"All right," Mum said, kissing Ginny's forehead and tugging her jumper straight. Arnold the Pygmy Puff sat comfortably nuzzled against Ginny's neck. "Be careful, dear, and—"
Ginny gave a strained smile and caught her mother's wrists. "I'll be fine, Mum," she said, trying not to sound annoyed as her eyes flickered over to the tall, cloaked men who stood at each of the doors onto the Hogwarts Express, checking each student for their ticket.
Mum nodded, her chin trembling slightly.
"I promise," Ginny told her, giving her a tight hug. "I love you. I'll see you at Christmas. Give Dad a kiss for me."
"I love you too, sweetheart," Mum sighed, hugging Ginny tightly. Arnold gave a squeak as the train whistle blew, and Ginny pulled back.
"I've got to go," she said. "Stay safe for me. Make the boys behave. Don't let Fleur drive you completely mad—ah, and don't—no, don't cry—"
Mum gave a great sniff and hurriedly wiped her tears away. "Get on the train, Ginny, for goodness' sake, and write me when you're there."
"I'll do my best," Ginny promised, and Mum smiled slightly.
"Go on," she said, chivvying Ginny towards the train as the whistle blew again.
Ginny hopped through the door at the last moment, presenting her ticket to the mustachioed guard, who glowered at her suspiciously.
"I was just here with my trunk," she said disparagingly, and he grunted, pocketing her ticket.
Ginny shook her head and turned her back on him, looking for the compartment where she and Luna had left their things. When she found it, she was unsurprised to see Neville sitting with Luna. He stood and hugged her.
"Love the welcoming committee," Ginny said darkly, tucking Arnold safely into his cage and sitting down beside Luna.
"I think they were warned about us," she said sagely, nodding to each of them as the train lurched into motion. "One of them gave Neville and me a rather bad time. He took away my Quibbler and said I'd be in trouble if I was caught with another."
Ginny felt a knot of anger in her stomach tighten. "What d'you mean, warned?"
Neville sat forward. "They know we're friends with Harry," he said. "I had to open my trunk and everything before they'd let me on the train."
"What, did they expect him to be hiding inside?" Ginny scoffed.
Neville shrugged, but Luna said, "Well, it's not as if they have any other ideas as to where he might be."
"Oh, come off it," said Ginny incredulously. "They can't honestly believe he's stupid enough to turn up on the Hogwarts Express, can they?"
"Speaking of which," Neville said in a low voice, as he rose and looked through the glass door of their compartment. "Have you heard anything from…?"
Ginny sighed and shook her head. "Nothing since the wedding. Mum's been beside herself." Her stomach gave a little pang as she thought of the last seconds she had seen Harry, Ron, and Hermione before they had vanished.
"They've got to be safe," Luna said reassuringly, laying a hand on Ginny's arm. "I think You-Know-Who would have liked to make a big deal of it if he'd caught them."
Ginny gave her a flicker of a smile. "If he'd caught Harry," she corrected. "But what's one more unreported death of a blood traitor or a Muggleborn?"
Ginny shook herself. "Sorry," she said. "We can't start thinking like that."
"Right," said Neville bracingly. "They've got to be safe. Maybe we'll hear from them soon," he added, and Ginny smiled, though she could tell that Neville and Luna knew as well as she did that no such message would ever make it past the new Hogwarts staff, even if Harry and the others tried to send it.
"So," Luna said suddenly. "Is your family all right?"
Ginny nodded. "Everyone got out of the wedding all right, and my brothers are fine for now. The story my mum and dad told McGonagall is that Ron's got spattergroit. Hermione's modified her parents' memories and moved them to Australia so it looks like she's gone into hiding, like Harry."
Neville sighed. "It's really just us then, isn't it?" he asked.
"Certainly not," Luna said. "We've still got a lot of the D.A., don't we?"
