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Chapter One Hundred and Five—Communication
Draco looked up sharply as Dash slithered into the classroom where he'd gone to practice his feather magic. Harry didn't walk in right behind him, and that was unusual. Draco put aside his parchment. "Is something wrong with Harry?"
Dash shook his head and lowered it. There was another piece of parchment rolled up into a scroll in his mouth. Draco took it, respectful of Dash's fangs, and unrolled it.
Dash asked me to write this down for you because he has a lot to say and it would be awkward to relay the whole thing through me. I think he's going to talk to you alone, too.
He really doesn't want to give you a basilisk or try to create a basilisk that could speak to you without Parseltongue. He has different feelings about making basilisks than he did now when he was Salazar. He really doesn't think that any human could bond with or even hope to influence someone like him without being a Parselmouth. He'll be happy to talk to Conflagration about spending more time with you, or maybe even create another kind of magical snake. But he wants you to stop asking for a basilisk.
Harry had signed the letter in a rambling, messy scrawl that Draco knew meant he was feeling asleep. He swallowed and put down the parchment, staring hard at Dash. Dash only sprawled in place, his head raised and his attention focused on Draco. Draco knew that meant he was listening, or waiting, but Draco didn't see what there was to say.
"Fine. You won't do as I ask. Fine." There was more disappointment in his voice than Draco had known would be there. He turned back to the sketch on the paper of feathers assembling into a triangular shield, something he still couldn't do despite all Fleur's instruction.
Dash came over and draped his chin onto Draco's shoulder. Draco knew it was a friendly gesture, but he still staggered and glared sideways. "What do you think you're doing?"
Dash kept moving forwards, stretching his neck over Draco's chest, and locking Draco's right arm against his side. Draco shouted wordlessly and tried to lift his wand, but it was no good. Dash's body was a lot firmer than the arm of the chair or anything else Draco could have trapped himself against.
"What are you doing?"
Dash knocked him gently out of the chair to the floor, and then curled up on top of him, although Draco knew most of his body weight was on the floor because otherwise he would have had a lot more trouble breathing than he was. He scowled at Dash. Dash only lowered his head and wriggled a bit like a happy puppy getting comfortable.
"If you wanted to talk to me more than that letter let you do, why did you come without Harry?"
Dash gave him a patient look, and then started bobbing and shaking his head. Draco stared blankly. At first he thought this was some kind of magical ritual, and then that Dash was trying to shake loose a drop of poison or something. After it had continued for about two minutes, though, he finally got it.
"I can communicate with you if I ask questions that are yes or no?"
Dash bobbed his head enthusiastically and nudged Draco under the chin, which was sharp enough that Draco's head went flying back and he grunted in pain. A second later, he felt Dash lick the skin over his pulse in apology.
"Okay," Draco muttered, and lay there rubbing his throat with his free arm and thinking of ways to ask what he wanted while making it a yes or no question. Dash lay still, and tilted his head to the side in a friendly manner.
At least I know enough about him to know when it's friendly, Draco thought in irritation, and then muttered, "You've absolutely decided that you're not going to make me a basilisk?"
"But what about another kind of magical snake? You'd do that?"
Draco lay still and tried to think about what the difference was between a basilisk and another kind of magical snake. Honestly, it was hard to think of. Yes, basilisks were big and more deadly, but even a small bite could be deadly, and Draco knew some non-magical snakes attained huge sizes, too.
He finally asked, "Is it something to do with me? I mean, with the way I am, the kind of person I am?"
Gently, Dash nodded.
Draco sighed and closed his eyes. "I suppose you can't tell me the exact word you mean, and I might not guess it anyway. But does it have something to do with—I don't know, you don't think I'm adult enough to handle that kind of responsibility yet?"
He opened his eyes in time to see Dash's confirming nod. But then Dash abruptly slithered off him, which left Draco to sit up slowly, confused, his ribs aching, and wondering if he'd offended Dash somehow.
Dash reached out and gently tickled Draco's cheek with his tongue. Draco held still, knowing as well as Dash did that he could "lick" with a fang, too.
Dash slid out of the room, and Draco stood up and turned slowly back to his feathers. His hands shook, and he finally put down the wand and sat with his head in his hands.
