One thing that remained unaffected by Ginny's emotional turmoil was her performance in class. With the constant threat of O.W.L.s pounding atop the fifth years, her professors were as quick as ever to give out loads of homework, which she had handled tolerably well. However, barely into the second month of school, she was starting to feel the strain of it all.
So, when Professor McGonagall sent her a message asking her to attend a meeting for another study group, it was all she could do to bite back a groan.
When she arrived at the Transfiguration classroom, Ginny was a bit surprised to see only a handful of students there. She slid into a seat between Susan Bones from Hufflepuff and Terry Boot from Ravenclaw. Colin Creevey, the only other Gryffindor present, threw her a smile over his shoulder before going back to his conversation with Cho Chang. Blaise Zabini, the solitary Slytherin in the room, sat a bit apart, near the corner window, looking for all the world like he wanted to leave.
At precisely seven pm, a very familiar, albeit slightly temperamental, cat leapt into the classroom and made her way to the front. Ginny watched the switch to human form with fascination, despite having seen the transformation several times before.
"Blaise Zabini, there's a seat right here up front. No point in spreading out if there's only six of you."
Reluctantly, the dark-haired boy stood up and shuffled his way to the first row, slumping into a seat next to Cho.
"Excellent. Now, I'm sure you're wondering why you're here. Professor Dumbledore and I have taken note of you all and the fact that you show exceptional promise in your Care of Magical Creatures class. We've had numerous conversations in the past about augmenting our curriculum here at Hogwarts but have never quite felt we had adequate resources. Unfortunately, current…circumstances as they are-- " at this, she looked uncharacteristically shaken "-- our hand has been forced, as it were."
Ginny had no doubt that the circumstances her Head of House was referring to was the return of Voldemort and she noted that that fact hadn't escaped anyone else present. Even Zabini looked mildly uncomfortable.
"As such," McGonagall quickly regained her composure, "I am forming a new class."
Her announcement was greeted with horrified looks.
"Knowing how difficult it is for those of you preparing for O.W.L.s and N.E.W.T.s, the class is not compulsory-,"
Blaise made as though to stand up.
"Mr. Zabini, if you please."
He sat back down at McGonagall's impatient wave.
"However, you are required to attend the first 6 classes, on a trial basis. I assure you, the lessons will only reinforce what you are learning and some of you might find it very useful for your examinations."
Ginny and Colin exchanged a knowing glance. She experienced a pleasant thrill of excitement for having been chosen and certainly planned on staying past the first six classes. By the looks of it, so did he.
"In this class we will be covering material that is rarely, if ever, covered during a student's tenure at Hogwarts and usually saved for Aurors. Our primary concern will be working with Familiars."
At this, Cho gasped, and an interested shine entered Blaise's hazel eyes.
Ginny's heart plummeted.
Working with Familiars sounded like an incredible opportunity but she wasn't sure she could afford it. Most importantly, she lacked an animal. She would have asked Ron to borrow Pigwidgeon, but she knew that owls were not acceptable Familiars. She might have asked Hermione to borrow Crookshanks, but the point of a Familiar was to bond oneself to it and that would mean taking ownership of the cat.
She realized, with a shudder, that she might have inherited Scabbers and was suddenly glad for not having an animal. There was no telling what might have happened had she bound herself to him. With a start, Ginny noticed that McGonagall was still talking and she hadn't heard a word of it. Luckily, Colin appeared to be taking notes. She'd just have to get them later.
"You can expect the first week's syllabus on your pillows by this evening," McGonagall said, a note of finality in her voice, "That is all. You may return to your dormitories."
Ginny stood and pulled her rucksack onto her shoulder.
"A word, Miss Weasley," McGonagall beckoned her to the front.
Worried that she had been caught daydreaming, she told Colin to go ahead without her.
"Miss Weasley, you realize I asked you here because you are naturally gifted with magical creatures and one of the best charms students we've seen in years."
Her heart swelled. "Thank you."
