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to be known as himself

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The first friend Harry had ever made left in the morning, and Harry realized he was going to miss the green snake dreadfully.

“Please come back and visit,” he said. 

Its tongue flicked the air noncommittally. “Well, you know what we had to do to get here. Flying, snake horses, centaurs. Lots of fear. You, though, you should visit me! You always have a place with my family. Perhaps not literally, but you know….” 

“Ok,” Harry whispered. “It’s just that I’ll miss you.” 

“Oh—” the snake flicked its tongue across Harry’s nose. “Well, I suppose I’ll miss you too, snakeheart. Goodbye.” 

“Goodbye.” 

Harry sat and watched despondently as it slithered into the pipes and away. In the empty cave, a water droplet plinked loudly.

“Well.” 

That voice, it was like a cavern. The basilisk was so big it was as if the walls themselves were moving, stones grinding together to produce words. 

“Well, Snakeheart, what now?” 

Harry would have liked to look at it. Instead, he looked at how its scales shimmered with light it seemed to emit itself. “Can I really stay?” 

“I said you could, did I not?” The snake curled and coiled. Harry turned his head away warily. “I am in your debt, Snakeheart, and my word is my honor.”

Harry’s stomach gave a long, low rumble.

“What was that?” 

“I’m hungry,” Harry said quietly. “Do you have any food?” 

“No. I only eat every few weeks.” His heart sank. “But I will go hunt, as it is now my responsibility to provide for you. Stay…right here until I get back.”

“Right in this spot?” 

“No, in the hall, two-legger. The hall or the den.”

“Alright. Anything else I should know?” 

The basilisk started across the hall. “I am sure you will find out.” 

He watched out of the corner of his eye as the basilisk squeezed its massive girth into a pipe. It took several long, slithering seconds for it to disappear from sight entirely.

He let out a choked sigh and looked around. Without the basilisk’s inner light, the hall was pitch black. He could make out the smaller den only because of the faint green glow cast by the spell within. He dropped to his hands and knees to crawl across the hall and back inside, not wanting to trip over any rubble on the floor. 

He could feel the change the moment he entered the den: the floor was warm to the touch. The night before, he had slept here, curled against the basilisk’s glowing scales while the green snake coiled atop his heart. 

He closed his eyes for a moment, leaning against the wall. When he opened them, the filmy greenness of the spell didn’t seem real. Was this a dream? The sensations of his recent journey were leaving him—what had the wind felt like atop the thestrals? He couldn’t remember exactly. If he was dreaming and he woke up, he didn’t think his heart could take it. But in this moment there was nothing, nothing to hold on to.

His breathing was getting harder, his body was starting to shake, and all of a sudden there was a prickle in his chest—something hot, not unlike tears, but much, much hotter. It fizzled down his arms and crept across his palms and exploded, and in the sudden burst of fire the cave was illuminated. For three seconds he stared around at the small cavern, indented in the middle where the green dome squatted over several large eggs, and the entrance back into the hall. Then the light ended, and he was alone again.

Not a dream. Not a dream.

And if it wasn’t a dream, and he had done magic, and he was in a huge snake’s den that was even know fetching him food, then he was lives away from his cupboard, and he would never have to think of it again.

His palms tingled but didn’t hurt. He remembered that day with the snake, when he had lit a fire. Hands to the ground, he swept the debris around him into a pile, and tried to do it again. What had he done? He had sort of thought of fire…and pushed out

FOOM.

He sat back and covered his eyes until the memory of flame stopped blooming behind his eyelids, and decided he would have to make a sacrifice: his socks. 

Wiggling bare toes inside his trainers, he pushed the magic out again, and set his socks ablaze. As soon as they caught, he scrambled around, using the meager light to look for any kind of wood. He found some scattered sticks that he piled atop his socks. 

The blaze settled, at least for a moment, and he sat back feeling quite accomplished and only a little singed. The taste of his brief panic was fading into oblivion. He didn’t need the fire for warmth, but sight was good. Sight was very, very good.

With the fire to anchor him, he crawled back over to the entrance to the hall, peering cautiously out. Even if the basilisk hadn’t told him to stay here, he would have anyway. A huge, crumbling statue of a man stood right in front of the opening he looked out of, obscuring it from the front. A dilapidated fountain slumped in the middle of the floor, crumbled stone benches flanked the walls, and long-faded murals were decipherable from this distance as nothing more than smudges of color on stone.

The vast emptiness of the hall made Harry nervous. He spotted the remnants of a piece of wooden furniture, scrambled out, and dragged as much of the wood as he could back into the den. He dumped it on his fire and huddled beside it.

His stomach growled.

Be patient, he told himself. You’ve been hungrier than this. Gathering some pebbles and stones into a pile, he began to build a fort. 

small lilac sprout

In the midst of a great battle between pebble wizards, rock centaurs, and small green twig snakes, the basilisk returned. Its movements sounded like the susurrus of wind through leaves. He remembered not to look in its eyes just as he was turning around, and clapped his hands over them until the basilisk said it was okay. 

He was incredibly relieved it was back, but the sound of it scraping against the stone sent strange, subconscious fear plunging into his stomach.

“You made a fire,” hissed the basilisk. “And you say you are no wizard.” 

Harry thought about that. “I don’t know. I don’t—I didn’t believe in wizards. I’ve never seen one, even.” 

“You’ll see them in the school.” 

“What do they teach there?” 

“Wizardry. Magic. I don’t care beyond that. I only know that you may learn something there that can help my children.” 

“Right. Is there water here? I’m thirsty.” 

“See that depression in the corner? Rainfall collects there, after a long journey down.” 

Minding the basilisk’s gaze, Harry crawled over to the corner, and found old damage to the stone had created a small bowl. He had four palmfuls of delicious stale water before he realized that maybe he should have left some for later. 

“Oh….” he said. Something shivery trembled in his chest, and his throat tightened. “When will it rain again, do you think?” 

He felt the basilisk looking over his shoulder, a dark and overwhelming presence. “I do not know. I don’t drink much.” 

“I do!” 

“Let me think on it. In the meantime, I have brought you food.” With its tail, it nudged something over to the fire. It was a dead rabbit. “You humans still cook your food, don’t you?”

“Um.” Harry poked the rabbit, trying not to think of how the Dursley’s neighbors had had a pet rabbit. “Yes.” He couldn’t say no, could he? He had to eat. And he knew how to cook meat, from the Dursleys, but not how to get it off an animal. The mouse experiment had proved that.

“What’s wrong?” 

“I…I just….” His voice hitched. Oh, no. He scrubbed his arm across is face, but it was too late. 

“What are you doing? What has upset you?” The basilisk started coiling and uncoiling with anxiety, making huge nail-scraping noises echo around the chamber.

“I’m sorry!” He felt as if he would throw up. “I don’t know how to do it, I’m sorry for crying! Please don’t make me leave!” He couldn’t stop, though, he just couldn’t stop.

“Child….” The basilisk sounded baffled. It had never called him “child” before. To Harry’s shock and fright, the tip of its tail curled around him, squeezing just a little too hard. He thought it might have been a hug, but he hadn’t ever been hugged, so he couldn’t tell for sure. 

“You don’t have to eat the rabbit!” the basilisk said. “I’ll eat it! Are you wounded? What’s happening to your face?” 

The basilisk didn’t know what crying was. It sounded scared. The thought was so funny that it shook away a little of Harry’s upset and fear. 

“I’m—I’m just crying,” Harry said, trying hard to stop. “I don’t know what’s wrong.” 

“Do you need healing?” 

“I’m not hurt. It’s just tears.” 

“What are tears?” 

He was starting to calm down having someone to explain to. “Two-leggers cry tears when they’re upset, or scared, or hurt, or sad, or other things. But I’m not supposed to do it.” 

The basilisk was quiet. “Why not? Is it dangerous?” 

“No. My aunt tells me not to.” 

“What’s an aunt?” 

“The person who took care of me.” 

“Why did she say not to?” 

Harry bit his lip. “I’m a nuisance when I cry. But Dudley cries all the time and she’s never upset with him.” 

“Dudley?” The basilisk sounded like it was trying to keep a hundred tangled threads straight in its head.

“My cousin. My aunt’s child. He’s horrible.”
 
“And your aunt…is it horrible too?” 

“Yes.” 

Silence. The tears had stopped at last. The rabbit was still sitting in front of him, though. 

“I’m coming close. ‘Ware my eyes.” 

“Wear them? How?” 

“Beware them.” 

“Oh. Okay.” 

He felt the basilisk’s head coming to rest next to him. He kept his gaze low so he was looking at its mouth, smooth with scales the size of his palms, and its nostrils, which flared and twitched constantly. It took the rabbit delicately in its fangs and tossed it to the side, then bumped its massive head against Harry’s arm. It was like being nudged by a car. 

“You can cry if you want. So long as it is not dangerous. Why are you upset?” 

“I don’t know.” Harry sniffed. “I’ve never been away from the Dursleys. I’m cold and hungry. I drank all the water. And I don’t know how to cook a rabbit.” 

The basilisk thought for a moment. “You need a knife,” it said at last.

“A knife?”

“I’m sure of it. You use a knife to…to take the skin off.” 

“Do you have one?” 

“I have….” The basilisk uncurled its tail from him and went into the hall, where it clanged and clashed around for a few moments. When it came back in, it sent a jeweled dagger skittering across the floor to him. “There. Will you try it?” 

Harry looked from the knife to the rabbit. It was dead and disgusting, but he was growing hungrier and hungrier. Had his last meal really been dandelions and berries in the forest? No, there had been vegetables from that garden…. “Yes. I’ll try.” 

With the basilisk looking over his shoulder curiously, Harry discovered that even with a knife and the instruction to remove the skin, he still did not know how to get meat from a rabbit. In the end, the basilisk advised him to set the whole bloody thing on a rock near the fire and wait til it smelled right.

Harry did so, and sat for a dubious moment watching it. His forearms itched. He scratched them, watched dried blood flake to the ground, and realized he was covered in dried blood and holding a knife like a villain one of the movies Uncle Vernon liked. He started to laugh.

The basilisk laughed hesitantly along with him, a hissing, heaving sound that had a worried air. “Why are you laughing?” it asked him. “Weren’t you just crying?”

“I don’t know,” Harry said. It felt good, though. He let the laugh run its course, and when he had finished he felt lighter, like he had splashed cold water on his face. “How am I going to find out how to cook a rabbit, basilisk?” 

The basilisk gave an excited shimmy, which gave the impression that the walls were wiggling. “You can ask the elves!” 

“The…elves?”

“Yes, the house elves! They live in the kitchen and do the cooking. Quick, take it off the fire.” 

Harry pulled the poor rabbit from the rock. “How do I get to the kitchen?”
 
“Follow me.” 

Harry traipsed after the basilisk into the hall, and then beyond. On the other side of the statue hall was an expanse of corridors, which they walked straight through until they came to a pipe. As the basilisk started to slide into it, Harry took a risk and hopped onto the tip of its tail, squeezing tight with his arms and legs. 

The basilisk paused, then gave a hissing laugh and took off at full speed. They slid so fast through the pipes they almost seemed to fly, and in that flight Harry forgot everything but joy. He let out elated yells in the darkness as they took turns at high speed, though the basilisk’s faint shine lightened it from pitch blackness. 

Finally, sadly, the basilisk slid to a stop. “Come up to my head, Snakeheart.”

Harry hopped off, stumbling a little, and walked up. There was a pinprick of light coming from a tiny aperture, just enough to see a carving of three intertwined snakes. 

“Remember this sigil,” the basilisk advised. “Where there are snakes, there is a door. Bid them open or closed in our language and it will be done. Once you are through here, exit the room, turn left, and keep going until you see a painting of fruit. Tickle the pair, and that’s the kitchen. I will await you here."

“Right.” Harry took a deep breath and looked at the emblem. “Open.” 

A hidden doorway in the wall swung open. With a reassuring nudge from the basilisk, he stepped out of the pipes and into a bathroom.

A bathroom!

“Close,” he told the sink, which was what had swung open. He heard the basilisk hiss “good luck,” as it shut. 

The mirror above the sink swung back into place, and he was confronted with his reflection.

His own appearance was so frightening that he actually spun round, looking for the disgusting creature in the mirror. He was covered in dirt and blood; his hair, which had never lain flat, was defying gravity in new and terrifying ways; he was scraped and bruised and clutching a dead, bloody rabbit.

There was a pile of hand towels by the sink. He wrapped the rabbit in one of them and set it down, and then dedicated a solid ten minutes to making himself look as human as possible. He didn’t quite achieve it, but he did at least make liberal use of the soap.

Once he could be improved no further, he took his towel-rabbit and exited the bathroom. Only as he walked down the hallway did it strike him that perhaps there was a need for secrecy. Fast on the heels of that thought was the observation that no-one had been in the bathroom, and now no-one was in this corridor. He couldn’t hear anyone, anywhere. Where were the supposed wizards?

A few seconds later he came upon what the painting. Feeling slightly foolish, he reached out and tentatively tickled the pear. 

It scared him so badly he nearly fled back to the bathroom when the pear actually giggled, and transformed into a doorknob. He spent a good few seconds just staring at it, until it gave a grumpy huff and started transforming back. Before it could, he seized it and pulled open the door.

Burning sunlight, gleaming brass, and a swirl of spices washed over him. His eyes watered, already accustomed to cavern lighting, and he squinted furiously against the glare. The kitchen must have been as large as the basilisk’s hall, full of sparkling pots and pans stoves and ovens, and four massive tables, the room made even more expansive by the seven huge windows that were letting the afternoon sunlight into the room. Harry was glad to know it was afternoon; he had lost all track of time.

And the food. Vegetables hung from the ceiling a full story up, baskets laden with gleaming fruit rested on countertops; in a fireplace a pot of something was simmering, sending nearly visible waves of flavor into the air. Harry’s stomach turned into a bottomless pit; he wiped a bit of drool from the corner of his mouth. 

“Er.”

Oh, yes. And there were three creatures at the nearest table to him, playing cards.

They stared at him with as much astonishment as he did them. They were short, only as tall as his shoulders, with huge furry ears, bulbous eyes, pointed noses, and long spindly fingers. They all seemed to be wearing tea towels.  

Finally, the one sitting nearest him, with a long face and nose, leapt up. “A boy!” 

The one across from it, with freckles across its face, stood as well. “Is you lost?”

The third one, with ears that stuck almost straight up, began gathering up the cards. “We is only taking a small break!” 

“I…I….” You are a secret, some small part of Harry recalled. “I’m…not a boy!” 

They looked at him, incredulous as one. Harry flushed.

“What is you, then?” asked the freckled elf, for that is what they had to be.

“I is…I’m a…” Think, think! Elves and centaurs and basilisks… what can you be? “I’m a fairy!” 

“You…is a fairy.” 

Harry clung to the story.” “Yes. I…is a fairy. And I’ll grant you a wish if you don’t tell anyone I’m here.” 

The elves looked at each other. The one with the freckles smiled slyly. “I wants a wish.” 

Harry swallowed. He wasn’t a fairy, but couldn’t he do magic? Maybe he could manage a wish. “What do you want?” 

The elf put a long finger to his face, lips pursed in thought. “I wants….”

“Yes?” 

“I wants to know why a dirty boy is in Hogwarts over winter holiday. That’s what I wants.”

“Drippy!” the long-nosed elf scolded. “You is mean.” 

Winter holiday. That explained why no one was around. But Harry was clean out of lies, and something told him he needed to make some kind of deal with these elves quickly.

“I live here now,” he said hastily. “What do you want for not telling anyone about me?” 

“That’s more like it,” said Drippy. “You’s not here to hurt anyone, is you?”

“No!” 

“Swear it,” said the elf with the pointy ears. “Swear it on your life.” The look in the elf’s eyes was abruptly chilling.

“I swears—I swear it on my life.” The air around them went shivery and tense for a second. 

“Good,” said the long-nosed elf.

“So you won’t tell anyone?” Harry asked.

“We isn’t saying that yet,” said Drippy. 

The long-nosed rolled its eyes. “No, we won’t be telling,” it said. “So long as you helps us when we asks for it.” 

“Helps you? With what?”

“Whatever we asks of you,” said the long-nosed elf. All three elves stared at him. Their eyes, bulbous and pale, were suddenly eerie. 

“Well…okay,” agreed Harry. 

There was a prick on Harry’s hand. He raised it to look: there was a small black circle on the meat of his thumb. 

“Your promise,” said Drippy. “What’s your name, anyway?”

“Oh, um. Snake.” 

Drippy rolled his eyes. “Okay, Snake. This is Norry,” he pointed to the long-nosed elf, “and Tippy.” The pointy-eared elf wiggled her ears. 

“What have you gots?” Norry asked, pointing at his towel bundle.

“Oh.” He unwrapped it. The elves took a horrified step back at the sight of the mangled rabbit carcass. “Can you teach me to cook this?” 

Two hours later, Harry had gone through the stages of discomfort, revulsion, curious intrigue, and finally practical acceptance. Drippy taught him to skin and gut the rabbit, Norry showed him how to clean the innards and which to save, and Tippy demonstrated the art of cooking it over an open flame, which she had been horrified to hear was Harry’s only means of cooking. 

They shared the finished meal together, after Harry insisted, over a game of euchre, which Tippy made them play since they now had the correct number.

The elves sent him away with a full stomach, a small sack of vegetables and fruits, and a reminder, with an ominous timbre to their voices, to not forget his two promises: to harm no one in the castle, and to help them when they called.

Back in the bathroom, he bade the door open then closed, and was greeted by the basilisk hesitantly inquiring into his emotional state.

“I’m good,” he said, climbing onto it’s back. “I know how to cook a rabbit now. But they wanted a promise.” 

“What kind of promise?” the basilisk asked sharply. 

“To help them when they ask.”

“Help with what?” 

“…whatever they ask.” The basilisk was silent. “Did I do the wrong thing?” Harry asked quietly. 

“I am unsure. It’s your prerogative. I’ve long been wary of those creatures. Then again, they are enslaved.” 

“They’re what?” 

“Wizards keep them enslaved to work in homes, cooking and cleaning. They tell themselves the elves enjoy it. And they call us beasts.” 

Harry was silent, digesting this horrid news. Something else occurred to him. “Was I enslaved?” 

“I don’t know,” the basilisk said. “Did your aunt make you do labor? Did she keep you against your will?” 

“I don’t know,” Harry said. “I didn’t have anywhere else to go.”

“Then I don’t know either.” 

Harry shrugged the thought off. It didn’t matter now, in any case. “Maybe we can help.” 

“Maybe. And maybe you no longer have a choice.” 

On they went. 

small lilac sprout

The basilisk had solved the water problem while he was in the kitchen. The dilapidated fountain that had been in the middle of the floor of the hall had been smashed apart, and brown-tinted water was spurting from the pipe in the middle of the floor.

“I think it will clear,” the basilisk said. With its nose, it carved a huge gutter in the stone from the fountain to downward-sloped tunnel running out of the hall. “There. That tunnel runs down to an underground river.”

Harry was a little caught on the sight of the massive snake bulldozing through the stone floor like it was sand, but he was pleased all the same, so long as the water would run clear before he got really thirsty. 

With hot food and, if not water, then the promise of water, Harry’s mood had improved quite a bit, and also he was starting to get tired. He yawned. 

“What do you smell?” the basilisk asked curiously.

“What?”

“You scented just now, did you not?” It yawned as well, showing a mouth like a cavern in itself and fangs the size of Harry. “I smell the water, which promises to flow clear, the rabbit on you, which smells nice though I don’t cook my food, I smell you, the two-legger smell, I smell the magic of this castle, the stinking magic around my eggs, I smell the river far down below….” 

“I yawn because I’m tired,” Harry said. He made himself yawn again, tried to discern the things the basilisk had said, but could not. He could felt the magic of the castle on his tongue, still, but none of the other things. 

“If you’re tired, then sleep,” the basilisk said. “Are you cold? I never know how warm mammals should run. You may sleep next to me if you like.” 

Harry had lost most of his earlier fear of the basilisk, and what remained gave way to exhaustion. “Okay.” They went into the egg cave where the fire had long since gone out, and Harry curled up near the basilisk’s tail, which it wrapped around him like an ineffective blanket, and he slept.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Harry breakfasted on apples from the elves, still musing over their captivity. He ate by the light of sleeping basilisk’s glow and stared at the spell crouching over the eggs, which he could now discern easily as his eyes adjusted. The eggs were captive too. And he, he had been captive, he thought. But now he was free. 

Which is why he owed it to the eggs and the elves, he reckoned. 

He went out to the hall, managing to make a little bit of fire sit in his hands to light the way, and saw with delight the water running clear. He drank deeply and soaked his whole head, scrubbing his hands through his hair. It was heart-stompingly cold, and the hall was cold too, but it felt delicious nevertheless.

He hightailed it back to the den and lay on the floor for a moment to warm himself. Then he went back to the spell barrier and put his hands on it. He felt all around it, for cracks, or indentations, or places to push. He felt all the way down to where it met the ground, and then had the newly awoken basilisk nudge him on top of it to feel up there too. 

He tried to set it on fire, but that started to hurt his hands, so he tried to pick it apart by pushing magic into his fingers, like when he had removed the basilisk’s rotten scale. His investigations proved only that there was neither seam nor weakness to this prison.

In fact, the whole of the spell seemed vaguely…malicious. Not as if it was about to hurt Harry, but like if it could, it absolutely would. It made him want to wash his hands after touching it.

He was cold again by the time he finished. The ground was warm, but his clothes were not drying quickly. The water, which had felt so wonderful, now seemed like a poor idea. The basilisk breathed a hot, slightly pungent breath on him to warm the tips of his ears. “You need clothes and blankets,” the basilisk said. 

“Y-yes,” Harry said, teeth chattering. 

“Clothes,” the basilisk repeated. “How human. Why can’t you two-leggers grow fur like the rest of the mammals?” 

“W-what’s a mammal?” Harry asked. He hopped in place, trying to warm up.

“Creatures with fur and things. Cats and dogs and centaurs. Not practical creatures like snakes.” 

“Do you know where I can find clothes?” Harry asked. 

“No idea,” said the basilisk. 

Harry frowned.

“Sometimes at the south end of the castle, I smell soap,” it offered. “It makes me sneeze; I despise it. Shall I take you there?” 

“Yes, please.” 

“Very well, but pay attention. You must start leaning the ways.” 

It took him to the south end of the castle, and he diligently payed attention. It went slowly so that he could note various branching pipes as they passed.

“Can you smell it?” the basilisk asked. “Surely you can smell the soap? Horrible thing, soap.” 

Harry sniffed and sniffed, then opened his mouth and inhaled like the snake. “No, I don’t.” He could still taste the magic, but even that was starting to fade into his background awareness.

The basilisk hummed. “We’ll have to work on that. But here you are. Can you find your way back? I will go hunt another rabbit for you if so.”

Harry bit his lip. “I think so, yes.” 

“If you get lost, find your way to the forest. I can reach you there; I cannot come into the main castle.” 

Harry felt better with a backup plan. He walked up to the little snake emblem which marked an entrance and bid the basilisk farewell. Then he took a deep breath and asked the snake to open.

He tumbled out of the pipe onto a pile of sheets. When he disentangled himself, he found he was surrounded by a dozen unfamiliar house elves. Their bulbous eyes were wide with surprise, their ears trembled. They stood frozen in the act of folding an immense amount of laundry.

“Er, hello,” said Harry from amidst the sheets.

“A boy!” squeaked the one closest to him. “Is you the snake boy?” 

“Yes,” Harry said, relived. “I’m just exploring.”

“Stranger things is happening in the laundry room,” said the elf closest to him. The others nodded and went back to folding. 

Harry watched for a moment as one flung a sheet high into the air. It folded itself on the way down, landing softly in the elf’s arms.

“What’s your name?” Harry asked the elf nearest him, who was folding socks.

“My name is Toddy.” 

“Nice to meet you. Can I do some?” 

Toddy stared at him. “…do some?” 

"Some of the folding?” Harry looked around. The laundry piles were literally mountainous. “You have a lot to do.” 

Toddy looked around as if for support, but the others were embroiled in their tasks. “I supposes you may…be doing some.” 

“Okay!” Harry sat down in the sock pile and started matching. He did it automatically; he had a lot of experience folding socks. And he finally registered the soapy scent the basilisk had told him about: it felt warm and clean and good. He was glad he’d washed that morning, because he didn’t want to get the clean laundry dirty. 

“How long have you worked at this castle?” Harry asked Toddy.

Toddy’s hands were rapid, pairing and folding three pairs of socks in the time Harry could do one. He gave Harry an odd look. “All my life.” 
 
“You were born here?” Toddy nodded. “Is your family here, then?”

“Toddy’s mother is working in the Slytherin dorm, and my father in Gryffindor. Toddy’s sisters is here in the laundry room.” 

“Wow.” Harry tried to imagine having sisters. He had never even thought about it before. “What’s it like having sisters?” 

Toddy contemplated it as he matched socks furiously. Harry was doing all he could to keep up, but it was impossible. “Good. I loves them very much. They likes to tease me, but that’s sisters.” He shrugged. “Elsie is Toddy’s best friend.” 

“I wish I had a sister,” Harry said fervently, overtaken with the idea. Imagine, a sister! Her name would be Harriet, or Elsie, or…not Petunia, no. Maybe Tippy. 

They reached for the last four socks at the same time, and finished folding together. There was one odd sock remaining. Toddy held it up and asked loudly. “Another spare,” he said, and hurled the sock through a chute in the wall.

Harry watched its arc. “What do you do with the spares?”

“We leaves them in the Spare Room.” 

“And from there?” 

Toddy shrugged. 

“Can I…?” 

Another shrug. “I isn't caring,” he said. “And you is folding.” 

“Thank you!” Harry stood up and gave Toddy a hug, which made his ears straighten up in surprise, and hurried towards the chute. “Good luck with the laundry!” 

Harry waded through the piles of blankets and sheets to the chute. He peered through it: it was completely dark, but large enough for him to fit. He looked around cautiously, but none of the other elves stopped him as he followed the spare sock down the laundry chute.

The chute twisted and turned and he gasped in enjoyment as he slid on his back, the air rushing past his face. It was faster and longer than any slide he had ever been on. At last, he was spat out into open air, landing with a whump on the spare laundry.

And, he thought, pushing himself up, what spare laundry it was. Mountains of clothes surrounded him—to his left was a mound of mismatched socks, behind him were frayed scarves, and over there were pants with tears and holes. There was also a substantial pile of dress-like clothes which opened in the front. They looked like strange dressing gowns.

He spent a gleeful amount of time picking through the piles, emerging with a bundle of odd socks, several burned and tattered sweaters, a few of those gowns because they looked warm, and various other odds and ends. Everything had been tossed by someone after damage, but he had never owned clothes as fine.

That only left him with the problem of getting out of the Spare Room. Surely it had other visitors sometimes. And surely they didn’t all go down the chute.

He shuffled around for a while and finally found the door concealed in the stone wall. It opened into a corridor. 

This was not the way back to the den. This way lay the guts of the castle: people, maybe, and danger, definitely. But it was either out this way, or back up the laundry chute, and he couldn’t even reach it. 

Hesitantly, he stepped into the corridor, opening his mouth to try to smell like the basilisk did. It was no good: all he could taste was old stone and the hum of magic all over everything. Glancing left and right, he saw he was flanked by two tall suits of armor holding large spears. 

He walked quickly and quietly down the left-hand side, pausing when he came to a narrow window. With dismay, he saw that he was several stories above the ground. So he either had to make his way to the ground floor or find another snake entrance.

Nervously, he began to creep down the corridors, deciding to always pick left when he came to a fork. He grew a little more confident as he met no one on his way. He spied for an entrance to the pipes, but he also marveled at the castle: suits of armor, paintings that almost seemed to move, old wooden doors. He felt like he was in a fairy tale. 

At last, he rounded a corner and spotted a toilet. Even better, it was marked as out of order. Perhaps, since the other toilet had had an entrance, this one did too.

Before he could make towards it, voices—adult voices—carried around the corner. He looked desperately around for a hiding place and squeezed behind a suit of armor with his clothes, hunkering behind its knees. 

And…was it his imagination, or did the suit of armor lower its shield to cover him?

It didn’t matter. The adults had reached him.

“—missing for days!” came a woman’s hard voice. “I cannot understand how this has happened, Severus, I simply cannot.” 

“Albus’ idealism has damned us all,” said a voice that was low and sharp. Two pairs of heeled boots clicked around the corner and towards Harry, hidden. “That woman, she always hated Lily, hated magic; I told Albus nothing good would come of it—” 

“I was there the night he left him,” said the woman, whose voice was stern and furious. “I knew it to look at them: the worst kind of muggles, I said.” 

Harry held his breath as they passed him by and turned another corner, talking angrily all the way. Then he scooted out from behind the statute and dashed into the bathroom.

The snake, the snake…

He spotted it immediately: the taps were shaped like serpents. Slowly, he inspected them, then asked them to open. The whole sink folded outward, exposing another slide. 

“NOOO!” 

Harry spun around, dropping his laundry. Something flew at him, something cold and grey, it was going in and out of his chest, he felt like he was dying—

“Stop, stop!” he begged. “Please!” 

The thing became visible, a gaping mouth of sharp teeth shrieking into his face, razor-sharp claws on his shoulders, screeching, “Murderer! Murderer!” 

“No, no!” Harry tried to hit the monster but his hands went right through. He tried to make fire but he was so scared the magic fizzled out in his chest. “Please stop, please!” 

“YOU KILLED ME!” 

Harry gasped and choked and did the only thing he could do, which was curl up with his hands around his head and hide hide hide, please let it stop, please stop, please.

The creature’s breath was frosty on his face, its nails sharp in his skin. And then, slowly, both sensations left him. He felt it moving off him, but didn’t dare uncurl. His sides hitched with tears, and he tried frantically, uselessly to control them. 

“Stop it, shh,” said a voice. “Stop saying that. Come on. Hey.” 

He grew conscious of repeating “please, please, please,” between sobs, and focused on stopping. He didn’t open his eyes.

“Look, sit up. Here, kid, come on. I’m sorry. I thought you were someone else.” 

He didn’t move. Cold, cold hands closed around his wrists and hauled him into a sitting position, then moved to his face, awkwardly poking at the tears on his cheeks. 

It was the strangeness of this move that made him open his eyes, and he saw in relief the monster was gone.

There was a girl crouched regretfully in front of him, wearing pigtails and one of those dressing gowns, and he could see straight through her.

Squeaking, he scooted back a frantic inch. 

“This is a girl’s bathroom,” she said. “And you were speaking that language. So you can’t entirely blame me, can you?” 

“A-are you a ghost?” 

Her face scrunched up. “Are you done crying? I said I’m sorry. What’s a kid doing in my bathroom over winter holiday, anyway?” 

He gestured abstractly to the open panel of wall. “I didn’t murder you,” he said. 

“No. Sorry. But the person who killed me spoke that language. You shouldn’t go down there, there’s a monster. Who’s kid are you? Do you want me to get a teacher?” 

Harry got up and began retrieving his clothes. “Please don’t.” 

The girl raised an eyebrow. 

Harry couldn’t think of a lie. And he was afraid of lying to her, a little. Could you even lie to a ghost, anyway? So he settled on, “please don’t.” 

“Why shouldn’t I?” 

“You owe me for scaring me.” 

“Oh….” Her eyes squinted in thought, she rose slowly from he ground to hang upside-down in the air in front of him. He didn’t step back this time, and was proud of it. “Fine. But I want something else.” 

“What?” He glanced at the black spot on his hand in apprehension. 

“Why is a raven like a writing desk?” 

“Er.” 

“Because they both come with inky quills!” 

“Okay,” he said slowly.

