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.
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.
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.
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.
Luna raised her wand. "Loqui ad me!"
"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.
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.
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."
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!"
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.
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?"
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."
"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."
"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.
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