...one can exit from the world anywhere, provided one strikes a blow at it, of the force of a star in collapse.
— Stanislaw Lem.
Hickory dickory dock,
The mouse ran up the clock.
The clock struck one,
the mouse ran down.
Hickory, dickory, dock.
Station to Station.
He awoke in the middle of sitting up.
That's good. I like being alive...
Quick look round.
He was alive and surrounded. Not so good.
"Are you all right, young man?"
"What's your name? Where are your parents?"
Surrounded by strangers concerned for him? — very good!
"Where did that guard go...?"
Right, don't need any of that. He leaped to his feet, not nearly as far as he was expecting.
"Me?" he said. "Perfectly fine, never better. Parents?" Perhaps it was a philosophical question. "Oh, they're around somewhere. It's a big universe, I can't keep track of all of it all the time. —Now isn't that interesting..."
To the left and right there were open spaces with signs reading 9 and 10 respectively. Directly in front of him there was a brick dividing wall, a wall plain and ordinary and somehow not — not plain, not ordinary, possibly even not at all.
"What's your name?"
Questions, questions, what did it matter what his name was? Why couldn't people just let him work? No, no, they're doing right, they're just taking care of the child and it's not even their own...
...What child? Where child? He'd missed something.
"Me?" he said, and continued to contemplate the peculiar barrier in front of him while bits of his mind ran down the crowd. Still no policemen, that was good, late twentieth century, train station — King's Cross? thank you — commuters in a hurry looking mainly for reassurance to get on with their lives, except for that one family over there with the red hair, oh, they were even better than the brick dividing wall. Had someone asked a question? Oh yes, name. "I'm the—"
The? he said to himself. I'm The?
Yes, that's right, said another bit of his brain. You're The. Pleased to meet you, The.
You can't be a definite article! said still another bit.
I can be whoever I like, said a hitherto unknown bit.
It was a perfectly good question in a set of perfectly good questions. Why am I here, how did I get here, who are my parents, what is my name? That would be Don't Know, Don't Know, Don't Know, and, hmm, yes, Don't Know.
A particularly clever bit of his mind handed him a mental note, pointing out that according to his quick look around there was an identification tag on the trunk behind him, which trunk was almost certainly in his possession.
Less than a tenth of a second had gone by.
"I'm Harry Potter," he announced. "Harry James Potter, Number Four Privet Lane, Little Whinging, Surrey." Big trunk. Ambient temperature, position of sun and plumage condition of owl indicate late summer/early autumn. Add that to the train station, and: "Off — to — school. Transportation at hand, leaving momentarily —" (momentarily? that means for a moment) —"even instantaneously, think nothing of it. If I find any trouble I'll run straight to the nearest police...man," he concluded. Owl? "Yes. No worries then, anyone! Yes, I am definitely Harry Potter, that is who I am, and what tiny little feet I have," he added, looking down at his trainers.
Fortunately he'd added the last part sotto voce.
He gave everyone his brightest smile, which satisfied most of them, and the crowd began to break up.
"You fell right over, dear," said one of the stragglers. "Are you sure you're all right?"
"Yes, perfectly," he said, presenting a pair of broken glasses that his hands had picked up all on their own, clever things. "Terribly nearsighted, always tripping over the unseen." He peered through the glasses at the nice lady. "Going to get a new set. Pair. Or fix these if I can find my—"
Find my what?
"—repair kit!" he said. He stowed the glasses in his pocket, and pulled out the train ticket he found therein. "—And incidentally, ma'am, you absolutely should."
"Take the job. You're more than qualified. Although playing on the double-u and double-v simultaneously is a bit cruel." Ticket: Hogwarts Express, King's Cross Platform 9 3/4, 11:00 1st September 1991, station time currently 10:50...
"I—I what?" said the woman. "—Oops!"
The "oops" came when she saw that her overdue train had in fact arrived and was indeed about to leave without her, so he didn't have to explain why he had said what he'd said, which was good because he didn't actually know — what a fascinating sensation! How did he know what he knew that he didn't know, but knew? Running off at the mind again, slow down. It was something to do with the newspaper puzzle page she was holding, and the book under her arm, and the note sticking out of that—
"Excuse me," said the different red-haired woman he had noticed before. "Did you say you were...Harry Potter?"
