The morning of September the first was so quiet in the Order headquarters that Harry almost didn't wake up in time. He hurriedly wrestled the lid closed on his trunk and stuffed Hedwig's cage under his arm, the owl twittering with annoyance. He noticed with considerable distress that the lion outline on his upper left arm was still darkening. In the light of the Weasleys' brief visit (during which Ginny, having been made a prefect, showed off her new Cleansweep model), he'd forgotten all about it.
Sighing, Harry glanced around quickly before levitating the trunk and jumping down the stairs two at a time. Leaving both luggage and cage by the front door, he skidded into the kitchen and went about setting out some sort of edible breakfast. Cramming in the last crumbs, he dashed back to the front door. Harry reached to open to door, not patient enough to wait around.
"Harry - wait." Remus Lupin was pulling on a coat and looking quite haggard, coming up behind. "We're taking a Portkey from Windill Avenue. Keep your wand handy."
Harry snorted, thinking he didn't particularly need a wand. Lupin, mistaking this as directed at the precaution, frowned over at the younger who easily pushed the door open while balancing trunk and cage perfectly. Immediately as they got off the porch, the entire house vanished. Harry followed Lupin without any trouble and after a while said. "It's kind of strange to think that place is mine now."
"Not until you're seventeen," corrected Lupin.
Harry smiled a little. "Not too far away is it, Moony? Do you think I'll be allowed into the Order?"
The other did not reply and Harry took this as a no, deciding to let the matter drop. The hedges of Windill Avenue were soon in sight, still the sorry sight they had been when last seen. Thrown casually to one side was an old lady's parasol, riddled with all things unpleasant.
"I swear," Harry said fervently, "they think of weirder Portkeys every time."
Grabbing hold of the Portkey, he felt the jerk behind his navel and landed unceremoniously on his backside on Platform 9 ¾. He picked himself up and shifted his weight so that he didn't go careening back onto the ground. Lupin's hand on his elbow steered him towards one of the doors of the train. Steam billowed in front of them for a moment then cleared, revealing Ron and Ginny standing at the entry.
Ginny was beaming, a Prefect badge glinting on her new Hogwarts robes which were a little too long. Harry grinned at the pair of them and hoisted up his trunk with an anxious Hedwig balanced on top. He turned back to Lupin. "I'll be alright from here. Tell Tonks I said goodbye."
Lupin stepped back away from the train. "Will do, Harry."
The next moment he had Apparated so Harry jumped up into the train and kicked his trunk a little way down the corridor. He flattened against the wall as two energetic first years ran past, waving their new wands. Whoever came into their path wasn't going to look very pretty, judging by the sparks beginning to shoot out of the thin pieces of wood.
"I'll grab us a compartment," he yelled over at Ron who nodded. "See you in a while."
Harry lugged his trunk and cage, starting to look for an empty compartment. Busy scanning each compartment quickly, he was startled when the door of one slid open and he was pulled inside by an eager Neville Longbottom whose mimbulus mimbletonia had changed into a neon blue. By the looks of the messy compartment, Neville had been wrestling his trunk close. Harry shoved his luggage into a storage rack and found a seat. "Back again, I guess. Nice colour - suits it, Neville."
"Thanks Harry." Neville held out the quivering mass. "Would you mind holding it for a moment."
This was exactly what Harry didn't want to do, but he put on a brave smile and collected the Mimbulus mimbletonia into his hands. Neville managed to clamp down his gaping trunk and belt it up tightly. Breathing slightly hard, the other boy turned to Harry and collected the blob. "Had a good summer?"
Harry was about to respond when the door was slid open so hard it bounced back off the edge. Luna Lovegood swept in, reading The Quibbler. Neville looked to be on the verge of making an expression but caught himself with a swift look from Harry, who pushed off some parchment sitting on the seat next to him so that the new arrival could sit down.
"Hi Luna," he said pleasantly.
Loony sat down as if in a daze, saying absently, "There have been lots of sightings of Quigglebumps."
Neither Harry nor Neville were sure how to respond to this so they avoided it and went straight onto what they had done over the holidays. Harry, rather than recount his summer, was content to just sit back and half listen to what attacks there had been and what exactly Neville's uncle liked to do with toads. He mused to himself about the mark of the lion and what it meant. He was sure Dumbledore already had enough to deal with.
