Drunk, eating soup, posting this despite wanting to milk a few more reviews of my last chapter in a desperate attempt to stroke my ego.

Also getting rid of the date/time/place things, because I feel like they serve next to no purpose.

This chapter ran long because I needed to basically establish and describe an entire school campus, which takes many words. I tried my best to keep it from being an infodump, but it is, at best, a cunningly disguised infodump…and it worst, a poorly disguised one.

Next chapter will see more action. Most probably.

Read on!

Albus sighed as he reread the f-mail from Sirius, glancing down to nearby issue of the Daily Prophet from several days ago.

London's Most Famous Wandmaker Missing!

Garrick Ollivander Disappears Without a Trace

The signs of a struggle and lack of a body were disconcerting, as well as the fact that, aside from being an accomplished wandmaker, Garrick was also a very skilled and tenacious duelist. To beat him into submission would take more skill than many average wizards possessed, or at the very least, a group of at least four or five. Add that to Harry's recent nightmares and scar pains, and the conclusion was a grim one.

"I'd hoped we would have more time," he said, glancing up at Fawkes, who trilled mournfully. Standing, he strode over to the locked cabinet in which he kept his pensieve, tapping it with his wand and opening the doors, the hinges groaning a bit in their age. He'd have to grease those when he found the time.

Ignoring the stone basin for now, he reached up and tugged down a book, a small innocuous journal, utterly mundane except for the giant hole pierced in the center, the edges singed and blackened.

"Could it be you, Tom?"

Platform Nine and Three-Quarters was as bustling as it had ever been, Neville mused as he stared out at the churning sea of students milling through the cloud of steam. Behind him, his Gran was politely chatting with Tania Finnegan while Seamus lugged his cart along next to Neville.

"Alright, Nev?" he said with a grin. "Good to be back, eh?"

"Yeah. I'll miss Harry and Ron and Hermione, though."

"So they really aren't coming back?"

Neville shook his head, and Seamus did the same.

"Gonna be a quiet year without Fred and George, though, hm?"

Neville smirked. "Maybe a blessing in disguise, then."

"Oi!" a voice called, and they looked to see Dean striding toward them, his face split with a grin as he approached Seamus and engulfed him in a hug, pulling away and repeating the process with Neville. "I've missed you lot. We went to my aunt's house for the summer. Do you know what it's like to babysit four girls aged six to ten while the family's off taking in a movie or something?"

"I'm shocked you made it back in one piece," Seamus said with a smirk.

"I still have nightmares," Dean countered. "If I wake up in the middle of the night screaming, will you hold me?" He latched onto Seamus, who shoved him off, leaving Neville laughing at his friends' antics.

"Neville Longbottom."

The voice was quiet, and if the speaker hadn't said his name, Neville would think she was talking to herself. He turned and saw a girl about Ginny's age staring unblinkingly in his general direction, her eyes actually resting on a point above his right shoulder. She had scraggly dishwater blonde hair and large eyes that looked even larger due to their silvery blue color. She wore a necklace made of butterbeer corks, raddish-shaped earrings, and Neville was pretty sure she had her wand tucked behind her ear.

"Um, I'm Neville."

"I know," the girl said, blinking exactly once and fixing her gaze on him. Neville glanced to Dean and Seamus for support, but they seemed content just watching the scene unfold.

"Um…who are you?"

"Oh, I'm Luna Lovegood. Ginny Weasley said that I should ride with you on the train."

She didn't seem to be in the habit of providing more than the necessary information, Neville mused, though he nodded, ignoring Dean and Seamus's sudden looks of incredulity as he said, "Alright, then. You can sit with us."

"Um, Nev…."

Neville turned to stare at Seamus, narrowing his eyes a bit. "All of us."

Grumbling, the two followed as Neville and Luna made their way to the train.

McGildenhurst Magical Academy had been built only ten years ago by the noted magician and physicist Dr. Piston McGildenhurst, who had disappeared quite suddenly only two years after the school's inception. The founder's life and person were steeped in mystery, though he was known to be quite the eccentric.

In matters of schooling, however, he at least seemed willing to conform to accepted norms.

The academy itself was a rather sizable campus, more resembling a university more than a high school. There seemed to be a building for every school of magic imaginable, and a few for programs pioneered by Piston McGildenhurst himself. Harry could see Hermione practically quivering with contained enthusiasm.

"You want to check out every one of those buildings, I bet?" he leaned against her, causing her to overbalance a few steps, and she stuck her tongue out at him, pushing right back.

"This school, this…whole country approaches magic completely differently from how Hogwarts and Wizard Britain do. Hogwarts maintains tradition, but the MUSA researches, tests the limits, even melds magic and muggle technology to form something useful to both sides. Did you know 67 percent of newly created spells in the last year came from the United States?"

"I do now," Harry said with a grin, and Hermione rolled her eyes at him.

"All I'm saying," she continued, "is that we can learn things here that Hogwarts would never even dream of teaching us! Think of the opportunities."

