Disclaimer: This is a derivative work of fan fiction based on the Harry Potter series of books by J.K. Rowling. I make no claims of ownership.

Finnigan's Charge

"All right! Who ate all the crisps?" Seamus' father appeared in the doorway of the kitchen, shaking out an empty cardboard box.

"Not me!" piped up Grainne through a mouthful of oatmeal.

Little Jack just shook his head and looked up at his father with wide eyes.

Aisling pointed at Seamus with a big grin. "Seamus did!"

"Seamus?" Mr Finnigan squinted one eye and held out the box.

Seamus shot his fourteen-year-old sister a death glare. He'd had such a craving for crisps after going all of his sixth year at Hogwarts without. He'd thought no one would notice if he swiped a packet or two from behind the bar in the pub. There seemed to be a never-ending supply. But he supposed it did add up, by halfway through the summer.

"Yessir," he mumbled, ducking his head over his breakfast.

His mother reached across the table and gave him a good-natured swat on the head. "Shame! Those are for the paying customers, lad."

"I know," Seamus said humbly, nodding. "Sorry."

"Delivery doesn't come 'till Thursday." His father dropped the box upside-down over Seamus' head. "You run over to Hendley's and fill this up before we open today. Difference from the supplier comes out of your pocket money."

"Yessir," he agreed as he pushed the box off and set it down on the floor. Aisling stuck her tongue out at him. Seamus just grumbled and tried to ignore her. At least she'd been Sorted into Ravenclaw, so he hardly saw her at all during the school year.

A tapping at the window over the sink proved a welcome distraction.

"Oh, Grainne, would you-" Seamus' mother began, but Jack jumped up.

"I'll do it, Mummy!" He pushed his chair over and used it to climb up onto the counter so he could reach the window latch.

It was the post owl. Mrs Finnigan took daily delivery of the Daily Prophet, in order to stay abreast of things in the wizarding world. Occasionally, there would also be a letter from her mother or another relative. Mostly, though, the family lived as Muggles. Magic was not usually allowed in the house, although not because Seamus' father had anything against it; rather, it tended to blow out the fuses. Seamus had left them all in the dark over Christmas when he was four, after he had gotten mad that his mother wouldn't let him drink the whiskey she was going to put in the Christmas cake.

And so, Mr Finnigan was only too happy to have his children attend a wizarding school, where they could learn to control their magic. It didn't much matter to him one way or the other what sort of formal education Seamus had. It was understood that as the oldest son, he would take over the pub anyway, and he already knew all there was to know about running it from living over it for eleven years, and then helping out during the school holidays.

The girls would help out until they got married. And Jack... well, Jack was only seven. There was still time, was what Mr Finnigan always said whenever the subject of Jack and magic was brought up. Although he was clearly magical (he had once gotten locked in a closet for over an hour during a game of hide-and-seek, and managed to conjure up a plate of biscuits when he got hungry), he was a quiet boy, never having had any spectacular outbursts like his four older siblings.

Jack finally got the window open, and the large, speckled bird glided in and landed neatly in the middle of the table, just missing knocking over the milk.

Mrs Finnigan paid it, and it turned and immediately took off again, leaving the newspaper on the table and a whirl of downy feathers in its wake. Aisling wordlessly picked one out of her glass.

Seamus glanced at his mother uneasily. The Prophet was pretty much their only link to the wizarding world, and it was because of its skewed reporting that Seamus had ended up on the outs with the rest of the Gryffindors in his year, two years ago. At least the Ministry had finally come out and admitted that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named was well and truly back, and Seamus' mother had taken back everything she'd said about Harry, but all the dire warnings and predictions the Prophet had printed this summer had put her on edge again.

Until three days ago.

Removed as they were from other wizards and witches, it still didn't seem real, but the Prophet had brought the story that Rufus Scrimgeour had resigned as Minister of Magic, replaced by a virtual unknown named Pius Thicknesse. In and of itself, this would not have been alarming; one politician was just as crooked as the next, as Mr Finnigan had said. But it was the rest of the articles that were disturbing. Gone were the daily admonitions to report any suspected Death Eater activity. No more was there outrage at the short sentences handed down to those convicted. It was as if the entire newspaper had been dipped in Camouflage Concoction. What had clinched it for Seamus was the front-page picture of a smiling Dolores Umbridge, speaking of such things as 'putting the power back into the right hands' and 'finally being able to undo the years of misgovernment by our predecessors'.

