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Play the Game

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September the first dawns just after six, the sky slowly changing from a chilling blackness to a light, pretty grey that reminds Hannah of ashes at a dead fire as she sits at the kitchen table nursing a mug of tea that had gone cold long ago, staring at an empty vase which would probably have contained flowers a year ago. She doesn’t remember how long she’s been sitting here, and she doesn’t keep track of how much longer she stays there, but when Dad makes his unsteady, bleary way down the stairs it’s somehow ten-thirty and she has to be at the platform in half an hour, so it’s probably a good thing that she did her packing last night when she found herself tossing and turning in her suddenly suffocating bed, unable to fall into the blissful oblivion of sleep.

“Morning,” she says, trying not to disturb the air, watching him stumble into the kitchen. He blinks at her and returns the greeting as she pushes a cup of coffee at him over the table. It’s cold, just like her own tea, but from the way that he gulps it down she doesn’t think that he notices.

“So,” he says, voice still rough from sleep as she returns to the exciting task of swirling the dregs of her tea around the bottom of her mug and tries to ignore how suffocating the silence gets. “You’re going back to Hogwarts today.”

It’s more of a statement than a question, but Hannah still nods in confirmation and mumbles, “Yeah.”

She worries about him. She’s been at home with him ever since Mum’s death – everyone called it an accident, a tragic accident, a spell gone wrong at the market, and Hannah believes them because there’s really no other alternative. Dad’s increasingly frequent drunken ramblings invariably involve Death Eaters, but she’s sure that if the Death Eaters had become powerful enough to be responsible for the death of nineteen people she would have heard about it, cancelled newspaper subscriptions or no. Besides, she can’t imagine that anyone would target their family.

It’s been months, now, and Dad still can’t cook, forgets to sleep, doesn’t wake up when he should. She’s heard him, sometimes, pacing in his room at unearthly hours.

She doesn’t understand why Hogwarts has suddenly become compulsory for every young witch and wizard in Hogwarts, and hates it. Some of her feelings must bleed into her gaze because his stance softens a little and he tells her, “You don’t have to worry about me, Hannah. I’ll be fine.” She nods again, and hopes that he can’t see how false the gesture is, because she can see the red in his eyes and she’d heard his mumbling through the walls last night. “Do you need a lift?” It’s a purely symbolic offer, because he hasn’t been out of the house in months, and she wouldn’t trust him to drive her to King’s Cross if he was actually willing to.

“It’s okay, I can get myself there,” she tells him instead.

“Bye, then,” he says, walking upstairs, empty cup of coffee still in hand. Hannah watches him go and tries to keep her mouth from twisting downwards, tries to remind herself of the emotional turmoil that he’s going through; still, it hurts that he would let her go so easily.

“Bye, Dad,” she calls halfheartedly up the stairs. If he responds, she doesn’t hear it.

When she gets up, a good ten minutes later according to the clock on the wall, both of her knees crack loudly and she winces, and with a wave of her want her trunk comes flying down the stairs. She leaves her house with a pop that is quieter than the crack of her knees, and tries not to feel too guilty about the relief that she feels when she stumbles onto Platform Nine and Three-Quarters, heading back to Hogwarts and away from her dead, empty home.

For a second, the quiet swell of everyone on the platform surrounds her, and the familiarity of having so many people surrounding her is comforting. She takes a deep breath and starts to fight her way towards the scarlet steam engine, and halfway to her destination she hears, “Oh, Hannah.” It’s barely another moment before she finds herself with Susan’s arms wrapped around her, and forgets entirely about getting on the train.

The guilt evaporates entirely, and now all she feels is relief as the world narrows down to now, this moment and this contact, hugging her best friend – “Oh, Susan,” she returns in the same tone, only half sarcastic. “I missed you,” she says into Susan’s shoulder, even though Susan knows that, because it’s something that needs to be said.

“I’m sorry I stopped writing,” Susan says, and seems to flounder a little. “It’s just, you know –”

“No, I get it,” Hannah tells her, even though it’s a lie and she really, really didn’t get why her best friend stopped writing to her, but she didn’t have an owl of her own to ask what was going on, and her house had been large and empty. Days stretching in front of her without the prospect of letters from her best friend had been almost unbearable.

“I know. I just – I missed you, too.” Susan lets her go, and Hannah has the opportunity to take in her new appearance; hair that had previously reached her lower back was now cut to her jaw, and she was thinner than Hannah remembered. Her eyes had bags under them. “So. Let’s find a compartment, and you can tell me all about your summer.”

In hindsight, she should have noticed something then, while she was still on the platform. She should have seen how people were being so much quieter about their goodbyes and their reunions, and how even the smoke coming from the Hogwarts Express seemed downcast. She should have noticed the dark-robed people who were at the edge of the platform, watching the crowd with varying levels of attention. She should have picked it up immediately, and later she will smack herself for her obliviousness, but she had spent the better part of a year at home, with her father, barely going outside. She’d let her Daily Prophet subscription expire after barely a month and allowed Dad’s subscription to the local newspaper run out as well, and even if she had known what was going on, all of her attention had been fixed on Susan.

