Chapter 20 : The Departed
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All day Monday, Ginny's attention wavered between the plights of Luna and Harry - then to Emmy and Gylda - and she paid very little respect to the lessons in hand. She was also troubled by thoughts of Ellyn and Adgar too - perhaps because, when they died, they had been of a similar age to Harry and herself. It was difficult to envisage what it must be like - shackled in sorrow here forever. At least they were with each other, albeit in a tepid semblance of life. She drew a deep breath; they were beyond all help - but was Luna also hopelessly damned by that same curse she wondered?
After explaining about the Stone to Luna, and apologising for her own part in its evil effect, she tried, unsuccessfully, to encourage Luna to be hopeful. But Luna was not her usual, cheery self at all, being resigned to melancholy throughout their Potions lesson together.
"Be nice if it fizzed up a little, don't you think?" she said, vaguely prodding a few newts' eyeballs around in an attempt to produce a wrinkle remedy.
"It's not supposed to fizz, Luna - it's supposed to congeal into a lumpy cream," sighed Ginny, re-reading the recipe on the blackboard yet again to be sure.
"Still... I really would have liked it to whoosh and hiss and bubble for a while first."
After the final, uninspiring lesson of the day, Ginny herself struggled to remain positive for Harry's sake as she headed back to the common room with Seamus, Lavender and Romilda. If he was preparing for a risky undertaking she would give him all the support she could and not worry him with any of her problems. In particular, she had kind of promised not to inform him about Luna - he had enough worries already.
She flopped down into an armchair, pulled the last of her homework out of her bag and opened it up, groaning when she saw all the haphazard history notes. Her bag she flattened as best she could upon her knees, laid the scruffy parchments on top and resigned herself to rewriting the scribbles more sensibly - but her mind soon wandered.
There was only one thing she could think Harry might be attempting. Her thoughts went back to the days before Fleur's and Bill's wedding. Harry had let it slip he was going to try to kill Voldemort. He had denied it immediately, of course, under the pretence that he had been joking but Ginny knew he had meant it. And if he had discovered the whereabouts of the Sword of Gryffindor, and if the sword was necessary to accomplish his deathly task, then it was vital he succeed in retrieving it - far more important than anything that was taking place at Hogwarts. She felt a sudden ache - a longing to help, to make herself useful to him. She sighed inwardly and a drop of ink blobbed off her quill, causing her notes to be even more unintelligible. Was that 'Publishing of Hathmaunton Truce in 1690' or 'Punishing?'
He had said Hermione was still 'making preparations.' Ginny secretly hoped that would delay his dangerous excursion until next year because more than anything, she wanted to have time with him during the festive break. But he didn't actually agree to meet me, did he? She thought back to their meeting at Hogwarts' gate... Had he understood she desperately wanted them to see each other over Christmas? She found herself wondering how long his escapade might take. If it took the entire holiday she would never see him at all!
She let her notes slide off her knee and, as her hair hung down to hide her face while recovering them, she sent Harry a quick kiss to ask him to confirm.
She wrinkled her nose when she sat up again and scratched with her quill blindly at the top parchment. It was shameful to think of her own happiness considering that which faced Emmy and Gylda - not to mention Luna! Most of her guilty feelings for bringing the curse upon Luna had been overcome - mainly because Neville kept nagging to remind her it was Bowett's fault, not hers. They had also persuaded Padma, Michael, and the others that the threat to Luna was real and it was deathly. Four of them now guarded her wherever possible - two with, one ahead, and one behind. I'll make more time myself too - least I can do for my friend. It's only a few more days...
"Ginny?" It was Neville's voice.
Edmund did more than his fair share of escort duty which helped enormously. Keeping up with his own studies and homework must be a real trial she reflected. She had noticed his appearance was haggard - and fatigue showed in his features as time passed - but he insisted on watching over Luna every chance he got. Surely no harm could befall her here at Hogwarts now!
Ginny forced a smile at the crackling fire and wriggled into a more comfortable position in her chair - she had a good feeling that once Luna was home and she and her father had packed off to their secret hideaway then all would be well. It occurred to her that the very first Quibbler in the new year would confirm she was safe. Yes - be positive! It might be a very good Christmas indeed, Ginny reflected: Luna, Emmy, and Gylda all safe; Harry heroically carving the Weasley's turkey with Godric's sword; and You-know-who's severed head on the front page of the Daily Prophet!
"Ginny? Are you--?"
"Sorry, Neville - I was miles away."
"Nearly time for Apparitions - we'd best get a move on," he said earnestly.
