The platform is busier than Jason had thought it would be. There are people everywhere, and owls everywhere (though they’re in cages), and Jason feels lost and overwhelmed. As always, Nadia seems to instinctually know when Jason needs her grip like a vise on his wrist, and she leans over to talk in his ear, which is the only sure way to be heard in the chaos.
“Did you think it’d be like this?” she asks excitedly, and Jason shivers because her breath tickles his neck. He shakes his head mutely and she gives his wrist a shake. “Jason, isn’t it awesome?” He answers her grin with one of his own, more tentative.
Their parents step up now, Mrs. McConnell looking worried and Mr. McConnell looking confused. Jason can’t help but notice how strange they look, how out of place, in his immaculate suit and her stylish dress. His mom seems to agree; she frowns at someone walking by in a set of robes, and then eyes Jason and Nadia. She’d been less than thrilled about their uniforms—she complained that Nadia would hardly be able to get a boy in that, though at least it’ll forgive a lot—and now seems to be imagining her children growing up to dress like these people.
“Well, son,” Mr. McConnell says, clapping Jason on the shoulder. “This is it. It’ll be good for you. My dad sent me to boarding school when I was your age, and—well—it was different, but it taught me a lot. I learned to be responsible,” he says with a weight on the word, as if carrying a veiled threat. Jason better learn responsibility, whatever or however that is, and learn it well. Jason doubts he’ll get a grade on his report card for it.
“I expect you to behave yourself, young man, and do me proud.” Jason gives his dad a smile and a nod meant to be encouraging, and Mr. McConnell appraises his son, almost sadly. “You figure out how to be the best at… at this,” he says uncertainly, glancing sideways at a boy Jason’s age who looks more at home on this platform than Jason does, “and you be it.”
While Mr. McConnell ends his encouraging pep talk, Jason picks up the ends of Mrs. McConnell muttering to Nadia as she fixes her hair and adjusts her sweater. “…really, take more pride in how you look. Such a pretty face, Nadia, but no one will see it if you let your hair go…”
Nadia and Jason exchange matching looks of familiar exasperation.
The train whistles and Jason nearly jumps. Nadia’s hand is back on his wrist, and Mr. McConnell is ushering them to the door. There are goodbye waves and one brief hug each from their mother, and then the train is moving and the platform, filled with colorful people and owl feathers, grows smaller in the distance.
“Come on, let’s sit down.” Nadia tugs him somewhere and he follows, happy to follow her lead; Nadia is excited for the both of them, so Jason lets himself be worried for the both of them. Groups of other students are piling into little rooms with seats in them, giving Jason and Nadia different kinds of looks: kind, pitying, curious, bored, or annoyed.
She finds them an empty room, knowing at least that Jason would prefer to avoid anyone new just yet, and plops in the seat as Jason shuts the door behind them. Her nose is pressed against the window of their compartment, her breath fogging the glass, and he smiles because she’s doing it on purpose. Their parents hate it when she does that.
He sits down across from her and presses his face to the glass, fogging it up; he pulls away and writes his name with his finger.
“There. Now we broke a rule, we’re officially on our own,” he says, grinning at her.
“What’re you two doing in our compartment?”
Their heads whip around to find a cluster of students standing the doorway, their expressions haughty and their unfamiliar outfits clearly expensive. Even in unknown territory, Jason can spot the money, the wealthy; usually, he counts himself among them, and he gives them a friendly smile.
“Hi. I’m Jason—” he starts, but a girl starts to laugh before he can finish.
“We don’t want to make friends with first years,” she says, her mouth twisting into something harsher before she continues, “especially when they come from Muggles.”
Jason had learned this word, when the wizard came to their house and explained Hogwarts to them. He frowns, stung and startled; he’d never been shunted out of a group like this.
“We don’t want to make friends with a bunch of creeps,” Nadia retorts smoothly, and Jason glances briefly at her, halfway to thankful, and halfway to fearful. “We were here first. Get your own compartment.”
The ripple of shock in the little group is nearly visible. It’s clear these kids are older, and Jason shifts in his seat, wondering if there’s a fight about to happen. He knows he’ll have to take part, and hopefully his age will clear him from any wrongdoing; he doesn’t want to get in trouble his first day away from home.
The main boy reaches for a wand; Jason has a wand, but his is packed away, as he doesn’t know what to do with it; Nadia had put hers in her bag, and pulls it out now. The girl begins to laugh again, but before anything can happen, a voice calls out behind the group.
“What’s all this then? Bothering some first years?” The group splits and a boy and girl stand there now, frowning, with their wands in their hands too. “Real tough. Go on, sit down,” the boy says, staring hard at the boy with his wand.
