A Serpentine Path
Disclaimer: All of this is based upon the lovely J.K. Rowling's work.
Warnings: AU, Language, Speculation
AN: It has occurred to me that the initials for this story spell out ASP. This is entirely coincidental.
He's seven years old and a freak. He crouches in the bushes directly beneath the parlor window. It's the perfect hiding spot really. Too close to Petunia's domain for Dudley or his gang to dare approach and just far enough away that the rest of the Dursley family can't spot him easily. Passersby can't see him either, which is only a bonus.
There are three of them even now, standing at the divide between number 4 and the house next to it. Petunia, who's having her afternoon respite with a glass of sherry, won't notice them for some time, but he's still cautious as he turns very slowly to hear them better. It's just gossip; that's all anyone around here ever does, but every bit of information is useful in its own way.
He eases down and around a particularly thorny rose bush, moving steadily until he's at the corner of the house and well within earshot. Of course, it isn't hard to hear them; they aren't even trying to be quiet.
"-haven't seen that little beggar lately either," the first and oldest of the trio is saying, and he knows that she lives directly across the street. "Always dresses like he popped out of Dickens novel. A disgrace he is. Probably digs his clothes out of the rubbish bin."
A younger – but much rounder – woman snorts. She's from further down the road, closer to Wisteria Walk, but he recalls that her husband likes blondes and has been spotted with a very pretty, very thin one lately.
"How's he related again?" she asks, voice far shriller than one would expect. "Off some useless cousin or something?"
"Oh, no," a third woman cuts in. She's actually the Dursley's next-door neighbor and somehow manages to be even fouler than them. "He's from Petunia's whore of a sister."
"Spread her legs for anybody, that one did. Sold herself for drugs," her older friend in the blue dress mutters, and she's the same one whose son got kicked out last year for fancying blokes. "Heard she died of an overdose."
"I thought her pimp killed her," the neighbor corrects with a flick of her dyed hair. "Threw her out like the rubbish for decent people to find."
"Really?" the youngest woman questions with half-surprise, half-eagerness to hear more. "What of his father?"
The other two laugh.
"Doubt his mother ever figured it out," the neighbor states, and her voice is a vicious, nasty thing. "Probably didn't even know his name."
There's another round of laughter, but it's quickly covered up as the letter carrier approaches them from the far side. He can still see them chortling though, heads bobbing up and down with mirth. They're still laughing when they finally disperse minutes later.
One person isn't laughing, however. It isn't funny to him. Not yet. Not until years later when he looks back and ponders how truly pathetic the scene had been, and not for the reasons the neighbors would think.
He doesn't laugh, but he'll remember. And always will.
For an orphan, Harry doesn't think about his parents – or even his grandparents – nearly as much as one would think. They only cross his mind occasionally and usually only when he wonders what kind of person could possibly have been related to, much less have spawned, Petunia. Of course, he does infrequently wonder what sort of people could've ever created him. With his knobby knees, green eyes, quick fingers, and peculiar nature.
Or why such people would've ever thought it a good idea to leave him with the Dursleys.
They aren't as horrible as they could be, he supposes. Petunia has tried to hit him with the frying pan, but she always misses, and Vernon's only used his belt twice. They do remember to let him out of this cupboard for chores and bathroom breaks, and Petunia complains about the smell if he doesn't get to shower daily.
Still, an orphanage would almost be preferable, Harry thinks. But it's an unknown quantity. The Dursleys, he knows; he can manipulate.
They're simple really. For all that Vernon and Petunia are adults and both spent time at a university, they aren't all that complicated. They crave normality, a good reputation, money, and to keep him downtrodden. All he has to do is keep his head down as he waits, listens, watches, and remembers. If he makes it look like he's struggling to get his chores done, makes it seem like he doesn't have free time, and he won't get more tasks added. If he makes himself appear pathetic and intimidated, they'll be satisfied. If he crumbles after a hit or two from Dudley or his gang, they'll chuckle before heading off.
The Dursleys don't know him at all. Don't see him really. All they see is a wretched little orphan.