"Well, I must say, Mr. Longbottom, this is a marked improvement!" Professor McGonagall's expression was one of surprise as Neville comfortably Apparated the length of the meeting room for the fifth time. "Do you think you are ready to try Disapparating into the corridor with Hannah?"
Ginny could hear Neville pretending to hesitate but she remained busy trying to read Harry's message again under cover of a brief swirl of her hair: Xmas uncertain but we have till 4 Jan. She grimaced; she had been hoping for some special Christmas time with Harry. She was still pondering this when McGonagall disturbed her thoughts.
"Which of you has lost their sole?" She was at the far end of the room, holding up her wand. Hovering below it was what appeared to be a piece of an old sock. She stared at it suspiciously before vanishing it then her gaze fell upon Ginny and she walked swiftly forward.
"While it is commendable to put in extra practice - it is not recommended for beginners to try Apparating without supervision!" She glared at Ginny. "I hope you realise - that could just as easily have been your foot!
"Miss Weasley, I have heard--" she continued, "--that you have become quite adept with healing spells but I don't believe you are quite yet at the stage where you can reattach an extremity before bleeding to death!"
As if to underline her words there was a faint pop followed by a loud squeal from the corridor and Neville came hopping back in through the door with Hannah and Madame Pomfrey right behind him. "Oh, stop making such a fuss - it's just a toenail!" she said. "It will grow back in a few moments if you'll just hold still and let me at it."
"It's not that," moaned Neville, as he dropped onto one of the side benches and looked down at his exposed foot, "Gran'll kill me for ruining these new shoes."
McGonagall shook her head and pointed her wand at the hole in the front of Neville's right shoe. "If you would only practice and remember your basic spells instead of risking life and limb - Reparo - Apparating without a competent healer on hand then you'd be better prepared for--!"
Without warning, all the windows suddenly shook before a strengthening wind and the earlier light snow was replaced by heavy rain rattling noisily against the glass.
"Well," said McGonagall, "I did say there is a storm coming."
The bad weather continued overnight as the temperature dropped, freezing soggy slush into ugly grey ridges around the Castle. By daylight it was trying to thaw again, helped by more rain, and this made the ground treacherously slippy. Herbology had been cancelled: part of one side of the greenhouses had been damaged by a wide-branching Alihotsy brought down by the ferocious winds. Not only were pots and trays awash but the old tree had released so much fuming sap that everyone who tried to clear up the mess had been helplessly seized with hysterical giggles. To make matters worse, some of the more mobile plants had decided to stretch their roots outside and Professor Sprout was occupied rounding them up for most of the day.
Ginny and Luna had joined Hannah and Neville in the unused fourth-floor classroom, taking advantage of the extended break. Edmund had been with them but when he espied Neville pulling Christmas gifts from his bag, he slipped out the door to stand guard outside rather than intrude into the privacy of the group of friends.
The Quidditch Year Book that Neville presented to Ginny was filled with facts, figures, and glossy colour photographs in which riders on brooms performed seemingly-impossible manoeuvres. When Ginny tried to apologise for not yet being able to return the favour he explained that he had asked his Gran to send it to him.
"Luna, I want you to have Dippity, she--" continued Neville.
"Oh, she's adorable - I wish I could but I just can't," smiled Luna. "Her place is here. You shouldn't--"
"But I insist. I want you to have her," said Neville. "I'll bring her--"
"But I have to refuse you, I think," said Luna more firmly and her smile disappeared. "I'm sorry, Neville. I - don't - want - her." She pronounced each of the last words emphatically.
The buoyant atmosphere collapsed like a sad omelette after that. Neville felt rather rebuffed and glanced at Hannah who also looked puzzled. She tried to change the subject.
"We... Neville and I were wondering whether to have a... sort of little Christmas party with..." She hesitated and looked at Neville.
"Who?" said Ginny, looking from one to the other.
"Adgar and Ellyn," said Hannah, meekly. "I know it seems silly but... I thought it might cheer them up a bit."
"But they can't eat," said Ginny.
"It's not just food though is it?" said Neville. "It'll be a bit of company for them..." He tailed off.
"That's a very kind idea," said Luna thoughtfully. "Ginny told me all about them, you know. I wish I could meet them too."
"You can't Apparate though, Luna," said Ginny, unnecessarily, "and none of us can do side-along yet."
"I might try," said Hannah, excitedly. She was pleased to find there was interest in her idea of providing the ghosts with Christmas cheer. "I've not done it but I know how - and Madam Pomfrey told me it's safe if you are already competent at Apparating and the passenger is willing - it's not difficult actually."
