A/N: So…I have five hundred reviews. I mean, my story. Has. Five. Hundred. Reviews. Wow. I can't even…you know, I started writing this to see if there was anything defensible about a girl!Harry plotline, and I picked Alanna the Lioness to inspire me just because it's my favorite series. This story is so much bigger, more fulfilling, and more exciting than I ever thought it would be. Honestly, I can still remember dancing in circles around my room if a chapter was reviewed five times before I posted the next one, and I admit I still do a little dancing…for every single review I get. It's actually getting a bit ridiculous, as I spend more time dancing than writing, but I'm so, so grateful to every single person who's reviewed, even the ones who just stop in to tell me my premise is ridiculous—it makes me want to make the story better, so that one day everyone can read a gender-bender without feeling ashamed because all of them suck. So, now that I've rambled at you and melted at your feet in a puddle of gratitude, I'll shut up and let the story continue. But seriously, my heartfelt thanks.
(Now edited thanks to some very helpful reviews ^^ love you guys).
The Serpentine Subterfuge:
In classes the next day it was uncomfortably obvious that several students in their year hadn't returned from winter break. Two Ravenclaw boys and a Gryffindor girl called Lavender Brown had been pulled out of school by their parents. At lunch, Rigel looked around and realized that it must be the same in every year. The House tables were noticeably less full than they'd been before break, with the blatant exception of Slytherin House. Perhaps it was because of what she now knew about Riddle's—and by extension the SOW party's—connection to the petrifactions, but Rigel thought it rather telling that apparently none of the Slytherin parents were at all concerned about their children's well being. Judging by the suspicious looks coming from the other three Houses, Rigel was not the only one who thought so. She wondered if any of the parents knew what was really going on, but rather doubted it, considering how in-the-dark Lucius Malfoy, the second-in-command himself, had sounded when she'd overheard he and Riddle talking. Probably they had simply been told not to worry, and had taken Riddle at his word.
The professors seemed determined to pretend that nothing had changed. They skipped over the missing students' names as though they had never attended Hogwarts in the first place—Neville and Patil included. All of the professors did this, except one.
"Lavender? Where is Lavender?" Lockhart called out expectantly from his 'teaching platform' at the front of the classroom. "That's odd," he said, frowning cluelessly, "She always sits in the front row. Does anyone know if Lavender will be running late today?"
The Gryffindors exchanged rather uncomfortable looks, and Ron Weasley finally spoke up, "She's taken a leave of absence from school…Professor."
"Ooh," Lockhart smiled slyly and winked at them all conspiratorially, "A bit of personal time, eh? Well, I'm sure she'll be very beautiful when she comes back. Yes, very lovely indeed."
"She hasn't gone to a beauty retreat," Pavarti Patil said loudly, "She's hiding from the monster at home like a scared little girl."
"Lay off, Parvati," Ron said, "If she wants to stay home, well, maybe she's just being smart about it."
"She's being a coward, Ron," Patil hissed back, "My own sister got petrified and you don't see me running home with my tail between my legs. Some Gryffindor she turned out to—"
"Now, now, let's not have any confrontation," Lockhart said hastily, "What's all this, then? What monster? Don't tell me you all are afraid of a few petrifactions?" He waved a hand with an air of supreme unconcern while the class stared rather incredulously at him, "Your friends are going to be fine, children. Why, I am working closely with Professor Sprout to restore them even as we speak! So don't fret."
"As we speak? Who taught this numbskull English?" Draco muttered sourly.
"What was that?" Lockhart turned inquiring eyes toward their table, "Did someone have a question?"
"I have a question," Pansy said immediately.
"Yes, Pansy? What is your question?" Lockhart asked, clasping his hands together excitedly.
"What kind of a monster petrifies people?" Pansy said. Draco inhaled sharply and Theo glanced back from the table in front of them to give the blonde girl a surprised look.
"I'm sorry?" Lockhart said, chuckling a bit nervously.
"What sort of a monster petrifies people?" Pansy repeated her question slowly.
"Well, I'm not sure that's really under the purview of this class," Lockhart said, smiling widely at them, "More of a Care of Magical Creatures thing, don't you think?"
"Well, not really," Pansy said, a hint of steel in her prim voice, "Because a creature that petrifies students would be considered dangerous, and dangerous creatures are covered on the Defense Against the Dark Arts syllabus. If we'll eventually cover everything from redcaps to vampires, don't you think we should cover something that petrifies people as well?"
"Oh, I see what you mean now!" Lockhart clapped his hands, "Quite right, Pansy, but that's much more advanced than we are currently. More of an NEWT subject, I'd say."
"So you're teaching your NEWT students about monsters that petrify people, then?" Pavarti said, raising her dark eyebrows expectantly.
"Well, we haven't gotten to them quite yet," Lockhart said uneasily.
"Couldn't you just give us an overview of the different possibilities?" Pansy suggested, "You could make it really basic, so that we can keep up."
"Bit sardonic," Draco murmured to Pansy under his breath.
She took a deep breath and smiled sweetly, "Please, Professor Lockhart? We're just so nervous with everything going on. It would ease our nerves considerably if you would indulge us."
Pavarti seemed to catch on, "Yes, please, Professor? We could go look it up in books, but there's no substitution for real experience like yours."
Lockhart seemed utterly at a loss, "Well, I understand that you're worried…not that there's any need, with me here to protect you…but I don't know if I can deviate from the syllabus…"
"What syllabus?" Draco grumbled.
"Oh! I've got it! Yes, a marvelous idea, don't know why I didn't think of it before," Lockhart was suddenly very animated once more, "Students, you're in for a treat. I have decided, in light of recent events, to sponsor…a dueling club!"
Lockhart's dramatic pose would have fit right in with adoring applause…had there been any.
"Is he just going to ignore your question?" Millicent asked, a bit too loudly in the silence for Lockhart to ignore.
"No, don't you see? I will teach you all to duel in an extracurricular club, and then you won't have to worry about what's petrifying students. You'll be able to handle it!" He looked around at them all with an air of great satisfaction, "Yes, that's just the thing. Sign-ups will begin tomorrow."
After that he returned to the scheduled lecture on how phone booths could be an unexpected venue of ambush, and the class returned to doing whatever they usually did in Defense when listening to Lockhart started to melt their brains. Rigel took out a Healing textbook and Draco began working on a Transfiguration Essay while Pansy frowned into space, thinking.
After class, Pansy said, "Why do we have such useless Defense professors? Even with the curse we can't be this far into the bottom of the barrel."
"Don't worry about it, Pans," Draco said, "Rigel and I will help you pass your OWL's."
Pansy sighed, "Thank you, Draco."
Draco huffed a laugh, "Can you believe he suggested a dueling club? I mean, first of all he's supposed to be teaching us dueling anyway as a part of our regular Defense curriculum—treating it like an extracurricular activity? What a joke. And he can't really think dueling will save us from petrifaction, can he? No one is that stupid."
"Maybe it's all an act," Pansy said wistfully, "Maybe he really is semi-capable, and he acts like a brainless oaf to lull his enemies into a false sense of security."
"Or maybe he's the one petrifying people with his stupefying incompetence, and one day soon he'll look in the mirror and petrify himself, and they'll have to give us a new professor early," Draco said, also rather wistfully.
"Or maybe it's all an act and he's the one petrifying people," Rigel suggested.
Draco blinked, "Actually, that's probably it exactly. I mean, why else would it start this year? The Defense Professor is the only variable."
"Him and twenty-five first-years," Pansy said lightly.
Draco groaned, "If I get petrified by a first-year, you two had better not tell my parents."
"What should we say happened to you instead?" Rigel asked, amused.
"Anything else," Draco said, "Say I was mauled by a hippogriff or eaten by the giant squid."
"Mauled by a what?" Pansy laughed, "Draco, where do you come up with these things?"
That afternoon Rigel hurried to Lab One as soon as classes were finished. It was locked and warded when she got there, so she waited restlessly for about five minutes until Professor Snape arrived. He favored her with an amused look and took out his wand to begin undoing the protections.
"I didn't wait long," Rigel felt compelled to insist.
Snape snorted derisively and opened the door. The lab was as beautiful as Rigel remembered it being, all white countertops and glass cabinets. Unlike the last time she was here, there weren't several cauldrons set up around the horseshoe-like workstations. Instead, there was a single, gleaming cauldron in the center of the semi-circle, and an array of stirring rods and prep materials spread out on the counter next to it.
Rigel followed Snape into the large, well-lit room. As the Potions Master began unlocking cabinets and pulling out sheaves of fire-retardant parchment from drawers, Rigel approached the shining cauldron with something like awe. It was larger than most cauldrons she'd ever worked with, and looked like it would hold at least a dozen bottles within it. More amazing than that, however, was its material.
"Silver," she breathed, examining the cauldron with irrepressible interest.
Snape set a stack of parchment on the counter before her and inclined his head shortly, "Indeed. You've never worked with the material." It came out as a simple statement of fact, rather than a question or a supposition, and Rigel knew then that Snape knew about Remus' condition, but neither of them mentioned it.
"The potion we brew today is so complex that in past times it required an additional license for a potioneer to sell it in most magical communities," Snape began, choosing several parchments from the pile and handing them to her as he spoke, "Its use has largely died out in the past couple of decades, but it still poses a sizable challenge for most brewers to attempt. The recipe, as you can see, is multi-faceted. This is because the potion will not be uniform until the very end of the brewing process."
Rigel nodded in understanding. Sometimes you had to treat different ingredients in the same potion in different ways before adding them all together in the final step. She asked, "Why do we only have one cauldron, then?"