The truth is a different matter.
They'd be all too surprised to know the sorts of things Harry does when they aren't looking. They'd also be surprised by just how much money he's managed to amass in the years he's lived with them. That might even be his greatest secret. Even bigger than the snakes he chats with in the garden, turning a teacher's wig blue, or winding up on the school roof – and hiding out until nightfall before climbing back down.
There's a trick to stealing, and it isn't only knowing where to hide his ill-gotten gains – Dudley's spare bedroom, beneath the floorboards. It's truly in knowing when and how much to take. Five here. Ten there. Twenty on a day when Vernon is particularly drunk and will be even more hungover in the morning.
Only take from the dresser on days Vernon knows Petunia has gone shopping. Only filch from Vernon's wallet during nights he's been to the pub. Snag from Dudley's holiday and birthday funds a few days after the event in question but before a full week is up.
The teachers at school are trickier but manageable. Their eyes are sharper, but they have far more charges to watch, and he slips under their gaze by being as boring as possible. It doesn't hurt that he's short with clever fingers that slide into purses and pockets smoothly, and he always makes sure never to take from his own classroom or to hide his loot there either.
Harry has a nice little nest egg. One the he contributes to regularly right up until his eleventh birthday.
That's the day his world changes. Or at least, he thinks it was supposed to.
"Yer a wizard, Harry."
But even with magic, it's all the same.
There are still stares. Whispers. Fake smiles and a simpering undercurrent that promises he'll be used, abused, and discarded at their earliest convenience. It takes less than five minutes in Hagrid's company to know that Harry will have a role to play here, too. Only it'll be the heroic orphan – not just the pathetic one.
Magicals are just like Muggles, it seems. Or possibly even easier to fool. Aside from Ollivander, the only people he meets that day who seem truly intelligent or even interesting are the goblins, and his vault is something of a revelation in and of itself. More so than even his wand.
The most surprising thing of all though is his fame.
Of course, it's also confusing, and the whole thing is as clear a mud. Since really, why is he even famous? It's pretty obvious from the moment Hagrid tells him the story that he survived because of something his parents – his mother, most likely – did. Or maybe even something Voldemort didn't do. Why the wizards think Harry had anything to do with it outside of simply being present is beyond him.
But they do. And that's when Harry knows for sure that he's landed himself in an enormous mess without a clear escape.
Hagrid's a good source of information, however. Better yet, he doesn't realize what he gives away as Harry blitzes him with questions. Hagrid's good for other things, too. Not only does he get Harry a very beautiful owl who happens to be smarter than most of the kids at his previous school, Hagrid's also wonderful for knocking over entire shelves in Flourish and Blotts. While he helps the owner pick up, Harry naturally takes the chance to flip through a few books. Ones from a very disturbing table with an overheard display that has his name and an artistic rendering of what he's supposed to look like.
What he finds makes Harry nearly throw up. It's so over the top and outright ludicrous that it goes beyond laughable into the downright insulting. Of course, it only strengthens Harry's opinion that he's expected to be some sort of hero. Some type of martyr for the cause. Expected to save everyone while looking fantastic and amazing as he does it.
Which is why he spends the month leading up to school not only learning his course books but exactly what his expected place is. What he's expected to be.
Hogwarts: A History, Modern Magical History, and The Rise and Fall of the Dark Arts are still the best galleons Harry has ever spent, and Hedwig gets quite a workout bringing him even more books. Come September 1st, Harry's public persona is perfected and familiar enough that he wears it like a favored robe.
Everything goes to plan.
Look lost and alone while boarding the train. Find someone tolerable but not too intelligent to befriend. Get sorted anywhere but Slytherin – or Ravenclaw if there's another option. Find a rival who really isn't hard to best. Blend in. Look average, mediocre even. Only shine in expected things. Quidditch for one. Defense for another. Wait in the shadows.
It works perfectly then and keeps working now. Shields him from view as he sets up his plans, one by one.
Then, it's show time.
He really should get Malfoy a gift basket for making it so easy.
