feature, then he Disapparated and she was alone.

—oOo—






Chapter 22: Hannah's Tale
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Chapter 22


Hannah's Tale




Ginny stood in the lane, silently looking back at the place where Harry had Disapparated only moments before. A cold wind flapped her travel cloak and she shuddered, hugging it closer around her. Ice and snow had not yet reached this part of the country but it could not be long before it swept down from the north. She sighed, then turned for home. As she approached the Burrow, a familiar figure waved frantically at her.

"Where've you been young lady! Worried sick! Sent Charlie all over Ottery!"

"What made you think I'd be in Ottery, Mum?" grinned Ginny, leaning over to pretend her basket full of gifts was heavier than it really was.

"Well, I..."

"Wassup, anyway?" said Ginny as they walked home.

"Mr Abbott's here. And Hannah - couldn't leave her on her own."

"She's still... the same?"

"No better. It's serious, Ginny. What were you lot up to?" Mrs Weasley stopped and grabbed Ginny's arm. "Did any of you use magic on her?"

"'Course not, Mum!" cried Ginny. "She must have hit her head - it was the train--"

"Neville said yesterday she was sitting down - she was the only one of you three still in her seat. You two fell on the floor and Neville got a bruise to show for it - how could she bang her head without moving?"

"Dunno - didn't think about it," muttered Ginny resuming their walk and drawing her mother after her.

"Well, start thinking about it, Miss!" Mrs Weasley scowled as she caught up with her daughter. "You don't understand, Ginny. Things are different now. Some folk go to St. Mungo's and are not seen again. Hannah's mother was killed and I think she was Muggle-born! Mr Abbott daren't trust anything controlled by the Ministry. He's beside himself with worrying what to do! Poppy Pomfrey's not at the school this Christmas. Your dad was wondering whether to send her a Patronus but he's doubtful she can help anyway. Never seen anything like it. Poor Hannah might be cursed for all we know!"

Now it was Ginny's turn to stop and snatch at the sleeve of her companion. "Neville!"

"Neville's been owling and Flooing and goodness knows what. He--"

"No - Neville and Luna have to go and see a specialist. They--" Ginny looked confused suddenly.

"Now what?" said Mrs Weasley. "You know, Ginny, you still look a bit peeky yourself. Perhaps--"

"Wasn't Luna going to stay with us this Christmas?" Ginny had put down her basket and was rubbing her head. Mrs Weasley started to look more worried.

"Luna?" Said Mrs Weasley, with a frown.

"No - wait. I think I'm getting muddled up with another year," Ginny said, doubtfully.

"Luna's not stopped with us over Christmas since I don't know when." Mrs Weasley looked anxiously at her daughter for a few seconds then she reached down and picked up the basket. "I'll carry this - you take my arm."

"But--"

"No 'buts,'" said Mrs Weasley firmly.

Mr Weasley started speaking animatedly as his wife led Ginny through the Burrow's back door. "Molly - John's heard from Mrs Finnigan there were Death Eaters on the train. We were wondering if--" He spotted his daughter over Molly's shoulder. "Ginny! You didn't say anything about--"

"No, there were no Death Eaters - not that we saw anyway. Hannah was with us all the time." Ginny watched her mother heft the basket onto the top of the little kitchen cabinet in the corner. At the main table sat Mr Abbott, hunched over an untouched cup of tea. He roused himself at the dull sound of the basket's landing.

"We need someone," he said emphatically, pushing away his teacup and saucer and turning in his seat to address them all. He got up. "I don't have a choice but to go to St. Mungo's." He paced up and down for a while, thinking deeply. "Perhaps if I stay with her - refuse to go until they look at her - bring her away with me... I... I don't want to leave her there. At least, if an expert sees her we might learn something."

Mrs Weasley turned to Ginny who was laying her travel cloak over the basket to mark it as her own. "Ginny, what were you saying about a specialist?"

"Oh, erm... Neville had... erm... Madam Pomfrey, she wanted to check if he'd been cursed so she gave him an address of someone who used to work at the hospital. Neville'll tell you."

Arthur Weasley made a dive for the fireplace and cast some floo powder into the flames. He waited a second for them to turn green then thrust in his head.

"You sure about this, Ginny?" said Mrs Weasley.

"Yes, of course."

Mrs Weasley took away the cold cup of tea from the table and put it with the dishes to be washed up. She pointed her wand at the kettle on the hob and started to prepare a fresh teapot. Ginny eyed the basket on the cabinet, wondering when she might discretely retrieve its contents.

Arthur pulled his head out of the fire and brushed soot from his shoulders as he stood up. "He's coming over. They're having a row about it but he's coming over."

"Neville?" said Ginny.

"Yes."

There was a flare up at the hearth a few minutes later and Neville stepped into the kitchen. His gaze flitted over each inquisitive expression but he had his own question. "Where's Hannah?"

"Resting on the couch," said Mr Weasley, bending his head and shoulders over towards the open doorway to the parlour. "Charlie's in there with her!" he added as Neville went to the threshold. Neville looked through for a few seconds then came back.

"I'm going with her," he said. "I'm... n- not supposed to tell anyone the address, b- but I can take you." He looked to Mr Abbott for agreement and accepted his enthusiastic nod.

"Can you still remember it, Nev?" said Ginny.

"Yeah, course I can. I memorised it." He pulled out his Remembrall to emphasise his point and his face fell. The device was bright red. It was almost smoking.

"Neville!" cried Ginny.

"That's not it. No worries. Probably didn't change my socks this month - I'm joking! I remember the address alright." He looked around at the worried faces then said defensively, "I recall things if I really memorise them - I'd never forget how to repot a Mimbulus Mimbletonia would I? How do you think I passed my exams if I couldn't remember anything!"

"Neville, I want you take Ginny as well," said Mrs Weasley, quietly. Mr Weasley spun around to look at Ginny then at his wife. She explained in a loud side-whisper to him that everyone could hear in the silence anyway, "She's not herself."

They all went, leaving Charlie to watch over the house. The group Apparated together to a steeply-sloping back street because Neville still did not want to directly tell them the floo address. The old road was still cobbled, with grubby, terraced houses of red brick stretching all the way down its length. A corner mini-mart indicated it was a Muggle area. Neville looked up and down for a moment then set off purposefully in the direction of the lower end. The sky was overcast and there were spots of rain trying to be sleet but melting as they hit the pavement slabs. A train hooted with impatience from a distant embankment.

Neville stopped outside a narrow, covered entryway between two houses, glanced at the others, then led the way in. Mr Abbott was close behind him, his arm around his daughter who still had not spoken a word. There was wet washing dripping from a clothes line along the dark passage and a door halfway down on the right with a very high concrete step. Neville stood on it, balancing precariously to push the doorbell, then stumbled back. They could still hear a buzzer sounding deep inside the building then it died away to be replaced by the sound of approaching footsteps. The door opened a crack.

"What?"

"Neville Longbottom."

"Who?"

"Madam Pomfrey sent me. She said--"

The door swung open and they all followed Neville over the elevated threshold. It opened directly into a cold parlour kept dark by a tiny window where grime fought soot in each meagre pane. The dead screen of a portable television stared out blankly upon a threadbare sofa. From this slumped seating, the only one in the room, crept a dank smell to add itself apologetically to the general run-down atmosphere. The man who had invited them in had the appearance of an old Muggle as ungroomed and neglected as the room he now commanded, hand on hips. He was broad with far-receding hair and wore a crumpled white shirt hanging out over dark, shabby trousers. The stubble on his chin matched in colour the grey of the sparse hair on his head. One hand departed one hip and pulled upon a hanging cord that threatened to tickle his ear. This action nicely illuminated a dim bulb overhead, and perhaps his bald pate, but did little for the room. He peered at them all briefly before he spoke.

"Well, what do you want?"

Mr Abbott brought Hannah forward and the man looked thoughtfully at her expression before he pulled out a wand.

Mr Weasley's wand was already out but Mr Abbott drew his too and spoke first. "Are you the healer?" He sounded doubtful.

"You didn't expect me to look like one did you?" the man said. He cast his wand over Hannah and intoned various spells with the authority of someone who had done this often throughout his life.

"Nothing," he said finally.

"There must be!" Mr Abbott had raised his voice then quickly lowered it. "You must do it more thoroughly than--"

"You telling me how to do my job?" said the old man. "There is nothing magical affecting this girl is what I mean. I suspect either brain damage or else she is in shock."

"Brain damage!" This time, Mr Abbott made no attempt to lower his voice.

"Patience, patience." The man indicated the old settee. "Over here."

Mr Abbott reluctantly guided Hannah to sit down on the odorous seat. The man rudely pushed him out of the way, lit his wand, and examined Hannah's head from all sides. "No contusions. ... Very well - bring her upstairs." The man walked off so abruptly they had to hasten to follow him up the long, narrow flight of steps that drummed back the sound of his footsteps.

The upper level was extensive, bare, and quite dark, as bland and drab as an abandoned warehouse floor. With a blazing sweep of his wand all was transformed. The space filled itself with tasteful furniture and decorations, well-lit by lights unseen. Instead of walled rooms, half-height screens jostled rather loosely into position to separate one area from another. The section into which they now entered had something of the air of a large office, being adorned with bookshelves, but a leather examination couch suggested it was the healer's clinic. A narrow pedestal, empty but for a yellowed covering, dominated the middle of the area and a small scribe's desk stood against a side partition. The old man was already searching an impressive row of cabinet drawers beyond it.

"Was anyone with her when she fell ill?"

Neville stepped forward. "S- She didn't... I was with her... and..." He looked round and Ginny stepped forward too.

"Well?" The old man didn't look up from his cabinet search. The tiny drawers were heavy with stacked cards like a library index.

"Well, what?" said Neville, starting to feel rather impatient with the man's brusque attitude.

"Well, what happened?"

"Nothing. We were on a train. It went into a tunnel and lurched about too fast. We fell over and Hannah started screaming. No, wait, maybe it wasn't a tunnel." Neville scratched his head thoughtfully.

"She fell over?" The man squinted up at him. He did not appear to see too well yet he was not wearing spectacles.

"No, just me and Ginny. Hannah was sitting down."

"She was sitting down. You two fell over. She started screaming?"

"Y... yes." The man's simplified description made the event sound rather foolish.

He came over and started looking at Neville and Ginny. He didn't use his wand. At last he humphed a little and turned to Mr Abbott. "Are you the father?"

"Yes, I am. What--"

"I'll need her memories. It'll take a while. You can all go and have some refreshments through there."

"I'm not leaving Hannah!" said Mr Abbott.

"Nor I!" said Neville.

"As you wish." He flicked his wand firmly towards the pedestal and an obedient bowl, wide but shallow, floated down from a high shelf and made itself comfortable upon the creamy cloth.

Leaving Neville with the Abbotts, Arthur Weasley firmly guided his family away between the screens that separated one area from the next. He headed towards a busy sound that suggested a homely activity and found themselves a sizable dining area measured by a formidable buffet table. The varied dishes it displayed did not convey expectancy so much as preparedness, as if always ready for visitors at any hour.

A smart house-elf was employed so vigorously with a cloth he could scarcely hang on to it, polishing and re-polishing a silver fruit bowl. At the Weasleys' approach he placed it swiftly but lovingly upon a low end table whose shining waxed surface appeared to have already received the happy servant's attention. He leapt up with that unnerving enthusiasm that only such creatures can express at the possibility of more endeavour.

"May Scrupish assist the good ladies and gentleman? Partake of food and drink most welcomely. They may call on Scrupish if the fine visitors need anything." He indicated the laden buffet and the many seats that stood before a crackling fireplace, then he took his duster and the pampered fruit bowl to the farthest corner he could find and resumed his labour with a will.

The sombre group ate in silence but for the flapping and squeaking of the elf's rag. Presently, Neville leaned into view around the divider. "He wants you and me, Ginny."

Ginny got up from her half-eaten sandwich and took one last swig of tea to finalise the skimped meal.

"Not without me he doesn't," said Mrs Weasley following Ginny out with Neville. Mr Weasley, who was overdue back at the Ministry but had had no opportunity to each lunch, remained behind with the meat and drink.

In the healing space, Mr Abbott and Hannah were sitting side by side on the couch; she appeared little different. Perhaps her original expression was lessened now to mere anxiety but she persisted with the same vacant inward stare, continued to clench her hands together in supplication; still was withdrawn as if not daring to look outside the safety of herself.

"You know what this is?" asked the old man, pointing to the dish that stood upon the pedestal.

"No," said Neville.

"A Pensieve," said Ginny quickly. "Heard about them - not used one though but I know how."

"I fear you two have been Obliviated. It would take--"

"What!" exclaimed Mrs Weasley. "By whom?"

"As I was about to say, it would take a long time to explain - and even longer and more painful to use the normal methods of restoring lost memories - it's rarely possible anyway. But where we are lucky enough to have someone else's original memories of the same event,"--Here he indicated Hannah--"I have developed a technique that is safe and mostly effective."

"How?" demanded Mrs Weasley.

"They must view the events again while I cast restorative charms upon them." He held out his arm to invite them to the Pensieve. "When one visibly relives an earlier situation it reinforces the weakest remnants of memories one might have retained. The experience effectively encourages new memories to form, synchronised with the remains of the originals."

Hesitantly, Neville and Ginny approached the dish. The man indicated to Mr Abbott to bring Hannah forward.

"You're not...!" cried Neville. "Hannah's not doing this as well is she?"

"You her boyfriend?"

Neville straightened himself up. "Yeah, I am - I'm Hannah's boyfriend."

Hannah gave a tiny whimper and her eyes began to weakly focus upon him.

"Then you'd better help her hadn't you? Take her arm. And stay with her... in there!" He pointed at the waiting bowl.

"Do you know what happened?" persisted Mrs Weasley, ever-suspicious of the old man. "Have you already looked?"

"Yes. Do you want to stand here chatting or do you want to get home before Christmas and let these three tell you once they are healed?"

Ginny looked at her mother. Mrs Weasley nodded. Her anxious desire to make some progress outweighed her inclination to argue.

Neville put his arm around Hannah's shoulders and led her to Ginny at the Pensieve. They stood closely together around three of the sides. He watched nervously to see how Ginny acted.

"Just do what I do," said Ginny, not at all confident herself of what to expect, though Harry had once tried to describe it to her. She stood over the dish, looking anxiously at the misty turbulence for a long while then, when she heard the old man cough impatiently behind her, she drew her wand. She only touched the silvery surface once with the tip of her wand and immediately it began to swirl and slither faster and faster. It was curiously hypnotic.

She leaned closer and was vaguely aware that Neville was doing likewise, bending Hannah over with him. Hannah's scream came without warning but Ginny knew why. The strange fluid had become transparent, just as Harry had said it did, and she was looking down into what seemed to be a tiny room. So unusual was the viewpoint that it took a few moments for her to recognise it as the train compartment they had travelled in from Hogwarts the previous day.

Her attention was divided between the sound of Hannah wailing and struggling, with Neville trying to calm her, and the scene below. She could see herself in the corner nearest the door tearing open a pack of Chocolate Cauldrons and accidentally dropping one on the seat. She remembered doing that but it was eerie watching herself do it again all the same. To her right - the Ginny in the bowl's right - in the window corner, she could see the top of Neville's party hat snuggling into Hannah's long, fair hair. But there was someone else there looking out of the misty window in the opposite corner seat; a girl with short dark hair. Was she the one who had Obliviated them?

Ginny gazed down, entranced yet frightened - then she felt her mother's comforting hand on her shoulder. She forced herself to look sideways at Neville who was now hugging Hannah closely over the bowl and he nodded back at her. She took a deep breath and plunged her face down into the misty soup of imagery.

Despite bracing herself she was abruptly pulled helplessly down accompanied by Hannah's renewed shrieking alongside her as she fell. Sucked into stomach-churning darkness by an inexorable, irresistible force, she cringed, awaiting the impact...

There was no collision. She found herself seated beside the alien, dark-haired girl with the old Ginny coming towards her, grinning like an idiot. Hannah was wedged against her with Neville - yet they were also on the opposite seat. Ginny's head whirled. It was if the walls were closing in. Perhaps Harry might have taken it in his stride but he hadn't been faced with himself - not two copies of everyone. She shrank away from this claustrophobic atmosphere, reacting instinctively to get out of the way of her approaching clone by getting up from her seat. Her reflex was too slow: the other Ginny was passing through her to sit where she had sat as the real Ginny rose up. She twisted away, lurching backwards and placed herself unexpectedly beyond the outer door, suspended outside, defying the track that was racing below. For a moment she panicked yet she did not fall as expected. Through the window was Neville, shock-faced, staring at her, then bravely following with the quivering Hannah in his arms.

The carriage wheels rattled noisily at their feet but the sound was subdued, as though heard from within. To their right, the countryside was a patchy, snowy blur, reddened by a hazy setting sun they could not see; on the left, in the direction they were speeding, was only a black void.

"This is Hannah's memory!" Ginny had shouted but she had not needed to raise her voice - there was no recollection of the howling, freezing wind here. "She's not yet seen what's ahead and only glimpsed parts of what's gone by."

Neville, bizarrely suspended beside her, nodded doubtfully, his attention on the girl floating in his arms.

They pressed up to the frosty compartment window. Ginny tried to wipe it with her sleeve but the condensation was inside. At that moment, a whirling hand revived the clarity of a large circle within, and a pale face stared directly out at her - or rather, through her.

Ginny felt as if an entire wall of unconnected memory bricks had suddenly hit her and she gasped breathlessly. She knew it was Luna's face but a thousand shredded recollections were fighting for reorganisation in her head.

"Luna?" said Neville at her side. Neville was hammering silently on the window with the flat of his hand. "Luna!"

"She can't hear you," Ginny managed to say.

"Why's she there? Why's she look like that? What happened to her hair?"

Ginny turned to him and shook her head. Hannah had both arms and legs half-wrapped around him weightlessly from the side, clinging to the one island of sanity in an ocean pouring towards madness. She had stopped screaming but was mewling pitifully from her throat.

Yet through the window, the misty figure of the Neville on the train was releasing his Hannah and turning as if he had heard something. Ginny pressed her face forward right through the glass to see clearly. Somehow, viewing the scene from outside made it more bearable than being immersed in it, part of it. The other Ginny in the compartment was back in her own corner, reaching up to the bag again but twisted around, with an expression as if startled and looking for the cause.

"Hannah, I think you have to watch too," said Neville. Their staring faces pressed through the glass beside Ginny's in time to see the door to the corridor being slid open by someone just out of sight.

The figure that appeared at the door was Edmund Trevett, one hand on the door handle, the other clinging whitely to the strap of his Trunkate hung snugly over his shoulder. His expression was darkly-dreadful, torn and full of apprehension. He looked directly at Luna, mouth gaping, no sound uttering.

"Do what you must, Edmund," said Luna, softly.

"Not in this one," he said loudly but hoarsely to someone over his shoulder, "She has blonde hair."

He started to slide the door shut but a big muscular arm reached out and stopped it. "Why say it then?"

A broad, fair-haired man pushed past him into the doorway, wand in hand. He took one quick look around then cast a spell directly at Luna. "Finite!"

As the long, straggly locks of Luna's natural hair cascaded over her shoulders he backed out of the doorway, turned and called softly but excitedly along the corridor, "It's her, Dolohov! Keep it quiet" The faint incantation of an Imperturbable Charm being cast filtered back through the doorway.

Neville lunged dozily forward, his purple cone party hat slid forward over one eye and his wand shot eagerly from its holster onto the floor. He scrabbled down for it but the big man sniggered and pointed his own through the doorway. Before he could use it, Edmund had heaved himself at the man's waist, doubling him over in the corridor outside, winded. In the process, Edmund tripped himself down to one knee, half on top of his victim and helping to hold him for a few seconds. The threshold was cleared and Edmund yelled with the full strength of his voice, "Run, Luna!"

"Rowle! Keep down!" came in from the corridor. A curse from that direction hit Edmund and both his legs now gave way; his wand was sent skidding and sliding along the passage. He squirmed on the floor trying to rise but his limbs were not functioning.

Ginny had her own wand out but woozily fumbled it backwards and had no clear target. Luna was on her feet but did not draw her wand. Frozen in silent terror was Hannah, still in her corner, hands framing her cheeks.

Relieved of Edmund's weight, the big man, Rowle, was quickly on his own feet. He strode in to grab Luna by the arm, then lugged her back towards the door. Neville was still on the floor, trying to retrieve his wand from where it had rolled into the low gap under the seats and looking desperately upwards to see that Hannah was still safe.

Luna stumbled under the force of the big man's impatient tugs. There was a piercing howl and a fusion of spitting, shrieking white fur launched itself from the luggage racked above Hannah's head straight at the astonished face of Luna's assailant. He screamed in pain yet did not release the terrible grip he had on his captive. Thrusting his wand at the creature on his face, he bawled, "Relashio!"

"Dippity!" cried Luna. The cat was flung hard across the compartment against the wall where it slid down, motionless onto the seat where Luna had previously sat.

Blood streamed from the claw marks on Rowle's face but he pulled Luna closer to him and dragged her into the doorway, blocked by Edmund on the floor. Inflamed to fury by the treatment given to the little cat, Luna seemed, at last, to come alive. She bit down hard on Rowle's hand and struggled to free herself. He howled again and threw Luna down where he booted out angrily but blindly. "You vicious beast! You'll pay for that! I'll make you regret it!"

Edmund, still legless on the floor, reached out futilely to try to protect her, taking a second kick on his arm. Ginny raised her wand, unsure where to aim, for Rowle was now crouching over Luna. Neville, from one knee, cast a protective shield over the terrified Hannah and tried to twist around to help Luna - but he was too late.

There was a shout from the corridor of "Treacherous vermin! Now the vixen'll get it too! We warned you!"

Rowle flung himself aside as multiple curses came in from the corridor to which he added his own. Edmund howled desperately, "NO!" and strived to shield Luna with his body as best he could. Shocks of light floodlit the compartment many colours in turn, bloody red glows, blinding whites, deathly greens, dazzling everyone's eyes in the confined space. The Trunkate's enchantment failed with Edmund's death, exploding soiled clothing like a beggar's shroud upon Luna. Her lifeless white hand, still wandless, was all that was to be seen of the young girl's body. Hannah began to scream repeatedly, unable to look away from Edmund's eyes which were directed unseeingly back at her.

Ginny avenged Luna with a viciously-incanted stunning spell and the unfortunate Rowle, still bleeding from face and hand, slumped across the two bodies in the doorway. But now, unobstructed by the big man, Dolohov, the killer from the corridor, crouched forward over the heap and called "Incarcerous!" at her before she could follow through.

Ginny slumped back onto her seat, ropes coiling around her, binding, gagging, choking her; eyes wide, expecting death. She felt herself sliding down helplessly to sit on the floor against the seat and her wand slid from her enfeebled grasp. She vent her malice upon Dolohov with a glare. He snarled in return, stumbled forward into the compartment, and cast a dark hex which, though badly aimed, hit her leg. He stood sneering at her muffled cry of pain and took aim again more carefully.

"Expelliarmus!" from Neville spun Dolohov's wand into the air. The man turned surprisingly quickly, charged forward, pushed the courageous Gryffindor down, and stomped his foot heavily onto Neville's wand arm. Once again, the wand tumbled to the floor.

The Death Eater took up the trapped youth's wand and Neville could see in those cruel eyes that he hungered to snap it - to avenge his loss and end its threat forever. Instead, he pointed the wand steadily at its pinioned master, crouched low, backed off, hand groping behind him for his own weapon. Released from Dolohov's boot, Neville rubbed his arm, returning the Death Eater's stare with equal malice. Hannah stirred and Dolohov's eyes flicked upwards to the now-silent girl as if noticing her for the first time. Neville lunged instinctively to protect his chosen mate but the Death Eater was faster.

"Incarcerous!" cried Dolohov.

The borrowed wand was not so effective in Dolohov's hand but its spell sufficed to impede Neville while his assailant found his own. Once he felt secure, Dolohov looked around, surveying the damage. He saw the three bodies half-enwrapped in the messy pile of clothes and cursed angrily under his breath, throwing Neville's wand down with frustration. He dragged Rowle clear and, pointing his own wand at him, murmured, "Rennervate."

There were many seconds before Rowle's eyes blinked open, then Dolohov snapped at him, "What the hell do we do now?" He went to the doorway and leaned out. Apparently satisfied that his quietening charms had obscured their activities from the others on the train he came back and cuffed the back of the head of Rowle, who was now sitting, thinking through what had happened. "Come on! Get up, will you!"

Rowle growled from the floor, "These were to be neat retrievals not messy assassinations! How d'we explain this?"

He struggled to his feet and examined the deep wounds around his wrist. "That wretch damned near bit my hand off! And her blasted cat ripped me up!" He winced as his fingers explored his face and kicked out angrily again at the body under the clothing. He missed and stumbled over again, a shirt sleeve trapped around his leg. He swore under his breath.

