Hermione cringed as the malformed beast swung across her restricted vision, then crushing blackness was upon her. No breath could she take till clear sea air filled her lungs and the question cried out from a dark void, "Is he here? Ron, did Greyback Disapparate with us?"
All four had stumbled to the ground in coarse wild grass. Ron lifted his head, looked anxiously around in the soft moonlight, then, with a mixture of relief and excitement in his voice, reassured her, "No! Left him behind, Hermione!" They were safely back on the clifftop beyond Shell Cottage.
The worst of the pain hit her then; pain that had been suppressed by the body's need to survive. Her gasp caught Ginny's attention, laying in the bend of Harry's arm on the hard turf. She twisted her head towards Hermione and croaked faintly, "Are you Splinched?"
"No - it's this." Hermione revealed the badly-swollen side of her face to what little illumination came from the sky.
"Accident before we left," cut in Harry quickly.
"What do we do?" wailed Ron. "Fleur's not that great with healing. Bill might but it's not his thing really. It's obviously not just a black eye or Mum could do it. I think we've got to take her to Aunt Muriel's. She'll know someone, or Dad might. Needs special treatment."
"Sit me up, Harry," said Ginny, weakly, still recovering from her body-bind. "Ron, did you say you got back my wand?"
"It looks serious, Ginny. Hermione might lose the eye," said Harry, rising to his feet and looking towards the house. "We've got to get her to a proper healer."
"Harry, I deal with 'serious' queueing up most days at Hogwarts. Sit me up and steady my wand arm for me."
Ginny fumbled with her belt and retrieved a potion sachet. Ron, rather dubiously, gave Ginny her wand. He was watching his sister closely now as if he somehow could not believe she was still intact and alive, let alone trying to be active and helpful. His established view was that little sisters were there to be either annoying or helpless or both, but as he truly absorbed for the first time that she had grown up since last he saw her, that she was living and not dead, he was attacked by emotions he could neither fight nor voice. His happy childhood playmate was gone forever; his new, older sister survived her. Grieving yet grateful, he turned his head away, gasping and sniffling and rubbing his face on his forearm.
"Some light here please," Ginny said quietly, looking with a curious expression at the back of Ron's head. She knew his moods well but it was a long time since she had seen him cry. He lit his wand and the high sloping pool of suddenly-bright grass threw into glittering relief the inky-black surging sea beyond the cliff's edge. Ron's eyes were shining. Ginny turned her attention back to Hermione.
"Ron, don't worry," said Ginny, completely misunderstanding the cause of his upset. "She'll be as good as new. It's really severe but I can fix it." Hermione's one good eye swivelled to Ron and stayed focused upon him. Ginny uttered several incantations then gave the potion to Hermione to swallow. "That'll take care of the pain. Your sight will be fine. The white of the eye is badly damaged but that will fade within an hour or so along with the facial swelling and discolouration. It's okay - I've done three eyes before and Derek was even worse than this." Never having seen it directed at herself before, Ginny mistook Ron's look of awe for scepticism, so added, "What? Madam Pomfrey's been teaching me with look-up books. I know what I'm doing!"
"It was you that whistled," said Hermione, as her vision cleared a little and was distracted from Ron by the shiny objects swinging at Ginny's throat as the redhead leaned in for a closer look at the swollen eye.
Ginny nodded and slipped Harry's whistle and her medallion back below her neckline. "I could just about move my head to reach it and..." Ginny looked away, pretending to be distracted by an owl hooting from somewhere near the cottage. A light came on at one of the downstairs windows.
"Your medallion," Hermione finished for her. "You've got a medallion too." She paused, trying to read her expression from the side of Ginny's face. "That's how you've been keeping in contact with each other isn't it?"
Ginny appealed to Harry who nodded at Hermione and said, mostly to Ginny, "The one that You-know-who took was a conjured fake. It'll disappear in time. He guessed part of its enchantment but he didn't understand it properly. It's old magic even he didn't know. His pathetic mind hasn't a clue about sharing love. He didn't even recognise it was a lover's medallion... nor the way we connect."
Harry looked first at Ginny then at Hermione. He knew why she had made them - but she, herself, did not remember. She stared back at him with her one good eye but it was enough for Harry to see the delight and fascination gleaming there. He could tell her natural curiosity was yearning to know more.
Ginny said, "Harry, the false medallion charm has worked before. Snape tried to take my medallion when I stole the sword but he just got a conjured fake too."
"And... I did that enchantment?" Hermione said to Harry. As a new thought developed within her, she blushed, glanced briefly at Ron, then looked at the ground. A faint memory had stirred that she could not understand. "You Obliviated me?" Then she added wistfully before Harry could explain, "I wished you hadn't."
"You asked me to," said Harry, "but... I didn't do--"
Ginny gasped and clutched at her forehead. She looked at Harry who had turned away, his knuckles whitely tearing at the turf. "What is it, Harry? Is he--?"
"Nothing," he gasped for air, fighting the sharp pain in his scar. "He's in ... rage. Killed ... Snatcher outright. Greyback's... paying for his greed..."
There was a cry from the direction of the cottage. "Over here!" Bill's shadowy figure was running towards them. Others were coming up behind, wand lights bouncing and flashing ahead of them.
"Dad's furious, Harry!" panted Bill as he reached them. "And I am as well! What the hell you been doing with my sister, you bloody fool!"
"You leave him alone, Bill! He's not been doing anything wrong!" cried Ginny.
"You're a fine one to talk!" He noticed her injury and anger was replaced by concern in his face and voice. "What happened to your foot?"
"Lost my shoe when the..." She looked at Harry, unsure how much to say.
"Lost some skin too by the looks of it! Splinched?" Bill bent down but Ginny, now she had been reminded of it, was already healing the injury herself.
"Is everyone okay?" panted Mr Weasley as he arrived. He appeared to be doing a head count. "Is everyone alright?"
There was a reluctance to answer, unsure of his mood, then Ron said, "Yes, Dad. But Hermione's--"
"Hermione? You need help?" He crouched down to look at her face.
"I'll be okay, thank you, Mr Weasley - it's healing."
