Hermione closed her eyes, panicking as the car abruptly changed direction and drove across four lanes of traffic to enter a smaller side road. Beside her, Ron rocked backwards and forwards, muttering quietly to himself, while Ginny maintained a death-grip on Harry's arm. From the passenger seat in the front, Tonks raved.
"Are you insane? I don't care about laying false trails or evading pursuit! If we don't drive directly, we're never going to get the kids on the train, Mad-Eye!"
The car slowed down slightly and swung around to re-enter traffic. Hermione cautiously opened one eye to peek at the front seats. Moody crouched over the steering wheel possessively, a chauffer's cap tilted rakishly over his magical eye, while Tonks swatted him with a road map.
It was a familiar sight after the summer holidays, one that Hermione had seen several times while the two were on Harry-minding duty. According to Ron, ever since Harry had arrived at the Burrow two weeks before his birthday, several adults had always been hovering around him. Moody had even forbidden Harry, Ron had said with a chuckle, from helping de-gnome the garden. When the retired Auror had been muttering about the dangers of gnomes, Ron had carefully pointed out Moody would want to be sure that all the gnomes were removed. Moody, Bill, Mundungus Fletcher and Kingsley Shacklebolt had then taken over de-gnoming duty, leaving Ron with no other option, according to Ron, than to thrash Harry in chess again. Oddly enough, Hermione had never heard Harry complaining about the constant minders, even in private; he seemed resigned to the situation. That resignation had to have appeared before she arrived at the Burrow for Harry's birthday.
On Harry's birthday the Order had relaxed their strict security rules and allowed a game of Quidditch in the field. Ron, Harry, George and Tonks had played Bill, Ginny, Fred and Kingsley. Moody had sat next to Hermione on the edge of the field, constantly muttering about the security risk the game posed. He had called a halt to the match three times because of an apparent threat: a helicopter passing; a flock of pigeons flying overhead; and the last time because the shadows were getting too long. Tonks had whacked Moody with her broom when she found out that they had been called in a third time for no reason other than Moody simply being grumpy because he saw the Quidditch match as a breach of vigilance.
"What's the time? I don't particularly wish to miss the Express again. That excitement was enough for me in second-year." Harry leaned forward, looking extremely frustrated, to the point that he could not keep the irritation out of his voice. He tried to see around the seat and looked a little green from all the changes of direction.
Hermione checked her watch and groaned. "It's ten fifteen, Harry. Professor Moody, we're going to be late!" They had three quarters of an hour until the Hogwarts Express left, but if they didn't drive directly from now on they would not make it in time. And if Hermione and Ron missed the train, Professor McGonagall would be angry. All of the prefects were expected to be present and alert on the train because of all the Death Eaters roaming around, and the possibility of an attack on the train. Logically, she was aware that she would not get into major trouble for something that was simply the fault of Moody's overzealous safety precautions. However, the irrational worry still remained, the product of years of looking out for Harry when he was getting into trouble, and she would really rather not have to explain the situation to Professor McGonagall.
Looking out the front windscreen, Hermione spotted a mass of barely-moving vehicles ahead, a flashing red light in their midst. She leaned back and closed her eyes with a long-suffering sigh. A traffic accident. What a perfect addition to an already dreadful morning.
"What was the point of getting hold of a magical car if you're not going to use it? It's not as if the car couldn't just slip past the traffic jam ahead!" Tonks' voice was getting louder and louder as she grew more and more fractious. "The car already has Repelling Charms on it, and the strongest Disregard Charm that I could find! I even tied bunches of forget-mes to the windscreen wipers!"
Hermione stared at the front windscreen. She spotted the small posies of red forget-mes, a magical version of forget-me-nots that actively encouraged those near them to ignore the flower.
Moody muttered, "Don't you think it might be a wee bit noticeable if a Muggle spots this car moving ahead in the traffic? All three of your precautions have been known to fail."
Ginny groaned. "We're never going to get there – we're going to be stuck here for the rest of our little lives until we die of old age or a Death Eater finds us."
"Don't be silly, Ginny!" Hermione was distinctly annoyed. "It won't take that long." For all it seemed to, she added to herself.
Harry chuckled. "We could get out and walk. It might be faster."
Tonks turned around to look at the back seat. "If Moody would just keep the car moving, then we would almost be there by now."
Ron looked up from his protective huddle. Hermione could just hear the constant flow of invective that he was muttering, and her cheeks became red. Some of those words even Charlie would have called Ron up on. "Moody? Actually get us to a destination when he said he would? Not take the most circuitous route? Next you'll be telling me about the invitation to tea that you and your mother received from Narcissa Malfoy, Tonks."
Tonks' face tightened. "Dear Aunty Narcissa tried that during the last war, as a final attempt to get Mum to be a proper pure-blooded Black scion. It didn't work. Mum loves me and Dad too much."
