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"But we've always just studied whatever we want to, Harry. Why do we have to learn by a schedule?"
Theo arches his eyebrows. As whiny as Weasley sounds at the moment, it's honestly a good question. Why should they devote themselves to following a certain regimen? Granger might like them to, but from the slight frown she's sporting as she stares at Harry, she didn't agree to this one.
Harry stands up front of them, in the abandoned classroom they've used for spell practice for months now, and meets all their gazes solemnly. They've dragged tables in during the last few weeks, enough to seat the overflow of people as the study group's grown. A few new people sit at the nearest ones, listening intently: Justin Finch-Fletchley of Hufflepuff, Terry Boot and Su Li of Ravenclaw, and Dean Thomas of Gryffindor. There aren't any new Slytherins at the moment, but that doesn't make the back of Theo's neck itch the way it would otherwise.
Their leader is a Slytherin, and so many eyes are watching him with devotion that Theo would allow himself to be smug if that wasn't dangerous.
"We have to start with wandless magic," Harry says, his mouth taut and his eyes boring into everybody. "First, it's a lot easier to save yourself if your wand gets taken away."
"But why would our wands get taken away?" Li asks in an academically interested tone.
"Because there are people who are going to want to render you helpless," Harry says, and he looks at Finch-Fletchley and Granger and Thomas more than the others. "Because you're Muggleborn, say. Or because they dislike you for being in a study group with me and don't care if you get hurt, as long as there's a chance it'll hurt me, too."
Boot stirs. "Wait, are you saying this is actually dangerous?"
"Yes, it is," Harry says. "If nothing else, what we'll have to do in order to make sure that you master wandless magic is dangerous. Because it involves experimenting with powerful spells and a force that can get uncontrolled if you let it." He pauses. "Does anyone want to leave?"
There are some nervous glances between the new ones, but no one actually gets up and walks out. Harry nods. "And also, there are people in this school who can read your secrets out of your mind unless you learn to resist them. Mastering wandless magic will make it easy to master Occlumency."
"The art of defending your mind?" Thomas sounds uncertain.
"Right, Dean." Harry smiles at him. He always calls everyone by their first names, Theo reminds himself, to quiet the surge of jealousy inside himself. "I hate to tell you this, but Headmaster Dumbledore can read minds. And he's made it clear that—well, there are some things I'm doing that he disapproves of. So anyone who works closely with me will have to be able to keep him out of their minds."
"But he's the Headmaster," Longbottom says, in a tone that Theo thinks is whinier than Weasley's.
"I know," Harry says, running his hand through his hair. He looks tired. Theo sympathizes. Gryffindors always make him tired. "But he already tried to talk Hermione into spying on me for him."
People turn and gape at Granger, who nods. "He never actually got to the point of the meeting once he realized I disagreed with him, but that was what it was about."
"Then—then any of us could turn out to be spies and not realize it if we can't keep him out of our heads." Smith sounds disgusted. "If I'm going to be a traitor to someone, I want them to know it."
Harry grins. "Yes. So, first, wandless magic. Then Occlumency."
"I've read a little bit about Occlumency," Daphne says in her cool voice. "It says not that many people are actually good at it. How can we practice it if we're not? What will the rest of us do, if it turns out that we're not?"
"Most people don't master wandless magic before trying Occlumency. I read those books, too, but they seemed to be about people who just tried to start doing Occlumency from scratch. We're not going to do that."
"How does wandless magic connect to Occlumency?"
"Because the defense of your mind is a wandless art. It has to be, since you usually aren't going to get any warning before someone attacks you with Legilimency—that's the word for the art of reading your mind," Harry adds, before a few trembling hands can rise. "And wandless magic involves learning to focus your inner forces and know yourself. That helps with knowing how to defend your mind, too."
Theo coughs a little. Harry turns towards him. "Yes, Theo?"
"I wonder if we should test it out and see how good all of us are at wandless magic as well as Occlumency. That way, if there's someone who's not good at it, they can be excluded from secrets that the rest of the group knows."
"I am not excluding anyone."
"I'm not talking about doing it by House. I'm talking about doing it by ability. If someone isn't good at Occlumency, why do they need to know every little detail of what our group is doing? It would be the same as telling Dumbledore about it."
"I'm going to make sure that everyone's good at it."
Theo settles back and decides that he'll try to convince Harry later when there aren't so many unfriendly faces staring at him. Because they do need to take care of themselves, but they also need to make sure that the secrets of the group as a whole are protected, and Theo doesn't think that's going to happen if they train everyone in Occlumency.