That and the fact that there was now a ten thousand Galleon reward for any information leading to the whereabouts of Harry Potter, who was apparently wanted for questioning in connection with Albus Dumbledore's death. So it was clear which way the tides had turned.

Mrs Finnigan had already been talking about whether Hogwarts would be safe this year, with Dumbledore gone. Seamus had been gearing up for a fight with her over it (his father was neutral on the issue). All he knew was, he needed to be back where he could feel the pulse of the issues. And where his mates were.

Then yesterday, the decision had been taken out of their hands: The Prophet had brought the announcement that attendance at Hogwarts was being made compulsory for all magical children in the United Kingdom, which included Northern Ireland. Seamus' mother had gone white upon reading that. Aisling had said she didn't see what the big deal was, as they were going anyway, and Niamh had actually been relieved, because that meant she didn't have to wait for the official letter on her birthday for confirmation that she would be going. But Seamus had shared a look with his mother, and seen that she was frightened, and he was, too, if he had cared to admit it. But he had just bluffed and said it was nothing, nothing more than politics. Mr Finnigan had chimed in that it was all a ploy to increase taxes, and that had calmed Mrs Finnigan a bit.

So it was with a wary eye that Seamus watched his mother's face for a reaction as she began to read. He didn't have to wait long.

"Oh, Fergus..." she breathed, putting a hand to her mouth.

"What is it, Mum?" Niamh asked, suddenly anxious.

"Here, 'tis nothing, pickle," Mr Finnigan said, rubbing his knuckles gently on his daughter's head as he came around the table. "You mustn't upset the wee ones with all those politics, Aggie," he reproved his wife, but he leaned on the back of her chair to read the article over her shoulder.

All of the children had fallen silent. Jack had closed the window and climbed quietly back down, and now stood motionless next to Seamus.

"Muggle-born... That doesn't mean me, does it?" Fergus Finnigan asked indignantly, poking at the newspaper. "Because the Pope'll be confessin' to Lucifer before you get me down into that den of leprechauns and banshees again." Seamus' father had come with them to Diagon Alley the summer before Seamus' first year at Hogwarts. At first he'd been tickled, but when they'd gotten to Gringotts, he'd made the mistake of exclaiming loudly about the 'leprechauns' running the place, and things had gone downhill from there. After that, Mrs Finnigan had always taken Seamus, and later Aisling, to get their school supplies alone.

"No, Fergus, that's not you," she answered absently as she continued to read, "and not our ones, either. Those are witches and wizards born to Muggles. Both parents without magic."

Seamus was itching to ask what the issue was concerning Muggle-borns, but he knew better than to interrupt when his parents were talking.

"No," Mrs Finnigan said when she'd finally finished reading, and pressed the paper firmly down onto the table. "This does not concern us." She looked at her children with an intensity that bespoke a mother's fierceness. "You all have the magic in you from me, and from my parents, and from their parents before them. They'd have to go through all of us, and more, to get to you."

Seamus got a cold knot in his stomach. What did she mean?

"Ah, Aggie, lighten up!" Mr Finnigan said with a chuckle and kissed her on the cheek. "I told you, it's just politics. Today the wind's blowin' in the direction of this Muggle-born Commission. Tomorrow they'll be wantin' to tax your cauldrons!"

Mrs Finnigan didn't answer, just lowered her eyes and stood up, taking the newspaper with her.

"Seamus, I'll be needing those crisps right about now," Seamus' father reminded him sternly.

"Yes, sir." Seamus put his dishes in the sink and picked up the box. He wondered what this Muggle-born Commission was all about. And whether it had anything to do with Dean.

He didn't have a chance to sneak a look at the paper until that night. They had to be careful with the Prophets because of the moving pictures, so Seamus' mother kept them in a cabinet in the hall, locked up. Once a month, Seamus' father took them out in the garden and burned them with the other rubbish.

The cabinet had a simple, Muggle lock, but Seamus didn't have the key. He would have to risk doing a small bit of magic. He felt a bit silly; surely his mother would let him read the newspaper if he asked. But for some reason, he didn't want her to know he was interested. He thought it would only worry her more.

