Ron placed his hand against the brick wall, fingers pressed against the solid surface so hard that parts of his hand were turning white and red. The passage to Platform 9 ¾ was not there. Like it had never been there.
Harry, who had once had a nightmare about this exact situation, where he turned up to go to Hogwarts for the first time only to never manage to find the platform or to discover that it had been a trick all along, felt like he would be sick. It did not help his stomach that he had hit his head slightly, nothing worse than a Quidditch practice knock, as they had crashed into a heap.
“Well… fuck,” Ron said seriously. His voice sounded fairly calm, but his freckles stood out strongly on the white of his face.
“What do we do now?” Harry whispered, ignoring the bewildered and offended stares of the people around them. He grimaced apologetically as he hurried to fix their trunks and trolleys, then gently soothed Hedwig and her ruffled feathers, ignoring her unhappy screeches and glare.
“I don’t know!” Ron said desperately.
He looked wildly around and Harry followed suit. A dozen curious people were still watching them, but none of them wore cloaks or hats, and none of them were Mr. and Mrs. Weasleys. There was no help to reach out to.
“We’re going to miss the train,” Ron whispered in horror. He looked back to the solid bricks. “I don’t understand why the gateway’s sealed itself. It’s never- No one ever told me that it closed -”
Harry hummed agreeably, but it came out more like a panicked sound of pain. He was watching the giant clock nearby, the sickening feeling in the pit of his stomach growing stronger with every tick of the third hand. Ten seconds… nine seconds…
He passed Hedwig’s cage over to Ron and pressed his own hand against the wall. It was solid; it was solid brick and he could feel his heart drop like one. He pushed with all his might, with both hands until they hurt slightly, ignoring the whispers of the people around them, but the brick remained solid.
Three seconds… two seconds… one second…
“It’s… gone,” Ron said, stunned. “The train’s left.”
Harry didn’t know what to say. He felt like he ought to wake up around now, but there was no way he could be sleeping through Hedwig’s screeching.
“What if Mum and Dad can’t get back through to us?” Ron said, handing Hedwig’s cage back to Harry and pressing his ear against the cold brick. “I can’t hear a thing,” he said after a moment. “What’re we going to do? I don’t know how long it’ll take Mum and Dad to get back to us.”
Trying to keep himself from being sick, Harry breathed deeply and told himself to be calm. He focused on the immediate, trying to placate Hedwig, which wasn’t an easy task when hewasn’t about to panic, and the uncomfortable heat of people’s stares all around them.
“What if Mum and Dad have already Apparated back to the car?” Ron said quietly. “If they think the barrier’s closed, they might not… They might think we got on without them and…”
“Excuse me,” said a small voice. “Is there a line?”
“I think the barrier might be closed, plumkin,” a man’s voice said, sounding vaguely concerned but ultimately untroubled. “I didn’t know that the barrier closed for business.”
Ron and Harry turned around. A man and a young girl were standing behind them, watching them with identical curious stares of silvery grey, both with the same shoulder-length, dirty blond, stragglingly wavy hair.
The man was obviously a wizard, perhaps a little older than the Weasley parents, and he looked a little strange even by wizard standards. He wore muddy hiking boots and grey slacks with dirty knees, and a white dress shirt embroidered along the hems with cornucopias of fruits and vegetables, presumably to match the plums hanging from his ears. Overtop, a wide mauve coat, which looked to have once been a homely quilt, was draped on his shoulders like a short cape.* A silvery charm gleamed at his collarbone, displaying a strange symbol, like a triangular eye, that Harry did not recognize.
The girl was obviously a Hogwarts student, almost certainly a first year and the man’s daughter. She was small and slight, with protuberant eyes that gave her a permanently surprised look. She was dressed in uniform, slightly greyed black robes that were probably secondhand**, and red sneakers. But she too had plums, smaller ones, hanging from her ears, and an odd necklace of Butterbeer caps that was probably homemade.
The strangest thing, however, was that no one was staring at either of them, despite their largely dreamy and distinctly dotty aura. In fact, no one was staring at Harry and Ron and Harry’s screeching owl anymore either. Everyone around them was going about their business as though the five of them weren’t there and never had been.
Harry noticed that the man was holding a wand, resting casually at his side as though it were a quill or shopping bag. Had he done something?
“Um…” Ron said. “Hi… Mr. Lovegood.”
The man startled, then peered at Ron as though he wasn’t sure exactly who or what Harry’s best friend was. Harry looked at Ron too, very similarly. Ron and this man knew each other?
“I was under the impression that Weasleys moved in packs,” the man murmured, looking much more concerned than before. He turned to the girl beside him. “Plumkin, you had a Weasley for a while, didn’t you?”
“Yes, Daddy. I think this one is lost,” the girl said.
