Ginny absently trailed her fingers along the wall of the seventh-floor corridor as she wandered aimlessly on an early Saturday morning. She’d awoken and eaten breakfast far earlier than was her norm. Now, she was whiling away the time before the older students would be allowed to exit the castle for their first Hogsmeade visit.
There hadn’t been a Hogsmeade weekend since the previous autumn, and the very air in the castle positively thrummed with excitement. Most of her friends were either still at breakfast or gathering in the common room, but Ginny found she couldn’t sit still.
She was going to see Harry today after a month-long separation. Goosebumps arose on her arms just thinking about it, and she wrapped them around herself so she could rub her hands up and down them to get her blood circulating. She wished it was half ten already. She and Harry had kept up a regular conversation through owl post, but it wasn’t the same as seeing him. The past month had been an eternity.
Ginny had chosen her outfit for the day with much more care than usual — her softest, best jeans that hugged her hips just right, and a pale blue button-down that hadn’t belonged to any of her brothers. She knew reporters would be following Harry. She didn’t want to look like a little girl, but she didn’t want to look like a slag either. She also planned to take one of Harry’s old Quidditch sweatshirts. No harm in showing a little possessiveness.
It was only when she realized how close she was to the Room of Requirement that she thought to check if it had survived. Since returning to Hogwarts, she’d honestly had no reason to seek the room, and her first month of term had been exceedingly busy. She thought Harry would like to know the room’s fate however, and it gave her something to do. With a purpose in mind, she strode the familiar path toward the vacant wall.
Before rounding the corner, the sound of voices stopped her in her tracks, and she peered cautiously around to see who was there. Professor Nutcombe strolled down the corridor with two of the Hogwarts ghosts. He wasn’t blocking the entrance to the Room, but she couldn’t try to summon the door without being seen, either.
Both Nearly Headless Nick and the Fat Friar hovered on either side of the professor, and he wrote in a small notebook as they spoke.
“It was after Minerva asked the castle to come to her aid. I couldn’t just do nothing. After all, Minerva is from my House, as you know,” Nearly Headless Nick said importantly.
“All the ghosts did what they could do to defend Hogwarts,” the Fat Friar replied, nodding. “They always have done. We weren’t about to allow the school to be taken.”
As they continued walking, Ginny could no longer hear what they were saying, but she imagined Professor Nutcombe was questioning them on the roles they played during the war. When she’d served her detention with him, he’d admitted that he was contemplating writing a history of the war.
He knew of her family’s heavy involvement with the Order, and that she’d been enmeshed with the DA at Hogwarts. She was very proud of her family and didn’t mind telling him so, but remained cagey with giving him too many details.
She could readily admit that Professor Nutcombe was an avid historian, but she still didn’t like him. As the detention wore on, some of his questions had made her uneasy. He seemed rather obsessed with Harry, and even had the nerve to ask her about Harry’s early life. When it was obvious Ginny took offense, he’d explained that he just wanted to know about the people who’d shaped him into the man he became. The public would devour it, and there was so little known about Harry’s young life.
Ginny was livid, and she’d remained tight-lipped and fuming throughout the remainder of her detention. She’d kept just enough control to refrain from hexing him, which was down to the fact she didn’t want to spend another detention with him. She even suspected he’d let her go early simply to escape the tension in the room where she was writing lines.
Ginny shook her head to clear the memory. She moved toward the spot where the Room of Requirement should be but was again interrupted, this time by her roommate, Siobhan.
“There you are! Hermione is throwing a wobbly that you’re going to be late,” Siobhan said with a giggle. She didn’t appear at all concerned over Hermione’s nerves.
“So why are you the one looking for me, then?” Ginny asked.
“She is, too, but I wanted to find you first. I need to walk with you into Hogsmeade,” Siobhan replied, linking her arm in Ginny’s and steering her back toward the Gryffindor common room.
“Why?” Ginny asked slowly.
“Because Andrew is under the impression I’m going with him,” Siobhan said shiftily.
“And why would he be under that impression?”
Andrew Kirke had been trying to get Siobhan to go out with him since fourth year, but as far as Ginny knew, Siobhan had never shown any interest.
“It’s not my fault,” Siobhan said instantly.
“I didn’t say it was. I don’t even know what’s going on,” Ginny replied calmly.
Siobhan frowned, disgruntled. “You gave me that disapproving look.”
“I don’t have a disapproving look,” Ginny said indignantly, uncomfortable images of her mum flitting across her mind.
Siobhan rolled her eyes. “Oh, yes, you do,” she muttered.
“Just tell me what happened,” Ginny said impatiently.
“I was in the common room working on that horrid Potions essay that Slughorn assigned,” Siobhan said. Ginny was very familiar with Siobhan’s difficulties with Potions.
“I thought Hermione was helping you,” she said.
“She did. She was out on Prefect rounds, and I was trying to remember everything she said and write it down before I forgot, when Andrew approached me.”
“And you said you’d go?” Ginny asked, stunned. Siobhan must’ve been really immersed. She’d put him off for years.
“No! I didn’t say I’d go. I simply wasn’t as forceful with my denial, and he’s taken it that I’m wavering,” Siobhan said, exasperated.