Flitwick's office is cozy with squishy armchairs and overstuffed bookshelves, and it's respectably decorated in brown and cream with hints of blue. The fire is warm but not overly hot as Harry takes the offered seat, and he isn't surprised when Flitwick opts to sit in the chair next to him instead of behind the desk. He's more approachable that way, more open and welcoming. Luring in students with his ready smile and cheerful demeanor.
Well, two can play that game.
He offers his own smile and casts a glance around as Flitwick calls for a house-elf. Harry hasn't had reason to come here before. Despite his fame, he hasn't been noticeable enough. Hasn't merited special attention from any professor save Snape, though that was of the negative variety. Or Lockhart last year during his many self-preening sessions. The permanent – and still valid – permission slip for the Restricted section is totally worth it, however. And if Lockhart happened to lose several self-inking, self-correcting, and otherwise extremely valuable quills while Harry answered his mail… well, that doesn't bear mentioning.
Harry gives a nod of agreement as Flitwick orders tea for both of them, and he settles more fully into his chair as his professor sets out dishware with a wave of his wand. One could think that the man is purposefully ignoring him, but Harry knows this for what it really is. A bid for time. A way of giving distraction while he orders his thoughts.
He'd wanted Harry to come to his office. That much was obvious from the moment Madam Bones departed. Only, Flitwick hadn't expected Harry to show up on his own. Or to do so this early. Barely twelve hours since the Aurors have left and while everyone from Dumbledore on down is still reeling from the swarm of investigators, Ministry minions, and reporters. Not to mention the Board. Who, come to think of it, might still be prowling around.
Harry knows he's timed this perfectly.
It's something of a gift, he admits. Getting his opponents off on the wrong foot. Often from the very start but occasionally mid-stream as well. Whichever suites him more at the time.
It keeps them guessing, when they've even figured it out at all. It isn't uncommon for no one to realize Harry is not only aware of their schemes but has maneuvered them into a position that hurts their cause while simultaneously helping his own.
Just ask Voldemort. He seems to fall for Harry's plots every schoolyear so far.
The only thing better is that he still underestimates Harry. They all do. In everything from adventures to academics.
It's just as he wants. Be the underestimated, mediocre wizard who coasts by on his fame and smarter friends.
Let Hermione get it first. Then one or two of the others. Complete things when McGonagall or whoever's teaching is distracted. Make sure there are a few scattered spelling mistakes in his essays and that the writing is appropriately messy.
No one gives it – him – a second glance. Of course, Harry needs high scores to accomplish his goals, but he needs to stay in the shadows. It isn't nearly as delicate a dance as it could've been. He thanks Merlin for Hermione's existence daily. She makes everything so much simpler. Makes it easier to hide behind her waving hand, overly long essays, ridiculous study schedule, and deep love of authority.
Know an answer that he shouldn't: well Hermione told him. Need a ready-made excuse for how good his coursework is: Hermione made him study. Have to get away from Ron for a while: nudge Hermione and him into an argument.
Absolutely perfect. Just what Harry needs.
She's bearable enough, too. Something of an actual friend if he's honest with himself, and he truly does like her. Ron, as well. Both of them are certainly willing to stick with him so far, despite Dark Lords and Basilisks and now Azkaban escapees.
Saving Hermione from the troll and befriending her was one of Harry's best moves. He still pats himself on the back for that one. It's second only to sorting himself into Gryffindor in the first place. The only way that could've gone better was if he'd ended up in Hufflepuff, which had been his initial choice.
He likes her, but she only gets to see what Harry allows. What he wants her to see. Just like he does for everyone else.
Be seen playing chess with Ron or hanging out in the common room a few times a week in the evenings. Show up to Quidditch practice, joke with the team, win matches. That's all it takes to satisfy his Housemates, to keep them from looking too deeply.
His mornings are his own. No one really knows how much earlier he gets up than they do as long as he shows up to breakfast. Ron, thankfully lazy, is usually one of the first to sleep and last to rise. That gives Harry plenty of time on his own. The only one who might notice is Neville, but he's too busy trying to hide from his own shadow to really take note. Seamus and Dean are oblivious and wouldn't care anyway, and Ron isn't exactly the most perceptive individual.
