Disclaimer: I own nothing; it all belongs to J.K.Rowling. I’m just borrowing the characters to play with for a while. This is for pleasure only, no profit is being made, and no copyright infringement is intended.
Oh, no. I think it’s poisoning her!
Hermione’s words rang in Harry’s ears repeatedly, fading in and out as if he was moving a great distance away. He ran his hand through his unruly hair, absently smearing blood on his forehead. The rope bracelet that Ginny had woven for him felt too snug around his wrist, almost like it was burning him. He didn’t know what to do. He was going to lose Ginny despite all his efforts. He felt as if he were choking on his own breath, the panic bubbling in his chest and ready to consume him.
"Harry!" Hermione shouted. Her voice was insistent, and it forced him back to reality.
He blinked, dazed, desperately trying to drag his eyes away from Ginny’s still form and the sinister-looking red streaks creeping down her face so that he could meet Hermione’s gaze.
"Harry, you need to speak to the snake and make it let go of her," Hermione demanded, shaking his shoulder roughly.
Ron stared back and forth between the two, breathing heavily. The dark freckles on his face stood out so starkly against his pale skin it looked as if someone had smudged them there with a quill.
Speak to the snake? Parseltongue!
Harry could have slapped his head for his own stupidity. How could he not have thought of it sooner? He had to get control of himself. Ginny couldn’t afford for him to come undone now. He could do this; she needed him.
Violently shaking himself out of his stupor, he turned and stared at the snake’s overly-large head, narrowing his eyes and taking a deep breath.
"Release her," he demanded.
The snake’s head jerked up, swaying to and fro as it stared at him.
He wondered if the snake could detect the pleading quality in his voice. He knew some animals could detect uncertainty in a human, but didn’t know if that was the case with snakes. He wasn’t about to take the chance.
"Release her. She’s not a threat to you," he said, stronger this time and without blinking.
The snake’s tongue tested the air before it hissed and slowly unwrapped itself from Ginny’s head. It slithered away, coiling under a table and still hissing uncertainly. It appeared to be rethinking its decision and drew back, ready to strike.
Ron shifted into position to shield Ginny’s prone form from the hissing serpent, while Hermione immediately began trying to rouse her. That left the snake for Harry. A movement on the other side of the room caught his eye, and he noticed the invisible spider once again struggling inside its bonds.
His mind raced, remembering how spiders and the Basilisk that had once lived inside the castle were natural enemies. Perhaps snakes and spiders in general could be turned against one another.
Barely aware of what he was doing, Harry quickly raised a shield around his friends. In a flash, he Banished the draperies binding the spider and then cast a Blasting Hex at the snake, flinging it forcefully through the air. It collided with the invisible spider, causing the spider to emit a high-pitched squeal of rage.
The snake twisted and struck, its mouth opening massively wide, and its sharp fangs sinking into some unseen part of the spider. The room flickered again, and suddenly the spider became visible. It was furry and brown and not quite as large as Aragog – but big enough to draw a horrified gasp from Ron.
The snake hit the floor with a thud before slithering away, leaving a bleeding and furious spider staring directly at Harry. He clutched his wand tightly in his sweaty palm.
"Inversum," he shouted.
A golden mist appeared in front of the spider, hovering in mid-air. The spider ignored it, taking a step forward into the mist before stopping, bellowing its rage and confusion. The Anti-gravity Spell had disoriented the spider, but Harry didn’t know how long it would last or when the spider would realize it only had to take a step to regain its equilibrium.
"Accio snake," Harry said, finding it difficult to take a deep breath.
The snake was yet again hurtled through the air, twisting and hissing. Harry’s hand darted out, snatching the creature around its large head. It writhed uncontrollably, trying to break free from Harry’s grasp.
With another whine of rage, the spider broke free of the mist and barreled toward Harry. Forcing himself to remain calm, he ignored Ron’s frantic shouting and let the spider get closer before tossing the snake in the air. Casting a Levitation Spell, he dangled the snake directly in front of the spider’s eyes, distracting it. He then carefully led it away from where he stood, using his body to shield the others.
Concentrating intently to control the panicked snake, he led the spider as far away from them as it could possibly go when a thought suddenly occurred to him. He’d used the Basilisk to destroy the diary, the dragon to destroy the cup, and the Inferi to destroy the locket. Perhaps this spider could be used to destroy the tiara.
He stopped moving the snake away from the angry spider, leaving it dangling in the air, furiously writhing.
The spider reached out with its tentacles, snatching the snake and bringing it toward its mouth. The snake hissed and fought to get away, but it was powerless. The spider bit down on the snake’s middle and a blinding light filled the ice castle.
An ominous rumble echoed around the chamber as a web of cracks began to appear in the ice, spreading and moving around the entire structure. The rumble built into a crescendo and the entire place shook under the tremendous roar. Large chunks of ice began falling from the ceiling, shattering as they hit the floor.
The snake transformed back into a tiara, and the spider carelessly tossed it aside, no longer interested. It tried to scurry away from the cracking ice, but in its haste struck a crumbling wall. The wall buckled and crashed around it, raining heavy chunks of ice onto the creature, crushing it.
Harry ran toward his friends, using his own body to cover them. He strengthened the shield around them, completely blocking them from the falling debris until the structure had entirely collapsed.
"Is it dead?" Ron asked, breathing heavily as he grimaced at the legs of the spider, poking out from the pile of ice.
"I think so," Harry said, pulling himself up and hurrying toward Ginny. He gently put his hand on her head, brushing her hair back. Angry purple bruises showed starkly on her pale skin where the snake had tightly gripped. The red streaks marring her skin had reached her neck, and were moving toward her shoulders and back.
Harry scooped Ginny into his arms, cradling her body tightly against his chest. His sore shoulder screamed in protest, and he could barely breathe through the pain in his ribs, but he only dimly registered it.
"We have to get her back to the castle. This place is utterly destroyed; I don’t think it can return us," he said in a voice that didn’t sound like his own.
