"Nothing will be the same again, will it Harry." It was not a question. Harry gave a wry smile as he recognized the voice of Neville Longbottom and he and Ginny turned to greet their friend. The last of the daylight was fading. Neville had approached quietly from behind them as they gazed, subdued, at Hogwarts castle for the first time since the Great Battle. Harry could only slowly shake his head in resigned agreement and it was Ginny who was first to go forward and embrace Neville.
"Good to see you again, Neville." said Ginny as she took a step back to look at him. This was a new Neville. He was no longer a nervous boy. This was a young man, tougher, leaner, hardened by the experiences of the last years at Hogwarts and his stand against Voldemort. Harry came forward and shook his hand warmly, their mutual respect unspoken except by the shared look in their eyes and the slight nod of their heads. Both had played their part and with as much Gryffindor courage to destroy the Dark Lord.
Neville spoke first, "Heard both you two were coming back for another year - glad to hear it actually. Most of our year are coming back to catch up on the subjects wasted under the Carrows, try to get their NEWTS." Neville's face darkened at the memory.
"Seamus and Dean were on the Express. Luna, Hermione, Ron, Hannah - all the DA I think. I took my time - they're all ahead of me." Neville had walked up slowly, contemplating this, his last year at Hogwarts.
Harry nodded. He knew Ron and Hermione were travelling by the Hogwarts Express for old times' sake.
"Well, Ginny still has another year to go anyway and we've had to spend too much time apart already. I'm also hoping it will restore some sense of normality to our lives." said Harry, "And I want my qualifications if I'm to become an auror."
"You don't need certificates, Harry. They'd accept you as a trainee auror immediately, no doubt about that!" replied Neville with a grin. It seemed laughable that the one who had destroyed the most powerful, most evil wizard in a century could possibly be rejected by the Aurors whose sole purpose was to fight those who practiced the dark arts. There were still Death Eaters out there right now - and the ever-present possibility of a new leader in the future.
"Shhh!" said Ginny with a mock finger to her lips, "I've been avoiding telling him that! I don't think I could have stood another year at Hogwarts without Harry." She hung on to Harry's arm as if to stop him escaping her again.
"Didn't see you on the train..." began Neville.
"No, we apparated direct to Hogsmeade earlier. There were a few more school items we still needed to buy and anyway, we wanted a little time to wander around - without having to look over our shoulders for a change! Been in the pharmacy and the bookshop but mainly just enjoying the freedom from fear in the streets. Swapped a few stories with the locals and ... it was relaxing." said Harry. He gazed across the darkening lake rippled by the light breeze. So many memories were coming back to him now that he was seeing everything from a completely different perspective, free of the burden and the worry.
As a few more young stragglers unknowingly passed them heading towards the castle, the trio turned and viewed the great building again. Apart from a few honorary battle scars to turrets and towers, most of the magical restoration had already been done and Hogwarts Castle was as resplendent as ever. Banners and flags swayed and fluttered against the ancient stonework. Lights were beginning to appear at windows and doorways as the light of the sun receded further below the horizon. The sky blackened in the east to reveal the first few stars of the autumn night and the new Hogwarts' school year.
With the failing light a new wind started to blow lightly but coolly from the north and Ginny hugged her school robes around herself with a shiver. Harry put his arm around her shoulder and was rewarded with a loving smile as Ginny huddled nearer. The three of them gazed and talked for a few more minutes until the last of the daylight was gone.
"I guess we'd better go ahead." said Ginny, linking arms between the other two and guiding them forward.
In the special circumstances of having had most of a school year under the control of the Death Eaters followed by the mental and physical damage of the Battle of Hogwarts, the rest of that school's last term had been abandoned. This year, Hogwarts' syllabuses were only slightly altered from earlier years but lesson schedules had been added to and modified to be more flexible.
Under the leadership of Professor Minerva McGonagall as the new headmistress, many of the older students were being granted honorary status and given more freedom of class attendance and private study. Extra lessons were to be provided for those that needed them to make up for missed ones. It was hoped that by the end of the school year everything would be back to normal for succeeding years.
