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Chapter 16 : Back To School
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The first of September arrived and Etor accompanied Severus to King's Cross. After a panicked last-minute rush - Etor had decided there was time for one last lesson in the morning, before deciding that he'd underestimated the travelling time and they should have left ten minutes before - they arrived to find platform nine and three-quarters almost empty. Unsurprisingly, through a combination of poor estimation skills and a watch that had suffered rather too much exposure to various potions and fumes, they were almost two hours early.
They wandered up and down the platform for a bit, right up to the far end where the great iron engine stood at the head of the train. Severus had never realised how loud it was - the roar of a fire combined with steam hissing from the shining brass valves on the sides. Even a metre away he could feel the warmth emanating from it - and it wasn't even half past nine.
A young man and woman, dressed in overalls, strolled up. The woman pulled herself up into the cab, reaching down to open a metal door. She wore dragonhide gloves, and the reason was made obvious by the increase in noise levels and the flickering light. Seizing a shovel, she moved coal from the fender in through the door, until she felt that there was enough and shut the door again. As she moved about, checking various dials and gauges, the man stood next to Severus with his hands in his pockets.
"Nearly there - bin up most of the night gettin' 'er 'otted up. Bin sittin' cold for a couple o' months since we brought you lot down - only run 'er a few times a year - ministry won' give us the coal for more 'n' we can' afford it ourselves. Anyhow, the muggles'd get suspicious if we tried buyin' all the lot we need every week."
"Why burn coal? Aren't there magical fires which burn without fuel? And surely with magic you could heat it up quicker."
"Where's the fun in that? We only get to run 'er a few times a year, so it's no' so much trouble. Always liked trains - so'd Andy there, 'n' 'er 'dad 'ad Geordie afore us. Taught 'er 'ow to 'andle 'er - she 'elped 'im take 'er up from 'er fifth year, and end of sixth year I made 'em let me ride in the cab. 'elped out at a muggle railway club over the summer, so I got to know 'ow to drive one of these things. Rode again on the way up for seventh year, and at the end of the year they let me drive 'er back down. Well, Andy's dad 'e said to me would I like to take over from 'im 'n' of course I said yes - work in Gringotts most o' the year but me 'n' Ali take the train up 'n' down start 'n' end o' every term. Test 'er every weekend too, weekdays if we can make it, keep 'er in good workin' order. Me wife got jealous, all the time I spend with Andy, but I tell 'er it's not Andy stealin' my affections. She laughs then - she don' understand why I like messin' round with trains, but she knows it's Geordie I go out to see 'n' I come 'ome filthy 'n' 'appy in the evenin' 'stead o' gettin' under 'er feet all day."
"Sometimes muggle ways are best, eh, Sev?" Etor teased, and Severus wrinkled his nose.
"They have their uses, I guess, and obviously if you like that kind of thing - shame about the small, that's all." The engine wasn't as bad as the computer - the smoky smell of burning coal and the heady scent of oil were less sickly and simpler than the metallic tang of wires and weird muggle materials.
"Take it you don' want a look inside, then?" The man laughed at Severus' expression. "Oi, Andy! Lad 'ere'd like a look in the cab. Up you go, there - you'll be changing soon enough anyway." It was a good thing Severus was still in old muggle clothes (he hadn't had time to change between brewing and coming out due to Etor's panicking), because although the engine seemed clean he ended up smeared with oil and coal dust. "Just stick your clothes in the wash as usual when you get to school - 'ouse-elve's'll 'ave it out in a jiffy," the man would reassure him when he climbed back down.
As Ali explained to him the purpose of every dial, and everything they did to look after and run the train, Etor waited with the man. He'd dearly have liked to have been shown around the engine himself, but that was one of the disadvantages of age. When you were more likely to appreciate it, people were less likely to offer you these opportunities.
"Theo Fawley, pleased to meet you." The man held out his hand, and Etor shook it.
"You 'is dad, then?" Etor supposed that would be a logical enough assumption, and in some ways he did feel like a father to Severus.
"No - he's been staying with me on placement this summer. I'm a potioneer, and he's interested in the career."
"Takin' it very seriously for a boy 'is age - I spent my summers messing around at the model railway club or havin' a kick-about with the muggle lads. But if 'e knows what 'e wants to do, then I guess it's a good move."
"Well you were at a model railway club and now you're a train driver." Theo shrugged.
"I guess. But then I wasn't looking for summer jobs in banks, and I'm working at one now."
"Don't tell me that was your dream job-" Etor knew people who had gone to work at Gringott's because that sort of thing appealed to them, but Theo was clearly not one of them - a fact confirmed by his rueful smile.
