The large snowy owl attracted one or two curious looks, but for the most part, no one noticed one lone boy with very messy black hair pushing a trolley between platforms nine and ten.
Harry had arrived at King's Cross an hour before the train was supposed to leave. Hagrid had explained that he needed to walk through the barrier between platforms nine and ten, and Harry wanted to make sure he had enough time to do it without anyone watching. It was easier than he expected.
Platform Nine and Three-Quarters had just about a dozen people. Most of them were dressed in normal—Muggle—clothes, but a few were wearing robes, and one woman was wearing a very pointy scarlet hat. A kind-looking couple nearby were saying goodbye to their daughter, a girl with very bushy brown hair.
"Study hard," said the woman.
"And don't do anything dangerous," said the man.
"I'll be fine," said the girl firmly, though her eyes were a little misty. She got on the train, waved one last time, and went inside to get a seat.
Harry pushed his trolley towards the train and began struggling with his trunk. The father of the brown-haired girl took a step forward and lifted the other end of the trunk. He wore curly brown hair and a smile.
"Thanks," said Harry, gratefully.
Together, they carried the trunk onto the train.
"Is this your first year at Hogwarts?" the man asked kindly.
Harry nodded, panting a little with the weight of the trunk. They stepped into a compartment and put the trunk in one corner.
"What's your name, young man?" he asked.
"Harry. Harry Potter."
"I'm Dr. Granger. It's my little Hermione's first year, too." He beamed at the girl with bushy brown hair, who was reading a book in the far corner of the compartment. She glanced up and raised a hand in greeting.
"Thank you," said Harry again, not sure what else to say. He wiped the sweat off his forehead, and Hermione looked at his head curiously.
"I'll let you two get settled," said Dr. Granger, and he got off the train. Harry saw him talking with Hermione's mother outside, a woman with sleek blonde hair and an air of seriousness about her.
"You really are Harry Potter, aren't you?" asked Hermione Granger, and Harry nodded. "I've read about you in The Rise and Fall of the Dark Arts and Wizards and Witches of the 20th Century, have you read either of them?"
Harry shook his head.
"Really? Well, I've learned everything in our course books already, and I would've wanted to learn everything I could about your past, if I were you. I brought a few books on the train, just in case—what have you read?"
"Just—just a little in our book about the history of magic," Harry managed. Hermione spoke quickly and matter-of-factly, and Harry was beginning to feel very nervous. He had read a lot from his books, but he hadn't memorized them.
"That's all? Well, that's a good place to start, I suppose. My favorite so far is Hogwarts, A History. Did you know that Hogwarts is one of the most magical places in the world?"
And she was off, reciting all sorts of facts about the school and its founders. Harry nodded and listened and tried to remember as much as he could; he didn't want to fall behind, and Hermione clearly had a head start. He found the story of the four founders particularly interesting.
"Wait—Slytherin left the school? Just because they wouldn't stop teaching Muggle-borns?"
"Yes!" said Hermione breathlessly, who had not stopped speaking until Harry's question. She looked like she wanted to explain more, but the compartment door opened, and two more people entered—a girl with a round face and a black braid, and a boy with short, curly black hair.
"Mind if we sit down?" the girl asked.
"Of course, there's plenty of room," said Hermione.
The pair started dragging their trunks into the compartment. Harry and Hermione got up to help, and soon they both all stowed away.
"I'm Alicia Spinnet, and this is my brother Charles. Who are you?"
"Hermione Granger," said Hermione.
"Harry—Harry Potter," said Harry.
The dark-haired siblings' eyes widened. Charles's mouth opened slightly in awe. "Do you have the scar?" he asked.
Harry nodded and pulled his hair back slightly.
"Wow!" said Alicia. "I'm sure you'll be in Gryffindor, a hero like you."
Harry felt himself going red, and he opened his mouth to protest that he couldn't even remember it, but Charles spoke first. "We can't all be Gryffindors," he said, sounding annoyed.
"What house are you in?" asked Hermione. "What are they like?"
"Charles is in Ravenclaw," explained Alicia. "Which is mostly brainy people. Most of our family is in Gryffindor, the house of loyalty and courage." She grinned.
"What are Hufflepuff and Slytherin like?" Harry asked.
"Hufflepuff is all about hard work, kindness, that sort of thing," said Alicia. "I always get along well with Hufflepuffs. Slytherin is just the opposite, it's full of mean, nasty people-"
"That's not true," said Charles. "I have some Slytherin friends. They're just... good at getting what they want."
"Whatever," Alicia said, waving a hand dismissively.
Harry felt uncomfortable. He wasn't sure which house fit him the best, but he hoped it wasn't Slytherin. Hadn't Hagrid said that Dark wizards always came from Slytherin?