Ginny was less enthusiastic. "Well, yes, if you really think--"
"You're wondering if they would really want us to intrude?" said Neville to Ginny.
"It'll only be for an hour or two," said Hannah.
"That's what I mean... Then we'd leave them again. An hour in eternity... It's so unfair." Ginny frowned but quickly recovered. "Don't take any notice of me - I've just been a bit miserable with... everyone's problems. Of course I'll do it!"
Now it was Hannah's turn to look a little depressed. "If only they had a regular... Like every year - make them feel part of... We could invite a few other Hogwarts' ghosts along?" she added.
"Perhaps we should ask Ellyn and Adgar first, don't you think?" said Luna. "See what they want?"
"Well we know what they--" Hannah suddenly shrieked and jumped to her feet, knocking over her pumpkin juice on the desktop.
"Hannah! What is it?" cried Neville, standing up too. His wand moved from its holster so quickly he almost dropped it.
Hannah was frozen on her feet, staring at everyone, deep in thought. "Nothing. It's nothing."
She sank back slowly onto her chair, absentmindedly drawing her wand and clearing up the spilt juice. She had a faraway, joyful glow on her face and held up her hand to delay the others speaking to her.
"Hannah?" Neville said again, re-holstering his wand and sinking back into his chair.
"That's perfect," murmured Luna. From her bag she removed a gift-wrapped package, carefully opened one end, and pulled out a medium-sized picture frame, face down. She turned it towards herself, and pulling out her wand from behind her ear, she began to softly chant in a sing-song way while Ginny's and Neville's stares wandered back and forth between her and Hannah - who was still deep in thought.
"There," said Luna finally. "I didn't quite have it right before." She pushed the frame back into its wrapping and neatly sealed it. "This is for you, Hannah."
Hannah snapped out of her reverie and took the package. "For me?"
"It's just a little portrait I did yesterday - it's much better now. It'll go nicely on your wall I should think."
Hannah gasped as she pulled out the painting - as did Neville beside her. Ginny leaned over to take a peek too.
Neville spoke first as he took the picture to get a closer look. "That's exactly how I see you, Hannah."
"It's so... lifelike - You've caught her happy face, Luna," said Ginny. "It's so alive - but--"
"Oh, it's not magical - she won't move. I just used magic to help me paint it," said Luna.
"Seems so real," said Neville, handing it back reluctantly to Hannah.
"And this is for you, Neville." Luna held out a large plain-covered book which Neville took. He tried not to look puzzled but he didn't know what to say.
"It's not very good, is it?" said Luna, matter-of-factly as Neville opened it up to find it completely blank. "I had to work on one I'd already got. It's not really a diary but you could write your thoughts in it anyway if you wanted to."
Neville looked up at Luna, remembering an earlier day in the hospital wing. "You... w-- want me to... write about you in it, don't you Luna? S- so I never... f- forget you."
"Oh, that would be nice," said Luna off-handedly as if she didn't really care one way or another. "The blank cover is so you won't be embarrassed by anyone seeing the book's cover."
Neville slipped off the plain dust cover. The book's binding itself was predominantly a fine, green-dyed Tebo leather richly embossed with every colourful image imaginable streaming lazily across its surface. Flowers swayed in an imaginary breeze. Little cottages in a row seemed inhabited by tiny folk who waved their hats at passers-by. Pixies ran after fairies below a blue sky dotted with wispy white clouds. Trees sheltered picnickers beside a beautiful lake from which leapt fat, smiling fishes, shining in the sunlight. Nearby stood Hogwarts Castle emanating a happy, magical atmosphere to accompany its cheerfully waving flags and banners. As Neville watched the scenes, more swirled into view like colours around a soap bubble: magical creatures of every kind, unicorns gazing up at Hippogriffs in flight; a fairground, a marching brass band - and more pictures flowing in behind, seemingly without end. Neville gaped with awe and delight.
"They're just some of my happy ideas. I thought if someone else could think about them then it will keep them jolly," smiled Luna. She turned to Ginny.
"This is yours." Luna held out a tiny black box resting on the palm of her hand. "It's very small isn't it? but it's the thought that counts and this one is one of my biggest thoughts."
Ginny's hand trembled a little as she took the small container and opened it. Within was a silvery bead - a thumb-sized ovoid droplet that was somewhere between an egg and a teardrop depending on from which side you beheld it, as Luna quickly pointed out.
