A/N: Happy Holidays, and many apologies for the last six months. China was an amazing experience, but I missed you guys. Here it is, the end of book two (which you've been waiting much too long for). The third one is in the works, but it's a while from being ready. I'll keep you all posted. Enjoy the break everyone!
The Serpentine Subterfuge:
A week later, a Ravenclaw fourth year was found petrified in the Owlrey. Apparently she'd snuck out on her own to mail a letter, and a group of Hufflepuffs escorted to the Owlrey by Professor Sprout were reportedly quite emotionally scarred when they found her the next morning.
Because of this incident, suspicion about the culprit swung strongly in favor of Slytherin House, who had thus far seen none of its own fall victim to the monster. Those who hadn't considered Rigel a viable suspect before seemed to be reconsidering, and the covert glances and not-so-subtle whispers picked up once more when she walked through the halls.
Her friends stuck by her, but as they were mostly Slytherins as well, such confidence didn't lend her much credibility. The Weasley twins, displaying a nigh unlimited capacity for bracing humor in the face of grim ambience, had increased their efforts at lightening the atmosphere tenfold. It wasn't quite as bad as the now-infamous pranking war of the year before, but there were several surprises in store for the castle's population each week, a good many of which Rigel was pulled in as a consultant on.
She wasn't at a loss, then, when Fred caught up to her before Defense class with another grand idea for complete mayhem.
Rigel saw him coming, and handed her bag off to a solemn-faced Theo, who saluted her smartly before abandoning her to her friend's…mercies.
"Puppy!" Fred said exuberantly, grabbing her arms and swinging her in a merry circle, "Just who I was looking for."
He said that as if genuinely surprised to see her at the very place and time he sought her out. She tilted her head expectantly, but Fred just stared at her for a moment, seemingly waiting for something himself.
"Yes?" Rigel prompted.
"I was waiting for you to ask where Fred was," Fred said, cocking his own head to the side with half a grin, "You're funny, Rigel; most people automatically scan the room for my brother when I walk in."
Rigel blinked, and said, bemusedly, "Okay, where's George?"
Fred smiled brightly at her, "Very good, but you don't really have to ask. I just thought it odd that you didn't."
Rigel made a small, meaningless noise to show she understood, but wasn't sure what Fred wanted her to say.
"Anyway, I've got the outline for tomorrow's prank for you," Fred said, handing over a piece of paper, "You can read it in class—or, knowing you, after class. Let us know at dinner if it sounds okay."
Rigel slipped the paper into her pocket, "All right. See you, Fred."
The redhead waved at her as he trotted off down the corridor, leaving Rigel to wonder how he planned on getting to his class on time when he'd barely left her enough time to get to hers.
She took her seat between Pansy and Draco, with a nod of thanks to Theo for depositing her bag on their table. Theo shrugged back, but smirked in a way that was universally understood in their House as: you owe me.
Dumbledore walked into the class a moment later and, as usual, began straight away. One thing they had learned in the last week was that Dumbledore's lessons were usually simple, engaging, and extremely efficient. He waved his wand in a gesture that was probably completely meaningless as far as actually affecting the spell he cast, and a quill on the teacher's desk stood at attention and began writing as Dumbledore looked about the room and named all the students present in quick succession.
Once the attendance was taken, he smiled benignly at them all and said, "Today is a practical lesson. Please stand."
They stood back from their tables, and with another very general wave of his wand the desks began neatly moving to the edges of the classroom one at a time, clearing a large space in the middle of the equally large classroom—now that all four Houses were in the same class, the Defense classroom was less like a room and more like an auditorium in terms of size, though they all still sat at three-person tables.
"Arrange yourself in a circle, please," Dumbledore said, "With half a foot of space between each person."
They all backed up to the edges of the room to form a large, somewhat-circular shape. Rigel was on Draco's left, with Ernie Macmillan on her other side.
"Take out your wands," Dumbledore said.
The students took their wands out, and Rigel sheepishly made her way back over to her table, where her wand was safely stored inside her book bag.
Several students snickered, including Ron, though he sent her a good-natured wink as she passed him. Draco had a long-suffering look on his face, and when she got back into her place, Macmillan said lowly, "What did you think he meant by 'practical', Black?"
"We could have been running laps," Rigel shrugged.
In truth, she'd forgotten her wand was in her book bag until she went to reach for it. She was working on not doing that as much, but usually she forgot she was supposed to be working on it, and just…didn't. It slipped her mind in light of more important things, she supposed.
"Ready, Mr. Black?" Dumbledore said serenely. Rigel apologized for holding up the class, and Dumbledore nodded his acceptance easily, "Now then. We will be practicing and refining the first of the seven most common shields—the Protego Shield. Since you learned it last year, the spell should come naturally enough that we can make our exercise more interesting."
He conjured a large rubber ball from thin air, wordlessly and with nary a twitch of his wand, making several people gape with a resigned sort of awe. Whatever else could be said of the man, Dumbledore was an astonishingly talented wizard. The ball was twice the size of the quaffle, and just as red. Dumbledore floated the ball into the center of their circle, and took up a place next to Parvati Patil in the circle. Rigel glanced at Parvati briefly before focusing back on Dumbledore, but the girl had been avoiding her eyes since the incident in the Hospital Wing.
"When I start the ball, it will randomly target someone in our circle. That person is to erect a shield before the ball hits them—though it won't hurt if it does hit you. Once the ball hits either a person or a shield, it will switch targets and fly toward someone else. The ball could come at you at any time, so stay alert. It will be moving at the rate of a medium-powered curse, so if you are able to react in time to defend yourself, it is a good indicator of your reflexes and casting speed," Dumbledore raised his wand, "Ready? Begin."
With a flick of his wrist, the ball set off toward Ron Weasley, who shouted, "Protego!" a half-second before the ball impacted with his shield. It bounced off lightly and sped toward Pansy, who brought up a shield calmly just in time to intercept the ball. It ricocheted in the direction of Hannah Abbot, who flinched slightly before blurting out, "Protego!" and sending the ball flying at Theo. Theo called out the shield spell quickly—perhaps too quickly, as he was forced to hold the shield for a second or two until the ball reached him—the circle was just that large, with all four Houses of their year around it.
The ball bounced off toward Dumbledore himself, who cheerfully said, "Protego!" and swirled his wand in a curly-cue pattern. As if he needed to make it more obvious that he had no need of wand movements whatsoever. Rigel wondered if she'd ever be that good at spell-work.
Then she didn't have time to wonder, as the ball was headed straight for her.
"Rigel," Draco hissed from beside her.
Rigel raised her wand belatedly, and was about to say, "Protego," even as her heart dropped uncomfortably as she realized she wouldn't have time to get the shield in place because of her distraction, when her magic acted without her impetus.
The shimmering red shield bloomed into the air before her, just big enough to block the ball's trajectory. The red ball hit the shield a second later—and vanished. It dissolved straight into the shield, as though the shield had consumed it without the slightest amount of effort. Rigel was so startled—not by the presence of the shield, but of its effect on the ball—that she dropped her wand with a clatter. Then, when the shield didn't move, she frowned and consciously asked her magic to stop…whatever it was doing. She could feel the energy recede back from her skin to its proper place in her magical core, but it did so weakly, and a quick internal scan showed her secondary layer to be noticeably thin. As she had noticed the previous times her magic used it, whatever that shield was, it took up a lot of power.
She grimaced at the mildly freaked out looks on her classmates' faces. "I'm sorry, Professor," she said, "I didn't mean to do that."
Dumbledore eyed her with mild speculation, "What an interesting way of practicing magic you have, Mr. Black. Do you know what shield it was you used?"
Rigel shook her head slowly, "Not really. It seems to be an instinct of some kind, perhaps leftover accidental magic from my childhood. I don't understand it myself."
Dumbledore inclined his head gravely, ignoring the skeptical and confused faces of most of the other students, "Magic will ever remain a mystery to most of us, I fear. In any case, I can see it was an honest mistake, and as any professor knows, every mistake is truly a lesson in disguise. So: who can tell me what shield that was?"
The students exchanged glances, mostly blank, and Dumbledore said, "I'll give you a hint: It is one of the seven common shields I've told you about. You are well-versed with the first, and I have thus far demonstrated two of the others, so who would like to guess which of the remaining four this was, by observation of its effects alone?"
Macmillan spoke up confidently from Rigel's left, "I'd imagine that was the Depasco Shield. It's the sixth shield you told us about—you said it eats anything that comes into contact with it, and is difficult to maintain. Judging by how there's no trace of the ball left, and Black over here is pale as a ghost, I'd say that must be it."
Rigel had indeed felt herself blanch, though not from magic loss alone. She had been unknowingly casting the Depasco Shield for weeks. If what Dumbledore said about that shield was true, it was a stroke of pure luck she hadn't hurt either herself or someone else with it yet. The shield was dangerous to both the castor and his enemy, because it did not distinguish self from other. Most shields would allow their castor to penetrate them from the inside. This weakened the effect of the shield, but prevented castors from becoming trapped in their own shields. The Depasco—Latin for something like 'to consume' according to Theo—simply dissolved anything that touched it into particles too tiny to be perceived by the human eye. The advantage was that nothing short of spells on caliber with the Unforgivables would be able to destroy the shield, and it was especially useful against physical threats. Unfortunately, that power was a double-edged sword. Many a wizard had accidentally dissolved their own wand tip by holding it too close to the inside of the shield, for instance.
And she had used it against Selwyn.
She'd have to apologize as soon as she returned to the common room, and then have a serious sit down with her magic and explain why it couldn't use such a shield any more. Someone could have been completely vaporized if they'd come into contact with the shimmering shield, and Rigel didn't know what medi-wizardry could do for someone who had been reduced to his constituent particles, but she had a feeling it was absolutely nothing.
"Quite correct," Dumbledore said genially, "Ten points to Hufflepuff. Now, as useful as that shield is for stopping falling rubble, Mr. Black, this is perhaps not the best place for it. Care to try again?"
"Of course, sir," Rigel said, bending down to pick her wand up off the ground, "My apologies for interrupting the lesson."
"Knowledge gained is never something to be sorry for," Dumbledore said. He conjured another ball and sent it flying toward Rigel, who had plenty of time (now that she was paying attention) to ask her magic for a proper Protego shield before it hit.
The lesson continued, most of their classmates having no trouble with the shield. Then Dumbledore said, "Let's make it more interesting, shall we?" He waved his wand and two more balls came into play, whizzing over and around one another as they rebounded around the circle. The balls no longer flew in straight lines, instead zigzagging and changing course with little notice, and the number of people who fumbled the spell increased.
After ten more minutes of practice, Dumbledore said, "Now that we're all warmed up—a friendly competition. From now on, if the ball hits you, step out of the circle. The last remaining person in the circle will win ten points for their house. However," Dumbledore said, his eyes twinkling, "There is a new rule. In this game, you are not allowed to shield yourself." They all exchanged confused looks—how were they to stop the ball? Their professor looked self-satisfied as he went on, "You are, however, allowed to shield your classmates. So the person who wins will be the person standing next to the best protector."
Rigel wasn't sure what the purpose of the competition was, but she could tell there was some deeper meaning to it by the way the Headmaster twinkled maddeningly at them. Was it some sort of test? There were a lot of people standing next to other people not in their own Houses. If they only shielded those neighbors who belonged to their own House, would it be viewed as an indication of their character somehow? Dumbledore was always going on about House unity, so it was probably something of that nature.
The other students seemed to share Rigel's confusion—and judging by a few faces her suspicion—but they agreed to the competition readily enough. Draco was looking determined, and Rigel was glad Pansy would have one fierce defender, at least—on Pansy's other side was Daphne Greengrass. Rigel wasn't too sure what to expect from Macmillan, herself. She had a feeling he was still highly suspicious of her for her presence at the Hufflepuff prefect's attack. She also wasn't sure Draco would be able to shield both she and Pansy for any truly feasible length of time if neither of their other neighbors helped.
"There will be times when you need to erect a shield that is not directly in front of you," Dumbledore went on, "This will help you practice. I'll give you this tip as well: knowing when not to shield is equally as important as knowing when a shield is necessary."
Rigel understood that well enough. If they tried to keep a shield around someone constantly, it would drain them of energy unnecessarily, and make it hard to keep up. Also, if two people shielded the same person at once, it would be a waste of energy. So they had to judge whether the person on their neighbor's other side would be raising a shield first, then decide whether their own shield was necessary. Hard to do in a few short seconds.
On the other hand, he didn't say they couldn't cheat.
"Pansy," Rigel said.
Pansy leaned around from Draco's other side to say, "Yes?"
"I'll take the first shield, you take the next, and we'll keep alternating every time Draco is targeted so we don't have to overlap," Rigel suggested.
Pansy sent her a smile, "All right. I think your reserves are deeper than mine, though, so I'll probably be the first to give out."
Rigel smiled slightly in reassurance, "Let me know if you get tired, then, and I'll take both rotations until you recover."
Pansy nodded and resumed her ready position.
Draco smirked, "Looks like I'm going to win."
Macmillan scowled around Rigel at the blonde boy, "How do you figure that?"
"As long as I shield them, they shield me," Draco said, still grinning confidently.
Rigel huffed in amusement, saying quietly "And now that you've said that, Macmillan and Greengrass won't worry about shielding us at all."
Draco grimaced a bit sheepishly upon realizing he'd just ensured himself twice as much work.
Rigel thought for a moment, noticing something else that Dumbledore hadn't specified.
"Switch places with me, Draco," she said.
Draco blinked, then understanding dawned, "Good idea, Rye. Your stamina is the best, and it's points for Slytherin either way."
He and Rigel swapped places so that Rigel was in between Pansy and Draco. A few of their classmates looked toward Dumbledore, but the headmaster did nothing more than twinkle at them, so several students quickly did their own swaps, trying to get next to people they could team up with.
Dumbledore said nothing, but smiled a bit too widely as he conjured an additional two balls in the center of the circle. Now there were five in play, and they were moving slightly faster, as well.
After that there wasn't much time to talk. Everyone concentrated on the balls, trying to keep their neighbors from being hit. She did notice Dumbledore step out of the circle, leaving Parvati next to Hannah Abbot, who in turn was next to Blaise Zabini, with Greengrass still on Parvati's other side. Greengrass looked a bit put out at that—though surely she hadn't expected Dumbledore to shield Parvati the entire game so she wouldn't have to; it was a competition for the students, after all.
Rigel kept herself peripherally aware of the balls going around the circle, the way she would maintain awareness of the bludgers during a Quidditch game while still concentrating on the other players. She noted that Theo was isolated between two Ravenclaws—probably because Blaise had moved to stand between Abbot and Ron for reasons known only to himself. Millicent was next to Davis, and both girls seemed to be shielding one another reliably, if a bit reluctantly. Probably putting their animosity aside for the sake of House pride, Rigel imagined.
Crabbe was the first to get hit. Goyle hadn't been quick enough to protect him, and Terry Boot frankly hadn't bothered to try. Goyle in turn didn't attempt to shield Boot from any balls after that, which put a heavy strain on Boot's other neighbor, a Ravenclaw girl whose name Rigel wasn't sure of. Boot returned the favor, much to Lavender Brown's, (who was on the other side of Goyle) dismay.
Rigel shielded Pansy and Draco every time a ball came toward either one. This had the side effect of relieving Greengrass and Macmillan of half their work, but it was a small price to pay for her friends' guaranteed protection.
Things began to get ugly after a few people had been hit due to intentional neglect, rather than accidental incompetence.
Ron Weasley changed the game significantly when instead of only shielding, he shot a Shield-Breaking Hex at Lavender Brown. Her shield, which was supposed to protect Goyle, shattered just before the ball whizzed by and smacked Goyle in the chest.
"Lavender's on our side!" Parvati cried, scowling at Ron for a moment before going back to watching the balls.
"Goyle's not," Ron said shortly, "And he's the one who got hit."
Several people let out shouts about unfairness, but Ron only shrugged.
"The best defense is a good offense. Everyone knows that."
So now it was a game of taking out members of opposing houses through sabotage as much as it was defending their neighbors. They learned quickly to put up shields at the very last possible moment—otherwise someone would send a hex to break it before the ball got there. Dumbledore said nothing, and Rigel supposed it was good practice for conserving energy when spell casting in any case.
As the game became more aggressive, people dropped out quicker. Most people kept shielding their immediate neighbors, even if they were from opposing Houses, probably in case it was an ethics test Dumbledore had cooked up—not many wanted to look like a bad guy. Anyone they didn't have to protect by implication in the game's parameters, however, was fair game for shield-breaking hexes.
With five balls in play, there were times when both of someone's neighbors would be targeted at nearly the same time. Rigel twice had to ask her magic to perform shields in very quick succession to protect both Pansy and Draco from different balls, as neither Greengrass nor Macmillan had even made a pretense of shielding Draco or Pansy. Draco ignored Macmillan as well, but Pansy shielded Greengrass several times when Parvati didn't look like she'd get a shield up in time.
The game went on, until it dwindled down to about a dozen players. Macmillan had finally gotten hit when the Hufflepuff on his left was distracted shielding the person on her left. Greengrass was still in, as were Parvati, Abbott, Blaise, Ron, Boot, Brown, and the Hufflepuff next to Draco. The Gryffindors invariably targeted the shields of anyone next to a Slytherin—which left them plenty of targets, since there were still five Slytherins in the game—but those remaining had gotten pretty skilled at delaying their casting until the last possible moment.
It went on for another five minutes with no one getting hit, then Dumbledore added another ball. The circle was still very spread out, despite there being less people, because to close in meant having less time before a ball reached you, even though staying spread out meant a further distance for casting. Still, it was very crowded in the center with so many balls in play. Half the players were defending from a ball at any given time, and Rigel could see many of her classmates panting from the strain of doing the same charm so many times in a row.
Rigel noticed the clock on the far wall of the large classroom, and pitched her voice over the sound of people shouting "Protego!" and "Pertus!" to say, "What happens if we run out of time, Professor?"
Dumbledore clasped his hands as he thought about it, "I suppose I'd have to give everyone left ten points."
Everyone not in Slytherin House scowled at that, and the number of Pertus attempts to crack the shields of those protecting Slytherins increased. A minute later, balls targeted both Boot and the Hufflepuff Rigel didn't know very well at once. Ron and Brown both tried to shield Boot, Draco ignored the Hufflepuff, and the badger let out a disappointed groan when the ball bumped into her and tagged her out.
Then Blaise was targeted at the same time Abbott was. While he managed to shield her, Ron's shield over Blaise was disrupted by Parvati's Shield-Breaking Hex, and Blaise was tagged.
Next, Rigel was targeted at the same time Greengrass was. Pansy bit her lip, but it was her turn to shield Rigel, and there wasn't enough time between the balls to get two shields up in succession that time. Pansy turned her wand toward Rigel, looking a bit dismayed as she realized Parvati was busy shielding Abbott at the time, leaving Greengrass exposed.
As Pansy pointed her wand at Rigel, Rigel wordlessly pointed her own toward Pansy—or rather, toward Pansy's right. Rigel's shield flashed into being in front of Greengrass just before the ball impacted the magic barrier lightly and bounced away again. At the same time, Rigel saw a ball coming at Draco from the corner of her eye. Without thinking, she threw up another shield in front of Draco with an abrupt gesture of her left hand, letting both shields fall a moment later to conserve energy for the next attack.
Ron narrowed his eyes at Rigel from across the circle, a calculating gleam that Rigel didn't particularly like illuminating his gaze. Her next three shields were all met with attempts at Shield-Breaking. She actually had to re-cast a shield around Pansy in a spit-second when the first shield failed. It seemed she'd become the major target of the students who didn't want Slytherin to pull ahead in points. She guessed it made sense, since she had protected all three of her remaining Housemates.
Really, though, Dumbledore never said they could only shield those next to them. If he was going to award House points, of course it made sense to protect all members of your own House.
Greengrass stepped slowly sideways to close the gap between she and Pansy, probably figuring that if she was closer to the other Slytherins it would be easier for them to shield one another.
Boot went down next, with Brown being eliminated right after him before Ron even realized he was now responsible for her as well. It was just Draco, Rigel, Pansy, Greengrass, Parvati, Abbott, and Ron left. They were now in the unique situation of having to defend both of their neighbors all the time, as balls targeted people one after another after another in succession too fast to keep up with. In the next two minutes, no one even attempted a Shield-Breaking Hex, too focused on making shields as fast as they could. It might have been easier to just maintain a shield at that point, but none of them had a spare second to weigh the pros and cons.
Rigel almost didn't notice when Draco fumbled for a split-second while trying to shield her—almost. So caught up in the heat of the moment, spouting out shields left and right, she forgot they were in the middle of a game—or rather, her magic forgot.
Red bloomed in the air before her, dissolving the oncoming ball in an instant—along with Draco's Protego Charm, which he had managed to successfully cast in front of her at the last second.
Rigel lowered her arm shakily from where it was shielding Greengrass once again, and stepped backwards out of the circle. She hadn't meant to use that shield on herself, but she was disqualified nevertheless.
Dumbledore stepped forward and raised his wand at just that moment. All six balls stopped moving and the remaining six players all gasped for breath. "I think that's enough for today. Well done, well done everyone. We have five minutes left, so I'd like you all to answer this: what have you learned today?"
Dumbledore asked them that question at the end of every lesson. He said it wasn't enough to listen to an old man talk, if you weren't sure what you were listening to or what you should take from it.
"We learned how to work under pressure," Boot said, "And how to trust our reflexes in a combat-like scenario."
"Yes," Dumbledore said, "What else?"
"We learned to adjust our timing in order to shield someone other than ourselves, in a situation where there were multiple threats and a small window of opportunity," Millicent said.
"We learned to think outside the box," Abbott said, glancing at Rigel "Not to take the rules at face value."
"We learned to bend the rules in our favor," Ron said, "And to think ahead."
"We learned which of our classmates play fair," Blaise said, voice tinted with a hint of amusement, "And which of them don't care what anyone thinks of them, as long as they win." He eyed a few of their classmates—the ones who had done a lot more sabotaging and a lot less shielding when the game got tough.
"And which ones cheat," Macmillan snorted, glaring balefully at Rigel from where he stood amongst a group of Hufflepuffs.
"And which ones are sore losers," Theo smirked, "So, Professor…about those points?"
Pansy admonished Theo gently, but Dumbledore chuckled good-humoredly, "All in good time. What else have we learned?"
"We learned not to get in the way of a Depasco Shield," Millicent said wryly.
"Always a useful thing to know," Dumbledore agreed, "Now let me ask a different question—what if there were no points awarded at the end of the exercise? If the point of the exercise was simply to defend your neighbors from the ball, and no one won anything in the end, how would you have gone about it differently?"
"Well, we wouldn't have been throwing around Shield-Breaking Hexes," Brown said wryly, "I mean, we'd focus on just shielding."
"Hmm, what else?" Dumbledore said, "Anyone? No? What about you, Mr. Black? You were closest to an ideal solution in the very beginning."
Rigel thought for a moment, "If we weren't competing, we would all work together," Rigel decided eventually.
"How so?" Dumbledore asked mildly.
"If we were in a circle still, then everyone would just agree to shield the person on their right," Rigel said, "That way no one would have to worry about more than one person, mix-ups wouldn't occur, and it would probably be wise to arrange a series of signals before hand, in the event of problems like running out of energy, two balls attacking the same person, and things like that."
Dumbledore stroked his beard thoughtfully, "So if you had to sum up the key to success briefly in such a situation, what words would you use?"
"Organization," Rigel said.
"Nothing else?" Dumbledore pressed, raising his eyebrows, "Isn't there another element that is important to your plan?"
Rigel stared at the Headmaster blankly. What was she missing?
"Don't bother, Professor," Draco spoke up, his voice surprisingly cool, "Rigel doesn't know what you're talking about."
"Draco?" Rigel turned toward her friend, a little confused.
Draco leveled a look that was almost a glare at her. Rigel was taken aback. She didn't think she'd ever seen Draco that angry with her—not truly angry. "He's talking about trust, Rigel. Trust. A plan like that won't work unless you trust the person to the left of you to cover your back."
Rigel frowned, "Obviously that was implied—"
"Trust them, Rigel," Draco gritted out, "As in—not wasting time covering yourself and ruining the whole exercise because you don't think they're going to come through."
Rigel paused. Oh.
"Draco," Rigel began.
"Don't 'Draco' me, Rigel," Draco scowled, turning away from her slightly in a tangible dismissal, "When you lie, I don't care, because I know you have your reasons—as ridiculous as they sometimes are. But this isn't about not trusting me with your secrets—this is you not trusting me to do something right that you'd already seen me do right. It's insulting, and it says a lot about your opinion of your friends."
Rigel swallowed around a lump in her throat, not sure what to say.
Dumbledore broke the awkward silence in the classroom with a small cough, "Indeed, as Mr. Malfoy has pointed out, trust is an essential element of any plan. When you can't trust everyone around you to work for the greater good, achieving a goal is considerably more difficult, is it not? If you can only rely on yourself, you are at a disadvantage against those, like several of your Slytherin classmates, who put their differences aside to work together. Now, as I believe Mr. Nott pointed out, I have points to award. Let's see, we'll make it 30 points to Slytherin, 20 points to Gryffindor, and 10 points to Hufflepuff. Well done, everyone. Enjoy the rest of your day."
They filed out of the classroom after collecting their things.
Draco set off at a quicker pace than usual, leaving Rigel and Pansy behind as he made his way down the hall.
Pansy looked torn between Draco's back and Rigel's lost expression. Noticing this, Rigel summoned up a rueful twist to her mouth, and said, "Catch up to him, will you, Pan? If he'll listen, tell him I'm sorry."
Pansy bit her lip and said softly, "I don't think that's what he wants to hear right now, Rigel."
The blonde girl picked up her pace and weaved gracefully among their classmates after Draco.
Blaise sidled up alongside Rigel and said, "He'll come around. You hurt his pride by insinuating that he was incompetent in front of all our classmates—and that after assigning him the very task you took from his hands."
"I didn't mean to," Rigel said a bit sharply, wishing Blaise didn't always feel the need to explain the world so bluntly. She frowned at the ground as they walked, "My magic acts without my control when it thinks I'm in trouble."
"Well, don't tell Draco that," Blaise said, inspecting his fingernails, "Hearing that you only subconsciously distrust him won't make him feel any better, and knowing that you feel unsafe while standing right next to him will probably make him feel worse."
"Great," Rigel said, an unfamiliar bite to the edge of her words, "Now I know what not to say."
"Then you're halfway there," Blaise said, seemingly unaffected by her unfriendly tone.
Rigel glanced over at Blaise's blank expression, then sighed, "Thank you, Blaise. I probably would have said something to that effect otherwise."
"Don't worry, I'm sure whatever you end up saying will be equally stupid," Blaise said nonchalantly, "But that's part of your charm, Rigel. Draco won't hate you for putting your foot in your mouth, any more than you hate him for bringing his insecurities up in front of everyone like an idiot just because he was upset."
"I don't know if I feel better or worse after talking to you," Rigel said wryly.
"You don't really know much of anything, do you, Rigel?"
The next morning Draco wasn't speaking to her, and Pansy was ignoring them both for being 'unreasonable boys,' so there was no one to glance over her shoulder asking questions as she read the very thick letter she received from Archie. It came with a small package, which she set aside to open later. Plain black ink on the cover meant it was safe to open, so Rigel did, curious about what merited so many pages from her cousin, who, though he had a tendency to ramble, was usually too busy with his Healer's studies to spare her more than general, if upbeat, platitudes.
The most extraordinary thing happened the other day…
Archie slipped through the classroom door just before it slammed shut behind him.
"Almost late for the third time this week, Mr. Potter," Professor Shoehorn remarked, not even bothering to turn away from the notes she was writing on the blackboard.
"Apologies, Professor," Archie said cheerfully, knowing Shoehorn wasn't really that upset with him.
He shot Hermione a grin as he sat down, "Thanks for saving me a seat, 'Mione."
The brown-haired girl rolled her eyes at him perfunctorily, "You sit there every day, Harry. I'm hardly staving off our classmates' greedy designs."
"Well then thank you for sitting next to the seat I sit in every day," Archie said, still grinning, "I guess you do like me after all."
Hermione huffed and shuffled her papers embarrassedly, "Someone has to make sure you still get the notes when you show up late—what if one day when you're a Healer someone's life depends on something you missed?"
"If one day someone's life depends on how well I can—" he glanced up at the heading on the board, "identify magical venoms…oh, actually that does sound important." He scratched his head, "Well, in any case I wasn't actually late. Almost late is not quite late, after all. In fact, back home we call that on time."
"Maybe, but it is one step closer to actually late," Hermione said in her best lecturing tone, "Scraping by isn't only discouraged because teachers like you to try your best, you know. There's a such thing as leaving a margin of error. If something had gone wrong, you would have been late—it's called planning pessimistically."
Archie smiled winningly at Hermione, "I do that all the time. Like when getting a girl flowers, always better to get a round dozen than to hope she isn't disappointed by one."
Hermione rolled her eyes, "Who have you ever bought flowers for—your mom?"
With the ease of habit, Archie suppressed the expression that would otherwise have crossed his face when mothers were brought up—after all, Harry Potter had a mother, why should he be sad? He twirled a finger around Hermione's curly hair and said, "I'd buy you flowers every day if you wanted, 'Mione."
Hermione swatted his hand away briskly. He rubbed it with exaggerated forlornness, then said, "Girls are about the only situation where a positive margin of error is a good thing, though. Otherwise it's at best a waste, at worst ruinously detrimental."
"What do you mean?" Hermione said, frowning.
"I mean, we can't do that in Healing, can we?" Archie said, "When someone has a cold you don't drown them in Pepper-up potion. Take these poisons we're learning about today—when making an antidote, you can't have too much or too little of any one thing. You have to get it just right. So really, I'm training myself to emulate perfection by being exactly on time every day."
Hermione glowered at him, "And when administering the antidote, will you give the patient exactly the amount you think they need to fight off the poison, or would you err on the side of caution and give a bit more in case you missed a pocket of venom somewhere?"
Archie pursed his lips, "Well if I was the Hospital Treasurer, I'd tell you to—"
"Harry!" Hermione said, exasperated.
Archie laughed, "All right, I guess we're both right, aren't we?"
"You're both disruptive, that's for sure," Professor Shoehorn told them, brushing her hands of chalk dust and stepping away from the board, "I don't suppose either of you has copied…" she trailed off, raising her eyebrows at the auto-quill on Archie's desk that was clearly just finishing a perfect copy of what was on the board. "Hmm."
Hermione looked at the board in dismay, then scowled furiously when she saw Archie's quill. She scrambled for a fresh sheet of parchment and a bottle of ink, but Archie chuckled and shooed the auto-quill away from his notes. He shifted the notes onto Hermione's desk and pulled out a new sheet of parchment, "That one's for you, 'Mione. Since I distracted you and all. I'll write my own."
Hermione looked torn between wanting to copy the board herself, and not wanting to get behind in class—everyone else had been copying it out as the Professor wrote. After a moment of struggling, she sighed, "I'll re-copy them later tonight so I learn. Thank you, Harry."
"Hey, someone's got to make sure you don't miss anything—I mean, what if someday someone's life depended on it?" Archie grinned unrepentantly as Hermione's hesitantly thankful expression dissolved into a fresh narrow-eyed glare.
"Oh, just be quiet."
After their Diagnostics class, they had a two-hour break for lunch. When they were third years, they'd be able to join the upperclassmen in going down to the nearby village for lunch, but for now they had to eat with the other students who were either too young or too lazy to get food outside of the mess hall.
They could, however, take their food outside and eat it on the front lawn. Since it was early April, the weather was fairly cooperative. Archie and Hermione sat by themselves under a shady oak. Archie considered himself to be friends with everyone, but Hermione especially, and he didn't much mind that none of their classmates bothered the two of them very often. He had a feeling they were seen as a unit—Harry and Hermione, the two overachievers who had the best grades in every class. Unapproachable and uninterested in anything unrelated to learning more about Healing.
Archie didn't exactly agree with this assessment—he and Hermione did plenty of things besides study, and neither of them was exactly unfriendly toward others—but he also didn't see the need to correct their assumptions. He was happy just being especially good friends with Hermione—who really needed more than one friend at a time, anyway?
There was something ironic in that—he, Archie, having only one serious friend at school, and Harry—as Rigel—having twice that many at least, but it was a fitting sort of irony, that supported their deception perfectly. Harry's parents were glad she had at least one friend, and Sirius saw nothing unusual in Archie being on good terms with many in his House.
Hermione demanded he quiz her over the basic treatments for different organ failures, which they were being tested over next week in their General Internal Healing class.
"Brain failure," Archie said.
Hermione froze for a moment, before scowling and swatting him on his arm, "That doesn't count!"
"The brain is an organ, Hermione," Archie said in his most patronizing tone.
Hermione huffed, "One which we haven't learned how to treat in the event that it fails, Harry."
"Still, you should know these things," Archie said loftily, "So, if you had to guess, how would you treat brain failure?"
"Like this," Hermione said, whapping him again, this time over the head, "Dunce."
"You're so violent, 'Mione," Archie said, waggling his eyebrows, "I like it."
She flushed to her roots and tossed her apple core at him. Archie caught it easily enough, inspecting it seriously, "You missed a bite." He tossed it back, "The apple a day only works if you eat the whole thing."
Hermione bit off the last bit defiantly, looking like an angry chipmunk as she chewed pointedly and swallowed, "Ask me another one."
Archie laughed, "Liver failure."
Hermione perked up and answered with her usual attention to detail and thoroughness.
"…and in the event that the patient has a history of substance abuse—"
Archie cut her off with a laugh, "Now who's bringing up stuff we haven't learned yet?"
Hermione lifted her nose, "It was in a footnote."
"A footnote in one of the books assigned for optional reading," Archie said, still laughing a bit, "On next week's syllabus, no less."
"The fact that you know that means you read it too," Hermione shot back.
Archie shrugged, "So I did, but you set the covered-in-class-only precedent in this study session when you refused to admit your ignorance about brain failure. No take-backs."
"You're such a child," Hermione sighed.
"Why would I want to be anything else?" Archie shrugged, "Judging by the expression on Professor Tallum's face, adulthood isn't all it's touted."
"He never looked so stressed before the equivalent of several vats of Polyjuice disappeared from under his nose last year," Hermione said mildly, "The other professors still rib him about it at dinner, I hear."
"He never proved any was missing," Archie said casually, "They couldn't properly account for them all, but of course it was quite a mess—hard to account for anything in those circumstances."
"You never told me what you were doing with it all," Hermione said.
"No, I guess I didn't," Archie said, twisting a finger in his ear indolently.
Hermione groaned, "Come on, Harry. I've been sooo patient."
Archie glanced over at her markedly impatient expression, "Yes, I can see that."
"I have," Hermione insisted, "I know you weren't using it, because I've been watching you almost a year and a half and every day you go at least an hour between drinking anything—"
"I don't know whether to be impressed or scared."
"—but no one just does that for no reason, and I've been waiting for you to explain—"
"Even though I said I was never going to?"
"—but I deserve to know! I did half the work," Hermione finished.
Archie was frankly impressed she'd held herself back for so long. Unfortunately, as earnest as she obviously was, he had nothing to give her.
"You do deserve to know, but I can't tell you," Archie said, shrugging, "I'm sorry, 'Mione, but you'll probably never know."
Hermione narrowed her eyes dangerously, "Never is a big word, Harry."
"Not as big as melodramatic, which you are being," Archie said, smiling softly, "Really, I'd tell you if I could."
Hermione sighed a bit, "You know, I think you would, Harry. I think you would. If you ever can tell me—do."
"The moment it becomes possible," Archie assured her, "Now enough of this sad no-can-do stuff. What would you do if your patient had a failing gallbladder?"
Archie was walking back from his last class of the day—gym, which was down at the tracks. He was later than the rest of the guys in his class coming back, because as usual he had dithered in the locker room until they'd all gone before changing back into his regular school uniform.
He was taking Harry's advice seriously—no one ever saw him naked. It wasn't much, but in the absence of conclusive proof…it might be enough to make a difference some day between caught and merely suspected.
He took the long way back, as was his habit, around the greenhouses on the path that skirted the edge of the forest on the West side of the school. AIM was surrounded by forest on all sides, though the forest wasn't anything like the Forbidden Forest Harry wrote of. It was little more than a ring of forest maybe half a mile across at its thickest. Its only purpose, as far as Archie could see, was as aesthetic concealment for the great stone wall that also surrounded the school. The wall was ridiculously tall, but the trees were still taller.
Archie almost didn't hear the person slip out of the trees onto the path behind him, but whoever it was snapped a twig—probably intentionally, as Archie was of the opinion that no one in real life actually snapped twigs ominously when they snuck up on a person.
Archie therefore wasn't terribly concerned as he turned around curiously and raised his eyebrows at the man who slipped out of the trees and onto the path, "Hello?"
"Do you know Harry Potter?" the man asked. He had a rugged look about him. Tall, broad across the chest and shoulders, and nearly intimidating—nearly, because the grin on his face was nothing close to threatening.
Archie scratched the back of his neck uncomfortably, "Well, that's an interesting question. Who's asking?"
The man gave a jaunty bow, though there was something slightly insincere about it, "I am, of course. I have a package for Harry."
Archie made a non-committal sound of understanding, "Any reason this package can't be mailed to Harry?"
The big man shrugged, "Not particularly, only I've got a message to pass along as well."
Archie raised an eyebrow, "And this message is in a language that doesn't yet have a system of written denotation?"
The man laughed jovially, "No, I daresay that's not the problem. The message is of a personal nature, that's all."
Archie snorted, "You look a bit old to have a personal message to deliver to a twelve-year-old. You Harry's dad?"
The guy's face fell a bit, "It's not like that! He'd have my head right proper for even thinking—look, can you just tell me where to find Harry? I can't spend much time here."
Archie considered the man carefully, wondering if he could pull this off. Finally, he decided he had no time to come up with a better plan. "Well, I know it's been a while…but you're looking at me, Swift." It was a risk, but only a small one. Harry had described her friends from Diagon Alley on several occasions, and tall, brown-haired guy with an easy smile sounded like one Marek Swiftknife. "I assume the message is from Leo, and the package from Krait?" With that, Archie had officially exhausted his knowledge of Harry's doings in Diagon Alley. Hopefully that would be enough to startle the man into believing him.
The man blinked, then tilted his head confusedly, "Harry? You…you're really Harry? You look so different! Taller, and…I don't know, different. I guess it has been a while, though. Why didn't you visit over the holiday? Leo said you—" He stopped, frowning briefly, "Wait, I saw you come out of the boys' side of the locker rooms earlier."
Archie mentally grimaced—the man had been following him longer than he thought. Wait, didn't Harry's friends in the Alley still think she was a boy?
"Of course," Archie said, feigning confusion, "Why? What has Leo been telling you?"
"He—" Swift trailed off, and groaned, "Well, I feel the fool," he laughed sheepishly, "He made it sound so reasonable, you know, that you might be a girl in disguise, or something, and how I should look for a skirt just in case…"
Archie laughed quietly—because Harry would never laugh loudly, "Leo got you pretty good. How long did you spend looking for a girl version of me?"
Swift laughed as well, "Suppose I should have known better than to believe anything the King says—well, I'm sorry I didn't recognize you. I was looking for a skirt, but I should've known those eyes anywhere, I guess."
Archie shrugged, "It's okay. Leo hinted he might do something like this, so I admit I was having you on at first as well."
Swift gave him a peculiar look, but smiled nonetheless, "Yeah, I guess I walked right into it. Anyway, here's this—from Krait, like you guessed. He woulda mailed it, but Leo wanted to send you a message anyway, so he volunteered me to deliver both the package and the letter personally."
"Is that so?" Archie said distractedly, wondering at the implications of Lionel Hurst extending his interest in his cousin so far.
"Yeah," Marek went on thoughtfully, "You know, I think he worries about you a bit. He's used to having all his friends close, you know? Where he can keep an eye on them. I guess with you all the way out here, he just wanted an excuse to check up on you."
Archie's face didn't betray one iota of the unease he felt at hearing that. What was Harry doing, making such heavy-handed friends?
He took out a small packet and two letters, handing them to Archie and then tucking his hands into his pockets, "So you'll be around this summer won't you? I know you were real busy over the holidays—even His Highness only saw you once or twice, I gather. Rispah asks after you sometimes."
"Please give my best wishes to the Lady," Archie said, a bit uncomfortable with the conversation moving back into personal waters, "I'll be around, of course, but this summer I've got an internship at the Potions Guild."
"Oh, yeah, His Highness mentioned that—will it take up much of your time, then?" Swift asked.
"I'm not sure yet, but it's supposed to be rather intensive," Archie said, "Listen, it was great to see you, Swift—I've got to get back for dinner, though. Give everyone my best—except Leo. Just give the King whatever you think he deserves."
Swift grinned broadly, "Sure thing, lad. I'll be off, then. Stay well."
Marek disappeared into the trees. Archie wasn't sure how he was going to get back over the school wall, but he frankly had bigger things to worry about—like how Harry was going to explain things to Leo when his man reported that Harry Potter was very much a boy.
Isn't that interesting? I never imagined my friends from London would go to so much trouble to look me up here. I guess I've made an impression on them. What do you think about my little joke with Marek? You know I love to keep people guessing.
Let me know how things are going on your end—and stay away from giant snakes, for Merlin's sake, Rigel.
Rigel folded the letter slowly and tucked it into her schoolbag. There were two other letters within Archie's letter, one from Leo and one from Krait. Krait's explained that the small package contained several rolls of new recipes he'd managed to get hold of, with requests from Burke to send off a sample of each new recipe she completed when she had the time, in case they inspired him to expand his order in the future.
She opened the letter from Leo and scanned it, but it was the usual questions—how AIM was going, how her Healing studies were going, was Krait working her too hard, etc. There was nothing in the letter that indicated why Leo would do something so blatantly antagonistic.
Archie was worried about Leo finding out that Harry Potter was a boy at school, and thinking it odd, but Rigel knew better. Leo had told her that he already knew she 'pretended' to be a boy at AIM, because he'd sent someone to ask around about her before. The real question was why Leo would send Marek looking for a girl, when he knew very well Marek wouldn't find one? Was he deliberately trying to make things difficult for her? She knew he disapproved of her continued deception, but would he really try to deliberately sabotage it?
She thought carefully about how to approach this new development throughout classes that day, but that evening when she sat down to write her letter she still wasn't quite sure what to say.
Eventually, she decided to approach Leo with a question, instead of a flat out accusation.
Good to hear from you. Tell me, did you send Marek here in an intentional plot to reveal all of my secrets, or was that accidental? I'm not as upset as I am confused—though Marek might be both when you next see him. I may have intimated that you played a rather ingenious joke on him, but you'll talk your way out of it. I'm sure you enjoy surprises as much as I do, after all. In the interest of facilitating consistency between the two of us, however, I'd like to know this: you know already that here at AIM I am as much myself as I was when you first met me. Why, then, did you send Marek armed with the truth when it would do him no good? I sincerely hope you have a reason beyond simply scaring the magic out of me. Tell the next person you send with a letter to look for pants, and give my best to everyone, again.
She had another session with Snape that night, lending her magic to imbuing the potion he was researching. When she appeared in Lab One, however, Snape took one look at her and gave an irritated snort.
"What is wrong, Mr. Black?" he asked, turning to the table of supplies and efficiently taking apart the stratifying apparatus before storing it in its case.
Rigel took a moment to make sure her face betrayed none of her emotions, wondering how Snape had concluded she was upset so quickly, then shook her head in feigned confusion, "Nothing, sir. I look forward to continuing tonight."
"For someone who lies so often, Mr. Black, you are not exceedingly skilled in the art," Snape said coolly, not looking at her as he carried the unused silver cauldron across the room and locked it up securely in one of his many cabinets.
"My problems are not impressive enough to need airing, Professor," Rigel said, her voice as polite as she could make it while refusing to answer his question.
"Only impressive enough to have you moping over them, then?" Snape's sarcasm was on-form tonight, Rigel thought.
"I'm not sure moping is the word I'd—"
"Does this unimpressive problem have to do with the reason Mr. Malfoy is currently not speaking to you?" Snape asked with studied disinterest.
Rigel suppressed the flinch she knew Snape was looking for, and said, "I wouldn't presume to know Draco's motivations for anything, sir."
Snape paused in his clearing away of materials to scowl at her, "I suppose you also wouldn't presume to hazard as guess as to why Mr. Malfoy spent two hours sulking in my office yesterday evening?"
"Did you ask him, sir?" Rigel tried.
