Title: A Sound Like Serpents Singing
Pairing: Harry/Draco preslash, past Draco/Astoria
Warnings: Profanity, angst, issues of disability (Draco is blind), partial epilogue compliance (Draco's marriage existed, but not Harry's).
Challenge: for auroraprimavera
Keywords: book, window, heartache
Dialogue: "Why can't you trust me?"
Summary: When Draco Malfoy wants a magical snake for his son, he turns to the best in the magical world—serpent-breeder Harry Potter. Harry, who thought that all his past grudges had been settled, is startled by the way he responds to Malfoy. For many reasons.
Author's Notes: Beta-ed by Linda, a good friend of mine, who is willing to put up with my love of Harry Potter in return for the chance to be savage about grammar and spelling.
A Sound Like Serpents Singing
Harry tapped his finger against the glass. It was the best way to create the faint vibrations that Isla required to realize there was a human nearby to respond to.
Isla turned her head. Harry smiled, the way he did every time he looked at her. Isla was half Ashwinder and half scarlet king snake, and it had taken Harry forever to figure out how to arrange that mating and then make sure that the hatchling simply didn't burn itself up in its egg. But he had succeeded, and Isla was magnificent, with the bold black and red coloring of a king snake that burned constantly at the edges with tiny flames. Here and there, white bands ran between the red and the black, and those stripes seared with a dazzling intensity that Harry found hard to look at.
She was intelligent, too, and, at the moment, ready to lay a clutch of eggs from her mating with an Ashwinder. Harry needed to transfer her from one cage to another. He held his hand down into the cage. Ready? he said in Parseltongue.
How long will this journey last? Isla asked without moving. Her tongue lashed out once, and she gave Harry's hand a critical glance, as though she was judging its fitness to be her transport.
From one side of the room to the other. Harry moved aside so that she could see through the glass and across the breeding chamber to the new cage she would inhabit. It had bars that smoked softly and a nest of phoenix feathers that Harry had paid dearly for. As interesting as Isla's children would be, though, he knew that he could afford them. The place that you've often stared at. Wouldn't you like to go there?
Isla's tail twitched and shuddered. Then she curled herself around his hand slowly. Harry sighed in relief. He had quickly discovered that although intelligent snakes made more interesting companions, they were also more temperamental, and could refuse to do important things for days because something in their immediate environment had displeased them. In Isla's case, she usually liked bare skin, and the glove Harry wore to defend his skin against her flames might have displeased her.
Harry carried her lightly and quickly past the other cages, perches, and platforms where snakes slumbered or twined in dances or curled about eggs or played with the balls and bells that Harry had purchased for them. Tongues lashed out to follow them, and more than one hissed a greeting. Harry responded to those who talked and smiled indulgently at those who didn't. They were mostly pregnant live-bearers concerned about their young, or snakes involved in puzzle-play that had baffled them for weeks, or, in the case of Gregor, the Alpine serpent with dazzling green and white scales, jealous because Harry was handling another snake. In Gregor's opinion, Harry existed to tend to Gregor.
Harry set Isla into the new cage and waited patiently until she unwound herself from his wrist and began to crawl across the bedding. Her tongue flickered out more than once, testing the new currents of scent. She kept her tail linked around Harry's arm until the last moment. Harry didn't mind. He would rather have a snake like Isla take her time and be satisfied with everything than go to the trouble of rearranging the cage for a fifth time.
It will do? He waited to ask until he was sure that she had approved of the phoenix feathers, because she coiled herself up in them and laid her nose along her flank. The strange lumps the eggs waiting inside her made looked less strange with her head beside them.
It will do, Isla said with imperious authority. Now fetch me a firefly.
Harry chuckled and turned away to the front of the shop, where he kept his large cases of mice, rats, insects, and sometimes birds to feed the snakes with. He had once believed he would do anything to get rid of his ability to speak Parseltongue. In fact, he had been sure at first that the ability had gone with Voldemort, and that he would never hear a snake talk to him in "English" again.
But then he had found a young adder that someone had sliced the tail from who needed his help, who in fact had no qualms about crawling right up to him demanding his help and threatening consequences from his fangs if that aid was inadequate. At the same time, Harry's studying Potions to enter the Auror program had stalled on what he thought was the most fascinating part of it, the use of ingredients that were harvested from magical snakes.
And here he was ten years of studying and experimenting and speaking Parseltongue later: owner of a shop that specialized in magical snakes which could become intelligent companions to humans or who didn't mind giving over scales, shed skins, infertile eggs, fangs, or venom when they knew that Harry would use the money from the sale of those ingredients to buy them more food and bedding and toys. Harry had been unsure he would be able to compete with the apothecaries at first, because he refused to butcher whole snakes and sell them.
It had turned out, though, that there were lots of potions brewers pleased that now they didn't have to scramble through deadfalls and ravines after venomous serpents who might bite them or slip away in the end. And there were some people like Hermione who preferred to purchase from shopkeepers who treated their snakes humanely. So Harry made quite a nice little living.
And the snakes got fed and were kept warm and pampered all their lives. So far, Harry had met only three who preferred wild living. Snakes, like cats, could see the benefit of an indoor, guaranteed existence.
Harry cheated shamelessly by using his wand to Summon one of the fireflies swarming in the cage on the table near the window instead of reaching in and capturing it. He had been reluctant to learn from snakes in school, but not since.
He was still laughing internally at his own joke when he turned around and saw Draco Malfoy standing in the door of his shop.
Harry reached back to catch himself on the edge of the table that held the cage, the shock was so great. He stared blankly at Malfoy for long moments. He hadn't seen him in ten years, unless you counted glimpsing him on shopping trips into Diagon Alley and seeing his picture in the paper occasionally. Harry would have said he was the last person Malfoy's path would ever have reason to cross again.
Here he was, though, as defiantly real as the adder all those years ago.
Malfoy had long hair, hanging nearly to his shoulders and held back with a slender silver band. Where the band crossed the center of his forehead rested a glowing, triangular gem, diamond-colored but so pale and watery Harry knew it couldn't be one. His robes were conservative in cut—Harry had learned to recognize such things from his customers—but dazzling white, so that he would still stand out in a crowd. His eyes were sharp and clear grey, which Harry didn't understand. The last thing he knew, Malfoy had been blinded by Rabastan Lestrange before they managed to haul him away to Azkaban, and no efforts of the Healers at St. Mungo's could reverse the blinding.
Harry cleared his throat, but that didn't cause any flicker of the eyes. It seemed as though Malfoy was looking at him and had always been looking at him. He raised a sarcastic eyebrow, in fact, and murmured, "Do you have some objection to my presence in your shop, Potter?"
"That depends," Harry said, annoyance winning out over his surprise and the impulse to ignore Malfoy. "Have you come to break cages and release my serpents in the name of Slytherin solidarity?"
Malfoy's laughter was an odd sound, full and deep. Harry paused to allow it to echo around the shop, and watched his steps carefully as he walked in. Malfoy avoided the tables as if he knew exactly where they were and came up uncomfortably close to Harry. Harry lifted his chin and his own brows, and waited.
"You haven't changed," Malfoy said.
"Ah." Harry drew out the vowel until he saw Malfoy's forehead wrinkle. "I knew you would say something like that." Without explaining what he meant, he changed the subject. Why should Malfoy be allowed to intimidate him or disappoint him because it was obvious that he still thought of Harry as a schoolboy? "Are you here for a snake for yourself or someone else?"
