Disclaimer: I adore Harry Potter and all of his little friends. I love them, I cherish them, I spend really far more time than is entirely decent thinking about them, but I do not, in fact, own them. Don't sue me.

Chapter 1

Hermione paced the floor of her Grimmauld Place bedroom, scanning the now tidy space for stray books, socks, and other easily over looked belongings. Satisfied when her search turned up nothing, she clasped her beaded bag shut and tucked it absentmindedly in her right sock. Taking a deep, steadying breath, she left the room, closing the door behind her with a soft click.

Her feet carried her aimlessly through the quiet townhouse; through darkened corridors, past unused rooms, and finally up the creaky staircase until she stood beside the open door to Sirius's bedroom. Inside, his back to her, stood Harry.

She joined him wordlessly, eyes following his to study the photograph permanently attached to the faded wallpaper. Four friends laughed easily together, arms thrown casually over shoulders and eyes shining with youth and mirth and the unmistakable lightness of complete irresponsibility.

She turned to look at Harry, noticing for the first time the tears rolling silently down his pale cheeks. She took his hand in hers, squeezing gently when his shoulders began to shake. She pulled him into a firm embrace, stroking his messy hair as he cried shamelessly into her shoulder.

"It's not fair." His voice was small and hoarse, and the bleakness there broke Hermione's heart.

"I know." She knew he was thinking of more than just the marauders. So much had happened, so many had suffered, and it wasn't fair; any of it.

Harry straightened, breathing deeply. "Andromeda's bringing Teddy to the station to see us off."

"Yeah? His first trip to platform 9 ¾, that's great!" Little Teddy had played an important part in their lives since the final battle, his brilliant smiles and bubbling laughter healing the hurt and making it a bit easier to breathe.

Harry's answering smile was genuine, as it always was in response to the tiny metamorphmagus. "Yeah, I hadn't really thought about that, but you're right. I'll make sure to bring the camera. What time is it?"

"A little after ten. We should head out soon."

Harry nodded, turning to study the picture again. Hermione drew her wand, placed the tip against the photo and muttered a soft effingo. An exact copy of the photo materialized on top of the original, and she reached up, peeled it away and handed it to Harry.

He smiled brightly at it before pulling her into a bone-crushing hug, whispering his thanks into her hair.

She swatted his back lightly. "Go get your things. I'll meet you downstairs, alright?"

He kissed her head once before turning and fairly skipping out of the room and down the stairs. Hermione turned to follow him, but stopped shortly. As though following the ache in her chest, she turned back to the wall and the brightly smiling faces of Peter Pettigrew, James Potter, Remus Lupin and…she bit back a sob…Sirius Black. She lifted her trembling wand hand once more, pressing the tip and muttering the spell. She stroked the photo once before shrinking it down to half its size, tucking it in her back pocket and heading down to meet Harry.

***

Andromeda Tonks smiled through her tears at her grandson's vibrant turquoise head where it was tucked into the crook of Harry's neck. Harry squeezed the nearly five month old boy gently, placing a soft kiss against his Technicolor locks.

"I'll see you at Christmas, okay Teddy? You be a good boy for your Gran and I'll bring you loads of presents."

Teddy giggled up at him, clasping his unruly hair and giving it a tug. Harry disentangled the boy's strong grip before passing him to Hermione. She made faces at him, earning a new round of laughter like tiny bells, then planted kisses all across his plump cheeks and button nose.

"Ooh, I'll miss you, Mr. Teddy Lupin! Take care of your Gran and Ron for us, won't you? Yeah?" She handed him back to Andromeda, visibly lightened after the contact. "You'll write and send pictures, won't you?"

"Of course, dear. We'll look forward to seeing you again at the Burrow for Christmas. Have a lovely term!" With that, Andromeda kissed Hermione and Harry on the cheeks before picking her way through the crowded platform.

Harry tugged on Hermione's arm, directing her attention to the other end of the platform. "Weasleys."

A moment later they were joined by Molly, Arthur, Ron and Ginny. Ginny gave Hermione a brief, tight hug before sidling next to Harry, grasping his hand at her side. Ron looked sheepish and uncomfortable, but greeted Hermione with a hug before nodding silently to Harry. Molly and Arthur both hugged them; Molly's embrace lingering and nearly suffocating, while Arthur's was warm, but short.

