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Chapter Fifty-Nine—Scaled Confrontation
Harry draws his hand back and pauses for a moment, counting the breaths. He sees Theo's slight twitch of fingers, and that's the only way he knows that Draco is creeping up behind him to attack him.
Then he whips around and sends as hard a blast of wandless magic as he's comfortable with at Draco.
Draco yelps and partially manages to block it with a wandless Shield Charm, but he's not as good at that yet as Harry is at attacks, and he tumbles head over heels, his arms wrapped protectively around his head. Luckily, Cho catches him with a Cushioning Charm placed in the corner of the room.
Harry exhales. "That's getting a lot better, Draco."
"How did you know to turn around just then?" Draco sounds a little groggy as he sits up and shakes his head. Hermione is at his side at once, since she's the best among them at Healing Charms, checking for a concussion. Draco gives her the same absurd, weird look that he gives her all the time when she shows she cares, but mutters a thanks.
Harry has to tell the truth. "Because Theo always looks like he wants his wand just when someone is about to land a blow on me."
"Theo." Draco tosses a dark look across the classroom. "Harry is supposed to be learning on his own when an attack is imminent."
"Sorry." Theo doesn't look it, but at least he doesn't smile this time, the way he did when it was Ron who he warned Harry of. "But this sort of situation isn't going to come up in the field that often. Far more likely that Harry would have someone with him who could notice an attacker creeping up behind him and give him the signal."
"I'll have to fight alone some of the time," Harry points out.
"Give me one example."
Harry frowns. "Well, the next time Voldemort confronts me."
"Why exactly did you think you were going to be alone?" Daphne asks, sounding like it's an academic exercise. Harry frowns at her, too. She was supposed to be practicing wandless Summoning Charms with Terry and Luna, but they've all stopped to listen.
"I always have been," Harry says, blinking. "Ron and Hermione came with me, but each time, they got stopped by something."
"So you want to do it because it's tradition?" Daphne gives him a moue of disapproval. That's a word Harry never knew or bothered to learn before he befriended her, but now he knows it because it's the only appropriate one for her expression half the time.
"No! I just meant that I don't want to put you in danger, and I don't think Voldemort's going to attack me when I have a huge group of friends around me."
"Then clearly," Zach says, examining his nails, "we should all stay around you in a huge group at all times, to fend off any possible attacks. Then Voldemort won't get any ideas." He flashes Harry a bright, arrogant smile that makes Harry grit his teeth. Sometimes Zach is worse than Draco used to be.
"Well, hopefully he won't do anything in what remains of this school year at all," Harry says, once he catches his breath. "We only have a few weeks. And we should probably stop practicing wandless magic now and study for our exams."
The others break up into small, chattering groups, with Hermione handing out schedules she made and lists of important facts and notes. Harry stretches and flexes his hand. Then he turns to leave the classroom. He's going to practice meditation some more to strengthen his Occlumency. He's better at it than some of the others by sheer, conscious, stubborn repetition, but he could always be better still.
"You aren't going to stay here and study for exams, Harry?"
That's Blaise, and Harry honestly doesn't know anymore when it's real concern or faux concern on his face, unless he uses sarcasm. Harry smiles at him a little. "What's more important, exams or survival, when you think about it?"
"I don't know. It would depend on if we were considering it from your perspective or from the perspective of Professor Snape and your friend Granger. And do they know about your decision?"
Harry snorts. "I would never hear the end of it from Hermione if I told her that."
"And Professor Snape?"
Harry looks away and shrugs. "He knows that I value practicing wandless magic and Occlumency and the other disciplines that our group is learning."
Blaise acts as if he's going to say something for a moment, then stops. Harry assumes that's settled and tries to slip out of the room again.
Blaise puts a hand on Harry's arm. "You realize there is life beyond Voldemort? That you need to be something other than powerful? Exams matter because you need OWLs and NEWTs to get ahead in this society, and the exams help you prepare for them. I suppose it doesn't matter if you think you're going to die in the confrontation with Voldemort, but I thought you were doing everything you could to make sure that doesn't happen."
Harry grits his teeth and fights back the urge to scream. "I know, Blaise. But I reckon that I have to survive Voldemort first. If I have to put off taking my OWLs and NEWTs or come back to school to take them at some point when other people already have, then that's what I'll do."
Blaise looks closely at him. "I want you to have more choices, not fewer."
"Does it honestly matter?"
"Then this is my choice. Go back and study with the others before Hermione notices that we're chattering, won't you?"
And Blaise does it, because it's Harry who's asking. Harry can make out that much from the many, many backwards glances Blaise gives him before he settles down in the nearest small group with Draco, Theo, and Ginny.
Harry watches him and feels distinctly sick, but he doesn't have a long time to experience the sensation before Hermione nearly looks at him and he remembers why he ordered Blaise away in the first place. Out he goes, sure other people are watching him, but that doesn't much matter as long as they don't try to stop him.