"Now, in regards to obtaining a Familiar. I recognize that you come from a very large family and that the expenses involved in such a venture might be prohibitive for your participation in this class. As I would very much like an opportunity for us to work together this year, I have some funds set aside for you and have, in fact, bought you a Familiar already."
The kindness and authority with which McGonagall spoke almost took the sting out of the fact that the whole school seemed to know how poverty-stricken her family was. Money wasn't something she cared much about most of the time, but accepting help from others still felt like charity and, as poor as she was, she felt she had her pride.
Since McGonagall had already gone to the trouble of buying her an animal, however, she simply blushed and thanked her again.
"His name is Rufus, but I imagine you can rename him."
It took Ginny a few seconds to understand what was going on but it all became clear when she came face to face with a handsome green snap turtle. "Oh my!" She took hold of him gingerly, marveling at the shiny mosaic surface of his shell.
"Hagrid gave me this list of instructions on how to care for him. Mind you, he isn't an ordinary turtle. Rufus has quite the propensity for magic so please do be careful with him."
Nodding absent-mindedly, Ginny thanked her teacher for a third time and walked out of the classroom in a daze. A turtle! Of her very own! She had never been so thrilled.
Ginny's happiness had transformed into an all-encompassing, choking panic two days later when, on the eve of her first Familiar's class, Rufus went missing. Enlisting the help of her friends, they combed the grounds carefully, but with dismal results.
Shouting 'accio Rufus' all over an English school had sounded like a good idea at the time, but after releasing what had to have been the twelfth bewildered-looking student they had come across, Ginny made a face at Harry.
"You'd think that parents would have come up with something different to name their children," She said acidly. "There are seven of us and not one is called Rufus."
Harry shrugged. "Don't look at me. I'm not named Rufus."
Hermione and Ron came trooping up to them, equally empty-handed.
Harry looked concerned. "Ron, what happened to your face?" The other boy's cheeks and mouth were covered in purple and orange warts.
"Rufus Marks, 7th year Ravenclaw with not a bone of humor in his body." Hermione's voice shook with fury. "He hexed Ron even AFTER I explained our mistake and if I have anything to say about it, he'll be in detention for the rest of his life."
Ron made a burbling sound that Ginny took to mean he was in agreement.
"C'mon, Ron, let's get you to Madam Pomfrey."
"Harry, what am I going to do?" Ginny whispered softly after the pair had disappeared back into the school.
"We could try to catch something."
She shook her head. "No, Familiars are rare. Not just any animal will do."
"You could…well, you could have Hedwig." There was an edge of pain in Harry's voice which he hid admirably well.
"Oh Harry," she sighed, too tired to dwell on it. "That's incredibly sweet, but I'm afraid owls won't work, either."
He simply patted her arm in response. "Well, don't worry. We'll work something out."
But by bedtime, they hadn't.
Ginny's last ditch plan had been to sneak over to Hogsmeade and buy a new animal. So, she had gone to Ron and he'd instantly emptied his pockets for her but their combined savings still failed to amount to more than a few Galleons. It was far less than what she needed and though she knew Harry and Hermione would gladly chip in, she couldn't bring herself to ask them. Class was scheduled for the following morning at seven so she didn't have time to owl her parents for help.
Ginny tried to believe that McGonagall would be understanding, but she couldn't shake the terrible sense that she had been reckless and irresponsible. It was bad enough that she couldn't afford her own Familiar and the school had to pay, but then to lose it? It was inexcusable.
For the briefest of moments Ginny felt the hot stab of shame. She hated being poor. Hated it with all her being. The many years of watching other girls go shopping for new robes and putting on fancy glamours before dances came rushing back to her full-force. She recalled Charlie's inability to start his job on time because he'd had to work an extra two months at their local tavern before he could afford the requisite dragon riding gear. The first time Ginny ever owned a brand new pair of robes was shortly before she'd started Hogwarts, courtesy Bill. It hurt sometimes to think about her oldest brother, who was so far away that she rarely saw or heard from him.
