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The Changeling

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The nightmares end, the Slytherin dorms falling silent once again. And with it, the entire castle seems to slip back into quiet expectation.

There are no more pranks, no more posters. Even the Enforcement Squad seems dispirited. Or terrified of a similar fate, everyone aware of the way Crabbe and Goyle creep about the castle as if to avoid notice.

Even the Carrows stop trying to get either of them to do any of their dirty work.

Outside the snow begins to thaw, and Ginny picks up her quill to dutifully write yet another letter to the ghoul wearing her brother’s face.

Happy Birthday, Ron, she writes.

Another letter carefully woven of lies for the people reading any and all missives coming in and out of Hogwarts. She writes of classes not full of torture and boring detentions not spent learning Legilimency and how much of a wanker Tobias is.

She doesn’t write about how students still disappear without a trace. That Ginny and the DA scoop up as many of them as they can before it’s too late. The way the Room of Requirement is filling with hammocks, and the bathrooms that appeared, making it all feel more permanent than it has any right to.

She doesn’t write about the students who slipped through the cracks, the ones they couldn’t save. How hard she works to focus on the next student rather that the last failure. The way it has become their primary focus—survive the day, keep students alive, keep them hopeful.

Hannah arranges Exploding Snap tournaments and hair-braiding gatherings and chess challenges and dance parties, anything to give students even five minutes of not thinking about how terrible everything is.

Ginny doesn’t write about how hard it is sometimes to stay there for the social events. The way watching those students laugh and play despite everything going on feels like the only real thing in the world, and yet she always wonders. Wonders if she really belongs.  

Happy Birthday, Ron, she writes instead, not letting herself wonder where he really is. How he really spends his 18th birthday.

She sends the letter off with an owl and goes back to walking the halls and listening.

Waiting.

*      *     *

Ginny walks a few steps behind Neville as they slowly creep through the dark, quiet halls. Behind her, Justine, a fourth-year Ravenclaw, holds a small bag to her chest, looking surprisingly calm for having just been told that Voldemort is after her family.

Neville lifts his hand, Ginny putting her arm out to stop Justine. They all pause as they hear a sound, and not for the first time, Ginny wishes she had Harry’s bloody map. It would certainly make life easier. But that is a thought she doesn’t have any room for.

Neville lowers his arm, shooting Ginny a bracing smile over his shoulder.

They are almost to the closest entrance to the Room of Requirement when Tobias steps out from behind a suit of armor, his wand raised.

Neville lets out a hoarse exclamation of surprise, his wand lifting, but Tobias has the jump on them, barking out his curse. Justine barely lets out a squeak as she falls over in an unconscious heap.

Recovering quickly, Neville aims a curse at Tobias.

Ginny doesn’t bother trying to grab Neville’s arm, instead shouting, “Protego!”

Neville’s curse bounces off the shield that blooms between the two boys. He stares at Ginny as if this is a betrayal he never considered.

She raises her hands, wand in the air. “I don’t have time to explain, but he’s on our side. I swear.”

“What?” Neville looks back and forth between them. “But I thought...”

Ginny and Tobias share a grim glance. “Yeah, well, you were supposed to,” she says.

Tis double pleasure to deceive the deceiver,” Tobias quotes.

This may have all started out as anger and regretful words between them, but they’d soon enough realized the value to be found in their very public falling out.

Neville slowly lowers his wand, still looking wary. “Wait. Is this how you—”

“Neville,” Ginny says. “Maybe this isn’t the time or place for this?”

He blinks, glancing around the hallway. “Right,” he says.

“What’s this about, Tobias?” Ginny asks, gesturing at Justine’s prone body. He never would have blown his cover without reason.

“She’s a plant,” he says, stowing his own wand after giving Neville one more wary glance. “She was supposed to let you ‘save’ her to see how and where students were escaping, and report back to the Carrows.” He wipes at his forehead, which is beaded with sweat as if he ran here. “I just found out. And completely by accident.”

Ginny’s stomach drops. “Merlin,” she breathes, the implications of what they almost did squeezing her chest. Neville looks similarly disturbed.

Tobias shrugs. “Stupid blunderers were sure to have at least one smart idea eventually.”

Neville glances up and down the hall. “So now what? Just leave her here? She’s seen Ginny.” The Carrows would then know for certain that Ginny has been helping the resistance. This time they may not stop at merely torturing her.

Ginny ignores that for now, focusing on other matters. “Do you know why she did it?”

Tobias shakes his head. “Maybe they blackmailed her.”

That’s what Ginny is afraid of. It matters if Justine is being coerced somehow, if Tom has her family. She could still very well be a victim in this.

Ginny bites her lip. One way or another, they need to know. “Let’s get her out of the hallway.”

Neville and Tobias lift Justine and carry her into the nearest classroom. Ginny points to a chair.

After they’ve settled her, Ginny says, “Wake her.”

Tobias raises an eyebrow. “Are you sure?”

Ginny nods, pulling another chair in front of Justine and lowering herself into it until they are eye to eye. “We need to know why she did it.”

“You can’t be sure she’ll tell us the truth,” Neville points out.

“No, we can’t,” Ginny agrees. “Which is why I’m not going to ask.”

Neville frowns but doesn’t ask.

“Watch the hall,” Ginny says to him.

He nods, moving back towards the door.

She looks up at Tobias. “Give me three minutes. If I don’t say anything by then, get my attention any way you can.”

“Sure,” he says, still wearing that mask of indifference that he has become far too used to.  

“Tobias,” she says, squeezing his arm. “Promise me.”

“Hey,” Tobias says. “I promise.”

She nods.

Tobias flicks his wand, and Justine sucks in a big breath, her eyes snapping open. She takes in the scene quickly, eyes narrowing when she sees Tobias, but settling on Ginny with something bordering on horror.

Ginny lifts her wand. “Legilimens.”

She’s never stepped into a mind that wasn’t softened. At first it is an utter whirlwind of screaming, competing thoughts and memories and feelings, and Ginny thinks she will drown completely in them. She wrestles with creating space, with flinging up boundaries.

This is me, she thinks. That is her.

The only saving grace is that the girl is completely untrained, not even the most rudimentary of defenses in place.

