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The Changeling

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The wireless warbles with the voice of Celestina Warbuck, the ornaments on the brightly lit tree shivering along to the high-pitched vibrato. Snow falls softly outside the window, a crackling fire warming the room. The smell of spice and sweets floats out from the kitchen.

On the surface, a perfect Christmas.

Only there is a pile of unopened packages next to the tree, an uncomfortable reminder that Ron, Hermione, and Harry are still missing. That no one has heard a thing about them in months. Everyone keeps saying this is a good thing, because at least it means they are probably still free, right?

But Ginny knows they’ve already been gone far longer than the Order ever expected them to be.

She never allowed herself the luxury of expectations.

Everyone tries though, tries to pretend everything is normal. Ginny smiles and laughs like they actually feel natural. She eats and opens presents. She ignores the fact that Bill is clearly hiding something from all of them, some secret that makes it hard for him to look Mum and Dad in the eye. She thinks she could find a way to press him into spilling, but frankly she’s got enough secrets to contend with.

Mum and Dad are being similarly tight-lipped about something, abruptly ending conversations when she walks into the room. Auntie Muriel has apparently done something to make even Mum angry.

Shiny surfaces roiling with secrets just below. Normal life these days.

“Wotcher.”

Ginny looks up from her uneaten mince pie. Tonks gingerly lowers herself onto the couch next to her. Her pregnancy is definitely showing at this point, a large bulbous swell that Mum jokingly assures her will only get bigger in the weeks to come.

Her hair has settled into a mousy brown lying listless against her shoulders, her features somehow sharper, more angular.

Ginny fingers the end of Tonks’s hair, thoughts drifting back to hours spent at Grimmauld laughing over her shifting features. It already seemed like the end of the world back then, but she didn’t really have a clue.

“Can’t morph,” Tonks says. “Apparently changing anything too drastically would be dangerous for the baby.” She shrugs. “Or maybe it’s nature’s way of making sure you actually look like yourself the first time your baby sees you.”

Ginny makes the corners of her mouth lift. “Makes sense.”

Tonks’ eyes narrow, her gaze seeming to pick Ginny apart. Ginny allows it. Tonks may be an Auror, trained and tested, but Ginny is trained as well.

She only looks away when Tonks’ eyes seem to cloud with something like concern.

Ginny escapes one set of prying eyes only to catch her parents watching her from the kitchen. They both quickly look away, doing their best to pretend they are busy doing anything other than observing her.

“They’re worried about you,” Tonks says.

Ginny lets out a breath. “There’s no need to be.”

Tonks rubs a hand across her belly, her brow tightening. “McGonagall wrote them about Snape.”

Of course she did. At least what little she thinks she knows. “It’s nothing.”

Tonks gives her a look like she doesn’t believe her. “Would you tell us if it was?”

Ginny shifts slightly in her seat before she can stop the telling action. “He hasn’t laid a finger on me.” That’s the truth, at least.

Tonks picks up the untouched mince pie from Ginny’s plate, popping it in her mouth with an audible sigh. “Yes, well,” she says around a mouth full of crumbs, “he wouldn’t have to, would he?”

Ginny doesn’t know what to say, just that she can’t very well tell them the truth. Sometimes the truth is worse than the imaginings. The best weapon you can ever wield is other people’s need for their comfortable assumptions, Snape once told her.

Maybe letting them think Snape’s vindictiveness is taking the form of petty punishment is safer.

Fred and George stomp over then, saving Ginny from having to answer. There’s a large package floating between them. “Just one more thing for you, sis.”

She already has a nearly bottomless bag of tricks and defensive knick-knacks from them. Ones she is not foolish enough to actually let out into the general population of Hogwarts. That is not a war she wants any part of. “What is that?”

Fred whisks the brown paper off of it with a flourish, revealing a wireless a bit smaller than her parents’.

Considering the radio stations are just as tightly controlled as all other media outlets these days, she isn’t sure what listening to more lies and misdirection is going to do for anyone.

George doesn’t seem put off by that though, his face bright with mischief. “There’s a particular radio show we think you may find worth listening to this term.” He hands her a small slip of paper with instructions to find a station called—

“Potterwatch?” Ginny says, trying to ignore the way the word catches in her throat.

“Yeah,” Fred says. “With the Quibbler out of commission, we figured we’d fill the gap.”

Considering the lengths Tom has been willing to go to control all media... “Is that wise?”

They give her matching reckless smiles. “What’d be the fun if it was?”

She tries not to find that terrifying.

“Anyway,” Fred says, “we wanted to make sure you had one with you at Hogwarts. So you and all your mates can keep up with how brilliant we are.”

“Yes,” she says. “I’m sure it will be a big hit in the Slytherin common room.”

George rolls his eyes. “It’s for the DA, nitwit.”

Ginny doesn’t let her expression slip, she’s sure of it. “What makes you think—” she starts to say.

“Please,” George says with a dismissive sneer. “Give us a little credit.”

“Yeah,” Fred says, sharing a look with George. “A liar knows a liar a mile off.”

If only they knew.

*     *     *

In January, the train platform is significantly quieter than it was the previous fall. For the most part people are simply quieter. But there are also fewer students. A quick glance is enough to see that.

It’s not surprising that some parents have used the break as a chance to slip away with their children. They’ve decided England isn’t worth the risk. She imagines the desperation that drives someone to leave everything they have ever known. To trust that it can really be any better anywhere else.

No one lingers.

Like everyone else, Ginny says goodbye to her parents following a careful script. They don’t tell her to be careful. They just hug her, the pressure of their fingers saying everything they can’t.

Please come back to us.

She boards the train and doesn’t allow herself to wonder if she will.

Nadira and her siblings and cousins and extended family are all still here, filling multiple compartments, forming their own tight unit. Ginny can see it now, the protection inherent in it, the insulating of the young ones, of their ways.

The DA members gather similarly, at least the ones who can afford to. Ginny walks past them without a glance. Instead, she settles in with Hestia and Flora.

Nicola arrives next, leaning out the window to wave and laugh at a young girl running up and down the platform waving her arms.

Despite the fact that before this year they rarely all sat together on the train, The Parlor sisters arrive one by one, even Millicent.

Tilly arrives last, walked to the compartment by Bassenthwaite. The former Slytherin Beater is the same year as Tilly, so Ginny supposes it shouldn’t be weird to see them together. It still strikes Ginny as unusual, compounded by the fact that Tilly doesn’t look particularly happy.

Bassenthwaite touches her arm, saying something, and Tilly gives him a cold look.

He lifts his hand, backing away. “Fine,” Ginny thinks he says.

He glances in the compartment as Tilly walks away, catching Ginny’s eye and giving her a slight nod.

She nods back.

He disappears down the corridor, Tilly dragging the door open and dropping down inside with what is very nearly a dramatic flounce. The girls all give each other looks, but don’t comment on the dark cloud clearly hanging over her head.

The train chugs into motion, the city gradually giving way to fields.

“Beatrice didn’t come back,” Hestia reports.

“The Ravenclaw?” Astoria asks.

Hestia nods.

Ginny thinks she knows who that is. A seventh-year. “Did her family run?”

They all look at her like she’s thick.

“She got married,” Flora says.  

Ginny blinks. “Married?”

“Yes,” Astoria says. “Her parents set it up.”

“Didn’t you notice the rash of betrothals over winter break?” Hestia asks.

Ginny hasn’t exactly kept abreast of the latest gossip, and the Weasley clan has never mingled with the great families, the sort who still talk about betrothals and arranged marriages.

“What about the laws on compulsory education?” Ginny wonders.

“They’ve been revised,” Flora informs her. “Witches sixteen and older are exempt if they get married.”

Sixteen? Merlin. It seems unimaginable to her. Though, she considers, this is just one more way to keep your child safe. Even if it means marrying her off. Truncating her education.

“I suppose they assume there is no need for married women to have NEWTs,” Ginny says.

Tilly breaks her long silence with a harsh laugh. “Don’t need NEWTs to raise the next great generation of pureblood babies, now do we?” There’s something hard in her expression that wasn’t there last term.

It reminds Ginny that Tilly is already eighteen, mere months away from graduating. It’s all there in her face.

Maybe they’re all hostages no matter where they go.

“Pansy is claiming she’s already turned down three offers,” Caroline says.

“She’s not still hoping for Draco, is she?” Nicola asks.

