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A House of a Different Color

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Looking up into a ceiling full of stars and floating candles was disconcerting, but not as disconcerting as looking into the faces of all the staring, curious older students, so Hannah Abbott kept her gaze fixed determinedly upwards. She was nervous enough without meeting the eyes of any watchers. When the Sorting Hat finished its song she clapped along with everyone else, but she’d hardly been able to pay attention to its words for the twisting in her stomach.

When Professor McGonagall stepped forward holding a long roll of parchment and said, “When I call your name you will put on the hat and sit on the stool to be sorted,” Hannah’s stomach did a little flip, but when the stern-faced witch followed that statement by reading off, “Abbott, Hannah!” her guts twisted so badly she feared she might throw-up.

Swallowing hard she stepped forward, tripped a little on the hem on her robes—“Get them a little long, dear,” her mother had told her, “that way you won’t have to worry about charming them to fit when you grow”—and made it onto the stool without vomiting or dying of embarrassment. The hat dropped over her eyes and Hannah was grateful; from how hot her face felt she was sure she was blushing terribly and she was glad to hide from everyone’s stares.

Hannah hadn’t realized that she would be the first to be called. That wasn’t fair, couldn’t Professor McGonagall have asked for volunteers instead? Surely someone bolder would have put their hand up if she had, and then they could have been the first to put on the hat, not her. What if she did something wrong? What if she’d already done something wrong and didn’t know it?

Before her nerves could swallow her completely, Hannah was startled to hear a voice in her head: “Strong loyalties, I see…and a great belief in justice…but anxiety isn’t the same thing as cowardice, is it? No, there’s quite a lot of courage in there hidden under all those strained nerves. Yes, I think perhaps the best place for you will be…GRYFFINDOR!”

The final word was shouted aloud to the whole hall, which erupted in cheers. Hannah gave a little squeak when she realized that she had just been sorted and she lifted the hat off her eyes with shaking hands. She used the excuse of setting it down neatly on the stool to give herself a moment to turn her back and try to compose herself, but it didn’t work. She was still shaking—and blushing—when she staggered to the Gryffindor Table. She knew it had to be the Gryffindor Table because everyone there was cheering the loudest, waving her over, and pointing her toward empty seats. The ghost with the big ruff around his neck beamed at her and said, “Welcome, welcome!”

Trying not to meet anyone’s eyes—living or dead—Hannah ducked her head and walked very quickly to the nearest open spot on the bench. People slapped her back, shook her hand, smiled at her; Hannah forced herself to smile back as she clenched her fingers under the table and hoped she wasn’t going to faint. She barely heard Professor McGonagall calling the next name—“Bones, Susan!”—but she heard the cheers when the girl was sent to Ravenclaw, her long pigtail bouncing behind her.

Glad to no longer be the center of attention, Hannah turned around so she could watch the rest of the Sorting. Perhaps there was one good thing about going first: now she was done, and could stop worrying. When Millicent Bulstrode—a tall, black-haired girl who kept her chin raised proudly—lifted the hat off her head to another shout of, “GRYFFINDOR!” Hannah clapped along with the rest of her new housemates. She smiled in what she hoped looked like a welcoming manner as Millicent, looking a little dazed, slid onto the bench next to her, but Millicent said nothing; just turned around to watch the rest of the first years troop one by one up to tall stool.

Hannah turned with her. She clapped dutifully after each Sorting and did her best to give her fellow Gryffindors an encouraging welcome. While many looked nervous or drained after being sorted, a few students beamed, or bowed, or grinned, as though they hadn’t a care in the world. Hannah envied them and wished she knew what that felt like. Her father liked to joke that she cared too much for her own good, but right now it didn’t feel like a joke; right now, Hannah would have given anything to stop caring—to stop fretting. She didn't feel brave, and she didn't feel like she belonged in Gryffindor.

At first when Vincent Crabbe had come to sit next to Millicent, Hannah had wondered wildly if she really had been sorted into the wrong House; she knew that Gryffindors were supposed to be brave, and she had worried that large builds and strong muscles went along with that, but when chubby, curly-haired Justin Finch-Fletchly came to join them, she’d relaxed again—a little bit. He looked a lot more confident in himself than Hannah felt, but at least he didn’t look like he could wrestle trolls and win.

She returned Justin’s enthusiastic handshake with a weak squeeze of her own and a tremulous smile, then turned again to face the stool and the Sorting.

After nearly a minute’s debate, the Sorting Hat sent the Hufflepuffs their first new student: Seams Finnigan, a short sandy-haired boy who spread his arms wide in greeting as he walked to his energetically-cheering table, as though he intended to greet them all with one big hug. Two more boys followed him: a skinny one with a big nose and a larger one with sloping gorilla-like arms. Then Professor McGonagall called up the girl who had been muttering spells under her breath while they’d been waiting in the entrance hall—“Granger, Hermione.”

