Limerick90: Regarding Sally-Anne, sadly her frequent accidental magic episodes is not a matter of power but of emotional security. Hazel's concerns that her parents were like the Dursleys is not entirely unfounded; they do not mistreat Sally-Anne – she is still their daughter, and they love her despite the strange events that happen around her – but quite frankly her bursts of accidental magic scare them. That creates a feedback loop of sorts, one where her magic scares them, which makes her more anxious, which makes her more likely to have another episode that sets them off again.

Charlie0925: McGonagall didn't do anything during or after her meeting with Hazel because as far as she could see, Hazel does not appear to be worried or in any distress. When she gives her reasons for her initial refusal of her Hogwarts spot, it is in regard to her own abilities, not "my relatives don't want me to go" or anything of that sort. She acts confidently, as if she has no concerns other than the issues she has already mentioned. Which is honestly true as far as she's concerned. If anything, Hazel is in a better place mentally than Harry was in canon, and nobody thought he had anything wrong with him or questioned/challenged the Dursleys' actions until several years into the series.

"I think Hazel's House will be…": This isn't a response per se, since you'll see where Hazel goes this very chapter, but I just wanted to take a moment to say how much I enjoyed going through all the reviews where you guys laid out your logic for which House you think Hazel best fits. I had already made this decision more than a year ago, but everyone's explanations were still entertaining to read, and I love how there really was no consensus with people explaining their cases for every House. She is supposed to be a character who isn't a slam dunk anywhere, so I'm happy to see I achieved that goal.


Chapter 31
The Sorting Hat

"We will be reaching Hogwarts in five minutes' time. Please leave your luggage on the train. It will be taken to the school separately."

"L-Leave our luggage on the train? How are we supposed to get it back afterwards? Do y-you think they will pile it all in one room for us t-to pick up after dinner?"

Hazel could only shrug with one shoulder as the train lurched faintly and started slowing down, her fingers still fidgeting with the sleeves of her school robe. Sally-Anne had informed her that McGonagall told her and her parents that all students were expected to wear their robes at all feasts and during school days, and as a result the other girl insisted she change into wizard clothes once they noticed the sky turning a dark purple about an hour before the announcement that just echoed through the train. This was the first time Hazel had worn said robe since obtaining it from London, and already she was unhappy with how it bunched up and billowed out in strange places compared to the clothes she was used to wearing.

'How were you comfortable wearing this thing the whole ride?' she finally asked as she continued fussing with it.

The question got a frail smile from Sally-Anne. "Can't laugh. She's been so nice all this time, I don't want to make her mad and drive her away. It feels weird, right? I've been wearing it off and on at home to practice and get used to it, but it still isn't right." The blonde looked up and down at Hazel's robe again, and the smile gave way to a frown. "Then again, her robe really doesn't fit her, not at all. Mum would have a fit if we left the store and they looked like that on me. They, er, might feel better if, um, th-they were t-tailored to fit. …If you wanted to know."

Hazel could only grimace at that. Getting her robe tailored was something she intentionally avoided when she was procuring it in the first place because of the extra expense it would involve, both for the tailoring itself as well as because the lady in the store would have undoubtedly pushed for her to buy multiple robes instead of the single one she needed. 'It wasn't an option at the time.'

"Wasn't an option? I wonder why." Hazel busied herself packing her hedge magic book and the notes she had been taking from it back into her satchel, which Sally-Anne thankfully seemed to take as a hint that she did not want to elaborate. That restraint, unfortunately, did little to quell the curiosity bubbling away beneath the surface.

When the train finally came to a complete stop, both girls stayed in their seats as everyone else immediately forced themselves into the narrow corridor and pushed their way out of the train. When the worst of the noise had faded, only then did they stand and open the door. A few people were still exiting, so they slipped behind a trio of teenagers. The evening air, already crisp and cool even in September, hit her and caused her to shiver and Morgan to nestle himself against her neck.

"Any more firs' years? Firs' years follow me!" called out a booming voice from over to the right. Sally-Anne tugged on her sleeve, and they both looked over to see a massive, hulking man standing next to other children their own age. The man was easily eight feet tall if he was an inch, the difference in height between him and the other new students only making him appear even more immense, and he carried a lamp in his hand that lit up the thick, bushy beard that covered most of his face. Turning around, he started walking into the woods that butted up against the station, his steps revealing a path that was not immediately visible thanks to the position of the trees at the edge of the forest.

