Thank you again for all the reviews! This is the end of the story. I appreciate you reading along with me.
"This is so hard."
Harry smiled at his friends and waited on the opposite side of the room from them. Draco had handed them a bedroom in a separate wing from Harry's straight off, and while Hermione had stared at him and Ron had fidgeted, Harry knew Draco meant the offer. The house was so big that Draco didn't mind giving up a particular room if it meant that he wouldn't have to see Hermione and Ron much while they stayed here.
That didn't mean he was very generous. But Draco wouldn't mind it if they interpreted it that way, either.
"I don't know what to say to you," Hermione went on whispering, looking down between her knees, where her hands were twisting, as if they were moving without her permission.
"That's a world record," Harry mocked her gently. He let the breath whisper-hiss between his fangs, and Ron looked up with wide eyes. He flushed when he caught Harry watching him, and looked down again, running his fingers over his own hands. Feeling the smooth skin, Harry thought, reassuring himself that he didn't have scales there, and the way Harry looked wasn't catching.
It's not, and neither is the way that Draco looks at me. Thank goodness. I don't think I'd like having to share him.
Harry strangled the impulse to ask Ron and Hermione if they'd thought about it like that, and then stopped. They were still his friends, and they were trying to figure out how to talk to him. They hadn't said thanks for the rescue and then bolted. They were still here, in the house of a man they had good reason to despise.
Harry had changed his mind, had ventured near Draco in something that at least felt perilously like love, but he couldn't expect them to have come with him. So he waited, and Ron was the one who plucked up his courage first, snake-disease or no snake-disease.
"It's just that we never thought this would happen," Ron said, and his fingers rubbed up and down, up and down, on the back of his hand. "I mean, that we would find ourselves in debt to Malfoy. And to you."
Harry inclined his head. "All right. But now you know that you are. I understand your discomfort. It's the same kind of discomfort I felt with Draco at first, when I didn't know why he would have rescued me and I expected it to turn out to be a joke at any point. But you don't have to live with him if you don't want to, except for the way he's in my life. The question is whether you can live with me."
Hermione stood up and reached towards him at once. Harry held out his hands in return, spreading his fingers so that she could see his palms. He hadn't exaggerated the features that were naturally there now, but he hadn't hidden them, either. She could make out the stubby nails, the way that the scales glowed on his palms, the slight scratches and stretches of black and gold that made their own ripples into the backs of his wrists.
Hermione swallowed, and held on. Beside her, Ron reached out, and after a shudder that Harry understood and even honored in his own way, he laid his hand down over Harry's and kept it there.
"Yes, we can live with you," Hermione said softly. "You're not mad, not yet. You're doing better than any other Parselmouth I could find research on has done. You haven't tortured anyone. You haven't decided that you should rule the world, the way that Voldemort did. And the changes that you make to yourself should be ones that we can live with, as long as you're happy."
"I am very happy," Harry said, and smiled at them. "As long as you're safe, and my friends."
Ron nodded. His eyes were hard, but Harry no longer thought that hardness directed towards him, or even Draco. It was the Ministry who ought to watch out, he thought. They had turned Harry against them with the way they treated him and his friends, and now it looked like they had achieved the same thing with Ron.
"Do you have any idea what I felt when I saw it was Unspeakables holding us prisoner?" Ron whispered. "The bastards. All the times we've handed Dark artifacts over to them because the Ministry promised us that those things were safe with them. They were the ones who asked us what we knew about Parseltongue, and treated us like—like freaks."
Hermione darted a quick glance at him. "And it would have been wrong for anyone to be treated like that," she said. "Not just us."
Ron sucked in a quick breath and glanced at Harry out of the corner of his eye. "Of course that's what I meant," he half-babbled, sounding mortified. "Mate, I didn't mean that what they did to you in St. Mungo's was justified. Of course not. Sorry."
Harry nodded, but he found that he couldn't smile as he met Ron's eyes. "And do you still think that it's your duty to escort me back to St. Mungo's and hope they find some way to cure me? Or can you leave me free and trust that I'm living my life in the way I want to, the way that makes sense to me?"
Ron cleared his throat several times. Harry waited, and wished that the floor didn't seem so fragile, or perhaps that his friends didn't know his expressions so well. No matter what Ron said—and he had to be honest, or this was the end—Harry wouldn't be able to hide his reaction from them.
"I think," Ron said at last, and every word seemed to scrape at his throat, "that it's your right to live the way you bloody well choose to."
Harry smiled at him, and saw the way Ron blinked before he beamed back at him. Had they really diverged that much? Harry thought, as he hugged his best friend hard enough to make his fangs pop out a little more. Become so different that it would surprise one of them when the other approved of something they did?