"Yes, but we don't know how many of them we can still trust, Luna," Ginny said. "I don't think they'd willingly give us up, but…who can tell, now? We could put everyone in a lot of danger."
"But are we supposed to just sit by and do nothing?" Neville asked. "Let whoever these Carrows are run the school? I don't want to give up on Hogwarts," he said grimly.
"Nor do I," Ginny began. "But I think we can manage alone, don't you?"
Luna wrinkled her brow and fell silent. Neville, however, nodded slowly. "I mean…we have fought Death Eaters before."
"Exactly," Ginny said eagerly. "Look, we can't exactly duel them in the corridors, but I think that between the three of us, we can definitely cause some trouble for Snape."
"How?" Neville asked.
"Well, that's the beauty of just having the three of us," said Ginny excitedly. "We can plan almost anything we want, if we just keep it secret."
"What about the D.A.?" Luna asked.
"Ginny's right—I don't think we can count on it anymore," said Neville, who seemed to be warming up to Ginny's idea. "At least not as it used to be. I think if the three of us just watch what's going on with these Carrow people, we can end up doing more good."
"It's settled then," Ginny said brightly.
"Only if Luna agrees, Ginny," Neville insisted, looking back at Luna.
Luna sighed. "I don't know," she said slowly. "I just think it would be a better idea to stick together. They've already started a campaign against Muggleborns—purebloods first. How long until it's Slytherins first, or Death Eaters first? If we start deciding that only a few of us are worthy of fighting back, we're no better than they are."
"What about this," Neville said quickly. "We lay low for a while, get a feel for these new folk, and then we see about finding the old members of the D.A."
"But just us, to start with," said Ginny firmly. She looked at Luna, who still seemed perturbed. "It's not a question of worth, Luna, you know that. We can't just put people in harm's way, especially if they're unsure. If they have the slightest hesitation, we could be in very real trouble very quickly."
"I suppose," Luna said, looking down at her hands for a moment. Then she met Ginny's eyes. "All right," she said decisively, with a slight smile. "Let's do it."
Ginny beamed and hugged her.
"All right," Neville said, grinning. "So what do we know about these two Snape's got waiting for us?"
"The Carrows," Luna said, looking straight to Ginny. "Do you know anything about them?"
Ginny shook her head. "Not much, except Harry said…well, they were on the tower…last June…"
Neville looked a little taken aback. "Right," he said. "So they'll be loads of fun."
"Loads," Ginny echoed, glancing at Luna, who seemed to be suddenly lost in thought, her large eyes staring off into space. "Luna?"
She looked back to Ginny, startled. "I was just thinking," she said. "This might be the last time we ride the Hogwarts Express."
Ginny stared at her, and an icy chill seemed to fill the compartment. Neville sat back in his seat, and Luna turned her gaze out of the window, watching the countryside flick past.
When the train arrived in Hogsmeade and they disembarked, Ginny was shocked by the unseasonably cold and misty night air. She felt Neville and Luna standing directly behind her, staring up at the silhouette of the castle—hooded figures in long cloaks hovered in clouds high above Hogwarts.
"Dementors," Ginny muttered, tucking Arnold's cage more securely under her arm.
"Let's get a carriage," Luna said softly, her enormous eyes on the dementors.
"Firs' years! Firs' years, this way! C'mon!"
Ginny grinned at the first familiar sound she'd heard all day, and ran over to Hagrid, who beamed when he saw her.
"Ginny! We've got one!" Neville shouted.
Ginny gave Hagrid a hurried hug around the middle. "I'll see you at the feast!" she said.
Hagrid looked momentarily upset. "Nah—I—I can' make it tonight," he said. "Why don' yeh—oi, you lot, get back here!" Two of the first years had nearly wandered off towards the lake.
Unable to linger with Hagrid, Ginny gave up and hurried over to Luna and Neville, who stood by the nearest horseless carriage, and they all clambered in.
