The Sugar Quill
Author: Starsea (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Watching for Wolves  Chapter: Part Four: The Wild Wood
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PART FOUR: The Wild Wood

PART FOUR: The Wild Wood

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Little Red Cap opened her eyes and saw the sunlight breaking through the trees and how the ground was covered with beautiful flowers. She thought, "If I take a bouquet to grandmother, she will be very pleased. Anyway, it is still early, and I'll be home on time." And she ran off into the woods looking for flowers. Each time she picked one she thought that she could see an even more beautiful one a little way off, and she ran after it, going further and further into the woods.

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Rated PG: for rule breaking, adolescent girls and subconscious threat

 

It was no secret that Hagrid’s first Care of Magical Creatures lesson had not been a great success. A Hippogriff had injured Draco Malfoy, and even though 75% of the school agreed he probably deserved it, Hagrid was still on probation. Ginny went down to see him as soon as she could; Esmé came with her, much to Ginny’s surprise. It appeared that beneath her groomed appearance, Esmé had the heart of an Amazon.

 

“I think all these creatures are absolutely fascinating,” she told Ginny, as they made their way towards Hagrid’s hut. “I’m thinking of becoming a magical vet; or maybe a conservationist, you know, preserving habitats. One of your brothers does something like that, doesn’t he?”

 

“Mm, Charlie, he’s the second oldest, he’s in Romania.” Ginny was touched that Esmé remembered. “I could write to him if you like, see if he’s got any advice.”

 

“Fantastic!” Esmé exclaimed, her eyes lighting up as they smiled at each other.

 

When Ginny first knocked on Hagrid’s door, there was no reply, but when she knocked again, there was a grunt of, “All righ’, all righ’, I’m comin’!”

 

The door swung back to reveal Hagrid’s enormous bulk. As soon as he saw who it was, he beamed. “Ginny! And yeh brought a friend! Come in, come in.” He stepped aside so they could enter. Fang rose from his basket, tail swinging through the air, tongue already lolling out. Esmé cooed over him, rubbing his ears while Fang slobbered all over her robes.

 

“He likes yeh,” Hagrid said with delight.

 

Esmé sighed. “I think he’s adorable.”

 

Ginny almost snorted out loud. She could think of many words to describe Fang, but ‘adorable’ wasn’t one of them. “This is Esmé Crosse, Hagrid,” she said. “We share the same dormitory.”

 

“Any friend o’ Ginny’s is a friend o’ mine,” Hagrid assured Esmé, grinning as she sat down and Fang plopped his head on her knee. Esmé smiled up at him.

 

“It’s so nice to meet you, Mr. Hagrid, Ginny’s told us so much about you…”

 

“Oh, there’s no need ter call me ‘Mister’,” Hagrid said bashfully, waving his hand and creating a breeze strong enough to fan them.

 

“That’s right, it’s ‘Professor’ now, isn’t it?” Ginny teased, making Hagrid blush even deeper. He hurried over to the fire and took off the kettle, which was whistling shrilly.

 

“’M not really a teacher,” he said gloomily. “I’m still on probation.”

 

“But Dumbledore didn’t sack you,” Ginny pointed out. “So you’re still a teacher. You’re still taking classes. That’s what matters.”

 

Hagrid only grunted in reply, pouring the tea, adding milk to all three mugs, then five teaspoons of sugar to his own.

 

“I think it’s outrageous!” Esmé said angrily. “Anybody who gets injured by a Hippogriff only has himself to blame, surely the governors know that?”

 

“We are talking about the board of governors who removed Dumbledore last year, right?” Ginny reminded her.

 

Esmé rolled her eyes. “Sorry, Ginny, you’re right. What was I thinking?” She blew on the mug of tea that Hagrid had put before her, but didn’t drink from it quite yet. “But I still can’t believe they’re upholding Malfoy’s claim.”

 

Hagrid shrugged. “He jus’ wants ter remind everyone he’s still go’ power, even if he’s not a governor.”

 

Ginny clenched her fists. It was Lucius Malfoy who’d put the diary in her cauldron, just to get Dad discredited. There was no real proof, of course, but they all knew, she and her family; and now he was trying to ruin Hagrid’s life as well. “Lucius Malfoy,” she began hotly, then stopped. She had six older brothers and she knew plenty of words to describe that man. But in front of Esmé and Hagrid, she could only say, “He’s a worm.”

 

Esmé looked thoughtful. “There used to be wingless dragons called wyrms, didn’t there, Hagrid?”

 

“Yeah,” Hagrid agreed. “But they’re pretty rare now. Muggles put all those pipes down and dug up the wells.” He sniffed, unimpressed.

 

“Sounds about right for Mr. Malfoy,” Esmé said with a grim smile. “Lurking down a well, just waiting for someone to try and draw water, then up he comes with those cold grey eyes and has some poor innocent person for lunch.”

 

“I hope somebody sticks a sword down his throat one day!” Ginny said, then realised her fingernails were cutting into her palms.

 

Hagrid looked stern. “Now just hold on a sec,” he said, his voice rumbling. “There’s going ter be no stickin’ swords or anythin’ of that nature. Yeh keep yer head down, Ginny. Don’t get any funny ideas.”

 

“She won’t,” Esmé said, before Ginny could protest. “Is Buckbeak outside, Hagrid?”

 

“Yeah. Professor Dumbledore said it was probably a good idea to keep ’im apart from the others, so ’e’s in the pumpkin patch.” Hagrid brightened. “It’s about his feedin’ time – want to watch?”

 

“I’d love to!” Esmé said happily.

 

Ginny was fuming at being told – again – to stay out of trouble, but she nodded anyway, because it was Hagrid. He was only trying to look out for her and… well, she owed Hagrid something, she thought, guilt suddenly dropping over her like a Lethifold. Those roosters last year… the blood on her hands… it was all because of her.

 

She followed Hagrid and Esmé outside. Buckbeak was lying down, head on his front legs, looking bored. Ginny couldn’t blame him. As soon as he saw Hagrid, the Hippogriff lifted his head with a harsh cry of welcome.

 

“Now you’d better stay  ’ere, girls, Beakie gets a bit frisky when it’s feeding time,” Hagrid warned them, before stepping forward.

 

Frisky? Ginny thought. Then Buckbeak got up and she saw just how big he was; his wingspan was at least six feet. Harry rode him? she thought. Her heart pounded just at the thought. Buckbeak was so high off the ground and he was not a broom, he had thoughts and feelings and a very sharp beak…

 

“Oh my God, he’s amazing,” breathed Esmé, who obviously thought differently. Ginny felt a sudden warm glow of affection through her nerves. Esmé’s fascination was so very like Charlie.

 

“’ello, Buckbeak,” crooned Hagrid, as the Hippogriff nuzzled his neck. “Got some visitors today. Tha’s Esmay and tha’s Ginny, Ron’s little sister.”

 

Esmé beamed and waved. Ginny wondered why Hagrid was bothering to introduce them: after all, it wasn’t as if they were going to be friends. Hagrid continued to tell Buckbeak about his day. Esmé stood as close as she dared, but Ginny went and sat on the back step with Fang. She stroked Fang’s head and gazed off into the trees: the sight of Buckbeak tearing his dinner open made her feel slightly queasy.

