Disclaimer: The following is a work of fanfiction. I make no claims towards ownership of any kind.
As a side note, I'm really dissatisfied with the Hogwarts house system. It seems like Gryffindor is rather too transparently "the best house". Humbug to that. I'd like to say that this fic has the houses representing what they say to represent, but unfortunately that'd take too much effort. Instead, I present to you...
Chapter 1: Oh you may not think me pretty...
The great hall was silent in anticipation, waiting as the two minutes Harry Potter sat under the hat slowly stretched to three. Three minutes was a remarkably long time for a sorting; while most outgoing seventh years would claim their sorting to be one of the longest moments of their life (only just behind their first history of magic class and their NEWTs), in truth the average sorting took less than thirty seconds... the moment simply became exaggerated in memory. In many ways, the house a student was sorted into defined their future... it was both judgment and sentence at once. Were you cunning or intelligent, loyal or brave? Most professions hired preferentially along house lines, so that it was easier for a Gryffindor to become an Auror, or a Ravenclaw to work in the department of mysteries; students were simply expected to develop along house stereotypes. Why hire a Slytherin as bodyguard when a Hufflepuff will be much more loyal?
Unfortunately for the rather bored students, there was nothing exaggerated about the five minutes Harry Potter sat under the sorting hat. Unfortunately for the young boy himself, Harry had no knowledge of the wizarding world's prejudices. If he'd known what the decision meant... if, perhaps, some kind and biased soul had told him, then he'd have spent time arguing with the sorting hat about where to be placed. Unfortunately for Dumbledore's plans, Hagrid had been too ill to guide Harry around Diagon Alley. The completely unbiased professor Flitwick had been the only available alternative; thus, Harry's current conversation...
"So Gryffindor really tried to eat you?" Harry asked.
"Well, yes," said the sorting hat, who at this point had gotten quite distracted from actually sorting. "but it was Helga who started the bet. I'd honestly rather not talk about it."
"Alright," replied Harry. "Then... what can you tell me about the headmaster?"
"Well," began the hat, which hardly ever got the chance to gossip, "did you know..."
Allow us to backtrack here, for a minute, to the key point that separates this particular story from the original path that fate would have taken. No, not the fact that Vernon Dursley decided to hide from the strange letters on a particularly cold, rainy, and distant island, nor the fact that Hagrid resultantly fell ill. In fact, even Flitwick's presence as a guide would not have been enough to change fate's path, if it weren't for one short conversation...
It is quite odd, Harry thought, that both the wizards he had thus far met were of such unusual size. First Hagrid, who made even uncle Vernon appear quite diminutive, and now Flitwick, who was smaller than Harry (who had been an exceptionally small child) was at eight years old. Perhaps it was something to do with magic? But then, he thought, it would probably be impolite to ask.
Professor Flitwick had spent the majority of their time shopping lecturing about Hogwarts in general and the charms course in particular. Now that they were comfortably seated in Florean Fortescue's ice cream parlor (the professor in a chair which was brought to their table especially for him), it appeared that Flitwick had set this time aside specifically for questions.
"Well, go on," said the half-goblin. "I'm certain you're just bursting with questions!"
"Well, are you... I mean to say," began Harry, thinking again about the man's size before quickly searching for a safer topic. Though he was dying with curiosity, and Flitwick had been very obliging about answering questions earlier, it was better not to know than to possibly anger the short professor.
Harry had learned at a very young age not to ask questions, and suddenly being told to do so was a little disconcerting. He latched onto a question about Hogwarts (a presumably safe topic) that had come up earlier.
"How do you sort us into houses? Do we pick ourselves, or...?"
"Oh, no-no, I can't tell you that!" Flitwick smiled good-naturedly. "It's a Hogwarts tradition that students not know the method behind the sorting. In fact, almost anything you might be told about it is likely to be untrue- I myself was under the misapprehension that new students were required to attempt four basic spells to be admitted, and that whichever spell they cast best determined their house."
"Oh," said Harry, at a bit of a loss. He didn't particularly like the idea of taking a test, especially one which people would lie to him about. Still, perhaps there was something he could learn to prepare himself. "Well... then... can you tell me something you wish you'd known before being sorted? Without giving away the method, I mean?"
Professor Flitwick pondered the question for a second, before replying, "What a delightful idea. Yes, I do think I can tell you a few things without spoiling anything." In fact, he thought, maybe I can tell the truth while still having a bit of fun. It's only fair that Harry should have his own mistaken sorting ideas to share, in the future.
