Disclaimer: Once again, I do not own anyone except Jim!the Janitor (yay!). Oh, yeah, and the three bullies - Derek, Eric, and Jordan (but who wants to own them, anyway? - lol).

Note: This is a companion fic to the much-loved An Angel in Disguise. Though reading that is not necessary to understanding this fic, I do recommend it, because it's one of my better works.

An Unlikely Hero

April 16, 1989

Boom, boom. Boom, boom. Harry Potter's heart pounded in tandem with his feet as they slapped the wet pavement, slipping around in sneakers several sizes too large for them. He couldn't be late, not again, because then he'd land himself in detention again and his aunt and uncle would rant at him again.

Never mind that it was his relatives who detained him for some trivial thing or another. No, he was still supposed to listen to their lectures about how 'ungrateful' he was and how he 'didn't show any respect to his hardworking relatives.' This time, it had been for accidentally spilling his Uncle Vernon's coffee, but that had only been because Dudley had pushed his hand, as the pig boy - Harry's nickname for Dudley - had reached for his sixth serving of bacon (which Harry had desperately tried to explain to a furious Vernon, whose tie had been covered in the hot liquid). However, Harry seriously doubted whether this would be a valid excuse for his hateful third-grade teacher, Mrs. Tims or the headmistress, Mrs. Plinkley who was, if anything, worse.

Clutching a stitch in his side, Harry glanced toward the play park where his fellow students always congregated. Though the play area itself was deserted, Harry could still see the lines of students in the distance being herded into Little Whinging Elementary by their respective teachers. Harry put on another burst of speed; if he could just get there before the line disappeared, he could slip in and pretend he'd been there all along. If there was one thing Harry prided himself on, it was being unnoticeable, the only advantage, it seemed, of being holed up in a small, dark, spider-infested cupboard for hours on end.

"Almost . . . there," Harry panted as the red-brick walls of the school drew ever nearer. He could nearly see the vague outlines of the students' Barbie and Superman-themed backpacks, he would make it. . . .

"Aargh!" Tripping over the hem of his oversized jeans, Harry fell to the pavement, hearing the familiar tear of his strapless backpack as it fell from his hands and split, sending books and paper flying. Harry's hands scrabbled frantically over the sidewalk, grabbing for loose papers that were already being blown away. . . .

"Ah, look who it is, boys!" Harry turned while reaching for that day's homework and groaned inwardly. And I thought this day couldn't get any worse. . . . For there was Derek Preston. Derek was a large, muscled, and tattooed sixteen-year-old who owned a motorcycle, skipped school constantly (which his parents denied just as much), and delighted in torturing him. Harry liked to think of him as Dudley Senior.

"Why, it's Harry!" Eric, Derek's fifteen-year-old brother, exclaimed with nothing short of sadistic glee.

"Shouldn't Harry be in school by now?" Jordan Samuels, the last member of the bullying band, commented as he joined his cronies who were circling the eight-year-old like jackals.

"Yes, I believe so," Derek replied, lifting Harry up by the collar of his extra-large T-shirt. "Skipping school, Harry? Simply unacceptable behavior," the tattooed fiend added as he turned Harry to see his pimpled face.

Yeah, you should talk, Harry thought, just as Jordan lifted his math homework from the now-littered pavement.

"And trying to throw away your homework! Really, Harry, don't you care about your education at all?" Eric asked, watching gleefully as Harry flailed helplessly in his brother's arms, trying to grab the homework held high above him.

Harry knew from past experience with his uncle that crying or pleading would only add fuel to the villain's fire. Nevertheless, he couldn't help begging, hoping to stir a trace of pity in their seemingly stone-made hearts. "Come on, give it back. I'm already late," Harry begged, his legs flailing feebly as he gazed down at the cement six feet below.

"Naughty boys have to learn their lesson, Harry," Derek said, his face inches from Harry's own, so that the eight-year-old could smell the odor of fetid cigarette smoke coming from it. He wrinkled his nose in disgust as the laughter of the inane trio went on like some sort of insane mantra.

