Once the train was underway, Hermione turned to Ron. "We'd better go up the front to the prefect carriage and report in for the meeting."
Ron looked irritated, but sighed. "I suppose so," he said reluctantly. "We could see if they'll let us get our patrolling done early, so it's out of the way."
Hermione stood up and opened the door. Crookshanks jumped up from the corner and sauntered over to curl up where she'd just been sitting. "Oh you!" she said, shaking her head in amusement. "Come on, Ron."
"Maybe we might spot Malfoy," said Ron, looking more enthusiastic. "It must be hard for him, not seeing his father all summer. He might even be stupid enough to try and attack us again!" A bright smile now was evident on his face.
"Ron...." said Hermione warningly, but Ginny was already chuckling.
"Let him have his fun, Hermione."
With a sigh of exasperation and a mutter that distinctly sounded like "Boys!", Hermione left the compartment, Ron following close behind. He poked his head back around the door to note, "She needs someone to remind her that prefectship isn't everything, every now and then."
Harry looked over to catch Ginny's eye and grinned at her. She started to giggle; a giggle that was infectious enough that Harry's grin broadened to a chuckle and soon enough, their amusement had developed into full blown hysterical laughter. It was hard to stop.
A couple of minutes later, after Harry and Ginny had both managed to finally calm down, Neville looked in the door, Trevor tightly clutched in one fist. "Can I sit in here? It's just that everything up the front is full, and it would be nice not to sit on my own. All the other compartments down here just have extra trunks piled in them."
"'Course you can," said Ginny, a happy smile on her face. "Do you want a hand with your trunk?"
"I think I can manage, but if you could hold Trevor for a bit, that would make everything much easier."
Ginny accepted the small, clammy handful that was Trevor, while Harry stepped outside to help with the trunk. As the two boys manhandled the awkward case through the doorway, Harry spotted Luna drifting past, with the latest copy of The Quibbler rolled up and tucked into a back pocket, a Hogwarts robe hanging over one arm and a pair of gold phoenixes dangling under her ears.
With one last heave, the trunk slid into the compartment, and a few kicks pushed it out of the way. Harry turned and, remembering last June, called out to Luna, "Would you like to come and sit with us?"
"That would be lovely. Hermione told me that you were down here, Harry." Luna glided back towards the door. "I put my trunk in one of the compartments up there a bit." She gestured casually towards the front of the train. "Can I not sit next to the window? I find it's easier to think if I don't." She neatly folded her robe and put it down on one of the seats.
Ginny looked around the compartment, and then reached into her pocket to pull out a deck of cards in a familiar bright red box. "Anyone else want to play Exploding Snap?"
Fourteen games later, eight of which Neville had won, Ron and Hermione reappeared. Ron was sporting a bruise on his right cheek, and Hermione was scolding him about it.
"Fighting in the corridors! Right in front of those first years! I don't know where you got the idea that prefects should be setting examples like that! How could you, Ron, really?" Hermione huffed as she threw him a scathing look.
Ron laid a placating hand on Hermione's arm. "I know that prefects aren't supposed to just stand aside when someone's bullying little Muggle-borns. I know that prefects are supposed to stand up to other prefects when they think the other one's doing the wrong thing. And I especially know that Malfoy's a bullying scumbag who should be stripped of any responsibility."
"Well, of course we needed to stop Malfoy. His behaviour is dreadful and completely unlike how a prefect is supposed to act, but punching him was stupid. You completely forgot about Crabbe and Goyle. Besides, we should really have just reported him to the Head Boy and Girl and to the Professors at school. It doesn't look good, when you attacked the person; that's what got Harry his Quidditch suspension last year!"
Ginny looked up, interested. "What was Ron doing?"
Looking disgusted, Ron answered. "He had half a dozen little first years and was yelling at them because one of them accidentally set off an Exploding Chocolate Frog, and it splattered all over his robes. I don't think most of them even knew that the frog was going to do that."
