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Love Breaks The Noble Spirit by Hippothestrowl
Chapter 17 : The Informer
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 2


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Chapter 17


The Informer



As Ginny made her away back to the Castle, munching on the last slice of toast, the little bird followed her, cheekily swooping down again and again to grab a crumb before taking flight again. Happily distracted by its charm she did not notice the dark, sinister figure waiting for her upon the entrance steps.

"Miss Weasley - where might you have been at this hour?" It was Snape - and with more than his usual quota of suspicion.

Ginny looked suitably startled - for indeed, she was. "Feeding the birds." She began to be grateful now for the droppings that soiled her school robes and for the cheeky little bird that once again, dove in and pecked at the toast in her hand.

"Feeding... the... birds..." Snape uttered, looking for some meaning in the excuse but not seeing any. "What on Earth for?"

"Well... the happiness of the birds for one thing."

"Happiness of...? - of what practical use is that may I ask? Can it clean a cauldron? Can it teach you anything... useful? Miss Weasley, do you ever stop to listen to yourself when you make these outrageously-illogical statements? Have you the slightest idea how nonsensical you sound?"

"I suppose it's of no use whatsoever... to some." Ginny shook her head slowly in wonderment then endeavoured to get past the headmaster.

"Not... so fast - where is Mr. Longbottom?"

"I wouldn't know--" then, remembering he was not doing any D.A. work nor breaking any school rule that would cost more than a few now-worthless house points, she added, "Oh - he may be doing some... homework with Hannah Abbot up in the spare classroom on the fourth floor. History I think - he said something about Pagan studies..."

"Indeed? I shall... of course, investigate..."

"I recommend you knock on the door - they both work hard but they are very... good friends."

Snape's eyes narrowed. "Perhaps then, you can explain where Mr. Finnigan is? It does seem that the Gryffindor table was rather empty of... Gryffindors this morning."

Ginny looked genuinely puzzled. "I thought he had gone to breakfast."

"You... thought..." The little bird alighted on Snape's head and he instinctively drew out his wand and wafted it away with a curse which narrowly missed. He looked thoughtful for a few seconds then reached into his robes and drew out another wand.

"Yours, I think?" He thrust the wand towards her which she recognised as the spare that Draco had taken. She took it and some surprise must have shown on her face for Snape said, "This is a school of magic. We do not confiscate the most essential tool that is used... properly... for that purpose. Tell me, Miss Weasley - you seem to have carried out an extraordinary number of trapping, tripping, snaring, and similar curses over the last few months have you not?"

Ginny stared blankly for a while, thinking hard. She made a mental note to make sure the other Snatchers' wands became heavily used for more innocent spells. "Dark Arts... Homework..."

"But Incarcerous is a transfiguration spell, is it not?" Snape's eyes gleamed.

"Extra studies as well. Professor McGonagall insisted I revise."

"Now, I wonder why she would do that?" Snape said slyly. There was a hint of a trap closing. "Because although Incarcerous is technically a transfiguration spell it is taught only in Defence Against the Dark Arts classes."

Ginny thought furiously but was unable to answer. He stared hard at her face for a while before saying, "You may go."

As Ginny flounced past him to show she wasn't scared she stumbled on the steps and he added without turning around, "Tread very carefully, Miss Weasley. We wouldn't want anything... untoward... to happen to you, would we?"

A chill went up her spine, thinking about those words as she trotted towards her first lesson. Luna seemed so certain of her own fate that it brought home to Ginny just how vulnerable they all really were here at Hogwarts. And now, another of their friends had gone missing...

During the rest of the morning, most of the D.A. spent every spare moment between classes and every free period searching for Seamus. It was not until Ginny had finished wolfing down a rapid lunch and was returning to Gryffindor Tower that she saw him. He probably was grimacing but his face was so swollen and bloody it was hard to tell. At least he was walking - well, stumbling along anyway - while leaning on Terry Boot's shoulder. Ginny sent out a message on her D.A. Galleon to inform everyone he had been found.

They sat Seamus in an armchair. A couple of first-year girls ran out squealing at the gore. Romilda fussed around, wiping his face and helping him to drink cold water while Ginny chanted some healing spells. The spare wand didn't work as well as her own wand but it helped for now.

Neville burst in through the portrait entry and came straight over to the others.