As the trio came up to the front entrance they saw Professor McGonagall standing above on the steps and looking rather sternly down at them. Then her face broke out into a generous smile. "Greetings students! You will find a rather informal atmosphere for the first few days because we are still adjusting. You're not too late for the assembly in the great hall as we have had several delays. There are a couple more latecomers I see - then we can begin. Good to see you all again."
"Thank you Professor." the trio greeted the new headmistress. Because of the expected freedoms granted them this year they had anticipated going straight to Gryffindor Tower and perhaps having a quiet sandwich but it might be nice to see the sorting ceremony one more time and enjoy the feast. Harry knew it would be strange for him though; he had never seen a sorting without Professor Dumbledore being present. They trudged up the steps after their long walks and headed through the entrance.
Apart from some badly cracked and scorched stonework on one wall temporarily covered by a canvas the entrance hall was just the same and the flagstones rang to the sound of their footsteps as they walked to the Great Hall.
There was spontaneous applause as they entered the Great Hall and students and staff alike arose in recognition. They smiled back only slightly nervously; Harry was almost getting used to this now. There were many heroes here now - both staff and students - but Neville and Harry had been vital in dealing directly with Voldemort face to face and achieving the seemingly impossible. Many others would have tried but they were very glad they hadn't had to.
In the last month or so both Neville and Harry had been inundated with meetings and interviews, honorary memberships, recognitions and awards, but the ones they were both most proud of were their Orders of Merlin First Class. Harry's reminded him of Sephany and the hours he had spent reading to her but seeing only her medal. For Neville, his gave him some symbol of avenging his parents. These were the only ones they had brought with them in their baggage with their dress robes in case they were summoned to yet another ceremony.
"I'll be back with you in a minute." said Neville mysteriously and he went ahead of them towards the Hufflepuff table.
They spotted Ron and Hermione waving from their usual places and Harry and Ginny quickly joined them. They had all stayed at the Weasleys much of the summer but had left them that morning and not seen each other all day.
"Did you get your shopping done?" asked Hermione, eyeing the bags they were carrying.
"All but one potion ingredient and we enjoyed walking around." replied Ginny. She was replying to Hermione but looking over at Neville who was stood talking to Hannah Abbott. Presently he came over to them and took his usual seat with the Gryffindors. Ginny was pleased to see a little smile on Neville's face. When she had been here last year, Neville had been forming a relationship with Luna Lovegood but that had ended when Luna was kidnapped by the Death Eaters at Christmas. Afterwards, with both Hannah and Neville working closely together in the DA resistance movement, Ginny had noticed the couple were being drawn closer together even before she herself left at Easter. Ginny waved across at Luna and mouthed a few words to indicate they could talk later. Luna gave a big smile back but her eyes kept flicking to Neville.
"I'm glad you all got along fine together without me earlier this year. Sorry I couldn't come back after Easter. The DA did great!" said Ginny to Neville.
"Yes, with you and Luna gone as well it was tough but the rest of us got together." Neville was looking towards Hannah again, "We managed to disrupt the Carrows as much as we could as well as prepare for your return." He addressed this last to them all with remembered excitement in his voice, "One of the best moments of my life when I saw you three in the Hog's Head."
"One of the greatest surprises of my life when you popped out of the painting on the mantelpiece!" laughed Ron.
Their chatting was interrupted as Professor McGonagall arose and began to address the assembly. "Before we begin, I would like us all to spend a few moments in memory of those who are absent."
She began to slowly read out a list amongst which were Fred Weasley, Colin Creavey, and Severus Snape. Harry had made sure all the right people knew Snapes heroic part in Voldemort's downfall. There was the sound of one or two children crying and the eyes of some of the teachers were shining too. Harry noticed and was pleased McGonagall didn't include the name of Vincent Crabbe. He was not sure if that might have caused some unpleasant commotion.
"We shall now stand in silent remembrance for one minute." finished the headmistress.
Harry could not remember the Great Hall being so quiet. Perhaps the silence seemed magnified because there were so many gathered there. He thought about Fred and Colin. He thought about Tonks and Remus. He thought about Dumbledore and Snape. His tears were all wept long before and now he just felt sad.
