“Harry? You did it again.”
Ron’s voice was soft. Harry wouldn’t try to analyze what else it was, because he knew he would probably start screaming to no good purpose if he did. Instead, he opened his eyes and sat up, looking slowly around the office.
A cold cup of tea sat nearby, evidence of his futile attempt to keep himself awake. Not that awake would do much good, not now that he was seeing the visions all the time, whether he had his eyes open or shut. Off to one side was the finished pile of reports, only waiting for Ron’s signature, that Harry had worked on while he tried to ignore the shapes slithering across the sides and flanks of his awareness.
Ron took a seat on the clear space of the desk and folded his arms, staring at him. Harry avoided his gaze and just started down at his own hands, which were clenched closed hard enough to hurt. He opened his fingers, and watched the small crescent half-moon marks spring into shape.
“Mate.” Ron’s voice cut at him.
Harry turned and looked up at him. He tried to keep his eyes focused on Ron’s face alone, but despite himself, he looked at the wall, where a blue snake hung, its tongue flickering out as if to catch Harry’s scent. Its voice sounded in his ears, a hissing song threaded through with the basilisk’s mocking laughter. Welcome, brother.
Then the snake vanished, and Harry turned back to Ron and said quietly, “Yeah. And the hallucinations are everywhere, now, and half the time when I mean to speak in English, I talk in Parseltongue anyway. It’s time.”
Ron blinked and stood up, as though he was too surprised to keep sitting. Then he breathed out, shakily, and touched his hair, closing his eyes for a moment. “You mean that?” he whispered.
Harry nodded and took his wand out of his pocket. Reversing it, he offered it to Ron. Ron took a second more to open his eyes and see it, but once he did, he dropped it in his own pocket. He reached out a gentle hand, and Harry took it and let Ron haul him to his feet, then turn him equally gently in the direction of the door.
To Harry’s skewed sight, the floor was ankle-deep in swarming black cobras, who raised their heads and hissed at him in agitation. Say the word, said the single voice that formed out of all their many mingled and overlapping sibilants. Say the word, and we bite him, and he is dead.
Harry turned his head away, gnawing his lip. He had believed the hallucinations once, or at least believed they were harmless, and he had set them on one of his more persistent stalkers, who was always hanging about his office and the Leaky Cauldron and the Atrium and begging for just one more autograph or photograph or smile. What could it hurt, after all? It was just the gesture of someone tired and frustrated, someone who imagined nasty things happening to people, but didn’t want them to. Harry could imagine snakes attacking someone all day long, and nothing would happen, because the snakes were of his mind alone, and not real.
And it was true that no one else had seen the snakes that came together and converged on Leonard Kipling in a wave. But he had screamed and convulsed and fallen to the floor, and spent several weeks in St. Mungo’s with the Healers working to save him from the venom just the same.
Ron had talked about wandless magic, Hermione about desires running wild, and both of them had given Harry cautious glances when they thought he wasn’t looking. But he could feel them looking.
And he had seen the snakes everywhere, the way he could see them now, and real snakes were drawn to him, wriggling out of holes and cracks and twining their way into bed with him. He had woken several times now with an adder on his chest, a garter snake asleep with its head resting on his chin, and, once, a python that must have escaped from a fucking zoo draped over legs and throat and groin.
Ron and Hermione had told him it was probably the Parseltongue, and to get help. But Harry had wanted to believe it was something else, anything else. Not a Dark magical gift that he had already tried several times to get rid of, and that wouldn’t go.
Not that he was still suffering from a connection with Voldemort, so long after he had defeated him.
But now Ron was standing behind him, looking at him with pity, and the hissing voices of the snakes in his head meant that he was either mad or would be soon. It was time to go to St. Mungo’s, and hope for the best.
They stepped out into the corridor, and Ron gently steered Harry, with one hand on his shoulder. Harry trusted him enough to shut his eyes and ignore the hissing of the imaginary snakes, the snakes that would only be real if he called on them.
He didn’t want to call on them. He didn’t want to think about how the way Ron handled him was so similar to the way they had handled criminals before, on their way to Azkaban.
He just bowed his head, focused his eyes on his trainers so he wouldn’t trip, and walked out of there, out of the Ministry, for what must be the last time if he couldn’t make this fucking stop, and into custody.
“Then our deal is settled.” Nicholas Leatherby, like so many Muggleborns, held his hand out to shake when he concluded a bargain.
Draco managed to hold back the curl of his lip as he accepted the hand. It was an inappropriate level of intimacy between business associates, as far as he was concerned, but suppressing those reactions was one reason he had business associates in the first place. “A pleasure doing business,” he said, and inclined his head, and stepped out into the corridor of the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures.
