"D'you reckon we can do magic on the train?" Harry asked, pulling out the apparently blank piece of parchment that James had given him. "I mean, is it part of Hogwarts, so it's not underage magic?"
"I don't know," Neville said.
"I'd have tried it earlier, but it… er… set off an alarm, and Dad took my wand until this morning."
"Then I guess if it doesn't set off an alarm, it's all right."
"And if it's not, I guess Dad can't just Apparate onto the train…"
There was a tap at the door, and then the muffled sound of someone yelling, "Oh, very funny, Fred!"
Harry pushed the parchment hurriedly under his cloak then said, "Come on in, Ron."
Ron Weasley, shaking his head furiously, backed into the compartment, dragging his trunk. His robes seemed to be on their last few threads, no matter how good his mother was at repairing things, and his trunk looked about a hundred years old. The wand clasped in his fist was splintery and had deep finger marks in it. The trunk suddenly rose up on little cat feet and bumped the back of his knees.
He raised the wand and pointed it down the corridor, but apparently chose to give up when a voice further down cried, "Go on, give it a try, Ronniekins!"
"My brothers," he said through gritted teeth. "They hexed my trunk."
"Then magic is allowed on the train!" Harry said.
"Yeah, I guess. Why?"
Harry raised his wand at Ron's trunk and said, "Finite incantatem."
The legs disappeared and the trunk settled down.
Ron's eyebrows went up. "Not half bad! I should've tried that. I've heard it a hundred times, too."
"Harry's dad was just telling us about it," Neville said. "We have it on the brain."
Harry bit his lip and Neville saw his finger trailing along the edge of the folded parchment, then he said, "So, what do you think about the Tutshill Tornadoes this year?"
Ron shrugged and sat down. "They're all right. Mind, I still say that it'll be a Chudley year."
"Chudley?" Harry repeated in dismay. "The Canons? Oh, please…"
Neville, who knew nothing more about Quidditch than could possibly be avoided, excused himself to go looking for snacks. He wasn't sure if there would be an opportunity, but he supposed there would. It didn't look like Harry would be getting around to working the spells on the parchment just now, anyway.
He wandered toward the rear of the train first, for no particular reason, and didn't see anything that looked like snacks. When he reached the end, he turned around again, meaning to go to the front, but a few carriages down, he saw someone else making her way up the corridor slowly, looking in the windows of the closed compartments as she passed them. Once, she raised her hand hopefully, but, after a moment, she lowered it and moved on.
It was the girl from Flourish and Blotts. Neville tried to remember if he knew her name, but if he did, it was escaping him entirely. He thought of Remus -- Professor Lupin -- saying that he hoped someone would make friends with her, and he knew he ought to go over and --
She looked up and saw him, then came forward quickly, pulling her trunk along behind her. "Hello! Hello, there. I… I see you're not sitting with anyone, either. Perhaps we could…" She reached him. "I, er… We met at the book shop. I'm sure you don't remember. It was only briefly. I'm Hermione. Hermione Granger?"
"I remember," Neville managed, when he realized that she'd paused. "I, er…"
"I didn't think to ask anyone from my orientation if I might sit with them. I suppose I thought the Muggle-borns would sit together. But Dean Thomas is sitting with an Irish boy and they said there was no room, and I suppose Justin didn't see me wave just now. It's quite crowded in there. And Kevin Entwhistle just said he didn't want to sit with me. I think Su Li was going to, but…" Her voice faded, and Neville saw a certain crestfallen expression on her face for a moment before she went on and said, "At any rate, I don't see anything open. I don't suppose you can think of a place to sit?"
Again, Neville found himself quite wrong-footed, feeling as if he'd been spun around rapidly several times with his eyes closed, then let loose and expected to run. He opened and closed his mouth a few times, then managed, "I'm sitting." His face went hot. "I mean, obviously, I'm not sitting right now, but I have a place. My friend Harry, and Ron Weasley, and -- "
The girl seemed to deflate, like dandelion leaves rapidly withering after an application of potion. "Oh," she said. "I see."