"My plan was to get rich quick 'n' then buy a large estate to build a railway line 'n' run steam engines." He grinned at Etor. "Go on then - what were you doin' at 'is age? Brewin' up potions in your bedroom?"
"Reading, mostly. Teaching myself muggle subjects from textbooks, learning more about magical plants and animals - muggle ones too. All skills I use know in my career." He caught Theo's expression. "I know - Ravenclaw all through. But then you tinker with muggle machines, muggle-style."
"Definite Ravenclaw there - guess House defines some people better'n others. Slytherin, myself - Ali too. He laughed at Etor's poorly hidden surprise. "You were thinkin' 'ufflepuff, weren't you? Most people do."
"I suppose there are different forms of ambition - you wanted to drive trains, so you made sure you did. But I must admit you don't strike me as a Slytherin - if not Hufflepuff, then Gryffindor or Ravenclaw."
"People change - eleven's awful young to be determinin' what a lad's like. Started off proper Slytherin, Andy too, but as we got older we realised we didn' really care for all this power 'n' influence - or that pure-blood stuff 'er family were always spoutin'. Again, you thought I was muggle-born, didn' you? 'er 'alf-blood maybe, on account o' 'er dad drivin' the train. Nah, pair o' pure-blood. 'n' 'er family's 'bout as noble as they come! One o' the Blacks, she was."
"Not Andromeda Black? She was in the news a lot when she married a muggle-born. Wouldn't think her parents would bother with muggle machines like trains."
"Cygnus - that's 'er dad - 'e used to run it by magic. Still 'ad to get out 'ere early to warm 'er up - warm it too quickly 'n' it does funny things to the metal - but everythin' was cleaner 'n' easier. Gave 'im a bit o' influence in the Ministry - made 'imself seem importan' 'n' kind, ferryin' the kids up 'n' down. 'e was very 'appy to let me 'n' Andy get to know each other better - not so many pure-bloods o' the right age round these days. By the time she married Ted, it was too late for 'im to take the train back 'n' 'e didn' want to anyway - gettin' on a bit, 'n' 'e never liked the early starts. Explained 'imself sayin' it was no surprise a blood traitor like 'er would like messin' 'bout with muggle machines, 'n' she might as well for that's all she's good for. Didn' argue with that, neither o' us - best job in the world."
Clinging to the side, Severus scrambled back down to platform level. His face was now smeared where he's wiped his face with a greasy hand, and while he maybe hadn't been clean before he'd at least been respectable. Oh well, thought Etor, it was worth a bit of grease to get a look inside a real muggle steam train.
"You like that, lad? Come here - I got a neat little spell to get that grease off before your friends arrive." Severus moved closer, tentatively, and Theo siphoned the grease off Severus' face and hands with his wand. "You might want to go wash properly, to get any bits I missed, but you're respectable enough to go near civilisation again. 'ad a good look roun' ol' Gertie?"
"Yes, thank you. I never really thought about the engine before." He looked back down the platform, which was just beginning to fill up. "There's Lily!" He seemed to be forcing himself to stay there, and Etor smiled at him.
"Run along and say hello to her then - I'll follow you in a minute." Severus took off, paused, and ran back.
"Thanks, Andy!" Then he was off, and the adults laughed as they watched him begin to talk animatedly to the red-headed girl.
"So where are 'is parents then - didn' come to see him off?" Etor hesitated.
"They didn't like it when he was sorted into Gryffindor, not Slytherin. His dad's a muggle, but his mother told them too much about the incredible influence many Slytherins have over every part of life. I think he then sent some not particularly polite replies to their letters, so they refused to have anything to do with him."
"Rather like Andy's parents, then, 'cept possibly even less rational. Well, 'e looks 'appy enough, so seemin'ly you bin treatin' 'im OK. Now, I'm going to ge' a las' cup o' tea for me 'n' Andy, afore we get ol' Geordie properly steamin'" A touch of his cap - an old-fashioned muggle-style railwayman's cap - and he strolled off through a small door in the wall marked "staff only". Etor headed back down the station, dragging Severus' trolley behind him, to where the boy stood describing the inside of the train to Lily.
"Tea? Coffee? Hot chocolate?" He saw Severus' reaction to mention of hot chocolate and ignored the subsequent flurry of "I'm alright, thanks"s and "you don't have to"s. He bought the hot chocolate, and a cup of tea for himself, from a small cafe on the platform, then the group found a table and sat down together as Mr Evans ordered for himself and his family. Severus managed to burn his tongue on the hot chocolate so took just nibbled at the whipped cream on top until the liquid had cooled down more. Lily picked at the molten mass of marshmallow on hers with a spoon, laughing at the white cream moustache on Severus' upper lip.