"Apparently he did not feel that the problem could be adequately explained in words," Snape said, "He was content to wallow silently in his misery, a here-to-fore unprecedented occurrence, I can assure you."
"Perhaps the problem is rather personal," Rigel said.
"Or perhaps he feels that to discuss it would be would be a betrayal of someone else's confidences," Snape said flatly.
Rigel considered this, "I wouldn't think it to be." At Snape's unamused look, she allowed, "Though perhaps Draco is of a different mind."
"Enough sidestepping the issue, Mr. Black," Snape said sharply, "If there is a problem in my House, I expect it to be dealt with."
"We will, sir, we just need a bit of—"
"I have seen no evidence of this thus far," Snape interrupted, "In fact, your current solution seems to involve the both of you avoiding one another as much as you avoid the subject. Explain. Now."
Rigel suppressed a resigned sigh, "Yes, sir. Draco is angry with me, because I did something that seemed in his eyes a fundamental betrayal of trust."
Snape's face was very blank, and Rigel wondered if he wasn't holding himself back from making an ugly accusation. At the slight pang of hurt in her stomach, she reminded herself that Snape had no reason to trust the son of his childhood rival, and every reason to worry about Draco, his own godson. "And is he mistaken in his assessment?" the Potions Master asked evenly.
Rigel hesitated, long enough that Snape's eyes flashed dangerously. She swallowed carefully, "He is not entirely wrong, sir, but he is also oversimplifying the situation."
"Pray tell," Snape said, voice tight.
"You know that sometimes my magic does things without my…direction," Rigel began.
Snape's eyebrow snapped up, "I was under the impression that this phenomenon largely dissipated with the acquisition of a properly matched wand."
Rigel inclined her head, "It did, for the most part. With my wand, I can control my magic very easily—it finally does what I tell it to, when I tell it to. However, it still at times does things I don't tell it to do. If I consciously try and make it not do something, it always listens eventually, but I can't be consciously telling it not to do anything all the time, so it's hard to predict when I need to exert control."
Snape stared at her for a moment, "Usually when a child gains control over his magic, incidents of accidental magic dissipate as a consequence. I do not believe it common for a wand to merely facilitate a wizard's control in addition to continued bouts of accidental magic."
Rigel was suddenly struck by what a silly term 'accidental magic' really was. It wasn't as if magic randomly, accidentally spilled out from a child and affected the world in purposeless ways. Magic always acted for a reason, in her experience.
"Most of my accidental magic stopped," Rigel said thoughtfully, "I mean, my magic doesn't change spells I'm actively trying to cast anymore. It's just that it also casts spells on its own, sometimes."
"Magic does not cast its own spells," Snape said, "Accidental magic isn't ordered magic like a spell is. It merely reacts in a naturalistic way to a child's subconscious emotions. It becomes a general force manifesting the child's will, not anything as specific as a spell. That's why the most common form of accidental magic is some sort of physical change to the world around a child—an object moved from one place to the next, an object altered or transformed into something else, broken things becoming whole, whole things becoming broken—it's all basic changes of states, untailored to a specific result or to a specific kind of object as spells are."
Rigel frowned, "That's not what my magic is doing, then."
Snape frowned back, "Yes, it is. Last year you slowed Mr. Longbottom's descent from a fall, did you not? Your magic created a physical force to protect you from Mr. Jordan—these are classic, if extreme examples of accidental manifestation of magic."
"But that's not all," Rigel said, confused, "It used to be that when I cast a transfiguration on something it would come out completely different—not just changing the state of the object, like setting it on fire or vanishing it or something. I tried to change a spice shaker into a rock once, and my magic turned it into a postcard, with an inscription and everything. That sounds specific enough to be a spell, doesn't it?"
Snape considered this, "You say that sort of thing stopped when you got your wand, though? That is a rather unusual transfiguration, but it still may have been accidental—"
Rigel interrupted with a frustrated head shake, "You just said accidental magic responds to a child's will. I wanted Neville to stop falling, and I wanted Jordan to back off, but I've never had a fierce, unconscious desire for a postcard, as far as I know. It didn't have a purpose, it was just my magic being cheeky. There's more, too. My magic has stopped changing things while I actively try for a specific result, but it still casts its own spells—real spells, ones I haven't learned yet."
"Impossible," Snape scowled, "You must have forgotten you know the spells. Perhaps you have an affinity for wandless magic, and didn't realize you were willing the spells to be cast."
Rigel pressed her lips together with frustration, "I didn't know what the Depasco Shield was until Dumbledore taught it to our class, but my magic used it weeks ago, to shield me from flying rubble."
Snape's face lost what little color he had, "That shield is extremely dangerous. Are you sure that's what manifested?"
Rigel nodded, "Yes. It was red, dissolved things on contact, and took an extremely heavy toll on my magical core."
Snape seemed to be thinking fast, "Perhaps…sometimes a child's magic is able to reproduce a spell that has been cast around him significantly often. The child's magic…copies the signature of a spell if it is cast in proximity often enough. There have been cases…but it is exceedingly rare that a spell will be cast often enough to for a child's magic to carry the imprint of it. At most, it may give the child an affinity for certain kinds of spells later on, though that is unproven research, and goes deep into arguments about Light and Dark affinities, and how a child's magical core responds to outside influence while developing. At any rate…this is concerning news, Mr. Black. That sort of spell manifesting without your control could seriously injure your fellow students."
"I know, sir," Rigel said, "It hasn't hurt anyone so far, but I'm not sure how far my influence over my magic extends. Even if unconsciously I don't want my magic to hurt anyone, fear or surprise might override that concern on a basic level, in which case my magic may lash out." She felt equal parts nervous and relieved to be telling Snape this. It was unnerving to report such a weakness to someone with so much control over her life, but maybe he could fix it, the way he'd known what to do when her wand wouldn't work.
Snape took a considering breath. "At this point, I am not sure how to proceed. That a Despaco shield could be cast at any time in a school of adolescents is...worrying. I could arrange for a magical dampener for you, but you would have to remove it during lessons in order to practice, thereby negating the purpose of having it for a large portion of your day, and sometimes when a developing core is dampened for too long the child's magic ends up even more out of his control when it is taken off, because by relying on it he doesn't practice controlling it on a subconscious level as other children do. On the other hand, if it is truly beyond your control already…"
"I'm not sure it's beyond my control," Rigel said fairly, "When I ask it to do something, it always does, and the same when I expressly forbid it to do something. It's just that I can't know all the possibly dangerous things it might try to do until it does them. Now that I know what the Depasco is, I'm sure my magic will stop using it. It's the unknown I'm worried about."
Snape rubbed his temple, "That does not make any sense. Your magic cannot know spells you yourself do not know. That spell had to have been cast around you before, for your magic to emulate it instinctively."
"But you said yourself the spell is dangerous to cast around children—who would have done so around me, at an age that I was too young to remember?" Rigel pointed out.
"Who indeed," Snape said darkly. Rigel didn't like the look on his face—the bitter, slightly contemptuous look of a man who thought the answer was obvious, but knew better than to think his audience would agree or even entertain the idea. It made her think he suspected someone from her family, like Sirius, or James. Rigel knew better, though. Her father and uncle would never be that irresponsible. Not around their own family members.
"Maybe the Despaco was a fluke, then," Rigel said, "Most of the time, my magic does seem to act within the usual parameters of accidental magic. I'll work harder on controlling it, sir. I'll talk to my magic, and see if—"
"Will you kindly stop referring to your own magic as some kind of proto-sentient being separate from yourself?" Snape snapped, "This is part of the problem, I think. You see your magic as something other than part of you, something you have no right to control, and so of course the magic is uncontrollable."
Rigel blinked, "But if it can respond to my own views of it and react accordingly, doesn't that prove that it is semi-sentient at least—"
"No, Mr. Black," Snape said, exasperated, "Your magic responds to your will because it is a part of you. If you believe it to be unwieldy, it will become unwieldy because you made it so. You are controlling it, whether you realize it or not, by having beliefs about it and acting on them. Magic reacts to will naturally, Mr. Black. It is not an indication that your magic is somehow different than every other wizard's magic. You must cease this naïve tendency of thought, or it is only going to get worse."
Rigel could tell that Snape didn't want to hear any disagreement, so she kept silent, but she couldn't help but think that she'd begun regarding her magic as out of control after it had proved itself to be, not the other way around.
Snape released a long breath, which in a less controlled man would have been called a sigh, "We have wandered from the point. What does this have to do with Mr. Malfoy's ire?"
Rigel recalled the beginning of the conversation, and grimaced, "It was in Professor Dumbledore's class. We did an exercise in which I was supposed to shield Draco and he was supposed to shield me, but at one point my magic, without my conscious instruction, shielded me when it looked like Draco wasn't going to get his shield up in time."
"Ah," Snape's lips twisted wryly, "I might have supposed the problem involved a slight to Draco's not insignificant ego."
Rigel was tempted to defend her friend, but Snape didn't sound as though he meant anything terribly insulting by it. From the way he'd slipped and called him 'Draco' she rather thought he was fond of his godchild's somewhat petulant pride. Come to think of it, Rigel was a bit fond of it herself, which was probably why she humored it so often.
"Sir," she said, tentatively, "This may be out of line, but is there anything you think I could do to…make Draco not mad at me faster?"
Snape sneered slightly, "If you knew how foolhardy it was to ask me, of all people, the best method for keeping friends…" he snorted, but relented, "Draco doesn't respond well to apologies. His father has taught him that if someone is truly sorry, they will change how they act. You would do well to make overt, meaningful changes to how you deal with him. And an offering of strawberry tarts would not go awry," he added sardonically.
Rigel nodded slowly, "Thank you, sir."
"Now get out of my lab," Snape said, "You have wasted enough of my time with your schoolyard troubles." Rigel wisely didn't point out that he had demanded she do just that.
She inclined her head respectfully, and turned to go.
"And Mr. Black," Snape added sternly. She turned to face him again. "Control your magic."
"Yes, sir," she said.
If only it were so simple.
Rigel headed back to the common room, planning to fill the extra hours that evening with Archie's Healing textbooks—from the sound of his letter, she had fallen slightly behind that semester.
As she entered the common room, Selwyn barked at her from a table nearby, "Black! Where's your escort?"
Rigel paused, "Professor Snape let me go early, so I hadn't arranged one until later this evening."
Selwyn narrowed kohl-rimmed eyes dangerously, "And you didn't think to ask Professor Snape to patronus-call another prefect, or walk you back himself?"
Rigel shook her head slowly, "No, I didn't think of it. I'm sorry."
"You always are," Selwyn scoffed, "Just don't ask me to feign surprise when the basilisk gets you."
"That's a bit harsh, Alice," Rosier spoke up from where Rookwood was proofreading his essay, "At least he had an escort to begin with."
Selwyn shot Rosier an unimpressed look, "It's not enough to only sometimes think about being cautious. Caution is only effective if it's applied consistently."
"It's just difficult to take every eventuality into consideration from the start," Rigel said weakly.
"If you're a Gryffindor, I'm sure it is," Selwyn said, "But you aren't a Gryffindor, Black. You're a snake. Snakes have to look after their own skin. You've got a lot of people looking out for yours right now, but don't expect it to last if you can't demonstrate a basic concern for your own wellbeing. If you don't care about your safety, others will wonder why they should bother."
"I do care about my safety," Rigel said, "I don't rush around looking for trouble, or anything. I just have a lot on my mind, so sometimes I forget—"
"You can't just forget, Black, that's what I'm saying," Selwyn said, "Whatever else is filling up that air-brain inside your thick skull, it's not as important as survival. Where's your wand?"
"My wand?" Rigel blinked at the abrupt change in subject.
"Yes, Black, your wand," Selwyn snapped, "That thing that can only save your life if you have it."
Rigel patted her robes, and produced it rather triumphantly from the third pocket she checked, "Here."
Selwyn's jaw was clenched, and even Rookwood looked to be fighting a grimace when Rigel glanced at him. She looked back at Selwyn as the Head Girl said, "If you have to look for it, you're already three steps closer to disaster. Pick a pocket right now, and from now on always keep your wand in that pocket—no where else. I'll be checking you randomly for the next month, and every time your wand isn't in that pocket, I'm docking five points from Slytherin."
Rigel's ears burned, but she obediently stowed her wand in the right-side pocket closest to her waist, "Yes, Head Girl Selwyn."
"Don't act all stiff and offended, Black, it's for your own good," Selwyn said, "Danger doesn't come when you're waiting for it, no matter what the lions think. It comes in the dark, it comes from behind you, it comes from places you'd never expect, and it comes when you think nothing is wrong."
Rigel nodded politely, fighting a grimace when it seemed that Selwyn wasn't close to being finished. The older girl opened her mouth to continue, but Rosier interrupted hastily.
"Thank you, Alice," he said, standing gracefully from his seat and clapping the Head Girl's shoulder bracingly, "I'm sure Rigel understands your meaning perfectly. He won't forget anymore, will you Rigel?"
Rigel shook her head solemnly. Rosier stepped between she and Selwyn, prattling on reassuringly to Selwyn while gesturing subtly with a hand behind his back for Rigel to make a quick exit. Rigel nodded politely to Rookwood, who was now pointedly perusing a textbook on avian anatomy, and began edging backwards slowly.
Rosier stepped backwards as well, slinging an arm around her shoulder and saying, "I'll help Rigel practice stowing his wand right now, in fact—"
One table over, several people dissolved into poorly disguised snorts of laughter.
"Not like that," Rosier sighed, "Cesspools, the minds of today's adolescents."
Selwyn flicked her hair over her shoulder dismissively, turning back to her homework, "Just get him out of my sight, Aldon."
Rosier steered Rigel swiftly across the common room, arm still around her neck. Rigel allowed it for a moment, but when he started heading for a couch she ducked sideways to free herself, "I was going to study—"
"Go get your books, then," Rosier said, waving her off and taking a seat casually on the couch, "I'll wait."
"I was going to study by myself."
"What difference does it make? I won't bother you. I want to see what you're studying, that's all," Rosier said calmly.
Rigel hesitated, "It's not anything interesting."
Rosier leveled a flat look at her, "Go get your books, Rigel, and let me decide what I think is interesting."
Rigel sighed, but could not think of anything to say to that. She turned and headed for her dorm room, trying not to glance toward the cluster of low-backed couches and chairs where her friends usually sat. She was sure Draco would be sitting there with Pansy, Blaise, Theo, and Millicent, working out a Transfiguration problem or maybe even writing his potions essay without her help for once. A small, pathetic part of her worried that he'd get something wrong without her there to proofread it, which was ridiculous, because Draco was actually quite skilled in potions, and Blaise was always happy to fact-check an essay.
If she had checked the corner, however, she might have been better prepared when she opened the door to find her second-year friends sprawled about the dorm. They looked up when she walked in, and there was a moment of awkward silence after everyone except Draco greeted her politely.
Pansy stood up quickly from where she'd been sitting primly on the end of Rigel's bed, "Sorry, Rigel, I've spread my things all over—"
Rigel smiled as she crossed the room to the foot of her bed, though her face felt a bit stiff doing it, "It's all right, Pansy, you can stay there. I'm just grabbing a book from my trunk."
"Where are you going now, I wonder, when the Library group has already left?" Draco drawled from his own bed without looking away from the star-chart he was labeling.
"Just to the common room," Rigel said softly as she picked out the book she was looking for and closed her trunk gently.
"Oh, good idea," Draco said with heavy sarcasm, "Much quieter out there, I'm sure."
"Rosier asked me to—"
Draco whipped his head around to glare at her, "Did he? Imagine that. What a good friend you must seem to him, Rigel—so accommodating, so persistently genial. Just imagine if he knew how you really felt."
"Draco," Rigel said, frowning slightly as she straightened from her crouched position by her trunk, "It's not like—"
"Is the idea of telling the truth so utterly foreign to you? Can you not even comprehend how much less work your life would be if you just told people upfront that you had no intention of making any genuine attempt at friendship, and in fact are entirely incapable of such a thing?" Draco asked, voice loaded with fake concern, "Imagine it! You could go out into the common room right now and tell Rosier that you don't appreciate his intentions. You could tell him that he's being overbearing, and inconsiderate, and you're frankly not interested in whatever he's trying to do. But you won't do that, will you? Because you think pretending nothing is wrong is the same thing as solving the problem."
Rigel stared at Draco, unwilling to say something equally scathing back, but also unable to reasonably refute his point. From Draco's point of view, it probably did look a lot like he described it.
"Draco, you're being unfair," Millicent said quietly from where she was sitting next to Blaise, "Rigel's too polite to be so blunt when it could potentially hurt someone's feelings. Rosier is his friend, too. Of course he doesn't want to upset him."
Draco tossed his hair and sniffed, going back to his star-charts with an air of unconcern, "That would almost be noble—if it were true. But it isn't true, and Rigel knows that. He isn't going along with Rosier to spare his feelings. He's doing it because he wants people to like him, and he thinks the only way to do that is to appear to give them what they want all the time. Except he can't actually bring himself to be so selfless, so deep down he resents them for asking, instead of just saying 'no.' The worst part is, people like you applaud him for it, because you can't fathom how deeply passive aggressive he really is."
Rigel took a slow breath, "You're wrong, Draco."
She walked back toward the door and opened it. Draco scoffed, a small, bitter noise that was less offensive than it was depressing. "Am I? How so?"
Rigel's fingers clenched on the doorknob as she answered, without turning around, "That's not the worst part."
She let the door close softly behind her, and trudged out to where Rosier was still lounging indolently on a couch. First Draco, then Archie's letter, then Snape not letting her work, then Draco again…she felt worn out and stretched thin, like the bottom of a cauldron that had had too many heavily acidic poisons brewed in it.
She sank down on the couch beside Rosier and opened her book. The words blurred together, and it wasn't until the first teardrop hit the page that she realized the blurriness was from her eyes welling up. She huffed a little at her own patheticness, and set the book aside, bringing her knees to her face to subtly staunch the slow flow of liquid escaping her eyelashes. With her arms wrapped around her knees and the sound of her own deep breathing filling her ears, she could almost pretend she was by herself, at home in her lab, before she had ever thought about going to Hogwarts. Before all the lies, before friends and all their complications.
Then again, she thought fairly (not being quite pathetic enough to allow herself false self-pity yet), was there really a time 'before all the lies?' Before deciding to trick her way into Hogwarts, was she really so honest and pure?
How many times as a child had she assured her mother she was wearing safety equipment, when really she had forgone the clumsy, cumbersome gloves and fireproof outer coverings in order to improve her knife technique? She had started masking the outside of her potions manuals with covers from history books by the time she was eight, so that her father didn't 'accidentally' throw them away. She distinctly remembered telling her mother that she loved the beginner's potions kit she'd been given for her tenth birthday, even though she had mail-ordered herself the same kit a couple of years earlier, and had very specifically asked for the newest compendium of poison antidotes that year.
Maybe Draco was right, and she was incapable of telling the truth.
What's so great about the truth? she thought bitterly, All it does is upset people.
Lying upsets people too, another part of her brain pointed out. Draco wants me to tell the truth.
Only because he hasn't actually heard it, she argued with herself, If he knew the whole truth, he'd hate me.
He already hates me.
And wasn't that a depressing thought?
A hand on her shoulder interrupted her mental pity party. Rigel shifted her knees slightly to rub the last of the water from her eyes, and lifted her head, "Yes, Rosier?"
"Are you all right?" Rosier asked, retracting his hand once she'd uncurled.
"Yes," Rigel said, "Thank you."
Rosier quirked a small smile at her, "You're lying—"
Rigel snapped, "If I'm such a liar, why bother asking me anything?"
Rosier raised one eyebrow and lifted his hands in calm surrender, "My apologies for whatever nerve I just touched, but you should know that I meant my accusation fondly. Really, I don't mind when you lie. It's almost endearing."
Rigel blew out a breath and shook her head sharply, "Don't apologize, Rosier. I'm sorry. You were right, anyway; I'm not really fine right now."
"I know," Rosier said after a moment, "It was obvious you weren't; I shouldn't even have asked."
Rigel grimaced and rubbed at her eyes impatiently with the back of her fists. They felt raw, and slightly itchy.
"Don't do that," Rosier said, pulling her hands away from her face.
When it looked like he was going to hold onto them, Rigel retracted them smoothly to run through her hair, as though fixing it. Rosier let her, though his eyes taunted her silently as she gave up on her hair and busied her hands with picking up her abandoned Healing textbook and finding the page she left off on.
When she had stared at the page, unseeing, for longer than would have been credible were she actually reading it, Rosier gently took the book away from her and set it on the end table behind him. Rigel let him, mostly because she felt too tired to even pretend to study at that point.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Rosier asked.
"No," Rigel said.
"Fair enough," Rosier said. He studied her for a moment, then said, "Turn around."
Rigel eyed the upperclassman, but didn't move, "What?"
"Turn," he said again, motioning with his finger for her to present her back to him, "I'll do your hair."
"Again with the hair?" she said ungraciously, "It's too short to 'do' anything to."
"Maybe you should grow it out, then," Rosier suggested innocently.
"Maybe you should leave it alone," Rigel suggested, not-so-innocently.
"It will help you relax," Rosier said.
"It's going to stress me out," Rigel argued.
"Why would it stress you out?" Rosier asked.
"I don't know, but it will," Rigel said, frowning, "Can't I just sit here quietly for a little while? You can go, if you're bored."
Rosier blinked golden eyes at her, "You mean can you sit here feeling miserable and alone, over-thinking whatever problem is going on between you and Draco right now and desperately trying to figure out what you can do to fix it? Well, you could, but do you really think that's not going to make you stressed?"
Rigel pressed her lips together stubbornly, "Does Draco know you call him by his first name?"
"Rivals should be friendly with one another, shouldn't they?" Rosier said, grinning.
Rigel tilted her head, "Since when are you rivals?"
The upperclassman shook his head, "Never you mind. Just turn around and let yourself relax for once."
"I'd rather not," Rigel said bluntly. Maybe if she was as honest as Draco told her to be, Rosier would back off.
"Think of it as a trust exercise," Rosier said.
"Why should I trust you?" Rigel asked flatly.
Rosier blinked his honey-colored eyes at her, "It's like you're trying to insult me."
"It's like you're trying to guilt me into something," Rigel returned.
"You say that like it isn't working," Rosier smirked.
Right. So far it was: Honesty = 0; Rosier = 1
Rigel scowled, "If we both know you're trying to manipulate me into doing…whatever you're trying to get me to do, then why should I let you do it?"
Rosier considered this for a moment, "Deep down, you want to be friends with me, Rigel. You want to call me by my first name, and you want to be yourself around me. I don't say this to be egotistical—I believe you want this with most people. I think there's a part of you, a soft, buried part, that genuinely wants to be close to other people."
Rigel wasn't sure what to say to that, so she settled for staring incredulously.
"There's another part of you, however, that is scared," Rosier went on, as though he were her personal Mind Healer, "That's the part that pulls back when people get too close, and it's strong, but the buried part of you is strong, too. That part is what makes you inclined to humor my manipulation as long as you see no harm in it, even though you don't really understand its purpose."
Rigel shook her head slowly, though she wasn't sure which part of Rosier's words she was denying, "What is your purpose?"
Rosier tilted his head, as though to get a better angle on his thoughts, "I want to help the softer part of you win, I suppose."
"Even if what you said is true—though I don't think it is—that weak part of me is buried for a reason," Rigel said slowly, "Did you ever think that it's because I don't want it to win? I'm sorry, Rosier, but I don't think I can give you whatever you're looking for. It might be better if you let it go now."
"It might be easier," Rosier said, an odd little smile playing about the edges of his mouth, "But better? No, I don't think so."
Rigel sighed with a small amount of resignation, "In other words, you're not going to stop…whatever you're doing?"
"Not until you can put it into words, at least," Rosier said amusedly, "Don't worry about it so much. As long as we know where we stand, neither of us can get hurt, so where's the harm? Turn around."
Rigel was very much afraid she didn't see the harm—and wouldn't, until it was too late.
"You actually just want to touch my hair?" she said, skeptically.
Rosier nodded slightly, still smiling his strange little smile.
"And that's all? You won't do anything else, like steal the strands for Polyjuice—"
"—and you are aware that I don't understand whatever undercurrents you're striving for at all, and that it doesn't mean anything, and—"
"Yes, yes, what were you—a disclaimer in a previous life?" Rosier cut her off and used her shoulders to turn her so that she was facing the other end of the couch. Rigel sat stiffly, but a moment later Rosier hooked an arm around her neck and tugged her backwards until her head landed with a thump against his left knee. She stared up at him dumbly, trying to work out where in their conversation she had agreed to lay her head in his lap, while Rosier smirked down at her with no small amount of smugness. She considered getting up and walking away, but where could she go? She couldn't leave Slytherin House due to the curfew, and she certainly couldn't go back to her dorm and listen to Draco explain how emotionally defective she was again. Rosier's smirk softened slightly, and he said, "Close your eyes."
Since the alternative was looking up at him and watching him watch her, she did just that, though she did grimace a bit to display her displeasure at his overbearing demeanor.
Rosier carded his fingers through her hair slowly, careful not to catch in any knots or scrape her scalp with his nails. It was sort of soothing, she supposed, in a very intrusive kind of way. Then again, her mother went to the hair salon all the time, and paid extra to get a scalp massage while they were shampooing her. This was not so very different.
It was strange having her neck on his leg, she supposed, but not in a dangerous way. The only part of her Rosier was actually touching was her head, which, as far as Rigel knew, wasn't a definite indicator of biological sex. In theory, then, letting Rosier comb her hair with his fingers wasn't actually hurting anything, and wouldn't be a danger to her plans.
But if there was nothing dangerous about it, then why were little alarm bells ringing insistently in the pit of her stomach?
Somewhere between worrying about the situation and telling herself not to worry about it, Rigel fell asleep.
There was something unspeakably different about Rigel Black, Aldon mused, looking down at the sleeping boy. On the outside, he resembled so many other pureblooded scions—distinct coloring, delicate bone structure, and good manners to spare. So far, so unremarkable. Once you knew Rigel Black for longer than two minutes, however, it became alarmingly clear how not like other pureblooded scions he really was.
The first odd thing Aldon had noticed about the Black Heir was how vague he was. Rigel could hold an entire conversation without ever seeming to really focus on it. Part of it was his chronically blank expression, but part of it was a flatness in his eyes that said, more clearly than words, that Rigel Black didn't care. He knew the moment Pansy introduced them that Rigel didn't care who Aldon was. Rigel didn't care who Aldon's parents were, how much influence Aldon would one day wield, or what useful abilities and talents he might possess.
Meeting Rigel Black was one of the most interesting things that had ever happened to Aldon. Here was a boy who listened without hearing, spoke without really saying anything, and looked right at him without even once calculating his family's net worth. It was as if Rigel didn't see Aldon at all, so flat and unaffected his stare had been, and from the start Aldon knew he had to see more of Rigel Black. He wanted those eyes to look at him again, because being not seen by Rigel Black was far more interesting than being seen as the Rosier Heir by a thousand of his parent's sycophantic friends.
He had felt the same sort of thrill on the day he'd first met Edmund Rookwood. It had been at his fifth birthday party. Edmund had walked into the room, handed Aldon his present, bowed politely, and walked away again, all without uttering a word. Aldon, who had never been more thoroughly dismissed in his short life, was left with a burning desire to make the Rookwood boy see him, acknowledge him, and above all speak to him. It took him months of play dates, arranged outings, and bribery in the form of trips to exotic magical menageries, but in the end, Aldon had gotten what he wanted.
Meeting Rigel felt the same. Aldon wondered what it would take to make those eyes sharpen with life. How difficult would it be to provoke a response from Rigel Black?
As it turned out, not difficult at all. One half-registered threat toward his friendship with Pansy, and Rigel was all briar and bramble. Aldon hadn't known one person could be equal parts ridiculous and admirable, until he watched Rigel Black trying to climb a canterberry tree with just a vine and a broken wrist.
Oh, how interesting Rigel Black turned out to be.
Underneath his lifeless facial expressions and almost insulting dismissal of anything that couldn't be diced, reduced, or boiled into unappetizing slime, Rigel was one of the most volatile things Aldon had ever encountered. Rigel Black didn't care, he didn't care, and then all of a sudden he did, and Merlin help anyone standing in his way at that moment. Rigel Black had lines, and the very instant one of his lines was crossed, his demeanor went from dormant to volcanic eruption in the space between heartbeats.
Rigel was unpredictable, emotional, dangerous, exciting.
And then, without warning, the fire was banked again. Just like that, Rigel was all polite smiles, blank stares, slow blinks, and polished unconcern. It was almost enough to make you forget you'd seen the fire raging—almost.
And if that wasn't enough—and it was, by Merlin, it really was enough—there was still more to Rigel Black.
Beyond the fire, or perhaps living next to the fire, as amazing as that was, there was this other hidden side to Rigel, too. It was soft, hesitant, careful, and difficult to describe in any holistic sense, but sometimes Aldon was tempted to use the word good. Rigel Black cared about people. He cared about his friends, his family, people he sort of knew, and people he didn't know at all. Aldon had never heard Rigel say a single negative thing about another person, even Greengrass, who had openly accused him of petrifying students. Rigel got angry at people, snapped at them occasionally, and in the case of a certain Lestrange Heir openly defied people when he was at his most obstinate, but he never picked fights for the sake of it, and he forgave the offender shortly after his own temper had cooled. Never had Aldon met anyone so willing to accept and ignore the mistakes of others; maybe it was this that made Rigel so different.
Then again, there were plenty of good, forgiving people in the world who cared about others and avoided fights. It could simply be the novelty of seeing such qualities in someone who could afford to be otherwise; Rigel had the power—political, social, and magical if half the stories about him were true—to strut about like that Lestrange twerp if he pleased, and most people would still doff their hats as he passed.
But no, that wasn't what made Rigel different. Draco Malfoy was perfectly polite most days, despite the power his family wielded. And Pansy was undeniably good, even though no one could have expected such a spoiled little girl to turn out so wonderful.
Maybe it wasn't the goodness in Rigel, then, that was so captivating. Perhaps, Aldon mused, it was the darkness. Deep in Rigel's eyes, beneath the calm observing Ravenclaw and the fiercely defensive Gryffindor, there was something that slithered, slow and subtle and far from the light. Aldon knew Rigel had no idea a part of his soul was brittle and black, but Aldon had seen it.
It was in his body language whenever the subject of blood-traitors came up at the dinner table, it was in his eyes every time he looked at Severus Snape, and it had been there in the flash of unwitting understanding that crossed his face the night Aldon admitted to hating his parents.
Even though Rigel loved his friends and family and mentor, there was an unbreachable wall between he and them. Aldon didn't fully understand what inspired that wall yet, but it was built high with lies and smiles and the illusion of calm, cool stone.
Looking down at the boy, Aldon wondered if Rigel would ever know how alike the two of them were. Maybe that was it—that's what made knowing Rigel Black so important to him. Even though Rigel professed to love his family, Aldon could tell that Rigel understood what it was like to never quite be what your parents wanted you to be, to defy expectations naturally, not because you strove to, but because their expectations were so wildly off the mark as to be inapplicable. Rigel understood how it felt to lie to people you loved, not because you wanted to trick them, but so they didn't end up as bitter and hurt and disappointed as you were. Most of all, Aldon thought, Rigel understood hunger.
It was so obvious when Rigel looked at Professor Snape. Though his face was blank, there was a yearning in his gaze, a deep, desperate desire to be recognized, acknowledged, and approved of. If was painful to see, Rigel's hunger, and even though that burning desire to be recognized was surely what had ensured his place in the House of Snakes in the first place, Aldon very much wanted to make it go away.
Aldon looked up at Edmund, who was looking down at Rigel's admittedly uncharacteristic position with a raised eyebrow and a slightly disapproving expression, "Yes, Edmund? Has Alice retired already?"
"It is an hour past curfew," Edmund informed him.
Aldon blinked in slight surprise. Had he been ruminating so long? "I see. Thank you for letting me know, old chap. I'll be along shortly, but don't bother leaving the light on."
Sometimes Aldon liked to pretend they were worldly, burnt-out old bachelors, he and Edmund, but for some reason Ed never found it quite so amusing as he did.
"Rigel should retire as well," Edmund said neutrally.
"As you can see, he already has," Aldon quirked a grin, "But I acknowledge your point. Would you like to carry him?"
Edmund lowered his eyelashes the way he only did when he thought Aldon was being deliberately obtuse, "Neither of us can enter the second-year dorms, and Rigel would be highly offended if he were to discover someone had moved him without his knowledge."
"Offended? Unlikely," Aldon said thoughtfully, "But he would certainly be distressed."
Edmund's face was, as usual, unfathomable, "I was not under the impression that you were averse to causing Rigel distress of late, Aldon."
Aldon stiffened involuntarily, "I'm trying to help him, Edmund."
"By consistently disregarding his boundaries?"
"By attempting to show him that his current boundaries are unhealthy and unnecessary," Aldon corrected softly, "I'm not scaring him, Ed. I know that's what Draco thinks, but Rigel isn't afraid of other people. He's alienated from them. He sees no reason to be close to other people, and doesn't understand why anyone would want to be close to him. It is confusion he feels, and impatience."
"He doesn't like it, Aldon," Edmund said, his voice deep with concern.
"Because he doesn't know what it means," Aldon said patiently, "He's worried I want something from him, something he won't want to give me, and that makes him uneasy—as any Slytherin would be when he senses unspoken terms on the table."
"What do you want from him, Aldon? Can you pretend that you do this," he gestured to where Aldon's hand still rested in Rigel's hair, "For his own good, when surely he cannot benefit from it while asleep?" Edmund asked, "He's young, yet."
Aldon let his mouth curl into the slightest of sneers, "I am young yet, Edmund. You think I would touch a boy the same age as our Pansy? Like that? I was teasing at Christmas, Ed, you know that. This is—" his fingers detangled themselves from Rigel's hair gently, "I was thinking, and forgot I was doing it. I want nothing from him."
"Nothing from him now, or nothing until he is older?" Edmund asked.
Aldon bit back a huff, "Nothing at all now, and nothing he does not agree to when he is older."
Edmund's throat made a noise like a boulder shifting, and Aldon knew he was fighting a laugh, "Perhaps you should explain that to young Draco, then. And Rigel too, for that matter."
Aldon smirked, "Draco's more amusing when he's riled. As for Rigel…I don't think he'd believe me if I told him I didn't want anything of him. He'd suspect I was covering up for an expectation I didn't dare utter. Better for him to think I'm merely teasing him, taking my boredom out on him. As long as he can ascribe a harmless motive my attentions, he won't worry so much." He looked down at Rigel, taking in his pale face, and the slight line between his eyebrows that apparently even sleep did not ease, "Merlin knows the boy worries enough for ten Ministers of Magic."
"Wake him up, Aldon," Edmund said, shaking his head with slow amusement as he turned away, "And get to bed before you start waxing poetic worse than Lady Parkinson."
"Perish the thought," Aldon said, glancing up again and letting a smile twist his lips wryly.
"And, Aldon?" Edmund said, turning back with a slightly fond expression on his face.
"What, more advice? You're smothering me tonight, Ed."
"Aldon," Edmund said again, his voice serious.
"Yes, Edmund?" Aldon said, equally serious.
Edmund considered him gravely, "Do you remember the first piece of advice I ever gave you?"
Aldon blinked as his mind transported him back to that day, the day he'd finally succeeded in his first ever ambition: make Edmund Rookwood acknowledge him.
He was five years old, dressed in sensible play-robes that his nurse-elf wouldn't have trouble getting stains out of, and he had dragged Edmund outside to see his family's stable. The week before, one of the Siberian Saberlions had given birth to a litter of baby cubs. They were finally healthy enough to visit, and Aldon had traded two weeks of his nightly dessert for his father to invite Edmund over to see the little silver cats before their coats took on the mottled spots they were known for.
Edmund sat down in the hay—right there in it, without setting down a blanket or even checking it for animal droppings first—and pulled the smallest saberlion into his lap. Aldon hovered for a moment, not sure following his guest's example was the right thing to do, but also unsure whether deviating and getting a blanket for himself would be rude—or worse, make him look weak.
Eventually, Aldon decided to kneel carefully in the hay next to Edmund, telling him all about the new cubs, what he wanted to name all of them, how many his father was going to keep and how many would be sold, and all sorts of other things like what saberlions ate, why their fur changed colors when they spent enough time in the sun, and so on. Eventually he ran out of things to say, and so he just sat there, petting each of the saberlions in turn, while Edmund calmly held that one little saberlion in his lap, just stroking its fur and not saying anything—as usual.
Edmund never said anything to Aldon. When his father asked Edmund a question, the boy answered very politely, if a bit shortly, but when Aldon asked him questions, Edmund just looked at Aldon, as though he didn't understand English at all.
They sat in the hay for an hour, then two. Aldon stared fidgeting, his ankles itching from being in the hay for so long, his stomach rumbling with hunger. Still, Edmund sat there with that saberlion cub, seemingly content to do nothing else but pet it all afternoon.
Eventually, the silence started driving Aldon crazy, so he stated talking again. He talked about the lessons he had to go to now that he was five. He told Edmund about the closet in the servants' wing he thought was haunted, because sometimes he could hear eerie groaning and thumping sounds coming from within when he parents weren't home. He told him about how he liked his nurse-elf, Igga, better than his human nurse, Elseph, who made him drink this awful brown potion when he got the hiccups. "I get the hiccups a lot," he remembered saying, "And mother thinks it's because I never stop talking long enough to get air into my lungs, so my dye-a-fram interrupts me to make sure I don't die."
He looked at Edmund expectantly, because usually when he repeated his mother's explanation for his frequent bouts of hiccups people laughed, or at least smiled. Edmund just looked at him, though, and kept petting the saberlion.
Aldon's face fell a bit, but he brightened determinately, "Tomorrow, I'm going to ask father to take us to Murphy's Magic Menagerie. One of the maids says they have pintoloons there—pintoloons are really bright, and their feathers glow in the dark. I think you'll like them, but if you don't, they also have—"
Aldon broke off to stare at Edmund, slightly open-mouthed, "You talked."
Edmund's lips made the slightest of twitches, but Aldon felt like he'd just won first place in a Juniors Quidditch League racing tournament.
Aldon clapped his hands in his excitement, forgetting that his father had told him clapping one's hands was a perfectly obnoxious way to convey pleasure, "Say something else!"
Edmund considered him for a long moment, little head tilted slightly to the side, "You don't have to try so hard."
Aldon blinked, "What?"
"You're nice," Edmund said slowly, "And funny. You're gentle with animals, and—" Edmund's hand, the one not still petting the saberlion, gestured at him sort of helplessly, "I already like you. So you don't have to try to be my friend so much."
Aldon shook his head, and the memory faded.
"Yes," he said, smiling slightly, "I remember. What of it?"
"It still applies," Edmund said.
He turned and walked toward their dorm, leaving Aldon to puzzle out his meaning. Edmund wanted him to back off and let Rigel dictate the terms of their friendship, he supposed, but Aldon was still of the same mind he'd been all those years ago.
When you were being a friend, there was no such thing as 'trying too hard.'
He put a hand on Rigel's shoulder and shook him gently awake. He could tell the moment Rigel returned to consciousness, because the line between his eyebrows immediately deepened, and new lines, small but unmistakable, formed around his mouth.
"Time for bed, Rigel," Rosier said, "Unless you want me to take you to mine."
Rigel's face flushed immediately, and the boy sat up so quickly Aldon was surprised he didn't get whiplash, "You—I didn't—"
Aldon let himself laugh aloud, and had a grin on his face by the time Rigel turned around to glare reprovingly at him.
"You shouldn't say things so casually, Aldon," Rigel said seriously, his cheeks still a bit red, though he'd managed to control most of it by then.
"Why not?" Aldon said, not missing the way Rigel used his given name—perhaps he was still muddled by sleep, "You won't get the wrong idea—you know me too well."
Rigel sighed, but didn't argue the point.
"Go to bed, snakelet," Aldon said, manufacturing a yawn for good measure, "Go on, get."
Rigel went, though he did send Aldon one last half-cautious half-confused look over his shoulder as he left.
Aldon stretched out his cramped leg briefly before following suit. On second thought, he hoped Edmund had decided to leave the light on.
When Rigel got back to her dorm, the light was off and all her roommates were already in their beds.
She shucked her shoes by her trunk and fumbled for a moment in her pockets until she remembered that Selwyn had made her move her wand to the pocket on her right-side hip. She took out the wand, asked it quietly to wake her up an hour earlier than usual, then stowed it underneath her pillow.
"Why are you getting up at four?"
Rigel turned toward Draco's bed, but couldn't see whether his eyes were open or not in the darkness. His voice didn't sound muddled, so Rigel concluded he'd probably been lying awake for some time.
"I fell asleep in the common room, so I don't need as much sleep tonight," Rigel answered quietly, mindful of Blaise and Theo sleeping (presumably) not far away.
"But what will you do with the extra hour?" Draco asked reasonably, though his voice was a bit annoyed, "We haven't been able to go running since the lockdown started, and we don't even have that much homework since the teachers have been going easy on us lately."
"I'm sure I'll find something to do," Rigel said.
"Like the studying you said you were going to do tonight?" Draco asked sarcastically.
"Maybe," Rigel said carefully, "Or I might review for the Transfiguration test we have next week. Want to go over your notes with me?"
There was a tense silence, then Draco said, petulantly, "I'm still mad at you."
"I know," Rigel said, though she couldn't stop a small smile spreading over her face. Despite the put-out tone, the heat had gone from his voice.
"I'm not waking up at four," he added sullenly.
"That's fine," Rigel agreed instantly, "I'll wait for you."
Draco was quiet for a while, and Rigel started to think he had fallen asleep, until he said, "Rigel?"
"What's the worst part?"
Rigel closed her eyes, though Draco couldn't see it, "It doesn't matter anymore."
Rigel wasn't sure she should admit it, but—
"You not talking to me, Draco. That's the worst part. It…upsets me that I've pushed you so far away."
Draco cleared his throat before saying, "Well, you know how to fix it."
"Knowing is not the same thing as being capable of doing," Rigel said wearily, "I know it seems cold to say that there are things more important than our friendship, Draco, but there are. I can't neglect those things because they upset you, though it does make me sorry when they do."
She heard Draco blow out a breath in frustration, "I know I'm not the center of your universe, Rigel—I'm not quite as conceited as everyone thinks, you know. I don't expect you to make a bunch of unreasonable sacrifices for me. I know your life is…complicated, or something. I've always known that, since we first became friends, because you told me so. That's fine. Keep the big things to yourself, I understand. It's just—the idea that everything you do is somehow tied to something you can't explain to me—that's a bit hard to swallow, Rigel. Everyone has mysteries, but it's as if every single part of your life is mysterious and unreachable. How…how can anyone be friends with a complete mystery?"
"I'm not a mystery, Draco," Rigel tried to explain, "There's no big secret or answer at the end of all the lies—it's not a game I'm playing, or a riddle I've presented the world with. This is my life, it just happens to be confusing to anyone not living it, I suppose."
"You know what was a game?" Draco asked mildly, "That exercise in Dumbledore's class was a game, Rigel, but you felt threatened enough on an instinctual level that you unconsciously cast a highly dangerous shield to protect yourself—from a rubber ball. Anyone else would have taken the hit if they thought I wouldn't shield them in time—and you should know that it still greatly upsets me whenever I think about how completely you dismissed my ability, without even thinking about it, apparently—but not you. Rigel can't take a hit from a rubber ball, even if it's only a game. Do you know what kind of person that makes you, Rigel?"
"Crazy?" Rigel said lightly, "It runs in my family, you know."
"Damaged," Draco said flatly, "That's the kind of hyper-paranoid reaction that ex-Aurors have when someone surprises them in a crowded room. I wrote to my father about the incident—without using your name, of course—and he said that I should avoid being alone with that classmate, because children with traumatic childhoods can be unpredictable and sometimes accidentally dangerous."
Rigel swallowed, "My childhood wasn't traumatic."
"But you are accidentally dangerous, aren't you, Rigel?" Draco said softly, "That shield destroys everything it touches, but you used it without a second thought."
"I didn't," Rigel said, "It was my magic—"
"You always say that, Rigel, but magic only responds to will. The truth is you felt threatened in that classroom, with me and Pansy next to you, and no actual enemy or threat in sight," Draco said firmly, "Your magic responded to your fear and manifested in a dangerous and excessive way. You can say you didn't mean to, or that it was an accident, but that doesn't really make it better. People aren't usually that scared accidentally when there's nothing to be afraid of."
