Neville Longbottom looked around the platform. There were certainly less people here than usual for the start of the school year – not only were student numbers diminished, due to the new regulations on Muggle-borns, but several families were also staying away, sending maybe one parent to farewell their child rather than both, and keeping siblings at home. There was an uncomfortable feel about the place that he understood implicitly would not go away.
“Are you ready, Neville?” His grandmother looked him over critically, as though she would be able to tell just by his appearance whether he’d left anything behind again. “Are you sure you have everything?”
Neville sighed. “Of course I do, Gran,” he said impatiently. “I’ve done this before, remember?”
Augusta Longbottom looked at him and smiled. “I do believe you do,” she said, and Neville felt a jolt of appreciation, of acceptance. His grandmother had always had high expectations for him and had always been hard to please, but perhaps with this new regime, both at the Ministry and at Hogwarts, she would be more supportive of him. He certainly hoped so.
“Where is Harry Potter?” His grandmother’s voice jolted him from his thoughts and he looked down to see her scanning the crowds, as though she expected Harry to actually be there.
“Gran, I don’t think he’s coming back to school,” Neville said. He’d accepted this himself weeks earlier, as soon as Harry was nominated as Undesirable Number One, but saying the words aloud did make him feel their significance. “The Ministry’s after him, remember? Why would he walk right into their hands?” Frankly, if Harry did show up, with the hundred-thousand Galleon price tag on his head, he would be far stupider than Neville thought.
“Nonsense,” Augusta snapped. “Hogwarts isn’t the Ministry.”
“But with Snape in charge, it might as well be.” Neville’s heart sank at this admission, as it had when he had seen the headlines in the Daily Prophet that morning announcing the new Headmaster. This year would not be easy. “With Dumbledore gone, I don’t think we’re going to have that separation any more.”
His grandmother looked shrewdly at him. “Be careful, Neville,” she said suddenly. “I would like you to survive the year.”
He smiled grimly at her and leaned down to kiss her briefly on the cheek. “I’ll do my best, Gran,” he promised. “I’ll do my best.”
Seamus Finnigan poked his head in the compartment on the Hogwarts Express, which was already well out of London on its way north. “Do you mind if I join you? I don’t think that there’s anyone else from our dorm on here.”
Neville nodded and indicated the spare seat next to Ginny. “Dean’s not coming back either?”
Seamus shook his head. “His mam’s a Muggle and he doesn’t know who his dad was, so he can’t defend himself to the Ministry. Thought it was better just to stay away entirely.”
“That’s a shame,” Ginny said. “Dean’s a good bloke.”
Seamus, who had just sat down, shot a look at her. “So good you dumped him?”
“I didn’t say he wasn’t a bit overbearing at times,” Ginny protested. “But overall, he’s a good sort. I hope he’s okay.”
“So where are Ron and Harry?” Seamus asked, looking both at her and at Neville.
Ginny answered. “Ron’s got Spattergroit. We’re not allowed to move him. If he gets better he might join us later on. Harry, I don’t know.” She shrugged, as though this was going to give truth to her words, which it was clear Seamus didn’t believe at all. “Though being on the Ministry’s hit list and all,” she went on, “I never really thought he’d come back.”
Seamus just raised his eyebrows, and looked at Neville as though wondering if he believed Ginny’s story. The answer was no – Neville was sure that Ron was perfectly well and was off somewhere with Harry and Hermione, who for obvious reasons had also not returned to the school this year – but he also didn’t see any reason to share that with Seamus just yet. He still remembered Seamus’ hostility to Harry in fifth year, when he had believed what the Prophet had been spouting about Harry being delusional, and wasn’t entirely convinced that, given the opportunity, Seamus wouldn’t betray their suspicions to someone like Snape.
Instead, he changed the subject, indicating the fourth person in the compartment. “Seamus, you know Luna, right?”
Seamus looked at Luna and, after a moment, nodded. “Ravenclaw, sixth year?” he asked, extending a hand for her to shake.
Luna ignored the hand, instead staring at him with that intense gaze she had. “Seamus Finnigan,” she said in her sing-song voice. “You were late joining the DA.”
Seamus looked uncomfortable, though Neville was secretly thrilled that Luna had brought this up. It would have to be dealt with eventually and sooner was better than later. “Yeah, well, my mam didn’t want me to,” Seamus explained, his face looking a little shifty. “But I was there for the end. And I’m right behind Harry and whatever he’s doing.”
