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The illusion of normality attempted by the two elder residents of Number Four, Privet Drive, was once again shattered in the early hours of the morning, much to the repeated disgust of the neighbours.
Petunia Dursley's shrill voice, again berating her nephew for his laziness, was a constant source of irritation for the otherwise fairly usual neighbourhood, especially when it occurred at the ungodly hour of six am.
Never mind that it was probably justified, since the Potter boy was verifiably lazy (proven by the lax way he wore the second-hand clothes gifted to him by his generous benefactors, and his total lack of concern at everybody's meaningful stares and less than subtle comments), six am was just too damn early to yell at somebody to start sweeping the floor, taking out the garbage, washing the car, and weeding the path.
If it wasn't for the fact Petunia and her husband were such kindly people for taking in the slack son of her deceased (and undoubtedly equally lazy) sister ten years ago, somebody would have said something to her by now.
Strangely, it never once occurred to anybody that constantly calling somebody something might actually encourage them to develop that attribute.
Luckily, lazy came up in Petunia's tirades slightly more often than freak, otherwise, this could have been a very different story.
"Bad news, Vernon," she said. "Mrs. Figg's broken her leg. She can't take him."
She jerked her head in Harry's direction. Not that she needed to. Vernon and Petunia rarely ever spoke of anybody else with that particular tone or emphasis.
"You could just leave me here," Harry put in, trying hard not to sound too hopeful.
He'd be able to watch what he wanted on television for a change and maybe even have a go on Dudley's computer before the fat lump of lard got bored with it and decided to see if it could fly or something as equally destructive.
At hearing Harry's suggestion, Petunia looked as though she'd just bitten into a lemon.
Actually she usually looked that way, especially when Harry was involved.
"And come back and find the house in ruins?" she snarled.
"Lock me in my cupboard then," he said with a shrug.
Getting a chance to lie down in peace and quiet for a few hours, maybe even catch an extra nap, was a close second place to watching TV or playing computer games for Harry.
Unfortunately Vernon didn't trust Harry to be alone, not with the number of times strange things happened around him.
Nobody in number four talked about the fact Harry never had to go to the trouble of getting his hair cut, or how the teachers at his school never kept him behind to write lines anymore after that incident with the suddenly blue wig.
No, Vernon did not trust Harry in the slightest to stay home and not do anything 'unnatural'.
So Harry found himself dragged to the zoo to emulate a pack mule for Dudley and his bully friend, carrying half his body weight in bags filled all the various things Petunia deemed necessary for her Duddikins to have on hand (like 5 litres of piggy's favourite soft drink, and a home-made pie big enough to feed eight people).
He dutifully trudged along behind them, stopping to sit or lean as often as possible, as was his habit even when not loaded down with the wale's baggage. Not that Dudley could waddle for very long without a rest break anyway.
Harry leaned heavily against the glass in front of the massive reptile tank and looked longingly at the huge snake snoozing under the sun lamps.
"Lucky bugger," mumbled Harry, watching it enviously. "You get to lie around all day doing whatever you want, with no chores or school, and get all of your meals brought to you. That's a neat angle you've got going on there, aside from idiots like Dudley annoying you I guess."
The snake suddenly opened its beady eyes. Slowly, very slowly, it raised its head until its eyes were on a level with Harry's.
Then it winked.
In that instant, Harry knew the snake not only understood him, but whole heartedly agreed with him. For some reason, knowing the impressively large creature lived a life of luxury and was playing at being asleep, effectively pranking the lines of gawking humans that came to see it daily, made Harry laugh.
At least until Dudley noticed the snake had moved and came wobbling over to rough push Harry out of the way, knocking him to the ground.
In the ensuing chaos of the glass disappearing and the lard-ball falling into the shallow pool of the pen, nobody really noticed Harry apologising to the python as it patiently waited for Dudley to be 'rescued' from its cage.
"'is alright, amigo," it hissed back. "Now I get a 'oliday out the back while they fix my 'ome."
Relieved, Harry realised he admired the snake's calm acceptance of the situation, and decided to try to emulate it in the future.
It was likely to be easier than fighting all the time.
