Carefully packed into his trunk: the most recent photo of the twins, cooing and waving their pudgy arms, stolen from his mother’s dresser before she noticed; one of Veronica’s old Gryffindor sweaters, the too-big kind she wears when she’s upset and that Lance stole the year before and wore around the house like it would make him taller, older, better; his spellbooks, his wand, his robes that were once Marco’s, his ties that will shift colour when he’s sorted, his cauldron, his favourite pyjamas.
In the end, it’s not as heavy as he thought and he runs through his list in his mind until he’s half-sure he hasn’t forgotten anything.
Lance is eleven-years-old. He tacks his letter to his bedroom door and reads it every day.
He is on the brink of being his best self.
Lance throws himself at Hunk in the shadow of the Hogwarts Express. He hoots. He hollers. Hunk catches him with an ‘oof’ and they wobble.
“Happy September 1!” he yells.
“I’m going to let you go now,” Hunk says.
Lance says a hurried goodbye to his parents. Veronica warns him he’ll regret that later but Lance is already pretending he doesn’t know her. He and Marco get the trunks onto the train and then it’s Marco who pushes him back towards their teary-eyed mother. She clutches one of the twins and kisses Lance twice. Luis pats his head and then musses his hair. Marco steps out of reach while Lance squawks. Rachel coos at the other twin and then finally hands them back to their mother.
Lance still can’t tell them apart. Babies are babies. Luis’s are cute, though.
When Lance turns around, Hunk is still saying goodbye to his parents. It’s Lance’s impatience that tears him away and they board the train together.
“Behave,” Marco teases and taps his Head Boy badge.
Lance thinks it’s offensive that he’s already wearing it.
He blows a raspberry at Marco and drags Hunk down the train. He opens compartment after compartment and greets people he doesn’t know. Hunk grows increasingly embarrassed. Lance doesn’t mind.
He slides open his tenth compartment and Marco is yelling his name from further down and a boy, sitting on his hands, looks up at Lance and blinks. He’s all alone in the compartment. Lance pauses. It’s easy to tell the first-years from the rest of the students: they’re either excitable, like Lance; or nervous, like Hunk.
This boy sits perfectly still and blinks some more. He frowns. “Can I help you?”
Lance is tugged away before he can reply. “Come on,” Hunk is saying. “There’s a spot over here where we can see our parents.”
The ‘spot’ is the same compartment Rachel is sharing with her friends and Lance is outraged but he lets himself be dragged in and doesn’t think about the boy for the rest of the ride.
Luis was a Gryffindor. Marco is an eager Slytherin. Rachel, Ravenclaw. Veronica, also Gryffindor. If Lance could pick, he would pick Gryffindor.
“I’m brave,” he tells his dad. “I’m—smart, too. But! I’m brave.”
His dad huffs a laugh but that laugh becomes a cough and the nurses make Lance leave the room. Lance’s dad was a Gryffindor.
Lance feels good in his robes. He wonders if he should be embarrassed at his hand-me-downs but there’s something exciting about knowing that Marco wore these, too, and that Marco is now successful and happy.
“Good luck!” Rachel calls as Hunk and Lance are ushered away with the other first-years. “Don’t fall in the Lake!”
“What!” Hunk squawks but Lance drags him away.
They share their boat with a nervous girl with long hair and a scowling boy who, eventually, gets as motion-sick—seasick—lake-sick?—as Hunk. Hunk doesn’t throw up and Lance is very proud of him.
Lance wants to be one of the first up the stairs but his breath catches in his throat and his heart throbs in his chest. He touches his tie. He feels the cold evening air on his face. He looks up at the castle.
“Lance?” Hunk says.
“I’m coming,” Lance manages.
He doesn’t move.
Hunk looks at him. He tilts his head. Then, he holds out his hand and Lance takes it without hesitation and for a few minutes they are little kids again and Lance really does feel brave. They let go when some of the other kids look at them, but Lance is grateful and tries to show it in his smile.
Hunk returns it, shaky but bright, and they troop up the steps together.
