"What's a Parselmouth?" Harry asked Snape worriedly a mere hour after the disaster that was the first duelling club meeting. Severus had begun explaining how the others did not hear his voice as coherent language."One who can speak to snakes."
"But I didn't even know I was speaking a different language!" Harry protested, angry at the apparent injustice.
Severus raised an eyebrow. "Interesting. I was unaware that it was a subconscious lapse."
Harry rolled his eyes. "That's not the point. Now the whole school thinks I am a freak."
"And what did they think before?" Severus said snarkily.
Severus leaned forward, hands clasped on his desk. "Harry, this is nothing new. I noticed it on our first trip to Diagon Alley. I did not think to mention it for I believed you were aware of this change in language."
Harry shook his head. "Why did Seamus say that I should be in Slytherin?"
"Salazar Slytherin was one of the most prominent parselmouths. The Dark Lord is also one."
"Great," Harry said sarcastically. "Sign me up for the junior Death Eaters; I'm a dark wizard prodigy."
Severus gave him a flat stare. "It means no such thing. It was inevitable that the other students would find fault with your character, seeing as you are invariably tied to the Dark Lord. Though it may not seem so, it is best that there were so many witnesses; fewer wild rumors will spring up."
Harry allowed his head to flop back as he stared at the ceiling and groaned. "Why can't I just be normal?"
Severus gave him a long look. "Do you truly wish to be?"
Harry raised his head. "Are you saying you could make me normal?"
"By no means. It was a simple question," Severus explained.
"Oh," Harry shrugged, a tad disappointed. "Well, no, I guess not."
Severus stood. "It is getting late, you should get to bed."Harry quailed at the thought of sharing a room with Seamus tonight. "Can I stay in your chambers tonight?"
Severus looked down at him, head cocked. "I suppose. Though it may look weak or guilty on your part."
"I don't care anymore," Harry muttered.
They entered the spacious rooms and Harry was acutely glad that it was stocked with extra clothes for him. Going up to retrieve his belongings would be more embarrassing than simply returning for the night. A knot of tension formed in Harry's stomach that, try as he might, he could not ease into comfort. Harry watched the flames dance in the fireplace as he thought of the condemnation he would face at the hands of his classmates.
Harry woke refreshed and steeled himself to face his comrades in the Great Hall for breakfast. He dressed carefully and walked with Severus out of the rooms. They traversed the halls until they came to an intersection where one way led to the common room and the other to the Great Hall. Harry bid Snape goodbye as he headed up to the common room to find his friends. He did not relish the idea of walking into the Great Hall and not having a sheltering cluster of friends to sit with. Harry turned down a corridor that was a shorter passage to the Gryffindor common room; he had stumbled upon it during the last few days of summer. The hall was dark and lit only be torches. Harry wished he could see sunlight shining through windows, but this hall had none. Even if it were graced with glass portals, they would show only the dreary sky as a storm loomed over Hogwarts.
Harry shook off a chill. He paused as he thought that he heard something further down the hall. Carefully, he advanced to the corner.
Bite... Rip... Let me tear...
Harry bit down a shout and lit his wand with a lumos to further break up the lingering shadows. Finding nothing, or no one, in the immediate vicinity, Harry turned to advance to the common room. He tried his best not to break into a sprint, but it was difficult. At last he reached the common room after walking at a brisk pace for the remainder of the distance. He pushed open the portrait hole and was bombarded with noise.
"Harry!" Ron shouted.
"Where've you been, mate?" George asked.
"Harry, we were worried," Hermione complained.
"I wasn't," Seamus said darkly from the corner.
Harry ignored the others and walked over to him. "Seamus, I'm sorry. I told him not to attack you. I didn't even realize I was speaking a different language until Snape told me."
Seamus rolled his eyes. "I guess Professor Snape told you that you'd make a great Dark Wizard, right? Being able to talk to snakes and all."
"Seamus, please," Harry implored. "I am not a Dark wizard."Seamus looked skeptical and did not comment. He brushed past Harry and went downstairs. His friends converged upon him.
"It's okay, we believe you, Harry," Ron assured him.
"Though everyone was worried about you last night," Hermione added. "Draco said that you weren't in the dorms."
"Oh, is that where you went last night?" Ron asked. "You were gone when I woke up in the middle of the night, were you looking for Harry?"
