Chapter 8 : The Gathering
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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.
"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."
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.
"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?"
"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 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.
"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."
"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.
"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.
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