The note arrived with that morning's owl post. The owl was unfamiliar to her and the note unsigned, but Ginny would have recognized his scribble anywhere. He had the handwriting of someone who tried to write neatly only to please others, the cautious penmanship of a boy still yearning for a precious kind word of praise.
"Come to Hagrid's hut after supper," it said, its writer confident she would heed its instructions without question. "Bring what food you can."
She wondered if he knew that Hagrid was gone, fled with his half-brother to the wilds of Snowdonia where, he hoped, Voldemort couldn't find them. She decided to arrive at the hut earlier than requested, to skive off supper in the Great Hall in favor of enlisting the school elves' aid. Dobby would fall all over himself in the service of his emancipator. Thus resolved, she set the note on fire with an Incendio Spell and watched it shrivel and turn to ash.
* * * * *
She could see the flickering of light and shadow through the mullioned windows of the Great Hall as she strode across the lawn to Hagrid's hut. She was disappointed to see a thin plume of smoke curling out of the chimney; she had hoped to beat him here, to have the place tidied up and made comfortable and inviting.
At least she had food. Dobby had come through, as she'd known he would; he was so eager to help she had to hex him to keep him from tagging along once she'd taken the basket he'd filled with warm, nourishing food.
There was a fluttering of the curtains at the windows and the door cracked open to reveal Hermione's pale, pinched face as Ginny drew near. She was taken aback at first, not having expected to see Hermione, but it made sense as she thought about it. Likely Ron was here as well. The sound of his voice whispering, "Who is it, Hermione? Is it Ginny?" confirmed this.
Hermione grabbed Ginny's wrist and pulled her inside, bolting the door behind her. "Quick, before anyone sees you," she said. "You didn't tell anyone you were coming, did you?"
"Just Dobby," Ginny said. She set the basket on the floor and shrugged off her cloak. "Don't you think they'll be able to see the smoke coming out of the chimney? Or the lights in the windows, for that matter?"
Hermione took her cloak and hung it on a peg by the door. Hanging next to it were three others, looking filthy and tattered. "It's dark enough by now that someone would have to be close to the hut to see the smoke. As for the windows, did you see any light coming from them?"
Ginny saw the way Hermione's mouth quirked up and guessed at its cause. “Obfuscation Charm?”
"Did you expect any less?"
Ginny turned in the direction the voice came from and saw her brother seated at the table. It took all her strength not to cry out at the sight of him. His hair, usually kept short, was long and straggly. His clothes looked as though they'd been worn for three weeks straight. Dark shadows, enhanced by the dim light cast from the fire, lurked beneath his eyes and in the lines around his mouth. His right hand was wrapped in a dirty bandage and he sat with his leg held out at an odd angle. Ginny took all this in, including the uncharacteristic moisture in his eyes, and embraced him tightly.
"Hey, now," he said as his arms wrapped around her and he pulled her closer to press his face into her hair. "Go easy on the merchandise. You break it, you bought it."
Ginny stood up and wiped her cheeks. "You look like hell," she said.
"Love you, too." He grinned. "Please tell me that's a side of roast beef I'm smelling."
Hermione had already opened the basket and was setting out the platters and bowls on the table. Ginny had selected the dishes herself, trying to think what would both fill an empty stomach and be easily portable, to provide sustenance for another few days. "If I'd known all three of you were going to be here, I'd have brought more."
"This is fine, Ginny," Hermione said. She sliced a thick slab of beef from the roast, folded it into a roll, and passed it to Ron. His moan of pleasure echoed and affirmed her assurance. Hermione rolled her eyes. "I believe that translates to: Thank you." Ron nodded and moaned again as he polished off the sandwich and reached out for another.
Ginny felt the questions tumbling out of her like water over a cliff. "Why are you here? How long will you stay? Where have you been the past four months? Where's Harry?" The last one was unplanned, but it escaped her lips before she could stop it.
As though it had been her only question, Hermione pointed to a spot behind Ginny. She turned and saw him seated by the fire, sound asleep. His chin drooped down on his chest and he was snoring. Ginny thought she felt her heartbeat quicken at the sight of him, looking pale and thin and exhausted and utterly vulnerable. She knelt beside him to take his hand between hers and press her lips to it.