"I certainly did," he said, looking her straight in the jacket and moving his hand between the top of his head and her top button. He examined his tiny little fingers. Why am I so small? Perhaps I should ask someone. No, that would be a Bad Idea. "I may even be Harry Potter," he added, but only to himself.
And, incidentally, again: owl? Best keep an eye on that.
He whirled and bent down and righted the owl cage and popped open the lid of the trunk.
Telescope! always a good sign. Cauldron? Well, why not. Wand...
The Standard Book Of Spells?
Shiny thing! Set of brass scales! He picked them up and tried to look at himself in their polished undersides but they wasn't reflective enough.
Drop scales, close trunk, sit on top, cross legs casually. "Oh, hello," he said to the nice red-haired lady, who was staring him directly in the hairline. "And hello, hello-hello, and hello," he added to her children of various sizes and states of genetic similarity, the oldest of whom also had an owl. "Oh, and hello," he appended to the smallest one, who had hidden behind her mum and was peering out at him with huge wide eyes. "Who's a little mad pony then?" he thought about saying but didn't.
He raised his hand to his forehead and found a raised ridge of skin, presumably what the splendid red-haired lady was looking at. "Do you know, it is just possible I hit my head, so if I seem a bit weird or off that's undoubtedly why."
"It is him! It's him!" said the little mad pony. Famous already? That was generally bad.
"Yes, Ginny, don't fuss. And that means you too, both of you!" she hissed at the genetic duplicates. "Are you having trouble getting onto the platform...Harry?" She was indicating the peculiar barrier with her elbow. So she knew it was odd too, eh? Excellent! "You should probably come along with us if you're all alone."
"That," he said, bouncing to his feet, "sounds like a jolly good idea!" He held up his ticket. "I couldn't help but notice that the signage in this station is distinctly suboptimal. Delighted to meet you, Mrs. Weasley."
"Er," she said. Of course she hadn't introduced herself.
He just smiled.
"Ah," he said a bit later. "Well, at least it's clearly labeled on the other side..." A portal you pass if you expect to pass, amazing!
He spun around and around, absorbing everything.
Obviously this platform couldn't fit in between the other two platforms, very different place, could be miles away, no, kilometers now, late twentieth century. Or was it even the same era, given the scarlet steam engine on the rails? The anachronism! and the clothes weren't just mixed eras, they were legitimately surreal! And someone had a tarantula! And there was a missing toad! This was Christmas, or at least Boxing Day!
"—Did someone say prefect?" he asked.
"I have that privilege," said a Weasley: Percy, trying on self-importance to see how it fit.
Don't worry if the sleeves are too long, you'll find they'll ride up with wear, thought the Potter-pro-tempore. "Just the sort of person I'll need to talk to," he said. "Got lots of academic questions."
"I'll be delighted," said Percy, while his twin brothers made valiant attempts to induce vomiting behind his back. "Must dash now, obligations and responsibilities, but feel free to drop by the prefect car up front after the train gets under way. Splendid meeting you, Mr Potter." With a genial nod he wafted away in his black school robes.
Black school robes, yes, splendid idea — he looked at his sleeve — gray was not his colour, or indeed a colour at all come to think of it.
"Which car do you prefer, Ronald?" said Mrs Weasley, laying her hands on his luggage cart. "This one I hope?" She meant the one right in front of her, the second-to-last.
"Any car that isn't behind Fred and George," said the boy who wasn't a twin. "They'll pull the connector and leave me behind."
"Don't be ridiculous, tiny Ron," said Fred. "We couldn't do that."
"The connectors are double-banjax-proofed," said George.
"Found that out last year when we were in this very car."
"WHAT?" said their mother.
"So we heard! —Ow!"
"Would you mind if I share a cabin with you, Ron?" said the Potter.
"Get away?!" said Ron.
"No," said the Potter thoughtfully, "more stick right by you, actually."
"That would be great!"
"Then — done! Mrs Weasley — if I might ask a question?"
"By all means, dear."
"Assume that I'm in a world totally new to me." He waved in the general direction of, well, everything. "What would be the best cultural guidebook I could get my hands on, and where would I get it?"
"Hmm," said Mrs Weasley. "That's a bit like asking a fish for a book about water, dear. You should have Bagshot's A History Of Magic in with your coursebooks—"
"Rubbish!" said Fred. "The index is pants."