The musty old coaches swayed and bumped along, up the winding road to the school. Ginny felt a shiver rush down her spine as they passed the dementors, and she reached for Luna's ice-cold hand as a sickening flash of the Chamber of Secrets threatened, as it always did in the presence of a dementor, to overtake her. She pushed it back, focusing on Luna's hand and the warmth she knew was waiting for her inside the castle.
"Lovely weather we're having," said a familiar voice as Luna, Neville, and Ginny disembarked before the sweeping stone steps. Seamus Finnigan was rubbing his arms as he, Parvati Patil, and Lavender Brown climbed out of their carriage. Luna and Neville both happily greeted the others as they followed the crowd of students making their way to the double doors that led to the cavernous entrance hall.
Ginny was having a hard time stopping herself from shaking as they passed the burly guards placed by the castle doors, but it was not just the cold of the dementors that was getting to her. Something was very odd. Walking across the threshold of the castle felt wrong; her stomach twisted in a knot of anxiety. She clasped her hands together tightly, trying to warm her fingers—
"No one's talking," Luna whispered in her ear, as though she'd read Ginny's mind. "That's what's wrong."
She was right. Ginny looked around at all the students around her. Everyone wore an expression of mounting unease. There were two second-year girls at the very front of the knot of students filing into the Great Hall who both looked as though they were on the verge of tears.
"This is all wrong," Neville said.
Ginny stopped on the threshold of the Great Hall. It seemed that nearly all of Slytherin House was seated. She caught sight of Draco Malfoy sitting with Crabbe, Goyle, and Pansy Parkinson, and scowled. The other House tables looked severely depleted. In fact, compared to the sheer number of Slytherins, there were next to no Hufflepuffs, Ravenclaws, or Gryffindors. Ginny looked around at the group of sixth- and seventh-years that had followed her, Neville, and Luna inside the castle; there were not many, and they all stood together, stopped at the doors of the Great Hall, as though terrified to move alone.
"Blimey, look at him," Seamus groaned, and Ginny followed his gaze.
Standing at the very center of the staff table was Professor Snape, looking the same as ever. Hooked nose, sharp eyes, and greasy black hair hanging in front of his pale face, which stood out sharply in contrast to his black, sweeping robes. But, as Ginny watched him, a prickle of fear ran up her spine. Perhaps it was just her imagination, but something about him seemed even colder.
"Is it just me, or does he look more evil this year?" Seamus muttered. "Go on, find us a spot before he decides to murder us too."
"Seamus," Parvati hissed.
"Take your seats, now." Professor Snape's voice rang out over the Great Hall, and the little knot of sixth- and seventh-years clustered at the door broke immediately, scattering themselves to the four House tables. "The Sorting ceremony may begin," said Professor Snape to Professor McGonagall, who stepped forward, holding a scroll and the three-legged stool bearing the Sorting Hat. She looked a little thin and very pale, and her mouth was set in a very firm line.
But there was a steely look in her sharp eyes that Ginny remembered all too well; it was the exact one McGonagall had always had when she'd looked upon Professor Umbridge. Ginny smiled inwardly.
"Look at McGonagall," said Neville, grimacing up at the staff table. "She looks furious—they all do—"
He was absolutely correct; Ginny couldn't remember ever seeing the staff look so distressed. Professor Sprout had an uncharacteristic scowl, while Professor Slughorn seemed to be torn between putting on a show of joviality for the students, and shooting occasional looks of utter terror at his colleagues. Even Professor Flitwick was sullen and unsmiling, tapping his fingers testily on the wood of the table.
Ginny frowned suddenly, seeing three empty seats—if Hagrid was the only staff member missing, then the Carrows should have already been in their chairs. "Hang on," she whispered in Neville's ear. "If McGonagall's up there, who's with the fir—"
With an echoing bang, the doors of the Great Hall swung upon, and all heads turned to see a line of no more than thirty or so petrified eleven-year-olds being hurried down the center aisle.
"Is that—?" Seamus began, his jaw dropping.