"Read steps four through fifteen," Snape said.
Rigel did, and her eyebrows rose, "How is that possible?" It looked like the recipe wanted them to treat the potion as layered, with the top half of the mixture an essentially different potion than the bottom half.
"The trick is in the linseed oil," Snape pointed with a long finger to the first three steps. There were two different bases used. The recipe said to pour the first base in, then add a layer of linseed oil carefully to the top of the mixture, before adding the second base on top of that. "The oil insulates both halves of the potion until the final stage, in which Amole is added to break down the linseed oil barrier and reunite the two halves. It cannot be done in separate cauldrons because the fusion must be instantaneous. Seconds lost in pouring one mixture into the other would ruin the potency of the entire potion."
"How will we add the ingredients it asks for to the bottom half of the mixture, then?" Rigel asked, "Won't everything we put in just end up as part of the top-mixture?"
Snape gestured toward a strange-looking apparatus on the counter-top next to the cauldron, "Do you know what this is?"
Rigel shook her head. It was just a clear, hollow tube about an inch wide that curved slightly at the bottom. There were runes engraved on the sides, but they were too specialized for Rigel to recognize most of them. She had seen them in apothecaries before, she thought, but had no idea what they were for.
"Observe," Snape said. He placed the tube vertically in the cauldron and Rigel saw that when it rested in the bottom of the cauldron the tube still came quite a few inches above the rim. Holding the tube flush against the edge of the silver metal, Snape murmured a phrase in Latin and Rigel watched as the tube seemed to flex and move slightly until the edges blurred and fused with the sides of the cauldron. After a moment Rigel could no longer tell where the tube ended and the cauldron began.
"And it doesn't damage the integrity of the cauldron?" Rigel asked.
"Not in the slightest," Snape said, deftly attaching a funnel to the top of the apparatus, "The spells embedded in the tube are extensive. Once activated, they ensure a one-way, pressurized passage through it, so that ingredients may be funneled into the bottom of the cauldron without letting the potion flow backwards up the tube."
"And with the Linseed oil acting as a barrier," Rigel said, "This lets us add ingredients to the two halves separately. Only…how will we stir the bottom half?"
Snape made a dismissive movement with his hand and said, "You will understand when we reach that stage, but rest assured that it will not be your responsibility."
"What will I be doing, then?" Rigel asked, "Some of the steps are a bit tight timing-wise, but it looks like you could easily brew this by yourself." Rigel was wondering if Snape actually needed her help assisting or if it was just a learning experience for her. Not that she'd be any less excited if it was just a learning experience.
"Normally I do," Snape said, "However…" He trailed off and gazed assessingly at her for a moment, as though wondering how much to say. "This potion is extremely draining on my magical reserves. Brewing one cauldron is taxing enough to reduce the secondary layer of my core by half. While this leaves me far from irresponsibly depleted, in these times I believe it…prudent to preserve the levels of my core when possible, in case there is an event in which they can be of significant use."
Rigel was taken aback, "You want me to imbue the potion, so you can keep your magic ready in case of an emergency?"
Snape said nothing, but inclined his head slightly.
"All right," Rigel said. It was really a good idea, and Rigel's respect for the Potions Master increased as she realized how much thought went into balancing his private projects with his responsibilities as a professor and Head of House. She glanced down at the recipe again, but there was no heading or title of any kind. "Sir, what is this potion?"
"This," Snape said, "Is Aconite Alleviation. It is—"
"The precursor to the Wolfsbane Potion," Rigel breathed, not entirely aware that she had interrupted Professor Snape. "This is what they used for centuries, isn't it? Before Damocles came up with the Wolfsbane alternative, though of course even that had significant drawbacks in the level of sanity it granted its drinker before Master Snape improved—" Rigel snapped her mouth shut as she came back to herself and glanced sheepishly up at Snape, ears a bit pink with embarrassment, "But you already know all of that, of course."
"Of course," Snape repeated with dry amusement, "Yes, Aconite Alleviation has many drawbacks, not the least of which is that over time the amount of aconite present within it slowly poisons the drinker's body. This makes the transformations on the full moon more difficult the longer the drinker lives, but it also builds up an unfortunate immunity to aconite's medicinal effects long-term. The result was that the more full moons a werewolf drinking Aconite Alleviation went through, the more painful and traumatic the transformations would become even under the influence of the potion. At the same time, the drinker grew weaker in body with every dose of aconite, and eventually they would become too weak to keep the beast at bay any longer. The majority of werewolves taking the Aconite Alleviation potion succumbed to their inner beast and either went wild or perished within the first ten years of having been bitten."
Rigel nodded, looking at the table. Remus always answered their questions about his conditions, if he could, and Rigel had asked him when she had first come across one of Snape's articles on Wolfsbane if Remus had ever taken Aconite Alleviation. Remus had grimaced, and said that Dumbledore had chosen to remove Remus from the grounds every full moon rather than subject him to that potion, whose ill-effects were well-known by the time Remus was in school.
"Still, it is not without its ingenuity," Snape said after a moment's pause, "This potion is the building block upon which Wolfsbane was able to be built. It is impossible to do further research on the Wolfsbane potion without beginning with the Aconite Alleviation, and because this potion is significantly less magically draining than Wolfsbane is, it is always more expedient to attempt revisions on it, rather than on the actual Wolfsbane potion. Wolfsbane is extremely similar to this potion in terms of brewing process and the majority of its ingredients, but it is considerably more volatile. A mistake with Aconite Alleviation will cost you in ingredients and magical output, but a mistake with Wolfsbane can cost you a limb."
Rigel nodded, but Snape fixed her with a look so serious that she stopped and just gazed up at him. He said, "You will never attempt to brew Wolfsbane on your own."
"Rigel Black," Snape said, staring her down in a way that was frankly starting to unnerve her, "You will never. Ever. Attempt to brew Wolfsbane potion without a Potions Master specifically licensed in its production. Do you understand?"
"I understand," Rigel said solemnly.
"Say it," Snape said, unimpressed by her comprehension, "Swear to me."
"I will never try and brew Wolfsbane without a licensed Master," Rigel said, then hesitated before adding reluctantly, "I swear."
"Good," Snape said, turning back to the cauldron, "Then we can begin. Fetch all of the ingredients listed, but do not open the container of aconite until I tell you to."
Rigel went to the cabinets to collect the ingredients, and her evenings brewing with Master Snape began in a whirl of chopping and shedding, dicing and splicing.
The next day Rigel spent the evening after Quidditch practice in the Library. Unlike her dormitory, the peace of the Library was fiercely preserved by its caretaker Madam Pince, so it was a perfect place for Rigel to practice her Occlumency without being distracted. Also, there were plenty of witnesses in the Library, so she didn't feel reckless in temporarily ignoring the physical world while she pruned her mental landscape.
The mountain was as cold as ever in her mind, and she shivered a bit in her mental avatar's lightweight potion robes, despite knowing that the chill she felt was, literally, all in her head.
Nothing had really changed much since Rigel had repaired her mental landscape in the wake of the Sleeping Sickness. There was still the decoy potions lab hidden in the mountain, which she was seriously considering modifying now that Snape knew it was a decoy—one could never be too careful. But that was not her task for today. Instead, she would be focusing on her outer barriers that night—the first layer of defense, and by far her weakest. She sighed at the thought of the lovely warm caverns just inside the fake mountain entrance, but turned resolutely toward the edges of her mental landscape.
All it looked like was grayish fog to Rigel's inexperienced eyes, but she had read book after book on the subject of mental defense and offense and all of them agreed that those mists were one of the most important tools at a wizard's mental disposal.
The mists were what kept other wizards from even entering the mind—theoretically, if your mists were strong enough, you wouldn't need any of the secondary protections Rigel had been relying on—illusions and labyrinths and other things meant to throw an intruder off balance. The mists did much more than even defense, though. They were also what allowed a wizard to project his mind into another's through Legilimency, which Rigel had yet to even begin to fully understand.
She knew that theoretically one could cast their mental energies outward just as they did their magical energy when connecting one magical core to another's. While connecting cores, like imbuing a potion, required the wizard to first extend his magical senses and then throw his magic out like a rope to whatever he wished to latch onto, however, connecting minds was different. To start with, mental energy was entirely different from magical energy, and Rigel still hadn't figured out how to manipulate hers. The clue was somewhere within the mists, but to Rigel they just felt like mist, not some sort of energy she could manipulate.
Another difficulty was the way in which minds connected. You couldn't just project your mental energies in a spike away from you, like you could with magic. Instead, the mental energies, once harnessed, had to be cast more like a net than a single rope. The idea was to encompass the foreign mind with your own mental energies, get a mental hold on it, and then attempt to infiltrate it.
All in all, Legilimency sounded rather disturbing, and Rigel was perfectly content to concentrate on the defense side of the mental arts for the time being.
Unfortunately, she really did have to get a handle on the whole mists thing. That was where her mental energies gathered, just like her sun was where her magical energy was collected and stored. She needed the mental energies to really defend her mind, since the most she could do with magic was to change the metaphysical structure and appearance of the place.
Mental energies were also very closely tied with auras. A person's aura, as Rigel now understood it, was created when their ambient magical energy mixed with their ambient mental energy around their body. The two energies mixed and sort of solidified one another into patterns depending on a hugely diverse number of factors—everything from what element a person's core sprang from to which magical gifts, if any, they were born with, and even how intelligent a person was could be told from the patterns their aura made when their mental and magical energies highlighted one another.