"You can't fault Ron for looking after those first years, Hermione," said Neville quietly, looking up from dealing out cards for a fifteenth game. "No one sensible wants to meet Malfoy on their first day."
And that, Harry thought, was an understatement. Malfoy was a bully, and the younger students were easy for him to prey upon. The fact that he was a prefect allowed him to isolate and humiliate some of the younger students, just for fun. It was a mark of how comfortable and confident he was feeling on the train, that he would do such a thing right in the middle of a corridor just after a prefect meeting. Malfoy was usually smug and secure in his self-assured behaviour, but he generally had ‘official' approval of his actions before he'd deliberately do anything in front of other authority figures.
Luna picked up her pile and straightened the cards thoughtfully, as if completely blind to the fact that they could explode at any moment. "He's the sort of boy who'd drown Crups for fun and to hear their death cries. There's lots of Dark Magic that you can do with creatures that you killed with your own hands."
The idea of Malfoy, with a sadistic smile on his face, slaughtering small animals was a grim one. Even Hermione, for once, did not disagree with Luna. The six just sat there mutely, avoiding each other's eyes.
Ron cleared his throat to break the silence. "Can I play a hand of Snap during this game, too?"
Neville, who had been nervously rearranging the cards in his pile, turned to look at Ron. "Of course," he said, his voice pitched a little higher than usual, "except I'll have to redeal all the cards."
"Don't worry, Ron can have mine." Harry stood up and proffered his cards to Ron. "I think I'll go for a walk, to clear my head."
"Oh, Harry...!" Hermione started, but Ginny also stood up, as if to head her off. Harry felt thankful to escape Hermione's mollycoddling, which was more claustrophobic than the cupboard under the stairs; he gave Ginny a smile to show his appreciatiation. He almost could have kissed her, if not for the whole thing that she was a girl, that she had previously had a crush on him, and that he really wasn't all that confident with the whole kissing thing yet. Or even the hugging.
"I'll come with you, Harry. I could use a walk, too. Hermione, why don't you play for me, instead?"
Ginny deposited her cards in Hermione's lap before she had time to protest, and then Harry and Ginny walked out of the compartment. As they headed up the train together, he turned to her. "Thanks."
"No problem. I'm sure you didn't need Hermione on your back right now. Am I right to presume that we're going to keep an eye out for Malfoy and any dirty tricks he might be up to?"
"I just thought that he might need a reminder about what happens if he does stupid stuff like earlier. Evidently, the last two years of train rides haven't taught him anything." Except to go for less-capable targets instead of directly confronting me, Harry silently added to himself.
A small boy with a shock of red-brown hair, dressed in jeans and a figured orange t-shirt, raced down the corridor, careening into Ginny in his hurry to get past. As she wobbled, Harry stretched out a hand to steady her and straightened the little boy with the other.
"Harry?" The small, familiar face was full of shock, panic, and mild disbelief.
"Mark? What are you doing on the train?" Harry stared at Mark Evans in astonishment. Hadn't Fudge said that there weren't any other registered wizards in Little Whinging? Though, if Mrs Figg could slip through the cracks, it was possible that Mark had also done so, being Muggle-born.
"Going to Hogwarts," Mark replied matter-of-factly, shrugging off Harry's hand, and then peering behind him nervously. "Only, it looks like Hogwarts doesn't want me."
"Who said that to you?" asked Ginny sharply. "Of course Hogwarts wants you, if you're a wizard. You wouldn't be here if they didn't."
Mark pointed behind himself, back towards the front of the train. "Back there. He had blonde hair, all slicked back like so," he demonstrated, using one hand to pull the top of his unruly hair smooth, "and he came into our compartment, telling us we shouldn't be on the train at all."
"Malfoy." The way Ginny said the word made it sound like a growl. She drew her wand quickly, Harry following suit less than a moment later. "Come with us. He's an idiot, and I think he needs reminding of what happens when he interferes in things he shouldn't," Ginny said.