"Must be," Neville muttered, as a witch and wizard, black-robed, round-shouldered, and rather ugly, shoved the line of first-years towards the staff table.
"Do they have their wands trained on those kids?" asked Parvati indignantly, as Lavender put her hands over her mouth. Ginny scowled at the sight of one Carrow's wand prodding into the back of a young girl who looked as though she were about to burst into tears.
Muttering had broken out all over the Great Hall, for everyone seemed to have noticed exactly the same thing. Professor McGonagall had paled even more by the time the first-years stood before her.
Seamus lifted his eyebrows, glancing at Neville and Ginny. "Wonder if Snape'll let the Hat—"
At that precise moment, the rip at the brim of the Sorting Hat opened wide.
"Centuries ago, my dears,
When first this castle stood,
There lived four wizards whose lives always
Aimed for their students' good.
They founded Hogwarts school, you see,
They started something great,
Which through the years still stands today,
A pillar inviolate.
Inviolate it seems, at least,
Though some might disagree,
For discord broke the Founders four
And brought them down to three.
So discord threatened us again
And bravely Hogwarts fought.
Sometimes, however, the bravest men
Must fall and take their lot.
But is it gone, this dream of good?
Is it lost to time?
For I feel within these walls
A power of some kind.
This power cannot be contained,
So long as it is fed,
As armies cannot be detained
So long as they are led.
I urge you now, be like the four,
Be wise, kind, sharp, and brave,
Else these times we live through now
Will become Hogwarts' grave."
The Hat fell still. No one applauded.
"Oh, no," Lavender muttered, burying her head in her arms. Even more, louder murmurs had broken out over the Great Hall.
"That was colorful," Ginny said, looking at Neville and Seamus, who looked a little shaken. She glanced back up at the head table, to where the first-years stood. One boy was not facing front, but staring at the large double doors he had just come through, as though he were debating whether or not to make a break for it. Ginny couldn't blame him.
"Silence," called Professor Snape from the staff table, and a hush fell immediately throughout the hall.
Professor McGonagall stepped forward. "When I call your names," she said clearly, though in a much kinder tone than Ginny had ever heard her use, "You will step forward, put on the Sorting Hat, and be placed in your Houses." She unrolled the scroll she held. "Alistair, Evelyn."
The little girl whom Ginny had noticed before stepped forward. She was whiter than a sheet, and positively shaking from head to foot as she seated herself on the three-legged stool before the staff table. Professor McGonagall placed the Sorting Hat on her head, and it dropped below her eyes, but did not take long before it shouted,
Evelyn Alistair hopped off the stool and scurried towards the Gryffindors, who burst into raucous applause, as though they were trying to make up for the poor welcome that she'd received up till now. Seamus stomped his feet and whistled, while Ginny, Parvati, Lavender, and Neville all yelled at the top of their voices—Evelyn Alistair looked quite overwhelmed, and was just starting to grin when a loud volley of bangs silenced the Gryffindors' cheers.
"There is no need for talk," barked Professor Snape, lowering his wand. He looked at Professor McGonagall and nodded curtly, seating himself again.
Professor McGonagall stepped forward again, and even from halfway down the table, Ginny could see the telltale muscle in her jaw twitching.
The boy who had earlier looked as though he wanted to run stepped forward and sat down on the stool. Professor McGonagall put the Sorting Hat on his head. It deliberated for a short while before announcing,
This time, no one applauded. There was only uncomfortable silence as the oldest students in each House made eye contact.
"Fourteen," said Seamus as "Bryn, Bronwyn" was Sorted into Ravenclaw. Ginny frowned.
"Fourteen what?" Neville asked.
"Fourteen original members of the D.A. left," said Seamus. "Us, Luna, the Hufflepuffs if we count that Zacharias git, and all the other Ravenclaws except Cho and that sneak Marietta."
Neville looked surprised. "That can't be right," he whispered, as "Kendall, Magda" became a Slytherin.
