Author's Note: I hope everyone had a great Valentine's Day, no matter how you spent it. Super thanks to Elenaiel for reading through this chapter for me. You're fabulous. And all of my readers, who favorite, follow, and review, you're wonderful. Hit me up with your thoughts on the chapter if you have a minute. It's always nice to hear what people think. Enjoy!
THE SEARCH FOR LIFE AND DEATH
The ride on the Hogwarts Express was a traditional start to every term. It was a way to both physically and mentally carry someone from the care of their family and into the care of Hogwarts. For that reason, the students who had spent the last two weeks at Hogwarts were heading down to the Great Hall to take a portkey to King's Cross Station.
Zinnia had been left in the dormitory, along with all of their luggage. Harry had his journal and Ron had a chess set shrunk in his pocket. Ginny was carrying a book under her arm. Only Hermione carried a bag. Much to Ron's exasperation, she had stuffed it full of books for her to read on the train.
"I'm surprised you didn't shove Hogwarts: A History in there, as well," he teased her as they walked into the Great Hall.
"I tried, but I couldn't fit that and the Defense Against the Dark Arts, Charms, and Transfiguration texts for this year."
"I thought you would have read them all by now."
"Then why did you bring them?"
"Good morning, Mister Weasley, Miss Weasley, Miss Granger, Mister Potter," Elena greeted. She was standing at the entrance doors of the Great Hall, a book in her hands. Beside her stood her son, Conan, and Draco Malfoy.
"Good morning, Miss Morely," Hermione greeted, her voice a rush of excitement. Ron rolled his eyes. She had spotted the book in Elena's hands and correctly guessed it to be another tomekey.
"I heard about your birthday party yesterday, Mister Potter. I wanted to wish you a happy belated birthday myself, and hope that you had a good time."
Harry smiled softly at her, which Elena returned.
"It's nearing half past nine, so we shouldn't risk being late." She held out the book and they each grabbed a corner as they had before. This time, Elena didn't ask any of them a question, but instead murmured something in Greek that none of them could understand and the tomekey whisked them away.
They arrived in an empty section of King's Cross not far from the locomotive just as the train whistle was blowing, announcing last call for boarding.
"Ah, that was good timing," Elena said.
Hermione had a confused look on her face and opened her mouth, intent on asking Elena what book it was they had used, as she didn't feel she knew anything new, when Ginny's shout distracted her.
"Mum!" Having spotted Mrs. Weasley, Ginny and Ron hurried over to see her before they left on the train. Hermione and Harry followed more sedately, Hermione still with a slightly confused expression.
Mrs. Weasley greeted them all warmly, for which Harry was grateful. He had been a little surprised that she and Mr. Weasley had shown up at his surprise party the night before. He shouldn't have been, since they had always been so welcoming to him and treated him as a part of their family, but there had been some issues between them and Sirius and Remus. Harry didn't know a great deal about it, since Sirius and Remus didn't think it was important to bother him with (Harry disagreed with this but couldn't sway them), but Ron had revealed a few things. He'd had a row with his parents after Harry had disappeared with Remus and Sirius and they found out that Ron had kept this impending vanishing act from them. Mr. and Mrs. Weasley had argued with the wisdom of allowing Harry to remain with Remus and Sirius, and although they included both of them in this argument, Harry was pretty sure it was referring mostly to Sirius. Of the two of them, Remus was definitely more level-headed, with the exception of that one day of the month.
Mrs. Weasley fawned over the four of them for a few minutes, though Harry didn't think he imagined her eyeing him up and seeming to check him over more than she usually did. It made him a little uncomfortable and he was glad that the train whistle blew again and they were forced to leave. He, Hermione, Ron, and Ginny were each given a last quick hug before they ran to jump onto the train before it left the station without them. Conan, Draco, and Elena had disappeared, presumably already making their own way onto the train, and the four slipped on and went in search of a compartment.
