The Ministry cars had come early to pick them up so they could avoid the usual last minute scramble. As always, Harry had piled into a car with Ron and Hermione, while Lupin rode in the front with their Auror driver. Ginny, Mr. and Mrs. Weasley took the second car together.
Ron had tried to make small talk with Harry about Quidditch but when he kept getting one or two word responses had decided to leave Harry be. He had exchanged a look with Hermione while Harry was staring out the window, and he could tell she was worried. Harry had seemed like his old self for the most of his stay at The Burrow. He didn’t hide in his room to brood or purposely distance himself from anyone. The only time Harry got angry was whenever Moody or Kingsley or one of the other Order members would come by to give a report and they mentioned Snape’s name in connection with an attack or reported sighting.
The blazing almost manic look that appeared in Harry’s eyes every time Snape’s name was mentioned made Ron shudder just to think about it. He had only seen that look on Harry’s face once before. That had been in the Shrieking Shack back in third year when Harry had been ready to kill Sirius because he thought he was the one who had betrayed his parents.
When they had all reached the station and safely crossed the barrier leading to platform nine and three quarters, Ron felt his mother latch onto his and Ginny’s arms after saying good-bye to Hermione, who had quickly boarded the train so she could change into her school robes and put on her Head Girl pin.
“Ron, I want you to take extra good care of your sister this year,” Mrs. Weasley said, grabbing his arm so tight she was cutting off the circulation.
Both Ron and Ginny had to smother their smiles. Ginny needing protection? The thought was almost laughable. After the way she had flown her broom into the commentator’s box last year because of Zacharias Smith’s horrible commentating along with her infamous bat-bogey hexes, made Ron think people had a reason to fear his sister, not the other way around.
“And if I so much as get an owl home saying you’ve been caught sneaking out of the castle, so help me I’ll come down to the school myself and deliver your howler in person,” his mother warned in her strictest voice.
Ron was offended to see she was only looking at him and not at Ginny. Ginny had their parents completely fooled into thinking she was still their baby angel.
Then their mother embraced them in tight, oxygen deprivating hugs before kissing them both on the cheek. His mother had become such an emotional wreck over the last two months Ron didn’t dare complain about how embarrassing her motherly affections were.
“Be good, but more importantly be safe,” she said drawing out the last word. “No foolish or unnecessary risks. If something seems suspicious – ”
“All right, mum, we get it,” Ron cut her off. “If there’s a piece of lint on my bed that I don’t remember seeing earlier, I’ll go straight to McGonagall.”
This time Ginny couldn’t contain her laugh, though she tried to hide it behind a hacking cough. However, Mrs. Weasley did not look the least bit amused. Fortunately for Ron his father appeared and draped an arm around his wife’s shoulder.
“Molly, I think our children know how to handle themselves better than most in a crisis,” Mr. Weasley said gently.
Mrs. Weasley knew her husband was right but that didn’t make it any easy to say good-bye to her two youngest children. “Just be careful,” she told them, her usual good-bye tears starting to fall down her cheeks.
“We promise, mum,” said Ginny, leaning forward to hug her mum once more and then did the same with her dad.
“Where’s Harry?” Ron asked, searching through the crowds for his dark haired friend.
“He’s just finishing up a chat with Remus and then he’ll be on the train,” his father told him.
Now Ron could see Harry standing with their old professor off to the side and away from the crowds, which he noticed for the first time weren’t nearly as large this year.
“Off you go,” their mother said, urging him and Ginny onto the train.
A moment later, Harry was right behind them on the steps after surviving a fierce hug from Mrs. Weasley.
“You’d think she wasn’t going to see us at Christmas,” said Ron, as they moved through the corridor. “You should have been there, Harry. Mum was telling me to protect Ginny, when I should have told her people need protecting from her.” Ginny swatted him hard on the arm. “See, what I mean?”
Harry shared a grin with Ginny, but the younger girl didn’t look at him for too long.
“Well, I’ve got some people to meet. I’ll see you two when we get to school,” said Ginny and she disappeared down the hall.
“New boyfriend?” Harry asked Ron, trying to sound casual.
“Who knows? I’ve given up on trying to figure out my sister’s messed up love life.” Ron, remembering that Harry had been a part of that so-called messed up love life, said, “I didn’t mean it like that. I know you and her, were – ”
“It’s fine, Ron,” Harry told him, sparing them both any further embarrassment. He didn’t want to get into his relationship with Ginny in the middle of a busy corridor.
He was convinced he had done the right thing, even if Ginny was acting indifferent and sometimes cold towards him. He didn’t need to give Voldemort any added reasons to go after her. But Ginny wasn’t the only person he harbored deeper feelings for so maybe it was better this way, instead of staying with her and hurting her down the road.
“Where is Hermione?” Ron grumbled, looking through the compartment windows. “You would think the way she jumped on the train she could have at least picked one near the front. There’s enough empty ones.”
They crossed paths then with Dean and Seamus who were standing at the entrance to their compartment watching the students passing by.
“Weasley, Potter,” Seamus said coldly.
Harry knew the callous greeting was because Seamus’s parents had been killed in an attack at the start of July. Harry stared back unflinchingly at his fellow Gryffindor.
