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the deepening sky

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“Mosag?” 

“Yes, Snakeheart?” 

“Could I have some beetles to take back with me? I have a friend who wants to try them.” 

“Assuredly. I shall acquire you some.” 

Harry watched as Mosag, eternally delicate, picked his way up a tree and into a high web, where several bundles were wrapped. He poked and prodded over a few before severing two that came sailing down through the canopy. Harry caught them and tucked them in his bag next to the thick scroll of meeting notes. 

“Thanks, Mosag.” 

“Think nothing of it, honored emissary.” Mosag squinted about half his eyes in a way that Harry knew meant smiling, and carefully put the tip of one leg on his hair, moving it back and forth awkwardly. Harry had done it to him once, and now Mosag thought humans liked to be petted. Harry did kind of like it, so he’d never corrected him. 

“Aragog conveys his apologies that he could not see you off—there was a convulsion in the eastern end of our territory that necessitated his attendance.” 

“That’s alright,” Harry said. “I’ll see you in a few weeks.” 

“For the autumn feast,” Mosag said. “I look forward to it. Goodbye, Snakeheart. ‘Ware you do not stray into the centaurs’ lands.”

“I won’t. Bye, Mosag.” 

Mosag dipped a bow, touched his head once more, and scuttled away. Acromantulae did not believe in long goodbyes. 

Harry checked to ensure he had everything—meeting notes, bugs, camping supplies—before leaving the encampment. It was half a day’s walk out of acromantula territory, and then another four to five out of the forest, depending on how distracted he got or whether anything tried to kill him.

This was only his second trip back to the acromantula encampment since being made emissary, and he was still a bit nervous about it. The first had been in the summer, and it had been full of frustration on both sides, as Harry hadn't had the answers the acromantulae were looking for, and he ended up having to take a long list of questions and offers back to the basilisk. But this one had been less stressful overall: he’d had answers, a bit more confidence in speaking for the basilisk, and, most critically, a dictionary. 

He saw a few acromantulae as he wandered out of their territory, but none of them spoke to him. They were high above, and at most they raised a leg to wave. He didn’t mind. He was still a little scared of them. He thought it might be mutual.

At midday he crossed out of acromantula territory—he could tell by the change in smell—and took out some leftover fish to eat. He stopped after that to wash his hands in a little pond, and took a moment to ponder his reflection, which he didn’t pay much mind to usually. But it struck him now that his hair reached his chin, though it still stuck out, and his face wasn’t as bony as it had always been, and even though he was very small he felt very real.

He had been here a year. He had never felt happier.

small forest green sprout

 

Three days from home. He was sure he had veered around centaur territory, but the smell of them was still in the air, and it made him anxious. But if he veered any further around he would add too much time to his journey, and he was homesick. 

In the end, it didn’t matter how far he veered. Bane always found him.

He was burying the remains of his lunch when a branch cracked rather intentionally. Bane stood a few meters away, looking huge and foreboding and mean, his arms crossed, dark eyes narrowed. 

Harry stood and took a few hasty steps back. “I’m not in centaur territory,” he said quickly. “The basilisk is expecting me.” His hands twisted and twisted around the strap of his bag. 

Bane’s lip curled. “Emissary between species?” 

“Yes,” Harry said stiffly, trying not to tremble. 

“Hm. Quite a position for one so young.” 

“I’m a prodigy.” Harry regretted it instantly. Bad things happened when he mouthed off. He didn’t quite remember what those bad things were, but the specter of them was enough to send a cold flush through his body. He bit his lip.

“Hm.” Bane’s night-black eyes bored into him. “And that’s your excuse for wandering into our territory?” 

A hot rush chased the cold one. He had been so careful. “Yes.” 

It was not. It had only been a year; he could count his journeys into the forest on one hand. But this was a dire mistake. Bane had warned him before, and Mosag had warned him again.

“I think not,” Bane decided. “To the village with you, boy. Will you come quietly or by force?” 

Harry eyed Bane’s gigantic form, muscled arms rippling, thick eyebrows merciless. “Walk.” 

They walked in cold silence for a long time. Bane didn’t make conversation, and Harry was too scared. This wasn’t like the acromantulae, who had been taken by surprise by the truth. Nothing surprised centaurs, and they already knew everything about him. 

It was dark by the time they arrived. For all Bane’s anger, Harry was sure he had only just been on the edge of centaur territory. Maybe this was just an excuse to finally find him guilty. 

Harry would originally have gone to sleep an hour ago before it got too dark to see by. He started to stumble frequently, tripping on roots and stones, and eventually Bane seized his upper arm and towed him along, which he hated but was too scared to protest.

Naturally, it was pitch-dark at the village center when they finally arrived. For how else would centaurs see the stars? It was the largest clearing Harry had seen in the forest yet: a canopy of stars rolled above the forest in a sudden and beautiful unfolding. Harry had never seen them so clearly.

He had occasionally wondered how the centaurs lived. The answer was: in quite a bit of comfort. A low fire blazed in the center of the clearing, its flames green, and on the edges where the trees started up again, boughs were woven together to create intricate shelters, huge tunnel-like constructions, inside of which he caught flashes of movement. It reminded him of a massive, living honeycomb. 

Clotheslines stretched the clearing, blankets hung over them. Over the fire were several huge pots, and Harry saw parcels of food nesting in the coals. 

Also scattered throughout the clearing were many intricate instruments, some made of metal, some of wood, some of glass. They reminded him of giant stick insects. Glass and crystals hanging from them threw moonshadows on the ground. Involuntarily, he took a step towards them, but Bane’s grip on his arm held him back. The same grip held him in place as a group of centaurs exited a honeycomb bower. 

The biggest group of centaurs he’d ever seen had been the group of three that had killed a graphon in front of him. Six now approached them, male and female, all looking sternly at him. Had they expected him? How? Had Bane sent word back somehow? Had he gone looking for Harry? That hardly seemed fair, to be sought instead of simply caught.

Bane kept his grip on Harry’s arm and turned him to face the others, who stood in a semicircle near the fire. That was a little surprising: Harry had been expecting him to join their ranks.

The female centaur in the very center tilted her head to appraise him. She had shiny black hair braided in a crown atop her head, and brown skin that caught the moon glimmers the crystals were throwing. Like the other centaurs, she wore no clothes. Harry had never seen a woman’s breasts before, and for some reason he felt embarrassed. But the centaur woman didn’t seem embarrassed. She also had some kind of lump in her stomach that freaked Harry out. None of the others had it. 

“So,” she said. “This is the human who has been troubling our boundaries.” 

“Smaller than I expected,” murmured the centaur woman beside her.

“Indeed.” 

Harry wrung the strap of his bag with the hand that wasn’t attached to the arm Bane was gripping. “I’m sorry for trespassing. It was an accident. It won’t happen again.” He hesitated. “The basilisk is expecting me back.” 

The centaur woman frowned. “It certainly will not happen again.” She stepped forward. “What is your name?” 

Harry glanced nervously up at Bane, who simply stared. Bane knew his name. “It’s Harry. But I go by Snakeheart.” 

The centaurs murmured to themselves, indistinct. “Lift up your hair,” said the woman, taking a step towards him.

Instead, Harry clapped a hand to his bangs, which had grown long enough they really weren’t bangs anymore. The memory of Bane grabbing his head washed over him. This wasn’t funny anymore, it wasn’t remotely enjoyable. His vision tunneled in; he was as scared as he had been the first time he’d met Bane. He didn’t want to be here. He wanted to be anywhere but here. He wanted to be with the basilisk. 

Everything went huge for a moment as his perspective shifted wildly, and then somehow he was on the other side of the fire, his arm free, though it throbbed. “Stay away!” he called, voice shaking. “Please, just let me go! The basilisk knows where I was supposed to be, it’ll come looking!”

Maybe, in a few weeks, he thought to himself. Whenever it gets back from the deeps. But he kept those thoughts from his face. 

The centaur woman had frozen, her hands raised slightly. “Peace, child. I won’t touch you.” She look at her companions, and then at Bane, who had an eyebrow raised. She looked like she was deliberating, and Harry could see when she made up her mind. She half-turned to the others. “I think we can all agree this child is no true threat, so long as he skirts our territory.” 

The other centaurs seemed to concede. A few of them wandered back into the bower, others went to fiddle with those strange instruments. Bane remained, however, putting a hand on the centaur woman’s shoulder. Harry watched them warily.

“I am Nayla,” said the centaur woman. “Leader of the Northern Stargazer Band. You know my mate Bane. I apologize for frightening you, Harry Potter.” 

Harry’s whole body went rigid. When was the last time he had heard that name? It echoed through him, pulling memories out of sleep: Potter, spat in disgust. Discomfort wriggled through him like a parasite. “How do you know my last name?” he whispered. 

Nayla folded her arms. “It is written in the stars, and it is our task to read. I will say nothing more.” 

He stared into her eyes. They were a deep black, but he could catch flecks of blue light inside them: stars shining a vast distance away. 

Bane was looking at him. His hand was careful on Nayla’s shoulder, and something about that made Harry’s opinion of him rise a bit. 

“I’m the emissary between the acromantulae and the basilisk,” Harry said. “You can’t keep me here.” 

“We will not. But we will offer you hospitality for the night. We brought you here, after all. Will you accept?” 

Harry didn’t really want to stay with the centaurs, but on the other hand it was firmly night, chilly, and he was exhausted. “Okay,” he said reluctantly, his glance flicking to Bane before he could stop it. 

Bane read the gaze. “I am going to speak to my brother,” he said, and kissed Nayla on the cheek before entering the honeycomb bower.

Nayla watched him go, then went over to the fire and knelt. It was a great production to see a centaur kneel, and Harry was fascinated. 

“Come here, Harry Potter.” 

The name sent a shiver of unease through him. “My name is Snakeheart,” he said faintly.

“Come here, Snakeheart.” She smiled at him. “Share food with me. And make me a promise.” 

Harry was wary of making promises to people. He had done it too much already, or so the basilisk said. But he knelt down beside her as she dug a parcel from the embers, hardly seeming to feel the heat. 

“What do you want?” he asked. 

She opened the parcel to reveal a potato stuffed with spices, meat, and wild onions. It smelled intoxicating. “Swear never to reveal the location of our territory.”

“Like…to the basilisk? The acromantulae? They already know. How could they not know?” 

“I mean to humans. Those who know, know. If they do not know, do not tell them.” 

“Oh.” Harry carefully took the half of the potato she handed him, inhaling the spiced steam. “Them. I don’t talk to them, really. But I swear.” 

“Thank you. I return, I swear to tell no-one of your name or presence. Let us eat.” 

They ate together by the fire, and though Harry was not at ease, per say, he felt himself relax. The food was delicious, Nayla contemplative, watching the stars, and Harry finally felt comfortable enough to ask what he had been wondering.

“What’s wrong with your stomach?” Harry asked, licking his fingers. “Are you sick?”

Nayla looked a little amused and a little alarmed, and put a hand to her abdomen. “I am pregnant, child.” 

“Oh.” He stared, hoping it wasn’t rude. He’d never met someone who was pregnant before, unless you counted the snake who’d laid its eggs in his fire. “You’re having a baby?” 

“That is what the word means,” Nayla said. She gazed at him appraisingly, wiping her fingers on the fur of her leg. “Would you like to feel their heartbeat?” 

“Um.” Alarm prickled through him. “I don’t want to hurt it.” 

“Centaur foals are much stronger than human babes,” Nayla said, smiling. “You couldn’t if you tried. Give me your hand.” 

He rose to his knees and shuffled over; she placed his hand on her stomach. Her fur was coarse and thick, and Harry could feel a steady thudding beating through her skin. For a second he was alarmed, for it was a double heartbeat. Then he realized it was perfectly aligned with her own.

He had seen a lot of incredible things since coming to the forest. But somehow, this was beyond them all. 

He could hear their heartbeats in his own chest, thrumming. A song. His heartbeat began to beat in time too. The triple beat drummed through his body, in his hand on her stomach, in his head, and behind his eyes visions of the stars began to spin. 

He fell forward into the sky, pinpricks of light falling to meet him. 
 
“Nayla!” 

The beat released them all and he fell away from her, pushed—she had pushed him. 

Her hands were on her stomach and heart. Bane had broken them from the reverie, and he knelt protectively next to her, hands on her shoulders, glaring at him. Harry hardly felt his gaze. He could have cried for the lack of that beat beneath his palms. In his head, galaxies swam. “Starchild,” he said, and his voice was not his own.

“What?” Bane said. His voice was subsonic. 

Harry sat up. He was so dizzy. Bane’s hand was around his shoulder—it hurt—Harry twisted and pulled but he didn’t let go—“What did you just say?” Bane hissed, dragging him close—“What did you say?”—Harry cried out— 

“BANE!” 

Bane fell back. Nayla had stood and was dragging him by the shoulder; she hauled him to a stumbling stand and then shoved him back. Her strength astonished Harry. “Do not touch him,” she said lowly, and Bane skittered backwards at her anger. 

She turned to Harry, face unreadable. 

“I’m sorry,” he said, tears rolling down his cheeks. He wanted to go home. He wanted the basilisk. But he was so far from home.

It didn’t matter. He stood up, clutching his back, and backed away. 

“Wait, Snakeheart,” Nayla said. “I am not angry. Please stay.” 

Harry didn’t want to stay. But it wasn’t safe to go out in the dark alone. Was it safer here?

Nayla knelt again, arm outstretched. “Stay, Snakeheart.” Behind her, Bane stared at him, eyes dark and angry.

Harry shook his head, stumbled back another step, and ran.

Chapter Text

Harry had never been so happy to see Hogwarts. He could have made it back last night, but he hadn’t wanted to spend another night walking; the flight from the centaur village had been foolish enough. He’d gotten lucky, but didn’t want to try push it.

So he rose at dawn and trekked for an hour until he finally broke through the trees. The castle rose high and magnificent, and he dashed across the grounds, into the pipe entrance, and practically flew through the tunnels to the basilisk’s hall.

“I’m home!” he called. He heard the basilisk shifting around inside the den. He braced himself, and two yellow eyes appeared in the entrance, meeting his. 

He was a fly trapped in syrup. He tried to speak, but it was the hardest thing to get even one syllable out. He pushed and pushed and pushed and managed to raise a hand—and then the syrup slid off him, and he stumbled forward. The basilisk bumped him with its nose, and he hugged it tightly.

“Faster and faster,” the basilisk remarked. 

“I still hate it.” He laid his cheek on the basilisk’s cool scales and sighed. “I’m going to take a nap before school.” 

“I’ll join you.” 

Harry headed into the den, dimly lit by the shine of the spell over the basilisk’s eggs, and also by his glowing rock. He set his pack down and removed his shoes and robes. Then he retrieved two tattered blankets, threw one over the glowing rock, and wrapped himself in the other, curling up in the basilisk’s tail. He was asleep instantly. 

small green sprout

When he woke, the basilisk was gone, but that was to be expected. It was gone a lot, these days. He went to the stream in the hall and washed his face and teeth, and then put on his most valuable articles of clothing: a plain black school robe, carefully mended of all holes and loose threads, and a pair of plain black boots, which his friend Limmy thought beyond repair until Harry had looked up a spell in the library to re-grow the soles. 

He combed his hair, cleaned his glasses, and made sure all his buttons were buttoned. He picked up a book on potions and tucked it under his arm.

Before anything else, though, he walked to the eggs, and the spell that surrounded them. He put both hands to the green light, even though the feeling revolted him. He thought maybe the eggs could still feel him under all that horrible magic. 

“Soon,” he said, trying to push his magic into the barrier. It was impossible, as always. “You’ll be free soon. Just stay alive. Stay warm. I’ll free you soon.” 

He rested his head against the dome, wincing at the sharp headache that spiked through his forehead. He set his mouth in a stubborn line. The spell was such a bully. “Love you,” he said softly, and then sighed and took his hands away. 

He was newly sad, but newly determined. He let it buoy him into what he was about to do, which still sent a sickly pang of anxiety through his stomach. 

Careful not to get his robes or shoes dirty, he walked through the tunnels until he came to a particular bathroom. He pressed his mouth to a little slit above the carved snake emblem that let a pinprick of light into the tunnel. “Myrtle?” 

“Snake!”

He jolted back from the slit just in time. A grey mist filtered through, until Myrtle’s head, and only her head, squeezed itself into the tunnel and inflated. She looked like a balloon. “You’re back!” she cried. She pecked his cheek with cold lips.

“Is it safe to come in?” Harry asked. 

“Um, let me check.” Her head disappeared, and then squeezed back in. “Yep!” 

“Thanks!” He looked to the snake emblem. “Open.” 

The sink to Myrtle’s toilet swung open, and he stepped through and closed it again. Myrtle giggled, and Harry watched as the rest of her body disappeared into the crack in the wall. 

“Snake!” Her voice was muffled, coming from the sink. “Turn the tap!” 

Grinning, Harry turned the defunct tap. Out spilled Myrtle, liquid-like, into the sink, before she oozed out and reformed as a girl, floating in front of him. 

“That was great!” he said, hugging her as much as he could. “Really freaky.” 

“I scared some girl who came in to throw things at me,” Myrtle confided. “You should have heard her scream! Hey, what do lambs and bunnies have in common?” 

Harry thought hard for a moment. “Can I think about it?” 

“Sure,” Myrtle said, waving a hand. “Oh, look at you! You look darling!” 

Harry looked down at himself, and then remembered Myrtle’s bathroom had a mirror. He checked to make sure his buttons were in the right holes and his hair didn’t look too…hairy. Behind him, Myrtle gave him bunny ears. He grinned at her. 

“Well?” he asked. “Very short first year?” 

Very short,” Myrtle confirmed. “Have fun!” 

Harry grinned. “Wish me luck.” 

She did, and then she played lookout for him while he left the bathroom. The trick to it never to be alone if he could help it, and so he scurried through the corridors until he found a crowd moving towards the entrance hall, and he hung onto the back of it, pretending to be reading his potions book. In reality, he was listening hard to everything around him.

“Ugh, McGonagall is so strict!” 

“Oh please, Beatrice, what do you expect when you’ve been turning your button into a mushroom instead of a thimble all week!”

Lucian! You’re supposed to be on my side!” 

“Did you see Flint’s catch? Unreal, it was!” 

“The way he dodged both bludgers at the same time? I tell you, I bet he’s recruited right out of school.” 

“Excuse me, could you tell me where to find the library?” 

“Course! Cedric, was it? God, I remember being a firstie. You’re actually going the opposite way, sorry.”

“Oh, no.” 

“No, no, it’s fine—I’ll take you, I’m a prefect after all. Up we go!” 

“Thanks, Eliza.” 

“Charlie!” “Big bro!” 

“Oh god, here they come.” 

“Hah, your kid brothers? Look how titchy they are.” 

“You’ve no idea, Tonks, no idea. They’ll be giving you a run for your money soon enough.” 

“Impossible.” 

“I’m telling you, run while you can.” 

“Ms. Tonks, a word?” 

Minerva, at the end of the corridor. Swiftly, Harry adjusted his direction and swung onto the end of a different group, going up the stairs. His heart was thundering, but Minerva was entirely absorbed with Tonks.

“Hallo, Wood, good maneuvers last game!” 

“Thanks, Kim! Beat in the end, though.” 

“Well, ‘course, against Slytherin? They’re undefeated, mate.” 

“We’ll see, we’ll see.” 

“Hey, Macmillan!”

“Yeah, Copper?” 

“I’m still having trouble with aguamenti, can you just watch me do it for a moment?” 

“Sure, sure. Here, let’s pull over.” 

This, this was what Harry had been waiting for. He’d only done this a few times, but the hours he spent wandering the halls were made worth it for moments like these. 

Macmillan and Copper stepped into an alcove and Harry walked past them, and then doubled around to stand beside a suit of armor, nose to his book but eyes on the students. 

“Show me your wand movement,” Macmillan instructed.

Cooper demonstrated. 

“There’s your problem. It’s not a flick, Copper, it’s a twist. See?” Macmillan pulled out her wand. “Aguamenti.” She twisted her hand, and a spout of water came flowing out. Before it could even hit the floor, she had ended the charm and cast another that vanished it out of thin air. 

“Okay, let me try again,” Copper said. He copied her twist, but it was too forceful, even Harry could tell. Water jetted across the hall, soaking a passing students’ robes. “Oh, sorry Kenneth! Here, let me dry it.” 

“Let me dry it,” said Macmillan, and did so. 

On the next try, Copper got it. Macmillan clapped him on the shoulder, and they parted ways. 

In the margins of his book, Harry scribbled notes. Agwamenty - makes water. Twist wrist, just a little.

Harry kept walking, wary of staying still for too long. He couldn’t help grinning, though. He rifled through the rest of his marginal notes. Ackio - brings things to you. Draw a rainbow. Eckspellyarmis -  makes wands fly away. Point and twirl down to the right.

He had three pages of notes so far. Three pages of notes on the margins, just a few spells, just what he could glean. Just three pages, from hours of wandering. And how many of the spells had he been able to do? 

None.

His grin faded. It was nice to be out and about, even though it was stupid dangerous. But was it worth it? What was he getting out of this? What good was this doing the eggs? Frowning, he kept his book up and and turned a corner. And then two boys barreled into him, sending him flying. 

“Fred!” one shouted. 

“George!” shouted the other. 

“Sorry!” they both shouted together at Harry, and resumed running, disappearing around the corner. 

Around the corner came another boy, older, face furious and hair a bright pink, clutching his wand in his hand. It was not Tonks. “Come back here!” the boy shouted. “Weasleys!” 

Weasleys. Harry’d heard that name before. A lot before. Did that mean these two boys were related to the other redheaded Weasleys already present? That was a big family. 

Fred and George had, presumably, turned that boy’s hair pink.

Harry stopped in the middle of the hallway. Also presumably, they had done it with their wands. 

It had never occurred to him before. Perhaps what he needed was not to skulk around the hallways, nor to sneak books from the library in the dead of night. Perhaps what he was missing was a wand

small green sprout

Yellow eyes. Molasses air. Raise a hand—move a finger—breathe—breathe—beat, heart, beat— 

“Faster and faster,” the basilisk said, flicking its tongue over the bridge of his nose. “But more progress will have to wait. I am going back into the deeps.” 

“Again?” 

“Indeed. There is business to be attended too.”

Harry didn’t push. He had tried previously. It wasn’t that the basilisk couldn’t tell him what it was doing—it was that it didn’t know how. 

“I had an idea,” Harry said. “I’m going to make a wand. What do you think?” 

“A wand?” The basilisk considered it. “It seems logical. Riddle used a wand to curse my children, after all. Perhaps it will take a wand to undo it.” 

“I think something about wizard magic just works better with a wand, too,” Harry said. “I keep getting these spells wrong…I really think it’ll help.” 

“Then you should do it,” said the basilisk. It rested its head atop the spell that enveloped its eggs and trembled with sadness. “How I miss them. How I would rather they die than endure this.” 

Harry put a hand to the spell. “I’ll do it,” he said. “With a wand. I’m sure of it.” 

Chapter Text

“A wand?” Norry asked scathingly, as he pulled a tray of muffins from the oven. “What do you wants with a wand?” 

“For wizard magics,” Harry said. He was cracking eggs into a huge bowl. There were about fifty eggs next to him. Fifty eggs seemed like a mountain of eggs to crack, but this was only for a single house table. “I is having trouble with wizard spells.” 

Norry sneered. “You can do elf magic, no? Then why bother with wizard spells? Elf magics is far superior anyway.” 

Harry cracked a few eggs, attempting to master the one-handed crack that Drippy had down to an art. “There is wizard spells I wants to learn,” he said vaguely.

“Norry is being a snob,” Tippy said, deciding Harry was taking too long with the eggs. She shoved him towards the gigantic pan of bacon to turn and started cracking eggs four at a time, two in each hand. “How is you going to gets a wand? Buy one?” 

“Buy one?” Harry echoed, holding the bacon fork. “I don’t haves any money.” 

“Then, steal one?” Norry asked.

“Norry! Stealing is illegal!” shouted Drippy from across the room, where he was setting the tables. “Limmy, will you please moves? You’s in my way.” 

Limmy, lying across one of the benches reading, sighed dramatically and stomped across the kitchen to sit in a corner, putting her nose into her hand-bound book. 

“Stealing wands doesn’t work, anyway,” Tippy put in, now beating the eggs so fast the whisk blurred. “Tippy is hearing that the wand chooses the wizard.” 

“So, I’ll makes one, then,” Harry said, finishing turning the bacon. Norry shoved a jug of juice into his hands to take to the table. “Do any of you knows how to make wands?”

“Makes wands?” Drippy asked. “How in stars’ names should we knows?” 

Harry shrugged. “You knows a lot, Drippy.” 

Drippy blushed, his ears flicking back. In the corner, Limmy snorted. 

“If you isn’t going to help, Limmy, then be quiet,” Drippy snapped. Limmy rolled her eyes and turned a page. “And you shouldn’t be reading that book just out and about! Put it away!”

“It’s just Snake here,” Limmy sneered, but she snapped her fingers and the book vanished. She snapped again and a new one dropped into her hand, which she cracked open to a bookmark and held up in front of her face.

“Five minutes!” called Drippy, and Tippy squeaked and threw the rest of her napkins up in the air. They fluttered down perfectly placed onto the last table. Drippy came over with the last massive dish of eggs, and Norry distributed the massive quantity of bacon onto the four tables. 

They all stood back to admire their work: four gleaming tables full of breakfast, perfectly set. And then Tippy’s ears went flat and she squeaked: “We is forgetting the marmalade!” 

“Stars and stones!” yelled Norry, and he vanished on the spot. The next moment, he reappeared from inside the larder, banging the door open and hurling a huge jar of marmalade to Drippy. Drippy caught it and flicked his fingers. The lid flew off, and spoonfuls of marmalade began to dollop themselves into little saucers that Tippy was throwing from the cabinet. The saucers received their marmalade and whirled on their own onto the tables, three for each table, evenly spaced. 

The last saucer settled itself just as the clock struck seven, and the spreads on the table vanished, napkins and marmalade and all. 

“Wow!” Harry laughed. “That was incredible!” 

“It was nothing,” Tippy said, seizing the floating jar lid and screwing it back on. “Now, come on. Breakfast.” 

Limmy deigned to rise for this, and the five of them settled at a small corner table, elf-sized, with bowls of porridge with honey and blueberries. She didn’t put her book away, but instead rested her bowl on top of it. A piece of string around her neck was partially concealed by her tea-towel tunic. 

“Do you haves the day off, Limmy?” Harry asked. 

“Day off?” Limmy scoffed. “No. Limmy finished early this morning, and doesn’t have more to do until this afternoon.” 

Limmy had the morning free. The basilisk had gone to the deeps. A brilliant idea occurred to Harry. “Do you wants to come over, then?” 

Her ears perked up. “Come over?” 

“I is sorting through things in my home, to see if I can find anything about wand making! You don’t have to helps, just keep me company. You can sees where I lives!” 

Her eyes sparkled. “Alright.” 

“Great!” He looked at Tippy. “Thanks for letting me works with you.” 

She narrowed her eyes at him. “You isn’t working, you is learning, you is saying.” 

“That’s what I meant,” Harry said, shoving a spoonful of porridge in his mouth. 

In retribution, he was not allowed to wash his own bowl, and Limmy hauled him out of the kitchen before he could protest. 

“Where is you living, anyway?” she asked him. 

It was morning and students were all supposed to be at breakfast, but Harry was still skittish, peering down the hallways. He wasn’t dressed as a student, and anyway, students didn’t hang out with house-elves. 

“Here,” Limmy said, taking his hand. He felt a shiver run over him, and then he could no longer see Limmy. In fact, he could no longer see himself. “Quickly,” Limmy whispered. “I isn’t being able to do this for long.” 

Harry guided them down the hall to the nearest boy’s bathroom, only entering after he was sure no-one was inside. She let him go and they stopped being invisible. 

“You is living in a toilet?” she asked, long nose wrinkled up.

“No,” Harry laughed. “You can’t be telling anyone, okay? This is a big secret.” 

Limmy crossed her arms. “Fine.” 

Harry went up to the sink, where he knew the snake symbol rested on the other side. “Open,” he whispered.

The sink swung out from the wall, and Limmy’s eyes went wide and uncertain. “What is you saying?” she asked, taking a quick step back. 

“I is just telling it to open. Hurry, before someone comes.” 

She followed him hesitantly into the tunnel, and Harry closed the sink behind him. He lit his elflight, a little lilac globe, and Limmy lit hers. 

“You lives…in the tunnels?” she asked. Her ears were flat back. 

“It’s okay,” Harry said. “I don’t lives in the tunnels, this is just how I gets around. I lives under the castle.” He started to walk. 

“In a cave?” Limmy asked, following.

“No, in…an old, forgotten part of the castle. I’ll show you.” 

“Alright.” She said nothing more as they made their way through the tunnels. It was a short walk, and despite Limmy’s hesitance, Harry was thrilled. He’d never had a friend over before. He’d never even thought of it, because of course no-one could know about the basilisk. But if he didn’t show Limmy the eggs…it was perfect! 

Finally, they reached the hall, where a low fire burned and a broken fountain rushed into a clear river. Limmy’s mouth dropped open and she moved into the center of the massive hall, taking in the crumbling pillars, the high ceiling, the ruined statues. 

“Snake…” she said in awe. “You lives here?” 

