Albus drifted vaguely through the rest of the feast and barely heard the Headmaster’s final start of term speech. He clapped automatically at the teachers’ introductions, because Scorpius nudged him, but he caught a glimpse of Hagrid’s face and the large professor was looking at Albus with wounded confusion. Albus looked down at his plate and sat very still for the rest of the evening.
When the students were dismissed to their Houses, Scorpius had to pull Albus along by the sleeve of his robe and even then he just walked mechanically behind the shorter boy. He didn’t notice Rose waving as the Gryffindors passed by on the way to their own distant Common Room. He didn’t notice James and his cluster of friends hissing at him as they left. He didn’t notice the gossiping portraits or the moving stairs or the lights shining in the hallways and rooms. The glories of Hogwarts passed unobserved in front of his blank eyes. He followed along in the midst of the animated Slytherins and didn’t notice anything until they were in the dungeons and then their Common Room.
Then Albus looked around at the silver and green banners and the heavy wood cabinets and the antique chairs and the cupboards filled with all manner of bottles and jars. There was a large fireplace with bright embers smoldering in its grate, the mantlepiece above carved from solid stone and decorated with snakes and skulls. Heavy desks, their wood dark with age, lined the walls in between the cabinets, and the windows all showed the murky depths of the lake outside. He looked at the titles of the books shelves along the wall opposite the fireplace, and didn’t recognize a single one.
Then it sunk in that he was far away from everything that James had described and there was no way to get there now. Gryffindor Tower, up at the top of the castle, was literally as far away as it could possibly be. Albus sat down heavily in an intricately carved chair that proved to be decidedly more comfortable than it looked like it ought to.
“Are you all right?” Scorpius had sat down next to him and looked concerned.
Albus forced a smile. “Yeah,” he said, “of course.”
His attempt at false cheer just caused Scorpius to raise a skeptical eyebrow. “Right,” he said. “And the other one has bells on it. Seriously, Albus, are you…well, I mean, obviously you aren’t all right, but…”
“I’ll be fine,” Albus lied. “It was just, you know, unexpected.” But it hadn’t been unexpected, and that was the problem. James had known, and he had been right.
Scorpius nodded, still looking inexplicably miserable. “I’m really sorry,” he said again, but then they were interrupted.
“Unexpected’s right enough.” A tall, skinny boy with a pinched face stood over Albus, arms crossed and frowning. “What’re you doing here, Potter?”
Albus shrank down in the chair but did it with a glare. “Sitting,” he said. “What about you?”
Someone snickered. The tall boy looked unimpressed. “I’m where I ought to be,” he said coldly. “Shouldn’t you be off getting fawned over by the lion cubs?”
“Oh, leave off, Edwin,” someone else drawled from behind Albus. A shorter boy with the same pinched face but paler, neater hair walked up.
“Keep shut, Lycoris,” the older snapped grumpily. “It’s your first day, what do you know about it?”
Scorpius smirked. “I think he knows the Sorting Hat isn’t commonly held to make mistakes,” the blond boy said smugly.
Edwin looked over at Scorpius with a glare. “You’re a First Year too, Malfoy,” he sneered. “What do you know about it?”
“I know it’s a sentient object created during the Founding of Hogwarts and it’s been in charge of assigning students to their Houses ever since,” Scorpius said mildly. “And I know that no one’s ever been able to make a valid case against its choices.” He crossed his arms. “Some of us have read Hogwarts, A History, you know,” he added scornfully.
Lycoris snorted. “Some of us are swots,” he murmured.
Scorpius glanced up. “There’s no need to be jealous,” he said calmly.
Lycoris frowned, then shrugged. “Sure,” he replied amiably. “Jealous, that’s me. I can’t help it, Malfoy,” he continued with a crooked twitch of a smirk and a very sarcastic eye-roll, “you’re just so cool.”
Edwin threw up his hands in disgust, possibly missing the satire or possibly just annoyed in general. “My own brother!” he grumbled. “Your first day here and you’re already embarrassing me. I should have expected this.”
A skinny blond girl propped herself up on Edwin’s shoulder. “This your baby brother then, Nott?” she asked, looking down her upturned nose at the three First Years.
“Unfortunately,” Edwin muttered. He scowled. “Not making me too proud right now, though.”
“Oh, shove off,” the younger Nott brother said. “You’re just peevish because you tried to show off for your girlfriend and it didn’t work.”
Edwin and the blond girl quickly stepped apart. “She’s not my girlfriend,” he snapped. “You shut your mouth. C’mon, Smith, it’s probably about time for these babies to go tuck themselves in anyway.” The two older students scowled at the three First Year boys and stalked off across the Common Room.
“Well, well.” Another student ambled over, this one dark-haired and elegant looking. “That’s more teeth than I expected out of First Years,” he said. He raised an eyebrow. “But then, you are a Malfoy.”
Lycoris scowled. “And a Nott,” he added tetchily.
“Of course,” the other boy said. He held out a hand. “Avery. Marcus Avery.” Scorpius and Lycoris both shook it.
Then Scorpius waved a hand to indicate the black-haired wizard slumped in the chair next to him. “And this is Albus Potter.”
Avery looked a little less than thrilled. “Right,” he said. “Potter.” He only hesitated a moment, though, before he offered a hand to Albus as well.