Hermione did not know what to say. Ron, however, shuddered. "It's times like that that I'm glad all branches of the Weasley family were declared blood traitors generations ago. Everyone expects us to do shameful, non pure-blood things."
Luckily for everyone's sanity, Moody spotted an opening in the traffic ahead. Gripping the steering wheel even tighter, he floored the accelerator.
Forty minutes later, Tonks, disguised as an exhausted mother, urged Ron and Hermione towards the barrier entrance to Platform 9 3/4, while Lupin and Mrs Weasley, who had been waiting at King's Cross for the others to arrive, flanked Harry and Ginny. Moody, who had exchanged his chauffer's hat for a faded and slightly tatty bowler so as to look like a porter, brought up the rear with a trolley loaded with assorted pets and trunks.
"Hurry, hurry!" Mrs Weasley urged her children on. "You mustn't miss the train! It's still the safest way to get you to school, goodness knows, what with all the Death Eaters around these days."
Tonks stood at the barrier, clearing the wall of a couple of loitering Muggles, and Lupin disappeared through the wall, presumably to keep an eye out on the other side. First Ron, then Hermione ducked their heads and ran towards the barrier. It was always easier to get through as fast as possible, and it was better for none of them to be noticed by nearby Muggles.
They were met on the other side by the sight of the Hogwarts Express and accompanying milling families. Lupin hovered to one side of the barrier and nodded to Ron and Hermione as they emerged. They moved away from the wall to create some space and turned back to look for the others just as Harry and Ginny appeared behind them. Harry reached out and grabbed the handle of Ginny's trolley just before it careened into Hermione and knocked both girls over.
"Sorry about that," said Harry, puffing slightly. "It almost got away from us. Ginny swerved to avoid a pigeon, and I think her trolley must have hit a rock or something."
The rest of the adults all came through the barrier together and Mrs Weasley rushed to hustle the children onto the train. "Have a lovely term, all of you, and I'll see you all at Christmas. Yes, even you Harry," - he made a slight noise of surprise - "and I hope your parents will let you come again, Hermione dear." She hugged each of them in turn, kissing their cheeks and straightening Ginny's collar.
Moody and Lupin helped load the trunks into the last carriage of the train, the only one that still had empty compartments. Moody, of course, had first checked the compartment thoroughly for any spells and hexes. After the last trunk had been stowed, he stopped and looked at Ron, Hermione, Harry and Ginny.
"You'd better all be careful this term. If you don't recognise an owl, don't accept the letter unless it's been thoroughly checked. Check all your usual correspondence, as well. Don't let Lucius Malfoy's boy or the children of any other Death Eaters you know near you. And as for you, Potter," Moody swung around to face Harry, pointing straight at him, "stay out of as much trouble as you can. Keep your head down. If trouble's coming after you, there's no point in standing up and welcoming it with open arms or foolishness. And all of you remember, CONSTANT VIGILENCE! I want to hear you repeat that."
Ron, Hermione, Harry and Ginny, more or less together, bellowed "CONSTANT VIGILANCE" right back at Moody. Ron folded his arms while doing so and tried to look terrifying, staring at random people on the station with a menacing expression. Hermione, when she glanced at him, couldn't help herself from giggling helplessly. Ron looked over at her and winked.
"Good," Moody said gruffly, nodding. "Now mind you remember all of that."
Crookshanks yowled as his basket was accidentally bumped into a wall, and Hermione turned to coo and fuss over him. The others all headed into the compartment to arrange themselves comfortably. Remus stopped in the doorway and stared at the interior of the carriage curiously. The corridor was narrower than that of the other carriages and the door of each compartment had a glass window in the top half that could slide open. The floorboards and the wood trimmings were also a much darker wood than Hermione was used to seeing in the other carriages.
"Strange," he said. "I thought they'd retired all of these carriages years ago. They bought the current ones some years back, as they are easier to spell and they lost half of the older ones in a crash during the first war. This carriage is full of memories, though."
"Did you, Sirius and Harry's parents used to travel to school in carriages like these?" Hermione looked first at Lupin, then at the walls of the carriage inquisitively, as if they could answer her.
Lupin laughed. "We did indeed."
The whistle blew. Lupin smiled once more at Hermione, then jumped out of the carriage, shutting the door behind him. "Have a lovely year, Hermione, and study hard. I think you'll need all the spells that you've learnt soon enough."
Heeding that reminder of her duties, Hermione waved and turned into the compartment, carrying Crookshanks' basket carefully.
A/N: Thanks to Sarah, Cathy and Siu-Zheng for urging me to keep writing, Mica and Julie for the prebeta and Pauline and Susan for the beta. This wouldn't get anywhere without all of your help and support.