Harry Potter and the Trouble With Neurotypicals 17

Harry Potter and the Trouble With Neurotypicals: Book Three.
Or, "Aspie Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban."

Note: I do not own this. J. K. Rowling does. This is just fan fiction. No money is being made.

Note 2: There may be a few bits and pieces lifted word-for-word from the canon material. I tried to do that as little as possible, though.

Note 3: I re-read this series recently, and OMG the number of continuity errors is embarrassing. I blame it on a combo of reading too much HP fanfic and having a poor memory.

Chapter 2: Trapped

Chapter 2: Trapped

The next morning was exciting as usual on school train days, with all the Weasleys, Harry, and Hermione getting ready. Harry figured he and Hermione held up the Weasleys with their hair care routines, since even wearing do-rags overnight (something the Dursleys had never let him do, because they said it made him look like more of a hooligan than usual, which just made his hair harder to manage), their hair took at least an hour to wrangle into some sort of order. Hermione just brushed hers out daily and washed it every 2 or 3 days, but Harry was starting to experiment with different hairstyles, made easier by some simple hair charms he was learning. Today he'd decided to go with dreadlocks, which – with a hair charm that Angelina Johnson had taught him – were pretty easy. Dreadlocks needed to be cleaned daily, but there was a hair-washing charm that would work without them losing their shape. Harry began wishing he'd thought of this the day before. One quick hair-washing charm and he'd have been ready to go already.

The fact that they were in London already helped speed things along, so there was some idleness and talking. Harry frowned as Mrs. Weasley told Ginny and Hermione about making a love potion when she was younger; he didn't like the sound of love potions, they sounded really creepy to him.

“I've got something to tell you,” Harry tried to tell Ron, but Ron was distracted; Percy had accused him of spilling tea on his picture of his girlfriend, and Ron was understandably sore about it. By the time Ron was paying attention again, the chaos of leaving was making it impossible to speak, so Harry decided to wait.

Once Hermione got Crookshanks inside the car in his cat basket and everyone got their trunks in the boot, everyone got inside the car. Even in the magically-expanded car, it was crowded with all of them in there. Especially since Ron and Percy had to sit together.

At the station, they took the barrier in pairs. Apparently remembering the incident of the barrier last year, Mr. Weasley went first with Harry, but there was no problem this year. Soon, the others joined them. Percy went looking for Penelope as soon as he came in. Harry focused on trying to keep a headache away as he helped get the trunks on the train.

When they got their stuff stowed in their compartment, they went back to say goodbye to the adults.

Mrs. Weasley kissed all her children, then Hermione, and finally, Harry. He was embarrassed, but really quite pleased, when she gave him an extra hug.

“Do take care, won’t you, Harry?” she said as she straightened up, her eyes oddly bright. Then she opened her enormous handbag and said, “I’ve made you all sandwiches. … Here you are, Ron … no, they’re not corned beef. … Fred? Where’s Fred? Here you are, dear. …”

“Harry,” said Mr. Weasley quietly, “come over here a moment.”

He jerked his head toward a pillar, and Harry followed him behind it, leaving the others crowded around Mrs. Weasley.

“There’s something I’ve got to tell you before you leave —” said Mr. Weasley, in a tense voice.

“It's fine. I already know what you're going to say.”

“You do? How could you?”

“Black is supposed to be after me, right? So yeah, I worked it out for myself,” Harry said, not wanting to admit he had overheard them. It was true, anyway. “You and Mrs. Weasley were so tense once we got back from Egypt, I knew something was up. You kept avoiding the papers, so I took out a subscription. And your worry seemed to be centered around me. So it wasn't difficult to work out. Plus, Draco confirmed it.”

Mr. Weasley's face turned stony. “Draco? You don't mean Draco Malfoy?”

“Yes. He's not like his father, Mr. Weasley, not anymore. He's my friend now, he's been going to MAC meetings, and he's been converted over to our side. His parents fight with him over it, and he's lost most of his previous friends because of it.”

“Oh. He told you, then? Well... it's not how I'd like you to find out.”

“It's fine,” Harry said. “I'm glad he did. He told me everything, you know. How Black betrayed my parents, supposedly.”

“He did betray them, Harry. He was their secret keeper.”

“Well Mr. Malfoy says that as far as he knew, Black wasn't a Death Eater, and Mr. Malfoy was one of Voldemort's top lieutenants, so he would know, wouldn't he?”

“Be that as it may, Harry, innocent men don't break out of prison. The Ministry thinks Black is after you, so you should avoid him if at all possible. Assume he is a threat, Harry.”

“I will be cautious, Mr. Weasley. I always am. And I never said I thought he was innocent, just that there's some doubt. Enough that he should have been given a trial, but apparently he never got one. Which tells me quite a lot about wizarding Britain's justice system, and nothing good.”

“Arthur!” called Mrs. Weasley, who was now shepherding the rest onto the train. “Arthur, what are you doing? It’s about to go!”

“He’s coming, Molly!” said Mr. Weasley, but he turned back to Harry, talking in a low and hurried voice. “Well unfair or not, avoid the man. He is still an escaped prisoner, been in Azkaban for 12 years, so he's bound to be a bit unhinged even if he is somehow innocent.”

“Don't worry, Mr. Weasley, I'll be cautious. I'll stay in the castle and be good. I promise.”

“Good. Now hurry, Harry!”

Harry nodded and hurried back into the train just before it started to move. The Weasley kids, Harry, and Hermione waved goodbye to the two Weasley adults as the train sped off, until they could no longer see the adults.

“I need to talk to you in private,” Harry muttered to Ron and Hermione as the train picked up speed.

“Go away, Ginny,” said Ron.

“Oh, that’s nice,” said Ginny huffily, and she stalked off.

Harry, Ron, and Hermione set off down the corridor, looking for an empty compartment, but all were full except for the one at the very end of the train.

This had only one occupant, a man sitting fast asleep next to the window. Harry, Ron, and Hermione checked on the threshold. The Hogwarts Express was usually reserved for students and they had never seen an adult there before, except for the witch who pushed the food cart.

The stranger was wearing an extremely shabby set of wizard’s robes that had been darned in several places. He looked ill and exhausted. Though quite young, his light brown hair was flecked with gray.

“Who d’you reckon he is?” Ron hissed as they sat down and slid the door shut, taking the seats farthest away from the window.

“Professor R. J. Lupin,” whispered Hermione at once.

“How d’you know that?”

“It’s on his case,” she replied, pointing at the luggage rack over the man’s head, where there was a small, battered case held together with a large quantity of neatly knotted string. The name Professor R. J. Lupin was stamped across one corner in peeling letters.

“Wonder what he teaches?” said Ron, frowning at Professor Lupin’s pallid profile.

“That’s obvious,” whispered Hermione. “There’s only one vacancy, isn’t there? Defense Against the Dark Arts.”

Harry, Ron, and Hermione had already had two Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers, both of whom had lasted only one year. There were rumors that the job was jinxed.

“Well, I hope he’s up to it,” said Ron doubtfully. “He looks like one good hex would finish him off, doesn’t he? Anyway …” He turned to Harry. “Are Luna and the others gonna join us?” he asked.

“No. Eight people in one compartment would a bit crowded. I'll tell Luna, Antigone, Angela, and Danzia later.

“Okay then. So what were you going to tell us?”

Harry explained about what he'd figured out, what Draco had told him, and the argument he'd overheard between the Weasley adults, since it had confirmed his suspicions, as well as Mr. Weasley's words just now.

When he was done, the looks on his friends faces were mixed.

“Yes?” he prompted, looking at Hermione first.