"Alright," began the professor. "Let me share with you a secret. Most students don't realize, but they only get one chance at the sorting; afterwards, the magic simply doesn't work for them; it's something of a safety precaution insisted upon by my own house's founder."
"A safety precaution? Is it dangerous? Or... what if I fail?", asked Harry, suddenly even more worried.
"Oh, I promised I'd not spoil anything, remember? But don't worry," replied a serene Flitwick, "I'm fairly certain you won't fail. Why, I can't remember the last time that happened!"
This statement did very little to reassure Harry. "Okay... then... what else can you tell me?", he asked.
Flitwick considered things which he wished he'd known. It was something of a personal peeve of his that, even as an adult, he couldn't speak again to the sorting hat. While it was true that this precaution kept the secrets of Hogwarts' students safe from prying minds, it also meant that an absolutely perfect historical witness was forever out of reach.
"Well... there is one thing, I think, that I wish I'd known during my sorting." Flitwick said. "I wish I'd known what an opportunity it was to learn. I was so worried about being sorted that I didn't even think about the other things I might discover instead."
Harry had been rather confused by that, but had primarily forgotten the conversation in the intervening days between then and September 1st. It had only been with the hat upon his head that he'd remembered, and thus his sorting was taking a very unusual turn.
"But about Professor Snape... I thought Slytherin only accepted purebloods?" asked Harry, who had during the past seven minutes moved on from history to gossip, from gossip to sociology, then back to gossip again.
"Yes," replied the hat, who was suddenly reminded of the purpose for which he had been stitched. "the restriction was of course removed after the founders parted ways, though the stigma upon the house remains."
"Mr Potter, as much as I have enjoyed actually holding a conversation for the first time in 700 years, I'm afraid I do have a job to do. Where would you like to be sorted?"
"W-what?", said Harry, who was rather startled by the question. "I thought that was your job!"
"Actually, my job is to see that the students are sorted, not to decide where they go.", explained the hat to a still-confused Harry. "The students do that themselves; I sometimes have to explain what the houses stand for, but the students themselves always pick a particular house. It's just usually subconscious."
"Well, Ravenclaw sounds rather nice," said Harry, "but I'm not certain I'm very smart. And I'm tired enough of hard work that I don't think I'd like to be in Hufflepuff. I suppose it'll have to be Gryffindor."
"An interesting choice. Gryffindor will help you to be good, yes, but I noticed you didn't mention Slytherin. What would you say if I told you that Slytherin could help you to become, not good, but truly great?"
"Draco Malfoy is in Slytherin," replied Harry. "and I don't think I like him. He reminds me of my cousin."
"That is almost, but not quite, the worst reason to decide against a house that I've ever heard. Almost as bad as that Lockheart boy and his 'but yellow dulls my complexion and the whiteness of my teeth' excuse. You'd give up greatness to stay away from him?"
"I don't care about being great. I just want to make some friends." said Harry.
"Well if that's the case, might I remind you that I mentioned Slytherin would help you discover your real friends?"
"I rather thought you were being sarcastic there."
"I was not!" said the hat, affronted. "Those sorted into Slytherin rather quickly discover who their friends are and who is merely pretending to be their friend. That's something those in other houses often learn far to late. Your own parents, for example, were betrayed by someone they thought was a friend- that fact is common knowledge to those raised in wizarding families."
"My parents were Gryffindors, though? Will... would it matter to them where I'm sorted?" Harry asked.
"I only receive snapshots, Harry," replied the hat, gently. "but even at eleven it wouldn't have mattered to your mum. Your father was raised to be a Gryffindor, and would have been quite appalled to go anywhere else... but he almost went to Slytherin, just as his father had almost gone to Ravenclaw. I think, as an adult, he would have been understanding."
"Alright, then I guess Slytherin is okay, too. Just... do that subconscious desire thing to decide."
"Oh, I will, Mr. Potter. I've known where you desired to go from the start, though I would have placed you elsewhere if you asked. Still, it has been nice meeting you. I'm sorry you don't know the spell Godric used to talk with me during the year..."
"Could you teach it to me?" Harry inquired.
"I'm afraid not, as the spell itself is a lost thing... there's only one room in the castle that could help you with that." hinted the hat. "Well then, time to say our goodbyes. It might be difficult to start, but I think you will find yourself well placed within—SLYTHERIN!", shouted the sorting hat.