She almost ran to get to the stool and jammed the hat down over her thick mane of bushy brown hair. There was a pause, and then: “RAVENCLAW!” shouted the hat. Hannah wasn’t surprised.

After Hermione, the Hufflepuffs got their first girl: Daphne Greengrass, who held her nose in the air when she walked. The ribbon holding her dark curls out of her face had almost slipped free and one of the older students caught it as Daphne sat down. He retied it for her as the first year girl blushed a furious red. Hannah winced on her behalf and nervously checked to make sure her own pigtails were still tidy—or as tidy as they could be after a day-long train ride, anyway.

For a long time no further Gryffindors were called, and for Hannah the next few names and faces passed in a blur. The only standout was Neville Longbottom, a round-faced boy who sat on the stool for a long time before the hat finally sent him to Hufflepuff. He ran off still wearing the hat, and had to jog back amid gales of laughter to give it to “MacDougal, Morag.”

She was followed by a whole group of Ravenclaws. Hannah wasn’t the only one who started to squirm as one by one each student called went to sit at the table next to hers. When a pug-nosed girl with short black hair broke the streak by going to Hufflepuff, several people breathed a sigh of relief. What if the hat had gotten stuck, and they had to do part—or all—of the Sorting over again? Hannah didn’t think she could bear that, and from the way the five newest Ravenclaws sagged with relief, she didn’t think she was the only one who had been worried.

The next two girls called went to Hufflepuff as well, but they looked so much alike that they had to be twins and Hannah knew that families were often sorted together, so that didn’t worry her. Still, when the Sorting Hat at last shouted “GRYFFINDOR!” again, she cheered the loudest she had all night for Sally-Anne Perks, and waved the girl eagerly into a seat next to her.

The very next name caught the attention of the whole room: “Potter, Harry!”

A gangly boy with glasses and messy black hair stepped forward from the line of remaining first years. Everyone craned their necks to look at him and whispers broke out like little hissing fires all over the hall.

Potter, did she say?”

The Harry Potter?”

The hat dropped over Harry Potter’s eyes, but that didn’t stop everyone from staring at him. Hannah thought he looked a little bit like the last two Hufflepuffs, and wondered if the Potters were related to the Patils. He was a little paler though, and not as pretty, and their hair looked much neater than the untidy black locks currently concealed underneath the Sorting Hat. He certainly didn’t look like what she had imagined The Boy Who Lived looking—although what she had imagined, she couldn’t say.

After what felt like an eternity—but probably was no more than a minute or two—the Sorting Hat shouted, “SLYTHERIN!” and Harry Potter emerged from beneath the hat. He looked shaken, drained, and not particularly happy. His new housemates, however, were ecstatic. Several jumped to their feet to applaud and so many people leaned across one another to try and shake Harry’s hand that they knocked a whole bench over. The noise only abated when a tall, black-haired teacher stood up and banged his hand on the staff table for silence.

The Slytherins settled down, beaming and preening, and those close enough to Harry kept leaning over to whisper at him in between sortings—introducing themselves probably, Hannah suspected, although how they expected Harry Potter to remember so many unfamiliar names all at once she had no idea.

She felt a little sorry for the next two students sorted—“Rivers!” and “Roper!”—who must have thought their own welcomes to Slytherin somewhat anticlimactic in comparison, although if they minded it didn’t show in their smiles. Then “Runcorn!” came to the Gryffindor table, and “Smith!” back to Slytherin, and “Thomas!” to Hufflepuff. Hannah’s stomach rumbled and she blushed so hard that she almost missed welcoming Lisa Turpin when the wiry girl sat down across from her. Fortunately there were only two more students in line at that point—“Weasley, Ron!” and “Zabini, Blaise!”—and then the sorting was over at last. Professor McGonagall rolled up her scroll and carried the tattered old hat away.

A tall, silver-haired and -bearded man in beautifully embroidered robes, who had to be the headmaster, stood up from his gold chair at the center of the High Table. “Welcome!” Albus Dumbledore said to them all. “Welcome to a new year at Hogwarts! Before we begin our banquet, I would like to say a few words.” Hannah’s spirits sank; she was starving, and she knew that if the headmaster gave a long speech, her stomach would embarrass her again by making more noisy complaints. But Dumbledore said only, “And here they are: Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak! Thank you!”

Then he sat back down. A few people laughed while they clapped but Hannah just cheered, relieved. The dishes in front of them were now piled with scrumptious, steaming food and for once Hannah didn’t hesitate before helping herself to a heaping spoonful from the nearest bowl. All around her the other Gryffindors were dishing generous helpings onto their own plates, chatting with one another as they ate.

Hannah said nothing, feeling shy and out-of-place. She wasn’t used to being around so many people she didn’t know, and she wasn’t sure how to go about trying to make friends with her new housemates. The older students all knew each other already, and the cacophonous babble of their talk washed over her ears like an avalanche. Would anyone even hear her if she tried to speak?

