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Love Breaks The Noble Spirit by Hippothestrowl
Chapter 14 : The Stray
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 2


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Chapter 14


The Stray




Day after day, Xenophilius Lovegood watched the grim skies with increasing fear in his heart. A month had passed without a glimpse of an owl from his daughter. All he saw was a solitary wren that flew down each day to his over-planted vegetable patch to peck at the scraps he had left out for the snails. Xenophilius turned to go back inside but stopped on the path. Through his open front doorway he could hear the printing press bumping and clattering away, eagerly pouring out the increased demand for November's Quibbler. He could not top last month's report of the raid on the Ministry but conjecture and hearsay went a long way with Xeno's readers and kept hope alive in these dark times.

The man sighed and turned round yet again, looking towards the garden shed that lurched against his old, disused barn - but not really seeing it, thinking hard. He had always known the risks he took himself but not until now had he worried about his daughter's safety. Why had she not responded to his last messages?

He took a few tentative steps forward then stopped again. This time he really was looking at the shed - yet seeing it as it had been. The structure had begun its service quite differently; rebuilt more than once, and the barn which had been added later, now supported it. To begin with, it had been a stone and board shack he had built for himself and his wife until he magically constructed a true dream dwelling. After their daughter was old enough it became her playhouse and when she outgrew it and left for Hogwarts then the shack withered gracelessly into a general-purpose garden junk store. Now its blue and yellow paint was peeling sadly and its slumped and leaning contours were barely recognisable as hat-shaped anymore. Even the barn complained during the night as it creaked and softly groaned with the burden against its south wall.

A fluttery-ragged scarecrow called out from amongst the potato plants, "Are you going to stand around there all day?" It's thin, crackling voice brought Xeno out of his reverie.

"Bagstaff," said Xeno, "I might be needing your broom."

"Oh no!" creaked the scarecrow. "I'm comfortable now, settled in for the winter ahead. What's so important it can't wait until next summer?"

The little wren, attracted by the rasping utterances, hopped up onto the end of the scarecrow's arm and began pecking for insects in the protruding straw.

"Luna," replied Xeno. His tone was flat, matter-of-fact, but the stuffed-sack-head twisted its coarse threads into a sympathetic expression and waited to hear more.

Xeno seemed undecided. The scarecrow squirmed around to see where he was looking and the wren fluttered and danced to the other arm. One eyebrow, a mere few stitches in the fabric, moved upward slightly to signify understanding. "Don't just take my broomstick - take me with you. I can't stand being without it anyway."

"You prattle too much, Bagstaff - and this is a covert rescue mission."

"How else am I supposed to scare away the birds? Pretend to be a non-moving Muggle? Oh, yeah - like that'd work. Anyway, our early expeditions were always stealthy."

"Last time I was just a treetop away from a Snorkack--"

"No you weren't. It was just a--"

"You drove it away with your babbling, Bagstaff." Xeno turned on his heel and headed back to the house.

"I can steer the flitfloat - you know that!" the scarecrow twittered after him in its thin, woody, croaky voice. "A broomstick alone can't do that!"

"We'll see..."

The wren hopped along Bagstaff's arm and began to chirr and chatter into the small hole torn in the side of his head.

"Too cold for you," said the scarecrow. "--unless..."


—oOo—


"What we going to do about the wall posters, Ginny?" said Parvati. "Only there's--"

"Hang on, Parv - injuries first," said Ginny, opening her bag and turning to a small queue of walking wounded. "What's up, Smith? Got a friction burn on your mouth?" She smiled at the other D.A. members who had gathered together at one of their regular brief meetings.

"Haha! Very funny. Got a kicking from Zabini and his thugs..."

"Was that yesterday evening? Out after curfew again?"

"No - but it was after curfew when they'd finished. I used the Dittany on the bruises but I've still got a pain in my knee."

Ginny moved her wand in a slow circular pattern and chanted softly. "Ligament. No problem." She cast a simple healing charm at the joint. "Draw one dose of Dittany to top up your pack - no more than one!" She turned to the rest of the group.

"Everyone got their emergency packs topped up? - if not, see Hannah now."

"Me next?" came a pleading voice. "It's urgent!"

"Alice? What you been up to?"

"Broken fingernail," the girl replied tearfully, clutching her right hand with her left.

Ginny rolled her eyes and sighed as she turned to the next in line. "Somebody lend Alice a nail file, please!"