Dudley's gang used to hunt Harry. They thought chasing him around the neighbourhood and then beating up the smaller boy was great fun, until Harry figured out running and still getting beat up was a lot more work than standing his ground and getting beat up.
He embarked on a new plan, one that he mentally dubbed 'Harry-Kari'.
It involved no longer running from the gang, but instead throwing himself at whichever one of them was closest and fighting for all he was worth for a few seconds. He would then roll up into a protective ball and take whatever was dished out until they went away.
As thick as they were, even Dudders realised they were not likely to ever have any fun chasing Harry through the streets anymore, plus Harry sometimes managed to land some quite painful blows, making them all hesitant to be the first in. So the gang of cowardly bullies eventually gave it up as a bad joke and simply stuck to insulting him from a distance.
And that was just the way Harry liked it.
Harry loved spending time with Mrs Figg, his half crazy babysitter from down the road.
He loved being allowed sit around for hours drinking tea and patting cats while the mad old woman went through albums of cat photos telling and retelling her stories; it was a nice, relaxing time for him. She sometimes even let him watch TV and gave him cake.
Being a human cushion for a few cats and putting up with the awful cabbage smell permeating the place was a very small price to pay for his brief stays at her house when no other sitter was available. Especially not when the hardest work she asked of him was to help refill some of the cat's bowls or brush the tangles out of their coats.
Yep, the only thing better than taking care of the cats at Mrs Figg's, was being a cat at Mrs Figg's.
Several days before Harry's birthday, things started to get strange. It started off normal enough though, but this was where Harry would later realise everything had started changing.
"Get the mail, Dudley," said Uncle Vernon from behind his morning newspaper.
"Make Harry get it," whined Dudley.
"Get the mail, Harry," commanded Vernon.
Harry looked up from his meagre breakfast and made a quick evaluation of everybody's mood. It all looked good.
"Okay," he said happily, knowing full and well that Vernon was aware the effort involved in forcing his will onto the boy was much more than a simple mail collection warranted. "In a minute."
Vernon glared over the paper at Harry, annoyed, but not enough to be called angry. Harry tried to ignore him, but was secretly holding his breath, because sometimes, Vernon could be bothered. The skill was in choosing when to be outright slack, and when to work, or look like he was working anyway.
"Petunia," called the obese man in a sickly sweet voice, looking away from Harry after a final disgust and hate filled glance. "Can you get the mail please, Pet?"
Harry managed to keep the smile from his face and went back to his tiny portion of food with an unnoticed sigh of relief. He would need his energy later, because despite everybody's opinion, it was hard work being 'lazy', but he did have a reputation to uphold.
Of course, if he had any inkling that there was a letter waiting for him amongst the usual pile of bills and advertisements, his reaction would have been very different.
Harry looked around his new bedroom and groaned. Not only was the room several times larger than his cupboard, meaning he now had a much larger area to clean and care for, it was half filled with Dudley's broken junk.
No doubt it would somehow become his responsibility to dispose of it all, meaning at least a few dozen trips to the bin with armloads of rubbish.
Maybe he should have gotten the mail after all. At least then he would have some idea why Petunia was forcing him into this room.
Then again, if he spent a bit of time fixing up some of the lesser damaged goods, and snuck them out, he might be able to flog them off at the second hand store, or to some of the kids at school.
A bit of cash would definitely take the sting out of having to lug it all down stairs.
Over the next few days, and despite Vernon's best efforts, the strange letters kept arriving.
Owls and envelopes flew through the house, causing chaos and confusion the likes of which Harry had never seen before.
Petunia shrieked and Vernon swore, while Dudley tried futilely to hide his enormous bulk under the rather smaller coffee table.
Harry made no effort to catch or open one of the envelopes, figuring somebody would do it eventually, and trying to defy pig-headed and stubborn Vernon in a direct confrontation about this was just wasting time and energy.
Nope, it was much better to sit back and do nothing, appearing as blameless as possible while exerting no effort at all.
Not that doing so was any sort of guarantee that he wouldn't be punished anyway, but it was easier than any other course of action he could think of.
Besides, this was just too much fun to watch.