"Worthless!" said George. "Unless you can't sleep."
"Then it's better than paregoric."
"And quicker. In any case it's the wrong book."
"Asenion Izzard's Biographical Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Wizardry, that's what you want," they said.
"And what would you two know about such things?" inquired their mother.
"We do our research, woman!"
"And we're easily bored."
Fred leaned down a bit. "It's got who's who, what's what, and not a word wasted."
George followed. "It's in the school library. Or just find a sixth or seventh-year Ravenclaw on the train."
The Potter added the word Ravenclaw to his vocabulary with an unknown-definition tag.
"I see," said Mrs Weasley, applying the hairy eyeball where appropriate. "And would it be too much to ask that either of you crack an actual schoolbook once in a while?"
"You know, mum," said Fred, "some of the greatest wizards of our age never actually grad...u...oh, look, George, the train's here. Bye mum! See you in June! —Hey, Lee!"
The Potter watched with fascination as they fled up-platform with their carts toward the boy with the tarantula, propelled by a fiery glare at their backs.
"Oh, those boys," said Mrs (Margaret? Minerva? Molly? probably Molly) Weasley. "They will be the death of me. If I hadn't taken that temp job in Chiswick—oh, and now I have to get Ron's trunk aboard all by myself? Bah!" She whipped out a wand and levitated both the luggage carts into the open doors. "Why they don't have ramps on this train I'll never understand."
The Potter joined the smaller Weasley in unloading the carts into a carriage — he placed the owl cage carefully in the luggage rack overhead — and then in pushing the carts back outside. The Potter watched as they drifted and spun like huge amazing metal floaty things.
"Goodbye, dear," said Mrs Weasley to her remaining son. "Study as though your hide depended on it."
"Thanks, mum," said Ron. "—Waurgh! You promised no kissing in the station!"
"I lied," said Mrs Weasley briskly, and wiped a smudge from his nose. "Very nice meeting you, Harry."
She stepped back from the train just as the doors closed.
There was a whistle from the fore, just as the clock in the station turned 11:00.
That seems auspicious, thought the Potter. I wonder why?
There was a mirror on the back of the compartment door, and he saw himself in full for the first time. And houses going past in the window behind, interesting, I wonder if they notice us?
"Dear me," he said. "No wonder I don't know who I am. What kind of a chin do you call this? It's more of an IOU. Is that where I hit the ground, oh, no, it's a nose... And this hair! Don't I own a comb? And the colour! —Would you like to trade?" he added, catching the Weasley's eye in the reflection.
"What — trade hair? You want to be ginger?"
"Merlin's filtrum, yes! Years and years. —Is that the right kind of swear, by the way?"
"Erm," said the Weasley. "Try beard."
"Ooh, I'd love to try a beard," said the Potter, stroking his tiny chin. "—No, yes, Merlin's beard, point taken."
And the clothes! Clearly hand-me-downs, perhaps from a different species. No one had been at the train station with him: orphan? Raised by wolves? That might have been an improvement.
But you can replace clothes easily; replacing parents takes work. Ergo, robes. Where? Trunk.
"Now that's a bit more like it," he said.
The tie was too long, but once tucked in that didn't matter, and you couldn't really go wrong with academic robes. The black dunce cap, though — he tried poking the pointy end down into the body so it was less of a cone and more of a narrowing cylinder, which was better, but... wrong colour, it wasn't him.
Of course, he probably wasn't him either, but there was no helping that.
And there had been no doubt about it, once down to his skivvies: he was a child. Not shrunk-in-the-wash, not half-off sale, an actual child. And he knew that didn't happen.
I'm a sprat! And a Jack Sprat at that, he thought, feeling his xylophonic ribs. Well, that could be addressed as well, thanks to some of the other contents of the trunk. "Is there a tea trolley on this train?" he said.
"I think so, but it would start up by the prefects, and it won't get to us for years." The Weasley hesitated. "I've got some sandwiches."
"Sandwiches? We're growing boys, we don't want sandwiches, we want chocolate-crusted unidentifiables and straws with sugar in." He flung wide the compartment door. "Come along, Weasley!"
Once outside he felt lightheaded — not with hunger, light in the best possible way. To be sure there were things he couldn't remember, like his actual name, which he rather suspected wasn't Harry Truman (Potter, yes, thank you) but he had the strangest feeling that among them were a great many he'd been trying not to think about for a long, long time.
