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Chapter One Hundred and Fourteen—Antagonizing a Snake

"That's it!"

Harry nearly fell off the bed in his surprise. He and Ron had both been up in their dorms, reading one of the Dark Arts books with the hidden covers that Severus had got him—in his case—or a book about chess—in Ron's case. Dash had been under both their beds at once, flowing across the narrow corridor of space between them.

Hermione burst into the room and flew towards them. Her cheeks and eyes were shining so much that Harry didn't know which one was brighter. She slammed down a piece of parchment on the bed next to him and pointed to something on it. Harry turned his head and twisted his body and realized that it was the parchment of Arithmancy equations that she'd shown them at the beginning of term.

"What is it?" Harry asked. The equations confused him as much as they ever had.

"I finally found the variable that collapsed everything into concentric circles radiating out from Hogwarts!" Hermione stabbed her finger at a dot that Harry supposed was Hogwarts. It did have circles around it, but they were crisscrossed by so many other lines that they didn't look concentric to Harry. "Look. When you assume that there's seven—things, and you also assume that Hogwarts is the center of everything because it's so important in V-Voldemort's life—"

"Why would you assume that?" Ron asked, his nose wrinkling.

"Because of what Tom Riddle told Harry in second year," Hermione retorted impatiently. "He didn't want Hogwarts closed. It was important to him."

"That doesn't mean—"

"Anyway," Harry interrupted, and only partially because Dash was filling his head with hissing snickers. "You found out where some of them are, Hermione?"

"All of them, I think." Hermione beamed at him, and then gave the parchment a slightly disappointed look. "But it means that I'll have to work hard to understand what all the circles mean. I found them, but I have to find them."

"You located them, though," Harry said, and smiled at her. "Hermione, that's great."

"Yes, located is the better word. Why didn't I think of that?"

Harry laughed and grabbed her and spun her around. Hermione squeaked, and her hair flew, and the parchment sailed out of her hand and under Ron's bed. "Harry, be careful with that! Do you know how long—"

"You didn't even hear it when he said how great you were," Ron snorted, and Summoned the parchment from under his bed with a lazy wave of his wand. "Hermione, you're a genius."

Those words made Hermione blush. Harry watched with interest. Of course, after some of the ways that he acted around Draco, he couldn't blame Ron and Hermione for anything they chose to do.

"It was—I mean, it took a lot of time, but anyone could have done that once they understood the basic Arithmancy and came up with the basic concept," Hermione muttered, and smoothed down the parchment.

Ron flung an arm around her shoulders. "Well, that's me out, then."

"Don't be silly, Ron," Hermione said, and her voice was the softest Harry had ever heard it. "You have other skills."

For a second, while they stood looking at each other, sparks seemed to be crackling between their eyes, and Harry thought they'd probably forgotten he was there. He was about to clear his throat and remind them when Hermione squeaked and staggered forwards. Ron looked like he was about to kiss her forehead. He released her, so that she almost crashed to the floor and had to grab onto him to keep from falling over.

Dash! Harry snapped.

Was it my fault that they were standing on one of my coils?

I saw you stick your head out and nudge Hermione in the back!

Is it my fault if they were standing so close to your bed that I could do that?

Ron and Hermione had untangled themselves by then, and Hermione was blushing and clearing her throat. "Anyway, this means we can start looking for them," she said weakly. "As soon as I study them some more." She hesitated. "There's one line that almost overlaps Hogwarts."

"So one's here?" Ron narrowed his mouth. "That might explain why we can't keep Defense professors."

"Yeah, I think it does." Hermione blushed as she looked at him again. Then she said, "Um, I'm going to go study it some more."

She fled down the stairs. Ron turned to Harry with a deathly serious expression. "Mate, keep your snake from pushing me into Hermione again. I don't care what he thinks, we're just friends."

For right now! Dash said chirpily from under Harry's bed, where he'd retreated fully.

"I'm going to tell him," Harry said, and he bent down so that he could frown at the basilisk from under the edge of the coverlet. "Dash, people want to handle their own affairs. That means no outside interference, okay?" Even if you think it's perfectly obvious that they're going to be more than friends someday. The "someday" is important to them. They want to wait and get it right themselves.

It's stupid. When you have a mouse in your throat, you don't delay and let it escape.