"Someone else." Malfoy leaned an elbow on a table. Harry watched out of the corner of his eye as he started towards the back room to give the firefly to Isla, but no, Malfoy had chosen a table that he couldn't knock over even if he threw his full weight against it. Harry's respect for his old rival rose reluctantly. At least he didn't treat other people and objects the way Harry had thought he would when he first heard of Malfoy's blindness, as if they were deliberately trying to injure him if they didn't accommodate him. "My son, Scorpius."
Harry had heard worse names in his years of serving pure-blood customers, which he was grateful for; it was the only thing that kept him from snorting. "Yes, I knew you had a son," he said. "How old is he now, and what kind of snake did you want?"
"Scorpius is eight, and I want a snake that can be a companion." Malfoy pitched his voice lower. Harry knew that he was doing it on purpose. Watching snakes had taught him how to differentiate between a deliberate change and one that was accidental. It helped that the snakes were mostly quick to tell him when they were angry or hungry or simply playful. "I wouldn't have come here if I didn't know that you breed the best magical companions."
Harry mentally rolled his eyes, and then decided that he might as well do it physically. It wasn't like Malfoy would see him, whatever adaptation he might have that made it easy for him to move around. "Yes, I know," he said, and savored the puzzled expression on Malfoy's face when he turned around. "But I need to know more about Scorpius. Most of my snakes that are bred to be companions are meant to be unique to the people who own them."
"Everything about Scorpius is unique."
Harry paused. That was the first sign of something real and human in Malfoy that he'd noted so far: the way his face softened and his fingers curled around the edge of the table. He might stroke his son's hair that way, Harry thought.
"Well, that's good to know," Harry said, and hoped that Malfoy could hear the smile in his voice. "But it doesn't tell me much in the way of specifics. Why not bring Scorpius into the shop so that I can get to know his personality and fit the snake to him?"
Malfoy gave him a single sharp glance into which a world's worth of exasperation seemed to have concentrated itself. "I would have brought him with me today if I wanted to, Potter," he said. "The snake is a birthday gift, and a surprise."
Harry sucked the inside of his cheek. He didn't like working blind—
He glanced automatically at Malfoy, and was glad that he had never picked up the habit of voicing his thoughts aloud by mistake.
He didn't like working without knowledge of the person he was supposed to breed for. On the other hand, he would appreciate the challenge, and he'd still had more successes than misses.
"All right," he said at last. "And do you want a snake capable of protecting him or not? And if you want a protector, do you prefer a constrictor or a poisoner?"
Malfoy straightened, his hair swinging violently just above his shoulders. "I do not want a poisonous snake around my son."
Harry glared at him, then remembered it had no effect. "This snake would be for Scorpius," he explained. "That means that it would never bite him, because it would recognize him as its friend. On the other hand, some of the people I've provided snakes to in the past have wanted companions that could bite their enemies."
Malfoy's eyelids drooped a little over those brilliant eyes, and he stood considering the matter in absolute silence. Harry waited for him to say something, as patiently as he could. After all, he could hardly start breeding before he knew what the specifics were.
No, wait. It wasn't absolute silence after all. Harry turned his head, thinking that perhaps Hayley, his most ambitious rattler, had climbed out of her cage again and gone exploring.
Then he realized the sound was too shrill and faint to be Hayley's rattle. In fact, it regularly rose to a pitch that Harry suspected he couldn't make out, then wavered back into the lower depths of noise. It was sweet, though. It reminded Harry of the singing snakes that he had bred for a few years before he realized that they would never be in good health and it was better not to force them to mate.
This singing was not tormented, however. It was beautiful and free and full, and made Harry take a step closer to Malfoy, hardly realizing what he was doing.
"I want a snake who can teach Scorpius," Malfoy whispered. "He needs that. He needs someone who can be a true friend, chide him for his mistakes and praise him when he does well. He needs someone who is physically smaller than he is, so that he doesn't feel threatened, but he might despise a snake that's too small." He turned his head towards Harry, once again unerringly locating his face even though Harry had moved. "He's been taught to despise weakness like every other Malfoy."
"Smallness isn't always weakness," Harry argued. "Tell that to a krait."
"I'm talking about the kind of snake my son will like," Malfoy said, his voice even, "not the type that you might prefer to breed."
Harry took a deep breath and nodded, chagrined with himself for struggling against a client. Most of the time, he managed to persuade them when they were wrong. There was no reason to act like they were still in school even if Malfoy thought they were. "All right. Any particular preference for color?"
Malfoy froze, then sneered at him. He tapped his eyelids. "You think I care about that anymore, Potter?"
"The snake is for Scorpius," Harry said, "who might care." He found it easier to hold onto his temper when it seemed that Malfoy was losing his. "Besides, you haven't always been blind, and I don't know how complete the blindness is. Maybe you can still distinguish colors or lights." That would explain the ease with which Malfoy moved, though not the singing sound.
Malfoy snorted and gave a short nod, though Harry wasn't sure what he was acknowledging or accepting. "All right. Scorpius favors green—"
"And silver," Harry interrupted. "Of course he does."
Malfoy gave Harry a long, slow look, which was effective even if Harry knew that those grey eyes couldn't see him. "And red," he finished. "He likes cheerful colors."
Harry winced and nodded, then remembered and said, "Sorry. All right, a large snake in red and green. An intelligent snake, to be a companion."
"It would be best if it could talk," Malfoy continued.
Harry blinked, then said, "I didn't know that your son was a Parselmouth."
That got him another look, though this one was more impatient than the last. "He is not," Malfoy said. "I was envisioning a snake that could speak easily with Scorpius in English. The private language that you use to communicate with snakes would be of no use to him. I want everything for my son."
"If I can ask," Harry said, "if speech is so important, why did you settle on a snake for Scorpius? Why not something like a Jarvey, or a parrot?"
"Are you saying that you can't breed a snake that talks?" Malfoy took a step towards him, eyes wide and—delighted? Harry thought that was a weird expression when Malfoy had specifically sought out his shop to find a snake that would suit his purposes, but then, Malfoy probably thought about and experienced weird things all the time.
"I'm saying that I never have, because it's not something that anyone else has demanded," Harry snapped.
Now, though, he was wondering how he would go about it. And wondering always produced new thoughts in his head. It was the first step towards the fulfillment of the plans that he was wondering about, after all.
Would growing vocal cords be the best solution? Perhaps not, when most snakes had nothing like them. On the other hand, snakes could feel and respond to the vibrations of sound through the earth, and what was sound at heart but vibration? Harry could think of some snakes, including many in Isla's lineage, that were extraordinarily sensitive to vibrations. It was one reason he usually got her attention when she was sleeping or contemplating with a finger rather than with Parseltongue.
And Isla was ready to lay. And the best time to experiment with young snakes was in the egg.
"I think I can do it," he muttered.
Harry blinked and glanced up. He had forgotten that Malfoy was there, consumed in thoughts of the snake to come. Malfoy took his elbow off the table and straightened. He reached down to his belt and plucked out a heavy bag that he tossed at Harry. Harry caught it and heard the clink of Galleons.
"Take that for an initial payment," Malfoy said. "Depending on how well you manage to fulfill my request, there may be more where that comes from."