“You have done riddles before, right? Word games? Jokes? Puns?”

Harry sucked his teeth. “Sorry.” 

The ghost looked sulky, which was an odd look upside down, determined. “I’ll be your teacher, then. That’s what I always wanted to be, anyway. You just pop back by sometimes and we’ll do riddles, alright? And I won’t tell.” 

“Thank you,” Harry said. “Er. Is it rude to ask a ghost their name?” 

“No.” The ghost looked quite pleased. “I’m Myrtle. Who are you?”

“Snake.” 

“Sure. Well, ta-ta, Snake. When you come back, have a riddle, alright?” 

He nodded and went carefully into the wall, whispering as soft as he could for the sink to close. 

small lilac sprout

After nervously walking back and forth for a few moments in the pitch black of the tunnel, wondering how on earth to get back on his own, he decided to try scenting. 

He opened his mouth in a wide yawn, inhaling the scent of dry stone, the castle’s magic, and a bit of toilet smell. He tried it again, and this time he thought he smelled the basilisk too, maybe. He remembered smelling the basilisk when he had first met it, and this smelled a little like that: old, and snake-like, and magical in a different flavor from the castle. 

He needed some sort of chalk, he thought, as he stumbled and slid his way deeper into the castle. He would have to make markings. 

Finally, he found his way back to the corridors beyond the hall, and whistled a tune to himself as he walked so the basilisk would hear him coming. It was in the den when he reached it, curled around the dim green barrier. 

“Snakeheart,” it said, as he entered. He carefully did not look in the direction of its voice. “You found clothes?” 

“Loads." Harry went over to part of the wall that had crumbled a bit and started folding, making neat stacks of his new garments. “Do you know what these dress things are? Everyone wears them.” 

“They are robes,” the basilisk said. “Wizards’ garb.” 

“Oh.” He was glad he had taken a few, then. “Did you murder someone?” 

There was icy, severe silence, and Harry perceived that he might have upset the basilisk. “Sorry,” he said hastily, ducking his head. “Just, I met a ghost who thought I’d killed her, ‘cause of asking the door to open.” 

Dry and raspy, the sound of the basilisk coiling filled the room. It moved faster and faster, and Harry felt like he was in the midst of a windstorm. It was everywhere—along the walls, the ceiling, the floor, he clapped his hands over his eyes to avoid accidentally meeting its gaze. 

RIDDLE.” The basilisk’s voice could have shattered stone. 

“Isn’t that a word game?” Harry asked tremulously.

“It’s a human,” the basilisk spat. “A wizard, a snakeheart. The one who cursed my children and I.” 

Harry stumbled over the unsteady floor and sank to a crouch beside the spell, leaning against its green light. “What happened?” 

The coiling slowed. The basilisk’s head came to a rest on top of the spell dome, and Harry kept his eyes covered and listened to it tell the story.

“I trusted him. He was charming; he was the first snakeheart I’d spoken to in many, many years. He almost reminded me of my old friend Salazar. I trusted him so much that I…I let him see my eggs. And when he at last knew where they were, he turned on me. Set a geis upon my spirit and made me watch as he trapped my children. And then…then…yes, he had me kill for him. I never knew who.” 

“Her name’s Myrtle,” Harry said. “I met her in the toilet. She likes word games.” 

The basilisk thrashed and hissed in rage. “You could not know the horror. After forcing me to commit this atrocity, he bid me wait and do nothing else, and he never spoke to me again. I could feel him in the school until he left it, feel him when he came back occasionally to visit. But he never sought me out, and I never had my revenge.”

“Oh.” 

That was hard to digest. The basilisk had killed Myrtle. 

No. No, Riddle had killed Myrtle. Riddle, the monster. 

“Now, tell me,” said the basilisk. It let out a great sigh and settled its huge nose right on top of Harry’s head. He giggled at the feeling. “Why does a two-legger want to live with a monster?” 

His giggles faded. “Oh. Well, the snake told me I could live with it, but its den was too small. I used to live with my aunt and uncle, but they hated me. I think I’m much better off with magical creatures. And I don't think you're a monster.” 

“The aunt who hates crying.” 

“Yes.” 

The basilisk was silent for a long moment. “Were they very cruel to you?” 

Harry bit his lip. “I don’t know. I want to forget about them.”

The basilisk blew out a puff of warm breath, tossing his hair. “Then forget. You have much to learn, after all, you will need the room. You must start learning the castle.” 

“I know. I need some chalk or something. And where should I go to find out about spells, anyway?” He pressed his palms to the spell he sat against. It tingled across his skin. It felt bad to touch, but he did it anyway—after all, he could pull away. The eggs could not. 

“There is a library,” suggested the basilisk. 

“With adult books? I don’t know if I can read those.” 

“I do not read human…writings. But if you read to me, perhaps we can understand together.” 

Harry liked the idea of this. He had never had anyone read to him, and thought reading to someone else might be the same sort of thing. 

“Tomorrow,” the basilisk said. “For now, I have brought you a rabbit.” 

Chapter Text

“Here,” the basilisk said, flicking something to Harry with the tip of its tail. It was a piece of chalk. “The teachers use them, they fall down here all the time. Always in little nubs like that, because they’re fragile.” 

“Thanks,” Harry said. He sucked rabbit grease off his fingertips and got up to wash in the fountain. 

He remembered how once Aunt Petunia (who he wasn’t even supposed to be thinking about) had been complaining that the neighbor was a veg-tarian, which meant she only ate plants, and how stupid it was. After several meals of rabbit, Harry was thinking it would not actually be so horrible. 

The basilisk followed him into the hall. “Are you going to the library?” 

“Yes,” Harry said, planting his hands on his hips. “I’m going to find it.” Returning to the den, he picked out his first change of clothes since he’d left the Dursley’s: pants and a shirt and a robe thing, and mismatched but warm socks. The only thing he hadn’t found were shoes, and his had already been taped together when he left the Dursleys. Now they were practically disintegrating. 

“I’m going to take a bath,” he told the basilisk. “So stay in here.” 

“Two-leggers,” the basilisk said with no small amount of derision, and went to curl around its eggs. 

The fountain stream had not warmed any, and Harry leapt in and out of it with much shouting and carrying on, finally managing to submerge himself and scrub at his hair. He burst out again with a yell at the cold air, bundled himself in a shredded blanket from the Spare Room, and fled back into the warmth of the den, where he made sure the basilisk was still turned away while he dressed. 

Instead of shoes, he elected to put on three pairs of socks. They were so padded they almost felt like shoes, anyway. 

“Right!” he said, tossing his robe behind him so it billowed. He felt like an explorer in a story. He struck a heroic pose and felt the basilisk look on in amusement. “I’m off!” 

“Don’t forget your chalk,” the basilisk said, rolling it over to him. He dropped it in one of the pockets of the robe. 

“I know you have things to do and can’t show me all the tunnels,” he said, “but just this once, can you show me the very closest one?” 

“This once,” the basilisk said. “Follow me.” 

On warm and comfy sock-feet, Harry followed the basilisk out of the den, through the hall, and into the maze of corridors. The basilisk jinked left, and there it was: a fairly small pipe, with a cool breeze blowing from it. 

Harry took his chalk and marked a small star next to it. He didn’t know what it signified, exactly, but he felt he ought to mark it. 

The sight of the dark tunnel was eroding a bit of his heroic mien. 

“Er…right,” he said softly. “Bye, then.” 

“Goodbye.” 

He crawled into the pipe. It only took thirty seconds for him to lose the light of the basilisk’s shine, and then it was just him and the tunnel. 

Abruptly, this was not as fun as he had thought it would be. But he kept going, because what else was there to do? At least this pipe didn’t branch or dip, it just sloped gently upwards, and he patted his pocket every so often to check that his chalk hadn’t fallen out. 

And then he ran headfirst into the wall. 

“Owww.” Stars dancing before his eyes, he sat back on his heels, clasping one hand to his head while he groped with the other in front of him. There—he could feel it, a little curving carving. “Open!” 

It opened into a world of dim green light. It wasn’t like the light of the spell in the den: this was darker, colder, more eerie. He slipped out and saw that it came from massive, thick-paned windows, beyond which dark water moved. Captivated, he distractedly closed the door and went to the windows, pressing his nose and hands against them.

It was so dark, but tiny lights glinted and glimmered beyond. He could make out shapes the way one found pictures in a cloud. The longer he pressed his face to the glass, the more it felt like he was actually out there in the water. 

A face pressed back. 

Harry gasped in fright and dropped to the floor. The face had had sharp teeth and long hair that floated in the water and long, webbed fingers that pressed right over his own.

He stayed huddled there for a long time, and then finally looked around at where he was.

It looked like a sitting room of some sort. There was a large, empty fireplace, several long couches, groupings of armchairs and regular chairs around tables. The decor was nice, in that it was entirely snakes. One particular painting above the mantelpiece seemed to watch him. It was an old man with a long beard, a snake coiled behind him. Harry thought his eyes moved, maybe, then shook his head. That was silly.

Carefully, he craned his neck back towards the window. The face was gone. Breathing a sigh of relief, he went over to one of the couches, poking at a pillow. It was soft and fluffy, and he thought briefly of taking it for the den. But, he supposed, that might be stealing—though he was unclear on if it was still stealing if he lived in the castle too—and regardless, he had to find the library and didn’t fancy doing it while keeping track of a pillow.

There were two tall sets of stairs on the left and right of the far side of the room, and faint noises were coming from the left side. It didn’t sound like adults, not really. And it was singing. It was slow and rhythmic, and he didn’t really understand the words, but the tune was invigorating. He founds himself stepping in time as he climbed. 

“Returns to shuts our eyes / when tyrants is no more,” two voices chorused. 

A third voice picked up, and the others abandoned their verse and joined in: “Everywhere, into the deep night / by sinking the infamous wizardry / the elves shall gives to the world…” 

Harry poked his head in just as three house elves sang together in quite nice voices: “peace and liberty!” 

They saw him quite at once, and the looks they turned on him were actually frightening, as he had not yet seen house elves look. They were all very—cold, all of the sudden. Cold and silent and considering.

“Er,” he said. He looked to the tallest one, who had been leading the last verse. She looked familiar. “Are you Toddy’s mum?” 

“You is the Snake!” she said, and a relieved smile broke out across her face. 

“Yes,” Harry said hastily, happy that cold look was gone from her eyes, though it still lingered in the third elf, who kept looking at him. “I didn’t mean to…interrupt…but your song was nice!” 

She looked amused. “Thanks you. My name is Noddy. What brings you here, though, Snake?” 

“Exploring!” Harry said, his confidence coming back to him. “I’m on my way to the library.”

“You’s far from the library,” snorted the third elf, who was still looking a little meanly at Harry. 

“Don’t be rude, Nippy,” said the second elf. “Don’t you sees his promise?” She pointed to Harry’s hand.

Nippy shrugged. “Promises can be broken.” 

“I don’t breaks promises,” Harry said, frowning. 

“There you goes,” Noddy said. “Besides, he is only a child.” 

“He is dangerous,” Nippy said, turning away and going back to what he had apparently been doing, which was turning down a bed. 

“This is a bedroom?” Harry asked, looking around.

“The Slytherin dormitory,” supplied the second elf. “We is cleaning it for students to comes back to.” 

“Can I helps?” 

All three looked at him. “No,” Nippy said. “Off with you.” 

“But—”

“Thank you, but no,” Noddy said. “Nippy, Inchy, and I is in charge of the Slytherin dorm. We does things a certain way.”

“Okay.” Harry pouted a bit, but turned to leave all the same.

“Wait!” Inchy, the second elf, called him back. “You haves a hole in your pants.” 

Harry checked: there was indeed a large hole in the back of his knee. “They’s from the Spare Room.” 

“Can’t you mends it?” Inchy asked. 

“I don’t have any thread.” 

“With magic! Here, I is showing you.” 

“Inchy!” snapped Nippy. Inchy waived him way with a huff.

“Come here.” Inchy took a pair of scissors from…somewhere…in her tea towel and cut a new hole in the front of Harry’s pants. Then she reached out, fingertips sparking with magic, and pinched the hole together, and it was gone, good as new.

“Wow!” Harry said. “Can you teach me?” 

“Just do what I is doing,” Inchy advised. “Pull the magic from the air to your fingers, and close the hole.” 

Focusing hard, Harry tried to do as she said. It felt different than when he made fire. His fingers glimmered for a second, but then they went out.

“Try again,” Inchy said. “You is having it.” She sounded a little shocked.

Harry tried again. When he had gathered enough magic on his fingertips that they definitely sparkled, he reached back and pinched the hole at the back of his knee closed. When he pulled his hand away, the tear was gone. 

The other elves had come close to watch this trick. “You is doing elf magic,” Nippy said, his voice slow and surprised. 

“What’s that mean?” Harry asked. 

“Isn't you feeling the difference?” Noddy asked.

“I guess. When I light fires, it feels different.” He couldn’t really describe it. Lighting the fires, tearing off the Baslisk’s scale, it felt like he was pushing his whole heart out through his hands. This felt…like something outside him. It didn’t make any sense, but Harry wasn’t bothered. He was excited that he could now mend all the holes in his Spare Room clothes. Speaking of….

“Why don’t you wears clothes?” he asked the assembled elves. “Why do you wears towels? 

They looked at each other, then back at him. “We is house elves,” said Noddy. “We is forbidden to wears clothes. If our master gives us clothes, we would be free.” 

“Who’s your master?” Harry asked. 

“Dumbledore is headmaster of Hogwarts, so he is our master.” 

“Oh. And do you…want clothes?”

They were quite again. Then Inchy said, “Of course not. House elves do not wants to be free. All wizards knows that.” 

Harry crossed his arms. “I is not a wizard.” 

“No, you’s a fairy, according to Drippy,” snapped Nippy. “Now go, you’s making us behind. Go!” 

“Bye,” Harry said, grinning at them, and went back downstairs. 

small lilac sprout

Harry wandered out of the dormitory and down a series of dark and cold corridors that made him glad for his three pairs of socks. There were flickering green torches on the walls, and pictures that rustled and twitched out of the corner of his eye—most were landscape scenes, many were underwater scapes. 

He decided to take the first staircase he found, which wound so tightly in on itself that he had to cling to the center to avoid losing his balance. This staircase took him up a very long way, and was slitted with narrow windows. Peering out of the first one he came to, he saw that he was looking over a courtyard, across which was another tower. 

He could barely make out two figures standing in the courtyard below. One was dressed in brilliant purple, the other in black. As he watched, the one in purple raised his arm, and a brilliant orange bird appeared out of nowhere and perched on it. 

He almost stayed and watched, but remembered he was on a mission. 

Up and up he went—the staircase spiraled so high, with no other exits into corridors, that he started to feel a bit uneasy. Every few levels he would pass another narrow window and find the courtyard below had receded further. After he had gone round and round in tight steps for so long he was dizzy, he could no longer make out even the specks of people below.

Finally, the stairs opened into a corridor. Disoriented, Harry dripped over the last step and caught himself on stinging palms, staring hard at the ground until the world stopped spinning. His legs and feet were throbbing from the climb.

Looking up, he noted two things: that the stairs might have ended, but a trapdoor continued upwards, should he wish to go higher. Second, coming from down the corridor was a raucous screeching. 

He stood up, stumbled, caught himself on the wall, and continued forward. At the end of the hall was a huge brown door, and he hauled back on it with all his might. 

Birds.

Owls, actually. 

With delight, he entered the room, in which perhaps ten owls had fallen silent, huge eyes turned on him. They were all kinds: snowy, tawny, one was pure black, one minuscule. They looked at him with keen intelligence. 

“Hello,” breathed Harry, awed. He shivered from the winter wind coming in the open windows, remembering the warmth of the snowy owl with whom he had shared a tree. It seemed like years ago. 

The tiny owl, about as big as Harry’s hand, gave an unexpectedly deep hoot and flew to Harry’s shoulder. Harry brought up a tentative hand to stroke it, and giggled when the owl turned into his hand. 

“Aren’t you lovely,” he whispered. “I wonder what your name is. Something wonderful, like Galahad, or Merlin, or Pip.” It glared at him for the last one, digging its tiny nails briefly into his shoulder. 

He looked around, still petting Pip. Five large windows let the wind in from the top of this circular room, and dozens of perches of all kinds filled the empty space, staggered from ground-level all the way to the top. The ground was covered in thick, clean straw, and several nesting boxes were placed about the room. The rest of the owls had elected to ignore him and go back to their conversations, which were many and lively.

“I thought owls slept during the day,” Harry said to Pip, who just raised a wing for Harry to scratch under. 

Pip flew away for a moment, then returned with a small acorn in his beak, which he deposited into Harry’s hand. 

“Er…thank you?” 

Pip flew into the air, looping and circling a few yards from Harry. Experimentally, Harry tossed the acorn. Pip snatched it neatly from the air, bringing it back to him.

“Oh!” Gleeful, Harry tossed the acorn again, and Pip caught it and returned it to him. 

They played for a long while, Harry tossing the acorn higher and higher, Pip performing impressive loops and twirls before catching it, when Pip abruptly decided he was finished, dropped the acorn on Harry’s head, and settled down on a perch to sleep.

It was just as well, because Harry was shivering quite strongly with cold by now. Bidding the owls farewell, he left the room, pulling the heavy door shut behind him. He dropped the acorn in his robe pocket. 

He did not want to go all the way down those stairs again, but luckily there was another corridor branching from this one. He peeked out of a window and saw that he now faced the forest, and he seemed to be about as high up as he could be in the castle. He didn’t think the library would be this high up. How could students get to it, otherwise? 

He found stairs going down and took them, and then did it again, and again. On his third staircase he was abruptly quite weary and wondering why he hadn’t packed a bit of rabbit to take with him, and he sat down on the step to rest a moment. 

And the staircase started moving

Harry bit down hard on his lip and clung with all his might to the railing, feeling his gut drop as the staircase swung out across an open hall and ground to a new position on the opposite side. As soon as it had finished moving, he was scrambling on all fours for the ground, catapulting off of it. 

He sat panting under a shield bolted to the wall, waiting for his hands to finish shaking. What was wrong with this place? 

Across from him, a large portrait of a grassy field rustled. He was quite sure by now that he wasn’t imagining the movements of the artwork. It really was moving. Golden fields swayed across from him, and in the distance something wiggled. It got bigger as it came closer, finally resolving itself into a golden snake that coiled up and around the border of the painting.

“Hello?” Harry asked quietly.

Freezing in place, the snake stared at him. “A snakeheart?” 

Harry grinned and waved. “Hello! Do you know the way to the library?” 

“Well—yes,” said the snake, sounding quite flustered. “But wait a moment, will you? What’s your name?” 

Harry’s jaw dropped. “My name? Do you have a name?” 

“Certainly!” The snake wound itself into a proud cone. “I am Jade Eyes! Who are you?” 

“I’m…Snake. Why do you nave a name?” Harry asked. 

Jade Eyes’ tongue flickered out. “I’m an anthropologist! I live among humans to learn their ways, and so I follow their customs. A student gave me that name! I have even chosen a gender for myself, after careful study of the concept: male. Such fun.” 

“What’s an anth-apologist?” 

“An anthropologist,” stressed Jade Eyes. “Is someone who thinks the best way to learn about other people is to live like they do, with them. I am even learning English! Listen.” Jade Eyes’ tongue did something very strange. “Sssello. Isss sssam Jade Eyessss.” 

“Wow,” Harry said. “That’s wicked.”

“Indeed, indeed,” said Jade Eyes. “Tell me, why are you here?” 

“Well, I live here now,” Harry said. “And I’m exploring the castle. I’m trying to get to the library, but so far I have only found a pillow and some owls.”

“The owlery!” Jade Eyes said in alarm. “Dangerous place. Are you a secret, by chance?” 

Harry narrowed his eyes at him.

“It’s quite okay if you are. Anthropologists are very good at keeping secrets.” 

“Well, yes, then,” Harry said. “I’m a secret. So don’t tell.”

“Don’t worry, my English isn’t good enough even if I wanted to,” said Jade Eyes. “But listen, here’s some advice: you can’t trust some of the portraits.” 

“What?”

I’m fine,” Jade Eyes stressed. “Anthropologists are friends to everyone. But some of the ones around here, they’re sticklers. Rat you out to a professor as soon as look at you. The Fat Lady—she guards Gryffindor tower. Stay away from her. Likewise Sir Cadogan—idiot on a horse. He’s liable to snitch without meaning to. ‘Ware the three dancing girls, they love to spread gossip, and Madam Mim, who’s practically evil.” He gave a rippling shudder. “Got all those?” 

“No,” Harry said, biting his lip.

“Good, good. Now, the library is down this hallway on the right. Can’t miss it.” 

“Thanks.” A thought occurred to Harry. So far, Jade Eyes was the most talkative person he’d met yet. “Do you know what riddles are?” 

“Riddles? Certainly, would you like me to tell you?”

“No, I need to know one, though. I’m looking for one for a friend.”

“Give me a moment.” Jade Eyes fell silent, tongue flickering in and out. “Alright, here’s one: I fly with no wings, I cry with no eyes. Wherever I go, darkness follows. What am I?” 

Harry shrugged.

“No, that’s the riddle.” 

“Oh! Well, thank you.” Harry pushed itself up off the floor, feeling recovered from the staircase ordeal. 

“Anytime. Mind the portraits, now. Especially that damned Mim.” 

“I will.” He felt Jade Eyes’ eyes on his back as he continued down the corridor, and felt pleased to have made a friend.

Chapter Text

The doors to the library were huge and paned with glass depicting an old woman presenting a maiden with a golden apple. An inscription across the bottom of both doors read: “MOTHER WISDOM SHARES HER FRUIT.” From a skylight just above, cool sunlight shone down, sending shimmering rainbows from the glass all across the floor in a scattered aurora. 

It was the most beautiful thing Harry had ever seen.

He stood there for a long moment just looking at it, and then, as delicately as he had ever touched anything, he tugged on the handle. He then discovered that while these doors might be beautiful, they were very thick and heavy, and he had to pull very hard anyways in the end to open them. 

It was dead silent inside. The groan of the door closing sound like the echo of a tree toppling over. He stopped breathing reflexively out of respect for the utter silence. 

He had been in his school library before: it had a librarian who was mean to him, and students who plucked his books from his hands, and shelves that he could reach the top of.

This library had nothing but books.

The shelves towered to the ceiling, two stories above. The books were richly colored, glinting in all shades of the rainbow, row after row after row. In this front section were a few long couches, and also a librarian’s desk, empty, he supposed, for winter holiday. 

Sock feet treading like he was walking on snow, he wandered in.

The rows stretched on and on and on. There were plaques on the ends of them with bizarre words like “Elixer - Healing,” “Entomology,” “Erumpent - Horn,” and “Etymology.” He thought maybe he’d find “anthropology” somewhere if he kept looking long enough. 

He walked down one aisle and trailed his fingers along the spines of the books. When he had first heard that word—spine—he had loved it. He hadn’t known anything but animals could have spines, and figured this meant books were creatures in their own rights. These ones seemed to prove him right, because some shivered, trembled, or giggled under his fingertips.

There was no one here to smack books from his hands.

He plucked one whose spine was warm from the shelf. Elvish Lore: Collected Tall Tales from a House Elf Enthusiast. The letters seemed to be set into the cover, and the “E” and “L” had little ears coming off them that wriggled slightly. He cracked it open—it almost felt like he was the first one to ever do it; it let out an audible creak. 

There was the title page with the author, Asmodious Datepalm, and the date of printing: 1792. Then a page of contents, with twelve stories listed with titles like "Tibby and the Tipsy House" and "The Four Elves and the Graphon". Then an introduction that Harry read by sounding the words out under his breath: 

Although most consider House Elf stories beneath their notice, this author, with an open mind, has elected to consider there may be some value to be found in traditional house elf tales passed from parents to children in the houses of their masters. Much House Elf lore is locally bound to their historical place of residence, but nevertheless there are tales which transcend geography. This author can only speculate as to the modes of transmission, and further suggests that while these tales are interesting, they are, in the end, on the level of human children's fairy tales. This author further wonders, idly, why House Elf stories seem to have never progressed beyond relatively facile constructions, but does not consider the matter worth further investigation….

Harry had to stop, baffled by two-thirds of the words but gleaning that the author was a bit of a prick, perhaps. He remembered the basilisk offering to help him read, and tucked the book under his arm to take along with him. 

Continuing on, he stopped and read titles at random, looking for something related to eggs or spells. The problem was, most of the books seemed to be related to spells, so he started looking for anything about eggs and basilisks and riddles, and had no luck, even after he doubled back to the “B” section. 

He wandered back and back and back, wondering how far the library actually went—maybe it never stopped? This was a magic library, after all. And then he came to a barrier: a red rope bisecting the whole of the room. On the rope hung a sign: RESTRICTED. 

Harry didn’t know what restricted meant, but using the powers of deduction he was willing to bet it meant “do not enter.” 

It was probably just for students, he rationalized, ducking under the rope. 

The books on this side of the rope felt different. If he opened his mouth and breathed in, they tasted different. Headier, maybe. Thicker in magic. He edged between two shelves and immediately saw a book that glimmered gold and green hypnotically. He reached out for it. 

The moment he pulled it off the shelf, it fell open of its own accord and started emitting a horrible wailing noise, gold and green lights flashing all around him. Heart thundering in his chest, Harry closed the book, shoved it back in the shelf, and fled. The wailing stopped, but the library doors, back across the forest of bookcases, screeched open. 

Harry ran until he was worried about the sound of his feet, and then he ducked behind a bookshelf, chest heaving, clutching his elf book.

“Hello?” 

He jolted in place and clapped a hand to his mouth. He hadn’t even heard the person walking.

“Hello? Who’s there?” 

Harry peeked between the gap in the top of the bookshelf. He could see the bottom half of a man—swishy robe and shiny boots—moving warily down the aisle towards him. 

“Peeves, don’t think I won’t be reporting this to the headmaster,” the voice finally said, and then, to Harry’s relief, the boots turned and clicked off again.

Relief washed over Harry, and so did curiosity. This man seemed familiar. He thought it might be one of the people who had passed him by when he was hiding behind the suit of armor. 

Sliding on his socks for maximum secrecy, Harry crept after the man, sure to keep five bookshelves between them at all times. The man was tall and dressed all in black, with long and slightly greasy-looking black hair that swept his shoulders. He didn’t so much walk as stalk, and the click of his heels on the ground felt intended to hurt. 

The man didn’t go back to the doors. Instead he went back out of the restricted section, turned right, and left the stacks entirely. Harry skulked among the shelves and observed. 

This section of the library was filled with tables and chairs, couches, and lamps. There were also doors interspersed along the wall, and it was one of these the man—the professor, most likely, Harry reasoned—entered

He was in there for a few minutes. Harry had almost decided to leave when he exited again, putting several books into a bag. Harry saw his face for the first time: he looked vaguely like a hawk, very pale, with a hooked nose and narrow eyes and thin lips. 

It occurred to Harry, in this world of basilisks and elves and centaurs, that it was not impossible that this man could be a vampire. 

For a moment, the man stared around the empty library, and then his severe expression crumpled. He sagged onto one of the couches, head in his hands. Harry could hear him muttering to himself, angrily, desperately. He crept closer. 

“Godforsaken bigots,” he cursed. “Should have known, I should have fucking known. Vanished. How in Merlin’s name….” He shook his head. 

The man tipped his head back towards the ceiling and pulled a long-fingered hand down his face. Then he stood up with distinct purpose, hit himself lightly on the thigh, and marched off.  Harry felt vaguely sorry for the floor under his heels. 

Only after he heard the door open and close did Harry cross out into the study space and open the professor’s door. 

Inside was a fairly cosy little room, with a single padded chair and table, a painting of mountains on the wall, and a soft carpet. The table was also piled high with books.

It must be some sort of free book room! The man had taken books right out of here, after all. At his school, the library had had a section just like this: old or worn books that the library was getting rid of. It was perfect. 

Eagerly, he investigated the books on the table. Some seemed to be about something called “potions," but a good portion of them seemed to be about spells, also. There was Tracking the Untrackable and Tracing the Untraceable; and The Trace and its Loopholes: Spelling Under the Radar; and Accidental Magic and You: What the New Parent Needs to Know; Lost Uses of Useful Locators for Locating the Lost and Useful; and Odd Socks, Pocket Change, and House Keys: Finding what the Fairies Stole. 

He took Scrying and Brewing: An Unlikely Blend, thinking maybe it meant brewing soup or tea, which would be useful, and also the odd socks book, because it was the only one whose title he vaguely understood. 

Books under his arm, he made his way back through the library, thoroughly pleased, despite the mishap, with his progress. The windows of the library showed the sunset outside, and he realized he was terribly tired, and quite ready to eat some rabbit and curl up to sleep.

Only, when he tried to leave the library, his elf book started humming. It wasn’t a terribly loud hum, but it was impossible to ignore and it didn’t stop. 

Harry looked around the library for any sort of clue. At the librarian’s desk, there was a pulsing glow which definitely hadn’t been there before. 

He walked to the desk and clambered up on a very tall stool, surveying the tools on the desk. The glowing thing was a big stamp. It took him a long moment of reading backwards to realize it showed the date. 

Right, books had to be checked out from the library. He opened the elf book and found the stamping page on the inside cover. The stamp didn’t have an ink pad around, so he pressed it down dry. When he pulled it away, there was a perfect, shimmering golden stamp on the page. with the date. Beside it was a little shimmering green number: sparkly green seven.

Pleased, he returned the stamp to the desk and left the library, books quiet and still. 

small lilac sprout

He didn’t know how to get back, was the only thing. He thought of asking Jade Eyes again, but the snake was gone, presumably off to do some anthropology.

Loathe to go back to the moving staircases, he turned and went the other way, back past the library. Down that corridor were a few doors—classrooms, maybe?—and suits of armor. He reached a fork and took a left, and that left led him to a staircase.

He stopped and evaluated it. It seemed firmly rooted to the stone, with not much room to move around. He decided to risk it, and took the steps three at a time, landing safely on the other side with no incidents. 

Perhaps if he just kept going down, he would eventually find an entrance. 

He spent a good ten minutes wandering down corridors and leaping down staircases as quickly as possible, when he heard voices around the corner from him.

Flattening himself against the wall, he crept a little closer. 

“Just such a tragedy!” wailed a woman. “I can’t believe it! I remember his father, you know, always teasing me, bribing me to let him and his little friends in past curfew! Oh!” 

“Which you shouldn’t have been doing,” chided another voice. “Honestly, Priscilla.” 

Stifled sobbing. “I know, I know. But he was very charming, you understand.” 

“You’re a grown woman. Of a sort.” 

“You’re missing the point, Minerva! I saw him and Lily grow up, you know! I always thought…after it happened…well, I thought I’d get to see him, maybe. If he got Gryffindor.”

“I know. So did I.” 

Harry dared a glimpse around the corner. A tall, stern-looking woman in a green robe was speaking to a portrait of a very fat woman, who had a painted handkerchief pressed to her eyes. This, he realized, must be one of the portraits Jade Eyes had warned him about. Priscilla, as the other woman, Minerva, had called her. Harry thought it was probably rude to call her the fat lady when she had a perfectly good name. 

Minerva straightened the very pointy hat on her head and tugged on her robes. “Yes. Well. Time we all got on with it, I think. Nothing to do but search and keep searching.” 

Harry remembered the distraught professor in the library, and wondered what everyone was so upset about. He hoped it was nothing too terrible.

“What have we here?” said a voice close enough to blow air across the back of his neck. “A little spy.” 

