NOTE: A friendly reminder—this was originally written and posted between 19 May and 4 September, 2001. Nothing that has been learned about the Potterverse after that time, from interviews, subsequent books, etc., has been retconned in the fic. So just sit back and relax, get in a time machine to 2001, and don't worry about things we learned after Goblet of Fire that are different from what you're reading here. I know all about them, but I don't believe in retconning, period, so I'm not "fixing" any of those things. It is what it is—an artifact of a certain time in the fandom. Enjoy. –BLP

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Harry Potter and the Psychic Serpent

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Chapter One

Manual Labor

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Harry had planned to sleep late on his first day of the summer holidays. He felt as if he needed to sleep for a year after what he'd been through during his fourth year of wizarding training. Harry Potter was possibly the most famous wizard in the world, apart from the dark wizard who had killed his parents. And now he was probably even more famous, having won the Triwizard Tournament just a couple of weeks earlier. But he was only famous in the wizarding world; in the non-magical, Muggle world, he was an annoyance to his aunt and uncle and cousin. He just wanted to sleep late and try to forget everything that had happened to him during the previous ten months.

Instead he awoke at seven-thirty in the morning to the shouts of workmen, the squeal and grinding of a backhoe, and the shrill voice of his aunt shouting instructions to the workers who had been hired to relandscape the garden at number four, Privet Drive, where Harry felt about as welcome as an arsonist in a paper factory. It was impossible to continue to sleep with all the racket, so Harry resigned himself and threw back the sheet, sitting on the edge of the bed and fumbling on his bedside table for his glasses. The room came into focus, littered with wizarding paraphernalia spilling out of his trunk, which he had not properly unpacked. He went to his wardrobe and examined his reflection in the mirror on the inside of the door.

He'd grown several inches during the previous year and the bottoms of his pajamas hovered around his shins. He'd been so busy trying to stay alive through the Triwizard Tournament that he hadn't even noticed that he had a full-blown Adam's apple. He tried to sing a little of his school's song, to see how his voice sounded. Traditionally, at Hogwarts, everyone sang the school song to a different tune. He was partial to Loch Lomond and began, "I'll take the high road and you'll take the low road..." but it came out rather like a cross between a garden gnome being sat on by a dragon and a rabid cat being kicked about. He cleared his throat and tried again, managing this time to produce a recognizable tune in a reedy tenor, causing him to be optimistic, but halfway through the first verse his voice cracked and made a noise that was so startling that his snowy owl Hedwig squawked in her cage and flapped her wings agitatedly.

There was a sudden silence in the garden and one of the workmen yelled, "What in the hell was that?"

Harry had hoped that the worker was referring to Hedwig, but a second worker replied, "Cor, Dick, I think it was someone singing." Harry grimaced at the mirror; he decided to drop the voice experiments and lifted up his hair, examining the lightening-shaped scar on his forehead, a mark he'd received as a baby on the night Voldemort killed his parents, and attempted to kill him. The hair flopped back onto his face. He needed a haircut. When he was younger, he'd always fought against haircuts (his aunt and uncle were endlessly frustrated by his hair), but now he thought he needed something to make him seem a bit less like a scared little kid (as if it were standing on end because he was afraid) and a lot more like a wizard that a powerful Dark Lord had to take seriously.

He also noticed a dark, downy haze starting to appear on his chin and upper lip and along his jawline. Facial hair! At last! Maybe he would be shaving before the summer was over; he wondered whether there were special charmed razors that wouldn't cut skin while shaving. There had to be something; he'd never noticed a single wizard walking about with tufts of toilet paper stuck to the shaving cuts on his face, like his Uncle Vernon. Sometimes they fell off at the breakfast table and dropped into his coffee or food; Harry never said anything when this happened, trying not to grin broadly as his detested uncle raised to his mouth a spoonful of eggs prominently adorned with a wad of bloody paper, which his uncle did not notice due to his face being buried in the morning news. He would invariably say to Harry's Aunt Petunia, "Petunia! What have you put in the eggs this morning! They're smashing!" And his aunt would be self-satisfied and smug, launching into a discourse about a famous chef she'd seen demonstrating recipes on a chat show. Harry would have to drop his fork and put his head under the table to avoid them seeing the gleeful expression on his face, and once he almost choked on his orange juice, trying not to laugh.

The facial hair wasn't even close to needing shaving, however. It seemed more like he hadn't properly washed his face and a dirty film were still on his skin. He frowned at his chest in the mirror. He never slept with a shirt on anymore; somehow he had developed a phobia about being strangled in his sleep, and V-necks made him feel like his air was being blocked. His chest was pale and flat and hairless; he was so thin that his ribs showed beneath the skim-milk skin. He tried flexing his muscles, turning his head to look in the mirror. Ludicrous.