“Well... I mean, it is very unfair he wasn't given a trial, but I'm sure Dumbledore must have fought for one. Or, if he didn't, he must have thought the man's guilt was obvious. I mean, I don't know what this Fidelius Charm entails, but I'm sure Dumbledore does. And Mr. Weasley is right, if he broke out of prison, it must be for a reason. And you said Black had been saying 'He's at Hogwarts.' If Black didn't mean you, who could he possibly mean?”

“What if he thought Harry was his father?” Ron asked.

“Pardon?”

“If they were friends... well, everyone who knew your parents say you look like your dad. If Black has been in Azkaban for 12 years, he might indeed be crazy.”

“I wonder why he escaped?” Harry asked, thinking aloud.

“Well I think Dad's right, Harry, you should assume he's guilty. They probably should've given him a trial, yeah, but the fact they didn't must mean they knew it wasn't needed. They must have had proof. And he was their secret keeper.”

“Yes, people keep saying that. But I'm still going to keep an open mind. If it turns out he is guilty, then so be it. But I want to be sure first.”

“First?” Hermione asked. “What do you mean by 'first'?”

“I mean, before I condemn him. I'll be cautious, yes, but I'll withhold condemnation for now.”

“Good. Don't go looking for trouble, Harry.”

“I don't. Trouble usually finds me well enough on its own.”

“Yeah, Harry; I don't trust anything Malfoy says, to start with, and anyway, Black broke out of prison. If he didn't use some kind of dark magic, how'd he do it, huh? I don't think any decent wizard could do it.”

“I'll bet Dumbledore could.”

“Yeah, well, that's Dumbledore. He's a special case.”

“Ron's right, you know. Most wizards couldn't break out of there. And why did he break out, anyway? He was content to be there for 12 years, and then all of a sudden, he escapes? After saying 'He's at Hogwarts'? If he's not going after you for some reason, what did he escape for?”

“I don't know. Maybe I'll never find out. But I'm not going to assume he's evil. I'll avoid him, just to be careful, though.”

“There's still the fact he was your parents' secret-keeper. Doesn't that anger you? Or make you upset?”

“I was upset at first, yes. But, well... there's a lot I don't know about the wizarding world. Most people think it's pretty certain he was their secret keeper, but how many of them know enough about the Fidelius Charm to really know for sure?”

“What gets me, Harry,” Ron said, “is that you're taking Malfoy at his word about all this. Now Draco might be on our side, I dunno, but his father sure isn't. He could have been lying to Draco, especially if he thought Draco was going to relay this information back to you, Harry.”

“That is a good point,” Harry conceded. “Still... I find it weird that someone who was so happy at my parents' wedding could have betrayed them. It's possible, I guess, but do you understand that I just want to be sure, before I condemn the man? I'm going to continue digging into this, without putting myself at risk. I promise you, I'm not going to go looking for Black.”

This, finally, appeared to mollify his two friends.

“What's that noise?” Ron said, suddenly, having only noticed it in the sudden silence.

A faint, tinny sort of whistle was coming from somewhere. They looked all around the compartment. Harry cocked his head, tracing the source.

“It’s coming from your trunk, Harry,” said Ron, standing up and reaching into the luggage rack. A moment later he had pulled the Pocket Sneakoscope out from between Harry’s robes. It was spinning very fast in the palm of Ron’s hand and glowing brilliantly.

“Is that a Sneakoscope?” said Hermione interestedly, standing up for a better look.

“Yeah … mind you, it’s a very cheap one,” Ron said. “It went haywire at the dinner table the night I got it. But then, the twins were putting beetles in Percy's soup.”

Harry grabbed the noisy thing and shoved it in some old socks, then started digging through his trunk for a place to stow it. He spotted the box Antigone had given him. He wondered if he wanted to put it in there or not. It was tempting, but in the end, since he was the only person in Hogwarts who could open it, as far as he knew, he decided against it, in case it wasn't soundproofed. Besides, even if it was fake jewels, he didn't think flashing it on the train was a wise idea. He'd show Hermione later.

“What could be setting it off now, I wonder?” Harry asked himself as he put it away somewhere in his trunk where it couldn't be heard.

That was a stumper of a question, as it turned out. Harry trusted the other two with his life, and if Dumbledore trusted Professor Lupin, it couldn't be him. That just left Hedwig and Crookshanks, who were animals. Well, and Scabbers, another animal, but he'd been Ron's pet for years, so that couldn't be it, either.

Ron shrugged. “Dunno, mate. It's a cheap thing, probably not working right.”

But Harry wasn't sure. His magical translator glasses were still working alright, and even a cheap magical item surely couldn't be breaking already, could it? Or could it? Ron had been in this world longer than he had, so he must know better about these things. After all, what if their roles were reversed? What if Harry had gotten Ron a cheap plastic toy from a burger joint? Those things broke within minutes, sometimes.

“Yeah, that must be it,” Harry said.

Ron and Hermione went on to discuss their summers. Harry took out a book, but he was only pretending to read. He was, in fact, thinking about Sirius Black again, and how his father could have been fooled.

Intellectually, Harry knew his father had been human, and humans make mistakes. Heck, even non-human people made mistakes. It was life. But on an emotional level, he couldn't make heads or tails of it. If only there was someone to talk with about this, someone who wouldn't scoff or argue, someone who already was thinking along the same lines he was.

Then it came to him: Draco! He stood up, putting his book aside.

“You going somewhere, mate?”

“Yeah. Uh... the loo,” he said. It was a lie, yes, but he didn't want to hear Ron's arguments if he told the truth.

Ron nodded. Hermione looked sceptical. But Harry ignored her and left the compartment, searching the train for Draco.

After a few minutes, he literally ran into a nervous-looking Draco, both boys falling over from the impact.

“Ouch! Watch it, you--- Harry? Oh, sorry about that,” Draco said, blushing. With his skin as pale as it was, he lit up like a traffic light when he blushed. He stood up, and helped Harry to his feet.

“I'm sorry, too, Draco. I should've paid more attention to where I was going. Anyway, I was looking for you.”

“Good, good,” Draco said, distracted, looking back behind him with a worried expression on his face. “Let's find a compartment.”

“Every one I've checked so far was pretty much full. I think the emptiest one I saw was the one I'd been in with Ron and Hermione, and the new Defense teacher.”

“A teacher? On the train? Only adults I've ever seen on the train once we left was the witch pushing the trolley and the conductor.”

“Yeah, us too. But he's there. He's been sleeping the whole time, so far.”

Draco looked behind himself again, then back at Harry. “Okay, sure, let's go there.”

Harry sighed. “I'll have to explain this to Ron. He still doesn't really like or trust you.”

“Yes, well, that makes sense. Our families have so often been at odds. But still, let's go there anyway,” he said, grabbing Harry's arm and dragging him along, despite not knowing which compartment Harry had been in.

“Draco!” Harry cried out, trying hard not to fall over. “Draco, slow down!”

“Which one is it, anyway?” Draco asked, looking around.

Harry pulled out of Draco's grasp. “What is your problem today?”

Draco sighed. “If you must know, I'm avoiding Crabbe and Goyle.”

“Why?”

“Well... it's complicated. But the short version is they're angry. And you know what they're like when they're angry.”

“Ah,” Harry said. “It's over here.”

Harry opened the door and the two boys ducked in.

“Oy, what's he doing here?”

“He's trying to escape Crabbe and Goyle,” Harry said, ignoring Draco's exasperated expression.

Ron looked about to say something scathing, but something made him stop and think instead. If he was remembering the same thing Harry was, he was about to realize that this made sense.

“Ah,” Ron said. “Alright then.”

