A large tawny owl perched on a branch at the edge of the Forbidden Forest. She had watched her mistress take away lunch with great interest. The wise bird knew she could catch all the food she needed in the forest - there were plenty of tasty mice to be had - but still... She did not have to return from her delivery for a week, so a few hours before departing would not matter. The owl blinked.
Sunday afternoon with the Dursleys had usually been a boring experience but it did not match for gloom the one that Harry Potter was now enduring. Hermione had scarcely acknowledged his return. She took no apparent interest as he quietly stocked their cupboard with the food that Ginny had provided. There was no pretence of reading the book she held on her lap - for it lay unopened. Her face remained averted towards the blank canvas wall and Harry knew that even if she was not actually crying, she was always very close to tears.
He suppressed a rising sigh: every action, every sound appeared to carry more significance. Harry, himself, had also begun to miss Ron a little but as soon as his thoughts dwelt on his friend he quickly became annoyed at what seemed like his betrayal. In addition, Harry had to put up with indigestion after indulging in all the food that Ginny had provided. He knew he had overdone it but it had been the first substantial meal he had eaten in a long time.
Yes, his stomach no longer growled that it was empty but he knew Hermione must still be hungry. Harry examined the contents of the cupboard. The youth felt reluctant to prepare anything hot - in his mind's eye he saw it going cold while Hermione was distracted by grief. A salad ought to be safe enough.
Years of servitude in his aunt's just-so kitchen struck him as worthwhile for once. The young man prepared the vegetables, cut some slices from the ham and added a little cheese. The tray he placed on a chair which he carefully manoeuvred close to Hermione without intruding on her silence. He paused for a few moments looking at the back of her hair which somehow seemed the closer and more intimate because of the great emotional distance between them. She was totally alone in her pain where no one could help her. Again, he stifled a deep breath that might be misunderstood, then went outside to give her some space: he did not want Hermione to feel guilty about eating during her distress.
A stool stood close to the tent but he lifted it a little further away before sitting down. As he settled himself, he pulled up his collar against the wind which moved, unchecked, through the heather around him. His hand touched Slytherin's locket. After returning from the shack at Hogsmeade he resolved that Hermione would have to suffer its influence as little as possible. She slept much better without it and didn't complain about bad dreams. He knew Ginny would help dispel his own anxiety and depression that the horcrux would inevitably evoke.
He gazed down the hillside upon which they were camped and resolutely dug his hands into his pockets to wait and watch. His thoughts cycled through his pity for Hermione, his annoyance with Ron, then inevitably to Ginny's welfare and desire for her company. The castle engraved on his medallion had told him she had returned safely to Hogwarts; at least he need not worry about her. He was wrong.
As ever, he thrilled at Ginny's kiss, yet almost at once, sensed her alarm. He saw the dungeon engraving even before he began to read:
Need U bad. B strong 4 me.
The stool was knocked sideways down the slope as Harry leapt to his feet, fumbling for his map. He stared in dismay when he realised where Ginny was headed.
The stairs up to the headmaster's office were as dimly lit as ever and once past the central torch, Ginny could safely peek at her medallion in deep shadow without being seen by the Carrows behind - or Snape in front.
Staying with U thru this. ICU. Strong 4U
His on-going kiss was more than hand-holding; it seemed to give her the strength and courage to face whatever lay in store. Perhaps rather, it gave heart to the courage she already possessed.
"IN!" Ginny could see Snape pushing Neville and Luna ahead of himself into the headmaster's office.
Three chairs moved themselves soundlessly before the desk and Snape, walking behind it, wordlessly indicated the three youngsters should sit. Alecto Carrow took up position off to one side, her expression a mix - only a Carrow mentality could display fury, malice, and delight all at the same time. Ginny glanced back at the door. Amycus stood guarding it; his face showed both a gloat and a glare, as if he were daring her to try to escape.
"The time for games is over," said Snape ominously as he sat down. "Someone, perhaps more than one person, has been... out of bounds. Confess and I shall--"
"But we've not--" began Neville.
"SILENCE!" cried Snape. "Enquiries have been made and I am satisfied that most of the usual suspects can reasonably account for their whereabouts. Many are still visiting Hogsmeade... However, that leaves you three whom I have left till now so as to be more certain. There is... no doubt in my mind that... at least one of you is... guilty."
He stared at them in turn but his gaze was not returned. Luna was smiling at the Sorting Hat. Neville eyes were directed past the side of Snape's long dark hair at the empty sword cabinet behind. Ginny's head had sunk low, blocking out her surroundings and living in Harry's on-going kisses. Snape glared at her.
"I will start with you as the most likely -- You WILL look at me, Miss Weasley!"
Snape's wand moved slowly and Ginny felt her head forced back against her will. Neville jumped to his feet instantly. "You'll have to kill me."