Well, set that aside, first things first: where is the missing toad, and why would the Weasley twins try to detach the last car in the train? Well that was obvious, that's where they keep the w.c.
The Weasley followed him into the corridor — entirely too hesitantly, that would never do. The Potter presented him with a handful of coins. "You go on ahead, got to see a man about a frog."
"What? Er," said the Weasley, staring down at the mixture of bronze, silver and gold discs as through they were attached to tiny athletes. "This is—"
"It's plenty, but—"
"Keep the change, then, I've got a hole in my pocket." He pulled his pocket inside out to demonstrate that it did, indeed, have a hole in it. "Off you go, I'll soon catch you up."
Scotland bound! The Potter did a little dance while walking — not the full Highland Fling, not on a moving vehicle, besides there wasn't room, but he alluded, he alluded. You could learn quite a bit just keeping your eyes and ears open while dancing up a train, or even just walking. Metonymic villain, Potter family, almost diagrammatically exploded metonymic villain, inexplicable orphan survivor raised by "muggles", and that orphan was — guess who?
He could hear the engine chugging along, up ahead. Were they using magic coal? Maybe he'd go ask. Maybe — he'd always wanted to drive a steam engine, and since he was, apparently, The Boy Who Lived, a/k/a The Chosen One (you could tell by the scar), maybe they'd let him drive, just call me "Trains" Potter, no, don't, table that idea.
Students not much bigger than he ran up and down the corridors, screaming, laughing; he slid past them. A couple of bigger ones were having a water fight using wands. Magic magic magic, ooh, couldn't be technology, it didn't make any sense as technology... Wait a tick — magic? he could be ginger, couldn't he? There must be some sort of charm for it. Did Hogwarts teach that sort of thing, or did he need to find Pigwings School of Hairdressing and Cosmetology?
Two cars and some productive social interaction later he found the Weasley, who had stopped to tie his shoelace. In a world of magic? Yes, in a world of magic.
"Ron!" he said, sweeping up the corridor rubbing his hands together. "You remember what I said about wishing we could swop hair?"
"Would you be at all interested in actually doing it? Because done it can be. Pinky-swear, saying no won't hurt my feelings."
The Weasley blinked. "What, you really want to?"
The Weasley's face went vague. The Potter could see the thoughts going through his head, but then who couldn't?
New school. Nobody knows me (except my brothers who will hassle me either way). I can be different.
"Okay," said the Weasley. "How?"
"On my way up the train I found a couple of seventh-years who said they can do it."
"Found? How'd you do that?"
"I just looked in the windows until I found a compartment of amazingly pretty girls, knocked and popped my head in and said Hello, I'm Harry Potter, you're amazingly pretty, could I ask you a hair-related question?
"And they do it all the time, it's how they try different looks. It's hygienic, though, it's just a property transfer, the actual hair stays the same.
"—Tea trolley first, though, and I want to visit the prefects."
They found the tea lady in the next car, and the Potter continued engineward, leaving the Weasley in charge of the table of fare.
There were only two cars left, and that probably meant — here he opened the next door — that yes, this was the dining car, and it was full of exciting modern young people decorated with P shields. Wait, that sounded terrible. Silver Prefect shields.
"Oh, hello!" he said. "I'm Shorty Baker — no no no. Harry Potter, that's me. And you're the prefects, yes? Percy! Nice to see you again! Exactly everyone I want to meet. I wonder if I might ask you a few questions if you're not too busy."
"It's what we're for, Mr Potter," said Percy Weasley.
"Oh, splendid. You see, I don't know anything. Apparently I was raised by wolves, or madmen or industrial robots or something. On my way up the train I picked up a bit, but explain it me ab ovo. I value all input. Haven't been Sorted, you know."
A carload of prefects from highly competetive Houses exchanged predatory looks. Except the Hufflepuffs, who just looked sort of wistful.
"Oh, and incidentally," continued the Potter, reaching into his inside pocket, "is there a lost-things office? I found this toad in the loo. Apparently his name is Trevor."
Trevor said bwork.
"Would you like a — would you like several bags for that?" the tea lady was saying to the Weasley when the Potter got back.
