The hammock swayed as Harry stroked Ginny's hair. His face nuzzled her head as it rested on his chest. He breathed deeply; the last time he had smelled her ineffable fragrance had been on his birthday, almost a year and a lifetime ago.
He put both arms around her and pressed closer, rocking her gently. Her weeping was the only sound in the Room of Requirement.
"Ginny," he whispered. "Don't cry."
"He's gone." She lifted her head and looked at him with red and puffy eyes. Harry gently wiped her cheeks with his fingers. "I can't live without him, Harry. He's gone, my brother is gone."
He pulled her back and tightened his embrace. "Ginny, we have everything to live for. We have each other."
She was silent and gradually her chest stopped heaving. "I was scared for you the whole time."
"So was I." He began stroking her hair again.
"Harry, that stone you told me about . . ."
Harry's hand stopped. "No, Gin. It's not what you think it is."
She lifted her head and looked at him. "You used it, and you saw your parents."
"Ginny, please don't ask me about it."
She rolled on her back and lay silently, staring up at the vaulted ceiling. After a moment she rolled back next to him and put her hand on his chest, sighing. "I'm sorry. I miss him so much."
She began to cry again, softly. Harry kissed her and after a moment their arms went around each other and passion took them.
"Has anyone seen Ginny?"
Ron and Hermione looked up at Harry, standing in front of them. They were nestled on a couch in a corner of the almost-empty common room. Ron was reclining with his head in Hermione's lap; she was leafing through book. A few other students were sitting quietly in chairs. Everyone except Hermione was watching two house-elves repairing a broken window. They had already fixed three; four more were left. The room was otherwise intact, unlike much of the castle.
"The last I knew she was with Mum and Dad," Ron said. "Where have you looked?"
"Everywhere. Is she in the girls' dorm?"
"I'll go check." Hermione put down the book and Ron lifted his head. She got up and went into the girl's stairwell, and Harry dropped next to Ron, who had sat up.
"Why is she reading Hogwarts: A History?" Harry asked, examining the book.
"She wants to figure out if what the Slytherins did ever happened before, turning their backs on everyone else like that. You've got to wonder if they'll let any of them back next year."
"If there is a next year."
"Yeah." Ron stared at the house-elves. One of the window casements was now hung, and they were lifting the other into place. "What's up with Ginny?"
"We were going to take a walk down to the lake."
Harry raised his eyebrows. "Do you really want to know?"
Ron looked away at the elves, but before he could say anything Hermione reappeared in the stairwell.
"She's not there," she said as she walked over to them. "When was the last time you saw her?"
"At lunch," Harry replied. "We were supposed to meet an hour ago, but no one has seen her."
"She's not doing well," Hermione said. "She's taking it worse than Mrs. Weasley, if that's possible."
Harry pressed his lips together and looked down at his hands. He flexed his fingers and remembered last night in the hammock, with Ginny's face under his, her mouth slightly open and her eyes closed, her breathing coming faster as his fingers touched places that he never imagined could be so wonderful to touch.
"I told her about the Deathly Hallows," he said without looking up. "She asked about the Resurrection Stone. She wants to see Fred."
"Why the hell did you do that?" Ron scowled. "Dammit, Harry, what if she brings him back? Don't you remember the story? She could end up doing something stupid, especially in the state she's in."
"She'll never find it," Harry said, still looking down but now scowling himself.
"You still shouldn't have told her. Did you tell her about the Wand too?"
"Yes, and why not?"
"Harry," Hermione said before Ron could say something even more angrily, "that probably wasn't a good idea. The more who know, the more likely it is that the story will get out."
Harry didn't answer. He and Ginny had told each other many things last night, and the intimacy between them had felt good, as good as the other kind of intimacy. It had not occurred to him that she would want to look for the Stone. Maybe he should have thought of it, but he wanted to tell her; he had never felt so open with anyone, not even Sirius.
"Does she know that she has to keep it secret?" Hermione asked.
"Of course!" Harry snapped. "Look, it's done, she knows. If she's gone to look for it, at least we know where she went."
"So now what?" Hermione said. "She shouldn't be left alone, especially if she went into the Forest."
They looked up at footsteps coming down the stairs from the boys' dormitory. Dean appeared, followed by Seamus, Neville, Parvati, Hannah Abbott, and Lavender. Lavender's head was wrapped in bandages and Seamus held her arm; she looked unsteady. The rest were somber, and the girls had tear-streaked faces.
"Hey, guys," Dean said as they came over. "We had a little memorial for Colin, but the house-elves finally showed up. They'll finish fixing the hole in the wall in an hour or so, and we can sleep there tonight." He glanced at Harry who looked away; Ron scowled but said nothing.
