The Falling

The Feast

Ron and Ginny had rejoined Neville, Luna, and Harry shortly after departing to change then collect their things. Ron had decided to blow off his last patrol so that he could come back and visit. Harry wondered if Ron was truly that thick-headed or did he realize that all wasn't forgotten and was doing this to annoy him. Neville and Ginny were enjoying themselves as they did a bit of catching up since they hadn't seen each other since before the summer holidays. Luna was hanging, for some reason, on Ron's every word, laughing at his jokes a little too energetically.

The Hogwarts Express pulled into Hogsmeade Station and Harry could feel the train slowly coming to a halt. Crookshanks purred as he rubbed against Harry's leg and looked at him, as though begging Harry not to let Hermione put him back into his cage. Hedwig was already back in her cage, her head tucked under her wing as she rested. Harry reached down and stroked the cat, and said, "Sorry." Crookshanks then turned his attention to Neville, who eyed the cat suspiciously.

The moment Hermione stepped back into the cabin, her eyes clearly showing her displeasure at the sight of Ron, a wave of what could be best described as energy rushed over Harry. His hair on his head did not move though every strand seemed to tingle from the effect.

"What the bloody hell was that?" shouted Harry, holding out his arms and looking at them strangely.

His sudden outburst caused even Hermione's glares at Ron to falter in amazement.

"Yeah mate. It's called the train coming to a halt." said Ron a little bemused.

"No no no, I mean that feeling. Didn't you just feel that?" asked Harry, looking at Hermione for confirmation.

"What did you feel?" asked Hermione, looking very concerned.

"It was like an electric shock washed over my entire body, only it didn't hurt." replied Harry. "Does that make sense?"

"What's an electroic shock?" asked a confused Ron.

"An electric shock, Ron." corrected Hermione. "It's what muggles use to light their homes and power many types of machines just like the ones your father loves so much."

"Oh, okay. Dad described it to me as muggle magic." said Ron with dawning comprehension. "But there's none of that here, is there?"

Hermione sighed, "RON! Harry is just using it as a way to describe what he felt!"

"Well, you're his girlfriend now, so figure it out!" huffed Ron sarcastically.

"Could you two please stop fighting!" shouted Harry. "It felt like 'some kind of magic', okay Ron?"

"Now that makes more sense." said Ron firmly. "None of us felt it mate. Think you're just tired or something? Did you sleep well last night?"

"Did you ask me if I felt anything, Ron?" asked Luna in a dreamy tone.

"Uh - no. Did you feel anything Luna?" asked Ron uncertainly.

"No, I don't think so." replied Luna thoughtfully, as Neville shook his head and Ginny giggled. "But thanks for asking."

Harry sighed, "Never mind! I'll figure it out later."

Harry huffed as he stood up to exit the train and mumbled, "thanks for asking". He grabbed Hermione by the hand and led her into the corridor.

"Hermione, I really don't care if you have some prefect-ish things to do or not, I would rather you accompany me off of the train." said Harry trying not to feel selfish.

"Okay Harry." replied Hermione softly.

He didn't want to face this alone. Returning to Hogwarts after last term's horrific end was starting to really weigh on him. The questions, the looks, and even the accusations that he knew were coming troubled him as he set foot on the platform at Hogsmeade Station. He was trying to be indifferent; trying not to care, but it was proving to be much harder than he had imagined. Ron, Ginny, Neville, and Luna followed him and Hermione onto the platform, puffs of smoke from the scarlet steam engine billowing all around them.

"First years over here! First years over here! Quickly now, best foot forward!" called a familiar voice, though it wasn't the one he longed to hear.

Professor Grubbly-Plank stood near the scarlet steam engine, calling all the first years over to her.

"Come on." said Harry as he gently tugged at Hermione's hand for her to follow him.

She did so without question and Harry was sure she felt the same way too. Harry spotted the twins with their best friend, Lee Jordan, talking rather rapidly before heading up towards the path to the carriages that awaited to take them to the castle. He was just starting to focus his mind on the tasks that lay ahead of him when the strangest sight made him stop dead in his tracks, his mouth gaping, trying to fathom what his eyes were telling him. Large, black, winged, skeletal horse-like creatures with red eyes and leathery skin stood harnessed to the carriages that awaited them.

"What's wrong Harry?" asked Hermione, looking at his troubled face.

"What are those things?" asked Harry breathlessly.

"They're carriages, Harry. They're here to take us up to the castle." replied Hermione a little worried.

"No, what's that harnessed to the carriages?" asked Harry, pointing at the creatures.

"There's nothing harnessed to the carriages, Harry." replied Hermione, sounding alarmed now.

Determined to know whether he was going mental, Harry walked up to the carriages, Hermione right beside him, and reached out his hand to see if what he was seeing was truly there. His hand found the side of a leathery skeletal horse-like creature and a smile broke across his face. The creature turned it's dragon-like head and looked at Harry with its red eyes but did not seem to mind the attention. Before she could protest, Harry gripped Hermione's wrist and placed her hand on the creature's side. Hermione immediately jumped back, looking wildly about for what it was that she just felt.