"No, it's... broken..." She held out her arm.

"Merlin!" cried Ginny, as she saw the injury. "Sorry, Alice, I thought you meant... Who did that?"

"Crabbe tripped me on the stairs and it ripped it half off when I fell. It will grow back won't it?"

"Sure it will. It'll take all of ten seconds I should think," said Ginny, dabbing at the finger tip with Skele-Gro.

There were three left of the group to be treated: Seamus and Romilda were holding up Nigel Wolpert. His face was badly swollen and he was swaying.

"Is he...?"

"Mandrabane. He took some to get through his detention last night and I gave him my dose as well this morning. He was in a lot of pain," said Seamus. We used Dittany on the bruises that are hidden but... well... You know what would happen if his visible bruises magically disappeared."

"Yeah, he'd get another detention. He should have come straight to me last night--"

"He didn't realise it was this bad till last night's Mandrabane wore off - nor did we," said Romilda.

"Can you understand me, Nigel?" said Ginny.

"I'b allbide, hon'stly. Jus' sibe of by faith a bib... I lotht a tube." He swayed a bit more and Seamus and Romilda helped him to a chair.

"What did they do to him, Seamus?" asked Ginny gently, as she checked the side of his face that was most heavily swollen.

"Cruciatus - but he played up the writhing on the floor a bit too much and rolled onto Goyle's boot." Seamus looked angrier than he sounded.

Ginny winced. "Small fracture in the left jaw. Tooth missing. Romilda - help him sip this Skele-Gro. He'll be OK. Leave the facial bruises to heal naturally. Give him quarter doses of Mandrabane for a couple of days. Remember to top up his pack and your own before we leave."

"Thought you said they only wanted us to believe in what they believe, Terry," snarled Seamus angrily across the room to Terry Boot.

"They do - but the Carrows target anyone who's the slightest trouble - he laughed at one of them."

Ginny looked closely at Nigel's face. "Nigel, I want you to look miserable for a few days - think you can manage that? No cheek, get it? They'll leave you alone then."

"Day seb Mubbles is halb-wibs. My bes' freb's a Mubble ad he mobly beebs be ab chess."

"We're running low on Skelly - Hannah?"

Hannah Abbott was marking up a check list on a large board and examining everyone's personal supply. She had calculated minimum potion doses so everyone carried just enough and none was squandered. These she concealed within buttons and hollow quills and even charmed, double-ended, ink bottles. She looked rather worried and distracted but turned when Ginny called.

"Where did you get the last batch, Hannah? We'll need some more --and Dittany."

"Madam Rosmerta - but--" began Hannah.

"Rosmerta!" barked Smith. "Isn't she the one--"

Hannah haughtily ignored him and continued answering Ginny, "--there won't be another Hogsmeade for two or three weeks we reckon - no way to be sure. We'll have to use what we have even more sparingly unless you can beg some from Matron to tide us over."

Zacharias Smith wasn't to be put off. "Didn't she help Draco when he tried to kill Dumbledore?"

"Rosmerta is completely reliable!" said Hannah, stamping her foot. "She was under the Imperius curse. She couldn't help herself. She was absolutely gutted afterwards. She's more willing to help than anyone!"

"Guilty conscience," muttered Smith.

"Whatever - she's done more for us than you have, Smith!" cried Hannah.

"That's not difficult," said Lavender.

"Rosmerta spends hours making up these potions," snapped Ernie at Smith. "Blood-Replenishing Potion in Cherry syrup and soda bottles, Pumpkin juice is Slughorn's Mandrabane concoction, goat's milk is Skele-Gro, and Quenchocoluscious is Dittany. You can't tell the difference unless you actually drink some."

"Right," said Ginny. "It's nearly lunchtime so we've got to be quick. Private Muggle Studies - how are they going?"

"Great," said Seamus. "Terry came up with the idea of extending the lessons to explain why everything the Death Eaters teach is evil and wrong. We call them DASTARDLY classes - Defence Against Subversive Two-faced And Downright Lying Yobs!"

"And how to look innocent in their classes - pretend to take it all in but not believe it," said Hannah, excitedly. "It's mostly the first-years who were being deceived before."

