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Chapter 1: Homing
The fifth stall in the men's washroom at King's Cross station had had a "Closed For Repairs" sign on the door since 1973.
The stall was large enough to admit a wheelchair; in fact, it was large enough to admit a small car. Occasionally a man using one of the other stalls would report odd sounds from behind its pale-green door. This happened frequently enough that station personnel noticed the pattern, but infrequently enough that references to "the haunted toilet" were mostly in jest -- though the more credulous night employees tended to answer nature's call in pairs.
On this late-summer morning, anyone who had been in the men's room would certainly have been able to report strange sounds -- a muted pop, a series of faint thuds, a man's weary sigh, and even something that sounded like the squawk of a bird.
But no one was in the toilet to hear it. And when a young man, his green eyes weary behind wire glasses, emerged from the toilet, no one thought to wonder how -- or why -- he had gotten such a quantity of boxes and suitcases into the stall, or what sort of animal he carried in that blanket-covered cage, or how he had come to have that lightning-shaped scar on his forehead.
Several station employees noticed him dragging his burdens across Platform 9, but all of them looked away before they could make eye contact and thus be obligated to help.
No one could remember seeing him board a train. It wasn't long before no one remembered him at all.
Harry laid his head against the seat back and sighed. Transatlantic travel was faster by portkey than by airplane, but it couldn't be said to be more pleasant, and maintaining the Inconspicuus spell that kept the Muggle world from noticing him required more attention than he had expected. His lower back ached a little, and the first hints of a headache lurked behind his eyebrows. Getting a compartment to himself on the Hogwarts Express was the first thing that had gone right all day.
Beside him, Hedwig climbed through the open door of her cage, hopped onto the back of the seat, and began to smooth her travel-ruffled feathers. Harry smiled at her and she gave a lock of his hair an affectionate tug. "Not the easiest trip in the world," he said, "but we're coming home at last."
It had been restful, Florida. The death of Voldemort, the occupation of Hogwarts, the Dementor Rebellion, the Ministry purges, the Death Eater trials -- in Florida they'd been stories played out in the pages of the International Herald-Divinator. His own name had been less familiar to some of his new colleagues than Viktor Krum's. He remembered gathering up the courage to scrabble back his hair and show the scar to Sunday Coneskey, who had given him a blank look and then touched it carelessly with one long finger ...
It had been a relief.
But it hadn't been home. And now Hogwarts was reopening, and Harry was going back to teach, and everything was going to be better.
"It will be different," he warned Hedwig, but he found he couldn't believe it. In his mind stood Hogwarts as he'd first seen it, untouched by war and time.
Well, that was a dream. But he'd do everything he could to make it a reality again.
The students would already have arrived on the Express, and this train was empty except for a few Hogsmeade residents returning from errands in the Muggle world, so Harry could relax a bit. He opened his smallest suitcase and pulled out his everyday robe, neglected for five years while he padded around Florida in shorts and sandals. As he shook the wrinkles out of it, he knocked a sheet of paper from the suitcase to the floor of the compartment.
Harry pulled the robe over his head without bothering to unbutton it, then picked up the paper, unfolding the heavy page to show the Hogwarts crest and Minerva McGonagall's rather spiky blue-black script. After the usual greetings and well-wishes came the part that had set Harry on his homeward journey.
"Obeah Bokor tells me that you have done far more than regain your strength over the five years you've spent on the staff at the Coven of the Americas -- that you have in fact developed your power and discipline far beyond what we saw during your time at Hogwarts. I was pleased to hear this from him, though not surprised.
"Many changes have occurred here during your time in Florida. With the departure of Cornelius Fudge and the reorganization of the Ministry, we at last have a Minister of Magic who will not refuse to acknowledge a threat, nor resist change -- which means that we will be working with the Ministry rather than against it. A better leader than Circe Stormlaw cannot be imagined, and of course I have the utmost confidence in her deputy, Neville Longbottom."
Harry smiled. Neville's unprecedented rise through the Ministry of Magic, placing him in the second position at the unheard-of age of twenty-three, had shocked even those who had known him as a youthful war hero. Harry wished, with some malice, that Professor Snape had lived to see it.
"With the support of this new leadership, we at last feel that it is safe to reopen Hogwarts, and we are calling back a number of our former students to teach. To that end, I am pleased to offer you the position of Professor of Transfiguration."
