Chapter One

The Return to Hogwarts

The day was bright but it was no where near as cheery as the surroundings suggested. It wasn't that Harry Potter and Ron Weasley didn't like returning to Hogwarts after Christmas, but it was true that the break hadn't lasted nearly as long as either of them had wished it would. In fact, it was as if nothing had happened at all, excluding, of course, the ridiculous presents they had received and the unexpected visit from the Minister of Magic, neither event being what either boy wanted.

Neither had heard from Hermione over the break either, although Harry wasn't too surprised that she'd made no contact with Ron. He didn't blame her too much, though he wished they would get along. It was very difficult to be between the two of them when they were in a row with one another. Thinking about the situation like that, perhaps it was better that Hermione hadn't come to the Burrow over Christmas vacation, Harry decided.

Despite all that had happened - or hadn't happened - they had now returned to Hogwarts. Classes would begin the next day after everyone got settled in. The air was still filled with scent of peppermint, and there was little doubt that most students had gone to Hogsmeade during the break and bought as many candies as they could afford, mostly those of the peppermint variety given the smell. Ron and Harry had received some candy as well, but it was all from Weasley Wizard Wheezes, and the candy wasn't nearly as friendly as the candy other students brought back.

"Christmas gets shorter every year, I swear," Ron said, shoving his trunk up the Gryffindor Tower stairs. "I just remember taking the Defense Against the Dark Arts semester final like it was yesterday…"

"Might as well have been given yesterday," Harry said bitterly, slamming his trunk at the end of his bed much like Ron had. "Snape made it so long… He's got to be the worst Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher we've ever had."

"Does that include Lockhart?"

"No. Lockhart doesn't count. He wasn't really a teacher…"

"And Umbridge?"

"Ministry Stooge. Doesn't count either." The two exchanged smirks, thinking about those terrible teachers they'd once had. Maybe Snape wasn't as bad as some of them, Harry got to thinking. At least he didn't have the Dark Lord growing out of the back of his head. Still, he gave them loads of homework every class, most of which was impossible, and there were so many tests and quizzes and exams… Harry thought he was cramming so much that eventually whatever he "learned" he would forget right away, as if the knowledge was running out of his ears.

Harry set Hedwig's cage down atop his trunk and opened the door, allowing her to flutter out and about the room. She situated herself on the windowsill and went to cleaning her feathers, and Harry decided to give her a few more moments of freedom to herself before taking her down to the Owlery. Ron did the same with Pigwidgeon, though the petite owl instead flew sporadically around the room and refused to settle like Hedwig. Everyone in the boys' dormitory was used to Pig's behavior by now, so no one complained.

"So how were your holidays?" Neville piped up, laying across his four-poster as if his festivities had wiped him out completely.

"Quiet, I s'pose," Harry said, shrugging. "Got a pleasant visit from the Minister."

"Really? Can't imagine what he wanted was good," Seamus said.

"I dunno if was bad, really," Ron said. "Just obnoxious."

"What about you lot?" Harry asked. "How did things go for you?"

"Just stayed with my family, that's about it," Seamus answered.

"Pretty uneventful," Dean added.

"Same," Neville said. "Though Gram was really uptight… I think she might have lost her mousetrap…"

Harry, Ron, Dean, and Seamus exchanged a look between themselves and Neville, and silently decided to say nothing of it and go on unpacking their things. Most of their belongings they kept in their trunks, though Ron and Harry couldn't help but watch as Dean, Seamus, and Neville brought out some of the things they'd been given for Christmas, knowing the things they'd received wouldn't be something they would display. In fact, neither had brought any of the gifts back with them from the Burrow. It was alright with them if it stayed that way.

It was Harry that finished getting his things ready first. He didn't have much to unpack in the first place, so once he finished he sat on the end of his four-poster and watched the others. It didn't take any of them long to finish up either, and Ron suggested taking the owls to the Owlery, most likely because he was tired of watching Pig fly around the room. His efforts exhausted even Harry. Seamus and Dean weren't interested, but Neville said he would come along. So the three boys headed from their dormitories and into the common room, Ron practically snaking around the furniture to avoid Lavender's eyes if she was anywhere in the room. Harry was having too good of a time watching Ron's antics that he didn't bother to tell him she wasn't in sight.

Someone that was in sight, though, was Hermione. She caught Harry's eyes and smiled, quickly coming over to him. She chose to ignore Ron, though Harry was sure she hadn't missed his sneaking through the common room.

"Harry, Neville!" Hermione said brightly and loudly, definitely in hopes of Ron hearing and emphasizing she wasn't talking to him. "It's great to see you! How were your holidays?"

"Uneventful," Harry said. "Missed having you around, Hermione. How was your Christmas?"

"It was nice," she answered, still speaking loudly. "Mum, Dad, and I went out to eat and we talked about all sorts of things. They're doing well. How're Mr. and Mrs. Weasley?"

"They're just fine. You've seen Ginny yet?"

"Yes, but she's up in her room unpacking her things. What are you doing?"

Harry explained how they were going to the Owlery and invited her to come after Hedwig nipped his arm insistently. Hermione declined though, saying she needed to catch up with Ginny, and left without another word.

"Why is it that she didn't talk to me?" Neville asked, looking a bit disheartened.

"You could've gotten Ron's treatment," Harry shrugged, and that point of view encouraged Neville out of his sulking posture. Ron spun around upon hearing his name, frowning as he realized it wasn't in a good way.

"We going or not?" he asked shortly, then turned without waiting for an answer. Harry guessed he was just trying to act as nonchalant as Hermione had, but if no one could tell he was upset, Harry would eat a Doxy. He wasn't going to point that out, so he urged Neville on and the boys made their way to the West Tower.