“Yes,” Harry said. “Wicked, right?” 

She turned luminous eyes on him. “Yes!”  

He grinned. Limmy wandered over to the fire and peered into the cauldron of soup that rested over it. 

“Look over here,” Harry said, walking over to Salazar’s chamber. The former doorway was just a mess of rubble, but the inside was relatively intact, save Harry’s previous foragings. “This used to be a wizard’s chamber, I call him Sal, hundreds of years ago. I is thinking he might have known how to make a wand.” 

He uncovered his glowing stone, which he had brought in earlier, and the room illuminated in soft purple light. “Oh, look!” He picked up a small drum with two drumsticks from the desk. 

“A drum?” Limmy asked.

“It’s a tabor!” Harry put them on the ground and gave the drum a tap. Immediately, all three implements rose into the air, the drumsticks beating a lively tempo.

Limmy gave a delighted laugh and began dancing in time. She held out her hands to Harry whirled him around in a dance until they fell over the bed, and the tabor fell silent. 

Limmy sat up and looked around the room in awe, and her gaze locked on the bookshelf. “Since I definitely isn’t helping you clean,” Limmy said, “Can I reads a book?”

“Sure!” Harry said. He passed his hand back and forth through the glimmering barrier over the books. “This is just to protect them, I thinks. Go ahead.” 

Limmy studied the bookcase carefully, hands behind her back. Then she reached out and plucked Earth Magic: Grounding Ritual Practice off the shelf. She snuggled herself in an old sheet on the bed and cracked it open. Harry saw that she had untucked her necklace: a brilliant pink feather that glimmered on the edges.

Grinning, he turned to his most recent project: a huge chest he’d found in the closet. It had taken him several minutes to haul out, being very heavy, and then he’d found it was locked. 

He sat cross legged in front of it and touched the lock. The magic in it hummed and sparked, still lively after centuries. Sal, if he had cast this spell, must have been a very powerful wizard. 

Harry sat very still with his finger on the lock, and let all of his thoughts start to puff out of his head like smoke. It was a way he used to relax and concentrate, sometimes, and right now he wanted to concentrate on this lock. 

It was so easy to tell it was wizard magic that had locked this case. If it had been elf magic, the spell would have been wound up inside the lock itself. It would have been the lock, staying locked. But since it was wizard magic, Harry could taste that it was actually a spell, put on the lock to keep it locked. Tasting that spell was almost like feeling the wizard who had put it there so long ago. 

Harry fizzled some of his magic down into his finger. Open, he thought. Open open open. 

If it had been alive, the spell would have laughed and spat at him. 

Taking a different track, Harry tried to talk to the magic inside the lock. Open? 

If it had been alive, the lock would have shrugged and pointed to the spell keeping it closed. 

Harry took his finger away and frowned. Limmy snickered at him from the bed. He frowned at her, then went to Salazar’s desk instead. 

The desk drawers weren’t locked; there was just protective magic around them like the books. He tugged the first one open. It was full of papers, hundreds of them. Harry hauled the stack onto the desk and tried to decipher the first one. Sal wrote in cursive, though, which he had a very hard time reading. He thought the first group of papers were potions notes, and the stack under them notes on books. He scanned for the word “wand” but didn’t find it, so he shoved the papers back in the drawer and pulled out the second one. 

This drawer held little pieces of parchment cut into notecards. On one side they had English words, and on the other there were Mermish words. Harry held them up and grinned. “Limmy, look!” 

Limmy glanced up from Earth Magic. She was already a third of the way in. “What’s those?” 

“Mermish flashcards!” He held the first one up. “Love - shishif. Oh my gosh!” He looked at her, starry-eyed. “Didn’t I tell you Sal was in love with a merman? He was learning Mermish for him!” He clapped the cards to his chest. 

Limmy eyed him. “You is a romantic.” 

“Maybe,” Harry said. “Marry - shifshin. Was he going to propose?! I have to tell Ava! She’ll probably hate it.” Harry put the cards down. “Do house elves get married?” 

Limmy shrugged. “Not in the old days. Marriage is a wizard thing. In the old days, house elves is having family bonds, lots of parents raising many children together. Now, though, elves is thinking more like wizards about marriage. Two elves and their children. Limmy thinks we is forgetting our past.” 

“Oh.” Harry frowned. “Hey, Limmy?” 

Something in his voice must have changed. She put down her book. “Snake?” 

“If I can makes a wand…” he said slowly. “Does you want one too?” 

She was utterly still and utterly silent. Harry held his breath. 

“For elves to be having wands…” she said slowly. “Twenty years ago, elves is being killed for this.” 

Harry went cold. “Killed?” 

“Killed,” she said. “Today, maybe thrown in Azkaban instead. Maybe.” 

“Azkaban?” 

“The wizard prison.” Her ears went flat at the mention. “It is being the most horrible place in the world.” 

Harry held her gaze. “You isn’t saying no.” 

“I is needing…I is needing to think about it. If you can even makes one.” She picked up her book.

“I’ll make one,” Harry declared. “I’ll figure it out.” He set the vocabulary cards back in the drawer. He already knew all the words. 

Chapter Text

Even though he could technically go to the library in his disguise as a very small first year, he preferred not to. His trick worked best in roving, large crowds, where he could disappear at a moment’s notice. 

So he went to the library in the middle of the night. 

As always, he stopped in front of the doors to admire them. Moonrays from high above threw dark, colored shadows on the floor. A stained-glass mother handed the apple of knowledge to her daughter, who cupped her hands to receive it. Harry took a moment to shuffle over to the door and cup his hands like the daughter, pretending he was receiving the apple. His hands and arms were dappled with red and purple shapes.

He hauled open the door and slipped inside, and stood listening for a moment. Usually at this time of night, all was silent.

Tonight, however, there were voices. 

He couldn’t make out who they belonged or what they were talking about, but in any case he ran and ducked behind the librarian’s counter, pulling his knees up to rest his head on. He stayed there until he got antsy to move, and he was relatively sure he had not been heard. 

Also, he very much wanted to see who was in the library in the middle of the night (besides him). 

He slipped his shoes off and held them in his hands, sliding along the floors in his socks for stealth. He crept slowly towards the voices. They were very far back in the library, almost to the restricted section, in the left-hand side that was for study tables. 

“—must now re-evaluate, Severus.” 

That was Dumbledore; Harry knew his voice. Talking to Severus, head of Slytherin house, in the library in the middle of the night. Harry didn’t dare get closer than three rows away, so he couldn’t see them, but he slid down to the ground and listened carefully.

“—can’t just give up,” Severus said raggedly. “He might still be alive, Albus , I refuse to accept—”

“We are not giving up,” said Dumbledore firmly. “I am not giving up. But we must also turn our minds to other solutions. You have heard the prophecy. You know what was supposed to come about.” 

Harry’s ears perked up at the mention of prophecy.

“Then we are lost,” Severus said. “When he returns….” 

“We will be ready,” Dumbledore said. “And maybe he might not even return. Maybe it’s an old fool’s paranoia.” 

“Maybe, if you or I were old fools,” Severus said. He sighed. “I have begun my own research, of course. I am not naive. I merely wish us to continue pursuing both…options.” 

“We will. I will.” There was a rustle of cloth, boots on the floor. “Severus, my boy, get some sleep. We have all been ill-rested this last year. Here.” 

“What is—Albus, for the last time, I don’t want your candy.” 

“This one will help you sleep,” Dumbledore said, a lilt to his voice. 

“I don’t want your charmed candy, Albus. I’ll sleep when I sleep.” 

“Very well.” Dumbledore sighed. 

Harry listened to their footsteps, heading out of the library. He stayed where he was until he heard the doors open and shut, mulling over their words. They didn’t make much sense to him, other than making him uneasy. He had the understanding that if Dumbledore was worried about something, it was bad. He didn’t particularly want Dumbledore to be sad. Sometimes Harry pretended Dumbledore was his old, wise wizard grandfather who let Harry live in his castle. He felt like Dumbledore shouldn’t be worried about anything, ever. 

Severus, though, Severus always seemed worried. 

He put his shoes back on and stood up. It was time to go to his favorite spot in the library: the free book room. He was near it already; Severus must have been there this evening and that’s where Dumbledore found him. He reached for the door handle. 

His hand slid off. 

He frowned. He reached for the door handle. His hand slid off the air around it. What was going on? 

Steeling himself, he. Reached. For. The. Door. Handle.

There

He had it. Before he could slip off again, he pulled it open.  

Wiping his brow—he was breathing hard and sweating for some reason—he slipped inside and lit his elflight. It was a cozy room: armchair, rug on the floor, low table with books scattered over it. The books were all ones he’d never seen before. Since he’d gotten here, they had mostly been books about finding things. He’d used one of them to find Ava’s comb in Sal’s room. 

He picked up a book. Liminal States: Life and Death and In-Between. Beside it lay Half-Lives: The Heartless and the Soulless of Pre-Modern Wizardkind. There was also Bottling Life and Brewing Death; Thirteen Restricted Uses of Unicorn Blood; and Bloody Charlatans: The “Death Dodgers” of the Fifteenth Century.

None of these interested him very much. He took one that looked like a storybook, The Tales of Beetle the Bard, because he thought it would be a waste of a trip to the free book room to not take anything, and left.

He went instead to the ‘W’ section. For once, he had an easy time finding something in the library. “Wands” took up two entire shelves. There were books on wand lore, wand wood, wand cores, wand movements, wand history, wand varieties, wand makers, wand law, wand alternatives, and wand mishaps. And there, stuck between books on wand handedness and wand eligibility, was wand making. 

It was a surprisingly small section. There were about five books. One was much too big, one had a title that told him nothing at all. He chose So You Want to be a Wandsmith, a slim volume with a table of contents full of words Harry mostly understood. 

He took it over to the reading area and cracked it open, and he did mean cracked. It wasn’t a new book, but it didn’t seem like it had been opened in years. 

So You Want to be a Wandsmith
By
The New Wandsmith Guild

Pub. 1784

Contents
 I. The Wandmaker: More than a Craftsman
 II. Fostering Wand Bonds
 III. The Wand Triplicate Theory
 IV. Wandwoods Common and Obscure
 V. Wand Core Properties
 VI. Periphery Ingredients
 VII. Troubleshooting
 VIII. The Journey to Mastery
 IX. Apprenticeship Resources

He opened to the first chapter and made it through a good paragraph before stumbling on a tricky word. He hadn’t brought his dictionary with him either.

Luckily, he knew someone with a better vocabulary.

Closing the book, he played invisible hopscotch down the aisles on the way to the librarian’s desk, where he stamped the wand book with the glowing stamper. The little magical number sparkled “7.”

He left the library, his two new books tucked under his arm. The hallway was pitch dark, broken only by moonlight shining in through narrow windows. A shiver went up his spine—it hadn’t really been that long ago since the worst night, on a night just like this, the first time he’d encountered Peeves the poltergeist. 

Keeping to the castle walls, he crept his way to the staircases, past a portrait of an empty field that sometimes held his friend Jade Eyes, down two flights of stairs to the third floor, and then walked quickly to the defunct girls’ toilet. Being out this late made him feel like he was alone in the castle, and also like he was being watched. He felt both powerful and vulnerable.

“Myrtle?” he called, poking his head into her bathroom.

“Hi, Snake!” Myrtle did a trick he hadn’t seen before, which was glowing a ghostly white in the dark bathroom. All of her indistinct edges illuminated; he could see every wrinkle in her skin, every eyelash. 

“Ears,” he said triumphantly, closing the door. 

“Yes!” Myrtle said, doing a somersault. “Lambs’ ears and bunny ears! Are you here to play a word game?” 

“We can,” Harry said. “But I wanted help reading a book.” He held up Wandsmith to show her. She swooped down and put her face through the book accidentally, then pulled back to read it. 

“Ooh! Are you making a wand, Snake?” 

“Yes!” He boosted himself up on top of the sink to sit cross-legged. “I think. If I can. If you help me read?” 

“Definitely,” Myrtle said. She came to sit beside him, leaning her chin atop his head. It felt like someone had put a damp washcloth on his scalp, but he liked it. “What’ve you got?” 

Harry opened the book by the light of Myrtle’s glow, lit his elflight, and pointed to the word that had stopped him. “What does this mean?” 

“Er…a journeyman? It’s a stage in an apprenticeship. If you’re learning to do something, you’re an apprentice, then a journeyman, and a master.” 

“Oh. Then I probably don’t need to read this chapter, do I?” 

“Erm…what’s it called? No, I think this is just about wand makers. You might skip to chapter three.” 

Harry flipped through. “The wand triplicate theory?” 

“A triplicate means three things.”

“Oh.” 

Together, they forged their way through that chapter and the next three. Luckily, they were fairly short, more summaries than anything. With Myrtle’s vocabulary support, Harry learned that there were three main parts to a wand: the wood, the core, and the third ingredient, called the periphery. Each one had a list of common ingredients and uncommon ones, whose effects were more unpredictable. It took wandmakers a long time to learn the proper methods of trimming wand wood, creating wand cores, and maneuvering around the inherent magical properties of all three ingredients to create a wand that would blend optimally with the magic of a wizard. 

“So, I think I don’t need to worry about a lot of this,” Harry said to Myrtle. “Just the three parts, right? I can probably figure out the rest.” 

“If you say so,” Myrtle said, a tad doubtfully. 

“I can,” he assured her. “Probably. I don’t have time to be an apprentice or whatever, anyway.”

“Do you hear something?” Myrtle asked. 

If there is one thing you do not want to hear alone in a toilet with a ghost in the middle of the night, it is “do you hear something.” 

But Harry did hear something, and it was the frantic pounding of footsteps flying down the hallway. And before either of them had time to react, two boys came flying into the bathroom, tumbling over one another. 

“Ow—” 

“Gred—”

“Forge—” 

“Get off—” 

Your fault—”

They looked up. They saw Harry and Myrtle. They froze. 

Boy and ghost faced redheaded twins, each processing the implications of the moment. 

“Peeves!” blurted the twins.

Cold rushed through Harry, and not just because Myrtle’s arm had slipped through his chest in alarm. He scrambled down off the sink and grabbed both twins by the hands, hauling them into the furthest toilet stall. He locked the door and clambered atop the bowl, urging the twins up with him. It was tight fit and not easy to balance—Harry stepped up onto the tank and they all gripped each others’ arms, biting their lips to keep silent. 

“Mopey Myrtle,” came Peeves’ sickly voice. Harry shivered. One of the twins noticed and gripped his hand tighter. “Did you see two little firsties scampering around here? Best turn them over to old Peevsie if you did.” 

“Peeves…” Myrtle said, and her voice seemed to…echo. Or did it drip? “BEGONE!” 

There was a shriek, a sound like someone letting air out of a balloon, and then Myrtle’s wild, delighted laughter. 

“Uh…” said one of the twins, looking from the other twin to Harry.

“Myrtle?” Harry whispered.

The door flew open. Myrtle was looking a bit spooky, her fingers too long and her eyes too large. She grinned at Harry with pointed teeth. Then she remembered the twins and her body settled into something like normal, though it was still glowing.

Harry re-lit his elflight and clambered over the twins and off the toilet. The twins looked at each other, looked at Harry, looked at each other, looked at Myrtle, and leapt off the toilet to bombard them with questions. 

“That was—” 

“—absolutely wicked!” 

“Who are you?”

“Myrtle, did you say?”

“Are you a first year?” 

“Aren’t you a little titchy for a first year?” 

“Why’re you in a toilet—” 

“—in the middle of the night, anyway?”

“A girl’s toilet!”

“A broken girl’s toilet!” 

Harry stood his ground with hands balled into fists, but Myrtle retreated to the top of the sink, slightly overwhelmed.

“So?” both of the twins finished, staring at Harry, arms crossed. He took a moment to appreciate how perfectly identical they were. He looked back at Myrtle briefly for help, but she was mostly in the sink. Think, think, think.

“Um,” he said. The twins leaned forward. “Um. Please don’t tell her I’m here!” 

“Who?” asked the twins. 

“Aunt Trelawney!” Harry wailed. “If she knows I snuck out again she’ll send me home early!” 

A choking sound came from inside the sink. Harry ignored it. 

“Aunt Trelawney?” asked one twin.

“You mean that weird old goth lady?”  said the other. 

“Yes,” Harry sniffed. “I’m staying with her for the term, but if she knows I’m sneaking around, she’ll send me home, and I want to stay!” 
 
“Hey now,” said one twin. He lay a hand on Harry’s shoulder. “We won’t tell on you.”

“Nah,” said the other, patting Harry’s head. “We don’t snitch. It’s awfully cool of you—”

“—to be sneaking out, actually.” 

“What do you think we’re doing?” 

“And I suppose it makes sense—” 

“—that you’re the divination professor’s nephew—” 

“—seeing as you’re hanging out with a ghost and all.” 

“We’re Fred and George. What’s your name?” 

“Snake,” Harry said. 

“Snake?” 

“Wicked name.” 

“And what’s your name?” hollered a twin, who Harry decided to designate Fred for the moment, towards the sink.

Myrtle poked her head out of the drain, glaring. “Me?” 

“Yeah!” said the twin Harry decided to call George. “That was wicked, with Peeves!” 

“Oh.” Myrtle looked like she might be blushing. It was hard to tell. “I’m…Myrtle.” 

“Hello, Myrtle!” the twins chorused. “We’re Fred and George!” 

“What are you two doing out after curfew?” Harry asked. 

Fred and George looked at each other, then at him, and shrugged. “What would we be doing otherwise? Going to bed? Don’t be ridiculous.” 

Harry grinned. “You should go before Peeves gets Filch, though.” 

“Good point, Snake,” said Fred. 

“And well made,” said George. 

“Say, might we be seeing you again?” asked Fred.

Harry shrugged. 

“Ah, a man of mystery,” said George.

“Myrtle, can we stop by and say hello sometime?” asked Fred.

“Say hello? To me?” Myrtle still hadn’t put more than her head out of the drain.

“Yes!” George said. “Maybe you can teach us how to scare Peeves like that!” 

“Well, alright,” Myrtle said hesitantly. 

“Bring a word game,” Harry told them. “Myrtle loves word games.”

“But we know loads of word games!” Fred said. Myrtle looked delighted. 

“We’ll be back,” George promised, tugging Fred towards the door. “Good to meet you both. Happy hiding, Snake.” 

“Happy hiding,” Harry echoed, as they left the bathroom.

He and Myrtle were silent for a long moment, before bursting out into giggles. 

“Snake!” Myrtle said. “Why’d you tell them you were Trelawney’s nephew!” 

“Well, who’s ever going to believe them?” 

Myrtle’s laughter could be heard down the hallway.

Chapter Text

The forest was resplendent in its fall colors: reds and golds and even blues that a year ago Harry wouldn’t have believed existed. In the sunrise, they were luminous and ethereal. Harry loved the fall. He’d never particularly loved any time of year before, but now the smell of colors in the air and frost on the ground reminded him of freedom. He spread his arms wide in the forest and breathed in great big gulps of it. 

The path he was on was well-trodden; he didn’t even have to smell his way there anymore. The pull of his friends' magic was like the warmth of a campfire to his soul, drawing him onward. 

It took half a day’s walk to get there, but he was usually found a little earlier than that. Today was no different. One moment he was walking, singing a little rhyme he’d overheard a student singing (and then getting detention for), and then something black and large was charging out of the undergrowth towards him.

Harry shouted with joy and braced himself. Filius the thestral barreled past him, passing so close his hair was swept back. Filius did an exuberant loop around him and then shoved his head under Harry’s arm. Harry gave him an enthusiastic rub-down, kissing along his bony jaw. “Hello, Filius!” He pressed his face into his wiry mane and breathed in. The thestral smelled like snakeskin, meat, and the fall. Maybe Harry should have found it gross, but to him it smelled like safety, and warmth, and flight.

As if reading his mind, Filius knelt, and Harry slid onto his back, tangling his hands in his mane. Immediately, Filius took off through the forest, bolting at top speed for a break in the canopy, and then he launched them both out over the treetops. Harry shouted in joy as the cold wind snapped against his face, and tucked his head down into Filius’ neck, whooping as the thestral did a barrel roll.

They played for an hour in the sky, and then Filius touched down in the thestral clearing. Around half the herd was there, and they greeted Harry with exuberance. Tonks and Serpentus, Filius’ agemates, insisted on taking him up to fly again, and they practiced a series of acrobatic dives they had been working on. 

When he finally set down for good, Harry’s legs were wobbly and his face numb from the cold. Tonks and Serpentus buffeted him between them, and he laughed and shoved them off. It was dusk. They’d spent the whole day flying. 

One of the elders eventually chased the younger trio off him, nuzzling him gently and lifting a hoof in silent request. He cleaned about a hundred stones out of the herd's hooves, and then ate the dinner he had packed: fire-roasted vegetables and rabbit. 

When the thestrals were settling down for the night, he approached the oldest mare in the herd. She had been watching the younger thestrals’ antics in amusement, chewing gently on an old bone. Harry settled down beside her and she whuffled at his cheek, making him giggle. 

“I’m making a wand,” he told her. “To do magic with. And for a wand, you need a core. Some people use unicorn hair, or phoenix feather, or dragon heartstring. But I wondered if I could use one of your hairs.” 

She locked eyes with him, evaluating. Then she tossed her head and rested it against his chest, almost knocking him backwards. 

“Thank you,” he said, pressing a kiss just above her eye. Thestral manes were black, but the elder was so old that her hair was a shining silver. 

Harry combed his fingers through her mane, and as carefully as he could, pulled a single strand out. She nudged him again with her head, this time actually knocking him over, and he curled by her side and wound the hair carefully around his wrist. It lay next to his other thestral-hair bracelets, but the others were black and dead, and this one shone with potent magic. He could feel it humming against his skin. 

Tonks came and curled against his other side, and he fell asleep tucked between their warmth.

He spent three days with the thestrals in much the same vein. He flew for hours, never tiring—well, he tired in body, but not in spirit. He sometimes thought he loved flight more than anything else in the world. 

He hunted with the thestrals and explored the forest and climbed trees and slept hard. On the fourth day he woke with a craving for soup, and decided to head home so he could make some in his cauldron. 

It was a colder walk than it had been a few days ago. The wind had changed, and it had changed fast. He no longer had enough layers to keep the biting chill from his bones, and so he alternated walking and jogging to keep himself warm.

He stopped midway, however, to look at a tree crawling with little stick people. He frowned as he watched them, burrowing into the bark, sticking their little hands in and coming out with bugs that they bit the heads off of. He’d never been able to talk to them, never managed to do more than get himself bit. He’d tried just a month ago, and he was pretty sure he had a permanent scar on his earlobe from the attempt. He had no idea what they even were. 

“Curious things, are they not?” 

Harry leapt and shrieked in surprise, and the little bark men scattered, before growling angrily at him. He growled back, baring his teeth, and then addressed the centaur who had appeared beside him. It wasn’t Bane, and that was the only reason Harry wasn’t running. 

“Apologies.” The centaur did actually look sorry. He had pale skin that was showing a blush and grayish-brown fur. He had a bow strapped to his back and fine lines around his eyes. “Snakeheart, correct?” 

“Yes,” Harry said cautiously. “Who’re you?” 

“I am Firenze,” said the centaur, giving a funny bow. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance. That is the human greeting, yes?” 

“Er, I guess,” Harry said. 

“Why are you watching the bowtruckles?” asked Firenze. 

“Is that what they’re called?” Harry frowned at the little stick men. “What are they? Why can’t I talk to them?” 

“Talk to them?” Firenze picked his way over to the tree and quite adeptly snatched a bowtruckle from the trunk, in such a way that its arms were immobilized and its mouth couldn’t reach him. Harry walked cautiously over to take a closer look at it. Its eyes were fiery little green pinpricks narrowed malevolently at him. “They may look like men, but they do not have quite the…sapience,” Firenze said. 

“You mean they can’t think like people do,” Harry said. 

“Quite.” Firenze looked impressed. “They feed on insects in trees, particularly in wand trees.” He gently tossed the bowtruckle back towards the tree, where it clung to the bark and immediately began shoving its hands through the cracks. 

“Wand trees?” Harry evaluated the tree. “What type is this?”

“This is a yew,” Firenze said. “And it is poisonous to humans, so do not consume it.” 

“Wasn’t planning on it,” Harry said. His brief excitement fizzled. He didn’t want poisonous wood for a wand.

“Are you headed back towards Hogwarts?” Firenze asked. “Might I accompany you?” 

Harry frowned. “Why?” 

“Well,” at this Firenze looked a bit bashful, “I must admit I have always been quite curious about human culture. I find your kind astonishingly…luminous. But I have no first-hand source in the woods, besides the steward’s occasional visits,” here Firenze blushed a bit, “but now you are here, and I have a number of questions, if you’d be so kind as to answer them.”

“Alright,” Harry said. He liked Firenze—the way he kept blushing, his admitted curiosity. It was all very un-Bane-like. He shouldered his pack once more, checked on the thestral hair around his wrist, and they set off together towards the castle.

“One thing I have always wondered,” Firenze said eagerly, “is how humans raise their children! Centaur children, of course, are born at a much more advanced level than human babes—I’ve heard newborn humans can’t even talk, is that true?” 

“Er, yeah,” Harry said. At least, he hadn’t been able to talk when he was first born.

“Fascinating!” Firenze’s eyes gleamed. “And they can’t walk, either, correct?” 

“Nope.” 

“And do humans tell their children stories?” 

“Er.” Harry frowned. He thought he remembered Aunt Petunia telling Dudley stories around bedtime, maybe. “Yes. I think so. Do you have different questions, though?” 

“Pardon?” 

“I don’t want to talk about kids.” 

“Very well. Apologies, it is on my mind—well, it is on all of our minds—foals are a rare thing, you see, and so the whole band is in a bit of a furor over it. Well, then…ah! Sleeping! We sleep lying down, with a rest to put our upper bodies on. Do humans really sleep standing up?” 

“No,” laughed Harry. Now here was a question he could answer. “Humans sleep lots of ways. I have a nest, made of lots of blankets. Some of the students have beds with mattresses and pillows.” He remembered what Myrtle had told him, that she didn’t think Severus ever slept. “Some humans don’t even need to sleep!” 

Firenze looked quizzically at him. “Now that, I have never heard. How fascinating. And what about food? What kind of food do you eat?” 

“Mostly rabbit stew,” Harry said, “and vegetables.” 

Firenze nodded. “Then our diets are more similar than I realized.”

“Can I ask a question?”

“Certainly!” 

“How do centaurs tell the future?” 

Firenze frowned and looked up at the trees. “How do centaurs tell the future…well, we do not.”

“You don’t?”

“No.” A moth fluttered overhead, and Firenze reached up as if he would touch it, but let it fly past. “The future…is a rushing river. Each stream a possibility. The future is a skyful of stars, out of which everyone weaves a different tapestry of constellations.”

“Oh.” 

“Firenze!” The voice, coming from several meters away, made Harry’s stomach clench up.

“Ah,” Firenze sighed. “Bane.” 

Bane, who had intersected with them from the left, strode angrily forward. “What secrets are you telling this boy?” he demanded.

Firenze tilted his head, regarding Bane coolly. “I am conversing with Snakeheart, a being my sister holds in high esteem. She asked me to check on him.” 

“She did?” Harry asked. “Who?” 

Bane pawed the ground with a front hoof, glaring at Firenze.

“Nayla,” Firenze said. He met Bane’s gaze with equal heat. “And I believe she asked something of you as well.” 

Bane’s cold gaze passed onto Harry, and Harry took a step back, folding his arms. 

“Snakeheart,” Bane said. The words sounded like they were being dragged from his chest. “I overreacted that night.”

There was a moment of pause, and then Firenze snorted. “That’s it?” 

Bane sneered. Harry was uncomfortable to be stuck between the two, and wanted to be as far away from Bane as possible. “The basilisk is expecting me,” he murmured. “Bye, Firenze. Nice to meet you.” 

“Farewell, Snakeheart,” said Firenze. “May we meet again.” 

Without another word to Bane, Harry left. 

He felt eyes on his back for the rest of his walk, and he made good time. Good enough time to stop by the lake before it got dark. It was around dinnertime, so there were no students out and about, but he moved quickly anyway, clambering down to the lakeside to squash himself between a few boulders. Then he waited. 

He and Ava had a standing get-together on Thursdays just before dusk. He was pretty sure it was Thursday today. It wasn’t really all that set in stone—if one of them was available, they went to the lakeside and waited for a bit to see if the other would show. They managed to coincide about half the time. 

Tonight, he was in luck. After a half hour of waiting, wherein he brainstormed the next installment in the adventure book he and Ava were writing together, the lake bubbled a bit and Ava’s green, finned head broke the water. When she saw him there, she grinned widely, displaying about a thousand needle-teeth behind flat lips. 

“Snake!” she cried, hauling herself forward on the shore a bit. Harry crawled down and hugged her, not minding her cold, rubbery skin at all. 

“Hi, Ava,” he said. “I missed you!” 

“I miss you! Do you want to come for a sleepover tonight?” 

“Um, yeah, definitely! I just have to go put my things down and leave a note for the basilisk. I just got back from the forest.” 

“Ooh!” Ava was fascinated by the forest. The concept of trees was something she was obsessed with. “What were you doing there?” 