"Alecto..." muttered Seamus, his jaw not moving freely. "Usual ... curses."

"All morning?" cried Neville. "Wonder it didn't kill you! What was it for?"

"Found out ... DASTARDLY ... classes."

"How? How'd she know?" said Neville. "How could--?"

"Did you have-- You did have a chance to use your Mandrabane?" cut in Ginny.

"Yeah but ... was beginning ... wear off ... Snape..."

"Snape? He was there?" said Terry. Parvati was using a cleansing charm on the shoulder of his robes where Seamus' bloody hand had gripped.

"Came in ... at end ... angry ... Stopped her..."

"...before she finished you off!" said Neville. He looked at Ginny in alarm. "It's getting worse, Gin."

Ginny shook her head in disbelief. Harry's visit at the gate had lifted her spirits but now she felt the burden of responsibility weighing heavily again. "We have to hang on, somehow - but... One thing we'll increase the Mandrabane dose that everybody carries."

"Funny this happened just after Trevett got involved with us, don't you think?" said Lavender.

"He didn't know anything about the DASTARDLY lessons," said Neville. He turned to Seamus. "Did he?"

"Not from me," muttered Seamus.

Ginny said, "Anything he could have found? Any -- Where'd you keep the books and stuff?"

"Mostly ... Room. Got papers ... my bag" said Seamus, gasping with the pain.

"Where's your bag?" asked Ginny.

"Alecto."

"Oh, Merlin!" said Neville. "Why'd you--"

"Was taking ... revised ... to Huffs."

"But Carrow only saw it after she had already got you? So... Was Trevett anywhere near you - before then?"

"Told last night ... 'bout the meeting ... this morning. Did he ... turn up?"

"Yeah - he was there alright," said Neville ruefully, rubbing the bruise on his hip where he'd fallen in the corridor.

"It can only be him," said Ginny fiercely, still clutching her wand and brandishing it rather dangerously around. "I trust everyone else - Smith's a prat but I can't see him doing this. Anyway, he'd have shopped Ernie, surely?"

"Not necessarily," said Neville, "- he'd probably avoid anyone in his own house. He knows - we all know - about Seamus and Terry doing these classes."

"Anyway, I don't think it's his style," said Ginny. "He's a low life - lie low, keep out of trouble, generally whinge about everything everyone else is doing - that's him. Why would he risk the combined venom of a D.A. lynch mob? Likewise, McLaggen - big mouth but courageous and loyal."

What about Gylda?" said Romilda.

"Who?" said Ginny.

"Gylda Pyke. First-year - she was taking his classes."

Seamus nodded. "Seem... nice ... bit silly." He cringed at another stab of pain. "In D.A. ... anyhow."

"Since when?"

"Since ... other day ... told you. Same time ... Trevett."

"Don't remember. Don't know her."

"You've seen her around," Romilda said. "Kind of... slow on the uptake, if you know what I mean, so tends to keep to herself. Short and fat. Fair, curly hair."

A sudden chill gripped Ginny like an icy band around her heart. She sank down into the chair next to Seamus.

"Where is she, Romilda?" Ginny said, weakly.

"She ran out when Seamus was brought in."

"She was watching me in the reading room," Ginny said. "I knew there was something odd about her. And she was moved in to watch Luna in the hospital wing - the exact days." Then she added bitterly, "I didn't believe Luna."

"Terry! Romilda!" cried Neville, heading for the door. "We've got to find her quickly!" The three of them ran out through the portrait entrance.

"Won't ... know much," mumbled Seamus. He shook his head but stopped quickly and clutched at his neck.

"Sorry, Seamus," said Ginny. "Let's try some extra healing. Want some more Mandrabane?"

"Uh uh," he said, taking care not to shake his head. He pointed at the side of his throat and jaw which was swelling up badly and heavily discoloured.

Ginny checked again with her wand. "The tissues are savagely bruised." Her head swivelled quickly to look about the common room. "Nigel! - did I see Nigel around?"

"Here!" piped up Nigel Wolpert, springing out of a chair at the back of the room.

"Do us a favour - can you nip to the Room and get Fred's bruise paste? It's a big pot - thick yellow stuff--"

"I know it!" He dashed for the exit, glad to be of use.

"And my wand - can you get my real wand while you're there? Know which locker is mine?"

"Yep! I'm on it!"