He was in charge of getting dinner for the younger ones that night, since both his parents were needed down in the pub. After they'd cleaned up, he gave them all a pound to go over to Hendley's and buy themselves ice lollies. Once they were out of the flat, he first went into his room and dug his wand out of his school trunk. It felt odd holding it again, and he nearly dropped it when he flipped it around to stow in his back pocket. What was he so nervous about? It wasn't like he could get caught for underage magic, with his mother a registered witch just downstairs. He went into the hall and opened the fuse box, and flipped off all the fuses. He hoped that was enough, and that he didn't set off the pub downstairs as well. It was only an Unlocking spell, after all.

There was still enough light coming in from outside for him to see the lock. He pointed his wand at it, concentrated, and spoke the incantation: "Alohomora!" There was a click. He cringed and waited a moment, expecting to hear a roar from downstairs, but there was nothing. Relaxing a bit, he quickly pulled the cupboard open and grabbed the newspaper on the top of the stack. He angled it to catch the light. It was today's. He closed the cabinet and flipped the fuses back on, just in case anyone came back while he was reading. He'd re-lock it when he put the paper back. No sense doing extra magic when it wasn't absolutely necessary.

Once he was safely in the room he shared with Jack, with the door locked (with a normal key), he stood over by the window so he could see if his siblings were coming back, and read as fast as he could.

He didn't like what he saw.

Muggle-born Register!

The Ministry of Magic is undertaking a survey of so-called 'Muggle-borns', the better to understand how they came to possess magical secrets. Recent research undertaken by the Department of Mysteries reveals that magic can only be passed from person to person when Wizards reproduce. Where no proven Wizarding ancestry exists, therefore, the so-called Muggle-born is likely to have obtained magical power by theft or force. The Ministry is determined to root out such usurpers of magical power, and to this end has issued an invitation to every so-called Muggle-born to present themselves for interview by the newly appointed Muggle-born Registration Commission.

Further down, Dolores Umbridge was named as Head of the Commission. Seamus swore out loud. He didn't care to think what would happen to those who were foolish enough to show up. The whole thing was a farce, and with Umbridge in charge, it couldn't be on the up and up. How could someone steal someone else's magic, unless they had magic at their command in the first place? And anyway, no clear-thinking person would believe that Muggle-borns had done anything of the sort. He didn't know if this was all Umbridge's doing, or someone else's, but it was scary.

He didn't have time to mull over it, though. He had to get the paper back before his sisters and brother came home. He went back out into the hall and replaced the newspaper, then flipped the fuses off again and performed the Locking Charm.

He was all settled in front of the telly with a football match running when the others came back. Jack ran in and plopped himself down in the middle of the floor, while Niamh and Grainne went to the girls' room, and Aisling sat down in Dad's recliner with a book. That one could read in the middle of a hurricane.

Seamus wasn't able to concentrate on the match, though. His thoughts kept going to Dean. Did he know about this? If so, was he going to follow the 'invitation'? What would happen to him if he did? Dean wasn't stupid by any means, but he hadn't grown up in the wizarding world, and he didn't have anyone to discuss this with at his house.

Seamus' family was isolated enough, not having a Floo connection. Seamus' mother did allow a semi-feral owl to roost in their attic, in case she needed to contact anyone. But half the time the blasted thing wasn't even there; the dormer window was left open year-round, so the owl could come and go as it pleased. It didn't even have a name. On the off chance that it were upstairs right now, he didn't want to wait all night, or longer, for the owl to fly to Dean's and back. And what if Dean didn't send a note back? Seamus would have no idea what Dean was going to do. No, he needed to contact his friend straight away. And that meant using the telephone. It also meant telling his parents he was making the call, since it was long-distance.

He figured his best chance of getting away without too much of a discussion was to pop down to the pub now and try to catch one of his parents while they were busy, giving only a minimum of information.

Telling Jack to keep an eye on the score, and Aisling where he was going, he went down the back stairs into the pub's kitchen, where he found his mother making up an order of chips. The dull drone of patrons and the nasal blare of the television sounded through the closed door connecting the kitchen and the public area.

"I need to ring someone, Ma," he said, leaning against the wall at the bottom of the stairs.