"As long as they have a quidditch team," Ron said, coming up on Harry's other side. Hermione quirked an eyebrow at him.

"Whatever makes you happy, Ronald," she said with a sigh, and Ron snickered at her.

"I'm a man of simple tastes, Hermione," he said. "Quidditch and a decent meal are all I need to be happy."

"You may want to check out quodpot," Ginny said from behind them, moving up to Hermione's side. The twins had dashed ahead upon spotting a small explosion from the chemistry lab's upper window. "They only play with one ball, but it could explode at any moment."

"Sounds more like the twins' speed to me," Ron said. "I can see them trading quidditch for quodpot. I'm a quidditch fan for life, though."

"Such dedication to a worthy cause," Hermione simpered, and Ron scoffed.

"You just can't understand it," he said. "People are born sports fans."

"It's true," a new voice said, causing them all to jump. Harry turned to see Leon Mason striding by. He had traded his unruly mane of black hair (much like Harry's, though wavier) for a shorter, more professional look, and his scraggly unkempt beard was gone, replaced by a smooth hairless complexion that left him looking younger than his years.

All in all, Hermione thought he cleaned up rather nicely.

"Mister Mason," she greeted him. "How was the rest of your summer?"

"Enjoyable enough," he said. "Hagrid's getting restless without a school to take care of, so he's starting a pumpkin patch, of all things, in my backyard."

"He grows some good pumpkins, Hagrid does," Ron said, and Leon chuckled.

"Anyway, to contribute to your discussion, Ron here is right about sports fans. My parents, God bless them, are diehard NASCAR fans."

"NASCAR?" Ron asked, looking perplexed.

"Racing," Hermione said. "The competitors race high-performance cars around a track."

"They drive fast, they turn left, they drive fast, they turn left," Leon grinned. "Sometimes they turn right if it's a road course."

"Sounds a bit dull," Ginny opined.

"Well, my parents are odd creatures," Leon said. "But damn it, I love 'em to pieces. Anyway, I have to go help with the whole welcoming speech thing, but if you have any trouble acclimating come find me. I am the guidance counselor."

"Thanks. See you later, Mr. Mason!" Hermione waved as he strode off.

"He's the guidance counselor?" Harry asked as they stepped into the main building, joining a throng of students filing into the auditorium for the principal's opening address. "He seems a bit…well, not the type."

"Appearances can be deceiving," Hermione chided him gently. "Maybe he has a secret responsible streak that he doesn't like people to know about."

"Or he's related to the school dean and got the job out of nepotism," Ron said with a smirk.

"Ronald!" Hermione gaped at him. "You used the word 'nepotism' correctly!"

Ginny burst into laughter as they strode into the auditorium.

The opening address started with various heads of sports and activities announcing tryouts and signup times, moving on to the dean of students outlining a few of the basic rules and policies students were expected to adhere to (dress code, language, general conduct, and the like), and finally, it was the school dean's turn.

Dean Paul Shepard was a no-nonsense retired Navy commander with black hair cut absolutely military regulation length and a small goatee that would likely pass any neatness inspection posed by naval command. His face was dominated by a rather round nose and a full mouth. The pursed-looking lips combined with his narrow eyes made his expression look perpetually disapproving.

As he gazed out across his students, though, Hermione thought she saw an almost fatherly affection in his eyes.

"Good morning, students."

"Good morning, Mister Shepard!" the room chorused back, a few whistles and catcalls echoing after silence fell again, and Shepard actually cracked a smile as chuckles ran through the crowd.

"Settle down," he said, not sternly. "To all returning students, welcome back. To our new arrivals, welcome to McGildenhurst Academy of Magic. Stay out of trouble, and you'll have a good year. Cause problems, and we'll have a problem. This is the only time of your life where the only thing you're expected to do is better yourselves, and I won't sit by while anyone here squanders his or her potential."

Hermione knew right away that she would like this man.

"Study hard, try better than your best, and have fun. Like I said, when you're done here, it's off to the real world, and let me tell you, if you don't go in prepared, it's not any fun at all. Dismissed."

The students all cheered, and Shepard sprang to a crisp salute, only adding to the roar of approval.

"They really seem to like him," Hermione said to Harry, shouting over the din.

"You kidding?" a new voice asked, and Hermione turned to see a girl with dyed-red hair streaked with purple and bright gray eyes. She had a round face and she was thick of build but not overweight by any stretch of the imagination. She was, however, almost comically short, only coming up to Hermione's shoulders. "You've never heard of Paul Shepard? Guy's a war hero. Persian Gulf. The first one."

Hermione had at least heard of the war, though the details were sketchy, as she had been in primary school at the time and didn't really read much about wars.

"What did he do?" she asked in a more normal voice as the quartet plus the girl made their way back outside.

"Only made sure every last sailor under his command was safely evacuated when his frigate was sunk off the Gulf. They dragged him out of the water half dead almost a day later. He lost a leg and was honorably discharged, given a Purple Heart, and awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. He fought tooth and nail to be re-enlisted, but I guess the big guys felt he'd done his part. In any case, we love him because he's a total badass."

