By the time they had trooped up from the boats and into Hogwarts, Albus’s heart had climbed back into his throat and he felt sure that he looked just as pale and nauseated as Scorpius. The blond boy offered him a tremulous smile. “I hope you don’t get sorted into Slytherin,” he said quietly.

Albus did his best to return the weak grin. “Hope you do,” he whispered.

Then the First Years stopped talking entirely because a stern looking witch with short silvery hair and long black robes stood in front of them. She looked down at the students with a blank expression on her sharp, angular face. Albus took a step backwards, wishing that he wasn’t in the first row of their small crowd.

Hagrid shifted his way through, First Years scattering to either side like a very nervous sea being parted by the half-giant’s bulk. He winked at Albus again but this time said nothing. “Here’s the firs’ years, Septima,” he told the imposing witch.

She nodded. “Thank you, Hagrid. You may go ahead to the Great Hall, I’ll bring the new students in a moment.”

“Right yeh are,” said Hagrid, who turned around for another wink and a wave before shuffling off down the hallway.

“Well,” said the witch, “welcome to Hogwarts.” Her face could have been made of slate for all the cheer it showed but Albus noticed, maybe just with wishful thinking, that her dark eyes were merry. “I am Professor Vector. You will follow me to the Great Hall, where you will wait patiently and without talking while you are called one-by-one up to the Sorting Hat in alphabetical order. You will then have the Hat placed on your head, whereupon it will announce into which House you will be placed for the duration of your studies here. You will not argue.”

Albus was really beginning to have serious regrets over losing track of Rose. He wished she were standing next to him right now. His cousin almost always seemed to know what to say. And right now Albus would have just liked to be able to hold her hand.

“You will follow me now,” the silvery-haired witch said, “and you will do it without talking, please.” It didn’t sound much like a request. Albus tried to shift backwards to let the other students go first, but no one seemed eager to follow their guide. Vector turned back around to the immobile First Years. One of her eyebrows tilted upwards at a sharp, almost ninety-degree angle. “Now, please.”

This time they followed, stumbling over each other. The First Years bunched up in a huddle at the threshold of the Great Hall, unwilling to walk too far into it. The sky was every bit as impressive as everyone had told him it would be, but Albus had no eyes for the stars and clouds over his head right now. He was staring at the four long tables and the distant stool with the ratty old hat perched on it.

He looked at the staff table at the end of the hall, and the professors perched there, and couldn’t manage to return Hagrid’s smiling wave. He looked away from the teachers and his eyes landed on the table of gold and red. His brother was there, grinning, and somehow Albus met James’s eyes across the crowded hall. James punched the shoulder of a young wizard next to him and pointed towards the First Years; towards Albus. A whole crowd of Gryffindors turned to look. Albus couldn’t hear what James was saying to them but then he saw his brother stick out his tongue between his teeth and knew that James was hissing.

All of a sudden Albus couldn’t hear anything at all for the rushing in his ears. He squeezed his eyes shut because the room was spinning and Albus didn’t think it was due to an enchantment. Someone far away was singing but Albus couldn’t hear it. He was too preoccupied trying to breathe in great, ragged gulps of air. He felt himself sway and knew that he would just die of mortification if he passed out here in front of James and everyone else in the Great Hall.

Someone put a hand on his shoulder and the room settled back into place. Albus pulled his eyes back open and normal sound returned to the world. The singing was coming from the Hat, which seemed to be finishing up. Its voice was surprisingly strong for a tattered, ancient piece of headgear, but Albus knew that the Hat was more than it looked to be and singing was one of the smallest talents in its repertoire. It was also the least frightening; the song didn’t worry Albus, although he did wish he’d paid attention to the rest of it instead of tuning out all but the last few lines:

“…and that is why
You needn’t try and read your hearts
To know your minds, my friends,

For the Sorting is tonight!”

“You all right?” Scorpius whispered as the rest of the hall cheered the Sorting Hat. He didn’t move his hand away until Albus nodded.

“Yeah,” he said. “Thanks.”

Scorpius’s smile was sickly. “Don’t mention it,” he said, his tone clearly indicating that he knew exactly how Albus felt at that horrible moment.

Then talking was done again because the stern looking witch that had led them into the hall had walked up to the Hat and the stool and taken a long scroll out of her robes. “Adams, Corran,” Professor Vector announced, and a short wizard with a mop of brown curls scrambled up to be Sorted. His face was very red and he looked horrified at having to be the first of the First Years. He was sent off to Gryffindor amidst cheers and applause and Albus felt nothing but jealousy.

