Ron and Hermione were relieved when their meeting ended and they could finally leave the prefect carriage. As they silently made their way down the corridor, Ron braced a hand lightly against Hermione's back to steady her against the slight swaying of the train. Hermione was oddly moved by the small gesture and wondered if Ron himself was even aware of his action. He had been uncharacteristically tactile since Harry's death. Where before he had seemed unwilling to touch her voluntarily, these days when they were together he frequently touched her shoulder or arm as they walked, and he embraced her without reservation. They had clung together at the Burrow during the first week after the funeral. She had rarely left his side, and he had seemed to need her there. They were incomplete without Harry. To try to muddle through without each other would have been the end of them both, she felt.
It was only after they passed through the door into the next car that they spoke.
"Can you believe they made Cho head girl?" Ron asked.
"There's nothing wrong with Cho, Ron."
"Only that she's a head case. You remember how she was last year. I figured the news of Harry's death would have sent her over the edge."
Hermione stopped mid-stride. "You know, you're right. She does seem to be handling it really well. Odd." She tilted her head and looked back at the door they had just passed through, then shook herself and continued on. "Come on, I don't really want to think about it right now. Let's find Ginny. I hope she found someone to sit with; I don't like the thought of her riding alone. Does she seem a bit thin to you?"
"Yeah. She hasn't been eating very well. I think that's why Mum said what she did, about you making sure everyone gets enough to eat. It's not like Ginny wasn't a bit scrawny to begin with, you know?"
Hermione smiled wanly. "We'll take care of her, then. She'll be all right. We all will, somehow."
Ron did not reply but instead reached over and grasped her hand in his own as they walked. She squeezed his hand lightly, and they continued their search for Ginny. Hermione became concerned when they had found Colin, Neville and Luna, but no Ginny.
"Hello, Ron," Luna greeted him warmly when they found her in a compartment with several other fifth years. "Hello, Hermione." Luna's smile towards Hermione was perhaps not quite as warm, but still friendly.
"Hi, Luna. Have you seen my sister?" Ron asked.
"Sure. She's in a compartment towards the end of the train."
"Is she by herself?" Hermione asked.
"No, there's a strange boy with her."
"What do you mean, ‘strange'?" Ron asked her.
"Well, his aura was very unusual. Rather grey, but with red and green swirls all around. Very odd."
Hermione rolled her eyes and tugged at Ron's hand. "Come on, let's just go find her."
"All right. See you, Luna, Colin." Ron nodded at them and then followed Hermione towards the end of the train.
As they neared the next to last compartment, they heard a shouted "Ouch!" and then a muffled noise that almost sounded like Ginny sobbing. Ron let go of Hermione, then stalked to the compartment and threw open the door to find Ginny rubbing her hand gingerly with tears in her eyes. The boy across the seat from her appeared chagrined and more than a bit guilty.
Ron stepped towards the boy menacingly. "What did you do to my sister?" he growled. The strange boy drew back in surprise and opened his mouth as if to answer, but no sound came out. Ron felt Ginny tugging hard on the sleeve of his robe, and turned to face her.
"Ron! What are you doing?" she demanded.
"Ginny, are you okay? We heard you shouting and crying."
"Ron, you dolt. I was laughing. We were playing Slap, and Evan won. He's quite good, almost as good as you. He plays very enthusiastically," Ginny explained as she continued to rub her sore hand.
"I'm sorry, Ginny. I guess we did get a bit carried away," Evan apologized. "Is your hand all right?"
"I'm fine, Evan. By the way, this is my older brother Ron, and this," she reached a hand over to Hermione, who stood in the doorway, "is Hermione Granger. Ron, Hermione, this is Evan Jameson. He's a transfer student from Durmstrang. He'll be in sixth year with you two."
"How do you do," Evan mumbled and nodded at Ron and Hermione. Ron offered his hand, and Evan shook it firmly. Hermione nodded politely at him.
"Um, Ginny, may I speak with you outside, please?" Ron didn't give Ginny a chance to answer but hauled her out of her seat and pulled her with him into the corridor, closing the compartment door behind them. Hermione sighed heavily and then spied Crookshanks curled up on the seat next to Evan.
"Crookshanks! There you are." At the sound of his mistress' voice, Crookshanks stirred from his nap, walked over to Hermione and meowed at her. She picked him up and settled into the seat across from Evan that was nearest the door. They sat in an uncomfortable silence for several moments.