Harry made himself comfortable by the waterside. “I’m making a wand. To try to do better magic. And I read that to make a wand you need a wood, a core, and a third ingredient. I asked the thestrals for a hair for the core, look.” He showed her the shining silver hair around his wrist. 

She touched it, but her face was pinched. “You’re making a wand?” 

“Er, yeah.” 

“You could’ve asked me, you know,” she said, face falling into a severe pout. “For my hair? For your stupid wizard wand.” 

“Oh.” Harry frowned. “Sorry, Ava. I didn’t think about it, really. Would you really want your hair to be used in a wand, though? For wizard magic?” 

Ava pouted for a good moment, rolling over in the water. “Fllf, no, of course not. What would my mothers say? But you could have asked.” 

“Sorry. Do you…still want me to sleep over?” 

Ava’s pout disappeared. “Fllf, of course, Sa-nek! We have to work on the book!” 

“Right!” Harry jumped up, fetching his bag. “Be right back, then.” 

In the den, Harry deposited his bag and placed the thestral hair carefully on his little shelf of treasures, in between some snake eggshells and a plant clipping Limmy had given him.

The basilisk was still gone, which didn’t surprise him. It might not even be back by the time he returned from Ava’s. But just in case, he drew a huge picture on the wall, of a little stick person under water. Under it, he wrote: 

GONE UNDERWATER. LOVE, SNAKE♡

Chapter Text

“Hello, mer Xara!” Harry called in Mermish.

“Sa-nek!” Xara folded him into her large arms, pressing a fin kiss to the top of his head—a gentle drag of her chin across his scalp. He was infinitely comfortable in against her wide body, and he sort of thought this was what it must be like to have a mother. “How good to see you, child.” 

“Mother, let him go,” Ava said. “We’re going to my room.”

“Fllf, not without dinner. Both of you can set the table.” 

Ava rolled her eyes, but Harry smiled. He liked being a part of Ava’s family, chores and all. They set the table with little covered stone pots full of sauces and spices, and then Xara brought out fish. Ava’s mothers Loch and Cassipa arrived home just as they finished, and both were pleased to see Harry as well. 

“What have you done lately on the surface?” Cassipa asked him, as she rolled a bit of fish up inside seaweed. 

Harry took a knife and spread a thick layer of spicy sauce over his clumsily-made sushi roll, and spoke slowly as he tried to speak complex thoughts in Mermish. “More emissary stuff with the acromantulae. We are planning a--a bond? No, a pact? between our peoples. And I’m making a wand.” 

“Impressive,” Loch said. “These are high duties for one so young.” She cast an evaluating glance at Ava.

“I’m doing plenty,” Ava muttered. “He doesn’t go to school, of course he’s doing other stuff.” 

“Still, it might be time for you to take on some responsibility,” Loch mused. 

“Your Mermish has improved greatly,” Cassipa told Harry.

“Thanks! Oh, and there's something else!” Harry paused, wondering at the wisdom of what he wanted to say.

“What, Snake?” Ava asked. 

“Well, it’s about Salazar?” He looked between Cassipa and Loch with trepidation. 

“What about him?” Cassipa asked mildly. Loch’s hand had gone very tight around the pot of spices she was holding. 

“Never mind,” Harry mumbled. 

“I want to hear,” Ava demanded. “Tell us, Snake.” 

“I was looking through his things, and I think he was going to propose to your ancestor,” Harry said quickly. “He was learning Mermish.” 

Absolute silence around the table. “Marry?” Xara asked hesitantly. “The human way or the mer way?” 

Harry shrugged. “I don’t really know about either of them.” He looked at Loch, who was staring at her sushi, and Cassipa, who was shaking her head. “I don’t understand!” he cried abruptly. “They were in love! So what! What if me and Ava were in love!” They all looked at him sharply. “We’re not,” Harry scoffed. Ava gagged beside him. He hit her. “But if we were,” Harry said, “would you hate us too?” 

Everyone looked deeply uncomfortable.

“Do you hate me?” Harry asked, softer. 

“Sa-nek!” Cassipa had risen from her hammock. “Enough! You are not even a wizard, what does this matter?”  

Harry felt his bottom lip trembling. This had all been a bad, bad idea. Ava took his hand and bared her teeth at Cassipa. “Don’t yell at him!” she shouted. “Snake, if we were in love, I’d marry you the mer way and the human way. I don’t care what anyone would say. But also we’re not, gross, but I would, if we were.” She glared at Cassipa. Harry had quite lost track of everything, but his chest hurt. He was viciously trying not to cry.

“Enough of this,” Xara said. She spoke softly, but her words rippled. She swam over to Harry, put her hands on his shoulders, and then drew him in for a hug. He sniffed and buried his head in her soft shoulder. “It doesn’t matter if Sa-nek is a wizard or not. It doesn’t matter what Loch’s ancestor did. It doesn’t even matter whether Sa-nek and Ava are in love.” 

Not,” hissed Ava.

“Quiet, Ava. What matters is that Sa-nek is part of our family. Who could be ashamed of such a thing? If anyone could be ashamed of that, in fact, I would have cause to grudge.” 

There was a sudden intake of breath from everyone in the room.

“But there is no shame in this home, is there?” There was silence. “Is there?” demanded Xara.

“No, of course not,” Cassipa finally said. “No. There is no shame. Sa-nek, know my sorrow.” 

That was a formal mer apology. Harry pulled out of Xara’s arms and met Cassipa’s filmy eyes. He could tell that she truly meant it. 

“I know it,” Harry murmured, scrubbing at his face. 

“I, too!” Loch said. She erupted from her seat all of the sudden, hair billowing behind her. “Sa-nek, know my sorrow! And ancestor, if your soul swims with me, know my sorrow! My family will bear this shame no longer, because there is no shame!” She was electrically angry, the most emotion Harry had ever seen from her, her fins glowing at the tips.

“That’s a long fight, Loch,” Xara said slowly. 

“My course is set,” Loch said, settling back into her customary stoicism. “I can abide it no longer. My ancestor loved the human as a partner. I love Sa-nek as a child. There is no shame in love.” 

Harry felt that proclamation reverberate throughout his body. Ava hugged him, and so did Xara. Then Xara ordered, “everyone in,” and Loch and Cassipa came and hugged everyone too, and it reminded Harry of being surrounded by thestrals.

 

He took his nightly dose of diver’s breath and settled into his hammock in Ava’s room, swinging softly above her. “What’s Loch going to do?” he asked, staring up at the ceiling, which was covered in a thick tapestry of a purple sky dotted with orange and silver stars picked out in bits of iridescent shell. 

Ava rummaged in a box on a shelf. “She’s going to declare her family shame over Ifingr is null. It doesn’t happen very often—usually other families have to advocate for silencing a shame. Families who declare an end to a shame of their own volition get a lot of anger and hate.” 

“Will you be okay?” 

“I’ll be fine,” Ava said, waving a hand. She found what she was looking for, scrolls of seaweed paper and chalky pencil. “She’s right. We’ll all fight with her.” 

“Okay.” Harry sighed and turned over on his stomach as Ava swam back to hers. “We’re okay?”

“Fllf, why wouldn’t we be?” Ava bit her lip. “Sorry for being mean about wizards, Sa-nek. I should know better.” 

Harry shrugged. “I’m not a wizard.” 

Ava looked at him piercingly. “You’re a human. I’m still sorry.”

“It’s okay. Are you sure you’re not in love with me?” 

Ava snarled and flipped her tail up at his hammock. He bounced out of it, laughing, and managed to grab it before he fell and haul himself back in. 

“Okay, where were we?” he asked, once he had gotten re-settled.

Ava checked the scroll. “Nolava and Percy just got to Pluto. They’re searching for the secret treasure buried under the frozen sea.” 

“Right.” Harry closed his eyes and saw the frigid surface of Pluto, covered in bone white trees that grew in eerie shapes. No, that wasn’t right. They were blue trees, frozen solid, stretching high. “There’s something waiting for them, though.” 

He heard Ava scratching on the parchment. “Of course. At first, all they hear is a low bubbling.” 

“And then they see the icy trees move,” Harry said. “And there’s no wind on Pluto.” 

“So they investigate,” Ava said, voice going soft and quiet. “Closer and closer they creep, and Nolava pulls out her magic staff.” 

“And Percy gets his bow out, and strings it with the Saturnian arrow the Saturnians had given him.” 

“And then out of the frozen trees, comes crashing—” 

“A huge—” 

They both waited with baited breath, thinking rapidly. Ava got there first. 

“A huge LEECH!” 

“Percy fires his crossbow!” 

 small green sprout

“Where are you two heading today?” 

Xara sat at her loom, working the shuttle back and forth at dizzying speeds. The tapestry taking shape was impossibly vast—about half of it was finished, a merman plunging his spear into a giant sea creature. Xara was currently working on the rest of the sea creature’s body. Harry touched the edge of the tapestry reverently, the seaweed silk soft and slippery. 

“The post office,” Ava said, floating up near the ceiling. She wore a necklace made of two diaphanous wings, and a pouch around her waist. Dressed for a day out.

Xara paused. “The post office?” 

“Snake wants to see where his letters go,” she explained.

Xara gave her a look. “That’s awfully close to the city, Avalon.” 

“We won’t go into the city,” Ava said in exasperation. “Tides, mother, we’re not completely porous!” 

“Watch your tone,” Xara said. “We don’t need another shame just as Loch’s trying to get one off. Which is what will happen if you take a human into the city.” 

“We won’t, I said.” Ava grabbed Harry’s wrist and tugged him through the water. “Let’s go, Snake.” 

“Bye, mer Xara,” Harry said. She waved at him as Ava towed him away.

Ava’s nearest neighbors—about a mile away—waved at them as they swam past, used to seeing Harry. But he’d never really been farther then that—the Gills, where Loch worked, were in the opposite direction. Now they swam towards the mer city, into which humans were absolutely forbidden entry, save for, extremely occasionally, Albus Dumbledore himself. 

But at least the locals knew of Harry, so they weren’t in any danger of being apprehended by soldiers, like the very first time Harry had visited the lake. 

Still, it didn’t keep the post-mer from giving him and Ava an incredibly disapproving look.   

“Hello, mer Sillas,” Ava said. 

“Awfully close to the city to be bringing a two-legger, don’t you think?” said Sillas, who had a deeply scarified chest, filled in with bright pink color. He had muscles Harry thought were probably unnecessary for a postman. 

“It’s human,” Ava said. “My mothers know we’re here.” 

Sillas gave her a suspicious look, but didn’t stop them from swimming into the post office. 

The post office was a low single-room cavern whose floor was made entirely of luminescent blue stones, making it quite bright. From the ceiling hung hundreds of ropes, all ending in a small hook. Some of the hooks had abalone tubes hanging off them, letter-shells, with scrolled-up notes inside. 

“Every family has one,” Ava explained. She swam over to her hook, which was empty. “The letter-shells are magical, obviously, and they’re attached to these hooks. Here, watch the others.” 

They stared out at the hooks together. Momentarily, on one of the hooks next to them, a letter-shell popped into existence. 

“Wicked!” Harry said. “Do you think I could get one?” 

“A hook?” Ava asked.

“Yeah, so I don’t have to go to the lake for your notes! Do they work outside the post office?” 

“Let’s ask mer Sillas,” Ava said. They swam back out of the cave. Sillas sighed and put down a scroll he was engrossed in. “Mer Sillas, can Sa-nek have a hook? Do they work outside the post office?” 

Sillas evaluated them. Harry put his hands behind his back and tried to look very proper. 

“They…can work outside the post office,” he said eventually. “But they need to be in water.” 

“I have water,” Harry said, showing his most mer-like smile, with as many of his teeth as he could.

Sillas snorted. “It’s ten clips,” he told Ava.

“Ten?” Ava asked. “Er…” She stuck a hand her pouch and fished around, coming out with a handful of hard shell discs. “I have six clips.” 

“Well, then you’ve a problem,” Sillas said. 

Ava squinted her eyes at him. “We’ll come back. My mother Xara will give me the rest.” 

“Fine,” yawned Sillas. 

“Let’s go, Snake, we can do something else.” 

“Mind the city,” Sillas said, voice ominous. Ava didn’t respond. 

They swam in contented silence a little away from the post office, occasionally stopping to pick up pretty shells and look at little crabs and fish that lived in the sand. They played a little of Percy and Novala, pretending to be on the surface of Pluto, and by the time they had discovered the tunnel that would lead them to the treasure, Harry realized they were just outside the the city. 

It was called Alimnion, but most merfolk just called it “the city,” because it was the only one. Merfolk lived fairly isolated, in family groupings with lots of space in between. The city was the seat of the government, consisting of the merqueen and three princes, each representing one of the largest families, who governed in collaboration with a council of experts—on magic, agriculture, biodiversity, and others. 

There wasn’t a gate around the city, really. There were jaws. The massive teeth of a massive, dead sea creature rose up through the sand, encompassing the entire city, though Harry could glimpse the spires of porous rocky buildup in which the government was housed peeking up over the highest teeth. 

They were about half a mile from the closest tooth.

“Ava,” he said slowly. 

“Sa-nek,” she said. They stopped swimming. She rolled over in the water to look at him upside down. “I was just thinking…” 

He looked from the teeth of the city to her face, which didn’t know quite which expression to settle on. 

“Xara said…” 

“Mother Xara worries,” Ava moaned. “Come on, Snake! Think of Pluto.”

Harry thought of Pluto. He looked from Ava’s face to the teeth, and back again. That huge jaw sticking out of the sand, maybe as big around as Hogwarts castle…. Ava’s face was pleading. 

Excitement sparked in his stomach.  

Ava spotted the grin on his face before it had fully escaped. “Yes!” 

“We have to be careful!” Harry said, though he was smiling fully now.  “Seriously, Ava!” 

Ava giggled. “Fllf, of course, Snake. Let's go.” 

Slightly giddy with what they were doing, they covered the last half-mile to the city quickly, swimming belly-low along the ground, darting behind rock shelves and ducking behind tall seaweed groves. As they got closer and closer the jaw-wall grew impossibly high. Harry was certain now that you could fit Hogwarts inside, with room left over.

“Let’s just touch it,” Ava said. “If we don’t go inside, we’re not breaking the law, really.” 

“Okay,” Harry said. They were talking in low voices, though there was absolutely no-one around. Swiftly and silently, they swam up to the wall. Harry touched the bottom of one huge pointed tooth gently. It was smooth with age beneath his palm, and shockingly cold. 

“Imagine what kind of creature this was,” Ava said in awe, looking up and up at the tip of the tooth. “Imagine what could have killed it.” 

The basilisk had nothing on this ancient monster. Harry wondered how old it was. He looked down the jaw spreading on and out. When he looked back, Ava had risen a few meters up the tooth.

Ava,” he hissed. 

“Still just touching,” she murmured back. “You coming?” 

Harry was coming. Foot by foot, giggling and hot with nerves, they finned their way up and up and up, until they were half a mile from the ground. 

The tip of the tooth was a meter above them.

“Just touching,” Ava murmured. “Dare you to touch the tip.” 

“Same time,” Harry bargained.

“Deal.” 

One. They looked at each other, eyes glinting in mirth. Two. They hovered their palms over the tip of the mammoth tooth. 

Three.

Harry’s palm grazed the tip—it was still sharp, he hadn’t realized, it cut him—and then something wrapped around his middle. 

He had just enough time to meet Ava’s eyes in utter terror and mutual understanding—MISTAKE—before whatever had grabbed him tightened hard and yanked him from the tip of the tooth. 

It threw him through the water, down toward the ground on the other side of the wall, and then yanked him back up again, cutting him through the water at speeds that actually hurt his skin. He wailed as he was looped in dizzying circles through the water, everything around him going blurry, but he could hear Ava’s scream— 

“Thank you, Dances with Grace. We’ll take it from here.” 

Harry was deposited onto the lake floor. The tentacle around his waist—for it was a tentacle, as thick around as his arm—slipped away. Looming above him was a beast with a mouthful of them, all waving ominously down at him. The girth of the thing was unimaginable. He could see a hint of a glowing yellow eye peeking out from behind the wriggling mass. 

“I’m going to be sick,” Ava whispered. The squid had put her down right next to him. “My mothers are going to fillet me.” 

“That’s an understatement,” said the soldier. 

Chapter Text

Probably the worst part about being in mer jail was being separated from Ava. Harry didn’t really know how long he’d been in this tiny little cell—it really was only as big as a closet, which he didn’t like thinking about—but it was totally dark, and he was having to do some breathing exercises that were only mostly working.

At least the guards had left him with diver’s breath. So at the very least, they weren’t going to kill him. Yet.

He didn’t even know where he was. The guards had blindfolded him instantly, and spoken not a word to him as he was pushed into this room. Ava had talked to him for a while, despite the guard ordering her to be quiet, but eventually they’d taken her away. 

“You are under the basilisk’s protection,” Harry murmured to himself. “They can’t do anything.” In his heart he knew he was lying. The basilisk was in the deeps. And he’d broken a law. On purpose. For a dare.

An eternity of small darkness later, the net door of his cell was whipped away. A scarified merman armed with a spear leveled it at him. “Up.” 

Harry rose. The merman threw a piece of filmy fabric to him. “Over your eyes.”

He proceeded to be led—well, pushed—to his next destination. It was a horrible and humiliating procedure: the merman poked him with his spear from behind, forcing him onwards, but Harry couldn’t see where he was going, resulting in a lot of stumbling and swimming into corners. Harry thought the merman was probably enjoying it, and anger made him clumsier.

Finally, the merman told him to stop and uncover his eyes.

Slowly, Harry did so, glancing quickly around. He was in a grand chamber absolutely covered in the most massive tapestries he’d ever seen. They spanned the wals, depicting a ring of merfolk, each with crowns on their head and different implements in their hands. The ceiling was completely open—they must have been at the top of whatever structure they were in—and the edge was ringed in luminescent stone, so that it shone down from above in shimmering currents. 

At the end of the room sat a merwoman in an ornate sling-chair. From her stomach to her face, she was scarred in gold-tinted wave patterns, and the shimmering light from above made them gleam. Her pale white tail fins were jaggedly serrated with old wounds. She was missing one arm at the shoulder, and her hair—silver-tinged gold—was bound into a tight bun. Across her hair and forehead she wore a net of pearls. 

There was no doubt in Harry’s mind that this was Celadon, the merqueen. 

To her right was a merman with wound-scars across his torso—three jagged claw-marks—that had been left undyed. To her left was a merwoman who had several seaweed scrolls strapped along her tail, and was actively reading two more. 

He had no idea what to do. Bow? The guard took care of it, and shoved him down through the water with the butt of his spear. “Kneel and bow!” Biting his lip with fear, Harry did, forehead to the ground. 

There was utter silence for about ten seconds. Harry lifted his head for a moment, and the merman smacked it back down. Stars spun through Harry’s vision and panic spiked through his chest, but he kept quiet. 

“Rise,” came the voice of the merqueen, finally.

Harry swam upright and a little away from the guard. Celadon was looking at him with a hard gaze, chin in her one hand. Deep gold swirls around her cheeks made her gaze look eldritch and timeless. 

“Identify yourself,” Celadon said finally. 

Harry swallowed. This was his one chance. “Snakeheart, ward of the basilisk, and emissary of the basilisk to the acromantulae.” 

Celadon’s eyes flicked to the merwoman with the scrolls. The woman shook her head. 

“There is no such title, human intruder,” drawled Celadon. 

“There hasn’t been, but there is now,” Harry said. “Ask Ava. Or her mothers.” 

“Ah.” Celadon’s chin hadn’t moved from her hand. “Avalon re Aflin Fler.” Aflin Fler was the name of Ava’s home, Deep Light.

“Yes.” 

“Avalon re Aflin Fler, with whom you broke one of the highest laws of the mer kingdom.” 

Harry was silent.

“Avalon re Aflin Fler, with whom you approached Alimnion’s wall, swam up, and then crossed. You, a human. Who, I have been assured, by Avalon re Aflin Fler’s mother Cassipa re Aflin Fler, knew better.” 

At the thought of the queen speaking to Cassipa about this, ice plunged through Harry’s stomach. Grand dinner declarations aside, Cassipa would murder him and then kick his corpse out of Deep Light forever. 

“One human and only one human has ever been allowed into Alimnion in fifty years. Do you know who that is?” 

“Dumbledore,” Harry said quietly.

“Albus Dumbledore. Headmaster of Hogwarts. Grand Sorcerer. Chief Warlock. And still, in those fifty years, how many times do you think we have permitted him entry?” 

Harry winced. “I don’t know.” 

“Thrice, human. Twice of those during times of war. And yet you take it upon yourself to enter Alimnion…why?” 

Harry looked at the floor.

“Why? Is there a war on our doorstep? Well?” 

“No,” Harry whispered. 

Why?” 

“For a dare.” 

There was utter silence. Hot shame and slimy fear curled through Harry’s ribcage. 

The merman spoke for the first time. “My queen, the punishment for a juvenile is ten years in the dark cells.” 

Harry’s gaze snapped to him. “No,” he began, but Celadon took her hand from her chin and flicked it at him so dismissively he stopped talking.

“And is juvenile intrusion seen as an act of war?” Celadon looked to the woman with the scrolls.

“My queen, there is no precedent. If it were an adult, there would be no doubt.”

No,” Harry said again, desperately, but a glance from the queen silenced him utterly. 

“And when,” the queen asked her advisors, “was the last time we imprisoned a human in Alimnion?” 

They both answered at once. “Ten years ago.” 

“Ah yes. After two months he refused to continue taking diver’s breath, and drowned.” 

Harry’s heart jackhammered, but he kept silent. 

The queen turned her cold gaze on him. “How long do you think you would last, Snakeheart?” 

He couldn’t answer.

Celadon sighed, and relaxed back into her chair. “Prince Malvam, mer Sambation, at ease.” The merman settled into another swing-seat. The merwoman rolled up her scrolls and attached them to the harness along her tail. “Snakeheart. Do you know when the last time the merkingdom traded with the acromantulae was?” 

Harry’s head reeled with the change in topic. “N-no?” 

The queen gazed up at the open roof. “It was fifty years ago. Fifty years ago, the acromantulae retreated deeper into the forest, beyond our reach. Since then, we have tried to make what little acromantula silk we have last, but alas…there was only so much.” The queen reached out a hand towards the tapestry on the all. “Examine my foremothers’ spears.” Harry looked and saw that the woven spears on the tapestry were indeed luminescent. “And now you come to us saying you treat with the acromantulae on the basilisk’ behalf.” She looked at him sharply. “Well?” 

“Yes, I mean, yes, I do.” 

“And do you know the reason for the acromantulae’s retreat?”  

“They were attacked. Hunted. By a wizard called Riddle.” 

The queen tilted her head. “Riddle. Never heard of him.” 

“He cursed the basilisk, made it kill a student, and framed King Aragog.”

“And so they ran,” she concluded with a sigh. “How my kingdom would rejoice, were acromantula silk to return to our waters.” She turned an eye on him sideways. “Well, Snakeheart?” 

“Um.” Realization that he was not going to be thrown into the deep cells for ten years was starting to register, and all his bones felt wobbly. “You want me to…” 

“Indeed. Mer Sambation says there is no precedent for your position, so we will create one. You have two choices, Snakeheart. The deep cells for a decade, or…” 

“Or?” 

“Or act as emissary between the mer kingdom to the acromantulae.” 

“Well, that one,” Harry said hurriedly. “Definitely.” 

“Good. Mer Sambation will see to the finer points.” The merwoman with the scrolls swam towards him. “And Snakeheart.” 

“Yes?”

“Even an emissary need not enter Alimnion unless expressly invited. I think Avalon re Aflin Fler will serve as an adequate intermediary. It seems she could use a little more responsibility. Understood?” 

“Yes! But—” He bit his lip.

Celadon stared at him. “…but?” 

He took a deep breath. “Please don’t tell Dumbledore about me.” 

Celadon gave a mighty roll of her eyes. “Why on earth would I do that? Now go.” She waved a hand, and Sambation swam from the room. Harry followed her as fast as he could.

Outside, he stopped dead. There was no hallway: instead it was clear they were at the top of some kind of tower, and the lower levels spiraled downwards, doors opening from the spiraling, hollow center. One could swim all the way from the top down to the floor, very, very, very far below. It was crawling with merfolk, all looking very busy. 

“Follow me,” snapped Sambation. She sped right out across the open expanse, swimming into a small door about two levels below. Harry followed as quick as he could, but he still drew incredulous stairs, pointing, and even a few exclamations.

The room Sambation led him into was small, with just a few sling-chairs and a net that stretched across the room at about mid-height. Sambation began unloading scrolls into the net. At one point she looked up and cast him a strange look. 

“What?” he asked.

She shook her head. “Fllf, this is the most unusual thing to ever happen to me in twenty years of serving on the council. How do you even speak Mermish?” 

“Ava and her family taught me,” Harry said, rocking his sling-chair so it swung gently. His tail-wrap waved in the water. “What member of the council are you? Human affairs?” 

Sambation’s mouth stretched disdainfully, revealing gaps where a number of teeth should have been. “There aren’t enough human affairs to require such a member. I am the council member for interspecies affairs. You may call me Samba.” She gave him another evaluating glance. “And you are my strangest case. Your family is the basilisk. Yet you are a human. How have the acromantulae settled this discrepancy?” 

“To them, I’m part of the basilisk’s nation.” 

Samba marked something down on a scroll. “Very well. Biology aside, I shall identify you as…a basilisk. Culturally.” 

Harry shrugged. 

“How much formal emissary training do you have?” she asked. “Can you do this job?” 

“Yes!” Harry said indignantly. And then his stomach rumbled embarrassingly. 

Her foggy violet eyes squinted in amusement. “I forgot you’ve been in the deep cells for a day.” 

“A day?” 

“Almost. Wait here.” 

She swam out of the room. Harry picked up the scroll she had been writing on. 

For the Recruitment of a Foreign Emissary
Overseen by: Council Member Sambation re Krilfin Flin
Inaugural Emissary: Snakeheart, a Basilisk

Below it was a lot of legal language that Harry didn’t know in Mermish. Samba swam back in, snatched the scroll from his hand, and handed him a skewer with chunks of fish and seaweed on it. Harry scarfed them down while Samba resumed scribbling furiously. 

“What are you writing?” he asked around a mouthful of fish. 

“Your duties,” Samba mumbled. “Shush.” 

He shushed, and she wrote and wrote until she finally stopped, working out her hand with a sigh. “Alright, Snakeheart. As emissary between the mer kingdom and acromantulae, here are your duties. First and foremost, facilitating the re-establishment of trade, with the assistance of Avalon re Aflin Fler.” 

There were more duties, monthly check-ins, and contingency plans, but Harry had the feeling he could work most of it out, especially with Ava helping. He was already doing the same for the basilisk. How different could it be? 

In short order, he had signed the end of the scroll, and Samba had given him several bound-up scrolls to take: instructions, treatises on the history of mer diplomacy, official licensure paperwork, and a lot of doubtful looks. She also gave him a blue pearl on a necklace. 

“Have you seen one of these before?” she asked him.

“Ava gave me one once. To knock on her door.” 

“Yes. Listen closely. This has. One. Use. For emergencies only. Do you understand? It will call mer forces to you. Misuse it, and you will not be given another.” 

“I promise.” 

She escorted him from the palace—for that was where he had been—amid a frenzy of attention. Pointing and nudging and whispering and just plain yelling. But he kept his head up and followed Samba closely, and swam straight out one of the mid-level windows and into the city.

Free to look around, just this once, Harry took in as much as he could, Samba pulling him swiftly towards the city entrance by one arm. The palace, a huge asymmetrical formation of uneven porous towers, rose up over the rest of the city, which seemed to be made of the same type of lumpy, bubbly stone. Merfolk swam everywhere, the highest number in any one place Harry had ever seen. 

Then they were at the gates, and someone was waiting for him.

Samba had two guards open the net across the gate, and Harry swam quietly over to Xara’s side, unable to look her in the face. 

“Thank you, Council Member,” Xara said. 

“You are welcome, mer Aflin Fler.” 

Xara placed a large hand on Harry’s shoulder and guided him away. They swam away from the gates. For a quarter mile, they were silent. 

“Sa-nek.” Xara pulled them to a stop. She touched his chin. “Look at me, Sa-nek. The mer are not ashamed of shame.” 

Reluctantly, Harry looked at her. Here eyes were crinkled, but she didn’t look angry. He bit his lip. “Know my sorrow, mer Xara.” 

To his surprise, Xara chuckled, and bumped the top of his head with her chin. “I know it, Sa-nek. Or should I say, Emissary Sa-nek. You didn’t shame us—you honored us.” 

Harry pulled away to look at her in surprise. 

She smiled a bristling smile at him. “Yes, Loch is quite ahead of the current about it. She claims you’re proving her point.” 

Harry sagged a little in relief.

“You are going home tomorrow,” Xara added. “Ava is grounded, which means no friends.” 

“Okay,” Harry said.

“If I were your parent, I would ground you too,” she said. “But I’m not, and so I can only hope you learned something from your adventure.” 

“I did,” Harry said fervently. “Can I…can I still see Ava?” 

Xara looked baffled. “Of course. You’re part of our family, Sa-nek. And besides, you and Ava have official duties from the queen now. Probably for the best. My child needs a little more responsibility. And Cassipa wanted me to ask you, will you come stay with the family for Iceglow?”

“What’s that?” 