He was distracted from these thoughts by the train beginning to leave. He and Hermione had both arrived so early, he had almost forgotten they were still at King's Cross. Hermione moved closer to him and pulled a book out of her bag. It had a picture of two wands crossed on the cover, with a green skull and snake in the background. At the top it read, The Rise and Fall of the Dark Arts. Hermione opened it and began flipping towards the end.
"This book is all about how Voldemort rose to power," said Hermione, not noticing Alicia and Charles wincing. "He was basically unstoppable, until..."
Harry saw his name on the page. He read about how his parents had opposed Voldemort, how Voldemort had come to kill them, succeeded, and raised his wand against Harry. How Voldemort had disappeared, and Harry had lived.
Harry wiped a tear from his eye and turned the page.
The final chapter of the book explained how former Dark wizards claimed to have been controlled by an "Imperius" curse, or turned state's witness, or tried to go into hiding. He read how four Voldemort supporters tortured another couple, Frank and Alice Longbottom, leaving them in a coma and their new son Neville practically an orphan, but the four were captured and sent to a prison called Azkaban. He read about Lucius Malfoy's acquittal, Sirius Black's blowing up a street full of Muggles, and Igor Karkaroff's giving of names. The book mentioned rumors that someone called Severus Snape was a spy for Albus Dumbledore against Voldemort. Soon, the book was a whirlwind of names and stories, but Harry tried to remember it all. He felt like the fall of the Dark Arts was part of his own history, something he had never known before. The Dursleys had never talked about his past, except to say that his parents died in a car crash.
The book ended with a passage speculating how Harry survived—that, perhaps, he was an exceptionally powerful good (or evil) wizard, and that his power broke the Dark Lord's; that his mother, gifted with charms, had cast powerful defensive magic on him just before her death; that Harry was born immortal; or that a lucky explosion of uncontrolled magic had defeated Voldemort by chance. According to the experts, none of these explanations was very likely, but everyone agreed: something strange had happened that night.
The compartment door opened, and a witch with a smile and a cart opened looked inside and asked if they'd like anything to eat.
Harry had never seen anything so wonderful in his life—partly because he was hungry, but also because wizard snacks and candies are wonderful in and of themselves. There were candies that fizzed like soda, frog-shaped chocolates, bottles of pumpkin juice, Electric Eggs, and Floating Sandwiches. Alicia and Charles ordered a couple of their old favorites, Hermione got one bottle of pumpkin juice, and Harry bought a little of everything.
The other three stared as he brought his armful of snacks back into the room. "I've never had anything like this before," he explained, and he sat down.
"Well, don't eat those sandwiches too fast," said Charles. "Or their spell will make you start floating, too."
Harry laughed and placed his book on top of his sandwiches, which had already begun rising into the air.
Hermione rolled her eyes and went back to her book.
"Go on, Hermione," said Harry. "Your parents are Muggles, aren't they? You have to try some of this."
He opened a chocolate and started as it jumped away, into the middle of the room. Hermione smiled in spite of herself.
"Go on," he said, pushing another frog towards her.
She took it and began nibbling the chocolate absentmindedly. She seemed more interested in a card that had fallen out of the wrapper.
"What's that?" Harry asked.
"It's moving," said Hermione in amazement.
Alicia and Charles were happy to explain about magical, moving pictures and collecting the cards. Harry and Hermione admired the card together in silence, as a picture of a very old wizard waved at them.
"Albus Dumbledore," Hermione read. "Professor McGonagall told us about him, and I've read about him in some of my books. Inventor of dozens of magical devices, and quite an expert at dueling... he's absolutely brilliant, although I don't think he teaches any classes himself."
"Nope," said Alicia.
"I really wish he did," continued Hermione. "He's bound to be the most talented wizard at Hogwarts. I'd love to learn from him personally. He's fought dark wizards himself, did you know? The greatest Dark wizard of the century, before Voldemort-"
Alicia and Charles winced at the Dark Lord's name.
"Grindelwald was unstoppable, and Dumbledore beat him single-handedly. I hear his knowledge of Charms and Transfiguration is very impressive, too, and I am really looking forward to those. There's just so much to learn."
Hermione looked as if she wanted to say more, but was overcome by a chocolate frog that her hand had automatically placed in her mouth. Apparently hunger had overruled her desire to talk.
Meanwhile, Harry looked at the Albus Dumbledore card she was holding. He never read it carefully enough to see the name of notable alchemist Nicholas Flamel. Instead, he pushed a floating sandwich towards Hermione. He enjoyed having someone to share with, and as Hermione nudged the sandwich through the air curiously, he felt comforted that he wasn't discovering this magical world alone.
"We'd better change into our Hogwarts robes soon," said Charles, finishing his own snack and standing up. Alicia stood up, too.
