A/N: I'm back! This chapter covers the events on the Hogwarts Express, and introduces some themes that will become important later on.

Disclaimer: I don't own Harry Potter

Chapter 4: The Tale of Trevor, the Troublesome Toad

Hermione stood in the middle of King's Cross Station, completely bewildered by the spectacle in front of her. Muggles with trolleys were everywhere, bustling to and fro, and not a one seemed to notice the witches and wizards disappearing into the wall between Platforms 9 and 10. To Hermione, it was yet another reminder of the gulf between her old world and the one she lived in now. Muggles and wizards were literally side-by-side, some even bumping into each other, yet somehow still separated by a vast, invisible gulf.

At least Hermione wasn't alone. Justin and Dean stood beside her, and Hermione was glad they did. The mysterious Hogwarts didn't seem quite so frightening with friends she could rely on.

Umbridge and Fudge also stood with them, although their presence was considerably less than welcome. Hermione was, however, grateful for their presents – Hermione was now the proud owner of many wizardly school supplies, thanks to the monetary aid included in the Hogwarts scholarship.

The prize of the whole collection was the wand in her pocket, eleven and three-quarter inches of vine wood with a dragon heartstring. She patted her robes for the hundredth time, marveling at how light it was.

Hermione couldn't wait to use it in earnest. At last, a deadly weapon of her very own.

An approving meow came from Hermione's feet. Hermione chuckled as Crookshanks rubbed up against her leg. He must have sensed her thoughts tending towards the bloodthirsty, which was a direction the cat-kneazle cross favored.

Hermione had decided to buy Crookshanks on a whim, when she saw the grumpy feline with the squashed face fighting off an attendant trying to put him back in his cage. Hermione had wandered over to watch – Crookshanks fought a losing battle, but he managed to leave the attendant with a set of deep, bloody grooves down his left cheek.

Hermione took it as a sign. This creature was powerless against its wizard masters just like she was, but still he fought like a clawed tornado. Hermione liked this furry little warrior. She liked his intelligent eyes, and the vicious way he spat at his handler through the bars of his cage.

"How much for the orange cat, sir?" she'd asked, and the attendant named a price less than half of what the other cats cost.

While Fudge was still signing forms and settling the bill for three animals, Hermione had ducked out the back with a struggling Crookshanks in her arms. Just outside the door, Hermione dropped the tabby, who landed with typical feline grace.

"Go on," Hermione said, waving her hand at the animal. "Get out of here. I'll tell them you ran away… one of us deserves to be free. Get going, little furball, and mind you stay far away from wizards!"

Crookshanks had merely looked at her, tail crooked and eyebrows raised in haughty expectation. "What are you waiting for?" Hermione demanded, expecting Fudge or Umbridge to emerge any second. "Shoo!"

Not so much as a twitch. As an experiment, Hermione opened the door and began to walk back into the pet store. Crookshanks followed. "Well," Hermione said, strangely pleased. "Have it your way, then."

Dean and Justin also had new pets to look after. Dean's familiar was a tawny owl that he called Hunter. Justin ended up with a six-month old rat named Feather. According to the attendant, Feather had received her name because she thought she was an owl. She kept escaping from her cage and jumping from the tall counter, trying to fly.

"Why would you buy a rat like that?" Dean had demanded. "She's a nutcase!"

"She's ambitious," Justin had replied, somehow managing to sound dignified. "It's not the same thing."

They had their familiars: cat, owl, and rat. They had their wands, their books, their clothes and quills and supplies. Now they stood in front of the barrier in King's Cross Station, and in spite of the fact that it represented the new life ahead of them, none wanted to be first to approach it.

"Partings are never easy," Fudge said, sounding choked up. "But here, at last, is where we must leave you. Do your best in Hogwarts, and I'm sure you'll do fine."

Umbridge had her own words of wisdom for them. "No matter where you go in life, you began at Madame Umbridge's Preparatory Academy. Never forget that."

"We won't," the children chorused.

I won't forget, Hermione added for herself alone. I won't forget anything.

She struck out first towards the barrier, leaving Fudge and Umbridge behind – hopefully for a very long time. Justin and Dean caught up to her a second later. Dean looked back over his shoulder just before they hit the barrier, and made an exaggerated gagging noise.