An irrepressible anger seized Harry. Who were they to tell him what to do? He was tired of it, all of it - of being pushed around by Dudley, yelled at by his aunt and uncle, bullied by Derek. . . .

"Ahhh!" Next second, Harry found himself being dropped to the ground. The eight-year-old looked up, surprised, to see Derek, his eyes screwed up in pain. "You little bastard!" he yelled, and Harry's own emeralds widened with fear. Squeaking, he backed away, only to meet the legs of Eric and Jordan, his homework forgotten in the face of their leader's predicament. Before Harry could formulate another escape plan, the now-limping Derek had caught the collar of Harry's T-shirt in his large hand and was dragging the child irresistibly toward him.

"You son of a bitch," Derek growled hoarsely, his face contorted into one of hatred, stretching his acne-covered face grotesquely. Harry watched, almost surreally as the teen's hand curled into a fist, knowing what was to come. Don't let it hurt too much, Harry thought, praying to whatever deity happened to be listening, begging them to show some scrap of mercy toward him, to make up just a bit for placing him in this living hell, for not letting him die in that car crash with his parents. . . .

"What's going on here?" Derek's fist stopped in midair as all three teenagers turned to look at a man walking onto the scene. Though the man's frazzled gray hair was testament to his old age, his purposeful stride was reminiscent of someone much younger.

"Jim," Harry breathed, a smile gracing his features.

However, the old man barely spared Harry a glance before turning to the bullying trio who had backed away from Harry, as if afraid he were contagious. "What do you think you were doing, picking on a little one like that?" Jim demanded, eyebrows knitting together in a severe frown.

Derek smirked, hearing the rasp in the man's voice. "You must be mistaken, sir. My mates and I were just passing through." He turned innocent brown eyes on the man as Eric and Jordan nodded to validate their friend's story.

Jim's eyebrows, if possible, contracted even further. "I know exactly what I saw," he said. "Now, you'd best get out of here unless you want another kick to the b-. . . ." He trailed off, glancing at Harry, but his comment had the desired effect. Convulsively, Derek's hand clutched the still-tender area where Harry had struck him, turning a deep shade of tomato-red that would have made Uncle Vernon proud.

With a self-satisfied smirk, Jim watched as Derek and his cronies walked off - perhaps faster than was normal - trying not to act as though they were afraid of an old man who looked as if he belonged in a nursing home. Once the bully's forms were mere specks in the distance, Jim turned to Harry and pulled the boy to his feet.

"You all right, Harry? They didn't beat you up too badly, did they?" he asked concernedly, checking Harry over for injuries as he brushed a slight residue of dirt off of the eight-year-old, wiping it on his patched trousers and grimy shirt, making them even dirtier. Although this apparel was not typical for a teacher at the school, that was not what Jim was; he was not a teacher or a policeman or even the kindly grandfather of another student. No, Jim was a janitor.

"I'm fine," Harry said reassuringly, bending down to pick up his long-forgotten homework.

"If you're sure. . . ." Jim trailed off, a trail of worry appearing between his bushy eyebrows. After Harry nodded confirmation, however, the janitor's only choice was to beckon the eight-year-old to follow him as he set off toward Little Whinging Elementary. "I'll try and see what I can do about your punishment; God knows you could've gotten in on time if it hadn't been for those b- er . . . bullies," he said, giving Harry an encouraging smile.

"Thanks," Harry said. Although Jim didn't have much leverage in the hierarchy of the elementary school, he did have a wit that made him an invaluable ally. Harry well remembered when he had somehow gotten onto the school roof, and, though he had been afraid of suspension at the time, Jim had, after an hour-long meeting, managed to convince both Mrs. Plinkley and the Dursleys to let Harry spend a week in detention with him. Harry's only guess was that they regarded the menial labor as a sort of internship. After all, what respectable person would hire a freak like him? And, though scrubbing graffiti off the school walls and cleaning out toilets was less than fun, Harry far preferred Jim's companionship and kind words to his teachers' dissatisfied sniffs and murmurs about his delinquent appearance. . . .

