A/N: I've recently come to realize that 'When Ordeals Are Real' wasn't a satisfying title for my story. As I explained in the author's notes section of the first chapter, my original concept was to make a Harry Potter story takes place in a harsher version of the cannon set up. But 1) it does imply that what Harry went through in cannon wasn't really dangerous, and I don't support this idea; and 2) the current concept behind the story goes beyond that. Maybe I will change the title of this fic in the (near) future, but I need a good replacement…
Anyway. Nothing drives me to write, nothing forces me to think about my story like a review. Therefore, I'd like to thank every reader, but especially the reviewers ! Here comes my answers ( a bit lengthy, so you might want to skip them):
Twinklestrike: don't worry, I won't forget Harry's magical development. It will, in fact, play an important part in this story. As of Chapter 7, Harry's power and skills are well beyond his peers'. But they're still raw, unrefined – savage would, perhaps, be a better word. All the teachers will play a role in trying to 'civilize' his power, but the professor of Defence against the Dark Arts, ah, I wanted to include him in my story for a reason !
beastman1500: the clichés you describe are a plague. I hope to write something original. In my story, the Weasley would be hard-pressed to betray Harry, who met Ron but only briefly. My Dumbledore is, in many ways but not all, who cannon Dumbledore feared he could become, but at least he isn't afflicted with a backstabbing disorder. I won't delve into politics much, and Harry even less. Finally, conflicts are always complex and painful, and that's how I will depict the Marauder era war and the Grindelwald war. As for the Second Wizarding war… Perhaps it will never happen, who knows ?
RebeccaRoy: on chapter 2: Harry's tough, but his toughness has limits. On chapter 4: I'm glad I managed to surprise you ! On chapter 5: Harry's certainly cunning, but his sorting will be done in chapter 8. And Sirius… Oh, Sirius. Maybe the character I've altered the most, but yes, he's seen things, and how !
Some Guy in an ambulance: the aura of power is what I tried to depict in chapter 1, so I'm especially glad to read your comment on the subject (also, I really like the LotR soundtrack too). I always felt the Hogwarts teacher sometimes didn't live up to their status. I want to show they're experts in their respective specialities, and even beyond ! And Sirius Black, I always thought his 'pranksteness' in cannon was a coping mechanism. A way to tell the world 'you killed my friends, you threw me in Azkaban, but see ? I'm still the same !' In my alternate universe, however, he was never imprisoned, and he mourned differently (I'll expand on that later in the story). And Forester, well, my hints are perhaps a little obvious. Let's just remember the other characters don't read my story !
AimeretVivre: thank you so much ! Ah, Evan. He's a complex character. Love certainly motivates him, and he isn't the most enthusiastic follower of the Dark Lord. But even if he's a loving father and a loving husband, even if he's rather nice to Harry, even if he can recognize a monster when he sees one, it doesn't mean he isn't evil himself ! Nobody is immune to misplaced fanaticism, and Evan was exposed to this disease from the cradle. He did the wrong choice between love and ideals once. If he's forced to choose once again, what will be his decision ? His shade of grey is why I've introduced the Rosier family in the first place. Now, Phoebus. Using this name was very much deliberate, but mainly because he's myth is linked with Daphne. To confuse you a little, I'd just say that all Greek gods (and it's even truer of the Roman ones) can be positive or negative forces. Pluto, god of death, also owns a cornucopia, while Hera, goddess of marriage and fertility, is arguably the meanest deity of the pantheon.
Now, on with the story. But before anything else: DISCLAIMER ! I don't own Harry Potter. I don't even own a house-elf, and Merlin knows I could use one. Where's Dobby when we need him ?
Somewhere in the Hogwarts Express, a boy was feeling a little guilty. All his life, he had lived with his grand-mother. She had been there for his first words, for his first steps. She had fed him, protected him and even cared for him. In short, she had done her best to raise him in his parents' stead. Sure, she was a little strict, but still. Was it right to feel nothing but relief at the idea of passing the whole year away from her ?
"Hey Neville" called Ernie's voice. "Why are you bringing a toad at Hogwarts ?"
The heir of the Longbottom family looked down at the cage lying on his thigh. Inside, Trevor was immobile, his eyes closed as if he was sleeping.
"It's not against the rule" Neville answered, somewhat defensively. "First-years students can bring a pet if it's a cat, a toad or an owl."
"I know that. What I meant is, why a toad ? A cat I'd understand, you can at least stroke it, and it can take care of itself. An owl would be very useful, obviously. But a toad ? It never comes in handy, except maybe in Potions."
"And Herbology" added Susan.
"Nobody cares about Herbology" Ernie retorted, rolling his eyes. "It's the less interesting class we'll have this year."
"Only because Binn's doesn't teach History of Magic any more !"
Neville listened quietly as his more talkative companions vivaciously exchanged rumours about the classes, the teachers and the life at Hogwarts. He too had heard stories from his grandmother and his great uncle Algie, but he wasn't sure whether he should jump in the conversation. Ernie and Susan sounded like they were very close. Even though he had known Hannah and them for a very long time, Neville didn't think they considered him as good a friend as they were to each other.
