Chapter 3: A Thinking Cap

As expected in early September, the warm weather, combined with the sleepy dusk of the disappearing sun, provided a striking scene for the Hogwarts students to arrive to. Little flowers dotted the grass, and swayed carelessly in the evening breeze. The clouds had captured some of the last deep orange rays of sun and were flushed in rich hues. The stunning scenery, however, hardly reflected the charged atmosphere amongst the students disembarking the Hogwarts Express.

Albus helped Rose down from the high step, and they walked together soaking up their first proper glimpse of Hogwarts. The castle stood, all of its windows illuminated, its reflection rippling in the glassy lake in front of them. Even the richest purebloods were impressed.

Hagrid, whose bushy beard was streaked with grey, began his routine of ushering the first years towards the boats.

'Firs' years, over here!' he bellowed, his eyes surrounded by a wreath of wrinkles. Albus followed immediately.

"Hagrid!" Rose called to the massive man, debating whether it was alright to hug a professor. Hagrid's face lit up in a huge beam as he saw the two.

"Albus, Rose, how are yeh?" he clapped them both solidly on the back (both disguised their yelps as a sudden coughing fit).

"Great Hagrid!" Albus said. Hagrid smiled and turned his attention to a nervous looking girl, who said her name was Malory.

"I suppose you would be friends with the half giant," Silas had appeared behind them and had a decisively nasty sneer on his face. Rose glared at him.

"So what if we are?" she snapped.

Silas proved he was eleven and simply rolled his eyes as if he knew something she didn't. Albus returned the gesture, hostility subtly mounting.

"Silas, shove off," Graham elbowed his friend.

Silas looked ready to argue, but didn't say anything as Graham steered him away.

"I'm going to keep my eye on him," Rose muttered to the retreating back of Silas. Albus agreed, and her attention turned towards the other boy that had shared their compartment and was now joking with the twin girls.

To Rose, meeting Scorpius Malfoy had been quite the anticlimax.

After everything her father had said, he seemed perfectly normal. No Dark Mark. No menagerie of pet snakes. He didn't look like he had an entire bottle of gel in his hair – actually, she doubted he had any in at all. He had been distant, but not hostile. She supposed she had been the same.

She was still planning to beat him in every class, though.

"How did Scorpius know you?" she murmured to Albus.

He gave a cocky grin, his eyes flashing.

"I'm horribly famous," he said, and Rose rolled her eyes to heaven. "No, honestly, we only made eye contact when I went to Ollivanders. That was it. He crashed into Teddy, too - it was pretty funny, really."

"Oh. Okay."

"Four to a boat!" Hagrid called, giving Rose a reassuring squeeze on her shoulder before moving on. "Firs' years, come along! Only four to a boat… didn't you hear?"

The last comment was directed at Scorpius, Silas, Graham and the Ellem twins, who had tried to slip five onto a boat. They exchanged apprehensive glances before the twins nobly left together, leaving the boys with a freckled girl named Malory. She looked green at the thought of riding on a boat, and she was ignored the entire trip.

Albus stepped into one of the boats, extending his hand to help Rose in. A smile tugged at the edge of her mouth as she stepped into the boat and sat down, feeling it rock underneath her.

The Ellem twins scanned the boats looking for one with two places left – there were two options; a rather large, bewildered looking boy sitting by himself and Albus and Rose. They chose the latter and silently sat opposite them. The boats skimmed across the water, closer and closer to Hogwarts. Rose squirmed in anticipation – she had spent eleven years waiting to come here!

Despite many dramatic and fearsome tales from James, Albus was just as excited (albeit anxious), and he gave Rose's hand a little squeeze, just like he' done with James when they were younger.

"What house do you think you'll get?" Rose asked the twins. They smirked as if that wasn't even a question.

"Slytherin" – their reply was almost in unison.

"Oh."

"What about you?" Holly asked, twirling her ponytail. Albus shrugged.

"Gryffindor, probably," Rose said lightly. All the Weasley's were in Gryffindor.

"Albus?" Koko asked.