Mr. Lovegood nodded, satisfied. “Yes, yes. You’re right, of course, that’s it. Oh dear, that’s not good, then, is it?” He looked terribly concerned again, as though he thought Ron might be picked off by hungry wolves on his lonesome.
“No, Daddy. It’s not.”
Harry looked at the lost Weasley in question. “Ron, what’s going on?” he whispered. “Who are these people?”
“Xenophilius Lovegood!” the man introduced loudly, so loudly that Harry knew it was definitely magic when no one looked at them. “Editor of the Quibbler, and Best Dirigible Plums, as voted by the judges of the National Magical Agricultural Fair. This is my daughter, Luna,” he introduced, beaming proudly, as though judges had also voted her the Best Daughter in the world.
“…Um… yeah. They’re sort of neighbours?” Ron said. “They live nearby, out by the Diggories, I think.”
“Marvelous people, the Diggories!” Mr. Lovegood declared agreeably. “Lovely garden!” Then his face shifted back to terrible concern again. “They’re taking a terribly long time to try and eat us, though. One would think intelligent predators of their ilk would have realized already that luring us in with their niceness and sparkling good looks isn’t working. They’ll starve themselves at this rate. And Lovegoods make terrible meals, anyway.”
“We can always send them more blood-liver pies, Daddy,” Luna said.
Mr. Lovegood visibly brightened, then deflated. “It won’t be the same making those pies without you, plumkin,” he told his daughter sadly.
Luna reached out and patted her father’s wide cape-like coat. “You’ve got to do something with yourself while I’m gone, Daddy. Otherwise you’ll lose yourself in rooting out the Gulping Plimpies again.”
This was all so strange that Harry had to look at Ron to confirm that this was actually happening to them right now. It seemed it was. Ron looked how Harry felt: bewildered and mildly horrified.
While listening, Harry had finally managed to soothe Hegwig. Her screeching had stopped and she was now grumpily settling her ruffled feathers. Harry’s hand was getting in her way now, and an annoyed hoot from her reminded Harry that they had missed the train to Hogwarts.
“Mr. Lovegood,” Harry said.
The man looked up from his daughter. “Yes?”
“Um, the train to Hogwarts has already left.”
“Oh, we know,” Mr. Lovegood said dismissively. “We were rushing to get on, but then Luna thought she saw a Murmuring Crowder and, as journalists, we had to investigate. Unfortunately, it got away when the tolling hour distracted us!”
“We almost had it this time, Daddy,” Luna told her father seriously. “I would have caught it if you hadn’t started panicking about the train.”
Mr. Lovegood grimaced. “I know, forgive me, plumkin. Thankfully, the train’s never really been a family tradition anyway. Were you two aware that the woman who sells candy on the train is an immortal semi-deity who annually leeches life from the passengers?”
No, Harry could not say that idea had ever crossed his mind.
“I thought she was the lady from Honeydukes,” Ron said, brow furrowed.***
“No, that’s just a convenient mask. She just turned up one day and no one ever asked any questions!” Mr. Lovegood said cheerfully, then switched moods again and said with very serious concern, “I would not advise that you ask questions. She may take offense if you stumble off the right ones in the right order. They’re very defensive of their niches, you know.”
Although Harry was now fairly certain that Xenophilius Lovegood was… odd… if he were ever planning to ask questions of the train’s candy-lady, he wasn’t going to ask them now. Just… just… in case.
“Alright,” Ron said, as though he had made the exact same decision. “Um… how’re you getting to Hogwarts, then, Mr. Lovegood?”
The man looked completely stumped for a moment, then adopted a very thoughtful expression. “We~ell, there’s no flying today due to the Heliopaths about… What do you think of taking the Knight Bus, plumkin?”
Luna seemed to like the idea, brightening just like her father had. “Do you think we’ll see Old Lady Lurk?”
“Perhaps if we’re very lucky and leave out some hard candy,” Mr. Lovegood said, seeming to look forward to the possibility. “We’ll have to make sure not to look directly at the corner seat.”
“Do… do you think that we could come with you?” Ron asked.
“Of course!” Mr. Lovegood said. “It wouldn’t do to leave a Weasley without their pack! And… whatever manner of person your friend is. The more people on the hunt for Old Lady Lurk means it less likely that she appear, but, haha, that if you don’t know what you’re doing! Come along!”
Mr. Lovegood marched off through the crowd of oblivious Muggles, his daughter moving to roll after him. Harry and Ron scurried to right everything on their trolleys and hurry after the odd man that was their only chance.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Harry hissed.
“…N- Yeah,” Ron said, then much more surely, “Yeah. Mr. Lovegood’s a bit weird -”
“A bit,” Harry said.
“- a lot weird, but he’s a nice enough bloke. Haven’t seen him much recently, but Ginny and Luna were good friends. I don’t see any other adults about to get us to school.”
Well… that was a point.