"Pass me the salt, will you?" Mrs Finnigan lifted the sizzling basket out of the fat and nudged her chin in the direction of the industrial-sized salt shaker on the counter.

Seamus did, and then watched his mother deftly sprinkle the golden chips with three quick flicks of her wrist.

Seamus grinned. "Did you get that from Flitwick?"

His mother looked up in surprise. "Get what?"

Seamus repeated the motion she had just made. "Swish and flick."

Mrs Finnigan shook her head, but her grin matched Seamus'. "Oh, go on with you. What's this about ringing someone?"

"I just wanted to know if I could ring Dean."

"Your mate in London?"

"Yeah, there's a match on and I want to make sure he's watching it," Seamus invented. He hadn't really thought through what he was going to say.

"Why, is it special?" She had already turned away and was arranging the chips in serving baskets lined with paper to go out.

Seamus tucked his thumbs up under his armpits. "Yeah, it's his favorite team playing."

"Then I'm sure he's watching it already." She picked up the tray and made for the pub.

"Come on, Ma," he whinged. "I hardly get the chance..." It was a double-whammy. Begging usually softened her, as well as the reminder that he only lived as a Muggle for the lesser part of the year now. And he needed to be fully versed in the use of all Muggle technology in order to take over the pub one day.

"Oh, all right, but be quick about it," she sighed, but Seamus could tell she was amused.

"Thanks, Ma!" he called out as he leapt back up the stairs.

Seamus didn't have Dean's telephone number memorised, so he had to go dig in his school trunk for the second time that night. He took the opportunity to return his wand as well. It was a good thing his mother hadn't noticed it sticking out of his back pocket.

The telephone was in the hall, but he knew that by pulling the cord as far as it would go, he could just get it into his room and force the door closed. Sitting there on the floor, he dialed Dean's number, only now trying to come up with what he wanted to say.

Mrs Thomas answered. When he asked for Dean, she told him he was watching the match - figured - but he explained who he was, and where he was calling from (for some reason, Muggles always equated distance with urgency), and she said she'd see if she could peel him away.

A few seconds later, Dean's voice sounded over the receiver.

"That you, Seamus?"

"Yeah, mate, hey!" Seamus tried to keep his voice low.

"Mate, this better be good! First match of the season, and we're down nil to one."

"I know, I- Nil to one?" When Seamus had left to go downstairs, the match had been scoreless.

"Just happened, I thought Forrest had it, but it bounced in." Dean sounded disgusted.

"Tough. Listen, Dean, this is really important. Have you seen the Prophet lately?"

"What, you mean the Daily Prophet?"

"Yeah."

"What do I look like, Hermione Granger?"

Seamus chuckled. "Yeah, you're right. But me mum gets it, and they've had some weird stuff in there lately."

"Like what?"

"Like Scrimgeour quit, Harry's wanted for questioning about Dumbledore's death, and all magical kids are required to go to Hogwarts now."

"So? They're always after Potter. He always manages to get out of it somehow. You know that's a bunch of crap anyway."

"Yeah, I know. But listen now. Today there was a bit about some Muggle-born committee. I'm telling you, something's going on at the Ministry. They said all Muggle-borns have to prove where they got their magic."

"What? Where we got our magic? Am I a geneticist now?"

"I don't know, but it sounded bad. Like they were saying you stole it or something."

"I don't think I heard you right. Stole my magic?"

"It's crazy, I'm telling you. And Umbridge is in charge of it."

"I thought the centaurs took care of her."

"All I know is what I read." Seamus was aware of the time getting away from him. "Dean, listen," he said urgently, cupping the receiver close to his mouth. "You can't go. I think they're going to try and make you appear before this committee, like they charged Harry in the Wizengamot. It's all trumped up, you understand?"

"No worries, mate. If Umbridge is involved, I'll keep my distance."

"They might try to make you, though. Saying you can't go back to Hogwarts if you don't have the all-clear."

"McGonagall won't care."

Seamus hadn't thought of that. McGonagall was the Headmistress now, with Dumbledore gone. He relaxed a bit. "Yeah." He laughed. "Yeah, you're right. McGonagall won't care what Umbridge says. She stood up to her before, didn't she?"

"Of course she did," Dean said confidently. "Look, thanks for the warning, mate, but it'll be fine."

"Yeah, you're right," Seamus agreed, now feeling a bit foolish. "Sorry. I'll let you get back to the match."