"It is," Parvati said, shaking her head. "Without Ron, Harry, Hermione…anyone who wasn't too old was Muggleborn. It's just us."
"Don't think we can do it, Patil?" asked Seamus, grinning, and Parvati smiled back. Neville and Ginny exchanged nervous glances.
"Of course we can," Parvati whispered. "We just need to be more creative, that's all. Get some new members."
Seamus winked and faced front again as the Sorting concluded as Ginny and Neville had a brief but silent argument about what to tell the others. Ginny shook her head furiously, and Neville finally relented.
Professor McGonagall carried away the Sorting Hat and the stool and Professor Snape rose once again.
"Welcome to Hogwarts," he said slowly. "I have several start-of-term announcements. First and foremost, the Quidditch Cup Inter-House Championship has been disbanded."
There was an outbreak of angry muttering, but Ginny's heart just sank. She had guessed, somewhere in the back of her mind, that she would not be able to play Quidditch this year. Still, she had hoped that maybe, just maybe, something of the old Hogwarts would be preserved.
Snape was glaring down his hooked nose at the Gryffindor table, waiting for silence. The whispers stopped at once. "This is in accordance with safety concerns on the grounds," he said. "Your access to the lawns and Black Lake will now be closely supervised. Any students found in or near the Forbidden Forest without express permission will find themselves in detention." He looked around the hall, his black eyes glittering. "Now, for those who may not be aware, we have had a few last-minute changes to our staff."
"Yeah, you and your ugly friends, you overgrown gargoyle," Seamus muttered angrily, but Ginny shoved his shoulder, for Snape's eyes were fixed on the Gryffindor table.
"You will all welcome Professor Amycus Carrow, who will take on lessons in Defense Against the Dark Arts, and Professor Alecto Carrow, who will teach Muggle Studies," said Snape, gesturing first to his left, and then to his right, where the Carrows had seated themselves on either side of the Headmaster's chair.
There was a faint, half-hearted round of feeble applause, during which Ginny glared at Alecto's pudgy, misshapen face; she was leering at the small collection of first-year Gryffindors, who looked petrified with fright. Amycus had a vile, lopsided grin on his uneven features, plopped in his seat between Snape and Professor Sprout.
"And just where is Professor Burbage?"
Stunned gasps echoed around the Great Hall, as every pair of eyes sought out the speaker.
"Oh, no," Neville groaned, staring in shock at the Hufflepuff table, where Ernie Macmillan was standing, his chin raised high and his fists clenched. Ginny's spine tingled, and she slipped her hand inside her pocket, closing her fingers around her wand.
Professor Snape met his eyes for the briefest of moments before looking away. "As I was say—" He paused and looked coldly down at Alecto Carrow, who had risen, and was whispering something excitedly in his ear.
At last, Snape sighed and nodded. "You will also find," he said loudly, "that your new professors are also in charge of discipline, as of this evening."
"Oh, bloody hell," Seamus muttered, as Parvati and Lavender both gasped. None of them were listening to Professor Snape. All eyes were on the Carrows, who had both stood by now, and were walking slowly towards the Hufflepuff table, where Ernie had sat down again, though his eyes were locked on the Carrows and his jaw was set.
Snape was still speaking. "They have sole discretion over all detentions and punishments for rule-breaking," he explained. "As such, you would all do well to acquaint yourselves with the new rules set in place for your safety and protection this year."
"What are they doing?" demanded Ginny, not bothering to lower her voice, for the entire hall was chattering loudly as the Carrows both stopped before Ernie.
"Wha's your name, handsome?" asked Alecto, with a nasty giggle.
Ernie looked at her as though she were scum on the bottom of his shoe. "Macmillan," he said proudly. "Ernie Macmillan."
"Well, Ernie Macmillan," wheezed Amycus, still grinning, "You're about ter show all yer friends here what happens when we speak out of turn at Hogwarts."
