Harry pressed his forehead against the sickly green curse which crouched over the clutch of eggs. “This is for you,” he whispered. “I promise.” Closing his eyes, he drew away.
“Ready?” asked the basilisk.
“I think so,” Harry said softly. “Oh, no, wait—I forgot something in Sal’s room.”
The basilisk followed him, watching in silence as he rifled through Sal’s desk drawers. “Here,” he said.
“His stew recipe?”
Harry shrugged, shoving it in his bag. “Okay, I think that’s it. Oh, wait—no, there’s something in the den I need.”
The basilisk followed as he clambered into the den, moving piles of clothes until he found a ratty green scarf. He wrapped it around his neck. “In case—in case my other one gets lost.”
“Is that it?”
“I think so. Oh, wait—”
Harry looked at his shoes. “I don’t want to leave you.”
“I don’t want you to leave. I have precious little time with you already. But this was your decision. Are you changing your mind?” It shot him a sideways glance. “You can change your mind.”
“I haven’t changed my mind,” Harry said miserably. “I know this is the right path.”
Everyone thought it was. Limmy, Araeo, Ava, even the acromantulae, though it meant a waning of his duties. He thought it was a good idea. And yet....
Harry let out a sob and flung his arms around the basilisk’s nose. “I’ll see you at winter holiday. I’ll miss you.”
The basilisk flicked its tongue over his face. “I will be right beneath your feet.”
Invisible, Harry lurked in the toilet of Hogsmeade station, waiting for the train to arrive.
It was Myrtle who had told him that students took the train to Hogwarts, and, having found the Hogsmeade train station, there had been notices up about the arrival time of the Hogwarts Express. He’d shown up and locked himself in a stall an hour early, just in case.
He tried to practice some calming breathing exercises as he sat there, perched on the toilet tank, scuffed and haggard trunk at his feet and bag in his lap. He had only been to Hogsmeade the once, when he had ventured out to purchase school supplies with strange currency that Myrtle and the basilisk had collected over the years, and half the basilisk’s had been too old to use, and he’d gotten strange looks from the shopkeepers over it.
Today, he would officially become a student at Hogwarts.
He had been living beneath the castle for three years, but he had never, ever thought he might be one of the school’s students. It still seemed an alien concept, like this whole thing might be some sort of practical joke.
He sighed and pressed his hand to his necklaces in reassurance. He was only wearing Araeo’s Stargazer Band pendant, Samba’s pearl, and Limmy’s wand: the ones he could never remove. He felt absolutely naked without his necklace of Chikkeritt’s hair. But Myrtle said he should wear as little odd jewelry as possible. At least all but Samba’s pearl could be tucked beneath his robe.
And he had kept only one bracelet on: the braid of thestral hair, around which he’d woven a single strand of unicorn hair. He rubbed it against his cheek now for comfort, feeling like he was going to throw up.
Invisible, Harry lurked in the toilet of Hogsmeade station, waiting for the train to arrive.
Outside, there came the loud whistle of a steam engine. Harry jolted in place, hitting the back of his head against the wall. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d heard a train whistle.
This was it.
Heart in his throat, he forced himself to count to a hundred, until he could hear a rush of people flooding into the station. Then, pulling his favorite purple hat down over his forehead, wanting very badly to have a long cry, he slung on his pack, picked up his taped-together trunk, and exited the bathroom to join the throng.
It wasn’t unlike how he’d used to lurk around the corridors, he tried to convince himself. It wasn’t unlike that at all.
It was very unlike that. Students were simply everywhere, dragging trunks, hauling owls and cats in crates, screaming each others’ names, embracing. Harry knew half of them, and yet he was lost in the crowd. Utterly overwhelmed, he let himself be swept away.
“Firs’ years over here!” came a booming voice. Harry looked to it like a beacon—Hagrid, head and shoulders above the students, waving his pink umbrella in the air. “Firs’ years! Over here!”
Harry attempted to shoulder his way towards the man, with difficulty. He ran smack into someone’s chest, knocking his hat askew.
“Here now, Fred!”
“I’ll be, George!”