Eleven minutes with the prefects had been quite educational, not least because he'd scored the Asenion Izzard book as well as The Magical Tradition: A Teacher's Guide, from a Ravenclaw and a Slytherin respectively. Also a copy of Prefects: Rites & Responsibilities for what that was worth.
"Yes, please," said the Weasley, slightly buckled under the load. "Or a box? A box would be good. —Yeah, that's, thank you," he added, spilling armloads of assorted foodlike objects into the supplied container.
"Anything for you, dear?" asked the tea lady of the Potter.
"Cup of tea and a newspaper would do me," said the Potter, looking at the cart, which was bare — correction: full. Somewhere the owner of a big-box retail chain turned over uncomfortably in his sleep, and the Potter reached in his pocket and found a hole. His lips started to move, no, bad thing, there is but he really wants to keep it, do not say — "Er. Was there any change, Ron?" I told you not to say it! What good is an internal monologue you don't listen to?!
"Um..." said the Weasley.
"Oh my goodness," said the suddenly startled tea lady, her gaze clearly stuck on The Scar. "I don't wish to be rude, but aren't you...?"
He laid his index finger across his lips and winked. "Yes, I am, but don't tell anyone, I want it to be a surprise."
"Mum's the word for me," she said, and presented him with a magical-styrofoam cup of tea with a slice of lemon stuck onto the edge, and a copy of something called The Daily Prophet, which had what he presumed were tomorrow's lottery results in a box atop the front page, plus a headline of No Leads In Gringotts Grab. "Compliments of us all, I'm sure," she said.
"Thank you so much, very kind of you!" said the Potter.
"Think nothing of it, dear," she said, and rattled away.
The Potter regarded the box and its contents. "Haha, look at all that! Let us redistribute this burden," he said, and began stashing various items away in his pockets. "There, that's seems more equitable. Now, let us be off, young Weasley, our piliform destiny awaits!"
One was a Hufflepuff, the other was a Ravenclaw, neither was named Sandy but each came close. They were currently watching the Potter having an intimate moment with a mirror.
"Oh, this is much better," said the Potter. "Narcissus had nothing on me. Green eyes and red hair, there hasn't been a combination like this since green eggs and ham. —Don't shove in front, Ron, it's rude."
Sandee the Ravenclaw, in a positive cloud of affected detachment, said to the Weasley, "Would you like me to adjust the gamma? Grey would suit those blue eyes."
"Num," said the Weasley, staring at his reflection. "Erm. No thank you."
The Potter caught the eye of Sandi the Hufflepuff. "Will these colors flip back all at once, or fade, or...?"
"It should hold full-strength indefinitely," she said, "until one of you decides it just doesn't work for you."
"Thank you very much ladies, if I can ever save the world for you do not hesitate to call. —Tear yourself away, Weasley, there will be other mirrors."
They made their way back into the corridor. The Potter was vaguely aware that the Hufflepuff and the Ravenclaw decorously refrained from falling out of their seats laughing until the door was shut again.
The Weasley pushed the Potter past the cabin containing Fred and George. "You don't want to talk to them. They'll just ask you if you remember what You-Know-Who looks like." Also I don't want to share right now, said his undercurrent.
"I can honestly say I don't," said the Potter. "Speaking of relatives, your mum's name is Molly, isn't it?"
"Yeah! How'd you know?"
"Didn't, I took a guess based on the initials on her handbag. And the little one, Ginny. Virginia doesn't sound quite right."
"Ginevra, but don't call her that or she'll bite you. She's coming up next year."
"She did seem a bit excitable."
"Well — you're you!"
"Everyone is," said the Potter. "Well, not literally. Although that can happen." He sipped his nearly-forgotten tea. "Amazing!" he said. "Truly magical. My tea is still hot! Now I need...I need...what do I need?"
He set his tea on a convenient overhead shelf and sent his hands on a search of his pockets until they found a bag with a label that read Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans.
"That's what I need, yes!" he said, tearing it open.
"You've got to be careful with those," cautioned the Weasley, "they really are—"
"—every flavor..." The Weasley trailed off, and regarded the Potter's delight. "Harry, have you ever noticed that you're completely mental?"
The Potter poked himself in the chest experimentally. "Am I? Surely not."
He picked up his tea and led the Weasley downtrain, occasionally pausing at shiny surfaces, though the connecting door into the next car. At the far end of the car was a small set of students heading uptrain, two large dark ones led by a small pale blond one, and as the door behind him closed another thought struck him.
