Cryptophasia or Lack Thereof (Chapter 2)

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Cryptophasia or Lack Thereof
Chapter 2

Tom the bartender was even happier to see them arrive the second time around, as if he could not imagine a more joyful thing than to watch Professor Dumbledore and Harry walk past the threshold of his door. He clapped his thick hands together. His toothless grin was wide and sincere, although the thick skin of his face was unbending, and made it look as if he were forcing it out.

“Professor,” he greeted again in his rough voice. His cheer was so palpable that the pipe-smoking woman from before, who still sat in a clouded corner of the dining room, turned the head to look at him. “You’ll be happy to know the Weasleys have come back from their trip in Muggle London. They are waiting for you in room twelve. Mrs Weasley was having to hold back young Nicholas by the collar last I saw them, after I told them I met Harry this morning; he was ready to run down the Alley by himself!”

Here Tom winked at Harry, obviously expecting him to share in the good mood. Harry gave him a weak smile in return and hoped that he did not look as confused as he felt.

“Thank you, Tom,” said Professor Dumbledore. “Please inform Mrs Weasley that we shall see her after our lunch.”

“Of course, of course. You must be famished.”

Tom led them to a door in the far back of the building, which opened to a rather rustic private dining room, made of a single circular table and a few rough-wooden chairs. He took a long stick out of his sleeve—his wand, which Harry noticed even through his discomfort was thinner and longer than Dumbledore’s and his both. With a quick wave of it, a silver tray appeared on the table.

Harry sat near-mechanically when Dumbledore invited him to. He watched the old man lift covers off of pots and plates, showing assortiments of soups, stews, salads. He recalled that Dumbledore had said making food appear was difficult magic.

“Is Tom a very powerful wizard?” he asked.

Not even the chill that had elected his belly as home since they escaped Ollivander’s could stop his curiosity. Professor Dumbledore already was serving Harry some of the stew; he smiled and answered, “In his own way, he is. Far too many people underestimate the skill one must hone to run such a fine establishment for so long. Would you like some pumpkin juice, Harry?”

Harry did not want pumpkin juice. He wanted to ask the Professor about how to make food appear, thinking of how opulent his cupboard would seem for the rest of summer if he could only materialize something as simple as toast. Mostly, he wanted to ask about what Ollivander had said. About what Tom had said. About Mrs Weasley waiting for them upstairs with someone called Nicholas, and Mrs Malfoy earlier asking, Which one is he?

But his belly felt twisted in and around itself at the prospect, all of a sudden; and the little room with its lone square window up high was draped in cold shadows, in spite of the candles burning around him merrily. When Harry tried to open his mouth, he could not find the words.

Professor Dumbledore pushed the filled plate toward him, alongside a tall glass full of bright-orange juice. “Eat now, Harry,” he said, looking kindly at him. “There is time for your questions. In my many years of living, I have noticed that things tend to look much more frightening on an empty stomach.”

Harry wondered uneasily if the old man was simply perspicacious, or if there was a spell somewhere which allowed for one to read the thoughts of others.

His stomach did feel terribly empty. He took a cautious sip of the juice, and found it sweet and fresh and marvelous. A small bite of the steaming stew revealed it just as tasty.

Learning the food magic would be his priority in Hogwarts, he swore.

They ate in companionable silence, Harry drinking his pumpkin juice and Dumbledore taking slow sips out of a golden-colored drink with a very sweet scent. The dishes vanished when even Harry’s stomach gave out, only to be replaced by the most tantalizing treacle tart he had ever seen.

He was blushing as he took a piece of it, never mind that Dumbledore himself was muttering about undue temptations and ate a whole third of it himself.

Finally, the meal was done, and silence reigned again. But it was not the anxious silence that had shaken Harry after his visit to the wandshop, and the warmth and smells of the food had left him a little surer of himself.

Professor Dumbledore seemed in no hurry at all. He was holding his tumbler of golden liquid—”Firewhisky,“ he had said when Harry had asked, and added, “A drink I am certain you will be enjoying in complete illegality in your last years of school.”

Harry wasn’t so sure about that. He did not like it very much when Uncle Vernon indulged, as it tended to make his temper worse and his hands heavier.

Regardless, Dumbledore watched him and did not press him. And Harry was afraid, still, of asking anything at all; but the smile that the old Professor kept on his lips was kind. He clenched his hands together in his lap, under the edge of the table, before deciding against it and gripping the sides of his chair instead. The wood was rough, yes, but no splinters dug into his skin no matter how harshly he held it. The less panicked part of him wondered if there was magic there, too.

Harry licked his lips. He asked in a shuttered voice, “I have a—a brother?”

He cringed at the sound of himself. His face heated and his stomach shuddered, and it was all he could do not to shut his eyes tightly and wish himself out of the inn entirely, as he had wished himself to the roof of his school on the day Dudley had chased him.

Professor Dumbledore replied, “Yes. A twin, younger than you by a few minutes. His name is Nicholas.”

His voice was very, very kind.

It made Harry’s eyes heat and wetten, and his glasses fog up at the rim. He swallowed painfully. “And—the Weasleys, are they m-my…” he croaked, but he could not finish the sentence.

He did not know how to finish it.

“No, Harry,” said Professor Dumbledore mournfully. His wrinkled hand let go of the tumbler to flatten up on the table, not very far from Harry’s arm. “Though they have raised Nicholas since infancy, and I am certain they will open their family to include you the moment they meet you, they are not related to you or Nicholas by blood. Or only very distantly.”

Harry did not want to think about this—he really, really did not. “So my parents are dead,” he managed.

“Yes, they are.”

If only the Professor were less gentle about it. Harry thought he could better handle this crushing disappointment, after a whole day of miracles unfolding before his eyes, after letting surprise and then hope crawl up the tendrils of him for the better part of an hour, if the old man had been curt and severe. He breathed in and out loudly until he was certain that tears would not spill out of his eyes.

When he spoke again, he was satisfied to find his voice a little steadier. “Why didn’t I know I have a b-brother? Why didn’t we grow up together?”

“Ah,” said Dumbledore. For the first time since he opened the door that morning, Harry found him looking as old as his beard and hair implied. He wrapped his long fingers around his tumbler once more, leaving the side of Harry’s arm to cool as the movement pulled him away. “I am afraid the fault is mine, at least in part. But in order for you to understand, I will have to tell you a story that I fear will be difficult to hear.”

Just tell me, Harry wanted to say. His lips were sealed, but his heart beat wildly against his chest. I want to know everything.

And Dumbledore nodded to Harry and smiled at him sadly and told him of the night his parents were murdered.

Harry drank in every word. A powerful wizard set our world aflame, and He killed your parents for opposing him, and His name was Voldemort; do not be afraid to call him by it.

He felt that he could see it all in his mind, though he knew what he imagined must be far off the truth: a wicked man and his wicked followers, walking into the house of a loving family, killing the parents he had never known and then trying to kill him and—and Nicholas. Leaving him to be abandoned at the doorstep of number four, Privet Drive.

Once Professor Dumbledore finished telling him of the night of Halloween, 1981, he let silence envelop them. His long fingers stroked the rim of his glass, letting a mellow sound echo through the dimly-lit room.

“Why couldn’t Voldemort kill us?” Harry asked him then. “We were only babies. If he was so powerful, then why…”

Silence reigned. For a long, long time, Dumbledore looked as if he would not answer at all. At last he let go of the crystal tumbler; and his hand once again splayed over the wooden tabletop.

“There are old magics in this world,” he said. “Magics that not even Voldemort knew, or rather, that he found insignificant, below himself. The love your parents had for yourself and your brother is one such magic.”

“Love,” Harry replied, confused.

The corners of Dumbledore’s eyes crinkled. He was smiling. “Old magic such as this, put in motion by the hearts of those who have left us, is a topic for another day. Suffice to say that something happened that night which Voldemort failed to foresee. His spell backfired, and he vanished without a trace—except for the scars he left on you and Nicholas.”

Harry’s hand flew to his forehead out of habit. He had always rather liked the white scar there, if only for the fact that Aunt Petunia hated it so much. Now, he reflected queasily, he would not be able to find such spiteful enjoyment out of it anymore.

“I believe you have noticed odd reactions to your name and presence here,” Professor Dumbledore was saying now, looking at him intently. “You must understand that the wizarding population of Great Britain prizes its peace dearly, after so many terrible years of war. After that night of Halloween, the tale of how you and your brother stopped Voldemort spread and grew. You are both very famous, and most, if not all, of your classmates at Hogwarts will know your names and history.”