Draco looked mildly alarmed, but recovered himself well. "Yeah, I couldn't sleep so I thought I'd take a look around. Where did you go?" Draco asked Harry, partly to deflect the attention from himself.
"I stayed down in Snape's chambers," Harry explained. "I have a room down there."
"Oh," Hermione said, looking relieved. For whatever reason, the look of thoughtfulness on her face made Harry remember the voices he heard on the way up to the common room. He pulled his friends out of the center of the room and asked Hermione to raise a silencing charm. She did so and Harry recapped what he had heard.
Hermione gave him a worried look. "You best not tell anyone about that, Harry. Hearing voices is never good, even in the magical world."
"But if I don't tell anybody, it might... you know, rip or tear," Harry shivered.
"Maybe you should tell Snape," Ron suggested.
Harry's eyes grew wide at this advice coming from his most condemning friend. "I'm proud of you, Ron. I just might do that."
They went down to breakfast and Harry did his best to ignore the stares and whispers coming his way. Draco gave him a sympathetic look.
"It gets better," he said.
"How would you know?" Harry snapped, his mood having turned foul after some first years had practically run the other way when they recognized him.
Draco looked uncomfortable. "Well it did when I was in Slytherin anyway. And that's just what I've been told."
Harry scoffed. "Told by who? Who else could possibly have the problem of talking to snakes and being suspected a Dark wizard? Voldemort?"Draco winced. "Just forget it, okay?" he snapped. "I was trying to help but apparently the Boy Who Lived can't imagine that anyone might sympathize with him."
Harry paused and blinked at his friend. "I'm sorry, Draco. I'm just not used to the suspicion, that's all."
" S'okay," Draco said with a weak smile, pushing his food around with his fork. "I'm sorry too."
The rest of the meal passed in relative silence; neither party venturing into any difficult topics. Hermione and Ron were busy chatting with Neville and Lavender and Harry was glad to be left to his thoughts for a while.
Eventually, they headed down to the Herbology greenhouse where mandrakes waited to be repotted. The clay vessels were lined up, one for each student, with a pair of earmuffs beside each. When given the go ahead, Harry gladly donned his earmuffs, thankful that they drowned out the whispering that still managed to surround him like a cloud of noxious odor. Harry put a little too much venom into the uprooting of his mandrake and sprayed dirt all over himself. He could see the odd plant-creature crying and the other students snickering at the spectacle. Harry sighed and plunged it into the new pot, quickly shoveling dirt on top. He closed his eyes to block out the looks from other students and decided that it was going to be a long day.
As it turned out, the whispers and covert looks were not limited to that day alone. Rather, they followed Harry for much of the next week, and slowly began to die down in the middle of the second. Nott, for one, kept reviving the parselmouth idea until it simply grew tedious. Whenever the conversation at the Slytherin table seemed lacking, he deemed it a safe bet to ridicule Harry and earn a few quick, albeit annoyed laugh and a fleeting sense of satisfaction. Harry began to withdraw from the company of his classmates and, eventually, of his friends as well. Much of his free time was spent wandering the castle, or sitting under his invisibility cloak, observing.
"Are you alright, Harry?" Severus asked one night as Harry had lapsed into his silent mode.
"Yes," he said simply. "People aren't staring as much anymore."
"But you seem so aloof," Severus protested. He had not been able to give Harry any suggestions about the voices and thus had been feeling lacking.
Harry shrugged. "I just tend to want to be alone. It feels safer. I was always on my own at the Dursleys."
Severus stared at him with a new level of understanding. "Does this situation remind you of your time with them?"
Harry looked up. "I didn't make the connection, but that is exactly it. Dudley used to spread rumors about me all the time.""You should try to mingle again," Severus told him. "It will be good for you."
Harry twisted his lips. "Maybe. Starting tomorrow."
Severus sat back, seeming as if that was more than he had hoped for.
"Goodbye Harry," he responded.
Instead of returning to the common room, Harry wandered the halls. It was relatively late; Harry had skipped dinner but it should be letting out soon. He savored the emptiness of the halls, turning down a dimly lit corridor. Harry froze. Dark red liquid ran down the cracks in the stone walls as Harry's brain processed what is spelled out.
THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS HAS BEEN OPENED. ENEMIES OF THE HEIR, BEWARE.
Harry stood motionless, blinking through his shock. Footsteps sounded behind him and Harry spun in alarm.