Once there, he permitted himself a small smile he knew was vicious, which was one thing he liked about himself. In a month or so, Minister Shacklebolt would experience a regrettable lack of competence among the Potions brewers who supplied the Ministry with Wolfsbane. The Ministry would, as it had had to do a few times since the war, offer the contract to some other group.
That it would be Draco’s group this time was the result of long months of work, negotiation, alliance-building, and former disruptions, each time nudging the Ministry gently away from the competition. Draco thought he deserved more celebration than just a smile, actually.
Plans for such a celebration carried him in a smooth flow of fantasy from the lifts down to the Atrium, where he planned to Floo home, and he didn’t notice most of what he saw along the way. The inside of his own head had always been more interesting to Draco than random other people.
But he did notice, oh yes he did, when he came into the Atrium and saw, standing by the restored Fountain of Magical Brethren, Harry Potter, with Ron Weasley behind him in the posture of a guard. The Wonder Boy had his head bowed and his eyes shut, his lips moving in a ceaseless stream of words that sounded like prayer.
Weasley had not just the posture of a guard, but the expression of one. Draco had seen that distant look of pity, combined with the readiness to move instantly, often during his short term under arrest after the war.
Draco cocked his head. Yes, the inside of his head was more interesting than most sights he saw in the Ministry, but this wasn’t a common sight. He turned and moved to a fireplace further down the line, one with a relatively long queue, so that he could listen to what was happening without attracting much attention.
Potter obliged him by abruptly lifting his head and talking to Weasley without looking behind him. “What if the Healers can’t stop it, Ron?”
Draco would have cracked his knuckles, except that he didn’t feel like drawing attention to himself. He wanted and despised that tone in Potter’s voice at the same time, that tone as though he was flying apart at the seams and wanted someone to put him back together. Real heroes didn’t do that.
Which only proved that Draco had been right about him all along, of course. Potter wouldn’t know real heroism if it kicked him in his perfect jaw.
“They should be able to,” Weasley said, in the kind of low, reassuring tone that Draco knew Azkaban guards used with the more mental kind of prisoners. “Honestly, Harry, this isn’t the first time it’s happened, even if it hasn’t happened in a long time.” He raised his hand as though to rub Potter’s arm, and then pulled it back. Draco wondered if Potter had noticed that, and what he felt about it if he had. “They know—there are ways to keep Dark magic from escaping someone.”
Draco felt all the muscles in his back stiffen and then melt apart in delicious relaxation the way it happened during the first moments of a massage. Someone cursed Potter? He cursed someone? But neither of those would make Weasley sound as though Dark magic is leaking through his skin…
“I just hate it,” Potter whispered. “All those stories, all those times that other people thought I was losing my mind, and now it’s really happening. I feel like I’m proving them right.” He closed his eyes and turned his head away from what looked like a specific spot on the floor. Draco looked at it, too, but saw nothing.
“You’re not, Harry.” Weasley still had the tone of a Gryffindor best friend in his voice, Draco thought oddly, no matter how much he might despise Potter for using Dark magic. “We know that, at least. It’s really happening. Those—those wounds on Kipling, and—like I said, there must have been other times they’ve treated Parselmouths. They’ll stop it. They’ll get you back again.” He patted Potter’s shoulder this time, a clumsy gesture that Potter nevertheless leaned into as though it alone would keep him on his feet.
Draco knew he hissed aloud, but although Weasley looked around with a frown, he didn’t appear to notice Draco. The woman in the queue ahead of him did, though, and tossed him a scathing look before casting the Floo powder into the fire and calling out her destination.
Draco didn’t bother listening to said destination, his eyes on Potter, his drooping shoulders and head and slumping body. Very little else for years had been as interesting.
So. That was it. Draco’s tongue tingled, and only the impatient cough of someone behind him made him pick up the Floo powder and step forwards.
So Potter had continued being a Parselmouth after the Dark Lord died, and it was catching up with him at last.
Draco didn’t know what he would do with the information yet, but he knew simultaneously that its possession was exciting enough for right now, and that, ultimately, it would not be enough. His legs felt elastic with adrenaline, his brain dizzy with sweetness.
The first thing he did after stepping out of the fireplace in Malfoy Manor was sit down, shut his eyes, and think.
Ron gave Harry’s wand to the Healers. Then he told them about the imaginary snakes, the way that Harry had set them on Kipling, the way that Parseltongue rolled out of Harry’s mouth even when he wasn’t concentrating on snakes, while Harry sat on the couch in the private office they’d been ushered into and shivered.
