Actions

Work Header

The Changing Times

Chapter Text

 There wasn’t any sort of fanfare for Ron Weasley about to board the Hogwarts Express for the first time. Ron hadn’t really expected any special going-away, being the sixth son and well-used to every milestone feeling a little bit underwhelming, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t still disappointed. He’d have liked just a bit of fanfare. 

 No one on the platform seemed to be paying the Weasley family the slightest bit of attention though. Everyone who wasn’t tearfully pushing their child towards the train was huddled tightly together, newspapers open in hand, whispering furiously over the important adult news of the day. Ron had hardly expected everyone to drop everything and pay attention to some random eleven-year-old kid - and, in fact, he probably would have died of mortification on the spot if everyone started staring at him - but it would have been nice if someone was taking notice of his big day. 

 Dad wasn’t even here to see him off. Ron understood that Dad had to work, that work had been really, really busy lately, and that it was just yet another kid headed off to school for Arthur Weasley. Ron understood that Dad might’ve taken the time to see him off if Ron had only asked it of him. But Ron also understood that Dad might’ve said it just wasn’t possible, sorry, maybe next year, and some part of Ron was heartily sick of being understanding. 

 It’d be nice if someone just stopped and realized without prompting, “Hey, we’ve never done anything really special for Ron. We ought to do something just for him for once.” 

 “You sure you’ll be alright, Percy?” Mum was saying, with one hand on Percy’s shoulder and the other on his cheek. “Being a prefect is such hard work. We’re so proud of you for it, but we also wouldn’t blame you at all if you decided that you’d rather focus just on yourself this year. I’m sure Professor McGonagall would understand.” 

 “I’m looking forward to being a prefect, Mum,” Percy assured her, looking rather silly as he tried to puff his chest out and lift his nose in the air while also bending over to accommodate her. “It’ll do me good to have responsibilities to take my mind off things.” 

 “Oh,” Mum cooed, her lip quibbling. 

 Bill intervened before this could go on forever, putting his hand on Mum’s shoulder. “I’m sure you’ll do great, Perce,” he declared, smiling. “The school needs people who care about not letting the firsties wander off into the Forbidden Forest. But take it from a previous Head Boy: remember to look after yourself while you’re looking after everyone else.” 

 Beside Ron, Fred gagged, but not so loudly that he got another glare from Mum. 

 On Ron’s other side, he got a nudge from George. “Hey, Ronnie, we’re going to go load our trunks so we don’t have to listen to this load of shit anymore,” George whispered. “Want us to get your trunk too?” 

 “You’re only going to do something weird to it. I’m coming too,” Ron whispered back. 

 Bill was nudging Ginny for support now, since she’d stolen one of his hands as soon as they’d arrived at King’s Cross and didn’t seem to have any plans to give it back. “Percy’ll be just fine as a prefect, right, Gin?” 

 “You’d only get mad at the new prefect for not doing a good enough job,” Ginny agreed knowingly. “You’re too bossy to be happy not being a prefect.” 

 Mum gasped. “Ginny!” 

 Bill just laughed. “She’s got the both of us pegged there, eh, Perce? I know I’d have gone spare watching someone else muck up my hard-won job. Face it, Mum, we’ve got a bit of busy-body perfectionism running in the family. I wonder who we got that from?” 

 If Ron had made that joke, he would have probably gotten a scowl and a scolding, but Bill Weasley could do no wrong. Mum flushed and giggled nervously, swatting her eldest son in an “oh you” gesture. Ginny beamed up at Bill. Even Percy managed a real smile for a few seconds. Meanwhile, just behind Ron, Fred quietly made another awful retching sound and George snorted. 

 “Hey, Mum,” George interrupted. “Fred and I are gonna go take Ron to load his trunk.” 

 Mum looked uncertain and Bill swooped in to save the day again. 

 “That’s a good idea, Mum. We don’t want anything left behind. Remember when Charlie forgot his trunk a few years ago? We should probably go load Percy’s trunk as well, since it’s getting closer to eleven now and he’ll have the prefects meeting to get to soon.” 

 “Oh, you’re right! Come along! Come along! Let’s get those trunks loaded, Weasleys!” 

 Mum began to herd them along unnecessarily, like she thought they’d all get lost and wander onto the train tracks without her keen eye on them. Like it’d be their fault they’d missed the train, even though it had been her who’d been wasting time fawning over Percy. 

 Ginny rolled her eyes. Percy shot Bill a grateful look. Fred pretended to vomit. 

 Mum noticed as she bustled them along. “Frederick Gideon, what on Earth are you doing?! Stop that and stand up straight! I want much better behaviour from the two of you this year! You’re so bright! But you need to stop getting so many detentions or you’ll never make prefect like your brothers!” 

 “Charlie who?” George muttered. 

 “Mum, there’s two of us,” Fred said. “What are they gonna do? Cut the badge in half?” 

 Immune to the common sense that said Fred and George were never going to be prefects, Mum’s finger was out and waggling. “If I get one more letter saying that you’ve… you’ve… blown up a Hogwarts toilet seat or something-!” 

 “Hey, that’s not a bad idea. Thanks, Mum!” 

 “How about it, Gin?” George asked cheerfully. “Send you a Hogwarts toilet seat?” 

 Ginny waved her free hand in refusal. “I don’t need one!” 

 “YOU WANT FIVE TOILET SEATS?” 

 “Gin, don’t you think that’s a bit much to ask of your brothers?” Fred demanded, waving five fingers back at her. “We’re not miracle workers, you know! How about a nice sink?” 

 “Could we interest you a pair of showerheads instead?” 

 Ginny clung to Bill’s arm and giggled helplessly. Bill grinned between her and the twins. Mum’s finger went back and forth, like she was having trouble figuring out which twin to tell off first. Fortunately for Fred and George, they’d reached the train now, and the twins bounded away with their trunks before she could start listing all the plumbing they weren’t allowed to blow up and send home. 

 “Don’t worry, Mum, I won’t let that happen,” Percy promised. 

 “Thank you, Percy, dear,” Mum said fondly, and started fixing Percy’s perfectly straight, brand new robes all over again. “I do want you to look after Ron and the twins, but don’t stress yourself too much, alright? Now, I want you to write to me every week, do you understand me? Don’t try to bottle it all up again. Professor McGonagall was very concerned for your stress levels during exams last year-” 

 “Mum, please.” 

 “No, you listen to me, Percival Ignatius Weasley. If that boy keeps you up late again with his Quidditch nonsense, I want you to tell him from me that he needs to sort out his priorities and let you get your rest-” 

 Ron hefted his trunk off his trolley and tried to flee after the twins. He didn’t think Mum was about to capture him and smother her “last little boy going off to school” in her condescending concern again, but he didn’t want to risk it. Even though, honestly, sort part of him wished Mum would fuss over him like she was fussing over Percy now. 

 It was Ron’s first year at Hogwarts, but somehow today was really still all about Percy. 

 It had been all about Percy for the last few weeks, actually, and no one would tell them why. One minute, Percy had been over the moon with his shiny new prefect badge, strutting all around the place like he bloody well owned it. And then, sometime in early August, something had shaken Ron’s brother up badly. Percy had cried a bit, Mum had cried a lot (and still occasionally sniffled into a handkerchief), and Dad hadn’t cried but he’d still had an expression like someone in the family had died. 

 The next thing anyone knew, Bill had come home to stay for a while. And none of them would stop worrying over Percy all the long hours of the day and night. 

  Charlie had even sent a few letters home, which was pretty communicative for a guy who’d told no one about taking the bare minimum of N.E.W.T.s at the end of his sixth year, then skipped what should’ve been his seventh year (and staying Quidditch Captain for one more season) last year, all in favour of running away to Romania to live on the couch of his penpal with a name like a vampire. Fred had said that something bad must’ve happened to make Charlie stop paying attention to his dragons and his maybe-boyfriend long enough to write multiple letters home in the same month. 

 But none of them - not Mum, Dad, Bill, Charlie, or Percy - would talk about what. 

 “Here, Ronnie, let me help you with that,” Bill said, swooping in to help lift Ron’s trunk. 

 “I’ve got it,” Ron insisted. 

 Bill didn’t listen - older siblings never did - and lifted one end of Ron’s trunk anyway. At least he didn’t take the trunk away from Ron entirely, but Ron quickly saw that this was because Bill had Percy’s trunk in his other hand. Ginny was “helping” Bill lift it, which basically just meant she had her hands on it and Bill was doing all the work. 

 “I know you do, but let me help anyway,” Bill said. 

 They came up to where Fred and George were talking to that kid who’d come on to the platform with them - the boy with the round glasses and untidy black hair. The boy had loaded his trunk already and was holding the cage of his gorgeous snowy owl, the sight of which again made Ron feel just a bit green with envy. The boy was probably about to load his pet into the owlery car where they’d be able to nap in peace. 

 “Fred, George, come here and give us a hand!” Bill called. 

 The boy excused himself from the twins gladly and boarded the train. Ron might’ve followed him, but Bill tugged on Ron’s trunk and held him back. When Ron looked at his eldest brother questioningly, Bill took his trunk away entirely and handed it over to George, then handed Percy’s trunk over to Fred. 

 “Bill-!” Fred began excitedly. 

 “Load those up, would you?” Bill ordered casually. “Then hurry back, quick as you can, I need to talk to you about something important. Do it properly. Don’t just toss them out the window.” 

 The twins exchanged a look, then chorused, “No promises!”  

 Then Fred and George hurried away with their ill-gotten gains. Bill’s freed hand kept Ron from following his trunk. Ron couldn’t believe that Bill had so grossly unfairly left choosing his compartment to the twins. He’d be lucky if Fred and George tossed his trunk in the luggage car or with the prefects! Hell, he’d be lucky if he ever saw his stuff again! 

 “Bill, what the hell-?!” 

 “I need to talk to you,” Bill repeated. 

 “What about?” Ron demanded, unimpressed. If Bill was looking to offer brotherly advice, he was cutting it awfully late, and no amount of condescending wisdom would make up for the theft that had just happened. 

 “Come on,” Bill said. 

 Bill led them away from the train, towards the huddled crowds of gabbing parents and guardians. The twins reappeared distressingly quickly. With one hand on Ron and one hand on Ginny, Bill had nothing left with which to wrangle the twins, but Fred and George followed them into an empty side nook of Platform Nine and Three-Quarters with dazed and self-satisfied looks on their faces. 

 Ron glowered at them, arms crossed. “What did you do with my trunk, you-?” 

 “As I was saying, before I was so rudely interrupted,” Fred said over him, strangely hushed. “Bill, you won’t believe whose trunk we just loaded onto the train!” 

 “Percy’s?” Ron said. “Mine?!” 

  “Before that,” George said, trembling with identical hushed excitement. 

 Bill raised his eyebrows. “That kid Mum helped onto the platform?” 

 “Bill, that was Harry Potter!” 

 “Oh,” Bill said, looking at the train again. “Really?” 

 Ron peered at the train as well, looking for the boy in the windows. Harry Potter? That boy had been Harry Potter? Ron couldn’t see the boy now, which was disappointing, but it was strangely thrilling to know that he’d soon be sharing classes with someone famous. He’d known that famous people went to Hogwarts - he had the Chocolate Frog cards to prove it - but usually they got famous after Hogwarts. 

 George nodded gleefully. “We saw the scar and everything!” 

 “We asked him too. He said so himself.” 

 “Oh, Bill,” Ginny pleaded, hanging off their eldest brother’s arm like she was trying to pull him over. It didn’t at all work, seeing as Bill was probably at least twice Ginny’s weight. “Can I go on the train for just a minute and have a look at him? Please, Bill? Please?” 

 “What and let you stow away to Hogwarts, Gin? You can’t get away from me that easily. Besides, he’s a person, not a new broomstick in the window. That’d be rude.” 

 “Bill, do you think he remembers what You-Know-Who looks like?” 

 Bill looked at Fred incredulously. “Fuck, Fred, you can’t ask him that.” 

 “Why the fuck not?” Fred asked curiously. 

 “Wait, shit,” Bill said, letting go of Ron to rub a hand over his face. “I mean… hell. Look, if you really want to know what You-Know-Who looked like, you can ask Mum or Dad or someone. Like Dumbledore or McGonagall or any other adult who was about. Don’t ask the kid to try and remember what his parents’ murderer looked like.” 

 Fred considered it. “I guess that is a bit fucked up.” 

 “Stop it. Mum’s already on my back about the cursing. Look, the kid’s going to have enough people staring at his forehead and asking rude questions as it is, alright? Just remember to act like decent people when you’re talking to him.” 