Ginny still looked a little suspicious. “We don’t know if Harry’s doing anything,” she said bluntly. “He could be laying low at Sirius’ place for all we know, just keeping his head down. That is, if he wants to keep it on at all this year.”
They sat in silence for a while, the wall of mistrust obvious to all of them, until Luna changed the subject to something they could all contribute to. “My father told me that Professor Burbage has resigned,” she said. “Though he thinks she’s really been killed because of her tolerance towards Muggles. In either case she won’t be teaching this year, will she?”
Shuddering at the idea that Professor Burbage had been murdered by the new regime, Neville grabbed the subject change with both hands. “Actually, how many of the teachers do you think will still be there? Snape, obviously … but do you think they’ll have got rid of McGonagall?”
Ginny shook her head. “Bet they wanted to but couldn’t. She’s as much a part of Hogwarts as Dumbledore was, they’ll have to kill her before she goes anywhere.”
“Even that might not work,” Seamus said glibly. “Didn’t with Binns, did it?”
Neville was thinking hard. “They’ll need a new Defence teacher, obviously,” he said, counting off on his fingers. “And Muggle Studies, if what you say is right, Luna. That makes two new professors this year. Has anyone heard of any other vacancies?”
“Not me.” Ginny shrugged. “But then again I’m hardly someone who’d know, am I? What with Dad on the suspect list an everything.”
Neville frowned. “Is he? I didn’t know that.”
“Being friends with Harry and supporting Muggle rights, what did you think he was?” Ginny looked scornful. “But yeah, I’d be the last person to find out anything interesting. Even if Dad did know something, he and Mum never tell me anything.” Her voice was bitter and Neville had the distinct impression that Ginny planned to do as much about that as she could.
“The Ministry’s out of control anyway,” Luna said serenely. “Everyone knows that Pius Thicknesse has inherited Cornelius Fudge’s army of Heliopaths and is training up chimaeras next.”
Neville ignored Luna’s ramblings – as he usually did when she went off on a tangent like this – and frowned again. “I really don’t like the Ministry being overrun like this. It’s all wrong. The Aurors are supposed to hunt down Dark wizards – what are they doing now? Looking for Muggleborns who haven’t registered. It’s a waste of talent. Someone like Mad-Eye Moody shouldn’t be doing that.”
“Moody’s dead,” Ginny said flatly.
Neville stared at her. “What?”
“He’s dead,” she repeated. “He was killed the night they got Harry out of his family’s place. Stunned off his broom, or something.” She blinked, and he had the distinct impression that she was trying not to cry. “Bill – my brother – went looking for him, but they couldn’t find him. The Death Eaters probably have him now.”
Neville’s heart sank. He’d liked Mad-Eye Moody, even if he’d never really met the real man. When Barty Crouch had been impersonating him, though, in fourth year, he’d shown Neville some real kindness and understanding that not many other people had. Even though at an intellectual level, Neville knew that the man he’d known had actually been part of the group who had tortured his parents into madness, at an emotional level he had liked the fake Moody. The man had understood him, not scorned or disdained him, and he had really appreciated that.
“But if Moody’s gone, who’s looking after the Aurors?” Seamus looked confused.
“Bloke called Dawlish, I think,” Ginny said dispassionately, clearly either over her recent display of emotion or successfully covering it up. “I don’t think Dad thinks much of him.”
“And they’re all looking for Muggle-borns? It’s ridiculous,” Seamus said.
Ginny blew her nose and nodded. “Well, it’s obvious that Thicknesse has been Imperiused, or something,” she said, indicating Luna with her left hand. “He might not have Heliopaths or chimaeras but he’s not on our side either. And neither is the school, by the looks of things.” She looked down and when she spoke again her voice was quiet. “I miss Dumbledore. I know he hasn’t been gone long, but you can see how much has changed just in those few weeks.”
Neville nodded. “I think we all miss him,” he said. “But I have a feeling we’re going to miss him much more before this year is out.”
Author note: If you have been familiar with my posting regularity in the past, I want to say now that this novel will have nothing like the frequency of my other work. I have posted this chapter now as a promise to finish writing the story, and as a reminder to myself that it needs to be done. However, I'm working on two other novels (OF) at the same time so for now I can't promise anything more than, say, a monthly update at the most, and certainly not anything regular (ie not every four weeks, or similar). Essentially I'll do a new chapter when I have time and when I have been able to write one. Thanks for understanding.
Write a Review Year of the snake: Journey into the unknown