Without warning, Dolohov looked directly at the windows where the three staring faces of the real Ginny, Neville, and Hannah pressed through, numbly watching what was taking place. For a moment, they thought they could be seen. He strode towards them and they instinctively pulled back, floating a few feet away from the still-speeding train. They couldn't perceive clearly through the misted-up window but they could hear what was said within as loudly as Hannah's memory.

"We have to dispose of the bodies. We'll go out this way - make the driver stop - tell him do it nice and easy!"

The big Rowle got groggily to his feet for a second time, looked viciously at Dolohov's back for a few seconds, then stepped out through the corridor doorway.

Dolohov looked around, thoughts and fears racing faster while the train became slower. They had already angered the Dark Lord once this year and paid a terrible price. He shuddered. Before the train had fully stopped he slid down the window, reached out for the safety handle then eased the door open carefully so it wouldn't strike noisily against the side of the train.

The slipstream flapped and whipped the discarded laundry but the train was screeching to a halt and the two men dragged Luna's and Edmund's bodies to the door and dropped them unceremoniously down to the trackside like a couple of flour sacks.

The shaken observers, Ginny, Neville, and Hannah, heard Stunning and Obliviate spells being cast upon their earlier selves and watched impotently as the two bodies were dragged beyond Hannah's memory into the black unseen. Shock stayed them as the train carried its remaining passengers unknowingly away to complete their journey. Long before it was out of sight, an icy, spinning blackness descended upon the three of them and a giddy sense of nausea yielded to the blinding light of the healer's office.

"Ginny, Ginny - you alright, love?" Her mother's arms were around her. Ginny could see Hannah sobbing quietly; her father stroking her hair and whispering things to comfort her. Neville was still with Ginny leaning on the pedestal for support, eyes fixed intently upon her. "Ginny... your... your..." He did not know what the object of his thought was named and substituted vague pointing gestures that conveyed even less comprehension.

"No... no... no..." murmured Ginny, divining full well what he intended but not wishing to even think it. He nodded in an attempt to reassure her; it was all he could manage. Her hand crept into her pocket almost against her will and retrieved the little silver talisman gifted to her by Luna. It was the shape of a teardrop. Her trembling fingers moved across the metal but the enchanted holder was reluctant to reveal what it knew. Only as she persisted did it finally yield its secret: the flame of friendship had died.

Neville wept; was utterly lost to it.

Reality was cold and empty and now that Ginny saw that Luna truly was dead, she fell to her knees, distraught beyond words. Bitterly was the glistening teardrop flung down to crookedly roll away across the floor.

—oOo—






Chapter 23: Angels and Demons
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Chapter 23


Angels and Demons



Bound by grief, Neville persisted in staring blankly down into Hannah's memory, endlessly muttering to himself, "Can't be... Can't be... It's a mistake." His white-knuckled grip on the Pensieve trembled as if he would shake some sense into it. The hand of Mr Weasley lay upon his shoulder but Neville was inconsolable. He could not accept what he had seen. Why have they taken her? Hopelessly he strove to pierce the veil, to see inside the oblivion into which his friend had been dragged the night before. Imagination struggled to create some explanation, any interpretation of the experience that might relieve his pain and his heart cried out, What happened to you, Luna? Please don't be gone from us!

...

Across dark waters an astonished moorhen skewed away from the dull clap of two wizards Apparating upon its lonely riverbank. Quietly were their burdens set down whilst they took heed of the sounds of night. A pale beam of radiance from a half-moon fingered accusingly through the remaining gap between the gathering clouds, faintly illuminating their presence, but there was no further alert to add to the waterbird's ill-tempered calls. Satisfied they were alone, the larger man crouched and cast a glimmer, a thief's glow, with his wand.

"Back broke? Skull cracked? limbs...?" Rowle was examining one of the corpses, twisted, breached, and bent upon the loose shale.

"It happens - I cursed him twice to make sure," replied the impatient Dolohov, hefting the body into the icy waters with one casual move of his wand.

Rowle turned to the other body. "Then what killed her?"

"Thought you did?"

"Only kicked at her... head, I think." The faint wand shine picked out Dolohov's sneer. Rowle add defensively, "Well the hellcat bit me bad! I'd give her worse if she wasn't..."

The two men startled together and looked at the limp figure lying prone on the ground. With the wildest of hopes, Rowle was first to turn over the body but it was Dolohov's wand that revealed the great heart was still beating within the little body.

"She lives, you blasted fool!" Dolohov's tone was a mixture of irritation and relief. "We can still get out of this! Trevett was always marked - but she's wanted!"

Dolohov thought furiously, looking again and again at his watch trying to recall exactly the instructions that Bellatrix Lestrange had passed to them, 'Give Lucius and my sister time to fetch Draco from King's Cross before delivering the girl to them but let it not delay your report to the Dark Lord.'

Rowle had been thinking along the same lines. "We're not even late!" he exulted. "Listen - we had trouble with Trevett, right? - we dealt with it. We can not only get out of this - we can look good; efficient even."

"I'll go and inform the Dark Lord of our success," said Dolohov, "Get her to the Malfoys while I report to our master!" He had vanished before his accomplice could object. Rowle muttered to himself and looked resentfully down at the limp form. He drew back his wand as if to slash out angrily but resigned himself to grasping an arm before he, too, Disapparated.

As Rowle entered the imposing passages of Malfoy Manor, he was still grumbling to himself that Dolohov would get all the glory. The unconscious figure of Luna Lovegood drifted along behind him, shoes lightly scraping the stone floor. Pettigrew led him to the threshold of the main hall from which could be heard raised voices. The discussion stopped abruptly.

"What is it, Wormtail?" The voice coming from within the chamber was Narcissa's.

"Rowle with Lovegood." Peter Pettigrew fidgeted nervously then made to enter.

"Not in here!" This voice was Lucius's. He came to the doorway and stood there, silhouetted by the flaming logs crackling and popping in the grand fireplace behind him. Rowle was unable to judge his mood. Beyond him he could see only Malfoy's wife and son seated together. There was a sense of having intruded upon a private altercation. Merlin knows they have plenty to worry about between them, Rowle thought to himself but he caught the rich scent of cedar smoke and envied their cosy place at the warm hearth.

"What happened to her?" said Lucius, then... "and to you?"

"Had to knock her out," gritted Rowle. "Vixen bit me and her ruddy cat near took my face off." He held up his wounded hand as if he needed to be believed.

"Dear, dear, dear - can't even collect a little schoolgirl without messing up." Lucius purred out of habit but his tone felt flat and bitter; he knew the cost of failure so well and had been broken himself upon its wheel.

"She's here now though ain't she?" protested Rowle angrily.

"Take her down to the basement. Wormtail, show him. Not through here - go around!" Lucius scowled at the visitor. "You're staying too I suppose?"

"Have to - just the one night."

As they changed direction, Luna began to stir and moan.

"Keep her quiet can't you!" Lucius threw after them before returning to his armchair.

They strode by the kitchens and passed through a room lined with low benches and displaying racks of riding apparel. The smell suggested that stables were not far beyond its outer door. Freedom! In an instinctive attempt to escape, Luna, scarcely awake, grabbed the loose end of a broad leather strap that secured walking sticks, switches and whips against a post, in an effort to pull away from the charm that drew her after her captor. The change of momentum swung her around and the strap parted, clattering crops and sticks noisily across the floor.

"Leave it," wheedled Pettigrew anxiously in a loud whisper. "Bring her here." He had advanced out of the room through an arch at the far side.

"Blasted harpy!" growled Rowle. "Leave off will you!" He stepped back and grabbed Luna's arm but seeing her jaw closing in for a further meal upon his injury, he withdrew the tender arm and reached for his wand. Luna struggled to her feet and lurched upon him, kicking and writhing and shrieking - though her voice was very weak. "Dippity! What did you do to Dippity?"

"Ruddy cat? Skinned it didn't I? Don't worry - didn't kill it." mocked Rowle, aiming his wand.

Luna's kick did not quite connect with its intended target but the Death Eater's howl echoed along the corridors as he rubbed his bruising thigh. Pettigrew stared back from beyond the far doorway, wringing his hands anxiously. Luna turned to run she knew not where. Pettigrew hurriedly floored her with a Jelly-Legs curse and came back to check on Rowle who was now bent over feeling his leg. He looked furious.

They dragged Luna down to the basement together but the fight was gone out of her. Rowle burned with anger but Pettigrew was preoccupied with his own problems. He wanted only to return to worry comfortably in the warmth of the parlour. After locking in the girl and hanging up the key, Pettigrew half-dragged Rowle muttering and cursing up the stairs. "Forget her - not your problem now."

The tall man looked back, still smarting from his wounds. Payment was due but his sense of injustice would have to simmer and stew for a while.

"And has... he... been advised?" asked Lucius upon their return.

"Dolohov is doing it," said Rowle sullenly. "No doubt claiming the success for himself." He thought for a few moments then his face lightened. "Will the Dark Lord want to... interrogate her?"

Draco shifted uncomfortably in his seat then converted the action into innocently poking the fire.

"Hardly likely," replied Lucius. "The girl is mere leverage."

Rowle's face darkened again into anger. "She ought to be--!"

"The Quibbler, you mean?" said Narcissa. "So that's why she's here!"

"That fool's rag will be Quibbling a different tune from now on," scoffed her husband.

—oOo—

He found his chance in the early hours. Unable to sleep and too arrogant to seek healing for his smarting wounds, he crept down in the night.

Rowle beat poor Luna. He beat her rod and cane until he had exhausted his demonic hatred and she had fainted from it. He beat poor Luna.

—oOo—

Luna Lovegood awoke within blackness - black and cold and hard. He had hurt her badly and she couldn't move because it hurt so much. Breathing was painful so she drew in tiny whispers of the icy air; in then out - then brace for the next raw pain in her ribs - then in and out.

Cursed, kicked, taken, beaten, friendless, boyfriendless, left to die, life could offer no more hope to her and she wanted none of it any longer. She was at the lowest ebb that anyone can ever be.

Luna had so wanted to see the sea again but they must have thrown her off a mountain onto hard rocks instead. She thought she must have fallen a very long way. Now all that was left was to wait for life to end... here in the dark.

She thought about the bright dancing lights on the train and how brave everyone was. She thought about Neville and Ginny. Had they survived? She thought about Hannah's prospects too. Then came her worst idea: she thought about Hannah dying and Neville living - living to come for her, to be with her - to take away this awful hurting. So she hated herself for thinking such a shameful thing. She hated herself and she sobbed. And each sob was terrible pain - little gasps of suffering choking out of her...

"Who's there?"

Luna pushed away her emotions and listened. Was someone else dying on the mountain with her? Could it be Neville? No - it had been a much older voice - and very weak.

"Is anyone there?" The voice persisted, but then tailed off into lengthy mutterings and ramblings.

She tried to answer but could scarcely start her sentence which came out as a whispered groan. "I'm--"

"Who are you?" again croaked the voice in the blackness.

She gathered up all her resolve but it still was but a hoarse moan, "Lu... na..."

There was silence for a while.

"Luna? Of the Lovegoods? Split oak and hazel? - Eleven inches? - Swan down woven by elfkins?"

Luna tried to say "not any more" but only grunts and groans escaped her lips. The stone upon which she lay was terribly cold. She fainted again.

...

Metal being rattled against metal woke her and light spilled across her eyelids. The pain was still strong but duller. Footsteps passed closed by, paused, something was clattered down onto the stone beside her - then the footsteps moved on.

"She can't eat - you can see that!" It was the weak, old man voice she had heard earlier.

"I do as I am told," This voice was resigned high-pitched and squeaky. There were more hard clashes onto the floor then the footsteps retreated.

"She must ... here for a reason, Wormtail! If ... needed - if ... Dark Lord needs - angry if ... let die!" The weak voice was straining without enough breath to fuel his exhortation.

The footsteps paused - then came towards Luna. She felt her arm grabbed and dreadful pains seared through her broken limbs as she was lugged upright and dragged away, screaming hysterically. She knew, when her back hit a wall and the man released his grip, that she could endure no more.

Almost drowned by the unending shrieks, the old man's voice was only audible because it was now closer. "You'll kill her, Wormtail! That ... your intention?" The trembling voice was coughing and choking but sounded determined to say what it had to say. "Help her - or ... consequences..."

Pettigrew hesitated.

The old voice trembled one last gasping effort, "Never know... when you might need ... friend ... on this side..."

Luna's body was slipping down the wall but she did not slide with it. She could still hear her cries as one unending howl, rising and falling - but, mercifully, she was no longer within the experience. Looking down from above, she noticed her eyes were still tight shut and her expression contorted dreadfully. She wished her hair had been a bit tidier - and her arm looked funny - black and swollen and twisted. But she was beyond all that now. She was drifting backwards, strangely yet almost pleasantly up to the ceiling, ever so slowly, listening to her own fading cries and the dull incantations of the stranger. The hand that swirled the wand seemed to shine and glitter upon the tightly-furrowed forehead of her former face. The top of the head that leaned over her body was pale and balding and she would have liked him to have had a nice woollen hat.

An hour passed and a new one began; still he chanted. His wand thrust in powerful driving strokes of final determination. Sweat gleamed upon his brow. He must be a very good man, an angel, she thought, to try so hard and so long. The body, she noticed, had stopped writhing now and lapsed into silence. Something very dark seeped from it like black dirt beaten from a sooty carpet - and, like that dust, it hung reluctantly in the air for a while before finally dissipating. Having taken everything, the curse of the Trysting Stone was, at last, spent.

The man was frantic now with his wandwork; the gleaming hand flashed and swirled then...

Something held her, pulling her back down - back into the pain. It was a yearning, a reaching out to her, a voice. It was so comfortable where she was that she didn't want to return, but the voice was full of such desperate longing that its plea could not be ignored...

What happened to you, Luna? Please don't be gone from us!

—oOo—

Torn apart by an overwhelming sense of loss, guilt and shame, Neville looked only once to the others for relief. Mrs Weasley was trying to console Ginny who had to be supported to the examination couch where Mr Weasley leapt to help her too. The healer had muttered something about them all making their own way out and headed away to his kitchen. Mr Abbott was looking at his daughter with an expression of... disappointment? Neville blinked away his tears but his body still ached with the emotional turmoil.

"Sorry, Dad," whimpered Hannah, "I was just so frightened I froze. I was useless."

Mr Abbott's lips started to firm up as if disapproval were trying to escape them. Neville knew the old healer would have given to the parents an unsympathetic account of what had happened in the Hogwarts Express memory.

"Don't even think about it!" said Neville, stepping towards Mr Abbott and taking his shoulder. "Don't you dare even think what you're thinking!"

John Abbott took a step back in alarm. Neville's anger was fuelled by sorrow and it was formidable. He had just wept away the remnants of his childhood and, though still seventeen, it was a man who stood there now, and a tall one. The stutter was gone.

"There's different sorts of courage, Mr Abbott. Hannah's proven herself over and over resisting the Carrows. You've no idea how bad it is now at Hogwarts and she risks the worst kind of punishments everyday. I won't have you thinking badly of her!"

Mr Abbott flushed. "But I just..."

"Neville!" Hannah looked at him with her own mix of emotions and her voice was choked and hoarse, "This is my Dad you're talking to."

"It needed to be said." Neville was watching Mr Abbott closely. It was encouraging for him to see that the man was nodding. He had just heard an account of how three out of four youngsters - and even a cat - had resisted the Death Eaters while his own daughter was paralysed by fear, and it had been hard for him to accept.

"I've stood years of criticism from my own gran," Neville added. "It's not right... It's not right." He thought for a moment then added, "I'd done nothing wicked - and neither has Hannah!"

Hannah was looking at Neville in a new light. She instinctively took one step closer to him - and away from her father. The movement did not go unnoticed. Mr Abbott sighed.

"We can't show them any weakness, Neville," he said. "Deidre - Hannah's mother - she didn't fight - she fled." There was regret and perhaps even reproach in his voice.

Hannah stared into his face. "You never told me that! You never... You weren't there!"

"They bragged about it."

"Death Eaters!" Hannah's voice was strengthening. "You listened to Death Eaters to tell you what my mum was like? And what if she did run? What of it? You blame her for that?"

Mr Abbott hung his head. "I still miss her, Han."

"So do I, Dad - but I also honour her."

Neville turned away from their reconciliation. A glint of something under the healer's desk had caught his eye.

"Ready to leave now?" The old man had reappeared, this time with his servant. "Scrupish will show you out."

Mr Weasley stirred himself; he had to return to work for a few more hours. The house-elf clapped his hands. "Yes Mr Pomfrey, sir. Happy to--"

"You're Poppy's husband!" said Mrs Weasley in surprise.

"She left me years ago," the old healer said resentfully. "Can't think why."

—oOo—

Today was wonderful! Same time/place tomorrow?

The morning's meeting with Harry seemed like a lifetime ago. As she read his message again and again, hoping to glean some solace from its possibilities, all Ginny could think was that the day had been the least wonderful of her short life - and the very last of her best friend who had been horribly deprived of any further. Yet Ginny, whose stricken heart belonged forever to Harry, made a herculean effort to respond believably.

I wish! Sorry, Harry. Can't get away. Try day after? XXX Your Ginny.

There - that was neutral enough not to arouse his suspicions she was almost sure. Never would Ginny have dreamt she might delay a meeting with Harry, but she was so constrained by distress after learning Luna's fate that she knew she could not yet be good company for him. She would solemnly respect Luna's request to not trouble Harry with her worries. That petition now seemed to have the solemnity of a deathbed promise.

Heartbroken, she slumped blackly within her melancholy thoughts until the familiar sound of her father arriving home from work roused her in the early evening. Bill and Fleur's voices could be heard too - though subdued by the dreadful news. How could she bear their sympathy?

All the afternoon's remainder she had been sitting in her room, refusing food and conversation, dwelling entirely upon her memories of the little blonde-haired girl who had been her amiable companion. That a young woman with such a sweet disposition should have been murdered so brutally affected her deeply. Nor did the pain subside when finally, she rose from her bed and went to distract herself, wrapping the gifts she had provided for her family.

Rarely did a face burn more ashamedly than Ginny's as she looked at the vulgar garments she had so carelessly bought George. Any of her loved ones might suffer Luna's fate; that was the bitter pill that gagged in her throat. Suppose this frivolous present was the last she ever gave her brother? He seemed suddenly more precious to her; all of her family did.

Thus far, she had been unable to truly mourn Luna, as Neville had done so immediately, but now the tears rolled and dripped silently down onto the gift paper as she wrapped her mother's slippers. She had neither bought nor made anything for her friend and had even thrown away Luna's irreplaceable gift. Harry's carving caught her eye beside the foolish battery charger in the basket. She stared at it but felt no warmth, no feelings at all but guilt.

Taking the heart-shaped paperweight, she went over to her desk in front of the window. She gazed out into the darkness, seeing nothing save her own reflection in the glass. Even that was obscured as she lifted the desk lid and placed Harry's gift within - to be contained until she could love it again. While lowering the lid, a glittering was captured by the tears in her eyes. It was the polished brass clasp of Edmund's diary she had retrieved from the train the day before. The book lay there staring back at her reproachfully. She took it out.

The only unlocking spell she knew failed to make any impression upon the stout hasp that held the logbook securely closed. She clutched the book tightly to herself, thinking what to do. Perhaps tomorrow she would owl Luna - she would know. - There is no Luna, a voice inside her head reminded her. Then the true awareness of loss invaded her thought like a presence and she felt the most intense sorrow. Pure sadness seemed to be touching her, substantial to her, present like a tombstone in her heart. The misery was so severe she became badly frightened of it and fled her room, fled down to the arms of her waiting mother.

When her heaving sobs subsided she gazed over her mother's shoulder at the diary where it had fallen on the parlour carpet as she reached out to her mum. Finally, Mr Weasley, sitting quietly and reliably in his chair, moved to make the inevitable cup of tea - saviour and solution to all woes - and her mother released her daughter to stand on her own - just as she had when Ginny first learned to stand on her own feet.

The teacups rattled nervously on the tray when the log book caught Arthur Weasley's attention and he kept his eye on the book as he placed the refreshments upon the table. He hovered it up most cautiously from the floor and placed it beside the tray.

"Ginny?" His tone was of disbelief.

"Oh... It's just Edmund's..." She couldn't bring herself to say the word 'diary.'

"You've not tried to open this have you?" Mr Weasley sighed, shaking his head. He suppressed the scalding that steamed up inside him. "Bill - take a look at this would you?"

Bill came over from the doorway, leaving Charlie and Fleur chatting together in the parlour beyond.

"It's a sealed log book, Bill," said Mr Weasley. "What'd you think?"

Bill took out his wand and started to trace the outline of the clasp on the book. "Mmm... no curse... Want me to open it? What's in it?"

"It's a--" began Mr Weasley.

Ginny cut in quickly but her voice sounded emotionally drained flat, "Edmund was helping the Death Eaters. It might tell us why they wanted to get rid of Luna."

Mr Weasley stared hard at Ginny for a few seconds. "Bill, this could be important. The diary of an affiliate to You-know-who? Maybe he was even a Death Eater himself."

Bill set to, using all his professional knowledge of dealing with dark artifacts. Charlie and Fleur came in to beg a cup of tea but really they were curious.

Mrs Weasley spoke, "Ginny - don't you think Neville would want to know too?"

Ginny nodded and went to the fireplace to ask him via the Floo network. Mrs Weasley looked at her expectantly as she came back.

"He's at the Abbott's. His gran said she'd pass the message on," said Ginny.

Bill spent the next forty minutes trying to break through the book's protective enchantment without success. Eventually he sighed. "Very clever. I think the spell is similar to the Fidelius Charm using secret-keepers. Only Edmund and Jocelyn can open it."

"Who?" said Mr Weasley, turning to his daughter. "Who is she, Ginny?"

"Never heard of..." Ginny paused, then her shoulders slumped. "Must have been his girlfriend. Death Eaters killed her - good as. A lot of that going around recently."

"How'd you know that, Ginny?" It was Charlie who spoke.

"Edmund told us - no, I think he told Seamus. Said they put her in Azkaban and she died quickly."

"And why would they do that if he was a sympathiser? Does this Trevett always tell the truth? Is... Was he reliable?"

"No! He was a lyin' Slytherin toerag!" cried Neville, as he flared in with Hannah from the fireplace. "Everything he said was a lie! Gran said the Trevetts never had a son. I said so, didn't I, Ginny? I said I didn't think they had a son." He sounded rather annoyed. Hannah clung to his side.

"He tried to get into the D.A. We did wonder if he was a spy - well he must have been." Neville gazed around at everyone in the now-crowded kitchen. Mrs Weasley was putting an even-bigger kettle on the hob. Neville continued, "All that story about his girl being a Muggle-born and dying in Azkaban! It was just to make us sympathetic."

"But there must have been someone," said Bill, pointing at the diary. "This could only have been opened by either Edmund or Jocelyn."

Neville looked startled. "Jocelyn? You mean Jocelyn Trevett? She's their daughter."

"And is she..."

"She's fine as far as I know," said Neville. "I think my gran would have mentioned it if she'd been abducted or murdered or imprisoned. Gran keeps well in touch with what's going on these days."

"What is going on then?" said Ginny. "Why'd he say--"

Mr Weasley spoke up, "Neville, this book might be important - we need to get it open. Does your gran know where the Trevetts live?"

"Yes, sure."

"I'll owl them and ask if I can call by tomorrow," said Mr Weasley. "I won't mention the diary at first - just say it's official Ministry business and we're trying to trace this Edmund and if they know him.

"Fine start to your holidays, Arthur," said Mrs Weasley. She glanced towards the window. "It's dark already. Listen everyone - I'd like to say something." She pointed her wand at the kitchen cabinet and a bottle of wine chased by several glasses made its way to the table.

"I'd like to propose a toast," said Mrs Weasley, as the glasses filled themselves and the family took up their drinks.

"Luna Lovegood was an unusual witch but a very affectionate one. She rarely complained and seemed to find good in the worst of situations. Her ideas were... startling, but often her advice was very wise - even inspired. She would not want us to be sorrowful, but to shake off grief and celebrate life as she did everyday."

"Hear, hear!" murmured Mr Weasley.

Mrs Weasley hesitated as she suddenly struggled to live up to her own encouragement. "To Luna Lovegood! Always in our hearts!"

Ginny might not have been able to join in the general chorus of "To Luna!" from everyone, but Harry's kiss lifted her, raised her from the pit, opened her soul, and she did fully respond, loud and clear, "Always in my heart!"

"Now for a quiet evening," said Mrs Weasley. "It is Christmas and we should be thankful we are here together. Let's all relax, put up the decorations and the tree and make the best of it!" There was a general concurrence and a mutual resolve.

"It's been an eventful day," added Molly, "but we're through it. It's done. It can't hurt us anymore."

—oOo—






Chapter 24: Edmund's Tale
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Chapter 24


Edmund's Tale



At the end of a full breakfast and a well-attended table, Charlie stretched out his legs and leaned his chair back from a happily-emptied plate. "I'd forgotten how crowded this place gets when everyone's here - yesterday, 'specially."

