He hated to leave them, but they were short on food, and due to the nature of their concealment, the Potter family could receive no visitors for any reason, even if they wished to. The Fidelius Charm’s secrecy was so complete that those under its protection could be found by neither friend nor foe—no matter how close they came to being discovered. James was grateful that Albus had responded to the threat on his family’s lives with such decisive action and powerful magic, but he still missed his friends. As someone that had spent fully half of his life in the company of a particular group of people, it was incredibly difficult to make that transition.
It was a curious mixture of fear and love that kept him cooped up in a tiny house near a Muggle town of no consequence, when what he really wanted to do was fight. Time seemed to simultaneously fly by and drag on at depressing speeds, when one had no connection with the outside world… he’d found that out after the first week. Even visits from Peter had become a rare commodity; his visits were few and unexpected (likely due to the stir-crazy attitude his best friend displayed the last time he’d arrived); James couldn’t picture Wormtail reporting their utter lack of news to the Order in the same tone of voice he’d received it in.
Prongs expected that Pettigrew might have been more spirited in his replies at the time, had he not also been required to spend much of his time in hiding. He vowed to apologize to his friend the next chance he got—after all, they owed him a debt of gratitude for what he was doing for them.
‘Right. The food…’ As he tied his shoes the old-fashioned way in preparation to go out, the eldest Potter looked out of his bedroom window at the coming sunset and wished he could take the youngest Potter outside to fly into it, if only for a moment.
James kissed his wife and son goodbye and headed out the door of their small cottage, dressed as a Muggle for his trip to the grocery at the nearby village of Godric’s Hollow. Harry knew how to wave, and did so enthusiastically from the doorway in Lily’s arms, tugging at his father’s heartstrings and making both parents incredibly proud at the same time. Potter indulged his son by turning to wave back at least three times along the road, missing the last squeal of glee by virtue of being too far away.
The elderly woman who ran the Grocery undoubtedly thought he was a little soft in the head, and he played it up, asking for her assistance in counting out the Muggle money he owed her for the supplies he bought, rather than pretending he knew what he was doing. The last time he’d tried to look confident in such a situation had been on the train into the countryside, and though she’d tried to assure him that he’d been just fine, he could tell by his wife’s face that he’d been about as Muggle as a Quidditch player in full uniform. Lily was a lot better at this sort of thing—but James would rather have jumped in front of that very same train than allow her to leave the safety of their hideout for any reason.
It was a little bulky, having to carry the packages entirely without magic, but he managed, his arms aching and his back feeling a twinge by the time the cottage was in sight. He wasn’t superstitious, he didn’t take much stock to Divination, and he didn’t believe in premonitions—but James Potter knew something was wrong as soon as he reached the path that led to the small house. Perhaps it was the noise—or, rather, the complete lack of it, which was odd for a family with a baby. Perhaps it was the chill wind that blew past him in through the cracked door, or perhaps it was just the knowledge that all lovers hold in their soul when the ones they love are in danger—but James dropped everything he was carrying in the doorway, out of sight and mind as he raced into the house, icy terror replacing the blood in his veins.
The house was no longer quiet, and the voice he now heard sent waves of dread and anguish through his body. He took the stairs two at a time, not even knowing what he would do when he reached the top, other than throw his useless body before that of his wife and their precious son, and hope for a miracle.
It was already too late; when he burst through Harry’s bedroom door, all he saw was a bright flash of green and a swath of red. He knew he was dead, or soon to be, hearing the awful words and knowing what the glow of a successful spellcast looked like. James felt an incredible pain, as though the very essence of himself was being torn from his body forcibly, against his will. He saw in his mind’s eye the image from what he knew had to be his last moments on earth: the falling curtain of his wife’s hair.
“I see you’re wearing your Christmas sweater, too, Harry!” Neville Longbottom said, pointing at his own blue knitted sweater that sported an ‘N’ on the front. Harry Potter grinned at his best friend, looking down at his own ‘H’ and pulling at the neck a bit. It was rather snug—Molly Weasley didn’t seem to like the fact that her youngest children and their friends were growing up, and Harry wondered if she’d unconsciously knitted his sweater a size too small.
