John Milkwood blinked. That Hat - an ugly, old thing - had barely sat on his head when it made its decision. What a stupid way of doing things! And that song - John had barely followed it - something about bravery and loyalty and shrewdness and cleverness.
John fancied himself very shrewd, and it looked like that table with the green and silver snake banner was full of people like him. Mama had always said one could tell quality by the way one held oneself, and the students - girls *and* boys - held themselves very well indeed. He'd fit in there just fine.
But the Hat had other ideas. He knew protesting would do no good - at least one person ahead of him had protested, but she had to walk to the lion table anyway. She kept looking at the snake table, where an older boy nodded at her. The lions stared but clapped anyway, and she was smiling by the time she found a seat.
John stood up. A Milkwood never let on that things weren't going his way. He walked to the Hufflepuff table, where he was greeted with his own cheers. That farmer's daughter Maggie, the one from the coach, was there, too.
"Welcome to Hufflepuff, John. My name is Annabelle Smedley, and I'm a seventh year prefect. If you have any questions, just come to me or Thomas Bones." The tall, pretty young lady pointed to a blond boy about the age of John's oldest brother. He smiled back, and went on talking to another first year boy. "Please, have a seat."
"Thank you, Miss Smedley." Mother told him he had to behave well to show them his family.
"Oh, do call me Annabelle. We're all family in Hufflepuff. That's one of our strengths." She indicated a seat next to the farmer's daughter. "Please join us." The Hat shouted again. "Oh, and here's another for our House. How lovely!"
John sat down as far from Maggie as possible, which put him close to an older girl with long brown braids and white hands. His sisters were very particular about their hands, so he noticed. It took forever for the Hat to shout "Slytherin" to the last child, who looked rather surprised, and for food to just...appear in front of him.
The girl next to him smiled. "I'm Elinor. I'm a third year - I'm the Keeper for our Quidditch team." When he frowned - the fellow who'd taken them to that odd street with all the magical shops kept talking about Quidditch, too - she nodded. "Muggleborn, are you? My mother was Muggleborn, too. Never knew what Quidditch was until she got here - but she loved it. She even played for the Harpies until she met my father and had me." John still didn't understand. "Never mind, you'll learn. I'll answer any questions. And, please. Take some food."
John stared at the plates in front of him - so many things he enjoyed. He took a good helping. It was better than even the cook's at home. But he did have questions. "Why didn't the Hat put me in Slytherin? I thought I wanted to be there."
"Oh, Slytherin don't take Muggleborns, no matter how clever they are. Very silly, *I* think, but then they do take half-bloods. But you'll be much happier in Hufflepuff. Hat doesn't get things wrong."
John took a bite of his roast mutton. So many things to think about. And when he looked at Slytherin again, he saw a girl with greasy black hair and patched robes, and two other students with dull faces and he decided that maybe he wasn't in the wrong place after all. Even if he were with farmer's daughters.
Mother would get the vapors.
"Tell me about Quidditch, Annabelle. Please. I play rounders now."
"Oh, it's the best game *ever*."