Following Ginny turned out to be the easiest part of their journey to Churchstanton. As Harry fell into step behind her, Harry found it hard to keep himself focused on the root and rock filled path and not on the pretty girl walking in front of him. It became especially hard when he tripped into her for the sixth time and she began to tease him about watching where he was going.
“I am watching where I’m going,” he said, trying to act nonchalant.
“Uh, huh,” she said, not turning around. “They say a guy notices a girl’s front first, not her backside.”
This time when Harry tripped, he made no effort to use Ginny to stop his fall and hit the ground with an awkward thud. Dust from the path flew into his open mouth and he found himself choking and coughing on its metallic taste.
Ginny squatted beside him and dabbed at the corners of his mouth with a handkerchief. “Was it something I said?” she asked cheekily.
He continued to stare at her, absently wiping his shirt with his hands. “You just.... How could you say.... I wasn’t...” Harry’s mind was whirring and he found it difficult to find any word over one syllable in his vocabulary.
“Listen, Harry,” said Ginny plainly. “I know you’ve been checking me out and it’s all right with me, but let’s get something straight.” She pulled on his hand until they were both standing. “If you fancy me, then just tell me, all right?”
Not knowing what else to do, he nodded dumbly and watched her as she finished removing the dirt on his shirt and trousers. “Now,” she said when he was satisfied, “let’s get...”
A vibrating sound reverberated through the ground into their feet and legs, breaking Ginny’s train of thought. They grabbed each other’s shoulders to keep themselves balanced until the rumbling stopped.
“What in the world was that?” asked Ginny, squinting towards a hill in the distance.
“I don’t know,” said Harry, regaining his composure. “Whatever it is, I think we should put some distance between us and it.” He took her hand firmly in his and they ran quickly towards a line of trees in the distance.
An explosion sounded behind them, spurring them on even faster. As they ran, Harry caught sight of a two people hurrying towards them from a rise to the south. They were too far to determine their identity, and just as he was about to stop to take another look, they met the tree line and Ginny pulled him inside.
They crashed through the underbrush for several minutes, and then Harry slowed them down so the noise they were making didn’t alert anyone that might be nearby. A few minutes later, they came across a small trail that led north and south through the very thick trees.
“Which way?” asked Harry, deciding to defer to Ginny’s familiarity with the way to her aunt’s house.
Ginny rubbed her chin with a pair of fingers and her thumb as she tried to look down the trail as far as possible each way. “That way,” she pronounced, grabbing his hand again and pulling them south. “We’ll follow this for a while and try to shake anyone that might be following us. Then... we’ll try to get out of these damned woods.”
Harry chuckled and said, “Sounds good to me.”
They walked together for what seemed like hours, but the glimpses he caught of the sun through the trees told Harry that it hadn’t been nearly that long. Ginny stopped every ten or fifteen minutes to rest and listen, and Harry used it to watch her.
“Ginny?” Harry asked quietly. “I wanted to answer your question.”
“Which one was that?” she asked, taking a tiny swig of water from her bottle.
Harry capped his own bottle and pushed into the bag at his feet. “The one about how I feel about you.”
Ginny’s face became serious and she pinned her bottle between her legs so she could re-apply the band to her ponytail. “It wasn’t a question,” she said. “I just want you to figure out where you stand with me and when you do, I need you to tell me. No messing around.”
Harry swallowed. “Have you figured out how you feel about me?” he asked.
Her hands froze in mid air, just as Ginny was pulling her hair through the last loop of the band. Then after a stifling second, she flipped it out and caught Harry’s eye. “No,” she answered. “I guess I haven’t.”
“Then the deal goes both ways.”
Nodding her head thoughtfully, Ginny stood and grabbed the bag. “My turn to carry the backpack, and yes, when I’ve figured out how I feel about you, I’ll tell you.”
With a grin on his face, Harry waited for Ginny to re-tie her trainers and tapped his wand to the backpack. He handed it to her and then took the lead as they continued walking south.
They turned west and came out of the trees, following a small stream that Ginny said led to the River Culm. Lunch came and went and they ate a piece of fruit each, while still walking, and planned on being at Ginny’s aunt’s house just after nightfall. By mid-afternoon, their pace was slowing as their tired legs screamed in protest. The stream was larger here and another patch of woods loomed a mile ahead.