Tilly snorts. “If she’s one tenth as discerning as she claims to be, she should be able to tell that ship is sinking from a mile off.”

“What about you?” Caroline asks Ginny. “Do you think your parents will try to set anything up?”

“I seriously doubt it,” Ginny says. “One of the benefits of being the only daughter of a poor, blood-traitor family, I suppose.” She gives them all a bland look. “But who knows? Maybe I can snatch up a Malfoy on their way down.”

They all laugh.

*     *     *

In the common room, there is now a tall mahogany box in front of the announcements board. As they all settle back into their rooms, they warily eye it. A third-year eventually crosses over to it, reading out the lettering on the front.

If you see something, say something!

If you suspect anyone of disloyal thoughts or subversive activities that could put this school or other students in danger, please report! Together, we will preserve our ways against outside destructive forces.

Everyone is silent for a long moment as the words sink in.

Martin is the first to speak. “Well, I’m not sure if it’s subversive, but Rosier’s fashion sense is so awful it’s putting my eyes in danger.”

Rosier flips an obscene gesture. “I’m fairly certain your face is the greater offense.”

Under the cover of cutting remarks, Ginny glances around the room, cataloging reactions. Her eyes stray across Nadira. She meets Ginny’s gaze, one eyebrow lifting as if this fundamentally proves something.

Disloyal thoughts.

Even their thoughts are to be policed and judged. Umbridge would be proud. But really, she was just the warm-up act.

So be it.

Ginny isn’t angry anymore. She isn’t scared. The numbness has finally faded. The shock, the disbelief, the knee-weakening fear. She doesn’t have room for any of that.

Now she is only certain.

*     *     *

After dinner, Ginny walks into the library. There aren’t many students who bother with the library this early in the term. Near the rear stacks sits Terry Boot, his blue and silver-lined robes mussed, hair cropped close to his skull, his dark brow currently furrowed as he reads from an enormous, ancient-looking tome.

Ginny lowers herself into the seat across from him.

“Weasley,” he says without looking up from his text, clearly managing to communicate that her interruption is not welcome. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

“I need help.”

“Madam Pince is around here somewhere.” He turns a page, frowning down at the words in front of him. “Bloody amateur,” he mutters under his breath.

Ginny would assume he is talking to her except he pulls the text closer and starts writing in the margins, apparently correcting the author.

“I need your help,” she clarifies. “Opening a door.”

His quill doesn’t stop ticking along, his tongue sticking out slightly in concentration. “Never took you for being that helpless.”

She presses her lips together, knowing he will never help merely out of the goodness of his heart. Neither are threats going to work. No, there is only one way to get to a Ravenclaw.

Ginny reaches out, her fingers trailing along the edge of the table. “It’s probably the most heavily-protected door in the Castle.”

His quill hesitates just for a fraction before it resumes, but Ginny doesn’t miss it.

“From what I’ve heard,” she presses on, “it has all sorts of unique enchantments. Some as old as the Castle itself. Older even, perhaps.”

He gnaws his bottom lip as he finishes his annotation. “Sounds dangerous,” he says. “You’re probably better off leaving it be.”

As if danger ever put off a Ravenclaw. “What do you want?”

He finally puts his quill down, giving her his full attention. She tries not to squirm under the sharpness of his gaze. “Honestly? I want to not write another History essay. Normally I’d just keep ignoring them, but even Binns is bound to notice at some point, I’ve turned them in so rarely.”

She doubts he gives a shit about his grades. But detention? Well, they all take those a lot more seriously these days. But apparently not enough to actually do his homework.

There are probably few things Ravenclaws find more painful than writing a rudimentary, unimaginative essay. Ginny can knock out a solid essay in her sleep. All in all, it’s a fair enough exchange. A foot of parchment for an open door. Though Ginny suspects the door is enough of a challenge that he’d probably do it for free. Still, she can afford to build a bit of good will. Goodness knows when she may need another favor.

“Fine.”

“Excellent,” Terry says. “Twelve inches on the ramifications of the Wizengamot reforms of the 1730s. And make sure it’s up to my standards.”

“You mean your standards of not even bothering to turn it in?” Ginny shoots back.

Terry has already turned his attention back to the book, his hand flapping as if to dismiss her. “Get me the essay, and then we’ll talk about your door.”

“What?” Ginny asks. “You don’t trust me?”

“I’m not even justifying that with a response,” he says.  

Smart, those Ravenclaws.

*     *     *

The next morning, Ginny has her first Dark Arts class of the term. She follows in behind Tobias Urquhart at a safe distance. Once inside, the first thing she notices is that the desks are all gone, a tall dais running the length of the classroom. But it’s clear that more than the setup of the room has changed.

Ginny’s eyes fall on Neville where he stands with a small group of Gryffindor students of various ages on the other side of the room.

“Enough essays and books,” Amycus growls as they all assemble. “Time to put you all to the test.”

‘Dueling Lessons,’ they are officially called. Ginny wonders if they think any of them are really stupid enough to believe that. Because now, as she looks around at a room of students spanning all years and houses, she realizes this is something much, much worse than simply shuffling classes around to account for a smaller returning group of students.

“Burke,” Amycus says, giving him a feral smile. “Will you please start us off?”

Tobias obediently stands, wand in hand, twirling it absently between his fingers with a devil-may-care smile he’s long since perfected.

“And…Miss Williams,” Amycus says, the common Muggle last name rolling off his tongue like an insult.

The third-year Gryffindor lifts her head, brow furrowing as she looks over at Tobias.

It’s a ridiculously mismatched pairing. But maybe, Ginny considers, taking in Amycus’ twisted smile, that is exactly the point.

Joanna Williams is part of the DA, so Ginny knows she’s had at least the rudiments of protective magic training. Still, Tobias is easily three years older than her.

Her eyes dart to Ginny as she walks up, eyes wide. Ginny can’t even dare to give her a firm nod. All she can do is hold her gaze steadily. You can do this. You’re going to be okay.

She can only hope they aren’t lies.

They line up at either end of the long platform, wands pulled.

Tobias looks to Amycus. With a nod from the Professor, his wand swipes through the air. Joanna staggers back, barely getting a protective spell up in time.

“One must always be prepared,” Amycus says with a nasty laugh.

With that, Tobias attacks again, Joanna stumbling back under the onslaught, barely deflecting, getting no chance to use offensive spells at all. One of the spells catches her in the arm, the girl spinning to one side and going down in a heap.

She pants on the floor, holding her side and looking near tears.

“Get up,” Tobias goads, voice hard, as if he’s forgotten that a Gryffindor is never so easily cowed.  

Joanna’s jaw tightens, pure spite seeming to get her back to her feet. She lifts her wand.

“Again!” Amycus orders.

The crackle of spells and the acrid smell of spent magics fills the space, students standing around rapt equally with anticipation and horror.

In the end, Tobias easily defeats her, more making her look stupid than causing her any real physical harm, but part of the class still titters with cruel amusement at the girl’s humiliation. Tobias smirks as Amycus slaps him on the shoulder, declaring him the winner.

“Who can tell me where Miss Williams went wrong?” Amycus says.

“She got out of bed this morning,” Urquhart says, not even bothering to whisper.

Amycus laughs, a few other students following suit. “Yes, well, it’s not all her fault.” He stands over her where she still sits on the floor, rubbing at her arm. “Magic isn’t for the weak.”

“He’s three years ahead of me!” Joanna says.

“I didn’t ask for your excuses,” Amycus snaps. “Strength is in the blood.”

Joanna blushes a deep crimson red, though Ginny suspects that is more anger than embarrassment.

“Return to your seat. Or is that beyond you as well?”

Chest heaving, Joanna walks over to pick up her wand before returning to stand near Neville. This time, she doesn’t so much as glance at Ginny.  

Amycus turns to the class with a smile as if this demonstration has proven something. “Who’s next?”

And so he sets out to show just who is in control, and that strength is the new language of power at Hogwarts.

*     *     *

That evening, Ginny makes her way to the Room of Requirement. While there hasn’t been an official call for a DA meeting, she’s unsurprised to find a dozen students already there.

Some students are practicing dueling and disarming, clearly having had their own Dark Arts demonstration. Bassenthwaite and Reiko are working with Nigel and Demelza.

“How’s Joanna?” Ginny asks Neville.

“Angry,” he says. “Embarrassed.”

“Yeah,” Ginny agrees.

“Got at least six new requests to join just the past two days,” he reports.

