McGonagall waited for them in the castle's entryway wearing a cross look on her face. Her foot tapped impatiently against the stone floor. "You are late," she said. "The First Years are nearly here."
"'Pologies, Professor," Hagrid said sheepishly.
"Yeah," added Dresden, grinning, "we hit some wicked traffic in the Jet Stream."
Harry did his best not to snigger, but McGonagall must have spied some kind of amusement on his face anyway, because her ire turned next to him. "Mister Potter, I suggest you change into your robes and find your way to the Great Hall," she said archly.
Waving her wand over her open hand, she produced a square of folded black cloth, which she handed to Harry. He glanced briefly at his trunk and wondered if she had taken one of his robes or simply transfigured one for him out of thin air. It unsettled him to think that McGonagall could fit him for robes with a simple thought.
As he took the robes, another thought occurred to him. He cast a sidelong glance at Molly, and said, "Just me, Professor?"
McGonagall's whole face puckered. "Exactly as I said, Potter. Miss Carpenter will accompany me, as will Professor Dresden. There are a few matters yet to discuss and preparations to make before the induction ceremonies begin."
Harry started to protest, but McGonagall's razor-edged scowl silenced him at once. Instead, he gave Molly a smile that he knew wasn't very convincing. She returned it in kind, hiding her nervousness poorly, and followed Dresden and McGonagall down the corridor. Mouse gave Harry one last nudge of his nose before he trotted after them.
Hagrid fidgeted uncomfortably in their abrupt solitude. "Well, I, er…I'd best get myself to the Hall too. But I'll make sure yer trunk gets where it needs t' be. And you lot'll come visit soon 's yer settled. Won't yeh?"
Harry's nod seemed to ease Hagrid enough for the enormous gamekeeper to excuse himself. As he left, Harry found himself alone in the corridor. He quickly found the solitude unbearable, and so hurried to the nearest lavatory to change.
When his robes were in place, he examined himself in the mirror above the sink. The sight of Gryffindor's shield emblazoned on his breast gave him pause. He stared back at his reflection, his heart rising into his throat as he realized that he was truly, honestly home again. The thought brought tears to his eyes. He pawed at his eyes, embarrassed, but they didn't stop until he forced himself away from the mirror.
He had convinced himself for so long that he would have to flee Hogwarts to keep it safe, to complete his mission. And when McGonagall had forced his plans awry, Harry had dreaded his return, certain that it would ruin his mission or endanger the friends he had sought to protect. But the thought of returning to his House, of sleeping in his proper bed, of going to class with his friends in the castle he had come to think of as his only true home, made his heart ache fiercely. He knew he was where he was meant to be, whether he wanted to be or not.
When the moment of nostalgia had passed, Harry dried his eyes and hurried to the Great Hall. Even before he rounded the corner, he could hear the chatter of students. The glow of the levitating candles spilled through the entryway and into the darkened corridor, drawing him in like a beacon.
He had to force himself not to run as he pushed into the Hall. Overhead, the enchanted ceiling was mimicking the last rays of sunset as they left the sky. Stars were beginning to appear on the far side of the hall where the horizon would be.
The student tables were stretched beneath the false sky in four symmetrical rows, just as they always had been. But even at first glance, Harry could tell that something was amiss. Each of the long tables had numerous gaps between students, large gaps too big to account for the First Years that still hadn't arrived. With a pang, Harry realized that many students hadn't returned to Hogwarts that year. He couldn't blame them or their parents. The school, formerly a place of relative safety, had been proven to be just as vulnerable to Death Eaters as anywhere else in the wizarding world.
The familiar voice latched onto Harry and drew him through the rows of tables like a shot. He nearly knocked a pair of Second Years clean off their feet as he rushed into Hermione's waiting hug. His ribs creaked under the force of her embrace. A small part of him wondered if she would pick him up and twirl him around. But the majority of him was just as happy to see her.
As soon as he staggered out of Hermione's crushing hug, Ron pounded him on the back, almost bowling him off his feet. "Bloody glad to see you, Harry," he said, thumping Harry again.