"So, you're from Durmstrang? Are you an exchange student?" Hermione finally managed.
"No, more of a transfer student. I've been living with my uncle since I was eight. He was a foreign ambassador for the Ministry of Magic, so he was stationed abroad. Durmstrang was the closest school to us. He's been called back though, so we decided I should transfer to Hogwarts. My . . . erm," Evan paused and cleared his throat, "my parents always wanted me to go there."
"Do you know Viktor Krum?" Hermione asked. "We met him in fourth year, when he was here for the Triwizard Tournament."
"Not very well. He's a couple of years older than I am, and our paths didn't cross very often at school. He's a brilliant Quidditch player, though."
"Yes. I'll have to write to him and see if he remembers you." Hermione noticed Evan's eyes widen slightly. "You'll love it at Hogwarts. I've thought about applying to be an exchange student to Beauxbatons, but I don't think I could just now. Aren't you sad to leave all your friends behind?"
"Yes," Evan replied shortly. He transferred his gaze to the scenery beyond the window.
"I'm sorry; I wasn't thinking. Of course you are. But try not to be too sad. Hogwarts is a wonderful school, and I'm sure you'll make many new friends. Seems you've already made one."
"Erm, yes. Ginny is very nice."
"She's a great person. Just . . . well, I'm not sure how to say this. The three of us have lost a dear friend recently, and she's a bit fragile just now."
Evan made an odd noise, as if he were clearing his throat, then turned back to face Hermione.
"Yes, she told me. I'm very sorry for your loss."
"Thank you, that's very kind. Well, I'd better go rescue Ginny from Ron. Or by now, rescue Ron from Ginny, before she really lets him have it. It was good to meet you, Evan. Ron and I are prefects, by the way. If you need anything, just let us know."
"I will. Thank you, uh, Hermione, wasn't it?"
"That's right. See you later, then. Ron and I are supposed to patrol the cars. Crookshanks, behave yourself." She deposited the cat onto the seat. He promptly leapt across the compartment and resumed his place next to Evan. Hermione appeared surprised, but then smiled.
"He likes you," she said to Evan, and then she opened the compartment door and stepped outside.
"Ouch, Ron, let go of me!" Ginny snapped at her brother as he pulled her into the corridor. She yanked her arm away from him and stood glaring at him.
"Ginny, why did you sit all the way back here?" he asked. "You don't even know this bloke."
"It was the only compartment left that had room for all of us and your pets! What is wrong with you?"
"I just don't like the idea of you sharing a compartment with a stranger."
"Ron, don't be absurd. He seems perfectly nice."
"But Ginny, he's from Durmstrang."
"So?" Ginny said, and folded her arms across her chest.
"So, he'll probably get sorted into Slytherin!"
Ginny hesitated, but then retorted once again. "So?"
"Ginny!" Ron sounded scandalized at the thought that she might find the company of a Slytherin anything but insufferable.
"Ron, you remember what the Sorting Hat said last year. If the houses don't put aside this ridiculous rivalry and unite, something bad will happen. Besides, you don't know what house he'll be sorted into. I wouldn't be surprised if it's Gryffindor. He. . . ." Ginny stopped and swallowed.
"He what?" Ron asked.
"Well, he . . . he reminds me just a little bit . . ." Ginny trailed off as her eyes welled up, but she struggled to continue. "He reminds me a bit of Harry."
"Oh, Gin." Ron pulled her into a hug. "It'll be okay." At that moment, Hermione stepped back out into the corridor.
"Are you all right, Ginny? Ron, what did you do?" Hermione rounded on Ron fiercely.
He raised his hands in protest. "I didn't do anything!"
"I'm fine, Hermione. Ron was just expressing his ‘concern.' Are you guys going to come in and sit with us? The snack cart should be around soon."
Hermione glanced at Ron before replying to Ginny. "Actually, we're supposed to be patrolling the corridors. Harry's..." Hermione broke off and cleared her throat. When she continued, her voice was rough. "The professors are more concerned than usual with security. We have to patrol until we reach the school, with staggered breaks. We'll be back by in an hour or so to check on you, Ginny, but we have to do our jobs. Will you be okay?"
"I'll be fine, Hermione." Ginny hugged her friend and then hugged her brother. "Don't worry about me. Want anything off the cart?"
