Naturally Platform 9 3/4's was almost riotous on September 1st. Lily had to crane her neck, calling inquiries to several acquaintances, before catching sight of her friends.

Marlene and Mary stood together but it took a moment for Lily to recognize the latter.

Dorcas, joining the pair just as Lily did, got the first comment in. "What did you do? You look amazing!"

Lily agreed enthusiastically. Mary touched her previously mousy hair, lightened and brightened to a golden blond with metallic highlights that literally glowed. She preened at her friends' approval. "The color's a potion but then I used this charm on top of it. Would you believe I learned it from my grandmother?"

Who'd apparently had a wild youth, wild enough that Mary's spoilsport parents had forbidden the older witch from sharing her best stories. "At least when they're around to stop her," Mary said with a wink.

The girls laughed and continued catching up as they walked towards the Hogwarts Express, until Mary stopped abruptly.

Anthony Mulciber was leaning by the nearest entrance to the train.

Noticing her expression, the darkly freckled Slytherin offered the girls a two fingered salute, then stepped away from the train, waving them in with an exaggerated bow.

"What did you ever see in him?" Dorcas asked, keeping her voice too soft to carry.

"He's not Black handsome but he's certainly fit," Marlene said. "He's gotten even taller than last year, hasn't he?"

Lily agreed that he was. "He's got to be six and a half feet by now."

Mulciber's face eased into a wide grin and he walked away, calling, "Avery!"

"Might be worth the climb," Dorcas said thoughtfully, watching him.

"He's fine if you like them big and thick," Lily said with a sniff, only to wince when two of her friends made knowing noises.

"Well, Mary?" Marlene asked, arching a suggestive brow. "Can you confirm that? Is Mulciber really thick?"

The blond's face went pink as they began their search for an empty compartment. "We only went out twice!"

"You only need to see it once," Dorcas said with a shrug.

"Ugh," Lily exclaimed as they settled into their chosen space, one where they had a view of the platform. "I'd rather not even imagine that, thank you very much."

Through the window, they could see Avery and Mulciber greeting Snape. He was in better robes than he usually wore, but they didn't appear to be new.

Is he trying to make some point? Sev worked all summer, he could have bought new for once! He's too bloody minded for his own good.

Lily had to remind herself that Snape's problems had nothing to do with her any more. She still winced inwardly when Marlene followed her gaze and said with a smirk, "There's one we don't need to imagine."

"I was posting my letter home," Mary said. Sounding envious, she added, "Missed the whole thing. Did they really...?"

"Stripped him bare arsed," Dorcas confirmed. "Not a bad one for a skinny bloke."

"Shame it's attached to the rest of him," Marlene said.

Lily didn't join in the laughter and failed to fight down a vestige of guilt. As a prefect, hadn't she been obliged to do more than she had? She hadn't even informed a professor of the attack. It had been ended by the caretaker, Filch, who'd been fetched by a first year student.

Potter's gang was settling into the compartment across from theirs. None of the boys greeted the girls boisterously through the open door as they usually would, although Lupin called a polite greeting. Potter seemed to shake himself awake and offered them a smile, but he was more subdued than Lily had ever seen him. Black was scowling as he glared through the girls' window towards the platform. Pettigrew chivvied him into their chosen compartment with some nervous sounding words about a game of Exploding Snap.

"What's wrong with them?" Dorcas wondered after the boys' door slammed shut.

"Potter and Black both missed summer Quidditch this year," Marlene said, "and my parents said Gideon Prewitt wrote the Potters about James and Sirius after their bit of fun by the lake. Gran's an old friend of his mum, you know. Says she was devastated her precious boy could be so nasty. I tried to tell her what Snape is really like, that he's hardly some innocent lamb. I don't think she wanted to hear it."

Lily refrained from saying that Snape hadn't done anything to merit their attack that day. Surely his insult when she intervened had proven what he was really like?

"Why would Prewitt write the Potters about Black?" Dorcas asked. "Why not his family?"

"His parents tossed him out last year," Marlene said.

Mary looked puzzled. "I thought he ran away."

"That's his version," Dorcas replied. "He might be lying."

"Either way, it's Black's business, not ours," Lily told them firmly, "although I'd think from the way he talked about them he's glad to be elsewhere."

A silence descended when the snack trolley passed by and the girls purchased an assortment of treats. Potter was doing the same, but this once didn't offer to pay for theirs, apparently still distracted by whatever was bothering him.

When they'd settled in again, with the door shut this time, Dorcas said, "They might be worried about Potter Senior."

"Why?" Mary asked, sucking on a sugar quill.

Marlene replied. "He's started brewing again. Old Fleamont pretty much retired when James was born. The Potters considered him their miracle baby, you know. They'd all but given up on a family from what my relatives say."

