A/N: Well, I have to say the amount of interest this has generated is more than expected! Lets see if I can keep things going. No, it wasn't an April Fools joke. There's actually 60k words of this.
Chapter 2: Hogwarts Arrival
"Harry?" came the somewhat uncertain voice of Effie. "Are you there? Mum wanted me to check if you're ready to go?"
Harry's reply probably wasn't particularly intelligible. It was barely even polysyllabic. Despite that, Effie managed to glean some form of information from it.
"We need to leave in half an hour, so you should probably get up," she suggested.
The hesitance in her voice was something almost completely new to Harry, but he knew it was mostly his own doing. He had not been a happy bunny for the last month of summer. He'd stayed locked in his room nearly the entire time, venturing out only for meals and when his parents actually dragged him out.
He knew Effie had been left completely in the dark over it all, but what had come as a surprise was that she didn't needle and prod. She'd been quiet, and given Harry as much space as he'd needed.
Now it was the day Harry had been dreading, and somehow she knew it too.
"Do you need any help with anything?" she asked through the still locked door. "If you haven't packed, I can throw the stuff in your trunk for you?"
The trunk most definitely wasn't packed. It wasn't much of a strategy, as far as these things went, but if he just stayed locked in his room, surely Voldemort could just ignore him.
Despite that, he found himself unlocking the door with a flick of his wand. Effie peeked through it carefully.
"Harry? You okay?"
"Not really," said Harry. The words came out as something more like a croak.
Seeing Harry's nearly empty trunk, she started bustling around the room, throwing clothes and other things into his trunk haphazardly. "Can you tell me what it's about?" she asked without looking at him. "You and Mum and Dad have all been acting really weird since Professor Dumbledore came around. What's going on?"
Harry shifted on the bed just enough to see her as she moved about the room. There was something about how she'd said it that made him want to comfort her. And wasn't that a joke? He was probably the reason she was going to die, along with everyone else he knew.
"Dad has been out all day almost every day, and they've been going out at night some times too," she continued. "Neville said that his parents were too. And you barely even leave your bedroom now. Mum won't tell me what's going on. What happened?"
She deserved to know, Harry knew. At the same time though, she didn't deserve the burden. If Voldemort really did come back, then it wouldn't be long before everyone knew. Wouldn't it be better if she just carried on unawares?
How happy was she, really, when her whole family had apparently up and disappeared on her in the space of an evening? He could hear just how worried she was about what was going on.
"It's Voldemort," said Harry eventually.
The moment Effie heard the name, she stopped in her tracks. Her eyes went wide as she realised what their parents must be doing. "What? But he's dead. Iana Malfoy killed him!" Her breathing became shallow and rapid.
Harry nodded tiredly, and pushed himself into a seated position on the bed. "That's what Dumbledore came around to say," he said. He decided to leave out any mention of the prophecy. "He's not really dead, and he's trying to return. Nearly managed it too."
The bed bounced as she dropped onto it next to him. "Mum and Dad are fighting him?"
"I don't know." Harry shrugged. "I don't think they really know what to do."
"But they'll stop him… right?" Effie asked, pleading. "Even if they don't, he'll want to go after the Girl-Who-Lived, right?"
Then, quite suddenly, Effie launched herself across at him, and wrapped him in a crushing hug. For a moment, Harry didn't know what to do, but then he heard her sob, and almost without thinking, he wrapped his arms around her and squeezed more gently.
It was a few minutes before either of them spoke but Effie's death-grip did slowly loosen.
"What's going to happen?" she asked as he looked up at him. Her voice was scratchy and her face was blotchy with tears. "Do you think they're going to die? Is that why you've been locked in here since then?"
Harry rubbed her back. Perhaps it should have been an empty gesture, how could he offer her any kind of comfort when he felt like he was so thoroughly without hope? Yet, as he did so, he started to feel a warmth where before he had only felt cold and numb. This was his sister. She might have been frustrating, infuriating even, at times, but she was Effie Potter, and as he held her he knew that he wouldn't sit back to let his parents fight his battles. He might not have any chance of survival, but there was no way he could tell her 'yes'.
"No," he said, and perhaps there was just a little more life in that single word than in all the empty platitudes he'd voiced at meals over the last month.
"I'm fine," he'd said.
"I'm good," he'd claimed.
"I'm okay," he'd lied.
He hadn't been okay, and he still wasn't good. But he was something now, where for the last month he'd felt like little more than a black void.
