Lightning flashed overhead, striking a tree somewhere off in the Forbidden Forest. Harry Potter flinched back reflexively, just as the crash of thunder shook the carriage that he and his friends were riding up to the school.
Each flash of lightning highlighted the massive castle of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, its silhouette casting long shadows down onto the convoy. As they neared the school, the wind picked up into a gale, buffeting the side of the carriage relentlessly.
Of his friends who were with him in the carriage, Harry wasn't sure who looked the most worried. Hermione fretted about in her seat, nervously pulling at the hem of her robe, while Neville shrunk back from the glass, trying to cement himself into the padded carriage seat. Ron, by contrast, had his face plastered to the glass window and was watching with wide eyes as bolts of lightning arced out across the sky like a spiderweb.
"I can't say I envy the first years having to go across the lake in a thunderstorm," Harry commented idly.
"They'll be lucky if one of them doesn't get killed," said Hermione matter-of-factly.
"It's traditional," Ron pointed out.
"What, for a first year to get killed?" asked Hermione.
"No, to cross the lake," replied Ron, stating the obvious. "The storms adds to the experience."
"Well, I guess they aren't likely to forget it," Hermione grudgingly agreed.
The castle loomed up overhead, and a minute later, they were rushing as fast as possible through the downpour and up the stairs to the castle, not pausing to stop until they were safely inside the candle-lit entrance hall. It would have been all too easy for someone to slip and fall, but luckily everyone was unharmed, albeit soaking wet.
"Bloody hell," said Ron, shaking water all over the place. Hermione started applying drying charms, but no amount of them seemed to have any appreciable effect. Just as she was starting to shiver and huff, a red water balloon suddenly crashed down from the ceiling, breaking on the ground and splashing them with even more water.
Hermione, shrieking in surprise, nearly slipped on the wet floor as she backed away from Peeves the poltergeist. Peeves, who was hovering overhead, was cackling in delight as he pelted the already-soaked students with even more water balloons.
A second later, Professor McGonagall came swooping into the hall. She nearly slipped on the water herself, only grabbing onto Hermione at the last second to prevent her fall.
"PEEVES!" she yelled. "GET DOWN HERE THIS INSTANT!"
Peeves, for his part, didn't listen to a word of what the stern professor said, and began throwing even more water balloons at the students. With a swish of her wand, McGonagall caught them all mid air, but Peeves swooped by and popped them all anyway with a snap of his fingers, showering them with even more water.
Before McGonagall could yell again, the poltergeist escaped through the wall, disappearing from sight. The professor looked down at where she had clutched onto Hermione. "I apologize, Miss Granger," she said. "Are you alright?"
"I'm fine," replied Hermione tersely.
McGonagall nodded her head and turned to look at the assembled mass of students. "Come on now," she said, waving a beckoning hand. "Everyone into the Great Hall."
Harry, Ron, Hermione and Neville tread carefully on the wet floor and followed everyone else through the double doors, before heading for their table on the far left, past the other three houses.
The Great Hall was as massive as Harry remembered, with the four huge House tables spanning the distance lengthwise with the professor's table at the front. Great braziers lined the walls, already amped up with flames to help dispel the chill the storm had brought in. Above their heads, the storm continued on, the enchanted ceiling displaying exactly what the night sky looked like. The storm's fury was terrible to behold, and Harry was glad to be inside.
Taking a seat next to Nearly Headless Nick, the Gryffindor House ghost, Harry took a second to marvel in how much he had missed Hogwarts. The floating candles, dripping light onto the tables, the great banners displaying the House mascots, the other students chittering away, just as excited to be there as he was. Harry loved it all.
"Greetings," Nearly Headless Nick said as the students took their seats at the table, still dripping water everywhere. Harry and his friends politely nodded at the ghost while they watched the hall slowly fill up.
The staff table seemed awfully deserted, Harry noted. Hagrid was presumably still taking the first years across the lake, which would likely take longer in the storm, and McGonagall was still in the entrance hall, undoing the mayhem that Peeves had caused. But where Harry had expected to see the new Defense teacher, there were no new faces at all.
Hermione, noticing where Harry's attention was, voiced his thoughts. "Maybe they couldn't get anyone?"
"Maybe it's Dumbledore?" suggested Harry. "When's the last time he's taught anyways?"
"Years and years ago," Nearly Headless Nick replied. "1968, I do recall. Some dozen years after he became headmaster."
"Was that when McGonagall started?" asked Hermione.
"No, she started teaching Transfiguration when Headmaster Dumbledore became headmaster - he taught an Alchemy elective."
"That's not offered anymore," observed Hermione.