In the seat next to his, Hannah was sleeping. With nothing better to do, Neville looked back at Trevor. To be honest, he hadn't ask for a toad. He hadn't ask for any pet, but especially not for a toad. They had been fashionable, yes – back in the thirties. But when did the adults ever ask his opinion about anything ? He hadn't even chosen his wand. It was his father's, not his. Although his father couldn't use it right now, what if he recovered ? Wouldn't he want his wand back ?
Slowly, Neville opened Trevor's cage, and delicately took the toad in his hands. Ernie, he decided, had been wrong. One could stroke a toad. It was actually very soothing.
Suddenly, the door was violently opened.
"Good trip to you, dear little first years !"
"My brother George and I were wondering..."
"Wait, is it a toad that just passed us by ?"
"Trevor !" exclaimed Neville.
Panicked by the irruption of the two red-heads,Trevor had escaped his grasp and jumped out of the compartment. Without wasting a moment, Neville squeezed through the twins and went after it. Even if he hadn't wanted it, he wasn't going to lose his toad before the year had even started !
Zacharias Smith was bored, and the fault lied entirely with his three companions. For some reasons, they had started playing a weird Muggle card game whose rules he couldn't fathom. How many similar cards was one supposed to play at once ? One, two ? Three ? And why were they calling each other names without taking offence ? At one point, that Entwhistle bloke had been called a scum by the other Muggleborn – Finch-something – but he had laughed it off. The next turn, it was Hopkins that claimed he was the scum, and so on.
Weirder still, the cards weren't exploding. What was the point of a card game, if the cards never burst in flame ? Decidedly, the Muggles were strange people. They had probably contaminated Entwhistle and his pal with their strangeness, but that Wayne Hopkins had been raised a wizard, so Zacharias couldn't wrap his head around how he could find this game amusing.
Yes, Zacharias was bored. He hoped something would happen to distract him from the ocean of dullness where he was drowning. And his prayers were answered, in the form of a chubby blond boy, who opened their door with a panicked look on his face.
"Excuse me, have you seen my toad ?"
In unison, Zacharias and his companions shook their head.
"Sorry, pal" said Hopkins. "There's no toad here."
"Thank you, I'll search elsewhere !"
And the chubby boy left, as prompty as he had arrived. Zacharias pondered a few instant whether he should go help him find his toad, if only to alleviate his own boredom.
"I'm tired of President" declared Finch-whatever-was-the-second-part-of-his-name. "How about we play something else ?"
His interest diverted, Zacharias looked back at his companion. Maybe he could convince them to play exploding snap ? Alas, his hopes were rapidly shot down.
"Do you know how to play Old Maid ?"
In the long history of the Hogwarts Express, only a handful of compartments had been as silent as Mandy Brocklehurst's. The two boys sitting in front of her had barely pronounced any word except their names: Terry Boot and Stephen Cornfoot. As soon as they'd been installed, they had taken their textbooks out of their trunks and begun to read. Mandy, being a book person herself, was currently doing the very same thing – professor Snape, it was rumoured, expected his students to have read every recipe before the year had even started.
When the bushy-haired girl next to her had arrived, she had behaved as if she wanted to say something long-winded, and Mandy had silently encouraged her, because the trip was beginning to become monotonous. But the Granger girl had changed her mind, and only presented herself before imitating the rest of the compartment. If Mandy wasn't mistaken, the four of them would very soon form a band of merry Ravenclaw bookworms.
In the corridor, quick footsteps resounded nearer and nearer, until a round-faced boy arrived and entered their compartment.
"Hum… Sorry to disturb you, but have you seen my toad ?"
'His toad ?' frowned Mandy. It was probably his pet, but not a common one for a first-year student. She was about to advise him to ask the prefect to cast a summoning charm on it, but the only other girl among them was quicker.
"I haven't seen it, unfortunately. Try another compartment, maybe ?"
"Thank you, I will !"
And just like that, the boy was gone again. During the whole interaction, Cornfoot had only raised his eyes for a short instant, and Boot not at all.
"In my opinion, visits to Hogsmeade shouldn't be restricted to the third year students and above" declared Galatea. "I mean, either it's safe, or it isn't. But if it wasn't, they wouldn't allow any student to go there at all, right ? Therefore, it probably isn't a safety issue. Maybe the adults think we would recklessly spend all our pocket sickles at Zonko's or Honeydukes, but according to what, I've heard older students aren't much wiser anyway, so it's not a valid argument. Is there some place at Hogsmeade they think our innocent eyes shouldn't see ? If only ! The worst I can think of is Madam Puddifoot's Tea Shop, and although the decoration is atrocious, it wouldn't scare off even the most timorous infant. And please, don't mention the Shrieking Shack. After thirteen years without any shriek, it doesn't really deserve its name. No, this is another example of an arbitrary rule set by the adults just because they love rules and prohibitions when they don't apply to them."