Mr Weasley was busy explaining to Fleur why Muggle pens had ball points and why they didn't need penknives because they had invented pen sill sharpeners instead. Bill was still eating, pondering the events of the previous day. Ginny was rather happily playing at rafts with her wheat sticks and wondering if Harry was still thinking about her at that very second. He had already sent her two kisses - one to awaken her and one to chase her out of bed - and promised another soon.

"And still Fred and George to come in a couple of days too," fretted Mrs Weasley. "They're really busy right up till the evening before Christmas. Then there's--"

"I'm not complaining, Mum! I love it! Romania - the area where I work, anyway - is rather bleak and short of good company."

"Need to get yourself a wife, Charlie. All the--"

"Mum! I'm only twenty-five! There's dung heaps of time yet!"

"Language at the table!" said Mrs Weasley, firmly. "And your lodge - I always said it's much too big for one."

"Ah well, I got carried away when we constructed it. Materials and location were provided free by the academy - and Dad's charms made it just as easy to build big as to build small."

Arthur Weasley smiled at his son. It was good having the family all back together again for a time. They were fortunate, he mused to himself, not everyone would be home for Christmas and some, never. His smile slowly faded.

—oOo—

Luna could feel again - arms and legs and hands and toes - and although she was very weak and ached all over, there was no severe pain. After what she had suffered, there was a kind of luxury in this aching weakness, like when she had caught Muggle 'flu once and had waited for morning for her dad to heal her because she hadn't want to wake him. Now, she must have been asleep herself because Pettigrew was gone - and so was his wand light.

Yet there was light: a faint luminescence that revealed a windowless, stone-pillared chamber falling into shadow at the distance of the glow's reach. Warmth, too, was present, and Luna became aware she lay upon a welcome bedding of many blankets, clean and soft, lodged up against the wall she felt behind her.

Her attention was drawn to the sound of breathing nearby and her eyes strained to pick out the sleeping figure of an old man curled up on the stone flags. She knew at once that his must have been the voice that promoted her cause the evening before, if it was, indeed, a new day. Yes, it must be a new day, she thought, because she felt renewed herself, as if cleansed of something stale, and dark, and utterly wicked.

They were his blankets - she was sure of that now; the old man had sacrificed his own bed for her. She tried to raise herself, to pull out a blanket or two to throw back over him, but movement was still beyond her. And yet, she reminded herself, the air was temperate, not at all the cold of yesterday; perhaps she had slept through the entire winter.

A patient hour passed before the old man stirred and roused himself to sit cross-legged, and rub his stiff shoulders into life. It was another minute before yesterday's memory returned and his head jerked around to face Luna.

"G...uh... mor..." was all Luna could gasp out, though she intended the greeting brightly enough.

"Good morning to you too, young lady," replied the man. His voice was hoarse but rested compared to when she had last heard it. "And how are you now - no, don't tell me; I can see you are much improved."

Luna attempted to tug at her top blanket but to point at it with her eyes then back to the old man was enough.

"Later, perhaps," the man responded, reaching for one of the metal cannikins that stood upon the floor between them. "It took me many months to duplicate the one blanket I had, but perhaps I can manage a few more."

He enwrapped the little drinking cup in his hands and seemed to be lost in a reverie upon it for a while and not eager to drink at all. Luna could scarcely have disturbed him even if she had wished. Presently a little steam arose from the bowl and the man shuffled along the floor closer to Luna.

"Warm water - best I can do for now," he said. He cradled her head in one hand to raise it slightly then held the cup to her lips. The sweet pleasantness of the drink both revealed and satisfied a thirst of which she had not been aware. The questioning look in her eyes evoked more of the one-sided conversation from the old man.

"Ollivander is who I am. I recall you visiting my shop many years ago and I'm sure you remember me too - though I am much altered in appearance now. Being the guest of dark wizards does tend to wilt away one's bloom."

He paused frequently in his nursing to give Luna time to draw breath and the goblet to refill.

"One of the first things that wandmakers learn is wandless magic. Does that surprise you? It is necessary to gain some idea of a wand's focus - to compare a spell cast with and without a wand at all I mean."

He sighed. "Wandless magic is never as potent of course - and I was never very good at it - but it has proved most useful here - for the little light and warmth and other comforts we are enjoying - like keeping myself and the bedding clean!" The old man gave a weak chuckle.

Luna managed a nod and Ollivander dipped his own head back encouragingly.

"So... why, I wonder, have they imprisoned someone such as yourself here and not in Azkaban? What is most curious is that you are pure-blood, Miss Lovegood."

Seeing Luna seemed content to not drink any further water, he lowered the cup to the floor and took up another to quench his own thirst. His reverie persisted longer this time and when he emerged from it he took up his earlier question himself. "Perhaps... What kind of articles does your father print these days?"

The flicker of realisation in Luna's eyes told him what he wanted to know. "So, they hope to persuade him to their own ends using you, do they?" He sighed again. "Such has it always been..."

—oOo—

Arthur Weasley automatically brushed his hands across his shoulders as he emerged from the hearth but a tubby little house-elf had already snapped his fingers and cleaned away the soot and residual floo powder. The little creature jumped to attention.

"Welcome to Trevett Hall, sir! "Boll is very, very happy to greet the gentleman, Sir. Can Boll invite Sir to take a seat Sir?" The elf gestured to the chairs spaced out around the oak-panelled walls of a modest reception hall.

Arthur eyed the seating on all sides and hesitated. He did not want to waste too much time. "Arthur Weasley to see... a Miss Jocelyn Trevett." He handed over his Ministry card and returned his gaze to the only open door to the right of the fireplace. He took a few steps towards it, expecting his hosts to emerge from that direction.

"Mr Weasley - of course, Sir. Is expected, Sir! Boll will inform Mr and Mrs Trevett at once, Sir."

The elf bounced off swiftly towards another door, unnoticed at the far end of the hall, and disappeared from sight, leaving this second door ajar. The panelled doors blended in so well with the surround that they were barely visible when closed and only now did Arthur notice a third and a fourth door.

He sighed and took the nearest seat. The chamber was pleasant enough but the hard, encircling furniture gave it the air of a Ministerial waiting room. He fidgeted. He had a right to fidget, he considered, because he was on holiday. He looked around, as one does, to please his eye upon whatever detail he could espy to delay the onset of boredom. His gaze passed through the door next to him - the one to which he had first moved. The room beyond it seemed to be a library for he could certainly see bookshelves, but there was also what appeared to be the corner of an old Muggle blackboard jutting into his view.

Curious, he rose to his feet, ostensibly to stretch his legs and, with only a single guilty glance over his shoulder, he eased into the doorway and looked around at what evidently was a small classroom. It held but one desk - though its numerous cupboards and benches and shelves made up for that, together with the usual paraphernalia one finds in a space devoted to instruction in the magical arts. There were papers and parchments here and there and an inky quill sprouted from a little white porcelain pot upon the desk. A bag hung over the back of the chair adjacent to the desk and the seat was close enough to the glowing coal fire to make for a cheery lesson even in winter. The blackboard was less inviting, being smothered in neatly-chalked runes in one corner, Arithmancy charts on the right, and at least three different potion recipes squeezed into the top and centre. Arthur shuddered at his old school memories despite the warmth of the cosy room.

He hovered near the doorway with his hands behind his back in a non-pilfering manner, like any good visitor might who is merely perusing the decorations and paintings - and the views through windows. One set of red leather-bound books caught his eye. He knew them from Charlie's studies but this was a complete set of Historiis Draconum Europa in twenty-four volumes - all apparently in perfect condition, gold lettering and all. Charlie proudly boasted but five battered copies from the rare works and two of those were of the same volume.

A commotion from the direction of the elf's exit diverted him from his examination and Arthur backed innocently out of the doorway and engaged his attention upon the upper cornice carvings. When someone pushed out through the other half-open doorway, Arthur turned, smiling, as if the woodwork had been of great interest. A man stood there, tall, dark robes, greying hair, and a very flustered look about him, as one who had just departed a heated argument in which he had come off worst.

"You're Ministry!" he cried advancing like a chess knight to dominate the centre of the reception's black and white tiled floor. "You never said you were Ministry in your owl!"

"My apologies, I wish to see Jocelyn--" began Arthur but broke off as a second person, a middle-aged woman, also burst through the doorway to sail regally towards the man. She looked equally flushed and excited.

"To see... who?" she said. "Our only servant is Boll - a house-elf - we have no... There is no one else... There's a mistake. My name is Dorothea Trevett and this is my husband. What's this about?"

A third door half-opened and Arthur was aware of the house-elf obediently making himself available, pawn-like, if needed to serve his master's visitor. The man gestured irritably towards him and the elf backed out again - but left the door slightly ajar. There was something rather strange about everyone's attitude which a magical crime inspector like Arthur Weasley could not fail to observe. It was called the guilt of innocents, and they wore it as badly as ill-fitting cloaks.

"Again, I'm sorry - being the start of the holidays I wanted to clear up an investigation into an enchanted artifact so my visit was rather rushed and informal..."

A fourth door now peeped silently open a crack behind the knight and his queen. Arthur began to wonder if all the walls were, in fact, doors, waiting to be opened, and what strange chess pieces might emerge into play. He shook himself and continued. He knew exactly what to do to evoke a reaction.

"Must be a mistake, of course. Let's leave it until after the holidays, shall we? The Ministry can then do a more thorough research of the records and sort out the error. Likely we have the wrong card in the wrong box. Jocelyn is not uncommon a name." He turned and took a few steps back towards the fireplace.

"No wait..." Arthur rotated back to face them. The man's eyes were pleading with his wife. She nodded and darted out - thankfully, Arthur noted, using the same door through which she had entered. He didn't think a room of this size could stand the surprise of a fifth exit to compete with the floo.

"My... that is... we have proof! We have papers!" said Trevett.

"Papers?"

"My father is half-blood - I can prove it!"

Arthur did not need a better result in his Arithmancy exam to put two and two together. "But Jocelyn must still attend Hogwarts this year - it's compulsory now."

"Yes we-- She's been ill. I mean... Who? She... We..."

"Mr Trevett, you should rehearse your explanations much more thoroughly than this," said Arthur giving the man a warning look. "Not everyone is as sympathetic as I am."

Trevett held his breath. The tone of the word 'sympathetic' had been sincere. He breathed again. Arthur felt sure now would come the usual rush of admissions and confessions. That generally-honest folk begged to be relieved of the burden of secrecy, he well knew. Yet he was thwarted because the queen now made her move back onto the board with a new defensive strategy.

"She ran away! Not been seen for months. That's why! Not been seen for... months. Can't help you, Mr Weasley."

Arthur sighed, intentionally audibly. He could not help but feel sorry for them. "One last question: Does the name Edmund mean anything to either of you?"

There was a gasp which Arthur felt almost sure had come from the fourth covertly-opened door but it was masked by a sudden implausible choking fit that seized Mr Trevett's throat like an assassin. He staggered sideways then forwards, much like a good chess knight should, mused Arthur, towards one of the many guest chairs, where he sat weakly down to be cossetted by his wife. Arthur pretended to be deceived by the splendidly-attempted distraction.

"No? Well, then, I'll be on my way," he said. "A Merry Christmas to the four of you!" Without waiting for a reply, he grasped a little of the floo powder from the tall jar that stood in the hearth, loudly declared, "The Burrow!" and was gone before even the little elf could stop himself bounding back in from where he was not supposed to be.

Mr Weasley did not have too long to wait. He set Charlie to keep watch in the kitchen while he busied himself catching up with Bill and Fleur in the parlour. He had scarcely seen them since the wedding.

Charlie sat himself down at the table with an early Christmas gift from Bill - a collector's album of reference scales of every known dragon. They were in good condition but he took one of the scales to the sink and began to tease at its age-grime with soft soap and warm water. He knew even the sheddings of dead dragons were highly resistant to magical spells and he had not brought home any of his own professional cleansing potions.

Movements of air behind him always informed his creature-tracking senses whenever anybody came through from the parlour and they alerted him now.

"Kettle's already on," he said, without turning around. A flowery scent approaching told him it must be Ginny.

"You'll never get it off with that stuff," said a soft voice he did not recognise.

He looked up. A fair-haired girl of about sixteen years stood next to him.

"Ah! You must be--"

"Jocelyn, yes. I heard you mention the name Edmund at--"

"What? No, that--" Charlie knew his voice was similar to that of his father but surely he could not be mistaken for him?

"I don't know why you were asking but you might have been referring to a friend of mine. I'd like to know--"

"Wrong Weasley - I'm Charles."

"You're... Charles Weasley?" Charlie nodded. "The dragon researcher?" Charlie nodded again. The girl's jaw had dropped open slightly and her face was flushed as she looked again at the soapy dragon scale in his hand. "I didn't... I mean... Does that really work? I read that common soap is hopeless for--"

"This? Yes, I learnt that too so I never actually attempted it before. I don't have any proper magical cleanser with me so I was just fooling around with a few things."

His eye, drawn magnetically over her contours, observed there was still soot on her sleeve and a smut upon her cheek. Instinctively, he employed a cleaning charm to draw away the dirt to nowhere. He watched how the flimsy short sleeve of her cotton dress was wafted upward by his wand's passing before drifting softly down again. Dragon researchers are very observant of detail. He mumbled something about not having any house-elves at the Burrow then continued, "Anyway, they were right; common soap doesn't clean dragon scales - but you never know anything for sure until you try, do you?"

"I suppose not," she said slowly, looking at him thoughtfully. "I thought you would be..."

"Taller? No - it's handy being shorter," Charlie said defensively. "I do a lot of hiding in my line of work."

"Older, I was going to say."

"Oh, yes. I went straight into dragon research from school - and I've already produced one book - here--" He almost gave her the soapy scale to hold then bent the direction of his arm to put it down on the draining board. "I'll fetch you a copy." She gently pulled down his wand arm before he could cast the summons.

"I've already got one." She was smiling for the first time. Charlie forgot what he was going to say. He forgot what he was going to do. He forgot whether it was Christmas or Easter.

"Charlie! You didn't say!" Arthur Weasley had come through from the parlour.

"Say what, Dad?"

"That our guest had arrived, of course." Mr Weasley grinned. "Well, aren't you going to introduce us?"

"Oh yes, erm..." said Charlie. "I'm Charlie Weasley and--"

"I know who you are, Charlie," said Mr Weasley, devilishly.

"I mean, you're my dad and this is..." Charlie hesitated then said her name like he'd just discovered a long-lost poem, "Jocelyn."

"Miss Trevett, is it?" said Arthur.

"That's right." The girl's puzzled look cleared suddenly. "Oh, it was you at my home this morning! I thought--"

"That's right - and you are here to tell me--?"

"Edmund. I know someone of that name." She looked back and forth between the two men. "I thought it might be relevant."

"Yes, indeed, since he shares your surname, Miss Trevett."

Again, the girl looked perplexed. "No, then, there's some mix up. The boy I know is called Edmund Faine."

Charlie noticed for the first time that his father had closed the parlour door behind him when he had entered and the three of them were alone. "Do you want me to leave, Dad?"

"No, make us a cuppa would you, lad?" Arthur turned to the girl. "Miss Trevett, may I come straight to the point, are you very close to Edmund?"

Charlie stopped for one step on his journey to the kettle then continued.

"Close? No, that is--"

"It will save us time if you would be completely honest, Miss Trevett," said Arthur.

"I am being honest!" Jocelyn's eyes flared ever so slightly. "The fact is... Mr Weasley, are you really a Ministry man?"

"Yes, I'm head of Counterfeit Defensive Spells and I am investigating an artifact that may or may not be--"

"So you are not part of the Commission?"

"The Muggle-Born Registration Commission, you mean? No I most certainly am not. Your father's blood purity is not my con--"

"It's only cast-iron proof about Grandfather he lacks - he wasn't really trying to deceive you with those papers - he remembers him casting spells so he absolutely knows he was magical, but--"

"Not my concern, Miss Trevett."

"Oh."

"Would you like to sit down?" Arthur caught the eye of his son who had been watching and listening attentively. "The tea, Charlie?"

"Oh, yes, right..."

"Let me repeat the question because it is extremely important - are you very close to Edmund?"

Perhaps it was something in Arthur's expression that suggested something to the girl, for her face suddenly paled and she sagged heavily into the seat she had been about to merely perch upon. Her pale complexion became even whiter. "He's... dead, isn't he?"

Arthur nodded. "I'm sorry. I'm very sorry."

The girl looked within herself for a minute in contemplation while Charlie poured the tea then she answered the question.

"No... we were... That is, I liked Edmund very, very much. We dated many times but..."

Arthur waited, sipping at his tea.

"My parents - they disapproved. They thought he was a Muggle-hater. They thought he might even be-- He wasn't! Oh, he thinks - thought - Muggles are inferior, but the only time I saw him with a Muggle he treated him respectfully. Why, the very reason he left home was because both his parents supported You-know-who!"

"Miss Trevett, can you tell me why he would keep a diary, magically sealed, and only openable by himself or yourself?"

Jocelyn shook her head. "No... I cannot. I never knew of it."

"Miss Trevett, you must have. It's enchanted with--"

"Not necessarily, Dad." Bill stood in the doorway with the log book. "It's possible it might have been enchanted in this lady's name but without her knowledge." He closed the door and came over to place the book on the table. The young girl stared at it.

"Why would he do that?" said Mr Weasley, addressing Jocelyn.

She half-reached out to the book but then withdrew her hand as if fearful of it. "He..." She looked around, slightly embarrassed by the three men surrounding her. "He... Edmund was very much in love with me. He told me so, often. I did not encourage him but he said that was alright - perhaps I might grow to love him."

"Dad, you seen my--?"

"Not now, Ginny."

Ginny stopped and stared at Jocelyn who returned her gaze.

Arthur took a deep breath. He could see Fleur wavering about at the doorway too. "Jocelyn, this is my daughter, Ginny - she knew Edmund at Hogwarts. Ginny, this is Jocelyn Trevett."

"He said you were dead."

"What!"

"That was his excuse to pretend he hated Death Eaters."

"Ginny..." said Mr Weasley.

"And why'd he call himself Trevett if that's your name not his?" persisted Ginny.

"I've no idea," said Jocelyn. "He said his name was Trevett?"

Bill spoke, "Perhaps the answers are in this diary."

"Yes, perhaps it's time," said Mr Weasley. "Miss Trevett, would you be willing to open it now?"

He looked at Bill who responded to Jocelyn, "I promise you it's perfectly safe."

"But I have no key."

"Miss Trevett - you are the key," said Bill. "Just open the clasp and see."

Hesitantly, Jocelyn reached out. Bill was fascinated to learn if his assessment was correct. Mr Weasley was anxious to learn anything useful about Death Eater operations. Charlie was looking closely at Jocelyn and how the muscles of her bare arm seemed to flow as her wrist delicately rotated to grasp the brass hasp, and Ginny? Well, Ginny was just being nosey.

"It's empty!" declared Jocelyn, flipping through the blank pages for all to see. She looked closer, examining the first and last pages. "It's a one-year diary - this year."

"Look at... look at the Twentieth of this month," said Ginny. "The day he..."

Jocelyn turned to the page and began to speak but faltered immediately. Ginny snatched it from her and took up the reading. She began with a smirk, but she did not end with one.


"My beloved Jocelyn,

"I owe you an explanation. I kept apart from you earlier in the year because I heard whispers amongst acquaintances of my family that you might come to harm - be used as hostage to compel me to ways to which I would not otherwise agree. You know where my heart truly lies.

"Last summer, the Carrows approached my father because he was both sympathetic to their beliefs and also parent of an older child compelled to begin at Hogwarts for the first time in September. In addition, they knew of the skills I had learnt from my grandmother. I was an ideal candidate for their plans. They wanted to use me to spy upon subversive elements and plotting amongst the students and report back to them. I refused. But my father had told them of my weakness for you and they used it against me. They threatened to put you and your parents in Azkaban if I did not cooperate.

"At first, it seemed a simple choice. It was not difficult to perform poorly in the tasks and thus for nobody to be hurt on my account. But the Carrows were not deceived for long. They assigned me to watch leading suspects with a penalty for non-deliverance of certain information. You recall falling faint at the start of October? That was their work as a warning to me. They delivered to me a quantity of your blood with the threat of the rest to follow in supplements.

"If she survives, tell Luna Lovegood it was I that trailed her into the Forbidden Forest during her detention for attempting to steal the sword of Gryffindor. At that time she and her friends were no more than vague, impersonal figures to be observed like one might watch wildlife but all that was to change.

"From then I was ordered to join a subversive organisation called Dumbledore's Army and pay particular attention to that one student..."


Ginny tailed off for a few seconds then resumed.

"...Luna Lovegood. Apparently, there was good information that her father's print works was being used to supply wanted posters and other material. When she fell ill, I was obliged to use Polyjuice potion and be swathed in bandages to listen in to conversations with those who visited her in the hospital wing.

"Once again, I was not too concerned; I cared not for posters nor silly graffiti. I knew none of the targets personally nor was I interested in them. It was only after meeting them that I finally saw them as real people with beliefs not too dissimilar to my own. Luna, in particular, was like a breath of fresh air. The longer I spent spying upon her, the more I detested doing it and the more I hated myself.

"But in recent weeks it was made clear it was no longer an unpleasant game. I am now convinced that the Carrows plan to murder Luna. Possibly they are afraid to do it openly for they intend to perform the deed on the train journey home at Christmas.

"Jocelyn, I can scarcely tell you how sick I feel. I know only that my part is to identify Luna on the Hogwarts Express so there can be no mistake. If I refuse, then they will come for you and your parents - and I fear that Luna might die anyway. My own life is of no interest to me but I am sure that will be forfeit too, in time. If I proceed to help them with their plan, then I shall be guilty of the most horrendous crime against decency and all that is good. If I resist then all light will go out of my world, my darling.

"Forgive me, dearest Jocelyn, for I do not know what to do. Forgive me either way for I cannot bear it if you come to hate me, not knowing what lies behind my actions.

"Your most ardent wooer and friend,

"Edmund"


As she finished, Jocelyn, already tearful, murmured in the ensuing silence, "Edmund distanced himself from me to protect me. He vowed not to see me again. But they didn't fall for the ruse."

"Couldn't have loved you very much then could he?" muttered Ginny.

"Ginny!" snapped Mrs Weasley.

"How dare you!" cried Jocelyn. "What would you know! His love was of the purest kind! He loved me above all else!"

"All I'm saying is if he loved you above all else he couldn't have left you could he? He just couldn't! Love is greater than the noblest of ideals!"

Jocelyn tried to respond but instead collapsed deeper into tears. Charlie quickly supplied a handkerchief. There was no one to take her corner so he could only mumble to her, "There, there - a misunderstanding... is what this is..." Fleur looked unsure what to do.

"Ginny!" cried Mrs Weasley. "You will apologise immediately to Jocelyn!"

"But...!"

"Now!"

Ginny's face was flushed with anger but she knew she had been wrong. Her voice was almost inaudible just before she ran out of the room. "Sorry... Jocelyn." Mrs Weasley went after her.

"Miss Trevett," said Mr Weasley, "I apologise for my daughter. She is extremely upset because of the death of a close friend. She would never have said that otherwise. She didn't mean it."

Jocelyn peeped above Charlie's sodden hankie. "Luna Lovegood? She is Ginny's friend? And she...?"

Mr Weasley nodded. "He died trying to divert the Death Eaters away from her. They killed them both and disposed of their bodies."

Jocelyn burst into a fresh bout of tears.

Charlie cautiously placed a comforting arm around her shoulder.

...

That Mrs Weasley did not fold her arms nor adopt her hands-on-hips posture was some comfort to Ginny as she sat on her bed - though it was a little unsettling not being sure of her mother's temper.

"Ginny, you shouldn't have said what you did," said Mrs Weasley.

"I know."

"I didn't raise you to--" Mrs Weasley took note of Ginny's response. "Well, enough said then."

She came over and sat on the bed beside her daughter.

"Does it shock you that a Slytherin can be as noble as Harry? Is that it?"

Ginny remained silent.

"Or perhaps you think Harry ought not to be so noble? Perhaps you think he doesn't love you deeply enough or he couldn't have forsaken you?"

Ginny flinched but kept quiet.

"It doesn't astonish you that I knew?" said Mrs Weasley, "about your and Harry's feelings for each other?" Mrs Weasley herself seemed surprised at her daughter's non-response.

Ginny's thoughts raced along. She knew she was the only one who could remember their conversation last summer and that she must not arouse suspicion that she had Obliviated her mother's knowledge of it. "No... and yes... I suspected you guessed - don't tell Dad!" she added hastily.

"Ginny, your dad knows well enough."

"And does he... approve?"

"Does he approve of that awful time-wasting, rude, ugly, cowardly Harry Potter being fond of his daughter? What do you think, love?" smiled Mrs Weasley.

Ginny giggled softly. "Yes, but I meant... in the circumstances... endangering me, I mean?"

