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Love Breaks The Noble Spirit by Hippothestrowl
Chapter 21 : Murder on the Hogwarts Express
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 1


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Author's Note: IMPORTANT! Historically, many British train compartments had their own outer door to the platform opposite the internal one to the train corridor. This is clearly implied (in the first book at least) where Fred and George help with Harry's luggage directly from platform into compartment and that is the type I use in this story. Keep that in mind because the movies use the one-door type where the only access is via the train corridor so that might be confunding!



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Chapter 21


Murder on the Hogwarts Express




Neville first noticed Edmund Trevett's absence by observing Luna. Her glances towards the empty chair at the Slytherin's table while thoughtfully munching her cereal at breakfast were frequent. Meanwhile, Hannah had sneaked into breakfast with the Gryffindors on this last day and sat by Neville's side. He raised an eyebrow at her but she shrugged so he turned to Ginny who had also been watching and anticipated his question.

"I think he's not well."

"He's not well?" echoed Neville. "But..."

"Edmund asked me last night if I would go with Luna to Hogsmeade Station. He was as white as a ghost. Haven't you noticed, Neville? He's been overdoing it I think."

"Asked me too," said Hannah. "I didn't noticed he looked sick though."

"That's because he's been looking rough for more than a week so you're used to it." Ginny swung her long red mane haughtily back and took another bite of toast.

"Perhaps he's just doing some late packing," said Neville, cheerfully digging into a sausage.

"During breakfast?" scoffed Hannah.

"I did almost all mine last night," Neville continued between mouthfuls. "Seamus got me a new Remembrall so I wouldn't forget - look!"

He glanced at Seamus and gave him the thumbs up, then he dropped his fork and reached into a pocket on his robe. He rummaged around for a few seconds then, with a melodramatically-worried look, began searching all his other pockets. When Ginny smirked at Hannah, Neville winked and pulled out the Remembrall from the first pocket. "Got you!" He laughed. "See - it's clear."

His laughter spread softly here and there along the Gryffindor table, as though it were an unconscious signal that it was alright to be happy - they were all going home to see their families.

Someone at the Hufflepuff table was not so merry. Ernie Macmillan was a little out of sorts; in fact he was rather cross. He had accepted the loss of much of his best friend Hannah's time to Neville without complaint. Part of him was delighted for his companion but fought with feelings of suppressed resignation at having to spend more time on his own. He even accepted his being assigned, at the last minute, escort duty to Luna who somehow he struggled to disassociate from Neville's success with Hannah. After all, if Luna had won Neville's heart then Hannah would be free... He sighed. No, it was neither of those two irksome burdens that bore down on him the most this morning; it was the temporary loss of his Trunkate which irritated and inflamed his personal sense of injustice. It was true he had willingly loaned it to Emmy and Gylda when asked, but it had not then occurred to him that he would be needing it himself so soon. His father would demand an explanation at King's Cross, for it was he who had paid for the gift. And his full-size trunk was exceedingly awkward to manoeuvre even when hovered - but he couldn't do that in London in front of Muggles.

Mid-morning, when Ernie headed up the Hufflepuff stairs towards the Entrance Hall, he had a kitchen-elf in tow, happily floating a swollen travel chest behind. He hoped to draw sympathetic attention to his missing bag but because of the extra delay he was now having to rush. When he stopped at the threshold of the Castle, the elf almost bumped into him and showered him with apologies.

Ernie wasn't listening. The others had already left without him and he glared out through the Entrance doorway across the heavily-trampled snow, stamping his feet as the chilly air nipped at him. Ahead could be seen Ginny and another girl chatting as they walked down towards Hogsmeade with Hannah and Neville arm-in-arm by their side and Luna ahead of them all. Perhaps he was indulging in a little self-pity but he seemed unneeded so he held back for a few minutes. Luna had enough guards without him, he thought, though she ought to keep closer to them. He stared harder at the back of the blonde girl's head. It didn't look much like Luna, he reflected after a while...

Susan and Leanne came along behind him at that moment, laughing and giggling at his elf while they expertly hovered their own baggage themselves. He decided to join up with them for the journey. Who needed Hannah anyway? She had only ever been a companion and he had other friends.

They hadn't walked far outside when Leanne glanced back at the sound of raised voices and stopped. Ernie followed her gaze. Edmund Trevett was stood with Madam Pomfrey on the entrance steps, their breaths steaming in sharp bursts as they quarrelled about something.

Susan laughed and nudged Leanne. "Too much Christmas spirit last night."

They agreed that Trevett looked dreadful. His eyes were darkly sunken and his features pallid. Still, Ernie noted, he had a Trunkate slung over his shoulder so he must be fit enough for the journey. Most of the Slytherins coming out now boasted one of the coveted new bags too, he noted enviously, all in the same Slytherin-green livery.

Ernie glanced down at his pathetic borrowed elf. He was fruitlessly trying to poke a creased Hufflepuff tie back under the bursting trunk lid with his long skinny finger. Ernie made a mental note to be less forthcoming of his own Trunkate next time. They resumed their walk down to Hogsmeade and the train station.

...

"Thanks Louisa," said Ginny to the fair-haired girl who was climbing onto the train. The girl gave only a brief wave back and seemed glad to be going her own way.