"There's plenty of room with us," he said. "It's only the three of us in the whole compartment. If you wanted to join us."
She bit her lip and looked at him with caution. "If you're sure it would be all right?"
Neville wasn't sure, not really. He didn't think this girl was the sort who Harry would take to, and it would certainly mean not getting to whatever the secret in the parchment was, but he couldn't very well leave her wandering the train all the way to Scotland, either. So he said, "Of course it would. Come on. I'll introduce you."
He led her back to the compartment he'd been in. There was a bad moment when he was sure he'd passed it without noticing, but before she realized that he was lost, he heard Harry's voice rising above the train sounds to say, "But Chudley! They're terrible!"
"I hope you don't mind Quidditch talk," Neville said. "My friend Harry's a bit wild for it."
"I don't know anything about it. It's a sport, isn't it?"
Neville despaired at the thought of Harry's face if she said something like this to him, but it was too late to turn back now.
He opened the door.
Harry and Ron, now quite animated in their conversation, looked up, then both did a double-take when they saw that Neville wasn't alone.
"Er…" Harry started. "Hello?"
Neville's throat closed up on him when he tried to open his mouth, but Hermione took a deep breath, then ran on, "Hello, I'm Hermione Granger, and Neville said I might sit with you, if it's entirely all right. He says you're talking about Quidditch, and I don't know anything about it, so perhaps you could tell me…?"
"I…" Neville looked out the window. "I met Hermione in Diagon Alley." He looked at Harry. "She's in Lupin's group? Er… Professor Lupin's group."
Neville could see the calculations going on in Harry's head, and it took about five seconds for him to guess that there had been some sort of instruction. He swallowed, then nodded. "All right, then. Er… my mother's Muggle-born, too. Er…" He gestured around. "Have a seat, then. I'm Harry Potter. This is Ron Weasley."
Ron waved, a little nonplused, as Hermione sat down beside him, across from Harry. Neville sat down on Harry's side.
Harry gave him a vaguely irritated look, then said, "Right, then. Quidditch. What do you know to start with? Do you know broomsticks?"
"Well, I know what they are, of course…"
It took most of the rest of the train ride for Harry and Ron, batting the subject back and forth between them, to explain Quidditch. This was punctuated by occasional outbursts about the best teams and the best players, and a rather heated debate about classic broomsticks that broke out somewhere past Manchester and lasted through the Yorkshire Dales. By the end of it, the sky was red outside, streaked with dark clouds, and if there was a conclusion to be made, Neville had missed it entirely.
"So…" Hermione frowned. "If I understand correctly, the whole thing comes down to catching the Snitch, and the rest doesn't really matter?"
"No!" Harry threw his hands in the air. "Everyone says that, but it's not true. Catching the Snitch ends the Game, but if the other side is more than a hundred and fifty points up on goals, you can still lose."
"Right," Ron said. "I've seen it happen."
"But why would someone catch it then?" Hermione asked.
"Because that's the Seeker's job!'
She shook her head. "I suppose I don't know a lot about sports, one way or another. I never follow the Muggle ones, either."
Harry waited until she looked out the window, then raised his eyebrows in Neville's direction. Neville shrugged.
At some point during the Quidditch conversation, a woman pushing a trolley of sweets had come through, and Neville and Harry had split the cost to buy quite a lot of everything for Hermione to try. Ron had made sheepish motions of searching his pockets for coins, but both Neville and Harry knew he didn't have them, so they pretended not to see his efforts. Once the Quidditch talk was over, Hermione made a point of sampling everything, though she said she'd best brush her teeth for an hour when she got to school, or she'd hear about it from her parents, who apparently took care of teeth for a living. This was turning into quite an interesting conversation, as Harry got her to talk about how they drilled holes in people's teeth and did surgery on them, but just as she was going through a particularly nasty description of something called a "root canal" (she had Ron and Harry's utter attention on it), they pulled into Hogsmeade station.