Near the back of the train, they found one. It was occupied by Luna and Neville, whom they had said goodbye to only the day before. Luna they hadn't seen leave, since she had walked off from the party after giving Harry his gift and it hadn't been made clear whether she had left the castle or remained, and if it were the former, how.
"Hey, Neville," Ron greeted as they entered the compartment.
Neville greeted them in turn. He was holding a small plant in his lap. Luna, sitting next to him, though "sitting" would be a very light use of the term, was reading a copy of the Quibbler. It was right-side-up, the direct opposite of Luna herself, whose back was supporting her on the seat as her head dangled, hair sprawled across the floor beneath her, and legs stuck straight up in the air, crossed at the ankles. She was wearing a pair of the very colorful eyeglasses that she had given Harry at his birthday party and appeared to be engrossed in her magazine, even though it was not being held in the correct way.
"Hi, Luna," Ginny greeted, not the least bit put off by her strange position. She sat down in the empty seat next to the girl.
"Hello, Ginerva," Luna greeted in her vague, distant voice. "Hello, Ronald." She leaned her legs toward her face and rolled off of the seat, landing with surprising grace on the balls of her feet. "Hello, Hermione Granger. Hello, Harry Potter," she said, and held out her hand, as though she had never met them before.
"Um, hello, Luna," Hermione said, shaking her hand with some confusion. "We met yesterday."
"Yes, I remember," Luna said, "but we hadn't really met, since we weren't introduced. I suppose we should treat yesterday as tomorrow since we are only just meeting today and it's best to do things in order." She shook Harry's hand. "It's very nice to meet you. I look forward to seeing you at your birthday party, Harry Potter."
Hermione looked at Ginny with some concern but the redhead smiled at her reassuringly. Hermione sat down in her seat, with Ron and Harry taking a seat on either side of her, and Luna took her own seat, properly this time.
"You're in Ravenclaw, right, Luna?" Hermione asked politely.
"Yes. And you're all in Gryffindor. I have always wondered why the Gryffindor symbol is a lion when it should really be a gryphon."
"Godric Gryffindor was a lion animagus," Hermione answered automatically.
"I can guess which book you read that in," Ron said, and then raised his voice to indicate he was speaking as Hermione. "I found it in Hogwarts: A History."
Hermione smacked him. "For your information, I read it in The Founders Four, and I do not sound like that."
Ron rubbed his arm where she had hit him and merely grumbled in response.
The compartment was a little crowded with all six of them inside, but their number was reduced to four when Hermione and Ron had to leave for the front of the train. Both of them had been chosen as Prefects for that year, which they had discussed with Harry during the time they spent together at Hogwarts. Hermione's becoming a Prefect was to be expected, but they were all still flabbergasted at Ron's choice - Ron himself was still somewhat shocked by it. Nonetheless, the two of them left soon after, leaving Harry, Ginny, Luna, and Neville alone in the compartment.
"What did you do this summer, Neville?" Ginny asked, moving to take the seat next to Harry so that she wasn't squishing Luna in between herself and the other boy.
Neville shrugged, looking down at his lap, where a small plant was resting against his thighs. "I have a greenhouse at home that my gran lets me work on in the summer if I've done well enough in my classes. She wasn't best pleased at my grades this year, but she never is."
Harry frowned at seeing these words scribble themselves across the page of his journal. Neville had a hard time in a number of his classes, to be fair, but Harry didn't think he was an idiot. It didn't take someone of Hermione's intellect to see that Neville had incredibly low confidence in his abilities, and with the constant bullying by students and professors alike, it really wasn't much of a surprise that Neville didn't do well. He was never given the chance!
"I managed to sneak out a few times each week, though," Neville admitted, a soft smile curling across his lips. "She might have guessed but never said anything, so I spent what time I could working with my plants. Otherwise, I just did homework."
Harry was frowning at his book. Neville's summer life didn't sound much more exciting than his life at the Dursley's. Being forced to hide away, managing brief moments of pleasure amidst just trying to wait the summer out. He didn't know Neville's grandmother, though, so maybe it wasn't as bad as all that, but Neville sounded like he spent all of his time at home and never went anywhere with friends during the summer. But then, Neville also didn't seem to have many friends. Although they spoke and they shared a dormitory, Harry couldn't really admit to having spent a great amount of time with Neville over the years. He felt a deep sensation of guilt at that and resolved to do better this year.