"I don't really care. Any of them would be good, but all of my family are Gryffindors… James – my brother – teases me that I'll get Slytherin, but I don't think he really means it."

The twins bristled slightly.

"What's wrong with Slytherin?" Holly asked sweetly. The air grew slightly acidic.

"I said I didn't care what house I was in," Albus lied. The rest of the journey passed silently.

/ RTH /

As they were ushered into the Great Hall, Albus, feeling as though thousands of eyes were staring at him, shrank slightly. He barely heard as 'Astaire, Phoebe' was sorted into Hufflepuff, although he did notice that Graham Bane become a Slytherin.

Soon, (after 'Lennon, Jack' was sorted into Ravenclaw), it was Silas's turn. He winked at Graham to tell him he would be joining him soon at the Slytherin table before swaggering up to the Sorting Hat. After a few moments, Silas face become panicked. His eyes widened seconds before the hat shouted "Gryffindor!"

Rose snorted at the exclamations of horror coming from his friends.

Malfoy came straight after Macintyre, and Scorpius approached the hat tentatively.

As he placed it on his head, a voice came into his head.

"Ah, what do we have here?" the hat chuckled. "My, what a puzzle you are."

"I think my house is obvious," Scorpius thought, panicking. "Slytherin – I'm a Slytherin."

"Hmm… you certainly do have a fair part of Salazar in you. Your thirst to succeed is unquenchable – but so is your thirst for knowledge."

"Merlin, not Ravenclaw," Scorpius said apprehensively, the phrase 'nerds with no social status' coming to mind.

"I wouldn't be so quick to judge the Ravenclaws," the Hat warned humourlessly. "But no, you're right – you don't learn for the sake of knowledge. You learn to achieve the means to an end."

"That would make me a Slytherin," Scorpius said confidently. The 'I suppose' that came from the Hat was far less confident.

"Loath as you are to admit it, you'd make a fantastic Gryffindor," the hat offered. "Your will is very strong – if you think something is wrong, you will fight tooth and nail for it. And you're brave."

"No I'm not," Scorpius said quietly.

"Scorpius, you weren't to blame for what happened then," the Hat said gently.

"You can see into MY MEMORIES?!" Scorpius thought furiously. "What are you?"

"Oh that's far too complicated a question. Tonight we'll stick to one question and one alone. What house to put you in?"

"Just put me in Slytherin and be done with it," Scorpius snapped. "I'm not brave or chivalrous. Besides, have you ever heard of a Gryffindor that plays pranks?"

The Hat actually laughed – it was a strange, muffled sound.

"Oh my, you haven't met many Gryffindors, have you? Well, I think we can safely rule out Hufflepuff, you're hardly worthy."

Scorpius was indignant! Not worthy to be in Hufflepuff! What a joke.

"I still say you'd make a great Gryffindor," the Hat said, making deliberate emphasis on the word 'great'.

Scorpius would be lying if he said he wasn't tempted.

"And, I can promise, in Gryffindor you will be only Scorpius. No Malfoy attached.

"Bloody great chance of that with Silas in my year," Scorpius retorted.

"If you're put into Slytherin, you can still do many wonderful things, but… you'll have to be more careful. More than one person wants to paint you with the brush of your father."

"I don't care – my father is a great man. Make me Slytherin."

"Alas, if that is what you so desperately crave, better be…"

"Slytherin!" the hat called aloud, generating polite applause from the students. Gralaus gave a little whoop, and Scorpius shakily walked to his table. That had been far too close for comfort. As well, it had planted a small seed of doubt he hadn't known existed. Would he have made a better Gryffindor?

He guessed he'd never find out, now.

'Oat, Helga,' was made a Hufflepuff, and then it was Albus's turn.

As soon as the hat had touched his head, he began furiously repeating a single mantra.

"Not Slytherin… not Slytherin…"

"My, Mr Potter, what a biased opinion. Let me have a look at you before we bargain," was the Hat's acerbic reply. Albus was a little surprised.