Harry's grin threatened to tear his cheeks in two as he took in the sight of his two best friends. There were a dozen little changes written into them that reminded him how long the summer had been without them. Ron had somehow managed to grow even taller, though his slender frame still struggled to fill out his robes. And he had shorn his normally shaggy hair jarringly short, so short that it barely covered his scalp. Hermione had likewise cut her bushy brown hair and stuffed the rest into a stubby ponytail. Both of them looked leaner than Harry remembered, and their eyes looked sunken and tired.
They ushered him to a seat at the table with the other Seventh Years from Gryffindor. Dean Thomas and Seamus Finnegan both glanced back from their conversation with a pretty Sixth Year girl to nod a brief greeting to Harry. Sitting across the table, Neville beamed at him, though he didn't say anything, and quickly looked away. The rest of the table seemed content to ignore Harry. He was content to let them.
"You two look alright," said Harry, keeping his voice below the din of the room so that only Ron and Hermione could hear, and only by leaning close.
Hermione smiled wanly. "We look dreadful," she said. "We spent half the summer wondering if You-Know-Who really had caught up with you. There were a dozen different rumors floating about, and no one in the Order would tell us anything."
"We had to find out you were still alive from Fred and George, of all people," Ron added. "After that, McGonagall would at least tell us that you were alive. She said you were on some secret assignment for the Order, and wouldn't say one word more. Of course, I knew that was rubbish, and I never believed her for a second. I told her that you would never set one foot after You-Know-Who unless we were there with you." He nodded matter-of-factly.
Hermione rolled her eyes, forcing Harry to bite back a laugh. He guessed Ron hadn't been quite so convinced over the summer, probably resulting in a fair number of the arguments Fred and George had mentioned. When Harry thought of his meeting with the twins in Diagon Alley again, he paled a bit, and asked, "Did, er, Fred and George mention anything else about seeing me?"
"Mention what?" Ron asked too casually. "You mean the half-giant bloke from across the pond McGonagall was dragging around, or the new cover model girlfriend they caught you with?"
Harry swallowed hard and tried to sink further down into the bench. "That last bit, I suppose. I think they might have gotten the wrong idea."
"If they did, they weren't the only ones," Ron told him coolly. His eyes flicked to one side.
With a growing weight in the pit of his stomach, Harry turned to follow Ron's gaze, and saw Ginny sitting further down the row on the opposite side of the table. She was surrounded by a large group of friends—mostly boys, he noticed with some chagrin—and was talking animatedly with them. As he watched the conversation, Harry saw her laugh at something one of the boys said. The sight of her smile, of her crinkled eyes, twisted in his chest.
On a closer inspection, Harry could see that Ginny had changed as well. Her lustrous red hair was kept back in a plain black hairband, much like the one she had worn during their practices years ago in the Room of Requirement. There was a slight hollowness to her cheeks, a tightness much like Ron's and Hermione's that made Harry wonder if the rest of the Weasleys looked so haggard. It had obviously been a hard summer for them all, and it made Harry feel that much guiltier to have spent it in a hole in the ground half a world away.
The longer he stared, the more he noticed that something was odd. It wasn't until two or three of her entourage turned to meet his stare that he realized Ginny was refusing to look at him. She couldn't have missed his coming into the hall, not with the reception Hermione had given him. Her neck fairly trembled with the tension of not looking in his direction.
"Mind you, I'm a bit torn on the subject," Ron said. "On the one hand, I suppose I should beat the tar out of you for giving her that load of bollocks about leaving her to keep her safe and then finding yourself a summer fling. On the other," he continued, tilting his head the other way, "I don't have to live with the thought of my best mate snogging my sister anymore."
Hermione reached across Harry to swat Ron's arm. Then she said, "Harry, what were you doing all summer? Did you…learn anything?"
She could only mean their mission to find Voldemort's horcruxes. He shook his head. "No." Then he smirked, and added, "Which is funny, seeing as how I've been living with a teacher for the past two months."