Insulted, Harry tossed the bag back at him. Malfoy stuck out a hand for it and caught it. Harry wondered if that was because of the whiffle it made as it flew through the air, or because of that sweet sound. The sweet sound had to have something to do with the way Malfoy could react so well. "You don't need to pay me until I manage to come up with a result," Harry said. "I think I can do this, but it's not a guarantee."
Malfoy smiled, for some reason. "You have your own pride," he said.
"Yes, of course." Harry shook his head. "Owl me with anything else that you think is important for me to know. I want to fit the snake to Scorpius, but it's rather difficult when he isn't here in front of me." With that final jab, he turned away. He would need to secure one of Isla's eggs as soon as possible so that he could begin to experiment, and that meant persuading a difficult and temperamental Isla. At least snakes usually weren't that close to their offspring, so they usually agreed to let Harry do what he wanted with the eggs.
Harry glanced back. He would have thought Malfoy would have already walked out of the shop, but instead he stood there, staring expectantly at—or towards—Harry, waiting for a response. Harry nodded back. "You're welcome," he said. He hesitated, then softened his voice. Too much coldness, and Malfoy would think he had been right about Harry not changing. "Thanks for the challenge."
Malfoy tilted his head to the side, not quite a nod, as if those had been the words that he was waiting to hear, and strode out of the shop.
Harry watched him go, listening still. There was no trace of the sweet noise now, and no answers to his questions about it.
But that hardly mattered, Harry told himself. He would probably hear the noise again, and if he saw Malfoy enough times, then he might gain the comfort needed to ask such an intimate question.
Right now, he would have to negotiate with Isla, and then with Gregor, whose help Harry would need with the young serpent that hatched from the egg. Smiling slightly, and numbering the mice he could afford to spare Isla, Harry stepped back into his snake room.
In the end, it took more time than he had expected, because two-headed Cryer, a blue-green snake with Runespoor heritage, had climbed up into the rafters and couldn't figure out how to get back down, and Harry had to rescue her before he could talk to Isla.
What should we do first? Harry asked, cocking his head to the side and studying the colors of the scales pressed against the shell of the egg. He had begun enchanting Isla's child, and now that it—he, Harry thought—was nearly ready to hatch, it was the time to work delicate and precise magic.
Scratch my scales, Gregor said, and turned his head to the side so that Harry could get at the delicate place under his chin.
Harry did it as gravely as he would have tried a new spell. For Gregor, his requests were to be treated as seriously as his magical advice.
Gregor sighed, a long, rolling, sibilant sound that went on until other snakes in the back room began to complain. Then he lifted his head and nudged his nose around the edges of the egg. Harry stepped back and watched him patiently, ready to do whatever he said.
Gregor was the most intelligent snake he had ever hatched, and it had been an entirely mistaken mating. Harry had meant to pair Gregor's parents with others, but at that time he still wasn't good at determining the sex of most snakes and he had thought both Ash and Mountainside were female. Mountainside's eggs a month later had been a surprise.
Physically, Gregor was pure Alpine serpent, a magical breed that lived in the Italian mountains and was able to turn themselves into stones or moss when a human approached. His scales, white streaked with lightning flashes of pale green, were handsome enough that Harry had no wish to alter their color. But he also possessed the ability to see magic, in a way that Harry could barely grasp even after he'd listened to multiple Parseltongue explanations, and he could give Harry advice on how to arrange it.
None of his siblings had the same ability, and though Harry had bred Ash and Mountainside again with their consent, Gregor didn't have any rivals among the further clutches. Harry had decided to enjoy what he had while he had it. Alpine serpents often lived twenty years or more, and Gregor was only seven.
Sometimes, it does feel like it's been longer, living with him, Harry thought with a mixture of exasperation and affection as he watched Gregor twine his body around the egg and rub the shell with the spot on his chin that Harry had just touched. He would never say such a thing aloud, of course. Gregor was as proud and insecure as Malfoy had been in school, and wouldn't forgive him for months.
The oddest things kept bringing Malfoy back to Harry's mind, he thought as he stepped back and examined the egg from the side. A small ripple of red light was running over the shell, just as it should be. Harry smiled reluctantly and reached out so that Gregor could wrap around his fingers. Gregor did it with a haughty lash of his tail and then turned so that he, too, could examine the egg from a different angle, in this case from the height of Harry's shoulder.
He could hear a snake hissing now, Harry thought as he gathered up the egg and carried it over to the tank of specially enchanted water that he'd prepared. It bubbled and churned with waves of salt and waves of heat, and Harry placed the egg at the surface and watched as it began to tumble over and over.
He could hear a snake, and it would remind him of the sweet singing sound he'd heard as he stood near Malfoy—a sound Harry had decided must be some kind of special adaptation to help him around being blind. Or he could look at the pale, chiseled statue that the sculptor's shop across the street had had for sale for two years and see the living duplicate of that face in his memory.
Malfoy had been nowhere in Harry's life. He had become everywhere.
"Is this a bad time?" The voice he had been imagining spoke from behind him. "No one answered my knock, and I thought you might be with a customer." Tones of disbelief striated his voice, Harry thought as he straightened up and turned around, and he knew why. No matter what Malfoy said, he wouldn't be able to really believe that any other customer could mean as much to Harry as he did.
And maybe he's right about that. Harry entertained either customers who didn't affect him much, buyers for Potions ingredients who all spoke the same tiresome language and tried to negotiate new bargains the snakes weren't willing to make, or friends whose beloved faces were always part of his experience. Malfoy was something new.
Like me, Gregor said, leaning around Harry's neck for a good look at Malfoy.
Another disconcerting thing about Gregor: sometimes he read Harry's thoughts. Harry tried to shake off the odd feeling as he stretched out one hand. Malfoy clasped it while fixing those keen sightless eyes on Harry's face.
"You don't need to jump," Malfoy said in a low laughing voice. Harry felt sure the laughter was derisive, though, given what he said next. "Blindness isn't catching."
"Especially not your kind of blindness," Harry said calmly, accepting and acknowledging his own stupidity. He stroked the back of Gregor's neck so that he wouldn't get jealous and nodded to Malfoy. "Do you have new specifications for Scorpius's snake? I'm just putting the egg in the enchanted water, and there's still a bit of time to change things if you want to."
Malfoy shook his head slowly, as if he wanted to measure how little air he could disturb with the motion. "I came simply to make sure that the creation of the snake is going well," he murmured, and leaned over the tank of water. Harry stepped back and let him examine the bobbing egg. Nothing Malfoy did could harm it unless he actually cast a spell on it, and Harry doubted he was stupid enough to do that. "And here I find myself baffled," Malfoy added, his voice a deep chuckle that stirred nerves Harry had forgotten he had, "because of course I cannot tell what the egg indicates."
Harry stepped up close to him, partially because Gregor was hissing in agitation about wanting to examine Malfoy and partially because Harry wanted to feel the warmth that radiated from him. Why not? He could do as he liked in a case like this. Malfoy wasn't an enemy now, and Harry didn't intend to hurt him. "The snake is developing quickly. I should have him hatched out in a week. Then, of course, I'll need to do some more work to make sure that he has the qualities you want."