“Our winter celebration. We would all welcome your presence.” 

“I’d love to!” Harry was thrilled. He’d never really celebrated any winter holiday before—or any holiday at all, really. 

“Good. Now come. I imagine you’re hungry.” 

Starving.” 

 

Image of a purple pearl on a necklace

"This has. One. Use. For emergencies only."

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“Sorry.” 

It was the first word Ava had spoken since Harry got back—Harry had thought her already asleep, and had drifted quietly into his hammock. 

“Why?” he whispered.

“Fllf, don’t be stupid, Snake.” Ava sounded perfectly miserable. “You could have been put in jail.” 

“Well,” Harry said thoughtfully. “If I had been, what would you have done?” 

Ava scoffed. “Broken you out!” 

“Yeah,” Harry said. “So I wasn’t afraid. Much.” 

“Liar.” 

“Yeah. I’m sorry, too. I should have known better.” 

“Hey!” Her tail slapped the underside of his hammock, and he laughed. 

“Your mother Xara invited me to Iceglow.” 

“Oh, magnificent! We’re going to have so much fun. You’re going to love the death quest.” 

“…the what?” 

Chapter Text

“Snakeheart?” 

Harry leapt up from where he sat reading near his light stone. “Basilisk?” 

“I’m coming in. Meet my eyes.” 

“Ready.” 

There was a great scuffing of scale over stone, and then the glint of yellow eyes. The stickiness fell over him—like an ant in amber, he was trapped—try to speak—try to—speak— 

“He-ll-o,” he managed, feeling like he was still speaking underwater. His heart thumped so hard in his chest he felt it in his scalp and soles. 

“Good,” said the basilisk, curling its tail around him. “Good.” It looked away. After a few seconds, Harry leant forward onto his knees, coughing slightly.

“You spoke.” The basilisk sounded pleased. “You smell like the lake.” 

“I’m emissary between the merfolk and acromantulae now,” Harry said ruefully, going back to his stack of scrolls to show the basilisk. “Look, I have to read all this stuff on mer politics. I got a Mermish dictionary from the library because I don’t know half of the words. Do you mind that I’ve been writing on the walls?” 

The basilisk flicked a glance over the vocabulary he’d chalked on the walls. “Why would I? Ah, I see you left a note. I have not been back to see it.” 

“You were in the deeps?” Harry asked. 

“Yes,” sighed the basilisk.

“What are you doing down there? Don’t say business. Just say you don’t think I’ll understand.” 

The basilisk hissed softly and curled the tip of its tail around him. Harry rested his cheek against its softly-glowing scales. He was happy to be home. 

“I don’t think you lack comprehension,” the basilisk said, “it is I who lacks eloquence. I am unable to…to put to words, even in our language, what I am doing. I am looking…I am searching…for a way to free my children.” 

Harry glanced at the spell surrounding the eggs, squatting like a malevolent intruder, ever-present. “I learned how to make a wand. I have the core already. I just need wood and a third ingredient, now. I will free them. I promised. I still promise.” 

The basilisk hissed a soft warning. He closed his eyes, and it nudged its nose up against him, flicking him with its tongue. Harry threw his arms about its snout and hugged. “I believe you, Snakeheart,” hissed the basilisk. “But you know by now that your life here is no longer predicated upon freeing my children. I would never make you leave.” 

“I know that,” Harry said, sniffling. Had he known that? Maybe he had, but to hear it was another story. Watery warmth suffused him. “But I’ll free them anyway. They’re…I care about them, too.” 

“I know it.” The basilisk loosened and tightened its tail around him, an approximation of a hug. “In the deeps, I see visions.” 

Harry’s heart beat a little harder. “What do you see?” 

The basilisk started to shift, minute ripples going through its body, and its voice sounded far-off. “I see stars. I see blood. I see bone.” 

Harry’s pulse jumped from drumming to thunder. “What?” he asked softly.

“I see bone and blood and stars. Bone and blood and stars and—and—” 

Harry’s body felt like it was alight. “And?” 

The basilisk stopped trembling. “And that is all.” 

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That night, Harry slept warmly, huddled in his largest blanket in the curl of the basilisk’s body, atop the warm stone floor.

He dreamed. 

Dances with Grace had him in a tentacle, swinging him through the air, and its eyes were blood red. It launched him upwards into the sky and he catapulted down to its mouth, a huge mouth made of giant teeth which were slowly closing, those red eyes narrowed in contempt.

He landed in the forest. “The future is a rushing river,” said Firenze. “Death is a skyful of stars.” 

“Death?” Harry asked. “That’s not right.” 

Firenze reached out towards him pityingly, but it was Bane’s hand that closed over his forehead, his grip so strong Harry felt a sharp pain blaze through his head. He cried out—and then everything was silent.

Everything was silent, in the circle of the bone-white tree. 

Everything was silent, except for that triple heartbeat, like a river rushing through his head. 

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It was technically, by Harry’s private rules, too late to be in the halls. With no crowd to blend into, he stuck out like a sore thumb. Sure, he wore student robes, but any professor worth their salt would know him as, firstly, too small for a first year, and, secondly, as none of their students. There were only so many first years.

But he was restless. The basilisk was gone again, back to the indescribable deeps. He’d been ensconced in the den reading for several days. Besides infrequent trips to see Myrtle and Limmy, he had been gorging himself on the readings from Samba. He would have to go to the acromantulae soon, and he wanted to do the mer people justice. If only so they wouldn’t change their minds and throw him in the deep cells. His vocabulary list on the cave walls now stretched several meters, in small writing.

In short, he itched to roam, and so he had thrown caution to the wind. 

He hadn’t run into anyone yet, which was ominous in itself. He kept Tales of Beetle the Bard close in case he needed to look busy anyway. 

“Ssn-ek, isss that yousss?” 

Harry grinned, coming to a stop in front of a portrait. “Hello, Jade Eyes,” he said. 

“Ssalutationsss. How ssare yousss?” 

“I’m well, and yourself?” 

“Sussst finesss.” Curling around the frame in a pleased manner, the golden snake switched back their language. “How is my accent coming?” 

“You still need to work on ‘J’s,” Harry said. 

Jade Eyes hissed in irritation. “I hate that horrid letter. I’m sure I’ll never master it.” 

“Don’t give up! Listen, I have a question.” 

Jade Eyes’ eyes lit up. He loved questions. As an anthropologist, he could orate on a single question for forty minutes or longer, and he had done so multiple times. 

“Do you know a lot about spells?” 

“Hmm. Spells.” He twisted in a figure eight, a sure sign he was about to start talking and not stop, no matter whether he actually knew the answer or not. Harry settled in. “Of what variety, may I ask? For I have developed a sort of classification system, if you will, regarding wizard spells. After careful observation I have sorted them into spells of creation and spells of negation. Now there are those that fall into the interstices, the liminal spells if you will, and which can really go either way, and naturally I have my own opinions on where they are best sorted.” Portraits didn’t need to pause to breathe. “Now, those more obvious spells can be sorted easily. If you conjure water, you create. If you make something disappear, this is negation. But what of the more complex varieties? What of transfiguration? If you transform a hedgehog from a pincushion, are you creating a hedgehog or negating a pincushion? Well, is the transfiguration permanent or impermanent? By my estimation, if it is permanent, you have negated a pincushion. If it is impermanent, you have created a hedgehog.” 

Harry’s head spun. “Okay. But I wanted to know if there’s a certain spell for something.” 

“There are spells for most things, and where one is not, one can be created,” enthused Jade Eyes. “Why, I have heard that Professor Sinistra creates spells occasionally. And naturally Dumbledore has created several. It is supposedly extremely difficult, requiring a deep knowledge of linguistic and spell theory. Thrilling!” 

Harry asked a burning question. “Is there a spell to unlock things?” He had tried asking Myrtle, but her practical memories were often spotty. The clearest thing she could usually recall was her own death. 

“Unlocking! Clearly a negation, as indicated by the word itself! To un-lock! To negate the state of being locked, if you will. And of course, there is one such spell. I have observed its use in multiple instances.”

Harry grinned. “Oh, brilliant! What’s it called?” 

Jade Eyes twisted in a knot. “Snape!” 

“It’s called Snape?” 

“Ahem.” 

Ice settled in his gut, freezing his limbs in place.

“He’s at the end of the corridor,” Jade Eyes hissed frantically. “To your right.” 

“It is nearing curfew, Mr….” It wasn’t often one heard Severus at a loss for words. The inability to recognize a student was apparently what it took. Heeled footsteps clicked forwards, and Jade Eyes hissed: “Run!” 

Harry ran. The only reason he made it down the corridor, he knew, was Snape’s surprise.

Snape was running now, and he was much faster than Harry. As he flew down the hall, he heard a muffled creak and then a tumble and curse from behind him—daring a glance back, he saw Snape scrambling up from the floor, having tripped over a suit of armor’s spear. 

One more corner—then he was home free—there was a toilet— He turned the corner, and ran face-first into Albus Dumbledore.

Stars and moon, Harry thought, keeping his head down and barreling forwards like he had nothing to lose in the world. This is it.

But Dumbledore didn’t grab for him. Dumbledore didn’t even call him back. Instead, Dumbledore said, “Ah, Severus. Where are you going in such a hurry?” 

Harry dove into the toilet just as Snape rounded the corner. “Albus,” he snapped. “There is a student roaming the halls that I do not recognize.” 

“A student?” 

Harry pressed his eye to the door crack, unable to believe what was happening. Did Dumbledore know about him? Was he covering for him? 

Dumbledore stroked his beard. “I saw no student, Severus. Are you sure you’re getting enough sleep?” 

Harry clapped a hand to his mouth to stop his laughter. 

Snape looked apoplectic. “I know my students, Albus! This is a matter of serious concern!” 

“Nonsense,” Dumbledore said. “I’ve been in this corridor for five minutes now, taking the air, and I haven’t seen a single student.” 

Taking the air? Snape mouthed, looking around at the windowless corridor.

Dumbledore indicated a portrait of a seaside nearby. “The sea air, of course. You ought to try it, Severus, it might do something for your constitution.” 

“Constitution?” Snape’s normally vampire-pale face had a pink dusting. 

Dumbledore patted Snape on the shoulder and made to walk past him. “Sea air, and perhaps a new shampoo,” he suggested. The edges of his mouth were twitching up.

Before he could pass by, Snape’s face went from embarrassed and baffled to murderous. He caught Dumbledore’s wrist. “Miss Tonks,” he said, voice subsonic. “Decease with this farce this instant.” 

Dumbledore’s face twitched again, and then he bent over guffawing, gnarled hands on his knees. “S-s-sorry professor!” he choked out between laughs, slowly morphing into a girl with bubblegum-pink hair, Snape’s hooked nose, long pointed ears, and a round body. Tonks grinned at him, looking elfin and comedic. “Oh Merlin. S-s-sorry—” she dissolved into hissing giggles. Severus’ face could have frozen magma. 

“You are in…an astonishing amount of trouble, Miss Tonks.” 

“Yeah,” Tonks said, wiping her eyes. “I know.” 

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“Unicorn.”

“Niffler.” 

“Redcap.” 

“Phoenix.” 

“Uh…” Harry put his chin on his hand. “You win. I don’t have any that start with ‘x’.” 

“Yes!” Myrtle did a somersault through the floor. “I get to choose the next category! Food! Um…treacle tart!” 

“Er. Turkey.” 

Myrtle squinted up her eyes at him. “Yam.” 

“M…mint humbug.” 

“Gravy.” 

“Yogurt!” yelled Fred or George, bursting into the toilet.

“Trifle!” yelled George or Fred, tumbling in after him.

Harry and Myrtle stared at them, unimpressed. 

“What, can’t we play?” a twin asked. Harry decided he was George today. 

“You wound us!” The twin he designated Fred clapped a hand to his chest. 

“You can play,” Harry said. “Did you make sure no-one was there when you came in?” 

“What do you take us for—” 

“—amateurs?” They cast him twin looks of offense. Harry shrugged. They dropped the looks and settled on the floor beside him and Myrtle, forming a circle.

“We have a game!” declared Fred. “It’s hard, though.” 

Myrtle’s eyes glinted. “Bet it’s not.” 

“Oh yes it is!” said George. “Our dad still hasn’t cracked it. It’s called—” 

“—Green Glass Door.” 

“Green Glass Door?” 

“Green Glass Door. What can you take through the Green Glass Door? Try us.” 

Harry looked at Myrtle. “Can I take…Myrtle?” 

“Nope!” George said. “Try again.”

“Can I take a toilet?” Myrtle asked.

“Not today!” said Fred.

Harry sat forward. “Can I take a cake?” 

“No!” 

“What about an egg?” Myrtle asked, pushing her glasses up.

The twins looked at each other. “Yes! You can take—”

“—an egg—” 

“—through the Green Glass Door!” 

“Then, can I take a chicken?” Myrtle asked eagerly.

The twins grinned. “Nah!” 

They played Green Glass Door for half an hour until Harry and Myrtle realized the trick at the very same time, and then Myrtle was so angry she started sticking her ghost hands through the twins’ heads, and then they were all playing toilet tag. 

“Fred and George?” Harry asked, after the three of them had collapsed to the floor in exhaustion.

“Yes, mini-Trelawney?” said George.

“Mini-T,” Fred snickered.

“Do you two know the spell to unlock things?”

“Know it!” Fred shouted.

George leapt up and struck a heroic pose. “We cherish it!” 

“Will you teach me?” 

“You don’t even have a wand, Mini-T,” George said.

“Titchy-T,” Fred added, smirking. 

“Shut it. Teach me anyway.” 

Fred and George looked at each other and shrugged. “Why not?”  

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Harry hauled his glowing rock into Salazar’s chambers, settling it next to the locked chest. He crouched in front of  the lock, now bathed in muted purple light.

Placing a finger against it, he let his thoughts start to go up, like puffs of smoke. He touched that fizzy place in his chest. “Alohomora,” he whispered. 

Click. Grinning in delight, he worked the lock from the latch and opened the case. 

Inside were stacks and stacks of familiar scrolls. Seaweed letters, preserved in a chest filled with lake water. 

He fished one scroll out and opened it carefully. It was in Mermish. Heart suddenly galloping, he scooted over to the glowing rock to read.

My dearest Salazar,

I thought of you today as I swam through the reefs. You’ve never seen a reef like ours—different from the ocean reefs as I understand, but unspeakably beautiful. They are further down than you would survive, but I couldn’t help but dream you were there with me, looking upon the ancient wonders.

Our last meeting left me longing for more time. My affection for you buoys me up, like ice atop the water, but underneath lurks the old fear. You would think a merman of my age would be above such tired fears as shame and rejection, would you not?

I eagerly await our next meeting. When the moon is full and high, meet me in our harbor. 

All my heart,

Ifingr

Harry rolled the scroll up and pressed it to his chest, inexplicable tears rolling down his face.

Chapter Text

It felt good to be alone in the forest. Of course, he was never really alone—there were the bowtruckles, and the birds, and the occasional snake. Not a lot of snakes now, though, not with the cold truly setting in. 

Harry didn’t really mind the cold, though. He had his shirt, sweater, and robe layers, and a real pair of gloves he’d repaired—Inchy had taught him a bit of sewing—and a hat and scarf. With a pack full of food sourced from Xara, the elves, and his own dried rabbit, it was quite nice to have time to himself to think. 

This was to be a long journey. He’d left another note for the absent basilisk: just a drawing of some trees. He was sure it would know what he meant. 

It took five days to reach the acromantulae; he made wonderful time, with no distractions. One of Aragog’s many subjects met him on the outskirts of acromantulae territory and graciously carried him to the encampment, which only took a few hours on spider-back. 

Mosag met him at once when he came, ferrying him up to a treetop web, where leaves and branches had been woven together into a sort of cocoon. 

“Thanks, Mosag,” Harry said, sliding down. “How have you been?” 

“Satisfactory,” clicked Mosag. “The season has been abundant. Our children are profuse, our people are robust. And yourself?” 

“I’m well,” Harry said. “I have exciting news for Aragog.” 

“I will elicit his attendance. You will sojourn here during your tarriance, so please become habituated. Aragog has designated this the emissary’s web.” 

“Oh, thanks.” Harry took the little shelter in again. It was cool to be so high up in the trees—he could feel them all swaying a bit in the breeze—but at the same time be so insulated from the air. It was quite cozy. He probably wouldn’t be able to light a fire, but he could do that on the ground. 

Mosag disappeared, and Harry opened Tales of Beetle the Bard as he waited. The stories were unlike any children’s stories he’d ever read, but he hadn’t read many. He was re-reading the ending of “Babbity Rabbity and the Cackling Stump”— he liked the old witch the most—when Aragog arrived. 

“Honored emissary,” Aragog said, bowing. Harry closed his book and bowed back. “Be welcome in the web. Do you approbate your accommodations?” 

“It’s really nice,” Harry said. “Thanks.” 

Aragog settled across from him, turning all of his seven eyes on Harry. The eighth, punctured fifty years ago, was just a mass of scar. “Of what magnitude do you predict your prolongation?” 

Harry shrugged. “I don’t really know how long I'll be here. I have exciting news. The mer queen has made me emissary between the mer kingdom and the acromantulae. They wish to re—er—re-establish trade.” 

Aragog went completely still with surprise. “The mer sovereignty? They remember the acromantulae?”

“They, er, remember the acromantulae’s silk, at least.” 

“And they harbor no acrimony for our precipitous recession?” 

“No, I told them what happened with Riddle.” 

Aragog fell silent. Then he said, “This is an inordinate benefaction you have done us, Snakeheart. Never had I envisaged a restoration of our affinity with the mer. Our erstwhile accord was tenuous. With your abetment, I am sanguine that we can forge a collusion far exceeding the precedent. Tonight, we shall recount for you our history with the mer realm.” 

Harry sighed soundlessly. Acromantulae stories took even longer to tell than Jade Eyes’ answers to questions. 

At least there would be bugs.

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To make the five day journey worth it, he stayed for a week in the acromantula encampment. True to Aragog’s word, he spent every single evening meal elaborating on acromantula political history. Harry found he retained it fairly well, because a lot of it was straightforward, and also because acromantula storytelling was acted out. It was easy to remember who betrayed who when Aragog’s daughter was pretending to bleed to death after another spider pretended to stab her in the stomach. Harry got to take part in some bits as well, usually as a human aggressor, but once as the basilisk itself. 

He and Aragog met for hours a day to discuss both mer and basilisk politics. While the mer kingdom was ruled in concert—queen, princes, and council—in the acromantula nation, Aragog’s word was law. Even Mosag didn’t really have any bearings on the minutia of Harry and Aragog’s discussion. There was one exception—Aragog’s daughter, Vogir, who Harry gathered would eventually take over Aragog’s rule. She was deeply intelligent, often contributing more than Aragog to the treaties Harry was drawing up for the mer queen.

Harry was fascinated by the system the acromantulae used to communicate. All of the webbing over the entire territory was connected by at least one silk thread, and when Aragog plucked at it, messages were transmitted. Harry tried to learn the language they used to signal each other, but found that he didn’t have enough legs to really grasp it. 

At the end of the week, he and Aragog had worked out a first document to send to the mer queen, and Vogir had rolled him up a bundle of sample spider silk to send down with it. Mosag filled his pack back up several of his favorite bugs—the green and brown beetles—and gave him a ride to the edge of acromantula territory.

The opposite edge, this time. His business in the forest was not done. 

small green sprout

The north edge of acromantula territory abutted the fluctuating border of the deep wood. Sometimes the indistinct delineations intersected, sometimes they bowed away. On this day, they brushed each other. Harry could tell just by breathing: the taste of the deep wood was powerful and beguiling. Mosag let him down just on the other side of a river that ran on the border. 

Harry thanked Mosag and bid him farewell, watching as the spider crawled delicately over the leaves. For such a massive creature, he was graceful on dancer-like legs.

Turning his back firmly on the river—Harry had almost died in it once, and didn’t like looking at it—he settled his pack on his shoulders, opened his mouth to taste the deep magic, and began to walk. 

The deep wood defied navigation. Harry had a destination and he would get there eventually, and he had somewhere he wanted to avoid and he did avoid it, but beyond that his path was circuitous and dizzying. His body and mind moved independently through this place. To step inside was to become it, in part. 

For a long time he simply wandered, walking until his feet hurt, mind drifting on the scent of a small blue mushroom dusted with frost. When he could walk no longer the curled in the fork of a tree and drowsed, woken intermittently by dreams he could never remember, and, once, a large catlike creature that curled up on his stomach, lulling him back to sleep.

When he finally woke, the cat kneading his stomach intensely, he saw the mushrooms had formed a circle around him, only an inch from his skin. Carefully, he held the cat and stepped out of them. The cat scratched him and he let it down, and it bounded away. 

He chose a direction and walked. He passed a beehive that seemed to be bleeding black blood, and gave it a wide berth. He walked along a marshy riverbank and found his ankles attacked by things that looked just like pieces of bark—but tasted absolutely delicious when roasted on a stick over his fire. He tried to catch a green lizard that watched him from a tree, but the lizard shrank to almost nothing and disappeared into the bark. 

One night, a full moon rose, so bright it could have been a lamp in the sky. It was far too bright for Harry to sleep. Too bright, really, for him to do anything but sit and stare at it, unblinking and absolutely still, like everything else in the clearing. 

As he sat there, tears rolling down his face at its sheer beauty, something rustled next to him. He’d sat down next to a burrow of some kind, and now out came a little creature—a silky furry thing with webbed feet, a long neck, and two luminous blue eyes on the top of its head, equally transfixed with the moon. It observed him for a moment and then turned away, disregarding him. 

He watched, intrigued, as it began to dance. For that’s what it had to be doing, stomping on its four legs, weaving an intricate pattern that for some reason was beautiful in the same way as that moon was.

Entranced, Harry rose shakily, and began to copy it. He stumbled at first, but the creature carried on, and soon Harry had it, he had the rhythm, he had the pattern, he had the geometry that they were mapping out with their steps, a message to the moon, to the forest, to the magic. He kept his eyes on the moon and flowed through the steps like he’d been born knowing them.

In the distance, a wolf howled. But Harry and the creature danced. 

small green sprout

After some amount of time—all Harry knew was that it was getting colder, now—he got to his destination. He knew it when he went to sleep under a tree, and woke up with something invisible poking his nose.

“Chikkeritt!” he shouted. The little creature materialized in front of him, monkey-like and long-furred, face wrinkled like an old man’s, luminous yellow eyes wide with excitement. She chattered and chittered in sheer glee, and Harry, delighted beyond measure, made noises back.

Chikkeritt seized his hand in a surprisingly strong grip and pulled him all the way back to her cave—Harry carefully dodged the fairy water that lay in a mushroom ring near the entrance—and chattered out a call. In a moment, a little ball of rainbow fluff catapulted out of the cave and stuck to Harry’s face, squealing and nibbling his nose. 

“Kerkeritt!” Harry shouted, holding his hands up to cup the baby. “You haven’t grown at all!” It was true, Kerkeritt was about the same size as he’d last seen him, although his rainbow fur was slightly paler. 

He was more energetic, however. They played invisible tag until all three of them fell asleep in a heap, and Chikkeritt showed Harry a hidden waterfall he’d never seen before. The water was shockingly warm for the winter, and Harry took a long bath. The very act of removing his clothes made Chikkeritt and Kerkeritt chitter with surprise, and he realized maybe they thought the clothes were part of him. In any case, their surprise turned to laughter quick enough, and they ran about with his clothes while he chased them. 

It was a good, restful time. Harry slept deeply and without dreams. He told Chikkeritt stories about the mer kingdom, about his quest for a wand, about his sneaking around the school. He read to the baby from Tales of Beetle the Bard. Kerkeritt’s favorite story was “The Three Brothers.” 

And after a while, he knew it was time to move on. His task was itching at him. 

“Thank you, Chikkeritt,” Harry said, pressing a kiss to both of their faces. Kerkeritt chattered and nibbled at his ear. “I’ll come back and visit next time I’m near. I love you.” 

Chikkeritt pressed her face to Harry’s, and then seized his hand and turned it palm-up. Curious, Harry watched her pull three hairs carefully from her long tail. The moment all of them touched his palm, he went invisible. 

Chikkeritt plucked them off of his skin and held them out. Reverentially, Harry pulled a spare piece of seaweed parchment from his bag and made a little pouch to put them in, and then tucked that carefully inside his innermost pant pocket. 

“Thank you, Chikkeritt,” he said softly. “I don’t know what to say. It’s going to make things so much easier.”

Chikkeritt brushed her hand over his cheeks, wiping away tears, and smiled at him. 

Chapter Text

He had a destination, but he wandered. The deep wood had a way of stealing the path from under your feet. Time slipped away—he roamed at all times, day and night, and slept when he cared to.  

But every night he had the same dream, which was proof that he would end up where he needed to be.

(Bone, blood, and stars.) 

He was walking along a stream, skipping from stone to stone behind a little frog-like creature—they were playing a game of sorts—when he heard it at last: silence.

Absolute, utter silence, completely alien to the rest of the deep wood. 

He left the frog and went unerringly towards it, and beheld his goal. 

He had seen this tree once before, and from then on, every time he entered the deep wood, he could feel its presence lurking in the back of his mind like a memory waiting to be recalled. A bone-white tree, giant, massive enough to fit five bodies inside. He had thought it dead the first time he saw it, but now, as he stood outside its perimeter of absolute silence, he saw white leaf buds in the process of unfurling, as if it were spring, not winter. 

Nothing grew around it for three meters on each side. Nothing could be heard around it for three meters on each side. 

He opened his mouth to taste its magic. It tasted like absolutely nothing, but that nothing was so powerful it chased everything else away. Negation, said Jade Eyes in his memory. 

He had woken from that dream and known. This was the tree.

He hesitated once on the edge of the stillness, and then stepped forwards. Sound ceased to exist. He couldn’t hear his heartbeat, or his breath, or the snap of his fingers. He could hear neither birdsong, nor the gurgling brook, nor the sound of his feet on the bare ground.

There was only him, and the tree.

He walked up to it, that utterly silent pillar. He placed a hand on its trunk, and he couldn’t hear, but he could feel—the hum of magic thrumming through it made him shake in time.

“Hello,” he said. He was speaking underwater, unable to hear his own voice. “My name is Snake. Can you hear me?” 

The tree shook; he shook. Magic coursed between them. The tree’s magic was the vibration of light through air. It was the infinite pattern of a snowflake. 

“I’m trying to make a wand,” he said, slowly so that the words would come out right. “A wizard cursed the basilisk’s children. I need a wand to undo the spell. And the wand needs wood. Would you give me a branch?” 

The vibration under his hand began to shake so hard that his teeth clacked together. Startled, he tried to pull his hand back, but it was stuck fast. All of the sudden, he was terribly frightened. 

“I’m sorry!” he said, voice absorbed by silence, “Nevermind, I’ll go. Please.” 

T R A D E.

It wasn’t so much a word as it was pure intention, vibrating through his skin.

“Trade?” Harry gasped, scared beyond words. He yanked on his hand, tilted the rest of his body from the tree. “What do you want?” 

T R A D E.

“Okay!” Harry cried. “Okay!” 

He stopped pulling. He stopped moving. He stopped breathing, if he had been at all since stepping inside the circle. He was frozen, his hand against the tree, the tree against his hand. And then, quite apart from himself, his body began to move.

The thought of even trying to fight it was laughable. The tree moved his body. It put his other hand against the tree. It pressed his forehead against the bark.

And his mind split open.

He screamed, he was sure he screamed. He couldn’t hear it, but it tore out of his throat with teeth and claws. He scrabbled with his feet to move from the tree but he was stuck there, hands and head, and it hurt so bad he was going to die, he was going to die, let him die let him die let him die—

On and on and on it went, his mind white with static pain, he was a being made of blood, he was only the pain, there had only ever been the pain

He saw red eyes. He heard a high, demented laugh.

He was released. 

He sat back on the ground, quite hard, hurting his tailbone. The pain was gone. Only the faint memory of it remained, rapidly fading. Had there been pain? He only felt light-headed. And terrified. He pressed his stinging palms to his mouth and sucked on them to try to stop the burning—but there was no burning anymore. 

He looked at his hands. They were unmarked. 

He turned and scrambled out of the tree’s reach like an animal, intent on nothing more than flight. When he passed out of the boundary, noise returned in a great rush, so loud it was overwhelming. Birdsong, the babbling brook, the croak of frogs, the wind through the leaves, his own heaving breath. He crouched there and listened, mopping his face with the sleeves of his robes, for he had started crying silently and uncontrollably.

Inside the circle, the tree vibrated. And then, absolutely silently, a branch the length of his forearm fell from the lowest branch, rolling until it reached the edge of the circle, about a foot from Harry.

He stared at it, vacillating. 

“You had better take it.” 

Harry gasped, whirled, and stumbled, almost back into the circle. But Bane reached out and grabbed his shoulder, hauling him back into safety. He had appeared like a ghost. 

“This isn’t your territory,” said Harry immediately, trying to stop crying.

Bane snorted, releasing Harry’s shoulder. “No, this is the Deep Wood. I read the stars, and they led me here. You had better take the branch. You asked, after all.”

“You saw that?” 

Bane inclined his head. 

“Do you know…what it is?” 

Bane’s perpetual gaze went to the tree. His stare was wary. “Something strange. Something deep. Bound up in magic and the forest. It doesn’t belong here. It doesn’t belong anywhere.” 