Harry starts showing the newcomers wandless magic, while splitting the others into the usual groups they have when they're practicing this, similar but not identical in ability. Theo watches him thoughtfully as Harry encourages Thomas to Summon his wand from where it's on the floor, and Finch-Fletchley to defend himself against a snake the way he failed to do last year.
At least the Hufflepuffs haven't decided that Harry must be evil because he's speaking Parseltongue again.
But they could, any moment. And if that happens, Theo will be ready. Harry doesn't need to think he stands alone when it comes to defending himself.
Harry stares at the scribbled notes that Professor Snape made about the burning in his Mark. Then he looks up and shakes his head. "I would have noticed if there was any burning in my scar, sir. I'm—really careful these days. Just in case Dumbledore catches my eye and tries to stare into my head."
"This would feel rather different from the sensation of Legilimency."
"I know. I mean that I'm really careful about all the sensations in my head. I would have gone to Madam Pomfrey even if I just had a normal headache."
Snape tucks away his notes and frowns. "Then what do you think this is?"
That throws Harry for a loop. He's getting used to people his own age asking for his opinion and acting like they value it, but not adults. He thinks for a while before he replies, "Something must have happened to make Voldemort stronger. Maybe a Death Eater is helping him now? Or he found someone new to possess."
Snape nods. "I felt nothing revealing when the diary was in the school last year, so I do not think it can be related to that. Or another artifact like that."
Harry shivers. "You think there's another diary out there, sir?"
"I do not think that, if Voldemort made one artifact capable of possessing people and taking over a school, that he would be incapable of making another."
Harry glares at him for a second. Untangling Snape's sentences is more trouble than it's worth sometimes. "You could have just said that you think he has."
Snape looks at him in silence, and Harry sighs and continues, "Fine. So we don't know what to do about this yet, but we know that Voldemort might be trying to return. Well, I'll keep it in mind. Along with everything else," he adds in a mutter to himself.
"You know that you can talk to me about this, Harry."
"I don't want to put more burdens on you than you already have." Harry stands up and frowns at Snape as he gathers his books. He's spent about as much time as he can with Snape when he doesn't have a detention to justify it.
"I am going to be one of your guardians. And I am your Head of House. Do you mean to tell me that you never 'laid any of these burdens' on Professor McGonagall?"
"No." Harry stares at him. "Because the times I tried, she ignored me and told me that everything was fine."
"You are referring to the debacle over the Philosopher's Stone."
Harry shrugs a little. "Mostly." He did try once to go to Professor McGonagall about how scared Neville was all the time, too, and how he came back to Gryffindor Tower with hexes on him, but she just told him that everything would be fine and Neville would grow in self-confidence and—that was that.
"I see." Snape leans forwards. "Being a leader does not mean that you must never complain or find a way to let others share the weight of your choices, Harry. Confide in me if you wish. I will not tell those secrets to someone else."
"If only because you want to keep them from Sirius and Dumbledore."
"Those are not the only motivations, Harry. I also want to help you."
Harry feels himself flush. "Right, of course. Sorry, sir. I'm not good at this yet."
Snape gives him a thoughtful glance. "I would like to resume our evening conversations, in the hopes that I can help you achieve some semblance of comfort with them."
"All right." Harry decides it's just one more thing he can do. There are some evenings when he isn't terribly occupied with homework or the study group, and he can suggest those to Snape. If Snape is as serious about this as he's acting, then he'll probably accept Harry's suggestions.
"And perhaps in time, you will come to relax and understand that I have your best interests at heart."
"I know you do, sir." That's not something Harry doubts anymore, but he also thinks these conversations will be more for Snape than him. Harry doesn't want to think about the Dursleys anymore. Why should he? They're dead. And what they did to him is only important if it gets in the way of him calming his mind enough to master Occlumency or something.
Well. Maybe those conversations will be useful, after all.
The Dark Lord has returned.
Lucius frowns down at the note he has received. He felt the burning in his Mark earlier this week, too, but there was no actual indication of the Dark Lord's return beyond that. He wonders what the person who sent the note—he does not recognize the jagged handwriting—intends him to do about it.
The note was brought by a terrified eagle who took off again before Lucius could even decide if he wants to send a response. Lucius has no way of replying, no way of making the decision. Perhaps the person who sent the note assumed he would recognize the handwriting.
In the end, Lucius crumples it up and throws it away. He will not act, not with his son in the same House as Harry Potter and apparently spending time with him learning Defense Against the Dark Arts, unless more instructions appear.
And more proof.
The Dark Lord has returned, the note said. Tarquinius narrowed his eyes at it and put it aside. He needed to spend some time with one of his creations he hasn't used in years before he was ready to answer it.
Now he is ready, and Tarquinius touches the back and the breast feathers of the golden dove to activate it. It turns its head and grips the note in his beak. Then it flutters up and along the path taken by the eagle, even though the bird departed hours ago.