At their confused looks, Harry began to tell them the condensed version of how McGonagall had essentially kidnapped him, and how he had come into the charge of their new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. After a second of silent hesitation, he decided to leave out the part about the White Council. There was still too much he didn't understand about Dresden's wizarding world. He didn't know how to even begin explaining another governing body of wizards when he felt as though he barely understood his own.
What he did not omit, however, was McGonagall's utter betrayal and her tyrannical cooption of his mission. "She's got a trace on me," he said bitterly.
Hermione's jaw dropped even as Ron snorted. "What? A trace? But you're seventeen," Ron scoffed.
"This one's different than the Ministry's underage wizarding trace," Harry said, shaking his head. "She'll be able to find me no matter where I go, and bring me right back under her thumb."
"She did what?" Hermione gasped, her volume climbing high enough to earn her several glances from other Gryffindors. "That's unbelievable!"
Ron frowned, uncomprehending. "But…but you're seventeen," he insisted. "She can't…"
Hermione started to ask, "How did she manage—"
Waving the question aside, Harry snapped, "What does it matter? It doesn't change anything." He looked to either side, making sure that there weren't any curious glances aimed in their direction. Then he lowered his voice to a graveyard whisper, and continued, "We're still going to do what we have to. For Dumbledore."
Those last two words were not a reminder of who had given them their mission. It was a rallying cry, and even though he could barely hear the words himself, Harry saw them strike away any doubt Ron or Hermione might have had. Their expressions sobered, and they nodded.
"Right," Harry said in a louder, more congenial tone in case they had eavesdroppers after all. "Enough about me. What about you lot? What did I miss?"
"I guess that depends on what you already know," Ron said. He leaned against the table and jerked a thumb at Hermione. "For starters, this one finally achieved her lifelong dream."
Hermione shot Ron a sharp look through her furious, burning blush. When Harry gave her a questioning look, she sighed and pulled at the collar of her robes to reveal a golden badge shining brightly on her vest. At first, Harry mistook it for her prefect's badge. But when he read it again, his expression split into a grin. "You've been made Head Girl?"
A sarcastic noise jetted through Ron's nose. "Like they could have picked anyone else," he said.
Her blush worsened, and she looked as though she might fling something at Ron. "It's not like I asked for it, or even expected it," she said quickly. "And if we're going to be involved in 'extracurriculars,' then it could very well complicate matters. But…"
"It's been a long time coming," Harry assured her. "Congratulations, Hermione."
It felt odd to remember such things as prefects and head students as being important, especially with Voldemort breathing down his neck. But he was glad that teachers of Hogwarts, however aggravating they could be, still recognized Hermione's worth. If anything, she deserved a hundred badges, and all the honor and authority they might command. She had certainly earned them.
As if remembering, Ron drew out his prefect's badge from his pocket. He made it a point to pin it upside-down on the front of his robes. "Yeah, well, it's a shame that she has to share the honorable office with such utter pond scum," he said darkly.
Harry frowned confusedly until Ron pointed across the room. Turning his head, Harry's gaze wandered across the room, finally coming to the Slytherins' table at the opposite side. Immediately, he found a greasy, slicked-back head of hair, and felt his blood turn to ice.
As if feeling Harry's eyes pressing into him, the head turned. Draco Malfoy stared back at him. Malfoy looked pale, paler than he ever had in the previous year. His eyes widened and his lips parted in a look of gaping horror, as if he were just as shocked to see that Harry had returned to Hogwarts as well.
Harry felt Ron's hand on his shoulder. The gangly boy grunted as he yanked Harry hard onto the bench. Only then did he realize he had been standing up, his legs tensed as though ready to run across the room. "Harry, don't," Ron hissed. "You can't. Blimey, we thought you knew!"
Hermione's hand found his other shoulder. At her gentle insistence, Harry swung back around and put Malfoy behind him again. Even still, he kept his head turned to keep that greasy haircut at the edge of his vision. He would not turn his back on Malfoy, not completely. Never again.
