Albus’s hands were sweating as they wove their way through the crowds at King’s Cross. Dad had insisted on pushing his trolley while Mum pushed James’s. Lily walked between them.
“It won’t be long and you’ll be going too,” Albus heard Dad telling her.
He glanced over his shoulder to see Lily signing, Two years. I want to go now.
She put particular emphasis on that last word, her eyes watery. Albus wished he felt the same way, but the closer they got to platform nine and three-quarters, the more his panic was morphing into some awful winged beast that flapped and clawed inside him.
All around them, people were staring curiously at the two owl cages. James didn’t seem to notice, his gaze was fixed on the barrier between platforms nine and ten, an excited gleam in his eyes. As soon as they were close to it, he ran off, disappearing through the brick wall as if it was made of smoke.
With James out of earshot, Albus turned to his parents. “You’ll write to me, won’t you?” he asked, trying not to betray the fear seeping through him.
“Of course,” said Mum.
Albus tried to smile, but he was sure the attempt failed miserably.
“Don’t believe everything your brother tells you about Hogwarts,” Dad said. “He likes a laugh.”
Together, they ran towards the barrier. As he did every time, Albus winced just before he would’ve collided with the brick. No collision came, however. They passed straight through solid wall and onto platform nine and three-quarters, which was thick with steam that plumed from the gleaming, red Hogwarts Express. Albus found himself lagging behind as his parents and Lily walked along the platform, heading towards the back of the train. All around, students were waving goodbye to parents, some dressed in robes, others in normal muggle clothes. Owls hooted and flapped in cages and cats played chase, darting between people’s legs; one sat in front of a cage hissing at the owl inside it distrustfully.
After a while, four figures came into view, standing alongside the very last carriage. The steam was so thick that their faces only came into focus when Albus had drawn right up to them.
“Hi,” said Albus, waving awkwardly at Rose. She was already wearing her Hogwarts robes. She grinned at him, revealing a pair of large front teeth. Uncle Ron and Aunt Hermione began chatting to his parents. Lily was signing away to Hugo (Rose’s little brother), the two of them both agreeing how unfair it was that they couldn’t go to Hogwarts yet.
“Are you excited?” Rose asked, her own excitement clear in her voice. “I mean you must be. You’ve had to watch James go off on the train for the last two years. That’s what’s good about being the eldest, I suppose. When I get back, I’m going to lord it over Hugo.”
For the second time in the last ten minutes, Albus attempted a smile. He was certain it was just as much of a failure as the first. While Rose chatted away at him, his dad and Uncle Ron loaded his things onto the train.
“It’ll be nice to see the countryside on the way up north,” Rose continued. “I suspect they’re putting our things on the same carriage. We’ll have hours to talk. Though I’ll probably spend most of the time going through the school text books again. I’ve studied them, of course, but I don’t know them off-by-heart just yet. I’m hoping it’ll be enough. How much have you studied?”
Albus opened his mouth to speak, but needn’t have bothered. Rose answered the question for him. “I bet you’ve been too busy painting to do any reading,” she said. “Not that there’s anything wrong with art. I just don’t think it’s considered a main subject at Hogwarts. Though, I’ve heard there are extra-curricular art classes you can take. I’ve no idea who teaches them though. How funny would it be to go to Hogwarts and spend your time learning to paint instead of doing magic!”
Albus thought secretly that he’d actually quite like that, but didn’t dare say it out loud. He noticed Rose’s wand was sticking out the pocket of her robes, ready to be used. He wondered if she knew any spells. She must do if she’d studied all their books. One glance into The Standard Book of Spells, Grade 1 had shown him at least three spells, each one explaining pronunciation and paired with a diagram showing the correct wand movement.
Albus blinked. Rose was staring at him expectantly. It seemed she’d asked him a question. “Sorry?”
