Draco Malfoy raised an eyebrow at Hermione, who was blushing furiously. A smirk played across his lips.
"Why hello there, Mudblood. Long time no see. I was hoping it would stay that way, but you can't get everything in life, can you?" he said smoothly.
Hermione opened her mouth at the sheer absurdity of it all. This year did not look to be turning out well.
"So tell me, what would you be doing up here? You see, they generally do not allow the hired help up at the front of the train. That's where the real people sit."
Hermione forced herself to smirk back at him.
"And if you spent less money on hairspray, you'd be able to invest in a pair of glasses. Then you'd be able to see, Malfoy – " she paused and indicated the badge pinned on her robes, " – that I am no general case you've been speaking about. I'm one of the real people, and I'm here on this ride, whether you like it or not."
Saying so, she flounced inside, leaving an astonished Head Boy staring after her.
"Welcome back to Hogwarts! Now, before you sink your teeth into the delicious feast, I must trouble you with an old man's waffle. First of all, I must warn you, the Forbidden Forest is forbidden to all students. Several of our older students would do well to remember that…"
He paused for a few seconds, and Hermione could have sworn his twinkling blue gaze had rested on Harry, Ron and Hermione. Ron caught Hermione's eye and they both tried not to smile. Harry, on the other hand, was still somewhere in his little shell of isolation, and did not notice anything, the emerald green eyes glazed in thought.
"…frogspawn and sugar quills have been added to the extensive list of items banned from Hogwarts: for full details, please consult with the list outside Mr. Filch's office," Dumbledore said, a slight smile crossing his face. "And, Mr. Filch has spoken to me for the six hundred and eighty-fifth time about the repeated use of magic in the corridors. Please remember that this is strictly prohibited. Several of our older students would do well to remember that as well…"
His gaze rested upon the trio for a split second again, as well as several other odd students, including Ginny Weasley, Colin and Dennis Creevey, and several of the Slytherins.
"…and finally, on a more serious note," Dumbledore continued, his voice growing sterner, the benign smile wiping off his face. "Several of you may have experienced this already…I mean to talk about Lord Voldemort…"
Several students in the Great Hall gasped at the sound of his name; two first-years fainted. Some began to talk to another grimly. Hermione noticed, however, that Harry had broken out of his reverie, and was listening attentively, the glaze was gone from his green eyes.
"The first thing I would like to talk about is this unfounded fear of Voldemort's name," Dumbledore spoke clearly, ignoring the numerous flinches and gasps from the students, and ghosts. "Fear of a name only increases fear of the person itself. This is my belief. Voldemort is no different from any other wizard – it is only this fear that makes him powerful. Strip him of this fear, and Voldemort will be no higher than any other wizard."
He looked around, not noticing the stares of shock directed at him by most of the students, as well as the ghosts and quite a few teachers.
"I do not wish to say that from hereon in you all should practice lessening your fears of Voldemort," Dumbledore continued serenely. "This fear of Voldemort is perfectly reasonable. This fear cannot be hindered. What I would like to start this year is something a little different…"
He looked around at each student, locking eyes with Harry.
"This is the start of a new practice here at Hogwarts," Dumbledore said. "From now on, all students of this school must call Voldemort by his true name. You-Know-Who and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named nonsense will not be tolerated. I do not wish to start an army against Voldemort through this school; however limits must not be crossed."
He paused, not taking his eyes off Harry. Harry nodded. "He's right," he murmured.
Hermione's eyes widened. This was a strange rule indeed. Although she had no objection to it, as she herself had mastered her fear of the name once He had returned.
Dumbledore waited for the whispers to subside before continuing. "Also," he continued, in a matter-of-fact voice, as though he had been discussing nothing more than the weather outside, "we will be welcoming two new teachers to Hogwarts…"
His words were cut short by an outbreak of hissing among students, and even Hermione felt mildly curious.
"Why do we need two new teachers?" Ron asked her. "There's only one space open; and that's Defense Against the Dark Arts."
Hermione smirked a little. "Maybe they're bringing back Umbridge with a supervisor."
Ron looked at her, horrified. "Don't say that, Hermione!"
Hermione controlled her mirth as she focused back to Dumbledore, who was still waiting for the students to stop talking.
"Everyone, just shut up and listen to him!"
Hermione looked at Harry, astonished that he had interrupted the whole school's discussion. What surprised her the most was that he didn't look in the least abashed.
"He's been trying to tell you all something – and it's evident you all are wondering what it is, and at the same time you're not letting him confirm!" Harry continued angrily.