His gaze lingered doubtfully for a seconds then moved over the others. It rested on Ginny and her bare foot for a while, then to Harry. His face hardened and there was bitter disappointment in his expression. What he said was brief but he spoke with a venom that Harry had never heard from him before.
"You're never to see my daughter again - understand? NEVER!"
Harry was impaled by the sharpness of those few words more surely than any spear through his heart for he stared numbly as Mr Weasley turned dismissively away and back to Ginny who was getting to her feet. "Can you walk?"
Bill carried an unprotesting Ginny back through the garden followed closely by her father. Hermione was leaning on Ron as they came up behind. There was a confrontation with Mrs Weasley on the path - diverted by squeals of delight as Ginny wriggled out of Bill's arms to hug Luna. Harry had held back at the cliff. He turned away and tried to block out the mix of laughter, shrieks and admonitions from a distance. The only word he could really hear was echoing repeatedly inside his head. "NEVER!" His gaze searched the infinite sea as the entire world moved away behind him. Harry was sailing a precarious ocean, leaving the safe foundation of the shore forever. The last distant voice he heard was Ginny's, "Why?"
Whatever she had challenged he never heard nor cared to know. He asked it of himself and of the heavens but no answer came. As, Harry contemplated his fate, a silence fell once more upon the garden behind him and he heard the front door close - shutting him out from friend and enemy alike. He felt utterly alone.
There was a soft footstep at his side. "Hello, Harry." A little hand slipped into his.
"You're very sad now."
Straight to the point but missing it completely, thought Harry. "I won't ever see her again, Luna," he explained in a broken voice.
"I don't think that's true. Ginny is very special to Mr Weasley. If I were him I'd want to protect her too. But if I did, I don't know how I could possibly keep her away from you for always. It's a hopeless task - being a father of a girl, I mean."
Harry stared at her face, pale under the silvery half-moon. She was smiling and her eyebrows were raised to invoke his inevitable agreement. A wave of gratitude and affection surged through him and he smiled back. Luna made everything seem so simple.
"You look really dreadful, Harry." She dabbed at his ear with Fleur's Dittany potion and somehow cast a spell to clean blood from his nose. "Ron must be feeling terribly guilty, I should think."
Harry nodded glumly, not taking in fully what she meant. "Did you just do a wandless?"
"Mr Ollivander taught me. I only half-know two. They're weak and tiny but very handy when you're in a dungeon. There's that cleaning spell and this healing charm to make you feel better."
She cast the tiny glow from her hands towards Harry.
"But I'm alright. I don't need..."
The gentle light entered his chest and he felt something yield: a sorrowful knot that had been tightening around his heart relaxed and left him free.
"...healing," he finished, looking slightly dazed and suddenly very tired.
"Come on," she said. "Get some sleep, Harry. Tomorrow's another day. Muggles say things like that you know. Probably why some people think they're silly." She repeated the phrase happily to herself. "But what if it's the same day and we keep re-using it differently? That would save having to make lots of days." Harry hardly knew how to answer Luna sometimes.
"So, how was...?" Harry bit his lip as they walked back down the path. A reproving voice in his head told him it was hardly the right time to ask her about her captivity. He wished he had thought to ask her before.
"Not too bad - I had a little garden."
She babbled on about dirt being like gold dust and how they were surrounded by wealth people don't appreciate. Harry had no idea what she was talking about but it was good to hear her voice; it was a familiar link back to his life at Hogwarts. He wondered if Luna knew that. As they reached the cottage and he pictured those inside, he took his hand guiltily away from hers, pretending to need two to lift the latch on the front door.
She giggled. "You don't know Ginny very well yet, do you Harry?" He looked at her questioningly in the yellow light spilling out through the doorway. Luna leaned forward and explained in a secretive whisper, "She asked me to look after you."
Harry crept upstairs unseen and tried to get some rest but his mind was troubled by the memory of Voldemort's wrath. The sound of Greyback - half-reshaped to near-human, squealing and squirming like a stuck pig under Voldemort's volley of torments - that was still fresh in his mind. And in his earlier vision, the poor souls crushed under the Dark Lord's feet and begging for release; who were they that called from below ground in their on-going trial of suffering? Bellatrix for sure - she it was who, days before, had summoned her master - but there had been another high-pitched voice shrieking. It could only have been Narcissa, yet Harry had not heard her husband. Silenced? Unconscious? Dead? One other, Harry had tried to deny to himself: Draco. It must have been he, calling out in a voice so cracked with anguish and despair that Harry could scarcely recognise it.
That thought led him in a new direction: why had Draco not identified him? It was certain that he had recognised Harry. What had caused him to have a change of heart - if that is what it had been? Perhaps Ginny could ask him if he survived to return to Hogwarts. With an uncomfortable jolt, Harry remembered: Ginny herself could not go back to Hogwarts. The question would remain unasked.
He heard the Weasleys leave within the hour and Harry sank into a series of irregular dozes soon after, not rising until after breakfast the next morning. He could see that Bill had taken Ron out to the back garden and Hermione appeared to be wondering whether to follow. She sat down but stood up again almost immediately, deep in thought, pondering what they might be talking about. She glanced at Harry. Was he thinking the same? Fleur could be heard in the kitchen, talking with Luna and Dean.
"Take 'zis bucket 'ere between you, yes? Tide, she goes out - 'ze rock pools is plenty wiz shrimps and 'ow you say? whelks and wrinklies?"
Luna's laughter was skipping out through the backdoor but Harry was only half-listening to her happy mood. His own attitude seemed more complex and uncertain: there was a change within him that did not yet make sense. He had neither used his medallion nor sensed any strong feeling from Ginny. Perhaps she was as numb as he felt but hopefully she was still asleep after her ordeal the night before.
All his grand scheming to find and destroy Horcruxes seemed now a faded sideshow. Yesterday, he had been forced to accept that Ginny was dead. It had been for only a few seconds, but it had affected him greatly. Life was so fragile: Cedric, Sirius, Dumbledore, Dobby - all gone in a moment. The only thing he had previously wished for was a chance of happiness. Wasn't that all anyone really wanted? But something else now transcended that desire. The same picture that had formed in his mind last summer came to him once more: Ginny in a white dress marrying a stranger. But the emotion that now stung his eyes was of relief bordering on delight because in his vision she was alive; alive to marry whomever she desired; alive to be happy.