He bit his lip, knowing that wasn't the real answer. Why should he tell Dumbledore? The old man had avoided him for almost all of the school year. Besides, what if the headmaster thought Occlumency more of an issue because he wasn't having any pain in his scar? Harry stared out the window at the darkening sky. He wasn't in the mood for this.
"What?" He snapped out of his daze, aware that Neville had asked him a question.
Neville repeated immediately, "I said, are you going to continue DA this year?"
"Oh!" Harry supposed with all the visits he'd had from the Weasleys (avoiding a rather quiet Percy whenever it occurred) and the growing mark of the lion, the thought of DA had swept clean out of his mind. "Um, I guess so."
Luna peered over the edge of the magazine, about to comment on the subject when the compartment door slid open again, but with much greater gentleness. Framed at the entrance were Seamus Finnigan and Dean Thomas. Seamus strode in and, turning slightly pink, said, "I may have been a bit short with you last year, Harry, but I just want you to know that you now have my support."
Harry didn't know what to say at first. He had to quickly amend himself, "Uh, thanks Seamus. It counts, it really does."
Dean nodded at the occupants before he and Seamus shut the door and went back down to their own compartment. There was a brief silence, broken moments after by Luna who said with the same amount of mistiness as Professor Trelawney. "Some people are returning to Hogwarts, but not all of them."
"Think I'm a mad man, still?" Harry stretched back with a yawn.
Neville gave him a questioning look. "Have you been at all reading the Daily Prophet? There's been that many attacks! Some people feel it isn't safe anymore."
Harry raised his eyebrows in response. He didn't see why it wouldn't be safe at Hogwarts, what with Dumbledore back. And besides, hadn't the newspaper cleared it all up? If that hadn't done it, Rita Skeeter's ludicrous "unsung hero" articles that continued to run had definitely chased up any stragglers. He never thought that anything that reporter wrote would make him feel better, but obviously it had happened.
"But that's stupid," Harry protested. "There's no place safer than Hogwarts."
Neville put his hands behind his head. "Maybe the moon, but besides, it is stupid. Michael Corner almost wasn't allowed back, did you hear?"
The compartment door was forced open and a small brood of students eagerly claimed their support for Harry. Neville realised his mouth was hanging open and closed it, eyes still popping. Harry was also astonished, almost not sure how to thank his visitors.
"What's going on here?" demanded a gruff voice.
The newcomer was six feet something, his head scraping the ceiling of the train. He was wrapped in a dark brown cloak fastened by a gold clasp bearing the Ministry seal. One of the students demanded back, "And who the hell are you?"
He looked affronted, silver hair drawn over a pale face and set hazel eyes. "Do you not know that Ministry representatives are patrolling the Hogwarts Express for the duration of the trip?"
Answered with blank faces, he suddenly came upon Harry's own and did the familiar double take. Harry smirked at this, wondering what sort of reception he'd get. The representative's wintry expression vanished immediately, before adding crossly as he continued down the corridor, "Just informing you."
The knot of students followed, twittering amongst themselves. Neville's mouth had become thin and he excused himself shortly after. Harry watched him go and turned to Luna, deeply immersed within her father's magazine. He noticed that she sported bright yellow feathers tucked in behind each ear. He wondered if, bored as he was, Luna would actually conduct a normal conversation. Harry opened his mouth to speak when suddenly Loony went rigid in her seat, the magazine slipping from her fingers.
"Luna?" he asked tentatively. "Are you alright?"
Instead of her usual vacant expression, her face seemed taunt. Harry was reminded quickly of the not so comfortable performance Professor Trelawney has pulled off in his third year during the Divination exam. Biting his lip, he debated whether or not to get someone - being alone, something of this occurrence was not at all reassuring.
Light filtered back into Luna Lovegood's eyes and she returned to a distant smile, saying softly in a song sing voice, "Right as rain, right as rain."
Harry wondered fleetingly if she really was a loony. Maybe that display had been normal, considering what kind of antics she got up to. Quigglebumps, honestly! He smiled at the thought, barely masking the snigger that fought to escape him. He looked out the window at the countryside, keeping one eye on Luna who seemed content with the magazine.
Oh let her, he thought tiredly, It's not like it's her fault for being that way.
"Harry, wake up!"