"Good work," said Ginny. "Thanks everyone - I know Harry would be really impressed with you all. Word does get out so there is a good chance he's heard some of the things we're doing. Right, I think that's all--"

"No - the posters," cried Parvati. "You've seen how Snape's now conjuring up false wall surfaces to hide them and because they are just images, no mould can grow on them."

"Sorry, Parvati - yes, I forgot. "Don't think we can do much until Neville gets back."

"We don't think he'll be able to do anything," said Padma. "So we've thought up another idea - extra pages into library books! These are just copies - you can keep them while you think about it." She opened up several books she had with her and passed them around.

"We asked Professor Flitwick and he came up with a charm we can put on books--" said Parvati.

"They can be anything - wanted posters, Quibbler articles - anything we want!" said Padma, passing Ginny an ancient copy of 'Pagan Rituals and Ceremonies' with a picture of Snape in a cooking pot being prodded by the spears of some fierce-looking, blue-daubed warriors.

Ginny examined the new page. It was not numbered but otherwise looked exactly the same as the other pages in colouring and wear and tear. The sheets were yellow with age and stained with centuries of fingerprints. "This is excellent! Parvati - Padma, why don't you get together with Hannah, Terry, and Seamus and do some of these with instructions from their DASTARDLY classes - spread the word!"

"You want us to go ahead then?" said Padma.

"Yes, it's great - go with it!" said Ginny, "and have a word with McGonagall to tell Madam Pince to look the other way. She won't like her precious books being tampered with but she likes the Carrows even less."


—oOo—


"How'd it go, Neville?" asked Ginny. She was refusing to even look at her lunch now that Neville had arrived back from the Forbidden Forest.

Neville reached for some pie and scrambled eggs. "McGonagall's going to teach me and Hannah to Apparate properly," he said excitedly. "On the return, she Apparated me right back near the edge of the Forest - Hagrid's staying behind to clear up the area - weeds and that. It's paved underneath all that vegetation - all around the Trysting Stone it's like an old Muggle place where they--"

"What about the Stone? Is it--?"

"Bill did it! McGonagall got your brother to Apparate onto the main trail and meet us! He said it was a very old dark curse but he's broken it so the Stone is safe now."

"Bill! How was he?" said Ginny with excited interest.

"He's great - he said to tell you to be careful. He worries about you."

Ginny felt a wave of affection for her elder brother. "Wish I could have come along. What about--"

"Gran'll be pleased if I can learn to Apparate properly. It'll be really useful! And Hannah can--"

"Neville! Has Bill only removed the curse from the Stone? - not its effect on you? What are you so happy about?"

Neville stopped with a forkful of egg in mid-air. He had only just rushed back from the Stone and the significance of the curse still upon himself had been pushed to the back of his mind. "I was... I was just excited about being able to... Apparate properly one day..." He lowered his fork and dropped the eggs back on his plate. "He... Bill couldn't trace anything on me."

"In case you're interested," said Ginny sarcastically, "Luna is progressing well but Matron is still keeping her in deep sleep, perhaps for a day or two." Ginny looked harshly at Neville. "What's got into you, Neville?"

"Don't be like that, Gin. -- I... I f-- forgot."

"You forgot about Luna?" Ginny's look of astonishment was not faked. "I'd have thought the first thing you would ask when you got back would be--"

"No, not forgot, exactly - of course not, but..."

"Why's Hannah taking Apparition as well?"

Neville's expression lightened a little. "Well, she didn't do very well in it last year either. So, I asked Professor McGonagall if she would give us a refresher and practice course - for emergencies, we wouldn't be licensed of course."

"I meant, why... Lots of kids didn't do well so how did Hannah get chosen for this? She never said anything to me earlier."

"Hannah doesn't know yet. I remembered her being very disappointed same as I was - so I asked the Professor," Neville said earnestly. "I'm sure she'll be delighted!"

"You remembered Hannah being disappointed over six months ago about poor Apparition results but you don't remember that your girlfriend nearly died a few hours ago because of you and she's still unconscious in the hospital wing?" Ginny paused before continuing and as she did so, she felt Harry's kiss. She was very practised now in glancing at the medallion under cover of her long hair.

"It's not like that... You're seeing it all wrong..." said Neville but he did not sound very convinced.

Ginny automatically continued her original train of thought with Neville while staring at Harry's message in concealed horror. "Have you considered how Luna will feel when she is told she might never be able to be with you again?"

"I hadn't thought about it..." said Neville glumly.