“I really wonder where she finds the time,” he mused, propping his feet up on the seat beside him and watching the last-minute activity in the train station through the train window.
“I can’t believe you two are actually wearing those,” Ginny Weasley remarked with mocking shock as she opened the door of their compartment. She squeezed into the tiny seat space next to Harry with the ease borne from years of friendship.
“Where’s yours, then?” Harry asked her bluntly, giving up and putting his feet back onto the floor to give her enough space to sit. “You could have asked me to move over,” he pointed out.
“You could have left more space,” she said, poking a bony elbow into his side with a cheeky grin on her face, adding casually, “I gave my sweater to Arnold.” At this, Neville looked up at her quickly, then down at his tightly-knit sweater (which, now that Harry looked at it more closely, seemed to fit him perfectly…), a gesture done without much attempt to hide his meaning—which earned him a pair of narrowed eyes from Ginny.
Harry was glad that she’d decided to leave her pet Pygmy Puff elsewhere for the trip back to Hogwarts, as it seemed to delight in nibbling on his robes. Then again, if—judging by Neville’s reaction—it liked nibbling on knitted sweaters as well, he might have to change his mind.
“My, aren’t we cozy?” Ron Weasley stepped into the compartment sporting a thick maroon sweater with a large letter ‘R’ on it, causing the three current occupants to laugh at his appropriately timed entrance. “Do I even want to know?” he asked, looking from face to face for an indication of what had made his appearance so funny.
“I wonder how many skeins mum used on yours—you’re almost as tall as Bill, now!” Ginny eyed her brother critically.
“Height doesn’t have anything to do with sweaters…” Ron shook his head, looking as though he thought his sister might be daft as he seated himself beside Neville and across from her.
“She means your arms are long,” Hermione Granger informed him matter-of-factly from the doorway. “Any room left?”
“Not unless you want to sit on Harry’s lap,” Ginny offered slyly. “Actually,” the redhead amended, “I don’t know if I want to see that. I’ll sit on the floor.”
“That’s bound to be against the fire code…” Hermione wavered.
“Sit,” Ron ordered, pointing at the now vacant cushion beside Harry. “—unless you’d rather spend the train ride being mooned at by Dennis Creevey, that is.”
“So, how were your parents?” Harry asked Hermione politely. He’d always found her descriptions of her Muggle lifestyle during the holidays and as a small child fascinating, though he could tell that his friend didn’t much enjoy talking about it anymore. She was drifting away from her family, something he figured probably happened to all Muggle-born children. It was yet another thing he wished he could have talked to his own mother about.
As expected, Hermione made a face before answering, pulling him from his internal reflections and back to the cramped compartment.
“Apparently, I have a whole host of relatives that I ‘never get to see,’” his friend explained in a pained voice, “and they all decided to show up this year. I even have a five year old cousin named Alicia.”
Harry could tell that the little girl must have really done something awful to bring about thatreaction—Hermione was usually careful not to insult any members of her family.
“That bad?” Neville asked, apologizing in a soft voice to Ginny after stepping on her hand by accident.
“She spent two hours explaining to me about how special she was because some toy she got for Christmas can play back recorded messages.” Hermione snorted. “I’m usually good about acting ‘Muggle’ for the extended family, but all I wanted to do was shut her up by levitating the stupid thing out the window or something…‘Look what I can do!’” She sighed, even as the rest of them roared with laughter. “I guess it’s a good thing we can’t perform magic outside of school.”
“I never really understood that rule,” Harry admitted, ready for the inevitable indignant reaction.
“Well, it’s not really fair to allow some students to do it, but deny the others,” Neville pointed out reasonably.
“It’s not like I don’t know what I’m doing,” Harry continued, trying not to think about the mess he’d made trying to help his godfather Sirius with his old motorbike. He was just hopeless when it came to Muggle mechanics, or so it seemed. The two of them had been hoping at the time that his talent in flying would translate to anything that had the ability to fly—but he had been completely unable to figure out exactly what had gone wrong on that motorcycle.