It took a moment for Harry to open his eyes and adjust to the fact that there was a freckled face looming in front of his. A face that had red hair sprouting from the tops of it. Harry took his glasses off and rubbed his eyes, muttering, "I wish you'd pick a better way to wake me up. Have you been taking lessons from Dobby?"
"Nice to see you too." Ron grinned and passed over a pastry from the food trolley. "They've got Ministry people patrolling the train so I'm off duty."
Hermione was sitting on the same seat as Luna, though a distance was notable. The prefect of the two had opted for a polite indifference to anything that might be said. Hermione gave Ron a disapproving glance as he attacked his food energetically. She chanced lightly, "Is Ginny still going out with Dean?"
Ron rolled his eyes and didn't bother to answer. Getting past a mouthful of Chocolate Frogs, he centred his attention on Harry. "You should have seen Mum this morning. Bill got a tattoo recently."
"A...tattoo?" Harry repeated incredulously, rubbing his upper arm unconsciously. "Tell him he should get leather boots instead of dragon hide."
Hermione looked at him, concerned and knowing the cause of his discomfit. She motioned her head towards the compartment door but Harry shook his head. Suddenly Harry remembered the book he'd bought in Diagon Alley and went to his trunk - just as the door slid open. Harry stood up and remarked coolly, "I thought we'd be getting a visit from our little Slytherin friends."
Draco Malfoy was flanked by his two cronies, Crabbe and Goyle, as usual. Somehow Harry wasn't surprised to see them and he thought he knew what this verbal challenge would be about. Sure enough Malfoy drawled, "So brave, Potter. I would have expected you to be otherwise, without your other little friend."
"Father out of prison then?" Ron demanded, sweets spilling from his lap as he stood up.
Hermione, however, did nothing to hold Ron back or the oncoming fight. She simply picked out a book from her trunk and buried herself in it. Malfoy, Crabbe, Goyle, Ron and Harry all looked at her. Luna was similarly immersed in The Quibbler. Harry wasn't worried, even though his wand was stuck in the bottom of his trunk. He supposed he had no real use for it anymore.
He smirked at Malfoy and said flippantly, "Oh, I'm just disappointed you haven't learnt your lesson yet. How long did it take your mother to look up all the counter-jinxes? Probably all summer."
There was a tense silence. Crookshanks hissed and spat, having previously been dormant. Harry meet Malfoy's eyes squarely, silently egging him on. Malfoy didn't rise to the dare, instead turned without a word and marched off down the corridor with his cronies.
"That was weird," Ron commented, shutting the door. "Hermione, why didn't you try to stop us?"
Hermione smiled over the top of her book. "I rather thought Harry had things covered."
Ron looked for a moment as if he was about to argue, but just shook his head. Luna grinned bemusedly at Harry, making him feel somewhat uncomfortable. "That one was funny too. Do you think he's seen Quigglebumps?"
There really was no answer to that and Harry didn't bother trying to invent one.
The first thing Harry noticed as he stepped off the train at Hogsmeade Station was that Hagrid was at the end of the platform with a lantern and calling the first years to him. If Harry had to choose one thing to remain normal, it would be that. Sighing, he pushed his way through crowds of chatting students and waved over to Hagrid.
Luna tagged at his elbow, muttering to herself. Harry had the faint suspicion that she was trying to learn the magazine by heart. Catching the looks that the people gave him as he passed, he wondered if they were supporting or wary. He barely even gave the Thestrals standing patiently and scuffing the damp earth a glance as he singled out one carriage.
He went closer to the carriage and saw that the Thestral hooked up to it was pawing. Frowning, Harry moved closer, eyes narrowed. Was that normal Thestral behaviour? The others were moving, but weren't doing so agitatedly. The beast suddenly looked up at him, sending a chill down Harry's spine. He tasted bile for a moment and choked it down.
The creature stopped moving, glaring almost sightlessly at him. Harry felt his stomach protest for no reason, his eyes never leaving the Thestral. He crept just a tad closer, having only slight misgivings. The Thestral suddenly reared, making a strange screaming noise. Harry toppled over backwards and looked up at the flailing creature. Luna was watching it with mild interest, but the Thestral wasn't the only thing moving.
The carriage somehow unhooked and went careening into several others. Harry dimly became aware that the students nearest had started screaming. He jumped to his feet, grabbed Luna and sped down to join those watching the chaos.
He didn't particularly feel like being caught at the scene, so to speak.