 “Us? Acting decent?” George said, fanning himself with a hand. “Heavens forfend!” 

 “I mean it,” Bill said in his serious voice. 

 He sounded a lot like Dad when he did that. Bill and Dad had both been breaking out their serious voices a lot in the past few weeks - more often than Ron could ever remember Arthur Weasley ever doing so before, even though Dad wasn’t often home from work these days. Just like Mum had been regularly busting out their full names, ever since whatever had made Percy into a nervous wreck and brought Bill home from Egypt. 

 “Don’t ask him about You-Know-Who. Don’t ask him what the Killing Curse feels like. Don’t even try to thank him for anything,” Bill dictated. “He won’t want to be thanked for having his parents die for him. If he does, he’s probably a git, and then you shouldn’t talk to him anyway.” 

 “But he was really polite,” Ginny said quietly. 

 “So he’s probably not a git, which means don’t be one to him.” 

 “Sweet Sugar Quills, fine, we get the message,” Fred said, raising his hands in a show for mercy. 

 “Mum’s the word,” George agreed, zipping his lip. 

 Bill relaxed. “Good.” 

 Ron remembered now that Bill had started at Hogwarts the year after the war had ended. Bill, unlike the rest of them gathered around him now, actually remembered what it had been like when You-Know-Who was still alive.

 “Mum and Dad know what You-Know-Who looked like?” Ron asked.

 “What?”

 “You said to ask them about it.”

 “Oh, right, well, I don’t know, actually,” Bill admitted. “Maybe. I was just trying to point out that Harry Potter is not the person to ask about any of that for a good number of good reasons. Now, shut it, all of you, that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about and we’re running out of time.”

 All the younger Weasleys in this hidden nook stood up a little straighter. Ron did so with some offense, given that it had really been Fred and George who’d been doing all the talking. Also, he didn’t want to be here. 

 “Are you finally going to tell us what happened to Percy?” George asked.

 Bill grimaced. “I promised Mum and Dad that I wouldn’t, even though I think it’s a bit stupid not to tell you,” he said, which was already the most anyone had told them. “I think most of you are going to work it out sooner or later, so I’m telling you now: when you do work it out, don’t talk to anyone at school about it. Write home and ask Mum and Dad. Dad’s worked really hard to keep things quiet for Percy’s sake.”

 “Why? Is it embarrassing?” Fred demanded eagerly.

 Before Bill could answer, Mum’s voice barged in, quickly followed by the rest of her. “There you are! Why are you all huddled up in this corner for?”

  Bill straightened with a winning smile. “Just giving them some last minute advice, Mum. It is Ron’s first year at Hogwarts after all,” he said, ruffling Ron’s hair as though to prove his point. “Where’s Percy? Did he already board the train for the prefects meeting? Oh, bloo- blimey, would you look at the time! Sorry, Mum! Didn’t hear the whistle!”

 “No harm done, yet, dear! Let’s get you boys on the train before it leaves you all behind!” Mum said, cheerfully, but she gave Bill a very suspicious look.

 Ron flattened his hair again and let Mum bustle them all back towards the train.

 No one ever told them anything. It was the worst.

 “GEORGE! FRED!”

 They all turned to see the twins’ loud friend, Lee Jordan, shoving his way through the crowds of parents who were chattering intensely and absentmindedly waving at their children. Ron recognized Lee from his occasional visits to the Burrow and from King’s Cross last year. The older boy looked like he had news and not just because he had a rolled-up newspaper in hand. 

  “Lee!” George called back jovially. “What’s new?”

 “GEORGE, HOLY SHIT!” Lee proclaimed, coming to a sudden stop in front of them, brandishing the rolled-up paper like he might hit someone with it, probably George. “WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME SOONER?! MERLIN’S SAGGY B-eeeard. Oh, hiii, Mrs. Weasley. Nice to see you. You look lovely today. How are you doing?”

 Mum just stared disbelievingly at the twins’ friend, whose voice had gone strangely high-pitched, so Bill intervened again, offering his free hand and a smile. “Hello, Lee, isn’t it? I’m Bill, Fred and George’s eldest brother. I’ve heard so much about you. All interesting, I promise.”

 Lee shook Bill’s hand with a stunned expression, the sort which a lot of people tended to get around Ron’s eldest brother, especially family friends. Fred had recently said it probably had something to do the earrings Mum wanted nothing more than to vanish right out of Bill’s ears, but the stunned expressions had been happening even before Bill had gotten his earrings. Everyone liked Ron’s eldest brother. Bill was charming.

 “Interesting?” Lee repeated.

 “Well, you’re Fred and George’s friend, aren’t you?” Bill said teasingly, releasing Lee’s hand. “Don’t worry. Personally, I think interesting is way better than good.”

 Lee laughed, but it didn’t sound like a real laugh. “I’d hope so, for my sake! Nice to meet you, Bill, I’ve heard some real interesting things about you too,” he said, his voice getting strangely faster as he spoke. “Anyway, I just remembered that I left my pet, Sweetpea, with Angelina and I promised to take her back before the train took off because Angie’s cousin is arachnophobic! Gred, Forge, we’ll talk on the train! Bye, Bill! Bye, Mrs. Weasley!”

 After Lee had vanished into back into the crowds, Ginny tugged on Bill’s arm.

 “What was that about?” she asked.

 “I think that’s a question for Fred and George, Gin,” Bill said, looking towards the twins.

 “You saw the part where he ran away without talking to us, right?” George said.

 “You don’t have any idea? Seemed pretty urgent.”  

 “Not a clue! Wow! Look, there’s, like, two minutes until eleven now,” Fred said.

 That snapped Mum out of her disbelief; she began physically shoving them onboard immediately. “Oh, there’s no time for this! I won’t have a child almost miss the train again! Not after what happened last time with dear Charlie! No, I won’t be having that again! On! Now! All of you! On the train before it takes off without you!”

 Fred and George hopped on gladly, pulling Ron up after them.

 “Bye, Mum!” Fred said. “Bye, Bill! Bye, Ginny! Don’t have too much fun without us!”

 “No parties, Bilius Arnold Weasley! I’m looking at you!” George agreed.

 “That’s not my name,” Bill said, waving agreeably.

 “Bye, Mum!” Ron said, not to be left out.

 He wouldn’t be seeing them again until Christmas, he realized. 

 It was a strange thought. Ron was used to not seeing his brothers for months on end, as they’d all gone off to Hogwarts before him and without him, but now Ron was going to Hogwarts too. It was his turn. And while that might have been a strange thought, it also felt like it was about bloody time it be Ron’s turn for something.  

  Mum’s lip began to quibble again, now that they were properly on the train. “Oh, Ronnie! I can’t believe my last little boy is growing up so fast,” she said, beaming up at them. “You’ll have gotten so much taller by the time I see you! Oh, did I show you how to let your robes out properly? If you need help, if any of the stitches come undone, just go to Percy and he’ll show you how to fix it! Did you pack regular clothes in larger sizes? I hope you didn’t pack anything too small for you; if you grow out of anything, ask Fred and George for-”

 “Mum, it’s fine,” Ron assured her, embarrassed. “I know all that. I’ll be fine.”

 “Oh,” Mum said, looking teary.

 Concern wasn’t quite fanfare in Ron’s book, it was more embarrassing than anything else. He didn’t need Mum for everything anymore. He didn’t want to upset Mum by demanding again: “If you’re so bloody concerned about how I’ll do at school, why didn’t you get me my own wand instead of giving me Charlie’s chew-marked leftovers?” 

 “Good luck, Ronnie,” Bill agreed. “You’ll be great.”

 “Thanks, Bill.”

 “Promise me that you’ll write! All of you!” Mum said. “Fred and George, this includes you!”

 “Yes, Mum,” George agreed.

 “And Auntie Muriel would like to hear from you all more!” Mum went on, shoving in those last lectures in the little time they had left. “She’s an old woman who’d like some letters from her great-nephews when they’ve got a spare moment to think of family! I don’t want another letter from her telling me you’re all disgraces to Prewett family because none of you have remembered to keep in touch with her.”

 “Er,” Ron said, not wanting to promise anything.

 “I’ve always wanted to try and make a Howler,” Fred mused.

 Mum blinked. Bill coughed. Ginny snickered.

 “Fredrick Gideon Weasley, don’t you dare send your great-aunt a Howler-!”

 “Molly? Molly Weasley?” someone interrupted. 

 Mum’s rant cut off and she whirled to face the witch who’d come up behind and beside her. It was a woman who looked about their Mum’s age, despite her silver hair, wearing nice yellow robes and a concerned expression. She looked sort of familiar. 

 “Oh, Mabel Kirke!” Mum greeted happily. “Well, it’s Mabel Kirke-Diggory now, I know! It’s been that way for years, but some part of me is always going to know you as Mabel Kirke first! How are you?” 

 “I’m lovely, Molly, thank you for asking-” 

 “It’s always such a pleasure to see you outside of the book club. Is Amos here today or at work? Young Cedric must be on the train already and I shudder to think how tall he’s gotten since I last saw him!” 

 “Amos is here. He’s just saying hello to some old school friends,” the witch said, waving off towards one of the crowds of parents and guardians, where a bunch of wizards were slapping each other on the back and chortling heartily. “You know he just can’t bear not to see Cedric off personally every year, much to my poor son’s embarrassment.” 

 “Oh, I know what that’s like,” Mum said sympathetically, patting Bill’s arm. “When it came time to ship my first son off to Hogwarts, one of us was crying and it wasn’t my brave little Bill!”

 “Brave little Bill?” Fred repeated, snickering

 Since Mum wasn’t looking, Bill flipped the twins a rude gesture, which just made the twins cackle at him. Ginny, still holding on to Bill’s other hand, looked down at her own hand and carefully formed the same rude gesture, before flipping it at the twins as well. Fred and George hooted their approval as Bill hurriedly forced Ginny to put her hand down before Mum saw.

 The witch, Mrs. Kirke-Diggory, smiled, but it didn’t look like a real smile. “Yes. Molly, forgive me if I’m misremembering something here, but… well. Have you seen the newspaper today?” 

 “The Prophet? No, I’m afraid I haven’t had the time, trying to get everyone fed and fully packed and out of the house on time!” Mum admitted laughingly. “There’s never a minute to spare on September 1st for us! Arthur was off to work before it arrived and I haven’t even been able to glance at the headlines! Why? Is there a story I should have seen?”

 By Mrs. Kirke-Diggory’s face, there was very much a story Mum should have seen.

 But then train whistle blew, interrupting the conversation. It was eleven o’clock! The Hogwarts Express was lurching into motion, with Ron and the twins still standing in the open doorway of their car. Crowds of parents and guardians turned towards the train, waving back at all the hands reaching out the windows for a last goodbye.

 “I’ve got to find Amos and wave to Cedric. Find me before you leave, Molly, I’ve got to speak with you!” said Mrs. Kirke-Diggory, before she slipped back into the crowd. “Amos has a paper in his pocket! I’ll fetch it.”

 “I’ll find you!” Mum agreed, looking a little confused.

 They were having to lean out the window to see her now, as Platform Nine and Three-Quarters began to slip away behind them. Mum shook herself back to her senses and began waving after them, calling all her love. 

 Ginny began to jog after the train, as she often did, trying to keep up with them. The time, she tugged Bill along after her. Bill went readily and they ran along together, hand-in-hand, waving and ducking around the other people on the platform. 

 “Didn’t you have enough of Hogwarts the first time ‘round, Billiam?” Fred shouted.

 “Gonna stow away after all, Gin?” George called out.

 “Send me something from Hogsmeade!” Ginny called back, teary-eyed as she always got when the older brothers were off to Hogwarts without her. “You’re going this year!”

 “A Hogsmeade toilet seat too?!” George demanded incredulously.

 “That’s outrageous!” Fred declared. “You starting a collection, Ginny?”

 “No! Don’t send me that!”

 The train was picking up speed now. Mum was completely out of sight, not about to run after the Hogwarts Express unless someone had forgotten something. Bill and Ginny were beginning to fall behind. Many of the parents and guardians on the platform were beginning to give up and turn away.

 “Hey!” Bill called, only just loud enough to be heard. “Don’t talk about Scabbers!”

 Ron felt his own face screw up in confusion. “What?”

 “Didn’t he run away?” George called back.

 “I thought he finally got eaten by something faster than him, which is everything!” Fred said jokingly, before his face screwed up too. “Wait, he’s been gone for a couple weeks. Are you saying all this is over a bloody dead r-?”

 “Shut it!” Bill called, in his serious voice. “I mean it! Don’t talk about him! Not to anyone!”