"Have you seen Ginny?" Hermione asked.
Dean shook his head. "Not since a couple of hours ago."
"Where was she?" Harry said.
Dean looked at him in surprise. "She came up to the room. She said you wanted her to get something from your satchel, the one you're keeping your things in."
"What? I didn't . . ."
"She was looking for something," Dean said when Harry didn't go on, "but I don't know if she found it, and she left in a hurry. Sorry, we just assumed you asked her to get it. We figured you were busy with Shacklebolt or something."
Harry shot off the couch to the stairs. He took the steps two at a time and burst into the seventh-year boys room with Ron and Hermione right behind. He stopped short when he saw two house-elves, one standing on a ladder, lifting blocks of stone and placing them into a large hole in the wall near the ceiling; the stones appeared far too heavy for an elf, but they seemed to have no trouble lifting them. They ignored the three students.
Harry dove under his bed and emerged a moment later holding his Invisibility Cloak.
"I hid it there," he said to Hermione and Ron in a low voice, glancing at the elves; they continued to ignore them. He took the battered duffel bag he was using as a trunk from the floor next to the bed and pawed through the contents. "I don't think anything is missing. The Cloak is the only thing I'm not keeping in it, so that's probably what she was looking for."
"She's in the Forest," Hermione said. "We have to find her. Those spiders might still be around. I don't think they killed all of them." Ron went pale. Harry stared at Hermione and her eyes narrowed. "Harry, are you sure you don't know where the Stone is?"
He sat heavily on the bed, looking both sick and guilty. "I was right outside Aragog's den. I could see webs. I told Ginny that's where I was, and . . . and we also talked about her first year." He looked at Ron. "Following the spiders."
No one moved; Ron had grown even paler. Suddenly Harry sprang up, pushed past Hermione, and ran out the door.
"Harry, wait!" she called. She started after him but stopped when Ron hung back; she glared at him. "Are you coming?"
"I'd rather not, but . . ." He sighed and followed her out.
Harry flew down the stairs. Dean and the others were standing in the same place, watching the elves put the finishing touches on the window. They turned their heads when Harry tore through, but he didn't stop. He banged open the portrait, drawing a shriek from the Fat Lady, and moments later was down in the entrance hall. He had to skid to a stop to avoid bowling over a house-elf. A small army of them were scurrying here and there, carrying away rubble and sweeping the floor; a half-dozen were perched on a scaffold repairing the four House hourglasses.
Three people and two goblins stood just inside the entrance and what was left of the great oak doors. In the center of the group was the imposing figure of Kingsley Shacklebolt, wearing ordinary robes but with a gold earring dangling from his right ear. The goblins stared at Harry and he flinched from their blatant hostility.
One of people, a tall dark-skinned woman, nudged Kingsley and pointed at Harry. Kingsley turned; he looked upset, and his voice boomed in the hall.
"Harry! We were just about to send for you. Join us for a moment."
Harry glanced around, looking for any other way out, but Kingsley had not waited. He strode towards Harry, the tall woman at his side. The goblins, along with an Auror who Harry recognized as Gawain Robards, remained by the doors.
"Harry," Kingsley said, taking his arm, eliminating any chance of escape, "we need your help. There's a problem at Gringotts, and—"
"Sir," Harry interrupted, "can I come back in a couple of minutes? I need to find someone right away."
The new Minister for Magic frowned. "Can it wait? This is important."
The woman stared at Harry, and he wondered for a moment if she was using Legilimency, but Kingsley went on. "Those goblins," he lowered his voice, "don't look at them—say that someone severely damaged Gringotts a few days ago, and they're threatening to lock down the vaults unless we arrest the perpetrators. I was wondering if you could tell us anything."
The woman spoke for the first time. "The goblins claim that you and two of your friends stole a dragon and used it to break out of the building through the roof. The damage was considerable, they say."
Harry glanced from Shacklebolt to her. "And you are . . .?" he asked, stalling, hoping for Hermione and Ron to show up and give him a chance to slip away. Undoubtedly Hermione would be able to talk her way out of this difficulty.
"Sorry," said Kingsley, and let go of Harry's arm. "This is Madam Ushujaa. She's my new Head Auror. Gawain is now Head of the Magical Law Enforcement Department."
Harry glanced at the door again. He needed to get out. Ginny could be . . . but he did not want to think about that. "Well, I'm not sure I can help. And I really do need to be going. Mrs. Weasley isn't feeling well and she wanted Ginny. I think she's out in the grounds somewhere, so I'm going to look for her."
