Chapter 11 : Leapfrog
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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 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.
"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."
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.
"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."
"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.
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.
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.
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..."
"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--"
"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."
"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, 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.
"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."
"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."
"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.
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."
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