"No it is not," said Nick. "Interest waned until the there wasn't a single new student. Such is the way with things, and I suspect it will be back eventually. I could tell you of all sorts of electives that you wouldn't believe, some that haven't been around in hundreds of years…"
"Maybe some other time," replied Hermione quickly. "It looks like the Sorting is about to begin."
"So it is," Nick confirmed.
The doors to the Great Hall opened and Professor McGonagall appeared again, with a mass of soaked first years following behind her in a line. They looked like they had swum across the lake, rather than rowed, and Harry didn't envy them, especially since they didn't know any magic yet.
They lined up in front of the staff table, all looking a mix of nervous and anxious, and mostly miserable. Ron tapped his feet impatiently as McGonagall brought out the three legged stool on which she set the Sorting Hat on. Ron was even more impatient when the Hat began to sing its song, a piece about the Four Founders which was different than the one Harry remembered. Then again, the Hat did have the entire year to think up new lyrics.
When the hat was done singing, Ron let out a sigh of relief as McGonagall unfurled a scroll, explained how the Sorting worked, and called out the first name on her list.
"Ackerly, Stewart," was the first student to get sorted, shaking all over in anticipation as he stepped up to the stool and the Sorting Hat. Everyone in the hall watched as McGonagall placed the old Sorting Hat down onto the first-year's head. It was large enough that it practically covered his entire head.
Fifteen seconds or so later, the hat shouted "RAVENCLAW!" to the hall, resulting in applause from the Ravenclaws, and polite clapping from the other houses. Harry watched on as the kid walked over to the table, though his eyes lingered on Cho Chang. She was quite pretty, and Harry would be lying if he said he hadn't had more than one dream about her during the summer.
Harry wasn't sure when he started thinking about girls like that, but it was sometime during the third year, and Cho had been the first girl to really stand out to him. There was something… special about her, that made her stick out amongst her classmates, and it wasn't her exotic looks. She was very smart, and an amazing flier… and of course, very pretty. He probably didn't stand a chance with a girl like her, but it was nice to think about the possibilities.
Cho must have felt him staring, and as she turned her head, almost making eye contact with Harry, he quickly looked away, trying to look unassuming and normal. Several more students had been sorted while he had been distracted, including the first new Gryffindor, Dennis Creevey. He was Colin Creevey's younger brother, and he couldn't wait to tell everyone how he had fallen into the lake during the storm, and that the giant squid had pushed him back out of the water.
Then, Colin had to point Harry out to his younger brother, and that made everything even more awkward. Harry lost interest very quickly in that conversation, not willing to make eye contact with either of them.
Turning his attention back to the Sorting, Harry couldn't help but notice there were a lot of new students. Well, not a massive amount, but definitely more than there were in his year. It didn't take a genius to realize that the war had something to do with that, but Harry also noticed that all the kids seemed much shorter than Harry remembered being at that age.
It took the better part of an hour to sort all of the students, of which there had to have been at least fifty. The Gryffindor table had never felt so full, yet all of their stomachs were still empty. Ron was ready to mutiny if he didn't get fed soon.
As if on cue, the last student was sorted - a Kevin Whitby - Hufflepuff. McGonagall gathered up the Sorting Hat and the rickety stool while Dumbledore stood up from his chair. The elderly headmaster smiled, gesturing wildly to the hall.
"Welcome all, to a new year at Hogwarts," said Dumbledore, looking genuinely pleased. "I realize that you have all been waiting patiently, and for that, I thank you. Now, I only have two more words to say - tuck in!"
Cheers went up through the hall as the plates and trays began to fill up magically before their own eyes. Nearly Headless Nick watched on as Ron didn't even bother shoveling food onto his plate, instead jamming everything within range directly down his gullet.
"You know, there almost wasn't a feast at all tonight," the ghost said, leaning in to whisper to them.
"Why's that?" Harry asked between a biteful of food. Unlike Ron, he had managed to get the food onto his plate before eviscerating it.
"Peeves," Nick said simply. "It's an age old argument by now. He wanted to attend the feast, which of course, is right out of the question. He's a poltergeist - not even a real ghost. The council of ghosts convened, and the Fat Friar, being the Hufflepuff he was, was all for giving him the chance. But, the Bloody Baron said no. I agreed."
"So Peeves trashed the kitchen or something?" Ron asked, still not bother to pause his feasting.
"That he did. Smashed bottles, thrown pots. It was a right old mess. I daresay the house-elves were scared out of their minds - "
Hermione dropped her utensils and pushed her plate and goblet away from her. "There's house-elves here," she said flatly. "At Hogwarts?"
"Of course," the Gryffindor Ghost responded. "The largest concentration of them in Britain, I believe."
"I've never seen one -"
"That's the sign of a good house elf," Nick replied. "They spend most of their time in the kitchens. Between meals, they do laundry, light the fires, do a bit of cleaning... You didn't think your luggage would just float itself up to your dorms, did you?"
