Disclaimer: The Harry Potter universe and its components belong to their creator, J. K. Rowling.

A/N: Just a little idea I had in between bouts of writer's block.

This short story is an AU based on the Sorting Hat's words to Harry Potter: Yes ... you were particularly difficult to place. But I stand by what I said before you would have done well in Slytherin. (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Chapter Twelve: The Polyjuice Potion)

Summary: In his first year at Hogwarts, Harry Potter was forced to make two decisions no boy his age should have faced. What if Harry had been a little less brave, and had valued his own life more than the world? This is what could have happened during Harry's Sorting, and the consequences.

An example of how much difference a single thought can make.


Worthy of Slytherin

At first mention...

"And what are Slytherin and Hufflepuff?" an eleven-year-old Harry asked Hagrid.

"School houses. There's four. Everyone says Hufflepuff are a lot o' duffers, but –"

"I bet I'm in Hufflepuff," said Harry gloomily.

"Better Hufflepuff than Slytherin," said Hagrid darkly. "There's not a single witch or wizard who went bad who wasn't in Slytherin. You-Know-Who was one."

Of course, that wasn't true. Peter Pettigrew had been a Gryffindor. But Harry would never know, and Hagrid didn't have a reason to tell him.

Now Harry was betting he would be in Slytherin, the worst of the houses. No, he feared he would be in Slytherin. He didn't want to go there – anywhere but where Voldemort had been, please! – but surely no one would bother asking him whether he liked it or not.

And when Mr Ollivander made a disturbing analogy between him and Voldemort and the cores of their wands, Harry's fear of ending up in the same house as the wizard who killed his parents grew tenfold.

.

.

On the train...

"... and until Hagrid told me, I didn't know anything about being a wizard or about my parents or Voldemort –"

The red-haired boy gasped.

"What?" said Harry, feeling slightly annoyed. What was wrong with this boy?

"You said You-Know-Who's name!" said Ron, sounding both shocked and impressed. "I'd have thought you, of all people –"

Now Harry was annoyed. Why did they all make such a big deal of it? It was just a name, for heaven's sake! And the boy – Ron, was it? – made it sound like he thought Harry was deliberately showing off. Harry hated it when people did that. It reminded him of Dudley.

"I'm not trying to be brave or anything, saying the name," said Harry. "I just never knew you shouldn't. See what I mean? I've got loads to learn ... I bet," he added, voicing for the first time something that had been worrying him a lot, "I bet I'm the worst in the class." And in the worst house, Harry thought, but didn't dare say it. He had noticed wizards were prejudiced against Slytherin.

When the conversation turned to the subject of Hogwarts houses, Harry carefully avoided mentioning where he thought he would be sorted. At least he had no parents to scorn him afterwards, unlike Ron. He really doubted Uncle Vernon or Aunt Petunia would care in the least about anything that happened to him at Hogwarts.

.

.

"So we've just got to try on the hat!" Ron Weasley whispered to Harry. "I'll kill Fred, he was going on about wrestling a troll."

Harry smiled weakly. Yes, trying on a hat was a lot better than having to do a spell, but he did wish they could have tried it on without everyone watching. Harry hated the attention, and he felt decidedly uncomfortable at the idea of this crowd of kids having their attention fixed on him. What if they all laughed at him? What if he did something wrong? They already knew magic, while he knew almost nothing about the wizarding world...

He wanted to show them that he wasn't dull or stupid, but he didn't know how. All he would end up doing if he tried was showing them how little he knew about magic. And the hat seemed to be asking a lot.

Harry didn't feel brave or quick-witted or any of it at the moment. Even Hufflepuffs, who, it sounded, were considered the weakest of the lot, were supposed to be hard-working and patient - qualities Harry definitely lacked. He hated doing work; Aunt Petunia often reminded him of what a "lazy boy" he was.

If only the hat had mentioned a house for people who felt queasy, that would have been the one for him. He felt like a coward, wanting to run and hide from the idea of sitting on that stool, all those eyes turning to stare at him.

As his turn approached, Harry distractedly tried to flatten his hair, which only resulted in making it messier.

And soon enough...

"Potter, Harry!" the stern-looking lady in green robes called.

As Harry stepped forward on shaky legs, whispers broke out like little hissing fires all over the hall.

"Potter, did she say?"

"The Harry Potter?"

The last thing Harry saw before the hat dropped over his eyes was the hall full of people craning their necks to get a good look at him. Next second he was looking at the black inside of the hat. He waited, feeling a little nauseous.

"Hmm," said a small voice in his ear. "Difficult, Very difficult. Plenty of courage, I see –" Harry wanted to protest. He was not courageous, he knew it. "Not a bad mind, either. There's talent, oh my goodness, yes – and a nice thirst to prove yourself, now that's interesting ... So where shall I put you?"