And then, because she was a sensible girl, she took a deep breath and steadied herself. Self-pity was a dangerously addictive thing and Ginny knew better than to fall into that trap.
She slid under her bedcovers, missing Bill with a ferocity she couldn't explain. She wished, more than anything in the world, that something good would happen for once. Asking for Harry seemed a bit out of the question, but perhaps if she concentrated hard, she would get Rufus back. Clearing her mind, Ginny tried to will her Familiar back to her with all her strength, but it was no use. She felt so jumbled and raw that her battered emotions kept getting in the way.
With a rather pathetic sniffle, she sank down under the covers and fell into a restless sleep, unaware that somewhere, on the other side of the castle, someone had heard her.
A bird silently took flight.
It was quite early when Ginny awoke the following morning, and this was primarily due to the fact that somebody started screaming. Never much of a morning person, it was ten full seconds after she had jolted awake and sat straight up in her bed, blearily searching for the source of the commotion, when her eyes focused fully on the scene around her.
She bit back a scream of her own.
Surrounding her in a tight circle, were the most colorful, beautiful selection of birds she had ever seen in her life. For the most part, they regarded her with silent, gentle eyes, but a few closest to her shrieking dormitory mate looked mildly offended by the noise and fluttered indignantly closer. Thunderstruck first by their physical beauty, she was quickly entranced by the strong, pungent scent of old magic that hung in the air around her.
"Blast it all, what on earth is-" Tripping over her dress gown, her hair in a messy bun, Hermione came to an abrupt halt. "Oh dear…" After drawing a shuddering breath she snapped back into Prefect mode. "Charlotte Burns you stop that ridiculous screaming this instant." The command cracked like a whip and had its intended result as the room instantly fell silent. A crowd had already started to gather as sleepy girls stumbled their way over to the fifth year dormitory, trying to see what had happened. Looking back at the group, Hermione rolled her eyes as they stared past her, utterly agog at what they saw. Impatiently, she picked out the only one already dressed. "Lavender, go find Professor McGonagall."
An alarm sounded from the bottom of the stairs, and Hermione sighed. The boys were awake and clearly gossip had traveled far enough to compel a few of them up to the girls' dormitories where they weren't allowed. "Katie, do me a favor and tell Ron to hold the boys downstairs before that alarm drives me mad."
Murmuring assent, the Gryffindor Quidditch captain ran off, pulling her night robe around her slender frame.
Ginny gasped when a large green colored bird fluttered brazenly onto her bed and hopped up to perch in front of her chest. She heard the most wonderful silver chiming when it opened its beak and she laughed, reaching out a finger to stroke its neck.
"Ginny, don't touch," Hermione's eyes were weary, "wait for Professor McGonagall to ar-"
"What's the meaning of all this? Girls, get back to your rooms." A force to be reckoned with on most any occasion, Minerva McGonagall was at her best in the middle of a crisis. The group obediently scattered as she barreled down the hallway and covertly regrouped a few feet behind her.
Hermione stepped aside and allowed her Head of House through. To her credit, McGonagall didn't flinch when she saw the birds scattered around the room, despite the shock she felt. Ginny raised a pale hand in sheepish greeting and dropped it when her professor's eyes narrowed.
"Hermione, get Professor Dumbledore. Virginia Weasley, what have you done?" She made to take a step towards the young girl but reared up abruptly as a rather large white bird hopped in front of her.
"N-nothing, Professor, I swear." And then, the previous evening came rushing back to her. The loss of Rufus, the attempt to will him back. She winced. "Actually, Professor, now that I think about it…"
She quickly explained the situation and was greeted with a frown. Fortunately, she was spared the inconvenience of a response because moments later Professor Dumbledore came billowing down the hall. Apparently, someone else had had the presence of mind to send for him earlier.
"Albus, thank heavens. Just look."
Ginny didn't discern the slight tension in her headmaster's stance until it evaporated when he laid eyes on her.