"What is it?" Justin asked.

"Fudge and Umbridge," he whispered. "Waving goodbye like we're all some big, happy family. I may vomit."

"The Superintendent was really nice to us," Justin said, mildly scandalized. "He didn't have to buy us our supplies or come all this way to see us off. I think it's kind of nice of him."

"Shut up, Justin," Dean said, though without much venom. The boys were still squabbling when they passed through the barrier, but they shut up quickly enough when they saw the enormous, gleaming train waiting at the tracks. Dozens of wizarding families clustered around the boarding area, waving goodbye to students of all ages. Hermione's throat tightened upon seeing so many parents bidding loving farewells to their children.

I didn't even get that much…

No matter. That was the past. The Hogwarts Express would bear her towards her future.

By unspoken agreement, Hermione, Dean, and Justin boarded the train a little way down the platform, where it wasn't so crowded. They lugged their trunks up the steps and went in search of an empty compartment. After stowing their belongings, they simply stared at each other in mutual amazement.

The frozen moment was broken by Feather, who scampered up Justin's arm and launched herself into free fall by pushing off Justin's shoulder. Justin grabbed for the airborne rat and snatched her tail, momentum bringing her up in a wide arc like a furry little yo-yo. Feather made little squeaks of joy, happier than any rat had a right to be while swinging through the air.

Hermione laughed so hard she had to double up and clutch her stomach, and Dean was no better. "I think…" Dean gasped, forcing the words out between spurts of laugher, "you've just invented… a new game. Now you'll have to improve… your hand-eye coordination… or your rat will go splat!"

Justin swung Feather once more before placing her back on his shoulder. "Bloody rat's going to give me a heart attack…" he muttered, belying his words by stroking Feather gently with one finger.

Somewhere a whistle blew, and the three friends hurried to the window to watch the Hogwarts Express leave the station. They left London far behind, and soon the countryside was hurtling by their window at astonishing speeds.

When they had settled back into their seats, Hermione remembered there was something important she needed to tell her friends.

"Justin? Dean?" She was gratified by how quickly they gave her their full attention. "I was thinking… about when we get to Hogwarts. Nobody will know that we're Mudbloods, I mean, except the Headmaster and maybe the professors. We have Badger tattoos, and as far as the students are concerned we're no different from any other Badger. That gives us protection, if we're smart enough."

"Whatever you say, boss," Dean replied. His words were flippant, but he met Hermione's gaze and his tone was deathly serious.

"Boss?" she said, making the word a question.

Dean nodded. "Yeah. You brought us this far. Seems to me you're doing a good job. I'll follow you until you tell me not to."

Hermione looked at Justin, stifling a growing sense of amazement.

"Maybe I would have gotten the scholarship on my own," he said, looking down at his shoes. When he looked up, he was grinning. "But I'm glad I never had to find out. I… like this. The three of us, I mean. And you made it happen. I'll follow your lead, Hermione."

"Look at Justin, getting all sentimental!" Dean crowed. "Come here, you!" He put an arm around Justin's neck and began throwing mock punches with his other hand.

Justin squirmed like an eel, while Feather jumped onto Dean's head and chittered gleefully.

"Geroff!" Dean shouted.

"Get him, Feather!" Justin urged his rat.

For her part, Hermione only smiled, feeling oddly humbled. Three Mudbloods about to take Hogwarts by storm… and the others are looking to me for leadership. When did that happen?

She gave the question some serious thought. It had probably started the moment Justin made room for them at his table in the library. And, of course, it ended when Justin put himself in danger to save them, braving a Serpent's wrath for his two friends. Whatever they had started out as, they were now a team.

It was comforting to realize that she was no longer along, but worrying as well. When Hermione's only priorities had been escape and revenge, things were simpler. Her new responsibility to her friends would bring a whole host of complications.

Hermione's confused thoughts were interrupted by a knock on their compartment door. She opened it to reveal a slightly chubby boy their own age, with dark hair and a nervous demeanor.

"Sorry to bother you," he said with a fretful, hangdog air, "but I've lost my familiar. Have you seen a toad around?"

"No-" Hermione cut off when she saw the boy's Serpent tattoo. Justin saw it at the same time, and almost fell over himself turning on the charm.

"Why no, sir, I'm so sorry. If I may ask, sir, where you last saw your toad?"