It wouldn’t be so bad to be in Slytherin, either. The house gets a bad rep. Marco deals with it. He shrugs it off. He’s still himself, from day one, just in green and Lance really admires that. He admires that Marco is a go-getter, that Marco sees what he wants and he snatches it up, that Marco aims ever higher. He’d like to be like that. He knows Marco would have his back in Slytherin.
Ravenclaw—he doesn’t fit. At least, he doesn’t think so. He loves to read with Rachel, though, in the summer. He likes to watch her study when he can because Rachel is methodical, detail-oriented. She’s sociable but she prefers her books and she prefers her wandwork. Marco and Luis say that she should be prouder of her charms performance but Rachel prefers to keep working hard. Rachel is protective. They are the closest in age but not in heart but Lance still knows that Rachel would be his guide and his friend in Ravenclaw. He thinks Hunk will be a Ravenclaw.
But Gryffindor? That’s where he belongs. The house of his oldest brother, of his parents. Veronica’s there, too. They have a legacy and Lance has daydreams of playing Chaser and wearing the Gryffindor scarlet. He knows Veronica’s friends and classmates. He sees the community he could have already. He hears their hooting and hollering as the first-years parade into the Great Hall.
Names start rolling. Lance forgets how the alphabet works, realizes they aren’t being called up in alphabetical order. His stomach twists and shrieks. He straightens his tie but makes it messier.
The first is the quivery boy from their boat. Ravenclaw.
Gryffindor. Three Slytherins in a row. Another Gryffindor.
Hunk goes. It takes a long, long time, but—Ravenclaw.
And then Lance.
He’s sweating. He’s petrified. He’s thinking about throwing up. He grins and he sits on the stool with a clumsy flourish. Professor Montgomery sets the hat on his head and it sinks right over his eyes.
Yes, I know you.
I know of you. Tell me, little one—
I’m not little.
No, no. You’re right. Where do I put you, Lance?
I’m brave. And—I can be braver.
And so determined. You don’t back down from a challenge, do you? You can overcome anything, if you put your mind to it. Yes—don’t be afraid, Lance.
I’m not afraid.
Fear isn’t weakness.
The Hufflepuff table cheers. Lance is the first sorted to their house. Professor Montgomery lifts the hat from his hand. Lance doesn’t move.
“Go ahead,” Professor Montgomery prods. She puts a gentle hand on his back.
Lance remembers how his legs work. He stumbles towards the Hufflepuff table and he sits, or drops into a seat. He’s afraid to look down, to see his own crooked, yellow tie.
If he looks up, he’ll be able to see Marco at the Slytherin table in his gleaming Head Boy badge. If he turns around, he might be able to reach out and grab at the back of Rachel’s robes or get a high-five from Hunk. The Gryffindor table, and Veronica, are too far away for him to see.
“Don’t worry,” says the boy next to Lance. “It took a long time for me, too.”
A long time? How long had he been sitting there with that hat on his head, with its voice in his brain?
Lance nods. He mutters: “Thank you.”
He forces himself to look up.
The next student is a Gryffindor. The Gryffindor table roars.
Lance sucks in a long breath and he stills.
Another Slytherin. Nobody misses the way Professor Montgomery’s eyebrows go up. The pool of first-years is getting smaller and smaller.
Finally, there’s another Hufflepuff. The hat barely touches the girl’s head and then she’s dashing towards their table. Then, another. A trembling kid with glasses too big for their face.
The next boy up is familiar. It takes Lance a moment to recognize him from the train. He’s so pale he seems to shine. Lance wonders if he’s going to pass out and then the boy scowls and sits and the Sorting Hat is dropped onto his head. This is the first time Lance hears Keith’s name and he has a hard time pinning it to the boy up front.
The Hall is quiet. At least, for a little while. Just as Lance starts to shift impatiently, a low buzz of noise starts and slowly builds. He doesn’t understand why anyone bothers to whisper. On the stool, Keith drums his fingers against the stool. One of his legs bounces.