With no more said, Draco sat down next to Harry.

“You said you were looking for me, Harry? What for?” Draco asked.

Ignoring Hermione's 'I was right' look, Harry said, “I was thinking about Black again. I was kind of wanting a private discussion with you.”

Hermione nudged Ron, who was in the middle of examining a Chocolate Frog card, to see if he had that one already or not.

“Oy, what'd you do that for?”

She just gave him a look.

“Fine, fine. I have to go to the loo myself anyway. For real.”

When the two friends left the compartment, Draco looked over at Professor Lupin with a brief look of curiosity at first, then disgust. At Harry's answering look of annoyance, though, Draco held his hands up in a placating gesture.

“Sorry. Old habits, you know. Not everyone can be as fortunate as a Malfoy, I know I shouldn't judge. Just...”

“Never mind that for now,” Harry said, in lieu of accepting the apology. “So, I was wondering what else you could tell me about Black. Or about the Death Eaters, anything might help.”

“Well, I don't know a lot about it. Father doesn't talk much about it. He's trying to keep up the pretense of innocence, after all. But he lets things slip sometimes. And I notice things.”

“Like what?”

“Well, little things. Like the way he talks about some of his friends, has made me suspect some of them were Death Eaters, too. Vincent's father, Gregory's father.”

“The elder Crabbe and Goyle, you mean?”

“Yes. Also MacNair, works at the ministry now, disposing of dangerous animals.”

“Sounds like a job a Death Eater might enjoy.”

“MacNair does seem to enjoy his job, yes. But going on, Knott's father was one too, I'll bet.”

“Any others?”

“Well, Aunt Bellatrix, but she's in prison now.”

“Aunt Bellatrix?” Harry asked, offering Draco a Bertie Bott's.

Draco took the proffered gift, opening it as he spoke. “Yeah. My mother's sister. Narcissa Malfoy nee Black.”

“Wait, your mom and your aunt are related to this Sirius Black fellow?”

“Yeah. He's their brother. I guess that makes Sirius Black my uncle. Or it would have, if the family hadn't disowned him for being a Griffindor, and a blood traitor.”

“Blood traitor?”

“That's what the purebloods call other purebloods who are... who believe in equality for Muggle-borns, and fair treatment of Muggles.” Draco sighed. “Which makes me a blood traitor now, I guess.”

“Does that...” Harry trailed off. “Are your parents going to disown you?”

Draco snorted. “I doubt it. I'm their only child. The sole heir. And my parents were lucky to have me. Pureblood families tend to be large, lots of children. Well the Weasleys have that part down pat. And my mother, of course, had three siblings. But try as they might, I have no siblings. I doubt either of them would dare to disown me, no matter what I did. Besides, mother loves me too dearly to do so, even if I had brothers and sisters.”

“Your mother had three siblings? Sirius, Bellatrix, and... who else?”

“Regulus Arcturus Black. Never met him, he died during the last war. He was a Death Eater, but he turned against the Dark Lord, supposedly. Though how he died, nobody knows. His body was never found.”

“Your family is fond of naming people after stars, it seems. Only your mother was named after something else, a flower in her case. Gives us something else in common. My mother was Lily.”

“Yeah,” Draco said, smiling wryly. “It's a Black family tradition, naming kids after stars or constellations.”

“Did you know that your father was responsible for the events of last year?” Harry asked him gently.

Draco's head jerked up to look at Harry. “He was? Seriously?”

“Yes. He slipped an old diary of Vol---er, of the Dark Lord's, into Ginny Weasley's cauldron at Flourish and Blotts before school started. It was ensorcelled somehow, seemed to have a piece of his mind inside it, or more. In the Chamber of Secrets, it was coming alive as it drained her of life. I killed it before he could return.”

The pale boy's face went even paler, which Harry hadn't thought possible, his grey eyes wide with terror. He clutched his head, and began trembling.

“The Dark Lord almost... almost returned?”

“Yes. But I stopped him. And used the dead diary to trick your father into freeing Dobby.”

“Dobby?” Draco said, regaining some of his composure. “What does our old house elf have to do with it?”

Harry explained briefly what had happened, how Dobby had kept warning him and trying to prevent him coming to school, then trying to get him injured enough to be sent home.

“He nearly killed you several times, and you rewarded him for it?”

“Yes, well, he was trying to save my life. And your father treated him terribly, kicking him right in front of Dumbledore and me.”

Draco sat there, many emotions crossing his face as he thought. If Harry had to guess, he'd say Draco was suppressing an urge to scoff at the pain of a creature like a house elf, then thought better of it. The blonde boy's series of emotions stopped at what looked like a reluctant thoughtfulness, like he hadn't really thought about it before, and still needed to do more thinking to sort out his feelings about a creature like Dobby, but recognizing Harry's feelings and trying to see his point of view.

“Ah, yes. I do remember that,” Draco said. “I wasn't very nice to Dobby either. I wouldn't blame him if he attacked me, now he's free. I was never as bad as Father, but not by a lot. I have a lot of my parents' garbage to clear out of my head. I'm glad I have someone to help me figure out what's garbage and what isn't.”

“You're welcome.”

“Anyway, we got off track, didn't we? We were discussing the Death Eaters. I almost forgot to mention one other thing; my father always wears long sleeves. Always. I've never seen his bare arms.”

“What's special about that?”

“On its own, nothing really. But I've noticed Father seems particularly keen on hiding his left arm for some reason. I don't know if it means anything or not, but it might.” Draco sat there thinking for another few moments before continuing. “Dobby might know something more. Dobby was Father's personal elf. We had others. Still do. Anyway, Dobby drew Father's bath and helped him in and out of his clothes. My own elf did the same for me, until the day I decided I didn't want anything looking at me nude, and insisted on doing it myself.”

“Well, I was assigned one of the Hogwarts house elves, to help protect me from the Dursleys while I'm staying there, and she comes when I call at other times, too. I could see if she can find Dobby and bring him to the castle for me to question.”

Draco was about to respond, when the door to the compartment opened, revealing Crabbe and Goyle, both cracking their knuckles. Draco stood up, hiding his fear behind a mask of bravado.

“You two!” he said sharply, like it was an insult.

“Malfoy,” Crabbe said. “You need to come with us now, so we can finish our talk.”

“Ha! Talk! As if!” Draco said, his knees shaking just visibly. “I'll go nowhere with you.”

“Now or later, Draco, you can't avoid us forever. We're in the same House.”

“It'll have to be later, then, because I was in the middle of a conversation with Harry here.”

“On a first name basis now, eh?” Goyle sneered. “Your blood traitor pal can't protect you forever, Malfoy!”

“Blood traitor or not, Goyle, if either of you lay a finger on me, my father will hear of this!”

“And what'll he do, exactly? Get us a detention?”

“Yeah,” Crabbe said. “Boo hoo, cry to yer daddy.”

“You dare not doing anything here, we're right in front of a teacher,” Draco pointed out, gesturing at Lupin.

This scared the two boys where Draco's bravado hadn't. Thick as they were, they knew better than to fight in front of a teacher.

“Fine. Later, then,” Goyle said, closing the door behind him as they left.

“Dare I ask?”

“I---”

“Your friends popped by, I see,” Ron said as he opened the door.

“They're not my friends anymore.”

“I know, we heard everything,” Ron said, sounding sympathetic. He sat down across from Draco. “I guess if Crabbe and Goyle want to beat you up, that means we're on the same side.”

“And I wasn't before?”

Hermione sat down next to Ron.

“Ron wasn't convinced, before. But you are now, I take it?” Hermione asked.