"W-what is it?" asked Hermione, trembling slightly.

"What are you two doing?" asked Ron, walking up behind them followed by Neville, Ginny, and Luna.

"They're looking at the winged horses that pull the carriages." said Luna in her dreamy voice.

"What?" asked Ron and Ginny in unison, turning to look at Luna.

"Winged horses?" asked Hermione. "How is it, Harry, that only you and Luna can see them?"

"I can see them too." said Neville softly. "But I wouldn't describe them as winged horses."

"Okay, so how can you three see them while Ron, Ginny, and I clearly cannot?" asked Hermione, sounding a bit frustrated.

"Because they have witnessed death, Ms Granger." said Professor Flitwick, walking around from behind the carriage. "It is the only way you can see Thestrals."

Harry was startled to see his charms professor. He had never seen him before in Hogsmeade to greet the arriving students.

"Professor Flitwick, you can see these Thestral things?" asked Ron skeptically.

"Unfortunately, Mr Weasley, I can see them. I have witnessed too many people die in my lifetime." sighed Professor Flitwick.

"Are they dangerous?" asked Ginny nervously.

"Death is not evil but a part of life." replied Professor Flitwick. "Those that have witnessed death, have had their eyes opened to a clearer understanding of what life means. However, due to the awareness of creatures, such as Thestrals, being associated with witnessing death, many have pegged them as dark omens. Indeed, one legend has it that a great wizard would return astride a Thestral, cleansing the land of the darkest of wizards and restoring order to the wizarding world." Flitwick chuckled, "Such nonsense."

Professor Flitwick continued to chuckle to himself as Harry, Hermione, Ron, Neville, Ginny, and Luna just stared. Harry looked at the creature and wondered what type of wizard would purposely return astride one of these.

"If you have any further questions, I'm sure that Professor Grubbly-Plank can answer your questions during your first Care of Magical Creatures lesson or you can find a book on the subject in the library." said Professor Flitwick. "Now, please climb aboard one of the carriages lest you be late for the sorting and the feast."

The six of them climbed into an empty carriage which immediately began to move.

"So, Neville, who have you seen bite it?" asked Ron casually.

"For heaven sakes Ron!" shouted Ginny. "You insensitive prat!"

"What? I was just wondering who he's seen die." said Ron defensively.

"It's okay." said Neville. "It was my granddad. I was in the room when he died."

"What about you, Luna." said Neville softly. "Who did you see die?"

"My mum." replied Luna in a far away tone. "She was a brilliant witch but one of her spells went terribly wrong. I was just a little girl."

The carriage went silent for a moment. Nobody asked who Harry saw die; nobody needed to. Harry replayed Cedric's death in his mind. He could see the graveyard; hear Voldemort telling Pettigrew to kill the spare; see the flash of green light; see Cedric fall to the ground, his eyes staring blankly, seeing no more.

"Wit beyond measure is man's greatest treasure." said Luna in a sing-song voice, snapping Harry back to reality. "My mum would be so proud."

"That she would, Luna." said Ron, smiling at her.

Harry smiled to himself, for he was certain that before Hermione went to sleep that night, she would know all there was to know about Thestrals. He knew she truly needed something to take her mind off of her parents and where they might be, for now.

The conversation in the carriage changed after that to somewhat of a cheerier tone. Talk of lessons, seeing old friends, and the upcoming feast reigned amongst Ron, Ginny, Neville, and Luna. Hermione sat and listened, wishing her life could be that simple again; wishing her parents were safe at home; wishing that her and Harry could just focus on being students.

Harry sat quietly next to her, holding her hand, and for the first time she realized what it must be like to be him. What it must be like to be burdened with things beyond your control, unable to escape the reality that someone is seeking to destroy your life and hurt those that you care about. She wanted to hug him, hold him, tell him that she understood. Instead, she simply squeezed his hand, as to say, I know. Harry looked at her and smiled, as if to say he understood the unsaid.

The carriages arrived at the castle, which was alive with light and sound. Torches lit the way of the entrance to the great school, giving the feeling of comfort and safety. Hermione saw Harry glance back at the carriages one more time, sure he was checking if he could still see the winged horse-like creatures called Thestrals. As they entered the castle Hermione did not feel comfort or safety like she normally would upon arriving at school. Instead, it was dread and entrapment; like an owl in a cage.

As though her dread had drawn him to them, Snape was striding towards them out of the Great Hall, his robes billowing behind him, rage etched into his face. Harry gripped her hand tighter at the sight of his old nemesis.

"There they are." said Snape, halting within a foot of Harry and Hermione, malice in his voice. "Hogwarts new power couple. Decided to put on a little exhibition before arriving, did you?"

"Not sure what you mean, Professor." replied Harry calmly.

"Do not toy with me, Potter!" spat Snape. "Mr Malfoy has already informed me of what happened and I assure you that not only will Gryffindor and Ravenclaw lose fifty points each but that everyone involved will serve detention. In addition, I will personally see to it that Mr Weasley and Ms Granger are stripped of their prefect badges before the end of the night!"