“Wow,” says the boy from before, leaning down to whisper to Lance. “This is taking even longer than you!”
Lance isn’t sure how to take that.
He starts to think about all the things he knows about Hufflepuff: patient, loyal, hard-working...inclusive.
Kind of a dumping ground, isn’t it ? Rachel mutters in a memory. Marco’s anger erupts, he can’t take this kind of interhouse insult. But he doesn’t correct her.
Maybe when the Sorting Hat can’t decide it puts someone in Hufflepuff. Lance’s gut clenches. He’s cold all over. He stares at Keith’s knees and he thinks: at least it’s not just me .
And then: “GRYFFINDOR!”
Professor Montgomery pulls the hat from Keith’s head. He looks dazed but stands and makes his stiff way over to the far table. Lance imagines he can hear Veronica hooting.
Tumultuous, aren’t we? How odd you are—overwhelmed, I think.
You’re ambitious. You’re fiery. Fierce. Too young to understand what is happening to you, too old not to build walls.
I feel your fear. Try to strangle it and it will come back harsher, and louder. Like a monster in your veins. You need to learn patience, and focus.
Put me somewhere. Anywhere.
Are they looking at you?
I am so glad to meet you, little one .
I’m not little.
I think you’d look good in red.
There are three beds waiting in the dormitory.
Ryan throws himself onto one without waiting for Lance and Nicolas (“ Not Nick ,” he had insisted). He groans. It’s the most Lance has heard him say yet.
Nicolas shrugs and takes the bed furthest from Ryan. This leaves Lance in the middle. He eyes the bed for a moment, rocks through his sudden bout of homesickness, and then nods to himself and scrambles onto the bed. He lays back and looks up at the star-studded canopy, the deep blue of it and the warm comfort of the bed underneath him. When he blinks, he sees the stars against his eyelids and the plaque on their door reading FIRST YEAR BOYS.
Three boys, three girls. Lance is one of only six Hufflepuffs this year.
He sits up when Nicolas lets out a surprised gasp. The three of them lean over the end of their beds and Lance laughs, delight eating away at his disappointment, when he sees his own trunk at the end of his bed. He and Ryan and Nicolas chatter and bicker and become fast friends as they rifle through their luggage and do a poor job of unpacking. At one point they get loud enough that a third year stomps down the stairs and kicks open their door and yells for them to go to bed, and then the prefect comes from his dormitory and tells all of them to go to bed.
It takes Lance a long time to fall asleep. He squirms and he drags his fingers against his sheets and he rolls onto his stomach and he rolls onto his back and then his side.
“Are you okay?” Ryan whispers at one point.
“Uh huh,” Lance says.
Ryan goes back to sleep.
Eventually, the excitement of the day wins out and Lance falls asleep and dreams about the Sorting Hat, and his father at St Mungo’s with his hands clenched on his knees. The Sorting Hat tells him: “You might never get better.” And Lance’s father says: “I’ll try anyways.”
Because Lance’s father is brave.
In the morning, Lance’s cloak has a lining of yellow that looks almost gold. He’s awake before Nicolas and Ryan, and he tries to be quiet while he rifles through his trunk for his letter set, his quill and his ink, his most comfortable pair of socks. He wants to go somewhere secret in the castle, or on the grounds, and write a letter home. He’s already trying to think of a way to sound pleased, or unsurprised, or something, when he scrambles out of the warmth of the Hufflepuff common room and sees Marco sitting on the floor across the hall.
The smell from the kitchens makes Lance’s mouth water.
“You’re lost,” Lance decides, coming to stand in front of his brother.
“I was waiting for you,” Marco scoffs.
“How’d you know where I was!”
“I know everything,” Marco replies with a wave of his hand. He hoists himself to his feet. “I brought chocolate.”
“It’s the morning.”
“There are no rules about chocolate when you’re at Hogwarts.”
“Liar,” Lance says, but holds his hand out anyways. Marco gives him two chocolate frogs and leads the way down the hall and up the stairs and Lance fiddles with the packages to try and see the cards.