Justine, the middle child, the mouse, the forgotten. Not quite as smart as her siblings. Not quite as pretty. Just an afterthought. Ginny tries to sort through the girl’s life with care, digging and uncovering.

Justine weeps, shoving back with sheer blind panic against the intrusion and for a moment everything tips.

Stop, stop, stop!

“Ginny!” someone says, fingers hard on her arm.

The water closes up over her head. She kicks and struggles, but the inky, cold water just pulls her further and further down, the heavy fabric of her robes tangling in her legs, and oh god oh god oh god I don’t want to die—

A sharp pain as someone’s palm connects with her cheek, and Ginny jerks back with a gasp.

“Burke!” Neville shouts.

Tobias ignores him, kneeling down in front of her, his hands on her knees, fingers digging in. “Ginny.”

She focuses on him, reaching for him to steady herself, his hands closing around her elbows.

“All right, Gin?” he says, voice soft.

She nods. For a moment it’s too hard to tell where she ends and Justine begins, like the walls are porous.

I’m right here, for fuck’s sake! Why can’t anyone see that? I matter! Please, Merlin, I matter.

“She volunteered,” she gasps, eyes closed tight.

Tobias looks surprised. “Her parents are Death Eaters?”

“No. She just wanted someone to actually see her.”

She looks up at Justine, the girl weeping noisily into her hands.

Ginny puts her hand on Tobias’s shoulder, leaning on him to stand up, lingering there a moment as her legs wobble dangerously. When she can, the two of them cross over to where Neville is standing by the door.

“They won’t punish her,” Ginny says, voice lowered.

“No,” Tobias agrees. “They’ll just be more convinced they’re being watched, that there’s a mole somewhere.”

Ginny gives him a sharp look. “Will this put you in danger?”

“Nah,” Tobias says. “I am far too useful.”

“You mean way too much of an arse-kisser.”

Tobias grins. “We all have our skill sets.”

If his eyes linger on the crying girl for a moment, Ginny pretends not to notice.

“Okay,” Ginny says. “I need to Obliviate her.”

“I’ve got it,” Tobias says, handing her off to Neville. “You’ve done enough.”

She doesn’t argue, leaning on Neville.

“Are you okay?” he asks, his arm wrapping around her waist.

She nods.

He gnaws on his lip. “Is this how…”

She looks at him. “Neville,” she says, voice sharper than she intends.

“Right,” he says, looking down at his feet. “The less I know the better.”

She sighs. “I’m sorry—”

He shakes his head, giving her a tentative smile. “You don’t have to apologize, Ginny. We’re all just trying to survive, right?”

Right.

That night when Ginny dreams, for the first time the nightmares aren’t her own.

*     *     *

In Dark Arts class later that week, Ginny walks past Neville on the way to her seat. He gives her a small nod before turning his attention back to Joanna.

He doesn’t seem to be treating her any differently, but she still wonders. Wonders how he feels about what he saw her do to Justine, if his conscience is troubled by it. Because her own isn’t, and she’s beginning to wonder what that may mean about her.

Ginny walks to the other side of the room, sitting down next to Tilly.

“Why don’t we start today with Mr. Burke,” Amycus says.

The class sits up a bit straighter. Starting with his favorite lapdog Tobias is always a sign that Amycus has decided he needs to prove some sort of point, and everyone here knows it.

Tobias gets to his feet, hopping up onto the raised dais like he doesn’t have a care in the world. He gives the class a careless smirk, stretching his neck side to side.

Amycus walks around the edges of the room as if considering his choices for Tobias’s opponent, like he doesn’t clearly already have someone in mind. He comes to a stop in front of Ginny. “And Miss Weasley.”

The students begin to whisper.

Ginny doesn’t know if this is a test, if after the debacle with Justine they suspect her. It could simply just be another way for Amycus to finish the punishment Snape interrupted. She doubts they suspect Tobias, but it’s possible.

Either way, the stakes are high, and they will have to perform.

“Of course, sir,” she says, getting to her feet. Instead of hopping up, she walks around the other side, calmly ascending the stairs.

They square off at either end of the platform.

Tobias looks back at her with cool eyes, saluting her with an insouciant flick of his wrist. She barely nods in return, her mind shuffling through spells and building a strategy.

“Begin.”

Amycus has barely finished the word when Tobias strides forward, attacking with an impediment jinx Ginny neutralizes with an absorption spell she immediately turns back on him in the form of a stunning spell. It makes a hollow ringing sound as it hits Tobias’s hastily thrown-up protection spell.

In the following silence, the only sound is that of students shuffling and whispering.

“Again,” Amycus says.

The students gasp and shout as Ginny and Tobias push back into motion. They are evenly matched, having practiced together in secret all year. They know exactly how the other thinks, how they approach defense and attack. It allows them to put on a great show with little chance of actually hurting each other. But Ginny also knows all too well the way this has to go.

Appearances must be kept, and Tobias’s safety is far more important than her pride.

In the middle of an intense volley of back and forth, she drops her arm, leaving herself open, and Tobias dutifully takes advantage.

She hits the ground with a grunt, her wand flying from her fingers. The pain slams through her body, and she takes a moment to recover before rolling over onto her back, pushing up her elbows.

Tobias stands over her, glancing up at Amycus for orders.

Amycus nods at him, and Ginny knows what is coming. She sucks in a deep breath, and it takes everything in her not to scramble away, not to plead.

Tobias lifts his wand, and it’s there, the barest hesitance. She glares at him with all of the power of hatred she has for the Carrows, and prays for him to mean it.

“Crucio,” he says.

Much later, he cries angry tears into her lap, but doesn’t ask for forgiveness.

*     *     *

“Are you certain you are well enough to resume?” Snape asks as she sits across the table from him. After a short break, their lessons have resumed.

“Yes, sir,” Ginny says. The bruise on her face has not even begun to fade, and her muscles still ache from her bout with Tobias, but she needs to keep working. Now more than ever.

“Very well.” He lifts his wand to cast a charm on her face.

“No,” she says, lifting her hand to stop him. “No more mist. No more crutches.”

If the near-debacle with Justine has taught her anything, it’s that she needs to stop holding back. This isn’t an academic exercise. It never has been really.

He doesn’t argue, just gives her a piercing look before laying out the consequences. “If you fail, they will know.”

“I won’t fail.”

