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Harry sits at a table in the library, his hands wrapped around his head. English words still echo in his thoughts, mostly ones spoken by other people.

Freak! What kind of freak speaks like a snake?

What do you mean, he can’t speak English anymore?

But how are we going to break this curse, Professor Dumbledore?

I do not know that it can be broken, Miss Granger.

Harry, what do you want for lunch? Oh, um, sorry, I mean, do you want soup? Nod yes or shake your head.

Harry lifts his head and forces away all emotions with a long hiss that means something worse than “Fuck.” The one advantage of being cursed to speak only in Parseltongue, he thinks as he reaches for his quills and parchment. No one can scold you for swearing.

A bag heavy with books thumps down on the table next to him. Harry narrows his eyes and lays his hand on his wand, even though that’s an empty threat for right now. He still hasn’t mastered more than a few spells that he can cast without words.

“Mind if I sit here, Potter?”

The voice that speaks is utterly unfamiliar, but the face isn’t. Harry blinks and stares for a second. The boy leaning one hip against the table and looking as if no answer would surprise him has dark skin, dark hair, and ink-splattered hands that clutch a thick Potions book. He also has a Slytherin crest on his robes.

Harry draws the ever-present parchment towards him so he can scribble on it. Going to carry back tales to Malfoy and his minions? He turns it around so the Slytherin can read it.

The boy does read it, and snorts. “Honestly, he’s not that interesting. Besides, he spends all his time licking Umbridge’s boots now. He wouldn’t have time for friends if they promised to write all his Transfiguration essays for him.” He seems to take Harry’s permission as a given and throws himself into a chair across from Harry. “Blaise Zabini.” He holds out his hand.

Harry glances at it warily, mostly to make sure that he doesn’t have one of the twins’ pranks in it, and then shakes it. He does recognize Zabini, now that he thinks of it. He’s always sitting quietly in the back of the Potions classroom, or partnering with Theodore Nott over a cauldron. Harry can’t remember if he’s ever laughed at Harry when Malfoy threw something into his cauldron or this year when Snape made every cruel joke imaginable on muteness, but he probably did.

“Don’t need to look at me like I’ll bite, Potter,” Zabini murmurs, opening his Potions book. “I have an essay to write, same as you.”

And you don’t care about writing it with the human snake at the table next to you?

“I wish I could convey how little that matters to me,” Zabini says, twisting back upright in his seat after craning his neck to read the parchment. Harry feels a little offended. He would have pushed it all the way across the table so that Zabini could read it if he had just waited. “But you don’t know Legilimency, so you’ll have to take my word for it.”

Legilimency?

“The art of reading someone’s thoughts,” Zabini says. He’s flipping through his Potions book and frowning. “Did I write down the wrong page number? There’s nothing on here about the Draught of Peace.”

Harry hesitates. On the other hand, Zabini isn’t ignoring him the way so many people do because they don’t want to hear him hissing. Page two hundred twenty-three, he scribbles.

“Thanks, Potter.”

And then Zabini goes on—writing his Potions essay, apparently. Harry still studies him from the corner of his eye sometimes, but it’s actually surprisingly easy to work on his Transfiguration essay with someone sitting next to him, and then the book Hermione gave him of British Sign Language. Harry is dutifully learning it because Hermione is, but he doubts that he’ll get much use out of it at Hogwarts. It’s not like anyone except a couple Muggleborns will know it.

He looks up an hour later when Zabini gathers his books, nods to him, and starts to return to his book. Zabini taps him on the shoulder. Harry turns to him and hisses, “What?” before he can stop himself.

A second later he cringes in mortification, but Zabini only shakes his head and asks, “Aren’t you going to dinner? It started fifteen minutes ago. God knows that you don’t want to be later than that, with the way Weasley eats.”

Harry stares at him. Zabini taps his fingers on the curl of a scroll sticking out from under his arm. “Yes or no, Potter.”

It’s true that Zabini phrased his question in a way that Harry can answer with a gesture, and it’s true that not everyone is so courteous. Harry hesitates, then nods. Zabini gives the tumble of his books and parchment on the table an elegant raised eyebrow. Harry starts to pick it up.