Harry skimmed the rest of the letter -- room and board, salary commensurate, sabbatical allowance, reply earliest, yours most sincerely. Sunday and Tyndall and the rest of his American friends had been stunned that he would accept a position without a firm salary, until Kat Bonifay had examined his face and said to the others, "Y'all don't get it. He's not climbing, folks. He's homing."
And as the train approached the familiar vista of Hogsmeade Station, Harry felt a great lifting of his spirits. He was coming home to rebuild Hogwarts.
If he was lucky, he'd be busy enough to forget about being the Boy Who Lived when so many others hadn't.
At the foot of the wide stone steps, Harry dropped his boxes, panting. His knees ached -- when had he got so out of shape? and what had possessed him to bring so much baggage? He was looking at the pile in dismay when a familiar voice growled, "Abou' time yeh came back where yeh belong!"
"Hagrid! Are you teaching too?" The last words were smothered in Hagrid's coat as Hagrid folded him into a cheese-scented embrace.
"My! Got some height on yeh in Americer, eh? Don' have that Seeker's build no more." Hagrid held Harry out at arm's length, beaming. "Nah, jus' came back for one las' feast before I go. I'm not fit ter look after the animals in this state, Harry. Can't even help yeh wi' yer bags."
He released Harry's shoulders and held out his hands, and Harry was shocked to see that they were shaking. "Oh, Hagrid --"
"Jus' me war wound," Hagrid said carelessly. "Wasting curse, like as not, only o' course it couldn' kill me on account o' me bein' what I am." Now Harry noticed the deep hollows around Hagrid's eyes, the lines etched on either side of his mouth, and he felt his stomach contracting in horror. But Hagrid sounded as unconcerned as though he were talking about catching cold. "Wizard healers can't do anythin' fer me, but they've got a spot fer me in the giants' sanatorium at Greater Wrenching. I'll be righ' as rain come summer, jus' wait an' see."
"Ah, Harry. And Hagrid -- excellent." Harry turned to see McGonagall coming down the stairs. "If we hurry, we can all get to hall without delaying the Sorting. Let's get this lot to your rooms."
Harry lifted his largest suitcase. "No, no," she said, "leave it to me." She tapped the suitcase with her wand, and with a few short words transfigured its handle into a pair of feet. She did the same to the rest of the suitcases and the owl cage.
"Follow Hedwig, do you understand?" McGonagall said to the luggage. The cage nodded its perch importantly.
"Ground floor, Hedwig," she said. "Blue rooms, first door past the staff common room. Avoid the staircases and heed the spell barriers." Hedwig set off slowly, landing every now and then to let the jostling pack of luggage catch up.
"I may," Harry said dubiously, watching his bags hurry away, "need some refresher work."
When McGonagall clicked off for the Great Hall, Harry lagged behind with Hagrid, trying not to notice his halting movements and occasional grimaces.
"Y'look better, Harry," Hagrid said, already a little out of breath. "Terrible worried abou' yeh I was, las' time I saw yeh, lookin' like yeh couldn' hardly stand up -- but yeh got yer color back now."
Harry looked away, then made himself look back. "I'm fine now."
"Always said yeh would be," Hagrid said stoutly. "Jus' needed a bi' o' time, yeh did, 's wha' I told 'em all. Awful clever to think o' goin' to Florida, though. Bi' o' sunshine's jus' what you wanted."
"It was Dumbledore's idea," Harry said. "After -- after. Dr. Bokor was an old friend of his -- something about an international folk-dancing festival, I didn't quite catch it -- and he said I should look him up and help him with this new project of his."
"Great man, Dumbledore," Hagrid snuffled, fishing a magenta handkerchief out of his pocket.
They had arrived on the staff platform in the Great Hall, which was already buzzing with a dozen conversations, and Hagrid was already shouting, "Charlie! Forgot to tell yeh -- the young gryffalcons, they'll be needin' --"
Harry nearly ran headlong into a small, neat figure walking behind the table with an open book.
" 'Scuse me," they said in unison, and then: "Hermione!" Harry caught her up in a hug that lifted her feet off the floor.
"My! Harry! Weren't we the same height before you went to Florida?" Hermione stuffed her book into a huge shoulder bag as soon as Harry set her down.
