The scenery was as breathtaking as ever as it flashed by her window. This time, however, it seemed to her more of an elusive horizon than a future adventure, almost as if beauty and freedom was travelling in the opposite direction to them. Luna knew that Hogwarts would never be the same, not without Dumbledore and certainly not with a fallen Ministry, and that every turn of the train's wheels was hurtling her and her companions towards it.
"They'll be fine," Ginny said again. "They have to be… wherever they are."
Luna turned from the window and slipped her hand into her friend's. After a pause, Ginny rested her head on her shoulder, wiping the watery beginning of tears from her eyes.
"They always are," Neville reassured her. "They always make it through."
"I'd be more worried for the pride of the fools fighting against them," Seamus quipped. "They never seem to last that long. Has to be bloody demoralising."
Ginny gave them a shaky smile. "I just wish I could help Harry."
"I daresay we'll have enough to worry about at school, with Snape replacing Dumbledore," Katie said grimly. "And here I thought it could never get worse than Umbridge."
A knock at the compartment door diverted their attention and their dominant hands all moved to ready their wand in case the visitor was unwelcome. Ginny pulled away from Luna and quickly tried to hide traces of her earlier distress, adjusting her hair and fixing a determinedly composed look on her face. She strode for the door and swung it open with a fierce, "Yes?" that was then followed by a sheepish, "Oh, hello."
"Is there room for us?" a girl's voice asked. She lowered her voice so that the other occupants of the compartment had to lean forward and strain their ears to hear. "It felt too empty in our usual compartment without Justin."
"What was the first thing you said to me?" Ginny asked.
"Come on, Ginny, that was years ago. I was twelve. You know I don't have that good a memory."
Luna stood and went to the door. "Susan Bones. What was the name of the species of creature whose current living status and etymological origins we discussed at the end of last year?"
"Ah, Luna, Susan might not remember that either…" Seamus trailed off.
"The fox that can never be caught. The Teumessian fox. What was my opinion on it?"
"That there was only ever the one. Are you sure that they're Ernie and Hannah?"
"We've already tested one another."
Luna met Ginny's eyes before moving back to her seat.
"It'll be tight," Ginny warned them as she stepped back and returned to her seat, the three Hufflepuffs filing in after her and locking the door behind them. Susan and Hannah conjured a pair of beanbags and magically enchanted them to stick to the wall under the window while Ernie took the spare space on the bench-seat.
"Do you have any idea where they are?" Hannah asked.
"Just that they're doing something important. Something that Dumbledore told them to do before he died," Neville said, resting his hand on Ginny's shoulder.
The three newcomers stared at him in awe.
"Should we be talking about this here?" Ernie asked suddenly, his voice low. "I rather think we should be monitoring who can hear us even more carefully this year than in fifth. You never know who is reporting to the other side now. The walls have ears and all that."
"The compartment is enchanted so that no one outside can hear anything we say. Isn't it neat?" Luna asked. "Here, I'll show you. It might be useful this year."
Once everyone had learned the spell, they settled back into a silence that felt thick with the weight of the sense of permeating ominousness.
"They didn't tell us anything about it, but they were planning something over the summer," Ginny said, "and Harry had private meetings with Dumbledore throughout last year." She let the implications of that remain unspoken.
"And if anyone can do it, they can," Neville said staunchly. Sensing that they were about to return to the same heavy silence, he asked Luna, "What are these Termean foxes?"
"Teumessian. They're rather interesting, actually. We only have proof of the existence of one," Luna said. "It was a fox that was sent by a Greek god to deliver justice to Thebes and could never be caught. A Theban man then sent Laelaps, an equally magical dog who could never fail to catch something, after him. They were locked in a paradoxical chase that could never end, so they just had to keep running forever. So Zeus decided to turn them both to stone and make them stars."
"Do you remember Canis Major and Canis Minor from Astronomy?" Susan asked. "That's them."
"What we were debating last year was whether there were ever any more of them. Susan didn't think so, but I've always believed that they bred with non-magical foxes. Besides, Daddy found a Muggle document over the summer that perfectly described what appears to be a descendant of Laelaps. We didn't publish it in The Quibbler so we wouldn't have a swarm of wizards and witches trying to find it for themselves, but we did make an announcement that you may have read about the discovery."