Hermione looked behind her to see Ron's ash white face starting at Snape. Neville looked as though he might get sick, Ginny looked worried, and Luna looked as though she was trying to decide what species of bat Snape was.

"Do what you will with me, Professor, however, please leave my friends out of this." said Harry coldly.

Hermione thought that maybe it was her imagination but it felt as though Harry's hand was starting to pulse, making her hand and arm tingle. She glanced at his face, trying to catch a glimpse of his eyes.

"How noble, Potter." said Snape silkily. "However, Mr Malfoy stated that the entire event started when Mr Weasley struck him across the jaw with his fist. Is this true?"

Many students were gawking as they passed by into the Great Hall, whispering and pointing. Fred and George willingly joined their group being held at bay by Snape, arms folded, showing their defiance.

" Severus, what seems to be the trouble?" asked Professor Dumbledore, striding up to the growing group of students.

"Headmaster, these students, led by Mr Potter here, attacked Mr Malfoy, Mr Crab, and Mr Goyle while on the train then paraded them down the train in order to humiliate them before the rest of the school!" said Snape, trying to control his temper.

"Mr Perks has already informed me of the disturbance that occurred on the train." replied Dumbledore calmly. " According to sources on the train, Mr Malfoy initiated the incident by making rather rude and derogatorily remarks about Mr Potter, Mr Weasley, and Ms Granger."

"Headmaster, Mr Weasley struck Mr Malfoy across the face with his fist and Ms Granger stunned Mr Malfoy for good measure." spat Snape. "They should be stripped of their prefect titles, given detention, and fifty points deducted from their house, immediately!"

Dumbledore sighed, "Severus, while I would agree to detention and points being deducted from their house for their actions, I would also believe that detention and points should be deducted from Mr Malfoy's house as well." Dumbledore adjusted his glasses on the bridge of his nose before continuing. "If you are determined to pursue the removal of prefect status from Mr Weasley and Ms Granger, as I'm sure you are, then I will also see the need to strip Mr Malfoy as well."

"What for, Headmaster?" asked Snape, slightly taken aback.

"Prefects shouldn't start fights, they should prevent them." said Dumbledore calmly but firmly. "If you wish to pursue such an extreme punishment, then it has to be administered all around. What say you, Severus?"

Snape looked as though he was attempting to chew through iron. Hermione thought he might actually lose his legendary temper with Dumbledore. Instead, he swallowed very hard and said, "I might have been a bit hasty, Headmaster."

"Very well," said Dumbledore turning to address the group "you will all serve detention and fifty points will be deducted from each house that was involved. However, your prefect status will remain. Now, please join your houses in the Great Hall."

Noting the dismissal, the group made their way past Dumbledore and a seething Snape into the Great Hall. Luna made her way over to the Ravenclaw table where she was immediately swarmed by a band of girls, who looked to be wanting to know what was going on. Luna seemed mildly interested by this unusual amount of attention. Hermione, along with Harry, Ron, Ginny, Neville, and the twins made their way to the Gryffindor table to a round of applause.

Questions poured from all directions at the table as they sat down. Normally, Ginny would go and sit with her fellow year however, she stayed and sat with Neville. Hermione remembered how Ginny had been Neville's date to the Yule Ball last year and wondered if there was something more to it than friendship despite her expressing interest in Dean Thomas. Harry was ignoring all the questions while Ron reveled in the attention. He retold how he hit Malfoy in the face with his fist but she noticed he avoided why he did so, tossing it off as just because he was being a git.

Harry was busy scanning the staff table and nudged Hermione when he spotted, who must be, Professor Umbridge. She was a squat woman with a broad, flabby face, little visible neck, and a very wide, slack mouth. Her eyes were large, round, and slightly bulging. A little pink velvet bow perched on top of her short curly hair matched her fluffy pink cardigan. She was barely visible above the staff table and overall, Hermione thought that she fit Neville's grandmother's opinion of a toad.

The Entrance Hall doors swung open and a hush began to sweep over the tables as the buzz of talking was reduced to whispering, then to silence as Professor McGonagall led the line of new first years into the Great Hall. They lined up in front of the staff table then turned to face the house tables. Professor McGonagall placed the stool that she was carrying with her in front of the first years and placed the old worn Sorting Hat upon the stool. Everyone waited, one first year boy looking as though he was ready to run, as the Sorting Hat's pointed top slowly began to move and the rip near the brim opened like a mouth. It coughed once before breaking into song.

"I am the Sorting Hat, Every year I sing a song,

Then I sort you into houses, Because that is what I'm for,

But this year I'll go a bit further, Listen closely to my song:

In times of old when I was new, And Hogwarts barely started,

The founders of our noble school, Thought never to be parted,

United in their common goal, They shared the selfsame yearning,

To build the world's best magic school, And pass along their learning.

Unified forevermore was not their fate to be, So they decided how to sort the school,

Then passed it on to me.

Before the founders' passing, A prophecy was foretold,

Of those that would unite us, And conquer all our foes.

