The sixth year Prefects' compartment on the Hogwarts Express was abuzz with excitement.
"Did you hear?" Hannah Abbott asked excitedly as Ron and Hermione entered the compartment. "Draco Malfoy and a whole bunch of Slytherins aren't coming back to Hogwarts!"
Hermione sat down next to Padma Patil with a thump. "No!"
"Why?" Ron asked.
"Does Daddy-is-a-Death-Eater-in-prison sound like a good enough excuse?" Padma mocked.
"Well, that doesn't mean their children did anything wrong."
Padma rolled her eyes. "You are so naive, Hermione."
"Really," Ron said, moving to sit next to Anthony Goldstein. "I can see why they left. Who would want to be around them now? Who could trust them?"
"So who are the Prefects from Slytherin this year?" Ernie MacMillan asked.
"Pansy Parkinson is still here. But I don't know about -"
Pansy Parkinson entered the compartment with a tall, thin boy who Ron remembered from Care of Magical Creatures class. He was one of the three students who had been able to see the Thestrals.
Pansy looked at all the curious faces, and brazened it out. "Hello, everyone. This is Theodore Nott, he is the new Prefect for Slytherin this year since Draco decided to go to Durmstrang."
Theodore Nott looked decidedly uncomfortable, yet he too looked defiantly around. There was an uncomfortable silence, until Hannah Abbott remembered her manners. "Sit down. The Head Boy and Girl should be here soon." Then she slid down the seat to make room for the Slytherins.
The train whistle blew, drowning out any attempts at conversation.
Ron looked over at Hermione. She was chewing on her lip and had that frown she always got when she was thinking furiously. As glad as Ron was that Draco Malfoy was no longer a Hogwarts student, he couldn't help but feel that this was an ominous development. People were starting to take sides - and not everyone wanted to be on Dumbledore's.
Two hours later, Ron and Hermione trudged back to the compartment where they had stowed their trunks with Harry and Ginny's. Ron really hoped they had bought something off the cart for them; he was starving.
"I don't have a good feeling about Malfoy leaving Hogwarts," Hermione said.
"I heard Crabbe and Goyle went with him."
"Really?" She looked startled.
"Yeah - they all went - all of them with Death Eaters in the family. Except for Nott. Wonder what is up with him. And why on earth would Dumbledore make him a Prefect?"
"I'd like to know that too," she murmured.
"There's one more thing I'd like to know," Ron said as they reached the door of their compartment.
"What's that?" Hermione looked up in surprise.
"Where the hell are Harry and Ginny?" Ron asked grimly.
After touching the Portkey in Sirius' kitchen, Harry landed on his back, with Ginny half sprawled on top of him. This is very pleasant he thought, looking up at the enchanted ceiling of the Great Hall watching the clouds chase each other in the pale blue sky. Then his stomach lurched with dread, what if we have landed in the middle of the Great Hall with the entire school assembled here?
He took his eyes off of the ceiling to look into Ginny's face. She looked as bemused and disoriented as he felt. "Ginny?"
"Am I too heavy on you? That was quite a rough landing."
"No, but are we the only ones here? I'm afraid to look."
She looked around and laughed. "Just you and me - and oh no, here comes Professor McGonagall." She scrambled off of him and got to her feet. Harry followed suit, wishing they could have stayed that way a little while longer.
"Potter! Weasley! How on earth did you manage to miss the train?"
"We stopped to help a lady who fainted. By the time she and her daughter Disapparated, the train was pulling out of the station," Harry explained.
Professor McGonagall peered at him as if finding his explanation too simple for such a big mistake.
Harry looked steadily back, noticing for the first time that he was taller than she was. When did that happen? he wondered.
"Ah, here he is. Do you have a story worked out yet, Potter?"
Harry looked at the unwelcome sight of his Potions teacher sauntering into the Great Hall. He met Snape's eyes. Harry could tell that he was trying to determine if he was telling the truth. Just try it, Harry thought. He was confident in his Occlumency abilities since he had been practicing diligently all summer.