Hagrid's midnight introduction at the little shack in the middle of nowhere was incredibly funny and enlightening, but Harry still managed to get back to sleep with the minimum of fuss. He had lots of lots of practice at grabbing a nap whenever possible, no matter what was going on around him, and Dudley sporting a brand new pig's tail just gave Harry something nice to recall in his dreams.
Sleeping was possibly his favourite pastime.
The next morning, Harry shared breakfast with the giant of a man before they left the Dursleys behind and headed back to land.
Settling down in the small boat, Harry was still staring at Hagrid, trying to imagine him flying, or even just riding a motorcycle, and also vaguely wondering how the Dursleys were supposed to get back to shore without their boat.
"Seems a shame ter row," said Hagrid, giving Harry a sideways look. "If I was ter - er - speed things up a bit, would yeh mind not mentionin' it to no one?"
Harry nodded happily, excited to see what else magic could do.
Hagrid pulled out the pink umbrella again, tapped it twice on the side of the boat, and they sped off toward land.
Harry's grin threatened to split his face as his mind raced faster than it had ever done before, his imagination coming up with dozens of ways where magic like this would make his life easier. He could get Dudley's bike fixed and never have to walk anywhere, or make the much-hated lawn-mower move itself around without having to be pushed. The potential was limitless, and that was just one little bit of magic.
Oh yes, he was really looking forward to Hogwarts.
The day spent in Diagon Alley was possibly the best day Harry could ever remember having.
Everywhere he looked there were people performing incredible acts of magic as if they were everyday things, which they probably were.
Bags and boxes floated along behind shoppers as if being carried by invisible servants, rags scrubbed and cleaned windows without a hand holding them, dishes stacked themselves precariously before flowing away into the back room of the pub, probably to be cleaned by more magic, and nobody seemed to have to make any real effort for it to all happen.
It was wonderful.
"So tell me more about what magic I'll learn," Harry asked Hagrid. "Are there spells to wash and clean clothes? What about spells to make brooms sweep the floor, like that one over there?"
Hagrid laughed, his deep booming rumble shaking several tables around them.
It was abundantly clear that Hagrid was not a limitless source of information for Harry, but he was certainly friendly enough, and Harry appreciated the effort the man had gone through for him.
It was a pity the huge guy didn't appear to have a proper wand to use magic like other people were, but since he was carrying all of Harry's newly purchased stuff, Harry wasn't too disappointed.
"Yer'll be there findin' out soon enough," said Hagrid.
"Fair enough," said Harry, "but can you at least tell me about any benefits I might be entitled to, being the famous boy-who-lived and all that?"
Getting fitted for what was basically a dress should have worried Harry a little, but since all the other guys would be wearing the same thing, he found he wasn't really that concerned by it, and it did mean one less thing to worry about: trousers.
It was a pity he had to share the robe shop with the moron currently trying to impress him.
"Hang, on, let me get this straight. You'd rather not learn magic than end up in a house that has a reputation you don't apparently like?"
The blonde boy Harry decided to call Slick, since his hair was immaculately slicked back with so much product that it almost gleamed, nodded.
"It would be embarrassing!" Slick proclaimed. "A disgrace."
Harry showed his best fake smile and kept his mouth closed.
Arguing with idiots was more than a waste of effort, it sometimes felt like it sapped your own intelligence. Better to slap one of Dudley's moronic smiles on his face and stop listening, lest the sheer stupidity of anything the git said somehow infected him.
At least he didn't have to worry about trousers anymore.
After his fifth wand, Harry was fed up with the whole time consuming process.
First 'Old Nutter' the wand maker would rummage around in his horde, shuffling through shelves until sometime in his age addled brain would inspire him to grab a wand from a seemingly random location. Then he would slowly make his way to where Harry was impatiently made to stand, waffling on about types of wood and the internal organs of whatever magical creature was sacrificed for it.
Finally he would hand the stick over to Harry and get him to give it a wave, before snatching it back almost immediately and starting the whole process over again.
The next wand Harry held shot a blast of something out, shattering a row of boxes on the far wall.
"I'll take it," he said, gripping the stick tightly.