I am going to do my best to forget that incredibly disturbing comparison, Harry said flatly, and turned around to smile at Ron. "I talked to him. I don't know if he'll listen, but at least I told him."

"I know that you can't do much about a basilisk, mate. He's just determined to do whatever he wants because he has no social graces." Ron patted his shoulder. "I appreciate that you at least tried."

I have plenty of social graces!

You don't demonstrate them very often, Harry told him, and went back to reading, ignoring the complaints Dash regularly launched down the bond. It felt good to get one over on him for once.

"Invenio fracta!"

Severus had to cover his eyes at the sudden explosion of wood and glass and straw from the dummies. He uncovered them when he heard the last bits clicking and settling, and blinked at the mess strewn on the floor.

"More than impressive, Harry," he murmured. This particular spell, the Fracture Curse, was a process of finding old breaks in an opponent's body—snapped ligaments, shattered bones, torn muscles—and causing them to break again. Severus had carefully filled the dummies with a mixture of materials that he'd snapped and then cast Reparo on.

It looked as though Harry had found every single one of them.

"Very good," he went on, and sighed when he turned around and saw Harry drooping. "Are you all right?" He had thought that Harry understood the reasons behind having to learn the Dark Arts, and he'd accepted it. He certainly had been reading the books and practicing. He wasn't pulling his power back instead of putting it behind the spells, as he had been at first.

"I'm just—why am I good at this?" Harry whispered, avoiding his eyes.

"It's a talent," Severus said, and walked over to stand in front of Harry. Harry didn't look up at him, instead staring blankly at his wand. Severus shook his head. "Do you consider your talent for Quidditch to be a problem, or something you need to apologize for?"

"Of course not!" Harry was squinting at him as if Severus had taken leave of his senses.

"Or your friend Weasley's talent at chess, or Granger's gift for Arithmancy, or Draco's talent for blood magic, or your Parseltongue?" With each choice named, Harry's head shook more fervently. Severus bent down and looked him hard in the eyes. "But those last two are often considered close to Dark Arts."

"I don't care. Nothing that lets me bond with Dash or Draco defend himself is going to be a problem for me!"

Severus spread his hands. "Now, put yourself in my position as your guardian, and think of how hard I have fought to protect you," he said. "And what will learning the Dark Arts enable you to do?"

"Protect myself."

"Right." Severus waited until Harry was looking at him again, although it took long enough that he felt impatience prickle up and down his spine. "You have more than enough understanding to grasp this, Harry. The Dark Arts are spells that will let you defend yourself. Violently, perhaps. But your enemies who do survive those spells—and ones like those you have been practicing are survivable—will be more hesitant to attack you again."

Harry gave an expressive look at the dummies.

"The broken materials in their bodies were far more plentiful than any broken bones or the like will be in any human," Severus said dismissively. "Now. Are you going to waste our time talking about tiresome things again, or are you going to continue the practice?"

"Continue the practice," said Harry, after only the slightest hesitation. He lifted his wand again.

Severus stepped back, and watched as the next spell, one that would shatter the kneecaps of a human and was aimed at huge knobby bone plates he'd attached to the dummies' legs, flew straight and on target.

Reminding himself that his enemies could survive these spells was the right tactic.

It wasn't truly a reluctance to defend himself or hurt others that made Harry pause, Severus knew. It was a reluctance to kill.

Another direct strike sent more pieces of bone careening through the air.

And a willingness to cause pain is more than enough to protect him against most enemies.

"What is this I'm hearing about you giving others a book that has space expansion charms on it, Lucius?"

Lucius glanced up from the report he was studying. It came from Susana in the Ministry, and contained an expected timeline for when her people might be expected to ally with Harry. "Good morning, Nero," he said. "To what do I owe this unexpected Floo call?" It wasn't unexpected at all, of course, which was why Lucius had left this particular fireplace open today. But it wasn't as if Nero could be expected to know that.

"I want to know the truth, Lucius!"

And I wish for a way to kill you without turning the others against me, but we don't always get what we want. Lucius arranged his face in an expression of puzzlement. "I'm not giving other people a book on space expansion charms, Nero."

"Oh." Nero subsided and blinked for a second.