"It's just awful," Hermione whispered. Her voice developed an ugly edge as she cast her own sidelong glance back at the Slytherin table. "I still can't believe he had the gall to come back after what he did. And to be made Head Boy, no less."
"You were right," Ron told her, "He thinks he's untouchable. And he probably nearly is, the rich, spineless git."
When Harry tried to respond, his voice failed him. It took him several tries before he could manage to speak. "How could he be here?" he demanded softly. "The last time I saw him, he was running for his life with Snape."
The mention of Snape's name choked him again. In the ensuing silence, Hermione gave him a concerned look, and said, "Then you really haven't heard? They—"
Hermione stopped talking when she noticed that hers was the only voice in the room. The rest of the students, and even the teachers, had fallen silent and turned to watch as McGonagall entered the Great Hall. Behind her, they could see the pintsized shapes of the First Years lining up in the corridor, waiting to be ushered in.
She swept past the tables, walking briskly. Her face was a stony mask. As she rounded the table, Hagrid set aside his enormous mug and rose from his seat. One by one, the other teachers followed suit. They did not clap, or even smile, but simply stood in reverent silence as Hogwarts' new headmaster took her place.
Except, she didn't. Harry expected McGonagall to seat herself in the headmaster's chair, but instead she went to her former place at its side. Then she joined the other teachers in staring at the empty chair. She bowed her head, lacing her hands together. It was hard to tell at a distance, but her lips might have been moving.
Were they going to leave Dumbledore's chair unoccupied? Harry couldn't really blame her. Being back at Hogwarts had reopened wounds that hadn't had time to fully close over the summer. The sight of the old headmaster's empty chair put a lump in Harry's throat, and he knew he wasn't alone. Hermione was blinking back obvious tears and trying to sniffle too softly to be heard. Ron's eyes had fallen to the table, his lips mashed together in a tight grimace.
No one spoke. Any words that had needed saying had been said at the funeral last spring. The students and teachers joined each other in a long moment of silence as they stared at the absence of Hogwarts' most crucial element.
Then, clearing her throat, McGonagall took her old seat. The rest of the teachers followed suit as she began to speak. "Before we proceed with the induction of our new students, I would like to tell you all how glad I am to see all of you returning to Hogwarts. In light of everything that has befallen our school, and of the troubling times we now face, I believe it is more important than ever that stand united. Only together may we triumph over adversity."
Harry suspected she wasn't just speaking generally. Her eyes pointedly avoided his direction.
"And so, in that spirit," McGonagall continued, her voice becoming officious, "I would like you all to join me in welcoming back our new headmaster, Professor Severus Snape."
The room shrank away from Harry's eyes and ears. He became deaf, blind, and dumb as McGonagall's gesture drew forth a swirl of dark cloak and hawkish features at the Hall's entrance. Snape moved with calm and measured steps through the tables. His face was drawn into tight lines, but no one watching could miss his smugness. He walked as though he already owned everything he surveyed. Which, of course, he now did.
Snape, the man that Harry detested perhaps even more than Voldemort, the man who had inflicted a hundred petty cruelties upon Harry for no reason but his own small-minded, impotent vengeance, the man who had let Sirius die and betrayed the Order of the Phoenix, circled the head table and took the seat of the man he had murdered.
The voice thundered over the smattering of awkward, uncertain applause of the students. The cheers and whistles resounding from the Slytherins' table ceased at once. Harry again felt Ron and Hermione pulling desperately at his shoulders, and realized that he was the one who had shouted. He stood from the bench, squaring his shoulders against the shocked looks of the entire room, and met Snape's eyes with a look meant to kill him.
Arching an eyebrow, Snape broke from Harry's baleful stare without blinking, and said, "Thank you, Professor McGonagall. And to all our returning students: welcome."
Harry's ears were still ringing when his friends finally pushed him back into his seat. His whole body trembled. He clenched his fist until his knuckles hurt. He clenched his jaw until he thought his teeth would shatter. If not for Hermione's hand on his arm, he would have drawn his wand and finished what he had started that night four months ago.
"Like I said," whispered Ron, " we thought you knew."
