At age eleven, tiny Newt Scamander walks down the middle of a hall that is large, and loud, and filled with people. He keeps his gaze forwards and focused on the hat. He doesn’t stop to consider the floating candles (there are six hundred and twenty three and they float at four distinct heights; Newt would suspect there were four different levitating charms keeping them afloat but he doesn’t have enough information to say for sure; the wax that drips down each one curls underneath and forms an extension to the candle stem, it isn’t allowed to drip onto anything below; if there are six hundred and twenty three candles at four distinct heights then there are not an even number of candles at each height and this is inconsistent) as he passes because he doesn’t want to be distracted. He focuses on the hat.

When it drops over his head, he greets it. Theseus warned him that the hat would talk, and conversations have a pattern. This is the pattern: Hello, my name is Newt Scamander. It’s nice to meet you.

The hat pauses, almost as though it’s thinking, before understanding clicks and it finishes the pattern. Hello Newt. I don’t have a name, but you can call me Hat. It’s nice to meet you too. And that’s it; simple, easy. Newt tries to think of things that would be useful for the hat to know, and the hat says a polite thank you to each one. Newt answers you’re welcome every time.

Goodbye, Hat, he says when he’s sorted, because that’s how conversations end. Goodbye Newt, the hat echoes, and Newt walks past the floating candles to an empty seat at the Hufflepuff table. It’s a good start.

It continues to be a good start. There’s more food than Newt has ever seen before, and most of it is unfamiliar. He doesn’t think he’s allowed to taste each thing, so he evaluates carefully based on appearance and smell, and it’s hard to do that while keeping up with the conversation flying over his head. He ends up eating not much (potatoes, mashed potatoes) and saying less, but he knows everyone’s name and he knows that Mathilda likes to be called Maddy and never Tilly and that Jason has three pet goldfish named after Greek heroes that he hasn’t brought and that Anna’s face lit up when she saw the sticky toffee pudding but she didn’t ask for it to be passed which means she didn’t get any and that seems a shame to Newt. He considers for a while the idea that she didn’t want it in the first place, but he’s spent years practising his observations on the hippogriffs and the crups and the kneazles and he’s pretty sure he was right when he thought she did.

He stays awake for a long time that evening, sorting the information. He wishes he could go back to the hall and see it again because the ceiling is enchanted but he didn’t look at it; it was important to follow the conversations and he had to prioritise. By the time he falls asleep he’s decided that the candles were held by the same charm but powered by different people; that would account for the differing heights they levitated at, and the way that one set began to dip and bob mid way through the feast but the other sets didn’t. It still didn’t explain why the total number of candles wasn’t divisible by four.

There is a lot of magic, Newt finds, that isn’t explained. In class they are taught to swish and flick, pronounce it Wingardium Leviosa with a stress on the o, and make the feather fly – but why, Newt wants to know, does the o matter when Faolan Doyle is saying his spell in an Irish accent and Daniel Rowe has flattened his vowels like they do in Yorkshire, and both of them have made their feathers fly? He swishes his wand in a perfect mimicry and pronounces the words exactly the way he was told, and nothing happens. He wants to ask how to make his magic go through the wand, how to use his words to shape it, what the wand is for and why he has to hold it in his right hand and not his left, but the end of class comes and he hasn’t worked out how to phrase his question yet.

Later, three classes down the line when his feather is unmoving and still, the professor pulls him aside. You just have to feel it, she says. Don’t overthink it – I can see from your homework that you’re the type to. Magic’s simpler than that, just let it do what comes naturally.

Very little comes naturally to Newt. He is learning at a frightening pace, picking up new patterns and slotting in new social cues and unravelling the secrets of the moving staircases (they aren’t random at all – Newt sat on the balcony with his legs hanging over the edge and watched twelve staircases for four hours and it’s easy to see how they work) – but none of it comes fast enough. His yearmates have discarded the old social cues and replaced them with injokes; the injokes change and there’s new conversation; four of them speak at once and they all falter awkwardly when Newt tries to join in. He observes them in the way he will one day observe the magical creatures of the globe, and he makes notes about the way they work in a detailed, meticulous manner that will one day be used to write an encyclopedia of fantastic beasts, but first year Hufflepuffs are unfortunately less consistent and less amenable to being studied that nundus and occamies. There is no mating dance he can learn the steps of to help him here, however hard he tries.

He retreats. Of the owls in the owlery, three are distressed. Perhaps they belong to muggleborns who aren’t used to their care, but Newt doesn’t concern himself with that – owls are avian and hippogriffs are part avian and he works out which things he knows can apply to the new situation and researches the gaps in his knowledge. He adjusts their diets to match their needs and writes helpful letters to their owners with recommendations for them. He swaps the perches around until he finds the best groupings of each owl’s favourite perch with their favourite neighbours. He curls against the wall in the corner and does his homework, soothed by the familiar space with the familiar sounds and the forty four familiar birds overhead.

