"Out! Supper is at 6. Be back in time to set the table. If you aren't, your portion goes in the bin. Understand?"
"Yes, Aunt Petunia."
Left unsaid was that Aunt Petunia gave her this speech three times a week. But then her aunt shoved her out the back door and sent her stumbling into the yard, and it stopped mattering.
Harry adjusted her smudged glasses and pulled up the set of Dudley's hand-me-down jeans she was wearing. It was too hot for them, Surrey in July, and the equally inherited sweatshirt she had on, but they were by far the best option.
The alternative was for Aunt Petunia to convert some of Dudley's old clothes into girly equivalents. Trousers to dresses, and so on. Her relatives had quickly decided that was too much work, and that Harry being seen as a 'tomboy' was an acceptable trade-off for not having to buy her clothing.
Four steps took her off the concrete patio and into the grass. Another dozen took her to the fence. She opened the gate and slipped out into the narrow alley that divided the fenced yards from one another. It only ran the length of the adjoining yards, but the fences were all tall enough that she couldn't see over them. Later in the day, they'd also be tall enough to block out some of the sun, but for now, it was high noon, and her shadow was a tiny pool underfoot.
Harry sidled along, hands half in her pockets, head bowed, trying to keep the sun out of her eyes. It just meant her hair caught it and heated up.
A bead of sweat dropped off her forehead to splat against the inside of her left glasses lens. Harry sighed, pulled them off, and cleaned them. Another drop hit them barely a meter down the alley.
Too bloody hot for this.
She tugged at the neck of her jumper, trying to fan some air through the thick cotton. No such luck. The air coming off the tarmac was so warm it was like standing over a fireplace and trying to catch a breeze.
She needed to get some shade or there'd be nothing left of her but a husk by the time supper came around.
Harry picked up the pace a little. She exited the alley- checking left and right for any of the neighborhood kids who might want to bother her. The street was deserted. They were all inside, enjoying the AC.
Bolstered, if not a little jealous, Harry crossed the road and turned left. Down the street to the corner, then right. The neighborhood fell away for a roundabout, and a little further down, an overpass, but Harry's eyes were on the playground.
The slide was a solid sheet of metal- literally hot enough to cook on, and she stayed well clear. But the jungle gym that housed the slide, sprouting a swingset from one side, was her destination. There was a little oasis of shadow under the platform, a space just big enough to fit into if she crawled. It was enclosed on three sides, covered over by the stairs and other parts of the gym.
Harry dropped to her hands and knees. She'd hidden here before. It wasn't a good spot for it. If there were other kids on the playground, they'd inevitably point her out to Dudley and his gang.
Not today though. That was the only real bonus of the heat.
The dark, loamy mulch was thick under her palms, and under the space, the mulch was actually a little damp. She was going to get dirty, but there was nothing wrong with a little moisture on a day like this.
Harry crawled in, circled like a dog, and then stretched out. It took a bit of fidgeting to find a position that made lying in the mulch bearable, and a bit more to adjust her clothing to not suffocate her.
For the first time since she woke that morning, Harry relaxed. She sank back against the nearest wall, wiggling like a worm to get the mulch indented beneath her and-
Something touched the back of her legs.
Just a bit of mulch?
She reached down and back, groping for the offending object.
Her fingertips brushed across something dry and scaly.
Initial thoughts of it being some odd piece of litter died beneath a much more basic instinct.
Harry yelped and rolled away, scrabbling for the exit. She pushed off from the back wall and lunged for the sunny exterior.
"Ouch!" someone said.
Harry squirmed frantically away from the play gym, not stopping until she was two meters away. What if it came after her? Were there any poisonous snakes in Britain? She didn't really know.
"Rude," someone said.
Harry squinted. The voice had come from beneath the platform.
"Hello? Someone there?" She paused, suddenly frowning. Something clicked in the back of her head. She knew this game.
It was a trick. There had been a kid underneath there also, probably trying to get out of the heat, and they'd played a joke on her with a rubber snake. Just like last spring when Piers had got her with that fake spider in class.
"That's not funny!" she called. "Come out!"
"Kicks me in the head and says I'm not funny. The nerve..." the voice said. It was dry, and not just in tone. Like someone hissing under their breath. But… it didn't sound like a kid. It sounded like a man was under there.
And that was definitely impossible. The space was barely a meter across on all sides. A kid could maybe have hidden there without her noticing. But an adult? An adult lurking under a play gym like some kind of troll? Hadn't Aunt Petunia always warned Dudley about people like that?
"Come out. I'm not playing around. I'll- I'll call the police!"