"That was some powerful shield, Harry," Hermione said, stunned. She still hadn’t risen from her seated position on the floor.
Something in her voice made him glance sharply at her face, but he couldn’t read her indecipherable expression. Could it be fear that he saw in her eyes? He didn’t know, and he didn’t have time to think about it just then.
Nothing mattered at the moment but Ginny.
"Ron, get the tiara," Hermione said, pulling herself together. She pointed at the discarded piece of jewelry sitting harmlessly in the ice.
"How are we going to get back?" Ron asked, trotting over to the tiara and scooping it into his hands.
Still cradling Ginny, Harry lifted a jagged piece of ice from the ground. His ribs throbbed from the movement, causing him to gasp.
"This worked when we got the cup, I don’t see why it won’t work again," he muttered, transfiguring the shard of ice into a broomstick and handing it to Ron.
"Good idea," Ron said grimly, his eyes glued on Ginny’s still body.
Harry lifted another piece of ice and repeated the spell. He lifted his sore leg over the broom, holding Ginny tightly in front of him.
"I don’t think you’ll be able to hold her, Harry," Hermione said nervously. "Your arm is bleeding, and I think you might have some broken ribs."
"I’m fine," he said shortly. "I won’t let her go."
Before they had time to protest, he rose in the air and took off like a shot, flying high above the trees in an attempt to find the castle. Ron and Hermione followed behind him on the other broom, Hermione clutching Ron’s waist tightly. She’d used a Point Me spell with her wand.
"This way," she shouted, pointing in the direction she wanted him to go.
Harry took off, letting the cold wind whip his hair. His robes were wrapped tightly around Ginny, but even that wasn’t much protection against the winter night air. He pulled her closer, trying to use their body heat to keep them both warm. It suddenly occurred to him that the last time they’d shared a broom he was the one who was unconscious. He was determined that they’d try this again one day when both of them could enjoy it.
Ginny was going to be all right. He refused to let his mind consider the alternative, as it seemed wont to do. She was going to be fine. She had to be. Leaning forward, he pushed the broom faster.
He didn’t know how long the spell keeping the ice as a broom would last, and he wanted to be as close to Hogwarts as possible if the spell failed. Concerned, he lowered his height to a safer distance to survive a fall – just in case.
He didn’t have to worry about it, however. The spell lasted just fine. They reached the castle without incident, and he flew directly onto the front steps. Harry suspected that the chilly night air helped them. He wondered if the spell on the broom would have ended if the temperature had been warm enough to melt the ice that he’d Transfigured.
He leaped off the broom and hit the ground running, keeping Ginny tucked close to him. His shoulder and sore leg screamed in protest, but he ignored them, concentrating instead on taking short, shallow breaths. He could vaguely hear Ron and Hermione shouting to him as he ran, but he never slowed his pace.
Gasping by the time he reached the hospital wing, he burst through the doors. His legs were shaking so badly that he feared he might drop Ginny right at Madam Pomfrey’s feet.
She turned when he entered, her expression stern. She looked ready to scold whoever had entered her quiet and orderly hospital wing with such a fuss. Instead, she became immediately businesslike when she saw their battered appearance.
"There," she said, pointing to the nearest empty bed, her efficient gaze raking over both Harry and Ginny. He assumed she was trying to decide which one of them needed medical attention first.
Kingsley Shacklebolt was resting in the bed next to Ginny’s, his back supported by several pillows. He appeared much healthier than the last time Harry had seen him. He sat up in his bed and curiously watched the commotion unfold, his gold earring glinting in the candlelight.
"What happened, Potter?" Mad-Eye Moody asked. Harry hadn’t even noticed him standing in the doorway to Madam Pomfrey’s office.
Ignoring the others, Harry moved away from the bed after laying Ginny atop it. He grabbed Madam Pomfrey’s arm and pushed her toward Ginny just as Ron and Hermione burst through the door behind him. His chest was constricted too painfully to speak.
Madam Pomfrey took his arm and tried to lead him toward another empty bed, but he pulled away from her, pointing at Ginny.
"I’m fine. Ginny needs help," he gasped.
When Madam Pomfrey bristled and continued attempting to lead him away, Harry refused to budge. He dug his feet firmly into the floor.
"Please!" he cried desperately.
Something in the tone of his voice gave her pause. Her stern expression softened so briefly that Harry wasn’t even certain he saw it. Leaving him alone, she turned and began running her wand over the streaks on Ginny’s face.
"She’s been poisoned by a snake," he said, wrapping his arm around his aching ribs.
"A snake?" Madam Pomfrey asked, turning around quickly.
"Yes. Do you have a Bezoar?" he asked.
"A Bezoar won’t work on a snake bite, Harry," Hermione said, leading Ron to a chair by Ginny’s bed. "The poison hasn’t been ingested."
Madam Pomfrey raised her chin, studying Hermione intently. Finally she nodded and began directing questions to her instead. "What kind of snake was it?"
"I don’t know," Hermione replied. "It wasn’t a natural snake; it had been Transfigured. After it was killed, the enchantment ended."
"I see," Madam Pomfrey said, pursing her lips and returning her attention to Ginny.
"I have a Pensieve," Harry said, his eyes darting between Madam Pomfrey and Hermione. "Would it help if I showed you a memory of what the snake looked like?" he asked.
"If it comes to it," Madam Pomfrey replied, waving her wand above Ginny and muttering to herself.
Harry’s knuckles turned white as he tightly gripped the rail of Ginny’s bed. He was startled when Moody grasped his elbow and pulled him toward a chair.
"Why don’t you sit down, Potter? You look dead on your feet," he said gruffly.
"I’m fine," Harry lied, sinking into the chair anyway.
"He needs to be checked over," Hermione said. "Both his leg and his shoulder are bothering him, and I think his ribs are broken. Ron, too, took a nasty blow to the head, but I used a Healing Spell on him."
