Chapter 46: Preparation

A nasty rumor was spreading like an illness around Hogwarts. It couldn't be proved, and its subject could not be located for verification. No one, therefore, really knew what to believe. Several different versions of the same story had circulated—all of them shared two attributes, which led many students to believe, with reasonable certainty, that these two attributes reflected some bit of the truth. The first plot point, common to every version, was that Fred Weasley was missing; the second was that he was missing because he was being treated in the aftermath of some kind of brutal attack. All the details varied, depending on who one asked.

According to the teachers, Weasley was suffering from a mysterious illness and was currently in stable condition at St. Mungo's. Nobody believed that. The Daily Prophet had gotten wind of the story a mere two hours after the end of whatever ordeal Weasley had suffered (or so they said). Rita Skeeter reported that Weasley had been wandering the grounds after curfew and had been mistaken by a Dementor as an intruder. She left the details of the confrontation to the imagination because, she said, it was a conspiracy and she didn't buy it. This had confused most of her readers, so she'd been forced to write another article to clarifty. The Dementor story was apparently something that Dumbledore had fed her. She of course, was not stupid enough to believe it. Neither were any of her readers. Instead, she had rather subtly (for her) insinuated that Weasley was the victim of an assault, perpetrated by Sirius Black and Bellatrix Lestrange somewhere far from the Hogwarts Grounds. An insider at St. Mungo's had apparently let it slip that Weasley was being treated for injuries inflicted by the Cruciatus Curse.

Harry had no idea what to believe, and he was not nearly as interested in speculating as Draco and Blaise. They gossiped and theorized like girls and oftentimes giddily expressed a shared desire: that Weasley had been murdered and Dumbledore was behind the cover-up. Normally, Harry would've dismissed such a theory as baseless. He didn't think that Dumbledore could or would have concealed the death of a student. Rita Skeeter would've discovered such alarming news and Hogwarts would be shut down. Harry sincerely hoped Weasley was alive—wherever he was—and that whatever happened would not lead to the close of Hogwarts or the arrival of new Dementors.

Most of Harry's days were filled with activity and frustration; they often ended in exhaustion. It was hard work to be a third year. Qudditch practice and private tutoring sessions with Lupin compounded Harry's workload and robbed him of any free time. The Patronus Charm was the most difficult spell Harry had ever attempted to master in his short career as a wizard. Harry thought it impossible at the worst of times, but Lupin offered ready encouragement. Harry found it both helpful and infuriating at the same time. The key, said Lupin again and again, was to channel the sum of one's lifetime of joy into the spell. To begin, Harry had to imagine that which made him happiest. After a few days of such effort, Harry had arrived at the conclusion that nothing made him happy, and that he'd never been happy in the entirety of his life.

"Nonsense, Harry," Lupin chided more than once. "There must be something that makes you happy."

"Flying?" Harry offered.

"No, no," said Lupin dismissively. "I don't doubt that you enjoy flying—your father was fond of it. I mean something that sincerely brought you happiness."

"I liked staying with the Malfoys over the summer."

Lupin's expression had darkened a degree when Harry pronounced the words. He'd encouraged Harry to begin there, but he'd sounded disappointed—as if he knew it wouldn't work. It didn't work. At first. Harry had been happy with the Malfoys, but only because the Malfoys were not the Dursleys. It was a curious, hollow feeling. Whatever happiness the memory of summer at Malfoy Manor provided was marred by the memory of Lucius Malfoy's secret conversation with Narcissa. Harry often thought of it when his mind was unencumbered with his present troubles—most often at night. Sirius Black had betrayed his mother and father. He was the reason they were dead, and, by extension, the reason he'd suffered under the clenched fist of Vernon Dursley for the better part of his entire young life. How could he feel happiness when so much was wrong? He could not answer the question. He thought only about the traitor Black and his painful anger slowly matured to a desire for vengeance. Harry felt, at times, that he'd rather Lupin teach him the Killing Curse than the Patronus Charm.

Quidditch was his only solace and his only source of any emotion that he could rightly relate to some form of happiness. Practices were frequent and cathartic. He'd managed to catch the Snitch in less than five minutes during one. Flint had clapped him so hard on the back that it'd knocked his glasses off and the entire team had laughed as if victory had already been won. Draco, with a smug little grin, had assured Harry it would be won.

The next day Harry had produced a wisp of silver during his private session with Lupin. It had evaporated as quickly as it had appeared, and Harry had almost doubted his own eyes.

"Brilliant, Harry!" Lupin had cried, becoming an entirely more youthful and energetic man for the span of a moment. As November had waned, so too had Lupin's sleep time. He often looked disheveled with his messy hair, unruly whiskers; his eyes were swollen from lack of sleep.

"This is a wonderful start!" Lupin had assured him after the lesson ended. But it wasn't much progress. Harry retired to the dormitory, knowing full well that he would not sleep that night. The match against Gryffindor was scheduled for the next day.

"How was it?" Draco asked.

"Okay," Harry replied as he yanked off his socks. "I did something."

"Did you make a Patronus?" Blaise asked from the adjacent bed, his legs crossed in the air as he lazily waved his wand in circles, muttering an incantation they'd learned in Transfiguration and being perceptibly half-assed about it.

"No," said Harry, shrugging off his robes.

"Don't be scared, Potter," said Draco. His words stank of sarcasm, but his tone was oddly sincere. Harry looked at him blankly.

"Of what?"

"Dementors."

"I'm not," Harry lied. "Should I be? Are they patrolling the corridors now?"

"No," said Blaise with an exasperated sigh. He lifted the Transfiguration textbook at his side. "If I could transfigure this into a rock…."

"Why would you want to do that?" Draco demanded.

"So I could throw it at McGonagall's stupid hat."