"If he does come back, I'm going to have to fight," he continued. He lifted Effie's chin up and looked her in the eye. "I don't really know how, but I'm going to do it. I'll keep Mum and Dad safe." For her.
Then he grinned, and it was the very first smile he'd been able to conjure since that night on his birthday. He could feel the muscles of his face protest at the unfamiliar expression, but they eventually complied.
"Just you wait until you see the news that Voldemort got hit by a Buzzing Boils hex, and has retired to the country to become a peaceful beekeeper." He winked at her. "You'll be glad I was one of the people fighting, then."
Effie's little giggle, Harry's little joke clearly catching her by surprise, had a snotty, bubbly quality to it that he was sure would usually leave her mortified, but this time he merely sniffed loudly and rubbed the tears from her eyes. "He won't know what hit him," she said, her voice still a little weak.
Harry smiled again, his second for the entire month, and stood up. "Exactly," he said ardently. He held a hand out to her. "Now, it looks like I've still got a lot of packing to do. Wanna help?"
The Hogwarts Express held a comforting familiarity. Unlike the platform at King's Cross, there were no worried adults, with distant looks of concern on their faces. It had been easy to see who was part of Dumbledore's group. They'd been the ones who had looked like the weight of the world was on their shoulders.
Now, though, safely ensconced within the warm confines of the Hogwarts Express, surrounded by mostly oblivious children, Harry could almost pretend that he didn't have a sword hanging over his head, dangling by the most tenuous of strings.
As children greeted their friends, and shuffled past each other, lugging trunks bigger than them through the narrow carriage doors, it was like the last month had only been a dream.
Only, it wasn't. The real dream was the reality in which the children around him happily went about their usual greetings. Where before he would have been right there alongside them, now he felt like he was separated from them by a wall of unbreakable glass.
He and Effie made their way quietly through the bustling children to find an empty compartment. A few people greeted them both, and they both smiled, and waved, and moved right on by in their search for a cabin before they all started to fill up.
As it was still fairly early, they found a cabin relatively quickly. With a flick of his wand, and a quick incantation, Harry levitated his chest into the overhead rack. He took a seat, and glanced up to see Effie looking torn, standing in the doorway of the compartment.
She'd been uncharacteristically quiet throughout the morning since Harry had told her what was going on, but Harry hadn't said anything. He'd been uncharacteristically quiet for the entire bloody month.
"You want me to put your trunk away?" Harry asked her, prompting her to start as if she'd been lost completely in her thoughts.
She shook her head slowly. Harry cocked his head to the side, and tried to work out what was going through her head.
"Your friends are going to join you, right?" she asked, and if Harry had to put a word to her tone of voice, it would be 'uncertain'.
"Well, probably," he said, frowning. What was the problem? She got on well enough with them. "I can tell them to bugger off, though, if you'd prefer?"
"No!" she said instantly. "No, don't do that." She looked off to the side, and waved at someone unseen somewhere down the train. The smile she favoured the unseen person with was forced, but probably only Harry, or their parents would have been able to tell. "Look. Whatever it is that's going on— we can't just… stop. That's what you've been doing for weeks. Did it help anything? Maybe he'll never come back."
That brought Harry up short. He wasn't sure how to respond, and while he was trying to work out some kind of reply, Effie continued.
"Look at Mum and Dad," she said, her voice becoming stronger with every moment. "They lived through much worse than this when they were our age, and they didn't push their friends away. They didn't lock themselves up. If he does come back, we're gonna need more friends, not less. Does that make sense?"
Harry nodded wordlessly. How had his little sister managed to reach that conclusion when he'd spent weeks locked away in his own bedroom?
"I'm gonna go and see my friends," said Effie firmly. "You should speak to yours too."
"Okay," Harry managed, but she was already lugging her trunk out of the door, and down the corridor. All too soon, she was out of sight, and Harry was left alone.
It didn't last long. After a few seconds Harry got up to close the door, but was stopped when Dean and Neville popped up just outside.
"There you are!" said Dean, giving Harry a slap on the back as he did so. He looked over at Neville. "Looks like you were right, mate. Musta been Effie."
"How many years have you known her?" Neville asked as he shook his head. Harry made way, and they both entered the cabin. Neville continued, "Sometimes I think you might need glasses more than Harry does."
"Hey, even you have to admit she's changed a lot over the last year or so," said Dean.
"That excuse might work if you hadn't spent most of that year at school with her," said Neville. "She's not suddenly turned into a Veela or anything."
"Might as well have."
