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Chapter One Hundred and Six-The Hearts of Allies
"You need not worry. I will take over finding out where Bellatrix came from."
Severus started unblinking at Lucius through the fire. Lucius looked back, solemn and earnest in a way Severus had never seen from him before and did not trust. "Why would you do that? What do you think you can learn?"
"My dear Severus." Lucius had a tall glass of what was probably some sparkling wine in his hand, but it was hard to recognize through the green color of the flames. "I still have more connections in the Ministry than you do, and more opportunity to question them, given that you have to stay in Hogwarts all the time. I can do it."
"It is dangerous, and you are not always discreet-"
"But I've proved myself, haven't I? To you, and to Harry, and to my son?"
There was a conversational path Severus did not want to go down, especially because he knew he retained more suspicions of Lucius than Draco and Harry did. He said only, "It was chance that you saw her in the first place. There may be more here than we understand. Someone might have been using Polyjuice."
That caused a snort to come out of Lucius, a more inelegant sound than Severus had ever heard from him. "Why would they Polyjuice themselves as an Azkaban prisoner, someone who's going to be pursued if they see her outside the prison? Yes, someone has to have taken Bellatrix's place or otherwise fooled the Dementors. But it would be stupid for someone free to take her hair and become her. It would expose visitors she's not supposed to have at the very least."
Severus had to acknowledge that, though reluctantly. "She could be going about in disguise on her own, though."
"Oh, I know that. It only makes finding her more challenging."
Severus decided to let it go for now. He couldn't compete with that hunter's gleam in Lucius's eyes. "Harry received a strange message from Elena Zabini, proposing a marriage with her son. What do you think of that?"
Lucius snorted again. Perhaps the wine had unusually relaxed him; it was the only explanation Severus could think of. "I think Elena's bored."
"We haven't been moving very fast, have we? I have my concerns, and you have yours, but to some of our allies, we're simply waiting around on the result of the Ministry's investigation into Cyan Scimgeour. Elena in particular probably thinks that Harry is too passive, after the great events he was involved in. She's trying to prod him to move."
"Even if that would be into anger against her?"
"She can harness her enemies' anger, Severus, believe me. And use the fiercer emotions of allies against them."
Severus breathed in and out, raising some of the barriers that long Occlumency training had taught him to prominence in his mind. Elena Zabini had not known about the abuse of her son for a long time, but once she had, she had moved in a decisive way that stopped it. There was every possibility that she would move against Harry if she became bored enough.
"We have to do something."
"Yes. And unlike finding and tracking Bellatrix, I think this is something that has to come from Harry. He is the only one who can reassure Elena that she's not being forgotten or fobbed off with fewer political rewards than she deserves."
Severus told himself he would need a Headache Draught later. "Very well, I will tell him. But if you are wrong about your insight into Elena…"
"I am not wrong," Lucius said, as haughty as one of his peacocks. "It's the only explanation that makes sense as to why Elena would seek a marriage that she has to know would be to neither of their liking. Other than wanting to redeem her son and get him some political connections in Britain, of course, but there are less expensive ways to do that."
"In terms of the allies it could cost her. Harry, because she wants to force him into marriage against his will. You, for potentially interfering with Harry's life. Draco, because I am not blind to what Harry means to him. And me."
"There are certain things I do not like about Draco's choice, but I cannot deny that he chose well as far as political connections go." Lucius shrugged.
And if he feels more than that, he will never allow anyone to see it, Severus thought. He remembered that well about Lucius from past dealings. Lucius had a reputation as being formidable and icy in politics, and his apparent stubbornness and stupidity came from the same thing. He guarded his true beliefs as treasures to be tarnished by too much handling.
They would have an easier time getting regret out of Dash than truth from Lucius.
"Very well, I will speak with Harry," Severus said, and shut down the Floo connection. He wondered if he should also speak to Harry about Lucius's apparent devotion to their side because he would be the father-in-law of the Boy-Who-Lived, if all went well.
Then he sighed. He never did any good by keeping things from Harry. Dumbledore had not managed it, and neither had any of the adults who had thought Harry and his friends had to be kept away from secrets in the school.
"So he just thinks it was a ploy."
Harry could feel the relief burning in him. He had liked Elena, in a way. He didn't want to lose her as an ally, as he had thought he would by refusing this marriage with Blaise. But he couldn't agree to the marriage, either.
"A ploy to lessen her boredom and make things more interesting for herself, yes," Severus agreed, curling his lip a little. "I suppose that I can excuse her…more interesting tastes if it is only a ploy and remains loyal."