Zabini waits for him, which is a strange thing, but they go separate ways once they get into the Great Hall, so it’s not a big deal. Harry settles himself at the Gryffindor table and fishes for a platter of roasted carrots that ended up in front of Ron. Zabini was right. They’re more than half gone.

Zabini, mate? You want to associate with him?”

That’s the kind of question Harry doubts he could answer even if he still spoke English. He shrugs instead. Ron looks uncomfortable the way he does whenever he remembers that Harry can’t talk now. However, he makes valiant attempts to include Harry in the conversation anyway.

Hermione flashes sign language at him, too, but she’s going too fast for Harry to keep up, although he thinks he recognizes the signs for “thank you” and “friend.” In the end, he tells her to talk to him in English, and because she’s patient enough to wait while he writes, they are able to talk.

Sort of. But Harry wishes, more than anything, that this curse was gone.

*

“Detention, Mr. Potter. For willful refusal to answer a professor when she asks you a question.”

Umbridge says that again and again, and each time, Harry can’t do anything but stare at his desk and prove her point, because the other students get so upset if he says anything in Parseltongue. And now he’s staring at the back of his hand covered in bleeding marks from the blood quill and wondering—

He pushes the thought aside. It wouldn’t work anyway. He tried to go to Professor McGonagall, and she let him only get as far as writing Umbridge’s name before she was telling him to keep his head down and stay away from Umbridge.

What if I can’t?

Harry shakes his head and casts the healing charm that congeals the blood on top of his hand. He’s getting better at nonverbal spells purely by necessity. Then he starts walking towards Gryffindor Tower.

“Fifty points from Gryffindor for being out after curfew, Potter.”

Harry turns his head, watching Malfoy with flat, dead eyes as he comes prancing up the corridor and stands in front of him, chuckling. Magic stirs softly inside Harry’s body. He wants to do something, anything, that will punish Malfoy, but he can’t, not when Malfoy is part of the Inquisitorial Squad.

“What’s the matter, Potter? Cat got your tongue?” Malfoy pauses, then adds, “Another fifty points from Gryffindor for not answering a perfect. And anyway, I suppose it’s a snake that has it. Or maybe Diggory?”

Harry strikes before he can think about it, but not with a fist to Malfoy’s nose. Instead, he hisses violently, “Fuck you!”, and a wave of power seems to sweep out of his tongue, picking up Malfoy and throwing him across the corridor. For a minute, he hangs against the wall, vivid bruises showing against his throat as if invisible fingers are gripping there. Then he falls.

Harry runs over to him. Malfoy is still breathing, but his eyes are wide open and staring at Harry, and terror and rage are battling so strongly that Harry isn’t sure which one will emerge on top.

Harry tries something else. “Forget,” he orders in Parseltongue, concentrating all his magic on how much he hates Malfoy and how much he doesn’t want his House to blame him for losing points.

Malfoy’s eyes glaze, and then he blinks and looks around the way Lockhart did after he was hit with his backfired Memory Charm. Harry turns and hurries away, rounding several corners before he dares to relax.

“Impressive, Potter.”

Harry ducks and turns around with one hand raised in front of him. It might actually be a deadly weapon, now. But Zabini only smiles at him from the door of what looks like an abandoned storage room he stepped out of.

“Merlin knows I’ve wanted to do the same thing to Malfoy myself, many a time,” he says, and shakes his head. “I wanted to say thank you.”

Harry wishes he had parchment at hand, because he wants to ask why in the world Zabini doesn’t like Malfoy, when they’re Slytherins together. But Zabini, watching his face raptly, seems to understand without writing.

“Malfoy’s a prat,” he says, quietly but intensely. “He assumes that everyone agrees with him just because we’re in the same House he is, and he’s so unpleasant that he makes the rest of you lot believe it and you all avoid us.”

There’s lingering bitterness there. Harry hesitates, then tries to make a gesture he hopes won’t be misunderstood. He points to the Gryffindor crest on his own robes, to the Slytherin crest on Zabini’s, and gives a massive shrug.

“Really, Potter? You’re heading in that direction?”