"Hey guys," said Harry, taking the opportunity to put a stop to that particular topic of conversation. Did Dean really not think about anything else? "How's it going?"
Dean and Neville exchanged a look. "Oh, no, no, no," said Dean, shaking his head emphatically. "You're not getting away with it that easy. What happened to you after your birthday? You went off to talk to old Dumbledore and we pretty much haven't heard from you since."
That wasn't strictly true. "I sent you owls."
The look Neville gave him said, very clearly, that he wasn't buying it for a second. "Yeah, you did. The longest was, what, a dozen words long? Bet the only reason you sent anything at all was because Hedwig was probably bouncing off the walls with boredom."
Harry winced. That was a fairly accurate estimation, really. "There wasn't much to say," he said with a shrug.
Despite whatever his sister might think, there was no way he was going to ruin the first day back at Hogwarts for his friends by telling them the most feared Dark Wizard was out there, hiding in the shadows and plotting his return.
"My arse," said a new voice. All three of them looked up to find Seamus lugging his own trunk into the compartment. "You don't lock yourself in your room for a month when everything is fine."
Harry opened his mouth to deny it, but he was beaten to the punch by Neville.
"Don't even try to get out of that one. You—" He paused, and glanced at Seamus who was still engaged in a battle, trying to get his trunk onto the rack. "You've got a wand, you know?" He turned back to Harry, ignoring Seamus' somewhat embarrassed "Fuck off". "You have a family, you know? They talk? Wouldn't be surprised if you'd forgotten about that little fact, though."
At that moment, Harry remembered that Effie had mentioned speaking to Neville about the strange things their parents had been up to on some evenings. He felt a flash of annoyance at the thought of her sharing his secrets, but it melted away almost as quickly as it came.
"Yeah, yeah. Okay. Professor Dumbledore had some pretty bad news," he said vaguely. "But, look, it's ancient history. I'm really sorry I cut you guys out."
A loud whistle sounded down the platform, distracting everyone from Harry's admittedly weak attempt to shrug it off.
"I guess that means Ron should turn up any second now," said Dean with a grin.
They all looked out the window and indeed, they could see Molly Weasley doling out some last-minute hugs to Ron's younger sister Ginny.
A minute or so later, Ron bustled into the compartment, looking every bit as flustered as usual.
"Sorry, guys," he said, mid-bustle. "Mum's mental."
"Thought you might miss it this time," said Dean as he shifted over a bit to make some space. "Reckoned you'd end up stealing your dad's car and flying it to Hogwarts or something."
"Leave off, I'm not a complete moron. Can you imagine what Snape or that bastard Rosier would have to say about it if I got caught?" Ron shuddered.
"Rosier'd have a field day," said Harry. It was amazing just how easily he found himself falling into the same old camaraderie. "Imagine if you'd been seen. That'd be an entire week of lectures on the 'dangers of over-integration'."
Seamus groaned. "Can I just say? Merlin I'm glad we got to drop Sorcery and Society after O. . If I had to listen to him complain about how terrible it is that me mam and da' were allowed to stay together for another year, I don't know what I'd do."
A new, all too familiar voice chose that moment to add to the conversation. "Perhaps if you had stayed in the class, you wouldn't still be such a lamentable excuse for a wizard?"
It was Iana Malfoy. Of course it was. She'd never been one to pass up an opportunity to get in everyone's faces on the ride to Hogwarts. There wasn't a single trip which Harry could remember that didn't involve a little visit from the wizarding world's most unlikable celebrity.
She was already dressed in her school robes, her long blonde hair spilled over her shoulders. Fairly tall though she was, flanked as usual by the ever faithful Crabbe and Goyle, Iana looked almost comically tiny next to them. They loomed over her as they did their very best impression of trolls attempting to work out which foot was meant to go forward first.
One might be forgiven for thinking that Iana had actually been head girl at Hogwarts ever since first year. She'd certainly wielded her status as if that was the case. When she'd been made a prefect it had only made things worse. Neville had only been able to do so much to protect his friends from her.
"Shove off, Malfoy," said Ron, already on his feet.
"So much hostility," she said as she shook her head. "Be careful, Weasley. I might get the impression that you dislike me."
As Ron prepared his return salvo, Harry found himself watching Iana more closely. There was something in how she was standing, that just seemed… strange. She looked the same. Same perfectly tailored robes, same upturned nose, same pale grey eyes like ice, and the same thin lipped, superior smile. Yet, despite the familiarity of the exchange it felt almost as if she was merely going through the motions. Perhaps it was just Harry's own bleak outlook on life colouring his perceptions. Regardless, he had no patience for the games of one-upmanship.