"But that means Lucius didn't want to give me any advice on how to answer it."
"More that he felt he couldn't, because you have to be the one to respond to it, and Elena would be upset if she found out that you weren't."
Harry slumped back against the wall, and sighed. He supposed he couldn't blame Elena for getting a little impatient, but…
No, he still totally blamed her.
What he needed was some way for Elena to see that she was still valuable, and he liked her, and he was sorry for the abuse Blaise had suffered, but he was never going to allow anyone to force him into a marriage against his will. And he had to do it in a way that wouldn't insult her. He knew what would probably happen if he insulted her or Blaise.
Well, okay, she would try to poison him, and then Dash would kill her. But he didn't want that any more than he wanted her to succeed with the poisoning.
"I'm thinking," Harry said absently, and twisted around in the chair, tucking his feet up underneath him and staring into the fire. The simplest thing would be to find something for Elena to do. But what? She would go through almost anything too fast, except maybe finding some way to kill Cyan Scrimgeour, and people didn't want her to kill him when the Wizengamot was still trying him. He propped his fist on his chin and sighed.
Dash was being suspiciously quiet down the bond. Either he agreed with Severus that this was something Harry had to do himself, or he knew Harry wouldn't welcome any of the suggestions that he could make.
Harry half-closed his eyes. Some investigation, or some way to hold back his enemies, or punish his enemies, or punish—
Harry jerked up. Severus spun to face him, wand ready in his hand. Harry chuckled a little and pointed at him. "It's okay. An idea ambushed me, not another wizard."
Severus narrowed his eyes and slowly released his hold on his wand, not looking enthusiastic. "You should learn to distinguish between them externally as well as internally. What idea have you had?"
Harry waved his hand. "You know that we don't know exactly where Voldemort is hiding or what kind of support he has. Maybe it's just Bellatrix, but he's probably started to recruit the other Death Eaters that have Marks."
Severus nodded without looking appeased. "And the ones we have approached to offer a way to escape their Marks may or may not take us up on that offer. If they do not, then we risk the chance that they'll tell the Dark Lord about their knowledge."
Harry nodded. "So what I want Elena to do is come up with some foolproof way to test for people's loyalty. Not Veritaserum. Something else that's not a potion they'd have to take," he added, because Severus was opening his mouth and probably wanted to say that he could do that perfectly well. "Something that could be, oh, a wall hanging. Or a plant. I think I remember her saying something about all the nasty plants that grow in her garden. Or a spell. Either way, it'll be something she can work on for a long time."
"A long time, indeed," said Severus, with a blank face. "It is not something that has ever been invented, as far as I know, any more than Veritaserum that can find the absolute, objective truth has. It would involve wrinkles in loyalty, what the person being tested considered a betrayal, the—"
"That's why it's a good task for her," Harry interrupted. "Because she'll have to come up with a way to bypass all those things."
"And whose loyalty will it actually test?" Severus's voice lowered. "If you put Elena in charge of it, then it might simply end up measuring loyalty to Elena."
Harry snorted. "You think she would lie to Dash?"
Severus paused. "Dash can smell lies?"
"It took him a while to realize what he was smelling, but yeah. And he can smell it even when an answer hasn't been given yet. If I ask her a simple question, and she's intending to lie, then her heartbeat increases and the fear comes out in her sweat. I think that she'll be able to figure that out for herself, but I'll simply tell her in the letter that whatever she invents will be tested by things like Dash asking questions. She'll get it. What?"
Severus was giving him the oddest look. A second later, he said slowly, "That will be useful, if she can achieve it."
"Of course it will. I can't give her anything absolutely useless to do. She would figure that out, too, and she would be insulted."
Severus nodded, but the look on his face hadn't changed. "It—you are growing up more brilliant than I thought, Harry."
Harry could feel himself flush, but he managed to smile at Severus. "Well, I need to keep in mind that my opponents are brilliant, and have good ways to fight them."
Severus inclined his head slowly. "In the meantime, I suggest sending a letter to Elena as soon as you can, and getting ready to make a public appearance. The public does not believe that the Dark Lord has returned, as you know."
Harry grinned. "I just thought of something that might convince them."
"It's going to be all dramatic."
"Show them that Dash can detect lies."
Draco stood with his arms folded off to the side. Harry hadn't wanted anyone to be right next to him as he stood in front of Hogwarts with Dash coiled lazily beside him. Underneath his feet and Dash's coils was a star-shaped platform. It would float into the air when Harry nodded to Professor McGonagall and Professor Snape. They would levitate it for him.