"Let's do girls first, then guys. You two, stand guard," she said firmly. Harry stood up and walked to the door obediently, preoccupied by the hard-boiled egg that was crackling gently in his hand.
Not long after everyone had changed, and Harry was just beginning to feel full, the compartment door opened again, and a boy with a boyish, round face and thoughtful brown eyes entered.
"Has anyone seen a toad?" he asked sadly.
Everyone shook their heads, but Hermione volunteered to help look for the toad, and Harry followed. They stuffed their treats into their pockets, and Alicia waved. "Bye, Harry!" she said, cheerfully. "Good to meet you, Hermione!" Harry returned her wave a little awkwardly.
As the compartment door slid closed behind them, Harry offered a chocolate to the boy. "I'm Harry Potter," he said kindly, hoping to cheer him up.
"Neville Longbottom," said the boy, his eyes lingering on Harry's forehead.
Longbottom... The name sounded familiar to Harry.
"I'm Hermione Granger," said Hermione. "Now, let's find this toad of yours, it's got to be around here somewhere."
"I've already checked most of the train," said Neville, looking melancholy. "I'll never hear the end of it from my gran if I've lost him."
Harry furrowed his forehead for a moment. Was it a gift from his gran, or did he just live with her?
His heart skipped a beat as he remembered a passage from his book: Dark wizards tortured Frank and Alice Longbottom, leaving them in a coma and their young son Neville practically an orphan. His heart went out to Neville. He, more than anyone else, knew what it was like to lose your parents because of Voldemort's power. "Don't worry, we'll find your toad," he said gently.
Neville opened another compartment on the right, and Harry and Hermione opened one on the left.
"Oh, it's you," said the unpleasant boy with pale hair that Harry had met in Madam Malkin's robe shop. "We're all full in here. What do you want?"
"We're looking for a toad," said Harry, trying to be polite.
The boy rolled his eyes, and several of his friends sniggered. "You're helping Longbottom? Don't you have anything better to do? You never did tell me your family name," said the boy, taking a swig from a bottle of pumpkin juice.
"Potter. Harry Potter," said Harry, and it occurred to him that his fame might actually be useful here.
The boy coughed on his pumpkin juice.
"Are you really?" said a girl across the compartment.
Harry nodded and pulled back his hair, exposing his scar a little defiantly.
"And you're hanging out with a Longbottom?" asked the pale-haired boy scornfully.
"What do you want the toad for, anyway?" asked another boy.
"Well, seeing as he's the most powerful young wizard in the world, he's planning to brew a potion to torment his enemies," said Hermione angrily, looking pointedly at the pale-haired boy. Harry thought she sounded sarcastic, but the pale-haired boy's eyes widened. "And if you want to stay on his good side, I suggest you keep an eye out for a toad!"
She slammed the compartment door shut and took a deep breath.
"I'm sorry about that, I shouldn't have used you to scare him, but I wanted to shut him up about Neville-"
But Harry was laughing. "That was brilliant, Hermione," he said.
She flushed slightly.
"What are you laughing about?" Neville asked.
"Oh, she just convinced a bully that I'm going to bewitch him or something," said Harry. "Since I'm 'The Boy Who Lived' and everything."
Neville laughed. "Well, don't get a big head, Potter."
Harry went a little red, but he felt like Neville had a point. Neville also flushed and looked at Harry anxiously, perhaps worried he had said too much. Harry looked away to give himself a little time to think about it.
They never did find the toad, but they had a lot of fun laughing and getting to know each other. More and more, other students got bored and started running through the corridor, chasing each other and shouting gleefully. Hermione huffed every time one of them rushed by.
Towards the other end of the train, they found a red-haired boy sitting in a compartment alone. "We should sit in here and rest for a while," said Hermione firmly, muttering something about juvenile behavior. The red-haired boy looked glad to have some company.
"You have dirt on your nose," said Hermione, by way of introduction.
"I'm Ron Weasley," he said, glaring at her.
Neville and Harry introduced themselves likewise, and Ron and Neville started talking about Quidditch, which sounded to Harry like a wonderful game.
"It sounds dangerous," said Hermione. "I don't know what people are thinking, playing a game like that on broomsticks. Especially with those Bludgeons-"
"Bludgers," Ron and Neville said automatically.
"It doesn't sound safe at all. I'm sure nobody is foolish enough to play Quidditch at Hogwarts. I wonder if we'll be there soon? I think I'll go ask the conductor." Without waiting for a response, she hopped up and left the compartment, although she gave Harry a small smile as she left.
"She's really-" said Ron.
"Confident," said Neville.
"Bossy," said Ron.
"Intense," said Harry. As the three looked at each other in surprise, Harry added, "I think she's brilliant."