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"We'll write to you about Christmas this year, and good luck in all of your classes," Mrs. Weasley rambles, pulling Darcy into a tight hug as the Hogwarts Express blows its horn, giving the lingering students a warning. Steam billows onto the platform, where people are scattering and scrambling to give last minute good-byes and making sure they haven't forgotten anything. The rest of the Weasley children are already jumping onto the rumbling train and behind Mrs. Weasley, Emily and Carla wait for Darcy. Carla checks her watch constantly, her eyes looking up at the train every so often as if to make sure it hasn't left without them. Emily busies herself by chatting with a fourth year Slytherin girl who's showing off her hairless cat. Emily strokes it with a single, nervous finger.

 

"Thank you," Darcy mutters, trying to pull away from Mrs. Weasley.

 

Mrs. Weasley only tightens her grip and traps Darcy against her soft bosom. "I've always known you were a good girl -- I've always known you were going to do something with your life and I'm so proud of you --" Real, fat tears begin to drip from Mrs. Weasley's eyes and Darcy squirms uncomfortably as she speaks as if she's known Darcy her entire life. She appreciates the show of affection, but Darcy can't imagine her own mother would be crying into her hair if she were still alive.

 

"Mrs. Weasley, please -- I'm not dying, you know --"

 

"Please don't get into any trouble this year, all right? Focus on your classes and your N.E.W.T.'s and I know you'll do well -- you and Percy can study together, and he's so good at Transfiguration -- you could help each other --"

 

"Mrs. Weasley, the train's about to leave --"

 

"-- and don't forget about us when you're some big, famous Auror!"

 

"Mrs. Weasley --" Darcy squirms again, looking desperately at her friends, who offer nothing but mocking smiles.

 

"Always remember that you're welcome at our home whenever --"

 

"My friends --"

 

"-- if there's anything we can do for you --"

 

"Molly!" Mr. Weasley, seemingly coming from nowhere, pries Darcy and Mrs. Weasley apart. He smiles apologetically at Darcy and gives her one last hug and kiss on the head before sending her off to her friends, who are looking nervously at the Hogwarts Express. From over her shoulder, Darcy hears Mr. Weasley call after her, "And no drinking!"

 

Darcy rolls her eyes as Emily and Carla laugh heartily. Mrs. Weasley blows kisses to her children, who sink low in their seats, avoiding eye contact with their mother. Darcy pulls her trunk and Max's cage onto the train, which lurches as it begins to move, making her stumble. The doors close right as Darcy makes her way down the corridor. Emily leads the three of them to an empty compartment that she'd claimed by way of throwing her jacket and scarf and trunk on the seats. Gemma, busy with her prefect duties, hasn't joined them on the train since fifth year, but Darcy doesn't complain -- the three of them, especially Darcy and Emily, have grown in the past few years and the compartments are no longer as spacious as she had once thought.

 

Emily grunts as she hoists her trunk in the compartment above her. "It's all happening, isn't it?"

 

"For you, at least," Carla sneers, sitting in the seat opposite Emily and stretching her legs out. Darcy sits next to Emily, allowing Max out of his cage to perch on Carla's calf. He shifts, then falls asleep with his head tucked into his wing as the train rattles on, gaining speed. "I like your owl, Darcy. What's it's name?"

 

"Max," Darcy says. 

 

Max opens his eyes at his name, but when Darcy doesn't say anything further, he closes them again, resting once more.

 

"He's smart, isn't he?" Carla continues, stroking Max's puffed out chest. "I wish I had one. Mum says if I want a pet, she'll just get me a dog, but I want an owl."

 

"No, you don't," Emily scoffs. "They stink and they're loud. You better not keep his cage in our dormitory." She narrows her eyes at Darcy, then gives Max the same cold look. "He can stay in the owlery with the other stinky birds."

 

"His cage isn't going to stink." Darcy smiles fondly at her new owl. "It'll be clean because he'll hardly be inside of it."

 

"I'm only saying, I don't want that thing near me -- oh!"

 

Max, apparently understanding Emily's hesitation, suddenly hops over to Emily's side, looking up at her with his wide, dark eyes. He seems to be waiting for Emily to pet him, and he nudges her indignantly. Emily reaches a hand out, pauses for a moment, and then quickly strokes Max's head, wanting to get it over with quickly.