"Well, he'd probably knock seven bells out of Harry if he was hanging around you making it obvious, drawing the attention of You-know-who, wouldn't he? But as it is..."

"So you think Harry did the right thing by breaking off with me?"

Mrs Weasley put her arm around her daughter's shoulder. "It's the most noble thing anyone can think of isn't it? The most loving thing too?"

Ginny burst into tears and buried her face in her mother's throat.

"Ginny? What's wrong? Molly could tell these were not tears of happiness. She thought silently for a while. "Has he... Has Harry... has he been trying to get in touch with you? He's not has he? He's not weakened has he?"

Ginny did not know what to say. "Sometimes I think he's... reaching out for me... As if he... needs me." It was the closest to the truth that Ginny dared to go.

Her mother smiled. "That's normal. Magical folk, when they're deeply in love, they can sometimes sense each others feelings from afar."

"Suppose... Suppose, it was... more than that?" said Ginny tearfully, and looking up at her mother's face. "Suppose, we could... exchange feelings... even words now and again?"

"Well, it is possible I think. Have you--"

"But would it be wicked? Would it be wrong if I could support him somehow like that? ... And know that he was safe?"

Mrs Weasley's eyes widened. She looked at her daughter fervently, anxiously, and stroked her hair. "Is he safe and well, Ginny? Is he? Ron too? Can you tell?"

Ginny saw in her mother's face all the months of anxiety and fear she had endured. She nodded. "Yes, they're all OK, Mum."

Mrs Weasley's eyes watered. These really were the happiness kind of tears. "No, it wouldn't be wicked, Ginny, Darling." Then she added as an afterthought, "Best not tell your dad though - to be on the safe side. There's a wizard who fancied me when I was younger who's still walking around with a broken nose."

Ginny's feeble shriek of laughter was easily drowned by a terrible cry of horror from downstairs and they both ran out to the landing, wands drawn.

"MOLLY - BOLL WILL EXPLAIN!" came Mr Weasley's shout.

"Arthur! Whatever is it?" cried Mrs Weasley as she ran down, followed closely by Ginny. There was no reply. Fleur stood, white-faced, facing the kitchen fireplace, with a fat little house-elf by her side. Jocelyn was sat at the table, staring and visibly trembling.

"Zey 'ave gone!" exclaimed Fleur, pointing at the green flames. "All gone ... Mangemorts!"

"What?" cried Mrs Weasley. "Who's--"

"If Boll might be permitted Ma'am? Boll explains if the gracious lady wishes it?"

"Who are you, first of all?" demanded Mrs Weasley.

"Boll, Ma'am? Boll is house-elf of House of Trevett, Ma'am, if you please."

"Then explain!"

"Death Eaters came to great House Ma'am - searching for Miss Jocelyn here," the elf burst into tears. "Came for murderings!" he blubbered.

"Where are my husband and my sons!" bellowed Mrs Weasley.

"Brave Mr Weasley and Mr Weasley and Mr Weasley is all gone to save Boll's master and mistress," croaked the elf, trying to control himself and looking around for something heavy with which to achieve this aim.

Charlie exploded from the fireplace spraying soot everywhere but clutching a dishevelled Mrs Trevett closely to his side.

"Mother! I'm sorry!" Jocelyn leapt from her seat. Mrs Trevett seemed confused as to what was happening.

"Take her into the parlour - Fleur, help her!" said Charlie.

"Charlie! What's going on?" shouted Mrs Weasley.

"We floored and Obliviated two Death Eaters but there'll be more if they don't report back. Dad and Bill and me are going to help Mr Trevett get out what personal effects and valuables they can before--"

"But they'll know you flooed here!"

"Dad knows that! He's going to magically destroy their floo connection last thing then Apparate. He says unless the Ministry have already looked then that breaks the link and all floo records with it." With that, Charlie was gone again with only a very swift look at Jocelyn as she helped her mother into the other room.

Over the next half hour, Arthur, Bill, Charlie, and Mr Trevett appeared in turn, hovering boxes and bags with which Mrs Weasley and Ginny busied themselves, stacking and hoarding. When all but her husband had finally returned, she went out into the garden to the end of the protective wards to watch for him.

"Merlin! Did you have to bring this lot?" said Ginny, eyeing the huge pile of sooty, red-leather books on the kitchen table.

Charlie grinned. "They're erm... rare."

...

With Ginny asleep in a spare bed in her parents' room and all the Trevetts cramped into her room, Mr and Mrs Weasley were discussing matters with their eldest son, Bill.

"The elf's in the shed, now," said Charlie as he entered from the backyard. "I charmed it with light and warmth so he should be comfortable. He could not stop thanking me for helping the Trevetts."

"Trevetts! Thank Merlin they haven't as many sons as we have," said Mrs Weasley, "or we'd all be in the shed."

Charlie looked thoughtful as he took a seat with the others around the table for the family conference. "Why'd Edmund pretend to be their son, you reckon, Dad?"

"No idea," said Arthur. "Probably he was so besotted with Jocelyn Trevett he--"

"I think I know," said Bill. Years of code breaking on artifacts, ancient and modern, had taught him something of the multitude of different means of stealthy communicating. The others looked at him expectantly.

"It was a message."

"To who, Bill?" said Mrs Weasley.

"To us - well not specifically us but whoever picked over the pieces if he died." He saw all the puzzled faces. "Look, the Death Eaters wouldn't be interested in his diary would they? Likely they would have just destroyed it if they had found it. And any disinterested discoverer would not waste time on the book - it has no value if it can't be opened easily. And if someone friendly found it they would feel honour bound to try to discover the truth about Edmund, right?"

He waited to see the nods of agreement before continuing, "So it would be almost certain that if anyone wanted to make a serious effort to open it then they would be sympathetic - and therefore it would be safe for Jocelyn for them to learn about her. Too risky to put a big notice on the front, 'take this to Jocelyn Trevett' as a casual sneak thief might demand payment - or worse, if it were a Snatcher he would turn her in."

"So..." said Charlie.

"So, Edmund set it up so only a dedicated expert like myself would go to the trouble to discover it needs someone called Jocelyn to open the book."

"But, it was only chance that Neville knew the Trevett's had a daughter called Jocelyn, and only chance he was there to tell us!" said Charlie.

"Yes, but we would have pursued the name Trevett anyway, wouldn't we? Edmund reasoned that any good-natured people, would want to inform his family of his death. Neville simply speeded up things for us."

"Only one flaw in your explanation," said Charlie,"Edmund assumed the name Trevett way back so he could start at Hogwarts with that name. The Carrows passed it through - probably humoured him or who knows what excuse he gave. He had no idea he was going to end up dead, did he?"

There was silence.

"Well did he?" repeated Charlie.

"I think he suspected it might happen even that far back. He's very intelligent - that much is clear. Forced to work for Death Eaters? I think I would make out my last will and testament too - even if I was only serving them with tea and sandwiches."

Molly rose up and began using her wand to send the numerous used cups and saucers and plates heading to the sink to scrub themselves.

"Double the work around the house now," she muttered. "Arthur, not everyone can stay in the house, you know that? Leastways, not during Christmas with all the boys home."

"We can't turn them away - not now, not after all that's happened. Everyone must stick together against the dark forces. It's our only hope."

"I can help," said Bill. "We can put up something makeshift outside - a tent or something. Fleur and me will--"

"I'll take the settee again, Mum - no worries," said Charlie.

"Thanks, Bill. Thanks, Charlie," said Mrs Weasley. "Not much of a homecoming for you though is it?" She sighed. "I suppose we'll manage somehow."

"We have to get them out of the country," said Mr Weasley. His quiet firmness indicated he had already decided for the family. "They can never be safe here. Langley tells me that they are already preparing their posters as undesirables. Their home has been seized - whether they get it back one day remains to be seen but for now they must go into hiding abroad."

Charlie stood up. "Of course! My lodge! It can easily be divided - and I can help them keep in touch with events and friends over here!"

Mr Weasley nodded his agreement. "I can't pretend I wasn't hoping you'd offer, Charlie. Bill can help you with the protective enchantments."

"Sure," said Bill, "though it's so isolated and unconnected with the Trevetts' connections and acquaintances that it's very secure anyway."

"Oh Charlie," said Mrs Weasley, giving her son a big hug, "you're a wonder. Promise me you'll watch out for Jocelyn won't you? She's just a kid really and the Trevetts - I don't think they realise all the dangers like we do."

"I promise, Mum," said Charlie, a faraway look in his eyes. "I promise."

—oOo—






Chapter 25: Christmas Eve
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Chapter 25


Christmas Eve



Slowly but irresistibly, the northern weather had bullied its way further down the country and the Trevetts' departure coincided with the first snowfall in the southwest. Well ahead of dawn's revealing light, Charlie led the refugees beyond the Burrow's protective wards, then activated the well-used wrecked-umbrella Portkey to his home in Romania. Arthur Weasley hurriedly obliterated their footprints before shuffling back to the warmth of his snug kitchen.

"Everything go alright?" Molly greeted him.

"No need for you to get up this early, Molly," shivered Arthur, loosening the belt on his dressing gown before the fireplace glow. "Don't worry - Charlie'll be back for lunch."

"I'll make a start with the mince pies and jam tarts, I think, ready for tomorrow. Then there's sausage rolls, fruit for the cake - Oh and the bird to be picked and plucked later this afternoon; there's never time Christmas morning."

"Come and sit down for a while," said Arthur with a yawn. "Doesn't do to start hustling and bustling soon as you get up in the morning."

Ginny would have more than agreed with her father's view. Still cuddled up in bed with her medallion, she was exchanging kisses with Harry and embraced a clear intention of not arising again until she must; she had been up in the night.

With u, 4 u, Ginny, always.

u help me get thru - really do.

Sensed u sad yesterday.

But i should b support u, Harry

u do - but i owe u big time

love u

love u

later


Ginny rolled sleepily over for another hour's sleep before the cockerel woke the plump chickens to scratch about in the Weasleys' backyard. Dreams were not to be. Her thoughts, hedged in by the events of Luna's last day, seemed drear. If only Edmund had warned them, her friend would be here now - festively celebrating before escaping to a secret location with her father. Who would tell him of the tragedy?

—oOo—

Xeno Lovegood placed one sleeping child in Rosmerta's arms and took up the other. A dim glow from underfoot revealed itself as an open hatch in the thickly-snowed roof of the Three Broomsticks tavern. The air was still now but bitterly cold.

"Watch the steps, Xeno," whispered Rosmerta, "they're slithery with ice. Your owl skidded down there yesterday."

"Ah! - that'll be from Luna," murmured Xeno. There was relief in his voice. "She promised to write as soon as she was safely at the Burrow."

After putting Gylda and Emmy to bed, Xeno sat with Rosmerta before the dying embers of yesterday's fire, cuddling a hot rum toddy and sipping it for comfort. The tavern's seasonal guests would all be asleep at this late hour; the couple would not be disturbed in the landlady's private parlour.

"Well?" he said, after giving Rosmerta a decent time to remember the message. Both the warmth and the grog had begun to relax his frozen joints and he settled more comfortably in his chair. Rosmerta had just hovered up a few more pieces of coal ready to revive the last smouldering ashes of the fire but, distracted, she let them drop back into the scuttle.

"Well, what?" She frowned. "It's over there." Rosmerta pointed with her wand to the dark-feathered owl that squatted patiently on the window seat in the furthest corner.

Xeno exploded to his feet. "That's not Audrey! Where's Audrey? Where's our owl?"

"But I thought... It's message is addressed to you so I - sorry I just assumed it was your own owl."

Xeno was already striding over to the small bird that side-stepped nervously on the cushions at his approach. The man stared at his own name clearly marked on the outside of the scroll attached to the creature's feathered ankle. He hesitated. The owl held out its leg and watched the man cautiously with its great round eyes.

While reading the note, he kept quite still with his back to Madam Rosmerta who was watching him anxiously from her chair by the forgotten fire. He could not maintain the pose for long. A long, low wail ending in a desperate sob escaped his lips and he sank to his knees.

"Xeno! Whatever is it!" Rosmerta rushed over, unsure how she might help. "Is it... Is it from--?"

He was rocking back and forth in a lowly foetal crouch and seemed to not hear her. She could see the message screwed up tightly in the fist he held to his heart.

"Xeno?" she said softly. As she put her hand gently on his shoulder, he startled, becoming aware of her again.

Rosmerta tried to read his expression. "Xeno, is she...? Can you tell me?"

"NO! NO! NO!"

He rose angrily to his feet and the alarmed woman took a step or two backwards. "Xeno! What in Merlin's name is the matter?"

Mr Lovegood blinked rapidly as he tried to control himself. "No - nothing! It's... They've... They've destroyed... It's the next issue! They've... The January Quibbler, all prepared for printing - all gone!"

Rosmerta's shoulders relaxed and she almost smiled with relief. She sighed. "Xeno - there are far worst things, believe me! We'll help. We'll all help! What's needed? It will just go out late. You must have copies of some of the articles?"

"No, it's... They'll..."

"You think they'll destroy it again? Death Eaters you mean?"

"Yes. Yes, that's it. I can't keep..."

"But--"

Rosmerta watched as he paced from the window to his seat by the fire then back again, over and over. "Fuss over nothing." He was rambling to himself. "Can't keep publishing that nonsense anyway. They're right... Quite right..."

Finally, he shambled off in the direction of the steps that led up to the roof, still muttering and chuntering his woe.

"You're not going now, surely, Xeno! - it's freezing out there. Aren't you staying the night?"

The man was obviously distraught. He was slapping himself with both hands around the sides of his head as if in penance. "Why? Why'd you do it! Fool! Imbecile!"

Rosmerta tried to pull him gently back but he pushed her aside. "Must go! Must!"

She went upstairs with him and watched as he struggled up the icy steps and out onto the roof. He was silent now. The woman ran below for his travelling cloak but when she returned he had gone. Rosmerta closed the hatch and gloomily turned back to the quiet parlour. It was almost four o'clock. She wondered whether to try to get a couple of hours' sleep. Christmas eve would be a very long and busy day serving customers. She sighed and sat down before the hearth and took out her wand. The fire had died. Once again, she charmed some coals up above their bucket; once again she dropped them back into it. This time her jaw had fallen almost as much as the coals. There was a screwed up parchment smouldering upon the near-dead cinders.

"Accio message!"

Flakes of ash trembled and feathered from the edges of the scroll as she opened it up, but the few darkly-inked words stood out clearly:

We have her.

Return to your home immediately.

Henceforth, we shall tell you what to print.

Speak to no one.


There was a scratching sound from the direction of the window. The dark owl looked back at her suspiciously. She let it out into the night. Yes, Christmas eve would be a very long day in the Three Broomsticks.

—oOo—

It would be a long day for Ginny too but the first part had worked out pretty well. She had polished the brasswork on the antique magazine rack to reveal a beautiful siren and wolf scene in relief. It seemed so appropriately personalised as a gift for Bill and Fleur she felt much better about giving it. During the morning she sneaked out again to shop in Ottery to get supplementary gifts for her family with a bit more thought than she had spared on her previous trip.

Her return from Ottery coincided with Charlie's reappearance so she hid her basket in the shed with his skeletal brolly. She laid her travel cloak on top of the basket. The place looked incredibly tidy without a cobweb in sight. "House-elves!" smiled Charlie at her, "which reminds me..." They entered the Burrow's backdoor together, Charlie drawing all the attention and Ginny pottering in as though she had just nipped outside to greet him.

"They settling in alright, Charlie?" greeted Mrs Weasley, giving him a kiss of relief that was indicative of the times in which they lived.

"They're fine. Thanks a lot, Mum - I just didn't think."

"Thanks for what? I think I can kiss my own son without--"

"You know what I mean," grinned Charlie. He reached for the biscuit barrel and Mrs Weasley slapped his wrist away. Ginny was slipping through to the hallway, heading for the stairs.

"No, I don't," affirmed Mrs Weasley, shaking her head.

"Housekeeping, cleaning my place up, tidying - it would have been embarrassing as it was with my old pants strewn about and two days' dishes to wash in the sink. Who knows what she-- what they would have thought of me!"

Mrs Weasley shook her head a second time, this time with a big frown on her face - then her eyes widened. "GINNY!"

Ginny had almost made it onto the stairs. "What?"

"You know what - get back here!"

Her daughter dragged her feet back into the kitchen. "It was an extra Christmas present," she said sullenly. "I didn't get much this year." She twisted her fingers around a strand of long red hair then continued in a tone of defensive protest, "It took less than an half-an-hour's cleaning charms last night! Borrowed the Portkey - in and out in less than--"

Her brother strode over and shielded her from their mother's outpouring of wrath with a big hug and a kiss. Ginny had always been especially fond of Charlie.

"Arthur! Will you tell this girl of yours--"

From the parlour there was a loud rustle of the Daily Prophet being re-folded to a new page and Mr Weasley's voice came back, "They didn't take her from the train when they could have - they're not interested in her."

"Yes, but--"

A sigh came back from the other room, followed a few seconds later by Mr Weasley. "Ginny, you should really ask us first."

"But you'd only have said no!"

"No we wouldn't necessar--"

"Can I go to Fred and George this afternoon, then?"

"No!" cried Mrs Weasley. "I'm not having you gallivanting about on your own."

"I won't be on my own, will I?"

"Molly," Mr Weasley said gently, "It's just a floo away and Fred and George will be with her."

Mrs Weasley turned aside. Perhaps there were a few worry tears in her eyes. It took Ginny quite a while to smuggle in her cloak and the shopping basket from the shed outside. She had to use two spells and a diversion by Charlie to do it though.

In the afternoon, Ginny did help out in Fred and George's shop as a 'working present' she told them, and came away with soothing, flavour-changing chocolates for her mother. The twins swore they had no nasty surprises and were part of their new novelty sidelines.

Throughout the day, Harry had almost bombarded Ginny with kisses. He seemed in a good mood. He knew she had been feeling rather low for the last few days but assumed it was because they hadn't been able to meet again. Ginny did not disabuse him of that notion.

Yes, altogether, it had been a good day for Ginny. It was the evening that was the problem...

—oOo—

When darkness finally enshrouded the tent, Harry slipped his medallion back below his neckline after cautioning Ginny that he would be 'busy' for the next few hours. He had a big grin on his face. This was it. At last they were ready - or at least as ready enough that Hermione could no longer put off their visit to Godric's Hollow. He was going home - to his real home.

There was a sense of excitement; things starting to move again after stagnating for so long. He could see it in Hermione's positive expression too, even though only she had been wearing the Horcrux so far today. Harry hesitated. His dearest friend had overdone it again he realised, trying to protect him.

"Hermione - it's about my turn isn't it?"

She glanced up from checking her bag for the tenth time. "Oh... yes - I'd forgotten." The locket was removed, not reluctantly, and she handed it over without looking at him. She knew he would be displaying that wry, affectionate but disapproving smile that said he knew she hadn't forgotten.

"Any bad dreams, recently?" he asked, as he pulled the chained Horcrux over his head and slipped it out of sight again beneath his shirt.

Now she did look up. "No - I told you, I don't wear it asleep anymore. What made you ask?"

"Oh, nothing... " Harry looked closely at his friend. Like him, she was wearing some old Muggle clothes ready for their trip. "I do worry about you sometimes, you know."

Hermione went slightly pink and a little smile forced its way onto the corners of her lips. "Don't start going all soft, Harry - not right now. We've got to stay sharp. I'm still uneasy about--"

"We'll be fine, Hermione," said Harry, reassuringly.

She fetched the potions she had prepared and came over to him. "Right then. Let's see if you still worry about me when I'm old and decrepit."

They drank at once, watching the familiar effects on each other.

"You're not that old," said Harry, as his hand groped after his rapidly-receding hairline, "barely middle-aged. How does your husband look?"

"You'll do, Grandad," she said, dusting a grey hair from his shoulders. "Ready?"

Harry nodded and as they moved together he swung his invisibility cloak over them both and took her hand. He gave it one squeeze then they turned into the blackness and were gone.

—oOo—

Somehow, Ginny had thought that Christmas eve, upon which she had never experienced any drama more worrying than a stocking that needed darning, was sacrosanct, protected from evil. Her fingers ran over the surface of her medallion, feeling the angular shape of the portcullis to confirm what she saw. Ginny knew better than to trouble Harry with a question in times of danger. The lowered gate engraving only signified being in the vicinity of an enemy, not an immediate threat - but what if he did not know? She decided, this once, to warn and support him. They both well knew the other would not respond if it was difficult to do so.

Danger! Take care. I am with u.

She kept a lonely vigil all evening, helping her mother with the preparations for the morrow but slipping away several times an hour to check the silvery disk and send encouragement to Harry. Fred and George were now home for Christmas, laughing and joking with their elder brothers in the parlour but somehow Ginny, who hid it well, was not really a part of the fun. It was Fleur who picked up her mood when they had a few moments alone together in the kitchen, carrying away empty wine glasses and preparing the final toast. Ginny looked at the clock. It was very late - only minutes away from Christmas.

"Ginny, you worry 'bout 'im?" Fleur sighed. "Do not fret, little one. 'e is brave, your Harry."

"You know? How'd you--" Ginny's hand trembled a little as she poured the wine.

"Don't you think I notice z'ese little things around the 'ouse? Even what people say about your Phlegm? And 'bout my Bill?"

Only the glow of the wine she had already consumed prevented Ginny from blushing.

Fleur smiled. "Don't let your 'eart be troubled my sister. V'e all stand togezz'er."

Ginny looked up at the older girl. She had not really thought of her as a sister-in-law before. Her perceptions did warm a little towards her. She felt suddenly very glad she had polished up the magazine rack ready to put under the tree for tomorrow. Tomorrow! there would be no tomorrow for her if Harry didn't get through this...

She felt it. It was not Harry's kiss but a searing skull-splitting, screaming pain on the right of her forehead. The wine tray crashed from her hands to the kitchen floor. She ran. Ginny knew the medallion would portray a dungeon even before she reached the bathroom.

—oOo—

Hermione screamed as she fell - then the blackness took her and the ringing sound of midnight's mass faded away. They took a bad tumble, she and Harry, as they arrived back outside the tent's protective spells. Harry did not get to his feet with her but writhed around, eyes screwed up tight. At least there was no snow here and the turf was dry beyond the edge of the abandoned railway line near to their camp.

For a while she was disorientated, wondering in which direction lay their shelter. Harry started to groan. There was blood on his clothes. She had to make a decision. Long grass! We camped in the long grass away from the track.

She tried to drag him but without success in the older woman's small body, and his cries dissuaded her from trying further. Wake up, Hermione! You're a witch, you stupid girl!

"Mobilicorpus!" Her exhalation misted and hung in the air and Harry, thrashing about like a hooked fish, rose to it.

Hermione found her way at last, guiding Harry past her enchanted wards to the concealed tent, and lay him upon his bunk. There were fragments of glass embedded in his face and atop his balding head but the dark stain on his right sleeve took all her attention. He cried out again, a strange, anguished sadness she had not known him to express before with such force.

"Harry! Harry!" He fell silent. Wherever he was, she could not reach him. It would be up to her.

Even with spells it took her a while to remove his coat without risking further harm to him. His t-shirt was spattered red and there was a darker mark over his heart; his right forearm had a messy, bloody wound. A growing scar was becoming vividly etched upon his forehead. Hermione knew it well. He began moaning again and his flesh began to writhe. She felt it too; the Polyjuice was wearing off.

"Accio glass! Tergeo!" She sponged his wounds with warm water before his own hair grew completely back - though it was more of a maternal instinct and not really essential after having used the spells. The cleansed arm revealed deep puncture marks from the snake and Hermione leaned back, despairing. Likely it was poisoned or cursed and she had no antidote here.

She looked closer. The cuts looked savage and raw but there was no corruption or inflammation. Why had Nagini not killed him?

She applied dittany and dressed the wound with a clean bandage. The other wounds now seemed little more than tiny cuts and scratches and a healing spell took care of those. Then there was another drop of blood formed and she cleaned that away too - yet his face was still contorted with suffering and he was crying out for... someone? ...or to help someone?

The Horcrux! She pulled at the slender chain but it seemed to be held back, caught up on a button perhaps. There was no time to waste. She lifted his sweat-soaked t-shirt and stared in horror - the locket was searing his flesh badly. Immediately next to it was his roman soldier medallion, as if drawn to defend the attack. Hermione struggled to grasp the horcrux, to pull it from him. The metal was icy cold yet she could feel it beating heavily like a living parasite clinging viciously to him. Without warning it began to tremble violently - no, it was the medallion!

She drew back, startled and afraid at whatever dark forces were at work. Only an unearthly cry of anguish from Harry forced her to try again.

"Accio Locket!" She shook her head at the failure. The flesh on his chest was burning, turning an ugly crimson around the evil artifact. Another drop of blood appeared and again she wiped it away.

"Help me, someone!" Hermione mindlessly cried out her desperation. She was alone. Distress hampered her thoughts as she tried to remember the spells she knew. It's just homework! Think! Help did come. It was the simplest of ideas.