“Honestly Albus, anyone would think you were ignoring me,” she said. “I asked what house you think you’ll be in.” At this, both Lily and Hugo seemed to become interested in their conversation. They came to stand with Albus and Rose, the two of them waiting for Albus’s answer.
“Gryffindor, I hope,” Albus answered.
“Me too,” Rose replied. “I think I’ve got a good chance. I’m fairly brave. Remember that time we were flying in the garden and you fell off your broom? If I hadn’t dived and caught you, you could’ve broken your neck.”
Albus winced at the memory. He did remember it all too well. The reminder that he wasn’t particularly good on a broom wasn’t helping his nerves. He thought suddenly of flying lessons at Hogwarts. Please don’t let me fall off in front of everyone!
“If you’re not Gryffindor,” came Uncle Ron’s voice as he stepped down from the carriage, “we’ll disinherit you. But no pressure.”
Lily and Hugo laughed, but Albus felt like a heavy stone had been dropped into his stomach. Even Rose looked solemn.
“He doesn’t mean it,” said Mum.
Aunt Hermione nodded. “Your uncle is just joking, Albus.”
The four parents moved off along the platform out of earshot, pointing at something in the distance. Through the thick mist, Albus couldn’t see what it was.
“So what’s your wand like?” Rose asked, pulling out her own and giving it a flick. Red sparks burst out the end of it. “Mine’s elm, dragon heartstring core. Apparently, elm makes very powerful wands – that, added to the dragon heartstring, makes this one extremely potent. I can’t wait to try out some real magic. Ever since I got it, I’ve wanted to start practising spells, but Mum and Dad won’t let me. They say it’s not fair since muggle-borns can’t get away with it. Well, what about all the witches and wizards who do get to use magic before they come to Hogwarts? They’re going to have a head start on us!” She huffed indignantly, placed her wand back in her pocket and stared at Albus, waiting. “Well?” she asked. “What’s your wand like?”
“I left it in my trunk,” Albus told her. “It’s willow with dragon heartstring core.”
“Oh right,” she said. “I’ve not heard of willow wands being particular brilliant, but I’m sure it’ll work just fine.”
Albus didn’t care how strong his wand was. In fact, the weaker the wand, the less chance there’d be of something dreadful going wrong.
“We just saw little Scorpius,” said Uncle Ron as the parents reappeared. “Make sure you beat him in every test, Rosie. Thank God you inherited your mother’s brains.”
“Where?” Rose asked, craning her neck to catch a glimpse of him.
“He already got on the train,” said Uncle Ron. “But keep away from him, won’t you? The Malfoys are trouble.”
“Ron, for heaven’s sake,” said Aunt Hermione. “Don’t try to turn them against each other before they’ve even started school!”
At that moment, James reappeared and he seemed to be bursting with news. “Teddy’s back there!” he said breathlessly. “He was snogging Victoire!”
When none of the adults seemed remotely shocked by this, James carried on. “Our Teddy! Snogging Victoire!”
Lily was beaming. Oh, it would be lovely if they got married, she signed. Teddy would really be part of the family then.
Dad checked his watch. “It’s nearly eleven, you’d better get on board.”
James waved a hasty goodbye to their parents then ran onto the train, kicking Albus in the shin on the way. Albus rubbed at his leg, scowling after James.
“Watch out for the Thestrals, Al!” James called over his shoulder before disappearing.
“I thought Thestrals were invisible,” Albus said to his father.
“They are,” he replied.
Mum was waving to James, whose head was now hanging out of a carriage window, and Lily was standing beside her, eyes wet with tears. Albus was alone with his father. “What if I’m in Slytherin?” he asked. The question had bubbled up out of him before he could stop it.
“Albus Severus,” his dad said quietly, “you were named for two headmasters of Hogwarts. One of them was a Slytherin and he was probably the bravest man I never knew. If you are sorted into Slytherin, then so be it.”
“But I’ll be the only one,” Albus replied. “You and James and Mum and Uncle Ron and Aunt Hermione and Uncle Neville and Grandma and Grandpa – they’re all Gryffindors.”