This was not the only change he felt. There had been something in Ginny's attitude when she had been taken from him by Bill and her father. It was not resignation that shone in her eyes as she had looked back at him over her brother's shoulder. It was certainty: a conviction that nothing but death could ever part them, and perhaps not even that. He could now quietly rest in that new confidence. Without being conscious of any intention, he had made some deep decision not to see Ginny again until his task was complete - only then would it would be safe for her. If that act was grand and noble he did not feel that way: he felt reduced, humbled. It now seemed to him very wrong to have met with her and wrong to risk her life: she must live. His own happiness had become less significant.
That he would still faithfully strive to fulfil Dumbledore's orders, Harry knew - but he had little interest invested in the result. He wondered if this was how ghosts felt. How had Nick described it? 'a feeble imitation of life.' The alternate fulfilment of the Prophecy seemed almost an attractive release because then Ginny would no longer be of use to Voldemort if Harry was slain. He shook himself inwardly at such thoughts. He had to stay focused - lose himself in the task he had set himself. If only the goblin would agree to help them... Griphook!
Harry stopped himself in mid-turn as he felt a strong pull to go and strangle the creature. How could he face the goblin, let alone work with him after this? Ginny had almost died because of Griphook. He hadn't stolen the medallion but he must have read it in the bathroom. How? Goblin magic was different; perhaps they could see differently too. It seemed hardly likely yet there was no other explanation. The Death Eaters were waiting for her - waiting for Ginny, not for him! Why? Griphook must have learned the location from the message on the medallion. Perhaps he had also overheard something and calculated that he and Ginny were seeing each other? Had he heard him muttering to Ginny while using the medallion? Harry sometimes did, even though only thoughts were necessary.
Hermione sat down again and clasped her hands in her lap. She kept looking around as if hoping the wallpaper might do something interesting. Harry was watching through the living room window at the distant figures of Luna and Dean strolling carefree towards the beach but he wasn't really seeing them. His mind was much further away than the scenic beauty around Shell Cottage.
"You love 'er very much, 'Arry?" said Fleur.
Harry was startled. He hadn't realised Fleur had come back in from the kitchen and could only nod awkwardly. Sharing with Fleur his most intimate thoughts of Ginny repelled him.
"It was 'ard for me too at first wiz' Mrs Weasley and Ginny and--" She glanced at Hermione who shifted uncomfortably on the sofa and kept her face low. "--everyone 'ating me."
She sat down beside Hermione and looked her in the eye. "But all things - zey change, yes?" Hermione tried a smile but it lacked certainty.
"Now see 'ow thoughtful is Ginny wiz me." Fleur reached down and gestured to a piece of brasswork stood to one side of the hearth. Harry frowned. It looked slightly familiar and he puzzled about it.
"It's beautiful," said Hermione. "Ginny bought you this?"
Fleur nodded. "For Bill and for me for our new 'ome togezzer."
Harry wanted to see better; his mind welcoming the distraction of anything to do with Ginny. As he moved from the window, its light caught the brass plate, accentuating an image of a faithful wolf with a seductively unclad lady upon a rocky shore.
"Oh - it's the magazine rack," said Harry, then thinking perhaps he had sounded rather flat, he added, "Yes, it's lovely now it's... polished."
Fleur smiled. "You 'az seen 'zis before, yes, 'Arry?"
Harry wondered how to answer but he did not need to. Hermione let out a sudden gasp so loudly that Harry and Fleur both looked sharply at her. Her face was pale and her lips were trying to form words. She stared speechlessly at the rack while they waited.
"You read... Muggle newspapers?" was all that came out finally. Harry was bemused. It did not seem important enough to have caused Hermione's astonishment.
Fleur answered, "My Bill, 'e studies 'zem for 'ze Order. To look for--"
But Hermione was not listening. As if in a trance, she reached out without asking and pulled out the newspaper from the front of the rack. She turned to Harry and held it out towards him, headline first.
IT WAS THIS BIG! FISHY TALE OR EARLY APRIL FOOL?
Harry stared first at the words then at Hermione. "What--?"
Harry hesitantly looked back to the newspaper then took it from her.
Harry gave her one quick glance to see that she was serious, then began to read the subheading:
"'Angler baited by pirate nuclear fallout hoax. Jolly Roger mushroom cloud at...'"
"Go on, Harry," insisted Hermione.
"'... at Wollsedge Mere.' Is that where we...?"
Hermione nodded solemnly. Fleur looked from one to the other in bewilderment.
Harry's eyes fell back to the newspaper. He continued reading, half to himself, half afraid of revealing anything to Fleur. "...black smoke... skull and crossbones..." He glanced up at Hermione.
"Skull and something very slithery," Hermione said softly. "Harry, we have to talk."
Harry stared at her, trying to grasp the significance. Hermione took a step towards the back door then, remembering Bill and Ron were out there, she whirled away towards the front exit. Harry followed her, still clutching the newspaper.
Fleur remained seated. After a while she clasped her hands in her lap and whispered in a melancholy tone, "Every'zing, 'zey change now I 'az been accepted."
Hermione led Harry through the front garden towards the bench by the far stone wall that secured the home from the line of cliffs beyond it. But Hermione appeared too excited to sit down so Harry remained standing with her, gazing over the wall towards the sea, gleaming softly in the hazy sun.
"That's how they knew, Harry. From the Dark Mark that Death Eater left over the mere pool."
"Knew? Knew what?"
"About you and Ginny."
"What are you talking about?" Harry glanced down again at the newspaper, hoping it would magically enlighten him without reading it fully.
"He must have left a--" Hermione gave a sudden cry that quite alarmed Harry and he drew his wand and looked around. She turned away from him. "Oh, Harry, I'm so, so sorry."
"For what? Hermione, will you please tell me what's going on? How could they know about Ginny and me? How could the Dark Mark tell them anything?" He put away his wand.
She did not turn around to face him. "There must have been a message left... Yes, hidden from us..." Harry could tell she was thinking it through to herself. "Hidden in the one place we wouldn't look, wouldn't consider..."