"I just saw Molly in the Headmistress's office," said Madam Ushujaa, staring hard at Harry. "She seemed fine."
Harry glared back. "That's not what Percy said."
Everyone's head turned as Hermione and Ron came trotting down the marble stairs. Harry edged away from Kingsley as his two friends joined them.
"Harry," the Minister said, taking Harry's arm again, "people need to get to their gold, but more important, at this moment we do not need a fight with the goblins. It would give the Death Eaters still out there a chance to stir things up again, to cause more trouble. A lot of goblins supported Voldemort or expected him to win. They could make things very difficult, just when it looks like we've won. Harry, I don't need a goblin rebellion on my hands."
Harry had no wish to deal with goblins again, even if Ginny were not in danger. Let others handle them; he had done his job, he had defeated Voldemort in part because of what he had done in Gringotts. If Kingsley knew, he would just tell these goblins to bugger off.
"I can't help you," he said as calmly but as forcefully as he could, given that he was talking to the Minister for Magic. "I don't know what those goblins are talking about." He shot what he hoped was a meaningful look at Ron and Hermione, and tried to move away, but the Minister still held his arm, and Kingsley's grip was strong. A picture of Ginny facing a giant spider came into Harry's mind. "I need to go."
"Minister," Hermione said, "when we were in Gringotts, we found a dragon that was blind and chained next to a vault. Isn't that against regulations of the Dragon Research and Restraint Bureau? I'm sure I remember from Care of Magical Creatures that there is a law against chaining a dragon indoors."
The Minister and the Auror stood with knitted brows, staring at Hermione, and Kingsley dropped Harry's arm. He quickly backed away, turned, and went for the door.
"Harry!" Kingsley bellowed, but Harry heard Hermione speak, and kept going. The goblins by the door snarled in Gobbledegook as he passed, but he didn't stop. He glanced back once. Madam Ushujaa was glaring fiercely at him, Hermione was talking earnestly to the Minister, and Ron was standing between Kingsley and the door.
It was cloudy and the air was heavy as Harry trotted across the lawn. When he thought he was far enough away from the castle and curious eyes, he began to run. He did not stop until he stood panting for breath at the edge of the Forbidden Forest.
"Ginny!" he shouted, "Ginny! Please!" He heard only silence.
He drew the phoenix wand for the first time since he had repaired it and walked into the trees, trying to recall his steps from three nights ago, when it had been so dark and he had been so terrified. His feet and the spirits of his parents, Remus, and Sirius had taken him to where he had to go, and then the two Death Eaters had unknowingly led him to their camp, in front of the entrance to Aragog's den. There he had dropped the Stone. He had told Ginny all of that. He shuddered to think of her standing in that spot, and pushed forward.
The underbrush was thicker than he remembered. Bushes and brambles grabbed his arms and clothing, and low branches whipped across his face; he had to put his hand up to ward them off. The Forest seemed to be fighting him.
He soon realized he would never find the clearing by himself. He thought about getting Hagrid, who certainly knew where Aragog's cave was, but he would have to tell the gamekeeper why he thought Ginny was there, which would mean lying, and Hagrid was the last man on earth Harry wanted to tell a lie to. He went on alone.
Maybe he should never have told Ginny about the Resurrection Stone, but telling her everything, baring his soul, had felt so good, so right. No, if he had withheld anything from her about this past year, it would have been a betrayal of the kiss she had left him with on his last birthday. The memory of that kiss had been a lifeline during those bitter, lonely nights in that tent, waiting for death or worse. He had had no choice but to tell her.
He was carefully working around a particularly dense and nasty-looking thicket of thorny bushes when he sensed that he was not alone. He stopped and looked around. Under the trees off to his left stood a silver-gray centaur. It held a bow in its hand, but the arrow was not notched. It was gazing at him.
"Are you seeking someone, Harry Potter?" the centaur called.
Harry had had enough dealings with these creatures to be only partly surprised at the question. "Ginny Weasley," he said after a moment. "Where is she?"
"I have what she was seeking. The centaurs are returning it to you. It is yours and we do not want it in our forest."
Now Harry was surprised, even startled. "You have the Stone? How did you find it?"
The centaur ignored the question. "You will take it and you will never bring it back here."
"I don't want it. What am I supposed to do with it? You keep it. Tell me where Ginny is."
The centaur gave a short cry, stamped its hooves, and suddenly moved. It came crashing through the undergrowth towards Harry, who backed away until he came up against a tree. The centaur stood before him, its dark eyes flashing.
"Do not ask questions, man! If you do not take it, you may never see your female again. I do not have time to debate with you. Either take it or leave!"
