Sirius kept his promise. At least once a week, his black owl would arrive on the windowsill of Remus's bedroom, bearing a scroll of parchment, long or short. The weather remained fine for the most part throughout July and August, and most days -- and even most nights -- Remus was able to leave his window open.
Though Sirius spoke mainly of frustration with his constrictive home life -- "It's not Fair. Why does Everyone expect so much of me? I have to wear Stupid clothes all the Time and hang about being polite to People I can't Stand. At least they didn't lock me up in the Cellar the second I got Home." -- still Remus was glad to get his letters, and did his best to keep his friend's spirits up, joking with him and reminding him that they would be back at school before they knew it. The only positive development was that Sirius seemed to be on better terms with his brother.
Peace had returned to the Lupin household, and Remus was enjoying his quiet holiday at home, but the summer still had two disappointments in store for him.
The first was that he was not able to visit Lily as he had hoped. This had nothing to do with his parents' worries about him having a "girlfriend", but was rather due to the fact that his family could no longer afford Floo powder for anything other than emergencies. Yorkshire, where Lily and her family lived, was a long journey by Muggle means, and train tickets were no less costly than Floo powder, even if his parents had been willing to let him venture so far from home alone.
In the absence of his friends, Remus contented himself with letters, and could be found writing to someone almost daily, or reading over a recent letter from one of his friends. James's letters always made him laugh, while Peter's made Remus feel sorry for the lonely boy. Lily was the friend he could talk to about anything; there were no secrets between them. But it was Sirius's letters that never failed to make Remus smile, despite their grouchy tone. His vivid personality shone from the page, highlighted by his habitual use of emphatic capitalisation.
However, it was Sirius's last letter of the summer that brought Remus his second disappointment. It was a longish letter, speaking of this and that, but at the end, Sirius wrote, "Mother and Father are taking me to Diagon Alley on Friday for my School things. James and his Parents are planning to 'Accidentally' bump into us there. It will be really Good to see them again. This Summer has dragged on Forever. Can't wait to be back at School. See you at King's Cross."
Remus sat frowning at the letter for a long time. Hadn't Sirius said in the Potters' sitting room that the four of them would "definitely" meet up in Diagon Alley? But apparently he had changed his mind. Remus wondered if it was because Sirius was reluctant to expose Remus to his family again. Remus couldn't really blame him, but he wished Sirius had just come right out and said it, rather than casually disinviting him. Not that it mattered; that Friday would be the day after the August full moon, and Remus would be in no fit state to go anywhere.
In the event, Remus was glad he did not see anyone he knew when he paid his own visit to Diagon Alley with his father the Monday after the moon. His parents had scraped together enough money for parchment, ink, quills and secondhand school books, but they had been hoping to trade in his robes from the previous year, which had grown rather short in the hems and cuffs.
When they deposited the clean and neatly-folded robes on the counter at Madam Malkin's, however, the proprietor had eyed Remus narrowly. "It's the boy with the 'silver allergy', isn't it?"
Remus's heart sank. He had hoped she wouldn't remember him.
"No, I can't take these," she sniffed, shoving the threadbare robes back into his arms. "What am I to sell them as? Broom-polishing rags?"
"Well, never mind, eh?" Remus's father said with false cheerfulness as they exited the robe shop. "We'll see if your mother can let out the hems a bit. You should be able to get another year's use out of them."
Remus nodded gloomily, wishing he hadn't spent all his money on that stupid blazer. What had he been thinking? Hadn't he been ridiculed enough for the state of his robes the previous year? At least then they had fit him properly.
By the time they visited Flourish and Blotts, and Remus's father had haggled down the price of a set of used school books by a couple of Sickles, Remus was feeling thoroughly dejected. He knew his friends probably wouldn't say anything beyond the occasional teasing comment, and that it didn't really matter what the Slytherins said about him, but it would have been nice not to be an obvious target of ridicule for once.
Remus's mood was a dark cloud hanging over the final three days of his summer holidays. He felt too out of sorts to respond to his friends' last round of letters, and instead spent his time playing games and reading with Natalie, telling himself that he would see his friends on the first of September, and all would be well. Natalie, too, had made friends at her new school, but she missed her brother when he was away from home every bit as much as he missed her.