She turned round suddenly to face Harry. "A message had to have been left in the pool itself. It's a mere, so it's shallow, remember? Must have been put inside a bottle or a tin can and weighed down with a stone."
"But how? Why, Hermione? The Death Eater who found our camp couldn't have overheard us talking... could he? I don't even think we spoke about Ginny that night... Did we?"
"There was no Death Eater, Harry."
Harry stared, more perplexed than ever. "Then who?"
Hermione's face was tense. "It was me. I was the one who invoked the Dark Mark above the mere." Harry stared at her in dismay, lost for words. She took out her wand and stared at it for a while but Hermione knew she did not need to confirm what spell had been cast by it. She put it away resignedly.
The wind gusted hard at that moment and a couple of gulls shrieked angrily overhead, fighting to determine the ownership of a tiny piece of fish. Harry sank down onto the bench. After a few seconds, Hermione sat with him. The low wall gave little protection and her hair billowed across her face as she continued.
"I thought it was odd at the time - I was completely drenched--"
"It was raining hard, Hermione!"
"But I was well covered and I used protective charms - I was snug and warm."
"But you fell asleep!"
"Yes, fell asleep then closed my book? Turned off my light? Then removed my warming charm?"
"But there were muddy footprints! I saw them! Someone came up to the camp then slunk away--"
"No, Harry. You didn't see footprints coming up then going back down. You saw footprints going down then coming back up - my footprints, Harry."
"In the weeks before, I must have, or rather Riddle, the locket Horcrux, must have sleep-listened through me to you and Ron talking. Must have learned who we all are and our plans to overthrow You-know-who. And... you must have talked about Ginny with Ron while I was asleep - did you?"
Harry thought back. "Yes, well, we spoke about erm... girls, I suppose."
Even with the wind chilling her face, Harry could see Hermione flush.
"We had no idea you were listening, Hermione!"
"I wasn't! It was Riddle!"
"Yes, I meant... But that was months ago."
"The Horcrux Riddle could not have known of course, that it would take so long for the message to get out. The mere is in an isolated place on private land and--"
Hermione's eyes flashed. She snatched the newspaper from Harry's grasp and her eyes began to scan the newsprint. Finally, she lowered it. "It was out of season when I invoked the Dark Mark - it's unlikely anybody would go to the vicinity of the mere. That's why I chose it for our camp! The trout fishing season didn't start until a week ago - the day before this newspaper."
"But it still doesn't explain how they knew Ginny would be on Stoatshead Hill, does it? I still reckon--"
"They didn't. The used the underage trace, Harry. Ginny's not yet seventeen."
"But she said they'd stopped--"
"Stopped? They can't stop it, Harry! As soon as You-know-who got the message that you were sweet on Ginny he would give priority to watching for her trace even if that Ministry department was closed! She was doomed from that moment on. It was just a matter of time. They never considered that you might be at Stoatshead Hill too or that you might be in touch with her! They must have planned to grab her and announce something subtle in the Daily Prophet to force you to surrender in return for her release."
Harry stared at a crack in the crazy paving, thinking hard for a while, then abruptly jumped to his feet. "Hermione! He'll know about us having the Horcrux! He'll know we're searching for Horcruxes!"
"Not necessarily," she said slowly as she drew upon her dream memories. "It didn't think like that, the Horcrux Riddle I mean. It felt more abstract and isolated. I don't think it knew it was a part of Riddle's soul. It thought it was Tom Riddle!
"Well, it was, in a way," said Harry, scratching his head.
"Exactly! I got strong feelings in my dreams that it didn't know it was trapped - didn't even think about it. It accepted its limitations like a... baby would. No, not a baby... Oh, who knows the state of mind of a split soul trapped in a Horcrux! It disgusts me to think of it! Remember when you told us about the Chamber of Secrets? You told us that Riddle said 'I am Lord Vold-- well, You-know. He didn't say I'm a part soul or an alternate, lesser version. No, he had his own agenda and I think this Riddle did too. I think it would create the message as if for its own Death Eaters, not for You-know-who - the original You-know-who, I mean."
Harry looked at Hermione's perplexed expression as she struggled to comprehend it herself.
"So... you waded out into the mere and left a message at the bottom then cast the Dark Mark in the sky? Months later an angler reported it." Harry was half-talking to himself, absorbed in reasoning it out. "One of their supporters read the fisherman's tale and informed the Death Eaters. They retrieved the message that you - sorry, the Horcrux Riddle - wrote with your hand, telling them about me and Ginny." His expression widened. "So it wasn't Griphook after all!"
"Griphook? What's it got to do with Griphook?"
"He was spying on me in the bathroom. He--"
"He was waiting to use the bathroom! So was I! You took forever having a shower!"
"Well, yes, I wanted--" Harry seemed slightly embarrassed.
"Wanted to impress someone?" said Hermione with a smug expression on her face which she immediately changed for one of apology. "Sorry, Harry."
They sat, quietly aware of their friendship for a while, looking around at the plants and shrubs swaying in the breeze. Occasionally a seabird's cry would punctuate the changeless rush of the wind crossing the landscape. It fluttered the leaves of the few low trees and sighed through the thick hedge that softened and protected the far edges of the vegetable plots.
"Harry, your medallion - you said that you didn't..."
Harry frowned for a few moments then his expression cleared. "Obliviate you? No. You asked me to but I couldn't do it. I hid the memory instead of destroying it, Hermione. Remember I told you that Mr Wea... Mr Weasley showed me how? Probably same spell you used on your parents."
"So you can undo it? Bring back the memory?" Hermione was trembling with excitement though she could not understand why it felt important to her.
"Better leave it for now, Hermione, don't you think? Until this is all over?"
"Until this is all over..." she repeated thoughtfully, wondering when that would ever be.
"Hermione, if the Riddle Horcrux could use your wand to cast the Dark Mark, why didn't it just kill me? I was asleep, helpless."
Hermione looked startled. "I don't know, Harry." She puzzled over this for a while, staring at her hands clasped in her lap.
"I know why, Hermione." He was looking at her closely.
Hermione raised her head to return his intense gaze. "You do?"
Harry leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. "It's because of you, Hermione," he said quietly. "Your mind might be deceived into trying the Morsmordre spell but you're much too pure to deliberately harm a friend, even in your dreams."