"I do seem to remember your father having a similar aversion to the snakes," the Hat put in more gently. "And that hooligan of your brother – truth be told I weighed up Hufflepuff for him…"

Albus filed that information away for later with a gentle snigger.

"No, Ravenclaw is out of the question. Just like your father in that regard. I sense a fair dose of loyalty, but again the hardworking standard of the Hufflepuffs would ill-suit you."

Albus felt a sense of relief. Just had to cross Slytherin off the list, and everything would be fine.

"Now you're a plucky lad – would have to be with that brother of yours," the Hat said with a fond chuckle. "But you're not James. I remember his head very clearly – well-meaning lad, but no sense of self-preservation. Would jump off a cliff to save somebody he loved."

Albus didn't think that sounded like a bad trait.

'Oh it isn't, Mr Potter, but it's not one you possess. No, you have a burning thirst to be different from your brother – different from your famous father, even. You love them both very much, but you're tired of walking in shadows. This is where Slytherin will help you."

"No… please…"

"I'm afraid, Mr Potter, that my mind is made up. Better be…"

"NO!"

"SLYTHERIN!" he called. Much to Albus's shock, James (despite being startled) leapt to his feet and began applauding heartily, and people from every house cheered. He walked over to the table uncertainly, sitting next to the gesturing Graham. After 'Quinlan, David' was made a Ravenclaw, the Vranovski twin joined them at the Slytherin table.

Only Rose to go.

She was the second last person, so by the time she had placed the Sorting Hat on her head, the majority of the students were hungry, impatient and ready to eat. Murmurs peppered the crowd.

"Ah, another Weasley."

Rose certainly didn't imagine the amused tone coming from the Sorting Hat.

"Plenty of courage, I see. You're an easy one - better be… GRYFFINDOR!"

Weak with relief, Rose joined the Gryffindor table, sitting as far away from Silas as possible. Happy as she was, she felt a sense of loss - she and Albus had been so excited, talking about everything they were going to do together in Gryffindor. He had to ruin it by getting sorted into Slytherin, didn't he?

She'd still see him, of course, but it wouldn't be the same.

She turned and introduced herself to the girl sitting next to her.

"Hi, I'm Rose."

"I'm Jade."

Jade had a loose, black braid winding down her back and melted chocolate eyes the colour of her skin.

Each of the tables engaged in varying levels of small talk until the Headmaster stood. Elliot Frostier was a striking image, with his formidably tall outline dominating the podium.

"Welcome to Hogwarts," his deep, husky voice slicing through the chatter, resulting in ripples of silence. "I'm sure you're all eager to begin your feast, but before we begin I have some very grave news. Those in Second Year and older I'm sure would have known Natalie Hart, a Ravenclaw who would have been beginning her fourth year at Hogwarts this year."

Apprehension seeped through the room at his use of past tense.

"We regret to inform all of you, that due to medical conditions, Natalie passed away last month. We know she had many friends here, and our deepest condolences go to her family and friends during this time. Now please, begin the feast."

Nobody began to eat. Quite a few students – witches and wizards alike – were crying, and although some seemed to have already known the news, it was obvious they were all struggling to hold it together. Even the first year's appetites were affected by the sombre mood amongst the students. Rose turned to a Fourth Year a few seats down from her.

"Who was she?" she asked. The Fourth Year looked at her with a small, sad smile.

"Nat was probably the loveliest person I've ever met. She was raised in a Muggle foster home, but apparently she was a half-blood. She was very pretty, always smiling. She was the Chaser for the Ravenclaw team, too. I can't believe she's gone – she was perfectly fine before the holidays."

Rose was aghast.

"That's awful," she sympathised – this gathered a few mute nods from the subdued table.

Slytherin House had taken the news equally harshly.

"Who was she?" Albus muttered to Graham.

"How am I supposed to know?" he shrugged elegantly. A Fourth Year, who had overheard, enlightened them.

"She was the best Chaser to come out of Ravenclaw for a good thirty years," he said. "She was nice too."

"Mmm," another boy agreed, his voice constricted. He hastily began wiping away tears that were threatening to slide down his face.