"Maybe I can change my name, too!" said the Potter.
"Change your name? Why would you want to do that?"
"Why wouldn't I want to change my name?" said the Potter. "I mean, Harry Potter? What kind of a boring name is that?" Something appeared in his mind unbidden. "Draco Malfoy, that's a cool name. You could be properly famous with a name like that — become a hugely popular author, the latest novel from Draco Malfoy, you'd sell twice as many copies. Who'd buy a book with 'Harry Potter' on the cover? why are you tugging my sleeve, am I about to bump into — oh, hello, and who are you?"
"Draco Malfoy," identified the Draco Malfoy, with careful blandness. "And you are...?"
"This's Harry Potter," said the Weasley. Possessively...?
"Such does indeed appear to be the case," said the Potter. I expect I'll answer to Harry Potter one way or another, he thought.
"I think we've met," said the Malfoy; after giving the Weasley a puzzled flick of a glance his gaze settled, yes, on the Scar. "At Madam Malkin's? But you had different hair..."
"Yes, black just wasn't really me. Blond's good too," he added, popping half his glasses on and perusing the Malfoy thoughtfully. Cruelly tidy hair, unnatural bravado, slight crinkle of fear at eye corners, probable doting mother and disciplinarian father, note subtle but expensive green and silver (Slytherin House, note to self: Slytherin serpent makes sense, Gryffindor lion nearly does, why is Ravenclaw House mascot not a raven?) custom edging on robes despite House sorting not done yet. "And since there's all this magic around, I thought, why not? But no, I've been blond already." He put his half-glass away. "I think...must have been in the summer..."
"The Harry Potter?" There appeared to be some doubt despite the Scar.
"Or so I've been led to believe. Sorry if we've met and I don't remember you, had a nasty knock and came over all amnesic. We make progress, we make progress. Would you care for a jelly bean?"
"We'll pass, thank you," said the Malfoy. "I've been looking for you, Potter; I thought it might be worth introducing myself. You've entered a complicated world and can use...solid, reliable connections."
"Like a friend in Slytherin, yes?" The Potter took another jellybean and popped it in his mouth. Ginkgo biloba? "Well, naturally I want to be in the proper house. Had a jolly nice chat with the Slytherin prefects just now. Still, riddle me this — Slytherin, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff and Gryffindor, who are the most famous members of those houses, ever?"
"One who must not be named, one I don't know, one nobody's ever heard of, and Albus Dumbledore."
Had the Malfoy just let something slip? There was some indication.
"Well, there you are then. If nobody's ever heard of him, I'll bet you a Jammie Dodger that whoever is really running things, behind the scenes, is a Hufflepuff. The Gryffindors are too busy rushing in where angels fear to tread, the Ravenclaws can't pry their noses out of their books and the Slytherins are too busy politicking. So the prefects told me. Well, I say they told me, the Hufflepuffs didn't say much, they just sighed a bit. Do you know, I heard they actually machinate during dinner, Slytherins?" The prefect car had looked like a battlefield when he'd left it, despite his best efforts at mediation.
The Malfoy looked like he was trying to remember what he'd had for pudding, and failing because he hadn't been able to enjoy it. "That's...as may be. But if you ever do recover from your head injury, Potter, feel free to look me up."
"I shall certainly do that," said the Potter with complete honesty, looking the Malfoy directly in the eyes.
The Malfoy blinked. "Crabbe, Goyle — come. We have...things to do."
Wizard candy was, well, wizard.
Deeble's Exploding Rock Candy had been worrisome, but the teeth it blew out pushed right back in. Caramel Tar Pits were everything they promised, complete with small Pleistocene vertebrates. Thurber's Self-Chewing Chewing Gum saved a lot of bother; the Drooble Blowing Gum people could learn something there...
The Chocolate Frogs had gone over particularly well. A little too well. The pretzel bones in the crunchy ones were really quite salty, and the Weasley had gone off to see whether the tea lady had any actual tea left, and possibly visit the w.c. for an extended period of time.
Which was good, because it left the Potter alone with his borrowed books.
He picked up the Izzard and inhaled it.
