Chapter 5: It Isn't the Train That’s Off the Rails
September 1st, 1997
If Platform 9 ¾ is a hostile, barren wasteland, where even the steam billowing around the station is clotted with fear, inside the Hogwarts Express looks almost the opposite. Oh, the fear’s still there, as it is everywhere; it permeates the walls and the curtains, floating around like an invisible plague. But even so, the halls are more crowded than Ginny has ever seen them; students are zig-zagging in and out of compartments in a frenzy, and the fifty-something voices whispering at once remind her of ghosts, in a way. In two ways; their haunting echo, and their overwhelming sense of foreboding.
While she once could have submitted a request to the popularity gods to be qualified as a Compartment Hopper (and by once, she means during the three-year span in which she replaced excessive self-loathing for excessive forced-turned-natural-confidence), she hoped to fly under the radar today, or at least avoid the gossips (especially one in particular, whose name rhymes with Schmomilda Schmane) and the questions she’s sure to be asked. Questions about Harry, with his stupid wiry frame and his ridiculous glasses and his annoying sense of humor and his horrible smile….
She tried to arrive early enough (with just her mother to say goodbye to, as her brothers and father are at work, keeping up appearances) to duck into the train, grab an empty compartment at the back and shut herself in it until someone she trusted appeared. But she was running late this morning as usual, and the only person to blame for landing in this situation is herself. If the busy corridors aren’t enough, the haunted whispers rise to a crescendo the moment she steps through the door, her peers scrambling to discuss the arrival of such a spectacle:
“Oh shite, look, it's Ginny.”
“Is Potter with her? What about Granger and Weasley?”
“Is she by herself? I don't think I've ever actually seen her without another ginger. Blimey, I guess they really aren't coming back.”
“Good riddance. We don’t need any more of their trouble here.”
“What d’you reckon happened between her and him? I saw them looking upset at the funeral. You think they broke up?”
“...They were at a funeral. D’you think maybe that’s the reason they looked upset?”
“–probably ran into some relationship problems. You know, seeing as he’s a fugitive.”
“Think I've got a chance in hell?”
“Shut up, you arsehole.”
“Bet she's got some inside information, you know, about the resistance. Her family’s got to be deep in it.”
“You think Ron and Hermione are with him? Or did they just finally sod off and get hitched?”
She forgot how long the Hogwarts Express is.
But she’s used to being the spectacle; she’s been a spectacle since the age of 12, for reasons that span the entire spectrum of good and bad. She’s heard most of it before. (Though, as any spectacle knows, acclimation does not equal indifference.) What’s worse is what else she hears:
“–can’t believe Snape is Headmaster, for fuck’s sake. There goes my plan to call McGonagall Headmeowstress.”
“Well thank Merlin for Snape then, because that’s terrible.”
“What’re the odds that Potter shows his face?”
“Dunno, but I hope he does. If they capture him, this’ll all be over”
“You read who they put in as minister after Scrimgeour resigned?”
“Yeah, Pius Thicknesse. Me dad used to work with him. Says he makes Fudge look like a well-adjusted, natural born leader.”
“And you know that Umbitch has got to be running the show from behind the curtain. She and You-Know-Who.”
“The whole establishment is going down with them. Dad says they’ve already rolled back amendments that require muggle-borns and werewolves be provided with legal counsel.”
“...Everything’s falling to shite.”
“Did you hear about Ollie Rivers? They rounded up his whole family last week.”
“Morag MacDougal told me she got a scribbled letter from him that said he was being taken into custody by Aurors and when she wrote back, he never responded.”
“But...why’d they go after him?”
“Dunno. I know that his mum’s a muggle-born that got high up in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, and his dad’s a muggle. Maybe that’s why they did it. Political rivals and the like.”
“Or it could be because they’re going after all the Muggle-borns, idiots.”
“Well, then why did Ned Jenkins walk down the corridor just a minute ago?”