Harry did not like the sound of that. Not one bit. He gnawed at his bottom lip and let out: “Everyone?”

Professor Dumbledore nodded sympathetically, making Harry’s stomach drop again. His hand squeezed Harry’s shoulder briefly, however, which was very nice. Harry rather thought he could get used to having kind people comfort him from time to time.

“Now,” Professor Dumbledore said, and at the regretful tone of his voice, Harry knew that the comfort had been needed entirely. “As for why you had never heard of any of this before.

“When Voldemort fell, there was still quite a bit of chaos to be dealt with. His followers were still very much alive, and for a few days, although people started celebrating mere hours after your parents died, no one really knew if they were safe at all. The names of Harry and Nicholas Potter had already spread every way. As your parents had no living relatives in our world, the task of making sure the two of you would be safe from retribution fell to me.

“I considered, at first, letting the two of you stay with your aunt. Blood is a powerful magic of its own, and with her presence alone, no matter how non-magical she may be, Petunia Dursley ensures that no wizard can harm you.”

There was an odd infliction of his voice on those words: No wizard can harm you. Professor Dumbledore frowned at the table before him for a moment before meeting Harry’s eyes again; and Harry, though he did not know why, flushed and looked away.

Professor Dumbledore sighed. “But then, there was the issue of the homes your parents left behind and gave via their wills,” he said. “Especially their grand house in Cleethorpes, which they gave to dear friends of theirs, the Weasley family. A very well-protected, unplottable house, large enough for a family of ten.”

Ten, Harry thought breathlessly.

Something in him squirmed and tensed, embittering the sweet aftertaste of the tart.

“I could not readily ask your aunt Petunia to take care of two children out of the blue,” Dumbledore continued, heedless. “Nor could I ask Molly and Arthur Weasley to do it, for they had seven children already, one of them a newborn. I decided to separate you.”

His hand was on Harry’s shoulder again. Harry looked at the tabletop and remained very still.

“On the day I gave you to your aunt, I left behind a letter explaining all that had happened to you and your family. I also left with her a communication device which would allow you to speak to your brother, as well as the phone number of the Weasley family, should she prefer to organize a meeting the Muggle way. In my letter, I advised her to let a year or two go by before contacting them, for her own safety and yours.”

Here Dumbledore’s voice became pained, and Harry felt the absurd urge to comfort him in return. To pat his arm and say, It’s okay. He swallowed it back with another bright blush.

After a brief, collected pause, Dumbledore continued: “I was made aware by Molly Weasley that neither means had been used a few years ago. She and Arthur insisted for a long time that I go and check on you, but I was aware of your attendance at school and your presence at your aunt’s house through other means. I thought… perhaps she was simply scared of her family being exposed. Of Voldemort returning one day and seeking to harm you. I could not very well impose on her and order her to reach out to the Weasleys if she did not wish to.”

“She never told me anything,” Harry said.

The silence that followed made him wish to burrow into the ground in shame. He bowed the back under Dumbledore’s heavy hand.

“Yes,” the old man replied at last. “It became very obvious to me, as soon as I met you this morning. I admit, to my shame, that I had not entertained this possibility at all. The Deputy Headmistress of Hogwarts informed me that we had not yet received your owl for the upcoming term, so I decided to come and give you the tour of Diagon Alley myself, thinking that your aunt must simply be confused as to how to proceed…”

His words trailed off. Harry risked a glance up to the old, wizened face; he found it as wrinkled as Ollivander’s had been.

Then Professor Dumbledore’s gaze met him sharply, and Harry nearly jumped.

“Harry,” he said plainly. “I must apologize to you. I arranged for a meeting with the Weasleys, knowing how much Nicholas wished to see you. I thought we could quickly gather your necessities, and then allow you to spend the afternoon with him. I realize now that I should have called the meeting off and taken the time to speak with you before bringing you here. I found myself… quite at a loss this morning. I delayed telling you the truth because I could see that you were eager to come, but I have made your introduction to our world quite uncomfortable in doing so. For this, I am deeply sorry.”

No one had ever apologized to Harry before, let alone so extensively and sincerely. Professor Dumbledore’s very blue eyes were contrite and sympathetic. Harry flushed, and twisted his hands in the way his guts twisted, shifting about on his chair. “It’s, er, it’s fine,” he replied awkwardly. “I mean, I could tell that something was going on, something I didn’t get, but it was still… it was amazing. Um, sir. I’m glad that you took me.”

He meant it, too. The behaviors of Tom the bartender, Ollivander, Griphook, and the Malfoys had definitely made him uneasy, but Harry would never be able to scrub his mind of the wonder of seeing Gringotts for the first time, or of watching owls fly over the sunlit streets, or of learning that magic wands were a buyable good and that he could get one.

Harry smiled to Dumbledore shakily, and the old professor smiled back to him. “I am very happy to hear it,” he said. “There is nothing quite like seeing a child’s first impression of our world—I may be getting on with my years, and have seen quite my share of our new students discover the wonders of magical London, but I never seem to grow tired of it.”

“Doesn’t everyone else already know about it, though?” Harry asked.

“Not at all. Many of your yearmates from the Muggle world will be quite as lost as you—and many of those raised by wizarding families as well, for magic is a fickle and mysterious thing, never fully predictable.”

Harry had no idea what he meant by that, but he found himself relaxing anyway. He had worried that he would be terribly bad at magic, seeing all those children today who seemed perfectly at ease watching broomsticks fly and books fight to escape their owners’ grip.

Professor Dumbledore let silence unfold again, gentle and easy, with only the crawling murmur of voices from the dining room outside to disturb it. He watched Harry all the while with those piercing blue eyes. Harry made to grab his fork again for lack of anything else to ease away his awkwardness, but he was not hungry anymore.

He cleared his throat. “They’re waiting for us, aren’t they,” he tried to say. “The—The Weasleys.”

The words came out of him stuttering and breezy. He cleared his throat.

“They are,” the Professor replied. “But if you would prefer to head home now, there is no harm in arranging for a later meeting.”

Yes, Harry thought helplessly, but what he said was, “No.”

It did not matter if it happened now or on September first. He did not think he would be readier then, or a year from now, or when he was as old and grey as Dumbledore himself.

Harry’s chair made a rattle of wood on wood as he pushed it back to stand. He made to grab the tray left over the table, looking around for a place to take it, but it vanished as soon as he was upright. Professor Dumbledore smiled at his surprised inhale but did not laugh at him; and as he guided Harry back to the dining room, back to the creaking stairs Harry had glimpsed before, his hand was as firm and warm as ever.

This time, the wink that Tom the bartender gave Harry did not make his legs feel like jelly.

They ascended two flights of wooden steps, crossed a twisting hallway. The very space within the Leaky Cauldron felt distorted so, wide enough for three abreast one moment and so narrow the next that Harry felt the walls squeeze around him. The shadowed spaces of the inn looked like they should play host to enough spiders and dust to put his cupboard to shame, but everywhere Harry look, walls and floors were spotless, if very rustic-like.

Finally, they reached a door just like any other, with the number twelve hung from it in some jewel-toned material. Professor Dumbledore knocked twice on the door politely; and silence lay so heavy over Harry then, so thickly and sicky, that he could hardly breathe.

He counted two seconds in his head in the midst of barely-controlled panic. Then a thudding sound came from behind the closed door, and the round handle turned, its rattling so muffled by the blood in Harry’s ears that he heard none of it at all.

He glimpsed only a living-room inside, bathed in the golden light of day, before a cry echoed and something knocked violently into him.

“Nick!” came the high voice of a woman.

But Harry could not hear it, for another voice was screaming right by his ear—”Harry!“

His balance fell when he failed to catch his own weight against that thrown at him, and Harry tumbled to the inn’s floor.

The person holding him fell as well right over him. For a moment Harry could say nothing, breathless entirely, as they collected themselves and tried to straighten up—until their elbow dug into Harry’s stomach and tore a pained grunt out of him.

“Sorry, sorry,” said the other breathless person—Harry tried to turn his head aside and saw only the shaking edge of a smile.

“Nick, for Merlin’s sake—oh, dear, don’t just gather dust here, let the boy breathe. Here, let me…”

The woman’s voice was back again. A shadow fell over Harry as its owner helped his—helped the other person up, and that person’s hand would not let go at all of Harry’s shirt and pulled him up as well.