 

The Forbidden Forest came right up to the fence around Hagrid’s garden, so it was possible to see a little way into the trees. From here, it looked quite a pleasant place, full of rowan bushes. Ginny wondered what it was like inside. She knew that Fred and George had often gone in there, despite it being against the rules (maybe because it was against the rules). As a first year, she’d heard all the tales about it, tales expressly designed to frighten first years so they wouldn’t go near it. Werewolves, vampires, hags… you name it, it lived in the forest. Still, it couldn’t be that bad, she thought. It might be quite nice to go in there and get away from it all… if nobody saw you, of course. And that dog had come out of the forest. Maybe if she went in there, she could find it. Something moved among the trees, interrupting her thoughts, and she saw it was Luna.

 

Ginny squinted: what was Luna doing there? She seemed to be patting something invisible and talking to herself. No matter how hard she stared, Ginny couldn’t see anything beside Luna, no animal or person. She turned her head and watched Esmé talking to Hagrid, her mind whirling. She knew plenty of people who’d had imaginary friends when little, but they were almost thirteen now. Luna might already be thirteen. Thirteen-year-olds did not have invisible friends. Was Luna really crazy? Ginny refused to believe that, but what else could it mean?

 

I’ll have to ask her next time I see her.

 

*           *           *

 

The problem was that even when Ginny did see Luna, she didn’t really have much time to talk to her, let alone ask a rather important question like “What exactly were you doing in the Forbidden Forest?” Apart from the second year being slightly harder all round, they were working doubly hard to catch up with Defence Against the Dark Arts. On top of that, she had those mental exercises every evening. Not that she’d made any progress. September gave way to October and opening the door still terrified her. She had managed to walk to the door without screaming herself awake, but that was it. She still had to go through the door and that prospect still made her wake up, heart pounding.

 

“What did you expect?” Professor Lupin said after she complained one Sunday afternoon.

 

Ginny made a face. She didn’t get questions like that very often. They demanded truthful answers. “I don’t know… a breakthrough… something different!”

 

He raised both eyebrows. “I told you that this takes time and patience, Ginny. It’s a continual process. It might take you months or even years.”

 

“Years?!”

 

He met her gaze calmly. “I don’t want to raise your expectations.”

 

Ginny hoped he was joking. “I thought this would make me stronger…” she said softly, looking down at her hands. Then she confessed in a small voice, “I thought that these exercises would make it so that I didn’t have to go through the door.”

 

She waited for the laughter or derision, but it didn’t come. When she looked up at him again, Professor Lupin was watching her with such empathy that she felt tears come into her eyes and had to think of Fang slobbering on Esmé’s robes in order to hold them back.

 

“The truth is, Ginny,” he said, “you’ve already gone through that door. You were forced through it. Now you have to accept that and go through it on your own terms. Do you understand what I’m saying?”


Ginny nodded, trying to swallow with a swollen, sore throat.

 

“I know you don’t want to go through the door,” Professor Lupin went on, the gentle tone of his voice making her chest ache. “I know that you wish you could slam that door shut, lock it, and forget all about it. But that’s not possible, not for you, not anymore. The sooner you realise that… the sooner you will be able to face opening the door without fear.”

 

Ginny felt a tear slip down her face. Without a word, Professor Lupin pulled out a handkerchief and handed it to her. She took it and let a few more tears slip out, while he looked elsewhere.

 

“I wish I could make it easier for you, Ginny,” he said, as she took deep breaths and forced her shoulders to stop shaking. “But even if I could… that would not help you.”

 

“You are helping me,” she said, lifting her head. “You don’t patronise me. You don’t tell me that it will all go away. You always tell me the truth.” An idea occurred to her. “Professor…”

 

“Yes?” He took back the handkerchief.

 

“Are there any creatures – Dark creatures, I mean – that can be invisible to one person and not to another?”

 

Professor Lupin frowned. “Well, that depends, Ginny… hags are the only Dark creatures which can cast magic, so they might be able to make themselves only visible to one person.”

 

“No, I was thinking specifically of animals,” Ginny explained. “I saw… I saw someone a while ago, they were talking and patting something, but there was nothing there. At least, I couldn’t see anything.”

 

He got up and took down a well-thumbed copy of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. “The only animals with that power are Demiguises and they’re only found in the Far East, Ginny, not the wilds of Scotland. It could have been something very small that you couldn’t see from far away, you know.”

 

“But she was patting it and talking to it,” Ginny repeated.

 

“Might be a kelpie, I suppose,” Professor Lupin said, flicking through the book. “But that doesn’t mean it would be invisible to you, just not exactly appealing.” He shook his head. “I’m sorry, Ginny. You’ll have to ask Hagrid. He knows far more about magical creatures than I do. He always did.” His lips twitched as he said this, as if it were a sort of joke, but Ginny had no idea what the joke was about, so she ignored it.

 

“Is there anything about dogs in there?” she followed.

 

“Dogs?” Now he really did look amused. “Only Crups, because they’re specifically magical. Why do you ask?”

 

“I thought I saw one,” Ginny said, seeing it again in her mind, “on the edge of the forest. Back in September. Just after we had our first meeting. I looked out of my window and there it was. I know it was a dog,” she added. “It didn’t look anything like a wolf, but it was huge. And it looked so thin…” Her voice trailed off as she saw the expression on Lupin’s face. He had turned pale and his mouth was set in a thin straight line. But what shocked her was the look in his eyes: fear and anger and something that she couldn’t describe.

 

He saw that she was shocked and turned away, putting the book back. “Have you told anyone else about this dog?” he asked, face still turned.

 

“No. Why would I? I mean… well, I wondered if it might be the Grim,” she confessed. “But its eyes weren’t glowing at all.”

 

“There are many animals in the forest,” Professor Lupin said, his voice hoarse. “I wouldn’t worry about a stray dog, Ginny. Nothing to be scared of.”

 

Ginny nodded. She got up, thanked him for his time, and left the room, her stomach tight. She had never seen Professor Lupin look like that before. He was so calm, so controlled. He’d said it was just a stray dog. Nothing to be scared of. But he was scared. Ginny had seen it.

 

Perhaps it had brought up bad memories, somehow. She knew how the smallest thing could open that black box in your mind, pulling you back into situations that you wanted to forget. Yes, that was probably it.

 

All the same… Ginny stopped on the stairs to Gryffindor Tower and stared out of a wand slit. The Forbidden Forest stretched away before her, a dark blanket of trees. All its secrets hidden away under that silent canopy.

 

“I am going to find out what’s going on,” Ginny said out loud, the resolve crystallising inside her like a pearl inside an oyster. Then she went back to the common room, thinking how she could use it.

 

Meanwhile, life went on. The girls (and Neville) came out to see her at Quidditch practice. She still hadn’t made up her mind whether she’d train for Seeker or not. She wished she could discuss her forest plans with Hermione, but Hermione would certainly disapprove. At least they could talk about her lucid dreaming efforts. Hermione was fascinated by the books that Professor Lupin had given her, so Ginny brought them to the library. Hermione got to look at Magical Dis-Eases while Ginny had the opportunity to flick through the dream section of Unfogging the Future. She noticed that this book wasn’t half as used as Hermione’s other textbooks. There were no notes in the margins, no pieces of paper marking interesting passages. In fact, it looked practically new.