"You've given it a lot of thought" gasped Jane.
"I don't think your reasoning is sound," observed Draco tiredly, "but before I try to prove it… You already went to Hogsmeade once, didn't you ?"
"Well, yes" shrugged Galatea. "It's the largest non-Muggle settlement in Britain, after all. Of course my parents would have brought me there once or twice."
"Neither did mine."
A short moment of awkward silence followed. It hadn't taken too long for Jane to realize something had happened to Draco's mother. Conversely, he had probably put two and two together, and concluded her dad's situation wasn't easy either. On the other hand, it didn't look like Galatea had grown aware of the careful silence that surrounded their missing parents. It was a little miracle she hadn't outright stepped on a Fire Crab yet.
"Mine did" she shrugged. "Jumping to another subject, do any of you collect Chocolate Frog cards ?"
Jane and Draco shook their head in unison.
"Really ? I can't believe it ! I've learnt more about history thanks to the Chocolate Frog cards than going through any book. You both ought to begin a collection. Fortunately, I've heard someone patrols the Hogwarts Express with a trolley full of treats ! It's the perfect occasion, isn't it ?"
"But I don't have any money on me" tried to argue Jane, without success.
"It doesn't matter, I'll pay for you."
Then Galatea winked, and added:
"You'll have the card, but I'll eat the frog."
"Are you sure about that trolley ?" asked Draco. "We've left the station a while ago, it should already have passed once or twice if it was patrolling the train."
"You're right" she frowned. "I'm going to get a look at the corridor."
Galatea rose from her seat, opened the door and exited the compartment. Not two seconds later, Jane heard her voice again:
"Speaking of batrachians… What are you doing here, cutie ? Who'd let such an adorable toad wander on its own in a train full of irresponsible students ?"
After Neville had visited his tenth compartment, despair was threatening to overwhelm him. He was about to enter the fifth wagon, and still no sign of Trevor. How could a toad be that quick out of water ? Trevor shouldn't have been able to escape so far on its own, right ? 'Maybe it's because I'm slow', thought Neville, looking down at his feet. 'Maybe grandma is right, and I'm worthless.' On that depressive note, he sighed and opened the next wagon's door.
Immediately after, he raised his head and his eyes immediately widened.
"Trevor !" he exclaimed.
A few meters in front of him, a girl was holding his pet toad with one hand, and caressing its back affectionately with the other. If she decided to kiss Trevor, the toad would probably transform into a handsome prince: the girl was certainly pretty enough to be the heroin of a fairy tale.
"That's not my name" smirked the girl. "I'm Galatea, not Trevor."
"S- Sorry" reddened Neville. "I meant… Trevor's my pet..."
"Oh, it's yours ? You should take better care of him, it's a very special toad. Much smarter and more resourceful than you'd think, right, Trevor ?"
"You see ?" she laughed. "He agrees !"
"Maybe you should give him back his toad" a boy's voice from inside the nearest compartment suggested. "Unless you plan to transfigure it into a Chocolate Toad and eat it later on."
"Don't be silly, Draco" the girl – Galatea – retorted. "If I could transfigure things into chocolate, I'd be twice as fat as I am !"
"But you're not fat" frowned Neville.
"That's what my mirror keeps telling me, but I don't trust it. It's charmed to be flattering, after all. As for me, I find it much more pleasing to be complimented by real persons. Say, Oh! Trevor's owner, what's your name ?"
"I, I'm Neville Longbottom."
"Then, Neville Longbottom, I entrust this toad to you. Please treat him well, for he is the Prince of All Amphibians, and will one day extend his rule over every marsh in Britain !"
Put out by the girls's quick and unpredictable thought process, Neville was only able to gape as Trevor changed hands.
"Th-Thanks a lot" he managed to stutter. "But I should go back to my compartment, now."
But then Galatea smiled at him so sweetly, he felt like a frog caught by a viper's hypnotizing glare, and his legs didn't manage to turn around fast enough.
"You can't leave like that ! I've got to present you to my friends. Jane and Draco are rather on the quiet side, but they're very nice person. I'm sure you'll get along well."
Grasping his sleeve, she pulled him inside her compartment, and pushed him on the seat in front of hers. Next to the window, a girl with bright blue eyes – Jane – addressed him an apologetic smile. Draco didn't, but his expression was sympathetic. It said 'welcome to my personal hell.
All in all, Neville thought, Galatea was right. They did look like nice persons.
Having spent most of his life alone, Harry hadn't got too many opportunities to develop any kind of companionship. Interactions with children of his age had been scarce and far in between, and even then, trust just couldn't bud. Harry was sufficiently self-aware to realize it was his fault. Constantly on guard, watching over his shoulder and jumping at the slightest shadow, he tended to unsettle even the adults. In his defence, he could only say his paranoia had been justified. People had really been out to kill him. They still were, and yet. Right now, he could imagine himself building a friendship with someone.