He stirred and opened his eyes. "You came," he said, his voice hoarse.
"Did you think I wouldn't?"
He raised his free hand to stroke her hair. "I was afraid you might not."
"I'll be wherever you need me to be, Harry," she said, entwining her fingers with his and leaning into his caress. "Anyplace, anytime. All you have to do is ask."
His smile was so tender it nearly broke her heart. "I know you will." He pulled his hand away to tuck a lock of hair behind her ear. "Did you remember to bring the food like I asked?"
She sat up with a start. "I'm sorry, I nearly forgot. You must be famished. Can I get you--?"
"Here you go," Hermione said, reaching over Ginny's head to hand Harry a plate laden with food. "I expect you to eat every bite. We don't know when we'll be able to eat this well again."
"Thanks, Hermione. Did you and Ron--?"
"There's more than enough for all three of us." She glanced down at Ginny. "Ron and I are going out to the barn so you two can have some time alone together."
Ginny gave her a grateful smile. Harry simply said, "Don't go too far. We can't stay long."
Hermione picked up a quilt that lay folded at the foot of Hagrid's bunk and draped it over her arm. "Don't worry, Harry. I'll make sure we're out of here well before dawn."
Ginny waited for the door to shut before turning back to Harry. "Before dawn? So soon?"
He shrugged because his mouth was full, or perhaps because he wanted an extra second or two to come up with a suitable answer. "We can't risk anyone finding out we're here," he said at last. "Hogwarts is enough of a target as it is, and Voldemort's on to us now."
"What is it you three have been doing all this time anyway?"
He used his roll to wipe up the leavings on his plate, then licked his fingers. "Can't tell you."
"Too dangerous?" He nodded. "Maybe so, but my not knowing won't stop Voldemort from coming after me if he decides it'll lure you to him."
Harry's head jerked up. His eyes were wide and full of fear. "Don't say things like that, Ginny," he said. "You don't know what it's been like for me. The things I've learned -- the things I've had to do."
"No, Harry, I don't. Tell me, please." She took his hand again and rubbed her thumb across his knuckles.
He bent over to set the plate on the floor, then eased himself off the chair to sit beside her. "Voldemort can read my mind, you know," he said. She nodded and squeezed his hand. "I haven't been able to think of you at all since we left. Even just hearing your name is too risky. I can't have him finding out about you -- about the way I feel about you."
She was glad the flickering of the flames in the fireplace were reflected in his glasses, because she didn't think she could bear looking directly at him. "Is this because of what happened in the Chamber?"
"Not as far as I'm concerned." He licked his lips. "I mean, I think that would tempt Voldemort even more, but he'd be happy to take you and use you as bait just because of what you mean to me."
She reached up to cup his cheek. "What do I mean to you, Harry?"
When he shook his head, she saw the glint of a tear coursing down his dirty face. "Oh, Ginny," he groaned, and pulled her roughly to him, pressing his face into her shoulder. "I don't know what I'd do if anything happened to you." He cried quietly then, his shoulders heaving with long pent-up worry.
"Shh," she crooned, stroking his back and trying not to be appalled at how thin and bony he'd become. "It's okay, Harry. I'm here, and I'm safe." She rocked gently, as her mum had done the first few nights after Harry'd rescued her from the Chamber. "Nothing's going to happen to me."
He pulled back from her to wipe his nose on the back of his hand. Ginny reached up to grasp his face between her hands and leaned forward to kiss him. She felt his hands brush against her waist at first, but as the kiss deepened he pulled her closer, until she was sitting on his lap and kissing him for all she was worth.
When they broke apart several minutes later she was heated and breathless, her clothes were rumpled, and she no longer knew where her tears began and his ended. Determined to make the most of what little time they had left, she clambered to her feet and held out her hand to help him up, then led him over to Hagrid's bunk.
"Ginny, wait," he said. "We - er - I haven't got the energy."
"Hush, Harry," she said as she pulled back the blanket and lay down, scooting towards the wall to make room. "It's not what you think. I just want to hold you."
He sat on the edge and then carefully folded himself under the covers to lie beside her. Once he was settled, Ginny moved closer to drape her arm and leg over him and lay her head on his chest, her ear pressed directly over his heart. He shifted then, turning himself towards her and resting his arm across her hip.