So she doesn’t see any of the signs that are so obvious on the platform, and she doesn’t observe the people watching them as they board the train and find a compartment. She doesn’t even notice that anything’s wrong until her train ride is interrupted, just under an hour into the trip.

“What’s happening here,” someone says, obviously bored, slamming open the compartment door and ignoring the screech of protest that comes from the hinges. It’s not a question, and Susan seems to expect this, only looking up while Hannah almost bounces off her seat with the shock.

“Nothing,” she says. “We’re catching up.” Hannah can only sit and watch, mouth open in shock, as one of the adults – a thin man with blank eyes and a cruel twist to his mouth – opens their cases and casts a series of spells on them both before he nods at the other man in the door and both of them leave, slamming the door hard enough to make Hannah jump again.

“What – what was that?” she asks in disbelief. “What – Susan, what? What just happened?”

“You really don’t know anything that’s going on,” Susan says, looking at Hannah with the oddest look on her face – it’s only six years of friendship which allow Hannah to decipher a sort of jealousy there, like Susan envies her ignorance. Ignorance is bliss, she remembers, and that expression on Susan’s face is the first thing that tells her she needs to be afraid.

“No, I don’t – Susan, who were they?” she asks, her voice almost cracking.

“Death Eaters,” Susan tells her, and there is probably nothing on earth which would have shocked Hannah more. “Hannah, they’ve taken over Hogwarts.”

She’s heard about You-Know-Who, Voldemort, through whispers and stories and the DA the year before last, but – nobody had taken those rumours seriously, people had gone to serious lengths to discredit them, and the death of the DA last year had made everybody think that it had always been more about taking their education into their own hands rather than fighting a war. The possibility of You-Know-Who seemed absurd, but Susan looks deathly serious, and abruptly Hannah wonders how much truth was in her dad’s constant suspicions.

Then she realises that the pause between them has gone on for far too until long, and Hannah finally asks in a tiny voice, “What about Dumbledore?” Absently, she realises that she’s shrinking into herself, and also that it really won’t do her any good.

Susan regards her with sad eyes. “Hannah, you really should have kept up the Daily Prophet subscription,” she says, and her voice is so gentle that Hannah knows what comes next will be bad.

“No,” she murmurs, trying to keep it at bay, but Susan keeps talking.

“Dumbledore’s dead, Hannah. He – ¬fell,” she says in a tone that makes it abundantly clear that it wasn’t an accident, “off the Astronomy Tower. There was a funeral. Snape’s the Headmaster now. They’ve got the Prophet under their control, too, so nobody’s actually said it out loud, but – everyone knows that Hogwarts is under You-Know-Who’s control now.” She pauses for a moment to let this sink in, and when the horrified expression on Hannah’s doesn’t lift, she asks, “Why did you think they made it compulsory for everyone to come back?”

“Is this why you stopped writing me?” Hannah asks, and her voice is still small. She knows that the news she’s been given should be rocking her world, and yet all she can focus on is that maybe Susan actually had a reason for stopping her letters. Susan stops her explanation with a look of horror dawning on her face.

“Hannah, I’m so sorry,” she says. “I’m so – I thought you knew what was happening. I never wanted you to think – oh no, Hannah, what did you think of me?”

Hannah practically tosses herself at her best friend at this pronouncement. “I thought you forgot about me,” she says into Susan’s robes. “I thought – I don’t know. I thought I said something wrong in one of my replies, maybe.” A summer of worrying was all for nothing, she thought giddily, a stupidly large smile on her face, and she was absurdly happy about it.

“I would never,” Susan says fervently, and Hannah can feel Susan’s hands on her back. “I was just scared they would grab a letter and a quote and twist it out of context, Hannah, that’s all. I’m sorry I didn’t keep writing. I should have.”

“No, you’re right,” Hannah said, and she can’t even muster up anger at Susan. She hardly ever can. “It sounds – it sounds like the entire country’s under his control. It was smart of you not to give them anything to use against you. God knows you have the motive to do something like that.” Susan sags against her a little, and the two of them pull away from each other.

“It pretty much is,” Susan says. “The country, I mean. He’s been killing Muggles – I suppose you didn’t read Muggle newspapers either?” Her hand finds Hannah’s as Hannah shakes her head. “I’m sorry,” Susan says. “You’re going to have to go through a reality check really quickly.” Hannah nods, but Susan is her best friend and Susan didn’t forget about her and Susan’s hand is in hers, and that is most of what she can focus on.

Hannah quickly finds that the horror of having Death Eaters as train-supervisors wears off quickly when they try to step out of the compartment only to get glared back in, the trolley lady fails to appear at their cabin door, and the Death Eaters themselves conduct spot checks, popping their heads in compartments at the most inconvenient times.