This thought stemmed from envy. He could practically see the bond between Tracey and Daphne. The first girl was energetic, enthusiastic and extroverted, while the second was more composed and thoughtful. Daphne canalised Tracey, who in return was able to draw out the more witty aspects of her personality. Harry, though a loner, admired their synergy. For the first time in years, he was seeing it as a sign of strength rather than vulnerability.
What had changed ? He still had enemies. To his knowledge, this issue hadn't been resolved. However, his outlook on the world had been modified during the last few weeks. Although he still suspected they had ulterior motives for helping him, the Hogwarts teachers were protecting him. He had spent a lot of time with McGonagall and Snape, and they were still here, still alive and well, still keeping him safe. Like a child born in winter, Harry was less prepared for the cold now he had experimented the warmth of a stove.
Certainly, the absence of obvious threats within the castle had dulled his edge. As expert as Evan's attack had been, Harry at his sharpest could have escaped it. There was a reason neither men nor beasts had ever caught him – even if the most fearsome of the latter had been dangerously close to succeed. He had possessed unrivalled instincts which, coupled with his unusual ability, had allowed him to survive seemingly desperate situations. And now, he had lost them. Not entirely, to be sure, but still, a month of peace had taken its toll.
Harry didn't now what unnerved him the most. Was it the fear of seeing the other shoe drop, or the sheer attractiveness of the first one ? Being taken off-guard by Evan should have been a wake-up call. Instead, their encounter had instilled in him a yearning for ties.
"You look worried."
Lily's quiet voice silenced the compartment and waked everyone's attention. Three pairs of eyes turned toward Harry, whose nerves tensed in an ingrained reaction to being stared at. Yet, he forced himself to smile.
"Really ? I guess my mood is influenced by the weather. Look at how the sky darkened since we've left London behind !"
"That's true" nodded Tracey. "If it goes on like this, we'll have rain for our first night at Hogwarts. A storm, even ! I hope we won't have to walk between Hogsmeade and the castle."
"I'm pretty sure we won't" Daphne reassured her. "There's a certain distance between the two, you know."
"Good ! I hate walking in the rain. It's cold, and wet, and the mud's dirty. Bad weather is fine, but only when I'm inside, drinking something hot. When I'm outside, I want the sun, the blue sky and the little birds !"
" I don't know about that. There's a certain charm in strolling through the country side when the sky's grey and the air moist. The water droplets play a concert for you, and the grass..."
"… is as green as your name, eh ?"
" A bad joke when I'm trying to be poetic" winced Daphne. "So distasteful, Tracey."
But the ray of smile behind her eyes was contradicting the disgusted expression on her face. How fun the pleasantries they exchanged actually were mattered little, as Harry had come to understand. The mere existence of that exchange was enough to bring them joy.
"And you, Harry ? Do you like the rain, or not ?"
"Yes, you" smirked Tracey. "Everybody here wants the opinion of the Boy-Who-Lived."
"Well, then… I loathe it."
Perplexed, the girls waited for him to develop on his very drastic opinion, but Harry wasn't willing to. For him, the rain was associated with many bad memories, and these ones he couldn't share. Not yet, anyway. What could he tell ? How he'd slept many nights between two dumpsters, under a rooftop made of carton ? How he'd spent his days walking the streets, trying to feed himself before his pursuers could find his trace ? The rain had been an enemy in so many ways, he doubted he would ever been able to find beauty in a dark grey sky.
"That's all ?"
"Sorry if I've disappointed you."
"You haven't" Daphne assured him. "But you look like you've so many things to say. We'd listen to you if you wanted to talk – even Tracey would keep quiet, for once."
"Hey ! I resent that remark !"
"Of course, she hasn't helped her case just now."
Closing his eyes, Harry shook his head.
"Thank you, but I'm fine. I don't really have anything to say."
"If you say so..."
"I do have a question, though. Does this train stop between London and Hogsmeade ?"
"Not to my knowledge" frowned Daphne. "Why ?"
Instinctively, Harry's hand went to his wand. Usually, just feeling she was there helped to relax him. This time, however, it wasn't enough. Something was off. Terribly so. The Harry of the past, who didn't know what Hogwarts was, urged him to turn heels and flee in the other direction, never mind the train he was in.
"Harry ? What's happening ? You look like you've seen the Grim !"
"We're slowing down."
It was more and more obvious by the seconds. The landscape wasn't scrolling as fast as it used to, and the mechanical noises were slowly fading away. On the other hand, the rain was beginning to fall, and its sound was growing louder as the Hogwarts Express was decelerating.
"We can't be arrived yet" Tracey protested, standing up to see what was going on.
"Stay sit" warned Harry. "We're about to stop."
But his words came too late. The Expressed braked violently, shrieking like a hurt beast, and Tracey was thrown against Harry, who reflexively intercepted her before they both got hurt.
"What was that ?" she exclaimed.
"Something bad" he answered darkly.
And to underline his words, all the lamps went out at the same time. It wasn't late enough that they were plunged in absolute darkness, but distinguishing each other's features had suddenly become a lot harder.