Which isn't to say that Harry doesn't like Ron. Despite his plans and own nature, Harry actually does. Ron's nice enough and more genuine than most of the kids clambering for his attention. Besides, Harry knows that he's far too straightforward and transparent to be capable of any true duplicity for longer than a few minutes.
And yet, he's so… Loud. Childish. Young. Coddled by his mother and wrapped in thick wool by his entire family. For all his poverty, Ron's never gone hungry. He's never been forced to work for his keep. He's never had more than a swat at his backside and a stern lecture.
Hermione's the same way. She's grown up the darling of her parents, their only child. The gifted, brilliant daughter to two overachievers. She's always lived in large, comfortable house. Been treated to exotic vacations. Received the best that her family could provide.
While Harry does like both of them, neither of them understands. They don't truly know what it's like. They've always been loved and looked after. Cherished.
Harry stands on his own. Has for as long as he can remember. Both with the Dursleys and here at Hogwarts. He certainly can't count on the faculty to help him.
Not Quirrell or Lockhart, that's for damn sure. Both of them had tried to harm him, though in different ways.
The others aren't much better.
The headmaster certainly isn't looking out for him. That much had been clear from the moment Harry opened Modern Magical History and realized that Dumbledore was the one to declare him the vanquisher of Voldemort. It's only reinforced when he received his Invisibility Cloak. What kind of adult would give that to an eleven-year-old and turn them loose? What kind of teacher? Not to mention last year when a monster wandered the school and Dumbledore had done nothing to stop it or even get his students to safety somewhere else.
It gets worse from there.
McGonagall is Dumbledore's lapdog, his lackey through and through. She goes whatever direction the headmaster points. Ignoring the in-fighting of her own House, the feuds between the other students, and not caring until the curses start flying. Only handing out detentions and tongue-lashings when she can't pretend anymore.
Snape's much the same. Though he'll still manage to get his own agenda in place and be otherwise thoroughly unpleasant as he goes along with things. And if he happens to verbally crush his students and stomp on their dreams in the process, so much the better.
Sprout, in turn, seems to meander through life in a pleasant haze, and while she might tout the Hufflepuff virtues of fair play and equality, Harry's watched her closely enough to know she's just as biased as the others if quieter about it. Her Badgers will always come first no matter what, and she'll overlook their wrongdoing unless otherwise called out. The only person outside her House that's treated better is Neville, and that's only because he's a Herbology prodigy. If he didn't have that going for him, Sprout would overlook him the same she does the other Gryffindors.
Flitwick seems to be the lone exception amongst the heads. He actually seems to care. Not just about the Ravenclaws but about all the students. Offering to tutor them or give extra credit whenever need. Being the voice of reason during most debates amongst the staff. Standing as the lone sane man during the various crises.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that Flitwick has something of a personal – if small – stake in Harry. He knows from some very discreet questioning of Sir Nicholas that his mother was a favorite of Flitwick, after all. She'd apprenticed under him even before the upswell of the war and Dumbledore's removal of any non-staff from the grounds. They'd put things on hold after that, and then, his mother had fallen pregnant before going into hiding. The rest is history as they say.
How disappointing Harry must be after teaching the sainted Lily Evans Potter, one of the most brilliant of her generation.
He snaps from his thoughts to the sound of a house-elf popping into view and watches as a steaming teapot is deposited on the tray Flitwick already has set up. It's accompanied by pastries that look absolutely delicious, ones that Harry knows are most definitely not on the menu in the Great Hall.
The Charms professor sets about divvying them immediately, and Harry's actually a little surprised when the blackberry-filled ones end up on his plate. It appears that while Flitwick may underestimate him, he's still seen enough of Harry to know which he'd like.
Doubly so when Flitwick only offers Harry cream for his breakfast tea and not any sugar.