 

“I don’t know why you’re looking in there. Divination’s a load of rubbish,” Hermione muttered.

 

Ginny looked up. She wondered if she was hallucinating. Hermione had never complained about a lesson before. Hermione had never complained about anything school-related before, not even Potions, where Professor Snape’s favouritism meant that all her good work went for nothing. She decided to be cautious. “What do you mean?”

 

“I mean Professor Trelawney’s a fraud!” Hermione whispered, her nostrils flaring white. “She goes on and on about her wonderful Third Eye, which only states the obvious, and she’s always moaning about Harry and how he’s going to die – it’s not true, of course!” she added hastily, seeing the look on Ginny’s face and belatedly realising how this news might affect her. “She’s only saying it because Sirius Black’s loose.”

 

Ginny didn’t reply. She found the Dream Symbolism section and began to read through it. Harry dying… It wouldn’t happen, Dumbledore wouldn’t let it happen! But Harry was so reckless, she thought with a sinking heart. He was out for every Quidditch practice and there was no way Oliver was going to tell him to stay inside. Nor could she appeal to Professor McGonagall… after all, she would be perfectly aware of the dangers. Ginny felt like flinging the book across the room; maybe she would have done so if they hadn’t been in the library.

 

“How are Ron and Crookshanks getting on?” she asked, cutting off the beginning of Hermione’s fumbled apology. Just as she’d hoped, Hermione was immediately distracted.

 

“Awful,” she said with a sigh of frustration. “He keeps insisting that Crookshanks goes after Scabbers deliberately, like it’s a personal vendetta. I mean, honestly! Crookshanks is a cat, they chase rodents, it’s normal.”

 

Ginny thought of Crookshanks sitting outside the entrance to the boys’ dormitories and the look of disappointment he’d give her when she refused to open the door. While she didn’t think that Crookshanks had a vendetta against Scabbers, his behaviour was certainly not normal. But she wasn’t going to mention that to Hermione.

 

“Look,” she began. “I’m not saying that Crookshanks is out to get Scabbers… but try and look at it from Ron’s point of view.”

 

Hermione huffed, turning a page. “Which is?”

 

Ginny’s patience frayed a little. “I would have thought you’d understand now that you’ve got a familiar of your own. Crookshanks may not be stalking him, but Scabbers is sick and that matters to Ron. Do you know what happened to Ron’s first pet?”

 

Hermione looked at her, startled. “No… I didn’t realise he’d had a pet before Scabbers.”

 

“Not surprising, given how concerned you’ve been,” Ginny said acidly. “But for your information, he used to have this Puffskein called Custard. Custard was the first thing he’d ever had that was all his. Until the twins decided to use him for Bludger practice.” She looked down at the book again, satisfied that she’d made her point, found the dream entry for ‘Door’ and began to read it through.

 

Red was the colour of danger, the colour of blood. A door symbolised an opportunity. Going through a door signified moving forwards, a willingness to let go. Ginny closed her eyes for a moment, sadness washing over her.

 

“What is it?” Hermione asked anxiously. “Ginny? What’s wrong?”

 

Ginny put the book on the table. “I’m afraid to move forward. I can’t trust anything.”

 

“Well, that’s not surprising, is it?” Hermione said, raising her eyebrows. “I mean, it’s logical, considering what happened to you.”

 

Ginny looked at her for a moment. “You don’t understand,” she said, taking her book out of Hermione’s hands and leaving the library before she started to cry. She dodged Peeves, who was lobbing stink bombs at anyone trying to leave the castle, and ran outside, swallowing her tears.

 

“Ginny!”

 

She stopped and looked. The twins were walking near the lake, just the two of them. Ginny wondered if she ought to go on running, but there wasn’t much point. They were faster and stronger than her and she was carrying her books. “Hello, Fred. Hello, George,” she said as they came up to her, trying to smile.

 

“Who did it?” Fred demanded fiercely.

 

“Did what?” She blinked at them.

 

“You’re going to have to lie better than that.” George folded his arms. “You’re on the verge of tears and you never cry. So, out with it. Who did it?”

 

“Because if somebody’s hurt our little sister, that somebody is going to regret it with every single bone in their body.” Fred had folded his arms as well. They were both bristling with indignation.

 

Ginny laughed, high and thin, and brushed her eyes, just to make sure that they were still dry. “Nobody’s hurt me, Hermione and I just had a bit of a fight.”

 

Both the twins looked oddly deflated. Ginny knew they had been hoping it was someone bigger and preferably male. They knew that if they tried to do anything to Hermione, they’d have Ron, Harry and Percy on their backs. She giggled.

 

“Don’t look so disappointed. And don’t worry. I’m fine. She didn’t mean it. I was just going to visit Hagrid.”

 

“With books?” George repeated, raising an eyebrow. “Call me a sceptic, sister of mine – ”

 

“But Hagrid doesn’t have much use for books,” Fred agreed. “So what are you really up to?”

 

“Professor Lupin gave me these books,” Ginny said, lifting her chin and thinking quickly. She certainly wasn’t going to tell Fred and George about her idea of going into the Forbidden Forest. They got funny when she tried to do anything dangerous.

 

“Very nice, but why?” Fred gasped. “Don’t tell me that our little sister is… actually… taking on extra homework?!” He collapsed against George’s shoulder. “George! Percy’s rubbed off on her! What are we going to do?!”

 

George patted him manfully on the back. “Now, now, Fred. This is serious, but we’ve still got time. After all, she’s only twelve, we’ve got years to turn her round.”

 

“But I thought we were doing so well,” Fred said mournfully, gazing at Ginny with dark, tragic eyes. “Oh Ginny, Ginny… how could you do this to us?”

 

Ginny almost stamped her foot, but that would have only made things worse. “It isn’t homework. If you really must know, it’s about what happened to me last year!” There, she’d done it. She’d killed their joke. They were no longer play acting, no longer even smiling. “Professor Lupin’s helping me to put last year behind me and these books are part of that. Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to visit Hagrid. I’ll see you at dinner.” She turned on her heel and marched off, refusing to feel sorry about what she’d said. They had to know when to stop and if she had to play dirty, well, at least they’d know how it felt. So what if Percy sucked up to the teachers? At least he’d tried to find out what was wrong with her.

 

Hagrid’s hut was empty and he wasn’t in his pumpkin patch. Ginny waved to Buckbeak as he raised his head. “Where’s he gone?” she asked, not coming too close, wondering what the Hippogriff would do. Buckbeak looked at her for a moment, his eyes yellow and fierce, and Ginny shivered. Then he flicked his head towards the Forbidden Forest and laid it down again. “Thank you,” Ginny said, and hurried off. The forest reared up in front of her before she was properly aware of how fast she was walking.