Draco peered at him curiously, appearing disoriented.
"Harry-" he began, then caught sight of the message behind him. "Oh Merlin."
"Draco I didn't-" Harry began.
Draco had gone pale. "I was..." Draco stopped. He raised his hand and pointed. Harry turned and found a petrified Mrs. Norris, still and silent.
"Draco, I swear," Harry began again.
Draco shook his head. He opened his mouth to say something when a scream sounded from behind them both. Hermione stood gaping, behind her, footsteps echoed off the walls.
"Harry! Draco! Oh my! What happened?" She asked, but didn't wait for an answer. "You didn't come to dinner Harry, and I guessed Draco came to look for you, so I came to look for him and now-"
"Hermione," Harry said tersely. "I didn't do this, please back me up."
The footsteps got closer. She gave him a searching look and a brief nod. Around the corner streamed Snape, Filch, Dumbledore, McGonagall and trailing students.
"Did someone scre-" McGonagall started, then stopped abruptly to stare in shock at the wall, much like the others.
"Mrs. Norris!" Filch cried, running to his petrified cat. His feet splashed in the water that was inexplicably covering the floor. "She is dead! Who killed her?" he growled venomously.
Dumbledore stepped forward to examine the animal. "She is not dead Argus. She is simply petrified. She can be cured, I am sure. Take her to Madam Pomfrey."
Filch gingerly lifted his cat and stepped past the trio. "You'll pay for this," he spat.
Snape snapped his fingers. "Go to your common rooms," he ordered to the observers. "Not you," he said, indicating the trio. "You shall stay."
Draco stood in shock, still staring at the wall. The moment he had seen the writing, he knew that he was involved. Just moments before, he had found himself in the girls' bathroom washing blood off of his hands, ankle deep in water. An annoying ghost was prattling in his ear as Draco had tried to figure out how he got there. And whose blood that was. Now Harry would get blamed, and as abhorrent as he found the idea of simply letting it happen, Draco's Slytherin instincts fluttered in triumph at the easy way out. Draco did not consider the Potions Master. His dark gaze bored into the side of Draco's skull as he stood nervously awaiting the inevitable questions.
"What is the meaning of this, Harry?" Dumbledore asked, his voice wavering from the usual gentle and grandfatherly tone.
"I don't know, sir. I swear," Harry said honestly. "I was coming back from Professor Snape's office and I found this. Then Draco came, then Hermione, then you."
Dumbledore turned calmly to Snape. "When did he leave your office?"
Severus lied smoothly, "About ten minutes ago."
"And you, Draco?" Dumbledore asked, as if this were a trial. "Why were you here instead of at dinner?"
Draco honestly did not know. Instead of saying this, however, he went with Hermione's supposition, "I was looking for Harry. He didn't come to dinner."
Dumbledore nodded. "And you were looking for Draco, I assume?"
Dumbledore turned back to Harry. "You maintain your innocence."
Harry nodded. "Yes, sir."
"I believe you," Dumbledore said. "Go to your common room now, we have matters to discuss."
"Yes, sir," they agreed and left the hall.
"Albus, what does this mean?" Minerva asked.
"It means that Hogwarts, or someone within it, has been compromised," Albus said gravely. "We must find out who before history repeats itself."
Lockhart bounded in, shattering the tense moment. "Did I miss anything?" He looked at the wall. "A little early for Halloween decorations, isn't it?"
Severus was astounded at his idiocy. "No, you imbecile. This is a real message, written in blood. Chicken blood, it may be, but the petrified cat that accompanied it indicated that this is no Halloween prank." His exasperation was evident.
"Thank merlin it isn't a student." Minerva asked, relieved, "How do you know it is chicken blood?"
Severus gave her a flat stare. "Do not ask."
"Severus, can you revive Mrs. Norris?" Dumbledore asked.
"I will need mandrake root," Severus said. "Mature."
"Check with Ponoma on when they will be ready," Albus ordered. Severus nodded. "Lockhart, clean this up, if you would."
Lockhart looked temporarily mystified, but managed the right spells. Seeing the message erased was indeed a relief. Severus could not help but wonder who put it there. He dearly hoped it was not Harry. He had left the office at least a half an hour before he was found but Severus had lied because he preferred to get the truth himself. Besides, he did not want to add to the suspicions. Severus set off to find the Herbology teacher and wondered if a cat would be the only thing he would have to cure.