Harry stumbled back into the Shack, limbs trembling, but relieved. He’d lasted another term without dying, and without Talionis or Robards booting him from the program. And they had got Easter holiday week, in spite of Robards’s obscenity-larded grumbling. Talionis had given them a sort of ceremonial tongue-lashing by way of celebrating the day and told them all he was sick of their pasty faces, that it was just as well he’d be spared the displeasure of having to look at them for a week, and they’d better be ready to work hard for a change once their holiday was done. Harry’d never been so happy to be insulted.
Party tonight at The Burrow.
Week with Ginny, without having to sneak back and forth… quite as far.
Flying. Helping her get ready for the Harpies tryouts.
Talking to the Weasleys.
That thought dropped a heavy weight in Harry’s stomach, even as it set his fingers tingling.
Leaving his kit by the front door—he’d be taking it soon enough—he wandered into the kitchen. As he had hoped and prayed, Kreacher greeted him there, a chilled glass full of butterbeer on a tiny silver tray. “Thanks, Kreacher. Robards was off his nut today. You’re a life-saver.”
“Master is too kind.” Kreacher waited, tray and eyebrows raised, while Harry quaffed off the first half of the drink. When Harry lowered the glass, he was still standing, expectant.
“Yeah, Kreacher?” Harry asked; he had grown used to the house-elf’s passive intrusions. “What’s up?”
“Master has a visitor.” The thought that this statement brought to Harry’s mind—Ginny!—evidently made itself clear on his face, as Kreacher continued, “A wizard visitor. I have put him in Master’s study.”
“Thanks, Kreacher.” Couldn’t be Ron; Kreacher wouldn’t have called Ron a visitor, since Ron spent most nights at the Shack—the ones when he hadn’t sneaked up to the castle to spend the night in the Head Girl’s quarters, or kipped down in George’s flat after helping out at Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes. The elf would have said Master’s friend or, more recently, Mistress’s brother.
After polishing off the rest of the butterbeer in a single pull, Harry deposited the glass on the tray, wiped his mouth obediently with the napkin that Kreacher pulled out of the air, watched the elf make his customary disappearance back to Grimmauld Place, and made his way across the front hall to the room that Kreacher insisted—rather more optimistically than accurately, Harry thought—on calling the Study, which was furnished with a few empty bookshelves, a bare table, two chairs, and one Neville Longbottom.
“Hey, Neville!” Harry extended his hand and was surprised that his friend’s grip, which had grown enthusiastic if not bone-crushing over the past year, was soft, almost timid. “What brings you here? Susan still threatening to skin you alive?”
After the debacle at Professor Slughorn’s at St. Valentine’s, where Neville had inadvertently found himself escorting both Susan Bones and Hannah Abbott, Neville had been very quick to make his own preference between the two best friends—Hannah—clear. Though Susan had accepted the choice graciously, she had made a point of not telling Neville this; she’d been shooting venomous glances at her friend’s boyfriend from the new Auror table in the Great Hall. When the other cadet from the DA, Terry Boot, had asked her why, she’d given them a hard grin. Don’t want him to forget never to mess with a Hufflepuff.
“No, no,” Neville said, but his eyes seemed focused on Harry’s belt buckle. “Susan’s told me I’ll live, but…” Neville’s eyes flicked up, and Harry caught a sudden glimpse of the determination that had made Neville one of the leaders of Dumbledore’s Army the previous year, and had, coincidentally, made him quite popular with the girls ever since. “It’s made me think, Harry.”
“Think?” Harry tried to guess where Neville was going with this, but couldn’t. Collapsing into one of the chairs, he shrugged at Neville, encouraging him to continue.
Neville sat opposite, eyes still locked on Harry’s. It was a full ten seconds, however, before he took Harry’s cue. “It’s about Ginny.”
Ginny. Tonight. The Weasleys. “Ginny?”
“What about Ginny?”
Sitting straight as a broomstick, Neville started to speak, but then paused, his expression frozen between that newly familiar air of grim resolve and the terrified look he had worn so often in years past, especially in Snape’s presence.