The menacing boy glares hard at the newcomers, but nods for his friends to leave. They disappear down the hall, and their new companions step in, shutting the door behind them.
“Hi,” the girl greets, sitting beside Nadia. “Don’t let them scare you too much. They pick on first years because you guys don’t know yet that they’re all bark and no bite. My name’s Violetta.”
“Zack,” the boy says, nodding at them both.
Jason and Nadia introduce themselves, and when the snack cart comes by, Zack and Violetta teach them about wizard candy.
“So what’s Hogwarts like?” Nadia asks, holding a wriggling chocolate frog. “What’ll happen when we get there?”
“You’ll get sorted.” Zack inspects a jellybean—well, a Bertie Botts bean—before he puts it in his mouth and smiles, relieved. “You’ll go up in front of the Hall with the rest of the first years, and McGonagall’ll put the Hat on you, and it’ll yell out what House you’re in, and then you’ll go sit with your House.”
Nadia and Jason exchange glances. The subject of them being in different Houses has come up, and even Nadia isn’t too excited about getting split up.
“Do they put siblings in the same house?” Jason asks, looking hopefully between them. Violetta shakes her head.
“Depends. It’s all about your personality. Each House has its traits. Gryffindor, you’re brave. Ravenclaw, you’re smart. Hufflepuff, you’re brilliant,” she says with a bright smile, and points at herself. “Slytherin, you’re…”
Zack smirks and tilts his head back, tossing a bean into his mouth. He comes up choking. “That was not cherry.”
“What about Slytherin?” Nadia prompts while Jason gingerly pats Zack on the shoulder.
“Well… They say that Slytherin’s for the ambitious, but… Most Slytherins I know are jerks.” She nods her head toward the door. “Those were Slytherins.”
Jason’s stomach sinks as he realizes just what house his parents would like him to be in. He looks to the door again, frowning.
“Hey, don’t worry,” Zack says, nudging Jason’s shoulder. “You don’t look like Slytherin material to me. Other than that, the other Houses are great. I’m in Ravenclaw. I’ve got some friends in Gryffindor, so if you get Sorted there, you won’t be totally alone, I swear.”
That hadn’t been what Jason was afraid of, but he smiles gratefully as Violetta again reassures them both that no matter what, they’ll find people they like at Hogwarts. They keep talking about magic and classes and professors, and they show off some spells, but Jason can’t stop worrying about this Sorting business.
When they get close to Hogwarts, Zack and Violetta leave to get changed, and Jason and Nadia put their robes on. Nadia’s face is flushed with excitement when they sit again, and she fiddles with her wand, waving it in the air. Jason eats a chocolate frog and slouches in his seat—something else his father hates.
“What if we don’t—“
“Shut up,” she cuts him off swiftly and kicks him lightly from across the aisle. “It’s not like we won’t see each other.” Jason nods and looks out the window, but Nadia knows him better than that.
“I don’t think you’ll get Slytherin,” she says quietly. Jason shrugs. “You aren’t like that, though.”
“Dad would want me to get Slytherin.” His voice is heavy, and he rips open another chocolate frog, leaning forward to catch it in a firm grip.
“Dad doesn’t know what Slytherin even means.” He looks sharply up at her. “What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him, right? He doesn’t know Slytherin from a… a Slughorn. Just tell him what house you get and don’t go into why or what it means.”
Jason purses his lips but finally nods, approving this idea, and Nadia kicks him again, and somehow it’s affectionate.
“Now stop being so grumpy. Jesus, Jason, we’re going to freaking wizard school. Smile. I know Dad wouldn’t want you to, but…”
When Jason kicks her back, they both start to laugh, and Zack and Violetta come back with Zack’s Gryffindor friend. The rest of the ride passes by smoothly, with no more talk of Slytherin, until the train chugs slowly to a stop. Jason and Nadia go with the rest of the first years, keeping close together, as a massive thing of a man rows them across a massive thing of a lake. It’s a little comforting to be around other people who have never been here before. In the boat they meet two more people who were Muggles, and they sit through the boat ride making comments, always with the undertone can you believe this is real?
The castle is bigger than Jason could have dreamed; Nadia’s bruising his wrist, but he’s grateful to be reminded that his feet are on the ground, that this isn’t a dream or a movie or a prank, because his mind keeps falling back on that as the only way any of this could be happening.
“The ceiling!” Nadia hisses in his ear when they get into the Great Hall, and Jason raises his eyes to find a mirror of the sky they’d just left, with the same cloud half-covering the moon that Jason had noticed outside because it looked almost like a hat.
