It was difficult to find time to meet with Lupin.
The professor seemed to be unwell rather frequently, and the Slytherin team was taking Quidditch very seriously this year. They had practice several times a week, on top of his very full school schedule. His father had insisted he take Ancient Runes this year, even though Divination was scheduled at the same time, so he had private sessions with Professor Vectra twice a week, as well.
Granger was in every single class he was in. It was very annoying, and Draco frequently wondered what she was doing in Gryffindor when she was clearly a Ravenclaw. Not to mention, he had no idea how she was attending both classes, because Vectra wasn't giving them both private lessons.
All this to say, he had a lot on his plate. And his Patronus charm wasn't going well.
Draco nearly threw down his wand in frustration. He only managed to restrain himself because his father's voice echoed firmly in his head: Malfoys don't throw tantrums, Draco.
It had been months of sporadic meetings with Professor Lupin, and he still hadn't managed much progress. He'd gotten the merest wisp of a non-corporeal Patronus to appear, but nothing that would let him walk right past a Dementor safely. For Salazar's sake, it was nearly Christmas! Would he ever be able to make a Patronus?
"What were you thinking of?" Lupin asked him.
"Catching the Snitch," Draco told him, honestly. Lupin smiled and shook his head.
"That's not nearly good enough," he said. "It needs to be something that gives you deep, deep happiness. It needs to fill you up inside with joy, until you feel like it's spilling over and you can't contain it anymore, and strong enough that not even a dementor could siphon it away."
Draco frowned, deep in thought. He'd already tried a dozen different things. He didn't know what else to think of.
"How about we call it quits?" Lupin said, and Draco looked up at him, aghast.
"I can't give up!" he cried. "Diggory almost died last quidditch match – this is important!"
Diggory nearly dying wasn't his real reason of course, but it had happened, and Draco couldn't shake that image from his mind – looking up from the stands to see the dark cloaks hovering high in the sky, and then Diggory in his yellow-and-black robes fluttering down, down, down.
He'd felt totally helpless, and he'd hated it.
"No, no," Lupin assured him quickly, "I just want you to think of a better memory, and we'll try again after the holidays."
"Alright," Draco sighed despondently, trying very hard to not feel like a failure.
"You're doing very well, Draco. This spell is very difficult," Lupin said, and then, reaching in his jacket pocket for a moment, he fished out a bar of Honeyduke's Finest chocolate.
"Chocolate?" he offered.
"Pretty sure it won't help me with my Patronus, Professor," Draco said, although he was already reaching to break off a piece. He'd thought it was just a coincidence that the professor had had chocolate on the train after the dementors had come through, but it turned out that Lupin just really liked chocolate. He always had some on him, and he always got the best quality, too.
"No, it can't," Lupin said. "I was mostly hoping it'd cheer you up a bit."
Draco rolled his eyes, but he couldn't deny he left the Defense classroom feeling a little better.
Draco tried to think of a strong memory over the break, but nothing really felt right. Eventually, although he knew it was impolite, and very personal, he'd asked his mother what she thought of for her Patronus.
He could tell she'd been surprised by the question, because she got very still for a moment, her hand resting too long on the handle of her teacup.
"Why do you ask, my darling?" she'd asked softly, but Draco could hear her voice shaking a little, and he could have kicked himself.
"I, um, I'm trying to learn how," he'd told her, "but I can't find a strong enough memory, and I thought… well, it was rude of me to ask. I'm sorry."
He'd looked down at his shoes, resisting the urge to scuff them against the floor.
"It doesn't have to be a memory," his mother had said, so quietly he nearly missed it.
"What do you mean?"
She'd smiled at him indulgently. "I imagine a future," she said, "where everyone I love is with me."
"Oh," said Draco. At that moment, he hadn't been sure it had helped much. "I'm there, right?"
His mother laughed. "Of course, you are, my silly Dragon," she said, leaning forward to kiss his forehead.
A version of himself from a year ago, or perhaps even a few months ago, would have wrinkled his nose and rubbed at his forehead the moment she'd looked away, but as his mother had smoothed down his hair (a habit of hers he'd started to complain about after his first year at Hogwarts) he'd realized what she was saying, or, more importantly, what she was indirectly saying.
"Ready to try again?" Lupin asked him when they next met, the first week back after the holidays. Draco nodded firmly.
His wand at the ready, Draco closed his eyes, and thought of all the times his mother had kissed his forehead, and smoothed back his hair, how he'd really felt – and then he opened his eyes, and said, "Expecto Patronum."
A few glowing milky-white wisps immediately sprung from his wand, but Draco could feel that there was more coming.
A snout appeared first, then a scaly neck and wings, and finally, a long, barbed tail. Draco looked up at it in awe. It wasn't true to size at all, only about twice as large as Draco himself, but that didn't make it any less amazing.
The dragon flapped its wings and made a long slow arc around the room.
"Oh, well done," Professor Lupin said, gazing up at the Patronus. He looked as mesmerized as Draco felt.
The dragon had turned around at the other end of the classroom and slowed to a halt in front of Draco. He stared at it, and then lifted his hand to its snout.
It was a bit like touching a ghost, except the sensation was warm and pleasant instead of cold, and he felt quite peaceful. The dragon nudged his hand gently, and then it misted away. Draco brought his hand down slowly, turning it back and forth.
"That was very impressive, Draco. I'm proud of you," Lupin said, smiling at him. Draco wasn't really sure what to say to that. His father's usual stamp of approval was a curt nod.
"I picked something better to think of," Draco said, feeling awkward.
"You most certainly did," Lupin agreed easily. "Now, I think this calls for some celebratory chocolate."
Draco grinned. He could definitely agree with that.
Draco awoke with great anticipation the following Friday, having decided that today he would finally sneak out to the forest. He just hoped nobody was too suspicious about how eager he was to start the day.
It wasn't to be a problem, however, because he went down to breakfast to find the Great Hall abuzz with something that had happened to the portrait outside Gryffindor Tower.
"It was Sirius Black," Theo said, leaning forward to tell him in hushed tones, as if it wasn't what the entire school was talking about.
"Slashed right through the canvas," Blaise added, in a similarly low tone. "They've had to find a replacement portrait."
"What did he want in Gryffindor Tower, anyway?" Draco asked.
Theo shrugged. "Dunno. But apparently, he used to be a Gryffindor. Maybe he hid somethin' up there."
Blaise snorted. "I just think it goes to show that it's not just Slytherins what can go bad."
All the Slytherins within hearing distance nodded in agreement, but Draco puzzled over it all the way to Defense. What had Black wanted in the school? Did the teachers know? Could they not get rid of whatever it was?
And what was Snape doing in the Defense classroom?
The Slytherins and the Gryffindors all took their seats much more quietly than they usually did.
"Turn to page three-hundred and ninety-four," Snape said, when they were all quiet.
"Excuse me, sir," ventured Weasley. "Where's Professor Lupin?"
"That's hardly any of your business, now is it, Weasley?" Snape said sharply. "Suffice it to say, your Professor finds himself incapable of teaching at the present time. Turn to page three-hundred and ninety-four."
He tapped the projector with his wand, revealing a slide on werewolves.
"Werewolves!" cried Granger, her book already open. "But sir, we're due to start Hinkypunks."
Snape turned his coldest look on her, and Draco did feel a bit (a very little bit) bad for her.
"Miss Granger," said Snape in a voice of deadly calm, "I was under the impression that I am teaching this lesson, not you. And I am telling you all to turn to page three-hundred and ninety-four." He glanced around again. "All of you! Now!"
Class was dead silent for the remainder of their time.