It thrust its free hand—the one not holding the bow —into a pouch hanging on its neck, took something from it, and held it out; it was the Resurrection Stone.
Harry stared; he was seeing it for the first time in daylight, gloomy as it was in the Forest. The crack down the middle, right along the line representing the Elder Wand, was quite visible, as was the entire Hallows symbol. The centaur stepped closer and thrust the Stone only inches from Harry's face. He had no choice; he slowly lifted his hand and took it.
"Where is Ginny?" he said again.
The centaur turned and moved away. It glanced over its shoulder and Harry followed. They went along a path he had not noticed that wound past heavy thickets, down into a shallow gully, up again, and circled a low hill. Harry kept glancing around, trying to remember if he had seen any of these places on his way to Voldemort's camp. It had been too dark, though; he did not have the slightest idea where he was.
The centaur was a few paces ahead, but never looked back after his first glance. After fifteen minutes of moving through damp and oppressive air, as well as the underbrush, Harry heard angry voices ahead. They entered a clearing and Harry recognized the place where he had faced Voldemort.
The den was there, but the shredded webs were gone. In front of it was a strange grouping: two centaurs stood slightly off to one side, and several yards from them Ginny was sitting on the ground, her knees drawn up and her forehead resting on them. Her hands were bound behind her back. Four goblins surrounded her. One of the goblins was gripping her shoulder with its claw-like fingers.
Wit a cry of rage Harry pushed past the centaur into the clearing. Ginny lifted her head and he pointed his wand. "Harry!" she screamed. The centaurs looked around, and Harry recognized one of them as Bane.
"Let her go!" he shouted, his wand aimed at the goblins.
"Harry Potter!" Bane called and raised his hand. "Wait! We must talk."
"Let her go and we'll talk!" He strode towards the goblins. One of them moved to stand in front of Ginny and Harry stopped.
The goblin bared sharp teeth in a frightening leer. "You owe us a great debt, Potter, and we have something of yours."
He gestured over his shoulder. The goblin holding Ginny drew a dagger and held it next to her head. She tried to pull away, but the goblin yanked her back.
"Leave her alone!" Harry yelled, his fury rising. "If you touch her you're dead!" He gestured with his wand. The goblin standing in front of Ginny shrank back, but the second one put the dagger to her throat.
"Harry, no!" bellowed Bane. "Let us talk! Do not do anything rash!"
Harry's face was white with fury at the sight of Ginny helpless in the goblin's grip.
"Tell them to let her go! I swear, I'll kill them all if they hurt her. Put that knife away!" he shouted at the goblin.
The goblin did not move, but bared its teeth. "We are at an impasse, Potter. But if you agree, before these centaurs, to repay us for what you did to our dragon and our building, we will let this witch go."
Harry's wand was steady and still leveled at the goblin. He knew he could not use it against that one; he was too close to Ginny. Her hair was disheveled and full of twigs and leaves, but her eyes blazed.
He recalled what had happened last night in the hammock. "What do you want?" he said, his teeth clenched.
The goblin grinned; his face was full of pointed teeth. "Now you are being reasonable. You must return the sword you stole from us, and you must pay us one hundred thousand Galleons from your vault. Do not claim poverty, Potter. We know how much gold you have."
Harry's fury boiled up. He pointed his wand directly at the goblin. "I don't have the sword, and I didn't steal it. I'll give you the gold, but I can't give you the sword. It's not mine to give."
"That is too bad, Potter. If we do not get the sword, you do not get the witch."
Harry's wand jerked, and a single ball of red flame shot past the goblin. He ducked his head and Ginny twisted away, falling sideways on the ground. "Now, Harry!" she screamed.
Harry shot a Stunning spell. The goblin flew backwards and fell senseless halfway into the opening of the den. Another goblin jumped behind Ginny, put his arm around her throat and held another dagger to the side of her neck; Ginny looked sideways at it, her eyes wide, and did not move.
"Drop your wand or she dies!" the goblin snarled.
Harry lowered his wand but did not drop it and pointed a trembling finger at the creature.
"I swear if you hurt her you will all die. I've already given you my gold, but I have no way of giving you the sword. Let her go!"
"Enough!" Bane roared, and leaped to stand between Harry and the goblins. An arrow was notched in his bow and the other two centaurs also had arrows strung. "You will not do this in our forest! You will all put your weapons away, now!"
The goblin took his dagger from Ginny's neck but not his arm, and he kept the knife in his hand. Harry kept his wand at his side. He saw a trickle of red run down Ginny's neck and almost raised his wand again, but stopped when Bane yelled, "Do not!" and pointed his bow at him.