“Why don’t you just go with him? You might have fun. I know you’ve noticed the muscles he developed over the summer,” Ginny said, needling. She knew Siobhan’s weakness, and she also suspected Andrew had worked on those muscles specifically with Siobhan in mind.
“He’s just not… It just doesn’t work,” Siobhan said, frowning.
“I think I’m going to tell Andrew to go out with someone else then. Something tells me you’d miss him if he all of a sudden lost interest,” Ginny said.
“You’re supposed to be my friend,” Siobhan said in mock horror.
“I am your friend, and as your friend, I’m telling you to give Andrew a chance,” Ginny said.
“Just what I need, ‘Ginny’s advice for the lovelorn,’” Siobhan teased.
They’d reached the portrait hole and were accosted by Hermione as soon as they entered. “Where have you been?”
“Hermione, Filch hasn’t even begun letting the queue through,” Ginny replied, exasperated. The common room was full of students still waiting to go down. Ginny spotted the first-year girls huddled at a table, whispering. Their eyes followed her every move, though they all blushed and turned their faces when she turned to look at them.
They were still fascinated by her connection to Harry.
“Here, let’s go,” Hermione said, shoving Ginny’s sweatshirt — technically Harry’s sweatshirt — at her before proceeding out the portrait hole.
Ginny and Siobhan followed on her heels. “What about Liz?” Ginny asked.
“She’s meeting me there in a little while. She had to finish up something for Professor Radford first,” Siobhan said.
“Parvati’s gone to meet Padma to walk into the village,” Hermione said, and Ginny was chagrined to realize she hadn’t given her other new roommate much thought. Parvati spent a lot of time with her sister.
It was a dismally grey day, and the air promised rain. The iron-hued sky seemed to frown ominously, and Ginny found herself hoping the carriages would be able to take them back. She didn’t think the rain would hold off for much longer.
The girls joined the long queue awaiting Filch to check them out. Ginny’s excitement was bubbling, and she wished he would get on with it, already. Hermione, too, kept rising on the balls of her feet to judge the number of people ahead of them.
Eventually, they were cleared by Filch and hurried along the path towards the gate. They passed the winged boars, and proceeded along the dusty road to Hogsmeade. They arrived just as the first raindrops began to fall. Siobhan stuck with them as they slipped inside the Three Broomsticks, but she was stopped almost instantly by a group seated near the door.
Ron and Harry were seated in one of the booths, and Ginny was grateful that Hermione thought to tell them to arrive early to snag such a prime spot. Harry wore jeans and an untucked button-down. His familiar mop of messy hair sent a warm feeling through her belly. She and Hermione approached their booth, and the boys moved in to make room, each turning to kiss his partner.
“Hi, Ginny!” Harry said, a broad smile crossing his features. Despite his obvious joy at seeing her, Ginny was concerned by the dark circles beneath his eyes. In fact, she thought both he and Ron looked rather paler than normal.
Harry wrapped his arm around her and pulled her close, his hand playing with the bottom of her ponytail. He grasped her hand with his free one, and Ginny beamed. He’d never been one for public displays, but he was blatantly happy to see her. She knew he could be most affectionate in private, and enjoyed the fact she was the one who knew that about him.
“Have you been here long?” she asked.
“Just long enough to order drinks and snag a table,” Harry replied, leaning in to kiss her again.
“It’s good to see you, Harry,” Hermione said, smiling warmly and reaching over to touch his arm.
“How is it, being back?” Harry asked, raising his eyebrows slightly.
“Well, it’s not the same without you,” Hermione said, glancing over at Ron fondly, “but I’m learning loads, and it’s good to get my brain more academically focused.”
“Your brain is always academically focused, Hermione,” Harry said.
“No, research for the sake of survival is different than research for the sake of learning,” Hermione insisted
“If you say so,” Ron said, grinning at Harry over her head.
“I do say so.”
Rosmerta came over and placed four Butterbeers in front of them. Ginny noticed Hermione frown as Ron sat up straighter. He’d always been rather taken with Rosmerta.
“Aberforth Dumbledore is outside, Mr. Potter, and he’d like a word. He won’t come inside,” Rosmerta said.
Harry frowned questioningly
Rosmerta shrugged. “I don’t pretend to explain him, I’m just delivering the message.”
Harry unwrapped himself from Ginny. “Let me see what he wants. I’ll be right back.”
Ginny stood to allow him out of the booth, and as she did she rattled the table. It bumped Hermione’s arm as she raised her glass, sloshing Butterbeer all down her front.
“Sorry, Hermione!” Ginny said, cringing.
Hermione tried to mop it up with a napkin. “It’s all right. I have to use the loo, anyway, and I’ll spell it dry there,” she said, still attempting to dab at the spill.
The siblings watched as both Harry and Hermione moved away.
“Well, you certainly cleared the table quickly,” Ron said, amused.
Ginny gave him a very rude hand gesture. As she went to take a sip of her own Butterbeer, she noticed that of the four glasses, Ron’s had the most froth. It was perfectly streaked down the outside of his chilled glass. Ginny always liked the froth best. She reached over and tried to stick her finger in his glass to swipe some, but he pulled it away.