She turned back to Seamus. "That'll fix it quick. Really powerful." She looked at the time. "First lesson in about half an hour. It should be mostly healed by then."

There was a commotion at the entrance and Neville came in with Terry behind and the little first-year girl sobbing between them. Romilda followed them in.

"Hiding in the outer toilet," said Romilda, glaring at the child.

Ginny examined the youngster's face closely as Neville guided her to a chair.

"You're-- What you say her name was?"

"Gylda Pyke," said Romilda.

"That right?"

The girl nodded and rubbed her eyes with a fist to dry them.

"What you been up to then?" asked Ginny. "We know - we just want you to say it."

Ginny still held her wand and now she raised it. The girl squealed and cringed down into her seat. Ginny put her wand away quickly, her eyes widening. She hadn't really intended to use the wand for anything other than as a warning to show she wouldn't stand any nonsense.

Neville put his hand on Ginny's shoulder. "Let me."

"Gylda," he said, "have the Carrows threatened you?" He crouched down to be as non-intimidating as possible; he recalled how terrified Emmy had been of him on the Ravenclaw Tower stairs.

The girl nodded but didn't look up.

"That doesn't mean much," said Romilda. "They threaten everyone."

"They made you... do things?" coaxed Neville.

The girl peeped up at Neville but didn't answer.

Neville sighed. "Look, nobody here is going to hurt you. We just want you to tell us what happened - then it's over. They told you to watch us didn't they? Listen to everything that we say?"

The girl hesitated, then nodded again.

"And you were in the hospital wing on - Ginny, remind me, when was it?"

"Halloween."

"On Halloween and the days after?"

The girl shook her head and lisped. "No Thir - wathn't doin' nuthink."

"I saw you there," snapped Ginny.

The girl's shoulders slumped and her head lowered again.

Neville raised his palm to Ginny to ease off.

"We're not going to hurt you even if you were in there, Gylda so you might as well tell the truth. Ginny saw you. Did the Carrows ask you to do it? Was it Alecto?"

The child nodded but again, did not look up. "Athked me, yeth. Not wickid not. Din't do nuthink."

"You didn't actually tell them anything?"

"No" The girl shook her head rather too vigorously.

"But you told them about Seamus' classes didn't you?" said Neville. "It's... we know it's hard for you but tell us."

"Thamuth' clatheth, yeth." The girl kept her head down and clasped her hands around it as if to shut out the world.

"You told them? You told the Carrows?"

"Yeth," she said. "Can I go now?"

Nigel came in at the moment and quietly gave Ginny her wand and the healing paste which she began to apply to the side of Seamus' jaw.

Neville sighed. "Don't you think you ought to apologise to Seamus? Look at him - and he was trying to help you - to teach you the truth - risking himself for you."

"Thorry, Thamuth," whimpered the little girl. She remained staring down at the floor - or perhaps her eyes were closed.

Nobody spoke for a while.

"You can't be in the D.A. now - you know that? And Seamus is stopping his classes now because of you - you understand?" said Neville. He shot a glance at Seamus and gave a quick negative frown and a tiny shake of his head to indicate he didn't mean it.

The girl looked up quickly at Neville but then lowered her face again without speaking.

"You understand?"

"Yeth."

"And if the Carrows tell you to spy on us again you tell them we know about you and we won't let you - we'll have to... keep away from you. You understand?"

The girl looked upwards and down quickly then said sadly, "Yeth."

"Anything you've not told us?" said Terry.

"Thpeak Perfether Mdogenal?"

"What?" said Neville.

"Thpeak Perfether Mdogenal?"

Lavender cut in, ""McGonagall! She'll be furious. She's the last person you want to see!"

The girl starting crying again.

"This isn't right," said Neville. "Can't one of you girls help her?" He draw Ginny to one side. "She needs help."

"Help? But how? How can she be helped in here Neville? And there's no way out - even we can't get out. She's... Look we cannot trust her; lives are at stake. Just one wrong word..."

In the background they could hear the girls talking. Parvati sighed. "Not me - hasn't she got any friends?"

"Only Spotty," giggled Romilda.

"She means, Eloise," grinned Lavender, nudging Romilda in the ribs.

"Eloise Midgen?" said Terry, with surprise, "Thought she left early last year after all the talk in the Prophet about You-know-who being back?"