Ginny turned to Luna and grinned. Luna looked rather rueful but she managed to smile back at Ginny and said, "I don't mind my hair dark I suppose, but I do feel cold around my neck." She tugged up her fluffy beige muffler to emphasise the point.

"It's only till we get to the Burrow," said Ginny.

"I think raven-black looks elegant on you," said Hannah, cheerfully. "Maybe next year I'll charm my hair too."

"No way!" said Neville, leading them carefully forward along the icy platform, slipping and skating about as he did so. "Come on - I'll get us an empty compartment to ourselves near the front."

The girls laughed softly together. "I let him take charge now and again," murmured Hannah behind a gloved hand.

He found one with its own outer door and climbed up directly into the compartment first to help draw Hannah up after him. He closed the door to the train's internal corridor to give them a little privacy then started organising the baggage which Ginny hovered up to him from the platform. The top of his holdall was unzipped and he showed Hannah something inside. Hannah glanced furtively at Luna as she climbed aboard backwards floating her travel chest behind her. Hannah and Neville smiled quietly together as he hoisted the open bag up onto the rack and whispered something to it.

As the Hogwarts Express pulled out of Hogsmeade station, the mood on board was initially restrained - a residue of a long autumn term under the oppressive Carrows. Ginny was snuggled up with the morning's Daily Prophet in a corner seat next to the corridor door, but she wasn't reading. She was thinking back to all that had happened since they were last aboard only four months previously: the D.A.'s successful resistance; their attempt to steal the sword; the meetings with Harry in Hogsmeade, the Shrieking Shack, and, audaciously, at the gate of Hogwarts; Emmy's and Gylda's escape; the ghostly wedding; the Trysting Stone and all the good and evil that had ensued from its contact.

She looked diagonally across at Luna who was staring vacantly out of the window at an all-white landscape relieved only by the soft, dark edges of trees and farm buildings. For a few seconds, she thought she saw Luna's eyes focus back at her, reflected in the frosted window, but perhaps she had imagined it. They had made it! Luna safe! Ellyn herself had said something about the curse using the victim's own circumstances. Well, it hadn't allowed for so many friends willing to watch over her!

Neville and Hannah were chatting happily and quietly further along the seat by her side, opposite Luna. Ginny regretted her seat being distanced from Luna. She wanted an hour to herself to start the long journey down to London and had just plonked herself down without much thought. She had assumed Ernie would be here to chat with Luna. With so many students absent from Hogwarts this term, the rest of the compartment was empty. Yet despite everything, much good had happened! This was a fine moment for Harry's kiss but it did not take her by surprise. She already had the medallion dangling expectantly, hook, line, and sinker, as she leaned into her corner. Now she could read it without even moving as Harry took the bait.

Tomorrow! I can get tomorrow! Meet me Ottery Lane 10:00am?

Ginny's heart was lifted and she pulled up the newspaper to conceal her kissed reply:

YES YES YES! big tree, old gate, half mile from turning!

Ginny sat daydreaming for a while, her head buried in the pages of the Prophet, until the trolley lady came along to draw her attention outwards. She jumped up and dropped the paper onto her empty seat to mark it while she took the opportunity to share a Liquorice Wand with Luna as a ruse to sit with her.

As usual, Luna seemed to read her intentions. "I didn't mind you sitting on your own for a while, you know. We're - people I mean - we're funny don't you think?"

Ginny nodded and examined Luna more closely. It was certainly peculiar to see her pale features framed in black; her bright, searching eyes seemed even bigger as she watched Ginny's expression in return.

"You don't know what to think or say, do you?" sighed Luna, nibbling on her half of the liquorice. "It's a difficult situation but it'll pass by like everything does."

Ginny took her hand. "I can't adjust to your not being there next year. I can't take it in. Could we at least swap messages with Audrey?"

"If only Audrey had been back in time," replied Luna, "I'd have sent her to warn your mum and dad that I'm coming. They'll--"

"They'll be delighted to have you! It'll be a surprise anyway. You'll share my room. Fred and George'll be there to - at least on Christmas day. Dunno about Bill and Fleur, and as for Percy..."

"Everything will be different. We have to wait and see what happens," said Luna mysteriously.

Ginny opened her mouth to speak but Leanne and Susan appeared at the door with an unenthusiastic Ernie behind them.

"Ready?" asked Susan. "The others are already getting started."

Drifting in through the open doorway from further along the train came a growing sound of laughter and raised voices.

"You bet we are!" cried Hannah. She and Neville jumped up and Hannah pulled down one of her bags from the luggage rack. There was a clink of bottles from within.

The D.A. were determined to have a show of defiant high spirits even if it was only amongst themselves. Within the next hour, the train became festooned with glittering musical streamers and magnificently animated Christmas decorations. Colourful paper dragonflies and humming birds searched back and forth, alighting to drink from any drips of Butterbeer or wine they could find. Even the trolley lady joined in the carol singing duels and the driver and fireman passed back shovelfuls of roast chestnuts, hot dogs, fried eggs and bacon cobs straight from their firebox.