 

"Bit creepy, isn't he?" Emily whispers, stroking him again. Max snaps at her fingers and Emily draws her hand away, looking outraged, a small trickle of blood running down from the prick in her finger. "Ouch! Why you stupid --"

 

As Max flutters back over to Carla's leg, Darcy sits up straighter. "Mr. Weasley told me something interesting last night," she says, shutting the compartment door to allow them some privacy. Emily removes her bleeding finger from her mouth and leans in closer, raising an eyebrow. Carla purses her lips and folds her arms across her chest. "He says there are going to be dementors at Hogwarts this year -- for our protection, of course."

 

Carla's eyes widen. "How did the Ministry ever get the authorization to station those horrible creatures there?"

 

"Mr. Weasley said Dumbledore allowed it," Darcy explains, shrugging her shoulders. 

 

"I think it's dangerous," Emily says in a very matter-of-fact way. "Who's to say the dementors are actually going to do what the Ministry says? I mean, they don't exactly seem the type to care about who lives and who dies, do they?"

 

"Seems like a bit of a . . . grandstand, doesn't it? I mean -- all this just for Sirius Black? Fudge is just trying to make it seem like he's really serious about student safety . . . probably to make up for the fact that a prisoner escaped from Azkaban right under his nose." Carla nods, talking more to herself than to Darcy or Emily. "I can't think of any other reason that Fudge would station dementors at Hogwarts other than to attempt to save his pride."

 

Darcy hesitates, looking at both of her friends for a long time as they think, picking at their clothes distractedly or gazing out the window at the passing countryside. Emily leans back in her seat, lost in thought, and Darcy knows better than to disturb her when she's like this. Instead, Darcy holds her tongue, not wanting to reveal to her friends the real reason the dementors are being stationed at Hogwarts. That's not the way she wants to start off the year, especially with the way their last year had ended. Darcy still remembers the look of horror on Emily's face when she'd shown up in the Gryffindor common room in the dead of night, her clothes soaking wet and torn in places, her hands and face and blouse covered in black ink and basilisk blood.

 

Most of the journey is spent in silence. Carla tires of thinking and talking of dementors and reads almost the entire trip, Max napping on her leg. Emily rests her head against the window, closing her eyes and throwing her legs over Darcy's lap. Eventually, Emily falls asleep, and Darcy opens her own book, her eyelids heavy and her breathing slowing. She rubs her eyes and sees Carla yawn behind her book.

 

The weather continually gets more dismal with each passing moment. Rain begins to hammer the top of the Hogwarts Express and the sky darkens rather quicker than normal. It gets so dark, it becomes near impossible to see the treeline in the distance. Younger kids and more energetic ones run down the corridor, laughing loudly and stomping their feet at the train rattles onward towards Hogwarts. The lamps are lit earlier than normal, providing barely enough light to read without straining her eyes. Darcy closes her book and sighs heavily, looking at Carla, who does the same.

 

Carla moves her leg, forcing Max to abandon his post. She stretches, bones popping, muttering under her breath about Max. Darcy opens Max's cage and he flutters inside, nuzzling his face into his feathers before falling asleep once more. Carla smiles at Darcy, tucking her legs underneath her and looking out of the rain-splattered window, glancing every so often at Emily, whose mouth is hanging open as she sleeps on.

 

"What are you doing for Christmas this year?" Carla asks suddenly. "My mum and dad are planning on going to Spain -- maybe they'd let you come with us."

 

"Oh," Darcy answers, smiling weakly. It's a kind suggestion, but Darcy isn't of a mind to accept. "Yeah, maybe. I'll probably just go to the Weasleys' this year. Mrs. Weasley said she'd write me about it."

 

"Right," Carla nods, but Darcy notices her disappointment.

 

"I could visit over the summer, if you like," Darcy says, appearing a bit more upbeat. She leans forward and lowers her voice. "Now that I'll finally be free of the poor bastards at Privet Drive."

 

"You'd leave Harry?"

 

Darcy hesitates, the small smile fading from her face. She hadn't expected such a bold question from Carla. Carla takes Darcy's silence to mean she's overstepped, meek girl that she is, and she looks away, out the window and into the darkness. Darcy wishes she could answer truthfully, but she isn't sure what to say, so she just says nothing at all.

 

It's not long after Darcy buys some cookies from the trolley that the train begins to slow. Darcy feels a wave of relief wash over her, but when Emily wakes suddenly due to the train lurching to a slower speed, she looks around the compartment, then back outside the window. She squints, trying to see anything. Emily gets to her feet slowly, wary and panicked, likely still half-asleep. Darcy and Carla watch her incredulously, confused, and Emily puts her hands on her hips.