“You have your own,” he said indignantly.
Irked, she stealthily used her wand to knock over a barstool behind Ron. He startled and turned to look quickly, and when he did she quickly switched their drinks, innocently sucking on the straw when he turned back around.
“So, what’s going on with you and Harry? Why do you both look so ragged?” she asked to derail his suspicions.
“You try spending your week herding Dementors where they don’t want to go and see how spiffy you look,” Ron said, scowling.
Ginny frowned. Harry had written to her that they’d been assigned the task of pushing the Dementors toward the Forest of Dean, but he hadn’t said much about it other than it was tiring. Harry and Ron looked more than tired, they looked drained.
“Is it bad?” she asked.
“It’s harder than I’d imagined. I thought that since I could do a fairly strong Patronus I’d be all right, and I was… at first. The longer you’re out there, the harder it gets to conjure one. The memories…. they’re relentless…” he said, lost in thought.
“What do you see?” Ginny whispered tentatively, remembering the unworldly cold that filled her soul and Tom’s evil laugh. Chills ran up her spine, and her mum would’ve said someone had just flown over her grave. She didn’t know if she really wanted Ron to answer, but she couldn’t seem to stop herself asking.
“Same three things over and over, never changes,” Ron replied looking unnaturally pale, his eyes lost in distant memory.
Ginny shuddered, wrapping her arms around herself more tightly, barely breathing.
“It starts with Fred, always Fred. Not even when the wall came down, but later, in the Great Hall when I walk in and see him lying there with George above him looking nearly as pale,” Ron continued mercilessly, his voice dull and faraway.
Ginny clenched her eyes, her mind envisioning the scene that haunted her nightmares. The Great Hall was always the hardest.
Ron continued unpityingly, “Then it all goes dark, pitch black, but there is still sound. I can hear Hermione screaming. Shrill, pained, desperate screams that I can’t do anything to stop. I can’t help her.”
Ginny reached across the table and grasped Ron’s cold hand tightly, squeezing it to give silent support. The lump in her throat prevented her from speaking.
“I’ve never experienced the Cruciatus. Both Harry and Hermione have, but I’ve never physically felt it, even though it seems like I have through her. It’s barbaric.”
“That’s the idea of it. They enjoyed causing that pain,” Ginny said, unsticking her throat. She took a long sip of her Butterbeer in order to escape Ron’s piercing stare.
“Last year?” he asked.
Ginny nodded, causing Ron’s ears to turn red. She didn’t want to talk about last year with him, so she blurted, “You said the Dementors always brought on three memories. What’s the last one?”
“Harry. Hagrid carrying Harry out of the forest, over and over and over again on a continuous loop, and sodding Voldemort shouting, ‘Harry Potter is dead.’ I’d failed him again,” Ron said, taking a swallow of his own drink and looking as if he wished he had something stronger.
“You didn’t fail him,” Ginny said, firing up at once. “He went to protect us all.”
“He always protects us all. I was supposed to protect him. I failed then, and I’m failing now,” Ron said miserably.
“How do you mean?” Ginny asked sharply.
Ron shifted and glanced toward the doorway to check if Harry had re-entered the pub. With no sign of his messy hair approaching, he continued. “Dementors still affect him worst of all, yet he stays near them the longest to ensure everyone else gets away on a shift change. Most of our class doesn’t have a lot of experience with Dementors, but you can see the toll it’s taking on him.”
Ginny remembered her second year when the Dementors had boarded the Hogwarts Express. It had been her first time near them, and she’d been nearly catatonic. She also remembered Harry collapsing lifeless to the floor.
“How much longer do you have this assignment?” she asked.
“Dunno. The last batch is in the forest now, but we’re patrolling to keep them there, and whenever a new batch is spotted, we’ll have to bring them in, as well,” Ron said.
“It all came out,” Hermione said, re-joining them. Her blouse was spotless and dry with no trace of a Butterbeer stain. “Why do you look so serious?”
“Ron was telling me about rounding up the Dementors,” Ginny said.
“I can’t believe they’re just leaving them in the forest. That seems like an accident waiting to happen,” Hermione said, outraged. “We were in the Forest of Dean during the winter last year.”
“I know,” Ron said, grimacing. “No one thinks it’s a permanent solution, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of options.”
Ginny looked up when someone touched her shoulder. Harry stood there, smiling, and she slid along the bench to let him sit. He once again wrapped his arm around her and twisted his fingers around the bottom of her ponytail as if they’d never been interrupted.
“What did Aberforth want?” Hermione asked.
“He was just returning something to me. I couldn’t convince him to come in and join us, but I told him we’d drop by The Hog’s Head another time,” Harry said.
“How are Quidditch practices going, Ginny?” Ron asked.
They spent an enjoyable hour trading stories. Ginny did a fair impression of Professor Nutcombe whilst Hermione tutted her disapproval, insisting he was still better than Binns had been. The froth had settled into Ginny’s glass, and Harry reached over and switched his glass with hers.
“I know you like the froth best,” he said, smiling.
Ginny felt dismayed. She knew Ron’s glass had had the most froth when they’d started, and it had now sunk in splendidly. She looked up, horrified, just in time to notice Harry’s smirk. His brilliant eyes were sparkling merrily.