“Is it evil?” 

The centaur’s eyes snapped back to him, looking, as always, like he was staring into his soul. “No,” Bane said. “But nor is it good. It is only a tree. Just as you are only a boy. Take the branch, for you already gave something up.”

Harry stared at the bone-white branch lying inside the circle  

“I think it might be a bad idea.” 

“It would be a worse idea to leave it.” Bane’s dark gaze bored into him. “Take it.” 

With the utmost caution, Harry reached into the circle. Hovering his hand over the stick, he couldn’t feel that awful vibration. Making up his mind, he snatched it, drawing it quickly from the circle. Outside of the tree’s range, it seemed to be an ordinary stick, pale and dormant.

He had his wandwood. Harry sagged in sudden exhaustion. He wanted to be home. 

“Bane? Are you leaving the deep wood?” 

“I had not planned to linger.” 

“It’s…very far from centaur land.” 

“As I said. I read the stars. And I have other business nearby.” His gaze bored into Harry. “Say what you mean, child.” 

“Can I walk with you out of the deep wood?” Harry asked in a rush. “I don’t want to get lost again. I just want to go home.” 

Bane hesitated, then his gaze softened somewhat, which in itself startled Harry. He hadn’t known Bane’s face was capable of softening. “Yes, child. Let us go.” 

Harry put the stick into his pack and they walked in silence for a time. Harry, thankful to hear ambient sounds again, was content. An hour in, however, he thought of a question. He bit his lip, looking to Bane and away, wondering if he could ask it.

“What is it, Snakeheart?” Bane’s voice was surprisingly mild.

“How is your child?” Harry asked. “Was it…born?”

Bane looked at him in surprise. “Yes, he has been born. He was born a month or so ago.” 

“Oh.” Harry thought about that. “What’s his name?”

Bane stared pensively into the distance, his face utterly, shockingly gentle. “His name is Araeo. He shows a proclivity for interpreting the movements of the most distant stars with uncommon aptitude. Truly, an auspicious addition to our band.”

“He reads the stars already? He’s not a baby?” 

“Centaur children mature more quickly than humans, yet live longer.” 

“How is Nayla?”

“She is well. It was an easy birth. She teaches Araeo the ways of leadership, for he will lead our band one day.” Bane squinted at him. “Of course, should this information spread, should even the name of our son, even a breath of his existence, pass beyond us, you will not like the consequences.”

“I promised I wouldn’t say anything to the wizards,” Harry said, clutching his pack. Bane’s deep gaze struck fear into him. He longed for the warmth of the basilisk’s eyes. “I told Nayla that.” 

“Yes, you did.” Bane turned that gaze away. 

They walked the rest of the deep wood in silence. With Bane at his side, it took them only a few hours to exit it. For the first time, Harry was deeply relieved to cross back over into the forest. 

“Here is where we part, Snakeheart,” Bane said. 

Harry hesitated. “…thanks, Bane. Tell Araeo I hope we can be friends.” 

Bane shook his head slightly. “Of all the strangeness in this forest, child, you rank high on the list.” 

“Then you’re one above me,” Harry said, and dashed into the trees.

small green sprout

Six days or so back to the castle. Harry had made this journey several times before. He’d even made it without major incident a few times. Once, he had even made it without nearly dying. 

But for some reason, it was harder this time. 

He made good time the first day, made camp and ate, and went to sleep. 

He made alright progress the second day. He stopped and looked at some creatures, and his mind wandered a bit. He stopped early, ate, and slept until late the next morning.

The third day—already having gotten a late start—he wandered off course. He didn’t mean to. It was just getting hard to taste the magic of the castle over the magic of the woods, and of the stick in his pack, and of the thestral hair bracelets around his wrists, even over his own magic popping and sparking in his chest. 

He forgot to eat that night, forgot to even make camp, to get his blanket from his pack. He just keeled over by a tree and slept. 

Something is wrong, he thought the next morning, groggy and dissociative. But it was too late. 

His magic had fizzled to a sluggish ember in his chest. His body thrummed with slow, malicious pulses of heat, and then insidious freezing tremors. Everything looked too big, or too small. He kept walking for some reason, even though his legs felt like tree trunks. He didn’t recognize this part of the wood, but he wouldn’t have recognized any part of the wood. Not a single creature came near him. 

He stumbled through the trees, obsessed with the sound of his own heartbeat. It seemed slow for some reason. Should he only have one? Was that right? He tried to drink water but his hands felt like paws and he couldn’t get the lid off of his flask. 

How many days had he been gone? He wanted to go home. But he didn’t know where home was. All he knew was to keep walking. 

Keep walking.

Keep walking.

Why was he on the ground? He had to keep walking. He could barely get his eyes open. He had to keep walking. 

Something soft and meaty-smelling buzzed his cheek. A large nose nudged him, nudged him again, shoved up under his arm and rose. He couldn’t rise with it—he fell back down. 

Teeth bit his shoulder, hard. He cried out, came back to himself by an iota, and managed to haul himself onto Serpentus’ back. The moment he was off his feet, his perception narrowed to sensation. The too-rough press of hair to his face was agonizing. Each bounce against the ground sent pain shooting up his spine. The very air against his face burned. 

They journeyed for years. 

And then he was falling, falling—he hit the ground, crying out in pain. Something was pawing at his chest and face, drawing blood from thin scratches. Harry cracked open his eyes and saw Serpentus’ face, eyes wild with panic. He saw that he was at the very edge of the forest. There was the castle. It was dusk.

Harry reached out a weak hand to pat Serpentus, and the threstral butted his head into him, shoving him out of the woods. 

The den. He was so close. He was almost home. 

Delirium returned as he walked. He was slipping through a starfield, swimming under the lake, leaping through open air. Every so often he caught a glimpse of the castle, and struggled to keep his aim true. He woke again when he was in the pipes, crawling a few meters and then slipping into dreams again, until finally he was close enough— 

Hissing and coiling all around him. Something took hold of his bag and dragged him into the air, carrying him swiftly aloft.

He closed his eyes. 

Chapter Text

Wake. He was so hot. The floor under him was burning, burning, but he couldn’t escape it. 

“Shh, shh,” said his mother. “You are ill, Snakeheart.” 

Sleep. He was surrounded by red eyes, dozens of pairs of red eyes, and they were all laughing at him. There was a flash of green light.

Wake. He was covered in sweat, drenched in it. He scrambled out of his blanket and someone pulled it back onto him—he protested, but was too weak to push it off again. He was so dizzy.

Sleep. “Starchild?” someone asked. “Is that you?” 

“Not me,” he said. “I’m the snake.” 

Wake. Water across his forehead, a cool cloth. “Snakeheart?” someone whispered. “Can you hear me?” 

“Starchild?” he asked. “Is that you?” 

“No,” said the someone. “I’m the basilisk.” 

Sleep. He was in a cupboard that was far too small for him. His spine pressed against the underside of the stairs. His knees dug painfully into the floorboards. Someone rhythmically jumped up and down above him, sending a shower of spiders raining down.

Wake. “You can beat this, child,” whispered the basilisk. “You can do it. Please, please. Please, please. Not again.” 

Sleep. His thoughts were potion fumes. They puffed up and up and up. “Keep breathing,” said the basilisk. “All we need is for the fever to break, Snakeheart. Keep breathing.” 

Wake. “I’ll hold him off!” someone shouted. “Take Harry and run!” Arms closed over him, hot as brands. 

Sleep. “Stay alive, Snakeheart. I’m getting help.” 

Wake. Eyes full of galaxies stared into his. “Snakeheart? What are you doing in the sky?” 

Sleep. Why was he alone? Why was he alone? Why was he alone? 

Wake. Inside a crystal ball, lilac eyes reflected back at him. “Bone and blood and stars. Bone and blood and stars and—and—” 

“And!?” Harry screamed.

Sleep. “Here, Snakeheart, here, I’m back, I’m back, I’ve brought help, please help him, please—” 

Something rested against his forehead. The tip of something. It was so sharp. It dug so painfully into his skin. It cut straight through his scar into his brain. He screamed.

“Snakeheart, bear it, bear it, it will heal you—”

Cold ice flowed down from that point. He gasped—gasped—gasped—and began to shudder. His teeth clacked. He was flung from boiling lava into freezing snow, and back again. 

He fell. Fell. Fell. 

Wake. 

“Snakeheart?” 

He was soaked, utterly soaked, and so warm. His hair was plastered to his neck and forehead and ears. His eyes and mouth were crusted shut. He ached down to his bones. 

He lay in a nest of robes in the center of the basilisk’s coils. The basilisk’s tongue flicked out over his sticky skin. 

“Basilisk?” he croaked.

“Thank the old ones.” The basilisk pushed its nose against Harry. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Chapter Text

Harry emerged explosively from the freezing stream, feeling both like an iceberg and cleaner than he’d ever been. The basilisk nudged his pile of blankets out of the den and Harry anchored them under rocks, happy to let them rinse for a good few hours. He put on a clean robe—it felt heavenly—and sat on the warm floor to comb out his hair. 

The basilisk came and rested its head beside him, as it had for the last two days of his recovery. 

“Who healed me?” he asked it, working out a knot in his hair. He’d been putting off asking, because asking meant acknowledging how close he had come to death. Closer than ever before.

The basilisk flicked its tongue out. “Long, long ago, I saved the life of a unicorn. Now that debt has been repaid.” 

The significance of this statement robbed Harry of breath for a moment. “A unicorn? And you used your favor…on me?” 

“You are my family,” said the basilisk simply. “I would have done much more. This is a worthy use of an ancient debt.” 

Harry felt warmth flush through him—a good warmth, not fever. He leaned his body against the basilisk’s head and savored it. 

“I think that tree made me sick,” Harry said. “Or my trade with it. Whatever it took, maybe, was something I couldn’t live without.” 

The basilisk hissed. “When will you learn to stop making these bargains, child.” 

Harry shrugged, smiling a bit. “I’m alive, aren’t I?” 

The basilisk flipped the end of its tail over his legs. “You nearly weren’t. So nearly. Snakeheart, listen to me. The freedom of my eggs is not worth your death. Do you understand?” 

Harry had his own thoughts about that, and kept silent.

“Snakeheart!” 

“I understand,” he said.

The basilisk grumbled in irritation. “I hope your wand is worth it.” 

“I still need a third ingredient,” he said.

The basilisk scoffed. “No you do not.” It pulled away from him and stretched up to the ceiling, scratching its head against the stone furiously. A loose scale clattered down, and it sighed in relief. “Ah. That has been itching for some time. There, Snakeheart. Or would you make a wand without me?” 

Harry held the scale, quite overwhelmed. “No, I wouldn’t,” he said. “Never.”

small green sprout

After he woke again, Harry hauled the clean blankets out of the river and stretched them out on the warm floor to dry. He made a fire and roasted his last bug from the acromantulae—wrapped in silk, they were preserved for a long, long time.

He took the relevant scrolls and the spider silk sampler and bound them up with twine, and then scribbled a little note to go with them.

Ava,

Sorry these are late. I got really sick. I’m better now. Tell Samba that Aragog is happy about talking. Will write more later, still recovering.

Love,

Snake

He put the note in the little bundle and carried it over to the stream. Attached to one rock was a little strip of seaweed. He pulled on it, drawing up an empty hook, onto which he slid his notes. He lowered the hook back into the water and watched the scrolls disappear. 

“I’m supposed to go to Ava’s house for Iceglow,” Harry remembered. “Do you know what month it is?” 

“Mid-November, I believe."

“Oh. I lost time.” 

“Yes.” 

Bothered, Harry tried to shake it off. He went and got his stick, thestral hair, and scale, and took them to Salazar’s study, sitting at the desk. The basilisk poked its head in to watch. 

Harry examined the ingredients. “What do you suppose I do now?” he asked. The book hadn’t covered this part.

“I’ve no idea,” said the basilisk. 

Harry fiddled with the objects. He picked up the hair, stretched it out, and lined it up with the stick. “I just want to—maybe I can, sort of, melt them together?”

He could feel the magic of the stick, and the magic inside the hair. They were quite different, but he could feel them talking to each other. It wouldn’t be impossible. He held them both between his palms and began to roll them against each other. 

For a while he felt nothing, and then he felt…heat? Definitely not not heat. “Something’s happening, I think!” he called to the basilisk, who was silent so as not to disrupt him. He kept going until the heat faded from his hands, and when he took them away, the silvery thestral hair was encased just beneath the surface of the bone-white wood. 

He was panting a bit, heart galloping. 

“Are you well enough for this?” the basilisk asked.

Harry shrugged, picking up the scale, looking it over critically. “I don’t think I can stretch this out like the hair,” he mused. “Maybe…a grip?” 

Carefully, he lined it up with the base of the wood. It was malleable all of the sudden, pliant with his intent, and he folded it carefully, wrapping it over the base and then shaped the rest upwards. He smoothed out the edges with his thumb until he had a spiralling green grip that melded seamlessly into the wood. 

“It looks stumpy,” said the basilisk. “Salazar’s wand was pointy.” 

Harry frowned and pulled his hand up across the wand. Now the end tapered into a point, silver thestral hair spiraling up it. 

“Grip the scale so it fits your hand better,” suggested the basilisk, “and smooth out the knot on the side.” 

“I like the knot,” said Harry, pressing his hand to the grip, leaving a palm-print. “It looks done to me.” 

The basilisk gave a rippling shrug. “Wizards’ tools.” 

“You had plenty of suggestions a moment ago.” 

With a deep breath, Harry looked the wand over and fell a little bit in love with it. The thestral hair swirled ethereally around the bony wood, and the scale grip seemed as if had grown right from the branch. Whatever he’d done to make it happen, he thought suddenly, it was worth it.

The magic faded from his hands and settled back into the wand. He only had time to hold it up for the basilisk’ approval before he fainted from the effort.

small green sprout

“Mirror ghost? Snake?” 

“Hi, Tonks.” 

Tonks shrieked and leapt back. “Merlin’s balls! Seriously? I didn’t dream you?” 

Behind the mirror, Harry bit his lip. “Er, no.” 

She frowned fiercely. Today she had moss-green hair, a round face, and a large nose. “Then why haven’t you answered me before?” 

“I’m, um, I’m not in every mirror all the time,” Harry said. “I have things to do, and such.”

Tonks crossed her arms. “Well, I suppose. But still! A year? I’d started to think I’d gone barmy. Did I help, at least?” 

“Yeah, you did. Thanks. I can do magic again. That’s what I wanted to ask you, actually!” 

“Oh, what? You forget me for a year and when you remember you just want more help? How rude!” But she was smiling. “Give me something in return, at least.” 

Harry grinned, leaning against the wall of the tunnel, tracing his fingers along his wand. “What do you want?” 

Tonks put a finger to her chin. “Hmm. I want…I want to know what it’s like to be in a mirror!” 

“Er.” Harry looked around at the tunnel, lit by his elflight. At his feet was parchment, chalk, and half a beetle. “It’s…alright?” 

“Can you move between any mirror?” Tonks asked enthusiastically. “If I brought a mirror in here, could you go into it?” 

“Only if I wanted,” Harry said, stifling a giggle. “Mirror ghosts can go…all over the world in an instant, leaping between mirrors.”

“All over? Where’s the farthest you’ve been?” 

“Er.” Where was another place in the world? “America, I’ve been to America!” 

“No way.” Tonks’ eyes were wide. “What’s it like?” 

“They’ve got…” Frantically, Harry tried to recall what he knew of America. “They’ve got…thirty-nine flavors of ice cream.” 

“Only thirty-nine?” Tonks asked. “Fortescue’s has loads more than that.” 

“They’ve also got…erm, this restaurant that’s the same everywhere!” 

“It can apparate? The restaurant?” 

Harry had no clue what “apparate” meant. “Yeah!” 

“Wicked,” Tonks breathed. “Alright, what do you want to know?” 

“What were the first spells you learned?” Harry asked eagerly, picking up the parchment and chalk. 

“Hmm.” Tonks leaned against the sink with her elbows. “The first spells…” 

The toilet door banged open, and two girls walked in, laughing. “Oh, hi Tonks!” one called. 

Tonks, who had slipped of the sink in surprise and bumped her chin, rubbed at it and grimaced. “Hiya, Ismelda, Rowan.” 

“Putting on your face?” the second girl, Rowan, asked, giggling. 

Tonks grinned and in half a second was the spit of Rowan, except for the green hair. Rowan laughed, but there was something off about it. Ismelda, however, clapped her hands and had Tonks do her, then Snape, then McGonagall. 

“Alright, enough,” Tonks finally said, reverting back to the round cheeks and big nose. “Didn’t you two come in here for something?” 

“Is that your real face?” Rowan asked. “Like, the one you were born with?” 

Tonks’ mouth pinched. “Maybe.” 

“Oh, come on!” Rowan said. “Show us your actual one!” 

“Maybe you’ve already seen it,” Tonks said lightly, turning back to the mirror. Her jaw was tense. “You’ll never know.” 

Rowan frowned, but Ismelda dropped it and she followed her lead. While the other girls used the toilet, Tonks poked lightly at her face in the mirror. Everywhere her fingertip landed, a freckle appeared. She gave herself clusters across her cheeks and the top of her nose. Then she turned them all bright pink. 

Once the other girls had finally left, Tonks let out an irritated breath and sneered at the mirror. Her teeth grew into fangs, her eyes turned blood red, and her hair turned black.

“That’s really cool how you can do things that humans aren't born with,” Harry said carefully. “Like the fangs. That’s wicked. Can you do horns?” 

Tonks grinned around the fangs into the mirror. Her hair turned blue, her eyes brown. “Thanks,” she said, “and no, sadly. Because we don’t normally have horns. Fangs are just teeth, see? The teeth are already there. But horns, there’s nothing there to work with. It’s kind of hard to explain.”

“It’s still wicked. That girl was rude.” 

Tonks’ fangs shrank back into her mouth. “She was, wasn’t she? Now, when I was a wee firstie, so long ago I can hardly recall it, I learned lumos and wingardium leviosa. Do you know those?” 

small green sprout

Dressed in his robe, wand in his pocket, Harry took a deep breath. This was probably one of the riskiest things he’d done, besides sneaking into Dumbledore’s office, but he was going to do it anyways. 

He double-checked to make sure the hallway was deserted, drew his wand, and pointed it at the trapdoor above him. “Alohomora.” 

There was a click. And then the ladder began to descend. 

He hid behind a nearby suit of armor as he waited for it to come to a stop. And then he waited a few more minutes to see if anyone would come down it, or come into the hallway. He thought the suit of armor might have turned its head to watch, as well.

When no-one came, he shoved his wand in his pocket and scrambled up the stairs as quick as he could. The moment he got to the top, the stairs folded back up, and he was in a familiar dark room, lit only faintly by candles on each low table, surrounded by cushions for seats. Trelawney was nowhere to be seen.

Perfect. 

Harry made his way to the very back of the room, where tall windows were covered in massive purple drapes. He crawled behind one of them, pulled his knees up, and leaned back against the way to wait. 

In ten minutes or so, the ladder creaked downwards again, and the class came filing in, chatting as they took seats around the low tables. A few pulled out books to squint at by candlelight. Harry was pleased to see that this was Percy’s class. He sat at the very front, parchment and quill out to take notes. Wood, who Harry had once seen ride a broomstick through the entrance hall, sat beside him, chin resting in his hand and eyes drooping. Absolutely no-one so much as glanced at the curtains. 

The ladder closed again, and Professor Trelawney entered the room from a side door. “Good evening, students,” she said in a whispery kind of voice.

Percy put his hand up. Someone at a back table sighed. Oliver twisted to glare at them.

“Yes, Mr. Prewett?” 

“Er, Weasley, professor. It’s noon.” 

Trelawney blinked huge eyes at him. “Yes…?” 

“Um. It’s noon, not evening.” 

“It is the evening of the present!” Trelawney said grandly, sweeping to a seat in front of her crystal ball. “And the dawn of the future.” Another person at a back table snorted. 

“Today,” Trelawney said, laying a gentle hand next to her crystal ball. “We continue our studies of oneiromancy. Dream reading. Does everyone have their copy of The Dream Oracle?” 

There were muttered affirmations. 

“Excellent. I hope you have all completed your dream journals for the week. I will demonstrate a few interpretations, and then you may all give an attempt at interpreting your partners’ dreams, with the reference guide, of course. Now, who would like to share?” 

There was absolute silence. One girl put her head on her arms and closed her eyes. 

“Mr. Oak.” Trelawney gestured at Wood. “Would you care to share?” 

“Er, sure, professor. And it’s Wood.” Wood opened a his book and flipped through a few pages. “Alright. Er, last night I had a dream about quidditch.” 

Someone snorted behind him.

“I was seeker, for some reason—I’m a keeper—and I was trying to catch the snitch but it kept turning into a bludger, and, um, and then I wasn’t riding a broom, I was riding—” 

Someone muttered something Harry couldn’t make out, and Wood turned and threw a piece of paper at them. Percy put his head in his hands. 

“Sorry, professor, as I was saying, I was riding a carpet instead of a broom. And then the carpet flew me through the middle goal hoop and I woke up.” 

Trelawney hmmed. “Well, flight is certainly central to your dream, Mr. Wood, as—as usual, and flight generally means you are experiencing or will soon experience a newfound sense of freedom. And you were chasing the snitch—to be chasing something in a dream, fairly self-evident, indicates you are pursuing a difficult task or goal. Flying through the hoop at the end likely indicates that your goal will be fulfilled. So, if we put things together, you are chasing a difficult goal, that, when achieved, will give you a profound sense of freedom.” 

Wood grinned. “That’s excellent!”

“Indeed. Do you have such a goal, Mr. Wood?” 

“Well, yes.” Trelawney leaned forwards. “To win the house cup!” 

Trelawney leaned back, mouth pursed slightly. “Quite. Anyone else?” 

Percy raised his hand.

Harry left the class determined to secure a copy of The Dream Oracle come hell or high water. Divination was seriously cool.

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“Limmy!” 

Limmy whipped around, scattering fertilizer in an arc. “Snake!” 

Harry grinned sheepish at her. She flew at him, punched him gently on the arm, and then hugged him.

“Where is you being? And where is you just coming from?” 

“I was really sick,” Harry said. “I’m sorry.” 

Her eyes went wide. “Sick? With what?” 

Harry shrugged. “I don’t really know. Something happened to me in the forest, and I got a bad fever. But I’m better now.” 

Limmy’s ears were trembling with worry. “Well…good.” She stooped and began scooping up her spilled fertilizer. Harry helped, and she didn’t even snap at him. She must have been very worried. “And where is you coming from? I isn’t seeing you come in the greenhouse.” 

Harry grinned and showed her his new necklace. He’d braided Chikkeritt’s three hairs together and stuck them, coiled up, into a piece of lake-glass Ava had given him once, with a hole through the top. When he flipped it so the hairs touched his skin, he vanished from sight. When he flipped it so the glass touched his skin, he re-appeared. He demonstrated for an excited Limmy several times.

“I’m going to try to sneak into classes,” he told her. “Learn spells for real.” 

Her eyes widened. “You means….” 

Harry grinned, and from his robe pocket drew his wand. Limmy gaped at it, utterly astonished. 

“How is you doing this, Snake?” she demanded. She reached out a finger to touch it, then snatched it back. 

“I got a book and learned how,” Harry said. “You only need three parts. Watch this.” He cleared his throat and twisted his wrist, just a little. “Aguamenti.” Water dripped from the end of his wand like a leaky tap. Limmy gasped and passed a hand through it. 

Harry ended the spell and sat cross-legged on the ground. “Do you wants to try?” 

Limmy pressed her lips tight together. Her ears were low, eyes narrowed in thought. Harry held the wand on his open palms. 

Eventually, she took it, arm trembling, eyes flicking around in all directions. “Tell me the spell,” she whispered. 

Aguamenti,” Harry whispered. “Twist your wrist like this. Just a little.” 

Aguamenti,” Limmy said softly. Brown water flowed from the wand. There was such a light to her eyes. “Why is it brown?” she asked. 

“Don’t know,” Harry said. “Maybe because you isn’t used to this kind of magic.” 

Limmy gave him back the wand, turned away, and busied herself with packing fertilizer around pots of ivy. She was silent for long minutes, her ears trembling. Harry didn’t push her. Instead, he rolled his wand between his hands, feeling the magic of it. It felt good. 

She finished the ivy and fetched a watering can from a low table, and began to water a row of sprouts. Her ears had risen, just a bit. 

“Limmy,” Harry said, without emotion. “Is you wanting one?” 

She sucked in her breath, sharp as a knife. Said nothing as she watered, then set the watering can down, then came to stand in front of him. Her eyes were blazing

“Just for doing that spell, for holding your wand,” she said with fervor, “Limmy is breaking a bad law. Limmy is…Limmy is a criminal now. To haves a wand….” She shook her head, not in denial but in astonishment. “Limmy would be…a horror. To wizards.” 

“That’s not a no,” Harry said. 

Her hands clenched into fists. “Yes, Snake. I wants one. But I wants to make it myself.” 

He grinned, elation bubbling in his chest. “Wicked.”

She pressed her balled fist against his heart, utterly serious. “But not until…not until, Snake, I is knowing it will never be found.” 

Harry put his hand over hers. “I’ll find out a way.” 

She nodded once, cleared her throat, and turned away, fiddling with a creeper vine. “While you is being gone, I is…I is doing something new.” 

Harry stuck his wand away and got up to help her move pots of germinating mandrakes from one table to another. “What?” 

“I is…teaching the other elves. About magic. I is helping them understand magic, like we is. They isn’t knowing what I can do, but I is explaining some things. Where it comes from—within, or without. And…I is helping them find something.” 

“Find something?” 

“Yes. Is you free tonight?” 

“Yes.”

“Good. Meet me in the kitchens at midnight.” 

 small green sprout

“What is you showing me?” 

The kitchen was a bit spooky at midnight. Those huge windows let in moonlight, but the hanging vegetables and pots and pans cast eldritch shadows across the huge floor. Several fires smoldered in the fireplaces. Harry moved through the space feeling like a ghost.

“This way,” Limmy said. 

“In the larder?” 

“Sort of.” Limmy opened the larder door. Cool air rushed out, and they descended the stairs. It was a huge space, almost as big as the kitchen itself. Huge shelves lined the room, strange lumps covered by cloth heaped on them. Slabs of raw meat hung from the walls, sealed barrels crowded the corners. 

He started to shiver, and he took Limmy’s hand. She guided him over to a corner where a cluster of pickle barrels rested. She began to push them aside, and Harry joined. 

Underneath was…nothing. 

“What is it?” Harry asked. 

“I isn’t seeing at first either,” Limmy said. “Or the others. Because it is wizard magic. But one day, I is noticing.” She reached out and knocked her fist against the ground. Something rippled away from the point of contact, and all of the sudden, Harry saw. A trap door. 

Together, they hauled it up, and beheld another set of stairs. Limmy lit an elflight on her finger and started down them. Harry did the same. 

They climbed down and down and down.

“Limmy?” Harry called at one point, just to make sure she was still there.

“I is here, Snake.”

Down and down and down. Until they hit the ground.

Harry and Limmy stood side-by-side, two points of light in the darkness. 

“Can you feels it?” Limmy whispered.

Harry opened his mouth and breathed in. He could feel it, all right. He could smell it. Magic. Heavy magic.

Limmy walked forward. Their elflights illuminated something set into the ground: the very top of a boulder, the bulk of it still unseen, buried below the floor. There was a sort of symbol etched into it, glowing with dark blue light. 

“What is this?” Harry asked, crouching to touch the stone. 

Limmy stood over it, looking down. The blue glow cast strange light on her face as she spoke. “In every place where house elves is bound, there must be an anchor. A foundation stone. House elves’ service is being magically tied to this stone.” 

“And this is Hogwarts’,” Harry finished. “This is yours.” 

Limmy put a trembling hand on the stone. “This is mine.” 

Harry pulled out his wand, suddenly furious, but Limmy seized his wrist. “No, Snake! You is ruining everything if you do this.” 

“How?” Harry demanded furiously. “Don’t you wants to be free?” 

Her eyes burned. “I is going to be free. But not just me. So wait, Snake. Until we is calling you.” She took his hand and pressed her thumb into the mark of his promise.

He put his wand away, feeling a bit of shame. “I is sorry.” 

“I isn’t,” Limmy said. “You’s a good friend, Snake. Limmy’s best friend.” Her thumb pressed in. “Find out how to hide a wand.” 

Harry clasped her hand, face to face over the anchor stone. “I will.”

Chapter Text

Harry stared at the ice over the lake, shivering hard. It was well past the time when he usually stayed out of the water until warmer weather came. But Ava said she had a plan, and he trusted her. 

He crouched and shivered and waited.

Finally, a dark shape swam up toward him, and Ava pressed her face against the underside of the ice that lay over the lake, opening her mouth wide and sticking out her tongue. She giggled, and Harry took a rock a started hitting the ice until he opened a hope for her to fit through.

“Joyous Iceglow!” she shouted, wrapping him in an absolutely frigid hug. 

“J-joyous Ice-Iceglow,” he said, teeth chattering. 

“Here!” From her pocket she fished his usual diver’s breath, and also a little stone bottle. “Special Iceglow gift from the queen herself—we call it Breath of Spring. It’ll last the whole holiday. But you have to get in the water right away after drinking it.” 