 

Ginny paused and looked around. There was nobody to see her, nobody to stop her. She looked into the forest. It was late afternoon. Amber glistened on the tree trunks. Hugging the books to her chest, she stepped inside and held her breath. Nothing happened. She’d almost expected to trigger an alarm of some sort but everything was quiet and peaceful.

 

Relieved, Ginny set off along the path. Hagrid couldn’t be far, and she would certainly be able to hear him when she got nearer. She could smell the amber and the pine needles that crunched under her feet. As she went further in, the pine gave way to deciduous trees, along with bracken and brambles curling around the trunks. Ginny stopped in a clearing and looked around. The path led off in three directions and she had no idea which one Hagrid had taken, and no way of contacting him. She sighed and looked around. Great. You might as well go back.

 

Then something moved on the path to her left. Ginny gripped her wand and moved forward quietly, trying to get a better look. The trees were so thick that it was difficult for any sunlight to get through here, leaving most of the path in a mossy gloom. Not very useful if you were trying to see more than five metres ahead of you. She took about five steps forward and then stopped abruptly.

 

The first clue was the shining white of its coat, the second the pale horn that rose above its forehead like a cathedral spire. The unicorn turned its head and looked at her with one dark eye. Its nostrils flared and it snorted, flicking its long tail. Ginny saw that its hooves were not smooth like a horse’s, but cloven, like deer or goat’s feet. Her chest began to hurt and she realised that she’d been holding her breath. She let it out in one long sigh. Her heart was pounding like a drum, even though she wasn’t scared. It wasn’t fear she felt, but something else. She kept expecting it to turn and move, to disappear like lightning among the trees. But it stayed. It stood there and watched her and her heart pounded faster. She wanted it to go and she wanted it to stay, stay like this forever so she could just look at it.

Ginny had never been sentimental about horses. She’d always preferred cats and dogs, domestic animals. Yet here she was, holding her breath, transfixed. Her vision blurred because she was staring so hard and she blinked, then realised that her cheeks were wet.

 

Then the unicorn moved. It turned and came towards her and Ginny almost fell over in shock. “No,” she whispered. “Don’t… don’t come near me… you don’t want to…” She didn’t know what she was saying. She only knew that a creature like this should not be near her. Not after what had happened. And it was still coming, closer and closer. Ginny felt more tears run down her face but she couldn’t take her eyes off the unicorn. Anybody could have come along, even Harry, and she wouldn’t have noticed.

 

The unicorn came right up to her and then stopped, its ears flicking this way and that as it smelled her. Ginny swallowed and reached up to brush at her cheeks. The unicorn stretched its neck out and breathed warm air on her face. Ginny closed her eyes for a moment. “Hello,” she whispered, opening them again and reaching out with one hand, holding her breath once more. The unicorn shivered when she touched its neck, but it didn’t move.

 

“Why don’t you run away?” Ginny said hopelessly, running the other hand down the long nose to the soft muzzle. “Why can’t you see I’m not what you think? I’m corrupted…” She sagged a little, resting her forehead on the unicorn’s brow, just below the horn. It smelled of grass, good and clean and somehow reassuring. Ginny felt as if someone had put their arms around her, as if she was protected by some great invisible force. It was all nonsense but the feeling was so strong that she couldn’t help smiling.

 

Then there was a rustle to her left. The unicorn pulled away, its eyes rolling, and then another creature stepped onto the path. A centaur. Ginny wondered for a moment if she was dreaming. She’d never been interested in any horses before, now all of a sudden she was standing with a unicorn and looking at a centaur. “Um,” she said, blinking. For once in her life, she had no idea what to say.

 

The centaur looked at the unicorn and his eyes softened. “Go,” he said. “I will make sure she returns safely.”

 

Ginny turned to say goodbye but the unicorn had already gone, as silently as it had come. There was just a flash of white among the trees to let her know it had been there. She put her hands to her face and rubbed the tears away, feeling strangely drained.

 

The centaur was looking at her with unreadable eyes. Although he had blond hair and a palomino body, he seemed dull and ordinary after the unicorn. “You are a relative of the Weasley twins,” he said, a statement, not a question.

 

Ginny nodded, before realising that it might not be a good idea to do so. “I’m their sister.”

 

“Your brothers often come in here. Looking for plants and mushrooms to feed their experiments – at least, that is what they tell me,” said the centaur. “Are you in here for the same reason?”

 

Ginny shook her head. “I was just looking for Hagrid.”

 

“Did he ask you to come find him?”

 

Ginny had to look away. “No.”

 

“Do you know which path he took?”

 

Ginny gritted her teeth. “No.”

 

“Then what are you doing here on this one?”

 

“I saw the unicorn and I…”

 

“You are lucky it was a unicorn. There are far more dangerous things living here, things you would have met if you’d continued down this path. She was worried about you. I do not usually interfere in the affairs of humans but I promised her I would keep you safe.”

 

“That really isn’t necessary,” Ginny said, looking down. “I just need to talk to Hagrid.”

 

“I will escort you out of the forest and then I will tell him you are here. It is not wise to linger here alone, even in the daylight.” And he turned, walking back the way she had come. Ginny had no choice but to follow him, although she would have liked to sit down and absorb what had just happened. The centaur did not look back to check on her. He just kept moving forward with that same stately pace which made Ginny feel strange and ungainly. They did not stop until they were on the edge of the forest.

 

“Wait here.” And the centaur turned and leapt back into the forest with one push of his powerful back legs. Ginny watched him disappear and let out a breath. She went back to the pumpkin patch and sat down on the low stone wall that surrounded it, staring into space.

 

Unlike the centaur and the unicorn, Hagrid’s arrival was audible. Ginny could hear the crashing and crackling of undergrowth for some minutes before his bulky figure appeared. She stood up and opened her mouth, but didn’t have time to actually speak.

 

“What were yeh doin’?” Hagrid roared, sending a shiver down her spine as he emerged into the clearing. “What possessed yeh to come in?! Don’t yeh know how dangerous it is?!”

 

“I wanted to talk to you,” Ginny said, feeling as if she were speaking into a storm wind.

 

“Yer lucky it was Firenze who found yeh, and not another centaur!” Hagrid snapped, pacing about. “Who knows what the others would have done! Oh, I’m not saying they’d have hurt yeh – they don’t hurt children – but they’d have made it clear yeh weren’t welcome!”

 

“I just wanted to talk to you,” Ginny repeated. She couldn’t fight or argue. There was no anger left in her. The unicorn had taken it.

 

“Then yeh should have waited here!” Hagrid stopped and shook his head. “Yer a clever girl, Ginny, yeh know the rules. Is this because of yer brothers?”

 

No,” Ginny said with a sigh. “And I don’t understand why it’s okay for them to break all these rules, but when I do it, its unforgivable.”