As Harry seethed, Snape spread his hands for a silence that was already there. "I would like to make a few announcements before the sorting ceremony begins," Snape continued, either oblivious or unconcerned with Harry's rage. "Firstly, Professor Slughorn has agreed to resume his old post as head of Slytherin. I expect you will show him the same courtesy and respect which which you favored me. I still expect great things from my former house this year. I know you will not disappoint me.
"Next," Snape continued, "you have undoubtedly noticed the presence of several Aurors on the school premises. No doubt you reviewed the informational letter sent via owl to all students' families, but for those of you who were remiss in their correspondence, allow me to review these new circumstances." Snape's eyes hardened into dark pools of ice. "The Aurors are here by order of Minister Scrimgeour himself. They are to be obeyed at all times. All students and their belongings are subject to search and seizure at an Auror's discretion for the purposes of school safety as that Auror sees fit.
"Failure to comply," Snape added, and let his beak of a nose drift ever so slightly toward the Gryffindor table, "can and will result in expulsion."
Harry's lip curled at the thought of the two thugs guarding the edge of the Forbidden Forest, and of the dozens of Aurors he saw patrolling the grounds in his brief walk inside. He almost wanted one of them to try and seize his belongings just to see what he would do. Maybe he wasn't an Auror yet, but he knew a few tricks of his own, and he had beaten full grown wizards who had eluded such Aurors for years. Let Snape try to intimidate him with his militia.
"And lastly," said Snape, "thanks to the efforts of Professor McGonagall, we have a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher this year. So please welcome Professor Dresden to our school."
At Snape's gesture, the students turned. Even before their eyes reached the entrance, they heard the sound of footsteps accompanied by soft, metallic jingling. Dresden stepped out of the shadows and strode into the Great Hall. He wore his leather duster over a mashed-down set of black robes, and carried his carved staff with him, letting it thump against the stone every few steps.
But the things that everyone would remember were the cowboy boots swishing at the hem of Dresden's robes and the silver spurs chiming on his heels. They would remember the odd hat, which they would later learn was a Stetson, perched atop his messy dark hair. And they would remember him meeting their dead silence with a cheesy, satisfied grin.
Dresden walked to the teacher's table, ignoring their baffled looks and McGonagall's scowl. As he turned to the students, he tipped the brim of his hat, and said loudly, "Howdy, everybody. Excited to be here. This is a great castle, am I right? Really tall parapets. Great word, too: parapets. How often do you get to say parapets?"
"…yes. Thank you, Professor Dresden," said Snape. "If you'll please take your seat?"
The way Snape said it made it obvious to everyone that he wasn't making a polite request. Dresden just smiled wider and nodded, even adding an officious little half-bow before he sauntered around the table. He gave each footfall its own beat, letting everyone hear the spurs ringing as he sat at the last spot at the end. This time there were snickers from some of the other students, and hushed voices to accompany them. Snape's face curled in barely-contained annoyance.
When Snape's silence dragged on too long, McGonagall cleared her throat, quelling the giggles and whispers of the students. "And, as an added pleasure," she said, "Professor Dresden's apprentice, Miss Molly Carpenter, has accompanied him to Hogwarts, and will be joining us for the school year. Given her previous experience, she will be taking classes with the Seventh Years."
Now Molly entered the Great Hall, followed shortly by the diminutive Professor Flitwick and his gaggle of First Years in their neat, nervous little rows. Flitwick instructed the First Years to wait by the entrance before he followed after Molly. A saggy fold of old, dark canvas was tucked under his elbow.
Molly didn't look much more confident than the children behind her, but she managed a shaky smile as she crossed the Hall to stand before the teachers. When she spotted Harry in the crowd, her smile filled out, and she winked. He winked back.
Ron could barely muster his voice as Molly walked by. He craned his neck to follow her down the rows. "Bloody hell, Harry," he whispered. "That's the girl Fred and George caught you with? Now I really want to murder you!"
"We're just friends," Harry whispered back firmly.