"So you've both gotten all your things for school, then? If you've forgotten anything at all, don't hesitate to owl me. Harry, dear, haven't you been eating properly? You look a bit thin, you know. And Hermione, love, that jumper looks awfully light; are you sure you'll be warm enough on the train? Did you check the weather in Hogsmeade? Here, I packed you both sandwiches for the ride. Oh, I do wish we'd had a goodbye dinner last night, it's just, well…you know." Molly Weasley's eyes were wide, her expression vaguely lost as her hands twisted anxiously around her bright scarf.

Harry embraced her wordlessly in a tight hug, holding her until he felt the matronly witch relax in his arms. "Thank you, Mrs. Weasley. We'll see you soon, yeah?"

She nodded as he pulled back, watching him through watery eyes. "You're still coming for Christmas, then?"

"Wouldn't miss it."

"Well, you three have a wonderful term. Study hard and look out for one another! Come along, Arthur, I've just seen Mrs. Longbottom, and I'd like to speak with her before we head out to lunch."

The four friends shared a knowing look with each other at Molly's less than subtle attempt at giving them a moment of privacy. Ron shuffled his feet nervously before clearing his throat and addressing the awkward situation.

"This is weird, yeah?"

Harry nodded. "First time on the Express without you, mate. Doesn't seem right."

Ron looked so despondent that Hermione felt the need to sooth his conscience. "I think you're doing the right thing, Ron. George needs you, now. We'll miss you, but it's not as though we won't see you, right? Maybe you could even come up for Hogsmeade weekends."

"Yeah, I think I could manage that."

Ginny punched her brother lightly on the arm. "Keep an eye on the fam, eh big brother?"

Ron gave his first smile of the morning. "Sure thing, little sister. Keep your eyes on this guy, and keep the snogging to a minimum, yeah?"

Harry blushed furiously, studying his shoes and shifting awkwardly while Ginny just smirked in response. "No promises."

Ron rolled his eyes and made a gagging face at a giggling Hermione. Their moment of humor passed, and they were left with an uneasy silence. Their brief attempt at a romantic relationship had been abandoned after only two months, and the return to a platonic friendship had not come easily. The fact that Hermione was now returning to school without him was yet another cause of tension, but if she was being honest, the separation would provide them with the necessary distance to move on from their short-lived, but long anticipated love affair.

Ron cleared his throat, shuffled his feet and took Hermione in a sincere, if awkward hug. "Well, you guys have fun, but not too much fun, alright? Owl me and let me know when those Hogsmeade weekends are."

"Sure thing, Ron. We'll see you soon."

Harry clasped Ron's hand, pulling him into an appropriately masculine one-armed hug. "Take care, mate."

"Yeah."

Ginny just leaned in and kissed her brother's cheek. No words were needed.

They left Ron there and made their way into an empty compartment near the back of the scarlet Hogwarts Express. They all did their best to ignore the stares and whispers as they passed, but Hermione could see the tension in Harry's shoulders as he continued to struggle with his ever present fame. They settled in their compartment, Ginny leaning against Harry, their fingers intertwined. Hermione pulled her bag out of her sock, earning a snort from Harry, fished out a book and settled in for a long ride.

They were soon joined by Neville and Luna, and the five friends were quickly engrossed in familiar conversation. So boisterous was their reunion that they didn't hear the compartment door slide open, revealing a pale and nervous looking Draco Malfoy.

Hermione was the first to notice, and she leaned forward to place a hand on Harry's knee, darting her eyes across to where Malfoy fidgeted in the doorway.

Draco's hands were trembling, his eyes darting about nervously. "Um…sorry. I just…the other compartments…" He seemed to choke on his words before spitting them out. "Can I sit here?"

Six pairs of eyes darted to the empty seat between Hermione and the window with trepidation.

"Look, I wouldn't ask, it's just that…people are feeling…less than receptive." Draco finished this statement by absentmindedly rubbing at his left forearm, drawing stares from everyone present.

"Can't imagine why." Harry muttered under his breath, earning a reproachful glare from Hermione.

She cleared her throat delicately, straightening her shoulders and schooling her features into a tight smile. "Have a seat, Malfoy."

"Thanks." The tall blond made his way to the vacant seat, careful not to tread on anyone's toes. Once he'd stowed his things in the luggage rack, he settled onto the bench and pulled a book from his cloak, earning a round of muffled laughter. Draco's head shot up, immediately on the defensive. "What?"