Within the first couple of hours, the verses became more inventive and daring; the jokes more risqué. Even Ernie had forsaken his sulky mood and was chatting happily with Hannah and Neville, his Santa hat perilously askew. Luna and Ginny had exhausted themselves joining one conga line after another of mixed Gryffindors, Ravenclaws, and Hufflepuffs. Only the unpopular Slytherins remained isolated, more for their own protection from the joke hexes that were in abundant use than anything. As Ginny passed Draco's compartment she saw him talking worriedly across a drop-leaf table to Astoria Greengrass on the opposite seat. She gave Ginny a strange stare then turned to Draco who fell silent. Ginny had an impression he knew she was there but he did not look up

It was sunset before the fiery celebrations subsided to a mellow smoulder and as the air outside grew colder, the windows started to fog up a little. Neville and Hannah had returned to their compartment and were cuddled up in the window corner again reading a torn joke book and laughing frequently. Luna was playing Exploding Snap with Ginny on the opposite seat. The last rays of the dying sun spread only a tepid glow upon the surfaces of icy branches and fence posts but the expansive snowy fields kept the outer scene bright.

Every few minutes, Ginny would go to her bag in the opposite corner rack on the pretext of fetching a chocolate frog, another glass of Merrygrimp's magical wine, or to get a hankie - but really she was sending Harry kiss after kiss with words like Tomorrow is our special day or a soppy countdown message, Only 16 hours 23 minutes to heaven!

They were all in a tipsy state, cares forgotten, and looking forward excitedly to being home with their families again for Christmas. Hannah giggled as the book they were sharing slid onto the floor yet again but she was too snugly embraced with Neville to bother to retrieve it. Luna was, for the tenth time, saying how attached she was getting to her dark hair and perhaps she might keep it or try green dreadlocks and a nose ring in the new year.

Without warning, the train lurched heavily several times and Neville fell forward onto the floor, banging his head. Hannah screamed loudly. Everywhere darkened for a few seconds then the yellowish compartment lights seemed to take over. Neville struggled to get up as the train continued to swing left and right and he was aware of Ginny on the floor too, slumped back against her seat. "Just a tunnel, Hannah. They're supposed to slow down for tunnels."

From his low position, through a woozy cloud, he could see her, still sitting in the corner seat but her face was a rigid mask; her expression one of horror. She didn't seem to see Neville but was staring ahead. Her hands were clenched together as if praying for release.

Neville blinked and struggled to sober up, to make sense of what was wrong. Ginny groaned from the floor on his left. There was a blurry tumbled mess near the door and something moving there; something small and white. "Dippity?"

Neville shook his head to clear it but all it did was hurt. What was Dippity doing here? He swayed upwards at last and collapsed onto the seat beside Hannah. He took her hand but she did not respond. She began to wail. There were no tears but her face was contorted with fright.

"Hannah! Hannah! It's me!" He had no idea what to do. He summoned his wand but the magical holster was empty. The shock sobered him up a little more. Ginny was still moaning on the untidy carpet so perhaps she should be helped first. The train turned again as Neville tried to reach her and he went down on one knee. Rolling back and forth between a shoe and a broken glass nearby was a wand he recognised as his own. He seized it then felt Ginny's hand clutching his wrist. She looked confused but at least she was looking at him; Hannah's eyes had been unfocused.

"What happened? Where's my wand?" croaked Ginny. She sounded like she had a mouthful of sawdust.

"Tunnel. Stupid driver didn't slow down." He couldn't keep the doubt, though, out of his voice. Something didn't fit and he sensed it in a distant part of his mind.

Neville groped around and found Ginny's wand in a pile of clothing on the floor. It was slippery with soap from a bar that was skidding around, trapped in a pocket of debris. Its scent seemed familiar. He pressed the wand into Ginny's hand but she was looking over his shoulder.

Neville looked around too quickly and his head hurt again. There were lights and illuminated surfaces passing by the window; notice boards, huge Muggle advertising hoardings too briefly-visible to read, arches, structures, windows lit up from within and spilling their radiance on brick and stone. This was no tunnel; night had fallen abruptly... and there was not even a hint of snow or frost.

Advertising? It made no sense. There was only one place... He tried to recollect how much he had drank.

"Help me, Neville," muttered Ginny, still reluctant to release his arm.

The train was shrieking metallically on the rails and gradually slowing. There was commotion on board, bumps and clatter of students moving about excitedly and for the first time, Neville noticed the door was open to the corridor.

"Neville?"

Neville looked down. Ginny's wand hand was shaking as she tried to point it at her right leg. "Banged my shin and my knee - not broken I don't think, but it hurts like I've been kicked by a mule--"

Neville steadied her arm as she cast healing charms upon her own leg then he helped her up. They looked back at Hannah. It was obvious she was concussed or in shock. She was rocking back and forth, her hands still clasped and oblivious of events around her.

"What's wrong, Hannah?" Ginny went and sat with her while Neville looked around to see if he had imagined Dippity. He hadn't. The small white cat sat patiently waiting upon a mound of what looked like robes and footwear and... He looked up at the nearest luggage racks.

"Someone's trunk must have been flung off - a boy's by the look of it. Who--?"

"Never mind that - what about Hannah?" said Ginny impatiently from the corner behind him.