Harry spun around to find a person pressed very, very close to him. Dizzying pink eyes stared straight into his from centimeters away, and a twisting, cruel grin pulled their mouth up. Harry stumbled backwards and saw it was a small man floating cross-legged in the air, wearing a bowler hat and shoes with bells on them. Something about his smile reminded Harry terribly of Dudley, who, until this moment, he had been rather successful at forgetting about.

“A little spy spying on the head of Gryffindor,” the man sang softly, slowly tilting upside-down. “Shall we shout? Shall we call? Spy! Spy!” But he said it all in the breathiest whisper. 

“Don’t,” Harry whispered. “Please.” 

“Don't!” The man’s upside-down face contorted in condescending shock. “The little spy doesn’t want to be found! We wonder why, little spy. Tell us. Why?” 

Abruptly he was two centimeters from Harry’s face again, and Harry was pressed back into the wall, staring at the man’s pink pupils as they contracted into slits, his ears as they grew three points, and his tongue as it forked when he wiggled it from side to side. Harry put a hand against his mouth and held it there, shaking his head, breathing hard through his nose.

“Just give us a reason,” crooned the man. “Give little Peevesie one good reason not to shout for the professor.” His hair began to wriggle around his head like snakes, his teeth, once flat, elongated into points. “Come on, little spy, give us a reason.” 

Harry pulled his hand from his mouth, breath ragged. “I—I—I don’t mean anyone any harm.” 

“Hmm.” The creature—he couldn’t call it a man any longer—it wasn’t—rotated in the air, but his eyes stayed in the exact same place. The pupils were stars, now, and dead-looking. “Say please.” 

“Please,” Harry gasped, pressing into the stone.

The creature tapped a talon-like fingernail against its chin. “Hmm. Not good enough.” It grinned at him, a full display of hundreds of needle-teeth. “Run.” 

Harry ran.

Behind him, the creature started wailing. “DARK WIZARDS! ATTACK! ATTACK! DARK WIZARDS IN THE CASTLE! SPIES! HELP! ATTACK!” A great clashing and clanging came from behind—he didn’t look, but he knew the creature was tearing the shields from the walls. One came hurtling towards him, crashing to the ground next to his foot. 

If he had breath to scream, he would have screamed, professors be damned. But terror had frozen his vocal cords, and his breath had gone to sprinting. 

He turned a corner, and a drapery on the wall sprang to life and flew at him, tangling in his legs and tripping him, his books flying everywhere. The drapery wrapped around him like a mummy, muffling him in a world of dark velvet, immobilized.

He couldn’t move, he couldn’t scream, he couldn’t run, and all that couldn’t built up in a fizzing in his chest, and all of the sudden the drapery was ashes around him. 

The clanging and crashing was still following, and he seized his books and scrambled on. 

He ran and ran and ran and ran. He flew down staircases and around corners, tripping himself, skinning his hands, bruising his knees, still pursued. His vision had narrowed until he could only see straight ahead of himself, which made him bump into walls and almost—almost—topple off a staircase.

And then, before him, was an out-of-order girl’s toilet. 

“Myrtle!” Harry gasped, barreling inside. “Myrtle, please! Help! Myrtle, please!” 

She exploded out of a toilet, showering water everywhere. “What? Snake? What’s happening?” 

Outside the clanging and clashing had caught up. “DARK WIZARD! INTRUDER! SPY! SPY!” 

Myrtle’s face went stony. “Into the toilet.” Her cold, cold hands were on Harry’s shoulders, and she shoved him into a stall, urging him on top of the tank. “Stay here.” The stall door slammed and locked.

He huddled there, shaking, pressing his hands to his soaking face to stifle his sobs. His whole body spasmed and twitched as he listened to the creature enter the bathroom.

“PEEVES,” came Myrtle’s voice, the voice he had heard when she’d attacked him. “LEAVE NOW.” 

“Little Moping, Moaning Myrtle,” sang the creature. “Have you seen a little spy? Little spy? Little spy? I’m looking for a little spy, his hair as dark as ash.” 

“I DON’T NEED THE BARON TO HANDLE YOU IN MY DOMAIN, PEEVES,” Myrtle said in a voice like nails on a chalkboard—Harry had to duck his ears into his shoulders to protect them. “I WON’T SAY IT AGAIN.” 

“Morbid, moping, moaning—”

The toilets exploded, all but the one Harry was sitting on. He saw the water jetting, dark and somehow viscous, heard it burst the stalls open all around him. 

He heard the creature scream, and then the water stopped flowing. In fact, it reversed its path, leaving the floors quite dry. 

It was completely silent. Then the door to his stall opened. 

Myrtle smoothed her pigtails, her fingers in the process of turning human again. “He’s gone, don’t worry. Peeves is mostly a nuisance, but he can be dangerous. You did a good job avoiding him.”

With trembling legs, he stepped off of the toilet. 

“Want to wash you face?” Myrtle asked. “You’ve got a lot of….” She waved vaguely.

Harry nodded, and went to the sink to was the sweat, snot, and tears from his face and hands. 

“Thank you,” he said, when he could speak again. 

“It’s fine,” Myrtle said. “I get bored, anyway.” 

“What is he?” 

“A poltergeist. The point of them is…well, to do what he just did. Scare people. Break things.” 

“Oh.” 

Myrtle sat on the sink and patted his head with a cold hand. “Did you get a riddle for me?” 

“Oh. Yes!” Harry sniffed a few times, remembering what Jade Eyes and told him. “I fly with no wings, I cry with no eyes. Wherever I go, darkness follows. What am I?”

“I haven’t heard this one before,” Myrtle said. She thought for a moment. “Give me some time. I’ll have the answer when I see you again.” 

“Ok.” Harry bit his lip. “I talked to the basilisk.” 

Myrtle’s hair started to float upwards. 

“It says that it was being controlled by the man who told it to kill you. It knew it killed someone but didn’t know who.” 

“Tom,” said Myrtle, her voice edging nearer to what it had been when she confronted Peeves. 

“Tom?” 

“That was his name.” Her eyes were vacant. “I thought he was…so nice. He stopped the other girls from making fun of me. And then...he told me to meet him in here.” 

“In here?” Harry looked around at the toilet. 

“Yes. And so here I went, and here I stayed, and here I’ll stay.” 

“Oh. Can I do anything?” 

She looked at him, and her pupils came back to the present. “Oh. Sorry, Snake. I didn’t use to do that so much, I think. You make me remember things.” 

“Sorry.” 

“It’s not bad.” She sighed, long and dreary. “It’s nighttime. Don’t you alive people need sleep?” 

“Yes,” Harry said. He had, in fact, never been so tired in his life. “I’ll see you later.” 

“I’ll think on the riddle.” 

He opened the sink. Thankfully, he remembered how to get to the den from here: he just had to smell the basilisk out. It wasn’t a hardship to yawn. He yawned constantly as he walked, in fact, and had no trouble finding his way back.

“Snakeheart?” The basilisk met him in the hall, and he turned his head away. “Why do you smell of terror?” 

He told himself he couldn’t cry again. He had cried too much already, the basilisk was bound to tire of it. “I almost got caught,” he whispered. “I’m s-s-sorry.” He was crying despite himself.

“Come into the den,” the basilisk urged. “Who hurt you? I will kill them.” 

“No, d-don’t.” Harry stumbled into the den, and the basilisk nudged him to the center and curled around him. The warmth of the floor soaked into him and he finally, finally started to relax. “It was a polter-something. Peeves.” 

“There is a poltergeist in the castle?” 

“I guess. I didn’t actually get caught, though, don’t worry.” 

“That was not my worry. Are you injured?” 

Harry wiped his eyes with his sleeves, taking a deep, full breath at last. He was in the den. He was safe. If Peeves came down here, the basilisk would eat him. “No. I got some books.” 

The basilisk curled the tip of its tail over him like a blanket, and rested its head right behind him. “Shall we read one?” 

Harry pulled out the elf book and shoved the others across the basilisk’s coils to the floor. “You’ll help me read?” 

“Just sound them out, and we will see.” 

The glimmer of the basilisk’s scales was enough to read by. Harry took another deep breath. “Tibby and the Tipsy House,” he began. “An elf named Tibby lived in the man…man-sin,” 

“Mansion,” said the basilisk.

“—mansion of her master. As head gardener, she kept the gardens and the sol-ar-ee-um…” 

“Solarium. A room with plants in it.” 

“—gardens and solarium prist-ine,” 

“Pristine. Perfectly clean.” 

“—in pristine condition.” 

Chapter Text

“Snakeheart?” 

Harry yawned, burrowing further down into the warmth. His blanket was harder than normal, but he was very comfortable. 

“Snakeheart, I am going to hunt. I will return.” 

His blanket slid of him. He reached out to pull it back up, but it was gone. He sat up and looked blearily around just as the basilisk’s tail slid out of the den, taking its gentle light with it. 

Elvish Lore was crushed to his chest, open to page three—he’d fallen asleep before making it further. The basilisk had noted last night that the author didn’t seem to actually like house elves very much. He smoothed a page that had folded over, and caught sight of the faintly glowing check-out date: the little number 7 had turned over to 6. It must be the due date, then. 

In a rush, the events of the past day stampeded over him, and he broke out in a cold sweat. He pushed the book aside and cupped his hands in front of him, suddenly desperate to be out of the dark. It took him several minutes, each try making his hands shake more, but finally he raised a little flame in them. 

Thirsty.

The thought entered his mind and suddenly it was all he could think of. He was so, so thirsty. Flames held aloft, he stumbled out of the warmth of the den and into the hall, kneeling by the stream of water. He had to let the flame go to cup water in his hands, and he drank ten brimming handfuls in a row, gasping in shock and relief when he had finally drunk enough.

Starting to shiver from the cold, he summoned his little light back into his hands and crawled back into the den. He took two robes from his pile of clothes, curled near the spell dome and pulled them over himself, and went back to sleep.

small lilac sprout

“Snakeheart? Are you well? I have a rabbit for you.” 

Harry stirred, shivering a bit even against the warm floor. The glow of the basilisk’s hide was surrounding him in a comforting corona. A cooling rabbit lay beside him. 

“Thanks,” he murmured. He got up to the little spot where he made fires and knelt down to light one. 

“Did you leave today?” asked the basilisk.

Leave? He remembered Peeves’ pink, star-shaped eyes two inches from his own, the feel of fabric immobilizing him, and his chest locked up in fright. No, he couldn’t leave. “I just slept, I think. Thank you for the rabbit.” 

“Of course.” The basilisk passed him the knife with the tip of its tail, and Harry began to skin the rabbit. “Are you well?” 

His hands were still skinned; it hurt to grip the knife. But he had felt worse, before (he wasn’t thinking about before, though).

“Yeah,” Harry said, ducking his head down. “Just tired.” 

“Perhaps the light down here is bad for you.”

small lilac sprout

“Snakeheart, look! I’ve brought you a light.” 

Harry pushed himself up from a fitful sleep, peering at the sudden bright light that had entered the den. “What is it? It’s beautiful.” 

The basilisk nudged it to him, and he pressed his hands against it—it gave off a gentle warmth, like a star might if held in his hands. It was a large rock which glowed purple from the inside, giving off enough light for him to see the entirety of the den for the first time.

“A stone from down below, very far down,” said the basilisk. “Further down than you would survive. I traveled to retrieve it for you. Do you feel better?” 

“Some. Thank you.” It was making him feel a little more awake. He pushed it over near the wall and picked up a book. “Will you help me read?” 

“Have you eaten today?” 

“Oh. No.” He got some rabbit, and then went and washed his hands and drank from the stream. The cold of the water felt like the cold of Myrtle’s hands pressing into his shoulders, and that reminded him of a moment that kept repeating in his mind: turning, and seeing pink eyes two inches away. Turn, eyes. Turn, eyes. 

He pulled his hands from the water and ran back to the den.

He sat next to the light and opened the book on finding lost things. “This is a book on spells. I know your eggs aren’t lost, obviously, but maybe if I learn some more about how magic works….” 

“Logical,” said the basilisk. It rested its head behind him, draped its body around the room, and finally laid its tail across his feet. The warmth of the floor soaked into him; the weight of the basilisk was grounding.

“In-tro-duct-ion,” Harry read slowly. “Lost trin-kets are one of life’s great-est nu-sience-es—”

“Nuisances. Irritations.” 

“—nuisances: spare socks, door keys, pocket change, favorite quills. What’s a quill?”

“A feather made into a pen.” 

“Oh. Luckily, we have co-lect-ed the most use-ful spells for lo-cate-ing such triffels—”

“Trifles. Small, unimportant things.” 

“—trifles in this vol-ume. Like noise?”

“A volume is also a book.” 

“Oh.” 

small lilac sprout

 

“Snakeheart, will you go into the castle today?” 

Harry got up and took his robe off of the light, which he had used to cover it while he slept. He felt better. Less sleepy. But the thought of going into the castle made his hands start shaking. “I thought I’d read some more.” 

“You seemed to learn a lot from the book on finding things.” 

“Yeah.” A lot of the book had had to do with wand motions, which apparently were what wizards used for magic, and how to pronounce spells, and what to think about when doing the spells. Harry had found most of it useful for learning about magic, except for the wands. He didn’t have one, after all. 

“May I show you something?” 

“What?” 

“Follow me.” 

Harry followed the basilisk out of the den and into the hall. The basilisk went to a huge smashed-in part of the wall, sticking its nose in over the rubble. “This used to be a door, until I needed to get in. My old friend Salazar used this room. It’s where I got your dagger from.” 

“Hang on.” Harry ran back and got the glow-stone, dragging it across the hall and into the little room. “Wow!” 

It was bigger than he had originally thought: a chamber with the smashed remnants of a desk and bed, cabinets along the walls, some of which had been overturned, and bookshelves with books on them. 

“Wow,” he said again. He crept into the chamber and over to a bookshelf. The books along it shimmered with magic, but when he reached out to touch, his hand passed through. He took out Breaking and Entering: Mind Magics and Those Who Abuse Them. Squinting at the first page, he could barely even think how to pronounce any of the words. He put it back. 

“You could sleep in here, if you like,” the basilisk suggested. “There’s a bed.” 

“No, it’s too cold,” Harry said, who had secretly grown very used to sleeping with the basilisk. “But I’ll take the blankets.” 

In addition to blankets, the room had a pillow that wasn’t too musty, a number of herbs and ingredients in little vials that also shimmered with magic—the basilisk warned him not to touch any without knowing what they were—books of all kinds, including a cookbook, about a million dead bugs, a carpet moth-eaten to almost nothing, lots of broken wood furniture for his fire, and a large, heavy pot, which to Harry was almost like a treasure chest. Because while Harry might not know how to skin a rabbit (or, he hadn’t), he knew how to make soup. He filled the pot up with water and put it over the fire to boil it clean. 

He breakfasted on more rabbit, which he was starting to grow a little sick of. It would taste better in a soup, for sure. 

After breakfast, he turned again to his book. “How do you think I can cast spells without a wand?” 

The basilisk curled slowly around the room, which it often did when it was thinking. “How do you make fire? You do that without a wand.”

“Is that a spell, though?” Harry asked. “There aren’t any words.” He grabbed the book and turned to a page on finding spare buttons. There was a moving diagram, which distracted him for one second while he was newly amazed. Then he focused again. “The wizard here raises his wand, and then he twirls it in towards him while he says the spell.” 

“Try twirling your hands?” the basilisk suggested. 

Harry stretched out a hand and did the motion from the book, saying “locus.” Nothing. Not even that fizzing spark in his chest. 

“I did house elf magic,” he told the basilisk. “They showed me how to mend tears.” 

The basilisk was contemplatively quiet. “I’ve never heard of a wizard doing that. Maybe you were right.” 

“That I’m not a wizard?” 

The basilisk gave a noncommittal hum.

“Told you,” Harry muttered under his breath. “But what about the spell, then?” 

“Keep trying?” 

small lilac sprout

“Okay,” Harry said, uncovering the light. It was the fifth day since Peeves. “I’m sick of rabbit. I’m going outside to that garden.” 

Chapter Text

“I forget,” the basilisk asked. “Do two-leggers like snow?” 

“I don’t, very much,” Harry said. He thought alternately of days snowed in with Dudley (horrid) and days playing in the snow with Dudley (treacherous). 

“Well, it is snowing.” 

“Oh.” He went to his pile of clothes and put on as many layers as he could, three pairs of socks, and then his disintegrating sneakers, around which he wrapped strips of fabric he had pulled from Salazar’s sheets. All he was missing was a hat, so he wrapped another strip of sheet all around his head, feeling like a mummy. He had made a bag by closing the bottom of a sweater with string, and he hung that around his neck.

“I’ll be back by tonight,” Harry said bravely, looking at the basilisk’s tail. 

“Be careful,” said the basilisk. Harry stood there. “Why aren’t you leaving?” 

“I’m a little afraid, I suppose,” Harry said, biting his lip.

“Afraid?” the basilisk shifted in surprise. “Of what? I’ve never found anything to be frightened of out there.” 

“You’re…” Harry gestured to it. “What would you be afraid of? I’m just me.” 

“Yes, you are just you,” the basilisk agreed. “A snakeheart, and, more importantly, under my protection. Should anything threaten you, warn them that my retribution will be swift and unceasing.” 

“Unceasing,” Harry repeated. 

“That means never-ending.” 

“Right.” 

small lilac sprout

Emerging from the pipe onto the snow-dusted grounds was like walking into blinding light. Harry had to duck back inside and press his padded arm across his eyes until they stopped burning, and then squint them open little by little, before he could stand to look at the falling snow.

It was beautiful, though, once he could appreciate it. The grounds were vast: they stretched out and out until they met the frosted trees of the forest. The lake glimmered on one side, and to the other, the little hut with the garden knelt, picturesque. 

Snow was still falling gently, and Harry let it land on his cheeks as he tilted his face up to the first true daylight he had felt in quite a while. It was morning, the sun just up, and his first full, grounding breath of fresh air felt glorious.  

His breath puffed through the air as he made his way down the grounds towards the little hut. He spared a thought to being seen from the castle, but didn’t worry too much about it—the snow was falling, after all, and it was very early. He checked behind him every so often, but not enough snow had accumulated for him to leave tracks. 

Instead of going right to the garden, he went to the trees and edged along them, in case he needed to duck behind them for cover. He paused for a long moment once he reached the hut, wary. 

But there was no movement from inside the house, nor any sign of life from outside.

The garden was still growing unseasonably: he could see, now, the faint shimmer of magic that lay over it. When he opened his mouth and breathed in, he could taste it. He could see carrots and squash and aubergine and even a few strawberries, ruby red. 

He crept to where the magical warmth began, marked by the frost halting in a ring around the garden. He passed his hand through tentatively: warmth, and back out: cold. Grinning, he stepped inside and began to fill his sweater-bag, thinking just in time to avoid taking too much of any one thing. He ate a few strawberries as he worked, his whole body lighting up at the taste of fruit. Something told him he probably shouldn’t go so long just eating rabbit again.

“You’re the snake’s kin, right?” 

Harry started and looked down. “Oh, hello!” It was the little brown snake he had met with the green snake. “It’s you!” 

“Yes,” agreed the snake, pleased. “The mother didn’t eat you?” 

“No,” Harry said. “Was that…what you thought would happen?” 

The snake gave a rippling shrug. “You never know with that one. Is it warm where you are? There’s snow, you know.” It looked at him reproachfully, as if this was his fault.

“It’s warm,” said Harry. “And you have it warm here, too, right?” 

“Well,” the snake humphed, “I can see it snowing.” 

“Yes,” Harry agreed. “I didn’t like snow, but I think I might, maybe. It feels nice on my face.” 

The snake gave a shudder of disgust. “Two-leggers. I’m going back to my den. Until next time.” 

“Until next time.” The snake went into a little hole between the stones of the hut, and Harry went back to pulling up carrots.

So delighted was he by his bounty that he nearly didn’t hear the man until it was too late. The slow whistled tune registered just in time. Harry barely had time to dash into the trees, the abrupt cold a slap to the face, before he turned and saw a large man going into the hut.

He could see in the back window, and he watched unashamed as the man threw open the curtains, placed a parcel on the table, and set a kettle to boil. He came outside and around back to look at the garden, and Harry saw he was much bigger than he had previously thought; a giant of a person with a huge bushy beard, a lined and craggy face, and hands as big as spades.

There was something very melancholy about his demeanor. He looked at the garden with a frown, toed one of the holes where Harry had uprooted a carrot, and went back inside when his kettle went off.

Harry watched him pour himself a cup of tea, sit at the table, and put his head in his hands. From the woods, Harry could hear him begin to sob.

Harry was filled by the desperate feeling to go to him. He had never known anyone to be heartbroken, but thought that was what this man must be. And Harry’s heart broke a little too, because all of the sudden he felt very like Myrtle. To be in this place was to live in silence. He would have to watch and not speak, to know but never tell. And watching this huge man cry, it hurt him as bad as skinning his hands on stone. 

He turned away and walked back along the edge of the woods until he couldn’t hear the man anymore. 

small lilac sprout

He wandered aimlessly along the trees, wondering if he should go inside the forest and find the thestrals. He missed them. But the memory of Bane was still harsh in his memory—the grip of his hand, the depth of his gaze.

No, he would not go into the forest. 

But neither did he want to leave the sunlight. It felt so good on his face he wondered how he had not missed it. So instead he went to the lake, sticking out his tongue to catch snowflakes, which he was terrible at. 

The water was as still as a mirror, and perfectly reflected the grey snow-clouds looming above. Harry scuffed the frost off of a rock by the shore and settled cross-legged on it, eating another strawberry and daydreaming about soaring through the snow on thestral-back.

After a moment he took out Odd Socks, Pocket Change, and House Keys and opened it to the locus diagram. He had practiced the spell dozens of times under the basilisk’s eye, at times imagining he was holding a wand, at times pretending his hand was a wand, and at times just shouting the spell very loudly. Nothing had worked thus far. 

He stared down at the fantastic moving illustration for a moment, admiring how even the woman’s robe swished with her movement, at the little speech bubble coming from her mouth. He ate a strawberry. Then he stretched out his right hand, did that twirling movement—he was sure he could do it perfectly by now—and said “locus.” 

Nothing happened. Shouldn’t he be covered in spare buttons by now? 

“Are you thinking of what you lost?” 

Harry jolted so badly he toppled backwards off his lock, losing his book and upending his vegetable bag. He scrambled upright and crouched behind it, looking for whatever had spoken to him.

“Sorry,” whispered a watery-sounding voice.

There. A few meters out in the lake. Just a head and eyes poked above the water, watching him warily. The head had strange fins poking out of it, and didn’t look like it was coming out of the water anytime soon.

Harry gathered his vegetables up, closed the book, and climbed back around the rock. “Who are you?” 

The head rose fully, revealing a perfectly flat nose, thin lips, and fins that did indeed extend from the sides of the being’s head all the way down its neck. When it spoke, many needle-like teeth glinted in the sun. 

The creature drifted a little closer to him, its mouth smiling a little too widely. “My name’s Avalon! You can call me Ava. Who are you?” 

“I’m Snake.” Harry scooted closer to the water. “Are you—a mermaid?” 

“I’m a merperson,” Ava said. “Are you a snake?” Her eyes squinted up in humor.

“I’m…a snake person.” Harry smiled at her. 

She smiled back.  “Your magic,” she said. “I was saying. Are you thinking about what you lost?” 

“Not really,” Harry said. “The spell’s just for buttons, and I haven’t lost any buttons.” 

“Why would you be able to find something you lost if you haven’t lost it?” 

“I guess that makes sense,” Harry said. “I thought I was just no good at wizard magic.”

“Wizard magic,” Ava scoffed. She came a little closer to Harry, pulling herself up near the shore. She had very rubbery-looking milky green skin, webbed and clawed hands, and more fins that reached down her back and sides. She wasn’t wearing any clothes, but she didn’t seem uncomfortable, so Harry decided not to be either. “So inferior.” 

“What’s that mean?” 

“Means less than,” Ava said. “As in, wizard magic is less than, in every sense of the word.” 

“Do merpeople have magic?” 

“Merfolk are magic.” 

“And wizards aren’t?” 

She shrugged. “Not like merfolk, anyway.”

“Have you met many wizards? Do you want a strawberry?” 

“Fllf, well, no. None, if you don’t count. What’s a strawberry?” 

Harry shoved his stone as close to the water as he could, and Ava dragged herself almost out of the water entirely—he could see that she did have a full tail, but it didn’t look like the mermaids he’d seen in pictures. It looked like a shark's. 

He gave Ava a strawberry; she ate it leaves and all, and her face actually started to glow orange with pleasure. “Wow! Human food is good! I wish I had something to trade you.” She looked a little dejected.

“That’s okay.” 

“It’s not.” She gave a dramatic sigh and flipped onto her back. “I’ve run away from home.” 

“That’s a good thing to do,” Harry said, from a biased perspective. 

“I didn’t want to,” Ava moaned. She rolled onto her stomach again and put her chin on her hands, looking sadly up at Harry with eyes that that were green from side to side, no pupil to speak of. She had thick, shiny black hair that draped across her skin.

“Then…why did you do it?” 

“My mothers.” 

“They’re…mean to you?” Harry’s stomach twisted up.

“What? No. They’re feuding, and I just can’t take it any longer!” Her eyes turned down at the corners, which was a disconcerting sight for a moment. “I never thought it would happen to my family, you know? And now it has.” 

“Why are they feuding?”

“Well.” Ava squirmed into a semi-sitting position beside Harry’s rock and took another strawberry, tossing it into her needle-filled mouth. “It’s a long story. It goes back…centuries.”

“Were your mothers alive then?” Harry asked.

“Well, of course not! But their ancestors were! I don’t see what that has to do with anything. Anyway, centuries ago, my mother Loch’s ancestor gave a family heirloom…to a wizard. As a courting gift.” 

“A courting gift?” 

Ava turned huge green eyes on him. “He was in love with him. With a wizard!” 

“Oh. And that’s…bad?” 

She shrugged awkwardly, perhaps remembering that he might be a wizard. “It’s just…not done. Anyway, it turns out that Loch’s family has been hiding this for generations, because they’re so embarrassed that it happened, and the heirloom—this gorgeous magical comb—was so precious. A precious magical heirloom wasted on some half-shelled wizard from the castle.” She waved her hand vaguely up at the school.

“And my mother Cassipa’s family just found out about it, and they’re furious. And my mother Xara is stuck in the middle, because she’s furious at Loch for giving the comb away and furious at Cassipa for stirring up all this trouble!”

“But…but Loch didn’t give the comb away,” Harry protested. “Her ancestor did, right?”

“Yes!” Ava cried. “That’s the point! And here I am, caught in the middle, and things have already gotten violent, and I’m too young to die in a clan war!” Her tail splashed the water angrily, sending a shower of freezing spray onto Harry. “Fllf, sorry.” 

Harry still didn’t really understand the conflict, but he understood being caught in the middle of something bad. “Maybe I can help?” Harry asked. He showed her his book. “I’m learning to find lost things.” 

She looked at him, mouth open. “Really?” 

“Why not?” 

“Well….” she struggled to find words for a moment. “I’d be so grateful if you did. I’d owe you.” 

“That’s alright,” Harry said. “You don’t owe friends, right?” 

Ava grinned. “That’s not how merfolk do it.”

“That’s how snake people do it.” 

“Oh!” She hugged him so tightly it squeezed the air from his chest and got his shirt damp. “Oh, thank you, Snake!” 

“I don’t know how long it will take,” Harry warned. “I can’t do wizard magic yet, really. But I’ll try.” 

“Anything!” Ava agreed. “And when you find it, you can just come back and knock on my door with this.” 

In quite a terrifying move, she reached her whole hand into her mouth and pulled something loose with a grunt of effort. 

Harry reeled back. “What are you doing?!” 

She squinted at him in confusion, then held open her hand to show him a little round pearl. “It’s just a pearl. Do you not have these?” 

“No!” 

“Snake people are weird, I guess. Just throw this into the lake to knock on my door, and I’ll come as soon as possible.” 

Harry took the pearl. For safety, he took off his head-wrap and wrapped the pearl inside it, then put that in his robe pocket. Immediately, his ears started to chill. 

“Ha,” Ava said. “I thought that was part of your skin.” 

Harry giggled. “No. I just don’t have a hat.” 

“What’s a hat?” 

“Like…a thing I put on my head to keep it warm.” 

“Not what you just took off?” 

“No, that’s kind of a piece of fabric I wrapped around since I don’t have a hat.” 

“But didn’t you make a hat out of it, then?” 

“Sort of,” Harry said, considering. “So maybe that is a hat. But a weird one. Anyway, I’ve got to go, or my ears will freeze off and I’ll die.” At least, that’s what Dudley had told him once, and he was terrified of the possibility. 

“Wow, that’s scary,” Ava said. “I guess I’ll go back home after all. I’m not prepared to rough it.” 

“Good luck. And please don’t tell the wizards about me.” 

“Why would I tell the wizards anything?” 

small lilac sprout

As he trudged back to the castle, hands clapped over his ears but fingers starting to get a little stiff from cold, he was extremely happy he had decided to go outside. There were those he could speak to in his new home. He had only to find them.

Chapter Text

Out in the hall, there was a pot of soup bubbling. There were carrots and squash and rabbit, and it smelled divine. Harry had built up a big fire with broken furniture from Salazar’s room, and it flickered over the rubble.

“That smells very strange,” the basilisk said. “You must eat vegetables, I can understand this. But to put them in water? To mix them with meat? I cannot fathom it.” 

“It’s good,” Harry said, unbothered. Nothing the basilisk said could change how fantastic the soup smelled. “And it’s good for me, anyway. I’ll let it cook all day.” 

He looked down at Elvish Lore, the little glowing “1” gently blinking at him. “I think I have to return this to the library.”

“What happens if you do not?” 

“I’m not sure. But I’ve got to start looking for Ava’s comb, anyway.” 

“Very well. Are you sure you wish to go back into the castle?” 

Harry thought about it. He could still remember the terror Peeves had inspired in him, but it wasn’t so sharp. “Yes. I’ll be careful.” 

But when Harry crouched behind the snake emblem outside the door to the kitchens—he wanted to ask the elves for some salt, first—he had a bad surprise. There were voices coming from the bathroom. 

“How was your holiday, Weasley?” came a boy’s voice. “Did you and your brothers have to share one stocking again?” 

“Flint,” said a second voice. “I trust your holiday was enjoyable.” 

The first boy snorted. “Whatever, Weasley.” 

Flint left, and Harry heard the remaining Weasley give a bit of a sniff as he washed his hands, before he left as well.

Apparently, winter holiday was over. 

Alright. That was alright. It had to happen sometime, even if he had grown accustomed to an empty castle. So he couldn’t come out into just any old bathroom anymore—this was a chance to learn the pipes. 

With one hand, he brought up a little flicker of flame, which he was getting quite good at. With the other, he took his piece of chalk from his pocket and drew a little pear next to the snake emblem. 

Then he turned turned left rather arbitrarily and began to walk, keeping his eyes open for more snakes.

He didn’t go out into the castle that day, but he did mark seven different entrances into the castle. Most of them let out into bathrooms, but he found the one that led to the laundry room again, which he marked with a picture of soap bubbles, and one that let him into that large courtyard he had spied from that long staircase up from the Slytherin dormitory. The entrance was hidden behind a carving of a phoenix in flight. 

When he looked through the phoenix’s eyes, which he had to stand on a boulder to do, he could see students in the courtyard. They were all dressed in black robes, and most of them were chatting eagerly with one another, hugging and telling about their holidays. It made a little pang of loneliness go through Harry’s heart, so he retreated to the den for the rest of the day. 

He had soup for lunch, and it tasted exquisite. Without bowls, he had to use a cup he’d found in Salazar’s room, which he’d boiled water in to wash, and without a spoon, he had to drink the soup, but he didn’t mind. The basilisk even flicked a tongue into the broth, recoiling at the temperature. 

