Ginny watched Harry tear his eyes away from her to look at the motionless owl he held in his arms. "What?"
"Hedwig's not dead," she said. "Feel her. She's still warm, she's breathing… Just look at her!"
Harry held the owl closer. Ginny saw the relief on his face and smiled. Hedwig's eyes were open although glassy, and she was frozen in a landing position, but she was certainly still breathing. He laid his hand gently onto her breast as if to make sure that his eyes were not playing tricks. He sucked in an excited breath when Hedwig's chest moved.
"Ginny!" he said, his voice cracking. Harry appeared unable to say anything further. Instead, he wrapped an arm around her shoulders and crushed her to him, resting his jaw against the top of her head.
She hugged him back, tightly, but was aware of the preposterous position he was in, a woman wrapped in one arm and an owl resting on the other. She patted his shoulder gently and pulled away from him, moving away from the door after making sure she had closed it when she came in.
"What's wrong with her?" he asked, almost tripping over an umbrella stand made from a troll leg as he led Ginny down the stairs to the kitchen in the basement. He sat on a very rickety, old chair and cradled Hedwig in his arms. "What do we do?"
"I have no idea," Ginny said quietly, lighting a small fire in the hearth with a murmured charm and a flick of her wand. "I probably paid less attention in Care of Magical Creatures than you did."
Harry absently stroked her feathers for a few moments. "Hagrid would know what to do."
"We can't just Floo into Hogwarts, not when we're not expected. Besides, Hagrid isn't on the Network, is he?"
"No, but the Three Broomsticks is." Harry shifted Hedwig slightly in his arms. "I'll Floo from the Central Station. You don't have to come with me. I know it's a long way and not quite what we had planned, but I have to go. It's not as though she's dead. Someone did this to her."
"I know," she said, worried too. "I'm coming with you, Harry."
"There's no need."
"I could do with seeing Hermione anyway," she said, kindly.
Harry nodded and stood up, opening the fridge with one hand and pulling out two bottles of mulled mead. He opened them one after the other on the magnetic bottle opener that was stuck to the door of the fridge and passed a bottle to Ginny.
She took it automatically but didn't drink. "Don't you want to… well… go?"
He took a deep mouthful of mead and nodded. "Hedwig's not going anywhere, though, and classes will still be going on at the moment." He looked at the clock above the oven. "We probably have about twenty minutes before we ought to go to Hogsmeade."
"That makes sense," she said. "I suppose you don't want a bunch of kids gawping at you either."
Harry pointed his bottle towards her in imitation of a charades 'on the nose' answer. "Actually," he said. "Could you pop upstairs for me? If you go into my bedroom, there are some really thick cloaks in the closet. We'll probably need them for the walk to the castle."
"No problem." Ginny placed her bottle down on the table untouched. "It's on the second floor, isn't it?"
"Oh, no. I moved into the main bedroom. Phineas' portrait gave me the willies too much. I'm on the first floor now, where you and Hermione used to stay."
She climbed the stairs warily, trying to be as quiet as possible so as not to disturb the portrait of Walburga Black that was covered with a thick and grimy curtain. As she climbed the next set of stairs, Ginny realised that the only things that looked familiar about the house were the furnishings.
The wallpaper and carpets all looked different, although she suspected that they had just been given a good cleaning. The whole house seemed much lighter than it ever had in the past. There were no cobwebs hanging about the ceiling anymore, nor were there swathes of dust covering every surface. She thought that the house was in good shape, at least on the inside.
Heaving slightly against the weight of the door, Ginny let herself into Harry's bedroom and took a quick look around. She found the wardrobe door and slid it open, and she stepped inside what was almost a separate dressing room to search out the cloaks. There were two very thick cloaks, one dark grey and one black, and she had trouble pulling them off the hangers. They were very heavy, but she knew that she would appreciate their weight when she was out in the cold air.
She kicked the wardrobe door closed behind her and lifted the cloaks into her arms. A dull thud sounded behind her and she saw a muted twinkle from the corner of her eye. Turning her head, Ginny noticed that she had knocked a framed photograph from Harry's dressing table.