 “Bill, what the hell is going on?” Fred demanded.

 But Bill was several train cars behind them now and the platform was coming to an end. If Bill called out a proper answer, it was lost in the wind and the steam. 

 A seventh-year student wearing the Head Girl badge shouted at them to close the door already and George complied. (“Yes, ma’am, Miss Summerbee!” he said, saluting.) Then they all stayed there in silence for a few seconds, as outside the door window, Platform Nine and Three-Quarters fell away completely.

 Then Fred and George looked at each other.

 “Lee?” said Fred.

 “Lee,” nodded George.

 Then they both looked at Ron and slapped him on the back as older siblings did.

 “Well, Ronnie!” George said.

 “Dear Ronniekins!” Fred agreed. “We’re off to find Lee now!”

 “If you need us desperately, just holler, but here is where we leave you. You must go off into the wild compartments alone and find one to make your own.”

 “Such is the test of every young wizard.”

 Ron stared up at them, feeling like he’d expected exactly this and also that it was highly unfair. “You two have never had to do anything alone in your whole bloody lives,” he accused. “What the hell did the two of you do with my trunk?!” 

 “Ah, that is for us to know-!”  Fred began. 

 “-and for you to find out!” George finished, with a wink. 

 And before Ron could throttle proper answers out of them, Fred and George shouted their goodbyes and sprinted off down the train corridor. They weaved around the people not yet in compartments with the long-practice of being unable to walk anywhere at a sedate pace. They ducked and swerved like they were on the run from the Ministry itself. Probably because Head Girl Summerbee was now shouting after them. 

 If Fred and George were ever walking anywhere at a sedate pace with solemn faces, Ron knew, it meant they’d been up to something, were up to something, or were shortly going to be up to no good. 

 Ron sighed and felt very small and very alone at the end of this crowded train car. He’d sort of expected this, but that didn’t stop him from having his siblings leave him behind. There had to be a compartment of other first-years somewhere on this train - a decent group of people to talk to, at least, since he knew not everyone found their forever friends on the Hogwarts Express - and he could find it if he tried. Unfortunately, he’d first have to find out what the twins did with his trunk. 

 He wandered down the train in the opposite direction of the twins, but none of the compartments had his trunk and most of them seemed to be full already. Ron had to keep on shuffling around squealing reunions and flailing hugs. 

  “Merlin, did you see the news this morning?” someone hissed. 

  “I know!” their friend cried softly, helping them block the entire bloody corridor. 

  “He’s already out and the Ministry didn’t tell anyone! How could they just go ahead and not tell everyone? What if he gets out? What if they’ve got it all wrong and he is the one-” 

 “Excuse me,” Ron said loudly, annoyed, and pressed on. 

  Some of the compartments had an empty seat, but with the other seats full of upper-year students, Ron considered them full. Some compartments had seats unoccupied by a person but stacked high with coats and bags, as though they were reserved or someone was trying to keep all company out of their compartment. Or like people didn’t know how to store their bloody trunks properly. In any case, Ron didn’t have his trunk or the courage to knock and ask the people inside to move their things for him. 

 People were leaving their things all over the corridors too, Ron noted unhappily, feeling a bit like his mother. He stepped over the half-crumpled newspaper someone had just dropped on the floor, which had a large photograph of a screaming man Ron guessed was the member of the Weird Sisters or something, with his long hair and dirty look. 

 Ron went down the train until he came to the very last compartment of the very last car, now determined to storm up the train and break the twins’ noses if he didn’t find his trunk. He peered inside, prepared to be disappointed, only to see his trunk stored neatly above a perfectly free seat. The compartment was practically empty too, except for a small boy with round glasses and untidy black hair. 

 The boy looked up before Ron could duck away. Caught, Ron could only swallow his nerves and open the compartment door. “D’you mind if I join you? That’s, er, that’s my trunk.” 

 “Not at all,” Harry Potter said, waving at the empty seat across from him. 

 “Thanks,” Ron said, even though he still wanted to storm up the train and break the twins’ noses for putting his trunk in with Harry Potter. His smile felt more like a grimace on his face and he took a seat with Bill’s serious voice ringing in his ears. 

 Anything he could think to say to the other boy - the Boy-Who-Lived - was everything he wasn’t supposed to say. 

 Well, Mum and Dad had always said that you couldn’t go wrong with a proper introduction. They’d been sort of introduced already, just outside the platform, but not really, and Ron couldn’t think of anything else. 

 He stuck out his hand. “I’m Ron. Ron Weasley.” 

 He was inexperienced with introductions and tacked on his last name like an afterthought. Ron had always done pretty much all of his travelling as part of a pack, for which Mum and Dad handled the introductions for the family, moving quickly down the lineup of children. Ron was used to standing awkwardly between “the twins, Fred and George” and “our youngest and only daughter, Ginny”. 

 The Boy-Who-Lived didn’t seem to notice Ron’s lack of experience and shook his hand happily enough. “I’m Harry,” he said. “Harry Potter.”

 “I know,” Ron said without thinking, then felt his face burn at the mistake. “Sorry, I mean, my brothers said they helped you load your trunk onto the train - the twins, Fred and George. They ran off to talk to one of their friends about something.”

 Harry Potter nodded, unoffended. “Are all your family wizards?”

 Ron blinked at him. A part of him that sounded like Mum said that he would have been told off for asking that question, but Ron couldn’t see anything wrong with it. He’d heard that the Boy-Who-Lived had been sent off to live with Muggle relatives.

 “Er, yes, I think so? Mum might have a second-cousin who’s not a ‘wanded wizard’,” Ron answered, making the quotations in the air with his fingers. “We don’t really talk to him though, but only because we’re a big family! You know? Not because he’s a- anyway, Dad’s got a lot of cousins and they’ve all got loads of children. I can’t keep track of their names half the time.”

 “You must know lots of magic, though,” Harry Potter said.

 “Not really. I only just got my wand this year.”

 “But you’ve grown up around it, haven’t you? I’m sure you know tons about it.”

 “Not anymore than the next person.”

 “Well, the next person is me and I grew up with Muggles,” Harry Potter said, sounding miserable. “I don’t know anything about magic. I might be the worst in the class.”

 Ron gaped, unable to imagine the Boy-Who-Lived being awful at magic. “You can’t be! I mean, you won’t be. There’s plenty of Muggleborns at Hogwarts - people whose parents are both Muggles - and they learn quick enough. You’ll be fine.”

 “Really?”  

 “Yeah. All the classes start at the beginning, you know, because of the Muggleborns and how there’s always some sort of magic that someone doesn’t know anything about. Me? I’ve never been good at paying attention to a cauldron. I’m barely allowed to do anything and Mum always ends up taking the potions over anyway, no matter what I do, so I can’t see the point. What’s it like living with Muggles?”

 Dad was fascinated by Muggles, but Ron had never been able to talk to anyone who’d been raised by them. Ron had never been able to understand how anyone got on without magic. It sounded like a lot of work.

 “Horrible. Well, I mean, I’m not saying all Muggles are horrible. Most people are alright. My aunt, uncle, and cousins are just awful,” Harry Potter admitted. “They hate magic and everything out of the ordinary. I wish I’d gotten to grow up with magic. I wish I had four wizard brothers and lots of wizard cousins for company.” 

 “Five brothers,” Ron corrected glumly. “I’m the sixth one to go to Hogwarts, so whatever I do, one of them’s already done it first and better. Bill was Head Boy - he was the one with the earrings, holding hands with my sister?”

 Harry nodded very understandingly, having been on the receiving end of one of Bill’s smiling greetings just outside the platform.

 “He’s the eldest. Already graduated from Hogwarts. He works for Gringotts as a curse-breaker, but he came home from Egypt early because my other brother Percy is having a nervous breakdown or something. He was the one with the glasses shiny new prefect’s badge. He’s the third child. Charlie is the second and he graduated a whole year early to work with dragons in Romania! And he was captain of the Quidditch team for a few years before he left school and gave it all up, joking that he didn’t want to deal with the twins making the team last year.”

 “Wow,” said Harry, looking impressed. 

  “Yeah, even Fred and George get really good marks and everyone likes them because they’re funny. Everyone expects me to do just as well! But no one’s gonna throw me a parade if I do, because one of my brothers will have done it first and probably better. I never get anything new either. It’s my first year of Hogwarts and I’ve got Bill’s old robes, Charlie’s old wand, and I was supposed to get Percy’s old pet r-”

 Ron cut himself off, remembering Bill’s strange last-minute warning not to talk about Scabbers. Ron had no idea what could have happened to Scabbers that was so embarrassing for Percy, but Bill wouldn’t ask it of them if it wasn’t serious.

 “Why didn’t you get his pet?” Harry asked curiously.

 “It ran off,” Ron said shortly, his face feeling hot again. “Percy got an owl from Dad for making prefect, but they couldn’t afford- wel, I said I didn’t need a pet, anyway.”

 Ron wanted nothing more than to sink into his seat and stop existing. He couldn’t believe he’d gone on to the Boy-Who-Lived about how his family was too poor to afford another pet. No one needed to hear about how everything Ron owned was broken or falling apart. No one needed to hear about how Ron wasn’t looking to changing into his faded school uniform, because it would only look shabbier next to everyone’s neat, new black robes. Ron might as well have stood on his seat and announced that he was a second-rate wizard.

 It was probably for the best that Scabbers was gone, whatever had happened to him. Ron didn’t need an old, fat rat to look after and make him look even worse. 

  “Until I learned I was a wizard, I never got anything new,” Harry Potter said empathetically, gesturing towards his rolled-up jeans and frayed button-up. His shoes, Ron now noticed, had even more scuffs than Ron’s. “I only ever got my cousin Dudley’s cast-offs. Until a month ago, I’d never had my own money before or gotten any proper birthday presents.”

 Ron stared at the other boy in amazement. Ron Weasley had spent every year dreaming of one day getting a proper allowance, instead of counting up his meager birthday money whenever he wanted something for himself, and every year hoping uselessly to get his own proper broomstick for a birthday gift, instead of a new Chudley Cannons poster or a bundle of Chocolate Frogs almost like an afterthought. He’d never imagined he might find a kindred soul in the Boy-Who-Lived.

 “Really?” 

  Harry Potter nodded. “Really.”

 This made Ron feel much less embarrassed about not having a pet.

 “Honestly, until Hagrid told me I-” Harry began.

 Knock. Knock. 

 Ron and Harry both turned towards the compartment door, where another boy was hopefully looking in at them. He looked to be about their own age. He had silver blonde hair, a sharp pale face, a fancy leather satchel over his shoulder, and the neatest, blackest Hogwarts school uniform that Ron had ever seen. Ron disliked him immediately. 

 Once the new boy had their attention, he opened the compartment door. 

 Ron disliked him even more. 

  “Sorry to interrupt,” the new boy said. “Hello, Harry, I was wondering if my friends and I might join you for a while?” 

 

Chapter Text

 Ron wanted nothing more than to tell this new boy to shove off and leave them be, even before he looked at Harry and saw a very uncertain expression on his companion’s face. It looked like Harry and the new boy knew each other, but it didn’t look like they were actually friends. Not on Harry’s side of it at least. 

 “...How many friends? I don’t know if we’ll have enough room,” Harry said. 

 “Just two,” the new boy answered, smiling, not getting what Ron thought was a rather obvious hint. “We have a compartment farther up the train, but I thought I might say hello and introduce you.” He looked at Ron and held out his hand. “My name is Draco Malfoy.”

 Ron stood up - he was taller than this new boy by several inches - and shook his hand. He’d heard the name Malfoy before from Dad and nothing good about it.

 “Ron Weasley,” he said coolly. 

  Malfoy kept smiling, still not getting the hint to shove off. “Nice to meet you, I’ve heard very good things about your family,” he said, sounding sincere about it. “I met Harry in Madam Malkin’s; we talked while we were both being fitted for our school uniforms. I’d have written, Harry, but I didn’t know where to find you.”

 “Yeah, um, I forgot where to send a letter too,” Harry said awkwardly.

 Finally Malfoy stopped smiling stupidly and said, in a matter-of-fact sort of way, “I thought that might be it. I left you very quickly. I also wondered if perhaps, after I left the shop, someone might have told you that you would be better off not making friends with my family.” 

 Ron would have told Harry Potter exactly that, if Harry had told him about meeting a Malfoy in Diagon Alley.

 By the way Harry froze, it looked like Malfoy had wondered exactly right.

 “Someone told you my father was a follower of You-Know-Who, didn’t they?”

 Harry grimaced. “Yes.”