She walks into the room.

*     *     *

In the weeks after Justine, something about Neville changes. Ginny doesn’t know if it’s the strain of doing nothing, or a reaction to what he found out about Ginny and Tobias. If it’s the higher number of students walking around with twitching muscles from the Cruciatus and bruises from Alecto’s wand. If it’s the students who disappear before they can get to them. No matter the reason, he’s started getting reckless again.

He’s been mouthing off in class, deliberately provoking both of the Carrows. Once again, he spends a lot of time in detention. That does nothing to curb his tongue.

Which is why she isn’t all surprised when Amycus decides to start their next class with Neville.

“Longbottom,” Amycus says. “Up on the stage.”

For a moment Ginny thinks he’ll refuse, but after a long pause, he pushes to his feet and takes a spot at one end.

“And Miss Kapani.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Tilly breathes as the young Slytherin girl looks up at the sound of her name.

It’s another glaringly mismatched pair, a seventh-year versus a second-year. Yet stupidly brilliant at the same time, because no matter what happens, Neville is going to look bad.

Neville looks enraged as Asha takes her place at the other end.

“Begin,” Amycus says.

Neville doesn’t lift his wand.

“A reminder that if you don’t fight, you both get detention,” Amycus drawls, giving them both a feral grin.  

Asha lets out a soft sound of distress. It’s one thing to get humiliated in front of the entire class, another to spend a long night in the dungeons.

Neville ignores Amycus, instead looking at Asha. “I’m not going to fight you.”

“What?” she asks, wand visibly trembling in her hand.  

He gives her an encouraging smile, the one Ginny’s seen him use on young students struggling with defensive spells. “It’s okay. Curse me.” He stows his wand in his back pocket.

“Please,” she says, looking at Amycus with something near panic in her face.

“Do what you have to,” Neville says.

“Miss Kapani,” Amycus says, voice hard.

Neville nods at her again. “Do it.”

In desperation, the girl flings a curse at him.

It’s little more than a stinging hex, Neville sucking in a breath as it hits, but keeping his feet firm.

“Not bad,” he says, rubbing at the spot. “But you aren’t holding your wrist quite right.” He lifts his hand, demonstrating the right angle.

Asha stares back at him nonplussed, the students beginning to whisper.

Neville shrugs, glancing around at the other students in the room. “We all know it’s wrong, using older students to punish the younger. They need teachers, not bullies.”

“Bloody hell,” Tilly murmurs next to Ginny. “Is he trying to get himself killed?”

Ginny shakes her head, her hands fisted in her robes.

“Quiet,” Amycus barks. “This is your final chance.”  

Asha lifts her wand, looking for all the world like she’s trying to gather whatever will she possibly can. But after a long moment, her wand starts to dip. She shakes his head, looking terrified, but resolute, as if deciding she can’t find it in her to curse an unarmed student.

Ginny sucks in a breath, eyes glued to Amycus to see how he’s going to deal with this.

“Okay, Longbottom,” Amycus says. “Get down.”

Neville jumps down from the platform with a cocky grin like he’s scored an important point. Ginny is nowhere near ready to celebrate.

Amycus looks up at Asha, still standing on the stage. “Remember whose fault this is, girl.”

“What?” Asha says, taking a small step back.

Ginny leans forward. He wouldn’t, would he?

Neville stops, turning back to look. The smile slips from his face.

Amycus climbs up on the stage to stand across from the girl. “Wand up.”

Asha looks like she is going to pass out.

“Stop,” Neville says. “Just stop.”

Amycus doesn’t look away from Asha. “Finally willing to take my place?”

“No,” Neville says. “But I’ll take hers.”

Ginny curses under her breath. There’s no way Neville would deny himself the chance to fight back against the one person he’s been dying to touch.

Amycus smiles, the cruel gesture contorting his face. “Well now, that’s an interesting idea.”

Asha quickly climbs down, not passing by Neville as he takes the stage again.

Ginny gestures for Asha to take a seat next to her. It’s a small gesture, but loud all the same. Anything anyone wants to say about what Asha did or didn’t do will be at the risk of Ginny’s displeasure. Every Slytherin in the room knows it.

“You did well,” Ginny murmurs as the girl sits between her and Tilly.

Asha lets out a dismissive huff, but doesn’t argue, leaning back against her seat as if trying to hide from the rest of the room.

Up on the stage Neville and Amycus square off, but Amycus doesn’t wait for anything like a bow or a count, just sets in on Neville immediately. Neville stumbles back, his wand lifting and defending as fast as he can. For a short while it seems like he may just be able to hold his own.

Except Amycus starts using spells Ginny has never even seen, let alone would have any idea how to protect against. Each one is more brutal than the last. Neville is struck time and time again, slashes opening on his face, his body hitting the ground more than once. It isn’t a duel, just a brutal beating.

But every time, Neville staggers back up to his feet.

For Merlin’s sake, Ginny thinks, just stay down. Just give up!

But he never bows, he never stops trying to get back up, and Amycus is hardly the only one to notice.

He finishes with the Cruciatus until Neville is writhing on the ground, spitting blood on the floor.

Next to Ginny, Asha weeps, covering her face, and she is far from the only one.

Ginny does neither. She just sits and watches. Watches so she will never forget.

Amycus pauses after the third round of the Cruciatus, shoulders heaving with a frightening mix of exhaustion and elation. “You’re just lucky you’re a Pureblood, boy,” he snarls. “Or I wouldn’t stop here.”

Neville shoves up on one shaking elbow, looking up at Amycus. Somehow, he manages to smile, blood staining his teeth. “And exactly how much Muggle blood do you and that sister of yours have?”

The entire class gasps, and Ginny has to wonder if maybe Neville really is trying to get himself killed.

Amycus lets out a guttural cry and then steps forward, swinging his foot into Neville’s stomach.

The physical violence is somehow more shocking than all of the spells, because Amycus has clearly lost control, and everyone knows it.

Neville laughs between painful gasps. “Is that…all you got?” he barely manages to get out.

For a moment Amycus seems on the verge of losing it completely, his face red and splotchy, wand nearly shaking with rage as he grips it.

“Lesson over!” he snarls and paces out of the room.

