First Steps

by: Whomping Willow

Disclaimer: I don't own it. Don't sue.

Chapter thirteen: Trains, Portkeys and Automobiles

Finally the big day had arrived. The frantic packing that proceeded every term at Hogwarts hadn't diminished despite the fact that there was two less students leaving. Fred and George, much to their mother's dismay had refused the Headmaster's offer to allow them to return and finish out their seventh-year, preferring to focus their energies on their booming business. Still, they didn't miss the opportunity to remind their little brother to give the Slytherins a hard time in their honor.

Mrs. Weasley having overheard her sons' conversation promised a Howler that Ron would never forget if he did anything foolish that would endanger him and his friends. It was obvious that she was still recovering from their involvement in the incident at the Ministry. She cared for Harry like another son and was worried what sort of danger he and Ron would be facing this year. She was far from oblivious to the danger and wanted to keep them all safe.

Ron knew of the rising threat as well. He had heard from his father that there had been much debate over the safest way to get Harry to King's Cross. Now that Voldemort's return had been accepted by the Ministry it seemed that officials were torn between what had been deemed safe enough in the past and trying something out of the ordinary in order to minimize the risks.

It was finally settled that they would be driving to King's Cross in a Ministry car. Although it had been done before, it provided Harry with a measure of security without denying him the trip on the train with the other students.

Mrs. Weasley made a huge breakfast and insisted that everyone have second helpings. Ginny laughed and promised her mother that they did still feed them at Hogwarts. Her feisty mother didn't miss a beat, "they may feed you, but this is my last opportunity to do so till the winter holidays and I want to be sure you eat your fill."

"Mum I've eaten enough to last me till our next visit. If I eat any more, I won't fit in the car." Ron was leaning back in his chair rubbing his stomach for emphasis.

Finally Mrs. Weasley was satisfied. If Ron was full that surely meant that the others were as well. "Very well dears, gather your trunks the Ministry car will be here shortly."

Harry had never heard more welcome words in his life. He was more eager to leave the Black estate than ever before and secretly hoped that Kreacher would suffer a horrible accident long before he returned. Despite his best efforts to avoid Kreacher, Harry still had the misfortune of running into him in the oddest of places. The house-elf didn't need to do anything more than exist to cause Harry discomfort. He was a constant reminder of one of his worst mistakes . . . one where someone he loved paid for his error in judgment.

When all the trunks were piled near the front door, Mr. Weasley arrived and informed them that the car was ready. Hedwig looked nearly as eager to leave as Harry and hooted happily while Crookshanks sat with Hermione cleaning his whiskers. Pulling their trunks along behind them, Ginny and the trio followed Mr. Weasley to the car. Thanks to expansion charms the four trunks as well as their collection of animals fit as neatly inside as did the four friends. Remembering so many journeys in the past Mr. Weasley felt the need to ask, "has anyone forgotten anything before we get rolling?"

A chorus of voices all surprisingly answered "no" and made Mr. Weasley laugh. "All right then, everybody in."

As Harry started to pull the door shut, a hand grabbed it firmly holding it open. Harry looked out to see Dumbledore beckoning him out of the car.

"I need to speak with you back in the house." Dumbledore spoke without his normal joviality and Harry found it unsettling.

Despite his nerves, Harry followed the Headmaster back into the old house and was greeted warmly by Tonks.

"Wotcha Harry."

"Hey Tonks. Er . . . what's going on." Harry did little to conceal the nervousness from his voice.

"It's nothing to be alarmed about, Harry . . . just a precautionary measure. Tonks, if you would please? There's not much time."

Tonks nodded in consent and her pink hair began turning black. As the transformation took place, Dumbledore explained the plan while Harry shifted his gaze between him and Tonks. "One of the drivers at the Ministry was overheard bragging about getting to drive you to the station this morning . . . as a precautionary measure Tonks will be taking your place in the car."

Harry looked again to the young Auror and found himself looking at a perfect copy of himself as though he were standing in front of a mirror. Tonks winked, which Harry found to be an odd expression on his face. A quick flick of her wand and she held a pair of spectacles that matched his own. Harry noticed that she had forgone the Weird Sisters T-shirt, wearing instead a plain blue one paired with loose jeans that wouldn't look out of place in his wardrobe. Dumbledore looked her over and nodded his approval.

Dismissed, Tonks made her way out to the waiting car to the seat Harry had vacated.

"Don't worry Harry. Tonks is more than capable of protecting your friends if Death Eaters were to attack, which is highly unlikely. As for you, I have arranged for Moody to accompany you to King's Cross by Portkey."