The red-headed woman was patting the other boy down for dust. Harry met her eyes through a haze—saw joy there he had never seen before, never seen directed to himself—and felt as though a fist had slithered in-between his ribs and twisted his sternum sideways.

He looked away in fright; and at last met the eyes of the boy who had just knocked into him.

It did not help matters much.

Having known of his existence for all of two hours, Harry had not yet had a time to form any guessing image of what Nicholas Potter would look like. Even after Dumbledore had said they were twins, the most his panicked mind could come up with was the strong urge to think away. But had he had months to study pictures and prepare, Harry thought, he would still feel as weirded out as he did just now.

Nicholas Potter looked exactly like him—and did not. He had the same unruly hair Harry saw in the bathroom mirror every morning in Privet Drive, the same green eyes his aunt Petunia so loathed to look into, even the same pale scar on his forehead spreading every way. Harry could recognize every angle of it, every branch twisting the very same way.

But Nicholas Potter was smiling so widely that it looked painful, and as Harry watched, dumbfounded, his eyes filled and wetted with tears.

“You’re here,” Nicholas Potter said in a choked voice. “I can’t believe you’re here!”

Before the red-haired woman, who must be Mrs Weasley, could hold him back, he was hugging Harry again.

Having very little experience with hugs, Harry simply stood frozen in his spot. He refrained from looking to Professor Dumbledore for help as Nicholas’s arms squeezed painfully around him. He watched Mrs Weasley instead, whose own eyes were wet too. She magicked a handkerchief out of thin air with her wand and wiped them with it. When she saw Harry watching, she gave him another terrible smile.

The fist in Harry’s chest tightened. His face flushed unpleasantly.

“Nick,” said Mrs Weasley in a rough voice, “let him breathe.”

“No,” said Nicholas against Harry’s ear stubbornly.

He was definitely crying. Harry could feel his shoulders shake and wet tears drop to the side of his neck. He shuddered.

“Nick… Oh, Harry, dear, I’m sorry, he’s been terribly eager to see you… We all have,” Mrs Weasley said, and had to dab at her damp eyes again. She took in a shuddering breath. “Professor Dumbledore,” she added to the old man, who had stood silently out of the way of the door all this time. “Thank you so much—please, do come in, I’ve asked Tom for tea…”

She seemed not to know what to do with herself. Her hands lifted to open the door further, before she realized that Nicholas had already all but shoved it out of its hinges a minute ago; she looked at Harry again as if afraid that he would disappear if she blinked away, and she put a hand over Nicholas’s shoulder again.

“You’ll have all the time in the world to catch up,” she said more firmly. “Let the Professor enter—you didn’t even greet him properly, where are your manners?”

But she was smiling widely, wetly, as she said it, and Harry doubted that Professor would mind very much.

In fact: “No need to trouble yourself for me, Molly,” said Dumbledore. He moved to enter the room, however, and at last Nicholas let go of his choking hold on Harry.

Harry looked at his feet as he followed into the room, although he felt his—Nicholas’s eyes on him all the while, and the boy had yet to let go of his upper arm. The skin of his face burned and froze in turn with it. He felt fevered.

Room twelve was not a hostel room, as Harry expected, but a simple private dining room. He glimpsed a pile of the same bags Dumbledore had shrunk whilst they shopped for his supplies, enough of them for—

For a family.

There was an owl, too. A snow-white bird with gleaming yellow eyes grooming its own feathers inside a steel-colored cage, who looked back at him impetuously when he stared for too long. Harry very much wished that he were the bird here, and not the boy. Perhaps the bird thought the same. That cage did not look roomy.

“Sit down, Harry, please,” Mrs Weasley said to him. Harry did not jump when she touched his shoulder and pushed him toward one of the chairs, though he did startle as Nicholas immediately sat next to him, still staring at the side of his face intently. “Would you like some tea? Maybe some cake? I’ve brought a few things for you from home, if you’re hungry—”

Harry opened his mouth to reply. The words felt like throatache. “No, thank you,” he croaked. “I…”

“Harry and I just finished an excellent meal,” Dumbledore said then, coming to his rescue.

He sat at the opposite end of the table. The smile he gave Harry was encouraging, but not forceful.

“I’m afraid I forgot to inform him of how delightful a cook you are, Molly, else he would have saved some room.”

“Oh, that’s no trouble, no trouble at all,” Mrs Weasley replied with a flush, “I can put a Stasis Charm on all of it, Harry will have plenty of time to eat it later… that is, if you want it, Harry,” she hurried to add. “I wouldn’t want to step on your aunt’s toes, she must have made you something as well—it’s your birthday, after all…”

There was a frown on her face now. Harry supposed it must be because he was sat so still and awkward, refusing to look to his right despite his—despite Nichola’s hand having not left his arm and squeezing it at intervals to catch his attention.

She tried to smile at him again. Harry’s heart lurched in his chest, and he turned the head, only to meet Nicholas’s eager eyes instead.

“What’s wrong?” Nicholas asked him loudly.

Nicholas wore Harry’s face and eyes and scar and had the same voice and touched him as if he was always meant to. Even now, he leaned forward, as if he could think of no reason why Harry would like to keep any space for himself, any air for his own lungs and no one else’s. He grinned at him in a way Harry had never seen before, not on his own face and not on anyone looking at him.

And suddenly, it was all too much.

Once, when he was very young still, Harry had to be taken home from school by Aunt Petunia in the middle of the day. He had fallen badly on the playground and broken his nose. The school nurse was in a state, looking him over and trying to think of what to do—she had called his aunt in a hurry and told her to get him to the hospital. Aunt Petunia had thinned her lips and looked quietly, achingly furious; and on the ride home to Privet Drive, Harry had sat in the back of the car and held his bloody nose and felt a great claw of fear slowly squeeze his throat shut. He had thought of what Uncle Vernon would do if he put blood on the leather car seats. He had thought of what Aunt Petunia would say to him once they were away from prying eyes. The claw had squeezed and squeezed until he could not breathe at all.

When they arrived in Privet Drive, his nose was healed, but the terror had him in such a grip that he found himself missing the pain of it.

Harry felt the brick wall of his fear obstruct his neck and chest as it had that very day. The sound of Mrs Weasley’s worried voice and Nicholas’s inquiries and Professor Dumbledore’s gentle gaze all vanished through a white sheen, and just like the day of the Rooftop Incident, he felt his whole body narrow as though squeezing through a tube, and his ears pop with the pressure.

When he opened his eyes, the sunlight blinded him. He blinked tears off even as he desperately tried to breathe; he was, he realized faintly, back in the midst of Diagon Alley, around the corner of the joke shop that so many children had gathered to earlier. Harry scraped his hand over the stone wall of the building, trying not to fall, but his legs gave from under him. He barely felt his bottom hit the ground.

He couldn’t breathe. Sharp pain was caught within his chest and throat. Each of his inhales halted unfinished and made the panic grow—all he could do was sit there and try to catch his bearings. His ears rang with the sound of his own beating heart.

He did not know how long he stayed like this, his mind empty of all but the most basic fear of pain and fright, before an unknown voice asked—”Hey, are you okay?“

Harry did not immediately react. First he sucked in another painful breath, forcing it past the bursting point of his lungs. There was a shadow now blocking the harsh stroke of the sun; when he lifted his head at last, he met the eyes of a boy.

The boy, who must be older than Harry by a few years, crouched before him. He had brown hair and eyes and a worried look to his face. His eyebrows creased when he reached out for Harry, asking again, “Are you all right?”

Harry breathed. He pushed past the infinite tightness of his throat and replied, “M’fine,” trying not to choke on it.

The boy did not look convinced, but his touch on Harry’s arm was tentative, and he did not try to sit closer or grab him.

“Did you get lost?” he asked kindly. “Where’re your parents?”

And this was all kinds of mortifying, for Harry had never had any parents and never cried about it like a little child before, but now his face heated and his eyelids grew damp and heavy, and a sob caught at the closed-off breach of his throat.

“Oh Merlin,” said the boy as Harry started crying.

Harry didn’t listen to him. He drew his knees against himself and choked out his tears as best he could. His shoulders shook, however, no matter how much he stifled the shameful sounds trying to escape him. At least a dam seemed to have opened, and he could breathe again fully, even if now he could not stop crying.