 

"We're not at Hogwarts," Emily says quietly, looking down at her watch "Are we? We've still got a little bit to go, haven't we? We never get there so quickly."

 

Now that Emily has voiced her concern, Darcy feels dread overcome her. Max hoots and beats his wings wildly against the bars of his cage, desperate for freedom, for escape. "Shh, Max, it's all right," she whispers, sticking a finger between the bars to soothe him. Her heart quickening, Darcy opens the compartment door and looks left and right, but it seems as if everyone has returned to their seats. "I wonder if someone's ill," Darcy says, hoping that's the case. "Or maybe the train's broken down."

 

Emily snorts, her nose pushed up against the window. "Darcy, this train is magical. It wouldn't just break down."

 

"All right," Darcy retorts defensively. "I'm just throwing suggestions out there."

 

The train stutters for a minute and then comes to a complete halt. Emily's bag falls from the luggage compartment onto Carla's head, and Max's cage falls into Darcy's seat, bursting open. Max flies out, circling above them frantically, screeching. The three girls look at each other. Darcy isn't sure what to make of their expressions, but Carla is tensed up, huddled in the corner of the compartment, watching the window and the door. Darcy pokes her head back out into the corridor; other students have become curious, as well, and Darcy calls down to Sarah, a Slytherin girl she once had Herbology with.

 

"What's going on?" Darcy asks Sarah, but Sarah just shakes her head and shrugs. Darcy sighs, looking to her other side, where another fellow Gryffindor boy is looking around with furrowed brows. "Hey -- you! Why has the train --"

 

Before she can finish her sentence, all the lamps are extinguished and there's screaming from the other occupied compartments up and down the train. Carla yelps behind Darcy and she turns quickly, accidentally trodding on Emily's feet. Emily hisses in pain, swearing under her breath, and Darcy feels feathers brush across her face in the pitch darkness. Darcy throws her hands out, trying to find her friends, and her fingers wrap around Emily's hand and Carla's ankle.

 

"What the hell is going on?" Emily growls, but there's a note of panic in her voice. "Lumos." A small light illuminates their compartment, reflecting off the dark glass, and Emily's face is tinted blue in her wandlight. 

 

"Someone's coming on the train." Carla's voice is shaky and soft, her face pressed to the window. "I can see them moving."

 

"Who? Who is it, Carla?" Emily asks. She rips her hand from Darcy's and moves around loudly back to her seat, still holding her lit wand aloft. "Oh, shit . . . I see them. Those aren't people. Darcy, come look at this."

 

A chill runs down Darcy's spine. If not people, she thinks, then what? She steps up to the window, but by the time she reaches it, there's nothing out there. It's dark, and she can't see any silhouettes or movement. "What do you mean they're not people?" she whispers to Emily. "What did you see?"

 

An intense cold washes over Darcy then, goosebumps rising on her arms, and the hair on the back of her neck stands up. By the light of Emily's wand, Darcy can see the fear etched in both of her friends faces. Emily scrambles across the seat, nearly climbing into Darcy's lap, and the two of them watch the corridor, holding their breaths as the cold overwhelms them, makes it feel as if they're drowning, making them shiver uncontrollably against each other. Carla watches them from the corner near the window, frozen with fear. 

 

The cold intensifies still and Darcy feels paralyzed as a hooded shadow makes it way down the train corridor, not walking, but seemingly floating, occasionally stopping at compartments and peering inside. There is no screaming now, only quiet -- a quiet occasionally broken by the sound of a rasping breath being drawn, a breath that seems to echo inside Darcy's own head. Emily lowers her wand at the sight of it, but keeps it firmly grasped in her hand, and when the shadowy figure reaches their compartment, everyone within holds their breath in earnest.

 

Carla looks away, hiding behind her hands. Emily moves back slightly, eyes never leaving the figure, but Darcy stays put. She doesn't think she could move if she tried, and her heart beats a violent tattoo against her chest.

