Cornelius Fudge paced up and down in his cheap lodging, his mind working furiously.
"It must be false," he said for the thousandth time. "He must have Confunded Pettigrew into believing the story, or put him under Imperius, or something of the sort – it can't, it simply can't be true."
"Agreed," said his right-hand woman from her seat at the table. "But we must be patient, Minister. We must wait for Black to make a mistake again. Then we can strike once more."
"Yes – yes – you're right, Dolores. Of course, you're right."
Fudge wondered again where Curcio was. The man had gone out on that round of the children and never come back. Possibly he'd run afoul of Black or one of the others while he was doing it. In which case the poor man was lying dead in a ditch somewhere.
Perhaps – his mind snapped to work. Perhaps that could be put to use. He started pacing again, his mind already working on possible headlines.
"Ministry Casewizard Missing – Sirius Black Connected with Case".
"Casewizard to Sirius Black's Wards Missing – Aurors Suspect Foul Play".
Yes, that should do the trick nicely. He chuckled.
CORNELIUS FUDGE ARRESTED
Charged with collusion in Black children scandal
Ex-Minister of Magic declares his innocence
FUDGE TRIAL BEGINS TOMORROW
Sirius Black expected to take the stand
This would be Black's first public appearance since his acquittal in April
BLACK SENDS WRITTEN DEPOSITION TO FUDGE TRIAL
States "The facts speak for themselves"
Aurors examining document say it's genuine
CORNELIUS FUDGE CONVICTED
Ex-Minister gave OK for Memory Charms on minors
Sentence expected to be at least five years
Neville Longbottom followed his grandmother through King's Cross Station. He knew he should really be excited about leaving for Hogwarts, but all he could muster up was scared.
He passed through the magical barrier and patted at his pocket, hoping Trevor was still there. His new pet showed an alarming tendency to try to escape – nine getaways in the past week alone.
His hand touched only empty space. "Gran, I've lost my toad again," he said, his heart sinking.
"Oh, Neville," his gran sighed. "I suppose we'll have to look for him, then."
Neville got down on his hands and knees and began peering under luggage trolleys. But his mind kept going off on tangents.
I bet Meghan would like Trevor. I bet he'd like her too. He might not try to run away from her.
He recalled the last time he had seen the girl. He had gone upstairs to retrieve her toy, since that was all she said she really needed to take with her, and since she obviously didn't want to leave her father. When he had come back with it, she had hugged him and kissed him on the cheek, and whispered in his ear.
She said "I'll see you again soon."
But that had been months ago – in March – and this was the first of September –
"Excuse me," said a voice behind Neville. He jumped, banged his head on the trolley, and yelped.
"Sorry," said the owner of the voice, actually sounding contrite. "Is this your toad?"
Neville got himself straightened out, turned around, and stood up to find himself facing a pale-blond boy about his own age, with both hands firmly clamped around –
"Trevor!" Neville took the toad back from the boy and slid him carefully into a pocket. "Thanks a lot – Gran, here he is!" he called down the platform. He turned back to the boy and held out his hand. "I'm Neville. Neville Longbottom. I owe you one."
"No, we're even," the boy said, shaking his hand. "I already owed you for what you did for my little sister. Draco Black, nice to meet you."
"Little sister?" Neville was a bit confused. Meghan was dark-skinned, and this boy couldn't possibly be any fairer –
Then the implications of the boy's first name hit him. Simultaneously, he recalled what Meghan had told him about her family.
"You – used to be Draco Malfoy, didn't you?"
The boy grimaced slightly. "Yeah. A long time ago."
"OK, thanks – I just wanted to know."
Draco smiled. "Now you know. Hey, do you want to sit with us? There's some room left in our compartment."
Neville couldn't believe his luck. "Sure!"
Together, they started getting Neville's trunk aboard the train.
Ron Weasley walked onto Platform Nine and Three-Quarters and sighed.
I never thought I'd be doing this alone.
All his imaginations of Hogwarts, from the age of eight onwards, had included his three best friends – Harry, Drake, and Hermione Black. He had imagined talking with them, eating with them, playing Quidditch with them (not Neenie so much, but Harry and Drake were as mad about it as he was), even studying with them (this was where Neenie would be useful, walking encyclopedia that she was).
But Christmas had changed all that.
Over Christmas, the entire Black family, all eight of them, had vanished.
He had learned later, in dribs and drabs, who they had really been. It was a bit of a shock to find out that his best friends had been lying to him the entire time he knew them. Especially about something like being Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy.
I hope they're happy.
The thought slipped out before Ron could stop it. He wanted to keep being mad at them – they'd lied to him, they'd made him feel like a fool – but he couldn't keep it up any more.
They had to lie. If they hadn't lied, they would have been taken away from their family.
