She sat on the low, four-legged stool and closed her eyes, shutting out the sea of faces, all of whom were watching her. Professor McGonagall, tall, severe and dressed all in black, lowered the hat onto her head. It was too large and slid down to cover her eyes. In the darkness the silence spun out. The sound of her own slow breathing was all she heard, until, finally, a quiet voice wondered: "What's this, then?"
The tiny voice came from the hat. Had she not been prepared for it, she could easily have believed the thought was her own. How unsettling that would have been, she thought, and suddenly the looks of confusion and fear on the faces of some of those who had gone before her were easier to understand. Each had, in turn, sat on the small stool in front of all the other students, had waited while the hat, that floppy, dusty, old hat, had been lowered onto their head – and for all but the largest of them, down over their eyes – and then had heard the voice come from the hat, the Sorting Hat.
They were the newest students at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and Professor McGonagall had met them at the front door of the castle where they had stood in a group, dwarfed by the vastness of the entrance hall. Luna's eyes were drawn to the immense main staircase that dominated the hall. It stretched upward to the floor above, turned and continued upward to higher floors, always turning, always higher. As Luna followed it with her eyes it seemed something moved in the dark upper reaches. She squinted but could not quite see what it was.
Some of the students had adopted attitudes of confidence, whether real or feigned Luna could not tell. Most, however, were clearly nervous at the immensity and the strangeness of the castle. The stonework and timbers were of incredible proportions, the hallways wide and tall, and the main doors were large enough to allow a carriage to enter. Luna had also noticed, set into the walls, doors so tiny that only a small child could have used them. One of these small doors had, as Luna appraoched, enlarged in size until it was tall and wide enough for her to have passed through it easily, had she been free to do so. The halls were filled with suits of armour of both familiar and unusual design; elaborate draperies adorned the walls in many places, depicting scenes of witches and wizards engaged in formal discussions, wild magical battles or strange rites.
She turned her attention to Professor McGonagall who, in turn, was studying them all rather intently. Tall, thin and dressed entirely in black, even to the wide-brimmed, pointed witch's hat, she reminded Luna of a scorched lightning-struck tree near home. With her hands folded together at her waist, her long, thin arms stood out slightly akimbo from her body, looking like the twisted and unnaturally bent limbs of the burnt tree.
As the new students stood in a small group, unconsciously drawing closer to each other, Professor McGonagall had explained that each student would be directed into one of the four houses of the school during the Sorting ceremony, and that they would then take their seat at the table with their new house mates. Then she had marched them into the Great Hall and led them between the two middle of the four long tables that dominated the hall and at which sat all the other students of the school. As they paraded up the center aisle, some had peered upward at the thousands of floating candles that lit the hall, and beyond to the enchanted ceiling that mimicked the nighttime sky outside; some had looked at the other students seated at the tables; and some, including Luna, had directed their gaze forward to the long High Table that stretched across the far end. Here sat the teachers of the school, and at the center of the table, unmistakable in striking, dark purple robes with gold trim, was the Headmaster, Professor Dumbledore. His long grey hair was gathered into a very long ponytail, and his beard, meticulously combed, was likewise gathered and bound below his chin through an ornate ruby ring.
As they neared the High Table, Professor McGonagall had stopped them at the four-legged stool with the funny wizard's hat setting on it. The hat was very old and dusty. It had been patched many times and sagged; the many wrinkles in the material and the drooping point at the top combined to produce a rather sad picture of much age and neglect. Professor McGonagall had opened her mouth to read the names of the new students from a long scroll, when she had been interrupted by a quiet "Excuse me, Professor." A rip had appeared in the brim of the hat on the stool, and it was from this rip the interruption had come. Luna, who was close enough, heard the hat continue, speaking through the rip that served as its mouth. "I believe it is my turn now."
Professor McGonagall had smiled slightly, given a small bow and stepped to one side. The rip in the hat opened, and the hat sang.
