There was going to be a Halloween Ball. Because of its late announcement McGonagall had granted the upper years permission to visit Hogsmeade the weekend before. There was sure to be a mad dash to buy dress robes and find willing escorts.
Ginny smiled indulgently as Hermione talked of all the shops they would need to visit.
“And we must stop by the quill shop. I’ve been through two packs of quills already and I won’t let it interfere with my revision,” Hermione prattled on as Ginny dutifully agreed. “Have you got anything to wear to the Ball, Ginny?”
“Yes, Mum’s going to alter the robes I wore to Bill and Fleur’s wedding.” New dress robes were out of the question, of course, and they were rather nice robes. She was in much better shape than Ron. “What about you, Hermione?”
“Me? Oh, well I suppose we could take a quick peak at Gladrags. I hope it’s not too crowded. Lavender and Parvati haven’t stopped talking about finding the perfect dress robes. I’ve been going spare listening to them talk about such nonsense all week.”
“Of course.” Ginny nodded understandingly. “Are Ron and Harry going to meet us there?”
“Yes, they weren’t even awake yet when I came down for breakfast. Honestly, it’s as if they don’t have a care about N.E.W.Ts. If they think I’m going to help them with revising at the last minute this time they’re sorely mistaken.”
Ginny held her tongue and waited until Hermione was ready to leave. They set off with the rest of the early-risers in the direction of Hogsmeade. The weather had generously cleared off and it turned out to be a beautiful Saturday. Ginny closed her eyes and breathed in the smell of Autumn as she walked beside Hermione at a leisurely pace.
The main road was already littered with students eager to get their shopping done early. Ginny followed Hermione from shop to shop, stocking up on necessities before they made their way to Gladrags. They had to push their way through several groups of giggling girls before making it to the back of the shop, where the more affordable robes were located.
“You don’t have to buy new ones, Hermione; I thought the robes you wore to the Yule Ball were rather pretty on you. Mum taught me loads of tailoring charms. I’d be happy to help fix them up for you.”
“Thank you, Ginny, but I really want this year to be special. I have so many great memories at Hogwarts and I want this night to be magical.” Hermione suddenly pulled her into a semi-private corner and looked around furtively before leaning in close to whisper, “Can you keep a secret?” Ginny observed her thoughtfully as Hermione held on tightly to her forearms and was all but bursting on the spot with her need to share some important piece of information.
“Of course,” Ginny assured her, placing her hands over the other girl’s shaking ones.
“I think Ron might ask me to marry him.”
Ginny was flabbergasted; her brother hadn’t said anything to her. “Hermione! I had no idea you two were that serious.”
The other girl shrugged, her cheeks turning rosy. “It’s only a hunch, but we’ve talked about it before.” Ginny was speechless. She was happy for them, of course, but they were both still young yet.
“How can you be sure he’s the one?” Ginny asked, genuinely curious. Hermione had a wistful expression on her face and Ginny got the uncanny impression that she was staring at a stranger.
“We’re in love. I think I’ve known it all along, really. Even when we argue I love the way his ears turn red when he gets so mad he can’t see straight, and when he looks at me as if I’m a complicated chess match - I feel like I’m on fire, like I’m burning up from the inside out.” Ginny had never seen this side of Hermione Granger before. This girl was a bundle of emotions fit to burst with happiness and love not the cool, level-headed bookworm she had come to expect.
“It’s just so sudden, I suppose. Merlin, Hermione! I thought you were the logical one.”
“Love defies logic, Gin. It’s intense and all-consuming. Sometimes I think I’ll quit breathing if I don’t see Ron’s smile or hear his voice. I can’t even remember what life was like before Ron. I feel like I’m going to burst because my heart is filled with so much love for him and then he does something small that maybe no one else notices and I love him even more than I thought I could.”
