This part: 4252 words, PG-13, ships but foreshadowed for now
Warning: contains spoilers for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
The long squeal of the train's whistle jerked Albus out of his reverie. He'd been standing on one of the toilets, trying to peer through the two-inch square window for a last glimpse of his parents and little sister. His eyes felt hot and prickly, but he was determined not to cry. James could spot red-rimmed eyes from a mile off, and no sliver of sympathy for his brother's plight would stop him teasing Albus for the next month and a half.
Unfortunately the window, besides being too small even to fit his hand through, was grimy and jammed when he tried to open it out fully. All he could see was an endless sea of feet, mostly hidden beneath dust-trimmed robes. He thought he spotted Lily's favourite pumps, the ones with the pink roses that lit up and sang Weird Sisters songs whenever she clicked her heels, but a minute later they were swallowed up by the thronging crowd.
As the train moved off, shuddering like a frightened animal, Albus took a deep breath and climbed off the toilet seat. He could write to his parents as soon as he arrived and they'd write back straight away, so by tomorrow he could read their words and pretend they were right there. Homesickness wasn't a very Potter emotion to feel - at least, so James insisted. Dad had never mentioned being homesick in his life, but that's because his home was Hogwarts. As for Mum, she'd been as desperate as Lily to go to school and share in the fun her brothers endlessly described. Aunt Hermione, when pressed, said that she'd been so interested in the educational opportunities Hogwarts presented that she'd forgotten to be homesick until it was too late. Albus could have done with at least one parent or relative who disliked the thought of leaving home as much as he did.
He patted his satchel, feeling inside it the comforting hard shape of a book and the even more comforting and soft shape of Mouse. The book was Hogwarts: A History, and had been Aunt Hermione's last birthday present to James. Albus didn't think James had so much as opened it, although he'd penned such a charming thank-you letter that she'd sent him an extra book token, delighted with his enthusiasm. Stealing James' books was one thing for which Albus expected no retribution. He'd stuck a sheaf of Concealing Parchment over the dedication on the front page, and without that James would be most unlikely to spot his own book. Albus couldn't count the number of times James had seen his name on a book in Albus' room and punished him for it, only to remain completely oblivious when Albus was reading the same book the very next day.
Mouse was another story. He'd been given to Albus as a christening present by his godmother, Minerva. He'd been tied up, drowned, set alight and held to ransom more often than a coven of heretics in sixteenth century Spain. That Albus dared to carry him around in his satchel was due to the fact that he'd begged Aunt Hermione to put a spell of protection and concealment on him. He'd told her it was because she knew the most spells of anyone in the family - sincere flattery got you everywhere with Aunt Hermione - which was only half a lie.
The corridor outside was swarming with children with all ages. Albus felt himself shrink back involuntarily. Some of the boys were so tall they rivalled Teddy. The girls looked impossibly grown-up. In the five minutes Albus had lingered in the toilet every smaller student seemed to have been assimilated into a clique. He could see Rose in the distance, tossing her red curls and saying something about James to a group of round-eyed admirers. Rose and James had always been great pals, despite the age-gap. Albus had overheard James telling Rose just last week that he'd introduce her to all the right people once she was Sorted into Gryffindor, and maybe even let her in on the secrets of the Map. The Map was the biggest bone of contention between the Potter children, in a family that could have filled a graveyard with their bones of contention.
Albus walked slowly down the corridor, surreptitiously peering into each compartment in the hopes of finding somewhere to sit. The first compartment was empty except for one boy. He was tow-headed, his hair scraped back with a star-spangled Alice band. He appeared to be singing to himself. Albus might have knocked were it not for the fact that the boy looked several years older than him, and James had warned him that the older kids wanted nothing to do with first-year squirts.
He crossed two train carriages before he found another virtually unoccupied compartment. This far down the train it was much quieter. The students were all older, sitting in close groups and even pairings. Albus averted his eyes when he realised he'd accidentally spied on two people kissing. He was about to turn around and go back when he saw that the curtains on one compartment window, which had been drawn almost closed, were quivering as if shaken by a hidden hand. As he kept looking, a small and almost perfectly circular face peered out of the gap in the curtains.
Albus stared at the face, and it stared back. Albus couldn't decide if it were a boy or a girl, because the curtains hid so much. He smiled encouragingly and the curtains snapped shut. Hurt at the rebuff, Albus turned away, just before the door scraped open.