“So where’s your group of bodyguards?” Seamus asked looking up and down the hall. “You’ve got so many Aurors at your disposal its no wonder there weren’t any around to save me mam and dad.”
“Finnigan, you’re mad,” Ron spoke up in Harry’s defense. “Harry doesn’t have his own set of Aurors. The Aurors on the train are here for the whole bloody school.”
“Forget it, Ron,” Harry said.
“I can’t believe you even came back here,” Seamus went on, speaking through his grief. “Haven’t enough people died already because of you? You just stood there hiding underneath your cloak while Dumbledore was murdered.”
Seamus’s voice was carrying and now a small crowd was gathering around them.
“You shouldn’t talk about things unless you’ve got the whole story,” said Ron in a heated voice. “Dumbledore had cursed Harry so he wouldn’t be able to move.”
Seamus was just shaking his head as though it didn’t matter if Harry had been bound or unconscious. He still should have found a way to fight.
“Why don’t you judge Harry when you’ve finally done something yourself,” Ron growled, taking a step closer to the Irishman. “I didn’t even see you the night of the attack last year. I guess you were hiding up in the dorm, huddled under your blanket, hoping it would all go away.”
“You calling me a coward, Weasley?” Seamus said in a dangerous tone.
“I don’t see you ever putting your life on the line for anyone,” Ron shot back.
What would have happened next no one would ever know because several Aurors appeared on scene, separating Ron and Seamus.
“Get to your compartments,” the closest Auror barked at them.
Seamus threw Ron and Harry one last contemptuous look before allowing Dean to lead him back into their compartment.
Soon after Harry and Ron started walking again they were greeted by Hermione, who was running in their direction dressed in her school robes.
“What happened?” She asked, slightly out of breath. “Neville and I just saw a bunch of Aurors run down the hall.
“It was nothing,” Ron assured her. “Seamus was just taking some shots at Harry.”
Hermione looked relieved to hear that was all it was. “It’s understandable. He just lost his parents.”
Ron was livid. “Understandable? Death Eaters killed his parents, not Harry.”
“I know that,” she said, looking sympathetically at Harry. “But it’s easier to blame someone you can see.”
“It’s fine,” Harry grumbled, feeling irritated. “It’s not the first time I’ve been blamed for something Voldemort did, and it sure as hell won’t be the last.”
“I got us a compartment with Neville,” Hermione said after a moment. “I need to go start the prefect meeting with Ernie.”
Harry wordlessly brushed passed her, heading for their cart, but Ron hung back a moment.
“Harry’s probably going to deal with a lot of that this year,” Hermione said, purposely keeping her voice low. There had been deaths reported in the Prophet almost daily some weeks during the summer. “You can’t go picking fights with all of them.”
“I can try,” he said, smiling at her. Without thinking, he leaned forward and brushed his lips against hers. He was waiting for her to push him away or scold him because someone could might see them, but she let him kiss her.
“Go start your meeting,” he said when he pulled back. “MacMillan’s probably having kittens because you’re not there yet.”
“I’ll see you soon,” she said and walked off.
Ron started towards his own compartment, passing by a half dozen empty ones along the way. It was unheard of for there to be any empty cabins on the Hogwarts Express. He figured when they got to school and sat down at their house tables they would see just how many parents had pulled their children out of school.
Ron wished he had sat in one of those empty compartments when he got to his own. Lavender Brown was inside, sitting beside Neville.
“Hi, Ron,” she said, smiling sweetly at him. “I hope you don’t mind but I didn’t want to sit by myself. Parvati’s parents didn’t let her or Padma come back this year.”
“No, no, it’s fine,” Ron answered, sitting by Harry on the opposite seat and as close to the door as possible.
It was most definitely not going to be a pleasant train ride back if Hermione came back to their cabin and found Lavender in there. He prayed that because Hermione and Ernie MacMillan took their Head Boy and Girl duties so seriously, they would keep those prefects in a meeting until they reached Hogsmeade Station.
“I saw Hermione earlier. Are you and her together yet?”
Ron sunk a little lower into his seat. “No,” he mumbled. What else was he supposed to say? He and Hermione had discussed telling Harry together. It would not go over well if Harry found out at the same time as Lavender and Neville.
“Oh,” was all Lavender said in response, but Ron could hear the barely contained joy in her voice.
Neville, sensing the awkwardness settling in, said, “anyone want to play exploding snap?”
“Yes!” Ron said, practically leaping out of his seat. Anything to avoid having to talk with Lavender.
Harry joined in, though with much less enthusiasm, while Lavender pulled out a magazine from her luggage in the overhanging above them and began to read.
* * *
Hogwarts felt eerily different from the moment Ron set foot in the Main Hall. It was as if with Dumbledore gone, so had its warmth. Ron looked around, seeing he wasn’t the only one who got a cold chill from being there.
They filed into the Great Hall, with Ron, Harry and Hermione taking their customary spots at the Gryffindor table. Ron was hoping Hermione would sit with him but she chose to sit across from him with Harry.
“You can’t possibly be mad at me for that,” he said, giving her an exasperated look.
