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Darcy, Emily, and Carla are some of the last students to exit the Hogwarts Express. Muttering amongst themselves about having to share a carriage with other students, Darcy tries to find Harry or one of his friends to share with so they won't be stuck with anyone else. After a few minutes of lingering about on the platform, Carla pulls Darcy towards the remaining carriages, climbing into an empty one. Darcy accepts Carla's outstretched hand and follows her in, Max's cage tucked under her arm, to find Emily already sitting inside. 

 

The thestral pulling their carriage snorts and digs its hooves into the soft earth impatiently as Darcy gets settled, sitting down next to Emily. When the carriage sways again with added weight, her eyes snap towards the narrow opening, half-expecting Gemma to have found them. To her surprise, it's Professor Lupin, giving all three of them a small smile as he takes the empty seat beside Carla.

 

"Er . . ." He laughs nervously. "I hope you don't mind."

 

Emily and Carla look to Darcy. "No," she says, shaking her head.

 

Carla looks him up and down, and Lupin gets comfortable before introducing himself to her. She shakes his hand for only a second before sharing an uncomfortable look with her friends, sighing heavily, and staring out at the grounds through the carriage's windows. The thestral begins to move towards the castle, its hooves sticking in the mud with each step, the wheels splashing water up the sides. 

 

The carriage ride is awkward and quiet for a few minutes. Rain lashes at the top of the carriage and thunder booms softly in the far distance. Darcy had planned on using this time to gossip freely about others and hopefully plant the idea of a birthday party for herself, but she thinks that with a professor in tow, maybe it's not such a good idea. The thestrals move slower in the mud and rain, and Darcy keeps her eyes open for more dementors prowling about. Lupin seems to feel equally uncomfortable, and he clasps his hands together in his lap, eyes darting all over the place. Darcy gives him a sideways look before turning away again. Emily's eyes are closed, her arms crossed over her chest, one leg draped over another.

 

"How are you feeling?" Lupin asks.

 

No one answers. Darcy turns to see who Professor Lupin is talking to, but is met by Emily's fiery stare, her eyebrows raised as if expecting an answer from her friend. Darcy fidgets and finds that Lupin had been talking to her. "Oh," she says, clearing her throat and sitting up straighter. "Fine -- I'm fine, thank you. The chocolate helped very much."

 

"I'm glad to hear it. With the dementors so close, chocolate would be a good thing to invest in."

 

Darcy smiles at him. "Thank you for the advice. I'll have to remember."

 

They look at each other a little bit longer, sizing each other up. He looks away first, out towards the castle. Darcy and Emily exchange a meaningful look, shrugging their shoulders, knowing their gossip will just have to wait until they're in their dormitory. The carriage falls silent again, jostling them around and slowing every few moments to shake their muddy hooves. With Darcy's long legs stretched out in front of her, she Lupin's shoes bump whenever one of them is tossed by the carriage, and the both of them seem to be constantly muttering some soft apology.

 

It isn't until Darcy's eyes tire of staring at the thestral's silky black tail that she chances another glance at Professor Lupin again. She narrows her eyes, thinking hard, and Lupin doesn't fail to notice her gaze, raising one of his eyebrows. He looks hopefully at Carla, but she isn't paying him any mind.

 

"I like your owl," Lupin says to break the silence. "He's very handsome."

 

Darcy smiles at both he and Max. "Thank you."

 

"Have I done something?" he asks her, the corners of his lips twitching. "Or perhaps you're trying to penetrate the deepest corners of my mind?"

 

"No, I only . . ." Darcy sighs, defeated and unsure. She crosses one leg over the other, leaning back in her seat, her shoulder brushing against Emily's. For the hundredth time that evening, she really looks at him. "Are you sure we've never met before?"

 

Lupin shrugs, shaking his head. "I'm sure."

 

"You're absolutely positive?"

 

"Absolutely positive," he repeats, laughing. "You must be mistaking me for someone else."

 

"You look very familiar."

 

"You're not the only one who says so. I suspect it must be my face. A common face, someone I knew used to call it. Plain." Despite his slightly bitter words, there's a smile on his face.

 

Darcy frowns. "That's not very kind of them." Though she continues to look suspiciously at him, she drops the matter. "What happened in the compartment? With Harry and the dementor?"