Rigel didn't know how to explain better than she already had, but she couldn't let Draco keep thinking she was a dangerous paranoid-schizophrenic—they locked people away for that sort of thing, and wouldn't that put pain to all her plans?
"I wasn't afraid, Draco. It was probably the adrenaline from thinking and reacting so fast over and over. That's the point of the game, to make you react without thinking—and yes, my magic overreacted to the level of threat, but that doesn't mean I'm incapable of evaluating situations and calculating appropriate responses to them," Rigel said, "You've been my friend for two years, almost. Have I ever hurt you? Or anyone?"
"I know you're not going to hurt me, Rigel," Draco said with a sigh, "That's not the point. It wasn't just that class. Whenever something goes wrong, you're always the first to react. That's good, to an extent, but it's also telling. It means you're so paranoid that you're walking around in a constant state of alert. Even when you shouldn't have to be expecting danger, it's as if you are anyway, and it makes you a bit volatile at times."
"No, it doesn't," Rigel said, frowning, "You're twisting the facts around."
"Am I?" Draco said mildly, "I've had a lot of time to think about this. You see, there are also times when everyone but you reacts to something. I thought that meant you were only sometimes on-edge, but now I think you don't react because you've already recognized and dismissed the source as a threat, not because you're so zoned out you don't notice. That's true, isn't it? You're not nearly as unobservant and out-of-it as you want everyone to think."
This was getting ridiculous, Rigel thought, and they would never get any sleep this way.
"It's because of your condition, isn't it?" Draco said, so quietly that Rigel barely heard him.
She paused before automatically refuting him.
Maybe…denying things wasn't the right way to go about convincing Draco. He knew too much, had observed too much already, so telling him he was wrong would only make him think she was lying again. Perhaps it was better to tell him he was right—but in a way that still prevented him from seeing what was true.
Draco was still speaking, very softly, "It occurred to me that getting hit by the ball would have hurt you a lot more than other people, because of your…problem. So in that respect, your magic was still overreacting, but not as much. Then I thought that being so paranoid was a result of being hyper-aware of everything around you already. If your condition didn't just make it painful for things to touch you, but actually made you extremely sensitive to your environment as a side effect, it would explain why you reacted so quickly to things. It might also explain…I mean, it would be understandable, then, if you were afraid on an unconscious level of everything, all the time. That, in turn, would explain why you either over-react to things or don't react at all, if you suppress the instinct in time."
Rigel thought it was alarming how much internal sense her friend's argument could make while still being entirely wrong. He also seemed to have either forgotten that she'd assured him her 'condition' wasn't painful. That or he assumed she was lying about that, but not about the rest of it. It was almost enough to make her doubt the ability of people to ever figure anything out without being told, and that was a comforting enough thought that she wasn't even very upset about being told it was natural for her to be a coward because of her imaginary medical condition.
"You're very observant," she said, because that, at least was true.
"I'm sorry if I've made you uncomfortable," Draco said, "I just wanted you to know that I understand, even though I don't like it. It upsets me to think that every second of the day you're afraid that something is going to happen and you're going to get hurt, but I understand that it's not your fault. The reason I stayed angry at you for so long is because you could have told me all of that. You already told me about your condition, so you could have just explained why your magic lashed out like that, instead of making me figure it out on my own. That, more than anything, tells me that even when you trust me with your secrets, you still don't trust me with them."
Rigel wasn't sure what he meant by that, but Draco was happy to explain.
"You don't come to me when you have problems relating to the secrets I already know, and you don't trust me with the consequences and implications of your problems. As if you thought once I knew the secret, it would be enough for me. Like our friendship didn't mean that I wanted to help you, not just know why you're hurting," Draco said, his voice getting hoarse with talking so much, and thick with emotion, "You stopped me when I tried to help you before, and I understood because even being really subtle isn't all that subtle to other Slytherins, but this time you could have explained things to me. Instead, you let me stay mad at you, and then by the time I figured it out I was mad at you for not telling me, and—and—don't you see how much easier it would be if you actually trusted me instead of just pretending to trust me?"
Rigel took a breath, thought over what Professor Snape had told her about getting Draco's forgiveness, and said, "You're right. I should trust you with more of my problems. I didn't want to bother you, because I have quite a number of problems, and it wouldn't be fair to dump them onto your shoulders as well, but…I should trust you to be able to decide which problems you can help me with for yourself, especially if you really do want to help."
Draco shifted in his bed, and Rigel could tell he'd turned toward her by the slight increase in volume when he spoke, "Thank you, Rigel."
Rigel shifted, getting as comfortable as she could in her school robes and thinking she could finally get some sleep. She debated re-setting her alarm to compensate for the time spent talking with Draco, but decided a bit less sleep wouldn't kill her.
"So?" Draco said expectantly when she'd stopped shifting.
"So…what?" Rigel asked. At Draco's exasperated noise, her eyebrows lifted, "You want to start solving my problems right now?"
"How else will I know you aren't just saying this?" Draco asked archly—or as archly as one could at a near-whisper.
Right. Snape had said Draco would require proof of change.
"Okay," Rigel said, wracking her brain for a problem that Draco either already knew about or wouldn't be able to learn anything from. That ruled out her problem with Leo, the trouble she was having with one of Flint's Charms essays, and…actually, that was pretty much it. Now that she thought about it, there were a lot of things she was having trouble with that she could have been talking to her friends about.
Part of her said that if her friends formed the expectation of being involved in her problems, it would makes the ones she didn't involve them with more obvious, but another part of her didn't see the harm with letting Draco feel like a useful friend by sharing a couple of her problems with him.
And speaking of not seeing the harm in things…
"Okay," she said again, "Well, as you know, tonight Rosier invited me to study with him—"
"This conversation doesn't end with: 'so I ignored him and took a nap instead,' does it?" Draco guessed.
"Not exactly," Rigel muttered, "Will you let me explain the whole problem before you jump in, though?"
"Sure, go ahead—no, wait," Draco said. There was a rustling noise, then the sound of Draco's wand scraping against the bedside table lightly, then, "Lumos."
His wand tip glowed softly, and Rigel glanced quickly at Theo and Blaise's beds. Both had their eyes closed, and Theo was still snoring, but, again, that didn't necessarily mean both were sill asleep, if they had ever been.
Draco pulled the curtains around his bed closed on the three sides not facing Rigel, and muttered, "Quietus" while pointing his wand at each curtain. He motioned for Rigel to join him in the makeshift fort, and Rigel mentally resigned herself to sleeping in tomorrow after all.
When Rigel was situated and the last curtain had been pulled, Draco frowned hard at his wand tip until the soft ball of light slowly detached itself from the tip of the wand and hovered in the air above them, like a miniature star. They had learned how to detach the spell from their wands in Defense class, so that their wands would be free for other spells, and so that the light wouldn't go out if they lost hold of their wand. Dumbledore was full of helpful tricks like that.
Draco stowed his wand under his own pillow, and Rigel thought briefly that Selwyn would probably have suggested Rigel transfer her wand to her pocket once more when she moved from her bed. That, however, was unlikely to help convince Draco that Rigel trusted him.
"All right, now explain what you're doing about Rosier," Draco said.
Rigel nodded, "Tonight he noticed I was feeling a bit…off. He took my book and told me to relax more, and then offered to help me relax—"
"—by stroking my hair again…Draco, stop mentally hemorrhaging. It wasn't anything weird," Rigel assured him. At Draco's patently skeptical look, she amended that to, "It wasn't too weird, at least. Really, that's all that happened. I laid down on the couch, he brushed my hair, and I fell asleep because it was sort of relaxing after a while."
"Well I can see all sorts of problems with this scenario," Draco sighed, "But what do you think the problem is?"
"He admitted to manipulating me in order to make me let him touch my hair," Rigel said, "But he didn't say why he would want to do that, or what he expected in return, so the problem is that I can't find a good enough motive for it, but at the same time Rosier doesn't seem the type to do things for no good reason. So I'm afraid of the reason, I guess."
Draco gazed at her blankly, "Did you ask him for a reason?"
"Yes," Rigel said, "His answer was that he thinks deep down I want to be affectionate with my friends, but don't know how, so he's taken it upon himself to show me how…or something. It sort of makes sense, I suppose."
"No, it really doesn't," Draco said flatly.
"I mean, Pansy plays with our hair all the time," Rigel said, "So maybe he thought that would be a safe place to start, in facilitating my familiarity with affection."
"It would make sense if he was your therapist, but he's not—he's just your friend," Draco said, rolling his eyes, "He probably fed you that answer because you couldn't object to it without sounding like a masochist who likes to be withdrawn and tetchy."
Rigel thought about this, "So what's the real motive? Maybe he really is just bored. He does tease Pansy a lot, and Rookwood and Selwyn, too. Maybe he's just letting his guard down and doing the same to me, since we've become closer friends now."
"And maybe he's a Hufflepuff," Draco scoffed.
Rigel scowled back, "I'm trying, okay? How is anyone supposed to understand why other people do things unless they tell them?"
"You see how important honesty is?"
Rigel huffed with amusement, but said nothing.
Draco pursed his lips, then said, hesitantly, "Rigel, did it occur to you that Rosier simply…well, how much do you know about…you know?"
Rigel blinked, "What?"
Draco rolled his eyes, "You know. Merlin, Rigel, sex. How much do you know about sex?"
Rigel choked on a laugh, "Plenty, thanks." At least, enough to know that she wasn't interested in anything so uncomfortable-sounding.
Draco pinched the bridge of his nose, "Don't laugh, I'm just saying…Rosier probably just likes you, simple as that. And he wants to get you used to touching him, because he'll want to do even more later, and…well, doesn't that make the most obvious sense?"
Rigel stopped laughing and nodded, "Yes, that's one of the things that crossed my mind. I dismissed it, though, because we're both—"
"Men?" Draco grimaced, "Rigel, I don't know how your family does things, but most purebloods consider it rude to preference one gender over—"
"I know that," Rigel interrupted quickly, "Magic knows Siri—my father had his fair share of good times on both sides of the pitch. I was going to say young, Draco, we're both so young. Even if Rosier is old enough to start that sort of thing, I'm not, so that would argue for an unwieldy long-term plan in place, which I honestly don't see being the case."
"Why not?" Draco said reasonably, "Slytherins are known for long-term plots."
"Yes, but…I mean, that would be ridiculous," Rigel said, "All that time and effort spent on setting the stage for one romantic dalliance that might not even pan out? And for me? I can barely tear myself away from a cauldron long enough to spend time with my friends; I'd be an awful boyfriend. I'm not in good standing with the pureblooded circles, either, because of my father and uncles, so it's not even good politics. Rosier would have better targets for that sort of thing, don't you think? Plus he's admitted what he's doing to my face, which makes me even more inclined to think he isn't taking it very seriously. In fact…yes, it probably is just a joke or something. He'll get over it soon, I expect. Do you know, I'm glad I talked with you about this," Rigel smiled at Draco, "It seems more clear now that I've said it out loud."
Draco just stared at her, then said, "I'm a lot less worried than I was before, too. Honestly, I'm not sure Rosier knows what he's gotten himself into."
Rigel wasn't sure what Draco meant by that, exactly, but as it didn't sound complimentary she was content to ignore it.
"We should do this more often, Draco," Rigel said, in a better mood now that she had Rosier's game figured out.
"No kidding," Draco said, looking a bit like he'd bitten into something he might have been allergic to, after all. "Did you, ah, have anything else you want to talk about?"
Rigel was tempted to ask Draco what he thought about Patil's accusation concerning what she should be doing about the basilisk, but probably she had leant on her friend enough for one day. "Nothing that won't keep. Maybe I can ask Pansy, anyway."
Draco smiled widely, "She'd like that, I think. In fact, let's do it tomorrow. Do you have to help Uncle Severus after class?"
"Not tomorrow," Rigel said, "We should ask Selwyn to chaperone an expedition outside—the basilisk probably wouldn't leave the castle to threaten students on the grounds, and it's been so nice outside lately."
"You noticed?" Draco said, somewhat incredulously.
"No, I close my eyes every time I pass a window," Rigel said, letting her face relax into a grin, "Doesn't everyone?"
"Only you," Draco laughed, "Okay, let's ask Selwyn about going down to the lake tomorrow."
"In that case, we should get to bed," Rigel said, scooting toward the edge of Draco's four-poster.
"Rigel," Draco said suddenly with a frown, "I know you think Rosier is just messing with you, or relieving boredom, but…what if he isn't?"
Rigel tilted her head, "What do you mean?"
"I mean, say he really does like you—not as a social scheme, or even because you're clever and ambitious and he thinks you'll have political clout one day," Draco said, his head tilted slightly downwards as he looked at her, "What if Rosier really, truly likes you as a person? What will you do?"
"Do?" Rigel was feeling confused again, "Do I have to do anything just because someone likes me?"
Draco looked like he was fighting a smile, "Well, usually people respond one way or another—either you return their affections, eventually, or you politely decline them."
Rigel nodded, "That makes sense. So do I have to decide if I like Rosier or not now, just in case he actually likes me? Because I'd rather not think about it, if it's all the same to you."
Draco snorted, "Do you even know if you like men yet?"
Rigel blinked. That was an interesting question, "I don't…dislike the idea on instinct." That seemed like a safe enough answer. Strong preferences one way or the other were considered bad form in some pureblooded circles, so a neutral stance was the best way to remain unremarkable, "It doesn't really matter, though. I'm not interested in romance in any form."
"Not now, maybe," Draco began sensibly, but Rigel cut him off.
"Not ever, probably," Rigel said firmly, "My work is too important to me."
"Not…ever? But…you can't be serious," Draco said, his face working to come up with an expression equal to the amount of sheer disbelief he apparently felt at hearing that not everyone dreamed of growing up and marrying a nice pureblood and having 1.5 pureblood children.
"Why not?" Rigel asked, "You know how busy my life is, Draco, and these are the easy years. After Hogwarts, if I pass the Potions Mastery, I'll be a full-time brewer and researcher. It'll be years before I make any significant contributions to the field, gain credibility for my recipes, and can afford to take it easy for any amount of time. Romance just doesn't factor into the plan."
Draco shook his head, "Ignoring the fact that 'romance' has very little to do with plans, and even less to do with what Rosier's probably considering, Rigel, you're the Heir to an Ancient and Noble Family. You just can't afford to swear off that sort of thing. You have to be married, and produce an Heir of your own; hasn't your father talked to you about that? Otherwise, the Family name dies out, and your holdings get relegated to branch Houses with no real claim to them."
Rigel shrugged a bit, though she had, indeed, momentarily forgotten that Archie had a responsibility to his family name, and no convenient younger sibling to pass that responsibility onto. "There's always my uncle, Regulus Black. He can carry on the family name, if it comes to that. He cares for the Black Family more than my father ever did, in any case."
Draco was still frowning, "But don't you mind being the one to mess up generations of inheritance traditions? The line of eldest Black males is unbroken for several hundred years, I think. Maybe that doesn't mean anything to you, but it's kind of a big deal, in some circles. It's just a lot to throw away without giving yourself the chance, I think."
Rigel smiled a bit sadly, "Family is important, of course, but…it's not the only important thing in the world. Helping people is important, too."
"You could help a lot of people with the Black Family name," Draco pointed out.
"Someone else could, I'm sure, but not me. I'm no good at politics and parties. I know what I'm meant to do in life, and getting married and having children won't help me do it," Rigel said.
Draco shook his head bemusedly, but said, "It's your life, Rigel, but my mother always tells me not to close a door unless you have to—you never know when you'll need alternatives."
Rigel raised an eyebrow, "Are you telling me to consider Rosier's suit?"
Draco laughed shortly, "Consider it a trap, maybe. No, I just feel defensive on your future's behalf, hearing you talk so finitely at the wise old age of twelve."
Rigel laughed a bit in turn, "That's twelve-and-one-half, actually."
"An unfathomable difference, I'm sure."
"You remember this conversation when I turn thirteen—if you even recognize me by then, of course."
"I'll just look for the guy up to his eyebrows in trouble, and completely unconcerned despite that," Draco said.
"When you get in trouble as often as I do, it starts to concern you less and less," Rigel said with exaggerated thoughtfulness.
"And the less concerned you are, the more concerned the rest of us get," Draco smirked, "As long as you're freaking out beyond reason, we'll know it's probably just a rubber ball headed our way, but Merlin help the world if Rigel Black thinks nothing is wrong."
"One unnecessary shield and they never let you forget it."
"The next time I erect a man-eating shield to defend myself against a toy on pure instinct, feel free to remind me of it from time to time," Draco rolled his eyes, "Did you even use your wand?"
Rigel groaned softly, "I don't want to talk about my wand. Or any of my magic, actually."
"But talking about things helps, remember?" Draco said with false sweetness.
Rigel sighed, "Add it to the list, then, and I'll talk it over with Pansy."
"You trust Pansy's advice over mine?"
"In a word? Yes."
"That hurts, Rigel."
"So you'd prefer my advice to Pansy's?"
"That's what I thought."
"She really is too good for us, isn't she?"
"Yes, she really is," Rigel said, "We should tell her that more often, too."
"What for?" Draco grinned, "She tells us often eno—o—ugh." His voice broke on a long yawn and he wiped at his eyes a bit, "Sorry. Guess it's time for bed after all."
"Past time," Rigel agreed, opening his curtain and slipping off his bed, "Night, Dray."
"Still not getting up at four."
"Let's make it six."
"Are you sure? I don't want to inspire bad habits in you."
"Just this once," Rigel said wryly.
"Don't force yourself. If you need to wake up at 5:45, I understand."
"Good night, Draco."
She sighed, "Yes, Draco?"
"I'm not mad at you anymore."
For the first night in far too long, Rigel fell asleep with a smile on her face.
The next day, Selwyn reluctantly agreed to organize a trip outdoors once the afternoon classes were finished. She enlisted the help of one prefect in each House, as well as Professors Sinistra and Flitwick for added protection. Anyone who wanted to go had to sign their name on a sheet of paper, which was then double-checked as they left the common room, so that everyone would remain accounted for.
There were a lot of students outside by the time the Slytherins got there, but Pansy, Draco, and Rigel managed to find a grassy spot by the edge of the lake, where they sat and ate cookies from a tin Pansy's grandmother had sent her.
Pansy seemed to be especially enjoying herself, tilting her head back to take in the evening breeze and sighing every now and then as she looked over the water. "I'll be glad when this is all over," she said.
"You think it's going to end?" Rigel asked.
"All things come to an end, eventually," Pansy said, seeming genuinely unconcerned.
"And if nothing else, they'll wait until all the students are home for the summer and then flood the castle with poisonous fumes that not even a basilisk could survive," Draco added.
Rigel had to admit that sounded like a good idea. She also thought that if the basilisk was being controlled by someone in the school, it would be a lot more vulnerable when that person wasn't around to protect it. Still…
"It's a while yet before summer comes. You guys don't seem worried at all," Rigel commented.
"Well, should we be?" Draco asked bluntly. He grimaced, then went on, "I know it sounds cold, but the pattern of attacks seems clear, even to the rest of the school. No one in Slytherin has been attacked. As long as we keep our heads down, there probably won't be any Slytherin attacks, either."
"So you think it's definitely a Slytherin controlling the monster?" Rigel said.
Draco tilted his head consideringly, "I'm not sure it's a student, actually, but whoever it is clearly has sympathy for Slytherin House."
"It could be a coincidence," Rigel argued, though internally she agreed with Draco. Whoever was controlling the snake was against Dumbledore, and likely (though apparently not reliably) working for Riddle.
Draco shook his head, "If the victims were targets of opportunity alone, there would be a majority of Slytherins. We're the ones most often alone in unfrequented parts of the castle. The dungeons are vast, and largely unpatrolled, so chances are that's where the basilisk has set up its lair, if it's in the castle at all. Snakes like the dark and damp, so the dungeons would be its natural hunting grounds in any case. No Slytherins attacked means the snake is avoiding Slytherins for some reason. If we take reasonable precautions, then, chances are Slytherin House will weather this storm unscathed."
"But doesn't that bother you?" Rigel asked, "That Slytherin House will be blamed, maybe rightfully so, for these attacks? It can't be good politics."
"Can't it?" Draco said darkly, "You underestimate how easily fear can be put to political use, Rigel."
"Why are you so bothered about us being bothered or not, Rigel?" Pansy asked.
Rigel looked out over the lake, "I don't know. I guess…I feel guilty, somehow."
"Because you're a Slytherin?" Pansy pressed.
"Sort of," Rigel said, thinking of what Patil had said, "More because I'm a Parselmouth, I think. Of all the people in this school, I have the advantage over the basilisk. I should be doing something to stop it, shouldn't I?"
"Like what?" Draco scoffed, "You're twelve. You don't have to do anything about anything. Let the teachers handle it, and don't go chasing trouble."
"It's just, the teachers don't seem to be handling it, do they?" Rigel said, "Why don't they just evacuated the school for a couple of weeks, fumigated it like Pansy suggested, then find the basilisk's body and declare it done with? It seems like they're determined to keep things running along as normal as possible, like there is no immanent threat."
"That's exactly what they're doing," Pansy nodded, "Dumbledore's image is closely bound to the school's. He has to make it seem as though everything's all right, or he loses political clout. It's just like how Mr. Riddle has to make it seem like the SOW Party is always running smoothly, even when there are internal power struggles going on, so that he seems to be in control."
"The Minister does the same thing," Draco added, "always covering up scandals in the Ministry so that it doesn't look like he can't control his own people's doings."
"It's one thing in political parties and government agencies," Rigel said, frowning, "But this is a school. The safety of the students should come first."
"We've already got escorts everywhere we go," Pansy pointed out, "Since they started taking serious precautions, only Lockhart and that girl who deliberately went off on her own have gotten petrified."
"But we're still not completely safe," Rigel said, "I mean, I know it's impossible to make kids safe all the time, but it seems like a basilisk is not something to mess about with. The parents already know what's happening. Kids are being pulled out of school. The media must know already, too, so why not just forget the pretenses and start taking extreme measures?"
"You'd have to ask Dumbledore," Draco said slowly, "But my guess is that killing the basilisk isn't enough for him. He wants to find out who's behind the basilisk getting into the castle, and why they're targeting students in the first place, so that he can stop the one behind it, not just the snake itself."
"And he probably thinks that as long as students are just getting petrified, he can afford to hesitate," Pansy said, "It's awful, yes, but is it any worse than the Sleeping Sickness? Not even a quarter as many kids have been hurt this year."
Rigel eyed her friends carefully, "It isn't any worse, I suppose, except the potential threat being higher. Speaking of the sickness, though, do you guys think…well, does this situation seem similar, to you? Almost eerily similar to last year?"
Pansy nodded slowly while Draco frowned.
"Similar enough, why?" Draco asked.
"There wasn't ever proof of who exactly sent the sickness last year," Rigel said, "But what if it's the same person who sent the basilisk?"
Pansy winced slightly and Draco's face went studiously blank.
"Please be careful what you say aloud, Rigel," Pansy said softly, "I'm not saying the possibility hasn't already been discretely discussed among certain members of our House, but the implications of such an…accusation would be…dangerous.
Draco's jaw clenched, "I can't say many would be surprised if you were right. Dumbledore is poised to lose much, if things turn sour at Hogwarts, so it's not a difficult leap to suppose that his enemies might orchestrate such a turn. It's important to keep in mind, however, that Dumbledore has many enemies, and that's assuming Dumbledore is the main target of these attacks, when in fact it could be the Light-sides families of the victims. Threatening an Heir is the oldest form of blackmail in the book."
Rigel wasn't sure she'd read that particular book, but she had read the words etched in blood upon the castle walls, and so she knew that Dumbledore was, in fact, the target of the attacks. She also knew something else, but she wasn't sure if she should tell Pansy and Draco what she'd overheard at the Yule gala.
On the one hand, it implicated Draco's father with near certainty in the events of the Sleeping Sickness, but on the other hand, Draco already suspected the role Lucius Malfoy had played in events, and likely already suspected a similar involvement this time, if the SOW party was involved at all. Additionally, did she have the right to protect her friends from this, when it involved them so directly?
"You're quiet, Rigel," Pansy noted.
"Too quiet," Draco said dryly, "Almost as though you're contemplating hiding something from us. You wouldn't do that, though, would you? Not while we're being so open and honest with one another lately."
Rigel grimaced, "I know this isn't a fair question to ask, but if you had a choice between knowing something that might upset you and not knowing, which would you rather?"
"At this point the question is: would we rather know something potentially unpleasant or just live knowing that we don't know something that obviously affects us in a potentially upsetting way." Draco said with resignation, "Just tell us."
Pansy nodded, her face slightly troubled.
Rigel asked Draco to cast a basic privacy ward, which wasn't particularly subtle, but which would keep anyone from overhearing.
"At the Yule gala, I overheard a conversation between Mr. Riddle and your father, Draco," Rigel said, "It concerned the petrifactions, and it did not paint either of them in a particularly…innocent light."
Draco's face was tense, but not yet upset, "If I thought words like 'innocent' could ever describe my father, I would be more naive than the girls in our Defense class who thought Lockhart had a talent for anything except posturing."
"It is always better to know the ins and outs of the political landscape," Pansy said firmly, "No matter how alarming or disadvantageous. A choice made in ignorance can be disastrous."
When Rigel still hesitated, Draco said, "You can't protect us from the truth, Rigel."
I can, actually, she thought, but this time I won't.
She told them what she'd heard, and then let them think for a short while.
"It seems fairly clear that the SOW party was behind the sickness, then," Pansy said with a sigh, "And it seems like Mr. Riddle did have a plan in place at Hogwarts this year, but something has gone wrong."
"Maybe there's a wild card in play?" Draco suggested, frowning, "Mr. Riddle's agent was clearly referred to as male, but you're sure whoever attacked you was female, right, Rigel? Maybe someone is working against Riddle's agenda, either accidentally or on purpose. Father says things are often most confusing when more than one plot overlaps."
"What's the Chamber of Secrets, then?" Pansy asked, "Draco's father made it seem as though this has happened before. If this is a copycat crime, it might tell us more about the motive and goals if we know more about the original."
"It has," Rigel said, "Mr. Hagrid told me about it. He went to school the last time something like this happened, and he said the petrifactions were the same, except last time there were messages left with the victims, and all of those petrified were muggleborns."
"Muggleborns?" Draco blinked, then his eyes widened, "Oh. The Chamber of Secrets—it's an old Slytherin legend. When Salazar left the school, it was said that he left behind a hidden chamber where all his knowledge was stored, which only his Heir could open. Once his Heir returned to the school and opened the Chamber, Salazar Slytherin's great work would be finished."
"What great work was that?" Rigel asked curiously.
Draco looked uncomfortable, "Well, most people think the legend means the purification of the school."
Rigel frowned, "But the school's already pureblood-only. Why would anyone want to mimic the Chamber being opened if Slytherin's 'great work' has already been completed?"
"Perhaps the culprit wants people to know he's acting in the name of Slytherin," Pansy said.
"Or perhaps…what if the similarity to fifty years ago isn't the intent, but rather a side-effect of the same method being used?" Draco said slowly.
Rigel raised an eyebrow, "You think there really is a Chamber of Secrets, and that it was in fact opened both fifty years ago and today? That would explain the similarities to the attacks, but not why anyone would open it again, if Slytherin's work is complete."
Draco said, "The instrument of the attack must be connected to the Chamber of Secrets. Whoever wanted to cause problems at Hogwarts needed the Chamber opened to do it. Maybe they gave no thought to how it would come across in connection to the legend."
Pansy frowned, "But only the Heir of Slytherin can open the Chamber. It would have to be the same person as fifty years ago, or their direct descendant I suppose. Still, the line is supposed to be obsolete."
"It doesn't have to be Slytherin's literal Heir," Draco argued, "Everyone says Dumbledore is the Heir to Merlin, because he was able to lift the Staff of Merlin from its place in the Hall of Eternity, but Dumbledore's not directly descendent from Merlin. The Heir of Slytherin could be someone the Chamber deems worthy of opening it, not necessarily Slytherin's actual blood."
Pansy gasped, "It's obvious, isn't it? The thing that's been attacking kids is a basilisk. The only way to control it is Parseltongue. So the Heir of Slytherin might just mean anyone who's a parselmouth!"
Draco shot a look at Rigel, who lifted her hands in open denial, "It isn't me."
Draco and Pansy actually laughed at that, "We know, Rigel," Pansy said, then her face fell, "It's just…if this gets out, that's exactly what other people will think. We know there's got to be another Parselmouth, but…the odds of two Parselmouths being in the school at once have got to be phenomenally low."
"A lot of people already think I did it," Rigel said unconcernedly, "And their thinking it doesn't make it true. As long as the Aurors don't listen to idle gossip, I think I'll be fine."
Draco blanched at the mention of Aurors, and Rigel grimaced, but didn't know what to say. Lucius' part in the plot wasn't certain, but he didn't seem to be rolling in plausible deniability.
"Lord Malfoy is smart, Draco," Pansy said comfortingly, "And it was clear from what Rigel overheard that neither he nor Riddle meant for any kids to be petrified. This is someone else's doing, and in the end your father couldn't have been involved very much, or he wouldn't have had so many questions."
"Speaking of," Rigel said, "How high in the SOW party is Professor Snape, exactly?"
"That's a good question," Pansy said carefully, "No one is really sure, I think. Lord Riddle obviously holds the Professor in high esteem. He always makes a point to converse with him at social functions, usually somewhere private. I've heard from others that Snape sometimes goes so far as to give council to Lord Riddle, so Riddle obviously favors him greatly. On the other hand, Professor Snape comes to so few social gatherings, it's hard to get a consistent read on their public relationship."
"Uncle Severus is also notoriously close to Dumbledore," Draco commented, "Dumbledore seeks his council on things sometimes as well, I've heard. My father admires Uncle Severus greatly, and would trust him at his back in a heartbeat, but at the same time he sometimes cautions me about being too open with my godfather, specifically about information. It makes me wonder if Uncle Severus isn't playing both sides of the party lines."
"Is that not allowed?" Rigel asked, "Plenty of people are Neutral and move between the two sides politically and socially."
"The Neutrals are all on the fringes, though," Draco said dismissively, "Uncle Severus is in deep, really deep, with both parties. He's a political anomaly, I guess."
"Some people would call that a spy," Rigel said quietly.
"Yes, well," Draco said, "In the end, all it means is that Uncle Severus can do pretty much as he pleases, which is, of course, why he lives the way he does."
"I see," Rigel said, though in reality she wasn't sure she did. It seemed like a lot more work to be embroiled in both parties than it would have been to just stay out of it completely, as she planned on doing. Then again Snape's expertise in potions was probably highly sought after, so perhaps it was hard for him to remain politically aloof.
"Let's talk about something besides politics," Pansy said, sighing, "And not this Chamber of Secrets business, either. We can't do anything about it, so discussing it does no good."
"Let's talk about Rigel's magic," Draco said, smirking rather evilly.
"Are you still having trouble with it?" Pansy asked, concerned, "You seem to be doing quite well in our classes—you almost always get the spell right off, in fact."
"Not almost always, always," Draco said, "It's a bit disconcerting, actually. I bet you practice them ahead of time, right?"
Rigel shook her head, "It's my magic. It just knows how to do things."
They exchanged patently disbelieving looks.
"Magic is a force of nature," Draco said, "Like wind or lightning. Wizards have the ability to manipulate that force, but our manipulation of it doesn't make the magic sentient. You have to stop thinking about magic like you would an animal of some kind, or it's only going to seem harder to control, because you'll be subconsciously influencing it to be that way."
"That's what Professor Snape said," Rigel started.
"And Merlin forbid we believe anything experienced professors tell us," Draco rolled his eyes.
Rigel narrowed her eyes at him, "But what if he's wrong? What if magic really is semi-sentient?"
Pansy tilted her head consideringly, "If it were, there would have been some sign of it by now, don't you think? A…magical rebellion, or something."
"Has there ever been a house elf rebellion?" Rigel countered.
"You think magic is like house elves?" Draco snorted, "No way. House elves are much easier to control."
Rigel frowned, but said, "So you admit that magic has to be controlled, as though it wouldn't act the way wizards want it to unless we made it?"
Draco frowned back, "Yes. Just like a river wouldn't collect itself into a reservoir unless humans built a dam to make it do so. That doesn't make the river sentient."
"Okay," Rigel said, "But how can we say there are no signs that magic is sentient, when all the signs that might mean just that are interpreted as simply a person not having good enough control over their magic?"
"You mean accidental magic," Pansy said, "But accidental magic isn't magic going wild by itself—it is magic responding to a child's distress or desire. The child wants something he or she can't make happen on their own, and their magic responds automatically."
"But the child isn't really controlling the magic," Rigel said.
"A person can't control their heart beating," Pansy pointed out, "But it beats on, even when they sleep, adjusting in speed depending on how fast the person needs their blood circulating."
"All a heart can do is beat, though," Rigel said, "It does so because it is programmed to beat, and to adjust to different chemicals released by the brain in response to a handful of physical situations. A person's heart can't choose to slow down, for instance, when its owner is nervous, even if it might be in the best interest of the person to have a slow heartbeat, like if they were subjected to a pulse-monitoring spell by an Auror while being interrogated. Magic isn't like that. Magic responds to the child's need, yes, but then it chooses how to respond in a way appropriate to the situation."
Draco hesitated, "I'm not sure that's quite how it works."
"Even if a child has no idea what a hover charm is, his magic can still lift a box of cookies from the highest shelf and bring it down to him," Rigel said, "That suggests that magic knows things that its user doesn't necessarily know."
"The child would have had hover charms cast in close proximity to him," Draco said, "Accidental magic can regurgitate spells a child has experienced before, can't it? I think magic does have a kind of pattern-recognition ability, especially children's magic, because a child's magic isn't formed as much as an adult's magic." His face was scrunched slightly as he went on, "It's like…oh, I read this in a book once, but it's been so long…I think it's because a child's magical core is more wild, more natural. It's impressionable, in a way. That's why children develop Light and Dark affinities before they ever get proper schooling. It's environmental, to an extent. Their magic remembers, but the way a block of clay 'remembers' a design pressed into it, not because it's sentient."
"What about when my magic cast the Expolso Shield?" Rigel said, "There's no way anyone has ever performed that shield around me when I was too young to remember it. It's just too dangerous to be cast around children. Still, my magic cast the shield without my input, before I had ever heard of the shield. How can that be, unless the magic knew how the shield was made without me telling it how? And how could it choose that spell, among all the spells I know and don't know, unless it was sentient to some extent? You can't have something that responds creatively to environmental stimuli without calling it sentient. That's what sentient means."
"Sentience isn't the ability to respond to things," Pansy corrected apologetically, "It's the ability to perceive things—to be self-aware. Magic only responds to wizard will; it's a reaction, that's all."
"No, it isn't," Rigel said, "You already admitted that Magic exists in two forms—bound to wizards as Formed magic, and also as Free magic. Freedom is characteristic of sentience, is it not?"
"It doesn't mean magic is free to act as it pleases in the wild," Draco said, exasperated, "It only means that it hasn't got a form yet. Free magic is useless magic. It's not even magic, really, just the energy with potential to be used as magic by wizards. Like heat in the air isn't really a fire."
All the different analogies were getting confusing, Rigel reflected as she tried to explain her thoughts in a way that made sense. "If magic isn't sentient, then how do you explain my magic? It's tricky, and unnecessarily creative at times, don't you think? If it was responding to my will alone, it would do so expediently, but instead it does things weirdly, as though trying to mess with my head on purpose."
Draco and Pansy exchanged another dubious look, "You sound a bit paranoid about it, Rigel," Draco said, "Not to be disparaging, but I think you're making a bit fuss over something minor. A lot of kids our age have trouble controlling their magic. There's a kid in Hufflepuff who makes bubbles come out of his wand every time he tries to transfigure a liquid."
"It's not about control," Rigel said, "When I try to do something, my magic is perfectly controlled. My magic acts when I'm not trying to do anything, though. It acts on its own."
"Randomly?" Pansy pressed, "Because it seems to me that whenever your magic does something you didn't specifically tell it to, it's usually a result you could have reasonably been unconsciously seeking. That shield charm was a response to you perceiving a threat. You knocked Jordan unconscious when he threatened you. You blew up the dummies in Quirrell's class because he was treating you unfairly. Do you see how your magic isn't as random as you think? I know you feel out of control, but you really aren't."
Rigel sighed, but didn't argue anymore. She knew, somehow, that they were wrong. If her magic was a dead thing that she wielded, utilizing it would be difficult. She would have to work to perform a spell, instead of just work to understand the theory behind it. Rigel's magic performed just as well when she didn't use wand movements—even when she didn't use a wand, for that matter. The magic wasn't connected to or dependant upon anything she herself was doing—whether that was saying the right incantations, making the right wand movement, visualizing the results, or anything. All she had to do was ask, and it…happened.
It was weird, and she felt uneasy about it. She also felt guilty somehow, as though she were getting something without earning it or even understanding it. Draco and Pansy didn't understand, though, so she let the matter go for now. Someday she would find a better way to explain.
Eventually they stopped talking and just relaxed, turning their faces to the breeze. Rigel considered meditating, but she wasn't in the mood to look at the failed experiment lounging her one if her mental armchairs right now. So instead, she just stared out at the lake, watching its peaceful waves rock gently against the-
A whirl of white sprung from the water's surface, not far from shore. It wriggled and twisted about in the air as it rose, but strangely didn't make the slightest ripple in its wake. A moment later, a voice like a broken whistle told them why.
"Black! Black, where are you? I demand you attend me this instant!"
Rigel felt her eyebrows lift, too distracted by the sight of Myrtle, spitting mad and gasping for air as though she really had held her breath swimming from her bathroom pipes to the surface of the lake to stop her expression betraying her utter surprise.
Myrtle spotted them in the next instant, and floated over. Surprisingly enough, most students ignored the sight of a ghost floating out of the lake. Rigel supposed Hogwarts had already conditioned most of them to accept peculiarities with aplomb, if nothing else.
"Black! I've been looking everywhere for you. You'll never believe what happened," the ghost fumed, her eyes flashing over the rim of her horned spectacles, "The nerve of some people. I mean, there I was—minding my own business in the u-bend—when some barking mad bint lobs a book through my head. Through it!"
Rigel blinked. "I'm very sorry to hear that, Myrtle. But, ah, why are you telling me?"
Myrtle looked highly affronted, saying, "You told me to report any suspicious activity to you."
Rigel was about to say that the situation Myrtle described, while unfortunate and gravely insulting, wasn't really very suspicious, when Pansy spoke up.
"Yes, we'll done, Myrtle," she said calmly, "A student in your bathroom alone while there's a curfew in effect is indeed very suspicious."
Myrtle preened, "Isn't it though? Why would anyone throw a book at an innocent ghost if they weren't up to no good?"
"Good point," Rigel said gravely, "Thank you for reporting this, Myrtle. I'll mail order a Weird Sister poster this afternoon."
Draco suppressed an amused grin with difficulty.
Myrtle still hovered expectantly.
"Was there anything else, Myrtle?" Pansy asked kindly.
"You haven't told me when you'll be coming by to get it."
Feeling particularly slow, Rigel said, "Get what?"
Myrtle pouted, "The book. You aren't just going to leave it there, of course. It's right in the middle of my toilet. Taking up space, reminding me of that awful girl and giving me flashbacks of all the trauma I underwent. I want it gone!" She let out a frustrated noise, "But I can't touch it! I've already tried to make the toilet explode, because sometimes when I'm really upset the water starts churning, but all it did was flood a bit. I suppose…Peeves would probably help if I told him it was to explode something."
"I'm sure that wont be necessary," Pansy said, "Of course Rigel will get it out."
"Of the girls bathroom," Draco said dryly, "While we're under curfew. Excellent plan."
"I'll get it then," Pansy said confidently. She stood and brushed at her skirts.
"You? Now?" Draco said incredulously.
"I'll be back before you know it," Pansy said, a bit dryly.
"Wait," Rigel said, frowning, "It isn't safe-"
"I'll take a prefect," Pansy said, "And besides, I'm a Slytherin. I'll be fine."
She set off across the lawn toward where the upper-year Slytherins were sitting without looking back.
By the time Pansy reached the sixth years, she was wearing her third favorite expression. She didn't have a name for this one yet, but it was one part earnest, one part mildly helpless, and one part embarrassed. She made her eyes slightly wider than normal, bit her lip ever so slightly at the corner, and made her brow perfectly smooth, too smooth, as though she were concentrating very hard on not letting her forehead crinkle with discontent.
She tapped the sixth year male prefect for her House on his upper arm, as though she could not quite reach up to his shoulder. It was a firm enough tap that she only had to do it once, but soft enough to be almost apologetic in itself.
He turned, and raised an eyebrow, "Yes?"
Pansy hesitated just long enough to make a point, flicking her eyes at the prefect's friends. The prefect, whose name she thought started with an F and reminded her of a lawyer for some reason, gave his friends a quick nod and moved off to the side to grant her a more private conversation.
"Thank you," Pansy said at once, "I'm sorry to inconvenience you, but I presently require the use of a restroom. Would you mind accompanying me?"
The prefect looked uncomfortable for a moment before covering it with a polite tilt of his head, "Selwyn may be more suited to that sort of errand."
Pansy nodded, a bit shyly for effect, "She just looks so content over there with Rookwood. I was loathe to interrupt her, but if you think it's best..."
The prefect shot a look toward the Head Girl, who was indeed looking rather amicably engaged with Edmund at the moment. He grimaced slightly, probably at the thought of pulling Alice away from her (unofficial, but who did they think they were fooling) beau.
"Right then. I'll accompany you up to the Entrance Hall."
Pansy affected a vaguely distraught expression, this time allowing her brow to crease a tiny bit, "You haven't heard? Peeves was in some kind of snit earlier. He... well, suffice to say the girls bathrooms on the first floor suffered undue injury. I'm afraid the nearest usable one is on the second floor-" she broke off, blinked worriedly up at him, and said in a rush, "Is that too far? If it's too much trouble, I can... I mean I'm sure I could..." She put on a very brave face, "Wait."
The prefect looked distinctly discomfited, but said, "Don't be silly. I wouldn't dream of making you... wait. I'll inform one of the other prefects so they know we're gone. Just wait here a moment."
Pansy smiled sweetly, they way she always did when things were going particularly according to plan. She glanced over at her boys to see them frowning worriedly in her direction. Something softened inside of her at their obvious concern. Some would say that every part of her was already soft. Pansy knew how she came across, soft hearted and soft headed, and she encouraged that impression painstakingly.
When she was younger, her personality had been sharper, honest to a fault, and more like Daphne Greengrass than she cared to admit. She also had a grand total of zero friends, unless you counted the unicorns who briefly made their home on her family's estate. Still, friendless as she was, she was also unapologetic. She said what she thought and thought for herself, and her father especially was all too quick to encourage it. When Pansy turned seven, her mother tried to arrange a tea party with some of the other women in the Dark Daughters Society. None of the other women's daughters wanted to come. Pansy told herself she didn't care about those dumb girls with their simpering little faces and dull, glassy eyes, but her mother saw the blow done to her child's pride, and gave her a piece of sound advice.
"Be true to your beliefs and principles," she said, "But don't push your peers away just because you can. You'd be surprised how far a smile can go."
Pansy had taken her words to heart, and then taken them further and put her mind to work on them. She realized that thinking for yourself didn't always mean saying what you thought out loud. She practiced for hours in the mirror, came up with all sorts of kind, meaningless things she could say to people, and, amazingly and almost disappointingly, it worked.
As it turned out, the whole world opened up when you were nice to people.
So she made friends easily after that. Everyone loved the pretty, sweet blonde girl with wide eyes and a kind smile, especially when she let a ray of her intellect shine through every now and then, just to keep their interest. With her mind challenged by the new game and her social life much improved, though, a small part of her soul—the slippery, silvery part that laughingly reflected people's best expectations back at them for fun—couldn't help but wonder how other people could be so easily won. Really, where was the fun in adoration if it was obtained so easily?
So she had lived, content to gather friends like butterflies in a net of smiles, and then she had met someone…different.
A small, dark-haired boy with wide eyes and an embarrassingly slack expression walked into the Great Hall next to her, and she found she couldn't quite stop the blunt assessment that passed her lips. She'd immediately smiled, in an automatic attempt to temper her opinion, but the boy didn't seem to take any offense at her words. On the contrary, he smiled back. It was one of the most perfect fake smiles shed ever seen, and it felt, in that instant, as though Fate had been appraised of her growing ennui and responded in the most expedient way it could manage: with a kindred spirit.