The Headmistress seemed to be skeptical, at least, Draco noticed. But she had a faint smile on her face as well. Professor Snape's face was as blank as always, although his eyes glittered in a way that made Draco think they weren't any better pleased than he was.
"Why does he have to do this?" Draco muttered to Professor Snape.
"He wished to. And he thought it would convince some of the public that the Dark Lord is back."
Draco sneered at the skeptical, devouring stares coming from the crowd. "He could appear right in front of some of them and they still wouldn't be convinced. They would be screaming 'Illusion!" or 'Practical joke!" or something like that."
"I have told him that. Harry seems intent on going ahead with it."
Harry gave a little nod that must have been the signal they were waiting for. Draco stirred restlessly again as he watched the Headmistress and Professor Snape heave the platform into the air. That nod should have been a harder gesture, to impress the crowd that stirred and muttered and whispered behind their hands.
But Harry didn't seem to notice. He said something else to Dash instead, and Dash twitched his tail excitedly and reared up and up and up. Draco heard the silence spread across the crowd as Dash loomed over Harry and they realized how large he really was when he wasn't keeping part of his bulk spread out.
Draco smiled. That was impressive, at least.
"I know that you don't believe me," Harry said. He had cast a Sonorus on himself that Draco hadn't noticed, from the way his voice boomed. "Don't believe that I was innocent of Dumbledore's death, or that Dumbledore really kidnapped me." He paused. "And I've been explaining that Voldemort's resurrected himself, and you don't believe that, either."
A few people in the back of the crowd shivered at the name, but some bolder wizard towards the front, a tall man clad in emerald-green robes that made Draco wrinkle his nose, called out, "You have no proof. Of any of it!"
"You're about to have some proof," Harry said, and gestured to Dash. "Did you know that basilisks can detect lies?"
That led to some more muttering, but a woman with flyaway grey hair, who looked about as old as Dumbledore, said loudly, "Truth! I read about it!"
Harry nodded. "My basilisk is dangerous. He can detect lies, and he'll punish people for them." He turned and held out his arm, and Dash opened his mouth, more than wide enough without even gaping his jaws to surround Harry's arm. "If I tell a lie, he'll punish me. Sink his fangs straight into my skin."
Draco stiffened. "What is he doing?" he hissed to Professor Snape. "Even a Parselmouth can't survive that much venom!"
Professor Snape's hand stuttered back and forth on his wand. "We must trust him."
"Not to do something so stupid—"
The shouting of the crowd overcame Draco's words. "You could just command him to do anything you like!" said that tall wizard, his nose turned upwards. "You could say that he had to bite other people for lies, but he has to leave you alone! This proves nothing!"
"Really?" Harry turned back to the crowd and smiled. "My name is Albus Dumbledore."
Dash's mouth snapped shut with a snick so effective it sounded like a Double-Edged Ax Curse. Draco stared, his chest pounding with dread. Dash opened his mouth again, and Harry showed the glistening, poisoned wounds.
"There," Harry said, panting a little, and raised his voice again as the crowd tried to shout him down. "Voldemort has returned!"
Dash paused like a stone statue of a serpent, his mouth open around Harry's arm but not biting down. More than one person had already Apparated away, and one in Healer's robes was pushing his way forwards. Draco shook his head, contempt cleansing his head. There was no cure for basilisk venom.
Which meant there was no way that Harry had had Dash really poison him.
"He resurrected himself with the help of loyal Death Eaters," Harry said, his stare stopping even the importunate Healer in his tracks. "And he's already attacked friends of mine in their home. And he'll attack again as soon as he can find a way to recover from the wounds that we inflicted on him in the last fight."
"What do you want us to do about it?" someone called from the back of the crowd.
"I want you to acknowledge it!" Harry's voice was suddenly harsh, a snarl, and he waved his dripping, bleeding arm around. Drops of blood flew forwards and hit some of the crowd in the face. They flinched back. Draco felt a surge of satisfaction he couldn't control. "I want you to do something about it instead of cringing and flinching and whimpering at each other. Can you do that?"
"How do you expect us to survive?"
"Who's going to beat him?"
"What will we do if he takes our families hostage? He did that in the last war!"
Harry just shook his head, his eyes deep and weary and disgusted. He leaned back and stared into the sky. Draco wondered if he was the only one who noticed that his chest was heaving faster than normal. Maybe. He was probably the only one here other than Severus who knew how fast Harry usually breathed.