She dropped the cloaks down onto the bed and bent to pick the frame up. She turned it over and saw her brother, Harry, and Hermione all rubbing their noses and looking crossly at her. Harry and Hermione gave up quickly and began to laugh and wave, but Ron continued to scowl at her. Hermione dug her elbow into Ron's side and rolled her eyes at him.
She stuck out her tongue and placed the photograph back on the table, still laughing gently about it as she descended the stairs, cloaks in arm.
"What's so funny?" Harry asked when she returned to the kitchen.
"Oh, nothing," she said, putting the black cloak down onto the table while pulling the grey one around her shoulders. "Just my brother."
Harry shot her a confused glance but let it pass. Raising himself slowly from his chair, he held Hedwig out to her. "Here," he said. "Can you take her for a moment?"
Ginny reached out to take the bird, trying not to fumble too much but finding it very difficult to handle a rigid owl with her wings spread in flight. It was almost as though she had been stuffed.
"This is a faff," she said, and stepped back, taking the black cloak in her hands and leaving Hedwig with Harry. She stood behind him and slid it over his back, gently reaching around his shoulders to fasten the stiff clasp. She smoothed the cloak over his shoulders and let her eyes and hands roam down his arms, feeling the solid muscle beneath. Not so out of place at all, she mused silently.
Harry led the way upstairs. He unfastened all of the locks on the front door and smiled at Ginny, indicating with a nod of his head that she ought to leave first.
They walked side by side to the Floo Station, where a few people looked at them askance, but did not comment. They queued together silently and didn't speak again until Harry had handed over a few small coins to the attendant.
"Who's going first?" Harry asked when it was their turn to Floo.
"I will, I suppose," Ginny said. She stepped towards the hearth and took a handful of glittering Floo Powder. Flinging it into the fire, she stepped into the green flames and turned to face Harry again. "The Three Broomsticks!" she called, smiling at him, and disappeared in a whirl.
Nine years had passed since Ginny had last sat at a table in the Three Broomsticks, and absolutely nothing had changed. Madam Rosmerta still stood behind the bar, and the décor was the same. It was so familiar in here that Ginny could almost imagine life as though the last decade hadn't passed.
What treats those weekends in Hogsmeade had seemed when they were students! A little bit of freedom. Yet now, Ginny would gladly trade her lot for the security and innocence of a life back in Hogwarts. People weren't lying when they said that school days are the best days of your life.
Harry stepped out of the fireplace in a flash of green light, and strode over to where Ginny stood. "Let's go," he said, nodding politely to the woman behind the bar. Ginny laughed at the sight of him, bewildered, unable to understand how he could cradle Hedwig, pull his hood over his head and open the door for her simultaneously.
"What's so funny?"
"You are." She laughed. "You're such a… man!"
"Last time I checked," he joked, a good dose of humour in his voice.
"I wonder which one of the twins is here at the moment," she thought aloud as she looked at their shop.
Fred and George were born entrepreneurs, it seemed. Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes had expanded beyond Diagon Alley within a few short years. While this was fabulous luck for the twins and for the whole Weasley family, it was unfortunate for the competition who struggled to create products as wonderfully inventive and original. Zonko's Joke Shop had re-opened for a brief time after the War with Voldemort, but never managed to regain its hold upon the novelty market. Fred and George had been leasing the premises for four years now, and one of them could usually be found in the Hogsmeade branch during weekends.
"Isn't Angelina due to go into labour soon?" Harry asked.
"Oh, yeah. Of course. Fred will probably be with her, so it'll be George."
"Shall we visit on our way home?"
Ginny nodded and pulled her hood tighter around her. The cold wind seemed to be flying at them from all directions at once, pushing her this way and that. Icy needles rushed at every piece of exposed skin, and Ginny struggled to keep her hood on as she held her head down against the attacks. The sky had darkened considerably in the few minutes since they had left the Three Broomsticks, and a large winter's moon battled to peek out from behind raging clouds.
Looming out of the darkness, the Hogwarts exterior gate was tall and imposing. Two winged boars topped two very high plinths. Ginny was almost sure she saw their wings moving. Anything was possible in this wind. The sky brightened momentarily as they walked through the gate, the moon sliding out briefly between clouds.