"DIFFINDO!" She practically screamed her last hope at the cursed locket and its evil grip finally severed away from Harry's heart to be caught, removed, and flung with disgust upon the floor by a weeping Hermione.

She looked closely at Harry again. He wasn't calling out so much or so often now but he was still disturbed. Another spot of blood formed. She sighed. It had been her own blood dripping onto him. She went to the mirror and tended her wounds - minor cuts and scratches from the affray with the giant serpent at Bathilda Bagshot's home. Her reflected self was dreadful - more haggard and hollow-eyed, she thought, than when she had been the middle-aged Muggle earlier.

Hermione picked up the locket and put it on a shelf. She didn't care anymore.Let someone come in and steal it. Good riddance. Or, a voice said in her head, let a knight in shining armour come and deal with our burden for us - haven't we done enough?

And after so long - so long that she had come to feel she had won that fight - she considered Ron again. She indulged once more how deeply, deeply, he had hurt her and if she could ever forgive him. Would she ever have the chance? She battled away these thoughts. She would be strong, independent, and do the sensible thing. She retrieved the locket and carefully stored it away in her bag.

Before pulling down Harry's shirt, she examined the silver medallion with a puzzled look upon her face, but it was more quiet and still than Harry now was. Perhaps she had imagined its vibration - it had simply resonated in contact with the Horcrux. Resolutely, she tugged some blankets over him as one relieved to close a book upon a distasteful chapter.

She sat with Harry for the next few hours, occasionally wiping his face with the sponge and watching him carefully, but there was no way of stopping the occasional feverish cries that still slipped from his lips. She removed the bandage to check his wound; the snake's bite was no worse and had begun to heal. If only he could let go of whatever tormented him, she lamented. But it was almost morning before she finally managed to wake him.

—oOo—

Like Hermione, Ginny had not slept at all. She had fended off her family's questions about her alarmed exit with an excuse about drinking too much wine but she could not dispel her fears so easily. Neither of them knew it, but she had sat with Hermione, though far apart, tending the same patient, caring for the same young man in their own ways.

It was daylight when the harsh lines of the dungeon carved into the silver disk in her hand finally resolved to the more mellow, more relaxing outlines of a sailing ship. Harry was safe again and Ginny could, at last, sleep.

—oOo—






Chapter 26: Christmas Day
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Chapter 26


Christmas Day



"Neville? Visitors so early? On a Christmas morning? ... Who is it then?" Augusta Longbottom leaned over the balustrade and peered down the stairwell. It was still dark in the hall below.

"Only Hannah, Gran."

Augusta sighed and went back for her other shoe.

"You coming down, Gran?"

A faint response of suppressed annoyance sailed down from above. If any words were initially carried by this grumble they were, thankfully, inaudible before they reached her grandson below.

"It's kind of an emergency," added Neville. His voice first rose, then tailed off through a doorway.

Augusta Apparated rather hastily to the parlour, her face full of concern. "What in Merlin's--"

"It's Dippity, Gran. Hannah says she's worse."

Neville's grandmother had her second sigh of the day and it was not yet six o'clock. To her credit, she turned the exhalation into a spell. "Accio shoe."

She stumbled along and down onto a thickly-upholstered chair near the hearth, triggering a cloud of pine needles from the richly-decorated tree that stood there to shower down into the rogue footwear that had just arrived. It was too early to cultivate ill-temper. She patiently took the time to conjure up a fire in the grate then cast light to the candles on the tree as well as the wall sconces before shaking the shoe and slipping it onto her foot.

"That's better. Bring her here - let me take a look."

Hannah walked nervously over and crouched down; the little white cat was cradled in her arms. "Good morn-- that is, Merry Christmas, Mrs Longbottom."

"And to you, Miss Abbott, and to you too." The old lady was still slightly formal with the young girl having not yet formed an opinion. She took the creature to her lap and watched as its left foreleg was held high while it settled.

"She's limping now?"

Hannah nodded. "Yes, Madam."

"She was walking reasonably before... but, no excuses - it's my fault," said Mrs Longbottom. "It's very hard to judge how much Skele-Gro to use on animals and I was afraid of over-doing it." She shook her head slowly.

"Can she be helped, Gran?" said Neville.

"Yes, I can give her more potion but, undoubtedly, expert help is required - and lots of time to heal."

"I won't be able to... I'll... we'll be back at school in the new year so I can't really keep her at my home after that," said Hannah, apologetically.

Augusta looked up at her grandson in surprise. "But what then, were you planning to do with her, Neville? I thought--"

"She was to be a Christmas present for... Luna," murmured Neville. "Poor Luna," he added in an even lower voice as he looked at the kitten-cat licking its weak leg.

"Well then!" said Augusta, rising up with Dippity in her arms. "We should give Dippity the very best treatment so she'll be perfect when Luna returns!" The old lady started to walk towards the open doorway.

"Gran... I told you. She's..." Neville's voice hushed to a whisper, almost mouthing the word he hated to say, "She's... dead, Gran, remember?" He exchanged glances with Hannah.

"You don't know that!" his grandmother snapped back. "As I've explained before, until you know anything for sure, you know nothing!" She went out into the dark hall heading for the kitchen, calling back as she did so, "And I'm not senile yet, you know!"

"But, Gran! I can prove it!" Neville reached into his pocket. Hannah touched his arm and shook her head. His hand came out empty.

"Well? What are you waiting for?" demanded the stern voice from across the hall.

"Where are we going, Gran?" called Neville. He looked regretfully back to the wrapped gifts that beckoned below the tree. This was not the start to Christmas he had expected.

"We're going to the very best of the best. A family that has specialised in animal study and welfare for generations. They'll take her in and care for her. They'll not refuse a Longbottom on Christmas day no matter how unwelcome the hour!"

Hannah flinched. Neville grinned, put his arm around her shoulder, whispered in her ear and she giggled in response. They hurried across the hall to catch up with his grandmother.

—oOo—

The coldest elements had now monstrously reached out to Harry and Hermione's encampment to add to their gloom. Falling snow had been silently burying the disused railway line during Harry's long feverish torment and he gazed down at the long white depression which was the sole indicator of its position. The steep cutting, its grassy verdure now completely hidden, was just natural countryside again. Would their endeavours end up like that hard-won track? useless and forgotten? There was no comfort to be derived from the view before him from where he sat at the tent entrance. The long slope was more inclined than he had had time before to notice and the same wind that had brought this icy weather whipped the canvas hard and made him shiver. It was a more exposed location than he had originally thought.

Harry had experienced too many Dursley Christmas mornings to hold too special an affection for the occasion but he considered his position was likely the most unfortunate and most sorrowful of anyone at this time. Apart from feeling drained by his experience, his precious wand had been broken in the night's escapade, Hermione was again desolate, and it seemed they had risked all and gained nothing. He pictured in his thoughts the faces of all the many youngsters delightedly opening their gifts and squealing for joy throughout the country at this very moment. Harry's childhood had been substantially plundered long before he had become old enough to reflect upon the matter. His was surely the worst case of all and he mourned that loss along with his present predicament.

—oOo—

Luna let the wandmaker spoon extra stew into her bowl, silently allowed him to over-count her bread pieces, yet made sure to not reveal she knew it was from his share. One ought to let people give on Christmas morning she thought to herself. She had nothing to offer in return. Her captors had left her with naught but empty pockets and she felt sure Mr Ollivander already had some of those.

Though still frail, she had been lifted to sit up with her back to the wall that had been warmed by the old man's enchantment. He was casting wandless magic again right now, she mused to herself, with his finger tips touching, palms cupped together, and his eyes turned within himself, reinvigorating the dim glow that was their one source of light. Long before the hot stew had cooled enough to eat, he lifted his face and opened his hands. It was more than a lighting refresher; a beautiful silvery-blue flame gently flickered there.

"It's supposed to be a Christmas candle but I never quite mastered the candle part." He smiled. "It won't last long but I'll try another one this evening when my magic recovers."

Luna moved her hands for the first time since Rowle's cruel punishment: she clapped them with delight. The luminescence glinted upon the wonder in Ollivander's eyes as he wafted the flame up between them while they ate. He had thought hope had died yet here was someone, scourged within an inch of her life, and, he suspected, beyond, whose first true wilful movement thereafter was not of maudlin bitterness but of innocent joy.

He only needed to help her a little to eat and the meal did invigorate her further. Afterwards, seeing he had scratched a calendar's progress to defy the timeless stone, she badgered him for his only tool: a rusty nail. Then, resisting his weak protestations, for secretly he was grateful for any relief from the tedium of his enforced solitude, she marked out a Christmas card on the wall, with a snowman, flower, stars and an optimistic greeting: Merry Xmas, Friendship, and Plenty to Share! Finally she lapsed back against the same wall that held her greeting, wearied but smiling.

Ollivander croaked a little reply and wondered if anyone might be facing a grimmer celebration than theirs.

—oOo—

The first hint of daylight beyond Ron's curtain was never sufficient to remove the need for a lantern. It hung in a corner, illuminating a radio half-devoured by his rucksack. In his room at Shell Cottage, Ron sat listening intently to the static but his mind still echoed the final words he had just heard:

This is Potterwatch signing off and wishing you all a wonderful, wonderful Christmas Day! Stay Safe! Stay Happy! We know you will do what is right.

Remorse was a knife raking over afresh the wound it had already inflicted upon him; he was in a very low melancholy indeed. Gone forever seemed the youthful joys of Christmas mornings past. Ron wondered if anyone could be hurting more than he was hurting right now. Bill and Fleur were away at the Burrow, unable to make any sensible excuse to remain with him. He was alienated from his family by a debt of shame and with no means to pay off the deficit. That was not the hardship; he found it difficult to look Bill in the eye anyway. No, his pain was that all meaning and purpose resided in some far place, along with his affections - irretrievable and unknowable.

And would the possessor of his heart ever hold him still in her thought, even once? No, he considered her gay attentions were elsewhere. As Regret twisted its blade down unto its most exquisite depths, the static faltered; he heard, instead, the voice he adored speaking someone's name - and it was no one else's but his own.

"Remember... Ron? ... his wand?

The wireless hissed and crackled while he denied himself the utterance but there was a tightness clutching at his throat. The static resumed its neutral fizzing and Ron steadied his nerve with it. His hand reached out to the radio's volume control then drew back; it was entirely the wrong direction. The voice had emanated from his own pocket. He seized the Deluminator therein and pressed upon it.

The lantern glow expired and in its stead a truer radiance sprang up at the window, its blue-white brilliant sphere shaming the early tendrils of daylight. Perhaps its Portkey colouring suggested travel - or perhaps Ron just knew. A hasty note was scribbled for Bill and Fleur. The gaping rucksack was as hurriedly stuffed with essentials from kitchen and wardrobe. Eagerness drew him to the garden's promise.

With the trust of certainty, he surrendered his will to the light without question. The faithful youth offered no resistance when the radiance entered his heart to soothe its empty void with a fierce and intimate brandy-warmth. He turned... and was gone.

Ron was glad of that inner heat for the scene of his Apparition was an unsheltered gradient, heavy with snow. Like an immense white wave it tumbled and fell blandly away before him, silent and featureless save for the few blades of grass tall enough to dare peep above its foam. Along its lengthy base, a road or trail might have been entombed, but naught else had direction, for even the sky was one grey ceiling pressing down upon him. Beyond his own incline, the frozen snow-surf swelled around other banks and hills and on and on, each as deprived and depleted as this one.

He turned and looked higher. White-thickened trees, mute and ice-bound, straggled along to follow the line of the trail beneath for want of anywhere better to go. They were too few to offer much protection from the freezing gusts and flurries but he needed a route to begin his search and so he trudged up and along, back and forth, ever watchful for any indication of his friends. By this means, and for several hours, he worked his way down the visible section of the slope and then moved on to a yet further part, guided only by instinct and hope.

Harry and Hermione were here somewhere, of that he felt sure. He sensed it - and he trusted the light within him; it would not have brought him here without purpose. Dumbledore had not given him the Deluminator simply to extinguish torches and lanterns. That the camp would be concealed by enchantments he well knew. All he needed was a glimpse of someone stepping beyond the boundaries, foraging for roots or mushrooms or berries.

Sustaining themselves on this barren landscape seemed unlikely. Perhaps there was a rabbit warren recently covered by the snowfall he thought to himself. He took out his charmed food pack and settled down on his rucksack to think while he ate. He hesitated over a heaped spoonful of hot mash; he hoped she was not hungry and cold.

Ron resumed his quest through the afternoon, not going beyond the limit within which he was convinced they were to be found. Despite his lack of success so far, he felt curiously comforted and excited that the companionship he had forsaken was so close - as if he had simply stepped out from the tent for a walk. Hope is a wondrous thing when you have had to manage without it for a season. It was reassuring too, that he could experience for himself how difficult it would be for the enemy to uncover them. There was no sign nor sound whatsoever of the encampment that yet must surely be in the area he had tramped all day.

Eventually the cold invaded his joints and, staying in the centre of the most probable location - close to where the light had led him to Apparate - he pulled out his sleeping bag and curled up inside it against a thinly-gnarled trunk to watch and wait. It might be supposed he was distraught or despairing - but the opposite was true. And if he pondered much, as he slumped there against his tree, and surely he must have, then perhaps his thoughts considered that there had been one, now gone but never bound by family nor profit, who had cared about his welfare and the recovery of it. Yes, his old headmaster might have spared him few words in life but Ron had now a new appreciation of the man and more faith in the quest he had set before them.

Yes, there was concern, but he was not dispirited when daylight began to fail. A tiny candle in a jar was huddled within his bedding. He waited a further hour or two, hoping to glimpse a light or hear a cough in the darkness, but eventually he accepted the pair must have moved on under cover of night. He packed up, took out his Deluminator and clicked it. Again the warm, glowing sphere leapt up to guide him; again it entered his chest as a trusted friend; and, yet again, he blindly but confidently Disapparated, leaving only the marks of his trudging in the snow to indicate anyone had ever been on that forsaken hillside.

A less-friendly tree collided with him and he resolved to take more care when Apparating in pitch-blackness. He reached around to feel the extent of its icy bark and scraped softly at the ground with his feet; there was snow here too. This wide blanket of whiteness lifted the darkness very slightly, and, as his eyes adjusted, he perceived pallid, vertical lines to confirm he was within a forest.

Ron groped his way around the trunks, wondering if he dared risk his candle. The clouds relented and, through their haze, a little moonlight crept to encourage him. But it was not sight that alerted him to the presence of another intruder. Far off to his left a dry limb splintered softly where it lay. Ron shrunk closer to the tree he had been fumbling past and peered in the direction of the noise. There was a glimmer of illumination weaving softly through the woods!

Whether friend or foe, Ron needed a target to pursue, so he moved cautiously forward, gaining on the radiance but keeping well to its side and behind, in the eventual hope of observing who carried it without being seen himself. The light illuminated a creature he could not discern clearly as it was partly revealed then obscured in turn as it passed behind the thick, snow-blanketed growth of the forest. Too small for a horse, too big for any but a very large dog, it conveyed a gentleness that the most timid of either of those might ever express.

A wider gap between two trees revealed, just for a moment, that the creature was not illuminated at all - it was the light itself. Could it be Hermione's Patronus? - no, he had seen her graceful otter swim the air in many a D.A. practice session; this creature trod very daintily - but it definitely trod.

Presently, the light-creature emerged into a dell and its reflected splendour indicated a frozen pool beneath its hoofs. Here, the animal stopped and turned its wondrous head to look back. Could it be Harry's stag? Or someone else's? He took one step forward. The light cast only pale shadows in the snow-covered landscape but one darker shape that moved abruptly beyond two trees, caused Ron to pull back - he had to be sure. And now a second figure, also dark and moving carefully, was approaching from the direction in which the creature had arrived, and this tall shape, seeing the creature watching, abandoned patience to break into a sprint towards it. Yet, as the human, for now discernibly it had the gait of a running man, neared, the glowing animal faded and vanished abruptly.

Could the person be Harry? As he strained to identify the figure, it cast a brilliant wandlight precisely in Ron's eyeline and he blinked rapidly to clear his vision. At least he knew it must be a wizard. Within the flickering of his eyes he saw the figure crouch. Was the creature also still there? now darkened, perhaps? and hard to see with Ron's dazzled eyes?

Still unsure, Ron was as near as he dared without revealing himself, and reluctant to risk all until he knew. When his vision cleared, the figure was pale, near-naked. There was now little uncertainty as to his reckless intentions on the ice - and no doubt who it was. Ron opened his mouth to call but a thunderous sharp clap, as loud and piercing as a pistol shot in the silence, surprised his ears; made him recoil; the figure was gone.

Time for caution was past; Ron ran to the pool's edge and stared in horror at the broken ice. He inched forward on his knees and peered into the dark hole. The figure that thrashed about in the black water below could only be Harry - and he was in desperate trouble. There was no hesitation, nor thought of any. Ron plunged legs-first after his friend and his relief at immediately feeling his feet touch the bed of the pool was swamped only by the excruciating cold of the water. He upturned his face and was able, with difficulty, to gasp in one last lungful of air, then he ducked down to lunge at the body he could feel bumping against his side. He saw now the object of the folly. A brightly-silvered sword was slipping from the grasp of his friend even as he slumped into inactivity.

It was a mighty effort to heft Harry's body up above him onto the ice - and a valiant resolve, more terror than will, that made Ron lower himself one more time below the icy surface and grasp the blade he knew it must be - the Sword of Godric Gryffindor.

—oOo—

Ginny was unable to breath. It was yet another dark, dark night and a new terror to blacken it further. She rose from her bed, clutching at her throat; her skin was like ice. Near death, she stood in the loneliest place any soul might inhabit, still grasping for her medallion though her fingers failed upon its shrinking substance; it was leaving her.

She lurched to her desk for her wand but could not then draw air to cast a light spell. Now the same moon that, unknown to her, had aided her brother only minutes before in the forest, pierced through stormy clouds to reveal her plight. Her neck was white, constricted with suffering, and the silvery disk was but a fading idea with its delicate chain already forgotten. She recalled its dread meaning: the medallions survived only with the life of their owner. Harry was dying and she with him.

If life was so eager to abandon her then these final precious moments she pledged to one aim: she raised the last faint impression of the medallion and pressed it upon her frightened lips as all knowledge fled her - and she fell.

Love you, Harry

...

"Ginny! Ginny!" Molly had her arms around her, sitting on her daughter's bed. "She's freezing, Arthur!"

Mr Weasley cast a warming charm, summoned a couple of blankets out of Ginny's tallboy, and flung them around both their shoulders. His wandlight revealed the entire family standing silently within the gloom at the bedroom door.

Mrs Weasley was gently rocking her daughter and listening at her mouth. Molly's words began near-inaudibly yet they soon thundered with desperate portent as they assailed the ears of the gathering, "Not breathing! ... My baby! Arthur! Arthur! What do we do? What do we do!"

Bill pushed forward, searching the pale outline of his sister for curses, doing what he could do best. A great gasp from the young girl, the first of many, flinched him back a step in surprise.

"What'd you do, Bill?" asked Arthur. There was both relief and hope in his question.

"Nothing... Nothing but test."

"Ginny! Ginny? Mummy's here, darling... Can you hear me, sweetheart?"

"Mum... Mum?"

"We heard the bump but..."

Ginny's hand escaped the swaddling and tugged it away, arching her head down to see what must be there. It was. Her medallion, and Harry, were secure.

"Fell out of bed, Mum... Sorry, bad dream."

When Arthur finally returned to bed, listening to his wife's heart-rending sobs being stifled under the bedclothes beside him, he pondered how Ginny might have fallen from her bed to her window and how deeply the death of her friend must have affected her to cause such nightmares. A father feels his responsibilities. It was a long time before he escaped back to his own sleep that night.

—oOo—






Chapter 27: Dark Discovery
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Author's Note: I made a minor canon error starting in a preceding chapter: Bill and Fleur did not stay at the Burrow over Christmas in Deathly Hallows. They remained at Shell Cottage with Ron until he left with his Deluminator and probably after. This was not revealed in Deathly Hallows until later so I didn't see it in time. I carefully check all dates, times, weather, etc., but that one slipped by me.

It might seem strange to point out the above canon error when there are so many variations in my story that are not in canon. What I mean is that Noble Spirit is obviously not canon but it does not conflict with canon - it meshes in-between the DH story.

Many thanks for all comments and reviews. These are most welcome and very encouraging.

- Hippothestrowl





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Chapter 27


Dark Discovery



"Oh, for Merlin's sake!" cried Ginny. "I'll be fine, Mum - honestly!" Ginny tried to close the bathroom door.

"I'll be right here then, Ginny," said her mother as she was shut out. Her voice took on an anxious whine, thankfully muffled by the door. "Leave it unlocked - just call if you... feel ill or... anything."

Ginny growled to herself in frustration and turned on the shower. She had scarcely had half a minute all day without being observed like a Plimpy in a bowl. The entire family were greatly concerned following Ginny's collapse and her mother had so orchestrated everyone that there was always somebody keeping an eye on her. Out came her medallion on its chain; she had only been able to use it once - and that was before she went down to breakfast. Ever since, either Charlie would be lounging in a doorway watching her, or Fred and George would be chatting with her far more often than normal just to have an excuse to be near, or Bill would pretend to do more testing for curses.

They were talking about her frequently too, she could tell. Hushed conversations would end quickly as she approached or abruptly change their tone and volume and, no doubt, the subject: herself. She could inform them of nothing - nor would it help if she did.

Then there was her dad. She felt sorry for him. Her strange blackout had hit him hard - or rather, his inability to help her had. Was it imagination or was his hair greying around the sides? The worried look on his face had been there whenever she looked and his normal bright and cheery outlook had deserted him. He had spent more time observing his daughter today than any of them had but seemed unsure how to talk with her, resulting in a new awkwardness. Did he suspect she knew the cause of her swoon but was not telling them? Was he disappointed in her? Ginny let out a long slow breath.

Harry. Not able get away. Try morrow?"

She waited for a reply as long as she dared - long enough to pretend to take a shower - but Harry didn't respond. Perhaps he was also under continuous scrutiny she thought as she damped her hair, turned off the water, then turned and opened the door before her mother came bursting in to see if she had drowned or fainted or gone down the plughole or Merlin knew what else.

Ginny might have slept reasonably well that night but was vaguely aware of different visitors to her room - shadowy figures casting life-detecting charms from the doorway. At first light she knew she had better not lie in or the entire family would be crowding in to sit and do their knitting and count her snores. She sent one kiss to Harry with a vague 'maybe' message then dressed and went downstairs.

Today they were trying not to make it as obvious, so in a way it was worse. Bill was often to be found looking to one side but she knew he was really focused on her. The twins were acting too casually even for them, and Charlie... well Charlie was glum and kept suppressing glances her way. She was centre stage all morning so, as they started on the jam sponge after lunch, she decided she would put her foot down.

"Have to go into Ottery this afternoon - buy a few knick-knacks I ran out of." Ginny held up a shopping list of everything she could think of from talc to tights.

Mrs Weasley almost dropped the custard. She looked wildly around at everyone else then settled with a meaningful stare upon Fleur.

"We 'ave also ze shopping, yes, Bill?" said Fleur, in a kind of rehearsed way, looking at her husband.

"What? - Oh, right, yes, of course. Togeth--."

"Oh, that's handy then - could you get these for me while you're there?" Ginny said sweetly, sliding her list across to Fleur. "Then I can start on my homework." Two down, thought Ginny.

"Homework? Over Christmas?" said Fred slyly, scraping up his last spoonful of dessert and looking hopefully at his mother for seconds.

"It's erm... It was set to do before Christmas but I left it too late."

"And it needs handing in on the first day back?"

"Yes."

"Well then, if it's that important, George and I can give you a hand - right George?"

"Definitely."

Neither of them were smiling.

"Fine - brilliant actually! It's right up your street. I need an essay explaining the relationship between common transforming hexes, grouped according to wand movements and I haven't a clue where to start. If you could write that out for me then I can set to work the special quill you bought me for Christmas."

Fred looked at George. George looked at Fred. Ginny grinned inwardly. Four down.

She finished the pudding and took a cup of coffee to the kitchen window where she gazed out through the frosted panes, wondering how she might slip away to meet with Harry. "That gives me time to practice a few Quidditch moves on my broomstick--"

"No, Ginny," said her father, firmly. "We need to talk."

Ginny turned. Everyone but her dad was leaving the kitchen. He indicated the chair opposite him at the table. Ginny dragged it out noisily then, seeing her father's sad expression, she sat down quietly. If there was any doubt in her mind about the seriousness of the occasion, it was dispelled when he cast an Imperturbable Charm at the parlour door.

"You're looking a little thin, Dad," she said. "You should finish your sponge."

Arthur Weasley pushed his bowl aside and clasped his hands on top of the table. He looked at Ginny thoughtfully for a few moments.

"Yes, I suppose I have lost a few pounds recently - but In nineteen-eighty-one I gained weight - in the July to be more precise."