Privately, he thought his father’s irate scolding on the subject had been completely unwarranted, considering the fact that he and Sirius hadn’t even managed to get the contraption to lift more than a foot off the ground.
“You wouldn’t understand what it’s like, Harry,” Hermione told him. “It’s second nature to you, to have those kinds of abilities.”
“If it makes you feel any better, Hermione—my Gram doesn’t let me do magic when I’m home from school,” Neville offered as consolation. Harry looked up in surprise.
“Not any?” he asked, realizing as he did so that it was a stupid question. Augusta Longbottom was a force to be reckoned with—and to her, rules were rules. He made a mental note not to so much as stir tea with magic on his next visit, just to be safe—even though, by then, he’d have graduated Hogwarts. It was never a good idea to cross Mrs. Longbottom.
“Now I know why you visit myself and the Weasleys so much,” he reflected aloud. Neville flushed, and Harry saw Ginny’s cheeks take on a slightly pink tinge as well, as she punched their friend’s foot in a sort of violent reassurance.
“Well, who wouldn’t want to let out their aggression by weeding the garden of those beastly gnomes,” she said, a trifle defensively.
“So, Harry,” Hermione began to say, caution evident in her body language as she eyed the hallway visible through the window of their compartment. “Any idea when the next meeting will be?”
Harry knew she was referring to the DA, the name having special meaning to all of the defense club’s members since the awful events of the last year. They’d been meeting as often as possible, now—events were moving quickly on the outside, and Harry had spent quite a bit of the Christmas holiday trying to glean what information he could from his father. What the Order of the Phoenix was up to, how much they knew about the current attacks in the Muggle world, and more importantly—what they were planning to do about it. James Potter had said how very proud he was of what Harry had accomplished with the DA, telling him privately that he and the rest of the Order considered it as almost a junior OotP, a student companion club to Order’s official opposition to Voldemort.
It had been hours later, in bed, that the young man realized his father had deftly parried every attempt at getting inside information.
“This week,” he replied firmly, refocusing his thoughts to Hermione’s question. “Though, from the looks of the number of students that boarded the train, we’ve lost a few more members.”
“Yeah—it’s hard for some parents to trust the school after what happened last year.” Ron looked down, as though he felt guilty even saying something like that, whether or not it was true.
“I believe it’s safe,” Ginny said with such quiet determination in her voice that Harry could hear both her mother’s faith and the girl’s own inner strength practically radiating from her words. The adamant assertion coming from someone sitting cross-legged on the floor and playing with a shoelace—Neville had noticed, Harry saw, but his friend had done nothing other than look secretly pleased—struck Harry as a perfect example of his youngest friend’s character.
“I for one am glad that the Headmistress decided to keep the school open,” Hermione said in a voice that did not invite discussion, looking up from her ever-present copy of The Daily Prophet. Ron coughed something that sounded exceedingly like ‘Head Girl,’ but Hermione ignored him. Nudging Ron, Neville took up the challenge.
“—And this has nothing to do with the fact that it’s the first time in the school history the Head Boy and Head Girl are both Muggle-born?” Longbottom asked innocently, his toothy grin meant to disarm her expected reaction.
“I’m proud that the faculty chose to reward the positions based on merit, yes,” Hermione replied, her jaw squaring slightly as she defended herself and her colleague. Justin Finch-Fletchley’s confirmation as Head Boy had been a surprise to many, but the normally quiet, reserved young man had stepped up to the responsibility with a dignity and competence that had earned even some Slytherin students’ grudging respect, Muggle-born or not.
“Well, if what happened my First year was an indication, Gryffindor will be the ones with a Head Boy next year,” Ginny said cryptically. When they all simply stared at her in confusion, she sighed deeply and added, “The basilisk? Both Hermione and Justin were petrified?”
Harry could tell that Hermione and Ginny had already talked about this, by the fact that the girls were the only ones without open, shocked (and, in Ron’s case, slightly baffled) mouths. In a really odd way, though, the two of them had a point—it seemed like, strangely, all of the students affected by the basilisk had in some way gone on to be prominent in one way or another… All of a sudden, a frightfully amusing thought struck him.