Tarquinius closes his eyes and leans back against his chair in the library, gentling his breath. His awareness soars with the dove, rising and falling with each clap of the metal wings. His magic drives the dove on, and makes the gears whirl faster as they track, together, the fading path of polluted power that the eagle left behind in the skies, and which resonates with the note the dove is holding.
Tarquinius is fairly sure that he knows whose writing that is, because only one kind of magic feels like that. But he wants to be wrong.
The dove dips down into the eaves of a vast, overgrown forest. It must be somewhere in Britain, as they did not cross water, but Tarquinius does not recognize it. The dove twists and turns without pause through the trees, and finally comes to rest with a slight flutter on a branch above a blazing fire.
Tarquinius flattens the dove against the trunk and sends all his will into looking out through its steel eyes.
A figure is sitting next to the fire, its head bowed. Tarquinius cannot make it out. The back gleams strangely, as if it has been dipped in black paint or tar. The figure is also, although human-shaped, not moving like a normal human. It doesn't twitch enough, or move with the slight rocking motion that even a perfectly-balanced man will make because of his heartbeat.
A second figure prowls out of the woods and drops a bloody shape at the feet of the man. This one is hunched and has long yellow fingernails that need to be cut. He doesn't turn to face Tarquinius, but nevertheless, Tarquinius knows that voice—and that polluted magic.
"Something for you to use, my Lord."
The dark figure turns its head, and Tarquinius is glad that his reaction in his own body cannot influence the dove, because otherwise it would have fallen off the branch when he flinched violently back. The figure is made of a flayed human body, and that gleam that puzzled him is the gleam of exposed muscle and nerves.
The red eyes that shine from the deserted sockets are Voldemort's own.
Voldemort reaches out and claws at the body, which looks like a haunch of flayed deer to Tarquinius. Voldemort brings it close to his mouth, but instead of opening his mouth to eat it, he tears it apart into chunks and molds the chunks to his arms and legs. Black power stirs sluggishly and binds them together, turning the gory pieces of raw venison into raw human.
Tarquinius has never heard of necromancy like this, even though he knows what it is when he sees it. It reminds him sharply, once again, of how strong the Dark Lord is.
And why I am never going to follow him again.
The slick black figure turns back to the fire when it's done, and Fenrir goes back into the woods, probably to haul another piece of the deer in for his own dinner. Tarquinius has no desire to watch him feast. He's seen what he needs to.
He releases his hold on the dove, except for giving it the command to return to the manor. It doesn't need his consciousness guiding it to simply trace its way home; it can follow the feel of his magic.
Tarquinius opened his eyes just in time, it seems. Lyassa is swaying slightly back and forth in front of him. Despite what he's learned about all Speakers being shapeshifters, neither she, Rizzen, or Asheren have changed from the forms that they first arrived in. "Yes, Speaker?"
"We have read disturbing reports in the newspapers. There are many articles about our potential ward going back many years."
"Yes?" Tarquinius repeats warily. He didn't think that would discourage them. Speakers care little for human opinions, which is why he was lucky to gain their attention with a report of a Parselmouth in the first place.
"Is it common for children in your world to be made to give interviews to the public and defend themselves against charges of lying and evil simply because they are using Parseltongue?"
Lyassa's sibilance is becoming more pronounced. Tarquinius only shakes his head. "No, lady. The unfortunate association between Parseltongue and evil has occurred in the minds of many lesser wizards, and other than Voldemort, Harry is the only known Parselmouth in Britain right now. Add to the status that he has because he supposedly defeated a Dark Lord at a year old, and the public is fascinated with him and demands much more of him than a typical child."
"Why does he go along with it?"
"Because he was raised away from our world, among Muggles, and never taught to deal with his fame."
Lyassa is silent for a few moments, her tail lashing across the floor and reflecting late sunlight like a flash of the Killing Curse. Then she nods. "That is one thing we will handle," she says, and then changes the subject. "Asheren wishes permission to hunt on your grounds."
"He has it, of course, my lady. I ask only that he not eat any creatures made of metal or shadow, which are my usual working materials."
"He would not find them a fulfilling meal anyway." Lyassa sounds amused as she slides away. Tarquinius nods to her back. In practice, although the Speakers said they would only stay for one night, only one of them is at Hogwarts at a time, while the other two stay with him. Tarquinius expects they found either less space to hunt or stronger protective magic at Hogwarts than they anticipated.
Either way, Tarquinius is sure that he made the right decision. He intends to be on the winning side, with no need for stories about the Imperius or spent Galleons.
And arming Harry with protectors who will disdain the wizarding world's treatment of him is the first and strongest step.