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A violently purple, triple-decker bus had appeared out of thin air in front of them, narrowly avoiding the nearest lamppost, which jumped backwards out of its way.
A thin, pimply, jug-eared youth in a purple uniform leapt down on to the pavement and said, УWelcome to theЧФ
УYes, yes, we know, thank you,Ф said Tonks swiftly. УOn, on, get onЧФ
And she shoved Harry forwards towards the steps, past the conductor, who goggled at Harry as he passed.
УIf you shout his name I will curse you into oblivion,Ф muttered Tonks menacingly, now shunting Ginny and Hermione forwards.
УIТve always wanted to go on this thing,Ф said Ron happily, joining Harry on board and looking around.
It had been evening the last time Harry had travelled by Knight Bus and its three decks had been full of brass bedsteads. Now, in the early morning, it was crammed with an assortment of mismatched chairs grouped haphazardly around windows. Some of these appeared to have fallen over when the bus stopped abruptly in Grimmauld Place; a few witches and wizards were still getting to their feet, grumbling, and somebodyТs shopping bag had slid the length of the bus: an unpleasant mixture of frogspawn, cockroaches and custard creams was scattered all over the floor.
УLooks like weТll have to split up,Ф said Tonks briskly, looking around for empty chairs. УFred, George and Ginny, if you just take those seats at the backЕ Remus can stay with you.Ф
She, Harry, Ron and Hermione proceeded up to the very top deck, where there were two unoccupied chairs at the very front of the bus and two at the back. Stan Shunpike, the conductor, followed Harry and Ron eagerly to the back. Heads turned as Harry passed and, when he sat down, he saw all the faces flick back to the front again.
As Harry and Ron handed Stan eleven Sickles each, the bus set off again, swaying ominously. It rumbled around Grimmauld Place, weaving on and off the pavement, then, with another tremendous BANG, they were all flung backwards; RonТs chair toppled right over and Pigwidgeon, who had been on his lap, burst out of his cage and flew twittering wildly up to the front of the bus where he fluttered down on to HermioneТs shoulder instead. Harry, who had narrowly avoided falling by seizing a candle bracket, looked out of the window: they were now speeding down what appeared to be a motorway.
УJust outside Birmingham,Ф said Stan happily, answering HarryТs unasked question as Ron struggled up from the floor. УYou keepinТ well, then, ТArry? I seen your name in the paper loads over the summer, but it werenТt never nuffink very nice. I said to Ern, I said, Тe didnТt seem like a nutter when we met Тim, just goes to show, dunnit?Ф
He handed over their tickets and continued to gaze, enthralled, at Harry. Apparently, Stan did not care how nutty somebody was, if they were famous enough to be in the paper. The Knight Bus swayed alarmingly, overtaking a line of cars on the inside. Looking towards the front of the bus, Harry saw Hermione cover her eyes with her hands, Pigwidgeon swaying happily on her shoulder.
Chairs slid backwards again as the Knight Bus jumped from the Birmingham motorway to a quiet country lane full of hairpin bends. Hedgerows on either side of the road were leaping out of their way as they mounted the verges. From here they moved to a main street in the middle of a busy town, then to a viaduct surrounded by tall hills, then to a windswept road between high-rise flats, each time with a loud BANG.
УIТve changed my mind,Ф muttered Ron, picking himself up from the floor for the sixth time, УI never want to ride on this thing again.Ф
УListen, itТs ТOgwarts stop after this,Ф said Stan brightly, swaying towards them. That bossy woman up front Тoo got on with you, sheТs given us a little tip to move you up the queue. WeТre just gonna let Madam Marsh off first, thoughЧФ there was a retching sound from downstairs, followed by a horrible spattering noise УЧsheТs not feeling Тer best.Ф
A few minutes later, the Knight Bus screeched to a halt outside a small pub, which squeezed itself out of the way to avoid a collision. They could hear Stan ushering the unfortunate Madam Marsh out of the bus and the relieved murmurings of her fellow passengers on the second deck. The bus moved on again, gathering speed, untilЧBANG.
They were rolling through a snowy Hogsmeade. Harry caught a glimpse of the HogТs Head down its side street, the severed boarТs head sign creaking in the wintry wind. Flecks of snow hit the large window at the front of the bus. At last they rolled to a halt outside the gates to Hogwarts.
Lupin and Tonks helped them off the bus with their luggage, then got off to say goodbye. Harry glanced up at the three decks of the Knight Bus and saw all the passengers staring down at them, noses flat against the windows.
УYouТll be safe once youТre in the grounds,Ф said Tonks, casting a careful eye around at the deserted road. УHave a good term, OK?Ф
УLook after yourselves,Ф said Lupin, shaking hands all round and reaching Harry last. УAnd listenЕФ he lowered his voice while the rest of them exchanged last-minute goodbyes with Tonks, УHarry, I know you donТt like Snape, but he is a superb Occlumens and we allЧSirius includedЧwant you to learn to protect yourself, so work hard, all right?Ф
УYeah, all right,Ф said Harry heavily, looking up into LupinТs prematurely lined face. УSee you, then.Ф
The six of them struggled up the slippery drive towards the castle, dragging their trunks. Hermione was already talking about knitting a few elf hats before bedtime. Harry glanced back when they reached the oaken front doors; the Knight Bus had already gone and he half-wished, given what was coming the following evening, that he was still on board.
* * *
Harry spent most of the next day dreading the evening. His morning double-Potions lesson did nothing to dispel his trepidation, as Snape was as unpleasant as ever. His mood was further lowered by the D.A. members constantly approaching him in the corridors between classes, asking hopefully if there would be a meeting that night.
УIТll let you know in the usual way when the next one is,Ф Harry said over and over again, Уbut I canТt do it tonight, IТve got to go toЧerЧremedial Potions.Ф
УYou take remedial Potions!Ф asked Zacharias Smith superciliously, having cornered Harry in the Entrance Hall after lunch. УGood Lord, you must be terrible. Snape doesnТt usually give extra lessons, does he?Ф