They passed a few hours by reading the only book Harry hadn’t opened yet: Scrying and Brewing. The basilisk didn’t know what scrying meant, but it did know that brewing meant cooking potions, which it told him were recipes for magical drinks. In fact, it said brewing was very much like what Harry did with the soup, so maybe he would be good at it. 

The text of Scrying and Brewing was much denser than the others, and Harry and the basilisk had a hard time getting through it. Eventually Harry wandered into Salazar’s room and came back, triumphant, with a dictionary, though even that didn’t help much. If he looked up the word “scry,” the dictionary said “using divination to discover knowledge,” and then he had to look up “divination,” the definition of which, thankfully, he understood, so then he had to go back to “scry,” and finally, having understood that a little better, back to the book. It was arduous work that the basilisk quickly bored of, but Harry pushed on while the basilisk went to attend to whatever it attended to in the deep depths it had pulled his glowing stone from. 

He kept on because, though it took him ages to understand a sentence, he was fascinated.

Divination was telling the future, and Harry hadn’t ever known the future could be told. He found the idea scared him a little and intrigued him quite a bit. Eventually he understood that the author of this book thought that there were certain ways you could make potions that would help you tell the future when you looked into them, or drank them—and that was only from the introduction. He had headache after he finished the chapter, but he put it aside to read more from later. 

Finally, he thought enough time might have passed that it was evening. It was hard to tell time down in the den, because there was no natural light whatsoever. 

Going to the closest entrance to the library he had found—Myrtle’s bathroom—he peeked out. Empty. 

“Myrtle?” he called from inside the wall. 

There was a watery swish. “Snake?”

“Is it safe for me to come in? Are there any students?”

“Not in my bathroom,” Myrtle said. “It’s out of order, permanently. On account of someone being killed in here, you see.”

Harry stepped into the bathroom, finding Myrtle hanging upside-down across a stall door, looking drearily at him. 

“Students are back,” she sighed. “Oh woe.”

“You don’t like them?” 

“No!” she sniffed suddenly, and her upside-down face scrunched up. “They tease me!”

“Tease you?” Harry thought of Myrtle attacking him, fending off Peeves. Who would tease her? “Maybe you ought to be a little meaner, then. If Peeves can get away with it, why can’t you?” 

She stared at him. “Maybe you have a point. Anyway, Snake! A cloud.” 

Harry looked around. “Where?” 

“I fly with no wings, I cry with no eyes. Wherever I go, darkness follows. It’s a cloud, see?” 

“A cloud?” Harry squinted. “Clouds don’t cry.” 

“It not literal,” Myrtle said in exasperation. “Crying is like raining, see? When clouds rain, it’s like they’re crying.” 

“Oh,” Harry said, comprehension dawning. “Wow!” 

“Yes. Don’t forget to bring me another one sometime.”

“Alright. Do you know the way to the library from here?” 

“No,” Myrtle said glumly. “I never leave the bathroom.”

“Thanks anyway.” 

Outside, he saw he had been right. The windows showed a lovely sunset, and no one was around. He cast his mind back to that frightful encounter with Peeves, and tried to retrace his steps. 

Once, he had to duck out of the way of a pair of students walking quickly down a corridor, but they were in a hurry and didn’t have the time to see him standing sideways behind a statue of a hump-backed witch. He came to the area of staircases which he definitely remembered, and thought he had to go up and to the right. Unfortunately, there was not a lot of cover. He waited a few minutes until he was sure no one was around, and then darted quickly across two flights, sighing in relief when they didn’t move. 

He also saw, with pleasure, Jade Eyes’ portrait. He had done it!

He started down the corridor and was stopped by a sick-sounding meow.

A dusty, yellow-eyed cat was sitting right under the portrait, watching him. Its eyes were like lanterns in the hallway that was otherwise lit only by torches.

Harry had always got on with Ms. Fig’s cats. He crouched down and offered a hand. Maybe it would smell the rabbit on him and like that.

It was not to be. The cat hissed and swiped at his paw, let out a wail like it was being tortured, and ran down the corridor away from him.

“Uh oh,” came a hissing voice. Jade Eyes had emerged from the wheat. “Better lose yourself, Snake. She’s a nasty one, even for a cat.” 

“What could she do to me?” Harry asked.

“Get her master, Filch,” said Jade Eyes. “He likes to hang students by their thumbs if he catches them out after hours.” 

“Oh. I’d better hurry then, I have to return this library book.” 

Ssseee youssss,” said Jade Eyes in English.

Harry hurried down the hall, slowing when he saw the shadows moving behind the doors to the library, throwing long shapes onto the ground that mingled strangely with the planes of dark color from the stained glass. He couldn’t just go in, what had he been thinking? 

Biting his lip, he walked up and pressed a hand to the glass. Right at his level, a slot suddenly opened, glowing faintly gold. It was the perfect size for a book. 

Breathing a sigh of relief, Harry slid Elvish Lore inside. The slot clicked closed again and disappeared. 

“Students out of bed, you say?” A mean-sounding voice drifted down the hallway. “Take me to them, my lovely.” 

That must be Filch. Harry high-tailed it back towards Jade Eyes, but coming up the corridor from that end were two professors. Panicking a bit, he pulled open a random door and shut himself inside what turned out to be an empty classroom, putting his ear against the crack.

“Exhausting little brats,” said a voice, unmistakably the vampiric professor from the library.

“Now, Severus,” said a new voice, a bit squeaky. “You’re the one who keeps coming back for more.” 

“As if I have a choice,” muttered the greasy professor—Sirverus, or something, Harry hadn’t quite caught it. “Ah, Mr. Filch. On the scent?”

“Mrs. Norris smelt something,” said Filch. Mrs. Norris meowed. 

All of them were right outside Harry’s door, now. He held his breath. 

“Already breaking curfew on the first day back,” Sirvirus (or something) said, tutting. “I hope you polished your thumbscrews, Mr. Filch.” 

The squeaky professor gave a guilty-sounding laugh. “Now, now. Wait until the second week, at least.” 

“Filius, you don’t have those blasted twins or Ms. Tonks to deal with,” Cerberus (or whatever) said. “You don’t have a leg to stand on.” 

“According to The Prophet, I barely have those in the first place,” chuckled Filius.

“That rag,” snorted Sirius (or whatever). “What a pile of rotting, speciesist, prejudiced manure. And to think what they’re printing lately about—about—” 

Everyone grew quiet for a moment. 

“Actually,” put in Filch, “I do in fact take the copies I find to Hagrid for compost.” 

Secretus (or whatever) and Filius laughed, and the mood lifted a bit. “Good man, good man,” said Filius. “Now off and find your student, we’ll finish our rounds here. Good luck.”

“My thanks,” Filch said, and they all carried on. 

Harry breathed a sigh of relief, waited a few moments, and went to Jade Eyes’ portrait.

“Close one,” said the snake. 

“Yeah. Listen, anthropologists know lots of stuff, right?” 

“So we do,” Jade Eyes said, coiling around the frame in pleasure. 

“Do you know about this comb a merman gave to a wizard a long time ago?” Quickly, Harry told him Ava’s tale. 

“How fascinating,” Jade Eyes said. “How I’d love to be able to record that story from the source. Alas, the merfolk don’t have any use for paintings.” 

“So you haven’t heard of it?” Harry asked, dejected. 

“Indeed not, indeed not. But do tell me if you locate it; I’d love to hear the rest.” 

small lilac sprout

And so, over the next week, Harry adopted a vaguely nocturnal schedule. It was “vaguely” because it was indeed hard to judge time in the den. The basilisk was even worse at it than Harry, because it largely saw no point in tracking the time of day. 

When he woke too early, he spent the time mapping out entry points, and drawing little directional arrows for himself. Myrtle’s toilet was the only place he felt secure entering during the daytime, and even then he was still very cautious about it. 

“Do you know anything about this old comb?” he asked her the next evening, as they tossed a ball back and forth that had rolled into Myrtle’s toilet and she had kept as spoils. Currently Myrtle was urging Harry to throw it as high as he could, and she would zoom up to the ceiling in half a second to grab it just before it collided. 

“No,” Myrtle said. “Sorry. I could ask the Baron if you like, but he’d probably want to know why I was asking.” 

“That’s alright,” Harry said, vaulting top of a toilet to catch the ball and lobbing it back at her. “But if you hear anything….” 

Myrtle did a trick where she turned into a ghostly blur around the ball before re-forming and catching it. “I’ll let you know. Oh, hush, I hear McGonagall.” 

Myrtle floated to the door and giggled. “I love watching her catch people.” 

Harry crept over to watch through the crack, and clapped a hand over his mouth to stifle his laugh.

Minerva, the tall stern professor, was attempting to tower over Serpentus (or whatever), hands on her hips. Except Sorrelus (or whatever) was mimicking her, his long nose scrunched up, and his hair bright purple.

“Ms. Tonks!” Minerva snapped. “Cease this immediately! Impersonation of a teacher is strictly against school rules.” 

“Minny,” said Severus (or whatever), “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I have simply decided upon a groovy new look.” 

Despite herself, Harry saw Minerva’s mouth twitch in a smile, and the Selenius (or whatever) imposter saw it too, because he laughed and then he was changing: into a girl in a student’s robe, much shorter than Minerva, but the pink hair remained the same. 

“Alright, you’ve got me, professor,” she said. “I just thought we could use some livening up, you know, after the…the holiday.” 

Minerva pulled a hand down her face, but her eyes were twinkling. “Don’t let it happen again, Ms. Tonks.” 

“Sure,” said Tonks, though her nose grew several inches and her hair turned glossy black as she spoke.

“Ms. Tonks!” 

“Yes, professor, sorry professor,” Tonks said, erasing the changes. She yawned widely, and Harry saw her teeth were pink to match her hair. “Gosh, I’m tired. I think I’ll head to bed. Ta.”

“Ta,” Minerva echoed ruefully, watching Tonks scurry away and then heading in the other direction, a real smile on her face, shaking her head. 

“How can she do that?” Harry whispered to Myrtle. “Tonks.” 

“She’s a metamorphmagus,” Myrtle said. “It’s really rare, but it’s wicked, isn’t it? I saw her do Dumbledore once, it was amazing.” 

“The headmaster?”

“Yep. Barmy, he is, but great. Really good about letting me live in this toilet.” 

small lilac sprout

He saw Dumbledore for the first time the next evening. Harry was lurking around the entrance hall, watching students go back and forth. He found their constant passage fascinating. He had a perfect little hiding place a few meters off the ground, tucked behind a portrait of an old witch smoking a pipe. 

At first he didn’t think she could tell he was behind her portrait, but then she sighed, blowing out a long stream of smoke that coiled into the shape of a tree. “Lurking, dear?” 

“Oh, er.” Harry looked around. The tunnel he was in led right up to this little nook. “I can leave.” 

She closed her eyes. “No, no. I don’t get many visitors—I prefer my solitude, you understand—but it’s been a while since anyone used that passage. The last one was oh…ten, fifteen years ago. Those troublemakers. I liked them, though. They were charming.” 

This sounded familiar. “What did they do?” Harry asked. “Spy on people?”

“Oh, yes,” she chuckled. “Nothing malicious, mind you. I’d have put the headmaster on them right off. But they played pranks, snuck around, told me gossip.” She smirked. “I’d give them advice sometimes. I used to be quite a prankster in my day, oh, a hundred years ago or so.” 

“I’ve never played a prank,” Harry said. “Dudley played them a lot on me though.”

“Ah.” There was a bit of an awkward silence. “I can help you get back at him, if you want?” 

“No,” Harry said, “no, I won’t see him again, I don’t think.”

“Good for you,” said the witch.

“What’s your name?” 

“Mildred. You?”

“Snake.” 

She peeked open and eye. “You look it.” 

This was news to Harry. But Mildred closed her eyes and went back to her pipe, and Harry scooted forward so he could see through the holes of her smoke rings out into the entrance hall. 

Groups of students scurried back and forth, grouped in threes and fours. They carried books and bags and wands and odder things: vials and plants and, for some reason, brooms. Harry wondered if they had to do a lot of cleaning for a class, or something.

He spotted Tonks only because her hair was actively shifting from blue to purple—otherwise she looked completely different. He saw a pair of redheaded boys laughing: one of them had a very cool haircut, shaved on the sides. They came in through the front doors and went up the rightmost staircase, in the direction Harry now knew Priscilla lived. 

A few moments later he saw a third redhead, this one a bit scrawnier and definitely younger, heading up the same way, arms full of books. He watched as a mean-looking boy pointed his wand at him, and the redhead tripped, books flying. Just as Harry had started to get up to do—something, he had no clue what, but something—a brown-haired boy further up the stairs came flying down on a broom, made all the books freeze in the air with his wand, and leapt off his broom at the bottom of the stairs, sneering at the bully. 

The redhead had gone bright pink and was plucking his books out of the air, and the mean boy was yelling as his hair apparently started to tie itself into knots.

“Wood!” shouted Minerva, who had appeared on-scene as if she could smell trouble. Wood ended the spell quickly and leaned against his broom, nonchalant. “Ten points from Gryffindor! And another ten for flying indoors! Would you like to be benched for the next match?”

“No, professor!” Wood babbled, nonchalance gone. “But Flint tripped Percy, I saw it!”

Minerva turned her stare on the mean boy, Flint, and Harry realized he had heard these two in the bathroom. “Mr. Flint?” 

Flint ducked his head. “It was just a joke.” 

“Ten points from Slytherin,” Minerva said fiercely. “Mr. Weasley? Any reason I should take points off of you as well?”

Percy straightened up, clutching his books with one hand and pushing his glasses up with the other. “No, professor!” 

“Very well. Now off with all of you.”

Flint went down towards the dungeons, and Minerva pointed a threatening finger at Wood. “No flying in the castle, Wood. I mean it.” 

“Yes, professor,” Wood said. “C’mon, Perce.” He towed Percy away and up the stairs. Minerva watched them for a second with a little smile on her face, then spun around. “Bole! I sincerely hope you are not trying to smuggle a pigeon into this castle!”

Harry giggled as the unfortunate Bole was dragged outside to release his pigeon, fairly delighted by the drama. 

Oh, yes. And he had to get his hands on a flying broomstick.

He was idly contemplating how it would be to fly on a broom—would it hurt? He couldn’t imagine it was too comfortable—when a flash of purple caught his eye. He thought maybe Tonks was back, but no, this was someone new. An old man with a white beard down to his stomach wearing bright purple robes with silver stars that glittered and shone, and a matching purple hat with a long maroon feather sticking out of it, and a crooked nose, smiling at students as he crossed the hall. Now that was a wizard. Harry didn’t realize he had mashed his face against the portrait to get a better look until Mildred complained and he backed off. 

“Who’s that,” he whispered. 

“Hm?” Mildred cracked an eye open. “Oh, that’s Dumbledore.” 

So this was Dumbledore. Headmaster, master of elves, victim to metamorphmagus impersonation. He was heading towards the large doors on the far end of the hall, but he stopped and glanced to the right, where Bole, recently returned, had concealed himself behind a tapestry of thestrals, pigeon poorly hidden in his hands. He froze when Dumbledore saw him, but the headmaster only tapped his long, crooked nose, winked, and carried on.

Harry laughed quietly behind his hand. He liked Dumbledore.

small lilac sprout

Mildred knew a lot about the castle and students, but she didn’t know about the Avalon’s mother’s comb, and so under cover of night Harry went to other sources. 

He had been practicing with the book of location spells, but something was still going wrong, and the basilisk had run out of helpful advice. It was much more useful in deciphering Scrying and Brewing, if mostly in the brewing side of things.

Besides, he was curious as to what the elves did at night.

He went to the kitchen and made it without getting lost even once, which was a small but substantial-feeling victory.

He crept out into the bathroom after listening hard, just in case students were breaking curfew. His path down the hall was equally cautious—he didn’t dare hold a little flame in his hand, so he had to squint in the dim light of the torches on the walls. But he found the painting easily enough, tickled the pear, and opened the door.

A hundred pairs of glowing eyes fixed on him as one, and he was frozen there in the doorway. Time passed, or it didn’t pass—he was trapped beneath the lintel of time itself, in that doorway, looking at those glowing eyes. He wasn’t worried, and he wasn’t not worried. He was just locked in a state of being, locked in those eyes.

“It’s just Snake!”

And the moment released him, and he fell forwards, stumbling onto his hands, gasping, for he hadn’t breathed in—how long? It seemed like years. 

Drippy was beside him, but there was something odd about his face—green paint was smeared in two vertical lines, down from his eyes over his cheeks.

“Drippy?” Harry asked. “What happened?”

“You remembers Drippy?” he asked. “Never mind. For stars’ sakes, what is you doing here?” 

“I—I just—” Harry sat up looked around at the myriad assembled elves, all murmuring amongst each other. They all had green paint under their eyes. A few of them were hurriedly wiping it off, others were glaring at him. “I wanted to ask Inchy a question. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt you. I’ll go.” 

He saw Noddy in the crowd and gave a little wave. She bit the edge of her smile and waved back. Then he saw Toddy and waved at him, and the little elf blushed a bit and waved with both hands. Then he saw Norry and Tippy, and before he could wave, they came forward, Norry with hands on his hips.

“Oh, let the boy stay,” he said, to what seemed like the assembled crowd of house elves. “Look at him. And look at his hand.” He seized Harry’s hand and held it out toward the elves, and the little black mark seemed to—concuss, for a moment. Ripple the air. “Snake. You’s not here to hurt us?”

“Of course not!” Harry said. 

Norry cast a look at the crowd, who murmured and mumbled some more. Then, Norry did an odd thing. He held a finger up in the air, the tip glowing yellow. Across the crowd of elves, more fingers were held up, like fireflies. Then they went down, and some orange fingers went up, but they were only up for a brief time before they were pulled down with sighs. 

“Is you hungry?” Tippy asked him. 

He was about to say, well, a bit, when an elf from the crowd spoke out angrily. “First you’s going to let a wizard boy stay, and then you’s going to feed him? I can’t believes this.” 

“It’s okay, I’m not hungry,” Harry lied. “And I can goes.” 

“No,” Tippy said, “you’s going to stay. And eat. No matter what Clippy says about it, because he is not the master.” 

Clippy barreled forward, a small elf with ears that sloped backwards and eyes narrowed in anger. “You’s insulting us all, Tippy. You’s feeding wizards in our time.” 

“I is not a wizard,” Harry interjected. “And I’m not hungry.” 

Clippy stared at him angrily. “You is not a wizard, my ears.” 

“I is not,” Harry said firmly. “And I is sorry for barging in. Please, I’ll just go.” 

“No, you is going to stays and eats!” Tippy said, and dragged Harry through the crowd of elves, who parted around him, some staring, some muttering, some giggling. She sat him at one of the large tables and went to the massive cupboards.

Something hot and upsetting squirmed in Harry’s chest. “Tippy, can I do it?” he asked desperately. “Just let me do it, please? I don’t wants you to.” 

Tippy’s ears froze and then twitched for a few seconds. She locked eyes with Clippy. “Fine,” she said finally. “You do it.” 

Relieved, Harry got off the bench and rummaged around in the cupboards, getting an apple and a block of cheese and a knife and a board. Taking everything back to the table, he cut the apple in slices and the cheese in slices and ate them together, as a hundred elves watched him.

It was good food, but his stomach was in knots. 

“Okay, we is done with all this,” said Drippy, coming to sit beside Harry. “Go to bed, friends. We is meeting tomorrow instead.”

Harry put his head down in his arms as the elves started to move about. This was not what he had wanted to happen. “Why didn’t you just lets me leave,” he said miserably.

“Hush,” Drippy said. “It’s not about you, it’s about us. Eat your apple.” 

Harry decided to take him at his word, and ate his apple. Most, but not all of the elves had left, and the ones remaining were wiping the green paint from under their eyes.

“What’s the paint for?” Harry asked Drippy.

Drippy touched below his eyes delicately. “Nothing you needs to worry about.” In the next second, the color was gone. 

Inchy came and sat beside him with three mugs of tea, two of which she passed to Harry and Drippy. 

Harry reached for it hesitantly. It smelled wonderful, but…. “I is not supposed to,” he whispered. 

“You cans now,” Inchy said. “You is drinking with us, we is not serving you. And that Clippy can pinch my ear if he has something to say about it.” 

Gratefully, Harry drank the tea, which was strong and black and sweet. He hadn’t had tea in…well, he didn’t know when he’d last had tea But it seemed to fill something up inside him that had been empty, and he sighed in happiness.

Drippy pulled out a deck of cards, and Tippy, still fuming, sat down across from Inchy. Drippy spread out the cards, and they drew for euchre partners.

“What is you wanting to ask me?” Inchy said. 

“I haves a question about doing magic,” Harry said, as Inchy dealt. 

“Like the mending?” 

“What mending?” Tippy asked, still irritated. 

“Inchy taught me to close holes,” Harry said.

“Elf magic?” Drippy demanded. “What does you mean?” 

“He is doing elf magic,” Inchy said. “I is seeing it.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Tippy scoffed. She flipped the first card. 

That hurt a little, but Inchy reached over and tweaked the tip of one of Tippy’s ears. “Clippy is putting you in a foul mood. Don’t take it out on Snake.” 

Tippy’s ears lowered in chagrin. “You’s right.” 

“So what?” Inchy asked Harry, knocking on the table to pass her turn. “You wants to learn something else?”

Harry was briefly sidetracked. “Sure! Wait, no. I needs help with a spell.” 

Inchy raised a feathery eyebrow at him. “Elves don’t do spells.” 

“But you does magic. I is trying to do a wizard spell, and it’s not working. For some reason, my magic just won’t…come out. When I try to do it.” 

Inchy put down her cards. “Try it,” she said.” 

Harry stood up, tried to feel that fizzing inside his chest, and made the gesture with his hand, saying “perditus inveniri.” It was the spell he and the basilisk thought most likely to turn up the comb, so long as he focused very hard on the comb itself while he said it. 

But nothing happened. He did feel a little fizzing in his chest, but that might have been the tea. 

Inchy watched him critically. “You don’t haves a wand. Wizards haves wands, usually.” 

“But I don’t needs a wand for other things!” Harry protested. “The magic just isn’t coming out, can’t you feels it?” 

“Yes, I is feeling it,” said Inchy. “But I don’t knows how to help.” She sighed. “Wizard magic is…it isn’t making sense, to elves. Plus, elves is not allowed wands. I is sorry, Snake.” 

“You can’t haves wands?” Harry asked. 

“Wands,” Drippy said, “is allowed for wizards only. Not for creatures.” The word came out in a snarl.

Harry frowned. This bothered him greatly. “Do you wants wands?” 

Tippy shrugged. “Maybe. We don’t knows if they works for us, because we is never trying, because we isn’t allowed.” 

“That’s not fair,” Harry said. 

Drippy looked at him. “No, Snake, it’s not.”

Chapter Text

Harry was out of ideas. It had been almost a week. The elves couldn’t help, nor the basilisk, nor Myrtle or any portraits, and he wasn’t ready to go into the library at night again.

He had one plan left, but it depended on a bit of luck.

Luckily, Tonks wasn’t one for rule-following, and she had tells. Something luridly colored on her person that wouldn’t ordinarily be there. Bizarre or embarrassing pronouncements she was unable to resist saying. Seeing the same person in rapid succession even though you were sure they had been going the other way a second ago.

So if you were determined and knew what to look for, you could spot her. Harry spied her one evening in the entrance hall, disguised as Minerva, stalking through the students and cackling. The real Minerva exited the dining hall, and Tonks-Minerva swiftly boarded a staircase, becoming the student next to her, who jolted and took off at the sight of his doppelgänger. 

Harry rushed through the pipes along what he thought was her likely route, exited a boy’s toilet a few hallways down, and saw Flitwick striding down the corridor with bright purple hair. 

A meow echoed through the halls, and just as Filch turned the corner, Tonks-Flitwick transformed into Dumbledore, tipping his hat jauntily to Filch and passing on by unmolested. 

Harry was awed as he followed Tonks, jumping in and out of tunnels, scurrying behind her as she became Minerva, then Flitwick again, then Filch, to scare a young student heading to bed, then herself again—or at least, what might have been herself. It was well after curfew when finally, finally, she went into a toilet. 

Harry waited until she was washing her hands before speaking.

“Tonks?” 

Tonks screamed and jumped about a foot in the air, then clapped a hand over her mouth. She looked furiously around. “Charlie I swear to Merlin,” she growled. 

“I’m not Charlie, and I need some advice.” 

Tonks was still looking around. “What’s your name, then?” 

“Er…Snake. I’m…invisible.”

“You’re an invisible snake,” Tonks said flatly.

“No, my name is Snake, and I’m an invisible boy.” Harry slapped his forehead. He had meant to say he was a fairy or something. 

“Are you some sort of ghost?” Tonks asked. “Do you need help? Are you trying to pass to the other side?”

“Yes, I am a sort of ghost,” Harry said. “But I just need your help with a spell. For…ghost…magic…school. None of my friends on the other side have been able to help, because they all…died too young.” 

“Right…wait.” Tonks scratched her head. “Are you in the mirror or something?” 

“Yes. I’m a mirror ghost. If you help me I’ll tell you something to help you.” 

“Alright,” Tonks said, folding her arms and leaning against the sink. “I’m game. What’s the problem, mirror-wizard-ghost?” 

“Well,” Harry said eagerly. “I’m trying to do this spell, and the magic just…won’t come out of me. I can feel a bit of fizzing in my chest, and normally when I do magic it comes right out down my hands. But now the magic just won’t come. It’s a different sort of magic I’m trying to do—I don’t usually use spells—but shouldn’t the magic come out the same, anyway?” 

Tonks thought for a moment. “I think you’re overthinking it. It sounds like you have some sort of mental block, to me. Like when my friend did one huge burst of accidental magic that saved her life, but then she couldn’t do regular magic for months.”

“I haven’t done accidental magic,” Harry said. 

“Haven’t you? Nothing happened that scared you and made something happen around you that you didn’t really think about?” 

All of the sudden, Harry remembered being chased by Peeves. Hadn't he incinerated some wall hangings by accident? “Oh.”

“There you go.” Tonks grinned at the mirror. “Sometimes accidental magic happens without us realizing.”

“But I can do things since then,” Harry protested. “Light fires.” 

“Little things,” Tonks said. “Not big things. Not spells.” 

“Huh.” Harry mulled this over. “How do I get over it, then?” 

“Just relax,” Tonks suggested. “My cousin couldn’t do magic for a while because she wasn’t convinced she was really safe. It was like she was always in an emergency, and all her magic was storing up in case she had to use it big again. When you actually feel like you’re safe, your magic will come back. At least, that’s what I think.” Suddenly bashful, she scratched at her hair, turning it from purple to green to orange in a wave.

“Thanks, Tonks,” Harry said gratefully. 

“Course,” Tonks said, completely blasé now regarding her conversation with a mirror-ghost. “You said you had something to help me?”

“Oh, right. Minerva swings her left arm more than her right when she walks, and Serpentus doesn’t stoop as much as you do him, and Filch is actually missing a finger on his left hand. The pinky.” 

Tonks smiled broadly. “Thanks, Snake! But who is Serpentus?”

“You know…Secretus. Or whatever. Greasy hair.” 

Snape?” Tonks barked a laugh. “I’m going to start calling him that. It’s Severus.” 

“Oh.” Harry thought that was a little stranger than Serpentus or Secretus or whatever. 

“So, what’s its like being a mirror ghost?” Tonks asked curiously. 

Harry was saved having to invent a mirror-ghost-world by a voice like a thunderclap shouting: “NYMPHADORA TONKS!” 

Tonks spun around to face a small, plump woman in pale yellow robes, the air around her simmering in anger. 

“Professor Sprout,” Tonks babbled. Harry had never seen her truly afraid before. “Fancy seeing you here.” 

“Bed,” Sprout grit out. “Now.” 

Tonks grimaced and followed her, giving Harry one last wave behind her back. 

small lilac sprout

So he needed to know he was safe. He knew that, didn’t he? He was getting to know the pipes. He’d avoided Peeves. He hadn’t been caught. He was making friends. 

He was away from the Dursleys. 

Wandering back into the den, Harry uncovered his glow rock and sat against it, letting the floor warm him. He ate the last of his strawberries and held the book on scrying in his lap. These things were tangible. He had light, he had fruit, he had a book. He’d had none of these things in his cupboard, which he didn’t like remembering. 

But his magic wouldn’t come. Why?

“Snakeheart? Watch your eyes.”

Harry fixed his eyes on the cover of Scrying and Brewing, watching the silver potion on the cover swirl in its pot. He felt the basilisk enter the den, curling a few times around the walls.

“Are you well, Snakeheart?”

“Yes,” Harry said. “I’m just thinking.”

“About what?” The basilisk rested its head next to him, its tongue flickering out to taste the air.

“Where I came from.” 

The basilisk was silent for a moment. It draped the tip of its tail across his legs. “Where did you come from, Snakeheart?” 

Harry took a shuddering breath, leaning against the basilisk’s head. “Do you know what a cupboard is?” 

“Those areas in Salazar’s chambers with the things in them.” 

“Yeah. I lived in one of those.” 

“Lived in…? Surely there was not enough room.” 

“There wasn’t.” He breathed in and out slowly. “I didn’t ever use to think about it. I don’t want to think about it anymore. I want to forget.” 

The basilisk nudged its head into his side. “If you want to forget and cannot, then perhaps it is best you do not forget. Perhaps you may remember, but only when you decide to.” 

“How do I do that?” 

“There is a way I know, a way to organize your thoughts. Tell me about the cupboard. And as you tell me, send those thoughts into a den of their own. After they go in, they will only come back out if you call them.”

“Just like that?”

The basilisk curled a little closer to him. “Well, you must focus. As you talk, think hard about how you won’t need these memories for a long while, and how until you do, they will stay silent. Thank them for going to sleep.” 

“Thank them? But I don’t like them.”

“They are your memories,” said the basilisk simply. “And a part of you. Thank them for living with you, and thank them for resting now.” 

Harry smoothed the cover of the book. “Okay. Where should I start?” 

“Tell me about the cupboard.”

“It was small,” Harry said. “There was a spider who I called Arthur. I had a toy soldier I hid under my mattress.” 

“Were you safe there?” 

“No. I wasn’t safe anywhere.” 

“Why?” 

“My aunt and uncle and cousin.” 

“Tell me about them. Are you thanking your memories? Are you ushering them into their den?” 

“Yes,” Harry said, breathing out and tilting his head against the basilisk’s scales, rubbing his cheek against them. “I’m sending them to sleep.” 

There was a little den in his mind. It was small, but it could hold everything he sent there. It had a little glowing rock inside for the memories to see by. It had a little stream for the memories to drink. It was a perfect place to rest.

small lilac sprout

Harry extended his hand, and fizzing magic sparked in his chest, flashing like fish in a stream down to his outstretched fingertips. 

Chapter Text

“Ready?” Harry asked, excited. Finding what the Fairies Stole was next to him, balanced on the basilisk’s tail. 

“Go on,” encouraged the basilisk.

He closed his eyes. Thought of Ava and her comb. A comb given centuries ago to a mermaid in love with the wizard he gifted it too. A comb that was somewhere in this castle.

Taking a deep breath, feeling that fizzing in his chest bloom and start to run down his arm, he reached out and twirled his hand, saying “perditus inveniri.” 

A thin blue line shot out from his hand, stretching out of the den. Harry gasped.

“Did it work?” asked the basilisk.

“Can’t you see it?” 

“See what?” 

“The blue light!” Harry started to run, following the light. He entered the hall and stopped in surprise: the line of light led straight into Salazar’s room.