Neville muttered doubtfully, almost to himself, still trying to make sense of what he saw, "She does get hysterical... remember OWLS? ...and Apparition Tests? - no... no, course not - you weren't there..."

"Not like this, surely?" said Ginny. "She's... she can't even hear us. ... Can she?"

Neville stared at the debris one last time then, while turning around, flung out an arm to the open doorway to steady himself as the train lurched to a standstill with a lengthy screech. Doors were now loudly banging open all along the train like a broadside from a man o' war. He stared in disbelief through the window.

"We're here? King's Cross? Already?". He spun around, wincing at the pain in his head, and stumbled over a hairbrush which he kicked angrily to one side. This was not right. This was not fair. This made no sense at all.

"Ginny - we're here! We've got to get her off! Get help!" His eyes turned inward for a second as a realisation struck him. "My gran'll be here - her dad'll be here!"

"Can't be..." Ginny continued to look dazed but she helped Neville lift Hannah to her feet. She seemed to respond to physical guidance and was able to stand but Neville wasn't going to let her fall anyway.

"Dad! Dad!" shrieked Ginny. Arthur Weasley was at the window on the platform side, pulling open the door. He had seen immediately that something was wrong. Behind him was Molly.

"Mum! It's Hannah - she's upset - there was--"

"I think there was a--" Neville butted in but stopped. What had happened anyway? He was supposed to know what happened wasn't he?

They heard Arthur saying, "Molly - run for Hannah's dad - he's still down there where the Hufflepuffs are getting off."

Mr. Weasley and Neville helped Hannah out onto the platform. Ginny looked at the mess on the compartment floor for the first time and saw the cat. Vaguely, she remembered Neville saying something. She stooped down and noticed the creature was sitting on a book. It was elegant enough to catch her attention but diaries always did draw her eye ever since her experience with Riddle. Dippity scampered away after Neville.

Cautiously, Ginny lifted the book. Logbook of E. Trevett was embossed in gold on its front cover. The book was sealed with a brass clasp and the lack of a keyhole suggested a charm held it - or a curse. She couldn't open it and was reluctant to do so anyway.

"Ginny! Ginny! You alright? You look--" It was her mother climbing in to be at her side. "Whose is this lot on the floor?"

"Edmund's..." said Ginny vacantly.

"Who? Leave it all. Come on. His problem. We can't--"

"Can't leave valuables... . Shouldn't we--?"

"Leave it. Leave all your baggage. Your dad and Charlie'll sort it out. Come on, Ginny." When Ginny still hesitated she added in a strained whisper, "Ginny, there are Death Eaters on the platform - didn't you know? We want to get going."

"Charlie's here?" It suddenly dawned on Ginny what her mother had said. "Charlie?" Charlie was something from her childhood - from normality - her mind couldn't quite fit him into this surreal experience. She started to feel even more woozy and the train seemed to turn around her then tilt away.

"Well, of course, he is! Didn't you get my last owl?" Molly lunged out to support Ginny as she almost fell. "Ginny!"

"Just... bit giddy. 'm alright."

Mrs Weasley helped her daughter down onto and along the platform to where her husband was talking with Hannah's father and Neville's gran. Neville was explaining he thought that Hannah had banged her head. His gran was sniffing suspiciously at his breath.

"Come on, Ginny, I'm getting you home," said Mrs Weasley firmly. "We're taking the floo."

Ginny stood there bewildered for a few moments. "What about--?"

"What about what?" Molly said sharply. "What about who?"

Ginny shook her aching head silently with a puzzled look on her face. "Dunno. I thought... Just us isn't it?"

Everyone was exchanging anxious glances at her but Neville's gran had got Neville to confess about the party on the train. "Christmas celebrations! Too much, too young, and too early!" were her parting words as she and Neville headed for the exit. Snorting contemptuously, she barged past a couple of Ministry men and disappeared through the exit from Platform Nine and three-quarters.

The great engine noisily released a large volume of steam and a strong smell of oil, triggering some of the milling, babbling people on the platform to begin to head home. Pecking at luncheon scraps were numerous pigeons. They scuttled and spread away before the departees then circled back around, reluctant to fly from the rich feast. Ginny spotted Charlie guiding a flotilla of baggage trolleys towards the exit with his wand. She had not had a chance to speak to him yet. He glanced back just before he disappeared and waved. As he and his wheeled string of luggage faded from view with a clatter, it occurred to her that she still held Edmund's diary. Ginny tucked it under her arm and whipped out a wine-stained handkerchief. She was silently crying all of a sudden but couldn't think why.

"Owl me tomorrow, John," said Mr Weasley to Hannah's dad, who had his arm around Hannah's shoulders and was leading her slowly after the Longbottoms. "I can help get her into St. Mungos if necessary."

"No - not there," replied John Abbott emphatically. "Nowhere controlled by the Ministry. She'll be alright after a good night's sleep."

...

Certainly Ginny felt much better when she awoke the next morning. There was only one thought in her head, HARRY!

She thrust her arms into her dressing gown sleeves and raced downstairs in her slippers to see what was for breakfast.

"Morning, Ginny," came the chorus. Mrs Weasley had one hand on her hip questioningly. "Sausage or toast or what?"