Though condemned I am to split you, Still I've worried that it's wrong.

Though I must fulfill my duty, And must quarter every year,

I've wondered whether Sorting, Might not bring the end I feared.

Now my worries ended, No more will I fear,

Though Hogwarts now faces danger, From many deadly foes,

Know they that will unite us, will protect us, As the prophecy so long ago foretold.

So place me on your head and I'll tell you where you go, At last my journey's almost over...

Let the Sorting now unfold!"

Stunned silence filled the Great Hall once the Sorting Hat finished singing, the normal applause did not immediately follow. Professor McGonagall simply stared at the Hat which, to Hermione's knowledge, had never predicted anything before. Whispering began to flutter around the Great Hall before Dumbledore started clapping. Once he did, the rest of the staff table joined him, then finally, the house tables.

"I wonder if the Hat has ever made a prediction before?" asked Harry, his brow furrowed.

He looked at Hermione for the answer but she merely shrugged. As far as she knew, the Sorting Hat's function was to determine the qualities of each student and to place them in their proper house. The fact that the Hat may contain the capacity for independent thought unnerved her a bit.

"Indeed, the Hat has made predictions before." said Nearly Headless Nick, floating between Neville and Ginny, causing both to shiver. "However, I do not recall it ever – "

Professor McGonagall cleared her throat loudly, interrupting Nick and causing the frantic whispering to cease. Once all was quiet, Professor McGonagall looked down at a scroll of parchment she was holding and announced the first name, "Abercrombie, Euan."

A terrified-looking boy stumbled over to the stool and took a seat. Professor McGonagall barely placed the hat on his head when it shouted, "Gryffindor!"

When the sorting finally was over and the last first year, Rose Zeller, was sorted into Hufflepuff, Professor Dumbledore rose to his feet as Professor McGonagall picked up the stool and hat then proceeded out of the Great Hall, returning moments later. Dumbledore approached the podium and assessed the student body, smiling brightly at them all.

"To our newcomers," said Dumbledore in a ringing voice, his arms stretched wide and a brilliant smile on his face, "welcome! To our old hands - welcome back! There is a time for speech making, but this is not it. Tuck in!"

There was an outbreak of applause as Dumbledore sat down and threw his long beard over his shoulder to keep it out-of-the-way of his plate - for food had appeared out of nowhere, so that the five long tables were threatening to buckle under joints and pies and dishes of vegetables, bread and sauces and flagons of pumpkin juice.

"What were you saying before the Sorting?" Hermione asked Nick. "About the Hat making predictions?"

"Oh, yes," said Nearly Headless Nick "I have heard the Sorting Hat give predictions before, though I never remember it predicting anything about itself. You must remember that the Hat was originally one of the founder's hats. It is believed that it once belonged to Godric Gryffindor. So, needless to say, the Hat has seen many things and heard many prophecies in it's time."

"How can the Hat see anything?" asked Ron, while devouring a side of diced potatoes. "I mean, it doesn't have any eyes, does it?"

"The Hat can, at the very least, sense things." said Harry, glancing at Ron, agitation lining his voice.

"It's a magically enchanted object." said Nearly Headless Nick. "Enchanted by four of the most powerful and gifted witches and wizards of possibly all time. Most wizards today do not understand how the Hat does what it does."

Hermione was thinking hard as she worked away at her shepherd's pie. Nearly Headless Nick simply drifted away, no doubt not wishing to watch the students eat. Hermione noticed that Harry was merely picking at his treacle tart, having finished his steak and kidney pie. Hermione was not really in the mood for dessert, so she patiently waited for Harry to finish torturing his before asking him for some details about those Thestral creatures. She knew she would have to skim through some of her books or visit the library to get a full account of these creatures, lest she might fall prey to some lore.

"So, Harry, at least you have the Sorting Hat convinced." said Seamus Finnigan.

"Meaning?" asked Harry with a definite edge to his voice.

Before Seamus could respond, Dumbledore had risen once again to his feet and cleared his throat, drawing the attention of the hall to the podium. Hermione knew by the icy glares, the conversation between Seamus and Harry was not over but merely postponed.

"Well, now that we are all digesting another magnificent feast, I beg a few moments of your attention for the usual start-of-term notices," said Dumbledore. "First-years ought to know that the Forest in the grounds is out-of-bounds to students - and a few of our older students ought to know by now, too." Hermione glanced at Harry who smirked slightly.

"Mr. Filch, the caretaker, has asked me, for what he tells me is the four-hundred-and-sixty second time, to remind you all that magic is not permitted in corridors between classes, nor are a number of other things, all of which can be checked on the extensive list now fastened to Mr. Filch's office door."

"We have had two changes in staffing this year. We are very pleased to welcome back Professor Grubbly-Plank, who will be taking Care of Magical Creatures lessons; we are also delighted to introduce Professor Umbridge, our new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher."

There was a round of polite but fairly unenthusiastic applause, Hermione not even pretending to clap.