"I don't like it" muttered Lily.
"Me neither. Merlin, what's going on ?"
Harry stood and slid the door open. He didn't know what was happening, but if the worst had happened, he didn't intend to let himself be trapped in his compartment.
"Let's find out" he grimly declared.
As soon as he stepped into the corridor, a chill ran down his spine, and a sliding sound came from a few doors further. Harry jerked his head in this direction, and, despite the darkness, what he saw froze his blood in his veins.
Hooded figures were penetrating the wagon. Two were already opening the nearest compartments, and a third seemed ready to imitate them. Harry didn't know what they were, but their unnaturalness made no doubt, nor the threat they represented. They were tall enough to reach the ceiling, yet they weren't fearsome because of their size. It was the cold, the deep-reaching cold they made him feel. No matter what, these things couldn't be allowed to touch him !
Harry took a step backward. Almost immediately, the closest hooded figure turned his head toward him, and slowly began to slide in his direction, its dark, scary shape growing larger with every breath. In its presence, Harry felt weakened, frightened, diminished. Him being caught, he realized, was only a matter of second.
Something in him revolted against it. Why was he hesitating now ? He had fought against wore odds, escaped terrifying monsters for years ! Whatever those things were, they were only the last in a long list of death-traps !
"I'M NOT AFRAID OF YOU !" he shouted defiantly.
A short instant, the hooded figure stopped, hesitated. It gave Harry all the time he needed to reach his wand and brandish her in front him.
Calling on his magic, Harry felt it respond more hesitantly than it should have. It enraged him. He remember the eagerness of his power at Ollivander's, the euphoria he had felt. Had these creatures done something to him ? Filled with anger, Harry mobilized all his strength and canalised it through his wand, unleashing a storm of raw power in the corridor.
Later on, Harry would think back to this moment and realize he had been lucky nobody had stood in front of him at this time, save for the hooded things. He hadn't known how to use his wand. All he had done had been giving his tumultuous emotions a way to manifest in the physical world. As a result, the whole wagon had trembled, doors had jerked opened, and the lamps suspended at the ceiling had been shattered. Had his outburst hit a student, it would have hurt them badly.
As for the hooded figures… They looked just fine. Mildly surprised, maybe, as if nothing had happened but a sudden gust of wind. As violently as Harry had attacked, they hadn't been affected at all.
"Impossible" breathed Harry.
His situation, he realized, was far worse than a few seconds before. He had spent a lot of energy to no avail. His right forearms hurt, as if it was boiling from the inside. Wincing, he looked behind him. If he couldn't win, he could just flee. He didn't even need to run, he just needed to want it badly enough, and…
"Mom, dad ! Please, let them alone !" screamed a boy.
"Wake up, mom ! Wake up !" a girl answered in kind.
… Harry gritted his teeth. He didn't know what these things were doing, but it was evil in its purest form. Suddenly, he grew painfully aware of where he was standing, and he looked to the side, to his compartment.
His eyes were sufficiently accustomed to the darkness to distinguish how scared the girls were. Daphne and Tracey were holding each other's hands, trying to put a brave face, without success. Lily was trembling like a leaf.
And, just like that, Harry couldn't run away any more. This wasn't heroism. This wasn't bravery. This was madness. Already the hood creature was on him, bending over him as if to deliver a kiss. A freezing cold paralysed Harry's muscle, worming his way to his very heart, and a white fog invaded his mind.
'Why am I so weak ?'
Come and kill me. It wasn't a good life anyway.
"Please, don't"… he tries to say, but pain overwhelms him
His stomach hurts. His legs shake. How long since his last meal ?
The cold of the night. A door opens to a world of light and warmth. Then it slams shut.
"Step aside, foolish woman !"
Harry fell to his knees. Despair was whirling inside his head, inside his chest. Such a sensation wasn't unfamiliar to him. This time was just much more intense than any time before. Because he already had experimented it, Harry managed to keep a part of his mind awake. Just enough to see another hooded abomination trying to get past him, to creep into his compartment.
Lily, he's here !Take Harry and run !
In a spurt of lucidity, Harry gestured toward the door just before the monster could reach it. He wanted it closed, and the door answered his wish. Angrily, the creature struggled with the handle for a few instants, before turning his attention toward him. Harry knew he couldn't flee, and he couldn't stand the assault of a second of these abominations. Grinning at the hooded silhouette, he allowed himself to fall against the ground.
Then, a bright silver light invaded the wagon.
When the headmaster had asked him to board the Hogwarts Express, Severus Snape had obeyed with great reluctance, because it had meant he would lose the last precious day he had before the brats arrived and cannibalized his time. At the same time, however, he recognized the necessity of reassuring both the parents and the Ministry. After the events of Diagon Alley, bad memories had resurfaced, and it would take time before they fade away. As the Hogwarts teachers enjoyed a certain reputation since the school had served as a fortress during the last war, the presence of Severus' colleagues aboard the Express would certainly appease many minds, and it made sense for Dumbledore to buy peace as cheap as possible.