"Bat Bogey Hex?" Harry asked with a grin, as he and Ginny strode up the corridor, Mark jogging behind to keep up with their longer legs. A list of all the hexes, curses and jinxes he knew was running through his mind, as he thought of the most appropriate ones to use.
"You bet. I think he's even scared of the things." Ginny sounded far more cheerful about that fact than Mrs Weasley would ever like her to. Her brown eyes sparkled as she grinned back at Harry.
Mark tugged on Harry's sleeve a few moments later. "Just there," he said. The door to the compartment was ominously shut.
Harry took a deep breath and tried pushing on the door. It was locked. He quietly muttered, "Alohomora," and then pushed the door open.
Malfoy was standing in the middle of the compartment, Crabbe and Goyle on either side of him, in the middle of a longwinded speech about how the younger years were supposed to show Prefects respect, and be useful and of assistance. Apparently, being ‘useful' involved going to try and find the lady who looked after the food trolley and buy some sweets from her before she made her rounds. Harry winced, seeing the poor, bewildered first years. From Malfoy's volume, it was obvious that he'd cast a Silencing Charm on the door so as not to be disturbed.
Harry pointed his wand straight at Malfoy. Ginny stood on his right, her wand also aimed and steady. Behind Harry on his left, he felt Mark draw his wand as well.
Harry coughed. Malfoy spun around, Crabbe and Goyle following suit a few moments later.
"This isn't right," Harry said firmly. "This is wrong. Why don't you go back to the front of the train, and posture in front of some other Slytherins, and leave the younger students alone."
"Is that supposed to scare me?" Malfoy sardonically raised an eyebrow. "I believe I am the prefect here, not you or that red-headed slut beside you. I'll be reporting anyone who interferes with my duties to Professor Snape." He turned to look at Ginny. "Tell me, does he pay you to tag along, or does he just supply you with ... benefits?"
Ginny became as bright red as her hair and threw a Conjunctivitus Curse at Malfoy, just as Harry lunged forward. He was going to kill Malfoy.... Harry knocked her arm askew, and the curse hit Crabbe instead, who started clawing at his eyes and bellowing. Goyle, on the other side of Malfoy, stepped forward to grab Harry, but tripped over when his legs wouldn't separate. Harry turned to see Mark smile grimly.
"Leg-Locker Curse," Mark replied to Harry's questioning look. "It seemed to be one of the more useful spells in my Charms book, so I learnt it."
Harry smiled back and turned to face Malfoy. "That was a warning. Will you desist?"
The red light of a Stunner flew straight towards Harry. His Quidditch reflexes took over, and he threw himself sideways in front of Mark. Harry heard a muffled thump, and an arm banged into him as Mark dropped to the ground behind him. Harry pushed himself back up with one hand and cast a full Body-Bind.
Malfoy dropped like a lump of concrete, with flickering black shapes squeaking and flapping in his face. Harry turned to Ginny, who was tucking her wand back into a pocket.
"You ruined my fun," Ginny complained, pouting and looking like a cat seeking attention. "My Bat Bogey's no use if he can't react to it. What should we do with them?"
"Dump them in the corridor. Some bleeding heart will surely be bothered to lift the curses before we get to school," said a dismissive voice from the corridor.
Harry whipped around. Zacharias Smith, surrounded by Ernie Macmillan, Susan Bones and a handful of other Hufflepuffs, all of whom had their wands out in case of further trouble, were standing in the corridor. Zacharias continued, "We heard the ruckus from next door and came to see what was happening. Want a hand?"
Harry, Ginny, Ernie, Zacharias, Justin Finch-Fletchley and Wayne Hopkins pushed and pulled the three Slytherins out into the corridor in pairs, making sure to bump them on every corner and sharp edge possible. Zacharias calmly stunned Crabbe "to stop his moans", and Wayne put a full Body-Bind on Goyle, who had only just thought of reaching for his wand. Susan, Hannah Abbot and Megan Jones headed into the compartment, each targeting one or two first years to comfort and calm down. Susan also produced a large bag of Chocolate Frogs from one pocket to help distract them. Several minutes later, even the most hysterical first year was considerably calmer and looking happier, as Ernie explained to them all about Chocolate Frog Cards and Hannah disappeared next door to find her own collection to display. Brightly coloured wrappers festooned the floor of the compartment.