“And why not?”
“What was I supposed to do? Kick her out of our compartment?”
“That would have been a good start,” Hermione said, sending him a piercing look.
“She had no one else to sit with,” he argued. “I was just being nice.”
“Really? I didn’t think that was possible,” she said scornfully.
“Look, nothing happened, all right?”
“Except the way she was flirting with you when I walked in,” Hermione countered.
“She was flirting with Harry too.”
“Leave me out of this,” Harry said. He hated when they tried to drag him into one of their mud-slinging matches.
“Maybe you can ask her out again, Won-Won.”
What Ron really wanted to do was lean across the table and show her she was the only one he wanted to be with, despite how infuriating she was being at the moment. He settled instead for tapping her foot under the table with his own, at least he prayed it was hers and not Harry’s.
He had guessed right but Hermione shot him a look saying he would lose that foot if he touched her again.
At least he had been spared Lavender’s presence at the feast. She was sitting in a group with Neville, Dean, and Seamus, but even that wasn’t enough to make Hermione stop being angry with him.
Fed up that she was getting her knickers in a twist over nothing, he gave up on getting her to talk to him. Instead he glanced around at the other House tables and then looked up and down his own. The number of students this year was cut down to almost half of what it normally was.
The staff table was full, with Tonks sitting on the other side of McGonagall, who rose to her feet then.
With less students, it took a fraction of the time for everyone to quiet down and give the Headmistress their full attention.
“I want to welcome back all of you who chose to return for another year. And for some of you, this will be your last,” McGonagall started. “For those who did not return, I wish them to be safe with their families, wherever they may be.” McGonagall gestured to the large man beside her. “Professor Slughorn has agreed to stay on as our Potions instructor.”
Slughorn gave a very dramatic wave at the students, at which Harry rolled his eyes at. Everyone else in his so-called Slug Club, applauded graciously, including Hermione.
“Nymphadora Tonks, an Auror with the Ministry of Magic has graciously accepted our Defense Against the Dark Arts post.’
Tonks looked anything but gracious at Professor McGonagall’s announcement of her first name. She gave a simple wave at the students, knocking her goblet over in the process. With one flick of her wand, McGonagall cleaned up the mess.
“As I’m sure all of you have seen, there are now a great many Aurors patrolling the grounds and inside the school. This is for your safety, so I caution you not to go using magic carelessly in the hallway or give them any other reason to bring you to your head of house.” McGonagall’s voice was much graver when she spoke next. “Although the school governors voted to keep Hogwarts open, there will be no sorting this year. A decision has been made not to allow any new students. A decision that has been fully supported by the wizarding families of these first-year children.
“Extreme measures have also been taken to protect all of us during these dark times. There will be no Hogsmeade trips this term and no one is permitted to leave the school grounds for any reason,” she continued, raising her voice to be heard over the groans of protests, especially from the third years since this would be their first time being allowed to visit the wizarding village. “Quidditch will still be allowed but no one is to be outside after dark, so captains will have to arrange their practices accordingly. Those students caught wandering the halls after curfew will face a much more hefty punishment then they are used to seeing, including loss of house points and other privileges. Prefects, as well as our Head Boy and Girl, I wish to inform you that nighttime patrols will be unnecessary this year, as the Aurors will be patrolling the halls at all times. However, all your other assigned duties still stand.”
Hermione looked crestfallen at not being able to do patrols and Ron couldn’t resist a snicker, which earned him another steely gaze.
“I know that this last year has been difficult on all of us,” McGonagall continued, her voice losing some of its severity. “We have all experienced loss, some of us more than others, but I urge you not to let that grief consume you. If Dumbledore were here,” the corners of her mouth twitched slightly, “he would tell us that these are the times in which we must stand and fight together. It is our differences that will tear us apart, but by uniting we can become an unstoppable force.”
Professor McGonagall sat back down, signaling the end of her speech. Immediately afterwards, the start of term feast began as the tables filled up with more food than was needed to feed those present.
“It’s like a bloody broken record,” Ron said, grabbing the plate of pork chops that appeared. “It’s the third year in a row they’ve talked about inter-house unity. Maybe if we didn’t have the Slytherins that would happen.”
“Maybe if we had all just listened to Dumbledore the first time he said it there would be no need to keep repeating it,” retorted Hermione. “If it wasn’t important, I highly doubt they would keep giving us the same message year after year.”
Harry, sensing another argument about to start, turned his attention to the Slytherin table – not surprisingly it was the fullest. But with Malfoy not there, it appeared less intimidating. Crabbe and Goyle looked lost without him and Pansy Parkinson looked pale and sullen, now that her precious Draco had abandoned her. Only Blaise Zabini had an arrogant air about him, and Harry figured he’d inherited Malfoy’s self-imposed leadership of the House.
Harry turned back to his own table, finding Seamus staring at him with that same cold look he’d given him on the train before her turned away.
Harry focused on his own meal after that. Hermione was still upset about Lavender sharing a cart with them on the train, so she spoke to Ron as little as possible.
Harry made no attempts to patch things up between them. There was already more going on with them then they were telling him, so as far as Harry was concerned they could work out their own damn problems for a change.