"Why'd you let him get away with it all this time?" said Bill, angrily kicking a stone off his back garden path into a shrub. "Luna tried not to say but now it's obvious that they've been seeing each other."
"I tell you, I didn't know!" said Ron. "I'd have killed him if I'd known. I nearly did when I found out."
"Was it you that gave him that bloody nose and the bashed ear?"
"Yes." Ron did not sound very proud of the fact.
"Yet you're still going with him?"
"I have to, Bill." Ron looked away. "I have to."
"But you won't tell me what you're planning?"
"Can't. Dumbledore's orders. You know that."
"So, the fate of the magical community rests with that untrustworthy git?" snarled Bill.
"Bill... You've no idea what he's been through."
"Oh, I know exactly what he's been through!" growled Bill in a low voice. "When did he--? How often--?"
"No idea! I told you Bill!"
"But you must have noticed something!" raged Bill.
"Only that... sometimes he was out... foraging a long time."
"Foraging! I'll give him bloody foraging!" Bill took a step or two back towards the house but thought better of it.
"It's not like that. He's not like that," said Ron. "I don't think he..."
"You're siding with him aren't you! Against your own sister!"
"Ginny is marked forever! She can never, ever leave home. Never go out ever again. Never walk down a street again!"
"None of us can!" shouted Ron.
"The Weasleys were never that big a deal compared to this. Azkaban for a few years for--" Bill stopped walking and rounded on Ron, pushing him angrily on the shoulder. "Don't you get it? She is Number two on his hit list! He will NEVER STOP!"
"Of course I get it!" Ron snapped back. "Don't have a go at me! I haven't done anything!"
"Have you any idea what he does to his victims!"
"Jaskew we found quite mad with each bone carefully broken and--"
"I know, but--"
"--and that's nothing to his mind games!"
"BILL, I KNOW! I'VE BEEN ON THE RECEIVING END OF--" bellowed Ron. He lowered his voice to continue but tailed off, "--of his...!"
"You've what?" Bill's voice was stony.
"Forget I said that. I mean it, Bill! Forget it or I'll Obliviate you first chance I get!"
Bill stared at his young brother dumbfounded. He seemed suddenly a stranger - older than he knew him to be. "You'll what?"
"I'll do it, Bill - I swear. What we're doing is more important."
There was silence for a while. Bill picked up a soil sifter that was rusting in a mud puddle at the side of the path then placed it absent-mindedly on a bench to dry.
"Do you still trust him?" Bill said at last.
"Harry? I--" Ron hesitated. He had not thought about it before. "I'd trust him with..." He lapsed once more into thinking. "... my life," he said finally, looking Bill squarely in the eye. "I trust him with my life, Bill. And with Hermione's life. And with..." He thought some more. "I trust him with Ginny's life."
Bill shook his head and his eyes flared at Ron. "How can you say that?"
"Fleur's at risk isn't she? Just by marrying you she's a Weasley."
Bill became flushed with anger and choked out his reply. "Don't bring my wife into-- Don't talk about--"
"Fact is, you still married her," said Ron, becoming more sure of his own feelings as he progressed. "Why Bill? Why'd you marry her? Answer truthfully - we have to have this out."
Bill was half a mind to draw his wand and turn his brother into something unpleasant without a big mouth. He lapsed into silence because Ron was looking at him so earnestly and didn't look like he was going to back down. He seemed different somehow even to when he had stayed at Christmas only months before. Finally, Bill answered, "Because I love her and want to spend my life with her, of course!"
"And if Dad told you never to see her again? Or suppose Monsieur Delacour had said no way are you marrying his daughter and putting her at risk!"
Bill's started to say, "That's different!" but then his shoulders sagged in defeat. For a few moments, to Ron's eyes, he appeared diminished and Ron felt unhappy about it. Bill mumbled something.
Ron had to persist. "What was that, Bill?"
"I'd have married her anyway! But she was of age! She--"
"Ginny will be of age soon too." Ron was surprising himself by some of the things he was saying; thinking in directions he had not before. It was drawn out by a fierce loyalty that turned him now against his own earlier, instinctive feelings. But it was more than a new tolerance. It was compassion for his best friend and acceptance of his flaws. He might be the Chosen One but he was not perfect.
"But Ginny's not of age right now, is she! And that's the whole point!" insisted Bill.
"Do you think Ginny is going to magically mature overnight on the eve of her birthday! Start having a mind of her own the next day? Begin making her own decisions? Well, I've got news for you, Bill - she's been doing that for some time." Ron watched Bill digesting that for a while before continuing, "What if Fleur had been underage when you met her? And you were not allowed to even see her because eventually it would put her in danger?"
Bill did not answer.
There was no enjoyment for Ron in his conquest as he turned away. He was called by a greater need. He had to somehow make his peace with Harry. There was no other way. They had a task to do and there was no question of shirking his part. He went back into the house.
Ron had no opportunity to speak to Harry alone for the first half of that morning. Hermione was spending time with him in the front garden and Ron did not feel inclined to intrude nor to have an awkward discussion and apology in front of her. The longer he left it though, the more uncomfortable Ron felt.
As he watched from the front window, he saw Harry lean across and kiss Hermione. It was only a peck on the cheek yet both anger and envy flared up within Ron. He strode to the front door but his hand froze on the latch. He stood there like a shop mannequin for almost a minute before he released his grip and returned to the window. Harry and Hermione were just friends talking. That's all they ever were, he knew that. His temper slowly cooled, but his envy did not. She would never let him kiss her like that.
He paced the front room for a while until eventually Hermione returned alone. She exchanged glances with Ron. "Bill?"
"He'll come round," said Ron without thinking.
"Come round? Does that mean you forgive Harry?" There was a hopeful smile playing around her lips.
Ron looked sharply at Hermione. "What he did was wrong!" He hesitated. "But yes, he's only human isn't he? Understandable in a way. A man would go crazy with longing if he was separated from--"
He broke off abruptly and went to the window. Harry was still out there, gazing over the far wall at the sea. Ron wondered what he was thinking about all this time. "Is he regretting not going after the--"
Ron looked around anxiously to see who might be able to overhear him but Hermione was mouthing back at him, "the Elder wand?"
