CHAPTER TWO- The Maker of the Cranes

            The whispers started in the middle of the month, spreading first through the more gossipy girls of Gryffindor, then straight from Parvati to Padma and into the halls of Ravenclaw, onto very nearly the whole school.  By the time the rumors reached the people who mattered—Ron, Harry, Hermione, and a tall, solitary boy with a penchant for origami—the truth had ballooned exponentially into something nearly unrecognizable.  Ginny Weasley was dotty enough to be in St. Mungo's, the whispers said; she was holing up in her room at night and conjuring all sorts of animals and birds, conversing with them in a language only she understood and plotting Merlin knew what.  It was only a matter of time, gossiping lips hissed, before McGonagall and the Headmaster yanked Ginny and her menagerie out of Gryffindor and slapped her into the infirmary wing.

            Unsurprisingly, Ginny was the last to know. 

            Her nose stuck in her Potions book, her quill wavering over a long piece of parchment she'd been taking notes on in the common room, Ginny never saw the trio approach her. 

            "Ginny, I— we—feel we should talk."  Hermione was flanked by Ron and Harry, her eyes wide and earnest.

            Ginny kept her head down and grunted in response, not an encouraging sign to the worried trio. 

            "Gin, get your head out of the book," Ron said, nearly panicked; he jerked the textbook away from her and earned a glare the Weasley women used exclusively on their men. 

            "Do you mind, Ron?  Some of us actually study, you know," Ginny said coldly, but her eyes drifted to Harry and Hermione, who were staring at her with furrowed brows and concerned expressions.  "Is something going on?"

            "You tell us," Hermione said.  "We hear you're hiding things."

            "Hiding things?"  Ginny barely kept her eyes from skipping to the entrance to the girls' dorms.  "I'm not hiding anything."  Other than a hundred and nineteen… or is it a hundred and twenty now? birds up in my room…  "Other than, of course, my extreme annoyance at being interrupted."  She cut her eyes back to Ron pointedly.

            Hermione sat down beside her closest friend and grasped her hand.  "Ginny, you must tell us what's going on.  The whole of Hogwarts thinks you've gone mad."

            "Something about birds and animals," Harry said speculatively.  "Though it sounded a bit farfetched, really."

            A tiny light bulb went off in Ginny's brain and she uttered a long, drawn out "Oh" of comprehension, stretching it out as she tried to determine exactly how much of the truth to tell them.  "It's only a joke Colin and I are having," she lied easily, casting her eyes to the fire.  "They're paper cranes, you know, a Muggle thing."  Both Hermione and Harry nodded, and no one bothered explaining it to Ron.  "He taught me to make them and it got to be a bit of a competition, really.  Foolishness."

            "Well," Hermione said authoritatively, patting Ginny's hand firmly.  "That's a relief.  The way people made it sound, it was as though you'd completely cracked, and I'd hate to think something was abnormal and none of us noticed."

            Ginny looked at her three friends with eyes she hoped looked guileless.  "Nothing to notice here."

~~~

            He should have felt vindicated—or at the very least, amused—at the Weasley's recent misfortunes as related by every busybody in the whole wide Hogwarts, but instead he felt… more confused.

            He'd seen her lately, spending more and more time alone, her brown eyes darting around as she traversed the wide hallways of the school; he wondered what—or who—she was looking for, and he loathed himself for the sickening, weak hope he'd had that it had been him she sought with curious eyes.

            When the rumors finally reached his ears, the clever young man was easily able to weed truth from amongst the lies—who better to identify lies than a liar?—and he'd come away with only one truth, the most important one.

            Virginia was keeping his cranes.

            As the month went on, the days grew shorter, the snow grew deeper, the cranes multiplied, and he grew more and more infatuated with a girl who should have been his enemy.

            When had it all started? 

            As he pulled gently on the fragile paper, making wings span gracefully on either side of the body of the bird he created, he pondered this question for the hundredth time, and this time, he gave himself an honest answer.

            It had started in the very first moment she'd spoken to him, urchin face smeared with ashes, eyes narrowed with… could it be?  Contempt.  In that moment, status hadn't mattered to the little whelp; all that had mattered was that she stand up for him.  For Potter.           

            And he stood alone, no protector, no freckle-cheeked, cute-faced champion to speak of, unspeakably jealous of the Boy Who Lived.

            Though his fingers trembled slightly as he set the bird aside, he picked up his wand and sent it on its way, just after midnight.

~~~

             "I'm not coming home yet."

