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those cunning folk

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Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of Number Four, Privet Drive, were proud to say they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. Mr. Dursley was a large man with a mustache he was very proud of, and almost nothing by way of neck. He worked at a firm called Grunnings, which did work which had to do with drills, and therefore was the most manly office work you could possibly encounter.

Mrs. Dursley was a skinny, tall woman with a horsey face. She also had a neck rather longer than average, but it came very useful in peering through the upper story windows to spot what exactly the neighbors were up to now. She stayed at home, cooking and cleaning and hosting tea parties to show off her good sense of style and gossip about other neighbors’ slightly less impeccably normal lives. Mostly she worked to make sure her son and husband would have everything they could possibly want when they came home from work and school.

Dudley Dursley was also perfectly normal. He was rather larger than normal, which used to get him very nasty bullying from some real pieces of work, some true hooligans, punks who really should be given a whipping, at school. Sometimes the neighbors remarked to each other about it, but they couldn’t very well starve him, could they? He wasn’t so good in school, but as Mr. Dursley would say, only swotty girls cared over much about school, and he made quite a few friends, and stopped those punks from saying things about him quite quickly, with a few punches that Mr. Dursley quite praised. Mr. and Mrs. Dursley were very proud of their son.

Everything would be perfect, except there was a fourth person in Number Four, Privet Drive, and they weren’t normal at all. It would take a little while to notice the fourth person in the house, as there were no pictures of this fourth person, and the problem person was usually busy cleaning, or if they were done, put away into their cupboard.

If you managed to get a look at Harry Potter, you would see at once there was something wrong. He was abnormally small and skinny for his age, and dwarfed by the huge, old clothes that he had to wear. His knees were knobby and his forehead was adorned with a lightning bolt scar which was a bright white against his skin. He had wild curly hair which didn’t care for brushes or whatever the Dursleys tried on it, and brilliant green eyes that stood out very sharply.

He looked odd, but it wasn’t just that- it was the funny things that happened around Harry Potter.

The Dursleys were good, kind, people who took him in despite this. They assigned him plenty of chores (‘to build character,” the dad in those comics Dudley never read would say) and even more if he messed the original chores up. If he didn’t finish enough of his chores, he didn’t get much food. But it made sense, didn’t it? If their hanger-on nephew didn’t pull his weight that day, he didn’t deserve dinner.

Harry worked hard to finish all his chores. Harry stayed exactly one half letter grade behind Dudley. Harry avoided Dudley’s gang, often hiding in the school library, as the librarian there wouldn’t stand for Dudley and his gang talking in the library. Harry made cover up stories for the bruises he got from being pinched or sometimes slapped, or whatever, because he knew no one else had strange things happen around them, so it stood to reason no one else got slapped around or pinched as much as he did.

Once, Harry was running from Dudley’s gang, and he found himself on the roof of the school building, somehow. He figured it must be an odd gust of wind, or something, but the school teacher, who already didn’t like him, figured he’d been climbing school property, and the Dursleys figured he’d done something “freakish”. Between the two of them Harry got a month of detention, and a week “home sick”, being locked in the cupboard with only a little water and scraps each day, being let out twice a day to go to the bathroom.

When he was finally out of his cupboard, the detention prevented Harry from doing all his chores, so for that month Harry got a little less food at home, and Aunt Petunia started to pinch harder, and more often, telling Harry not to be so ungrateful when every his face flinched into a twisted knot with the pain of not enough food. Harry at least got a full lunch at school, which he scarfed down lightning-quick, before Dudley and his gang could steal it.

One day after school, he had been so dizzy and lightheaded, he had fainted. Even Aunt Petunia had looked worried about his state, and for the entire day after that, she had let him eat portions the size of what one of Dudley’s friends would get and even rich things like ice cream, and greasy pizza, without doing any chores. But the rich food on his previously mostly empty stomach was too much and he had thrown up everywhere. After that, she had been much less nice- it was right back to chores, and his first one was to clean up his own throw up.

When his detention was finally over, Harry was very glad, even though it meant back to chores for him. When Harry cooked dinner, he could sneak little bites of vegetables as he chopped them, or “test” whether the past was cooked properly four or five times. It was nice to get something other than the dry bread spread with a very thin layer of peanut butter he usually got, or a small pile of leftover scraps. Harry could get covert sips of water from the tap or hose, when he was cleaning or gardening, too.

Gardening, too, Harry had a little bit more freedom, as Aunt Petunia didn’t watch him so closely. Harry would often talk to himself, or quietly sing little fragments of music he’d ran into- jingles from the TV he’d heard while cleaning, or music Mrs. Figg liked, or a song from the radio.

Harry was absentmindedly singing the jingle for a brand of cleaning wipes Aunt Petunia really liked, when he almost stepped on a little garden snake. “Sssorry, sssorry, little guy,” Harry murmered absently. “Didn’t mean to almost ssstep on you like that. You’re okay, aren’t you, you little fella? You should probably get out of the garden, though, Aunt Petunia won’t much care for you.”