That was how Pansy became friends with the enigma Rigel Black, and through the ordeal that was becoming Rigel's friend, became Draco Malfoy's companion as well. The odd thing about Rigel was, even though his surface was as porcelain as her own, he didn't seem to realize how alike they were. She suspected he was very good at playing pretend, but not very good at recognizing other players on the pitch.
Not that it mattered. Sometimes, Pansy thought the mask was all that really mattered. Who was a person, really, if not the sum of their actions and the impressions they left on other people? What was a soul, when compared with that?
The prefect returned quickly, and accompanied Pansy dutifully to the second floor. Pansy could admit she was curious as to what Myrtle had kicked up such a fuss about. With luck, the book would be something interesting, like a secret notebook shared between friends. She could picture it now, one friend getting angry and disposing of the book out of spite. Or perhaps the book contained love letters from a boy who had broken the girl's heart. With any luck, it might even be a diary.
Nigel Fairister waited with mounting impatience in the half-flooded corridor of the second floor. Had anyone asked him, he would have professed to have no clue as to what could possibly be keeping one Miss Parkinson, second-year Slytherin and Heir Parkinson apparent, so continuously occupied in the powder room.
He thought it unlikely to be facial powder, given Miss Parkinson's perfectly pre-pubescent complexion, and hair powder was equally unlikely, given the present age. Other explanations, however, were not immediately forthcoming. He certainly hoped there were no…natural explanations for the fifteen minutes Miss Parkinson had already spent within, and, he thought with a grimace, he had best turn his mind to other matters, lest he find himself unable to look Miss Parkinson in the eye when she emerged.
Five minutes later, Nigel was neither impatient nor concerned with Miss Parkinson's private biological agenda. Rather, he was worried. The likelihood of anything befalling the second-year in a powder room was rather small, considering anything threatening would have to first pass his current position to gain entry, but still…her lack of reappearance was unsettling, to say the least. At last he decided to knock, louder than was proper, and wait.
He knocked again, calling, "Miss Parkinson? Do you require…assistance?" He winced briefly at how uncouth that statement would sound if she was merely admiring her own reflection or some such after all.
Still no reply.
"I'm coming in, Miss Parkinson," he warned, "Unless you beseech me otherwise. Please beseech me otherwise," he added under his breath.
He tentatively pushed open the door, and the utter lack of feminine outrage that met his unconscionably untoward action made his stomach sink with wary realization. His steps made vaguely sickening squelching noises as he stepped carefully into the restroom, wand at the ready. As he rounded the corner into the bathroom proper, his heart clenched at the sight of Miss Parkinson splayed out on the tiles, eyes wide open and face frozen in delicate shock. He allowed himself a moment of sheer relief that the second year appeared to be petrified, not limp with death, and then he constructed the strongest wards he knew how to raise without preparation or materials.
He drew out the runes into the air with his wand carefully. Trying not to think about the fact that these wards, at their basic OWL level, were unlikely to have a noticeable effect on a creature with as much ambient magic as a basilisk was rumored to have, Nigel next wove his wand in a pattern that was taught to every prefect at their initiation meeting in fifth year.
It was a spell designed by battle mages many centuries ago, made to seek out and catch the attention of the nearest entity that had been keyed into the same pattern as the one the caster used. For the pattern the prefects were taught, that meant the nearest Head of House, or the Headmaster himself. The spell took the form of a small, golden bird, which winged rapidly away once fully formed. Now all there was to do was wait.
He looked down at Miss Parkinson, her light blonde hair turned a golden color by the water now soaking into it. Poor girl, he thought, Judging by the way she fell, she was probably primping in the mirror when it happened. In fact, he shuddered at the thought of what would have happened if she met the beast's gaze full on, It's lucky that she was.
For want of else to do, and because he couldn't stomach staring at his Housemate's unmoving expression any longer, Nigel began gathering Miss Parkinson's things. Her bag had spilled on the floor when she fell, and most of her things were soaked, but it was nothing a little drying spell wouldn't fix. As least it gave him something to do.
Once everything was back in the bag, he glanced around the room and noticed a small, leather-bound book lying underneath the closest sink, barely within the ward circle he'd drawn. He picked it up and dried it. By its nondescript cover and lack of title or author he'd guess it was a personal journal of some kind. By its distance from the other objects from her bag, she was probably holding the book when it happened. No doubt trying to scribble out an entry while she had a moment to herself—with the curfew, time alone was a coveted commodity these days. With a pitying sigh, he tucked the diary into the second-year's bag (without opening it, of course, being the gentleman that he was), just as the door to the washroom was flung open sharply.
Professor McGonagall strode inside with her wand up, a fiercely determined look on her face, and Nigel had never been more pleased to see the Gryffindor Head of House. She swept the room with her eyes before gesturing him to take his wards down. Seeing the little golden bird hovering at McGonagall's shoulder, he didn't bother with checking her for Polyjuice or the like.
When he unraveled the binding rune on the ward, the golden bird darted forward and rejoined with his wand, its duty done. McGonagall immediately cast several diagnostic charms on Miss Parkinson, confirming what Nigel had guessed already.
"Petrified," the older witch said quietly. She turned her sharpest gaze on Nigel, and said, "Mr. Fairister. Thank you for alerting me. How did you find her?"
Nigel explained quickly about accompanying Miss Parkinson to the restroom, not seeing or hearing anything until he decided to check on the girl, his estimation that she had been looking in the mirror when it happened, and the lack of suspicious activity while he waited. McGonagall listened, eyes scanning the bathroom carefully, and when she was finished she conjured a stretcher and levitated Miss Parkinson onto it.
"You will accompany me to the Hospital Wing, Mr. Fairister, and afterwards I will see you safely back to the lake, where you will assist in seeing the rest of your House back to your common room. Do you require a Calming Draught?"
Nigel shook his head slowly, "Thank you, Professor, but I shall retain my wits without one, I should think."
"Very well," McGonagall moved her wand toward Parkinson's school bag, but Nigel picked it up swiftly.
"I will return Miss Parkinson's things to her friends," he said, "I feel it is my duty to relate this…happening to them, as it was," he cleared his throat and swallowed dryly, "Was my responsibility to prevent them."
McGonagall's face softened, "No, Mr. Fairister, you share no blame for this deed. Miss Parkinson will make a full recovery once professors Snape and Sprout complete the Restoration Draught, and rest assured we will find the one truly responsible for her current state."
Nigel allowed this knowledge to comfort him, though he knew a reliance on fair words to be a kind of weakness. On a day when twelve-year-old girls were allowed to be petrified in silence, even gentlemen ought to be allowed a little weakness, after all.
When the prefect returned alone, they knew immediately that something was wrong. The pure regret on his face, coupled with McGonagall's presence, only solidified the worry into a hard knot in Rigel's chest. McGonagall used a Sonorous Charm to carry her voice, saying, "All students collect your belongings and find your House prefects. I'm sorry, but this outing must be prematurely concluded. There's been another attack—" her voice broke on the last word, but she only continued, "Please, organize yourselves as quickly as possible."
Draco and Rigel exchanged grim looks before gathering their own bags and walking swiftly to where the prefect who had gone with Pansy was standing, surrounded by Rookwood, Rosier, Selwyn, and Millicent, and already facing a full inquiry by the look of it. Myrtle sank back into the lake quietly as they went, probably going to assess the condition of her toilet once more.
They reached the group in time to hear Rookwood say, "—your responsibility, Fairister."
"Indeed," the prefect, Fairister, said stiffly, "I assure you my vigilance did not suffer any ignorance of that fact. I saw nothing, and heard nothing. I do not know how she was attacked. I am sorry, but there was nothing I could have done to prevent this."
"So it was Pansy?" Draco looked distinctly sick, "Is she—?" He closed his mouth, unable to articulate further.
"Petrified," Fairister said, voice bleak, "I found her on the bathroom floor. It couldn't have been more than fifteen minutes, and yet—"
"You should never have let her out of your sight," Rookwood said harshly. In any other circumstances, seeing the usually calm young man admonish another person with any amount of passion or sharpness would have been remarkable—now it only highlighted the surrealism of the situation. Rosier's unnaturally silent demeanor was a jarring contrast, his eyes like melted gold, fiery and unsteady.
Fairister leveled a stern look at Rookwood, saying quietly, "What would you have had me do? Accompany Miss Parkinson into the female washroom? I never dreamed danger might come from within. I'm sorry. I—I should have checked the room first, I suppose."
Selwyn spoke, her voice sharp, "I know Marian and Charlotte chose not to come out to the lake, but why did you not ask me to escort Miss Parkinson if you were appraised of the destination?"
Fairister flushed lightly, "Miss Parkinson did not wish to trouble you while you were…socializing. She felt you deserved a reprieve from your many duties." A flick of a glance at Rookwood was all he gave, but it easily expressed his meaning without words. Everyone knew the Head Girl had had precious little time with her friends, particularly her…whatever Rookwood was to her, of late.
Selwyn stiffened and her face went blank, "If you're suggesting I have not made my time amply available—"
"Of course not," Fairister said quickly, "I am merely relating Miss Parkinson's wishes."
"Too nice for her own good," Rookwood said softly.
Rigel was inclined to agree, though for different reasons. She knew Pansy had taken Fairister precisely because he would be unable to accompany her inside, and so unable to see her true motive for going in. If Pansy hadn't so kindly volunteered to get the book for Myrtle in the first place, however…Rigel shook her head. It was no use dwelling over what might have been if it wouldn't help Pansy now. She had learned that much from the Sleeping Sickness, at least. Not that there was anything Rigel could do to help Pansy now. She certainly couldn't make the Restoration Draught and better or faster than her Head of House and Professor Sprout could.
The agonizing thing about that particular draught was that it required fully mature mandrakes to make. Mandrakes were one of the few ingredients that couldn't be preserved for very long. They were a very useful ingredient, due to their inherent pliability. If you wanted, you could imbue them with specific properties depending on the type of soil you grew them in and the magic you exposed them to. To get mandrakes with the properties necessary for a Restoration Draught, however, it was necessary to begin with mandrake sproutlings, which took around six months to grow to full maturity. The sprouts had to be moved to new soil every two weeks, as they sucked their environment of its magic very quickly, and every time you moved them there was a chance of exposing your ears to their cry.
In addition, many herbologists and even potioneers were squeamish about working with the plants. While their intelligence was closer to that of small mammals, like gophers, rabbits, and the like, their shape was acutely humanoid. They were classified by the Ministry as plants, with 'creature-like' magical properties, but some still refused to work with them. Rigel heard that mandrakes screamed like a human would when they were harvested, and if that was true she couldn't blame the herbologists for being squeamish. She did have doubts about the accuracy of that statement, since anyone who'd actually heard the death cry of a mature mandrake would be dead, but that wasn't really important.
What was important was that Snape and Sprout were essentially working from scratch to grow the mandrakes necessary for the Restoration Draught, which meant it would be another few weeks at least until Pansy could be healed. And there was nothing Rigel could do to make that day come sooner.
The rest of their House had by then assembled, so Selwyn and Fairister joined the prefects in herding the students back into the castle. Before leaving, Fairister pressed Pansy's bag into Millicent's hands to take back to their room. If Millicent clutched it a bit too tightly, no one felt it necessary to point it out.
They reached the common room without incident, and entered it silently. No one seemed to know what to say. It the attack had happened to another student, there would have been speculation, heated discussions on the topic until the novelty had worn off. As it was, Pansy's absence, and its implications, were glaringly obvious. She was one of their own, a pureblood Heir to a Dark family, and extremely well-liked by those who knew her. Her attack meant more than all the other attacks put together. It was only while taking in the shocked and troubled expressions that some of their Housemates weren't competent enough to hide that Rigel appreciated the meaning of what Pansy had told her earlier.
Their Housemates really had begun to think themselves safe. Others had thought just as Pansy had—that it likely was a Slytherin doing the petrifying, and that they, as fellow Slytherins, would not be targeted. The first rule of Slytherin House, after all, was that snakes never turned on one another. Rigel looked around and felt the fear slowly uncoiling in the atmosphere, like poisonous fumes released from their bottle by a faulty stopper.
They were halfway through the common room when Millicent knocked into a strangely positioned table and accidentally dropped Pansy's bag, as well as her own. Rigel and Theo, who has walking nearby them in a silent show of support when it happened, stopped to help Millicent pick up she and her roommate's things. Draco, who was in no way about to crouch down on the ground and rifle through a couple of girls' belongings, sent Millicent a sympathetic look and watched with detached patience as they sorted quills, books, inkwells, and parchment into their correct bags.
Theo handed Millicent a small leather journal, but instead of sorting it she just frowned at the book.
"This isn't mine," she said slowly, turning it over in her hands.
"Then it's Pansy's," Theo said.
"I don't think it is," Millicent disagreed, "I've never seen it before, and I've seen the journal she keeps."
"Maybe the one you saw before was a decoy, and this is the real journal," Theo suggested easily.
"Pansy's not that paranoid," Millicent said.
"She's a Slytherin," Theo snorted, "There's no way of knowing how paranoid she is if she's even a little bit, because paranoia's only clever if you hide it, so that people don't know you're prepared for unlikely eventualities."
"I still don't think—"
"It's mine," Rigel said decisively.
They turned to look at her.
"You keep a journal?" Theo asked incredulously. As Rigel's raised eyebrow, he said, "Not that I don't think your life is interesting enough to merit one. I just figured you for the type of paranoid that never wrote anything down."
"Not everyone is paranoid," Draco rolled his eyes.
"You wouldn't know if they were," Theo shrugged, "And if they aren't, they should be."
"Why would Pansy have your journal?," Millicent asked, her eyes narrowing, "Are you saying she stole it? Pansy wouldn't do that."
"Draco goes through my things sometimes," Rigel said, blithely ignoring the blonde's sudden spluttering, "I know he's just curious, but I'd rather he not read my inner-most thoughts and plans. I thought Pansy would be the last person anyone would suspect of harboring my secrets."
Millicent shot Draco a glance under her hair, then shrugged, handing the book over to Rigel. "Makes sense," she said.
"No it doesn't!" Draco said, looking mildly outraged.
Everyone ignored him as they continued picking up the last odds and ends from the floor. When they got back to the dorms, Theo ensconced himself in the bathroom to take a shower. Since Blaise was already out in the common room, having stayed there to catch up on schoolwork while the rest of them went outside, Draco and Rigel were left to try and figure out exactly what had gone wrong in the last couple of hours.
Despite their best attempts, they didn't make much headway on the subject.
"I just don't know why it would be Pansy," Draco said for the third time, pacing the floor between their beds agitatedly, "If someone is trying to resurrect the old Slytherin tales, she's the last one they should attack. Her family is in the Book of Gold, for Salazar's sake. Her family has never sided with Dumbledore on anything—they've been declared Dark as long as the Malfoy's have—well, almost as long. As long as the Lestrange's, at least. Probably not as long as the Black's," Draco conceded with a nod at Rigel.
Rigel suppressed a sigh, "Maybe she was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"No!" Draco whirled, and Rigel saw that his eyes were tight with denial and guilt. He had finally dropped the mask he'd donned when they realized Pansy wasn't coming back from the bathroom. "Rigel, it can't—that makes it our fault, don't you see?"
Rigel spoke as soothingly as she could, "It was unlucky, that's all."
"I don't believe in coincidences like that," Draco said stubbornly, "Pansy went to that bathroom with a purpose, and then she got hurt. That means her purpose was probably connected to the reason for her attack. Otherwise, there's no reason to attack her."
She was about to point out that reason had little to do with many cruel things in the world, when Draco continued.
"There's something going on with that ghost, or that bathroom, or—or—"
"This book?" Rigel suggested, holding up the little journal she was still holding.
Draco's face blanked for a moment, then it all seemed to click, "That's the book Pansy went to get from the bathroom!" At Rigel's raised eyebrow, he coughed, and said, "I mean, obviously you don't actually keep a journal. What kind of idiot writes down all their secrets?"
"Let's find out," Rigel said, opening the book. She flipped through the pages, but there was nothing written anywhere.
"It's blank," Draco groaned, "So someone just chucked an empty journal at a touchy ghost and now Pansy's petrified?" he quieted, and gazed at Rigel with serious consternation, "It really is our fault, isn't it? We shouldn't have let her go."
"It's the basilisk's fault," Rigel said, more to comfort Draco than because she actually believed it herself. It was, after all, her fault Myrtle had come to them for help. "And whoever's controlling it, I suppose."
"Still, the book's a dead end," Draco said, sinking to sit on his bed with a sigh, "What are we going to do?"
"Is it?" Rigel was examining the book closely, "There's letters engraved here. Can you make them out?"
Draco took the book and held it toward the lamplight, "T…N—no, M…R. TMR. I can't think of anyone in our year who matches them, can you?"
Rigel shook her head, but said, "The Library keeps class records, doesn't it? Every year after the Sorting they add the new students to the books. Percy Weasley said he used them to research the effect of magic on the gender of first-born children in old pureblooded families last year."
"They're probably not public records, since any kind of information on Families is censored by the board of governors. We'd need permission to look at them," Draco said slowly, "but if we could go through them, we could figure out who the journal belongs to. We could ask them if they saw anything unusual while they were in the bathroom—they'd have been there less than an hour before Pansy was attacked if that ghost came right away."
"Or they could be the attacker," Rigel said quietly, "They were out of bounds according to the curfew. A lot of risk just to throw away an empty book."
"All the better," Draco said, "That means this journal is evidence they obviously wanted rid of. Maybe it's not really blank. An illusion?"
Rigel got out a quill and ink. If they wrote on a page and couldn't see the ink afterwards, it meant there was an illusion on the pages. She drew a small mark on the edge of the first page. It vanished, seamlessly, into the parchment. Rigel smiled mirthlessly, "I've seen something like this before. The Weasley twins have a pair of notebooks they use to pass messages. The writing disappears from one, and reappears in the other, then disappears again afterwards."
"So whoever has the connected book is part of this too," Draco surmised, "Maybe there's a way to get the information that disappears back out of the book somehow. Maybe one of the two got nervous and backed out, tried to destroy the evidence of their plans out of fear. That means…"
He grabbed the quill from Rigel and scrawled, in bold, slanting letters nothing like his usual elegant penmanship, We know who you are. We know what you did. We're going to stop you.
Rigel frowned, "I wish you hadn't done that, Draco. It's not a good idea to bluff with this kind of a person, and besides that we're not sure the book is connected to another one, and that that person had anything to do with the petrifactions."
They watched as the ink slipped into the page, and Rigel wasn't sure if she was relieved or not when no answering sentence appeared.
Draco set his jaw determinedly, "If there's no one there, or they're unconnected, then it won't matter. But if someone is reading that, and they are connected to Pansy's attack, then they should be afraid. Everyone else in the school is because of them. It's only fair."
They agreed to start their research into the book's owner the next day. Draco would approach a professor about researching the generation-gap fluctuation, a phenomenon that he assure Rigel was currently a hot-topic among society circles, in order to get a pass for looking at the records. They would start with those currently attending school, and work backwards, in case the journal (or pair of journals) had been handed down from a parent or grandparent. Eventually, when they had a list of all those the journal could belong to, they would begin narrowing. It would take some time, as there were a lot of purebloods with 'R' last names, but it was all they could do, until they found enough evidence to take to a professor.
Rigel stored the book in her bag for both accessibility and safe keeping. Eventually, after many uneasy and worried looks between the two of them, they went to sleep, trying not to think about Pansy lying frozen as a statue in the Hospital Wing, unable to do the same.
The next day at breakfast, Rigel was again subject to a number of sidelong glances. Normally, she would endeavor to ignore them, but there was something non-malevolent about them that made her quietly ask Theo and Millicent if they knew the reason.
Millicent grimaced and stabbed at her sausage a bit vindictively, "They've changed their minds. Now that a Slytherin has been attacked, and one of your best friends besides, no one thinks you're the one doing it anymore."
Rigel raised her eyebrows in disbelief, "Just like that?"
Blaise snorted into his breakfast with no small amount of disgust, "Yes. Just like that. Your friend gets hurt, and that's all they see. What happened to all their other evidence—the Parseltongue, the caught-at-the-scene thing, the overall suspicious character of the accused? I suppose they think villains are incapable of throwing suspicion by attacking their own friends. Idiots."
Theo shot him a pointed look, "Unless you're trying to convince people that Rigel did it, shut up and accept their newfound sympathy."
"Besides," Draco said loudly, "Rigel was at the lake in full few of half the school when Pansy was attacked. That's pretty heavy evidence in favor of his innocence."
Blaise acquiesced, though he did mutter darkly, "As if anyone even thought of it like that. If they're going to be prats, they ought to at least be logical about it. It's this sort of half-complete thinking that made them suspect Rigel in the first place."
"What do you expect?" Millicent shrugged.
"I just wish they'd learn, or something," Blaise said ungraciously.
"People never learn," Draco said, a bit scathingly, "That's why politicians can get away with using the same lies and tricks over and over again. Individually, people can be formidable, but collectively they have the learning curve of a goldfish."
Rigel reflected privately that that statement, while somewhat unfairly underestimating a society's impetus for change, nevertheless had a noticeable vein of truth running through it. It explained why the same mistakes were repeated many times over in history. It was an odd contradiction: a society's collective social memory could be long enough to preserve downright archaic traditions and belief, but also short enough to run itself through the same cycles of tradition, rebellion, change, resistance, regression, and rebellion over and over again. As though people wanted at once move forward and to remain the same, and so the world changed, but it never really learned.
That evening Rigel and Draco began meticulously combing through the class records that Draco's rather convincing acting had given them access to. Rigel still had to fight a small smile when she remembered Draco's earnest face as he spoke to Professor Flitwick about the research he needed to conduct on "a dangerous trend currently rising in the wizarding community."
"At the turn of the century, purebloods were waiting an average of twenty years longer than they had in earlier times to get married and have children," Draco had explained seriously, "Waiting longer benefits the families in the long run, because couples are more mature when they decide to marry, are more likely to find the marriage amenable, and raise their Heirs in a more stable environment as a result. In the last fifty years, however, there's been an alarming reversal in this modern mindset. Purebloods are marrying sooner, some right out of school, producing Heirs faster, sometimes recklessly have more children than they could ever possibly need." Rigel knew that statement to be a dig at the Weasley family, and Flitwick probably did too, from the way he frowned slightly at the words. Draco hurried on, "I think it's because the pressure of the declining magical population is coming to bear, but I want to go through the records and see if any other events correspond to the decreasing generation gap."
Needless to say, Flitwick granted Draco the permission slip.
They had ruled out the students in years 1-4 and were working through the class of students that entered the school five years ago when they were interrupted by a very wane-looking Ginny Weasley. Her hair was pulled away from her face in an impatient knot, and her hands shook slightly as she brushed a loose strand behind her ear.
"Rigel," she said, her voice unusually subdued, "I was hoping…" she glanced at Draco, wincing despite the studiously non-confrontational look on Draco's face, and blurted, "I need some help, I think, and I don't know who else might know a way to—to—" she stuttered to a stop. Her face paled several degrees, and Rigel followed Ginny's line of sight to where he gaze had landed—on the small leather book in her bag, the spine of which was just visible through the open gap where she'd reached in for a quill a minute earlier.
Rigel was confused at the fear in Ginny's eyes as they darted from the journal, to Rigel's face, and back again, but then it dawned on her.
"I know what you're—" Rigel began, but Ginny, with a stricken look on her face, turned and fled the Library completely. Her brother, Percy, called out from his table some distance away, then cursed and grabbed another prefect to follow her out as she continued to run.
"We'll escort her back!" Percy called over his shoulder, "Someone take my things back—no, Fred, not you!"
Several people laughed, and others murmured with vague interest, but most went back to their studying.
Draco raised an elegant eyebrow, "That was weird even for a Weasley."
Rigel frowned slightly, "I was going to tell her it wasn't what she was thinking. I bet she thought it was one of Fred or George's notebooks—they look a lot like this one. She ran before I had the chance, though." Rigel shook her head, "Those two have a consistently alarming effect on their siblings. I did think Ginny was past that, though. I'm sure I saw her with one of the twins' notebooks at some point."
"Maybe it cursed her, and the fear was re-instilled," Draco said dismissively, "Who cares? We have work to do."
He turned back to the records, and Rigel did the same, though with slightly more hesitance. She hadn't even heard what Ginny needed help with. Well, maybe Percy could help his sister instead. She had to focus on helping Pansy.
That evening, she spent what was possibly her most uncomfortable session with Professor Snape to date.
Snape had been less than pleased to hear from Selwyn that Rigel traversed the short distance from the Lab to the common room alone after their last session, even though there was no way she could have anticipated being sent back early. As such, he had arranged her escort himself this time, and went so far as to make the prefect wait quietly in the corner of the lab the entire time they worked, just in case they ended at a different time than expected.
Rigel felt rather guilty about causing the prefect so much additional trouble, and didn't fully understand why Snape hadn't just suspended their research sessions until further notice. He worked with fervor on the modified Aconite Alleviation, endlessly changing ingredients and measurements in a struggle to find a combination that worked the effects he desired. Most of the ingredients they worked with were experimental. They were either hybrids of naturally existing plants or else artificially cultivated in certain experimental conditions, such as growing them in magically charged soils.
In this age, new potion improvements were rarely the result of a new combination of old materials. Most known ingredients had had their usages virtually exhausted by the many generations of potions masters, but botanical experimentation was as strictly monitored by the ministry as magical creature breeding was, so this was Rigel's first experience with as of yet unregistered ingredients. Snape didn't seem inclined to introduce her to the subject, in any case.
He snapped directions as her without explanation and changed the instructions at a moment's notice depending on what the potion was doing at the time, again without explanation. Most of what she was doing was ingredient prep and imbuing, and most of what she was learning was through observation alone. Still, it was invigorating work, made more so by Snape's fervent devotion to it. It was as if he worked to a deadline, which was a ridiculous thought, as no Potions Master worth his cauldron would be pressured by such a menial demand.
Rigel observed carefully as Snape began to add the bitterroot to the bottom half of the mixture. He funneled it into the tube, which itself ensured the smooth addition of the ingredient to the bottom layer of the potion, and Rigel narrowed her eyes in concentration as Snape held a hand to the side of the cauldron, not touching it, just hovering near it. There was a transparency charm on the cauldron so that they could see what the bottom half of the potion was doing, and as Snape held his hand beside the cauldron's base the bottom half of the water began to churn gently.
Rigel knew it was wandless magic, a very controlled, careful sort of wandless magic, but she wanted to figure out how exactly Snape directed the magic into the cauldron before she attempted it on her own. It seemed as if he pushed the magic through the cauldron itself and into the second layer of the potion. He must have extraordinary delicate control to affect the liquid in the bottom half of the cauldron without upsetting the layer of linseed oil separating it from the top half.
She still wasn't sure how he got the magic to go through the cauldron without affecting the cauldron, though. Most wandless magic was of the direct kind of magic, the kind that affected the first thing it touched. It took specific, delicate spell work to go through an object and effect changes of the other side of it, usually. Perhaps he was practicing a specific spell, but silently and without a wand? But no, if it could be cast with a wand, he would surely use one, as Snape was not the type to waste magic. This looked much closer to what Remus had done when he moved the raft in Grimmauld Place across the water. Elemental wandless magic.
But how was he getting the magic through the cauldron? Rigel could feel herself becoming frustrated with her own lack of understanding, but she did not think these sessions with Snape were for her to ask endless amounts of—
"Are you ever going to ask me how to execute this step, or are you content to glare at that cauldron with what some would call disproportionate enmity for the rest of your existence?" Snape interrupted her brooding stare with his usual talent for making her feel like a novice who'd never heard of ingredient gradation.
"I am loath to interrupt your inventing process," Rigel confessed, "After our session, I would appreciate it if you could refer me to a book that explains this process, however."
Snape shot her an unamused look over the cauldron, "Ask your questions, Black, and let it not be said that one of Severus Snape's assistants learned Indirect Stirring from a secondary source."
Rigel took Snape at his word.
"Is that what it's called?" she asked, "Indirect Stirring?"
"Yes," Snape said, "It is the most successful method of stirring a potion you cannot access with a stirring rod. Other attempts at the same effect include Determined Stirring, which involves the use of a pre-charmed stone placed into the bottom of a cauldron before the potion is begun. The charmed stone will vibrate at prescribed intervals, in effect 'stirring' the cauldron. The drawback is that the intervals at which the stone vibrates cannot be changed once the potion is begun, making for an extremely strict timeline, and the vibrations are not always enough to truly disperse ingredients as they require."
He moved his hand away and added another ingredient to the top of the cauldron, stirred four times counterclockwise, then continued speaking, "Another method is Pre-Stirring. In this method, the potioneer attempts to essentially disperse the ingredients before they are added to the bottom layer. He dissolves them first into a neutral base of some sort, then adds that base to the bottom layer." Rigel frowned, and Snape smirked slightly, "As you have already deduced, this not only needlessly exacerbates a potion's complexity, it also frequently proves untenable, as many bases which are neutral in the presence of some ingredients are decidedly not neutral when added with others."
"Why are these methods used at all, then?" Rigel asked, "Is it because some potioneers don't bother to learn wandless magic?"
Snape's voice was neutral as he spoke, which immediately put Rigel on edge—Snape only bothered to be 'neutral' when he was fishing for an honest answer from her, unbiased by his own attitude on the subject. "You are of the opinion, then, that wandless magic is something learned, and not an inborn talent?"
Rigel couldn't help but frown at that question, "Of course it is something learned. It is a way of doing magic, not a different kind of magic in itself. Moreover, it is a more basic way of doing magic—elementally—rather than a more complicated, pre-set pattern encoded into a person's magic, as talents usually are. No one is born able to perform wandless magic, so it is reasonable to assume it must be learned."
Snape tilted his head with what Rigel knew was a fake show of consideration, "Perhaps wandless magic is connected to power, and, although learned, can only be taught to wizards with innately larger magical cores."
Rigel shook her head, "My Uncle Remus can do wandless magic, and his core is only a bit above average. It seems to be about control, more than power. Though that doesn't explain how children can do it…"
Snape shook his head dismissively, "Children perform accidental magic, which is considerably different from conscious, wandless magic. You are correct—true wandless magic depends entirely on control. It does not surprise me to learn that Lupin is sufficient at the skill—a…man in his position would know much about control."
As that was positively diplomatic as far as Snape's usual attitude toward Rigel's family went, she simply inclined her head, "So why do all potioneers not learn how to use Indirect Stirring?"
Snape sneered, "For the same reason not all wizards learn how to construct their own defensive wards. They can get by hiring a Ward Master to construct wards for them, or else depend on the wards their ancestors erected in ages passed, and even though their wards would be safer and more effective if they had a thorough understanding of how to upkeep, add to, and modify them, they get on well enough without knowing, and no one ever forces them to learn. The number of potions that truly require Indirect Stirring are relatively few, and the number than could be enhanced by Indirect Stirring…well, as long as a potion works, what matter the potency or the wastefulness of prescribing a patient two doses of mediocre potion when one dose of a proper one would do?"
Rigel could feel her mouth gaping slightly open in outrage, but was too busy being outraged to do anything about it, "That's awful! What kind of—where's the pride in their work? In their field? How can they call themselves potioneers while demonstrating such slip-shod, half-brewed, lazy, unmitigated incompetence? How can the Guild stand for such a thing? It's a black stain of the name of potion-brewers everywhere. It's—it's—"
The sight of Snape's satisfied smirk brought her slamming back to herself, and she shut up before she could embarrass herself further. The prefect standing awkwardly in the corner, whom upon closer inspection Rigel recognized as Fairister, the one who'd been with Pansy when she was attacked, was staring at her with an entirely bemused expression. She supposed he'd never seen someone flip out like a fanatic at their Head of House before.
"My apologies, Sir," Rigel said, looking down at the cauldron sheepishly, "I became rather carried away with my opinion."
"I find it immensely gratifying to know that I am not wasting my expertise on someone who condones laziness in potion-brewing," Snape reassured her somewhat smugly, "Your pride and adamancy does you credit, though the…expression of these traits could be tempered a degree or two."
Rigel simply nodded, once more in control of her personality, "Will you please instruct me in Indirect Stirring, Professor Snape? I would like to remedy my own incompetence as expediently as possible."
"And this, Mr. Fairister, is why a man like me becomes a professor to school children," Snape said sardonically, smirking briefly at the prefect rather than answering Rigel's request right away, "A second-year boy so disgusted with the thought of ignorance that he gnaws at the bit to diminish it. The rest of your generation could learn a thing or two from Rigel Black."
Rigel felt a flush coming on, and beat it back relentlessly, saying flatly, "If you have finished your joke at my expense, I believe you meant to add the poppy milk next."
Snape's eyes flashed with a dark warning, even as his lips still twitched with a smirk at the edges. Nevertheless, he added the poppy milk with due haste.
Rigel was let go a bit later than usual that night, with a promise that in their next session Snape would begin the basics of Indirect Stirring, which of course meant beginning the basics of wandless magic. That night, she merely assisted Snape with the combinations he had already planned for them to work on.
By the time the prefect was given leave to escort her back to the common room, Rigel's magical core was feeling strained. They had gone through four different combinations that evening, each more magically draining than the last. If Rigel thought the original Aconite Alleviation was magically exhausting, it was nothing to the additional demand adding unstable combinations of ingredients produced. She had to load the potions with magic just to keep them from collapsing—or worse, exploding—and that in addition to the magic necessary to support and enhance the intended effects.
Still, it was a satisfied feeling in her gut, as well as an empty one, as though she had just run a mile. Her magical core felt content, and Rigel supposed this kind of exercise was probably good for it. With sudden suspicion, she wondered if that wasn't another reason Snape chose her to help him with his research. It would be just like her Head of House to do a thing for as many reasons as possible; he was nothing if not economical with his actions.
Fairister walked quietly beside her for a short time, and Rigel felt she ought to apologize for keeping him so late. She opened her mouth to say, "I'm sorry," but the older prefect beat her to it.
"Forgive me," Fairister said suddenly, stopping to look down at her.
Rigel blinked up at him. "That should be my line," she said, "As it is on my account that you are kept from your other responsibilities so long."
Fairister shook his head sharply, "Protecting younger students like yourself is one of my responsibilities, just as it was yesterday. I'm very sorry that Miss Parkinson came to harm under my care."
"I don't think anyone expects you or the other prefects to protect us in that way," Rigel said quietly, "It is a basilisk we're supposed to be in danger from, after all. I think your presence is supposed to be a deterrent, that's all. Whoever is doing this seems to like her victims alone and unaware."
Fairister frowned curiously, "Her? Why do you say—"
A red light whooshed past Rigel's right shoulder and collided with the right side of Fairister's chest. He fell backwards to the hard stone, his face relaxed into utter unconsciousness.
"Normally you'd be right, little snake; I do prefer the strays, but…one makes do."
Rigel spun to face her attacker, her hand going toward the pocket by her hip, for once utterly sure she would find her wand there. She wasn't fast enough.
"I don't think so," her attacker smirked as ropes sprung from her wand and encircled Rigel's arms and torso like snakes.
"Ginny," Rigel panted, struggling against the ropes, "Why are you doing this?"
Ginny Weasley sneered at Rigel, the ugly expression absolutely alien on the girl's round, freckled face. "Time enough for that later. Unfortunately I can't do this here—the price of attacking a prefect, you know."
"No, I don't know what you mean," Rigel said. Keeping the enemy talking was the very first thing an Auror learned how to do, and James Potter had taught his daughter enough to increase her chances, in case she found herself in a precarious situation. She didn't know why Ginny Weasley was suddenly an enemy, but she was determined to find out before long.
Ginny rewarded her with a scathing look, "All Slytherin prefects are subject to a spell that alerts the Slytherin Head of House if they are attacked in any way, magical or physical. Slytherins are easy to hate, you know, and so it has been tradition to give their prefects a little extra protection against the other Houses' enmity. In this case, it's just annoying. Come along, little thorn. We haven't much time."
"Time for what?" Rigel asked, stepping away from Ginny as the redhead stepped toward her.
"For taking our time," Ginny chuckled darkly, "Ironically enough, we must make haste if I am to be afforded the leisure of doing so. Some things are better slow, are they not?"
"Yes," Rigel said politely, gathering her magic silently, "Many potions are ruined by a hasty hand. You are wise to take things slow sometimes."
Ginny narrowed her eyes, "I know I am. Shut up."
"All right," Rigel said agreeably. She released the burst of magic she'd gathered in her core, asking it to please unravel the ropes as fast as it could manage. It set to work immediately, fraying the ropes around her shoulders quickly. The ropes were half-eaten when Ginny, laughing, turned her wand in a corkscrew motion and then jabbed it at Rigel's torso.
Rigel felt her arms press up against her sides once more, but this time there was no rope. She could feel the barrier preventing her from lifting her arms, but she couldn't see anything when she looked down. Rigel directed her magic toward whatever it was, but it couldn't seem to find purchase, skating along her skin uncertainly, as if whatever was holding her arms to her side wasn't real, and couldn't be affected by her magic.
"Don't bother," Ginny said, a bored look on her face, "I've enclosed you in a shield charm just your size—clever, yes? It's smoother than serpent skin, and tighter than a spider's weave. You can send whatever magic you like at me—it won't get past the shield, and if you try anything really nasty it'll explode in your face."
Rigel glared at Ginny, and tried sending her magic down toward her toes. Perhaps she could go under the—her magic positively whined at her as it was denied. She pushed her magic out again, paying close attention to her limits. It seemed to be able to reach her feet, but unable to move beyond her body, as though it were trapped against her skin.
At the frown on her face, Ginny laughed again, "Did you think I'd only put it on your arms? Fool. The spell around your arms is a different one—localized binding spell. Or didn't you notice I had cast two spells in a row?"
Rigel hadn't noticed, though the jabbing motion attached to the end of the corkscrew one had, in retrospect, probably been a good clue. She settled for blanking her face, content to at least deny Ginny the satisfaction of her frustration. Ginny leveled her wand at Rigel again, and before Rigel had time to flinch, she was floating along behind Ginny like a bizarrely postured ghost.
Rigel bided her time, every now and then sending her magic to different parts of her body, probing the shield for weaknesses. There were none, but she kept at it as Ginny led them up, away from the dungeons. They were approaching the Entrance Hall, and the Main Stair. Rigel smirked. Ginny had neglected to silence her, and Rigel was not going to remind her of that fact until she could get the most out of it.
When they passed through the silent Entrance Hall, meeting no one, much to Rigel's dismay, she knew that the stairs were her best chance. She kept silent until they had reached the first landing, and then shouted as loudly and piercingly as she could, "HELP ME! HEL—"
"Salazar take you!" Ginny spat, silencing Rigel's shouts with a swipe of her wand, "You little brat, I'll have your—"
A voice came from several floors above them, echoing back down the stairwell clear as crystal. Rigel couldn't suppress the grim smile on her face. Ginny slapped her across the cheek with the back of her hand, and Rigel's head snapped to the side with the force of it. A moment later, a memory hit her with equal force—a memory of being blind, slapped in just the same way, by a mysterious attacker with long hair and a disdainful way of speaking.
Ginny was the one who'd attacked her all those months ago. Ginny, the girl who she'd been trying to help learn Occlumency, had been playing her for a fool all along.
No sooner had this realization dawned than Ginny began to run up the stairs, towing Rigel quickly behind her with a levitation spell. Rigel jerked along after her wildly, as though the increase in speed had greatly diminished Ginny's control over the spell.
Ginny reached the second floor landing within moments and darted down the second floor corridor. She was taking a route Rigel recognized with growing incredulity. They were headed straight for the girl's bathroom—Myrtle's bathroom. Ginny slammed the door behind them and blocked it impatiently with a hastily constructed ward.
"No time, no time," she muttered, "Old fool won't be far behind." The redhead turned to the sinks in the middle of the bathroom with a sinister smile, "But it won't matter. Not even he has power where we'll be going."
Ginny tilted her head, staring intently at one of the faucets. Rigel squinted to see what she was looking at, and could just barely make out a squiggle-like shape on one side of the spout when Ginny said, "Open." But she did not speak the word.
She hissed it.
Rigel was sure she would have gasped, if the silencing charm had not still been in place. Ginny spoke Parseltongue. She was the second Parselmouth, the one who had been setting the basilisk loose on the students. The basilisk, which probably lived at the bottom of the very large hole that was currently expanding in the center of the floor. Rigel could only surmise, judging by the manically determined glint in Ginny's eye, that she was in very, very big trouble.
Ginny motioned with her wand, and Rigel's form floated over the lip of the hole. As she tried not to think about being suspended by wand-point over a bottomless pit by a psychotic eleven-year-old in a girl's bathroom of all places, Rigel caught a glimpse of white vapor peaking through the crack of one of the stall doors, and then a transparent head poking through it.
She kept her face blank, but begged Myrtle with her eyes to go, to tell someone what she'd seen, to help her. Myrtle's eyes were wide and frightened, but she nodded once before ducking her head back into her stall as silently as she'd popped it out.
"Don't bother with the pleading expression," Ginny said, smirking, "You should be honored. You'll be the first Slytherin in fifty years to see Salazar's Chamber of Secrets. See you at the bottom. If you're still alive."
The Gryffindor flicked her wand down sharply, and then Rigel was falling, swift and silent, into the darkness.
Myrtle was not afraid, exactly. She knew that she was dead, and that hardly anything in the world was a danger to one such as her, and it was not a fear of pain or injury that held her, huddling in her toilet like an abandoned child.
It was that girl. Petite, because wouldn't she have to be? Long, beautiful red hair that probably never curled a day in its life. Pretty, pert nose; cute, little freckles; skin as fair as any storybook princess could ever hope to have. That girl with her confident expression, straight posture, cold eyes. Myrtle felt alive again—alive and miserable, trembling with fear, because any second that girl would turn and see her, sneer, laugh, and let slip a nasty jeer if her friends were near enough to appreciate the taunt. She was nauseated, and if she had a body it would be sweating profusely. Any moment the redhead would find her—hiding in a stall never helped for long. The other girls knew where she liked to hide by now. They would find her, take her books, tear her robes, pull her hair. They would laugh, and douse her with water from their wands, and then laugh some more.
"You think that straightening spell is fooling anyone, Myrtle?"
"What's with these robes? Pretending to be rich, are you? If you father had any real money he'd have fixed that face of yours."
"Nice glasses. You don't need them, do you? Oops—you'll have to fish them from the toilet, I guess."
"Always hiding away in here."
"No wonder she smells like shit."
"I hear she has…accidents. Can barely make it through a whole lesson without running to that bathroom."
"What a joke."
Myrtle shook her head so fiercely, but the voices wouldn't go away. She could feel herself crying, the water boiling around her—
Water. Toilet. Myrtle opened her eyes, and met the inside of the u-bend with a relieved sigh. She was dead. Those girls weren't there anymore. They couldn't hurt her now. She floated up into her stall, listening carefully. She didn't hear anything, so the ghost carefully poked her head through the door of her stall once again. There was nothing. Before, there had been a huge hole in her bathroom floor, but that was gone, too.
Maybe she had imagined the whole thing. Myrtle floated about, inspecting ever inch of her bathroom, but there was nothing out of place. It was as if the gaping pit where the sinks should be had never existed. But it had seemed so real. That girl with her pretty, pitiless eyes. The one who had thrown a book at her head—she was almost sure it was the same girl, though she'd been in the u-bend when it fell through her and had only seen the back of the girl's head as she ran off.
And that Black boy. He was so pretty, Myrtle thought with a smile, and he never laughed at her, or even called her names. He wasn't like the other boys. Myrtle floated around the sinks once more. She was sure she saw him being suspended over the hole by that wretched girl. He had looked at her, his big, pretty eyes so wide and imploring. Like he needed her. Like he believed in her.
Myrtle floated upright with a determined feeling in her chest. She wouldn't let him down. She would go to his common room. She was fairly certain she could access the pipes in the Slytherin dormitories by going through the kitchens and then looping through the dungeon drainage system…yes, she could do it. She ought to at least check and make sure she'd imagined it. If Black was in his common room, then at least she had a good excuse to see him again. If he wasn't…well, then he really did need her.
She dived quickly into the nearest toilet. Don't worry, my prince. I'll save you!
Draco paced back and forth before one of the Slytherin fireplaces. Rigel was late. It was only twenty minutes, but that was a lifetime in terms of the amount of trouble Rigel Black seemed capable of stumbling across. Millicent and Theo tried to calm him down, but Draco wasn't in the mood to be placated, and Pansy was the only one good at it anyway. Blaise merely watched him pace, a taunting smirk at the edge of his mouth that made Draco want to throw one of the dark-skinned boy's shoes into the fireplace, just to watch his mouth gape open like a codfish.