"Cheers. Thanks anyway, you're a real mate."

"Cheers."

Seamus replaced the telephone on the side table in the hall and returned to the lounge. Aisling didn't even look up, but Jack dutifully informed Seamus of the score. It was still 0-1. Seamus sank back down onto the sofa, feeling as if a great weight had been lifted from him. McGonagall would protect the Muggle-borns. Especially her Gryffindors.

Two weeks later, though, something awful happened. Niamh turned eleven. Actually, it was a good job that her birthday was in August. Otherwise, they might have all just turned up at Hogwarts with no warning at all.

The whole family waited proudly as Niamh opened the creamy envelope the post owl had delivered along with that morning's Daily Prophet; even Seamus, who would never admit to such brotherly feelings. Niamh squealed with joy as she unfolded the parchment, revealing the Hogwarts crest.

Seamus' mother sighed, with a misty look in her eyes. "Ah, Fergus, that's three. Look how they're growing. The house will be empty before we know it."

Mr Finnigan put his arms around his wife. "Then we'll just have to make some more, won't we, Aggie!" He laughed and she swatted him on the arm, but she also turned her head to kiss him.

Seamus looked away and took a big gulp of his juice to cover his embarrassment.

Niamh, oblivious, was already chattering away excitedly about getting her wand and new clothes, and Grainne was looking sullen at being left out. Seamus was tuning everyone out and turning his thoughts to his own return to Hogwarts, when a shriek from Aisling caused the others to fall silent.

"What in the world?" Mrs Finnigan exclaimed sharply.

Aisling looked at Seamus, then at her mother, her face white and scared. "It says here..." She held out Niamh's letter. "Snape's the Headmaster."

"What?" Seamus shouted, ripping the letter out of Aisling's hand. He scanned the words, looking for the hated name... it was signed by McGonagall, as usual, who was... He stopped and did a double-take.

Yours Sincerely,

Minerva McGonagall,
Deputy Headmistress

Deputy? What about... And then he saw it. It was at the top, under the letterhead.

HOGWARTS SCHOOL
of WITCHCRAFT and WIZARDRY

Headmaster: Severus Snape

Seamus' heart sank. He couldn't see straight. It couldn't be right. And yet he knew it was. It all fit. The new Minister. Umbridge. The Muggle-born Registration Commission. And now Snape. Dumbledore was gone, Harry cast once again as the troubled, unstable youth. There was no one to stop them. No one to accuse them. Not that Seamus' family believed any of that rubbish this time, but others would.

"Seamus." His mother was holding out her hand for the letter.

"It's true. Says right there at the top," he whispered as he gave it to her.

She read it, her lips pressed together grimly.

"What is it?" Seamus' father asked, his good humour fading.

"This Snape," Mrs Finnigan answered curtly. "He was the one who killed Dumbledore. And now they've gone and made him Headmaster."

"Politics again," Mr Finnigan concluded. "Stab him in the back so you can take his job. Sure, it happens everywhere."

Mrs Finnigan rounded on her husband. "He killed him, Fergus!" she said with an incredulous look. "In cold blood. And now they've put him in charge of our children."

Mr Finnigan shrugged. "Then they won't go back. They can go to the village school this year. It's not-"

"No, they can't!" she interrupted angrily. "Don't you remember, there's a new law that says all magical children must attend Hogwarts!"

"To hell with their law!" Mr Finnigan shouted back. "They have no hold on us! I've gone along with all of this for all these years because it's no skin off my nose and it made you happy, but if it comes down to it, I'm their father, and what I say goes. There's a law about that, too!"

Seamus' mother shook her head. "No, Fergus," she said, softly now, and that scared Seamus more than her shouting had. He realized only now that Jack was pressed up against him, clinging to his hand.

"You've not seen what they can do. They keep themselves hidden, to protect both sides. But if it should come to an open confrontation... You've no idea. We either send the children to Hogwarts, or we run."

"What do you mean, 'run'?"

"We run away. Leave the country. There are already people disappearing."

"Are you out of your mind? That's out of the question! I have a business here, I can't just-"

"Then we have to keep our heads down and keep quiet." Seamus' mother turned to her children, who were huddled together, scared and confused by their parents' discussion. "Seamus. Aisling. You've never said much about this Snape, other than he was the Potions master. Do you have any cause to believe he would do anything - anything - to harm you?"