Lily supposed that explained some of Potter's arrogance. He really had been the center of his parents' universe. "Why should his brewing again concern anyone? James is away most of the year. Isn't it natural he'd go back to work if it's dull at home?"

"He's not just brewing. He's doing research." Marlene picked among the Bertie Botts Every Flavour Beans she'd poured into her hand before putting one in her mouth. She wrinkled her nose and swallowed quickly. "Asparagus. I gather that Skelegrow was considered a bit of a fluke when the Potters created it, and old Fleamont is best known for his cosmetic potions. Sleekeezy is what set them up for life, you know."

"I don't see the problem," Dorcas said. "It's still just brewing."

"Experimenting isn't anything like following a recipe," Lily said. "Sev says you need almost a feel for the potential interactions. Just look what simple mistakes can do in potions lab." She fought down a hint of nostalgia when she thought of her Severus's tirades about his Head of House's easygoing attitude towards mistakes. Professor Slughorn was a wonderful man, but he did allow himself to be distracted too easily, Lily had to admit.

She caught Mary's knowing, concerned look and put thoughts of her former friend aside. "What's he researching?" she asked.

"He wants to cure Dragon Pox." Marlene grinned at their gasps of shock.

"You can't muck about with something that dangerous!" Dorcas said.

"They say the Pox can't be cured," Lily added. "Does he really think he can find something St. Mungo's hasn't managed to?"

"Curing Dragon Pox would be quite the coup," Mary said thoughtfully. "No one could say he's just a cosmetic brewer then, could they?"

Marlene sniffed in a distinctly Petunia-like way. "You make him sound like a Slytherin."

"Curing a deadly illness isn't bad as ambition goes," Lily said. "Even if it is purely pride, and we don't know that that is his reason. He may simply want to save lives.

She recognized a small blond boy in muggle clothing and smiled, pointing him out. "Oh good. Murphy came back, after all. He wasn't pleased with having magic and was always talking about going back to school in what he calls the real world."

He'd also seemed to take the incident by the lake terribly, almost as if he'd been victimized himself.

A black boy with an impressive afro, also dressed in muggle clothing, was with him. "I try to get to know every muggleborn," she said, "but I don't remember the tall one. Do any of you know him?"

He was younger and not a Gryffindor, so there were disinterested denials, then Mary frowned and squinted at the boys. "I think he's pure," she said. "I'd swear that boy's a Fremont. They're related to the Shacklebolts."

Marlene moved closer to the window to peer out. "You could be right. Skinny as a bean, isn't he? Nothing like the Shacklebolt boys. My sister dated the younger one in school, you know."

"Really?" Mary grinned around at them. "Maybe he'll turn out gorgeous too, then. That Kingsley is awfully handsome."

That topic died when they saw Wilkes approach the boys, easily identifiable by his lifeless pale hair and ruddy complexion. He said something awful to them if Murphy's reddening face was any indication.

"I should do something," Lily said, rising to slip out.

"Snape just joined them," Dorcas said nervously, making Lily turn back to see.

His hand was on Murphy's shoulder but he was facing Wilkes, whose pink face was turning beetlike at whatever his housemate had said. Snape said something else, managing that trick he had of towering over the taller boy by sheer attitude, and the Slytherin turned and slunk off.

Murphy turned and hugged Snape tightly, grinning up at her former friend in a way Lily hadn't imagined he could smile.

"You said he's muggleborn, Lily?"

"Yes. The way Sev, Snape," she corrected herself, "talks, I can't begin to understand why Murphy is so pleased to see him."

"It's strange," Dorcas agreed.

When Murphy pulled back, looking as if he'd just remembered to be embarrassed at his own action, Snape laughed, making Lily wonder when she'd last seen him do that. Not last year, certainly. It felt as if they'd argued almost daily.

Mulciber and Avery joined the group and they all moved to board the train.

Lily was baffled. Why are those aspiring Death Eaters acting so friendly towards a muggleborn? "I don't like it," she said. "What are they up to?"

"Maybe they're recruiting for You Know Who," Mary said softly. "He doesn't care who follows him as long as they believe."

"Why would any muggleborn believe in Him?" Dorcas wondered. "People are missing! The Prophet says.. "

Marlene cut her off. "The Prophet's rubbish. Everyone knows there are four lies for every fact."

"That's not true," Mary said. "They exaggerate, but there's usually a kernel of truth in what they publish."

The four discussed articles from The Prophet the others had read over the holidays. Lily, the only one with no contact with the magical world during the summer, felt horribly out of touch. "I wish you'd told me," she scolded at one point. "We wrote, and Dorcas, you have a telephone. We talked for an hour at a time!"

"Who wants to think about all that ?" Mary asked. "I did read the paper, but most of the time I wanted to enjoy the holiday. We went to Denmark for three weeks. It's lovely there."

The political talk faded away, although Marlene shared a look with Lily that promised they'd talk again later, just the two of them if necessary.