"It's a life charm," Luna explained cheerfully. "Daddy gave it to me on my eleventh to start Hogwarts. It's very smart you see - sometimes it seems like an egg which is the start of life and sometimes it seems to be mourning the end - isn't that clever!"
Ginny stared. "Oh, Luna - I couldn't. Not if--"
"Oh, you must!" said Luna very firmly. "It's very precious to me so I don't want it lost and I know you'll take good care of it."
"I... I don't know what to..."
"I've never forgotten how you helped me when Mummy died," said Luna simply, "how you shooed away my ghost. You were my first friend - my very best friend - and that's why I also made something for you..."
Ginny's eyes were shining as she looked at Luna. "Something else?"
"Open it - look, like this." Luna moved her hand across the silvery ellipsoid and it opened up like a shell - but it was not a pearl inside - it was a tiny flame. It did not flicker or falter but burnt steadily with a warm apricot glow.
"It's enchanted. Professor Flitwick showed me how to charm it. It took me a long, long time to learn the spell but I think it was worth it, don't you? I asked him how to make an everlasting flame and he said you have to bind it to something that is everlasting and I said could it be bound to friendship and he said yes but that would be really tough so I said oh."
Ginny almost dropped the shining bead onto the desk as she flung her arms around her friend. "Oh Luna - and I've got nothing for you."
"Of course you have," said Luna brightly. "Lots of people never get a hug as good as this one."
"What do you mean, you didn't get any?" said Harry with a puzzled frown on his face.
Hermione busied herself around the kitchen area, not looking directly at Harry. She tipped a few vegetables into a big bowl of water and looked around for the towel she used as an apron.
"There really weren't any suitable Muggles, Harry," she replied airily, "--not that I could get close to--"
"In a crowded supermarket!" growled Harry, his features darkening even further. "I'd kinda like to visit Godric's Hollow this year not next if you--"
"Well, you go into town tomorrow then if you think it's that simple!" said Hermione. "The only couples I got near were either too tall or..."
"Well... The man had a... horrible pimple on his nose. Harry, I just thought you'd not want to..."
"You got that right - but they don't have to be an actual couple do they? We just want one middle-aged man and one woman."
"Oh... well I didn't think of... I thought it would be nice if they were a real couple."
"Harry! It's not that easy!" Hermione snapped back waving her fist about angrily in Harry's direction. "You can't just walk up to anyone and pull a hair out of their head without anyone noticing! I needed to spot a good one on their collar - one I can see properly matches their hair!"
"Try Accio next time!" Harry was staring at the implement she was brandishing at him. "What's that?"
Hermione paused, looking at the direction of Harry's gaze, then lowered her hand and spoke in a quieter voice. "Potato peeler and scraper... and knife - it's a combo on special offer. Sometimes I miss the old ways..." She plunged her hands into the water and grabbed a carrot.
"Fine! So we have nothing for the Polyjuice potion but we have a stupid potato peeler. Brilliant! We can go to Godric's Hollow as potatoes - I'm sure no one will notice! I was looking forward to some free time at Christmas to--"
Harry didn't answer. At that moment, his medallion had trembled and the uplift from Ginny's kiss reminded him he was still wearing the Horcrux locket. He ripped it off from around his neck and stared at it in disgust. The locket bounced into a corner as he flung it angrily at the top of the food cupboard. Slowly he sank into a chair next to the table and ran his hands through his hair. He wanted to see what Ginny had to say but he would have to wait until Hermione couldn't see him. He needed to cool off.
There was silence for a while, filled only by the sound of vegetables being scraped and peeled - and the occasional plunk and swish in the water - then Harry spoke, rather meekly, "Sorry." He paused. "It's that damned thing again."
"I know - don't worry about it," said Hermione drily, as she venomously gouged a big eye out from a large spud then plunged the helpless vegetable back into the water and shook it. "Bad morning?"
"You're still missing... you're still missing Ginny aren't you?" she said quietly.
"Every single day and thrice if there's a 'y' in it," said Harry gloomily. And it was true, he thought. Despite having regular magical contact it was never quite the same as having her with him all the time. Not that I'd know what that's like anyway, a grumpy voice in his head said. A fleeting moment here, an hour there - that was all he had ever known of the most precious experience he had ever had in his life.
"You're scar's been hurting again, hasn't it?" Hermione looked up from her task and waited, wondering if she was trying to be too sympathetic. How he had endured the emotional and physical pains, and the injustices, all crushing down into his short life, she could not even imagine.