The boy was muttering, patting his shoulder. Harry felt him sit beside him on the ground of the alley, felt as well the eyes that many passersby directed to the sight of them. He curled in on himself further.

“Don’t mind them,” the boy was saying now, still rubbing Harry’s shoulder in sympathy. Or pity. Harry couldn’t care at the moment. “Stressed and stupid, the lot of them, what with all the letters coming around this time of summer. I wish they’d send them sooner, you know? No one’s ever in Diagon Alley at the beginning of July, it’s pretty quiet.”

He spoke of other such things for a while, heedless of Harry’s miserable silence. The price of a handful of newt eyes this year compared to the last; the new Nimbus 2000 which was the star of Quality Quidditch Supplies’ front window, and how he wished to try it out one day; the electives he had taken this year—Care for Magical Creatures for himself and Arithmancy for his dad, who wanted to make a savant out of him.

Little by little, Harry’s breathing eased. The pain radiating through his torso faded and allowed in more air. His eyes dried and fatigue quieted his sobs, and he stared listlessly, silently, at the stone ground between his drawn-up knees.

The boy’s hand patted his shoulder one last time. His voice, too, had quieted after a while, but he seemed in no hurry to move despite the heat of the sunstruck stones around them or the uncomfortable warmth of their proximity.

“Feel better?” he asked gently.

Harry nodded, not trusting his own voice yet. He rubbed his nose and eyes with his sleeve before daring to look up.

People still walked past them, sometimes throwing them odd looks, but the boy did not seem to care one bit about the attention, and simply smiled to see Harry’s face out of the cage of his knees. Harry grimaced back shakily.

“Come on, then,” he said in a grunt, pushing himself to his feet. He dusted his backside somewhat dramatically; Harry’s lips twitched again. “I’m not entirely certain this place isn’t charmed to turn people to stone if they spend too long not buying anything, and there’s a calming draught around with your name on it.”

Harry cleared his throat. “Won’t your parents worry?” he asked a little roughly.

The boy shrugged. “My dad was catching up with some Ministry colleagues last I saw him. He won’t be tearing the place down to look for me for a while yet.”

He held a hand toward Harry with another smile. After a second of hesitation, Harry took it, allowing himself to be pulled upright.

The older boy walked slowly by his side till they reached the very same place Harry had bought his Potions ingredients in a while ago. The soft chime of Slug and Jiggers rang into the empty shop as they came in, and Harry, still a little daze, paid little attention to what the boy said to the old man behind the counter. He watched the unicorn horns hanging from the ceiling and tried to imagine what real unicorns looked like.

He jumped when the boy came back to his side. “Here,” the boy said, giving him a small vial of orange liquid, “drink this, you’ll feel better.”

“I, ah, how much—I can pay—”

“No need,” the boy grinned. “Come on, just drink it.”

Harry did just that as the boy opened the door again. He was struck near-blind by how disgusting the potion inside tasted, and his still-shaken throat almost threw it right back out, but he forced himself to finish it. Almost immediately, warmth spread comfortably in him. The last of the tension in his shoulders eased, and the vague threat of a sob, still hovering at his neck since he had been pulled to his feet earlier, vanished entirely.

When he looked at the boy the again, he found him laughing. “First time drinking a potion?” he asked. Harry nodded, wordless. “Doesn’t get any better with time, unfortunately. You just have to get used to it.”

“Mr Diggory.”

Harry and the boy turned as one; Professor Dumbledore stood on the sidewalk before them, his hands folded before himself, his starry robes glinting in the sun.

“Professor Dumbledore, hello” the boy replied, surprised. His back had straightened a little. “What are you doing here?”

“I was trying to find a lost student,” Dumbledore said jovially. “But it seems you’ve done an admirable job of that already.”

Harry flushed. Whatever was in that potion he drank, however, prevented him from flying into a frenzy of panic or embarrassment again.

“Er, I’m sorry,” he mumbled, “I didn’t—I mean… I didn’t leave on purpose. I don’t know what happened.”

“You are quite forgiven, my boy,” the Professor replied. “No need to beat oneself up about it, as the Muggles say.”

Harry could feel the boy, Diggory, staring at him in curiosity, but he asked nothing at all.

Professor Dumbledore nodded to the older boy. “I see you’ve met one of our best and brightest, Harry,” he said. “Mr Diggory is entering his third year in Hogwarts, I believe; Professor Sprout does so love to compliment him to the rest of us whenever the occasion arises.”

It was Diggory’s turn to become bright red, Harry saw with faint amusement. Even his ears pinkened. “Thank you,” he stuttered out, “ah, I’m sure the Professor is exaggerating…”

“Nonsense,” Dumbledore interrupted merrily. “Let us see,” he added, tapping his bearded chin with one long finger. “Helping a student in need, seeking professional advice to provide adequate treatment… The school term has not started yet, but I believe Professor McGonagall shall not be too cross with me if I bend the rules a little and give Hufflepuff House a ten-point head start on September first.”

Diggory spluttered awkwardly. Dumbledore nodded to himself, quite visibly pleased, and ignored all of the boy’s protests.

“I’m afraid I have to take Harry back with me now,” he said, “but it was a pleasure seeing you. I wish you a pleasant end of the summer holidays, Mr Diggory.”

“You too, Professor,” Diggory replied, still pink in the face. “And—Harry, was it?” He smiled at Harry, holding his hand out once more. “I didn’t even introduce myself. I’m Cedric Diggory, nice to meet you.”

Harry shook his hand. “I’m Harry,” he replied. He bit his lips when the rest of his name tried to spill out—he still remembered what the Professor had told him and how oddly Tom and Mrs Malfoy had looked at him. “Thanks, for, you know.”

Not making fun of him or leaving him to cry on the cobblestone like a baby.

But Diggory—Cedric—seemed not to even realize that there had been something to make fun of. He shook Harry’s hand firmly, smiled one last time, and parted ways with them with a cheerful, “Hope to see you in Hufflepuff, Harry!”

After he was gone, Professor Dumbledore slowly walked back in direction of what Harry assumed to be the Leaky Cauldron. A very faint bout of fear tried to crawl up his chest at the thought of what awaited there—Mrs Weasley’s painfully kind smiles and Nicholas’s sheer—presence—existence. Everything. But the potion was still fresh on Harry’s tongue, still bitter after he had swallowed it, and the fear washed away.

“I’m sorry,” Harry could not help but say again as the inn came into view at the other end of the alley. “I really didn’t mean to. I don’t even know how I did it.”

Professor Dumbledore sighed. His hand rested on Harry’s shoulder very briefly before lifting again. “No, Harry,” he replied. “You have nothing to apologize for. I have taken the liberty of explaining your circumstances to Mrs Weasley and your brother, and I assure you that they will not hold it against you.”

Which did not mean that they would be happy about it.

Harry’s suspicions were confirmed when he walked into the dining hall of the Leaky Cauldron and found Nicholas looking absolutely heartbroken, and Mrs Weasley next to him with an arm around his shoulders, holding him against her side and sniffling slightly.

The potion may have ridden Harry of his earlier fear, but it did nothing at all to the sharp, excruciating jealousy he experienced at the sight.

They both looked up and across the deserted room when Harry and Dumbledore entered. This time, Nicholas did not run to Harry and tackle him into a hug—and Harry was fiercely glad for it—but his upset face still made him want to run away and hide.

“Harry,” Nicholas said miserably.

At the sound of his name—at the sound of that voice—Harry’s back ran with shivers. He licked his lips. He made himself reply, “Hi,” quietly.

He looked at his own shoes. They were so old now that the front of the left one threatened to have its seams tear.

Mrs Weasley spoke up after another silence. “Well,” she said, her voice as unshaking as she could make it, “I wanted to offer you to have dinner with us in Cleethorpes, Harry, but since your aunt—”

She interrupted herself. Harry risked a brief glance at her face and found it crimson with rage; he looked away quickly.

“Sorry,” he said again.

“Oh, no, Harry,” Mrs Weasley replied, her voice mellowing immediately. She sounded deeply saddened. “No, don’t you apologize, you’ve done nothing wrong. And of course, you are welcome to visit us any time you want, for as long as you want to. I mean it. Here, let me write you our number again—”

She fumbled helplessly with her purse, taking out a piece of that same parchment Harry had bought for his classes, writing on it quickly with a rumpled self-inking quill. She quickly crossed the space between them to hand it to him, and her hand wrapped around his for a moment when he took it. Warmth lingered where her skin had touched his even after she let go.