"I honestly don't know what to say, Mr. Potter," Flitwick finally speaks several minutes later as he fixes his own cup. "The last few days have been something of an unfortunate revelation, and it's only looking back that I realize how much I've managed to miss. We all knew that Voldemort was there at the end of your first-year, but I'd thought that Quirinus had smuggled him in the castle. Not…"
"Had him on the back of his head," Harry supplies helpfully when it seems obvious his teacher is struggling for the right words.
"Quite right," Flitwick allows with a soft snort. "Not to mention the Basilisk! Or Miss Weasley!"
Harry offers a shrug as he stirs his tea. "Didn't Dumbledore tell you?"
"Most certainly not," Flitwick announces, and Harry's surprised by the bite in his voice. "We only knew it was Voldemort. Yet again. The headmaster would've certainly gotten an earful if he'd told us the truth! Letting that poor girl simply return to class without sending her to Saint Mungo's. Not even consulting them about any of the petrified students."
He makes a sound not unlike a growl, and his teacup actually dances out of his reach when he sets it down too harshly. Harry merely blinks, even as he quietly reevaluates the man in front of him. This is an unforeseen side of his professor. Most definitely.
"I never imagined," Flitwick begins once he's reigned himself in. "We all thought… We all assumed…"
He sighs, and his shoulders actually sag for a second. Which is at complete odds with the tingle of his magic as he beckons his teacup closer. He takes a large sip as if to steady himself and swallows slowly.
"I think we made far too many assumptions," Flitwick says after a few heartbeats, and the recrimination in his demeanor is now replaced by something else. Something quieter, searching. "I think we neglected too much and expected others to do as they promised. I think we looked away too many times and pretended not to see."
He breathes out then, and Flitwick looks both old and tired and perhaps little heartbroken. His hands don't shake as he sets down his cup, but he does grip the handle too tightly.
"Your account manager, Mr. Potter," he says then, and it isn't a question. "Is there truly no one else to look out for you?"
And now, they're at the real issue at hand. The real reason Flitwick wants Harry here. Not Dark Lords. Not monsters. Not even Unforgivables.
Instead, it's all about Harry. All about the things that are painfully obvious in retrospect if anyone bothers to look.
"I also have Mr. Frost," Harry replies a bit too jauntily as he takes a large bite of pastry. It really is delicious.
"Your solicitor," Flitwick rejoins, but it really isn't a question either.
"Mr. Frost's very good to me," is all Harry says to that. "They both are. I trust them have my best interests in mind."
Flitwick gives him a look that wouldn't be out of place on Mrs. Weasley. Part sympathetic, part polite tiger.
"You pay them after all," his professor murmurs, and his voice is soft, like a sigh.
Harry washes his pastry down with more tea. "Of course," he replies and pours himself more, "who else would there be?"
Flitwick, it seems, isn't quite sure what to say to that. He just gives Harry a speculative glance as he hands over the cream.
"Though," Harry adds after a second, "I do have to say that I haven't known them very long. "Steelclaw's a recent addition as my account manager, you see. He's only been in charge since the summer before my second year, and it took an insane amount of paperwork to get it switched over. Poor Hedwig got quite a workout for months."
"Did she?" Flitwick asks, and his tone is somewhere between befuddled and dismayed. Like he can't quite decide what he's supposed to feel or think at the current moment.
Harry offers him a small grin, but there's an edge to it he knows Flitwick has never seen before. Not from him. One that wouldn't be out of place for Malfoy when he thinks he's being especially clever.
"Oh, certainly," Harry answers, and the grin widens as he pushes his cup away. "The previous one… well, he was all out of sorts, you see. Let too much go in his old age. Let too many people take advantage of him." He rests his chin on his hand, even as he looks at Flitwick over his glasses. "There was nothing for him in the end. Lost his head over things, the poor fellow."
The smile is gone from his lips now, but there's a gleam in his eyes that's too sharp. Too shrewd. Simply too much. This is a gamble, Harry knows. Not as big a one as it could be but large enough. A risk to show at least some of his cards, but Harry hasn't gotten this far on schemes alone. Sometimes, he has to take a chance as well. Has to play the odds and wager for a better situation to come his way.