“Not completely. I'm still gonna keep an eye on you. But the evidence is in your favor.”

“I'm thrilled, of course,” Draco said, a bit of the old sneer returning to his voice.

“Anyway,” Ron said, opening another Chocolate Frog. “Were you two done, or did we need to go wander the train some more?”

Draco looked at Harry. Harry looked back at Draco, and shrugged. Draco shrugged at Ron.

“Good enough for me.” Ron said, cramming a Chocolate Frog into his mouth, and looking up at Professor Lupin.

Hermione's eyes went the same place as Ron's. “Good Heavens, is he still asleep?”

Ron swallowed his frog. “Is he asleep, though? He might be dead.”

“No, he's still breathing.”

“I wonder what's got him so tired he's sleeping on a noisy train full of people talking?” Draco wondered aloud.

“What, no snide comment about the state of his clothes?” Ron asked.

Draco did not dignify this with an answer. Merely took a Pumpkin Pasty and bit into it.

“So,” Draco said some minutes later, breaking the silence, “Hogsmeade sounds fun.”

“Do you know much about Hogsmeade?” asked Hermione keenly. “I’ve read it’s the only entirely non-Muggle settlement in Britain.

“I reckon it is,” Ron said, “but that’s not why I want to go. I just want to get inside Honeydukes!”

“Ah yes,” Draco said, with an air of remembering something pleasant. “Father's taken me there before, several years ago. It is quite nice. It was a little disappointing over the summer, when business is so poor it's a wonder they weren't shut for the season. I look forward to seeing it at its peak, with all the Hogwarts students inside it.”

“Honeydukes? What's that?” asked Hermione.

A sneer flickered across Draco's face, almost too fast to notice. But Ron noticed.

“It's a sweetshop,” Ron explained, his expression changing to one of bliss as he thought about it. “I've been there, too. They have everything! Pepper Imps — they make you smoke at the mouth — and great fat Chocoballs full of strawberry mousse and clotted cream, and really excellent sugar quills, which you can suck in class and just look like you’re thinking what to write next.”

“If you use quills,” Harry said. “I'd use a pen and paper if I could. As it is, I had to get a special quill from McGonagall.”

“Pen and paper? You mean that Muggle stuff?”

“Oh, like a train isn't a Muggle thing. And Muggles used to wear robes too, you know,” Harry said.

“I wasn't saying anything bad about it. Just wanting to make sure I understood,” Draco said a little stiffly.

“Sorry. It's just, paper takes ink so much better than parchment. And Muggles gave up on parchment ages ago, because for them paper is so much easier to make and use. You know parchment is sheep skin, right? It's a wonder it takes ink at all. And you'd think the wizarding world would've gotten at least as far as a fountain pen. Has a quill-like tip, you see, and uses ink, but uses suction power to hold in a fair amount of ink, so you don't have to dip it in the ink very often.”

“Isn't that basically a Muggle version of the purple quills I've seen you and Granger using?” Draco asked.

“Yeah, I guess so. I still prefer paper and ballpoint pen, though. I still use that for non-school stuff. With the money my folks left me, I got some nice metal ones. Ballpoint pens let the ink flow enough to write with, without making ink splotches, which you get with quills and fountain pens.”

“Muggle quills, maybe. Wizarding quills don't mess as much. Sure, there's the occasional blot when you're holding the pen up, thinking what to write, but beyond that, there are spells on our quills to keep them from making messes when writing with them. Also, they're charmed to hold more ink than Muggle quills. But since Muggles don't have magic, I guess they would need to come up with some sort of non-magical equivalent.”

“Oh, so you don't use random feathers for quills?” Harry asked.

“No self-respecting wizard uses random feathers for a quill, they buy them. Quills are cheap enough even W-- er, even those with very little to their names can buy them for 20 a knut. The spells on them are simple enough even a third year student could cast them, so they're not difficult to make.”

“Yeah,” Ron said, glaring at Draco, “but cheap quills don't last long before they start having the same problems as non-magic quills. The spells wear off.”

“So you re-cast the spells, Weasley. Problem solved.”

“Eh,” Harry said. “This is all moot. I use ballpoint pen and paper when I can, and the purple quills McGonagall gave me when I can't. It's what I'm used to.”

“Well, let me try it sometime, Harry,” Draco said. “Dipping a quill, even an expensive, long-lasting quill, gets tiresome at times. But tell me... how does one dip a ball point pen?”

“You don't. They have their own ink supplies, in little tubes of plastic or metal. The tubes last for weeks, even months. Years, if you don't use the pen often. And when the tube is empty, you replace it. At least, you do for the refillable kinds. The cheaper pens are disposable, you just throw them away when they run out of ink.”

“Throw them away? How wasteful.”

“Yeah, I guess so. But they're even cheaper than cheap quills. I don't know how much a knut is in Muggle money, off the top of my head, but for one pound you can get 20 disposable pens. Maybe even more.”

“Pound?” Ron asked. “What, it weighs a whole pound?”

“It's a unit of Muggle money, here in the UK. It doesn't have anything to do with the unit of weight, as far as I know of.”

“Well, actually,” Hermione began.

“Please don't, Hermione,” Ron said. Hermione huffed, but said nothing, and soon forgot her ire.

“Well that got off track,” Draco said. “Diverting, of course, but we were talking about Hogsmeade, I believe?”

“Yes,” Hermione said. “Hogsmeade’s a very interesting place, isn’t it? In Sites of Historical Sorcery it says the inn was the headquarters for the 1612 goblin rebellion, and the Shrieking Shack’s supposed to be the most severely haunted building in Britain!”

“Oh yeah,” Ron interrupted, “and Honeyduke's has these massive sherbet balls that make you levitate a few inches off the ground while you’re sucking them.”

“Fizzing Whizbees, yes,” Draco said, looking enraptured.

Hermione looked around at Harry.

“Won’t it be nice to get out of school for a bit and explore Hogsmeade?”

“ ’Spect it will,” said Harry heavily. “You’ll have to tell me when you’ve found out.”

“What d’you mean?” said Ron.

“I can’t go. The Dursleys didn’t sign my permission form. By the time I got the letter, I was in Egypt with you lot, and I never went back, did I? Anyway, I reckon I won't be allowed to come, what with Black out to kill me.”

“Harry Potter, not allowed to come to Hogsmeade?” Draco said, preempting Ron. “Even if you weren't famous, you're of an old family; that alone makes it a minor scandal, if they don't let you go. I could talk to my father for you. We haven't been getting along much lately, but... oh wait, you cost him his servant, I guess he wouldn't be too keen on helping you. Still an outrage, though. You should ask your head of House. Or Dumbledore, if you can reach him.”

Ron looked askance at Draco. “I thought you didn't like Dumbledore?”

“My father doesn't like him. I didn't either, when I parroted father's beliefs. Now... now, I don't know what I think of Dumbledore. I have to make up my own mind now, and I don't have enough information with which to form an opinion.”

“But if you're on our side, surely that means you like Dumbledore?”

Draco snorted. “I'm not going to put blind faith in a man just because we agree on a few things. He is a powerful man, but power tends to go to people's heads. Dumbledore may not be in the Ministry, but he's in the Wizengamot, and he's the headmaster of the only school of magic in the UK, as well as being a major player in the last war, fighting against the Dark Lord. It would be wise to be wary of powerful men. Even the best intentioned of them can make disastrous decisions.

“Anyway,” Draco said, turning to Harry. “If you want, I could fake a signature for you. If you're given permission by a guardian, they can't deny you without a good reason, like punishment for something.”