"We weren't talking about that," she said.
"I know - I saw you snogging," said Ron softly.
"Oh no, Ron. It wasn't... Oh, please don't think..."
Ron was smiling at her. It was rather a grim smile but she saw his meaning. She frowned at him then looked peevishly away. Had he been testing her? How dare he!
Hermione turned back immediately she sensed him going to the hall door but he was only closing it so they were not heard. Her expression softened. She watched him go back to the window then, after a moment, joined him.
Ron heard her step up beside him. She was standing close enough to see out; close enough that he could feel her warmth next to him. He hated it when she did that; hated it and loved it. He couldn't think straight. Was he hogging the centre of the window? A step to his left would make more space for her but would she see it as a rejection? Perhaps he could say something cool. Instead, he heard himself mumbling, "You know what Ollivander said - the wand is real."
"I know, Ron, but it's evil. I can't believe that Professor Dumbledore would want--" Why doesn't he take a step nearer? Put his arm around me?
"What if Dumbledore is still alive? We have to consider it. If we could only ask him." Why does she breath so softly like that when she talks up close?
"He can't be. Ron, we've been over this--" I wish he could be right.
"But Harry saw him in his mirror. He--"
"He thought he saw a blue eye! It could have been anyone. Might have imagined it anyway." Don't shout at him, Hermione. He's only wishing what we all wish.
"But he thought it looked like--"
"He saw what he wanted to see. Anyway, he doesn't believe it now."
"But the doe, Hermione! And the sword! It must be Dumbledore sent them! And Dobby! Who sent Dobby?" Why doesn't she understand?
"Ron..." Hermione sighed with exasperation. She could see Ron would not let it rest. "Ask him then! Go on!" Damn you, Ron!
Ron fell silent and went to the window again. Clearly this would be a good opportunity to settle his differences with Harry and apologise for hitting him. He made up his mind but Hermione followed him out.
"He needs more time, Ron. Let him be. He wants to be alone."
"But you said--"
"Only because you keep going on about Dumbledore! He's dead, Ron! You know that."
"So are all the ghosts in Hogwarts! Maybe--" He lapsed into silence as they approached Harry. He didn't look too pleased to see them; even less so when they started arguing again about what Dumbledore intended them to do. Harry groaned inwardly. He was actually pleased when Fleur interrupted to say Griphook wanted to talk to them.
All else was forgotten. Griphook agreed he would help with Harry's plan to get into the Lestranges' vault at Gringotts. Any empty hours that might have spawned disputes were filled with plotting and planning. Awkward feelings between Ron and Harry were pushed to one side. There followed busy weeks of questions and discussions leading to ever-new questions which needed answering. Without realising it, they came to an agreeable understanding again through activity and without a word being spoken about Ginny. Ron's earlier bitterness, already eroded during his confrontation with Bill, simply withered away through lack of attention.
The absurdity of their ambitious idea was pushed to the back of their minds. All seemed possible - or perhaps they were blinded by their commitment to Dumbledore's instructions. There was every likelihood that a Horcrux was in that bank and they were resolved to destroy it.
In time, each part of the scheme was evaluated, discussed, revised or discarded until they had a potential solution to achieving what ought to be impossible.
Never during this period did Harry hear from Ginny nor did he try to contact her. For the moment, it seemed a sacrilege to directly go against the wishes of her father. Yet he thought of her often in quiet moments, and she of him. In this time of sharing the same ban, they felt strangely closer to one another; they were of one mind and there was a kind of peace in that. Old habits of insecurity and doubt had been replaced by a new certainty. Sometimes, thought Harry, words are not needed.
The generous heart of Hannah Abbott always gave an extra flutter whenever she first sighted the target of her affections after an absence, no matter how short. It made little difference that she had been with him only two days before. Even the presence of Death Eaters and Ministry men on the train platform did not dampen the tingling sensation within her stomach. She could not suppress an eagerness to board the Express and find a secluded compartment but this time she did not need to wait: Neville Longbottom kissed Hannah right there on platform nine and three-quarters.
"Hmph!" snorted his grandmother, but there was a trace of a smile mixed with pride in her expression as she looked around at the reaction.
"Mmm..." frowned Hannah's father, but he made no complaint.
Hannah's cheeks pinked up a little at all the pale, wintered faces that flashed inquisitively in their direction. Once their lips had parted she rolled her eyes at Neville but secretly she was pleased. There was a defiant look in his eyes and she knew he would need that attitude during this new term at Hogwarts.
Hannah opened her mouth to speak but Neville forestalled her. "I don't care what they think anymore. Most of them are just jealous of me anyway; me, Neville Longbottom snogging Hannah Abbott!"
Her mouth twisted playfully. "It's not you the girls are jealous of, Nev." She made a mental note to work harder on his self-esteem.
It was obvious to her that Luna's escape along with Harry and his friends had relieved Neville of an inner burden and increased his optimism tremendously. Only now that he had sprung back up could she tell how much he had been held down by the gravity of his concern for Luna. But the weeks ahead would be more of a challenge for the D.A. She thought back to the start of the school year last September. The resistance had been re-established mainly under the leadership of Ginny. She was the one everyone had perceived as closest to Harry Potter. He had snogged her after all so that proved it, was the common view of the majority. Harry had not been fully appreciated much of his time at Hogwarts. But once all his claims had been proven true and he was as distant and unreachable as any god, he had become legendary. By association, Ginny had represented him in the flesh available as it were. Now Ginny was gone too, only the D.A. disciples remained to keep the faith.
Despite Ginny's absence from school, Neville had expressed strong hopes that the D.A. would rally and continue their protest movement against the authorities. He was confident that good news should definitely raise morale and inspire hope. As soon as the journey was underway, Neville sought out Eloise and Terry and Seamus. He and Hannah told them a plan they had thought up over Easter to start the term with a special news announcement on the magical ceiling.
"The Slytherins are planning something - a display - at the opening feast," declared Neville, looking around at everyone's faces to make sure they had all heard him.
Everyone stared at him with rather puzzled expressions.
"But I thought we were going to do it," said Eloise timidly.