"This way," Harry said, moving off the path to the left.
"We're going into the Forest?" Ginny shouted, trying to be heard over the wind.
"Hagrid's!" he called back to her.
Of course, she thought. She had never gone straight to Hagrid's house from the gates before. In her school days she had always made the journey from the castle. The Hogwarts grounds were disorientating in the dark, and too far off in her memory to feel familiar. Sticking close to Harry, she heard loud and vicious barking before she saw the lights through the mist.
Harry jumped up the steps and knocked heavily on the door.
"Jus' comin'!" boomed Rubeus Hagrid's voice. The door swung open and a blast of heat pushed its way out. "Harry!" he shouted, a huge grin spreading across his face. "Come in, come in, quick now! An' Ginny too. Hello, my dear!"
Hagrid slammed the door shut behind them. Fang sniffed at Harry's bundle.
"Wha's that?" Hagrid asked. Harry pushed his cloak off his arms and showed Hedwig to him. "Hedwig? Blimey, what's wrong with yeh?" he asked, taking the owl from Harry remarkably gently for a man with such strength.
"We went back to my house and found her like that on the floor," Harry explained.
"Well, she's bin petrified," Hagrid stated simply. "Thought yeh would have recognised that, Harry. An' you, Ginny."
Ginny and Harry met eyes across Hagrid's huge table and she realised that he was right. In Ginny's first year at Hogwarts and Harry's second, several students and one particularly unpleasant cat were petrified by seeing reflections of a basilisk that had been living within the Chamber of Secrets, a room hidden in the castle that only the heir of Slytherin could access. Hermione Granger, one of their closest friends, had been petrified herself, and they had both visited her in the hospital wing. They should have recognised it straight away.
"Can you… fix her, Hagrid?" she asked.
"Oh yes!" He beamed. "Well, not me specifically, no. Between Pomona an' me we should be able ter work somethin' out."
"Will it take long?" she asked.
"We'll have ter wait fer the mandrakes to mature o' course." He gave Harry a look of deep sympathy. "I'm afraid yeh'll be without Hedwig fer quite a while, Harry."
"Whatever it takes to fix her. Like Ginny said."
"Good! Now how's about some tea?"
"Make sure yeh visit Hermione before yeh go," called Hagrid as Ginny and Harry made their way from his cabin. His voice was easily carried over the howling wind. "She'd be heartbroken if she found yeh'd bin here an' didn't say hello!"
"We will, Hagrid, thanks! Bye!" Harry bellowed over the brewing storm. He grasped Ginny's outstretched hand and entwined his fingers with hers as they made their way together towards the castle. The wind whipped their cloaks ferociously around them. Despite the cold, Ginny felt warmth pulsing through her. Knowing that the castle lay to the east, they battled their way through the gusts until a huge pair of oak doors emerged through the misty distance.
The doors opened surprisingly easily. She looked at Harry. He seemed overcome by nostalgia as they entered the entrance hall. She felt it too. There was no one there, but Ginny was reminded of her very first day at Hogwarts.
The castle had seemed so imposing, and unbelievably grand. The entrance hall was still lit with torches fixed to the walls, and the House hourglasses were still displayed prominently against one wall. She felt a huge swathe of pride run through her when she noticed that Gryffindor's hourglass easily contained the most stones.
As she took off her cloak and swung it over her arm, however, she noticed that two stones tinkled up to the top half of the hourglass again. Harry had noticed too and they laughed knowingly. Some mischievous Gryffindor had just lost ten House points.
"She's in McGonagall's old office," Ginny said, heading up the stairs ahead of Harry.
"I'll follow you up in a moment." He gave her hand a squeeze before breaking contact and sticking his head in the broom cupboard to see what students were riding these days.
Ginny climbed the pristine marble stairway and turned left. Remembering the days when Filch stalked the corridors, she found herself creeping along as quietly as she could. It was such a shame about Filch, she thought as she walked, waving occasionally at paintings that recognised her. For such a miserable old git to have committed an act of heroism was completely unexpected. Yet perhaps that was why people had focused so strongly upon it.