"I… I.." Hermione was at a loss for words. "They get paid though, right? Benefits, holidays?"
"That's none of your concern, is it?" Nearly-Headless Nick retorted. "They are treated far better here than they would be if they were elsewhere. Headmaster Dumbledore is very fair."
Hermione was having none of it, and it looked like what Nick said did not register in her ears at all. She sat at the table and crossed her arms, refusing to touch another morsel.
"Come on," Ron said, pointing at her with her fork. "You can't starve yourself."
"Slave labor made this meal, Ron," Hermione all but spat out.
"Well, if you're not going to eat this, then I will," Ron replied, reaching for Hermione's plate while also eyeing up the desert. "Look, treacle tart, and cake!"
Hermione's glare would have melted ice, so Ron quieted and returned to eating. Harry chose not to say anything on the subject at all. He didn't have a good history with house-elves, but he knew that they worked at Hogwarts. He wasn't sure when he learned that fact, but it just made sense. There was just no way a staff of ten teachers could operate and maintain a giant castle like Hogwarts by themselves, magic or not.
Harry could feel the turmoil brewing, and an outright war could start at any moment. He had only been at Hogwarts for a few hours, and he really didn't want an argument on his first day back, not with one of his best friends. He ate in silence for the next few minutes, though he kept getting meaningful glances from Ron.
Not long after the last vestiges of dessert disappeared from the plates, the venerable Headmaster once more stood up from his spot at the high table. Accompanied by a loud crash of thunder from outside, the chatter in the hall immediately ceased and he had everyone's attention.
"Another new year," Headmaster Dumbledore said. "And another year where I must ask you all for your attention while I give out the start of term notices. I have been asked by our caretaker, Mr. Filch, to notify you all that the list of forbidden objects now includes Screaming Yo-Yos, Fanged Frisbees, and Ever-Bashing Boomerangs. That brings the list up to four hundred and thirty-seven items, and the full list is viewable outside of Mr. Filch's office."
Dumbledore seemed to smile to himself, but he continued swiftly onto the next topic. "The Forbidden Forest, is of course, and the name implies, forbidden, and is out-of-bounds for all students. Now, lastly, it is my great pleasure to announce, that for this year - "
Dumbledore himself was interrupted by the sound of thunder, followed by the main doors to the Great Hall creaking open. A man walked in, if he could be called that. With a face that looked like one of those tree-stumps carved to look like a bear, if the carver only knew what a bear looked like from rough description, the man looked the part of a savage. He wore a wide-brimmed hat, helping to hide his grizzly hair, but when lightning flashed overhead, a keen observer could see that he had a magical eye spinning around in his right eye socket, giving the impression that he could see all around him.
He walked methodically towards the high table, his heavy robe swishing around him as his one leg thumped on the ground. It was wooden and looked just as carved as his face, and left little doubt that this man had been involved in some serious fights.
"May I introduce you to Professor Alastor Moody," Dumbledore said to the students. Moody reached the high table and gave the headmaster a handshake before clomping his way around and taking an empty seat. Moody took one look at the goblets on the table before reaching to his side and pulling out a flask and taking a swig. Harry had a feeling that it wasn't water he was drinking.
"A retired Auror, Professor Moody will be teaching Defense against the Dark Arts this year. He has a wealth of knowledge to share with you all, and I'm sure you will all learn from his lessons. Now, as I was saying before, it is with great pleasure to announce, that Hogwarts this year, will be playing host to the Triwizard Tournament - "
Dumbledore was suddenly interrupted by a cacophony of excitement and some amount of confusion. He let the words sink in for a minute before trudging forward. "For those of you who have not heard of this prestigious event, I will explain in brief detail what is involved. The Ministry's Department of Magical Games and Sports and Department of International Magical Cooperation have worked tirelessly to bring back the event in a safer and more controllable manner than the last time it was held, some three hundred and forty-seven years ago."
"It is a competition between the three premier schools of Europe - Beauxbatons Academy of Magic, the Durmstrang Institute, and of course, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Starting at the end of next month, we will be hosting a small contingent from each of the other two schools for the remainder of the year. Each school will have a Champion that will represent them, to be chosen at a later date by an impartial adjudicator."
Pausing a second to make sure everyone in the hall was paying attention to him, Dumbledore swiftly continued with his explanation. "There will be three magical tasks that the three Champions will compete in for the Triwizard Cup. The winner of the Cup will gain fame, glory, and of course, one thousand galleons of personal prize money."
"But before we all set our sights at becoming the Hogwarts Champion, I urge you caution. The tournament was once held every five years as a way of creating ties between the other schools, but it was discontinued when the death toll grew too high. We have only been able to bring it back when we could give assurances of safety to potential Champions…. All that being said, the Tournament will still be potentially quite dangerous. Only the most knowledgeable and skilled of you will have what it takes to bring glory to our school. With that in mind, I recommend that only those in their sixth or seventh year put their name forth, but ultimately, the impartial adjudicator will choose the most worthy student."