At Christmas he gives his yearmates things he thinks they’ll want. Jason gets an underwater plant for his goldfish aquarium, the one he mentioned at the welcoming feast but has apparently lost interest in since then. He never said he lost interest. Newt didn’t know. Anna gets a sticky toffee pudding that Newt had asked the elves for specially, but she looks at him weirdly, and Newt doesn’t know why. Leta Lestrange brandishes the soft knitted scarf at him and asks if she looks like a girl who likes rainbow colours, and Newt stutters out a yes, because she always chooses the trowels with the brightly coloured handles in herbology, and she fiddled with her lumos in charms until she could make it cycle through the rainbow, and she arranges bananas and strawberries and blueberries on her plate at breakfast into patterns and stripes even when she’s running late, and these are things that Newt has observed and the common thread is that Leta Lestrange is a girl who likes rainbow colours.

Leta squints at him, considering. She follows him for the rest of the day, watching him, and it makes Newt nervous because it’s not what she usually does. She keeps following him, scrunching her nose at the way he talks to his owls in gentle murmurs, leaning over his shoulder when he writes his essays, chewing her hair as she studies him. She presses in too close and crowds him and he flinches back and away, elbows rising to ward her off, and she raises an eyebrow in surprise and shuffles back on the sofa. She doesn’t leave.

“Don’t you have to think?” she asks, when he’s almost finished his transfiguration homework. “Or just pause a little?”

“I thought before I started,” he says, hoping that’s the answer she wants, and keeps copying down the essay he wrote in his head. She hums and bites her nails, and Newt has no idea what that means.

Newt has just got used to Leta staring when she starts talking. The change is sudden – she walks beside him now, casually touching him and hugging him and messing with his hair when they’re sat down. He ducks away every time, startling when she doesn’t give him enough warning, skittering away from the hugs she springs out of nowhere – but though she switches to hugging from in front where he can see and never from behind where he can’t, she doesn’t stop hugging him. She talks to him, at him, nonstop and fast and too much information for him to process it all. She claims the seat next to him in class – she tried to make him move to sit next to her but Newt has to baulk at something and he baulks at that – and compares their marks on the theory papers and punches him on the shoulder and calls him a nerd and Newt doesn’t know why.

“We’re friends,” she says when he asks. Newt tries to compare her actions against how he’s always thought friends should act and it doesn’t quite match, but it’s similar. Like hippogriffs and owls. He can do that.

Leta nods, satisfied, and Newt reorientates his world view to include Leta as a friend, and it works.

In five years, Newt will stand with his chin up and refuse to back down from his lie because Leta is a friend and Newt is a Hufflepuff and both friends and Hufflepuffs are loyal. There is no force on earth that will move him from this, because this is a fact, and this is right, and this is how the world is. Leta will duck her head and look away in shame and try not cry and Newt won’t understand that part, but that will come after. Newt will stick to his lie and be expelled with a stubbornness born of knowing he’s doing the right thing, and he’ll never once regret it.

For now though Newt sits next to Leta and allows her to play with his hair and, when she notices him thinking, explains to her how he’s noticed that the bowtruckles in the forbidden forest prefer some trees over others and that he thinks there’s a pattern to it, a reason behind it, and he’s working out what it is. She continues to call him a nerd, but she says, once, that it’s a term of endearment (”You utter sap, I mean it in a nice way. If I ever insult you I’ll let you know in advance, ok? Honestly.”) so that’s ok.

Midway through the summer term, Newt finally puts together how to “feel” his magic and he runs through the entire year’s repertoire in one glorious sitting. They’re only first year spells but they’re first year spells that he’s been failing to perform for months now, and there’s something giddy about knowing that he can do them when he has all the steps in place.

Leta punches his shoulder, which Newt has learnt means she’s proud of him, and calls him a “genius boy, now sit down and tell me exactly how you did that because wow.” It takes two cups of tea for Newt to fully explain how he drew his magic out and pushed it into the right places and the right shapes, and Leta nods her way through the entire thing and declares she knew from the start that he was brilliant.

He doesn’t have many friends. Any, he doesn’t have any friends aside from Leta, and his teachers sometimes despair, and Hogwarts runs like a ticking clock beneath the magic and the chaos but there’s still too much magic and chaos sometimes to keep track. But Newt and Leta run away from the feasts and hide in the owlery with mashed potatoes and spinach pie and fourty four owls overhead, and Leta’s wearing a rainbow hairclip because anyone who pays attention can see that she loves colours even if she’s shy about showing it, and she still talks too fast but she also pauses for Newt to catch up and think through his replies and it’s a good start, Newt’s first year at Hogwarts.

It’s an excellent start.