Hermione raised her eyebrows at Harry to find him returning the gesture.

"By the way, who are you guys? You sound English?"

"I'm Hermione. This is my boyfriend, Harry." A little flutter went through her chest, and she chided herself for getting all girly over introducing Harry as her boyfriend. "And this is our friend Ron and his sister Ginny. We're transfers from Hogwarts."

At this, the girl actually let a dubious laugh. "Ooooh, wow. You're in for a culture shock."

"I'm beginning to suspect that," Hermione deadpanned.

"I'm Samantha. Call me Sam, if you want."

"Nice to meet you," Hermione said, and the others all extended the usual pleasantries. "What grade are you in?"

"Eighth," Sam said. "I'm the first magician in the family in seven generations. Lucky number!" she announced with a smile.

"It skipped that many generations?" Ginny asked. Sam nodded, following them down the steps and toward the "Middle School" building.

"Where you guys are from, Magic families married together, so magic kids were more likely to pop out." Hermione couldn't stop a small laugh at that comment. "Here, magic and non-magic blended together, so some families turn out only one generation of magic every couple, or only one kid is a magician. My older brother is non-magic."

"Wouldn't the non-magic kids get jealous or something?" Ginny asked.

"Sometimes," Sam said with a shrug. "Derrick, my brother, was pretty pissed when he first found out, but he's pretty alright with it now. He thinks it's cool that his sister can make things explode with a wave of a wand," she smirked. "Plus, it would be kind of petty to get jealous at someone for something completely out of their control, wouldn't it? I was born magic, and he wasn't. Luck of the draw."

"That's a very pragmatic viewpoint," Hermione said.

"I don't know what 'pragmatic' means, but thanks!"

They strode up the stone steps and into the Middle School building, which was as big as an entire school in its own right. Hermione was reminded somewhat unpleasantly of her years in grade school before finding out she was a witch. Granted, after comparing childhood memories with Harry late into the evening, she couldn't deny that he'd had it markedly worse, but she'd been something of a social pariah during her own younger years. Being a motor-mouthed bookworm with prominent front teeth tended to bar one from most social circles.

Now, though, she strode into the school with her head held high and a smile on her face, hand-in-hand with her boyfriend.

Quite an improvement.

"So, what's your first period?" Sam asked, tugging her schedule from her pocket as they settled against a wall of lockers to consult.

"Advanced Magical Defense," Hermione said, consulting her own. Next to her, Harry gave a nod.

"Same here."

"I'm Basic Charms," Ron said, looking a bit nervous. "All by myself."

"You'll be fine, Ron," Harry said, clapping him on the shoulder and pointing at his schedule. "Look, next period, we're in Biology together.

"Yeah, look at me, Ron," Ginny said, holding up her own schedule. "I'm a year below you, so I've got all my classes alone."

"Hey, your schedule looks a lot like my friend Heather's," Sam said, glancing at Ginny's. "She's got Non-Magic Culture Studies first period, too, and there's a few other classes that line up. Tell her you're new and Sam likes you."

"Oh…thanks," Ginny said, giving Sam a smile, and Sam smirked right back.

"Don't thank me yet," she said warningly. "She has a thing for British accents. Even if you're a girl, once you speak around her, she won't wanna leave you alone."

Ginny pinked a bit at that, her eyes widening. "Consider me warned." Turning, she strode down the crowded hallway, her read hair disappearing amidst the sea of students.

"As for, um, Ron?" she pointed unsurely at Ron, who glanced up from his own schedule. "I have Basic Charms first, too. I'm terrible at charms. Not bad with transfig, though. Wanna walk with me?"

"Um, sure," Ron shrugged, glancing at Harry, who nodded encouragingly. When he and their new acquaintance had departed, Harry took Hermione's hand, and they set off in the opposite direction.

"She's nice," Hermione commented, and Harry nodded his agreement.

"It seems like exotic hair color is the big thing lately," he added, discreetly pointing at the surrounding students, many of which were sporting similarly vibrant hair colors; Hermione saw bright blues, acid greens, and one student whose hair subtly changed color with each blink of her eyes.

"Well, the dress code is fairly lax about hair color," Hermione pointed out as they mounted a staircase. "And changing your hair color is much easier for a witch or wizard than a muggle. You just have to learn the right glamor charms. So it's a more common thing."

"I don't remember seeing anyone with green and pink hair at Hogwarts," Harry said as they stepped into their classroom, peering around for two empty seats near each other.

"Well, Wizard Britain is a lot more conservative than Magic America," Hermione explained as they strode down a row, settling on an empty section of desks, though the single white-blonde student settled in the middle of the cluster ensured that no two were adjacent.

"Um, excuse me?" Hermione tentatively tapped his desk, and he looked up. She was forcibly reminded of Malfoy; the boy's hair was nearly the exact same color (possibly a shade lighter) and combed back, though it seemed less slick and more like he used some sort of mousse. His eyes, too, were a different shade, a deeper sea-blue, like Ron's. He had the kind of average face that one could forget moments after looking away from him, though he was noticeably tan. When he spotted Hermione, his face split in an easy smile.