"No!" said Olivander, trying to wrest it from Harry's hands. "It is not the right one."
"Why not? It did something pretty spectacular," said Harry, refusing to let go. "That means it's got to be okay."
He gave another tug, but was unable to free the stick. The old bugger was stronger than he looked.
"Mr. Potter, 'okay' is not good enough. This is not the right wand for you and we will keep trying until we find the correct one!"
With a sudden jerk he ripped the wand from Harry's grasp.
Harry grumbled under his breath at the smug look Olivander gave him before putting the wand back into its box and starting to rummage through the shelves again.
"Well it better not take much longer," said Harry out loud. "My legs are getting tired. Why don't you have a seat out here or something?"
"A difficult customer indeed," mumbled Olivander, reaching for a particular box he would not usually have considered so soon.
Harry had never concentrated on learning something so much in his life.
"Reparo!" he incanted, swishing his Phoenix feather core wand in exactly the pattern the book with the moving illustrations showed him.
There was a small flash of light, a puff of smoke, and a quiet 'bang', and then the broken model plane was once again whole.
Harry almost jumped into the air with joy.
It had taken almost a week since his trip to Diagon Alley, but he had cast his first spell successfully, and the payoff in cash for what he could now get from the second hand shop for the fixed plane was well worth the effort.
There were other spells he really wanted to learn, like the ones that could potentially shrink his humongous clothes down to something approaching his size, but money was more useful, and half of his clothes needed repairing anyway.
He was especially happy that he had managed to avoid getting all of Dudley's broken junk out of his new bedroom, since it would now be possibly to get something for it all, once fixed.
He always knew putting off chores paid off.
Discovering he had no idea how to find Platform nine and three quarters, Harry did the most reasonable thing he could think of. He pulled a large scrap of paper out of his trunk and wrote a hasty sign that he then held up for people passing by to read.
"Trying to find Paltform 9 3/4 – please help," it read.
Several people chuckled, and few looked at him like they were worried he had lost his mind.
One or two tossed a few coins onto the book bag he had left lying at his feet after taking out his writing materials.
Eventually a girl with extremely bushy hair stopped in front of him, hands on her hips and a stern look on her face.
"You shouldn't have that where people can see it," she admonished. "It might violate the statute of secrecy, and you spelt platform wrong."
"Wouldn't be much point if nobody could see it," he replied evenly, "and you managed to understand what I meant, so that it means its working."
"Why don't you know where the entrance is?" she asked.
"Why do you?" he countered.
"I read all about it," she said, a tone of superiority in her voice that Harry really didn't appreciate. "You enter through that pillar between platform nine and ten, right there behind you. It's a magical portal that looks like a wall but is really a doorway. All you have to do is walk right into the wall without stopping."
"Well I didn't read about, but thank you very much," Harry said, not moving to put his sign down. "Guess I'll see you on the other side then."
Fuzzy stood for a moment, seeming confused.
"Aren't you going to go through?" she asked, as a middle aged couple, probably her parents, joined her.
"Not yet," said Harry.
"Why not? It's not difficult. I'll go through before you, if you are scared."
"Nah, that's fine," he said. "I'm just going to wait here a bit longer. We've got an hour before it's due to leave, and I've already made five quid," he said, nodding in thanks as another person dropped a coin onto his bag.
Fuzzy did not look impressed.
"Ron, you are truly a lad after my own heart," said Harry, lying back in his train seat.
Dozens of empty wrappers surrounded them, a testament to the bottomless pit theory of small boys and sweets. A mangy old rat scurried about, munching on bits and pieces of things the boys left behind.
He'd met the boy when a rather large woman, who could only be Ron's mum, hustled him and about half a dozen other kids, mostly red-heads, through the portal with ten minutes still to go before the train left.
Harry figured he could probably have made a few more quid, but was happy enough with what he got - it more than paid for his sweets splurge.
"Tell me some more stories about how your mum and dad use magic around the house and how you magical folk manage to avoid doing things the hard way."
Ron gave Harry a strange look.
"Alright," he said, chewing open another packet of beans. "But I don't see why you find 'it so interesting - just a bunch of housework really."
