Disclaimer: The Harry Potter world and its characters belong to J.K. Rowling. I'm only borrowing them for a while and promise to return them in more or less the same condition.
Author's Note: I am extremely grateful to My Tomato Days for beta reading the following story and providing many helpful notes.
"Take care of that one"
"First years! Come over here! First years!"
Trembling slightly in a size too big school robes, Minerva McGonagall was pushed out of a train by a crowd of oddly dressed people. At the moment, she regretted having her black hair cut to shoulder length, as the first September night was much colder than the summer ones. Putting her collar up tight, she followed another children her age that started gathering near the shouting man.
"Everyone here? Alright. I'm Ogg, the Keeper of Keys and Grounds at Hogwarts. Follow me to reach the Hogwarts grounds. First years, this way!"
They all followed. After a short walk down a dark narrow path, they reached a shore of a large lake. On the other side there was a high mountain and a massive Romanesque castle on top of it.
"Four people into one boat!" Ogg shouted. He was tall and muscular, so nobody tried to disobey him. When everyone found a place, he said "Forward!" and the fleet of tiny boats glided across the lake. Having reached a stony underground harbour, the students disembarked and hurried up a passage carved in solid rock. Finally, they arrived at the foot of the castle.
Ogg knocked on the oak door, which immediately opened to reveal a tall wizard dressed in sky blue robes with gold stars. He had short auburn hair, his beard barely covered his neck, and his bright blue eyes twinkled in the direction of the students.
"I leave the first years with you, Professor Dumbledore," said Ogg after shaking hands with the peculiarly looking wizard.
"For that I am grateful, Ogg, old friend," Dumbledore answered with a nod and his attention returned to the young witches and wizards before him. "Please, follow me, if you will," he commended.
As Minerva stepped inside the castle, she couldn't take her eyes off her surroundings. The entrance hall was huge and cold. Its stone walls didn't meet the ceiling, but disappeared into the darkness. Torches were flaming on each of her sides and, surprisingly, they were the only sources of light. She didn't spot any lamps or, at the very least, bare light bulbs.
Before she noticed, Minerva and the rest of her year entered a small chamber down the hall. By the time Professor Dumbledore faced them again, the students had begun to talk nervously.
"If I may have your attention, please," he raised his voice slightly, but it was enough to make everyone silent. "My name is Albus Dumbledore. As the Deputy Headmaster, I would like to welcome you to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. In a few moments we are to enter the Great Hall, where your sorting ceremony will take place. Every one of you will belong to one of four Houses, which will become your second family for the time you spend in Hogwarts. These Houses are Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw and Slytherin. You can earn your House points for performing marvellous in classes and lose House points for breaking the school rules."
Professor Dumbledore looked around to see if there were any questions, and, seeing that there weren't, he continued.
"Now, I would like you to form a line. We are all going to step into the Great Hall in a minute or two."
Minerva, despite having an older sibling, was never good at confrontations, so she ended up near the end of the line. The huge double doors to the Great Hall stood open and everyone followed Professor Dumbledore out of the chamber.
The group passed four long tables full of older students. The hall was lit by thousands of candles flowing in mid air. When Minerva looked up, she couldn't believe her own eyes. There was an open sky above her, deep dark blue and full of stars. She managed to find a few familiar constellations. Fascinated by the unusual view, Minerva bumped into the dark-haired boy who suddenly stopped before her.
"Sorry," she muttered, looking in the direction everyone was facing. There was a fifth table at the end of the hall, positioned perpendicularly to the rest, and it was occupied by teachers. Professor Dumbledore placed a four-legged stool between the first years and the teachers' table. On top of the stool he placed a dirty wizard's hat with a big rip in the middle.
For a few moments nothing happened. Minerva started wondering if something had gone wrong. Then the hat twitched a few times and sang a very peculiar song for which it received a round of applause. Minerva took a deep sigh. She hardly fought the urge to turn around and look up the face of her brother on the Ravenclaw table.
"I will call out your names in an alphabetical order," said Dumbledore when the applause had stopped. "When you hear your name, please sit down on the stool and put on the Sorting Hat."
Whenever Minerva asked about the sorting ceremony, Malcolm would tell his younger sister that it was extremely long and painful. She remembered him mentioning fighting a hippogriff or riding a dragon. She didn't believe him, of course, she wasn't stupid. Nevertheless, the girl was still certain the sorting would imply some kind of a test. Casting a simple spell, naming the common curses, telling a difference between an animal and a magical creature. Anything. It turned out everything she had to do was put on an old hat. What a fool she had been to feel so nervous.
"First is… Bones, Edgar!"