Harry opened and closed his mouth. “Thank you,” he managed at last, yet he still could not look at her.

Nor could he look at Nicholas behind her, whose hurried exhale seemed to shake though Harry’s chest.

He did not know if he should flee or stand his ground when Nicholas approached as well. He ended up doing a bit of both; one foot braced behind himself and all of his body rigid, as each step Nicholas took forward made his heart beat wildly.

He almost lost his balance and fell backward when Nicholas suddenly held something up to his face.

It was an owl.

In fact, it was the white owl from room number twelve, still as unruffled as ever, still looking at Harry with expressive yellow eyes through the bars of her cage.

“Happy birthday,” Nicholas said mutedly.

Slowly, carefully, Harry looked at him too.

There were tear tracks over his face. His skin, the same as Harry’s, was dark enough in the shade of the Leaky Cauldron’s main hall that the trails of dryness on his cheeks shone like golden strings under the glow of the candles. The whites of his eyes were striated with red. He and Mrs Weasley must have spent quite a few minutes crying to each other, comforting each other—Harry grit his teeth in silence and, slowly, took hold of the owl’s cage.

It did not move at all. Its eyes simply closed again in boredom.

“Thank you,” Harry forced out. Nicholas sniffled, and the ugly thing in Harry’s chest squirmed again. “I don’t have any… I didn’t know—I mean, I…”

“Of course you didn’t,” Mrs Weasley said immediately. She looked about to cry again, and Harry flushed and looked down. “Don’t you worry about it, dear.”

“You’ll write me, right?”

That was Nicholas’s—Harry’s—voice.

Harry’s hand clenched around the top handle of the owl cage, where the warmth of Nicholas’s hold still lingered. It lingered too on his own skin where Nicholas had held him, and he thought in a fright that it may never leave. The effects of the potion that Cedric Diggory had given him were starting to fade; his throat was tight once more, his breathing difficult.

“Yeah,” he said weakly, unable to bring himself to smile.

Still it seemed enough for Nicholas. His lips stretched once more into that grin Harry had never seen in a mirror’s reflection, and the sight of it alone made his skin feel misaligned and itchy.

After Professor Dumbledore left Harry on the front step of number four, Privet Drive, all of his shopping bags unshrunk and ready to be carried inside, Harry stood still for a very long time.

The summer evenings seemed to drag endlessly at this time of the year. The sun was barely starting to tilt westward and elongate his shadow. Privet Drive was caught in the yearly drowsiness of heat and light, all of its curtains pulled and all of its children gone, and the street was very silent. The owl shifted in her wide cage, scenting the late hour; she hooted softly.

As he had that whole day, Professor Dumbledore simply waited by his side in silence.

Harry pushed open the door of number four.

Aunt Petunia’s reaction to the owl was almost funny; she screeched the same way that she did when seeing Professor Dumbledore, and stepped back till her whole back was stuck against the wall. Uncle Vernon rushed into the hallway at the sound of her. His scream of rage died in his throat when he witnessed the old man who still followed Harry around.

“You—” he choked, entirely crimson.

“I trust you will be able to provide Harry with whatever he may have missed during this shopping trip,” Professor Dumbledore told him politely. “Some new shoes may be in order.”

Uncle Vernon made a furious face that said, You dare give me orders in my own house? But his fear of the Professor was stronger, for once, than his utter lack of intelligence. He huffed and puffed and shifted on his feet. He grunted unpleasantly and ran back into the living-room, snapping the door shut behind himself, making the fine stained glass of it rattle.

Then there were only three. Harry, the Professor, and Aunt Petunia. Who knew where Dudley had gone.

Professor Dumbledore turned to speak to Petunia, who still looked as if she wished her body would be one with the wall. “The Hogwarts Express leaves from King’s Cross station on the first of September, eleven o’clock,” he told her. “I assume you recall the way to the quay, Mrs Dursley. It has not changed since you were a child.”

Aunt Petunia whimpered. Her face was as white as a sheet.

“Well, I think it is high time for me to leave. Have a nice end of summer, Harry.”

“You too, Professor,” Harry replied quietly.

Although the sight of his aunt and uncle so frightened by this kindly old man was amusing, he was exhausted. He wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed and sleep, and a shameful part of him hoped that at least a few of the things he had learned today would turn out to be a dream.

For a second, it looked as though Dumbledore would simply leave as well. He nodded to Harry and Petunia, smiling, walking toward the front door. Then a chill came to Harry’s skin again as the old Professor stopped by the door of the cupboard; and for the second time that day, Harry saw him draw the elegant carved wand he kept hidden in his sleeve.

The cupboard door opened so violently that it knocked against the side of the stairs and made the whole house shake.

Harry’s heart stopped.

His only solace, he found through the white-hot panic once more crushing his chest, was that Dumbledore did not look at him at all. Instead, the old man stood silent and still as he took in what was there—Harry’s cot and blanket and pillow, Dudley’s broken toys Harry had nicked over the years, Harry’s childish drawings of flying motorbikes pinned to the dusty walls. He let out a low hum of a voice but did not say a word.

Objects started flying out of the cupboard—the drawings and toys and books, and Harry’s broken torchlight as well, whose glass bulb Dumbledore fixed with another flick of the wrist. They settled gently on the floor, organized by size and weight, all of Harry’s meager treasures for all of them to see.

Then Professor Dumbledore murmured again and the cupboard door shut. Slowly, inch by inch, its handle and interstices vanished, fusing together with the wooden side of the staircase. When he was done, there was no door left at all.

Dumbledore put his wand back into his sleeve. He nodded to Harry again, then stared at Petunia for so long that even Harry grew cold from it, and simply walked out of the house.

There was a faint popping sound outside. Harry knew without needing to check that if he were to look out, he would find no one there at all.

“I guess,” he said roughly after the long silence had settled on his skin, “I can have Dudley’s second bedroom for real.”

Aunt Petunia started sobbing into her hands.

If not for the books and wand and owl, Harry may very well have come to believe his whole eleven birthday to have been but a dream during the long month separating it from the start of school.

Even now, parts of it felt unreal—the tale of his parents’ murder, certainly; the existence of Nicholas Potter, absolutely. In spite of his word in Diagon Alley, Harry did not write a single letter to Nicholas in the long days of August. He let Hedwig out of her cage once a day and learned not to fear her sharp bites, he perused his classbooks, he held the holly wand and made golden sparks fall out of it, but the sight of pen and paper alone made him queasy.

He tried, once. Dear Nicholas, he meant to write, using one of the beautiful quills he had bought. But his fingers shook before the ink had dried on the capital N; the dear hollowed him out entirely; and no matter how much he tried to avoid thinking of it and failing, he simply found nothing to say.

Nicholas did not write either. Perhaps he could not contact him before Harry did so first because of the magic on number four, Privet Drive.

And so August stretched on. Harry drew a calendar on a piece of parchment and hung it above the bed of Dudley’s second bedroom, crossing out a new day each morning. He opened his school books reverently, afraid of damaging them, looking over summaries and footnotes and the first few lines of each chapter. A great excitement prevented him from diving outright into them—some fear of disappointment, perhaps, or the thought that he may spoil his own fun before he even reached Hogwarts.

Harry had had so little to look forward to through the years; he could not stand the thought of wasting any second, any word, of what this whole new world would teach him. So he read only the beginning of his textbooks and only part of the fairy tales and novels Professor Dumbledore had gifted him. He made sparks fly out of his wand only once per day. He kept his Potions supplies clean and neatly ordered.

It helped that the Dursleys had decided that the best way to deal with his being a wizard was to ignore his entire existence. Aunt Petunia had not called him down for chores in days, Uncle Vernon avoided him, and even Dudley had taken to dropping his Smeltings stick on the floor and making a run for it any time Harry entered a room.

On the morning of september first, Harry had to all but corner Uncle Vernon into giving him a ride to London. This newfound power baffled him, for Uncle Vernon had never before been afraid of telling him exactly what he thought of him or shoving him around. Now, however, he drove silently. Only the creaking of the car’s leather seats could be heard whenever he shifted.

Aunt Petunia had come as a sign of mutual support, but she was silent too. Harry could definitely get used to that.