Dumbledore paused once more, allowing the students' excited muttering to fill the room.
"I'm going to enter," Fred Weasley said excitedly from down the table. The thought of glory and riches shone in his eyes as he thought about winning the tournament. He wasn't the only person with a starry look on their face - Harry estimated that half the school was thinking the same thing.
Suddenly, as if feeling Harry's eyes on him, Fred turned to face him. "What'd ya think, Harry? You going to enter?"
"Me? Willingly looking for trouble?" Harry scoffed at the mere thought of such a thing. "It usually finds me, so I'd rather not. Plus I don't really need any more fame - I've got too much as is."
Fred nodded knowingly, and Harry took a second to actually think about the question. When it came down to it, he was famous mostly because his parents died to save him, which in of itself was an event that he couldn't remember except when Dementors were nearby. He didn't survive Voldemort's attack because of any special ability he had, rather, because of his mother's willing sacrifice enacting some sort of magic that no one really understood.
As he thought about it more, Harry realized that he would like to be known for something other than the scar on his forehead. Being known for his own merit and skills as a wizard was something he had long since gotten over any hope of actually having…. but the tournament was a new opportunity. Plus, a thousand galleons was a fair sum.
Before Harry could dwell on the idea any longer, Dumbledore began speaking once again. "With the Triwizard Tournament, there come some extra caveats for the school year. Perhaps the most divisive of the potential changes is that there will be no official inter-House Quidditch League this year. Now, before you all get up in arms, let me say that this decision is based on the fact that our Quidditch stadium already has the required seating that will be needed to potentially house one or more of the Tournament's tasks. Also of note, is that one or more of the tasks may or may not involve a lot of preparation on our end, possibly rendering the Quidditch pitch unusable for weeks at a time. Thank you all for your understanding, and have a pleasant evening. You will receive your schedules tomorrow morning at breakfast."
With that proclamation, Dumbledore sat back down and engaged his deputy Headmistress in conversation while the furor of the room slowly began to grow. The decision to cancel the Quidditch league was never going to be a popular one, Dumbledore knew that, but it was something that had to be done. The excitement of the Tournament would have to be enough for the students, for the one year only.
Fred and George Weasley were already huddling together, muttering comments about the decision, and soon enough the whole Gryffindor house team was surrounding them, minus Oliver Wood, who had finished his schooling the previous year.
"He said official games are cancelled, didn't he?" George asked.
"Aye. He said nothing about unofficial games," his twin replied.
"But if they're using the stadium…" Katie Bell pointed out.
"The school year lasts nearly ten months. You think they're going to use it that whole time?" Angelina asked.
"No," Fred and George replied. Then Fred voiced his own thoughts. "If there's three tasks, I can't imagine having to need the field for more than a month for each one, that leaves a lot of extra time."
"Perhaps an unofficial inter-house quidditch league?" Angelina suggested. "We've done skirmishes in the past. What do you think, Harry?"
"It doesn't strictly even have to be house teams," Harry replied, shrugging his shoulders. "We are down a keeper after all, and it would be odd to hold tryouts for a team that doesn't have any official games for the year."
"That's a good point," Angelina said, nodding her head in agreement.
"I'm always down for pick-up games," Katie said. "That way, there's less pressure on us individually, but we get to stay in form for next year. Especially if one of us manages to be chosen as a Champion."
"That's what I was thinking," Angelina replied. "We'll have to talk to McGonagall about the specifics of course, but that can wait until tomorrow."
Harry liked the idea. It wasn't really a particularly brilliant idea, all things being considered. They'd done pick-up games in the past, though usually on specific days such as the last day before Christmas break. Playing no-pressure quidditch just for fun was one of his favorite things to do when he visited the Weasleys over the summer.
As he thought about it more, the more it made sense. They didn't have a keeper, but from playing with the Weasleys enough, he knew Ron was pretty decent at it, and probably the best candidate to fill Oliver Wood's shoes. With some training, at least. He sure had enough passion for the game, even if his choice in professional teams was a bit suspect.
But, that was a thought for another day. The train ride had been long, the feast had taken forever, and the excitement of the Triwizard Tournament had exhausted his mind completely. Harry had never welcomed his old four-posted bed as much as he did that night.
Harry was back at Hogwarts, his true home. He'd never felt better.
Author's Note. This story is complete (110k words), and I'll be uploading a new chapter pretty much whenever I feel like. Probably once a day. If you see any spelling or grammar mistakes, feel free to yell at me. I went at this solo, so they're likely quite abundant.