Leaning forward, Harry caught Neville's attention when he made a curious motion toward the plant he was holding. It was a small cactus, only instead of spines it had what looked like boils covering it. It was an ugly thing, as far as Harry was concerned, but Neville was cradling it with clear fondness and, knowing Neville's talent with plants, Harry had to admit to being curious.
"This was a gift from my great Uncle Algie. It's a Mimbulus Mimbletonia, the plant that produces stink sap. See, if I poked the plant, it would squirt out the sap. It smells awful, like manure, so I won't do it here, but it's a really useful defense mechanism. I'm excited, because I've thought about trying to breed it with other plants."
Harry watched, amused, as Neville's shyness and uncertainty faded away in the face of his excitement over discussing plants. The boy clearly knew what he was talking about and enjoyed herbology, and Harry read what he was saying in the journal he had resting in his lap, all the while thinking that he would definitely make an effort to be better friends with Neville this year.
The four of them spent the majority of the train ride talking about their respective summers. Harry revealed, through writing in his journal and some explanation from Ginny (who had heard some of this already), that he had spent the summer learning from Sirius and Remus how to cast spells non-verbally, communicate using sign language, and even read lips. He wasn't an expert on any of the three by any means, but practice was helping him get better. Once he was back in school and using the talents every day, he suspected his ability in them would grow.
The others expressed interest in the ability to cast non-verbally, which wasn't taught to students as young as them but which could be useful. After admitting that Sirius had been teaching him to duel, as well, the others thought this was very interesting and Ginny admitted she might like to try learning that herself. Considering that Hermione had already resolved to attempt non-verbal casting herself, Harry had no problem with his other friends trying to learn this ability as well and resolved to teach them what he could.
Once they ran out of summer happenings to discuss, they spent the rest of the train ride playing Exploding Snap and eating snacks they bought off the snack lady's cart. Harry spent the latter half of the ride feeling like something was missing. The ride had gone smoothly and they arrived at Hogwarts without an issue. It wouldn't occur to Harry until later that Draco hadn't made his annual visit to their compartment, but he was dealing with issues more important than Harry during the ride and couldn't be bothered to put in an appearance.
"Well, well, look who's decided to come back to Hogwarts," Pansy Parkinson said upon pushing open the compartment door. "Draco! I wasn't sure we'd see your ugly face this year. How was your summer?"
Tucked in the pockets of his robes, Draco's hands clenched into fists but he otherwise made no reaction to Pansy's words, pretending that she wasn't there. This didn't appear to distress Pansy, who stepped into the compartment and took a seat across from the silent Slytherin, grinning a cruel little smile.
"I hear your mum and dad had a row early in the summer. Didn't pan out well for her, did it? Nor you, by the look of your face." She giggled a high-pitched little laugh that made Draco grimace internally. "Does it hurt terribly, Draco?"
Before Draco could react, and he had been tempted to, the compartment door slid open again. Pansy glanced over but Draco merely moved his eyes, continuing to sit straight-backed with his face pointed forward, as though he was unaware of anything going on around him.
It was Crabbe and Goyle in the doorway, looking confused, which wasn't an unusual expression on either of their faces. The apparent hesitation as they decided what to do, however, was. Seeing either of the Slytherins attempting to decide something for themselves was an unusual enough occurrence to mark on a calendar.
"Malfoy?" Goyle finally ventured in his gruff voice.
"He's not a Malfoy anymore, you idiot!" Pansy snapped. "Even a family full of as many morons as yours ought to know the Outcast Laws."
Both of them looked confused again and Pansy rolled her eyes. "Draco's daddy cast him from the family, disowned him. He took his name from him. He's not a Malfoy anymore, he's just Draco. Merlin, didn't your parents teach you anything?"