He lowered his arms and examined the other Voldemort-related scar he bore; the cut on the inside of his right elbow where Wormtail had taken his blood to add to the cauldron where he was brewing the potion that would resurrect Lord Voldemort. His blood—the blood of a foe— was the final ingredient needed for Voldemort to get his body back, after bones from his father's grave and flesh from a servant (Wormtail had cut off his own hand and had been rewarded with a new silver one).

Harry shook himself to clear his head, to rid himself of the horrific image of Wormtail writhing on the ground, holding his bloody stump of an arm…

The workmen had started up again, yelling to each other, and, like a descant above their chorus, his aunt harangued them about the way they were doing the work. His uncle's drill plant was doing very well, and he had told Aunt Petunia that she could have the garden redesigned so that she could impress her garden club. She had hired a garden designer, whose plan the workmen were following, but now she was spending all of her time changing her mind about every detail at the last possible moment and driving everyone mad with the resulting chaos.

Harry put on shorts and a T-shirt, his socks and trainers, and went out the door after slipping Hedwig an owl treat. In the kitchen his uncle read the morning paper and prepared to bite down on a bit of bacon that had the requisite bloody loo paper sitting on it. Harry stifled a laugh and thrust his head into the refrigerator to find food, so no one could see his expression.

He sat down at the table with orange juice and a banana from the bowl on the table before taking a piece of buttered toast from the toast rack. His cousin Dudley sat at the table already, almost finished his frugal breakfast of yogurt, fruit and a rice cake. He'd been upgraded from grapefruit because he'd been good enough at sticking to his diet during the previous school year. To Harry's eyes he did seem noticeably smaller, even a little muscular, rather than like a mound of quivering blancmange. Since Harry had been home, Dudley had even been reasonably civil to him, helping him carry his trunk up to his room from the car and bragging about all the weight he'd lost. He didn't ask Harry anything about his school year, just prattled on about a girl he wanted to ask out in September, gushing on about Julia this and Julia that. Harry listened patiently; he wasn't allowed to use magic outside of school, which was the only thing likely to make Dudley shut up. Besides, he would rather listen to Dudley blither about his girlfriend than be on the receiving end of a pounding, as happened all too often during his early childhood.

His aunt finally sat down to her breakfast, having left the workers in the garden alone for the moment. The peace of the breakfast table was suddenly shattered by a large barn owl that came flapping in the open window. It landed on Vernon Dursley's chair and prodded him to take two parchments from her right leg, then turned an eye on the rest of his bacon. Annoyed, his uncle rose and backed away from the large bird of prey, yelling, "Harry! What does it want?"

Sighing at his uncle's magic-phobia, Harry went to the owl and removed the parchments, surreptitiously slipping the owl some bacon as he did so. He examined the parchments; one was addressed to his aunt and uncle and seemed to be in his godfather's handwriting, and the other was addressed to him, on official Hogwarts stationery. The owl hooted. Having successfully performed her duty and receiving no instructions to wait for a reply to be drafted, she flew back out the open window. Harry heard the workers outside yell in surprise, as he realized they'd done when she'd arrived, but he was too preoccupied to notice.

He handed his uncle the letter from his godfather, Sirius Black, who was a fugitive from justice in the wizarding world because his former friend, Peter Pettigrew (the silver-handed servant of Voldemort known as Wormtail) had successfully framed him for his own murder and the murders of a street full of Muggles. Ever since he had told his aunt and uncle that he had a fugitive wizard for a godfather the Dursleys had treated him slightly better.

His uncle opened the letter and read with an expression that started as annoyance (time taken out of his day to deal with what he called "Harry nonsense") moved on to perplexed and then surprised and even frightened. Harry had not opened his Hogwarts letter yet; he wondered what Sirius could have written that would make his uncle respond this way. Uncle Vernon thrust the letter at Harry, seeming to be cautious about touching him, as if afraid that Harry could do magic on contact. Harry read the letter.

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Dursley,

I am writing to you because I am concerned about Harry. I wish I could have him with me and look after him myself, but as you know my legal status in the wizarding community makes that impossible; even if I continue to successfully elude the authorities, traveling with the most famous young wizard in the world will make me appear somewhat conspicuous, and will do nothing to enhance Harry's safety. The headmaster of Hogwarts feels that he is safest with you for the summer, but I want to caution you not to make life unduly stressful for him, as he has experienced an inordinate amount of stress this year.