"I'm glad you're going back, though," she told him on the last day. "I just wish I could go with you."
"Me, too." He tugged one of her blonde plaits. "I promise I'll come home for Christmas, though."
"Show me some magic then?" she asked hopefully.
He shook his head, smiling. "Not allowed to do magic outside school until I'm seventeen, am I?"
"Not fair." She scowled. "One little spell wouldn't hurt, would it?"
"Probably not," he grinned. "But what if I transfigured your nose into a strawberry, and then couldn't change it back?"
She giggled. "Can you really do that?"
"Well, no," he admitted, tweaking her nose. "But just for you, I'll learn."
James stepped through the barrier onto Platform Nine and Three-Quarters and looked around, trying to catch sight of his three best friends. They were nowhere in sight, but he spied Lily Evans, a pretty red-haired girl from their year who was friends with Remus. She was standing with her Slytherin friend, Severus Snape, a boy whom James had grown to dislike over the course of the previous year, due to his habit of hexing people -- namely James's friends -- in the back.
"James!" called a voice from down the platform, and he turned, grinning.
Another red-haired girl was coming towards him, answering James's grin with one of her own. Matilda Hathersage was not quite so pretty as Evans, but much better, in James's personal opinion, was the fact that she liked Quidditch. And she liked him.
"Hey, Hathersage," he greeted her as his parents exchanged a look, hiding their own smiles. "Good summer?"
"Yeah," she said a little breathlessly. "Sorry I never wrote. Mum hardly ever lets me use the owl."
"Are you going to introduce us to your friend, Jamie?" his mother asked.
"Er -- yeah. Sorry, Mum. This is Matilda Hathersage. She's in Gryffindor, too."
His parents solemnly shook hands with the girl as James glanced around once more for his friends.
"I have to go say goodbye to my parents," Matilda told him. "But I just wanted to see if you'd maybe like to meet up sometime?"
"Sure," he grinned. "I'll see you around, yeah?"
She skipped away, giggling.
"She seems like a nice girl," said his father.
"Yeah," said James, still grinning. "She's an ace flier, too."
"Well, try not to get into too much trouble, son," teased his father. "Your mother and I aren't ready to be grandparents yet."
"Dad!" cried James, ears turning red. Were they going to give him The Talk again, right there on the platform?
Fortunately, at that moment James spotted Sirius and his family coming through the barrier, his friend's trunk being hauled along by the Black family house-elf.
"Oi! Sirius!" James called, beckoning him over.
Sirius's scowl instantly transformed into a grin, and he broke away from his parents to dash over. "Hi, Mum. Dad," he said quietly, so that his own mother and father, following at a more dignified pace, wouldn't catch the greeting. Sirius's parents had met James's family the previous week in Diagon Alley, and while they had said nothing overtly rude at the time, the Blacks' disapproval of their eldest son's attachment to James's parents had been clear.
His own parents greeted Sirius fondly before exchanging stiff nods of acknowledgment and empty pleasantries with Mr and Mrs Black. James's mother eyed Sirius's younger brother Regulus, but she said nothing.
"Where are Pete and Remus?" Sirius asked, looking around.
James shrugged. "Haven't seen them yet."
"There he is!" Sirius exclaimed, jumping up and down, waving. "Remus! Remus, over here!"
A smile flashed across Remus's face as he caught sight of Sirius and James waving to him, but he hung back, eyeing Sirius's parents, until his own urged him forwards.
More parental introductions were made, and this time James's mother said nothing to discomfit Mr Lupin. The Blacks reluctantly acknowledged the presence of Remus's parents, but when Remus's younger sister marched up to Regulus, plaits swinging, and introduced herself, both of Sirius's parents pursed their lips in disapproval.
"When will you start at Hogwarts?" Regulus asked the girl stiffly.
"I can't," she informed him. "I'm not magic."
Regulus's mouth twisted into a sneer. "A Muggle," he said, voice dripping disgust.
Mr and Mrs Lupin's mouths tightened, and Sirius scowled at his brother.
"You want to keep your son in order, Black," James's father said lightly. "I'd expect better manners from someone of your standing."
"My son is no concern of yours, Potter," replied Mr Black icily.