Sally-Anne's grip tightened further as her fist clenched and barely concealed panic seized her. With few options available to her, Hazel could only reach down and gently pat her new companion's hand. The other girl turned wide, anxious eyes onto her, and between the soft touch as well as an encouraging smile Sally-Anne eventually gave her a minuscule twitch of her mouth that held neither happiness or relief; it was just a mask to hide her true feelings. "How is she so calm? He's gigantic, like he belongs in Jack and the Beanstalk. Surely that's not normal for wizards, right? D-Do you think we're really supposed to follow him? Why didn't P-Professor McGonagall come get us? We know her already. Why does it have to be somebody we don't know? He didn't even tell us his name before walking away!"

'I don't see anybody else here to pick us up, so I suppose so. We can stay in the back if you want.'

"T-Thanks. I think, l-let's stay back a bit? So we can run if it turns out he's not a teacher and tries to hurt us. Thank the Lord I found her compartment. Mum and Dad hoped I would make some friends here, but none of us expected it would be on the first day."

The gratefulness of Sally-Anne's smile and the direction of her thoughts was enough to make Hazel want to squirm. Was Sally-Anne a friend? Probably not, or not yet at least. But friendly acquaintance, certainly. Even without that, she was in a new place and scared. Memories of several situations, those that directly threatened her life but also times when she had been on her own with no help in sight, bubbled up to the forefront of her mind. Since running away from her aunt and uncle, even before, she had faced many situations where she could have used a comforting hand; it was not until she encountered the werewolves and the hags that she learned just how impactful it could be to have even one person willing to stand beside her.

The world would be a better place if this was common instead of being limited to those who made up the downtrodden fringes of society. The least she could do was offer her own hand to others, especially anyone like herself.

"Oooooooh! It's so prettybeautifulmajesticamazingwickedimpressiveawesome—"

The deluge of sudden thoughts, all similar in nature but just different enough to be discordant and grating when thrown at her in unison like this, was enough to make her wince. The voices distracted Sally-Anne from her worries, and her own thoughts soon reflected those of everyone else.

The cause for everyone's excitement was easy to spot, and the sight likewise took her own breath away. Sitting on a cliff in the distance, visible even above the other kids' heads, was a vast castle with windows scattered thickly across its walls and all lit with a welcoming glow. Its shape as well as a few of the aforementioned windows suggested tall turrets and towers, but against the night sky all the details were swallowed up in the darkness. When the history book about the school mentioned it being a castle, she had assumed it was a bit of exaggeration or poetic license, not that the school was a literal fairytale castle.

"No more'n four to a boat!" the giant of a man yelled out.

The crowd surged forwards again, and Hazel jumped once to see if she could get a glance over their heads – she could not, of course, because everyone else was too blasted tall – before walking several feet deep into the forest so she could look between the trees. Between the castle and where they now stood was a wide lake, its surface smooth as glass and glimmering from the light of the stars above. A dozen or so little boats crafted from a white wood bobbed lightly in a line against the near shore. They had neither sail nor paddles, leading her to question whether they would be pulled by an unseen rope or if there was some other magic capable of mobilizing them.

Returning to Sally-Anne's side, she knocked the dirt off the butt of her staff and shoved it into her satchel. The boats were short and narrow, and with four people filling them up she doubted there would be room on top of that for a staff her own height. They walked towards the end of the line of boats and joined another pair that were likewise headed in that direction. One of the pair was a boy with dark skin and narrow eyes, and the other was a broad individual who Hazel first thought was a boy roughly of Dudley's stature only for her then to realize it was actually a girl. Just a girl who stood almost two whole heads taller than her.

No, she was not jealous about that. Not at all.

Once all four of them were seated, the boat did indeed start moving of its own accord, slipping behind one of the other boats that had already begun its own journey. Motion within their boat caught her attention, and she frowned as the bigger girl maintained her new death-grip on the edge and stared straight ahead. "Don't look left. Don't look right. Don't look down."

'Are you okay?' Hazel wrote.

The words floating in the air caught the other girl by surprise, which was also enough to cut off her own internal monologue. "How did she…? Fine, no I'm not. Don't like boats. Papa never said anything about needing to get on the lake. He knows I can't swim! Why couldn't we just take the carriages he told me about?"

Hazel could only give her a sympathetic smile. 'We'll get off soon, I think. The castle isn't too far.'