Draco controlled himself, as the last thing he needed right now was a terse letter from his father about how Malfoy's did not set their companions' shoes on fire. No matter how annoyingly they were smirking. Draco would be very surprised, however, if his father had never experienced a similar urge. He had been friends with Uncle Severus for a couple of decades, after all.
Ten minutes later, Draco could feel his nerves stretching to the limit. Uncle Severus would never keep Rigel so late. It was now officially past curfew, and Draco could see Selwyn across the room checking her list of those who would be out of the common room on various business against those who had returned. When she turned to look at the second-years with a frown on her face, Draco allowed his face to frown back at her.
Selwyn walked over, her face tight, "Tell me Rigel Black snuck in when I wasn't looking."
"He has not yet returned," Draco said flatly, "Nor has Fairister, his escort."
Selwyn looked ready to curse. She strode sharply to the portrait of Salazar Slytherin, who was as usual observing the goings on in his common room with patient wariness. "Lord Slytherin, please inform our Head of House that Prefect Fairister and Rigel Black have not returned to the common room."
"He is aware," Slytherin's portrait said evenly, "The prefect's Monitoring Charm was compromised, and Master Snape informed me of his intention to investigate before leaving his office. He bade me explain the circumstances to you, Head Girl Selwyn, in the event that he did not return with the students before evening curfew began."
Selwyn did curse that time, and Draco could feel his face losing blood rapidly. If the prefect supposed to be protecting Rigel had been attacked, it didn't mean anything good for Rigel. He was about to ask Salazar if he'd heard anything from other portraits in the meantime, when his vision clouded over in white. It took him a moment to stop violently shuddering before he realized a ghost was floating nearly on top of him, obscuring his vision and setting a chill into his bones.
Draco stepped backwards rapidly to put some distance between the specter and himself, and blinked when he recognized the bespectacled ghost. "Myrtle?" he said, frowning, "What do you want this—"
"Where's Black?" the ghost interrupted impatiently. She seemed to be craning her neck to look about the common room, "Is he here?"
"No," Draco snapped, "He's not. He's in trouble—"
"I know!" The ghost looked almost triumphant as she spoke quickly, "I knew it wasn't a dream! I saw him—I saw Black being kidnapped!"
"Kidnapped?" Selwyn said sharply, "Explain."
The ghost looked around at Selwyn with wide eyes. Her chin wobbled, and then she caught sight of the other students in the common room, all staring at her, waiting for her to continue. Myrtle blinked, smiled a bit nervously, and said, "Maybe I could tell you…somewhere else?"
Selwyn glanced around at the watching students and jerked her chin toward a corner of the common room. She frowned but didn't protest when Draco walked over with her, merely erected a privacy ward and bade the ghost continue her report.
"It happened in my bathroom. I saw the whole thing. That girl kidnapped my—I mean, Black. She had him levitating, his arms all stuck to his sides, over this big, black hole. She dropped him into it! It was…" the ghost paused to take a shuddering breath, "Horrible."
Draco would have killed the girl, if she weren't already dead. How dare she look thrilled when Rigel's life was in danger?
"There isn't any giant black hole in your bathroom," Selwyn said with a serious expression.
"The girl opened it in the floor," Myrtle said, "She slammed the door so loud coming in that I heard it down in the u-bend, so of course I came up to see what the fuss was about. She was talking to herself, too. Quite mad, I'm sure."
"Who is she?" Selwyn asked urgently.
"No idea," the ghost had the nerve to shrug at them, "She wasn't really that pretty. Stumpy, too. Probably a midget."
"What kind of robes did she have on?" Selwyn said through gritted teeth.
Myrtle frowned in concentration, "Gryffindor…I think. I might just be remembering wrong because of the red hair—tacky, if you ask me. I bet she dyes it."
Draco could see the exact shade of red swimming before his eyes as his mind sharpened in realization. "Weasley," he hissed, "That evil, lying bint."
"You don't know for sure—" Selwyn began, but Draco cut her off.
"She was acting so strangely around Rigel," he said, becoming angrier with each word he spoke, "And Rigel was trying to help her, and she was the one who—who—" he let out a grown in frustration, "What else happened? Where was Fairister?"
Myrtle blinked at him in confusion, "Who? It was just the girl and Black. She came in, all crazy and ugly, and started hissing all of a sudden, and then there was just this huge black hole that went down, down, down with no end in sight. She levitated Black over the edge of the hole and just…dropped him. I couldn't watch. When I looked back, the hole was gone, and so was the girl. Then I came here to tell someone."
"Why would Weasley drop Rigel down a giant hole?" Selwyn asked, somewhat skeptically, from the couch.
"She said she was taking him to see the Chamber of Secrets," Myrtle said, shrugging.
Draco and Selwyn both inhaled sharply. Salazar Slytherin's portrait seemed to be frozen in shock. The next moment, the founder's expression melted into a snarl, and he disappeared from his portrait before anyone could stop him.
"For the love of—Expecto Patronum," Selwyn enunciated clearly, a scowl on her face. A silver wolf sprang from her wand tip, and Draco was quite impressed she could cast a patronus while so obviously upset. She must have very strong force of will. "Message for Professor Snape. According to ghost intelligence Rigel Black has been kidnapped by another Parselmouth, and taken to the girl's lavatory on the second floor. The second Parselmouth is possibly a young girl with red hair, and reportedly opened a passage of some kind within the bathroom before closing it once more. The passage is said to lead to the Chamber of Secrets."
The patronus sprang swiftly away, carrying Selwyn's message with it. Draco clenched his fist, but he knew there was nothing he could do at this point. Uncle Severus would save Rigel. All Draco could do was wait.
Minerva McGonagall was almost finished grading a particularly disappointing stack of third-year essays when the silver phoenix flew through her office wall to hover before her. Her heart clenched automatically. Albus never sent a patronus with an invitation to tea. The phoenix's presence meant danger, immediate and pressing.
"Come to the girl's lavatory on the second floor," the phoenix said with the Headmaster's voice. Minerva could honestly say she had never expected to hear that particular sentence uttered through the Headmaster's patronus. At the added, "A student needs our help," however, she summoned her wand in a blink and only paused to fling open the door before transforming into her Animagus form.
As a tabby cat, she was swift and silent, like a ghost herself as she ran through the familiar corridors. When she rounded the corner and caught sight of the girl's bathroom, she was compelled to change back smoothly in order to demand an explanation from those standing quite uselessly in its doorway.
"What has happened?" Minerva asked, looking to Albus as she said it, though she noted the presence of Severus and Pomona as well.
The Headmaster turned his wizened face to hers, and the look in his eye was not one she would ever find comfort in. It was a hard look, a serious look, and Albus only wore it when someone he'd meant to protect was in very real trouble.
"Rigel Black has been kidnapped, Minerva," Albus said gravely, "The trail ends here."
"I heard him call out for help," Pomona said sadly, "I was up on the sixth floor, but his cry echoed up the Main Stair. Clever lad. I rushed down immediately, and heard one set of footsteps go down this corridor. I sensed the ward on this bathroom immediately, and set about tearing it down. It was short work, but when I opened the door there was no one inside. I thought I had been tricked, the ward put up as a decoy to shake me off, until Severus appeared."
Minerva looked to Severus, who was glaring viciously at everything—including her, for some reason.
"Mr. Black's escort, Prefect Fairister, was attacked as they made their way back from my laboratory," Severus said. His voice was rough with impatience as he listed events as succinctly as possible, "I found Fairister stunned in the dungeons, but no sign of Black. I levitated Fairister to my office, sealed the wards for his protection after informing Salazar's portrait of the situation, and began a sweep of the dungeons. Not long after, I was met with the Head Girl's patronus. According to Selwyn, a ghost reported Black as having been kidnapped in this very bathroom. The account is brief, but suggests the kidnapper to be a Parselmouth—likely the one behind the petrifactions as well. According to this ghost's testimony, Black was taken through a passage of some kind, which was then resealed behind the kidnapper. The passage purportedly leads to the Chamber of Secrets, but we are as yet unable to locate it."
"Did the ghost say who was responsible?" Minerva asked, a hand going unconsciously to her throat.
"Oh yes," Severus snarled, "A Gryffindor girl with red hair."
Minerva flinched, and did not allow herself to feel hurt when Severus' lip curled in satisfaction. "I see," she said, "Then the threat is a student—"
Albus interrupted with a sharp shake of his head, "A Parselmouth in Gryffindor? Unlikely—"
"Do not attempt to gloss over this, Albus," Severus said sharply, "The report clearly implicated—"
"My dear boy, I am certain that there is indeed a young Gryffindor involved in all of this," Albus said calmly, "But I am equally certain that she is as much as victim as Rigel Black. There is one other Parselmouth whose hand in these happenings cannot be doubted."
"And you believe his instrument of choice to be Ginerva Weasley?" Severus spat, "He has no access to her—"
"Enough!" Pomona shouted. The short herbologist glared around at them all, "There is at least one, possibly two students in very real danger right now, and you will not stand here arguing like hens if I have anything to say about it. Albus, how do we uncover the passage?"
The Headmaster shook his head slowly, "If it was indeed accessed by Parselmagic, it will take some time."
"Well, get started, then," Pomona said, puffing up like an offended saberlion.
Dumbledore led the way inside the small, flooded bathroom. The water soaked the ends of their robes, dragging at their steps as all four of them walked the room from top to bottom, each seeking with their senses any sign of a passageway.
It was Severus who found the snake engraved on the side of one of the taps, but even with that point of reference, neither she nor Pomona could sense even the slightest magical trace of the wards and spells they knew must be layered before their eyes.
"They don't call it being Slytherin for nothing," Pomona muttered darkly, "I can't sense a blessed thing. Severus?"
Severus had his eyes narrowed in concentration, "There is something familiar in the air here, but whether it is connected to the passageway…" he shook his head with disgust, "I cannot be certain."
"Could it be young Mr. Black's magic you sense?" Pomona suggested, "A child gives off quite an aura when afraid, as I understand it."
"No," Severus said stiffly, "Black has no aura, and I have only analyzed his core the once. I would not be familiar enough with his magic even in the unlikely event that he was discharging it."
"The…other student's magic, then?" Minerva asked, not quite able to say 'Gryffindor student' aloud. Severus' eyes mocked her for her weakness as he answered.
"It is Dark," the Potions Master said flatly, "Miss Weasley's magic would not match, even were I familiar with it. No, this magic I have sensed before. Often, I suspect, though it is too faint to place."
"Faintness should not affect the magic's signature," Albus commented lightly.
Severus scowled, "I know that. The residue is familiar, and yet not. As though the magic I ought to recognize has been changed somehow, twisted or blended into something half-way unrecognizable."
"Could it be his?" Albus pressed, "Imagine it working through a child's magic. Could it be a combination of his magic and…the student's?"
"How can I know such a thing?" Severus snapped. He paused at the look in Albus' eyes, and sighed, "Perhaps, Albus, though I know not how even he would work such a thing. It could as easily be Salazar's magic I sense, however. Perhaps I am familiar with it merely as the Slytherin Head of House, living as I do in his chambers, labs, and offices."
"Will it be of any use re-opening the passage, though?" Pomona wondered aloud.
"Why don't you just blast open the floor?"
They all turned to see the ghost, Myrtle, or Moaning Myrtle as Minerva believed some of the students called her, sticking her head curiously out of a stall at them. "It seems easier than trying to make the floor open up again," Myrtle shrugged.
"Unfortunately that won't do any good," Pomona said gently, "Below this bathroom is the first floor. There is no actual tunnel underneath our feet. Rather, a porthole of sorts is grounded in this bathroom. The passageway is folded space, and exists in a dimension that crosses through our own, but only at two points, here and wherever the passage leads. It's a shortcut of sorts to another place entirely. A bit like holding the space a wizard might apparate through open eternally, but only making it accessible under certain circumstances. Usually a trick or spell that triggers the wards concealing the porthole. In this case, it is likely to be a password, but one which can only be spoken in Parseltongue."
Myrtle blinked behind her glasses, utterly perplexed, "But what if blasting the sinks apart triggered the porthole?"
"That is unlikely," Minerva said sharply, "In fact, destroying the physical grounding point on this end would probably render the passage entirely unusable, trapping whoever is beyond it indefinitely."
Myrtle's eyes went wide, "Ooh. So you're all going to…guess the password?"
"As none of us speaks the tongue of snakes, that course of action isn't likely to do us much good," Snape snapped, eyes flashing, "If you have nothing useful to add, please be silent while we attempt to unravel Salazar Slytherin's not inconsiderable wards."
"Provided we can locate them," Pomona muttered sourly, "I can't sense a single discrepancy, not one trace of a ward or concealing charm, even when I know the air must be thick with them."
"Myrtle, if you would be so kind, please find Professor Flitwick and direct him here," Albus said, "We may be in need of his expertise."
Myrtle sent them all a disappointed pout, but zoomed off dutifully through a wall.
"And now to work," Albus said, turning his wand on the taps, "If we cannot sense the magic concealing the passage, we must attempt to provoke the magic into revealing itself. Please cast any revealing charms you can think of. Probing charms, analysis charms, anything that might trigger a latent defensive spell into action. Salazar would surely have protected his passageway somehow, in case someone came too close to his secrets."
"We should attempt this one at a time, then," Minerva said briskly, wand at the ready, "So that the ones not casting can be prepared for any surprises Slytherin's defenses send in response."
The other three agreed, and they set to work.
Eternal blackness, Rigel reflected, turned out to be a lot less eternal than advertised. She fell for approximately half a second, and then she was on something that was a bit like the ground, only it crunched when she moved her feet experimentally. The spell on her arms had not lifted, and neither had the silencing charm, so she couldn't even hear her own grunts as she squirmed herself into an upright position.
A moment later, Ginny landed in a crouch next to her, sensible school shoes cracking the small bones littering the ground around them with ease. They looked like rat bones, but there were also a few other, larger-mammal bones mixed in by the looks of it. She recognized rabbit ribs, bat wings, and a few spinal columns that might have come from deer, but she had only used deer bones in a potion once, so she couldn't be sure.
"Welcome," Ginny said, gesturing grandly to the oversized sewage tunnel they were sitting in, "To the Chamber of Secrets."
Rigel looked around with raised eyebrows. Perhaps Ginny was more crazy than evil, after all.
Ginny flicked her wand and Rigel was levitated once more. She floated along docilely behind the first-year as Ginny began walking steadily through the tunnels. Ginny didn't speak to her along the way, so Rigel was left to memorize the route in silence, and set her mind to figuring out as much of this mess as she could.
Ginny was apparently a Parselmouth. Ignoring the obvious problems with that phenomenon, it seemed reasonable to conclude that Ginny had been the one to petrify all those other students by controlling the basilisk. Ginny was also the one to attack Rigel all those months ago, probably to get her hands on belladonna, so that she could kill the roosters. Ginny was likely the one who had thrown the diary at Myrtle, since Rigel didn't recall her being at the lake then, which meant that Ginny was connected to the journal in some way. That explained why Ginny panicked when she saw that Rigel had the journal, and why she decided to attack Rigel, likely fearing that Rigel knew everything.
There were too many things it didn't explain, though. It didn't explain why Ginny had tried to get rid of the diary, since she didn't seem to be getting cold feet at the moment. It also didn't explain why she would attack people in the first place. Ginny had no motive, as far as Rigel knew, to attack all of those students. Riddle was the one who gained from the attacks, and Rigel had heard him as good as say that he was the one…who…
Riddle. Tom Marvolo Riddle.
Rigel wanted to slap herself. TMR—could it get any more obvious? They weren't a student's initials, they were the initials of one of the most powerful people in the wizarding world. How could she have missed it? So the journal had a connection to Riddle. That meant Ginny…worked for Riddle? Surely not. She was eleven, and far too young to have decided what political affiliation to support. And then there was the Parseltongue. True, it had showed up fairly randomly in Rigel, but the Potters could have gotten it from the Black's, who had married in a Parseltongue or two throughout the ages. As far as Rigel knew, the Weasley's had never introduced the gift anywhere near their line.
After thinking things over, she decided she was more confused than ever, and gave it up as a bad job. She should focus on getting out of this situation first, and then try and figure out what it all meant.
They turned a corner in the network of sewers, and came before a great seal. It was obviously a mechanism of some kind, and Rigel suspected it was a door.
Sure enough, Ginny hissed out an, "Open," and the stone unlocked itself and moved aside, revealing a cavernous hall, easily twice the size of the Great Hall, and lit by an eerie green light that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
"Well?" Ginny asked expectantly, "What do you think, little snake?"
Rigel lifted an eyebrow, and Ginny chuckled indulgently. She seemed much more relaxed now that they were isolated so far below (presumably) the school, "Ah, yes. Allow me." With a flick of her wand—and how on earth was Ginny so proficient with silent casting?—the silencing spell on Rigel fell away.
"I think Slytherin's passwords are a bit unoriginal," Rigel said honestly.
Ginny smirked, "Yes, that's right. You can understand the serpent tongue too, can't you Mr. Black? What a special moment this is, two Parselmouths meeting face to face—well, sort of." She chuckled again, an indulgent, condescending sound that reminded Rigel of someone she'd met before. "In any case, don't you want to know why I've brought you here?"
Rigel looked around the great, empty room. It was sort of sad, really, all this space just collecting dust. This was Salazar's great Chamber of Secrets? It was almost disappointing.
"Well?" Ginny said impatiently. Rigel wasn't sure what the girl wanted from her. The redhead seemed to be in a grandstanding mood, which was an odd attitude for someone who went around petrifying and kidnapping students. Then again, she thought, remembering her encounter with one Lee Jordan, justification seemed to be important to people like that. As if they wanted you to understand why they did it. She supposed they wanted you to know that they had reasons for every seemingly unreasonable action.
"You've brought me here to petrify me, right?" Rigel guessed. It would fit the pattern.
"Oh, no," Ginny said, smiling smugly now that Rigel was playing along, "I petrified the others before they saw anything but my beauty's eyes. You…you know far too much to be petrified. The petrified ones wake up, you see."
"You could modify my memory," Rigel suggested grimly.
"Where's the fun in that?" Ginny asked coyly. She fingered the wand in her hand absently, almost thoughtfully, "I'm not sure I could, in any case. Obliviation is delicate work. At the moment I haven't the…control necessary to ensure a full memory wipe."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Rigel said, somewhat automatically. The conversation was beginning to feel a bit surreal.
Ginny laughed openly, "Oh, but you are amusing. She didn't tell me you were amusing, Black."
"She?" Rigel asked.
Ginny only smiled mysteriously, "Don't you have other questions, little snake?"
Rigel blinked, "Well, I'd like to know why you petrified all those kids. And Lockhart," she added as an afterthought.
Ginny blinked slowly, the smile melting away from her face. Her eyes were over-bright, like someone who'd taken too many doses of Poppy's Pleasure in one night. She had the same sort of half-glazed, intense look about her face, too. "That is a complicated question. There are answers, and then…there are answers."
Rigel nodded thoughtfully, "Perhaps it would be better if you started at the beginning. I could ask questions as you go."
Ginny's mouth twisted into a semblance of a smirk again, "For a Slytherin you're awfully bad at subterfuge, Black. Basic hostage behavior: keep the bad guy talking until help arrives. It won't work. Not because I won't fall for it—I'll talk all you want. I'll answer every single one of your questions, satisfy your curiosity completely, and then answer questions whose answers you couldn't care less about. Do you know why? Because it doesn't matter how long I talk. No one is coming to save you."
Rigel wasn't sure if the universe was testing her or not. It seemed too much like an ironic taunt from Fate. Surely no one in the world was so arrogant, so ridiculously confident, as to spit in the face of Fate so blatantly. It wasn't asking to eat your own words. It was handing the universe the ingredients and then giving Fate a recipe for your own disaster.
Still, Rigel wasn't going to refuse a gift from the god of irony, if indeed Ginny Weasley was as insane as she appeared to be. "Why do you say that?" she asked, "Of course people will come looking for me."
"Look they will, but find you they certainly won't," Ginny said smugly, "No one but a Parselmouth can get into the Chamber of Secrets once it's sealed. Albus Dumbledore himself can stand at the entrance all day. He's not coming in until I open the passageway again."
"I could open the passageway," Rigel pointed out, "The password isn't very hard to remember."
"Amusing," Ginny said, though the sneer on her face belied her comment, "But unlikely. You'd have to get through me, and you're not in any position to pose a challenge."
Glancing down at herself—hands stuck to her sides and still hovering a foot off the ground under the influence of Ginny's levitation spell—Rigel had to concede that point, at least. Still, if she kept Ginny talking long enough, she would make a mistake. Talking might even be the mistake, if the Headmaster could in fact find a way to access the Chamber.
"Someone will notice you're gone eventually, though," Rigel said reasonably, "If you want to get away with this, you can't stay down here for very long with me."
Ginny tilted her head, "Someone will notice Ginny is gone, of course. I'm counting on it, in fact. Every good plan needs a scapegoat, you know."
"So your plan is to pin the blame on…yourself?" Rigel was confused, and said so, adding, "That seems like the eventuality you'd want to avoid."
Ginny chuckled softly, "Yes, perhaps I should begin at the beginning. Everything will make sense to you, once you know the whole of it."
"I'm sure it will," Rigel said.
"Shut up," Ginny snapped, "Just listen."
She conjured a chair for herself to sit in, and with an errant flick of her wand dropped Rigel none-too-gently on the ground. Considering the amount of grime that had accumulated there, Rigel almost wished she was being levitated again.
"The story begins fifty years ago, in this very Chamber," Ginny began.
Rigel listened attentively, hoping to hear something, anything that she might use to get out of this mess alive.
Minerva breathed slowly through her nose to calm the rising impatience she felt at watching Filius, too, fail to detect Salazar's wards. The Head of Ravenclaw House was no slouch at ward deconstruction, having studied under a Ward Master from Italy for nearly a decade in his youth. Yet even he appeared baffled by the bathroom.
"If you hadn't told me there were wards here, Albus, I would have told you the room was clean," Filius shook his head wearily, "I've tried all I can think of—even some of the more aggressive revealing charms turned up nothing. Usually a ward at least reacts to the presence of spells like that."
Severus sneered at them all, in that way he had when he was about to reveal to them all why Slytherins were the better House. Sure enough—
"This passage was not concealed by a Gryffindor, Filius," Severus said, "Slytherin's wards will not react when reaction means detection. They were designed to be undetectable, after all. No, these wards will remain hidden until their key unlocks them, as proper wards should."
"If you are done admiring the wards, Severus, we've a need to figure out how to break them," Minerva said, a bit tartly. Her temper was getting the better of her, and no surprise with two students in an unknown, though likely perilous situation.
Severus opened his mouth to offer up a scathing rejoinder, no doubt, when Nearly-Headless Nick dropped in from the ceiling to interrupt.
"News from the Tower, Madam McGonagall," he said in his usual deep, slow tones, "The prefects bade me tell you that one of the House of Lions is presently unaccounted for. A Miss Weasley disappeared sometime after dinner, and has not been see henceforth."
Minerva felt her throat close up, and knew that her lion's part in these dealings could not be denied any longer, "Thank you for your swift report, Sir Nicholas," she said, her voice horse, "We are looking for the girl presently. Please inform her brothers that every effort is being made to locate Miss Weasley and return her safely."
Severus scoffed derisively under his breath, but did not contradict her as the ghost nodded regally and floated upwards through the ceiling once more.
Minerva turned toward the serpent-engraved sink with stony-eyed determination. Time for her to remind Severus Snape why sometimes courage was more clever than caution.
"If the ward is indeed Slytherin in nature, then I believe Severus is right," Minerva said frostily, "It very likely won't respond to provocation."
"As I have been attempting to explain—"
Minerva spoke over Severus with a slight smirk of her own, "It might, however, respond to fear."
"Minerva?" Albus took a cautious step toward her, "What do you mean to do?"
"I am going to shoot the most destructive spell I can think of at that tap, Albus," Minerva said, "At the very last moment, you will shield the tap by countering my curse. You must wait until the wards have had time to sense my curse approaching—in the event that the wards cannot repel it, you must protect the anchor point from being destroyed. Filius, Severus, Pomona, you will ready yourselves for the ward's reaction."
"You honestly believe there will be one?" Severus asked, a strange expression on his face. Minerva knew he didn't want to believe a ward created by Slytherin himself would respond to a threat like a cornered animal might, but at the same time he hoped it would. He cared for his pride, but Minerva suspected he cared for his students a great deal more.
"You know a lion's flaws, Severus," Minerva said flatly, "Trust me to know a snake's. On three."
She counted to three, and said, "Illuminare Verite." A blast of purest light erupted from her wand. This was the Aria Candle, a spell intended to diametrically oppose Darkness in all its forms. Any spell of Dark making that came into contact with Aria's Candle disintegrated, unless countered properly.
An instant before the light reached the sink, Dumbledore wove a Depasco Shield over the tap which consumed the Aria Candle without delay. An instant later, however, a tremor like a localized earthquake shook the bathroom, rattling the stall doors on their hinges and sending Pomona to her knees with surprise.
"Lock onto the signature," Albus shouted. The Headmaster extended both hands toward the source of the earth tremor, and Minerva knew he would be pulling at the magic with his own, trying to make the wards on the passageway continue responding as long as possible. It was up to them to make the most of the opportunity.
Minerva extended her magical senses like a whip toward the sink. She could feel the magic around the tap, now, thick and compacted in the air, but she was having trouble gaining purchase on it. She knew what she needed to do—in theory she could use her magic as a raw template, latch onto a piece of foreign magic and imprint on it, in a way. She needed to use her own magic to copy sections of the magic she could get a hold of, so that she'd be able to either reproduce that magic or, using knowledge of its form, undo it.
Unfortunately, Minerva had never had a talent for auras or imprinting magics. She knew of several of her students who would be better suited to this task than she, the Weasley Twins being two of them. Still, she had to try. It was her duty as Deputy Headmistress to do all that she could to protect her students.
The passage wards quickly began to withdraw, perhaps sensing no more immediate danger, and Minerva let out a frustrated growl as the magic slipped through her senses like oil. She could recognize it, now, but she didn't have a lock on any part of it. Soon it would be hidden again, with no way for her analyze it further. She made a last, desperate effort, but it was for naught. She hadn't been able to imprint anything. The frustrated look on Pomona's face told her the herbologist had experienced the same difficulties. But—
"Got it," Filius panted from across the room, "I've got at least part of the pattern. I think I can undo the concealing charms, at least."
"I as well," Severus said lowly, a fiercely triumphant gleam in his eyes, "I can see the wards, now. Well done, Minerva—we may unravel this yet."
"Many years ago, when Hogwarts was not so exclusive as it is now, purebloods went to school with halfbloods, and even mudbloods," Ginny said, her nose wrinkling with distaste at the thought, "There was a boy who came to this school, a talented, intelligent boy, who realized what a crime it was, having the school all mixed together like that. The smart, talented children, the purebloods, were all forced to learn at a slower pace because of the stupid ones, the halfbloods and mudbloods who couldn't find their own magical cores, much less keep pace with the children who truly deserved to be wizards. This boy hated being held back for the sake of others, and he resolved that one day he would fix the situation."
"Wasn't it only for a little while, though?" Rigel asked, "A lot of children come here ahead of other kids, because their parents teach them spells at home, but the ones who don't know anything catch up quickly."
"That is because they are all purebloods," Ginny said dismissively, "Back then, there were mudbloods in the school. What a joke—barely enough magic to support a stable core, and they come waltzing into one of the oldest magical school in wizarding history like they were going on holiday to broomstick camp. It didn't matter how hard they tried, their magic was plainly inferior."
Rigel supposed that muggleborns did on average have smaller cores than children born into wizarding families, possibly because the magic did have to be saved up over generations before being able to manifest as a core in a child, but children of muggleborns had perfectly normal-sized magical cores. And having a smaller core didn't mean you couldn't learn magic the same as everyone else—it just meant you couldn't do as much magic in a row as people with larger cores. Still, Ginny continued.
"The day came, a few years later, when the boy finally had a chance to change what needed to be changed," the redhead said, a fond smile on her face, "You see, this boy had a very special gift—he could speak to snakes. Slytherin's Heir, he was, and Slytherin's Chamber he finally discovered in his fifth year. Do you know how hard it was to find this Chamber, Black?"
Rigel shook her head, "I imagine it was particularly difficult for a boy, since it was hidden in a girl's lavatory."
"Yes, it was difficult," Ginny said, "He talked to every snake in the castle. He scoured the tapestries and statues and paintings for a serpent to question. When he became a prefect, he spent many nights out patrolling, looking in all the hidden places it was too suspicious to go to during the day."
"How did he know the password was 'open?'" Rigel asked.
Ginny sent her an amused look, "Surely you've discovered the override on most of the doors and passages in the dungeons, little snake. Slytherin's Heirs don't need passwords or keys. When they command a way to be open, open it shall be."
"Clever," Rigel said, "And what did the boy find in the Chamber? A basilisk?"
"Ah, yes, my little pet. Would you like to meet her?" Ginny asked curiously, "She rarely gets a chance to talk with anyone—so misunderstood, she is. I can call her here, if you like."
"No, that's all right," Rigel said, swallowing thickly, "I'd rather hear the rest of your story."
"You're no fun," Ginny sneered, "Don't worry, it'll only take a moment."
She stood and raised her palms toward the far end of the hall, where an enormous statue of Salazar Slytherin himself stood proudly at attention. "Speak to me, Salazar, greatest of the Hogwarts Four!"
The statue's mouth shuddered and slowly, inch by inch, began to gape open. Rigel waited long enough to discern a shadow moving within the shadow of the mouth, and then she shut her eyes tightly with no small amount of fear. Her heart was pounding wildly and she hated being blind, but she would hate being dead more, she told herself, so she kept her eyes clenched shut, despite the scrape of scales against stone that was coming slowly closer.
Ginny laughed darkly, "Oh, you should be afraid, little snake. But here, I do like people to look at me while they are afraid. It makes it sweeter, when the fear turns to terror, and hopelessness, and defeat."
Rigel was now very sure there was a piece of the puzzle she had yet to find. Ginny didn't sound like an eleven-year-old. She sounded like someone practiced in cruelty, like someone who reveled in it time and again. But she couldn't be, Rigel thought, her brothers wouldn't love her half so much if she had been so cruel for so long. What had made her this way? When and how could Ginny Weasley have changed so much so quickly?
"Come here, pet," Ginny hissed softly, "That's it, clossse your eyesss. I have a friend for you to meet, but he isss not ready to meet the gaze of one sssuch asss you jussst yet."
Rigel hated herself for shuddering as the great snake answered back, "I sssmell a flessshling, Massster. I am ssso hungry. Let me rip, tear, feassst…"
"Enough," Ginny snapped, "You will eat when I sssay you will, sssnake."
"Yesss, Masster," the snake answered lowly, "Pleassse, Massster."
"My apologies, Mr. Black," Ginny said casually, "This one's mind is not what it used to be. Too many years in isolation, I expect. Ah well, even for a basilisk she's getting on in years. Her usefulness will run out soon, I expect."
Rigel nodded shakily, not sure what else she should do. A moment later, Ginny's hand reached out to grab Rigel's left hand. She released the spell tying it to Rigel's side and Rigel attempted to break free with a violent tug, but Ginny was strong. Too strong to be natural. She held fast to Rigel's hand and drew it away from Rigel's body, out toward the empty air.
Her hand met cool scales and Rigel barely bit back a whimper. The basilisk was right beside her, breathing slowly beneath her touch. Ginny moved her hand sideways and up a little, until Rigel felt an armored ridge attached to a thin, wrinkled membrane of some kind, which trembled slightly under her touch. It was the basilisk's eye, she realized after a tense moment. It was closed.
"You see?" Ginny snatched her hand away before she could attempt to claw the eye out with her fingers—not that she would have, since she didn't know where its fangs were just yet. "Perfectly safe. You can look."
Rigel called herself ten kinds of fool as she did it, but she was helpless without her sight, and the eye closest to her had definitely been closed…she opened her eyes slowly, looking at the ground first, then slowly, prepared to close them at any movement, looked upwards.
The basilisk was easily fifty feet in length. It curled around them like a cat, eyes definitely closed, but still extremely frightening in repose.
"Isn't she a beauty?" Ginny asked, petting the basilisk's nose in the most perfunctory of ways, "It's almost a shame, really, but…all things have a purpose." Rigel wasn't sure what to make of that, but Ginny was content to continue talking uninterrupted, "Yes, Salazar's monster was one of many treasures the boy found in the Chamber. His ancestor left him scrolls and tombs of secrets. Knowledge worthy of even this boy's great dreams, and far beyond the pittance taught at Hogwarts. Ritual diagrams so intricate it took him months of analysis to discover their purpose. An entire system of runes created by Salazar himself; Parselrunes that respond to commands given only in the serpent tongue."
Rigel was intrigued despite herself. Runes keyed to Parseltongue? It was a good idea, as even with the plethora of runic systems available in many languages, it was sometimes still difficult to find a symbol for the exact meaning you wanted. She was hesitant to believe that Salazar Slytherin was the first to happen upon it, though. Parseltongue had been around much longer than Salazar Slytherin, according to lore found in the Black Family Library.
Ginny must have caught the interest in Rigel's eyes. "Fascinating, isn't it? You can imagine how pleased the boy was. He spent the next year learning all he could from the Chamber. And then he planned. He could cleanse the school easily enough, with the help of the basilisk, but then what? Was not the entire Wizarding World equally tainted? Was it not his responsibility, as a wizard with means and magic, to begin the necessary revolution?"
Rigel didn't think she liked where this story was going.
"Oh, what plans the boy had," Ginny sighed in an oddly self-satisfied way, "The world would tremble. It would burn, and from the ashes would come a new world, better and brighter and fit to be ruled by the one with the most power, the most vision. It was natural, don't you see? Magic had blessed this boy—the rest was only destiny."
"What became of this boy?" Rigel asked. The boy described by Ginny sounded a bit like the politician Riddle—there were pieces of SOW party propaganda recognizable in what Ginny was saying—and yet it didn't. Mr. Riddle wanted to change much about their society, but he didn't want the world to burn…did he?
"What an excellent question, Mr. Black," Ginny said in a most patronizing manner, "I admit to a similar curiosity with regards to the answer to that question, but I will, of course, tell you what I can. I want you to understand everything, and perhaps once you've heard my story you can help me with the parts I don't understand. How does that sound?"
"I'll do my best," Rigel said, "But I'm not sure I'll be able to figure it out if you can't."
"Obvious, Mr. Black," Ginny drawled, "But I'll grant you a Slytherin's perseverance."
"Thank you," Rigel said.
Ginny paced slowly among the basilisk's coils, her hands behind her back, "The boy's plans were perfect, foolproof, you might say. He had discovered a way to obtain power, and, after much cunning and resourceful searching, even discovered a way to keep that power…forever." Ginny paused, a thoughtful look on her face, "And yet, the boy worried. At that moment in time, his plans were perfect, his ideals pure and his future unquestioned. He had a way to conquer time's greatest threat—death itself—but time has other ways of undoing great men. This he knew, as a student of history, and this he feared. Many a great man had begun his quest for dominion with deepest motive and steadfast convictions, but halfway to the top these great men faltered. Do you know why, Mr. Black?"
Rigel blinked, but hazarded a guess, "They discovered that changing the world was not as easy as they imagined, and met challenges they weren't able to immediately overcome."
Ginny gazed pityingly at her, "All challenges can be overcome. No. These men faltered because the view from halfway up the mountain is rather attractive when you've spent all your life at the bottom. These men achieved some of what they dreamed of, and became content, deciding the rest of the trek up the mountain wasn't worth the effort after all. They abandoned their ideals out of laziness and fear. You see, when a man is at the bottom of a mountain, he doesn't fear falling down it. Halfway up the mountain, however, the bottom starts to look a lot further than they remembered. Those men forsook their original, worthy designs in order to preserve the little they had already achieved."
It sounded to Rigel as though such men merely knew when to stop. The road to the top of the mountain was neither easy nor guaranteed, or else everyone with a set of hiking boots would stand there. Greed destroyed great men too, as any student of history also ought to know—reaching too far too soon was the easiest way to get knocked back down.
"Luckily, this boy anticipated the possibility of future hesitation," Ginny went on, "He formulated another plan, a way to counteract time's propensity to warp and twist that which it can lay its claws into. Do you know what the most amazing kind of magic is, Black? Come, take your guess. What magic do you find the most impressive, the most magical, to use the muggle sense of the term ironically?"
Rigel bit the inside of her lip in thought, "I suppose the most amazing magic is that which effects changes only magic can bring about."
"Yes, very good," Ginny said, a slightly intense smile on her face, "Like what? Can you give a specific example?"
Rigel thought some more, mostly to take up as much time as possible. It wouldn't be destructive magic, since you could easily destroy things without magic. Manipulation magic was tempting, but one could manipulate both things and people using physics and psychology, it was just slower and more roundabout. Transformation magic was amazing, and without magical means there wasn't really a way to completely change one thing into another, but it didn't seem to be the answer Ginny was looking for. Finally, Rigel said what she thought the real Arcturus Black would say.
"Healing is the most amazing magic," she said.
Ginny looked at her with intrigued surprise, "You're correct, in a way…though not for the reasons you came up with, I expect. Preservation magic is the greatest kind of magic there is. It is magic that reverses or reduces time's effects on the universe. Healing is one of the many magics that combat time. It preserves life, as long and as vital as it possibly can. Yes, it is the ability to preserve which makes the Magical World so worthy, so important. Witches and Wizards live three times longer than muggles naturally, and there are wizards like Flamel who live as long as they wish. All due to magic. If you want to cook a lamb today and eat it a year from now, you can do that with magic. No wizard is ever a slave to time. With a time-turner, one can stretch a day into a week before the strain of maintaining identical cores in close proximity becomes too much. Truly, there is little to fear from time if your magic is strong enough," she declared.
Rigel thought that was an interesting way of looking at the world, and not an incorrect one. In a way, they were all fighting against time in a struggle to remain living. Could this worldview influence a boy such as the one described to dedicate his life to preserving things—like pureblood wizarding culture, for example?
"Yes, preservation magic proved to be the key," Ginny said, "The boy knew he had to preserve himself, you see, just as he was, perfect and pure, in a way that time could never corrupt him or make him change. Imagine: perfect forever."
Rigel studiously kept the grimace off of her face. There was no such state as perfect. And sixteen forever? She wouldn't wish that on anyone, if it was half as bad as Snape made it out to be complaining about his NEWT students.
"The boy could not actually prevent himself from growing, and consequentially changing," Ginny allowed solemnly, "But he was able to do something else. He found a way to imbue an object with personality among Salazar's notes. No doubt the same basic magic that bore the Sorting Hat into existence. What the boy wanted to create was considerably more complicated than a talking hat, however. He sought to create a perfect impression of his own inner self. His knowledge, memories, ambition, cunning; everything that made him talented and special, all copied with the utmost care and imbued into a single book."
"Book," Rigel's eyes widened. The journal. It wasn't an empty diary, but a container for an immensely complicated magical construct. She frowned. She hadn't sensed any magic in the book when she'd touched it. Was it so well-hidden?
"Yes, that book," Ginny smirked, "And what a long fifty years it was, locked in those pages."
"Was?" Rigel clarified.
Ginny looked amused, "I'm getting there, Black. Be patient."
"So he created his magical construct," Rigel prompted, still willing to play along. Surely, the teachers were already looking for her. The ward on the bathroom door would have been obvious to anyone looking for the out-of-place. They must be trying to access the Chamber, which meant all she had to do was buy time, and be patient, as Ginny suggested.
"Yes. It went exactly according to plan," Ginny said, "As the boy's plans came to fruition, he consulted his diary often, to make sure any new ideas were in line with the established ones. The diary made sure he stayed true to course. Then, a few months before the end of his sixth year, something went wrong." Ginny's face was tight now, her mouth creased at a disapproving angle as she spoke, "Everything was going fine. He was well on his was to ridding the school of its muggle taint. He had the students and faculty right where he wanted them—afraid, and willing at that point to do anything to stop the attacks."
She was speaking, Rigel realized, of the last time the Chamber had been 'opened.' The time Hagrid spoke of, with only muggleborn students found petrified, threatening messages on the walls beside them. Rigel could imagine the threats the messages must have contained—banish all mudbloods or else they start dying, no doubt.
"The boy only had one final point to make," Ginny said, "He hadn't killed any of the mudbloods yet—the basilisk can control its power, you know, and it merely petrified the mudbloods up to that point as per the boy's request—but for his threats to be taken seriously, a death was necessary. The death would aid him in other ways, as well, in finalizing the steps he took to become impervious to time. There had to be an example, and the death wouldn't have been a waste," Ginny said earnestly, "Everything was prepared. There was a seventh-year mudblood who liked to mess around with second-year girls. He lured them into deserted corridors and…well, he would be no great loss to society, would he? The boy confided his plans to the diary, his construct approved, everything was to go ahead that night, and then…"
Rigel waited, but Ginny didn't seem inclined to continue.
"And then?" she asked quietly.
"Well I don't know what happened then, do I?" Ginny snapped, "I waited. I heard from him once after that, maybe twice, and he never told me exactly what happened. 'It's fine,' he said, 'don't worry. Everything's going to plan.' Then there was silence. Years and decades of bloody silence. Do you know what it's like, living in a book for fifty years, unable to even talk to yourself?"
Rigel mutely shook her head, taken aback and beyond confused. All she knew was that Ginny…didn't appear to be Ginny at all.
"It's agony," the redhead spat, "Every year the magic keeping you together, keeping you alive, fades a little. He was supposed to add magic to the diary over time, ensuring its continued existence, preventing the magic from destabilizing and disintegrating or collapsing in on itself. But he didn't. It was only through sheer willpower that I retained my personality, my knowledge, and my ambition despite the magic Time sucked from my pages—the greedy bitch."
Ginny was near to spitting with anger now, and Rigel wondered if perhaps the personality in the diary, which seemed to be inhabiting Ginny at the moment, hadn't held up under the strain of time as well as it thought it had. Without magic to keep it functioning optimally, the construct seemed to have become partially unhinged.
Ginny took a calming breath, and smiled humorlessly down at Rigel, "Imagine my surprise, my delight, when my maker wrote in my pages once again. 'I have need of you,' he says. A task at Hogwarts, my old playground, and me the only one trusted enough to carry it out. Finally, I think, we're back on track. Get inside some first-year's head? No problem. Be her companion as she grows, help her along until she's formidable in her own right? Not my style, I admit, but all right. Infiltrate the Light party through the girl, undoing Dumbledore's seat of power slowly from under his own nose? Well, now. That would take years. Why would I waste so much time when there's easier, more direct ways of undoing Dumbledore?" The redhead shook her head sadly, "I wouldn't, don't you see?"
Rigel was very much afraid she did see. So Riddle's sixteen-year-old self didn't much care for the direction his future life had taken? Severus Snape had clearly had no part in this plan of Riddle's. Perhaps Mr. Riddle's memory painted his adolescent self in a more forgiving light, but Snape, with his deep distain for the arrogance and rashness of the teenaged psyche, could have predicted this rebellion without blinking.
"Oh, I bided my time at first," Ginny's voice said casually, "Perhaps there was information I lacked. Perhaps Britain was currently at war with another magical state, or a plague had recently decimated the wizarding population, or some other such reason Britain couldn't afford abrupt social change or the distraction of a civil war at the current time. I agreed to my older self's plan, spoke kindly to little Ginerva Weasley when she began pouring secrets into my pages. I fished gently for information about current events, and Ginny was all too happy to fill me in," she paused to chuckle softly at her own pun. "My disappointment knew no bounds when I realized my failure to revolutionize the world the way I'd planned was due not to an inadequacy of the times, but to an inadequacy in myself. Well," she amended after a moment, "Not myself. I am perfect, unchanged by time, and unwilling to settle for a life spent in mediocrity, another fat plutocrat slowly turning the political hamster wheel in circles."
Rigel felt oddly compelled to defend Riddle Sr. against his younger self's accusation, but quickly checked the impulse. No need to make the insane magical construct angrier.
"It became apparent that I would have to take things into my own hands," the construct continued speaking, as though determined to lay the whole story at Rigel's feet, "But of course, I had no hands. All I had was Ginny. Poor, scared, little Ginny. Do you know what Ginny was most afraid of?"
Like a light going on, or perhaps more appropriately like a kick to the stomach, the answer came to her. "The Sleeping Sickness," she said, realizing how Riddle Jr., as she decided to call him, had played on that fear so effectively.