"Like hell," Ginny said violently, rising simultaneously with half of the students and all of the staff. She reached for her wand, but before she had it out of her pocket—
Everyone in the hall turned to see that Professor McGonagall had returned to the hall. She raced forward with her wand drawn and eyes blazing, reaching Ernie in seconds. She planted herself between him and the Carrows.
"That is enough," she growled, though it seemed to echo throughout the Great Hall. "You've made your point."
"You're not deputy anymore, Minerva," spat Alecto venomously. "You don't have a say in this."
"As Macmillan's head of house, I certainly do," cried Professor Sprout; she was hurrying down from where she had leapt to her feet at the staff table. She stood before Professor McGonagall, ten times more furious as she stared Alecto squarely in the eye. "He is a prefect. He will be briefed on your new rules, and you won't have any more trouble from him. You have my word." As she spoke, she looked back at Ernie, who gave a reluctant jerk of his head and sat down again, where Hannah Abbott pulled him tightly into her arms.
"Stand down, Professor Carrow," said Snape at last, breaking the tense silence that had fallen. "It's time to begin the feast."
With last looks of bitter hatred, McGonagall, Sprout, and the Carrows broke apart, each returning to their seats at the staff table. Amycus made quite a show of pulling out Professor Sprout's chair, which she took, her expression appropriate to one who had just been force-fed a dirt-flavored Every Flavor Bean. McGonagall and Alecto, meanwhile, took the only two empty seats, directly on Professor Snape's other side.
"All of you, sit down," Professor Snape barked suddenly, startling Ginny, who hadn't realized that she and most of the other Gryffindors were still on their feet. She sat hurriedly, glancing sideways at Neville. He looked furious, but said nothing.
"All Heads of House will meet with their students in their common rooms immediately following dinner to discuss the new rules now in place," said Professor Snape. He then raised one arm and passed it over the four tables, which filled immediately with food, and sat down.
After a few moments of stunned silence, the scraping of forks and knives could be heard, though there was next to no talking. Ginny looked up at the head table once again. Professor McGonagall was not eating, but staring testily down at her empty plate, while on her left Alecto Carrow ladled stew into her own dish. Professor Slughorn and Professor Flitwick were exchanging anxious glances, and Professor Sprout was ignoring the undoubtedly crude remark Amycus had just made in her ear.
"We are not putting anyone else in danger," Ginny said in a low voice, as Neville scooped some mashed potatoes onto her plate. "Tell Seamus we're not planning anything, and I'll tell the girls. They can't know."
"Right," Neville muttered back.
Ginny stood by the fireplace in Gryffindor Tower, staring blankly into the flickering flames. It was hard to believe how wrong everything was. Ever since Bill's wedding, she had had a tight knot of anxiety and irritation in the very pit of her stomach, and even despite her nerves about Harry, Ron, and Hermione, she had somehow thought that returning to Hogwarts would make her feel safe again.
Instead, she was unhappy to be away from her family, infuriated at the very thought of Snape as headmaster, and worst of all, she was sad. She was sad that her school was so far gone, she was sad at the idea of her teachers forced to follow the dictates of Snape and the Carrows, and she was sad at the sight she now faced in the common room.
The entire House was gathered silently all across the packed common room, not daring to go to bed before Professor McGonagall had arrived. No one had seen her since dinner.
"Where is she?" asked Ritchie Coote nervously, jiggling his leg in his armchair.
Ginny turned and looked at him. "She's probably getting in trouble for dinner. I don't reckon the Carrows were expecting that."
"Who are they, anyway?" piped up Jimmy Peakes.
"Er—" Ginny opened her mouth, looking at Neville, who shook his head urgently from where he stood by the stairs to the dormitories. "They're just…more people the Ministry sent," she said quickly, before walking over to Neville.
"It's the first-years," he said quietly, nodding to a little alcove of bookshelves where all seven of them sat together. "They're scared out of their minds. That one girl hasn't stopped crying since we got up here."