"There's... There's something he's after... Something to do with my wand. Some information or something Gregorovitch had..." Harry rubbed at his forehead as he remembered the earlier vision. "He gets furious. ... He called in all his Death Eaters but they... when they couldn't help... when they made foolish suggestions... he... but they daren't leave! They stand there terrified and wait their turn to be punished!"
"They deserve what they get!" said Hermione, firmly.
"And I have to watch."
"You don't if you really didn't want to, Harry - you--"
"I want to know what he's after! Don't you see? I know you don't believe me but it's not me - it's my wand that has stopped him killing me and if he finds out why..."
They lapsed into silence again while Hermione resumed her scraping and peeling and Harry watched glumly. A slippery turnip squeezed out of her hand, splattered onto the floor and they both smiled.
"That one was yours," smirked Hermione.
"I'll give you a hand," said Harry, reassured by the change of mood and trying to make up for his earlier temper. He got up from the table and joined Hermione at the tub. "Look your sleeves are all wet!"
He grinned and tried to roll up her cuffs. Hermione shrieked "NO!" and slapped at him angrily, accidentally scratching him with the peeler blade.
Harry stepped back in surprise, sucking at the drops of blood on the back of his hand. There were a few moments of tension until Hermione realised what she had done then she dropped the peeler into the water and dried her hands on her makeshift pinafore. "Oh, Harry - I'm sorry! - let me fix it."
Harry sat back at the table, nursing his wound while Hermione drew out her wand and cast a healing spell. "There!" she said, "Suppose we start all over again?"
Harry grinned again. "O... K... Let's see... WHAT! - How dare you come back without any Muggle hairs!"
A wry smile touched Hermione's lips as she resumed her place in the kitchenette. "I meant, start over without the aggro!"
Harry laughed but it was more of a grunt in his throat. He sighed. "Do you think we'll ever get rid of that damned locket?" He went and retrieved it from the floor in the corner and put it carefully on top of the cupboard.
While Hermione prepared the oven, Harry took the opportunity to slip outside 'for a breath of air' he told her so he could examine his medallion. The rain had stopped but he did not want to dally about in the near-freezing cold air.
Hugs from Ginny XXX
Harry felt warmer immediately so he did not have to rush his return kiss,
Stay safe. Stay mine
They lingered over their final kiss until the smell of Hermione's baking became too irresistible and with one final smooch he dived back inside as spots of rain began to tickle the puddles again.
Hermione had made them a shepherd's pie - and treacle tart for afters too - but as they sat enjoying the meal, Harry could not help noticing that the ends of Hermione's sleeves were still damp. She saw him looking and quickly dried them with a charm. He didn't say anything; Ginny's kisses were still fresh in his mind.
The next two days were colder still and the unpleasant weather did not relent. During Wednesday night, Luna lay awake, snugly listening to the freezing sleet drumming hard against the window panes of her dormitory - but that was not what had awoken her. There was a rhythm she felt did not fit. The noise of icy rain lashing against glass swelled in waves as the wind gusted and it was in a trough of relative calm that she heard more distinctly the odd tip-tapping that was not chilly raindrops. The only other occupant of the room was Felicity Eastchurch, snoring loudly - thankfully in a bed as far from Luna as possible - though the strange noise had not come from that direction.
Luna sat up and stared at the window from whence came the out-of-step pattering but the casement was no more than a dark rectangle and the single wall candle too far away to cast light through the panes. Luna swung her legs out of the cosy bed and crept forward.
A sudden squall thrashed noisily against the glass and Luna turned to a snuffle she heard behind her, across the room. Felicity's arm had blindly groped out for her wand. The girl sleepily murmured a muffling spell on herself then rolled away and sank back into her pillow.
Luna went back for her own wand and whispered softly, "Dubia Lux." The tiny glimmer of light wafted ahead of Luna towards the storm-sprayed window and she followed. There was something out there on the ledge but it sounded fainter, and, when the wind rested for a few moments, it had stopped completely.
Cautiously opening the latch she swung the window inwards slightly. Cold, slushy rain slid down the panes onto her bare feet and she let out a gasp. She recognised wicche wraenna immediately. She was used to seeing witch wrens in the area surrounding the Lovegood residence but this one was far from home - and it appeared to be dead on the sill.
After gathering up the little creature she closed the window on the storm; the bird was no more than a tiny wet bundle of feathers in her cupped hands. It was quickly dried with a spell then she slipped it inside her nightgown to warm it with her body.