“I thought of that already. But I don't have any samples of his signature; I don't know if the school does or not either, so I don't know if they could compare it to something and prove me a liar. And if there was even the slightest doubt, given that I haven't had an opportunity to even ask them, the teachers could show up at their door and check to see if it was legitimate, and then I'd be in real trouble.”

“So you're just going to accept defeat?”

“Did I say that? No. I'll think of something.”

“But Harry, if Black is after you--”

“Yes, Hermione, I know your concern. But even if he is, there will be hundreds of students there, as well as teachers and other adults.”

Hermione didn't answer, but not for lack of wanting to. Instead, she fumbled with the straps of Crookshanks’s basket.

“Don’t let that thing out!” Ron said, but too late; Crookshanks leapt lightly from the basket, stretched, yawned, and sprang onto Ron’s knees; the lump in Ron’s pocket trembled and he shoved Crookshanks angrily away.

“Get out of here!”

“Ron, don’t!” said Hermione angrily.

Ron was about to answer back when Professor Lupin stirred. They watched him apprehensively, but he simply turned his head the other way, mouth slightly open, and slept on.

Draco smirked at Ron. “Is Ronald Weasley afraid of a little cat?”

“Little? That thing is the size of a small lion,” Ron said. “But anyway, I'm not afraid for my sake, I'm afraid for Scabbers' sake. That beast keeps trying to eat Scabbers.”

“Oh,” said Draco. “Well Granger, maybe if you told your cat to leave other people's pets alone, he would?”

“Call me Hermione.”

“Of course, Hermione. And you may call me Draco.”

“Good. Anyway, Draco, I've already talked with him, he knows better.”

“Ah, well there you are, then.”

There was a silence, in which Draco finally leaned forward to get a better look at the cat. “That cat looks like he's run into a wall,” he said.

“Hey!” Ron snapped. “We're not good enough friends yet. Only I or Harry or one of the others can make fun of Hermione's cat!”

“Ron! I don't want anybody making fun of my cat!”

“My apologies,” Draco said, sounding sincere.

Hermione gawped at him. “Um... thank you.”

“You're welcome.”

Something occurred to Draco then, and he smiled at Ron. “'We're not good enough friends,'” he repeated Ron's words. “Does this mean we are friends, then?”

“No it bloody well does not. We're acquaintances. It was a slip of the tongue.”

“Ah, my mistake then,” Draco said, still smiling.

Ron mumbled something, which sounded to Harry like “I'll hit that smug look off your face if you're not quiet, Malfoy.” Draco looked like he heard too, but didn't respond, except to smirk even more.

~

The rest of the afternoon passed in reasonably good spirits, despite the stormy weather outside as they got closer to Hogwarts. They discussed this and that, mostly potential MAC meetings, the return of Wizard Studies since Dumbledore was back, and wondering what food would be at the feast. Once in a while, Ron tried to get Draco to say what Crabbe and Goyle were angry with him for, but Draco would go conveniently deaf at these times, so Ron gave up for a while. Crookshanks settled on Draco's lap, something Ron didn't seem to be able to decide what he felt about, but mostly seemed to look like he'd find it funny if the bandy-legged cat attacked Draco instead of Scabbers, for a change.

Harry got up at one point to find Luna, but she was in a crowded compartment with Neville, Ginny, Antigone, and Angela. He went looking for Danzia, and found her with the Slytherin boy, Willem Stone, whom Harry recognized from Wizard Studies. They were with several others Harry didn't know, but looked to be other friends of Willem.

Returning to the compartment with Ron, Draco, and Hermione in it, Harry stared out the window at the weather, thinking about what Draco had told him earlier.

“We must be nearly there,” said Ron after a time, leaning forward to look past Professor Lupin at the now completely black window.

The words had hardly left him when the train started to slow down.

“Great,” said Ron, getting up and walking carefully past Professor Lupin to try and see outside. “I’m starving. I want to get to the feast.”

Draco frowned, and consulted a wristwatch. “We can't be there yet. It's too early by far.”

“Yes, Draco's right,” Hermione agreed, checking her own watch.

“Then why are we stopping?”

“I don't know. Should we speak with the driver?” Hermione wondered.

The train was getting slower and slower. As the noise of the pistons fell away, the wind and rain sounded louder than ever against the windows.

Harry got up, walked past Draco to look into the corridor. All along the carriage, heads were sticking curiously out of their compartments.

The train came to a stop with a jolt, and distant thuds and bangs told them that luggage had fallen out of the racks. Then, without warning, all the lamps went out and they were plunged into total darkness.

“What’s going on?” said Ron’s voice from behind Harry.

“Ouch!” gasped Hermione. “Ron, that was my foot!”

Harry felt his way back to his seat.

“Harry, that's my hair, don't muss it up,” Draco said, batting his hand away.

“Sorry,” Harry said.

“God, now I have to comb it again, and I don't have a mirror.”

“Vain, much?” Ron said. “It doesn't matter what you look like, you prat! If you haven't noticed, it's dark in here.”

“Thank you, Weasley, but I did notice the darkness, on account of my being unable to see.”

“Oh stop bickering, you two,” Harry said.

“D’you think we’ve broken down?” Hermione asked.

“Dunno …”

There was a squeaking sound, and Harry saw the dim black outline of Ron, wiping a patch clean on the window and peering out.

“There’s something moving out there,” Ron said. “I think people are coming aboard.”

The compartment door suddenly opened and someone fell over onto Draco's lap.

“OUCH! Who is that? Who's there?”

“Malfoy?” Neville asked, incredulous. “Sorry, I was looking for Harry.”

“I'm over here, Neville.”

“Oh. Hi, Harry.”

Harry fumbled around to help Neville up, but Draco beat him to it.

“Here, Longbottom, I'll help you up. Don't give me that silence, it's not a trick. Any friend of Harry's is a friend of mine.”

“Thanks, Malfoy. Does anyone know what's happening?” Neville asked.

“No idea,” Harry answered. “Here, sit between Draco and me, I think there's just enough room.”

“Yes, don't mind me,” Draco said sincerely. “I used to ride the train with Crabbe and Goyle. Those two practically fill an entire compartment just by themselves.”

“Used to?”

“Not now, Neville. Sit down.”

There was a loud hissing and a yelp of pain; Neville had tried to sit on Crookshanks.

“Ouch! Longbottom, you just made that cat scratch me!”

“Sorry, Malfoy.”

“I’m going to go and ask the driver what’s going on,” came Hermione’s voice. Harry felt her pass him, heard the door slide open again, and then a thud and two loud squeals of pain.

“Who’s that?”

“Who’s that?”

“Ginny?”

“Hermione?”

“What are you doing?”

“I was looking for Ron —”

“Come in and sit down —”

“Not here!” said Harry hurriedly. “I’m here!”

“Ouch!” said Neville.

“There isn't room!” Draco practically shouted.

“Malfoy?” Ginny asked, incredulous.

“Why does everyone always sound so surprised I'm here?”

“Quiet!” said a hoarse voice suddenly.

Professor Lupin appeared to have woken up at last. Harry could hear movements in his corner. None of them spoke.

There was a soft, crackling noise, and a shivering light filled the compartment. Professor Lupin appeared to be holding a handful of flames. They illuminated his tired, gray face, but his eyes looked alert and wary.

“Stay where you are,” he said in the same hoarse voice, and he got slowly to his feet with his handful of fire held out in front of him.

But the door slid slowly open before Lupin could reach it.

Standing in the doorway, illuminated by the shivering flames in Lupin’s hand, was a cloaked figure that towered to the ceiling. Its face was completely hidden beneath its hood. Harry’s eyes darted downward, and what he saw made his stomach contract. There was a hand protruding from the cloak and it was glistening, grayish, slimy-looking, and scabbed, like something dead that had decayed in water.