"I'm giving them copies of a book from the Black library that contains advice on creating manor houses and hidden corners and pocket dimensions," said Lucius, and nodded at him. "Good day. Please correct the misconception for anyone else who asks you about it."

"Wait just a minute, Lucius!"

"What? I've corrected your misperception, and—"

"I want to know why you're telling others about this book, and you're not going to give a copy to me!"

"Because I didn't think you would be interested," Lucius said, with a faint shrug. "After all, you've always told me that your manor house is grand enough for you, and bigger than the houses of most other families. And people who accept a copy of this book need to become allies of the Malfoy family. I didn't think you would be interested in that."

"Fuck you, Lucius," Nero said, but he was starting to settle down. "I never said I wouldn't be interested."

"But interested enough to become an ally?"

"I'm in your Floo, aren't I?"

"That doesn't necessarily indicate a potential for alliance." Lucius tapped a quill sitting on his desk against his lips. "And you originally Flooed me when you misunderstood what the book was about. Do you want—"

"Yes, I misunderstood. Yes, I'm asking for your indulgence now." Sometimes Nero had self-control, but he didn't exercise it much. Now, he seemed to be clamping down on his anger, and he spoke quietly. "I want to see that book, Lucius."

"Enough to swear an oath?"

"Of what kind?"

"That you'll join with me in my political goals." Lucius smiled lazily and leaned forwards. He had confidence in his ability to use a Memory Charm through the flames, or he wouldn't have done this. "Those goals include working with Harry Potter and opposing the Dark Lord." He listened as Nero choked. "I didn't think you would be that fond of it."

"But—Lucius, what do you think you're going to do when he finds out?"

Well, considering that Nero wasn't laughing at him and storming out of the room, this was already going better than their last confrontation, Lucius thought. "Listen. What if he can't find out?"

"Don't be silly, of course someone's going to tell him—"

"And if he can't find us?" Lucius smiled a little at Nero. "If he would have to search the whole of Britain, for houses and refuges tucked inside particles of dust and cracks in wood? Do you really think that he would manage to find all of us, Nero?"

Nero floated there and blinked for long seconds. Then he said, "But the Dark Mark—"

"I have a way to neutralize that."

Nero wavered. Lucius was honestly surprised. He hadn't thought he would convince Nero this fast, or maybe at all. But it seemed that his love of getting to torture Muggles was outweighed by his desire for self-preservation.

And probably his desire to get his hands on a book used by the legendary Blacks.

"If you could really do that—"

"I promise that I can."

"Then I need to think," said Nero flatly, and shut down the Floo.

Lucius smiled a little. Well, that had gone considerably better than their last talk. And while Nero could still damage him if he went running to the Dark Lord, the rumors were spreading, and others would hear and think on them, and Lucius would gain more new allies than the Dark Lord would.

And if worst came to worst, he and Narcissa and Draco could run to the refuge that Narcissa had already created.

"Detention, Mr. Potter."

Harry felt as though his heart was about to leap out of his chest, because he hadn't heard Umbridge behind him. Then again, from the jerk of his head and the displeased hiss Dash gave, he hadn't sensed her, either. Harry turned around. They were at the head of the final staircase that led down to the Great Hall, on their way to dinner. Or Harry and Dash were. He had no idea what Umbridge was doing. "Why, Professor?"

"Yours is not to question, Mr. Potter." Umbridge's eyes were glittering like the eyes of a lizard in strong light. "You are to report to my office at seven for your detention." She turned and started to make her way back down the corridor.

Dash reared up.

Dash, no!

Relax. I'm not going to eat her. But I'm not going to let you suffer for no reason, either. Pretend as if you're struggling to control me. Dash slithered slowly forwards, his shadow distorted by the flickering torches on the wall, and loomed, hissing, over Umbridge, who stared up at him in jaw-dropped terror.

"Mr. Potter, control your snake." Her voice was such a faint whisper that Harry could easily have pretended he didn't hear it, and he did.

"Dash, stop it." He made his voice low and calming. "I'm sure that Professor Umbridge can remember what my detention is for. Even if she doesn't want to tell me." He stepped forwards and reached out to lay a hand on Dash's scales where they overlapped on the side he'd been wounded on.