She could only describe the smile the girl gave her as nauseous, but nonetheless she closed her eyes and swallowed thickly. Hazel turned her attention back to their surroundings and watched as the lead boat with the man in it slipped into the cliff face through a curtain of ivy. Their boat soon did the same, revealing a cramped tunnel lit solely by the occasional torch. The boat continued to bob along in the water, scraping its sides against the stone walls a few time over the next several minutes before the tunnel widened into an underground harbor of a sorts. The boats soon after ground to a halt against the pebble and sand shore.

The change in motion was enough to get the bigger girl's attention, and Hazel shifted to the side to allow her to exit ahead of her and immediately after Sally-Anne. She climbed out after and followed the crowd as it surged up an uneven flight of stone stairs. The stairs become more uniform as they climbed, less like a natural path and more intentionally carved, until the staircase ultimately ended in a large oak door that was easily twenty feet tall or more. The giant raised one fist and pounded on the door with three solid knocks.

Without a moment's pause, as if someone was waiting for the signal, the door opened up to reveal a familiar black-haired woman. McGonagall, today wearing a dark crimson robe cut like a dress, stepped through and peered down at the swarm of new students. "Thank you, Hagrid," she said.

Clearly hearing the dismissal, the now-named man gave her an almost timid nod before exiting out the same door she had come through, his thoughts focusing on the care of 'Fluffy', which Hazel could only assume was the name of a pet.

"So small, even compared to last year. Will we ever start seeing the number of students we used to have? Welcome to Hogwarts," the professor told them, the course of her thoughts almost audibly slipping into a well-worn speech. "The start-of-term banquet will begin shortly, but before you take your seats in the Great Hall, you will be sorted into your Houses. The Sorting is a very important ceremony because, while you are here, your House will be something like your family within Hogwarts. You will have classes with the rest of your House, sleep in your House dormitory, and spend free time in your House common room."

'Something like your family'. Hazel could not help but grimace at that thought and hope it was not true. She did not have the best track record with 'family', not when her only personal experience was with the Dursleys. Families could function normally, she had seen that first-hand with the werewolf commune and the hags, but these were all families of which she was a friend, an outside observer. Not a member.

"The four Houses are called Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin. Each House has its own noble history, and each has produced outstanding witches and wizards. While you are at Hogwarts, your triumphs will earn your House points, while any rule-breaking will lose House points. At the end of the year, the House with the most points is awarded the House Cup, a great honor. I hope each of you will be a credit to whichever House becomes yours."

All around her, thoughts came to Hazel of the hopes and fears people had regarding which House they would soon join. McGonagall gave them a few moments to mutter amongst themselves before clearing her throat and pulling their attention back to her. "Now, form a line and follow me."

McGonagall turned around and walked out the door into a magnificent hallway. Stone formed its walls and floors alike, massive beams visible above them holding up the steep ceiling. She turned to the left and toward a set of double doors that were open just a crack to allow the mingled sound of dozens of conversations to drift out to them. Pushing the doors open fully, the professor led them inside what could only be the Great Hall.

The room fully deserved the title. It was truly enormous, the scale incredible even considering the look they had been given at the castle as a whole from the outside. Thousands of candles sat not on the tables or set into the walls but floated in the air supported by nothing by the force of magic, a display that put her experiments with her mage hand completely to shame. The ceiling wavered like an oil slick to her sight, an illusion of the bright starlight of the sky layered atop wood beams identical to those of the hallway they had just left. Between the candles hung four banners decorated with the crests of the four Houses of the school and in turn directing her attention to the four long tables where the rest of the students were already sitting with plates and goblets of gleaming gold before them. At the back of the room was a fifth table, this running perpendicular to the others with only adults seated behind it. Everyone's eyes were on their group, their half-bored expectation pressing against her like the tides of the sea. She had never been faced with so many people feeling emotions this aligned, this similar, and the effect fed on itself until it was nearly overwhelming.

Movement within the crowd of students caught her eye, faint silver glowing somethings shifting through the fields of black robes. She looked closer at those splotches of color as McGonagall walked down the center aisle to the back of the room, trying to spot just what was making them. Spells of some sort? Little metal servant golems like those she had read about in a few fantasy novels? One moved around a student nearby, close enough for her to get a quick glimpse—

Hazel's thoughts stuttered as her eyes finally landed on the source of the dull glow. A shape reminiscent of a man, his apparent age unclear without any true color to give her hints. It rose upwards unhindered by gravity, drifting out of the wooden table it had slipped through as though it were nothing more substantial than smoke and vapor. The people behind it were visible through its transparent existence. Its head wobbled as it moved, threatening to fall off its neck as it was attached to the rest of its body with only a few strands of ectoplasmic tissue. The skin of its neck and the Elizabethan ruffles of its collar were stained a darker grey than the rest of him, echoes of blood still freshly spilt centuries later. It turned to look at them, look at her, its mouth opening—

—slipping through walls like mist mouths wide and deep teeth needlelike and long as her arm empty sockets without eyes to stare hungrily at her warm warm WARM WaaAaRrMm

Something touched her arm, and she jerked back and whipped her head to the side. Sally-Anne pulled her hand back, eyes wide but quickly softening. "You okay? She looks terrified," she mouthed.