"The Spell on his head is good," Madam Pomfrey said, bustling around the room and pulling various phials and instruments from her cabinets. "You controlled your breathing while casting it. It’s nice work. You’d make a fine Healer one day."
Hermione’s cheek pinkened and a small smile tugged at her lips before it dropped completely, her eyes filling. "I didn’t know what to do for Ginny."
Madam Pomfrey huffed. "Well, if it’s any consolation, I don’t know quite what to do for her yet, either. I want you all out of my way while I determine the best course of treatment," she said, ushering them all toward the door. "Go on, out in the corridor with the lot of you. Mr. Potter, if you try to escape before I have a good look at you, I’ll follow you into Gryffindor tower and conduct my exam in the common room for all to see."
Harry couldn’t even manage a blush. "I want to stay with Ginny," he said softly.
"You can come in as soon as I’ve finished with her. Go on," Madam Pomfrey said, and her tone left no room for argument.
"Come on, Harry. We’ll wait right outside," Hermione said, gently tugging on his arm.
He limped into the corridor, blindly following Hermione.
"I need to go tell Mum," Ron said, groaning. "Merlin, she’s going to have kittens."
The three of them sank wearily onto the floor outside the door to the hospital wing. Harry was having trouble catching his breath. The adrenaline rush was wearing off, leaving him tired and vulnerable. His body ached, but he didn’t want to take the time to tend to it yet.
"Tell you what, Weasley," Mad-Eye said, entering the corridor with them. "You stay here in case Poppy has any questions, I’ll go and fetch your parents."
"You will? Thanks! I really appreciate that," Ron said, sighing gratefully.
Moody nodded before turning in the direction of Gryffindor tower, his wooden leg thumping on the floor as he walked.
Harry leaned his head against the wall, allowing his eyes to drift closed. When Professor Dumbledore was suffering from the effects of that liquid from the cave, he’d wanted Harry to bring him to Snape, not Madam Pomfrey. He’d also said it was Snape who’d saved his hand after he’d hurt it while getting Marvolo Gaunt’s ring.
While Harry wasn’t certain Snape had actually helped Professor Dumbledore at all, perhaps Madam Pomfrey didn’t have enough experience with Dark Magic to be able to help Ginny. She had managed to save Hermione after she was burned, but with a lot of help and research from the Order. She’d sent Ron to St. Mungo’s to be treated after he’d suffered the Cruciatus.
"We need to tell Professor Dumbledore’s portrait about what happened. He might have a suggestion that could help Ginny," Harry said, trying to rise. His legs simply refused to support him.
"I’ll go," Hermione said, pressing her hand on Harry’s uninjured shoulder, forcing him to remain seated. "You just stay there."
Harry nodded mutely, unable to muster the energy to protest.
"Ron, be certain he doesn’t leave until Madam Pomfrey has a chance to take a good look at him. You need your head checked over, as well," Hermione said sternly.
Ron nodded with a faint trace of a smile. "My head is fine. Even Madam Pomfrey said you did a great job. She couldn’t have done better herself," Ron said.
Hermione flushed. "She didn’t say that, exactly," she said. "I’ll be right back. Take care of Harry."
She turned and hurried down the corridor.
Ron smirked. "Looks like I’m on Harry-watch, mate," he said.
Harry scowled. "I already said I wasn’t going anywhere," he said, disgruntled. "I’m not leaving until I know Ginny is going be okay."
Ron’s face sobered instantly. "She’s going to be all right. She’s too stubborn to give up now," he said, elbowing Harry slightly.
Harry lowered his eyes, unable to meet Ron’s gaze. He absently picked at a spot on his jeans where blood was seeping through and saturating the fabric. The spider’s pincers had apparently dug in deep.
"Harry," Ron said, elbowing him again.
"I shouldn’t have let her come," he said, his voice low.
"Don’t start this again, Harry. You’ll only hack everyone off. We all knew what we were getting into and did it anyway. This isn’t your fault. In fact, I think it was because you were so worried about her that you created that shield that protected us all when that ice palace collapsed. I still don’t know how you did that, mate," Ron said.
Harry furrowed his brow, finally meeting Ron’s earnest gaze. "I dunno," he said. "It just happened."
"Well, it was lucky for us, then," Ron replied.
Harry sat up straighter. He hadn’t even considered the shield he’d created. He’d only been focused on Ginny at the time.
For he will have power the Dark Lord knows not…
Harry struggled to get to his feet. His legs shook beneath him, and he was left gasping by the time he could stand.
"What are you doing?" Ron asked.
"That Romanian book. It’s full of Dark Magic. Maybe there’s something in there that can help, Ginny," he said.
"You’re not leaving, Harry. Hermione will kill me if you do," Ron said, also standing and blocking Harry’s way.
"Ron! It could help Ginny," Harry said, frustrated that his body was too weak to duck by Ron.
"Then we’ll have someone bring it here to us," Ron said firmly.
"Bring what, Mr. Weasley?" Professor McGonagall asked as she turned the corner and approached them.
"A book in my dormitory. It has loads of information on Dark Magic. It could help her," Harry said, pleading.
Professor McGonagall’s eyes efficiently swept over both Ron and Harry. "I’ll have a house-elf bring us the book," she said. "Now, I just left Miss Granger in my office. She said you two would fill me in on what has happened."
Harry and Ron looked at each other warily, realizing Hermione had found a way to ensure they stayed put after all.
A loud, clanging sound jerked Harry into awareness. He sat up straight, wand at the ready and tossing his head from side to side, seeking a threat.
"Sorry, mate," Ron said, picking up a tray from the floor. "Didn’t mean to wake you. I forgot this was perched on the arm of my chair."
Harry blinked his eyes groggily, trying to clear his sleep-addled brain. He must have nodded off at some point despite his best efforts to stay awake. He was seated in a comfy armchair in the corridor outside the hospital wing. He vaguely remembered Professor McGonagall conjuring them as he told her an abridged version of what had happened. He’d mainly informed her that they’d stumbled across a Dark item that Voldemort had left behind in the castle.