Was the hat asking for his opinion? This was unexpected. He had thought there was nothing he could do to influence the decision. But if there was, he might as well try ... Where did he not want to go?

The house Voldemort had been in, the house Malfoy was in …

Harry gripped the edges of the stool and thought, "Not Slytherin, not Slytherin."

"Not Slytherin, eh?" said the small voice. "Are you sure? You could be great, you know, it's all there in your head, and Slytherin will help you on your way to greatness –"

Harry listened to the hat's words with growing horror. You could be great …

Mr Ollivander's words had sounded strangely similar …

I think we must expect great things from you, Mr Potter … After all, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named did great things terrible, yes, but great.

So he could be great in Slytherin … like Voldemort?

"Er, are you saying I belong in Slytherin?" Harry muttered.

"You would do well in Slytherin, no doubt about that, but if you're sure –"

"Put me where I belong, then," Harry said, giving in to despair. "There's no point going somewhere I don't really belong – I'll never fit in."

"Such wisdom for one so young," commented the small voice. "Oh, yes, Slytherin will definitely bring you to greatness … definitely. Your place is in SLYTHERIN!"

Harry heard the hat shout the last word to the whole Great Hall. He took off the hat and walked shakily towards the Slytherin table. He felt so defeated he almost didn't notice the sudden silence in the hall.

Harry knew he wasn't brave enough to be anywhere but in Slytherin, the worst of the four houses. Their house table had given him the impression of a lot of nasty people and cowards. And that was where he belonged, the Sorting Hat had said… in the house of Dark wizards, the snake house, the house Lord Voldemort himself had been in …

He was just like Voldemort already.

.

.

Later that year...

Harry was scared.

He didn't know where he was or how he got here; he felt as if he had sleepwalked into a nightmare.

He had heard there were Compulsion spells; had someone in his House cast one on him?

"Don't be a fool," snarled Lord Voldemort. "Better save your own life and join me ... or you'll meet the same end as your parents ... They died begging me for mercy ..."

"LIAR!" Harry shouted suddenly. How dare he? He is the one who killed them, and he dares to speak of them like that? thought Harry furiously.

The evil face smiled. "How touching..." Voldemort hissed. "I always value bravery –" But I'm not brave, thought Harry. I'm not brave like my parents. They were in Gryffindor, but I'm in Slytherin … They wouldn't be scared, but I'm terrified... "– yes, boy, your parents were brave … I killed your father first and he put up a courageous fight … but your mother needn't have died … she was trying to protect you … Now give me the Stone, unless you want her to have died in vain."

Harry stood rooted to the spot. The words rang in his ears … your mother needn't have died … she was trying to protect you …

If that was true – and Harry somehow knew it was – his mother surely didn't give her life so that her son would die when he was eleven years old. She would have wanted him to live to an old age, to enjoy life she had bought him by giving up hers. She chose to leave this world so that Harry could live – and this was the way he was repaying her? By choosing death in the hope of stopping a Dark wizard from taking control of the world? But who said Harry could succeed? A Hogwarts first-year didn't stand a chance where so many grown, fully-trained wizards had failed.

How could Harry have been foolish enough to think he could stop Voldemort? He wasn't even good at magic! He was average in his classes, not like Hermione Granger.

"How do I know you won't kill me the moment you regain your powers?" Harry asked.

"Clever, boy. Very clever. I see, now, why you have been sorted into Slytherin," the high voice commented appraisingly. "They have called you the cause of my downfall," Voldemort said softly, his red eyes upon Harry. "None of my faithful Death Eaters would try and find me, when I was less than spirit, less than the meanest ghost … I waited, but none came … none cared what had become of me …" he laughed a high, mirthless laugh.

"And here you stand, Harry Potter," he whispered. "My downfall, my enemy … yet you are ready to help me return to my body … and Lord Voldemort rewards his helpers.

"Now give me the Stone. I can sense that Muggle-lover, Dumbledore, approaching …"

Harry hesitated.

"Think of your mother … she died to save your life. She would have wanted you to live … It would be an insult to her sacrifice to throw away your life now."

At long last, Harry nodded. And slowly, very slowly, he reached a hand into his pocket, just like he had seen his reflection in the mirror do, and pulled out the heavy blood-red stone. He held it out to Voldemort.

No, not brave at all.

The chalk-white face smiled. "That was a wise decision, Harry Potter. Worthy of Slytherin."

A wise decision … The Sorting Hat had said he was wise, too. But Harry didn't feel wise. He felt like a coward. If only he had the bravery to stand up and fight for the world, even at the price of his own life … like his parents ... But he didn't.

END