"Er…" the black-haired boy stammered, clearly uncomfortable with Justin's groveling tone. Hermione caught Dean's eyes and jerked her chin towards Justin. He gave Justin a swift quick in the shin.

"Ow!" Justin yelled. Hermione took advantage of the distraction to address herself to the young Serpent.

"I'm Hermione," she said, trusting her instincts. This boy seemed very insecure, which was a good thing. She could use that. "Who are you?"

"I'm Neville Longbottom. Sorry, but I should really go… there are a lot more compartments to search…" he trailed off, looking miserable.

"Would you like some help?" Hermione asked. "I've got time, and I've always been taught to help people in need."

His relief was almost tangible. "Oh, you wouldn't mind? Thank you! The thought of going into all those compartments on my own is a little… scary…"

"No problem. Justin and Dean can stay here – I'm sure they prefer fighting to toad-searching." She turned away from Neville and fixed the boys with a stern glare. Behave, she mouthed. Dean gave her a mock salute, while Justin continued to rub his shin.

Hermione felt a little bad about that, but he had used completely the wrong approach. The kind of fawning obedience that was necessary when dealing with Umbridge was definitely not the way to approach such an obviously insecure boy, even if he was a Serpent.

It wouldn't hurt to have a Serpent in her debt, even if he was rather a sorry specimen, and even if the debt in question was nothing more serious than a missing toad.

Everything starts somewhere, Hermione reminded herself. Even the mightiest castles are built one brick at a time.

"You boys play nice," she admonished Justin and Dean as she ushered Neville outside. "I'm off to help Neville here find his toad."

oOoOo

Harry said goodbye to his mother and boarded the Hogwarts Express with all possible haste. He was a Potter, and Potters did not cry when leaving their mothers. Not even if they really, really wanted to. He refused to look over his shoulder. He would see Mum again at Christmas, which was only three months away. He swallowed hard, trying to get rid of the lump in his throat.

After passing a few compartments already filled to capacity, Harry wound up outside a compartment with only one student sitting inside. It was the red hair that caught Harry's eye, and he found himself moving automatically to the door.

It's only because he looks lonely, Harry told himself. It's not because he has red hair like Mum. That would have been childish.

Once Harry was inside, the two boys eyed each other warily. In addition to his red hair, the other boy had a sprinkling of freckles on his face and a smudge on his nose. He had a Serpent tattoo, but Harry wasn't going to make that an issue unless the other boy brought it up first.

"Mind if I join you?" he asked, trying to sound as if he didn't care one way or the other.

"Sure. M'name's Ron Weasley. What's yours?"

"Harry Potter. You related to a Sergeant Bilius Weasley?"

"Sure," Ron replied. "He was my great-uncle… died ages ago. How'd you know?"

"My dad used to-" Harry swallowed, still not used to the past tense, "-used to tell me stories. About Hogwarts, the Border… everything, really. Anyway, I remember him saying Sergeant Bilius was the meanest CO he ever had."

Always watch out for the redheads, James had said, ducking when Lily shot sparks at him with her wand. They're trouble.

"Sounds about right," Ron shrugged. "Great-uncle Bilius was a mean old snake. If you're Harry Potter… are you related to Captain Potter?"

Harry winced. If Ron knew of his dad, chances were he knew that the Potters used to be one of the High Houses, until James had been disowned and stripped of his caste. Now, if Ron was like most Serpent children, he would do one of two things: either make fun of him, at which point Harry would have to fight him; or treat him with pity, which was even worse.

"My brother loves your dad's book."

"…huh?" That was unexpected.

"You know, that military manual, what was it called…" Ron's face scrunched up in concentration. "Right, got it. Tactics and Terrain in Wizarding Warfare. My brother Bill read it years ago, and never stopped gushing about how brilliant it was. I think he still keeps a copy with him."

"Wow... I never knew my dad wrote something like that," Harry admitted, wondering why Sirius had never mentioned it. He resolved to get his hands on a copy as soon as possible. "So is your brother in the Army?"

"Bill's a Curse-Breaker. He travels to different Border outposts and dismantles traps left by Dark wizards to ambush our scouts. Sometimes they call him in to repair wards and things like that."

"Wicked," Harry said. "I bet you have to be really smart to be a Curse-Breaker."