"What!" snarled Snape, he turned sharply to Neville - but he could no longer see the timid child he used to dominate.
"If you try that again on Ginny - what you did before," said Neville very firmly, "then so long as I live and breath I shall take the first opportunity to end your miserable life - no matter what the consequences."
Snape appeared too astonished to speak for a second or two but Alecto's wand flashed quickly, almost before Neville had finished. "Crucio!"
Neville staggered and sank to his knees. Snape recovered and Alecto's wand arm was flung up and back.
"DESIST!" cried Snape, "I want them coherent, you fool!"
Luna helped Neville onto his chair. The torture curse had lasted only a second but the shock to the body and mind was traumatic and weakening.
"How dare you threaten me--" began Snape.
Luna stood up to face Snape. "I too, pledge. You'll have to kill me as well."
Ginny was alarmed and sprang up beside Luna. "There's no need!" She stared venomously directly at Snape. "I have nothing to hide - but now I know a way to resist you! I've done it before. This time I shall not yield. It will kill me but I will not give way."
Snape's face, already pallid, turned even whiter and he gripped his wand ever more tightly. "What... makes you think I have any interest in whether you--"
"The truth will spread far and wide," said Luna. "The world will know."
"And how do you propose that might--"
"It is already out there," said Luna, "should anything happen to us; if all three of us were to disappear..."
"WHAT!" roared the headmaster, jumping to his feet and leaning forward angrily over his desk. "--What have you done!"
Luna spoke as though reciting from some future history, "The Great Uprising of 1997 began when three innocent young children, all of long-established pure-blood families, were murdered by the known Death Eater, Severus Snape, Headmaster-by-force of Hogwarts, merely because of a false charge of being out of bounds. Thousands of witches and wizards thronged to the Cause, eager and willing to fight back against the dark forces of evil that openly murdered their offspring." She quietly lowered herself to her chair. Ginny sat down with her. Neville tried to sit upright. He twisted and stretched his limbs to test them and rubbed at his head and face; the pain had been everywhere.
Alecto was still massaging her sore wand arm and remained silent, leaving Snape to deal with the situation. Amycus at the door spluttered and muttered but kept his distance. Snape sank down into his own chair and stared at the Ravenclaw girl.
"You silly, meddlesome fool," he snarled eventually." You have no idea what you are doing. Do you seriously think that you three have special privileges? That you are somehow, safe?"
"We are for now," said Luna quietly.
"That can change," said Snape, rising to his feet again. He turned to a cabinet behind him and drew out a polished mahogany box which he placed on his desk.
"There are other ways of getting at the truth." said Snape.
He lifted the lid off the container. It contained several potion vials. Neville's eyes widened.
"I see you recognise Veritaserum, Longbottom," said the headmaster. "We'll start with you. A few drops of this will loosen your tongue."
He turned to Alecto. "Hold him... and no more than that."
Alecto's wand arm flashed and her eyes glittered at the chance to act. Neville felt himself invisibly gripped and his jaw gaped wide.
"It's alright, Neville, I've heard it doesn't taste nasty at all," piped up Luna with a smile.
"QUIET! You will be next," the headmaster snarled as he applied a few droplets to Neville's tongue.
Snape recorked the vial and waited. A strange feeling passed over Neville and his eyes widened and lost focus. He wondered if he could fight the potion somehow.
"Now, Longbottom, you will answer me," said Snape. "Tell me what you did when you went into the Shrieking Shack around lunchtime."
"I did not go to the shack - I've never been in the shack," said Neville. His voice sounded distant, alienated. "I stayed in the common room studying from late morning till well after lunch. I didn't go out. I never even went to lunch."
"Then you will have seen Weasley leave, did you not?"
"I never saw her go out." Neville felt a rush of gratitude towards providence that he had been a little late getting to the common room. "Earlier, she told me she was sick."
"You saw her?"
"No - only the girls can get into their dormitory."
"How convenient." Snape thought for a moment. "But you must have seen her when she returned?"
"She came down from the dormitory, later, yes."
"I meant when she came back from outside!" the headmaster snapped.
"I never saw her come in from outside." Neville recalled that Ginny whispered as she had passed him but all he had seen was a smudge of dirt going by.
"You must have! Where were you seated? How could you--"
"I sat in my favourite chair near the fireplace. I had a clear view of the entrance. I was facing it."
Snape was clearly perplexed. This was not what he had expected. He turned angrily to Luna.
"But Professor Snape, you saw me on the Entrance steps! I could not have been elsewhere--"
"NEVERTHELESS - you will take the serum. No exceptions."
After receiving the drops of liquid, Luna uttered happily, "Oh, it really isn't unpleasant at all!"
Soon after that she slumped back in her chair and her eyes closed.