A tall blond-haired boy walked forward and put the hat on. It was at least a few sizes too big, covering not only his eyes, but entire face.
"HUFFLEPUFF!" shouted the hat. Students on the right greeted him with cheers. A half-transparent figure floated over to Edgar, vividly encouraging him to join the table. Was that a… ghost?!
Another fair-haired boy approached the stool but Minerva's attention drifted elsewhere. Her eyes went up to glance at the stars once again. Hearing claps and shouting directly behind her, she turned around to see a thin short-haired girl join the Gryffindor table. Minerva noticed that each House had its own ghost that greeted the first years or chit-chatted with the older students.
Hearing that Professor Dumbledore had already reached the letter L, Minerva focused back on the sorting. Her name could be called any minute now. Two more people were assigned to their new Houses before it was Minerva's turn.
Suddenly very anxious, Minerva clenched her teeth and stepped forward. Putting the Sorting Hat on resulted in being unable to see anything but darkness, which unfortunately didn't make her feel any less exposed. She sighed heavily, and then nearly jumped off from the stool after hearing a voice in her head.
"Another McGonagall, huh? The same bright mind, I see that very clearly. This is what Ravenclaw valued most. A thirst of knowledge, logical way of thinking, an ability to easily acquire skills, both theoretical and practical. But there's also a lot of courage. You have the guts to stand for yourself, to be independent, not to only blindly follow anyone's leadership. You want to prove your worthiness above all, but only on those fields you find important. Now, where should I put you?"
The quiet muttering could be heard from every corner of the room, including the teachers' table. There was confusion in Professor Dumbledore's eyes. He's heard about hatstalls from his colleagues, but never had an opportunity to witness one. He looked at his employer for directions. The older wizard raised his hand reassuringly, so Albus decided to wait patiently for the hat to name the girl's house.
"You're very mature for your age," the Sorting Hat continued. "Therefore, you'll have a hard time finding a common language with your classmates. Most of the kids I meet are childish and fun-striving. I'm not saying it's a bad thing, though. I'm just saying you're in a more urgent need of a mentor who would be willing to guide you.
"Let me think… If you're put into Ravenclaw, your Head of House is going to be Filius Flitwick. You might have not noticed him, he's a tiny little wizard. Part-goblin, I believe. But powerful, oh yes. I had a hard time with him, too, you know? About thirty or forty years ago. He might have as well been a Gryffindor. Now, where was I?…
"Oh, yes. If you're in Gryffindor, on the other hand, your Head of House will be Albus Dumbledore, the person standing next to you. He's a very kind young wizard, and a dear friend of mine, if I could be so bold. I think he would be a better man for the job, as Filius often gets distracted. He's watching you right now, you know that? He looks extremely worried and he barely knows you. Oh, looks like someone's touched. You already like him, don't you? Well, then I think you'll be better off in… GRYFFINDOR!" the hat shouted after what seemed like eternity. Then it muttered to the Deputy, "I hope you'll take a good care of that one, Albus."
Professor Dumbledore nodded, not entirely sure what the hat meant. He took the hat from Minerva who looked at him kindly before going to join the Gryffindor table, smiling apologetically at her disappointed-looking brother on her way there. Several boys and girls shook her hand. She sat down between two forth years.
"Nice to meet you, Miss," said a low voice from behind. Minerva looked around to see a ghostly figure of a middle-aged man that put his hand on her shoulder. It was icy cold.
"Nice to meet you, sir…?"
"Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington at your service. Ghost of Gryffindor Tower."
"Or Nearly-Headless Nick, for short," added a dark-haired boy sitting next to her. Sir Nicholas gave him a warning look before returning his attention to the newest member of his house.
"You gave the hat a hard time, Miss. The more we're all glad to have you. Wherever else did it want to put you?"
"Ravenclaw, sir," answered Minerva. "Thank you for your kind words."
"Well mannered, aren't you? It's a rare trait nowadays, very rare, indeed."
"Sir Nicholas!" shouted a round girl from another side of the table. "How were your holidays?"
"Excuse me for a moment, Miss," said Sir Nicholas before leaving.
Minerva watched the ghost drift away, amazed by the way he was gliding several feet above the ground. Having no one to talk to, the girl looked at the empty gold plates. Getting more hungry with every passing minute, she hoped the ceremony would end soon and the kitchen would start serving food.
At the teachers' table a balding man with long silver beard got to his feet. The Great Hall fell silent at once.
"Welcome and welcome back to Hogwarts! I'm very pleased to see you all gathered here for the Welcoming Feast. Let it begin!"
The empty plates immediately filled with food. At this time Minerva thought that magic will never cease to amaze her.
It was going to be an interesting year.