“What’s wrong?” asked the basilisk, nudging him from behind. 

“It’s…going….” More slowly now, Harry clambered over fountain debris and crossed the stream, going cautiously into the room. The light led to a little box on the bookshelf. He carefully opened the lid, revealing a gleaming pearl comb that shimmered in the low light of the basilisk’s shine, who was peeking in the doorway.

The moment Harry touched the comb gently with a finger, the blue line vanished. 

“This whole time…” Harry breathed. He held up the comb. It shimmered like it was still underwater. 

“The merman was in love with Salazar?” the basilisk asked. “He never told me!” 

“Maybe he was sad, because they could never be together.” Experimentally, Harry ran the comb through his hair—or tried to. His hair was so knotted that the comb just got stuck. “Ow.” 

“Your fur is very tangled,” observed the basilisk.

“Yeah. I’ll fix it when I get back.”

“Will you go now?” 

Harry considered. It was the early evening. “I think so.”

“When will you be back?” 

“Don’t really know. Is that alright?” 

The basilisk flicked its tongue out. “Why wouldn’t it be alright? I don’t control your comings and goings.”

“Right.” Pleased, Harry turned around. 

There was a great and panicked rushing of coils as the basilisk whipped its head under its body, and Harry gasped and stumbled backwards, arm over his eyes.

They were both still for a long time, breathing.

“I’m sorry,” said Harry quietly. “I didn’t think.”

“Nor I,” said the basilisk. “You just came very close to death. I suppose I should begin the inoculation process sooner rather than later.”

“The what?” 

“That’s a task for when you get back.” 

small lilac sprout

Dusk was a good time to go outside. Harry was small and hard to see from the castle, and no one was outside because it was still cold. 

Bundled from top to bottom, comb wrapped in pair of spare socks and tucked in his bag, he clambered over boulders down to the edge of the lake on the far side of the castle. He took Ava’s pearl and considered the mirror-dark lake. It reflected a nearly-full moon and the silhouette of the castle, windows lit yellow. It was a lovely sight, but Harry was freezing. He threw the pearl as far out into the lake as he could and sat down to wait.

He didn’t have to wait long. After about five minute ripples began to spread across to lake, and then Ava’s head, dark in the fading light, popped up. She grinned at him and waved a webbed hand. “Snake!” 

“Hi, Ava!” He rose and picked his way out to the gently lapping water. “Look!” He dug the comb from his bag and unwrapped it, waving the shining comb in the moonlight. 

Ava gaped and then gave a brilliant laugh that sounded like water running over stones, doing a series of backward flips in the water that sent it spraying in arcs. She boosted herself up near the shore and reached out to clasp his hand. He took it; hers was slimy and cool against his. “Snake!” she shouted. “Thank you!” 

Harry smiled, kneeling down to face her. “Sorry it took so long. No one’s died yet, right?” 

“Nearly,” she said ruefully. “But this will fix everything. Come on, let’s go.” 

“I can go?” he asked excitedly. “But how will I breathe?” 

She fished around in what he had thought was part of her tail, coming out with a tangle of slimy plant. “This! Diver’s breath! It’ll give you gills like me. But take your clothes off first. And give me the comb.” 

“Er, okay.” Harry looked around for a place to put his clothes. He ended up putting them in his shoulder bag and sticking the whole thing half-under a boulder, and then rolling another boulder on top. He wrapped his arms around himself, the winter wind unforgiving. 

“Eat it,” Ava urged.

He took the plant and mashed it into his mouth, nearly gagging at the rubbery feel, swallowing it with some difficulty. For a second he stood there and felt nothing, and then there was a sharp pain in his side, and he couldn’t breathe. 

“Get in the water!” Ava grabbed his hand and tugged him down into the shallows, and all of the sudden the water felt quite comfortable around him, and he could breathe, and the bits of him that were still in the air felt uncomfortable and dry. He followed Ava’s tugging down away from the shore and under the water, finding he could open his eyes and see clearly in the water around him. Ava stared back at him in delight, and her eyes glowed under the water. 

“Wicked!” he tried to say, but it didn’t come out right—he couldn’t speak with water in his mouth. 

Ava held up a finger and dove behind him, then came back holding something loose and flowing. She looped it around his waist and tied it—it was a skirt that billowed behind him to look like a merperson’s tail. He giggled and twirled in the water a bit, watching it drift, and noticed that there was webbing between his fingers. 

He could hear Ava’s laugh properly now: he could feel it, actually. It reverberated across his skin in happy waves. He did a flip and looked at her upside down, and she grabbed his hands and spun him in wiggly circles. Then she took the comb and put it in his hair to keep it from floating around in front of his face. 

When she spoke, he could hear it, but he could also feel it. “You’ll be able to speak soon,” she said. “You just have to keep practicing. Dumbledore can do it, so it’s possible.” 

Harry felt a spark of interest. “Dumbledore?” The words came out a jumble of sounds, but Ava understood. 

“He’s the only wizard allowed in the city. But I don’t live in the city, so it’ll be okay.” Something in her face looked doubtful.

“Are you sure?” Harry asked. This too was inaudible to him, but perhaps his expression communicated it.

“Oh, yes.” She flipped her tail in a dismissive way, took his hand, and they began to swim.

They swam out, and then down. Down past where the light penetrated the water (though he could still see, somehow), down past where Harry thought the Slytherin common room window must be, down and down and down—surely lakes didn’t go this deep?

Along the way, Ava showed him wonderful things. Fish that had their own lights. Plants that glowed gently and little bugs that flitted through the water about their business. Ava made him a necklace out of the glowing plant, and so he made her a bracelet, tying the flat plant around her blue-green wrist. They played tag, flitting around tall plants and tall, tall rock formations. She swam circles around him as he worked out how to use his webbed hands and feet to pull himself through the water. 

Finally, much later, they reached the bottom of the lake. Ava dove down to the sand and wiggled in it, making snakelike rippling shapes. Harry swam down beside her and picked up an orange shell, dropping it in surprise when a little crab came bursting angrily out of it. Ava’s burbling laugh bumped against his skin.

“Ava,” he said carefully. “Where are we?”

“That was your best try yet!” She pinwheeled in the water. “We’re in the Flats! My home, Deep Light, is a while that way, past those big rocks.” He squinted, making out the rock formations in the distance. “Let’s go.” 

They had just set out for Deep Light when Ava froze, seizing Harry’s hand and drifting him behind her. 

Swimming toward them were three figures: merfolk with spears. They covered ground quickly, swimming fast with powerful movements of their tails, sending ripples behind them. They stopped a few meters in front of them, spears pointed right at Harry. They wore double ropes of polished shells around their waists, and their chests were scarred in blue and black spirals. 

They looked to Ava and said something long and stern in a language Harry didn’t know.

Ava’s sharp fingernails bit into Harry’s wrist, and she answered in the same language. They went back and forth for a moment, but whatever she said wasn’t convincing, and one of the merfolk began moving towards Harry.

Harry kicked back a few meters. “Ava, what’s going on? 

Ava swam backwards, pushing Harry behind her. “They’re angry I brought a two-legger here, even though we’re not in the city—they want to take you prisoner.” She began babbling at the merfolk again, but one of them reached out and grabbed her arm, ripping her away from Harry.

Harry swam backwards, but he was much too slow in the water. As a merman reached for him, black claws seizing around his ankle, the basilisk’s voice suddenly echoed in his mind: swift and unceasing.

“I’m under the protection of the basilisk!” he screamed, working hard to get the sounds to come out. “Let me go! Ava, tell them I’m under the basilisk’s protection!” He kicked out against the merman. 

But the merman had already released him. They talked rapidly back and forth in their language, and Harry could catch the world “basilisk.”

Ava tore herself free and swam to him, clutching his hands. The merwoman who seemed to be in charge pointed at Ava, giving them some instruction.

“What are they saying?” Harry demanded. 

“She says if you do anything to the people, my family is responsible. And they’re reporting your presence to the princes. And if you set one toe into the city, they’ll hang your entrails as banners.” 

And with that, they swam away, disappearing as quickly as they had come. 

Harry did the underwater equivalent of gasping for breath, his gills fluttering hard in the water, and Ava slumped against him. “Fllf, Snake! I thought you were dead!” 

“Me too,” Harry said weakly. 

“You never told me you live with the basilisk!”

“I told you I’m a snake person.” 

“I guess so. Well, let’s go, anyway. I want to get home.”

The rest of the swim passed quickly, because they were both scared. At long last Ava pointed out her home to Harry: a vague mound in the distance. They got closer and Harry saw it was a great cave, the large open mouth covered by a tightly-woven net that glowed blue. Harry could feel the magic of it washing against his skin. 

Ava placed her palm against the center of the net and a gap opened up big enough to swim through. She did so, tugging Harry with her.

The inside of the cave was brightly lit with luminescent stones set into the floor and ceiling, and the walls were completely covered in thick tapestries made with shiny-looking thread. It was quite cozy, and Harry felt that if he were to lean against the walls, it would feel like learning against blankets. 

“My mother Xara wove them,” Ava said proudly, gesturing to the tapestries. “That’s what she does. She’s famous for it.” 

“Wow.” Harry stared around at them. When he really looked he saw that they were actually two massive pieces, each of which wrapped around one half of the oblong room, beginning at the front door and ending at an aperture leading further in. The one on the left depicted a massive lake dragon. The one on the right showed a mermaid. They reached towards each other across the doorway. 

“Do you have any weapons?” Ava asked. “You can put them here.” She took a small dagger from her pocket and a thin blade from her hair and put them in an abalone bowl that rested on a stand. 

“I don’t have anything,” Harry said. “Just this.” He touched the edge of the comb in his hair. 

“Okay.” Ava rubbed her palms together, and her face took on a skewed kind of look. “Fllf. I didn’t actually tell them about you. Or anything. You know. The whole comb thing…with wizards….” 

“Oh. Will they hate me like the others?” 

“No, no!” Ava assured him. “Let’s just find Xara first though.” 

He swam behind her as they went through that first door and into another room, which turned out to be a kitchen of sorts. Harry didn’t get a chance to really absorb it, because Ava had frozen, staring at the merwoman in the room.

The merwoman was very tall, with deep blue skin, hair shaved close to her scalp, and scars across her chest and neck that were died lilac. She was sucking something from a snail shell, or she had been—now she was just still, gaze flicking between Ava and Harry in disbelief. 

Ava started babbling in her language, and the mermaid slowly lowered the snail shell, tossing it aside to drift to the ground, and moved towards them. Ava shunted Harry behind her and kept talking. 

The mermaid took one, then two deep breaths, gills fluttering. And then she yelled: “LOCH! XARA!” And then a jumble of words with Ava’s name thrown in. 

Loch, Harry remembered was Ava’s mother who’s family had lost the comb. Which meant that this was Cassipa, who was furious about it.

There were two entrances to the kitchen, and one of Ava’s mothers came swimming in through each. The calmer one, presumably Xara, was fat and wore her hair in a bun on her head, and had tangles of thread hung all across her shoulders. Loch, who was already snarling with sharp teeth at Cassipa, had a thick scar across her stomach and a blackly iridescent tail. 

They took one look at Harry and began shouting at themselves and at Ava, who gave as good as she got. Nothing seemed to be getting solved, though, because the fighting just went on, so Harry shoved Ava out from in front of him and swam to the middle of the room. 

The mermaids collectively stared at him. “Ava, please tell her what I say,” he said. He turned to Loch, meeting her jet-black eyes. “Ava’s mother Loch, this is a gift for you.” He pulled the comb from his hair and held it up to her, the pearl shining in the light of the kitchen. “I hope you can stop fighting now.”

Loch took the comb from his hand, running a webbed hand over it. Her eyes were filled up with a strange film that leaked out into the air. Over his head, she spoke to Cassipa, gesturing with the comb. 

The focus of the room had turned rapidly from Harry, so he swam back over to Ava’s side. When he turned around, Cassipa had the comb, and was pulling it carefully through Loch’s hair. Then she used it to pin some of Cassipa’s hair away from her face. 

Ava sighed loudly, saying something to Xara which made Cassipa shoot her a sharp look. 

Xara swam around the other two, took something from a shelf, and brought it over to Harry. Leaning down in front of him, she offered him the thing—some kind of food wrapped in seaweed—and said, very carefully: “thank you.” 

Harry took the food. “You speak English?”

She looked a little pained. “I…speak some.” 

He smiled at her, and she grinned back, like a shark. “I like your tapestries,” he said, pointing back towards the entrance room.

She patted his head and smiled. 

Harry inspected the food. It was some sort of fish wrapped in seaweed. As he was starving, he ate it in one bite, finding it sort of spicy and sweet at the same time. 

“Tell her I found it in my house,” he mumbled to Ava. “After searching the whole castle.” 

Ava did so, and translated Xara’s response. “I told her you live with the basilisk. She says, how?” 

Harry shrugged, wishing he could have another seaweed thing. “I helped it, and so it said I could stay. What’s that thing I ate?” 

Xara, through Ava, told him the wizards call it sushi, but they call it “flshhfli,” or a word that sounded very similar. Harry attempted to pronounce it and Xara laughed at him, parroting it back until she gave him a pinky-wave, which he thought meant approval. 

Cassipa and Loch had disappeared by this point, and Ava went and got them more sushi. “Xara says you can stay for a few days,” she told him. “Want to see my room?” 

“Yeah,” Harry mumbled around a mouthful of fish. “Where are your other mothers?” 

“Probably having sex,” Ava shrugged. “Come on.” 

Harry waved goodbye to an amused Xara and swam after Ava down the left corridor. “They’re trying to have a baby?”

“What? No. They have me, why would they need more than one child?” Ava’s door was marked by a gently-drifting piece of slippery fabric. She held it aside for him. “Sex is like, for adults to make each other feel good and stuff.”

“Oh.” Harry did a slow backflip to take in Ava’s room, which was wonderful. There was a fine mesh hammock instead of a bed, and shelves full of wonderful things, and the circular wall was covered in a tapestry of a fantastical forest, the trees slightly wavy, the sky purple. 

“We have a spare hammock,” Ava said. “I’ll put it up for you tonight. Do you want to play with my space set?” 

“Sure,” Harry said, wondering what a space set was.

Ava went to a little alcove and dragged out a chest. When she tipped it onto the floor, it spilled out a number of unusual figurines. There were mostly merfolk of all ages, except they also had membranous wings and three sets of eyes and tails, and there were strange finned creatures that he had never seen before. 

“What are these?” Harry asked, picking up a little merboy who had a single tentacle coming from his forehead with a light on the end.

“Aliens!” Ava said. “Here, you can be him if you like and I’ll be this one, I call her Nolava, that’s Avalon backwards, and we’ll play that we’re exploring Saturn, alright?” 

She flopped onto her stomach and dragged over the sushi dish. “And this is an alien monster! What’s yours named?” 

Harry walked his little merboy over to the sushi to start looking for clues. “I’m, uh, Percy!”

“Percy, what did you find?” 

“It’s some kind of alien monster!” 

small lilac sprout

The next day Harry was invited to an official reclamation ceremony. Ava dug out of her closet a new floaty tail thing for him to wear, one that shimmered purple and green, and she painted his face and chest with sticky ink in the shape of snakes.

The ceremony took place in a grove of standing stones nearby. Harry stuck close by Ava and Loch, who spoke the best English out of Ava’s mothers, and looked in wonder at the merfolk around him, who looked in equal wonder, and quite a bit of disbelief and hostility, back. Ava introduced him to her favorite cousin Parime, a merboy who poked at Harry’s flat teeth and giggled before settling in beside them to watch the ceremony, sharing his bag of sweets. Ava whispered explanations in Harry's ear as things proceeded.

First Loch presented the comb to the oldest living member of her family, Ava’s great-great grandmother, who said a prayer of thanks over it and pronounced her family unburdened of their shame. Then she gave the comb back to Loch, who gave it to Cassipa, who gave it to Xara, who called Ava up and tucked it into her hair. At this point Harry had to guess what things meant, because while Parime spoke decent English, he was too absorbed in a little puzzle game he had brought to translate.

A mermaid Harry didn’t know had risen and was elocuting with a lot of gesturing and fin-waving, and then she was abruptly pointing at Harry. 

Harry looked hurriedly to Ava, who was making get up here gestures comprehensible to any species. Nervous to be standing in front of so many merfolk, Harry swam up to the mermaid. Ava swam over to his side, which made him feel better. The mermaid spoke widely, somehow encompassing both the crowd and Harry himself.

“She’s saying no one would have believed a wizard would return a mer heirloom, and yet here we are. So maybe wizards have some honor after all. This one, at least. What’s your name?”

It took Harry a moment to realize he had been asked this question. He looked up at the mermaid. “Snake,” he said very clearly.

“Sa-nek,” said the mermaid, and then, in English, “thank you.” Then she switched back to Mermish.

“She says Sa-nek is, surprisingly, very commendable and she hopes more wizards will be like him, though she doesn't have high hopes. Ok, go sit down.” 

This time Harry was ready for instructions and so went and sat by Parime without second-guessing. 

After the ceremony, which took quite a while longer (Parime had passed Harry his puzzle game when he was done with it), Loch and Cassipa swam over to Harry. 

“Sa-nek,” said Loch, “you are always happy to be in our house.” She hugged him. 

small lilac sprout

Harry had never had parents before, but he got a taste of it with Ava, because her mothers seemed to treat him as a sort of temporary son. He quite liked the feeling, but only as a non-permanent arrangement. 

In the mornings they all made breakfast together in the kitchen. An underwater kitchen was a remarkable and lovely thing. Merfolk ate their food raw, but arranged and paired in infinite ways. There were three whole cubbies devoted to variously-sized pots of dense jams and spreads and sauces. There was another cubby for spices, but to spice anything you needed a special contraption in which you put the food, and then squeezed in spices, and shook it all around to give it a good coating. Otherwise the spices floated through the water and made everyone itchy for an hour or so.

Xara showed Harry her loom, which took up an entire room by itself. It was the only room in Deep Light whose walls were not covered in tapestries, and this was because there were covered in thread. Xara’s thread was made from all sorts of materials, from hair to seaweed to intestine, and it glimmered and shone in all the colors of the rainbow. When Harry entered the room, he felt like he was entering a magical geode cave, of which Xara was the ancient guardian. He watched her weave until Ava got bored and dragged him off, and was fascinated by how slow and detailed the process was, yet how fast she was at it. 

He and Ava met up with Parime at a playground, which Ava called a rapids course, the goal of which was to see who could do it the fastest. Harry didn’t mind being slow; he liked to see Ava and Parime dodge and twist through the curving stones and ropes of braided seaweed, so fast bubbles streamed from behind them. They would circle the course twice and come tumbling and bumping to a halt on top of him, crushing him gently to the lake bed. Parime’s English got rapidly better with Harry there, and soon enough both Parime and Ava were speaking half in English and half in Mermish so Harry could learn. Mermish was easier to speak underwater, anyway. It was something about how when he spoke English, he was still trying to breathe with his lungs.

After Xara, Loch was Harry’s second favorite of Ava’s mothers. Not because he didn’t like Cassipa, but because his first impression of Cassipa had been anger, and Harry didn’t like that kind of thing.

Loch, it turned out, was a magic-worker. She manipulated the currents of the lake around and inside mer dwellings to keep things fresh and healthy. She was the one who maintained the slow but sure current of water through Deep Light, sweeping any pollutants gradually out of the home. The currents, under her direction, all ran through the Gills, which was an impossibly-woven, massive net that mer mages had constructed and maintained. Debris collected by the Gills was poured around the lake-bed seaweed forests as fertilizer. 

Ava convinced Loch to take them to see the Gills, which were astonishingly big. Three vast nets, all glowing a gentle blue, billowed as combined currents flowed through them. Harry could see the debris, a fine brown mist, falling to the bottom of the nets, crystalline water streaming out the other side. Harry couldn’t taste magic underwater, per se, but he could feel it passing through the currents to sound against his skin.

The one thing Harry didn’t love about being at Ava’s home was the diver’s breath, which he had to eat periodically. He forgot to eat some before bed the first night, and had woken up thrashing around in his hammock while his gills disappeared. Ava had yelled and yelled and Xara had come finning into the room to shove some diver’s breath into his mouth and hold him until his gills grew back and he stopped hyperventilating. It hadn’t been the scariest experience in his life, but it was pretty bad. 

He stayed for three nights before deciding he’d better get back. He loved Ava’s home and he liked her mothers and the mer kingdom intrigued him, but he missed the basilisk. He wanted to curl up by his light rock and read for a bit. 

“I’ll take you up to the shore,” Ava said, the morning of the fourth day. “But here, I want to give you a way to talk to me.” He took her into Cassipa’s study, where Cassipa was reading a scroll, and grabbed something from a little box. “These are notecards, and this is a letter-shell. You roll up the notes and put them inside, and then just toss them in the lake. There’s a spell so they go straight to the post office; I’ll check it weekly. And when I write you back, I’ll put them…I’ll put them where you hid your clothes. Okay?” 

Harry took the little pages, which were made of seaweed, and the abalone tube. “There’s a post office!”

“Sure!” Ava enthused. “Wanna see?” 

Harry very much did want to see. But it was time for him to go. He turned to Cassipa, who was watching them over her scroll, a pair of thick glasses strapped around her head. 

“Thank you for having me, mer Cassipa,” Harry said, which he had learned was the polite way to speak to her.

“You’re welcome, Sa-nek,” she said in English. She reached out and patted his head. “Come visit soon.” 

“Yes,” Harry said in Mermish, and she smiled at him, needle-teeth glinting.

He said goodbye to Xara and Loch, and then Ava and he carefully made their way back to the surface, cautious when crossing the Flats. 

They waited just under the surface for Harry’s diver's breath to wear off, and then Harry poked his head up and breathed fresh air for the first time in days. It was slightly overwhelming. The taste of the castle’s and forest’s magic were heavy, and all of the sudden he could smell a lot. He sneezed five times in a row.

It was early morning and absolutely freezing. No one seemed to be around. Harry passed Ava his fin-wrap and dug his clothes up from under the boulders, shivering badly by the time he had gotten dressed, his clothes damp.

Nevertheless he crouched down to say goodbye to Ava, who pressed her cheek against his. “Bye Snake!” she said. “Write soon!”
 
“I will,” Harry promised. “Every week.” 

Harry walked backwards to the castle, waving until she disappeared from sight.

Chapter Text

The basilisk was waiting for him when he got back. With its head tucked securely away, but nevertheless it called out to him as soon as he was close enough to hear: “Snakeheart!” 

Harry jumped and slid the rest of the way through the tunnel. “Hello!” 

The basilisk nudged its head against him, eyes closed tight, and he laughed and hugged its nose. 

“Were you worried?” Harry asked in bemusement. 

“No,” said the basilisk. “Well, only a little.” 

A while later, Harry had hurriedly changed out of his wet clothes, heated up some soup to warm him, and told the basilisk a truncated version of his adventures.

“I wonder what the mer know of me,” said the basilisk thoughtfully. “I do not know when I last spoke with one.” It gave a rippling, full-body shrug that made the room waver. “I have a task for you, Snakeheart.” 

“What is it?” Harry made Percy, who Ava had given him, walk across the basilisk’s scales, slipping and sliding around.

“It is too dangerous for you to remain here while still fearing my gaze. There is a potion you must make and drink to protect you.” 

“Okay. Do you know how to make it already?” 

“I do. You must only retrieve the one ingredient we lack. It may be found in the forest.” 

Percy froze and looked at Harry, who looked back. “Er, the forest?” 

“We need fairy water. And fairies can only be found in deep in the forest. I would collect it myself, but alas…I have no hands.” 

“I can do it,” Harry assured. “It’s just…there’s things in there.” Bane’s eyes lingered in his mind, Bane’s hand on his forehead.

“And did my name not protect you from the mer?” asked the basilisk. 

“Yes,” Harry said slowly. 

“It will be good for you to learn the Forest,” the basilisk says. “You cannot stay on the grounds forever. For one thing, I’m sick of hunting rabbits.” 

Harry giggled. “Alright. I’ll go tomorrow morning.” 

small lilac sprout

“Myrtle? Is it safe?” 

“Oh, Snake! Yes, it’s safe. Come on in.” 

Harry opened the sink and came into the bathroom, grinning at Myrtle. 

She floated upside down to look at him. “Ooh, you look like you’re going somewhere.” 

“Into the forest for a bit,” Harry said. “But I wanted to stop by. I have a word game for you that a merperson taught me!”

Myrtle’s huge upside-down grin was a little uncanny. “Oh!” 

“Okay, so you think of a word. Then you take the second half of that word and put it in front. Like: seaweed, weedsea. And then you switch the first and last letters, so weedsea becomes aeedsew. And the other person has to figure out which word was the original. And another way to play it is you make up rules for how you mix your words up, and the other person has to figure out what your rules are.” 

“Fun!” Myrtle shouted, doing a loop-the-loop. “Okay, here you go: sralthet!” 

Harry sounded the word out in his head, but kept getting stuck when he tried to swap the two halves. So eventually he breathed on the mirror to steam it up and wrote it out, before finally declaring: “thestral!” 

“Yes!” Myrtle said gleefully. “Give me one!” 

The did “rlemyt,” “eoredumbld,” “rersonmep,” and “oessorprf,” before Harry started to feel time ticking on. 

“I’ll be gone for a bit,” he told Myrtle.

“Good luck!” Myrtle said. “If you die I shall be very disappointed. Except, then you could haunt this toilet with me, I suppose.”

“That would be pretty fun,” Harry agreed. 

small lilac sprout

Outside, he breathed in the cold morning air. Even though it was freezing, it felt so good. Something about the crispness of it. He’d never felt air like this before. Clean and good and magical. 

The large man was out tending his garden. Harry carefully skirted around him, watching a bit enviously as he shrugged out of his coat inside his spring-time circle. He wasn’t crying anymore, but he did look…sad. No, not sad. Like there was a heavy blanket pressing over him and he couldn’t help put bend under the weight. 

Harry wished he could help. 

At the edge of the forest he hesitated. It wasn’t as if the trees were looming or groaning or menacing at him; in fact, the dusting of snow made everything quite lovely, and he could hear early-morning inhabitants rustling around. It was just that the memory of his first trip through still scared him. And this time, he was on his own. 

But really, what else was to be done? 

There was a Mermish word Ava had taught him: “aelisf.” It meant “ever upward.” As in swimming to the surface.

Well, Harry thought. Aelisf

small lilac sprout

The forest was actually quite nice so far. It felt magical, not in the way that meant he could taste it (though he could) but in a way that felt like he was walking through a scene in a picture book, or cartoon. The way the snow glittered on the highest branches, the bright red birds that sang hello at him. Soon enough he was walking quite easily through the forest, with only one destination: deeper. 

A while in, he found a curious tree. At first he thought it was swarming with bugs, and he leapt back, but upon second consideration, it was swarming with…sticks? He crept closer.

They were little sticks with arms and legs, skittering over the tree, plunging their delicate fingers between the cracks in the bark and coming up with insects that they devoured. Fascinated, Harry reached out to gently prod one of them, and yelled in shock when it bit him and didn’t let go. He grabbed it with his other hand and ripped it off, sticking the cut finger in his mouth at once. 

The little wood creature squirmed and scrabbled in his hand. It had a little human-like face that snarled at him. 

Harry spoke around the smarting finger in his mouth. “Why’d you bite me?” 

The thing just growled.

“Do you know where I can find fairy water?” 

It was no use. He set it back on the ground and leapt quickly away before it could bite him again and watched it scuttle back to the swarmed tree. He watched them for a little longer in fascination, and then carried on.

He walked and walked. The sun rose fully. He snacked on a bit of sushi that Cassipa had packed him, but it didn’t taste as good above the water. The forest grew warmer with the sun, but no lighter. Any impact the increased sunlight might have made was mitigated by the increasing density of the canopy. He was going deeper, after all. 

He spotted no fairy rings, the mushroom circles which would contain fairy water within them. In fact, he spotted practically nothing at all. After the little bark people, the only creatures he saw were birds, squirrels, and the occasional rabbit. 

He didn’t exactly want to run into Bane, but he hadn’t expected see no one at all. 

He walked and walked. At least he wasn’t too cold. His hands were snug under three layers of socks, and he was experimenting with making that fizzing in his chest come out as heat instead of just fire. He had been marginally successful. And he had a hat this time, that he had taken from the Spare Room. And he’d wrapped a scarf all around his face. No, he wasn’t cold, but he felt cumbersome and mummy-like. 

He walked and walked.

The sun began to set, early in the winter. He ate the last of his sushi and a bit of rabbit and started to worry less about the fairy water and more about sleeping in the  cold, open forest. 

He looked for hollow trees or any sort of thing that might provide shelter, but saw none. At least he knew he could light a fire…but the deepening dark of the woods was starting to creep into his heart, and he began to jump at every little noise. 

He told himself a story to pass the time. In it, Percy the alien merboy and his friend Nolava had found a volcano on Mars and were making special outfits to go swimming in the lava. 

“And then Percy used his mer magic to make helmets,” he whispered to himself, trying not to focus on how he was getting colder by the second, “and Nolava turned hers orange, and Percy’s was green—um.” 

He stopped. 

There was something ahead of him. A shadow. Four-legged, tall, black. 

Bane.

He tripped back, and the thing moved forward. Where could he run to? Where? There was nowhere. 

The thestral came fully into view.

Harry breathed a great sigh of relief and pulled the scarves from his face. “Hello,” he called, “it’s me, do you remember?”

It did remember. It stepped delicately up to him and pushed its face against his, blowing its lips in recognition. He giggled and rubbed its neck with his sock-covered hands. 

It pulled away, walked a few steps, and looked back at him.

“Come with you? Alright.” He hurried up beside it and one hand on its huge flank.

They crossed carefully through the dark woods, but Harry was unafraid now. He chattered to the thestral, telling it all about his new life in the castle, until they came to the clearing he'd been to once before. 

The herd was up and whinnying in surprise the moment they saw him. The foals came prancing up to him, leaping in circles, and Harry laughed and greeted them. One of the older mares nudged him so hard he nearly fell over, then lifted her hoof for him to clean. 

He slept that night warm and snug and happy between them.

He spent the next week with the thestral herd, searching for fairy water in the day, often accompanied by one of the foals, and sleeping in their midst at night. Not only did he fail to find a fairy ring, but he saw very few mushrooms at all. He thought possibly this was because it was so cold, but he wasn’t going to give up yet. 

There were three foals, who he nicknamed Tonks, Filius, and Serpentus. Tonks was very playful, whereas Serpentus was a little more subdued, and Filius was a bit mischievous, sometimes nipping at the others’ tails and then pretending he hadn’t. And Tonks was the one who seemed enamored of flying with him, though didn’t quite seem to understand how easily he could fall. There were some close calls during loop-the-loops, but overall the four of them had great fun, pinwheeling through the sky over the forest. 

And the forest was vast. In the air, Harry could see where he was and where he’d come from. His journey so far, which had felt like a very long time to walk, had in truth barely made headway into the forest. The forest was the biggest thing Harry had ever seen, and he was still practically on the edge of it. 

Chapter Text

The next day Harry said his goodbyes and got Tonks to fly him a good length into the forest and set him down. He was close to the midpoint now, he reckoned. Surely there would be fairy water somewhere here. 

Things were definitely…stranger in this part of the forest. The plants were thicker, and bigger, trees growing to unbelievable heights. Some were so big it would have taken three people to reach their arms around. The birds sounded a bit odd, and he stopped recognizing their colors and songs. 

The trees seemed to shift and moan. He thought they might be talking to each other, and wished he could understand them. He found a half-frozen stream, and under the thin ice sheet, silver and gold and pink fish swam quite contentedly. 

