‘Are you sure he’s definitely asleep this time?’ Theo smiled, wryly, as he watched his friend and flatmate gently close his bedroom door.
Greg rolled his eyes. ‘Muffliato,’ he whispered, pointing to the door handle. ‘Safe either way.’
‘I remember there was another orphan kid once,’ Theo recalled, airily. ‘About eighty years ago, I think it was. He didn’t like people much, either.’
‘Oh, bugger off, Theo.’ Greg planted himself onto one of the long, black sofas of the front room. ‘He just needs some time to get used to it.’ The man crossed his legs over the armrest at the end of the sofa.
‘So why isn’t he getting to know the other kids, then?’ Theo persisted. ‘They’re only going to help him, aren’t they?’
‘He’s had three days,’ Greg shot back, ‘and he knows he’s going to meet the others again tomorrow, on the Express.’
Theo grimaced. ‘Still,’ he argued, ‘You’d think he might like to get to know them.’
‘I reckon it’s still too soon,’ the teacher reasoned. ‘He’ll still be thinking about Connor,’ Greg suggested. ‘I don’t know if I could have had that conversation... leaving my best mate, and lying to him about it as well. Hell,’ he shook his head. ‘It was hard enough just listening to it.’
‘Doesn’t that worry you, though, mate?’ Theo winced. ‘That he could do that, at his age, and hold it together?’
‘He didn’t hold it together,’ Greg’s voice faded. ‘We got back, and he cracked. Locked himself in the bathroom for half an hour. He’s not a robot.’
Theo nodded, slowly. ‘You never said.’
‘I didn’t want to think about it.’ Greg sighed, before cursing aloud. ‘That’s not what I should be doing, is it? It’s not about me any more, it’s about the kids...’
Theo’s answer came quietly. ‘They’ve not let you learn the easy way, have they?’
‘Never did, did they?’ Greg laughed, hollowly, ‘Our first year was hardly straightforward, was it?’
‘Still, Dan trusts you, though, doesn’t he?’ Theo tried to steer the conversation elsewhere.
The teacher grunted, feebly. ‘Like that counts for anything,’ he dismissed his friend’s thought.
‘Of course it does,’ Theo argued back. ‘Do you think he’d ever have got back on that broom this afternoon otherwise?’
‘What was it you said to him the other day? Don’t give you that shit about being useless? You’re the same sometimes, Greg.’
‘I haven’t done anything,’ the teacher protested.
‘Sure,’ Theo rolled his eyes. ‘It’s just luck that a kid who doesn’t trust anyone has started to believe in you.’ He paused. ‘Sometimes, when you do things right, people won't be sure you've done anything at all.’
Greg nodded, slowly. ‘I suppose,’ he admitted. ‘Who said that?’
‘I dunno,’ Theo smiled. ‘I heard it on a repeat of Futurama last night.’ He broke into a laugh, and his friend couldn’t help but join in. ‘You’d better be careful, though,’ the blond man cautioned. ‘If you let him down then he’s gonna find it almost impossible to trust anyone again.’
‘Yeah,’ Greg’s voice turned sombre. ‘I know,’ he agreed. ‘I’d better not let that happen.’
‘Well, that’s everything on the list sorted,’ Greg confirmed, letting Daniel’s Hogwarts letter drop to the kitchen table. ‘All set for Kings Cross?’
Daniel, his fringe hanging straighter but still rust-brown, nodded seriously. ‘Yes.’
‘Good man,’ Greg smiled. ‘I have to say, you do look smart, mate.’
The boy nodded again, fiddling distractedly with the hem of a new cotton polo shirt that he had just jerked free from a pair of white chinos.
‘We’d better get moving, then,’ Greg decided, noting with little surprise that the eleven-year-old didn’t seem in the mood for conversation, and hoping that he would have relaxed a little by the time he boarded the train. ‘Promise me you won’t throw up this time?’
Daniel needed to brace himself to keep his promise, but the two wizards quickly found themselves standing outside the staircase that led from the adjacent Underground station, waiting to meet Nathan and Philip Llewellyn, as the teacher had arranged.
‘Morning,’ the other boy’s father greeted them, shortly the clock had struck their agreed meeting time of half past ten. ‘I think we’ve got everything,’ he blustered. ‘Kathleen would have rather he had a few more changes of underwear, but I suppose there’ll be plenty of laundry done at the school, won’t there? And spares if there are problems...?’