In the meantime, Severus was diverted from his cauldrons. To occupy his mind during the trip, he had brought a book, an ancient volume delving into the Dark Arts – his other pet subject. Like Muggle scholars, wizards couldn't be world-class specialists in two fields of research at the same time, and Severus was a Potion Master before he was a Dark Arts practitioner. However, his work ethics and curiosity had led him to become at least a very knowledgeable amateur as far as Dark magic was concerned, if not an outright expert. Albus Dumbledore valued his hindsight on the subject, and this mere fact said a lot about his competences.
For the better part of August, Severus had been gathering informations on the Hounds of Shadows. Creatures such as them hadn't been studied in depth since ancient times, mostly because their existence involved the most primal aspects of magic – in other words, the Dark Arts. The Hounds weren't usually living on the same plane of existence as the wizards, and summoning them to this world required obscure rituals. Obscure, and prohibited ever since the time of the Roman Empire, when Latin spells had become prominent in the western wizarding world. Their presence at King's Lynn was worrying to say the least.
Read the book was beginning to look like a fruitless effort when the train came to a stop with a jolt. Severus rose from his seat, and leaped into the corridor. An attack ? Who'd be foolish enough to try anything against the Hogwarts Express ?
The all too familiar chill he felt brought him an answer. Dementors. His face fell. Dementors had boarded the train !
"Severus !" called the high-pitched voice of Filius Flitwick. "I'll build a wall-shaped Patronus. Make sure these foul creatures don't hurt our students !"
"I will" nodded the Potion Master.
Unfortunately, the amortal avatars of despair had entered the train in the last wagon. Quick as Severus tried to be, the worst couldn't be excluded.
Then a tremor shook the entire train, and he felt a wave of raw power coming from a dozen meters further. What was going on ?
A few second later, he heard screams. A good sign, he decided. It meant the children had still their souls inside their bodies.
Slamming the door of the last wagon open, Severus froze. Four, no, five Dementors were already inside, and two of them were feeding on Potter !
"EXPECTO PATRONUM !" he roared.
Although not inherently evil – in his opinion – Severus was a dark wizard. As such, learning the Patronus Charm had been a struggle. As a result, his own Patronus was a little special – though nothing like Filius', who was masterful enough to make it assume any shape. Made out of the happy memories Severus had shared with a certain person, it had a personality of its own.
I'm so impatient to arrive at Hogwarts, she laughed. We'll be together all the time !
They did what ? I swear, I'm going to hex them to hell and back !
Say, Severus. Do you think we'll still be friends once we've become adults ?
… Yes. His Patronus perpetuated the will of Lily Evans, the one person he had cherished over everything else. For that reason alone, Severus knew his charm would exceed the strength it was usually able to display. After all, if Lily's love had destroyed the Dark Lord, no other creature could hurt her child in her presence!
When the silver doe returned to him, no Dementor remained in the wagon. Severus rushed to Harry's side, and took his pulse. He was alive, at least.
"Will he be all right, professor ?"
Startled, Severus looked over his shoulder. A pale-skinned girl was standing there. The fact she had been the first to go out of her compartment after the Dementor had fled talked well of her nerves, but she still looked like she was going to fall over at any instant. Notably because of her surname, Severus remembered her from the student files.
"He will live, Ms. Moon" he answered. "Although I don't quite understand why he decided to face the Dementors on his own."
It simply wasn't in character. Potter fancied himself a survivor, obsessed by the idea of staying alive at all cost. Faced with a threat he couldn't overcome, such a person would certainly flee – but Potter hadn't.
"He did it to protect us" explained Moon. "I saw him. He could have run away. But he stood his ground because of us."
Severus didn't let any emotion reach his face, but an odd sense of relief flew through his tense body. Like Minerva, he had noticed how the boy's mood had improved over the last month, to the point his company was now tolerable, if barely. Unlike her – but then again, the deputy headmistress was entirely too trustful – he had feared Potter was harbouring an amicable mask to hide more sinister intentions, as many dark wizards did. However, it seemed like blood had spoken true: the congenital Gryffindor temerity of his father had shown at last, and it wasn't a trait the Dark Lord had possessed.
"You should be thankful, Ms. Moon" he finally commented. "He's risked more than his life to save yours. Ennervate !"
Colours came back on Potter's face, who opened his eyes…
"Where are they ?!"
… and jumped back to his feet. An impressive feat, considering he had been unconscious just a second earlier, but not one the Potion Master felt ready to admire. The boy needed rest, not excitation.
"Gone" answered Severus curtly. "Calm yourself, reckless imbecile !"
"Sir ? What are you doing here ?"
Severus searched in his pocket, and found what he needed: a flask of Pepper-Up potion. In the absence of cacao, he couldn't think of a better way to alleviate the after-effects of a Dementor attack. Considering the boy's sheer resilience, it was probably more than enough to prevent him from collapsing in the immediate future. In truth, Severus doubted Potter would even miss the Sorting ceremony. Showing a sign of weakness wasn't something he would even consider.