He took a sip of the brew, a froth moustache forming on his lip which he licked appreciatively. Ginny narrowed her eyes and again discreetly used her wand to knock a glass off the table behind them. Harry didn’t fall for her trick, however, keeping his glass in hand as he turned to check the fallen glass.
Foiled, Ginny felt annoyed. She hated when he managed to get the best of her, but she knew the sure-fire way to get him; she pouted, sticking her lower lip out dramatically. As expected, Harry caved and switched his glass back with hers. His face was lit cheerfully as he did so, however, and she knew he was playing with her. She’d have to reward him later.
He squeezed her hand as Ron and Hermione stood, and Ginny wondered if he knew about their afternoon plans.
“Off so soon?” she asked, smirking.
Ron’s ears turned red, but Hermione raised her head with dignity. “Ron and I have some plans. I’ll see you later, Ginny.” She kissed Harry on the head as the two moved away from their table.
“D’you know where they’re going?” she asked the moment they were out of earshot.
Harry glanced at her, amused. “No, but something tells me you do.”
“Ron has a room at the Hogsmeade Inn,” Ginny said dramatically.
Harry’s eyes widened and his glasses slipped down his nose. “What?” he asked, pushing them back in place.
Ginny nodded. “Hermione told me you walked in on them shagging. Why didn’t you tell me?”
Harry’s face had gone crimson. “I was trying to forget I saw it. Thanks a lot.”
“No problem,” Ginny said impishly and finished the last bit of her Butterbeer. “So, where to next?”
The rain was now rolling down the windows, but after Ron and Hermione’s departure, Ginny was more cognizant of the attention from her classmates. Students were peering at them from the bar, some craning their necks to get a better look. The excited buzz of conversation was rising the longer they sat there. She knew Harry was aware of it because he kept flattening the hair over his scar — as if that gave him any sort of disguise.
“We could make a dash for one of the shops. Need anything?” Harry asked.
“Not really. I wish it wasn’t raining so we could just take a walk,” Ginny said, sighing. “I suppose we could go to Honeydukes.”
“Do you trust me?” Harry asked, standing up and offering his hand.
“Of course,” Ginny replied, intrigued.
Harry led her away from the curious stares and out into the pouring rain. Ginny pulled up the hood of her sweatshirt — really Harry’s sweatshirt — but was surprised when he steered her down an empty alley. He quickly pulled his Invisibility Cloak from his pocket and tossed it over the two of them. Ginny pressed against him tightly, enjoying both the adventure and his warmth. The rain had a distinct chill.
Harry led them toward Honeydukes, but put his finger over his lips as they entered. He led her behind the counter and to the store room in back. Harry moved aside a rug, and Ginny saw a trap door. Harry lifted it, and beneath was a rickety wooden stairway leading down into darkness. Harry indicated for her to follow.
When they finally reached the bottom, he lit his wand, and Ginny took her first look around. They were in a stone cavern that led off in some sort of tunnel. The floor was earthen and didn’t look as if it had been disturbed in quite some time. Although it smelled a little musty, it was dry. She wondered how he’d known about it.
“Not the most romantic spot, I know, but at least no one is staring at us,” he said self-consciously. Using his wand, he dried the Invisibility Cloak and spread it on the ground with a flourish. He transfigured several rocks into pillows and made a comfortable spot for them to sit.
“Nice spellwork,” Ginny said, impressed.
“Thanks! I’ve learned some cool new spells in Training.”
“How did you know this was here?” Ginny asked, sitting down and leaning against the wall, pleased to realize he’d added Cushioning Charms, as well.
Harry sat down next to her and wrapped his arm around her, his fingers once again tangling in her hair. “It’s a secret passageway into Hogwarts, although Neville told me all the passageways had been sealed last year. I don’t know if you can still get in. I thought we could at least stay dry in here.”
“And I can kiss you without anyone snapping a picture,” Ginny said.
She felt Harry’s heart hammering beneath her hand where it rested on his chest. “Ginny, I promise you can kiss me any time the urge strikes you, photos or not,” he said solemnly.
Ginny giggled before leaning over and doing just that. Harry’s hands — tentative at first — tangled more fully into her hair, holding her head in place. Ginny felt warmth pool in her belly as she shifted slightly to get closer. She couldn’t seem to get close enough. It was like their month-long separation hadn’t even happened, and they were back under their familiar tree behind The Burrow.
After several moments of greeting each other properly, the need for air overtook them, and they reluctantly pulled apart.
“Hi,” Harry murmured, his breath warm on her lips.
“Hi,” she responded, snuggling in close and relishing the feel of his arms around her. “I missed you.”
“I’ve missed you, too. One month down,” he said, nuzzling her neck and kissing that spot that always gave her shivers.
Ginny nudged his legs so she could sit between them, leaning back against his warm chest. He kept his arms wrapped around her middle, resting his chin against her hair.
“How’s Grimmauld Place look?” she asked. The decorator had sent some of the colour and pattern choices to her, at Harry’s request, but she was eager to see it all put together.