She didn't hear him. Her mind was elsewhere. Ginny was worried but didn't show it. The anxious girl got up quickly and walked out of the Great Hall to find a quiet spot to think about Harry's message. Neville took her departure as condemnation and stared after her. "Ginny... I..."

Ginny rushed upstairs to find a place nearby to be on her own. Every nook and cranny was either occupied or overlooked by someone. She wished she had gone directly to Gryffindor Tower; now she was heading a long way around. She found a wall niche in the fifth floor corridor and squeezed behind a statue of Godfrey the Gross to stare at her medallion:

Safe now. Don't worry.

What did he mean? Ginny spent every moment she could checking her medallion. It had never shown him to be in danger. She had relied on it so far never to be faulty. How could an enchantment malfunction? It was not possible if it was bewitched correctly in the first place and she knew Hermione would have got it right. A thought, deep down, nagged at her until she felt forced to acknowledge it, Could it be the curse? She kissed the medallion:

Harry? How? You were never shown in danger.

Just sending the message brought no relief; patience would be required until Harry could answer. Ginny resigned herself to waiting and decided to go to the Gryffindor common room. She eased out from behind the statue and looked around for the quickest way: it was the fifth floor - not far from the short, side corridor where she had spoken to Malfoy and Adgar. Surely, if anyone, the ghost boy should know something about the curse.

She went around the corner and sat down on the stone steps, wondering if the ghost would show.

"Adgar? You here?"

There was no answer so she decided to wait a while. A quick rummage in her bag found the copy of the cutting and she read it out loud to herself:

"Miss Ellyn later curseth by an wrongged else covetous suitor, one Thurgis Bowett ... she did plummet down"

It sounded like she had been cursed later - not by the Stone itself. Or perhaps that's what was believed at the time.

Ginny's patience lasted almost an hour but the ghost never appeared. Her thoughts had turned to Malfoy. What did he know? According to Luna, he had tried to warn her. If only she had paid attention... He had wanted to use the Stone himself but he must have later discovered about the curse.

It seemed strange when she thought back: she had never actually discussed the Stone with Draco - though she had mentioned Daphne Greengrass in parting so he knew she had overheard his conversation with Crabbe. But why would he try to warn her of the curse? Why would he think she might want to use it - unless... He set the whole thing up!

Ginny's partly-stifled shriek echoed around the empty corridor. Why had she not seen this before? It was obvious. It had all been one of Draco's vicious plots - to harm Harry! Crabbe and Goyle - they were all in on it. They knew her route and had staged the conversations for her to overhear! She leapt to her feet, both angry and fearful. Yet he must have relented after I told him that his fate was tied up with Harry's. At least he tried to stop me. Yes, but only to save his own skin. Still...

Ginny was furious with Draco but at the same time, a fair share of Gryffindor fair play was rooted within her. Perhaps he had taken a risk by trying to warn her and thereby help Harry. She should pay Draco a visit.

By the time she had descended to the basement, Ginny's anger had subsided and she had become nervous. A couple of Slytherin girls in the corridor were eyeing her. This was their territory. Ron had once told her the way in to the Slytherin common room but she did not know the password. This trip had been foolish; she turned on her heel and started back.

"Not so fast, Weasley, you slag!" The two Slytherins were blocking the corridor. The one with the mouth was Millicent Bulstrode, a favoured prefect, and she closed in rapidly to Ginny. "Come to visit the boys, did you? Well, let's not disappoint them!"

Ginny's hand reached for her wand but Bulstrode was big and powerful and had her arms quickly gripped. "Get it open, Hilda."

The other girl went to the blank wall and muttered something that Ginny couldn't hear. A door opened and Ginny was pushed roughly through.

"Look what we got here, lads!" said Bulstrode.

There were only half a dozen people in there; they all had a faint greenish tinge to their faces from the weird Slytherin illumination. Astoria Greengrass was flirting and snogging rather theatrically with Blaise Zabini; she looked annoyed when he turned to leer at Ginny. Crabbe and Goyle were talking to a girl Ginny didn't know and they seemed unsure what to do. They both looked to Draco but he was staring despondently at Blaise and seemed thoroughly miserable and disinterested in anything else. He had probably had an argument with Daphne Greengrass because she was sitting with her back to him talking to a first-year - another Slytherin that Ginny didn't know.