 

A scabbed and decaying hand, long-fingered and bony, slowly opens their compartment door, and Emily drops her wand at the sight of it towering over them. The light is extinguished as soon as her wand leaves her hand and Darcy nearly chokes, bile forming at the back of her throat, a suffocating and heavy weight pressing on her chest. Everything around her seems to be so far away -- she reaches for Emily, but Emily's hand is nowhere to be found, and Darcy can't get to her wand, her hands shaking too badly. Everything seems to have slowed down and Darcy head is filled with images --

 

A flash of green light and a woman with red hair, not smiling, but not afraid, lying still on a carpet . . . a pale, snake-like face looking down at her and her brother greedily . . . cold, high-pitched laughter and another flash of green light . . . darkness, darkness, darkness . . . a scene of destruction around her, the ruins of a house swallowing her up . . . She can't think of anything else -- the rattling breath of the dementor fills her ears and Darcy silently begs for it to stop, the green light shining behind her closed eyelids, and the darkness . . . the darkness most of all . . . Darcy screams madly -- or does she? The scream is real, she can hear it, but it doesn't sound like her . . . is it her?

 

As soon as she screams, the heavy cold lifts. It's much chillier in the compartment than usual, but the dementor sweeps away from them, leaving the compartment door cracked only slightly. At once, Emily grabs her wand off the floor, whispers "Lumos" once again, and touches Darcy's shoulder, steadying her. Darcy takes a look around the compartment, her heart pumping faster than ever, cold sweat dripping down her forehead, down her neck and spine. 

 

Carla is still in the corner of the compartment, shaking violently, hands tangled in her hair, brown eyes wide like a deer in headlights. Emily looks slightly green in the face, her chest heaving beneath her sweater, and she stares Darcy in the eyes, looking rather anxious.

 

"Are you all right, Darcy?" Emily asks quietly, shaking Darcy's shoulders. "You look terrible."

 

Emily's wandlight helps Darcy see her reflection in the window. The train is still at a standstill and Darcy tries to look outside to see if the dementors have left. That's when Darcy notices how terrible she really does look -- she's white as a ghost, sweating, with dark circles around her eyes, and blood trickling from her left nostril. Without warning Darcy retches all over the floor of the compartment, not once, not twice, but three times. Emily dry heaves beside her and Carla gags at the sight of it, pinching her nose to keep from smelling it. And it's then that she remembers the three of them are not the only ones on the train --

 

"Harry --" Darcy chokes, stumbling over her own two feet. She looks down, trying to avoid the pile of vomit on the ground. Emily holds her up by the arm. "I have to go check on Harry --"

 

"Hold on!" Carla protests, her voice scratchy. "That thing might still be out there." She holds her knees to her chest. "You shouldn't go yet."

 

"I'm sure he's fine, Darcy," Emily replies, stroking Darcy's hair and catching her breath. "Just sit down and relax for a minute, would you?" She rubs Darcy on the back, Vanishing the pile of sick on the compartment floor, appeasing Carla.

 

Darcy feels weak in the knees, her stomach rolling violently. It takes her a few moments to steady herself, and by then, the lights have flickered back on. Emily puts her wand on the seat unceremoniously. "No -- no, I have to -- I have to see Harry --"

 

Emily looks at Carla and sighs. "We'll be right back."

 

"You don't have to come with me," Darcy croaks.

 

"Shut up," Emily says, smiling weakly, her face still a sickly green. "You know that I do."

 

Carla at least convinces them to wait for the train to start moving again, a sure sign that the dementor is gone. Once everything seems back to normal -- despite the chill lingering in the air and in her bones -- Darcy and Emily take off, searching for the compartment containing Harry. Emily supports her the entire way, and though Darcy is able to walk by herself, it's nice to have help. They look in every compartment, frightening a lot of the younger kids who think they're dementors returning to patronize them. Everyone is one edge, still afraid to speak. Many students look sick, like Emily, looking at them with wide eyes. 

 

Finally, at the very end of one of the train cars, seemingly a million miles from where Darcy and Emily's compartment is, they find Harry. Darcy throws the door open to the packed compartment, throwing herself to the ground at her brother's side. Harry is lying on the ground, oddly contorted around everyone's legs. Hermione, Ron, Neville Longbottom, and Ginny Weasley are still sitting on the seats, pale-faced and trembling. And bending over Harry, a hunk of chocolate in his hand, is an older man that does not fit in with the scene, slapping Harry's cheek gently.

 

"Stop it!" Darcy hisses. Unsure of what comes over her, Darcy reaches for the stranger, grabbing his wrist and pulling his hand away from Harry's face. "Don't hit him!"

 

The man turns quickly to look at her, his arm held up awkwardly by Darcy, and when his eyes settle on her face, he looks at her for a long time, taking in her appearance, looking as if he's seen a ghost. Darcy releases his wrist, feeling scrutinized. The stranger opens his mouth to speak, but is spared by Harry's stirring.