“It looks great,” he replied, beaming. He proceeded to tell her about some of the changes, and the party they’d had during the Puddlemere match. Harry was obviously delighted with having a place of his own, even if it had taken seventeen years for it to happen.
“Have you seen Teddy?” she asked.
“Yeah. Andromeda lets me take him every Sunday afternoon. I’ve even brought him over to The Burrow for Sunday dinner,” Harry replied happily, dropping a kiss on the top of her head.
“Mum must’ve loved that,” Ginny said, smiling.
“She does. George keeps trying to sneak him sweets that he’s way too young to have, but I think he does it to rile your mum,” Harry said.
“That sounds like him. How is he?” Ginny asked.
Harry shrugged. “Some good days, some bad days. I think he’s working on something involving a de-ageing potion, so I’m really cautious when I eat around him.”
Ginny smiled half-heartedly. While she’d enjoyed the time she spent with Harry when he’d accidentally inhaled the de-ageing potion, the memory had been soured for her. Because all the while they’d been thinking how cute he was, and focused on giving him some happy memories, a poison had been insidiously creeping throughout his body and ravaging his organs from within.
“Okay, Ginny?” he asked, feeling her body’s response and tightening his arms around her.
“Yeah. I just don’t like thinking about that. I nearly lost you.”
“But you didn’t. I’m not going anywhere,” he said, smiling and nuzzling the side of her face. “You’ll need to work harder than that to get rid of me.”
“I don’t want to get rid of you,” Ginny said, grumbling.
“Oh! That reminds me. I think you’ll like this,” he said, shifting so he could dig something out of his pocket.
“You have something in your pocket for me, Harry?” she asked, grinning.
Harry looked up quickly, colour suffusing his cheeks. “Er… yeah. Aberforth returned this to me,” he stammered, holding out a small, square mirror.
Ginny stared, confused. “He gave you a mirror?”
Harry waggled his eyebrows. “What else would you like from my pocket?”
Now it was Ginny’s turn to colour, widening her eyes in surprise and causing Harry to grin. He held up the mirror.
“It belonged to Sirius. I have the matching one, although mine’s broken. Put it under your pillow when you go to sleep tonight.”
Ginny was still confused. “Why? D’you think I’m vain?”
“What? No! Of course not. Just do it, will you? I think you’ll be happy. I put an Unbreakable Charm on it.”
“Okay,” Ginny said, shrugging. She put in the pocket on her sweatshirt.
Harry’s breath was warm on her neck, and she sighed contentedly as he begun kissing beneath her ear. She leaned her head to the side and melted into him. The rest of the afternoon passed in a blur of heated kisses and embraces. Doing anything else didn’t seem nearly as important when she was surrounded by his arms. She’d be perfectly content to kiss him all day. The hem of her sweatshirt had ridden up, and this time when Harry’s hand touched bare skin, she didn’t slap it away.
All too soon, it was time to return to the castle. She and Harry reluctantly stood, both of them dishevelled, with rumpled clothing. Harry’s eyes were slightly glazed, and she suspected hers might be, as well. Their lips were swollen from snogging, and Ginny knew her ponytail was a mess. Still, the memories of his kisses would have to hold her until she was finally able to see him again.
Harry clutched his Firebolt as his eyes swept over the group of fellow Aurors surrounding him. They were dressed for flying and were awaiting a shift change. A new group of Dementors had been spotted near Manchester, and the Aurors assigned to the task were currently trying to herd them south toward the Forest of Dean. Herding them involved keeping a steady stream of Patronuses behind them urging them forward.
It was draining work, and some of the Aurors were new to casting a Patronus. Ron was in this group, along with Duncan Tate and Rory MacDonald from training class. All four showed inexpressive game-face, but Harry knew they were all feeling the same anxiety he felt. Working with Dementors wasn’t easy no matter how strong your Patronus.
Harry’s gaze perused the dark outfits they all wore. They’d been specifically designed for the team so as to not get snagged by any tree limbs if they were forced to fly low. The uniform included tight-fitting breeches with dragon-hide boots and warm, tunic-styled jumpers. It reminded Harry of a Quidditch kit without the robes. It was October and England was already growing chilly, so the warmth of the fabric was appreciated.
Muggles couldn’t see Dementors, but they could see wizards, therefore the task force not only had to cast a powerful Patronus Charm, but also keep a Shielding Charm in place while they were in the air. There would be no extra energy spared on repeated warming charms. Harry wished the clothing could be shielded like an Invisibility Cloak, but he’d been told that not only was it very expensive, the magic didn’t work as well in clothing with shapes and edges. A flat cloak was much more efficient.
They’d been briefed that this was the largest group of Dementors they’d come across, many of them juveniles. That wasn’t good. The juveniles were more unpredictable and tended to attempt escape. They’d all have to be sharp. The Auror team whom they were relieving had been flying since early morning, but they hadn’t had any contact to know how they were progressing. Harry squinted in the distance to see if he could find any trace of them, but as yet the skies were clear.
“All right, I don’t want anyone in the air before the full lot of them has passed and our people start to land. For each two Aurors who land, two more go up. Understand?” Quenten Williams asked. He was a senior Auror, and Ron’s partner, and he’d taken the lead on this mission.