"Maybe I grow in sunshine, like a plant."
"You look good, though, Harry," she said seriously. "Are you completely recovered? Because it was really --"
"I'm fine," he interrupted, then added, "You look great." It was true, too; she'd done something different with her hair, and the pinkish color of her robe suited her better than the drab shades she'd chosen when they were at school.
"Thanks," she said. "I've been longing to talk to you -- you're awful about answering letters, you know."
"I was busy," he protested guiltily.
"Right. Busy sunbathing naked with some girl named after a day of the week." She stared him down until he took a seat, then towered over him with a mock glare. "Justin's driving me mad -- he's writing the history of the war, you know, and he wanted an eyewitness account of your duel with Voldemort, and I kept telling him, the Transauditum spell is just like a Muggle walkie-talkie, I could hear some of what was going on but I couldn't see anything at all -- and you wouldn't answer any of his letters --"
"I was busy," he said a little more firmly. She gave him a sharp look.
"You're going to have to talk about it sooner or later, Harry," she said. "I know it's hard for you, but --"
"Hermione --" He looked over her shoulder, searching for something that would distract her.
He succeeded a little better than he would have liked. First he caught a flash of pale hair in the shadows behind the top table. Then the shape came clear. An expensively tailored robe, an expensively bejewelled hand, an expensively barbered head, an expensively curled lip --
Was he never going to be free of Draco Malfoy?
Hermione followed Harry's eyes, and then she straightened up suddenly, crying, "Draco!" and ran to clasp Malfoy. Harry stared dumbly after her. "Mother sent a book for you, and some biscuits, they're in here somewhere --"
"Never mind that," Malfoy said, hugging her roughly. Harry felt a pang of fury. Since when was Hermione so cozy with Malfoy? "What I want to know is, did Mrs. Spenser ever find Bratleigh's tooth?"
"Oh, yes, it turned out to be in his little brother's forearm -- but how are you getting on without mechanical pencils?"
"Musgrove's Magic Pencils are nearly as good, though not quite so satisfying to click ..." Harry watched their two heads bent together, the dark and the fair. They were exactly the same height, like a matched set of figurines. Something extremely strange must have happened while he was in Florida.
Malfoy was still affecting the look of a wizard-bard from a storybook, Harry thought scornfully: pale hair falling to his shoulders, deep-plum robe heavily embroidered in the same color around the collar, narrow hands heavy with silver rings. Harry hadn't remembered his mouth being quite so red.
He looked up and caught Harry looking, and something crossed his face that wasn't quite the expected sneer. Hermione was tugging him over by the arm. "Harry just got in today from America, Draco, he didn't tell anybody he was coming, I think he forgot how to write a letter --"
"He's forgotten a lot of things, I imagine," Malfoy drawled, but he offered a hand. "Potter. Welcome back."
Damn it, even his languid, lingering handshake felt as though there was an insult behind it.
McGonagall stood up, and Harry suddenly noticed that the hall was full of children milling about. Everyone sat down in a great hurry, and by the time Harry noticed that Malfoy had got into the seat between him and Hermione, it was too late to change, because McGonagall was speaking.
"After five long years, we see the Great Hall filled with students once again." Her voice was rougher than Harry had ever heard it. He turned quickly to look at her and caught what could have been tears in her eyes. "I think I speak for all of us at the top table when I say that your faces are one of the loveliest sights I have ever seen." She paused a moment, getting hold of herself, and when she spoke again, she sounded more normal.
"We have a long Sorting ahead of us, and I'm sure everyone is eager to get on with the feast. But first, I'd like to introduce the staff, as many of us will be strangers to you."
She began with the four teachers who sat on either side of her in the center of the U-shaped table. "Michelle Verte, Herbology professor and head of Hufflepuff House. Remus Lupin, Defense Against the Dark Arts professor and head of Gryffindor House. Madeleine Aerie, Deputy Headmistress, Potions professor, and head of Slytherin House. And Cypherus Summs, who has kindly agreed to emerge from retirement to teach Arithmancy and look after Ravenclaw House."
Now she introduced the opposite leg of the table: "Oliver Wood, Quidditch coach and Apparation instructor." A great cheer went up from the older students. "Penelope Clearwater, librarian. Daisy MacMillan, Divination profes-- yes, Daisy?"