"Oh wake up, Terry," sneered Romilda, "Everybody had to come back this year didn't they? It's compulsory."

"Alright, alright - don't get 'em in a twist - it's only that I don't remember seeing her this year," said Terry.

"Yeah, well, she's changed - had her nose fixed while she was away - and her acne - and she's... older. Fancy her then, did you?"

Terry muttered something that sounded noncommittal like, "She was alright."

"Then what do we do?" said Neville in a low tone, drawing Ginny further away from the others.

"I don't know!" said Ginny curtly. "Look, we'll have to leave it for now. Nobody's to talk to her--"

"Oh, Ginny..."

"I mean, nobody's to tell her anything... secret. Which means you can't talk to her much at all - you can't relax with her around - one slip... We'll have to figure something out." Ginny stopped. She shook her head. There was a bad taste in her mouth. They could hear the others still talking in the background.

"Where is Eloise then?" Terry asked Romilda. He felt more and more uncomfortable as he looked at the sobbing Gylda.

"Probably hiding in her dorm," said Lavender, as she headed towards the stairs. "She's still as shy as a mouse. Some things never change."

Lavender had to practically drag Eloise Midgen downstairs to try to comfort Gylda. With good reason: Eloise felt rather awkward in front of everyone else's gaze. She stood back from the youngster and they exchanged words but Eloise was out of her depth when it came to trying to comfort someone. She was more the sort of person who needed comforting herself. Her usual strategy was to hide from emotional confrontation so at the first opportunity she hoped to get Gylda back to her dorm out of the spotlight.

"Erm... Are you alright, Gylda?" she whispered then coughed nervously, not looking at the others.

"Not wikkid am I, Elloweeth?" sobbed the chubby girl.

"I think you just made a mistake, Gylda. You didn't mean it did you?"

"Din't mean it, no."

"Come on, we'll go somewhere quiet," said Eloise, taking her arm and guiding her to the girls' stairs.

"Everybody haith me now, Elloweeth?"

"Nobody hates you, Gylda. I don't hate you. They're just... worried."

Romilda, Lavender, and Parvati, meanwhile were observing Terry Boot whose eyes were practically popping out of his head as he watched Eloise disappear up the stairs with the younger girl. If her quiet personality had attracted him when she was a spotty youngster with a bent nose, now she was an attractive young woman, he was transfixed.

"You can put your tongue back in, Boot," smirked Romilda.

Terry glared at her before turning and sweeping out of the portrait entrance with as much dignity as he could muster.

* ' * ' * ' *

There was an unpleasant atmosphere in the common room for the rest of that week. It had been a sad episode in the noble history of Gryffindor House and everyone felt it. Most of the students had been drawn to listen in to the interrogation and the general feeling was frustration; they wanted some punishment to be handed out but felt too sorry for the pathetic youngster to satisfy that feeling. Sympathy or no - the mood had changed and even conversations about the cold weather now tended to stop abruptly if Gylda Pyke passed nearby.

It had been merely fortuitous that no normal D.A. meeting had taken place since Seamus had proposed her and in fact, because she had not yet signed up she was not technically a true member. So she knew none of the members other than was common knowledge nor had any idea of where they met. The increased worry about the security of the D.A. led to a new rule that unless there was some exceptional circumstance, all recruits should be quarantined for a month or two and given limited access to information and knowledge of other members.

The Gryffindor DASTARDLY classes had to be reorganised more secretly. Seamus resumed teaching but out of sight in his dormitory with just the boys while Romilda, whose great-aunt was a Muggle, took up the duty in her dorm for the girls.

In these few days, things seemed to return almost to normal. Seamus recovered fully but was permanently scarred. Neville and Hannah snook away for walks together during lunch breaks but they kept apart in lessons where Luna was present. Luna kept her distance from Neville but they did occasionally look at one another and once even smiled without any return of her illness.

Now that Ginny was happily looking forward to seeing Harry at Christmas, and having seen that he was unaffected by the curse on the Stone, she slowly forgot about the chapel. Likewise, Neville and Hannah were preoccupied with one another and searching for the lost room was pushed out of their thoughts too. Neville forgot why they even wanted to find it. Naturally, he did not forget Luna, but avoiding her had become more routine than tragedy - at least for him.