"The intelligence?" Malfoy reached out as if he intended to trail a hand through the water. Harry caught his wrist. The ambient human magic that Malfoy carried really might disturb the currents in the tank, and Harry didn't want that to happen. Malfoy tilted his head and gave him half a warm smile. "And the ability to speak?" he went on, as though Harry's hand were an insect that had alighted on him. He stood still under the touch, though, still enough that Harry heard the singing noise again.
Harry was the one who caught his breath and licked his lips, and had to tell himself a moment later that he was being ridiculous. He moved back from Malfoy and tried to speak neutrally. "I have magic at work on the egg that I think will produce that result. Certainly Scorpius's snake will be intelligent. But how well it can speak…I won't know that until it hatches."
"Explain to me how you went about starting to get human speech out of a snake." Malfoy turned towards him and leaned a hip on the table that held the tank of water, the same way he had leaned on the table last time. Harry wondered if that was a gesture he had always favored or only used since his blindness. It made him look more relaxed than Harry had seen him in school, that was for certain. "I know a few facts about snakes, but nothing about the magical theory that applies to them."
"I'm lucky in many ways," Harry said, moving back to put some distance between him and Malfoy. His reactions would be appropriate in private, but not in a conversation with a client. "I can speak with snakes, so I can persuade them to use their own magic and cooperate in the process of breeding instead of resisting it."
Malfoy frowned. Harry sighed, trying to keep it soundless. Even with that expression on his face, the git looked attractive. "I was under the impression that snakes, except for a few magical breeds, were not very intelligent," Malfoy said. "How can they oppose the breeding program that you've set up for them?"
Gregor hissed and wound himself around Harry's neck as if he was a constrictor. I don't like him, he said clearly in Parseltongue. He's speaking the way that people do when they want to disparage us. Send him away.
Harry tapped Gregor on the neck and replied, His money, and the money of people like him, is what keeps you eating. Do you still want me to send him away?
He has a funny nose, said Gregor, and then curled his own blunt nose into his coils and lay there as if he could drive Malfoy off with the sheer force of his sulking.
Harry looked up to apologize to Malfoy and found himself the focus of a faint, appreciative smile. Malfoy sighed before he spoke, a low, delicious sound which made faint shivers run up Harry's spine. "I hadn't realized that you communicated so intimately with your snakes. It sounds exotic."
Harry shrugged, suddenly uncomfortable. His friends were used to it, and he rarely spoke the snake language in front of clients, some of whom wanted to accuse him of being a Dark wizard even now. He felt as though someone had walked into the bathroom and seen him with his pants down. "It's nothing special. Just a gift I got God knows how. Inherited, maybe. My family has some connection to the Peverells, and they were connected to Salazar Slytherin—"
Stop babbling, you idiot, he told himself forcefully, and shut his mouth with a small gasp. Malfoy watched him with a quizzical smile. Harry scratched the nape of his neck and looked away. Even he thinks it's weird. You know he does.
"How fascinating," Malfoy said. His expression was so bland that Harry couldn't tell whether he was telling the truth or not. "And you feel bad coercing snakes against their will into a breeding program?" His voice was bland, too, but Harry thought there were complex emotions under the surface.
He had no idea what words would cause Malfoy to approve of him, and no reason to crave that approval as much as he did. So he shrugged and said, "Yes. Since I can hear them complaining. And I can negotiate with them, so why shouldn't I?'
"There are all sorts of answers to that," Malfoy said.
I knew he was disparaging us, Gregor said, popping his head around Harry's neck and hissing at Malfoy. I know the way your muscles tense when you're confronting someone who doesn't understand.
Harry rolled his shoulder so that Gregor almost fell off. That would give the impertinent snake something to deal with. He focused on Malfoy while Gregor was still dangling half-off his arm and said, "Then give me one answer."
"That of course you should listen to them, since they're your livelihood and they could hurt you if they were annoyed," Malfoy said. "That's the answer Granger would give you. And probably my wife." He paused, a shadow sweeping across his face.
"Is she interested in house-elf rights, too?" Harry asked politely. He would ignore the shadow unless Malfoy clearly wanted to talk about it. God knew Harry was tired of people who used every casual reference he made to pry into his life.
"I don't really want to talk about Astoria." Malfoy's voice was sharp and cool.
"All right," Harry said, and ignored Malfoy's incredulous look. What kind of response did he think he would get from me? Maybe he assumed that I was so curious I would insist on knowing everything about her. "We were talking about magical theory that someone could use to get snakes to talk, or at least you asked about that and I started rambling and never got back on the topic." He gave a small smile.
It took him long enough that Harry thought the muscles of his face were frozen, but in the end, Malfoy smiled back.
Harry touched the side of the tank where the egg bobbed. "I started thinking that human speech and Parseltongue are both conduits of magic, used rightly. We use Latin in our incantations, after all. What makes it special is the will that we put behind the words when we want to use them to cast a spell."
"Yes, that's rather important," Malfoy said dryly.
Harry ignored him, in part because Gregor was hissing several obscene things and Harry had to bite his lip to keep from laughing. "And of course," he continued, "I can speak Parseltongue, proving that human and snake languages have certain boundaries where they touch. Parseltongue is an inborn ability, and I can't make Scorpius a Parselmouth. But I can try to ensure that his snake has a similar inborn gift. In his case, he's a Humanmouth, I suppose."
"Your names need work," Malfoy said, but he sounded calmer now, and fascinated. "Why did you decide to modify the snake while he was in the egg instead of waiting until he had hatched?"
"Think of how much easier it is to train a human infant to do something than a human toddler," Harry said. Malfoy opened his mouth in silent laughter, and Harry froze a moment, taking in the light that seemed to shine through his face when he did that. He shivered and spoke on in a voice he feared was huskier than before, at least if Malfoy's curious head-tilt was any indication. "Similar differences exist between a snake in the egg and a hatchling. The earlier I begin, the easier it is to use magic on him."
"And how soon will he be ready for Scorpius?" Malfoy's voice was soft and eager now, and Harry remembered the way he felt when he wanted to give a present to Rose or Hugo. He found himself smiling in answer.
"It depends on how much of a companion you want him to be." Harry looked back at the egg and made a few rapid calculations, thinking of Isla's lineage. Yes, he thought he could count on some inborn magical ability in the snake to substitute for lost time. "If you want a very intelligent companion, you'll need to wait a few months. But a snake who can talk and is as intelligent as a five-year-old child will need only a week after he hatches."
Malfoy pondered openly, leaning his chin on his fist and staring at the tank exactly as if he could see it. Harry examined his face with a leisurely gaze, since now he had the chance to do so. The individual features were pointy and pale. He didn't know where the extreme beauty he seemed to sense animating them at times came from.
I know why you're looking at him like that, Gregor said, and curled one coil around Harry's throat, yanking hard to let him know that he was displeased. He was even more displeased when Harry patiently unwound the coil and held him away from his throat. Gregor liked to pretend that he was a much bigger snake than he was, and hated being manhandled. You smell of the desire to mate.
Harry had no doubt that he did, because most snakes saw no need to lie. Gregor was one of the few Harry had ever met who used truth maliciously, though. He knew his face was red as he replied, But he wouldn't want to mate with me. He has a wife and a son. In Parseltongue, he already knew that that came out as "permanent mate" and "hatchling who lives with the parents," but he couldn't help trying to explain the concepts. He knew Gregor could understand them if he wanted to. But Gregor considered those things too stupid to spend time believing them.