“Neville?” Harry prompted. “What about Ginny?”
“Kissed her,” Neville said in a kind of strangled whisper.
Harry understood the words, but they made no sense. He sat there, blinking at his friend. “Kissed—?”
“Ginny,” said Neville, nodding minutely. “Twice. Last year.” His eyes widened. “She didn’t, you know, kiss me, mind, I just want to point that out, but yeah, Harry, I kissed her, on the lips and all, and I feel really rotten, I wanted to say something, but it never seemed like the right time—”
Harry held up his hands and the torrent stopped. Neville’s face was flushed and his eyes bright; burnished red crescents appeared on his cheeks. He sat, lips pursed, still very straight, but blessedly silent.
They’d kissed? What the hell did that mean? And why hadn’t Ginny ever mentioned anything? Probably because it wasn’t worth mentioning. Or maybe… “Neville,” Harry said, holding back the urgency he was feeling with his tongue as if he were tamping down the urge to vomit, “when?”
The flood began again. “Last winter. After Luna was taken on the train back, it was awful, you know, everyone was so terrified, but Ginny, she… Well, she and I decided that the DA needed to continue, that it was all the more important, with The Quibbler silenced, we needed to keep the fight going, you know?”
Harry nodded numbly but Neville had already moved on. “Spent a lot of time together, planning, you know? And you were gone, and Hannah’s a Muggleborn, so she wasn’t here, obviously, and Susan was, but she and Anthony….” Neville paused for a moment, either because Harry’s expression was beginning to make him anxious, or because he was surprised by the volume of prattle he was pouring forth.
Harry sat and breathed.
“Well, anyway,” Neville continued, eying Harry nervously, “lot of time together, since, basically, we were the leaders, but Snape and the Carrows were watching us like hawks, so we couldn’t get out much—not until we figured out how to keep the Room of Requirement open to the three common rooms, anyway—wouldn’t half have given an arm for your Cloak and that map she said you had—and she and, yeah, well…”
Harry un-ground his teeth and gave Neville what was meant to be an encouraging nod.
Neville gulped audibly. “Yeah. Well. She’s, you know… Amazing. And…. And…. And smells so nice, like freesia, only not so cloying, and we were in the common room late one night, we’d just pulled off a raid on Mr. Potatohead’s classroom—that’s Amycus—and she’d been brilliant as usual, Stunned a couple of Slytherin Prefects before any of the rest of us even knew they were there, and we sent the others up to bed and talked the raid through, a debriefing, sort of, and she was sitting there in front of the fire, her face all glowy the way it gets, you know?”
“Bloody hell.” Neville took another deep breath, not holding it this time. “She was right there, and I didn’t even think about it, I just sort of leaned forward and kissed… And she didn’t back, I swear, it was me, she was totally gobsmacked, we sat there after for like five minutes and she didn’t say a word—hadn’t seen her that quiet since she first came to Hogwarts and then only when you…. And I wanted to die, but I didn’t… I just… And finally she just sort of started talking to me, looking into the fire. About you. And Hannah. And Susan. And Dean. And Luna, even, how hard it was, not knowing where she was, Ginny said she would have loved to talk to her just then… How worried she was, and how we were, you know, friends and all, and that that was the most important thing, coming through together.” Neville sighed in relief, having placed the load squarely on Harry’s shoulders.
“Thanks, Neville.” Not the whole load, however. “And the second time? You said…”
“Yeah,” said Neville. He was looking down at the floor now, but his gaze was far away. “Same, basically. Few weeks later, just before she didn’t come back from Easter … She… One of the Ravenclaws in her year, Siobhan, a girl who’d been really awful to Luna, actually, got caught by Alecto—Mrs. Potatohead—putting Support Potter and Lovegood Lives on the wall right opposite the Muggle Studies room, and that cow was cursing Siobhan something horrible. We all thought she might kill Siobhan, actually. And Ginny—we couldn’t intervene any more, because they’d figured out that having the students curse each other wasn’t a very effective punishment, so it was the Carrows who’d have done it, and they’d have bloody well killed Ginny for sure, they’d come close before…” Neville shuddered, and Harry felt a spear of cold pass through him, realizing that as much as he and Ginny had talked, there were things beyond a pair of kisses that she hadn’t told him about the previous year.