But it was visible only for a split second. As though the creature beneath the cloak sensed Harry’s gaze, the hand was suddenly withdrawn into the folds of its black cloak.

And then the thing beneath the hood, whatever it was, drew a long, slow, rattling breath, as though it were trying to suck something more than air from its surroundings.

An intense cold swept over them all. Harry felt his own breath catch in his chest. The cold went deeper than his skin. It was inside his chest, it was inside his very heart.

Harry’s eyes rolled up into his head. He couldn’t see. He was drowning in cold. There was a rushing in his ears as though of water. He was being dragged downward, the roaring growing louder...

And then, from far away, he heard screaming, terrible, terrified, pleading screams. He wanted to help whoever it was, he tried to move his arms, but couldn’t … a thick white fog was swirling around him, inside him —

“Harry! Harry! Are you all right?”

Someone was slapping his face.

“Potter! You alive, Potter?”

“What's with the sudden formality, Draco?”

“I thought it would sound more familiar in your state.”

Harry opened his eyes, to see several familiar faces looking down at him. The lights were back on, too, he noticed. And the train was moving again. He seemed to have slid out of his seat onto the floor. Ron, Hermione, and Draco were kneeling over him; above them he could see Neville and Professor Lupin watching. They all looked shaken, but Draco was pale and clammy. Suddenly, Harry realized Draco's voice had been full of anxiety, verging on panic.

“Good, he's awake. I'm going to go huddle in a ball in the corner now,” Draco said, leaving Harry's sight. The two remaining kneeling over him helped him up. Harry felt very sick; when he put up his hand to push his glasses back on, he felt cold sweat on his face.

Ron and Hermione heaved him back onto his seat.

“Are you okay?” Ron asked nervously.

“Yeah,” said Harry, looking quickly toward the door. The hooded creature had vanished. “What happened? Where’s that — that thing? Who screamed?”

“That would be Malfoy,” Ron said.

“No, there was a woman screaming.”

“Like I said, that was Malfoy.”

“Har har. No, seriously, I heard a woman scream. She was screaming words, too.”

“No, the only screaming was Malfoy's. No joke,” he said, sounding worried.

Harry looked around the bright compartment. Ginny and Neville looked back at him, both very pale. Draco was in the corner, hugging his legs, staring and gibbering.

“But I heard screaming —”

A loud snap made them all jump. Draco squealed in fright. Professor Lupin was breaking an enormous slab of chocolate into pieces.

“Here,” he said to Harry, handing him a particularly large piece. “Eat it. It’ll help.”

Harry took the chocolate but didn’t eat it.

“What was that thing?” he asked Lupin.

“A dementor,” said Lupin, who was now giving chocolate to everyone else. “One of the dementors of Azkaban.”

Those things are the Azkaban guards?” Harry asked, shocked.

“Yes.”

Everyone stared at him. Professor Lupin crumpled up the empty chocolate wrapper and put it in his pocket.

“Eat,” he repeated. “It’ll help. I need to speak to the driver, excuse me …”

He strolled past Harry and disappeared into the corridor.

“Are you sure you’re okay, Harry?” said Hermione, watching Harry anxiously.

“I don’t get it. … What happened?” said Harry, wiping more sweat off his face.

“I'm kinda curious myself, to be honest,” Ron said. “I thought you were having one of your headaches, at first, but then you slid to the floor and started twitching, having a fit of some kind.”

“And Professor Lupin stepped over you, and walked toward the dementor, and pulled out his wand,” said Hermione, “and he said, ‘None of us is hiding Sirius Black under our cloaks. Go.’ But the dementor didn’t move, so Lupin muttered something, and a silvery thing shot out of his wand at it, and it turned around and sort of glided away. …”

“It was horrible,” said Neville, in a higher voice than usual. “Did you feel how cold it got when it came in?”

“I felt weird,” said Ron, shifting his shoulders uncomfortably. “Like I’d never be cheerful again.”

Ginny, who was huddled in her corner looking nearly as bad as Harry felt, gave a small sob; Hermione went over and put a comforting arm around her. Neville stared at Draco, as if wondering if he should comfort the blond boy, then apparently thought better of it.

“But didn’t any of you — fall off your seats?” said Harry awkwardly.

“No,” said Ron, looking anxiously at Harry again. “Ginny was shaking like mad, though. And Malfoy was screaming and crying.”

Harry looked to Draco, who was too lost in his own emotions, apparently, to have a clever comeback against Ron.

Harry didn’t understand. He felt weak and shivery, as though he were recovering from a bad bout of flu; he also felt the beginnings of shame. Why had he gone to pieces like that, when no one else had? Well, not as bad as anyone else, anyway.

Professor Lupin had come back. He paused as he entered, looked around, and said, with a small smile, “I haven’t poisoned that chocolate, you know. …”

Harry took a bite and to his great surprise felt warmth spread suddenly to the tips of his fingers and toes.

“We’ll be at Hogwarts in ten minutes,” said Professor Lupin. “Are you all right, Harry?”

“Yes,” Harry said, not asking how the man knew his name. He figured the scar gave it away. Given how pale his skin was, judging by his hand, the scar doubtless stood out like an angry wound.

“Why was that dementor here?”

“Looking for Sirius Black. Some of them are stationed at Hogsmeade, and around the school's perimeter. Dumbledore won't let them onto the grounds.”

“Thank goddess for that,” Harry said.

“Ah, so you're of the old religion?” Lupin asked, brightly.

“Yeah. Haven't done a lot, yet. Still doing reading.”

“Well I know of a few books in the library that will help with that. Books you might have overlooked, with Ms. Pince's... peculiar... system of organizing things. Did you know that Halloween is an important holiday in the old religion? Marked the de---er, the passing of one year into the next. And the end of the harvest season.”

“Really? Er... wasn't that also when my parents died?”

Lupin looked very sorrowful, suddenly. “Y-yes,” he said with a cracking voice. “It was. But Halloween, or Samhain as it was called, is also a time when the veil between the worlds is thinnest, when its said to be the best time to communicate with the spirits of the dead.”

“What's that word, 'Saw-when'?”

“Yes, that's how it's said. It's Welsh, I believe. Spelled S-A-M-H-A-I-N. A lot of people mispronounce it 'sam hayn,' but it's 'saw-when.' Anyway, you should eat more of that chocolate. I'll get you those books tomorrow.”

Nobody spoke the rest of the way. The only sounds came from the train itself, or animals like Neville's toad or Hermione's cat. When they stopped, there was a lot more noise as everyone clamored to get out. It was freezing on the tiny platform; rain was driving down in icy sheets.

“Firs’ years this way!” called the familiar voice of Hagrid. Harry, Ron, and Hermione waved to him. Harry had to wave with his left hand, because his right was helping Draco, who was still in a near-catatonic state. Draco seemed to be doing better; by the time they reached the horseless carriages, he was standing and walking on his own, and looked a little calmer.

The four of them climbed into a carriage with Ginny. Harry was a bit annoyed that he hadn't had a chance to chat with Luna yet, but it's not like she'd be hard to find.

As the carriage trundled past the iron gates of the school, Harry saw two more of the towering, cloaked dementors, and felt a wave of cold sickness threatening to engulf him again. He was very glad when they were past, and parking up by the front doors of the castle.

“You fainted, Potter? Is Longbottom telling the truth? You actually fainted?”

Harry turned to look at the source of the voice, but was unsurprised to see Goyle. But somebody was surprised.

“He speaks?” Ginny said in wonderment. “That bipedal gorilla can speak?”