"Just a few cornflakes," said Ginny brightly, then, on seeing her mother's raised eyebrows, she added, "I've not got an appetite yet. I might take a long walk later. Get some fresh air. I miss that at Hogwarts."

Molly pulled a face. Since when did Miss Sleepyhead go for walks in the morning? Still, perhaps it was part of growing up. Then she had a sudden thought. Of course - Ginny'll be doing her Christmas shopping in Ottery!

Molly crouched down and sighed. "These old slippers are about ready to throw out - worn down to the carpet they are! Oh well, perhaps I'll wait for the January sales." She tried not to look to see if Ginny was listening. Ginny was. Later on, it gave her an excuse to take the big lidded basket without being challenged.

...

Once she was out of sight of the house, a weak sun showed itself which Ginny took as a good sign. She had been glad to leave the snow and ice up north. She was too old for that nonsense now, she told herself; she was going to see her man!

She Apparated directly to Ottery and shamelessly rushed around the shops purchasing the first things that came into her head that would make decent gifts: a dreadful tie set for Fred; striped underwear for George to pay him back for last year; foundry gloves for Charlie - she always got him those; A Muggle battery charger for her dad - he'd spend hours trying to figure out what it was; and of course, tartan slippers for her mum. She was tempted by a coarse leather horsewhip for Bill but in the end, settled for a smart brass magazine rack as a shared gift with Fleur. They could always use things for their new home and Phlegm was now officially a Weasley, not a nag.

A reducing spell was needed on most everything to cram them into the basket with all the food and drink that it already contained but at last she set off to walk back along the lane to meet Harry. She was early but he was already there, boldly sitting on the gate without even his cloak. He was hunched up against the cold, sun in his eyes, squinting back achingly in the direction of the Burrow. Ginny walked quietly up and watched him for a while unnoticed.

There was a sense of power in her observing him, like a protective goddess from on high. Ginny knew with certainty that she, herself, was the object of his devotions, and the knowledge pierced her wonderfully. Yes, he was real. It was Harry Potter. A hundred dark wizards would beg to be in her shoes here, waiting to cast a stunning spell and claim the praise of their deadly taskmaster. Silently, she placed her basket on the grass verge and drew her wand. She breathed a shield spell around herself then cried out loudly, "Avocado Cadaver!"

Harry flung himself backwards but his wand was out before he impacted the soil. His curse, though, splintering through the central bar of the gate, was deflected wide of Ginny's shoulder by her shield.

"Ginny! I could have killed you!" The gate, now an obstruction between them, he quickly pulled wide, dismissing it away behind him. He was concerned for his girl, not annoyed at her.

"Yeah, and I could have turned you into a tasteless fruit so we're quits." She wanted to scold him for not wearing his invisibility cloak but she knew why he did not: he wanted normality. They both craved it; to be just a normal boy and girl together without Death leaning eagerly over them like an impatient executioner.

They exchanged looks wordlessly for a while. Harry straightened himself up in an effort to restore his dignity. Ginny removed the magical barrier she had cast between them.

They walked closer, examining each other as if they had never met before. Ginny had made sure to leave her long, silky mane of red hair laid proudly outside of her travel cloak. Harry wore what he hoped was his coolest jacket. She conveyed that strange gentle fieriness through her eyes. He looked at her squarely without posturing. They both had the same thoughts. Reality is to be savoured when one has picked at the bones of imagination for a season.

There was near-silence while they kissed. Perhaps the wind occasionally rustled the branches of the great tree that gave them cover but the distant crows were almost inaudible and not even a bicycle hummed along the narrow byway during those precious minutes.

Ginny didn't want to ask, as they repaired the gate then wandered along the inner hedgerow. "I need to be back about half past one. How long have you--?"

"Hours! Hermione's gone to town yet again to try to get... just gone to town again."

"What about Ron?"

Ginny noticed a subtle change in the way Harry spoke. "Ron... He's away too."

"He's doing something special isn't he?" Ginny's concept of Ron had risen over the last few months from irritating bossy boots to heroic warrior.

"Sort of... Can't say." Harry was glad, for once, of his promise to Dumbledore; he could hide so much under the umbrella of one big secret. "Got you something!" He added, to quickly change the direction of their conversation.

"Go you something too," replied Ginny.

"Mine's special!" bragged Harry, as they turned the corner of the field without any idea where they were going. Perhaps they were unconsciously looking for somewhere to shelter from the cold air.

"Mine's special too - more specialer than yours!"

"Yeah, well mine's personal," said Harry.

"Mine's even more personaler!"

"Well then - I have two things to give you."

Ginny, for once, was almost stumped then said, "Huh - I have... seventy-eight things to give you." She was guessing, but he wouldn't know that.

Harry gave up and grinned as they surveyed the skyline beyond the far fence they were approaching. A hill sprawled down gradually to the west but its sunlit side dropped steeply as if it had collapsed all at once and never bothered to get up. That fall was avoided by all but the toughest grasses whereas the top of the hill and most of its slope were claimed by a grand stretch of naked poplars raking the sky. Rooks and crows were visible amongst their bare branches and high above swirled more, calling harshly across the damp, earthy fields that surrounded the raised ground.