 

Hagrid shook his head. “Yer brothers always had each other. Yeh went in alone. Never do that. Never ever do that. And secondly…” He looked at her now, his eyes begging her to understand. “Yer the youngest and the only girl, Ginny. Yeh know better than me why it’s different for yeh. And more than that… after what happened to yeh last year, do yeh really want yer parents finding out that yeh’ve been gallivantin’ about the forest? And lookin’ for me.” He looked miserable. “I’m always happy to see yeh, but if anyone found out that you’d been lookin’ fer me in here… I’m responsible for yeh, Ginny. I’m a teacher now. If yeh got hurt because of me…”

 

Ginny drew a breath and looked down. She hadn’t thought of that. She hadn’t thought that it would reflect badly on Hagrid if anyone found out that she was looking for him in this place. “I’m sorry, Hagrid,” she whispered. “I didn’t think, I just wanted to ask you something…”

 

“Well, I’m here now. Let’s have a cup o’ tea.” He put an arm around her shoulders and led her inside, greeting a happy Fang, who left drool all over Ginny’s hands in greeting. “Now,” Hagrid said, putting the kettle on the fire, “what’s this question?”

 

“When I was here with Esmé, I saw Luna Lovegood… in the forest,” Ginny added, giving Hagrid a look. “And she was talking to something that wasn’t there. She was in there alone. Wasn’t she in danger?”

 

Hagrid put some tea in his teapot and arranged the sugar bowl. “Jus’ because yeh can’t see somethin’, doesn’t mean it’s not there,” he said gruffly. “She wasn’t alone. I knew she was there. She comes down here sometimes, jus’ like yeh do… for a visit, like. And to see the herd.”

 

“Herd? You mean the centaurs? But I would have seen a centaur!” Ginny said, folding her arms.

 

“Did I say ‘centaurs’? I don’t remember sayin’ ‘centaurs’,” Hagrid said, deliberately obtuse. “I said ‘herd’. Plenty of animals live in herds. Luna’s not in any danger, if tha’s what yer worried about.”

 

Ginny sighed. “I’m not worried, I just wondered… what kind of animal would be invisible like that.”

 

“The kind of animal yeh don’t want to learn to see,” Hagrid said, taking the kettle off as it started to whistle. “Trust me, Ginny. Yeh don’t want to know. Not before yeh have to.” He would say no more, beyond telling Ginny that she shouldn’t ask Luna, either. If Luna wanted to tell her, she would tell her. Otherwise, it wasn’t Ginny’s business. Ginny was so frustrated that she forgot to ask about the big black dog and went back to the common room. She found that all three of her dormmates were waiting for her. Esmé looked irritated.

 

“Where were you, Ginny? We went to the library and Hermione said you’d gone to see Hagrid. But his hut was empty and you were nowhere in sight!”

 

“Sorry, Esmé, didn’t realise that I had to keep you updated,” Ginny said dryly.

 

“Ginny… the last time you disappeared…” Rowena took a breath. “The last time you disappeared like that, we found out you’d been taken into the Chamber. We all felt so bad that we hadn’t seen you disappear. And so when we couldn’t find you, we thought something else had happened to you, something bad.” She bit her lip.

 

Ginny felt all the breath go out of her. “I’m such a thoughtless cow,” she said, sinking into the chair they’d kept empty for her.

 

“Hey, I wouldn’t go that far,” Catharine protested. “I mean, it’s not like you were thinking of us, whatever happened to you.”

 

Ginny shook her head. “But I should have thought of it… I’m sorry… I didn’t mean to worry you. If you really want to know where I was, I’ll tell you. But not here. In the dormitory.”

 

That piqued their curiosity, of course, and they all followed her up the staircase. Ginny closed the dormitory door tightly and drew them around the hearth, where the fire was laid ready for the evening. They all sat down, eyes fixed on her, bright and expectant.

 

“I did go and see Hagrid,” she said. “Hermione wasn’t lying. But when I saw that he wasn’t in his hut… I went into the forest.”

 

“You didn’t!” Catharine said, her eyes wide.

 

Ginny nodded.

 

“But – but the forest’s forbidden,” Rowena whispered. “There’s all sorts of monsters in there.”

 

“I didn’t see any monsters,” Ginny told her. “Actually, it was quite nice in there.”

 

“‘Nice’?” Catharine repeated, wrinkling her nose. “What’s nice about a dark, creepy forest full of who knows what?”

 

“It wasn’t dark when I went in there, and it was very peaceful and quiet. But I did meet something.”

 

“A unicorn?” Esmé asked, leaning forward. Ginny hesitated for a moment. She knew that Esmé would be so excited to hear about the unicorn but she didn’t want to tell her. She wanted to keep the unicorn for herself.

 

“No, sorry. No unicorns. But I did meet a centaur.”

 

Rowena and Esmé shrieked in disbelief, but Catharine looked puzzled. “What’s a centaur?”

 

“It has a horse’s legs and body and tail, but a man or woman’s upper body,” Esmé told her.

 

“Oh! I’ve seen pictures of them, we studied Ancient Greece in primary school, but I thought they were just myths,” Catharine said, turning to look at the window as if she expected one to leap through at any moment.

 

“That’s what the Ministry needs the Muggles to think, so they don’t go poking about and upsetting them,” Esmé explained. “Centaurs are very private creatures.” She looked back at Ginny, lit up by this new information. “So there’s a herd in our forest. Makes sense. I’m surprised it spoke to you, Ginny.”

 

“He said that he didn’t usually interfere with humans,” Ginny admitted. “But he knew where Hagrid was, so he went to get him. Apparently, his name’s Firenze.”

 

“Is he lush?” Catharine wanted to know.

 

“CATHARINE!” they all shouted.

 

“For God’s sake, Catharine, he’s half horse,” Rowena said, making a face.

 

“It was just a question, God, don’t get so antsy,” Catharine sniffed.

 

“I wasn’t exactly checking him out. He scared me a bit,” Ginny said, blushing slightly. “I mean, he really was massive. Not as big as Buckbeak, but as big as a cart horse.”

 

“Yeah, but you’re small,” Rowena said thoughtfully. “So he might not be that big, really.”

 

“Hang on,” Catharine said, waving a hand. “You said that centaurs have the top half of a woman or man.”

 

They all nodded.

 

“Was this Fureasy —”

 

Firenze —”

 

“Yeah, him, was he wearing any clothes?”

 

“Of course not,” Ginny said, rolling her eyes. “They don’t need clothes, they’ve got their horse coats to keep them warm.”

 

“So, if the women go about bare-chested like the men, doesn’t that mean their boobs bounce about all the time?”

 

For a moment, Ginny, Esmé and Rowena were speechless. Now they were all thinking about female centaurs with bouncing breasts.

 

“Well, I s’pose so, yes,” Esmé said, shaking her head and trying to think of something else.

 

“EURGH!” Catharine looked revolted. “They’ll be just like the women on the National Geographic covers that my brother gets: their boobs are down to their bellies, I’m telling you! It’s disgusting! Why doesn’t he just get a tabloid and look at page three?!”

 

“P-page three?” Ginny repeated, feeling a huge bubble of laughter building up in her chest.

 

“Don’t you have page three here? On page three of the Muggle tabloid newspapers, there’s always a girl who has her top off.”

 

“W-why?” Rowena spluttered.

 

Catharine shrugged. “To get men to buy them, o’ course. And they get paid loads of money for it.”

 

“I’m so glad I’m not a Muggle,” Esmé said, and then finally the laughter broke.  They rolled on the floor, helpless and gasping for air. It was a long time before any of them could manage to say more than two words without collapsing into laughter again.