‘Yes, Philip,’ Greg cut him off gently, having noticed Nathan’s face growing steadily redder. ‘I daresay that so long as he makes it onto the train at eleven o’clock, everything will be alright.’ The teacher smiled warmly at Nathan, once again wearing shirt and tie, who shivered in spite the early September warmth.
‘Good, good...’ The man muttered, distractedly, oblivious to the two boys’ wary stares as Greg led the group towards the gap between platforms 9 and 10, where he alone knew of the location of the magical gateway that led to the Hogwarts Express beyond.
‘This was always easier before they put these automated barriers in,’ Greg complained, shaking his head as he inspected the credit card-sized green and orange ticket that had persuaded the station staff to let the group onto the platforms. ‘London Stations to Aviemore... True enough, I suppose, but we really should get some Ministry staff here on Express days. Talking to myself here, aren’t I?’ He turned to the two boys. ‘It’s simple from here, lads,’ he announced with a grin. ‘Just walk through the wall.’
‘What?’ Daniel baulked, whilst Nathan’s face just paled.
‘You heard right,’ Greg repeated himself. ‘Walk through the wall: it takes you through to Platform 9¾.’ He paused, sensing the boys’ disbelief. ‘Well, where else do you see it, then?’ He challenged them, recalling his conversation with Theo the previous night. ‘Don’t you believe me?’
Daniel stepped forward, before shooting a dismissive stare at Nathan’s still-frozen expression. ‘I believe you, sir. Just through there, right?’
Greg nodded. ‘Yep. Just walk straight at the wall with your trolley and you’ll go through it like it’s not there. I did it with my eyes shut the first time.’
‘Alright,’ Daniel took a deep breath, before gritting his teeth and beginning a steady walk into – and through – the wall onto Platform 9¾.
‘See,’ Greg turned back to Nathan, and noticed that the boy’s eyes had started to rim with tears. ‘It’s nothing to worry about, mate. Shall we do it together?’ He held out a hand, and Nathan clenched it eagerly, wiping his eyes with his other forearm. ‘Best take hold of the trolley, Philip,’ the teacher advised. ‘Else you might not make it through. Come on,’ Greg cajoled the Llewellyns, ‘Dan’ll be waiting.’
‘Welcome,’ the teacher announced, seconds later, ‘to Platform 9¾.’ He rested a hand on Daniel’s shoulder, catching up to the eleven-year-old as he followed the boy through the barrier. ‘What do you reckon, then? Not quite Diagon Alley,’ he continued, ‘but not bad, right?’
‘Yeah,’ Daniel echoed, open-mouthed, as he watched the scarlet locomotive let off a great cloud of steam. ‘Not bad.’
‘We’re meeting the others by the clock,’ the teacher explained, leading the small group across the concourse towards an ornate iron structure, hanging from one of the stone pillars at the station edge. ‘Then we’ll get you all on board and I guess I’ll see you at the Sorting.’
‘Aren’t you coming on the train?’ Daniel asked.
‘No,’ Greg shook his head. ‘I’ve got a list of things this long that I need to get done before you guys all arrive. I’d meant to get it all done this week, but, you know, something more important came up.’ He smiled, and the eleven-year-old grinned in return.
‘Alright,’ the boy acknowledged. ‘How long will the journey take?’
‘About seven or eight hours,’ Greg answered. ‘It’s a long way to the top of Scotland... but the feast is worth the wait. You’ve never seen anything like it,’ he grinned. ‘Go with the T-Bone steak.’ The man turned back to face Nathan, whom he still hadn’t heard speak that morning. ‘Okay, mate?’ He asked, gently. ‘Nervous?’
Nathan nodded, still wordless.
‘That’s okay,’ Greg smiled. ‘That’s normal.’
‘He’s barely said a word since he got up,’ Philip admitted. ‘Not a thing.’
‘Lots to take in, right,’ the teacher ruffled the boy’s blond hair. ‘I don’t blame you, Nathan. You’ll never have a day like this again. Still up for it?’
‘Yes, sir,’ he whispered.
‘Good lad,’ Greg let his arm drop onto the boy’s shoulder. ‘Enjoy it,’ he glanced across the platform for a sight of either of the families whose sons were due to meet the two muggle-borns, and was rewarded by a wave of recognition from Albus Potter.