Ginny looked over at the little knot of eleven-year-olds, all of whom looked positively exhausted and were trembling with fear. She sighed, feeling disappointed and guilty that everyone seemed to have forgotten about them. She grabbed Neville's hand. "Come on," she said, leading him over to the first-years. She sat down cross-legged beside Evelyn Alistair, who was crying softly with her head buried against her knees, and put an arm around her.
"Hi there, welcome to Gryffindor. I'm Ginny," she said brightly, smiling at the others. "I'm a sixth-year. What are all your names?"
Seven pairs of eyes widened in shock.
After a moment, Neville cleared his throat, kneeling down beside Ginny. "I'm a seventh-year. My name's Neville. We're glad you're all here," he said, patting one curly-haired boy on the back.
Around the common room, heads were turning to see what was going on in the back corner.
At last, one tall, skinny boy with brown hair and a great deal of freckles spoke up. "I'm Carmichael Wallace," he said timidly, extending his hand to Ginny. "It's nice to meet you."
"Nice to meet you, Carmichael," said Ginny, shaking his hand. She still had her arm around Evelyn Alistair, who had raised her head at last. "And you're Evelyn, aren't you?" Ginny asked. "You were the first one to get Sorted. That's a tricky job," she said.
Evelyn nodded, hiccupping slightly. "I-I-I thought-t H-Hogwarts was g-going t-to b-be diff-fferent," she managed, still shaking with suppressed sobs. "I-I just w-want to g-g-go home n-n-now," she wailed, as fresh tears spilled over and she hid her face again.
"Oh, now," said a voice behind Ginny. "Come on, cheer up. Hogwarts is fantastic!" Parvati sank down on her knees beside Evelyn and laid a gentle hand on her hair. Evelyn looked up, still crying.
Parvati smiled at her. "I'm Parvati," she said kindly. "I'm a seventh-year."
"Evelyn," said the little girl, shaking Parvati's hand.
There was, by now, a crowd of people gathered around the first-years.
"Come on," said Ginny, smiling at the others, who were looking less frightened. "Get to know everyone, we won't bite!"
The smallest of them all, a little girl who was even shorter than Evelyn, got up. She was round-faced and adorably chubby, with huge brown eyes under a mop of curly blond hair. She walked directly up to Neville and stuck out her hand.
"Hello, my name is Josephine O'Brien, and I'm very happy to be here," she said stoutly, shaking his hand firmly. "It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance."
Seamus laughed, attracting Josephine's attention. "If that's not the greatest thing I've ever heard," he said, squeezing behind Ginny to shake Josephine's hand. "I'm Seamus Finnigan, girlie, and you're my new friend."
Josephine frowned, as though she were sizing him up. "We'll see about that," she said, turning her back firmly on him and resuming her conversation with Neville.
And just like that, the spell was broken. The Gryffindor common room roared to life as everyone greeted their newest classmates, and even introduced themselves to those older ones that they hadn't known before.
Ginny was smiling and laughing for the first time in ages, catching up with Demelza Robins and getting to know several first years; she was thrilled to see little Evelyn creeping out of her shell, giggling and chattering with Parvati, who seemed to be very attached to her. Before long, Ginny found herself sitting on a chess table, watching Seamus have a serious talk with Josephine O'Brien while Parvati held tiny little Evelyn on her lap, when the portrait hole swung open. No one else seemed to have noticed, however, for when Professor McGonagall had climbed through, she caught Ginny's eye and gestured for her to remain silent. She took a few steps forward, watching the older students play with the first-years, with a strange, thin-lipped smile spreading across her face.
Then she stepped forward into the firelight and cleared her throat. The chatter ceased immediately, and everyone turned to face her.
"Well," she said, looking down at the first-years. "Welcome to Gryffindor House." Josephine and Evelyn giggled where they stood with Parvati and Lavender. Professor McGonagall looked at the older students. "To the rest of you, welcome back. I am Professor McGonagall. I am your Head of House." She took a deep breath.