The smell of fresh book, hardly a hand ever laid upon it, rather crudely formulated pulp for the era, wouldn't it go yellow almost instantly with that acid content? but it was magic, then, wasn't it, and there were probably compensatory charms (his right hand was trying to dogear a page and it wouldn't dog. It bent, but the fibers wouldn't crush) and what was that in the ink? was that really octopus?
Then he read it.
And then he read it again.
Franz Mesmer was a wizard, but Nikola Tesla wasn't? What a strange world...
He had the book pressed up against his ear when the girl came in.
"Excuse me—" and here her train of thought derailed — "Are you listening to your books?" she said.
"Of course," he said, dropping the Izzard into his lap. "Don't you?"
After a pause exactly long enough for him to infer that she was not wizard-born, she said "No, I don't care for audio books. Is that gum holding your glasses together? Oh, you've got Weben Euger! I've got that too. Wait, Teacher's Guide? You shouldn't have that!" She was scandalized, but only momentarily. (There, see, momentarily. For a moment.) "Oh, and what's that one? I don't have that one. Asenion Izzard, how is it?" Rather a beige girl, all teeth and frizzy hair, reading well above her grade level, with confidence indicating solid parental backup, probably professionals or academics...
"A bit remixey if you know what I mean," said the Potter, holding up a Thurber's wrapper in case she was still interested in the gum question. "Tastes of other books as opposed to pulling unique facts from personal papers, but well organized. And the index really is well done, he missed hardly anything. If you want a reference book of this type, thumbs up." He gave it a thumbs up and trailed onward, looking at his tiny thumbs. "It is thumbs up, isn't it? You'd think it would be down, especially given the Roman occupation..."
"The Roman occupation was building highways," said the girl, with an edge of quotation, busily writing in a small notebook. "100,000 miles in England alone, how did they find the time while taking all those baths?"
"The ISMBN is 0-7851-0831-9," said the Potter, watching the end of her pen move. And why are there two zeds in Izzard when izzard just means zed? he wondered while waiting until she finished. That's a recursive spelling. "May I be of some other assistance?"
"Oh, my goodness, I completely forgot. Have you seen a toad about?"
"I turned one in at the Lost Entities box."
"That's where we found it the first time," she said. "But it's gone again." She ducked her head back into the hall briefly. "Now Neville's lost, I expect. It's his toad...
"I'm Hermione Granger, by the way."
"And I am the famous Eccles! But I'm traveling under the name Harry Potter to avoid notice. And that's Ron Weasley creeping up behind you..." She didn't recognise the name Eccles? It's all in the Goon Show, all in the Goon Show, blimey, what do they teach them at these schools!
"Could I just get into my own compartment, please?" said Ron.
"Sorry. —You're Harry Potter? The Harry Potter?"
"Yes, but you can call me The. Or Potter."
The Weasley interrupted. "Can you believe it, Harry? I found a toad in the bog." The Weasley held up the toad.
"Well, where else would you find a toad?" said the Potter.
Trevor, for it was he, said bwork.
"Trevor! Is that you?" This was a new voice, accompanied shortly by a body. It was that of a black-haired boy, who had of late been weeping. The Potter felt a twinge of recognition — which didn't make sense, it would have to be deja vu. Could you actually have deja vu with amnesia? and if so, why? All the more to investigate in this most intriguing world.
"Neville, I presume?" said the Potter. "Well, this is becoming a party! Have a seat, you two, and shut the door, I want to see if this toad is capable of dimension-hopping.
"Would anyone care for a jelly bean?"
The Weasley looked a bit sick when he said that, but Neville took one.
The Hogwarts Express chugged into late afternoon.
"—and of course I tried a few spells straight off as soon as I got my wand, and they all worked," said Hermione. "It was ever so exciting. And then I got busted by the enforcement people for violating the Underage Magic Act, which of course we'd never even heard of—"
"Wicked!" said the Weasley, much impressed. "Did you get banged up in chokey?"
"What? No! Muggleborn, special circumstances."
"Too bad, you'd get mad respect that way..."
The Potter said, "Ah, you are what they call a muggleborn, aren't you? Got a question for you, Hermione Granger." He picked a cardboard rectangle up off the seat and showed it to her. "Chocolate Frog cards. Interactive animated images on cardboard. Trivial collectibles for children! Clearly cheap noise-level magic. And yet the fun facts on the back—" Albus Dumbledore, etcetera wibble thing Nicolas Flamel — "don't scroll."