Crabbe and Goyle hesitated a moment longer, sharing a look between the two of them. After a long moment of thought, however, Goyle finally turned and left the compartment. Pansy watched him go without a hint of surprise. The Goyles and Crabbes had always been followers, standing behind those with higher power (and higher brain power) and acting on orders, rather than making any decisions themselves.
What did surprise her, however, was Crabbe stepping into the compartment and taking a seat next to Draco. He didn't say anything, didn't even acknowledge Draco's presence, but the fact that he hadn't left said wonders.
Had Vincent Crabbe really just allied himself with an outcast? That was something she would be best to keep an eye on.
The four of them grabbed a carriage together and Harry was glad, as it made its way toward to school, that Remus had taken him aside before he left and warned him that he would be able to see the creatures that pulled the carriages because of seeing Cedric die last year. Thestrals, they were called, and while they looked dark and vicious, Remus explained that they had a truly bad reputation because they could only be seen by those who had watched someone die. There was a sort of grace to them, Harry had to admit, even if they did look like the zombie versions of pegasi.
None of the others reacted to the thestrals so he didn't make a point of mentioning it, sitting quietly in the carriage and watching what the others said appear in his journal. He was excited that he would be able to spend this year at the Feast. It was always something of a question whether he would attend the Feast or suffer interrogation for flying a car into the Whomping Willow, or deal with Madam Pomfrey for passing out on the train. Any chance he had for a semi-normal school year, Harry intended to grab at it. He suspected all moments of normalcy would be short, few, and far between. He would take what he could get.
The carriage took them to the school and they made their way into the Great Hall. They said their farewells to Luna, who made her way to the Ravenclaw table, and took their seats together at the Gryffindor table. They were joined in short order by Hermione and Ron, who took a seat beside and across from Harry respectively. Fred and George Weasley arrived moments later, squeezing in on either side of their brother and making a point of fawning over Ron the Prefect, much to the amusement of the rest of Gryffindor.
Ginny was sitting on the other side of Harry from Hermione, and Neville was sitting on the opposite side of one of the twins from Ron, having moved a spot down to make room for him to sit next to his brother. The seven of them took up a decent portion of the table and Fred and George's antics entertained the majority of Gryffindor, and some of Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff, until the First Years were brought into the Hall and the headmaster called for silence.
Harry rested his journal on his empty plate, watching the names of new students appear in McGonagall's script as she called out for the first years to come up and try on the Sorting Hat. The names of the House's, to his surprise, appeared in four varying scripts. Gryffindor's name was written in sharp, tight letters, as though the word had been scribbled quickly and without much thought. Ravenclaw's was carefully written, every letter the same size as the last, with all the strokes seeming to be very deliberate and purposeful. Hufflepuff had a soft look to it, curly and almost wistful. Slytherin had sharp letters, like Gryffindor, but didn't seem to have been written with the same speed as the former's name.
Harry studied these four varying scripts with interest, his brief flash of confusion giving way to surprise and then fascination. Could it be that these were the handwriting styles of the four founders? It wouldn't be beyond Remus and Sirius to create something capable of that. After all, the Marauders' Map was an incredible piece of magic capable of showing everyone present in the castle, regardless of any means by which they attempted to hide themselves. The only thing it didn't show was the Chamber of Secrets, and the Marauders hadn't been aware of the actual existence of the chamber.
The truly fascinating thing was that the Sorting Hat seemed to have some manner of the personalities of all four founders, but he remembered from the first song he had heard the hat sing that it had mentioned having a bit of the founders' brains put inside it. If that was the case, Harry wondered exactly how much of the founders was still alive within the hat.
The last of the students was sorted and Professor McGonagall came and collected the hat and stool. It was then that Dumbledore stood up to give his annual start of term speech.
"Welcome back to another year at Hogwarts," the headmaster said, looking around at all of them with fondness. "We are pleased to welcome two new professors this year. Professor Umbridge will be taking the position of Defense Against the Dark Arts."