“What’s your favorite food?” Harry asked suddenly. Ginny turned and gave him a quizzical glance. Harry shrugged in reply and said, “I just thought that if I was going to figure you out, I ought to know something about you. I mean, I know that you like to fly brooms, you’ve got an atrocious temper, you don’t tolerate idiots and you sleep with a stuffed unicorn named Sparkles.”
Ginny stopped in her tracks and let out a loud guffaw. “What do you know about Sparkles?” she teased before walking off again.
Harry jogged to catch up to her, hitching his thumbs in the straps of the pack. “You were mumbling in your sleep last night.”
Ginny thwacked him in the shoulder.
“Ow,” Harry complained. “What was that for?”
“I don’t talk in my sleep,” Ginny said simply. “You must have been dreaming.”
With a wry smile, Harry said, “So I must have been dreaming about how Fred took Sparkles and hid her in the tree house?”
Another thwack. “The correct answer is, ‘Yes, dear’,” Ginny said, a playful smile on her lips.
Harry laughed. “You never told me what your favorite food is.”
Ginny gave a dramatic sigh. “I suppose you’re too pig-headed to train up properly. Pity those Muggles you live with didn’t put the fear of women into you at an early age.”
“Uh, huh,” Harry replied. “And your favorite food is....”
Her hand flew out again, but this time, Harry caught it and wove his fingers with hers.
They walked that way for a minute before Ginny said, “Roast chicken.”
Harry nodded thoughtfully and said, “I love your mum’s meat pies.”
“Ooh,” Ginny said with a snicker. “You’ll be her favorite adopted son for sure when you tell her that.”
“Yeah, well,” Harry said with a forlorn look at the trees as they drew close. “If I see her again, there’s a whole bunch of stuff I’m going to tell her.”
Ginny glanced at Harry and nudged him with her shoulder. “Yeah? Like what?”
Harry pulled up short and drew in a shaky breath. Ginny turned around and as their eyes locked, it felt like his stomach was floating. “I’m going to tell her,” he said huskily. “That she has the most beautiful daughter in the world.” Harry’s hand rose to her cheek and drew her into him. Ginny’s eyes welled with unshed tears and he continued. “I’m going to tell her that these past few days with you have meant more to me than every other day in my life. I’m going to tell her....” Harry’s voice broke and a tear slid down Ginny’s cheek onto his thumb. “I’m going to tell her that I lo – ”
A sizzling red spell ripped the air over their heads and they ducked instinctively. It struck a tree a few yards away, leaving an angry, smoking hole. Harry looked back to where the spell originated and was surprised to see three figures running towards them in black cloaks.
Harry grabbed Ginny’s hand again and pulled her towards the trees. More spells whizzed around them as they ran, hitting dirt, rock, and wood ahead of them.
Putting a larger oak tree between them and their pursuers, Harry took Ginny in his arms and squeezed his eyes shut. With a pop, they appeared on a large branch about halfway up. Their sudden transport surprised them both and Harry had to cup his hand over Ginny’s mouth to stifle her scream.
Angry voices met their ears as they clung to each other and the rough trunk of the tree.
“They went this way,” said one of the men.
Another just behind him said, “I heard someone Apparating. They probably escaped.”
“They can’t Apparate, you idiot,” piped in the third one. “They’re just kids.”
Harry took out his wand and tapped it on Ginny’s, then Harry’s head, feeling the familiar cold liquid trickle down his body. The only way he knew that Ginny was still there was by her breath on his neck and her warm body pressed against him.
The Death Eaters conferred for a moment, and then one of the men Apparated away. Their whispers were too faint to hear, so Harry had no idea what they had said.
One of the men had his wand pointed into the trees, an oddly pink light emanating from it. He swept it around in the branches of the trees, obviously looking for something – for them. Everywhere the beam touched something solid, it would shimmer, as if diffusing the light around it.
Harry fought a surge of panic down when he realized what was happening and pointed his own wand down at the men. If that pink light came too close to them, he would at least be ready for it.