“Anyway,” continued Neville, “Ginny’s right behind the old cow, casts the slickest Confundus you’ve ever seen. One moment Carrow is cursing that girl something awful, the next, she’s blinking at all of us, asking what we’re doing blocking up the hallways. That corridor emptied in about two seconds flat, and if Hermione hadn’t told me a thousand times that you couldn’t Apparate inside of Hogwarts, I’d have said it’d have had to been by magic.” Neville shook his head. “So I walked back with Ginny, and she went through this tapestry, a shortcut up—”
Harry willed his bruised hands to relax. “I know it.”
Now Neville nodded. “Yeah. So I followed her, and she…” Neville’s hands, green-stained and calloused, clenched together between his knees. “She was… Crying.”
Harry blinked. “Crying?”
Neville nodded. “Hadn’t seen her cry like that, ever. I mean, we all cried at the headmaster’s funeral, but… Sitting on the ground. Just… Crying.” He looked up, then down again. “Then. Um. Then. Kissed her again.”
“Yeah. Dunno why. Just…”
The front door to the Shrieking Shack burst open, and Hermione’s voice rang through the house. “Harry? HARRY?”
In spite of himself—in spite of wanting to hear the rest of what Neville had to say—Harry stood and called out, “In the study, Hermione!” He’d got too well attuned to that panicked tone over the past eight years not to respond immediately.
Neville too stood, eyes narrowed, face suddenly regaining its hard edges.
Hermione ran into the room, her hair wild, her eyes wide, her hands wringing tightly before her. “Oh, Harry—”
Chest pounding, jaw tight, Harry asked, “Is it Ginny?”
Hermione froze for a moment and frowned. “Ginny? No. No!”
One nightmare gave way to the next. “Where’s Ron?”
Now Hermione simply looked uncomfortable. “Ron? He’s fine. Fine. He… He just had to talk to the Head Auror.”
After the brutal dismissal they’d all just received from Talionis, Harry was shocked that Ron would willingly seek him out. “You’re kidding!”
“No,” she moaned, wringing her hands twice as hard now. “He… Ron will tell you all about it later.”
Harry stared at her, shifting his head as if trying to get a clearer view.
“What is it, Hermione?” asked Neville, voice low and urgent, his earlier nervousness evaporated.
“Yes!” Hermione gasped, nodding as if he had just asked a particularly brilliant question. “It’s Luna!”
“Luna?” said Harry and Neville in unison; Harry guessed from the tone that Neville was just as bewildered as he was. Harry reached out and stilled Hermione’s wildly wringing hands. “Was she taken again?”
“No!” Hermione gasped. “No, no, she’s still… She hasn’t left yet, she hasn’t been…” Her face contorted. “She… I think… I think she’s lost her mind.”
Harry backed up, trying and failing to keep a dubious expression from his face.
Apparently, Neville didn’t even try. He simply laughed. “Hermione, on good days—”
“Luna is highly eccentric,” Hermione said, her face suddenly very still. “But she always behaves according to her own kind of logic. She… I’m worried about her. She’s acting oddly—even for her.”
“Is this about that letter this morning?” Neville asked. Harry vaguely remembered a Ministry owl depositing a Muggle-style envelope on the plate next to Ginny’s; he’d been focused entirely on watching the spectacle of his girlfriend eating her oatmeal—very, very slowly…
“Yes!” Hermione cried. “It was Dean, he sent her a letter breaking it off.”
Harry looked at her, waiting for more. Luna had talked to Harry for months about her relationship with Dean being strained. Hermione looked at him, eyebrows raised as if she’d made her point.
“Hermione,” muttered Neville, apparently as dubious as Harry, “you heard her. She told us all it was a relief, and how nice it was to have that settled. She looked totally fine—well, as far as Luna ever looks fine.”