A woman in violently-pink robes with short curly hair stood up and looked around at them. Harry frowned. She had a look of superiority on her face that he usually saw on the faces of Slytherin House and he didn't care to see it here. There was also the fact that all of his Defense Against the Dark Arts professors had, at one point in time, tried to kill him. He really hoped this year was different but he wasn't going to hold his breath.
There was polite applause from the students and the woman took her seat again with some reluctance as Dumbledore resumed speaking.
"Professor Morely will be taking over the teaching of Potions-"
The applause was explosive, interrupting Dumbledore mid-speech. He smiled with amusement as three of the Houses practically roared with happy cheers. Slytherin House looked annoyed, but no one else really cared what they thought of Snape being gone.
It was only then that Harry noticed that Snape wasn't at the Head Table - something that Ron muttered to Hermione a moment later, the words appearing in Harry's journal.
Harry scanned the Head Table again, seeing no one else missing and no new faces besides Umbridge, who looked annoyed, and Miss- Professor Morely, who he was startled to see was smothering her laughter into a hand.
"Yes, yes," Professor Dumbledore said, waving his hands to quiet the students. It took a few minutes for the cheers and applause to wane and Dumbledore could be heard chuckling good-naturedly. Harry saw Professor McGonagall handing Professor Morely a handkerchief, with which the laughing woman wiped her streaming eyes. For her part, McGonagall also appeared to be in good humor, though whether that was because of the students' reactions or Professor Morely's, Harry couldn't be sure.
"We're all pleased to see how serious you all are about your Potions grades," Professor Dumbledore continued. A few students laughed. "Rest assured that Professor Snape's arrival is merely delayed and he shall be returned to you in good health very soon."
Dumbledore pretended not to hear the groans from the student body.
"As with every year, the Forbidden Forest is aptly named, being forbidden to students. The Whomping Willow is, likewise, a tree best left to its own devices. Your professors are here to help you should you need it, and the Prefects of your House can always be turned to should you need help, which you should never hesitate to ask for.
"And lastly," he said, spreading his arms, "enjoy your meal."
Harry watched the food miraculously appear on the table and, like always, he was thrilled with the display of magic. Unlike most years, however, he had spent the summer in good company and being well-fed, so he did not feel as though the Hogwarts feast was the first bit of good food he had in months. Still, he reached for the mashed potatoes with excitement. House elves really did know how to serve a good meal.
"That was odd," Hermione said, sitting down on the couch next to Harry.
Sitting in the chair across from them, Ginny nodded. "I don't think McGonagall has ever given us a start of term speech. I know some of the other Heads do…"
"Things changed after last year," Harry wrote in his journal.
Hermione nodded. "I guess it would be better for the first years to hear something so awful as Voldemort being back from their Heads of Houses. It's more personal than being told at the same time as the rest of the school."
"Do you suppose that's what Dumbledore meant by students being able to go to their professors about anything they might need?"
Ron grimaced a little. "Maybe he means about… you know…" He gestured at Harry.
"Yeah. I mean, I figured Remus and Sirius were taking you. I didn't say anything because I knew they wanted to get away before anyone knew about it. Maybe Dumbledore's mad that I didn't say anything." He shrugged, like this fact didn't bother him. "I hope he doesn't think that would change anything."
Ginny laughed suddenly. "Yeah, if Mum's yelling couldn't change your mind, I doubt Dumbledore could do a thing."
Ron grimaced at the memory.
"Was it really bad?" Hermione asked. None of them had talked too much about Mrs. Weasley's reaction to Ron essentially lying about Harry disappearing, except to mention that there had been some problems.
"Ron's still grounded," Ginny said, grinning. Rather than the expected teasing expression, Ginny had a proud look on her face. "Mum kept extending his grounding period by weeks at a time and Ron refused to say a thing against Remus or Sirius. I think she got it up to five months before she finally gave up."
Hermione was staring at him open-mouthed, and Harry himself was a little shocked. Ron, blushing from his nose to the tips of his ears, shrugged. "It's not a big deal."