"Oh, Bill's a right genius," Ron said with a sigh. "He took loads of advanced Arithmancy at Hogwarts. Then there's my brother Charlie, who's a genius with animals. He's a Creature Specialist at an outpost in the Alps."

"He's a Tamer?" Harry repeated, impressed. Magical Creature Specialists, usually referred to as Tamers, were wizards who trained dangerous beasts to make outposts more secure. Since many magical creatures were hard to control, opinions varied about the usefulness of Tamers on the battlefield. James had always been in favor of them, Harry remembered. And of course, Harry knew only too well how devastating certain creatures could be in combat… he gripped his manticore necklace briefly to ward away painful memories.

"Sorry if this is rude," Harry said after a moment, "but… you're a Serpent, aren't you? Why does your family have so many soldiers?"

Ron shrugged. "Just turned out that way," he said. "My Dad says Weasleys have been guarding the Border ever since there was a Border to guard. We might not have a lot of money, but we always serve the Realm… that's what my Dad says, anyway." He seemed self-conscious, but as far as Harry was concerned Ron had a right to be proud. A military tradition going back more than a hundred years was impressive.

Then Ron seemed to deflate. "I want to be a great battle mage like my brothers, but I'm not like them at all. All I can do is play chess…"

"Rubbish!" Harry said. "My dad told me every soldier has something to offer, as long as they're willing to put their life on the line to defend the Realm. We've got seven years to learn what we're good at!"

That caused Ron to brighten a little. "I guess you're right…"

"I know I'm right." Harry wanted to get Ron's mind off of what was obviously an old and familiar fear. "Say, what creatures does your brother train? Gryphons? Hippogriffs? My dad told me he once had a Tamer who raised demiguises and supplied the soldiers with short-term Invisibility Cloaks…"

Ron gave him a wide grin. "He works with dragons."

"Dragons?! I thought they were too unreliable for Border fighting."

"Usually they are," Ron said, enthusiasm overflowing in his voice. Apparently he was as fascinated as Harry was by the strategy involved in holding the Border against Grindewald's Dark forces. "Most Captains don't bother with dragons because they can be as dangerous to their handlers as the enemy. But Charlie and a few other Tamers have been trying to change that. See, dragons are really well suited to certain situations. Take Inferi, for example. Dark wizards will throw away thousands at a time to try and overwhelm an outpost, and even the strongest wizard can't hold a fire spell forever. But dragons don't run out of flame, and Charlie says they hate Inferi much more than they hate humans. One dragon can turn an army of Inferi to ash. Charlie tethers his dragons with long chains, so they can fly just enough to avoid getting flanked. Of course, enemy wizards will try to neutralize our advantage by blinding the dragons with a Conjunctivitis Curse or something, but Charlie says that's actually a good thing because it draws out the wizards, who are the most important targets anyway-"

Ron stopped to take a breath, realized how fast he'd been talking, and flushed red. "Sorry…" he muttered. "I get excited about this kind of stuff…"

"No problem, mate," Harry laughed. "I do, too."

And what nonsense was that about Ron not being as smart as his brothers? Harry wondered. He seems to grasp battlefield tactics well enough.

Harry suspected Ron's apparent sense of inferiority was due more to a lack of confidence than any lack of potential. He would just have to wait and see.

"My dad, my godfather, and I used to talk about fighting on the Border all the time."

Ron hesitated for a moment. "That's… the second time you've said used to. Did your dad pass away?"

"Yeah," Harry said. He found that it didn't hurt so much to talk to Ron about it. He valued James' sacrifice in a way that rich Serpents, who grew up believing that fighting was something other people did, never could.

Taking Ron's expectant gaze as permission, Harry began to tell the story, exactly as his godfather had told him after the funeral. Sirius had found Harry hiding in his bathroom upstairs, tears staining his cheeks, and instead of telling him to go down and accept the mourners' condolences, Sirius had sat there with Harry and asked him if he wanted to hear what happened.

"There was a battle three years ago," Harry began, while Ron listened wide-eyed. "Bigger than the usual skirmishes. Thousands of Inferi in the vanguard, with Dementors around them to sap the soldiers' energy. Dad coordinated the defense, alternating Patronus Charms and waves of fire. He ordered Sirius – that's my godfather, Sirius Black – to take my father's broom and Invisibility Cloak and circle around to pick off the enemy wizards. They were staying back, out of range of the Anti-Apparition Wards, and picking our guys off one by one while they held off the Dementors and Inferi."