"Chocolate Frogs," Ron answered automatically. "I'll pay you back later. Thanks, Gin. We'll be back soon."
As Ron and Hermione strolled back down the corridor, they turned once to wave at her. Smiling, she waved back, then returned inside the compartment. Evan was once again staring out at the countryside.
"Sorry about Ron. I'm the baby of the family; he can be overprotective sometimes," Ginny said.
"I understand. I would be, too, if I had a little sister," Evan replied without turning around. Ginny sensed that his mood, like hers, had been dampened somewhat. She chalked it up to Ron's less than friendly reception and made an attempt to draw Evan back into conversation.
"Do you know what house you want to be in? There are four of them, you know. You'll be sorted into a house during the feast tonight."
"Yes, I know. Um, if you don't mind, I think I'm going to try and take a bit of a nap. I'm kind of tired."
"Of course," Ginny replied, somewhat disappointed. She reached for the Quibbler that Luna had passed to her during their brief visit and did her best to occupy herself while Evan continued to stare out the window.
Harry was relieved when the train finally pulled into the station at Hogsmeade late that evening. Hermione and Ron had returned several times to check on Ginny, but never stayed longer than fifteen minutes, which was their allotted break time. Neither of them made much attempt at conversation, for which Harry was glad. He missed them terribly, but Professor Dumbledore had been adamant that Harry not reveal his identity to anyone for his own safety. The only reason he agreed to abide by the restrictions was that he knew Professor Dumbledore was right, and that in fact Ron, Hermione and Ginny were all much safer now that he was believed to be dead. He could rest easier knowing that none of them could be made a target of Voldemort simply for being Harry Potter's friend.
He glanced across at Ginny and noticed that the arrival of the train had not awakened her. He had roused from his own nap earlier to discover that she had fallen asleep herself in the meantime. He was glad; as much as he had enjoyed her company earlier, trying to behave as a new acquaintance had been taxing. He studied her face for a moment now and decided she looked troubled even in sleep. Her forehead was creased with frown lines, and her mouth turned down as it did when she was unhappy. Crookshanks was curled around the back of her neck, also snoozing.
"Ginny? Ginny, wake up. We're here." When she didn't stir, he stood and leaned over to shake her arm gently. "Ginny, wake up."
Crookshanks hopped down from his perch on her shoulders and began to wash his fur. Ginny looked up and blinked several times. She stared at Harry oddly, as if she didn't remember who he was. Then her expression cleared. "Evan. Did you have a good nap?"
"Yes. So did you, from the looks of it." Harry smiled, for her hair was mussed and she still appeared to be drowsy.
She noticed his amusement and began fussing with her hair and straightening her robes. "I must look a fright."
"No. I wasn't laughing at you. You look fine. Except. . . ." He motioned to the shoulders of her robes, which were covered in ginger-colored cat hair.
"Oh, no." Ginny stood and began brushing ineffectively at the offending hairs. When she turned around, he could see the back of her shoulders had fared no better.
"Here, there's some . . . let me. . . ." He stepped up behind her and braced one hand on her shoulder while he brushed the places she couldn't reach. The moment he touched her, she stilled and remained frozen in place until he finished. "Well, it's somewhat better, anyway," he assured her.
Ginny turned back to face him, and he noticed she was blushing slightly. He realized that a true stranger probably would not have been so forward and hoped she wouldn't think anything of his blunder.
"Erm, thanks," she mumbled, then she giggled softly and pointed to his robes. "You could use some spiffing up yourself."
Harry glanced down to see that Crookshanks had been just as generous with his robes as he had with Ginny's. He began brushing at his robes furiously until most of the hair was flying about the compartment.
"Ugh." Ginny waved her hands in the air to fan the hair away from herself and Evan. "We'd better get a move on." Ginny busied herself getting Pigwidgeon and Crookshanks into their carriers. Harry did the same with Hedwig, who hooted dolefully at him.
"It's just for a little while," he whispered to the owl, who flapped her wings and turned her back on him.
"Ready, then?" Ginny asked. "Don't worry about your trunk. It will be waiting for you in your dorm after the feast tonight."
"Ready," Harry answered. They moved to open the compartment door just as Ron and Hermione reappeared.
"Everything okay, Gin?" Ron asked.
"Of course. We were just heading out."