“But... they’re not actually going after all muggle-borns, just political opponents like Potter. Right?”
“Yeah. Yeah, definitely. The ones that are against him. The other ones should be fine. Yeah.”
“My brother says that he hasn’t seen either of the Singhs yet. D’you reckon they’ve been taken?”
“Taken?! You’re so dramatic, Des.”
“I heard Priya talking to Ian Fleming at the funeral about what was gonna go down. And neither of them are here. My bet is that they’re on the run.”
“Merlin, ‘on the run’. It’s like a bad pulp fiction novel.”
“But everything’s going to be okay, right? It’ll be okay?”
The more she hears, the more it’s clear that crowded is not the right description. It may be hectic and rowdy, but the gaps in circles of friends are nearly as emotionally evident as they are physically. At each compartment window, she tallies all the empty seats, all the spaces on the luggage shelves left open. Hogwarts is big, but it isn’t that big. She knows exactly which person is missing from each place.
She’s so busy glaring at the gaping holes in the Hogwarts canvas and mulling over everything she just heard (why Ollie Rivers? He’s nice, like really nice. His nose is crooked from when he broke it during a particularly competitive game of chess in his third year, and even though it actually made him even cuter, he never passes up the opportunity to joke about the “obvious” resemblance between him and Snape. He’s the kind of person that says “Opa!” whenever anyone dropped anything…) that she almost doesn’t notice the head of bright blonde hair and the unmistakable sounds of a toad croaking in the compartment she’s passing.
Ginny skids to a stop so aggressively she nearly trips over her bags, and launches herself through the door, grabbing Luna and an unsuspecting Neville into a haphazard group hug.
“Woah, h– hey,” Neville says in a jumble, smiling with tight lips, face flushed. One of his arms awkwardly hovers over her shoulder as the other desperately tries to squirm away from any of her and Luna’s controversial body parts. She swallows down a laugh.
“I honestly don’t know if I’m happy or scared to see you both here,” Ginny says gleefully, pulling back and beaming at each of them.
“Why wouldn’t we be here?” Luna asks, pale eyes bearing into hers under scrunched translucent eyebrows. She gives Ginny an odd pat on the ear. “It’s not us they’re after. Not yet.”
“Ooh, love that optimism,” Ginny says brightly. Neville scratches his chin nervously.
“So,” he says quietly, leaning forward, and Ginny is ready for this question, has a carefully crafted face for it in her back pocket. But she wouldn’t do that to Neville. Instead, she gives him another kind of Look.
“Isn’t it awful that Ron can’t be here for his last year, coming down with such a nasty case of Spattergroit so fast?” she says steadily, not once breaking eye contact with Neville. “Such a shame.”
A current of understanding flickers between them. “...Yeah. Yeah, I heard,” he replies, mouth pulled down into a heavy frown. “Such a shame."
“That is a shame,” Luna says absentmindedly, picking some dirt from beneath her fingernail. “There are some simple remedies to Spattergroit that I could have shown him. Any gallbladder would do, assuming he’s still a virgin. Although he probably would never take any advice from me.”
Thank Merlin for Luna. Ginny grins at her friend, and she’s trying to come up with something even weirder to say so she can play her favorite game– who can make Neville more bewildered (Luna is the reigning champion, and she isn’t even aware the game is being played)– when the compartment door slides open, and Vicky Frobisher, one of Ginny’s dorm mates, flits in.
“Vicky! Alright?” Ginny asks, cataloguing Vicky’s cheeky blonde bob and wide, pink lip-glossed grin under half-bloods-that-will-probably-be-okay in her new internal filing system.
“Yes, hello,” Vicky responds nonchalantly, but the way she purses her lips and raises her eyebrows means she’s got something to spill. “It’s good to see that you’re all still alive! I can’t wait to hear all about your summers,” she gestures at all of them, but she’s only looking at Ginny. Ginny has to clamp down on the urge to roll her eyes; in her excitement at seeing another unmarred familiar face, she momentarily forgot how bloody nosy Vicky could be. Not destructive nosy like Romilda, but still… nosy.