"You're not very nice," Natalie informed Regulus. "It's a good thing I know not all wizards are like you. If you're smart, maybe you'll figure out that not all Muggles are the same, either."
Regulus looked startled, and James caught several quickly-suppressed smiles from the rest of the party.
Mr Black, deciding that the best course of action was to ignore those he considered beneath his notice, turned to his eldest son. "Be mindful of what we talked about Sirius. See that you stay out of trouble and keep better company this year." His cold grey eyes narrowed briefly at Remus, who looked down and tugged self-consciously at the cuffs of his too-short sleeves.
"Don't worry, Father," said Sirius. "I'll keep the best company I know how."
Mr Black frowned, but he was not keen to be seen rowing with his son in front of half of Wizarding Britain.
"You'd best be getting on, boys," said James's father. "You don't want to miss the train."
James hugged his parents, and then his mother hugged Sirius, who looked both pleased and embarrassed.
Sirius's father turned away. "Come along, Walburga. Regulus."
Regulus hesitated a moment, looking as if he might like to hug his brother goodbye, too, then turned to follow his father.
"Should Kreacher be putting Master Sirius's trunk onto the train?" the house-elf croaked.
"No," sniffed Mrs Black. "I'm sure he has enough friends here to manage it."
Sirius's cheeks were burning, his eyes scorching holes into the backs of his retreating parents' robes.
"C'mon," said James, elbowing him. "We should go."
Sirius shook himself and turned away with a mirthless laugh. "You can see they haven't changed."
"They're gone now," James heard Remus say in a low voice as they and James's and Remus's families hauled the boys' luggage towards the train. "Forget about them."
Halfway down the platform, they met an out-of-breath Peter. "I've saved us a compartment near the front," he said proudly.
James smiled. "Good show, Pete. Here, give us a hand. You can carry my broom."
Peter's eyes lit up as he shouldered the Nimbus 1000 and led the way to the front of the train, walking a little taller than usual.
The compartment in which Peter had stowed his own trunk was still, astoundingly, empty of other students. James realised why as soon as he entered, and reeled back, gagging.
"Slytherin's pants! It reeks in here!" he gasped, swooning melodramatically into Sirius's arms.
"Yeah," blushed Peter. "Sorry. I thought if I dropped a Stink Pellet, it would keep people out."
"I think I'll go look for Lily," said Remus faintly.
"You don't want to sit with her, mate." Sirius grabbed Remus by the sleeve and hauled him into the smelly compartment. "You know she'll be sitting with Snivellus, and he's fouler than a hundred Stink Pellets."
"I'll open the window," Peter volunteered, moving across the compartment. "It won't be so bad."
The adults stowed the luggage overhead and bade their children a final farewell, breathing through their mouths. Remus's sister hugged him ferociously, then turned to Sirius, hands on her hips.
"You'd better be nice to him," she said. "I can't hex you or anything, but I can probably think of something horrible to do to you if you're not."
Sirius bit his lip, looking as if he was trying not to smile. "I'll do my best," he promised.
"Your sister's pretty fierce, isn't she?" laughed James when the four of them were alone at last.
Remus smiled sheepishly. He was sitting as close to the open window as he could manage. "Yeah. I'm thinking about getting her a Gryffindor scarf for Christmas. Sorry," he added glancing at Sirius.
Sirius shrugged. "It's all right. At least your family looks out for you."
"Yeah, well, we've sort of had to stick together," said Remus, looking uncomfortable, and not just because of the lingering odour.
I'll bet you have, thought James, glancing covertly at Remus while rummaging through the pockets of his robes for his set of Gobstones. He tried and failed to imagine what it must be like to have a werewolf in the family, or worse luck yet, to be one. "Who's up for a game?" he asked.
He ended up playing against Sirius, since Remus was loathe to move away from the window and Peter was busy coddling his pet Puffskein, Constantine, which had developed a pathetic little cough since the dropping of the Stink Pellet. The vibration of the train, however, made the Gobstones unstable, causing them to squirt randomly, rather than just when they knocked into an opposing stone, and they abandoned the game in frustration.
By the time the witch with the food trolley came by, the odour in their compartment had dispersed enough for them to be tempted by the array of available sweets. Remus looked wistfully at the stack of Chocolate Frogs -- a favourite of his -- but shook his head regretfully and turned away, tugging at the cuffs of his robes again. James was about to reach for his own money, when Sirius jumped in ahead of him.