Dash didn't think he was mature enough to be trusted with a basilisk, but—something else. He didn't hate Draco for that. He evidently didn't want Draco to ask that question again, but he also didn't think that defined him.
The answer that came was so simple it made Draco's eyes pop, but he was sure he was right.
Dash liked him.
And armed with that liking, Draco thought he might be able to stop wishing so hard that he was a Parselmouth, and concentrate on what he really was and could be.
Lucius turned sharply as the Floo flared. Supposedly, Severus and Potter had been going to contact him at exactly twenty minutes past the hour, and now it was almost twenty past that. Lucius was not accustomed to being kept waiting.
But he smoothed out any trace of impatience from his expression, because it was probably another sort of damned test, and settled on the cushion from which he could comfortably see the fire. He was glad he had when Potter's face appeared in the flames, or he might actually have fallen over from the shock.
"Severus is sick?" he asked, the only reason he could think of that Severus would allow Potter to converse with him alone.
"Oh, no, he's right here."
Lucius gave as small and calm a smile as he could. "Very well. What did you want to talk with me about?"
"You've passed our test. We waited to see who you would communicate with and who might suddenly know something they shouldn't, and no one popped up. That means that you can indeed hold your silence when you're supposed to." Potter gave him a smile of his own. "So I'm going to trust you with something else again."
Thank Merlin. "You honor me."
"Yeah, I do," Potter agreed, and there was no question who had taught him that much insolence. Lucius held still, though, and Potter continued. "I want you to tell me who's really against us in the Ministry. I don't mean people who sort of feel sorry for Dumbledore or who're working to get Scrimgeour cleared of charges for attacking me because that's the way it's always been done. I mean the people who really hate me and want to see me stopped in my tracks. Can you do that?"
"That—is a task you could have assigned me some time ago," Lucius said slowly, because it was true and he wanted Potter to know it.
Potter gave him a faint smile. "I know. But I need it done now."
"Then yes, I can find it out."
"Good. Thank you, Lucius." Potter paused and studied him musingly. "Both Draco and Severus assured me you could."
"Did you doubt them? Or did you simply doubt that I still had the contacts and the power?"
"I thought you might have spent all this time fuming and getting angrier and angrier at me, until you would refuse to help at all because that's what you do."
So this was a test in more than one way, then. "I removed the Dark Mark, Mr. Potter. I am committed to staying on your side. The Dark Lord would never accept me back even if I was foolish enough to go crawling to him."
Maybe that had been the assurance Potter was looking for, because he gave a single, sharp nod. "Good. Now, excuse me. Severus wants to talk to me about some of the other political alliances we're spinning." The Floo went dark.
Not a farewell, Lucius thought as he stood up and stretched. But I suppose that "excuse me" is a step in the right direction. And I am going to prove my usefulness now, so that Potter doesn't feel the urge to dismiss me ever again.
"What do you think?"
"I think he'll do as he's told." Harry met Severus's gaze fearlessly, one hand reaching out to stroke Dash's head as the great basilisk coiled up at his feet. "What, did you get some different impression from his words?"
Severus shook his head silently. In truth, he thought Lucius probably felt some anger that he hadn't expressed, but that would be normal. In Lucius, anger was usually a spur to prove himself better than anyone who was doubting him, so it ought to work out for them even if he genuinely felt it.
"Good." Harry sat up and waved his wand. A shield of feathers formed in front of him, and he cast Severus a triumphant sidelong glance.
Severus only nodded and let a faint smile pass over his mouth. Harry was showing him that he had fully recovered from the exhaustion incurred when he had battled Voldemort. Severus thought it appropriate to show some pride while he carefully examined Harry's hands and arms for some sign of a tremor, the primary long-lasting effect of magical exhaustion.
Nothing. Harry's hand was as steady as Dash's neck when he lowered his wand back to his side.
It can begin, then. Severus took a deep breath and held out the letter he had received yesterday. "Elena Zabini sent you a letter."
Harry's eyebrows twitched. "And you didn't open it? You know I don't mind you reading my post from people like that."
"I was rather wary of the seal." Severus nodded to the small purple flower on the parchment, watched Harry stare at it with incomprehension, and sighed. "We should ask Pomona to step up your education in Herbology, as well. That seal is a living plant, Harry, but a rare one. Easy to mistake for a decorative flower, until it stings your finger and makes you swell up with the neurotoxin."