Dumbledore continued, "Tryouts for the house Quidditch teams will take place on the -"

He broke off, looking enquiringly at Professor Umbridge. As she was not much taller standing than sitting, there was a moment when nobody understood why Dumbledore had stopped talking, but then Professor Umbridge cleared her throat, "Hem, hem," and it became clear that she had got to her feet and was intending to make a speech.

Dumbledore only looked taken aback for a moment, then he sat down and looked at Professor Umbridge as though he desired nothing better than to listen to her speak. Hermione was slightly disturbed by his response. Other members of staff were not as adept at hiding their surprise. Professor Sprout's eyebrows had disappeared into her hairline and Professor McGonagall looked as though she might transform into a cat and eat the toad at any moment.

"Thank you, Headmaster," Professor Umbridge simpered, "for those kind words of welcome."

Her voice was high-pitched, breathy and little-girlish as she gave another little throat-clearing cough, "hem, hem", and continued.

"Well, it is lovely to be back at Hogwarts, I must say!" said Umbridge, forcing a smile. "And to see such happy little faces looking up at me!"

Hermione glared at Umbridge. She did not appreciate being addressed as though she was a toddler. This witch was already surpassing her expectations of what a Ministry official would be like at Hogwarts.

"I am very much looking forward to getting to know you all and I'm sure we'll be very good friends!" said Professor Umbridge as she cleared her throat again, "hem, hem", but when she continued, some of the air of kindness had vanished from her voice. She sounded much more business-like and now she began to speak very fast in a clipped tone as though she was working through a well-rehearsed speech.

"The Ministry of Magic has always considered the education of young witches and wizards to be of vital importance. The rare gifts with which you were born may come to nothing if not nurtured and honed by careful instruction. The ancient skills unique to the wizarding community must be passed down the generations lest we lose them for ever. The treasure trove of magical knowledge amassed by our ancestors must be guarded, replenished and polished by those who have been called to the noble profession of teaching."

Professor Umbridge paused here and made a little bow to her fellow staff members, none of whom bowed back, gave another little, "hem, hem" and went on with her speech in the same clipped tone.

"Every headmaster and headmistress of Hogwarts has brought something new to the weighty task of governing this historic school, and that is as it should be, for without progress there will be stagnation and decay. There again, progress for progress' sake must be discouraged, for our tried and tested traditions often require no tinkering. A balance, then, between old and new, between permanence and change, between tradition and innovation because some changes will be for the better, while others will come, in the fullness of time, to be recognized as errors of judgment. Meanwhile, some old habits will be retained, and rightly so, whereas others, outmoded and outworn, must be abandoned. Let us move forward, then, into a new era of openness, effectiveness and accountability, intent on preserving what ought to be preserved, perfecting what needs to be perfected, and pruning wherever we find practices that ought to be prohibited."

As she finished and sat down, Dumbledore began to clap, awakening the hall from the hypnotic trance that it had fallen into. Hermione, who had followed every word with rapt attention, still found it hard at points to not fall asleep. Slowly, the rest of the staff began to clap along with Dumbledore, though the gesture really never took on with the students.

As Dumbledore stood to his feet once more and approached the podium, Hermione noticed Luna politely putting away her magazine, which she had taken out during Umbridge's speech.

"Thank you very much, Professor Umbridge, that was most illuminating," he said, bowing to her. "Now, as I was saying, Quidditch tryouts will be held..."

"Yes, it certainly was illuminating," said Hermione in a low voice.

"What was so illuminating?" asked Ron looking confused.

"How about the fact that this Umbridge is a total windbag." replied Ginny sarcastically.

"There was more to it than that." said Harry darkly.

"There was some important stuff hidden in the windbag's speech." said Hermione grimly.

"Was there?" said Ron blankly.

"How about: 'progress for progress' sake must be discouraged'? How about: 'pruning wherever we find practices that ought to be prohibited'?" asked Hermione fiercely.

"Or how about: 'a new era of openness, effectiveness and accountability, intent on preserving what ought to be preserved, perfecting what needs to be perfected, and pruning wherever we find practices that ought to be prohibited', aye? Sounds to me like she's here to do more than teach." said Neville darkly, with a knowing look on his face, to the astonishment of Ginny and Harry.

Hermione was thoroughly impressed with Neville's grasp of that key point. He had shown signs before of being of quicker wit than many have gave him credit. Ginny looked at Neville in amazement, a slight smile parsing her lips.

There was a great clattering and banging all around them; Dumbledore had obviously just dismissed the school, because everyone was standing up ready to leave the Hall. Hermione jumped up, feeling flustered.

"Ron!" hissed Hermione. "We have to show the first years how to get to the common room."

"Oh sure." said Ron in a superior tone, standing up and walking towards the doors. "First years, over here." shouted Ron while waving his hand in the air. "Hey! Midgets! This way!"

Hermione was getting ready to explode when a familiar voice cut across her.

"Mr Weasley!" snapped Professor McGonagall, striding up behind Hermione. "Do not call the first years MIDGETS!"

Ron immediately turned red and shrank a couple of inches before their eyes, as he said weakly, "Yes Professor. Sorry Professor."