Dash tilted his head slowly to the side, his mouth opening. A drop of venom glistened at the tip of one fang. Umbridge squeaked and held still. Harry wanted to tell her not to sound like a small delicious snack, but managed to refrain.

"I'm sure she can remember," Harry said again, and turned to Umbridge. "You remember, right, Professor?"

Umbridge was made of sterner stuff than Harry had thought, at least when someone was holding the immense basilisk back. She shook herself and said, "I don't need to answer a student's question, Mr. Potter."

Dash promptly flung out a loop of his body, knocking Umbridge from her feet. Then he rolled to the side and tied her up in his coils exactly like he would a meal he was planning to swallow. His head dipped, his venom now splattering on the scales around Umbridge's face.

"Dash!" Harry yelled it both aloud and down the bond.

I think I should eat her right now and spare everyone a lot of trouble.

Don't you dare. Harry pressed harder against his basilisk. He was long enough by now that he was able to move that part of his body that imprisoned Umbridge without disturbing the one where Harry leaned at all. "You need to think about this, Dash," he said. "I'm sure that she remembers what the detention was for. That's all I'm asking." And you need to end this one way or the other before someone else comes along and remembers that you're this dangerous.

Ending it sounds like a good idea.

No! "Please let Professor Umbridge go," Harry continued aloud. He could only do that because he was shouting down the bond, he thought. He was shaking a little with the effort it took to keep from screaming aloud.

After a moment, Dash released her from his hold, but kept his head looming. Umbridge scrambled away from Dash, her face as pale as Draco's hair. She stood up, swaying as she balanced against the wall.

"That beast must be destroyed," she whispered.

This time, Harry couldn't have said anything to stop it. Dash's head darted forwards, and he closed his jaws around Umbridge's arm, pinioning her. Umbridge looked as if she wanted to faint. It seemed to take her a long time to realize that Dash was holding her, but not biting her. She stared at Harry. "Get him off, M-Mr. Potter."

"Dash, please let her go," Harry said. "I'm sure that Professor Umbridge didn't mean it about you having to be destroyed." He tried to cross his eyes at Umbridge, or something, because he didn't know if she was smart enough to figure this out on her own. She'd got herself into this position, after all.

Umbridge shivered and nodded. "Of course not," she said, her voice a parody of its usual honeyed self. "I d-didn't mean to imply th—that you were less than n-noble."

Dash made the bond thrum with his amusement. Harry thought feelings of agitation back at him, and Dash let Umbridge go and coiled his tail around Harry in one smooth movement. He carried Harry off down the steps, his tail curled over his back like a scorpion's.

Don't you think this is going to make people lose respect for me? Harry thought, as Dash put him down gently at the bottom of the stairs. He looked apprehensively up them, but Umbridge had already departed, which meant that she was smarter than she looked.

No, because anyone who did come along and saw me looming over Umbridge took a different route, Dash said. And you're not going to that detention alone. I think she'll forget about what it was for when she sees me.

Severus said we weren't to antagonize her, Harry argued as he walked into the Great Hall. Ron and Hermione waved at him, and Draco, who had decided that he would sit with them sometimes, smiled at him, and then gave him a sharp look. Harry grimaced. Draco had probably already figured out something was wrong.

That means you have a considerate lover. Enjoy it.

Don't change the subject.

You don't need to worry about it. She antagonized us. She gave you a detention for no reason. I'm not going to stand for that, and you shouldn't, either. You're worrying about your image? Imagine what will happen if it gets around that you're doing what she wants every time.

Harry thought about that, and shrugged in response to his friends asking him where he'd been, and decided that he would take Dash with him to the detention.

You have no choice about that.

You seem to not leave me with a choice about much, Harry snapped without looking up from his plate to meet Draco's narrowed eyes.

I would let you do this if it wasn't important. But it's very, very important.

Harry sighed and decided to believe that.

Draco stabbed a piece of his potato harder than normal. Ultio lifted his head off Draco's arm in surprise, and then put it back down when he saw that Draco was eating the potato. Draco stroked his head.

If Dash wasn't acting upset, then it probably hadn't lasted long, Draco thought. But he would keep a closer eye on Harry, and if necessary, find out who had been doing this and decide whether he needed to handle them.

He just—he would do anything not to see the shadows that lurked in Harry's eyes right now. Anything.