"The less satisfying part of my profession, Potter. Saving my students. Drink this."
Surprisingly, the boy no question about what the potion was before he drank. He did, however, read the etiquette. A sign of healthy carefulness, as far as Severus was concerned.
"Professor," said a fourth year student, "two other first-years has lost consciousness !"
"I'm coming, Mr. Flint. Where are they ?"
But before the bulky captain of the Slytherin Quidditch team could answer, a girl with black curly hairs intervened anxiously:
"What if the Dementors come back, professor ?"
"I doubt they will, Ms. Fletcher. Take a look outside."
Around the Hogwarts Express, a halo of silver light was shining bright, unbearably so for the cloaked figures that floated around it. Alas for the Dementors, the train was well-protected, and even staying close had to hurt them. Under his hood, Sirius Black grinned savagely.
"Ah, good old Flitwick, ever underestimated because of his size and goblin ascendancy."
A growl answered his words. Rood, the enormous dog at Sirius' side, wasn't nearly as pleased as him with the impressive variation of the Patronus charm the smallest professor of Hogwarts had unleashed.
"I know" Sirius acquiesced. "Light magic burns, in more ways than one. But it can't truly hurt us. The Dementors, however..."
"You don't like them either, do you ?"
Rood didn't. But it was hardly a surprise: Rood was an unpleasant individual, even by the Hounds' standards. He only liked what he ate, and everything outside of his pack was game for him. Which was probably why he despised the Dementors. Fangs did no damage to such creatures, and even though the Hounds didn't know fear nor hesitation, they were at a disadvantage against the amortal wraiths. Trying to hunt them down would, at best, end with a stalemate. Rood's instincts were telling him just that, and the realization made him aggressive.
"I expect we'll see them more often than we'd like" declared Sirius. "Thanks to Evan, the Ministry seems unusually determined to bring us fugitive in. Though I cannot fathom what they were thinking when they allowed the Dementors near the Hogwarts Express. Crouch is anything but incompetent."
Suddenly, another Hound apparated next to him. This one was Shan. She was less of the monster than Rood, whose shoulders were as high as Sirius' hips, but she was faster and much more cunning than her brother. Also, her noise made her one the best trackers of the pack. For all these reasons, and despite her viciousness, Shan was Sirius' first choice when subtlety was needed.
"You smelled him ?" he inquired. "He's fine ? … Good. Well done, Shan. Let's continue to follow them from afar for now. We'll talk rewards once we've reached the forest."
Discontent, Rood barked a few times, but Sirius silenced him with a hit on the neck.
"You'll do as you're told" he snarled. "I'm the leader of the pack. I decide where we go. The pup needs to be protected, and on my name, he will be !"
Behind him, Shan emitted a low, perplex growl.
"Harry would be with us already, if you and your siblings had obeyed my orders correctly. When I say find, I don't say kill ! You frightened the pup, even when you were supposed to protect him."
King's Lynn counted among the most frustrating moments of Sirius' life. After ten years of researches, he had finally caught on with Harry. But the pack, knowing little of non-lethal hunts, had misunderstood his objectives, and bared their teeth needlessly. As a result, James' surprisingly resourceful son had fled, and eluded them until the Hogwarts staff arrived. Just like that, and even though Sirius had found him first, Harry had been once again snatched away by Dumbledore.
"I'm glad to learn my godson wasn't an easy prey" Sirius reacted dryly. "And as for why I don't just enter the train and capture him, you only have to remember what happened to Gear and Blind. Wizards and witches as powerful as Flitwick or McGonagall are a threat to the pack as a whole, unless I find a way to counter their spells."
A few more indignant barks came from the smaller Hound.
"I know, your siblings will soon return. Your kind doesn't stay dead for long, after all."
Upon these words, Sirius mounted Rood as if the irritable Hound was a stallion. In truth, the beast's strength and stamina coupled with the pack's uncanny ability to perform apparition, and even tag-along apparition, made Rood a mount of choice.
"To Hogwarts" ordered Sirius. "The Forbidden Forest ! There, even the headmaster won't be able to find us."
Once the Express had resumed its course, Harry and the two other students who had lost consciousness during the attack were placed in the same compartment, supposedly to recover from their ordeal without being bothered by their comrades. In practice, though, the Potion Master's cold glare would have been enough to shield them against any unwanted attention – especially considering how everybody's mood had been brutally quieted by the Dementors.
Dementors. That was the name of these abominations. Yet another entry in Harry's long list of the threats he had to keep in a corner of his mind. It was beginning to look like an encyclopedia, and wasn't that a depressing thought?
Speaking about threats, the Boy-Who-Lived was now convinced the world had a either sadistic tendencies or a very twisted sense of humour. How else explain that one of his new companions was the girl with dagger-throwing eyes he had briefly met a few hours earlier ? At least she wasn't glaring at him any more. Most of the time, she was looking out the window, with the occasional dark glance in his direction when she thought he wasn't attentive.