The students remain frozen in horror, so quiet that Ginny can hear the wheezing of Neville’s breathing. No one wants to be the first to move, the first to risk Amycus charging back in looking for another target.

In the end, it’s Ginny who is the first to stand, every eye swiveling to her. She walks over to the steps and quietly takes the stage. She crosses over to Neville, looking down at him for a long moment before kneeling next to him.

Slipping an arm behind his shoulders, she helps him up into a seated position.

“Ginny, you shouldn’t—” Neville starts to say, voice barely a whisper. They have all been very careful to keep their distance from Ginny when they are in the castle.

She looks into his ravaged face, the blood splattered on his robes. “As if you have any right to tell me to be cautious.”

After all, isn’t this what Neville was really trying to tell them all? He’s reminding them that some things are just more important than safety.

She looks around the room, everyone still taking in the gory details. “Didn’t you hear him? Lesson over. Get out.”

Most of the students don’t waste any time scrambling to their feet. Only Urquhart and Tobias seem to linger, talking quietly to each other as they go.

“Can you stand?”

He nods.

It takes Neville a while to find his feet, leaning a lot of his weight on Ginny as they gingerly work their way down the steps and out into the hall.

“Infirmary,” Ginny says, pulling him to the left.

Neville resists as much as he’s able, opening his mouth like he’s going to argue with her.

“You really think you can fight me?” she asks.

He lets out a shaky breath. “I would never be that stupid.”

Students in the hall seem to melt out of their way as they approach, whispers following in their wake. Ginny is aware of Nigel and Joanna trailing them, Asha just a few steps behind.

Word travels fast, because by the time they get to the infirmary, Hannah is there, hands wringing in front of her.

She gasps as she catches sight of Neville, her hand covering her face.

Ginny feels Neville tense.

But Hannah doesn’t yell or cry; just steps up on the other side of Neville, helping Ginny bear his weight.

“I’m sorry,” Neville says. “I just… I couldn’t let him win.”

Hannah doesn’t say anything.

Ginny is the one to tighten her arm around his back. “We know.”

They continue on to the infirmary in silence.

*     *     *

Despite being told to stay in the infirmary, Neville struggles back to his feet the next morning, dragging himself to class despite how absolutely horrendous he looks.

I’m not going to hide, he insisted.

Ginny knows he’s supposed to be a cautionary tale for the students, but she sees it, the way his brutalized face only becomes another rallying cry. Small rebellions begin to spread through the school like a virus, breaking the fragile truce that held sway over the castle.

She isn’t the only one to notice, the Carrows sending a slew of students once again to hang in the dungeons. But it doesn’t help.

Meaning the Carrows will have to get creative.

Considering all of that, Ginny isn’t exactly surprised when Tobias slams into her in the hall on her way to her first class.

“Goddammit, Weasley,” he snarls. “Watch where you’re going.”

When they’ve gone their separate ways, Ginny looks down at the note now tucked in her hand.

Neville’s Gran.

Ginny immediately changes directions, understanding at once what this means. They’ve decided Neville is too much of a liability. They’ve used students to control their parents. Why not use family against the students?

She searches the halls, finally spotting him near the entrance the Charms room. As she walks past, she loops her arm through his, pulling him back into a classroom.

He hisses in pain, and she immediately loosens her grip. Despite being up on his feet, he’s still in pretty terrible shape.

“Sorry,” Ginny murmurs, glancing around the space to make sure they’re alone. “They’re going after your gran.”

“My gran?” Neville says, like what she’s saying makes no sense.

“Yes, Neville. Your gran.” She shakes her head. “Maybe they hope if they have her, if they can hang her safety over you, you’ll behave. And having you cowed would be far more useful than beating you again.”

If Neville were suddenly running scared, everyone would notice. It would probably cut this latest rebellion down rather nicely.

His expression hardens, clearly completely outraged in a way the beating somehow never managed. “How? When?”

“I don’t know anything else.”

“Oh, Merlin,” he says, his brain finally catching up. “I have to warn her.”

She nods. He needs outside help, as soon as possible. “Arianna’s portrait.”

“Aberforth,” he says, darting back out into the hallway, clutching his side as he goes.

*     *     *

Neville gets his warning to Aberforth, but they don’t really have any way of knowing the results of that warning. If it got there at all. If it got there in time. They’ll just have to wait.

She tries to have a conversation with him about laying low for a while, just keeping his head down. But Neville is past listening at this point.

She’d want me to keep going, he says.

Not knowing Augusta Longbottom, she’ll have to take his word for that.

Ginny is in Muggles Studies when Amycus charges into the room, disrupting the stilted silence of students copying lines from the board. There have been no textbooks since the Great Muggle Studies Prank, and the classes have been broken up in much smaller groups, strictly by House.

Easier to control, Ginny imagines.

The students look up in interest and just as quickly away when they catch sight of Amycus’ slightly manic expression.

Ginny darts a glance at Tobias a few rows away. He told her earlier that they have been suspiciously quiet about something.

Still staring down at his desk, he lifts one shoulder, clearly having no idea.

Amycus is whispering intently to Alecto, his hands animated and agitated, something in his expression sending alarm bells off in Ginny’s head. Whatever this is, it can’t be good.

There’s no time for an extended ear, or really any way she can risk it.

If she really wants to know, there’s only one choice.

Amycus turns his head, just a casual passing glance across the entire classroom, but Ginny jumps on it, casting a silent spell.

She slips into his mind.

The chaos of an adult mind, so full of memories and suppressions and deep, deep wells of trauma and emotion, is almost overwhelming. She teeters, in danger of tipping over into that endless morass, of losing herself in it.

They are things, she reminds herself. They are monsters.

She looks down at his mind, carelessly shifting and tossing aside memories.

The room is thick with the scent of blood and musk, the high-pitched whine of a cornered animal.

The Kneazle bats with its paw, claws tucked in tight. Nothing more than a warning, maybe a pleading. But the cats are frenzied, driven by bloodlust and potion-laden milk, and he knows how this will end, how it always ends. They will eventually overwhelm the Kneazle.

It won’t fight back. They never fight back.

Aunt Bea cackles. “The only way to win is with claws, boy. Remember that.”

Ginny feels her stomach turn, the air too thick to breathe. “Fight back,” she whispers to the Kneazle. “FIGHT BACK!”