Harry may not have told you, because he is very modest, but he is the winner of the Triwizard Tournament, held at his school this year for the first time in over a century, and he is the youngest winner ever. Another reason he may not tell you is not modesty, however, but because he does not wish to remember what occurred at the end of the Tournament, when he was transported to a place where the same dark wizard who betrayed his parents was preparing to resurrect the Dark Lord who killed them.

Harry experienced horrible things that day, including seeing a fellow schoolmate killed before his eyes. He dueled with Lord Voldemort himself and escaped with his life, returning with his schoolmate's body so that his parents could mourn him and give him a proper burial. He did more than many adult wizards could have—or would have—done, and has made me very proud of him, for his moral strength and integrity as much as his magical ability. All signs point to Harry one day being a very powerful and formidable wizard. Please treat him well—he won't be in school forever.

I will come to accompany Harry to do his school shopping near the end of the summer, and to deliver him to the school train on the first of September.

Sirius Black

His uncle peered at him through narrowed eyes. "And just how exactly would everyone recognize you as being the famous Harry Potter?" Harry drew his lips into a straight line and lifted his fringe from his forehead to reveal his scar. Vernon drew his own lips into a straight line and muttered, "Oh, right." He sat again, now that the owl was no longer on his chair, and sneered at Harry, "So! You're the hotshot tournament winner! You must think you're God's gift to magic!" Harry was surprised; normally, his uncle avoided the M word. He wasn't surprised that his uncle was trying to needle him. It was as if he hadn't read the parts of the letter about modesty and trying to forget about Cedric…

Cedric Diggory had been the other Hogwarts champion, The Real Hogwarts Champion, proclaimed buttons that some of the students had worn the year before, buttons that, when pressed, proclaimed POTTER STINKS in bilious green letters that were supposed to be reminiscent of his eyes. He and Diggory had gone into the final round of the tournament tied for first place. It had been so recent that Harry could still feel the weight of Cedric's lifeless body, could still see the staring expression on his frozen face, the blue eyes forever vacant and unseeing…

Harry grimaced at his uncle but didn't dare say anything; he was biting back rude responses that could mean his being imprisoned in his room for the summer with his magic supplies locked in the cupboard under the stairs again. Just because his uncle was full of himself and never missed an opportunity to brag, he thought everyone was that way. Harry saw that Dudley was actually surveying him with something like grudging respect.

"Well!" his uncle said at last. "Just stay out of my way this summer is all I ask!" He thrust the letter at his wife and left for work, just short of having steam coming out of his ears, as if he'd decided to take Sirius's advice after all and had been biting back some choice words of his own. Dudley managed to get the letter from his mother, who had gone to the open window to yell something to the workers again.

Harry suddenly remembered that he was holding a letter of his own and opened it, unable to stop a grin creeping across his face as he read:

HOGWARTS SCHOOL of WITCHCRAFT and WIZARDRY
Headmaster: Albus Dumbledore
(Order of Merlin, First Class, Grand Sorc., Chf. Warlock, Supreme Mugwump,
International Confed. of Wizards)

Dear Mr. Potter,

As your head-of-house, I am pleased to inform you that I have named you to be a prefect, effective when the new term begins on 1 September. This is a responsibility that I know you will not take lightly, as your record speaks for itself. You will be responsible for other students' conduct when professors are not present and you will be expected to uphold all school rules and regulations to the letter. This is an important leadership position. We expect nothing but the best from our prefects. Both of your parents were prefects, and I know they would be proud of you.

As a prefect, you will have access to certain school facilities that are not available to the general student population, and you will be required to attend regular meetings of all of the prefects in the fifth, sixth and seventh years, which are led jointly by the Head Boy and Head Girl, who will be Roger Davies of Ravenclaw House and Alicia Spinnet of our own Gryffindor House.

Congratulations, Harry! I look forward to welcoming you as a prefect on 1 September.

Yours sincerely,

Minerva McGonagall
Deputy Headmistress

Harry read the accompanying list of new fifth-year prefects.

Gryffindor
Hermione Granger
Harry Potter

Hufflepuff
Hannah Abbot
Ernie MacMillan

Ravenclaw
Mandy Brocklehurst
Evan Davies

Slytherin
Millicent Bulstrode
Draco Malfoy

Malfoy! Harry groaned; he should have known. Of course Snape would pick Malfoy to be a prefect! Severus Snape was the Potions Master and head of Slytherin House. He thought Malfoy could do no wrong; he thought Harry could do nothing right. He wasn't too surprised about the Hufflepuff prefects; he knew Hannah and Ernie from Herbology, but he didn't know Mandy Brocklehurst at all and only knew that Evan Davies was Roger Davies' brother and also on the Ravenclaw Quidditch team.