The snake didn’t move for a moment, and Harry wondered if he should try to pick up the snake, and if that would lead to a poisonous bite, when the snake replied.

“You can ssspeak?”

“You can talk?” Harry replied in surprise.

“Obviously. But how can you, a human, talk?”

“I’m not doing anything,” Harry said at once. “But even though I’m not doing anything, I need to ssshut up, or Aunt Petunia will punisssh me sssomething nasssty.” Harry turned back to gardening, intending to ignore the snake and thereby avoid getting into trouble, but the snake stayed there, staring at him.

“Look,” Harry hissed, “You need to leave. Go out under that white picket fence. There might be sssome food there. I can’t help you more than that, okay? Now leave.”

The snake still didn’t move. Harry covertly nodded to the fence again, and after another moment, the snake slithered under it into Mrs. Figg’s yard.

Harry breathed a sigh of relief, figuring he had just prevented something truly freaky from happening. Fear of the cupboard allowed him to now further enjoy the bright, fresh air, and he worked rather contentedly for the rest of the day.

He was out in the garden two weeks later when the small snake returned.

“What, is there not food there?” Harry asked, after glancing around to make sure Aunt Petunia wasn’t anywhere nearby.

“There are fluffy animalsss. They bring in mice to their human, but their human doesss not eat them, ungrateful mute animal that it isss. Ssso I ate them,” The snake said. “But the fluffy animalsss have long clawsss, and they ssspeak nonsssense.”

“I really can’t talk,” Harry insisted. “If Aunt Petunia ssseesss you-”

“I will bite her,” The snake said. “I am good at hiding.”

Harry glanced nervously over his shoulder. “Look, you really can’t.”

Finally, the snake left, tail twitching in irritation, but they were back in a few days, bugging Harry even more. The little snake started just talking at Harry, and refusing to leave. She- it turned out they were a she- introduced herself as Ssslshchhshkh’lsh’hhk, and told Harry about her home, and a strange journey all wrapped up, which Harry realized meant Uncle Vernon and his friends had accidently kidnapped a small snake on their last camping trip. She was sure Harry was speaking the snake language; but Harry feebly protested that it could be Ssslshchhshkh’lsh’hhk.

Ssslshchhshkh’lsh’hhk never got angry at how strange it was, this cross-species communication, so eventually Harry relaxed around her. Ssslshchhshkh’lsh’hhk would talk about hunting, or the newest weird thing Mrs. Figg’s cats had done, and Harry would pet her and try to explain human things and concepts, which usually led to Ssslshchhshkh’lsh’hhk saying “huh, that’sss really weird” and Harry shrugging and realizing humans kind of were.

During the summer, Harry was allowed, even encouraged, to go walking in the neighborhood, as long as he did his chores. Aunt Petunia was glad for the time she got to pretend he didn’t exist, and Harry enjoyed the freedom, so it worked out pretty well. Harry started carrying around Ssslshchhshkh’lsh’hhk in his hoodie, showing her the sights and sounds of the park.

Harry was sitting on a park bench, Ssslshchhshkh’lsh’hhk casually hanging round his neck. Harry was pretty distracted, trying to get Ssslshchhshkh’lsh’hhk to admit that cats weren’t necessarily all completely evil. Harry was so distracted, he didn’t even notice that there was someone else there, until they spoke.

“So, what are you and your snake friend talking about?”

Harry flinched, turning to stare at the person who’d spoken. The person was female, which surprised Harry considering how husky her voice was, until Harry saw the cigarette dangling from her fingers.

She was one of the fellow neighborhood weirdos, judging by her skintight, black ripped jeans, thick black eyeliner, and cigarette. Harry saw her undercut and realized this must be the Taylors’ daughter, the one Aunt Petunia kept on gossiping about- Courtney. Harry heard she went to Stonewall, having not gotten good enough grades to get into a private school, like the rest of the neighborhood.

“Um,” Harry said, realizing he’d been quite too long. “I’m trying to persuade her not to be afraid of cats.”

“Wait,” she said, letting smoke slowly float out of her mouth, “Are you telling me-” she hesitated, “You’re seriously talking to that snake? Not just hissing random shit to play around?”

“Um,” Harry said again, coughing at all the smoke.

“Harry, what’sss going on?” Ssslshchhshkh’lsh’hhk asked. “Do you need me to bite her?” Ssslshchhshkh’lsh’hhk slithered out of Harry’s hoodie and eyed Courtney Taylor threateningly.

“Ssshe realized I’m talking to you. I don’t know? Maybe? Don’t bite her yet.” Harry eyed her warily. “Look, you can’t tell anyone,” Harry pleaded. “My aunt would be so mad at me for- for- uh, f-faking talking to snakes, you know.”