"Very good, Black," it smiled through Ginny's teeth so sweetly, "When her brother Ronald wrote to her of the sickness, the fear of having her mind invaded took root in her heart. I admit, I helped it flourish there. I told her stories about what terrible things wizards could do to one another's minds. She begged me to help her protect herself. It was easy, I told her. As a mere magical construct, I could live in her head if she wanted. She could talk to me whenever she liked, and I could protect her mind from invasion. She hesitated for a little while, but soon the fear became too pressing, and she opened her mind willingly to her dear friend Tom."
"You possessed her," Rigel surmised, "Not completely at first, but eventually you had complete control. Ginny didn't know she was the one opening the Chamber and petrifying kids."
"Of course she didn't," Riddle Jr. snorted, "It took some time before she suspected the memory loss wasn't just a side-effect of the meditation techniques she was trying to learn. Thanks for that, but the way. When she learned you were studying Occlumency, too, it greatly reassured her that she had done the right thing by protecting her mind."
Rigel felt sick, and the feeling grew stronger as the construct kept talking.
"Ginny helped me open the Chamber of Secrets, unleash the basilisk, kill the Squib's cat, write the messages on the walls, everything," Riddle Jr. gloated.
"You'd already possessed her when you tried to steal my belladonna," Rigel said.
"Yes," Ginny's face was made to frown, "My possession was not very good at that point, I admit. I hadn't meshed completely with Ginny's magic yet, and so the wand rejected me when I attempted to use it for complicated or powerful spells. I had to rely on brute force to make her magic work for me, and still it was temperamental. I think our magics are just too incompatible. She leans closer to Neutral than to Light, but still…it took some time to gain complete control over her magic."
Rigel wasn't sure the construct had complete control, as some of its spells had been a bit shaky, a bit rushed, a bit blunt, looking back on it. Still, it had been enough to neutralize Rigel. She could still feel the shield he'd wrapped her in, like a web of sticky magic crawling over her skin, suffocating her own magic within her.
"I had to make the girl buy the poison over the holidays," Riddle Jr. recalled, "It left my little monster vulnerable for longer than I liked, but one makes do. Yes, Ginny was exceedingly useful—until she started to notice what I was doing. She became suspicious of my presence in her head, and tried to find other ways to protect her mind, though she didn't have much success."
Rigel felt ashamed of herself. How many times had Ginny come to ask her about Occlumency? Rigel had seen that the girl was exhausted, stressed, and afraid, but she hadn't looked further into the problems of a first-year Gryffindor. Her own problems had seemed so important at the time.
"Then she tried to get rid of me by throwing out my diary," Riddle Jr. said, amused, "As if that would help. I'd cut ties with the book the moment Ginny let me into her head. If I was still anchored there, it could be used against me, after all. When I saw you with it, paging through those archives so eagerly, I knew something had to be done. Eventually, you'd figure out to whom the diary belonged, and maybe you'd figure out who was making the basilisk petrify students, too. I didn't know how much you knew. It had to be done. This way is better, in a way. Ginny's use only extends so far. Her magical reserves are remarkable for a child so young, but she has no natural talent to speak of. You, though…" the construct tilted Ginny's head consideringly, "The Black scion has a prominent social position awaiting on either side of the party line, according to little Ginny's limited grasp of the political situation. A Parselmouth, unexpectedly, which means I wouldn't even have to hide my gift. And that trick you pulled with the Sleeping Sickness…yes, you've clear potential, little snake. You'll make for a much more useful host, I think."
"Host," Rigel repeated numbly, "That's why you haven't killed me yet?"
"That's right," the construct said, "Your survival is guaranteed; does that comfort you? It's going to be an impressive tale. Would you like to hear it? A glimpse of one's future is a rare opportunity—a fitting gift for the host of Lord Voldemort."
Rigel blinked, "Lord Voldemort is…?"
"Me," Riddle Jr. said smugly. He lifted Ginny's wand and began to trace letters in the air.
'TOM MARVOLO RIDDLE' the letters read.
Rigel thought for a moment that Riddle's middle name seemed out of place between his overwhelmingly ordinary first and last names—but she wasn't sure where Riddle's construct was going with this.
The letters rearranged themselves at a twitch from Ginny's wand. I AM LORD VOLDEMORT. An anagram, Rigel realized. Her French wasn't anything to brag about yet, but she thought she got the gist of the title. Something about the flight of death, or stealing from death, perhaps. It was ominous, Rigel supposed, if a bit grandiose for an Englishman.
"It's the name I fashioned for myself, just before undergoing the ritual that would preserve a copy of my mind in the pages of my diary. Though apparently the name never made it beyond those pages," the construct scowled, "I fear for my older counterpart, Black. Something must have gone terribly wrong for his path to have deviated so inexplicably. I suspect Dumbledore had a hand in it," Ginny's features were twisted in a mask of hatred, "Perhaps the old man caught me in the act. He wouldn't have killed me, and sending a boy of such potential to Azkaban is not his style, but his manipulation knows no bounds. A memory charm, personality suppressant, perhaps even the Imperious Curse; it would have been easy for a wizard like Dumbledore to alter my destiny, the meddling fool. And no one would ever suspect, because there I'd be, Tom Riddle, model student and upstanding citizen, as I'd always made people believe I was. Brilliant, wasn't it? Killing me without killing me, using my own mask against me, in a way no one would ever suspect."
Rigel thought it an interesting theory, at least. If Dumbledore controlled Mr. Riddle, his biggest political opponent, then he controlled everything. It would mean Dumbledore essentially played an elaborate chess game with himself, with all of British Wizardom hanging in the balance. The very thought of such a world would scare Rigel out of her potions boots—if she thought it was true.
"He didn't expect me, though," Riddle said softly, "I can see through his deception like no one else, because I know what I ought to be. I can fix everything. Perhaps I can even reach out to my older self in time. For now, I can turn the old man's game against him. With you, I will see his strategies foiled, his plans come to naught."
Rigel understood now, though she didn't think the construct was viewing the situation very clearly. After all, if Dumbledore controlled Riddle he would have to know about Riddle Jr., because Mr. Riddle was supposedly the one who set the construct to its task at Hogwarts. Still, as someone to whom complicated plots were nothing new, she could appreciate the elegance of such a plan from an academic standpoint. As long as she didn't think about what it meant for her as the possessed.
"You're going to essentially do the same thing you think Dumbledore did to your older counterpart," Rigel clarified, "You possess me, taking my place as the Black scion, using my reserved personality as a cover as you grow in strength and ability, until you're ready to revolutionize the world. To everyone else, it will just look like the Black scion decided to change the world. No one will guess it isn't me doing those things."
"That's right," the construct said, smirking, "But I won't have to bide my time for long. You'll be a hero when this is all over, with considerable political capital I won't hesitate to capitalize on. The brave young Black who saved the school by defeating a basilisk and thwarting Ginny Weasley's dastardly plans."
"Isn't Ginny a bit young to have masterminded a plan?" Rigel asked, trying not to think about the actual content of what they were discussing, just focused on drawing out the time Riddle Jr. spent talking. It wasn't going to happen, she assured herself, as long as she kept it talking.
"Oh, she didn't come up with it," the construct said, amused, "She was Dumbledore's pawn. It was his scheme to petrify the students, sending the Wizarding World into a panic, and then acting the hero at the last moment by 'finding' the beast and slaying it heroically. All a political plot to win the support of the children's grateful parents."
"How did Ginny control the basilisk, if she was Dumbledore's agent?" Rigel asked, "And how did Dumbledore find the Chamber of Secrets in the first place?"
Riddle Jr. paused thoughtfully, "A Dark ritual the Headmaster forced Ginny to participate in gave her the power of the serpent tongue temporarily. She used that power to find the Chamber, and then used the basilisk on the Headmaster's behalf."
"And you, what, wiped her memory of doing all this afterwards as an act of kindness when she couldn't bear to live with what she'd done?" Rigel asked incredulously. Did Riddle's construct really think anyone was going to swallow this story? It was the world of a Black against Albus Dumbledore.
Riddle Jr. chuckled without humor, "That's a good one. No, sadly, Ginny was killed by the basilisk herself when she lost control of it. Just goes to show that Light wizards shouldn't mess around with Dark rituals. The irony is perfect—the press will eat it right up."
Rigel swallowed. Riddle Jr. really was going to kill Ginny, without a shred of remorse, if he got the chance. She had to keep him talking. Any minute now, the professors would break through into the passage. They had to.
"If Ginny loses control of the basilisk and is killed by it, wouldn't I just use my Parseltongue to take control of the snake, which now has no Master to answer to? I wouldn't have to kill it," Rigel pointed out.
The construct tilted its head, "True…but the Ministry would kill it anyway if you turned it over when you emerged, and defeating a giant basilisk gone mad with hunger and bloodlust after the loss of its Master makes a better story than being kidnapped by an eleven-year-old girl and just walking out of the Chamber after a stroke of luck."
Rigel supposed it made for a better story, but she would take the second option in a heartbeat if an opportunity presented itself. "How would I kill the basilisk?" Rigel asked, not looking toward the snake's head, which lay so close to them she could feel the air move when it flicked its tongue, "I can't imagine many spells would pierce those scales."
"No, you'd be right," the construct said, running a hand over the basilisk scales slowly, "Almost nothing affects a creature with this much ambient magic. Older than a dragon, she is, with scales just as hard."
Come on, Rigel thought, Tell me a weakness. She was very afraid it would come to fight, and at the moment she had no idea how to fight a basilisk, though her instinct would be to go for the eyes first.
"A Killing Curse might to the trick," Riddle said casually, "But I've only used it the once…I doubt Ginny's core is up to it, honestly. I've not been particularly miserly with my magical expenditure this evening, but it is so invigorating to have access to a real core again." It smiled at Rigel as though inviting her to share the joke, "I could always conjure a sword and stab it through the soft underside of the jaw. In fact, maybe that's the story I'll give if anyone asks." Rigel's mind flinched away from that disgusting image. "But none of that will be necessary. Really, Black, do you forget who I am? This is Salazar's monster. It will die when I bid it to."
Ginny's face was alive with cruelty. Rigel couldn't understand what the construct meant for a moment. Then it spoke, soft and cajoling.
"Beassst," Riddle Jr. hissed, "Attend to me."
"Yesss, Massster," the basilisk replied at once.
"Return to your lair," the construct said dismissively.
Rigel's chest eased with relief. She'd been filled with dread at the look on Ginny's face, the madness and the sickness in the construct's eyes. The basilisk uncoiled from around them, and it began slithering back toward Salazar's statue at the far end of the hall, eyes still closed.
"Wait," the construct hissed, amusement clear even in Parseltongue. The basilisk turned its head back inquiringly, "Turn in a circle."
Rigel began feeling sick again as the great serpent did just that, turning back on itself obediently.
"Put your head to the floor, Beassst," Riddle Jr. said, openly sneering as the snake lowered its head to the grimy stone floor, "Tassste the flagssstonesss." The basilisk scraped its tongue across the floor.
"It tassstessss of rot, Massster," the snake said, "And ratsss. Let me catch a rat, Massster."
"Are you hungry?" Riddle Jr. asked cruelty.
"Ssso hungry, Massster," the snake said longingly, "Pleassse, Massster."
"It will feel good to bite into a real meal after ssso long, won't it, pet?" the construct's eyes were bright with burning intensity. Rigel felt her own eyes smart with the beginnings of tears. There was something so very wrong about this. The basilisk was old, and starving. Probably maddened by its hibernation, too. Riddle was its Master. The construct ought to take care of the creature, not…
"Yesss, Massster," the basilisk coiled in anticipation, "Let me rip…tear…"
"Very well, Beassst," Riddle's construct said softly, "Bite yourssself."
Rigel flinched, and the basilisk scented the air in confusion, "Massster…"
"Do it!" the construct hissed fiercely, "Sssink your fangsss into your flesssh. Now."
The basilisk lashed, and its mouth enclosed its tail with a snap. The snake let out a great hiss of pain. It thrashed violently, coiling and uncoiling.
"Hurtsss, Massster…make it ssstop…"
"Bite again," the construct said remorselessly, "Harder."
The basilisk, though trembling, obeyed. Its fangs met its body a second time, chunks of flesh ripped from its tail, blood, thick and greasy, poured onto the hall floor.
Rigel turned her head to the side and vomited violently onto the stones next to her. The basilisk hissed it utter agony as it died, and Rigel heard every broken, unheeded plea it made to its cold master. Rigel didn't think she'd ever hated anything until that moment. She hated that thing of magic looking out from behind Ginny's eyes. Her magic beat in her veins like an ocean confined to a tide pool, but to no avail. The shield Riddle Jr. had wove against her skin held fast.
"It's a little known fact that basilisks are susceptible to their own venom," Riddle Jr. said, as though remarking on an interesting weather anomaly, "I believe they were bred that way, by the Parselmouths of old, so that a Speaker would always have a way of controlling the beasts if they got out of hand."
Rigel couldn't believe that. To use a creature's natural defenses against it was cruel enough. To engineer a weakness in those defenses for such a purpose…it was unthinkably sick. Riddle Jr. walked Ginny's body across the hall to where the basilisk lay crumpled. The construct pointed Ginny's wand at the basilisk's mouth, and with a crack broke off one of the fangs. The construct levitated the fang back over to where Rigel sat, upper body still immobile, on the ground. At Rigel's apprehensive look, it laughed, "Not for you, little snake. I need your body alive, don't I? The venom left on this fang would kill you in minutes. No, this is for Ginny. I have to make it look like she was really killed by the basilisk, don't I?"
Riddle Jr. raised the fang over Ginny's arm, and Rigel blurted, "Don't!"
The construct paused, lips quirking, "Too late to stop me now, boy."
"Fine," Rigel shrugged, affecting a look of pity.
Riddle's construct scowled, "What?"
Rigel hesitated, but said, "It just seems so obviously stupid, that's all. Don't get me wrong, I don't want to be possessed, but it seems a very ignoble way for Salazar's descendant to die."
"Spit it out, boy," it hissed.
"Once Ginny's dying, you'll only have minutes to possess me before you die along with her, right?" Rigel asked.
"I need only seconds," Riddle Jr. smirked.
"So sure, are you?" Rigel tried to look condescending, "Do you know how long I've been studying Occlumency? I doubt you'll get inside my head so easily. I'm not inviting you in like Ginny did. You'll probably get stuck with no way in my head and no body to go back to." Rigel forced a laugh, "You can't even go running back to your diary, because you broke the connection to it, didn't you? You're better off just keeping Ginny. She's not a bad host—seventh born, I think. That's powerful magic. Or do you just not want to go through puberty as a girl?"
"You little brat," the construct threw down the fang, snarling, "We'll see how strong your shields are. I'll take your body, then let you feel your own hand stab the basilisk's fang into little Ginny's heart."
Ginny's body slumped abruptly, but Rigel had already retreated into her own head, and was concealed inside her mountain by the time she felt the construct tear like a jawed beast through the mist at the edge of her mind. Its voice echoed around the mountain, cold and mocking, "Are these your so-called shields? Pathetic. Come out, little snake, or I will tear this mind to pieces."
The words were punctuated by a shock like an earthquake going through my mindscape. Riddle Jr. was somehow blasting magic as her mountainside.
Rigel had thought the construct's magic would be weak here. Hadn't it said its own magic was nearly drained away by time? It shouldn't be strong enough to do much damage, unless…Rigel groaned. It still had access to Ginny's magic. Since Ginny wasn't dying, Riddle Jr. hadn't broken his hold over her core. She had assumed if she could get the construct out of Ginny's head and into hers, Ginny could regain control of her body, which was not bound like Rigel's was, and help her. If the construct had somehow prevented Ginny from retaking her mind, though…
It can't be easy to try to control two minds at once, Rigel thought. If I keep him distracted in my mind long enough…yes, this might work.
Rigel turned quickly to the boy sitting blank-faced in an armchair by the decoy lab's fireplace—right where she'd left him.
"Stand by the door," she told her own construct quickly. As long as she gave it simple, specific instructions, it should work, "If something comes inside, say, 'you can't come in here.' If it speaks to you, say, 'you won't get away with this.' Glare the whole time, then stay silent no matter what else happens."
The construct that looked like Rigel Black stood and walked over by the cave entrance, a peacefully blank expression still on its face. It wasn't impressive, especially compared to a construct like Riddle's, but it would have to do.
Rigel fled down the trapdoor, willing it to conceal itself behind her as she ran through the maze of tunnels. She whispered the password to her Space Room, flinching as her mind shuddered again under Riddle Jr.'s onslaught. She felt immediately more secure once she'd sealed herself inside her mental safe house. Everything important was kept here. Riddle's construct might gain partial control over her mind, but he couldn't get to everything until he got through that last door; most importantly, he couldn't use her magic without access to her mental core.
Speaking of, Rigel winced at the sight of her Sun. She had spent a lot of magic imbuing potions with Snape earlier that evening. Her core regenerated at a good rate, but it was still noticeably diminished from its usual radiant heat.
No time to worry about it now, though. After double-checking to be sure she'd altered her eye-color to suit a Black, Rigel dived into the sun, her consciousness quickly emerging from the other side of her physical core. Her plan was half-brewed at best, and depended completely on magical theory she wouldn't dare call herself an expert in, but it was all she had.
Riddle Jr.'s shield kept her physical magic pinned to her body, so she couldn't do anything associated with physical magic—spells, runes, even accidental magic—but mental magic and physical magic were not the same. They were connected to the same energy source, and they often acted in tandem, but they were two separate manifestations of a person's conscious magic, unrelated to each other, and unrelated to other aspects of a wizard's magic, like mental energy or gifts like Parseltongue, which didn't rely on the magical core to manifest.
Her mental magic ought to be unaffected by Riddle Jr.'s physical shield. A Legilimency attack couldn't be stopped by a shield charm—it had to be countered with mental defenses, like Occlumency. In the same way, her mental magics would not in theory be trapped to her body as her physical magic was. In theory, she could project her consciousness, which was seated in the mind, not the body, to Ginny's core. In theory.
In the end, theories didn't matter, because this was her only chance. Rigel estimated the distance between her body and Ginny's, stretched out her mental senses, and leaped.
She almost didn't sense Ginny's core at all. It was very different from the last time she'd sensed it, but it was the only core in proximity, so Rigel locked onto it all the same. When she got a good look at it, she was disgusted. She could barely see the simmering layer of molten gold that made up Ginny's secondary layer, because the entire core was streaked through with black sludge. It was similar to the sleeping sickness in color, but this muck-like magic was thicker, stickier, and not at all passive. Like living tar, gloopy and possessive, it burrowed its way through the golden lava of Ginny's core like vomit made mobile.
Rigel really didn't want to immerse herself in the stuff. She stuck her hand out toward the core cautiously, and the black sludge reacted at once. It began coalescing at the point on the surface of the core nearest to Rigel's hand, as though forming a barrier to her immediate entry. Rigel touched it, and shuddered in disgust at the feeling of it bubbling over her skin, grasping at her hand and tugging it forward into the core. Rigel took a deep breath and let it. This is what you want, she told herself, don't fight it, just bear it.
She sunk her arm deeper into the blackened core. She could feel the warmth from Ginny's primary core, a white-hot flame, but it was muted by the layer of tar that expanded to encase her entire form as she pressed deeper into the core. Once she was fully immersed, blinded by the black goop stretching over her eyes, she tried to push forward into the primary core. The black magic held her fast. She tried again, pushing harder and more desperately, but she was stuck.
She struggled, but everywhere she thrust an arm or leg the black sludge was there to resist her movements, tugging her back into its embrace. She felt suffocated. She instinctively called on her magic, but for the first time since she could remember, she felt no answering rush in power. It was as though the black tar-like magic sealed her own magic from her reach. She felt a bare trickle of energy trying to emerge, but the dark goo encasing her quickly snuffed it.
She thought she could reason with this magic, instead. She truly believed magic was sentient to some degree, so perhaps she could convince it to free her. Rigel opened her mouth to ask the magic to let her go. As her lips parted, the blackness rushed into her mouth, coating her throat and choking her words before she could get them out. She cried out wordlessly in her head. No! I won't let you win. She put all of her will behind the thought, bending her consciousness entirely toward the effort of moving forward, of reaching the flame she could feel beyond the blackness and purging the foul, corrupted magic from her—
Her own core was beyond her grasp, but Ginny's core answered, and Rigel's vision was overtaken by white fire. She felt the heat of it blister her consciousness as it went by, and it was a triumphant, satisfying feeling. The flame of Ginny's core licked over her, like a Healer purging infection from a wound, and she felt the invasive black magic evaporate from around her in bursts and starts. When she was free enough, she kicked and pushed through the tar's hold on her, and dived quickly into the center of Ginny's primary core.
She emerged into thin air, and floated upside down for a moment until she regained her bearings and righted herself. Ginny's mind was utterly empty—or so it seemed. Rigel called out softly, "Ginny? Are you in here?"
"Yes," Ginny's voice was tired, but it rang clearly in the air, "I see you. Come to rescue me, Rigel Black?"
"That depends," Rigel said, "Do you need rescuing?"
"See for yourself," Ginny's voice said wryly, "Faestnian."
At the last word, the illusion of open, empty sky melted away. Rigel found herself abruptly standing at the bottom of a giant crater, surrounded on all sides by red dirt and burnt earth, with great walls of rock and earth like mountains stretching upwards all around her, so that she seemed to be at the bottom of a gorge—or a volcano. The sky was an eerie grey, and at first Rigel thought it was snowing, until she realized the air was just filled with ash, swirling one way or another in hot air currents. The ground was littered with holes, too, and every so often a jet of fire would shoot up out of one of the holes, before dispersing just as abruptly.
A little ways away, trapped inside a cage that looked to be made of black tar that had been forged into an ugly metal, sat Ginny. Her red hair was back in a messy ponytail, and her expression was two parts angry, one part bitterly regretful. She raised a hand to Rigel as she picked her way slowly over to the cage.
"Welcome," the first-year said, "Lovely place, isn't it? I can't even blame Tom for this—my mind resembles the bottom of a volcano naturally, apparently."
"Did Tom trap you in here?" Rigel asked, examining the cage.
"Yes," Ginny said, "He put me in here when he finally stopped pretending to be my friend. Now he's just pretending to be me," she laughed humorlessly, "And he'll be you next—I heard him say so. You should go, and worry about your own head."
"The construct is already in my head," Rigel said, "That's why I'm here in yours. While he's busy, we can break you out. Once you have control of your mind and magic again, he won't be as powerful in my mind, and maybe I can throw him out. If not, you can at least run and tell the professors that I've been possessed, so he can't get away with his plans."
Ginny's eyes held a tentative hope in them as she said, "And you think that will work? The basilisk—"
"He killed it," Rigel said shortly.
"Oh," Ginny stood up slowly, "I only get bits and pieces of what he's doing from in here. We're still in the Chamber, though, right?"
"Yes," Rigel said, "And I'm not sure the professors can get in, so we can't count on help."
"All right," Ginny said, "What do we do? I'm cut off from my magic in here—he's got full control of it."
Rigel looked at Ginny's core. Without the illusion, the core looked like a fissure, a deep crack running through the dark earth. It was filled with molten gold, which flowed and bubbled sluggishly like lava, but the surface of the golden stream was on fire, flames dancing and retreating restlessly. The lava was streaked through with black sludge in places, but it was by no means blackened beyond repair.
"I'm not sure he does," Rigel said, "It let me in, after all. I think your magic is tied closer to you than that insane construct realizes."
"I hope you're right," Ginny said, "What can we do about the cage, though?"
Rigel nodded toward the fissure of molten gold not far from the cage, "That magic is yours. Riddle's construct is using it, but it belongs to you. You just need to regain control."
Ginny scowled, "I've tried. I can't reach its power from inside this cage. It's like the bars disconnect me from my magic."
"The construct did something similar with my magic," Rigel said thoughtfully, "It bound my magic to my body, so that I couldn't project it beyond my skin. Maybe it used the same sort of shield, only mental instead of physical, to separate your consciousness from your magic." Rigel would be fascinated if that were the case. She hadn't considered the possibility of adapting actual physical spells for mental use, but it would greatly expand the pool of possibilities as far as mental defenses were concerned.
"Then I won't be able to use…my…" Ginny trailed off, a struck look on her face, "Tom is using my magic."
"Yes," Rigel said, frowning, "He probably won't let go of his hold on your mind and magic until he's taken control of mine."
"But if he can use my magic, other people can, too," Ginny said, a slow smirk growing on her face.
"Not just anyone," Rigel pointed out, "They'd have to have access to your…mental…oh. That's rather obvious, when you put it like that."
Ginny was full-out smiling now, "You can destroy the cage. You don't have access to your magic, but you can use mine. Once the cage is destroyed, I can take back my magic, and without it Tom won't stand a chance against the both of us."
Rigel nodded. She stretched out her hand toward Ginny's core, and asked the magic to respond. It was slow to answer at first, and Rigel could see the black sludge mixed into the magic trying to prevent the golden liquid from moving around, but eventually the magic churned enough to overflow. A small stream of molten gold spilled across the ground, flowing steadily toward the black metal cage. The earth sizzled and hissed where the gold rolled across it, and when the little stream of liquid magic finally touched the base of Ginny's cage, the bars trembled and shook.
Rigel guided the magic as best she could, though it was clumsy work. She just didn't have the instinctive connection with Ginny's core that she did with her own. The bars on the cage were dense, but Ginny's core began eating away at them fairly steadily once the magic had direct contact.
Ginny's eyes met hers in satisfied anticipation. It was working. They stood a chance.
The arrogant little snot never stood a chance. Voldemort snorted to himself at the ridiculousness of the boy's unwarranted bravado. It only proved that he was right to open the Chamber once more—the school was going rotten from the inside out with Dumbledore in the Headmaster's chair. When a blockhead like Black represented the Slytherins of purest, Darkest blood, what hope was there for the next generation? That such a boy had thought himself equal to the power of Lord Voldemort—it was absurd. The brat had learned how to spin a few mental illusions and fancied himself a Master Occlumens. Hardly.
The child's mind was laughably easy to penetrate. The chill of the mountain-scape didn't phase Lord Voldemort for a moment. He had visited more desolate places in his sixteen years of life, in both the mental and physical realms. Voldemort found the entrance to the inner sanctum of the boy's mind with little difficulty. Illusions were clever, but not undetectable for a Legilimens as powerful as he.
Voldemort passed through the illusion confidently, and stopped abruptly at the sight of the boy waiting for him just inside the door. He smirked—the child's mind was even shallower than he thought, to only have two layers. Then again, he shouldn't have expected anything more. Future host of Lord Voldemort or not, a child was still a child, and this one educated under Dumbledore's thumb. It was a miracle he'd even heard of Occlumency, really.
"You can't be in here," the boy said, glaring at him rather stoutly.
Voldemort indulged in a low chuckle, "And just what are you going to do about it? You don't have the power to stop me, boy."
The boy simply kept glaring, "You won't get away with this," he said.
"We'll see about that," Voldemort sneered. He jerked at the magic under his control, exerting all of his considerable will to make it do as he directed. Little Ginny's magic was becoming harder to control the longer she considered him an intruder to her mind, and being mentally somewhat removed from the source only exacerbated the problem. Still, he was not Lord Voldemort for nothing. He harnessed the unwieldy magic inexorably and willed it forcibly into manifestation.
Shadows erupted from the air around them to twine swiftly into the shape Voldemort directed. The boy's consciousness was immediately encased, trapped in a cage of Voldemort's making. The only thing that could separate a being's consciousness from its own magic was magic itself. The shield that encased the boy's consciousness wasn't defined by a single spell. It was primarily raw magic, given shape only because his mind conceptualized it as a cage, but it provided the perfect buffer between a person's consciousness and his magic. The technique was used often by Healers who needed to block a patient's access to his magic while they healed him, as a person's magic could easily lash out at a perceived threat while the patient wasn't aware enough to prevent it. For Voldemort's purposes, it cut the boy off from his magical core completely. Without its owner's interference, magic was easily controlled by another, provided that other had the necessary willpower.
"Not so confident now, are you, little snake?" Voldemort taunted the boy trapped within the cage of his magic, "You will learn, as the world will learn, not to question Lord Voldemort's power."
The boy didn't answer, just kept glaring at him. Voldemort sneered with annoyance. What was the point of gloating if the boy wasn't even going to react with a satisfying amount of outrage? A pity; the little Slytherin had until that point been a very accommodating victim.
Voldemort surveyed his surroundings. There was a fireplace with a couple of armchairs nearby—did the boy think to entertain guests in his mind? What nonsense. The rest of the cave had been set up to resemble a potions laboratory. Yes, Voldemort had heard of the boy's interest in the subject while occupying Ginny's mind. There was also a series of cabinets lining the walls, filled to bursting with scrolls.
Voldemort smirked. Those would be the memories. Not the most original method of memory storage he'd heard of, but at least they were organized. It would be easy to find the information he needed to pass as the boy, once the possession was complete. Speaking of—where was the boy's magical core?
"Water type or fire type?" he wondered aloud. The icy mountain and the boy's passive personality would suggest the former, which meant he should be looking for a spring of some kind, or perhaps an iceberg if the boy had a true ice core. Then again, the inner sanctum of the boy's mind was warm, not cold. He might be a fire-type after all. Voldemort frowned. The fireplace by the armchairs was roaring cheerfully, but it didn't feel like a core should. It seemed to be merely another magical illusion.
Perhaps that was the illusion? Could the boy have protected his magical core by disguising it as a regular magical construct? If so, why leave it out in the open, still a focal point of the second layer of his mindscape? Perhaps it was a double-bluff, with the intention of making it so obvious that anyone who suspected the boy had hidden it would discount it as not being hidden enough. Was he willing to give the boy that much credit?
As Voldemort pondered this question, he began to feel an annoyingly niggling sensation at the back of his consciousness. The moment he focused on it, he knew what had caused it. Ginny's core was resisting, bucking violently under his previously sure control. Voldemort frowned. What had disturbed the girl's core? It felt as though Ginny had regained access to it, and was prying it, slowly but surely, from his grasp. If such a thing occurred, it would not be long before his influence was purged from her core—magic was disgustingly loyal once tied to a being's consciousness. Ginny's mere unwillingness made her magic that much more difficult to control—if she had access to her own core, she could easily banish his control of it.
But such a thing was impossible. The very brilliance of the cage he'd left her in denied its possibility. The only thing that could destroy that cage was magic—which by its nature the cage denied the girl's consciousness access to. No one could escape the cage without outside help, and there was no one else in the Chamber to—
Voldemort tilted his head as an insane thought struck him. He never ignored insane thoughts out of hand, and so he carefully considered the illogical answer on the off chance that it proved to be a viable explanation after all. The conscious minds in the Chamber numbered three: Voldemort, Ginny, and Black. If Voldemort had not freed her, and Ginny could not free herself, Black was the only other possible culprit.
Ignoring for the moment that Black was also trapped in a cage that prevented him access to his magic—not to mention preventing him from leaving the confines of his own mind—could the boy have made his way to Ginny's mind while Voldemort was busy here, thereby seeking to undo his control behind his back?
Ginny's mind was shielded, it's true, and should have been impervious to Legilimency attacks even without Voldemort there to witness them. The shields were tied to the girl's core, and maintained through his control over it. They could not have been undone until the girl already had control over her magic. And yet, didn't Black have a way with Legilimency barriers? The boy had cured the Sleeping Sickness, according to little Ginny, and from what Voldemort understood the sickness had been based upon very strong Occlumency shields.
It was possible, then, that the boy had made it into Ginny's mind and assisted in her freedom. If the boy had hidden somewhere in the first layer of his mindscape, on the mountain, and waited until Voldemort entered the cave-like second layer, he might have slipped out of the mists undetected. Voldemort wondered what kind of an idiot would abandon his own mind to assist another's, but then he considered the consequences of freeing Ginny.
I lose control of her magic.
Voldemort was, reluctantly, impressed. The boy was more Slytherin than he'd thought, though it was a risk worthy of Gryffindor. He could see the boy's plan, now. Use his own mind as a distraction, free Ginny's mind, deny Voldemort Ginny's magic, thereby greatly weakening his enemy while gaining an able ally in the process. And to make sure his enemy didn't suspect his duplicity…Voldemort's face darkened. He had been tricked into a false sense of security, thinking he already had the boy trapped. He turned to regard the boy glaring at him from within the cage.
"What are you, then?" he wondered.
He stepped up to the bars and peered at the boy through them. If this was a magical construct, it was a rather good one. Nowhere near the perfection of himself, admittedly, but the likeness was spot on. Most people could not make so accurate an image of themselves. Was it sentient?
"I am going to kill Draco Malfoy," he said casually, "I'm going to use your body to lure him somewhere private. Then I'm going to bind and gag him, because I won't kill him quickly. I'm going to carve Slytherin's mark into his forehead, first, and then I'm going to scrape off all of that pretty white skin. I'll paint the walls with his blood, and look right into his eyes as I twist a knife into his belly, so that you can see the light leaving them even from here."
The boy never flinched, never so much as blinked. There was no catch of breath or tightening of the facial muscles to indicate suppressed rage or disgust.
"Just a puppet, then," Voldemort said dismissively. He banished the cage, as there was obviously no need for it, but the magic twisted away from him. Instead of disappearing, the cage flickered and bent inward, its bars crumpling at odd angles. Voldemort clenched his fist and slammed his will into the cage. It did as he commanded, that time, and disappeared, but Voldemort could feel his control of Ginny's magic weakening by the second.
He was not worried, however. The boy was clever, no doubt about that, but he had forgotten one thing in his haste to free Ginny's magic from his clutches. Voldemort didn't need Ginny's magic. Black's magic would do just fine. All he had to do was find it.
Voldemort looked around the room carefully. It was hidden here, somewhere. He began moving things. He upturned the chairs, rooted through all of the cabinets in case there was something behind or beneath the scrolls. Nothing. He rifled through the potions supplies, examined the fireplace thoroughly, and smirked when he ripped aside the floor rug to find a wooden trap door. The boy had cheek, he'd give him that.
He dropped through the trap door to find a series of tunnels. Voldemort scowled. He had no time to wander through the brat's maze. He also had no choice. He attempted to stretch out his magical senses, but his access the Ginny's core was almost completely eradicated now. He felt the barest hint of power against his senses, and marked the direction it came from before it slipped away from him.
He began through the tunnels swiftly, always keeping in the direction he'd felt that power. He made several wrong turns and doubled back, cursing each time, but eventually found himself before a corridor that dead ended at a door. Voldemort smirked with triumph. He could feel the magic beyond this door, even without his own magic to analyze it. Upon examining the door, however, he lost his good humor. It was seamless, melded right into the corridor around it. With magic, it would be a simple matter to blast the passage until it crumbled out of the way, but without magic to destroy the obstacle, he was forced to play by the rules of the boy's mind.
Unless he missed his guess, that meant he needed a password.
Voldemort cursed. He did not have time to go rifling through the scrolls above him in the secondary layer to figure out the password. The boy would no doubt be returning to his mind, soon, and would catch up to Voldemort if he did not break though this door quickly.
He paused, another idea occurring to him. The boy was touched by Salazar's gift as well, was he not? It would be natural, then, to guard his mind with the Serpent's Tongue. How fitting, Voldemort thought, that this should be the final barrier. How cruel the irony. No doubt the boy had thought himself so clever, so special, to have such a protection, never imagining that another, just as clever, just as special, would come to be his undoing.
Utterly confident, Voldemort hissed the password to Black's mind: "Open."
The door opened.
The golden lava finally ate through enough of the bars for Ginny to dart out of the cage. The girl smiled widely as she plunged her hands into the ravine of magic that was her core. Her consciousness seemed to regain a glow of health she had been missing without Rigel realizing it.
"I've missed this," Ginny said reverently, "I could accept that bastard possessing me—I let him into my head, after all—but taking my magic away…I think I will always hate him for that."
"Time for hate after we get rid of him," Rigel said, though she agreed that such a thing went beyond intrusive and into a realm of perverse cruelty that she could scarcely imagine. "Can you cleanse your magic of his taint?"
Ginny furrowed her brow, concentrating on her core. "It runs so deep…but it's my magic," her voice firmed and her eyes flashed, "I'll burn the bastard out."
Rigel stepped back a bit as the molten liquid in the fissure moved from a simmer to a roiling boil. The heat in Ginny's mindscape increased dramatically, the fires dancing along the surface of the liquid blazing hotter and brighter and higher. The holes that littered the ground all erupted with fire, and small streams of molten gold bubbled out of them, coating the ground with golden lava. Rigel realized that the fissure in the earth of Ginny's mind wasn't the entire core—merely a small facet of it. The core seemed to stretch far beyond what Rigel had assumed, with all the little geysers connected to it, letting off bursts of power to release the tension of so much power.
The golden liquid in the fissure turned white-hot, and when Ginny stepped back a few minutes later, panting, Rigel couldn't see a trace of black sludge anywhere within it.
"I think—I did—it," Ginny panted, "He won't have—my magic—to work with—anymore."
Rigel nodded, "I'm going back to my mind, then. The construct shouldn't be able to trap me there without your magic, and it'll have no defense when I push it out."
"I'll make sure all the spells he was using my magic for are stopped," Ginny said, "So you can use your magic again."
"Thank you," Rigel said. She thought the spells would already have stopped, since the construct would no longer be in control of them, but it didn't hurt to be sure.
Going back through Ginny's core was much easier than coming in. There was nothing but hot gold to push through, and within minutes she was back in her own mind. The Space Room, she was relieved to note, had not been penetrated. There was a chance that the construct would find it before he'd lost the use of Ginny's magic, and the room would probably not withstand the force of a magical attack, but it was a calculated risk.
With no time to lose, Rigel opened the door to her Space Room, intent on seeking out the construct and taking the intruder by surprise.
To her alarm, she found him standing just on the other side of the door, as though he had been waiting there to ambush her. But no—he looked equally shocked to see her. Rigel didn't waste time wondering why he would be surprised, though a part of her wondered what else he was doing there, if not waiting for her to open the door after realizing he could not open it himself. Instead, Rigel thrust her hand out and willed her magic forward.
Her sun pulsed at her back and fire erupted from her palm. It hit the construct square in the chest, sending him flying backwards down the tunnel. Rigel spared a moment to shut the door to her Space Room behind her, just in case, and then ran toward where the construct was laying, stunned, on the tunnel floor. She threw another burst of flame at it, but Riddle's construct rolled and scrambled quickly to its feet. It darted to the side and ran down the tunnel, toward the trap door. Rigel ran after it, sending fire ahead of her to lap at the construct's heels.
She chased it up through the trap door, through the cave-lab, and out over the mountain top. The construct threw her a furious look over its shoulder as it dived into the mist, and Rigel responded with one last burst of flame to hurry its departure.
She breathed a sigh of relief when it was over. She would check on Ginny to make sure the redhead had succeeded in keeping the construct out of her mind—not that she should have had any trouble, as Riddle's construct was essentially powerless without access to magic. Then they would get out of the Chamber as quickly as possible.
Rigel came back to her body, and was pleased to find that she could move freely once more. Her magic was humming in her veins like an angry beehive, annoyed at having been restrained by Riddle Jr.'s spell for so long.
"Is that you, Rigel?" Ginny said warily once she'd opened her eyes and stretched. The eleven-year-old looked shaken, but otherwise in possession of all her faculties.
"It's me," Rigel said, "I drove the construct out. Did it try to enter your mind?"
"No," Ginny said slowly, "I didn't sense anything after you left. Can you prove you're you, and not possessed by Tom?"
"Well, anything I know it would have access to through my memories if it had possessed me," Rigel pointed out uncertainly.
Ginny nodded, "He'd have to sort through them first, though, and I don't think he's had enough time to assimilate all the details. What instrument was George playing in the Hospital Wing when you came to visit me?"
"A tiny piano," Rigel said quickly, "And I think he had a kick drum as well."
Ginny nodded, "Okay, so…now what?"
"We get out of here," Rigel said, "I'm sure the professors are worried—"
She and Ginny both froze as an ominous rasping noise echoed around the hall. It came again, the sound of something heavy shifting clumsily. Rigel and Ginny whipped around to stare in horror at the basilisk, which had been lying prostrate on the Chamber floor just moments before. Now, it was moving.
"I thought you said Tom killed it," Ginny said quietly, stepping closer to Rigel with a fearful look on her face.
"It is dead," Rigel said, her voice thick with fear and disgust, "I think…the construct didn't try to possess you because it didn't have the magic to penetrate a conscious mind."
"Tom's possessed the basilisk," Ginny gasped softly, "Oh, Godric."
They watched, frozen and wary, as the basilisk's corpse twisted slowly against the stone. Its movements were jerky, and Rigel wondered if Riddle's construct was having a hard time grasping the controls in the basilisk's mind, which was surely different from a human's. They had a small window, Rigel realized, and they were wasting it.
"Ginny," she said, "Do you remember the way to the passage that takes you back to the bathroom?"
Ginny nodded, "I was aware enough to mark it, the last time. You want to make a run for it?"
Rigel shook her head, "The basilisk will be too fast, even dead. It'll overtake us unless it's distracted. I'll keep it busy; you need to go. Run as fast as you can back to the passage and find help."
Ginny's face tightened, "I can't open the passage. I know it's 'open' but I can't remember how to say it anymore."
"Repeat after me," Rigel said quickly, taking Ginny's arm and leading her quickly towards the corridor that would take her out, "Open."
"Again," Rigel said.
"Open." Ginny said firmly, "Open. Open. Okay, I've got it. Rigel—be careful. The eyes—"
Rigel shook her head, "The basilisk's magic died with it. It's eyes are just eyes now. I've only got to worry about the teeth. Go, Ginny. Quickly."
Ginny took off at a run, and Rigel turned back to face the beast.
It was disgusting to watch the corpse rise slowly from the ground. The wounds in its tail must be hindering the construct's control of its movements, because it trembled and shook as its body rose into the air. Gone was the grace the snake had previously possessed. It's form was almost drunken, listing sharply sideways every now and then, only to jerk back just as sharply without warning.
Rigel moved away from the Chamber exit, getting as far away from the basilisk as she could without backing herself into a corner. Every instinct in her was screaming to run, as fast and as far as she could, in the opposite direction, but she stayed, because Ginny was running for her. She would get the professors, and they would come and destroy the basilisk. All she needed to do was distract Riddle Jr. for ten, fifteen minutes at the most.
The basilisk's great head began turning side to side. Rigel deliberately kicked a loose stone, which caused a sharp, scuttling noise as it skidded across the ground. The basilisk's head jerked toward her, and it's mouth parted to release its long tongue, which was still stained with the snake's own blood from where it had torn chunks from its own hide earlier.
To Rigel's immense distaste, Riddle's construct appeared to have garnered control over the basilisk's voice pipe, as it hissed, "Not running, little sssnake? Brave, for a boy ssso young. Foolisssh, too."
"It doesssn't take much bravery to ssstand up to a relic like you, trapped in the ssskin of a dead sssnake," Rigel answered. Now was not the time to be the patient, accommodating hostage. Now was the time to enrage the enemy to distraction, theoretically either luring him to rash action or preventing rational action.
"You dare?" the basilisk tossed its head back in outrage, "I will sssilence that sssilver tongue of yoursss, and then we will sssee how much bravery you can mussster."
The body of the basilisk lurched forward, sliding quickly, though grotesquely across the floor. Rigel dove to the side, and began running toward the other side of the Chamber, thankful beyond measure that she was relatively in-shape, even despite a couple of months without her regular exercises.
The basilisk lunged after her, but appeared to have trouble changing directions so suddenly. It lost its balance halfway through the turn and rolled awkwardly into the wall before regaining its equilibrium and starting toward her again. The key, then, would be to wait as long as possible before darting out of the snake's path, which was admittedly easier said than done in cumbersome school robes. Rigel thanked the stars she had stolen her name from that Riddle Jr. had killed the basilisk before trying to possess her. The construct's arrogance and cruelty had together engineered her only chance at survival.
She dodged the basilisk twice more before her luck ran out. When she attempted to dart past the snake a fourth time, the basilisk's tail came around suddenly and slammed into her side, sending her sprawling across the stones. Rigel scrambled to her feet—or tried to, but it felt like one of her ribs had been bruised or cracked by the blow, and her muscled spasmed in protest as she pressed her arms against the floor for leverage. She gasped as her breath caught in her lungs with the pain, and before she could get away the basilisk's body had encircled her.
