"Carmina Burrell," boomed Phineas Nigellus Black, the Hogwarts Headmaster.
A young red-haired woman with green eyes rushed onto the dais. She slowed down as she gently seated herself upon the three-legged stool in view of everyone. She placed the Sorting Hat on top of her plaited hair and tightly crossed her fingers in front of her robes. A trickle of sweat streaked down one of her cheeks amid her smattering of freckles. There were a few heartbeats' worth of silence during which Carmina was not the only one holding her breath.
"Ravenclaw!" declared the famed and rumpled headpiece. The students at the second of the four tables, aligned parallel to each other and perpendicular to the small stage, burst into cheers. The ginger girl bounded down to her new housemates.
Legions of lit candles floated and flickered gently above the gust-tousled heads of the new pupils, including Horace Slughorn. The languid, leisurely movement of the flames contrasted with the massive windstorm the students had endured while crossing the Black Lake. Many of the new initiates were yawning, ready to end one exciting day and dream of what they faced the next. Horace, however, was gazing intently through his gooseberry-hued eyes as the Sorting Ceremony unfolded before him.
"Lloyd Carrow." "Slytherin!"
People-watching was Horace's favorite pastime. The pale youth was prone to shyness, which fed into a persistent loneliness that left him feeling hollow. He had learned that the easiest way for him to make friends was to ask them questions about themselves, and be interested in their responses. Watching other witches and wizards going about their business, and trying to guess their motivations based on their actions, was excellent practice for learning how to engage new acquaintances. He spent a significant amount of time sitting in the tea shops of Wizarding London, slowly sipping on steaming beverages while observing the behaviors of fellow patrons inside and passersby outside.
"Randall Channon." "Hufflepuff!"
Horace wondered into which house he would be Sorted when it was his turn. He knew that his natural skittishness tended towards outright cowardice. His previous academic pursuits had been decidedly lackluster. That probably left him in Hufflepuff, which was rumored to have the coziest chambers in all of Hogwarts. Horace imagined lounging in an overstuffed chair in the warm yellow common room, chatting about the latest news from the Daily Prophet or munching on the homemade Cauldron Cakes that someone's parents sent in an owl-delivered care package.
"Sarah Cybelle." "Ravenclaw!"
Horace was not the only first year who watched sharply instead of sleepily. The tall, skinny young man in front of him was also eagerly taking in all of the sights. Ajax had been Horace's dearest friend since an accidental meeting a year or so earlier in Diagon Alley. They made a bit of an odd pair, with opposites attracting and all of that. Where Horace was reserved, Ajax was outgoing. Horace needed to put significant effort into interacting with new associates, while Ajax was a natural comedian who could entertain anyone with his wide grin and expansive gestures.
A rotund blond lad climbed up to the stool. He was so nervous that when he went to put the Sorting Hat on his crown, he missed and it slid down the side of his head until it hung from one ear like a patchwork earring. As the blushing boy adjusted the headwear, the sound of the Hat's "Gryffindor!" declaration was nearly drowned out by the sudden ear-piercing peal of a guffaw emitted from the line of first years not yet Sorted.
And there was the most obvious difference between the two chums: Horace was soft-spoken, and Ajax's snicker could shatter every sneakoscope in Shetland. Ajax was never embarrassed by his laugh, even as those around him might feel differently. Instead, he freely loosed it on the general public whenever he felt the need, which was often as he was a generally genial gentleman. In fact, it was the sound of Ajax's chuckles that drew Horace to him. Horace may have enjoyed watching people, but it was his ears and not his eyes that had led him to his now-closest friend those months ago. While waiting for his name to be called, he thought back to that brisk autumn day.