"Lovegood - you will answer me truthfully. You were seen at lunch in the Great Hall but you left early. Tell me why you left and where and when you went."
"I left the Great Hall because I was very sad that my boyfriend hadn't turned up as he had promised," began Luna. "I thought perhaps he had forgotten. He can be very forgetful at times."
Neville had not yet recovered. He still felt very odd as he tried to look sideways at Luna.
"I don't want every foolish detail of your immature sentiments!" growled Snape. "The essentials will do."
"I went outside and walked around near the forest then to the Herbology Gardens and finally I got back to the Entrance Hall steps to wait for my date. I got there very early but he was late. I waited over forty-five minutes."
"You don't seem to have much luck with your boyfriends do you, Lovegood?" sneered the headmaster. "When did--"
"I wouldn't say that. I think I'm blessed with a wonderful boyfriend." Neville squirmed weakly in his chair.
Snape waved a hand dismissively. "When did you see Miss Weasley come in - at what time?"
"I never saw Ginny come in."
Snape gritted his teeth. "I repeat - you must have seen Weasley come in did you not?"
"No - I definitely did not see her."
Snape frowned and turned to Ginny. "You may have covered your tracks well but you cannot cheat this..." He held up the Veritaserum.
Ginny closed her eyes tight and focused on Harry's kisses but she could not resist when she felt herself bound and Snape applied the drops of Veritaserum. Eventually she sagged back in her chair and her eyes opened, distantly staring.
"Whom did you meet at the Shrieking Shack today?" Snape said immediately.
"Nobody. I did not meet anyone at the shack."
"Who..." Snape thought for a moment. "Whom did you see at the Shack today?"
"Nobody. I was never at the shack."
Snape stared. "When and where did you last meet with Harry Potter and what took place at that meeting?"
"I last met Harry Potter at Professor Dumbledore's funeral when he said he did not want to speak to me ever again."
Now it was Snape's turn to sink back in his chair. He stood up eventually and went over to Alecto, signalling to Amycus to join them.
"It seems I was... wrong," murmured Snape thoughtfully.
"Some blasted, bludgerin' sparkwaver got in there!" said Amycus."The 'ob was still warm; the floor weh' swept!"
"No doubt - and not, I think, anyone from this school..."
"P'raps 'e was on 'is own?" said Amycus, "Potter, I mean?"
"Perhaps... Possibly not him at all. There are plenty of runaways and wanderers looking for a place to hide. They must have..." Snape paused. "From now on... Make sure there are anti-Apparation jinxes set up in Hogsmeade."
"Can't durin' the day - too much business goin' on."
"At least at night - and seal off the passage to the shack - close all the passages."
"'ow? The Castle conjures 'em up - they're enchanted. Won't be easy..."
"Find a way!" snarled Snape. "Find a way before the start of the new year! They cannot be removed but they can be blocked. Post a Death Eater in the shack until then; it is a weakness - but it might be of use to us. And patrol the physical boundaries of Hogsmeade - all ways in and out. If Potter is sighted I want him brought straight to me!"
"Thing is, a report 'as been sent to the Dark Lord," wheezed Alecto anxiously. Fear shone in her eyes.
"Some animal could 'ave got in!" said Amycus, "a rat..."
"You would attempt to deceive the Dark Lord?" said Snape.
"We din't tell 'im it was Potter, did we?" persisted Amycus. "We on'y reported somethin' in the shack. We could stick a dead... There's that blasted little cat gets out the garden I seen it - we can stuff that in there and blast the beggar!"
Neville squirmed a little in his chair and waved an arm weakly. "No!"
"I will have none of it," said Snape. "Do as you will."
"What about these three?" said Alecto, her eyes gleaming with hope.
"When they've recovered, they can go. I've had enough of them," said Snape. "I don't trust them at all but they were not involved in this. However... we must tighten up security. Issue a new decree forbidding gatherings of more than two students - or any unauthorised groups or societies - within the castle, the grounds, or Hogsmeade - anywhere!"
Alecto beamed and rubbed her hands together.
"I'll get the kitty - or it's mother." Amycus headed for the door. "Gotta do it quick before I send word,"
"The mother's a good ratter," pleaded Alecto, running after him. "The garden'll be overrun with vermin! You know how I 'ate 'em! Next thing there'll be in 'ere! The kitten's useless! What use is a kitten?"
"Alright, alright, kitten it is," said Amycus as they went out the door and down the stairs. "Else a rat'll 'ave to do."
Neville floundered about in his chair trying to protest. Ginny and Luna were still slumped in their seats. Snape went back around his desk and put away his potions. He thought for a long while before he spoke.