She had pursed her lips but apparently accepted the tale. She’d Healed Harry’s legs and shoulder for him, although she said Madam Pomfrey would have to mend his ribs. She’d had food trays sent up for both Ron and Harry, and Harry suspected there might have been a Sleeping Draught in his juice, because he hadn’t stayed awake much longer afterwards.
He remembered a frantic Mr. and Mrs. Weasley arriving outside the hospital wing, but they’d been ushered inside, and he hadn’t seen them since.
"How’s Ginny?" he asked, his panic rising once again. Absently, he noticed that it was much easier to breathe than it had been. Madam Pomfrey must have Healed his ribs during the night after all.
"No word," Ron replied grimly. "I slept for a bit, too, but they haven’t told me anything since I woke."
Harry stood up, attempting to work out his stiff muscles. "I need to find out what’s happening."
"Ron! Harry!" Hermione said, walking around the corner. She was accompanied by the crotchety old barman from the Hog’s Head. Harry now knew that he was Professor Dumbledore’s brother, Aberforth, although they’d never been properly introduced.
"Hermione!" Ron said, relief evident in his voice. He stood to embrace her quickly before demanding, "Where have you been?"
Excitement glittered in Hermione’s eyes. "Well, after I spoke with Professor Dumbledore’s portrait, he suggested-"
"This where she is?" Aberforth interrupted with a scowl, hooking his thumb toward the door to the hospital wing. His thumbnail was dirty, and his hands appeared to be waterlogged.
"Yes," Hermione said, her hand fluttering to her hair. "Madam Pomfrey should be inside with Ginny."
Aberforth nodded without a word and pushed open the door.
"What’s he doing here?" Ron asked, staring after him.
"Professor Dumbledore told me to get him," Hermione said, somewhat breathlessly. "He said Aberforth had more experience with Dark Magic than Madam Pomfrey, although she’ll actually be better at any Healing. He suggested they work together. Of course, it took awhile to convince Aberforth that I was serious, and he still insisted we visit the portrait so he could hear it for himself."
"Grouchy git," Ron mumbled.
Harry didn’t care how grouchy he was if he could help Ginny. "I gave Professor McGonagall that Romanian book on the Dark Arts," Harry said.
"Ooh, that’s a good idea, Harry. How are you two? Has Madam Pomfrey had a chance to mend your injuries?" Hermione asked, her dark eyes raking over them in careful detail.
"Yeah. She was out here just a bit ago checking my head," Ron said. "That’s what woke me up. She fixed your ribs, too, mate."
"Why didn’t you ask her about Ginny?" Harry demanded hotly. He tugged on his bracelet – for some reason the stone felt uncomfortably hot.
"I did! She didn’t answer me, just went about her business and went back inside without a word," Ron said, disgruntled.
Hermione wearily sank into the chair next to Ron’s, resting her head on the wall behind her.
"Have you slept?" he asked, his tone softening.
"Not yet," Hermione replied, keeping her eyes closed.
"Why don’t you go on back up to the tower and take a kip. We’ll send for you if anything changes," Ron said, gently taking Hermione’s hand in his own.
"I’d rather stay here," she said, sounding as if she were already drifting.
Ron shifted, allowing her head to settle on his shoulder.
"That’s nice," Hermione mumbled.
Harry looked away, roughly rubbing his forehead. He wished he just knew something. What could be taking so long? Madam Pomfrey could heal broken bones in a matter of seconds, what could be wrong with Ginny that was taking this long to heal? A little voice in his head argued that it took much longer to heal some injuries. Look at how long Ron had been in hospital when he’d been poisoned, and they’d know the exact cause of that right away.
He took a deep breath, trying to steady his nerves. He hated waiting – he always had. He just wished he could see her. She’d always come to see him when he was the one in hospital.
"All right, mate?" Ron asked quietly.
Harry shrugged. "Feel a bit useless."
"What?" Harry asked, looking directly at him for the first time.
"Just that it’s normally all of us out here waiting while Madam Pomfrey patches you up. It’s only right that you should have to see what it’s like on the other end," Ron said, grinning.
Harry scowled. "Seems to me I remember doing this for you not all that long ago," he said sourly.
"Yeah," Ron said, sighing. "We’ve certainly kept Madam Pomfrey on her toes recently."
"And given her an excuse to see Mad-Eye," Harry said, a slow, half-grin forming.
Ron snorted. "I’d like to know what injury he has that the treatment requires getting a leg over."
Harry choked, struggling to contain his mirth and feeling tears form in the corners of his eyes.
"And get the thought right out of your head, Potter," Ron said, his laughter dying on his lips. "Whatever treatment my sister needs, that most certainly won’t be it."
Harry’s grin melted, his amusement fading as reality washed back over him.
Ron lightly elbowed him in the ribs.
Some time later, a large disturbance inside the hospital wing drew Ron and Harry’s attention. Raised voices near the doorway caused both boys to look up expectantly. Hermione stirred, lifting her head from Ron’s shoulder, blinking her confusion.
Aberforth Dumbledore stormed outside the hospital wing, an irate Professor McGonagall close on his heels.
"You can’t just leave them with that, Aberforth," Professor McGonagall said, her voice shrill.
"Why not? The girl is dying. My saying it doesn’t change anything," Aberforth said, only half turning.
Harry’s breath caught, a shrill whine reverberating in his ears.
"So you’re just going to walk away?" Professor McGonagall asked incredulously.
"I didn’t say that. I can’t concentrate with all that caterwauling. I need to go somewhere quiet to think. I’ll get back to you," he said, raising the Romanian Dark Arts book in his hand as if to show he was going to read it.
"There wouldn’t be such a fuss if you hadn’t shocked them like that," Professor McGonagall said sternly. "They are the girl’s parents, after all."