“Goyle isn't a gorilla, however much he may look like one. And smell like one. Gorillas are gentle creatures, usually.”

“Oh, my mistake. Should've known. He's more like a cross between a really fat flobberworm and a very small troll.”

“And you, Malfoy, screaming like a little girl, I hear,” said Goyle.

“Funny,” Harry said, turning to Ginny. “All that grunting; if I didn't know better, I'd swear it was language.”

Ginny, Ron, and Hermione began to guffaw or giggle. Even Draco smiled.

Harry grinned. Not being great at coming up with comebacks on the fly, Harry spent a lot of his free time running through various scenarios in his mind, rehearsing for social situations that might come up. And comebacks were a subset of such social situations. Harry was very clever when he was writing or thinking on his own, but in the presence of other people, that cleverness sometimes broke down. So he compensated for this by rehearsing, and it worked pretty well. By now, he had a whole litany of rehearsed lines he could use, even against Voldemort.

Either undaunted by Harry's wit, or – more likely – too thick to have worked out he was being insulted, Goyle kept on.

“Did you faint as well, Weasley?” said Goyle loudly. “Did the scary old dementor frighten you too, Weasley?”

“Is there a problem?” said a mild voice. Professor Lupin had just gotten out of the next carriage.

Goyle gave Lupin a dumb stare, as though a wildebeest in pajamas had just recited Shakespeare at him, and gave Lupin a good look up and down, taking in his shabby robes.

“Er...” Goyle said, having apparently burned through his week's supply of wit like a candle made of napalm. “No, Professor.”

“Then move along, please. The feast awaits.”

Hermione prodded Ron in the back to make him hurry, and the three of them joined the crowd swarming up the steps, through the giant oak front doors, into the cavernous entrance hall, which was lit with flaming torches, and housed a magnificent marble staircase that led to the upper floors.

The door into the Great Hall stood open at the right; Harry followed the crowd toward it, but had barely glimpsed the enchanted ceiling, which was black and cloudy tonight, when a voice called, “Potter! Granger! I want to see you both!”

Harry and Hermione turned around, surprised. Professor McGonagall, Transfiguration teacher and head of Gryffindor House, was calling over the heads of the crowd. She was a stern-looking witch who wore her hair in a tight bun; her sharp eyes were framed with square spectacles. Harry fought his way over to her with a feeling of foreboding: Professor McGonagall had a way of making him feel he must have done something wrong.

“There’s no need to look so worried — I just want a word in my office,” she told them. “Move along there, Weasley, Malfoy.”

McGonagall then did a double-take, apparently only now realizing Malfoy had been hanging out with the golden trio, but she said nothing about it.

Harry sighed, thinking he had an idea what this was about. Glancing back briefly at Ron and Draco, he went with McGonagall and Hermione.

As it turned out, he was right. Professor Lupin had sent an owl ahead about him, and now she and Madam Pomfrey were fussing over him. He insisted to them that he didn't need help, explaining about getting chocolate from Lupin. Harry didn't want to miss the Sorting. He got out of there fast as he could. McGonagall requested he stay to wait for Hermione, but as it wasn't an order (or at least it could be argued that it hadn't been an order), he went to the feast instead, sneaking in under a Disillusionment Charm. Little Professor Flitwick, who looked as short as a goblin, was in the middle of the Sorting. Everyone was so intent on the sorting that nobody noticed him making himself visible once he was sitting next to Ron. Not until he started clapping for all the new students, even the Slytherins, as was his custom; it made Ron jump and spin round to face him.

“Where's Hermione?”

“Still back with McGonagall, I suspect.”

Another Slytherin student got Sorted, so Harry clapped and cheered; he was the only one at the Griffindor table to do so. Though he noticed Luna, over at the Ravenclaw table, was doing the same thing he was.

When the Sorting was over and Flitwick began putting the Sorting Hat away, Hermione showed up, looking annoyed.

“You didn't wait for me!” she hissed at Harry.

“I didn't want to miss the Sorting. I'm the only Griffindor who ever applauds the Slytherins.”

She sighed. “Right. I guess I forgive you. But McGonagall wasn't happy, either.”

Sure enough, as the stern witch went up to her empty seat at the high table, she gave Harry a disapproving look.

“She didn't order me to stay, just requested I stay. I decided I'd rather not.”

Hermione sighed. “I wish she'd seen us after the feast. I wanted to see the Sorting.”

“So what was that all about?” Ron asked.

Harry started to explain in a whisper, but at that moment the headmaster stood up to speak, and he broke off.

“Welcome!” said Dumbledore, the candlelight shimmering on his beard. “Welcome to another year at Hogwarts! I have a few things to say to you all, and as one of them is very serious, I think it best to get it out of the way before you become befuddled by our excellent feast.”

Dumbledore cleared his throat and continued, “As you will all be aware after their search of the Hogwarts Express, our school is presently playing host to some of the dementors of Azkaban, who are here on Ministry of Magic business.”

He paused, and Harry remembered what Mr. Weasley had said about Dumbledore not being happy with the dementors guarding the school.

“They are stationed at every entrance to the grounds,” Dumbledore continued, “and while they are with us, I must make it plain that nobody is to leave school without permission. Dementors are not to be fooled by tricks or disguises — not even Disillusionment Charms, nor even Invisibility Cloaks,” he added blandly, and Harry and Ron glanced at each other. “It is not in the nature of a dementor to understand pleading or excuses. I therefore warn each and every one of you to give them no reason to harm you. I look to the prefects, and our new Head Boy and Girl, to make sure that no student runs afoul of the dementors,” he said.

Harry couldn't help notice Percy, who was Head Boy, puff up with pride. He smiled fondly for the older boy. Dumbledore paused again; he looked very seriously around the hall, and nobody moved or made a sound.

“On a happier note,” he continued, “I am pleased to welcome two new teachers to our ranks this year.

Two?” Harry heard Ron say.

“First, Professor Lupin, who has kindly consented to fill the post of Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher.”

There was some scattered, rather unenthusiastic applause. Only those who had been in the compartment on the train with Professor Lupin clapped hard, Harry among them. Professor Lupin looked particularly shabby next to all the other teachers in their best robes.

“Look at Snape!” Ron hissed in Harry’s ear.

“Do I have to?” Professor Snape hated Harry for ridiculous and childish reasons, and the dislike was mutual. But he looked anyway.

He was astonished. He'd thought Snape hated him, but judging by the look the hook-nosed Potions Master was giving Lupin, Harry was simply an annoyance by comparison. He detested Lupin, loathed and despised him. If humans had the power to kill with a look, Lupin would be dropping dead before their eyes, and probably the wall behind him would be scorched as well.

“As to our second new appointment,” Dumbledore continued as the lukewarm applause for Professor Lupin died away. “Well, I am sorry to tell you that Professor Kettleburn, our Care of Magical Creatures teacher, retired at the end of last year in order to enjoy more time with his remaining limbs. However, I am delighted to say that his place will be filled by none other than Rubeus Hagrid, who has agreed to take on this teaching job in addition to his gamekeeping duties.”

Harry, Ron, and Hermione stared at one another, stunned. Then they joined in with the applause, which was tumultuous at the Gryffindor table in particular. Harry leaned forward to see Hagrid, who was ruby-red in the face and staring down at his enormous hands, his wide grin hidden in the tangle of his black beard.

“We should’ve known!” Ron roared, pounding the table. “Who else would have assigned us a biting book?”

Harry anticipated more speech, but Dumbledore was done. The feast had begun, and they all started loading up their plates.