You see before you sitting here
The Hogwarts Sorting Hat
And I think each new student
Should sit and have a chat
I'll perch upon your worried brow
And hear what's in your mind
And all that is the best of you
I shall seek and find
And it is this I'll need to know
To sort you each in turn
Into the house where you belong
Where you will live, and learn
In Gryffindor you may reside
In gold and crimson splendor
Among the very brave and bold
Who never will surrender
Perhaps you'll be in Slytherin
Where craft and guile are treasured
Your ambition and success
Are how you will be measured
Or then, again, in Ravenclaw
You might just find yourself
Where brains and intuition
Are always thought top-shelf
But if I find you do not fit
In any of these three
Hufflepuff will welcome you
Where hard work is the key
So put me on your head and I
Will try to teach you that
The end is not the place to put
A preposition at
The hall had filled with appreciative laughter and applause. Professor McGonagall turned to her scroll once again to read the names, and as each name was read, that student came forward and sat on the stool. She had placed the hat on their head, and the hat had loudly proclaimed the house to which the student had been sorted. Bridget Bannockburn had been declared a Hufflepuff; David Cretchmar had gone to Ravenclaw; Greta Heller had become a Slytherin; and so on down the list.
Now it was Luna's turn, and though she recognized there was nothing to fear, still she felt for those who had not the benefit of her training. Her mother had prepared her for the Sorting, and for many of the other surprises in store for new students at the school for witches and wizards. She had told Luna that as strange or disconcerting as these new experiences might be, nothing at Hogwarts would be dangerous or hurtful. Luna felt memories wash over her, memories of those long hours with her mother, studying the mysteries of her own power and how she would develop that power at school.
"Yes, quickness of understanding," said the voice, starting her from her reverie, "and much compassion, too, but there is no fear here; unusual in one so young. This is not fear overcome by courage, nor is it fear overcome by ambition. Either of those would have made the choice easy. To see fear dissipate in the face of such calm is ... extraordinary ..."
The voice in her ear tapered off, as if the speaker had been musing and had decided to drop the subject and return to the matter at hand, but was finding it difficult after being distracted. She took the opportunity afforded by this pause for another calming breath and to reflect on her journey to Hogwarts School.
She had come to Hogwarts on the special train, the Hogwarts Express, a great shining red locomotive that left King's Cross Station in London pulling carriages filled with Hogwarts students. After travelling north for the remainder of the day, they had arrived at the station in the small village of Hogsmead. It was the point of departure nearest the school, which she knew from her mother to lie just across the lake outside the village. She had decided to wear earrings she had made herself from small bundles of tinsel left over from last Christmas. They hung almost as long as her own long, blond hair, and they were extraordinarily effective at deflecting kappa rays. Although they were the result of much research on her part, encouraged by her mother, she did not expect any of the other students to know their magical properties.
Her mother had initiated a series of conversations about personal oddity. She said it was important, and because it was not intuitive, they had returned to the subject many times.
"Luna," her mother had said quietly, "your father and I engage in the examination of the possible. Where many deny the existence or the liklihood, the possibility or the viability, we keep our minds open. This puts us at odds with some who prefer a defined, ordered existence. We are described in many ways, by many very different people, but we, your father and I, know who and what we are. And that is enough for us.
"A great many children attend Hogwarts. They come from different places, some with different customs, some with different beliefs, many with varying levels of ability, but all with one thing in common: they are as different from each other as they are from you, and you from them. Some will not care about these differences and friendship with them will likely come easy. But some will care, and some will use differences as a reason to treat others, or you, strangely, perhaps even cruelly. I will expect three things from you:
"You must not let them affect you by their behavior; they simply do not know you, or understand you, and therefore do not know how to be friends with you. I expect you to let any uncomfortable moments pass by you, through you and beyond you.
"You must never believe that you have to change to become friends with someone; true friendship is not made of such stuff.
"And I want you to embrace the differences you encounter, cherish them as the extraordinary opportunities they are – to learn."