"Ms Granger, I would request that you and Mr Weasley join me in my office immediately after you see the first years to your common room." said McGonagall, turning to face Hermione.

Hermione nodded, swallowing hard under the stern gaze of her Head of House, but refused to look away. Ron looked even paler than he did when facing Snape. Hermione dared a glance at Harry who was watching from the corner of his eye.

"Very good then. I expect to see you both shortly." said Professor McGonagall curtly.

Harry, Neville, and the twins made their way past the throng of first years that were waiting patiently for her and Ron to escort them to their common room. Professor McGonagall headed back towards the staff table as Ron quietly chivvied the first years out of the Great Hall. Hermione merely followed, making sure none got lost along the way, as she thought about what McGonagall was going to say to them.

Once the first years were safely inside the common room, surviving their first encounter with Peeves the Poltergeist who tried to drown them with large water balloons, Hermione and Ron made to say goodbye to Harry before heading to McGonagall's office. Seamus, however, had other intentions as he made his way over to Harry, who was busy conversing with the twins, to finish the conversation he started during the feast.

"Hey Harry," said Seamus "you asked me what I meant at the feast. You still interested?"

Harry turned around and looked at Seamus, an unsettling glint in his eyes.

"Sure Seamus," replied Harry coldly "I would love to know what you meant earlier."

"The Prophet's been saying some pretty nasty things about ya lately, Harry." said Seamus confidently. "About what happened at the tournament."

"Well, you've known me for four years now, Seamus. What do you believe, me or the Daily Prophet?" asked Harry folding his arms.

"I dunno." replied Seamus, shaking his head. "You say You-Know-Who killed Cedric, but the Minister says it was just a tragic accident and you just hallucinated the whole thing. Some say you're just looking for a bit of attention."

Hermione noticed that it seemed to be getting warmer in the common room. She looked over to see the fireplace's gently crackling embers glowing as a small fire burned in it's grate. It was definitely not the source of the sudden rise in temperature. The common room had fallen deathly quiet as everyone awaited Harry's response. The shuffling of the soles of trainers and the crackling of the fireplace were the only audible noises.

"That's not what I asked, Seamus." said Harry, his gaze becoming steely as though he was attempting to bore holes into Seamus with his eyes. "I asked whether you believed me or not."

"I-I want to believe you, Harry." said Seamus, taking a step back and squinting his eyes at Harry's gaze. "But it just sounds so unbelievable – and then the Prophet makes a good point about you and old Professor Quirrell."

Hermione felt as though the room was about to boil. Sweat was beading on her brow now and she saw Parvati wipe her face with her hand. Ron was now tugging uncomfortably at his collar. All eyes in the room were still fixed on Harry, as though they were waiting for something to happen.

"A good point?" asked Harry, scanning the common room with a cold look. "Would it make you feel better if I had Dumbledore administer Veritaserum to me in front of the entire assembly? What say you all? Does Gryffindor house need this so you won't be afraid I might murder you while you sleep?"

Before anyone could answer, Harry swept from the room towards the boy's dormitories. Fred, George, and Neville quickly followed him. Hermione felt as though a cool breeze entered the room, the air becoming comfortable and pleasant again. She made to follow Harry however, Ron ceased her by the elbow.

"Come on." said Ron grimly, still staring at Seamus. "He'll be okay. Fred and George are with him and we'd best not keep McGonagall waiting."

Hermione nodded then turned to leave the common room with Ron, making her way to a dreaded meeting with their Head of House.

"Well, Seamus is good for one thing." spat Harry as he took a seat on his four-poster bed.

"What's that?" asked Fred, taking a seat on Ron's bed next to George.

"He's a real good excuse to leave the common room and guarantee that nobody will want to bloody follow!" replied Harry, a grin curling his face.

"Get on over here, Neville." said George, looking over his shoulder at Neville.

Neville had followed them up to the dorms but lost his nerve a bit when the twins entered the fifth year dorm room instead of continuing on to the seventh year dorm room. Uncertain of what to do, he had made his way over to his bed and began unpacking his trunk. At George's invitation, Neville smiled and gladly joined Harry and the twins, taking a seat next to Harry.

"So, what have you two come up with for the staff room?" asked Harry, peering at the twins.

"Ah, I believe we have a dandy!" said Fred smiling broadly.

"A real gem of an idea!" said George, extracting two tiny tea-cups from inside his cloak.

"What do they do?" asked Neville nervously, knowing the twins' reputation.

"They're an expansion on our Extendible Ears." explained George to Neville's continued blank expression.

"What are Extendible Ears?" asked Neville, his eyebrows contracted slightly.

"Enchanted listening devices, Neville." replied Harry distractedly. "So, what do these tea-cups do?"

"Simple, really." said Fred in a business-like tone.

"You place one cup in the staff room." said George, holding one of the tiny cups in his left hand.

"And hold the other cup to your ear." said Fred, as he mimicked placing a cup to his ear.

"Completely undetectable, even if they use it for tea!" said George triumphantly.