But that wasn't exactly fair, either. Because in this case, he had thought the same way Ron did, at first. He had been convinced that the best thing he could do was die quickly, and stop bothering other people. It was really Draco who had taught him differently, and it was one of Draco's lessons he was passing on to Ron.
He could have told Ron that, but he decided to keep quiet for now. There was no point in causing needless conflict, either. He caught Hermione's eye and thought she was biting her lip for the same reason, that she might have said something to him for the same reason.
Then he stepped back, and looked both of them in the face. "What are you going to do now? If the Ministry suspects your involvement, it could be unsafe for you to go back to your jobs. And the Unspeakables would tell them soon enough."
"I'll be carrying my case through the papers," Hermione said, her face pale but her tone the kind of determined that you could build dreams on. "Because I saw other things in there that the Unspeakables didn't mean to reveal to me, and they convinced me that we've been wrong to entrust as much Dark Arts knowledge to the Department of Mysteries as we did. If Dark Arts are dangerous, then they're dangerous for everyone, and they need to start screening the Ministry people who deal with it better, too."
Harry smiled at her, and then turned to Ron and waited.
Ron gave him a half-shrug, and smiled. "I don't think I can go back to just being an Auror," he said lightly. "Do you think Malfoy might let us stay here for a while, until we decide how much danger we're in and what we want to do next?"
Harry smiled at both of them. "Draco would be delighted. Not because of you," he had to hasten to add, "but because it's something else that he can do for me."
Hermione shook her head, her eyes bright in a way that Harry couldn't read. "I'll probably never understand the two of you."
"I made the choice that enabled me to live," Harry pointed out gently. "In the end, that's really the secret, the only one there is."
Hermione kissed him on the cheek and talked about other things. Harry listened in silent contentment. He had no doubt that Draco's answer would be what he had said it was. Draco had given up these rooms to them easily enough, after all. And he probably wanted a chance to pick Hermione's brain about what she had seen among the Unspeakables.
They might never understand what he and Draco had, but Harry had his friends back. And they had chosen him instead of the Ministry when pushed into a corner. They'd chosen friendship with him over the mindless rule of law or the blind service of principles.
"I hardly dare open it."
Draco glanced up. He had been aware that an owl had swooped in through the window that morning with a letter for Harry, but he hadn't paid much attention, engrossed in his own letter to Skeeter hinting at what had happened among the Unspeakables and his letter to Blaise lying out the bare legal details of Harry's case. Harry was staring at the letter with such an expression of dread, though, that Draco stood and moved around the table, behind Harry's chair, so he could see the seal.
He laughed when he made out the Gringotts symbol. "Why fear?" he asked, and squeezed Harry's shoulder. "They've taken all your vaults. And if they tried to freeze mine, they would find various blackmail secrets popping into the light of day."
Harry blinked at him. "You can blackmail goblins?"
Draco smiled. "Oh, yes. And you would be surprised what the little buggers get up to when there are no humans around to make sure that they behave themselves."
Harry opened his mouth as if tempted to ask, then shut his mouth again and ripped open the thick, cream-colored envelope instead. Draco stroked his shoulder in private praise, leaning over him to read the letter.
It was simple enough, and there was really no reason for Harry to sit there with it in his hands for as long as he did, reading the simple paragraph over and over again.
"But I don't get it," he whispered at last.
"What is there to understand?" Draco was feeling a bit bored, he had to admit, and had begun to yawn already. He leaned over Harry's shoulder and flicked the paper with a finger. "They're restoring access to your vaults, and apologizing for having taken them over in the first place. Just the way they should."
"But why?" Harry twisted to look up at him. "We didn't do anything that would make the goblins think better of us!"
Draco smiled, slowly. "Do you think that the goblins never unearth or want to keep Dark artifacts? Do you think the Unspeakables never took anything from them? Perhaps even lives? They want to study everything, after all. Or they wanted to," Draco added. Pansy said that the magic they had left behind had rendered the place unusable, and Draco trusted her.
"So this is a thank you?" Harry's fingers curled around the edges of the letter as though he thought it would vanish.
"Yes," Draco said. "A goblin hates being in debt more than anything else. A thank you." He touched the edge of the letter and met Harry's eyes. "And a promise that they've paid the debt in full now, and that they don't owe you anything else."
"I never thought they owed me anything in the first place." Harry stared at the seal again.
"But they did." Draco shrugged and stepped away, shaking his head. "That's the truth, Harry," he added, when Harry seemed to struggle with it. "What, did you think they would ask your permission before doing something like this?"
Harry smiled and spent a moment looking at the letter. "It wasn't that," he said. "I just told you, I didn't think in terms of a debt owed, and it's a little startling to find out that they do." He smoothed the letter once, and laid it down, and turned around to look up at Draco with a shining coming from deep in his eyes.
"That means that I can start paying you some kind of rent for living here, anyway," he said. "Thank you."