“That’s the point!” Hermione said. “She looked totally unconcerned. Blythe as ever, but we all know she cared for him. And then, after Ancient Runes, she went on about what a nice day it was even though it was pouring this morning, but then she started to babble on about snow and ice, and then at lunch she was talking to Ginny all about Snorkacks and polar bears, and I was starting to be nervous—after all, she hasn’t mentioned Crumple-horned Snorkacks in months…”
“Hermione,” asked Harry, “was it Crumple-horned Snorkacks she mentioned, or Great-horned?”
“What DIFFERENCE does it make, Harry? She came down just now carrying skis, for heaven’s sake! SKIS. In APRIL! You must see, she’s clearly decompensating!” Tears were beginning to brighten her eyelashes. “Her mental state has always been precarious, and after being trapped in the Malfoys’ cellar for six months, it’s amazing that she’s been as resilient as she has, but…” Hermione swiped the back of her thumb across her eyes to clear them. What she saw clearly didn’t please her. “And you two can smirk all you want—Ron was the same. How can you stand there…? Don’t you care for her at all?”
Neville spoke up, which relieved Harry enormously. “We love her, Hermione, come on. But this is Luna we’re talking about. Don’t you think you’re overdoing it a bit? I mean, there’s probably some perfectly logical… Well, fairly logical explanation.”
Hermione let out an exasperated growl and wound her arms together more tightly than Harry had seen her do since Ron’s return the previous year. He stepped forward, trying to think of a way to calm his best friend, when the front door banged open, letting in a blast of damp spring air, and the voice Harry had been longing to hear all day called out, “Hullo! Loverboy! Your mistress is here!”
“In here!” Harry called back. Though his head and heart still felt overburdened by his friends’ revelations and his body ached from the punishment doled out by his teachers, Harry couldn’t help but grin to see her sprint into the room, flaming hair and black robes flying behind her. She let go of her trunk, which floated in mid-air, and leapt into his arms, wrapping her legs around his waist and her lips around his in a manner that drove anything else quite out of his mind for the moment.
Once they’d snogged away for a bit, Ginny mumbled against his lips, “Hey, Neville. Hey, Hermione.”
“Hey, Ginny,” Neville wheezed as if he’d been hit in the stomach.
“Mistress, Ginny?” sniffed Hermione.
“Oh, yeah,” Ginny answered, and Harry could feel her lips grinning against his own.
Harry backed his face away from hers and stared into her brown eyes. “Only temporarily.”
Ginny squawked in mock indignation, gave him a gentle bite on the ear and then lowered herself.
“I mean,” he said, feeling the blood in his body try to flow in two totally different directions, “legally, you brat. You’ll always be the mistress of my heart, and all that, and I want—”
She kissed him silent once again, less emphatically this time, but no less effectively. When they parted, she was grinning, and Harry knew that he must look as if he’d had a Cheering and a Confundus Charm placed on him simultaneously. Ginny turned to Hermione, who was standing next to Neville, her arms still crossed. Both were staring at their shoes. “It’s because Kreacher started calling me Mistress, that’s all. The batty old elf never called me anything nicer, that’s for sure.”
“Ah,” Hermione said.
“So, you joining us for George’s birthday, Neville?” Ginny asked. “We’d love to have you there.”
Neville blushed and stared at Harry. “Erm, no, no, thanks, I’d love to but I’m going to meet Hannah once she gets off her shift. I’m, um, bringing her for dinner to Gran’s.”
“That’s wonderful!” Ginny bounded over to Neville and wrapped him in a hug that made Harry’s heart lurch; he couldn’t think why until he saw the panicked expression on Neville’s face and remembered what Neville had wanted to tell Harry earlier. Ginny kissed Neville on the cheek; he turned as red as Tentacula flowers. “Hannah’s wonderful, your Gran will love her! And she’s a lucky girl, Neville, don’t forget that.” She gave his cheek another gentle buss.