“Alright.” Harry swallowed the diver’s breath, grimacing at the rubbery texture, and then took off his robes, balling them up under a boulder. The winter wind pricked at his skin horribly. He seized the Breath of Spring and downed it.

Immediately, a rush of warmth bloomed through him, hot and getting hotter. Ava swam back under the ice and Harry plunged in, sighing as his temperature balanced out. The water felt quite temperate. 

With the ice covering the lake, the light that filtered down was diffuse and blurry. It made everything…well, glow. 

Ava did excited backflips and passed him a gauzy tail-wrap, a long train of semi-translucent fabric—skin?—that was shaped like a mer tail, that tied around his waist. 

They split the long journey to Ava’s house between talking about the treaties and working on their story. Ava demanded to hear every detail of his sickness, properly impressed by how close he’d come to death. She’d had some adventures of her own recently. Her mother Cassipa was now taking her weekly into Alimnion to meet with Samba, with whom she worked to fulfill her side of their emissary duties. She had a lot of notes to send back with Harry. 

Deep Light was a welcome sight, and Harry saw it had been decorated for the season: a huge net stretched over the entirety of the cave, decorated with small glowing beads and luminescent shells, so that the whole house looked like a glowing deep-sea creature.

“Parime’s here,” Ava chattered as they swam inside. “I mean, the whole family’s here, since Deep Light is the biggest house, but Parime’s more important.” She pulled aside the netting over the entrance and let Harry into the entrance hall. 

“Does he want to write the story with us?” Harry asked. Ava’s cousin Parime was their age, and a good playmate. 

“I’m sure,” Ava said. “Why wouldn’t he? Oh, hello, Aunt Hubur.” 

Aunt Hubur was a broad merwoman with light purple skin, large shoulders, and a thick tail. She wore the diagonal double-rope of seashells around her chest that designated her a soldier. 

She looked from Harry to Ava. “This is your two-legger friend?” Her face wasn’t exactly hostile, but it was curious. 

Harry put on his best smile and remembered the notes Ava had sent up a few days ago. “Greetings from the green, mer Hubur. My name is Snake, I’m happy to know you.” 

“Oh!” Hubur smiled at him. “You speak so well!” 

Harry inclined his head. “Avalon is a good teacher.” 

“Well.” Hubur looked pleased, if caught-off guard. “I am happy to know you, Sa—fllf, apologies—Sen—” 

“Sa-nek is fine, mer Hubur,” Harry said. 

“Sa-nek,” she finished. She pat him gingerly on the arm and swam away. 

Ava, upside-down in the gentle current, grinned at him. “Good job.” 

“I had good notes, so I guess you are a good teacher. How many of your relatives are here?” 

“Fllf, too many. Thirty? Forty? Big family.” 

“Big family,” Harry echoed. 

They passed through the entrance hall into the kitchen, where ten or so members of Ava’s family were squabbling chaotically. Ava tugged him unerringly onward, into the dining room, which had been transformed into a social area with dozens of sling-seats and hammocks strung from ceiling to floor. The tapestries had been taken off the walls to make room for the hooks. A tapestry had been hung over the door to Xara’s weaving room to block it off, and where Harry had once assumed was wall covered by tapestry had been uncovered, revealing an entire labyrinth of cave home he hadn’t known existed. 

“How big is your house?” Harry asked in a astonishment. 

“Big,” Ava said, pulling him down the hallway to the right. A relation in a hammock called out to them, but she ignored it. This hallway ended in individual bedrooms for Loch, Xara, and Cassipa, a combined bedroom for all three, and Ava’s room. Ava swam them swiftly through the traffic and into her room, flinging the gauzy fabric covering down with finality.

“Fllf,” she said, pressing a hand to her forehead. “Snake, I’m so glad you’re here. Everyone’s attention on me is about to make me crack my shell! Now their attention will all be on you.” She grinned. 

“Thanks,” Harry said dryly. He hung his bag—bulky with presents—in Ava’s closet. “So, what do you all do for Iceglow?” 

“Besides enduring the relations?” Ava flopped into her bed. “Well.” 

First and foremost there was food. After several hours of hiding in Ava’s room, Cassipa came to fetch them to help get things sorted, and Harry was thrown into the melee. 

They were eating outside, as thirty to forty could hardly fit in the dining room, even with all the new hammocks. Ava’s mothers pushed things into their hands and Harry and Ava swam as if their lives depended on it, rushing things out to the huge round tables set up outside of Deep Light. Relatives watched in amusement, except for those younger ones (though most were older than Harry and Ava) who were also pressed into service. Harry was kept so busy that none of the other relations felt it appropriate to question his two-leggedness to his face. 

Parime showed up just in time for his mother Lethe to throw him at Cassipa, who had him rolling sushi rolls at once.

“Hello, Parime!” Harry called, as Loch deposited a stack of salted clams into his arms. 

“Hello, Snake! Good to see you!” 

“Good to see you, too!” Harry called, already halfway down the hall. “Parime’s here,” he told Ava, who was swimming for another load. She flashed him a mer thumbs up—an open hand against the cheek, palm out—and finned away. 

He deposited the clams on the table, checking to make sure the bit of culinary net was still anchored over their stone bowl. Things didn’t really float away unless thrown, but someone might accidentally bump into the table.

He turned around to go back inside, and found himself being inspected curiously by a small merman who wore his long black hair in a high ponytail, and had intricately detailed floral scarring around his eyes, giving him a slightly spectacled look. 

“Er…greetings from the green, mer….” 

The merman came an inch closer, tilting his head and staring at Harry’s mouth.

“Um…mer…” 

“Gihon,” he muttered. “Will you open your mouth?” 

“What?” Harry swam back and bumped into the table, and the clams did not go flying, secure under their net. “Why?” 

“Such disparate dentition,” Gihon murmured. “Incredible.” 

“Gihon!” A fat merwoman swam up and yanked Gihon away from Harry. She gave him an apologetic bow. “Know our sorrow, emissary. My Gihon is not usually so…well, no, he is like this usually. I am Elivagar, call me Eliva.”

“I’m Snake,” Harry said. “It’s alright. Is there something wrong with my teeth?” 

“No!” exclaimed Gihon. “It’s just…they’re flat!” 

“He is a dentist,” said Eliva, still slightly apologetic. 

“Oh,” Harry said. “I’ve never been to a dentist.” 

They both stared at him. “Never been to a dentist?” Gihon asked, as if Harry had said he regularly killed and devoured baby unicorns. “My dear boy.” 

“Is that…bad?” 

They both looked a bit overwhelmed. 

“Sa-nek!” That was Loch, hollering from the kitchen window. “Hurry, please!” 

“Excuse me,” Harry said, and fled. 

“Don’t talk to Gihon,” Cassipa told him, pushing several jars of jelly into his hands.

“Is it bad that I’ve never been to a dentist?” 

“Talk to Gihon,” said Xara, pushing him out of the kitchen.

Finally, Ava grabbed his hand to stop him from going back inside after he had brought out around a hundred bowls. “No more,” she said grimly. “Come on, Parime is out back.” Harry followed gladly. 

“Out back” was just plant fields, tall, stiff grasses reaching high through the water. Parime was braiding them together to make a hammock, but he came and gave Harry and Ava a hug.

“Hello,” he said again. “Glad you could escape.” 

“Well, Aunt Slidr started cooking something new, and that means anyone extra in the kitchen is at risk of death.” 

Parime laughed. “Snake, are you excited for the death quest?” 

Harry paused. “That’s really what it’s called?” 

“Fllf, yes.” 

“Avalon! Sa-nek! Parime!” 

“That’s mother Xara,” Ava said. “Must be time to eat!”

“Finally!” Parime shouted. 

Ava took one of Harry’s hands and Parime took the other, and they towed him back around front as fast as they could both swim, which was much faster than Harry. 

It was, indeed, time to eat. The full host of Ava’s extended family floated in a massive double-ringed circle around the tables of food. The three of them pushed their way to the inner ring; Ava and Harry worming between Loch and Xara, and Parime with his parents. Harry felt a few eyes on him, but Xara put a reassuring hand on his shoulder. 

“Thank you all for coming,” Cassipa said to the gathered family. “We are honored for our kin to know our home this Iceglow. Our table is your table.” 

The circle broke, and the tables were swarmed. It was a feeding frenzy, and Harry paused for a second, observed how Ava dove in with elbows and teeth, and threw himself along. He seized a bowl and started filling it aggressively with his favorite foods, nearly came to blows over the last spicy sushi roll, and lost the war over a choice clam with a bite mark on his hand. When he finally drifted triumphantly over to Ava and Parime, a little woozy, they were cheering him on and laughing.

“Good show, Snake!” Parime called. “You’re like a real mer!” 

Harry squeezed next to Ava on her seat, pouting. “I wanted that clam.” 

Ava giggled and tipped a clam from her bowl into his. They had several minutes of unharassed eating, while they went back and forth over the premise of the new story they were going to write with Parime. Parime wanted it to be exploring Mars, but Harry and Ava advocated for a new, made-up planet altogether. 

“—but if it was on Mars,” Parime said, “we could have volcanoes! And aliens made of lava! And—Iara.” 

“What?” Harry asked, but his question was answered by a merwoman swimming up to them. She bore a strong resemblance to Xara, except she was stick-thin where Xara was fat, and her face was pinched with anger where Xara's was uncompromisingly compassionate. 

“Hello, Aunt Iara,” said Ava glumly. 

“Hello, niece Avalon,” said Iara. “So this is the…human…that your mother Loch is causing so much upset over.” 

Ava bared her teeth. “My mother Loch isn’t causing upset over Snake, she’s causing upset over our legacy. And it’s not upset, it’s rightful.” 

“Ah, yes, that shameful business with Ifingr.” Iara shook her head. “I did caution Xara against allying herself with such a shame, you know. Now look at the result.” 

Parime’s fins had gone flat against his back and spine, but Ava’s were sticking straight up. She shoved her bowl into Harry’s chest and floated up from her seat, getting in Iara’s face. Iara, for her part, bared her teeth. 

“There is no shame,” Ava said. “There never was.”

Iara scoffed. “Fllf, no shame indeed. The very act of denying it brings more upon your family, Avalon. I have your best interests at heart. I came to caution you against supporting your mother Loch in this notion."

Harry looked around for Ava’s mothers. To his surprise, he saw all three of them watching her carefully from afar. 

“I’m not supporting my mother Loch,” Ava said steadily, her face flushed a deep orange with anger. “My mother Loch is supporting us.” She reached back towards Harry, and he gripped her hand in support. “And when our family lays this shame to rest, it’ll be you who’s shamed for decrying it!”

Iara pursed her lips, swished her tail, and swam away without another word. Harry saw Xara, Loch, and Cassipa watch for another second, and then turn back to their conversations. 

Ava sat back down, fumed for a moment, then seized her bowl back and started eating furiously. Harry linked elbows with her and licked fish sauce off his fingers.

small green sprout

After feasting until they could burst, it once again fell upon Harry, Ava, and Parime to take up leading roles in cleaning. They ferried the empty bowls in to Loch, who was conducting the current that ran through their house in a masterful way: she tossed a bowl into it to be tumbled clean, and the scraps flowed straight out of the house and into the garden outside to be tilled into the soil. 

Harry didn’t really mind the cleaning, though Ava and Parime complained. It made him feel…well, like he was part of a family. Not that he didn’t have a family—no, the basilisk was home, and that was that—but like he was part of the vast and complex and wonderful web that was Ava’s clan. He wasn’t a guest, because guests didn’t have to clean. He was incorporated. 

When all the dishes were done, Loch found the three of them lounging in the common area, working on their story. 

“Time to get ready,” she said. “Excited?” 

“Yes!” Ava shrieked. “Fllf, yes!” 

“And you, Sa-nek?” Loch asked, smiling at him.

“For the death quest? Fllf. I suppose.” 

Loch laughed. “Death quest! Are you still calling it that? It’s a test of courage, Sa-nek. You’ll survive.” 

In Ava’s room, which Parime was also sharing, they got ready. Ava pulled out a thick crayon and motioned Harry to stand in front of her, and began drawing geometric lines on his face.

“You only do the quest once, you know,” she said, drawing a line across his forehead. “When you’re old enough. So we’ve never done it before. We only know what the older kids have told us.” 

“Death quest,” Harry said.

“Don’t move! Yes, death quest. But I’m sure we won’t die.” 

“You only do it once?” Harry asked. 

“Don’t move. Yep. Everyone in the family who’s old enough does it together each year.” 

Harry pressed his lips together and felt his heart fluttering. 

“What?” Ava asked, drawing a circle on his cheek. 

“Just…I’m….” Suddenly bashful, he looked down. “I’m happy you wanted me to do it with you.” 

“Fllf, Snake,” Ava said, throwing her arms around him. “You’re family.” 

“Yeah,” Parime said, shoving Harry aside and putting himself in front of Ava’s crayon. “It’s official, I mean, everyone knows Loch is doing this whole un-shaming for you, partly, and everyone knows you’re some sort of big deal with the queen. Even my parents talk about ‘my human cousin,’ all the time. 

Harry’s heart felt very warm. 

“Snake, in the closet, in the box on top,” Ava instructed. “Get the glowing nets.” 

Harry swam to the closet, found the box on top, and opened it. His eyes widened as he pulled out three small sections of netting. At each knot was a glowing stone, creating miniature pieces of glowing fabric, like what encompassed Deep Light itself. Each square had a large hole in the middle.

“Put it over your head,” Ava said. 

Harry stuck his head through the hole, and the netting settled across his shoulders and chest. He spread his arms, admiring the affect, and smiled at Ava. 

“You look like a proper mer,” Ava said. “Want to do my face?” 

“Yes!” 

Chapter Text

Ava’s mothers and Parime’s three parents stood in front of the crowd of relatives, with Ava, Harry, and Parime standing before them.

Cassipa cleared her throat. “Avalon, Parime, and Sa-nek. You three are finally old enough to participate in a sacred tradition: the test of courage.” 

“It’s not really sacred,” Ava whispered in Harry’s ear. “She’s just being dramatic.”
 
Cassipa glared at her. “Avalon, please.”

“I’m being a cultural interpreter,” Ava said. 

“A sacred tradition,” continued Cassipa, “which you are honored to be able to carry on. You will face adversaries from both within and without. Are you prepared to accept this task?” 

“Yes!” they chorused. 

“And will you return without your prize?” 

“No!” 

“And what is your prize?” 

“…we don’t know.” Ava said. 

Lethe swam forward. “Your prize lies at the very bottom of your journey. Take from the cave the bones of the monster.” 

The bones of the monster? Harry, Ava, and Parime shared a worried look. 

Xara put her hand on Ava’s shoulder. “Use your strength, your intelligence, and your friendship. May the current carry you safely home.” 

The assembled relations began to swish their tails in unison, making an eerie bubbling sound, and the three of them followed Cassipa from Deep Light. 

She led them for a long time, until Deep Light was no longer in sight, into an area Harry was unfamiliar with. Nestled into an outcropping of large rocks, there was a cave entrance. It had a diameter of only about four meters, and inside was pitch black. 

Cassipa said nothing, just floated to the side. Ava looked at her mother, raised her chin stoically, and then led the way into the cave. 

One meter. One meter was how far they swam before they could no longer see the entrance. Potent darkness overtook them completely, broken only by their collars of glowing stones and, to Harry’s surprise, the tips of Ava and Parime’s fins, which glowed a gentle green. 

“Stars,” muttered Parime. “It’s dark.” 

“Fllf,” Ava scoffed, though her grip was tight around Harry’s hand.

“Come on.” Harry swam forward a paces, tugging them behind him, and abruptly ran into the cave wall. “Oww.” 

“Fllf, Snake,” Ava snickered. “Are you okay?” 

“Is this the danger your mother warned us about?” Harry moaned, pulling Ava’s had up so he could press his palm to his sore nose. “I’m turning back.” 

“It doesn’t go forwards,” Parime realized, tugging them lower in the water. “It just goes down.” 

They absorbed this. Tentacles of fear crept up Harry’s spine. 

“Snake, you know the word aelisf?” Ava asked.

“Ever upwards.” 

“Now we are going aeflin.” 

“Ever…downwards?” 

“Ever deeper.” 

They swam down.

And down.

And down.

Every so often they bumped into the walls, for the tunnel was narrow. They were swimming through a giant hole, blind but for beads and fins.

“Ow!” 

“Parime?” Harry asked. The merboy’s hand went loose in his briefly. “Are you okay?” 

“I hit my finger on the wall,” Parime said. “Ow! Hey!” 

“What?” Ava asked. 

Something grabbed Harry’s ankle. “Hey!” He kicked out, sending them floating upwards. “Something’s in here!” 

Their chain of hands broke as Ava and Parime both gasped and started hitting at something. Something pulled his hair. He batted at it, and got bit in the finger for his trouble. His motions sent him crashing into the wall, knocking his head. 

“Ow, ow!” Ava said. “I think it’s grindylows!” 

“Grindylows? Oh shit!” 

“Snake!” Parime said, horrified, “my cousin taught me that word; it’s rude!” 

Harry didn’t care. He’d heard Tonks use it once and always wanted to try it, and right now it felt really good to say. 

“I can’t see anything, ow, one bit my tail!” 

A grindylow bit his toe, and he kicked out and hit the wall instead. “Ow! Oh wait—hang on!” He clicked his fingers and his elflight appeared, lilac and lovely, illuminating a dozen little squidlike creatures with long fingers and sharp teeth. They squealed in anger at the light and attacked twice as furiously, biting and tearing. No matter how Harry tried, he couldn’t shake them off.

“Break their fingers!” howled Parime, and slammed his tail as hard as he could into the wall. It caught the grindylow’s fingers between fin and rock, and Harry heard a gruesome crunch before the grindylow squealed and fled. 

The others did not take the warning, apparently choosing to seek vengeance. One sunk its teeth into Harry’s arm and he seized one of its long fingers, cutting into his skin, and yanked it backwards until it popped and the grindylow retreated.

They broke fingers until there were no more fingers to break, and then they hung there in the mostly-darkness (minus one elflight, three collars, and two sets of fins) and sagged against each other, comparing war wounds.

“Look!” Ava said, flipping her tail up. A grindylow had taken a chunk out of the tip, but she wasn’t bleeding. Harry didn’t think he’d ever seen a mer bleed. “Little beast!” 

Harry stuck out his arm, which was bleeding.

“Snake, are you okay?” Parime asked, seizing his arm. “Stars, we need to go back!” 

“What? It’s just a scratch!”

Parime and Ava looked at him like he was out of his mind. “You’re bleeding!” Ava cried. “You need a doctor!” 

“Humans bleed at little things,” Harry said. “Don’t merfolk?” 

“If a mer is bleeding, they’re dying!” Ava cried. She pressed her hand shakily over his bite. “Are you sure?” 

“Yeah, look.” Harry tore a strip off of his tail wrap and tied it around his arm. “There, see? It’ll stop in a moment.” 

Ava looked extremely dubious, and Parime a little impressed. 

“Let’s keep going,” Harry said. “Shall I keep my light on?” 

Yes,” they said.

The cave was really odd, now they could see it more clearly. The rock was porous and brittle, and cut easily when you bumped against it. The walls had semi-regular stripes that protruded slightly from the rest of the cave. These hid dozens of little nooks where creatures lived, including tiny glowing crabs that scuttled towards his light like moths. He let them crawl over his hands for a moment, giggling as they tickled, and then set them back on the cave wall.

The cave’s dead drop continued for a long time—it was hard to tell time underwater on a good day, and almost impossible in a pitch-black hole—and then leveled out slightly, so they were swimming down a steep slope, and then began to curve ever so slightly back and forth, so they had to be very careful about just swimming straight down—Ava bashed her arm on the first slope, and after that Harry went first with his light, even though he was the slowest swimmer. 

It was on one of these slopes that he smelled it. “Do you smell that?” 

Ava made exaggerated sniffing noises with her flat nose, making him roll his eyes. Merfolk didn’t really smell like humans did. And humans didn’t really smell like Harry did. 

He opened his mouth and tasted the water. It really did smell. Like… sugar. Burnt sugar. But not in a bad way. 

“I can taste it now,” Parime said. “What do you think it is?” 

They didn’t know. They kept going. Soon they were swimming through burnt sugar water. It filtered through their gills and made them laugh. 

Actually, it did more than make them laugh. Ava had been swimming upside down for ten minutes, yelling at Parime to stop tickling her. Parime, who hadn’t touched Ava, was hanging off of Harry’s waist and making him tow him through the cave. The taste/scent was visible now in Harry’s elflight—currents of purplish water rippling up towards them. 

“Sn-Sn-Sa-nek,” Ava laughed. “Say that word again.” 

“What word?” Harry asked. His mind felt like it was puffing out of his head on potions fumes. 

“S-sh-sh—” Ava broke down in laughter. 

“Don’t say it!” Parime yelled in his ear. “It’s rude!” 

Red eyes winked at him in the darkness, then disappeared into stars. Harry halted, Ava and Parime crashing into him. “Did you—did you see that?” 

“See what?” Ava draped herself across their shoulders. “Hey, Sn-Sn-Sa-nay-kuh. How do you smell? Can you teach me?” 

“I don’t remember,” Harry said vaguely. “It has to do with yawning.” 

Ava huffed. “You know I can't yawn.” 

“Know my sorrow.”

Ava snorted, and Parime exploded into laughter. “Come on!” he said. “We’ve got to keep swimming.” He grabbed their hands and swam them down. They bumped against the sides of the walls, but kept going. 

Eventually, Harry’s mind started to settle back into his body. “Erm. Ava?” 

“Yeah, Suh-nay-kay?” 

“Do you feel weird? My head feels weird.” 

“I feel good.” 

“I feel weird,” Parime offered. “My head hurts. I keep bumping into walls.” 

“Me too,” Harry said. And then the squid attacked. 

They shrieked as one and threw themselves to the walls to evade its tentacles. It wasn’t as big as Dances With Grace—it would be hard to be—but it was certainly as big as any one of them, and definitely malevolent. Ava, sluggish, didn’t make it to the wall in time, and the squid got a tentacle around her tail and started hauling her in.

“Ava!” Harry screamed. He grabbed for one of her arms, missed, grabbed again, missed. He was only half in control of his body. He grabbed one more time and snatched her hand. “Parime, help!” 

Parime was trying, and having the same problem as Harry. “Let her go!” he snarled, yanking as hard as he could with Harry. It was no use: the squid just glared at them meanly over its mouth, opening to take a bite out of Ava. 

“AAAAAHH!” Harry released Ava and kicked off of the cave wall, launching himself at the squid. He had meant to go for the eyes, but overshot with his fumbling arms, landing scrabbling on its body. He dug his fingers in and felt it flinch, so he dug them in more and started kicking too. It worked. The squid let go of Ava and started trying to bash him into the wall. 

“HE-E-ELP!” he screamed, dizzy and nauseous. 

“SNAKE!” Ava shouted. “LET GO NOW!” 

Harry let go. Instead of being squished into the wall, he hurled through the water and bumped off the slope. Up above him, Ava and Parime each seized one of the squid’s long tentacles and swam away from each other, fast. The squid trumpeted as it was yanked in opposite directions, sank down, and with an abrupt burst of propulsion, launched itself upwards. Its tentacles ripped out of Ava and Parime’s hands, and the squid jetted up the hole like a bat out of hell.

Parime and Ava came bumping down to where Harry lay, exhausted. 

“I don’t feel so good,” Ava groaned, clutching her head. 

“You remembered how to say my name,” Harry noted. 

“What happened to us?” Parime asked. 

“I think we breathed something weird in,” Harry said. “Look.” He pointed up with his elflight. There was a long crack in the wall, out of which was venting purple liquid.

“Do you think our parents know about that?” Parime asked. 

“Probably not,” Ava said. “My mother Cassipa’s going to be furious. And my mother Loch’s going to laugh for days.” 

“When will we be at the bottom?” Harry asked. “We’ve been swimming for ages.” 

“Only hours,” Ava said. “But I agree.” 

The answer to Harry’s question was: in several minutes.

“Oof!” 

“Ava?” Harry called. “You okay?” 

“Found the bottom,” she said weakly. Harry and Parime floated down to settle beside her. They lay on the floor and looked up into the darkness.

“Here we are,” Parime said. 

“At the bottom of a hole in the bottom of a lake,” Harry said. 

“Isn’t there supposed to be a monster down here?” Ava asked. “Was it the squid? We didn’t get its bones!” 

“Do squids have bones?” Harry asked. He shone his elflight all around the bottom of the hole, which wasn’t very big. They inspected all of it very quickly. All there was was rock. “Hang on, didn’t your mother Xara say to use our intelligence?” 

“A puzzle!” Ava cried. “First, we have to find the monster!” 

“I think we already have,” said Harry slowly, running his hands along the walls. 

“You don’t think—” Parime asked. He floated over to the wall and chipped at it with a sharp finger. 

“Maybe?” 

“What?” Ava asked. “Oh, fllf, wow, really?” 

“We’ve been in it the whole time,” Harry said in awe. They stared back up towards the surface with newfound reverence. This wasn’t a hole, and it wasn’t a tunnel. It was the petrified body of an ancient worm. The regular striations on the walls made sense now. 

Harry shivered. All of the sudden, he felt as if the worm would come to life and close its mouth on them, and then it would be darkness forever. 

Ava was obviously feeling the same. “If it’s a worm, then the rocks are its bones,” she said. “Everyone grab a pebble.” 

They grabbed pebbles and started to swim upwards. When they came to the vent, they stilled the movement of their gills for as long as they could, but in the end couldn’t help but allowing a bit of it to pass through them. The giddiness lasted for a shorter time, but they didn’t meet the squid again, nor the grindylows. By the time the substance wore off, they were close to the exit. First it was an off-color disc in the distance, then a haze of grey light, and then a blinding window. Harry let his elflight fizzle out and they squinted as they came out of the hole.

“Oh, thank the current,” Ava said, wriggling down into the sand. “Sweet fresh water. I’ll never go in a hole again.” 

“How often do you go in holes?” Parime asked, also looking relived to be up. 

“After this, never.” 

Pebbles in hand, they made their way triumphantly back to Deep Light. It glittered like a beacon in the distance, lovely and etherial, and Harry felt like the three of them, with their glowing collars, were pieces of it returning home. 

Xara and Helmand, Parime’s father, were waiting at the entrance to the house, and when they saw the three of them coming they pulled out two long, thin abalone horns and sent deep notes reverberating through the water. Ava, Harry, and Parime laughed and swam faster, though they were exhausted, and their parents caught all of them up in hugs. 

Just about everyone had crowded into the entrance chamber to see them return. Cassipa pushed her way to the front with a lot of elbowing, and they fell back to float formally in front of her. 

“Well?” she asked. “Did you retrieve the bones of the ancient monster?” 

Biting back smiles, they held up their pebbles. Cassipa took them. “I shall return these to you as tokens of this day. Avalon, Snakeheart, Parime: you have honored your families. You have returned a little less ignorant than when you departed. Go forth and feast.” 

“There was gas down there that got us high,” Ava whispered.

Cassipa’s face froze. “There was what?”

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Cassipa approached Harry as he was cleaning out his bowl of grain and fish, absolutely famished. “Here, Sa-nek. Lift up your hair.” Harry did so, and she fastened a necklace around his neck with his pebble on the end. It rested just below his pearl from Samba. “You were very brave. A real mer.” 

“Thank you, Cassipa,” he said shyly. 

“Sa-nek, will you call me Aunt Cassipa?” 

He looked up in shock. “What, really?” 

She nodded. “I would be honored.” 

He grinned at her. “Thank you!” 

“Thank you. What did you think of the test of courage?” 

Harry smiled. “It was fun. Very…test-like? We were definitely courageous.” 

“Good. I don’t have to tell you not to speak of the details to anyone younger, do I?” 

Harry shook his head. “No, Aunt—Aunt Cassipa.” 

Once, he had called someone else aunt. It didn’t feel at all like this. This sent warmth bubbling up through him like starlight. 

When the festivities ebbed—mostly feasting and dramatic storytelling by various relations—Harry dashed to Ava’s room and retrieved the parcels in his bag. He found Ava and Xara in the kitchen. Xara waved him over.

“Here—er, Aunt Xara?” 

She beamed at him and bumped the top of his head with her chin. Ava was smiling so hard she hardly had any cheek left.

“Er, this is for you.” He pressed the package into her hand.

“Why, thank you Sa-nek.” She unfolded the leaves he’d used to wrap it. Her mouth dropped open. “Fllf. Sa-nek?” 

He rocked back and forth in the water. “Do you like it? I asked Vogir to give me a bit extra.” 

She stared and stared at the small spool of acromantula silk. “Does, fllf, does the queen already have some?” 

“Well, yes, I sent some to Ava.” He quirked an eyebrow at her, and she gave him a cheek-thumbs-up. “She gave it to Samba, anyway. But that’s just for you. For your tapestries?” 

He was enveloped in Xara’s wide arms. There were few places he preferred to be.

“Thank you, Sa-nek,” she said. “I will cherish this. Perhaps the first acro-silk weaving in fifty years. It will have to be something very special.”

“Ava,” he said, and thrust her package out, which was flat and thick. She unwrapped it carefully, revealing a sheaf of seaweed pages.