Draco opened his mouth to point out that someone in this room was thinking of debts owed and it wasn't him or the goblins, but Harry moved before he could speak, and when Draco found his mouth full of a warm tongue and a warm taste, he thought he could wait to talk about things like debts.
Harry paused on the stairs. He had been about to walk into the dining room where he and Draco ate breakfast every morning, but he had heard painfully polite voices in there. Well, one painfully polite voice, anyway. Hermione's.
And from the sound of it, Harry didn't think she was trying to bargain for a house-elf's freedom. He leaned on the banister and listened.
"It was obvious, really," Hermione said. Harry heard a clink that was probably her toying with a teacup, and grinned. She only did that when she was nervous. He wondered if Draco would pick up on that. Probably, since he could read Gryffindors, and even half-snake Gryffindors, easily, it seemed. "Once I saw how the proportion of the corridors fit together, I knew they had to be storing the Department of Mysteries inside folded wizardspace."
"Noticing that kind of thing as someone was dragging me through corridors and breathing threats in my face isn't something I could do," Draco said thoughtfully. Harry heard the clink as he put his own cup down.
"But it was obvious," Hermione said, sounding the way she did when Ron refused to read the improving books that she picked out for him. "What else would you think when you saw the lintels bulging overhead like that?"
"That I'd hit my head," Draco said. "Or that my captives' tender mercies had done for my sense of sight."
Harry stifled a snicker into his hand. That was Draco at his most open, reaching after knowledge and at the same time offering whatever sympathy was necessary to keep someone talking. He doubted if Hermione recognized the manner, but then, if she didn't, that wasn't really her fault.
Silence, and then Hermione said, "You didn't invite me here to trade magical theory."
"I don't recall inviting you at all," Draco said, his voice peaking with genuine astonishment. "You needed somewhere to stay after your ordeal with the Ministry, and Harry asked. So I said yes."
More silence. Harry wished that he dared shift nearer to make out the expressions on their faces, but they would shut up in an instant if they heard him moving, or at least Hermione would, and that would cut off the conversation.
The white serpent's face materialized in front of his eyes, hanging upside-down from his head. Remember that you are a Parselmouth.
Harry flushed and nodded, and clasped his hands, closing his eyes. Images flashed behind his magic, and weight gathered on his wrist. When he opened his eyes and looked, a golden snake hung there with his head on the back of Harry's hand, his body slender as a thread. He touched his tongue to the knuckles of Harry's fingers and slithered over his arm, dropping to the floor. Harry swallowed and tracked the snake's progress with his eyes as he made his way over the parquet floor to the dining room. He doubted that even Draco would see him, since he was a new snake, or that he would give Harry away if he did.
You still haven't given me a name, the white serpent said, his tongue lighter than a wisp of air on Harry's ear. Even though you promised that you would.
Harry closed his eyes, and not only because that let him concentrate on the sight impressions he was receiving through the golden serpent. Hermione leaned forwards over the table, her hands loosely clasped in front of her, her eyes on Draco so incredulous that she looked almost offended. Draco looked back at her, and sipped his tea, and appeared mysterious.
I know your name, Harry whispered.
Then tell me, the white serpent whispered back, and the silence echoed in and around Harry, in the dining room where the golden snake lay and looked at Hermione waiting and Draco sipping his tea and still not saying anything, and in the world behind his eyelids.
Memory, Harry said.
Ahhh. The snake drew out the word until Harry wondered what it would sound like to someone who couldn't speak Parseltongue and was therefore hearing the hiss and not the words the hisses represented. Yes. I can live with that name. You would have done better to give it to me long since, he added, and his words trailed off into an annoyed pout at the end.
Harry caressed his scales where they became thin and delicate towards the back of his neck, and said, I had to wait until I knew you better. That was the only way that I could know your name.
What Memory would have said, he didn't know, because Hermione started to speak again. "You really would do anything for Harry, wouldn't you?" she whispered. "You—I didn't think you helped him for anything but the chance to study a Parselmouth, but you talk about him as though you care about him."
Draco met her eyes and gave a little twist of a smile that Harry had never seen, or at least not since they became partners in this affair to bring Dark Arts to public notice. "Yes, I care about him. He's my lover, Granger, and we're in love."
Hermione leaned back, mouth open. Then she shut it, and there was a look in her face that made Harry relax all over, feeling as though someone had poured a handful of warm water on his muscles.
Hermione sought patterns until she found them, and then she had a way to fit actions and words that didn't make sense into them and reorder the world to her liking. She had found the pattern now, the one that made sense of Draco's actions for her and even excused, or explained, the fact that he had come to their rescue in the Department of Mysteries, Harry thought. She picked up her teacup and tilted it towards him. "You really do love him."
Draco bowed his head, his eyes merry. He didn't know Hermione as well, Harry thought, and didn't understand how big a revelation this was for her. Or else he merely found the habit of ordering knowledge this way silly.