His dad shrugged. “So?” he said. “It’s okay to be different, Albus.”
For some reason, those words didn’t comfort Albus. In fact, they were exactly what he hadn’t wanted to hear. Albus didn’t want to be different. Everyone he knew was in Gryffindor. It would be awful to be the odd-one-out. There was the sound of a whistle and then a great puff of steam burst from the train. He hugged his father tightly, then Lily, then finally his mother. When Albus climbed onto the train, he closed the carriage door and pressed himself against the glass. Soon, the train began to move and his sister and his parents began to shrink into the distance. Sighing, he took one last look back at them and headed into the compartment.
It wasn’t long before James disappeared to sit with his friends in a different compartment. Victoire and some of the other girls from seventh-year had gone off to another carriage. That left Albus and Rose in a compartment by themselves. It wasn’t long before Rose had her nose in a book, frown lines between her eyebrows as she tried to memorise everything on the page. Thankfully, a pair of first-year boys arrived not long after to sit with them. Apparently, someone had let off some dungbombs in their carriage and the smell had been too horrible to cope with.
Rose snapped her book shut at the sight of the boys. One of them was tall for his age, taller than Albus, with thick brown hair, a strong jaw and a prominent chin. “Name’s Ace. Ace McLaggen,” he said, sending Rose an appraising look. His smile was smarmy. “And this is Berwick Cross.” He gestured to the boy next to him. He was thick-set, black-haired, and had a bulbous nose and bushy eyebrows.
Rose barely acknowledged Berwick Cross. Her eyes were fixed on Ace. “I’m Rose,” she said. Even with her slightly large front teeth, Albus had to admit Rose was fairly pretty. Ace seemed to think so too. He parked himself next to her and picked up the book she’d just put down.
“Doing some reading?” he asked.
Albus didn’t catch her answer. He was distracted by Berwick sitting down next to him. The boy’s huge bulk made the seat judder and his enormous backside squashed Albus’s hand. Albus pulled free, testing out his fingers to check none of them were severely damaged.
Within minutes, Albus was surprised to find himself wishing that it was just him and Rose in the compartment again. Ace spent most of the time telling them all about his father’s wealth and how he was so high up in the Ministry it was only a matter of time before he became Minister for Magic. He talked so much that even Rose couldn’t get a word in. Berwick, on the other hand, did little other than grunt.
What felt like hours later, Albus had had enough. He excused himself from the carriage, pretending he needed the bathroom, and then walked along the corridor of the train, checking compartments as he went to see if he could find an empty one. After about ten minutes, a door directly to his right slid open and a boy, who was rubbing at his eyes, walked straight into Albus. The two of them toppled into the wall. Albus cracked his head on one of the wooden panels. The boy slipped sideways and Albus just about caught him before he hit the floor.
Rubbing his injured head with one hand, Albus helped pull the boy back to his feet with the other. The door the boy had come out of slid itself shut, but not before Albus saw that it was a small toilet cubicle.
When both boys had stood back up and Albus had readjusted his jumper, the two of them finally took in each other’s appearances. Albus’s mouth fell open. He quickly shut it again, his cheeks turning slightly pink. The boy in front of him had such an interesting face that he couldn’t help staring at it. His features were all sharp, yet there was a soft curve to his jaw and his lips were surprisingly plump. His silvery eyes were warmed by flecks of brightest green and his platinum blonde hair fell across his forehead in a perfect flick. There was so much to take in, from the sickly pale skin to the arched eyebrows to the high cheekbones to the slightly uneven ears and the creases under his eyes. He would be the perfect face to paint. But now that Albus looked again at the eyes, he saw that they were slightly bloodshot. Was that the trace of a tear on his cheek?
Then, Albus realised he’d been staring at the boy for what must have been at least half a minute without saying a word. “Hi,” he said at last, his cheeks very hot.