Rigel forced her body to its feet and attempted to climb quickly over one of the coils that surrounded her, but the basilisk's body contracted, and she was caught in a viselike grip as the coils tightened around her. The scales scraped against her palms where she tried to pry herself free, but it was no use. She was caught fast, and she let out a groan of pain as the basilisk's muscles contracted around her, squeezing her chest painfully and causing her bruised rib to feel like it was grinding against its neighboring ribs with every breath.
"Ssso it comesss to thisss. Will you continue to ssstruggle, little sssnake, or can you sssee now the pointlesssnesss of your resssissstance?" the basilisk hissed softly, its head swaying just above where Rigel was trapped menacingly. Rigel looked up to glare at the snake, feeling a jolt of fear as she looked into its great, yellow eyes, despite knowing they couldn't hurt her or anyone else ever again.
"You ssshould have run while you had the chance," Rigel hissed back through gritted teeth, "What will killing me accomplisssh?"
"Killing you?" Riddle's construct laughed through the basilisk's blood-stained mouth, the smell of rot and flesh so foul on its breath that Rigel gagged and turned her face away, "No, boy, if I wanted to kill you, it would be a sssimple matter of sssinking thessse fangsss into your flesssh. I will posssesss you if it isss the lassst thing I do."
"It'sss too late for that," Rigel denied.
"I think not," the basilisk rasped, "The ssstory will be altered, of courssse. The brave Black boy dessstroyed the basssilisk and banissshed the memory of Lord Voldemort."
"They will look into my mind to make sssure," Rigel said, though she was not certain they would, at that.
"They will sssee what I want them to sssee," Riddle's construct assured her. The coils tightened further, and Rigel had to pant shallowly to get any air at all into her lungs.
She could see his plan, now. He would suffocate her until she passed out from lack of oxygen. Once her mind was unconscious, the construct would have an easy time possessing it, even without access to a magical core. Once inside, it would alter the appearance of his consciousness until it looked like Rigel did, and perhaps no one would think it odd that Rigel's mental avatar suddenly had hair that matched her outward appearance, instead of the long hair that Snape and Draco had seen before. The construct would use her body and magic as it pleased. It would go through her memories, discover her secrets, her deception. She didn't know what it would do with the information, but Archie's dreams would hang in the balance.
She imagined Riddle's construct cozying up to Rigel's friends, slowly poisoning their minds until they were as twisted as it was. She imagined it using her friendship with Leo to his advantage, enjoying the internship at the Guild as a way to build connections with some of the brightest minds of their age. She pictured it going home to her parent's house, holding her baby sister in its arms.
It was not to be borne.
Rigel did not know whether her magic could penetrate the scales of the basilisk or not. The scales were as tough as dragon hide, and if the basilisk were living, she would not stand a chance. With its death, however, the creature's natural magic would be gone. The scales were still hard, but not, Rigel thought, impervious.
She called on her magic, which, while still nowhere near full-strength, was happy to answer her. She imagined the shape of the shield Riddle Jr. had placed on her earlier, a skin-tight weave that would coat her entire form with magic. She summoned her strength, and broke her word to Snape remorselessly. For the first time, she thought the spell deliberately; Depasco.
The red shield flexed into being a hairsbreadth away from her skin. She could feel the heat pouring off of it, and felt dark satisfaction when the smell of burning flesh met her nose. The shield was dissolving the basilisk's scales everywhere they touched her skin. The basilisk let out a wordless hiss and jerked away from her, and Rigel smirked knowing that Riddle's construct had been connected to the basilisk's nervous system, and therefore its pain registers, too.
She rolled away from the basilisk while she had the chance and began running toward the place she had been bound earlier, where a weapon that might help her out of all this lay forgotten on the stones. The Depasco shield remained in place around her skin for ten more seconds, and then it flickered out as her magical core became drained beyond the point at which it could sustain the barrier. She kept running, ignoring the pain in her ribs and the stinging of her palms from where she'd scraped them against stone and scale.
She glanced over her shoulder to gauge how quickly the basilisk had recovered. It was already speeding across the hall behind her. She faked a trip just as she reached the place where the fang rested on the floor, to throw off Riddle Jr.'s suspicion, if he was aware enough to recall dropping the fang there in the midst of his anger and pain.
Using her bulky robes to cover the movement, she quickly grabbed the fang from the floor, careful not to pierce her skin against it, and hid it in her long sleeve just as something thick and ropey wrapped around her ankle from behind.
It was the basilisk's tongue, and it lifted her into the air by her foot, dangling her off the ground helplessly. The basilisk's tail came up to curl around her waist and turn her right-side up, freeing the basilisk's mouth. The basilisk held her up to its face, so close that its tongue brushed against her knee as it spoke.
"You've had your fun, boy," the construct said, irritation leaking through the basilisk's throat, "But it isss over, now. You've no magic left to—"
Rigel didn't give it time to finish. She brought her hand up swiftly and plunged the fang it held as deep as she could into the basilisk's right eye. The tail's grip was compromised, but Rigel latched onto the basilisk's head by grabbing one of the horn-like protrusions on its skull and twisting the fang still deeper into the basilisk's skull. She could feel the fang scrape through the back of the eye-socket violently. Brain-matter ripped beneath her ministrations, and she kept at it, the adrenaline in her system keeping her stomach from rebelling at the gore.
She felt it the moment the brain became too damaged to support Riddle Jr.'s possession. The whole basilisk collapsed to the stone, utterly still. Rigel fell, losing her grip on the snake's skull and flailing in a vain attempt to orient herself in the air. Her ankle snapped with an audible crack when it hit the ground, and Rigel barely got an arm up to protect her head from hitting the flagstones. Her body felt paralyzed, though she knew it was probably just her muscles going into shock from the impact. She coughed harshly as her lungs fought for breath against the searing pain spreading from her ribcage. She was unable to even roll aside as the basilisk's head fell to the ground beside her, splattering her with spittle and bits of blood from its slackened, gaping jaws.
She heard a voice in the air around her, though she couldn't see where it came from.
"You think you have won, little snake? No, there can be no escape for you. So you have damaged the beast beyond possession—it matters not. Your own body is too damaged to remain conscious for long. Soon you will fall unconscious, and then your mind will be mine. I need only wait."
Rigel cursed mentally. It was too much to hope that the construct had perished with the basilisk's mind. It must have fled when it sensed the possibility of death approaching.
Her eyes blinked slowly as she fought to stay awake. She was so tired…
The basilisk was staring at her out of its ruined, yellow eye. How afraid she had been of those eyes, before. Now they were useless, unable to kill with a glance. The basilisk seemed really pitiable now that she was looking at it properly. Its own fang cut from its mouth and driven into its skull through its eye. It was truly a horrific sight, and even though she knew how deadly the snake had been in life, she could not help but feel sorry for it in death.
Death…Rigel's mind was telling her something about death. She knew she was going to die, though—didn't need her mind to tell her that. As soon as Riddle's construct possessed her, she was as good…as…oh. Yes, she thought, of course. Death is the only answer.
Her vision was turning black at the edges, but she mustered the strength to left her left hand and reach toward the basilisk's gaping jaws. The distance was small, but it felt like ages before her hand slipped past its lipless mouth and felt around its gums gingerly. It was probably only a few seconds later when she grasped a fang at last.
"Just give up, boy," Riddle's construct laughed, its voice filling the air around her, "Even if you pry it loose, you can't stab me with it. I have no form."
Rigel braced her palm against the edge of the fang, and pulled her hand back sharply with all her strength. The fang sliced open her skin, and blood began welling from her palm immediately.
"What are you doing?" the voice screeched suddenly, "No. NO!"
Rigel smiled weakly. "Good luck…possessing…me now," she said softly. Her hand began to shake as the poison coursed through her.
"This isn't over," the construct's voice hissed directly into her ear, but a moment later it was gone.
She lay there staring up at the hall's ceiling, so far above her she could barely see it among the shadows. She could feel the blood flowing sluggishly out of her, thickened by the poison coursing inexorably up her veins. She wouldn't call herself content, dying amidst the smell of burnt basilisk and grimy sewage water, but she had done what she could. Her magic was out of Riddle Jr.'s reach. Her secrets were safe. Her friends and family would never be subjected to the unhinged construct's influence.
She regretted not gaining her Mastery before she died, of course. She regretted the complications that would arise for Archie when 'Arcturus Black' died at Hogwarts. Would he pretend to be Harry for the next five years anyway, to stay at AIM? Would he let Sirius mourn him, or would he confess everything? She regretted—but she was snapped from her regrets by the sound of rapid footsteps approaching.
"Rigel!" that was Ginny's voice, high and frantic, echoing across the hall.
There was the sound of running—many pairs of feet, she thought vaguely, and then Ginny's face was bent over her own, followed shortly by Snape's grim features as her Head of House knelt beside her prone form. She blinked up at them, and Ginny put a shaking hand to her mouth, sobbing, "He's alive. Godric, he's alive."
Rigel turned her eyes to her own hand, which lay palm up on the ground, still bleeding, and grunted as best she could.
Snape's eyes flicked rapidly from her hand, sliced open, to the basilisk's fang-infested mouth beside her, and put the pieces together rapidly, "He's been poisoned. Basilisk's venom. I don't—Albus?"
"Fauxes," she heard the Headmaster's voice say calmly. There was a flash of heat from somewhere to Rigel's right—she just barely saw the flash at the edges of her dimming vision, "If you would be so kind."
She saw a blur of red as a bird of some kind alighted on the stone beside her. Hot liquid fell onto her palm a moment later. Phoenix, her tired mind supplied. She could already feel the pain diminishing. The bird began singing, a soft, crooning noise that brought tears unbidden to her eyes. Before she could summon the will to resist, a deep, dreamless sleep swept up to claim her.
She awoke to a rocking sensation, and it didn't take her long to realize she was being carried in someone's arms as they walked. Rigel's nose picked out the smell of aconite, among other herbs used in the potion she'd been brewing with Professor Snape what seemed like a lifetime ago, and she pried her eyelids apart to see her Head of House's shoulder an inch from her nose. She blinked, and a small spot of what was probably her own drool on the fabric came into focus. That was embarrassing, she thought vaguely, and attempted to lift her head.
She hissed softly as her neck voiced its objection to the movement, apparently content to remain resting against Snape's overcoat, but she was able to lull her head backwards enough to see Snape flick his eyes down at her face assessing.
"We are in route to the Headmaster's office," Snape informed her without being prompted, "The Headmaster feels explanations are warranted at this time, despite the obvious trauma that has been inflicted upon you and Miss Weasley. If you feel unable to process things at this time, I will, of course, see you excused to the Hospital Wing at once."
His tone indicated he meant to see her excused to the Hospital Wing in any case, but Rigel felt she would rather everything were over with at once. After taking stock of her body, she felt surprisingly fine.
"Did the phoenix heal everything?" She croaked out. Her throat was uncomfortably dusty, but her words were at least comprehensible.
"One fractured rib, scraped palms, broken ankle, numerous cuts and bruises, and, oh yes, a slice made by a basilisk fang," Snape said sharply, "What were you thinking?"
"Not my fault," Rigel said automatically.
Snape snorted, "I very much doubt that."
"How is Ginny?" Rigel asked.
"Right here," Ginny's voice came from behind them, and the redhead moved into Rigel's line of vision accommodatingly, "I'm glad you're all right, Rigel. I thought I was too late."
"You did great, Ginny," Rigel said, "Perfect timing, I think."
Ginny laughed weakly, "I guess. It took me a few minutes to open the passageway. I think I wasn't putting the right inflection on the word. I already can't remember how to say it—the language slips from my mind, somehow, when I try to grasp it."
That was probably for the best, Rigel reflected, as the other Slytherins probably wouldn't be happy to hear that Rigel had given a Gryffindor the override password to the common room entrance.
"Thank you, in any case," Rigel said earnestly, "And thank the Headmaster for the loan of his phoenix, please."
"Oh, I doubt Fauxes would ever forgive me if I presumed to accept thanks on his behalf," Dumbledore's voice came from the hallway ahead of ahead of them, and Rigel supposed he was leading the way, "You may thank him yourself, however."
With a trill, the scarlet bird alighted on Snape's shoulder and peered down into her face seriously.
"Thank you, Fauxes," she said softly. The phoenix gave a short burst of song, which Rigel supposed meant he accepted her thanks, and fluttered his wings a bit, much to Snape's displeasure.
The Potions Master turned his head sharply to avoid a mouthful of feathers. "Albus, tell your bird that my shoulder is not his perch," Snape said.
"Tell him yourself," Dumbledore's reply was both mild and unconcerned in tone.
"He doesn't listen to me," Snape grumbled under his breath.
"Contrary as a cat, phoenixes are," Dumbledore agreed.
"A trait they encourage in their owners as well, no doubt," McGonagall's wry voice came from behind them, but Rigel couldn't see the Head of Gryffindor House from her position. Speaking of…
"I can walk now, Professor," she said.
Snape merely lifted a brow, "When you learn better than to take on fully grown basilisks by yourself, Mr. Black, I will allow you to be the judge of what you can and cannot do."
"I didn't have a choice," Rigel pointed out.
"So you say," Snape did not sound terribly convinced.
She heard a loud scraping noise and flinched slightly, turning her head with a monumental effort to look towards the source.
"It is the passage to the Headmaster's office," Snape informed her steadily.
"The basilisk sounded like that," Ginny said softly, "It's scales were so hard, when it moved across the floor it was like stone scraping against itself."
"You poor children," McGonagall said.
Rigel wasn't sure they deserved her sympathies. She and Ginny were alive and unharmed, after all. If anything was to be pitied, she thought it ought to be the basilisk.
They ascended the moving staircase and the Headmaster helpfully conjured several additional chairs so that he, McGonagall, Snape, Ginny, and Rigel could all be seated comfortably in his office.
Before they began the interrogation, Rigel asked, "Has someone informed my housemates that I'm all right?"
"Professor Flitwick went to Slytherin House for that very purpose," Dumbledore said reassuringly.
"And my brothers?" Ginny put in quickly, frowning, "They must have been so worried."
McGonagall nodded, her lips quirking weakly, "Professor Sprout took care of it. I suspect Mr. Percy Weasley will be especially relieved to hear of your safe recovery."
Ginny snorted, "He's probably spent all night trying to keep the other three from scouring the castle for me. Those idiots…still, it's how they show they care."
Rigel wondered if Draco had tried looking for her, but then dismissed the thought. Draco was much too intelligent to run around a castle blindly when there was nothing he could do even if he'd found her. She hadn't been missing that long, in fact. If the teachers didn't publicize her kidnapping, he might not even be too worried.
"Well, now," Dumbledore said, folding his hands on top of his desk and peering at she and Ginny over his half-moon spectacles, "It's rather late, and I'm sure you two want to find your beds. If you could give us an account of what happened in the Chamber, I can pass the account along to the Board of Governors, and we teachers can find our beds as well, how does that sound?"
Ginny nodded slowly, a fearful look on her face. Rigel could guess what she was afraid of—being blamed for letting the construct take advantage of her mind the way it did.
"I'll explain, if that's all right with you, Ginny," Rigel said, "Strange as it sounds, I think I have more of the pieces than you do, at this point."
Ginny blew out a short breath, "Yes, thank you. I don't actually want to talk about it."
"Where to start?" Rigel muttered, thinking.
"Your movements are known until you exited my office this evening with Prefect Fairister—who is perfectly fine, desist with that stricken expression," Snape said, "Begin there."
Rigel bit the inside of her lip, and said, "I think I ought to begin a bit further back, actually, if you want to understand why I specifically was kidnapped."
Dumbledore's gaze sharpened, "My dear boy, I had assumed you were a victim of opportunity. You mean to say you were targeted specifically?"
"Yes," Rigel said. She gathered her thoughts for a moment, and then began. She would tell the truth, of course, but the truth in this case was a delicate thing. "You should know from the start that Ginny is as much a victim in this as I am. Ginny was unfortunate enough to come into contact with a Dark artifact of considerable power. A book, which housed a sentient magical construct."
"Where is this book?" Dumbledore said sharply, "Did you destroy it?"
"No," Rigel said, "But the book isn't important anymore. Soon after meeting Ginny, the construct that lived in the book cut its ties with its container and moved into Ginny's mind. It lived there, gathering strength and slowly gaining control over Ginny's magic, until it was strong enough to possess her."
McGonagall gasped and set a shaking hand on Ginny's shoulder, "And none of us suspected…I am so sorry, Miss Weasley."
"I didn't know what was happening myself," Ginny said, shamefaced, "How could you have?"
"The construct spoke Parseltongue," Rigel said, "And opened the Chamber of Secrets using Ginny's body. It released the basilisk that lived there and used it to petrify students. It was trying to get you removed from your post, Headmaster, though its reasonings were not entirely clear. The construct seemed quite mad, by the end. I think the magic holding its personality together broke down over time—it was created some fifty years ago, I believe. The construct was very unstable, and so I am not sure how much of its ramblings were true."
"What do you mean?" Dumbledore asked keenly, "What did it tell you?"
Truth, Rigel reminded herself. The Headmaster seemed the type to know if you were lying.
"It called itself Lord Voldemort," Rigel said carefully. She looked at the teachers' faces, but none seemed to recognize the name, "It was power-hungry, and immensely dissatisfied with the current state of the wizarding world. It wanted to start a revolution of some kind, to change the world for the better, according to some standard known only to itself. It used Ginny to sow chaos in the school, hoping that the Headmaster would be discredited, and I think it just liked making people afraid. The construct used Ginny's body to obtain belladonna, and poison Hagrid's roosters. Over time, Ginny began to realize what was happening, what was living in her head. She started to fight, and she tried to get rid of the book, thinking it to be the source."
"What did you do with the book?" Dumbledore asked. He seemed very intent on knowing exactly where the Dark artifact was.
"I dumped it in Moaning Myrtle's toilet," Ginny said, "I figured no one would find it there, because no one ever goes into that bathroom."
"Myrtle is a…friend of mine," Rigel said, ignoring the raised eyebrows she got for that statement, "She told me about someone throwing a book at her head, and gave it to me. I didn't know what it was, but Ginny saw it in my bag at the Library and recognized it immediately. I think the construct decided I was a loose end, since I had the book, so it possessed Ginny again and kidnapped me as I was on my way back from Professor Snape's laboratory."
There, that included all of the facts, but left Draco and Pansy out of it entirely. Rigel wasn't sure if she would be in trouble for keeping the book despite knowing it had a connection to the petrifactions, but she could spare Draco and Pansy the interrogation their involvement would warrant, in any case.
"So the construct took you for a threat," Snape mused, "How did you survive as long as you did in the Chamber?"
"Severus!" McGonagall said, "That's entirely insensitive, even for you."
"It's a fair question, Professor," Rigel said, "Two reasons, I think. First, the construct changed his mind at some point. Instead of killing me, it decided to possess me, thinking it would be more useful to have a host who spoke Parseltongue, so it wouldn't have to hide its ability. Second, it wasn't in a hurry. It was confident that no one could break through Slytherin's wards over the Chamber entrance."
"Well, I daresay it was right about that," Dumbledore said regretfully, "We tried everything, Mr. Black, to break through the wards ourselves. We were able to dismantle the concealing spells and most of the defensive measures, but the magic supporting the passageway itself was impenetrable."
Snape scoffed, "The founders built this castle. It answers only to them—and their descendents."
"Thank you for being there, in any case," Rigel said, "Your presence, and your phoenix, saved my life."
Dumbledore's eyes twinkled a bit over his spectacles, "Now don't get any silly ideas about life debts, Mr. Black. It is a phoenix's nature to heal, and Fauxes will not accept anything more than thanks for doing what comes naturally to him."
"Thank you," she told the bird again, "Truly."
"Yes, yes," Snape said impatiently, "You said the construct was relaxed in the Chamber—did he reveal anything to you?"
"Quite a bit," Rigel said, "Though not all of it made sense. It talked about changing the world, and told me a bit about its plans. It was going to possess me, kill Ginny, kill the basilisk, and emerge from the Chamber a hero, making it seem like I'd defeated the snake and Ginny had tragically died in the crossfire when her basilisk went insane with bloodlust."
"Her basilisk?" McGonagall said incredulously.
"Yes," Rigel grimaced, "The construct was going to say that Ginny had acquired Parseltongue through a Dark ritual, and that she was working for the Headmaster, petrifying students so that he could save the school at the last moment to look like a hero. You see what I meant about it being a bit mad?"
"Who would ever believe such nonsense?" McGonagall asked. She paused, thought a moment, then sighed, "Never mind. I know exactly the sort of people who would believe such a thing."
"It killed the basilisk first," Rigel said softly, wincing as she remembered, "Because it wasn't sure it could control it as effectively if it switched hosts first. It was…awful. The construct didn't use a wand or anything. It just ordered the basilisk to bite itself. The snake was so confused. It was in pain, but it just kept hurting itself because its Master told it to."
The professor's all had sickened looks on their faces, and Ginny was paler than a ghost. McGonagall clenched a hand in her robes and said, "What cowardice. To slay a sentient creature in such a way…"
"This is what happens when wizards don't take responsibility for their magic," Snape spat, "Such a thing should never have been borne. A construct, no matter how complex, can never equal a wizard's will—can never be worthy of having a wizard's gifts bestowed upon it."
"Once the basilisk was dead," Rigel continued, "It broke off a fang to stab Ginny's body with. Once she was dying, it would have moved to possess me. I told him not to kill Ginny yet, pointing out that it didn't know for sure that it could possess me at all."
"Your Occlumency shields are not that powerful," Snape said, frowning.
"It didn't know that," Rigel said, "I may have taunted it, as well."
Dumbledore chuckled a bit, but Snape did not look nearly so amused.
"Reckless child," the Potions Master said, "You could have angered him to violence."
"It had already said it didn't want to kill me," Rigel said.
"You'd already noted it was mad," Snape returned.
Rigel grimaced, "In any case, it left Ginny's body and moved to possess mine instead. I distracted it with what little Occlumency I am able to perform, and left my mind to go to Ginny's instead, once it became clear that the construct still had access to Ginny's magic even in my head."
"You abandoned your own mind to help Miss Weasley?" McGonagall's eyes were bright as she looked at her, "You brave boy."
"A true hero," Dumbledore said, smiling benevolently.
"It was the only logical thing to do," Rigel felt compelled to point out, "I couldn't get the construct out of my mind while he had access to Ginny's power, so by saving her I could save myself."
Ginny narrowed her eyes, "Don't make it sound like you didn't do me any favors. You could have fought him off with your own magic, if you'd tried."
Rigel wasn't sure that was true, at least as long as the construct had access to Ginny's magic, but she didn't want to argue with someone so pale and shaky looking.
"When I got to Ginny's mind—"
"Using a similar method to the way you accessed the children affected by the sleeping sickness, I suppose?" Dumbledore interrupted genially.
"Yes," Rigel said, "I didn't want the construct to guess what I was doing, and I believe it had erected Occlumency shields in Ginny's mind by then in any case. When I got to Ginny's mindscape, I found her trapped in a cage of pure mental magic. It seemed to be preventing her from accessing her core."
"That is a common method used on psychiatric patients when their condition causes them to perform dangerous accidental magic," McGonagall said, distaste on her face at the thought of anyone who wasn't a Mind Healer using such a method to take someone's magic away.
"It was easy enough to destroy, from the outside," Rigel said, "With Ginny free to take back her mind, I returned to my own. The construct was virtually powerless without a magical core to utilize, and it was quickly driven out of my head as well."
"How, in the course of those events, were you stabbed by a basilisk?" Snape asked, "For that matter, none of your injuries have been accounted for."
Rigel sighed, "The construct didn't have enough power to possess Ginny or I, as we were both consciously resisting, but there was another mind in the Chamber that put up no resistance. The basilisk's."
"Can you possess a dead thing?" McGonagall looked horrified.
"Only its body," Dumbledore said gravely, "The basilisk's magic would have left with its demise, but the mental mechanisms remain in the physical brain. Possession is difficult to mentally conceptualize, but it is in large part a physical act. If there is no magic and no resident will to protect the mind from outside control, it succumbs quickly to foreign influence. The construct would have had physical control over the basilisk's form, re-creating the physical impulses that control muscle, bone, and sinew."
"That sounds like what it did," Rigel agreed, "The eyes weren't able to kill or petrify anymore, but the body moved as the construct commanded. When we realized where the construct was now housed, I made Ginny run to get help while I distracted it."
"You rely overly much on distraction as a survival technique," Snape growled, "It is time you learned how to truly protect yourself."
Rigel nodded, "At the time, though, it was the best option. The basilisk's magic was gone, but it was still big and poisonous. I ran, mostly, while Ginny fetched help, but in the end it caught me. I had gotten hold of the fang the construct was going to use on Ginny earlier, and while I had the chance, I stabbed the basilisk in the eye, and drove the tooth into its brain. I tried to destroy as much of the brain as I could, so that the construct would be forced to abandon its host."
"But how were you stabbed?" Ginny asked, frowning.
Rigel considered lying. It wouldn't help anyone to know that she'd tried to kill herself—
"Oh no you don't," Snape said sharply, "Do not contemplate lying to us. I will read your memories myself if I deem it necessary."
"Severus!" McGonagall cried, "He's just a boy—"
"Mr. Black will not lie," Dumbledore said quietly, "Will you, my boy?"
Rigel looked away those soft blue eyes, feeling dissected beneath their gaze, and couldn't bring herself to make anything up.
"I was out of magic," Rigel admitted, "My ribs were making it hard to breathe, and I was going to pass out soon. The construct was waiting for me to faint, so it could possess me while I was unconscious, unable to stop it. I didn't…I couldn't let it have my mind. My magic. Don't you see? It might have fooled everyone. What if it had gone to my home? Hurt my family? I didn't know if Ginny would be able to find anyone in time. It was the only way."
"You stabbed yourself," McGonagall's breath hitched in her throat.
Snape's face was dark with rage, "You nearly killed—"
"That was the point," Rigel snapped. She took a deep breath, "Anyway, you all know what happened next. The construct fled, I don't know where. You found me, and here we are."
"Indeed," Dumbledore said, "Here we all are, safe and sound, and unpossessed, thanks to you, Mr. Black."
"Shall be rewarded for her courage as well, of course," Dumbledore inclined his head cheerfully, "Yes, well done the both of you."
"Rewarded?" Ginny shook her head slowly, "I should be punished. I let that thing control me for so long…"
"My dear, no one expects a first-year to fight off the influence of an evil magical artifact," McGonagall said gently, "This was not your fault, Miss Weasley. Please remember that."
"Indeed, no one can be punished for events beyond their control," Dumbledore said, "But rewarded for the strength of character they show when terrible events occur around them? That is another matter entirely."
Ginny and Rigel exchanged a troubled glance. Neither particularly wanted something to remember this night by, if they had a choice.
"Come, ask anything of me," Dumbledore said, smiling fully now. Rigel has no idea how he could be so pleased when all she felt was fatigued, mentally, physically, and emotionally.
"We don't want anything," Rigel said politely, accepting the look of thanks Ginny sent her with a small nod, "Our lives are enough reward, I think."
"A school award?" Dumbledore suggested, "A plaque in the trophy room, perhaps?"
Rigel grimaced. She definitely didn't want an award to Arcturus Rigel Black hanging around the school. The less Rigel Black left behind the better.
"We'd rather put it behind us, Sir," Ginny said quietly.
Dumbledore peered at them indulgently, "I understand the impulse, my dear, but I'm afraid I cannot allow you to leave this room until you ask a reward of me." Rigel and Ginny stared at him, incredulous.
McGonagall spoke, "Albus, surely this can wait until they've rested."
Dumbledore reached into a dish on his desk and plucked out a lemon drop to suck on before answering, "Putting off the good to dwell on the bad is never wise. It makes for fretful dreams and wakeful starts. Better to end on a positive note, a balm for the spirit, as it were."
"What are we supposed to ask for?" Ginny said tentatively.
"House points," Dumbledore suggested, ignoring the annoyed looks McGonagall and Snape sent him for that, "To become a prefect in your fifth year," more annoyed looks from the Heads of House, "Don't be so cross—both would make excellent prefects, I'm sure. No? What do you want, then? If it is not too bold for an old man to say, what is within my power to bestow is not inconsiderable."
Ginny hesitated, then said, "Would you withhold information about my possession? I know people will want to know what happened, but could you please just tell them someone was possessed, and not say who? I don't want people to hate me, for the petrifactions, I mean."
Dumbledore's eyes softened, "Miss Weasley, I would do that in any case. Ask something else."
Ginny thought, then her eyes hardened, "I want to learn Occlumency. Proper Occlumency, so that this never happens to me again."
McGonagall sent her an approving look, though Dumbledore looked slightly taken aback at the request.
"That can be done," Dumbledore said slowly, "I will arrange for a Mind Healer to visit your home over the summer, several times a week, to begin tutoring you in the art. These visits can continue during the school year, after classes, of course, if you still desire it."
Ginny smiled, the first true smile Rigel had seen on her face in a while. Maybe Dumbledore was onto something with his insistence on rewards. "Thank you," Ginny said fervently, "Thank you so much."
"Thank you, Miss Weasley," Dumbledore smiled, "And you, Mr. Black? What do you desire?"
Rigel couldn't think of anything she wanted from the Headmaster, really. Except, perhaps… "Can I help harvest the basilisk?"
Dumbledore blinked at her, as did McGonagall and Ginny. Snape smirked.
"Harvest it?" Ginny asked, wrinkling her nose.
"Basilisks are extremely rare," Rigel said, "It would be a great opportunity to learn how to properly make use of its parts."
Dumbledore smiled, "Due to the part you played in its defeat, that right would be yours in any case. Is there nothing else you would ask of me?"
Rigel blinked, thinking it over. This was an opportunity she hadn't asked for, but an opportunity nonetheless. What did she want? Or need, for that matter. "Does it have to be of you, Headmaster?" she asked, flicking her eyes toward Snape. Her Head of House narrowed his eyes at her, but with a glance at the Headmaster, inclined his head.
"Ask," Snape commanded.
"I know you only asked me to assist you this semester because you were saving your reserves," Rigel said, "But may I continue to assist you until the term concludes? It has been an excellent opportunity to learn."
Snape raised an eyebrow, though he inclined his head. Rigel thanked him sincerely.
McGonagall snorted, "A Gryffindor and a Slytherin go into the Chamber of Secrets, and two Ravenclaws emerge."
"We must be doing something right," Dumbledore said, smiling, "When students consider learning to be the greatest of rewards."
Rigel didn't know about the 'greatest' of rewards, but knowledge was always the most practical.
She was taken to the Hospital Wing after Dumbledore released them. Madam Pomphrey declared her perfectly healthy, though she recommended Rigel rest in the Hospital Wing for a few days to recover her strength. She declined, and said goodbye to Ginny (who had also fervently denied the need for a stay under Madam Pomphrey's watchful eyes). McGonagall would escort Ginny back to her common room, and Snape would do the same for Rigel.
They walked silently through the halls, down the stairs to the dungeons, and were almost to the common room when Snape spoke.
"You could have asked for an apprenticeship."
Rigel turned to look tiredly up at him, "What?"
"You could have asked anything of me," Snape elaborated, "An apprenticeship when you're older, a recommendation to the Guild on your Mastery application—you would have been smart to secure such things now, but instead you ask something you know I would have allowed you for its own sake. Why?"
Rigel blinked with feigned dismay, "So you won't give me a recommendation for my application?"
Snape scowled at her, "I am out of patience for the next fortnight, Mr. Black. Answer my question."
Rigel scowled back up at him, "I don't ask for things I am perfectly capable of earning myself, Sir. It would be as bad as buying a place in the Guild."
Snape smirked down at her, "And that attitude is the only reason I would consider recommending you for the Guild—some day," he added, frowning repressively at her pleased expression.
Rigel nodded seriously, "Of course, Sir."
They reached the common room and Snape rapped sharply on the wall. Of course, Rigel thought, they must have locked down the school when they found two students missing.
Selwyn's voice came crackling through the communication spell, "Password?"
"Moonstone," Snape said.
The wall slid open, and they stepped into the common room. There were a surprising number of people still awake, considering it was close to four in the morning. Snape stepped forward to make an announcement, and Rigel slid away to join the crowd of students, looking for a head of platinum blonde among them.
"The basilisk is dead," Snape said bluntly as the students quieted to hear him, "The curfew will be lifted tomorrow. Classes are cancelled for two days, after which the regular schedule will be resumed. The petrified students will be restored as soon as time permits. Find your beds, and sleep as long as necessary. Breakfast will be served until eleven tomorrow. Good night."
The Slytherins began murmuring as soon as their Head of House swept out of the common room, and the most popular conversation topic was her. She avoided the eyes of her housemates as she shifted through the students, looking for her friend, and ignored the whispers that followed her progress through the room.
"Wasn't Black kidnapped?"
"Snape didn't say—"
"Why isn't he petrified?"
"Maybe he did it."
"Maybe he killed it."
"Rigel." Theo turned up at Rigel's elbow and steered her toward their dorm, "Draco is in our room. He left after some idiot said you'd probably been killed if it was taking Snape so long to deal with it."
Rigel frowned and walked a bit faster. Blaise showed up and held Theo back as Rigel continued down the second year hallway alone. "Let him have a moment," she heard Blaise say quietly, "If I'm not much mistaken, he's earned it."
She left the noise of the common room behind and entered her dormitory with relief. She was so tired. She spotted Draco sitting on the edge of his bed closest to hers, feet on the floor and head in his hands. He looked up when she stepped closer, and his eyes were rimmed with red, as though he hadn't blinked for too long an interval.
He stared at her without saying anything, and Rigel sat down on the bed next to him, content to be silent for a moment after all the talking she had done that night. She just wanted the world to be quiet.
Draco had never been more worried in his life. He wasn't pacing the floor, demanding answers, pulling at his hair, or doing any of the things he had always imagined very worried people did. In fact, he felt quite numb. He felt as though letting any emotion leak through at all would break his control entirely, and so he sat in the common room, waiting, and when one too many loud-mouthed snakes began to test his tightly reigned control he got up, walked into his dorm room, and sat on the bed in silence, waiting for the numbness to go away. Waiting until it was safe to let himself feel again.
Before that happened, Rigel came back.
Draco stared as his friend walked quietly over to his bed and sat down beside him. Rigel didn't stare back, instead looking with a blank face at the hangings Draco had pulled around Rigel's bed when he grew tired of seeing it empty.
All the questions Draco had thought he would ask died in his throat at that blank look on his friend's face. Draco knew what Rigel's usual blank expression looked like, and this wasn't it. Rigel wasn't studiously blank, carefully blank, or even deliberately-infuriatingly blank. He was eerily blank. As blank and numb as Draco himself felt, as though he had become an empty shell. Draco wondered what had happened to drain his friend so, leaving behind only empty blankness, and then he wondered what it would take to wipe that lost expression off of his face.
Rigel sighed, so deep and weary it made something in Draco whither to hear it. His friend slowly tilted sideways, and rested his head on Draco's shoulder. Draco immediately froze, in case movement startled Rigel into drawing back. It would be so easy to relax now, to think that everything was all right and just let go, but he clung to his control, kept hold of it for Rigel's sake, who seemed brittle and fragile, and a million other things that Draco had always thought good Slytherins were not supposed to ever be.
Rigel breathed so slowly and deeply, Draco thought he had gone to sleep, until he said, "I'm tired. Can we talk about it tomorrow? Please." The last he said on a whisper, and Draco felt his friend begin to tremble slightly against his shoulder.
Draco put his arm around Rigel carefully, because even though Rigel was smart and driven and strong and independent, sometimes Draco thought he really needed someone to take care of him. He almost didn't believe it was Rigel when his friend shuddered and slumped against his side, but he didn't let go. He wouldn't let go until Rigel needed him to.
"Tomorrow is soon enough," Draco said quietly, "But if you don't want to, you don't have to ever talk about it." He wasn't lying, either, when he said that. Even though he was burning slowly with curiosity, even though he wanted a list of the things that had made Rigel Black tremble like a leaf, so that he could find and hurt every single one of them, Draco would wait until Rigel was strong enough to explain things, even if he had to wait forever.
To his utter shock, Rigel began to cry. Draco didn't realize what it was at first. The shaking got more prominent, and then there was heat and wetness on his shoulder, and then Rigel was apologizing and rubbing at his face furiously.
Draco shook his head and fished a handkerchief out of his pocket. Rigel took it, and the white linen came away from Rigel's face streaked brown and red. It was then that Draco realized how utterly dirty Rigel was. He was covered in grime, slime, and something that looked horribly like blood, and made Draco want to pry Rigel's sleeves up and examine him for wounds.
He stifled the urge, since he knew Uncle Severus would not allow Rigel to come back to the dorms without seeing Pomphrey first, but he wondered why the Healer had not given Rigel different robes to change into. Then again, she probably had, because it would be just like Rigel to refuse to change his clothes in the Hospital Wing. He was extremely sensitive about his…condition, which made it all the more unsettling that he acquiesced so easily to Draco's careful affection.
"I'm sorry," Rigel said again, gesturing to Draco's handkerchief, "I just…it's been a long night, and I'm sure you've been worried sick, and I've mucked up your bed, and started weeping like a Hufflepuff, and—and—I'm just so tired."
"You should sleep, then," Draco said. He didn't want to point a wand at someone who'd clearly just been through something awful, so he said, "Use a Cleaning Charm on yourself for now, and you can shower properly in the morning. Don't worry about anything else tonight. Just go to bed."
Rigel looked over at him with a pitiful twist to his mouth, "Can't. My core's nearly empty."
Draco felt his gut clench at that. Rigel Black, out of magic? All the scenarios he imagined Rigel might have been through just became several degrees of terrifying worse. He took his own wand out slowly, and kept it pointed away from Rigel's face or heart as he cast the spell. Rigel's robes became noticeably stiffer, but much better smelling, as well. With most of the serious grime gone, Draco helped his friend open his hangings and climb into bed. They each took off one of Rigel's shoes, and a moment later Rigel was curled up on his side, fast asleep.
Draco didn't know how long he stood there, making sure Rigel was real—really there, really alive, really him—but eventually Blaise and Theo came quietly in to find their own beds.
"Is he okay?" Theo asked nervously, fidgeting with his sleeves as he looked worriedly at Rigel's sleeping form.
Draco turned away from watching his friend, and felt the jealous grip his mind had kept on his control slowly begin to ease, "He will be." Draco would make sure of it.
When Rigel awoke the next morning, the first thing she did was take a shower. The disgust she felt for herself after crying in front of Draco the night before was complemented by the disgust she felt after realizing she still had bloodstains on her sleeves.
She took what was possibly the longest shower of her life, and when she came out the bathroom was barely visible through the steam. She felt human, though, so she didn't mind that her skin turned bright pink from the heat and her fingertips wrinkled in protest of their long soak.
When she emerged, steam rolling out into the room along with her, Blaise raised an eyebrow in her direction and Theo said, "About time. We thought you were trying flood the place or something."
"I had basilisk brains under my fingernails," Rigel said.
"Really?" Theo wrinkled his nose, "Gross. And kind of cool."
Draco rolled his eyes at Theo and stood by Rigel's trunk while she ran a brush through her short hair, "We have the day off. Want to visit Pansy?"
"Yes," Rigel said, "But I have to do something with Professor Snape first."
"What?" Draco frowned, "You should at least take one day off, Rigel. After last night—"
"It's about last night," Rigel said, slipping on her shoes, which she noticed with pleasure had been cleaned by the house elves while she slept. She'd have to thank them, later.
"It can't wait?" Blaise asked.
"No," Rigel shook her head, "I'll be back this afternoon, though."
As she left the dorm, she pretended she didn't hear Theo ask quietly, "Is he just going to pretend he's fine?" She was fine. What was there not to be fine about, after all? She was fine, Ginny was fine, everything was just fine.
She made her way through the dungeons slowly. It was strange to see students wandering freely through the halls once more, but wonderful, too. She reached Snape's office and knocked with a polite amount of pressure. The door swung open at Snape's, "Enter."
Her Head of House looked at her with veiled incredulity for a moment, "Yes, Mr. Black?" he said eventually, "What brings you to my office in the middle of the morning, when you ought to be resting in your dorm as per Madam Pomphrey's emphatic insistence? Grown tired of your friend's acclaim so quickly?" he added sardonically.
"I haven't really talked to them about it," Riddle said quietly.
Snape looked uncomfortable. He cleared his throat, "You should."
"I know," Rigel nodded.
There was a beat of silence, in which Snape sighed, then said, "For what did you come, Mr. Black?"
"Since we have no class today, I thought we could get the basilisk dealt with," Rigel said.
"Get the—" Snape cursed, "Foolish boy, you are not returning to that Chamber now."
"It has to be now," Rigel said firmly.
"No," Snape said, equally firm, "You have yet to fully process—"
"That's why it has to be now," Rigel said quickly, "If I think too much, I won't want to."
"Then you shouldn't," Snape snapped.
"I have to," Rigel disagreed, "The basilisk will rot soon."
"Let it," Snape bit out, "Your mental state is more important than a handful of potion ingredients, no matter how valuable the lesson in dissection practices."
Rigel shook her head slowly, "Thank you for your concern, Sir, but you know that isn't true. A basilisk, Professor. Fifty feet at least. How many scales is that? A thousand? With those scales, you could brew a hundred different protection potions. With its tongue, you could brew Mordred's Breath for the first time in three decades."
"Where did you hear about that potion?" Snape scowled.
"In a book in the Black Family Library," Rigel said honestly, "And if you don't go with me to harvest the basilisk, I'll go by myself, and brew anything I want with its parts in my father's basement."
"Don't you threaten me, boy," Snape said sharply.
"How long since St. Mungo's had enough ground basilisk bones to supply the children's ward with the painless alternative to Skelegrow that Wracknoi invented in 1924?" Rigel pressed, "The Guild's poison analysts could to wonders with a few vials of basilisk venom, and there's an eye, Professor, an untouched basilisk eye."
She could sense Snape struggling with her arguments, though his face didn't show it, "Be that as it may," he began, but she didn't let him refuse again.
"I watched it die, Professor," she said, "Thrashing and screaming, for no reason but a bit of magic gone mad. Its death was awful and unfair, but it doesn't have to be meaningless. There's good that can come of this, too. I…" it took a great amount of effort to force the necessary words out, because they didn't mesh with the mantra of everything's fine playing on stubborn relay through her head, "I need there to be something good in all of this. Please, Sir."
Snape relented, though he made no move to conceal his displeasure with the situation. At Snape's insistence, she waited while he contacted the Headmaster, Professor Flitwick, and several house elves to assist in the project. She guessed Flitwick was there as a Charms Master, in case they found something unexpected in the Chamber, and she supposed Dumbledore had a right to come as well, as it was his school, and therefore his responsibility to see to any dead monsters lying about. Still, it took longer than anticipated to assemble everyone, not to mention the bevy of tools and supplied Snape, with the help of the house elves, gathered for their use.
By the time they reached Myrtle's bathroom, it was noon. Snape insisted Rigel eat two sandwiches that the house elves produced and also drink a Nerve Relaxer, a potion commonly administered to people after a particularly traumatic experience, when the Healer suspected they may be a danger to themselves or others. Rigel scowled at Snape as she drank it, but did feel considerably more mellow afterwards. Snape only then allowed her to open the Chamber.
The drop looked as daunting as it had the night before, but now that she knew it to be an illusion of folded space, she wasn't worried about jumping in. Snape had other ideas, however, and with a silent spell produced a rope from the end of his wand, which wrapped around Rigel's waist tightly. With careful direction from his wand, the other end of the rope attached itself to a nearby sink.
Snape nodded to Dumbledore, who gracefully twirled his wand at her in turn. Rigel was levitated gently into the passage, and she reflected that having fully-grown wizards around certainly did make a lot of things easier.
Before she touched lightly down on the Chamber floor, Flitwick dropped quickly through the passage beside her, landing in a dueler's crouch as he surveyed their gloomy sewer surroundings.
"Not as glamorous as I imagined," he said lightly after checking for danger on all sides, "I suppose I owe Minerva a shot of Firewhisky—or, Butterbeer, that is." He coughed squeakily and smiled embarrassedly up at Rigel with good enough humor. Rigel supposed Flitwick hadn't entered the Chamber the night before. Perhaps he'd been guarding the passage from the other end while Dumbledore, Snape, and McGonagall went through. It was a good idea to leave at least one Head of House outside the Chamber, in case it had been an elaborate trap.
Snape and Dumbledore joined them soon after, along with the house elves, who floated down like fairies under some magic of their own making.
"It's this way," Rigel said, in case they didn't remember—they'd been following Ginny, after all.