The school shut up. Hermione was dumbfounded that even the Slytherins had complied with Harry's orders. She'd been expecting some resistance…at least from Malfoy. It was most uncharacteristic of him. But Hermione had never seen Malfoy look so pale…maybe he was coming down with something. Good. Now maybe they could have a few minutes' well-deserved peace in the castle.
She switched her attention to Dumbledore, who smiled at Harry.
"Thank you Harry, but I assure you that in the future such efforts will be unnecessary," he said. "Now where was I? Oh yes, we will be welcoming two new teachers at Hogwarts. Now, I am certain this will be much of a shock to most people, especially some – " his eyes focused on Harry again, "I ask of you all to only remain calm."
Now Hermione was confused. Why had Dumbledore expected a shock of Harry but not of any other student? Maybe it was someone out of Harry's past – she couldn't think of anyone who would register such an impact on Harry. Unless it was the Dursleys. Hermione smirked again. It couldn't be the Dursleys. She had never seen more Muggle-y Muggles in her entire life.
Dumbledore took a deep breath. "Hagrid, please bring Remus and Sirius in…"
Hermione's eyes widened to the point where they were at risk of falling out of her face. She turned weakly to Ron and Harry, who had similar reactions.
"Did he just say Sirius?" Hermione whispered.
"I think he did," Ron said, unsure of what to say.
Harry shook his head. "It can't be Sirius. It just can't be…he's d – "
He never finished, as Hagrid, who was waiting by the door, opened it. As in slow motion, two tall figures walked into the Great Hall: both looked extremely tired. One had tired grey eyes and prematurely graying brown hair; the other looked younger, but somehow, surreal, with lively dark eyes and long dark hair that hung in his face with a sleek attraction no one else could ever achieve. It was a trademark that had disappeared with a long thirteen years at Azkaban, as the sunken, vampire-like demeanor had shifted back into the days before Azkaban…the days of Lily and James, his own parents…
Sirius was back!
And he was teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts at Hogwarts!
"It is Sirius!" Hermione whispered. "But how - ?"
"I don't believe this," Harry said hoarsely. "It must be a hoax. Sirius died! I saw him die with my very own eyes!"
Ron nodded in agreement.
Meanwhile, from beside them came a great clatter.
"Harry?" came the voice of Neville Longbottom.
"Yes Neville?" Harry returned.
"That's Sirius, isn't it? Your godfather?" Neville queried.
Harry sighed. "That he is – or was."
"But – how – what - ?"
"I don't understand it either, Neville," Harry said. "What kind of magic would be powerful enough to bring a dead man back to life?"
Even Hermione couldn't answer that.
Dumbledore ignored the outburst of utmost shock from most students, and greeted his fellow now-to-be colleagues.
"How was the trip here? Any problems?"
Sirius made a face. "As smooth as the Knight Bus can get without becoming suspicious."
Remus frowned. "Apart from a witch shrieking that Sirius was going to – " Sirius scowled at Remus, who hastily changed the subject, " – it was fine."
"Please welcome two new teachers, Professor Lupin – "
There was a scatter of enthusiastic cheering coming from three tables.
" – who many of the senior students know quite well, I am certain," Dumbledore said, smiling. "And then, please welcome Professor Black."
There was a blank silence, as all students looked at the newcomer, horrified, or, in Harry and co.'s case, pure, unadulterated shock. The only applause came from most of the staff, to Harry's surprise: mostly Dumbledore, Hagrid and Professor McGonagall. Harry was not surprised to see that Snape's face was twisted in an expression of utmost loathing – he knew that expression all too well, it was the one Snape reserved for him.
Both teachers took their seats at the High Table. Dumbledore cleared his throat.
"Now, on a lighter note, we have received word from the High Educators of Wizardry, and they have taken a look at some of our students taking the NEWTs this year. In fact, some of them were so impressed, that they have given some of our seventh-years a chance to partake in a new experience, and a chance to earn a new qualification: instead of the NEWT, they will be able to undertake in the SWAMPs."
Harry felt his mind go blank. He turned to Hermione, who was wide-eyed with excitement. "What in the name of Merlin is a SWAMP?"
Hermione gave him the classic Harry-when-are-you-going-to-read-Hogwarts-A-History look. "SWAMPs are the highest qualification offered in the wizarding world! If you've got a SWAMP in any subject, it means you've been recognized as a professional – a whiz – oh, I can't explain it, you'll have to hear it from Dumbledore."
Harry frowned. "I don't remember SWAMPs being given in the castle before."
"Oh they have, but only when a substantial number of students are eligible to partake in this experience. SWAMP examinations cost a fortune, you know."
"What's the substantial amount?"
"I think the minimum's about five," Hermione murmured, as Dumbledore continued.