“Well Hagrid will be thrilled. Though with his fondness for monsters, I'm not sure if we will,” Harry said honestly.

“I'm happy for him. I don't care how his classes are.”

“Don't get me wrong, I am too. But I think we should probably wear thick leather armor to his classes.”

“Shm wh dnt gd nny,” Ron uttered.

“Don't talk with your mouth full, Ron,” Hermione chided.

Ron swallowed. “I said, 'Shame we didn't get any.' Armor, I mean.”

“Oh, it'll be fine,” Hermione said.

“Yeah,” agreed Ron. “Madam Pomfrey can heal anything.”

The two boys snickered. Even Hermione found it hard not to smile.

~

After the feast, the three of them congratulated a joyous Hagrid, but also tried to warn him not to do anything too monstrous or spectacular for his first day. Draco might be on their side, but there were other Slytherins who weren't, and who knew what kind of trouble they might brew up.

As they left the Great Hall, though, they found out it wasn't just Slytherins they had to worry about. They overheard a blond Hufflepuff boy, Zacharias Smith, talking to someone else about Harry, and not in a good way.

“I don't care who you heard it from first, Longbottom was saying the same thing. Potter fainted on the train, had some kind of fit. He's always having funny turns, headaches. I think that curse may have addled his brains. He doesn't seem right, you know? Never looks you in the eye, have you noticed that? Instead, he looks at your mouth, like he's deaf.”

“You're being shallow, Smith,” the other boy responded.

“Am I? I haven't even started on his oddities. He twitches sometimes, in odd ways, like he's a snake trying to shed its skin and not having any luck. And speaking of snakes, befriending a snake in second year? Palling around with Slytherins, too. Even Malfoy has latched onto him now, if you can believe it. You know his father was a Death Eater, right? Probably trained his son in the dark arts, too.

“And as to Potter,” Smith continued, “all these Dementors are because of him, I've heard.”

“What? No way, where'd you hear that?”

“My father knows someone who works at the Ministry, and she says that Minister Fudge said that Sirius Black escaped to kill Potter.”

“I guess that makes sense...”

Whatever else they were saying got cut off, as the Hufflepuffs went down the stairs to their common room. Harry glared after Smith.

“Ignore him, Harry.”

“I'll try, Hermione.” He looked up. “Drat and blast, I missed Luna. She and the other Ravenclaws are already gone.”

“You'll see her later, Harry.”

“Yeah, I know. Still, I wish I'd gotten to talk with her on the train.”

“Well, you didn't talk with Danzia or the others on the train, either.”

“Gee, thanks for reminding me. At least I got to see Luna over the summer, a little.”

When they got to the Griffindor portrait hole, guarded by the Fat Lady, they stopped and waited for Percy to tell them all the password.

“Coming through, coming through!” Percy called from behind the crowd. “The new password’s ‘Fortuna Major’!”

“Oh no,” said Neville Longbottom sadly. He always had trouble remembering the passwords.

“It's Latin, Neville. Means 'Major Fortune.'”

“Thanks, Harry, but I don't think that will work.”

“Just try repeating it to yourself over and over again for a few minutes every now and then, or for an hour straight, until you remember it. Do it now and then for days if you have to. You repeat something often enough, you'll remember it.”

“Yeah, but I'm tired. I want to go to bed, and I'll forget by morning.”

“Well I'll wait up for you, tell you what it is in the morning, okay? Then you can repeat it in your mind on your way to breakfast, and while you eat.”

“I suppose so.”

Ron, Neville, and Harry went up to their dormitory and got ready for bed. Harry lay in bed thinking about Neville, and Ron. He knew, from Ron using a few simple spells to test his new wand at Ollivander's, that Ron was finding it much easier to cast magic with a new wand, with his own wand. How much of that was due to the ancient age of the dead wand, and how much of it was because this wand chose him? Ollivander had told him the wand chooses the wizard, but Ron's wand had been hand-me-down. So too was Neville's wand, it having been his father's wand, though it looked practically brand new. Was it a coincidence that the two boys, both with wands that hadn't chosen them, were bad at magic? Or was Ollivander more right than he'd let on?

Then another thought occurred to him. If Neville was using his dad's wand, when it looked in such perfect condition, why was he using his dad's wand? Ron had used Charlie's old wand because his family couldn't afford one for Ron. Charlie was presumably making enough money working with dragons to afford a brand new wand of his own, so had given his old, worn out wand to his brother. But why would Neville's father give a perfectly good wand to his son, rather than buy him a new one?

Harry remembered Neville lived with his Gran. He'd never heard the other boy mention his parents, except in connection to the wand, or when telling about how his Gran was disappointed at Neville not being more magical. No, he'd only ever talked about his Gran and Uncle Algae, specifically. Were Neville's parents dead? Did they die in the last war? Did Voldemort kill them? The few times he could remember Neville mentioning his parents, there was a strange sort of emotion on his face there, something like a mix of sadness, worry, and pride. Harry wondered what that meant.

Tired as Harry was, he kept thinking about Neville, and Ron, and wands, because he knew if he didn't, he'd think about Sirius Black. It was frustrating, thinking about that man. He didn't know what to think about Black. Part of him wanted the whole thing to have been a misunderstanding, for Black to be innocent somehow, so he could connect with his dad's best friend, anyone who had really known his parents as something other than a student at Hogwarts.

That part of him wanted Black to be innocent so he could stop having doubts about his own friends, or more accurately stop having doubts about his ability to judge their character. But that was hard; contrary to popular opinion, people with Asperger's don't generally lack empathy; Harry knew, from his own experience mostly, that he could tell what others were feeling just fine. What bewildered him a lot was why they felt the way they did. It had only been from years of hard work trying to imagine what it would be like in other people's shoes that Harry had managed to work out possible reasons. But it was a lot of work, required getting to know someone very well, and only had about a 75% success rate at best. It seemed to come naturally to other people; Harry, though, had to work hard at it, like he was compensating for a missing limb. But actually, it was like a missing part of his brain. It felt like... like he imagined it must feel to be blind, and trying to figure out what the world looked like to those who could see. Which was an easy metaphor to think of, for him; without his glasses, he was legally blind. He could make out rough shapes, and kind of work out enough details to recognize people before they spoke, but he couldn't read at all without them, and he shuddered to imagine himself driving or flying without them.

So yes, part of him wanted Black to be innocent somehow. Yet another part of Harry was convinced that Black must be guilty. Everyone seemed convinced that Black had been their secret-keeper, and if Black had gone to prison – without a trial, even – he presumed Dumbledore knew enough about the Fideleus Charm to say Black was guilty. There didn't seem to be any way Black was innocent, even if Mr. Malfoy didn't think Black had been a Death Eater. But Voldemort liked keeping secrets; it was possible Black had been Voldemort's secret weapon, something he kept even from his most trusted lieutenants, just in case one of them was spying on him for the opposition. After all, Regulus Black had turned against Voldemort, so they said. So it made sense Voldemort might be cautious in case of betrayal.

And of course, why break out after 12 years in prison? That was an important question. The answer to that question felt key, like it could tip the scales in Harry's head, make one outcome more likely than the other, transmute his doubt into certainty, one way or another.

Realizing he was thinking about Black after all, he was annoyed at himself, and started instead to focus on getting to sleep. He tried to think of nothing, to blank out his mind. Finding that too difficult, he switched to thinking about geometric shapes; circles, squares, polyhedrons, triangles, stars, and so on. He let the shapes swim in his mind's eye. They began to blend with the colors and patterns he saw when his eyes were closed in a dark room for long enough, until he was no longer thinking of them, but still seeing them.

Finally, he got to sleep.

***FAYANORA***



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