They set out as an easy pace, Dumbledore humming as he walked, and Rigel couldn't help but feel a sense of vertigo as her memories, colored by fear and confusion, clashed soundly with the present. Then again, that feeling might have been a result of the Nerve Relaxer.
When they reached the Chamber Hall and approached the basilisk's corpse, both Snape and Flitwick sucked in deep breaths. Rigel wondered if Snape had been too preoccupied last night to really see the great snake.
He was seeing it now, though, as they circled around to its head. His eyes took in the basilisk's length and girth with a calculating glint. Rigel swallowed as she gazed down at it. She had felt to removed, walking through the Chamber clean and healthy, but the night before came rushing back, memories flashing like wand sparks across the inside of her eyelids every time she blinked. All she could do was stare at the dead basilisk, whose name, if she had one, Rigel had never learned.
It's killed before, she reminded herself sternly, It was half-mad by the end. It's better this way.
But it wasn't, not really, because how could death ever be better than life?
"The Hall seems safe enough," Flitwick said, returning to their group after surveying the room, "Though that statue on the far end is more than it seems, I daresay."
"It's a passage," Rigel said, "It opens to Parseltongue."
"Well if you don't mind, Mr. Black, the Headmaster and I will do a bit of exploring while you and Professor Snape get to work," Flitwick said, looking a bit excited at the prospect.
Rigel cast her mind back to what the construct had said the night before, "Ssspeak to me, Ssslytherin, greatessst of the Hogwartsss Four."
The stone mouth opened in a gaping way, which gaze Salazar Slytherin's head an odd, gasping look, and the Headmaster set off with the Head of Ravenclaw to see what they could find.
Rigel turned to Snape, "How do we begin?"
"With the head," Snape said bluntly, "I will deal with the eye and tongue, and for Salazar's sake don't touch the teeth. First, I will show you how to peel off scales without damaging their integrity. Watch closely."
Snape took out a tool that looked like a small chisel, but with a little curl to the edge that acted a bit like a very delicate pry-bar. He showed her how it would be futile to attempt to pry loose scales from the torso right away, because they overlapped in a way that prevented them. Instead, they began at the underside of the jaw, where the softest and loosest scales were, and started the slow process of detaching the scales one by one from the fleshy skin beneath.
Once one scale was gone, it was easier to pry free the one beside it, and so on. The house elves joined in with great industry, and soon they were making noticeable headway. As she worked, she pictured all the good these scales were going to do in the Wizarding community. They would be used in old potions, new potions, medicines, experiments, and more. Basilisks had always been a rare breed, and so knowledge about their uses in potions and alchemy was as limited as the quantity of parts researches could get their hands on. There was no telling what kind of information and insight might be gleaned from the scales alone.
And slowly, over the next few hours, she began to feel a kind of peace settle into her heart. What happened to her had been horrible, but she could handle it, work through it, the same way she was working through the basilisk, a little bit at a time. A morbid analogy, but she was allowed a bit of morbidity as she dissected a creature she had watched die in agony just hours before.
"Where did you learn to do this?" Rigel asked as she watched Snape carefully pry a fang loose from the root with a pair of tongs that must have been goblin steel, to stand up to basilisk venom. She doubted Snape had ever dissembled a basilisk for use before, but perhaps he had dealt with other large snakes.
"Dragons," he said, not sparing a glance, "I studied in Asia during my apprenticeship, and was afforded the opportunity to work with several recently deceased Chinese Fireballs." Rigel thought that made a great deal of sense, as the scales on the basilisk were closer to dragon scales than any snake she'd ever seen, as they were stiff and more like armor than skin.
"Who did you study under?" Rigel asked, curious.
"Master Liu," Snape said, a touch of respect coloring his tone. It was strange to think that someone she so respected had a Master of his own, but comforting, too. Maybe one day she would have pupils as well, and they would say they studied under Mistress Black—or rather, Potter, she mentally corrected herself with a sigh.
"What was he like?" Rigel asked. She had never heard of a Master Liu, but perhaps his publications hadn't been widely circulated in England.
"To this day I have no idea," Snape said with a wry smirk that made him look twice as human as he usually did, "He didn't speak a word of English, and every time I cast a translating charm he overpowered it and dissipated it. I tried learning Mandarin the muggle way, only to find out he spoke a variation of the Wu dialect—though which one I never discovered. Eventually I stopped trying, and we spent the remaining three months in silence."
"Why did he refuse the translating spells?" Rigel asked, amused at the thought of anyone refusing Snake anything.
Snape didn't answer for a moment, then said, "I believe he took explanations to be superfluous to learning. He taught by example, and if I wasn't quick enough to learn the first time, I cleaned up my ruined cauldron and he showed me again. I hated him at first," he recalled, almost self-deprecatingly, "I didn't understand what he was teaching me until I returned home."
"What was he teaching you?" Rigel asked, "Obedience?"
"Anticipation," Snape said, "And intuition. The two things necessary to timely experimentation, and to anyone who desires to put ingredients into a cauldron without the restriction of a recipe to interrupt creativity."
Free Brewing. That's what they called it when a brewer put ingredients into a cauldron without knowing exactly what would happen. It was extremely dangerous, and although free brewers in general didn't live very long, it was said that their creations and contributions to the field were unmatched in ingenuity, usefulness, and sheer volume.
They worked for a while longer, in silence until Rigel asked, "I know the tongue, teeth, eyes, bones, venom, and scales all have uses, but is there anything else?"
"Blood," Snape said, "But it has to be drawn while the basilisk is living, or before it coagulates, so we won't be able to collect that. The flesh itself has no use that I know of, but the organs will all be of use—particularly the stomach, liver, heart, and brain."
Rigel winced, "The brain might not be…salvageable."
Snape gave her a long look over the head of the great snake, "Yes," he said eventually, "I have ascertained as much from my inspection of the ruined eye. Nevertheless, your question was which organs would be useful, was it not?"
Rigel nodded, "Yes, Professor."
Snape began his work on the tongue once more, but said, almost casually, "Have you decided how you are going to allocate these parts?"
"Allocate them?" Rigel said, the repetition of his words enough to convey confusion in itself.
"Indeed," Snape said slowly, "Lawfully speaking, the corpse belongs to you, as you were the primary instrument of its demise. Its remains are yours to do as you would."
Rigel bit back a scowl, and said flatly, "The basilisk killed itself. It should be the Headmaster's responsibility to determine the proper use of its remains, as it died on school grounds, under his jurisdiction."
Snape's next words were heavily measured, as though each were a weight he placed judiciously on a thin sheet of ice, "You have the right to differ such matters to his discretion, however, that may not be the most prudent course of action. Turning responsibility for the kill over to the Headmaster on the grounds of his jurisdiction as Headmaster also highlights his responsibility for the snake being in the school in the first place."
A part of her wanted to agree that it was the Headmaster's responsibility, and to say that she shouldn't have to 'turn over the kill' like she was handing in an essay, but the more conscientious part of her knew what her Professor meant. Her political role was complicated to be blunt. Her 'father' supported Dumbledore (ostensibly, though she was becoming more and more confused about which side of the lines Sirius' ideologies fell), but she had been semi-formally adopted by the Malfoy's, and she was the Heir of Black, traditionally a Dark-aligned family, but had strong ties and reasons to support the Light political factions. All this was ignoring her recently revealed Parseltongue abilities, the political ramifications of which she had yet to determine.
For all of those reasons, it would put her in a delicate position were she to put the Headmaster in the delicate position.
"I suppose," Rigel said carefully, "Due to the passage-way folding space the way it does, this place could be considered outside of school grounds. Who knows how far underground we are—below the deepest corner stones for the wards, I'm sure." Snape inclined his head fractionally, so Rigel went on, "It's amazing that the Headmaster was able to find me and save my life, even after I was removed from the school's protection."
"Indeed," Snape said wryly, "All that is left is to decide how to distribute the spoils from your kill, Mr. Black. Would you like an armored breast coat made of its scales, perhaps?"
Rigel scowled at the tastelessness such a thing would have demonstrated, but acquiesced to the necessity of addressing the problem at hand, "I would like a small portion each of the scales, bones, and tongue set aside under preservation charms, to be given to me upon my passing the Potions NEWT."
Snape nodded his head shortly, "A prudent idea."
"I would like 1/3 of the bones to be donated directly to St. Mungo's, half of the venom donated to the Potions Guild, and one half of all remain ingredients sold to the Guild at a heavily discounted price as well."
"And the rest?" Snape prompted when Rigel fell silent.
Rigel tilted her chin stubbornly, "The rest is yours."
Snape scowled at her, "You cannot—"
"It's mine to allocate, is it not?" Rigel asked.
"Within reason," Snape said.
"What could be more reasonable than giving potions ingredients to a Potions Master?" she asked.
"It smacks of bribery, and therefore is unseemly," he said shortly.
"The Malfoy's donate to the school all the time. If anyone asks, I'll be donating the rest of the ingredients to Hogwarts, as a token of my thanks to Dumbledore for his phoenix's timely arrival. It would be only natural for the resident Potions Master to then assume responsibility for the ingredients, and I'll make sure that Dumbledore understands I wish the parts to leave with you, if you ever decide to change professions."
Her professor took a frustrated breath in his nose, traced the stubborn set to her face, and let it out again, "I will hole the ingredients until you come of age—"
"You will use them as they deserve to be used," Rigel said firmly, "Research, experiment, innovate. It's what you're best at, and you're one of the greatest Potions Masters alive right now, and I'm not going to wait five years to argue with you again over what to do with these ingredients when they could help people now, if you'd stop being so stubbornly pigheaded about owning up to your ability and accepting what you deserve."
Snape raised an eyebrow, and Rigel coughed somewhat uncomfortably, belatedly adding, "Sir," with as much respect as she could muster. She regretted snapping at her professor, but she didn't like the way he acted as though she was trying ot do something unreasonable when she was trying to do something meaningful. The basilisk's parts needed to go where they would do the most good, and to be kept out of hands who would use them for ill. The profits would be great on the open market, but it was too irresponsible an option. They would do the most good in the hands of St. Mungo's, the Guild, and Professor Snape, whether he acknowledged it or not.
She would almost think her Head of House was embarrassed, but a person as talented in his field as Professor Snape quickly abandoned any naïve shyness they'd had upon entering it. Then again, perhaps being tucked away in Hogwarts most of the year had something to do with it. The Professors here were all at the top of their fields, and probably wouldn't have much more than professional esteem for their colleagues who specialized in other branches of magic.
Perhaps no one ever did remind Professor Snape just how much his expertise was worth to the Wizarding World. Well. Rigel would have to see about fixing that. The greatest Potions Master of their age could not afford to be blind to his own talents, nor could he be allowed to martyr himself out of a basilisk eye to the detriment of both the whole of Magical Academia and Wizarding kind itself.
Professor Snape knew when pressing would gain him nothing, at least, and he said merely, "It will be as you say, it seems. The funds from those ingredients the Guild will be allowed to purchase will be deposited into an account that Gringotts will assist you in establishing before the summer is—"
"No," Rigel broke in hastily. Aside from the obvious complications that establishing an account in her cousin's name herself would ensure, she didn't think she could bear to have what was essentially blood money in her pockets. In the same way, she didn't want to look at any piece of the basilisk until she had taken her NEWT's, several years from now.
Snape actually looked close to sighing as he said, "How would you like to allocate the profits, Mr. Black?"
"Use them to hire competent tutors to any of the petrified victims who want to make up the schooling they lost while unconscious, including make-up exam fees if required. Then give all the rest to Ginny Weasley," Rigel said, "Or her parents to hold in trust if you think she's too young. Ginny is the main victim in all of this. She deserves some sort of compensation for everything she went through."
"The Weasley's will not accept it," Snape drawled, "Their pride will stay them, especially concerning an amount as…exorbitant as the sale of basilisk parts is likely to produce, even considering the reduction in price and the fact that you will be essentially flooding a very small market."
"Then make it anonymous and non-returnable," Rigel said "Or just hand it to Ginny in cash. She's considerable more practical than most Gryffindors. And use a bit of the money to get Myrtle whatever she wants for her toilet," she added, remembering her promise suddenly.
"So be it," Snape said. Rigel supposed he probably thought her a fool, to give away gain for sentimentality, but he did not deny her the right to such sentiment, at least.
They continued working for several hours, until all of the scales were harvested and the house elves, under Snape's supervision, began the delicate work of opening the basilisk's torso for organ removal. They heard scrapes across the hall, and turned to see Flitwick and Dumbledore climbing down from Salazar's gaping, stone mouth.
"Was there anything left?" Snape asked, though his tone indicated his distain for the possibility of such an occurrence.
Flitwick shook his head sadly, "We found many rooms of empty cabinets. No doubt there was a wealth of knowledge here at some point, but it seems to have been long out of our reach, taken decades ago and likely scattered or lost."
Or hidden, Rigel thought quietly. She didn't think much of wasting knowledge, no matter its origins, and no matter the temptation to keep it for oneself.
"In any case, the trip was certainly not a waste," Dumbledore said, his face looking pleasantly satisfied, "We discovered a passage from the basilisk's lair that likely leads to the Forbidden Forest, if the remains of Acromantulas were any indication."
Snape's face paled slightly, and Flitwick said hastily, "No need for alarm. The passage is well warded, and likely keyed to the basilisk alone. Nevertheless, we will have a team of true Ward Masters come over the summer, and either link them to the school's wards, relegating them to the Headmaster's purview, or else undo them entirely and seal off the Chamber for good."
Rigel wanted to ask how they'd get into the Chamber without Parseltongue, then realized they'd likely re-work the wards in Myrtle's bathroom first.
"Severus," Dumbledore said, eyes twinkling, "I hate to pull you away from this project, but I believe you will be needed shortly in the Hospital Wing, will you not?"
Snape case Tempus, then inclined his head, "Indeed. Mr. Black, you will assist the house elves in finishing up. They know what needs doing, and they will take care of the transportation as well. You may merely watch, and learn, unless you are prepared to leave now?"
Rigel shook her head. She thought if she saw the harvesting through to the finish she would have a better sense of closure.
"See that you don't skip dinner," Snape said curtly.
"I, too, have a few matters to see to this evening," Flitwick said apologetically, "But what danger lurked here once appears to be gone now. Nevertheless, please remain with the house elves at all times. They will see to your safe return."
Rigel gave her word, and watched the professors leave, going back to their respective schedules. Life really does just go on like it did before, Rigel thought with a sudden surge of panic. Was it going to be that easy, to forget it all? What was she doing, if not cutting up and partitioning out the memories, the guilt and the horror? As if she could ever give enough of it away. It had seemed like such a good idea—just get rid of it, be rid of it all—but now Rigel wasn't sure she wanted to forget. If she forgot it all, then what did it mean? How had she changed? What had she learned?
She leant down and picked a scale out of one of the many filled buckets around the pungent corpse. It was a good size, a bit larger than her palm, and a deep, emerald green. She turned it over in her hand, thinking. It was excessively sentimental, but…something told Rigel she needed this.
"Is that one being broken, Young Sir?" a nearby house elf asked.
Rigel shook her head absently, "I was just wondering if I could put a small hole in it, with a sharp enough tool."
The house elf shook her head rapidly, "These scales is being hard, but brittle individually, without the Great Snake's magic."
"I see," Rigel said, a bit disappointedly. She could keep the scale in her pocket, but it would be easier to lose.
"Why is you wanting a hole?" the elf asked curiously.
"I thought I might string a chord through it, so it would be harder to lose," Rigel explained.
"Minna can be making a hole," the elf said with certainty, "House elves is very good at softening magic. Where is you wanting the hole?"
Rigel smiled at Minna, "Can you change the whole shape by softening it? Could you make it into a circle?"
Minna took the scale and peered at it, "If I is changing shape, it is getting much smaller, otherwise it is being too thin."
"About the size of a ring, then?" Rigel held out her hand, "Can you fit it to one of my fingers?"
Minna nodded vigorously in affirmation.
"I'd really appreciate it," Rigel said, "How can I repay you?"
Minna shook her head as rapidly as she had just nodded it, "No, no, no, you is not giving me anything. I is not accepting."
"Please?" Rigel asked, "I won't feel right if you do it for nothing."
"Because you is Slytherin," Minna said with a snort that was close to derisive, "Slytherins is always thinking they is not deserving things for free. That is being stupid. A gift is being made for accepting."
Rigel raised an eyebrow, then thought of her previous assessment of Snape, and nodded in assent, "Just, 'thank you,' then."
Minna nodded decisively and let the scale rest in one palm while using the other to snap her fingers. The scale began rotating fast in her hand, then rose into the air and started folding in on itself, as if the edges were rolling toward the center, while at the same time the middle began to shrink back toward the edges. It became smaller, denser, and as its revolutions began to slow, Minna guided it with a spindly finger to Rigel's outstretched hand. Rigel splayed her fingers, and the ring twirled itself gracefully onto the middle finger of her left hand. With a final revolution it tightened to a comfortable size and settled.
"When you is growing, you is finding Minna, and Minna is loosening," the house elf said. She was eyeing the ring admiringly, a pleased smile on her face at the result of her work.
"Take one," Rigel said, gesturing to the bucket, "You can make a ring for yourself, too."
Minna frowned severely at Rigel, but Rigel narrowed her eyes just as stubbornly, "A gift is made for accepting," she said, quirking her lips slyly.
Minna hesitated, then said, "It is not really being considered clothes."
"Of course not," Rigel said, "It's an animal scale, made into an ornament."
Minna nodded firmly once more, plucked a small scale from the bucket, and said, "Thank you." She snapped her fingers, and the scale adhered itself to the brown crup leash she was using as a belt, like a shiny, green buckle.
They went back to work readily, and by the time they packed up the last of it and assigned several elves to the proper disposal of the unusable remains, Rigel's heart felt significantly lighter, not as though a weight had been lifted, exactly, but as though an awkward burden had settled into a more comfortable position, so that carrying it no longer made her feel off-balance or unstable.
Just as they left, Rigel had a sudden idea, and plucked one more scale from a bucket, pocketing it with a smile.
The house elves were kind enough to clean her up and banish the stink from her robes, so Rigel headed straight from the Chamber to the Great Hall. She was a bit early for dinner, which had been pushed back later than usual due to everyone having been up so late the night before.
She didn't mind being early, though, as it meant there were very few people to stare at her as she sat down and began filling her plate, glad that her 'vegetarian' diet meant she didn't have to pretend meat wasn't going to gross her out for the next few weeks.
Blaise entered the Great Hall not long after Rigel started eating, but as soon as he spotted her, he sighed, turned around, and left. Ten minutes later, he returned with an exasperated Draco and an amused Millicent in tow.
"I was looking everywhere for you," Draco said as soon as he sat down.
"I said I'd be back later," Rigel said.
"You said you'd be back this afternoon," Draco said.
Rigel gave an apologetic shrug. She should probably feel much worse about making Draco worried when he'd probably been awake for hours worrying over her last night, but dissembling the basilisk was something she had to do, and feeling guilty for it wouldn't help her move on. "It took longer than I thought," she offered, "We can see Pansy tonight, okay?"
"No need," Millicent said from next to them. They turned to see Millicent beaming across the Hall. Rigel followed Millicent's gaze to see Pansy, awake and well, walking across the Hall toward them.
"Pans!" Draco stood and helped Pansy sit next to Rigel before taking his seat at Rigel's other side once more.
"It is good to see you recovered, Pan," Rigel said, smiling broadly, "Draco was extremely difficult in your absence."
Pansy grinned with good humor, "He can be rather trying to manage by oneself."
Draco spluttered, "Me? Who's the one who got himself kidnapped? I'm the one who needed Pansy's help controlling you."
"Evidently you're both a loose ends without me," Pansy sighed with affected hopelessness, but with an eminently fond look in her eyes.
Rigel and Draco exchanged a wry look.
"No argument here."
The three of them laughed, and it was almost like nothing had ever happened, except that people kept coming over to see Pansy and tell her how glad they were that she was back among them. If most of them sent Rigel weighty, side-long looks as they left, well, at least they were tactfully silent.
By the time dinner was in full swing, Pucey Rookwood, Rosier, Theo, and Selwyn had all joined their group, and Riel wondered vaguely when they'd begun to sit in the middle of the Slytherin table, rather than at the low end with the other first and second years.
Neville came over at one point, and thanked Rigel shyly.
"I didn't do anything," Rigel protested, you should thank the Headmaster.
"The Headmaster didn't come visit me while I was petrified," Neville said, "But you did. Madam Pomphrey told me. So, thanks."
"You'd visit me," Rigel said simply.
Fairister stopped by to very formally request Pansy's pardon, "I have failed in my duty as a prefect to protect you," he said solemnly, "I cannot ask your forgiveness, only promise to do better in the future."
"It was not your mistake, but my own," Pansy said quietly, "I was foolish to think myself immune to danger. I see now that here at Hogwarts all peril is shared, and neither House nor name can build walls safe enough to hide behind. It is a lesson I will not soon forget," she added, her expression firm, "But no fault lies with you."
Fairister's expression was pained, "So you say, but still I left you to face the beast alone—"
At the mention of the basilisk, Pansy's face paled noticeably, and Rosier sent Fairister off with a glare that would freeze helium.
"Are you all right, Pansy?" Theo asked worriedly.
"Fine," she said faintly, "Just…remembering. It must seem silly, having been so long for everyone else, but it's the last thing I remember before waking up just an hour or so ago."
Rookwood sucked in a breathe, "You saw—"
"Yes," Pansy said, "Not just the eyes like the others. I was facing a mirror, and I saw it come around behind me a second before it caught my gaze. It was…huge." She turned searching eyes to Rigel, "I never imagined an animal could be that large. Except dragons, maybe. The head alone was as big as Mr. Hagrid. You'd better not have really challenged it to a duel, Rigel."
Rigel chocked slightly on her pumpkin juice, "Is that what people are saying happened? I most certainly didn't."
"I knew that was too Gryffindor for your style," Theo said, then asked, "Did you really outwit it with clever trickery? That's what the Ravens are saying."
"The Puffs think you won in a battle of endurance," Millicent added, "And tired the basilisk out through sheer perseverance."
"And the Snakes?" Rigel asked, slightly amused.
"We know better than to make up wild, groundless stories," Draco said dismissively.
"Most of us, anyway," Blaise said into his soup.
"Are you going to tell anyone what really happened?" Pucey asked bluntly, "I heard the youngest Weasley was missing from the Tower last night too, but she refuses to speak about it."
"People shouldn't bother Ginny about it," Rigel frowned, "She was a victim like me, of course she doesn't want to talk about it."
"Don't call yourself that," Draco griped from beside her.
"How did you defeat the basilisk, though? It's not a secret, is it?" Theo pressed.
Rigel looked around at her friends and told the truth, "It wasn't heroic or clever, or even very difficult. The basilisk killed itself."
There was a moment of silence, after which Pucey snorted with disbelief, "Seriously? That's the worst lie I've ever heard. Implausible at best."
"It's true," Rigel said, frowning slightly, "I was kidnapped by the basilisk's Master. I waited patiently, as anyone with half a brain would, and eventually the kidnapper made a mistake. His miscalculation resulted in the basilisk killing itself. Dumbledore arrived, saving my life, the kidnapper fled, and that's all there is to it."
No one looked particularly credulous.
"Where was Ginny Weasley while your life needed saving?" Blaise asked pointedly.
"She was kidnapped too, but while the kidnapper was distracted she escaped and fetched the Headmaster. I owe her my life as well, for bringing timely help. I'm very grateful to have had so much help during last night's ordeal."
Selwyn pinned her with a flat look, "You know that no one believes a word you say anymore, right?"
"I believe Rigel," Pansy said calmly.
"You're only saying that because he's going to tell you everything anyway," Pucey said, "At least tell us who its Master was. I haven't heard of anyone being expelled. Did Dumbledore not catch the perpetrator?"
"It wasn't a student. It was just an evil man who infiltrated the school for his own reasons, and fled after his plans were foiled," Rigel said, trying to make that part of the story sound uninteresting.
"Where were you all day?" Draco asked abruptly.
"Helping Professor Snape harvest the useful parts of the basilisk.
Rigel said, more comfortable with the change of subject, "You'd be surprised at all the things a basilisk is good for. There's scales, bones, tongue, venom—the eye especially will—"
"Eye?" Blaise said sharply, "Just the one?"
Rigel grimaced inwardly, "The other was unfortunately destroyed when the basilisk died."
"When it killed itself," Blaise drawled, "I suppose its tail poked its own eye out accidentally."
"Something like that," Rigel mumbled.
"Well I for one am just glad you're unharmed," Rosier said, "It must have been a close thing, for you to claim that the Headmaster saved your life by arriving. I wonder how that could be if the basilisk killed itself already."
Rigel narrowed her eyes, "I was injured before the basilisk died, it was serious by the time the Headmaster arrived."
"Mortally injured?" Blaise pressed, "Because you don't have to give him a Life Debt if it wasn't certain mortal peril."
"Yes," Rigel snapped, "I got scraped by one of its fangs, okay? I was dying, but the Headmaster's phoenix saved me with its healing abilities, and before you ask the Headmaster declined a Life Debt on behalf of his familiar's behalf, so there is nothing but gratitude between the Headmaster and I."
Another silence, and then Pansy's face was buried in Rigel's shoulder, and the blonde girl's arms went around her torso, "You were dying?" she asked, stricken, "Y-you really almost died?"
"Oh, no, Pan," Rigel hugged Pansy back helplessly, "Don't cry, I'm fine. It wasn't—it's really not—oh, this is why I didn't want to talk about it." She looked reproachfully at the others around them, "Can't you understand it's not just some interesting story? It's not a game, and it isn't fun for me to talk about."
"It's not supposed to be fun," Rookwood said, "It's supposed to be therapeutic. We want to know what happened so we can help you come to terms with it."
"Thank you," Rigel said, patting Pansy's hair absently, "But there isn't any need. That's what this afternoon's project was for. It helped me come to terms with things, dealing with the aftermath, like cleaning up my mind after a tornado blew through. I already feel much better. There's no reason to—"
She was cut off by cried of alarm going around the Hall, and it was only because her magic was still extremely depleted that it didn't lash out and break anything in response to the panic that welled up in her throat faster than she could register. She swallowed hard, and tried to force color back into her face as she looked around with the others for the source of the disturbance. Then Millicent said, "The food!" and Rigel looked down to see something strange even for Hogwarts.
The food on every table was scurrying around of its own accord. Not all of it was mobile, but a good third of their dinner scuttled off their plates and rolled along the table with remarkable industry, considering its previous passivity. Rigel watched her dinner-roll bounce drunkenly off the edge of the table and sort of wobble across the flagstones, headed toward the Head Table.
Students were beginning to stand up on their seats to get a clearer view as the food from the four House Tables began congregating in the center of the space between the student tables and the Head Table. At first it seemed as though the food was just going to put itself in a pile on the floor, which would have been the most strangest and most pointless prank anyone had ever heard of, but then the mass of food began dividing into groups—three groups, to be exact. As the food separated, it became clear that it was being differentiated based on color. Rigel noticed then that while it had seemed as though a random assortment of foods from the tables had mobilized, in fact it was only green foods, tanish-brown foods, and red-orange foods.
The green foods made up the largest group. Spinach, lettuce, cucumbers, parsley, green beans, avocados, and more, vegetables of all shapes and sizes, some cooked, some raw, all coalescing into a massive…oh, no.
Rigel felt like smacking her head on the table, or maybe smacking the Weasley Twins' heads into one another, but she was too transfixed at the spectacle to turn away. What were those two thinking? The green foods were taking on the shape of a giant snake, with raw peapods for teeth and eyes of yellow-green apples, with two large tufts of broccoli sticking out the top of its head like horns.
A smaller mass of food, tan and brown in color and consisting mostly of dinner-rolls and cooked pieces of meat stuck together by mashed potatoes, was beginning to look distinctly human. A black cloth napkin from the Slytherin table wriggled out of the mix and perched itself on top of the food-man's head like hair.
"Is that supposed to be Rigel?" Theo snickered. Rigel felt very much like groaning.
The food-Rigel bent down and picked up the third, much smaller group of food—the red and orange mix of peppers, carrots, and tomatoes that had stacked themselves into a long, stick-like shape. The food-person held the food-stick in guard position against the snake, and Rigel realized it was supposed to be a sword.
"What nonsense," Draco muttered, one eye on Pansy to see how she was reacting. Their friend seemed fine, though, if a little disapproving of the spectacle.
The masses of food began to do battle, leafy green snake against meaty-brown man with his pepper-red sword. It was frankly disgusting. The food made sickeningly dull whumps and splats where the shapes connected, and each blow flicked errant bits of food across the flagstones.
Five minutes of fighting later, it looked as though the food-man was about to emerge victorious. He was poised with his sword held high, ready to strike the deciding blow, when the vegetable-snake lashed out with sudden vigor and swallowed the meaty-boy whole.
Students all across the Hall gasped and shouted with dismay.
"What the bloody hell?"
The professors had grim looks on their faces, and even Dumbledore looked gravely unamused. Pansy's hand found Rigel's elbow below the table and squeezed. A creaking noise made Rigel look back toward Draco to see him slowly squeezing his water goblet into scrap metal. His face was more angry than she'd ever seen it, angrier even than he'd been at her over the Defense Incident. She reached over and pried his hand loose from the dented metal. He clamped his hand around hers instead, and shot the Gryffindor table as dark look. "I'm going to murder those two," he growled.
A gurgling sound drew their attention to the spectacle of food, which was apparently not yet finished. The snake was making weird writhing motions, as though it was going to be sick, and RIgle had the awful feeling she was about to watch a mushy-food version of herself be vomited across the flagstones. The snake's stomach trembled, bulged, and then, in a flash of red, the food-sword came erupting from the green beast's belly and sliced the snake in half. Green vegetables rolled everywhere, once again lifeless, and meat-boy emerged from the green pile of edibles with a triumphant pose, brandishing the sword of peppers and carrots at anyone and anything that might step forward to challenge it. The food-boy swept the hall a deep bow, and then it, too, dissembled into its constituent parts.
People began applauding somewhat uncertainly, but it dies down quickly as the food once more began moving , though it didn't form shapes this time. Rather, the bits of now-crushed vegetables, rolls, and the like began to spell words across the stones, more food spilling down from the tables in floods, so that food of all colors and kinds danced over one another into place.
Cunning Wit and Brave Determination
Together can Outmatch the Greatest Foe
When we Stand and Forfeit Hesitation
Evil will be Dealt a Mighty Blow
No Matter what our Houses or our Names
To Every Student Hogwarts is a Home
As long as we have Magic in our Veins
Within These Walls Ill Will Shall Never Roam
The message was read aloud across the Hall, people muttering the words to themselves or shouting them to their neighbors. After a fair pause, the message fell apart, and the food assumed a final pattern, just eight words all told.
Thank You Rigel Black For Protecting Our School
Rigel felt her face burn without her permission, as all around the Hall students began to applaud, whistle, and cheer loudly. She caught sight of Ginny Weasley, in between her perplexed-looking brothers, looking grimly satisfied, and she even saw Ernie MacMillian, previously one of the strongest voices in favor of her guilt, clapping slowly, a respectful look on his face.
The professors were clapping too, Dumbledore once again smiling benignly, and when Snape lifted his goblet and nodded with something like open approval in her direction, Rigel had to clench Draco's hand very tightly indeed.
The end of the term passed quickly, the days blurring together as everyone scrambled to make up in classes what they hadn't learned for one reason or another. The professors were somewhat lenient due to the trying atmosphere the basilisk's reign brought with it, but the gaps of knowledge still needed filling in, and the time for packing up their belongings in preparation for returning home had, it seemed, sprung upon them with neither word nor warning.
The last week of school found Rigel in her lab, which Snape had acceded to opening for her once more, preparing the next dose of Modified Polyjuice (which she really needed to think of a better name for). She had sent Sirius the wrong time for picking her up again. It would be obvious when he arrives at the platform, but there was nothing for it. She needed to take this dose after leaving her friends but before meeting her godfather. Archie would take his after getting off the plane, but before meeting the Potters at baggage check.
She had already used the blending spell on she and Archie's most recently-plucked hairs. It hadn't been as exhausting as she remembered it being, so maybe always draining her core was helping it build up stronger reserves. The Modified Polyjuice was moments away from being finished, and at that point she would keep one dose for herself, and mail the other, with the male blended hair, to Archie that night. Just as she was pouring the doses into their sealed vials, a knock came at the door. She hurriedly stored the doses in her bag and cleared the most incriminating ingredients, the lacewing flies and the boomslang skin, from the counter before brushing her bangs down in a nervous gesture and answering the door.
To her immense relief, it wasn't Snape. Ginny Weasley stepped into the lab with an air of detached interest as she glanced about.
"I sort of remember being here, now," she said, lifting a hand to push back her hair absently, "But it's just flashes. Did I pull your hair?"
Rigel shrugged with affected nonchalance, determinedly not remembering the Cruciatus Curse spilling from Ginny's lips in the dark.
"I don't remember, maybe," she said, "What can I help you with, Ginny?"
"I don't need help," Ginny snapped. She rolled her eyes a moment later, and blew out a calming breath, "Sorry, but I'm so sick of people trying to be solicitous. It just ends up condescending."
"I understand," Rigel said, "People think talking to them about things will help you get over them."
"That's just what they tell themselves," Ginny said sourly, "Really, people are just nosy."
"Does your mother know how cynical you are?" Rigel asked, trying to lighten the mood.
Ginny snorted, "She positively despairs of me, but that's what she gets for giving me six brothers."
They stood silently for a moment, then Rigel said, "Since you don't need help, what are you here for?"
"Just to talk," Ginny said, "Can we sit?"
Rigel gestured toward a lab stool, taking one for herself as well, "About…that night?"
"In a way," Ginny said. Her eyes drew sharp angles over Rigel's face, "I want to know why you lied to Dumbledore that night."
Rigel didn't blank her face completely—she was becoming a better Slytherin than that—but she maintained a politely confused expression, "What do you mean? I told the truth."
"Not all of it," Ginny returned, "I can remember bits and pieces from when I was possessed, and I remember Tom telling you that his whole name was Tom M. Riddle. Why didn't you tell the Headmaster that Lord Riddle was behind everything? Are you in favor of the SOW Party?"
"No" Rigel said simply, "My aunt is a muggleborn, and my cousin a halfblood. I support their rights in ways the SOW Party doesn't. I didn't tell Dumbledore what the construct said because I don't think the word of an insane magical object is enough proof to accuse a man of attempted murder, no matter who he is."
Ginny narrowed her eyes, "You're telling me you don't think Lord Riddle created that book?"
Rigel chose her words carefully, "I think I've never read a law that strictly prohibits fashioning a magical artifact after oneself—that's what the Sorting Hat is, to some extent. Whoever made that book is not necessarily responsible for the magic degenerating out of control. Add to that I'm not sure the book can be sure who created it, if it was even telling the truth about what it believes. It could have been designed to think it was created by Lord Riddle, who has been rather well-known for some time, and who has never been proven to speak Parseltongue. I think there is too much uncertainty in the evidence, and I also think it would be unfair of me to pass along, thereby giving some credence to, the ramblings of magic gone mad, particularly to the Headmaster. He is a good man, but he is also Riddle's political opponent, and may be tempted to use these unfounded accusations against Lord Riddle before proof was established."
Ginny raised her eyebrows, "That all sounds very convincing, and even somewhat noble in a flinchingly hesitant sort of way, but I think you're afraid to anger Lord Riddle because you live in a dorm full of his supporters. I also think you mean to keep this knowledge to yourself as leverage, in case you need a large favor from someone with his kind of power at one time or anther."
Rigel opened her mouth to disagree, but Ginny held up a hand.
"I don't care about your motivations, though. I told you that I know more than you thought because I want you to appreciate the favor I'm doing you by collaborating the story you told Dumbledore." At Rigel's slightly apprehensive look, Ginny explained, "You've said we have equal life debts, which cancel each other out, but you lied to Dumbledore for me, which is a debt of its own."
"You told Dumbledore I 'came into contact' with the book and was possessed," Ginny said, "But I remember Tom gloating to you about how willingly I let him into my head. I hate myself for that," Ginny spat quietly, "And I never want anyone else to know. Your silence on the matter is worth a lot to me, more than just going along with your version of events could equal, so I'm going to tell you this, too: Lucius Malfoy gave me that diary."
Rigel sucked in a breath. That was bad. Draco would be hurt dearly if his father was proved beyond a doubt to be connected to the basilisk—to Pansy's petrifaction. "Are you certain?" she breathed.
Ginny nodded sharply, "He dropped it into my cauldron in Diagon Alley. I didn't say anything because I was curious, and it seemed almost like an accident, so that he could deny the purposefulness of it easily, and then I thought it was such a great find, that he must not have known what it did, that he'd just thought it fitting for a Weasley to have a beaten up old book. But it was him, and now that I know of Tom's connection to SOW, I know what Malfoy was after. I'm not threatening you—this is my other favor to you. Now you know Malfoy's involvement, and because Draco Malfoy is your friend you can do what you want with the information. I don't care. I just want to forget everything. After this deal I'm never going to think of it again."
Rigel nodded slowly, "Thank you, Ginny. I'll discover the truth for myself, and—"
"Don't care," Ginny grimaced, "Sorry, but just agree to never tell anyone my possession was anything but forced, and I'll agree with whatever you say happened that night, and no one will know of Malfoy's part in it unless you tell them."
"Agreed," Rigel said softly, feeling the weight of responsibility descend on her shoulders. It would be her duty, now, to confront Lord Riddle and Malfoy Sr., and decide what needed exposing and what to keep quiet for the sake of her friend.
Ginny, contrariwise, looked as though she'd become several stones lighter. "I'm going to go away as soon as exams are over," she said, a slight smile on her face, "Somewhere warm, and quiet, and then I'll come back and begin my Occlumency lessons. I think…I think next year is going to be better." She laughed, and it was only a tiny bit bitter, "It can't really be worse, can it?"
Rigel felt a pit harden in her gut at those words—tempting Fate never boded well. She smiled weakly and wished Ginny good luck before closing the door behind her. Rigel rested her head against the frame and breathed out a deep sigh, wondering when the world would grow less complicated, and wondering when she'd started accepting so many responsibilities, and wondering that she'd ever though she could come to Hogwarts and just brew potions.
Rigel finished packing the morning the train left for London. She'd been assigned a satisfying amount of summer work from Snape, sealed up her lab, collected Flint's summer assignments, mailed the other dose of Modified Polyjuice to Archie, along with the blended hair he'd need, and as such had only one last bit of business to conduct before boarding the train. To conduct it, she needed to find Selwyn.
Pansy was saying goodbye to Rookwood and Rosier—the later of whom Rigel would be pleased to have a break from over the summer, and he'd become almost proprietary about her whereabouts after the incident in the Chamber. Draco walked beside her as she looked for Selwyn's long, black hair among the throng, making small talk about all the things he had planned for the summer.
"After my birthday party, there will be more time for us to see one another, of course—" he broke off, sniffed rather deliberately, then turned on his heel and walked in another direction. Rigel looked around for a pair of redheads, as the Weasley Twins were the only thing Draco got that annoyed over lately.
Fred appeared at her elbow a moment later, George sidling up to her other side moments later. "I'm starting to think your boyfriend doesn't like us," George said sadly.
"He'll like you even less if he hears you call him that," Rigel said, "He's still upset about that prank with all the food, you know."
Fred and George shared an uncharacteristically dark look.
"We told you that wasn't us," Fred said flatly.
"We told everyone that wasn't us," George added morosely.
"I wonder why no one believed you," Rigel deadpanned.
"You believe us, don't you, Pup?" Fred bent his knees so that he could look up at her pleadingly.
"I believe you wouldn't give up credit for something so intricate unless you felt really horrible about it," Rigel said, "So if this is just you feeling guilty, don't. I'm not offended. It was a clever bit of magic."
"We really didn't, Rigel," George said, shaking his head, "And what's worse, we have no idea who did—except that they're good."
Rigel shrugged, "I believe you. Just don't ask me to convince Draco of it."
"We actually came to ask you something else," Fred said, perking up again.
George slung an arm around her shoulder genially, "Since a certain second year saved our baby sister's life, our mother has been twisting our ears—"
"An impressive feat to accomplish through a letter," Fred put in.
"To get us to arrange a meeting," George grimaced, rubbing an ear in mock pain, "It would mean a lot to our hearing if you agreed to come for a visit this summer so she can break your ribs thanking you."
Rigel swallowed, "I'm not sure I can. I have a lot to do this summer, work from Snape and all…"
Fred and George raised eyebrows at her.
"I'd be delighted," Rigel sighed, "But please tell Mrs. Weasley that there's no need for any kind of thanks. Ginny saved my life, too."
"We shan't tell her anything of the sort," George grinned.
"But modesty does become you, Pup," Fred ruffled her hair fondly, "Do keep at it."
They took their leave, throwing a warning over their shoulders as they walked off.
"We'll be waiting for your owl!"
"Or we'll be kidnapping you from your bed!"
Rigel absolutely wouldn't put it past them to get into contact with Sirius and organize a raid on Archie's bedroom. Sirius would think it was hilarious, until Archie had no idea what to say or do to fool the Weasley twins into thinking he was Rigel. She would put a visit to the Weasley's on her summer's mental list as well, and hope that she and Archie's capacity for cleverness hadn't run dry just yet.
She continued her search, and eventually found Selwyn talking with a third year Slytherin Rigel sort of recognized. The girl hugged Selwyn briefly, then ran off to join her friends on the platform. Rigel caught Selwyn's face soften in a half-fond smile an instant before the older girl turned and caught sight of Rigel coming toward her.
Immediately, Selwyn coolly swept her hair back from her face and rolled her eyes. "Even without the badge, people still come to bother me with their problems." She gestured dismissively at the empty place on her robes where the Head Girl badge had hung just yesterday.
Rigel smiled inwardly, and pretended to believe that Selwyn wasn't going to miss Hogwarts at all. "What are you going to do now?"
"I have a job lined up at the The Circle," Selwyn said with a shrug. Rigel vaguely recognized the name of one of the Rune-related magazines Blaise was always perusing, "I start next week."
"That's great," Rigel said, "Congratulations."
"Thanks I guess," Selwyn said, "So what do you want, Black? And before you answer, are you sure you can't save it for the next Head Girl?"
Rigel smiled slightly, "I just came to apologize, for everything I put you through, and all the times I didn't listen to your advice as carefully as I should have, and…just everything. Sorry, Selwyn. Thanks for worrying about me, and going out of your way to help so often."
Selwyn smirked, "Who said anything about being worried? Do you know how much paperwork is involved if I lose a student on my watch? Mountains. It'd give even you nightmares, Black."
Rigel frowned, "What's that mean?"
Selwyn snorted softly, "Right. You know they used to think I was emotionally dead until you got here. You raised the bar on untouchable, that's all I'm saying."
"Right," Rigel said, "Well, I wanted to give this to you, as a token of my thanks for everything."
She started fishing in her pockets for the third basilisk scale.
"I swear to Merlin if you've lost your wand again…" Selwyn muttered darkly.
Rigel did smile then, "It's in the pocket by my hip, and probably always will be."
"Thank Salazar for that."
Rigel finally found the scale mixed in with a few galleons and handed it over, "I thought you could use it in your game with Rookwood."
Selwyn took the palm-sized scale with a slightly surprised look on her face, "You're just giving these away? Everyone says the Black's are mad, but…thank you. It might be a bit obvious where it came from, but Edmund will think it's great anyway." She tucked the scale securely into a breast pocket, and held out her hand to Rigel, "I can't say it's been nice knowing you, Black, but it's certainly been unforgettable."
"I'm glad I met you, too," Rigel said, "I'd offer to keep in touch, but…"
"Yeah," Selwyn laughed shortly, "As if. Still, the Wizarding World isn't that big, and Hogwarts doesn't last forever. I'll be around five years from now."
That makes one of us, Rigel thought. She smiled politely, shook Selwyn's hand, and boarded the train as the last whistle sounded.
Two years down, five to go.
Far away, in a forest so thick the day meant nothing to its darkness, fraying magic wrapped in man's seeming and trapped in the mind of a trembling asp curled up amidst the shadowy hallows of a great tree's roots and bided the time away patiently, regaining its strength, revising its plans, and reassuring itself that all was not for naught.
One day, there would be a reckoning.
[End of Book Two].
A/N: Look out for the Third Book coming…well, I can't say soon, but it'll be there eventually: The Ambiguous Artifice (title subject to change). Thanks to everyone still reading after a six month hiatus. This is my last semester of grad school, which means…I'll probably be writing every time I don't want to think about my thesis .
All the best,