‘Professor Bennett, I presume?’ An older man, his face an echo of his younger son’s dark hair and thin glasses, extended a warm arm towards the teacher. ‘A man who has made the last week in my house a much quieter time than it otherwise might have been.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Greg took the man’s arm. ‘I’m not sure I follow.’
Harry Potter smiled. ‘James here,’ he indicated a boy with wiry dark hair and a spark in his brown eyes, ‘has been giving Albus a hard time about the Sorting all summer. Now, for some reason, Al doesn’t seem quite so bothered by the possibility of Slytherin.’
Greg returned the other man’s smile, as a look of understanding dawned on his face. ‘Glad to help,’ he replied. ‘I guess that makes us square,’ he paused. ‘You probably don’t remember... I met you in my first year, in the boxes at Mynydd Eilian.’
‘I remember,’ Harry nodded. ‘When Albus was small enough to fit in your lap...’
‘Dad!’ Albus complained, as the rest of his family laughed at the eleven-year-old’s expense.
‘Sorry, Al,’ the boy’s father apologised, ‘but you were very cute when you were a baby.’
‘Urgh...’ Albus squirmed, turning away from the adults as his cheeks blushed red. ‘You’re so embarrassing...’
‘I think he’s ready to go, Harry,’ a red-haired woman whispered in her husband’s ear as she watched her younger son turn his back on his parents.
‘Good,’ the man answered, lowering his voice as Albus began to talk with Daniel. ‘If you’d have asked me a week ago, I’d have been afraid he wasn’t. What are we waiting for, then?’ He changed the subject abruptly. ‘Shall we get them on board?’
‘Give them a minute,’ Greg cautioned. ‘Let’s wait for Louis.’
Harry smiled, knowingly. ‘Could be some time there, I fear, with his sisters. I think we get these lads on and worry about Louis when he gets here. Don’t want to be scratching around for seats.’
‘Fair enough,’ Greg decided against arguing with the other man’s knowledge of his own nieces and nephews. ‘Come on, guys,’ he announced, ‘you heard the man.’
There was no shortage of empty compartments on the Hogwarts Express as the three first-years filed quietly onto the train, behind the adults who carried their cases.
‘This one do?’ Albus’ father asked, and none of the children contradicted him. ‘I’ll leave you to it, then, shall I?’ He smiled, having – with Greg’s help – lifted the boys’ cases onto the compartment’s parcel shelves. ‘Don’t forget to write, Al,’ he reminded his son, ‘and remember to wave goodbye to your mother.’
‘I will, Dad. Goodbye,’ the black-haired boy nodded, watching as his father turned his back on them. ‘See you at Christmas.’
‘See you, Al,’ Harry’s voice echoed down the train’s corridor as the three children found themselves alone inside their compartment. Albus and Daniel quickly settled onto opposite seats beside the window that looked back out onto the platform, whilst Nathan opted for the opposite corner.
‘Have you ever been to Hogwarts before?’ Daniel offered, breaking the silence after a few uncomfortable moments.
‘No,’ Albus replied, quickly. ‘Mum and Dad always said that they didn’t want to spoil my first time.’
‘Oh,’ Daniel nodded. ‘Have they told you anything about it at all?’ He persisted with his questions. ‘Professor Bennett’s told me a bit, about some of the Houses.’
‘They told me a bit,’ Albus blinked, ‘but not much. Hagrid’s probably told me more than Mum and Dad have,’ he reflected, ‘and so’s James, but I don’t know whether to believe him.’
Daniel smiled. ‘What’s he told you?’
‘He said there are dragons in the forest outside,’ the black-haired boy recalled, ‘and that in the lessons you have to fight trolls and vampires...’
‘Vampires?’ Daniel shuddered. ‘They aren’t real, are they?’
Albus nodded. ‘They’re real, alright,’ he spoke quietly, ‘but there aren’t many of them now, and most of them that are left only live on reservations in the Black Forest.’ He swallowed. ‘They’re not going to make first-years fight them!’
‘Oh,’ Daniel grinned, nervously. ‘Right. I guess that means that a lot of other things that I thought weren’t real actually are?’
‘What like?’ Albus brushed his fringe out of his eyes.