He kissed the top of her head. "Thanks for meeting me here."
He smelled of wet leaves, wood smoke, and sweat. Ginny pressed her nose against the base of his throat and inhaled, smiling when she felt the movement of his Adam's apple as he swallowed. "Do you really have to go so soon?" she asked.
"It won't take Voldemort long to realize I'm not where he thinks I should be. I can't risk him looking here." He swallowed again. "I can't risk him finding me with you."
She rolled on her back so she could look at his face. He'd removed his glasses before lying down, and his eyes were bright. She reached up to smooth the hair at his temple and then run her fingers along his jaw. "I promise you, when this is all over and you've done whatever it is you need to do, I'll be here waiting for you." He swallowed one more time as he nodded, then leaned down to kiss her again, pulling her flush against his body as he did so.
* * * * *
She was awakened by the sound of the bed frame creaking as Harry sat up. Feeling rather disoriented -- she didn't remember having fallen asleep in the first place -- she sat up as well. In the dim light cast by the dying embers Hermione stood, looking rather anxious. Behind her Ron was gathering up the remaining food and stowing it in the basket. His expression, Ginny noted, was guarded.
"I'm so sorry to disturb you," Hermione said, "but it's half three already."
Harry scrubbed his palms over his face and then bent down to pick up his glasses and settle them over his nose. "Okay," he said, his voice rough.
He got up slowly and stiffly, as though he'd aged decades in the few short hours he'd been asleep. "You should give us a few minutes before heading up to the castle," he said to Ginny, not making eye contact with her as he tucked his shirt back into his trousers and re-tied his trainers.
She reached out and grasped his hand. "Will you be all right? Have you got enough food? I could get Dobby --"
He squeezed her fingers. "We'll be fine. What you brought -- that'll last us at least a week, so long as Hermione can keep Ron from it." He smiled at Ron's exclamation of offense. "We need to go, so we can be far away from here before sunrise."
Ginny released his hand and clutched at his shirt to pull him in for a kiss. When she pulled away, she whispered, "Please be careful, Harry."
While he put on his jumper and cloak, she went over to embrace Hermione first, then Ron. "Take care of him," she said to her brother. "There'll be hell to pay if you don't bring him back to me alive and in one piece."
Ron hugged her so tightly he lifted her off the floor. "Tell Mum and Dad I'm okay, will you?" he asked as he put her down. She was too close to tears to reply, so she simply kissed him on the cheek.
A blast of cold night air entered the cabin when Hermione opened the door. Ron exited first, limping as he carried the food basket, then Harry, with a lingering glance at Ginny as he passed, and then only Hermione remained. "We'll be in touch when we can," she told Ginny. "Take care of yourself."
The tears that she had managed to hold in check fell freely when the door closed, leaving her all alone in the darkened hut.
* * * * *
The entrance hall was dim and gloomy when Ginny returned to the castle fifteen minutes later. Light from the two torches by the door cast long shadows that danced on the stone walls like drunken goblins. Ginny felt a sudden eerie chill course through her and wrapped her cloak around her as she ascended the stairs leading to Gryffindor Tower.
As she passed through the portrait hole, she was surprised to see someone seated by the fire. Surprise turned to dismay when the figure stood and revealed itself to be Professor McGonagall, dressed in a flannel tartan dressing gown, her hair loose around her shoulders. "Miss Weasley," she said. "It's well past curfew."
"Professor!" Ginny exclaimed. "I --"
McGonagall raised her hand, and Ginny fell silent. "I trust Mr. Potter, Miss Granger, and your brother are as well as one can hope, given the circumstances?"
Without thinking Ginny replied, "They're fine, Professor. They're tired and thin and I think Ron's hurt his leg and they could all use a bath, but --" She paused and gaped at McGonagall. "How did you know?"
McGonagall came around the settee to rest her hand on Ginny's shoulder. "Do you think, Miss Weasley, anyone could gain access to Hogwarts' grounds without my knowing?" She squeezed Ginny's shoulder before continuing on to the portrait hole. "Go to bed, Miss Weasley. It's late and I want you well-rested for your detention tomorrow."