The Tales of…Beetle the Bard,” she said slowly. “'The Fountain of Fair Fortune' and 'The Tale of the Three Brothers'.” 

“It’s all I had the time to copy out,” he said apologetically. “There are more stories in the actual book.” 

“You copied me out a wizard book on mer paper!” she cried. “This is brilliant! I’ve always wanted to read a wizard book!” 

“I know!” He grinned at her. She did a flip in the air and hugged him. “Wait, wait, look behind it!” 

She rifled through and found a separate group of papers. “fis Krilik Krilium Beetle…you translated them!”

“They’re probably not very good, but I was practicing,” Harry said. 

“This is UTTERLY CURRENT-BENDING! Come on, come on, you have to have yours now!” 

“But I have things for Loch and Cassipa!” 

“Ugh, fine.” 

To Cassipa, he delivered a plant he had grown from a seedling Limmy had given him, which grew equally well above ground and under water, and produced little fruits when mature. To Loch, a bundle of ancient seaweed letters, carefully chosen. Her face when she realize what they were was indescribable.

Ava dragged him into her room and fished around in a box for a moment, and came out with a bracelet.

“Didn’t wrap it, sorry! It’s all lake glass I found!” 

Harry held it delicately. “Wow, Ava.” Lake glass was hard to come by, and each piece of this one was glowing gently. He slipped it on his wrist and held it up to admire. “Thank you.” 

“And my mothers have gifts too, come on!” She hauled him out of the room and harassed Loch until Loch got Xara and Cassipa to join them, and then they presented Harry with a chest.

“To keep in Ava’s closet,” Loch said. “So you can keep your things here.” 

Harry’s throat felt tight. The chest was light pumice, carved with underwater landscapes. He ran his fingers over the edges. 

“Open it,” Xara urged. 

Harry opened it. Inside was a floaty piece of fabric. He unfolded it to reveal a new tail-wrap that shone an iridescent purple, little designs picked out with abalone. 

“It’s beautiful,” he said. He looked up at the merfolk, feeling very close to tears. “Thank you all so much.” 

“Sa-nek,” Loch said, leading the little family in hugging him all at once, “you are our honor.” 

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The festivities lasted three more days, though they were less dangerous and more delicious. Harry, Parime, and Ava wrote a whole seven chapters of their new book, set on Mars after all. Harry told them about his recent adventures in dream interpretation and gave a demonstration, except he didn’t know what it meant to dream of eating sushi with the giant squid, and so it was a little anticlimactic—Ava and Parime were still impressed. 

Gihon gave Harry a dental appointment and a toothbrush, after extracting a solemn promise that he would use it. It was a mer toothbrush, but Harry thought he could make it work.

Several members of Ava’s family expressed their support to his face, and several of them expressed their disapproval to his face. He wore his new tail-wrap and even the disapproving ones seemed impressed. Business crept in at the end when Samba came to visit and discuss trade details that were difficult to communicate through Ava, but even she seemed festive and cheery, and had brought him and Ava a plate of delicacy sushi.

At the end of the week, he left his tail-wrap and glowing collar in his new chest in Ava’s closet, right next to hers, hugged Xara, Loch, and Cassipa, promised to send notes via Ava, and accepted a bundle of leftover sushi to take home. Ava and Parime accompanied him to the surface.

“Bye,” he said morosely, as they approached the lake surface, which had melted over the week. There were things to be done at home, but he was sad to leave them all the same. 

“Bye, Snake!” They gave him enormous hugs.

“Can Parime come to our visits?” Ava asked.

“Definitely,” Harry said. “I'll bring The Dream Oracle next time, after I renew it at the library. See you soon!” 

colored pencil drawing on black paper: a purple merperson, a human boy, and a blue mer person, sitting at the bottom of a hole and looking upwards

“At the bottom of a hole in the bottom of a lake.”

Chapter Text

Not many students stayed at the castle over winter holiday. Harry figured they all had homes to return to. Which made it stranger that Percy had stayed. Harry knew for sure that his brothers were gone. He hid in the library, mostly, when Harry was trying to sneak in and read. Harry had been looking forward to the holiday for the express purpose of being able to enter the library safely in the daytime, but there Percy was, without fail, absolutely buried in piles and piles of parchment and books.

At least he wasn’t very observant. Harry, invisible, crouched behind the “L” stacks —“Legilimancy” through “Lethifold”—and observed him. It wasn’t creepy, really, no matter what Myrtle said. He’d been in the library already, to look for books on hiding things. It was just that he’d never seen someone so studious. Right now Percy was scribbling frantically on a roll of parchment that was already several feet long, his face smudged with ink, his sleeves rolled up. Harry wondered how he could write that fast with a quill—Harry had tried one once, when it had been left out in a classroom, and had snapped it immediately.

As he watched, Percy kept scribbling with one hand and flipped open a book to reference with the other. He was writing a Divination essay—Harry could read the book title, Unfogging the Future. Harry liked Percy because he always payed attention in Trelawney’s class, even if his classmates laughed at him. Myrtle said he liked Percy because Percy’s nose was cute, which Harry had told her was incorrect. Even if his nose did remind Harry of a button.

Sadly, Harry didn’t know what Percy was writing about, since he had missed the last Divination class due to almost dying. He’d gone regularly since he’d discovered that as long as he got there early, everyone was too bored to notice him in the curtains, even without Chikkeritt's pendant. Well, Percy wasn’t bored, Percy was focused. But still too focused see the shape distorting the curtains.

Harry had just gotten up to go look for books when Percy stopped writing, put his forehead down on the table, and began to cry quietly. 

Harry stood up in alarm, holding on to the “K” shelf in worry. Percy put his arms over his head and sniffed. “Stupid,” Percy muttered. “This was your idea, anyway. Not worth crying over.”

Harry very, very, very badly wanted to go to him, but what on earth could he do? He left Percy and went to find his book. 

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Alohomora.” Harry shook his wand. “Alohomora.” It was working, he could feel it: with the wand, his magic was easier to use. It was like the wand pulled it out of his chest, where he once had to coax. That didn’t mean spells were easy—it just meant the magic flowed better. The spells themselves were as hard as ever. 

But this, this was a spell he’d done without a wand and with a wand and so it had to mean that while the magic was working, it just wouldn’t work on the Riddle's curse.

He kicked the glowing green barrier in frustration and aimed his wand at it again. “Alohomora!” 

“Riddle’s magic was strong,” said the basilisk, downcast. “Stronger than most I have ever known. Perhaps you will need a stronger spell.” 

“Perhaps,” Harry said. But he kept trying until he couldn’t stand up. 

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“Happy New Year, Snake!” 

“Happy New Year!” 

The kitchen was filled with floating golden lights that roamed from head-high to the very top of the ceiling, through which moonlight shone down. Of course, Harry was taller than elf head-height, and so little lights kept getting stuck in his hair. He didn’t mind, though, because it was making Limmy laugh. 

“Come have a starcake,” Limmy said, taking his hand and pulling him along. She was wearing her pink feather necklace, the threstral-hair bracelet he’d given her for this holiday, and had made a crown of mistletoe sprigs. Harry waved to Drippy and Norry as she pulled him towards the back of the kitchen. They waved a deck of cards at him. 

“Come play!” Norry shouted.

“In a minute!” Limmy hollered back.

All the Hogwarts elves were in the kitchens for the celebration. He’d only seen them all together once before, and that had been an accident. This time, he’d been invited. 

Fresh starcakes were being dusted with powdered sugar and hot spice. They were delicate confections of fried dough in the shape of four-pointed stars. Limmy gave him one just hot enough to almost burn his fingertips, and it felt like eating spicy clouds. Limmy held hers up in front of her eye to give him a starcake wink.

“Elves isn’t celebrating the new year until two am,” Limmy told him—the clock said twenty til, “on account of needing to be cleaning up for wizards’ new year first.”

All around them, elves were chatting and laughing with starcakes in one hand and delicate glasses in the other. 

“What’s everyone drinking?” he asked. 

“Elf-made wine,” said Tippy, coming up behind him. “Happy New Year, Snake. You may haves some wine. But only a little. It’s strong stuff.” 

Tippy snapped her fingers, and a tiny glass the size of a thimble filled with glimmering golden liquid appeared in the air. Harry pinched it between thumb and forefinger before it could fall to the ground. Limmy had her own glass, though it was normal sized. 

“How come Limmy is having more!” Harry exclaimed. “She’s young too!” 

“It’s not age,” Tippy said, laughing. “You is human, Snake. And this is real elf wine. Try it.” 

Harry put the thimble to his lips and tipped the contents down his throat. 

Warmth rushed through him. His eyes popped wide open, his hair stood straight on end, and he started hovering an inch off the ground. He opened his mouth to gasp and sparks burst out. 

Limmy and Tippy were curled over themselves with laughter.

“Nice one!” Limmy said. She straightened up and took a sip of her own wine. Her ears wiggled and her eyes brightened a bit, but nothing else happened. 

Harry, still floating, used his extra inch to grab a floating light and put in in her drink. She spluttered and fished it out, flicking it into the air again. 

“Wants to play euchre with the others?” she asked. 

“Sure,” Harry said. 

And then the kitchen door opened, and Albus Dumbledore stepped in. 

Harry squeaked. In half an instant he was surrounded by the six elves that had been closest to him. He dropped his thimble and fumbled for his necklace, turning it so that Chikkeritt’s hair touched his skin. He vanished from sight, but Limmy still had a hold of his hand. Stealthily, she dragged him—he was still hovering—towards the back of the room. 

The rest of the elves seemed to be taking Dumbledore’s appearance in stride. They weren’t alarmed or upset, but things grew more subdued. The lights moved slower, the elves stopped talking as loudly.

“Good evening,” Dumbledore said, stepping inside. “I don’t mean to interrupt the festivities, I merely wanted to wish you all a Happy New Year.” 

“Happy New Year, Professor Dumbledore,” said Norry, making his way to the front of the room. “Won’t you sit down and have a starcake?” 

“I shouldn’t,” Dumbledore said. “I’m afraid it’s past my bed-time.” 

“Just one,” said Noddy, who was already carrying one over on a little golden plate. “And a nip of elf wine, sir.” 

“Albus, please,” said Dumbledore. “And perhaps just one, then, if you don’t mind. Don’t let me interrupt.” 

Taking him at his word, the elves went back to socializing, though from the corner Harry knew it was still subdued. 

Norry, Noddy, and Tippy sat with Dumbledore at one of the long tables, speaking amicably. Tippy even pulled out a deck of cards and dealt a quick hand for rummy. 

“Limmy,” Harry whispered.

“Shh!” 

Shutting up, Harry sank down—still hovering an inch—and curled his arms around his knees, watching Dumbledore. He wore shimmering gray robes with little gold stars, and had foregone a hat. His white hair was as long as his beard, and he had a little red flower tucked behind one ear. He played rummy with one hand, eyes keen on his cards, and sucked powered sugar of the fingers of the other. The elves playing with him seemed quiet at ease. 

Finally, at five til two, Norry won handily and Dumbledore stood. “Thank you for the hospitality,” he said. “I will leave you to your celebrations. Happy New Year.” 

All the elves turned to wave at him and wish him the same. The moment he had disappeared, talking picked up again, louder than ever.

Harry flipped his necklace back around. “That was close.” 

Limmy nodded, looking strained. “Let’s go play euchre.” 

Harry trailed after her to the table, having stopped floating. Norry and Drippy moved to join them.

“Drippy?” Harry asked. “Is you…friends with Dumbledore?” 

Drippy thought about it, taking a sip of elf wine. “We is…appreciative of Professor Dumbledore. He respects us elves. Many is not so lucky.” 

Harry hesitated. 

“Ask,” Norry commanded.

“I don’t knows,” Harry said, shrugging. “I’m confused. He seems…good?” 

Drippy put a hand on Harry’s arm. Harry met his luminous green eyes. “A good master, Snake, is still a master.” 

The clock struck two with a resounding chime. Around them, elves leapt to their feet, raising elflights in the air. Harry joined them, his lilac light blending into a rainbow starfield. 

“To the future!” cried Norry. 

“To the future!” the elves echoed.

Limmy slipped her hand into his, her eyes fierce and joyful. “To the future!” they called together. 

small green sprout

On his way back from the party, Harry didn’t go straight home. Instead, he slipped through the deserted halls of the castle to the library. 

Sure enough, there was Percy, asleep with his head on his potions text. A crumpled handkerchief was clutched in his fist. Quiet as a mouse, Harry tiptoed up to his table and slid a starcake on a plate next to his hand. 

He went home. 

small green sprout

Harry stretched out on a bench in the courtyard, basking in the sun. He didn’t often get a chance to be here, but it was one of his favorite places in the castle. There was a magical barrier over the top, allowing sunlight to come in but keeping out the cold. Lying on this stone bench in a sunbeam, it could have been the middle of summer. He closed his eyes and breathed. 

Double footsteps on stone.

His widening, he flipped his necklace and rolled off the bench, thumping painfully to the ground. With barely a second to lose, he scrambled behind a statue of a rearing unicorn, pressing his hand against his necklace to be sure it stayed.

“Ahh,” sighed Minerva, sinking onto the bench where he had just been lying, tilting her face to the sun. “You were right, Albus, I should come here more often.” 

Dumbledore settled himself behind her, the sunlight making his beard shine. “Now if only I could tempt Severus.” 

Minerva snorted. “Merlin knows the boy needs the sun.” 

Dumbledore chuckled gently. They sat there in the sunbeam in silence for a few long moments, and then Minerva sighed. Her usually-perfect posture slumped a little. It alarmed Harry to see. 

“Well, Albus?” she asked quietly. “Don’t beat around the bush, now.” 

Dumbledore took off his half-moon spectacles and rubbed his eyes. Harry had never seem him look tired before, but he did. He shook his head. “At this point, Minerva, I must assume the worst. That the boy was taken by his followers, used to resurrect their lord, and killed.” 

Minerva pressed a hand to her mouth, shaking her head, speechless. “Oh, Albus.” 

Dumbledore’s face was drawn. “I…well. I have no way of confirming this, Minerva. It is only my speculation, now that we have exhausted every option. And if there is even the slightest chance I am correct…well, we must operate with the worst assumption in mind. That he is alive again, somewhere.” 

Minerva let out a strained hiss, hands clenched around the stone bench. “What, then are our next moves? Surely the ministry won’t listen to a word of it.” 

“No, of course not.” Dumbledore laughed bitterly. “No, I am afraid it is up to us. I have told you of my suspicions.” 

Minerva shook her head in slow horror. “Yes, atrocious as such an act…such acts…are to contemplate.” 

“Indeed. I think…I think we must begin to search. I have my suspicions about a potential location.”

Minerva suddenly opened her eyes and gripped his shoulder. “Don’t you dare go alone, Albus. By Merlin, I shall not help you if you do. Swear to me this instant. You are now, more than ever, too valuable to be lost through rash action.”

Dumbledore laughed. “When am I ever rash, Minerva?” 

Minerva laughed, high and bitter. “When indeed.” 

His face fell into deep sorrow. “I swear it. I’ll take you and Severus. I trust you both with this.”

“Good. Good.” Minerva turned her face back up to the sun, like a cat. “Ah, Albus. How could we have failed them more?” 

Dumbledore didn’t respond, just rested his hand on hers. They sat there and watched the clouds for a long while, so long Harry almost fell asleep with his head on his knees. And when, finally, they left, he crawled back onto the bench and wished that he understood what they had been saying, and that terrible things did not exist in the world.

Chapter Text

One day, Harry walked into the den, met the basilisk’s yellow gaze, and felt nothing. 

“Finally,” he said. “You have lovely eyes.” 

“Thank you.” The basilisk sounded pleased. “This is excellent. I will now have to get used to looking at you. But…I am about to leave again.” 

“Oh.” Harry frowned. It wasn’t that he didn’t have things to do. But he did miss the basilisk; it had been gone so often recently.

“Would you…like to come with me?” 

“Really?” 

“Indeed. If you can withstand my gaze, perhaps you can withstand the deeps. If it affects you poorly, of course, we will turn back.” 

“I want to go! Now?” 

“Now,” agreed the basilisk. 

Harry scrambled around, wondering what he needed to bring.

“I will hunt for you,” said the basilisk. “So no need to bring food. And we will be near water at all times.” 

“Is it cold?” Harry asked.

“No. It is very hot.” 

“Oh.” He put down his bag. “I suppose I don’t really need anything, then.” 

“Indeed. Will you ride on my back?” 

“Sure.” He clambered up behind the basilisk’s head, holding on to his scales. 

They went. The basilisk flowed as swift as a river, out of the hall and into the network of corridors, and plunged headfirst down a giant gaping hole in the floor.

Harry shouted in excitement, and the basilisk hissed in fierce joy. The speed was marvelous, the utter darkness (but for the basilisk’s glow) terrifying, and Harry felt so alive. After a long, long time of this speed, the basilisk slowed. Harry slid off its back and walked alongside it as it slithered. It was the only source of light down here, but it was also massive. They were in a tunnel that sloped downwards, only it was more like a cave system. Any tunnel that could fit the basilisk would have to be. 

The walls were all slightly wet, and bits of stalactites littered the floor from where the basilisk had passed on previous journeys. It wasn’t cold, just like the basilisk said. Harry was comfortably warm. 

“You come here to try to help your children?” Harry asked, trailing his fingers along the damp walls. 

“Yes.” 

“How?” 

“Ahead in the deeps—”

“We’re not in the deeps?” 

The basilisk gave a hissing laugh. “No. We are far from the deeps.” 

“Oh.” 

“In the deeps are many mysteries. Deep and old powers. Friends. They are hard to find, now, but still I search. Every so often I meet one, and I ask them: do you know of any aid? Is there anyone or anything you know who would? Thus far, the answer has been no.”

“Oh.” Harry brooded for a while. “I’m learning a lot in classes. A lot of useful things. Learning how to use my wand. I think soon, maybe….” 

“I trust you,” said the basilisk. “Focus on learning all you can.” 

“I am.” 

They descend, and descended. It was almost like the test of courage during Iceglow, except they were not traveling through the belly of an ancient worm: they were traveling through the intestines of the earth itself, and they were alive. Harry could feel them expanding and contracting, shifting as he and the basilisk shifted along them. Much like in the deep wood, time lost meaning. There was only the steady warmth and light of the caves, the scrape of the basilisk’s scales along stone, and his own footsteps. 

They slept when Harry tired and rose when Harry woke. The basilisk didn’t sleep much, and here in the earth, it slept less. The very tracks in which they journeyed nourished and invigorated it. It hunted for Harry when he slept, and brought him back strange long-pawed rodents and eyeless insects. The eternal dampness of the cavern walls pooled into crevices frequently enough for Harry to never be thirsty. 

It got hotter and hotter. Harry felt it as sweat down his back and pressure in his skull. One sleep in, and he left his robe behind, draped across a stone to retrieve on the way back. He began to feel like the very air was squeezing him.

“Snakeheart?” asked the basilisk. Neither of them had spoken in so long that the words felt jarring, echoing in his brain. It wasn’t that they had decided not to speak—it was just that at some point, they had no longer needed to.

“Hm?”

“Are you too hot?” 

Harry opened his eyes. He had been walking with them closed for some time, mouth wide open, breathing in the scent of this place. He felt just like the eyeless furry creature the basilisk had brought him to eat the last time he slept. “No,” he said. 

“Are you sure? It took you quite a while to answer me, just now.” 

Harry hummed a bit and stretched out his hand to trail along the wall. The magic of it leapt to his fingertips in greeting. “I’m fine.”

“Alright.” 

They walked. The scent of this place, the magic of the earth, of the basilisk, of himself. They all mingled together. After a while he wasn’t really Harry at all. He was someone who would be very old, but was still young yet. He slithered through these same tunnels, surrounded by his siblings. Together they explored, lived, killed. For ages and ages. 

And then something happened. And he was the only one left. And so he went up, up towards the life and magic he could feel above. Hoping to replace what he’d lost. 

“Snakeheart? You are crying.” 

Harry remembered he had hands, and put them over his eyes. “Where did they go?” he moaned. “What happened to them?” 

“Who?” 

“We were together, and then they were gone.” 

“You were….” 

“I’m alone,” Harry sobbed. “I’m alone.” 

“Snakeheart!” The basilisk bumped against him, knocking him back a few steps. “Pull yourself out! Now!” 

Harry fell to his knees, shivering, shaking off echoes of ancient pain. “Basilisk?” 

“You fell into my mind,” said the basilisk. “‘Ware not to do it again. I am too much for you.” 

“Sorry,” Harry gasped. “I’m so sorry. Did you ever find out what happened to them?” 

“Yes,” the basilisk said, trembling. “Salazar helped me find out. They went too far down, Snakeheart. They were drawn to the center of the earth, where no life, no matter how strong, can sustain for long. There they died.” 

“But you, you come down here all the time!” Harry cried. 

The basilisk curled around him. “Not that far down. That would be many, many months of travel. Sometimes I go far enough to hear its call, but never further. Tell me if you hear it, Snakeheart. You must tell me if you do.” 

“I will,” Harry promised. He yawned. “I’m tired.” 

“Sleep. And should you stumble across my mind in your dreams, turn away.” 

They met a friend of the basilisk the next time Harry woke. Or rather, Harry woke with its arrival. He pushed himself up next to the basilisk just as the creature pushed its way through the stone wall, emerging paws-first with long claws that shone like diamond. Next came a noseful of feelers which glowed blue, a small head without eyes, and a pale, furry body. 

“My friend,” said the basilisk gladly, shielding Harry from the explosion of rock and dirt the creature sent flying. The basilisk pushed its face up to the creature’s feelers, and it snuffled around its scales. 

“Basilisk,” said the creature, its voice pebbly and sedate. “Glad am I to see you. But with whom do you walk?” 

Harry clambered over the basilisk’s tail and presented himself to the creature’s feelers, giggling as they brushed over him, gently tickling. “I’m Snakeheart,” he said. “Who’re you?” 

“Most call me nothing,” said the creature, “but some call me the mul. How have you come to walk with my friend?” 

“Snakeheart is my family now,” said the basilisk. “We are looking for an aid for my children’s curse.” 

“Joyous is it to find new family,” said the mul. With its huge paws, it began to scrape the rocks back into the hole it created. “Luck have you had?” 

“No,” said the basilisk. “I mean to ask those we meet along our way. You know of my plight?” 

“Yes,” said the mul. “Some. Cursed are your eggs, to sleep and neither wake nor die.” 

“Yes.” The basilisk closed its eyes in pain. 

“Can you help?” asked Harry. “With your claws, could you break the barrier?” 

The mul snuffled at its claws. “My claws? Tunnel through dirt and rock and wood they may, and for long, long years. But through magic? No.” 

“Oh.” 

“I thought not,” said the basilisk. “Do you have any other ideas?” 

“Think of one I may,” said the mul. “While I walk with you?” 

“Certainly,” said the basilisk. 

They journeyed on, Harry and basilisk and the mul. The mul moved with a sliding, scooping movement that fascinated Harry, and he peppered the creature with questions as they walked. 

“How old are you?” 

“Old? Who with sense measures these things?” 

“Do you have a family?” 

“Family? Yes, a family I have.” 

“Children?” 

“Children? Many, yes.” 

“Where are they?” 

“Where? Everywhere, here and there. Digging. Reaching.” 

“Reaching? For what?” 

“For what?” This the mul had to consider for a moment. “For…truth.” 

“Truth? How do you reach for that?” 

“Takes many forms, truth does. Truth is stone. Truth is dirt. Truth is death. Truth is blood. Reach for them all, we do.” 

Truth is blood. Truth is blood. Truth is blood. Harry staggered for a moment, dizzy. The basilisk caught him against its side. “Snakeheart?” 

“Fine,” Harry said. “Hot, I think.” 

“Do you need to turn back?” 

“No!” Harry put one foot in front of the other. “No. Mul, how do your feelers work?”

“My feelers?”

The mul left them some time later. It had been unable to come up with any ideas about the basilisk’s eggs. 

“It was good to see a friend all the same,” said the basilisk. “I never have much hope when I venture down here. It’s wizard magic, you see, and not many of my kind know about such things.”

“Your kind?” 

“The old creatures of the earth. The mul and I, the wyrm, some others. I am considered strange for going to live among two-leggers. But I don’t regret it. Even after my children. For I have had many friends among wizards. Many friends among humans. And you are one of the best.”

“You’re my family,” Harry said simply. “And I’m going to free your children.” 

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They walked. Soon the basilisk’s glow became muted by the glow of the cave walls: they sparkled with luminescent geodes, some of which had ancient insects frozen inside that fascinated Harry. The basilisk didn’t seem to feel the rising heat and pressure, so Harry tried not to show that he did. He didn’t want to be sent back. 

It was just, there were red eyes following him.

“Snakeheart? Are you well?”

“What? Yes, of course.” Harry jerked his gaze away from the pair of red eyes that were staring out at him from a deep green crystal in the wall. Unfortunately, they followed him, floating ominously in his vision. He shook his head.

“Snakeheart.” 

“I’m fine!” He strode ahead, closing his eyes, but the eyes followed him there too. They were malevolent and horridly familiar, something out of a long-buried nightmare or memory. 

Oh, but it was hot. Harry felt like he was being cooked. Even the water from the walls was warm. When he woke from his most recent sleep, his mind was foggy and warm. His heart felt like it was being squeezed. He stood, and staggered. 

“We’re going back,” said the basilisk. 

“No!” said Harry. “Please. I want to go on.” 

 “What do you keep looking at?” 

“Just the eyes,” said Harry, before he could stop himself. “No, I meant, at nothing.” 

“Eyes?”

“Red eyes,” admitted Harry. “Everywhere I look.” 

The basilisk was silent for a long moment. “We will turn back soon.” 

Harry breathed out in relief. He put one hand on the basilisk’s side, and they walked.

It was like walking into a dream. Those eyes followed Harry. The caves got brighter, somehow. He had to squint against the glare. Waves of magic warped the air and rippled against his skin, against his mind. It got hot, and hot, and hot, and then he was no longer walking through a cavern, he was walking across a starfield. 

“The future is a sky.”

“What, Snakeheart?” 

“The future,” Harry said slowly, his tongue thick and heavy, “is a skyful of stars.” He reached out his hand to grasp the one reaching towards him. A child’s hand, a night sky dotted with white galaxies. 

“Where are you reaching?”

He was reaching for truth. But truth changed from a starry hand to a bone white wand. His wand! Harry grasped it eagerly, realizing too late it was missing the basilisk scale grip and the thestral hair. The wood was the same—he could tell because when he tried to drop it, his hand was stuck fast. His head ached with the memory of pain. 

This was not his wand. 

Red eyes narrowed. 

He screamed. 

“Snakeheart! No more! Get on my back.” He was scooped up and placed across something hard and smooth, and then there was wind on his face. He put his arm over his eyes and willed those horrible red eyes to leave him alone.

The next time he woke, the eyes were gone. The air was recognizably cooler, though still quite warm. “Sorry,” he told the basilisk miserably. “We didn’t even find anything out.” 

The basilisk hissed a sigh. “No different from any other of my journeys. And I liked having you with me. But you need to have more care with yourself, Snakeheart.” 

“I know. But…” he hesitated. “I was reaching for something.” 

“So you said. For the truth?” 

“Maybe.” 

Chapter Text

“Now, the incarnation, all together: Wingardium leviosa!” 

“Wingardium leviosa!” chorused the class.

“Wingardium leviosa,” mouthed Harry, invisible. 

“Very good!” said Filius, standing on top of his desk with his hands on his hips, broad smile on his face. “Very good indeed! Now go ahead and give it a try on your feathers while I watch.” 

Next to Harry, Fred and George pointed their wands at their feather at the same time, elbowed each other, and then the one Harry had decided was Fred won out and managed to make the feather wobble into the air on the first try, jerking erratically back and forth.

“Very good, Mr. Weasley!” Filius said from table-height. “Now, it’s a bit unsteady—make sure your breathing is slow and calm, and your magic will be too. Take a few deep breaths, go on.” 

Fred closed his eyes and took a few even, deep breaths. The jerking of his feather slowed, but didn’t disappear.

“Keep at it!” encouraged Filius, and moved on. 

Make sure your breathing is slow and calm, and your magic will be too, Harry repeated to himself inside his head. Breathing calm, magic calm. 

The worst thing about being invisible in class was he couldn’t take notes. Now matter how inattentive students were in some classes, floating chalk was sure to be noticed. 

It was George’s turn. His feather shot straight up to the ceiling and wouldn’t come down. 

Harry smiled, reminded himself not to giggle aloud, and slipped off the edge of Fred and George’s bench to follow Filius, being extra careful not to bump into anyone or anything.

“Good, Miss Johnson!” he said in approval. “Five points to Gryffindor!” Angelina’s feather was hanging perfectly in front of her face. 

“Er, thanks professor,” she said, “except, I can’t get it down!” 

Filius chuckled. “Relax your arm. When you are tense and inflexible, so is your magic.” 

Angelina breathed deep and let her arm loosen. The feather drifted lower. “Chaster arm, professor. I’m trying to make the team next year.” 

“Add in some arm stretches to your regimen,” Filius advised.

“Will do, professor!” 

“Professor?”

“Yes, Mr. Jordan?” 

“Er…I’ve lit mine on fire.” 

“Oh!” Filius hurried over to Lee, who was nervously holding aloft a burning feather. “Aguamenti!” A perfectly placed jet of water doused the feather and, with a sigh of relief, Lee lowered it. 