Daphne looked up. "What's she here for? What do you want, Weasley?"

"Caught her sneaking outside," said Bulstrode, gripping Ginny's arms even tighter and giving her a shake to emphasise her capture.

"I came to see Draco!" flared Ginny. "Might have known you Slytherins know nothing about hospitality."

Crabbe called out something vulgar and there were a few jeers but Draco looked across at the sound of his name, seeming to notice Ginny for the first time.

"What is it?" snapped Draco. "Why'd you come here?" But he gestured to the armchair opposite him and Bulstrode pushed Ginny over to sit on it.

"It's about the Stone." Ginny glared at Malfoy. "I shouldn't have bothered..."

Draco's greenish hue went slightly paler and he looked around nervously. He got up and indicated with a movement of his head to follow him across the room. He pushed Ginny into a corner and leaned an arm against one wall, partly trapping her. On her other side was a black, glass-fronted cabinet sporting goblets and other silverware. Again, Ginny's hand instinctively went to her wand but she thought better of it.

Draco was glancing over his shoulder. He forced a grin as if this were a friendly meeting. Ginny had the feeling he was trying to make Daphne jealous.

"That won't do you any good, Draco. You won't win her that way."

"What d'you know about it!" scowled Draco, easing back a little, not crowding her so much - but still confining her with his arm stretched to the wood panelling.

"I need to know about the curse... Trade?"

"What have you got that I'd want, Weasley?"

"I can help you with Daphne."

"Daphne? Is that what you think?" he snorted but Ginny saw his eyes flicker involuntarily towards Blaise.

Ginny followed his eye line. "Astoria?"

"Keep your voice down!" snarled Draco in a loud whisper.

"What is she? About twelve?"

"She's fifteen - not that it's any of your business."

"Well she's acting like twelve." Ginny stared at the girl; Astoria was glaring at Ginny like she wanted to rip her eyes out. Blaise had been pushed aside. "Merlin's Hat! I get it now. She's--"

"You get nothing!" snapped Draco, moving to block Ginny's view. "I thought we had something going at one time but she..."

"Let me guess, her elder sister didn't like it?"

"Partly that - mainly stupid arguments about nothing that mattered," said Draco bitterly. "Now she's not interested."

"If you think she's not interested then you really don't know much about girls do you, Malfoy?" smirked Ginny, standing on tiptoe to look over Draco's shoulder. Astoria had flounced down in a chair and was looking daggers at Draco's back. "I can help you there."

"How?"

"You'll tell me what you know about the curse? About how it works I mean?"

Draco hesitated. He took his arm from the wall and stood back, giving Ginny space.

"I don't know much myself. All I heard was it brings bad influences that work against the couple that use it - the opposite of how the Stone is supposed to work. You'd have to ask Adgar Stockley--"

"I went up there earlier. I waited but he didn't show."

Draco stared at Ginny then something dawned in his eyes. "That wasn't Adgar, you idiot! That ghost was Thurgis Bowett - he was the one who cursed the Stone! You'll get nothing out of him."

Now it was Ginny's turn to stare. "Then..."

"You didn't--?" Draco's eyes widened. "You didn't use the Stone did you? I sent you a message! That pathetic Loony - I gave her a message for you!"

"I'd already..." Ginny averted her eyes. "I didn't believe it... the message. I... I didn't want to believe it."

"So... Potter...?"

"How would I know? Likely he still doesn't fancy me."

For a moment, Ginny thought she saw real fear in Malfoy's eyes.

"More likely he's dead, you wart! The effect of the curse is unbreakable! Holbrook had a nasty accident didn't she?"

"Who?"

"Ellyn Holbrook - the girl who fell from the balcony."

An icy-cold feeling settled in Ginny's stomach. She pushed past Draco but he grabbed her arm, pulled her close and growled angrily into her ear, "We had a deal, remember!"

Ginny couldn't think straight; her mind was filled with the threat of death against the one she loved. Harry's kiss came at that moment and Ginny stared uncomprehendingly at Draco whose face was too close to hers for comfort.

"You were going to help me with Astoria," prompted Draco through his teeth.

She suddenly remembered why she had come there. "The curse on the Stone - it's been broken. You can now use it safely."

"You're certain?" Draco did not hide his astonishment. "Weasley, if you're lying I'll--"

"I'm no Slytherin!" she said contemptuously, wrenching herself free and striding out for the doorway.