Ginny glances around the room. There are quite a few new faces, many of them Ravenclaw. She isn’t at all surprised. For all her fellow housemates like to tease Luna, she is theirs. They’ve all taken it as a personal insult.

Seamus and Martin are over in one corner talking something over with Michael Corner and if that isn’t a terrifying combination, she doesn’t know what is.

Hannah joins them. “Hi,” she says to Ginny, reaching out to hug her the way she hadn’t let them on the train.

Ginny pats her awkwardly on the back. “Hi.”

Hannah pulls back, giving her a smile. “Everyone is eager to work on defensive spells.”

“You had your Dark Arts class?” Ginny asks.

Hannah nods, her face grim. “Yesterday afternoon.”

“Clearly we’ll have to step up our training,” Neville says. “We should focus on quick ways to disarm and incapacitate.”

“Yes,” Ginny says. “But I’m not sure that will be enough.”

He looks at her with a frown. “Why not?”

“Because what Amycus is doing isn’t about mastering spells. This is about humiliation. It’s punishment.”

“Meaning we shouldn’t push back?” Neville asks, his voice taking on an edge.

“Meaning simple defiance may only lead to more brutal punishments.”

“So what do you suggest?”

She shakes her head. “I’m not sure. It depends on what’s possible. There could be ways to…mitigate rather than fight back.”

They all pause, looking around as if waiting for someone else to chime in. The empty spot where Luna should be suddenly feels like a physical presence.

Hannah clears her throat. “Maybe it’s time to talk about finding someone to…”

“No,” Neville says.

“Neville,” Hannah says, reaching out to touch his arm.

Neville shakes her off. “We’re not replacing Luna.” He walks away, crossing over to help Nigel with a spell.

Hannah opens her mouth to call him back.

“Let him go,” Ginny says.

Hannah sighs.

Ginny glances over at the wall of photographs of the missing and dead. Someone put a picture of Luna up. Hannah, no doubt. It’s right next to another picture with the simple inscription ‘Muggle family down the road.’

“He isn’t ready,” Ginny says.

And maybe part of her isn’t yet either.

*     *     *

The hallways are even more subdued than usual. Students come out of their Dark Arts classes stunned and anxious. Not to mention that the newly formed Enforcement Squad now roams the halls in packs, looking for any infractions to pounce on. Not that most of the people involved ever needed an excuse.

There’s a booming laugh from the other end of the hallway.

“Hand it over!” Goyle says. “Or would you rather have detention?”

Ginny cranes her neck, taking in the situation in a glance. Goyle and Crabbe are standing over a trembling second-year student.

Chocolate frogs. It’s a stupid thing to risk anything over, but the student still looks utterly defeated as Crabbe shoves the chocolate in his mouth, absently crushing up the trading card and smashing it with his foot. Nearby, Tobias watches on with amusement next to Urquhart.

Ginny walks past the crumpled card. Dumbledore smiles up at her despite the crease across his nose.

That afternoon, she ignores all her homework in favor of writing Terry’s essay. She imagines Binns may find some of her arguments a bit unorthodox. Then again, Binns probably doesn’t have access to the texts she does. Then she remembers that Terry is trying to stay under the radar, not draw attention to himself. So in the end, she writes two versions of the essay; one nice and boring and perfectly acceptable, the other far more interesting and argumentative.

Terry carefully reads both of them when she hands them over that evening.

He regards her for a long moment after reading the second one.

“Well?” she asks.

“This will do,” he says, holding up the boring one. Before she can take back the second essay, it disappears into his pocket.

She looks at him in askance.

He just shrugs. “That one requires further research.”

“Fine,” Ginny says, deciding she doesn’t care enough to actually fight over it.

“So,” Terry says. “You mentioned a door?”

She pushes up from the table. “I’ll meet you by your common room door tonight at midnight.”

For the first time, he looks minorly alarmed. “You aren’t going to give me more to go on than that?”

“No,” Ginny says. If he can’t do it tonight, she can at least get him a look enough so he can return with whatever he needs next time. She can’t risk her intentions getting out.

Ginny waits out the rest of the evening in The Parlor, watching the girls work at their projects. Caroline flips through more of the glossy magazines covered in vacant, beautiful witches, stopping occasionally to ink in on their faces.

Ginny smiles, turning back to the homework assignment she isn’t doing.  

Tilly lets out a curse, the sound of shattering glass filling the space. Nicola touches her arm, talking quietly to her. It’s unsettling to see the normally steady Tilly so on edge. But even Astoria looks drawn.

Ginny pushes to her feet and crosses over to join Tilly and Nicola. Sits with Astoria and asks about any new pieces she’s been working on.

Near midnight, Ginny finally slips out of the common room, narrowly avoiding Filch and Mrs. Norris. Why the bloody Ravenclaws insist on living in the most inconvenient part of the Castle, she will never know.

Slightly out of breath by the time she makes it to the top of the stairs, she gently raps her knuckles against the wooden door.

A soft voice emanates from the wood. If one is neither coming nor going, neither here nor there, where does the future lie?

Ginny blinks. “I don’t know,” she admits.

A fair answer, the voice says, though ignorance is no defense.

She doesn’t get a chance to react to that, the door pushing open and Terry sticking his head out. “Ah, there you are.”

“Yeah,” Ginny says, shaking herself a little and pushing that voice from her mind completely. “Are you ready?”

He nods, falling in after her as they head back down the stairs. She leads him across the Castle, shoving him back in alcoves from time to time. Terry isn’t exactly sneaky, more than once seeming inclined to ask her what she heard rather than just shutting up so they won’t get caught.

By some miracle, they make it all the way to their destination. She turns to look at Terry to take in his reaction.

He doesn’t look put out; more like he was hoping it would be this door, rubbing his hands together in anticipation.

He immediately sits down, opening his small bag and pulling out dozens of books and a smattering of magical tools.

“What?” he asks, catching sight of her expression. “You didn’t really give me much to work with.”

Ginny finds she has to revise her assessment of Terry. She expected him to be heedless, but that flaw is only outdone by his blind focus.

He is so absorbed in the challenge in front of him that she imagines a troll could lumber by and he wouldn’t notice. Ginny shakes her head and does another quiet sweep of the halls below. By the time she gets back from her third check, it’s been almost three hours and Terry is sitting back on his heels scratching notes into a journal, mumbling quietly to himself.

“Anything?” she asks.

He jumps a bit as if he forgot her completely. “What? Oh, yeah. I finished a while ago. I’ve just been playing with some of the wards… I mean, you weren’t kidding. Some of these charms are layered in a way I’d never conceive of, let alone have the bollocks to try—”

Ginny cuts him off, having the feeling that if she lets him get going he will never stop. “I’m sure it’s fascinating.”

She reaches for the handle, pushing slightly. The door opens without protest, both of them freezing for a moment as if expecting a reaction. Ginny shares a glance with Terry, his eyes equally wide, and then eases across the threshold.

Terry nods to himself, writing another note down in his journal.

“Nice work,” Ginny says distractedly. “Now it’s time for you to go.”

He sits back on his heels, still clearly only half paying attention to her. “What, planning on getting caught?”

“Yes,” Ginny says, closing the door firmly behind her. If Terry is half as smart as he claims, he will be long gone already.

Ginny glances around the quiet office at the walls lined with paintings. “’Scuse me, Headmasters.”

The portraits still appear to be slumbering, even as she hears a few scandalized gasps and muttering when her back is turned.

Sitting down in the Headmaster’s chair, she kicks her feet up on the desk and waits.

What cheek! someone mutters.

Ginny pulls an apple out of her pocket and starts to nibble at it. When she glances around the room again, she sees that one of the portraits is empty, no doubt off to tattle on her.

Behind her, the large case where the Sword of Gryffindor once hung now sits empty. Ginny frowns at it a long moment before swinging back around to focus on the door.

It isn’t long before it pushes open, Snape appearing in a swirl of dark robes. “Miss Weasley,” he says, eyes narrowing.

She vanishes the apple core with a flick of her fingers and a silent charm.

“What are you doing in here?”

She braces her hands on the desk and calmly meets his gaze. “I suppose this means more detention.”

He regards her for long moments, and Ginny instinctively checks that her defenses are still firmly in place. Still, he isn’t stupid, and she would really only be here for one reason.

He gives her a stiff nod. “We will begin Saturday at eight.”

“Yes, sir,” she says, getting to her feet.