"I have seen your mum angry, you know," Harry scrawled. "She's a little frightening."
"A little?" Hermione asked. Ron and Ginny laughed.
"Oh, Ronniekins is a regular knight in shining armor," Fred said, sitting on the arm of Ginny's chair.
"He'll keep your secrets and your virtue safe, Harry, no worries," George said, sitting on the other arm.
"You two shut it," Ron snarled.
"Ah, now, be nice or we won't be nice back," Fred said.
"Yeah, we could always use another guinea pig for our pranks."
"We've just been holding off because you're being so noble."
"You two better watch it," Ron warned. "I'm a Prefect now."
"Oh, Ronnie's a Prefect, Fred. Did you know that?"
"I had no idea, George. What are we going to do?"
"Charm his badge to read Percy, methinks."
"Now that's just cruel, brother mine."
"Don't worry, Ron. We'll think of something."
The two left, leaving Ron to lean back into the cushions and sigh. "I'm doomed," he muttered.
"It's not that bad," Ginny said. "Besides, you know they'll get distracted by something soon enough and not have time to prank you."
Neville, who had been sitting nearby but not joining in on the conversation, said, "I bet you would throw them off if you suddenly started pranking them."
It was almost comical, the slow turn of Harry, Ginny, Hermione, and Ron's heads as they regarded Neville with shock and surprise. The boy blushed, embarrassed, as Ron muttered, "It's always the quiet ones."
"That's not a bad idea," Hermione added quietly.
"I'm dreaming!" Ron shouted, startled the unsuspecting common room. He ignored the sudden quiet, which faded back into normal chatter soon after, as he turned to Hermione. "Who are you and what have you done with our Hermione?"
Hermione grinned at him, a sly little smile that worried him a little. "Your brothers aren't near as dumb as they would like everyone to believe. The sorts of pranks they come up with require a high level of intelligence in a number of magical fields, not the least of which is Potions. That could be really useful if they ever put their minds to something other than pulling pranks on unsuspecting classmates."
"And you're suggesting we prank them and draw their fire? What have I said about you being the smartest witch of your age? I might have to take it back."
Ginny grinned, leaning forward in her chair. "No, I see. You're suggesting a Prank War."
"Exactly. Only there are stakes in this war, and one of them is that if we win, Fred and George actually have to put effort into their schoolwork this year."
"It is their last year," Ginny admitted.
"And if they win?" Ron asked nervously.
"That would be on them to decide," Hermione said, "but we have to declare war first, don't we?"
"I can't believe you," Ron said, looking at Neville. "You've created a monster."
Neville smiled shyly. "Where did this idea come from, Hermione?"
"It's something I've been thinking about since last year," she admitted. "You-Know-Who might be keeping quiet now, but it won't stay that way forever. I've read about the last war and it was bad. If another one starts up, we're going to need people to fight, and I bet no one would expect the sort of fighting Fred and George could do if they got in on it. Their creativity alone…"
"You've been thinking about preparing for a war?" Ron asked, startled. Granted, he'd heard enough of the last war that another coming war had crossed his mind, as well, but he'd not really thought of doing anything for it. He was a kid, after all, and therefore not seen as someone who could do anything about it.
"Once I finished my schoolwork, I needed something to focus on this summer," Hermione admitted.
"So she starts planning for a war," Ron muttered.
"Your first thoughts are Fred and George?" Harry asked.
Hermione smiled. "No. They were my second thought, but I still have some stuff to look into about what first came to mind. I'll let you guys know when I figure everything out."
"Please do," Ron said, more intrigued than anything. "In the meantime, how do you expect us to come up with a prank big enough to fool Fred and George, the princes of pranking?"
"Easy," Hermione said, "we ask the kings for help." She looked at Harry. "I bet Sirius can't wait to hear how the train ride went."
Harry grinned at the thought of Sirius' reaction to him asking about pranks, but he was distracted by Ron, who had started laughing so hard he fell off the couch.
Oh, he couldn't wait to write that letter.