“Love isn’t filled with passion and fireworks; it’s practical.” Ginny was beginning to feel uncomfortable. She had never experienced the type of love Hermione was describing, not even with Harry, the boy she had dreamed about since she was four.
It didn’t sound like something she wanted to experience either. Hermione wasn’t acting or talking like her normal self. It was almost as if she were possessed by these foreign feelings that had taken up residence in her head. Ginny liked to have control over her life and that included her emotions.
“Oh, Ginny. You don’t really believe that, do you?” Hermione sighed, sensing she would get no answer from the younger girl. She held up the robes draped over her arm. “I’m just going to try these on.”
Ginny nodded, her mood had suddenly gone sour. She absently wandered around the small area by the changing rooms. Ginny didn’t need Hermione’s looks of pity. The girl had obviously gone insane; she should probably get checked over by a Healer just to be safe.
“What are you doing here Weasley? Dreaming about things you can’t afford?”
Ginny spun around and came face-to-face with a smirking Draco Malfoy. His arms were folded proudly over his broad chest, one platinum eyebrow quirked in amusement. The righteous anger she usually felt at his presence was nowhere to be found. Instead she found herself looking back at him with tired ambivalence.
“What do you want, Malfoy?” Her voice lacked the usual rancour he found so amusing. It was unsettling. There was no fun to be had if she didn’t fight back.
“What’s the matter with you, Weasley? Is there trouble in paradise? Has Potter finally realised you aren’t worth the time and effort?” Surely that would do it. Any mention of Potter usually got some sort of rise out of her and her brothers, especially her. As his girlfriend, she was duty-bound to defend Potter’s honour when he wasn’t there.
She’s changed, was the one thing on the forefront of his mind. She looked as if she had aged ten years since the last time he had been so close to her.
He was looking at her again with that knowing gaze. It felt as if she had been stripped bare down to her soul and he was gazing upon her, sizing her up. She had never felt so naked and exposed. Something inside of her sprang to life at his accusation.
“You don’t know anything about me, Malfoy. Just leave me alone.”
“No,” he said, his tone almost soft. “I don’t think I will.” He took a step toward her, as if he was trying to get a closer look, and she found that her feet were unwilling to move away. She watched him warily, not used to such close scrutiny.
One of his hands reached out to tuck a piece of errant hair behind her ear. Her eyes closed of their own accord and she felt gooseflesh rise on her skin when his hand lingered on the spot just below her ear. She was trembling with the effort it took to control her breathing.
Her body was screaming out for his touch even as her brain told her this was not a good idea. His mere presence, so close now that she could smell his expensive cologne, sent her reeling. What was he doing to her that he could spur such foreign emotions in her? With one look and a touch from him she had lost complete control of her self.
Her eyes snapped open as he lowered his mouth to hers. With a jolt she jumped away from him, eyes blazing.
“You don’t know a thing,” she spat, spinning on her heels and practically running to the shop entrance. She needed to put as much distance between them as possible.
So caught up in her escape she didn’t notice where she was running until she ploughed right into something solid. Only a firm grip on her shoulders kept her from falling. She had run right into a tall, older wizard with gray-white hair and twinkling blue eyes that looked familiar. His face was dirty and lined with wrinkles.
“Where are you off to in such a hurry?” he asked kindly.
“I’m sorry,” she apologised, ignoring his question.
He smiled. “Not to worry. Young people these days, always rushing around. Never looking at what’s in front of them.” He released her shoulders and bent down to pick up something off the ground.
“I think you must have dropped this,” he said, holding his palm out.
She looked at the object in his hand. It was a gold amulet hanging from a thin golden chain. In the centre was a bright red ruby. The edges of the rustic setting were carved with runes.
“No.” She shook her head. “I’ve never seen that before. It’s not mine.”
For a moment he just looked at her, his palm still outstretched. “Take it,” he urged gently. Some otherworldly power overtook her and she found herself reaching out to take the object cradled in his palm.