“That’s never Titchy T, is it?”
Harry looked up into the Weasley twins’ faces. They were astonished and delighted. “Hello,” he said smally.
“You’re going to Hogwarts!” shouted George gleefully.
The twins maneuvered him so they were a wall between him and the surging crowd. Fred leaned down, snatched his hat off, ruffled his hair, and shoved the hat back on. “Merlin’s soggy knickers, Snake! I can’t believe it!”
“Call me Harry now,” said Harry, scowling. The name tasted funny in his mouth. “And don’t say a word about me, understand? Pretend you never met me.”
Fred clapped his hands to his heart. George put his to his forehead, as if he would faint. “You wound us, Sna—Harry. We never break a promise!”
“And didn’t we promise?” Fred demanded. “On the forefathers of mischief themselves?”
“That’s a promise for life,” George said. “Say, you look a bit pale.”
The crowd was dwindling. He had to get to Hagrid. “I’m going to be sick,” he told them.
“Never fear,” George said. “For do you know who else is a wee firstie this year?”
“Our ickle brother Ronnie,” said Fred.
“There’s more of you?” demanded Harry.
They guffawed. Fred said, “Just spy the tall one with red hair and freckles, tell him we sent you over.”
“He’ll stick beside you,” said George. “And if anyone tries to mess with you, Titchy T, you just let them know you’ve got a friend in us.”
George winked, and then Fred winked, they both yanked one corner of his hat down over his glasses, and then they sauntered away.
“Las’ call!” shouted Hagrid. “Firs’ years!”
Harry hurried over to the group of shivering first years. It really was chilly for an early autumn night. He reached them just as Hagrid began leading them towards the lake, a short bit away.
Harry looked wildly around for red hair, found it instantly, and hustled up to the boy’s side. His trunk only had one working wheel, and so he had to drag and heave it behind.
The boy raised an eyebrow at him. He was whip-thin and tall already, freckles splashed over his face. In his hands he clutched a fat rat.
“Er, Ronnie?” Harry asked desperately.
The boy’s face went tomato red. “It’s Ron.”
“I’m sorry!” Harry babbled. “Your brothers, they said to find you!”
“Which ones?” Ron asked.
“Fred and George?”
Ron rolled his eyes. “Oh, met them, did you? Bad luck. Anyway, it’s Ron.” He grinned at Harry. “Who’re you?”
“Harry,” said Harry. “Can I walk with you?”
“Yeah, sure. Do you like quidditch?”
“Like quidditch!” Harry exclaimed, and they were off.
At the lake, a dozen little boats were bobbing. Harry and Ron boarded a boat with a round and frightened looking boy with a toad, and a girl with wild brown hair, nose in a book. Their quidditch talk died off, and even the girl raised her head to watch as they sailed under the deepening sky, stars twinking above. Hogwarts loomed in front of them, and Harry had never seen it quite like this before. It seemed like it grew straight from the landscape, strange and magnificent. He sighed a bit at the sight.
“Look,” Harry said, nudging Ron. He pointed to the sky. “You can see Cetus, the sea monster.”
“Where?” Ron asked, eyebrows pinching.
“Do you like astronomy?” asked the girl. The boy with the toad looked interested.
Harry grinned at her. “Sure. My best friend does, and he tells me a lot. Cetus is what wizards see, but centaurs see a snare trap.”
The girl shut her book with a snap. “That’s so fascinating; I never even thought about magical creatures seeing different things in the stars. Do you know much about it?”
“Centaurs aren’t creatures, they’re people,” Harry said. “I only know what my friend tells me. Like there’s Mira, along the tripwire.”
“Where?” demanded Ron.
“That bright one there.” Harry leaned into his side, tracing his finger along the sky. “Can you see the straight line, and the loop at the end?”
“Yeah, I think so!” Ron said.
“What do you mean, centaurs aren’t creatures?” the girl asked. “I read that’s what they are.” She bit her lip suddenly. “But I’m muggle-born, so maybe there’s something I missed.”
“My gran calls centaurs creatures,” said the toad boy.