And they weren't trying to hurt me. They were just trying to stay safe.
Ron stared towards the front of the train, not really seeing it. I guess – if it had been me – I would have lied too.
I wish I could see them. Just to say hi.
Ron jumped about a foot. Fred was standing right behind him. "Come on, ickle Ronniekins, getting left behind is not a good way to start your first year of school. We've saved you a space in with us. Lee Jordan's got a giant tarantula!"
"Great," Ron mumbled. You know I hate spiders, you bloody git...
He endured his mother's embraces and parting admonitions, hugged Ginny good-bye almost without noticing, and sat as far as he could from the large box on Lee Jordan's lap once he got into the compartment.
If this is how my entire time at Hogwarts is going to go, maybe I should just get a job washing dishes at the Leaky Cauldron or something...
The train rounded the corner.
"Give us a look, Lee, go on," George said, leaning forward to see better.
Lee was just about to lift the lid of the box when the door of the compartment slid open.
"Excuse me," said the black-haired boy standing in the doorway. "Is Ron Weasley in here?"
Ron stood up hastily. "I'm Ron Weasley," he said, looking at the boy as hard as he could without staring. There was something very familiar about him...
The other held out his hand. "I'm Harry Potter. Nice to meet you."
Now Ron did stare. As did everyone else in the compartment.
"You're Harry Potter?" blurted George.
"Can we see your scar?" said Fred on top of him.
Harry ignored them both. He was still holding his hand out to Ron.
Still staring, Ron took two steps toward him and shook it.
Harry smiled. "Want to come and sit with us?" he asked.
"Me and Drake and Neenie, and another boy named Neville. He's our year, I think you'll like him. Want to come?"
Ron stood dumbfounded for one more second, then blurted "Yes!" before Harry could change his mind.
The rest of the compartment looked like Ron felt as Harry ushered him out into the hallway and shut the door firmly.
"Ron, I want to apologize," said Harry as soon as they were alone in the hall. "We lied to you for three years – I'm really sorry – I wish we could have told you, but you probably wouldn't have believed us, and you might have told your dad or mum, even without meaning to – and then we went and disappeared on you for nine months–"
"It's all right," said Ron, realizing as he said it that it was. "Where've you been?"
"Hogwarts, actually. We'll be living up in the Tower with the other Gryffindors now – if we get sorted into Gryffindor–" Harry rapped his knuckles twice on the wood trim in the corridor. "But our parents have quarters down near the kitchens. They might be going home to Devon now, they haven't decided – or maybe some of them will stay and some will go – Meghan's going to stay, though, she's dead set on it. She's been hanging around the hospital wing all the time we've been there, I don't know how Madam Pomfrey puts up with her, but she does..."
Ron just listened. A part of him that had been empty for nine months was starting to fill up again. But he had to ask...
"Harry," he said as they crossed between cars.
"Do you – still want to be friends with me?"
Harry looked at him oddly.
"I mean, you're famous," explained Ron quickly. "And I'm not. I'm nobody. So if you don't want to be friends any more, then that's fine – really, it is–"
Harry groaned. "Why do you think I went and shook your hand in front of your brothers and hauled you off to sit with me? Of course I still want to be friends with you, you idiot!"
Ron grinned. "Then – that's all right, then."
"Yes. That's all right."
They had arrived at the compartment door. Harry pulled it open, and Neenie jumped to her feet, shot into the corridor, and flung her arms around Ron's neck. "Ron! I'm so glad to see you!"
Ron blushed and looked at Harry. Help?
Harry was too busy laughing. So, as Ron looked into the compartment, were Drake – Draco, he remembered from the papers – and a boy he didn't know, though the round face looked vaguely familiar...
"Glad to see you too, Neenie," he said, trying to peel her off him.
She came off of her own accord and stood on tiptoe to glower into his face. "Don't call me that. It's Hermione." She stalked back into the compartment, sat down with a decided thump, picked up the book sitting beside her place, and hid her face behind it.
Ron walked into the compartment, feeling a sense of the world righting itself as Draco stood up to shake his hand and introduce Neville Longbottom.
"I met a boy named Neville once," recalled Ron, shaking Neville's hand. "In Diagon Alley, when I was about five."
Neville's eyes widened. "I met a boy named Ron in Diagon Alley when I was five."
"Outside the Apothecary–" they said at the same moment.
"Seems like some things are just meant to be," said Draco with satisfaction, sitting back in his seat. "Bertie Bott's, anyone?"
(A/N: And that's really it! That's all she wrote! And there might even be a LwoD update tomorrow – but there might not, it depends on how much work/studying I have to do... :hears roommate laughing hysterically: Oh, shut up, I do too study sometimes! Anyway, hugs to all, and if you promise to talk about the chapter too, you can tell me what you think about... the letter R. That's all for now!)