"Ah." A slow smile crossed his face. "I see. How delightful." He made his way to her bed, causing several birds to hop out of his way. "Now, now, Miss Weasley, no cause for alarm."
Oddly, the bed barely moved when he took a seat. "So there you are. I was wondering where you'd flown off to last night."
Ginny turned to see that he was addressing a handsome red and gold bird. It bowed its neck slightly in his direction before gracefully alighting on his shoulder.
"Fawkes!" she cried. She hadn't recognized him in the sea of color. And that's when it hit her. She was surrounded by phoenixes. Incredibly rare, the birds were extremely reclusive and many speculated they were in danger of extinction. Judging from the number in her bedroom, she wasn't so sure.
"Indeed, this does appear to be Fawkes' work." He fixed her with a twinkling blue gaze. "Do you know the significance of these…visitors, Miss Weasley?"
She shook her head mutely.
"Out of the way, Prefect coming through!"
Professor McGonagall closed her eyes as though she regretted her decision to temporarily disable the alarms surrounding the girls' dormitories. The price she paid to save her hearing appeared to be manifesting itself into an even larger headache. She didn't turn to face the source of the pounding footsteps behind her. "Ronald Weasley you will slow down and lower your voice."
Ron looked about to object.
"No buts." She held her hand up. "If you swear to keep quiet, I will let you through."
He nodded swiftly, flanked by Harry, and, in the back, a breathless looking Hermione who had clearly done all she could to keep them away and had just chased them up the stairs. Briskly, McGonagall waved all of them in front of her, somewhat startled when Neville Longbottom managed to dart under her arm and gain last minute entrance. Sending a deadly glare over her shoulder, she prevented Colin Creevey and Dean Thomas from attempting the same. Ginny was so focused on her conversation with Dumbledore that she didn't notice them entering the room.
"Last night you lost your Familiar. As you explained, you called out for him unsuccessfully. However, though Rufus failed to hear you, Fawkes did. He carried your call and this--" Dumbledore gestured around him "-- was the result."
"Now, now, no worries. In fact, you should be quite proud of yourself because this is very unusual indeed."
"It's quite simple, Miss Weasley. While the phoenix is known for its restorative powers, one can never choose it as a Familiar."
"But then, how did…well, how did you come to choose Fawkes?"
He smiled. "Fawkes chose me."
"You see, Virginia, these birds--" Dumbledore leaned forward as though sharing a delicious secret. "They are volunteers."
"I-I don't understand, sir. Volunteers for what?"
"For you, my dear."
And then she understood. These birds, these magical, wonderful birds that she had loved ever since one of their brethren saved her life, were here to volunteer as her Familiar. And with that understanding came a powerful emotion she couldn't quite name. She was honored, and so very, very humbled. While she had wished for something good to happen to her, she had never expected anything like this. It was almost too much. She felt the bitter sting of tears at the simple awe of it all.
The ancient magic she had sensed in the room seemed to understand her turmoil and suddenly rushed forth, wrapping itself around her warmly as though it were sentient. She felt herself stabilize and the prickling behind her eyes faded.
"You only need to choose," Dumbledore said softly. "Any one you want from those assembled before you and the others will depart, with no hard feelings, I assure you."
It was an impossible task. How to choose amongst the most beautiful creatures she had ever seen? She had barely ever possessed a new set of robes, let alone a phoenix. Not for the first time, she felt rather unworthy of all this fuss. This was the type of thing that happened to Harry, not to her.
Just as she thought of Harry, her eyes focused on a delicate purple phoenix with deep blue eyes and she felt her heart leap. There was a warmth, an understanding between them and she felt it reach out gently, its power snaking around her hand and up her arm like a silver caress.
"That one," she breathed, pointing at the violet bird. As if in response, it took flight and fluttered to perch gently on her bed.
"No, no," Ron broke in, breaking the moment. "That one completely clashes with your hair. Pick that nice green one or the smart looking white one." McGonagall cast a silencing charm on him without so much as a backwards glance.