After the minute, Professor McGonagall continued "Now we must all look forward to the new school year. In case anyone is in doubt, I am your new headmistress. Professor Flitwick is now deputy headmaster. We have Professor Slughorn back as potions master and a new Defence against the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Millicent Worley. I'm hopeful that this new post will be much more long lasting than previously." McGonagall gave a wry smile. Worley was a slender woman with short dark hair and a determined look on her strong features.
The sorting ceremony followed and there seemed as many new youngsters starting as most other years spread fairly evenly among the four school houses. Harry noted how first years seemed to look smaller and younger each year. Had he really looked like that? He turned to where the Slytherins usually sat. For the first time he saw Draco Malfoy who gave a stern but subdued look back at Harry. Goyle would not be returning to Hogwarts and with Crabbe dead, Harry wondered how Malfoy would behave without his two main supporters. He did not have to wait long to find out.
As they were leaving the Great Hall, Draco passed them. He noticed Harry was about to speak to him but he cut in first. "Nothing's changed Potter just because you got me out of the Room of Hidden..."
Ron interrupted before he could finish, "You worthless, ungrateful worm!" and he pushed Malfoy back hard against the wall, knocking all the breath out of him. Ron was drawing back his arm and bunching a fist.
"Ron, no!" shouted Hermione and Ginny, practically together. "He's not worth it."
"Enough!" it was the new defence teacher, Professor Worley, sweeping out of the Great Hall, "No brawling in the corridors!"
"You!" she was looking at Malfoy, "I heard what you said! Five points off ... Slytherin is it? Next time you stir up trouble it will be detention! Now move off to your classes, all of you."
"You think it's over! It's not over Potter! Not for you nor all your mudblood and muggle friends!" Malfoy strode quickly away followed even more rapidly by Worley who was calling after him, "Detention, Malfoy! Don't you dare flout my authority!" She reached him, grasped his left arm and stepped quickly right, allowing Malfoy's own momentum to spin him left. The teacher stumbled him with her left leg, forced his shoulders down and his wrist up. A moment later his arm was locked behind him, his wand taken, and Worley was marching him away. Her slim frame was clearly very tough and her physical skills suggested real combat experience.
"Wicked! I like her already!" said Ron, "What house was she in? Must have been Gryffindor surely?"
"Must have been the marines!" thought Harry, staring after her in amazement and muttered aloud to himself. "Did she use any magic?" He and Ron looked at one another wide-eyed.
"Ravenclaw I think." said Hermione then turned to Luna Lovegood who was just coming out of the Great Hall. "Was Professor Worley in Ravenclaw, Luna?"
"No, she never came to Hogwarts," replied Luna chirpily, "at least, that's what some of the girls have been saying. Her family have a large house in Kent but they travel all over the world a lot and we think Professor Worley was taught in different schools."
Hermione spoke up, "Well, she must have a wide experience of different teaching methods so it will be interesting to see what she's like in Defence this afternoon."
"What's wrong Harry?" asked Luna. She could see a look of serious concern on his face.
"Nothing ... it's nothing." replied Harry.
"He's an idiot! We can handle him!" said Ron.
"What is it, Harry? Is it something else?" asked Ginny, more attuned to Harry's feelings than anyone now they spent so much time together.
Hermione cried out, "Oh No, Harry! It really is over. The few Death Eaters left are being rounded up by the aurors. Don't even think about it anymore."
Everyone was now staring at Harry, gathered around him in the hallway outside the Great Hall. His hesitant silence spoke loudly to all who knew him so well.
"Oh Harry!" said Ginny with dismay in her voice, "You have to tell us. You can't keep it to yourself. Not any longer. Not now."
There was a grim line to Harry's smile as he spoke, "There was something. Probably nothing. We can't talk here. Let's talk later. Come on." and politely offering his arm to Ginny he moved off drawing the group along with him.
"We won't forget you know." smiled Ginny, hugging Harry's arm.
"I know. I know." said Harry resignedly, giving her an affectionate peck on the cheek.
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