Snakes everywhere. When he opened his eyes, a python like the one that had occupied his bed hung in loops from the ceiling, on hooks that he knew weren’t there either, its head turned so that it focused on Ron. A krait coiled on Harry’s boot and twined up his leg in a way that Harry thought was meant to be comforting. Flickering, cool scales touched his hand; when he glanced down, there was a rat snake there, which replaced its back with its tongue against his palm a moment later. The soft sound of a rattlesnake’s tail came from beneath the Healer’s chair.
When the Healer turned and asked him something, Harry couldn’t even listen, his hearing overridden with hissing, chanting, pleading voices. We could protect you, if you would only use us. We could let you go free. Brother.
“I’m not your fucking brother!” Harry finally snapped, and knew it was the wrong response from the way that the Healer’s lips thinned.
“Mr. Potter,” the Healer said, drawing his wand, and the snakes turned and hissed at him all at once. Harry told himself he was only going to listen to English words, and, with hard concentration, managed to hear, “I’m going to cast a few diagnostic charms on you. Simple spells, ones that are meant to determine it’s not a different kind of Dark magic influencing you. Is that all right?”
No, said the krait, wrapped around Harry’s wrist now and swaying back and forth in time with the dizzy motion of the python as it extended its great body down from the hooks in the ceiling, ready to crush Ron if Harry wanted it to. Tell him no. Brother, we can free you. You can go somewhere far away from here and start over. No one need ever know where you are, except us.
Harry felt something hot and wet in his eyes. He knew they were tears, that he was crying from that promise, that he found that vision tempting…
And he nodded to the Healer and covered his ears with his hands and shut his eyes, although he knew it wouldn’t matter, because he was mad and the snakes were inside his head with him. But at least it dimmed them a little bit.
The Healer tapped him gently on the shoulder when he was finished with the spells. Harry flinched violently, and felt the surge of power along the floor as the rattlesnake slid out in a smooth rush, aiming for the Healer’s ankles.
“Back,” Harry hissed, and the rattlesnake drew to a stop, gave him a look from flat eyes that nevertheless came across as disappointed, and vanished into the shadows under the chair again. The krait and the rat snake and a coral snake that had added itself to the shadows on his knees rose in defense. Harry brought his hand down sharply, feeling, for a moment, coils before the snakes puffed into smoke and vanished.
In the silence that followed, Harry found just himself sitting there, with the beat of his heart, and blinked. This was the first time he had been alone, without the snakes, in almost a week.
“That’s it,” the Healer breathed, and smiled at him. He was a trim, neat man with short dark hair and grey eyes that reminded Harry of someone, although he couldn’t say who. “That’s what I believe you need to do, Mr. Potter. Resist the snakes as hard as you can, send them away when they come to you. Reject the gift, and it may stop tormenting you. That was the only solution found for the Parselmouths of the past, for them to give up the magic.”
“But I want them to go away already,” Harry whispered, voice cracking. He tried to remember the last time he’d had something to drink, and couldn’t. The cup of tea on his desk had been full. “Don’t you think I want that?”
The Healer stared at him with a faintly grey face, and Harry realized that he must not have spoken in English again. He closed his eyes and thought of books, of Ginny’s mouth when they’d still been dating and she’d whisper his name, how people formed words and not hisses. Then he said it again.
“I know,” the Healer said, and patted his arm. Harry heard a hiss, and repressed the urge to hiss back. Ultimately, that would cause him more trouble than if he just ignored the snakes altogether. “But desire can be channeled by people who know how to help you, now that you’re here. You can purge your mind of any desire to retain this gift, and send it away. Do you see? Part of you probably still wants it, or it wouldn’t have stayed on.”
Harry nodded faintly. “Yeah.” He could see that. He had thought everyone was stupid when they were telling him in second year that Parseltongue was a Dark gift, and he had privately thought that it was a good thing that he could command that snake Malfoy had conjured not to attack Justin, or that he could understand what Nagini was saying when she and Voldemort talked. That had probably translated into thinking Parseltongue was okay, and he hadn’t felt the same revulsion towards it that he did towards his scar or the thought of his parents’ deaths.
But he’d have to learn.
“Good,” said the Healer, and patted Harry on the shoulder again. “My name is Matthew Lyons, by the way, and I’ll be the Healer in charge of your initial training. Shall we get started?”