"That poison is slowly shutting down her internal organs. Without the snake, it’s hard to find the exact potion that can counteract the venom. If you want my help, stop throwing a wobbly and let me get to it," Aberforth said cantankerously.
"What are you on about? D’you mean Ginny?" Ron asked, unable to contain his emotions any longer. He leaped to his feet, blood rushing to his face. "What did you say to my mum?"
"Bloody hell," Aberforth said, throwing his hands in the air. "How many of them are there, anyway? Place is crawling with you red-headed lot."
"What are you saying about Ginny?" Ron asked, hunching his shoulders and glowering at Aberforth, who didn’t appear cowed in the least.
"What I said is the bald truth. Your sister is being poisoned from the inside out. There isn’t a lot of time if you expect to have a chance to save her. How much of it do you want to waste here?" Aberforth asked.
"Ron! Let him go," Hermione said, grabbing Ron’s arm and pulling him back. She rested a soothing hand on his back, whispering softly in his ear.
Ron took a deep breath, his shoulders slumping. Aberforth turned on his heel and walked away. Professor McGonagall glanced at them all, her eyes suspiciously bright before turning and re-entering the hospital wing.
Harry sat through it all unmoving. His world had tilted on its axis when Aberforth announced Ginny’s imminent death, and he’d yet to get his bearings. His chest ached with pressure, and he sat stock-still trying to control his heart rate. As his thoughts raced, a fierce determination settled over him.
He wasn’t going to lose Ginny, too.
"Where are you going?" Hermione asked, and he suddenly realized he was on his feet with no recollection of moving.
"Library," he said shortly.
"The library?" Hermione asked, clearly stunned.
"What was that Golpy’s Law?" he asked. "From Potions last year."
"Golpalott’s Third Law," Hermione said automatically. "But it won’t help, Harry. It’s designed to find an antidote for Blended poisons, not snake venom."
"How d’you know what it was?" Ron asked, seizing on the hope Harry offered. "It wasn’t even a real snake."
Hermione shook her head, grasping both Ron and Harry’s arms as if she was caring for small children. "It’s a wonderful idea, Harry, but we don’t even have anywhere to begin."
Harry felt frantic. He had to make her understand that he needed to do something. Sitting here and waiting was making him barmy. He jerked his arm away, feeling it slap on something hard in his pocket. Furrowing his brow in confusion, he reached down and pulled out the tattered copy of the Half-Blood Prince’s Potions book.
Grasping it as if he’d found hidden treasure, he returned to his chair and began frantically flipping through the pages.
"That’s not going to help you, Harry," Hermione said.
Although he didn’t look up, he could hear the disapproval in her voice and knew she was frowning. There was nothing written in the book about antidotes except for the note to use a Bezoar, which had already been discounted. It took some time, ignoring Hermione’s huffs and Ron’s eager inquisitiveness all the while, but eventually, Harry found a brief note about animals in a section near the back of the book.
When pitting animals against each other, all magical creatures have a single natural enemy. Find the correct one and the battle can go either way.
Harry sat up straight. A single natural enemy. The spider killed the snake. His memory was filled with the vision of Professor Slughorn siphoning the venom from Aragog last year. He’d said it was really valuable, and that it would still be there if the spider had just died…
"I have to go back," he said, rubbing his hand over the stubble on his jaw.
"Huh? Have to go where?" Ron asked.
"I have to go back to that ice palace. D’you think you can remember how to get back there, Hermione?" he asked eagerly, hope and adrenaline filling his veins.
"What? Why would you want to go back, Harry?" Hermione asked, concerned. She’d gently taken his arm and looked as if she thought he’d gone barking mad.
"The book says that all magical creatures have a natural enemy. Snape was probably pitting them against one another to learn which would survive. It doesn’t matter right now. That spider was the snake’s natural enemy. I need to go back and get some of the spider’s venom," Harry said, pulling away from Hermione and sprinting toward Gryffindor tower.
"You think venom from that dead spider is going to save Ginny?" Ron asked, horror spreading across his face.
"Harry, this is mad. You can’t trust anything that’s in that book," Hermione argued, struggling to keep up with him.
Harry stopped short, spinning around, furious. "I am going to do this. Are you coming with me or not?" he demanded, his blood pounding.
Neither Ron nor Hermione looked happy about it, but they ceased their arguments and meekly followed him to Gryffindor tower.
Gett ing the venom had been easier – although admittedly disgusting – than Harry thought it would be. Given time to ponder it, Hermione had decided the idea held merit and had gone to the task with her usual enthusiasm. Harry had to give credit to Ron though. His friend had obviously been repulsed, but he’d clamped down his fear and did what he had to do for his sister. Harry supposed that for Ron, it was similar to facing a Boggart, and he had to respect him for that.
They’d run into Aberforth as they entered the castle, excitedly shoving the phials of venom into his hands. At first he’d appeared disgruntled and rather annoyed by their existence, but gradually he became interested in their tale. He took the phial from Harry’s hands and curtly told him to follow him.
They’d entered the hospital wing and went directly into Madam Pomfrey’s office. Harry carefully kept his gaze averted from the still figure on the bed surrounded by her family. He knew he’d never be able to pull himself away once he went to her, and he had to be certain this would work.
Ron and Hermione tip-toed over to Ginny’s bedside, taking positions on each side of a crying Mrs. Weasley. Harry followed Aberforth into the office, Madam Pomfrey close on his heels.
"What is that? What are you planning?" Madam Pomfrey demanded, pointing at the phials Aberforth was holding. Madam Pomfrey obviously did not enjoy having her supreme reign over the hospital wing infringed upon.
"Spider venom," Aberforth snapped.
"You can’t be serious. You’re not giving an untested potion to my patient. You could kill her," Madam Pomfrey said, aghast.
"She’ll die anyway if we don’t try something," Aberforth said, and Harry found his dispassion disturbing.