Save for her obvious hostility, the girl had no particularly distinctive traits. Brown eyes, dark brown hairs, average size and frame, only her perpetually gritted teeth set her apart. She was probably the kind of person remembered for their personality instead of their looks.
The boy, on the other hand, wasn't showing much strength of character. Fidgeting on his seat, he seemed especially uncomfortable. In his defence, the atmosphere in the compartment was heavy, but still, did he think Harry was going to eat him ? Surprisingly – or perhaps not – it was finally him who broke the silence.
"So… I'm Neville Longbottom."
"Nice to meet you" Harry answered politely. "I'm..."
"Harry friggin' Potter" cut the girl. "We're not stupid, thank you very much."
"… And you are ?"
"What is it to you, mighty Boy-Who-Lived ?"
"I'd just like to put a name on your face. As much as I love hyphenated nicknames, 'Girl-Who-Looks-Like-She-Wants-My-Stuffed-Head-To-Decorate-Her-Sleeping-Room' is a bit too long, don't you think ?"
The Longbottom boy gasped, and the girl's eyes narrowed dangerously.
"You think you're funny ?" she hissed.
"You think it was a joke ?" retorted Harry.
For a long moment,they stared at each other, green boring into brown. As a general rule, Harry avoided to meet other people's eyes for a prolonged time. It tended to have… consequences. But here and now, he wanted peace, and no matter how much she hated him, he would have peace for the next few hours.
"I'm Pansy Parkinson" she finally declared, breaking eye-contact.
"Charmed" Harry replied evenly.
But even as the heat was subsiding, Neville frowned and said:
"Parkinson ? Like..."
"Yes, like that Parkinson" spat Pansy. "And you're Longbottom, like these Longbottoms. Do you want to exchange sad childhood stories, or what ?"
Thankfully, Neville wasn't the bellicose type. Rather than escalating, he cringed, and silence fell once more. Though rather upset by Pansy's attitude toward their companion, Harry didn't jump to his defence: he suspected it would likely worsen the situation. In the interest of establishing a more normal ambiance, he decided to try his hand at small talks instead.
"Say, Neville. How were the people in your previous compartment ?"
"Well, n-nice, I suppose Why do you ask ?"
"To compare. I wanted to know if everybody on the train was nice, or if Lily, Tracey and Daphne were special cases."
Unexpectedly, his words caught the attention of both his companions, who repeated in unison:
"Yes, Daphne Greengrass. Do you know her ?"
"Of course" scoffed Pansy. "She's my cousin."
"Mine too" added Neville.
Harry arched an eyebrow. He had realized the pureblood families were closely intertwined, especially after his talk with Evan, but still, this kind of coincidence was surprising.
"Well, what were the odds ?"
"Pretty good actually" Pansy declared matter-of-factly. "When we say 'cousin', we both meant 'second cousin'. And among purebloods of the same generation, basically everybody's related on some level."
Then, with a half-grin, she added.
"Don't tell me you didn't know, Potter ? After all, you too will have a couple of cousins at Hogwarts this year."
"So I've heard" opined Harry. "I've met one of them, and she was a nice girl."
"Hannah ?" asked Neville.
"No, her name's Jane. Do I have another cousin, whose name's Hannah ?."
"You really know nothing" sneered Pansy. But then she frowned, as if a sudden realization had hit her.
"Wait… You've met Jane Rosier ? The daughter of Evan Rosier ? And you think she's nice ?"
Paying no heed to Neville's horrified expression, Harry nodded. He hadn't spent much time with Jane, but what he'd seen of her had been enough. When someone's eyes were shining when they looked at you, 'nice' was the less flattering word you could use to describe them.
"That's what I've said."
"Even though her father's a death eater ?"
"You're the Boy-Who-Lived ! You're supposed to hate the death eaters !"
Startled, both Harry and Pansy turned toward Neville. None of them had expected him to enter the conversation so forcefully. Even Neville himself seemed surprised by his outburst !
"I do hate the death eaters, Neville" Harry explained in a slow voice. "I don't know why you feel so strongly about them, but rest assured I do hate them. They've turned my life into a living hell. No matter their motives, I wish they'd all be dead already."
Harry's last words were hard and cold, and they resounded ominously. Pansy's and Neville's faces turned pale, and Harry realized he needed to talk less empathically.
"That said," he continued on a more casual tone, "I don't see Jane as the daughter of a death eater. She is Evan Rosier's child, and Evan Rosier is a death eater. But there is more to a person than who their father is !"
During the span of an instant, Neville looked like Harry had struck him. Then, as if ashamed, he reddened and turned his uncertain eyes toward the corridor. Meanwhile, Pansy had turned hers back to the window.
"I see the castle" she declared. "We're almost there."
End notes: next chapter, the arrival at Hogwarts and the sorting. I suspect my first eight chapters will then be longer than the whole 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher Stone' book.