"I've had Kreacher working on the old place as hard as he can. You're going to come home to a wonderful house, pup."
Harry smiles up at Sirius as he stands over him near the lake, waving his arms around and grinning. He's spent a few sessions with a good Mind-Healer now, and while Harry would hardly say he's cured, he is doing a lot better than he was. His eyes are clearer, and sometimes he thinks before he speaks. Already today he's bitten back two comments about Professor Snape.
Harry understands that some of that just might be Mind-Healer advice telling Sirius not to act in certain ways if he doesn't want to alienate Harry, but so what? A counterfeit can be as good as the real thing when someone is making a sincere effort.
In a move that made Harry roll his eyes, most of his group is outside with him, throwing stones into the lake or practicing spells or—the large group gathered around Hermione—studying for exams. Harry doesn't know why they still don't trust him with Sirius, but it's a sunny day, he's finally making some real progress in Occlumency, and he's spending quality time with his godfather. If his friends want to pretend they're his bodyguards, they can do so today with his blessing.
Of course, because nothing good lasts for him, two things happen at once. Professor Snape comes striding down the sweep of grass from the castle, and Rizzen walks out of the Forbidden Forest with an enormous serpent behind him and a woman next to him who's only a woman from the waist up and has a snake's tail for legs.
Harry's first, wild thought is that the Speakers have come to kill his guardians and take control of him that way. He immediately jumps to his feet and draws his wand, arranging himself in front of Sirius.
"Pup?" Sirius just sounds a little bewildered.
"Do not cast a spell at them unless you absolutely have to, Harry," Professor Snape's low voice warns from behind him. It's a mark of the seriousness of the situation that he doesn't even snipe at Sirius, and vice versa.
"Greetings, Harry Potter," says the woman in the middle, bowing from the waist and making a kind of gesture with her tail that makes a long shiver run through her. Sirius jumps and yelps at the sound of the Parseltongue. His whole group has turned around and is staring now. Great. "My name is Lyassa. We have come to make one more effort to bring you into your full potential."
"If you could teach me the kind of magic that you want to teach me and still let me stay with my guardians, I would say yes," Harry tells them, carefully looking a little to the side so that it'll come out in English. "But you won't let me, so I won't come with you."
"You are the first worthy Parselmouth in generations. Does that not mean something to you?"
"So, I'm the first one in generations that you want to treat like a pawn. No, thanks."
Snape utters a deep, groaning noise that Harry has only heard him use before when Neville is in the classroom. Harry refuses to flinch or back down, though. He is not going to give up his future so that the Speakers can have their way with him. For all Harry knows, serpent magic wouldn't even help him defeat Voldemort. Voldemort was walking around commanding a giant basilisk when he was sixteen. He probably knows all about serpent magic.
"We are offering you a great honor."
"I know all about honor now. And it only matters when someone is willing to listen to me and compromise with me, not put me off and tell me I should be honored by obeying them."
"If you say so." Harry has his hand well away from his wand, because he doubts they'll expect his first strike to be wandless. He's watching Lyassa's tail, and the tail of the blue serpent next to her. He'll know in an instant if they move, or Rizzen, but from the way Rizzen is standing back, Harry thinks that he'll let the other two go first.
"If—" Lyassa abruptly glances over to the side. Harry follows her gaze, but the only thing he can see is a small group of his friends standing near the trees, staring at the Speakers with huge eyes.
Lyassa tilts her head, as if examining something. Then she turns back to Harry. "If we would compromise? And tutor you a few hours a week?"
"What made you not offer that to me in the first place?" Harry demands. Suddenly they want to be reasonable? Why? Harry distrusts that almost as much as their intentions in the first place.
"There are very few humans who can stand the methods of our training. They have an unreasonable prejudice towards serpents that infects every moment of their daily lives. But I can see these are your guardians." She turns now so that she's regarding Sirius and Snape. "And one of them has a serpent symbol on his robes."
"Yeah," Harry says, perplexed. It seems to him that would be a weird reason to change her mind, but it's not like he wants to encourage her to kidnap him, either. "He's Professor Snape. The Head of Slytherin House, which I'm also in."
"Salazar Slytherin is a name once known and still honored among us. Would that guardian be willing to have us in his house several hours a week so that we might teach you serpent magic?"
Harry doesn't know why the Speakers won't just use English, which they can obviously understand just fine, but he isn't about to speak up and say so. He turns to Snape instead. "Sir? Could the Speakers come and tutor me at your house?"
"What are you going to learn from them?" Sirius instantly asks.