There were grunts and nods of assent. Harry was paired with Owen Savage, who was rather subdued so far today, but Harry wasn’t certain if there were a reason. Usually Owen was most exuberant and rattling off a string of colourful swear words as he spoke.
“Tate and Rickman, you’ll go up first,” Williams said.
Duncan Tate was paired with Hans Rickman, one of Harry’s fellow Quidditch teammates. Duncan looked somehow nervous and exhilarated at the same time. He clutched his broom tightly, awaiting the signal. He flashed Harry a tense grin.
“Look alive, here they come,” Owen said, his eyes squinting into the distance.
Harry felt them before he saw them, and nausea filled his belly. He tried to steel himself against the sudden, unnatural chill. A frigid numbness tried to insidiously work its way through his brain like eerie fog.
“We’re low enough so you shouldn’t be affected, but wands out anyway,” Williams barked.
Harry could hear dull screaming coming from a distance, and he felt a cold sweat form on his brow, as if a flu was coming on. It was taking all his concentration to fight the despair and hopelessness that was trying to overtake him. Ron moved to stand beside him, their shoulders touching. Ron was tense, and Harry knew his old friend was aware of the difficulty Harry was experiencing.
Harry really hated Dementors. Since pulling this assignment, he’d discovered that the Dark creatures brought on several new and miserable memories in addition to the death of his parents, and all the feelings those memories evoked.
“Don’t be a prat, Harry. If it gets bad, cast a Patronus whether Williams can feel them or not,” Ron said out of the corner of his mouth. “D’you have plenty of chocolate?”
They’d all been supplied with several bars to keep on them at all times.
“I’m fine,” Harry said impassively, keeping his gaze fixed straight ahead.
“Right. And I’m the new Minister,” Ron said, irritated. “Just don’t—”
“Be a prat. Right, got it,” Harry interrupted. He nodded toward the first riders just coming down to land. “Violet looks wrecked.”
Ron turned as they both watched one of their fellow trainees land with her partner. Duncan and Hans took to the air straightaway, and Williams called out the next pair to be ready. Ron and Auror Williams would be the final two to take flight.
“Looking a bit of a shambles there, Benson. Not finding your Patronus quite so pretty anymore, eh?” Owen Savage asked, moving to stand next to Violet.
She scowled but didn’t appear to have the energy for much more. “Let’s take a look at you when you get back, and we’ll talk shambles, okay, Savage?” she asked weakly.
“It’s a date then. Have the beer chilled,” Owen said cheekily.
Violet managed a hand gesture.
“Potter and Savage, you’re next,” Williams called, and Harry looked up. The dense black cloud of Dementors was moving overhead. Harry’s stomach lurched, and he blinked quickly to clear the light-headedness. He knew once he was behind them with Patronuses between, it would become more bearable. He just had to get in the air and into position without embarrassing himself.
“You okay, kid? You’re looking ruddy peaky,” Owen said, giving Harry a once over.
Harry did not want Owen aware of the difficulties he’d been having with the Dementors. Harry respected the grizzled Auror, and he didn’t want the man to regret partnering with Harry. He was quite pleased to longer be with Dawlish.
“Fine, sir,” Harry replied stoically.
Owen paused a moment, his gaze scoping the other Aurors still awaiting the call to take flight. He kept his voice low so no one else could hear, but the intensity of his words drew Harry’s complete attention. “You know, kid, the idea of a partner is having one another’s back. We work in ruddy tandem. A partner always needs to have all the facts in any given situation. I have your back, you have mine.
“Now, I’m not bloody ignorant when it comes to Dementors. I know what they do, and how they affect people with trauma in their past. Personally, I didn’t think it was a great idea to even put you on this mission, but I was told you took on about a hundred of ‘em when you were barely even a teenager. I know you can handle yourself, but I wasn’t about to let Dawlish be the one to have your ruddy back going into this. If there’s a problem, you need to swallow that Horntail-size pride of yours and bloody well let me know. Understood?”
Harry had shifted uncomfortably as Owen spoke, but he knew his partner was right. It wouldn’t do any good to pass out and leave Owen up there alone. He was nettled by the idea his Dementor problem had been discussed by the higher ups, but he’d think about that later.
Harry nodded and said curtly, “I’m uncomfortable, but it’s manageable. I have chocolate, and it’ll get easier when we’re behind them.”
“Right. Now that wasn’t so hard,” Owen replied, and Harry was grateful to the other man for not causing more of a fuss.
“Go!” Williams said, and both Harry and Owen took flight. The air was chilly and it stung Harry’s cheeks as he rose, the thrill of exhilaration that he always felt when taking flight filling his senses.
The swarm of Dementors was massive and moving slowly. He and Owen were charged with covering the left flank. Harry could recognize some of the juveniles now that he was in the air. They were smaller than the full-grown version, though their effects were the same.
Once in the air, it was several minutes of watchful flying before he had to cast his first Patronus. At least the team had time to fully change shifts before the first Dementor, a juvenile, attempted to break away from the herd. Prongs appeared from the tip of Harry’s wand and charged at the fleeing Dementor along with Owen’s bear Patronus. The two of them corralled the stray back with the others, and Harry could breathe a sigh of relief. He could see several other Patronuses he recognized herding the group from the back, Ron’s Jack Russell terrier among them.