The Kneazle goes down in a pile of fur, blood splattering across the wood floor.

Ginny gasps, fingers gripping the edge of her desk.

A thought blares across his mind, snapping Ginny back. Granny’s slipped the sodding net. The boy’s a goner.

Kill him.

Kill him.

Kill him.

Ginny pulls herself back, nearly falling out her chair.

“What the hell is your problem?” Bridget hisses, shoving at her.

Luckily the Carrows pay her no mind, already storming out of the room.

Not this time, Ginny thinks. No one else is going to disappear.

Forcing herself to her feet, Ginny stumbles out of the room after them, nearly toppling into desks as she goes, the students bursting out into noisy surprise. She ignores it, pressing out into the hall. Once she’s there, she tries to conjure her patronus. She can’t even get the slightest wisp, the nausea in her stomach overwhelming any happy thoughts.

She can still smell the blood, hear the whimpers of pain.

Not me, not me, not me.

“You have to do this,” she whispers to herself, wrenching together the foreign memories, balling them up tight and thrusting them away somewhere deep, deep, deep.

You’ll keep us safe, Ginny.

Closing her eyes, she takes a deep breath and focuses on her own precious memories. Her family. Flying on a broom. The door of The Parlor opening under her hand. Neville, Luna, and Hannah. Warm fingers tight in her own. Lifting her wand, she sends her Patronus out into the hall, a white blur that disappears into the nearest wall.

Run, Neville. Run now. They’re coming for you.

*     *     *

All Ginny wants to do is head straight for the Room of Requirement to make sure Neville made it. As always, there are far too many eyes on her. So instead, she forces herself to go to dinner with everyone else. Put food on her plate like nothing has happened.

Like she isn’t perfectly aware that the Carrows are both missing. Like she can’t tell that the Gryffindor table is agitated. There are whispers about a disrupted Transfiguration class.

McGonagall sits at the high table, her sharp gaze peering out over the room.

Luckily it isn’t long at all until Hannah walks into the hall. She glances over at Ginny, giving her a small nod.

Thank Merlin, Ginny thinks, closing her eyes.

“What’s going on?” Reiko asks.  

“Not here,” Ginny says and forces her fork to her mouth.

Only after dinner is completed does she allow herself to walk calmly to the Room of Requirement.

As promised, Neville is there. She walks straight up to him and hugs him tight.

“Thanks for the heads-up, Ginny,” he says.

She shakes her head. “They were going to kill you, Neville.”

The stakes have just gotten higher.

“So much for not antagonizing them,” he jokes.

Ginny laughs, the sound thick in her throat.

He looks surprisingly cheerful considering people spent most of the day trying to murder him. There’s a letter clutched in his hand.

“What’s that?” she asks.  

“It’s from my gran,” he says, smiling. “She put Dawlish in the hospital.”

They all laugh.

If it sounds more like relief than amusement, Ginny will take it.

Later that evening she makes her way to her secret cloister. Tobias is there, pacing back and forth.

“He’s fine,” Ginny says. “He made it to the Room of Requirement.”

“Thank Merlin,” Tobias says, dropping down onto a block of stone. He drags a hand across his face. “I didn’t know about it. They are being a lot more careful now, what they say in front of us.”

“That’s good,” Ginny says.

He gives her a look of disbelief. “If you hadn’t managed to find out like you did, if you hadn’t been there…”

“But I was there. And more importantly, they know you didn’t know. That should take the pressure off of you.”

He gives her a hard look, eyes lingering on the bruises still marring her face. “And what’s going to take the pressure off of you?”

Ginny shakes her head. “Don’t worry about it.”

Maybe she deserves the pressure.

*     *     *

Easter break arrives, and Ginny waits until the last possible moment to sign her name on the list of students staying in the castle. She’s supposed to go home. Her parents are expecting her to. But she can’t.

The night before the students all leave she sends an owl off to her parents, writing about how she has too much work to get done to come home. She makes it deliberately dismissive and petulant like a daughter who can’t be bothered to see her family. Her parents won’t be the only ones reading it, after all.

They’ll understand, she tells herself.

She’s staying so she can look less suspicious, after all. Be distant from her blood traitor family.  And not at all because she doesn’t have the heart to explain the bruises on her face. Not at all because of the things she’s done.

Wonder what they would say, seeing you now?

Besides, Neville, Nicola, and the others are still stuck here, trapped and hidden in the castle’s secret spaces. They need someone to watch their backs.

The week passes quietly, Ginny one of few students to stay. While she would love nothing more than to hang out in the Room on Requirement all day, she knows her absence is only more obvious now. She checks in with them as often as she dares, spending the rest of her time in the library or sitting in the common room. Somewhere public.  

She’s walking back from lunch when someone comes up from behind her at a fast clip. Before she can turn and see who it is, they grab her arm, shoving her bodily into a classroom.

Ginny stumbles forward into the empty room as she hears the door shut firmly behind her. She spins around, hand reaching for her wand, to find Snape standing in front of the door.

“Sir?” she asks, watching him warily even as she tries to will her heartbeat to slow.

He doesn’t waste time telling her what this is about. “Your brother has been spotted in the company of Harry Potter.”

It’s as if a ton of lead drops down on Ginny’s chest. Her mind flies in a million directions, elation at the confirmation that they both still live, fear over who saw them, and confusion as to why Snape is telling her this.

She ruthlessly forces herself to focus on the most pressing of those reactions, the man standing in front of her. She takes a few steps back, giving herself space, checking that her mental barriers are still firmly in place.

But instead of cursing her or killing her or whatever it is Tom has most likely asked him to do, he only says, “You understand what this means.”

That her family has been exposed, once and for all, and none of them are safe any longer. She can’t worry about her parents right now though. Gauging the distance to the door, she slides her hand down further in her pocket, her hand wrapping around her wand.

She carefully swallows, finding her voice. “Yes, sir.”

She isn’t sure what he may see in her face, his eyes still cool and intent on her. “And do you know what to do?”

She blinks back at him. “What?”

He takes a step towards her. “Do you know what to do?” he repeats, each word precise and cutting.

It’s an honest question, she realizes. He wants to know if she has an exit plan. He’s not asking what it is, just that she has one. She takes a moment she surely doesn’t have to search his face. “Yes, sir.”