However, as the pair traveled down the clean halls of the school - hearing the recitations of the alphabet and multiplication tables - and neared Harry's third-grade classroom, it became clear to Harry that Jim's intervention may not be necessary after all. Usually by now, one could hear Mrs. Tims's nasal voice (that Dudley imitated to no end, receiving only indulgent smiles from Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia) and smell her overpowering perfume, sometimes looking nearly tangible in billowing, rose-scented clouds. However, the usual signs of his demonic teacher's presence were absent.

To some of the students - such as Dudley and his gang who Mrs. Tims positively fawned over - these signs may have been seen as ominous; however, to Harry, it was a small ray of sunshine in his perpetually dismal life. For Harry, having a substitute teacher was a chance to be treated civilly, as the sub usually hadn't been informed of his "delinquency" and how he was "heading the same way as his useless parents," a favorite saying of his aunt and uncle. And, although he was usually treated worse the next day by a Mrs. Tims recovering from a cold or the flu, Harry couldn't pretend that it wasn't welcome being smiled benevolently at when he asked for help with a math problem, rather than receiving a sneer and a few choice words.

As they neared the classroom, Harry saw that the former of these actions was exactly what the woman standing in the doorway of the classroom was doing. She was getting on in years, but, like Jim, had an indescribable way about her that made her look much younger. Perhaps it was the way that her dark-brown hair, liberally streaked with gray, fell down her back, unlike the tight buns that many of the other female teachers had forced their hair into; or it may have been how she seemed to have ignored the stringent dress code, instead wearing a bright-red cloak over a turtleneck and sweatpants. However, what surprised Harry the most about the woman was how a smile lit her face up as he drew near, fumbling around amid the disorganized mess of books and paper in his backpack for his homework.

"You must be Harry Potter," she said, reaching a hand out to shake his. Hesitantly, Harry took it, feeling countless calluses and scars under his fingertips.

"Er . . . yes, ma'am," he said respectfully, slightly surprised at her demeanor. Of course, most substitutes saw him as a sweet little boy who thrived under praise and kind words, and, at times, addressed him as "Mr. Potter" if they managed to learn the thirty or so students' names in the six-hour school day. Yet the way this woman addressed him - "you must be Harry Potter" - it was as if she had met him before, in some other time when he hadn't been known as the Dursleys' freakish nephew.

"We were waiting for you," the woman continued, yet, strangely enough, there was no admonishment present in her voice, more a curiosity to know what had happened, where he had been. . . .

"He was held up by some gang or other," said Jim staunchly, his wrinkled hand resting reassuringly on Harry's small shoulder.

The woman's face seemed to visibly stiffen as she stared at Harry, seeming to take a picture of him, from his untidy black hair and lopsided glasses to his beaten-up trainers worn over holey socks that had once belonged to Uncle Vernon. When she spoke again, her voice was a combination of emotions - kindness, anger, remorse. . . .

"Thank you, Mr. Elliot," she said, nodding to Jim (who tried not to look too disconcerted at being addressed as such) and, taking Harry gently by the shoulder, led him into the classroom. All eyes turned to the two as they walked into the classroom and Harry distinctly saw Dudley smirk as his bullying cousin looked up from hastily scribbling down that day's assignment.

Once the woman released him, Harry hastily slid into his seat between Piers Polkiss and Gordon Samuels, two members of Dudley's gang, who, though being several years younger than Derek and his cronies, still managed to make Harry's life miserable, especially in their favorite sport - "Harry Hunting."

"Pass your homework forward, please," the woman directed and the students hastened to obey.

Once Harry had divested his own crumpled work from the mess in his bag, he turned to take Gordon's paper and received a wicked grin from the chubby boy. "Have a bit of trouble on the way to school, Potty?" he asked shrewdly.