He remained quietly beside Aberforth’s side, doling out ingredients as the old barkeep asked for them. Madam Pomfrey’s disapproval melted as her interest in what Aberforth was brewing grew. The two older people chatted as they brewed, but Harry barely heard them. His mind was solely focused on one person in the other room. He’d been desperate to get to her when Madam Pomfrey had first kicked him out of the hospital wing, but now that she was so close, he was hesitant. He didn’t want to see his Ginny so lifeless and without her sparkle.
He swallowed hard and continued handing Aberforth ingredients. When they finally emerged from the office, the same group of Weasleys was still huddled around Ginny’s bedside. Bill and Fleur clutched hands as they stood behind Ron and Hermione.
"She’s growing weaker, Poppy," Mrs. Weasley said tearfully, clutching Ginny’s hand. "She seems to be struggling to take a breath.
Madam Pomfrey nodded and briskly shooed Ron and Hermione out of her way as she approached the bed. She lifted Ginny off the pillows slightly and snapped at Bill. "Hold her up like that. Let me get this potion into her."
"What’s the potion, and what’s it going to do?" Bill asked, although he did what he was asked.
"It’s made from the venom of the spider that killed the snake that poisoned her. The two venoms should attack each other rather than continuing any assault on her," Madam Pomfrey said, spooning the steaming brew down Ginny’s throat.
"More venom?" Mrs. Weasley gasped, clutching Mr. Weasley’s robes.
He patted her back soothingly. "Will it work?" he asked, his voice tired and strained.
"It’s the best hope we’ve got," Madam Pomfrey replied grimly.
Harry had been silent during the exchange, finally getting his first good look at Ginny. She was ghostly pale against the crisp white hospital linens and even the vibrant color of her hair appeared dull and listless. There was no sparkle, none of the usual warmth or fire that he associated with her.
He dropped his eyes to the floor, unable to look at her for very long. When Madam Pomfrey finished giving Ginny the potion, she moved back, leaving an open space near Ginny’s head. Harry felt Hermione’s hand on his back, gently guiding him forward.
He kept his head lowered, unable to meet anyone’s gaze.
"All we can do now is wait," Madam Pomfrey said, sighing. "There’s a battle going on within her bloodstream. If one of the venoms can destroy the other, the surviving venom will be diluted – weakened from the battle. We then have to hope that Ginny is still strong enough to fight it."
Harry lifted his hand, gently brushing away the hair sticking to Ginny’s cheek. "’lo Gin," he said gruffly.
"Oh, Harry," Mrs. Weasley cried. "Ron tells me you saved her again." She raised her arms and moved to embrace him
"Don’t, Mrs. Weasley," Harry said, recoiling from her. "We don’t know if she’s going to be okay, and if she hadn’t been with me…" Harry broke off, unable to continue. He looked away, blinking furiously.
He heard Mrs. Weasley sigh heavily, collecting herself. She laid a gentle finger under Harry’s chin and forced him to turn around. "While I’ve been sitting her fretting, I’ve been blaming myself for letting her get involved, too. I knew something like this would happen."
Harry flinched, knowing she had every right to blame him but also aware that he couldn’t handle her turning on him just now.
"I had a bit of an epiphany when Ron told us what happened and how you all went after that object You-Know-Who left behind. I realized that I could never have stopped Ginny if she was determined to do something. Ever since she was a small child, she had her own mind. I have a special look – my ‘mum-look’, if you will. I could always cow the boys with that look – except for Fred and George, mind – but it also never worked on Ginny. I can see her with her hands on her hips, pigtails bouncing on her head and a scowl on her face if I tried to get her to do something she didn’t want to do," Mrs. Weasley said, smiling sadly.
Harry snorted. He could picture just the look Ginny would’ve had on her childish face.
"You couldn’t have stopped her, either, Harry. No matter how much you want to protect her, she’s her own person, and she’s determined to make her own decisions. Somehow, when I wasn’t looking, my little girl has grown into exactly the kind of woman I’d always hoped to raise her to be. This isn’t your fault any more than it’s my fault – or Ginny’s fault for wanting to do the right thing. The fault lies with You-Know-Who alone."
Harry looked at the floor, breathing deeply. Although he tried to stop it, he couldn’t help it, and a small sniffle escaped.
Mrs. Weasley leaned over and kissed the crown of his head. "Why don’t we all wait outside in the corridor and give Harry a moment alone with Ginny," she said, ushering her family from the room.
Harry watched the slow, agonized rise and fall of Ginny’s chest until the room was quiet. Slowly, he looked up to face her, lightly stroking her cheek with his fingertips.
"Ginny," he whispered, "you can’t bail on me now. You promised. You promised you’d be here to show me how things are supposed to be. We’re supposed to be happy and have time to do things together and grow old and make babies and…"
Annoyed, he swiped at his eyes and blinked again. He waited a moment, allowing his breathing to slow.
"You’ve got to see me through to the end of this. I need you to do that. I need you to remind me why."
He took off his glasses, unable to stop them from fogging and wiped his eyes again.
"It’s strange…to need someone this way," he said, sniffling. He wanted to explain it to her properly, tell her how much she meant to him, but he couldn’t get the words to form. "Strange in a good way, though. Oh, Ginny. I’m rubbish at this. You know that. You keep telling me about the life we’re going to have after all this is over. I want that life. I want it with you."
He wiped his nose again, staring at a distant spot on the window until he could regain control.
"You need to be here to make that possible, so you fight. Don’t give up. I know how much of a fighter you can be, and you need to fight now. Fight for all it’s worth to get that happily ever after…and I promise to do the same. All right, Ginny? Can you do that for me?"
She hadn’t moved, and her labored breathing hadn’t changed. He wished desperately that her eyes would just flutter or that she’d squeeze his hand, but neither of those things happened.
He grasped her limp hand firmly and laced their fingers together. He rested his head on the bed beside her pillow, breathing in her scent.
"I’ll hang on for both of us," he said softly.