‘Real,’ the black-haired boy answered. ‘My god-brother, Teddy, his dad was a werewolf. He died in the war... You know about the war, right?’
‘Just about,’ Daniel nodded. ‘Professor Bennett told me what happened.’
‘Did he tell you about my Dad?’ Albus asked, tentatively.
‘No,’ the other boy replied, shortly. ‘Why would he do that?’
‘Oh,’ Albus swallowed, ‘no reason.’
‘Well, okay,’ Daniel shrugged. ‘What about ghosts? Are they real?’
‘Yes,’ the black-haired boy grinned. ‘They’re definitely real! There’s lots at Hogwarts... everybody knows that.’ He paused, suddenly correcting himself. ‘Everyone who’s magic-born, I mean.’
‘Anything else?’ Daniel creased up his face, deep in thought. ‘Like trolls?’
‘Yep,’ Albus nodded again, ‘they’re real too... and mermaids, and phoenixes, and goblins, and giants...’
‘Stop,’ Daniel interrupted the other boy, glancing along the compartment. ‘I think you’re going to make him shit himself,’ he laughed at Nathan’s expense, as the blond boy drew ever more tightly in on himself in the corner of the carriage.
‘I won’t mention the really scary ones, then,’ Albus, ‘like the griffin and the manticore and the nundu... oh, whoops.’ He joined in with Daniel’s laughter, unconcerned by the other boy’s obvious distress. ‘Guess he won’t be in Gryffindor, then – never brave enough for that!’
‘Which House do you think you’re going to be in, Al?’ Daniel found himself easily shortening the other boy’s name.
‘I don’t know,’ the black-haired boy freely admitted. ‘James used to tease me about being in Slytherin, but I don’t think I’d really mind that any more, not now that I’ve met Professor Bennett.’
‘Yeah,’ Daniel echoed. ‘I don’t think I fit with any of the others, anyway.’
‘It would be good to be in a House with someone I know,’ Albus acknowledged the other boy’s assertion.
‘What about your cousins?’ Daniel asked, surprised. ‘Louis is your cousin, right?’
‘Yeah,’ Albus nodded, ‘Rose too... but they won’t end up in Slytherin. Rose is too brainy and Louis... well...’ he tailed off, looking up as the red-haired boy pushed open the compartment door. ‘Hi, Lou,’ he changed his tone. ‘Dad was right that you’d be late...’
Louis had opened his mouth to begin to argue, only for the shrill whistle of the locomotive to cut him off, and forcing the eleven-year-old to steady himself against the frame of the door. ‘So,’ he shrugged. ‘I’m here, right?’
‘Right,’ Albus rolled his eyes, turning to the window to wave goodbye to his mother and father as he had promised. ‘Only just.’
Louis flopped onto the empty seat opposite Nathan. ‘Hey,’ he greeted the blond boy, ‘you alright?’
‘Don’t expect him to say anything back,’ Daniel answered for the other muggle-born. ‘We haven’t heard him speak all morning,’ he smirked.
‘We were just talking about which House we wanted to be in,’ Albus continued, ‘but I’m not sure there is one for people who can’t speak. Maybe Hufflepuff, for the leftovers.’
Louis gritted his teeth. ‘Albus...’ he warned.
‘What?’ The black-haired boy shot back. ‘Don’t tell me you think he should be in Gryffindor with you and your sisters when he’s scared of everything that moves.’
‘Albus,’ Louis repeated, his cheeks beginning to burn red. ‘Can I talk to you for a moment,’ he swallowed, ‘outside?’ The redhead pulled the sliding door of the compartment open, and held it there, challenging his cousin to stand up and grant his request.
‘Fine,’ Albus grunted, getting to his feet and following Louis into the corridor of the carriage.
‘What the hell is that all about?’ Louis snapped as the door slammed shut behind his cousin.
‘What’s what all about?’ Albus retorted, equally sharply.
‘You know what,’ Louis was undeterred. ‘Talking to him like that! They’re muggle-borns! We’re supposed to be helping them!’
‘Not babysitting,’ Albus rolled his eyes, ‘cause that’s what he needs right now, he’s not even trying to talk to us. You should have seen him when we were talking about dragons, he nearly wet himself...’
‘So what?’ Louis’ nostrils flared. ‘He’s scared! Wouldn’t you be?’
‘Ooh,’ Albus taunted, ‘Veela time.’