"Chocolate Frogs," he told the witch. "I'll take the lot."
"Collecting cards, are we, dear?" asked the witch indulgently as Sirius counted out some silver.
"Yeah," said Sirius, accepting his change and tossing the pile of boxes carelessly onto one of the seats.
"Since when do you collect Chocolate Frog cards?" James asked.
Sirius shrugged. "Since today."
"You'll be sick if you eat all those," said Peter, looking up from his wilting Puff. "And then you won't want the feast. And the feast is going to be brilliant."
"I thought I'd get you lot to help me with them. Here, Lupin," he said, tossing a few to Remus. "Take three. I know you like them."
James hid a grin at Sirius's less-than-subtle subterfuge. Generosity was not a trait that ran in the Black family, but apparently Sirius had picked it up somewhere. Did we teach him that? he wondered.
"Speaking of help," James said, unwrapping one of his own Chocolate Frogs, "I'm going to need you lads to give me a hand with something this week."
The other three looked up at him curiously, mouths full of chocolate.
"Quidditch," he explained. "If I'm going to make Seeker, I've got to practise, haven't I? Tryouts'll be in a week or so. I want to practise at least an hour a day, starting tomorrow, and I'll need one of you to chuck stuff about for me to catch."
Sirius snickered. "If you're looking for someone to throw things at you, mate, you can always ask the Slytherins. I bet they'd line up for the chance."
"I'll do it," Peter volunteered. Then he blushed. "I don't mean I want to throw things at you. Not like Sirius said. I just meant -- I'll help, yeah?"
James flashed him a grin. "Thanks, Pete. I knew I could count on at least one of my friends for support."
"You know," said Remus, "if you put as much effort into your schoolwork as you do into Quidditch, you'd be top of our year in no time."
James waved a hand in dismissal. "Priorities, Lupin! You think I'd rather be a swot like you and Evans than win the Quidditch cup?" But he tempered the words with a smile so that Remus would know he didn't mean anything by it.
Darkness was falling, and Peter had dozed off with his Puff still in his lap, by the time the train reached Hogsmeade Station. The four of them left their trunks on the platform -- all their possessions would be transported by magic to their proper place in Gryffindor tower -- and fought their way through the crowd of milling students to the long line of horseless carriages that would take all but the new first years up the long drive to the castle.
Peter didn't like the carriages, and muttered something about them being "spooky" as James boosted him into a seat. Remus, too, eyed the carriage warily, but James didn't see what the big deal was. They were far more comfortable than the boats the first year students would be taking across the lake, and there was much less chance of ending up soaked to the skin.
The carriages dropped them at the foot of the stone steps leading up to the huge double doors that were the entrance to the castle. James and his friends made their way up the steps amid the excited babble of their fellow students, through the cavernous, torchlit entrance hall, and into the luminous, star-flecked warmth of Hogwarts' Great Hall.
There, Remus sheered off from the others, and went to sit with Lily Evans. James nudged Sirius and rolled his eyes as their friend shared a long hug of greeting with the red-haired girl. "Girls," muttered Sirius in agreement, wrinkling his nose in disgust.
Not far down the Gryffindor table, James, Sirius and Peter met up with the Prewett twins, Gideon and Fabian, a pair of popular, fun-loving seventh years who had taken their young Housemates under their wing the previous year. The tall, sandy-haired boys greeted them with grins and handshakes all around as the three younger boys took seats next to them.
"Good summer, lads?" asked Gideon.
"Yeah," said James as Peter and Sirius just shrugged. "You?"
"Not bad, not bad," Fabian said. "Spent a lot of it helping out Molly and Arthur. Wee Billy's at that age where he's into everything the moment your back's turned, and Molly needs all the rest she can get."
James nodded. They had learned just before the end of last term that the Prewetts' sister, Molly Weasley, was expecting a second child that winter. Babies didn't really interest James; he cared more about the sorts of adventures Gideon and Fabian had planned for the upcoming year.
"Have you found out anything new to investigate this year?" he asked. The Prewett brothers had a reputation for hunting down gossip and uncovering the secrets of the school and its inhabitants.