Honestly,” Hannah hisses as their compartment door closes for the eighth time and Hogsmeade station mercifully comes into view. “Don’t they have anything better to do than terrorise seventeen-year-olds? We’re not going to offer them much of a fight.”

“Shh,” Susan tells her, and doesn’t need to say any more; Hannah closes her mouth and grinds her teeth together unhappily. She can almost taste copper and salt in her mouth as she bites the inside of her cheek, but she doesn’t pierce the skin and instead her cheek just grows sore.

“I’m sorry,” she sighs, looking over at Susan and seeing how tense she is, how she’s constantly looking around as though she expects another spot check, or for watchers and eavesdroppers to jump out of the wall. “Susan, I’m sorry. I’ll keep my mouth shut.”

“You do that,” Susan says, smiling a little – it’s pale and thin and fades almost immediately, and Hannah wouldn’t even have counted it as a smile if they were still young and happy and still in third year or something, but it’s the closest that she’s come since they’ve boarded the train, so Hannah counts it as a win.

“Attention, students,” Professor – no, Headmaster Snape says, standing behind the podium and raising his arms for silence; he looks like an awkwardly winged crow, Hannah thinks as spitefully as she can. Professor Dumbledore had always allowed them to eat before making lengthy speeches, but it appears as though Snape is determined to be as different from his predecessor as possible.

She listens idly as Snape introduces the new Hogwarts prefect system, which is comprised almost solely of Slytherins, with the occasional Ravenclaw or Hufflepuff for diversity purposes, and the two new teachers, and tells them that Muggle Studies and the Dark Arts are going to be compulsory subjects for all students. It’s a testament to how scared the Hall is that the most resistance this announcement meets is grumbling, predictably from the Gryffindor table. This is ignored by the rest of the Hall, including the staff table, although Hannah thinks she can see McGonagall’s hands tightening around her cutlery.

“A reminder,” Snape says drily, to wrap up his speech, “that mealtimes are to be spent in silence.” He sits down in a seat that looks wrong behind him, and when Hannah looks around everyone is picking silently at their food.

The Sorting Feast passes in a haze of sullen silence, and when Hannah looks up at the staff table, Professor Sprout is looking down at her food with tight lips and a pale face. The rest of the professors look similarly strained, and she averts her gaze, feeling like it’s wrong to see her Professors as anything other than perfectly put together, as though by seeing them so tense she’s intruding on a private moment, which is ridiculous because this is the Sorting Feast and they’re in the middle of the Great Hall.

“You should eat,” Ernie says gently from her right, and she jumps at the noise, even though it was anything but loud. He watches her with kind eyes.

“I – yeah,” Hannah says, and mechanically shoves a forkful of something she doesn’t register into her mouth. “I’m not that hungry,” she says quietly, and it’s true, her appetite is gone even though the last thing she ate was breakfast that morning, which had consisted of an overly strong cup of tea nursed for several hours. Ernie squeezes her arm, and she gives him a shaky smile.

“Are you okay?” Susan asks quietly once they’ve found their way back to their dorm room, leaving most of their housemates in the common room to talk freely for the first time since getting back.

“No,” Hannah says, refusing to be ashamed of it. “Dad – he kept getting drunk,” she starts, after a silence. Susan comes to sit next to her, a line of warmth against Hannah’s right side. “He kept saying that it was Death Eaters that – caused the accident.”

“What did you think?” Susan asks, still quiet, still pressed against Susan’s side. Hannah shrugs.

“I thought – I – they all said it was an accident,” she says weakly. She hates herself a little bit for believing them, for wanting so badly for their pretty words to be true that she ignored the alternatives, for being so naïve. “Everyone. Except him. Everyone said it was an accident.” She can hear them now, crowding in her house after the funeral, dressed in black and squeezing her hand as they murmur about tragic accidents. They’d given her tea. She’d gotten through most of it, but there were still some boxes at the back of the kitchen cupboard. “I wanted to believe them,” she admits. “It was easier.”

“Did you ever find out any more?” Susan asked. She has Hannah’s hand in both of hers, drawing absent patterns on the skin of her palm because she knows that physical contact helps Hannah.

“No,” Hannah says. Dad’s words have crawled into her head now – no spells they use in markets would clash so violently, he’d said, nothing but a planned destruction spell could’ve caused that kind of damage – and she wonders whether any of them hold any truth. She wonders whether her perpetually calming, disbelieving hums which she’d tried to use to calm him into quiet had made him worse.

“We should go to sleep,” Susan says. “Lessons start tomorrow.”

“I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep,” Hannah says bleakly. Dad’s voice in her head says they said the spell reaction created force but there were burns on her body. She’d dismissed him so easily, drunk and crazy with grief.

Megan slips into the dorms then, looking small and alone without Sally-Anne or Sophie, who’d been her constant companions before both of their families had left England for places unknown but almost certainly safer. She takes one look at Hannah and Susan and comes forward to hug them both, as much for her own benefit as theirs. “I’m scared,” she says into the hug, the words coming out fast and rushed.

“Me too,” Hannah says, and Susan nods.