AN: Obviously, I am not J.K. Rowling and do not own these characters or this setting. This is just a little plot bunny that's been in the back of my head for years.

WELCOME TO HUFFLEPUFF!

"Hello, firsties! I'm prefect Gabriel Truman, and I'm delighted to welcome you to HUFFLEPUFF HOUSE!"

The 7th year prefect was as likeable and gregarious as one would expect from a Hufflepuff, and as he smiled warmly to the new students, they all seemed to relax a bit. They were stuffed from the Welcoming Feast but also still a bit on edge. What had the Headmaster been thinking with that "die a terrible death" warning about the third floor corridor?!

Everyone else was already heading out of the dining hall, but Gabriel kept his young charges for a few minutes to learn each of their names along with their faces. Some he'd already learned about from discussions with Professor Sprout. Susan Bones, who was ward to the Director of the DMLE. Ernie McMillan, a pureblood from a prominent family. Justin Finch-Fletchley, a muggleborn from a wealthy aristocratic family. Zacharias Smith, who could trace his lineage back to the Founder. There were only eight Puff firsties, but they looked to be a solid group, compared to the Gryffs who had an even dozen. "Practically an army," Cedric had muttered at the end of the Sorting Ceremony.

"Now then, we'll be taking the long way to our common room, I think. I'll show you where your classes will be tomorrow, and it will give the other houses time to clear the halls. We don't want any of them trying to follow us to the Sett, after all." The children looked confused at that. "Ah, yes. A sett is what you call a badger's den, so that's what we call the Hufflepuff rooms. They're in the lower levels of Hogwarts on the opposite side of the castle from where the snakes live. You'll soon see."

With that, Gabriel led the children out into the halls of Hogwarts, pointing out various features of the castle. His patter covered up his internal nervousness. Below, the rest of the House was preparing for the traditional Hufflepuff welcoming ceremony. It had been six years since he'd gone through that welcome, six years since he'd learned The Secret. There had never been any problems with new Hufflepuffs passing through the initiation in that time, and, as far as he knew, there never had been any problems in all the untold generations before. The Secret had been kept all this time, and it was foolish to think this class might be the first to let it slip. The Hat had chosen them, after all. Still, nervousness was understandable, given the nature of The Secret. Gabriel himself had cried upon learning it, he remembered now to his shame.

About forty-five minutes after leaving the feast, Gabriel finally led the eight firsties down a flight of stairs, through a circuitous set of passages (pointing out the entrance to the kitchens along the way) and finally into a storeroom containing scores of enormous barrels mounted sideways against the walls and marked with labels like "pumpkin juice," "vinegar" and "red wine." He led the children to one that was larger than a man was tall with "Hogwarts" stenciled on the lid, and then he tapped his wand to it in a rhythmic pattern directly over the "H." The front of the barrel slid open, revealing a passageway. The children "oohed" in surprise, and Gabriel led them down the passage and into the Sett.

As they entered, Professor Sprout and the rest of Hufflepuff House was waiting in the common room to welcome them with polite applause. Gabriel directed the firsties to eight overstuffed chairs arranged in front of the fireplace facing the room before taking his own chair to the right of the Head of House. The other five prefects also flanked her, with the rest the house in chairs, sofas and benches arranged behind them so that the entire House was facing its newest members. The arrangement was somewhat daunting for the eight children.

In particular, Justin Finch-Fletchley had been set for Eton before getting his Hogwart's letter, and his father and grandfather had both told him tales of the hazing they'd had to endure in their own school years. "Fagging" it was called back in the day. They both laughed at their common reminiscences, but to Justin, it sounded dreadful. Consequently, he was a bit nervous at the thought of how wizards initiated their own new arrivals, even in the house known for loyalty and fair play. Still, it seemed unlikely that anything was going to happen now with the Head of House watching. Even if the other fifty or so Puffs were all on the opposite side of the room, staring at them with not-quite-sincere smiles as if the new Hufflepuffs were all new specimens ready for examination. Or perhaps dissection.

As soon as the firsties had taken their seats, Professor Sprout began to speak. "Welcome to Hufflepuff!" she said excitedly. "We have much to discuss and little time before you should be off to bed. Now, in a few minutes, we'll have a little mix and mingle so you can meet all your house-mates over hot cocoa and macaroons. But first, we have some housekeeping matters. Now, over there..." She gestured towards a large corkwood bulletin board that dominated the wall near the entrance. "That's the notice board. Please check it every morning for important notices. Right now, the only thing on it is a schedule for review sessions. We have weekly reviews for all the first year classes taught by sixth years who received O's on their OWLS in the appropriate class. On the table next to it, you'll find your class schedules and maps to the appropriate classrooms. And next to those, you'll find a tray with the cocoa and macaroons I mentioned."