"—nes, Susan!" called out McGonagall from the front of the room.

Hazel gave Sally-Anne a shaky nod. This was neither the time nor the place to share her past experiences with spirits. A quick glance around made her wonder if there would be a time here; the spirit that had scared her was still visible to her, and considering one of the students at that table was looking up at its face and speaking quietly to it she had to assume others could see it as well. Was it a benevolent or at least ambivalent spirit, closer to the spirits of the forest that had gifted her the fairy lens she still wore or that guided her to the magical boar she hunted with Grégoire?

That was the only conclusion that made sense.

What was more concerning was the… memory? She supposed that was the best description for it, although it felt far too real to be just a memory. Her travels had not had her interact with that many spirits, but on the occasions she had nothing like this had ever happened. Did it have something to do with a room full of thoughts pressing against her with an almost physical weight? Even with the spirit seemingly passive, her nerves were still taught, a bone-deep need to run, to escape, welling up within her.

Giving Sally-Anne a weak nod, she wrote her response in small letters close to her chest. 'I wasn't suspecting to find spirits here. It surprised me.'

"That was more than surprise, what with the way she was shaking and staring at nothing. I was shocked, too," Sally-Anne whispered. "The history books said the school was haunted, but I thought that was just a school legend or something. Ghosts aren't real. O-Or, they aren't supposed to be."

"HUFFLEPUFF!"

She turned her head to look back at the important part of this ceremony. McGonagall pulled a ratty-looking hat off the head of a red-headed girl, who dashed off to the table immediately to Hazel's left and next to the table with the beheaded ghost. The woman looked at the list in her other hand and called out, "Boot, Terry!" As soon as the boy walked forward and sat on the stool, she placed the hat on his head. It shifted on its own for several moments before a rip near the brim opened wide.

"RAVENCLAW!"

A hat? They were put into different Houses by a hat? A talking hat? She looked around, but based on the faces and the fact that everyone's thought was on the House they wanted to join, almost no one thought this was strange or worth a second thought. The wizard-born were dismissive, and the Nés-Moldus shrugged it off. Even Sally-Anne's thoughts had quickly moved into acceptance that this must be normal. Hazel could not claim to be an expert in how wizards did things, but after spending two weeks and change in Diagon Alley as well as her previous visits to Place Cachée and Stuttgart, this was the first talking anything she had seen.

Several more names were called out and sent to different tables, and then the broad girl she and Sally-Anne had shared a boat with walked forwards after the call for "Bulstrode, Millicent!" She was also the first person sent to Slytherin's table over on the far right.

The crowd of her fellow new students dwindled down more and more as the list of names continued. "Perks, Sally-Anne!" shouted McGonagall.

Sally-Anne shot Hazel a nervous, almost nauseous smile and gave her hand a squeeze before walking towards the stool and hat. "I hope I get a good House. One where I can make friends. It would be nice if Hazel could be there with me…"

The hat slipped down over Sally-Anne's eyes, and it took less than a minute for it to call out, "HUFFLEPUFF!"

"Potter, Hazel!"

The mutter of muted conversations cut out entirely, but that did not mean that the thoughts did as well. They intensified, each person's individual thoughts being drowned out by the crowd in a swell of anticipation and excitement. The pressure from before was back, but instead of a wave from a single direction it wrapped around her and squeezed like a ravenous boa constrictor as she started her own walk. With each step it felt like her goal was getting farther away, and she had to clench and unclench her fists several times as she pushed herself to keep moving. The temptation to run, already present, was growing stronger and stronger. It almost demanded that she jump away to safety and solitude or wrap herself up in her smoke so that everyone could look anywhere else and leave her be. Morgan could clearly feel her worry and twittered softly in her ear.

A minute passed in an eternity, but the stool crept closer until it was right in front of her. She turned around and sat rigid on the seat, pale faces in a sea of black staring ominously at her before dark fabric slid over her eyes.

And the voices cut out completely, leaving only blessed silence behind.