When she got back to the Gryffindor common room she turned straight towards the reading room but Neville waylaid her in the doorway.

"Not now, Neville," said Ginny. "I've got to--"

"Wait - it's about Luna!" Neville held up a small, tightly-wound, roll of parchment in front of her eyes. Even in her distracted state she could see it had 'Luna - Urgent' marked on the outside. Ginny stopped.

"Where's that from?"

"Dippity - my kitten gave it me."

Ginny blinked. Then she blinked again. "Your... kitten... gave you a message for Luna?"

"Well, Dippity's not written it herself of course - she's just delivering it," said Neville, as if that made it easier to believe. "Luna's owl gave it to her to give to me to give to Luna."

"Your cat told you this?" said Ginny, shaking her head slowly, hoping he would say no.

"Not in so many words. Look, she--"

"Cat's don't use any words, Neville!"

"This one does! She's a Ragdoll!"

Ginny gave up trying to understand. "What's it say - the message, I mean, not the cat."

"Well, that's it - it was sealed, private. I asked Madam Pomfrey and she says Luna is still asleep. I could ask Professor McGonagall but it might be something to do with the D.A. or--"

"Open it," said Ginny decisively. "It's marked urgent so we should open it."

"I already did," said Neville, sheepishly. He looked over Ginny's shoulder into the reading room and, seeing it empty he pushed her in and guided her to a chair but she didn't sit down.

"There are two messages, both from her father. One is confirming that if anything happens to us three he will publish an announcement that we've been murdered by Snape - like Luna said when we were in his office."

"I thought she was bluffing!"

"So did I!"

"I though she only said that to get us out of his office alive!"

"So did I!"

"And the other?"

"She must have asked him to research the curse on the Trysting Stone - apparently he's got lots of old archives as well as plenty of contacts - that's what he does - ferret out information, I mean."

"Yeah, usually about things that don't exist," muttered Ginny under her breath.

She grabbed Neville's arm and gave him a warning look. A rather plump first-year girl had been hovering around the entrance to the reading room but a glare from Ginny sent her scurrying away.

"Anyway, I did find out something," said Neville very excitedly.

Ginny sank down onto the chair and pulled down Neville onto the one next to hers. "Tell me."

"We need to ask Adgar," said Neville enthusiastically.

Ginny stared, then her shoulders sagged and she slumped a little forward with her arms onto the reading table. "Is that it? I already knew that."

"Adgar and..." He unrolled the parchment and peered at it,"... Ellyn - Ellyn Holbrook."

Ginny's lips were a thin line. "And they are... where exactly?"

"Don't know."

Ginny rolled her eyes and Neville examined the document again.

"No, wait. ...their ghosts to be found frequenting the chapel room at Hogwarts."

"Ah! Now we're getting somewhere!" said Ginny, sitting up straight again. "Where is it?"

Neville buried his face in the parchment again then finally emerged to speak very meekly, "He doesn't say."

Ginny sighed. "Well, there's no chapel now so it must have been converted. Could be anything now."

"Well, it can't be any of the classrooms or any of the rooms we use, can it?"

"Why not?"

"We'd have noticed if there were a couple of ghosts interrupting Potions all these years I think."

Hope lightened Ginny's expression. "That's right - it must be one of the unused rooms. If only... If only Fred and George were here or..." Her eyes widened as she remembered she had not yet read Harry's message. "Neville, would you excuse... Would you... Why don't you check out the library for a start - ask Madam Pince for anything about a Hogwarts chapel."

"Right," said Neville, rising from his chair and walking to the doorway, "I'm on it. And you...?"

"I'll... I'm going to... think ...for a bit."

As soon as Neville had left she went to her corner behind the bookshelf, grabbed a copy of 'Maggoty Intestines or Rat Vomit: Which is Best?' then checked her medallion.

Had a scare. 6am. 2early4U! :)

Ginny quickly sent a reply:

"No - I was up early. Were you ill?"

Harry's answer came back almost immediately. In fact, they exchanged many messages. He was puzzled why she kept asking if he had been ill and became suspicious that she was sick and afraid she had infected him. It took a lot of kisses and a party of giggles before he was reassured this was not the case. He told her there had been a false alarm early that morning but he could not say what.