Half my House hates me because I can speak like a snake, and the other half is terrified out of their wits,” Harry says, glancing away, discovering one more small advantage of Parseltongue. He can speak the truth and no one will ever know.

Zabini circles around in front of him, as if he wants to see Harry’s eyes, which is disconcerting. Harry blinks at him. No one ever wants to see his eyes when he’s speaking like a snake.

“I don’t know what you said, but from the tone, let me guess,” Zabini murmurs. “More bitterness? Like mine?”

Harry sighs, and his fingers twitch. To his utter surprise, Zabini digs a quill and parchment out of his satchel and hands them over. Harry braces them against the wall to write with. Not for exactly the same reason. I hate Malfoy and he is a prat, but I was thinking of the fact that Gryffindors dislike me for having Slytherin traits. House differences don’t seem like a big deal right now.

Zabini nods to him thoughtfully. “Yeah, I can see that.” He falls silent, and Harry realizes he’s waiting. For more? Not even Hermione is always this patient when he writes; the latest thing she wants him to learn is shorthand, which she can read.

Harry hesitates, then puts down, The Hat wanted me in Slytherin. I don’t see as big a difference between the Houses as I used to when I was in first year.

Zabini’s mouth falls softly open as he reads that. He glances up. “And you think that you belong there because of your Parseltongue?”

Harry nods, shrugs, shakes his head. Zabini seems to understand without the need for more parchment explanations. He nods back and then checks over his shoulder. “I think Malfoy is probably fully conscious by now. You should get to Gryffindor Tower.”

Thanks, Harry writes. He doesn’t know exactly what he’s thanking Zabini for, but it makes him grin when he reads it, which brings a little thump of excitement to Harry’s heart.

“You’re welcome, Potter.” For an instant, Zabini touches his shoulder in a way that’s almost like when Ron does it. “Now, go on. Don’t make me waste my good will on a Gryffindor who can’t even listen when someone tells him the rules.”

Harry bolts for Gryffindor Tower. His hand doesn’t hurt as much, and he’s grinning hard enough when he reaches the Tower not to mind the way the first-years in the common room shift away from him.

*

“The Headmaster says that we are to begin Occlumency lessons, Potter.”

That was the beginning of a torturous series of “lessons” for Harry, who doesn’t even get to talk to Dumbledore himself anymore because Dumbledore looks away the minute he enters a room and ignores his owls. Harry sometimes isn’t sure what hurts more, his head or his hand.

He soldiers on, bearing it, because there’s nothing else he can do, and he knows that defeating Voldemort is important, and there’s no one except Voldemort who can listen to him anyway. But one evening, he closes his eyes and leans against the wall to rest when he comes out of Snape’s classroom, and Zabini finds him there.

“Merlin, Potter. What happened to you?”

Harry cracks one eye and says nothing, of course. But Zabini doesn’t go away. He stands in front of him as if he wants an answer. He’s also holding a quill and parchment out to Harry, and Harry takes them without hesitation even though the skin on his hand is stretched painfully over the bleeding words and Hermione keeps nagging him about learning sign language instead of writing.

Remedial Potions. And Umbridge’s detentions.

Zabini stares at his hand for a second. Then he stares at the writing. Then he says, “If she dares to torture you, she could do it to other students, right?”

Harry shrugs. Zabini’s stare says that isn’t going to be good enough, so Harry sighs and writes, Some other students have had detention with her. Mostly Gryffindors and Ravenclaws, though. No Slytherins. I don’t think you have to worry.

“Because I could only worry about myself, because Slytherins are so selfish, right, Potter?”

Harry rolls his eyes with careful expressiveness and hands the quill and parchment back to Zabini. He doesn’t have time for this right now. He turns to walk back to the Tower. There’s the chance that Hermione will have more Essence of Murtlap.

Zabini grabs his arm. Harry spins around with a hiss that, for once, doesn’t mean anything. That sent a jolt of pain up his arm, which means down to his hand, and shit, it hurts.

“You need to get this looked at, Potter,” Zabini says, looking at Harry’s face instead of his hand. “That means Madam Pomfrey.”