"We can try to do something about that. But screaming or denying that he's back doesn't solve anything." He stared at them. "Does it?"
He had shamed them, Draco saw with some surprise. He had thought Harry was just trying to force them to see the truth and that he wasn't lying, but now he saw the way that some people glanced off to the side. Harry looked pretty thin and small, standing there with his arm dripping and the wounds starting to swell.
"It doesn't," Harry finally said, and then he turned and nodded to the Headmistress and Professor Snape. They let the platform drop back to the earth. Dash slithered off as if he had known all along that things would play out like this.
Professor Snape snatched Harry off the platform and strode towards the door of Hogwarts that was closest to the hospital wing. His face was so intent that Draco thought he would have trampled even a basilisk at the moment with how fast he was marching. Fortunately, Dash was already out of the way.
"I don't understand," someone called to the Headmistress. "What are we going to do?"
"Headmistress McGonagall! Headmistress McGonagall!" A reporter was waving her hand from the side. "What can you tell us about what Mr. Potter said? Did you let him summon anyone he wanted to Hogwarts?"
"Is it true that he's secretly the Heir of Gryffindor and in control of Hogwarts?" someone else called.
Draco turned to walk after Harry and Professor Snape. McGonagall was answering the questions as if she had been prepared for them, which maybe she was.
It was more than Draco was. He had a boyfriend to corner in the hospital wing and demand answers from.
"But Dash can control the virulence of his poison. Of course he can. Why would he use the kind that can disintegrate his prey all the time?"
Severus could only sit beside the bed in the hospital wing and breathe. Madam Pomfrey had already drained the venom from the wounds, and told him in a slightly stunned voice that it seemed to be nothing worse than a bite from a baby adder. It would hurt, and Harry would suffer some aches and fatigue and tingling into the next day, but then it would heal.
"I told you that I was going to show them that Dash could detect lies. I even said that he would bite—"
"You never mentioned he would be biting you," Severus shouted back, almost rising from his seat. Then he forced himself to sit back down and turn his head in the other direction.
Harry was quiet for long enough that Severus had time to think about what would happen if the venom had been real. He shuddered again. Yes, perhaps he should have known that Dash would never hurt Harry, not really. But he hadn't—he hadn't been thinking. And then he had seen the glittering venom dripping down Harry's skin, and he'd wanted to lunge, and only the long, far-gone thought of consequences had stopped him.
Harry had to appear strong, as strong as he could with his age against him. His guardian rescuing him from everything would only make people decide that the only strength involved was Severus's own, perhaps his skill at Potions.
"I know you are," Severus said brusquely, not looking at him, and felt Harry flinch.
"It's just—I didn't explain things well enough, I reckon." Severus looked then, because he had to, and saw the way Harry flipped a lock of dark hair out of his eyes and stared at his arms. "But it worked. I think it worked. I don't think any of them will doubt that Dash is capable of detecting lies."
"It worked," Severus muttered. Draco and Minerva had both told him about the sorts of things they'd heard people saying before they departed several hours earlier. Severus was a little surprised that he'd been able to restrain himself from speaking to Harry for long enough that everyone else was out of the hospital wing.
"Then it was worth it."
"Not if you keep taking a risk!"
"But this wasn't a risk. It really wasn't. Not when Dash can control his venom. I'm sorry for startling you, though," Harry said remorsefully, and reached out to pat his arm. "I thought you would understand everything, and you didn't ask questions, so…"
"I thought you would have Dash bite someone else."
"Who, though? There's no one else I could ask to do that."
Severus sighed. He had been thinking of Lupin or Black, but they…weren't here. And if he had been thinking clearly, he would have realized that Harry wouldn't have anyone take such a risk no matter how much they had angered or disappointed him.
"Anyway! Now we have at least some people convinced that Dash can detect lies, and I was at least willing to endure a lot of pain so I could tell the truth." Harry clapped his hands together as if his right arm wasn't still bruised and puffy. "And I can contact Elena and ask her to start creating that thing that will detect loyalty, whatever it's going to be."
Severus agreed quietly, and listened to Harry chattering, and left the hospital wing when he fell asleep. He leaned against the door for a moment and closed his eyes.
He had asked Harry to cut back on the risks to himself. And Harry had, really. There was no risk of him dying or being poisoned because of Dash's bite. Only a little pain.
He probably never would convince Harry to not endure pain. He did that every day anyway, with part of his soul serving as Voldemort's Horcrux.
Severus straightened and swallowed air. Then my duty is to lessen the pain of everything else as much as I can.