She’s willing to do this on his terms, just so long as next time she isn’t so woefully unprepared.

*     *     *

The brutality of the Dark Arts classroom is spilling over into the hallways. It’s not particularly surprising, and Ginny wonders if this is part of the intent. Keep them fighting amongst themselves and not questioning what is happening.

She’s just not sure she wants to give the Carrows that much credit.

There’s a buzz of energy building in the DA that feels a lot like a powerful spell reaching critical mass. Complaining about what’s happening will only appease them for so long. There are already dozens of pranks in the works. Ginny tries to stay on top of them, to nudge them in the most reasonable directions, but there’s really only so much she can do. Neville only seems to encourage them. Hannah can stare most people down, but can’t quite see all the pitfalls until they’ve all plummeted down into them. And Ginny can’t be everywhere at all times.

She decides it’s probably time to give them all something else to focus on for a while.

“I have something that might interest you,” Ginny says, uncovering the wireless from Fred and George. “My brothers wanted the DA to have this.”

They look unimpressed.

“Unless that thing will force the Carrows to spontaneously dance as long as the music plays, I’m not particularly interested,” Demelza says.

But other students who knew her brothers better are sitting back looking slightly wary.

Checking her watch, Ginny tunes the radio and says, “Dumbledore.”

Welcome to Potterwatch!

Everyone leans in with interest.

Ginny moves to stand next to Neville and Hannah.

For once, the entire room is silent except for the echoing voices of her brothers and Lee Jordan as they update them about what’s really happening out in the world. It isn’t long, only twenty minutes, but it gives them all hope, this idea that they aren’t completely alone. That other people are fighting back any way they can.

Everyone jumps to their feet when it’s done, moving from group to group discussing what they heard.

Ginny takes a breath. “She isn’t coming back, Neville.”

He looks at her, brow furrowed.

“Luna,” she clarifies.

His entire body stiffens. “You can’t know that.”

“Yeah,” she says. “I can. And the fact is, we need more help.”

“Neville,” Hannah says, voice soft. She touches his arm. “Ginny is right.”

He looks at her, face full of pain. “Hannah—”

She gives him a sympathetic smile, her own eyes a bit teary. “This only works with four of us.”

Neville’s jaw sets.

“We will get her back,” Hannah says, voice fierce. “We will.”  

Ginny isn’t so certain, but she leaves hope to Hannah.

“But until then…”

“Fine. You two decide,” he says, like he can’t stomach the idea of doing it himself. He paces off to help some younger students with their spell work.

Hannah sighs, but really that was probably the best they could hope for. “Terry?”

Ginny nods. “If you’re okay with that.”

“I trust your judgment,” she says.

Together they walk over to where Terry is frowning over a bit of parchment.

“Hey,” Ginny says.  

He glances up at her, the furrow in his brow only deepening. “What were your sources?”

“Sorry?”

He holds up what she now recognizes as her second essay. “What sources did you use for this?”

He hasn’t asked her a single question about what she was doing in the Headmaster’s office, or what happened afterwards. But her essay, that somehow is worth all his considerable focus.

“Well,” she says, giving him a mysterious smile. “Not from the library.”

He lets out a frustrated curse.

“Come on,” Ginny says. “We want to talk to you about something.”

He frowns, looking past her towards Hannah.

They sit in a few chairs arranged in the corner.

“Dark arts lessons,” she says.

Terry winces. “Yeah. They’re a problem.”

Apparently he hasn’t been quite so myopic not to notice that, at least. “Is there a way to defend ourselves without actually fighting back?”

“It’s possible,” he says. His head tilts to the side. “You’re hoping to minimize damage?”

“Yes,” Ginny says. “But in a way that doesn’t provoke the Carrows, ideally.”

His eyebrows lift. “Bit of a tall order.”

“Yes, well, I know how you like a challenge.”

“I’ll have a look into it.” He slides her a glance. “Though it may cost you a few more history essays.”

“Actually,” Ginny says, sharing a look with Hannah. “There’s one more thing…”

*     *     *

Snape paces smoothly from one side of the small room to the other.

A cauldron bubbles in the corner, green mist languidly rising from the surface, curling through the space. Ginny can no longer smell it from behind the charm protecting her face, but still remembers the sickly sweetness of it from when she first entered, the woozy calm that softened her spine. She was a bit sorry to feel the effects dissipate.

A young girl, a Hufflepuff this time, sits in a chair, eyes glassy, body swaying slightly as she stares at nothing.

“Legilimency,” Snape says, voice smooth and almost reverent, “is far from a simple incantation. It is not a string of words spoken and a wand waved. It is an invasion, an infiltration of scrupulous precision. It must be planned and executed flawlessly from beginning to end.”

He stops, turning to regard her.

“Some only wish to extract, happy to let the subject know they are doing it. Wanting them to know. It can be clumsy and brutish. But there are also ways to slip in with barely a ripple, to search without them being any wiser. There are times and places for each of these methods.”

Ginny considers the particulars of those situations. Intimidation or subterfuge.

“But most important to understand is that you can lose yourself in the mind of another. You must always hold fast to your boundaries, know where you end and they begin.”

Ginny doesn’t even know the girl’s name.

“A skill like this requires a certain level of detachment. Both from the person you are invading as well as their concerns. You can’t care about them. You can’t identify with them. You must always see them as nothing more than a means to an end. An object. A thing. To do anything less is to risk losing yourself.”

In other words, she must learn to be cruel. But perhaps she has always been cruel, in her own way.

“I understand,” she says.

“No,” Snape counters. “You can’t possibly. But you will.”

Ginny swallows back any misgivings, any weaknesses. She nods.

“You must not, at any time, use this skill outside the controlled situation of our lessons. You are not yet ready. To do so would not simply be to risk being caught, but to risk your mind.”

He turns to the girl, gesturing for Ginny to take the seat in front of her.

Ginny lowers herself into the chair. It takes a moment to build the nerve to lift her eyes from the slightly worn edge of the girl’s black patent leathers.

The girl’s brown eyes meet Ginny’s, empty of curiosity or recognition.

“She will not remember any of this,” Snape says.

“But I will,” Ginny says.

“Yes,” he says. “Once you take, it will always be yours.”

It’s telling, she thinks, that Snape isn’t letting her practice on him, only the unwilling minds of students. His own protection perhaps, but more likely a test. How far is she willing to take this?

She lifts her wand.

As far as she needs to.

*     *     *

Ginny wakes with a start, the feel of damp stone under her fingers and a smug voice ghosting her ears.

Strange likeness.

She digs her fingers into the soft warmth of her covers to dispel the feeling, taking deep breaths, trying to settle her frantically beating heart.

Just a dream, she tells herself.

In the Great Hall, there’s a bark of laughter as she enters. At the Slytherin table, Tobias sits with Urquhart and Blaise, relaxed and indifferent as if he belongs. Ginny watches him and wonders if they are all destined to this, if it’s unavoidable. If the only way to fight what you hate is to become it.

Tobias glances around the room with an air of boredom, his gaze falling across her.

She looks away, taking a seat at the other end of the table.

Soon enough Martin claims the seat next to Ginny, pulling plates towards himself with almost indecent glee.

Once his plate is thoroughly laden, he leans his head towards her. “I think you’ll want to go down the Dark Arts corridor this morning.”

She looks up at him warily. “I want to go down it? Or I want to avoid it?”

He gives her a wide grin that raises the hair on the back of her neck. “Oh, you’ll definitely want to go down it.”

He glances across the room, and against the far wall Michael Corner and Seamus have their heads lowered together. Seamus looks nearly…giddy.

“Martin,” she says, warning clear in her voice.

He huffs under his breath, talking around a mouthful of sausage. “No talkin’ us out of it now.”

Sure enough, as Ginny leaves Charms later that morning, the halls are buzzing, students heading en masse towards the Dark Art corridor. Ginny lets herself get swept along.

The tattle box in front of the Dark Arts classroom is rattling and rumbling ominously, pieces of paper littering the hallway floor.

Ginny frowns, looking around, and the box lets off an inhuman groan, and with a large belch, starts puffing out slips of paper, a dozen or so at a time.

She looks down at her feet, and the slips of paper have words on them.

I confess that the Carrows are twats.

I cheated on my last Astronomy test.

I confess that Harry Potter is rather fit.

I confess that I ditched class to have a wank!

I have a mad crush on Hooch!