Harry looked awestruck. "My friends are at risk and you are shuffling me off to safety . . . why couldn't they come with me and Moody?! What is the point?!"

Dumbledore let out a sigh and toyed with his beard for a moment. "The risk to your friends and Ms. Tonks is very slight. However, the risk to my source is far greater. I'm afraid if your travel plans were entirely changed there would be very few wizards to point the finger at as the source of the warning and could cost him his life."

"You mean Snape." It was a statement, not a question.

"Truthfully, no . . . I do have other sources of information. The Boar's Head for instance can be a great place to overhear and be overheard as you already know . . ."

"That's the truth Potter. Best you listen to the Headmaster and keep your nose outa there." Mad-Eye looked as gruff as ever, limping over to stand at his side.

"I learned my lesson last year . . . besides, I'm not even allowed into Hogsmeade this year." Harry had a feeling that the conversation was intended to keep his mind off his friends traveling their way to King's Cross without him, still it was grating on his nerves.

"Harry, I hope you realize that the Hogsmeade restriction is primarily for your own protection. Hogwarts is warded to keep out many foreseeable threats, unfortunately those wards do not extend to Hogsmeade." As much as Dumbledore knew Harry was likely to resent the additional security he didn't feel it was right to conceal it under the guise of punishment.

"Yes, sir. I was well aware . . . I just didn't think you'd admit it." Harry knew he was pushing his luck being disrespectful to the Headmaster in front of Moody and it wasn't long before he was reprimanded.

"Watch your tongue Potter, he's still your Headmaster if you've forgotten."

Moody stared at Harry for a long moment before Harry spoke again. "I'm sorry sir. Perhaps we should get going."

"Very well, apology accepted. I'll see you tonight at the welcoming feast." Dumbledore handed the Portkey to Harry whose hand was joined by Moody's a moment before they disappeared . . .

. . . A sudden tug behind his navel was followed by the sense of rushing and a moment later they appeared near the train behind the magical barrier of platform nine and three-quarters. Harry would have landed hard if it wasn't for Moody grabbing his shoulder to steady him.

It was early and the train station was still quiet. Harry scanned the faces of those students he could see, knowing that it hadn't been near enough time for his friends to have arrived, but still part of him was trying to be optimistic. As much as Harry wanted to wait near the barrier for his friends Mad-Eye insisted that he get settled in a compartment . . . after all it wouldn't due to have anyone see two Harry Potters.

It was still well before eleven and most of the compartments were yet to be claimed, but they were looking for one of few occupied compartments. Mr. Henniker was supposed to be meeting them and Mad-Eye was in no mood to leave Harry until his guard had been found. Moody confirmed Harry's suspicions that Henniker was in fact an Auror, on temporary special assignment, but had little else to say about the man. It seemed they had traveled the entire length of the train twice having knocked on doors and interrupted an amorous couple or two before they finally found the Ministry assigned guard. Harry entered the compartment after Mad-Eye.

"There you are Henniker. I was beginning to think you were late." Moody didn't wait for a response before introducing Harry. "This is Harry Potter. Best you take good care of him or I'll be separating you from your hide personally."

Harry couldn't help but smile at the protective gesture from the gruff old Auror.

"I assure you that I have no intention of allowing any ill to befall Mr. Potter. His safety is my sole concern." Finally turning to face Harry he presented his hand, "it is a pleasure to finally make your acquaintance Mr. Potter."

Henniker had big hands with short fingers that dwarfed Harry's in comparison. Shaking the hand Harry grimaced at the tight grip that was warm and slightly damp, before gratefully being released.

"Sorry to have to run boys, but Dumbledore is expecting me back. Take care of yourself Potter." The words were no sooner out of his mouth then Moody was shutting the door leaving Harry and Mr. Henniker alone.

Harry took the opportunity to examine Mr. Henniker as he watched brown eyes flick briefly to his scar and back down to meet his eyes. Harry wasn't sure what he had expected Mr. Henniker to look like, but he was relieved when he saw he wasn't going to be guarded by someone who dressed like Gilderoy Lockhart. His robes were subdued, and cut with enough room for dueling without being bulky. He was taller though stockier than Ron who'd had yet another substantial growth spurt over the summer, and held himself with a relaxed formality. Harry had already heard enough about the other wizard to predict the words before they left his mouth.

"You look so much like your father, but I guess you hear that a lot."

Shifting nervously under Henniker's gaze Harry responded, "yeah, er – thanks . . ."