"How do you know they'll work?" asked Neville. "I mean, this is Hogwarts, after all. The school is protected by so many enchantments and spells."

Fred pulled an ancient looking goblet out from inside his cloak and handed it to Harry. Harry took the goblet, immediately recognizing the Black family crest. He felt something emanating from the goblet in his hands.

"Hold the lip of the goblet up to your ear." said George, grinning broadly.

Harry placed the lip of the goblet to his right ear. Immediately, he could hear Mrs Weasley bustling about talking to Sirius and Mr Weasley! He lowered the goblet from his ear and stared at it in amazement.

"The original is still on the top shelf in the kitchen at headquarters." said Fred, a smug look spreading across his face.

Harry passed it to Neville who held it up to his ear before shouting, "Is that – that Professor Lupin?"

"Probably." said George dismissively. "So Harry, what do you think?"

"How did you two do this?" asked Harry, unable to suppress his amazement.

"We've used the funds of our private partner very wisely." replied Fred with a wink.

"And did a fair bit more reading than cleaning while at headquarters." said George smiling.

"Now we'll know everything that's said in the staff room and at headquarters." said Fred proudly.

"It's amazing but won't I look a bit odd walking around holding a cup to my ear?" asked Harry, raising an eyebrow.

"You would mate." replied Fred, smiling.

"But there's an easier way." said George, holding up a finger.

"All you need to do is place the listening cup on the edge of a roll of parchment." said Fred.

"Everything is then recorded on the parchment in invisible ink." said George.

"That way you can read it whenever you like!" said the twins in unison, unable to suppress their excitement.

"That's truly brilliant but won't somebody notice this cup just sitting there?" asked Harry, trying hard not to rain on their parade.

The twins broke into a pair of evil grins, glancing at each other.

"This comes at a great sacrifice to us, mate." said Fred solemnly.

"But, once again, your needs are greater than ours." said George with a smile.

"We nicked this tea-cup in our third year from the staff room." said Fred, holding up one of the tiny tea-cups.

"Kind of a memento of our time here." said George proudly. "We never really expected to make it to our seventh year."

"The other is a duplicate of the original." said Fred, holding up the other tiny tea-cup.

"So they'll never notice the cup!" said Harry, nearly falling backwards laughing. "That is brilliant!"

"Thank you." said the twins in unison, taking a bow.

"So how do you get the cup back inside the staff room?" asked Neville, leaning over to examine one of the cups.

"There's the problem." replied Fred, scratching his head.

"Not really." said Harry smiling. "Quick, hide the listening cup."

Fred did so as Harry cried, "Dobby!"

There was a loud crack and the tiny house elf appeared, standing between the two beds.

"You called for Dobby, Master Harry Potter, sir?" squeaked Dobby.

"Yes, Dobby." replied Harry. "Fred here found this tea-cup years ago, which belongs to the staff room, and he would like to return it. The problem is, he's afraid he might get into trouble if he turns it in."

"No problem, Master Harry Potter, sir! Dobby can return the tiny cup without anyone being the wiser!" squeaked the tiny elf excitedly.

"Thank you, Dobby. I knew I could count on you." said Harry, as he suppressed a smile.

The tiny house elf shook from head to toe, looking jubilantly at Harry. Dobby took the tiny tea-cup from Fred, bowed low, then, with another loud crack was gone.

"That was truly inspired, mate!" said George, looking at Harry full of admiration.

Harry looked at Neville, who sat there silently, looking amazed and impressed. George said he would place both the cup and the goblet on separate rolls of parchment inside his trunk. With the staff room now infiltrated, they just had to wait until Monday, when the staff would be resting, to see what was said amongst teachers in private.

Harry waited for Neville or the twins to mention the temperature change in the common room while he was talking to Seamus however, none of them brought it up and he wondered if they were afraid to. Harry felt no need to bring it up for he knew that when Hermione returned, she would.

Ron only had to knock once before they were ordered to come in. She was finishing a letter when they walked inside and motioned for them to take a seat in front of her desk without bothering to look up. Once she had finished, Professor McGonagall leaned back in her seat, stabbing the desk with her quill, while appraising the two students that sat before her.

"Do you know why I have summoned you two here to my office?" asked McGonagall coldly.

"Because of what happened on the train." said Hermione weakly.

"Show her no fear! You have more important things to do than follow the rules!" said that tiny voice in the back of Hermione's mind.

"Precisely." said McGonagall. "Two Gryffindor prefects acting out like such while on their way to Hogwarts is inexcusable!"

Ron was now staring at his knees, unable to look at their Head of House. Hermione wanted to do the same however, she forced herself to look Professor McGonagall in the face. She wanted her transfiguration teacher to see her unsaid pleas for forgiveness.

"If it wasn't for Professor Dumbledore already deducting fifty points from Gryffindor for your behavior, I would have deducted one hundred points for your actions."

"One hundred points!" croaked Ron.

"Do not push it, Mr Weasley. I can still deduct more points should I believe it necessary to get the point across." snapped McGonagall. "Are we clear?"

Hermione and Ron nodded their heads in unison.