Flitwick takes a deep breath as their eyes meet. His cup is abandoned in front of him, now gone cold as the mantle clock ticks in the background, and his hands are clasped tightly together on the tabletop.
"You are very unexpected, Mr. Potter," Flitwick finally comments. His gaze is too astute, too assessing.
Flitwick looks even closer at him, and Harry knows that the man has seen past at least some of the masks. That he doesn't see a child or a Gryffindor or even the son of his protégé but something else entirely. He doesn't see Harry then, not all of him. Not yet. But he sees more than anyone else at this school ever has, and Harry actually feels his heart speed up a bit at his gamble. It's a tricky play, but Harry needs to start drawing in allies and not ones who are schoolchildren or on his payroll.
"How so, Professor?" Harry replies, cocking his head to the side in a pure imitation of curiosity and innocence.
Flitwick knows better now, sees through the façade. "I think you know." His fingers loosen to tap the tabletop in a deliberate rhythm. "Just as I think there's far more to you than anyone here has realized, and I'm ashamed to admit I've been doing you a great disservice for the last few years."
Harry allows himself a slow blink, but his face remains the same puzzled mask as Flitwick continues to look directly at him. His professor keeps looking, keeps studying him for a very long moment. He searches Harry's face the way a Ravenclaw would search the appendix of a book, the way a Seeker searches for a Snitch. As if by looking hard enough, he can finally spot the truth and end this game.
Harry doesn't sweat as he hears the clock tick and the silence stretches on. He's been in far more intimidating circumstances than this, but Harry still can't help the trickle down his spine or the way his belly twists with something like excitement.
Even more so when Flitwick finally breaks eye contact before turning to summon something with his wand. A newspaper quickly floats over and settles between them on the table.
"I wasn't sure you'd seen this yet, but I thought you should be among the first," Flitwick offers then, and Harry knows that he's won this round.
He doesn't gloat, not yet anyway. Particularly when the single paper is joined by several more, which fan out in front of him with blazing headlines and pictures that would be shouting out loud if they could.
Harry glances from one to the next. From Dumbledore looking a bit wild-eyed on Hogwarts' front lawn to Fudge's harassed bearing as he scrambles to get away from the reporters. It's very hard to conceal the entirety of his mirth as his gaze skims over the words underneath.
The headmaster's facing an inquest? And the minister, too? How unfortunate for them.
A peek up shows that Flitwick is watching him carefully from behind his teacup, but between sips, Harry still manages to catch the slight smile the man wears. He seems more amused than anything, but there's a glimmer of almost vindictive satisfaction. Again, Harry thinks that not everyone at Hogwarts is happy with how Dumbledore's been managing things, and if what Percy Weasley told him is correct, Flitwick might not look like it, but he's been a professor here nearly as long as Dumbledore has.
Harry ponders that as he continues to skim over the articles. It'll only be a matter of time before they start looking into other matters. Such as, Sirius Black and Harry current living situation. Like the events directly after his parents were killed and how exactly Harry ended up with Petunia Dursley. Something that Mr. Frost has told him is in clear violation of wizarding law since he has living – if distant – magical relatives, not to mention a godfather.
That's, of course, assuming they haven't already.
Madam Bones isn't to be trusted, but Harry knows at least some of this has to be her work. She's proving useful, even if Harry can't rely on her motives. Still, just seeing the Ministry scramble to clean-up this mess, while Dumbledore and his lackeys are fighting to do the same…
This is a Patronus moment. Certainly.
Harry allows himself a laugh then. One that's both thrilled and far too satisfied with recent events. It's mirthful and bright and all together so unlike the real him but genuine just the same.
Behind his cup, Flitwick's smile widens.
AN: I know I was harsh on Sprout here, but this is cunning!Harry's POV, and Sprout has been neutral at best. Even in canon, Sprout doesn't put a stop to the whispers about him in second-year, despite the fact that we know at least some of them come from her House. Not to mention that she's quietly hostile to Harry after the champions are announced in his fourth-year.