“I’d rather Mrs. Norris than Colin Creevey,” Harry said, shuddering slightly.
“You’re right, though—Penelope Clearwater was Head Girl too, wasn’t she?” he mused.
“Too bad Percy mucked it up and she dropped him,” Ron said with a mischievous little grin. “—or he could have continued the Gryffindor tradition…” he trailed off, sending Hermione a knowing look.
“Ronald, I can’t even begin to understa—” she started to reply with an exasperated look mixed with confusion.
“Harry’s parents,” Ginny said simply.
“Oh, Merlin—you’re right,” Hermione shot him an apologetic look, choosing to completely ignore the insinuation that she and Justin might be involved.
“It’s all right—loads of people grow up without—” Harry began to say before he realized who was also in the room. His voice trailed off as he suddenly had no idea where to look. Ginny had stopped fiddling with Neville’s shoelaces to look up at the young man carefully, Ron looked uncomfortable, and Hermione had a distressed expression on her face. Neville waved it all off, however.
“You’re right, Harry,” he said in a voice that sounded mostly calm, though a slight bit more high pitched than normal. “We’re lucky to have Grams and your dad, then, aren’t we?” Harry met his friend’s eyes, the two of them sharing the connection they’d felt since they were small children. He felt stupid for even worrying about how Neville would have seen his statement—after all, as much as it hurt to point out (and hurt Neville to see), Alice and Frank Longbottom were still alive.
“Yeah—until he starts assigning essays,” Ron said darkly, referring to Professor Potter’s propensity for written homework. “Just our luck your dad decides to go all serious on us right at the wrong time.”
“I think he does a great job as Transfiguration professor!” Hermione protested, tucking her newspaper carefully in her bag and removing a thick textbook. “The faculty at Hogwarts has always been top-notch—especially in your father’s year. Look at the great teachers that came from…” Hermione’s voice trailed off into an uneasy silence; one particular example had turned out to be the worst sort of person imaginable.
“Yeah, Remus was a great DADA professor,” Harry pointed out swiftly, trying to break the tension—and noting after he’d spoken that Hermione’s cheeks turned a little pink at his statement. He’d long suspected that Hermione had a bit of a crush on his father’s best friend, but hadn’t had much of a chance to observe her with him, as Hermione’s parents expected her to spend most of the summer and Christmas holidays with them.
“Professor McGonagall is really good at it, too,” Neville said—and Harry could hear the respect tinged with what he suspected was relief to be rid of the previous years’ experiences. He glanced over at Ron and the two of them shared a look of pride in the young man their friend had become. Never quite sure of himself, Neville had turned out to be quite talented in Defense Against the Dark Arts, once his fears in his own abilities had been appeased (and Harry thought that the two-week holiday the three boys had spent together with his dad, Sirius, and Remus that previous summer had a lot to do with that).
He and Ron thought the disappearance of Snape hadn’t hurt Neville’s confidence, either—but that thought always came paired with the awful price they’d all paid for misjudging their former professor. Privately, he’d begun to wonder just how much effect Voldemort’s curse on the DADA job may have had on the men and women who held it—but what he’d never admitted to any of his friends in the train car, male or female, was the fact that his father had been offered that job, first.
James had confided in his son that he’d managed to persuade the new Headmistress of a way to thwart the curse, in theory—if she hired professors for a single year, or even a half of a year, the conditions of the spell would be satisfied without any need for violence or betrayal. As it had turned out, however, no one had been brave enough to step forward to test it in practice, so Minerva McGonagall had taken it on herself to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts for the first semester.
“I wonder who we’ll end up with, this term,” Ginny pondered curiously, catching Harry’s expression and guessing correctly as to the subject of his reverie.
“Whoever it is, I hope they’re not prone to using memory charms, Inquisitorial Decrees, or housing Dark Lords in the back of their turbans,” Ron said, with dark humor.
Harry saw Hermione take a breath as though to answer scornfully, but he cut her off with a quip of his own. “If they have any hat whatsoever, I promise I’ll hex it straight off,” he promised with a straight face. The ensuing giggles that rang though the compartment carried them into the night and back to their second home.
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