Harry sighed and closed his eyes, images of magic catering to this every want and need filling his imagination.
"Trust me, mate," he said, almost in a rapture. "I find them very interesting. Very interesting indeed."
The last thing Harry saw before the hat dropped over his eyes was the hall full of people craning to get a good look at him. Next second, he was looking at the black inside of the hat.
"Hmm," said a small voice in his ear. "Difficult. Very difficult. You don't really fit in any house at all!
"Plenty of courage for cheek, I see, but not enough to stand up for many others against your cousin and his boorish friends, eh? Not even enough to challenge the unfair image your Aunt gave you, although you are brave enough when it comes to trying new things.
"Quite a good mind indeed, but it's hardly ever been put to productive use, has it? Aside from the odd bits of cleverness to get you out of work, it's almost brand new.
"There's talent, oh my goodness, yes - and a nice thirst to prove yourself, but the only ambition you've got is to be left to have a quiet, easy life. Hardly very noble."
"No, there's nothing for it lad. The fact you put more effort into avoiding work than it would take to do the job, and despite that you have never had reason to show an ounce of loyalty to anybody, you had better be Hufflepuff!" it said, shouting the last word for the whole hall to hear.
Harry briefly considered arguing, but then figured it was probably a lot more effort than it was worth. Besides, he didn't really have a preference, and what possible advantage was there to convincing a hat he was brave, intelligent, or cunning?
It was much easier to just go with the flow, and probably a lot more rewarding in the long run too.
"Hufflepuff prides itself on hard work and loyalty," announced the Prefect, whose name Harry could not be bothered to recall and who had nothing distinguishing about him for Harry to attach a nick name to. "As such, there are no House Elves assigned to clean our rooms. Each of you is responsible for your own bed and belongings. The rest of the rooms will be cleaned on a rotating basis. Schedules and rosters will be posted each week."
Several groans came from some of the first years at the news, although Harry wondered what the fuss was. At least he wouldn't have to pick up after Dudley.
"Wash day for you firsties is Thursday, after dinner. One of the prefects will escort you to the laundry room for the first few weeks, but then you will be expected to take care of yourselves after that."
For a moment, Harry was certain the red head girl next to him was going to faint. She went so pale at the news that he could clearly see each and every freckle on her face. When she swayed, he automatically edged away.
"Everybody is expected to be up and ready for breakfast before seven."
More groans, although Harry once again couldn't see the problem. Seven o'clock meant at least an hour's extra, precious sleep on his Privet drive start time, but judging from the horrified look on a few faces around him, he was in a minority.
"Lights out for first years is at nine thirty, and you will be changed and ready for bed at least fifteen minutes prior to that. There will be several study groups organised for those of you having any difficulty, and a senior student will always be present at the assigned table for that group each evening."
Harry perked up a bit at this. Having somebody to ask help from would be a new experience, one he fully intended to indulge, although he had to wonder if the role of the upper years was voluntary, or another downside to the house of the badgers that he had yet to look forward to.
"Welcome to Hufflepuff, the hardest working and loyalest house in Hogwarts."
Harry joined in the applause half heartedly – the words 'hardest working' putting a bit of a downer on an otherwise interesting introduction to life in a boarding school.
"Well that sucks," whispered the poncy-looking boy standing next to him. "I've never had to do my own laundry before."
The redhead girl nodded weakly, looking slightly less pale, but still rather shell-shocked.
Harry didn't mind. Laundry, even as disgusting as Dudley's and Vernon's, meant at least half an hour wasted time sorting and loading Petunia's machine instead of being outside doing something strenuous. Still, something the prefect said was bothering him.
"Hey," he said to the ponce. "What's a House-elf, and what can it do?"
As the boy explained, with anecdotes and not so helpful extra explanations from the redhead girl, Harry could feel opportunity calling, and a smile crept into his expression.
After all, just because the rooms didn't have House-elves assigned to clean them, nobody said that Harry wasn't allowed to use them. Seemed like such a waste otherwise, especially since they apparently loved to do the work, and he was sure wasting was against the Hufflepuff Credo somewhere along the line.