"That's moronic. You can't transfigure a matchstick into a needle. If you're going to talk about wishing, you should be more clever about it."

"All right, Malfoy. If you're so clever, what would you transfigure it into?"

"A dog. It would eat her."

Blaise laughed and dropped the book to the floor. It landed with a deep thud.

Draco returned his attention to Harry. "Anyway, Potter, the Gryffindors are right."

Harry felt his eyebrows constrict involuntarily. "About what?"

"Well, Weasley is off the team sobbing in the fetal position somewhere at St. Mungo's, and they still haven't found a decent Seeker. They don't think they can beat us."

"Oh," said Harry. "Yeah. I guess they are right."

"Only way they'll win is if a Dementor swoops in and knocks Harry off his broom," said Blaise.

"Fat chance," scoffed Draco. "If Potter is attacked again, my father will…."

Harry made a mental note to bring his wand with him tomorrow as Draco continued to ramble on.

"…and then that old codger will get what he has coming to him. He's bloody mental! Did you hear what he said at dinner last Tuesday?"

"No," said Blaise sleepily.

Harry fell down into the warm, slightly starchy embrace of his bed sheets.

"He expects us all to believe that Fred Weasley has some kind of magical irritable bowel syndrome or something—like he drank a potion."

"He didn't say that," said Blaise with total certainty.

"No, but whatever he said was just as big a pile of dung."

"You're a twit. And you're not funny."

"Shut up, or I'll hex you! Listen to me, I'm telling you—it was Bellatrix."

"I suppose you'd know, since she's your family and all."

"Mum's actually told me a few stories," Draco agreed. "She's a bloody crazy bitch, that one. Mum said she went mad in Azkaban."

"Why would she attack Fred Weasley? And how would she have even gotten close to him? I still think everybody's wrong. Weasley's an idiot. He probably hurt himself trying to make a mockery of some gullible Hufflepuff. Maybe he cut his bum off."

"Cut his bum off?"

"I mean, he can't sit in class, right? Maybe he just cut it off—by accident, you know? I don't know…. I'm tired."

"You're tired? And I'm the twit? You stupid arse. I believe Rita Skeeter for once."

"Because she said some insider told her Weasley got hurt by the Cruciatus Curse? Merlin, you're thick! That's what she does. She makes up all kinds of secret insiders to make her asinine theories sound better."

"No! I believe all her articles about Dumbledore, too!"

"Will you two shut up?" Harry snapped. He resisted the urge to smile at their stupidity. After much harassment, they complied with his request and the dormitory fell silent. Harry did not sleep at all that night. His mind raced with thoughts of Sirius Black and Dementors and Quidditch. The anxiety was almost unbearable. He tried to calm himself by rolling on his side and practicing being happy so that he could cast the Patronus Charm.

The Gryffindors were right. The only thing that would prevent the Slytherins' victory was a Dementor knocking Harry off his broom. The thought did frighten him, though he tried to quell the fear. He looked at Draco's sleeping silhouette and wondered why he was his friend. He did not arrive at a satisfactory answer. He didn't like people. That seemed to be a metaphysical truth for him. But he did like Draco, didn't he? And Blaise.

He recalled the night at Malfoy Manor, early in the summer, when Draco had first told him Bellatrix was his aunt. Draco had screamed at him that night, demanding to know why Harry had never asked for his help when it came to ending Voldemort's murderous scheme with the Chamber of Secrets. It struck Harry that that was the last time he'd been happy. It was a strange, murky memory that he hadn't revisited very often in the weeks since. He had told Draco of all the abuse he'd suffered at the hands of Vernon and Petunia Dursley. He had never told anyone that before. It had seemed like the right thing to do at the time….

Harry rolled to his other side, in order to look away from Draco. Something had overcome him. Draco was his friend, though he often ignored it. Draco was really his only friend. He'd realized this before—at the end of that night. But he had not taken any time to decide what it meant. Now he had the time. Perhaps, thought Harry, friendship was the key to the Patronus. Perhaps Draco had been right to admonish him for attempting to thwart Voldemort and close the Chamber of Secrets alone. Perhaps that lesson applied to the Dementors as well. Harry felt at ease for a brief moment. He felt that he could produce a Patronus on the spot—such was the rush of euphoria. He would be flying tomorrow with a team he liked and with his friend. They would be flying in a competition to decimate the Gryffindors' chances at a decent record for the year. For a few seconds, Harry thought of nothing but that future moment which he had not experienced. Sirius Black, Bellatrix Lestrange, Lord Voldemort, Vernon Dursley—all of them faded away into oblivion. Harry reminded himself that he was not alone.

And then he rolled onto his back and sighed at the futile stupidity and the weirdness.

Okay. Go crazy or something. Review away. I'm going to go and reread this entire thing and try and somehow dissect the plot I've got going. I'm not kidding when I tell you I literally have no idea what I'm doing, and what you just read was written in the span of an hour after a particularly interesting session of Minecraft. I hope you are happy with this update. Don't expect the next one to arrive too quickly. I need to figure out what the hell is going on in this story and then devote more thought to it in order to continue. This will be difficult, considering I have almost a full-time job, a full-time college schedule, AND a mind-consuming project that I hope I'll finish and turn into a REAL NOVEL. Yes. A real novel. All my creativity has been poured into that over the past year. Part of the reason I neglected this project. But the neglect has sort of ended. I hope. I'll quit rambling now. Wish me luck! (Also, this site has changed SO MUCH in my absence. I feel old or something). I am going to begin the process of rereading and edit as I go along, refreshing the chapters on this site as I go along. I'm going to export the chapters into the document manager, re-read and edit them, and then replace them as I finish. Hopefully this does not mess things up... I actually am using this chapter as a test to see if it does anything negative.