You still want to mate. Gregor slithered abruptly down his arm and left the room. Harry let him go, just relieved that he hadn't decided to plunge into the water and eat the egg. He'd ruined several experiments like that before.
"Give me the months," Malfoy said suddenly, making Harry jump. He'd almost forgotten the question he'd posed. "I want a snake who can truly be a companion, a friend, to Scorpius. And rushing the production of this egg won't help with that." He smiled, looking as satisfied with himself if he'd been the one to breed Isla and then beg an egg from her.
Harry didn't care. That little smirk was ridiculously endearing. "Good," he said. "That's what I hoped you would say. It should be ready for Scorpius in four months."
"Good." Malfoy tilted his head and let his hair slip down his neck, reaching up one hand to push it absently back. "Have you given him a name yet?"
"No," Harry said. "I thought I'd let Scorpius do that. Snakes don't care as much about names as we do, given that they can smell one another."
Malfoy paused as though Harry had told him that the egg would take longer than expected. "But you can negotiate with them," he said. "You treat them like participants in your business and the decisions you make involving them."
"I do," Harry admitted. "There's very little else that one can do when one speaks Parseltongue."
"Then might this snake get an inferiority complex because you haven't given him a name when you give the others names?" Malfoy's voice hardened, and now he sounded as though he thought Harry had set out to offer him some deliberate insult.
Harry blinked. "I—yes, sometimes the snakes react that way. Not often," he added, thinking of the way that Isla hadn't cared while Harry hesitated and hemmed and hawed about choosing the "perfect" name for her. "But sometimes."
"And it's more likely the more intelligent the snake is, yes?" Malfoy leaned forwards. "I know that I would react badly if everyone around me had a name and I didn't."
Harry felt his mouth spasm for a moment, and was just as grateful that Malfoy couldn't see it. He was remembering the way that Vernon and Petunia had gone out of their way not to use his name, calling him "freak" or "boy" instead. Harry had hated the fact that they would call Dudley by every variation on his name imaginable. "Yeah," he said, aware that his voice was clipped and Malfoy would probably notice it, but unable to prevent it. "Yeah, that might happen."
"Well." Malfoy leaned back and gave him a smile. "Give Scorpius's snake a name. I trust you will choose one that is not unfitting for a snake in a Malfoy's possession." He inclined his head to Harry and strolled out of the shop, avoiding all the obstacles in his way as precisely as he had done before.
Harry, though, was left staring after him, his heart thumping powerfully because of those three little words Malfoy had spoken.
I trust you.
How can you want to mate with someone who is not here? Gregor hissed in irritation, and shoved his head under Harry's fingers. Put your hands to use doing something for once and pet me.
Malfoy returned several times over the next week and months as the snake—whom Harry had decided to name Orion, after the only constellation that he could recognize easily—hatched from his egg and began to mature. His scales were a brilliant patterning of red and green in regular bands like the ones that had graced Isla's king snake ancestors, and his eyes were blue-grey. Harry had hoped that would happen, to echo the eye color he thought Scorpius had probably inherited from his father, but he hadn't been sure it would.
Malfoy asked technical questions that clearly proved he had been doing some reading on serpentine magical theory, or at least research on the snakes that Harry had sold in the past. Harry had to admit that he was impressed, and he didn't mind showing that to Malfoy. In fact, his voice seemed to have acquired more and more propensity for showing emotions when Malfoy was around, so he couldn't hide it anyway.
Malfoy would offer a smile now and then in response, and Harry coveted those smiles the way Isla craved time for herself away from her hatchlings.
He didn't really understand what was happening. He had admired men before, and had gone to bed with a few; it was one of the reasons he was no longer as bitter about his breakup with Ginny as he might have been. But those men had all been like Oliver Wood, the first one: athletes, honest and enthusiastic and no more capable of hiding secrets than the daylight sky was. Harry knew that Malfoy must have some secrets about him. There were certain topics, notably his wife and his family's fortunes after the war, that he would go suddenly cold and silent on, and leave Harry scrambling to apologize for. He also forbade Harry to offer apologies for offending him, though, so in the end both of them usually stood around in silence until Malfoy asked another question about snakes.
So the conversations went on, while Harry wondered if Malfoy really needed to visit that many times to assure himself that Scorpius was getting the perfect snake, and vacillated between thinking that Malfoy didn't trust him after all and thinking that Malfoy wanted to spend time with him.
Which was plainly ridiculous, and made Gregor upset, besides.
And then there came the day that Ron and Hermione were visiting with their children, and Malfoy decided to visit as well.
Harry laughed and picked up Hugo, spinning him around. Hugo tucked in his elbows and knees conscientiously; he, and probably Rose, would never forget the day his flying foot had almost broken open one of the tanks. Harry blamed himself for that more than anyone else, but Hugo still referred to it as "the time Uncle Harry swore."
Hugo grinned up at him as Harry set him down. His bright red hair bristled around his head, and he had huge brown eyes that ate up most of his face. Right now, he was staring in some awe at Orion, who coiled around one of the branches of a perch that Harry had enchanted into a tiny tree. "I've never seen a snake that bright!" he said. "What's his name?"
Harry turned expectantly to Orion. Orion flicked his tongue out to catch Hugo's scent, but said nothing.
Harry held back a sigh of frustration. He knew that Orion had the magic to talk. He just never seemed to say anything.
And in a snake who had been specifically and specially bred so that he would speak in English, that was worrying.
"His name's Orion," Harry said at last, when he realized that Hugo was looking at him for an answer. Harry hadn't told anyone about his little project, wanting to surprise everyone when and if the experiment worked, so Hugo didn't know that Orion ought to be able to speak. "He's part Ashwinder and part king snake and part many other things."
"Brilliant!" Hugo said, though Harry thought the word referred more to Orion's Christmas colors than to Harry's explanation. "Can I pet him?"
Will you let him touch you? Harry hissed to Orion.
Orion bobbed his head. He was one of the few snakes Harry had reared who had picked up human gestures like that. It spoke well for his intelligence, Harry thought, as he held out his arm so that Orion could coil around it and slide down, but given how rarely he spoke even in Parseltongue, Harry was beginning to think something had gone wrong with the magical theories that he'd used to produce the snake.
There was also the fact that Orion was aloof, neither taking any of the simple serpentine pleasure in warm human touch that most of Harry's friends did, nor accepting it as a tribute to his vanity the way Gregor did. Harry wondered how much of a companion he would be for anyone, let alone a child who would want to touch him all the time.
"Brilliant!" Hugo said again, once he had run the backs of his fingers along the folded hood about Orion's neck and Orion had watched him without movement.
"Hugo, are you in here?" Ron's voice shouted from the main part of the shop. Harry turned to call out a reassurance, grinning. Hugo liked to run from the Apparition point into Harry's shop while the rest of the family proceeded more slowly up Diagon Alley. In fact, Harry saw when he walked out to greet Ron, only his father was here now; Rose and Hermione had probably been swallowed up by the bookshop.
"Good to see you, mate." Ron pounded Harry on the back. He was wearing ordinary, rough-worn robes, since it was a holiday, but he had a bright alertness in his eyes that marked him as an Auror more effectively any uniform could. He glanced around at the cages of mice and insects now and gave a dramatic shiver. "You're not tired of surrounding yourself with vermin yet?" he teased.