"Mornin'," he said, and Hermione noted a slight southern United States drawl to his voice.

"Good morning," Hermione said cheerfully, giving him a smile. "Um, I'm Hermione, and this is my boyfriend, Harry. We were maybe hoping to sit next to each other, and, um…." She gestured at the desks around the boy to try to illustrate the situation. The boy followed her movement, and comprehension dawned.

"Ah, looka me, hoggin' all these desks," he chuckled, standing and grabbing his backpack before moving a desk to his left.

"Thanks so much, and sorry to impose – "

"Hey, if my girl was in this class, I'd wanna sit next to her, too," he said, plopping down in the next desk and turning to face them, sticking a hand out as Harry sat next to him and Hermione sat in front of Harry. "Name's Benjamin Harold McKenzie. Call me Benny."

"Harry James Potter," Harry returned with a smile, gripping his hand. "Harry."

"Hermione Jane Granger," Hermione also got a firm handshake, noting that his hands were rather calloused. "Um, please don't call me Herm or anything like that," she said with a little laugh. Benny gave a small chuckle.

"Wouldn't dream of it. How 'bout I just call you Granger?"

"That would work just fine," Hermione said with a nod.

"Y'all aren't from around here, are ya?" he said. "Sound like…English? Australian?"

"English," Harry confirmed. "We're from Hogwarts."

"Aaaaah," Benny nodded in understanding, still smiling. "I bet ya feel like a fish outta water, hm?"

"Well, we're muggle-born, so it's not quite the culture shock as a pureblood witch or wizard."

Benny looked about to respond, but at that point, the teacher strode in, and the class fell silent.

The Advanced Magical Defense (often shortened simply to "Defense") teacher was a grizzled old man named Edward Holmes ("No one calls me Eddy. Ever."), a short-tempered former Navy drill instructor who apparently once presided over the school dean's tenure in boot camp. Nonetheless, he knew his stuff, as with minutes of starting class, he produced his wand and reduced his desk to a pile of splinters with a very controlled blasting hex, repairing it moments later.

"Wanna learn how to do that?" he asked the class at large, to general murmurs of ascent. "Then no screwing around, and let's get to work."

Second period, Hermione and Harry split up, Harry off to Biology (which seemed to be America's answer to Care of Magical Creatures) with Benny, while Hermione made her way to Political Science, where she met up with Sam again.

"Hey, Transfer!" the petite girl said, plopping down next to her. "How was Holmes?"

"Very…severe," Hermione said with a little smile. "He seems competent, though."

"I had him last year for Intermediate Defense," Sam said, leaning back in her seat. "He acts tough, but he's a big softie. When my boyfriend was being a total dick and verbally abusive last year, he talked me through it and helped me get up the courage to break up with him."

"Well, that's sweet of him," Hermione said, glancing up front. She hadn't noticed, but the teacher was already in the room.

And he was sleeping.

Lounging back in the chair was a man around Mr. Mason's age, his longish dishwater blonde hair puffing with each sleepy breath he took. When the bell to begin class rang, he awoke with a start, jumping from his chair an introducing himself as Mr. Noah Waters, rubbing his eyes sleepily. Hermione couldn't help but laugh inwardly.

Even in America, magical educators had their eccentricities.

Third period was Advanced Transfiguration (Hermione's favorite subject), where Hermione rejoined Harry under the instruction of a rather attractive Chinese woman named Emily Chen, who the class found out in minutes was a third-generation Chinese-American, 25 years old, in a relationship with Mr. Mason, owned four cats named Mercutio, Romeo, Juliet, and Oscar, and was having a bad week because she was a Pisces, even though she doesn't really believe in astrology, despite being a magician.

"Also, I'm a bit of a chatterbox, so, sorry!"

Fourth period, Advanced Charms, was taught by one of the tallest men Hermione had ever seen. Abraham Dawson, former high-school basketball star for this very school, hovered right around seven feet tall, actually having to duck his head just a bit to enter the classroom. A man of a deep ebony complexion, his low smooth voice and absolutely placid demeanor instantly put the whole classroom at ease. Harry actually nodded off once or twice, and Hermione had to covertly fire a pinching hex at him to startle him awake again.

After fourth period was lunch, where the whole school gathered in the massive cafeteria (a four-story tall monster of a building with stalls that sold every food imaginable) to eat. Harry and Hermione met up with Ron, followed by the twins, though they seemed to have already nestled into their own circle of friends.

"Alright, you lot?" one of the twins asked, winking at them.

"Love to stay and chat – "

"But we're going to have lunch with the Chemistry Club."

"They're the ones that blew out that window this morning, I suppose?" Ron asked with a roll of the eyes.

"Right in one, dear brother," they said in unison.

"And so, for the sake of intellectual pursuit – "

"And with the noble goal of bettering ourselves – "

"We're joining," they finished at the same time, bowing in tandem and rushing off to follow their future club-mates.

"Hey!" a voice called behind them. "Transfers!"