“How d’you get to platform nine and three quarters?” Harry asked her from the backseat as King’s Cross came into view.

Aunt Petunia cringed and snapped, “How would I know!”

She kept mum until Uncle Vernon parked the car.

Harry did not expect either of them to help him with his school things, and they did not. He ignored Uncle Vernon’s half-hearted jab at the nonsensical rendezvous point, found a trolley for his school things, and set in direction of platforms nine and ten. They did not even wait till he was out of view to take their leave. Harry heard the sound of the car engine before he was fully turned away from it.

So was it that Harry ended up walking twice through all of King’s Cross, looking futilely for platform nine and three quarters. There was still quite some time before the Hogwarts Express was to leave—Harry had made sure to give his uncle the wrong time, in case Vernon attempted to sabotage him by making him arrive late—so he was not panicked.

Not yet.

The panic only started when the station clock rang ten-thirty, and Harry realized that he was no closer to finding his train than he had been an hour ago. He walked nervously in circles near the end of platform nine, spying guiltily around for a hint of someone who might look the part of wizard or witch.

And then—”Harry!“

Harry’s stomach took a sharp drop.

He could not avoid Nicholas’s hug, although he tried. His calf knocked into his trolley, dislodging Hedwig in her cage, who hooted angrily. Harry was hit with a front-full of eleven-year-old as he hissed from the pain, and Nicholas’s wild hair entered his mouth unprompted.

He spat it out and tried to regain his balance.

Thank mercy, Nicholas did not linger this time for as long as he had the first. He released Harry almost as soon as he held him, a hint of something not-quite-disappointment twisting his face before he smiled. “We’ve been looking all over for you!” he said, keeping Harry at arm’s length.

Literally holding Harry’s arm, preventing him from stepping back too far. Arm’s length and nowhere farther.

“Come on, you’ve got to meet Ron and the others!” Nicholas exclaimed, tugging him along the length of platform nine. He had no trolley with him.

Harry tried, and failed, to free his arm. “But the platform’s not here—”

“Yes it is, duh. It’s magic.”

Those words hit Harry like a punch, no matter that Nicholas smiled so widely at him as he said them.

He tore his arm out of the other boy’s grip at last. Nicholas faltered for a second, but Harry did not look at him as he took his trolley in both hands, hoping that Nicholas would not try to grab him again.

Nicholas walked him to a thick-bricked barrier between platforms nine and ten. It was at the very far end of the tracks, not somewhere Harry had walked all the way to whilst he searched earlier. Now that he was there, he could see some odd people mingling about: here a man with a very tall hat, there a woman in robes come out of a different century. Here a toad and there a cat.

And everywhere, the excited chatter of children.

As Harry watched, a pair of identical girls with very long black hair walked right through the wall, with a woman on their heel who could only be their mother. She did not once stop lecturing them for their noisy chatter in order to look before herself—she simply walked into the wall.

Harry felt the breath catch at his throat.

He wanted to slow down, but—”Come on,“ said Nicholas again, and though he did not grab Harry’s arm, he took hold of the front of his trolley instead and pulled him right forth.

There was no pain as they crossed the magic wall. In fact, Harry felt nothing at all except for the unease that Nicholas’s presence brought.

Harry emerged to a formidable sight. Everywhere he looked was crawling with children in various states of excitement, pulling their tired parents along, carrying cages filled with owls or toads or rats. Almost everyone wore robes. A majestic vapor train waited to be boarded, scarlet-red at the head, with a chimney on top emitting clouds of smoke. The old-fashioned sign suspended above the magic wall read Platform Nine and Three Quarters, Hogwarts Express.

Before Harry could fully take in the fact that he had not, in fact, dreamed the entire last month of his life, Nicholas pulled at the trolley again. “Molly!” he was shouting excitedly. “Molly, we’re here, I found Harry!”

“Oh, thank goodness,” came the familiar voice of Mrs Weasley through the crowd and vapor; and Harry only had a second to brace himself before she came into view.

She and a whole group of children with red hair and pale freckles.

Harry’s cart slowed of its own volition.

Heedless of it all, Nicholas hugged Mrs Weasley and then called to the turned backs of two tall boys, “Ron, come here, I’ve got Harry—oh, drop, it, George,” he barked at one of the two boys, sidestepping something which landed on the stone ground with a purple puff of smoke.

“Harry,” Mrs Weasley said affectionately.

She had avoided the smoke-thing too and now stood before Harry with that same happy-sad look in her eyes. Harry’s belly squirmed.

“It’s so good to see you again, truly,” she went on.

Her arms lifted; Harry’s back tensed at the thought that she might hug him—that she might not—

After a brief moment of awkwardness, Mrs Weasley simply put a hand on his shoulder. “Are you excited to see Hogwarts for the first time?” she asked somewhat helplessly.

Harry found his voice again. “Um, yes,” he replied. Remembering something like his manners, he added, “It’s nice to see you again too, Mrs Weasley.”

Mrs Weasley gave him a wet-eyed smile. “I will never forget my first time seeing the castle,” she said. “There’ll be a feast tonight—you must try to eat as much as you can, look at you, you’re skin and bones…”

Her lips pinched unhappily. Harry felt rather like something alive had taken up place in his chest and was moving about freely, pressurizing everything there. He wasn’t sure if his next word would come out as a scream or not come out at all.

“Harry!” Nicholas called again, and Harry was glad for the excuse to look away from the kind woman before him.

Nicholas was dragging another boy along with him. He was read-headed too, and taller than Nicholas by at least two inches, but he did not look older at all. He was smiling widely.

“That’s so cool,” the boy said once he was close enough to be heard. His eyes watched over Harry from head to toe in amazement. “You look just like Nick!”

“Truly spiffing,” said another boy, taller and older, who suddenly appeared by Harry’s right.

“Stupendous, I should say,” added yet another who looked exactly like the first. “Who would’ve thought this could be?”

Before Harry could even think of something to say, a tiny-looking girl elbowed her way between the red-haired twins. “You’re not as funny as you think you are,” she told them dryly. Then, turning to Harry: “Hi! I’m Ginny. I’m not old enough to go to Hogwarts yet, so you’re on your own till then, but I think you should know at least one person in this family is normal.”

She grinned at him just like the twins did. When Harry looked above her short height, he saw yet another red-haired boy looking at him curiously—this one obviously older than the rest and wearing thick-rimmed glasses.

He licked his lips. “Hi,” he managed.

He could think of nothing else to say.

“Oh, I like him,” said one of the twins after the quiet had lingered past the point of comfort. “Silent type. What a rarity.”

“If we’d had to hear twice more of Nick’s voice as we already do—”

“Shut it,” Nicholas cut in, his face bright red, “you were just as excited to meet him as I was.”

“Language,” Mrs Weasley said exasperatedly.

But there was a cheer to her eyes now that had not been there before. She introduced each of her children to Harry in turn—the older one called Percy, the twins Fred and George, and the tall boy by Nicholas’s side, Ron.

She had two more boys, she said as she walked them all to the train, never leaving Harry’s side. Charlie and Bill, both graduated already. She laughed when Nicholas spoke and patted his arm fondly. She gave him encouraging smiles when Harry failed to show as much cheer, and Nicholas seemed to drink up her love glance by glance, each leaving him happier than the previous.

Harry took a brief respite from it all by the edge of the platform, opening Hedwig’s cage to allow her to fly freely, knowing from the pamphlet on owl-care that had been in her cage that she would find the way herself. He watched her fly away till she was only a white spot in the bright summer sky.

“Are you coming?”

Harry bowed the head. “Yes,” he replied, avoiding Nicholas’s eyes.

The Weasley family bid their goodbyes to each other as Harry sat still and silent in the compartment Nicholas had picked for them and Ron. He could see them on the platform, hugging each other, waving at their mum and sister. Ginny had tears in her eyes, too.

Mrs Weasley meant well, Harry thought, but her voice carried far, and the window by his side was half-opened. “He’ll come around, dear,” he heard her say as it was Nicholas’s turn to be in her arms. “You just have to be a little more patient… I know this is hard for you, but you’ll be fine, both of you. Oh, if I had your aunt before me now—”

Rage muffled the rest of her words. Nicholas nodded against her shoulder and held her even tighter. Nausea swept like a wave within Harry’s torso, cresting at the back of his tongue and burning bitterly; he shoved his shoulders into the soft backrest of his seat until the sight of them was hidden by the window’s edge.