Neville grinned. "Yes, we are, but if Snape uses Luna's diluted Veritaserum on any of us we can honestly say we'd heard the Slytherins were planning something, right?"
Seamus laughed. "Very devious. I like it!"
"You know you can resist the potion but it's easier and more convincing if you go with the flow and tell him something truthful but misleading along with the lies. He won't really believe it but it will perplex him - make him uncertain how to proceed. And remember Flitwick's Obscura to make it harder for him to use Legilimency. Oh, and look at his hair, not his eyes."
Eloise was very disturbed and Neville's calm manner made her doubt his seriousness. "You really think that he'll--"
"Something this blatant and public? Yeah," said Neville. "We know he won't be able to detect who cast the spells because we'll use the spare wands. But he'll want to find out who did it. He'll likely start with me. I can honestly say I didn't do it this time. That reminds me, everyone got their Mandrabane sachets?"
Eloise was appearing increasingly afraid. She had never been in any trouble at the school before - not even before the Carrows arrived.
"Don't worry," said Hannah, "You get used to it - and pretending to be terrified is good - then they don't realise it's not hurting much."
"I'm not pretending," whimpered Eloise, wondering what she had let herself in for.
They had to enter the castle as early as possible so they were first off the train and into the leading Thestral coach, thwarting Crabbe and Goyle who had tried to barge ahead of them along with some other Slytherins, claiming prefect privilege. Seamus created a diversion with an ankle-knocker jinx inside a fizzing smoke bomb distraction. As they passed through the gates of Hogwarts, the Carrows were on sentry duty, casting spells at every carriage to detect any unwanted magical effects or hidden contraband. Mr Filch was beside a cartload of luggage leaning on his broom sneering as usual as the students arrived. The carriage slowed almost to a halt but was soon away again.
"Watch this," said Seamus, twisting to look out of the back window.
They crammed beside him for a better view. Two behind them, the Slytherins coach was slowing down for inspection. A flash of red illuminated the inside of the carriage and there was a loud crack. Mr Filch's broom had snapped in two, pitching him face down into a pile of invisible Thestral droppings.
"Out!" Amycus bellowed at the Slytherin coach.
The view receding away behind them was of Filch trying to wipe his face of something he could only smell while the Carrows interrogated Crabbe, Goyle, and the other Slytherins.
"You did that? Good one, Seamus!" said Neville.
"A tiny blasting hex I left behind," sniggered Seamus. "You never know when they might come in handy to destroy something."
Eloise persuaded them it was not necessary to enter the Great Hall; any of the nearby annexes would do - even the cupboard off the passageway was close enough. The five of them crammed in together amongst the long stringy mops and coarse-bristled yard brushes. Neville insisted on being present because he wanted to see how Eloise was doing it. Terry was determined to be there too because he didn't like the idea of Neville being alone in the cupboard with Eloise. Hannah, of course, wanted to be with Neville. Seamus wanted to know exactly what and where to set his firecrackers and other whiz-bangs. Nearly-headless Nick was keeping watch outside and would be able to check everything was working alright without anyone taking any notice of him in the Great Hall as it was being prepared for the feast.
"It's simple," said Eloise. "I got the idea from how we enter the Room of Requirement and also the Galleons we use for messages."
"But how do you get the ceiling in particular to respond?" asked Neville.
"The magical life of the Room of Requirement is really the life of the castle. It knows when you are near and senses your need if you focus on it."
"Yes, but how--"
"Easy. I cast the enchantment upon myself," she said. "It's similar to the Protean charm. Then I focus on the announcement I prepared from your information." She unfolded a sheet of parchment and took out her wand. "I'll also keep the fireworks in mind - they'll appear in the magical sky as well as the real ones that Seamus has made. I'll do a quick, silent test without the fireworks for a few seconds then set it all to go off during the opening feast."
She didn't even get started. Nick's head poked through which startled Terry because Seamus' elbow in his stomach had him pinned with his back to the door.
"Bad news, I'm afraid," said Nick, his ghostly mouth eerily superimposed over Terry's. "The headmaster has had a false ceiling erected during the holidays. The magical sky is completely obscured."
Everyone looked at Eloise. She shrunk into her corner and stared at her parchment to avoid all the eye contact.
"Oh yes, and Mr Filch is coming to get a new broom handle," added Nick, casually.
"What! Why didn't you say so, first!" exploded Neville in a hoarse whisper. "He was supposed to be handling the students' luggage! Can you divert him?"
"Divert him? My dear boy, I don't do diversions, personally" said Nick. He seemed to be enjoying some private joke with himself.
"All taken care of - I've put Peeves on it." Nick's head disappeared back through the door.
A loud yell from outside in the passageway confirmed Nick's claim. Whatever was clattering around out there was fading thankfully into the distance pursued by Filch's shouts.
"Better hurry it up then, Eloise," said Neville. He was getting a cramp in his left foot which was trapped inside a mop bucket.
"Wha- What am I supposed to do?" she replied nervously. "We'll have to call it off if the ceiling's covered by another ceiling won't we!"
"If it's like the Room of Requirement," said Terry, "perhaps you can tell it you require the sky to be seen?"
"How can it?" said Hannah.
"Don't know - just saying, try it."
"Whatever you do, do it quickly!" said Neville, anxiously.
Eloise tried to stay her mind on the writing she held in her hand.
"Look the other way," said Terry to the rest of them.
"What?" said Seamus. "We're in a cupboard in case you hadn't noticed."
"You're making Eloise nervous - look the other way!"
Eloise gave Terry such a look of gratitude he forgot to look away himself but she didn't seem to mind. She held her wand at her right temple, cast the charm, and stared at the words on the parchment.
Seconds passed. Neville imagined he could hear Mr Filch's voice getting louder.
"Agh!" said Terry, as, once again, Nick's head popped through his unexpectedly. "Can't you knock, first?"
"Well, no, actually I can't, can I?" He sounded a bit miffed about Terry drawing attention to his ghostly limitations.
"Well?" said Neville.
"What have you come back for!" cried Neville in exasperation.
"Oh, right - yes. Bravo, Miss Midgen. The magical sky displayed upon the new ceiling with the message: Hello everyone! I think the stars are a teensy bit lower than normal but just as effective. The grand old ceiling was rather annoyed with this young upstart blocking its view. I think it's rather looking forward to the feast."