“Too distracted,” chided Filius. “Your mind must be focused on the spell at hand, or risk such accidents. The incantations only focus the magic. It is truly the intention which determines the outcome. A distracted mind produces unintended results.” 

Flexibility and focus and calm, Harry thought. Flexibility and focus and calm. Remember. 

This was what made sitting in on classes, risky though it might have been, worth it beyond a doubt. Tonks couldn’t teach him this through the mirror. He couldn’t read this in a library book. If only he could try—if only he could take out his wand and make a feather hover and be corrected himself. 

But silent observation was better than nothing.

Class let out, and he silently, invisibly, trailed Fred and George to their next class. 

With the lake and forest essentially frozen, his emissary duties had ebbed until spring. The acromantulae went into semi-hibernation, and he and Ava communicated via mail. He’d tried to go to their monthly meeting, but found the ice was too thick for them to break through. 

In the meantime, to get a good handle on the different classes, he more or less attached himself to Fred and George, following a first year’s schedule. 

He was absolutely drunk on school, enjoying himself to an extent he hadn’t expected. At any moment he wished to be in three different ones at once. With Chikkeritt’s gift, they were all available to him, and it was absolutely overwhelming. There was Charms, Potions, and Transfiguration, Defense Against the Dark Arts, Astronomy, and Herbology. He’d been disappointed to realize that first years didn’t go to Divination, but he continued going with Percy’s class anyway. They were on to reading tea leaves. 

Now, he followed Fred and George—deep in conversation with Lee Jordan—down to the dungeons. It was time for Potions.

Severus, Harry had discovered with some surprise, was quite a horror in class. He would never have guessed it from how exhausted and sad the man seemed to be, but he seemed to express it all through anger. He snapped, took off points for small infractions, and generally lurked. Adding this to the fact that Potions was the hardest class for Harry to learn in—without the ability to take notes or actually brew, he was restricted to closely observing Severus’ correction of students’ technique—it wasn’t Harry’s favorite class. But he kept returning regardless, because what if the key to breaking the basilisk’s spell was a potion? 

Harry took a seat in the very back just as Severus waved his wand to shut the door. Another wave, and words appeared on the chalkboard. 

“Today, we are brewing a forgetfulness potion,” Severus said grimly, looking for all the world like he would love to drink one and forget this class. “Who has actually done the reading and can tell me another name for this potion?” 

A student’s hand shot up. “Essence of absence, sir.” 

“Correct. The forgetfulness potion is not a memory charm: it cannot temporarily or permanently remove memories. Rather, it makes them harder to access…for a time. Once it has worn off, is the drinker aware they have drunk it?” 

A different student raised their hand. “No, sir. It’s often passed off as a momentary lapse.” 

“Correct.” Snape waved his wand, and the description on the board changed to instructions. “Directions are as follows. What do you observe about the ingredients?” 

Lee Jordan raised his hand. “Sir, the mistletoe berries.” 

“What of them?” 

“Well, they make potions last longer. So, if they weren’t there, the potion would only be effective for a moment.” 

“Indeed. Only a few seconds, in fact. Which, for some things, might be enough time.” After this ominous statement, he called on another student. “Mr. Diggory?” 

“The Lethe River Water causes the forgetfulness, sir.” 

“Correct. What would happen if one were to drink Lethe River Water, Mr. Diggory?” 

Cedric hesitated. “Death, sir?” 

“Absolutely nothing, Mr. Diggory. For the rest of your life. It has been described by some observers as if one simply becomes a blank slate, forever. Unable to access memories, unable to retain new ones.” He stared around at them all, arms crossed. “Which is why I will be distributing the water, when your recipes call for it. Now get to it. Instructions are on the board.” 

Fred and George, it turned out, had a natural hand at potions. Whereas Severus snapped corrections at two-thirds of the class, he always passed by their cauldron with a silent sneer. Harry observed how Fred sliced the valerian sprig in paper-thin slices, how George crushed the mistletoe berries in his mortar, and how they measured ingredients on a scale—he had done that once, for the basilisk’s potion, but not as precisely. He mentally stomped the observations into his brain to remember to write down later.

A few tables over, Severus had his first eruption at Alicia, who had stirred counterclockwise instead of clockwise, and now had a cauldron full of blue fumes. She looked near tears, and the sound of Severus’ shouting made something like panic build in Harry’s chest.

Silently, he sidled over to Severus and pinched him in the side, leaping away as Severus cursed and turned to look around him. 

Alicia looked at him with wide eyes. “Sir?” 

Severus’ face crumpled in rage. “Peeves.” 

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“Wingardium leviosa.” Harry pointed his wand at a roll of loo paper. It jiggled and jumped, but didn’t fly. He sighed and took a deep breath and wondered if Jade Eyes would call this creation or negation. Was he creating something that flew, or was he negating the ability of a thing to not fly? Honestly, it didn’t make much sense to him.

“Try again,” said the twin he had decided was Fred. “This time, focus on seeing your aunt’s wand as an extension of your magic, not something separate from it.” 

Harry focused. The magic of the wand—the enfolded thestral, basilisk, and tree components—were familiar to him. But he was still thinking of it as something other than himself, because, in part, he couldn’t stop noticing how its magic was separate to him. He supposed Fred and George wouldn’t have this problem, being limited only to wizard magic and not being able, really, to feel the magic of other things. 

But was it a limitation, if they could do wizard magic so easily?

“Don’t you care about him stealing his aunt’s wand?” Myrtle asked mischievously, hanging bonelessly over a stall door. Harry cast her an irritated glance. She stuck out his tongue.

The twin Harry had labeled George snorted. “No way. How else is he to learn?” 

“Yeah,” added Fred. “We stole dad’s wand all the time before we got ours.” 

“Try again, Snake,” said George.

Harry did his best to feel the wand as part of himself and only himself. “Wingardium leviosa.” The roll hovered up about a foot and started to spin, unrolling explosively.

“Ack!” Fred said, batting paper away from his face. “Good one, Snake!” 

Harry sighed, ending the spell, and began rolling the paper up again. 

“Don’t get discouraged!” said George.

“Yeah, you’ll get the hang of it! You’re young yet!” said Fred. “Say, Snake. George and I were thinking.” 

Harry tossed the roll to Myrtle, who put it back in a stall. “Yeah?” 

“How would you feel about…playing a prank?” The twins leaned in eagerly.

“Er…why me?” 

“Well…” George held up a hand and began ticking off fingers. “You’re tiny. No-one else to ever seems notice you, so you’re stealthy. And you obviously don’t care about breaking the rules.” 

“I don’t really like pranks,” Harry said. He didn’t count pinching Severus in class when he was a bully as a prank. Pranks were having water dumped on his head and dirt thrown in his face and fingers stomped under trainers and other things laughed off by adults as pranks that he didn’t like thinking about much at all. 

“Oh.” Fred pouted. “But this one’s just on our stuffy brother Percy.” 

“Percy’s not stuffy!” 

They stared at him. He flushed bright red. “I just think he’s a hard worker, is all. And smart?”

“And he has a button nose,” crooned Myrtle, settling in between the twins. 

“No he doesn’t!” Harry yelled viciously.

“Oh Merlin, Fred,” moaned George. 

“I’m going to be sick,” groaned Fred.

Harry’s head felt like it would explode from embarrassment. “Shut up! I’m not helping you, then!”

“Aw, we’re sorry!” cried George.

Fred grabbed his hand. “We were just joking, Snake. Percy’s, er, a decent fellow.” 

“We can play a prank on someone else!” said George. 

“Someone like—”

“Uh—” 

“Pucey!” they chorused together.

“Pucey?” Harry asked doubtfully. 

“He turned Alicia’s hair puke-colored yesterday!”  

“And he’s in Slytherin.” 

“What does that have to do with anything?” Harry asked.

They looked at him, stumped. “Well,” said Fred. “Slytherin and Gryffindor don’t get along. They never have.” 

“What, never? Why?” Harry looked at Myrtle for confirmation, who nodded sagely. 

“Because Slytherin is made of a bunch of snobby muggle-hating purebloods,” said George. “And Gryffindor is—”

“A pack of filthy blood traitors and muggleborns,” finished Fred.  

Harry didn’t know what a single one of those words was supposed to mean. “Er.” 

“But more importantly, Alicia thought she looked like a toad for an hour,” said Fred. “Don’t you want to help us get revenge?” 

“What’s wrong with toads?” 

George rolled his eyes. “C’mon, Snake! You’re the only one who can help us!” 

“Well…what were you planning to do?” 

And so Harry found himself playing his very first prank. His friend Mildred quite approved. He had vetoed several ideas from the twins until they had come up with something that he didn’t feel too bad about. 

Like crouching invisible atop a suit of armor, waiting for Pucey to walk past, and pouring a potion on his head that made bubbles start coming out of his ears. At first, Pucey didn’t even notice, but then he itched at his ear, and then caught sight of one of the bubbles. He had just realized what was happening as he turned the corner to his classroom—transfiguration with the Gryffindors—and started spouting bubbles in earnest. 

“Too much soap in the shower this morning, Pucey?” called Fred. The students started to giggle quietly, and even Pucey, who was now swatting at the bubbles, couldn’t quite keep his frown on his face. 

small green sprout

“That was the most low-key—”

“—nicest—” 

“—prank we’ve ever pulled.” 

Harry focused on keeping his piece of chalk aloft in the air. “Well, it’s all I’ll help with.” 

“Ugh,” they said together. 

small green sprout

“Snake, those Weasley boys won’t leave me alone!”

“Isn’t that a good thing?” Harry caught the ball and tossed it back. They were playing catch.

“Well…no! They brought a friend to meet me!” 

“Really? Who?” 

“His name’s Lee?” 

“Oh, cool. He transformed his beetle into a button on the third try the other day.” 

“You know, it’s a little creepy of you to spy on everyone.”

Harry caught the ball, outraged. “I’m not spying! I’m just going to class!” 

“Invisibly, and watching everyone. Anyway, they found out I can technically leave my toilet, and now they want me to go to dinner with them.” 

“That sounds fun,” Harry said, tossing the ball. “You should.” 

Myrtle flushed a pale white. “I’m a bit scared. I’ve haven’t been to dinner since I died.” 

“You must be hungry, then.” They both giggled.  

But the next time Myrtle left her mirror, it was not to go to dinner. It was to scare the socks off of him as he crept towards the library, invisible, in the middle of the night. 

“Snake?” 

Harry shrieked, leapt around, and fell backwards. “Myrtle! How can you see me?!” 

Myrtle twisted her hands, looking around anxiously. “Er. Am I not supposed to?” 

His heart pounded in his head. “No! I’m invisible!” 

“Oh. Not to me, I suppose. Look, Snake, can you come to my bathroom? Tonks is in there, and she’s really upset.” 

Harry picked himself up and dashed after Myrtle, taking all the shortcuts he knew of, which included sliding down banisters. The moving staircases still made him a bit uneasy, but he got over it for the thrill of going very fast down them. 

As they neared Myrtle’s bathroom, he could hear choked sobbing. He poked his head in. Tonks, skinny and pale and brunette, sat with her face in her knees against the wall. 

Harry looked at Myrtle, who made shooing gestures. Clearing his throat, he stepped inside. “Er, Tonks?” 

Tonks gasped and looked up, her hair shooting through with sickly yellow. “Who’s there?” 

“Er. It’s me. Snake.” 

Tonks looked towards the mirror in confusion.

“No, er. I’ve, um. I’ve come out of the mirror.” 

She looked baffled, and then abruptly exhausted. “Oh. I suppose that makes as much sense as anything else about you. Go away.” 

Instead, Harry crept over and laid a hand on her arm. She jolted visibly. 

“What’s wrong?” he asked. 

“I just want to be alone, Snake.” 

“Well…” Harry bit his lip. “In, er, the mirror world? We don’t leave each other alone when we’re sad. Can’t, actually.” 

Tonks snorted. “Can’t?” 

“It’s an honor thing.” 

“You’re full of it, mirror ghost.” 

“Well I’m still not leaving. What happened?"

Tonks sniffed and wiped her nose on her robe. Myrtle, nearly as invisible as Harry, floated over a roll of tissue. Tonks grabbed it and blew her nose. “I’m too old to get like this. Who ever heard of sixth years crying in the toilet?” 

“Well…I heard Charlie crying in the library the other day.” 

“Charlie?” Tonks wiped her eyes. “What about?” 

“Er….” Harry tried to remember. “I think about dragons?” 

Tonks snorted. “Typical. Anyway, it’s just…say, Snake, do you have a gender? Do ghosts?” 

“A gender?”

“Are there ghost girls and ghost boys?” 

“Yeah, I guess.” 

“Oh.” Tonks sighed. “I guess I always thought that after death we’d all just be…genderless mist, or something.” 

“Is that why you’re upset? About dying?” 

Tonks laughed. “No. Not yet, at least. It’s just….” Tonks sighed, and her face shifted. For a second, she flashed Filius’ face at him. He giggled, and she went back to her thin, wan face. 

“It’s just…you know when I do Snape or Dumbledore or someone? A man?”

“Yeah.” 

“Well…everyone treats it like a joke, you know?” 

“Well, it is a joke, right? You don’t really want to be Severus?” 

“No.” Tonks pushed her hair behind her ear. “But…whenever I do other boys, they treat it as a joke too. I can be any different sort of girl I want, but if I do a boy, I must be taking the piss.” 

“Oh. But…you’re not?”

Tonks shook her head. “When I look like a boy, Snake, I am! But no-one ever takes me seriously. I think it’s because I do joke so much.” Sighing, she changed. Her face and shoulders squared, her chest shrank, her hair shortened. “I went to breakfast like this and everyone just laughed rolled their eyes, but the longer I stayed like it, people started giving me weird looks and telling me it wasn’t funny anymore and to change back to my ‘real self’.” She changed again, to a person with olive skin and purple hair and yellow eyes. “Guess what, Snake? All of my selves are real. Tonks is everyone I ever look like. Even when I’m Snape. Even when I’m a boy.” 

She sniffed. “I know it doesn’t make sense. That’s probably not how it works in the mirror world.” 

“It does make sense!” Harry said loudly. “Those people are just bullies! Wizards are so horrible sometimes!”

Tonks laughed weakly. “Yeah, they are.”

“You should go live in the lake,” Harry said. “The merfolk wouldn’t care, I bet.” 

Tonks snorted. “Live in the lake, alright.” She sighed. “It’s late.” 

“You should talk to, um, Pomona? Won’t she help?” 

“Professor Sprout? What could she do?” Tonks shrugged. “I’m just going to wait it out. Only a year and a bit.” 

“Charlie!” Harry said. He had a very high opinion of Charlie, probably the coolest person at Hogwarts he knew. Or didn’t know, as it were. “Talk to Charlie. Won’t it help just to talk to someone who isn’t a, a mirror ghost?” 

“Maybe,” Tonks said. “That might be a good idea, Snake.” 

“You can talk to me too,” said Myrtle, becoming visible. 

Tonks gasped. “Moan—uh, Myrtle? How long have you been here?” 

“I’m the one who got Snake. Sorry.”

“No it’s…it’s okay. It’s your toilet, after all. Sorry for, you know, crying in it.” 

“That’s alright,” Myrtle said shyly. “I used to cry in it a lot, too. It’s good for that.” 

Chapter Text

A thestral foal had been born. 

Tonks, Serpentus, and Filius were quite irritated at him for spending so much time doting on the newborn, but even they couldn’t hold it against him when little Sybil—as Harry had begun referring to the foal—stumbled and tripped around the thestral clearing with oversized, razor-sharp hooves and those big black-hole eyes. 

Missives from the acromantulae to the basilisk and merfolk were stashed in his bag and had been for five days now. He was sure Samba wouldn’t mind the delay, especially once he explained there was a baby

Harry sat with Sybil’s head on his lap, stroking her wiry black hair. He could see her vertebrae through the thin, transparent skin of her neck. She seemed infinitely delicate, though Harry knew she could knock him over without much effort—it had already happened four times. 

The older thestrals watched the child dotingly. Sybil’s mother came over to whuffle at her mane and watch as her big eyes slowly drifted closed. Her whole body rose and fell with the relatively new experience of breathing. Harry laid his head on hers, and her mother snuffled his face too.

It made something ache in Harry’s chest. He wasn’t quite sure why. He thought maybe it was because he knew for certain that he’d never had this. Someone to kiss his face and watch him fall asleep, just because he was too precious not to. 

Slowly, he squirmed out from under Sybil. Her head flopped to the ground and she didn’t even wake. He laughed a bit, pressing a kiss to her nose.

Seeing him rise, Serpentus cantered over to him, Tonks close behind—Filius had gone to hunt with some of the older thestrals. 

“Yes, alright,” Harry said, giggling, the heaviness dissolving as Serpentus and Filius gently knocked him between their flanks. “Want to fly?” 

Serpentus whinnied and knelt eagerly, letting Harry slip onto his back. He and Filius took to the sky in a great rush of bat-like wings, powerful and exhilarating. Harry let the warming air—a little colder now, up in the clouds—burn the rest of his mood from his mind, and for a long, long while, it was just them and the sky.

When they touched down in the clearing, Sybil was attempting to swallow a mouse whole, and one of the older thestrals—Harry called this one Minny—came over to nudge at his shoulder.

“Yes?” Harry asked, because Harry was good at reading thestral emotions, and Minny was stamping one hoof in irritation. “Did I do something?” 

She snapped her teeth, walked few paces away, looked back at him, and walked a few more. 

“Okay, coming!” Harry said. Filius followed him, and together they walked through the forest as Minny led them vaguely in the direction of the castle. 

Harry heard the disturbance before he saw it. Bowtruckles, shrieking and growling, and, he suspected, biting, because he also heard muffled curses. Quickly, he turned his necklace to his skin, disappearing from sight. 

They crept closer to the commotion. Harry huddled up behind a tree and peered around, to see a wizard who was missing a significant amount of his limbs with one hand stuck in the tree, the other furiously batting away the bowtruckles that were swarming him. They were more vicious than Harry’d ever seen them; the wizard cursed and yelped and sent them flying.

Harry knew who this was. Kettleburn, the Care of Magical Creatures professor. Harry had never been to the class because he was following Fred and George’s schedules, and first years didn’t take it. He only occasionally saw Kettleburn passing through the entrance hall. 

And, he supposed, sticking his hand into bowtruckle trees. 

Minny pawed gently at his leg to get his attention, only tearing his trousers a little bit. With him watching, she walked up to Kettleburn and lurched around him, snarling and hissing. Kettleburn remained oblivious, and a free-falling bowtruckle smacked Minny in the head. She shook herself frantically to get it off.

“He can’t see you?” Harry asked Filius, baffled. “Why not?” 

Filius gave a rippling movement of annoyance. 

Minny came back to him and looked at him imploringly. “You want me to get him to leave?” Harry asked. She nudged him with her nose. “Alright. You can see me, though?” She nudged him again. That made two things that could see him despite Chikkeritt’s hair—ghosts and thestrals.

“Right.” Harry crept towards Kettleburn, who was cursing as he scrabbled for something in the tree trunk. Fishing his wand from his robe pocket, he aimed carefully and whispered, “wingardium leviosa.” 

Kettleburn began to float a few inches from the ground. He didn’t even notice for a moment, but when he did he yelled and kicked for a moment, before finally yanking his hand from the tree. 

Immediately, Harry ended the spell. Kettleburn fell down, landing on his hands and knees.

Grumbling and brushing himself off, he got up and put his hand back in the tree.

They repeated this three times, until at last Kettleburn drew the correct conclusion and stopped sticking his hand in the tree. Harry waited until he had stomped off in suspicious irritation to creep up and peer into the trunk, careful to avoid the bowtruckles. He could make nothing out except the soft movements of a sleeping, furry body.

Minny nudged him in appreciation. “You’re welcome,” he said idly, staring back at Kettleburn’s clumsy trail through the forest. What a rude man. 

Then Minny went completely rigid against him. He looked at her in surprise; her ears were flicked forward, sharp teeth bared, neck tendons standing out in tension. 

He realized the forest was absolutely silent. The gentle spring sounds had disappeared. It had been Aragog, once, who had told him to beware a silent forest. 

In the near distance, a creature bellowed. He had heard that bellow before. The sound of it drove an icicle through his heart. 

Minny pawed the ground once, twice, and then turned and fled, Serpentus half-flying after her. 

As if in echo of the roar, there came a scream.

“AHHH!” No, it wasn’t a scream, it was a war cry, defiant. And it was a child’s voice. A child in the forest. Harry, when he thought of himself in such a way, was used to being the only one of those. 

Harry flew. His body moved independent of his mind, leaping him over logs, through bracken, heedless of thorny plants slicing his arms—his legs took him not away from the sound, but towards it.

Branches cracked and splintered ahead of him, dark shapes heaving. Harry hurled himself through a bush to see a small black centaur foal, spear in hand, holding his own against the two-horned, humped beast Harry saw in his nightmares. 

A graphon. 

The only time he’d seen one, centaur warriors had shot it with arrows and crushed it under their hooves. Harry had neither. But he used the momentum of his desperate flight to leap and fling himself onto the graphon’s back.

He seized one of the beast’s horns and yanked with all his might, screaming bloody murder as it bellowed and tried to throw him. He simply had no choice. There was only one centaur foal in the forest. Harry was better dead by graphon mauling than by Bane if his son died in Harry’s presence. 

“Its throat!” shouted the centaur from far, far below him, as the graphon did it’s level best to hurl him through the treetops. “Bare its throat!” 

His arms were already jelly. With his last gasp of strength, he hauled back on the horn. The graphon reared up, bellowing in pain. There was an ugly sound as the centaur sank his spear into the only sensitive place on a graphon’s armored hide: beneath its chin.

The centaur grunted as he yanked his spear out, and the graphon finally flung Harry off as it screamed in pain, jerked erratically, and barreled away into the forest. 

Time slowed as Harry flipped through the air. One idle thought passed through his head: still better than Bane murdering me as Nayla watches. 

But he didn’t hit the ground—he bounced. Bounced three times until he rolled to a stop against a tree trunk. 

He sat there and thought about how lucky he was to have magic for a moment. And then the centaur walked to stand over him. 

“Hi, Araeo,” Harry said, grinning.

Harry had never seen a centaur smile so widely before. Araeo’s deep black skin was dotted all over with white patches. His face looked like the night sky full of stars. His hair was shockingly white, strung through with black glass beads, and he wore a pendant around his neck. 

His eyes…his eyes were pure white, foggy blue galaxies drifting across them. He almost looked blind. When Harry looked at them, he remembered Trelawney’s lilac eyes the first time he’d seen her. 

“It is so good to see you, Snakeheart.” Araeo held out a hand to help him up. A night sky dotted with galaxies, reaching for him. 

Harry took his hand. 

The moment their palms met, Harry’s heart thumped, once, so powerfully he stumbled as he rose from the ground—and Araeo stumbled too, back legs sinking down for a moment—and then Harry was standing, and their hearts—

—their hearts were beating in time.

Harry could feel it through their palms. Alignment. 

Araeo’s cloudy eyes met Harry’s. He was smiling so hard, and Harry knew he was echoing it. “We are heartkin,” Araeo said. 

Harry nodded as if this made perfect sense, and it did. Everything made just a little more sense now. “I’ve been dreaming of you,” he said. “Starchild.” 

“And I have seen you in the stars, Snakeheart,” Araeo said. His eyes squinted in joy. 

They stood there, hands clasped, breathing. Harry lost track of time for a moment, and then remembered what he’d been carrying around for a while. With his free hand, he rummaged in his robe pocket. “I was going to give this to Bane or Firenze when I saw them next.” He pulled out a small crumpled package and handed it to Araeo. 

Araeo beamed and tore it open one-handed, revealing a small note wrapped inside a bracelet of thestral hair. “Araeo,” he read aloud. “Hope Bane passed on my message and we can be friends. Here’s a bracelet made of thestral hair. The thestrals don’t mind. Your friend, Snake♡.

"They really don't mind," Harry assured him. "And I clean their hooves in exchange."

Araeo grinned at him. “Help me put it on.” He put the note in a bag he wore around his waist and passed Harry back the bracelet. Harry rolled it onto Araeo’s wrist one-handed with a little difficulty, but the option of releasing Araeo’s hand was so absurd it could be dismissed entirely. Their heartbeats thrummed together like a song. 

“I’m glad you like it,” Harry said shyly.

Araeo's smile was like the sun. “I have something for you as well." He pulled the pendant he wore over his head, putting it over Harry’s. It fell against his chest. Harry ran a thumb over the surface—it was a smooth circle of green glass, etched with a tableau: three stars in the sky, under them three trees. “That is the emblem of the Stargazer Band,” Araeo said. "Always wear it, so my kin can recognize you."

“It's beautiful. I-I thought you’d be like your father,” Harry said. “Grim stargazing and…and portents.” 

Araeo spluttered in amusement. “I do stargaze, Snakeheart. But perhaps I see more hopeful things than my father. You, for one.” Their hearts beat. It was a rhythm Harry already knew the dance to. 

Harry smiled. Araeo smiled. Harry thought he could probably stand here and smile for the rest of time.

It was not to be. 

There was a great galloping and cracking of branches from nearby. “Son!” came a booming voice that Harry was conditioned to respond to with a cold rush and straightened posture. “Araeo!” 

Bane galloped at full speed into the clearing, going so fast he had to overshoot them and wheel around. His face was frantic with worry, but when he saw Harry and Araeo, his expression turned very complicated, eyes going to the pendant around Harry’s neck, to their joined hands. 

“Araeo, why did you leave me?” he asked, cantering closer, reaching out and touching Araeo's arm. “I was so worried—what happened? What did you See?” 

“I saw only a serendipitous meeting with my heartkin,” Araeo said calmly. “Snakeheart saved my life.” 

“Saved…?” Bane’s eyes, which had strayed to their hands, went to Harry’s face. 

“I disturbed a foraging graphon,” Araeo admitted. Bane’s face went ashen; he clutched Araeo’s cheek. “It surely would have killed me, had not Snakeheart heard. He mounted the beast and pulled its head back so I could pierce its neck.” 

“You mounted…?” Bane asked in quiet horror. “And saved?” He closed his eyes and sighed. Araeo winked at him, and Harry grinned.

Then Bane tugged Araeo back. Their hands disconnected, and so did their heartbeats. Harry felt it like a physical shock to his chest. But Bane had pulled Araeo so that they could both bow to Harry, bending at the waist. 

“The Northern Stargazer Band is in your debt, Snakeheart,” Bane pledged, a hand to his heart, Araeo mimicking him with a wry grin. 

“I don’t want that,” Harry said quickly. All he really wanted was Araeo’s hand in his. He reached out, and it was already there. It wasn’t so much an electric jolt as their heartbeats alighted but a very small, very discrete earthquake. The shifting ground settling. 

“You have saved our future leader, and therefore we are in your debt,” Bane said sharply, eyes on their hands. “Accept it, child. You’ll not earn such a privilege again. Araeo….” 

Araeo turned galaxy eyes up to his father. Even Bane faltered under them. They simply looked at each other for a long, long moment. 

Bane sighed and shook his head. “Even I do not argue with the stars. Let’s go, Araeo. Your mother is waiting.” 

“Snakeheart!” Araeo turned to him, gripping his hand tight. “Next spring. The first of March, by the wizarding calendar. Come visit me, and pack for a long journey.” 

“I will,” Harry promised. He tightened his grip. He didn’t want to let go, but he sensed it was inevitable. 

Bane gave a long, tragic sigh and started walking away. Araeo winked at Harry and stuck his tongue out at Bane’s back. Harry stifled a laugh. 

Araeo wrapped Harry in hug that made his ribs creak. Harry tried his best to return the favor. “Until next time, my friend.” 

“Until next time,” Harry echoed. 

They let go. Their hearts’ rhythm fell apart, but Harry bore it. They waved at each other until Bane had dragged Araeo from sight.

Chapter Text

“What a wonderful thing,” said the basilisk, watching over Harry’s shoulder as he hung his necklaces on a little nail he’d pounded into the wall. “To have someone as close as your own heart.” 

He finished hanging his necklaces. Araeo’s Band necklace, Samba’s pearl, his Iceglow pebble, Chikkerit’s pendant. His bracelets he put down on a ledge nearby: thestral hair, an old friendship bracelet from Limmy, and Ava’s Iceglow present of lake glass. They were, every one of them, talismans of love. 

The basilisk was looking not at him, but at its eggs. He remembered, though he tried not to stray too far down that road, how he had slipped into the basilisk’s mind in the deeps—how it had been to remember its siblings, once as close to it as any other minds could be. 

He walked over and pressed himself to the basilisk’s side, placing one hand on the curse. It seemed alive beneath his palm, malignant and spiteful. “You’ll have it again,” he said softly, staring into the green light. 

“Do not think you are not that to me,” rumbled the basilisk. 

He looked up into its yellow eyes, burning hot like two suns next to him. Warmth filled him up. “I know,” he said, and gazed back at the spell again. “That’s why I’m going to do this.” He curled his fingers into the curse, digging his nails in. “No matter what. They’ll be free.”

The basilisk closed its warm eyes and sighed out, long and slow. “To have all the pieces of my heart together…it will be a joy immeasurable.” 

 

drawing of large snake with boy perched on tail

“It will be a joy immeasurable.”