Knowing that retaliation would only earn him a detention from Mrs. Tims, Harry merely shrugged and handed the two worksheets to Piers. More to avoid the rat-like boy's identical smirk than actually being interested in the day's agenda, Harry glanced up at the chalkboard where the substitute usually wrote - in varying degrees of penmanship - what Mrs. Tims had assigned them. However, the woman, who was now traveling down the rows of students, collecting the homework, only seemed to have had enough time thus far to scribble down one item, an item that, strangely enough, stirred something in Harry and made his heart leap into his throat. For there, centered on the board, was a name:

Ms. Vance

To most students this would seem entirely unremarkable; however, as in most instances, Harry did not share his peers' opinions. It seemed as if he knew that name, knew the woman herself, like she was from that other, vague world that hovered on the edge of his consciousness, the world where he wasn't a freak or delinquent, but Harry Potter - a living, breathing person. If only he could remember. . . .

Harry's musings were cut short, however, as the woman - Ms. Vance - called the class to order.

"I have an assignment from your teacher," she said, picking up a piece of paper from the meticulously organized desk. Clearing her throat, she read, "Write a paragraph on what person is your hero and why. Due before recess . . . and Mr. Dursley, please do not write on your desk. I am sure you do not want to cause more work for the janitors."

Harry was quite sure that Dudley would like nothing better; nevertheless, the chubby boy quickly changed his "deer-caught-in-headlights" look into one of innocence before giving the required answer of, "No, ma'am."

Seeming to know exactly what Dudley had left unuttered, Ms. Vance merely gave a nod of recognition and sat down at the teacher's desk before pulling out a thick book and beginning to read. Assuming it was merely a sappy romance novel that all substitutes seemed to possess, Harry turned instead to the sheet of paper on his desk, titled it "My Hero," then looked down at his handiwork, his mind drawing a complete and utter blank as to what to write next.

The truth was, Harry had never known anyone that could be considered heroic - Uncle Vernon's job managing the making of drills was, at best, tedious. Harry's only encounters with firefighters or policemen had been in the classroom hearing about how "firemen are there to help you in a fire, so don't be scared of them," eventually became quite monotonous and could never be as poignant as hearing what had happened in a fire, of actually being there. . . .

To Harry's right, Emily Whit had filled half a page with her childish cursive scrawl, something she would boast about to anyone who would listen. Seeing Harry looking her way, Emily hitched her paper out of sight.

"No copying, Potter!" she said, glaring at him.

Yeah, as if I could read it, Harry thought, but directed his gaze away from her nevertheless, turning instead to his own assignment. Running a hand through his untidy black hair in frustration, Harry rested his head on the desk, early-morning light falling through the wide windows warming the mop of hair.

It could only be a little past eight a.m.; nevertheless, early-rising parents could be seen with two- and three-year-olds - pushing them on the swings and holding their hand down the six-foot high slide - before the elementary-school tyrants (Dudley and his gang among them), were given their half-hour of freedom and the right to do whatever they wanted, aided and abetted no doubt by teachers who believed that eight-year-olds could do no wrong, except himself, of course. Harry didn't doubt that Dudley could get away with murder during this time; however, he and his thickheaded gang simply contented themselves with a raucous game of Harry Hunting. . . .

And then, in one glorious, awe-inspiring moment, it hit him, as if the idea had been there all along, just waiting for him to find it in the nooks and crannies of his mind. Smiling to himself, Harry bent over his paper and, in a scribble that would have made Emily Whit proud, began to write. . . .

. . . currently, Harry Potter resides in Little Whinging with his only remaining maternal relation, Petunia Evans Dursley and her family, where he will stay until resuming his rightful place as savior of the wizarding world.

It's too bad that the wizarding world can't see their savior right now, Emmeline thought sadly, turning to Harry, the only student left in the brightly-lit classroom. The sheer hypocrisy of it all made her want to scream; why, advertised right on the front of the teacher's desk was a banner with cartoon-like children smiling and holding hands.

However, most of these children seemed extremely unpleasant - the way they had smirked at poor Harry as they handed in their essays and headed out to recess. And what travesties of essays they were, all about how a firefighter had saved their pet cat or a policeman leading them back to an anxious parent in a crowded department store. Why, if Severus had been correcting these, he'd have had all their heads already. . . . She could only hope that Harry's would be better, perhaps a bit of his mother coming out of him; Lily had always been incredibly intelligent.