"We have names," Hermione said, though she gave Sam a wry smile as she hurried up to them, followed by a taller girl with long blonde hair and deep brown eyes, her smile wide as she clutched onto the arm of Ginny, who looked exasperated but not unhappy.

"This is Heather, everyone," she said, sounding slightly amused. "She likes English accents."

"Listen to her talk!" Heather said to Sam, who poked her in the forehead.

"Don't be rude," she said exasperatedly. "Everyone, my friend, Heather. Heather, Harry, Hermione, and Ron. Ron is Ginny's brother, and they're all from Hogwarts."

"Hi!" Heather said brightly, smiling at them. Just watching the girl quiver with happiness was making Hermione tired. "Wanna eat lunch together?"

Sam smiled wryly at them. "I don't think she plans to take no for an answer."

"Clearly," Hermione said with a small laugh, giving Ginny a commiserating look, though she couldn't help but notice that Ginny didn't look particularly upset. "Harry, Ron?"



And just like that, they were off to lunch with their new friends.

"So how're you liking McG's?"

"McG's?" Ron asked, looking at Heather in confusion.

"McGildenhurst just takes too long to say," Sam explained, and Harry nodded, understanding that logic. Often he'd simply shortened Defense Against the Dark arts to Defense or DADA.

"It's…very different," Ginny said, taking a bit of her burger. The food was decent, but it would never compare to Hogwarts's nightly banquets. Though, Harry had to admit that Hogwarts food generally left him sleepy and feeling overly full, while this food simply made the hunger go away so he could focus on class. "I've never used a computer before."

"Never?" Sam asked, looking askance at the girl. "Like…ever?"

"The poor thing's family doesn't even have a television," Heather added, pouting over at the redhead, and Ginny rolled her eyes.

"The magic community in England is rather…dated," Hermione added. "And, all-around, they're very out of touch with modern muggle society."

"Muggle?" Heather asked, canting her head curiously to the side.

"British slang," Sam explained. "Non-magic people."

"Oh," Heather said. "We just call 'em non-magic."

There was a silent moment while everyone worked at their food. Harry looked up and spotted Benny wandering the row between two tables, giving him a small wave. The blonde boy caught his eye and grinned, striding in their direction.

"Hey, y'all," he said, sitting near them. "Mind if I take this seat, since I'm not splittin' up the happy couple this time?" He winked at Hermione.

"Not at all," Harry said, tugging a stray food wrapper out of the way so the boy could set his tray down. They made the necessary introductions (Sam and Heather at least knew Benny in passing), and Benny sighed.

"Not even been a whole day, and I miss summer already," he said. "My girl transferred to St. Clarice's School for Magical Ladies a few miles north, so I only get to see her after school or on weekends now."

"Aw, that's too bad," Heather said. "I remember last year, you two were like never apart."

"Yeah, now I'm so lonely and abandoned," he said staring at the ceiling and sighing with exaggerated wistfulness. "Oh, my misanthropic agony!"

The group burst into laughter, and Benny chuckled along with them.

"So, how's everyone else's day going?"

Discussion fell to comparing classes, teachers, and homework (which Ron griped about getting on the first day, joined spiritedly by Benny). While the rest discussed, Harry glanced around the cafeteria. Table after table was filled with students chattering amongst themselves, talking sports, TV shows, video games, everything a student his age should be talking about. No one gave him more than a passing glance, no one tried to covertly glance his way, no one stared or whispered behind their hands and pointed his way.

No one really seemed to think all that much of his presence.

It was wonderful.

"So, um…Luna," Dean said gesturing at the magazine Luna had buried her nose in once they'd found a compartment and situated themselves. It looked to be a months-old issue of The Quibbler. Neville had heard of the magazine, but his Gran insisted that it was "hardly proper reading material" and refused to purchase even a single issue. Neville thought some of the articles were rather funny just for being so outlandish. "You a fan of The Quibbler, or you just read it?"

"Oh, my father's the editor," Luna said in her misty voice, staring up at Dean, who seemed to grow restless and fidgety under her gaze. "It's a fascinating magazine, wouldn't you agree?"

"Fascinating?" Seamus said, and Neville could hear the condescension dripping from his voice. Neville decided to head this one off.

"I think it is, too," he said quickly. "Gran isn't a fan, but I read it sometimes when she's chatting with her friends at the bookstore." He cast around in his memory for some memory of an article he'd read. "That, um, article about the blibbering humdinger was…interesting."

"I helped Daddy write that one!" Luna said, her wide eyes turning to Neville, and Dean actually let a relieved sigh. Neville couldn't see the big deal. Her eyes were actually quite pretty. She smiled brightly and launched into a long spiel about the blibbering humdinger, and how their saliva was a key ingredient in some potion that caused the drinker to taste sound.

Still, when she wasn't staring blankly at you, Luna Lovegood had a nice smile.

Following one of the most enjoyable lunches of her school career, Hermione tugged Harry along the hallway to their Advanced Chemistry class (which seemed to be Potions with a different name), followed by Sam, who was still finishing a strawberry banana smoothie she'd bought at the cafeteria, despite it being a blatant violation of the rules about food and drink in the hallways.