 

“I can’t believe you went in there on your own, Ginny,” Rowena panted as they all sat up, holding their aching stomachs. “I wouldn’t dare!”

 

“I would!” Esmé was obviously inspired by the thought of Firenze. “I bet there are all sorts of amazing things in there.”

 

“Amazing!” Catharine snorted. “Appalling’s more like it. I wouldn’t go in there for all the tea in China.”

 

Rowena shuddered and nodded in agreement. “Besides, we shouldn’t be wandering around the grounds at the moment anyway!” she pointed out. “What if you run into a Dementor, Ginny? What if you run into Sirius Black? The Forbidden Forest is the perfect place for him to hide!”

 

“In there? Why would anyone want to hide in there?” Catharine said in disbelief, looking out of the window.

 

“Because of what you just said, because nobody would think to look in there. Anyway, the forest must be like a five-star hotel after Azkaban,” Rowena said, shivering for an entirely different reason.

 

“Oh, stop worrying,” Ginny said, hugging her around the shoulders. “Sirius Black hasn’t been seen for months.”

 

“All the more reason for you to be careful!”

 

Esmé leaned over as Ginny tried to calm Rowena down. “If you want to go in there again, let me know, okay? You shouldn’t go in there alone, and I’m not afraid.”

 

Ginny nodded, feeling a little better that next time, she might have someone accompanying her. She couldn’t wait to explore more. Perhaps she would even see another unicorn, although one was more than enough.

 

Then Harry began to distract her (not that this was anything new). He was looking miserable, and Ginny couldn’t work out why: Quidditch practices were going extremely well, there had been no sightings of Sirius Black and Hagrid was still teaching. It was Ron who told her what was wrong: Harry’s awful relatives had not signed his permission form, so he couldn’t go to Hogsmeade on Halloween.

 

“But what about McGonagall?” Ginny asked, making sure that Harry couldn’t hear her. He was poking a lamb chop with his fork, his eyelids half lowered in obvious depression.

 

Ron shrugged. “That’s what I said, but she wouldn’t sign it. He asked at the end of our Transfiguration lesson and she said that she wasn’t his relative or his guardian, so she couldn’t. Stubborn cow. He spends more time here than he does at that so-called ‘home’, she’s our Head of House, so she’s basically his guardian.”

 

“But not in a legal sense,” Ginny said sadly. “If Harry got injured, his relatives could sue the school.”

 

Ron snorted. “They wouldn’t care. They wouldn’t even know how to get in touch, let alone sue.”

 

This was undeniable, but they both knew that once McGonagall had made up her mind, there was no point in arguing. As Halloween drew nearer, Harry looked worse and worse. Ginny found herself longing to invite him to spend the day with her and her friends, but each time she tried to walk up to him and say something, her throat would swell and her cheeks would burn, and she’d end up in the toilets, splashing water on her face and cursing her fair skin. Forget Harry, I’m never going to have a boyfriend at all if I keep reacting like this, she thought.

 

“I could invite him,” Catharine said when Ginny complained about her handicap.

 

Ginny grabbed her arm. “No! No, please, Catharine, don’t do that! I couldn’t bear it. I just couldn’t…” She could feel her face going red all over again at the thought.

 

Catharine rolled her eyes. “All right, all right! Don’t make a fuss, I was just saying!”

 

“It wouldn’t mean as much coming from one of us,” Rowena said, turning her piece of parchment over so that she could continue her sentence. “And besides… I doubt that spending the day with us would make it better. No offence, Ginny.”

 

“None taken,” Ginny said, staring at her textbook and seeing a pair of emerald green eyes instead. Her heart squeezed painfully in longing, and she rested her head on her folded arms, letting out a sigh. The others began to talk of something else, knowing that the subject was closed.

 

They all spent Halloween outside in the grounds, because Catharine had heard that the Ravenclaw boy she fancied was going to be walking there with his friends. Ginny went because anything was better than watching the portrait hole for Harry. She ended up enjoying herself: the Ravenclaw boys were a little snobbish, but that made it all the more fun to catch them out. Rowena hung back shyly but Esmé joined her in teasing them. Catharine frowned at them occasionally but they both ignored her. The price for this was listening to her complain about their behaviour all the way back to the castle.

 

“You’re never going to get boyfriends if you act like that!” she finished.

 

Ginny rolled her eyes. “You sound like my mother, Catharine. ‘Don’t be such a tomboy, Ginny, the boys won’t like it.’ Please.”

 

“And what if we don’t want boyfriends?” said Esmé, with a challenging stare. “It isn’t the be-all and end-all of life. Not in our world, anyway.”

 

“What do you mean our world?!” Catharine demanded. “I’m a witch, too!”

 

“Oh, please don’t fight,” begged Rowena. “It’s Halloween, we’re supposed to have fun. Esmé just meant that you have more options, Catharine. There’s no need to act like marriage is the only thing you can do.”

 

Catharine pushed out her lower lip but said nothing. Ginny had mixed emotions. On the one hand, she didn’t like Catharine’s implication that you had to behave a certain way to have a boyfriend; on the other, she didn’t like the implication that being a housewife was a bad thing. Her mother was a housewife and proud of it.

 

The quarrel was forgotten when they entered the Great Hall. As usual, the decoration was spectacular: candle-filled jack o’ lanterns were floating around the room, making everything seem slightly orange; orange streamers had been set on fire and were now dancing through the air like decorative comets; the ceiling was full of stormy, flashing clouds (of course, that wasn’t planned but it still looked good); bats were fluttering from one side of the hall to the other. Nobody was sure if they’d been conjured or if one of the teachers had simply ‘herded’ them inside.

 

Ginny sat down, drinking it all in, even happier for the knowledge that she was going to remember all of it. The memory of last year’s Halloween was cut abruptly in half: it began with a feast like this one and ended with cat hairs on her robes and a wild sense of panic. She glanced up the table: Harry seemed happier now that the day was over. Ron and Hermione were obviously still telling him about Hogsmeade. Ginny let out a sigh of relief and dug into the goulash in front of her, savouring the paprika and the chunks of beef that melted on her tongue. She loved Mum’s cooking, but it was a bit traditional. At least the house elves branched out sometimes.

 

“I don’t know where you put it,” Rowena said enviously as Ginny had her second helping of mashed potato.

 

“Rowena, when you have six older brothers, you learn to eat as much as possible,” Ginny told her with a grin.

 

“You learn it with just one older brother,” Catharine retorted, soaking up the sauce with a piece of bread. “Our Martin’s a right pig. Thinks he owns the fridge – that’s a machine we use to keep the food cold,” she explained as an afterthought.

 

“Oh, a refrigerator, my dad’s always going on about those,” Ginny said, rolling her eyes.

 

“Why’s that, then?” Catharine asked, puzzled.

 

“Oh, he’s just fascinated with Muggle machinery, especially anything that involves eckel… electricity,” Ginny said, remembering how Hermione had pronounced it. “He’s got a massive plug collection.”

 

“Oh.” Catharine looked a bit embarrassed. “Is he… all there?”