Aft er a tense hour waiting in the corridor outside the hospital wing, Hermione felt ready to jump out of her skin. She hated not knowing what was happening. She knew that Mrs. Weasley was right in ushering everyone outside to give Harry some privacy with Ginny, but the uncertainty was killing her.
Mr. Weasley had insisted that Mrs. Weasley needed to get something to eat, and he’d walked her down to the Great Hall. Bill and Fleur had joined them, but she and Ron had chosen to remain behind. Although she didn’t come right out and say it, she’d been worried that Harry might need some moral support when he emerged.
Shannon, George, Fred, and even Iris had all stopped by to check if there had been any progress, but neither of the twins had been able to sit still and wait. Ron had promised to get word to them if anything changed.
Ron had sat in the chair next to her, absently scrubbing some of the tarnish off the tiara, but he’d promptly fallen asleep, leaving her nothing to occupy her thoughts. The spider venom had to work! She didn’t even want to consider the alternative. If it failed…neither of her boys would ever be the same.
Pushing out of her chair, she paced the corridor, listening to Ron’s loud snores. Finally giving in to her curiosity, she leaned her head against the door of the hospital wing, pushing it open and gingerly peering inside.
Harry sat in the chair beside Ginny’s bed, his head resting on the corner of her pillow. He was awake, but his eyes looked droopy and close to shutting. He held Ginny’s hand in his own, gently caressing the side with his thumb.
Hermione’s heart clenched, and she had to put her hand over her mouth to quiet her gasp. He looked so lost and all alone that it made her heart ache. He’d lost so much already. Fate couldn’t be that cruel to bring him this far – this close to the end – only to snatch the one thing that had kept him going. Hermione was certain that Ginny was Harry’s hope for a better future.
She quietly shut the door, leaning her head against the wall in the corridor, feeling as if she was intruding on an incredibly personal moment. As they’d grown up together, she’d always felt the obsessive need to mother Harry, to watch out for him and make certain he was okay. She knew at times it drove both him and Ron mad, but she couldn’t help it. Perhaps it was because she knew no one else was doing it.
It had been different with Ron. She’d worried about him and fussed over him, of course. Merlin knew he needed a bit of fussing to get his homework done on time. Still, it wasn’t the same. Everything was always different with Ron. She always felt the need to take care of Harry, but with Ron, she always felt as if he were the one taking care of her.
He was so fiercely loyal and protective of both her and Harry. Although she’d never admit it to him, she was always secretly pleased when he defended her against Malfoy or any of the other Slytherins. By the same token, it had hurt so much worse during the whole Lavender Brown debacle when he taunted her ‘know-it-all’ ways.
Hermione shook her head. Now was not the time to go over that whole saga again. This was about Ginny. She didn’t even want to think about losing Ginny. Hermione had never had a close girlfriend before – not even in primary school where the other children had tended to mock her. Ginny had changed Hermione’s life, much the same way Ron and Harry had. Maybe not as completely since Hermione had learned something about having friends before she met Ginny, but she’d had a positive impact nonetheless.
And she’d certainly had a positive impact on Harry.
Harry always got a soft, glassy-eyed look on his face when he was thinking about Ginny. Hermione had noticed it their last term at Hogwarts, and it had been ever-present during their time at Privet Drive. Hermione had found it kind of cute to see emotionally-repressed Harry walking about with a lost puppy-dog expression.
Having Ginny in his life had been good for him. No matter how hard Hermione had tried to be the one to offer him some comfort, she had to admit that Ginny was the one who’d always been able to reach him. She could make him laugh in a way Ron and Hermione never could.
Hermione had seen strong glimpses of the man Harry was becoming this year, but he still needed some guidance and reassurance. She’d thought Remus would fill that role, but he’d also been ripped away from Harry. After that had happened, Hermione had finally realized that the role of guiding and supporting Harry was left to her, Ron and Ginny. They were his lifeline, and he needed them all desperately.
Ginny couldn’t break that lifeline now. The venom had to work. Hermione wasn’t certain Harry would survive if Ginny died, no matter how much she and Ron were there for him. Ginny had told her that Harry always kissed her as if it would be the last time he ever got to do it, and Hermione suspected that was true. He didn’t think he was gong to survive the final battle
She felt a twinge of guilt for allowing that feeling to fester within him, but part of Hermione’s plan hinged on that idea. Harry couldn’t work Occlumency. He’d tried and repeatedly failed, so Voldemort was certain to see inside his mind once the final battle began. If Harry thought the plan was to destroy himself, Voldemort would think the same thing. Hermione was counting on it.
She’d been formulating an idea with Professor Dumbledore’s portrait since she’d arrived here. He’d been really helpful in pulling her thoughts together. She’d discussed it with Ron and Ginny, and they both knew what they had to do. The only variable was Harry.
Hermione snorted, feeling a new appreciation for the Order’s frustration in keeping tabs on Harry. What she was planning was meant to save him, but she had to worry about him mucking up the plans most of all. She could understand his desire to protect them – he’d lost everyone else – but he was going to have to trust them for her plan to work.
He had to be able to make a leap of faith at the most crucial moment.
She only hoped that he could do it.
Hermione had made a promise to herself after the disaster at the Department of Mysteries to have some faith in her own judgment and not blindly follow Harry’s lead. He was quite a force to be reckoned with when he was angry, and his fury tended to intimidate Hermione when it was directed at her. Still, he wasn’t the only one growing up, and she knew her idea could work. She’d been right in telling Ginny about the Horcruxes, and she knew she was right now.
But all of it would be mute if Ginny died. Harry wouldn’t have any desire to go on after Voldemort’s demise. Pushing open the door, she again peeked inside. Harry had since fallen asleep, but Hermione had to blink twice to be certain what she was seeing.
Ginny’s eyes were still closed, and she appeared to be sleeping, but her fingers were gently running through the strands of Harry’s hair.
