The wealth of food the house-elves had prepared for the Sorting Feast looked as tempting as ever. Draco could barely bring himself to force down a biscuit, still trying to figure out how he was going to make it through his last year at school while the Dark Lord reigned not only the outside world but Draco’s own home.
Aunt Bella had sent him off to King’s Cross with the instruction to “Make me proud now, Nephew dearest.” Father had urged him to give word if he saw Potter on the train. Mother had said nothing, but her troubled eyes had besieged him to try his best not to draw attention to himself.
The trouble was, he could not afford to skirt positive attention.
The ride on the Hogwarts Express had been Potter-free and oddly quiet apart from the search interrupting its journey two hours in. Draco had spent most of it trying to find out which of the young witches was supposed to be Head Girl and thus his counterpart because of course the position had fallen to him. The train had seemed a lot emptier than usual; he had expected that. The full impact of the anti-Mudblood policy had not fully hit him until they had reached the castle and only three first-years had been Sorted, all into Slytherin.
The Mudbloods had always been part of the school. He had always derided them, despised them, perhaps occasionally envied them. For all that Slytherin House had pretended to have, taken pride in and rallied for purity among its ranks, there were Slytherins missing, too, and the reality of more than a third of Hogwarts’ students suddenly gone was inconceivable. Draco frequently caught Millicent staring at the empty places. Her expression was one of smug pride at her brother’s Sorting and the badge that no one had anticipated to ever ornate her chest, covering up incomprehension and terror.
Only the teacher’s table was as crowded as ever. Surprisingly, Hagrid seemed to still be there, Professor Trelawney looked as if she would rather not be there, and there was a woman Draco had never paid attention to, never acknowledged the existence of, but now that he had watched her die he could not help but remark her absence. He identified her replacement, and this, too, he had vaguely anticipated. The new School Board had appointed a Carrow twin, and the other was seated beside her.
The school had had a few days before these past summer holidays to just barely grow accustomed to Dumbledore’s absence, but Draco had not, despite having witnessed the old wizard’s death. He felt strangely reassured at the sight of Snape rising from the very chair that had once held Dumbledore and that for preciously few days must have belonged to Professor McGonnagal.
Professor Snape stood tall as he announced “The beginning of a new Age” and proceeded to instruct his students about the upcoming term, about what would be allowed this year and not, about expectations of conduct in and out of the common rooms, what certain subjects were now called and other changes to the curriculum, voice low, proud and piercing. About halfway through the speech a parchment appeared on their empty plates, a small concession that most would be too disconcerted to really listen. The derogatory annotations were – Draco thought – mere decoration.
All four house tables were eerily quiet as students and teachers consumed their meals. The atmosphere at the Gryffindor table seemed especially subdued. Their number had been decimated the most; almost half the benches’ usual occupants were missing, and three adjoining empty seats in particular were making an impression, almost as if they had had Potter’s, Granger’s and Weasley’s names attached to them.
The faces of most non-Slytherins were angry, resigned, devastated, terrified. They all had to have known what things would be like upon their return, but still everyone appeared moving through a fog. Every member of Dumbledore’s old teaching staff looked drawn and impassive, but behind their veneer Draco thought he could almost sense the resistance. They were waiting for now, patient. For the first time he could remember Draco let himself believe the teachers might want the best for all the children because this seemed close to the brand of very skilfully suppressed fury he knew had possessed his mother all summer long.
The teachers were watching the Gryffindor table, some anxious – Flitwick, McGonnagal – some eagerly – the Carrows – all as if waiting for one of Potter’s sycophants making a stand on this very first evening. If Draco had not been trained by Narcissa Malfoy, had not let himself be put through a very thorough summer seminar in body language, he might have called the expression on the new headmaster’s face indifferent as he, too, let his eyes scour the Gryffindor table. Letting his eyes jump between that table and Snape’s face like a hiccoughing Snitch, his gaze successively landed on each Gryffindor’s drawn face before it all but settled between Longbottom and the sole remaining Weasley.
That evening Draco crawled into bed with a barely mumbled “G’night” while Blaise and Vincent of all people were still debating what they called “The virtues of our Lord’s immortality.” He understood Blaise putting up a good front in face of danger, but Zabini had no idea what he was talking about. As little as Draco wanted to discuss what had been happening at home over the summer, he knew his peers would not really be able to grasp it regardless and, if he ever had, he no longer knew if he could trust them.
He felt as if every wizard and witch in the castle had trampled on his soul. When he finally fell asleep, what kept him from screaming himself awake from twisted dreams was the memory of the resolve on Neville Longbottom’s face.