She sat on the edge of her bed, softly humming the song-spell her mother had taught her until a gentle fluttering at her bosom told her that all was well. Luna went to the window and looked out again into the night. There could only be one explanation. A lone light flickered briefly on and off far away towards where she knew the trees to be. With a glance over her shoulder to make sure the other girl was fast asleep she cast her own wand light, pink and yellow, in response, and received an answering rhythm of pulsing azure.
The castle was secured for the night. There was nothing she could do until the next day so she took off her nightcap and placed it like a nest on her bedside table with the little wren blanketed within it. She left it sweet biscuit crumbs for sustenance and the remains of a cup of tea in a saucer then settled down herself again in bed and fell asleep immediately.
Morning brought blissful silence. The rainstorm had been driven away by freezing northerlies thick with snow clouds which for hours had been releasing their burden to obliterate the grimly-frozen slush that lay below. Having achieved their purpose, the winds rested and daylight revealed a gentler, softly-contoured landscape of virgin-white slopes pierced only by the mountain tops and the castle itself. All but the tallest trees of the Forbidden Forest were now no more than swellings in the vast snowfield.
Hagrid had burrowed his way out from the mound where his hut lay buried. He was anxious to check that this year's unicorn foals, born in the early summer months, were all safely sheltered and had sufficient fodder. Filch was hard at work trying to clear the front entrance of the castle, foolishly hoping not to have to beg for magical assistance. A few mittened younger students had already struggled out to his annoyance and were snow-shaping with their wands or indulging in snowball fights. Others watched and listened from windows, preparing to join them, Neville and Ginny among them. She looked up at the flat, pale-grey sky and the last few snowflakes drifting down.
"It's slowing - almost stopped."
"Wonder how he'll do it?" mused Neville.
Luna had already alerted them that her father had arrived and they were about to meet with her and Professor McGonagall and the youngsters downstairs. Hannah joined them on the way to the Entrance Hall and they passed a grumbling Filch who had given up and stumped inside to fetch help.
They escorted Luna, Emmy, and Gylda outside while Professor McGonagall, transformed into her tabby cat animagus, trotted along ahead. She wanted to see for herself exactly how Xeno Lovegood intended to spirit them away to Hogsmeade.
The group did not head directly towards the Forbidden Forest - they mingled about amongst the other kids and joined in the fun until they were at the far perimeter of the many squads of students hurling snow at one another. As more children poured out of the castle, it became a simple matter to use a concealing spell - one by one so as to remain unnoticed - before trudging off unseen in the direction of the trees.
The loft of the endless drifts provided a satisfying crunch as each footfall compacted the snow underfoot. Neville brought up the rear and used the Obliteration Charm to remove the deep footprints as they went. It was not long before their whispers could develop into chatter without risk of drawing the attention of the growing crowd of noisy students nearer the castle.
Hannah knew Madam Rosmerta best because of the time she had spent with Ernie Macmillan discussing supplies with her. As they tramped over and through the snowbanks pillowed on either side, she plied the youngsters with advice as to what to expect and how to behave. Emmy and Gylda were both excited and tearful by turn as they contemplated their future. Only the essentials of their luggage were being taken - courtesy of Ernie's borrowed Trunkate - because Luna had advised not all of their trunks could be carried in one trip. The rest could be smuggled out more easily late during Hogsmeade weekends next year.
Luna was the first to spot the lone figure amongst the trees and ran to greet her father with an emotional embrace. His huge mane of white hair, always recognisable to Ginny as a frothy tangle, had been raked up and back by the recent winds. His cap was missing and his grey robes badly sleep-creased.
"Good morning to you, Xenophilius," called McGonagall as she transformed back into her human form.
Xeno's eyes widened as the rest of them removed their concealment spells within the shelter of the trees. He released his daughter from their hug. "Luna! I thought utmost secrecy was--"
"Daddy - we need your help." Luna led her father away from the others and explained the urgent necessity of getting Emmy and Gylda to Madam Rosmerta in Hogsmeade. Ginny gestured to the others to hold back to give them some privacy; she wasn't sure how Mr. Lovegood might take this news.
She was right to be sceptical; his smile had disappeared and he was shaking his head vigorously. Abruptly he stopped and took a step back, eyes wide. Even from where they were, Ginny could definitely lipread the word "NO!" and when he folded his arms defiantly, things did not look good. Yet Luna seemed to be persisting and now she put her hands on her hips and stamped her foot, rather ineffectively, into the soft snow. McGonagall shuffled her own feet uncomfortably at Ginny's side and Hannah was trying to quieten the youngsters.