"Why I don't strip you of your prefect badges, I do not know." said McGonagall, more to herself than to them. "In any case, It's getting late and I believe that you understand, should this happen again, I will have no choice but to remove you from your prefect status."

Again, Hermione and Ron nodded their understanding in unison.

"Mr Weasley, you may go. I have one more thing to discuss with Ms Granger." said McGonagall curtly.

Ron looked sideways at Hermione before getting to his feet and leaving the Head of Gryffindor house's office. Hermione stared at the wise witch sitting before her. She had always admired Professor McGonagall for her strong will and resolve, holding such a prestigious position as Deputy Headmistress at Hogwarts. When the door closed behind Ron, McGonagall spoke.

"I understand that Mr Potter has a meeting with Professor Dumbledore first thing in the morning. Is this correct?" asked McGonagall briskly.

"I'm sorry, but I don't understand. How does that have anything to do with me?" asked Hermione bewildered.

"If he has a meeting with the Headmaster, he should postpone it." said McGonagall calmly, smiling at Hermione while ignoring her question.

Hermione was alarmed now. What on Earth was going on and why would Professor McGonagall not want Harry to speak with Dumbledore, thought Hermione.

"Legilimency." said McGonagall, pouring herself a cup of tea. "Pumpkin Pastie?" she asked, pointing to a small plate.

"Um, no thanks." replied Hermione, her mind spinning. "Professor, what did you mean by Legilimency and why shouldn't Harry meet with the Headmaster?"

"Because any secrets Harry possesses would become known to the Headmaster and surely you know what Legilimency is, Ms Granger." said McGonagall, a serious look on her face.

Hermione's mind went racing as a dark realization struck her. Harry had mentioned to her, one night while at Grimmauld Place, that Sirius had taught him Occlumency during their daily bonding visits that Mrs Weasley despised so much. Sirius had told him that all Order members needed to know Occlumency. She had naturally assumed that it was to protect the Order's secrets from skilled Death Eaters and Ministry officials, but now she wondered if there was more to it.

"Ms Granger," said McGonagall, snapping her fingers "are you okay?" she asked in a softer tone, raising her eyebrows slightly.

"Uh, yes – sorry." stumbled Hermione. "Professor, what secrets would Harry have to hide and why would he have to hide them from Professor Dumbledore?" she asked innocently.

"Ms Granger, please do not play cat and mouse with me." said McGonagall, raising an eyebrow. "I simply do not have the patience this late in the evening. I know that you and Mr Potter are up to something and have gone to lengths to conceal it. I am part of the Order, as you well know."

Hermione's expression of mild concern nearly faltered at McGonagall's knowing look.

"However, I am also not so foolish as to believe that you would confide in me. Your distrust of this establishment and the Order is noted and, in some instances, justifiable." continued McGonagall.

Without warning or any reason Hermione could find to justify her actions, a sudden wave of emotion raced through her for Professor McGonagall and she blurted out rather hastily, "Sirius has been teaching Harry Occlumency over the past month."

McGonagall sat back in her chair, breathing deeply as she observed Hermione. Hermione could tell that she was thinking hard about something, possibly making a decision.

"I see." she said finally. "Well then, I suggest that you inform Mr Potter to practice tonight before his meeting in the morning."

"Excuse me Professor, but why are you telling me this?" asked Hermione, hesitantly.

"I have my reasons, Ms Granger." replied McGonagall. "I will explain later, but for now might I suggest that Mr Potter teaches you Occlumency too and do not tell him that I suggested it just yet."

Hermione nodded, "I will do that, Professor."

"Very well, Ms Granger, I have held you here long enough tonight. You may go." said McGonagall, waving a hand towards the door.

Hermione recognized the dismissal and proceeded out of the office. As she walked back towards the Gryffindor common room, she reflected on the day's events thus far. This was about the worst start to any term yet, none of it mattered. Professor McGonagall was right about one simple truth; if Dumbledore used Legilimency on students then Harry must be made aware and practice Occlumency tonight before his meeting. It would not bode well if he realized what they were planning to do. They were about to break every rule in the Hogwarts rule books which, to her own surprise, the thought made her smile.

Upon arriving back at the Gryffindor common room, Hermione was surprised to see Neville and Harry playing a game of wizard chess in a deserted common room.

"What took so long?" asked Harry while studying his next move.

"Professor McGonagall wanted to chat." replied Hermione, looking around to see if they were completely alone.

"Where's Ron?" asked Neville, watching Harry carefully move his knight.

"He's not here?" asked Hermione, furrowing her brow.

"Nope." replied Harry. "Wasn't he with you?"

"He was but Professor McGonagall dismissed him first." said Hermione, distracted by Ron's absence.

Harry spun around to face her. At this, Neville stood up and backed away mumbling, "I'll just go look for Ron".

"What do you mean by first? What did she want to talk to you about in private?" asked Harry.

Harry was clearly unconcerned where Ron was and his stare brought her back to point.

"Harry, we need to talk." said Hermione sternly.

"I agree." replied Harry, raising an eyebrow, his green eyes ablaze.

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