Despite the copious amounts of food present at the final feast, Ron didn't find much to be cheerful about. Not even finals being over and the prospect of summer stretching before him could cheer him up. Not only had Draco and the rest not gotten into trouble for their antics, but thanks to Dumbledore doing some dodgy math with the points at the very end, both Hufflepuff and Gryffindor were co-points winners, leaving Slytherin out in the cold. Ron highly suspected that such favoritism was going to be the norm for the next few years, so he might as well bite his tongue and get used to it.
Looking down into the pudding he'd piled on his plate as he swirled it around with a spoon, Ron grimaced as he could hear the whoops of voices filling the hall. He was still in the doghouse with the rest of the Slytherins for losing them so many points that night he'd gone after Draco in the hall, he'd managed to almost get himself killed and he now got to spend the next few interminable months with his moronic twin brothers who, though they couldn't do magic, would surely find ways to prank him out of his mind.
Then there was an elbow in his side; he turned and saw Pansy who gave him a small smile.
"Next year, okay?" She whispered. "You're just a first year. People have short memories and a whole summer to forget. By the time we get back here, nobody will remember. Yes, I know, it stings to see those stupid Gryffs walk away with everything. But it's just one year. Next year – next year will be our year. Promise."
For a moment, Ron stared at her dumbly. Then, he nodded slowly, and returned the small, regretful smile. "Yeah. Yeah, I guess it will be if we try."
"Like I said –promise." She swallowed. "I'm just… I'm just glad you're okay. That we're okay. Alright?" He nodded. "So let's try not to fight again. Because we have to stick together. And if we fought…" Pansy sighed. "I just keep thinking about how awful if would have been if one of us didn't come back from the forest. If we were still not talking and then that happened and we would never get to talk again."
"Didn't happen though," Ron ventured. "We're fine."
"Even so. We're not getting mixed up in something like that again. Right? Let the Gryffindors get killed if they're so keen on heroics."
Nodding in agreement, Ron went back to his food. He was still pretty down, but it was good to know that Pansy was friends with him again.
Seated amidst a cluster of his friends, shouting back and forth with the Gryffindor table, Draco could not have imagined a final feast more unlike the first one he'd experienced at Hogwarts. After Dumbledore had given them all points for their role in the protecting of the stone, Hufflepuff pulled even with Gryffindor in points; even Hannah had been given points for getting help.
Rather than being ostracized, this time Draco was surrounded by enthusiastic house well-wishers while Zach sat morosely on the other end of the table. Justin had been as eager as any to hear Draco's tale over and over, and at that point there seemed to be no doubt in his mind that Draco was a much a Hufflepuff as the best of them.
The feast was over and they were on the Hogwarts Express before he knew it, trunks packed, owls stowed and supplies shoved away and promptly forgotten. Not content to stay with one group of friends, Draco kept bounding back and forth between a compartment with Harry, Theo and Hermione, another with Hannah, Susan and Ernie and a third with the twins and Millicent. The train chugged on towards its destination at Kings Cross as each group alternately speculated about what they would do over the summer.
"I fully intend to get caught up on my reading and get a head start on next year's texts," Theo told Draco when the other boy inquired. He affixed headphones to his head, and pressed a button on the now-functional CD player. "It's never too soon."
"Get caught up?" Draco looked at him, dumbfounded. "But all you do is read!"
"That and get into trouble," Nott replied with a smirk. "Thanks to you."
"You can't have that much you want to read. And there's no way I'm letting you sit inside and read the whole summer long."
"I doubted that you would. Nevertheless, I fully intend to finish at least twenty books over the course of the holiday." He cranked up the volume. "It's silly, such a little thing, but it's nice to be back where technology works. That is the one downside to Hogwarts."
"What're you listening to?" Theo passed Draco the headset.
"Listen for yourself."
Draco set them on his ears and sat quietly for a moment, then nodded. "Not bad," he said as he handed them back. "What was it?"
"Well, well. You do surprise me," Nott grinned. "That, Draco, was opera; in particular "Casta diva" from Bellini's Norma."
"Why didn't you tell me opera wasn't just screeching?" Draco laughed. "Maybe I would have listened to more of it."
"Have you ever actually seen an opera?" Harry asked.
Nott affirmed with a nod. "A few times that I can remember. I went with my mother when I was very small to Aida and snuck out to a performance of The Queen of Spades when I was about nine and Eugene Onegin when I was ten."
"Snuck out?" Hermione looked puzzled. "You had to sneak out to see opera?"
"Father isn't much for the arts," Nott replied with a shrug. "And even less so when it's a thoroughly Muggle artistic performance or expression."