 

"Harry!" Darcy takes his clammy hand in her own, pulling him into a sitting position, fixing his messy hair. "Are you all right? What happened?"

 

"He only fainted," says the man beside her with a small smile. He holds out a piece of chocolate to Harry. "Here, eat this."

 

"You fainted?" she asks again, frowning. "I'm so sorry I couldn't get here quicker."

 

Harry accepts the chocolate from the man, turning it over warily in his palm. He looks up at his sister, waiting for her assuring nod before glancing down and taking a small nibble. "I'm fine," Harry grimaces, looking up behind Darcy and noticing Emily standing in the doorway, leaning against the frame with her arms crossed. "Did you --?"

 

Darcy shakes her head slowly. 

 

"Are you all right?" the man asks her, looking far too concerned. "You've . . . got some blood there."

 

Blushing, Darcy wipes the dried blood under her nose with the back of her sleeve. The man breaks the chocolate into smaller pieces, tearing his eyes away from her to pass the chunks around the compartment to everyone else, even reaching up to give one to Emily, who takes it graciously. The last piece he holds out for Darcy to take, who is hesitant to accept it for reasons unknown to herself.

 

Darcy and the man look at each other for a minute, both of them taking in the other intently. He looks kind enough, with soft features and messy brown hair. Finally, Darcy takes the chocolate from his hand, but puts it up on the seat, meaning to eat it later. The man chuckles, catching her attention again. The knowledge that he can laugh after what has just happened gives her some small comfort. "You should eat it," he says. "It'll make you feel better."

 

"I know," she answers sharply. "I'm not hungry right now."

 

She looks around the compartment and notices that every person who has eaten the chocolate seems to have regained color in their face. The only person who hasn't eaten their chocolate is her, but she doesn't feel as if she could keep it down anyway. She and Harry share a short glance, but it does nothing to reassure her. Darcy turns again to the man beside her, still kneeling with her at Harry's side.

 

"Excuse me," she says coldly. "Who are you?"

 

He clears his throat and stands up. Darcy does the same, never taking her eyes off him. It seems he's been waiting for this moment, for the chance to introduce himself. A tired smile graces his face. "Professor Remus Lupin," he tells her, holding out his hand. "Your new Defense Against the Arts Teacher."

 

Darcy looks at his hand, his face, his hand again, and then takes it, shaking it slowly. As soon as their hands touch, a warmth spreads through Darcy's arm, infecting her entire body. She can't stop looking into his face -- there's a comfort there after what has just happened, a kind face, an almost familiar face, but Darcy can't recall ever hearing his name or seeing his face. The dementor has scrambled her thoughts . . . she isn't thinking straight. But there's something about the way he looks at her, as if she's an old friend, as if he's been waiting his entire life to meet her -- there's something odd here, she thinks.

 

They continue to shake hands for a long few seconds, while everyone around them watches awkwardly. Professor Lupin continues to smile warmly at her, waiting for her to introduce herself, their hands moving up and down lazily and absently. "Darcy Potter," she says, and while they still shake hands, she adds, "Have we met?"

 

Lupin chuckles softly. "I don't think so."

 

Darcy pulls her hand away and she shivers, forgetting how cold she had been only a minute ago. Lupin points to her piece of chocolate and grins wearily. "I promise it will make you feel better," he says again. "You look . . ."

 

"Awful," Emily supplies.

 

"I . . . wouldn't have said that," Lupin laughs. "We'll be at Hogwarts soon."

 

He gives her the piece of chocolate she had been saving for later, and this time she accepts it. True to his word, the chocolate makes her feel immense relief at the warmth that suddenly returns to her body.

 

Everyone seems rather pleased to hear it, and slightly relieved, but Darcy privately wishes they had a bit more time. If one dementor had such an effect on her, what will it be like when they arrive at Hogwarts, and they're stationed at the gates, and in the village, and where in the castle will Dumbledore allow them to go?

 

And how many more times must she see her mother's face again, blank and cold and dead? The memory of her mother had long been forgotten, brushed off as no more than a fabricated memory of that night. That night had done things to her memory, Aunt Petunia used to say, that night had made her remember things wrong. There had been no man that night, she had said. 

 

"You good?" Emily touches her shoulder as Professor Lupin squeezes by them and out of the compartment. 

 

"Yeah," Darcy says, wiping her nose on her sleeve again. "Yeah, I'm fine."

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