Harry makes his eyeroll even larger this time. Madam Pomfrey is afraid of him just like all the rest. She pities him, sure, but she can’t control her flinch when he starts speaking in Parseltongue. And just like so many other people, she doesn’t have the patience to read his writing. That means Harry has no way of telling her what he needs anyway.

“You’ll come with me if I have to Stun you,” Zabini says, in a cold voice that puts Malfoy’s best threatening efforts to shame.

Harry stares at him. Why do you care? he mouths. Sometimes he can do that, and the motions do emerge in English instead of Parseltongue.

“Because you’re—you’re still alive,” Zabini says in a rush that Harry wouldn’t have thought any Slytherin capable of. “You faced the Dark Lord last year, and you’re still here. You don’t complain about the way Umbridge is targeting you and your House is blaming you and Snape is doing whatever he does that makes you look like you’re going to collapse. Gryffindors aren’t the only ones who admire courage, Harry. I can see—someday you’re going to be great. If other people don’t grind you into nothing before then because they can’t understand how special you could be.”

Harry stares at him some more. This has to be some kind of plot or trap, except he doesn’t see how. It’s not like he will believe in Zabini’s goodness and follow him around until Zabini can deliver him to Voldemort.

Zabini catches his eye, and snorts, seeming to understand a lot of what Harry wants to say but can’t, as usual. “I don’t want to serve the Dark Lord. So that’s part of it. But I also look for people who could be great, or important, or interesting. Call it a family weakness.”

Harry feels a faint uneasiness. He’s heard the rumors about Zabini’s mother and the string of husbands she’s buried. On the other hand, it seems weird that Zabini would admit to that, now.

“I’m not close to anyone in my year at Slytherin because I don’t see that kind of potential in them. I only deserve to spend my time with the best.”

Harry snorts. Now that sounds familiar.

“I kept waiting for you to crumble, or break and whine, or lose your temper in some spectacular fashion. But you just kept silent.”

Harry points one thumb at his throat.

“You could have made yourself known if you wanted to, Potter. Merlin knows you have with me, and I’ve barely spent time with you. But you just endured, instead. What I worry about now is that all that quality is going to be wasted because you’re too stubborn to realize when you can’t handle things on your own.”

Harry shrugs, and then stops. That really hurts his hand.

“If you absolutely won’t go to the hospital wing, I have Essence of Murtlap,” Zabini says quietly. “And other potions that will work better, that will make the scar heal completely. If she says anything about it,” he adds, when Harry opens his mouth again, “well, she can hardly do it publically, without acknowledging what she’s doing, can she? And if she does it in private…”

He pushes a vial into Harry’s hand. Harry looks down at it. To his perplexity, it’s filled with small purple four-sided crystals, not a potion.

“This will take care of it.”

Harry stares wildly at the crystals, then wildly at Zabini. Zabini lifts his eyebrows and nods to him without a smile.

“It’s exactly what you think it is. And if you need to use it, then you should.”

He turns and strides away before Harry can demand anything further. Harry starts on his way back to Gryffindor Tower.

Zabini actually catches up with him on the way there, but the only thing he does is tap Harry on the shoulder and hand over a vial that stinks with what Harry knows well is Essence of Murtlap, plus a sloshing bottle printed with directions Harry squints at. Then he turns around and makes off without a word.

Harry finds a deserted staircase to smear on the Essence of Murtlap. Reading the directions on the bottle reminds him of the ones on some of Aunt Petunia’s Muggle medicine, only oddly wizardly. Take in front of a mirror and before a red flame.

Harry does go into the bathroom when he gets back to the Tower and conjure a red flame from his wand. Then he swallows the potion in the bottle, which is green and gurgles like the ocean and tastes like the underside of someone’s bookbag.

He locks eyes with himself in the mirror. He supposes he can see why Zabini stopped him. He’s pale and his face is stripped of every one of his defenses and his eyes are incredibly grim. He looks like he might jump off a cliff or do something else desperate.

But Zabini definitely underestimated how desperate he was. Harry locks the little vial with the purple crystals up. He’s not going to use it.

But when he wakes up in the morning, his hand is entirely healed except for a slightly shiny scar that forms the word I, and the pain in his head has eased. And Harry spends some time thinking about Zabini’s words about quality and how he can appreciate someone special and stubborn.