Within the hour every student has heard about it, and the Carrows have removed the box and sent ten different students to detention, most of them in no way connected to the prank. Not that it matters. The Carrows are trying to show decisive action and strength, but Ginny is sure the students only see desperation.

Every day after that, a different box is affected until every single one has been disabled and removed. A victory, but one with a cost Ginny is sure they haven’t discovered yet.

Only even after the boxes are all gone, confessions continue to appear all over the walls of the Castle. None of them, Ginny can tell, part of the original prank.

The students of Hogwarts have been given a voice, and they latch onto it with painful intensity.

I’ve never met a Muggle. But I don’t want them to die.

I heard someone call someone a mudblood and I didn’t say anything. I was scared.

I considered killing myself rather than coming back here.

This isn’t the life I wanted.

Ginny reads them out of the corner of her eye, but always keep walking straight ahead.

*     *     *

Two little girls sit on a blanket in a wooded backyard. Ginny watches them as they pour imaginary tea, stuffed creatures splayed out around them.

The older girl lifts a cup, little pinky finger crooked just so.

Ginny smiles, remembering her own mother taking the time to do this with her, despite the pressures of older brothers and chores and responsibilities. Her own memory, fuzzy and welcome, rises up.

Can I pour for you, Princess Ginevra?

The pain in Ginny’s head is immediate, like a sharp knife in her skull. For a moment everything blurs, like a strange double vision. She stumbles, reaching out for something to hold her up, her hand brushing against the white picket fence circling the garden.

Her vision blissfully settles, the scenes overlapping and blending perfectly.

Ginny sighs, her body relaxing.

Her sister smiles at her, taking her hand. “Come on!”

Ginny lets herself be tugged along, the teapot knocking over on its side.

“Miss Weasley!” a distant voice calls.

She glances back over her shoulder, confused.

The hand tightens around hers, the tang of pine in her nose and leaves crunching under foot. “Slowcoach!”

“Sibby!” she laughs, letting herself be pulled along.

The entire world seems to tip, and she loses her center of gravity, tumbling towards the grass. Her chair abruptly straightens, legs slamming down into the hard stone, jarring her to her bones.

There’s a man. He’s saying someone’s name. But she’s… Her eyes settle, focus, and across from her in another chair is…

Is that me?

The man drags her up out of her chair, back away from the girl. Away from herself. She protests, reaching for her, but his grip is relentless.

Once outside—no forest, no trees, just unrelenting stone and the painful spitting glare of torches—he pushes her up against a wall.

“Do you think this is a game?” he snarls.

She blinks up at him in confusion, pain splitting her skull, nausea rolling in her stomach.

There was a cat. A sleek calico. They called it Ladyship for the way she strutted around. One time she tied a daisy chain around her neck and nearly lost an eye for the insult.

Didn’t she?

She squeezes her eyes shut. “Was that me?” she mumbles.

Her sister nearly cried she laughed so hard.

The man is still railing at her, the words bouncing off her skin, only adding to the cacophony of confusion.

You must hold yourself apart!

Is this her?

She can barely stand, let alone move away from his rage, helpless to do anything other than let it wash over her.

His face is close to hers, fingers digging in painfully on her arms, but she’s strangely grateful for it, because she knows, knows absolutely that this pain is hers. Her thought. Her feeling. She grabs it with both hands like a landline, everything seeming to sharpen, rip painfully back apart.

“To care is to be weak!” Snape is spitting at her. “It is to be trapped. You cannot allow this or you will lose yourself utterly!”

She looks up at him, and in all her years at Hogwarts, she can’t remember him ever looking this angry before. She knows this too. Ginny knows this.

He shakes her, her head falling back against the wall. “Do you understand?” he bites out.

“Severus!”

Snape jerks, his head turning towards the voice. It takes Ginny a moment longer to follow, her head rolling to the side against the stone. McGonagall is standing in the hall watching them with open-mouthed astonishment.

“Release her,” she says. Her wand is in hand, half lifted.

Snape straightens, his rage sliding back under a smooth façade. “This does not concern you, Minerva.”

Nonetheless, he does back away from her, and Ginny struggles not to slide down the wall. Her brain is still a whirlwind of settling memories, her body soft and fuzzy. It’s so damn hard to focus, no matter how important she knows it is.

“Miss Weasley,” McGonagall calls in alarm as Ginny starts to list.

Snape presses a hand to her shoulder, turning his back on McGonagall. Reaching into his robe, he pulls out a flask. “Take a small draught,” he murmurs.

Her nose wrinkles at the vinegary smell coming off the liquid, but doesn’t hesitate to do as he tells her. It seems to burn down her esophagus, settling deep in her stomach before bursting out through her limbs. She gasps, but quickly begins to feel more focused.

She breathes deeply through her nose. When she can, she straightens up, giving him a nod.

He watches her for another long moment.

“I know who I am,” she whispers, the foreign memories still drifting about. But she can taste it now, the way they aren’t hers.

Snape backs away, and she manages to keep her feet. “Review chapter thirteen and write twenty inches detailing exactly where you went wrong by tomorrow night at eight,” he says, voice low so as not to travel.

“Yes, sir,” she says.

He takes another step back, his chin lifting as he stares imperiously down at her, every emotion tightly subsumed as if they never existed. “You may return to your dorm,” he orders.

“Yes, sir,” she says, walking carefully past him, doing her best not to betray any weakness.

McGonagall watches her closely, concern on her face. For a moment, it looks like she may reach for Ginny, ask her something, but Ginny doesn’t need that. Doesn’t want that. Not for either of them.

So instead, she lifts her chin and gives her a cool look. “Professor.”

McGonagall’s eyes narrow.

Ginny keeps walking.

*     *     *

Ginny wakes the next morning feeling like she has a hangover. She hasn’t felt this terrible since her first Quidditch victory when she woke up with a tattoo. Only this time there is no Smita with a goblet waiting for her.

Bridget, Helena, and Nadira are bustling about, going through their morning routines. None of them bother to check on her.

She skives off Charms, knowing Flitwick probably won’t report her. As much as she would love to use that time just to laze about, she forces herself to pull the thick tome out from under her bed.

Occlumency and Legilimency: An Exhausting Primer

She rereads the thirteenth chapter, but she already knows what it says. Logically, she knows exactly where she went wrong. She also understands just how close she came to disaster. If Snape hadn’t intervened she could have died. Or been as good as dead. A body without a mind. A body with someone else’s mind.

She writes out the essay, ruthlessly detailing each and every error despite the burn of shame. She needs to focus on solutions despite the cost to her ego.

The rudiments of building up boundaries is something she already has experience with. She used something similar in her Occlumency training. But this is different; not about compartmentalizing your thoughts, memories, and self, but rather protecting them from foreign invasions.

According to the literature, she has to see it that way, as something alien. Like a germ waiting to infect her.

What she needs is a wall. Thick defenses built up around her that no one will ever be able to breech.

She needs to be invulnerable.

She drags herself to Potions in the afternoon. Slughorn is subdued as he has been all year. He’s long since stopped with the Slug Club, and she isn’t sure if that is somehow meant to protect the students or if he’s just lost the taste for frivolity.

Just another way everything is wrong.

She whiles away the early evening in The Parlor, half-listening to the bustle of the girls. Her fingers play with the key at her neck, her eyes falling across the library door from time to time.

At eight, she meets Snape in the dungeons, handing him her essay. He doesn’t read it, instead looking her over.

“I hope, by now, you realize how close you came to destroying your mind last night.” He says this as if he doesn’t care either way, but she still has bruises on her arms from where he grabbed her.

“I do,” she says.

“Then let us try again.” He gestures towards the door.

She must visibly balk, honestly not expecting to have to try again so soon.

“You’re afraid.”

She lifts her chin. “It would be a bit stupid not to be, wouldn’t it?”

He nods in approval. “Good. Fear will keep you alive.”

*     *     *

“Did you forget your homework again, Miss Weasley?” McGonagall asks from the front of the classroom.

Ginny lifts her head with a jerk, her mouth already opens to protest because she definitely turned it in, but something in McGonagall’s expression makes her pause.

“I’m sorry, Professor,” she says instead.

McGonagall shakes her head with prim disapproval. “See me after class.”

Ginny doesn’t argue.

At the end of the lesson, Ginny waits until everyone has packed up and left before approaching McGonagall’s desk. She’s fairly sure she knows what this is going to be about, even without having spent the last hour thinking about it.