"Say your piece and bugger off, Malfoy," Harry said tiredly. "Please?"
The brewing brawl suddenly faltered as everyone looked at him in surprise. Everyone but Crabbe and Goyle, that is, who merely looked puzzled by the apparent change to the script.
"I know we do this every year," Harry continued. "Sometimes you come out on top, sometimes we do. What's the point of it, though? This is the last year we'll have to go to Hogwarts together. Do you think you could find it in you to just fuck off for once without trying to get us into detention before we've even got to school? Don't you think we've got bigger fish to fry this year?"
Iana stared at him in surprise, before her lips tightened once more, and the ghost of a frown passed over her expression. For a moment, he thought she was going to laugh in his face, but she didn't. Instead, she merely scoffed, before turning on her heel, and leaving the cabin. It took a moment for Crabbe and Goyle to come to terms with the sudden reaction, but a few seconds later they too were gone.
"What… just happened?" Ron asked, still staring at the empty patch of air which had previously been occupied by Slytherins. "Did she really just leave after being asked?"
"Maybe it's a trick," Dean suggested. He carefully peered out of the door and waved his hand around a bit.
"Huh," said Neville. "Weird."
Seamus gave Harry a suspicious look. "If you could get her to fuck off just by asking, why'd you never try that before?"
"Maybe she's finally growing up?" Harry shrugged, trying to put her out of his mind. He really didn't need to be reminded just how fucked his life was surely about to become.
"She grew up in fourth and fifth year," said Seamus as he waggled his eyebrows suggestively.
"I swear to Merlin, Seamus, if you keep perving on Malfoy, I can't be held responsible for what happens," said Neville. "Didn't you learn your lesson last time?"
Seamus had to slap Dean's hand away when he reached out to tickle the tip of his ear.
"Yeah, yeah. Point made."
It was strange just how much the appearance of normality could paper over the yawning cracks which had opened up in Harry's life. While every now and then, Harry would lose himself in worry about Voldemort returning, as the days and weeks wore on, and the homework piled up further than even during his O.W.L. years, he found that happening less and less.
He was even starting to regret quitting the Quidditch team. He found he actually could have used the distraction the games and training brought. That ship had most definitely sailed, though. Especially after Ginny's first game as Seeker saw her pull off an impressive acrobatic move to catch the Snitch, ensuring Gryffindor's victory over Slytherin by quite a margin.
In fact, things were very nearly normal. Perhaps the greatest change from what Harry was used to was that Malfoy had taken a step back for whatever reason.
Despite the illusion of normality, however, deep down Harry knew that it couldn't possibly stay that way. Perhaps that had something to do with what happened on one rainy Thursday in October.
Professor Stump had never been his favourite teacher, what with her tendency to talk about every non-human creature as if it was some kind of dangerous alien from one of the muggle's horror movies. If it hadn't been for the sheer unpleasantness of Professor Snape, who resented Harry's very existence, or Professor Rosier who held firmly to the belief that muggles were also some kind of dangerous alien, Professor Stump would have easily taken the coveted prize for Harry's least favourite teacher.
"So, what do you reckon it is this time?" asked Neville as they waited for Stump to call the class in. "Veela stealing men? Centaurs stealing women? Merpeople stealing children?"
"My money's on Goblins stealing everything," said Harry as he shook his head.
Possibly only Professor Binns, the ghostly history teacher, was more fixated on Goblins than Stump. At least he could sleep through Binns' soporific lessons. Stump was every bit as harsh on her students as Snape, only without Snape's redeeming feature of actually knowing something about the subject at hand.
At that moment, the door swung open, and was immediately followed by a barked "Come!" just like every other lesson Harry could remember with Stump.
The classroom itself was every bit as dry and boring as Binns'. There wasn't a single bit of decoration or adornment on the walls. Instead, one wall had been entirely taken over by a huge blackboard, which had the course plan written out on it in full. The floor of the room had ranks of benches, and at the front a single table at which Stump sat, as she always did.
When Harry had first seen Professor Stump, his first thought was that she was one of the creatures they were meant to be studying. She was squat, with a collection of warts that could have put a hag to shame. She had two lazy eyes, which made it incredibly uncomfortable when she was talking directly to him, as he felt distinctly like she was about to walk off in two different directions. Her frizzy brown hair was tied into a loose bun which became ever looser as the day wore on. Finally, she topped it off with a pointy hat which was two sizes too small, and pinned to her bun at what she probably thought was a jaunty angle.