"Phoenix Skye, please, Headmistress." The new Divination professor was younger than Harry, with a cloud of curly copper hair and a robe decorated in a rather loud paisley of orange and pink. There was a flower tucked behind her ear.
"Very well." McGonagall's voice betrayed her opinion of name changes. "Ursa Polaris, Astronomy professor. And Pedantius Binns, History of Magic professor." Harry wondered how many Sorting feasts it would take before Professor Binns noticed he couldn't eat.
"On my other side: Charlie Weasley, Care of Magical Creatures professor. Sofia Andriescu-Weasley, our medic, whom I hope you won't be meeting too soon." Harry looked up, startled, at the name. One of those notes from Ron must have been about Charlie getting married. "Harry Potter, Transfiguration professor." There was a muted murmur when Harry's name was spoken, and he tensed as he saw some students craning their necks for a closer look.
McGonagall spoke a little louder over the buzz. "Draco Malfoy, professor of Muggle Studies."
Harry was so busy choking on his pumpkin juice that he could barely hear McGonagall introducing Hermione as the new Charms professor.
"Now," McGonagall said over the noise, "we'll need to move briskly through the Sorting, as there are five years' worth of students to be assigned to their houses, so let's begin."
The Sorting Hat, seeming to understand the need for haste, cut its introductory poem to half the usual length, and then McGonagall began calling up the students. The handful of sixth- and seventh-years who were already seated looked up from their conversations. "Banks-Martin, Jonathan?"
"So, Potter," Malfoy said quietly as a boy with a rather superior expression was sorted into Ravenclaw. "Did you enjoy your time doing wizardry for the surfing set?"
Harry, with difficulty, prevented himself from answering back as if he were fourteen again as McGonagall called, "Bates, Niamh?"
"Harry was helping start up the first school of wizardry America has had since Salem, Draco!" Hermione said enthusiastically from the other side. "When we wanted to write to him, our owls had to relay their letters to transatlantic message geese, because an owl could never make it all the way to Disney World --"
Malfoy laughed out loud. "Disney World?" McGonagall aimed a glare in his direction, and he lowered his voice. "Should we prepare for an onslaught of magical mice?"
"You have to admit, it's a perfect camouflage," Hermione said. "I've read they set off hours of fireworks every night and have parades every day. So no matter what people saw, they'd never suspect anything."
"The Magic Kingdom," Harry offered gamely. Beauchamp, Simon, stopped taking notes long enough to get sorted to Hufflepuff. Malfoy smirked. His robe was turned up at the cuffs, leaving his pale wrists bare. And on his left arm Harry caught a glimpse of the Dark Mark, its grinning mouth like something out of a nightmare.
Malfoy caught Harry looking and turned his arm over. "What, you thought it was just a rumor, Potter?"
It still made Harry's skin crawl after all these years. "I would think that even you would be ashamed to show such a thing," he said icily. Cabot, Jasmine, took off for the Slytherin table at a run, robe trailing behind her.
Malfoy rolled his eyes. "Shame has nothing to do with it, Potter," he said. "Everything important leaves a mark somewhere. Or hadn't you guessed that yet?" He looked pointedly at Harry's forehead.
Before he could say anything, though, he caught another sharp look from McGonagall. "Dozier, Mignonette?" she said rather more loudly than necessary. Harry had to content himself with glaring at Malfoy and then turning to watch the Sorting.
It seemed to take hours before Young, Lydia, took her seat at the end of the Hufflepuff table, still nervously tugging on one caramel-colored braid. And then the students, who had begun to jostle and whisper among themselves, suddenly fell silent except for the occasional gasp or shriek as the ghosts floated in.
Nearly Headless Nick and the Fat Friar, the Gray Lady and the Bloody Baron ... all the familiar ghosts of the four houses sailed across the air ... and last of all, ghostly eyes a-twinkle, came Albus Dumbledore.
Harry's hands felt heavy and tingly at the sight. Dumbledore made a tour of the student tables, then came up to greet the staff. He wasn't gaunt and bruised and shaky as he'd been at the end, but looked just as he had at Harry's first Sorting Feast, from the spectacles on the end of his nose to the high-heeled boots -- only silvery, translucent as smoke.
Like the rest of the ghosts, he seemed to carry a breath of cold and damp with him, like a portable fog. The hair stood up on the back of Harry's neck.