"Valiant Hogwarts Caretaker saves Students!" the headlines had screamed. Ginny's inner cynic had realised that the people who wrote these articles of glowing praise were the same people that had suffered him throughout their school careers, but he had done something wonderful.
As a Squib, when the Death Eater Alecto Carrow had cornered a group of students in Snape's Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom, Filch should not have been able to do anything to stop her. He certainly shouldn't have been able to use any magic against her. When Dean Thomas had been shot in the back with the Avada Kedavra curse, Filch had picked up Dean's wand and had screamed "Stupefy!" in her direction. Miraculously, it had worked. He ushered all of the students out of the classroom ahead of himself. When Carrow had come out of her Stunned state, Argus Filch had taken a killing curse to the back himself as he brought up the rear of the escapees.
Yes, Ginny thought. It was a shame about Filch. She rapped lightly on Professor Granger's door, and opened it when an exasperated sigh and a "Come in!" came in response.
"Ginny!" Hermione said, a smile transforming her troubled features. "What are you doing—?"
A distressed sniffling caught their attention and Hermione excused herself for a moment, walking the young boy to her office door. "Stay in the dormitories after curfew, and we'll have no more problems with each other, Daniel," she said to the youth with unruly black hair and wonky glasses. He looked remarkably familiar. She pushed the thought aside after the boy had nodded and left the room, giving Hermione all of her attention. The two women hugged, stood by the door, and the Transfiguration Professor continued where she had paused earlier.
"What are you doing here in weather like this? Goodness, you must have come from Hogsmeade too! There are all sorts in that Forbidden Forest. You ought to be more careful!"
"Oh, I didn't come by myself," she said. "I had a big manly-man to look after me."
"Really?" asked Hermione, sounding intrigued. "And where is said manly-man? Last news I heard, you were with—"
"Taking points from your own House, Hermione? How McGonagall of you!" came a voice from the doorway, bantering playfully.
Harry had seen the boy heading towards Gryffindor Tower, fighting tears all of the way, and had remembered leaving this office feeling much the same many times during his own school years.
"He pulled a Harry Potter on me," Hermione explained as she moved to hug him in welcome and then closed the door behind them. "Wandering about the castle after curfew last night."
"Well, what do you expect?" asked Harry, laughing. "The Marauder's Map is probably still out there somewhere."
"Oh, no, it's not," she said confidently, tapping her filing cabinet as she passed it on her way to sit behind her desk. "How do you think I caught him? Our caretaker is rubbish! I have to do it all myself."
"Devious," he teased.
"At least it's not in the hands of a miscreant like you," she said with an affectionate smile, offering cups of tea all around.
"So what's brought you two out here tonight? It's awful weather for it."
Harry agreed. The view out of her window was bleak and unwelcoming. The Quidditch pitch had completely vanished into the darkness, and no stars could shine through the clouds that raged across the sky. He smiled when Hermione shivered and slipped her shoes off under the desk, folding her feet underneath her on her comfortable leather chair and wrapping her hands around a hot cup of tea.
"Hedwig was attacked," Harry said simply.
"She was petrified."
"Goodness! When did this happen? Where did this happen? Is she okay?"
"We don't know when it happened," Ginny said with a sigh. "Harry hasn't been home for weeks. We went to Grimmauld Place together this afternoon to look through photographs, and Harry found her lying in the hallway looking as though she'd been hit with a spell as soon as she came in the window."
"And she's fine," Harry explained. "Or she will be. Hagrid and Professor Sprout will sort her out."
"Yes, Pomona does have a batch of mandrakes on the go." Hermione nodded thoughtfully. "Who would attack Hedwig?"
Silence pervaded the small group for a few moments.
Harry was still lost in his own thoughts when Hermione sighed.
"I think the more prudent question is who would want to attack you, Harry?"
"You don't really think that someone would go to the effort of setting up a trap for Hedwig, do you?"
"A trap?" Harry said incredulously. "I haven't had someone try to attack me off the Quidditch pitch for a bloody decade! Why would they start now?"