"I'm a prefect," he said to his aunt and cousin, trying not to sound too pleased. His aunt grunted.

"You! A prefect!"

Harry could not keep the hurt out of his voice. "My mum and dad were prefects. In fact, my mum and dad were Head Girl and Head Boy."

His aunt was stern. "I don't want to hear about your parents. Or that—that—school of yours," she said, as if she didn't think school were the right word at all.

He took his letter to his room, smuggling some bacon for Hedwig, and wondered who he could share his good news with. He thought of his best friend, Ron Weasley, but Ron hadn't been named a prefect, so perhaps that wouldn't be tactful. He had forgotten the part of Sirius's letter mentioning his modesty; he was just bursting, and wanted to tell somebody who would actually be happy about it. He could send a letter to Hermione, who was visiting the Greek Islands with her parents, but she would get her own prefect letter and know all about it, if she didn't already. After Greece, the Grangers would go to visit Viktor Krum and his family in Bulgaria. She had met Viktor when he had come with his headmaster from another wizarding school, Durmstrang, to compete in the Triwizard Tournament. Viktor had been the champion from his school, and had rescued Hermione from the lake on the school grounds during one of the tournament tasks. Harry would write to Hermione later, on the pretense of congratulating her on being named a prefect.

Suddenly it hit him: Hagrid! He pulled some parchment, a quill and some ink from his messy trunk and sat down at his desk to write a quick note to Hagrid to tell him he was going to be a prefect. He knew Hagrid wouldn't think he was crowing or putting on airs, he would be genuinely happy for him. Hagrid was one of his best friends, a large half-giant who had been expelled from Hogwarts in his third year because he was thought to have opened the Chamber of Secrets (though he was framed by Voldemort himself, who fifty years earlier had been the student Tom Riddle). After that, he landed the job of gamekeeper at the school, where he'd been ever since. It had been Hagrid who had come to fetch him to Hogwarts when he was eleven and had no idea that he was famous or a wizard or even that his parents had been assassinated by a Dark Lord, not killed in a car accident, as he'd always been told by his aunt and uncle (in an extremely nasty tone of voice, as if it were all their own fault and they richly deserved it).

He finished the note to Hagrid and tied it onto Hedwig's leg, giving her the rest of the bacon before she flew off, hearing another shout go up as the landscapers were alarmed by yet another owl flying about in the daytime. Oops, thought Harry. I shouldn't have done that. Aunt Petunia'll be having kittens.

He wasn't sure where Hedwig was going to find Hagrid, but he was certain that wherever he was she would find him. Harry knew that Dumbledore had sent him to the continent on a diplomatic mission to speak to giants about uniting against Voldemort, now that he was back in power. Voldemort was counting on the giants being on his side, and Dumbledore knew he had better do something to guarantee their loyalty before Voldemort got to them. Dumbledore was also worried that Voldemort would find a way to get to the Dementors and turn them to his side; they were the guards at the wizarding prison Azkaban, where his godfather had been incarcerated (without a trial) for twelve years before his unprecedented escape. Dementors were eerie and had given Harry nightmares at one time; in his third year, when he was learning to fight boggarts (which always turned into whatever the person feared most) his boggart always turned into a dementor. He had learned to fight it by conjuring a Patronus. He had a feeling that these days that if he encountered a boggart it would no longer turn into a dementor…

He also inquired whether Hagrid had heard anything about his own mother, Fridwulfa, a giantess with a bloodthirsty reputation who had left him and his father when Hagrid was very young. Giants in general had a very bad reputation and were credited with some of the worst mass Muggle killings during Voldemort's reign of terror. Harry hoped Dumbledore could make allies of the giants, although he was not so sure they should be on the same side as such murderous creatures. Better than having them on Voldemort's side, he supposed.

After he sent Hedwig off with Hagrid's letter he stared around his room, at a loss for what to do, since he wasn't sleeping late after all. He heard another noise in the garden and went to the window. The backhoe was digging a rather large hole in the garden for an artificial pond. Harry watched for a few minutes before deciding that he would go out for a better look. Watching the landscapers seemed more interesting than just moping around his room wishing he could run and shout, "I'm a prefect! I'm a prefect!" at the top of his lungs.