"Oh, please," she said with a roll of her eyes when Hermione pointed this out, taking a noisy gulp. "Like Paul Shepard himself is going to be standing in the classroom, waiting to punish me."

As it turned out, that was exactly the case, though the school dean seemed to be not so much waiting to punish little Sam but chatting with the Chemistry teacher, a venerable old woman named Olivia Gernsback.

"Oh, dang it," Sam said when she caught sight of the dean, tossing her empty smoothie cup in the garbage bin. "Hello, Dean Shepard."

The dean stared at her for a moment. "Miss Crowley. I'm going to pretend I didn't see that cup, since it's the first day back. Don't stretch my imagination in the future."

"Of course, sir."

With a nod, the dean turned back to Mrs. Gernsback. "I should go."

"We'll talk again, Paul," the old woman said with a smile, and the dean strode out, startling another student as he exited.

"He reminds me so much of my father, it's scary," Sam said.

"He probably reminds everyone of their fathers," Harry added, and Sam giggled.

"He probably secretly is everyone's father," she said as they went to sit, "and his mission in life is to make sure everyone on the planet just freaking behaves."

Harry and Hermione laughed as they sat down, earning them a reproving look from Mrs. Gernsback, though the amused quirk to her lips betrayed the fact that she had been eavesdropping and probably agreed with a couple of their points.

Sixth period was a study period for Harry (the lazy bum), so Hermione went to her World History class alone. Apparently, at McGildenhurst, the subject of history was mandatory in the early years and switched over to an elective in eighth grade. Harry and Ron, likely scarred from two years of Professor Binns's endless droning about goblins, were loath to repeat the experience.

It was too bad, too, since the History teacher was quite the character.

Mister Corey Callahan, who looked to be about her father's age, was one of those teachers that was so passionate about what he taught this his sheer enthusiasm was contagious. His round stature and baby face gave him the look of an overgrown child eager to share something he'd just learned with his friends. He bounced into the room and immediately began a riveting retelling of the First Giant Liberation of Eastern Europe, in which the formerly subjugated giant population of what was now Siberia freed themselves from their shackles and established a very short-lived government that ended when they all killed each other.

"But it changed the way wizards viewed giants forever!" he practically shouted. "And that's what history is about! Using the past to help us understand the present and plan for the future!"

Yes, Hermione thought. This one gets it.

Seventh period, Harry once again joined Hermione for Runes, which was similar to the Ancient Runes class offered at Hogwarts, though Hermione had never had a chance to study the subject before, so she was quite eager for this one. The teacher, a short, swarthy Latino man named Carlos Villanueva, spoke in a thick, sometimes indecipherable, Mexican accent, though he had kindly charmed a piece of chalk to scribble his words on the board behind him, providing closed captioning right there in the classroom.

Hermione thought it was an ingenious idea.

Finally, eighth period was Arithmancy and Numerology, another course Hermione had been eager to take at Hogwarts. She'd always excelled at maths in primary school, and this course was simply magic with numbers. This class was headed by a brunette woman who introduced herself as "Lindsay Smith, the most boring human being ever. Let's learn about magic numbers.".

At least Harry got a kick out of that one.

Then, at long last, the day was over. Backpacks laden with syllabi, textbooks, and folders full of medical forms and other legal matters to be signed by parents and guardians, the Weasleys, Harry, and Hermione bade farewell to Sam, Heather, and Benny, with promises to f-mail them.

"That wasn't so bad," Harry said as the quartet strode along the sidewalk. The twins had elected to stay behind to get to know their new club. "It's pretty much how I expected muggle high-school to be like."

"'Non-magic'," Ron pointed out mockingly. "They don't use muggle here."

"Just as well," Hermione said. "I've always found the word 'muggle' to be a bit silly."

"Hermione, a lot of commonly used magic terms are silly," Harry said. "I mean, look at quidditch. We toss a quaffle around while bludgers try to hit us off our brooms, and the game ends when we catch a snitch. Mention that in any non-magic conversation, and they'll think you've gone daft."

Hermione giggled at that, and Harry bumped her shoulder playfully.

"Getting away from syntax," she said, "I did enjoy myself."

"Hermione Granger had a fun day at school?" Ron said in mock surprise.

"Alert the presses," Ginny added with a little laugh.

"Oh, shut it, you two," Hermione said, rolling her eyes. "I'm just saying that at least everyone was nice, and the teachers seem much more competent than a few we've had at Hogwarts."

"Gilderoy Lockhart, anyone?" Ginny muttered, and they all burst into laughter.

"So, what d'you make of that Luna girl?" Dean asked as he, Seamus, and Neville found seats at the Gryffindor table, Luna drifting off toward Ravenclaw. "She's…well, odd, isn't she?"

"Odd?" Seamus asked incredulously, quirking an eyebrow at Dean. "She's barmy. Mad. Off her head. She's the kind of girl I wouldn't trust around sharp objects, and they've given her a wand."