Harry wasn't comfortable enough in the other man's presence to allow himself to be completely distracted, but worry for his friends was tangible. He knew Dumbledore said they would be safe but somehow that was less comforting now than it would have been in the past. He sat near the window facing so he could watch the approaching students and Henniker mirrored his position.

"I've heard so much about you . . ." Henniker started attempting to bring Harry's mind back to the here and now.

"All good I hope . . ." Harry added cheekily knowing full well what kind of things people in the Ministry heard about him from the Minister as well as outside sources such as Rita Skeeter.

Smiling, Henniker nodded. "But of course . . . though your marvelous sense of humor is rarely mentioned." His tone held hints of sarcasm.

The attempt at humor startled a chuckle out of Harry prompting him to relax a bit. "Sorry, I'm just a bit anxious to see my friends."

If the Auror thought that suspicious considering their planned mode of transport, he didn't mention it instead he began to natter on about how eager he had always been to meet up with his friends at the summer's end.

The sound of voices outside their compartment slowly increased as the train filled with students and Harry was relieved when Ron, Hermione and Tonks hustled through the door dragging Hedwig and his trunk behind. The Auror looked from one Harry to the other in confusion rising from his seat as the door was closed and locked.

Tonks shifted back to herself, bubble-gum pink hair and all. "No offense Harry, but I'm glad I don't have to be you all the time."

Henniker was startled by the sudden transformation.

"What happened?" Harry asked nervously.

Hermione and Ron looked at each other and shrugged. "Nothing unusual," they said together.

"You have to put up with that staring everywhere you go?" Tonks sounded a bit sorry for Harry and he didn't want her pity.

"No, I'm sure it was just because of the attack at the Dursleys'. They're just warming up to ask me about it later." Harry's voice was far more cheerful than he felt while contemplating the questions to come. Noticing the time, Harry warned Tonks that she'd best get off the train while it was still parked at the station or she would be in for a long trip to Hogwarts.

Realizing he was right, she gave Harry a quick warning to stay safe and was on her way.

"Excellent security measures, I must commend the Headmaster for that," said Henniker drawing the attention back to himself.

Remembering the room's other occupant, Harry quickly made introductions. "Mr. Henniker this is Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger." Harry paused before adding, ". . . where's Ginny?"

"She's saving us seats together in the Prefects car . . . but we'll be back to visit later, promise." Hermione looked apologetic even though she was sure Harry understood.

Ron also promised to return shortly as he shook feeling back to his fingers after receiving one of Henniker's firm handshakes. Harry tried to remember being told about Ginny making Prefect. Not that it mattered if he'd been overlooked, but he did want to congratulate her when he saw her next.

As soon as the train started moving Hermione and Ron left to join Ginny in the Prefects car leaving him once again alone with Henniker. Harry was a bit nervous around the Auror though he couldn't put a finger on what it was that made him uneasy. Perhaps it was just the knowledge that Fudge, who had (with Dumbledore's approval) assigned Henniker to this duty, was the same man responsible for providing Umbridge the power to terrorize the school last year. That knowledge alone kept Harry from being comfortable alone with him and he was relieved when Neville entered the compartment followed shortly by Luna.

Neville confessed that he'd been terribly worried about Harry during his short disappearance and that his grandmother had stuck close to the Wizard's Wireless Network for up to the minute reports. Harry could tell he wanted to hear the real story about what happened and hoped that he wouldn't mind waiting until later.

Luna was holding a copy of the Quibbler, but hadn't yet opened it. "I was out of the country with my father when reports of the attack reached us. By the time we heard any details you were already back to safety."

"How did the safari go?" Harry asked suddenly curious and eager to get off the subject of his summer activities.

"It was marvelous. We saw lots of tracks and even heard a few specimens but sadly no clear sightings." Luna still had that dreamy look in her eyes though it seemed to Harry that she was being cautious with her words in the presence of someone from the Ministry and he hoped that Neville had the sense to do the same. Harry didn't know how much Henniker knew about the DA and his new restrictions, and he certainly didn't want to give Fudge any more info than he already possessed.

To be safe Harry decided it would be best to get Mr. Henniker talking about himself to limit the possibility of Neville bringing up tricky subjects.

They found that Henniker was eager to speak of his accomplishments both in the Ministry and on the Quidditch pitch and had many interesting stories to tell. He'd been training as an Auror when Harry had banished You-Know-Who and claimed he'd even been allowed to visit Godric's Hollow well after the event.

