Chapter Three: The Return
She had done it. She had climbed the stairs to Gryffindor Tower.
She had contemplated trying to find a broom cupboard in which to wait out the several hours after curfew that it would take for the common room to empty. But the prospect of wandering the dark corridors in search of such a hideout threatened to bring back… not memories so much as anti-memories—dark, blank spaces bookended by feelings of guilt, shame, and fear.
So, she had stood before the portrait of the Fat Lady, all but whispered mimsy borogove, and climbed through the portrait hole. She had hovered near the entrance to the common room, hoping she wouldn’t be spotted.
And yet. She should have known.
Ron sprang from the overstuffed chair where he had been sitting and practically leapt over to her, wrapping her in probably the biggest hug he’d given her in his life, ever. Fred and George followed shortly, and even Percy, though in a more dignified manner than his younger brothers, joined the embrace and patted her head. Ginny’s eyes, throat, and chest burned.
“Ginny!” Ron said again, pulling back. “You’re all right!”
Ginny drew in a deep breath and put on a smile. “Course I am,” she said, but it came out croaky. She cleared her throat, shrugged her shoulder. “Dunno what you were worried for.”
“That’s our girl,” said Fred, and he ruffled Ginny’s hair.
“We looked for you in the hospital wing after dinner,” said Percy, “but Madam Pomfrey said you’d gone. Where’ve you been?”
Ginny shrugged again. “Went down by the lake for a bit.” She thought of Luna sketching merpeople and the bright golden rays of the sunset on the water. “But I’m here now.”
“Come have a game of Exploding Snap.” Fred motioned over to the chairs where he, George, and Ron had been sitting. Already there was a card tower of some height balancing precariously on the table.
“Er,” Ginny said, glancing over. Harry and Hermione were sitting there, Hermione with her nose mostly in a book, but her eyes peering out over the top, watching Ginny closely. Harry, looking over and smiling. He caught her eyes and waved. Ginny’s stomach lurched. “Er.”
But Fred would brook no protest. He and the others shuffled her over to their corner of the common room. They passed Colin Creevey on the way, and the Something around Ginny’s heart gave a tight squeeze. He looked up as they passed and waved. “Hiya, Ginny!”
Her voice caught in her throat as she tried to reply, so she just grimaced at him and waved.
In some ways, it was nice, being back in the common room. Fred and George made jokes and cast hexes on each other to make her laugh and were generally as loud as possible. Everyone laughed—even Percy—when the tower of cards exploded and Ron’s eyebrows almost caught fire.
The noisy chatter of the students surrounding her seemed mostly pleasant, but she wondered what they were talking about. As she glanced around, she caught a few people’s curious glances in her direction. Were they whispering about her? Did they know? What had Dumbledore told everyone at the feast? Ginny’s skin was starting to tingle. She could feel more and more eyes on her from across the room. She folded her hands tight in her lap and looked purposefully, intently, at Fred, whose eyebrows were growing rapidly and currently looked a bit like a handlebar moustache.
Suddenly, Hermione yawned loudly and closed her book with a loud thump. “I think I’m going to go to bed. You lot should get to bed soon, too,” she said, and glanced casually around at them, her eyes finally landing on Ginny.
“What in the blazes for?” demanded Ron.
“I’ll go to bed when I please, thanks, Mum,” George said, raising his own rapidly growing brows. He twirled the end of one for dramatic effect.
Hermione shrugged, unperturbed. “Suit yourselves. I’m going up. Ginny? You coming?”
Ginny was torn. She wasn’t really tired, but the common room was growing warm and uncomfortable and maybe a bit too loud. Her dormitory would at least be cool and quiet and dark. On the other hand, Hermione had that look like She Had Something to Say. Ginny wasn’t looking forward to a telling-off, but she supposed she had it coming. Might as well get it over with and then go to bed.
Just then, the card tower exploded again with a tremendous SNAP, and Ginny jumped. She collected herself and nodded up at Hermione, who was standing and waiting patiently, as if she already knew Ginny would come.
“Goodnight, everyone,” she said.
There came a chorus of goodnights from her brothers and Harry—gulp—and she followed Hermione up the stairs to the girls’ dormitories.