"I have something else," Harry said, keeping his voice calm with great difficulty. He reached into his pocket and took out the Stone. "This is the Resurrection Stone, one of the Deathly Hallows. Do you know what they are?" He saw a gleam in the eye of the goblin holding Ginny.
"Harry, no!" Ginny cried, but he shook his head.
"Goblin, you have already harmed her. If you don't take this and let her go, you and all your people will regret it forever. I hunted down a wizard a thousand times stronger than you, and he is now dead. For the last time, let her go!"
He held the Stone up. The three goblins exchanged looks, and the one holding Ginny dropped his arm and with one swift motion cut her bonds with the dagger. He shoved her aside, slipped his weapon into his belt, and held out his hand towards Harry.
Ginny rose, whirled and swung her fist. It hit the goblin's nose with a crack and it bent sideways. He cried out and put a hand to his face, then reached for his dagger. Ginny sprang back as Harry's wand came up.
"I said enough!" Bane roared in a voice that seemed to shake the trees and made the goblin shrink back. "Ginevra Weasley, leave this place now! Both of you!" He shook his bow at her and then at Harry. "Harry Potter, give the Stone to the goblin and leave. Goblin," he turned to the one Ginny had hit; he was still holding his face and blood was dripping through his fingers. "What you have been offered is worth more than all the gold in your vaults. Take it and be satisfied. Harry Potter now owes nothing to such ingrates as you!"
He stepped back and Ginny ran to Harry. He tossed the Stone to a goblin, who caught it with one hand. Harry took Ginny with his arm but looked around when two other goblins entered the clearing; he was certain they were the ones he had left behind in the castle. He raised his wand and covered the newcomers as they walked to their comrades, watching him warily.
Harry pointed his wand at the Stunned goblin. "Rennervate!" he called; the goblin stirred and another bent over him and helped him stand.
"Are you okay?" Harry murmured to Ginny as they held each other.
"Oh, Harry, I'm so sorry," she whispered with her head resting on his chest; forest smells mingled with the fragrance of her hair, and Harry brushed away a few twigs. "I wanted to see Fred so badly. I did see him, but it wasn't really him, was it?"
"No, but hush. It's okay."
She rose on her toes and quickly kissed him, then wiped her eyes, which were still ablaze behind tears. "You didn't have to give them your gold."
"I don't care about the gold. It's not important. I couldn't let anything happen to you."
As they stood holding each other, Bane walked towards them, speaking as he approached.
"Ginny Weasley, I hope you are not hurt." He looked at Harry sternly. "Harry Potter, you have brought violence into the Forbidden Forest. Your passion is understandable, but you could have achieved your purpose without using your wand."
Harry had an angry retort on his tongue, but the dark look on Bane's face made him stop. Harry dropped his eyes. "I wasn't going to let anything happen to Ginny," he said. "As it is, her neck is cut." He put his finger on the nick under her ear. It had stopped bleeding, but a small trickle had dried there.
Bane looked over his shoulder at the goblins; they were standing in a small circle in front of the den, ignoring everyone, talking excitedly in Gobbledegook and examining the Stone, which one of them held in his hand.
"Go back to the castle," Bane said to Harry. "The goblins have what they want and will not bother you again. I will guide you."
The goblins did not look up as they left the clearing into the forest behind Bane. "What happened?" Harry asked Ginny softly; his arm was around her waist.
She did not answer immediately; her face was sad. "I found the Stone," she finally said. "I don't know how, but I just seemed to know where to go. It was lying right in the open. I–I wanted to see Fred, but after he came, he didn't want to be here. And then the goblins came, they must have followed me. I don't think they knew I had the Stone, but then the centaurs came and they knew. I didn't want it anymore, so I tried to give it to them. They didn't want it at first, but then they took it and left." Her face darkened. "Those bloody goblins," she muttered. "As soon as the centaurs left they grabbed me and tied my hands. I yelled a lot and tried to kick them, and the centaurs came back and started arguing with them, and then you came with that silver one, and . . ."
She sighed and leaned her head on Harry's shoulder as they walked; the forest wasn't as difficult on the path Bane was taking them. They didn't speak again.
Finally the forest began to thin and they saw the castle ahead in the distance. Bane stopped and faced them. "I leave you now." He turned and was gone.
"How strange they are," Harry said as they walked out of the forest. "And now the Hallows are loose in the world again, or at least one of them is."
Ginny stopped and pulled Harry's hand so they were facing each other. She put her hands on his chest and looked up into his eyes. "Seeing Fred was awful. Harry, I don't want anything to do with death anymore. I just want you."
Harry kissed her, and they were still there, snogging next to the trees, when Hermione and Ron came running up. They all walked back to the castle under clearing skies.