Sirius had begun crying when he reached this part of the story, silent tears rolling down his cheeks as he hugged a trembling, eight-year-old Harry close.

"Things were turning our way, until a group of Dark wizards on brooms dropped a manticore in the middle of our forces. My dad… he Banished his soldiers before the manticore could get any of them, then created a Shield Charm around himself and the manticore to keep anyone from trying to help him. The manticore could have broken the shield 'cause it's resistant to magic, but my dad fought it alone, with just his wand and a goblin-forged dagger."

After assassinating a dozen Dark wizards and crippling the enemy leadership, Sirius had returned to his own side, only to see James locked in a duel to the death. He couldn't break the Shield Charm, which James had cast with every ounce of his magical power. So Sirius had been forced to watch, helpless, as his best friend fought alone.

"The important thing was avoiding the tail," Harry explained to Ron, visualizing the fight as he had so often in the past three years. "A manticore's sting is instant death. No antidote, no time to counter-attack before the poison sets in. So Dad Transfigured some blades of grass into ropes that trapped the beast's tail. He managed to cut off its stinger, but had to leave himself open to the manticore's claws. He got slashed pretty bad, and dropped his knife. Manticores are almost as smart as humans, so the bastard knew it had him. As it came in for the kill, my dad used the Summoning Charm on his knife. Caught it and stabbed the manticore in the same motion, right in the eye, piercing its brain."

Ron was on the edge of his seat, looking ready to cheer. "So he won!"

"Yeah, but he got caught in the manticore's death throes, and none of his men were Healers. At least he got to say goodbye to Sirius at the end. He told him to bring the manticore's stinger back and give it to me, as one last keepsake."

Harry took out his necklace and showed it to Ron.

"Wow, Harry… your dad was brilliant!"

"He was a soldier," Harry said. "Just like your brothers. Just like we're going to be. Right?"

Ron's eyes lit with determination. "Bloody right! Harry… thanks for telling me. About your dad, I mean. I know that can't have been easy."

"That was the first time I've told anybody that story since I heard it," Harry said. "I think it helps to tell. But that's enough from me. Tell me more about your family."

Lighter topics carried them through the next hour, with Harry learning about Ron's other brothers and his younger sister, Ginny. He was told of the infamous exploits of Fred and George, the mischief-loving twins who were a few years ahead of them in Hogwarts. The only break in the story-telling came when a kindly witch passed by their compartment, pushing a trolley full of snacks.

Harry and his mother weren't wealthy by any means – not after they had been cut out of the Potter family inheritance, anyway – but James Potter's pension was enough to cover Harry's Hogwarts tuition with a little left over for spending money. He had no compunctions, therefore, about buying a decent number of Pumpkin Pasties and Chocolate Frogs. He spread them in a pile on the seat and urged Ron to take some.

Some time later, when all that remained of the sweets were a few crinkled wrappers, the door to their compartment opened and a girl with large front teeth and bushy hair walked in.

"Excuse me, but has anyone seen a toad? A boy named Neville's lost one…" then she saw Harry, and her face flooded with recognition. "You!"

It was the girl from Diagon Alley. Harry shot to his feet. "You! What are you doing here?"

The girl stared at him. "Going to Hogwarts, of course. Look, Neville's lost his toad. Have you seen it?"

A dark-haired boy peeked in the compartment, almost hiding behind the girl. "Still poking your nose in other people's business, I see," Harry snapped. A small voice told him he was being unfair, that she had only been trying to help, but he told the voice to shut up. She had no right to stop that duel.

"Of all the stubborn, pig-headed-" she stopped, fuming. "I was going to ask if you were alright, but if you're going to insist on being a bonehead, I won't bother. Come on, Neville. The only toad in here is him!"

She swept out of the compartment with her nose in the air, Neville trailing behind like a soggy puppy. After the door closed Harry and Ron looked at each other, then burst out laughing.

"A right bossyboots, that one, isn't she?" Ron said. "How do you know her, Harry?"