Ron stepped back and allowed his sister through the door. He motioned for Hermione to precede him, then immediately followed her, leaving Harry to bring up the rear. Harry believed he could detect a definite coolness in Ron's demeanor, but there was nothing he could do about that. He sighed heavily and followed them down the corridor, then off the train and over to the waiting carriages. Hermione and Ginny chattered ahead of them. Ron walked a pace behind them, and Harry walked several paces behind Ron.
"Ginny, thanks for taking care of Crookshanks for me," Hermione said. "Can you take him on up to the castle? Ron and I have to ride across the lake with the first years."
"Yeah. We drew names and lost. I still think Malfoy cheated," Ron grumbled behind them.
"Oh, Ron, really. It doesn't matter. Besides, the castle is so pretty from the lake at night."
"I know. I still remember from first—" Ginny looked up towards the carriages and stopped abruptly. Ron and Hermione stopped with her, and Harry caught up in time to hear Ginny's next words clearly, even though her voice had dropped to nearly a whisper.
"I thought . . . I thought we would see them."
"See what?" Ron asked. "What's the matter?"
Hermione had caught on more quickly than Ron. "The thestrals," she murmured softly. "She's right. I thought we would be able to see them, too. Why can't we?"
Harry said nothing. There was nothing to say, even if he could bring himself to speak at the moment. He felt like an intruder. He was afraid that the lump in his throat must have grown large enough to be visible to everyone. His entire body was tensed, and he prayed that someone would break the silence before he gave into the overwhelming impulse to throw himself to the ground and beg their forgiveness, wailing that he was there beside them and it had all been a horrible mistake.
Finally, Ron spoke. "We didn't actually see him die." An icy wave of shock broke over Harry, and he felt a bit weak in the knees. Surely Ron didn't mean . . . ?
Ginny whirled around to face Ron, dropping both animal carriers in her shock. "Are you joking?" she hissed angrily. "We were there. I caught him when he fell. And then. . . ." She choked on the words and covered her mouth with her hand to stifle the sob that rose in her throat. Ron pulled her into his embrace and stroked her hair.
"Shh, no, Ginny. I just meant . . . at St. Mungo's. They wouldn't let us in the room, and that's where . . . where it actually happened." Ron held Ginny in his arms as she struggled to gain control over the sobs that seemed to tear themselves from her body. Her shoulders heaved, and her fingers clutched at the back of his robes. Harry watched them and felt as if something were crushing his chest, almost the same as he had felt that day in the pub. He couldn't draw a breath and wondered if he would collapse yet again before them.
"Excuse me," Harry rasped and carried Hedwig over to the carriages. He could not . . . could not stand next to Ginny and do nothing while she cried for him. He found an empty carriage and hoisted Hedwig's cage into it. He then clambered up into one of the seats and turned his face away from his friends, hoping his own tears had fallen unnoticed. He wiped angrily at his eyes and breathed deeply as the pressure in his chest began to ease some. Harry closed his eyes and prayed for this night to be over soon.
"Shh, Ginny. I'm sorry." Ron felt terrible; he hadn't meant to upset his sister. He had spoken without thinking and had never imagined she would react so badly. He only meant that Harry had been declared dead after they had arrived at St. Mungo's, and that Ron, Hermione and Ginny hadn't been in the room at the moment Harry had actually died. While Ginny and Hermione clung together on one of the sofas in the waiting room, Ron had been pacing in the halls, praying that Harry would pull through.
"Here now, what's this?" a familiar voice spoke from several feet above Ron's head. Ron was relieved and somewhat cheered.
"Oh, Hagrid." Hermione embraced their friend, overjoyed to see him. "I'm so glad to see you. We've missed you so."
"There, there, Hermione." Hagrid patted her back hard enough to almost knock her over, but Ron didn't think she cared. Ron returned his attention to Ginny, who had quieted somewhat. She was sniffling instead of sobbing now, and he risked a small joke.
"Hey, you're not getting my good robes all snotty, are you?" he gently teased.
Ginny's response was to smack his chest hard with her palm before she lifted her head and began swiping at her face.
"I'm fresh out of handkerchiefs. Gave my last one to Hermione this morning," Ron said apologetically.
"That's okay; I have my own. Though it's already damp." Ginny fished the much-abused handkerchief out of her pocket and wiped her face once again. "I'm sorry, Ron. You were…you were right, I'm sure. About the thestrals."
"I will be." She smiled blearily up at Hagrid. "Hello, Hagrid."
