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Chapter Thirty-Eight-Fires That Grow

"Harry? Can I talk to you?"

Luckily Harry is by himself in the library, looking up spell techniques and wand movements he hopes will help him in Charms, when Cho shows up. He doesn't want Luna exposed to her right now. He cautiously sets down his Charms book. "Yes?"

Cho stands in front of him, biting her lip and flipping her hair back and forth. Harry waits. Honestly, he almost forgot about the way she bullied Luna. Luna hasn't seemed to have problems like that since she started studying with them, other than one reference to her shoes being gone. Harry Summoned them back and put a charm on them that meant they won't go with anyone except her again. So it's been quiet.

"I wanted to explain what happened-that day."

Cho has her head down, and her voice is so soft Harry can barely hear her. He nods and leans back, kicking a chair out so she can sit. "Okay."

"My best friend in Ravenclaw is Marietta Edgecombe." Cho sits down and keeps her head tilted so Harry can't see her face at all. "A lot of people don't like her. She's sarcastic and has a dark sense of humor, and she's a half-blood. Ravenclaw isn't like Slytherin, we don't think about pure blood all the time, but there are some people who count that against her because they're already counting things against her."

"Not all Slytherins think about pure blood all the time, either."

Cho finally looks up, startled. Her eyes dart to his green-and-silver tie, and she swallows. "Of course not."

"So it was Edgecombe's idea to bully Luna?" Harry just wants to move it on.

"Yes. And Loon-Luna's strange, other people did it, too, so we thought there was no harm in it." Cho plays with one of her sleeves.

"There was."

Cho winces. "I see that now. I'm sorry, Harry."

Harry shakes his head a little. "If it was just me, I'd accept that apology, but you have to apologize to Luna, too." He thinks for a minute, but it's not like Edgecombe approached him. "And if Edgecombe cares, then she does, too. If you ever bully her again, then I'll consider the apology a trick and act accordingly." It's the kind of thing Blaise or Theo would say, but Harry sees no reason not to copy them, right now.


"You'll hurt. A lot."

Cho turns absolutely pale. "All right. I don't think Marietta wants to apologize, but I'll-say sorry to Luna the next time I see her."

Harry considers her carefully, but he can't see any reason, in the end, for Cho to apologize in front of everyone in their study group. She can do it and then Luna will confirm she did it. It's not like Luna would lie. Harry just has to figure out the code she might say it in. "Okay. Thanks, Cho."

Cho nods, stands up, hesitates, and then turns around to face him instead of leaving. "Do you think I can come join your study group?"

Harry blinks, and blinks again. This is the first time anyone older than him has asked about it. Now and then older Slytherins give him and Blaise and Theo and Draco and Greengrass weird looks when they talk about it or head to the library, but all of them seem happy to work on their own. "After you've apologized to Luna. And only if she wants you there."

Cho gives him a relieved smile and hurries off. Harry shakes his head and goes back to reading about the Switching Charm. It sounds like the wand movement is a lot like the Summoning Charm, which he's perfected by now, but he still can't get it right.

Theo leans against the shelf that concealed him while Harry was speaking to Chang with a small smile. He supposes that he should mourn Harry threatening someone, but all he can think is, It's about time.

Sometimes you have to threaten people. Theo has seen that with his father. Of course, the subtle threat went over Father's head, and Theo took his vengeance in another way. And Blaise can raise an eyebrow and drop a hint of his mother without saying anything. Draco isn't subtle enough to be good at it yet, though.

But Harry...

Now he's not ignoring the threats Theo can sense in the "idle" joking of older Slytherins. Now he can be the threat.

It's what he needs to survive. Theo hopes that Harry will never be as jaded and cynical as Theo himself, as Draco, as those older Slytherins. But he'll take jaded and cynical over dead.

He steps out into the open and goes to help Harry with the Switching Charm.

"I can't believe that you have to stay at Hogwarts instead of coming with us, mate."

Harry sighs and pounds Ron on the shoulder for a second, something he only does when it looks as though Ron is going to frown himself to death. "It's all right, Ron. This way, I can be closer to Sirius and see what the Mind-Healer actually says and does with him. They're coming from St. Mungo's tomorrow. And I'm going to visit you on Christmas Day. Professor Snape has to come with me, but at least we'll get to be together."

Hermione examines them thoughtfully. Ron is completely transparent, she thinks. He's been upset about Harry having to stay at Hogwarts instead of the Burrow since Harry told him. He's no longer pouting or whinging as much, but his feelings are there.

Harry's more reserved, though. Hermione realizes now that he's always been, but she couldn't see it that way when they were all in Gryffindor. Slytherin's only enhanced what was already there.

Harry does feel glad about staying here. It might be Sirius. It might be other reasons. Hermione hopes he'll share them soon.

"I hope you have a happy Christmas too, Hermione."