            She tried the words out in front of the mirror several times, wondering when the proper moment to send word to her Mum was.  After all, her last O.W.L. was in less than an hour, and she'd be expected home.

            Ginny looked over the small, huddled flocks of paper cranes littering her room, comprehending fully why her roommates were so put off by the matter—over two hundred of the cranes, in various stages of animation, were likely to frighten almost anyone.

            But not Ginny.

            They'd sustained her, in a way, as she'd taken her tests, her anonymous, winged gifts.  She had taken to counting the new arrivals, checking to make sure she hadn't, somehow, missed any of them.  They were the first things in her life that were solely and completely hers, not handed down, not used, and no amount of cynicism was going to take that away.

            They were routine, a pattern that made sense in life when little else did. 

            And so as the time approached to make her way home, Ginny knew she couldn't go, not just yet.  Not with cranes waiting to come, some already tending their unmoving siblings that had lost flight and movement hours, days, or weeks ago.  She would stay as long as she could.

            It was in this spirit that Ginny used the Common Room fireplace to speak with her mother.  "'Lo, Mum," she said, watching her mother bustle around the kitchen, preparing and conjuring enough food for the holiday. 

            Molly gave a little jump, rapping her head on a levitating bowl, and peered at her daughter.  "Ginny, darling, is everything all right?"

            "I'm not coming home yet," Ginny said, and it was as uncomplicated as that.  "If I come home before Christmas morning, Fred and George will guess what all the presents are and ruin the surprise for everyone.  Well, this year I've outsmarted them and they'll just have to wait."  Seems I'm outsmarting everyone here of late, she thought, pressing her lips together in a thin line.

            Molly laughed, appreciating Ginny's cleverness.  A woman had to be clever, in a house full of men like the Weasleys.  She talked to her daughter for several minutes, giving herself a break from her busy day.

            She never saw the folded bird cradled in her daughter's hand.

~~~

             The birds were nice, they were hers, but sometime between the hours when nearly everyone left the school and the ringing of noon on Christmas Eve, Ginny started to recognize a wish for something more.  Part of her—a very big, unreasonable, overly romantic, fanciful part—had been hoping her crane-maker would just sort of… appear once the coast was clear.  After all, it seemed silly to have invested all that time if he were just going to forget about her…

            But everyone had cleared out of Hogwarts, and Ginny was left sitting alone on her bed when the twenty-fourth day came, her knees drawn up under her horrid G-for-Ginny sweater, looking at her birds and wondering who had sent them, occasionally suppressing a flash of resentment at their taciturn protection of their maker. 

            They were all she had, however, and she wanted to watch the last few come in, she reasoned stubbornly, though her eyes were heavy.  She had stayed up all night, watching the birds as they'd started to come, one an hour every hour, and with each tiny, folded, flying present, Ginny's imagination stretched just a little farther, encompassing a fantastic admirer far away, sending paper cranes as his only means to reach the outside world, trapped and longing for someone—for her—to release him.

            "You're an idiot, Ginny," she told herself laughingly through a yawn, but she wanted to see the rest of them, just the last few before she had to go home the next day.

~~~

            He pointed his wand at the last bird of Christmas Eve, number three hundred, and found he hadn't the strength—or the will—to animate it.  It was poorly formed, the first of the hundreds to be less than impeccable.  Its wings were misshapen and uneven, its head tilted at an awkward angle, the whole of it completely pitiful.

            His hands had been shaking too badly to fold it properly.

            It was wrong, what he was doing; he was a Malfoy, after all, and she a Weasley, a family full of traitors to their kind and to their blood.  It was wrong, and what was more, it was stupid.

            What had he to gain?

            He knew she was up in her room, one of the last people left in her tower, not to mention the whole school.  He had watched students leave alone, in pairs, in groups, and none of those students had been the youngest Weasley, the sweetheart of Gryffindor. 

            And so the moment had come for the Head Boy to make a decision, the first in his life that had not been made for him.  Though it was a predetermined impossibility by status, house, and above all, name, he felt the reach of possibility. 

            Hope was an unfamiliar emotion in the house of Slytherin, but she seemed so possible, so close…

            Who was there left to judge him in a nearly-empty castle surrounded by snow and sky and sustained by magic?

            So he carried the bird in his hands, his chin raised high, his doubts dissipating as he made his way to the upper levels of Hogwarts.

            He had found something—someone—he wanted, and so it was only rational: Malfoys always got what they wanted, and the daft, little, petite, fire-haired, spirited, somehow addictive Muggle-lover would be mad to say no.