“Erm, yeah,” said Neville, his voice sounding quite choked. Harry somehow couldn’t break eye contact.
“And you, Hermione? You ready to go?” Ginny continued, clearly unaware of the discomfort she’d sown in her wake. “Where’s my lazy-arse brother?”
“Ah,” said Hermione, biting her lip, “he… He and I will join you at the Burrow. He had to talk to the Head Auror.”
“To old Dragonbreath?” said Ginny, bemusement warping her smile. “Why on earth—?”
“Just some details Ron wanted to discuss,” Hermione said, her face once again set stiffly. “Now, Ginny, perhaps you can explain to these two boys why Luna’s behavior is so worrisome?”
“Luna?” Ginny said, eyebrows arching.
Hermione let out a gasp. “Surely you’ve noticed how… extreme her behavior has been all day—since Dean’s letter arrived. Having your first real boyfriend reject you—by letter no less—it’s no surprise that she’s taken it hard, but I’m terrified that she—”
Ginny shook her head as if to clear it. “Taken it hard? She’s fine, Hermione!”
“Fine? Fine!” Hermione said. “She’s running around talking about Snorkacks and polar bears, attacking everyone with skis. For heaven’s sake, you are her best friend, aren’t you worried about her at all?”
Ginny blinked at Hermione. “Come on, Hermione—”
“Ginny!” snapped Hermione, her face looking positively thunderous. “You’re all just like Ron, all of you, you don’t care at all about another person’s suffering!” Spit sprayed from her mouth as she leaned forward, poking a rigid finger toward each of them.
“Hermione—” started Neville, backing away with his hands held up.
“LUNA IS LOSING HER MIND!” howled Hermione, tears flowing, her face twisted in a manner that made Harry wonder about his friend’s own sanity.
Once again a blast of April wind passed through the room and announced the opening of the front door. A misty voice called out, “Do you think so? Oh, that would be a shame, since I have such lovely plans for this week.”
Luna sounded so much like herself, and her response seemed, in fact, so rational that Harry felt whatever anxiety Hermione had managed to instill fade. It came rushing back, however, as soon as Luna entered the room.
Luna was dressed in fur from head to foot—what animal could have provided the fur, Harry could not even begin to guess, since it was mostly a shade of purple that Harry had only ever seen on Tonks’s head interspersed with small stripes of green. Over one shoulder she was carrying, as Hermione had said, an enormous pair of skis, and in the opposite hand she held a large canvas duffle. Her wild hair tumbled out from under her fur cap, and it was the most normal thing about her appearance, since her face seemed to have been covered with some sort of yellowish salve, and over each eye she seemed to be wearing some sort of seashell. Harry stood, mouth open but unable to speak. Judging by the silence, Ginny, Neville and Hermione had been struck just as dumb.
“Oh, how nice,” Luna sighed, “here you all are.”
“Luna?” whispered Ginny, though it seemed clear to Harry that the apparition before them was their unusual friend.
“Has he come yet?” Luna asked, her smile showing brilliantly against the tallow-like unguent on her skin.
“He?” Hermione croaked. “Oh, Luna, you know Dean—”
The figure in fur cocked her head and seemed about to speak when she was interrupted by the characteristic splutter and flare of the Floo connection in the kitchen opening. “Hello? Hello?” came a reedy voice.
“Oh!” said Luna, turning quickly so that Ginny and Harry had to duck to avoid being hit by her skis. “Hello!” She ran back to the door much more agilely than Harry would have expected her to be able to.
Harry looked around at his friends. They were all shaking their heads. With a laugh, Harry took Ginny’s hand and followed Luna across the hall; he could hear Hermione and Neville trailing behind.
When they reached the kitchen, they discovered Luna speaking to a tall figure in an almost identical outfit. Harry found himself wondering if it weren’t some elaborate April Fool’s joke.
The taller figure piped, “So wonderful that you’ll be able to join us, Miss Lovegood!”
“Join you?” asked Hermione, her voice low and dubious.
Two heads clad in purple and green fur hats turned towards them. “I’m joining the expedition for a week,” Luna squeaked, bouncing on the soles of her feet.