When he opened his mouth, he didn’t need to try to taste the magic. It was just there, saturating the air like humidity. It was a little dizzying. He realized he and the snake had bypassed all of this when they had first come to the forest, landing right in the thestral clearing. 

And here, here was a very strange thing. He stopped and unwound his scarf to see more clearly, because his breath was fogging up his glasses. It was a bone-white tree, which wasn’t so odd, but it was odder that nothing at all grew around it for many meters. It was as if it was trapped in its own personal stillness. 

Part of Harry wanted to touch it. 

The rest of Harry carefully guided his steps around the perimeter of stillness, careful not to set a toe inside, and walked on. 

He had been right to ask Tonks to take him to the deepest part of the forest. There were mushrooms here. No fairy rings yet, but strange, vividly-colored mushrooms in all different shapes. The basilisk had warned him not to touch or eat any mushrooms he found, but he thought he would have avoided them anyway. To be so bright in such a dark and dangerous place was to pose a challenge you knew you would win. 

The sun was setting, and there was a small cave. How perfect. 

He crept closer, in case anything was in the cave, and saw it: a ring of lily-white mushrooms, and inside them glittering water, just beyond the mouth of the cave.

He grinned, putting his hands on his hips for a victorious second. Then he entered the cave. 

Something slammed into him, something blunt and furry and strong. It knocked him over and slammed into him again, and again, and again. Harry scrambled upright and was knocked over again—he couldn’t see what was doing it, only that it was very fast and always right where he tried to stumble to—if he went left it was there, if he went right it was there, hitting him—running into him—

Shoving him out of the cave. 

Oh. 

Cowering, he ran out of the cave, careful not to step into the fairy ring, and the attacks stopped immediately. He dropped to the ground, arms around his stomach. He wasn’t being attacked, he was being defended against. Though he was certain to have bruises all over him now, he couldn’t help but feel ashamed. 

He still couldn’t see what he had stumbled upon, though.

Sitting up, he opened his shoulder bag and pulled out a carrot. He broke a piece off and tossed it towards the cave. 

Nothing. 

He ate a bit of carrot and waited. 

Something invisible lifted the carrot from the ground. And then it was gone. 

Harry grinned, broke off another bit, and tossed it.

They ate the whole carrot together, Harry and the invisible thing, and when Harry was done he leaned forwards a bit.

“I’m sorry I scared you,” he said. “I can’t see you, so I didn’t know. I just want some fairy water. May I please have some?” 

Something touched his face. Harry jerked back in alarm, then held very still until the touch came again. It was just a point of contact, on his nose. He sniffed, tried not to think of how inconvenient it would be to sneeze right then.

Two eyes became visible. They reminded him of the house elves’, luminous and yellow, but significantly less bulbous. The rest of the creature formed around the eyes: a flat nose, white shaggy hair, monkey-like limbs, and a feathery tail. One of its broad fingers rested on his nose. 

Harry grinned. “Hello there. I’m Snake.” 

It’s face reminded him of an old man. It stared at him for a moment, and then its thin mouth opened up in an obvious mimic of a smile. Harry laughed. It chittered back. 

“May I have some fairy water?” Harry asked tentatively. 

The creature took his hand and dragged him with surprising force towards the cave. Harry was happy to have proof that it could understand him. 

He put his bag down and took out a very hard crystal vial that the basilisk had told him to take from Salazar’s things. Using extreme care, he held the bottom of the vial and dipped the top carefully between two mushrooms. The fairy water drained into the vial without his needing to do anything, least of all put any part of himself inside the ring. When it was full of glittering liquid that was black when he looked at it out of one eye and white when he looked at it out of the other, he stoppered it, wrapped it carefully in a spare sweater, and put it in his bag.

“Thank you,” he told the creature. “I need it so I don’t get turned to stone by my friend.” 

The creature nodded wisely, as if it heard this regularly. 

Outside, it was fully night. “Er, do you mind if I stay the night?” Harry asked.

The creature took his hand again and led him to the back of the cave, where it had a surprisingly large nest made of feathers, bits of fabric, various creatures’ fur, and moss.

“This is nice,” Harry said. “Do you want something for it? Here, I have a spare.” He took out a scarf from his bag and looped it partially around the nest. The creature looked at him with its round eyes extremely wide. And then it pounced on him and started gently tapping his head. “Hey!” Harry said, giggling. “Does that mean you like it?” He tapped his own fingers on the creature’s head, and it gave a little chirrup. 

Then it leapt off him and clung to the wall with the pads of its fingers and toes. 

“Wow,” Harry said enviously. “I wish I could do that.” 

The creature looked at him, and then it turned invisible in reverse—its eyes were the last thing to go.

“I wish I could do that too,” Harry said. 

There was a light tap to his head.

Harry understood all of the sudden, and he smiled widely. “Tag!” He scrambled to put down his bag and stood up, looking around the cave. 

The touch came again, to his left shoulder. He jerked around, arms spread, and caught only air. There was a touch to his right ankle. To his left hip. To the center of his forehead. To his hand, but when he tried to grasp it, there was nothing. 

He was laughing and sweaty in a few minutes, and the creature became visible again, chittering smugly. 

“Okay, stay visible this time,” Harry said, panting. “It’s no fair otherwise.” 

Obligingly, it stayed visible, although it was still impossible to catch it. It was the strangest thing. It would rush him, tap him on some part of his body, and still manage to avoid every single move he made. It was almost as if….

“Hey!” Harry said, pointing accusingly at it. “You know what I’m going to do, don’t you!” 

It stared at him innocently, its mouth dropping open in feigned offense. 

Harry laughed. “No, you do! That’s cheating!” He was a little amazed, though. This creature somehow knew what his next move would be. 

If that was the case, then, the solution was obvious: he had to be so unpredictable even he wouldn’t know what he was going to do. If he didn’t even know, then how could the creature? 

“Alright, bring it on,” he said, bending his knees and spreading his arms. 

It leapt at him. Touched him on the shoulder. Letting his mind come loose from his body, he spun through the air counter-clockwise, getting within a hair’s breadth of its tail.

It stuck to the wall and looked at him in astonishment. 

“Ha!” Harry said. He stuck out his tongue. The creature stuck out its tongue, which was blue. And then the game was on.

The thing sprung and dove and twirled around him, and he moved on complete instinct, sometimes doing elaborate twists, sometimes springing around, sometimes turning somersaults, getting closer and closer and closer until, finally, the creature touched the top of his head but its tail was trailing down his back, and there—he had it!

He stood up and the creature did a dramatic fall, hanging from its tail in his hand, blue tongue poked out. 

He raised it up to eye-level. “Got you,” he said, breathing like he’d run a marathon. “You’re so good at that!” 

It grinned at him, pulled its tail out of his grasp, then scampered to the fairy ring and lapped at the water. It looked at him, long whiskers dripping black-and-white shivering water, and made a little gesture towards the puddle.

“Er, no thanks,” Harry said, raising his hands. “I’ve, uh, got some from a river.” He had, indeed, in a flask from Salazar’s room. And the thought of drinking the fairy water made him dizzy with fear. 

The creature rooted around in his bag until it found another carrot, then curled up in its nest to devour it. Harry lay down beside it, utterly exhausted in mind and body, and was asleep in seconds. 

small lilac sprout

He had a dream that night. Ava led him upward through the night-black air. “Aelisf!” she kept calling back to him. “Aelisf!” But her eyes were huge and yellow and glowing.

He struggled to follow her, upwards, upwards, but his fins were tangled—they were tangled in the branches of a tree. A bone-white tree that seemed to know his every move before he made it. He moved a hand, and there it as. He moved a leg, and there it was. 

“Everywhere, into the deep night,” sang the tree, only no, it wasn’t the tree. It was Bane. 

“Into the deep night,” he said, and reached out to touch Harry’s forehead, and it burned, burned, burned.

small lilac sprout

He woke shaking and shivering and sweating. He crawled out of the cave, minding the fairy ring, and over to the little river. He broke the thin layer of ice with his hands and washed his face with freezing water. It was miserable, but anything to wash that terrible dream from his skin.

The little creature chittered over his shoulder in concern. It poked at his cheek with a carrot. 

He took the carrot and ate it, looking at the creature. “What’s your name?” 

The creature stared at him, and then made a chittering noise.

“That’s your name?”

It made the same noise again. Experimentally, he tried to parrot it: “Chittkritt.” 

If a creature had a name, he felt strange calling it “it.” He decided to call it “her," just in case. The creature rolled her eyes rolled in amusement, and said her name again.

“Chikkeritt,” he said, and he thought he got the teeth-chattering sound right. 

Chikkeritt thought so to, because she did a little somersault. Then she crept lowly over to the stream, belly to the frost, still looking at Harry. In one rapid movement, seh plunged its hand in and came out with a golden fish, which she tore into still flipping, staring at Harry all the while. 

She hadn’t looked away from Harry once.

“You’re pretty wicked, Chikkeritt,” Harry said. 

A silent bug flitted behind Chikkeritt’s head. Without looking, Chikkeritt grabbed it and stuffed it in her mouth. 

“Now you’re showing off,” Harry said, laughing. “Want to play tag again?” 

Chikkeritt did, very much, want to play tag.

small lilac sprout

Two days later, Harry decided it was time to go. He could catch Chikkeritt about half the time by being very unpredictable, but had made no headway into being able to turn invisible or see the future like Chikkeritt could. He wasn’t that disappointed; after all, he’d made great friend out of it. And the little fish in the river that Chikkeritt caught tasted delicious toasted on a fire. 

“Thanks, Chikkeritt,” he said, checking to make sure the fairy water was in his bag. “I’m not sure when I’ll be back, because I live very far from here. But we’re friends now, right?”

Chikkeritt climbed up him and put her nose on Harry’s. 

“That’s what I thought,” Harry said, giggling. “If I’m ever in the area again, I’ll visit. And if you’re ever by that big castle, come find me in the very lowest tunnels.” 

Chikkeritt’s face scrunched.

“No, you probably wouldn’t like the castle,” Harry agreed. “Hardly any fish.” 

Chapter Text

Several hours into his journey back, Harry saw Serpentus circling overhead. 

“Serpentus!” he called. He ran to the closes climbable tree and scrambled upwards. “Serpentus! Here!”

The batlike foal glided around the top of the tree; it was obvious what he wanted. Harry took a breath and launched himself from the top of it, landing awkwardly on Serpentus’ back. They jolted around for a moment before the foal found his footing, so to speak, and then they were soaring. 

“Have you been looking for me?” Harry asked. Serpentus blew out his lips. Harry was touched. “Thanks. I was ok. But I’m glad I won’t have to walk all the way back now; there was some scary stuff.” Serpentus did a loop in agreement. 

They touched down at the thestral clearing, which was mostly empty. “Good idea,” Harry said, patting Serpentus’ neck. “People are out and about at the castle;  I don’t anyone seeing me riding you. See you soon, alright?” 

Serpentus nipped at his hair. 

Happy at having saved what would surely have been several days of travel, Harry headed back towards the castle. This close to the edge of the forest, when he opened his mouth he could taste the castle’s magic, and he used the scent to guide him. 

He felt better about his walk knowing that he would be home by true dark. 

The difference between this edge area of the forest and the deep center was astonishing. How naive the Harry of a few days past seemed to him now, thinking that this part of the forest was heavy in magic. It was, it was. But the depths of the forest oozed it. He recognized the bird calls here.

And how happy he felt, knowing that a friend had been looking for him. It practically made him glow. 

He unwrapped a couple of charred golden fish and savored them as he walked. They had a smoky flavor to them that was from the flesh of the fish, not the fire he’d cooked them by.

It was dusk. The crescent moon was high, but obscured by clouds. Surely he was approaching the border now. The magic of the castle was heavy on him, guiding. 

The birdsong had stopped. 

Harry thought it might have just been the dusk, but the insects had gone quiet as well. Even in the winter, there were insects. 

His confidence vanished. He was a child, alone in a wood. 

A silent, silent wood. 

There was a snarl

Harry jumped a foot in the air, twitching in every limb. That howl had been close. His body, after two days of acting without his mind’s input, seized control and yanked him down among the roots of a tree, arms over his head.

A branch snapped. 

Harry wrested control back and forced himself, against the fear that had seized his heart at that blood-curdling snarl, to look. 

It was a unicorn. 

Harry stopped breathing. He had never seen anything like it. It was delicate and strong at the same time, beautiful and horrible, it was everything and nothing, a contradiction with four opalescent hooves, and fur of fresh snow, and a spiraling horn—that horn—the longer he looked at it the more it seemed like fairy water, different through one eye than the other. 

His body took control again. He was climbing up, he was shying away. He was two different beings in one body, one longing to get closer to the unicorn, one urging him to flee.

That snarl came again, somehow the opposite of everything the unicorn was, if you can be the opposite of something which is its own opposite, because that snarl was destruction and this unicorn was creation, or maybe it was the opposite, but either way that growl meant to hurt.  

A monster exploded into view, a great grey beast, with two terrible horns and a humped back. It fell upon the unicorn, which screamed a terrible, beautiful scream and sliced the monster across the neck with its horn. And though it was dripping blood, the monster lunged again, slashing with its horns—and Harry couldn’t do anything but watch this tragedy happening in front of him.

The clarion call of a hunting horn echoed through the trees, rebounding from trunk to trunk, hitting Harry in the chest. Thundering hooves, a stampede—three centaurs charged into the clearing, bows drawn, three arrows spearing the monster through the neck in one moment. Harry watched it fall from the unicorn to the ground, writhing in agony, and the largest centaur, it was Bane, reared up and brought his front hooves cracking down on its skull.

Harry ducked his face into his knees and clapped his elbows over his ears, but he could still hear it. A thick crunch. He gagged, felt tears flowing down his face. 

When he had himself under control he looked back up. The monster was a mangled lump on the ground. The centaurs were bowing to the unicorn, which inclined its head gently before turning and walking away. The spell of its presence—the horror and awe—dissipated. 

Bane turned on Harry. “Boy,” he said. “Get up.” 

Harry stumbled out of the tree roots, not fast enough for Bane, who seized his arm and hauled him to his feet like it was nothing. Harry dangled there, trying to pull away, powerless. 

“Human,” Bane said. “Listen well. If you are determined to impose yourself into the forest, you abide by the forest’s laws. And you have just broken the law above all laws. If that unicorn had died while you did nothing, boy, your own life would be forfeit.” 

Harry finally tore himself from Bane’s grip, or more likely Bane let him go. The other centaurs stood behind Bane, staring at him coldly. 

The worst part was, Harry did understand. It was a truth as apparent as the stars or the trees. Better Harry die than a unicorn. Better anything, anything die than a unicorn. He felt a curdle of shame run through him. 

“I understand,” he said softly. “I’m sorry.” 

Bane’s stare lessened a few degrees. “I can see that you do. Harry.”

It was odd to hear that name aloud. He’d almost…he hadn’t forgotten it, but it had…receded from him. “I go by Snake now. Or Snakeheart.” 

“Snakeheart,” Bane said, like he was trying it out. “Now that is a name I have seen before.” 

“You have? Where?” 

Bane’s eyes were pools. “In the stars.”

“The stars?” 

Bane turned to the other centaurs abruptly. “Let us return. This child will not stand idly by again, and we will not hold him accountable for his ignorance. Just this once.” He cast Harry one more inscrutable look. 

“Wait,” Harry gabbled. “What was that? That thing?”

“That was a graphon, Snakeheart.” 

And they were gone.

small lilac sprout

 

“Snakeheart?” 

Harry clambered into the den, flopping belly-down on the warm floor with a sigh. Hurriedly, he shed his outer layers, the quicker to warm himself. 

“Basilisk,” he sighed. “I am so glad to be home.” 

Chapter Text

“Okay.” Harry brushed dust off his hands. The cauldron from Salazar’s study—not a pot, the basilisk had told him—was heavier than it looked. Now it rested in the hall, in an out-of-the way corner. “Now what?” 

“Now you spill my blood into a bowl.”

“What?!” 

The basilisk’s scales shushed as it slid around the hall. “Just a bit. It is necessary. Go get your dagger.” 

Reluctantly, Harry got his dagger. When he came back, the basilisk had positioned a portion of its midsection low over the cauldron. 

“Just a thin cut,” it told him. “Between the scales. Fill the bowl completely.” 

“Okay,” Harry said, biting his lip. “Will it hurt you?” 

The basilisk laughed. “That knife might as well be a splinter. Do your worst, little Snakeheart.” 

Harry slid the knife between its scales, which were twice his hand-length here. He drew it along the edge, and a stream of blood came out, sizzling as it hit the air and spilled down into the bowl.

The bleeding slowed and stopped just as the bowl was brimming.

“Good,” said the basilisk. “Now fetch the fairy water, the scale from Salazar’s chamber, and two more bowls. Small ones.” 

Harry fetched all that, and the basilisk showed him how to balance the scale with an empty bowl. 

“Everything about brewing is precision,” the basilisk hissed. “Long ago, I did not understand this. Salazar taught me. He was a master brewer. Now measure thirty grams of my blood.” 

Harry did it, ever-so-carefully, adjusting until the scale sat precisely at thirty. Then he poured it into the cauldron.

“Then thirty grams fairy water, and then thirty grams fresh water—the stream is pure enough.” 

When he combined the ingredients in the bowl, they flashed and sent up sparks and cast glowing shadows on the wall.

“Leave it,” the basilisk advised. “This potion is very simple, but very volatile. When it stops sparking, you may stir it, and only stir it counter-clockwise. After that, it sits for three months.” 

Harry sat back and wiped his forehead. It wasn’t hard work, but he was terrified of messing some little part up and wasting the fairy water. He had a minute amount left, which he stoppered and put it in Salazar’s cabinet for safekeeping.

small lilac sprout

A cold front swept in the next morning, and Harry was castle-bound. The furthest out he made it was a trip to the garden. By the time he'd gotten to the hut, he felt like the wind had stripped the skin on his face completely off. 

“I’m never doing that again,” he grumbled to the basilisk as he lay his snow-soaked robes out to dry on the rocks. “All for some dumb vegetables.” 

“I’ve never seen the appeal,” the basilisk agreed. “Look, I found you things.” 

“Things?” 

The basilisk, pleased, swept a little pile of stuff over to Harry. There were a few pieces of chalk and an old chess set with intricately carved figures. Harry had set Percy up on a chunk of rubble that was fairly flat, and he spent a while arranging the remaining chess figures around him. 

“Do you know how to play?” he asked the basilisk. 

“No. I never took much interest in it.” 

“Me either,” Harry said, making the queen do a secret handshake with Percy. “Maybe I can find a book.”  

small lilac sprout

He spared a day to outfit the den. After Chikkeritt’s cave, he was no longer content with a few blankets an the warmth of the den floor: he needed a nest. The Spare Room was the obvious choice.

With his new piece of chalk, a little flame in his hand, he began to sketch directions and maps everywhere he walked, in a code he made up. The way to Slytherin was marked “peace and liberty,” since “into the deep night,” for some reason, made shivers go down his spine. The path to the owlery was “aelisf,” and the one to the laundry room was just soap bubbles. He didn’t strictly need the map to the laundry room, since the smell of it was so strong now, but he did it anyway, for continuity.

He listened closely at the wall for a moment, to ensure no wizards were around. Though why they would be in the laundry room, he had no idea. 

There were no wizards, but interesting talk from the elves inside made him pause.

“I is rightfully scared, Bitty, that the houses in the South is not answering the call when it is being given!” 

“And I says you should haves more faith,” said an older voice. “Half my family is in the South, and they is loyal to elfkind.”

“That is what you is thinking,” said the first voice.

There was a brief scuffle. “Enough, enough!” said a third. “What use is this? Trust or not, but don’t insult.” 

At this point Harry leaned too hard against the snake emblem and tipped through, falling headfirst into a pile of sheets, bumping and rolling all the way down, finally halted by a house elf’s foot on the flagstones.

He looked up at Toddy. “‘Lo, Toddy. How is you?” 

“Snake,” Toddy said. “How is it you always turns up in the worst moments?” 

Harry scrambled up and looked around. Most of the other elves were decidedly ignoring him. “I’m just headed to the Spare Room. I’m making a nest.” 

Toddy rolled his eyes. “Go ahead.” 

Just as he was about to clamber into the chute, there was a tugging at his robe. A small elf—a child?—was staring at him with huge eyes. He’d never seen a child elf before.

“Hello,” he said. 

“Is it true you is doing elf magics?” 

“I can only mend holes,” Harry said. There was one on his robe sleeve. He pinched it closed with a little dribble of magic.

Her mouth dropped open. “I wants to do wizard magic. Will you teach me?” 

The room had collectively frozen. Harry looked around, uncertain. “Well, I can only do one wizard spell.” 

The elf shrugged. “That’s fine. I can trades you? Elf magics for wizard magics.” 

“What will your mum say, Limmy?” demanded an elf from the corner.

Limmy’s nose turned red, but her ears twitched angrily. She didn’t respond, just kept looking at Harry with those eyes. 

“How old's you?” Harry asked tentatively.

“I is nine.” 

That was about Harry’s age. He smiled at her. “Okay. Is you busy now?” 

“No,” said Limmy, smiling slightly. “I’s not.” 

“Wants to come to the Spare Room with me?” 

In answer, she jumped into the chute. Harry turned his back on a room of disapproving elves and followed. 

Limmy was the first elf Harry had seen who deviated from the strange tea-towel uniform: she wore a scrap of fabric around her head like headband, the long strips hanging down her back. She followed him closely as he rummaged through the piles of damaged clothing and cloth. 

“You isn’t really a wizard, right?” she asked. 

“No,” Harry said firmly. “I isn’t. And I wants people to stop saying I is.”

“It’s just, you looks like one. Plus you is doing wizard magic.” 

Harry shrugged, the line of questioning upsetting him. “Well, I isn’t.” 

“What is you, then?”

“I is….” He frowned, folding a moth-eaten blanket up. “I is just me, alright? I don’t knows.” 

“Sorry.” Limmy seemed to realize she’d pushed too far. She pulled down a burnt curtain from a pile and started folding it for him. 

“You don’t haves to do that,” Harry said, snatching it away, recalling the debacle in the kitchen. 

“It’s fine if I just does it for a friend,” Limmy said, pulling it back. “I is the last elf to be serving a wizard when I don’t haves to. Even if you isn’t a wizard.” 

“Oh. You don’t work in the castle?”

Limmy’s face twisted. “I works in the castle. In the greenhouses.” Her lip curled. 

“You don’t likes it?” 

She stared at him. “Likes it? I is forced to work by wizards.” 

“Right,” Harry said. “I know that. Sorry.” 

She shrugged, deflating a bit. “You don’t knows much, it’s fine.” 

“Do you wants…help?” Harry asked tentatively. 

Her head jerked up, eyes narrowed. “Help?” 

He had misstepped somehow. This was all going wrong. “Er.” 

“Elves is helping ourselves,” she said, voice full of acid. “Wizard help is last thing we is needing.” 

“But I isn’t a wizard,” Harry protested. 

“But you is not an elf,” Limmy said. She pointed at his hand. “When elves wants your help, we is having it.” 

Harry put his hands on his hips. “You’s not being fair. I’d still do what you wants, even without my promise, because the elves help me. And Toddy is my friend. And Nippy, and—”

“Alright, alright,” Limmy said, deflating. “Point made. Show me some wizard magics.” 

“Don’t know why you want to learn wizard magic if you hate wizards so much,” Harry muttered. 

“If your masters kept a big secret from you, wouldn’t you wants to learn it?” 

Harry fell backwards into a pile of mangled sweaters, and a little memory from the den in his head poked its nose out, reminding him how once he’d once went through Aunt Petunia’s things, hoping to learn his parent’s names, and been caught and hurt and put in his cupboard for a long, long time. 

He remembered the memory, thanked it, and ushered it back to sleep. 

“Yes,” Harry said. “Of course.” 

Something about his tone stripped the rest of the animosity from Limmy, because she came and sat beside him. 

“Okay,” Harry said, sitting up. “I can do one wizard spell, one elf spell, and I can make fires, and I thinks that’s wizard magic. The spell is for finding things.” 

“Teach me the fire,” Limmy demanded. 

“When I does wizard magic, it comes from here.” Harry put a hand against his chest, where that fizzing was always waiting. “It feels tingly, like soda. I pulls it out and down my hand, and that’s where I does the motion, because I don’t haves a wand.” 

Limmy had a hand against her chest. “When I does magic, I don’t pulls from inside, I pulls from outside.” She snapped, her fingers giving off a little spark. “See? That is coming from around me, not inside.” 

“Can you feel something inside?” Harry asked. “Can you feel me doing it?” 

Slowly, he gathered that fizzing in his chest and pushed it out into his hands, creating a little flame. 

Limmy reached out and put a hand on his chest, her eyes squinted in concentration. She kept her other hand on her own chest. Her ears strained with effort, her nose turned red. And then, Harry felt it—some magic in her shivered and took note.

“Oh!” Limmy said. “Wait!” 

Through her hand on his, Harry could almost feel it. Her eyes, squinted almost shut, began to glow. 

She took her own hand away from her heart, and a little finger of flame sparked there for a moment and then went out. 

She dropped her hands, panting, and Harry did the same—he was winded for some reason, the magic in his chest felt weak and sputtering. 

“Stars,” Limmy said. “I is doing it. Stars and stones. No one will believes me.” 

“Can you do it alone now?” Harry asked. 

Limmy cupped her hands like Harry had. It was very hard, Harry could see that. Her ears twitched back and forth, her lips pulled back over her teeth. But there: a spark of flame, come from herself. 

She fell back gasping into the sweaters, and also laughing, and her delight was contagious. “Maybe I shouldn’t tells anyone, just for now,” she said quietly, when her laughter had died. “Seems…dangerous, somewhat. Tricky.” 

Harry shrugged. Whatever she thought was best. “Teach me an elf spell?” 

Limmy sat up. “First of all, elves isn't using spells. We is just doing magic. You just wants to know a magic.” 

“Teach me an elf magic?” Harry tried. 

“I is teaching you something like your fire,” Limmy decided. She extended a finger, and a small blue ball of light formed on the tip of it, glowing softly. “This is an elflight.” 

Harry very much wanted to learn this. Anything so he wouldn’t have to keep carrying fire around the tunnels. “How does I do it?” 

“You haves to take magic from outside you,” Limmy said. “Not all elflights looks like this! My mum’s is orange. My sister’s is a star. That’s elf magic.” 

Harry put his finger out. He tried to take magic from the air around him, from that ever-present aura around the castle—to yank it to himself. But it wouldn’t come. 

“Here.” Limmy took his hand. With her other, she conjured an elflight. “Feel it.”  She put the light out and conjured it again, and again, and again. 

Harry closed his eyes and opened his mouth to smell. And there—she wasn’t using the castle’s magic, she was using…something else. The air’s magic. Just the magic that was around, and it would have been the same if she was in this magical castle or not.

On the sixth time she lit the elflight, Harry did it with her.

“Look, Snake!” she squealed.

On the tip of his finger was a little slowly-shifting lilac orb. 

“I did it!” Harry cried. “Limmy!”

“My grandmother says elflights is the look of an elf’s soul.” Limmy giggled, poking his elf light with a long finger. “You must haves a lilac soul.” 

“It’s beautiful,” Harry said, staring into it until he saw purple circles when he blinked. 

small lilac sprout

With his elflight, mapping the tunnels was infinitely easier. So was exploring Salazar’s chambers, reading, and getting up at night to use the bathroom.

Limmy was angry at everything, it seemed like, very often including him, but he thought he understood it and she didn’t mean it personally, and they ended up spending a lot of time together. Harry took to visiting her in the greenhouses in the evening, while all of the professors and students were sure to be at dinner. 

The greenhouses were vast—there were seven of them, and Harry hadn’t known what they were until Limmy told him. They all felt different inside—some hot and humid, some cool and dry. Limmy said it was for growing different plants.

One evening he found her inside one of the warmer ones, one of his favorites, actually, because Limmy had show him a number of edible plants and berries that were grown there.

It had taken a full five minutes of convincing, but Limmy had finally acquiesced to allow him to help her fertilize. 

“What’s this actually doing?” Harry asked her, patting pungent dirt into other, slightly less pungent, dirt. 

“The fertilizer has food in it for the plant,” Limmy explained. “The plant eats the nutrients out of it after a while, so we must adds more.” 

“What plant is this?” 

Limmy touched the little round leaves. “This is dittany. It is very powerful for healing.” 

“Oh!” Harry put his mouth up to it and inhaled.

“What is you doing?” Limmy demanded, hand tightening around the pot as if she would jerk it away.

“I is smelling it,” Harry said, trying to taste the magic in the plant. “Not very well, though.” 

“You is odd,” Limmy said. “Keep fertilizing.” 

“Do you knows all about these plants?” Harry asked, scooping more fertilizer into his hands. The more he worked with it, the more he liked the way it smelled. Rich, vibrant. 

“Yes.” Limmy’s ears went up in pride. “In my free time, I secretly goes to herbology lessons.” 

“Herbology?”

“Lessons about plants. These plants.” She waved her hands around at the expanse of the greenhouse. 

“Why secretly? Wouldn’t the professor let you join?” 

Limmy scoffed, and patted the fertilizer into the planter with a little too much force. “Elves in wizard school? The parents would riot, not to mention the ministry.”

“Ministry?” 

Limmy shot him a look. “Ministry of Magic. Wizards who keep creatures out of wizard business. Like classes.” 

Harry frowned. “That’s terrible.” 

“Yes,” Limmy agreed, and that was the most they talked that night. But still, she didn’t tell him to leave, and Harry thought he was starting to grow on her. Especially since half the time he was around her, she was flicking a little flame on and off in her palm. 

small lilac sprout

Elflight in hand, Harry sat next to the bubbling basilisk blood potion with Scrying and Brewing on his lap. Where the book of elf stories had ticked down the days until it was due, this book had a symbol that was a sideways ‘8’ that never changed.

The basilisk potion, on the other hand, changed day-by-day. Under the basilisk’s watchful eye he had stirred it counter-clockwise for a long time after it had stopped throwing off sparks. It had lain dormant for a few days, and then started shooting shimmering red flames into the air for a while, and then it had gone solid as stone, and then it had turned black and vicious and seemed to climb up the sides of the cauldron…and now it was violently green and bubbling, exactly like any witch’s brew Harry had ever seen on Dudley’s cartoons. 

He had asked the basilisk whether he could try to scry in it. The basilisk had only warned him not to touch it. 

He and the basilisk had painstakingly made their way though the entirety of Scrying and Brewing: An Unlikely Blend. Harry didn’t really know why he had stubbornly insisted on finishing the thing, seeing as he understood a good deal less than a third of it, only that it intrigued him, and maybe it felt kind of cool finishing an adult book.

But he knew enough, maybe, to try this one little thing. 

Portents in Potion Fumes: meditation technique applicable across brew classification

This exercise, one of the most basic ways to apply the precepts of divination practice to the brewing chamber, is designed not as a mechanism by which to divine specifics, but as a way to get a glimpse of the future: a sign or feeling, a taste or tone. As explicated in chapter seven, a meditative mental state is often, but not always, conducive to the most potent foretellings. Many have often attributed its efficacy to the diviner simply having a clearer mind with which to make logical, non-mystical predictions. However it has likewise been documented that the most skillful seers of our age have, more of then than not, practiced one more more meditative techniques. 

And on it went. Harry’s vocabulary had grown by half just from reading this chapter over and over until he understood what it was saying. The basilisk had had to take five minute breaks when they were reading it the first time because it got so irritated at the unnecessary verbiage. 

He held the book on his lap now mostly for comfort. What he could understand of the process, he had already memorized.

The bubbling green potion was giving off cumulus clouds of smoke. Harry let his elflight go out, because the potion also threw off an eerie green light. 