McGonagall doesn’t dither, going straight to it. “What are you doing with Professor Snape?”

“Serving detention?” Ginny says as though it’s obvious.

But this clearly is not the right tactic, McGonagall’s eyes narrowing. “Despite what you make think, Miss Weasley, I am not an idiot.”

Ginny would never be stupid enough to make that mistake. “No, ma’am.”

Her expression seems to soften. “If the Headmaster is…inconveniencing you in any way, I hope you feel you can tell me.”

“Inconveniencing me?” Ginny asks, wanting to laugh if the situation weren’t so serious.

“Yes.”

Ginny honestly isn’t sure what McGonagall thinks is happening. If he’s using strange punishments on her. Or what she really means by ‘inconveniencing’. She imagines Snape would say that any strange imaginings McGonagall is dreaming up are still safer than the truth.

But maybe for once the truth is exactly what she needs.

Ginny tilts her head to the side. “Would it matter if he was?”

McGonagall’s chin lifts. “Miss Weasley…” she says, clearly hoping to intimidate her into compliance.

“Yes?” Ginny says.

“You’re a child.”

“Despite what you may think, Professor, I’m not an idiot either. We don’t get to be children anymore. So let’s not pretend that hiding in my bed with a pillow over my head is going to keep me safe.”

“But he will?”

Ginny straightens, immediately realizing her misstep. “That’s not…”  

McGonagall sees her falter, pressing unerringly in on the weak spot. “Let us also not pretend that he is anything less than a murderer.”

“I know,” Ginny says. “I know what he is.”

“Do you truly?” McGonagall questions.

They warily regard each other, the silence stretching long.

Ginny finds herself watching McGonagall in a way she’s rarely had a chance to. Sitting at her desk, surrounded by an empty classroom. She never thought to consider the elderly force of nature that was Professor McGonagall as vulnerable.

“I know what you risk, being here. What you’re trying to do. We all do.”

For all McGonagall tries to keep her face neutral, Ginny can see it. How much all the students mean to her.

“It means a lot,” Ginny says. “It just… It isn’t enough anymore.”

The pain that creases McGonagall’s face is almost too much to look at straight on.

Ginny takes a step towards her, leaning on the edge of the desk, because for some reason she needs her to understand, no matter how stupid and reckless it is. “I just…I have to do what I can to keep as many of them safe as possible.”

They’re on the same side. Can’t she see that?

After a long moment, McGonagall nods. “But at what cost?”

Ginny gives her sad smile. “That’s the difference between Gryffindor and Slytherin, Professor. We always know the cost.”

McGonagall doesn’t have a ready response to that.

“May I go?” Ginny asks.

McGonagall inclines her head but still manages to communicate that she is far from pleased with the outcome of their conversation.

She walks out.

*     *     *

Ginny stands in the midst of a maelstrom. It looks like an entire library of books has exploded.

Pages fly in every direction. Upwards, sideways. She reaches out for one, stretching up on her tiptoes, her fingers brushing the crisp edge only to tumble forward into it.

The ground rushes up to meet her, gravel hard under her skin. She wails, fire on her knee, tears streaming unheeded down her face. “Mummy!”

Warm comfort sweeps closer, soft flesh and cloth smelling of plum and earth and safety. “Hush, love. Just a scratch.”

Mummy’s wand flicks with easy elegance, the pain fading as the skin knits itself back together.

“Shall we try again?” she asks, smile on her face.

Ginny forces herself to step back out of the memory, to watch it from afar.

Not me, not me.

Merlin, it hurts, like wrenching herself in half, ripping away the aching yearning to crawl into the moment and never leave, cleave to the scents and comforts that are not her own.

“Miss Weasley,” intrudes a voice. “Focus.”

Her hand tightens around her wand, the spell spilling from her lips again, shoring up her walls.

Everything changes.

Loud voices. The crunch of ice. A wailing child. Why did he ever have to show up? Wasn’t I enough?

Smoke. Laughter. Grit of sand under her toes and the screech of a gull overhead.

“Do you mind?”

The room rights itself as she looks up to see Eliza sitting on the edge of her bed, robes and tie discarded.

“No, of course not,” Ginny says, taking the brush from her outstretched hand.

Eliza sits in front of her, her long brown hair spread out behind her. Ginny gently works the brush through the tangle, the smell of shampoo wafting upwards. Sweet. Floral.

She’s so beautiful.

The unspoken thought settles like shards in her throat. She can’t keep herself from brushing the back of her fingers down the side of Eliza’s neck. She feels a strange warmth pool in her stomach at the feel of her smooth skin.

“What are you doing?” Eliza says, pulling back away when the touch lingers just a bit too long.

She snatches her hand back, the brush clattering to the ground. “I’m sorry. I was just—”

But it is already there, the wariness in those beautiful eyes.

“You are so weird,” Eliza says, getting to her feet and walking away.

Ginny surges to her feet, blinking against the abrupt change in scenery. The dungeon room is quiet and still, the green mist collecting in the corners.

She looks down at the girl, feels empathy and regret crawling across her skin. What has she taken?

Snape is speaking to her, voice harsh. “If you cannot conquer this, you will never learn this skill. She is a thing, not a person. A means.”

Ginny looks into the girl’s eyes. Why me? Why do I have to be this way?

“I don’t know how,” she says.

“I think you do,” Snape says. “You are being weak.”

But at what cost?

Ginny’s fingers are trembling.

“Get out,” he says. “Come back ready to take this training seriously, or we will find other ways to punish you for your transgression.”

She doesn’t move, still staring down at the girl.

“Get out!”

She flees.

*     *     *

“Are you all right?”

Ginny looks up from her uneaten lunch to find Reiko regarding her. “I’m sorry?”

Reiko frowns. “You look terrible.”

Ginny gives her a wan smile. “Why, thank you.”

“Wasn’t meant as a compliment.”

Ginny rolls her eyes, turning away only to look straight into the face of Eliza at the next table.

For a moment the yearning is nearly overwhelming, her heart pounding away with an emotion that isn’t her own.

“Ginny?” Reiko says.

“Nothing,” Ginny says, pushing to her feet. “Nothing.”

Abandoning her meal, Ginny flees the hall, leaning back against a wall outside. She can’t breathe.

Merlin, she can’t breathe.

“Stop it, Ginny,” she says, feeling light-headed as her chest swells in painful gulps. “Stop it.”

She pinches her thigh hard, fingernails digging in with bright, sharp clarity. Her thoughts, her feelings. Her own.

“You are you,” she whispers. “You are you.”

Whether she wants to be or not.

She used to wonder why Snape didn’t just take what he wants from students. Why he doesn’t just use this skill to out the DA. But she understands now. To take is to keep.

She forces herself to push off the wall, to go somewhere that isn’t here. That isn’t so exposed.

Tobias comes around the corner at a fast clip, nearly careening into her. He grabs for her arms, helping her keep her feet.

For a moment she almost forgets, almost leans into him. Almost says, God, what have I done? What am I doing?

The door from the hall slams open behind them.

Tobias pushes her way. “Watch where you’re bloody going.”

Ginny stumbles back against the nearest wall, looking up to see Blaise and Pansy watching them.

“What’s going on?” Pansy asked, eyes narrowed.

Tobias shakes his head, brushing off his clothes. “She came running out of the hall like a madwoman and smacked right into me.”

They all turn to regard Ginny with varying levels of distaste.

“You going to swoon, Weasley?” Blaise drawls. “Looks ill, doesn’t she?”

Pansy snickers.

“Doesn’t look all that different to me, to be honest,” Tobias says dismissively, turning his back on her.

“You should wash your hands, Tobias,” Pansy says as they walk away.

He laughs. “What she has isn’t catching. It’s all in the blood.”

Ginny shoves her hands into her pockets and ducks into the nearest classroom, her heart pounding away in her chest.

*    *    *

Ginny walks down the hallway at a fast clip, scanning the passing students as she goes, trying her best not to look like she is desperately looking for something. Near the Potions classroom, she finally sees the blonde head she is looking for, changing her direction.

Striding up to Nicola, Ginny takes her arm.

Other than looking up at her in surprise, Nicola doesn’t resist, dutifully following after Ginny as she guides her down an adjacent hallway.

“Ginny?” she asks.

“Your brother,” Ginny says, her heart pounding away in her chest.

“Dougal?” Nicola says, clearly surprised by this unprecedented interest in her younger brother.