He nods, stepping to the side, clear of the door, offering her a direct path.

She stands there another moment, her breath still heaving in her chest, watching him warily.

“Go,” he says. “Quickly.”

She doesn’t need to be told twice. She crosses the space, not really believing he can be letting her go until she’s safely past him. At the door, she pauses, looking back at him.

“Sir.”

She doesn’t really have anything else to say, nothing that wouldn’t be far too telling, or put either of them in too much danger.

He looks at her for a long moment, something there in his expression she’s never seen before. “Go,” he says, voice soft.

She turns and flees.

*     *     *

Ginny runs. She doesn’t bother to look calm or collected or like she isn’t fleeing, because there is absolutely nothing left for her to hide behind. No lie can protect her, no house colors or secret magics. Not from this.  

She will not become a pawn to be used against her parents or her brothers or Harry.

She thunders up the stairs, skidding down the hall, ignoring a startled Filch bellowing at her as she passes.

The doorway to the Room of Requirement begins to bleed into place as she turns the corner. In the distance behind her, there is more shouting.

“Come on,” Ginny breathes, willing the door to open faster, faster, faster.

She stands in front of it, bouncing on her feet as it finally clicks, wrenching the door open and darting inside.

She slams it behind her, leaning back against it as her heart pounds away in her chest.

“Ginny?” Neville asks, looking up from where he is playing Exploding Snap with Dougal. “What’s wrong?”

She doesn’t answer him, her head still a swirl of competing thoughts and impulses. Her eyes dart to Arianna’s portrait.

She has to warn her family.

“They’ve seen Ron,” she says, pushing off the door. “They know he’s helping Harry.”

“What?” Neville says, following after her. “Who saw them?”

“I don’t know. Snape just said…”

“Snape?” he asks, voice sharp.

“He warned me.” She turns to Neville, not understanding how he isn’t getting this. “Neville. My family.”

He sucks in a breath, cursing. “Of course.”

“They’ll be coming for them too,” she says, looking up at Arianna. “I have to talk to Aberforth.”

“Whoa, Ginny, slow down,” Neville says, touching her arm. “You still have the bloody Trace. You can’t go gallivanting into Hogsmeade. Especially if they’re looking for you.”

“He’s right,” Nicola says.

Neville looks relieved to have someone on his side. “I’ll go,” he says. “Okay?”

Ginny closes her eyes, forcing down the traitorous pounding of her heart. “Yes. Of course. You’re right.”

He shakes his head. “Never thought I’d have to be the voice of reason.”

“Neville,” Ginny says, hating the way her voice is almost pleading.

“Oh, right,” he says, scrambling up into the portrait hole. “Tell them Ron’s been seen with Harry?”

They’ll understand what that means. “And also that I’m safe. They don’t have me.”

Her family can’t know where she is thanks to the Fidelius Charm. But they can at least know that. Not that she can really hope for it to make too much of a difference.

It can’t be helped.

“Okay,” Neville says, and takes off at a run down the passage.

Ginny stands there long after the sound of his pounding feet disappears.

“Come on,” Nicola says, touching her shoulder. “Let’s get you a hammock.”

Ginny turns to look at her.

She smiles. “It’s not so bad, really.”

Ginny lets herself be led away.

*     *     *

That night, Ginny lies in a hammock, staring up at the ceiling.

For now, she is safe. She has no word of her family. No information one way or another, so being safe is going to have to be enough.

Still, sleep doesn’t come, Snape’s words echoing traitorously in her ears like her brain is caught on a constant feedback loop.

Your brother was spotted in the company of Harry Potter.

He’s alive. Ron is alive.

Harry is alive.

The lack of mention of Hermione is a giant hole she refuses to touch.

They’re alive.

There’s still hope.

The next morning she rolls off the hammock and faces the reality of her new life. Limited food, one set of clothing, her wand, and a handful of other people. Protective walls she can’t afford to go past without risking everything. That knowledge presses claustrophobically as she considers everything she’s had to leave behind, all the paths now closed to her.

She has to concentrate really hard on controlling her breathing.

“Wonder what this is?” Neville says.

“What?” Ginny says.

She turns, and Neville is tugging on the handle of a new door in the wall that refuses to open under his hand.

It doesn’t look like much more than a door to a broom closet.

Ginny breathes out.

*     *     *

She spends the rest of the week helping Nicola with projects while Neville paces the space and climbs the long length of the passage to speak to Aberforth.

“Any news?” Ginny always asks the moment he gets back.

He shakes his head. “Just what we already knew. As far as the Order knows, the rest of your family made it into hiding. No one knows where.”

That will have to be enough.

On Monday, everyone is a bit agitated, knowing the Hogwarts Express is making its way back, bringing the students with it. There will be outside information and updates, and someone to tell them exactly what is happening in the rest of the castle.

Ginny has been drowning in it, the not knowing.

Late that evening, Terry is the first student to appear.

His eyebrows lift as he sees Ginny. “Thought you might be here.” He smiles at her. “Quite the buzz at the Feast when it became clear you weren’t here anymore.”

“I can only imagine,” Ginny says, wondering what kind of story the Carrows are going to come up with.

“Where’s Hannah?” Neville asks.

Terry shakes his head, his expression sobering. “She wasn’t on the train.”

“What?” Neville demands, voice sharp. “Where is she?”

“I don’t know. No one seems to.”

“How can no one know?” Neville demands.

Ginny reaches for his arm, fingers digging in as she tries to focus over the rushing sound in her ears. “Tell me where the DA meets.”

“What?” he says, looking at her like she’s lost her mind.

She pulls him around until he’s looking at her. “Tell me where the DA meets.”

“It…” He struggles, not able to get the words out. He lets out a breath, giving up trying.

Ginny closes her eyes. “She’s still alive.”

“What?”

Terry nods. “She’s our Secret Keeper. If something happened to her, we would all be Secret Keepers. You’d be able to say the location.”

“That doesn’t help us know where she is!” Neville bursts out.

“No,” Ginny says, willing a cold calm over herself. “But I’ll take ‘alive and not here’ over the alternative.”

But clearly Neville takes zero comfort from that. Despite being of age, he’s been more or less content to stay here and help the students. Ginny isn’t sure how much longer that can possibly last though. She can feel it, his volatile energy, his need to get out and do something. Hannah disappearing may just be the last straw.