 

"The dementor just got a little too closer to Harry," he answers. "I'm sure he's feeling fine now, just a little shaken. I don't blame him."

 

"Was it you that made the dementor go away?" Darcy asks again. "Do I have you to thank, Professor Lupin?"

 

Lupin hesitates for a moment, his mouth half-open as if about to speak. He leans back in his seat and shrugs. "I only turned it away from us. The dementor left the train of its own accord."

 

"How did you do it?" Emily asks, suddenly interested in nothing but the conversation. It even sparks Carla's interest, and they both lean in towards him, eager to hear his reply. "Did you cast a Patronus? What form did it take? Do you think you'll teach us?"

 

Lupin flashes them a warm, but awkward grin, rendered temporarily speechless. "I -- I mean . . . haven't you learned . . . ?"

 

"Professor Dumbledore must have told you about our last teacher, didn't he? Professor Lockhart?" Carla explains gently. "We didn't really learn anything, really. It was all theory, out of his books, you know --  well, I suppose it had to have been theory, seeing as Professor Lockhart probably didn't know how to cast half the spells he claimed to know. Even the spells he could cast weren't so good."

 

"He was very nice to look at, though," Emily interrupts, delivering this addition with a very somber air to her. "An absolute nightmare -- arrogant and mad -- but very handsome."

 

Lupin looks to Darcy, almost as if looking for some way out of the conversation. Carla clears her throat and his attention is diverted, her eyes wide and her cheeks flushed as she leans closer to him. "Professor Lockhart himself said that we were the best class he'd ever had, so if you teach them Patronuses, then you'll have to teach us, too -- I'm sure we can handle it."

 

As Carla continues to chatter, not stopping for a single breath, Darcy notices Lupin wiping his palms on his trousers, patched and worn. Now that she really looks at his clothing, she sees that it's not just his pants -- his cloak is shabby and clearly very worn and old, and he looks -- for lack of a better word -- ill. Ill and shrunken underneath his clothes and perhaps in need of a few square meals and a few days of rest. 

 

"I'll . . . consider it," Lupin finally says, taking advantage of the silence during which Carla does take a deep breath, preparing herself to continue talking. "To be frank, I still have quite a lot of planning to do, but I appreciate any suggestions should they come to you."

 

"So, what was it like?" Darcy asks him, crossing her arms over her chest and smiling. "Your Patronus?"

 

"It was only the one dementor," Lupin answers, a pink tint to his cheeks. "I didn't need to conjure a fully corporeal Patronus just to be rid of one dementor."

 

"I've never seen a Patronus before, corporeal or otherwise," Darcy says, lurching with the carriage as one of the wheels finds itself lodged in a large hole. 

 

"Perhaps that's not such a terrible thing," he tells her after a minute, his voice quieter than before.

 

"You will teach us, though, won't you?" Emily presses him. "Don't you think it's necessary now, given the . . . special circumstances?"

 

Lupin purses his lips, considering it, but he doesn't reply. Emily and Carla speak freely then, as they've become more comfortable with him in their presence, and the slow-moving thestral irritates them to the point of having to discuss it in minute detail. Every so often, he pushes his hair out of his face, brushes off the sleeves of his jacket, and clears his throat. 

 

Darcy and Lupin steal glances at each other for the rest of the carriage ride, looking away quickly upon catching the other's eye, and Darcy begins to long for the warmth of the Great Hall, desperate to be inside and away from the dementors outdoors. They've cast a shadowy fog upon the grounds, causing it to be chillier than normal, but it isn't a normal kind of chilly. It's one that chills Darcy's bones, one that slowly begins to freeze her insides, and relief sweeps over her as the carriage slows to a halt before Hogwarts. 

 

Swept up in the crowd of students, Darcy and Emily bid Carla good-night and are shuffled into the entrance hall, crossing into the Great Hall and finding seats at the Gryffindor table beside two other girls a few years below them, who are deep in conversation, not even realizing anyone has sat beside them. 

 

The magical sky of the Great Hall is enchanted to reflect the storm outside, dark clouds and flashes of lightning add to the hundreds of candles floating above. The splendor of the Great Hall has diminished over the course of six full years at Hogwarts, but Darcy cannot deny its beauty. 