"I don't know her," he replied immediately. "She just stirred up some trouble in Diagon Alley." His tone made it clear that he didn't want to explain further, and Ron didn't push.

However, Harry had a niggling sense that he was in the wrong. The girl had put herself in danger, after all – she might even have been badly hurt, if the people in the crowd hadn't distracted the murderous Serpent by pelting him with more stuff.

Harry could hear his mother's voice in his head, screaming like a Howler.

You march after her right now, Harry James Potter, and apologize! Thank her for trying to help you, while you're at it!

His mother's voice was much harder to ignore than his conscience. Harry dithered, hoping to think of a reason to go after the girl that wouldn't make him look weak in front of Ron. Then it came to him – the perfect excuse. And the best part was, it wasn't even really an excuse.

"Ron, did she call that boy Neville earlier?"

"I think so. Why?"

"Another one of my dad's stories. He loved to talk about his friends from Hogwarts, Frank and Alice Longbottom. He said they were some of the best Aurors he ever met, and it was a shame they died before they got to know their son."

"His parents were Aurors?" Ron said doubtfully. "You sure? You'd think he'd be a bit less… like that. You know?"

"I know what you mean," Harry allowed, "but it must have been tough growing up without any parents. Also, anybody would be a little scared of that bushy-haired terror. I think we ought to rescue him from her, don't you?"

Ron stood up and made for the door, grinning. "Sounds downright charitable, mate."

"Our first rescue mission," Harry laughed. "Save Neville Longbottom!"

And apologize to the girl… he added silently. Just so I can stop feeling guilty. I only hope no one's around to hear.

The two new friends rushed out into the hallway in pursuit of Neville, his bossy helper, and the missing toad.

oOoOo

"Goyle, is that your toad?"

Hermione froze, hardly daring to hope. It seemed like she had led Neville into dozens of compartments by now, with no sign of the elusive Trevor. But the voice coming from just beyond the next door was talking about a toad… could it be?

"No, Draco. Mine's in my pocket. Must have hopped in here on its own."

Hermione's heart soared, and she grinned at Neville. Crooking her thumb toward the compartment, she began walking to the door.

"Well, then," said the first voice, cultured and malicious. "Why don't we have a little fun? I'll buy one Chocolate Frog for every time you hit the toad with sparks."

A chorus of laughter greeted his challenge, followed by several sizzling cracks and a startled croak. Neville pushed Hermione aside in his haste to get through the door, the horror on his face reflecting Hermione's.

The compartment held four boys and a girl. Two of the boys were very large and extremely ugly, and they sat on either side of a shorter, slender boy with bleached-blond hair and a superior sneer. Those three had their wands out, pointing at a toad on the floor that looked a little the worse for wear.

Three wands snapped up when the door opened, and Neville flinched. In the hallway, Hermione flinched as well, but for a different reason. Each one of the five children here had a Serpent tattoo.

"Trevor!" Neville shouted, lunging forward. However, one of the hulking boys blocked his path, moving rather quickly considering his size. The other picked up Trevor with a hand like a spade.

"It's rude to barge into another compartment, you know," the blond boy drawled. "Especially when you haven't introduced yourself."

"I'm Neville Longbottom." The boy was bristling with anger now, showing no trace of his previous timid behavior. "Give me back my toad!"

"Longbottom?" The boy sounded surprised. "That's one of the High Houses… there's an Augusta Longbottom on the Pureblood Council."

"She's my Gran," Neville said, biting off each word and hurling them out like a challenge.

"Crabbe, give the boy his toad. Give him some space, Goyle." Neville took Trevor back from Crabbe, and cradled his toad against his chest. The blond boy stood, and held out his hand to Neville. Neville eyed it like he would a snake. "Listen, it was just a bit of harmless fun. No one got hurt, right?" His smile was oily and insincere. "I'm Draco Malfoy. Then there's Vincent Crabbe and Gregory Goyle, and last but not least we have Pansy Parkinson and Theodore Nott. Purebloods all, from honorable families of good standing. There's room for one more in our compartment - would you care to join us?"

"I'd rather not, thanks." Neville's voice shook with repressed rage.

Draco's smile was almost pitying. "Have it your way. We wouldn't want to sit with someone who can't take a joke, anyway."