The tricky thing about auras was that they were multi-layered, ever-changing things. What you saw when you looked at someone would never be the same thing you saw when you looked again. Certain underlying features of a person's aura never changed, and those indicators—indicators of age, sex, strength of core, elemental affinity, health, etc—were the ones most often noted when a person 'read' someone's aura. Other elements, however, changed as often as a person took breath.
On the surface level, for instance, the aura always reflected the exact current state of a person's magic. Overall the depth and complexity of this pattern didn't change much once a wizard reached majority, but there were nuances within the pattern that could tell you what spell they were using—even before they'd uttered the words, if you could recognize it quick enough. The aura could reveal if a person was under the influence of a potion that affected either the mind or the magic in any way, and what's more, it could tell you if that potion was harming them or helping them.
At least, that's what Rigel had read. She had no idea if any of it was true, because she was unable to perceive auras. Completely. At all.
Apparently, in order to perceive auras one had to be able to understand and sense both magical and mental energies. Otherwise one would only get a headache trying to see auras. That last bit she hadn't read anywhere, but her personal experience on the matter was depressingly well developed.
Rigel stared bleakly into the fog. She supposed she should call herself Harry in her own head, but really, what was the point? She was as much Rigel as she was Harry anyway.
She paused, then shook her head.
No, that wasn't true. Why did she think that? The mists were making her depressed, she thought morosely, staring at them a bit harder.
Nope, still just swirly grey clouds.
She tried going into the mists, but that just made her cold, wet, and blind, and the closer she got to the edges of her mind the more her body tried to wake her from her meditative state, so she quickly backtracked and took to contemplating them fruitlessly for a while longer. Maybe if she sent her magic into it.
Rigel conjured up a ball of fire and flung it into the mists experimentally. She could feel it pass through them, with the weird not-awareness that had lingered at the back of her mind since she had first meditated her way onto her mental plane. She felt it ripple warmly through the mists before her and then…nothing. The energy was gone, absorbed by something she couldn't sense or understand.
She was about to try again with a bigger ball of fire when she was abruptly distracted by a ghost-like feeling from the physical world.
She turned her senses toward her physical awareness and felt someone's hand shaking her shoulder.
Giving up the Occlumency altogether as a bad job that night, Rigel obligingly returned to the real world, and opened her eyes.
Ginny Weasley was bending over her, one hand on Rigel's shoulder and the other holding her red hair out of her face as she peered into Rigel's.
"Oh, you're awake. Great!" Ginny smiled at her, and Rigel blinked uncertainly back at her.
"Yes?" she asked, subtly rolling her shoulders to both dislodge Ginny's hand and to stretch out muscles stiff from sitting in one attitude for so long.
"You were meditating, right?" Ginny set her bag down on the table with a heavy clunk and claimed the seat across from Rigel smoothly.
"Yes," Rigel said, wondering why Ginny had shaken her if she'd known what Rigel was doing.
"But you returned right away when I touched you," Ginny said, gazing at Rigel thoughtfully, "You could sense what was happening to you in the physical world?"
"Yes," Rigel said, feeling a bit repetitive. For variety's sake, she added, "It becomes second nature to discern between magical, mental, and physical after a while. Your senses sort of get used to the feeling of juggling."
Ginny's face was curiously blank, so Rigel couldn't tell if her words meant anything at all to the other girl until she said, "Huh. So I just concentrate on my physical senses and I should be able to tell what's going on while I'm out?"
Rigel thought that was an interesting choice of words—it wasn't actually like going unconscious, more like going to a slightly separated plan of consciousness, after all, but merely said, "To an extent, yes. It might take a little practice, but you seem to be a natural at the mental arts, so I'm sure you won't have much trouble once you focus on it."
"Yeah," Ginny said vaguely, "Hey, will you do me a favor?"
Rigel tilted her head inquiringly.
"I want to try what you said—to try being aware of my body while I'm meditating. Will you watch it for me while I go under for a sec?" Ginny asked.
Rigel was surprised at the request, but couldn't see a reason to refuse, "Of course."
"Thanks," Ginny said, settling back into her chair and closing her eyes, "Just make sure nothing weird happens."
Rigel wasn't sure what Ginny meant by that, but perhaps she was only concerned for her virtue. She could understand how it would be worrying for a young female to leave her body unattended in a co-ed school. At least, it was probably worrying if people knew your body was that of a young female. Rigel had almost forgotten she was a girl at times, until the bleeding thing that had yet to stop came up.
Ginny's form relaxed as she slowly slipped into the reaches of deep, easy meditation. Rigel noticed that it took Ginny about three times as long as it did for Rigel to completely sink into the trance-like state, and even then she would twitch every now and again, as though her body was still trying half-heartedly to wake her up.
Rigel sat bored for a few minutes while Ginny did absolutely nothing of interest. After Rigel had taken in the dark shadows under Ginny's eyes and the faint lines of tension about her mouth a few times she decided it would be rude to stare any longer and instead cast her gaze about for something else to interest her.
Ginny's book bag caught her eye, slightly open from where she had dropped it with little concern on the table, and Rigel leaned forward a bit to peek at the book titles packed within the small, worn bag. Maybe there was something she'd read before, or better yet, something she hadn't read before.
The first two titles she could make out were the usual first-year textbooks. The third book was a small, leather-bound journal she recognized as one of the twins'—her esteem for Ginny rose ever so slightly at the evidence that she was at least not so afraid of Fred and George as her brother Ron was—but the fourth book…Rigel squinted at it. It looked like a book on magical maladies of the mind. She was sure she'd seen the same one in Archie's collection, but she hadn't known that Ginny was interested in Healing as well.
A small sound drew her attention from the spines of Ginny's books and Rigel turned to look at Ginny, assuming she was waking up.
Ginny's right arm was twitching back and forth in her lap, her wrist raising just enough to smack against the table every now and again with a distinctive slap of skin on wood. Rigel reached across to quell the movement, but as soon as Rigel's hand touched Ginny's arm Ginny jerked her body backwards in a stiff, clumsy movement to lean out of Rigel's reach.
Ginny's eyes snapped open, wide and dark, glaring at her with such venom that Rigel faltered, "Sorry, I just…I didn't want you to hurt yourself."
Ginny didn't answer. Her left hand jerked sideways and back toward her robe pocket, but the next moment she was gasping for air and her eyes had squeezed tight once more.
"Ginny, are you all right?" Rigel asked, concerned. She didn't think she'd ever done something like that while meditating. Surely someone would have mentioned it.
"Fine," Ginny said, breathing deeply in a way that people only did when they were not fine, but trying admirably to appear so, "Just having trouble controlling my physical movements from the mental realm. Trickier than I thought."
Rigel slowly relaxed back into her seat, "It is easier to start with just trying to perceive the physical world, rather than jumping straight to affecting it."
Ginny shrugged, "Couldn't feel it that well, but I'm pretty sure I moved my arm, right?"
"Yes," Rigel offered hesitantly, "You moved your right arm quite a bit, and your left one just slightly at the end there."
"My left…" Ginny frowned a bit, "I see. Thank you."
Rigel nodded, and was considering making an excuse to leave when Ginny spoke again, "Hey, can I ask you something?"
"Of course," Rigel said, wondering what could make the youngest Weasley sound so unsure of herself.
"How do you keep your mind safe when you aren't meditating?" Ginny asked, a slight frown on her face, "I mean, if you aren't there to watch over it, how do you keep your defenses up?"
Rigel had been grappling with that very question herself, "To be honest, I don't have a good enough handle on my mental energies to do what you're describing. You might ask Professor Snape—" Ginny recoiled with a grimace, "—or not, but I think he can do what you mean, keeping your Occlumency shields fully raised at all times. I've developed mine so that I have a very sensitive awareness at all times, but I can't actually defend them at the level of shields just yet, because I can't manipulate my mental energies."
Ginny looked at him, seeming slightly horrified, "Then how do you keep your mind safe? How can you walk around all vulnerable to mental attacks and not…" Ginny took a deep, shuddering breath, "My brothers all wrote to me about the Sleeping Sickness, you know, how they didn't even notice it creeping into their heads, and it just…why aren't you more scared?"
Rigel's face softened, "I am scared, I suppose. I wouldn't mind the extra security of having constant shields like Professor Snape probably does, but there's nothing I can do about it right away. All I can do is study harder and try to understand more, so that I can progress. In the meantime, I'm not exactly defenseless, though."
"What do you mean?" Ginny asked, looking at Rigel with hopeful eyes.
"Well, the secondary defenses," Rigel said, "Like how you have that illusion in your mind. I have illusions too, and mazes, and other defenses that are made of my magical energy, not my mental energy. Those will keep your secrets safe while you get stronger, Ginny. Your mind is very well defended, especially for a beginner. Just keep doing what you're doing."
Ginny frowned, "I don't…that was sort of a fluke, you know. I don't really know how I did it. I'm not sure I could do it again."
Rigel was confused, but she could see that that was going to be the norm around Ginny Weasley, "I could lend you a book or two on magical-mental constructs. Or if you want, I can just come in and show you how to build things in your mind. It might be faster than trying to learn through the book."
Ginny flinched and said, "No! That would be…not good. You shouldn't even suggest such a thing. My…mind doesn't like even the idea of you doing that again."
Once again Rigel noted the peculiar phrasing, but then she thought of how she frequently thought of her magic in terms of sentience, so Ginny using personification to describe her mind wasn't that unusual, really.
"Sorry," Rigel said, "I'll just lend you the book, then."
Ginny nodded, then said, seemingly out of the blue, "If you could have total mental defense, right now, no questions asked, would you take it?"