 

As everyone else settles into their seats, what seems like a hundred first years file over the threshold of the doors to the Great Hall, looking like deer in headlights. Their faces are ghostly white and a little sweaty, their eyes wide in amazement. The Sorting Hat already sits upon the rickety stool before the staff table, in plain view of the entire hall. 

 

"It's going to take forever for the feast to begin," Darcy grumbles to Emily. "And I swear they're even smaller this year. Were we ever that small?"

 

"You were, maybe." Emily sighs, resting her elbows on the table to prop her head up. "Remember when Mabel tried to give herself tits in our first year? She was lucky she was at Hogwarts and someone was able to enchant her bra. One massive tit, and missing another."

 

Darcy snickers. "She could have just stuffed her bra like you did."

 

"I was eleven-years-old," Emily retorts, suddenly defensive. "Of course I stuffed my bra."

 

The Sorting seems to drag on forever, with Professor Flitwick calling names one by one in place of McGonagall, who's clearly absent from the feast. Darcy and Emily whisper to each other the entire time, clapping eagerly when someone is Sorted into Gryffindor. First year after first year after first year and Darcy's stomach growls loudly as the line starts to thin. She takes a quick look down the table, looking everyone over a few times before catching sight of Ron and hissing his name to get his attention. When he finally looks at her with eyes that seem glazed over, he hisses back, "What?"

 

"Where's Harry?" she whispers, glancing up against towards the Sorting, making sure that there are no teacher eyes are focused intently upon her. None seem to be paying attention, so she looks back at Ron. "And Hermione?"

 

Ron shrugs, clearly irritable due to how long the Sorting is taking. He looks back towards the thinning crowd of first years and crosses his arms over his chest, groaning to George about something. Darcy sighs, watching the doors of the Great Hall while two people are Sorted into Ravenclaw, hoping to see Harry and Hermione walking through them anytime now.

 

"I'm sure he's fine," Emily says, leaning in closer to Darcy, keeping her eyes ahead of her. She twirls a strand of yellow hair around her finger lazily. "God . . . awful lot of Hufflepuffs this year, aren't there?"

 

Darcy nods, but hasn't been paying enough attention to notice. Now that she looks around the Great Hall, she notices that the Hufflepuff table does seem more crowded than usual. Darcy inwardly thanks the Sorting Hat for allowing her elbow room at the table, while still giving Gryffindor House a decent number of new students.

 

After the last first year is Sorted into Slytherin, Darcy's eyes follow Professor Flitwick as he brings the Sorting Hat and old stool out of the Great Hall, and just as he passes over the threshold, two familiar faces walk in, hurrying towards the table. Harry must feel Darcy's hard stare because he immediately finds her in the sea in Gryffindors, eyes wide in a where have you been sort of way. He shrugs and takes his seat next to Ron. Darcy goes to stand up, but Dumbledore stands to give his usual start of term speech and Emily grabs her arm, pulling Darcy back into her seat.

 

"Welcome!" Dumbledore booms, and Darcy's stomach growls even louder. "Welcome to another year at Hogwarts! I have a few things to say to you all, and as one of them is gravely serious, I think it best to get it out of the way before you become befuddled by our excellent feast."

 

"I hope he does it quickly," Emily moans, her stomach roaring along with Darcy's. It seems they aren't alone, either. All around them, people clutch their stomachs, fidgeting in their seats, eager to have the delicious Hogwarts food appear in front of them, ripe for the picking.

 

"As you will now be aware," Dumbledore continues, putting an end to all the whispering again, "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."

 

"A casual way of putting it," Darcy mutters, shivering as she remembers the coldness of the compartment on the train after the dementor had tried to enter. She tries to read Dumbledore's face, but whatever his true feelings are on the subject, it's unclear to her. He smiles encouragingly at all of his students, hoping not to scare them too terribly, Darcy assumes.

 

"They are stationed at every entrance to the grounds," he continues, "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 -- or even Invisibility Cloaks . . ." His eyes sweep the Great Hall, making sure to linger on Harry and Darcy.

 

"Think he's talking to someone specifically?" Emily jokes, nudging Darcy gently with her elbow.

 

"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 our prefects, and our new Head Boy and Girl, to make sure that no student runs afoul of the dementor."