 

“Most of the time,” Ginny said seriously. “But he does tend to pop off.” She spotted Luna and waved at her. Luna raised a hand and waved back with a benign smile. Ginny wondered for a moment if Luna had forgotten her, but when Luna drifted over to say hello, she seemed to remember Ginny’s name perfectly well, and she also remembered Rowena, Esmé and Catharine from Defence Against the Dark Arts.

 

“The Grey Lady said the ghosts were going to do something because it’s Halloween,” she said. “I wonder if they’re going to have an invisible food fight like they did last year, that was fun.”

 

“No, it wasn’t,” Catharine said with a pout. “I got steak and kidney pie in my hair, took me ages to wash that out.”

 

Just then, Nearly Headless Nick’s head popped up from the table and they all jumped, Catharine and Rowena screaming. Ginny and Esmé looked at each other and grinned. Luna simply took a deep breath and widened her eyes.

 

“Do you have to do that?” Catharine complained.

 

“Good evening, Miss Watson, so glad to see you’re enjoying yourself,” Nick answered with supreme dignity as the rest of his body appeared. He squinted at Luna. “You’re not one of mine, are you?”

 

“Oh no, I’m from Ravenclaw,” Luna told him seriously.

 

“That’s all right, then,” Nick said, looking relieved. “Thought I was losing my memory then, had no idea what your name was.”

 

“This is Luna Lovegood, Nick,” Ginny said and Luna waved, although Nick was only a few inches from her.

 

“Sir Nicholas Mimsy de Porpington,” Nick said, making a deep bow, with the inevitable result that his head tipped over and nearly landed in the pumpkin pasties.

 

“Or Nearly Headless Nick, as we call him,” Esmé said with a mischievous grin.

 

Luna was staring at Nick with great interest as he pulled his head back on properly with an aggrieved expression. She did not seem to be at all put off by what had just happened, unlike Catharine and Rowena, who both looked a bit sick.

 

“Is it okay if she sits with us, Nick?” Ginny asked, in order to avert the question Luna was dying to ask.

 

“Yes, yes; if you’ll excuse me, I must go and find my position,” Nick said, patting his ruffle, and he floated off without another word. Luna watched him go and sighed.

 

“You’re so lucky,” she said. “The Grey Lady never does anything like that. She just borrows our books without asking and stares over our shoulders if we don’t do our homework so you get these horrible cold shivers down your back.”

 

“Lucky?” Catharine muttered. “If that’s ‘lucky’, what does she call ‘unlucky’?”

 

“Shh,” Rowena said, “the ghosts are starting.”

 

The house ghosts (and the ones which didn’t belong to any particular house) were flying around in the formation of a flower. This changed to a bird, then a cauldron, and finally, the most complicated form: a dragon. Everyone clapped and then Nick floated to the middle of the floor and began to sing a song about why he hadn’t been properly beheaded. Despite the macabre subject, he did the different voices and enacted the whole thing so brilliantly that they couldn’t help laughing at him. He got lots of whistles at the end and the whole of Gryffindor table gave him a standing ovation. Luna stood up as well. Ginny noticed that the Ravenclaw table were giving her odd looks: some of them looked insulted, some of them looked almost gleeful, as if they were saving this up for later. Ginny wished that she could go back with Luna to her common room and make sure that she was okay, but it wasn’t allowed. The feast ended late, so they all had to return to their common rooms immediately. Luna said goodbye to all of them and went back to her own house. Ginny stared after her, heart twisting, wondering how Luna would spend the rest of her night: ignored? Teased?

 

“You know, she’s not at all bad, once you get to know her,” Rowena said thoughtfully, as they walked up the stairs.

 

“I wouldn’t like to share a dormitory with her,” said Catharine bluntly. “She’d always be doing weird stuff.”

 

“She may be eccentric, but she doesn’t have a malicious bone in her body, unlike some,” Esmé said, giving Catharine a look.

 

“And what’s that supposed to mean?” Catharine demanded. “If you’ve got something to say, Esmé Crosse, just say it to my face!”

 

“Only if you think you can handle it!” Esmé snapped back, her eyes lit up at the prospect of battle.

 

“No, don’t,” Rowena wailed as they squared up to each other. “We’ll get in trouble!”

 

“Oh, why don’t you just shut your gob?” Catharine snapped. “If you’re so worried, you can run ahead and get to bed, like a good little girl!”

 

“Nobody’s going to do that because nobody’s going into the common room,” Ginny said loudly, frowning. The other three stopped fighting and looked around. The corridor was completely full of people who should have been through the portrait hole by now. Stranger still, they were all quiet. The atmosphere made Ginny’s skin prickle. “Hang on, let me see if I can find Ron, he’ll be able to see what’s going on,” she said and began to push through the crowd. She could see her brother’s red head quite clearly, although it took a while to get to him, because people weren’t always willing to move for her. Thank goodness for sharp elbows.

 

“What’s going on?” she demanded as she finally got through the last two people.

 

“Percy’s just told someone to go and get Professor Dumbledore,” said Hermione in a low voice, looking at her with worried eyes. “He sounded…”

 

“Shocked,” Ron said, his face very serious. “Something bad’s happened.”

 

Then the crowd parted to let Dumbledore through and Ginny followed Ron, Hermione and Harry to get a closer look so she could report back to the girls. The next moment, she almost wished she hadn’t. She heard Hermione gasp and Ron make a strangled noise in his throat, but all she could see was the Fat Lady’s portrait: it had been vandalised. The portrait hadn’t just been slashed, but ripped apart, so that the wall showed through some of the holes. Slices of canvas were curling on the carpet. The Fat Lady was nowhere to be seen.

 

Professor Dumbledore turned and began to speak and Ginny saw that Professor Snape, Professor Lupin and Professor McGonagall had arrived. She could hear Dumbledore telling them to find the Fat Lady through the strange ringing in her ears.

 

“You’ll be lucky,” said a voice above her head, maliciously amused, and the sound kicked back in. Ginny looked up, even though she knew who it was: Peeves. He was hovering over the crowd and grinning to himself, glorying in the atmosphere.

 

“What do you mean, Peeves?” Dumbledore asked, his voice perfectly steady.

 

Peeves didn’t dare taunt Dumbledore. Ginny was glad to see his grin fade but somehow the expression of mock sadness that replaced it was even worse. “Ashamed, Your Headship, sir. Doesn’t want to be seen,” he explained in a voice that made Ginny’s skin crawl. “Saw her running through the landscape up on the fourth floor, sir, dodging between the trees. Crying something dreadful. Poor thing,” he added, but the satisfaction in his voice was so thick that nobody believed him.

 

“Did she say who did it?” asked Dumbledore, who remained admirably calm. Ginny wanted to throw something at Peeves, preferably a large Dungbomb.

 

“Oh yes, Professorhead,” Peeves assured him, his old grin slipping back onto his face. “He got very angry when she wouldn’t let him in, you see.”

 

He? Ginny thought.

 

Peeves flipped over, looking at Dumbledore through his own ankles. “Nasty temper he’s got, that Sirius Black.”