Probably rubbish, of course, all going back to Zabini’s desire not to be a Death Eater. But it’s nice to be hear the words.

*

There’s not one particular thing that pushes Harry to do it. Umbridge of course stepped up the detentions again when she realized the scar on his hand was gone, and Harry of course said nothing. People keep telling him to be quiet and bear with it, and fine. That’s what he’s trying to do.

But the pain got worse immediately, and Snape’s Occlumency lessons have lately started with him ripping memories of the Dursleys out of Harry’s head and mocking him mercilessly for being so weak as to let Muggles torment him, and Ginny told him today that she’s sorry but listening to him mutter Parseltongue under his breath when he’s upset reminds her of You-Know-Who, and Malfoy ruined his potion again today and…

So it’s not one particular thing. It’s the enormous, swarming ball of misery that his life has been since Voldemort cursed him.

“Dear, dear, Mr. Potter,” Umbridge says, clucking her tongue at him as she stands up from her desk. “If you were in so much pain that you had to stop writing, you could have asked for an early end to the detention.”

Harry looks up at her smug face, and opens his mouth. But this time, what he hisses is not a comment or a curse but a command.

Come to me, snakes from the portraits on this floor.”

“Were you cursing out your Defense professor?” Umbridge asks, widening her eyes and putting a hand over her heart. “Of course, perhaps everything you say in a beast-language sounds like that, but that’s why you need to speak English, Mr. Potter. Can you say it after me? Eng-lish.”

Harry is looking past her. As he was envisioning when he spoke the command but hardly dared hope for, serpents are appearing in every single kitten plate she owns, crowding out the cats in most cases. But a particularly large python that Harry thinks he remembers in a jungle landscape threatening a knight has a kitten halfway down its throat, and a cobra is killing another with rapid strikes.

He’s staring a little with his mouth open, and it becomes obvious to Umbridge. She turns around, and lets out what Harry thinks is the first genuine noise of distress he’s ever heard from her. “W-what are you doing? Stop this right now, Mr. Potter!”

Harry stands up, smiling. The pain in his hand seems to diminish. “Come to me, more serpents,” he calls, and pours all his will into the Parseltongue, the way he’s been working on mastering nonverbal casting.

More snakes appear, shoving aside the ones in the portraits so they can crowd in. One even makes it into the photograph of herself and Cornelius Fudge that Umbridge keeps on her desk, swaying and looking stately and impressive. Harry grins. It’s one of the stone snakes that he sees wreathed around the sconces near the Slytherin dungeons.

It makes him think of Zabini.

Umbridge quivers and sobs for a little while, but then she turns around. Her wand is out. And the first thing she snaps is, “Crucio!”

Harry screams as he falls to the floor, convulsing. His bloodied hand flops back and the pain makes him want to faint for a second as it hits the stone, but then the agony racing through his body is so much worse that he forgets all about it. More blood trickles from his mouth and nostrils, and then he is gone, not aware of that or how his shrieks have an edge of a hiss to them. He just hurts, and hurts, and hurts.

It’s not as bad as Voldemort’s Cruciatus, but it goes on a lot longer. By the time Umbridge lifts the spell, Harry is panting on the floor, black spots whirling in front of his eyes. He looks up and blinks. There’s kind of a mist floating in front of him, too. He hopes, distantly, that it didn’t damage his eyes.

Umbridge stands above him, still panting, wand still aimed. She smiles at him, though, and whispers, “You can tell someone about this if you want and can persuade anyone to listen to you, Mr. Potter. It won’t matter. I am the absolute authority in Hogwarts at the moment, and that is going to remain the truth as long as you’re a student.”

Pure hatred rushes through Harry. It’s oddly freeing. He thought he hated her before. He thought he hated Voldemort. But he’s never hated like this.

And he makes his decision in that moment.

*

How do I use the crystals?

Harry sends the letter to Zabini with one of the school owls. Hedwig’s way too distinctive, and there’s at least the chance that a Slytherin student’s post won’t be stopped and inspected the way Harry is sure his own is.