"I've been considering bringing in elephants to liven the place up," Harry said, "but then I'd have to breed the snakes to eat them." He glanced sideways at an empty tank that he'd kept weasels in for a short time, until he sold the Greater Cobra that ate them. "And, of course, there's always a profitable sideline to be established in spiders."
Ron shivered for real this time. "You'll just have to start visiting Rosewalk if you bring spiders here," he said firmly. "Because I'm not coming anywhere near your shop then."
"We're not coming back to Uncle Harry's shop?" Hugo was sticking his head out from the back, his face anxious.
Ron smiled at his son. "Tell Uncle Harry not to breed snakes that eat spiders, or we won't," he said. Harry rolled his eyes. Ron could somehow convince Hugo, though not Rose, of his ridiculous threats, and used them shamelessly at every chance.
Hugo turned towards Harry and opened his mouth. Harry smiled reassuringly at him, but he never got the chance to say what he'd planned on because the door opened and a resonant voice he knew too well after its repeated appearances in his imagination called out, "Potter!"
Ron clenched his fists but didn't turn around. His smile had turned wan, though. Harry sighed and stepped forwards to get between Ron and Malfoy. He hadn't told his friends about breeding a snake for Malfoy's son because of the experimental nature of it, but also because he didn't want to deal with angry exclamations, and he reckoned this was his reward for it.
"Malfoy," Harry said with a little nod. Malfoy had already slowed; maybe he'd heard the echoes of voices and realized that Harry wasn't alone. "Did you have a question?"
"Several." Malfoy squinted as if the light in the shop bothered his eyes and leaned against a table that held rats with that gesture he seemed so fond of using. "But I wouldn't want to disturb your other customers. Do carry on." The flap of his hand expressed gracious permission.
Ron had turned around by then, and was staring at Malfoy with no friendly expression. Harry coughed, but Ron didn't pay any attention to him. "Finally come for a friend who crawls on his belly like you do, Malfoy?" he asked.
"Why, yes," Malfoy said. "I think one can do little better than associate with snakes. I'm sure Potter would agree with me." He turned his head and gave Harry the kind of smile that made Harry want to murder him.
"I didn't mean it that way, mate." Ron turned to him, squinting at Harry as if he expected to see him physically wounded by his words. "You know I didn't, right? I know that you're not really a Dark wizard just because you speak Parseltongue."
"Is he Dark for other reasons, then?" Malfoy had the polite tone of someone asking after Ron's family at a party.
Ron whirled around. "No, but you are, aren't you?" he asked. "Dark in reputation even after all these years, so Dark that your wife left you, and with darkness in front of your eyes."
Malfoy stiffened. Harry groaned silently as he saw the remorse flit over Ron's face a moment later. Ron hadn't meant it, but his apologies would do no good after he had inflicted this damage in the first place.
Harry caught Ron's eye and mouthed a single word: Leave.
Ron opened his mouth as if he would defend himself, then sighed and nodded. At least he had grown up that much in the last decade, Harry thought in exasperation as he watched Ron take Hugo's hand and haul him out of the shop. Glancing through the front window, Harry saw him meet Hermione and Rose in the middle of the street and start explaining. Hermione's face darkened steadily as she listened, and then she dealt a resounding slap to the back of Ron's head.
Harry smiled and turned back to Malfoy. At least he knew that Ron wasn't getting away with what he'd said completely.
But from the intense expression on Malfoy's face, Ron's punishment didn't mean much to him. Harry wouldn't have expected it to do so. He thought for a moment, then said, "I'm sorry he said that."
"He should be the one apologizing." Malfoy's voice was thick with something that might have been suppressed rage.
"Yes, I know," Harry said. "But I don't think he will. Or, at least, he couldn't do it in any gracious way," he added, thinking of some of the ways that Ron had apologized to people in the past. "He'd make it sound like you were silly for being offended in the first place."
Malfoy gave himself a visible shake and then nodded shortly. "And what about you, Potter?" he asked. "Do you think it was my Dark reputation that drove my wife away?"
"No," Harry said quietly. He had to hope that Malfoy's hearing, or magic, or whatever it was that gave him such faultless knowledge of the world, would tell him that Harry was telling the truth. "I didn't know that she'd left you, to be honest. I thought she was still living in the Manor."
Malfoy straightened and stood there as if Harry's words had been the equivalent of Hermione's rap on the head. Then he laughed. His laughter was low and taunting, but Harry simply waited, looking at him with one slightly arched eyebrow.
"You do live immured in your shop," Malfoy said, when he finished laughing. "I would have thought everyone would have heard about that years ago, when she proclaimed that I used enough Dark Arts to make her uncomfortable. There was an Auror investigation that your friend Weasley was involved in."
"I'm not in the Aurors," Harry said, with what he hoped was a sufficiently peaceful tone in his voice. "And even if Ron's job is exciting, the way he talks about it isn't. I generally try not to listen when he starts going on."
Malfoy laughed again, but he sounded more at ease than he had been since Ron first spoke to him. "Well. She left me. I'm sure you've noticed a reluctance on my part to mention her name." He gave Harry a mocking smile and spread his hands slightly, as though inviting him to look for weapons in his robes. Harry eyed the way his robes clung to his body and thought about other things that he'd like to look for. "Now, are you going to throw me out of your shop or accuse me of using Dark Arts?"
"No," Harry said. "You would have been stupid to come here if you used them. I have some snakes that can sense Dark magic and get upset in its presence. And since I can speak to snakes, I'd notice that. I'm sure that's something you researched before you ever ventured through the door."
Malfoy finally gave him a regular smile. "Someone who gives me credit for basic intelligence, how refreshing," he said, and clapped his hands as though he wanted to move them past the awkward moment. "I came to check on Orion."
Harry sighed and led Malfoy into the back of the shop. Orion was coiled on top of Isla's cage; he seemed to enjoy his mother's company, and she felt the same as long as Orion didn't demand too much of her attention. Harry reached out an arm, and Orion coiled up to his shoulder.
"I don't like the quality of your silence, Potter," Malfoy said, in a voice that was almost bright.
Harry turned to face him. He realized, with a small start, that he wasn't looking forwards to the disappointment on that pointy face. He wanted to convince Malfoy and give him what he'd asked for as a matter of professional pride, but, as Gregor would say, Harry knew that his own smell indicated more than that. Orion, in fact, flicked out his tongue towards him and cocked his head as if puzzled.
"He hasn't spoken yet," Harry said. "He's intelligent, probably the most intelligent snake I've ever bred, but he doesn't talk in either English or Parseltongue. I wonder if I went too far when trying to breed a special snake of your son and bred him without speaking ability at all. He is the right color, and the right size, but he may not be everything you wanted."
Malfoy remained still for some moments, his eyes fixed on Orion. Orion lifted his head and turned it in Malfoy's direction. Harry held his breath, wondering if he would react with excitement, since he had described the way Malfoy looked to Orion several times. Instead, Orion simply dropped his head to rest on his coils and shifted a few of them so that his eyes were more or less covered.
In the silence, Harry heard the noise like snakes singing again. He gave Malfoy a sideways look and started to ask what it was, but Malfoy spoke before he could finish the question.