 “They told you right. I wouldn’t say that you should try to become friends with my father,” Malfoy said, looking sorry about it. “It might look very good for his reputation to be seen being friendly with the Boy-Who-Lived, but I think you’d hate him. Thankfully, I’m not my father and I don’t believe the same things he does.”

 “You don’t like Voldemort?” Harry said.

 Ron gaped at him, because he hadn’t expected that the Boy-Who-Lived of all people would be so comfortable saying You-Know-Who’s name. Malfoy just raised his eyebrows.

 “I’ve never met him, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t like him,” Malfoy said.

 Harry sat back, looking considering.

 Ron, however, wasn’t so ready to buy into whatever Malfoy was selling. If the boy’s father could lie to the Ministry about being under the Imperius Curse (so Dad said), then the boy could lie to Harry Potter about not being a Muggle-hater for his own nefarious purposes.

 “How do we know you’re not cosying up for your reputation?” Ron demanded.

 Malfoy didn’t seem to have an answer for that, instead opening and closing his mouth several times, which was very satisfying. Finally, Malfoy closed his mouth and stood to his full height.

 “I didn’t choose my family,” Malfoy said. “But I can choose my friends.”

 Now it was Ron’s turn not to have an answer.

 “If I’m bothering you, I can leave,” Malfoy said, looking between them uncertainly, taking a step towards the door. “As I said: my friends and I have a compartment farther up the train. I only thought it would be nice to introduce you to them and to spend some of the ride together. We’ll see more of each other in class soon anyway.”

 Malfoy turned to go, but Harry stood as well.

 "Wait, Draco.”

 Malfoy paused, doing a very bad job of trying not to look hopeful. “Yes?”

 “Sorry. We’re not being fair to you,” Harry said. “You can sit with us for a bit of the trip if you want. You and your friends.”

 Malfoy brightened immediately. “We won’t bother you for overlong,” he promised. “Shall I go and fetch my friends now? Or shall we all come by later? They can be a bit shy, my friends, and sometimes a bit rough, but they’re alright once you get to know them.”

 “Sure, um, now’s fine.”

 Malfoy smiled again and left the compartment quickly, as though perhaps worried that Harry Potter might change his mind. Once the door had clicked shut behind him, Ron and Harry sat back down and exchanged uncertain looks.

 “Sorry, I should’ve asked you first, shouldn’t I?” Harry said.

 “‘S’alright,” Ron told him.

 “It’s just… no one’s ever wanted to sit with me so badly before.” 

  Ron couldn’t imagine that. Harry Potter didn’t seem at all like a self-important git; he was all niceness and manners. Ron determined Muggles must have no taste. 

 “It’s not his fault that his dad’s an evil git,” Ron said wisely, deciding to be benevolent about the whole thing, at least until he saw how it all turned out. Then he remembered what Harry had said and exclaimed, “I can’t believe that you said You-Know-Who’s name! You of all people!”

 Harry ducked his head and mumbled, “I keep forgetting you’re not supposed to.”

 He looked so embarrassed about it that Ron gave up on being awed. “Well, it’s not like he’s alive anymore to get bothered about it,” he said comfortingly. “Er, Malfoy’s dad is still kicking, though, and my dad says he’s really bad news. I’m not saying we shouldn’t give Malfoy a chance, but Dad says Malfoy’s dad lied and bribed his way out of prison, you know? And he’s definitely a Muggle-hater. Dad says he’s trying to do all sorts of awful things in the Ministry and such.”

 “I know,” Harry said grimly. “Hagrid told me.” 

  Ron sat back, deciding that the important thing was that Harry knew. Either way, the other boy now had Ron to help look out for him. Ron couldn’t leave this boy, who was probably too polite for his own good, to some stupidly smiling Malfoy and his friends without making sure things were alright.

 Malfoy came back five minutes later with two other boys in tow, who were both brown-haired, pale (though not quite as pale as Malfoy himself), and bigger than any eleven-year-old had a right to be. “Harry Potter and Ron Weasley, these are my friends, Gregory Goyle and Vincent Crabbe,” Malfoy introduced, with a proud sort of puff to his posture. “Vincent, Gregory, this is Ron Weasley and Harry Potter.”

 “Hello,” Harry offered.

 “Hi,” Ron said reluctantly. 

  At an encouraging nudge from Malfoy, Crabbe and Goyle mumbled something that sounded vaguely like a greeting and, at another encouraging nudge from Malfoy, shuffled inside. Ron shifted across to sit next to Harry, who scooted closer to the window. Crabbe and Goyle took the seat Ron had vacated, shuffling quickly along to make room for Malfoy at the end. Malfoy shifted his satchel into his lap and sat down looking quite pleased with himself.

 Gregory Goyle was a spotty boy with floppy hair, of a height with Ron but much broader. Vincent Crabbe was several inches shorter than Goyle, but even broader still; he was a fat boy with a squinty look that suggested he might’ve needed glasses. They were both already in their school uniforms (brand new) and neither of them had any bags.

 But the thing that Ron noticed most of all and couldn’t stop noticing about Crabbe and Goyle was how they looked at Malfoy. It was side-eyed, but not subtle enough. Crabbe and Goyle looked at Malfoy the same way that most people looked at unexpected presents from Fred and George: like the polite thing to do was be happy and grateful about the surprise gift, but they also thought he might explode at any moment and they didn’t want to accidentally set him off. 

 The silence that fell on their compartment was awkward. 

  “Are you both from wizard families too?” Harry asked finally. He sounded so polite about it that it took Ron a second to realize that Harry was asking people who were definitely from “proud pureblood families” if they had any Muggle ancestry. 

 Crabbe and Goyle stared at him, clearly too surprised to answer. 

 “Yes, yes, they are,” Malfoy intervened, taking no offense at the question. “None of us have any Muggles or Muggleborns in our families - all witches and wizards - so there might be some misunderstandings. For example, Muggles don’t play Quidditch, do they?” 

 “No,” Harry agreed. “Muggles don’t have flying broomsticks.” 

 “That’s a shame. Flying broomsticks are very fun. Have you ever seen a game?” 

 “No. Honestly, I have no idea how it’s even played.” 

 “Then you’ll have that to look forward to at school! Maybe you’ll be able to see a professional game over the summer at some point. Gregory and I are both fans of the Trowbridge Trolls, though their standings aren’t very high.” 

 Goyle looked at Malfoy in surprise, as though he maybe hadn’t wanted Malfoy to admit that. Ron could understand why. The Trowbridge Trolls standings not being “very high” was an understatement. The Trolls had been getting much better lately, but other than that they had a record that kept them in the lower leagues, underneath even the Chudley Cannons, and they were probably one of the very last teams Ron would have ever guessed a Malfoy would root for. 

 “So is Vincent,” Malfoy went on, not at all embarrassed at his horrifically bad taste in Quidditch teams, “but his father is actually a Quodpot fan, believe it or not.” 

 Ron couldn’t help his disbelief. “Really?” 

 Crabbe nodded, looking embarrassed about his father’s eccentricity. 

 “What’s Quodpot?” Harry asked. 

 “It’s this nutter sport the Americans play,” Ron answered. 

 There was nothing for it at that point but to explain the rules of both Quidditch and Quodpot to Harry, who wouldn’t last long in a conversation if he didn’t know anything about real sports. Coming from a large family of Quidditch fans - once Ginny grew a bit more and if Charlie came home, Arthur and Molly Weasley would be able to field their own Quidditch team at extended Weasley family gatherings - Ron was really quite perfect to explain the game to Harry, with some help from Crabbe and Goyle. Crabbe helped a lot when it came time to describe the ridiculous game that was American Quodpot, since Ron had never bothered to learn all the rules or positions. 

 “The Australians play a bit of Quodpot too,” Crabbe offered finally, once they’d gotten to the end of an explanation which made the sport sound no less silly to Ron. “But their rules are different.” 

 “Different how?” Goyle asked. 

 Crabbe shrugged. “Dunno. The Canadians play a bit too, I think, but they’ve got that other sport they’re all mad for. The underwater one with the sticks?” 

 “Underwater Ice Hockey?” Malfoy offered, without looking up. Shortly into the Quidditch and Quodpot explanation, Malfoy had pulled a book of crossword puzzles and a fountain pen from his satchel, but he was still paying attention to the conversation, much like Mum when she was cooking or at some crafting project or another. 

 Crabbe brightened. “That’s it!” 

 “What’s Underwater Ice Hockey?” Harry asked. 

 “Some nutter sport the Canadians play, sounds like,” Ron joked. 

  Malfoy huffed amusedly. “They got it from the Austrians. Do you know ordinary Muggle hockey, Harry?” 

 “Sort of?” 

 “As far as I know, it’s much like that, except it takes place on the other side of the ice,” Malfoy explained. “Upside down. Hopefully with the use of Warming and Bubble-Head Charms to keep people from dying, but who knows?” 

 “Ohhh,” Harry said, wincing. 

 “What’s ordinary Muggle hockey?” Goyle asked hesitantly. 

 Harry Potter readily explained to them all, as best he could, the Muggle game of Ice Hockey. It sounded familiar to Ron, who thought he’d seen his cousins playing versions of the game, but couldn’t skate himself. It also sounded kind of fun. Crabbe and Goyle, who also admitted they couldn’t skate, agreed with him. 

  Malfoy told them all then that Hogwarts occasionally had Ice Skating events in the winter for anyone who wanted to learn. Harry, Crabbe, and Goyle listened eagerly to Malfoy talk about a member of the staff named Madame Hooch, who ran many extracurriculars at Hogwarts, while Ron sat back and wondered how Malfoy knew so much about the school already. Had his parents told him? Had he read it in a book? Did he have older siblings too? 

 How did a Malfoy know anything about ordinary Muggle sports? 

 Time flew by without any of them taking notice of it, until nearly one o’clock, when an elderly witch knocked on their compartment, slid back the door, and smilingly asked, “Anything from the trolley, dears?” 

 Harry and Malfoy were both on their feet almost before she’d finished speaking. They looked at each other, surprised. 

 “My treat for dragging you the length of the train,” Malfoy assured Crabbe and Goyle, who’d also been about to stand and now sat back with wary expressions. Malfoy then looked between Harry and Ron, saying, “I could treat you as well, if you like, for letting us spend time in your compartment like this.” 

 “It’s fine,” Harry said quickly. “I can treat myself.” 

 “...If you insist. And you, Ron?” 

  “Mum sent me off with sandwiches,” Ron muttered, hot-faced, rather than explain that he hadn’t any money for sweets. Malfoy was doing a pretty good job of seeming alright, if he was a liar after all, but Ron wouldn’t be bought by sweets and he didn’t need Malfoy’s charity either way. 

 Harry left the compartment to see what the trolley offered and, after confirming what Crabbe and Goyle wanted, Malfoy joined him. Ron was left in awkward silence with Crabbe and Goyle, who were looking longingly out at the trolley as though they thought Malfoy might forget and come back empty-handed. 

  Ron looked out the compartment door, but he didn’t want to look at all the colourful sweets he couldn’t afford; so Ron looked out the train window instead, but there were only towns and fields whizzing quickly by, which was boring. Ron’s wandering eyes eventually landed on Malfoy’s seat. Malfoy had taken his satchel out into the corridor with him, but left his crosswords book and pen behind. Ron tilted his head a little and saw that Malfoy wasn’t so much actually doing the crosswords as he was doodling and scribbling whatever he pleased in the margins. 

  Harry and Malfoy returned each with an absurd armful of sweets, which distracted Ron before he could make out a word of Malfoy tiny, cursive, possibly shorthand writing. Ron shuffled over, so Harry didn’t have to go tripping over any legs, and Harry dropped what looked like at least three of everything on the seat between them. 

 “Hungry, are you?” Ron said incredulously. 

 “Starving,” Harry agreed, looking a little embarrassed. “I wanted to try everything.” 

 Across the compartment, Malfoy had tipped his haul in Crabbe’s lap, and Crabbe and Goyle had began gratefully chomping into Chocolate Frogs and Pumpkin Pasties and Liquorice Wands. Meanwhile, Malfoy sat and took up his crossword book and pen again, without taking even an Every-Flavour Bean for himself. 

 Ron couldn’t bring himself to take his wrapped lunch out. 

  “I think my eyes got bigger than my stomach,” Harry said awkwardly, quietly, holding out a pasty. “Want one?” 

 “It’s fine,” Ron mumbled. 

 Malfoy looked up from his book and observed, “Harry, you’re going to make yourself sick before the Welcoming Feast. Ron, you might as well help him.” 

 “You could save it for later,” Ron suggested stubbornly. 