Ginny glanced up at her brother, somewhat surprised to hear his voice, as she hadn't even realized he was there with her. Unbidden, her gaze was drawn to his left, to that familiar shock of dark hair and the smiling face of Harry Potter. It was at that moment that her phoenix hopped closer, its iridescent feathers brushing her arm, and she felt a jolt of power surge through her. Her eyes slid shut for a moment and when she opened them, she didn't know quite what to make of what she saw.
Sparkling gold and sliver threads had appeared everywhere connecting individuals in the room to each other. She looked down in amazement at the gorgeous gold lattice that emanated from her chest. The threads sparkled and jumped merrily under her gaze as she followed them to where they ended, which appeared to be with her brother.
Ron was glaring at the back of Professor McGonagall's head, undeterred by the comforting hand Hermione had placed on his shoulder. In addition to his connection to Ginny, he had a fairly complex set of medium-sized threads connecting him to Hermione and Harry. Though they were split equally, Ginny noted that Ron and Hermione shared a set of delicate silver strands that were unique.
Almost immediately, her eyes fell upon what was by far the most impressive connection in the room. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it lay between Professors Dumbledore and McGonagall. Some of the threads were the thickness of Ginny's arm and the colors ranged through so many colors of gold and silver that she quickly lost count. Unlike the other connections she saw, which only seemed to move when people addressed or looked at each other directly, Dumbledore and McGonagall's threads were vibrating non-stop. The edges were constantly blurry despite the fact that they weren't even facing one another.
She wondered if they were aware of the connection and were using it, even now, to communicate wordlessly.
Looking back down at herself, Ginny was pleased to notice that she also had thin gold threads connecting her to Hermione and Neville. Squinting, she finally located the delicate pattern that connected her to Harry. The threads were so thin their color was indeterminate.
If anything, her romantic heart would have expected to have the sort of blinding connection to Harry that McGonagall and Dumbledore shared but that clearly wasn't the case. Scrutinizing the rest of the room, she realized that no one else had that sort of tenuous connection and suddenly, she was indescribably sad. It seemed to verify her worst fears-that her pull to Harry was distinctly one-sided and internal. There was no grand scheme, no greater plan, no epic romance.
In her sorrow, Ginny neglected to realize that she had caused the strings between them to vibrate almost wildly.
For an instant, everything narrowed and that silent tug she felt when she was near him amplified ten-fold. It was as though the edges of her vision blurred and stretched so the only thing discernable in the entire room was Harry. Details sharpened and she could see the colors of the birds reflected off his glasses. Light goose bumps trailed up his arms and torso since the air was chilly and he was clad only in pajama bottoms. She licked her lips unconsciously.
The occupants in the room were chattering along even now, but voices seemed muffled to her.
The magic around her shifted again to a shimmering, laughing energy and it was suddenly like she could feel the threads and not just see them. They were connected deep in her body, just below her heart. She felt their trembling energy dip lightly into that dark place inside her that she kept hidden and was jolted when an unexpected flash of hot lust flooded forth. She thought she heard Harry gasp but suddenly Dumbledore was speaking again and her altered view of the world dissolved back to normal. Aside from some residual light-headedness, she might as well have imagined the whole thing.
Looking around, she realized that a lazy procession of birds had started to fly off through the large dormitory windows, and, with equally languid motion, a number of students wandered back to their rooms.
In the end, she settled on calling the purple bird Maeven and arranged to meet with Dumbledore later in the day to discuss how to care for it.
Given all the excitement, Professor McGonagall postponed Familiars class until the following week and hurried away to dress before breakfast, ignoring Ron's pantomimed request to be released from the silencing charm. Taking pity on him, Hermione obliged.
Within half an hour, relative peace had been restored for everyone in Gryffindor except, perhaps, for Ginny who found herself with quite a bit to think about and Harry who found himself taking an uncharacteristically cold shower that morning.
A/N: Please let me know what you think. Compliments and Constructive Criticisms are always welcomed!