"Rude. Rude and loud. Always tramping about on their legs." The voice hissed angrily at that. "This is my cave. Go away."
Another hiss, louder this time, and something stirred in the darkness.
Harry stumbled backward and fell as the snake- for it was definitely a snake, slithered out of the mulch. She'd missed it for good reason. It was pure black, its scales shining in the sunlight.
"Go away!" it said.
It could talk. A talking snake.
And then it hissed louder than ever at her, baring a set of needle-like fangs, and Harry bolted.
She came back the next evening.
It was, at the end of the day, the single most interesting thing that had ever happened to her on Privet Drive.
A talking snake.
Harry crouched near the jungle gym. "Hello? You, ah- Mister Snake? Are you there?"
"Sorry for stepping on you. I brought food. Is that okay?"
A voice floated out to her."What kind of food?"
His name was Blackscale.
According to him, his siblings had been born with the typical rippling brown and black pattern that most adders had. He'd been pure black. It wasn't that rare, but it was enough to earn him his name.
Blackscale enjoyed the hunk of chicken Harry had kept from last night's dinner. He enjoyed it enough to forget any ill-will over her kicking him, and invited her to join him in the 'cave.'
She sat against the side of the play gym frame, legs spread out, drawing patterns in the mulch with a finger.
"So…" she said slowly. "You're a talking snake."
"All snakes talk. Humans just don't listen. You… you are a speaker."
"Human that speaks like snakes."
She rocked back and forth a bit, mulling that over.
"Uh… how do I do that?"
Blackscale gave a low, uneven hiss. Her mind translated it as a snort of laughter, but now that Harry was paying attention, she could hear the separation.
She took him home with her that night. Around her neck like a boa, his weight and texture both unfamiliar. Blackscale had been unsure of leaving his cool burrow under the playground, but she'd reassured him with stories of how lush and cool the Dursley's garden was.
They were technically true. She watered it frequently, and the leafy bushes would be cool to lay beneath if she was the size of an adder.
Harry didn't want to be away from him now.
A snake of all things, had voiced the answer to a question she hadn't even known she'd had. An explanation for all the weirdness, for why the Dursleys didn't like her, of the sense that she got sometimes that if she just pushed a little harder somehow, something would happen.
And the issue was definitely her.
With Blackscale's help, Harry had sought out three other snakes on the way back to the Dursleys, and unless every random snake in Surrey was talking, then she could talk to snakes.
She. Was. Magic.
It took a long time to fall asleep that night, half-baked in the stuffy cupboard as always, but now with the added thought of magic whirling and sparking through her head like an errant lightning bolt.
Her dreams were just as muddled. Scenes of long, dismal hallways and doors. Boys and girls in ragged clothes. A boy bending, a baby snake twining through his fingers. Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia melding and separating, a yelling mass. A green sun.
They were forgotten by the time she woke. She stumbled through breakfast, and was already heading for the door when Aunt Petunia started into her 'be back for supper' spiel. Her aunt didn't even notice that Harry had gone.
Outside, Harry crouched in the bushes at the back of the yard. Blackscale surfaced from beneath one, winding his way through the roots toward her.
Harry smiled. "I brought some bacon."
She didn't think a snake's eyes could light up, but Blackscale made a good show of it.
It was only after, when he was sleepy, his midsection slightly lumpy with the food, that Harry leaned in.
"What can you tell me about magic?"
He blinked dully at her. His tongue flicked in, then out. And then he shook his head.
"How would I know?"
Her jaw dropped. "What?!"
"Human magic. Not snake."
"Oh." She scratched the back of her head, combing a kink out of her curls before she answered. "You don't have… snake magic or something?"
Blackscale gave a snort of laughter. "What use do I have for magic?" He snickered again before yawning. "Doesn't mean I'm completely ignorant. Keep feeding me, and I'll tell you everything I know, Speaker."
There was a flash of wariness at his words, and Harry's thoughts went to, of all things, the handful of church sermons she's been to. The Dursleys did Christmas and Easter service, if they remembered. The Biblical serpent and the apple. And there's something else there as well, a snake coiling through a boy's hand, circling and coiling, endlessly.
But there was never anything in those stories about the serpent snatching up rashers of bacon, or lurking in a playground because it was too hot. And… Harry found she doesn't care either way. Because things were changing. The world her aunt and uncle had laid out was tearing apart at the seams.
Harry smiled. "Deal."
Blackscale kept his word.
He knew more than Harry had imagined a snake could. More importantly, he genuinely seemed to like telling her. She wondered sometimes over the humid weeks that followed if he was lonely too, or if he was just lazy and preferred the easy meals she provided.