"I can feel the magic in him from here," Malfoy murmured. He took a step forwards and brought two fingers down near Orion's tail, stroking. Orion shifted, but said nothing. Of course not, Harry thought, with a stifled sigh. "Whatever happened, Potter, I don't think you failed. Describe to me the procedure you used."
"I can't describe all of it," Harry said, and looked around for Gregor. He was asleep on the nest of phoenix feathers, which Isla had abandoned after laying her eggs, and the way his tail stiffened and shook told Harry that it wouldn't be worth the bite he would get to disturb him. "I wasn't the main impetus behind it. But I know that I was concentrating on loyalty, intelligence, and speech. And a snake that would be a perfect companion," he added. He watched Orion out of the corner of his eye, but the snake remained still and silent. Harry stifled a growl of frustration. A snake who calmly accepted anyone's touch hadn't been the goal of his breeding program, either. Most of the people he sold to liked their pets to have a bit of discrimination. "So far, the only thing I'm sure about is the intelligence. He hasn't demonstrated any of the other virtues."
Orion shifted in his sleep, but didn't rear up indignantly the way Harry thought he would have if he understood English. I wish he would, Harry thought. That would at least prove to me that he cares about something.
"What was the strongest consideration to you?" Malfoy let his hand drop away from Orion, and rested it on Harry's shoulder instead. Harry caught his breath. Malfoy didn't seem to notice, but slid his fingers along Harry's shirt until he encountered skin. Harry half-closed his eyes, trying to imagine what his warmth and shifting muscle must feel like to Malfoy, and then snapped them open again as Malfoy went on speaking. "To breed a perfect companion? To breed a loyal one? To breed a speaking snake?"
"Definitely the first," Harry whispered. He knew his voice sounded soft and dazed, but Malfoy didn't seem disposed to take offense and Harry didn't think he could help it. The history between him and Malfoy, the fact that they hadn't touched but only spoken for the past few months, the curiosity Harry felt about him…those only seemed to make this moment of mutual exchange and contact more intense. "Oh, yes," he breathed as Malfoy's fingers slid again, this time towards the bend of his elbow.
"Pardon?" Malfoy's smooth, polished tone could not quite overcome a subdued smile.
"I said," Harry murmured, "that I wanted to breed the perfect companion."
Malfoy nodded thoughtfully and pulled his hand back. Harry swallowed. His disappointment was the closest thing he had felt to heartache in years. "Well, then," Malfoy said, "I'm not shocked that you have these results. It looks like I'll have to ruin the surprise a bit early and bring Scorpius in."
Once he managed to focus on what Malfoy was saying and not on those pale fingers only a few inches from his arm, Harry felt like an idiot for not seeing it before. "You don't think he's reacting because his perfect companion's not around?" he asked.
Malfoy nodded. "If he's as loyal to Scorpius as you meant to have him, then he has no reason to feel interest in you or me."
Harry tried to put all his ruefulness into his voice. "I hope that that doesn't make me seem utterly stupid."
"Not at all. I didn't think about the consequences of asking you to create a perfect companion, either." Malfoy went on from that handsome admission before Harry could ask him who the expert magical snake-breeder supposedly was in this room. "Would it be agreeable to you for me to bring Scorpius by in a day or two?"
"Better make it two," Harry said. "I have a client coming tomorrow who has connections to the Wizengamot."
Malfoy sneered suddenly. Harry blinked, because the sneer had literally appeared out of nowhere, like a copperhead snake appearing out of the leaves scattered on a forest floor. "And you don't want your reputation tainted in their eyes because you deal with tainted clients," he said in a clipped tone. "I understand."
Harry sighed. "Why can't you trust me?" The words were probably stupid, he thought when he saw the way Malfoy looked at him, but he pushed on anyway. "The reason I don't want you here is that he might insult you, too, and I think you've already suffered enough insults simply because you're divorced and blind."
Malfoy remained still for long moments. Harry had thought his face expressive before, but now he'd shut his features down the way he had sometimes done in school, and Harry had no idea what he was feeling. He kept himself from shifting by reminding himself that this had to be infinitely more difficult for Malfoy than it was for him.
Then Malfoy murmured, "I have not had anyone look out for my interests that way in—a long time. Unless I was paying them."
Harry coughed. Now that he had what he wanted, some kind of acknowledgment from Malfoy, he wondered at his own impulse to deny it. "Well, you're paying me, too," he said. "I don't really have any right to ask for extra trust from you."
"I haven't paid you yet." Malfoy seemed to consider that an important distinction. He reached out and put one hand on Harry's shoulder again, this time seeming careful to only touch cloth. He stared at Harry's face, and it didn't matter that his eyes couldn't see. The stare felt hard anyway, and Harry's heart beat faster and faster under that gaze.
"Yes," Malfoy said at last. It was an answer to a question, Harry thought, but so many unasked questions hovered between them that he wasn't sure which one. "I will bring Scorpius in two days, and we shall see if Orion takes to him." He cast an amused glance, or at least one that looked amused, in Orion's direction. Orion refused to stir.
Malfoy walked towards the door and paused in the frame without looking over his shoulder. Harry wondered if that was significant or not, especially given the weighty pauses in his voice. "And perhaps I shall tell you some things about myself, Potter, when I return. Or perhaps not."
"Either's fine," Harry said. "It should be your choice. I just wanted to make sure that you knew I wasn't deliberately insulting you."
"I never would have come here if I suspected that," Malfoy said. "I did do my research before I chose your shop."
He left before Harry could point out that he had assumed a deliberate insult anyway when Harry spoke about the Wizengamot.
But maybe that mattered less than he thought it did, Harry thought as he stroked Orion, and wasn't a sign of distrust so much as how complex a man Malfoy still was: strong in himself, and straining to cope with the fact that others would inevitably see him as weak.
"I really am sorry, mate," Ron muttered through the fire. He rubbed the back of his head as if he could still feel the sting where Hermione had slapped him. "I just saw him, and it's true that we couldn't find evidence he used Dark Arts, but it sounded as if he did, and the way he smiled at us during that case when we had to let him go—"
"You're doing it again, Ron," Harry said sharply, at the same moment as an inaudible call came from another room of the house.
Ron sighed and dropped his head into his hands. "Sorry," he muttered. "Yeah, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have let my frustration at him take over when we were in a completely neutral setting."
"No, you shouldn't have," Harry said, and decided to be satisfied with that. Ron had a bad habit of self-justification, and the Auror job hadn't helped it, since so often he was dealing with people who were the "bad guys" while he got to be on the side of "truth and righteousness." Harry smiled, said, "Good night," and started to close the Floo connection. He wanted to go over the book of Orion's lineage with Gregor one more time and make absolutely sure that he wasn't missing anything.
"Wait!" Ron flung out a hand. "Don't you want to hear the story of Malfoy's wife and why she accused him of using Dark Arts? Just to show you that I wasn't making my suspicions up."
Harry didn't have to hesitate. His curiosity was overwhelming, but he wanted Malfoy to tell him, if he ever chose to. Trying to learn about the story now, from Ron or newspapers, would feel too much like sneaking around behind his back.
"No," Harry said, and had to smile again at the expression that took over Ron's face.
"But it's an interesting story," Ron said, leaning forwards.
"I'm sure. I have work to do. And so do you," Harry added, because leaning back had brought into view the enormous teetering pile of paperwork on the desk in Ron's study. "Let's spend the evening doing that."