Harry and Ginny quietly slipped away, just in case Ernie decided to start on the "this is Harry Potter" speech next, and headed back to their end of the train. Hermione looked up from her Advanced Transfiguration book to glare disgustedly at them.
"I don't know what you two were up to, and quite frankly, I don't want to know. However, I can and will take points if I find out that you did anything stupid."
"We only stopped Malfoy from preying on first years," Ginny said calmly, collapsing next to Crookshanks and absentmindedly scratching him behind the ears after he head butted her hand a few times. "Besides, Ernie was there, and he didn't lecture us. Has the food trolley been through here yet?" Hermione began to fume silently.
Neville checked his watch. "It's normally come past by now," he said, puzzled. "I wonder what delayed it."
Ron shrugged. Harry walked over to his trunk, pushed up under the windowsill, to try and find the sandwiches Mrs Weasley had made for him earlier that morning. Locating them, he sat down and watched as Hermione became more and more red with anger. He unwrapped the greaseproof paper surrounding both sandwiches and took a bite of the chicken. Hermione started muttering to herself. Harry was rather surprised that smoke wasn't pouring out her ears. Luna, who had been hidden behind her copy of The Quibbler, turned the page.
Ron dug out his chess set. "Does anyone want to play?" he asked hopefully. "Harry? Hermione?"
Hermione took a deep breath and set her book down. "No, I will not play chess, Ron. I will, however, change into my uniform. Perhaps then someone will listen to me and respect my authority, for once. Ron, you can get changed too. You're a prefect and should be representing the school." She glared menacingly. It was an equal-opportunity glare - all of the others in the compartment got an equal share of the glower.
Ginny looked up from petting Crookshanks. "Better yet, why don't all of you boys go and change next door?" Deliberately, she pulled off her jacket and started to undo the buttons on her shirt, staring meaningfully at each of the boys.
All three boys got the message. Grabbing their robes, they beat a hasty retreat, their faces turning interesting shades of red.
Once Harry, Ron and Neville had all changed and waited a few minutes to give the girls some extra privacy, they rapped on the door. "Are you decent?" called Neville in a wavering voice.
There were a few stifled giggles, and then Ginny called out, "Not quite yet. Give us another few minutes." The ensuing giggles were louder than before, and definitely came from more than two people.
Harry sighed and looked out the window at the countryside passing by. The current bit looked almost deserted, like much of the route. There were a few flocks of sheep grazing in their fields and half a dozen houses in sight. Even though it was summer, smoke still curled out of the chimney of one cottage. Despite the grey clouds gathering in the distance, the sun glinted on a small pool in a nearby stream, which had several ducks swimming in it and investigating the local wildlife. Up ahead there was a smallish copse of trees, quite near a bend in the railway tracks. Aren't leaves on the railway tracks one of the main reasons for train derailment in autumn? Harry mused.
Luna slid the door open, looking neat and tidy in her robes, her hair pulled back and tied smartly with a Ravenclaw-blue ribbon. "You can come in now. We're all finished." Harry noted that Ginny's hair was now braided with gold ribbons, and Hermione's hair had been pulled back into a bun with a black scrunchie. Ginny was carefully threading a handful of hairpins into the mass, to try and hold it in place. Hermione now looked considerably calmer.
Ron took one look at the girls' hair and snorted. He grabbed his chess set and looked at Harry. "Well? Do you want to suffer crushing defeat at my hands, once again?"
Seating themselves on the floor, Harry and Ron started setting out the chess pieces, when the natural light streaming through the window suddenly dimmed as a cloud passed over the sun. A loud explosion sounded, quickly followed by several smaller ones, and the train jolted forward with a loud crash.