The Great Hall is mostly empty when they arrive. Marco, without shame or a second thought, drops into a spot at the Hufflepuff table and leans his elbows on it. Lance joins him, a little slowly, and clutches his chocolate frogs.
He blinks, and the plates and trays just in front of them fill with sausages and bright eggs and pancakes piled high. There’s something warm in the pitcher in front of Marco that makes him hum and grin and pour too much into a goblet.
“Coffee,” he tells Lance, like it’s a secret.
“‘kay,” Lance says.
“One day, you’ll understand.”
“I will not.”
Marco shrugs and downs half the goblet like he doesn’t care how hot it is. Lance rolls his eyes and tears into one of the chocolate frogs and they catch it together when it tries to escape. Lance bites the head of with gusto and flips over his new card.
He shows Marco. Marco scowls.
They pile their plates high with pancakes and sausage and Lance finds hot chocolate to his right and a delicious maple butter in front of him and he starts to relax, with his brother next to him and breakfast wonderful in his belly. He starts to forget to be hyperware of the yellow above and around them and lining his cloak. He starts to forget that Marco, silly Marco, shouldn’t be here, at this table.
“Feel better?” Marco asks after his third coffee.
Lance scoffs. “I’ve been great all day!”
“It’s, like, seven in the morning.”
“I’ve been great all morning!”
Marco rolls his eyes and leans back on one elbow to look at Lance. He blinks, once and then again, and he says: “Rachel and I are oddballs too, you know.”
Lance squints at him.
“Luis and Veronica are the only ones who got it right,” Marco continues. It takes a moment for Lance to hear the joke in his voice, the levity.
“Neither of you are Hufflepuffs,” Lance says.
“And what’s wrong with Hufflepuff?”
Lance opens his mouth, and then closes it. He doesn’t want to say that he’s worried he’s in the house for misfits, for the unfit, for the wrong-sized pieces of the Hogwarts puzzle.
Marco knows, anyways. And he smiles. “I’m in the house everyone associates with evil doers, yeah?”
“You do do a lot of evil.”
“Just listen,” Marco says and pokes Lance in the side. Lance snickers, but stills. “Luis, and mom, and dad, even Lisa, all in Gryffindor. And here I am, suddenly sent to Slytherin. I was terrified.” He pauses. “I wanted to run away.”
Lance nibbles at a sausage and frowns at his brother and feels his stomach flip over. Marco, to him, is always so sure and unafraid in his own Marco way. Marco reaches for the heavens and scrapes his fingers at the edges of the clouds and looks back to say I can go higher .
Lance never wants to say the words out loud, but he wishes he was a little more like his brothers. Both of them.
“You know what Luis told me?” Marco says.
“Don’t run away?”
“He said: get to work.”
“Get to work,” Lance echoes. “Ugh.”
“Exactly,” Marco says with a flourish under his voice. “Ugh.”
Lance looks back at his mostly-empty plate. He finishes his sausage and pierces another on his fork and nibbles at that, too. His second chocolate frog sits to his right, and his brother goes back to munching away to his left, and the morning carries on and on.
“Hufflepuffs,” Marco says. “They’re yellow and black.”
“Badgers,” Lance adds.
“Loyal,” Marco says. He nudges Lance’s shoulder. “Patient.”
“Hard-working,” Lance finishes.
They look at each other again, smiling. “You’re going to be great,” Marco says after a moment, more sincere than Lance has ever heard him before.
“Great,” Lance says with a sniff. “I’m going to be the best Hufflepuff in the history of Hogwarts.”
“How is anyone going to measure that?”
“They’ll just know!”
His letter home is cheerful. He admits it wasn’t what he wanted, what he expected, but he admits, too, that he likes the yellow-gold of his house’s colours, and he likes his housemates, and he likes the cozy common room. He finishes his letter by promising to work hard and write often, and he admits to his mother he stole her treasured picture of the twins.
And then he unpacks his trunk properly, Veronica’s old sweater and all.