“Yes,” Ginny says, not particularly caring about the boy’s name at the moment. “Do you know where he is?”

Nicola frowns. “Um. I think he was in the common room?”

Ginny’s fingers tighten on her arm. “You think? Or you know?” They don’t have time for guesses.

“I know,” she says, eyes widening. “He was. I’m sure of it.”

“Okay,” Ginny says, forcing herself to loosen her grip. “Listen to me carefully. I need you to get him as quickly and quietly as possible, and meet me by the sticking step. Don’t stop to talk to anyone, no matter what. And if you see the Carrows, go down the into The Parlor and don’t come back out until I come get you.”

The color seems to drain from Nicola’s face. “Is it my father?”

“Nicola,” Ginny says, voice sharp. “Can you do this?”

She seems to pull herself together, nodding and taking a deep breath. “Yes. Of course.”

“Go,” Ginny says, giving her a little push. “Quickly.”

She only takes a few steps before looking back at Ginny, almost as if looking for reassurance.

“Do not be seen.”  

She nods, and disappears around the corner.

Ginny takes a few breaths, organizing and moving all the pieces in her mind, making sure she hasn’t missed any pitfalls. Then she sets back off into the halls.

*     *     *

Ginny forces herself not to pace as she waits by the steps. Nicola should have been here already.

Maybe she should have gone after Dougal herself. She just thought it might be far less obvious for Nicola to do it. But perhaps that was a stupid risk.

She’s about to head back towards the common room when Nicola appears, her brother trailing behind her.

Ginny nods, letting out a breath. There’s no time for pleasantries. “This way.”

“What—” the boy starts to say, but Nicola hushes him.

They only have to go over a few corridors, and by some great alignment of luck, they manage not to see a single person.

Hannah is waiting for them. She looks at Ginny in question, and she nods.

Hannah looks at Nicola and Dougal. “Hi,” she says, giving them a smile. “The DA meets in the Room of Requirement. The entrance is on the seventh floor across from the tapestry of Barnabas the Barmy.”

“What?” Dougal asks, taking a step back.

Nicola is the one to look up, her eyes widening as she notices the door in the wall in front of them.

“Quickly,” Ginny says. “Inside.”

“Come on,” Hannah says, stepping closer to Dougal. “It’s quite safe.”

He looks up at her with wide eyes, but lets himself get shepherded inside.

“Stay here with Hannah and Neville. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

She leaves without another word, walking as fast as she dares across the Castle.

Walking calmly into the common room, she gives a cool gaze to the students sitting in various small groups. None of them pay her any attention.

She sits by the fire, pulling out a book.

It’s less than fifteen minutes before the Carrows storm in. Alecto scans the space while Amycus disappears down into the dorms.

“Where are the Blishwick brats?” she asks.

The students all look around.

“Their stuff is still here,” Amycus reports, coming back up from the dorms.

Alecto stamps her foot, her wand gripped dangerously in her hand. “Where the bloody hell are they?”

Most of the students are carefully edging away from her, not wanting to be in her line of sight if she’s losing her tenuous temper.

Alecto’s eyes stray across Ginny, eyes narrowing.

“The older one,” Tobias says, jumping in to help like the good little boot licker he’s become. “She came and got the younger one. Just about a half hour ago.”

“Where’d they go?” Amycus demands.

Tobias frowns. “I’m not sure, sir. I think they left. I mean, they must have.”

Alecto shoves a student to the ground. Rather than be startled by the rough treatment, she just scrambles quickly out of the way.

“They can’t have gone far,” Amycus says.

As the Carrows round up members of the enforcement squad to search the Castle, Tobias included, Ginny gets up and leaves, never once looking at him.

*     *     *

That evening, Ginny brings food to Nicola and her brother.

She still feels the fading adrenaline. Other students have disappeared, the official line being that they had to return home as they were ill. Not that anyone ever believed that.

She was lucky—they were all lucky—that Ginny heard about it first.

Her brother pops up to his feet when Ginny walks in. “What’s happening?”

Ginny ignores his belligerent tone, setting the tray down.

“Sit,” she says.

He looks at the food like she’s out of her mind.

Ginny sits down across from Nicola, content to wait.

He sits down with a thump.

“No one seems to know where your mother is,” Ginny says. “But the Dark Lord wants something from your father and he was prepared to use you two to get it.”

The siblings share a look, and Ginny can see this is not a surprise to either of them.

“And our sister?” Nicola asks.

Ginny remembers the girl at the train station. “I’m sorry,” she says, shaking her head. “I don’t know. I can try to find out.”

Nicola’s jaw tightens. “Thank you.”

“You understand that it won’t be safe for you to go back into the castle now.”  

“So, what?” her brother asks, voice hard, but not quite managing to hide his fear. “You keep us locked up in here instead?”

Nicola puts a hand on her brother’s arm, comforting but firm. “You will watch your tone,” she says.

Ginny waits as they regard each other, Nicola’s brother eventually conceding, leaning back in his chair with a nod. “I’m sorry,” he mumbles in Ginny’s direction.

Ginny curtly nods her head. “I can find a way to get you out of the castle, if that’s what you want.”

“And where would we go?” Nicola says.

“Nicola…” her brother protests.

“Now isn’t the time for pride,” she says. “We can’t trust our family members to take us in. Can’t trust them not to turn us over to the Dark Lord for their own benefit.”

He looks a bit thrown by that rather ruthless assessment, but he’s only twelve, Ginny reminds herself, so it’s doubtful he has a full understanding of what is going on around him.

Students with nowhere to go have always been an inevitability.

“If you choose, you can stay here. You’ll be safe. And it can at least give you time to figure out what to do next.”

“You don’t have to decide right now.” She gestures at the food. “Eat. Talk it over.”

Her brother rather petulantly pulls the plate towards himself. Ginny gets up and heads for where Hannah, Neville, and Terry are waiting.

Nicola follows after her, putting a hand on her arm. “Thank you. I know you put yourself in a lot danger to help us.”

“Nicola,” she says, voice chastising. “All this time, did you think The Parlor was just a social club?”

Nicola blinks. “I…suppose I did.”

“Well, that was a bit stupid of you.”

She laughs, the sound a little shaky.

Ginny touches her arm. “Eat.”

She nods, sitting back down by her brother.

“Did you notice that?” Terry says, pointing towards a new annex with two hammocks strung up between pillars.

Ginny breathes out, not quite sure what they did to deserve this space, just endlessly thankful that they have it.

Hannah frowns. “We’ll still have to find a way to get food in here.”

“Yeah,” Ginny agrees. She can only sneak food out of the hall so many times without raising suspicion.

Neville is looking at the back wall, his brow furrowed. “Has that always been there?”

Hanging on the wall is a portrait of a young, somewhat vacant looking girl. She smiles down at them.

*     *     *

Everyone looks up as Ginny walks into The Parlor, Tilly pushing to her feet.

Ginny lifts a hand to stave off their questions. “Nicola is fine.”

“Oh, thank Merlin,” Hestia says, reaching out and squeezing Flora’s hand.

Ginny sits, letting out a long breath. “But it was a very near thing.”

“Does she need anything?” Tilly asks. “I mean, is there anything we can do?”

“Tilly,” Ginny says in warning.

But she is undeterred, sitting down next to Ginny, body turned towards her and hands punctuating the air. “Where is she? Why did they want her?”

Ginny reaches over and touches her arm, fingers firmly pressing in. “I will take care of it. Do you understand me? I promise I will take care of her.” She looks around the room. “The same way I will keep all of you safe.”

Tilly sucks in a few breaths, finally nodding her head before flopping back against the cushions. She drags her hands over her face. “Yeah, okay.”

The less they all know, the safer they’ll be.

*     *     *

Ginny slides into Muggles Studies very nearly late, having stopped by to see how Nicola was doing first. The cavernous room is already nearly full, but fortunately Alecto is still absent.

Terry gives her a smile as she sits next to him, one that makes the hairs on the back of her neck go up. “Good timing.”

“What?” she asks.

“Not a day you want to miss,” he says.

“What did you do?” she hisses.

His smile only widens. “Just wait and see.”

Ginny tries to covertly glance around the room, but nothing seems that obviously different. Just rows and rows of half-asleep students.

Alecto sweeps in. “Shut it,” she snaps, even though not many students were speaking anyway.

They all know the drill by now.

Her eyes wander the space, finally landing on a student. “Mr. Vaisey.”