He felt a sudden sharp pain in his ribs, and started -- Hermione had reached around Malfoy to poke him. He took a breath, almost a gasp. Another, and another, until he was no longer in danger of collapse. He looked up again, still breathing hard.
Dumbledore's ghost looked at him with that same warming, annoying combination of clairvoyance and cheerfulness that he'd always had in life, and winked. "Welcome back, my boy," he said, and blew away like a cloud.
Malfoy was looking at Harry without expression -- taking note of his weakness, no doubt. When Harry gathered his wits, with difficulty, and looked back at him, he raised an eyebrow. "Why, Potter," he said, pushing a glass of pumpkin juice over to him. "You look as though you've seen a ghost."
Harry looked away from Malfoy's considering face and Hermione's sympathetic one and noticed that his plate was full of food. He took a blind bite of a sausage, and at once felt a burst of warmth. Food! Food that tasted like home! Food that wasn't pizza! The whiplashing of his emotions was exhausting him, and quite consciously he closed off part of his mind and sank into the relief of feeling nothing, for the moment, but hunger.
The students, too, were eating as though they'd been starved for months. Harry vaguely remembered a few of them -- Hannah Abbott's youngest sister was passing food to the new Hufflepuffs, and the tall graceful girl at the head of Gryffindor must be Macy Prewitt, who'd had an embarrassing crush on him seventh year when she was twelve and spotty.
There were lots of empty seats at all the tables, but still a good selection of students to choose from. Filling out a Quidditch team -- that was a safe topic to think about.
They'd all be beginners, of course, even the older ones, but that was a handicap that all the houses would share. There were several promising possibilities in Gryffindor. Jack Talos, tall and muscular and at least fifteen, with "champion Beater" written all over him ... Aoife Murphy, a comprehensively freckled girl, with the alert look of a Chaser about her ... and if Taliesin Jones was as fast as he was small, he'd have the makings of a marvelous Seeker.
He looked past Malfoy to Hermione. "Gryffindor kids look good," he said.
"Yes," Malfoy said before she could respond, "nearly all of them look sensible enough not to jump off a roof on a dare."
Harry felt his mouth tighten. He really wished Malfoy would give it a rest; he was worn out from travel and his control of his own temper was uncertain.
Hermione, though, picked it up as though it was a continuation of an earlier conversation. "Oh, Draco," she said. "The Slytherins will be all right. They're young, that's all."
"Young," he said contemptuously. "Look at them. Sneaks, paranoiacs, and Type A high achievers."
Harry followed his gaze to the Slytherin table. Most of them really did look as though they had something to hide, but what was new in that?
"There was a time," Malfoy went on, "when Slytherin attracted serpents -- not jackals."
"Not when you were there," Harry said before he could stop himself.
But Malfoy didn't even pause. "It's not just the Slytherins, either. Look at Ravenclaw. Nothing but precocious smart-alecks. And Hufflepuff -- they're about to expire from sheer earnestness." Harry could hear Hermione trying to stifle a giggle.
Now McGonagall was giving the students the usual cautions -- no going into the Forbidden Forest, no venturing out after curfew. Rather more than the usual cautions, in fact. "You'll see barriers in places which are still considered unsafe. In particular, the old Potions wing is off limits to all students and staff as well. I cannot stress strongly enough how important it is to heed any barriers you see. Any student caught trying to cross a barrier will be expelled immediately." Harry looked around, hoping the barriers would be easy to spot; he hadn't seen any yet.
"The Gryffindors are all right -- as all right as Gryffindors ever get, anyway," Malfoy went on, nodding at Lupin, "because Fenris understands the history of the place." Harry set his teeth at the cruel nickname. "But the rest of the houses -- look at them. I told you so, 'Mione. They're parodies of themselves."
Hermione shot Harry a fondly impatient look over Malfoy's head. "Draco believes the Sorting Hat is somehow reacting to the wishes of the Heads of House," she said. "And he's not happy with the Headmistress's choices for Heads."
There was no need to wonder who Malfoy thought was a better candidate for Slytherin head, Harry thought as the table was cleared for dessert -- no, wait, pudding.
A Malfoy was out for himself, first, last, and always. It was strangely reassuring to know some things hadn't changed.
On to Chapter 2
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