They rode without incident for about an hour before several of the juvenile Dementors peeled off at once, as if testing the boundaries and seeking a weak point. Owen and Harry each cast another Patronus and managed to fence them in on their side, but Harry heard Rory MacDonald’s panicked voice from the other side of the herd.
“There are too many of them.”
Rory had never really meshed with the rest of the class. The only one he was remotely friendly with was Cormac McLaggen, who Harry definitely tried to avoid. Rory was more of a loner, and Harry didn’t think that suited this line of work.
“Easy, MacDonald. We have ‘em,” came Williams’ calm reply.
They’d managed to corral them all back together, but it was a temporary fix as every few minutes, another tried to break off. The herd itself had slowed, bringing all the riders in closer. Harry felt that uncomfortable chill and a dull screaming in his ears overlaid by Snape’s horrified voice, ‘You have kept him alive so that he can die at the right moment?’
The green of the trees below melded into a streamlined curse coming at him with velocity. There was nothing he could do. There was no escape. It was going to hit him, ending life as he knew it, and he had to let it happen…
“Expecto Patronum!” Harry bellowed with every ounce of strength he had. His silver stag burst from his wand, forcing back the encroaching Dementors. All around him, other Patronuses were doing the same. As the Dementors moved further ahead, Harry’s own thoughts came into clearer focus, despite the sick feeling left behind.
Harry shakily ripped the wrapping from a chocolate bar and shoved it in his mouth one-handed. He glanced over and noticed a pale Owen doing the same.
“All right, kid?” he asked, his voice raspy.
Harry could only manage a nod. “You?” he croaked.
“That was close — too close. Look alive, they’re trying again,” Owen said, aiming his broom downward and aiming his wand at an escaping juvenile.
“I can’t hold them,” Rory shouted, still panicky.
Williams and several of the others moved closer to the right side to give aid. It was then that Harry noticed Duncan. Although he hadn’t made a sound, his broom was dropping, losing altitude at an alarming rate.
“Duncan!” Harry shouted hoarsely, his own voice sounding weak in his own ears. “Pull up.”
Duncan didn’t respond but only slumped over his broom further. He was heading toward the ground. They were on the edge of the forest now, but not far enough inside the copse of trees. Duncan’s shielding charm flickered and went out. He was visible to any Muggles who might be below.
Hans Rickman, Duncan’s partner, was attempting to hold off his area on his own, and the Dementors apparently sensed the weakness. Loads of them began converging toward him. The air became ice cold as they gathered, tearing at Harry’s lungs.
“Switch partners,” Owen yelled authoritatively. “I’ll back up Rickman, you go after Tate.”
It was an order, and Harry had to obey despite his misgivings. He thought he was better equipped to handle Dementors than he was with Healing spells. Still, he aimed his Firebolt downwards and sped off after Duncan. The wind whipped at Harry’s face, causing it to sting as he raced after his plummeting co-worker.
Duncan must still be somewhat conscious, because he wasn’t in a freefall although he didn’t appear to be in control either. The broom was going to crash. Remembering his own fall from a broom in third year, Harry raised his wand and shouted, “Arresto Momentum!”
Duncan’s descent slowed, but he lost his grip on his broom, and it went hurtling to the ground below. Harry kept careful watch on Duncan’s body as he slowly lowered them both to the ground. Duncan hit with a thud, but not as bad as it could’ve been. Harry landed and rushed over to his fallen friend.
Duncan’s eyes were closed, and his dark-coloured skin was waxy and pale. Harry quickly swept his wand over him seeking any injuries. He thought they were in the clear until his wand lit red near Duncan’s feet. His right ankle was broken. Harry used a spell to immobilize it, but he didn’t have any pain potions. Duncan would have to wait until they could get him back to the Ministry.
Thankfully, there were no head injuries. Harry didn’t know enough to do anything about those. He took a chocolate bar from his pocket and began gently slapping Duncan’s face, increasing the pressure until the other man’s eyes fluttered open.
“Wha?” he mumbled thickly.
“Eat this, it’ll make you feel better,” Harry said.
Duncan weakly tried to push it away, but Harry forced a square into his mouth. As it melted, he could see some reason return to Duncan’s eyes. He handed him the rest of the bar.
It was only now, after the adrenaline rush was subsiding that Harry realized how woozy he felt. He unwrapped another bar and took a large bite.
“What happened?” Duncan asked weakly. “One minute I remember casting a Patronus, then it all goes fuzzy.”
“We’re nearly there, but they all went mad. I dunno. Maybe they can sense the other Dementors who we already have here, and they somehow communicated they weren’t happy,” Harry said, thinking out loud.
Duncan tried to sit up, but the pain from his ankle made itself known, and he groaned as he dropped back to the ground.
“Yeah. You’re not going to be walking on that for a while,” Harry said.
“Where’s my broom?” Duncan gasped. “I can still fly.”
“Dunno,” Harry said, shaking his head. “You lost it mid-flight.”