He stared at the smoke. He imagined every thought that passed through his mind to be inside the smoke, curling off the churning potion of his brain and floating off into the air, dissipating from his brain. Like the book had instructed: anytime he noticed a thought in his brain, he imagined it was just potion fumes, on its way out, transient. 

He did this for a very long time. 

Eventually his thoughts stopped coming at all. There were only fumes left: gently drifting puffs of green smoke. His whole body rose with them, up and up and up. They had a rhythm to them that he became aware of, because he was breathing in time to it. His thoughts left him, and then his body did too, and he really was only smoke.

The smoke began to twist and curl. Somehow, even though it disrupted the rhythm of his breath, he was still apart from it, still calm as he watched it warp. 

He didn’t like how it was moving—it was uncanny, smoke shouldn’t go like that, it should go up, not out, and it shouldn’t have—it shouldn’t have—it shouldn’t have—

those horrible— 

red—

eyes. 

And he was Harry. He wasn’t smoke and he had a body and he was in it again, scrambling away from the cauldron in a dizzy kind of manner. He went so fast and far that he fell over rubble, barely managing to hurl his book away before he went in headfirst, backwards, and down. 

If one could be the opposite of a still mind made of smoke, it was a flailing body in a freezing, pitch-black stream.

Chapter Text

“Rentacu.” 

“Rentacu. Er…ok. So. Ren-tacu. Cen—Oh! Cen-taru. Centaur. And last was spatula from apatusl...so…swap the first and last letters, then the last two letters!” 

“Yes!” Myrtle did a little swoop. “You had that in two!” She gave him a ghostly high five, which felt like dipping his hand into cool water. 

“How do you do that?” he asked her, pointing at her hand.

“Do what?” She peered at her palm, like she might find something odd on it.

“My hand passed through yours. But when we first met, you could touch me. And when we play catch, you can touch the ball.” 

She thought about it for a moment. Then she squinted her eyes and looked at her hand. “Here. High five.” 

He gave her a high five. Her palm was cold and solid. 

“I think it’s about focus,” Myrtle suggested. “Or…emotion? When I’m playing ball, I have to be able to hold the ball. When I was scared, I had to be able to hurt you. So—maybe necessity?” 

“Maybe necessity,” Harry agreed.

“Say, did you hear what Tonks did?” Myrtle asked, excited.

“No, what?” Harry sat froward, eager to hear the castle gossip, which Myrtle had recently been thrilled to learn he had an ear for. 

Myrtle clapped her hands together. “She got caught impersonating Filch—she’d already given two Ravenclaws detention cleaning cauldrons, which they had already completed. I heard she got detention for a month.” 

Harry giggled. “What’d she give them detention for?” 

Myrtle’s smile was just a little too wide. “Gross indecency! For wearing mismatching socks! They were first years so they didn’t know any better.”

They guffawed. “What else?” Harry asked, wiping a tear from his eyes. 

“Let’s see. Oh, I heard one of the new muggleborn firsties tried to help a house elf clean her dormitory.” Myrtle smiled in a patronizing way. “Can you believe that?” 

Harry sobered. “Yes, I can. You know they don’t want to work, right?” 

Myrtle rolled her eyes. “You sound like a muggle. They’re not, you know. They like to clean.” 

Harry stood up. “No, they don’t!” 

Myrtle stood up too, angry. “Yes, they do! Everyone knows it, Snake. Don’t be contrary.” 

Harry did not know what contrary meant, but in that moment he very much wanted to be it. “How many elves have told you that?” he demanded. “How many elves have told you they like serving wizards?” 

Myrtle crossed her arms. “Elves? I don’t talk to elves, Snake! But every wizard knows it.” 

“You’re being really stupid right now,” Harry said furiously. “I’m friends with elves, and I know that they don’t like it.”

Myrtle’s lip curled. “You’re friends with elves? Why?” 

Harry’s chest felt like it was covered in ice. “Plenty of reasons. Right now, it’s ghosts I don’t know why I’m friends with.” And he stormed out of the toilet.

It was lucky it was the middle of the night, because he was not looking out for students, and no way could he go back into Myrtle’s toilet to use the snake passage. He went down and down, stomping out his anger onto the stairs, stomping extra hard in case they were thinking of moving on him. None did. 

He was so angry! How could Myrtle talk like that? He’d thought she was his friend, but she hadn’t listened, she’d laughed at him, just like everyone did, eventually. 

He stopped for a moment, clutching the staircase, to acknowledge a little memory poking out of the den. It was just laughter, but it was cruel laughter. He thanked it as gently as he could manage and sent it back to sleep.

Continuing on down the staircase, he resumed fuming. And how horrible! To think something about elves but to never even speak to one! To make fun of a girl who just tried to help, just like Harry did! 

He paced through the middle of the entrance hall. He’d never wandered this recklessly before. If a professor came out of any door right now, they’d see him, and that would be that. But half of him wanted someone to see him!

No, that wasn’t true. He didn’t want to be found. He just wanted…somewhere to put his anger.

With this realization, he forced himself to skulk along the wall, where he could more easily conceal himself. He took a corridor on the left and wandered, trailing his fingers over the walls, letting the stone take his anger. He hoped he wouldn’t run into any elves. He felt guilty somehow, even though it wasn’t him who had done anything.

There it was, the crux of his anger—he was ashamed to be friends with someone who thought things like Myrtle thought. And he didn’t want to be friends with someone who thought like that, but he did want to be friends with Myrtle. 

He sighed, and his half his anger turned to sadness. The castle walls took that too; they didn’t discriminate.

He stopped walking. He had come to the most intriguing door in the castle.

It was a massive wooden door carved and painted with a starry sky. There was no handle whatsoever, and no hinges that attached it to the wall. The wooden door seemed to simply grow organically from the stone castle. 

Organic-seeming, too, were the two gargoyles that twined up and around each other over the door, so that their heads rested over their partners’ bellies on the opposite side. Harry had seen them move and talk, but only when allowing or denying someone entrance. 

This was Dumbledore’s office. 

And it was the black of night.

And Harry knew the password.

He had overheard it just the night before, hiding in a little bolthole around the corner. Minerva and Dumbledore had gone up together, looking grim. Dumbledore had leant close and whispered, but Harry had keen ears. 

Harry looked at the gargoyles. They looked back. The anger and sadness smoldered in his chest.

“Pepper imp,” he whispered.

The gargoyles looked at him, then at each other. And then they both reached out, slipped their claws under the door, and pulled it up into the stone archway. It was an impossible feat that happened in utter silence.

Harry slipped under quickly before he could second-guess himself. The gargoyles dropped the door back down, and he was in the dark.

His lilac elflight cast an eerie glow on the twisting corridor as he ascended. The stairs weren’t very long, and in only a moment he was facing another door. This one had a bronze knob. 

He pressed his ear to the door and heard nothing. 

He was being reckless and foolish. Dumbledore could be behind that door right now. There was every chance in the world. 

Harry pushed the door open. 

Dumbledore was not behind the door. The office was completely empty. Various things moved and threw off light, however, casting inconsistent illumination across the otherwise-dark room.

Curious shining things on huge shelves tilted and shimmered and whirled, drawing Harry’s eye like a magpie. There was a huge bookcase with books full of words Harry surely didn’t know, and a tall thin table with a slowly steaming teapot, and a huge desk piled high with stacks of parchment and more strange moving instruments. Just behind the desk were rows of sleeping portraits, and beside it was a perch, and on the perch was a scarlet bird staring right at him.

Harry put his hand to his heart and stepped back against the door, eyes locked with the bird. It had been in shadow until a twirling instrument cast pale light on it, just for a moment. And now he saw how its eye glowed orange in the darkness. It gazed at him through one eye, then turned its head and gazed at him through the other. And then it blinked, slowly, drowsily. 

“Okay?” Harry asked in his lowest whisper. 

The bird turned its head sideways, raised and lowered a wing, and settled further into its perch.

“Okay,” Harry said in relief, and moved slowly further in. He was drawn to that shelf of instruments. He stared at them with his hands clasped behind his back to remind himself not to touch.

There was a globe the size of his elflight. The landmasses were outlined in glimmering light, but they looked different than he remembered. He realized, after a moment, that they were slowly shifting closer together.

There was a golden pendulum that swung a jade ball in a precise elliptic that never shrunk. There was a statue of a woman with a baby on her back. They were both sleeping, but their stone eyes moved under their eyelids. 

There was a stone bowl with liquid that shimmered and shone inside it. If he got close enough, he could see little figures—little people, trapped in the water. One of them looked…familiar? Something about her hair. But he didn’t know any women with red hair. 

He reached a finger towards the water. 

“Kaa-rek.” 

Harry spun around. The bird was unsettled, fluttering its wings. 

“Not okay,” Harry whispered. “Sorry.” 

It was still watching him, more alert now. He walked over to it. “My name is Snake. Or Snakeheart. I don’t mean any harm.”

It gave him a look. He interpreted it to mean “if you had meant harm, you wouldn’t have made it into the room. “

“Yeah, I suppose,” Harry said. “Do you have a name?” 

“Ka-ak.” It pushed its head out towards him. 

Hesitantly, he put his hand out. It nudged its head under his palm, and there was a crackle of fire from somewhere, and there was a word in his head: Fawkes

“Fawkes,” he said aloud, and the bird nipped his thumb gently. “What a beautiful name.” 

There was the distinct tap of feet on stone, climbing upwards.

Harry’s heart leapt and sputtered like a dying flame. He had nowhere to go, absolutely nowhere. He was about to be discovered, and it was all his fault. 

Then Fawkes stretched one wing, then the other, fluttered up to his shoulder, and he was burning alive.

He opened his mouth and prepared to scream before he realized that burning alive was probably supposed to hurt more than this. No, he wasn’t burning alive. He was encased in fire, yes, but it was friendly fire.

And then the fire was gone, and he stumbled forward but hit his forehead on stone, and stumbled backwards and hit the back of his head on stone, and knelt down clutching his head only to find he was kneeling atop logs in a grate.

He was in a fireplace and he was alone. 

Thanks, Fawkes, he thought gratefully. He didn’t even care where he was, so grateful was he to be out of the headmaster’s office. 

It was very dark, so he felt his way out of the fireplace when his head stopped ringing. The room without was lit only by a few flickering candles. Most of the candles were clustered around a single point on the opposite side of the room—

Harry froze again. There was a woman over there. But…she didn’t seem to have noticed him? 

What was going on? 

He crept closer. The woman had wild black hair and wore a purple gown. She sat cross-legged at a low table and peered into a dark crystal ball, completely absorbed. Her hands rested on either side of the crystal ball. Five candles were arrayed in half-moon around her, and though there was no breeze in the room, all of the flames were bowing towards the crystal. 

This was weird. A strange fear like he hadn’t known before crept up Harry’s throat. He leaned just a little closer, just to look at her eyes, though part of him didn’t even want to see. 

He shouldn’t have looked. They were a filmy lilac from edge to edge. Like they had been replaced entirely with Harry’s elflight. They were fixed inexorably downwards. 

Harry remembered his book. This woman, whoever she was, was certainly divining. What was she seeing? The future? The past? Either were possible, he had read. 

If he looked into her crystal ball, what would he see? Red eyes? Smoke? Nothing at all? 

He looked from the woman to her crystal ball. He now realized her eyes didn’t look like his elflight, they looked like the crystal ball. Inside the ball were vaporous lilac swirls, and her eyes weren’t reflecting them, they were them. 

She wasn’t moving. She didn’t know he was there.

Maybe just…a peek….

He leaned forwards.

Her hand shot out and seized his shoulder. 

Harry’s head snapped up, alarm flaring through him. But her eyes were still full of lilac smog. She looked at him, but did not see. Her hand was a claw digging into him. The other hadn’t moved from his beside the crystal ball. 

Her mouth opened. 

“The Bone Tree. The blood of truth. The Starchild. I see—I see the Starchild. The truth blood. The bone tree. Bone and blood and stars, I see them. Bone and blood and stars.” 

“Bone and blood and stars,” Harry murmured with her. Horror had filled up his chest, but curiosity was stronger. He stared into her eyes. “What else?” 

“Bone and blood and stars and—and—”

“And?” 

“Bonebloodstars and—”

One of the candles went out. The woman twitched and released him. Her vacant gaze traveled over his shoulder, her mouth shut. The lilac fog started to dissipate.
 
Harry looked around for an escape and saw a trap door. He was down it and away in a moment, but when he blinked he saw lilac stars behind his eyelids.

Bone and blood and stars. 

small lilac sprout

“The Starchild? No, I’ve never heard of that.” 

In the black of the lake, Ava’s glowing eyes looked like stars themselves. Harry was bundled in every single one of his robes—the basilisk had had to help him tug on the last one—and was still shivering. But it was beautiful—there was half a foot of snow on the ground, and it was falling gently but swiftly. He almost felt like he was underwater. 

“Oh well,” Harry said, cross-legged on his usual rock. The top of the lake was technically frozen, but he had dropped rocks on it until he’d made a hole for Ava to fit through. She didn’t seem to feel the cold, lying with her arms braced in front of her on the ice. Occasionally she chipped off a bit and ate it. 

“We could put it in the story,” Ava suggested. “Wouldn’t Percy and Novala be starchildren? If they’re in space?” 

“Yeah,” Harry said eagerly. He wrote it down on the parchment in his lap. They had decided, since the lake would be too cold for Harry to visit her for a while, that they would write the story of of Novala and Percy if they couldn’t play it. “Oh, and maybe the blood of life and death is really a volcano on Saturn.” 

Ava’s tail flipped excitedly. “Yes!” 

“What’s the word for Saturn?” 

“Elisfsin.” 

Harry carefully repeated it.

Ava giggled. “Sorry. It just sounds odd above the water. But you had it.” 

He smiled as well. “Thanks. I want to be better when I next come over. To impress your mothers.”

“They’re already impressed!” Ava said, grinning. “My mother Xara says she likes how you wanted to learn about weaving. And my mother Loch said she likes how you wanted to learn Mermish. And my mother Cassipa…” she broke off, and the fins on her head flattened straight back with embarrassment. “Fllf, well, she keeps warning me not to follow in my mother Loch’s ancestor’s footsteps.” She sank until only her eyes were visible.

“Follow in…” Harry comprehended. “Oh! Oh, hah.” He giggled, a little embarrassed too. “But I’m—and you’re—I suppose—” He was blushing, his face felt like it was on fire.

“Oh no, Snake!” Ava wailed. “Are you in love with me already?” 

“What?” That startled him into laughter, and then he saw Ava’s eyes squinted in humor. “Oh, stop!” He dipped his hand into the freezing water and splashed her. The cold water made him think of Myrtle, which brought his mood down a bit. 

“Fllf, Snake, is something wrong?” Ava pulled herself a little closer. 

“I had a fight with a friend,” Harry said miserably. He rolled up the scroll, and leaned his elbows on his knees, his chin in his hands. “She’s a ghost. She thinks house elves like to work, and I told her she was wrong because I’m friends with house elves and they’ve told me, and she didn’t believe me and she didn’t call me stupid but I could tell she was thinking it.” 

“House elves…” Ava mused. “What are those?” 

“Oh.” Harry tilted his head. “They’re people that live in Hogwarts. And other places, I suppose. And the wizards make them cook and clean and take care of the castle, and won’t let them use wizard magic or go to classes or use wands or even wear clothes!” 

Ava gaped at him. “That’s terrible!” 

“And Myrtle just—she just wouldn’t believe me! And it made me so angry that I did some stupid things and almost got discovered.” 

“I know how that is,” Ava said. “That’s how I was when I met you. And that worked out for the best.” She smiled at him, and he returned it. “But I don’t know what you should do. I’m sorry.” 

“It’s okay,” Harry said, dejected. “It’s just…she’s my first friend. Well, my first human friend, of a sort.” He looked upwards. The sky was pinkening. “I suppose I’d better go to bed. I’ll write you later?” 

“Sure,” Ava confirmed. “But here, this is a gift from my mothers.” She fiddled with something underwater and came up with a beautiful seashell comb. “It’s a thank you. And sort of a hint.”

“A hint?” Harry took the comb, delighted. “My hair’s not that bad.” 

“I’ll ask my mothers about the Starchild,” Ava continued, as if he hadn’t spoken. “And I’ll think about Percy’s familiar.”

“And I’ll think about Novala’s middle name,” Harry promised, tucking the comb into his bag. “Bye, Ava.” 

“By, Sa-nek!” She giggled and disappeared under the ice.

small lilac sprout

So maybe he hadn’t looked in a mirror in a while. Surely his hair wasn’t that bad. It wasn’t as if he didn’t bathe in the stream.

The basilisk watched in a amusement as he felt his hair. Okay, so it felt a little…matted. Surely that didn’t mean anything.

Experimentally, he poked the comb above his scalp and pulled. The basilisk hissed with laughter at his resulting painted gasp. 

Biting his lip, he tried again. Then he tried going from the end instead, but…well, he couldn’t find an end. The comb pricked and tugged at his scalp, making tears come to his eyes. 

And he remembered this, he remembered people, Aunt Petunia, pulling and yanking at his hair. All of the sudden, it wasn’t funny anymore. He threw the comb across the den and put his head on his knees.

“Snakeheart?” The basilisk nudged him from behind. “What happened?” 

He didn’t answer. He wasn’t really there. He was somewhere else, and mean hands were yanking a comb through his hair and cursing angrily. 

“You could just cut it,” suggested the basilisk.

Harry shook his head. That was worse. Aunt Petunia had done that once, and the feel of his bare head had been so horrifying somehow, and he had woken up the next morning with it grown back. He never, never, never wanted to feel like that again. 

“Snakeheart? Feel your hair.”

Harry wormed his hands out from under his head and touched his hair gingerly. The mat was gone. His hair was smooth and clean. He sniffed and looked up, pulling a bit in front of his face. No knots. 

The basilisk flicked the comb back over with its tail. He tried again, and the teeth slipped smoothly through.

“Best not let it get in that state from now on,” the basilisk advised. “In case you can’t do it again.” 

small lilac sprout

“What’s this one?” 

“Be careful!” Limmy snapped. “That’s Devil’s Snare!” 

Harry pulled his hand back just as a curl of the vine wrapped around his pinky finger. “What’s it do?” 

“It suffocates you.” Limmy’s face was drawn. “This is Greenhouse 4, remember, for dangerous plants. No students under sixth year is even allowed in here.” 

Harry looked at her, a bit of upset welling up. “But you haves to work here! And you is younger than a sixth year wizard!” 

“I is an elf,” Limmy said grimly.

Harry kicked the edge of a table, making a potted plant shiver nervously.

“Don’t upset the Noxious Nettle,” Limmy snapped, steadying it. 

“Well, what can I do?” 

Limmy looked around, ears flat. Then she held out her hand and a book fell onto it from thin air. “Read to me while I works.” 

Harry took the book. It wasn’t like a library book at all. It had no spine; it was bound with thick stitches instead, and it was obviously hand written. Handbook, it simply said.

“Did you makes this?” 

Limmy fussed with a pot, not looking at him, ears flat. “I is trusting you,” she finally said. “I is not supposed to show anyone that book. But you is Limmy’s friend. And you trusts Limy.” She whirled, ears up, pointing at him. “So if you even dreams of telling elf secrets, don’t you thinks I won’t tell about you.” Her hands were trembling. 

“I’d never tell elf secrets,” Harry said seriously. “I is practically only secrets. You is my friend, Limmy. And even if you weren’t my friend, I still wouldn’t tell.” 

To his shock, Limmy’s large eyes were swimming. She dashed a hand over them and turned back to the plants. “Read, then.” 

Harry cracked open the book. Inside, the title was longer.

Guidebook for Elvish Thrivance 
By 
The Coalition 

“One,” he read. “On Labor. Assumed among wizardkind is truths. Truth one, being, that wizardkind alone is people. Truth two, being, that all otherkind is creatures. Truth three, being, that all creatures is lacking the sapience of wizardkind. Limmy, what’s sapience?”

Her ears flicked in thought. “Limmy is learning that sapience means…being able to think.” 

“…that all creatures lack the sapience of wizardkind. Truth four, being, of highest import for our guide, that those of so-called higher sapience is possessing the authority to be ordering the lives of those of so-called lower sapience.” 

The grammar was unusual but Harry wrestled through it, and had gotten halfway through the “labor” section, feeling increasingly enlightened, when he read the phrase “the trapdoor of ‘duty’,” which caused him to remember another trapdoor.

He paused, marking his place with his finger. “Limmy? Do you knows who the lady up in the room with the trapdoor is?” 

Limmy looked up from picking dead leaves off a fanged geranium. “Lady with the trapdoor….” 

“Black hair,” Harry said. “Er…has a crystal ball.” 

“Oh! You is meaning Professor Trelawney.” 

“What does she teach?” 

“She is a seer. She teaches divination. Is you meeting her?” 

Harry’s mouth quirked. “Er. Sort of. By accident. I mean, I met her, but she didn’t meet me.” 

Limmy gave him a suspicious look. “Okay.” 

“It was weird. I think she was seeing the future.” 

Limmy’s eyes widened. “You is hearing her gives a prophecy?” 

“Maybe?” 

“Was it…scary?” 

Harry remembered Trelawney’s cloudy lilac eyes. “Sort of.” 

“Hmm.” Limmy plucked another leaf. 

“…the trapdoor of ‘duty’,” Harry continued, “which wizardkind seals like a suffocating blanket over our cradles.” 

small lilac sprout

“Do you think it’s almost ready?” Harry asked. Today the potion was lemon yellow and smelled about the same. It reminded him unpleasantly of the dish soap he used to use. These days he just set his dishes in the cold stream for a while to wash. 

“Almost,” said the basilisk. “I believe after this there are two more stages, and then it’s done.” 

Harry opened a cupboard and sneezed, the dust blowing outwards. Salazar’s cupboards hadn’t been opened in hundreds of years, sure, but he had a spell on the potion ingredients, hadn’t he? Why not one for dust? If such a thing existed.

“What did you find?” hissed the basilisk. 

Harry stared at the thing. “Er, I don’t really know.” 

“Bring it out!”

It was obviously an instrument, but Harry wasn’t sure what. It looked like a tiny guitar.

“Oh!” Harry almost looked. He’d never heard the basilisk sound like that before—sound so delighted. “The vielle!” 

“What is it?” 

“Set it down! See the top peg? Turn it!” 

Harry turned it. The vielle immediately floated up in the air, and something flew out of Salazar’s room—a bow that Harry hadn’t seen before. It leapt upon the vielle and immediately began playing a jaunty and strange tune, the sound almost but not quite as haunting as it was exciting.

The basilisk began to sway in time with the music, tail flicking, head weaving. Harry laughed, caught up in the music as it sped faster and faster, and he spread his arms and danced along. He leapt across the stream and the basilisk curled its tail around him and flicked him a few meters in the air, and he landed with a tumble and a laugh, got up, and twirled and twirled until the music faded. 

“Does it have more songs?” he asked the basilisk eagerly.

“Yes,” it said, something truly lovely and vital in its voice. “And somewhere in that chamber is a tabor and a pipe as well!” 

“Let’s find them!”

small lilac sprout

Mother Wisdom was resplendent in a white robe, thick dark hair spilling past her shoulders, her daughter equally beautiful as she reached out to take the apple. She would soon receive the true knowledge of space exploration, and go to live among the aliens. At least, that’s what Harry thought.

It was the first time he had dared enter the library at night. In fact, it was the first time he’d been back to the library after Peeves. He was almost sure that it was closed after dark. 

It wasn’t locked, though, and he creaked the door open slowly, slowly.

All was dark and silent. Some of the books glowed faintly, some rustled and hummed, but that was it.

Harry had acquired an old, battered pair of boots, but he didn’t often wear them. He wasn't wearing them now: he preferred layers of socks for stealth. Silently, he ran and slid down the aisles, elflight on his finger, all the way to the ’S’ section.

The plaques went on and on: Salamander, Seer, Selkie, Serpents, Slytherin, Sphinx, Star.

Perfect.

He turned down that aisle and moved his elflight close to the spines. Constellations of the Magi; Constellations Across Cultures; Stories in the Sky. Hmm. He pulled out Stories in the Sky, but a glance at the table of contents showed it didn’t tell the stories so much as talk about how and why people noticed constellations in the first place. Harry found it intriguing, but not what he was looking for.

He shuffled down a section. The Birth of a Star: Balancing the Equation; Fusion and Us; The Origin of Nebulae. These books devolved into long words he couldn’t pronounce. He scooted down another section.

Ten Uncommon Uses for Starthistle; The Taxonomy of Starthistle; Star Grass: Balm for the Soul; Growing Star Grass with Limited Space.

Well, this was close to hopeless. If all of these things were crammed under 'Star,' how was one ever to find anything they were looking for? Maybe there was a way, and he just didn’t know it. Maybe you had to ask the librarian, in which case he would never find anything on the Starchild.

“What are you looking for?” asked a gloomy, quiet voice. 

Harry jumped and spun around. Myrtle was floating half in and half out of a book case, not quite meeting his eyes.

“Myrtle,” he said softly. “You’re out of your toilet.” 

She twisted her hands together. “First time since I died. I don’t know if I like it.” 

“What…why are you here?” 

She slumped down a little further into the bookshelf. “Sorry.” 

“What?” 

She looked at him. Her glasses were smudgy. “I’m saying sorry about the other day. I was really mean. I want you to keep being friends with me.” 

“Well….” Harry was baffled. He’d never had someone apologize to him before. It was quite a good feeling. “I want to keep being friends with you, too. You’re my first-ever human-ish friend. But I’m friends with elves, and if you think like that, it’s like I’m being mean to them by being friends with you.” 

Myrtle sunk halfway into the floor. “I thought about what you said. I’ve never talked to an elf, ever, so how can I say what they want to do or not? I was being silly. Maybe…maybe you can introduce me to one?” 

Relief bloomed through Harry. “Yes! Definitely!” 

At the tone of his voice, Myrtle looked up, eyes hopeful. “So…friends?” 

“Yes!” They shook on it. 

“What are you looking for?” Myrtle asked, coming out of the floor.

“Anything about a Starchild. The Starchild. Or something. Trelawney said it, and I want to find out what it is.” 

“Trelawney? That creepy divination teacher?” 

“I guess she was a little creepy.” 

They looked for a little while, unsuccessfully. 

“You know, Tonks has been coming into my bathroom sometimes and whispering to the mirror,” Myrtle said, balancing a book on the tip of her finger. “She’s trying to get you to talk to her.” 

Harry laughed. “What? Why?” 

Myrtle shrugged, tossing the book through her own head. “Wants to know things about being a mirror ghost.” 

“Oh right!” Harry giggled. “I told her I was one.” 

“A mirror ghost?”

“A mirror ghost wizard. I’ll try to talk to her sometime. I like her.” 

“Me too.” 

In the end, Harry left the library without a book, but with a friend. He considered the venture a success.  

small lilac sprout

The potion was a still, shimmering grey. It looked like the stars had been made into a soup. 

“Go ahead,” the basilisk urged. “Just a cupful, now. A cupful every day until it’s gone.”

Just yesterday the cauldron had had a sheen of actual fire over it. Carefully, Harry dipped a chipped teacup Limmy had given him into the potion. It didn’t seem like a normal liquid somehow. It seemed like a cartoon from the telly, but put into real life. 

Harry sniffed it. It smelled…sparkly. Spicy, somehow. When he drank it, it tasted mostly like nothing. Instead it was the texture that was strange; like drinking something slightly less viscous than honey, but almost slippery. 

He set the cup down and waited for something to happen. 

“After you finish the whole potion, we will begin building your resistance,” the basilisk said. “And soon after that…we can look at each other.” It sounded excited. 

Harry stood up, closed his eyes, and hugged it. 

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“It’s spring!” Harry danced into the hall, where the flute was playing gentle notes. “Spring is here!”

He twirled towards the entrance to the den, and found himself looking into something almost like the sun, so bright yellow it almost became pale again, and his limbs slowed and his head filed with cotton. His breath and his heart quieted. 

It was almost like being smoke again.

The yellow thing—the basilisk’s eye—flicked away, but he was still unable to move, heaviness pressing him down. He felt his heart beat slowly, slowly, he tried to count them but he couldn’t think, didn’t know how much time was passing. Keep beating, he thought drowsily. Keep breathing. Stay alive. Stay alive. The basilisk curled uneasily around him, tasting the air.

At last it lifted, and he fell to his hands and knees, gasping.

“The potion is working,” said the basilisk in approval. “You looked into my eyes and did not die.”

“I almost did, I think!” His hands were trembling.

“Can you endure it again?” asked the basilisk. “You must, you must keep looking and keep fighting through it, so that each time becomes faster and easier.”

“Alright,” said Harry. “Ugh. I need some water.” He crawled to the stream and dunked his face in, which did a lot to wash the stupor from him. “As I was saying, the spring has come! There are flowers blooming, and the ice on the lake is gone, and birds are out. It’s lovely.” 

“What do you plan to do?” 

Harry wiped his face on his sleeve. “I want to go back into the forest. I’m bored of being in the castle all the time; I want to explore.” 

“So pack a bag and roam,” the basilisk suggested. “I did that, in my youth. Left my den and traveled and saw things. This is how you grow.” 

“Yeah,” Harry said, the idea lighting him up inside. “I think I will.” 

Chapter Text

The newborn morning breathed frosty air across his nose, his chin, his cheeks. The rest of him was cozy in scavenged clothes, pack slung across his back. The sun was rising, the forest was breathing. Though it was cold, that sun was the spring sun, and those birds were spring birds. 

The sight of the forest sent pricks of unease through him. The last time he had ventured through, there had been the unicorn, and the graphon, and Bane. 

But no. The sun on his back steadied him. He was the ward of the basilisk. 

He stepped inside, and the trees welcomed him.

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He visited old friends in the first week. It was simple, now, to avoid the centaurs and go right to the thestral clearing: he could smell them when he opened his mouth, their peculiar serpentine magic that tasted of the highest clouds. Tonks, Filius, and Serpentus had grown so they were almost unrecognizable, but they still played like foals.

During the mornings he hunted with the older thestrals, watching how they crept silent as ghosts through the undergrowth, catching prey with razor hooves and teeth alike. They fed him for the first few days, until he began to be able to creep as well, using a sharpened stick instead of hooves and teeth.

During the afternoons he took to the skies with his friends—and how much better they flew, how steadier their wingbeats, how much more confident. But no less risk-taking, and they perfected elaborate acrobatic maneuvers. Harry learned to cherish the feeling of free-fall—exhilaration, joy, and pure trust like nothing else. In the middle of a leap from Tonks’s back to Serpentus’ down below, he was beyond himself—he was not Harry, or Snake, or Snakeheart, or even an old remembered name (Freak)—he was air. 

During the evenings he curled with the elder thestrals and combed their manes with the comb Ava had given them, and then combed his own hair. He braided the loose, wiry thestral hairs together into bracelets and wore them on both wrists.

At the end of a week or so—when you were air, you didn’t much care about time—he woke with the taste of deep, heavy magic in his mouth. Tonks offered, in that thestral way, to fly him into the middle of the forest again, but he declined. He wanted to walk.

They elders nuzzled him and burred their lips against his cheeks, and the young ones followed him for a few hours, investigating the forest with him. Tonks was the last to leave him, after catching him a young rabbit which he tied to his bag to await dinner.

He camped that night in a small clearing where he could make a little fire, and cooked the rabbit—he’d even brought spices that Norry had given him. He put a chunk of ice that had puddled in a tree root hollow in a little cup and melted it by the fire, and dropped in a pinch of loose tea leaves that Toddy had given him. Those two things—spices and tea leaves—had been little presents from the elves when he’d said he was going away for a bit. 