Rigel was beginning to get over the randomness of Ginny's conversational patterns, so she took the question in stride, "Do you mean automatic full shields or something? Sounds a bit too good to be true."
"Not exactly," Ginny said slowly, peering at Rigel with an intensity Rigel didn't entirely understand, "What if you had like…a guardian for your mind? Someone to watch over it while you weren't meditating. Asleep, awake, distracted, the guardian would make sure your mind was safe no matter what. Would you like something like that in your head, if it meant that your mind would be secure?"
"That depends," Rigel said, thinking about it, "If it was a spell or potion designed to do that…maybe. If I had to trust someone else to be in my head in order to protect it, though…well, it would sort of defeat the purpose, you see? But maybe if I was in greater danger of mental attacks, if the probability was higher that my mind would be breached…I guess I wouldn't dismiss it out of hand. Interesting idea, at least."
Ginny nodded to herself, "Yes…though we're all in danger after the Sleeping Sickness, aren't we? I mean, if something like that can happen once, what's to stop it from happening again?"
"The sickness was bad," Rigel said gently, "But it wasn't undefeatable. I think the reason I'm not scared enough to trust someone else with my mind's safety is because, for now at least, my sensitivity to Legilimency attacks is enough to keep me calm. As long as I can sense it happening, I feel like I can fight it, at least."
Ginny's eyes flashed, "But what if you couldn't sense it? Or what if you were up against something too strong to fight, even if you knew how?"
Rigel shrugged helplessly, "I guess I just have to hope that I don't meet anything like that before I'm ready to face it."
Ginny's face was blank once more as she said, "That's an awful lot of uncertainty to be wandering through life with." She stood, shouldered her bag, and gave Rigel a curt nod before striding off out of the Library doors.
Rigel leaned back in her chair and let her eyes become unfocused as her brain whirred into motion. Ginny Weasley was confusing, but she had given Rigel a lot to think about.
Over the weekend sign-ups for a 'dueling club' were posted in every common room, and it was with great amusement that most students completely ignored the sheets. Then Lockhart announced that the first meeting was mandatory for all Defense students fourth year and under. A collective groan went up, but the second-year Slytherins signed their names to the sheets anyway, since no one wanted to be the one explaining to their parents why they failed Defense Against the Dark Arts, even if the only spells Lockhart had taught them seemed to be completely made-up. 'Pesky Pixy Petronomi?' Please.
On the evening of the first dueling club meeting, they all filed into the Great Hall, resigned to wasting an hour of their lives. At least, Rigel thought to herself, it would be mildly entertaining to watch Lockhart try and explain how they were to duel a monster that petrified people without telling them what kind of monster petrified people in the first place.
There was a raised platform in the center of the Hall, the tables all having been pushed to the sides for the evening. Lockhart paced the platform's considerable length, going on about the great and noble tradition of dueling. There were a couple of other professors who had clearly been roped somehow into chaperoning the event standing unhappily at the fringes, including Flitwick and Snape, who stood at either side of the doors.
"And if you possess great enough drive and ability, one day you can enter tournaments of dueling, and perhaps one of you will even make it to the national championship if you're lucky," Lockhart said, raising his eyebrows and nodding at them all importantly, "Why, I've been asked to give an exhibition duel at the national competitions for the last five years running, but of course I'm much too busy to spend my time on something so frivolous. So count yourselves very lucky, children, for today you will see something long denied to the public's viewing pleasure. Dueling is a spectacle like no other. It is a noble, oft-forgotten art in which only the most daring and brave come out on top."
"Boldness and bravery?" Blaise raised an eyebrow, "And what about cunning? Cleverness? Talent? Hard work, even?"
"Didn't you know, Blaise?" Draco drawled, "Only Gryffindors can be good duelers."
"Who said that?"
For once, Draco had not been quiet enough in his disparaging comments about Lockhart to avoid direct detection.
"Draco, was that you?" Lockhart smiled indulgently down at Draco, not noticing the way his eye twitched from being addressed by his first name, "Now, that wasn't what I meant at all! Oh, my, but I can see you're not convinced." In reality, the skeptical look on Draco's face had more to do with the fact that he couldn't believe Lockhart had completely missed the sarcasm in his earlier statement, but once again Lockhart proved his talent for misinterpretation. "Really, Draco, we can't let you continue thinking that only Gryffindors have what it takes to be dueling champions."
Draco's face tightened as students turned to look at him. Most of them had heard his remark, but those who hadn't took Lockhart's words as truth, and a few of the Ravenclaws on the other side of the room glared at Draco. Draco glared back. "That isn't what I said," he said flatly.
"Yes, but I am exceptionally skilled at reading underneath the underneath, young Draco," Lockhart said with a chuckle, "I'm afraid your insecurity is as clear to me as your hair color.
"Inse—" Draco clamped his mouth shut and scowled fiercely.
"Fear not, Draco, fear not," Lockhart said, "For today I will prove that you Slytherins can do just as good as the Gryffindors with the proper tutelage."
"Oh, Merlin, what have you done, Draco?" Millicent sighed quietly from behind them.
"In fact, if you'll step up to the stage, Draco, we can begin immediately!" Lockhart said, waving his hand with a flourish to the stage stairs.
"What?" Draco's face slackened from his scowl with surprise, "No."
"Come now, don't be afraid," Lockhart laughed, glancing around the room as though inviting others to laugh with him. Thankfully, no one seemed inclined to laugh openly at the Malfoy Heir.
"I'll give you 'afraid,' you overgrown peacock," Draco muttered darkly as he strode to the stairs with all the dignity he could manage, however forced. Rigel sent him a sympathetic look, and thanked Merlin it hadn't been her.
Draco lifted his chin proudly as he ascended the stairs, and Lockhart smiled approvingly, "Yes, that's it, Draco, that's it. Well done. How about a round of applause for our brave little volunteer?"
There was a bit of scattered, very uncertain applause, and then Lockhart began to give them all, by virtue of giving Draco, a series of opening tips and pointers on dueling basics.
This would have been very helpful, Rigel thought, if any of the suggestions had actually made sense.
"—always remember to ignore your surroundings," Lockhart was saying, "Don't get too caught up in the cheering and applause—focus entirely on your opponent, and don't worry about anything else around you."
"Ignore your surroundings?" Pansy scoffed quietly, "Even I know better than to forget there might be multiple enemies around. Not to mention the lack of attention that gives to terrain."
"—and my final advice is to try not to move around too much," Lockhart said wisely, "It tires you out, and in any case you might fall off the platform!" He chuckled winsomely again, "That would definitely not be good. So, I think that's enough pointers. Shall we begin?"
"I'm dueling you?" Draco glanced a bit insolently over Lockhart's magenta robes, and several people smothered snorts of laughter.
Lockhart smiled genially, "Yes, I know, but don't think about how intimidating I am. Just focus on the duel."
Draco smiled back tightly, "I'll try, Professor."
"Right, then," Lockhart spread his feet apart and squatted down into a rather awkward-looking plié. He spread his arms wide and bent his neck in a kind of curtsy, holding that position until Draco bowed slowly back at him. "Wands at the ready, Draco. On the count of three, we begin. One. Two. Three! Stupefy!"
A jet of red light sped toward Draco, but Draco had taken a large step to the side the moment Lockhart said 'three,' so the spell missed. Unfortunately, Lockhart had neglected to put any barriers up around the platform, and the stunning spell shot inches over the heads of several students, who hastily ducked out of the way, before impacting the wall with a dull fizzle.
Draco aimed at stunning spell back at Lockhart, who waved his wand in a complicated-looking pattern that was two seconds too slow to fully erect a shield charm before the stunning spell hit him. Lockhart wasn't cast unconscious, because it looked like only half the spell got through the shield, but he was knocked on his rear abruptly and he dropped his wand on impact clumsily. Draco lowered his own wand slowly when it became clear Lockhart wasn't going to pull some wandless magic out of his sleeves.
"Whoopsie," Lockhart chuckled, getting to his feet and accepting his wand back from some helpful girl in the crowd, "Very good, Draco, you see what a few pointers can do? Even a Slytherin can be good at this, didn't I tell you? It's all about the teaching method. Now, I think we ought to change things up a bit. You and me dueling—well, it's not really very fair, now is it? I mean, with me holding back I can hardly pose a real threat, but if I were to duel seriously with you—well, that would just be cruel of me, you see? What you need is an opponent your own size," Lockhart decided, smoothing his hair back into its rather ridiculous shape, "Yes, why don't we get another Slytherin up here, so you can see that it isn't a fluke that young Draco here caught on so quickly."
"Perhaps a girl…" Lockhart said, peering out at the crowd of students, "Where's Pansy? I remember she was rather concerned about this whole petrifaction business…Pansy?"
"Merlin, no," Pansy moaned, shifting behind Rigel's form immediately.
Draco's eyes went to Pansy, saw her hiding conspicuously behind Rigel, and spoke up immediately, "Professor, I wouldn't feel right fighting a lady. No offense," he added hastily, seeing several girls' eyes flash dangerously at him from the crowd.
Lockhart paused, then smiled knowingly, "Ah, so that's how it is? Never fear, Draco, I wouldn't want to come between blossoming young love."
Draco spluttered, and Pansy squeaked from behind Rigel's shoulders, but Lockhart went on blithely, "Who would you prefer to duel against, then, Draco? Since you've done so well, I'll let you pick."
Draco hesitated for only a moment, then said, "Rigel Black."