“Er,” Albus said, “it’s a pleasure.”
“I’m sure,” said Avery. He glanced back at Malfoy and Nott. “Well, welcome to Slytherin, at any rate. Sorry about Edwin—of course, you must know how he is.”
Lycoris nodded with a smirk. “Indeed,” he said. “Insufferable show-off.” The younger Nott shrugged and continued smugly, “it’s because he knows I’m going to be a better wizard than he is. It preemptively hurts his ego.”
Albus snorted. Scorpius seemed to be trying not to grin.
The black-haired girl with the long plait down her back, the one that had interrupted Muggins at the feast, sauntered over to them. Vaisey, Albus recalled. He wondered if he’d ever be able to keep all the names straight. There were so many people in Slytherin.
He felt ill again. Slytherin.
“You bothering the First Years, Avery?” she asked.
The elegant boy took a step backwards, then scowled at the witch. “Simply saying hello, Vaisey. I don’t think they need a babysitter for basic greeting etiquette.”
Vaisey snorted. “Right, because you’re such a master of proper behavior. Shove off.”
Avery narrowed his eyes but turned and stalked away, tossing his head as if to indicate that he had better things to do than hang around anywhere she was going to be. Vaisey watched him go and rolled her eyes. “Tosser,” she muttered.
“Er, it was nice to meet you,” Albus called sweetly after the hastily-retreating Slytherin.
Scorpius grinned. “Lovely manners,” he murmured. Albus stuck out his tongue at the blond boy.
Vaisey perched on the arm of the chair on the other side of Albus. “Well, I see you lot are making all sorts of friends already.”
Scorpius shrugged and scanned the Common Room idly. Very few people were actively looking in their direction, but most of them still seemed to be watching. “I suppose they can’t help it,” Scorpius said drily. The corner of his mouth lifted in a slight grin. “Flies to honey, perhaps?”
Vaisey snorted again. “You might actually be funny,” she said. “Just watch yourselves, children. It can get tough around here when you have sharp wits and weak wands.”
“Shouldn’t worry,” Nott said. His voice was very bored but his eyes darted around the room anxiously.
“I don’t,” said Vaisey. “I just hate messes.”
“Besides,” Nott continued, frowning, “we’re hardly children. And you’re only, what, a Second Year, right?”
“So?” Vaisey asked, her green eyes flinty slits.
Nott swallowed. “Just asking,” he said meekly.
“That’s what I thought,” said Vaisey.
Albus and Scorpius both smothered their laughter with their hands, then caught each other’s eye and gave up on restraint. Nott scowled at them.
Vaisey smirked. “Well then, children,” she said, “you should probably head on up to bed. You have an early morning, and I won’t have baggy eyes making my House look bad.” The smirk turned a little bit frightening. All three First Years nodded, gulping. “Good,” Vaisey smiled and stood up. She patted the closest boy—Albus—on the head and sauntered off.
“I think she might be frightening,” Nott said quietly.
Scorpius and Albus nodded.
“Anyway,” said Scorpius, “I suppose you two have already figured out one another’s names, but,” he shrugged and performed the introductions anyway. “Albus, this is Lycoris Nott. Lycoris, this is Albus Potter.”
“Yeah, I kind of got that,” Nott said drily. He and Albus shook hands. Albus tried to smile friendlily but wasn’t confident that he’d been able to pull off the expression. He felt too miserable for a proper sort of smile. Nott turned back to Scorpius and frowned. “So how did you two meet up, then?” he asked, glancing sideways at Albus.
“Met on the train,” Scorpius replied. To Albus’s relief, he didn’t go into detail. Maybe Scorpius was no more eager to admit to his own pre-sorting anxiety than Albus was, even though Scorpius’s had worked out all right in the end, while Albus’s…hadn’t.
The blond wizard turned back to Albus. “I’ve known Lycoris for ages,” Scorpius said. “He’s all right.”
“Oh, thanks for the stunning recommendation,” Nott said drily.
“No problem.” Scorpius smiled sweetly. “Any time you need a reference…”
Albus felt the tremulous hint of a grin make it onto his face although his stomach still felt hollow and knotted up. Maybe he’d be able to live through this if he had a friend or two. Maybe.
“Whatever,” said Nott, “I’m taking the creepy little witch’s advice and turning in.”
Scorpius nodded. “Decent enough idea,” he said. “You coming, Albus?”
Albus nodded. “Yeah,” he said quickly. It was hard enough even being in this room at all; sitting there alone would have been unbearable.
The three First Years stood and walked downstairs to their dormitory. Albus’s stomach sank lower with each step. Somehow he felt that if he were to actually sleep in that room, that would be his last hope of escape gone.
But he really was tired, and he could think of no where else to go. So while Nott and Scorpius laughed and joked and talked about Hogwarts and their excitement over morning classes, and pulled out quills and parchments to write long, excited owls to be sent off to parents the next morning, Albus opened the green silk curtains on his old four-poster and crawled underneath the thick green covers and hid his face in the soft gray sheets. He tried very, very hard to be brave, but while he did manage to keep quiet, his pillow was soon damp.
Albus Potter didn’t sleep until long, long after midnight had come and gone and then his dreams were full of nightmares and green, hissing snakes.
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