That lead Harry down a morbid line of thinking . . . Was the Dursleys' house going to join the Potter's home in some sort of twisted tour . . . 'the who, what and where of Magical attacks and calamities' . . . Would they charge admission and sell souvenirs . . . would there be a sign showing the spot where Voldemort stood when he cast the killing curse on his parents or just where Harry was found when he became the boy-who-lived?

It took several tries for Neville to shake Harry from his ruminations. When he did, Harry was surprised to see Henniker, wand in hand, preparing to check Harry for signs of hexes.

Harry assured them that his mind had just wandered and left off the fact that his scar was beginning to ache. He ordered Pumpkin juice and a few Chocolate Frogs from the cart though he wasn't hungry and was relieved when Henniker started talking again. It was going to be a long trip.

Harry spent what seemed like hours alternately listening to Henniker's stories of his past adventures and trying to avoid answering his questions. Taking Dumbledore's warning about disclosure seriously, he worded his answers carefully when talking about what had happened with Professor Quirrell in his first-year.

"I will promise you Mr. Potter, you will be safe from your professors this year." Henniker wore a smug smile that made Harry wonder what the other man was up to.

"Do you know who will be teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts?" Neville asked no one in particular, but Henniker chose to answer.

"Professor Snape has been assigned that position . . . it's such a shame about Professor Umbridge . . ." Before he could finish that thought the door was flung open. Draco Malfoy stood in the doorway as haughty as ever.

"Well, well . . . if it isn't Harry Potter back again for another year. Even cats run out of lives eventually Potter." Draco's sneer didn't falter even when Henniker rose from his seat.

"Was that a threat . . . Mr. Malfoy? That's right, no need to ask who you are . . . So much like your father. Don't worry . . . we'll have him back in Azkaban soon enough." Harry was starting to appreciate Fudge's choice of guard and his lack of subtlety.

"And who are you, another of Potter's fan club?"

Harry noticed Crabbe and Goyle inching a bit closer to Malfoy as his hand clutched his wand.

The action didn't go unnoticed. "The name is Janus Henniker and I advise you to take your hand off your wand . . . I hate filling out accident reports for the Ministry." Malfoy paled slightly.

"He's an Auror here to guard Harry so . . ." Whatever else Neville was going to say was interrupted by Harry's elbow, but it was too late.

Draco didn't look intimidated at all. "Ooh, Potter's got a bodyguard . . . how sweet . . ."

"And I suppose you call those brainless lumps of flesh beside you your friends?" Henniker managed to keep a straight face, but the rest of them struggled to conceal giggles and then laughter that didn't die till long after Draco had left, slamming the door on his way out.

Hermione and Ron entered soon after wondering what had caused Malfoy to storm into the Prefects car fuming followed by an apologetic Crabbe and Goyle. It took Harry and Henniker both to tell the story though Luna injected a few of her own observations when they were interrupted by fits of giggles that left Ron disappointed that he'd missed it. Hermione however was concerned. She didn't think it was good to get Malfoy riled up so soon into the year, but even Neville was too distracted to worry about it at the moment.

By the time the train pulled into the station in Hogsmeade they were all changed into their robes and eager to make their way to the carriages. The familiar voice calling "Firs' years" made Harry change directions for a brief side trip. He easily found Hagrid in a group of first-years and gave him a quick thanks and promised to visit him soon as possible.

When Harry rejoined his friends, Henniker's eyes were narrowed, his expression scolding. "And where did you run off to?"

"I just needed to thank Hagrid for finding my broom . . . I was only gone a minute." Harry wondered what the fuss was about.

"One minute is all it takes sometimes Mr. Potter . . . remember that. Now come on or you'll be late for the feast." Ushering Harry to the nearest carriage, Henniker took a moment to enjoy the memories that washed over him, the joys of returning to Hogwarts.

Harry fingered the memory orb in his robe pocket. He hadn't dared to pack it away in his trunk even before he knew it would be going by car without him. Even without being able to see the images on its surface he still enjoyed the comfort of the precious gift in his palm. Ginny nudged Harry curious about what had made him smile so suddenly. He answered pulling the orb out of his pocket just enough for her to see the object though it was too dark to make out the images. She smiled back and he leaned over and quietly congratulated her on her status as Prefect. Unfortunately Ron overheard and his ears reddened immediately.

"I can't believe I forgot to tell you mate. I guess I figured that you'd hear mum's scream no matter where you were."

Ginny giggled at her brother's words and reminded Ron, to the amusement of all, that she not only screamed but cried and danced as well.