Sprout giggled affectionately at that. The first years smiled. The more astute ones – Justin, Susan and Ernie – noticed that the fifty or so Hufflepuffs sitting behind the Head of House neither laughed nor even smiled. They just continued to stare at the firsties as if waiting anxiously for something important that was about to happen.

"Now, two more quick things and I'll be done for tonight." Sprout continued smoothly. "First, there's a little song I want to teach you. Think of it as our House song. Please take out your wands and listen to me." She cleared her throat and began to sing somewhat tunelessly, tapping her wand to the arm of her chair in time with the music.

"Cam-a-rad-a-rie AND
per-ser-VER-ance.
THAT'S the Huff-el-puff
BADG-er WAY!"

The first year students all stared at their head of house. Zach Smith put his hand over his mouth coughed softly. His father had told him that if he made it into the house of his forefathers there were a few ... traditions he'd have to politely accept, and he had mentioned a house song, but Zach had not anticipated that it would be so ... sappy. Undeterred, Professor Sprout raised her wand again and encouraged both the first years and the rest of the Hufflepuffs to sing along with her, and somewhat surprisingly, the fifty or so older Puffs did sing alone in perfect unity, with each of them tapping their wands in the rhythm of the short ditty. Justin found the unison singing oddly disturbing, but he and the rest of the first years quickly joined in, and by the fifth repetition, they could all sing the song in the exact same manner as their peers.

"Good show, all of you," said Professor Sprout. "Now, I don't have to be a music critic to know what you're all thinking. That's not a very good song, is it? It's too short and the lyrics are a bit silly. Well, that's alright, because here's the real reason you're learning it – it's the password to get into the Sett! You see, each of the House dormitories have special security measures to keep out intruders from the other Houses. The Ravenclaws are expected to answer riddles in order to get into their own dorms, which I think is rather mean. The Slytherins and the Gryffindors have passwords, but most of them are easily guessed, and every few years, there's some bit of unpleasantness because a Gryffindor wrote the password down on some paper and then lost it. We Hufflepuffs use that song as our password. You must tap your wand on the 'H' in 'Hogwarts' that's on the barrel that leads to the room while thinking that song to yourself. Tap at the bottom of the H for the normal syllables and at the top for the accented syllables. So long as you think the song instead of saying it aloud, no one can hear you and figure out how to open the secret door. I'm proud to say that in the last 300 years, no intruder has ever made it into the Sett, and I don't want to break that record, do you?"

The first years all mumbled "no" in response, and they all relaxed a little. Most of them were actually quite impressed that the silly little song not only had a purpose but it ingeniously protected the House's privacy in a manner more cunning than that of the Slytherins.

"Now then," Sprout continued. "Before you put your wands away, there is one final matter we should address before you can have those lovely macaroons. You see, while it's certainly important to keep the secret of the password for the Sett, we have one secret that's even more important than that. A secret that has been passed down to through generations of Hufflepuffs all the way back to the founding of Hogwarts itself. A secret so important that every Hufflepuff that has ever walked through that door has sworn an oath to keep it. An oath on his honor and his magic and even his life. Now, listen carefully, as I and the upperclassmen renew our vow, and then, it will be your turn to swear it."

And in unison, Sprout and all of the older Hufflepuffs raised their wands and began to speak. "I," there was a brief susurration as fifty-one people inserted their individual names into the oath, "swear on my honor, my magic and my life that I will never reveal the Hufflepuff Secret to anyone who has not already sworn an oath to preserve its secrecy, nor will I ever discuss it where there is any possibility of it being overheard by one who has not so sworn."

The air in the Sett briefly became stifling from the power of so many oaths renewed at once. Then, the feeling passed, and the older Hufflepuffs along with their Head of House stared at the eight firsties expectantly. The muggleborns were suitably impressed and a bit unnerved. Several of the pureblooded children were openly frightened – they knew what it meant to swear an oath on one's life. And while those purebloods had all been carefully taught not to casually swear such oaths, they were also all children of former Hufflepuffs and had been quietly told that they should be willing to swear an oath of house loyalty if asked. One by one, the first years raised their own wands and haltingly repeated the words of the oath. Again, there was a swirl of magic, though less intense than the one before.

At once, much of the tension drained out of the room. A few of the older Puffs visibly exhaled as they put away their wands. After putting her own wand away, Sprout turned back to the newly initiated students. "Thank you. I shall now tell you The Secret." She was no longer smiling, but despite that, the witch seemed more relaxed and somehow more genuine. Later, Hannah Abbot would decide that Sprout's expression was what it must look like when one no longer needed to hide the fact that one carried a heavy burden.