"What do you want?" a hoarse voice whispered.
Albus turned around. The face was attached to a body, which relieved Albus immeasurably. The body was rotund and dressed in Muggle clothing. They looked like boy's clothes, but with Muggle stuff it was hard to tell.
"I was just looking for a place to sit," he said.
"Are you a first-year?" asked the boy.
"Yes. Are you?"
"Yes." The boy hesitated, chewing his lip. Albus watched in fascination. Everything about the boy brought to mind a cosseted sausage, especially his large pale lips, but Albus rather liked the look of him. For one thing, he didn't appear to be the sort of boy who'd turn people into slugs at the least provocation, which trait was infinitely attractive to Albus.
Taking the initiative, Albus asked, "Could I sit in your carriage? Mouse and I won't take up much room, I promise."
"Who's Mouse?" The boy was instantly on the defensive again, peering around Albus as if he were hiding an army of rodents behind his back.
Albus smiled again. "Let me in and I'll show you."
"All right," agreed the boy, so warily Albus had to wonder if there were a James in his family tree too.
One of the seats in the carriage was almost swamped by a huge shiny bag. The boy shoved it aside and sat down, gesturing Albus to the opposite seat.
"Why don't you put your bag up in the luggage rack?" suggested Albus.
"Oh." The boy looked a little shame-faced. "I couldn't lift it, it's too heavy."
"You can do magic on the train, you know," said Albus kindly.
The boy looked even more uncomfortable, and increasingly like a chipolata. "I don't know any magic."
"Well, lots of people don't." Albus parroted the party line, but he had his doubts. Unless the boy was the first in his whole family to be a wizard, he would be vastly outnumbered by people with some magical know-how. And if he was the first, why hadn't he read some of his books? "I'll do it for you." He took out his wand. It was fourteen inches - two more than James', to his absolute disgust - of cherrywood with a mermaid fin core. It still felt slick and strange in his hand, but Albus had been practising incantations since he could talk.
"You'd better mind your head," he told the boy. "I don't know how great my aim is going to be."
The boy scrambled to the other corner as Albus pointed his wand at the bag and said, as clearly as he could, "Wingardium Leviosa!"
For a moment he thought he'd failed. Then the bag wriggled and began to rise, with one end leading the way. It crawled vertically through the air, creeping towards the luggage rack, and Albus was quite pleased with himself until -
"The zip, I forgot to close the zip!" the boy was shrieking, as dozens of small objects showered down on them. Albus hastily yelled, "Finite Incantem!" The bag flopped back on to the seat, its contents spewed all over the floor and seats of the compartment.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," the boy was gabbling. Albus got to his knees and grabbed up handfuls of tiny packages. They looked vaguely familiar.
"Hey, these are Muggle sweets, aren't they?" he said, delighted.
"Yeah, my mum gave me loads for the train journey," said the boy. "Most of the bag was filled with sweets."
"We'll have to pick them up by hand," said Albus. "I forget the spell for packing things away, and it's quite hard anyway - third-year level."
"Wow, you know so much." The boy didn't sound admiring so much as thoroughly disheartened.
"I have an older brother who's already at school here," said Albus, settling on this as the most tactful reply. Within a few minutes most of the sweets were retrieved and Albus had his lap filled with Smarties at the boy's insistence.
"We probably should have done this at the beginning," he said indistinctly, "but my name's Albus Potter and I'm from Godric's Hollow, Oxfordshire. What about you?"
The boy started. "Albus Potter? That means -"
"Yeah, my dad's the one who owns the joke shops." Albus was used to this reaction by now. But the boy was shaking his head.
"No," he said, "it means we're related."
"We're related?" Albus stared at the boy in shock, studying him closely. He had short wavy brown hair, a pudgy nose and the remnants of a summer tan. "You don't look much like a Weasley."
"That's 'cause I'm not," said the boy, who looked warier than ever. "I'm … a Dursley, from Little Whinging in Surrey."
"A Dursley." The name rang a faint bell, but Albus could not for the life of him think why. "Was your mum a Weasley, then? Not - the accountant?"
"My mother used to be a model, but her name was Crystal Starr, not Weasley," said the boy. "My uncle's an accountant, though."