Gideon shook his head. "Nothing yet. We've sort of promised Molly we'd stay out of trouble this year, on account of NEWTs, and Fabe here being Head Boy."
"Are you really?" asked Peter, gazing in awed admiration at the golden badge on Fabian's chest.
"We weren't planning on doing as much investigating this year, anyway," Fabian told them. "We think our efforts are better spent on the Advanced Defence Club we started last spring."
Sirius looked as disappointed as James felt. "You're actually going to study?"
"It's not just studying, Black," admonished Gideon. "In less than a year, we're going to be out there, and we need as much practise as we can get."
James could guess what the older boy meant by "out there". The Prewetts were always going on about the war that was brewing in the Wizarding world. The subject didn't interest James much, except insofar as it meant long hours at work for his father and extra worry for his mother. James himself considered it to be a lot of boring politics. A few people had been killed, and that was dreadful, but there had been no real fighting yet, and so far as James was concerned, a war without fighting was a dull affair. The Prewetts, however, were planning to enter Auror training once they left Hogwarts, and if there ever was any fighting, they would be in the thick of it, so James understood why they wanted to be prepared.
He looked up at the high table, where the Hogwarts staff sat, remembering what his father had told him, scanning for new faces.
"That must be him," he muttered, elbowing Sirius and nodding to a man seated at the headmaster's right hand.
"Him who?" asked Fabian, craning past them for a better look at the stranger.
"The new Defence teacher," James told the twins, pleased for once to know something they did not. "Dad says he's an Auror." The Prewetts goggled at the man.
"Is that --?" breathed Fabian.
"It can't be!" Gideon said, shaking his head.
"I thought he was dead!" said Fabian.
"Who?" James looked back and forth between the twins, confused.
They turned towards him, eyes like saucers, and said in tones of awe, "Helsing Gandolfsson."
James did not have a chance to inquire further, for at that moment, the doors to the Great Hall opened, and the new first year students filed in, led by Professor McGonagall, who carried a three-legged stool and the ancient school Sorting Hat. The first years were tiny, terrified, and utterly uninteresting to James. He ignored the Hat's song, and clapped automatically when it shouted "GRYFFINDOR!", sending another new student scurrying their way. All his attention was fixed on the new Defence Against the Dark Arts master.
Gandolfsson -- assuming the Prewetts were correct about the man's identity -- paid as little notice to the Sorting as James himself did. He sat with his thin shoulders hunched, mouth pinched, sharp eyes darting this way and that around the hall, taking in everything at once. James had expected someone both older and more intimidating, based on his father's few words of caution and respect over the summer, but Gandolfsson was a small man, probably little taller than James himself, and though his wild shock of hair was white as snow, he did not appear to be much past forty. When he raised his goblet to his lips, James gasped, drawing Peter and Sirius's attention. The last two fingers of Gandolfsson's right hand were missing.
"Blimy," breathed Peter. "He looks like he's been in the wars, doesn't he?"
James just nodded.
All throughout the meal, during which the Prewetts gushed and babbled their excitement at the prospect of learning Defence from an Auror of Gandolfsson's reputation, James's eyes kept straying back to the staff table. Once, he caught the new professor looking at him, and turned away so quickly that he got a crick in his neck. He was still massaging it when Headmaster Dumbledore rose to give the start of term announcements.
"Welcome, one and all, to another year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. We are so very pleased to have you back with us once again. It is my hope, and the hope of my esteemed colleagues, that this year will be filled with study, learning, and growth of character, as well as the usual friendships, adventures, and of course the things that you all think we don't know you get up to when our backs are turned." He beamed benevolently around the room, waiting for the laughter to die away.
"Be that as it may, it is my duty to inform first year students -- and to remind our returning classes -- that the forest in the grounds is off limits without the permission and accompaniment of a member of staff. You will also do well to remember that the use of magic by students in the halls and grounds between classes is strictly forbidden, and that your professors have a number of creative punishments at their disposal for those who choose to ignore the rules.
"We have two new members of staff joining us this year, and it is my wish that you will offer them both your utmost attention and respect." Dumbledore gestured to the wizard on his right. "I am pleased to introduce our new Defence Against the Dark Arts master, Professor Helsing Gandolfsson. Professor Gandolfsson is a highly respected member of the Aurors Office, and we are honoured to have him among us."