Rigel narrowed her eyes up at Draco, who only smirked down at her before offering her a hand up to the platform. Rigel took it, saying quietly as she let Draco help her up onto the stage, "Only for Pansy's sake."
Draco grinned back at her, "Don't you want to prove Slytherins can be duelers too?"
"Not particularly," Rigel said, searching her pockets for her wand. She was sure she'd put it in there…oh, there it was. She pulled it from the back pocket of her trousers and took her place opposite from Draco.
Lockhart stood in the middle, gazing between them with excitement, "Now don't be too hard on each other, boys. Don't get carried away."
Rigel didn't think that would be a problem, since she was planning on letting Draco stupefy her immediately, so she could ditch the rest of the club meeting by pretending to have hit her head too hard upon falling unconscious, and escape to the 'Hospital Wing' to get some studying done.
All in all it was a great plan, until Draco called from across the stage, "If you let me win, I'll tell Flint to give you extra practice for a month."
Rigel frowned slightly. Normally she wouldn't care about extra practice, since she quite enjoyed flying, but that month Snape was letting her assist him personally—on the nights she didn't have Quidditch practice. Inwardly cursing herself for letting Draco get to know her so well, she raised her wand in front of her determinedly. She would fire two spells, she decided, then lose. That way he couldn't prove she hadn't tried.
Lockhart stepped to the very edge of the platform, and raised his arms dramatically. "One. Twooooo." Rigel called on her magic, letting her core 'heat up' and ready itself for her use. "Three!"
She drew a line of raw magic from her core and shaped it into a tickling charm instantaneously, firing it half-heartedly at Draco's form. He had already moved from its path by the time it reached him, and he grinned at her before shooting a stunning spell her way. Rather than dive to the side, Rigel asked her magic to form a shield charm, one of the very first Quirrell had taught them the previous year, and let it absorb Draco's spell harmlessly. No sense it making the people behind her duck, after all.
She leisurely shot another spell at her friend, a trip-jinx this time, but Draco just raised an eyebrow as it flew over his shoulder, missing by several inches.
"You're supposed to shoot that one at my feet, Rigel," Draco said with amusement.
"Why, what does that one do?" She asked with a blank look on her face. She heard Millicent and Theo snicker from the sidelines and Draco just shook his head.
"You aren't even trying, are you?"
"You aren't either," Rigel pointed out. Draco had been waiting indulgently for her to cast a spell before returning, as though they were hitting a bludger back and forth, instead of trying to hit her as fast as he could.
"Now, boys, you must take this seriously!" Lockhart shouted at them in exasperation, "If you aren't going to try, what's the point?"
Draco shrugged and shot another stunning spell at Rigel, who was forced to shield again.
She watched at the red light fizzled and went out mere inches from her heart. "Good aim," she said.
Draco thanked her graciously.
"Well, now, this won't do!" Lockhart said, clearly put out that they were not going to try battling to the death, "If you won't fight each other, perhaps you'll fight this! Sneaky Snaky Serpensortia!"
Rigel was pretty sure the first two words had been completely unnecessary, but the third word had apparently been a real spell, as a long, black serpent shot from Lockhart's wand and coiled defensively in the center of the platform, hissing angrily.
"What isss thisss?" the snake lashed its tail agitatedly as it flicked its tongue out and took in all the confusing smells in the Hall, "Who callsss?"
Lockhart let out a little chuckle, "Isn't this clever? Slytherins dueling a snake! How appropriate!"
Rigel thought the truth of the matter somewhere closer to animal cruelty, and the look on Draco's face said clearly that he did not find it appropriate at all, but the blonde kept his wand pointed toward the snake warily.
The snake turned its head and caught sight of Draco's outstretched wand, "Threat," it hissed, "Thisss isss the threat?" It began to sway slightly, rearing its head up toward Draco aggressively. It hissed in warning, and Draco's face tightened, his eyes darting from the snake, to Rigel, and back again.
"Draco," Rigel said, carefully not looking at the snake as she said it, "Lower your wand."
"Lower my—Rigel, it's poisonous," Draco snapped.
"And it thinks you're the enemy, Draco," Rigel said, keeping her voice calm and even—and more importantly, human. "Lower your wand slowly, and it will ignore you."
"And then what, it goes after you?" Draco shook his head, "I'll keep its attention, you do something about it."
"I don't know any snake-vanishing spells," Rigel said, a hint of exasperation creeping into her tone, "Draco, please lower your wand, before it strikes."
Draco looked torn, but Snape's voice rang out as the Potion Master cut through the crowd of students, "This has gone far enough. Malfoy, Black, do not move. I will take care of—"
Before he could finish speaking, much less reach the platform, the snake decided it had had enough. It lunged forward, quicker than anyone anticipated, almost as fast as a stunning spell itself, and bared its fangs at Draco's ankle. Draco started the wand motion for a spell—a shield or a stunner, Rigel never found out—but he was going to be too slow, and Rigel's mind was moving too slow to do anything except blurt—
The snake froze, as did everyone else in the hall. Rigel could feel the eyes of many—too many—students on her as she quietly hissed, "Come here, pleassse. There isss no threat."
The snake, visibly mollified, slid across the platform and curled up docilely at her feet. Draco was grimacing as the whispers started, and Snape had a very sour look on his face as he finally ascended the platform, vanished the snake, and took control of the situation.
"I think there has been quite enough spectacle here for one evening," he said, sneering at Lockhart in unmistakable contempt, "Return to your dormitories, and for your own sakes stop gaping like a bunch of freshly caught flobberworms."
The students slowly dispersed, though they did not, Rigel noticed, stop gaping at her like they'd never heard of inheritable magical abilities before.
Snape turned to Rigel and said, lowly, "That was an unfortunate decision you just made, Mr. Black, but as it would do little good to berate you for it now, I suggest your return to the common room and spend the rest of the evening—nay, the month—making yourself look as ordinary and harmless as possible."
Rigel nodded her head without meeting the professor's eyes. She wouldn't take back her slip—not if it meant Draco would be bitten by a snake of unknown toxicity—but she knew that there would be consequences for it. Not the least of which would be Sirius finding out that his son apparently spoke to snakes. Rigel had no idea how they were going to overcome that problem, but at least she had several months to figure it out before she went home. More pressing were the immediate consequences of the news getting out, like the strange and frankly alarmed looks she was receiving from most of the students around them.
"Let's go," Draco said, sparing a moment to shoot Lockhart a scowl before pulling a non-resisting Rigel off of the platform.
"Come, Rigel," Pansy said, her voice so serene she must have been forcing it, "Let's get you boys back to the common room. It's been far too exciting a night, and I was thinking of joining you tomorrow for your little run, if I'm not too tired after all this."
"We'd be glad to have you," Rigel said calmly, her face as blank as a puppet's as she allowed Draco and Pansy to guide her toward the doors. Theo, Blaise, and Millicent fell into step around them. Their faces were obviously brimming with questions—Blaise in particular could not seem to stop staring at Rigel—but they held their silence as they helped them navigate through the crowd and into the dungeons.
As they got away from the other Houses, Rigel noticed that alarmed and wary looks were not the only kind of looks she was receiving. Her fellow Slytherin underclassmen traveling with them back to the common room had an entirely different range of expressions to offer her. Confused, speculative, intrigued, and even excited. She received several admiring glances from people she'd never spoken to before, and Adrian Pucey smiled widely at her as he sidled up to their group in passing.
"So that's how you were so good with Evan," Pucey said cheerfully, "Brilliant, Rigel. Do you do translating?"
"Not for free he doesn't," Draco said at once.
Rigel looked at Pucey bemusedly, "Sure, why not?"
"Great," Pucey said, grinning, "Congratulations, by the way."
Immediately most of their Housemates within earshot murmured similar words of congratulations, and Rigel remembered that this was the traditional response to someone unlocking an innate magical talent in the old families. Actually, ancient tradition dictated something about a feast, and for the very rare magical abilities gifts were usually given, but in current times the tradition had been watered down to a general congratulations.
"Thanks," Rigel said automatically, feeling that the whole thing was rather silly.
She could talk to snakes. So what? As far as magical abilities went, it wasn't terribly useful. It had come up, what, five or six times in the last year? She thought a Metamorphmagus or a Natural Occlumens had much more interesting and versatile gifts. Snakes weren't especially interesting, once you got to know them. Mostly they just wanted food and warmth and quiet. Not exactly slipping her the secrets of the universe, were they?
They made it back to the common room with little fuss, but already she could see younger students sidling up to upperclassmen they knew to quietly tell them everything that had happened at Lockhart's dueling club. They were discrete, of course, but word still spread unbelievably quickly as Rigel made her way toward her dorm room.
"Don't," Blaise said quietly, a hand on her elbow to gently re-direct her momentum toward an unused group of chairs, "If you disappear now, it will only foster speculation. Come and sit with us, talk about inane things until people are too bored to eavesdrop, and then play a game of cards or two. It will be better this way."
Rigel wanted nothing more than to curl up in her bed and try to pretend her life wasn't spinning much too quickly around her, but she conceded to Blaise's superior understanding of social situations—Pansy's concurring look didn't hurt in persuading her either—and participated on autopilot in a discussion about their History quiz coming up. Pansy thought it would be on the Wizarding Charter drafted after the royal house fell, while Theo thought it would be on goblin rebellions—like it always was. Rigel thought she couldn't take much more of sitting and pretending she didn't notice everyone staring at her when Rosier and Rookwood joined their group without warning and ended the debate with their mere presence.
"So, you've finally come out and told everyone!" Rosier said, his voice a bit louder than it usually was, "That's good news, Rigel. Now we don't have to be so hush-hush about it, do we?"