"…the participants have been selected by qualified examiners who feel that these young students show enough merit to partake in this assessment," he said. "These students are exempt from NEWTs and will be taking lessons separate from the other students – I correct myself – will be taking standardized subjects at SWAMP level separately. Subjects chosen in the third year will not be assessed individually…"
Hermione groaned; a SWAMP in Arithmancy or Runes would have been a wonderful acquisition.
"I wonder who got picked?" Hermione whispered.
"Probably you," Harry and Ron replied simultaneously. Hermione tried not to look too pleased with herself.
"And now, without further ado, I will announce the names of the SWAMP partakers." Dumbledore fished out a slip of parchment from his long sleeve. "There are five students partaking in the SWAMPs," he said a minute later, scanning the parchment quickly. "They are…"
He paused for effect. Hermione crossed her fingers.
There were wild cheers.
Even louder cheers. Ron looked as though someone had just Stunned him.
Harry was so shocked, he didn't even notice he was being given the loudest cheer yet.
Neville almost fell off his bench, as Ron clapped him on the back. "Good man!" he said jovially.
"..and finally…" Dumbledore looked up at the students, "Draco Malfoy."
There was a dead silence, followed by wild cheers from the Slytherin table. "How'd he make it in?" Ron grumbled.
"I'd ask you the same question," Hermione replied sarcastically.
Once the cheers subsided, Dumbledore looked at the five students. "Well done, the five of you. Now, if you do not mind, I would like a word with you. Please wait for me in my office after you are done eating. No doubt several of your fellow students – " here Dumbledore broke off, grinning, " – will feel obligated to congratulate you on achieving such a remarkable success. And now, the Feast!"
The golden plates filled themselves with food, but although Hermione had been ravenous five minutes before, Sirius' appearance and the announcement of the SWAMPs had completely taken away her appetite. She just picked at her food. Harry, as usual, did not have much of an appetite. To both of their astonishment, neither did Ron.
"I don't believe this," Ron said in a husky voice. "I never expected – never – not in my wildest dreams – "
"Yes, I know," Hermione said in an equally hoarse tone, "I thought I'd never see Sirius again."
"How did they reverse the spell?" Neville asked Hermione. "Avada Kedavra isn't a spell normal wizards can accomplish. Reversing it is something no wizard can accomplish. So how's your godfather still alive, Harry?"
"My question is," Harry mused thoughtfully, "if Bellatrix Lestrange killed him two years ago, how come he now looks like he did when my parents were alive?"
He received four blank stares.
"I mean," he said hastily, "before, he was all gaunt, and thin and – well, you know – didn't look in the best of health. But now – I mean – he looks so young – he looks like he did before Azkaban…" He trailed off.
"How do you know what Sirius looked like before Azkaban?" Hermione asked slowly.
"M – my picture album," Harry stuttered. "I've got a picture of my mum's and dad's wedding in there. Sirius was best man. He's in it too."
They accepted the explanation.
"That is confusing," Hermione said. "Maybe, now that he's been cleared, and he's got a job, he must be able to spend a bit more on himself. Maybe he just showered and ate a lot this summer."
"This summer," Harry mimicked. "Hermione, if Sirius had been alive this summer, he would have written me!"
"How do you know?" Hermione asked. "Harry, Sirius just got back from God knows where, the first thing on his mind would be if the – if it's okay." By the way she said it, they knew it meant the Order of the Phoenix.
"I'm going to join it when I grow older," Neville said, to everyone's surprise. "I want to do everything I can to help people avoid the Death Eaters. Nobody should have to grow up like – like I did. Or you, Harry."
"No one will grow up like I did, Neville," Harry said. "After all, I'm the boy who lived." He smiled, like he hadn't since the end of their fifth year…
"Well what do you know? Harry's talking to us again," Ron said, clapping him on the back. "Welcome back, Harry!"
"Shut up," he said dismissively.
"Ouch," Ron said, putting a hand to his heart. "That hurt."
They all laughed appreciatively.
"Er – what's the password?" Ron asked tentatively as they stopped in front of the gargoyle.
"Oh, I don't know. Ask Potter – he's been in there the most – haven't you, Potty?"
This vigorously from Malfoy.
"Shut up, you," Hermione said crossly. "Harry, what was the password last time?"
"Um…" Harry racked his brains. "I don't remember. The last time I was in there, it was in my fifth year…it's always a kind of candy…wait! It was 'Fizzing Whizzbee', but it's bound to have changed by now."
"Candy?" Hermione asked. "Okay. Let's try think of different candy…" she ignored a snort of laughter from Malfoy's end. "Can you please shut up?" she said through gritted teeth.