"First…and foremost…I wish to apologize for the vulgar display at the welcoming feast. I can promise you that nothing like it will happen again," she said in a hard voice. "However, to ensure that, I've been given several notices that I will affix to the notice board for your perusal. Please familiarize yourselves with these…safety precautions." She spat out the last words like vinegar. Then, she drew a deep breath. "Now, it is very late, and you all have classes in the morning. I will provide you with your timetables at breakfast. If I may ask for Mr. Longbottom, Miss Patil, Miss Weasley, Mr. Coote, Mr. Sloper, and Miss Robins to stay, the rest of you are dismissed. Good night."
There was a rumble of "good nights" and "see you laters" as the rest of the house headed for the dormitories. Evelyn was reluctant to let go of Parvati, but Lavender brought her along eventually, and soon there were only six who stood facing Professor McGonagall before the fire.
"As you all know, we are short several students this year," said Professor McGonagall, her beady eyes resting on Ginny for a moment before flickering to the others. "As such, I've had to select my prefects on rather short notice. Mr. Longbottom, Miss Patil, you will take over for Mr. Weasley and Miss Granger. Mr. Coote and Miss Weasley will take the places of Mr. Creevey and Miss O'Donnell, and Mr. Sloper and Miss Robins are our newest Gryffindor prefects." She took a breath. "Congratulations to you all. You may collect your badges in my office tomorrow afternoon."
Ginny glanced at the others, who all looked just as uncomfortable as she felt with this development. Taking Meghan's place, or Colin's…she might not have ever gotten on well with Meghan, but to take the prefect's badge was, for Ginny, like saying goodbye. It was truly shoving the Muggleborns out of Hogwarts. Ginny glanced at Parvati, who was looking slightly nauseated.
Professor McGonagall pressed her thin mouth together. "If there aren't any questions, then you are dismissed as well."
With mumbled words of gratitude, all six turned and headed for the stairs. Ginny had her foot on the bottom step when—
"Oh, Miss Weasley, wait a moment."
Slowly, Ginny turned and walked back to Professor McGonagall. "Yes, Professor?" she asked.
"Are you able to perform your duties with your brother ill?" Professor McGonagall asked warily. "I had no other student to ask, but I can go without a female prefect in the sixth year."
"No," Ginny said immediately. "No, I'll do my best, Professor." She smiled.
Professor McGonagall pressed her mouth into a very thin line, studying Ginny's face closely with her sharp eyes. "I think you will, Miss Weasley. Good night."
"Good night, Professor," said Ginny, and Professor McGonagall turned to leave. "Er—Professor?" Professor McGonagall stopped at the portrait hole. Ginny bit her lip. "Erm…he's safe. I'm fairly sure."
Professor McGonagall looked surprised for only a moment before quickly composing herself once again. She nodded curtly and hurried out of the portrait hole.
Ginny took a deep breath, rubbing her eyes with the heels of her palms before finally trudging up the stairs to bed. She quietly pushed open the door that said SIXTH YEARS, with a sign above it reading SEVENTH YEARS. She and Meghan O'Donnell had shared this room with Parvati, Lavender, and Hermione since their first year, a testament to how small their classes truly were, but somehow, Ginny was startled to find that only Parvati and Lavender were there, already in their beds and soundly sleeping. Ginny sighed and changed quickly into her nightgown, shivering in the unseasonable cold. She glanced out of the south window, unsurprised to see several dementors floating above the lake. Professor Dumbledore's tomb was just in her line of sight.
As she lay in her bed between Hermione's and Meghan's empty ones, looking at the ceiling of the dormitory that had been her home away from home for five years, Ginny was annoyed to find tears stinging her eyes. She rolled over and mashed her pillow into a more comfortable shape, burying her face in it.
It's our school, she thought. I want it back.