Fewer and fewer children ran outside the train now. Whistling sounds echoed round the platform, signaling the coming departure. Students roamed past the closed door of his compartment, looking frantically for a place to sit, disappointed when they saw the jackets and trunks that signified this one was full.

Nicholas and Ron were not long to return. They opened the door loudly, chattering about Hogwarts, about the long wait for their first year finally being over. They both marked a brief pause upon seeing Harry.

Nicholas did not let it last longer than a breath. “Hey,” he said brightly. “Are you hungry? Fred and George said there’s a trolley that brings snacks not long after we leave, if you want.”

Harry found enough of his voice to reply, “I’m fine, thanks.”

He looked at his knees again. After another second, Ron and Nicholas sat down in front of him.

A minute later, the train left the station.

This was painful, Harry thought, feeling the thick and uncomfortable silence around him lengthen and lengthen. He wanted to take out the book of fairy tales and read another one, but something kept him firmly tied to his seat, unmoving. He could not imagine opening his backpack and rummaging inside.

“So, er,” Ron said at last. When Harry threw him a glance, he was rubbing his nose; there was a dark spot there he did not seem to have noticed. “D’you know what House you’ll be in, Harry?”

It took Harry a while to remember what Houses were. “I don’t know,” he replied thinly. Do you have to know in advance?“

“Nah,” said Ron, smiling now that Harry was addressing him. Harry tried not to look at Nicholas next to him and see whether he looked happier for it or not. “I think we’re supposed to take some kind of test. George always said it’s very painful, but I’m sure he was kidding. Right?”

He looked at Nicholas, unconvinced.

“Of course he’s lying,” Nicholas replied, rolling his eyes. “And anyway, why ask? Harry’ll be in Gryffindor like me and you.”

“I don’t know if I’m much of a Gryffindor,” Ron retorted worriedly. “House of the brave,” he added for Harry’s sake. “My whole family’s been in it for generations. I’m pretty sure I’ll be disowned if I land somewhere else.”

“No you wouldn’t, and yes, you are a Gryffindor,” Nicholas said before Harry could ask anything. He elbowed Ron’s side playfully; Ron shoved him away with a grin.

“Easy for you to say, savior of the wizarding world.”

Nicholas fake-shuddered in his seat with horror—Ron laughed loudly at his face, “You’re gonna have to get used to it out there, Nick.”

“At least I won’t be alone anymore for it,” Nicholas replied.

He gave Harry a tentative smile.

Harry swallowed and asked Ron, “What are the Houses for?”

“Well, it’s to organize classes and dorms, mostly,” Ron replied. “You sleep in the same place as people from your House, take the same classes, all that. There’s a game to it too—you earn points if you do well in class, lose point if you break rules. The House with the most points at the end of the year wins the House Cup. It’s a huge honor.”

“And no one knows how you pick your House?”

Ron shrugged, but he looked worried. “My mum and dad say it’s about your personality… like Gryffindor is for the brave, Ravenclaw for the really studious, all that. No idea how they decide where you go, though.” He bit his lip for a second. “I guess mum wouldn’t mind if I ended up in Ravenclaw,” he mumbled. “But can you imagine if I turned Slytherin? That’d be awful.”

“You’re not gonna end up in Slytherin,” Nicholas said with the air of someone who had said those very words many times before.

“Easy for you to say. There’s no way you’d end up there—either of you,” Ron added, quirking his lips at Harry.

“Why not?” Harry asked. “What’s with Slytherin?”

Harry recalled his own ignorance quite acutely when his question was followed by very heavy silence.

Ron was the one who broke it. He cleared his throat. “Well, uh, Slytherin’s bad news. They say there’s not a dark wizard in the world who wasn’t in there. Including… you know.”

He looked at Nicholas furtively, then at Harry, then at the window by their side where the countryside flew.

Nicholas shook his head. “Did you know both our parents were in Gryffindor?” he asked Harry then, and Harry’s heart gave an awkward jump once more.

Their parents.

His parents.

“No,” he breathed.

For some reason, Nicholas smiled brightly, as if to lord this knowledge over Harry were the greatest of joys. “Molly and Arthur told me it’s how they met,” he said enthusiastically. “Although they were both already graduated and only became friends with James and Lily after school.”

Harry had only ever heard those names, James and Lily, out of Dumbledore’s mouth; to listen to them now come out of a voice so similar to his own, when he could hardly make himself think them, made him want to fold in on himself.

“Anyway, Houses run in the family,” Nicholas said, breaking the heavy silence again. “So there’s no way you and I or Ron will end up anywhere but Gryffindor. Especially me and you—twins always end up in the same House.”

He seemed so happy about the prospect, and Ron Weasley next to him was smiling too, relieved. Harry thought he would not have felt different if someone had opened the door then and told him that Dudley would be coming to Hogwarts after all.

The door did open then, and Harry feared for a second that he would start laughing with sheer nerves, but the head poking through the opening belonged to an old, white-haired woman. She was asking if they would like to buy any sweets.

At least the sweets distracted Ron, Nicholas, and Harry from the topic of parents and Houses and dark wizards entirely.

The chocolate frogs actually jumped.

Harry did end up tugging The Tales of Beedle the Bard out of his bag after filling his stomach with sugar, and Ron and Nicholas before him became caught in a heated debate over Quidditch, which was apparently a sport and not a disease as Harry had first thought when the Malfoy boy first mentioned it to him.

“No, see, Nick, the Canons definitely have a shot at Europeans this year—”

“—just setting yourself up for disappointment, dude, the Harpies have it covered to the final—”

And so on.

Sometimes, Ron mentioned his many siblings off-handedly. Nicholas laughed at the memories he evoked and which made no sense to Harry at all. He spoke of Mrs Weasley often, calling her ‘Molly’ with not a hint of embarrassment, and this did not seem to surprise Ron in any way.

Harry looked at still-open first page of the Tale of the Three Brothers, decided that he hated the title, and endeavored to bore himself to death reading random entries of One Thousand Magical Herbs and Fungi instead.

As the sun was only just starting to set outside and Ron was attempting to charm his ugly pet rat into changing hair color, the door opened again.

A girl with the thickest hair Harry had ever seen in his life poked her head through. “Have you seen a toad?” she asked sharply. “There’s a boy called Neville looking for his, he’s lost it.”

Ron was staring at her a little dumbly. He still had that dark spot above his nose, and his left sleeve was stained with chocolate. “Er, no,” he said. “Sorry.”

“Well, if you see it, can you—”

“I’ll help you look,” Harry blurted out.

The girl jumped in place, only now noticing his presence. Whatever she was about to say—thanks or apologies or insistence to look alone—he did not wait to hear. He closed his book, grabbed his backpack, and exited the compartment.

He heard his name be called right as the door closed. He ignored it.

The girl closed her mouth at last. “Thank you,” she said, wary but sincere enough. “He’s a common green toad, about the size of an apple… Neville says he only realized it was missing when he went to the bathroom around the luggage car, so I’ve been heading there.”

Harry nodded and let her lead the way. He suffered her suspicious glances in silence, glad for the fresh air he felt all around him; glad, also, for the lack of Nicholas’s voice, speaking so easily of things Harry would rather never think about.

They met up with the boy called Neville before the luggage car. He was a round-faced first year with pale skin and pale eyes, who stuttered over half his words and gave only shaky smiles. Unlike the girl—Hermione, she had introduced herself—he marked a definite pause as Harry said his own first name.

His eyes flickered to the scar peeking under Harry’s hair, but he made no comment.

So did Harry spend the last of his train ride to Hogwarts: crouching in-between animal cages and bags, calling futilely for a common green toad named Trevor, breathing for the first time since Nicholas had hugged him on platform nine of King’s Cross station.

“Oh, this is infuriating,” said Hermione when a short announcement echoed magically around them, telling them all to be ready to reach Hogsmeade station. They had found no trace of Trevor yet. Hermione gnawed at her already-bitten lips and added, “Neville, I’m so sorry. Maybe he jumped into someone’s luggage, and you’ll find him in the castle?”

“Maybe,” Neville replied miserably. “Thanks, guys, really… you should get back to your seats before we arrived, you don’t want to be late.”

Hermione looked very obviously upset to be leaving their search on a failure. Harry could sympathize as well—he tried for a second to imagine Hedwig gone, and was hit with such sharp loss that he felt almost tempted to look the car over again in search of Neville’s toad.