He nodded in satisfaction then turned to walk in the opposite direction. Ginny shook her head, clearing the fog from her mind. The day wasn’t even half over and it was already turning out to be the one of the oddest ones she had ever experienced.
* * *
She should have returned it but to whom? She didn’t even know who it belonged to. Ginny pulled the amulet from inside her school robes, where it had been ever since the stranger had foisted it off on her.
Classes were finished for the day and everyone was getting ready for the Halloween Ball. Instead of getting ready herself she had snuck away, yearning for a quiet walk by the lake. The whole week she had barely heard a word anyone said to her and she studiously avoided Malfoy at all costs.
She hadn’t told anyone about the amulet or Malfoy. She wouldn’t be able to explain it properly anyhow. There was a large oak tree by the lake where she liked to go sometimes when she wasn’t fit for company. It had probably been there long before Hogwarts was built and it was somehow comforting to be in the presence of something that was so old and constant.
The lake was still, free of disturbances. Birds chirped happily from their posts high among the forest foliage. The peaceful environment caused her breathing to even out and her eyes to droop. What harm would there be in having a quick kip before the evening’s festivities? With that thought in mind she welcomed the peaceful sensation of falling into nothingness.
* * *
The sound of crunching leaves startled her from sleep. She looked around her and was fully awake within a second. The lake and the forest had vanished. She jumped to her feet and spun in a complete circle. She was no longer even on the Hogwarts grounds.
She was standing on the edge of a clearing, on a well-travelled path. Yellowed birch trees stood amongst the proud oaks. At the edge of the wood the path diverged into two more roads leading in opposite directions deeper into the forest. Panic seized her.
“My dear girl, there’s no need to be frightened,” a kindly voice said. She whipped around, almost falling over from shock as she stared at the wizard in front of her. He simply smiled knowingly.
“P-professor Dumbledore?” she stuttered disbelievingly. “This isn’t real.” It couldn’t be. Dumbledore was dead.
“I have always believed that Death is but the next great adventure. I am here merely as a guide.”
“Where are we?” she asked, and then a horrible thought struck her. “Am I dead too?”
His eyes twinkled merrily. “Heavens no, you should think of this place as a magical doorway of sorts.” Her brow wrinkled in confusion; this was all too odd.
“Why am I here?”
“You are lost, child. Your future is uncertain at the moment and you have been given a rare gift. At this moment your life might diverge in two very different directions. Should you choose to embark on this journey, you will find out the very real consequence of each choice.”
“Professor, you’re not making any sense.” He smiled down at her sadly with a little less twinkle in his eyes.
“You have been through so much for one so young. It has hardened your outlook on life. Instead of living your life you have become complacent. From my experience, it is always easier to see how our choices have affected us in hindsight. Today you will get the chance to set things right with your life but first, you must choose a path.”
He stood aside and gestured to the juncture between the two paths. One had obviously been travelled more than the other. To the left the path was covered with overgrown weeds and the branches overhead hung low, obscuring the path’s progress not too far into the wood. To the right she could see the path stretch on for a good long way, free of underbrush and covered in short grass.
She looked back at Dumbledore’s kind face, as if it might hold the answers. How was she supposed to choose correctly? The path on the right seemed to be less dangerous. It was certainly well-worn and there would be fewer surprises, as she could clearly see the way stretching on for several feet in front of her.
With one last dubious glance at her old Headmaster, who only smiled that maddeningly knowing smile he always wore, she headed to the right.
As soon as she crossed the barrier between the wood and the clearing, it was as if someone had suddenly snuffed out all the light. She blindly grabbed for her wand before realising she must have left it behind. In the darkness she took a step forward.
Her body was suddenly wracked with pain. Searing, white-hot pain radiated throughout her whole body, roiling in waves from her head all the way down to her toes. She tried to cry out but no sound came from her lips. When it became too much to bear she welcomed the void of unconsciousness that was waiting to take her.
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