The only girl in the compartment – Pansy, if Hermione had heard correctly – looked past Neville at her, and her eyes narrowed. "Draco, who's the girl? She's Badger."

"Oh?" Inquisitive blue eyes locked on to her, and Malfoy sneered. "Why are you hiding out in the hallway, little Badger girl? Come closer."

Hermione kept her face lowered, so they couldn't see her dismay. She'd only wanted to do a Serpent a favor, not draw the attention of an entire crew of upper-caste bullies! Cursing her bad luck, she did as she was told. If she'd learned anything from Umbridge and the Mudhouse, it was how to appear subservient and eager to please.

Meek, she told herself. Must be meek.

"And who might you be?" Malfoy's asked in a superior tone, playing it up for the benefit of his lackeys.

This, Hermione decided, was a situation that called for Justin's earlier servility. Draco Malfoy was exactly the same kind of Serpent as Umbridge, if a little less imposing. Next to the Headmistress's palpable aura of menace, Malfoy just seemed like a child putting on airs. Still, Hermione knew what was expected of her, and she would stick to her script.

"Hermione, sir. Hermione Granger. I was just helping Mr. Longbottom find his toad."

"You help your betters… good. How much of your blood is pure?"

Hermione thought rapidly. "I don't know, sir. My parents died when I was very young, so I grew up with my aunt. She didn't talk about them much. I must be part Mudblood, though, or I wouldn't be a Badger."

She tried to put as much scorn as possible into the word "Mudblood."

Hermione was confident that she could get out of this situation soon – she just had to flatter Malfoy's ego, and pretend that she hated any impurity in her own blood even more than he did. Simple and easy… until Neville decided to step in.

"Come on, Hermione," he said, walking out of the compartment towards her. "Let's get out of here."

Hermione could have smacked him for his ill-timed bravery. Malfoy's face darkened as the boy who'd refused his offer of a seat turned his back.

"Hold it, Longbottom. I haven't finished my conversation with Miss Granger."

In spite of Hermione's hatred for Serpents in general, it was a little heart-wrenching to see Neville standing up for her. He had only met her an hour ago, and he had no idea that she was manipulating him for her own gain. Yet he put himself between her and Malfoy, even though he was clearly terrified.

It didn't stop her from being annoyed with him for interfering, of course. "I didn't ask for your help," she hissed.

"You helped me find Trevor. It's only right I stand up for you," he whispered. Then his voice grew louder, though he couldn't keep from stuttering. "We-we're leaving, Malfoy."

"Not if you know what's good for you," the blond replied. "Crabbe, Goyle, why don't you teach Longbottom not to interrupt his betters while I have a chat with Miss Granger."

"Get away from him!" shouted a familiar voice.

Two boys came crashing down the hallway – it was the Lion child from Diagon Alley and his red-headed friend. The black-haired boy planted himself directly between Neville and Goyle, staring down the larger boy without batting an eye. He looked behind him long enough to give Neville a thumbs up. "Found a fight already, eh, Neville? Looks like you're a Longbottom after all!"

"Er… what?"

This situation was rapidly deteriorating, and Hermione could only glare at the idiot Lion who seemed to thrive on making her life difficult. "Now who's butting in?" she said, injecting her tone with every ounce of venom she could.

"I didn't see you doing anything," he retorted. "What's the matter, couldn't find any cream pies?"

Hermione practically hissed at him, while Neville and the redhead just looked baffled.

Meanwhile, all of the Serpents in the compartment had gathered, flanking Malfoy like silent bodyguards. "Do you have a problem with Neville?" demanded the black-haired Lion. "Or are you just a bully?"

"You're making a big mistake," Malfoy drawled. "Do you have any idea who I am?"

"A real pain in the arse, apparently. I promised I wouldn't start any fights this year, but the way I see it, you're the one starting things here. So go ahead, if you think you're man enough. You can even bring your friends, I don't mind."

"Just don't mess up his face too bad, Harry," the redhead laughed. "His father wouldn't like that. Lucius Malfoy could make things difficult for you."

"I thought that was you, Weasley," Malfoy sneered. "Care to place a bet on how long your father keeps his seat on the Council after his son is convicted of assault?"

"Running to your Daddy already?" scoffed the redhead. "Wonder how he sleeps at night, with such a pathetic excuse for an heir."