It wasn't too long of a journey, and not too many other students were out in the corridors, as they were either not back yet or still unpacking their belongings. The welcome-back feast would begin soon, as well, so there were many students preparing for that. Harry knew going to the Owlery wouldn't take long, so he wasn't worried about not being ready for dinner, though he would have been fine just going straight from the Owlery to the Great Hall. He was hoping to have Hermione, Ginny, and a few of the others come down with them, so he preferred going back to the common room beforehand.

Ron and Harry dropped off their owls, gave them treats, and left the Owlery just as quickly as they'd entered it. There was no talking between any of them, and Harry was beginning to wonder if Neville was regretting having agreed to come with them. Just as he was about to ask him something to start a conversation, he practically ran into someone around the corner.

"Oh, excuse me," he began, then stopped as he realized who it was. "Luna!"

"Oh, hello Harry, Ron, Neville," Luna said softly, scarcely making eye-contact with any of them before returning her gaze to the window. The boys remained silent, expecting her to say something more, but after a moment they realized that wasn't going to happen.

"So… what are you doing?" Neville asked cautiously, as nothing Luna ever did was normal.

"I'm looking for Crumple-Horned Snorkacks," she said distantly, eyes not wavering from the window. "They're said to be in Sweden somewhere, and but it is a full moon and they say they travel on full moons…"

"Uh, Luna, would you like to come with us to the feast?" Harry asked, not really sure what a Crumple-Horned Snorkack was, or if they even existed. It didn't seem like she heard him at first, but she finally managed to turn her head away from the window and smile up at him.

"That would be nice," she agreed, clasping her hands behind her back. So the girl joined the three of them and they made their way to the Gryffindor common room. They didn't have to leave Luna outside the common room, either, as Hermione, Ginny, and several others were coming from the Fat Lady's portrait just as they arrived. The girls reconciled for a moment and Neville went off with Seamus and Dean, leaving Harry and Ron standing awkwardly outside the girls' circle. Ron didn't dare to look at Hermione and his eyes instead found Lavender, much to his dismay. He quickly slipped in between Harry and the circle of girls, disappearing behind his sister.

It was Harry's unfortunate pleasure to converse with Lavender in Ron's place.

"Hello Harry," she greeted quickly, eyes darting around as if she was searching for something - or rather, someone, as it was no mystery she was looking for Ron. "Have you seen my Won-Won?"

Something inside Harry churned disgustedly upon hearing Ron's pet name, but he tried not to show it too blatantly in his expression. He grinned pleasantly and thought carefully about his next words, not wanting to get either Ron or himself in trouble.

"Er, he was here a moment ago," he said slowly. "Not really sure where he headed off to in such a hurry. Maybe his stomach got the better of him and he's headed to the Great Hall. I just saw Dean and Seamus-" That was all he had to say. Lavender was already walking as briskly as she could in the other boys' direction. Harry felt a bit bad that he had turned her loose on them, but then again, it was much better than thinking up another lie to feed her.

Ron appeared by Harry's side again. "Thanks for that, mate," he said, breathing heavy as if he'd been holding his breath. "I just… she's not… you know?" Harry nodded, not needing Ron to finish his sentence to understand what he meant. Lavender had been a nice girlfriend for a while, but now she was just being creepy and possessive. He judged he and Ron thought about her the same way now. He hoped that would help get Ron and Hermione back together, on talking terms at the least.

"So, we should be off to the feast, then!" Hermione's voice broke through the small circle of girls, and there were many nods and sounds of approval. Harry had to grab Ron's arm and pull him in line with Ginny and the others in order to avoid him running off on his own and - most likely - straight into Lavender. Hermione curved around the group to walk alongside Harry, keeping her distance close enough so that it was clear she was walking with him, but far enough away to keep Ron out of the conversation. Harry did his best to edge toward him, but Hermione still kept away.

"Ginny was telling me about your visit from the Minister of Magic," Hermione said, looking at him expectantly. Harry did his best to look surprised.

"Oh, of course!" he exclaimed, grinning as if he'd just remembered a clever joke. "Yeah, must've slipped my mind."

"A visit from the Minister? Slipped your mind?" she replied, raising her brows. Harry knew better than to try to lie to her.

"It wasn't important." That was partly the truth.

"What'd he want?"

"Just some rubbish about me working with the Ministry or something. I can't honestly remember all of it. Brushed him off, really, after all the trouble they gave me last year. Said I was going to stick with Dumbledore." Hermione nodded approvingly, much to Harry's relief. He snuck a glance at Ron, who was finding the patterns on the floor interesting, which would've been a very good cover had the floors not been plain.

"Speaking of Dumbledore, I heard he's going to make some sort of important announcement," Ginny said, squeezing Ron closer to Harry to be part of the conversation. Harry couldn't help but wonder if it had anything to do with the secret lessons the Headmaster had been giving him all year. They weren't really lessons, but he was certainly learning a lot from them. He knew this idea wasn't a very good one, though, as there was no reason Dumbledore would announce anything about that to the whole school.

"That's right," Luna added, also leaning in. "I heard some of the professors talking about it, along with the excellent pork, chicken breast, and steak that's on the menu for tonight."

"Yes, that's true," Hermione nodded. "The bit about the announcement, I mean, though I believe the meal will be wonderful. But people are saying it's the 'first time' or something. I'm not really sure what it all means. It should be very interesting, though."

"We'll find out soon enough," Harry interrupted, looking straight forward. They had reached the Great Hall, and already the long tables were filled with students. "Might as well get something to eat while we wait. Let's go."