"It has been brought to my attention that the maximum length of any ban on Hogsmeade visits is one school term. I shall, therefore, lift your current ban at the end of the year. However... let me caution each of you. You may be under the mistaken impression that you can defy my authority and get away with it. I will give you this last warning. You have gone way beyond what will be tolerated in the future. This is not a game. Any further misdemeanours or... any kind of provocation or troublemaking ... and no impotent, childish threat against myself will save you. Is that clear?"
The three continued to flop limply in their chairs but Snape knew they had heard and understood him. He swept his wand across them. "Out! Get out of my office. I do not want to see you in here again!"
"We were dead lucky to get away with that!" gasped Neville breathlessly as he anxiously ran down the stairs with Luna, "Snape didn't realise, when he countered the effects of the Veritaserum it healed the shock of the Crucio as well. He's not as smart as he thinks."
But Luna wasn't listening. She had stopped and was looking back up towards the headmaster's office. "Ginny!" she hissed.
Ginny had learned something from Luna, and that was that very interesting things might be heard eavesdropping at the threshold of the enemy. Not that she planned it but when you hear your foe talking in a room you know to be empty of anyone else then curiosity has to be satisfied - even if it kills the cat.
"In that case I'll have to proceed without your agreement!" Snape sounded angry.
There was another voice but so faint that Ginny could not hear the words nor even who it might be. Had someone flooed into Snape's office as they left? More likely one of the portraits had been voicing an opinion; there were plenty of former headmasters that supported the dark side of magic.
"That would mean the entire plan fails because of one foolish student!" There was silence for a few seconds then Snape's voice continued, "It has to be done. There is no other way. The removal of one infuriating, interfering brat who is constantly looking for trouble, or, if you prefer, there is the possibility that none may survive - you do realise that don't you? The Dark Lord's wrath is unlimited!"
The faint voice spoke again but Snape cried "Enough!" after which not a sound could be heard.
Ginny's face was white as she turned to follow Luna and Neville who were staring back up at her, signalling her to come down quickly. They had one thing on their minds. They ran down and out of the Entrance Hall and towards the gardens with Ginny lagging behind, deep in thought.
"I don't think we're in time," said Luna, "Oh, how I wish I could..."
Luna stopped and the other two halted with her. She was staring far ahead. A very large bird was swooping down towards the Herbology Gardens.
"...fly," finished Luna.
They resumed their race, with mixed emotions but they did not get very far. Heading out from the gardens they could see Luna's tawny owl, and clutched in her talons something very white and very fluffy.
"Dippity!" cried Neville, raising his wand, but unsure what to do.
"Oh, I don't think we need to worry," said Luna chirpily, "they've got nine lives you know."
The bird circled around towards them and Luna called her name. Audrey the owl came in to land at Luna's feet and released the kitten from its great talons. She did not wait to listen to much of Luna's gentle scolding however, but swept away rapidly towards the Forest.
"Did that owl wink at you?" Ginny asked Luna.
"Don't be silly," said Neville, as he scooped up Serendipity, "owls can't wink."
The three slunk back into the corner of one of Hogwarts Castle's great buttresses as the Carrows headed by them muttering something about, "gotta find a bloomin' dead rat from somewhere now..."
While Neville and Luna examined the kitten, Ginny turned in to face the corner and kissed her medallion.
Safe. Thank you. But never Hogsmeade again.
"Dippity's fine. I can't believe how lucky we've all been," said Neville to Luna. "Attacked by your owl but she's survived! And I think it's us that's got nine lives too. Snape asked all the wrong questions. Imagine if Ginny had really gone to meet Harry in the shack instead of getting Whiz-bangs! He should have asked if you'd been up to no good! He's not really very clever at all." Neville laughed and slipped Dippity into his pocket.
Ginny turned around and looked at Luna. "Yes, just imagine..."
Luna was studying the sky again. "I think it's going to turn colder," she said. "You can tell when all the clouds start to huddle together to try to keep warm. It looks bad." She shuddered suddenly and hugged herself as if she felt a chill.
"I'll catch up with you two later," said Neville as he turned away towards the gardens. "I'm going to find somewhere safer."
"They're not likely to want another kitten soon, Neville," Ginny called after him.
"I mean safer so Dippity can't get out again - at least until she's a bit older!" he called back.
Ginny rounded on Luna. "Well?"
Luna looked blankly at her.
"Come on, how could I lie to Snape?" said Ginny.
"You remember when we went with Hagrid collecting ingredients, I lagged behind as we were about to return?"
"Not really - oh yes, I think so. What were you up to?"
"Gathering Fool's Beard."
"Well, if you wipe off the silvery stuff it's exactly like Merlin's Beard."
"Merlin's Beard is used for?" prompted Luna.
"Veritaserum! You diluted the Merlin's Beard! You mixed in Fool's Beard and gave it to Snape!"
"Well, he was distracted by the Stingers for a while," smiled Luna. "Unless you actually test Fool's Beard, you cannot tell the difference."
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