"There - off the trail," said Ginny pointing to where the trees had been axed back leaving a low pavilion unsheltered. "I'd almost forgotten."

They made their way up the slope by unspoken consent, occasionally kissing, always hand-in-hand. As they drew nearer the top, Harry could see the building's style was Victorian with eight high-paned sides, four windows of which had been boarded up more recently with aluminium. The soft brown tiles atop its polygonal roof looked sound enough for they were protected by a corroded copper mesh and crowded by numerous scientific instruments - some that Harry recognised.

"It's a weather station, I think," he said. A metal structure, almost as tall as the pavilion, stood not far from its side with even more devices and paraphernalia.

"A what?"

"Muggles use them to predict the weather."

"Muggles can foretell the future?" Ginny grinned uncertainly at Harry, unsure if he was joking.

"Sort of."

The door was metal-clad and heavily chained and the surviving windows too high to peek inside. Rust and weeds gave the structure an air of abandonment though the side tower sported implements that looked more modern. It gave out a lively hum and a satellite dish suggested its users remained distant.

"I think," said Harry, as he looked back and forth, "this is automatic - the old building's probably abandoned. Has it always been like this?"

"Fred tried to get in years ago but couldn't. He daren't use under-age magic so broke a window but it was too high to climb up - there's nothing to stand on."

They moved around to the leeward side, out of the wind, and gazed at the view while they thought what to do.

"I can probably blast it open," said Harry, defensively, "but not sure I could restore those chains after." He appeared disappointed and slightly embarrassed. Perhaps, he thought, Ginny expected the Chosen One to be able to easily deal with an old lockup. Vainly he looked down at the damp ground for a place to invite her to sit. His coat came under consideration as a cushion - it could be cleaned afterwards.

Ginny was a step or two down the slope from Harry. There was a questioning expression on her face as she looked up at him which caught his eye.

"I can't just vandalise things, Ginny," he responded to what he thought was disappointment in her man.

"No, but you can Apparate, can't you?" Her smile enlarged into a grin as he grimaced and slapped his forehead.

"Come on."

She took his arm and explained how she had learnt Apparition as they lined up in front of the door. He was impressed.

Harry had expected the interior to be filthy and full of equipment but it had been gutted of all but a couple of shelves and one small table. The walls were cleanly painted and, strangely, the entire floor was fitted with a thick wool carpet. Its rectangular boxed flower pattern, pretty but dull, was crookedly offset and did not align to the octagonal deck at all. A coarse fibre doormat lay askew by the exit and Ginny flinched as she saw their muddy prints where they had Apparated beyond it.

"Scourgify!" At Ginny's command, the entire carpet brightened up garishly-new: the flowers, pale-blue-, fiery-red-, and lemon-coloured; the leaves greener than green; the borders mid-blue.

She cast a warming charm then kicked off her dirty shoes and cleaned them too and Harry did likewise, walking around in his socks to examine the place. Not that there was much to see. The external weather devices had been cut off where cord and pipe entered through walls and ceiling; whatever they connected with internally was gone. The space gave the impression that the owner had started to convert it to a habitable shelter but abandoned the task half-way. If the modern instrument tower outside made this pavilion obsolete then it was unwanted, unused, and unvisited.

"Colloportus," said Harry, brandishing his wand at the locked door.

"What's that for?" Ginny asked.

"In case... to be sure we're not disturbed."

Ginny smirked but Harry was staring at her strangely.

"Nobody can see in and we can't see out," he murmured, then added almost inaudibly after a long thoughtful silence, "but it's a lovely view." His eyes were still fixed hungrily upon her.

For a few brief moments, Ginny thought he might be reckless and she was gripped by timidity - then recovered. "Take a seat, Harry." She indicated the floor with a wave of her arm.

Her words shook him out of his fantasy and he lowered himself to the carpet and waited. Ginny descended gracefully to his side but slightly ahead - facing him as if on a backless courting couch, her confidence balancing his uncertainty. As she leaned forward she moved across and pushed him down onto his back. She slid across his stomach and curled around to bring her upturned face close to his.

If their enforced separations had all been bitter then these moments together were the sweeter for Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley. The two halves of their universe were at last merging together at its centre. They lay for most of the hour, lost to the world and its cares, blissfully immersed in each other.

Harry knew his greatest desire, far transcending his wish to dispose of the Dark One, was to share the rest of all his life with Ginny. Yet he knew also that now was not the time to propose his vision - not with his deadly mission still to fulfil. He hoped she knew and understood. Surely she could not doubt, even without him voicing it, his intention was to belong only to her; for her to do with as she wished.

He had tried to straighten his hair back countless times during his life but he had never then trembled as he did now with Ginny's fingers attempting this same impossible task. She laughed as the tufts sprang back and ruffled them up further in surrender, kicking out and loosening the lid on the basket near her feet.

Harry suddenly reacted to the smell of sweet spring onions and a roast meat that was, for once, not rabbit. His stomach gave a little growl and the lovers both succumbed to laughter.

"Harry Potter, the great romantic," said Ginny, squirming around and reaching for the container. She was hungry herself after almost two hours walking during the morning.

Home-made vegetable soup, kept hot by charms, added its rich aroma to those escaping the basket and soon after that they were digging into a crunchy chicken and hot potato salad.