This was unexpected and, although Ginny had opened her mouth, she said nothing, but let her father continue instead.

"On the eleventh of August of that year, I went through quite severe pain," he added.

Ginny blinked rapidly.

"We both especially wanted a girl that time - your mum and I. Perhaps that drew us even closer together." Arthur Weasley's face screwed up with emotion at the memories and his eyes were bright. "We were blessed with you that day."

Ginny still did not know what to say.

"It's magical empathy, Ginny: the sharing of special, powerful feelings by magical folk who are unusually close to one another. Even Muggles experience it sometimes - though personally, I suspect some of them have a little magic nobody knows about."

"Mum said you ought not to know about Harry. She--"

"Your mother had to tell me, Ginny. She cried for nearly an hour the other night, did you know that?"

Ginny shifted uncomfortably.

"We really thought we'd lost you, Gin--"

Mr Weasley's voice choked off; he was fighting even more powerful emotions. Ginny was round the table in a flash and put her arm round his shoulder and her face next to his. "Dad..."

Mr Weasley's fingers drummed softly on the table as he brought himself under control.

"Dad, I can't help it."

"I know."

"He needs me."

"You recovered. I take it that means that... Harry recovered too?"

"Yes, he's fine now."

Mr Weasley nodded. Ginny summoned the coffeepot to pour another cup. She slid it in front of her dad then resumed her seat opposite him. Her father steadied himself with a few sips before continuing.

"So, you can even... convey ideas...?"

"Sometimes. Look, Dad, if you're thinking of exchanging instructions and information with the Order then it's not on. I don't burden Harry with any of my problems; he's got enough of his own."

"But--"

"Nobody must know about this, Dad! Nobody!"

"We can help him, Ginny!"

"Dad, Harry knows that. If he ever needed our help then he'd ask."

"Ginny, I want you to promise me one thing--"

"No, Dad!"

"You don't even know what--"

"Don't say it! I don't want to know. Don't say it, Dad! Don't say what I can't promise! Then there'll be no conflict between us."

Arthur Weasley stared at his daughter, trying to reassess her.

"I belong to Harry now, Dad."

Her father's shoulders sagged. "Lost you, haven't I?"

"No, Dad. You're irreplaceable... forever."

Mr Weasley looked at Ginny for a long time, his hands cupped around his steaming coffee.

"How'd you get so smart?"

"Empathy, Dad. Magical Empathy inherited from my parents."

...

Empathy or not, the family's eyes all turned relentlessly to Ginny for the rest of that afternoon. At least Bill and Fleur were out shopping in Ottery and probably would not return until early evening, and the twins were committed to being employed on her essay. But whenever she turned around or looked up from whatever she was doing, somebody or other was furtively looking her way while pretending to be occupied: scrubbing the kitchen, resting in the parlour, skulking on the landing, walking up and down the stairs is if undecided whether to skulk or scrub. Ginny's patience ran out as the hazy sun began to set.

"Now what?" Ginny said crossly when she found Charlie hanging about in the hallway as she passed through it. "Got a wart on my nose? Grown another head have I?" She flounced to the hall mirror. "Oh look! My arm fell off!"

"It's not funny, Gin," said Charlie.

"Wouldn't you rather be in Romania, keeping an eye on--"

"Of course I would!" snapped Charlie. "Think I like spying on you! We care about you, Ginny."

Ginny didn't answer. She was straining to see her reflection in the gathering gloom at the end of the day.

"Ginny?" There was only a tiny window in the hall. Charlie cast his wand to light the overhead lamp.

She remained silent. Charlie came closer. "Sorry, Ginny, but--" He saw something in her expression and turned to the mirror.

"What is it?"

He looked anxiously for some indication of illness, a rash, an injury - but saw nothing unusual; nothing, that is, except her white knuckles tightly gripping the hat stand below the mirror.

A dungeon looks like a dungeon whether reversed in a mirror or not. No point in running upstairs. What to do? What do I do? She shut out Charlie waving his hand in front of her face and calling for help; shut out the sound of running footsteps.

The dungeon abruptly disappeared from her medallion; the familiar ship sailed into view. Ginny's grip relaxed. She became aware of her mum and dad arriving behind her and spun around. "What?"

"You alright, Ginny? said Mrs Weasley, looking at her closely.

"Of course I am - just a little temporary excitement is all." She looked meaningfully at her parents' faces.

"So... everybody's... okay?" asked Mr Weasley, tentatively.

"Fine - we're all fine."

Charlie scratched his head and looked puzzled; dragons were easier to understand than girls, he felt.

...

The twins shut the door in Ginny's room and nodded to each other.

"What you up to, little sister?" said Fred. They knew Ginny was keeping something to herself and their natural inquisitiveness was becoming insuppressible.

"Right this moment I'm watching my Christmas present copying your essay into my handwriting." She observed with satisfaction as the quill worked away within her open desk. "I only had to write with it for ten minutes and it learned all my moves - even the squiggle I put on my p's and q's."

"Might be time for a few squiggles of our own methinks. Chinese burn, you reckon, George?" said Fred, wickedly wringing his fists in the air.

"Maybe time to check out my concealed hand-on-wand ready to hex someone, don't you think big brothers?"

George hesitated then decided a different approach might be less risky to his ongoing skin care. "Suppose we forgot to give you the giant-sized carton of choccy cauldrons that's under my bed as a Christmas present - but suppose we just remembered? How would that be?"

"Sounds like a feeble bribe to me," said Ginny, bending forward in her seat to examine the quill more closely. It was strange seeing her own handwriting forming before her eyes; this had possibilities.

George turned to Fred, jiggling a little potion bottle in his hand. "We'll have to use the bootleg Veritaserum, after all, Fred."

"You wouldn't!" said Ginny, without turning. She stood up from her desk and raised her wand clear. Reflected in the darkening window before her could be seen their yellowish, lantern-lit faces, but still she didn't turn to look directly at them. Through the glass, the shadowy figures of Bill and Fleur were hurriedly pushing past the gate, Bill running ahead, skidding about on the well-trampled, frozen snow.

It was a standoff; their sister had fought Death Eaters and the twins knew it. The difficult silence was ended by the familiar moan of the ghoul upstairs in Ron's room.

"Well, my tights have arrived, boys, so if it's all the same to you..."

The twins were spared the embarrassment of backing down before the dauntless girl by the sound from below of a great commotion followed by footsteps thumping noisily up towards them. The twins had Disapparated to their own room almost before Ginny could close the desk lid on the nefarious quill operation. The door swung wide. Her father stood there. His expression was grave.

"Terrible explosion. Was Harry with them...?" His voice faded and he found a seat before his legs failed.

"Dad! What's happened?"

"Ginny - do you not know anything?" His voice was a croak and he was breathing hard after his sprint up the stairs. "We fear... That is, Bill spoke to Granley in the village. His word... Ron and Hermione were seen walking to... dreadful house collapse at..." He stared down at the floor trying to think how it might all be a mistaken report he had heard; struggling to make it different from what he dreaded.

Ginny sank down to sit on the edge of her bed. Her hand went to her throat. There was silence except for Mr Weasley's heavy gasping and the odd, muffled scratching of the concealed quill. She glanced down to her medallion then rose up, went to the door, and closed it quietly.

"Harry's alive and safe now. Yes, he was in danger an hour ago - when you saw me looking in the hall mirror - but--"

"Can't you... Is there any way you can find out if Ron's okay?"

"Dad, I can never get a minute to myself alone, can I?"

"Yes, yes, sorry - I'll... leave you in peace for a while..." He got up and went to the door.

"You said Mr Granley told Bill? Old Granley at the paper shop? How did he know? Where did... Ron can't have been in Ottery surely? What if the Death Eaters hear about it? He's supposed to be sick in bed!"

"Only his wife saw Ron. Fortunately, she got back while Bill and Fleur were in the shop so Bill Obliviated them both about Ron. Apparently, he was with Hermione heading towards the Lovegoods - the explosion was at the Lovegoods. Upper floor half-demolished from what Granley said." Mr Weasley opened the bedroom door.

Ginny's eyebrows were high and her eyes wide. "Is Luna's dad alright?"

"We don't know yet. Bill and Charlie and your mother have gone over there to see if there are any bod... anybody still there. Lot of the villagers went. " He half-closed the door behind him then opened it again. "I'll wait downstairs then."

"Dad, I can't guarantee... I mean, it's not like a floo network. It all depends whether Harry is free to respond."

"Right then - I'll--" Ginny could hear the twins' voices from the landing asking what had happened and her father telling them to come downstairs with him. The door closed.

Ron & Hermione safe?

The question sent, Ginny lay down on her bed with the medallion to her lips and watched the lantern sway its mysterious shadows along the wall while she waited. First, Luna killed, now perhaps her brother dead too, only days later. And what of Hermione? Perhaps we'll all be no more than drifting shadows before too long, she thought to herself. Ginny felt she was sinking down into the mattress, empty and lost with nothing to hold onto except... She gripped her medallion more tightly. So long as she could feel it then she knew that Harry was alive.

—oOo—

Harry Potter lay back on his bunk, his mind racing through new thoughts. It was much too early and he was far too excited to sleep. Why didn't Hermione understand? He turned his head. She still sat motionless at the tent entrance. He couldn't see it but he was sure she would have a book on her lap. Ron had turned in before eight o'clock and was already fast asleep in his bunk - he would be taking over Hermione's watch in the early hours. The destruction of the Horcrux locket made that task much less onerous but how could Ron sleep after the day's amazing revelations!

There could be no doubt anymore: he, himself, held two of the Deathly Hallows and Voldemort was seeking the third. He held up the Golden Snitch in the gloom and touched it to his lips but, true to its words, I open at the close, it still refused to open. But another's kiss, and her more-friendly inquiry, added to his elation at that moment.

Hermione & Ron safe?

Harry stared at the message. How could Ginny have known? He drew in a great gasp as it dawned upon him. Ron stirred in his sleep but did not awaken. Hermione, if she had heard, remained where she was. The explosion at the Lovegoods' would be heard all over the area. If Ottery St. Catchpole was like any other English village then it would be the main subject for discussion in every pub and tavern this evening. Word might have reached the Burrow. And what would that word be? He had been under cover of his cloak as he approached the Lovegoods' house with Ron and Hermione - only those two could have been seen.

That was it! He sat bolt upright in bed... then lay down again. Ginny would think Ron and Hermione might have perished! He stuffed the Snitch back into his Mokeskin pouch then pressed the medallion to his lips.

Ron & Hermione fine! In fact, excellent progress 2day!

He did not know why he added that claim. Perhaps he was just so swollen with his new understanding of the Hallows that he had to gush it out to someone who trusted him while Hermione and Ron rejected and suppressed the notion.

Ginny's response came quickly. You're not hurt? Nobody injured?

Only scratches & bad taste from Gurdyroots!

Xeno OK?

Harry sobered up slightly and his grin faded away.

He was. Don't know about afterwards.

U know bout Luna, then?

Harry's joyful intoxication now fled him completely. He swung his legs over the side of his bed and sat up, picturing the strange, dreamy Ravenclaw girl alone in Azkaban and wondered what he should say to Ginny in reply. Words seemed inadequate; he knew Ginny and Luna were close friends.

Gutted when I heard. I'm so sorry, Ginny.

Didn't tell u b4. Didn't want 2 burden u.

Harry choked a little and lay down again.

Love u Ginny.

Love u Harry.

...

Harry did eventually sleep - but fitfully. Something woke him in the night and he opened his eyes. Ron's bunk was empty and, over near the front of the sleeping area, Hermione was getting into her bed. Beyond her, the low shape silhouetted by the fire outside the tent entrance would be Ron doing his turn of duty. Harry turned over and managed to doze off again after a while.

When he opened his eyes again, daylight was feebly glowing in through the canvas. The chink of porcelain from the kitchen bay made him aware of his mouth - extra dry and furry from yesterday's Gurdyroots. He got up, pulled his jacket around his shoulders against the cold air, wandered around to greet Ron with a hoarse 'good morning,' then helped himself to a large mug of tea. Ron already had his hands wrapped around his, trying to get them warm. The bottle of milk at his elbow didn't need a refrigerator. They both shivered and Ron glanced over Harry's shoulder to make sure he'd closed the tent flap securely.

"Think she's coming round a bit to me now?" Ron sounded like he was voicing a thought he had been labouring with all through his night watch.

It was too early to smile when you've not slept well. Harry glanced behind him at the sleeping figure whose arms were clutched around her pillow like it was a long-lost friend. "Takes time, I guess." He started to rise from his seat to go over and pull up her blanket.

"I'll do it." Ron went past him and Harry instead went to light the oven to help heat the place up a bit. He wondered whether to use the opportunity to bake a few potatoes. They were used to strange breakfasts when eggs, bacon, and bread for toast were not available. He cleansed a few of the largest spuds and put them to cook then, turned back to finish his hot drink at the table. Ron stood in his way. He was as white as a ghost.

"What's up?"

Ron did not reply. He flopped down heavily onto his chair but he did not turn to his tea.

"What is it, Ron?" Harry asked again, taking to his own seat and glancing around for enlightenment.

"Hermione."

Harry spun around. She was still there, exactly as he had recently seen her, almost face-down, clinging to her pillow. He could see her back rising and falling rhythmically as she breathed. The near sleeve of her pyjamas was pushed up and her shoulders and bare arm were exposed to the cold air but otherwise there was no visible cause for serious concern. He turned back to Ron for some explanation but Ron was only shaking his head in disbelief.

"Just pull up the blanket, Ron - she'll catch a chill in her back otherwise." It occurred to Harry that perhaps she had exchanged angry words with Ron again while he had been preoccupied in the kitchenette. "Did she say something to you, then? I told you it will take time."

Ron was a long time answering and when he did it made no sense. "Her arm." He pointed to his own arm.

"What about her arm?"

"Dark Mark."

"What?"

"She's got the Dark Mark."

It was still incomprehensible to Harry. He turned to look towards Hermione. He turned back to look at Ron. His friend's expression was now fearful.

"Death Eater."

Harry swore. He glanced at the bottle on the table again but it was definitely only milk; he'd bought several pints himself from a farmhouse some days before. He got up and Ron stood up with him. "Don't!"

"I want to see for myself."

Ron went with him, dragging his feet those few paces as if reluctant to confirm his claim.

Harry stared down at the crook of Hermione's left arm where it encircled the pillow, then sighed.

"That's just sore!" he whispered. "I've seen it before. Grazed it while scavenging."

"When? She's not--"

"Weeks... ago." Harry looked back at Hermione's arm. He had not, at first, realised how much time had passed since he had seen her arm in the washroom.

"Take a closer look, Harry."

The rash was faint and only the edge showed against the pillow - but it did seem to be a strange marking. He teased the fabric of the pillow away to see better. His eyes widened like saucers and if he hadn't have stepped back in surprise he would have been knocked back because Hermione suddenly awoke and lashed out to push him away.

She shrieked the reflex cry of anyone having a sudden scare from a close intruder, "Get away from me!"

"It's only me, Hermione," said Harry, backing off.

"I can see it's you - keep away! What did you think you were doing!" She pulled up her blanket defensively and cowered back into the bedclothes as if seeking protection.

"Hermione--?" Harry felt Ron's hand on his shoulder, pulling him away. He allowed himself to be drawn back to the kitchen table. They heard Hermione drawing across the hanging sheet she used as a modesty curtain. They could hear her getting dressed.

"What we going to do, Harry?"

"Do?" Harry was as dazed as Ron had been earlier. He sat down but Ron remained standing as if anxious and ready to act.

"I mean, it can't really be her, can it? Not Hermione." He was very agitated then spoke in a hoarse, frightened whisper, "What if it's a Death Eater, Harry?"

"It?"

"What if it's a bloke?"

Harry's felt Ginny's kiss and the silver disk, ever at his throat, trembled. For the first time, he blanked it out of his mind while he thought furiously back over the weeks and months. That Hermione had been acting strangely, there was no denying - and she had been keeping her arms well-covered even when it was not cold. Her angry reaction when he had playfully tried to roll up her wet sleeve once had not been like her at all. Then there had been the strange, alien look she had given him a few times when he had thought she was asleep. He swore again, this time under his breath.

"What colour eyes did you say she's got, Ron?"

Ron could hardly answer. He breathed out his answer hoarsely, "Brown."

"No - they're dark grey. I saw them close up once... dark grey." Harry was muttering, deeply absorbed in the recollection.

Ron collapsed down into his chair, moaning softly.

Harry stood up, drawing his wand, and turned to face the sleeping quarters. Now the memory of Ginny's kiss drew his attention and he knew why. Almost without realising it, he could often sense before reading them whether Ginny's messages would be pleasant greetings or if she was in trouble and needed his support. With his back to Ron, Harry fumbled with the medallion. He confirmed Ginny's words were friendly fun:

Morning, Harry. Love u but 2 sleepy 2...zzz...

Harry would have smiled in different circumstances. Instead, he sent his own demand:

URGENT! AM I IN DANGER, GINNY?

He lodged the silvery disk in the wide collar of the jacket that was around his shoulders, where he could see it.

"Hermione, come here. We need to talk." Harry's mind was taking charge again; Ginny had that effect on him sometimes.

"Harry!" Ron whispered, "Don't hurt her! What if--"

The dividing curtain was swept aside and Hermione stood there looking at them defiantly.

"Hermione - if it is you - what's that mark on your arm?" Harry was composed again, speaking with authority. His wand was raised.

Hermione looked from Harry to Ron then back again. "Of course it's me! Who did you think it might be?"

"Then show me! Show me your arm, Hermione." His voice was insistent, commanding. He could see Hermione's hand was on her own wand and he was ready to strike first.

A first hint of fear flashed across Hermione's face and he saw her wand arm move. His medallion trembled. He glanced down to where it lay in the crook of his jacket collar. No. U R safe. Wot gives?

Harry slowly lowered his wand. Then he put it away. He walked over to Hermione and her eyes glared back at him unflinchingly. They were brown.

...

"I'm so sorry, Harry," said Hermione tearfully. He had made her a cup of tea but she kept back from it, as if the mundane activity might trivialise her feelings and her words. Her voice tailed off, "I was so ashamed of it..."

"How'd it get there, Hermione?" said Harry. "Who did it to you?"

Hermione paused, dabbing her eyes with her rolled-up sleeve. "I did. I did it to myself."

"What? How...? Why...?" sputtered Ron. He had not yet worked out whether to be relieved or angry so settled on complete confusion as a convenient place to hide.

"I didn't do it on purpose," wailed Hermione. She wanted to cover up her arm again but the look on Harry's face stopped her.

"When was this?" said Harry.

"I'm not sure, exactly - around Halloween, I think."

"Halloween!" erupted Ron. "That was before I... I..."

"Before you abandoned us!" said Hermione, attempting aggression - but her eyes were still wet and shining.

"You know it was the Horcrux! It affected me more than you two!" cried Ron. "I told you I wanted to come back straight away but I couldn't find you! It was the Horcrux made me do it!"

Harry looked closely at Hermione before speaking, "It was the Horcrux made you do that too, wasn't it?"

Hermione nodded. Her eyes were sore with crying.

"What?" blurted Ron. "You're too sensible - it never affected you at all! You were normal. You never..."

"I was never irritable without cause? or selfish, bitter, malicious, or unfair? Is that what you were going to say?" flared Hermione.

Ron stared for a while as if some great truth were dawning in his mind, then he said gently, "Yes, that was what I would have wanted to say if I'd been wise enough to realise it. I don't think I've ever known you to be any of those things you said, Hermione." There was a look in his eyes as though he had begun to really understand why he felt the way he did about her.

Two little pink spots appeared on Hermione's wet cheeks and she turned her head away to look at the mark on her arm.

"It was in my sleep," said Hermione, simply. "It couldn't affect me much when I was awake - except to depress me a little. But I think when I was dreaming, it..."

Harry and Ron waited.

When she continued, her voice was very faint. "It possessed me. You-know-who possessed me. That part of his soul, I mean."

"Hermione," said Harry, at length, "if you were asleep then it couldn't make you do anything - not like with Ginny."

"Sleep-walking! You're talking about sleep-walking, aren't you," said Ron.

Hermione nodded. "I have no way of knowing for sure, but I think it was very rare and very brief. I'm a light sleeper you see. The tiniest bump or noise and I'd wake up. I only woke up a couple of times out of bed."

"But there could be hundreds of times when it put you back to bed," said Ron.

"I don't think so," said Hermione. "I just don't think so."

"Why not?" said Ron.

"In my dreams - I told you I had some bad dreams - it... that is, I always felt... frustrated and anxious and... trapped. Like it... I didn't know what to do to get free."

"Sleep-watching," said Harry, "and sleep-listening."

"What's that mean?" said Ron.

"I saw you, Hermione, more than once. I thought you were asleep and - you were - but your eyes were open, watching me." Harry shuddered visibly. "Not you - it was Him, You-know-who staring at me through your eyes! They were dark grey - not red but dark grey like Tom Riddle. It's an old Horcrux, Hermione, created long before You-know-who tried to kill me as a baby."

"But that means..." said Ron.

"Yes, he was listening to our conversations," said Harry. "He--"

"But You-know-who knows all about us then! Why hasn't he attacked us?"

"No, like the one in Riddle's diary, this part of his soul knew nothing about Harry Potter or any of us at first," said Hermione. "Don't you see? It has had to piece together a few things - fragments of chatter it has overheard. By the time it had figured out that we were You-know-who's enemies, I'd stopped wearing the Horcrux while I slept."

"And You-know-who doesn't know any of this - only this part of his soul!" cried Harry.

"And now it's destroyed!" exulted Ron.

"You destroyed it, Ron. You did it," said Harry, soberly.

For a moment it appeared as if Hermione would throw herself into Ron's arms as the enormity of Ron's deed finally sunk in and that she was forever freed of the Horcrux. The moment passed. Her muscles relaxed.

"But it marked your arm," said Ron, flatly. "Made you a Death Eater."

"It tried," said Harry. "But that's not a real Dark Mark. Hermione, the Horcrux daren't risk waking you when it made you use your own wand upon your arm while you slept. A real Dark Mark is branded agonisingly and permanently into the flesh. It's a deep red - and goes black when activated - believe me, I've seen enough of them. That's just a pale rash by comparison - and it's much faded even from when I glimpsed it partly before. It will disappear in time. Think of all the times he's summoned his Death Eaters since you've had that - but it never went black or caused serious pain did it? That's not a real, working Dark Mark, Hermione."

Hermione's eyes were shining again - but this time with relief. "It's not? It really isn't?" And this time she did fling herself into someone's arms. She hugged Harry like she would never let him go and she was shaking with emotion. Harry was mouthing over his shoulder at Ron, "And you thought she might be a bloke!"

Ron watched. He understood now why Hermione felt free to embrace Harry as a brother yet was inhibited from holding Ron so closely. He smiled. All was well.

—oOo—






Chapter 28: An Ill Wind and a New Warning
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Chapter 28


An Ill Wind and a New Warning



An icy downpour steamed a sparkling aura around Ginny's warmth enchantment. Its spray-glow was illumined from ahead by a low and straggling penetration of sunbeams which, though weak, found her magically hidden in the little byway to Ottery. Not that she needed a spell to inflame her heart for inside she was already radiant with anticipation. And if she had cared to look behind her then she would have beheld the rainbow glory that framed her approach to the old gate.

"Lovely." The muted exclamation came to her from someone ahead, rendered truly invisible by very old magic that would never fade and never fail, rain or not.

Ginny resisted the impulse to call Harry's name aloud, but she did launch herself towards the voice, trusting its speaker to be there for her.

Angelic halo met unseeable Chosen One and for a while the only sound was the rush and fuss of rain on leaf and lane, washing away the last of the snow and all impatience with it.

"Thought I'd never get away again this Christmas," murmured Ginny, when she could draw breath, "and then only on this last day."

"Let me see you." Harry eased his head back slightly and she knew from his leaning that he was gazing where her face would show.

"Not here," she replied. "I daren't be seen. I'm supposed to be in my room. Can't stay for more than an hour." She glanced around, smiling at the notion that anyone else might have a reason to venture out in a cold deluge to this unexciting scenery.

The rain's applause stopped abruptly as if affronted by her thought, its fizz and hiss replaced by a multitude of drips and soft, heavy pattering. The inquisitive sun slid back behind its grey curtains, satisfied with the performance it had witnessed. Drama was exchanged for a more romantic atmosphere.

She felt Harry twist in her arms to look behind himself upon and over the gate before he spoke. "Field's really muddy. I suppose we could Apparate right into the weather station from here now we know exactly where to go. What d'you reckon?"

"Let's just walk for a while. We can start back well before we reach Ottery. You'd better check if we're alone."

"Homenum Revelio." They waited a few seconds but Harry's spell did not reveal anyone in the area. "Nobody'll be out in this weather - it's downright chilly!" Harry shivered. "I can keep testing anyway but I'm sure we're safe."

So invisibility cloak and Disillusionment charm were set aside and they stood smiling at one another until she relented. "Come back inside my warming charm - you'll freeze out there. Why didn't you cast one?"