"Hey," Neville said, rounding on Seamus and giving him a look. "Don't make fun. She's a little strange, yes, but she's not some sort of psychopath. She's just different."

Seamus rolled his eyes but didn't say anything else, glancing up as the first years strode in, following Professor McGonagall, as always. Neville remembered well his own sorting, the trepidation of sitting in front of everyone in the school, the nagging worry that the hat would say they've made a mistake and he wasn't magic enough to be taught anything, then the complete shock at being put in Gryffindor, the last house he'd ever expected to be selected for.

"I didn't think she was that bad at all," Dean said. "A little…eccentric, but c'mon, so is Dumbledore."

Seamus paused at that, glancing between Dumbledore, who was smilingly watching the Sorting, and Luna, who was staring dreamily up at the ceiling, apparently stargazing or something.

"Oh, Merlin, she's Dumbledore as a little girl," Seamus muttered, and Dean had to stifle a laugh as a boy went up for his sorting and hall fell silent to wait for the verdict. When the hat announced "RAVENCLAW!" and the hall filled with cheers, he burst into laughter.

"That's…so true!" he said.

Following a Sorting like any other, Dumbledore stood and made his way to the podium at the front of the room, smiling down at the assembled students like a grandfather surveying his favorite batch of grandkids.

"Welcome, everyone to another year at Hogwarts, and welcome to our first-years. I must apologize for delaying your meal a moment longer, and I pray that your stomachs will forgive a few more minutes of emptiness."

That got a chuckle, though a few students grumbled, having apparently not packed a lunch for the train ride.

"As you've most likely read in the Daily Prophet, Hogwarts has seen a great many changes this summer, in light of some criticisms from students, parents, and several members of the board of governors. To describe all of them would likely delay dinner several hours. As such, a full list of changes was sent along with your Hogwarts letters, and anyone wishing to review them may obtain copies from Madam Pince at the library desk starting tomorrow morning."

He cleared his throat and continued.

"First years should note that the forest on the edge of the grounds is off-limits to any and all students…."

"Did either of you read about these changes they're making?" Dean asked. "I'm actually excited about a few of them."

"I heard they were upgrading the Muggle Studies curriculum," Neville said, and Seamus shrugged.

"Didn't even know it was out of date," he said. Dean laughed at that.

"Yeah, it is!" he said over the din of chatter that erupted as the platters and dishes in front of them filled with food, reaching immediately to spear a cut of ham and some sweet potatoes. "Katie Bell took the class last year and dropped it a few weeks in because she actually thought their portrayal of muggles was insulting."

"Isn't her mum a muggle?" Neville asked.

"Yeah," Dean nodded. "She took the class because she thought it would be an easy credit, but she just couldn't stand it. The curriculum hadn't been updated in decades, she said."

"I heard they told Snape to shape up and stop verbally abusing his students," Seamus added. Neville perked up at that.

"I didn't see that," he said, feeling a small bubble of hope in his chest. "He won't make fun of us anymore?"

"My mam is friends with Professor Vector," Seamus said. "Apparently, Dumbledore told Snape to be nicer to his students or he'd get the sack."

"Wow," Neville breathed. "All because Harry left, eh?"

"Yeah, what's up with that, I wonder?" Dean asked. "I mean, yeah, he beat You-Know-Who all those years ago, but why work so hard to keep him here?"

"He's a hero," Neville insisted. "Harry moving away was like saying he didn't want anything to do with Wizard Britain anymore."

"Besides, I've heard some rumors," Seamus said. "You know how Ollivander's missing? They're saying it was Death Eaters."

"How d'you reckon that?" Neville asked, though Dean just looked confused.

"Death Eaters?" he asked.

"You-Know-Who's followers," Neville quickly explained. "Why do they think it was them?"

"The Ministry's trying to keep it quiet, but my uncle works in Magical Law Enforcement," Seamus said. "He says one of the officers on the scene told him there was a Dark Mark above his house."

"And that's…?" Dean looked lost again.

"His symbol," Seamus said, holding up his left arm and clamping his right hand over his other wrist. "All You-Know-Who's inner circle has them branded on their left wrists. In the old days, if the Dark Mark was found over a house, the Death Eaters had gone to visit. Usually it meant they'd killed someone, but if it was someone important, they might've just kidnapped him. I reckon as much as Ollivander knows about wands, they'd want him alive."

"But why would the Death Eaters come back now?" Neville asked, his heart hammering. Seamus shook his head.

"Dunno. You-Know-Who's supposed to be gone. Maybe they got bored and decided to move on without him, or picked a new leader to be the new You-Know-Who."

"Or maybe he's come back from the dead," Dean said, eyes wide. "You reckon he could've found a way?"

"Dunno," Seamus said. "There's some pretty dark magic out there. Maybe he found a way to cheat death, even."

It was a distracted Neville that left the welcoming feast, having eaten very little thanks to the tenor of the conversation. Was You-Know-Who back? Even if he wasn't, the thought of his Death Eaters going active again was frightening enough, given what they could do to people.