 

There was a dead silence for a moment. Ginny felt all the breath leave her body and found herself looking at Harry. His face was white, his lips parted in shock. Then there was an explosion of sound as everyone began to panic. Ginny looked at the ruined portrait. How are we going to get back inside? she thought.

 

Dumbledore turned and held up his hands. “Silence!” he said, his voice ringing, and everyone stopped talking. “There is no need to panic. Professor McGonagall will take you all back down to the Great Hall, where you will be spending the night. I must ask you to do exactly as the Prefects tell you and not to go wandering for any reason.”

 

They were put into a long crocodile and went back to the Hall. Ginny found the girls and told them everything she’d seen. They’d forgotten their fight in the shock of the moment.

 

“I knew it,” Rowena babbled, “I knew it! He was hiding in the Forbidden Forest, just waiting for his moment –”

 

“What, when we were all in the Great Hall, eating?” Catharine said, looking shaken but obviously making an effort to hold herself together. “Come off it, Rowena. He must know it’s Halloween…”

 

“He’s probably lost track of time, given how long he’s been on the run,” Esmé said quietly. “Besides, he’s crazy… look at what he did to the Fat Lady.”

 

The other three houses joined them then, all looking very confused. Professor McGonagall and Professor Flitwick began to close all the doors into the Hall except for the Great Doors at the furthest end, which was where Professor Dumbledore was standing.

 

“The teachers and I need to conduct a thorough search of the castle,” he announced. “I’m afraid that, for your own safety, you will have to spend the night here. I want the Prefects to stand guard over the entrances to the Hall and I am leaving the Head Boy and Girl in charge. Any disturbance should be reported to me immediately,” he told Percy, who was almost bursting with pride. “Send word with one of the ghosts.” As he was about to leave the Hall, he turned with a small smile. “Oh, yes, you’ll be needing…” He waved his wand twice: one flick sent the dining tables to the side; the next produced hundreds of fluffy purple sleeping bags. “Sleep well,” he finished and closed the door behind him.

 

The Hall immediately filled with chatter as the Gryffindors began to tell the others what had happened. Luna led all the Ravenclaw second years over to Ginny, who told her story about ten times before the Ravenclaw prefects arrived to chase them back to bed.

 

“You can sleep with us, if you want,” Ginny said to Luna in a low voice.

 

Luna shook her head. “If one of us is missing, they’ll panic.” She gazed up at the ceiling, which had stopped thundering. The clouds were clearing, allowing the stars to peep through. “I hope the lightning doesn’t come back. It’ll make it difficult to sleep.”

 

“Lights out in ten minutes!” Percy shouted, marching about among the sleeping bags. “Into your sleeping bags, come on, all of you, bed!”

 

“My God, this is almost as bad as being at home,” Ginny muttered to Catharine, who giggled as she snuggled into her sleeping bag.

 

“Ah, these are nice,” she sighed. “And they smell good, too.”

 

Ginny looked around for a moment but she couldn’t see Harry. Deep inside, she’d been wondering if she could drag her sleeping bag close to his, but it didn’t look like that was going to happen. Oh well. She put her head down (the pillow of the sleeping bag was soft and smelled of lavender) and closed her eyes, listening to the other girls whisper about who’d replace the Fat Lady. She didn’t want to talk about that. It made her think of the ruined canvas, the wall gazing blankly through the tears…

 

And there she was, standing in the clearing in the Forbidden Forest, moonlight shining down on her. No dusty hallway, no terrifying door, just shadows and light. Something emerged out of the darkness and Ginny caught her breath. It was the unicorn, looking at her expectantly.

 

What are you doing here? she asked, walking forward. She didn’t feel the same awe as before, just happiness and gratitude that it was here. The unicorn seemed to feel the same way, for it lowered its muzzle into her hand, nuzzling her gently.

 

There was a low bark and she looked up to see the dog standing beyond them. Although she had only seen the animal once, from far away, Ginny was not surprised that he seemed so distinct. He had the body and height of a wolfhound, but the head of a border collie, with big alert ears and wide pale eyes that were almost the same colour as the moonlight. His coat was of a piece with the shadows, although she could see enough to know that it was thick and shaggy, like the wolfhound part of him. He looked at her for a moment, then turned and trotted away. The unicorn nudged her shoulder, pushing her forward and Ginny followed without thinking.

 

It seemed they walked for a long time, the path uneven and often obscured by tree roots. She could see flowers on either side of her, but if she ever hesitated to pick some, she would feel the unicorn nudge the small of her back, its horn gently pressing between her shoulder blades like an extra finger. The dog had melted into the darkness, so she relied on the unicorn to let her know where they were going. Then they came into another clearing and Ginny stopped dead.

 

The door was there. Somehow the door was in the centre of the Forbidden Forest, with nothing around it. She looked around, panicked, but the path had disappeared. The unicorn moved forward and turned its head, looking at her expectantly. Ginny shook her head.

 

I can’t do it, she whispered. I don’t want to go through.

 

“You’ve already gone through,” said a familiar voice and she looked around to see that a wolf was sitting on one side of the door, its grey coat flecked with brown. It had Professor Lupin’s voice and his calm brown gaze. “I told you before, Ginny, you have to make the choice. You have to do this on your own terms.”

 

Ginny saw that the dog was sitting on the other side of the door, as if it were the counterpart to the wolf. Its eyes were on her, alert and expectant, just like the unicorn’s. Ginny hugged herself and saw that she was wearing a red cloak, red as blood against the black of the trees and the white of her skin. There was a knock on the door from the other side, a voice calling her name.

 

What big ears you have, she whispered.

 

All the better to hear you with.

 

What big eyes you have, she whispered.

 

All the better to see you with.

 

What big hands you have, she whispered.

 

All the better to hold you with.

 

She knew what came next, but she wouldn’t say it. She wasn’t going to fall for it, not like the girl in the book, not like the girl of last year. She was stronger than them. She was smarter. The latch of the door rattled and she jumped, but the anger was stronger than the fear.

 

I won’t be eaten! I won’t! You can’t eat me again. She walked forward to the door, fists clenched. This is my dream. MINE. You can’t have it! You can’t have me! I WON’T LET YOU, TOM RIDDLE!

 

She put her hand on the latch, pressed down and pulled the door open with a wrench, heart pounding. A wind rushed out at her but she pressed herself against it and stepped through into darkness. She felt the ground disappear beneath her feet and she was falling, falling…

 

Jerking awake to stare into a pale blue morning sky. For a moment, Ginny thought she really had gone to sleep in the forest and woken up there. Then she remembered: Halloween, Sirius Black, sleeping in the Hall. She remembered her dream. She remembered what had happened.

 

She was through the door.

 

Ginny threw her hands up to the sky and laughed out loud. She couldn’t wait to tell Professor Lupin.

 

 

DISCLAIMER: Ginny, Remus and everything else belongs to J.K. Rowling, who kindly allows us to borrow her characters every so often. I’m not making any money here.

 

AUTHOR’S NOTES: Well, another long gap between chapters, I’m sorry about that. I didn’t intend it to be so long, but I can promise you that the next chapter will be out much quicker, since I already have half of it written! Thanks for being so patient with me. Thanks also to my beta reader, Jo Wickaninnish, who never lets me down.

//
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