"It's a test, then?"
"No. The flower can be attuned by whispering a name to it—rather the same way that a post-owl can be by being told to deliver a letter to one specific person. I suspect Mrs. Zabini has attuned the letter to you to open at your touch."
"Well, it was addressed to you. And it hasn't reacted by coiling its tendrils when the letter gets close to you, the way it did when I brought my hand carelessly near."
Harry sighed a little. "I'm going to have to have a talk with her about sending post like that," he muttered, sounding like he already knew it would be a hopeless task, and then took the letter and gingerly let his finger hover in front of the purple flower. It melted into the parchment at once, becoming a regular violet wax seal. Harry shook his head and opened the paper.
He scanned it, then scanned it again. His eyes had widened and his hand was shaking a second later. Severus leaned forwards. He did not think these were the tremors of magical exhaustion come on suddenly. "What is it, Harry?"
"She, um." Harry cleared his throat. "She wants me to marry Blaise."
Severus stood there. He knew there was no spell to turn someone into a pillar of salt, but he wouldn't be surprised if Elena Zabini had managed to invent one. "What?" he finally asked, his voice little more than a rasp.
"That's what she says." Harry turned the letter around, looking at it doubtfully, although it was only one page. "She says that we both have 'unfortunately similar childhoods,' and we could understand each other. And Blaise isn't going to get back into society unless he has a powerful marriage, and, um. It could be with me."
Severus shook his head. Marriages between men were rare, but did happen sometimes—usually among pure-bloods powerful enough that they could ignore whatever social conventions they wanted. "Do you think she's serious?"
"I really don't know her well enough for that."
Severus had to admit that he did not, either. He cleared his throat. "I wouldn't show that letter to Draco."
"Do you think I look suicidal?" Harry held up a hand before Severus could open his throat. "And that isn't an invitation to comment on whether you think I was trying to commit suicide by going after Voldemort during the battle, because I wasn't."
"I know that. I was not—I simply think that it would not be a good idea for Draco to think he might lose you. His father was jealous over Narcissa in his time. I think Draco might have inherited that."
Harry nodded and started to roll the letter up, then paused. "Does the flower-thing become active when it's sealed again?"
"The flower-thing is called a death's violet, and no."
"Really? I think flower-thing suits it better."
Severus looked at Harry's face, saw the glint of humor in his eyes, and relaxed. "No. You may put it away. And we will add vocabulary and elocution lessons to the ones in Defense that we are having."
Harry rolled his eyes even as he handed the parchment to Severus. "You're never going to change the way I talk, you know? Not enough. Everyone who talks to me is still going to know that I wasn't raised in the wizarding world and that I'm not capable of talking in circles around people like Lucius can."
"I thought you handled Lucius well today. Perhaps you must be honest, but you can do it skillfully. Powerfully."
"You say honest like it's the name of a disease," Harry muttered, but he looked intrigued.
Severus held back his smirk and assumed a sober expression. "Now, one thing I want you to remember is that while the Killing Curse is the only spell that has no specific counter, there are many spells where the countercurse would consume more of your time than it is worth…"
Lucius paused when he heard the voice around the corner. It wasn't one he'd expected in the Ministry, and that made it interesting enough to listen to. He cast a Disillusionment Charm on himself with a skillful flick of his wand, and waited.
"I can't do as you ask." That voice Lucius didn't know, but the combination of tension and squeakiness made the name unimportant. It was someone being threatened and knowing she'd have to give into the threat.
"It's not a large deal, Annabelle. A small one. A drop of this in the snake's mouth. That's all. People tell me Potter comes to the Ministry with his basilisk often enough."
Lucius listened harder. Yes, he was sure of the identity of the other voice now, although still surprised this person was in the Ministry. And he was at the junction of corridors. He eased his head around it.
Annabelle, a woman in the robes of a high flunkey of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, stood with her arms folded and her head hunched down. The woman in front of her smiled and extended a hand, snapping her fingers gently. In one hand, she held a vial of glistening pink potion.
Severus might have recognized it on sight, but Lucius didn't. Still, he was trained in ways to identify an unknown potion, and he carefully memorized the speed with which it sloshed against the sides of the vial as the unexpected woman turned it.