"That's so cool," said Albus, who had no idea what an accountant was, but had decided from the way it was spoken about in his family that it was something dreadfully sexy and rebellious. "But I don't see how you can be related to me if you're not a Weasley. Most of my mum's relatives are male."
"What's your dad's name?" asked the boy.
"Harry Potter," said Albus. The boy nodded.
"Harry Potter is my dad's cousin. My grandmother Petunia was his aunt. Dad told me all about Harry Potter - he saved their lives." The boy held out his hand. "I'm Rambo Dursley. Pleased to meet you."
"It's just so strange that Dad never told me he had relatives still alive!" Albus was torn between delight at discovering this second cousin and confusion at his father's reticence.
"Y'see, Dad and his parents had to go into this kind of witness protection scheme years and years ago," said Rambo. "Maybe they weren't allowed to keep contact. The Ministry visited us a couple of times to tell us about your dad, but they wouldn't let on where he was. It was probably all covered up by the FBI and everything, like the alien landings at Roswell!"
"What's the FBI?" asked Albus. As Rambo meandered through an explanation, Albus realised all his pity at Rambo's lack of magical knowledge had disappeared. Albus' only real contact with Muggles had been through Mr and Mrs Granger, who were a little senile and whose main interest in life was where their next cup of tea was coming from. Rambo had so much more to share, none of it so far appreciably tea-related.
Rambo's segue into the X-Files and vampire-slayers ('- but you can't kill a vampire, that's considered murder, unless they attack you first -" "- wait, you mean there really are vampires? Oh my god -") was interrupted by a knock at the door. "Anything from the trolley, dears?" called a female voice.
"I could do with some sandwiches," said Albus. He looked regretfully at the stacks of sweet papers littering his seats, reflecting that his grandmother's rants about the unwholesomeness of too many treats between meals were not entirely unfounded. "What about you?"
"I'm fine," said Rambo, massaging his belly. Albus opened the door and fished his train money out of his satchel, bumping Mouse on the way. After he'd paid a Sickle for a pile of sandwiches the height of his head, he took out Mouse. At this point he was a little nervous. He was starting to like Rambo, and he didn't want him to think that having a toy mascot was too childish for people of eleven and nearly a half.
"Hey," he said, "this is Mouse. I was telling you before..." He cupped Mouse in the palms of his hands and held them out.
Rambo put down his sixteenth Yorkie and leaned forward. "Hello, Mouse," he said solemnly.
Albus gently stroked the worn grey fur on Mouse's head. "Hello," said Mouse, in a voice that bore a great resemblance to Albus', but came unmistakably from Mouse.
"Did you do that?" demanded Rambo. Albus laughed.
"Sort of. You see, Mouse is magical too. My godmother charmed him to learn to say whatever I taught him. He can move, too - whenever I call him, he'll find me, no matter where he is."
"He's awesome," said Rambo, patting Mouse's velvet paw.
"Thank you," said Mouse, and Rambo laughed - a high, clear, childish laugh that Albus couldn't help joining in with.
"There's someone I'd like Mouse to meet," said Rambo, a little shyly. He rummaged in his bag and withdrew a tattered soft toy in the shape of a whale. "This is Bruce. He can't talk or anything, but he's still really special."
"Of course he is," said Albus, directing Mouse's paw to shake hands with Bruce's flipper. "And you know, once we start classes, we could probably enchant him to talk as well."
"Really?" Rambo's face lit up. "That would be great."
"Yeah, I know lots about the library. My Aunt Hermione -"
"Oh Potter number two, where are you?" sing-songed a voice from outside. Albus froze. "Where's darling Ass?"
"It's my brother," whispered Albus. "Quickly, put Bruce away. And shove your bag under the seat."
"But why -"
"Just do it!"
"Maybe he's in ... this compartment!" James yanked back the sliding door with a triumphant flourish. "Ah, there you are, Ass. I was starting to think you'd fallen off the train. What a pity you didn't - I had a celebration all planned."
"Go away, James," said Albus, not because he thought James would, but because it was the least inflammatory reply he could give. And worse things happened when you ignored James entirely.
"And what's this?" crowed James, his eyes roving over Rambo's face. "Don't tell me - you Transfigured a dustmite into a pretend friend but got a pile of lard instead!"