Around their compartment, they could hear other students gathering their things, and on some unspoken signal, all four of them got up. Neville and Harry took their Transfigured satchels and threw them over their shoulders (Neville figured it would be just his luck if the spell broke as he got off the train and his full-sized trunk dragged him down and broke his neck on the way) and Ron and Hermione dragged their wheeled trunks along until they got out into the cool night air.
Somewhere in the dark, a voice called, "Firs' years! Firs' years over here!"
They'd started down the path that Neville thought must lead to the lake when he noticed that Hermione had fallen behind. He went back up the hill to her. "What is it?"
"Just… nerves. I don't know where I'll be. It was hard enough finding a spot on the train. Where will I live? Professor Lupin said at orientation that older students like to make it a bit of a secret how people are chosen, but that it's nothing that will hurt us, but what if it's something I don't know how to do? It wasn't in Hogwarts, A History. What if someone in the house has to ask for me or whatnot? No one older than I am knows me to ask for me!"
Neville's own nervousness melted a little bit in the face of it. "I think you'll be fine. Granny's told me that there's just something that tells you your house. I never heard of anyone not getting any house. And you'd be good at a bunch of them. Though I'm pretty sure they'll say that I can barely do magic and ought to stay home for a few more years."
"They can do that?"
"I don't think so. Let's hope not. But you said you'd been doing magic, so that shouldn't be a problem for you."
"Oh. Right. I can do magic." She smiled.
"Come on. Let's catch up with Ron and Harry."
"I don't think they like me."
"They liked the surgery stories."
"Oh." She took a couple of deep, gulping breaths, then said. "All right, then. Let's go." She turned sharply and nearly marched down the path and around the bend, where they got their first view of Hogwarts, shining in the night across a moonlight-sparkled lake. Rubeus Hagrid was getting the students settled in a small fleet of boats waiting at the shore.
Harry and Ron were holding one, looking impatiently back up the path. Neville and Hermione hurried to join them.
They sailed together across the lake, Hagrid alone in a boat at the front, looking up at the gleaming castle above them, the boats magically propelling themselves into the night. Something large and slimy seemed to move among them, causing some of the first years to scream, but Hermione said that it was just a giant squid that she'd read about in -- of course -- Hogwarts, A History. This interested Ron a great deal, and he spent the rest of the ride trying to get a look at it.
They got to the far shore, and Hagrid led them into a tunnel under the school, finally docking at a pier beside a set of stone steps leading up to a heavy wooden door. Hagrid helped everyone out of their boats, then went up to the door, and solemnly knocked on it three times. It opened immediately, and Professor McGonagall came out. Harry smiled and waved, but Neville knew better. She didn't respond. Harry made a face, which she quite unfortunately did see, and raised her eyebrows.
"Er," Harry muttered, "sorry."
"Very well, Mr. Potter," she said.
"The firs' years, Professor McGonagall," said Hagrid.
"Thank you, Hagrid, I will take them from here."
She led them into a huge entrance hall. Neville had a picture of his mother on the grand staircase here, on the day she'd left school, waving manically at the camera. He looked around tentatively while Professor McGonagall gave a brief talk about what was about to happen, not actually revealing anything, just telling them what the school's houses were, and that they'd be given a chance to "smarten up." She led them into a little room off to the side to get themselves ready, then excused herself to make sure the Great Hall was prepared for them.
Neville straightened his robes a bit, and Harry went back to his never-ending battle to put his hair in order. Hermione tried desperately to put her thick, frizzy hair into a plait, giving up at last and finger-combing it back to where it was before. Ron's robe was clearly second hand. It was a size too big for him and the he was frayed. There was nothing he could do about it, though, so he just stood there, looking uncomfortable.