"Ginny, Ron. Everything all right, then?" Hagrid asked.
Ron noticed that Hagrid's own voice was slightly hoarse, and he fervently hoped that he could get the girls to move along swiftly. He didn't think he could handle a weepy Hagrid just now. "All right, Hagrid. It's good to see you, mate. Guess we should start herding the first years towards the lake?"
"Right. C'mon, then." Hagrid began to bellow, " Firs' years! This way!"
Ron looked down at his sister. "Will you be okay, Ginny?"
Before she could answer, Hermione added, "Do you want us to ride with you? I'm certain we could get someone to switch with us."
"No, no. I'm all right. You go on. I think I'm going to go find Evan and apologize. He probably thinks I'm a complete basket case."
"Ginny. . . ."
"Mum would understand if you wanted to go back to the Burrow. For a week or two, just until you're rested up." Ron could see his sister draw her shoulders up in indignation, but just as quickly as she had, she relaxed them again, apparently choosing to accept his concern at face value rather than interpreting it as pity or lack of confidence in her.
"No, Ron. Really, I'll be okay." She leaned up and kissed her brother on the cheek, then hugged Hermione before retrieving Pig and Crookshanks and setting off to search for her new friend.
"Evan?" The soft voice roused Harry from the numbness that had settled over him after he had sat down. He both dreaded and welcomed her presence. He desperately wanted to make sure she was all right, yet at the same time didn't know if he could look at her without feeling crushed once more by his own guilt. Concern for her overrode his own sense of self-preservation, and he responded to let her know he was inside the carriage.
"I'm here." He scooted over towards the door and reached down to lift the cat and the owl into the carriage, then offered her his hand. She accepted it and pulled herself up into the carriage, then sat down across from him. They sat in awkward silence for several moments. He watched as she wrung her hands in her lap, and just as he had finally steeled himself to say something, she spoke.
"Evan, I'm so sorry. I can't imagine what you must think of me. I don't usually burst into tears at the least provocation. You must be terribly uncomfortable."
And suddenly, he wasn't. "No, no. Don't apologize. I can imagine what you must be going through."
"Really? Can you . . . can you see the thestrals?"
He met her gaze dead on for the first time since she had asked to share his compartment that morning. "Yes, I can."
"Then I guess you can imagine. I was surprised I couldn't see them. I expected I would be able to, but I can't."
"That's not a bad thing, Ginny. And you don't have to explain, not now. Maybe someday, but not tonight."
"You're right." She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, as if she were mentally pulling herself together.
"So, are you going to give me any idea what I'm in for tonight?"
She smiled. "Oh, it's terrible. You have to battle a troll, and you're judged and sorted into your house based on your performance."
He arched one eyebrow at her. "Really? It sounds dreadful. What are the criteria?"
"Well, if you face the danger head on with bravery and courage, and fight the troll to the death, you get placed in Gryffindor. If you use your superior intellect to defeat the troll, you're placed in Ravenclaw. If you don't quite manage to defeat the troll, but work very hard to stay ahead of it and not get eaten, you get placed in Hufflepuff." She was trying hard not to snicker.
"And the fourth house?" he inquired very seriously.
"Oh, yes. That's Slytherin."
"And how would I manage to get placed in Slytherin?"
"Simple. You cheat!"
Harry burst into unexpected laughter. "I can't wait. I only hope that my performance lives up to expectations. And tell me, Miss Weasley, what house are you in?"
"Gryffindor, of course. The Weasleys have always been in Gryffindor. Of course, you can only aspire to such greatness. According to Ron, you'll be sorted into Slytherin without a doubt."
"Why is that?"
"Because you're from Durmstrang, of course. You studied the Dark Arts there, didn't you?"
"A bit. I don't imagine it was so very different from what Hogwarts teaches, though."
"Perhaps." Ginny looked down and swiped at several stray cat hairs that still clung to her robes.
"Will it matter?"
"Will what matter?" She looked up again at his question.
"If I'm sorted into Slytherin?"
"Not to me. I meant it when I said I would like to be your friend, Evan."
"Good. I meant it, too. Now really. What am I in for?"
She grinned. "You'll just have to wait and see." At that moment, two more fifth-year students joined them. He fell silent as Ginny greeted the newcomers, and as the carriage rolled on towards Hogwarts, he was overwhelmed by the feeling of finally returning home.