Once they had reached the second-floor landing and the noise below began to fade, Hermione turned to Ginny. Here we go. Ginny bowed her head and tried to steel herself.
“Ron and Harry told me what happened, the whole story,” began Hermione. Ginny nodded, and shut her eyes tight against the wetness beginning to form there. “And I just wanted to say I’m sorry.”
Ginny looked up, incredulous. “What?”
Hermione nodded. “I should have figured it out sooner. I’d worked it out about the basilisk—”
“Sorry,” Hermione said and put a hand on Ginny’s shoulder. “I’d worked it out about the…monster and the chamber and the pipes. But I hadn’t quite worked out who was doing it.”
Ginny shut her eyes again and bit her lip. Here it came.
“If only I’d thought of You-Know-Who—sorry—” Ginny had flinched again. “If only I’d thought of him sooner, he might not have… you know… taken you. I’m so sorry this happened to you. If you ever want to talk about it, I’m here to listen.”
By now, Ginny was silently sobbing. She could tell Hermione was trying to help, but she—that is, Hermione—didn’t really understand. She couldn’t. Hermione, who made perfect scores on every exam, who did extra reams of parchment on essays, who somehow managed to keep her brother mostly out of trouble, who had probably never lost a single house point for Gryffindor. How could Hermione understand what it was like to be responsible for the near deaths of her friends and schoolmates? How could Ginny possibly explain? Her father had been right. She should have thrown that diary into the fire the moment she’d discovered it among her schoolbooks at the Leaky Cauldron.
“Here,” Hermione said gently, and pulled Ginny into the first years’ dorm. It was quieter and cooler and gloriously empty. Hermione wrapped Ginny in a hug, and Ginny’s silent sobs turned into just sobs. When her eyes finally dried out, she pulled back and wiped her eyes and nose.
“Sorry about your shirt,” said Ginny.
Hermione laughed. “It’s perfectly all right,” she said. “Do you want to talk?”
Ginny thought about it. Maybe Hermione, out of everyone, deserved an explanation. She tried to consider it, but as her thoughts started to flit toward that deepest and darkest corner in her mind, her mouth clamped shut and her heart felt like it stopped. She couldn’t do it. Not now. Maybe not ever. So much for being a Gryffindor.
Finally, she spoke. “I think I just want to go to bed. Thank you for… thanks.”
Hermione smiled and hugged her again. “Just let me know,” she said, and Ginny nodded, though doubtfully, and then Hermione left.
Ginny dressed for bed and then laid in her four poster with the hangings pulled tight, but she couldn’t bring herself to close her eyes, lest her mind wander to that same place she couldn’t talk about with Hermione. She cursed herself for forgetting the sleeping draughts under her pillow in the hospital wing. What she wouldn’t give now for some twelve-odd hours of dreamless sleep.
Her dormmates entered the room soon after, chattering loudly at first, but then quietly as they noticed Ginny’s pulled hangings. She heard them drop off to sleep, one by one, and then she heard only the hooting of the occasional owl as it flew by Gryffindor Tower in the night.
Once she was sure the others were asleep, she crept back into the common room and curled up in an armchair by the dwindling fire. She stared into its golden depths and listened to it crack until she finally fell asleep.
At some point, she halfway woke to the sensation of being carried up the stairs. She opened her eyes just a crack to see Professor McGonagall’s stern mouth pulled into a frown. Was she going to be in trouble for being out of bed? She quickly shut her eyes again.
But the deputy headmistress just eased open the door to Ginny’s dorm, laid her in her bed, and pulled the covers to Ginny’s chin. She pulled the hangings shut, and then Ginny could hear the soft click of the dormitory door being closed. Ginny lit her wand with a soft lumos, laid it next to her, and then tried once again to drop off to sleep.
Her dreams were full of empty snakeskins and dead roosters and massive stone chambers dripping with venom that hissed as it hit the floor. She woke up more than once crying out in fear, and once or twice she heard the uncertain whispers of the other girls in her dorm.
“Ginny?” they called, but she did not reply.
When she awoke after one such dream to the pale blue light of early morning, she simply crawled out of bed, dressed, and crept out of Gryffindor Tower. If she went to the Great Hall now, she could probably sneak some breakfast in before anyone else was awake.
And then she was going to the hospital wing to steal those sleeping draughts.