Almost nothing else was discussed for the next half hour as everybody reminisced and filled the First Years in about Natalie Hart. All agreed she was an outstanding witch, and that it was a raw shock that she was gone.

Try as Scorpius might to feel depressed, he had never met her and the eleven year old in him wanted to eat and go to bed. He reached for a piece of steak and proceeded to pile his plate high. Many followed suit, although there was still far more poking and playing with food than actual eating. This Nat must have been someone special.

/RTH/

After a rather disconsolate dinner, the first years were ushered along into their new dormitories. Albus looked wistfully at the Gryffindors as they left in another direction.

"Keep up!" Lana Mendez, one of the bossier Prefects, yelled to the back of the line. Albus, realising he had come to an absolute stop and was watching the last of the Gryffindors go, began to walk faster, nearly tripping on the long hem of his robe.

"Wishing you were going with your Gryffindor buddies?"

Albus gave a start – he hadn't even noticed Scorpius move behind him.

"No," he lied, stepping to the side so that Scorpius was forced to walk next to him. "Wishing you were off with those Hufflepuffs – obviously that was a close one," he snapped back, sounding a bit harsher than he had meant to. Scorpius merely smirked and gave an elegant shrug.

"I wasn't the one," he put on a falsetto voice, "Gazing languidly after the Gryffindors…"

Whatever he'd been about to say next was cut off by a loud shush from Lana. Albus thought he could see one girl at the front of the line surreptitiously wiping spittle off her cheek.

"We're almost at the Dungeons, and I need you all to listen here. Once we get inside I want all of you first years to sit quietly on the couches – there's to be no running or shouting or clamouring for the best bed, do you hear?"

"Yes Mum," Albus muttered, and was surprised to hear an answering snicker of laughter come from Graham. Lana heard and fixed the two with a cold, disdainful stare that only highlighted her rather small, watery eyes. The other first years gave more sincere murmurs of acknowledgement, and proceeded to take them down a small flight of stairs. A large indistinct wall lay in front of them, stretching into a corridor. Albus saw a few spiders' webs and a lot of dust laced on the walls.

"I hope we're not sleeping anywhere near here," Scorpius said disdainfully to the Vranovski twins and, as entitled as he had sounded, Albus was inclined to agree. The air was damp and musty, and the only light source was a sputtering candle jammed into a crevice in the wall. Altogether, Albus thought, an uninviting place.

Lana pressed the wall with her wand, and it grated away to reveal a heavy wooden door. One boy gave a cry of shock, which was met with some good-natured snickers. Probably a muggleborn, Albus thought distractedly. The door was ornate, carved with a fiercely beautiful snake that moved and hissed occasionally.

"Hello!" she said. "I see we have some new first years… ahah that oness a sscaredy.. I can ssmell it in the air… I wonder if any of them would happen to have a rat or something…"

Albus felt it impolite to mention that she was made of wood, and that it would be quite impossible for her to eat a rat even if they did have one spare.

"This lady here is Isis; she guards the door to our common room. Isis doesn't normally bite, so as long as you're polite nothing will go wrong," Lana said lightly. The snake gave a hiss that sounded suspiciously like laughter.

"Normally?" Graham muttered. Scorpius and Albus shrugged, then stiffened awkwardly. Neither knew who Graham had been talking to.

"Regium," Lana said in a high, clear voice to Isis.

"That snake is hissing an awful lot," a boy said nervously to Albus.

"I guess," Albus shrugged. "She just said hello… although I think she'd have trouble eating a rat even if we did have one, don't you think?" he said with a little laugh. The boy looked at him as if he was a strange animal.

"What are you talking about?" he said. "What's this about a rat?"

Now it was Albus's turn to look confused. "She asked for a rat just before…"

"You heard her speak?" the boy said incredulously. Albus suddenly felt very nervous.

"You didn't?" he whispered. The boy shook his head, wide-eyed. Albus vaguely remembered his name being Leo Jakins.

"Oh."

That was all he could say.