It was nice to make their way to the castle in laughter. Just the year before Harry had been so preoccupied with what was pulling their carriage that he'd payed little attention to anything else. This year was going to be different and he could feel it in his bones.

When the carriage stopped Henniker helped the ladies out before joining Harry where he stood stroking one of the thestrals. Harry was sure that it was the one that had brought him battered and feverish to Hogwarts. He remembered asking for Hogsmeade and in its wisdom it had brought hin to Hogwarts instead. That decision kept him safe from dementors once again and he was grateful. He whispered a brief thanks as blank eyes stared in his direction and was surprised to receive a jerky nod in return before he turned and followed his friends up the stairs and into the Great Hall.

Before Harry could set foot into the Great Hall, he was stopped by the familiar voice barking his name. "Mr. Potter!" Harry turned to see Snape standing stiffly several paces away. The students were carefully parting around him not wanting to get between the angry Professor and his chosen prey. "I'd like a word with you." Harry turned to Henniker and his friends to let them know he would meet them inside, but Snape had other ideas. "And bring your guard with you . . ." Snape turned sharply and stormed down a nearby corridor.

"Guess word travels fast," Harry muttered before following Professor Snape away from the crowd of students down an empty corridor and into an unused classroom. He was surprised at how closely Henniker stuck to his side. The dusty room fell silent once the door slammed shut behind them.

"Mr. Potter, I shall warn you once and only once . . . your guard has been assigned for your protection and your protection only . . . NOT for you to use to threaten the other students or to interfere with the duties of the faculty. Am I making myself clear?"

Harry opened his mouth to answer but Henniker's voice was what he heard. "If you are referring to the incident on the train then I did nothing more than defend Mr. Potter against young Mr. Malfoy's threats. Perhaps you should be teaching your Slytherins manners instead of hexes."

"How bold of you to lecture me on manners Mr. Henniker . . . since you interrupted let me be the first to congratulate you on finally gathering the courage to return to retake your N.E.W.T.S. . . . Perhaps after you eradicate your abysmal scores you will be qualified for a respectable job."

Harry watched as Henniker's face grew red.

"You believe there is a more important task than bringing down He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named? Or is it protecting the Boy-Who-Lived that you believe to believe to be fruitless . . ."

Snape never got the opportunity to answer. The door flew open and Professor Trelawney stepped in. "Oh – Mr. Potter I am so glad I found you. I came to warn you . . ." Her voice drifted off as she noticed the other occupants of the room. Drawing her wand and pointing it in Mr. Henniker's direction, a thought struck. "Severus, why aren't you defending Potter against the intruder?"

"Perhaps you should leave the subject of Divination to Firenze, surely he couldn't possess less talent . . ." Snape's words struck the Divinations Professor like a fist, leaving her gaping like a fish.

Harry attempted to diffuse the situation, "Professor Trelawney, this is Mr. Henniker. He is my guard," he finished awkwardly. He hated admitting that the Ministry thought he wasn't capable of keeping himself out of danger . . . he had after all avoided every attempt on his life so far, but confessing the truth about his punishment would be far worse.

"Well – ah . . . of course he is. The Ministry is taking my warning seriously then, very good . . . but you have no reason to be missing the Sorting Ceremony. Come along Mr. Potter, you wouldn't want to miss the feast as well."

Harry was thinking that Trelawney needed to have the prescription on her glasses checked because it was obvious that her inner-eye was a bit out of focus. Still, he was glad to have any excuse to join his friends. He followed the Professor out of the classroom and could vaguely hear applause that meant they were surely missing the Sorting Ceremony again.

Professor Snape exited the room and stalked by them quickly toward the Great Hall as Henniker rested a hand on Harry's arm to indicate he should stop. Once Snape was out of ear shot he asked, "Does he always treat you like that Mr. Potter?"

"Not really, sometimes he can be quite unfriendly." He shot Henniker a cheeky grin and hoped he would leave it at that.

"It is such a pity that Professor Umbridge couldn't return this year . . . last year's O.W.L. scores in Defense Against the Dark Arts were the highest in over a decade."

Harry's jaw dropped. He couldn't believe that anyone was foolish enough to believe that Umbridge had done any good for Hogwarts. Harry wanted to correct the misinformed Auror, but remembered the Headmaster's warning not to disclose too much. Instead, Harry bit his tongue hard and resigned himself to the fact that it was going to be a long painful year.

tbc . . .

Thanks once again for the reviews they help to keep me focused.