The door of the compartment slid open and the youngest redheaded boy came in.
But it was empty, despite Ron swearing someone was supposed to be here, a familiar itch in the back of his mind he'd been feeling all day, especially at the platform. The same way he knew Ginny shouldn't be fawning over the Diggory boy from across the way.
Ron reached inside his jacket and pulled out a fat gray rat, which was asleep, gently shaking it as if he'd be able to answer all the questions Ron couldn't. Stupid Scrabbers. He knew his dad worked hard, and Percy was older and deserved a reward etc, but blimey. He would almost rather not have a pet at all.
While he'd been thinking to himself, the train had carried him out of London. Now it was speeding past fields full of cows and sheep. He were quiet for a time, watching the fields and lanes flick past.
Around half past twelve there was a great clattering outside in the corridor and a smiling, dimpled woman slid back the door and said,
"Anything off the cart, dear?" Ron's ears went pink and he muttered that he'd brought sandwiches. He took one out after she left, staring at the dry, dry corned beef and his practically dead pet, and fought the urge not to cry.
The countryside now flying past the window was becoming wilder. The neat fields had gone. Now there were woods, twisting rivers, and dark green hills. There was a knock on the door of their compartment and a round-faced boy came in. He looked tearful. Ron wondered what had set him off. Maybe he'd appreciate his corned beef leftovers (if that was even possible).
"Sorry," he said, "but have you seen a toad at all?" When Ron shook his head, he wailed, "I've lost him! He keeps getting away from me!" If Ron could've afforded to be a bit more selective in regards to the company he kept, he'd have brushed him off. But he'd spent the last half hour ranting at an unconscious rodent, and he was feeling rather starved for human company. And the itch had all but disappeared when the boy'd entered the compartment, almost as if this conversation was supposed to happen, even if it was still slightly off.
"I can help you search. If you want, of course." The boy looked as if he was about to start crying again, this time in relief. Ron scrambled for something, any word combination that might prevent that from occurring. He couldn't even handle it when Ginny cried, and she was his sister.
"Um... I'm Ron. Ron Weasley." He hoped the new information would distract this boy enough for him to not embarrass both Ron and himself. He gave him a smile, which had a 50/50 chance of either making them best mates or eternal rivals. After the brunette shyly returned the gesture, he felt reasonably sure it was the former. Hopefully.
"I'm Neville Longbottom. But, umm... you can call me Nev if you want? My gran does." Neville's (Nev, he corrected himself) voice rose on the second part of his sentence, a flush on his cheeks that his own were determined to beat. He somehow reminded Ron of the small, baby animals Charlie used to constantly bring home. Was that a weird thing to think about a boy his age? Ron decided he didn't particularly care.
"I think my mum knows your gran. Your last name sounds familiar." He said as they exited the compartment. It was a feeble attempt to cover up his own awkwardness, but an attempt nonetheless. The corridor was still bustling, students flitting from door to door catching up.
"She does have a book club on Wednesdays. I think I've seen a woman there who looks like she could be your mum. She brings a girl sometimes."
"She look around a year younger than us?" At Nev's nod, he let out a tiny sigh. With his luck, this boy probably had a crush on her. Even the idea made him shiver.
"Yeah. That's Ginny, my sis. We've 5 brothers too, all older. Three are here this year." They stopped at a compartment full of what looked like to be third years to ask about Trevor, but they just laughed at them in response. Yes, a toad was kinda pathetic, but they didn't have to be twits about it. Especially to someone as nice as Nev. On their fifth stop, they bumped into a girl who appeared about their age. She was already wearing her new Hogwarts robes.
"Excuse me, have you seen a toad?" Ron had taken on asking duties after Nev had an almost meltdown when he'd tried to question a pair of Slytherins. It wasn't the smartest thing he'd ever done.
"Are you still looking for him? I can help too. I'm Hermione Granger, and yes, I'm aware it's quite odd." She said, directing her attention to Nev. She had a bossy sort of voice, lots of bushy hair, and rather large front teeth. Ron was irritated. Something about her just settled under his skin. It wasn't the itch, although it had worsened when he'd joined the search. This was more... personal somehow.