“That’s wonderful, Luna!” said Ginny.
“Hello, Mr. Potter!” said Rolf Scamander—for that was who this new arrival had to be. “Luna here told me that this was the most convenient Floo connection to the school—I hope you don’t mind!”
“No, not at all!”
“Expedition?” asked Hermione.
“Oh, yes,” said Luna, still bouncing. “Mr. Scamander and his father invited me earlier, you see, but I’d been planning to spend the holiday in Hammersmith. However, when I received that letter this morning, I knew that I could go after all! I’m joining the expedition in Svaalbard for the next week.”
Hermione’s face was slack; she seemed to have lost even her skepticism. “Scamander?”
Harry grinned. “Hermione Granger, let me introduce Rolf Scamander. He and his father are researching a new edition of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.”
Hermione’s eyes grew to saucer-like, Luna-like enormity.
“Indeed!” crowed Rolf. “And as luck would have it we’ve just come across a nesting ground for Great-horned Snorkacks.” Hermione’s jaw dropped, but Rolf continued. “Miss Lovegood, your timing is excellent, and I’m overjoyed that you were able to equip yourself so well on such short notice!”
Beneath the goop on her cheeks, it looked as if Luna might be blushing. “I had prepared myself. Just in case.”
“How fortunate!” said Rolf, clapping two fur-mittened hands together. “Well, we should be off. We’ve got to Floo to Scapa, then Hexenhavn, then Longyearbyen, then we Apparate—”
“Mr. Scamander?” interrupted Luna, who never interrupted anyone.
“I don’t have a boyfriend at the moment.”
“Oh,” answered Rolf, standing suddenly much straighter. “How nice.”
“Hmmm,” agreed Luna.
Cocking his head and peering at her through the shell-like objects that Harry assumed were some sort of goggles, Rolf Scamander trilled a long series of warbling notes.
In response, Luna turned away from him, her skin clearly pinkening beneath her sunscreen, then cast her gaze back over her shoulder; she responded with three throaty hoots that made her sound like a rather excited mourning dove.
“Bandicoot mating ritual,” whispered Ginny.
“Ah,” responded Harry.
“Goodbye, everyone!” gushed a grinning Luna, placing a mittened hand in one of Rolf’s. “See you all in a week!” And with a flash of green, the mad pair were gone.
“Wow,” said Neville.
“Yeah,” agreed Harry.
Harry looked down at Ginny, who was smiling, but whose eyes were moist. When she saw Harry looking at her, she shrugged. “Happy for her.”
Harry pulled her closer and nodded into her hair.
“Well,” said Neville, eyes averted, “I’m off. Got to get down to the station before the train leaves.” He waved and strode toward the door.
“You could Floo from here!” called Harry, but the closing door announced Neville’s departure.
“I should be getting back up to the castle as well,” Hermione said quietly. “Ron and I will see you at the Burrow.” Hands folded crisply before her, she too left.
“Well,” said Ginny, a smile brightening her whole face for what felt like the first time in weeks, “that was fun!”
“Yeah,” Harry agreed, lost in contemplation of her face. Her face all glowy the way it gets, Neville had said, and Harry had known just what he’d meant—was seeing it before him.
Neville kissing Ginny. Ginny kissing…?
A pair of lips softened Harry’s. “Hi,” Ginny said.
She nipped at his lower lip. “You’re all gloomy.”
“Not really,” he said. “Just, you know, thinking.”
“If I could answer that question simply, I wouldn’t have to think.” He placed his hands on her ribs, where he could feel her breathing, could feel her heart beating.
“You sound like Luna,” she teased, threading her arms around his neck.
“But not as warmly dressed,” he said, which caused her to snort. “You’re in a good mood,” he added. It was true: between NEWTs and the tryouts for the Harpies next weekend, Ginny had been very subdued for the previous month, but now she looked very much herself.
“I’m done thinking,” she murmured, pressing herself against him in ways that left them both much less interested in talking for some time.