Harry nodded his head at Hermione, who was holding up a worn copy of the same novel.

"Oh." He could feel the blush crawl up his cheeks as Hermione just smiled back at him.

"It's a classic."

He nodded. "That it is."

Their uncomfortable moment was interrupted when the compartment door flew open once more, quickly followed by a piercing shriek. "Draco! Here you are, I was so worried!" Pansy Parkinson pushed her pug-face into the already crowded compartment, finally taking a moment to look around at the other occupants. "Ugh, why are you sitting here? Come on, I kicked a couple first years out of a compartment down a bit, Theo's there, along with a couple of 7th year Slytherins."

Hermione rolled her eyes at the shrill girl once before burying her nose back in her book.

"Er…actually, Pans, I think I'll just stay here, if it's all the same. Already settled, you know."

Six sets of eyes snapped to his, surprise etched on every face. Pansy's shocked expression quickly turned speculative, and a slow, nasty smirk spread her glossy lips. When she spoke again, her voice was saccharin sweet. "Sure thing, Drakie. See you at the feast, then?"

Draco fought back a cringe and nodded, sending her back into the hallway with one more calculating look over her shoulder.

When the door slid home, Draco let out the breath he'd been holding with a shudder. "Sorry 'bout that."

The others were still staring, slack-jawed, until Hermione interrupted their focus.

"No worries. I guess we know of two more 8th years, then. I wonder who else is going back?"

The conversation turned to casual speculation about returning students, and the time passed easily. When the trolley came by, Harry purchased his usual mound of treats to share with the others, including a bemused Draco. The remainder of the trip passed without incident, other than the occasional gawking students pressing their faces against the glass to get a look at the Chosen One, much to Harry's annoyance and Draco's amusement.

Before long, the group was unloading onto the platform in Hogsmeade and making their way to the carriages. Instead of climbing in, however, many of the older students were circled around the empty carriages, staring and whispering in hushed voices. Hermione pushed through the throngs to see what was causing the disturbance, eventually coming face to face with a huge, winged thestral. Remembering her flight to the ministry fifth year, she reached a hand out and gently stroked the creature's muzzle, earning gasps and more whispers from the surrounding students.

"They're called thestrals, and yes, they've always pulled the carriages. They can only be seen by those who have seen death, which is why, unfortunately, so many of you can see them now. They're gentle, extremely intelligent, and completely harmless, so stop gawking and get in the bloody carriages already!"

The students began tentatively climbing in under Hermione's reproachful watch, and the carriages took off for the school. Draco opened the door to one, sweeping his hand forward in an ushering gesture. "After you, Miss Granger."

Hermione followed his direction with a mystified smile. "Thank you, Draco."

The carriage was soon filled with the same group from the train ride. Ginny smirked at Hermione. "Well handled, Head Girl."

Hermione blushed, turning her head to look out the window with a whispered "Thanks."

Draco turned to Harry. "Are you Head Boy, then?"

Harry shook his head. "No, not me. I think McGonagall chose Terry Boot, didn't she?"

"Only after Harry turned the position down." Ginny nudged him with her shoulder, smiling at his typical self-depreciation.

Draco looked puzzled. "Why would you turn that down? It's a huge honor."

"I think I've had enough responsibility for a while."

Hermione smiled knowingly at him. "Yeah, saving the world isn't nearly as much fun as it seems."

Harry kicked her shin lightly. "You would know."

Draco just shook his head at their blasé attitudes, and they were soon filing out and into the Great Hall for the feast.

The sorting commenced as usual after a lengthy song from the Sorting Hat about coming together to rebuild what has been broken. Eventually, Headmistress McGonagall stood up at what would always be Dumbledore's lovely golden owl podium to address the students.

The wizened witch gave out the usual welcoming sentiments, warnings, and announcements, including the introduction of the newest addition to the teaching staff, before addressing the older students.

"This year we have invited what would have been last term's seventh year students to return for a proper finish to their education. Ten students have accepted that invitation, and they will be housed together, separate from their original house dormitories, in a newly renovated section of the castle. I would ask these students to meet with me after the feast for directions to their new dormitories."