Across the room, Neville spotted Draco Malfoy with Vincent Crabbe and Gregory Goyle. He tapped Harry's shoulder and pointed them out.
Harry drew his wand, eyes sparkling. "Think we should hex them?"
"No. Just… " Neville nodded over at Hermione.
Harry took his meaning, and stepped up beside Neville, blocking Hermione from Malfoy's sightline. So far, he hadn't noticed her. Ron looked over and realized who was there, and joined the line.
"What are you looking at?" Hermione asked, interested.
Malfoy heard her voice and glanced over. With a sinking heart, Neville realized that their guard line was the best possible way of conveying that they were hiding something.
Malfoy gave them a puzzled look, then a dark-haired girl with an upturned nose whispered in his ear, and he smirked unpleasantly.
Luckily, they were spared from any confrontation by the return of Professor McGonagall, who put everyone in two lines. Neville found himself behind Harry and across from Ron. Hermione ended up just behind Ron, and beside her -- behind Neville -- was a pretty girl named Hannah Abbott, who Neville had met at a few Ministry functions. She was fidgeting almost as much as Hermione, and they started talking nervously to each other as Professor McGonagall led everyone to the Great Hall.
Neville had been here once for years ago, when Gran had given a speech to the school governors and parents over the summer. It had been when people were threatening to remove their children from school over Professor Lupin's appointment. Gran gave a long talk -- a bit of a scold, really -- about what sorts of people would deny their children a good teacher, and one who'd discovered and broken a very powerful curse on the position, just because he had a magical disease that was quite manageable with modern methods. He wasn't sure how much good that particular speech had done, though it may have been effective for some reason, as, in the end, almost no one had chosen to remove their children from the school. Of the ones who did, Gran only sniffed and said, "Good riddance to the cowards." Neville hadn't paid that speech a great deal of attention -- Gran liked to talk, and he'd seen her at the Wizengamot, talking about other things, and she hadn't talked much about it elsewhere -- and he'd just goggled around at this hall, not really registering that it was in the school he was supposed to go to. The ceiling almost seemed to be a window, showing the weather outside. Now, through the floating candles, he could see the clear night sky.
Professor McGonagall led them all up to the front of the room, where a very old wizard's hat sat on a four-legged stool. Its tip bent back and forth, and Neville felt like it was getting a look them. This wasn't unheard of in magical objects, so he wasn't entirely surprised when a hole near the brim opened, and it began to sing.
Oh you may not think I'm pretty,
But don't judge on what you see,
I'll eat myself if you can find
A smarter hat than me.
You can keep your bowlers black,
Your top hats sleek and tall,
For I'm the Hogwarts Sorting Hat
And I can cap them all.
Neville glanced around as the song went on, describing all of the houses and what sorts of people were in them -- brave for Gryffindor, brainy for Ravenclaw, patient and loyal for Hufflepuff, cunning for Slytherin. Neville wished he were one or the other of them. Maybe not cunning; he'd leave that to Slytherin. But he couldn't figure out where you were supposed to be if you were just… average. Normal.
When the song was over, Professor McGonagall stepped up and unrolled a very fancy looking sheet of parchment. "When I call your name, you will put on the hat and sit on the stool to be sorted." She looked up and called, "Abbott, Hannah!"
Hannah nearly jumped out of her skin behind Neville, and pushed through the group. She sat down and put the hat on. It looked very strange on her, like she'd found it in an old attic. Neville saw it moving slightly for a moment, then it shouted, "HUFFLEPUFF!" The Hufflepuff table cheered.
Susan Bones gave Neville a faint smile on her way to the hat, and was also sent to HUFFLEPUFF, no surprise. The next two people, Neville didn't know -- Terry Boot and Mandy Brocklehurst. They were both sent to RAVENCLAW, and a girl called Lavender Brown went to GRYFFINDOR. Each table greeted their new recruits with fond applause. Millicent Bulstrode, a stocky girl with a plain face, became a SLYTHERIN after a good bit of consideration by the hat. She seemed a little less than excited. So did the Slytherin table, where people couldn't muster more than a polite clap.
