The trio whiled away a few hours playing exploding snap and eating sweets from the snack trolley as the train streaked northwards. Neville and Ginny played a game of chess, which lasted for about 15 minutes until Ginny’s queen rampaged violently through the board, crushing knights and rooks alike finally checkmating his king to end the game. Ginny looked up at the slightly dejected Neville, realising that perhaps she had been a bit harsh on him. “Sorry Neville, I guess I got a bit carried away there.”
“Were you channelling something there Ginny?” Luna asked, her eyes wide and her voice betraying some concern.
“I guess I may have been...” Ginny trailed off a little, staring at the trees and fields as they flashed past the window.
Keen to escape the slightly awkward silence, stood up and moved towards the doors. "I think I need the toilet, I'll be back in a bit," Neville said. He turned out of the compartment doors which opened with another hiss and turned towards the toilet carriage. As he walked down the corridor he couldn’t help but notice that everything was so much quieter than usual. Normally it could take more than 10 minutes just to make it down a corridor as they were so packed with students chatting to friends or moving between compartments. Now, he barely passed anyone as he made his way into the final carriage.
Suddenly he heard a familiar voice wafting from a compartment to his left; a voice that had always filled him with dread, and he flattened himself to the wall separating two compartments to listen in. This could be his first part in this mission as the voice belonged to none other than the blond-haired Draco Malfoy.
"I know my duty Pansy, it’s just that if I make a mistake, just one mistake, my family could be killed." Malfoy said, sounding uncharacteristically troubled and daunted, a side to Draco that Neville had rarely heard before. Draco continued, "It's like last year all over again, except this time it’s even worse. When Snape told the Dark Lord that I hadn't killed Dumbledore, that he had, the Dark Lord was so angry.”
“I know Draco but it was a very hard assignment that the Dark Lord honoured you with,” Pansy said, her voice aberrantly more comforting than anything Neville had ever heard from her. “And you did manage to get Death Eaters into Hogwarts didn’t you? Not even at the height of the last war did anyone manage to do that. And hasn’t he given you a new job to do?”
“Yeah, I have this assignment to root out any Mudbloods that have escaped the Ministry, but..."
"But nothing Draco," Pansy replied soothingly. Soothingly? He had never heard Pansy talk soothingly before. It was like hearing Dumbledore speak with a malicious sneer. "The Dark Lord has bestowed on your family a great honour. He has trusted you now with two assignments at only 17. Not even your father achieved that and he was... is one of the Dark Lord’s most trusted servants. That is why he is using your Manor as a base for operations, all because of you. You should be proud:"
"You don't understand Pansy, if I fail again, if my father fails again, if anyone in my family fails again, it's all going to be over for all of us."
"Shh shh calm down Draco, you forget that I'm here and you have those servants Crabbe and Goyle to help you. They're brainless but they're loyal. You should celebrate, for the reign of mudbloods and blood traitors is nearly over! Only us who have purity of blood shall rule and the World will soon follow our example." Pansy seemed to have abandoned her comforting manner, and reverted to her more usual superior and gloating self. Neville was still processing all of this when the compartment door opened and the blond haired boy came out.
"I'm just popping for a walk I..." Draco Malfoy registered Neville for a second and shock engulfed them both for a second as they stared at each other. Malfoy recovered himself first. His fist swung out and connected with Neville hard in the chest, sending him to the floor doubled over in pain
Malfoy bent over Neville. He looked as pale as he had last year, but his face was now contorted with fury.
"How much did you hear Longbottom?"
Neville was badly winded and his head was pounding but he stared at Malfoy from the floor, his hatred of the nephew of the woman who had tortured his parents into insanity. He said nothing, trying to not show his fear, trying to do his parents proud.
Furious at the lack of a response, Malfoy kicked Neville hard in the ribs, "I asked you Longbottom, how much did you hear!". Again Neville offered no reply. "How-much-did-you-hear!" Malfoy shouted this time, punctuating each word with another kick into Neville's ribs.
"Impedimenta," shouted a voice behind Neville. Malfoy, whose attention had been solely on Neville, was unprepared and was thrown off his feet by the force of the spell. The caster of the jinx stood over Neville and looking up, Neville saw that it was Ginny .
Malfoy got to his feet and slowly approached Ginny, his eyes locked on her. She maintained her gaze for all she was worth, loathing etched all over both of their faces.
"I heard that your parents aren't in your Master's good books at the moment Malfoy. Surprised you’re even here, thought you’d be cowering in your bedroom like a little girl." Ginny said, her wand still raised and aimed at Malfoy’s face.
"How's your boyfriend Weasley?" Draco asked, his sneer back. "If anyone’s a little girl its him. I hear he has run away rather than stand and fight. Not so brave now is he without Dumbledore to watch his back."
"Yeah," said Pansy, who had joined Draco, "Potter is powerless without Dumbledore. He’s finished, and the mudblood with him"
"Don't you talk to me about Harry!" Ginny said, although her hand, previously steady, began to tremble.
"Aww it's sad for those left behind. Don't worry, Potter will be in the hands of the Dark Lord before long and blood traitors like you will not last long...." Malfoy was interrupted by a fresh jinx shot at him by Ginny, which he blocked with ease. "As I was saying, families like yours won't be around at Hogwarts for much longer so I would make the most of this year while you can."
"You weren't so confident earlier, were you Malfoy?” Neville had got up and had his own wand raised, pointing at Malfoy who paled further, "Crying in there about your family, worried about what your master will do to you."
"Don't you dare..."
"I shall say what I want Malfoy, now back off."
"Yes I think you ought to you know." Luna had joined the other two. She turned to the others, "you're causing quite a commotion you know, you ought to keep your voices down."
"You'll pay, you'll all pay for this at school!" and with that Malfoy slunk off with Pansy in toe.
Neville looked around and saw that quite a crowd of students had gathered, at the Jess, who looked white with fear.
"Is this what school is going to be like this year?"
Ginny looked at her kindly. "Yes I'm afraid so, but keep close to us and you'll be fine."
While all that was going on, none of them had noticed that the train had begun to grind to a halt. They all returned to their compartments, changed into their robes and disembarked from the train into the cold Scottish evening.
One of the things that both Ginny and Neville had found most comforting when they arrived at Hogsmeade station was the appearance of Hagrid, with his loud voice carrying over the babble of the crowd and his beard bobbing over everyone’s heads. They both looked everywhere for a sign of him, but could not see him anywhere.
"Oi, first years! Over 'ere you little kids! Quickly now I 'avn't got all day!" Neville and Ginny spun around. The voice they had heard was wheezy, not Hagrid's normal voice. In fact it sounded oddly familiar to Neville in particular.
"Look!" Ginny exclaimed, pointing at a gap between two second years struggling with their trunks. Neville looked and saw the unmistakable figure of Amycus Carrow. He had hiswand pointed at his neck to make his voice carry over the noise of the detraining students, yet still found the need to shout. Around him stood a group of trembling first years, and it clearly wasn’t for the cold.
"Looks like he needs to work on his people skills," Ginny said and Neville despite himself smiled.
Neville looked out for Jess, and saw her already beneath Carrow. He started towards her meaning to offer her some form of encouragement, something to help her across the lake with that vile man. He started towards her but by the time he had fought through the crowds the first years had disappeared towards the lake. Sighing, Neville joined the throng moving towards the carriages that would take him up the lawn to Hogwarts castle.