Lily. The mere name made her smile; not only had she possessed looks and wit, but she was also extraordinarily kind; embracing everyone from kindly Frank and Alice Longbottom to the sneering Severus Snape. Someone like that shouldn't have died, but, as Emmeline had learned, there were many, too many "shouldn't haves" in war. Lily and James shouldn't have died, Frank and Alice shouldn't have be in . . . well, the condition they were in, Harry shouldn't have had to live in this earth-bound Hell with its well-manicured lawns and expensive company cars.

Yet, she didn't see how this couldbe Harry. True, he had inherited James's supple frame and untamable raven-black hair; yes, he had Lily's emerald-green eyes. Merlin, the boy was the perfect combination of both his parents, but there was something missing. . . .

Where was the baby whose happy gurgles could make even Alastor Moody smile? Where was the boy whose eyes had lit up with mischief right before spitting up on Severus's robes? But those emeralds were dull now, their sparkle absent, as was the little boy it had once belonged to, squashed out of existence by this whole mundane place that some dared to call home. . . .

Closing the book, Emmeline glared at the entwining gold letters, half-hoping the book would burst into flame, more as a stress-reliever than anything, a way to give her anger an outlet, something she desperately needed at the moment. . . .

If only you could see your savior now, Mr. Waffling, she seethed, glaring at the gold-embossed name.

"Er . . . ma'am? Ms. Vance?" Startled from her reverie, Emmeline turned her own brown eyes to meet Harry's emerald-green ones.

"Oh, sorry, must have drifted off there for a moment. Are you finished?" she asked, gesturing at the paper clutched tightly in the boy's hands.

Harry nodded. "Yes, ma'am," he said and, slowly, hesitantly, placed his own paper atop the twenty-nine or so others, every syllable seeming to proclaim its difference from the generic papers surrounding it. Placing her hands in her lap to stop herself from snatching the paper from under the anxious-looking boy's nose, Emmeline forced herself to wait until Harry's footsteps could no longer be heard; then, with reflexes born of being part of the Order, grabbed the paper and began to read. . . .

My Hero

By Harry Potter

My hero is Jim. Jim is a janitor who works here at Little Whinging Elementary. I first met Jim when he rescued me from the school roof after I accidentally got up there. He was really nice about it and since then he's been like a friend to me. Since then, he's kind of looked out for me; he's stopped other kids from bullying me and sometimes I've been able to serve detention with him instead of with other teachers, like my punishment for going on the school roof. Jim does a lot of janitor work, like mopping up spills or kids' throw-up (that's what I help him with - he calls me his "little helper"). But he's also there to stop bullies bothering me. What's weird is that, even though Jim does all this stuff, he hardly ever gets a "thank you," and he keeps on doing it! He's always there to help me and other kids out no matter what. He's never rescued a baby from a burning building or arrested a criminal, but he's always there for us misfits. That's why Jim is my hero.

Wiping her streaming eyes on her grimy turtleneck, Emmeline placed the paper back on the desk with shaking hands, marveling at what a mere eight-year-old had written. Yes, an eight-year-old, a mere child who had been exposed to the cruelties of society at far too early an age, a society that shunned him for being who he was, a precocious young wizard.

Emmeline sighed, as she turned back to her inspection of the nausea-inducing classroom. She knew that the next few years would no doubt be difficult for Harry as his magic bubbled ever closer to the surface; however, until he was ready to rejoin their world - his world - he would be alright. For, if Harry's words were to be trusted, he didn't just have a hero, he had a friend.

Note: OK, I don't know how many of you have read An Angel in Disguise as well as this. However, if you have, I have a kinda sorta poll-thingy (don't you just love my terminology?) for you. I just want to know which one you like better - An Angel in Disguise or An Unlikely Hero. If you are going to vote, then also put in a review about this story.

Note: No, Emmeline Vance is not an OC. She is in Chapter 3 of OotP - The Advance Guard when she comes to pick Harry up. It didn't give a description of her or anything (except that she had been a previous member of the Order - The Woes of Mrs. Weasley), so I made her appearance and stuff up myself.