"So... you got me slippers then?" said Harry, peeking further into the basket.

"For mum. I got you--" She broke off and her face flushed with embarrassment. Her gift for Harry had seemed so perfect when she chose it in a moment of affection but now it was so obviously pathetic her mind searched for some alternative. She couldn't give him the magazine rack. Perhaps he could use the fire-proof gloves? Her own face flamed at the thought. She must have been crazy.

"Ginny? What's wrong?"

The dazzling ties and the underwear were too unthinkably ridiculous and he'd know exactly what the batter-charger was. "I haven't... I've not got it with me," she lied. "Sorry - I can't believe I forgot your present."

Harry didn't speak for a few seconds which told her he knew she was lying but he didn't challenge her. "It's OK, Gin - don't worry about it - let me show you what I got."

He looked around for his hip bag where he'd dropped it and lazily hooked its strap with his socked-foot to pull it along the carpet towards him.

"This is just a..." He pulled out a cheap half-strip of booth photos - there were only two pictures. "I went with Hermione yesterday into town - she had the other half."

He held out the photographs and Ginny took them. Harry watched her face. She looked at her two friends grinning and pulling faces at the camera. Despite the happy pose, Hermione's face looked careworn and pained beneath the frivolity. Ginny saw it immediately.

"Have they split up?"

"What?"

"Hermione and Ron - have they had a fight?"

"No, no... she's... Ginny, she's... Hermione's worried about something. Even I don't know what." Now that he'd said it out loud, it became more real to him - as if, before, he had been suppressing it down into a box labelled 'Imaginative But Unlikely Possibilities.' So it was true - she really did have a problem she was keeping to herself.

Ginny was watching his face closely. She saw him realise something and it was too subtle to be a lie.

"Have you asked her?"

"I... don't... She's a bit touchy about it. I'm..."

"She needs your help!"

"It's probably a..."

"A what?"

"A... girly thing..." muttered Harry.

"Well you and Ron are all she's got right now!" Ginny scowled and studied the photos again. "This isn't..." Her eyes suddenly went as big as saucers. "Harry! A girly thing? Surely you don't think she's..."

"Dunno."

"Well for Merlin's sake you can't just leave it. It won't go away!" Ginny became thoughtful for a minute or two and Harry remained silent. "Were they on their own together... much?"

"Loads of times - when I went out scavenging for food. That doesn't mean - look, you know how sensible Hermione is! She wouldn't--"

"I know she's head over heels in love with the big prat!"

Now Harry was thoughtful. "Look - this is ridiculous. If you could see them together - they've never even kissed I'm sure of it! Once they perhaps held hands. When I woke up they were still asleep and--"

"They were together!"

"No, no, no - not like that - it was at Grimmauld Place. We all slept on the floor. Hermione slept on seat cushions. We were in our street clothes for crying out loud!"

Ginny turned to the photos again.

"Oh come on, Ginny - you know Ron. It'll be another ten years before he even dares kiss her toenail clippings!"

"You're right," said Ginny after a while, "this is something else."

"Ginny, she's been on the road for months - we're all half-frightened much of the time. It's a burden. She's feeling the pressure."

"This is something else," Ginny repeated. There was a familiar edge about the look in Hermione's eye - something sinister - as she looked out from the photos.

"I'll ask her then," said Harry, determined to end the discussion. "At the first chance, I'll ask her flat out - but not until we've... not until we've done what we've got to do in a few days - she mustn't be distracted. What we're doing is more important."

"You look older too," said Ginny sadly, as she continued to examine the pictures. "I can keep these?"

"Sure - yeah - better hide them away though. But you can always say they were taken last summer."

"Not with you looking like Methuselah!" grinned Ginny. She broke the tension deliberately and they cleared up the debris from the meal. Ginny vanished it as they gathered so eventually, only her shopping was left in the basket.

"You're quite good with housework aren't you," smiled Harry. He was simply trying to keep the conversation light and away from discussing Hermione.

"We girls learn from our mothers," Ginny replied. She suddenly snickered.

"What?"

"'Girly thing!' - You prat! I'll show you a girly thing!" She hurled herself at Harry knocking him down again and smothered him with kisses.

"Ow! My head! Ginny!" Harry wasn't sure whether to rub his sore head with his hands or not risk losing their place where they comfortably held Ginny's hips.

"Oh, something else I've learned, apart from Apparating," said Ginny, suddenly sitting upright. She used a healing charm on the back of his head then ruffled his hair once more. "How's that?"

"Rather nice, actually." He almost received a playful punch for that remark but he was getting to his feet and going for his bag again. "I nearly forgot my main present."

He took out a lumpy shape, awkwardly-wrapped in lilac Christmas gift-wrapping paper. There was about a half-roll of Spellotape holding it all together. "Sorry," he said as he handed it over, "I'm not that great with..."

"Can I open it now?" said Ginny, unconcerned about the wrapper.

"Yes, I'd like you to," said Harry. "It's something I made. I was quite pleased with it. Something I made just for you - just for you this one Christmas."

Ginny's eyes sparkled at Harry's words and she began picking at the tape, finally resorting to her wand.