He craned his neck to look back at the rest of the First Years and at last caught sight of Rose about halfway back in the crowd and very pale. Albus tried to smile at her but he had a feeling he didn’t manage it very well. Rose just blinked owlishly at him, her cheeks so white that her freckles seemed to be swimming a few inches away from her face. Albus looked away again, his eyes blurring as students pushed past him up to the stool and the Hat and the scroll of names.

Next to him, Scorpius was at least as pale as Rose if not more so. He had laced his fingers together tightly and was twisting them back and forth against each other. He didn’t seem to realize he was doing it. Albus couldn’t believe he was actually thinking it, but he really, really hoped that Scorpius got sorted into Slytherin. Of all places. Some people, Albus decided, were utterly mental.

As long as he ended up anywhere else—it didn’t even have to be Gryffindor, he wasn’t picky. Just because most of his family had always been in Gryffindor—Albus didn’t care. Just not Slytherin, anything but Slytherin. He’d love to prove to James that he was good enough for Gryffindor, but there was nothing wrong with Ravenclaw or Hufflepuff, either. Victoire and Dominique were both in Ravenclaw, much to Uncle Bill’s proud chagrin; Albus could have joined them there, gladly. And Teddy was gone, but he’d been a Hufflepuff, and anywhere Teddy had been had to have been awesome, because he was. Just because most of the family was in Gryffindor didn’t mean Albus had to be, too. Just so long as he wasn’t in Slytherin.

But crazy Scorpius actually wanted to be. Albus glanced over at his new friend, then back up at the Sorting Hat. Under the cover of the applause from the Ravenclaw table as the Sorting Hat sent them “Lloyd, Alexis,” Albus leaned over and whispered quickly to Scorpius, “dad told me sometimes the Hat will listen to where you want to go.”

Scorpius started and turned to look up at Albus, his grey eyes wide. “Really?” he asked, his voice strangled.

Albus nodded but not as firmly as he would have liked to. “It did for him,” he said. Then he shrugged. “Can’t hurt to ask, right?”

Scorpius nodded slowly and might have smiled but then the professor said, “Malfoy, Scorpius,” and he shuddered instead. The two boys exchanged a brief, sickly smile that meant good luck, hope I’m not sitting next to you in a few minutes, then Scorpius tossed his head back and walked very firmly up to the Hat. Someone at the Gryffindor table shouted something garbled and rude but Scorpius didn’t seem to notice.

Albus crossed the fingers on both his hands and hoped as hard as he could manage. The Hat dropped down over Scorpius’s wan face and sat there for what seemed like an eternity. Albus could see Scorpius’s lips moving a little bit, and knew without hearing what he had to be whispering over and over: “Please Slytherin, please Slytherin, please Slytherin.” Albus knew, because he was going to be thinking just the opposite very shortly. He bit his lip and waited almost as anxiously as if he had been the one up there on that stool.

Albus wondered what was taking the Hat so long. Several of his fellow first years started to fidget, and they weren’t the only ones. Even the teachers seemed to find the Hat’s deliberations more time-consuming than usual, or so Albus assumed from the odd looks they kept exchanging and the occasional muttered comment he was too far away to hear. Albus noticed some of the older students checking their watches, and a flurry of whispers started to travel around the hall.

Scorpius swayed on the stool, and Albus worried that the pale boy was about to topple off of it in a faint. His feet itched to run up so that someone would be there to catch the wobbling wizard before his skull hit the hard stone floor, but Albus bit his lip and forced himself to remain in place. Besides, Professor Vector was standing right next to the stool, and seemed to have inched a little bit closer to Scorpius while they were all waiting on the Hat, so probably she would be able to save him if he fell.

Albus was biting his lip so hard that he tasted blood. Seconds seemed to be passing like hours, and the low murmur of noise in the hall grew steadily louder.

Then finally the Hat’s brim split and it shouted, “SLYTHERIN!”

For a moment, there was nothing but silence, as everyone tried to pretend that they hadn’t jumped; after being silent for so long, the Hat’s shout had caught nearly everyone off-guard. Then Professor Vector raised the Hat off of Scorpius’s head, revealing an incredibly broad grin on his pointed face, and someone let out a relieved whoop that started the rest of the school reflexively applauding. Albus Potter cheered louder than anyone at the green and silver table.

(In fact, the Slytherins didn’t seem to be cheering quite as loudly for Scorpius as they had for their other first years, but maybe that was because Albus was himself shouting loudly enough to drown them out, or maybe it was just because they were still flustered by the Sorting Hat’s strange delay.)