As people passed Harry, he greeted several. Neville decided that he must know them from the Ministry, or the days he spent wandering Diagon Alley. Ron seemed to know a good few as well. Even Hermione gave little waves to other Muggle-borns she knew from orientation, like Justin Finch-Fletchley, a curly-haired boy who was put into HUFFLEPUFF.
A moment later, Hermione herself was called. Her nervousness had turned into a kind of bouncing energy, and she nearly jammed the hat onto her head. Neville fully expected it to make her a Ravenclaw -- the fact that she'd apparently already memorized Hogwarts, A History suggested it -- but instead, it called out "GRYFFINDOR!"
Neville glanced at Ron and Harry, who were both from old Gryffindor families, and, to his disappointment, saw that neither of them looked pleased. The Gryffindor table, on the other hand, applauded her wildly and made room for her.
There were a handful of students after Hermione, sorted into all four houses, then Professor McGonagall said, "Longbottom, Neville!"
The Great Hall fell strangely quiet, and Neville could hear people whispering. He looked up for a moment at a particularly loud whisper, and unfortunately, tripped over someone's foot, so he came lurching out into the small empty space in front of the hat. There were titters around the hall, and Draco Malfoy outright laughed. Professor McGonagall silenced him with a look, then steadied Neville by touching his arm and leading him to the stool.
"You know what your grandmother would say," she whispered, giving him one of her rare smiles.
Neville did know what Gran would say: It's not important what an ignoramus like that says or does, and your dignity is not dependent on the opinion of other children. You have a duty. Go forward.
So Neville took a deep breath and sat down on the stool, ignoring titters, the whispering, and the pointing. He took the hat and put it on his head. It slid down over his eyes, which helped block out the room.
"Ah," a voice whispered in Neville's ear. He felt the hat move around his head. "Interesting, quite interesting. We can certainly rule out Slytherin. You have no slyness to you at all."
Thank you, Neville thought.
"Yes, I imagine it would hold little appeal to your mind. You do have a good mind, of course, but Ravenclaw… I think not."
There's Hufflepuff, Neville suggested.
"Yes, yes. You'd do very well in Hufflepuff, but would it satisfy you? Would it make you who you want to be or merely who you believe yourself to be?" Neville couldn't think of an answer to this rather alarming question before the hat went on. "I think your heart is truly a Gryffindor's heart."
I'm not brave at all! The only time I ever fought anyone, I was a baby, and it was really my dad fighting!
"You have greatness inside of you. Gryffindor would not allow it to be idle."
I'm not great! I'm only famous by accident.
"Fame is not your greatness. Your greatness is in your refusal to waver."
I waver! I waver all the time! Really, it's just a fluke that anyone thinks anything about me. It wasn't me at all!
"You would languish in Hufflepuff…"
Neville bit his lip. He thought about Hufflepuff, about how nice it would be not to compete with people like Harry -- or James or Sirius or his own Grandmother, for that matter. He thought about just curling up in an armchair at night, and not having to confront anyone or stand up or…
For an instant -- only an instant, he would tell himself later -- something inside of him rebelled in him. Instead of seeing himself comfortable, he saw himself buried in the basement, slowly getting more and more silent, getting fatter and fatter. Then he saw himself standing up, standing between Hermione and Malfoy, standing taller and taller…
The hat yelled, "GRYFFINDOR!"
And Neville's sorting was over.
The Great Hall exploded with applause, and the hat was lifted from his head. He blinked owlishly, wondering if that really was all there was to it, if he might not put it back on and continue the conversation until it came to whatever senses a hat could possibly have.
But then he looked back at Harry and Ron, who were clapping now, and at the Gryffindor table, where Hermione was already making space for him, scooting down the bench as she grinned.
He stood up slowly, and made his way to the Gryffindor table.