The discussions had continued in greater depth and detail until Luna felt she would be able to handle most encounters at school, but she wouldn't be surprised, she admitted to herself, to find some situations in that immense and unusual place to test her. It was Hogsmead Station where she'd had the first experience for which her mother had not prepared her: the looming presence that was Hagrid, a man of enormous size and fearsome appearance. He towered over the students at the station. Indeed, he must tower over everyone, she thought, he must be twice the size of any normal man.
He began to call to the students.
"All newcomers to Hogwarts, over here. All first-years. All newcomers this way."
When they had gathered in front of him he continued, "My name is Rubeus Hagrid. I am Keeper of Keys and Grounds at Hogwarts, and one of my duties is to meet all first-years at the train and take them – that is, you – across the lake to the school."
Hagrid had herded them all, all the first time students – she would later come to think of them as first-years, as everyone else did, not just Hagrid – down to the lake, into tiny boats, across the lake and, finally, into the fabulous castle itself. It was not the whirlwind tour for her that it was for many of the others.
She had learned from her mother to awaken all her senses in special times, to record everything in her mind for later examination, analysis, remembrance – or play. This ability kept her from being overwhelmed by things extraordinary, setting her reactions aside, along with the events, for later. It was also, she expected, what made her seem a little detached – she even thought this of herself, sometimes – and it was this training that now allowed her to set aside these memories and impressions. She would return to them later, when there was time. Right now she needed to focus on the Sorting.
As the Sorting Hat had sung, there were four houses at Hogwarts: Gryffindor, where went the courageous and bold, Ravenclaw, the house of the clever and learned, Slytherin, the place for the ambitious and sly, and Hufflepuff, the home for those who did not easily fit into one of the other houses.
"I don't think I should like it in Slytherin," she said softly, as softly as she could, almost whispering, trying to speak only to the hat. Some of the other students had spoken aloud, sounding at the time as if they were having a conversation with themselves. She didn't want any of them overhearing her talking to the hat about Slytherin. Her mother had told her of Slytherin house, from whence had come many of the most powerful wizards ever, but she had also spoken of the arrogance and cruelty of many in that house, sometimes intentional, sometimes merely a product of the personalities that populated the house.
"No, I should think not," agreed the hat, and she slowly breathed out some of the tension that had built while thinking what life in Slytherin might have been.
"And I don't think Gryffindor; I'm not really brave," she thought. She wasn't sure the Hat would hear her thoughts, but it seemed worth a try. She also didn't know if this was allowed, to offer suggestions like this, but the same fearlessness the hat had detected earlier was upon her, and she really didn't want to spend her time with a lot of would-be do-gooders and crusaders. She had to admit to herself, though, as secretly and quietly as she could, so that the hat might not hear, that she did get that way herself – sometimes.
"And yet," said the hat, "You've been courageous enough to defy the Ministry of Magic already."
She was caught off guard, surprised, not that the hat knew, but by the blunt openness of it; she had trained herself to keep this the closest of secrets. Now the memories could not be held back. They came upon her, wonderful and yet forbidden, the hidden memories of her time with her mother, the clearest being those times of study, of learning to use her magic. But it seemed even more time was spent on how to disguise her ability. She had learned from her mother how to perform magic without the use of a wand, the magical tool that witches use to focus their power and that is forbidden to children. Her mother had taught her how to perform spells using only a mental image of a wand as the focus, and though it didn't work as well as it would have with the real thing, it still was good enough to learn how the magic worked. And the magic produced this way was not strong enough to register with the Ministry of Magic's Trace Charm, which detected magic illegally performed by underage witches and wizards.
The hat chuckled. "I've never had this much help before," it said to her, "You are making this too easy."
Before the hat could change its mind, she volunteered, "I like what I've heard of Hufflepuff. It is so nice to just take everyone equally. I think I should like it there."