Albus completely missed the destinations of the students who were on the list between the he and Scorpius, because he was too busy grinning at the pale boy from across the room. Albus actually jumped in surprise when his own name was read off and he hurried up to the Hat amidst a scattering of giggles and hushed voices. He grinned at Scorpius as he climbed up onto the stool and before the Hat dropped over his eyes he saw the oddly startled-looking boy offer an encouraging “thumb’s up” of good luck.

Albus took a deep breath and inhaled a musty, slightly spicy smell. The Hat smelled like age and mildew and possibly lemon drops. He was glad that Scorpius had gotten where he’d so wanted to go, but part of Albus was disappointed to think that he might not get the chance to know the other boy better. He really thought he’d been starting to make a friend and it would be a shame to lose that when they’d gotten along so well. But of course, it didn’t mean they couldn’t be friends; look at his cousins Victoire and Dominique, neither of them had had any trouble making friends outside their House and granted they had a little bit of an edge there but—

Then the Hat spoke and Albus almost fell off the stool. “Interesting,” it said in his head. “Very interesting indeed.” Albus’s mind went blank and the rushing was back in his ears. The Hat was inside his head. Or was it speaking aloud? It hadn’t said anything for the other First Years, just the name of their House when it was done thinking, but maybe he just hadn’t been able to hear what it said because it hadn’t been out loud.

“Yes, quite a peculiar case…seem a lot like your father, I remember him well…and I do think you'd do best in...”

Then it said, and its voice was a loud roar that echoed through the Great Hall of Hogwarts, “SLYTHERIN!” and Albus’s whole world went cold. He hadn’t even—he hadn’t been thinking, hadn’t been asking, had just blanked when he’d needed to—he hadn’t asked, hadn’t gotten the chance to—

Albus Potter slipped numbly off the stool and almost fell over his own feet as the Sorting Hat was lifted up and the bright light of the Hall rushed in again. It couldn’t be real, it couldn’t have happened, not like that, he hadn’t even asked, hadn’t even tried—

But the Hat had spoken, and the stern-faced teacher gave him a gentle push in the direction of the table on the wrong side of the room, the wrong side, and everything was blurred and oddly hushed and all Albus could see through the haze covering his vision was the stricken face of Scorpius Malfoy staring at him in horror.

He walked jerkily over to the green and silver table and almost collapsed on the bench next to Scorpius. He didn’t notice the difference in reaction to his Sorting than to all the ones that had come before, didn’t notice the whispers and the looks of surprise and the very slight, very startled and mostly automatic applause that eventually managed to follow the announcement of his House. He didn’t dare turn around and look at James, didn’t dare turn and look at anyone; not at his family, not up at Hagrid or Neville, not even at Rose in the dwindling crowd of First Years or Scorpius on the bench next to him.

He sat in a blank stupor until the Sorting got around to “Weasley, Rose.” Then Albus jerked out of his dismal fugue and managed to focus his eyes on the girl with the mane of dark red hair who trotted up to the stool, swallowed hard, and vanished beneath the Hat.

It sat there for a very, very long time, then announced, “GRYFFINDOR!” and that table broke out in wild, Weasley-led applause.

Albus didn’t hear the last two names after Rose’s. He just put his head down on the table, unable to watch his cousin walk over to the Gryffindor table. He could hear his brother’s whoop over the rest of the cheers and thought quite seriously about running out of the Hall so he could go be ill somewhere in private.

“What’s wrong, Potter?” someone asked, and Albus had never realized before that his name could be used as a swear, but in the mouth of that Slytherin boy—his Housemate, he thought before he could stop himself—it sounded fouler than anything even Uncle George had ever come up with. “You don’t look overwhelmed with good fortune.” Someone else laughed, then two or three others joined in.

Albus wanted to die.

“If I had to look at your ugly face across from me,” a girl’s voice interrupted, “I’d keep my head down, too.”

Albus peeked up from his arms. The three boys across from him—and they all looked like they were at least Fourth Years, maybe older or maybe they were just big—had all turned away to look at a skinny witch with a long black plait down her back. The three students between Albus and the girl were trying not to meet anyone’s eyes and looked like they were debating whether it would be safer to duck under the table or jump off the back of the bench when the curses started flying.

“Watch yourself, Vaisey,” said the boy who had spoken first. “Just because you’re not a Firstie this year doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still know your place.”

The girl raised her eyebrows. “Wow,” she said dryly, “your threats have gotten even less creative than last year, Muggins.” She crossed her arms inside the sleeves of her robes and the three students between Vaisey and Muggins tensed. So did Muggins and the two boys flanking him. One of them reached under the table but he didn’t come out with his wand just yet.

The Headmaster was speaking, but no one at this little section of the Slytherin table was listening. The three older boys stared at the witch and Albus wondered if any of them knew how to blink.