"Madam Pomfrey!" Hermione hissed, alerting the matron. "I think Ginny’s waking up."
Severa l days after Ginny’s brush with death, she was still in hospital recuperating. To everyone’s great relief, she was making definite, if slow, progress. Her organs were healing, but she was still too weak to get out of bed. Her breathing remained labored, and she suffered frequent loss of breath if she spoke too long.
She bore an angry red welt across her forehead and scalp where the snake had held her. Madam Pomfrey said there most likely always would be a scar, but fortunately her hair would hide most of it. Its mere existence infuriated Harry. He seethed that all this had marked her, much like it had done to him. Still, it could have been so much worse and for that, he was grateful.
Harry had taken to using his Invisibility Cloak to sneak into the hospital wing. He’d curl up in the empty bed next to Ginny’s and was actually sleeping better than he had in the loud dormitory. He felt better knowing he was beside her, just in case anything went wrong.
The gray light of dawn was beginning to seep through the windows, signaling it was time for Harry to return to his dormitory. He stretched languidly and pulled himself out of the bed, carefully re-tucking the corners of the sheets so Madam Pomfrey wouldn’t know he’d been there.
He leaned over to kiss Ginny’s forehead and was surprised when she opened her eyes.
"Hey," she said, sleepily. "D’you have to go already?"
A slow grin filtered across his face. "I didn’t know you knew I was here," he replied, whispering.
Ginny smiled, still keeping her eyes closed. "I can always tell when you’re here, Harry."
"Why? Do I stink?" he asked, raising his arm to sniff only half-jokingly.
Ginny snorted and finally opened her eyes. "No, you prat. You don’t stink. Your scent is very nice, actually."
"Er…that’s good…. I think," he said, raising his eyebrows. "How do you feel?"
Ginny shrugged. "Still tired and a bit sore, but stronger all the time. My left leg keeps going numb, but Madam Pomfrey thinks it’ll recover."
"You really scared me, Ginny," Harry whispered, tugging at a stray thread on her blanket.
"Sorry about that," Ginny replied, glancing up at the tone in his voice. "The Horcrux has been destroyed though, right?"
"Yeah. It’s just a tiara again," he replied, thinking about the thin, lightning bolt mark that he’d found on the inside of the piece after Ron had finished polishing it.
"So…what now?" Ginny asked, and Harry could hear the tremor in her voice.
"Right now we concentrate on getting you better. Don’t worry about anything else, Ginny," he said, locking eyes with hers.
"You’re not thinking about slipping off without us, are you, Harry? I couldn’t take that. I need to know you’re not going to do anything rash," Ginny said, her voice very low and husky.
"I’m not going to do anything until you’re well, Ginny," he said, and he meant it. He had to be certain she was well on the road of recovery before he could even consider leaving her.
"Good," Ginny replied, snuggling back beneath her covers. "What’s happening back in Gryffindor Tower?"
"Not much. The strangest thing is that Draco and Dudley appear to have become mates. It’s weird," Harry said, scratching his head. "Who would’ve ever thought Malfoy would befriend one of the most Muggle-borns of all Muggle-borns?"
Ginny rolled her eyes. "Well, both of them are used to having a pack, right? Didn’t you say that Dudley also had a little gang of followers?" she asked. "They’re both just looking to make a connection. Plus, they both hate you."
Harry snorted. "Yeah, there is that. You know, there were times before Pansy arrived that Draco had been almost…bearable. He wasn’t even as nasty about the things he learned during Occlumency as he could have been. Now, with Pansy and Dudley – he’s got his fan club back and has returned to gitdom."
"He never left gitdom, Harry," Ginny said, refusing to give an inch.
Harry covered a smile and changed the subject. "You know who seems to be getting along surprisingly well is Fred and Iris."
"Yeah, well…who didn’t see that coming?" Ginny asked, unimpressed.
Harry’s jaw fell open.
Ginny giggled and patted his hand. "Silly boy. Fred and Iris were both left out after Shannon joined us here. Besides, Fred always likes a challenge. Do you know that Mum is worried about how close George and Shannon have become? She doesn’t want them to get up to anything improper."
Harry laughed, remembering seeing the pair sneak out of more than their fair share of broom cupboards.
"Yeah. She’s obviously missed the fact that they’ve made it a mission to shag in every room of this castle," Ginny said.
"What? You’d be amazed how much people talk when they think you’re incapable of hearing them," she said primly.
Harry laughed nervously, wondering how much he’d let slip when he thought Ginny was sleeping.
"Don’t worry, Harry. I’ll always keep all your secrets," Ginny said.
"I really need to get back to the dormitory before I get caught here," Harry said reluctantly.
"Just stay a bit more and talk to me while I fall asleep," she whispered, as if knowing he could never refuse her.
"What would you like me to talk about?" he asked.
"Tell me that dream again…the one on the beach," Ginny sighed contentedly.
Harry smiled as he once again began relaying the story of the two of them walking hand in hand along the surf without a care in the world.
It was a nice dream for someday.
A/N: Thanks, as always, to my delightful beta, Sherylyn for her speedy edits and always-cheerful comments. Sherylyn is now working on her a project of her own – a dual-POV story to St. Margaret’s New Zealand Chronicles. Go on and take a look – it’s called Hearts Afire, and it’s a nice break from the angst and nail-biting about to come ;) We’re heading into the home stretch, folks. There will be 34 chapters in all.
I’d also like to thank KEDme, Dianne, GhostWriter and MuggleMomma for their support and encouragement. They were really great as I bounced ideas off all of them for the upcoming ending.
Thanks to all the well wishes and inquiries on my upcoming move – urgh. This is no fun, and you’ll probably continue to hear me moan about it. We’re having some massive renovations done to our house, and we have to completely move out while it’s being done. The work should commence in about 2 more weeks (yeah –right, I know that joke!), but the good news is that I already had cable installed in the cottage where we are staying so I shouldn’t have to be offline. Phew!