Limmy hadn’t given him food, but she had given him perhaps the best gift he’d ever received: a friendship bracelet wound out of scrap yarn. It had a charm on it that was just a little wood circle painted blue. Limmy’s own was painted lilac. Curled up by the fire, he wasn’t lonely exactly, but he wished she was here. He could tell her an elf tale he’d read in that book, and she could explain to him how the stupid wizard author had got it all wrong. She’d promised one day she would come with him. One day when she was free to do so.

He’d promised to bring her back something from the forest. He’d have to make it something really special.

The next morning, he spread dirt over the embers of his fire, packed up his leftover rabbit and his little chipped cup, and carried on. He had no doubt about his directions: the smell of the deep wood was so thick, even so far away from it, that he didn’t even need to open his mouth to smell it. It caressed his skin and carried him on.

It took him a week of walking to reach the deep wood, a week that was fairly uneventful. He walked, he ate, he stopped when he felt like it to look at things.  He found another tree covered with those strange little stick people, who paid him no more mind than usual. 

On a rotting tree he passed what he thought was lichen, but he did a double-take when he thought he saw eyes. Crouching down, he saw the little flat creature settled into the rotting wood. It blinked at him, and he blinked back. He walked on.

One morning, he woke to find a snake curled in the remains of his fire. It had pale grey skin and bright red eyes, and looked quite content in the embers. 

“Hello,” Harry said, rolling over onto his elbows. 

The snake blinked at him in surprise. “Hello,” it said after a moment. 

“When did you get here?” Harry asked. 

It gave a little sideways shimmy that propelled it forward. “Just now. What about you?” 

“I’ve been here,” Harry said, grinning. “Do you want some rabbit?” 

“Yes,” said the snake enthusiastically. 

He fed it some rabbit, and they conversed for a while. It seemed eager enough to talk, and told him all about where it had come from, which was some place that was very warm and hot and heated and a whole lot of other words that meant “hot,” which seemed to be what the snake cared the most about. Harry told it about the basilisk’s heated floor, which pleased it immensely.

“Say,” the snake said after they’d been talking for a while. “I feel odd. I think I’m out of time.” 

“Out of time?” Harry asked in alarm. “For what?” 

“I need to lay my eggs,” said the snake. “Before I die.” 

“Die?” Harry asked. “No, don’t! Are you sick? What can I do?” 

“Just take care of my eggs,” said the snake. “Don’t be upset. This is just life.” 

“No, wait!” Harry protested again, but the snake ignored him, burrowing down deep into the embers of the fire until he couldn’t see it. In a few minutes, the fire went out abruptly, and, through tears, Harry poked through the ashes with a stick until he found two small, soft eggs.

He sat there and cried for a while, upset about how unfair everything was, and then he picked up the eggs gingerly. They were surprisingly hot. He scooped them, along with a bunch of ash and char, into his cup, and held it gingerly in front of him as he walked. He passed the day in a truly foul mood, and didn’t even stop when he saw a weird froglike creature with a long tail scampering away from him into the hollow of a tree.

Night fell again, and he built a fire and tipped the eggs out into it, figuring that was probably the right thing to do. Although, he wasn’t even sure if he wanted them to hatch, if they were just going to talk to him for a bit, lay eggs, and die. 

For all his reluctance, when the eggs began to crack, his mood dissipated like so much mist off the lake, and he pushed his face as close to the fire as he dared to watch, breath held in awe. They hatched at the exact same time, little lines appearing inside the soft shells, the eggs tipping and wiggling, and then little blind heads came poking out, noses first, mouths open and scenting the world. 

“Oh,” Harry said. He reached out. The little snakes twined over his hands; they were each thinner than his pinky finger. He held them cupped in his palms. “Hello,” he hissed softly. “Welcome to the world.” 

“Hello, hello,” they said back. “Where are we? Who are you? We’re cold.” 

Gently, he tipped them back into the fire, and they curled in contentment around the embers. 

“You’re in the forest,” he said. “I’m a snakeheart. Your parent told me to look after you.” 

“Okay,” they sighed, and fell asleep.

They stayed with him for the rest of his journey to the deep wood. He had to carry them inside a flame in his hand, where they peered out at the world from inside the fire. He distinguished them as grey and dark gray, based on their colors. To his relief, they didn’t follow the same lifespan as their parent, though they did grow. They went from thinner than his finger to as thick as his thumb in about four days. He shared his rabbit with them and told them all about himself, and told them all about the fiery place their parent had come from—what he could remember of it, anyway. 

And though they seemed tiny and helpless, they proved they were not. 

He was drawing closer to the deep wood, he could taste it. But he could also see it, because the frequency of strange magical creatures was increasing. Most of them avoided him and he them, except the ones that were curious or malicious. 

Those little flying blue creatures, for example. He’d call them people except they didn’t seem to understand him beyond wanting to bite his nose from his face. And the third time he was rushed by them, the snakes had had enough. The moment the little blue things got close enough, the fire in his hand flared high, quite independently of him, and the snakes tripled in size, and each one opened their jaw and swallowed a blue thing whole.  

The rest of the blue things scattered, shrieking and wailing, and the snakes and fire shrank back down. The snakes curled contentedly around his palm and wrist. He could see the lumps of the creatures inside their stomachs. 

The next morning, Harry woke to find that the deep wood had reached him, rather than the other way around. He didn’t know how he could tell, he just knew. This had been normal wood last night, and now he was saturated in deep, thick magic. 

The snakes were out of the fire for the first time. They woke him by tickling his face with their tongues. He cracked his eyes open and pet them. 

“Thank you, friend, thank you,” they said. “We will leave now. We are home.” 

“Okay,” he said softly. “Thanks for traveling with me.” 

They pressed against his hands affectionately, and then shimmied away from the campsite, disappearing into the undergrowth.

Harry at breakfast, alone in the deep wood.  

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None of the forest was recognizable, and now that he was here, saturated, there was no scent to guide him in any direction: it was like he was mired in a fog, overwhelming. 

He lost track of time quickly. Night and day still rose and fell, but he existed independently of them. He walked and explored, climbed trees that hummed and nearly spoke to him, came nose-to-nose with creatures that that were utterly unafraid of him, drank water that made the plants around it grow into strange and uncanny shapes, and learned what plants to eat by watching the animals. 

There were deer here, if you could call them that. Some of them shimmered a little bit, others were just a bit too…dull. But they tore up root vegetables from the ground to eat, and so he ate them too, feeling none the worse. 

One night he woke up and felt the uncontrollable urge to climb to the top of the nearest tree. He used his elflight to guide the way, and when he got there he found a strange bird alighting into a nest of babies. The bird was shaped like an upside-down egg, bright pink and mean-looking, and when it saw him it twittered a song that made him dizzy enough to almost fall from the tree, and for a long strange moment he could no longer see the stars in the sky. But when he made no move to hurt it, it turned to its four featherless children and regurgitated something glittering and golden into their mouths. 

He slid back down the tree when the bird started to glare at him, and he didn’t sleep for two nights after that.

After a time more of wandering, wherein he was bitten by a few stick-people, ate a weird mouse that gave him terrible cramps, and touched a mushroom that made him float for a whole afternoon, he came upon a stream in which gold and silver fish swam.

He sat beside it and waited, and after a while felt something soft touch his nose. 

He smiled widely. “Chikkeritt?” 

The little furry creature materialized in front of him, vibrating slightly, and then she bounced in place in rapid excitement and squished her little wrinkled face into his cheek, chatting and chittering. He hugged Chikkeritt tightly and giggled as her tail wound around his neck and tickled him furiously.

Chikkeritt leapt off of him, seizing his hand and dragging him off towards her cave. Harry leapt over the pool of fairy water, and stumbled to a stop at the sight of Chikkeritt’s nest. 

A little round ball of rainbow fur nestled in the middle of Harry’s old spare scarf. 

Chikkeritt pulled him forward, creeping softly, and reached out one hand to smooth over the fur. The little rainbow ball shivered and shifted and turned huge pale eyes onto Harry. 

Something very powerful and overwhelming was building up in Harry’s chest. Chikkeritt pulled his hand in front of the child’s face, and the child sniffed and nibbled on it. Harry ran his fingers gently across his fur. 

“What’s his name?” he asked Chikkeritt softly. Chikkeritt told him, a few times in a row so Harry could catch it. “Kerkeritt? That’s a nice name.” 

Harry opened his pack and pulled out one of his vegetables, the ones that tasted sweet. He sliced off a bit with a knife and held it out to Kerkeritt. Ever-so-gently, the baby plucked it from him with long fingers and nibbled it down. Then Kerkeritt scampered onto his hand and up his shoulder and fell asleep holding Harry’s ear.

Harry could have cried. He thought he stopped breathing.

The next however-long was spent with Chikkeritt and Kerkeritt. Once the baby woke up, he proved to be as energetic as Chikkeritt, leaping and playing with them both. After the first day Harry remembered how to play tag with them, and Chikkeritt laughed and laughed at Kerkeritt’s bafflement as Harry evaded him. 

He ate the little fish from the stream, played tag, watched Kerkeritt take baths in the fairy water and frantically avoided being splashed, and lost his understanding of time completely. 

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After a blissful, easy time, he woke up one morning and found something pulling him back home. It wasn’t quite homesickness. It was more as sense of…rightness. It would be right to be home with the basilisk.

He bid Chikkeritt and Kerkeritt goodbye, and opened his mouth to smell his way out. 

It was like following the opposite of a scent. The deep wood smelled so thick around him, he had trouble discerning anything that was not it. But eventually, after wandering for a while, he caught the scent of it: not a lesser magic, but a thinner magic. He followed it.

It took him a few days, or maybe a week, to get out of the deep wood. He kept getting sidetracked—by a little colony of tiny people who made him howl with laughter at how they played tricks on each other, by a black cat that he threw a piece of fish to before he ate, and it came and curled up with him and in the morning there was a gold coin by his head, and then by a trio of horrible things that tried to drown him in the river with their long, terrible fingers. He got out after smashing them with rocks, cold and drenched, and had to spend a full day sitting by his fire while he shivered and shook. 

But eventually, and almost accidentally, he wandered out. Just as he had wandered in, he went down to sleep in the deep wood and woke in the thin magic again. 

It was almost like he had lost a limb. He could breathe now, sure, he could start to time his life again by the rising and setting of the sun, sure, but when he breathed in he could taste other things besides magic. He could taste the earth and trees and sky and the castle far away. It took him a full day of feeling horribly off-kilter to realize those were good things too.

He forged his way towards the castle at a relaxed pace. It was solidly spring now; his mornings were warm and so were his evenings, only really chilling in the dead of night. 

He felt ever so much more alone here in the thin magic. The creatures skittered away from him; none crept up to share his fire. 

They did try to kill him, though. 

He was crossing a large river at dusk, hopping from stone to stone with the intent of setting up camp on the other side. He was halfway across when something burst up out of the water and charged him, shoving him into the stream. He only had time to glimpse huge white gnashing teeth and evil yellow eyes before he was drowning. 

He bucked and choked and felt the thing trying to sink its teeth into him—he lashed out and seized onto wet thick hair, and he grabbed that and pulled—pulled with all his might until he hand clambered onto the thing—it was a horse, it was a water horse, it only had two front hooves and they were pawing and clawing at the surface of the water.

He was half-drowned but he screamed into its ear: “I AM THE WARD OF THE BASILISK! I AM UNDER ITS PROTECTION! IF YOU KILL ME ITS WRATH WILL BE SWIFT AND UNCEASING!” And he repeated himself in the snake-tongue for good measure. 

The water horse bucked him off and he went flying onto the shore. It panted and heaved and frothed and stared at him as he lay there, and then it dove under the river and was gone in a turgid rush. 

Harry choked up half a litre of river water on the shore, cried for a good ten minutes, and crawled over to his pack. He had thrown it across the river before he crossed, and how thankful he was that he had. A dunking would have ruined the gifts.

He stumbled as far from the river as he could before he collapsed. He didn’t bother lighting a fire, just scraped dead leaves and bracken over himself, huddled against a moldering log, and slept.

Chapter Text

He was not woken by the morning light. He was woken in the dead of night by a sticky, poking thing prodding his cheek. 

Holding his breath, he summoned an elflight.

He hadn’t screamed when the horse tried to drown him. He hadn’t screamed when the graphon attacked the unicorn. He hadn’t screamed when Trelawney grabbed him.

He screamed now. 

A giant spider the size of a car crouched practically on top of him, poking his face with one of its hairy legs that were as thick as his arms. Eight bright red eyes stared at him from atop an oblong body, pincers rested sharp and serrated right in front of his nose. 

He screamed, and screamed, and it didn’t retreat. It just tilted its body slightly, looking at him closer. His scream died and he choked on his fear, and the spider just looked at him.

It was whispering to itself. He hadn’t been able to hear it over his scream.

“A human,” it whispered. “Juicy. Bloody. Warm.” 

“Let me go!” Harry choked.

“It talks, it screams,” whispered the spider. “Noisy, irritating. Kill it now, or let it ripen in the web?” 

“Don’t kill me!” Harry yelled. “I’m under the basilisk’s protection!” 

This got a reaction. The spider froze, eyes wide. “The basilisk, the basilisk, the basilisk, the basilisk!” it said, pincers clicking frenetically. “The basilisk, the basilisk! Our enemy, our enemy! A spy!” 

“No, no!” Harry was horrified. “I’m not a spy!” 

“A spy for the basilisk!” the spider shrieked, its legs stepping and shaking. “A spy for the basilisk! To Aragog, to the web! Aragog, he’ll decide you!” 

Harry kicked and struggled, but it was worthless—the spider was atop him, it was putting something on him—something sticky, something gluey—it was rolling him over and over, coating him in its web, and then he was being dragged.

It hauled him face-first across the forest floor, and he kicked and struggled to turn himself onto his back, but he only managed his side—he screamed and snarled and tried to pull his magic out of him, tried to pull magic to him, but he couldn’t, he couldn’t—not even his fire was coming.

All the while the spider whispered to itself, about the basilisk, and Aragog, whatever that was, and how juicy humans were, and how lovely his blood smelled, and how Aragog would string the spy up and drain him slowly. 

Harry lost his mind from fear briefly while he was being dragged, and came to when he was rolled into the center of a clearing. He skidded on his back, and stared up into the trees, and the trees were covered in spiders, bring red eyes in a ring around him, dozens of them. 

The spider who had drug him stepped over him and splayed its legs out. “I have apprehended a basilisk spy!” it shouted, all of the sudden in full, clear sentences. “Aragog leader, descend! Descend to levy your judgement!” 

It stepped off of him, and there was a huge resounding thud as a massive spider, bigger than the one that had caught Harry, dropped from the trees to the ground. His legs were as thick as Harry’s, his hair was bristly and coarse, one of his eight eyes was popped, replaced by a mass of ugly scar tissue. He loomed over Harry, pincers clicking and clacking in his face. 

“A basilisk…spy,” he said, in a voice that crunched and popped. “Tell us, spy. For what vile purpose has the serpent sent you into our ranks?” 

“Nothing!” Harry yelled, crying. “Nothing, nothing! I’m not a spy! It didn’t send me!” 

“Lies!” cried the spider that dragged him in, now on the perimeter with the other spiders. “It declared to me its allegiance with our adversary, the basilisk!” 

“No!” Harry shouted. “I live with the basilisk, that’s all! It’s not your enemy!” 

Aragog started a growling, shaking sound that Harry realized with horror was laughter. “Not our enemy?” he demanded. “Not our enemy! That dastardly conspirator is the reason for our bleak and protracted expulsion to this timberland!” 

“No,” Harry said again, trying frantically to parse what Aragog was saying. He didn’t know half the words out of the spider’s mouth. “What do you mean?” 

“What do I mean?” Aragog roared. He reared up, reaching his legs up towards the other spiders, crashing back down and nearly puncturing Harry’s ribcage before he managed to roll away. “I mean that the traitorous vermin serpent colluded with that depraved, ruinous, murderous wizard, imputing my own self and my compatriot, the steward of giant derivation, in their footing!” 

“What?” Harry yelled desperately. “What?!” 

Aragog pushed his face close, close to Harry, his bristles poking into his skin. “Senseless human maggot,” he clicked, his pincers digging into Harry’s throat. “The basilisk. Ruined. Me.” He reared back. “Put it in the pit!” 

At once another spider leapt forward, seizing the webbing around Harry and dragging him away again. It was pitch black and he lost track of space completely, and only regained it when he was falling, down into a hole in the ground, losing his breath at the impact.

He lay there wrapped in webbing and cried and kicked and swore for a long time, and then he started remembering.

He tried to do as the basilisk had said, to thank the memories as they came and put them back to bed. He did it once, and then again, but they kept sticking their heads back out, whispering reminders to him, and then their voices started getting louder, and it was so dark and cold and he was sad and in pain and he had never left his cupboard.

He screamed and sobbed thrashed with renewed vigor, unable to take the truth, knowing that if Uncle Vernon or Aunt Petunia or Dudley opened that cupboard door, if he was still in that house on Privet Drive, he wouldn’t survive it, he just wouldn’t. He closed his eyes against the dark and the possibility and rolled into the earthy wall and wished to be smoke, smoke, smoke.

After an eternity of hysteria, he started to do it. A little at a time, he sent his mind puffing up and up in clouds. First he sent his tears. Then he sent his fear. Then he sent his sadness. Then he pressed his face against the wall and stuck his tongue out and tasted cold, gross dirt, and told himself again and again that his cupboard didn’t have dirt walls until he believed it.

Then, feeling drained and weak, eyes puffy and throat sore, he thanked the memories and put them to bed. They didn’t want to go—they wanted to stay awake with him. But he just kept thanking them and putting them down until they slept. 

Then he took a deep breath and squirmed himself into an upright position. 

His pack was on his back, under the webbing. That was a good thing. His hands were in front of him. That was a good thing. He wasn’t hurt very badly. That was a good thing. 

He reached into his chest for that fizzy magic and felt it. He pushed it down his hands and felt them kindle. The webbing over them began to melt, slowly but steadily, and finally they broke through into the clean air. Immediately he tore the rest of the webbing from his body, throwing it on the far side of the pit, which was really only a few meters away.

He sat there and breathed, and breathed, and breathed. Then he made an elflight. 

The pit was about two meters across, and, when he stood up, the pit was about double his height. He was well and truly stuck. In lieu of an escape attempt, he opened his pack and put on his extra sweater and ate the last of his leftover vegetables and fish. The, keeping his elflight on, he put his head against the wall and tried to make sense of what Aragog had said.

In the early morning light, they came for him. He heard them scuttling and skittering, and he slung his pack on and clutched it to him. One of the spiders peered over the pit and casually reached down. It stuck its foot into his sweater and hauled him out of the pit, and kept hauling him, and he had to run to keep up, stumbling his way back to that clearing. It flung him, and he landed on his hands and knees before Aragog. The ground and trees around them were ringed with an audience that clicked and growled to itself. 

“State your appellation,” Aragog said. 

Harry pushed himself up and stepped back. The spider behind him shoved him forward and down again. He screwed up his face and told himself he’d cried enough. “I-I d-don’t know what that is.”

“Your name,” Aragog clicked impatiently, scraping his feet on the ground.

“It’s Snake.” 

Aragog’s limbs twitched. “You even correlate yourself with the beast in moniker. Reprehensible. Be that as it may. Snake, the council has convened and has found you guilty of treason against the acromantulae. Your execution will be swift. Mosag!”

A lumbering spider barreled forward out of the crowd, straight for him.

“Stop!” Harry ducked and twisted and managed to dodge Mosag, who made a swift turn. “Please, stop! You don’t know the truth! You’re angry about Riddle, right?” 

Aragog roared, a sound so furious even the rest of the spiders flinched back. “You dare invoke his name! The name of your compatriot’s master, even now, even as your expiration nears! The gall!” 

Harry didn’t understand a lot of that, but he caught one word, as he fled Mosag’s second charge. “Master!” he screamed. “You mean slaver!” 

“No, I mean master!” Aragog’s eyes burned, he shook from side to side in rage. 

Mosag took another pass, and Harry was too slow. He tripped over Mosag’s leg and spilled into the dirt. 

“You’re wrong!” He screamed with the last of his time. “That wizard cursed the basilisk!” Mosag’s leg pressed into his chest, pinning him. He was crying again, half in fear and half in anger. “Who told you it was its master?” he demanded. “Who? Who?!”

“Mosag.” 

Mosag’s pincers stopped an inch from his throat. When he breathed in, his skin scraped them, drawing thin lines of blood. But he couldn’t help it, he breathed frantically, furiously. 

“Who told you?” he gasped out. “Who told you that?” 

Finally, Aragog spoke. “Riddle himself,” he said. There was a great shifting and rustling from the assembled spiders. 

“He lied! He cursed the basilisk to follow his commands! I freed the basilisk when I came to live with it! The basilisk is not your enemy, your enemy is Riddle! The basilisk’s enemy is Riddle!” 

Silence, silence.

“Please!” Harry sobbed. “Please, it’s the truth. Please.”

Silence, silence. Then: 

“Mosag.” 

Harry braced himself for death. But instead the spider stepped off of him, pincers drawing away from his throat. He gasped in relief and scrambled to a crouch. 

“Evidence,” Aragog said. “Give me proof of your veracity.” 

“I…I….” Harry thought of what was in his pack: gifts for his friends, cooking supplies. “I don’t have anything,” he whispered. “But it’s the truth. The girl Riddle made the basilisk kill, Myrtle? She believes me.” 

“And how do we know you are not prevaricating even now?” 

Harry took a wild stab at what “prevaricating” meant. “You just have to trust me. Or…I can swear on something. That I’m telling the truth. On whatever you want.” 

The spiders murmured and clicked, Aragog included. Then he said, “swear on your life.” 

The basilisk was not going to be pleased. “I swear on my life,” Harry said quietly. “I’m telling the truth.” 

He felt a shiver go down his spine, like someone had run a finger down it. For half a second, he thought his heart stopped beating. But even as he had that thought, it was beating again.

“We must convene again,” Aragog said after a long moment. “Mosag. Put him in the shelter.” 

Mosag looked at Harry. “Follow me.” 

Harry stumbled after him on jelly legs. He was led to a sort of bower of branches that encompassed a vast area.

“Do you live here?” he asked tentatively.

“When it storms,” said Mosag shortly. “Do not depart this dwelling before we summon you, else you forfeit your sanctuary.” 

“I won’t leave,” Harry said. 

Mosag left him there. Harry walked into the shelter, which was tall enough for him to stand in, and found it dark and warm inside, packed with dirt leaves. He could imagine all the assembled spiders he’d seen packing in here during a storm.

He found a little warm nook, curled up, and slept.

He woke again to a spider poking his face, but this time it stayed a little back from him: it was Mosag, and he looked…cautious. 

“Human snake,” Mosag said. “I have brought you sustenance.” With a back leg, Mosag rolled him something wrapped in webbing.

“Er.” Harry picked at the webbing gingerly. Inside was a large dead beetle.

“We have not drained its juices,” Mosag told him. “And we are assured it is innocuous to mammals.” 

“Does that mean…it’s safe?” 

Mosag squinted at him. “Are you deriding me?” 

“I don’t know what that means.” Harry crossed his arms. “I’m just a kid, you know. Do you know that that means? It means I can’t understand the words you use.” 

“You do not understand…?” Mosag tilted his head. “What, then, would aid you?” 

“Shorter. Words.” 

“I shall endeavor to try.” Mosag pointed to the beetle. “This…insect. Is safe. To. Consume. Understand?”

“Yeah,” Harry said. “Thanks. Are you going to kill me?” 

Mosag crouched down in confusion. “No. I am feeding you.” It gestured at the bug.

“I mean later,” Harry snarled. “You were all set to kill me before!” 

“We are deliberating,” Mosag informed him. “That is, we are thinking.” 

“Oh. Okay.” Harry shuffled around Mosag, dragging the beetle, and swept some debris into a little pile for a fire. The moment he lit it, Mosag leapt back, hissing in alarm. 

“I can’t eat raw things,” Harry said. “That means I have to put them on a fire to cook them.” He found a few big leaves, wrapped the beetle in them, and nudged it into the bottom of the fire. He’d never had beetle before, but it couldn’t be worse than mice. 

“This is…abominable,” Mosag clicked, glaring at the fire. 

Harry shrugged and kept the fire between him and Mosag.  “Why aren’t you…deliberating?” 

“The council is in recess. A rest, that is.” 

“Why bring me food when you just tried to kill me?” 

Mosag swayed from side to side. “I do not understand.” 

“You were going to kill me. Now you’re feeding me.” 

“I believe I understand now. Your presence is not personally injurious to me, only Aragog. As his mate, it is my commitment to redress his grievance.”

“So, basically,” Harry said slowly. “Whatever he decides to do, you’ll do it?” 

“As he would for me,” Mosag said, pleased at his comprehension. Then he clicked his pincers and held still for a long second. “Recess has concluded. Deliberations resume. Goodbye, human snake.” And he scuttled away.

Harry took the bug out of the fire when he smelled it burning. Unsure of how exactly to eat it, he turned it on its back and sliced into the belly, cracking the shell open. To his surprise, it smelled pretty good. He used the last of his gifted herbs to  season it, and devoured the whole thing in minutes. Maybe it was the terror, maybe it was the relief, but it was delicious.

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Mosag came for him again the next morning. Harry walked silently beside him as they made their way back to the clearing. Now that Harry’s eyes were, for the most part, clear of blinding terror, and it was daylight, he could see that the spiders watching from the trees weren’t perched in branches: they were sitting on elaborate nets of tiered webbing that encompassed five to six trees each, artistic marvels that made the forest look as if it was draped in lace. In their webs, the spiders didn’t look so monstrous: they looked delicate and lovely.

Apparently his continuing trial was not to take place on the ground either. The lowest web stretched across the clearing, ten meters up, and Aragog waited there in the center. Morning dewdrops covered him, and when he moved they glittered.

“On my back, human-snake,” said Mosag. 

Gingerly, Harry scrambled onto Mosag and sat between his front and back body segments clutching his wiry hair as the spider crouched and then took a great leap, landing upside-down on the web. Quickly, he shimmied between two strands, and they were rightside-up, facing Aragog. The multitude of red eyes shone down on Harry so strongly he felt as if they would burn him up. 

“Descend,” Mosag said. 

Harry slid down, landing gingerly on a strand of web. It was about as thick as his hand, and sticky, not slippery, but still he crouched down almost immediately, arms out to balance. 

Mosag left him, and he was actually sorry for it, for now it was only him and Aragog, who might have been beautiful in the glittering dawn, but was still monstrous. If Aragog decided to kill him, Harry would have no escape. He would die in this web. 

At least he would not die in that hole.

“Human-snake,” Aragog said. “Let me weave you a web. Permit me relate to all amassed my chronicle. You have received it many times, but humor me, my kin.” 

The spiders chittered and clicked with enthusiasm.

“I was helpless when I hatched, for my parent had been slaughtered after obscuring my egg in the abhorred human fortress. I cannot conclude what fate would have transpired had not my beloved confederate, the steward, disembarrassed me from my uncertain plight and given me harborage. He gave me sustenance, erudition, and camaraderie. We two, we were contented. I had a laudable early life.

“And then came the wizard and his basilisk.” The spiders moaned and clattered. “That dissolute human and his minion who ushered carnage and vile magics into my home. And on whom did they lay condemnation for their fetid labor?

The spiders clicked and clamored: “Aragog! Aragog!"

“Aragog,” he agreed, “and my bulwark, the cherished steward. I was appropriated from my company. Subject to hunting and maiming.” He pawed at his punctured eye. “And the steward was ostracized from the fortress, his aspirations annihilated. I fled to the forest, and when I finally apperceived of that wizard’s eradication, I exulted! We all exulted! But whose expiration remained? To whom did we yet owe reprisal? With whom have we feuded with for fifty years?” 

“The basilisk!” roared the spiders. 

“And now,” Aragog said quietly, so quiet that all the other spiders quieted too. “This snake-human, this human-snake, this little thing, comes to us asserting we were deceived, deluded, and, moreover, that our detractor is as much a victim as the abhorred wizard as we!"

There was absolute quiet. And then:

“Fifty years!” Aragog roared. “Fifty years of feuding and acrimony! Half a century! Let it be at an end!” 

Clicking—louder than before, louder than ever. The spiders clicked their pincers and stamped their feet on the web, until the trees shook and vibrated with their agreement. 

Aragog turned his attention back on Harry, who was nearly weeping with relief.

“Human-snake,” he said. “For fifty years our nations have been in contention. The road to reconciliation will be protracted and laborious. We have wronged your kin for decades. Do you think conciliation can be forged?” 

“Er.” Gauging by the feel of the spiders around him and Aragog’s general narrative, Harry guessed Aragog was trying to make peace. But in all the time Harry had known it, the basilisk had never mentioned feuding spiders. “I think so.”

“I am euphoric to hear such a thing,” Aragog proclaimed. “Will you accept the duty of emissary between our species? Will you take our directive to the basilisk, that we extend reparations for our injurious actions?” 

“I guess so,” Harry said. “I mean, yes. What’s an emissary?” 

“You will be ambassador between our nations,” Aragog said. “And esteemed among the acromantulae. You will work with us to establish trade and treaties. What say you?” 

Harry thought about it. It sounded pretty cool to him, actually. “Alright, yeah,” he agreed. “Except my name’s not human-snake. It’s Snakeheart.” 

“Snakeheart!” Aragog cried. “Emissary of the basilisk! Come feast with us, and then we shall speak of what we can offer your people.” 

Chapter Text

“I’m home!” Harry cried. He breathed in the air and magic of the castle with vigor. He had missed it, he realized with a great surge of joy, he had missed it. “I have news for you! A formal apology from Aragog and his kin and a treaty for peace!” 

The basilisk stared at him. The stickiness of its gaze wore off after about a minute, after which the basilisk was still staring. “Come again?” it asked. 

“Aragog?” 

“Who?” 

“He’s the leader of the acromantuae in the forest. He got blamed for killing Myrtle and swore revenge against you. His people have been feuding with you for fifty years. Now that he knows the truth about Riddle, he made me emissary between our people to establish peace.” 

The basilisk seemed to be thinking that one over hard. “Who are...‘our people’?” 

“Me and you, I suppose.” Harry shrugged. “I have a written treaty and everything. They want to establish trade.”

“Ah. Well, don’t tell him I didn’t know he existed. What does this treaty say?” 

Harry pulled it from his pack. He had transcribed it as Aragog had dictated, written in the margins of a library book, and it took up about half the tome. “It’s pretty long,” he admitted. “Lots of long words.” 

“I have an idea,” said the basilisk. “Going forward, as Snakeheart, you may act in my capacity for anything you feel does not need my direct input.” 

“You just don’t want to read it with me,” Harry accused. 

“Correct,” the basilisk said.

“Well, you have to, because they use a lot of words I don’t know. But once I get the hang of it, I can do that.” 

The moved into the den. Harry sighed as he put down his pack and began pulling things out of it. His cup, his spare sweater. Beside Percy on the flat rock, he placed the fire snake eggshells, his thestral hair bracelets, and the gifts for his friends: for Limmy, a brilliant pink feather he would put on a necklace; for Myrtle, a scrawled list of word games from the acromantulae; for Ava, the diaphanous wings from a winged fish Chikkeritt had caught. 

The basilisk curled around Harry, heavy and warm and comforting. “You were gone a long time,” it said. “The spring is almost over. Did you see things? Did you grow?” 

Harry smiled and leaned into it, closing his eyes in contentment. He remembered leaping though the open air, and soft rainbow fur, nighttime adventures, and even the belated thrill at danger overcome. “Yeah, I think I did,” he said. 

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