He went out the kitchen door and found an unobtrusive place to sit against the wall of the house while the workmen moved rocks and used surveyor's equipment and consulted lists and other paperwork. They'd been working for about two weeks, according to his aunt and uncle. The garden already seemed completely transformed to Harry. After a while, he became restless, and asked Dick, the boss, whether they needed another pair of hands. He felt Dick appraising his thin pale arms before he said, "Ye sure ye're up to it? 'Tis hard work."

Harry assured him he was indeed up to it and set to work moving and lifting whatever they told him to, enjoying the camaraderie of engaging in manual labor with men he didn't know, who treated him at first as a frail, laughable kid, but soon gave him a surprising respect, after seeing how hard he was willing to work, and also being surprised at his wiry strength, and by what he was able to do. Maybe I have some muscles after all, thought Harry, carrying a large rock across the garden.

He took lunch with the workers. Some of them removed their shirts in the hot noon sun or reclined on the ground to absorb the sun's warmth. Harry decided to do the same, leaving himself open to good-natured jibes about blinding them all with his pallor. In a week, however, his pallor was a thing of the past, and his lack of visible muscles was starting to be a thing of the past, too, as the work began to have an effect on him.

After he'd been working with the landscapers for a week, he was startled by a small garden snake slithering past him while he leaned back and soaked up the sun after lunch. The snake caught his attention because she was talking and he could understand every word she said.

The snake muttered, "Find a perfectly good home and the next thing you know, it's being rent asunder, great yahoos tromping all over the place, digging up my favorite flower beds…" Even though he had known since he was in his second year in school that he was a Parselmouth (someone who understands and speaks snake language) he didn't often think of it since he seldom had any contact with snakes. He spoke to the snake now, though.

"Sorry about all this. It was my aunt's idea. It may be going on for a few more weeks, I'm afraid."

The snake stopped moving, lifted her head and seemed—if it was possible for a snake to do this—that she had a shocked expression on her face. "What did you say?"

"I said it was my aunt's idea. Messing up your home like this. If you like, maybe I could help you find another garden to live in."

"No," the snake said. "I meant, I've never been spoken to by a human in my own language. I hear humans speak Human language. But never mine."

"Oh," Harry said, hissing. "I'm a Parselmouth. When I was a baby a very powerful wizard who was also a Parselmouth tried to kill me and failed, and some of his abilities transferred themselves to me. But I don't get to be around snakes much so I tend to forget I can do it."

"I have heard of wizards, and I have heard legends of wizards who could speak Parseltongue, but I never believed it."

"It's pretty rare. One time I talked to a boa constrictor. He told me he'd never been to Brazil. He lived in the zoo, but I accidentally freed him."

"What is a boa constrictor?" she asked before pausing. "They are looking at you," the snake suddenly informed him, before she slithered off into a bush. Harry lifted his eyes to see the entire crew gaping at him as if he'd gone mad. After a minute, he realized that they hadn't actually heard what he'd said; they'd only heard hissing. Even to his own ears, when he spoke in Parseltongue, it sounded like just so much hissing, though his brain converted the hissing into words. He could only speak Parseltongue when he was confronted with a snake. He smiled sheepishly.

"Well, you've got to speak to them in their own language," he said, shrugging. There was perplexed silence before Dick reared back his head in unrestrained laughter, the signal for the others that they were allowed to do that too. Harry laughed with them. He was telling the truth; he was speaking to the snake in her own language. While he worked that afternoon, he kept an eye out for her but didn't see her. He was sleeping soundly every night, rolling into bed exhausted from the work, his muscles aching, but at least now he had some muscles. And his skin wasn't the color of parchment anymore. He was glad to have the physical activity to take his mind off Voldemort.

Very early the next morning, before anyone was up, he gave in to the temptation to write to Hermione about being a prefect. She apparently had also succumbed to this temptation, as her owl arrived in Harry's bedroom five minutes after Hedwig left to give his letter to her.

Dear Harry,

Congratulations on being a prefect! Of course I had really hoped that I would get to be one, and I had a feeling that, out of the fifth-year boys, it would be you.

Harry hoped she didn't tell Ron that; he was very touchy about competing with his older brothers, two of whom had been both prefect and Head Boy.

Mum and Dad and I are having a brilliant time in the Greek Islands. In a fortnight we're going to Bulgaria to visit Viktor's family. They live in Sofia, the capital. Maybe Viktor can help me improve my broomstick technique. He's a reserve Seeker with—guess what team? The Chudley Cannons! Ron should be chuffed about that!

Harry strongly suspected that Ron would be torn about that; he had been rather agitated about Hermione and Viktor Krum going to the Yule Ball the previous Christmas, and only at the end of the term had he given in to his impulse to ask Krum for an autograph. Krum had been the star of the Quidditch World Cup the previous summer. Quidditch was a wizarding sport played on broomsticks, and Harry played Seeker on his house team at school. He finished reading Hermione's letter.