"Hmm," said a voice in her right ear. She jerked her head in that direction reflexively, and a chuckle came from the left. "Oh, you're a tricksy one, aren't you? Suspicious, distrusting. You know the fear of the hunt. It has been so long since I had someone like you in here with me."

Who are you?, she asked. This voice sounded like it knew her, knew what she had lived through. As if it were in her head. Would it hear her questions she could only think the way Morgan could?

Something, a presence, swirled around behind her head in a manner that felt familiar. "Me? I am the Sorting Hat, Potter. Weren't you listening?"

You are not a hat. Not just a hat, anyway. If the voice was not coming from the hat, if its origin was elsewhere, where would that be? The shifting, swirling voice was one thing, but where was its mind? Its thoughts? She let her mental ears perk up, a whisper coming from somewhere up and to the—

A strange sensation of pushing within her head hit her, almost like the feeling when she had been snap-jumping and pushing her magic to its limit. Except not because this was not a push at all. It was a pull, something dragging her backwards. "Nah ah ah," taunted the voice. "We are here to talk about what's in your head, little girl, not mine. Maybe not so fearful after all. Or perhaps you just haven't yet learned where and when to keep your hands to yourself. You can't count on running away from your problems forever. Eventually you will poke something you can't easily escape.

"Courageous in your own brand of foolhardiness, even if you have also tasted fear and panic. Fear from being the center of attention? Now that is interesting. They would crush you, did you know? Lions will not hesitate to turn on the weak and the sick.

"You have curiosity, of that there is no doubt. Magic is the world's greatest puzzle to you, isn't it? You want to explore, fly to the very limits of the world and discover the truth of what lays beyond." The voice swished around her again, its voice growing almost snide. "I would advise more caution than you have shown thus far if you seek the truth. That is the road to making powerful enemies."

Enemies? What enemies?

"Should you get that far, you will find out. Whether you survive the encounter is another matter. It will require more than the cunning you possess. A fox, no matter how clever or sneaky, cannot outwit the hunter. And that it what you are, girl; a fox, yes, but no serpent. Your needs, your ambitions, are too base for you to wear scales proudly.

"…My words do not deter you?" the voice asked in surprise. "Ah, but of course they would be insufficient on their own. You have faced challenges insurmountable before, and you made your way through them. Not without cost, not without risk, but you persevered regardless. You are no stranger to the treacherous road, for all that you know it will keep you apart and alone.

"My question still remains. Where to put you?"

Claw-like fingernails bit into her shoulder as the voice spoke behind her head and into her hair. "Courage tempered by fear, seeds of nobility and honor smothered by the weight of the world. Curiosity burning bright but entwined with a need to experience the truth with your own hands; wisdom earned firsthand instead of inherited. A thief who takes only what you need rather than all you can see. A lonely creature whose first instinct is to run, always run. You will accept help but rarely seek it out. Even those to whom you feel the first stirrings of loyalty are kept at arm's reach, trusted in their own way but viewed as separate from yourself.

"No matter the choice, you will be tested. Change and growth wait before you, but they will demand their weight in blood and tears. Are you willing to bear that cost, or will you accept the lesser knowledge you can take safely?"

Hazel took a deep breath and let it out. You talk of cost, of challenge, of pain and blood. You tell me I walk a hard road that leaves me out in the cold. You aren't the first person to tell me that, did you know that? Mr. Ollivander's face flashed in her mind, his voice as he offered her a choice between a wand and her staff, between trying to reshape herself into half a witch or remain the druid she was. But this isn't a choice for me. This is just who I am. I will stay true to myself, even if that means I have to walk alone.

Another memory bubbled up, called forth not by her own mind but fished out in the grip of the voice. A woman in a brown dress and a blue headband, a card flipped over. Lightning hitting a dark tower and throwing the person standing at the top into the air.

A dark snicker surrounded her. "Well, well, well. This is interesting. You wish to stay the course? You remain committed to the road before you? Then accept your fate, Hazel Potter. Become the lightning. Strike the tower. A home I doubt you will discover within these walls, but at least your resolve will remain hardened in—

"HUFFLEPUFF!"


That was a FAR more disturbing Sorting than I had in my notes. Holy crap. I, uh, need to chat with my muse for a bit, so if you'll excuse me…

It's kind of funny, but I realized while writing this chapter that although my mental image of Hazel has always been for her to be several inches shorter than the average for her age, I don't know that I've ever said that in-story. I think it's because she hasn't been around other kids her own age and so the comparison has never come up.

Silently Watches out.