 Harry held the pasty out farther and cajoled.,“I’ve never had sweets to share before, much less wizard sweets. Go on.” 

 “If he doesn’t want them, we’ll help,” Crabbe offered. 

 “Mmph,” Goyle nodded. 

 Everyone was against him, it seemed, so Ron gave in sooner than later. It was only just this once and Harry would get sick if he tried to eat everything by himelf. Ron gladly helped Harry eat their way through all the pasties and cakes, making sure that Harry had first choice of everything, while the dry sandwiches he’d brought were just as gladly forgotten. He explained to Harry what Chocolate Frogs and, more importantly, what Chocolate Frog Cards were. By unspoken agreement, everyone in the compartment began donating their Chocolate Frog Cards to Harry’s brand new collection of them, especially since Harry seemed fascinated by the famous witches and wizards depicted on them. 

 The most Ron saw Malfoy eat was one Pumpkin Pasty and a stick of Drooble’s Best Blowing Gum, the latter of which was cautiously offered to him by Goyle when he and Crabbe had finally realized Malfoy wasn’t eating his fair share of the sweets he’d bought them. Malfoy had accepted the offer amusedly. 

 Malfoy was now in the middle of carefully explaining to Crabbe and Goyle (and Harry and Ron) that a wizard’s photographs didn’t move either before being developed in a magical solution, when the compartment door slid open. Ron nearly choked on a Chocolate Frog when he saw it was Fred and George, still not yet in their uniforms either. Harry slapped Ron on the back while he coughed and sputtered. 

 “Well, that’s one way to greet your dear brothers!” Fred declared. 

 “What are you two doing here?” 

 “And that’s another,” George said. “Can’t concerned elder brothers pop in?” 

 “Not when they ditched me earlier,” Ron groused, though it was a very Fred and George thing to do to ditch him only to come back to bother him later.  

 He wasn’t mad at them anymore for putting his trunk in with Harry, who was cool, but he was still mad at them for running off with his trunk in the first place. It should’ve been Ron’s decision to sit with Harry. Not Fred and George probably playing a practical joke. Who knew what they’d done with Percy’s trunk? 

 Fred put a hand over his heart. “One might almost think you weren’t delighted to see us, dear Ronnie. I see you’ve managed to make some little friends in our absence! Hello again, Harry! That’s quite a haul you’ve got there.” 

 “Thanks?” Harry said. 

 “I thought you were going to go talk to Lee,” Ron said pointedly, even knowing it was hopeless. Everyone in his family only took the hints he didn’t want them to take. 

 “We did talk to Lee,” George assured him. 

 “Then we ran off and had a talk with Percy, who’d locked himself in the washroom after his prefects meeting,” Fred said, waving a hand carelessly. “So, we went to go have a talk with the deeply concerned Miss Hewley.” 

 “She’s the other fifth-year Gryffindor prefect,” George explained. 

 “And after that we had a non-Quidditch-related conversation with Oliver,” Fred said, as though this was a very rare feat. “He was in a state and not over the state of the team for once! You know, I think he and Percy might actually be friends? Miss Hewley and that nice Miss Clearwater from Ravenclaw seemed very concerned too. Who would have thought Percy was so popular?” 

 “I don’t know any of these people,” Ron said flatly. 

 “We also borrowed Percy’s owl to write to Mum.” 

 “And Dad and Bill.” 

 “You know Mum and Dad and Bill, don’t you?” 

 “Yes? Why are you telling me this?” 

 “We’re just telling you about all the interesting people we talked to today,” George explained grandly. “And now… we have come to talk to you too.” 

 “Firstly, though, who are all your little friends here?” Fred said curiously. 

 Malfoy stood up and offered his hand to the twins. “My name is Draco Malfoy,” he introduced. “These are my friends: Gregory Goyle and Vincent Crabbe. You are?” 

 Fred and George both took Malfoy’s hand at the same time, trapping it between their hands in a practiced gesture and shaking vigorously. Malfoy seemed only mildly startled by their oddness and went with the uncommon handshake readily enough. 

 “George Weasley,” said Fred. 

 “Fred Weasley,” said George. 

 “A pleasure to meet you,” Malfoy said, sounding sincere about it. 

  “Indeed,” said the twin who’d introduced himself as George, but whom Ron was mostly certain was actually Fred. He was still shaking Malfoy’s hand as he continued, “We’re in Gryffindor. Third-years. Are all of you here unsorted firsties?” 

 “We are,” Malfoy said, trying to take his hand back. 

 “Malfoy, Crabbe, and Goyle,” Fred continued thoughtfully. “Those are very… Slytherin… names, aren’t they?” 

 He said Slytherin like he’d wanted to say something else about their families. 

  Fred and George leaned back, and Ron had no doubts that they too remembered that Mafoy’s dad had been a follower of You-Know-Who. Crabbe and Goyle’s names sounded sort of familiar too, in the way that Ron might’ve actually heard them before or might suddenly have been making their familiarity up. Crabbe’s Quodpot-loving dad and Goyle’s own dad might have been followers of You-Know-Who too for all Ron knew. 

 At Malfoy’s side, Crabbe and Goyle were frowning uncertainly. Ron didn’t doubt they’d jump if Malfoy told them to, but while Crabbe and Goyle were big, Ron’s brothers were bigger. Fred and George were thirteen and Beaters, and it showed. 

 “Some inter-house friendships in the making, maybe?” George suggested.  

 Fred snapped himself out of his staring match with Malfoy. “Indeed! We’ll see how long that lasts when the Sorting and that good ol’ Hogwarts rivalry rears its fun head!” 

 “What did you want again?” Ron demanded uncomfortably. 

 “Just wanted to check in with our favourite little brother, share the latest news, but maybe our talking can wait until later,” George answered. 

 “Once Oliver and Miss Hewley manage to talk poor Prefect Percy out of turning Moaning Myrtle on us,” Fred agreed. “And once dear Mum gets our Howler. I don’t suppose that anyone’s handed you a copy of today’s newspaper, Ronniekins?” 

 “No?” Ron said suspiciously. “Why?” 

 “Oh, we’re having a paper airplane competition with Alicia,” George said. 

 Ron was mostly sure that was a lie, if only because Fred and George were far from the first ones to be so bothered over whatever the important adult news was today. 

 “There’s also this Quidditch story you might like,” George continued brightly, completely ignoring all of Ron’s frowning mistrust. “Lee was just telling us all about what’s new in Quidditch this season. Turns out there’s this Durmstrang kid, thirteen or fourteen, who’s already being looked at by the Bulgarian National Team!” 

 “What, really?” 

 “Yes! We might be seeing a seventeen-year-old playing in the next Quidditch World Cup! Can you imagine that?” 

 Ron tried to imagine being that good at Quidditch. That sounded amazing. 

 “Oh, Viktor Krum?” Malfoy said. 

 Fred and George’s smiles froze on their faces. 

 “...The name’s not been published,” George said finally. 

 “To protect the privacy of an underage student,” Fred agreed, looking at Malfoy very curiously. “Viktor Krum, eh? That’s a Quidditch player name if I’ve ever heard one. How’d you know the name?”

 “Unless there’s another kid being watched by the Bulgarian National Team we ought to know about?” George suggested. 

 “I must have overheard it somewhere,” Malfoy said. 

 “Yeah?” 

 “My father occasionally has meetings with important people from the Department of Magical Sports and Games,” Malfoy said, more haughtily than anything Ron had heard him say before. Draco Malfoy suddenly sounded like a right prat, really. 

 “Oh, your father told you,” Fred said, sounding unimpressed. 

  “Well then.” 

  “Are you two actually going to tell me anything or are you just going to hang around and be annoying?” Ron demanded, wanting them gone already no matter what they had wanted to tell him. He was pretty sure it wasn’t really the Quidditch thing and he was becoming surer that it was probably something really stupid anyway. 

 “Fred, I think we’re being thrown out.” 

 “By our own brother too! Keep this sort of thing up, Ronnie, and you’ll be a prefect before you know it!” 

 “Alright, alright, keep your robes on. Wish us luck in that paper airplane competition!” Fred said. “Alicia is a scourge of the clouds! Goodbye, Ronnie. Goodbye, Harry.” 

 “Goodbye, Misters Malfoy, Crabbe, and Goyle,” George added. “Until later! Ron, remember what Bill said and don’t do anything we wouldn’t do!” 

 And before Ron could demand what the hell was really going on or who Alicia was, Fred and George turned on their heels and the compartment door was rattling behind them. Ron stared after them, furious at having what felt like a whole lot of dirty family laundry aired and then being ditched a second time. What was worse: when he turned to face the rest of the compartment, everyone was staring at him. 

 “What did Bill say?” Harry asked finally, curiously. 

 Ron’s face felt like it was on fire. “He should’ve said not to listen to the twins about anything,” he muttered. “Sorry about them. I’ve got no idea what they’re talking about.” 

 It was sort of the truth. Ron thought it was about Scabbers, somehow, especially if Percy had been crying in the washroom again, but he didn’t know anything else. It felt like everyone in his family had gone off their rocker except for him. Fred and George were probably only up to no good again. 

 “It’s alright,” Harry assured him. “I wish I had siblings.” 

 “No, you don’t,” Ron said certainly. “I’d give you all of mine if I could.” 

 “How many siblings do you have?” Crabbe asked. 

 “Six. Five older brothers, including those two, and one younger sister.” 

 “Wow,” said Goyle. 

 “Yeah, that’s not even getting started on cousins,” Ron said, very much not wanting to get started on cousins. A lot of his Weasley cousins hadn’t bothered with or couldn’t afford to go to Hogwarts. “Do any of you have any siblings?” 

 “I’ve got two older sisters,” Crabbe offered. 

 “One younger sister,” Goyle volunteered. 

 “I’m an only child,” Malfoy said. 

 Malfoy then asked Crabbe what his sisters had told him about Hogwarts, which soon prompted Ron to compete and share all the absurd things that his brothers had told him about Hogwarts. It was difficult to know whether his brothers were playing a joke on him - especially Fred and George but sometimes even Percy - or whether it was just his family being their odd, highly accomplished selves. Anything said about Charlie’s school adventures, for example, had equal chances of being made-up or completely true. 

 Ron found an unexpected kindred soul in Vincent Crabbe, whose sisters apparently weren’t exactly liars, but had a tendency to alternately over-exaggerate or under-exaggerate everything. So, no matter how much they talked (which was apparently quite a lot), poor Crabbe couldn’t really know the truth of anything for sure. 

 They passed around Harry’s box of Bertie Bott’s Every-Flavour Beans as they talked, occasionally interrupting the conversation to announce what they thought each flavour might be. Even Malfoy participated, though he didn’t talk much, having no siblings and no questions about the school. 

 “Pepper?” Harry said, after nibbling on the grey bean no one else had wanted to touch. “I think it’s pepper, anyway. You don’t really have to fight a troll to be Sorted, do you?” 

 “I hope not,” Ron said desperately. 

 Crabbe and Goyle exchanged their own uncertain look, which suggested they weren’t entirely sure how a person got Sorted either and couldn’t say for sure that they weren’t going to have to fight a troll. They both then looked expectantly at Malfoy. They had done this a lot of the course of the train ride so far: looked at Malfoy for all the answers, though they weren’t particularly keen to poke him for them. 

At the frightened silence around the compartment, Malfoy glanced up. He took one look at their grim faces and burst out laughing. Not another silent smirk. Not another one of those quiet chuckles. Malfoy giggled. He giggled loudly. He had to put a hand over his mouth and still couldn’t stop himself from giggling, high and helpless. 

 “...I take it that means we don’t have to fight a troll?” Harry said. 

 Malfoy shook his head. “No! We’re first-years! The first thing they’re going to teach us in Charms is how to consistently make our wands light up!” 

 “Oh,” Harry said. 

 “I knew that Fred and George were lying to me!” Ron declared, outraged. 

 “...Draco,” Crabbe began carefully. “How do they Sort us again?” 

 Malfoy clamped down on his giggling, cleared his throat, and looked at Crabbe with an exasperated fondness. “They’re going to use the Sorting Hat. Merlin, Vincent, Gregory, how did you both forget about the Sorting Hat?” 

 “Oh, right,” Goyle said. 

 “What’s the Sorting Hat?” Harry asked easily. He’d clearly embraced asking as many questions as he liked since Malfoy and his friends had joined their compartment, which was good because it meant that Ron didn’t have to ask questions. 

 “It’s Godric Gryffindor’s old hat,” Malfoy answered, just as easily. “It was enchanted by the founders, whom the Houses are named after, to Sort students. They’ll put it on your head and in less than a minute the Sorting Hat decides where you ought to go.” 