“No one’s scared of a little girl, Vaisey,” said the boy on the right of the one who’d spoken first. The other one, the one who had reached for his wand, said nothing.

“Really,” drawled Vaisey. “Why don’t you go ask Avery if he’s scared.”

“Second Years need to be careful,” said Muggins, scowling. “Bad things can happen to snotty brats in Hogwarts.”

“Before or after they tutor Fourth Years in Transfiguration, Muggins?” she asked sweetly. “Or, I’m sorry, did your friends not know?”

Muggins went red, possibly with embarrassment, possibly with fury, and he reached into his robe. The three students between Vaisey and Albus ducked.

“Muggins,” Scorpius drawled, almost to himself, and Albus jumped. “Sounds a lot like Muggle.” He looked up, innocent curiosity the only thing detectable on his pointed face. “Did your family only come into magic recently?” he asked politely.

Muggins turned away from Vaisey, forgetting his wand. “Are you calling me a Mudblood, Malfoy?” The older boy stood up and leaned across the table, looming over the two First Years. Albus flinched and wasn’t sure if it was at the suddenly threatening proximity of the older boy or from his venomous language.

“Heavens no,” sneered Scorpius, and somehow when he tilted his head up to look at the Slytherin towering over him he still managed to look like he was looking down his nose at him. “I would never be so vulgar,” he said coldly. Scorpius shook his head mournfully, his eyes never leaving Muggins’s face. “And in front of ladies, too,” he added, voice absolutely dripping with derisive melodrama. “Appalling.”

A few students snickered. Muggins went pink. An older boy with tightly-cropped dark hair leaned over the boy who still hadn’t brought his hand and wand up from under the table. He thumped Muggins on the back of the head. “Way to impress the First Years,” he said. A few people laughed. “Now shut it before someone decides to hex your tongue off.”

Muggins sank down in his seat looking mutinous but quieted. His two friends matched his posture and expression. The older boy rolled his eyes. Albus noticed that he was wearing a Prefect badge. “Sorry about that, Vaisey. Malfoy.” He didn’t say Potter, but he met Albus’s eyes and nodded civilly.

“Don’t worry about it, Tremblay,” the girl replied with a shrug. “If Muggins wasn’t putting his foot in his mouth we’d have to test him for Polyjuice or a pulse.”

There was more laughter and Muggins stood up, flanked by the other two boys. They glowered at Vaisey and Scorpius, but wouldn’t look at Tremblay. The three Fourth Years shuffled off to find seats further down the table.

“True,” said Tremblay. He reached across the table and shook Scorpius’s hand. “Welcome to Slytherin, anyway.” He smiled wryly, as if to silently add, such as we are…

“Thank you,” Scorpius said, and the relieved grin was back on his face. “It’s a pleasure.”

Albus’s heart sank. For a minute he’d been too distracted by the impending scuffle to remember, but everyone around him was wearing green and silver. Then a copper-brown hand was in front of his face and he looked up to find Tremblay staring at him expectantly. Albus shook the hand quickly.

“Thank you,” he said, although his voice was very small.

“Hmm,” was all Tremblay said, then the Prefect turned away from the two First Years to resume whatever conversation he’d been having before the interruption.

“Nicely done, Malfoy,” Vaisey said and nodded. Then she turned away, too, and the students around them slowly resumed their talking. At some point food had arrived on the tables but Albus hadn’t noticed. The Slytherins descended on the feast.

Albus put a chocolate trifle on his plate but then just stared at it. He didn’t think he could eat right now. Or maybe ever.

“Hey.” Scorpius no longer looked triumphant; in fact, he looked miserable. “I’m sorry,” he said.

Albus shrugged. “Nah, thanks for telling them off. It was pretty—”

“No,” Scorpius interrupted, “I mean, sorry that you’re here.”

“Oh,” said Albus. “Thanks.” He managed a weak smile. “Congratulations.”

Scorpius seemed to be trying to keep his own grin in check. “Thanks,” he said.

Then someone else leaned across the table to ask Scorpius something, and Albus tuned it all out again. He remembered the so-excited-it-was-almost-illegible letter James had sent home right after his Sorting. Into Gryffindor.

Albus didn’t think he could bear to write a letter of his own. He didn’t know where to begin. Although James would probably take care of that for him. He’d be crowing with victory over Albus’s devastating Sorting. Or maybe James would be swallowed by the Giant Squid before he got the chance to write anything. Albus could hope.

He stared at the untouched trifle. He decided to pour himself some pumpkin juice instead; it seemed like a safer bet than sweets. He managed to get the pumpkin juice down and keep it there. It didn’t taste like the pumpkin juice they had at home.

Albus tried very hard not to cry.

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