So, since Viktor will be working in England he can meet me in Hogsmeade on weekends when we're allowed to go to the village. You don't think they'll cancel Hogsmeade visits now that You-Know-Who is back, do you?

Here's a photo of me and my parents at the Parthenon. Next we're going to Corfu. Please take care of yourself and tell Dumbledore and Sirius right away about your scar hurting or anything else that could indicate dark magic. Missing you.

Love from Hermione

Harry examined the photo she had enclosed; it was a Muggle picture, no moving people in it. Hermione stood with her parents in front of a large Greek temple, both of them with their arms around her, their little girl who was not so little anymore. She wore a very tight sleeveless white top and a matching skirt that was very brief. Her exposed arms and legs were very brown and he noticed that she'd cut her hair; it was rather short, curling all over her head in a free and yet much more orderly way than it usually did. The shorter haircut seemed to work much better with her hair's natural bushiness and he almost didn't recognize her at first. But after squinting at it for a moment, he could tell from the nose and shape of the face and the way she smiled that it was her. She wore dark glasses against the glaring Greek sun and seemed quite happy, enjoying a trip to the Greek Islands. Harry caught his breath for a moment and thought, I just hope they're safe. What if Voldemort tries to get to her while she's traveling?

Harry had mentioned to Sirius that he was concerned that Voldemort would try to coerce him to do his bidding by coming after Ron and Hermione. Sirius agreed that that was a danger, but he took a wait-and-see attitude and promised to discreetly check in on each of them during the summer holiday.

He looked up in surprise as Ron's owl, Pigwidgeon, flew in with a letter. Ron's owl was very small and could be held in the palm of one's hand, and he was also very excitable, yet not dreadfully useful for owl post because he couldn't handle anything big. Pig fluttered frantically around the room while Harry tried to snag him and grab the letter he was delivering. When he finally had the letter in his hand he sat down on the bed to read it.

Dear Harry,

Well, congratulations on being a prefect. Hermione wrote and told me. Can you believe Malfoy got chosen? He'll be even more of an insufferable git than he was before—if that's possible.

Did you know that Hermione is going to visit Krum? And that he's going to play for the Cannons? I feel like I'm in prison; we never go anywhere. That trip to Egypt a couple of years ago was a contest we won. And now we don't even have the excuse of going to Romania or Egypt to visit Charlie or Bill because they're taking time off work and staying here for a while. Dumbledore thought it would be a good idea. And yet SHE gets to flit around the Greek Islands and visit a wizard who went to a school where they actually TEACH the dark arts!

Anyway, Sirius said he's going to fetch you at the end of the summer and bring you here on the Knight Bus. Then we can go shopping from here using Floo powder. Dad's getting Ministry cars to take us to the train on 1 September. I can't believe you have to stay with the Muggles until then! But Dumbledore says that's for the best too.

I haven't heard from Hagrid, have you? I'm not sure whether I want him to find his mum or any of the other giants. I'd settle for them to just stay in the mountains and not get involved in a wizard war at all. How's your scar? No pain, I hope. Write to me and tell me what you want for your birthday. See you in August.

-Ron

Harry put the letters away and propped the photo on a shelf after giving Pigwidgeon an owl treat and sending him on his way. It was early and he needed to dress and go down to the garden to work. It was very satisfying the way the landscaping was coming together. Harry could have been quite happy to go into work like this, if he had never discovered he was a wizard. He tried to imagine a life of being a Muggle, being completely ignorant of the wizarding world—but he couldn't. His life was so different from before his eleventh birthday it was as if those pre-magic years were lived by someone else.

After grabbing a quick breakfast Harry went out to the garden. It was very early, so no one else had shown up yet. Harry started moving rocks about. After a half-hour Dick walked up the path from the street, alone. Harry looked up in surprise.

"Morning, Harry."

"Morning, Dick. Where's everyone?"

Dick seemed about sixty, but Harry was just guessing; he was as brown and leathery as a gardener should be, with silvery hair swept back from his face and kind blue eyes. Harry was sometimes reminded of Dumbledore when he saw him. Dick put his hand on his chin, as if reluctant to deliver bad news.

"Well, the thing of it is, we've got another job, and they're payin' double for it to be done quick. Plus, your aunt has—well, made my men reluctant to work here." He paused and looked round at the incomplete garden. "But, we do have a contract, so I'll stay on here and continue this job, and a few times a day I'll check in with my men on the other job. You still want to help, Harry?"