“Okay, okay,” she said hastily. “You are talking to that snake, though, right? Because if so, that’s like- so cool.”

“Yes,” Harry said after a moment. “Her name is Ssslshchhshkh’lsh’hhk.”

“Sseleshichikilishik?” she attempted.

Harry shook his head. “Ssslshchhshkh’lsh’hhk.”

“What’sss going on?”

“She knowsss- but I don’t think ssshe’s going to tell on usss. Be careful, though.”

“Can you do other stuff, too?” she asked. “Like- moving things without touching them, and stuff? Any superpowers?”

Harry shrugged. “Maybe. Look, if you tell anyone-”

“I won’t, I swear. I- I know it’s kinda weird, or probably not to you, but- ugh, just forget I said that- look, I really like snakes, okay? Oh god, I just realized I forgot to introduce myself, I’m Courtney, I’m going into Year Eleven.” Courtney smushed her cigarette. “Can I hold your snake?”

“Um. I’m Harry Potter. Just- just a moment. ” Harry looked at her warily. “Ssslshchhshkh’lsh’hhk, ssshe wants to hold you.”

“I don’t trussst her,” Ssslshchhshkh’lsh’hhk said, eying Courtney warily.

“No, sorry,” Harry said, tensing just in case Courtney was angry. But Courtney just shrugged.

“Whatever, not a big deal. I’ll see you around. If you ever want help thinking of a good superhero name, come at me, okay?” Courtney wandered off.

Harry sat still for a long time. Courtney knew about Ssslshchhshkh’lsh’hhk, but she didn’t seem mad. She thought he could be a superhero, like in that movie their class had watched with their sub.

Harry got lost in thought. If he was a superhero, he could save people, and then the people who he saved would like him. Maybe even Dudley had liked him- Dudley had liked the superhero in the movie. Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon might like him, too, then.

But talking to snakes wasn’t a very good power, was it? You couldn’t save anyone with that. Harry thought of what Courtney said. Were the freakish things that had happened around him- superpowers? Because of superpowers? Then why were the Dursleys angry when they happened? Was Harry a supervillain? Harry shuddered and put it out of his mind, heading home.

A couple of days later, Harry went to the library.

The nearby public library was a good place to hide from Dudley and his gang, as the librarian there hated how loud they were, and never allowed them to stay there very long. One of the books Harry read there was about a man named Sherlock Holmes. Harry didn’t almost any of it, but he had been so amazed at how Sherlock Holmes figured things out so quickly, using logic. Harry kept on wondering what Sherlock Holmes would think about Harry and the freakish things that happened around him, so Harry decided to go about this logically, and be his own Sherlock Holmes.

He borrowed a pencil and paper from the library, and he sat down at a desk. He wrote down every strange thing that had ever happened around or to him- the way his hair grew back in one night when it was cut, the time he somehow found himself on the roof of his school, his teacher’s hair changing color after she insulted him. He wrote down everything he could remember about each incident, and read it over, once, twice, three or four times, looking for connections, patterns, explanations.

There wasn’t much. Only that- each time that something had happened, he had been upset- angry, or scared, or desperately in need of something. He wasn’t sure how these things happened, but he could tell that much.

He didn’t think he had any control over it, really, so he didn’t think it could be superpowers. And anyway, superheroes were supposed to have, you know, interesting backstories, and Harry didn’t. He had dead parents, and a meaningless scar.

The next best thing he could think of was some kind of- miracle. Like the reverend had talked about in church, that one time some of the neighbors had suggested the “power of God will cure your delinquent nephew”, and Aunt Petunia had dragged him along, her cheeks bunched up like she was sucking lemons.

The thing about that was- well. There were two things, actually. Number one, Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon went to church- mostly to impress the neighbors, but still- so if it was some kind of miracle, wouldn’t they avoid punishing him for it, for fear of God? And also, well, there was no way there was someone- up there- who cared about Harry. No one down here did, so why would someone up there?

Harry tried not to think about it all very much. He knew that wasn’t what Sherlock Holmes would do- Sherlock Holmes would poke and prod at it until he understood it- but Harry wasn’t sure he should. What if he really was a freak, not a superhero?

Not that Harry had very much time to think about anything. Most of his time, he spent at school, or working on his chores, or hurrying to finish homework the Dursleys hadn’t allowed him any time for. When the Dursleys went to church- having now figured out an excuse to leave him at the house- he got two hours extra time, locked in his cupboard, that he usually spent sleeping, or occassionally reading, if he managed to filch one of Dudley’s books.

Life for Harry wasn’t good, of course. It was hard and the days were long, but there were little pockets of nice time- working in the garden with Ssslshchhshkh’lsh’hhk for company, going to sleep, learning something new in school, even if all the teacher hated him and he couldn’t reveal that he had any idea what they were talking about, that sort of thing. Life was bearable, and that was only as much as someone like Harry could hope for.