"Yes? What was the question?"
"As a muggleborn, when you first saw the incoherency of the wizarding world...did your brain want to crawl out of your head at all?"
She was nonplussed.
"It was all so exciting I didn't think about it, really, but I expect it'll make sense eventually," she said.
"It's all just normal to me," said Ron, looking away from the mirror. He'd been peeking at it from time to time with an expression that said, I may be going to school with someone else's robes and someone else's wand, but at least I've got a new look.
"Me too," said Neville.
Ah yes: Neville. Maybe the universe didn't make any sense yet, but you knew where you stood with Neville. He was a boy with a frequently missing toad.
The Potter got up, gave the owl what he was pretty sure was a mouse-flavoured jelly bean — an assessment with which the owl seemed to agree — opened up his trunk and hauled out his coursebooks.
"So — Neville," said the Potter, scrunching himself into the corner between his pile of books and the window. "This evanescent toad of yours." He crossed his legs by way of a bookstand, pulled One Thousand Magical Herbs And Fungi off the top of the pile, licked his thumb, and began to turn the pages in a quiet, casual but ruthlessly sequential manner. "How did you come by him?"
The Hogwarts Express churned onward into twilight.
"—a really distracting meringue," said Neville Longbottom at the end of his distressing history.
The Potter peered at him over the top of his book. "So first Great-Uncle Algie tried to drown you, then he threw you out a window—"
"In fairness, I did bounce..."
"—all in an attempt to squeeze some magic out of you. And then he gave you a toad when you finally displayed your ability by not actually dying when he killed you.
"A gift toad from an uncle like that — are you losing it, or unconsciously trying to get rid of it? The latter seems, you know, like an emotionally plausible decision. Unless you'd rather forever be known as the boy who towed his loss. —Lost his toad." The Potter closed the back cover of Herbs And Fungi and moved on to Magical Draughts And Potions. "Incidentally, were you and your uncle ever in front of an arriving train at the same time? More specifically, with his hand behind your back...?"
Neville frowned down at the damp and floppy creature still safe on his lap. He frowned for quite a long time.
"There's a lake at Hogwarts, isn't there?" he said.
"The Black Lake," said Hermione. "We'll cross it on our way into the castle."
"Good!" said Neville. "Get ready to meet your natural habitat, Trevor."
Bwork, said Trevor.
The Weasley got up and fetched a small cage from the luggage rack over his seat. "You should get a rat," he said. "They're a lot less trouble. Look at Scabbers — he's nearly comatose, you just keep him in a drawer and throw food in once a day."
"Why would I want to do that?" said Neville, examining the apparently dead grey rat lying on its back in the cage.
The Weasley shrugged. "Dunno. Never thought about it, really..." He tilted the cage from side to side and the rat slid freely across the bottom.
"I don't think rats are allowed at Hogwarts, actually," said Hermione. "My letter from the school said you could bring a cat OR a toad OR an owl."
"Oh, yeah?" said the Weasley. "—Rats can swim, can't they?"
"Guess we could find out, if it's not too dark," said Neville.
"You two are shameful!"
"Well then, do you want a rat?"
"Um...no, not a dead one."
"He's probably just resting," said the Weasley, squinting through the cage bars. "Shagged out after a long squeak."
"Well," Hermione began reluctantly — but her reluctant-decision-making process was interrupted by the sudden announcement from hidden speakers, or invisible ones, that the train was five minutes from the station.
"Your baggage will be sent on; you need not bring it with you," it concluded, and silence fell.
"Well, I'll hang onto him for a while," said the Weasley, stowing his rat. "Cage is baggage anyway, so I won't have to lug him about."
Neville looked at Trevor, clearly wavering, probably because he didn't want to just throw an animal away.
"I'll take care of the toad if you like," said the Potter.
"Oh, would you?" said Neville. "That would be brilliant."
He handed the saggy thing over, and the Potter got up and added it to the owl's cage. "You have a new lodger," he said, looking the owl in the eye. "You're not hungry."
The owl cocked its head and gave hem a reproachful look that said Do I look like a toad-nibbler?
"No, of course you don't look like a toad-nibbler," he told the owl. "Sorry I can't take you along. It always does to know where your owl is."
The Hogwarts Express gave an enormous hiss, as steam trains so often do when they stop.
They had arrived.