"Shut up!" yelled Albus, as Rambo turned a deep scarlet. "Don't insult my friend!"
"Your friend?" James pretended to do a double take. "Then that isn't a fatcake I see before me -"
"Oh, there you are, James." Rose appeared in the doorway, her curls artfully tousled. "I've been looking for you all over, Sarah Baddock wants to meet you."
"I'm going to have to start charging entrance fees," said James with a grimace. "You know I want people to love me for my mind, not my body."
"Trust me, their love isn't for either of those things," retorted Rose. Her gaze rested on Albus for a split second, and she deigned to acknowledge him with a tight little nod. "Are you coming?"
"I just want to give my dear young brother some Sorting advice," said James. He slid further into the compartment in order to flick Albus right between the eyes. "Listen to me, Ass. If the Sorting Hat tries to suffocate you like it should, just let it, you hear?" He grinned. "What do you say?"
"Thank you, James," intoned Albus.
"James, come on." Rose tugged at her cousin's arm. "Didn't you want to say hello to little Scorpius?"
"Oh yes," said James with relish. "Be seeing you, twitface."
When they disappeared Albus waited a few minutes, then carefully checked the corridor. It was clear. He breathed a heartfelt sigh of relief.
"That was your brother?" said Rambo.
"Yes," said Albus, biting back the bitter retort that was souring on his tongue. He scooped Mouse out of his satchel and pressed him close under his folded arms.
"What was he saying about a hat suffocating you?"
"That's the Sorting Hat - don't worry, it's never suffocated anyone. Hogwarts has four Houses, Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Slytherin and Ravenclaw, and the Hat chooses which one you'll be in."
"Which one is the best?" asked Rambo eagerly.
Albus stifled his instinctive reply, which was 'the one in which James isn't.' "Everyone has a different opinion on that," he said slowly. "You're supposed to have all these qualities that define the House that suits you best. But the Hat has never chosen wrongly and all the Houses are good in their own way."
"Oh, that's all right then," said Rambo, applying himself to a Mars Bar with renewed vigour.
Albus only wished he shared Rambo's happy ignorance.
Albus had told Rambo all about the boat trip to the castle, but the reality was far from what he'd expected. He was more than a little afraid: not of the Squid, whom he knew to be a harmless herbivore, but of the black depths of the lake and his own poor swimming skills. Rambo was lolling about complaining of lake-sickness and making the little craft rock alarmingly. The two girls sharing the boat with them looked like they didn't know whether to laugh or express sympathy, and settled for not saying anything at all. At another time Albus would have quite liked to make their acquaintance. They looked like twins, both with bottle-end glasses and serious expressions. However, his fear of imminent death distracted him too much for him to be properly social.
As they crossed the vast Entrance Hall, Albus caught a glimpse of his cousin Rose in the midst of an adoring crowd. A lot of Uncle Ron's friends had children their age and who frequently visited them in London. Rose, whose father was the Senior Undersecretary to the Minister for Magic and whose mother was a tireless political campaigner, was the acknowledged queen of the young fry. Dad preferred solitude, and the other wizarding families in Godric's Hollow had children who were all much older than the Potters. Justine Bagshot, who was a fifth-year, had vaguely promised Mum that she'd 'look out for him' during the first few weeks, but that was as far as the friendships went.
Rambo stuck close to Albus, his pale face and wide-open mouth and eyes making him look like an ghostly bowling ball. When a genuine ghost popped out of the skirting board to wave his be-plumed hat, Rambo gave a yelp and dived behind Albus. Albus recognised the ghost from James' description as Nearly Headless Nick, but he was too occupied in helping Rambo to his feet to come to Nick's attention. A plump friar smiled at him as he floated by and said, "All right there, son?"
"Fine, thanks," said Albus. In a lower voice he said, "Don't be scared. Ghosts are normal and they can't hurt you."
"What about him?" Rambo pointed a quaking finger at a grim-faced ghost covered in quicksilver bloodstains.
"That must be the Bloody Baron. Just stay out of his way," advised Albus. He decided not to tell Rambo that the Bloody Baron was Slytherin House's ghost. He got the feeling Rambo would not be Sorted into Slytherin. For one thing, he seemed to have as much cunning as a tomato.