Hermione gives in to her impulses and hauls Harry into a hug. He goes with her, but he does it wide-eyed, and she judges it best to back off and smile at him instead of explaining why she did that. "I will. My parents are going to take us to Switzerland again this year. I like skiing so much. And the snow seems so much more crystalline than the snowfalls we get around here! I wonder if it actually is or that's my perception..."

Hermione talks happily the rest of the way to the carriages, and watches Harry relax more and more. He does want to stay here, she realizes. And she doesn't think it has to do with just wanting to be with Sirius. It also doesn't have to do with wanting to avoid the Burrow in any way, or he couldn't look Ron in the eye. Harry is a terrible liar when he has to tell them.

But he's very good at lying by omission.

It's not until Zabini comes up next to Harry as they're waiting for a carriage and leans casually on a wall, insulting Ron with ease, that Hermione thinks she sees part of it. Harry is keeping a subtle watch on all of them, her and Ron and Zabini and then Nott when he joins them, and Neville, who gives them all a timid smile before accepting Hermione's invitation to share their carriage. As if he has to balance them, watch who's getting too upset. He cuts off Zabini and Ron's conversation before it can turn into shouting or hexes.

Harry doesn't want to choose a friend's house to go to for the holidays and insult the others by doing so. Of course he doesn't. It's blindingly obvious once Hermione sees it that way. Harry can't just perceive the friends he has now as a bigger group. He worries about insulting them, or worrying them, or making someone feel less special than someone else. He even seems to divide his smile exactly between Neville and Luna, when she drifts up behind him and says something about radishes and teeth.

Hermione leans back in the carriage with a little sigh and makes murmured reassurances to Ron when he complains about Harry not being able to come to the Burrow, but only shakes her head when he plans to get Harry out of "that git Malfoy's house."

"He's not staying at Malfoy Manor, Ron. He's staying at Hogwarts."

"But Malfoy wanted him to stay! And he's going there!"

"Only for one day, and not alone. Do you really think Malfoy can intimidate Professor Snape into making him leave Harry there?"

"Well, maybe not the git we know, but Lucius Malfoy is a horrible person," Ron says resolutely, leaning back and folding his arms. "Besides, I don't know why Snape's protecting Harry anyway. Maybe it's just until You-Know-Who returns, and then he'll give Harry up to him and taunt us all that we were fools for trusting him."

Neville coughs nervously. Hermione starts. She honestly forgot Neville was there sharing a carriage with them, he's so quiet. "Professor Snape wouldn't do that, Ron."

"Oh, come on, Nev! You hate the greasy git!"

"I mean-I think he might harm Harry." As always happens when people are looking at him, Neville's blushes and stutters are worse. "But he wouldn't announce it like that. And n-no one thinks You-Know-Who is coming back right now, r-right? So it's best for everyone to go along with this and pretend to believe Snape and g-get Harry back when the time is right. If Prof-Professor Snape wants to hurt him."

Ron sighs and nods. "Yeah, all right."

Hermione smiles her thanks at Neville, and he blushes and stutters some more. At least he and Ron start playing Exploding Snap on the train, leaving Hermione to read a book and get her thoughts in order.

Yes, she's right. Harry wants to balance all his friends and wants them to be comfortable, or at least as comfortable as they can be when some of them still dislike each other. Hermione wishes she'd known that before. She would have got him a different Christmas present if she knew.

She's still sure Harry will like what she got him. It's just less useful than she prefers to be.

Harry sighs and leans back in his chair, eyes closing. Theo's gone home for the holidays, and Draco, and Greengrass with her skeptical, watching eyes. And Ron and Hermione and Neville and Luna.

The only ones left are Sirius-who Harry doesn't have to work as hard to fool-and Blaise. Harry does open one eye curiously when Blaise drops into a seat beside him in the common room.

"How did your mother take it when you said you were staying here?"

Blaise's face is blank, with something that might or might not be bitterness. It's still hard for Harry to tell even if all of them praise him at the strides he's made in learning Slytherin politics. "She doesn't mind. It turned out her plans for the holidays didn't include me."

Harry sits up and gapes at him. Then he says, "I'm so bloody sorry. Your mum treats you worse than the Dursleys treated me."

"Would you like to compare stories?"

And just like that, Blaise can make the hair stand up on the back of his neck. Harry swallows and glances away. "No. But you can tell me your stories if you want."

"Maybe later."

Harry lapses into silence, looking up at the ceiling of the common room and all the snakes that twine around it. He's thinking about the gifts that he sent people by owl order. Well, Theo and Greengrass and Luna, anyway. He's going to take Ron and Hermione's with him when he goes to the Burrow on Christmas Day, and give Blaise's to him here, and bring Draco's with him to Malfoy Manor. It's a little insane, to think he has that many people to buy presents for.

He hopes they like them.

He goes on looking up at the ceiling, at least until he feels Blaise staring at him again. Harry twitches his eye sideways. Blaise seems to get the silent message and shrugs with a faint smile and shake of his head.

"If you want to talk to the snakes, I won't mind. There's only three other Slytherins here and they're all up in their bedrooms right now."