"I wouldn't dare get close enough to the basilisk," Annabelle whispered.
"But he's a danger to the wizarding world. You know that, Annabelle." The woman Lucius recognized tilted her head in a slight motion towards Annabelle's left arm. "And so are some secrets that shouldn't be revealed."
"I think—I mean, Potter seems to keep the basilisk under control…"
Lucius was mildly impressed with Annabelle for resisting the implied threat, and for managing to have borne the Mark in secret and survived the purges of Death Eaters after the war. Of course, he was more impressed with the woman in front of her.
"We both know that can't last forever. Nothing lasts forever. Especially people who pretend that they didn't swear loyalty to our Lord."
The moment when Annabelle crumpled was more visible in her shivering hand than her expression. She reached out and took the vial. The woman in front of her nodded and even reached out to touch Annabelle's hair, although Annabelle cringed away from the touch.
"You've made my Lord very happy. And I'm sure that he'll forget about the way you forsook your old allegiance for some years and welcome you back into the fold when the moment comes."
Annabelle, looking sickened, didn't reply. Lucius tensed himself to move if the other woman started down the corridor towards him, but in the end, she smiled one more time at Annabelle and walked the opposite direction.
Still, she had been in sight for long enough that Lucius got a glimpse of her dark hair and her profile and the swaying way she walked, and he was sure. He departed for his next meeting in the Ministry hierarchy, his mind busy.
He had known that someone was helping the Dark Lord. Someone who stayed in the background, someone who had written the letters to him insisting that he would be rewarded for aiding in the Dark Lord's resurrection, someone who had to be cautious and skilled not to have been caught yet.
He had never expected it to be a Bellatrix Lestrange who looked as if she had never been in Azkaban.
It was the second startling letter in two days, but addressed to Severus this time. Severus read it several times to make sure there was no mistake, and then went in search of Draco and Harry.
They were together in one of the classrooms they had learned feather magic in, which was rapidly, with Granger's help, becoming a miniature library. Books teetered on the tables and feathers floated overheard as Weasley coughed and sneezed and choked, and Harry whacked him on the back, and Granger shook her head, and Draco looked on with a raised eyebrow.
"You're not supposed to conjure the feathers inside your mouth."
"Yeah, next time I'll remember that, Malfoy—" Weasley started, and then began to cough and choke again. Granger rolled her eyes and cast a charm that would probably expel most of the small pinfeathers and dust from his throat.
Granger and Weasley turned around, alert, even though Severus hadn't summoned them. "What is it, sir? Is it something about Horcruxes?" Granger was looking back and forth between the parchment in his hand and the pallor of his face.
The girl was too smart, Severus thought with a faint frown. He might have to keep some discussions for times when Harry's friends weren't visiting. "Not that. But some disturbing news has come that I need to speak to Harry about."
Dash was coiled at Harry's feet, and lifted his head lazily to study Severus. Then he planted his head in the middle of Harry's backside and shoved him, stumbling, a few steps towards Severus.
But Harry, instead of following the implicit direction, turned around and stared hard at Dash. "No," he said. "I'm not just—going off with him. Anything he has to say to me, he can say in front of Ron and Hermione and you. Not just Draco."
Severus paused, thrown. He had planned to reveal the news to Draco because Bellatrix was his aunt and to Harry because she was going to be a dangerous opponent if she truly had never gone to Azkaban—or had somehow broken out without causing the fuss that Black had. But Granger and Weasley had no need to know immediately.
Dash hissed something. Harry laughed. "If I'm only going to tell them right away, why can't he tell them now?"
Severus grimaced. That was true enough. Lucius already knew, and he would tell Narcissa, doubtless. And Harry would keep it to himself when it came to the general population of the school, but he had no reason to keep it from his friends.
Perhaps it would make sense to simply speak of it now.
So he did, while keeping an eye on Draco's paling face and Granger and Weasley's uncomprehending ones. He had to explain the story of the Lestranges, how faithfully they had served the Dark Lord, why Bellatrix was dangerous, and the family connection with the Blacks. And he had to watch as Dash watched Harry.
It had been a long time since Harry had resisted something Dash wanted him to do.
Severus couldn't help but wonder what the consequences would be.