All eyes are on them and Jason is painfully aware of that fact as they come to a stop at the front of a massive room. There are far more students than he’d expected, and the table full of professors, trying to appear benign, only make Jason fidget uncomfortably. How could he be the best here when he has no idea what he’s doing?
The no-nonsense-looking teacher who had led them there brings out a ratty hat and sets it on the stool, and before Jason has a chance to ask Nadia how the Sorting goes again, it starts to sing. Jason misses half of what it says, too busy watching it sing, wondering where the sound comes from. He catches bits and pieces, reiterating what Zack and Violetta had said about the houses on the train. Jason’s stomach clenches uncomfortably when it comes to Slytherin.
He hasn’t given a lot of thought to what house he does want to be in. Nadia wants Gryffindor, he thinks, because its mascot is a lion. Jason wouldn’t mind Gryffindor at all, but Zack’s blue and gold tie keeps coming into his mind. How anyone can be the best at being brave, Jason isn’t sure, but being the best academically? There’s a system to that.
He watches the line get smaller as people get called off to their table; the welcome they receive is certainly warm, but Jason keeps watching the Slytherin table uncomfortably. When his name is called, the students from the train roll their eyes and start to talk amongst themselves.
Nadia smiles at Jason when he glances back at her, and then Jason is being brought forward a little impatiently by the severe teacher. The Hat sits patiently—can hats be patient?—and Jason thinks his stomach might fall out. Do those frogs keep moving after you eat them? He feels unpleasantly ill, and then he’s sitting on the stool, and the hat goes over his head, and everything is dark.
“There’s a great mind here, oh yes. Hm…” it says, echoing inside Jason’s head and giving Jason a start. It trails off for a moment and Jason thinks it’s nearly over, hopes it’s nearly over, but then it starts again. “And a great thirst to prove oneself. There’s a lot of ambition here, a lot of potential…”
Oh no, Jason thinks miserably. Oh no. Not Slytherin. I knew it.
“Not Slytherin?” the Hat asks, and Jason starts again; he didn’t know it could hear him think. “But Slytherin could be very useful to you; a lot of ambitious souls have found their success there.”
Please, he thinks, desperate to convince the hat otherwise. I don’t think I’d like it. I don’t think… I want it. The boldness of his confession unnerves him, and the Hat seems to notice.
“Hm,” it murmurs, apparently thinking, and Jason wishes he could hear its thoughts. “Very well. If it’s not Slytherin, then it’ll have to be RAVENCLAW!”
Jason’s head is still ringing when the severe teacher lifts the hat from his head, and Jason sees Zack excitedly waving him over. Jason makes his way toward the table, but he nearly stumbles as he keeps twisting around to watch Nadia. She gives him a thumbs up, and he returns it, though he knows now that they won’t be going in the same house. He sits, still numb, and awkwardly tries to return the enthusiasm to the others at the table as Nadia approaches the hat.
He has no idea how long his Sorting lasted, but Nadia’s seems much quicker. The hat is screaming “GRYFFINDOR!” before Jason has a chance to wonder what it’s saying, and Nadia bounds off for her table with a furtive glance back at Jason.
The food appears, and the chatter begins in earnest, and Jason meets Zack’s other friends as he eats food both familiar and not, though his appetite isn’t as strong as it could be. The rest of the meal passes by in a blur, a flurry of food and faces and a funny speech, and then they’re being shuttled through a strange and twisting castle.
“Why do we have to live in a tower?” Jason asks at one point, and Zack laughs comfortingly.
He rooms with one of the former Muggles he’d met on the boat, and a few others he’d chatted with at dinner, though he finds himself missing Zack almost as much as Nadia. He’s all too relieved to close the curtains around his bed that night, closing out the noise and conversation, and give himself time to absorb everything that happened.
He’d nearly gotten into Slytherin. His stomach turns uncomfortably at the thought, and even more uncomfortably when he remembers how he said he didn’t want it. Maybe he meant that he didn’t want that house, which is true enough, but when the hat was talking about his ambition, and getting where he wanted to go…
Jason fingers the blue bed curtains, thinks of his new Ravenclaw robes in his trunk and the piles of books in their common room. Zack said theirs was the only common room that opened by riddle, and though Jason wonders what he’d do if he ever couldn’t figure it out, he can’t help but think how cool that is.
He won’t tell his father about Slytherin, and Jason still isn’t sure the hat was right, but as he turns on his side and settles into bed, he’s glad for its answer, no matter the reason. Nadia’s voice comes back to him as he closes his eyes.
Jesus, Jason, we’re going to freaking wizard school. Smile.