"I didn't get a chance to read the paper over the break," Ginny said awkwardly.
"That's why the name sounded familiar," Neville said.
"Tell us about another creature," Ernie prompted. "I think we could all use the distraction."
Smiling serenely at the unusual sight of a captive audience, Luna briefly considered which creature she was going to introduce them to next. It had to be one that mattered to her but whose continued existence she had some evidence for. She finally settled on one and began, "I know I've mentioned nargles before…"
They hadn't mentioned Harry or Voldemort or school again. Ignoring it might not have made it go away, but it gave them a much-needed reprieve, and for the time being that was enough. As they vanished the beanbags and disembarked the train, everything felt just slightly lighter and more normal.
"Hello Hagrid," Luna said brightly as they passed the half-giant and his crowd of first years.
"Hello Luna. Wait 'ere a mo', first years." He walked to them and whispered, "They're gone, 'aven't they?"
They nodded discretely.
"No Dumbledore, now no Harry, Ron and Hermione. Hogwarts won' be Hogwarts without them." Hagrid seemed to remember where they were and wiped his eyes before speaking in a faux-cheerful voice. "At least they're together. There ain't no witch smarter than our Hermione and Harry always manages to land on 'is feet. Time to get back to the first years before they wander off. Come visit me when you can." He waved at them as he returned to the head of the huddle, gesturing for the stragglers to group together again as if they were a herd of sheep.
"We should hurry so we can find empty carriages," Hannah said. "You know, I've always wondered whether the carriages are enchanted to wait for the last student or whether they'll leave without you if you wait too long."
They weaved through the crowd of students making its collective way towards the thestral-drawn carriages. When they reached them, the sight was as macabrely beautiful as ever, the stark black of their skeletal bodies and leathery wings set against the wooden carriages and darkening sky. Luna had always been drawn to the magic of the thestrals, seeing them as a gift left to soothe the blow of seeing her mother die, and the sight had always felt truly gothic to her. Hearing some of the students around her proclaim at noticing them for the first time, not realising what they were or that admitting it broadcasted your experiences to everyone who did know, dully reminded her of the tragic side of the magic. She paused to pat one as she passed him on their way to the carriages, waiting until her friends had found an empty carriage before catching up to them.
The Great Hall felt gigantic. The absence of Muggle-borns was obvious everywhere anyone looked, the empty spaces scattered throughout the benches all indicating where a fellow student would have, should have, been sitting. The students had tried to give the new first years a proper welcome, cheering and applauding like always, but it all felt forced and hollow. It would've been better for those students if they had declined their acceptance letters and instead gone to a lower profile school, regardless of the lesser reputation.
Snape's speech, which was more of a warning than a welcome, echoed throughout Luna's thoughts. Everyone would have to take Dark Arts and Muggle Studies, run by the co-Deputy Headmasters themselves. Nobody was allowed to associate with any of the expelled Muggle-borns. Anybody who received information on the location of any student who was unlawfully absent should report it immediately (this was said with an extra-long look at a particular section of the Gryffindor table). The school had been the site of constant disorder over the years; there would be harsher punishments for misdoings so as to prevent the otherwise inevitable chaos. Entropy could not and would not be the order of the day. Any students not working towards that vision would receive a severe talking-to.
As the food filled the plates and everybody tucked into it, conversations were slowly and tentatively started. Still, everything was muted, almost as if they were standing in the charred, burned out carcass of a ruined town in awe of its devastating significance. Nobody wanted to risk stepping on conversational minefields when taking about their summer or having personal conversations overheard. And nobody was in the mood to be loud.
But the worst thing for Luna wasn't the sense of trying too hard not to acknowledge what was going on outside the castle's walls or in the semester ahead or the emptiness or the unwelcoming welcome speech or the hushed conversation. It was when she, as she was wont to do when feeling downtrodden, met Professor Flitwick's eyes. He was the only person who had discovered her secret and had extended to her any and every help possible. She was used to seeing in his eyes a quiet, comforting, self-assured confidence in both his own ability and in her ability to persevere. She was used to the easy smiles, reassurances and jokes that he graced his students with when they were struggling with schoolwork or personal issues. But when their eyes met, his eyes reflected back her own sense of hopelessness, and he didn't even manage a forced smile. And that terrified her.