            Besides…

            He'd made her all these damned cranes.

~~~

            Ginny's eyes flew open as the grandfather clock in the Gryffindor common room struck eleven o'clock, its charmed tones loud enough to reach into every nook and cranny of Gryffindor tower.  She didn't remember falling asleep, but she knew she'd been awake when the two hundred and ninety-ninth bird had swooped into the room, carrying a bit of falling snow on its wings.  She'd been captivated by those few flakes, those touches of the outside world and the holiday weather around them.  Now that crane was sitting on her chest, a wing tucked over its head, its body undulating softly with its "breaths."

            She sat up, her eyes immediately seeking the final bird.  What—or who—she saw instead of the final bird of Christmas Eve made her scramble back in her bed, eyes wide and small hands reaching for the wand on the nightstand.

            "You!" she gasped, snapping up the wand and pointing it at him, her eyes wide, confused, and more than a little hurt.

            This was who had been sending her cranes?  The reprobate of Hogwarts?

            When she snatched up the wand, Draco stumbled back, a very uncharacteristic noise of shock coming from his mouth.  He'd been gaping around the room like an idiot, unable to believe they were all there—she'd kept all of them, and each of them made with his own hands.

            And then the little brat had woken up and scared him half to death.

            "No hexes!" he said, his hand reflexively springing up to cover his nose rather than grab his wand.  "None of those monster bogeys from hell or whatever that curse was you flung at me last time."

            "What are you doing?" she asked, her voice carrying several pitches higher than it usually did. 

            This certainly mucked things up a bit, she reckoned.  She'd stayed at school extra days for Draco Malfoy… and the weirdest part about it was, she hadn't hexed him yet.  She couldn't even think of it, with all those lovely birds. 

            If he could take the time to make those, surely something had to be right.

            And then he opened his mouth.

            "My father would kill me if he knew I was here," he snarked, taking his hand down and looking miserable.

            "Your father?" she asked disbelievingly, carefully climbing off the bed and stepping around the milling cranes who were now shifting back and forth as though watching their maker and their mistress trade volleys.  "My father—" she started, only to be interrupted.

            "Your father probably can't even tie his own shoelaces," Draco scoffed unthinkingly, the insult just as much reflex as anything else.

            In her rage, her immediate, indignant, annoyed rage, Ginny did the only thing she could think of. 

            She threw her wand at him.

            It hit him square in the nose, the heavy end striking him right in the bridge, hard enough to make his eyes water, and this time he brought both hands to his face, exposing to her the one thing he'd been hiding.

            The three hundredth crane.

            "Ohhh…"  Her breath left her in a soft exhalation as she looked at the bird, its wings lopsided, its head cocked haphazardly, and she took a few steps toward Draco, her eyes focused on the bird, her hand extended.  The cranes on the floor shuffled to make a path for her, and she brought wide eyes to his silver, watering ones.

            "He's the last one for today, isn't he?" she asked softly, the yawning chasm thrown between them by class and history momentarily gone in her transfixion. 

            "He was, until you brained me with your wand, you bleeding ninny."  But that unfamiliar, alien, bizarre hope was back, and he lowered his hand from his slightly reddened nose, extending the still bird to her. 

            "Why?" she asked, putting her hand over it but not taking it, their fingers barely brushing.

            The only answer he had for her was to assuage his own confusion, to try and do something—anything—to dampen the foolish feelings that had been tearing through him for too long, and he lowered his head, eyes gleaming in the smirk he seemed to hold constant. 

            Before she could react, before Ginny could step away, he'd tangled his long fingers into her shorter ones, forming a cage for the avian creation between them, bringing his lips to hers with a touch as light as feathers, his uncertainty showing itself in the hesitation of the kiss.

            With the castle nearly empty and a crisp wind blowing through the drapes she'd left open for all the birds, snow falling outside and birds floating around them, Ginny thought his answer was as good as any and saw no immediate reason not to kiss him back.

            He had, after all, made her all those cranes.

            And as she stood on her tiptoes and tilted her head back, the crane beneath their fingers started to stir.

~~~

            "Did you enjoy your presents, Ginny, love?"  Arthur placed a hand on his daughter's head on Christmas morning, looking on happily as she sat in front of her small pile of presents, her brothers and Harry all scattered around the room. 

            "I did," she said with a small smile, keeping her eyes on the wrapping paper in front of her as her fingers made careful, even creases, her mind somewhere else entirely.

            She figured she had enough wrapping paper for twenty-five.