Gandolfsson nodded curtly in response to the polite smattering of applause, but did not rise, nor speak any word of greeting.
"Also joining us this year," Dumbledore continued, inclining his head courteously to the far end of the staff table, "is Professor Pomona Sprout, who will be taking over Herbology from Professor Beery, who tendered his retirement over the summer."
Professor Sprout was a plump, cheerful looking young witch with dimples and flyaway red hair. She waved cheerily at the students, raising her goblet in a silent toast.
"She looks nice, at least," said Peter, his ears and the tip of his nose turning pink.
Sirius laughed and nudged James. "Sounds like you've got some competition for the school redheads, mate."
James rolled his eyes, grinning. "Pete can have her. The girls our age are enough for me. I just hope she's less boring than old Beery was."
The long trudge up to Gryffindor tower following the start of term banquet was enough to wear a person out, Sirius reflected, opening his trunk and rummaging through it for his pyjamas.
Across the room, Remus was already stowing his books in the cabinet of his nightstand and hanging his robes on the brass hooks in the wardrobe they shared. They were the same robes Remus had worn last year. Sirius had recognised the patch on the elbow of one of them, and had noticed the way Remus kept tugging at the cuffs on the train, which rode up, exposing a scar across the back of his wrist.
I'll put my things away tomorrow, thought Sirius, yawning. Or maybe never.
He dragged out the huge red and gold afghan Mrs Potter had given him and bundled it onto the bed. It had been the last thing to go into his trunk when he had packed. Sirius had slept every night that summer wrapped up in its warmth, and even after six weeks at his own house, he still fancied he could smell Mrs Potter's baking in the folds of it. It had been his comfort on lonely nights, and had brightened his colourless room like a ray of sunshine.
Changing into his pyjamas, he climbed up onto the bed and burrowed under the knitted blanket, lazily watching his roommates get ready for bed.
"Did you see how tiny the first years are?" he asked. "Smaller'n Pete, some of 'em."
"Oi!" said Peter indignantly, pausing in the midst of buttoning his pyjama top. "I'll have you know I grew four inches last year!"
"Out doesn't count, mate," Sirius laughed.
Remus shot him a quelling look, then turned to Peter, who was sulking. "You'll probably grow a foot this year and be taller than all of us," he said kindly.
Sirius was ashamed of himself, but didn't know how to apologise to Peter. He hadn't meant it, after all, and his friends should know that, shouldn't they? Instead, he returned to the subject of the Sorting.
"It didn't look like we got many good ones this year."
James shrugged, flopping onto his own bed. "I didn't really notice. You lot didn't look very promising last year, and you turned out all right."
Sirius snorted, remembering his own Sorting. "I still don't know how I ended up here."
"The Hat knows," said James. "It doesn't matter what you think. So what if you thought you'd be a Slytherin?"
"Easy for you to say, mate. You never thought you'd be anywhere else, did you?"
"Suppose not." James reclined drowsily back against his pillows. "What about you two?"
Peter looked up from his Puffskein, who he was feeding cake crumbs saved from supper. "I guess I thought Slytherin, 'cos I knew the most people there, but I didn't really care. Just happy to be coming to Hogwarts, wasn't I?"
"Fair enough," said James. "Remus?"
Remus shrugged. "Like Pete said. It didn't really matter to me."
James laughed. "I'd've thought Ravenclaw for sure!"
"Maybe," said Remus, closing his trunk. "But I'm glad I ended up here."
Sirius was glad, too. Glad that he was in Gryffindor, and that James was, and that Remus was, and probably that Peter was, too. They were a good bunch. James is right. The Hat knows.
He had been thinking about his brother during the Sorting. Regulus would be starting at Hogwarts next year, though the two of them were not quite a year and a half apart in age. They had talked a few things over during the summer holidays, forging a fragile peace. But now Sirius was at school, and Regulus was alone with their parents again, with their opinions and their expectations.
Although Sirius was sleepy and the rest of the dormitory was filled with darkness and the beginnings of snores, he lit his wand and put his feet out of bed, padding around to his trunk again to rummage for parchment, quill and ink. Back in bed, he pulled the afghan up almost over his head, uncapped the ink, and wrote, Dear Regs ....