Harry nods slowly. Then he asks in Parseltongue, "Do you want to come down and join me?"

The snakes slide immediately down the sides of the wall, running like flowing water. There are two big stone ones that come and coil around Harry's feet, and a small one that perches on his shoulder, shifts about as if looking for a comfortable spot, and then winds around his neck. They're all grey when you first look at them, but Harry finds green and blue sparks as he peers closer. He can't keep himself from smiling as he pets them. The basilisk doesn't actually trouble his memory. These snakes are as different from that one as it's possible to be.

"Why don't you use your Parseltongue more often?"

Harry jerks. He almost forgot Blaise was there, which is careless of him. He watches Blaise from the corner of his eye, but he only sits there as if he's curious. And maybe he is. Harry doesn't imagine that a lot of people know a lot about Parselmouths, if only because there was only one book on them in Tarquinius's library, and Harry can't imagine a lot of Dark wizards have libraries more complete than his.

"It frightens people."

"Slytherins it would frighten don't deserve to be called Slytherins."

"Well, remember that it frightened Flint." Harry looks away and shrugs. It's harder than it usually is, what with the glittering snake draped around his neck. "I don't like all the things that make me different from other people."

"But you're not consistent about that. You stand up to other people even when that gets you more attention." Blaise stretches out and closes his eyes. "You played Quidditch even though it's practically the thing that gets you the most attention in this school. You dash into danger to fight trolls and battle basilisks and help your friends. I think it's only some things that you don't want attention for."

"What an interesting theory, Mr. Zabini." Harry tries to do his best imitation of Professor Snape. "What do you think makes the difference between things I don't want attention for and things I do?"

"If it makes people praise you, you want attention for it. Anything negative, you shun."

"Because that's so unusual."

"But there are some things that are an exception to my theory, which is why it isn't true all the time." Blaise turns his head towards Harry and opens his eyes. "Because I don't think you think beforehand whether saving someone will get you positive attention. You just see them in danger and you jump."

"If they're my friends or someone innocent in danger. I don't get involved in every argument everyone has!"

"And there are things other people would value. Like being a Parselmouth. Why don't you value it? The real answer, this time."

"Excuse me for not wanting to share this 'gift' with the man who killed my parents!"

Blaise stays relaxed, although his eyebrows creep up. "And that's the truth," he finally says, when Harry would have stormed off, except the stone snakes are still heavy on him. "Even though it's a stupid reason, it's the truth. I believe you."

"It's not a stupid reason!"

Blaise just shakes his head. "You're a wizard, too. Is magic dirty because you share it with—" He takes a huge breath and then says, "Voldemort. Is it dirty because you're both wizards? Would you want to be a Squib?"

"No, of course not." Harry clenches his fists in his lap, frustrated. Blaise is twisting all his words around somehow, and Harry doesn't know how he's doing it. "I just—I want to think of it like this, okay? Parseltongue isn't something I have to use. I don't have to call snakes to me."

"But you like doing it."

"I wouldn't have done it now if you hadn't told me to do it."

"No, wait, don't put them back." Blaise waits until Harry has settled back, reluctantly. "I'm sorry if I upset you," Blaise says, in that sort of cool, controlled voice that means it's not really an apology. Harry heard Aunt Petunia use it more than once. "But Parseltongue connects to all sorts of other magic. You're neglecting your ability to develop other gifts if you don't use it."

"What if those are kinds of magic I don't want either?"

"All of them? Do you know all of them you might not want?"

Harry scowls at his lap. He doesn't, of course. It's one of those things that he keeps meaning to look up, especially since Tarquinius told him about them in front of the Silver Hourglass, but it's hard to find the time. And since he apparently needs specialized training for them, the library might not have any books on them anyway.

"You're going to fight in a war," Blaise says finally, when silence has pressed down on them heavier than the snake on Harry's shoulder. "Think about it that way, if you don't want to think of it as developing new gifts or making yourself a better wizard. Do you really want to lose the war because you're stubborn? What if Parseltongue could help you win?"

Harry fights with himself for a few seconds before he nods, choppily. "Thanks, Blaise. I'll think about it."

"You're welcome."

"But you're still wrong about one thing."

"What's that?"

"I don't like the attention," Harry says fiercely. "I didn't play Quidditch for the attention. I did it because McGonagall and Oliver wanted me to be the new Seeker, and flying is fun. And my broom was one of the first gifts I ever got, okay?" He blinks, and stands up to coax the snakes off his legs. "And I save people because I should, and I stand up to people so they won't bully me, and I used Parseltongue to get down to the Chamber of Secrets because there wasn't any other way. But I hate attention. I wish I was just a normal wizard."

He leaves, and leaves Blaise staring after him.

Blaise blinks. That was…informative.

And it seems Harry is telling the truth, unusual as such a perspective is to Blaise.

I'll have to see if there's a way I can help him cope with it if he does become a leader, Blaise decides, and goes to the library to think.