His thoughts fell, of course, to his parents, probably ambling around St. Mungo's, oblivious to the fact that their son had started his first day of Hogwarts, unaware that there was a chance that the very people that had put them there could be returning.

And just as a bubble of terror threatened to engulf him, he quashed it back down, clenching his fists and shaking his head. What would his parents think of him breaking down in terror at the mere mention of Death Eaters? No, he wouldn't let those scum win. If Death Eaters were making a return (which, at this point, was only wild speculation), there was little he could do to stop them except learn all the defensive magic he could to fight them if and when the time came.

That thought firmly in mind, he followed Dean and Seamus and tried to commit the password to memory as they gave it to the Fat Lady and stepped into the Gryffindor common room.

Really, before anything else, he needed to work on his short-term memory.


That night, Hermione and Harry sat on the sofa out in his sitting room, Harry draped along the couch, Hermione leaning back against him, nestled happily back against his chest. Sirius had tactfully excused himself to his room to "prattle away at this computer thing you made me buy".

"Has your scar bothered you again since the beach?" she asked softly, and Harry tensed. "Harry?" she turned to look at him.

"It's…. It hasn't really hurt that often, but…I've been having nightmares," he admitted. Hermione bit her lip worriedly, and Harry smiled, planting a little kiss against her lips. "Don't worry. I've told Sirius about it, and he's been in contact with Dumbledore. Can you believe he's got a computer in his office and an f-mail account?"

"You're joking," Hermione said, her eyes wide. "That's…. Actually, that doesn't surprise me at all, now I think about it. But what did he say?"

"Basically, he said he's looking into it," Harry said, shrugging. "He asked me to write down what I could remember of the dreams and send it along."

"He doesn't have any insight or anything?" Hermione asked.

"Well, my scar is sort of a unique case, Hermione," he said. "There aren't really reference books on this sort of thing."

They fell silent, but Harry could tell that any happy mood had vanished with this serious talk. Squeezing Hermione, he leaned in to whisper in her ear.

"There is one thing," he said. At her questioning look, he continued. "When I'm with you like this, just the two of us, my scar doesn't so much as twinge."

She smiled up at him. "Really?" She moved to place her forehead against his, and Harry felt a dull ache that had been growing behind the old wound fade to nothingness. "Well, if that's the case, we'll just have to spend as much time together as possible."

"Somehow, I think if your parents found out we were having sleepovers, they might draw a line."

She blushed, ducking her head and biting her lip with a smile. "Well…we'll see."

Feeling his own face heat up, Harry marveled at how wonderful it was to have a girlfriend.

The day had started out peacefully enough. After escorting his son to the train station, Alexander Nott had returned home to enjoy the solitude of his respectable home, sending the house-elf out for a bottle of brandy and relaxing by the fireplace with the wireless turned low and the latest issue of Wizard Hunters Weekly. There was quite the gripping article about the outcry over tightening regulations on hunting hippogryphs, possibly outlawing it outright.

Just as he was getting himself worked toward writing a sternly-worded letter to the editor of the magazine to voice his opinion, there was a knock on the door. He heard the telltale crack as the elf went to answer it, settling back to his paper when the pillowcase-clad creature appeared at his elbow.

"Master," the creature said, staring at his feet, "a young man is at the door for you. He said to tell you that…the wait is over? And your lord has returned?"

Alexander felt a shiver run down his spine, and he stood, noting an increasing pain in his left wrist as he made his way to the door, freezing at the figure he saw on the threshold. A horribly familiar young man no older than nineteen or twenty stood in his doorway, his handsome face pale and topped with curly locks of black hair.

"Time has not been kid to you, Nott," the man said, and Alexander shook himself aware enough to drop to his knees, bowing deeply to the young man.

"M-my lord," he said. "It has been…far too long."

"And you still remember your place," the Dark Lord said softly, stepping inside and moving past Alexander's stooped form. "Stand."

Alexander obeyed as well as his aging body could, standing and following the Dark Lord into his sitting room. Pulling a wand from his pocket, the Dark Lord gave it a wave and conjured a tray of tea, sitting in one chair and motioning Alexander to take the other.

"Now," the Dark Lord said as Alexander sat. "I am afraid that I must be caught up on certain events. How is that I came to die?"

Okay, once again, sorry about the mega infodump there, but I wanted to let everyone get a feel for what kind of place McGildenhurst Academy is.

Also, I plan to keep up with Hogwarts through the eyes of Neville Longbottom, but I'm afraid I just don't know how to write the poor bloke, so if his thoughts seem OOC at all, let me know, and I'll try to work at it.

On another note, did I ruin any semblance of suspense by showing the whole Kreacher-Gollum-Horcurx-Resurrection thing? I mean, it would've been pretty obvious a couple chapters later, right? I was just going over that last few chapters and noticed that. Do shoot me a review let me know any opinions on how I'm going about telling this little tale. I can't guarantee a large-scale rewrite of any kind, though it's something I'll take into account when writing future works.