Ron and Harry raised their eyebrows at one another. It was so uncharacteristic of Hermione to give Malfoy any importance…so why was she suddenly giving him the talking-to he deserved? Probably loosened out over the summer, Ron thought. Yeah, for the better, Harry mentally agreed.
"Bertie Botts' Every Flavour Beans, Chocolate Frogs, Peppermint Toads, cockroach cluster, uh…sugar quill, Ice Mice…"
"…Drooble's Best Blowing Gum, pumpkin pasties, cauldron cakes, liquorice wand…"
"Pear drop? Fire Imp?"
The gargoyle sprang to life and hopped away, as everyone looked, astonished at Draco Malfoy.
"How did you know what a sherbet lemon is? It's a Muggle sweet," Hermione asked curiously.
Malfoy shrugged. "That was the password in the second year; I just thought I'd…the wall'll close soon, and I don't want to keep Dumbledore waiting. See you Potty, Weasel, Longbottom, Mudblood," he sneered and whipped through the moving staircase.
"Mudblood yourself, slug," Hermione muttered after him. Ron was shocked. What was up with Hermione?
"Come on, we don't want to be waiting about all day," Hermione said crisply, as she entered the moving staircase. Ron, sharing a bewildered look with Harry and Neville, followed her as they went up the spiralling staircase.
"Please sit down, Mr. Potter, Mr. Weasley, Mr. Longbottom, Mr. Malfoy…Miss Granger," Dumbledore said quietly, drawing up five chairs, much like the comfortable chintz armchairs Harry had seen him draw up during his trial two long years ago.
"First of all, I would like to answer any questions you may have about your upcoming…ordeal. Do any of you have any questions?"
"What does SWAMP stand for?" Ron asked loudly.
Dumbledore smiled. "It stands for Significant Wizarding Achievement in Merited Performance. You will be writing examinations and practically demonstrating skills well above the level expected of you. Any more questions?"
Draco raised his hand. "How did idiots like Potter and Weasley get in?"
Dumbledore raised his hand, silencing the flow of outrage from the four remaining students. "Mr. Malfoy," he said coolly, "that is quite unnecessary. As Head Boy, you have certain responsibilities expected of you. Please do not cross your limits. We all will be most unhappy with the results."
Draco lowered his eyes, though his face was still full of malice.
"Harry," Dumbledore said quietly. "There is something you wish to ask. What is it?"
Harry looked mildly surprised. "Well, Professor," he began, "I'd prefer to ask you in private – or at least when certain people aren't present."
He shot Malfoy a dirty look.
"Ah, I see," Dumbledore nodded. "I understand. Now, if you all are finished asking your questions, I will explain something to you all very briefly."
He looked at them seriously.
"First of all, you will not breathe a word of what happens in these classes to anyone outside. What happens in these classes are a matter of utmost secrecy. If the wrong information reaches the wrong ears, the results could be deadly. It means the life – or death – of all people in this room."
He paused for effect.
"The SWAMP classes are a façade – a cover-up – for what you will really be doing. In addition to learning advanced, beyond-seventh-year magic, you will be receiving practical training for what it takes to resist Lord Voldemort."
He paused again.
"You will be receiving instruction from Professors McGonagall, Snape, Lupin, Black and myself," Dumbledore said, ignoring the groans upon hearing they would have to see Snape more often. "The area of greatest emphasis is Defense Against the Dark Arts. Coincidentally, you are all strong in this area; however, this was not part of the criteria in selecting the students who would receive special tutoring."
"I chose the students who would make the greatest targets for Death Eaters. All five of you have reason to be attacked by Death Eaters – whether it is because of your parents or your heritage, or other reasons. There is no priority among you five – believe it or not; all five of you are essential toward the defeat of Lord Voldemort. Please do not blind yourselves to the illusion that Harry is my first priority. It has been written in your fate that you five would each play an essential role in the downfall of Voldemort. Hence, the more likely it will be for people to try and kill you all, one by one. This cannot happen. In order for you to accomplish what you were destined to do, you must sort out your differences and work as one, because now you must realize what a claim is on your lives. The entire wizarding world depends on you; although they do not know this. Few wizards know of this."
He stopped, and met their eyes, one by one.
"I will be writing to your families – or guardians – tonight. Please do not feel overwhelmed by what I have just said. And do not let even a trace of this information out to anyone."
He relaxed, and the serious look faded. "Now off to bed with you. Except you three – Miss Granger, Mr. Weasley, Mr. Potter – " he motioned to the respective students, "there is someone who would like a word with you."
As Malfoy and Neville left, Dumbledore shut the door. "He is waiting right there."
As Harry squinted into the shadows, he could faintly make out a tall form there.
He turned around and stepped into the light, and smiled.
"Why, hello Harry."
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