Malfoy's pale face flushed with rage. "What did you say to me?"

Harry looked at the redhead and laughed. "Not too bright, is he, Ron? Must be all those generations of inbreeding."

"You'll pay for that, you-" but Malfoy stopped in the middle of his sentence, staring at Harry. "Weasley called you 'Harry.' You're Harry Potter?"

"Last I checked."

Malfoy's anger abruptly disappeared, replaced by mirth. He laughed and laughed while Harry clenched his fists. "I heard about your family from my father. Son of James Potter, the man who single-handedly brought down the House of Potter. A line that lasted a thousand years, destroyed because of a Mudblood whore."

Harry's wand was out in the blink of an eye, but Ron was even faster. He grabbed Harry's wand arm and pulled so that Harry was facing him. "Don't cast the first spell, Harry," Ron said. "It's what he wants."

Instead of struggling with Ron, Harry caught Malfoy's gaze. "This isn't over, Malfoy."

"I don't fight with the likes of you, Potter," Malfoy sneered. "After all, I couldn't possibly humiliate you any more than you already are."

He shut the compartment door, not quite muffling the laughter that followed.

"It's all right, mate," Ron said, releasing Harry. "Pick your battles."

Neville approached Harry, looking a little intimidated. "Thanks… for standing up to him, I mean…"

Harry tore his gaze away from Malfoy's compartment with difficulty, brightening a little when he saw Neville. "Not a problem. I wasn't about to let a Longbottom get roughed up by a prick like that."

"W-we don't know each other, do we?"

"My father told me about you," Harry said. "Apparently our parents were good friends. I wonder why we never met growing up."

Neville blushed with shame. "My parents died when I was little, and my Gran didn't want me mixing with anyone outside the Serpent caste. She said I needed to respect my station. And I didn't play with many other Serpent kids, 'cause she was embarrassed on account of how bad I am at magic. I… I didn't have many friends growing up."

"That explains it, I reckon." Harry's voice was a falsely cheerful. "But we can be friends now, right? I won't tell your Gran if you don't. I'm Harry.

"And I'm Ron. We've got space in our compartment if you'd like to join us."

Neville looked back and forth between them, his face lighting up like a torch. "Really? You don't mind?"

Harry shook his head. "Not at all. You seem like a decent bloke."

Neville turned to Hermione, obviously thinking he should invite her, too. "Go on," she urged him. "I'm glad you found your toad. Try to keep a better eye on him from now on, all right? I've got to get back to Justin and Dean."

She turned away, cutting him off in the middle of a stammering expression of his gratitude.

Bloody hell, she thought as she walked away. I hope Draco Malfoy didn't lump me in with Harry and Ron. I don't need an enemy with such powerful connections. At least Neville found that blasted toad.

She had to smile a little as she made her way through the train, back to Justin and Dean. She was very surprised when a hand caught her wrist. She pulled free and turned, coming face to face with Harry Potter. Instead of following the other two, he had come after her.

"What do you want?" she snapped.

He ground his teeth. "I wanted to… to apologize," he said, making it sound like a curse word. "I know you were only trying to help in Diagon Alley, even though I didn't want you to." He heaved a big sigh when he finished, as if a heavy weight had been lifted from his shoulders.

Hermione gasped, infuriated by his high-handed attempt at an apology. "That wizard was going to kill you, you arrogant brat. Next time I'll just sit back and watch!"

His eyes narrowed. "Like you did with Neville?"

"What?"

"I saw you before I yelled. Those big gorillas were about to grab him, and you didn't even try to stop them. Why not?"

Hermione scrambled for an answer. "Because… because fighting is against the rules, that's why!"

Now he looked puzzled. "You didn't seem like much of a rule-follower in Diagon Alley. What changed?"

Everything.

"None of your business! Now if you've satisfied your conscience with that pathetic apology, I'm going back to my compartment. Don't follow me, or I'll report you once we get to school."

Harry recoiled, and barked a harsh laugh. "Follow you?! As if. You stay away from me!"

"My pleasure."

They walked in opposite directions, back to their respective compartments and the friends awaiting them.

A train whistle blew, drowning out all other sound for several long seconds. All throughout the Hogwarts Express, students began to chatter and speculate and stare out the window; waiting, expecting, hoping.

They were about to arrive at Hogwarts.