Seamus considered. Snape was unfair and had an obvious prejudice against Gryffindors, but he'd never actually done anything to anyone that he knew of, aside from yelling. Not like Umbridge. But if he told his mother that, he knew he and his sisters would be heading back to Hogwarts in a couple of weeks, and that things were likely to be very different than they had been under Dumbledore. On the other hand, if he made a case against Snape, it might end up tearing his family apart. And what about his friends, like Dean, who would be at Hogwarts, at the mercy of whatever new edicts or whims the Ministry had put in place?

"No, ma'am," he answered, finally. Beside him, Aisling shook her head as well.

"We could find a way..." Mrs Finnigan offered. "Gram could take you somewhere."

"I want to go back," Seamus said firmly.

"Me, too," Niamh said.

"Aisling?" their mother asked.

"Yes, me, too."

Mrs Finnigan eyed her children shrewdly. "Maybe all this worry is for nothing. You've managed to stay out of things this far. I don't like it, but I don't see that we can do much about it. You'll go."

Mr Finnigan sighed and rubbed one hand over his face. "I swear, this family's going to drive me round the bend one day."

"Can we go to Diagon Alley today, Mummy?" Niamh asked timidly.

Mrs Finnigan relaxed and smiled at her daughter. "Not today, darlin', it's already too late. We'd need to be back to open at ten. But I'll tell you what," she continued, as Niamh's face crumpled into a scowl. "We'll get up bright and early tomorrow, and drive in to Owen's and use their Floo. All right, Fergus?" She turned to her husband.

"Sure. Just what I need, another witch waving her magic wand around!" he joked, grinning at Niamh. "Mind you don't poke no one's eye out with it!"

"Daddy!" Niamh protested, but she was smiling, too.

The mood relaxed, and everyone finished their breakfast, discussing what else they needed to take care of the next day. When the family then began to disperse to their daily activities, Seamus offered to help cleaning up.

"Mum?" he began in a low voice, once everyone else had left the kitchen. "I need to ring Dean."

"Your friend in London again?" She frowned as she started the tap running.

"Yeah. Mum..." He caught her eye and swallowed hard. "He's Muggle-born."

"What does that have to do with it?"

"Don't you remember the Muggle-born Registration Commission? And Umbridge? He thought McGonagall would help him, but I don't think he knows about Snape being made Headmaster. I have to warn him."

Mrs Finnigan squirted a stream of Fairy liquid into the water. "For what? What choice does he have? He has to go back, too. You said yourself you didn't think there was any danger."

"Not for me, not for us, because we've got you. He hasn't got anyone. I just have a bad feeling. I can't explain it any better. Please." Seamus knew he wasn't making any sense, and maybe nothing would happen, but he just wanted Dean to know.

"Do you want to tell him to leave?"

Seamus was silent for a moment. "Maybe," he said finally.

Seamus' mother looked at him, solemnly, then nodded. "Go on then. But don't disturb your sisters with this."

"I won't." Seamus started to leave, then remembered that he should say 'thank you', but when he turned around again, his mother had her back to him and was bracing herself against the sink with her head down. He left silently.

Seamus let the Thomases' telephone ring nine times, and was just about to give up, when Dean answered, his voice still thick with sleep.

"Dean, it's me, Seamus!"

"Seamus? Mate, what are you doing ringing me at this hour?" he said, half-slurring his words.

"What hour? It's half ten!"

"Exactly."

"This couldn't wait. Dean, listen, are you awake?"

"Not really."

"Then wake up. This is important. Really important."

"Get on with it," he grumbled.

"Snape's the new headmaster."

"What?" Dean sounded slightly more alert.

"I said, Snape's the new headmaster. Not McGonagall. My sister got her letter this morning."

"You're arsing me."

"Wish I was."

"Shite."

"Yeah."

"But how-"

"It all fits. Remember what I told you? The new Minister... Umbridge...?"

"Is McGonagall still there?" Dean asked.

"Yeah, she's still Deputy. But what can she do? With Snape in charge..."

"It'll be all right. He only really ever had it in for Harry."

"Dean..." Seamus cupped his hand over the receiver and looked down the hall to make sure his siblings weren't around. "My mum said people are disappearing."