 

Darcy slowly tunes Dumbledore out, seeing him without really hearing anything, her eyelids growing heavier and feeling lightheaded from hunger. She notices Dumbledore nod politely towards Lupin and he stands, smiling warmly at everyone in Great Hall. Emily claps slowly along with the others and Darcy joins in a little late, meeting Lupin's eyes for a split second before he sits and the applause comes to a halt. 

 

The second appointment shocks Darcy. She gives her head a slightly shake and tunes into Dumbledore again, hoping to catch the end of his statement. 

 

". . . 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."

 

Hagrid blushes furiously and stands, just as Lupin did, giving an awkward wave to the crowd with one of his overlarge hands. Behind Darcy, who claps loudly for Hagrid, Harry, Ron, and Hermione wolf-whistle and give Hagrid a standing ovation. Darcy beams at Hagrid as he finds her at the Gryffindor table, and Dumbledore settles the students again, announcing the start of the magical feast.

 

First years sitting around them gasp audibly as all kinds of deliciously prepared meals spring into life, appearing on the long tables. Darcy breathes in deeply, readying herself, mentally preparing herself for the amount of food she's about to shovel into her mouth. She takes a little bit of everything -- sausages, lamb chops, tuna, slices of bread and butter, beans -- whatever she can get her hands on, she eats, and for the first few minutes of the feast, Darcy and Emily eat in silence, hardly able to breathe through the amount of food they're eating.

 

Come dessert, Darcy eats a little less, only able to eat two small slices of pie before feeling the need to purge. When forks and knives clatter on empty plates and sighs sound around the room, Dumbledore takes this as his moment to finish his speech. The desserts on Gryffindor table disappear as suddenly as they had appeared and Darcy soon wishes she was under the blankets of her bed, in the stage between asleep and awake, the cool air of her dormitory on her face.

 

As usual, Dumbledore wishes them all the best of luck, urges them to be careful, and sends them off to bed. Darcy and Emily continue to sit at the table for a few minutes, allowing the rest of their fellow Gryffindors to force their way through the Great Hall before even attempting the excursion themselves. Darcy dreads the trip up to Gryffindor Tower, unsure if she'll be able to walk without feeling excessively full. 

 

Harry, Hermione, and Ron zoom right past Darcy and she watches them race up to the staff table, stopping in front of Hagrid with brilliant smiles on their faces. Darcy and Emily stretch and yawn obnoxiously, joining their three friends before leaving the Great Hall for the night.

 

"Congratulations, Hagrid," Hermione squeals, a wide grin plastered to her face. 

 

"A real shame we don't take Care of Magical Creatures anymore," Darcy sighs contently, holding out a hand to allow Hagrid to grasp it with both of his. Darcy puts her free hand on top of his, tiny compared to his own. "But I'll make it a point to come visit more often, Hagrid."

 

"Yer always welcome round mine," Hagrid smiles, eyes filling with tears. "All of yeh."

 

Professor McGonagall soon curtly ushers Darcy, Emily, Harry, Ron, and Hermione from the Great Hall, the teachers filling out past them, talking quietly amongst themselves. When the five of them are alone, with no one surrounding them, Darcy speeds up and walks backwards, facing Harry with a very stern look on her face.

 

"Where the hell were you?" she asks, her lips pursing in a very Aunt Petunia way. "You missed the Sorting. Very exciting. Lots of Hufflepuffs. One puker."

 

"I wanted to watch," Harry replies, rolling his eyes at his sister. "They took me up to the hospital wing and then Hermione had to talk with McGonagall -- it doesn't matter. I didn't want to go to the hospital wing."

 

"The Sorting Hat did a nice song this year -- different than usual," Emily says, shrugging and grinning. 

 

"I was watching you. The two of you didn't listen to anything the hat said," Ron snorts. "All you did was talk amongst yourselves."

 

Darcy and Emily laugh. Darcy falls back into the step with the rest of them and they chat and giggle and gossip until they reach the portrait of the Fat Lady. The door revealing the Gryffindor common room is already open, allowing passage to three nervous looking first years. It's incredibly warm in the common room already, a fire roaring in the hearth, and the knowledge that there's a warm bed upstairs waiting for her to crawl into provides Darcy with a happiness that she hasn't felt in months.

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