Sirius arrived shortly after, and actually came to join them. Slumping down in a chair, he immediately began a long rant about little brothers. From where he sat, Severus could see the rest of the Black family - said brother flanked by proud parents, already dressed in Slytherin robes. Like Severus and Etor, they must have either apparated directly onto the platform or flooed through the fireplace in the waiting room. Severus couldn't imagine Sirius' parents dressing as muggles and travelling through the main station.
Sirius looked surprisingly respectable, in black trousers and a white shirt, but when he'd finished giving his opinion on irritating family members he stood up. "Keep an eye on my bag, Sev?" Severus had barely nodded when Sirius disappeared in the direction of the toilets. He emerged a few minutes later in one of his muggle band T-shirts, ripped jeans, and a leather jacket that he was obviously very proud of.
"Like it? I sneaked out most days to get away from my dear brother - went round muggle London. The parents would never venture in muggle shops. Picked this up one day." He twirled around, showing it off, then flicked his hair before sliding back into his seat. "I had to dress up to come out, but it's better than being stuck in the house any longer. They told me to change on the train - nothing like that for darling Reg, but then he's following the family tradition. They won't want to associate with me now, so I'm safe."
"Bad holiday then?" Severus joked.
"Not too bad. I wasn't at home much, to be honest - got the train down to James' for a few days whenever I got too bored. But they wouldn't shut up about how darling Reg was such a credit to the family, and why couldn't I be more like him - proper little Slytherin, he just sat there soaking it up and smirking when they started going on at me. I realised you're not so bad after all, Sev - you might be boring, but I'd take you over mummy's little darling any day."
"Erm, thanks." The way Sirius said it stopped it from being offensive. Sirius had been pleasant enough - otherwise sharing a dormitory might have been unbearable - but never really friendly. He'd certainly never used Severus' nickname before, at least not in a friendly way.
"James! Hey, James!" Sirius yelled down the platform, causing several heads to turn and him to receive a glare from his father - which he happily ignored. He helped James drag another table and more chairs over so they could all sit together, and the Potters joined the party followed shortly after by the Lupins. The platform was getting far more crowded now, and a waiter came over to point out that the seats were for customers. Mr and Mrs Potter insisted on buying drinks for all of the adults and large ice-creams for the children, so they were allowed to stay. It was a cold day, and the ice-cream chilled Severus' teeth, but with layers of berries and chocolate swirled through the glass it was well worth it.
Sirius recounted every prank he'd played over the summer to anyone who would listen - mostly James. Severus was surprised that Regulus still looked so self-satisfied after being the focus of all that, but he supposed that being Sirius' brother you got used to it. The adults talked amongst themselves, although they were obviously listening to Sirius' tales - the occasional raised eyebrow or snigger betrayed them.
Ice-creams finished, Etor looked at his watch before remembering that it was still wrong. The children looked up at the huge station clock and decided that it was just about late enough to board the train. Most of the compartments were empty, so they had no trouble finding one, and as soon as they were seated Sirius continued his account of the holiday as though nothing had happened.
At exactly eleven, the whistle sounded and the train began to move. Severus waved out of the window with the others, to Etor and the Lupins in particular. Then they sat back, settling comfortably for the long journey, and the conversation turned to the pranks for the year. So far, Sirius and James hadn't managed much - restricted to mainly muggle tricks and ready-made Zonko's products - but they were third years now so felt it was time to crank things up.
It was raining when they finally arrived and the horseless carriages drew them to the castle. Students milled in the entrance hall, cloaks dripping from the short dash at each end of the carriage ride. Peeves didn't help, having turned on the taps in the nearest bathroom so that a pool of water spread across the floor - almost unnoticed in the marks of thousands of wet footprints and the splashes where his water balloons had missed and struck the floor. The door to the Great Hall opened, and gradually the mass began to filter in.
Sirius and James spoke together in an undertone, then crossed the hall with an innocence which clearly indicated mischief. The rest of the group entered the Great Hall as quickly as they could, away from whatever was about to happen. As they moved towards Gryffindor table, they heard shouts and screams from the doorway and looked round to see James and Sirius strolling innocently in their direction.
A couple of second-years came flying through the door, more crashing through behind them, and James dropped down onto the bench struggling to suppress laughter. "Freezing charm - on the floor!" Another crash from the entrance hall, and both boys convulsed. A second later they froze, and Severus turned to see what they were looking at. "Hello, Professor McGonagall," said James nervously.
"Welcome back. I'm not sure anyone has ever had a detention this early in the year."
"Really? That's - interesting." Sirius swallowed, realising that the joke might not have been appropriate.