Pucey stood from the next fireplace over, completely abandoning subtlety at that point, and called, "You knew about this already, Rosier? How?"
"Oh, Rigel told us ages ago," Rosier said airily, smiling coyly across the room, "He told all of his friends. It wasn't really a secret, after all. I'm surprised you didn't know, Adrian."
Pucey scowled a bit, but shrugged good-naturedly, "I suspected, of course. He was always a bit too good with snakes, you know? It's nice to have it confirmed, though, that's all."
Rigel was pretty sure Pucey had not suspected any such thing, but she was glad he and Rosier were trying to make it seem relatively unimportant. As though it were an incidental fact coming to light, not a secret she had been shamefully trying to hide.
"Yes, it's pretty obvious in retrospect, isn't it?" Rosier said, "I mean, the Black's had a Parselmouth marry into the family a few generations ago, didn't they? It makes sense."
Rigel's eyebrows rose at that. She knew that there had been a Black married to a Parseltongue—she had Archie had read his ancestor's diary in the Black Library while they were first doing research on the subject, but she didn't know how Rosier had found that out.
Pucey nodded agreeably and sat back down without questioning the situation further. Rigel felt the weight of gazes on her lesson significantly after Rosier and Pucey's exchange, and made a mental note to thank both of them quietly later.
"Well, I'm for bed," Rosier said, yawning for good measure, "The common room's awfully crowded tonight, isn't it? Good evening, second-years. Congratulations, Rigel." He added with a smirk.
Rigel inclined her head, "Thank you, Aldon," she said, hoping he understood what she was thanking him for, "Good evening to you as well."
After he left, conversation was a bit less forced, though Rigel couldn't help but feel guilty at Theo and Millicent's slightly hurt expressions. She hadn't meant to slight them by not telling them, but now it seemed as though she didn't trust them enough to confide in them. Which was true, Rigel admitted sadly, but not a nice thing to think about your friends. Blaise's face was inscrutable, but Rigel could only assume he was offended to be out of the loop as well. She made a mental note to try and make it up to them at some point, though she wasn't sure how to go about doing so.
After an hour of pretending to be normal—which really only made Rigel feel less normal—the second-years deemed it safe to go to bed. The number of eyes that followed their group to the second-year hallway felt significantly fewer than it had upon entering the common room, so it was with hope that Rigel relaxed into bed that night. Hope that tomorrow morning everyone would be pretty much over the surprise of having a Parselmouth in the school, and that life would continue with minimal interruption over the incident.
Hope, as she discovered the next morning at the breakfast table under the psychological weight of a hundred stares, was not a reliable emotion in the slightest. The universe, apparently, did not care if you had Hope for something, and so Rigel turned back to her familiar emotional acquaintance Feigned Indifference to make it through the day. Her only consolation was that she wouldn't get a letter from Archie ranting at her carelessness for at least a week or two, provided it took Sirius a few days to find out.
By the time they headed to Transfiguration, Rigel was exhausted. There was something extremely draining about being at the center of attention—it made her want to fidget or flinch or something, and the energy she spent suppressing the urge to squirm under the students' collective gazes seemed to take a disproportionate toll on her energy levels. Then there were the whispers. The—
"You know, the second-year who woke all those kids up from comas last year."
"He's a Parselmouth? I thought he was the good Slytherin."
"Just goes to show you there are no good—"
Rigel blocked out yet another mildly insulting conversation and hurried through the door of the Transfiguration classroom to escape the crowded corridor quickly.
"What a ridiculous load of tripe," Pansy said huffily, claiming her seat at their usual table with less no less aplomb than usual, despite her annoyance, "Don't people have anything better to talk about?"
"Frankly? No." Millicent leaned on their table as she spoke, "It might not seem like a big deal to your three, since you've apparently known all along, but an unknown Parselmouth appearing under everyone's nose is kind of a big deal."
Rigel saw Pansy wince slightly at Millicent's words, and felt compelled to say, "I asked them not to tell anyone, Millicent. You guys should be angry at me, not them."
"We aren't angry," Millicent sighed, "Just feeling a bit out of the loop."
"Rigel can override the password on the common room entrance," Draco blurted out.
Rigel turned to raise an eyebrow at him, and he shrugged, "What? You can. And now they're in the loop on that, too."
Millicent couldn't help but laugh, "Yeah, I do feel much better now. Tell me, Draco, what other secrets has Rigel told you?"
Draco grinned unrepentantly at Rigel's mildly alarmed look, "Oh lots. Did you know he knows where the kitchens are?"
Millicent grinned back, "You don't say?"
"Oh, yeah," Draco said, "Rigel spends his lunch period there sometimes."
Millicent blinked, "Oh. I had wondered why he didn't eat some days."
"And did you know Rigel hates Healers, but is studying to be one when he grows up?" Draco said breezily.
Pansy was looked concernedly between Rigel and Draco, but Rigel smiled slightly and Pansy relaxed. It was clear that Draco was only telling Millicent inconsequential things to make her feel better, and Rigel trusted Draco enough to let him decide which things to tell Millicent. Really, Draco didn't know anything too dangerous about her anyway.
"I thought he wanted to be a Potions Master," Millicent said, intrigued.
"That too," Draco shrugged, "Honestly, I'm not sure he's made up his mind yet."
Right here, Rigel thought to herself. Pansy seemed to be thinking the same thing, but she only laughed as she glanced at Rigel.
"Tell me something next!" Theo said from his seat at the table in front of theirs.
Draco put a finger to his chin and thought about it, "Well, did you know that Rigel has an inexplicable knowledge of all the secret passages in the school?"
"Not all of them," Rigel said.
"He hangs with the Weasley Twins," Theo said, "That's easy enough to explain."
"Rigel had that knowledge his first day here," Draco said, smirking.
"That is interesting," Blaise said, joining them, "Did you know people are talking about you in the corridors, Rigel?"
Rigel scowled lightly at Blaise, who was blinking at her innocently, "You don't say."
"And now we're talking about you as well, it seems," Blaise said, dropping his bag on Theo and Millicent's table with an elegant shrug, "How special you must feel."
Rigel placed her head in her hands, "I wish they would all just stop."
"Then you shouldn't have spoken the serpent language in front of them," Blaise said.
"It was going to bite Draco," Rigel said, "If it was you, would you have wanted me to let it strike when I could stop it?"
Blaise tilted his head, "The venom most likely wouldn't have killed him, considering we have a Potions Master on hand."
Rigel raised a skeptical brow, "So in the future I should only use my abilities to help people who would definitely die without my help."
"You should if you're going to complain when people talk about it afterwards," Blaise said with equanimity.
Rigel was going to say something to the effect of her saving her friends from snake bites not being anybody else's business when McGonagall strode into the classroom and everyone quickly claimed their seats.
The Professor wrote the day's topic on the board and then walked around the room to collect their essays.
Rigel pulled hers out and set it on the table, but she was confused. She could have sworn their essay wasn't due until next week.
"Rigel, what's that?" Draco said, frowning at her essay.
Rigel looked down at it, but couldn't see what had made him frown, "It's my essay."
"It's on Non-Stationary Transfiguration," Draco said, reading the title.
"Yes," Rigel said. Both of them frowned at one another.
"Rigel, that one isn't due until next Thursday," Pansy said quietly, "You need the one for today."
"Today?" Rigel opened her bag to root carefully inside.
"It's on reversing accidental inanimate Transfigurations," Pansy said, glancing at McGonagall, who was almost to their table, "Professor McGonagall assigned it on the first day back from break."
Rigel could vaguely remember an essay on that, now that Pansy mentioned it, but she didn't remember completing it, and she couldn't find it in her bag. She subtly checked through what little of Flint's assignments she had tucked in her bag as well, but it wasn't there.
"Your essay, Mr. Black," McGonagall said impatiently, hand held out.
Rigel swallowed, feeling her ears grow hot, "I…don't have it."
McGonagall looked down at her with concern, "You've lost it?"
Rigel shook her head, "I think I forgot about it."
McGonagall's mouth pursed, "Were you ill, Mr. Black?"
Rigel shook her head again, this time apologetically, "No, Professor. I'm sorry, but I just didn't complete the assignment."
Professor McGonagall frowned, "Five points from Slytherin, Mr. Black. You can turn the assignment in next class for half credit. See that it doesn't happen again."
McGonagall walked away and Draco and Pansy both turned to stare at her. Rigel grimaced, but was feeling just as incredulous as they. She never forgot an assignment.
Draco echoed her thought exactly, "You never forget your homework, Rigel. What happened?"
Rigel could only shake her head, "I don't know."
"Don't you have somewhere you write all your assignments down in?" Pansy asked, "Did you forget to check it?"
"No," Rigel said. It would be monumentally stupid of her to leave a list of everything she had to get done in a week, with little check boxes for when she completed it. Anyone who caught a glimpse of it would know too much about her daily schedule, even if she only wrote down the legitimate things she had to do. "I usually just…remember."
"I'll get you a planner for your birthday," Pansy said, before turning back to the front of the classroom to take notes on McGonagall's lecture.
Draco looked at her with poorly veiled concern a moment longer, but eventually turned away to do the same.
Rigel took notes automatically, but inside she was panicking. If she could forget one of her own homework assignments, what's to say she wouldn't forget one of Flint's assignments next? If she missed even one essay, Flint would be able to slip the vow of silence he'd taken and tell anyone he liked that she wasn't Arcturus Black. And if she had already forgotten something, what was to say she hadn't forgotten something else already as well? Maybe she should have gotten herself a rememberall for Christmas, too.