Was she his rival? His parents and brothers had always stressed the importance of having a healthy love-hate relationship with someone, crucial as it was to a magical person's mental well-being. It didn't have to be a singular bond, with a hate triangle (or even a square) often forming during adolescence. His father and Lucius Malfoy had been in a committed one for years, as had Percy and Oliver Wood. But Merlin, he'd wanted someone a bit more... fantastic, like the villains in his comics. She was still young, he told himself. For all he knew, she would be the greatest dark lady of their age.
She'd better have at least a chocolate frog card.
"Sure!" Nev said, happy to have more company. Ron wasn't quite so sure. Regardless, their duo became a trio, even if a voice in his head told him it felt a bit wobblier than it should.
"Do either of you know what house you'll be in? I've been asking around, and I hope I'm in Gryffindor, it sounds by far the best; I hear Dumbledore himself was in it, but I suppose Ravenclaw wouldn't be too bad..."
Whatever house I'm in, I hope she's not in it, he thought to himself.
"What house are your brothers in?" asked Neville. Hermione turned to him for the first time, and he frowned before shaking it off. Of course she'd be interested in his brothers. Girls always were.
"Gryffindor," said Ron. "Mum and Dad were in it, too. I don't know what they'll say if I'm not. I don't suppose Ravenclaw would be too bad, but imagine if they put me in Slytherin."
"What's wrong with Slytherin? Sorry, I'm the first magic person in my family. I've learned all the coursebooks by heart of course, but it's different coming from an actual wizard, you know?" She said, barely stopping to breathe. Nev looked impressed, although whether by her memory or lung capacity he wasn't sure. Probably a mix of both. Even he felt the beginnings of a grudging respect.
"Well, You-Know-Who was in it, right? Just has a bad name, 'specially for muggleborns." Nev said, shuddering as he said the name. Hermione looked as if she was about to drown him in questions he probably couldn't answer.
"Er... we should probably head back to the compartment. Nev and I still need to change." They both agreed, although Hermione pulled a sour face when she was told to wait outside for a minute.
He looked at his robes, focusing hard on making them longer with just his eyes. No luck. Wandless magic was just too advanced for him, he supposed. Nev's only looked vaguely better, which was reassuring.
"What's your Quidditch team?" Ron asked, unable to take the silence. Nev mumbled something about the Kestrals, and with a little prompting, was able to debate the finer points of their last game with Cannons. He would turn him into a Chudley Cannons fan one day, even if it took his entire Hogwarts career. He would cover the world in orange if he had to.
After they finished, they let Hermione back in, her mumbling about discrimination and beaches.
"It's not like I'd be able to see anything anyway. You wear them over your clothes." She passionately declared. Nev apologised while Ron held back the bulk of his amusement. For a full thirty seconds. Then he burst out laughing. Hermione pouted for a moment, but cracked up soon after. Nev just looked grateful they were being friendly.
The girl peered closer, and Ron wondered if she needed glasses. It would fit with her image. But that wasn't right. She wasn't the one with glasses, and he didn't know who was.
"You've got dirt on your noise, by the way, did you know?" Ron scrubbed it off, glaring, moment ruined.
A voice echoed through the train: "We will be reaching Hogwarts in five minutes' time. Please leave your luggage on the train, it will be taken to the school separately." He all stood up, looking a bit paler than before. They joined the crowd thonging the corridor. The train slowed right down and finally stopped. People pushed their way toward the door and out on to a tiny, dark platform. Nev sniffed as they made their way down the path. Ron and Hermione weren't faring much better. He reached out his hands for the both of them, and they took their first steps into their boat together. He was not a baby, even if he was the tiniest bit scared.
"Oy, you there! Is this your toad?" said a giant man that Ron recognized as the Hagrid from Charlie's old post. He was checking the boats as people climbed out of them.
"Trevor!" cried Nev blissfully, holding out his hands and letting go of Ron's. His now-empty hand curled up in his pocket, suddenly cold.
Hagrid raised a gigantic fist and knocked three times on the castle door.