He stood up, scanning the area but there was no sight of Duncan’s missing broom. Thankfully, they were surrounded by dense foliage, so hidden from any Muggles. Harry raised his wand again, “Accio Duncan’s broom,” he said, but nothing happened.
“Maybe it was damaged,” Duncan said. He’d risen on his elbows during Harry’s attempt, but now he slouched back onto the ground.
Harry shrugged. “Or it just doesn’t like me. Finish that chocolate. It really does help,” Harry said, putting the last of his own bar in his mouth.
He didn’t want to admit it to Duncan, but Harry felt miserable himself. He’d be so happy when this shift was over, and he could go home and talk to Ginny. They’d been using the two-way mirrors every night. He could still remember Ginny’s utter amazement that first night when he’d called her name from beneath her pillow. The gob-smacked expression alone was worth not telling her what the mirrors did beforehand. He liked it best when he caught her just before she dozed off with her sleepy eyes and hair undone and spread across her shoulders.
Yes, he’d be happy when this day was over and he could use the magical mirrors.
“D’you know where we are?” Duncan asked, grimacing.
“We’re on the outer rim of the Forest of Dean. Protocol says to stay put until they find us. Here,” Harry said as he raised his wand and cast a locator spell.
Duncan pulled himself back to lean against a tree, cringing with pain as he did. “Hurts like a bugger,” he said, gasping.
“I know a few Healing spells, but nothing to fix broken bones,” Harry said, shrugging apologetically. He felt exposed sitting out in the open, but he was certain it was left over paranoia from the Horcrux hunt. Still, he began walking around a small perimeter of where they’d landed casting several protection spells. He needed the Aurors to be able to find them, but he didn’t want anyone else sneaking up on them.
“What are you doing?” Duncan asked.
“Protection spells,” Harry replied.
“Will they keep out Dementors?” Duncan asked. “That would be brilliant if you know a spell that can do that.”
Harry frowned. Other than at the Ministry, they hadn’t really come across many Dementors while hunting last year. “I don’t think so,” he replied cautiously. “As far as I know, the Patronus Charm is the only thing that works against them.”
“Bugger,” Duncan said, shutting his eyes.
“You went to Beauxbatons, right? Didn’t they cover Dementors there?” Harry asked, remembering Duncan had been one of the students who’d never attempted a Patronus.
“I transferred before my third year when my parents divorced,” Duncan said, grimacing. He was obviously feeling discomfort, but Harry respected his lack of complaints. “We read about them briefly, but nothing I retained.”
It was growing colder as the sky darkened. More time must’ve passed than he’d realized. He was just about to cast some warming charms when the dull screaming began echoing in his head. The hairs on the back of his neck rose as goosebumps erupted along his arms. He sat up warily, glancing around. Duncan, whose eyes were closed, didn’t appear to have noticed.
His breath showed in the air in the form of small, chilled puffs while the sky continued to darken. As the echoes in his head grew louder and more insistent, Harry rose to his feet. “I think we have company,” he said.
“What?” Duncan asked, opening his eyes and looking around. “They’ve found us?”
“Dementors,” Harry said, grimacing as the sick feeling filled his gut.
“Where?” Duncan asked. “I don’t feel so good.”
Harry caught movement to his right. He spun in that direction and shouted, “Expecto Patronum!”
The woods around them stilled, even the chirping of birds ceased. It was quiet for a moment before another wave of dizziness overtook Harry. He could see them now, gliding from the trees a short distance from where Prongs had just disappeared. He could hear their slow, rattling breath, sucking all the happiness from his soul. Harry had never cast so many consecutive Patronuses, and it was weakening him. His legs were shaking, the coldness reaching into his bones. His chest constricted as a fog seemed to overwhelm his brain. He cast another Patronus, moving to stand over Duncan who had slouched against the tree.
Fight it, Fight it, Fight it.
As he kept trying to force them off, he noticed that the Dementors were not acting as expected. Rather than fleeing, they would move back and await Prongs to fade before moving forward again, the rattling sounds of their breathing never fading.
They were learning.
Harry shuddered. This wasn’t good, and his head was woozy. Blackness edged his vision, and he needed to put his hand on the tree to remain upright. He thought he could hear something from the trees, but the images in his mind were overwhelming him. He felt confused. He could hear the original memory of his parents’ murder that he’d always experienced when Dementors were about, but now and just as prominent was Dumbledore’s voice describing a parasitic growth forever attached to Harry, Dumbledore’s betrayal…
There were other things, too. Brief flashes of the war he couldn’t get away from: Ron’s angry departure, a green light skimming past Ginny’s head, Malfoy Manor, a snake bursting from an old woman, the sickly green glow of the Killing Curse hurtling towards him, Sirius falling through the Veil, a wall exploding around Fred, flashes of green coming at him when he was both young and older — and all the while, his mother screamed…
A/N: Thanks so much for the readers over at SIYE for nominating and voting for These Cuts I Have in the Silver Trinket Awards. This story won in the Best New Story Category, and I can’t tell you how delighted it makes me. I’d like to express my sincere appreciation to all of those who take the time to hit the review tab and let me know what you think.
Thanks very much. Just a heads-up that this chapter is the last one we have in the tank, ready to go.