Calm down, she told herself sternly, taking a stabilizing breath or two, I just have to be more careful. I can do this. It's just one mistake, not the end of the world.
Feeling a bit better, Rigel concentrated on the lesson, determined to pay more attention to everything from then on.
As she walked into Lab One that afternoon, Snape's words stopped her in her tracks.
"Detention, Mr. Black," he said without looking up from his notes.
Rigel froze, flicked her eyes to the clock, frowned in confusion upon realizing she was early, not late, then looked back to Snape with a wary expression.
"Detention, sir?" she repeated.
"Yes, Mr. Black, detention," Snape said, glancing up to glower at her irritably, "The Head of Gryffindor House has just informed me that I have been placing an inordinate amount of responsibility on a twelve-year-old head. She then proceeded to inform me that my assistant, Mr. Black, was neglecting his studies in order to accommodate the additional, unreasonable work load pressed upon him by his Potions Professor."
Rigel cringed internally at the acerbic tone, but outwardly attempted to remain calm.
"Is assisting me this month an unreasonable amount of work, Mr. Black?" Snape asked with deceptive silkiness.
"And do you feel detrimentally encumbered with responsibility disproportionate to your age?" Snape asked.
"No, sir," Rigel said unhappily.
"And are you neglecting your studies, Mr. Black?" Snape asked quietly, his gaze piercing her with its perception.
Rigel's eyes tightened with denial, but she said, "A Transfiguration essay slipped my mind this week. It was a simple oversight, but Professor McGonagall appears to have taken it to be indicative of an underlying problem with my time-management skills."
"Then detention it remains, Mr. Black," Snape said turning back to his notes, "I warned you not to let your studies slip—"
"They haven't," Rigel protested, "It was one essay. It's not that I didn't have time, or was too tired or something. I just forget."
"You just forgot?" Snape sneered at her, "And what happens when you just forget to take the cauldron off the fire before adding porcupine quills? What happens when you just forget that powdered erumpent horn can never be mixed with dragon bile?" They both knew exactly what happened when those things occurred, so Rigel said nothing. "See to it that you don't just forget again."
Rigel wanted to argue, to say that that was different, she would never forget a potions recipe, much less the most important and dangerous step in a potion recipe, but she pressed her lips together and bowed her head in acceptance instead.
"Get out," Snape said quietly.
"What?" Rigel looked up, shocked. Surely he wasn't dismissing her just for that. "Please, it won't happen again. I promise."
"Get out," Snape said again, "Go write your Transfiguration essay and come back tomorrow ready to handle your responsibilities more carefully in the future."
"Yes, sir," Rigel said, both relieved that he wasn't getting rid of her altogether and disappointed that she would miss a day of assisting the Potions Master. She knew better than to argue at that point, though, so she bowed stiffly to Professor Snape and retreated from the Lab quickly and quietly.
In the hallway she slid to the floor and cradled her knees to her chest. How could things go so wrong so quickly? First the Parseltongue thing, then the essay, and now Snape was disappointed in her, too. She had to do better. Rigel clenched her fists and allowed her eyes to flash with hard determination. She wouldn't slip up again. She would show them all that Rigel Black didn't bend under pressure. She would prove that she could do anything the pureblooded kids could do—better.
She stood slowly. She thought about going back to the common room to do the essay like Snape had suggested, but she could finish it tomorrow before Quidditch practice. Instead, she walked slowly up toward the kitchens, thinking she could surprise Binny with a visit if the house elf wasn't terribly busy with dinner preparations.
Something about Binny always cheered her up.
She had just reached the basement corridor that intersected with the kitchen corridor when something in the hall ahead of her made her slow down, narrowing her eyes in the torchlight to discern what she was seeing.
In the middle of the hallway, lying stiff as a board on the cold, stone floor, was a boy in Hufflepuff robes. Rigel hurried forward, dread growing in her stomach. The boy had sandy hair and lots of freckles. There was a prefect badge on his robe and his wand was frozen in his hand, half-raised but utterly useless in its petrified state.
On the wall behind him were large, red letters, so wet that they glistened as she read them.
You Can't Silence Me Forever
Four more months
Four more victims
And when the fifth one won't wake up
You Know Who To Blame
Rigel took out her wand after memorizing the message and asked her magic for a water charm, so that she could wash away the words before anyone else saw them. Instead of water, her magic decided to conjure fire from her wand instead, and Rigel yelped, before sighing. The flame at the end of her wand wasn't very big, but it did seem hot enough to make the blood on the wall melt and run, so she moved her wand along the words slowly until the red ran together and made the message indistinguishable. She was almost finished when a voice came unexpectedly from behind her.
"What are you doing?"
Rigel jumped and ended the flame abruptly. As she turned she let her left hand trail behind her to smear the remaining few words surreptitiously so that they couldn't be made out. A Hufflepuff boy who looked to be a year or two older than her was walking toward her from the end of the corridor that branched off toward the Hufflepuff common room.
Rigel stowed her wand away, kept her left hand slightly behind her back, and opened her mouth to explain when the boy caught sight of the prefect on the ground.
"Benjamin!" the boy rushed forward, dropping to his knees, "What's wrong with—oh…no. He's—he's—"
"He's petrified," Rigel said quietly, "Will you stay with him while I go get help?"
The boy looked up at her, confusion written on his face, "Why didn't you get help earlier? What were you doing with the wall…is that blood?"
Rigel knelt down and looked the older boy in the eye, "Yes, it's blood. I was checking to see if there was a purpose or pattern, but it looks like whoever did this just painted the walls with it." The boy looked green, so she said, "Just stay here with him, okay? I'm going to grab a house-elf from the kitchens."
The boy's faced firmed and he nodded once, putting a hand on the petrified prefect's shoulder comfortingly. Rigel stood and hurried around the corner down the kitchen corridor. She tickled the pear impatiently and stuck her head in long enough to shout, "Binny!" into the din before ducking back out again.
Binny appeared in the hallway with a small pop, and curtseyed, "How can Binny be helping you?"
"Binny, go get Dumbledore," Rigel said without preamble, "There's been another attack."
Binny's eyes welled up with water, but she disappeared with another pop and two seconds later reappeared in the same place, a disoriented Headmaster attached by his robes to her little hands.
"Binny, what is the—Mr. Black, did you ask Binny to retrieve me?" Dumbledore turned serious blue eyes on her, and Rigel nodded.
"There's been another one," Rigel said tightly, "This way."
She set off back up the corridor, Dumbledore sending Binny gently back to the kitchens before hurrying after.
They rounded the corner to see another boy kneeling next to the petrified prefect, in addition to the first Hufflepuff Rigel had left there. The two boys were arguing in low voices, but in the empty corridor they could be heard easily as she and Dumbledore approached.
"—but who was it, Cedric?" the younger of the two asked.
"That Black kid, you know, the one everyone's talking about," the first Hufflepuff said.
"He was here when you got here?"
"Yeah, just looking at the walls—"
Dumbledore shot her a look, and she nodded in response—she would tell him later.
"And you just let him go?"
"Well, what was I supposed to do? I couldn't leave Benjamin! He said he was getting help."
"Yeah right, he's not coming back to the scene of the—"
"Mr. Macmillan, Mr. Diggory," Dumbledore interrupted, striding to a stop behind them. Rigel had slowed down as they reached the boys, and ended up standing behind Dumbledore as the Headmaster took in the scene.
Both young Hufflepuffs whirled, looking up at Dumbledore with surprise.
"Headmaster! Benjamin, he's—"
"I know, Mr. Diggory," Dumbledore assured the older, more worried-looking Hufflepuff calmly, "It's all right. He's been petrified, but Mr. Wates will be just fine once Professor Sprout's mandrakes are ready. Everything will be fine, Mr. Diggory."
"That Black boy was here," the other boy, Macmillan, who Rigel recognized from some of her classes, spoke up with a tone of importance, "He ran off before—"
"Mr. Black came to get me, yes, thank you, Mr. Macmillan," Dumbledore said. Rigel stepped out from behind Dumbledore awkwardly and inclined her head politely at Macmillan, who narrowed his own eyes back with easily read suspicion.
"What should we do now?" Diggory asked.
"I'd like to ask one of you to—"
Before Dumbledore could finish his sentence, he whirled toward the wall—not the wall with the blood on it, the other one. Rigel barely had time to notice, with something like horror, that there were runes inscribed on the stone before it exploded with a deafening bang. Rigel could feel her magic responding without her conscious direction, and as frightening as that was it was nothing to the frozen moments of panic as the wall rushed out toward her.
Then time sped up again and Rigel flinched backwards, putting her arms up in a cross to cover most of the vital parts on her head and upper torso out of sheer instinct. Magic was hot in her veins and when the sound of falling ruble stopped all she could think was that she didn't feel pain anywhere. She lowered her arms slowly, shaking slightly, and looked around. Sometime in the confusion, Dumbledore had flung himself between the wall and the three of them, arms outstretched. A shimmering dome of gold magic pulsed before him, shielding them all from the blast. Not a spec of dust crept through the shield, and Dumbledore turned without dispelling it to ask, "Is everyone all right?"
He paused, staring, because behind him, spread in front of Rigel and the two Hufflepuffs, was a thin, shaky blanket of red-colored magic. Rigel could still feel the magic draining rapidly from her core to fuel it, but couldn't concentrate long enough to make it stop. It was nothing as impressive as Dumbledore's shield, but the Headmaster smiled at her anyway, and nodded his head in thanks, "Quick thinking, Mr. Black. Five points to Slytherin for protecting your fellow students."