"I must have missed that class." Harry smiled and snuggled closer, his eyes nearing hers, seeing the shadows there. "You look a little tired." He saw too an earnest wish in her expression and he raised an eyebrow questioningly.

"Say it, then," breathed Ginny. "Say my name."

He didn't laugh; his longing was as great as hers.

"Ginny."

"Harry."

Now they both could shake together with childish laughter - furtively suppressed but for their gasps and throaty squeals. A tractor engine started up far in the distance though its faint harshness was quickly lost in the expectant air along with its oily puff of smoke. They took a deep, contented breath together. The only natural odours were of deep wet earth and leaves but being so bleak, they could not at all obscure the flowery scent of Ginny's hair. A stillness embraced the happy couple and they walked on in a comfortable silence.

This was the meeting which Ginny and Harry would most fondly remember in later years - not because it was eventful - but because it was not. There had been Hogsmeade's deeply-emotional upheaval, and the Shrieking Shack encounter with Snape, also Hogwarts' gate with its risk and tension, and then the sheltered intimacy of the weather station - all were memorable, but this little walk was uniquely ordinary. It conveyed a promise of quiet satisfaction and normality beyond the madness.

They shared ideas agreeable and pleasant - as though their future together was already wrapped, gifted, and waiting beneath some celestial Christmas tree. From the heavenly heights of Quidditch down to worldly food, furniture, and fittings - all were views exchanged to better feel the shaping of each other's mind and how they amicably fused. They never considered the dark seas they both must sail eventually - nor wasted one thought upon ought but themselves. They had their hour and did not begrudge that it was not two.

A great stand of oaks dominating the next curve of the winding lane, attracted Harry's attention. "I used to be good at escaping up trees when I was younger... Bet I still could."

If he had sought to impress his girl, he was rapidly disabused of that expectation.

"I've climbed these plenty of times," said Ginny. "Fell a lot too at first."

"What! That big one must be seventy foot!"

"Dad used to catch us, me and Ron." She saw Harry's sceptical look and added, "With a spell I mean, of course! Look, I'll show you."

"Ginny, they're soaking wet!"

Ginny sighed. "When are you going to forget you were brought up by Muggles and remember to live like a wizard?"

She pointed her wand at the tallest of the clump and cast a charm to dry it. The tree shook. Its leaves fluttered. The moisture bubbled and hissed away into the cold air. They began to climb but when Ginny laughingly resorted to hover charms for the difficult branches and got ahead of him, Harry was soon cheating too. He caught up with her as near the top as they dared and they squeezed together upon a sturdy bough and gazed across the Devon countryside. They were truly magical - these moments in the gentle tree-sway with the breeze sighing around the branches. A sparkle of movement through the trees around the curve of the lane drew Harry's eye.

"Didn't know you lived near a river."

"Yeah - it's the Otter. The road goes over it long before it gets to Ottery. We can turn back home there on the old footpath if it's not too muddy." Ginny turned and looked back in the direction of The Burrow. "Oh look - now you can see our roof from up here. This tree's grown taller since I was a little kid."

She became rather thoughtful as she looked. With the topmost glimpse of home and mindful of her father, Ginny asked, "Are we really doing the right thing, Harry? Staying in touch, I mean."

"Ginny, I reckon the noblest deeds are done to get something good at the end of it. Isn't that end result more important than all this noble stuff put together?"

Ginny was glad to stay with this proposal but Harry continued, "I don't care what they say about me, Ginny - nor what the Prophecy said. I felt compelled to avenge my parents; who wouldn't? It's that plain and simple."

"But not anymore?"

"Oh, I still want vengeance - but now I know the real reason why I'm out there, day after day, trying to finish this thing." He waved his arm out expansively across the land then, the allurement of the treetop dissipated by his mood, he began to descend the tree with Ginny following.

"It's for all the magical world now, isn't it, Harry? Everybody - Muggles too."

"No, it's not." Harry stopped, looked up at his girl, and steadied her with his arm. "It's for you, Ginny; now it's only for you."

Using a charm, they floated safely down alongside the wide girth of the tree then resumed their stroll..

"Anyway, it makes no difference. I can't do it without you, Ginny, whatever it's for. You know, at one time..." He hesitated.

"Well? No holding back now unless we have to, remember?"

"At one time I was hoping you'd find someone else and forget about me," Harry said mournfully. "My most powerful dream was also my worst nightmare - it tore me apart. It's not natural to wish that. I couldn't think clearly." He stared forlornly at a gathering of crows pecking the furrows for insects and worms beyond the scruffy verge, almost envying the simplicity of their lives.

He suddenly flared up, anger surfacing at the injustice heaped upon him, "Why should I have to suffer! I'm going to end this - and at last I think I know how I'm supposed to do it." The nearest birds fluttered nervously but hunger held them at their feast.

It was Ginny who halted this time. "You found it, right? Tell me you did."

"Found what?"

Ginny put her mouth to Harry's ear and whispered the name like a sacrament, "The Sword of Gryffindor!"

"How did you--?"

Ginny squealed with delight and relief, "I knew it!" She sobered up immediately as she recalled that night. "I knew you were in terrible danger just after Christmas - the worst ever. You almost died didn't you?"

"You were still troubled a bit deep down, weren't you?" mused Harry. "I mean after you tried to steal it from Snape's office and you thought you'd made things worse? I see now why you look so tired if you lie awake worrying over your medallion every night. Ginny, you shouldn't--"

"It wasn't the medallion - I felt something happening and it woke me up." Ginny said nothing about how severely it had affected her. "It was over quickly. You must have been very brave."

"It was Ron."

"How d'you mean?"

"It was Ron that got me out of trouble. He saved my life that night and it was he who recovered the sword. He was brilliant. If it hadn't been for him--. The sword can only be taken and wielded by a true Gryffindor. That's how it works, Gin. It needs to be got with a brave deed I think. And loyalty. Dumbledore said something about Hogwarts. I think it was 'help will always be given to those in need.' I reckon he meant Ron."

There was a new look of pride in Ginny's eyes for her brother. She knew now he had saved her life also. "And to think, I was worried he might..."

"Might what?"

"Nothing." Ashamed of her doubt, she turned quickly to find a new distraction and hurried her pace. "Let me show you our river." The lane swung abruptly around more stout trees then rose to a narrow stone bridge that arched across the grey and brown waters, swollen with the recent downpour and snow-melt. They stood leaning out from the span for a while, watching the torrent swirl and rush along beneath them.

"Dumbledore knew. He knew Ron better than all of us. He knew Ron could be relied upon."

They chatted and threw twigs to navigate upon the precarious flow, running to capture them again with their wands from the opposite parapet and forgetting all other troubles for a while. But time was as unstoppable as the current so eventually they came away to the side-turning to head for home.

The footpath was laid with enough slabs of worn, yellow stone that they could hop over the muddier patches and they made good progress on their return. With the Burrow not far around the next corner, Harry reluctantly stepped away from Ginny and prepared to Disapparate. He drew out his wand and cast a warming charm upon himself.

Ginny frowned. "I thought you said you'd never learned that spell!"

Harry grinned.

"You fraud - just so you could cuddle inside my warming charm! I've a good mind to... Hold on, where's your own wand - that's not your wand is it? I know it's not."

"Long story, Ginny."

"Oh, Harry... here, try mine. It might like you better. It likes me - I think it'll like you."

"No way, Gin. I'm not taking your wand."

"You've got to have the best wand you can. Your need is greater."

"I'll manage."

"Oh, Harry!" Her plaintiff whisper started the rain to fall once more.

"It's not the wand that matters, Ginny." Harry hoped he sounded more confident than he felt. He averted his eyes.

Harry knew his claim was weak and when he dared to look at her again he could see the disappointment in her face - a yearning to help him she thought she could never fulfil.

"Ginny, I want you to know - I meant it when I said I can't continue without you. All the support you've given - and keep giving me - I'll need the rest of my life to explain to you how important it is."

Ginny's eyes sparkled and she threw herself into his arms again. She had thought the young boy she'd had a crush on for years could never grow more wonderful - but somehow he had.

"We'll find a way, Harry - when I get back to school tomorrow - we'll find a way to meet."

Harry's nodded agreement turned into a last kiss, then, knowing delay would mean to weaken, he was gone. There was, as ever, a brief surge of terrible loss and panic in Ginny's heart, then she dismissed her fears and, concealing herself once again, she walked the last five minutes alone.

...

Clambering onto the train only just in time was the least of Ginny's worries. As the Hogwarts Express jolted away from the platform, she lurched a few steps along the corridor, catching the attention of a couple of Slytherins in an open side compartment. She didn't look - she knew well enough who they were. The eyes of Draco Malfoy and Astoria Greengrass were upon her but she could not care less. Let them snigger. Let them name-call. Let them go to hell. Just don't say a word against Luna or you're dead. But as she guided her luggage along behind her, she took note of their silence and wondered about it.

Her float-charmed case was no struggle but Neville still had the door open ready for her. They looked at each other grimly then Neville hoisted her case up to the rack while Ginny greeted Hannah.

"It's not the same compartment... made sure of that," muttered Neville. They all looked nearly identical to Ginny. There was an awfully vacant space in the position where Luna usually sat and her hollow sensation would have differed little even if it had been a Muggle train dressed in an alien livery. There was a physical absence that could be visibly seen and it sharply drew Ginny's attention like pins to a magnet. She filled that empty place herself next to the steamy, rain-sprayed window. Now she wouldn't need to keep staring at Luna's seat throughout the journey. As soon as she had done so, she didn't feel she was intruding at all - as though Luna's spirit welcomed her with a smile and a 'That's right, Ginny! Look at the raindrops! See how they scurry along like little crystal beetles before the wind?'

Ginny had sworn to herself that she would not talk about Luna so, naturally, the first thing she spoke about was... Luna.

"Hard to believe it's only a few months since we made this journey to Hogwarts with her," said Ginny to Neville. "All that's happened after - the D.A., the Trysting Stone, you and Luna together, the curse, your separation. It all happened in one term. Do you think she might have already fancied you before that, Nev?"

"No - she liked me a bit after that first Hogsmeade but it wasn't until the Trysting Stone that--"

"You really don't see what's right in front of you sometimes, do you, Neville," sighed Hannah. "All last school year she had her eye on you and you never even noticed her." Hannah turned away to try to stare out of the window, then rubbed away the steam with the palm of her hand.

"Luna? You're joking aren't you? Why would Luna-- What makes you even think that?" Neville jostled Hannah's arm to give her his handkerchief.

"Because I was watching you too, you prat!" said Hannah, drying her hand on the hankie. "There was a time when I... I wanted to scratch her eyes out - until I realised you weren't interested in either of us." She threw the wet hankie back at Neville but there was a dry smile on her face.

Ginny flinched inwardly and her medallion trembled with Harry's kiss. She remembered he had promised.

Neville frowned. "There were quite a few students staring at us after that fight at the Ministry the year before. They thought we were heroes! I wasn't going to tell anyone I was scared to death was I?"

"Neville - Luna was AT the Ministry battle," said Hannah, shaking her head. "It wasn't that which impressed Luna about you."

"What then?" Neville looked across to Ginny for inspiration but she gave him nothing. She wished she hadn't begun this conversation.

"The same reasons that I fancied you, of course," smirked Hannah averting her blush away to look out of the window again.

Talking about Luna in the past wasn't as pleasant as feeling her present. Ginny pretended to get something from her case then slipped out the door. She could hear her friends' exchange continuing behind her.

"Which are what?" said Neville.

"It's your extensive knowledge of magical plants, of course - that what impresses girls more than anything."

"Really? Well, that's one thing at least that I'm good at."

Ginny heard Hannah's sigh of resignation fade behind her as she turned the corner into the bend at the end of the carriage. She examined her medallion then pressed it to her lips and closed her eyes.

I feel your pain. I'm with u, Ginny.

It's Luna. Hard 2 handle it when I c where she should b.

Hang in there. It will pass. Think good thoughts.

How? Everything's hopeless now she's gone.

Never! Did u know it was she that helped me when Sirius died?

No. I didn't know that.

She knew she'd see her mum again. That's a comfort.

Her mum? She's...

Luna's tough. u know how she is, Ginny.

She was always strong.

Luna could deal with anything - even this!


Ginny's eyes were round as she walked back to the others, her head full of strange thoughts. What an odd thing to say. Was he just trying to comfort me? She did feel a little better, curiously enough.

"So, it's my teeth, then?" said Neville. "I don't get that at all because I don't think they're all that good."

Ginny managed to smile from the doorway as Hannah rolled her eyes at her.

"Well? Did he say anything?" It was Lavender behind her at the door of the compartment. For a few seconds, Ginny was completely baffled as to how she knew.

"Who?"

"Ron, of course. You did remember didn't you? You did tell him I still miss him? You said you would." Lavender's eyes blinked rapidly.

Ginny stared blankly for another few seconds then her eyebrows shot up. "Oh yes, of course. Poor thing can't speak though. He just groans and moans..." Ginny sat down in her corner seat again as she was speaking.

"Oh, poor Won-Won." Lavender's face clouded over.

"Yes, I told him about you and he desperately tried to answer but it was just too much for him and he passed out."

"Oh no!"

"Between you and me..." Ginny leaned forward in her seat.

"Yes?" whispered Lavender, coming closer.

"It's affecting his... you know, his drive."

"His...?"

"You know..."

Lavender's eyes widened in realisation. "Oh, no!"

Ginny nodded. "They don't think he'll ever be the same after this," she said. "He might need to spend the rest of his life being fed with a spoon on the end of a pole. And groaning and moaning. Did I mention he moans and groans a lot? All the time, really. Except when he's vomiting."

Lavender had gone white in the face and was backing away.

After she had gone, Ginny saw Neville and Hannah were staring at her.

"What? I did her a kindness. Maybe now she can get him out of her system. Find someone else. Move on. Yeah?"

They continued to stare. Finally, Hannah spoke, "Do you really have to put the spoon on a pole?"

"Erm... yeah - Spattergroit's highly infectious you see."

Did Ginny imagine it or did Neville and Hannah flinch further back into their seats away from her?

...

"Neville not with you, Ginny?" said Hannah. She was disappointed he was not yet at the first meeting of the leading D.A. members who had gathered to discuss what action they were going to take this year. While they were waiting, Hannah had been telling Terry and Michael and Ernie what had happened to Luna and Edmund on the train. Seamus already knew from Ginny and Neville earlier.

"No, Hannah - Neville's coming the other way round - from the library," said Ginny, then, seeing what Ernie was doing, she added, "Try 'Prongs', Ernie. Bill told it me."

Ernie tapped upon his wireless and incanted the name. Seamus, Michael, Hannah, and Terry looked on, fascinated by the strange, humming device with its flickering lights.

...far as we know, they're both now in Azkaban.

There was a rumour that Harry Potter was killed in that explosion. I promise you that no bodies, I repeat, no bodies were found in the debris. Rest assured, Harry is still out there, fighting for what is right. And if you're listening to this, Harry. We're all right behind you. Good luck to you.

Now I'd like to give some words of encouragement to the students of Hogwarts who are currently suffering dreadfully under Snape's harsh control as headmaster. Take heart! There will come a day of reckoning when all is restored to normal. Meanwhile, be extra careful and stay out of trouble until that time comes. For those among you who, with the true Potter spirit, continue to courageously resist those cowardly Death Eaters, we say Bravo! Play to your strengths and avoid unnecessary risks.

We know that you have lost one of your finest warriors over Christmas and this might dishearten you. However, now is the time to step forward with a new resolve, and a new courage, as you know she would want you to. A temporary setback is never the end. Remember that.

Back to you, River.


"Kingsley!" said Ginny. "He's okay!"

Thanks, Royal. Now, in conclusion we'd like to warn you once again about Snatchers.

"That's Lee!" exulted Seamus.

If you don't already know, these unpleasant bounty hunters prowl around looking for truants and Muggles-born then hand them over to the Ministry for the rewards. They're usually in groups of two or three or more, scruffy, asking a lot of questions. Many of them have a brain slower than a dozing troll so mostly just avoid them!

Right, that's all for now but tune in to future Potterwatch broadcasts. Next password will be 'Hedwig.' Stay safe - and remember, you're not alone.


The group looked at each other excitedly. They were not working in isolation; they were part of something bigger!

"We can do this. We can still do this!" said Michael loudly. Surprise showed on his face as he found renewed confidence within himself.

"Neville!" shrieked Hannah. The secret door to the Room of Requirement had just opened and Neville had stumbled through, gasping as though he had been running hard.

"You okay? What happened?" cried Ginny, rushing with Hannah to help him to a seat.

"I'm alright - don't worry. Just the after-effects of a body-binder."

"What! How?" said Hannah. She had summoned across a cup of tea and was pestering Neville to take a few sips.

"Waylaid," spluttered Neville, between mouthfuls.

"Who by?" said Ginny.

"Don't know. One... Slytherin, must have been. Didn't show himself..."

"What!" Ginny sat down beside him. "Tell us everything."

"I was coming by way of the fifth floor corridor and got cursed from behind. Then all the torches flickered out."

"This is why none of should walk about on our own!" said Hannah, disdainfully. "You should know better!"

"I know, I know," said Neville, mournfully.

"Go on, Nev," said Seamus.

"Anyway, I was on the floor in the dark, gagged and bound and somebody behind me dragged me up to sit against the wall. I couldn't see his face - barely see a dim silhouette. Said he wanted to trade information."

"What information? You didn't, did you?" said Ernie.

"What's he sound like?" said Ginny. "I bet it was Draco!"

"Don't know. His voice was altered. He had his wand at his throat. Said to nod if I agreed. I shook my head." Neville took another swig of tea then continued excitedly.

"He started to walk off then thought better of it. He came back. Only wanted to know what happened to Edmund. Said he knew Edmund had been meeting with the D.A. last year."

"Thought Edmund didn't have any friends," muttered Michael.

"Yes, well, he must have had some sympathisers who probably daren't speak out; daren't associate with him," said Neville. "Took my gag off. I said I'd have told him that anyway - all he had to do was ruddy well ask, not curse me!"

"Good haggling, Nev," groaned Seamus. "So, you showed all your cards for nothing?"

"No, I told him Edmund was killed. He knew that already from a newspaper. Edmund's body was fished out a river."

Ginny felt a chill sweep across her. Neville must have seen her shudder for he said, "Just the one body. Ginny."

"There's been nothing in the Prophet!" said Ernie. "I read it every day."

"Of course not!" snapped Neville. "A Muggle newspaper. He lit his wand and showed me. Front page news. There was an old picture of Edmund - you know those queer, motionless ones they have? He looked about thirteen years old in that. Muggle police were asking for witnesses to come forward."

"That's us," said Hannah, sadly. "Fat chance of us coming forward."

"How come you couldn't see him if he lit his wand?" said Ernie.

"You ever tried turning your head in a full body-bind, Ern? Ever even been in a body-bind? You want to try it sometime. I can oblige if you like."

"Why'd a Slytherin be looking in a Muggle newspaper?" said Michael.

"I dunno, do I? They're not all... They can't all be senseless You-know-who supporters can they? Stands to reason that one or two might have a brain."

Neville drained his cup, passed it to Hannah with a hopeful expression on his face, then continued, "Anyway, I told him what happened on the train - told him it was Death Eaters and what they did to them - Edmund and Luna. He thought about it for a bit."

"Did he give you anything in return?" said Michael.

"Yeah... He'd overheard something. Wouldn't say where or who."

"Lot of use that is then," said Hannah as she refilled Neville's teacup and passed it back.

"He said someone's... They're arguing about grabbing someone..."

"Who is?" said Michael.

"He wouldn't say. Just said it sounded like they were going to get..."

"Who, Neville? Who?" said Hannah, softly.

"Ginny."

Neville's cup rattled in its saucer and he steadied it with his other hand. Everyone was looking hard at Ginny who had turned rather pale.

"He said somebody wanted a way to get hold of Weasley on her own. A way to do it secretly so nobody would know."

"Oh, no! First Luna, now..." Hannah sank down next to Neville.

"Not going to happen," said Neville firmly. "Not this time. We'll set up escorts like we did before."

"Didn't do much good last time though, did it?" said Ernie.

"Bait," said Ginny. Attention turned back to her again.

"I'm not spending all term being surrounded by guards and worrying about being attacked. We lay a trap. I'll blow my D.A. whistle and you come running. We do them first before they do me."

"How? I'm not killing anyone so count me out of that," said Hannah.

"Of course not - we take them prisoner," said Michael. "This Room can reshape itself to be almost anything."

"Let's think about that for a day or two, see what we can come up with," Neville said cautiously. "Meanwhile, Ginny goes nowhere without an invisible guard of least three of us."

"Three! That'll be difficult to do every time," said Michael.

"That's the minimum," insisted Neville. "We try for more."

"But--"

"What if you were the only guard and two Death Eaters attack her like they did Luna?" snorted Neville. "They wouldn't hesitate to kill."

"We'd have the element of surprise if we're invisible," said Michael. He thought a little longer. "But yes, I see what you mean, four of us would be good."

"Plus Ginny herself, of course," grinned Neville. "She's worth two."

Ginny didn't feel like two at that moment. She didn't even feel like half of one but she tried not to show it. She changed the subject. "What else? Anyone got any other plans that the D.A. can do?"

Everyone fell silent so Neville piped up, "Well, Snape must've worked over the holiday and exterminated all the Liburina so--"

"The what?" laughed Seamus.

"The magical mould that's been spreading the wanted posters."

"Oh yeah - forgot it was called that."

"He's put down a magical repellent so we can't use that method again. I suggest we start off low-key and just do ordinary graffiti for a while - just ease ourselves back into the routine. Volunteers?"

"I'll do it," said Hannah.

"Me too," said Ginny promptly. She was impatient to do something and she also needed to assert herself. It was her way of overcoming fear.

"But that means we'll all have to come with you," said Neville.

"Exactly - strength in numbers," grinned Ginny. "Let me get my favourite spare wand..."

She and Hannah went to exchange wands for their spares from the lockers and stood chatting at the back of the room about what they were going to write on the stones. Michael joined them and began making suggestions. Neville discussed when they should have the first full D.A. gathering and agreed a date with Ernie and Seamus. The meeting kind of fizzled out after that.

"Ideas, people!" cried Neville as they departed. "Next meeting, I want everybody to have some suggestion - even if it doesn't work."

Ginny was pleased to see Neville asserting himself more. It took the pressure off her own leadership.

...

Over the next few days, three or sometimes four concealed D.A. members escorted Ginny between class and common rooms, from Great Hall to grounds and greenhouses, from library to loo. Nowhere was she alone, yet she always appeared solitary. As far as they could tell, nobody took any notice of her.

But Ginny spent more time bemoaning to herself that she was worse off than at home. It was even more difficult to obscure her use of the medallion because she was never sure which of her friends was stood exactly where. In addition, she was less concerned for her own safety than how she might arrange to meet Harry. As ever, it was a difficult time for the young girl but an opportunity arose from an unexpected source - or at least, information about it...

...

"Well, some of your end-of-term test results last year rather spoilt my Christmas, I must say!" said Madam Sprout in the first Herbology class of the new term. She cast the papers around to the students who caught them before they settled onto anything nasty in the potting trays.

"Today, we are going to revise all the enhancement spells yet--." The groans that arose from the students did not put off the professor who continued, "--yet AGAIN. Those of you with better than Acceptable can pair up and continue with your tickle and prune practice. Please DO remember which way round, Miss Midgen, won't you? It's of no use tickling them once they're snipped now is it? Except for the carnivores and those on the special list of course."

Eloise flustered a little and looked around, wondering if anyone knew whether the Puffapod in front of her was likely to bite or not. She was startled to see Terry Boot right next to her, face-to-face, examining her closely. Her blush deepened even more and she turned the other way.

"Try the fly and flutter brush," said Terry. "It's a dead giveaway. If they snap at it then they're meat-eaters. Mind if I partner you?"

"Oh, right," mumbled Eloise, reaching to the brush rack but then realising she had unintentionally agreed to let him join her.

The professor continued, "The rest of you lot need sorting into good plant persons with strong spell people so you can--" More groans arose but again, she continued without pause, "-- SO you can support each other where you are weakest. One speller and one planter together please!

"Miss Abbott, pair up with Mr Macmillan, please. Mr. Longbottom? Less chatter now! Pair with Miss Weasley over here with me. I don't want any conniving; you need to learn this."

"Oh, but Professor! I always team up with Hannah!" grumbled Neville.

"Not today, you don't. She needs someone stronger on spells - and so do you. And Miss Weasley needs your plant expertise."

Eloise wafted her plant with a fluffy brush but there was no reaction she could see.

Terry said, "So, it's not carnivorous, then? Or is it just sleepy?"

"Podders can't sleep," laughed Eloise softly. She glanced at Terry to see if he had been joking. He was looking at her very seriously.

"Oh... no, of course not. I forgot."