"It has to do with the reason why each of you, and each of us, was sorted into Hufflepuff. Now those outside the Sett all have plenty of stories about us. Some nice. Some not so nice. There are those who say that Hufflepuff takes the students who don't fit in anywhere else. The leftovers, they call us. That, I am happy to say, is categorically false. I can assure you that the Hat sorted you into Hufflepuff with the utmost selectivity."

Though her words sounded complementary, something in her tone troubled several of the firsties, who also noticed grim but determined expressions on the faces of many of the upperclassmen.

"Others say that students are sorted into our house due to things like loyalty or diligence. Unsurprising that, for the Hat often sings of such things as a way of crediting our devotion to preserving The Secret without exposing what it is. Regretfully, I must confess that Hufflepuff students are no more loyal nor diligent than any other students. We certainly hope that you will all strive to be loyal to one another and to be diligent in your studies – after a fashion – but that is not why you are here. Otherwise, our oath would be unnecessary."

She looked down at the floor for a second and then back at the first years, now with a somewhat disdainful expression. "There are also those who say that we are the House of Duffers, the home for those wizards and witches with inferior magical ability. The ones who can't cut it in other Houses. And while that is also false, there is nevertheless a kernel of truth within that slander. We Hufflepuffs do not push ourselves and our magic the way the other houses do. We do not sneak into the Restricted Section of the library looking for entertaining pranks as the Gryffindors do. We do no stalk Knockturn Alley looking for forbidden books of dark magic to use against our enemies as the Slytherins do. We do not engage in forbidden experimental magicks just to see what would happen as the Ravenclaws do. We stick to what is tried and true and, above all, safe, because we alone among the Houses know the price those of the other houses pay for walking where we decline to tread."

Sprout took a deep breath before continuing. "This, children, is The Secret of Hufflepuff, which is also the darkest and most important secret of our entire society. Magic that pushes beyond certain boundaries damages the minds of those who practice it, and those abnormalities are passed on to one's children. I do not speak just of dark magic but any truly powerful magic. Even the Patronus Charm, considered by many the lightest of all spells, can eventually rob a wizard who overuses it of the ability to feel happiness in any form, a debility that is then passed down to future generations. The true purpose of the Sorting Ceremony, one unknown even to the Headmaster, is to study each new Hogwarts student and identify what if any mental disorders each child has or is likely to develop before reaching adulthood."

"Those sorted as Ravenclaws typically have obsessive-compulsive disorders, social interaction disabilities, and, in extreme cases, schizophrenia. Those sorted as Slytherins are almost always sociopaths, incapable of empathy towards others. The worst of them are psychopaths who actively take pleasure in inflicting suffering on others. Those sorted as Gryffindors have impulse control problems and attention deficit disorders with have little to no concept of personal safety or proportionate response. They also often suffer from megalomania and the worst of them are as casually cruel as any Slytherin, despite their feelings of righteous superiority. The Hat placed you here among us because after an exhaustive study of your minds, you show no signs of any such mental illnesses and, so long as you do not damage your minds through casting too much high level magic, you never will. You, my children, are Huffpuffs for one reason and one reason only – because you are sane."

The eight new Hufflepuffs sat, silent and appalled, as they each thought back over their past encounters with other wizards, indeed about everything they knew about the wizarding world. About fashions 300 years out of date. About using owls for mail delivery. About pureblood ideology. About the potentially lethal items sold as toys in Zonko's Joke Shop. About that creepy old weirdo who sold everyone their wands. About how the penalty for nearly every crime was to be sentenced to a prison guarded by soul-sucking demons. About the utter absurdity of Quidditch. And at once, they all knew that it was true and that they could never go back to not knowing. They knew that they were living in a madhouse where the inmates ruled and where everyone over the age of eleven was armed and dangerous. They knew the awful, terrifying burden of being part of a small and shrinking minority: the sane ones.

Immediately, Zachariah Smith screamed, while Hannah Abbot burst into tears and Justin Finch-Fletchley started hyperventilating. Almost as one, the older Hufflepuffs surged forward to provide their newest members with warm cocoa and macaroons (both laced with Calming Draughts) while offering consoling words and hugs and a few discretely applied Cheering Charms. Professor Sprout stepped back and observed, a fond smile on her lips.

"Eight new Hufflepuffs," she thought to herself. "And only one screamer and one crier. A good sign, I think. No incoming class has taken the news this well in years."