Harry changed into his school robes for the very first time in a bathroom he found on the way. He walked back to his compartment, fidgeting with the hem of the unfamiliar clothing.

Nicholas and Ron both smiled awkwardly at him as he entered. Harry did not know that he could smile back and not feel the need to squeeze his whole body out of the room by the same magic he had used in Diagon Alley; he sat down and looked at the dark window without a word.

Soon they were in Hogsmeade. The air of excitement within the train ripened, and the sound of running echoed past their door several times. When the train stopped for good, Nicholas, Ron, and Harry were on their feet in a second. They left their luggage behind as asked; they followed the lead of a huge man with his face half-hidden in bristling beard, fifty-odd first year students swarmed together for warmth; they boarded the small, paddle-less boats aligned at the edge of a black-watered lake.

And Hogwarts castle appeared over the stillwater, gleaming goldly out of its hundreds of windows.

Harry forgot all about the boy by his side who had made his insides squirm and ache for the past month.

He felt almost reverent as he disembarked into the ill-lit underground. He could not keep the smile off his face, not even when Nicholas smiled brightly at him too and then put an arm around Ron’s shoulders. He watched every inch of every wall that he could see, marveling at the sight of old suits of armor creaking their helms around to follow the students’ walk. Neville found his toad at the foot of the severe-looking woman who had come to welcome them, and Harry almost giggled. Ghosts appeared in Professor McGonagall’s wake as she left them alone to prepare the Sorting, and he could only watch them float in fascination, giddy through the stomach and lungs, warm to the tips of all his fingers.

“So it’s true, what they say,” came a faintly familiar voice to Harry’s left.

The group of them had been talking of course, murmuring excitedly, but none so loudly yet. Many other heads turned to look at the blond boy making his way toward Harry and Nicholas.

Draco Malfoy, Harry recognized him.

He indeed looked just as pointy and self-important wearing his school robes as he did with measuring tape stuck all over him.

Draco Malfoy stopped between Harry and Nicholas with obvious intent. “Harry and Nicholas Potter are both entering their first year at Hogwarts today,” he announced for all to hear.

A hush fell over the assembly. Harry noticed uneasily that several girls were now looking at him with wide-open mouths.

“Who’re you?” Nicholas asked, apparently much quicker to get over the discomfort than Harry was.

Harry clenched his teeth.

Malfoy, now a little flushed in the cheeks, pinched his lips delicately. “You must be Nicholas,” he said pompously, extending a hand forward. “I had the chance to meet your brother this summer, but not you. My name is Draco Malfoy.”

Apparently, that was the wrong thing for Draco Malfoy to say.

Nicholas, who had sort-of extended a hand forward to shake Malfoy’s, drew it back suddenly. By his other side, Ron became as red as his hair and spat out, “Malfoy?’

“No need to ask who you are,” Draco Malfoy retorted, his singed pride showing in the way he now held himself—high-necked and straight-backed, almost on his tiptoes. “You lot don’t parade around in rags anymore, what with getting your hands on the Potter fortune, but that disgusting hair will always give the poverty away, Weasley.”

Ron looked close to a goldfish out of water; Nicholas was now sporting two dark, flushed spots high on his cheeks, and his shoulders shook with rage. He choked out, “You take that back, you—”

He lost his words before he could finish them. His fist raised as if to strike.

Before he could, however, Draco Malfoy simply lost his footing on the uneven stairs and fell on his bottom with a ridiculous yelp of surprise. The children around, who had watched the argument in fascination, all laughed at him.

Before Malfoy could quite chase the humiliated flush from his cheeks, Harry noticed the odd light slithering between his feet. It crawled up the crowded flight of stairs and rejoined the tip of a wand.

The wand vanished almost immediately, but Harry had enough time to glimpse the look of a plain-faced girl with strawish hair. She stared at him in bleak surprise; then she turned away and disappeared behind the back of a tall boy.

“Mr Malfoy, if you would be so kind as to lift your bottom from these stairs. Surely you can handle standing up for a handful of minutes.”

Professor McGonagall had come back.

The group of them were led to an immense hall, the ceiling of which seemed nonexistent: as if the tall walls of the room simply opened up to the nightly sky. Harry ignored the attention of hundreds of students on him, them, as best he could; he slowed his steps down till he stood not far from Hermione, who was talking excitedly to one of the dark-skinned twin girls.

“It’s a magical ceiling, I read it in Hogwarts, A History—

Harry heard his name be called again. He bowed the head and stayed his steps until all but one of the first year students had walked ahead of him, and Nicholas and Ron could not see him anymore.

That last student was the same girl who had spelled Malfoy’s fall earlier. She frowned when he walked by her side, but she did not move away. Her eyes, oddly small for her square face, blinked faintly at him. Harry said nothing at all to her and kept examining the wide hall they stood in.

He saw the colors of the Houses splayed above their respective tables. Green and red and blue and yellow, all bright enough to wet the eye, all draped over the seats of the students in the form of scarves and hats and gloves. On the high dais in front of them rested a fifth table, occupied by the teaching staff; as Harry watched, Professor Dumbledore met his eyes and gave him a very faint wink.

The knot of his stomach seemed to ease a little.

Professor McGonagall put an old and weathered hat atop a wooden stool, and the hat began to sing.

Harry thought its voice rather tunelike, for a hat. That was all the coherence he could manage as the Sorting Hat explained how it chose the students’ Houses, as he recalled Nicholas’s and Ron’s words—

House of the brave.

Both our parents were in Gryffindor.

Twins always end up in the same house.

Harry’s fingernails bit into the meat of his palms. Next to him, the plain-faced girl sighed and shifted, her brow perpetually creased with annoyance.

The Sorting started with Abbot, Hannah, who was sent to Hufflepuff.

Bones, Susan—HUFFLEPUFF!

Boot, Terry—RAVENCLAW!

Brown, Lavender—GRYFFINDOR!

“Bulstrode, Millicent,” called Professor McGonagall.

The girl next to Harry grimaced. She walked through the parting wave of anxious first-years in order to each the dais and the stool. She put the Sorting Hat atop her head, her shoulders visibly tense, and waited.

Half a minute or so later, the Hat cried out: “SLYTHERIN!”

Granger, Hermione was sent to Gryffindor. So was Longbottom, Neville. Draco Malfoy barely had time for the Hat to touch his head before it cried out, “SLYTHERIN!” and the blond boy ran off with a satisfied smile. Letter by letter the alphabet advanced, until—

“Patil, Padma!”

One of the twin girls ran to the stool. She put on the Hat, giddy with excitement. “RAVENCLAW!” it yelled. And then was her sister Parvati, who almost stumbled in her hurry to rejoin her sister—she put on the hat with an impatient look on her face, dislodging one of the beautiful locks of black hair that fell around her ears.

And the Hat said, “GRYFFINDOR!”

The Gryffindor table erupted into cheers. The Professors and other students clapped politely. Parvati Patil sat frozen in her place until Professor McGonagall gestured for her to move, and Harry saw the shock on her face as she gave the Sorting Hat back; he could glimpse the wetness in her eyes as she looked mournfully toward the Ravenclaw table, and the same misery on her sister Padma’s face where she sat in blue and bronze.

Professor McGonagall, shaking her head, looked at her list again. “Potter, Harry!” she called curtly.

The noisy hall became silent and awed.

It felt to Harry that the soles of his shoes had melted and stuck to the floor, so heavy his steps were. The few first-years left to be Sorted parted around him, staring avidly at his face and scar. At the front of the row, Ron and Nicholas waited.

Ron had become a little green with nerves. Nicholas looked wary also, but he smiled at Harry and patted his shoulder. “See you in a minute,” he grinned.

Harry did not smile back.

Professor McGonagall waited until he was seated—he was so short still that the balls of his feet could not reach the floor—before she set the Hat over his head. Harry’s world became dark, and the whispers of the Great Hall vanished.

His back tensed, his shoulders ached. Once again, the wood of his seat failed to dig splinters into his skin, no matter how rough it looked and how harshly Harry gripped it.

He sucked in a breath and wished with all his strength, Put me in Slytherin.

There came an echo of wind and water, like a heartbeat for tinnitus, like the rolling of the ocean cradled in a seashell. Harry understood that the Sorting Hat was laughing.

Oh, Mr Potter,” it said. “I would not dream of putting you anywhere else.”


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