 “Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin, right?” 

 “That’s right.” 

 Harry opened his mouth to ask another question, but before he could do that, Malfoy hiccupped. Malfoy clamped a hand over his mouth, only to shortly hiccup again. After the third loud, unstoppable hic, Ron realized that Malfoy had giggled so hard at them for thinking they’d have to fight a troll that he’d given himself the hiccups like a little kid. 

 “Ow,” Malfoy said unhappily. 

 “Try holding your breath,” Harry suggested. 

 “Pull really hard on your tongue,” Ron told him. 

 “Drink some water or bite on a lemon,” Crabbe said. 

 Malfoy rolled his eyes at all of them. “I’m not doing any of that. They’ll stop eventually.” He hiccuped again and frowningly rubbed at his stomach. “Ugh, I forgot how much these hurt. I’m never laughing at anything again.” 

 Harry and Ron snorted. Goyle passed Malfoy a Sherbert Lemon, which Malfoy accepted dubiously. 

 “Thank you, Grego- Hic. Ow. What were we talking about?” 

 “Trolls?” Goyle said. 

 “The Sorting Hat,” Harry said. 

 “How would fighting a troll even decide what House you went into anyway?” Ron wondered, which started a spirited discussion on how such a system would even work. Gryffindor, Ron suggested, would be being brave enough to agree to fight a troll. 

 It was easy enough to agree that Hufflepuff might be attempting to befriend the troll. Malfoy suggested between hiccups that Slytherin would be outright refusing to fight the troll, because having first-years fight a troll was stupid, and Ron inwardly agreed this sounded pompous enough for the sort of people he’d heard were sorted into Slytherin. Ravenclaws were more difficult. They were torn between “proposing an alternate battle, like a musical competition” and “agreeing to the fight, then promptly surrendering, because no one had ever said they needed to win the fight”. Malfoy thought the second option also sounded very Slytherin, or perhaps very Gryffindor, to which Ron countered that refusing to fight at all also sounded very Hufflepuff. 

 “What Houses are your siblings in?” Harry asked. 

 “My sisters are both in Slytherin,” Crabbe answered. 

 “My sister’s not at Hogwarts yet,” Goyle said. 

 “My brothers are all Gryffindors, from Bill to the twins. I don’t want to imagine what Mum and Dad will say if I’m the first in our family to be put into Hufflepuff,” Ron said, with a dramatic shudder. “Mum and Dad were both in Gryffindor too.” 

 “Oh, mine too,” Harry said, before turning expectantly to Malfoy. 

 “All Slytherin,” Malfoy sighed. 

 “Hey,” Harry said brightly. “Your hiccups are gone!” 

 “Don’t jinx me.” 

 A chubby, round-faced boy knocked on their compartment then, looking like he was about to cry. He asked if they’d seen a toad. When they all shook their heads, he clung to the compartment door and wailed, “I’ve lost him! He keeps getting away from meeee!” 

 Crabbe and Goyle looked ready to snicker, but Malfoy frowned warningly at them. 

 “He’ll turn up,” Harry said kindly. 

 “Have you tried asking the prefects for help?” Malfoy asked. 

 The boy froze. “Um…” 

 That could mean, in Ron’s experience of having older siblings, that the boy hadn’t dared to ask the prefects at all or that a prefect had told him to shove off. He looked like he might be a first-year like them, which meant he hadn’t been Sorted into a House yet, which meant that some lazy prefect could had decided the boy and his toad wasn’t their problem. Bill and Percy had nothing good to say about prefects like that. 

 “You should try asking my brother, Percy,” Ron said. “He’s a Gryffindor prefect. He’ll help you with your lost pet.” 

 If he wasn’t still locked in a washroom and sobbing or something. Percy was after stuff to do, right? And Percy would definitely sympathize with someone losing a pet. Ron was pretty sure now that whatever had happened to Percy this summer had probably also been the end of poor old Scabbers. 

 “Um, alright,” the boy said. “Well, if you see him…” 

 It wasn’t clear if the boy was talking about Percy or his toad, but he left before Ron could ask him. 

 “I wonder if a lot of people are having problems with lost pets today,” Harry said thoughtfully. “I’ve heard a lot of people talking about dangerous animals being on the loose, I think. Is there a magic zoo or something nearby London?” 

 “It’s not really a good idea to keep magical creatures in cities,” Ron said. “Especially the big ones. The dragon reserve where my brother Charlie works is way out in the middle of nowhere in Romania, so the Muggles don’t accidentally wander in. I think there’s a petting zoo in the village near Hogwarts, at least when Charlie went to Hogwarts, but I dunno why everyone would be fussed about it.” 

 “Your brother works with dragons?” Crabbe asked, sounding impressed. 

 Ron nodded and launched again into his quick explanation of how accomplished his elder brothers were, especially Charlie and Bill, and how he wasn’t looking forward to having to live up to them. There wasn’t much credit after the sixth time or so. 

 “Mum was so proud when Bill’s curse-breaking team got hired by the Egyptian Ministry to help with an archaeological dig. What can I do that competes with that? Especially when Bill nobly gives it all up to come home for some family thing,” Ron complained. “I mean, he’s still working for Gringotts. He wasn’t fired or anything.” 

 Harry and Goyle nodded uncertainly, but Crabbe nodded very sympathetically. 

 “Ron, I need to ask a prefect something,” Malfoy announced, getting determinedly to his feet. He slipped his book and his pen back into his satchel, which he readjusted over his shoulder. “Do you think you could introduce me to your brother?” 

 “Sure?” 

 “It won’t take long,” Malfoy promised. “No need for anyone else to get up.” 

 Ron didn’t see why Malfoy needed him to get up, since Malfoy was perfectly capable of introducing himself to people. Maybe Malfoy needed Ron because he didn’t know what Percy looked like, but Ron thought that was a bit of a stretch too. Malfoy could have just gone down the train, asking if anyone had seen a redhead with a prefect’s badge, and he would have found the right Weasley eventually. 

 Still, Ron got up and followed Malfoy out of the compartment, closing the door behind them. Malfoy led them down the corridor, towards the front of the train. It had cleared out a lot since they’d left London, like everyone had finally gotten tired of shouting greetings each other and retreated into their compartments to chat, nap, or stuff themselves with sweets from the trolley. More than one compartment had pulled their curtains shut, a clear warning for wandering firsties to steer clear. 

 The countryside outside their window was becoming wilder. The small towns and neat fields had fallen away behind them when Ron hadn’t been watching. Now it was all wide woods, twisting rivers, and climbing, dark green hills. 

 “Excuse me,” said a short brown girl with bushy hair, more annoyed than polite.  

 Ron hadn’t noticed her while looking out the windows. “Excuse you,” he agreed as he moved out of her way. 

 The girl huffed at him and sailed past with her chin held high, then knocked on the next compartment she came across and poked her nose in. “Has anyone here seen a toad?” she demanded. “A boy named Neville Longbottom has lost one.” 

 Ron shook his head and turned back to Malfoy, who had an odd expression on his face before he too turned around and continued onward. 

 “What do you need to talk to my brother about anyway?” Ron asked. 

 Malfoy didn’t answer. He paused and knocked on the washroom door at the end of the car, even though the sign already said it was vacant. When no one answered, he opened the door and looked inside. It was empty. 

 “I think they’ve probably got him out of the washroom by now,” Ron muttered, his face heating up at his family’s antics. “I don’t think you’re going to find him that way.” 

 “Good,” Malfoy said, stepping back to look both ways down the corridor, as though checking if anyone was watching them. “Because, honestly, I don’t need to talk to your brother. I need to talk to you.” 

 

Chapter Text

 With that piece of honesty, Malfoy shoved Ron into the washroom with surprising strength. Ron stumbled inside before he could demand what the bloody hell was going on, and he could only gape when Malfoy stopped pushing him to turn and lock the door behind them. There were no windows, so the washroom was pitch black for a second, until the yellow lights flickered on for them. 

 “What the hell,” Ron said. 

 “Have you seen the newspaper today?” Malfoy demanded. 

  “Why does everyone keep asking that? No! I don’t really read the bloody Daily Prophet, alright? I only ever read the sports section and sometimes the comics!” 

 “You wouldn’t be asking that if you’d seen the newspaper today.” 

 “Is it about that Gringotts robbery? Because Bill said that nothing was stolen-” 

 “It’s not about that. Look, it’s probably easier to just show you…” 

 The train car washroom was thankfully a decent size, probably made bigger by magic, so Ron and Malfoy weren’t pressed up against each other. It was even nicer than the washroom at the Burrow, actually, with a wide counter and a large mirror (though no showerstall or bathtub), and it smelled like flowers. Ron crossed his arms and decided to wait as Malfoy rummaged desperately through his satchel for a newspaper. 

 Which was somewhere underneath a hundred other things, it seemed like. After an increasingly awkward minute, Malfoy finally got his hands on the newspaper he was looking for (“Aha!”), and tugged impatiently. The Daily Prophet came free of the bag, but Malfoy’s crossword book, a half dozen writing utensils, a Sherbert Lemon, and another book spilled out and over the floor. 

 Malfoy stared in horror at the mess. Ron just rolled his eyes and bent down to pick it up. He collected the fallen-open books and all the pens and quills, then stood up and handed them back to Malfoy, who hastily swapped him the newspaper for them. 

 Ron unfurled the newspaper, which looked like Malfoy had picked it off the floor at some point - which was odd, because by looks alone, Ron would have sworn that Draco Malfoy had never picked anything off the floor in his life. Ron shook out the paper and was about to ask Malfoy what he ought to be looking for, but the words died in his throat. On the front of the Daily Prophet, in enormous letters, read: 

 

SIRIUS BLACK OUT OF AZKABAN

MASS-MURDERER FRAMED & INNOCENT? 

PETER PETTIGREW FOUND ALIVE & ARRESTED

 

 “Oh, Merlin,” Ron said. 

 “I can’t believe you hadn’t even seen the headlines this morning,” Malfoy said as he closed his satchel again, but he sounded sympathetic about it rather than snotty. “You need to read the article. It’s a bit long, but I think that you really need to read it.” 

 Ron didn’t have any words to argue with him, even though he wasn’t a fast reader. He flipped past the photo of the grungy, long-haired, screaming man who was apparently a prisoner of Azkaban and not a musician. This must have been what Lee had wanted to talk to Fred and George about. This had to be what Mrs. Kirke-Diggory had wanted to talk to Mum about. This was what Fred and George had wanted to talk to Ron about. 

 This is what everyone had been talking about. 

 Just under ten years ago, Ron slowly read, in November of 1981, a young wizard named Sirius Black had been sent to Azkaban for the murders of another young wizard named Peter Petergrew and twelve Muggles. Before he was blown up, so viciously that all was found of him was a pinky finger, Peter Pettigrew had announced that Sirius Black was the one who had betrayed James and Lily Potter to You-Know-Who. 

 Ron looked up at Malfoy. “Bloody hell, does Harry know this?” 

 “Please keep reading,” Malfoy said grimly, as though the worst was yet to come. 

 Uncertainly, Ron turned his attention back to the story, which continued to talk about how previous Department of Magical Law Enforcement Head Bartemius Crouch’s (now Head of the Department of International Magical Cooperation) hard-justice policies swiftly saw Black imprisoned for life, how Peter Pettigrew had been posthumously awarded an Order of Merlin, Third Class, and so on. It was a lot of technical Ministry mumbo-jumbo that usually flew a bit over Ron’s head unless he really focused. 

 The text wasn’t all that big and Ron’s head was starting to hurt a little from trying to follow it all over the page. “Can’t you just tell me the important stuff?” 

 Malfoy sighed and took the paper from him, using his finger to underline the important parts of the article as he summarized, “Early last month, a concerned citizen sent an anonymous letter to an unnamed Ministry official, saying that they had seen what they suspected was an unregistered Animagus.” 

 “Those are the wizards who can turn into animals, right?” 

 “Right. The Ministry official called the Aurors and caught the Animagus, because being an unregistered Animagus is illegal and also because the Animagus was staying with a wizard family who thought they were just an ordinary animal.” 

 Ron made a face. “That’s… really gross.” 

 “The Aurors agreed with you,” Malfoy assured him. “Nobody was expecting the illegal Animagus to turn out to be Peter Pettigrew.” 

 “The bloke everyone thought Sirius Black had killed?” 

 Malfoy nodded, continuing to point out bits and pieces of the article, and explained, “It turns out that Pettigrew cut off his own pinky finger to fake his death, which actually started a new investigation with surprising diligence and competence. Sirius Black has been taken out of Azkaban and is being held at the Ministry so he can answer the Aurors’ questions. Black is saying that Pettigrew was the one who betrayed the Potters all along, which is why Black was chasing him, and that Pettigrew is the one who blew up the street and killed all those Muggles.” 