His head lifts. “Yes, Professor?”

“Read from page 68.”

The room fills with the sound of shuffling pages. But Ginny is still watching Vaisey, who is staring down at his open book with wide eyes.

Alecto turns at him, brow furrowing. “I said read.”

“But, Professor—” he sputters, clearly reluctant.

Next to her, Terry gives out a very unsubtle snort. Ginny glances at him, finding his eyes gleaming.  

Alecto pulls her wand. “READ!”

Vaisey sucks in a breath, dragging his book closer. “Clara Winters. Schoolteacher. Mother of three. M-m-murdered for the crime of being born a Muggle.”

Every student is now alert, heads lifted.

Alecto doesn’t immediately react, as if she’s trying to figure out what is happening. “You think that’s funny?”

“I’m just reading what it says!” he cries out.

Ginny looks down at her own text, sucking in a breath as she does. Clara Winters smiles up at her. She flips the page again and again, vaguely hearing the sounds of other students doing the same. The book is filled with picture after picture of frozen, smiling Muggle faces of various ages. Some are whole families.

Beneath each is a simple sentence. Tortured for the crime of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Killed for looking a wizard in the eye.

Disappeared for the crime of existing.

Alecto snatches up Vaisey’s text.

“What’d you do to it?” she snarls, her face blooming red.

Vaisey is smart enough to clamber out of reach. “Nothing, I swear!”

“Professor,” Tobias says, holding his book out her. “Mine’s like that too.”

Alecto grabs a book from the next table and then another and another, flinging them to the ground, knocking students out of her way.

“Finite Incantatum,” she yells, jabbing her wand at them. “FINITE INCANTATUM!”

The murdered and missing Muggles continue to smile up from the pages, faces fixed and unmoving.

“Get out, get out, get out!” Alecto screams, hair wild about her face.

The students scramble to safety.

*     *     *

Merlin, I wish I’d been there,” Seamus complains.

“She actually threw a desk,” a third-year Ravenclaw reports, eyes wide.

“It was amazing,” Demelza says, eyes closed rapturously.

Ginny looks at Terry. “How did you do it?”

He shrugs. “Got the idea from Hermione and those DA coins. Just took a few weeks to magically link all the classroom texts. Then it’s just a matter of a good Protean charm. She won’t be able to use the books again.”

The students break into noisy approval, slapping Terry on the back and reliving the event over and over again.

It isn’t the prank that alarms Ginny so much as the fact that she hadn’t heard anything about it even being planned. That being said, it’s a huge move, a giant slap in the face of the Carrows for which there will definitely be repercussions.

It doesn’t take long for them to appear.

Two days later, Dark Arts class progresses as usual for most of the class, Amycus having Tobias and Urquhart ‘demonstrate’ on younger students.

Nigel lands on the platform with a loud thump, Tobias stowing his wand.

“One more thing,” Amycus says before Tobias can hop back down.

He stops, waiting for his next instructions.

“I’ve left a few holes in your instruction. Probably about time to fix that.”

“Yes, sir?” Tobias says.

“Have you ever performed the Cruciatus curse?” Amycus asks.

There’s a general swell of sound in the room as people gasp.

“It’s an important spell for any wizard’s arsenal,” Amycus continues with a feral grin on his face. “Especially for those that just won’t listen.” He looks over at Neville. “Or those who forget their place.”

Oh, Merlin, Ginny thinks.

“Remember, boy,” Amycus says to Tobias, “you have to mean it.”

Everyone seems to be watching Tobias, wondering if he’ll do it. Nigel just looks up at him, eyes wide with terror.

Tobias slowly lifts his wand, his face impassive.

Ginny feels pressure in her chest as his wand falters, his arm trembling. She leans forward. Will he—?

Tobias sucks in a deep breath, his face hardening. He barks out the spell.

Nigel lets out a scream, flipping onto his back. Mercifully it doesn’t last long.

Amycus claps Tobias on the shoulder. “We’ll work on it.”

“Yes, sir,” Tobias says, voice just the tiniest bit shaky under his bluster. “I look forward to it.”

Nearby, Urquhart looks like he actually is looking forward to his turn.

“That’ll be enough for today, I think,” Amycus decides, looking like he’s won.

Ginny isn’t sure he hasn’t.

It’s like a chess match against a petulant, brutal opponent. They make a calculated move, perfectly executed, and the Carrows swat back with flagrant brutality. Not to say it isn’t effective.

Neville and Joanna shoot forward, helping Nigel down off the platform.

“I’m fine,” she can hear him say, but she knows he isn’t.

By unspoken agreement, they all meet in the Room of Requirement.

Neville is noticeably disturbed.

“There’s no defense against it.” Ginny turns to Terry. “Right?”

“No,” Terry says.

“We can try,” Hannah insists.

He looks at her like she’s insane. “No, we bloody well can’t. It’s impossible.”

Hannah puts her hands on hips. “Are you telling me, that with everything you know, and everything you know you don’t know, there is zero possibility? Is that what you’re saying?”

Terry looks taken aback.

“We have to give them something,” she says.

“Even if it’s a lie?”

“It’s not a lie if there’s even the tiniest possibility.”

Terry’s lips seem to twitch despite himself. “Logically, that’s a true statement, I suppose.”

“Hope matters,” Hannah insists.

At some point it may be the only thing they have left.

*     *     *

Similar demonstrations happen in the other sections of Dark Arts, Crabbe and Goyle being particularly eager from all accounts.

Students start appearing looking shaken and wan. High numbers start skiving off, mostly out of abject terror, which only leads to the Cruciatus showing up in detentions. There’s no avoiding it.

Added to that, Ginny is still reeling with how close she’d come to not getting to Nicola in time.

The stakes have never been clearer and Ginny is no closer to mastering Legilimency than she was at the beginning of term. She hasn’t had a lesson with Snape in nearly ten days, because she thinks if she takes one more memory or thought she will lose her mind.

Ginny feels like a stranger in her own body, her mind an attic full of dusty trunks and old cardboard boxes, each rattling with the pilfered thoughts and emotions and dreams of her peers. She still can’t walk by Eliza without immediately pivoting and walking in the other direction.

Even more, her distraction is rippling outward. She missed the devastating pranks being planned right under her nose, did nothing to help mitigate the impact. And now they are using Cruciatus in the classrooms.

She has no choice but to master this once and for all.

Snape offered his techniques. She has read every book provided, but it isn’t enough.

She wishes Luna were here. To look at her with that fathomless stare and say something brilliant like it’s blindingly obvious. To point out how obtuse Ginny is being.

What she wouldn’t do for Antonia’s knowing smiles and oblique comments.

Or Smita…

She squeezes her eyes shut.

But then the most treacherous thought rises up, the wish for even one quiet moment sitting against a tree with a shoulder warm and steady next to hers.

Weakness.

She stands up.

The Parlor girls all regard her warily.

Snape was right. She does know what to do. She doesn’t need someone to tell her what is right. She never has.

You’re stuck deciding that for yourself.

Pulling the key out from around her neck, she crosses over to the library door.

“Mistress.”

Ginny paces in the small space. “I need a way to master this,” she says. “I need to be a Legilimens. I need it.”

Nymue watches on silently.

“I’ve tried to detach myself. I’ve tried not to care…”

“And why should you stop caring?” Nymue asks.

Ginny stops, turning to look at her. “He said…”

Her lips twist. “That is a man’s answer. Always quick to tear something down, when what they really need to do is build.”

Ginny looks up at her, feeling the traitorous swell of hope.

“Show me.”

*     *    *

Ginny walks through a forest of memories, thoughts and feelings like the barest breeze across her skin. Occasionally she pauses, looking closer, but keeps herself from falling headfirst into them. She skims, and when she takes, she locks it down deep in that special fortress she’s built in her flesh, bolt by painful bolt, like ice in her spine and grit in her jaw.

She delicately places her stolen plunder in the soft space and leaves all the jagged edges for herself.

It’s exhausting, but effective, keeping the constant pressure of opposing poles in place. Like gravity working against a broom. This is something she knows.

She kicks off the ground, lifting up and away from the forest until she’s once again sitting in the hard chair. The boy sits across from her, his memories and feelings still buzzing her skin.

Leon. His name is Leon.

He matters. Not just a means, but an end into himself.

Ginny relaxes back in her chair, her wand lowering.

Snape nods in approval. “You are improving.”

No. She’s surviving.