Ginny’s breathing increased and Harry tried not to be distracted by the way she was wiggling on his leg. The beam swept passed their position, coming with an inch of Harry’s foot. If there was any kind of pattern to the man’s actions, Harry was sure the beam would hit them next. The pink light swept back, right at them and then it stopped, right on Harry and Ginny.
“Stupefy!” Harry yelled. His stunner shot down to the forest floor and impacted right where the Death Eater had been – he was no longer there.
“Dirumpo!” yelled the other man and an orange light hit the tree behind Harry.
The resulting blast shot Harry and Ginny off the branch and they fell onto a rotting log. Harry had twisted in the air enough that Ginny landed on him, saving her, but knocking the wind out of his lungs.
Harry wheezed, trying to catch his breath so he could start slinging hexes. Ginny beat him to it, however, and knocked over the man who had discovered them with a well-placed tickling jinx. Harry got shakily to his feet and parried another spell from a third Death Eater. The next thing he knew, he was face down on the forest floor and had a terrible ringing in his ears.
He leapt to his feet and whirled to see the first wizard wrestling with Ginny near the log that broke their fall. She kicked the man solidly in the groin and he went down. Just as she locked eyes with Harry and they began to run for each other, a red spell slammed into her back and she pitched headlong onto a knotted root.
“No!” Harry yelled and stunned the man that had cursed Ginny. The man that Ginny had kicked was recovering and had taken out an old boot from his robes – a Portkey. He reached for Ginny and Harry pointed his wand at the still form lying at the base of the tree. “Accio-“ he began but a foot connected with his hand, sending his wand flying over his head.
Harry pulled his throbbing hand protectively to his chest and faced down his attacker. The Death Eater circled Harry, his wand missing as well, and just when Harry was about to claw his way through the man to get to Ginny, they heard a pop. They both looked to where Ginny had been and found nothing – Ginny had been captured.
With a primal scream, Harry launched himself at the last standing Death Eater, but the wizard simply retrieved a bent candlestick from a pocket and tapped it with his finger. In a blink, he, too, was gone.
Slouching onto the forest floor, breathing heavily, but not knowing what else he could do, Harry stared at the spot where Ginny had been. He thought about how close he had been to getting her free of the Death Eaters, about how he had almost told her that he was starting to feel differently about her, and about how much he missed her already. She was in harm’s way and it was completely his fault.
He jerked his head up and Hermione barreled into him. “Harry!” she repeated and started to cry. “We thought we’d lost you. Everyone’s been worried sick. Dumbledore and the Order fought a load of Death Eaters, Fred and George were brilliant! And, Harry? Where’s Ginny?”
“Hermione?” Harry asked tentatively. He looked up and saw Ron looming over them. “Ron?”
“Hey, mate,” Ron said and extended a hand. Harry took it and was pulled to his feet. “We saw you fighting that Death Eater. Did they take Ginny?” Ron’s eyes were serious, but oddly calm.
“Yeah,” Harry replied, glancing once again at the knotted root. “We need to find her. I need to...” But Harry couldn’t bring himself to tell them. It was hard enough to gather his courage to tell Ginny.
Ron clapped him on the shoulder. “I know you do. We all do.”
“So what’s our plan?” Hermione asked, looking between both boys. “How do we even know where she is?”
“Well, it’s pretty obvious that she’s with Vo – You-Know-Who,” Ron replied.
Hermione huffed. “But where is Voldemort? If we don’t have a place to look, then there’s no hope of finding her.”
“I know where she is,” Harry interjected, mostly to stop them from arguing.
Ron’s eyebrows were arched high on his forehead while Hermione simply gaped at him. “You do?” they chorused. “How?”
Harry shrugged. “I cast a Tracking Spell on her backpack. I linked it to me, so that I could tell exactly where she was. Once they’re in the same place for five full minutes, I’ll be able to see it in my mind.”
“How did you do that?” asked a perplexed Hermione. When Harry shrugged off her question, she pressed on. “Even so, how will we get there? We can’t Apparate yet, and we don’t know how to make a Portkey.”
“And there’s no adults around to do it for us,” Ron offered.
“We won’t need to,” said Harry. For a vision had just popped into his head. “She’s close – about a mile away, in an old cottage. Voldemort’s not there, though. It’s...it’s Malfoy.”
“Draco?” Ron asked, incredulously.
“No. His father.”
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