"Yes, I expect you would," replied the hat, "but you arrive here with so much knowledge about magic and so much ability, it would be a shame not to challenge you to do all you can with it. I think we will have to make it ..."
"Ravenclaw!" shouted the hat, and cheers went up from the Ravenclaw table. She went down the steps and over to the table where excited faces greeted her and, scooting aside, made room for her to sit. Hands reached out to touch her shoulder or hand, voices bade her welcome, and her practiced awareness and calm deserted her for a moment.
"I'm here," she thought, "I'm at Hogwarts," and wrapped the reality of it around her like a warm cloak.
* * *
Sleep escaped her long into the night. She lay awake and sorted through the impressions of the first day in her new life. She hoped she would have friends here, the strikingly pretty Cho Chang, perhaps, or maybe that red-haired girl on the train, Ginny. The teachers she had seen during the feast, which followed upon the heels of the sorting, looked almost as excited about the new year as the students, except for the somber Professor Snape, teacher of the Potions classes.
She hadn't eaten much during the feast; the calm she had felt all day had vanished once the sorting was over. She felt exhausted by the sheer volume of newness all around her. She had chatted nervously – not at all like her usual self, she thought now – with several of the Ravenclaws while they, at least, enjoyed the feast. There had been some talk about a flying car and two boys from Gryffindor who were in big trouble. She couldn't remember now most of what she'd said, but she did remember some strange reactions, puzzled looks or sudden quiet, and one burst of laughter. She supposed it was just so many people meeting so many other new people.
She had been delighted to find the Ravenclaw common room and sleeping chambers housed within one of the castle's towers, the rounded spaces and height reminding her so much of home. She had grown up in a hilltop house in the forest near Ottery St. Catchpole, where her parents had filled the round building, three stories tall, with an assortment of inventions, collections, and research materials of every description. The occasional visitors eyed the stacks of books, shelves of gadgets and odd paintings with expressions Luna proudly took to be admiration.
Luna's thoughts, as they did most nights, returned to her mother and the memories of their times together. On even the busiest days her mother would find time for quick practice sessions or discussions of something that was on her mind.
"Luna," said her mother one day, "reality and imagination are separate realms. You can imagine an event and a place so clearly in your mind that you almost feel you are actually there. However, when you go to that place and experience that event, you may find they are not the same at all. Imagination and reality are separate worlds, and while each should be welcome in the other, they must behave as polite guests. Imagination must not alter your perception of reality, which is just another way of saying, you must see the real world for what it is, not for what you wish it to be, nor for what you fear it to be. Conversely, reality should never intrude to the point of restricting the bounds of your imagination.
"For example, you might imagine a stone that can turn itself into water and back into a stone again, but you should never expect it to happen in the real world until you actually see it happen. On the other hand, although you have never seen it happen in real life, that stone has, and always can have, that ability in your imagination."
"It sounds like it could get complicated," replied Luna, "For simple things it's easy enough, but I can already think of situations where ..."
"Yes, yes, but don't let it overheat your brain," interrupted her mother, and reached out to take Luna's face in her hands. She jerked them back, making a comically surprised face. "Ouch! Too late already! Too much thinking. We'll have to stop for now and go make some cookies."
They laughed together as they went back up to the house. Luna didn't finish her thought to her mother, but she did to herself. She thought it right not to let the real world restrict her imagination to only what she could see, but she thought it might be a lot of fun to occassionally cross the line the other way, even if only for pretend.
Sometimes they would spend the entire day together, practicing and discussing magic; her mother said they were doing small magic the same way the most accomplished witches did great magic. This made Luna feel special and important. Most of all, though, it made her feel loved, for her mother was ignoring the rules of the Ministry of Magic, itself, in order to give her this gift, this knowledge, this skill. And it was this wonderful feeling of being so loved that Luna hugged to herself in the round Ravenclaw Tower of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and fell into a soft, warm sleep where she dreamed of performing great magic and of flying ...
... without a broom.
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