I don't know why you should, when you like to come up with categories to organize your knowledge, Harry thought at him.
I quite agree, Memory said, and curved his head around to lay his chin under Harry's. The cold one is intelligent, and sympathetic, and a good provider, but he does make distinctions that make no sense sometimes.
Harry nodded, and then held out his hand to withdraw the golden snake from the dining room. Memory shifted next to him, though, in a way that Harry had never seen him do before when he had any other snake. Harry looked at him with raised eyebrows, and Memory spent a few lofty minutes pretending that he couldn't understand the meaning of that gesture before he flicked his tongue out again.
Keep this young one around, he said. He might be just what I need to keep you in line.
Wondering, Harry pulled the golden snake back to him and coiled him on his arm, and then went into the dining room. Hermione stopped talking to Draco at once and bolted up to hug him, but she didn't blush the way she would have if Harry had caught them in the middle of the conversation about him.
Harry looked at Draco, who pointedly glanced at the golden snake around his arm, and then winked at him. Harry smiled. He should have known that trying to fool Draco was pointless.
But he had learned not to mind.
"What are we going to do, though?"
Draco glanced up. Harry was in Blaise's office for the day, settling the outlines of the case against the Ministry that Blaise would pursue for him, and Pansy had just stepped into Draco's library and interrupted his reading. Draco laid the book aside and watched Pansy standing there, a vision in black velvet and golden keys.
"Continue promoting the Dark Arts," Draco said mildly. "Were you under the impression that the mere destruction of the Department of Mysteries was enough for me?"
Pansy shook her head and leaned forwards. Her hair drooped around her face, and Draco blinked, startled. He hadn't realized how badly she had taken this. He would have reassured her more if he had. "But what comes next? The Ministry will prosecute us for destroying the Department of Mysteries, and—"
She stopped, because Draco was laughing. Draco couldn't help it, and winced a little when she looked at him, but, well, there remained his inability to help it. "The Ministry prosecutes us for rescuing people it kidnapped," he said. "War heroes it kidnapped. And then for bringing down miles and miles of Department that wasn't supposed to exist. I've talked to Granger, and those corridors we went down were definitely not on the publically available plans. We destroyed property that they can't claim without revealing more secrets than we cost them."
"You're sure that they can't come up with some way to punish us for this?" Pansy pushed another wing of hair out of the way and peered at him.
Draco shrugged. "They'll try. But that's where politics comes in, and maneuvering, and thoughtful expressions of concern, and the lawsuit that Blaise is helping Harry put together—robbed of some of its teeth now that Gringotts has given him his vaults back, but not every fang. And wait until we get to the point where we can announce what we did, as a heroic rescue mission. The Ministry doesn't know what's going to hit it. And the public will eat up a story of star-crossed lovers and a friendship between Gryffindors and Slytherins."
Pansy sat up a little. "As long as I don't have to have much personal contact with them. The way that Granger tries to reform everybody she meets is creepy."
Draco smiled. "I've given them the White Wing. Miles from your guest room, dear."
Pansy started to respond, but the Floo whooshed, and Harry stepped out of it. Draco smiled at him. He had taught Harry the spell that would bring him automatically to the fireplace nearest where Draco was, which seemed a sensible precaution to both of them as long as the Ministry retained its stupidity.
"Parkinson," Harry said, and nodded to her, then crossed to Draco and bent down to kiss him. The kiss became interesting, and Draco heard Pansy quietly extracting herself from the room. He hoped that he had at least said enough to reassure her.
But if he hadn't, he would have a chance in the future. That was the wonderful thing about this: that they would have a future, that the Dark Arts would.
That Harry would.
Harry pulled away and flopped down on the couch at last, grinning. "Zabini thinks we have a case."
Draco nodded. "Then you do. I've never known Blaise to be wrong about that yet. What?" he added, because Harry was staring at Draco as if he hadn't provided the reassurance that Harry was looking for.
Harry opened and shut his mouth a few times, then said, "I'm no good at passionate declarations." He got off his couch and came towards Draco, dropping to a knee in front of him. Draco felt his breath come faster and his mouth dry out, and not just because Harry wore his fangs and his venom sacs at the moment, his eyes glittering green around dark abysses of pupils, and the scales bright on his throat and cheeks and crown.
"Thank you," Harry said, taking Draco's hands between his own. "I love you." And he bowed his head and scraped his fangs on Draco's hands, drawing small streams of blood, pumping the new poison into his bloodstream.
Draco closed his eyes. Sweetness, and chill, fading out already to almost antiseptic tingles.
"You should know I love you," he said, and turned his head, jostling Memory for position a moment, feeling Harry's scales beneath his cheek, feeling Harry kiss him with a forked tongue, feeling the incomparable dignity and delight that was being in love with a Parselmouth.