"Don't get me wrong," Ron said, as if he hadn't been listening. "I want to shake your hand, too. What's your secret? Do all the girls in America look like that?"
Hermione's eyes sparked dangerously. "Oh, come off it, Ron," she hissed.
There was plenty of whispering, and most of it was coming from the girls. The boys of the school were otherwise occupied collecting their jaws from the floor. Molly caught on to the attention immediately and put it to good use, demurely flipping her two-toned hair from her shockingly blue eyes as she ratcheted her smile to a nearly blinding setting. As Molly reached the teachers' table and turned, McGonagall had to clear her throat twice more to restore order.
"Being that these are special circumstances," McGonagall said primly, "we will begin our sorting ceremony with Miss Carpenter first, and then proceed to the sorting of the First Years."
Flitwick, who had tottered invisibly in Molly's wake, waved his wand over the bare floor and transfigured a stool, upon which he sat the fold of cloth. It unfurled itself into the familiar shape of the Sorting Hat. Molly gasped and recoiled as the musty tear that formed its mouth split for a breath. Evidently, no one had explained to her exactly what sorting would entail.
Harry leaned forward, anxious to listen. He had only heard the Sorting Hat's song a few times before, and wondered what its song would be this year.
But to everyone's surprise, the old hat did not sing. Its voice rose in a mournful tenor as it spoke plainly and briefly.
In times of dread, in days of fear,
What matters most is gathered near,
The fallen father's wisdom heed,
Unite as one in voice and deed.
Once more, silence echoed in the Great Hall. The older students were flabbergasted by the Hat's refusal to sing. As Ron had once surmised, the Hat would spend a whole school year thinking up the next year's song. It had little else to do.
Harry understood, though. He remembered the Hat sharing Dumbledore's office, probably for many decades. It wasn't simply the students and teachers who missed him. Even the castle itself, and its myriad wonders, mourned for the old wizard's loss.
Before the confused murmurs could grow into anything more, Professor Flitwick held up his hands, calling for silence. Then he began a soft conversation with Molly, who gathered herself as best she could on the stool sized for eleven-year-old children.
"Harry, did you tell her anything about…?" Hermione's whisper trailed off.
Letting his glance drift to Snape, Harry felt an icy knife stab at his chest, and growled, "Wouldn't have mattered if I had. Clearly I don't know what's going on myself."
Hermione sighed softly. "If she's from America as well, it's possible that the Death Eaters have never gotten to her. Do you think we could trust her?"
Harry nodded. "There's no chance the Death Eaters ever got to her, or to Dresden" he murmured. He decided to leave out the fact that it was because neither Molly nor her mentor could even fathom what a Death Eater really was.
"They'd wind up in two pieces if they tried," Ron said dreamily, still staring. "She's an amazon, that one."
Even through her annoyance with Ron, Harry could tell that Hermione was relieved. Truthfully, so was he. All of the horrible possibilities he had imagined himself finding at Hogwarts paled in comparison to Snape's return. It had been the one silver lining to the horror of the past year, that Snape was finally revealed as the snake Harry knew him to be. Now that snake was running his school, threatening his friends, all after having gotten away with murder.
And Malfoy's return brought a whole host of new complications. Malfoy may have hesitated to kill Dumbledore, but somehow Harry couldn't imagine the sneering boy hesitating to kill him. Most of Slytherin, if not all of it, would jump at Malfoy's command, which meant as many as one quarter of the students at Hogwarts could be out for Harry's blood.
Not only could Molly be trusted, but she had to be. Too many of Harry's friends, even those from the days of Dumbledore's Army, could become liabilities. They had families of their own to worry about if and when Harry's confrontation with Voldemort became an open one. Molly's family was safe, half a world away and under the auspices of an entirely different wizard's court. Perhaps Dresden was likewise disconnected, but he was just another of McGonagall's tools, another attempt to control him.
As Flitwick lowered the Sorting Hat onto Molly's head, Harry felt a swell of relief at the thought of Molly being there with them.
"SLYTHERIN!" cried the Sorting Hat.