Hermione looked across the four tables to see Pansy pouting quite theatrically, throwing heated glares at her and Harry. Hermione pasted a falsely bright grin on her face and raised her hand to wiggle her fingers in a girly wave at the furious brunette. Beside Pansy, Draco let out a snort of laughter before averting his eyes away from his angry housemate.

The feast commenced, and soon everyone at the Gryffindor table was chatting animatedly, exchanging stories and laughing easily. Only the few missing faces from the crowd hinted at the horrors they'd all lived through.

Before long, dinner was over and Harry, Neville and Hermione said goodnight to Ginny and Luna as the younger girls took off for their dormitories. The three were soon joined by Terry Boot and Lisa Turpin from Ravenclaw, as well as Ernie McMillan and Hannah Abbott from Hufflepuff. Last to join the throng were Draco, Pansy, and Theo Nott, the last two looking slightly murderous at having to live with such mixed company.

McGonagall approached the 8th years smiling broadly. In an uncharacteristic show of emotion, she gripped Harry and Hermione in a tight hug before straightening up and schooling her features into a more professional expression.

"Welcome back, all of you! I'm so pleased to see you all again. If you'll follow me, I'll show you to your new common room and dormitories."

She led the way through the castle, down empty corridors and up 5 flights of stairs until they entered a closed spiral staircase, confirming Hermione's suspicions that they were, indeed, headed to one of the smaller turrets on the southern front of the castle, overlooking the cliffs along the lake.

Eventually, the stairs ended at what appeared to be a blank stretch of wall, adorned with only an intricately carved sconce in the shape of a winged cherub clasping a brightly burning torch. The stone angel turned to face McGonagall with a mischievous smirk in place and spoke in a sweetly childish voice. "Password, Headmistress?"

"Captus vicis." Suddenly, very much like the entrance to Diagon Alley, the stones in the wall began to twist and turn until an archway had formed beneath the little angel, opening into a wide, circular common room decorated in the neutral tones of black and beige.

To their left, the room contained a wide floo beneath a black marble mantle. Spaced around it were several plush tan suede sofas and half a dozen black, squatty armchairs. The far side of the room housed a row of work desks beneath huge, diamond-paned windows, overlooking the now dark lake and cliffs below.

McGonagall led the group up a small, open spiral staircase on their right to the second level of the spacious chamber where a balcony led to three doors. "There are three dormitories, each large enough to house four students and with its own bathroom attached. The ladies will stay in this first room, and I trust you gentlemen to work out how to split the other two dormitories amongst yourselves. Now, we all have a busy day ahead of us tomorrow, I suggest you get some sleep."

After the Headmistress had left them, the boys stood outside the bedrooms, eyeing each other uncomfortably. Draco and Theo looked each other up and down with barely concealed malice before turning and, without a word, marching into separate rooms. Harry just shrugged at the other boys before following Draco into the second room, followed closely by Neville. That left Terry and Ernie to bunk with the surly Theo in the third room.

The boys began undressing and Draco soon excused himself to take the first turn in the loo.

Once he'd left, Neville turned to Harry. "He seems different."

Harry laughed at the vast understatement before adopting a more serious, thoughtful expression. "Yeah, but I can't imagine he could have gone through all that he has without changing, you know?"

"Yeah, I guess so. Still, think we'll be alright here?" Neville glanced nervously between the four-posters, cringing at the proximity as though he'd be sleeping four feet from a snake pit.

"I'm sure we'll be alright."

"Yeah. It's weird, though, not being in the Gryffindor tower."

Harry just nodded as he pulled his bag of toiletries out of his trunk. "It is, but I think it would have been weird either way. I mean, just because we're here, doesn't mean we can really go back. We can never go back."

Neville looked slightly puzzled, but Draco's voice replied in his stead through the open door to the bathroom. "Well said, Potter." He climbed into his soft bed, turning to his roommates once more before pulling the heavy beige curtains around himself. "See you blokes tomorrow, then."

Harry smiled softly at him. "Yeah. Night Draco."

A/N: Sirius is in this story, I promise! He's not going to just materialize without any explanation, though, so you'll have to be patient. This story (the plot included) is still very much a WIP, so any thoughts/ideas/suggestions would be appreciated.

Oh, and I realize several people may seem a bit OOC at times (like Draco in this chapter), but I always try to work an explanation in somewhere, so yeah. Trust me. ;)

Thanks for reading!