"Serpent magic," Lyassa says at once. Her tail is snapping back and forth now, and for some reason, she looks more agitated than she did. "Which needs—" Then she looks off to the side and calms down again. Harry wonders if she just doesn't want to make a scene in front of a bunch of underage wizards, if maybe it wouldn't look good for her reputation. "Which needs a willingness to have snakes around."
"Magic with snakes," Harry tells Sirius. "You don't want snakes in Grimmauld Place, do you?"
"I don't want snakes anywhere."
Harry flinches even though he knows Sirius means the animals, not Slytherins. And then he tells himself off for being too sensitive internally, and shrugs. "See? Then that kind of magic can happen over at Professor Snape's house, where you won't have to see it."
"But why do you have to learn it?" Sirius's eyes are wide and earnest. "You know plenty of other things! I can teach you plenty of other things! You can fight You-Know-Who without having to learn to control snakes?"
"We wish to teach him because he has potential." Lyassa sounds bewildered. "Does no one in your world believe in potential?"
"I know I'm good at serpent magic because the Silver Hourglass said I was." Harry keeps his voice calm and measured. He already has a lot of practice doing that with both Sirius and Snape. "And I want to learn what that means."
Sirius gives a huge sigh and stares at the Speakers for a moment. They stare unblinkingly back, except that now and then Lyassa looks over to the side. Harry follows her gaze, and it's still just members of his group, although they look a little calmer now. He really wishes he knew what was so interesting there. Maybe he'll learn more about it if he can get the Speakers to agree to train him.
"Fine, I suppose," Sirius finally huffs, and rolls his eyes. "But the training has to be at Snape's house."
"I have no problems with helping my ward reach his full potential," Snape says, pleasantly, smoothly.
"Neither do I—"
"This is a boring argument," Lyassa hisses, and interrupts them nicely, although maybe not for the same reason on both their parts, Harry thinks. "We can make a schedule. We cannot always stay away from our world as long as we have been doing this time without negative consequences, but one of us could come every week to train you. Several hours a week would be best, spread across a few days."
Harry nods and turns to explain to Snape and Sirius what they're saying. Snape adopts what's probably the best tactic and simply ignores the way that Sirius splutters, saying that Thursdays and Fridays are fine by him. Lyassa agrees to that, and adds, "There will be many serpents of various kinds coming with us, and some of our people will be in semi-human form, like me, some in full serpent form and some vaguely human. Does your guardian know that and consent?"
Sirius folds his arms when he hears that and pouts a little, but Snape, with a sneer in his direction, nods. "I have the reverence for the Speakers that many of our kind displayed when interactions between our peoples was more common," he says, and bows to Lyassa. "I will willingly learn more of them."
"Could you speak English the next time you come?" Harry adds. "I know you can understand it, and if you have a human-shaped mouth, I think you can speak it."
Lyassa gazes at him lazily, but her tail vibrates for a second like a rattlesnake's. "There are reasons I do not. You will hear them more thoroughly in the future, when you understand our people better. And asking someone like Asheren—" she gestures to the huge blue serpent next to her "—to speak English is foredoomed to failure."
"I know. But if you can?"
After a second, Lyassa inclines her head. Then she glances over to the side one more time, as if to reassure herself that none of Harry's friends are drawing their wands, and leaves with a flick of her tail against the ground. Harry relaxes at once.
Asheren and Rizzen go with her, but Rizzen glances back to hiss a farewell and, "I'm glad that we could come to some sort of compromise."
"So am I," Harry replies, compromising himself by using Parseltongue for the first time in the conversation.
Rizzen smiles, a gesture that looks less weird on his face than Harry thought it would, and disappears with the others. Harry turns back to Sirius and Snape, who are glaring at each other.
"I do want to learn serpent magic," he tells them. "I just didn't want to abandon the two of you for the summer. So, can we get on now, and think about how we're going to schedule this? It means that I'll have to spend Thursdays and Fridays over at Professor Snape's house."
Of course Sirius immediately objects, insisting that he wants to have Friday evenings with his godson. But since he doesn't seem to have anything immediately planned, Professor Snape argues against him.
And Harry can stay out of it. He leans back on the big stone beside the lake and watches the track of serpent tails that vanish into the Forbidden Forest.
That went almost suspiciously well. I hope it's not going to come back to bite me in the arse later on.
"Are you all right?"
Blaise nods and keeps his eyes shut. Theo is watching him too closely to really be fooled by the pretense, but it's necessary. "Yeah. The light's too bright out here. Migraine. I should probably go inside and lie down."
"You do that."
Theo's voice is also soft with suspicion, but he isn't going to do anything right now. Blaise shoots him a grateful smile and turns to walk indoors, keeping his eyes shut as much as he can.
Using his Gift on the Speakers to make them agree to training Harry in the human world was pretty exhausting. And maybe a problem, if they ever find out what happened.
But at the moment, humming with achievement, Blaise honestly doesn't care.