—oOo—

Xeno Lovegood stared at the message in alarm and his eyes shot to the signature again. If Ginny Weasley was worried about Luna's safety then he knew to take it seriously. It was only a couple of weeks to the end of the school term but a lot could happen in that time. He scribbled out his intentions on the nearest scrap of parchment and carefully tied it to the patiently waiting owl's leg.

"We've got to bring my Luna home, Audrey," he said. "Get some food and rest then make sure she sees this."

As the owl flew out of his open front door he strode out after her, both heading directly for the old storage shed. The owl veered gracefully around the dilapidated construction and into the open barn where there were always owl treats up on her favourite ledge.

"Is it...? Are you going to--?" creaked Bagstaff, the scarecrow, as Xeno passed by.

"Yes - and I'll need you... to navigate."

Bagstaff's broom head, which protruded like hair up through his bag-head, bristled in anticipation.

Xeno's sense of purpose sagged when he squeezed open the shed door. The chaos of years of accumulated junk faced him all at once. It was apparent that a whole section of shelving had rotted and collapsed under the weight of too many cans and pots; his precious flitfloat was crushed.

The man stood to one side after casting a banishing spell and watched the unwanted pieces of the clutter flying out of the door to form a large heap to one side of his cabbages. He resigned himself to sorting that lot out another year.

He ventured inside again to look at what remained. The canvas was hopelessly torn but was replaceable as were the ropes and cords which had all rotted. The bent and rusted metal struts needed more thought. Two brooms looked to be intact - though he'd need to do some careful testing of their magical properties. Another, the largest, he was unsure of, while a fourth lay splintered and cracked irrecoverably. A simple Reparo mending charm was not enough for these magical objects but if the dubious one still held its enchantment then perhaps he could reinforce its physical shape. Yet even with Bagstaff at the helm, he needed one more working broomstick.

"Audrey!" he cried at the threshold to the barn. "Sorry, old girl, but this is urgent."

The large tawny opened one sleepy eye and scrabbled back and forth on the edge of the open half-loft before dropping down at Xeno's side as he scribbled a note on a scrap of parchment. He opened a small money bag at his belt and pulled a face as he looked at the contents. Finally, with a sigh, he pulled out a few galleons and put them in a pouch which he attached, with the note, to Audrey's leg.

"Take this to Make-Do's in Diagon Alley. Don't go to Broomstix and definitely don't go to Quidditch Supplies - I can't afford their prices!"

As the owl took flight, he called after her, "Make sure it's self-delivery!"

He turned to the pile of metal and wood in his shed, grimaced, then took out his wand. It was going to take some time and a lot of magical ingenuity to repair and reconstruct even the parts that remained...

—oOo—

Something was troubling Hermione Granger; that much Harry could tell without difficulty - but what exactly, he had no idea. He speculated whether his prolonged hunting trip that morning, only to return with naught but a Daily Prophet and bread and milk he had exchanged for a few coins on someone's doorstep - could that be annoying her? He could scarcely inform her he'd been snogging Ginny through Hogwarts' gateway. No, it couldn't be that, he knew; both of them had often been delayed when out scavenging and often returned with nothing but a miserable expression and aching feet.

Leaning back in his chair, Harry surveyed the wood carving he had been chipping away at with a wand charm for the last hour. He sighed gloomily. Art and crafts were just not his thing - panther or hippopotamus there was no telling. He slung the graceless chunk back in the heap, selected another piece of firewood and tried to visualise it as a horse.

That Hermione had partly come to terms with Ron's departure he was sure - or at least, resigned herself to it. Possibly this was a relapse as the reality of it had finally sunk in after two months but it seemed unlikely. It definitely wasn't the horcrux because he was wearing it this evening. Ginny was sending her kisses almost twice an hour. He had to keep nipping to the loo or the washroom to read her supportive messages and keep a positive frame of mind to combat the effects of the dark object.

A sudden idea struck Harry like a bright light. The washroom! He cast his mind back to that embarrassing moment when he had burst in on Hermione. Yes, her strange mood seemed to date from then. Was it possible she thought he was coming on to her? His eyes widened as a second idea burst upon him like a thunderbolt. Was it possible her affection for Ron had taken a new direction and it was she who wanted to encourage Harry? Was that really why she had shrieked to draw him into the washroom? He jerked sideways on his stool and almost fell off. Hermione's book of Spells for Pastimes slid off his knee onto the floor.