Ginny was more resolved than ever to uncover the truth about the curse. She spun around to leave. There was the chubby first-year girl sitting staring, bug-eyed at her. The girl quickly averted her gaze back to the pile of homework that lay before her when she saw Ginny glaring back.

Ginny dropped 'Maggoty' on top of the girl's papers. "Funniest book I ever read," she said on her way out to join Neville in the library.

She was not so amused after she and Neville had wasted the rest of their Saturday afternoon fruitlessly hunting for references to Hogwarts chapel.

"Why would they even have a chapel room in a school anyway?" grumbled Ginny, as she pushed away the last of the books she had retrieved from the shelves.

"Things were different hundreds of years ago," said Neville. "Perhaps the students who stayed celebrated Christmas and Easter in it."

"I doubt anyone will be staying with Snape and the Carrows this year," said Ginny. "I'll be glad to go home."

Neville closed his copy of 'Sites of Historical Sorcery' and sighed. "It's hopeless, Ginny. We've eliminated likely books and unlikely books - that just leaves the near-impossible ones."

"We'll wait for Luna to get better. She's the smart one," said Ginny. "If anyone can come up with some new ideas it'll be her."


—oOo—


On the morning that Luna finally awoke, Hogwarts was hidden in a thick November fog. Birds and other creatures were hushed; owls did not fly; the chopping of Hagrid's firewood was left for a better day. Silence seeped through the hospital ward windows in which the girl had lain asleep for three whole days and this strange quietness drew her out of her slumbers as surely as any sudden noise might have done. Not that her awakening was rapid; quite the contrary. She lay for many minutes in that luxurious, happy, dozy state between sleep and responsibility - aware that she was cared for - aware of someone holding her hand.

"Neville?" she whispered softly - still far off in a lazy half-dream.

When she finally opened her eyes it was Emmy who was there. Little Emmy who, afraid of losing her only comforter, had visited morning, noon, and night, to sit with Luna. A shininess sprang to the girl's eyes but Luna, in her moment of waking, in that twinkling where either great folly or inspired wisdom might express itself, saw there something other than tears.

"Emmy... Emmy... Why... are you here?" Her voice, unused for days, was faint and weak.

"I thought you were going to die!" sobbed Emmy. She let go of Luna's hand to throw herself violently onto the helpless patient and into a big hug. Something she had been clutching in her other hand fell; it was a miniature doll - a Muggle doll. Luna watched it slide sadly down the slope of her pillow.

The wind had been knocked out of her by the embrace but Luna managed to gasp, "No, I meant... why are you here... at Hogwarts?"

Emmy stiffened for a moment, then sat up, looking at Luna's face.

"Would you like to show me your dolly?" added Luna, looking for some way to bypass the girl's obvious reluctance.

"Can't. Don't know how."

Luna looked hard at her friend's face then finally said very quietly, "You're only ten years old aren't you, Emmy?"

Emmy hesitated an even longer time. Luna waited.

"Seven."

Luna let out a deep breath. "How is this possible? How did you do this? Why?"

Again, the younger girl stalled. "Someone helped me..."

"There's only one person I can think of with the ability to transfigure you and your doll and the position and place to smuggle you in here..."

"Professor McGonagall," said Emmy. "I ran away from Brack and Sweeting's but--"

"Brack and--?"

"--the waif's home - but Professor McGonagall has me on her special list. She came after me. She said I was bright enough to pass as eleven - said I'd likely get in Ravenclaw. She invented some magical parents' names for me but really I must be Muggle-born to be in Sweeting's."

"But Hogwarts is now the worst--"

"It was before. It was before Professor Dumbledore died. Professor McGonagall thought..."

"Does she know they... hurt you?"

"No. There's nowhere else for me to go. This is the safest place to hide. I didn't want to tell her in case..."

"Listen - you've heard of the D.A?"

"Yes, everybody has."

"We have some charms and potions. I'll see you get some Mandrabane - it stops it hurting when they do bad things - but you have to pretend it hurts; you understand?" Emmy nodded and Luna continued, "Look in my bag over there. Take mine. It's only one dose. I'll get some more. But try to stay out of trouble until... We need to find somewhere you'll be safe."

"Don't send me away, please Luna! Don't send me back to Sweeting's!" She flung herself on the older girl again and Luna's arm came out from under the bedclothes to pat her on the back. She didn't ask why the girl would prefer the Carrows to the waif's home. She didn't want to know.


—oOo—






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