 Ron looked back and forth between the paper and Malfoy’s grim face. “Well… well, of course he’d say that, wouldn’t he? He probably doesn’t want to go back to Azkaban.” 

 “That’s what a lot of people are saying,” Malfoy said. “But other people don’t think that Pettigrew faking his death only to hide with an unknowing wizard family as an illegal Animagus looks good. Black used to be James Potter’s best friend. His family might have been supporters of You-Know-Who, but Black ran away from home when he was fifteen and was considered a bloodtraitor.” 

 “So… he might be innocent? He might go free?”  

 “Maybe. The Ministry has been working on the case privately for the past few weeks, instead of shoving it all under the rug like one might expect, since the court Minister Fudge listens to most is the one of public opinion,” Malfoy said. “The story finally broke and it’s probably going to go on back and forth for months. I’ll be surprised if this is finished before Christmas. If Black is innocent and has been wrongfully imprisoned for ten years, lots of people are probably going to lose their jobs.” 

 Ron leaned back incredulously. “Bloody hell.” 

 “That’s one way to put it. Pettigrew is probably going to see time in Azkaban either way. Pretending to be an ordinary pet rat for ten years is suspicious.” 

 “Yeah- wait, did you say rat?” 

 Malfoy nodded, looking fixedly at the pictures in the paper. “Yes, Pettigrew’s Animagus form is a large, grey rat. Missing a toe, of course, since Pettigrew cut off one of his fingers to fake his death. It’s good that the Aurors were prepared, otherwise Pettigrew might have been able to escape again.” 

 “Right,” Ron said faintly. 

 Now, finally, he really understood why Lee Jordan and Mrs. Kirke-Diggory and the twins had wanted so urgently to talk. Finally, Ron understood why his parents had been so upset, why Bill had come home, and why Dad had been so busy at work lately. He knew why Scabbers had disappeared. He knew what had happened that had Percy periodically locking himself in washrooms and refusing to come out until he’d calmed down again.  

 What Ron Weasley didn’t understand was why no one had told him. 

 At the thought of Percy, Ron realized that his brother must have seen the newspaper after boarding the train! Maybe even during his prefects meeting! Percy had been taking Scabbers to Hogwarts for the past four years. Some people might read about Peter Pettigrew and remember that Percy Weasley had owned a large grey rat that was missing a toe! Was Percy alright? No one cared about reputation quite like Ron’s most ambitious brother, who probably already had a plan to be Minister someday. 

 Ron looked panickedly at Malfoy. He couldn’t remember what hints he might have dropped in front of Malfoy. He didn’t dare ask if Malfoy knew and give it away. And yet... when Malfoy met his eyes again, Ron was overcome with the sense that Malfoy somehow knew. 

 “The Ministry is committed to keeping the family’s privacy,” Malfoy said, looking down at the paper again. “It’s not easy finding out that your pet is an illegal Animagus, much less that they might be a mass-murderer and servant of You-Know-Who. The British magical press isn’t quite as good as respecting the privacy of underage wizards as the Bulgarian one, and some people might try to use this story against the family.” 

 Ron wasn’t sure if this made him more or less sure that Malfoy knew. 

 He wanted to shout. Scabbers was Peter Pettigrew?! In fact, Ron wanted more specifically to shout at someone: like Bill, or Fred and George, or his parents.

 Maybe not poor Percy. 

 “Why are you telling me this?” 

 “Because these unnecessary theatrics are all anyone’s been talking about all day and sooner or later someone is going to try to talk to Harry about it!” 

 “Oh. Oh, shit.” 

 “Exactly! Somehow, I don’t think his Muggle relatives get the Daily Prophet! Some insensitive idiot is going to ask Harry which of these two wizards he thinks really betrayed his parents, and Harry’s not going to have any idea what they’re talking about!” Malfoy looked ready to tear apart the newspaper in his hands at the very idea. “I’m not even certain that…” 

 “What?” 

 Malfoy leaned in, as though someone might overhear them, and said quietly, “I don’t think he even knows that Sirius Black is his godfather.” 

 Ron gaped. “Really?” 

 Malfoy nodded. “Really.” 

 So, either Harry Potter had a mass-murderer for a godfather or the pet rat who had very nearly been Ron’s was a mass-murderer. Ron didn’t like either of those options. Those were both awful options. No wonder Percy was a wreck. 

 “Is that in the paper?” Ron demanded. 

 “It’s not,” Malfoy assured him. 

 “It’s not? Then how do you even know that?” 

 “Because my mother is a Black. She and Sirius Black are cousins,” Malfoy admitted. “She and my father have been following this story surprisingly closely for weeks. I’m not sure if they want Black back in prison or out of it, but… family is family. If they can get Crouch denounced and Black out of prison, it sets precedent, and they might be able to get my… well, never mind. That’s not important.” 

 Malfoy sounded like he paid real attention when people talked politics at the supper table. Ron was starting to wish he’d paid more attention when the adults (and Percy) talked politics at the supper table. Malfoy sounded like he thought it was all important. 

 “Do you… think it’s likely Black really is innocent?” 

 “Seems a bit strange to go bloodtraitor and then change your mind. He’s got a few people lined up ready to listen to his story,” Malfoy said, pointing out quotes in the long article. “Rufus Scrimgeour - he’s the current Head of the D.M.L.E - keenly wants to know what really happened. Alastor Moody and Arnfried Holm were both Senior Aurors at the height of the war, and they don’t think much of Pettigrew pretending to be dead. Andromeda Tonks is here, which is surprising. She’s my aunt and another Black family bloodtraitor - I’m pretty sure she hasn’t spoken to my mother in over ten years. Albus Dumbledore is quoted here at length. The last head of the D.M.L.E. wasn’t available for comment - no surprise there, after Scrimgeour’s decided wholly of his own accord to pay unexpected visit to his home last week-” 

 “What?” 

 “Never mind, I don’t think that’s public yet. It’ll come out sometime in the next few months, probably quite soon judging by this piece of work. Why have just one scandal about a rat? No, it’s got to all go bloody raving mad. Let’s give everyone a second chance to talk their way out of Azkaban!” 

 Ron hadn’t been expecting Malfoy to start cursing, though he wasn’t wrong. 

 “Er, yeah,” Ron said. 

 Malfoy took a deep, deeply frustrated breath. 

 "Is... Sorry, but do you think Sirius Black getting out is a good or bad thing?" Ron asked. 

 “Good, if he's innocent. Anyway, in the meantime, someone will have to tell Harry about all this,” Malfoy finished firmly, offering the paper back to Ron. 

 Ron took the newspaper gingerly. “Why can’t it be you?” 

 “I’ve spent just as much time with him as you have, maybe less, and I have no idea how to talk to him about any of this.” 

 “And I do? I’m not his friend. You at least know what you’re talking about!” 

 “Now so do you! Weasley, he’s going to need someone who can be there for him all the time! I can tell him the facts, but I don’t know how he’s going to feel about any of this.” 

 “Neither do I!” 

 “I’m sure you’ll manage! It has to be you! The best thing for me to do here is take Crabbe and Goyle back to our compartment up the train, so you can have a nice, private talk with a boy who right now needs a better friend than me!” 

 Ron stared at Malfoy. 

 Malfoy stared back like he couldn’t believe what he’d just said. 

 After several seconds, Malfoy pulled himself carefully back again and straightened himself, fixing his hair and robes and satchel back into place. As though trying to clean up any evidence of this conversation. Then he cleared his throat and, despite being several inches shorter, looked Ron squarely in the eye. 

 “I’m going to take Crabbe and Goyle back to our compartment now,” he said. 

 “...Sounds good,” Ron agreed. 

 “Let’s go back now. If anyone asks, I needed to ask your brother about whether it was possible to get permission from Madam Hooch to keep a broomstick at the school as a first year,” Malfoy said, unlocking the door and stepping back into the corridor. 

 Ron followed. “Is it possible?” 

 “I don’t know. Let’s say we couldn’t find him.” 

 “Alright.” 

 Ron closed the washroom door behind them, the Daily Prophet newspaper in hand, as Malfoy rummaged around in his satchel and pulled out his crossword book again. As they set off back down the train again, Ron saw the same short, bushy-haired girl from earlier coming from the opposite direction, regarding them with open suspicion. 

 “What were the two of you doing in there?” she demanded, once she was close enough. 

 “Private conversation,” Ron said shortly. 

 “Our compartment has three other people in it,” Malfoy explained, looking up from scribbling in the margins of his book to give her a brief smile. “Good day.” 

 “Good day,” the girl replied, as they passed each other. 

 Once she was far enough away, Ron said, “Do you think Crabbe and Goyle have said anything to Harry about… uh... “ He shook the newspaper slightly. “...this?” 

 “Crabbe and Goyle don’t read the newspaper,” Malfoy answered amusedly. 

 “But they might’ve heard their parents say something, right?” 

 “Maybe,” Malfoy admitted, dropping his pen into his book and closing it. “Even if they did, though, I told Cr- Vincent and Gregory that they had to be on their best behaviour today. They can say some… stupid things sometimes. Their parents - and mine - have some ideas about... some wizards being better than others.” 

 “They’re Muggle-haters,” Ron said flatly. 

 Malfoy sighed. “Yes.” 

 “They used to work for You-Know-Who.” 

 “Also true.” 

 “But you say you’re not a Muggle-hater,” Ron pressed on. “People sometimes call my family bloodtraitors for that.” 

“I’m still figuring out how to tell my parents. Look, Weasley: if they had any idea I was rubbing elbows out with the ‘wrong sort’, they might lose their heads and ship me off to Durmstrang or something. I wouldn’t be able to do anything to stop them. I’m on thin ice with their ‘concern’ as it is. Look how pale I am. Does this look like a face that needs even less sunlight?” 

 Ron snorted. “Definitely not. If it’s such a bad idea for you to be hanging out with us, though, why are you doing it?” 

 “At the end of the day, I still need friends,” Malfoy answered. 

 There was no easy answer for that. There weren’t any easy answers to much of anything about Draco Malfoy, Ron found himself thinking. The boy was scary smart, obviously, and he lied very easily. 

 Ron didn’t have any energy to figure Malfoy out, though, not when he was still embarrassed by and furious with his family for keeping him in the dark about Peter Pettigrew. He’d almost been given an illegal Animagus for a pet! How had no one noticed they’d had a person pretending to be a rat in their house? Ron wanted to send his own Howler home. He also wanted to rush up the train, find Percy, and apologize to him for being so short with him for the past month now that he knew everything. 

 But Ron had to figure out how to tell Harry Potter that his godfather had been sent to prison for mass-murder, but maybe wasn’t a mass-murderer after all and might be let go. Which wasn’t even getting started on the real mass-murderer maybe being the pet rat Ron was supposed to have brought to Hogwarts. 

 Still, Ron looked at Malfoy beside him, as though he’d somehow be able to see everything he was missing. But it didn’t explain anything about the boy. 

 “Why are you writing in a crossword book like that if you’ve got a perfectly good diary with you?” Ron asked him. The book that had dropped out of Malfoy’s satchel earlier had been a bit worn, but all the pages that Ron had seen were blank. 

 Malfoy didn’t answer immediately. “...It’s an old sketchbook I never used. I’m just using this book for notes and doodling.” 

 Ron didn’t consider himself an artist, so he accepted this, even though he thought there would have been a lot more room for everything in the blank pages of that worn book. They had also finally reached their compartment again. More important things took up space in Ron’s head as he slid open the door and came back inside. 

 “Hello,” Harry said, obviously glad to see them again. “Did you find him?” 

 “No, but it wasn’t that important. We’ll have to find him some other time,” Malfoy replied. “Vincent, Gregory, I think we should go back to our other compartment now.” 

 “What?” 

 “Why?” 

 “Ron and Harry will have to change into their school uniforms shortly,” Malfoy said, in a voice that didn’t allow for any argument. “Let’s go.”  

 Crabbe and Goyle got up a little reluctantly, collecting what few sweets they had left from their piles of discarded wrappers. The three boys then bid Harry and Ron farewell. Crabbe and Goyle’s goodbyes were intelligible and genuine this time, and Ron found his own goodbyes were sincere as well. He’d had fun with them. 

 “We’ll see you again at the Hogsmeade platform, before the Welcoming Feast,” Malfoy promised. “I hope the both of you are Sorted into Gryffindor, like your parents were; I think it’ll suit you. Bravery and chivalry and all that. Best of luck to you there.” 