"How do you mean?"

"I don't know; either... either they're leaving the country to get away from all these new laws, or... well, I guess they're being taken. You didn't go to that Muggle-born commission, did you?"

"No, do I look like I want to get acquainted with that crazy bitch and her torture quill again?"

"Good."

"They sent me an invitation though. Well, more like a summons. Told me to be at such-and-such a place at such-and-such a time with proof of my magical ancestry," Dean said in a mocking voice.

Seamus' blood ran cold. "When?"

"When what?"

"When are you supposed to go?"

"Tomorrow. Like I said though, they can forget it. I already binned it."

Seamus started to panic. "Dean, mate, they're going to come looking for you. You have to come here."

"What, to your place?"

"Yeah. We'll hide you. Or... say you're our cousin. Something." Seamus had his doubts in the back of his mind as to whether his parents would go for such a ploy, but he was desperate to help his friend.

Dean laughed. "Yeah, they'd buy that. Your deeply tanned cousin. Look, I appreciate it, but don't sweat it."

"Just say you'll think about it. If you get into a pinch, you can come here."

"All right, Seamus. I'll think about it. But I really think it'll be fine. See you in a couple of weeks?"

"Yeah, all right."

But when Seamus hung up, he was still uneasy. The feeling stayed with him the next day, as he went with his mother and siblings to Diagon Alley. The mood was anxious and subdued. Glowering Aurors stood on nearly every corner, and the streets were full of cloaked and hooded figures slinking about their furtive business. Adults herded their children along with their arms extended protectively around them.

Ollivanders of course was still boarded up, so they had to go to Fiddle & Flubb's for Niamh's wand. The place was crowded, even so early in the morning, and the assistant was sweaty and flustered. The first two wands he had her try didn't do anything at all, and the third one merely sputtered and produced a wisp of green smoke, but he pronounced it 'a perfect match' and bundled them out.

The whole time, Seamus was thinking of Dean missing his appointment with the Muggle-born Registration Commission. He suppressed the urge to call him that night, and the next day. Everything would be fine, he kept telling himself, but without conviction.

Finally, on the third day, he broke down and called Dean again. He didn't bother asking for permission this time. Dean's mother picked up on the second ring. She sounded guarded, nervous.

"This is Seamus. Can I talk to Dean?"

"Seamus?" Mrs Thomas repeated, her voice quivering. "You're one of my son's friends from school?"

"Yeah. Is he there?"

"No." She stopped speaking, and there was a muffled sound, like a gasp or a sniffle. "No, he's not," she finally said. "I don't know where he is."

A prickly heat ran through Seamus. "What do you mean? They didn't-" Oh, God. No. The Muggle-born Registration Commission. "Did they come and get him?"

"They came for him. Two gentlemen in red robes. But he was already gone. Please, do you know where he could be? Seamus?" He could hear the tears in her voice.

Seamus swore to himself. "When was this? I told him he could come here, but we haven't seen him. Maybe he's still on his way. We're in Northern Ireland."

"Yesterday. They showed up around five in the afternoon. I went to get Dean. I thought he was upstairs in his room. He didn't answer, and when I opened the door, he wasn't there. The men searched the whole house. They didn't find him, either, but they showed me a note they said they'd found in his room. It said, 'I have to go. I'll be fine,' and he'd signed it. They took it with them. Evidence, they said. You said he might come to your place?"

"He might." He must have left in a hurry when he heard them, Seamus thought to himself. He probably couldn't take much with him, other than his wand. Unless he'd planned for it and had a bag packed, just in case. Maybe Seamus' warning about Snape had given him enough time.

"If he does, please! Tell him to come home!"

"It's not safe for him, Mrs Thomas. They'll be watching your house. But if he does come here, we'll let you know. I promise."

Dean never came. When Seamus told his mother what was going on, she agreed to send the owl out with a message addressed to Dean, in the hopes that he would be able to at least send them something back to let them know he was all right. The owl returned three days later, its talons empty. They wrote to Neville, Ron, and even Harry (the owl came back with the letter undelivered), but no one knew anything. Seamus hoped Dean was just hiding until term started, and would seek refuge with McGonagall at Hogwarts come September.