There is only so much they can do from inside the Castle.

She touches his arm. “Maybe check in with Aberforth? See if the Order knows anything about the Abbotts.”

He nods. “Right. Yeah,” he says.

He disappears up into the portrait hole. At this point it’s become a daily ritual.

Ginny looks at Terry. “I need you to tell me everything that’s going on in the castle.”

*     *     *

At lunch the next day, the occupants of the Room of Requirement wince their way around a lunch of stale bread and cold chicken. Aberforth sent through some almost edible sweets recently, but they don’t seem to be doing much of anything for their mood.

Neville has been very quiet since he got back with no news about the Abbotts. Ginny tried to point out that no news could be interpreted as a good thing, but he just gave her a hard look and curled up on his hammock.

She knows he thinks the way she’s approaching this means she doesn’t care. Ginny doesn’t know how to explain that focusing on hard, rational facts is the only thing keeping her from screaming.

“Anyone up for a game of chess?” Dougal asks, his perpetual boredom just another irritation.

Ginny thinks it’s probably her turn to entertain the boy for a while. “Sure.”

As she pushes to her feet, Arianna’s portrait swings open. Ginny frowns. Aberforth has never been here himself, so she has no idea who it could be.

“Neville,” she says.

He looks up. “What the—”

He breaks off as Hannah steps out of the tunnel.

“Hannah?” Ginny says weakly.

She smiles, climbing down into the room.

Ginny surprises herself by crossing over and dragging her into a hug. When she pulls back, she looks Hannah over. Fortunately she seems totally fine.

“Sorry if I scared you,” Hannah says. “Not being on the train.”

Ginny shakes her head, not quite trusting herself to speak.

Neville still hasn’t said anything, just staring at her. Then he walks forward and crushes her in an enormous hug, both of them looking a little red-faced when he finally pulls back.

“Um,” he says, rubbing at the back of his head. “Are you okay?”

She nods, cheeks pink. “I’m fine.”

“What happened?” Ginny asks.

“My father didn’t want me to come back. People have heard what’s going on here. He said we had to run, that it was safer. I told him I couldn’t do that. I need to be here. I’d already missed the train though.” She looks back at the portrait hole. “So I came the only way I could.”

“Brilliant,” Ginny says.

Hannah ducks her head. “Well, I wouldn’t go that far.” She gives them a hopeless little shrug. “I just…thought I should be here.”

“Yes,” Ginny says. “You should.”

The Room of Requirement takes on a celebratory feeling that evening as students begin to filter in. It may be a small thing in the larger scheme of the war, but it has the feeling of a major victory, one of their own returning to them.

Besides which, Ginny thinks they have all come to depend on Hannah in vital ways.

Under the cover of the chaos, Ginny taps Nicola on the shoulder. “Shall we?”

“What?” she asks, looking up with a frown.

Ginny cants her head towards the simple wooden door in the back corner.

She squints over at it for a long moment before her face lights up. “Really?”

Ginny shrugs. “Only one way to find out.”

The door opens easily under Ginny’s hand, leading into a short passageway lined with torches. The ground underneath is packed earth and the temperature seems to drop quite a few degrees. At the other end is yet another door, this one oaken and lined with metal bands.

“Good evening,” Ginny says after pushing the door open.

Every head swivels in her direction. “Ginny!” Hestia says, jumping to her feet.

Tilly lets out a yelp of joy, dragging Nicola into a hug.

Everyone is talking at once, laughing and chatting, and Ginny feels some of the panic she’s been living with begin to fade.

Millicent stands next to Ginny, watching the reunion. “Still here, huh?” she says, sounding almost disappointed.

“Always,” Ginny says.

She grunts. “We brought that down for you,” she says, gesturing at her trunk.

Ginny raises an eyebrow. “And why would you do that?” It shows an amount of faith in her, that she would come back, that she was maybe still here.

Millicent scrunches up her nose. “Don’t get sentimental on me, Weasley.” With that, she crosses over to her canvasses and gets back to ignoring them all.

“How are you all?” Ginny asks as they all settle back on the couches.

“They interrogated us,” Tilly reports.

“What?”

She nods. “Before we even got in for dinner.”

“Why?” Ginny asks.

“To find out where you are, of course,” Caroline says.

Ginny looks around at the girls again, eyes sharp for any sign of bruises or pain.

“It was bit stupid,” Astoria says, lips pursed with annoyance. “Tipping their hand by telling us they didn’t know where you were.”

Hestia nods. “If they wanted to really scare everyone into behaving, thinking they had you would have been worse.”

Tilly laughs. “Now everyone has their theories, each one more ridiculous than the last.”

“Yeah?” Ginny asks.

“Apparently you’re living in hiding with the mermaids,” Flora says.

Hestia nods. “After developing a rather tempestuous affair with a merman.”

Ginny laughs. “Good for me.”

“No, no,” Astoria says. “She’s camping in the Forbidden Forest.”

“Haunting the Quidditch pitch,” Tilly drawls.

Caroline shakes her head. “I heard she was spirited off by the Headmaster to the safety of a private dungeon palace.”

“Well, my favorite is the theory that you are secretly an animagi and are sleeping in the owlery,” Flora says.

“Yes,” Ginny says. “Because there are absolutely no illegal animagi in this Castle.”

“Not a one,” Hestia says, trying to look innocent and failing spectacularly.

Considering everything, they seem in high spirits. Every girl takes time catching up with Nicola, hugging her tight.

Tilly is the one to pull Ginny aside. “You may need to see to Crabbe and Goyle.”

Ginny’s smile fades. “Of course,” she says as if her stomach hasn’t suddenly turned to stone.

Crossing over to her trunk, she lifts the lid, sifting through her belongings. The box still sits in the bottom corner as it has for the last month. Pulling off the top, she reaches for the pouch, her skin seeming to crawl at the simple contact.

All she has to do is wear it for one night. Just one last round of nightmares to make sure they know nothing has changed. Simple enough.

She sets it back down.

After midnight, Ginny sneaks up from The Parlor into the common room. Climbing down the stairs into the seventh-year boys’ dorm, she scrawls a simple message on the wall in red, dripping ink.

I’m still watching.