Hermione looked up from reading the Prophet with one eyebrow raised. "Got the fidgets?" She grinned and went back to the article she was reading. "No hope for you I'm afraid, Harry. The dreaded fidgets are incurable."

She wasn't mad at him. She wasn't avoiding him. No, it wasn't him. Harry's shoulders relaxed with relief. And yet... she was kind of withdrawn in a subtle way. He looked closely at her. She was hugging a thin shawl around her shoulders like a security blanket. Now he came to think about it she was also always wearing that thick, long-sleeved, high-necked green top he hated yet the charms kept the tent nice and cosy despite the wintry weather outside. He himself was almost too warm in just his tee-shirt. It was as if she were trying to keep something out... Was it him? Did she fear he might become a crazed monster, cooped up with her, month after month?

"Hermione?"

There was a few seconds pause before she looked up. "Mmm?"

"Erm... You know... like we're good friends... best friends really?"

"Of course!" Hermione smiled. "What's up with you this evening? First the fidgets, now the--"

"No, but... It's nothing more than that - you know that, right?"

Hermione stared then a big grin spread across her face and she folded up the newspaper to hide her embarrassment. "Of course, you silly. Look, Harry, you need to get out more!"

She got up and went over to put on the kettle. She seemed her normal self - yet somehow she was still... huddled within.

"I mean, you know I love Ginny - I can never love anyone else that way."

"Oh for heaven' sake, Harry," snapped Hermione, whirling around to face him, her eyes sparkling with tears. "Why do you think I've been studying the missing people list for the last hour! And the prosecutions! And those sentenced to..."

Harry stopped his attempt at magical carving and stood up. "Sorry - I... I'm sorry, Hermione. It's just that you seem..."

"Look, there's nothing wrong!" shrieked Hermione. "Nothing more than usual that is!"

She flounced back to her chair and picked up the Prophet. She seemed to be reading from the first page again, the tea forgotten.

Harry sat down and resumed his attempt to inflict some beautiful concept onto the length of hard oak he held. For half an hour there was an uncomfortable silence broken only by Ginny's kiss which helped him through.

After another twenty minutes he held up his carving and examined it ruefully.

"Cows have horns, Harry," said Hermione, trying to break the stalemate with a helpful suggestion.

"It's supposed to be a horse," muttered Harry.

"Oh - well, it's not... bad." Hermione paused then added brightly. "Would you like me to have a go for you?"

"No, I want it to be from..." He tailed off. "I wanted to see if I could make something."

Hermione stared. "It's for Ginny isn't it? Might have known - it's her patronus right? You're going to send her a Christmas present!"

Harry struggled to answer.

"That's a wonderful idea!" Hermione came over. "She'll be thrilled and it won't give anything away. She'll know it's from you."

"Except it's an ugly fat cow..." said Harry, throwing it back onto the firewood pile.

"Look, you're going about it all wrong," said Hermione, briskly, grabbing a hunk of wood. "Let me show you again. It's almost entirely in the visualisation. If you can't clearly visualise a horse then it won't work. Start with a simple shape. It's the thought that counts. A beautiful abstract shape like an egg or a pyramid done well is better than a badly done horse... How about--?"

"--a stick of firewood?" grinned Harry, grabbing a big fat slice of a gnarled branch and holding it up. "It's a masterpiece!"

"--a paperweight, I was going to say. A smooth, rounded, pebble shape is nice..."

"Could it be a... heart-shape?"

"Well... that's more Valentine-ish don't you think?"

"Yeah but... OK. Just thought..."

"Harry, you could send Ginny a housebrick and she'd love it; you know that. If you want to send her a heart for Christmas then that's fine."

"But how can I make it more... Christmassy?"

"Perhaps, holly or... the thing is to visualise - and think of Ginny too - then your heart will really be in it and it will be personalised."

"How'm I supposed to think of three things at once?" said Harry, menacing the stick with his wand.

"Concentrate - but relax at the same time."

"Concentrate AND relax?" moaned Harry.

"It's a... relaxed focus - I'll leave you to it for a while," said Hermione, "so as not to distract you. I'll make us a snack - chestnut sandwiches - wonder if that would work if I blend them with something?" She meandered off to the kitchen bay and began looking at the interior of the almost-empty food cupboard.