He's pretending. He's trying to put me at my ease, stop me feeling stupid, thought Eloise. Why's he doing that? She knew why and the colour in her cheeks deepened a little more. She was not at her ease - but she liked the feeling.

"Okay - get your clippers ready," said Terry. "You hold the leaf while I tickle it. Any idea if it has to be on top or under the leaf?"

"I don't believe it matters," murmured Eloise. He must already know that. And why did I say I don't believe when I know?

"Doesn't seem to be having any effect," said Terry. "Perhaps it's your perfume causing a distraction - nice scent can do that. The leaf's supposed to curl up inside then you can snip it."

Eloise, herself, was curling up inside. She meant to protest, "That's my hand your touching," but her voice was hoarse and almost inaudible.

"Oh, sorry." But he didn't move his own hand away. Neither did she.

At the far end of the greenhouse, Madam Sprout was closely watching Ginny cast her Herbivicus charm. "Excellent! You see how it's done, Mr Longbottom? Show him the moves again, Miss Weasley."

The professor glanced over her shoulder then lowered her voice. "You know, of course, that I spoke to the headmaster last year about your Hogsmeade bans - that such a ban cannot legally be longer than one term?"

Ginny's wand swerved and a dozen purple and white flowers burst forth from the magical star thistle that Neville was holding in its pot.

"Steady! Steady there! Oh well, six months growth in six seconds - probably be dead in another six." Professor Sprout leaned over to more closely examine the plant.

"Professor? What were you saying...?" said Ginny, excitedly. Her eyes were as big and round as the plant pot.

"Curious... very curious. It seems to be holding. You certainly have the healing touch, Miss Weasley. Perhaps you would care to try, Mr Longbottom?"

"Hogsmeade, Professor?" said Ginny. She was bouncing on her heels slightly and her wand was sparking various colours.

"What? Oh yes. Well, don't say anything to anyone else because it's not yet announced but the first Hogsmeade weekend is scheduled for the weekend after this one coming."

"And? Does that mean we can go?" said Neville, passing the pot to Ginny. He had just cottoned on to what Professor Sprout was implying.

"Go? Oh yes, I checked the exclusions, unsigned, and banned list and neither of you are on it so--"

Ginny and Neville each let out a whoop and a holler. The rest of the class looked up from their tickling and snipping and mostly forgot which they had just completed.

"Oh well done!" said Professor Sprout, standing to one side to indicate the star thistle which, by now, had at least thirty flowers swelling upwards to the light. The pot had began to crack with the strain of the extra growth. "Five points to Gryffindor!" She said this loudly for the class to hear but then dropped her voice again.

"What I mean is, I don't think the headmaster wants to lose face and actually tell you. He probably thinks you'll just assume you are still banned."

"Treacherous little git!" said Ginny, reaching for a bigger, empty pot.

"Now, now. Students should not speak about a Hogwarts headmaster in that manner. Only staff members are allowed to categorise Professor Snape's precise type of git."

She thrust the star thistle down hard into the new pot. "There, that's put the blighter in his place!"

...

There was rejoicing in the Gryffindor common room that evening and everyone swore not to tell anyone else in other houses - except for close friends of course and they had to swear not to tell anyone else unless they also swore. At least here, Ginny felt safe and could slip away to the girls' dormitory without being followed.

Harry! Hogsmeade! Weekend after this! Yes?

She rejoined the modest celebrations downstairs to await his answer. They had smuggled in some Merrygrimp's magical wine, Dobby had smuggled in some pies and cakes, and Neville had smuggled in Hannah Abbott. In the oppressive atmosphere of Hogwarts under Snape, any excuse for a little joy was seized, squeezed, and wrung out for all its worth. For Ginny, the atmosphere was better than her Christmas had been at any rate. Even Eloise Midgen crept shyly nearby but perched on the peripheral while they sang, and joked, and toasted pretty much anything they could think of. Occasionally she glanced down, touched the side of her hand, and smiled to herself.

Ginny was snuggled up in bed that night before Harry's response finally came. He could tell from his Marauder's map when she retired so she had the idea that he had deliberately waited for this moment. He held his kiss until Ginny put the silvery disk to her lips so they could share their feelings more deeply.

Wonderful, Ginny! B with U in Hogsmeade!

Maybe this will b our year!

Yeah, we're overdue some good luck.

Same place? at stile? Same time?

Yes. Can't w8.

Me neither.

Night, Harry.

Night, Ginny.


But it was several minutes later before they stopped kissing and drifted off to sleep.

The wind picked up during the night and by early the next morning it had gloomily awoken many with its moaning throughout the castle passageways and chambers. Ginny and Hannah channelled their protests to half an hour of marking with slogans the walls of some of the less risky corridors. Michael Corner had thought up some fanciful words over the holidays. The girls indulged him, though they giggled quietly to themselves that the declarations sounded like they had come out of Christmas crackers: Oppression Is The Father Of Resistance!, Dark Forces Are Blind Weaknesses! and ignorance Breeds Lies; Wisdom Is The Light Of Truth! Ginny contented herself by sketching a hangman sign with Snape is an arse scrawled at the side. Neville and Seamus stood concealed as sentries then they all dodged back in time for breakfast.

Yet still none of them had come up with any good protest ideas for the D.A. and by lunchtime in the Great Hall they were continuing to merely stir their dull thoughts around like the pea soup before them.

"It's a blank canvas," complained Seamus, rubbing his head as if to stimulate a turnabout from his dead end ideas. "All sorts of possibilities but not very inspiring."

"Library!" Ginny said suddenly and rather too loudly. She clamped her hand over her mouth.

"Watch out, Ginny," said Parvati. "Snape's got his nasty little eyes on you again."

Ginny nodded and managed to resist the urge to look. She lowered her voice a little. "I'll quit lunch soon as I've finished eating and browse some of the spell books. Might get some ideas."

"You're hardly likely to find a book on how to fight despotic headmasters are you?" smirked Seamus.

"No, Ginny's right," said Neville. "That's how I got my magical mould idea - just read it in a book. Ginny - you should work through the miscellaneous hexes and charms section. Might be something unusual we can use that nobody's thought of or expecting."

Ginny's escort guards were again with her after she left lunch early and headed to the library, so she was feeling secure. Neville and Hannah had slipped out a few minutes earlier and were already magically concealed in the passage outside. Michael and Seamus were to follow a half-minute after she went out.

As they turned a corner, two figures hustled clumsily into position far ahead of them along the cloister. A cold breeze flapped their robes and Ginny shivered.

"Go back, Ginny," whispered Neville invisibly into her left ear. "It's not worth it."

It was Crabbe and Goyle up ahead but their behaviour appeared contrived and suspicious - though it was hard to see why. Goyle was lounging against the wall facing the other way. Crabbe was looking over Goyle's shoulder at Ginny as she approached them. He muttered something to Goyle and Goyle shifted his body weight slightly.

"Back, Ginny! They're prefects now, remember!" came Seamus's hoarse whisper.

"The plan is to trap them, not run away," growled Ginny. "Let them try, just let them try something." Her hand was on her wand under her robes.

Crabbe's hand was moving outward and he too was gripping his wand. He was staring directly at Ginny who, to him, appeared to be alone. He could not see the other four Gryffindors magically hidden at her shoulders.

He stepped out in front of her as she neared the pair of Slytherins. Ginny's wand arm went up and she snarled a warning, "Think you can take me, Crabbe?"

Without warning, Goyle let out a loud bellow of pain and slumped against his wall, a dark cloud enveloping his head. Crabbe thrust his wand away, raised his open palms and called out "Help! Someone, please help!" He was looking over Ginny's shoulder.

Wrong-footed, Ginny stopped in mid-stride and felt her invisible friends colliding softly into her back.

"What is going on here? You two! What--?"

Ginny twisted around and was relieved to see Professor McGonagall striding towards her. She felt the breeze and bumps of her friends attempting to scuttle out of the way silently.

"Hexed Goyle badly, Professor, she did," said Crabbe, crouching down at Goyle's side. Goyle was trying to cover his head from the attacks of scores of flying bat-bogeys. His face was covered with the stuff and swelling up badly with pustules bursting like rotten carrots. There was a stench of sulphurous onions emanating from him.

"Help me! Help me, Professor!" he moaned.

McGonagall swept straight past Ginny who stood, mouth open, for once, lost for words.

"Get him to Madam Pomfrey, Crabbe." Between them, they hoisted up the ailing Slytherin and the two Slytherins moved off in the direction of the hospital wing.

"Well, Miss Weasley? I must say I did not--"

"It was an obvious setup, Professor!"

"Can you prove that? There are no witnesses."

"Yes, there--"

"What did you say?"

"Nothing. But it wasn't me."

"You are well-known for your bat-bogey hex, young lady and--"

"Hex! Call that a hex? That was rubbish compared to mine!"

"That's as may be but the sum total of Crabbe's and Goyle's wits together would not be enough to dream up such a deceit. You do realise I have no choice but to report this to the headmaster?"

"But--"

"If I don't then those two certainly will! Miss Weasley, I have warned you about the risks, have I not?"

"But--"

"You had better come with me."

McGonagall marched ahead and Ginny followed.

"Professor, where exactly are we going?"

"I told you - to see the headmaster. I was on my way to see him as it happens. He wants me to organise a team of Gryffindors to scrub graffiti from the corridor walls each day."

"What! He can't do that!"

"He can pretty much do whatever he wants!" The elderly professor stopped and lowered her voice, "Ginny, do you really think you can keep getting away with your escapades? These people are very dangerous. I've told you before. Cleaning the stonework will be getting off lightly."

"Professor... I was on the train with Luna. I know exactly how dangerous and ruthless they are."

McGonagall's shoulders sagged and she took a deep breath. "Then you should know better. Come along."

She resumed her walk with Ginny by her side.

"Where to? Why are we going this way?"

"The headmaster asked me to meet him in the library."

"So that's why! Don't you see!" said Ginny, excitedly. "He got ahead of me and asked you to meet him knowing you'd have to come along this corridor and see me hexing Goyle!"

"Ridiculous! So you did hex him then!"

"No of course not, Professor! I bet he told you to hurry didn't he? So's you'd catch me up. Right?"

McGonagall became more thoughtful at Ginny's retort and did not respond. Ginny knew she had been right.

Neville and the others had kept back, still hidden by their concealment spells, not wishing to give away their escort ruse to anyone - not even McGonagall. They watched the pair disappear around the corner.

"What do we do, Neville?" said Seamus. "Follow them?"

"She should be safe with McGonagall," said Neville. "We've got half an hour before the first class this afternoon. Let's go and see Hagrid."

"What on earth for?" said Michael.

"Just to see him, alright? He's a friend - a sympathiser. He believes in what we believe. He might know something we don't."

The walked back in the direction of the Entrance Hall, stopping and starting and arguing about what they were going to do. The heavy winds could be heard blustering and howling unappealingly around the castle walls as they approached the great doors and there was the threat of rain in the damp air. Apart from the occasional student, it sounded and smelt as is if most were still in the warmth of the Great Hall, enjoying the hot treacle pudding with lashings of custard.

"Well, nobody's forcing you to go, are they?" said Hannah to Michael.

"No need to be like that. I just don't really know Hagrid that well. I think we should have gone with Ginny," said Michael. His voice had stopped progressing along with them so they all halted while they debated their options.

"I told you, she's with old McGonagall. She's safe as Merlin's gold," protested Neville.

"But she might not be with McGonagall when she comes back," persisted Michael.

The other three stared briefly at the space from where came Michael's voice then all four started to run. Their relief when they saw Ginny walking out of the library back towards them was short-lived. She was stomping angrily along muttering to herself. They were about to call out to her when a door, hidden by a pillar, swung wide, almost hitting her. Ginny side-stepped and turned furiously to the opening, her hands on her hips. They heard her cry out, "You!" then, without warning, she lurched forward as though dragged unwillingly, and disappeared from their view.

Seamus accelerated and was the first to reach the pillar. He ran his hands over the bare stonework. The doorway was gone, and Ginny Weasley with it.

—oOo—






Chapter 29: Revelations and Resurrections
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Chapter 29


Revelations and Resurrections



"What in Merlin's name do you think you're doing, Greengrass!" Ginny's voice echoed hollowly off the shiny tiles. Her hand instinctively started to reach for her wand but she thought better of it with her assailant's own weapon at Ginny's throat.

"Cool it, Weasley - I only want to talk - just you and me!" hissed Astoria.

Ginny looked hurriedly about the girls' toilet but they were alone. While she still had her wand beneath her robes then one good distraction and she might get the better of the younger, inexperienced Slytherin. She glanced behind herself. A bland recess of glazed green brickwork, as cracked and weary as all the rest, was the only indication of where she had entered.

"What d'you do with the door!"

"I don't want any interruptions. I'm taking a chance and I've not got much time."

Ginny looked across at the single window. It had fixed, badly-painted metal frames and narrow iron slats at the top. No way out there. There was an extra-strong smell of a Rosewood charm in the air. The elves must have refreshed it very recently but they couldn't help her now either. She was on her own.

"Your poxy boyfriend put you up to this?" snarled Ginny, pushing Astoria's wand aside from her neck and glaring at the Slytherin.

"Nothing to do with Draco. We argued about it. He made me promise not to speak to you. If he found out... If... anyone did..."

The younger girl backed off a few steps and bumped nervously against a wash basin behind her. "I'm lowering my wand, okay?"

"Suit yourself. I notice you're not putting it away though."

Astoria hesitated. "Look, I owe you - for getting me and Draco back together."

"Nice way to show your gratitude, I must say!"

Astoria champed her lips and frowned. "I want your word - if I put away my wand, you won't try anything."

"Why should I?"

"I... I have information."

"And you're going to tell me for free? What's the catch?"

"No catch - I told you, I'm obligated to you."

"Since when did a Slytherin ever honour a debt?"

"Screw you, Weasley! Don't know why I bothered!" Astoria raised her wand again and, keeping it steadily pointed at Ginny, she circled around her towards where the doorway had been.

Ginny's shoulders fell. Likely she would be missing an opportunity. "No... wait." She raised her hands, empty palms forward. "I'll listen."

"Your word?"

Ginny sighed. "Yes - I won't try anything if you don't."

"And you'll not mention this to... You won't tell anyone it was me?"

"What are you hiding?"

"That's the price or you get nothing! You don't reveal who told you!"

Ginny stared. The Slytherin girl was white-faced and looking closer, Ginny could see she was trembling. "Merlin! - You're under threat of death aren't you!"

Astoria stifled some deep emotion, struggling for control, then gave a weary reply, "We all are. We always are." She put away her wand and looked as if she was thinking hard what to say.

"Potter and Granger are alive - far as we know. They didn't die at Lovegoods. They Apparated away."

Ginny snorted. "Is that it? I already know that, you fool! I thought you had some real information!"

"How'd YOU know? How could you know?"

Now it was Ginny's turn to hesitate. "They searched the place - villagers from Ottery went over there. No bodies were found."

"You live near there?" Astoria seemed disappointed. "Well, anyway, I thought you'd like to know."

"That it, then? That's the big secret? Can I go now?"

At that moment there was a creaking and splitting noise from the wall where the doorway was concealed. Particles of grout flaked from between the tiling and dusted to the floor, but the wall held firm.

"Who's that? Who've you--"

"Somebody must be really desperate to use the toilet," smirked Ginny. "I'll be off then, if there's nothing else you'd care to share. Nice talking to you - NOT!"

"That's not it."

"What?"

"Something else."

"What else?"

Astoria was shaking now and her jaw was trembling so much she could hardly speak. Ginny barely heard what she said.

"Lovegood's alive."

"He's in Azkaban. We already guessed that! That's what you lot do to innocent people isn't it?" Ginny let go a long breath and shook her head disappointedly.

"Not him - Luna, I mean."

"YOU LIE!" Ginny eyes narrowed and she took a step forward menacingly. Her hand went to her wand. "Don't you dare talk about Luna! Don't you think we've suffered enough!"

Astoria stared. "I tell you, she's alive."

"I know for a fact she can't be!" shrieked Ginny, her voice bouncing off the walls loudly in the confined space. "Why'd you keep saying that!" There were more bumps and groans from the wall behind her; they were growing in both urgency and threat.

"You have to believe me! Why won't you believe me? Why would I risk my neck for--"

"Because I have proof and it's none of your business! Now let me out of here before my friends break through or it'll be the worse for you!"

"You're with someone? They mustn't see me! You promised!"

"No I didn't! I only promised I wouldn't try anything here."

"But--" Astoria broke down and began sobbing, "Please... Ginny... please help me..."

Further along the sombre row of wash basins, several of the cold taps commenced to gush water so powerfully in response to the outburst of young, magical emotion, that it rapidly overwhelmed the sinks and cascaded from them. Ginny's blood was racing to her head too.

"You cowardly Slytherin!" she shouted above the noise of rushing water. "If you can't stand the heat you should have kept out of the kitchen! You chose your life, not I!"

The entrance wall began to bulge and smoke and strain. A tile burst off and shattered its fragments to the floor. Something was about to give. Ginny felt like screaming and never stopping. She lifted her wand, furious that the girl had invoked Luna's name, apparently for some practical joke.

"No... my life was chosen for me. You can't imagine what it's like to be a Greengrass." At the thought of her family discovering her infidelity, Astoria fell to her knees in the gathering pools of water. She had seen before what happened to traitors to the pure-blood cause and the memory terrified the girl.

Ginny was towering menacingly over the shrinking Slytherin and her wand was high. The air, already tingling with tension from the impending breakthrough, seemed, to Ginny, to become shadow-dark, the walls pressing in against her pulsing temples. Her outrage was a measure both of love for her lost friend and her suspicion of a plot to defile Luna's name in some way. Through the gloom, something brightly silver trembled over a seething hiss of water; above that, a face, white with fury. The eyes flashed but thanks to her mother's enchantment, the uplift of Harry's kiss would never reveal itself upon face or reflection; only within her soul.

There was a moment's ugly revulsion and shame as Ginny beheld what she might have been. Her gaze dropped from the mirror and she perceived how young the girl cowering before her really was - in some ways, quite childlike under pressure. She had never before considered her as weak. Now estranged and vulnerable, she appeared much less than her fifteen years. Ginny relented. At once she was astonished to behold the chamber was not at all dark. There was a lengthier, ominous creak behind her and the entrance began to emerge from the stone as its enchantment yielded and finally failed. Ginny stepped away from the expected inrush and pulled Astoria to her feet, dragging her to one of the toilet stalls. She cast a disillusionment spell upon the Slytherin. "You know how to undo this charm?"

"Yes," said Astoria, weakly, but with a first trace of hope. "You won't give me away, then?"

"I shall not - I'm a Gryffindor!" boasted Ginny, glad that she had found herself again; proud to be Harry Potter's girl. "Stay quiet till we're gone."

The floods of water slowed to a stop as the door burst inward and its knob of brass collided thunderously against a side pillar. Ginny flushed the loo then went to wash her hands but her eyes were on her medallion hanging within the veil of her hair. I'm for you, Ginny.

"Ginny! You alright? What happened!" She recognised Neville's voice and could hear footsteps splashing about amidst the gasps of her other friends; they were still all magically concealed.

"Sure - what you doing in the girls' lavatory?" Ginny was surprised at how level was her tone for she was still trembling inside.

"Well, I..."

Ginny wondered if his invisible face was reddening. She could hear the movement of the others but they had the good sense not to speak.

Quickly drying her hands, she gestured to her escort to follow her out. "When you've got to go, you've got to go."

"What happened in there, Ginny?" asked Neville as their wet footprints progressed down the corridor.

"Neville! You shouldn't ask such things!" Ginny forced a dry laugh.

"No, I mean..."

"Who was in there with you? We saw someone drag you in," said Seamus.

"Nobody important. Look, some fool tried a silly joke and I put her in her place. It's taken care of."

"What about Snape? What'd he want?" asked Hannah.

Ginny's face fell. She had forgotten about him for a few minutes. "Cancelled my Hogsmeades again - banned for the rest of this term."

"What!" cried Michael.

"It must have all been planned last year," moaned Ginny. "He couldn't legally ban me forever so I reckon he was always intending to invent some excuse to forbid me at the start of each term. He just hates me."

"What about me? Why's he not stopped me?" said Neville. "He hates me more than anyone. Always has."

"Don't know. Reckon he thinks I'll--" The thought entered Ginny's head that Snape knew, or suspected, that she'd met Harry in Hogsmeade before. But why hadn't he called You-know-who to lay a trap?

"What?" said Neville.

"Likely he believes I'm up to no good in the village. Probably thinks it's me smuggling stuff in, wands and suchlike."

"Why didn't you just show him your wand, Ginny?" said Michael. "That would prove you didn't cast your Bat-Bogey hex. We can get Flitwick to argue your case - get the penalty reversed."

"No, Michael - I confessed," said Ginny.

Nobody spoke as they digested this in astonishment.

"You what!" said Seamus.

There was the far-off clatter-and-trudge commotion of the other Hogwarts' students' mass exodus from the Great Hall after having finished lunch. It seemed a long time ago to Ginny that she had skipped dessert to go to the library.

"Seamus, everyone, you can cancel the concealment spells now. Neville, the tip-off you were told was just a joke. There's nobody out to kill me. It was all a prank to scare me. Didn't work. Thanks for the escort though but it's not needed anymore. We've got lessons to go to."

"What's going on?" said Seamus, as he and the others became visible again. "Why'd you confess - to what? You mean you confessed to hexing Goyle when you didn't?"

"Yeah."

"But why?"

A stream of students came hurrying along the passage so the friends pulled to one side and lowered their voices.

"Think about it. I was about to give Snape my wand to prove it wasn't me. Then I remembered. It's not my own wand. It's the one I used this morning to mark the walls, yes? I've not had chance to swap it back yet for mine. Well, I suppose I could have - I put it off really until later."

"Oh, Ginny," said Neville. "That's the whole point of swapping wands."

"He knew. Snape knew. He saw me reach for my wand then leave it alone. He was sure if he tested it then I'd be worse off because it would prove I did the graffiti. He's sly. He worked it all out beforehand - blame me for a spell he knew I daren't disprove. If I'd only swapped back my own wand then I could have gotten away with it - for now at any rate." She shook her head, despondently.

"Then why didn't he? Why didn't he do that and hand you over to the Carrows for punishment?" said Neville. "Makes no sense."

"Dunno. Think he was more concerned about me going into Hogsmeade."

"So you confessed to hexing Goyle so he wouldn't check your wand?" said Seamus. "But he knew you never hexed Goyle. He set it all up."

"Yeah. He got me good. Slimy git."

...

"Now it's just you and me, Ginny - tell me the truth," said Neville. "What really happened?"

Ginny resigned herself to Neville's questioning. She settled down in an armchair beside him near one of the tall windows of the Gryffindor common room and looked around before speaking. Parvati and Lavender were evaluating each other's tarot readings together on the great rug in front of the fireplace. Seamus was trying to explain what a postage stamp was to a first-year he was sitting with on one side of the hearth. There was a noise of someone dragging back their chair in the reading room but otherwise it was fairly quiet except for the wind gusting against the dark casement on the other side of Neville. He shivered and rubbed his hands together occasionally.

"Couldn't you have found a warmer spot this late in the evening, Neville?" grumbled Ginny.

"Want to sit near the fire? Want everyone to know?" he said in a loud whisper.

Ginny shook her head and paused before proceeding. As she spoke, the wind picked up again and the window panes rattled noisily, obscuring what she said.

"What's that, Ginny?" Neville leaned forward.

"Like I told you, it was just a nasty joke."

"Who by?"

"Can't say - I promised not to say."

"It was a joke and you promised you wouldn't tell anyone whose joke it was?" snorted Neville. "Must have been worse than one of my jokes then. Look, I'm not going till you explain! Was it about me?"

"Oh, for Merlin's sake, Neville. It was a stupid, cruel, nasty joke about Luna - you don't want to hear it, honestly." The glass in the window rattled angrily again.

"Oh, right. Sorry, Ginny. I thought it must have been something somebody said about me and you didn't like to say." Neville lapsed into silence for a while then said, "Why are some people so spiteful, Ginny? Talking ill of the dead is repulsive."

"Wasn't so much talking ill. Somebody was trying to kid me she was still alive. I didn't fall for it."

Neville stared. "That's just sick. You didn't listen to them did you?"

"Course not - we were there, weren't we? Then there was the... Luna's friendship flame."

"Yeah - that magic can't be wrong." He lapsed again into a lengthy silence, deep in thought. "Unless..." He took something from his pocket and gazed at it, held within his hands. A puzzled expression slowly spread over his face then he gave a start and glanced at Ginny.

Ginny had been watching him for a while, joining in his meditative frame of mind. As he lurched upright, a thought struck her. "You didn't! Is that the--?"

Neville had an excited look on his face. He held the little droplet up; it glinted silver. "Yeah, I couldn't leave it behind."

"Luna's friendship charm! Why?"

"I thought you might regret throwing it away, Ginny. It's a memento of her."

There was a look of almost revulsion on Ginny's face. "That teardrop only reminds me of her death. I don't want t