The response comes back to him with the flood of morning post, when no one can count or notice one letter dropped near his plate among the hundreds of other school owls. Harry seizes it and tucks it under his robes, ignoring the way that the words on the back of his hand break open again. He’s used to eating with his right hand turned so that the blood drips down the side of his wrist, anyway.

He reads it later, in History of Magic, which Umbridge’s inroads into the other professors still hasn’t managed to affect.

You need to carry them into her presence and crush them. Then you need to throw them at her and cast a Bubblehead Charm right away. You mustn’t breathe them in.

Zabini has underlined “mustn’t” so hard that his quill must almost have broken through the parchment. Harry finds himself smiling at it for long moments before he tucks it away.

Hermione catches his attention and flashes her hands slowly through something in BSL. Harry can catch the signs for “letter” and “what,” and that tells him well enough what she’s asking, but he stubbornly writes his answer. He doesn’t know enough BSL yet to say anything so complex in it. Hermione is still the only one who’ll practice with him.

Someone saying they believe in me that Voldemort is back.

Hermione’s face softens, and she makes at least one sign that includes the word “Good!” Then she goes back to writing down what Binns is saying.

Harry practices the Bubblehead Charm that night instead of sleeping, until he can do it flawlessly even when he’s not concentrating on the English incantation.

*

In his next detention with Umbridge, Harry only has the patience to wait until Umbridge is sitting behind her desk chuckling to herself as she fails Gryffindor Defense essays. Then he pulls the vial containing the crystals from his pocket.

“Mr. Potter, what on earth¬—”

Harry crushes the crystals while staring straight at her, and then casts the Bubblehead Charm. He throws the spewing pods of the crystal into the air. What looks like dozens of glittering purple seeds drift up and out, arching like dandelion fluff towards Umbridge’s desk and the floor.

Umbridge stumps to her feet and moves towards him, her wand out again. She starts to speak the first syllabus of the Cruciatus Curse, and Harry feels something painful move in his chest as he realizes that maybe Zabini was lying to him after all. Maybe he’s even on Umbridge’s side—

Then Umbridge coughs.

She keeps coughing, and that handily disrupts any chance she has to cast the torture curse at him. Harry backs away anyway, watching in fascination as Umbridge bends at the waist and continues to hack, her hands lifted and pressed against her chest. He wonders if she’ll start vomiting blood or something.

But no. Instead, enormous purple tendrils burst from inside Umbridge’s chest and reach up and tear off her face. Harry stares with his mouth open. Blood splashes onto the floor, and guts, and other things that Harry can’t identify. He backs another few steps away, so that blood won’t get on his robes.

Umbridge was probably dead when the plants tore open the front of her chest, Harry thinks later. Nevertheless, she keeps trying to crawl towards him, and grip her wand. Her mouth is open in a breathless scream.

And then her whole body slumps over, and turns mushy, and into something that smells a lot like the fertilizer that some people on Privet Drive spread on their gardens. And out of Umbridge’s back bursts an enormous purple flower.

Harry swallows. He doesn’t know if the air is safe to breathe yet. But he stands and memorizes what Umbridge looks like. Then he ducks out of the room and carefully releases the Bubblehead Charm. He doesn’t start coughing and turn into plant food.

He’s alive, and Umbridge is dead, and it’s thanks to Zabini that she is.

Harry stands there for a few minutes, quietly planning his lies. He’s going to be questioned. Pretty much everyone knew that he had detention with Umbridge tonight. It’s not like he can escape suspicion.

But there are things he can do that might mitigate it.

Harry casts a few spells like Lumos and Wingardium Leviosa to hide the fact that he cast the Bubblehead Charm. Then he reaches down, after bracing himself for the jolt of pain, and digs his fingers into the wound on the back of his hand. He screams as he opens it wider, but luckily, even his screams are in Parseltongue now. No one comes to find out what the dusty hisses in an old corner of an even older corridor mean.

Then he turns and walks back into the chamber. He tosses the vial into a corner, braces himself—but what is this kind of pain after what he’s already gone through this year?—and flings himself, hard, into the floor.

The crack shoots through his head like the memory of his mother screaming in front of Voldemort, and then he knows no more for a long period of time.