“Anyway,” Vicky continues briskly. She reaches back through the sliding door and catches hold of someone’s arm, “I wanted to let you know who’s here, despite the lecture you gave her last term, which I thought was very effective.”
She pulls the arm through the door, and Vicky was right to have that expression on her face, because with the arm comes a person attached, and that person, unfortunately for Ginny, is Mel, stumbling, grumbling and blowing stray dark strands of hair out of her face with all the grace of a person being dragged against their will.
Mel yanks her arm from Vicky’s grip, glaring. “Jesus, Vicky.” She turns to the compartment with a guilty smile. “Hiya,” she says, then shifts her attention solely to Ginny. “Hey Ginx. Looks like you’re not exactly chuffed to see me either.”
“Oh bloody hell, Mel,” Ginny groans, and even as her stomach plummets, she automatically rolls her eyes at the ridiculously punny nickname (of a nickname!) that her friend has adamantly called her since the time she accidentally jinxed her toes together in second year.
(Second year when, two months in, Mel plopped down next to a perpetually sulking Ginny in their dormitory and said, in the child version of her thick Mancunian accent, “everyone thinks you’re scary now, but you can’t be that much of a fright. You’re the size of a baby deer at best, and I saw you spill porridge on your lap at breakfast. Scary people don’t spill things. Anyway, want to listen to some Whitney Houston? Do you not know who she is? Oh, she’ll make you feel things you never thought you could.”)
Ginny tries her best to remain calm. “What are you doing here?”
Mel glares at her and huffs out a deep, dramatic sigh. “Do we have to do this now?” She rubs her temples dramatically. “I am not in the right headspace for this– or anything, for that matter. The world’s a dumpster fire, and I’m so cut up about Princess Di...”
“Why, did you know her?” Vicky asks eagerly, ignoring all the logic in the world for a juicy scoop.
Mel scrunches her face at Vicky in disbelief. “What? No, Vicky– what? No! It’s just really bloody sad! And it just… makes you think, you know? I mean– back to your original question,” she points at Ginny, her eyes growing wide, “what are any of us doing here, really? People live their whole lives not knowing the answer to that question. But in the end, aren’t we all just itty bitty little ants, walking along a fragile piece of string? I think I read that somewhere–”
“Nope,” Ginny interrupts angrily. “I didn’t get a ticket for this show. Answer the bloody question.”
“But I really am upse–”
“Fine! What does it bloody look like? I’m going to school,” Mel says, still stalling, gesturing to the train around her, barely attempting to keep a straight face. Ginny and Vicky exchange exasperated looks.
“I don’t think that’s what she means, Mel,” Luna pitches in from her seat by the window. “Ginny wants to know why you’re on the way to Hogwarts. Because you are a muggle-born. And since You-Know-Who took over the Ministry– which I still think was only made possible from dirty dealings with the Eastern European vampire clans– it is likely that things will be much more difficult than usual for muggle-borns this year.”
Mel bites back a smile. “Thanks, Luna. Finally, someone tells me what’s really going on,” she says wryly.
“Happy to help,” Luna smiles.
“Right,” Vicky clicks her tongue decisively. “So now that you’re all on the same page, I’m off to find Owen. I hope you sort things out!” She finishes, with an almost-irreverence that is extraordinarily inappropriate for the circumstances but incredibly her. She wiggles her fingers at them and traipses off down the corridor.
Mel rolls her eyes at the air Vicky occupied and goes to trade another eye roll with Ginny, but she doesn’t find the shared sentiment that she’s searching for, just a stone-cold impression of Ginny’s mother’s best disappointed stare. It’s marginally successful, in that it puts Mel off enough that she switches tactics.
“Look,” she says defensively, “I know what we talked about, but I can’t just drop out of school! Also,” she gives Ginny an expectant look and shrugs, “I think there’s a chance you’re overreacting.”