A queer smile played around Snape's lips. "Been practicing, have you? Useful for all sorts of situations, isn't it?"
Professor McGonagall looked from Snape to Harry. "What are you going on about Severus? He gave an explanation. I don't think he is hiding anything. Seems these two helped out a lady on the platform."
"Two?" Snape asked, as if had just noticed Ginny. "A different Weasley to share in your troubles this time, Potter?"
Harry saw that Ginny was looking red-faced and a little lost. He moved closer to her.
"Who was this woman you helped?" Snape asked.
Harry looked at Ginny, who gave a helpless shrug, and then he answered, "I don't know. She was really old. When her daughter came up, the mum called her Harriet."
Professor McGonagall was listening closely. "Did anyone else see this woman?"
He shrugged. "I'm not sure. I didn't notice her at first, Ginny did."
Ginny reddened again as all the attention swung to her. "I was talking to Harry and I noticed this woman putting her hand to her head like she was going to faint. I don't know - I think my friends had already gone on."
Harry didn't remember; he had eyes only for Ginny, but he wasn't going to tell Snape that.
"Well, Potter we're going to check out your story. Hopefully that was all there was to this incident. I'd hate to think we had Death Eaters on our platform waiting to attack," Professor McGonagall said. "I don't need to remind you that security is tight these days. To have lost two students between the platform at King's Cross Station and Hogwarts on the very first day is most disturbing. I'm glad you had the presence of mind to summon the Knight Bus."
"Yes, at least no Muggles saw a flying car." Snape sneered. "As for your punishment, that should save Gryffindor a few points and the Weasley family a few Galleons."
Harry looked at Professor McGonagall in appeal. "We'll see about punishments in my office. Come with me, Potter, Weasley."
Once in her office, Professor McGonagall closed the door and said in a quiet voice. "There will be no punishment, of course. I imagine returning to that house was punishment enough."
She sat down with a sigh. "It's unfortunate the Knight Bus couldn't have brought you all the way here, but it would have been too long on public transportation. We can't risk that these days. You understand why don't you, Potter?"
She knows about the prophecy, he thought. He nodded.
"I suppose you're hungry?"
"Yes," Harry said with more enthusiasm than he intended.
Professor McGonagall smiled and with a flick of her wand produced a plate of sandwiches. "I'd send you to the kitchens, but the House Elves are busy with the Welcoming Feast. We've had several desertions - so there aren't as many hands to do the work."
"Desertions? How can they do that? I thought House Elves were bound by magic to their masters."
"Hogwarts isn't a master in a traditional sense. This is the place second or third children of the elves go when their wizard family can't afford to keep them. The eldest always takes over from the parent elf. If an elf from a Death Eater's house is called back, they are not tied to Hogwarts anymore. They can choose."
Harry's stomach lurched. The war really had begun - and sides were being taken.
Professor McGonagall sighed. "I think you will find fewer students this year at Hogwarts - many parents have decided that Britain is too dangerous of a place with You-know-who back. Although," she added in a contemptuous voice, "distance has never stopped him before."
She stood up abruptly. "I will inform the Headmaster that you both have arrived safely." She turned at the door. "Until the feast you may wander the castle freely, but do not go on the grounds."
Harry and Ginny sat in silence after the door clicked shut. All that business with the House Elves seemed so unexpected, yet inevitable. He wondered how else Voldemort's public return was going to affect life at Hogwarts.
Ginny shook her head. "I told you it was going to get weird once we got back to school."
Harry grinned at her. "I know you're always right. Didn't I say it was 'yes dear' and 'no dear' from now on?"
She chuffed him on the arm and went to the window.
Harry picked up a sandwich. "I wonder why we're not allowed out on the grounds?"
Ginny turned from the window with a strange look on her face. "Maybe because of the dragons?"