On the first of September, Mrs Finnigan took Seamus, Aisling and Niamh to London. Grainne wailed about being left behind, but Mrs Finnigan said all things considered, it was safer this way.

There were Ministry workers standing on the platform, checking off all the students against their lists before they were allowed to board the train. Seeing that, his hopes sank that Dean would be there, but maybe he would find another way to get to Hogwarts.

Seamus' mother insisted that he take charge of Aisling and Niamh and not let them out of his sight until they arrived at the school, and this time, Seamus didn't argue. He dragged his sisters from compartment to compartment, looking for someone who might know something. But as the time came closer for the train to depart, and he kept coming up empty-handed, he began to despair. He noticed, too, that there were no Muggle-born students on the train at all. Hermione, Justin, the Creevey brothers... Seamus got a sick feeling. What had happened to them all?

There were burly-looking guards on the train for the first time ever, and they glared at Seamus and his sisters, wandering the corridors, and shoved them into the nearest compartment. Seamus began to protest the treatment, but Aisling and Niamh begged him silently not to, so he sat down and banged his fist against the armrest, muttering to himself. Suddenly, a red head bobbed past beneath the window. He jumped up and slammed the window open so he could stick his head out. It was Ginny Weasley, hurrying to be one of the last ones on the train.

"Ginny!" Seamus called. She stopped and whirled around, looking irritated. "Is Ron with you?"

"No! He's at home!" she called back. "With Spattergroit!" she yelled, much louder, at someone further back on the platform. Seamus rotated his head to see who it was, but all he could see was the Ministry people, standing in a cluster of grey robes and comparing their lists.

He didn't get a chance to question Ginny further, as when he turned back to where she had been, the platform was empty. She must have already boarded. He looked at his sisters, huddled together on the bench opposite him, and swore under his breath. He couldn't leave them alone, and the ape out in the corridor wouldn't let them go anywhere without an argument.

A few seconds later, the train lurched into motion, and they were on their way. The hours went by excruciatingly slowly. Seamus watched the landscape crawl past the window, turning grey and then black as night descended. Aisling pulled out a book, and Niamh alternated between leaning against Aisling, crying quietly, and napping, until Seamus took pity on her and offered to play Exploding Snap, although he refused to let her win. All the while, he kept a hope alive that Dean would somehow show up at the castle tonight.

When they arrived, Seamus led Aisling and Niamh silently off the train, cowed under the heavy gazes of the guards. He saw Ginny up ahead with Luna and Neville, and tried to push his way through the crowd to catch up to them, until he heard Hagrid calling for the first years, and he had to veer off to make sure that Niamh was deposited safely in his care. By the time Seamus and Aisling were able to continue on their way, Ginny and the others had already gone ahead in one of the horseless carriages.

When they got to the Great Hall, Aisling went to sit with the Ravenclaws, and Seamus slid onto the bench next to Neville. There was noticeably more room at the table than there had been in years past; of the eight Gryffindors in his year, only four had returned, and there were similar gaps among the younger students.

"Have you heard anything about Dean?" Seamus whispered, mindful of the new Headmaster Snape's unfriendly gaze directed in the Gryffindors' direction from the staff table.

Neville shook his head. "No. And I don't think we can talk freely here," he added, keeping his eyes fixed at a spot on the table in front of him.

All of the tables were unusually quiet and subdued during the Sorting and feast, except for the Slytherins, who hooted and cheered raucously, stomping their feet whenever a new student joined them. Niamh was Sorted into Ravenclaw, which relieved Seamus. It meant she wouldn't be alone, and that Aisling was the one who would have to watch out for her. It also meant that she would probably not be on the receiving end of any anti-Gryffindor sentiment, which was sure to be running rampant this year, the way things were looking.

Seamus didn't really think that Dean would be coming at this point, but he didn't completely give up until they went up to their dorms. There were only two beds and two desks. The curtains had been removed from the four posters. The room looked huge and empty. On the wall, in the space where Harry's bed had been, there was now a portrait of a surly-looking wizard with a bulbous nose, his arms crossed over his chest. To Seamus, he had the look of a prison guard.

Neville and Seamus looked at each other, then turned around and silently began getting ready for bed. Seamus lay awake in the dark a long time that night, thinking about his sisters, and about Dean. He hoped that wherever Dean was, he was safe.