“Overreacting?” Ginny repeats in disbelief, and swings around to face Neville. “Overreacting, she says to me!”
Neville doesn’t have any response besides a flustered shrug, so she grunts and turns back to Mel. “I know you know that Scrimgeour didn’t ‘resign’. I know you know that Professor Burbage didn’t leave to ‘spend more time in the country’. I know you know these things!”
“Of course I know, Ginny, I’m not delusional,” Mel says, stung at the implication, dropping the nickname like she always does when rubbed the wrong way. “But my parents don’t understand what’s happening in the magical world, and even if they did they would never let me leave school, not when I only have two years left. I can't sacrifice my education just because something might happen.”
“Actually, since you seem to have all the answers, tell me,” she raises her eyebrows at Ginny, turning her hands up in askance, “what’s going to happen?” She snorts sarcastically, “What, will Priscilla Rosier glare extra hard at me now? Are Malfoy and his little skinhead groupies gonna shout ‘mudblood’ louder than usual or, god forbid, get creative with their insults? Lord knows Snape’s already scraping the barrel of intolerance, but maybe he can sink even lower, who knows? Really, what do you think is going to happen?” She wields her wit like a friendly dagger, razor-sharp but pulling its jabs, demanding an answer that neither Ginny nor anyone else is equipped to give.
Ginny sighs heavily, accepting her role in this part of the conversation. “I don’t know,” she says.
Mel gives Ginny an old, fond smile. “I know you don’t. Nobody knows which way is the wrong way to run,” she says, and then she shrugs, going for indifference. “Look, I’m not new to this game– in fact, I am fucking ancient to it. I know all the tricks. I haven’t let them get to me before and I’m not gonna let them now just because they have… Darth Vader on their side.”
What the–? Ginny looks at Neville quizzically, and mouths, Darth Vader? He shrugs.
Mel snorts and shakes her head. “Never mind,” she says, then goes straight back to the subject at hand. “Besides, with the letter I–”
“What are you talking about?” Neville interrupts. “What letter?” He turns towards Ginny. “I didn’t get a letter, did you get a letter?”
That’s a lot of questions to throw at a single person all at once. She draws back, gives him a look, and says, “No, Neville, but if you wait a second, I think we’re about to find out the answers to all of those questions.”
Neville flushes. “Right, yeah– sorry. Right.”
Mel reaches into her jacket pocket and struggles to free an over-folded wad of parchment from the tight jean material. Ginny raises her eyebrows at her, and Mel rolls her eyes.
“No, I haven’t been carrying it around with me everywhere; I just know how to prepare for a fight with… you– dammit! Why do they make these pockets so tight? Who can put anything in here? Ugh– finally, here,” she says, wrenching it out and handing it over to Neville.
“Do we have a copy of this letter?” Klein interrupts, the first of the judges to speak. Her voice is throaty and rich, with a broad accent that Ginny knows is from New York, even though she has only heard it before through Anthony’s imitation of his father.
“The prosecution enters into evidence one of the letters received by all Muggle-born students in the week prior to the start of the school year,” Hestia announces, as she passes up a creased, worn piece of parchment to the stand.
Ivanova gives their little witness box a lingering gaze as she passes the letter to Kingsley. “And to whom did this letter belong?” she asks, her deep, dark tone drawn tight by the friction of her accent. “Your friend…” she leads, waiting for them to fill in the gap, but there’s no use putting bait on a hook if the lake is frozen over.
“Like I said,” Ginny gives each word room to spare, “my friend handed Neville the letter.”
Ivanova pushes the two stray strands of her honey hair behind her ear as if it'll help her get a better look at Ginny. But then Kingsley clears his throat and smooths out the brittle parchment, preparing to read it aloud, and Ginny doesn’t even try to uphold staring contest customs. She doesn’t need to hear the letter again; it burned a blotchy scar into her memory the moment she saw it that day in the compartment, her and Luna reading over Neville’s shoulder.