An uncomfortable moment passed in silence before Harry changed the subject to who they thought would be on the Quidditch teams next year and whether Draco or anybody else he knew was going to try out. Theodore went back to listening to his CD, Hermione buried herself in a book and Draco and Harry continued to go on about who might be the new Ravenclaw keeper.
The moment he pulled his trunk off of the Hogwarts Express, Theo caught a glance of his father out of his peripheral vision and nearly dropped the steamer trunk on his foot. The elder Nott's eyes were fixed on him, disproving, as if he were a specimen being examined in a laboratory that wasn't quite fit.
Collecting his wits, Theo dragged the trunk over.
"Hello father," he said with a nod.
A long silence passed between them before his father's frown parted and a single word issued from his lips.
"Gryffindor?" Disapproval dripped from every syllable.
"Yes," Theo replied without even attempting an explanation.
Off to the side, Draco watched his friend with a worried glance. He made a move to go towards him, but the pressure of his own father's hand on his shoulder stopped him. He looked up into Lucius' face and the older man shook his head only once, while Narcissa continued to look at the pair of Notts with a concerned expressed.
"Come, Draco," Lucius whispered urgently. "You've had a long trip, you must be eager to be home."
The three Malfoys left, with Dragon following behind. Draco and his dog cast a last look at Harry and waved, having promised profusely to write and to abduct Harry, if possible, for another visit.
Much as he would miss Harry and worry about him with the Muggles, though, Draco felt a surge or nervousness towards Theodore; Draco hadn't liked the expression on the older Nott's face at all.
Late that evening, the elder Nott sat in his private study, listening to the faint noises coming from overhead and looking at the various curios he had situated about the room. The boy had reacted to his ultimatum precisely the way he'd expected him to; Theodore played at being silent and mysterious but even his strange moods had a method to them.
However stealthy the boy might assume he had to be, his father would not oppose him. No, the aging wizard thought, that was far too obvious a way to go about punishing his son for his indiscretions. Glancing at the door, Nott snapped his fingers and a house elf suddenly appeared at his side.
"Yes master?" The elf squeaked.
Leaning forward, he took a slim black book off of his desk. "Whilst Theodore is rushing about packing, I want you to slip this into his trunk amidst his other books. You are not to tell anybody – other elves, other people, and least of all Theodore – that the book is there. You are to make its placement as natural and non-obvious as possible, neither at the top nor on the bottom of the pile of books.
"Once you have placed the book, you are to come directly back to me."
The elf took the book in his spindly fingers with a nod then vanished with a faint crack. The elder Nott waited patiently, smiling; it might be a while before the boy found it, but he could afford to wait for eventualities. And if that didn't work, then there were always other options.
His task completed, Tippy returned to find Nott holding a goblet, ready with one final command.
Apart from one or two of the other elves, nobody even noticed that he was gone.
Ginny flopped around in her bed, unable to sleep as her head was filled with thoughts of the stories Fred and George had returned with. Percy had looked very disapproving about them relating what happened at Hogwarts and Ron had been rather horrid about the whole subject of Harry or Theo or Draco – the last most of all. The whole ride home had been filled with bickering between the brothers, barely contained displeasure from their father and failed attempts at peacekeeping by their mother.
When the story was told, however, it caught Ginny's imagination. If that was what Hogwarts was really like, then she couldn't wait to attend, particularly with friends like Harry and Draco getting up to adventure all of the time. She suspected she would be getting an owl from Draco about it soon; hearing it from his perspective would no doubt be exciting as well.
As she tried to fall back asleep, Ginny hears a suddenly rushing, creaking noise. There was a light rain outside but what she head sounded more like a rather large vehicle pulling up to the house. Running to the window in the hall, she at first thought it impossible since they were on a back road that even Muggles didn't drive past.
Looking down, however, she saw that it was the Knight Bus, with a single figure exiting its doors. As the bus drove off, Ginny ducked back into her room, pulled on a robe and tore downstairs.
Her mother was already there and Fred and George were close on her heels, followed by her father, Ron and Percy. Mrs. Weasley opened the door to find a slight figure standing in the darkness, a rain-drenched robe covering his hunched shoulders.
"Nott?" George murmured in astonishment when his eyes adjusted to the darkness.
"Nott?" His mother's eyebrows shot up. "Theodore Nott?"
A/N: And thus everything for the first year wraps up, but not in an entirely neat little package. Trouble is brewing for the second year and it will get a head start in the summer. And as promised, the beginning of that story is up now too - just click on my profile and it should be there. Fingers crossed. :)