He taught her about nature. Magic, he knew nothing about, beyond some humans (HER!) apparently being able to do some things. Who and what, he neither knew nor cared.
Instead, she got long lectures about which birds were smart, which were dumb, the ones who left their eggs unprotected, and which ones were cutthroat enough to point him toward their neighbors. Speeches about the plants in the forest- there was a wooded area, maybe a few acres square, a mile or so from the Dursleys' home, and Harry found herself taking a walk there nearly every day she wasn't occupied with chores.
Blackscale couldn't name any of the plants or trees, but he could point out which ones held fruit or thorns, where bees tended to nest, which plants the rodents he preyed on would eat.
Harry took in his facts, digested them, and then asked questions. That in itself had taken a while. Too many years of getting whopped by Dudley in primary for being 'a dirty swot' had made her wary of probing too much. But Blackscale reveled in them. Asking questions stroked his ego, gave him something to ramble about ever more.
And from her questions, Harry learned. She extrapolated which plants were safe for her to eat, which were poisonous. How to search for mushrooms in the dark and damp, but not to even think of eating until she had a chance to look at them in the light. Insects that would bite, and the plants that kept them away. Vines that split open to spurt foul-smelling innards. Bark and leaves that could soothe a wound.
It was not magic, but there was a magic to it.
The forest quickly became not just a day trip, but a refuge as well. There were no pointed fingers and raised voices there. No accusations and unhappy eyes. It was cool and quiet and safe. For the first time, Harry found something that was hers. Her place. Her woods. Somewhere where she could be as loud as she wanted, or run around like an idiot, or gorge on wild strawberries and morels until she could hardly move without bursting.
There was time for magic as well.
Harry couldn't really do anything. Not at first. She drew off raw instinct, groping for a feeling, an idea of how to work magic. Started small. Little things. Staring at a leaf, trying to move it without touching it. To stir the water in a puddle. Speak to other animals of the wood.
It took weeks. Furious hours of staring and wanting, needing something to happen to prove her right. In the end, it was Blackscale's reassurances that 'A speaker is of magic.' that gave her the push to keep going.
It was not just wanting or needing magic to happen, but knowing she could do magic, and that it should happen. She'd been winding herself up on a nice, throbbing headache, staring at a twig, willing it to break, not because it could, but because it should, and she wanted it to, and- something of her frustration leaked out, and she remembered the times before that something strange had happened.
Desperate, terrifying times. Dudley's gang. Aunt Petunia with the kitchen scissors. Uncle Vernon's bellowing anger.
"Come. On." Hissed between gritted teeth.
Something clenched behind her ribs. Twisted. And then unfolded. Heat and joy filled her limbs, twining around her bones, lifted her chin. Opened her eyes.
Harry gasped, as a dam broke and something burst-
The twig exploded like a firecracker.
Her thoughts slowly filled with trees and greenery, until the Dursley's home, with all its artificial wood and fluorescent lights, felt more alien than ever before. Every morning, she would wake from dreams of snakes and a gray, industrial London, Blackscale curled in a knot against her side, and it would begin anew.
And it was in the woods one morning, that things set into motion. Harry crouched behind a log with Blackscale, watching for prey, letting the snake show her how they hunted.
A shadow passed overhead, and she looked up.
Blackscale hissed angrily, sliding under the log. "Hide from hunting-birds, Speaker!"
There was a rustle of feathers, and then a bird alighted on the log.
An owl. Black and brown, yellow eyes meeting her green.
It held its leg out to her.
Harry reached out numbly, dumbly, and took the letter it offered her.
Thick, brown paper, and a crest with animals around an ornate letter 'H.'
She opened it. The owl took flight.
Harry waited until Blackscale emerged from beneath the log before she read the letter.
'Dear Ms. Potter,
We are pleased to inform you...'
This concept was an amalgam of a couple different things. I wanted a Parseltongue study. I wanted a fic about Nagini. I wanted something that wasn't the godawful parselmagic bullshit that pervades the worst part of Harry Potter fandom.
Enter Parselbrat. A fic where it turns out that the ability to control snakes is honestly kind of lame. Because snakes are basically legless cats, and there's no plausible reason for them to know shit about magic. So it ended up being less about Parseltongue, than about the doors it opens. No super OP powers. Just an early reveal of magic, and a friend who happens to be scaly.
Because seriously Wizarding Britain- controlling snakes is like literally the least terrifying thing that Voldemort can do.
Expect 2 more chapters, max.
Oh, and a rec for Charred Paws and Heavy Coils, but UndeadArtist, which inspired some of the mood here, and features a lot of fluffy Harry Nagini stuff.