There were several whoops which sounded odd in the tiny cupboard and some tiny fist pumps restrained by the lack of space looked even stranger. Eloise was astonished to be congratulated by a ghost. Seamus banged his head on a shelf in the excitement, and Neville had a box of spare mop heads topple from the shelf onto the back of his neck and shoulders; a couple of them joined his foot in the bucket.
"Did anyone notice?" Hannah asked Nick as she helped Neville to untangle himself.
"No, I just adopted a nonchalant air and, as usual, I was ignored." He seemed rather melancholy as he said it.
"Not you!" said Neville. "The sky! Did anyone see it show - and the message?"
"What? Oh, no, there's nobody in there yet, except a couple of house-elves, and they were busy making sure the tables and benches were arranged precisely as they should be. Too busy to notice Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington, I suppose."
"And it disappeared after a few seconds?" asked Eloise, timidly. She had never had the nerve to talk to any of the ghosts directly before and was unsure if they could actually hear her without being introduced.
"Of course. You didn't think the castle would fail you, did you? Don't worry - your surprise will not be spoilt."
At the start-of-term feast in the Great Hall, Snape wore his usual impassive face although the Carrows looked extra smug if that were possible. Neville felt their eyes upon him but he didn't give them the satisfaction of looking back or of giving any indication of disappointment at the hidden sky.
"They're looking for reactions and they're getting them," moaned Neville. "We should have warned everybody to pretend to not notice the false ceiling."
"The new magic will more than make up for it," chuckled Seamus. "Anyway, it looks natural that they'd notice."
"Yeah, it'll be fun," said Neville as he started to reach for his first course. "Oh look, your favourite, Ginny! Sweet corn, chicken and potato salad with--" He stopped himself. He had spoken without thinking, without looking at where Ginny usually sat. So far, he had been too busy to dwell on her absence, but now he began missing her. So many empty places on the Gryffindor benches - on all the benches, he thought to himself.
Seamus was giving him an odd look. "Ginny's safe - that's something at least. It's not like it was when Luna was taken."
Neville sighed. "Yeah. I wonder how many of us will be here a year from now, though?"
He took the salad. It was not his preference but he had a silly notion of honouring Ginny by eating her meal for her. Whatever his noble intention, it merely increased his nostalgia for her as he ate so he abandoned most of it. He jerked up with a start as he pushed away his plate. Being preoccupied, he had almost forgotten their plan.
"Eloise?" He turned to the girl, three places along and with the back of his head towards the teachers' tables, he mouthed the word "When?"
She whispered her reply into Romilda's ear who whispered to Seamus who passed it back to Neville. "When pudding starts," grinned Seamus. "She was scared they might cancel the feast so wanted to have something to eat first."
"Right!" said Neville anxiously and grabbed a couple of different desserts to make up for his abandoned Ginny-meal. He reached for the custard then hesitated before pouring it on his treacle tart.
"Now you've got Harry's pudding!" laughed Seamus. "If you're gonna leave it then push it over here. I'll have it."
"No way - I like--" He didn't finish. He was drowned out by a spontaneous uproar from scores of throats, peppered by the loud cracks of snappers and flying jump jacks and exploding Catherine wheels. He looked up at all the upturned faces then above them. A bright starry sky with only a few clouds had taken over the new ceiling. Through it all, vivid fireworks were fizzing, whirling, streaming and expanding. It was hard to tell which were part of the magical sky and which were real. Through the stars in giant, multi-coloured lettering streamed the announcement over and over to the accompaniment of applause and cries of delight from the schoolchildren:
Dumbledore's Army Newsflash! Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, and Ron Weasley in yet another daring escape from the incompetent You-know-wotsisname's Dirt Eaters! Also rescued were our very own Dean Thomas and Luna Lovegood, and your friendly wandmaker, Garrick Ollivander! Take heart - the Prophecy will be fulfilled! The Chosen One is still out there with his friends fighting to free us all! He-who-must-be-blamed and his brainless slaves will be buried forever in the dung heap of history!
"SILENCIO!" Snape's snarl was amplified so loudly by his Sonorous charm that the windows rattled and the floating candle flames fluttered. Every voice ahead of the headmaster was instantly muted but the display continued above and the noise of the crashing and cracking and snapping and whooshing of the colourful fireworks still persisted. He stared up at it, aghast at what he read, so it seemed to Neville.
Could Snape's magic stop the mighty castle's - the enchantment that had stood a thousand years? Neville watched, aware of the eyes of everyone in the room focused upon Snape and the repeating message he was studying intently, Harry Potter escaped! Neville thrilled when he considered how that must irk the man who had killed Dumbledore; the traitor who served only his dark master. What was Snape waiting for? He seemed entranced.
"Bombarda Maxima!" Amycus, his face livid with anger, thrust his wand towards the offending display. There was a huge blast of pressure above. An elongated fireball spat streaks of flaming debris outwards and down upon the helpless students.
McGonagall and Flitwick were on their feet instantly but Snape, who already had his wand out, acted first. "Evanesco!"
An immense power seemed to emanate from Snape's wand. Not only the flames and shattering fragments but the entire false ceiling was being drawn into oblivion faster than it could fall. Yet through the remaining smoke pall that was being sucked after the fiery debris, something still glittered and moved. As the last of the black cloud swirled away into a diminishing vortex, it became clear what it was. There was a collective silent gasp from the gathering, a movement of air that was felt rather than heard. The original ceiling was intact and there, still calmly and smoothly streaming along through the stars, was the D.A. message, part of the unbreakable enchanted sky of Hogwarts Great Hall.
Neville looked around the huge chamber but he was not looking at Snape nor the Carrows; he was looking at the faces of the students. Amidst the expressions of shock and fear there was something else - it was awe. The message was clear to them: nothing could destroy the righteous efforts of the Chosen One. Even the Slytherins seemed taken aback, reduced to doubtful puzzlement. One of them was staring directly at Neville and one of them was missing. Astoria Greengrass eyes were pleading with him, but for what he did not know. The empty place Neville recognised. Draco Malfoy had not returned to Hogwarts.
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