Harry smiled and nodded. "Of course. I've been enjoying myself."

Dick sighed and looked his age for once. "Some's have the right to do it just for enjoyment; some's have to do it to make a living."

Harry flushed, thinking of the gold in his vault at the wizarding bank, Gringotts. Ron was touchy about money, too, and had been cross with Harry for not telling him that leprechaun gold he'd given Harry had disappeared the following day; leprechaun gold was apparently not permanent.

He and Dick got to work on the garden and things slowed down considerably. After it had been just the two of them for several days it seemed like it had always been like that. He found it very comfortable to work with Dick; he wasn't much of a talker. They ate a companionable lunch together in the sunshine, after which Dick reclined against a pile of potting soil bags for a nap. Harry took off his shirt and also leaned back, basking in the sun. When it was time to get back to work, Harry put on his shirt and picked up their rubbish. As he was entering the kitchen he heard a hissing voice say, "The rocks will fall. The rocks will fall. The rocks will fall…"

Harry stared around, perplexed. A pile of rocks in the corner of the garden sat waiting to be used around the artificial pond. Harry squinted around the garden, searching for the snake he'd spoken to before. He didn't see her. "Hmmm," he said, carrying their rubbish inside. As he emerged from the house again Dick selected a small shrub with sacking around its roots that sat near the rock pile to plant it near the kitchen door.

Harry was probably on the other side of the garden when it happened; there was nothing he could have done. The precariously-stacked rocks came clattering down, knocking Dick onto his side and shattering his left leg. Harry ran around the obstacles in his path to reach him. Dick lay on the ground with a huge mound of stones on his leg, sweat running down his face, looking like he wanted to scream but holding it back. Harry reached him, remembering breaking his leg during the Triwizard Tournament. And then there was the time he'd had to grow back all of the bones in his arm. But he didn't have access to magical medicine here, or even the magic necessary to get Dick out from under the pile of rocks. Harry felt like he was in a trance as he worked to move the rocks, one by one. Poor Dick was ashen under his tan, biting his lip and breathing raspily. Two weeks before Harry would have had trouble moving any of the rocks he was practically tossing aside now, with no regard for where they landed. (A number of carefully-placed plants were crushed and would have to be replaced.) While he worked he yelled for his aunt and cousin to call an ambulance. They finally appeared at the kitchen door as Harry removed the last few rocks from Dick.

Harry grasped Dick's hand while the paramedics set his leg and rolled him onto a stretcher to carry him to the ambulance. He watched the ambulance drive off, trying not to feel responsible, but it was difficult. He'd heard the warning and he'd done nothing; he disregarded it. He was sure it had been a snake's voice, the same snake he'd talked to before. He didn't quite hear his aunt complaining bitterly about the work not getting done and ranting about the plants Harry had damaged. Harry moved about in a daze, ignoring her at first before facing her stonily and saying, "I'll do it." She examined him through shrewd, narrowed eyes, eyes that wondered what he was up to. "If you pay me," he added. He tried to come up with an amount he knew his aunt couldn't refuse—he mustn't get too greedy. "Five pounds a day," he said, drawing himself up to his full height, looking her in the eye. He was as tall as her now.

She narrowed her eyes even more, searching for the catch, but it was a small enough amount that even she couldn't argue. She agreed and went back into the house, leaving Harry to stare around the garden helplessly, feeling guilty and alone. He swept his eyes over the entire garden quickly, but he didn't see the snake, so he tried calling softly, "Here snake, here snake," but it sounded like English; he wasn't speaking Parseltongue. She must not be nearby. He worked for the rest of the afternoon alone, stacking the rocks in the corner more securely, and assessing the damage from throwing them about to remove them from Dick.

He collected five pounds from his aunt at the end of the day, making himself a sandwich for dinner and rolling into bed early, aching all over. Now, every day, he got up with the sun, showered and dressed, and went out to the garden to continue his solitary labor. A few days after Dick's leg was crushed, Harry was basking in the sun after eating lunch when he heard a hissing voice.

"How is your friend? Why did you not tell him about the rocks?"

Harry looked around, finally noticing the snake near his feet. She was about twenty inches long and dull green, with glittering eyes and vertical pupils, like a cat's. "He'll be okay. I—don't know why I didn't tell him. I didn't realize that—that—"

"That snakes have the Sight?" she hissed softly. Harry nodded. His least favorite school subject was Potions, because he couldn't stand Professor Snape. But at least Potions were useful. He thought his most useless subject was Divination. Professor Trelawney seemed to enjoy spending every lesson predicting Harry's untimely death. According to her, he was supposed to have died dozens of times over by now. Harry had never seen anything while staring in a crystal ball or at a lump of tea leaves in a teacup, and he made up things when doing star charts.