It’s a risk, just a different kind than the alternative.

*     *     *

“I think your message was effective,” Bassenthwaite reports the next day when he and Reiko drop by the Room of Requirement.

Reiko nods. “I could hear the stupid gits screaming all the way up in the common room.”

“Well,” Ginny says, “it wouldn’t do to let them think they were free of me.”

Bassenthwaite laughs. “I doubt they’re quite that stupid.”

Reiko waves at Demelza, crossing over to talk to her and Martin.

“Can you do something for me?” Ginny asks, looking up at Bassenthwaite.

“Of course,” he says, not even hesitating.  

“Actually two things.”

“Well, now that sounds like too much work,” he says.

Ginny rolls her eyes. “One, don’t ask any questions.”

He shrugs. “Never been much for questions.”  

She holds up a folded piece of paper. “And deliver this note. In person. Unobserved if at all possible.”

He glances down at the name written on the outside, his mouth popping open.

Ginny reaches out and touches his arm.

He closes his mouth. “I’m on it.”

“Thank you.”

Much later that night, Ginny steps out into the hall, taking a moment to orient herself to see where the Room of Requirement has dumped her. She could have easily ended up halfway across the castle from where she needs to be, but by some trick of luck, she’s on the right floor, just a bit too far west. The stairwells are the easiest places to get caught, after all.

Gripping her wand, she moves cautiously down the hallway.

She almost runs into Mrs. Norris at one point, having to re-route and making the distance almost twice as far. All in all, by the time she slips into the cloister, she is hugely relieved to have made it.

Tobias is already pacing inside, looking up at she enters.

“Ginny,” he says, dragging his hand through his hair. “When they said you were missing and then bloody enormous Bassenthwaite is glaring down at me like an insect…” He breaks off, cursing under his breath. “That’s some messenger boy you’ve got.”

She shrugs. “I’ve always said it. Quidditch it a serious business.”

“Gin,” he says, giving her a repressive glance. “You shouldn’t have risked this. Coming here. It’s stupid.”

Her jaw tightens. “I’m not leaving you out here alone. And if that’s stupid, so be it.”

“It’s not like I’ll be able to get messages to you. I’m not exactly useful anymore.”

“Well,” she says. “Maybe it’s time for you to develop an intense dislike of Bassenthwaite. He already knows after all. I’m sure he’d be up for it.”

Tobias snorts. “I’m sure he would. I’m just not sure I could survive that rivalry. He’s a sodding giant.”

“True,” she says. “Oh, and would you look at this?”

It’s a sign of his agitation that he doesn’t think twice about looking down that the piece of parchment in Ginny’s hand. He immediately tears his eyes away. “Bloody hell, Ginny! I told you I didn’t want to know!”

With a quick charm, she burns the parchment. “It’s protected information. No one can take it from you.”

He’s been fighting knowing where the DA meets all year. She’s let him have his quirk. But he doesn’t have her there to watch his back anymore, and he needs an exit plan.

“The moment you feel like you’ve been discovered, if there is any chance, you come in. Or even if you just get tired of doing it. Promise me.”

He scuffs at a rock with his shoe. “I’m sure they’d love to welcome me with open arms.”

“Tobias. If they knew…”

“Don’t,” he says. “Don’t make it sound like that.”

“Like what?” she asks, lifting her hands in exasperation.

“Like I’m some hero, and not just an arsehole who got himself in way over his head.”

But this is a fight they have been having all year. “You made your choices, Tobias. And we both know there were far easier paths open to you.”

He clenches his jaw, looking away. “Well, I can’t bloody well forget the information now, can I?”

“Don’t pout.” She pulls her bag off her shoulder. “I’m not sure when I can come again, so I brought you a few extra to tide you over.”

His face brightens like a little boy on Christmas morning, their argument quickly forgotten. “Gimme gimme,” he says, making grabby hands.

She pulls out a stack of books, including Moby Dick, Snow Crash, The Things They Carried, and an old ratty copy of The Catcher in the Rye.

He immediately grabs one, sitting down and opening it to the first page. This is pretty much the only place he can afford to indulge himself. Be himself. At least he’ll still have this place, if nothing else.

Ginny settles down next to him, enjoying the quiet. It can get claustrophobic, being in the Room of Requirement day after day. She closes her eyes, breathing in deep of the cool fresh air, listening to the gentle trickle of water and the turn of pages.

She idly wonders what Tom would say about it. The uses she’s putting his knowledge to. Things like this cloister. But the cloister has long since ceased to be about Tom. Long before the war even began.

Long before she started bringing Tobias here for secret meetings.

Ever lying in wait to creep in on the slightest weakness, dangerous thoughts rise in her mind, memories of other days in this space, ones she is finding it harder and harder to suppress.

He’s alive. He’s alive. He’s alive.

Ginny opens her eyes as the pressure becomes unbearable, pulling her knees into her chest.

“Harry kissed me,” she says, words spilling out.

“What?” Tobias asks, looking up from his book with a frown as if he can’t possibly have heard her right.

“A few days before the Ministry fell.”

She can feel his gaze on her face as she stares down at her toes. His book flicks shut with a snap. “And you hexed him, right?”

Ginny bites her lip, understanding what he’s really asking. “No.”

He blows out a breath. “Merlin, Gin, you really never go for the easy path, do you?”

She laughs, the sound thick in her throat as she turns her face into his shoulder.

Tobias reaches for her ankle, squeezing it gently. “You never said anything.”

She shrugs. “Harry was scared what Tom would do to me if he knew.”

“But you’re telling me now.”

She is, and she can’t be sure what that means, the way her mind is travelling back to Harry after spending so much time resolutely not thinking about him. It’s like having news, no matter how small, has pried everything open.

“I guess… It feels like we’re holding on by our fingertips, like everything is slowly slipping away and I know we can’t keep this up much longer. But the alternative is for all of this to finally end. One way or the other.”

“For the Chosen One to do his thing,” Tobias surmises.

She nods. “I don’t think…” She stops, clearing her throat, finally forcing the words out and into the open, the ones that have been choking her all year. “I don’t think he expects to survive.”

“Oh, Gin,” Tobias sighs, wrapping his arm around her shoulders.

She wishes she could be weak enough to cry. Just once.

She’s not sure she remembers how.