It took Harry five minutes to stop glaring at the firewood and become bored. Either his focus was too relaxed or he concentrated so hard he couldn't relax. He shook himself and resolved to try to concentrate properly. He began the chant. It was almost hypnotic, watching the flakes and splinters of wood fly off. In the hazy background he could hear Hermione tinkering around with crockery and cutlery and he could smell the glorious aroma of hot chestnuts...

Ginny's kiss swept through his reverie just as he heard the kettle come to the boil. Fine flakes of oak sprayed away before his eyes but with Hermione's back to him he was only looking at Ginny's words: Just for love...

A lump came to his throat and he glanced up at the remains of the firewood and his eyes widened. Yet beyond the focus of his eyes, something was still troubling Hermione Granger.

—oOo—

Professor McGonagall could be quite intimidating when she was using the word 'preposterous' and she was using it now - a lot. "Are you quite sure about this, Miss Lovegood?"

Luna nodded solemnly. "Emmy was very distressed for days afterwards. We've been helping her avoid giving them any excuse ever since." She glanced sideways at Professor Flitwick who was also nodding.

A look of pure fury crossed McGonagall's face and her fist clenched and crushed the quill with which she had been writing. She rose from her desk but after a few seconds she sank back down again and seemed to bring herself under control.

Luna went on, "I make sure she always has Mandrabane and knows how to use it now."

"Mandrabane?" McGonagall looked at Flitwick who shook his head.

"It's a potion that Professor Slughorn prepared for us specially - it suppresses the pain and helps us pretend. Even the torture curse is bearable if you've sipped Mandrabane."

McGonagall shuddered. "I knew, of course, some of the things that are taking place here but Emma Brocksby... She is supposed to be under my protection. I've let her down badly..."

Luna spoke quite firmly, "She ought not to be here. It's bad enough when first-years are being hurt."

The eyes of McGonagall narrowed and she stared at Luna. "But Miss Brocksby is a first-year..."

Luna did not answer but looked unblinkingly at McGonagall.

"You... know, don't you?" said McGonagall. "She should not have told you... I got her to swear not to reveal her age to anyone."

"Oh, she did not of herself. I sensed something in her eyes and in her manner - it was only in one particular moment - that she was younger than she looked. Anyone as dense as the Carrows would never detect the truth I'm sure. I challenged her and she admitted she was only seven years old."

Flitwick looked uncomfortably down at his shoes. McGonagall's gaze switched to him.

"You knew about this, Filius?"

"Miss Lovegood only informed me this evening - which is why I insisted we come to you, Minerva. Miss Brocksby is in my house - you should have told me--"

"The less that know the better!" snapped McGonagall. "She is not the only child on my..."

"Special list?" Luna finished for her.

"Times are very difficult..."

"Why in Merlin's name, Minerva? Why bring such a young child to Hogwarts at a time like this?" Flitwick's respect for McGonagall softened his tone but he was clearly repressing some earlier anger that threatened to surface again.

McGonagall's jaw tightened and her lips thinned. "She came from a small waif's home for runaways, rejects, and abandoned children of... difficult... magical backgrounds; squibs and Muggles-born mostly. The conditions were not very good even before the return of You-know-who but after the Death Eaters took over Brack and Sweeting's... She was the only one I managed to save..." The elderly teacher paused and sighed. "Where could she go? I had a week before the start of the new term and it was chaos immediately after Professor Dumbledore's death. I barely slept..." She lowered her head despondently.

"Miss Lovegood has a plan," said Flitwick.

"I'd like to hear it!" McGonagall's head came up and she looked towards Luna.

"This weekend is the final Hogsmeade visit of the term and--"

"First-years are not allowed to visit Hogsmeade, you know that."

"But pets are," said Luna, quietly. "Anyone can take their pet. I thought perhaps an Angora - or a Persian longhair would be quite nice. I like Persian longhairs - their faces are so cute."

McGonagall thought hard for a while. "It's true that Transfigurations are difficult to detect... But you are still banned from Hogsmeade, Miss Lovegood - who will--?"

"Padma's volunteered."

"And then what? It's one thing to--"

"Padma will have a sachet of Mandrabane under her tongue if she's caught - she knows the risks."

"I meant..." McGonagall stared at the young girl's matter-of-fact attitude. "I meant, if they successfully get out?"