"It's... I'm not really that good at craftwork you have to realise," pleaded Harry, "so it's only a charm Hermione showed me but... It's my idea anyway."

Ginny gasped.

The wrapping fell to the floor and she held the contents up high, the better to see in the light from the overhead windows. A delicate tracery of holly leaves wreathed a heart shape, all finely-carved from rich-red chestnut, almost the size of her fist.

"It's a paperweight really," Harry explained almost apologetically bringing his heavenly vision down to the mundane tool that it was. He wasn't sure if she saw its pleasing lines the way he did.

"It's a masterpiece!" said Ginny, breathlessly. "How did you...?"

"It was the magic that did it," said Harry, recovering his enthusiasm. "I tried all evening then... I was just working on this - trying to concentrate on my idea when..."

"When what?"

"You kissed me." Harry looked for Ginny's reaction. "That's my idea but inspired by your kiss."

"Wow! Didn't know I could kiss this good!" She rotated the wood-sculpture thoughtfully then said, "I'm not taking this to Hogwarts. This will stay in my bedroom."

She enclosed it in the shredded wrappings, placed it in her basket then surrendered to her lover's arms once more.

For another careless hour, they listened to each other about anything and nothing, luxuriating in joyful companionship and shared thoughts. But time can be cruel and when Ginny glanced at her watch, Harry did the same and they knew it was almost over.

Harry said ruefully, "Shall we take a slow walk back? I can Apparate from--"

"They're watching the Burrow, Harry - they watch everyone like us."

"Oh yeah - I read about that." A sudden thought struck him. "You're not at risk are you? Coming here I mean?" He knelt down and carefully repositioned the doormat where he thought it had first been.

"Me? No - they can grab me anytime at school or..." She stopped, lost in thought.

"What is it, Ginny?"

"Oh nothing. Thought I'd remembered something I'd forgot."

"Well, I can walk three-quarters of the way back with you, anyway."

Harry lifted his bag and looked around to ensure the room was as they had found it. He glanced at his watch again and Ginny stared at him deeply, trying to memorise how he looked - knowing every time he left her might be the last. She came to a decision then committed it audibly to herself, "I have to give it you now, don't I?"

"What?"

"My gift - we might not see each other... until after Christmas."

"Thought you'd forgotten to bring it."

"You know I didn't. I was just being silly. It is silly. I hope you don't think it's--"

"Ginny, did you think it was silly when you bought it?"

"No - but it's not... I didn't buy it." She sat down again, rummaged in her bag, then dropped a tiny packet into her lap. She patted the ground by her side for Harry to sit down again.

"Harry, I want to tell you something," she said earnestly.

Harry didn't need to speak. He looked at Ginny attentively.

"Give me your hand," she said.

He reached out but she said, "No, your left."

She held it between her own two hands then continued, steadfastly looking Harry in the eye, "The very year I was born, one of my uncles died. Mum inherited something but she had no use for it herself - just kept it as a memento. When I was tiny, I used to play with it sometimes. I found out its secret. I was the only one. I was the only one who knew because it needed the special magic that only very young children express naturally. Adults tried to open it using the usual adult spells but it needed pronouncing like a two-year-old."

She hesitated but could see that Harry was not laughing at her.

"It had a secret compartment. I kept all my money in it for a time. It was really just one button but I thought it was a coin. I have something else instead I want to keep in it now just for you."

Her eyes flicked to the little packet in her lap but she still gently held his hand between hers.

"Where is it now? The heirloom I mean?" said Harry.

"It's right here, Harry." Her hands slid down to his wrist. "I know it so well, I can open it with my eyes closed." It was Fabian Prewett's watch, the one that Mrs Weasley had given Harry for his seventeenth birthday.

Ginny deftly unclasped it and slid it off his wrist. Still with her eyes fixed on Harry's face she felt her way around the surfaces of the watch then whispered, "It has to be wandless. Put your hands on mine and feel the way my fingers move - no, don't look down - look at me."

They looked closely into each others eyes while she rehearsed the delicate finger motions and Harry felt the sequence. Finally she breathed, "Perio. ... Will you remember that?"

"Perio - yes," said Harry. His mouth was dry.

She held out the watch in the palm of her hand. Its back had swung open like an oyster shell and within the back yet another door had opened. Inside the slender compartment was a tiny metal button, the size and colour of a Sickle.

"I didn't realise that was still there," said Ginny, blinking at the little object. "You can throw that out."

"I'd rather keep it if you don't mind," said Harry, hoarsely. "I never knew I was carrying tha..." He choked a little and gave a little cough to clear his throat.

Ginny opened the little packet she had brought and removed a lock of her own red hair. "This is what I want you to keep. It's a real part of me I want you to keep forever."

She placed the curl of hair around the button within the watch compartment and they gently closed it together.

"Splinched," said Ginny.

"Sorry?"

"It came from my very first Apparition."

Before Harry kissed her, he smiled and said, "Ginny - you sure went to to a lot of trouble to trim your hair for me - I'll get you scissors next year."

Near the end of the lane, they exchanged one last embrace. Harry promised he would come again whenever he could over the holidays. He took one last hard look at her face, memorising every feature, then he Disapparated and she was alone.

—oOo—






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