Rigel glanced at the Hufflepuffs, who she suspected had merely been lucky enough to be behind her when her magic decided to shield her, and smiled weakly. They stared at her like she had just spoken Mermish.
Dumbledore released his shield with a wave of his hand, and after taking a deep breath to calm herself, Rigel asked her magic to stop…whatever it was doing. She was pretty sure she hadn't learned that shield charm yet.
The red shimmer of magic faded away, and Rigel slumped a bit with exhaustion. Whatever it was, that had certainly taken it out of her. She probed at her magical core with her senses and judged the secondary layer to be almost three-quarters empty. Her few remaining coils were twisting on the surface agitatedly, and the center still burned as though ready to release more raw magic at a moment's notice. Rigel made a mental note to look up the effects of adrenaline on magical cores.
Things moved fast after the explosion. Dumbledore sent Diggory to the Hospital Wing to collect Madam Pomphrey, but he wasn't quick enough to make an announcement sending all the students to their common rooms before the Hufflepuffs, who were closest to the explosion, began spilling into the corridor in confused disarray. Macmillan spotted his friends and ran over to tell them what was going on. Rigel shifted awkwardly under the looks she was receiving, being the only one besides the Headmaster standing in the middle of the destroyed corridor, and shifted a bit closer to Dumbledore's reassuring form.
Snape arrived on the scene soon after, taking in everything with a glance and positively glowering when he caught sight of her. Rigel winced to think of how much trouble she was going to be in this time. Madam Pomphrey arrived with Sprout on her heels, and they carefully levitated the petrified prefect—Wakes, Rigel thought Dumbledore had called him—down the corridor and toward the nearest stairs.
A group of Slytherins turned up as Pomphrey and her charge left, and to Rigel's misfortune Daphne Greengrass was among them.
"Black!" She let out a laugh that was not at all humorous, "Caught red-handed this time, were you? Let's see you talk your way out of this one."
Rigel looked down at her left hand, which was, incidentally, still red with blood from where she had wiped away the last part of the message on the wall, and admitted that things definitely didn't look too good when you put them like that.
Apparently she wasn't the only one who thought so, as Macmillan shot his friends knowing glances and they in turn glared at Rigel from the Hufflepuff ranks.
"I stumbled and used this hand to steady myself against the wall," Rigel said, grateful that Diggory wasn't there to contradict her, if he would have even thought to.
"Give it up, Black," Daphne sneered, "It's just pathetic now."
Rigel turned gratefully as Draco pushed his way through the growing crowd.
"Are you all right, Rigel?" he said.
Rigel shrugged one shoulder uncomfortably, "Don't I look all right?"
Draco shrugged as well, "Pansy told me to ask if I found you before she did. I sent her to check the common room because…well, it seemed safer. Sort of knew I'd find you here, though."
Rigel couldn't even fault her friend for assuming that. Fate, it seemed, hadn't been able to resist once Rigel took the name of a star.
"Desist and disperse at once," Snape said, raising his voice to be heard over the pandemonium, "Go to dinner or go back to your common rooms, but unless you'd like to stick around and confess, get out of this corridor."
The corridor slowly emptied, much to the disappointment of several Gryffindors, who arrived looking as though they'd run all the way from the seventh floor to seek out the commotion.
Rigel hesitated. She still had to tell Dumbledore about the message, but if she stuck around it would look like she did have something to confess.
Snape solved her dilemma by saying, "Black, wait in my office while the Headmaster and I repair the wall. I have an extra potions assignment to go over with you before tomorrow."
Rigel nodded, understanding that this way she'd be out of the way but still around for them to question, and, after reassuring Draco she was fine, Rigel left swiftly for the Potions Master's office.
She sat there for some time, wishing there was a sink in the office so that she could wash her hands. As it was, she stood gingerly in the middle of the room, careful not to touch anything.
The door to the small office opened and Snape stalked in, followed closely by Dumbledore and, to Rigel's surprise, Professor Sprout. Rigel didn't entirely like the look Sprout was giving her—it was slightly suspicious and more than slightly insulting, considering it was coming from a Professor that Rigel actually respected.
"Mr. Black, thank you for waiting," Dumbledore said, fixing her with a serious look, "I can only assume by your unfortunately colored fingers and the smeared blood on the wall that there was another message. You destroyed it?"
Rigel nodded, "It seemed best if the perpetrator's intentions were thwarted where possible."
"Did you memorize it?" Snape asked. At Rigel's affirmation he produced a sheet of parchment and a quill, "Write it down."
Rigel carefully copied the message word for word onto the parchment, using her left elbow to hold the page while she wrote, to avoid covering it with bloody fingerprints.
"Another message, Albus?" Sprout's round face with pinched tight with anger and frustration, "I'll not have you keeping secrets while my children are in danger. Explain. Now."
Dumbledore inclined his head after he'd lifted it from the parchment Rigel handed him, "Very well, Pomona, I will explain." He related the killing of Mrs. Norris in all its horrifying detail.
Sprout looked near tears by the end of it, all the anger drained out of her, "So that's why Argus took a leave of absence. I was so happy for him, thinking he'd finally gotten around to a much-needed vacation. Oh, who would do such a thing?"
"The same person who did it last time," Dumbledore said sadly.
Rigel fought to keep her face blank and uncomprehending as Snape shot her a look and cleared his throat meaningfully at the Headmaster. Dumbledore would have been there, she realized, when Hagrid had been expelled. He had made the same connection she had.
They asked her a few more questions, but Rigel hadn't heard the voice that time—presumably it had come and gone from the opposite direction. Snape looked slightly mollified that she hadn't gone chasing mysterious voices after he'd told her not to, but he still seemed annoyed with her when he excused her at last and asked Sprout to escort her to the Slytherin common room while he and Dumbledore returned to the area of attack to run a few more diagnostic charms. From what Rigel gathered, Dumbledore had recognized several of the runes on the wall before it exploded, and wanted to investigate his theories.
They walked in silence for a bit, Sprout's face tight and unapproachable. Rigel felt like she ought to say something, since it had been a Hufflepuff who was attacked.
"Professor?" she glanced up at Sprout from the corner of her eye carefully, "I didn't do it, you know. I would never just…attack someone like that."
Sprout blinked down at her, as though she had been thinking hard about something and forgotten Rigel was walking next to her. The older woman's eyes softened, "Oh, Mr. Black, I know that."
Rigel must have looked uncertain and skeptical, because Sprout stopped and placed a hand on Rigel's shoulder, saying, "You're no killer, Rigel Black. You think I can't see that? Your presence at the scene—again—merely startled me out of my common sense for a moment. Don't go listening to what the other students might say, now. We'll catch the true culprit and everything will go back to normal, you'll see."
She took Rigel's left wrist and used her wand to carefully siphon the drying blood off her hand. Then Sprout conjured a stream of cold water from her wand to rinse the grimy feeling from Rigel's hand completely.
"There now, you go on to your common room," Sprout said, smiling kindly down at her.
Rigel smiled back tiredly, "Thank you, Professor. See you on Friday."
Sprout watched her walk to the other end of the corridor where the false wall was and waited until Rigel had murmured the password and slipped into the opening to walk away.
Rigel didn't even want to think about what the eyes of the common room thought of her that time, so she avoided looking at anyone as she strode briskly across the big, low-ceilinged room and into the safety of her dorm room. Millicent, Theo, Blaise, Pansy, and Draco were all already inside when she reached the room, and none of them looked at her with anything other than concern and sympathy as she mechanically pulled a clean over-robe from her trunk and changed into it. Her school shirt and pants were relatively clean, so she didn't bother changing them as well, instead just shucking her shoes and sinking onto her mattress bonelessly.
Pansy moved from Draco's bed to Rigel's and began combing the dust out of Rigel's dark hair with her fingers. The other four sat silently, not pestering her or asking her any questions, just sitting there with her until she sighed, sat up, and began to tell them what she felt she could. She told them who had been attacked, how she'd come across them, what she, Diggory, and Macmillan did respectively in response to the situation, and how Dumbledore handled it from there.
She didn't tell them why Snape kept her behind beyond just general questioning. She didn't tell them why there was blood on the wall or the real reason her hand had been covered with it. She didn't tell them about the connection she and Dumbledore had made independently between their petrifactions and a similar string of events that had happened fifty years ago, and she certainly didn't tell them that sometimes right before an attack she could hear the Serpent Tongue bleeding from the walls.
The other five second-years took her words for what they were—all she could give them—and by unspoken consensus moved on to talk about other things. None of them felt like going to dinner, so they ate some of the cookies Pansy's grandmother routinely sent her and sat in the little dorm room instead, just passing the time in a seamless semblance of calm.
Rigel could only conclude that friends were an incredible thing. How strange to have people who so understood and respected what she needed. How valuable to have people who made her feel so at ease and unthreatened, despite the difficult, dangerous deception she wove her life within. Surely there was nothing in the world so necessary as a friend on nights such as these.
[end of chapter eleven].
A/N: Starting school up again on Tuesday, but with any luck my writing won't drop off nearly as much as it did last semester. Hope you guys liked this one, and I hope the parts that were really similar to canon, like the dueling club, were at least different enough that they were entertaining. Also, I know I basically hit you over the head with clues in this one, but I'm thinking that since everyone's read HPCS the quasi-culprit wasn't going to be much of a surprise anyway. At least this way it's interesting. ^^. And yes, I am indeed a big fan of Naruto, to those reviewers keen enough to recognize the influence of Gai and Kakashi in the last couple of chapters. Much love, readers.