Now, though, Harry was confronted by the possibility that the snake was telling the truth. And since very, very few humans could understand snake language, who would be in a position to know that snakes could predict the future? Even he hadn't believed her; he was as sorry as he could be about that.

"If you have the Sight," Harry said to her, "tell me: will Voldemort be stopped?"

"Who?" the snake hissed. "You do not understand. I can only see a few minutes into the future, and only what is right around me. I cannot predict events happening far away. And I get only a glimpse of the future; the larger a snake is the further into the future her sight reaches, and the farther distant."

Harry had a sudden thought. "Would you like to come to school with me in September? It's up north, and cold, but I could—I could—" Harry floundered, then had a brainstorm. "I could wear you wrapped around my arm to absorb my body heat! You could be my pet snake!"

She met his eyes. "What is 'pet?' I do not understand."

"Well," Harry said, "humans sometimes choose some animals to take care of and give them names and bring them into their houses to live with them. Those animals are their pets."

The snake hissed at him, "I am not a pet. If I go with you, it will be my choosing, not yours. What is a name?"

"Well," Harry said again, "I'm called Harry Potter…" he trailed off, unable to put the concept of names into words.

"I thought you were called 'lazy git,'" said the snake. Harry realized she had heard his aunt addressing him.

"No, no, that's not the same as my name. That's called an insult. It's to be mean. Let's see, you predicted the future and I didn't believe you, so I'll call you—Cassandra."

"Why?"

"Because there was this seeress in Greek mythology named Cassandra who was blessed with being able to predict everything about the future, but cursed to have no one believe her." The snake did not reply; he wondered whether any of what he had just said made sense to her. "But Cassandra is a little long to say all the time, so I'll just call you Sandy for short."

"For short what?"

Harry was starting to get a little impatient with the snake. Just because you can talk to snakes doesn't mean you can really talk to them. "For a nickname. A nickname is like a shorter version of your name."

"What is your nickname?"

"Well, I reckon it's Harry," he said, never having considered it before. He'd never seen his birth certificate. Was his real name Harold? Or Harrison? Or it could be that his whole name was just plain Harry. He had no idea.

"But that is your name."

"I know." Now Harry was really tired of explaining concepts to the snake that every human just knew. He wanted to get back to work. He put his shirt back on, shivering; some clouds had passed in front of the sun.

"Harry Potter," the snake said suddenly.

"Yes, Sandy?" Harry said, trying out her new name.

"I want to try your arm."

"What?"

"The sun is hidden. I am cold. You talked about wearing me on your arm. I am very cold."

He picked her up, enjoying the feel of her smooth skin and carefully wrapped her twice about his upper left arm. She adjusted her tail and settled her chin on it, letting out an audible sigh. Harry smiled. She didn't weigh more than a few ounces. No wonder she can only see a short distance into the future.

Harry worked the rest of the day with her wrapped about his arm, and they talked every so often. He tried to speak simply and clearly, as if she were a little dim, but he tried not to be insulting. He didn't want to confuse her about human concepts she'd never been exposed to. She seemed to be trying to speak simply to him too, as if he were not quite bright enough to understand otherwise. When he was having trouble lifting a very heavy rock—not one that had fallen on Dick—she told him she had heard the other workers telling each other to lift with their legs.

Harry examined his legs, which were still rather thin, though they no longer deathly pale. "I can't," he said. "They're not strong enough."

"Make them stronger," she said simply. Harry thought about this. Yes; he could take up running. That would make his legs stronger.

He was far too exhausted to run at the end of the day; he just needed dinner and sleep. So he decided that first thing in the morning he would go running, before beginning work in the garden. He also decided that he knew what he wanted for his birthday: a book about doing magic with snakes. He had heard that some powerful dark magic could be done with snakes; maybe some things could be done that weren't dark magic. He would ask Sirius about it.

He went to bed that night feeling like it wasn't such a bad summer after all. He'd spent the previous year becoming stronger magically, for the tournament, and now he was becoming stronger physically and also making use of some of his more arcane abilities. If it helped him to fight Voldemort, maybe he should learn some dark magic; Voldemort wouldn't be expecting that, or a snake of his own…

Harry picked up the photo of Hermione and her parents and stared at it while lying in bed, preparing to go to sleep. I won't let anything happen to you, he thought fiercely. Or Ron. I won't. Voldemort will have to come through me and Sandy to get you.

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