Sounding baffled, Ron told him good night. Harry stood up, shaking his head, and went to fetch Gregor where he curled on a heated cushion. Gregor yawned and twined up Harry's arm with good grace; he enjoyed the special trips to Harry's home, since he was the only snake who ever visited it.
Before we begin, he said, brushing the scales around his neck against Harry's cheek, you should know that I am perfectly right and that I would have noticed if anything was profoundly wrong with Orion.
I accept that as true, Harry said solemnly, and Gregor curled his body into the first messy rune on the table with some delight.
Harry had expected Scorpius Malfoy to look like his father. He had not expected him—even knowing that he was eight years old, Rose's age—to be so boyish.
The moment Malfoy escorted him into Harry's shop, keeping a light pressure on his shoulder so that he wouldn't wander off, Scorpius tilted his head back, stared at the cages, let his eyes grow wide, and blurted, "This is wonderful!"
Harry smiled in spite of himself. He had been prepared to act cool and distant if that was what Malfoy wanted, but coolness and distance couldn't endure around Scorpius. Harry found himself feeling confident, suddenly, that Scorpius had had a very different childhood from the one his father had—and also that Lucius hadn't had much part in raising him.
Scorpius spun in circles, his jaw hanging on his chest as he mumbled the names of the animals in the cages. "Mice, rats, dragonflies, scorpions!" He would have bounced over to the scorpion cage, but his father's hand on his shoulder lightly restrained him. Scorpius gave an uncontrolled wriggle of delight and turned to Harry. "Please, Mr. Potter, can I look at them? Can I, can I?"
"All right," Harry said, ignoring Malfoy's shocked glare. He'd had the scorpions' stingers removed so that they couldn't attack his snakes. "But there's someone who's been waiting to meet you, first." He turned and called into the back of the shop in Parseltongue, Orion, I think you'll find this interesting.
Orion slithered out. He was a polite snake, even an obedient one; that wasn't one of the problems Harry had ever had with him. Harry had thought inbred courtesy was a good thing when his companion would be a Malfoy, though on seeing Scorpius he wondered if it was absolutely necessary after all.
But then Orion lifted his head, and Scorpius's face became transfixed with joy, and everything changed.
Orion shot forwards like a little brother who'd seen the big brother he loved come in through the door. He coiled up Scorpius's leg and, from there, easily lifted his head so that it was level with Scorpius's face. Harry heard Malfoy catch his breath, and thought he understood. It was easy to underestimate Orion's size when you were looking at him from a distance rather than in contrast to someone or something else.
"Hello," Orion said. "You're the one I was waiting for. Everyone else kept urging me to talk, but they didn't understand. I only talk when I have something to say and someone to say it to." He laid his jaw along Scorpius's face.
"You can always talk to me," Scorpius said, his eyes so wide that Harry thought they would fall out of his head. "I promise. I might not have interesting things to say, but there's plenty." He laid one hand gingerly on the dome of Orion's skull, as if he didn't know whether he was supposed to touch him there.
"Good," Orion said. "I have a lot of silence to make up for." He nudged his head hard against Scorpius's fingers. "And I don't appreciate people with limp hands. You have a lot of petting to make up for."
Scorpius laughed and began scratching Orion. Harry closed his eyes, partially to give them privacy and partially in relief. His experiment really had worked this time.
Malfoy stepped up beside him and cleared his throat. Harry knew him without looking. He turned his head and smiled.
Malfoy held out a large bag of Galleons. "As we agreed upon," he said.
Harry nodded and accepted them, then glanced over Malfoy's shoulder. Scorpius and Orion were completely involved in each other and didn't seem as if they would notice the ceiling collapsing on them. Harry turned back to Malfoy. "Would you answer a question for me, please?"
"Astoria divorced me because I wasn't raising Scorpius in a way she thought was right," Malfoy said at once. His voice was calm and flat, though Harry could hear the echoes of bitterness in it. "I let him have freedom, and make mistakes, and I didn't insist that he learn more manners than children usually have. On the other hand, exposing a family quarrel like that to the press was also against Astoria's principles, and so she made up the story about Dark Arts."
Harry let out a quiet breath. "That wasn't the question I was going to ask," he said, "though I'm glad you trusted me enough to tell me. I didn't want to hear about it from anyone else." He continued, because he didn't know what the fragile surprise on Malfoy's face would turn into. "I want to know what that sound like snakes singing when you're very still is. If you don't mind telling me. Um."
Malfoy spent a few moments pondering in silence. Harry waited and tried his best not to feel awkward. It would have been stupid to avoid asking the question altogether, the same way it would have been stupid to pretend Malfoy wasn't blind. At the very least, he could apologize if he offended Malfoy, and Malfoy didn't have to tell him.
Then Malfoy smiled, and Harry felt as if light had poured into the room.
"You are the first one to notice it on such short exposure," Malfoy whispered. "Even Astoria didn't notice it until after we were married. It's the device that lets me—compensate." His mouth tightened, and Harry bowed his head, understanding then how difficult it must be for him to talk about. "It sends out short, high pulses of sound, and bounces the echoes back to me, telling me the size, shape, and direction of objects. It also tells me some more general details, such as how much magic they shed. The bones of my skull had to be altered to interpret the sounds. But though it is not like having eyes, it does aid me in navigating the world."
"I never would have thought of that," Harry said, delighted the way he was when he discovered a new breed of snake.
Malfoy tilted his head so that his hair fell in his eyes. "And you are not disgusted? Others have been."
"Are you disgusted by Parseltongue?" Harry asked.
"But that was inborn."
"It's still a part of me that other people don't have and don't know what it's like to have," Harry said. "I'm not saying it's the same as your magic—that would be presumptuous. I'm not blind, and I don't know exactly what it's like for you. But that question is the same one I have to ask people who are using the shop for the first time."
Malfoy said nothing. Then he whispered, "The device tells me general details, but not specifics. Will you let me touch your face?"
"Of course," Harry said. He hoped that Malfoy could hear him, because his throat was so choked he didn't know if the words had got out.
Malfoy reached out and trailed his fingers gently down Harry's face, along the corners of his eyes. He lingered in the curve of Harry's cheek and in the dip under his nose, then used both hands at once, apparently because he wanted to feel both sides of Harry's mouth. Harry stood still, tingles racing over his skin.
When Malfoy reached Harry's chin, he cupped it and said, "I think I would like to see you again, though I no longer have the excuse of Scorpius and Orion to come here."
Harry nodded. He was tempted to make the joke that Orion would always need care and feeding, but that might anger Malfoy by seeming as if he was trying to distance himself. Harry didn't really know all that much about Malfoy, he realized suddenly, despite the things he'd just learned and the comfort he'd come to feel around him during his visits.
"Good." Malfoy took his hand away then and turned his back on Harry, calling to Scorpius. Harry watched him preparing to leave with a sense of deep contentment, tinged with uncertainty and anticipation.
He didn't know all that much about Malfoy, true, and who knew if this fledgling attraction would ever work out? Who knew if Harry could even strike the balance between sympathy for Malfoy and pity that would enrage him (and rightly so)? He knew so little. He had to learn.
But he was confident he could learn. He wouldn't lean back on a static certainty and brood there.
And that meant, right now, that he had enough for contentment.