Due to Rambo's diversion they were among the last to enter the Great Hall. As he trailed up between the tables Albus spotted many familiar faces, most notably his cousin Victoire and her younger sister Marie-Jeanette, who both gave him cheery waves. Rambo's eyes widened at the sight of them, and Albus decided that a brief history of Veelas could wait until another time. The Deputy Headmaster, Professor Longbottom, had already finished setting up the stool and Hat. He gave Albus the tiniest of winks.
"All the first years, please line up," said Professor Longbottom. "Your names will be called in alphabetical order. When your House has been chosen, just follow the sound of cheering to the right table. Understood?"
There was a soft chorus of 'yes's and 'yeah's. The Sorting Hat opened its brim and a few first-years gasped.
"Children of Hogwarts," it said, "another year has passed and another crop has been harvested. As ever, it is my duty to Sort you into your respective Houses. It is a task I still fear is wrong, but I will do it all the same.
"Gryffindor has the blazing fame,
That follows fleet its famous name,
People strong and brave and true,
Wait here and ready to greet you.
"Yet beware of what price is paid,
By those who too proud are made.
"Ravenclaw is the home of those
In whose minds is worth enclosed,
They have great wit and thirst to know
In what soil the wisest heads can grow.
"But take heed and remember all
That pride does come before a fall.
"Hufflepuff is home to friends
Who will be yours until the end,
Their loyalty never shadowed by doubt
Fidelity never shall they flout.
"It is best to recall, just in case,
Some pride is more than friends can face.
"Slytherin, the house of bad repute,
Debates always the nature of the truth,
Yet in the end these cunning few,
Know always that their House is true.
"Lest ye forget the tales of yore,
Pride is what felled ye all before."
"Thank you for those wise words," said Professor Longbottom gravely. "I hope you all took note. Now: Norma Abbott!"
One of the girls who'd shared the boat with Albus and Rambo stepped forward. Almost instantly, the Hat declared her for Slytherin. The far right table exploded in cheers. Norma, looking extremely surprised, went to join her new House.
The other girl stepped up to the stool. She looked stubborn before the Hat dropped over her face, and after about five minutes the Hat, sounding beleaguered, yelled, "Hufflepuff!"
Albus knew he'd be near the end of the queue and prepared himself for a nerve-wracking wait. Before he knew it Rambo's name was called. Albus whispered 'Good luck,' and squeezed Rambo's freezing hand.
The Hat named him a Hufflepuff, and Rambo sat down at the right hand table wreathed in smiles. Albus felt his heart sink.
And then there were three: Albus, Rose and a thin, pale boy Albus hadn't seen before. This wasn't surprising, given how secluded Godric's Hollow was, but he was startled by the hostility emanating from Rose. Albus was so far beneath Rose's notice that he didn't merit hostility, so it was all directed at the boy. For his part, the boy either feigned not to notice or truly didn't, his eyes trained on the Hat.
"Scorpius Malfoy!" called Professor Longbottom. A low muttering ran around the room. Scorpius shook himself, as if out of a daze, and sat down on the stool as regally as if it had been a throne.
"Slytherin," said the Hat, in a laughing voice. Scorpius seemed to deflate, his face the picture of relief as he stalked away to his table.
Although he knew what to do, Albus' hands still shook as he pulled the hat brim down over his eyes. The velvety darkness inside was welcoming.
"A Potter, eh?" said the Hat. Albus jumped. No one had ever said anything about the Hat holding private conversations. "A most unusual breed, the Potters. Not like the Weasleys, although you have a lot of Weasley in you. Hmm, this is rather tricky. Intelligent enough for Ravenclaw, sneaky enough for Slytherin, brave enough for Gryffindor -"
"Not Gryffindor," whispered Albus, "please."
"Whyever not?" The Hat sounded genuinely surprised. Albus gummed his lips together. He couldn't do much about the Hat reading his mind, but not for worlds would he talk disparagingly about his family to a complete stranger.
"Ah-ahh," said the Hat. "You have many fine qualities in small portions, like most people, but the one that stands out the most strongly is loyalty. Loyalty and fairness. Maybe you'll grow up to be the first just Potter, eh? I can't pass up a chance like that. I say you are a -"
Albus could see a gleam of light as the Hat slid upwards.
It was a good thing Albus already knew where his table was, because the hall had gone utterly silent. Not one clap or cheer guided Albus on his way.