His mind was spinning. He couldn't be a Parseltongue. The gift was hereditary, he knew, and apparently very dark. He grabbed the boy's arm.

"Leo, isn't it?" he asked. Leo nodded and looked down at Albus' arm, which was clenched into his arm. Albus let go but maintained eye contact. "You can't tell anybody I understood that snake, alright?"

Leo looked pale and confused, but nodded.

"Is there something wrong with it? I'm sorry, but…" the boy looked at him nervously. "I'm muggleborn."

When Albus didn't react negatively, Leo continued more confidently.

"I don't know much about the magical world yet," he said with an apologetic shrug. Their conversation – which had previously been masked by the bubble of chatter surrounding them as the students channelled through the door – came to a stop as the chatter evaporated. Albus, his reply stillborn, looked up to see a formidable looking woman staring at them critically in the green light of the common room.

"Later," Leo whispered. Albus nodded.

The common room itself was amazing. Albus wasn't sure what he'd been expecting – it was perhaps the location of the dungeon that had set the precedent for some cobwebby, potion fume-filled prison, but what Albus was looking at was certainly no prison.

Several low-backed, black leather couches surrounded the roaring fire – Albus thought they looked very comfortable. The whole room was bathed in an exotic underwater glow, and as he looked up Albus realised why. The common room was under the lake, and the roof-high windows turned it into a giant aquarium.

"Wicked!" Leo breathed. Albus nodded his shaggy head and turned his attention to the professor standing in front of the huddle of first years. She had a round face, with very narrow black eyes. Her dark hair was pulled into a very tight, uniform bun and although the sleeves of her brilliant green robes were dramatic and flowing, the rest clung tightly to her petite frame as if they were a second skin.

"I am Professor Zhang," she said shortly, her accent drawing out the 'a' with a nasal ring. "I am Head of Slytherin, and also teach Arithmancy, which will become available to you in your third year. As you should have noticed, if you aren't all as dull as you look, is that the common room password is 'Regium'. The password changes every second week or so, so please keep an eye on the noticeboard. I don't wish for my Prefects to have to deal with sobbing first years who have forgotten the password every second minute of the day."

She arched one of her perfectly manicured eyebrows. Then she gave a small smile that softened her features. "That being said, I'm sure this must be very new and frightening and if you have any issues please do not feel afraid to come to me or one of the Prefects. Lastly, I'd just like to remind you of an important rule." She paused for dramatic effect.

"Slytherins stick together. Slytherin House is arguably the most powerful, simply because our students are ambitious, strong leaders, resourceful, determined and," a ghost of a smile touched her features, "have a certain disregard for the rules. People – especially children – fear power and many Slytherin students have felt the brunt of bullies." Her eyes looked very sad.

"Bullying is not tolerated, and if I find out that anybody was involved in the maltreatment of a student from another – or Merlin forbid their own – house, they will have my full wrath to deal with."

All of the first years were silent. Professor Zhang continued in a very light tone.

"Then again, this shouldn't be a problem for any of you, as I expect none of you will be involved in any of that sort of thing," she said, the cautionary tone all too evident in her voice. "In the unfortunate event that one of my students are in trouble, you must remember: Slytherins stick together. Good night."

With that small speech, she gave a slight inclination of her head and left to talk with a Prefect.

"What did you make of her?" Albus asked Leo. Leo shrugged.

"She seemed nice enough – a little strict and serious, maybe."

"Yeah."

A long staircase led to the boys dormitories. Leo went up first, quickly followed by Albus. Scorpius followed, his loud protests that Albus wasn't going fast enough only silenced when Graham told him to shut up. Behind Graham trailed two other boys who, when all six reached the top, shyly introduced themselves as Ben Grace and Horace Pullford.

Not much activity happened as the boys claimed their beds and crawled under their blankets, exhausted. Albus, despite convincing himself he couldn't simply go to bed with so much to think about, began snoring as soon as his head hit the pillow.

A/N: Sorry for not updating for forever – I had actually had this chapter finished for a long time. Anyway, as always, reviews make my day!