She looked up from her desk for a second as Harry and his classmates entered. "Sit," she snapped. "Hurry up. Hurry up! Merlin, save me from laggards!"
In the rush, Harry was only able to sit beside Ron. On his other side a Hufflepuff called Justin Finch-Fletchley had ousted Dean from his spot. They both exchanged muted greetings while they quickly pulled their books, quill and parchments out.
As usual, Stump did not rise from her seat. In fact, had it not been for one failed night-time trip to the kitchens, when she'd caught him wandering, Harry might have thought she never left her chair. She certainly didn't attend the feasts.
The last to enter, much to Stump's displeasure, was Iana Malfoy. Unusually, she was unaccompanied by either her two pet gargoyles, or the gaggle of tagalong girls who could usually be found in her vicinity.
"What's up with her?" Ron asked, his voice little more than a murmur.
Harry turned to get a better look, and could immediately see what Ron was talking about. While she still looked as carefully groomed as always with her smooth, tailored robes, and striking pale features, the look on her face was an unusual one. She was scowling at something, and, even more uncharacteristically, didn't say anything when Stump ordered her to hurry up and find a seat. She had a face like thunder as she slipped into the nearest seat which was next to a Ravenclaw girl who looked far more pleased by the event than Malfoy did.
"Dunno," said Harry, "but she looks pissed."
Despite their efforts to stay quiet, Justin had clearly heard them. "She got into a real squabble with Professor Rosier in the last lesson," he whispered.
"Really?" Harry asked. Usually Rosier was one of the many teachers who seemed convinced that the sun shone out of Malfoy's arse. "What happened?"
"To tell the truth, I'm actually not sure," Justin admitted. "Professor Rosier was giving an introduction to the history of Prophecy. You know, how ancient societies thought of it as some kind of message from the Divine? Anyway, Malfoy took real issue with something he said, something about how some Prophecies would be better ignored or the like, and she accused him of supporting You-Know-Who. Right there in the middle of class!"
Harry's throat became suddenly dry. "That's weird," he managed to croak.
"Exactly," said Justin. He nodded his head, seemingly oblivious to Harry's sudden panic. "Wasn't it her own father who got Professor Rosier's class started up in the first place? I heard they were old friends from when they were in Hogwarts."
"After You-Know-Who fell, Malfoy said that Rosier was a spy for him in the Death Eaters," Ron supplied. "I remember it cos Mum is still up in arms about it. She reckons he paid Malfoy off."
"Precisely," said Justin.
"Wait, so what exactly did Rosier—"
The sudden interruption caused Harry's head to snap up to where Stump was glaring right at him. Harry resisted the urge to swear. Being caught out not listening was a sure-fire way to draw Stump's ire.
"Well?" she asked.
Harry glanced across at Ron and Justin, but it was clear he was going to find no help there.
"Sorry, Professor, could you repeat the question?" he asked as he tried to get his thoughts back into some semblance of order.
An ugly grin spread across Stump's already unsightly face. "Am I interrupting something?"
"No, Professor," said Harry dutifully.
"Do you think you are above the petty concerns of werewolf attacks, perhaps?" she asked, leaning forward in her chair. "Strange. Your family lives in Godric's Hollow, do they not? One of those beasts had to be driven out just this summer."
Harry gritted his teeth. He wouldn't rise to the bait. "Remus didn't hurt anyone," he ground out.
"No, I suppose the beast did not injure anyone," Stump admitted as she tapped a long gnarled finger on her chin. "A mercy we must be grateful for. Though, had it kept to the law we would not have to thank pure happenstance for that mercy."
"Remus takes Wolfsbane every month!" Obvious bait or not, there was no way he was going to let this half-troll talk about Remus that way.
There was a long silent moment in which Stump's eyes widened slightly in surprise before the corners of that awful grin turned up just a little more.
"You think yourself more an expert than the Minister?" she asked quietly. "Perhaps you gained your potions mastery over the summer? No? Then I would recommend you be silent on topics of which you know nothing."
Harry opened his mouth to argue back, but was stopped in his tracks when Stump's wand appeared in her hand and a Langlock Jinx hit him in the face. His tongue attached itself firmly to the roof of his mouth.
"It seems you are as obtuse as ever," said Stump, shaking her head. "Oh, that will be detention."
Incapable of making any noises that wouldn't make him sound like one of Malfoy's rented baboons, Harry just sat back and seethed.
A/N: How am I doing? Still with me?