“It’s not nice to call them that,” Harry said, getting upset. “Because they’re people and they have actual lives.”
“I heard there’s a centaur herd in the forest here,” Ron said, chipping in.
“They’re a band, not a herd,” Harry snapped. He thought if Bane heard anyone say “centaur herd,” he’d probably trample them. “They’re not—not cows.”
“Right, sorry,” Ron said, leaning a little away from him. “Merlin.”
Harry stared down at his knees, stomach in knots. This was not going well so far.
“I think that makes sense,” the girl said. She stuck out her hand. “I’m Hermione Granger.”
“Harry,” he said, taking her hand.
“I’m Neville,” said the round boy. “I can’t shake your hand or else Trevor will get away. Do you all have pets?”
Hermione and Harry shook their heads, but Ron dug his rat out from a pocket. “This is Scabbers,” he said, holding it up. “He’s missing a finger, which makes him either really lame or really cool depending on which of my brothers you ask. He technically belongs to my brother Percy, but he’s never actually brought him to school, so he’s mine now.”
“I think we’re almost there,” whispered Hermione, as their boat passed into a tunnel.
Harry put his head in his arms. He really was going to be sick.
“Scared of the test?” Ron asked wisely.
Harry’s head shot up. “What test?” he demanded. The others were looking at Ron in alarm as well.
“Fred and George said they had to fight a troll,” Ron said slowly. “I reckon they were having me on. But I’m pretty sure there’s a test.”
“Oh no,” Harry moaned, as Hermione began rattling off a list of the magic she’d been reading about and felt prepared to perform. At least Neville looked as ill as he did.
Ron patted him on the back. “Don’t worry, mate. Maybe we can work in pairs.”
Harry looked at him. “You want to pair up?”
“Sure, why not?” He grinned slightly. Harry beamed back.
They de-boarded at a little dock, and followed the crowd across the lawn and up the castle steps, gathering in the entrance hall. They were instructed to pile their trunks to one end, which Harry did with extreme regret. He fidgeted with his bracelet as he huddled by Ron, Hermione, and Neville, who had formed a little group in self-preservation.
“I can’t do this,” Neville rambled. “I’m practically a squib, my uncle says, I can’t fight a troll, I just can’t.”
“We can pair up,” Hermione offered. “Like Harry and Ron, if you like.”
Neville looked at her almost worshipfully.
Soon enough, Minerva—Professor McGonagall, Harry reminded himself sternly—entered the hall, a list of names tucked under her arm. Scanning them, her eyes caught on him, and he gulped as she pointed.
“No hats unless dress code appropriate,” she said rotely.
Feeling bereft, he pulled his hat off and shoved it in his robe pocket. He frantically tried to flatten his hair, but the twins had messed it up. He didn’t even have his comb.
Hermione, to his surprise, pulled one discreetly from her pocket. “Here.”
“Thanks,” he whispered, running it through his hair quickly. It reached past his shoulders now, and lucky for them the twins hadn’t tangled it too badly.
“You have nice hair,” she said. Harry grinned at her.
Minerva cleared her throat. “Good evening, everyone. I am Minerva McGonagall. Let me be the first to welcome you to Hogwarts. I see both familiar and new faces before me, and I am equally pleased to see every one of you. Some of you may be sorted into my own house, where I will come to know you better, while some of you will go into other houses. Regardless, know that I am always here to support you in any way you require. My office door is always open.
“Now, In a moment I will lead you into the great hall for the sorting ceremony. I will call your name, you will come up to be sorted, and then you will go to your new house table where dinner will be served after the ceremony. From there, your house prefects will lead you to your common rooms. Tomorrow morning, you will have a meeting with your head of house to orient you to Hogwarts, and receive your class schedules.”
She took a deep breath and gave them all a small grin. “Again, I welcome you to Hogwarts. Let us get started, shall we? Shuffle into a line, now.”
They shuffled into a line, Harry between Ron and Hermione. His stomach was positively leaping. “Still partners?” he murmured to Ron.
“Yep,” Ron said, sounding a little green himself.
The doors of the great hall opened, and slowly, anxiously, they filed inside.