 “Thanks,” Ron said. 

 “I hope you also get into the House you want,” Harry returned politely. 

 “Thank you, and thank you for letting us sit with you. Goodbye, Harry, Ron! Come along, Vincent, Gregory. You two need to clean up some in one of the washrooms and we’ve been gone from our other compartment for long enough. I’m surprised they haven’t already sent out a search party for us!” 

 “I don’t want to sit with Pansy again,” Crabbe grumbled. 

 “She’s just-” 

 The door closed before they could hear what Malfoy’s full answer to that was. The three boys disappeared down the corridor, leaving Harry and Ron alone again. Ron thought about switching sides again, to face Harry properly, but Crabbe and Goyle had left an awful lot of sweets wrappers behind them. 

 “They seemed in a hurry,” Harry said. 

 “I guess. What do you talk about while we were gone?” Ron asked. 

 “It started with every weird Every-Flavour Bean that Vincent and Gregory had ever eaten,” Harry said amusedly. “Then when they asked I told them about every Muggle sweet I could remember, and they told me about every wizard sweet they could remember.” 

 That was better than what Ron had talked to Malfoy about. 

 “Er, Harry. Have you ever read the Daily Prophet?” 

 “That’s the wizard newspaper, right? I’ve seen bits and pieces of it. Why?” 

 “Well…” Ron offered the newspaper in his hand to Harry. “There’s a story that you probably ought to see before someone asks you about it. Have you… have you ever heard about a bloke named Sirius Black?” 

 “‘Serious Black’?” Harry repeated. “No, I don’t think so.” 

 Then Harry unfolded the newspaper and looked at the headlines. 

 “Oh,” he said. 

 Harry re-read the headlines several times and stared, for nearly a minute, at the photograph of Sirius Black on the front page. “Azkaban is… wizard jail,” he said finally. “And this guy isn’t in jail anymore? Why would someone ask me about it? Is this what you and Malfoy were really talking about?” 

 Oh, Harry Potter really needed a proper friend to talk to him about all this. Someone who knew what they were talking about or someone who knew the right things to say to make other people feel better. Unfortunately, all Harry had now was a near-stranger in Ron. 

 “Er, well, yes. I didn’t know about this either, since I hadn’t seen the paper today, but we figured that you probably hadn’t heard of any this, since you live with Muggles and all, which wouldn’t… maybe it’s better if you just read the story first? Because I might mix things up.” 

 Harry opened the paper and began to read, while Ron watched uncomfortably. It didn’t take long before Harry’s eyes widened in shock. 

 “He helped Voldemort kill my parents?” 

 “Well, it turns out that maybe not? The bloke he was supposed to have killed isn’t actually dead, they found out, so maybe it was this Peter Pettigrew person.” 

 Harry looked so upset that Ron couldn’t help but desperately confess: “Pettigrew is an illegal Animagus and I just found out that he spent the past ten years pretending to be my brother Percy’s pet rat. You can’t tell anyone though, because Percy might actually have a nervous breakdown if everyone finds out. Or I might have a nervous breakdown because my family almost gave me a mass-murderer for a pet!” 

 It felt very good to get all this off his chest. Ron also regretted it nearly at once. 

 “He pretended to be a rat for ten years?” Harry said. 

 “Apparently!” 

 “Why?” 

 “I wish I knew. No good reason, probably.” 

 Harry slowly read his way through the rest of the article, stopping occasionally to ask things like “What’s an Animagus exactly?” and “What’s an Auror?” Ron answered every question as best he could. When Harry was done, he carefully folded the newspaper up again and let it down into his lap. 

 “So, they’re going to try and figure out which one is the real traitor and murderer,” Harry said finally. “Which… which one do you think it is?” 

 “I dunno. It could be either of them.” 

 It was hard to reconcile the old, fat rat sleeping around the house with a person. Ron had to wonder if being an animal that long made a person a bit funny in the head. All the stories he’d ever had read to him said bad things about transforming into an animal and getting stuck that way - they said wizards and witches could forget what it was like to be a person over the years of being in the wrong shape. At least until they got some emotional reminder like True Love or some rot. 

 Blech. 

 “Oh,” Ron remembered. “Er, this isn’t in the newspaper, but you probably ought to know: Malfoy said that Sirius Black was your dad’s best mate and is also your godfather. He knows because his mum is Black’s cousin or something.” 

 “My… I have a godfather?” 

 “Some people do.” 

 “What does that mean even? Godfather?” 

 “I think it’s like an honorary uncle sort of thing mostly. We don’t need them in my family: I have too many uncles and aunts on my Dad’s side as it is.” 

 “...Why didn’t Malfoy just tell me all this himself?” 

 “I don’t think he wanted to talk about it in front of Crabbe and Goyle.” 

 “Oh. That makes sense.” 

 “So… he told me… so I could tell you before we got to school and anything started asking nosy questions. I’m sorry, Harry. This isn’t the sort of news anyone wants to get when they’re on their way to school for the first time.” 

 “It’s not your fault,” Harry said. “Besides, when I got my letter and Hagrid told me I was a wizard, I also found out that my parents were murdered by Lord Voldemort. I’d never heard of him before. My aunt and uncle told me that my parents died in a car crash. So… this sort of isn’t the first time this has happened to me, I guess.” 

 Ron gaped at him. “You didn’t know about You-Know-Who?” 

 “No. Oh, shoot, I should be calling him that, shouldn’t I? I forgot again.” 

 “You don’t have to. You can call him whatever you want.” 

 If anyone could say You-Know-Who’s name, it was the Boy-Who-Lived. 

  “Your aunt and uncle really told you that your parents died in a car crash? That’s awful. My parents barely talk about the war at all,” Ron said sympathetically. “They’ve known for the past month that Scabbers was Peter Pettigrew and didn’t tell me! Or Fred and George. Or Ginny. They probably thought it was for our own good.” 

 “I wonder if my aunt and uncle knew that I had a godfather,” Harry said, looking down at the photograph of Sirius Black again. “They probably did. Except they probably would’ve loved to tell me that my dad’s best mate was a criminal, so maybe they didn’t.” 

 “Sorry,” Ron said again, though he didn’t know what he was apologizing for. 

 Harry’s Muggle relatives just sounded terrible. 

 “It’s alright. I promise not to tell anyone about the Scabbers thing by the way. No wonder your brother locked himself in the washroom when he saw this. That’s an awful thing to have happen to you.” 

 “Yeah.” 

 Ron was a little bit glad though, in a guilty sort of way, that all this had come out before anyone had given Scabbers to him. Any pet was definitely not better than no pet at all. 

 “I guess I’ll have to start getting the wizard newspaper if I want to keep up with this,” Harry said. “Do you know how I can get a subscription?” 

 “I think you just have to write to the Daily Prophet? I bet they’ve got their address and instructions printed somewhere in there. That’s a good idea. It means this stuff won’t take you by surprise anymore! You could probably also just borrow someone else’s paper, though, since it costs money. I bet plenty of people at Hogwarts get a copy.” 

 “I want my own copy,” Harry said firmly. “I have money for it now. I’ll send a letter with Hedwig as soon as I get to the school. How long do you think before we get there?” 

 Ron looked out the window at the unfamiliar scenery. The sun was sinking towards the horizon, occasionally disappearing behind the tall trees and taller hills. The sky looked like it was on the edge of starting its change. 

 “Dunno. It feels like we’ve been on this train forever. Another hour? We could ask.” 

 “Draco said we should get changed into our school uniforms soon. Maybe we should do that now,” Harry said as he stood up to close the compartment curtains. 

 They helped each other get their trunks down, changed into their school uniforms, and put them up again. Harry’s robes were just as new and nice as Ron had thought they might be, while Ron’s robes were just as old and faded (and disheartening) as he remembered. He was probably going to stick out of the crowd of first-years like a sore thumb. The only thing he and Harry still had in common was their worn shoes. 

 Harry was being the quietest that Ron had ever seen him. 

 “I’m sorry to have to tell you all that, Harry,” Ron said, after they’d sat down again. 

 “Thanks, but I’m alright. It doesn’t really feel real yet.” 

 “I feel the same way about the Peter Pettigrew pet rat thing! Even when you grow up with magic, sometimes you just look at every weird thing out there and wonder why it’s all like that. Maybe it’ll feel more real tomorrow. I kind of hope not, though.” 

 Harry snorted. “Yeah.” 

 Harry Potter looked small to Ron, against the windows outside, like any other kid off to his first year at Hogwarts. He also looked alone. Ron couldn’t imagine what it was like having no parents and no siblings and only some terrible Muggle relatives for family. Ron Weasley didn’t have any friends - not close friends of his very own - but he had his family, who could be just as good as friends. Harry Potter at the moment, despite his fame, didn’t seem to have a single friend in all the world. 

 It seemed wrong. It felt like Ron’s assumption had to be wrong, because it was too presumptive to be true. Surely, Harry Potter had someone . He didn’t need Ron. Harry was nice and funny and the Boy-Who-Lived. But Ron was the only one here and all he could see was an unexpected, uncomfortable wealth of difference between them. 

 Well, so, maybe now Harry Potter did have someone. Even if he didn’t know it, Harry now had Ron Weasley, if he wanted him. 

 And possibly sincerely, of all people, the odd boy named Draco Malfoy. Who’d left. 

 So it was all on Ron. 

 “Hey, can I see that newspaper again? I want to see if I can find that Quidditch story that Fred and George were talking about: about that kid who might end up playing for the Bulgarians. ‘Victor Crumb’? Merlin, can you imagine playing professionally before you’re even out of school? Some people said my brother Charlie was good enough to play for England, but he decided he’d rather skip the country without even passing his Apparition Test so he could go chase dragons instead.” 

 With one last look at the photographs on the front page, Harry handed the newspaper over. “Apparition Test?” he repeated awkwardly. 

 “It’s how most wizards travel, but you have to be seventeen to get a licence for it and they don’t recommend Side-Along for underage wizards until they’re like… fifteen or something.” Ron tried to think how to explain it to someone who’d been raised by Muggles. “Basically you imagine yourself somewhere you want to go, concentrate really hard, and then pop! You appear there.” 

 “Oh, I’ve done that! That explains a lot actually.” 

 “Wait, you’ve Apparated?” 

 “Not on purpose,” Harry said defensively. 

 They talked about Apparition and broomsticks and travelling by magic carpets - all the ways a wizard could whisk themselves off to the most marvelous places - as the world darkened around them. Yellow lights came on in their compartment and the train corridor. Outside the window, mountains and forests loomed underneath a deep-purple sky. 

 “Is the train beginning to slow?” Harry asked. 

 “I think so.” 

 There was a whistle and then from a pipe near the ceiling, a woman’s voice echoed through the train, startling them both: “We will be reaching Hogwarts in five minutes’ time. Please leave your luggage on the train, it will be taken to the school separately.” 

 Harry and Ron stood up, shoving the last of the sweets in the robe pockets, and Ron stood on the seats to shove the Daily Prophet into his trunk. After Ron hopped down again, they looked at each other. Harry looked as nervous as Ron felt. 

 “Well… this is it,” Ron said. 

 They were here. 

 He could see people spilling out into the corridor already, even though they hadn’t stopped yet. The murmur of noise came up against their compartment door. For all Ron knew, every last person out there was still talking about Peter Pettigrew and Sirius Black. 

 Harry smiled tightly. “This is it,” he agreed. 

 “Then let’s go. I think we might be able to see bits of the local magical village while pulling into the station,” Ron said, talking over his nerves, as he opened the door and led the way out. “It’s called Hogsmeade. We’re not old enough to visit it on weekends yet, so we should have a look while we can, right?” 

 “Yeah, I’ve never seen a wizard village before,” Harry agreed, and followed him. “How far is Hogwarts from here?” 

 “Just a boat ride across the lake away.” 

 “Is… um… is that the lake with the Giant Squid that Crabbe mentioned?” 

 “I think so? Fred and George told me that it only eats a few new students every year, but they’re probably lying. Charlie says it’s friendly, but who knows what that means? He thinks most things trying to chew his fingers off are just being friendly,” Ron joked, until he noticed just how alarmed Harry’s expression had gotten. “I’m kidding. They wouldn’t take us across the lake if it wasn’t safe, right?” 

 Harry nodded. “Right.” 

 “Besides,” Ron said, nudging his shoulder. “You’re with me! They wouldn’t dare let anything happen to me. Mum would march right up to the school and raise hell if anything happened to me - and Dad and Bill too, probably - so you just have to stick close.” 

 Harry smiled at him. “I can do that.”