“Oh, Draco, you must have misheard. I don’t think that he could have avoided having his Parseltongue cause him trouble before now; he’s had it so long. And the Ministry would never just march the Golden Boy off to forced confinement in St. Mungo’s. And Weasley wouldn’t discuss it in public.”
Draco leaned back on the couch and grinned. “Liar. You believe me. I know the way you look when you’re excited.”
Pansy’s face, hovering in the fireplace, took on the complex expression it wore when she was deciding whether or not to be offended. In the end, she laughed and nodded. “All right. And I’ll admit the gossip would be wonderful, Draco. But I don’t understand what you mean by wanting to do something else with it. Either the Healers will cure him or he’ll stay in St. Mungo’s for the rest of his life. Or he might commit suicide, I suppose. I hear that’s hard on your mind, the hallucinations that come along with it. Either way, what more can we do than spread the gossip?”
Draco had been considering that, and he had a book open on the couch beside him that gave him some answers. “Apparently, they only have the hallucinations of snakes and so on as long as they reject the gift,” he answered, flipping through the pages of A Natural History of Parseltongue. “Once they accept it, that goes away, and the magic is simply part of them. And of course, many of them never have the hallucinations in the first place, because they’re Dark wizards from the beginning.”
“And you think Potter would become a Dark wizard?” Pansy snorted. “Potter?”
“I’ve told you again and again that that particular gesture is unladylike,” Draco informed her primly. “And you didn’t see him, Pansy. I did.” He found himself shuddering for a moment, and closing his eyes, at the memory of the expression on Potter’s still, downturned face. “I think perhaps we could encourage him to embrace it, if only as an alternative to the things they’re going to do at St. Mungo’s. Things that won’t work.”
“Really?” Pansy rested her chin on her hand for a moment and reached up to fluff her dark hair. “I thought that I remembered reading they could cure Parselmouths.”
“Oh, yes,” Draco said. “By turning them into Squibs, or cursing them blind and mute so that they can’t see or speak to snakes again. They’ll tell Potter there’s another cure, and he’ll believe them, and in the end, that’s all it’ll be.” He slammed the book shut and leaned forwards to catch Pansy’s eye. “A fucking waste.”
Pansy blinked. “But why? Surely this is Potter getting what he’s always deserved for rejecting you? I thought you would see it that way, at least.”
“You think a lot of things that aren’t true,” Draco said, but without heat. It was true that Pansy could reasonably think that, with some of the things Draco had said and thought about Potter in the years since the war.
But Draco had matured from the spoilt little brat who had thought there was no honor in life higher than getting Potter in trouble with Umbridge. His tastes in revenge had changed, for one thing. What happened when you killed your enemy? They were dead, and that was all. There was no chance to watch them living with the humiliation, their faces flaming every time they looked at you.
It might make him laugh in his heart to know that Potter was finally succumbing to the Dark, but Potter stripped of his magic, in exile in the Muggle world, would be a Potter Draco would never see. And a Potter cursed blind and mute would probably spend all his time feeling sorry for himself. Or, no, working out how to deal with his disabilities and live a cheerful life despite them. That was more in the Gryffindor style.
And part of Draco’s being more mature was his ability to admit to himself that he hated seeing power go to waste. Even power that someone never used, even power that they denied and hated. Every wizard who chose to go back to the Muggle world, as many Muggleborns did after Hogwarts, was one who diminished magic.
Potter was almost certainly the only Parselmouth in Britain, perhaps one of the few living ones on the planet. To know that that gift had passed out of existence made Draco itch in the way that it would have if he had known the Deathly Hallows were destroyed, or that someone had burned a last rare spellbook, the only one that contained knowledge of charms and hexes that were otherwise lost. And there was no doubt that Potter’s Parseltongue would be lost, under the care of the Healers. They would persuade Potter to one or the other of their extreme solutions. Potter might suggest them himself, even.
Unless he could be made to see that even this was an opportunity. That embracing and living with his Dark gift meant life, and where life lingered, there were chances that should not be yielded.
He opened his eyes and saw Pansy watching him. “This is going to be like when you persuaded Blaise’s mum to teach you about rare poisons, isn’t it?” she said resignedly. “Or when you paid a fortune for Professor Snape’s notes. You want any magical knowledge to survive that you can.”
Draco nodded, and conjured up a smile. He knew Pansy would help him because she was his friend and shared some of the same convictions, but she didn’t take the pleasure in it that he did. She would need some incentive. “Besides, Pansy, think what will happen to the cause of the Dark Arts if we have Potter as a champion.”
From the way that Pansy’s breathing quickened and her eyes dilated a bit, Draco knew he had her.
Now I only have to find a way to have Potter, too.