"Madam Rosmerta of the Three Broomsticks has offered to take her in - she has... magically-concealed rooms few know about. She is extremely willing to--"

"When did... How do you--?"

Luna hesitated but then flung McGonagall's own words back at her, "The less that know the better."

"You seem to have it all worked out, Miss Lovegood," said McGonagall, tightly. "Very well - I'll give it consideration and decide by Friday."

Flitwick walked Luna back to Ravenclaw Tower. She wondered how to break away politely so she could ask Ginny to tell Neville. She had her own safety to consider too. She kept looking around for Edmund Trevett - he usually wasn't too far away. He took his duties very seriously; she was impressed.

She pulled a copy of Charmed - Or Is It? from her bag, wondering whether to divert to the library, when a movement caught her eye and she spotted Edmund down the corridor they were passing.

"Oh! There's my friend!" she said, holding up the book as if taking it from Flitwick then scampering off towards Trevett. "Thank you, Professor!" she called back. Flitwick shook his head and went on his way.

"I was worried when I couldn't find you." said Edmund.

"It's alright - I was safe with Professor Flitwick."

"What'd he want?" muttered Edmund, casting a concealing spell upon himself so as not to be seen with Luna by other Slytherins too often.

Luna held up the book then put it away in her bag without comment. "Edmund - would you mind walking me to Gryffindor Tower first - I'd like to see Ginny. I won't be long in there. I'm sorry, I hate to put you out..."

"No, that's alright; I don't mind."

As they neared the Fat Lady's portrait, Luna wondered whether to use her D.A. Galleon to get Ginny to let her in but at that moment the portrait swung open and Neville was coming out.

"Luna!" He backed off, looking for somewhere to run but there was nowhere obvious without brushing past her.

"Erm... Did you... How'd it go?" he blundered into a conversation rather than stand there like a dummy. He was fidgeting back and forth on the soles of his feet, clearly agitated - as though he expected Luna to collapse any moment because of his proximity.

"Wonderfully - it'll be fine I'm sure. I wanted to tell Ginny for you."

"So you really are going to Transfigure her out then? That's great!" Neville led her back inside.

Ginny ran forward when she saw Luna; there was a questioning look on her face. Parvati followed close behind.

"She's going to think about it - but I'm certain that means yes," smiled Luna.

"So what will she be? A rabbit?"

"Didn't decide yet - I'd like a cat."

"Padma wants a puppy!" said Parvati. "She's the one taking the risks. She's the one who'll--"

"It's up to Professor McGonagall, really," said Luna, sweetly. There was a trace of a grin and Parvati just knew they'd finish up with a cat. "Yeah - right," she said, grumpily.

"For Merlin's sake - it's only for a few minutes," said Neville. "What's it matter if it's-- What?" Everyone was staring at him.

"What are you doing here, Neville!" cried Ginny, her gaze darting back and forth between him and Luna.

Neville's eyes widened and he ran off towards the dormitory stairs. "Sorry, Luna - forgot!"

"Are you...? How you feeling, Luna?" asked Ginny. "Are you--?"

Luna was looking sadly after Neville then murmured to herself, "I feel fine..."

Suddenly, her big eyes opened wide. "I feel fine!" she cried and ran after Neville.

"Luna!" Ginny started after her.

Neville was sitting despondently on the side of his bed looking down at the floor. He looked up when he heard someone come up the stairs.

"Luna! What're you doing!"

He jumped up and backed futilely against the far wall but Luna closed in. She took both his hands in hers.

"I need to know," said Luna. She stood there, close to him, hearing Ginny come up the stairs behind her. Neville was transfixed like a deer in headlights - his back pushed up the wall as if he wanted to levitate out of his shoes but was frozen in horror.

"Neville, do you truly love Hannah?"

He saw the pain in her eyes and he struggled to respond. Finally, he whispered, "I'm sorry, Luna - yes, I do love Hannah."

"And does she truly love you?"

Neville's reply was hoarse with emotion. "Yes, she does."

"Luna, have you gone mental?" said Ginny.

Luna released Neville and turned around. "Neville has been blessed not cursed, don't you think? so it couldn't have been his curse that made me poorly. The Ministry do use Umgubular Slashkilters. They do, you know. Daddy says so."


—oOo—






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