‘Fuck you!’ Louis shouted. ‘I don’t know what House I’m going to end up in, but you’re going to be in fucking Slytherin, I can tell!’
‘Excuse me,’ an older boy interrupted the eleven-year-old’s tirade. ‘I don’t know who you are, but we don’t tolerate language like that at Hogwarts. If you had a House I would be taking points from it.’
‘But...’ Louis began to protest, only for the prefect to cut him off instantly.
‘I’m not discussing it,’ the older boy insisted. ‘If you don’t like him, don’t sit with him.’
‘Fine,’ Louis snorted, wrenching the compartment door back open. ‘Come on Nathan, I’m not sitting here with this flipping idiot.’ He grabbed the blond boy by the hand, leading him away along the train.
‘See you later, loser!’ Albus called spitefully after him, before slamming the door shut once more as he rejoined Daniel. ‘Stupid French tosser,’ he snarled. ‘Hasn’t even got a sense of humour.’
‘Forget him,’ Daniel shrugged. ‘Who cares what he thinks, anyway? Just because he’s related to you, that doesn’t mean you should listen to him. Trust me on that one.’
Albus nodded. ‘Just wait until all of the others find out...’
Louis Weasley was still fuming as he heaved open the door of the next empty compartment he could find, a narrow slit of a room that sat cramped in the far end of one of the carriages, with just the one bench hemmed in against its wall. ‘Idiot,’ he repeated, before turning to make eye contact with Nathan for the first time since the argument with his cousin. ‘I can’t believe him, I really can’t,’ he paused, ‘I’m sorry, Nathan,’ he stuttered. ‘This wasn’t supposed to be like this.’ The redhead swallowed, feeling the sudden prickling of tears against the backs of his eyes. ‘It really wasn’t...’ His head slumped against the cold pane of glass of the carriage window. ‘All cause I was late...’
‘Louis,’ Nathan whispered, hoarsely. ‘It’s not your fault,’ he rested a hand on the other boy’s shoulder. ‘I should have said something to them... and they’re right,’ he looked down at his shoes. ‘I am scared.’
Louis looked up, turning away from the window before rubbing the moisture from his eyes.
‘What did they mean by the Houses?’ Nathan asked. ‘How do they choose which one you’re in? What’s so bad about Slytherin?’
Louis blinked, surprised by the other boy’s last question.
‘I heard you through the window,’ Nathan admitted, sheepishly. ‘You must have shouted very loud...’
‘Oh,’ Louis blushed. ‘The school has four Houses – Gryffindor, Slytherin, Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff. Each of them is meant to be for different types of people... brave, ambitious, clever, and loyal. You find out what House you’re going to be in when you try on the Sorting Hat.’
‘Sorting Hat?’ Nathan echoed, and the redhead nodded.
‘That’s what my family told me,’ he explained. ‘You put it on, and it looks into your mind and chooses for you.’ Louis sighed. ‘They’ve all been in Gryffindor, and they expect me to be, too.’
‘Gryffindor’s the brave one, right?’ Nathan asked, and the other boy nodded. ‘They’re right; I won’t be in that one.’
‘Don’t say that,’ Louis protested.
Nathan shook his head. ‘It’s true, though. I’m not brave,’ he whimpered. ‘What are the other Houses about?’
‘Ravenclaw’s for the clever ones,’ the redhead answered. ‘My cousins Molly and Lucy are there. They’re fourth-years now. Hufflepuff’s for hard workers – but everyone else think it’s just for anyone the other Houses don’t want.’
‘The leftovers,’ Nathan recalled Albus’ jibe. ‘What about Slytherin, then?’
‘It’s supposed to be for people who are cunning and ambitious,’ Louis explained, ‘but it’s got a reputation for being evil instead. Almost all the Dark wizards in history came from Slytherin.’
Nathan nodded, slowly. ‘Professor Bennett was Slytherin, though, wasn’t he? He’s not a Dark wizard, right?’ The blond boy’s face creased with confusion.
‘No,’ Louis shook his head, ‘but still...’
‘What if I end up in Slytherin, and you don’t?’ Nathan asked nervously. ‘Would you still be my friend?’
Louis nodded, immediately. ‘If I end up in Slytherin, and you don’t, will you still be my friend?’
‘Yes!’ For the first time that September morning, Nathan Llewellyn smiled.