Luna came smiling back to them. Behind her, Mr. Lovegood seemed to have shrivelled somewhat.
"Daddy says he'll be delighted to take them," said Luna matter-of-factly, "no problem at all."
"Miss Lovegood, How precisely?" said McGonagall. "He cannot mean for them to walk through the Forbidden Forest with all this snow and--"
She stopped to watch. Xeno had paced along a few steps to where the trees were a little clearer and with his wand was summoning something down from above. It was only detectable where snow-laden branches were disturbed at its passing but nearer the ground its concealment spell was removed. It was if a shallow tent had been thrown into the air by a gale for it was somewhat ragged with splintered posts reaching out in all directions. A small, round sack at the front appeared to have a face marked upon it.
"Bagstaff!" cried Luna, moving forward to meet the descending craft. "You've done very well."
"Miss Luna! Thank you - I'm most happy to see you safe and sound!"
Luna loosened her scarf and the wren which had alerted her the night before flew straight to Bagstaff's pocket where it quickly wriggled itself inside and peeped out, chirring importantly at everyone.
Xeno kept himself busy with his wand, performing some final patching up of The Serenis. It seemed unnecessary; the splinters and tears did not affect the craft's physical and magical structure. He remained silent, his back to the others. Luna stood to one side gazing at him.
"He doesn't look too pleased about it," whispered Ginny to Neville and Hannah.
McGonagall went forward and, eyeing the condition of the flitfloat with some scepticism, spoke, "Xenophilius, are you confident this is safe? I don't want to--"
"She's fine!" he snapped then lapsed into mumbling to himself, "- come all this way ... storm's dropped ... I'm sure we can manage Hogsmeade."
"Then I will alert Rosmerta if you--?"
"Yes, yes - why not," muttered Xeno as he finished his repairs and stood back to inspect the craft.
"And how long--?"
Mr. Lovegood whirled around and there were tears in his eyes. "When we can!" He paused then resumed quietly. "Allow two - perhaps three days - we--"
"Two to three days! But it's only--"
"--We have to circle around right through the Forest again - right around to the other side of Hogsmeade... best we can do... extra weight and..."
He turned back to The Serenis and opened up the front canvas flaps widely. He cast a spell on the smallest sleeping bag to enlarge it. He stared for a few seconds at the result as if the last memento of the child Luna was gone forever.
McGonagall signalled to Hannah to bring the children forward while she cast her Patronus to send a message to Madam Rosmerta.
There was a very sad and strained atmosphere as everyone said their goodbyes and the two youngsters squirmed aboard on what they now saw was an adventure.
"Remember to thank Madam Rosmerta!" called Hannah.
"We will!" came the replies.
Luna stood in the trampled snow, her breath steaming and drifting in the cold air. She silently watched her father clamber aboard with his back to her. While Ginny turned to her to say goodbye and help her aboard, The Serenis very slowly began to lift and turn away, leaving Luna behind.
Ginny and Hannah shrieked. Ginny ran forward. "Hold on, Mr. Lovegood!"
The craft hesitated then abruptly lowered itself back down to hover just above the ground. Xenophilius Lovegood leapt out and sped back but Luna was already running towards him. He was shaking uncontrollably, his face as pale white as the snow that received his tears. They embraced and his hand rested on her hair, perhaps to get the measure of his girl and know that she was still real. Whereas before he had been hurried, now he did not seem able to leave.
Nobody else spoke. Presently he turned away and resumed his place in The Serenis. The flitfloat seemed to struggle to gain height and it was several minutes before it had finally disappeared up through the snowy branches.
Everyone's attention turned to Luna.
"You knew?" said Ginny, seeing the expression on Luna's face.
"Oh, yes," said Luna wistfully, "she was never going to be able to carry us all..."
"I do like the Hogwarts Express anyway - it'll be fun!" She smiled at all the wide-eyed faces. "We'll make it fun! Show them we're not downtrodden!"
McGonagall spoke, and there was much doubt in her voice, "Miss Lovegood, going on their progress from here, are you sure that your father will be able to get from Hogsmeade to London in time to--"
"I can make my own way from King's Cross, I'm sure. There's--"
"You will do no such thing!" said McGonagall. "We shall arrange--"
"Come home with us, Luna!" said Ginny suddenly. "You can stop the night - more than one night and Dad and me - we can walk or floo over to your place with you once your dad is back!"
"That will be lovely - thank you Ginny," smiled Luna.
McGonagall was nodding. "That sounds very satisfactory."