"It is, isn't it? We might just have a new record. So you think it's funny to flood the entrance hall and turn it into an ice-rink?"
"Actually, Professor, we didn't flood it. I think Peeves was involved - does he have detention then?" Sirius just couldn't help himself. Severus wasn't the only one trying to smother laughter - the expressions on his friends' faces would be enough even if they said nothing.
"No, Mr Black, but you and Mr Potter do. My office, tomorrow, half past four. Simple freezing charm, I presume?" They nodded, and she left them looking rather sheepish.
"Oops." James broke the silence.
"How does she always know?" Sirius was looking admiringly after their Head of House, not particularly bothered that he had a detention.
"Maybe you were a little bit obvious-" Lily admitted.
"How come?" asked Sirius, affronted.
"Everyone else looked round when the screaming started and people came flying through the door." James smacked his head with his palm, while Sirius scowled around.
"All very well for you to say - I'd like to see you get past McGonagall. I think she just knows. Anyway, a prank and detention is better than no prank - how can you bear to be so boring?"
"You think we can't get one past McGonagall?" Severus couldn't resist the challenge.
"You wouldn't dare try."
"You just watch me." Severus grinned at Lily, who looked like she was unsure whether to be shocked or amused, then at Remus, then finally looked back at Sirius. "We could make it competitive - first one to get a decent prank in without getting caught. Decent prank means no fairy Binns-"
"That was first year, and I haven't seen you do better. What's the stake?" The Great Hall was filling up, dishevelled students rubbing bruises from slipping on the ice.
"Talk when we get up to Gryffindor tower. We need rules - and Lily can judge."
"What do you mean, I judge? Why should you boys have all the fun?" Lily grinned cheekily. Scared of losing?" Sirius's immediate denial was cut short as the door of the Great Hall opened and McGonagall led the long line of sodden first-years up to the front.
Feast over, they took a short-cut up to Gryffindor tower before James realised that he didn't know the password. "Honestly, boys, do you think of anything? I asked the prefect - password's Salamander." The Fat Lady swung out on her hinges and Lily led the way in. They were first up, so could get the best armchairs around the fire.
"You really mean it, Lily? You really want to join in?" Severus asked her. "You've never had detention."
"Neither have you or Remus - first time for everything. Anyway, I thought the intention was not to get caught. Now what's the prize?"
"How about the winner has to buy everyone butterbeer - we go to Hogsmeade this year."
"You should lose automatically for that suggestion, Remus. I thought maybe the winner gets to make everyone else do a forfeit. We keep playing, even after someone's won, so it you give a really horrible forfeit when someone else wins they can make you do something equally bad." Remus wasn't the only one obviously nervous about this idea. "If you're scared, you don't have to play." The challenge was obvious in his tone, and perhaps that was what made it irresistible.
"I'm in." Severus was the first to answer, Lily hesitating as she struggled with her sense of responsibility. Unbelievably, she accepted too - she'd always tried hard at school, never done anything to get into trouble, excited enough by the magical world not to want any other amusement. She'd grown up unaware that all this existed, after all. But she was a Gryffindor - there was a part of her which couldn't refuse such a challenge.
Remus saw that he was the only one left out - no-one needed to ask James whether he would join in - and swallowing hard he agreed. If Severus could do it, so could he. The conversation turned to rules. Only big pranks would count, ones which caused a lot of disruption. Members of other Houses and years should talk about it, and preferably teachers would look for the culprits. If after one week no teacher had caught and dealt with them, that would be classed as a win. Clearly no-one would tell tales - McGonagall wouldn't listen to sneaks anyway. They could play pranks in groups or alone, and everyone not involved would have to do the forfeit if the prank succeeded.
Severus lay awake in bed for a while, and he wasn't the only one. Everyone was trying to think of something good - Severus knew that Sirius and James had more pranking experience, but they usually got caught. No doubt they would win sometimes, but he would win more.
"At the end of the year, we get a vote on the best prank - for honour," James suggested sleepily. The others murmured agreement - they would tell Lily tomorrow. Severus would certainly do his best to win that one. "It only counts if you don't get caught." And that definitely improved Severus' chances. James and Sirius might be better at coming up with the pranks, but he reckoned he was more careful. He'd show them he wasn't boring.
A/N: It's been a while, but I've finally made it back to this story - writer's block for the past couple of weeks. Fingers crossed it will leave me alone for a bit now. Then there's OF, challenge entries, TDM, and whatever else comes into my head. Thank you to my lovely reviewers for giving me the motivation to stick at True Lion even when I'm seriously stressing over the plot - and to everyone who's given me suggestions. Much appreciated!
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