“Hi,” the boy said awkwardly. “Sorry about that. I wasn’t looking where I was going.”
“That’s okay,” Albus replied. “I’m Albus by the way.”
The boy nodded. “I know,” he said. “You look just like your dad.”
Albus had expected the boy to tell him his name in return. He did not do so, however, and Albus had a strange feeling not to ask. “Do you have a compartment?” Albus asked.
“No,” he replied. “I couldn’t find anywhere. I left my things by one of the doors…” He looked down at his feet then back up at Albus. “Look, you don’t have to be nice to me. I don’t need anyone feeling sorry for me.”
“What do you mean?” Albus asked. “Why would I feel sorry for you?” It seemed a strange thing to say.
The boy scrutinised Albus for a moment, then a confused look settled on his fascinatingly mismatched features. “I… You don’t know who I am?”
The boy smiled and Albus was shocked to see his face change again. The fierce hardness softened even more. He didn’t say anything else.
“I think we have to get changed soon,” Albus said, “but my stuff’s back in my compartment. Can you come with me to get it? Then we can find somewhere to sit.”
“Okay,” the boy said. “But why can’t we sit in your compartment?”
He thought of Rose and Ace and Berwick. “Trust me,” he said, “we’re better off somewhere else.”
The moment Albus stepped into the compartment, he knew something was wrong. Rose, Ace and Berwick each sent the blonde boy dark, mistrustful looks when they saw him. None of them attempted to greet him – quite the contrary. Rose stood up, arms folded across her chest. “He’s not coming in here, Albus,” she said.
“What do you mean?” asked Albus.
Ace was shaking his head, disgust plain on his face. “That’s Scorpius Malfoy,” he said, his voice thick with hatred. “Draco Malfoy’s son. Or so he wants us to think.”
Albus’s heart sank. Draco Malfoy’s son was bound to be sorted into Slytherin. It had already started. He’d made a friend with someone from the house Gryffindors were supposed to hate.
“Tell him to leave, Albus,” said Rose. “You heard what my dad said. He doesn’t want me talking to him.”
“That was a joke,” Albus reminded her.
“No, it wasn’t,” Rose replied. “I’ve heard him talking about the Malfoys. They’re dark wizards, Albus. And there’s a rumour that—”
“You know that rumour isn’t true!” snapped Albus. He’d heard the rumour about Scorpius Malfoy years ago. Dad had always said it was rubbish.
“Maybe he can confirm it,” drawled Ace McLaggen. He stood up, showing off his impressive height and prowled up to Scorpius, who seemed to shrink under his gaze. “So, snake,” he said, “is it true? Are you really Voldemort’s son?”
Scorpius shook his head.
Ace snorted. “If you were, you wouldn’t tell me.”
“If I were, surely I would’ve hexed you by now,” Scorpius said.
“You wouldn’t dare,” Ace breathed. “Watch your back, snake.” He returned to his seat.
Rose was watching Albus with a severe expression on her face. “He’s not welcome here, Albus,” she said. “Tell him to leave.”
Albus had to make a decision. On the one hand, it should’ve been easy. Ace McLaggen was clearly a big-headed idiot, and Rose might’ve been his cousin, but they’d never exactly been close. Scorpius had been friendly enough, had done nothing wrong and then been asked to leave for no reason other than a ridiculous rumour. And yet, on the other hand, Albus felt like it was more than a decision between Rose and Scorpius – it was a decision between Gryffindor and Slytherin.
It wasn’t an easy choice.
Hating himself for doing it, he turned to Scorpius and grimaced. “Sorry,” he said. “You have to leave.” Then, so that he wouldn’t have to see Scorpius’s face, he nudged Scorpius back into the corridor and slid the compartment door shut.
“Well done, Potter,” Ace said, clapping him on the back.
Albus sank down into his seat and gazed out the window, a feeling of terrible guilt spreading through him.