The few days that remained passed drearily at Hogwarts, lacking the excited anticipation that usually precedes a Christmas holiday. As the last day approached, Ginny and Neville became more aware of how much they would miss Luna and the thought of returning to the school still under Snape's control dulled their prospects of a carefree break. But one event did brighten up the very last day before their departure. Although Amycus Carrow had threatened homework for the holidays, he seemed to have forgotten and none of the other teachers had set any. Furthermore, the only lessons remaining were in the morning - leaving the afternoon free to prepare for the students' departure on the morrow.
"Three-thirty this afternoon!" whispered Hannah to Neville and Ginny as she paused in passing the Gryffindor table at breakfast. "That party we talked about? All fixed!"
"Where do we meet?" said Ginny in a low voice, keeping one eye on the Carrows at the front of the Great Hall.
"Fifth floor - Apparitions room." Hannah sounded pleased with herself. "It'll just be a small gathering but I think it'll be wonderful!"
She swept over to the Ravenclaw table; Neville and Hannah could see her telling Luna who clapped her hands together and looked delighted. This earned her a scathing look from the head tables but nothing was said and she continued to talk animatedly to Hannah.
"What's she so excited about?" murmured Neville. "Always seems to see more in less, does Luna. Did we miss something?"
"She just likes parties," Ginny said. She spoke with conviction but inside she was curious.
Luna's cheery disposition had not faded when they met her at the threshold to the meeting room.
"This is where you do Apparition lessons?" she said as they entered. "It's jolly nice - it's like a..."
"Where's Hannah?" muttered Neville. looking hopefully along the passages and in through the open door of the meeting room. "She was supposed to be up here."
"She's bringing someone else," said Luna, as she dreamily wandered around the room, inspecting every pillar, arch, and window.
"Who?" said Ginny.
"You'll see." Luna gazed at the far end of the meeting room. "The chapel is through there?"
"Yes, we think there used to be a door between those stone supports--"
Luna looked thoughtfully at the recesses between the pillars on the back wall. "No... We're in it," she said finally.
"This meeting room is part of the chapel. This was where the congregation gathered. Those columns - see the arches at the top? That wall wasn't there at all centuries ago - just the open pillars through to the... Is there an altar?" Ginny nodded. "It's an altar room then. Imagine how it must have been--"
Neville gasped. Something icily cold had passed through him.
"Friar! What are you doing here?" said Neville.
Luna laughed. The Hufflepuff ghost beamed. "I have been asked here in my official capacity to conduct the--" There was a faint pop at the far end of the room.
"Friar! Glad you could make it! Everything's ready!" It was Hannah. "I've spoken to them. They are completely bedazzled!"
"Hannah, what's going on?" said Neville nervously.
"We said a party didn't we?" Hannah grinned. "We're a wedding party, of course!"
The ceremony was short, simple, yet strangely beautiful. Ellyn was glowing with joy, though nervous, finding it hard to believe her long-held desire was to be finally satisfied. Adgar seemed taller, his voice deeper. He had gained a new assurance where before he had been gripped by hopelessness. Perhaps they had rehearsed their vows through many years for they declared them faultlessly and with confidence.
They could not, of course, make use of the chapel's physical grail but the Friar had his own unearthly silver chalice. Neville wondered perhaps that he had grasped it at his own execution for it brimmed redly with wine, yet spilt naught. And though the radiant couple both drank deeply from it - to signify their willingness to share their life together and to tread one path - the cup remained ever full.
The only ring they could use was the silver promise serclett that Ellyn already wore and that had boasted its amethyst for long centuries. She gladly surrendered it and received it back from the hand of her lover during the ceremony. Ginny winced as she saw him place it on her index finger but Luna nudged her to keep looking. Adgar gently moved it to the middle finger then finally back to her ring finger to complete an ancient tradition.
Their kiss was sweet and delicate as only a ghostly contact can be. Hannah was tearful and even the Friar looked most wistful as the couple, still embracing, became more tenuous and insubstantial.
"What's happening?" whispered Ginny to Luna, who was still conjuring scented rose petals that were floating right through the happy pair. Soon there was no more than a single faint outline of light to locate the departure of their unified spirits.
"They've gone on at last, "smiled Luna happily. "Only desire bound them to this world and now they wish for nothing."
"Well, that was worth waiting for!" chortled the Fat Friar as he glided among them, his eyes ablaze with satisfaction and his cheeks more rosy - just possibly he might have quaffed at his own cup.
"It's going to be a perfect Christmas!" beamed Hannah as she slipped her arm around Neville's waist. "Just wonderful!"
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