Then Terry Boot, a light-skinned black boy, leaned across the table and said, “I like your name.” He had a lilting Scottish accent and a shockingly intense collection of freckles on his round cheeks.

Hannah frowned uncertainly. “Um…thank you?” she said.

Terry nodded. “Yeah,” he said, and grinned mischievously. “I’d have hated to have to go first. I’m glad abbots come earlier in the alphabet than boots. I was about to ask to have my name changed to Shoe, just to dodge the perils of alphabetical order.”

Hannah couldn’t help herself; she laughed.

When the last of the students finally gave up and put their fork down—Hannah had been forced to stop eating several minutes ago, fearing that she might actually burst, although she had continued to pick idly at the bits of potato and onion on her plate just because they were so tasty—the remains of the food vanished. The golden plates were left as clean and shining as if they had been freshly washed and dried and Hannah raised her eyebrows a little bit, impressed. Then her jaw dropped as the desserts appeared. Blocks of ice cream in every flavor you could think of, apple pies, treacle tarts, chocolate éclairs and jam doughnuts, trifle, strawberries, Jell-O, rice pudding….

Hannah had thought she was full, but she changed her mind and helped herself to an éclair.

At last the desserts too disappeared, and Professor Dumbledore got to his feet again. The hall fell silent.

“Ahem—just a few more words now that we are all fed and watered. I have a few start-of-term notices to give you.” Hannah tried not to let her attention wander, but she was very pleasantly full of food and starting to yawn after her long day. She ducked her face down behind her hands and hoped no one thought she was being rude by hiding while the headmaster rambled on about school rules and regulations. Then Dumbledore said something that drove her sleepiness away with a jolt: “Finally, I must tell you that this year, the third-floor corridor on the right-hand side is out of bounds to everyone who does not wish to die a very painful death.”

A few people laughed but most, like Hannah, just stared. She lowered her hands slowly, feeling horror trickle up her spine. Heads leaned sideways, students not wanting to take their eyes away from the headmaster as they whispered to one another. Next to her, Hannah heard Sally-Anne mutter, “He must be joking, though,” but Hannah thought she didn’t sound very sure of herself.

“And now, before we go to bed, let us sing the school song!” cried Dumbledore, as though he had said nothing at all out of the ordinary. Hannah noticed that the other teachers’ smiles had become rather fixed. She wondered if that was a reaction to his statement about the third floor, or if they just weren't fond of singing. Hannah herself sang very rarely, and never in front of other people, being that she was insecure about her wobbly voice and imperfect pitch.

Dumbledore gave his wand a little flick, as if he was trying to get a fly off the end, and a long golden ribbon flew out of it, which rose high above the tables and twisted itself, snakelike, into words.

“Everyone pick their favorite tune,” said Dumbledore, “and off we go!”

Hannah looked up at the gleaming words and sang along dutifully. It was a strange, discordant noise that filled the Great Hall, what with everyone singing something different all at the same time. The last to finish were two identical red-haired boys at the Slytherin table. They had for some reason chosen to sing a very slow funeral march. Dumbledore conducted their last few lines with his wand and when they had finished, he was one of those who clapped loudest.

“Ah, music,” he said, wiping his eyes. “A magic beyond all we do here! And now, bedtime. Off you trot!”

Hannah rose with the other Gryffindors and followed along as her housemates trooped out of the Great Hall and up the marble staircase. She ducked her head and looked away from the watching portraits as they whispered and pointed. Twice they went through doorways hidden behind sliding panels and hanging tapestries and Hannah was soon quite properly lost. She hoped nobody expected her to be able to remember their route tomorrow.

She was so tired that she barely flinched at the arrival of the school’s poltergeist and his floating walking sticks, although when those started flinging themselves at the tall student standing at the front of their group, she ducked along with everyone else. The prefect who had been leading them caught one of the sticks before it could hit her and she shook it angrily while she scolded Peeves. He finally left when he was threatened with the Bloody Baron—whatever that was, Hannah didn’t want to know!—and they all walked a little faster until they came to a large portrait at the end of the corridor.

A very fat woman in a pink silk dress watched them from the ornate frame. Hannah thought she looked welcoming and kind, but after Peeves, almost anyone would have. “Password?” she asked.

“Caput Draconis,” said the prefect, and the portrait swung forward to reveal a round hole in the wall. They all scrambled through it—Hannah almost tripping over her robes before Millicent steadied her—and found themselves in the Gryffindor common room, a cozy, round room full of squashy armchairs. Its curved stone walls were covered with heavy tapestries and bright hangings, with two wooden doors on the opposite side of the room.

Hannah and the other girls took the door to their dormitory up to the top of a spiral staircase and there they found their beds at last. By this time Hannah was yawning so hard she could barely muster the energy to find the pajamas she had packed in her trunk, and the girls all climbed into bed without talking much. Hannah fell asleep almost at once.