Jacob Borune is charging, spellfire flaring from his wand. Harry recognizes it. In a second, it’ll be that strange ball lightning spell that none of the Aurors know how to counter and which chewed up most of the evidence they had on Borune, and it’ll kill everyone else here, and—
Harry drops his wand. He doesn’t bother to squirm out of his clothes, even though he hasn’t yet mastered the magic to make them change with him. His other self will be able to get free in a minute.
He dives into the transformation, his body flowing around him, scales appearing and spiraling up his legs as they shrink and vanish, his neck lengthening, his mouth opening wide as the venom slots into place. Harry thrashes once and slithers free of the clothes, world soft and deaf around him, but filled with vibrations and scents and heat he never notices when he’s human.
Aurors scatter around him. Harry heads straight for Borune, his mouth open to show off his black throat in his threat display. As he hoped might happen, Borune freezes, brown eyes wide. Not that it would matter if he ran. There are Anti-Apparition spells all over the building, and Harry is faster in this form than any running human.
Borune does turn to flee when Harry is a meter away, but it doesn’t matter. Harry covers the last distance like a streak of grey fire and strikes.
The world blurs around him for another reason, and he pumps his venom in. Borune collapses with his mouth open in what looks like a cry, although again Harry can’t hear it. Harry is back to a meter away before he finishes falling.
Harry sways in a slow circle. Aurors are staring at him instead of getting help to make sure Borune survives the venom. Harry hisses in impatience before remembering that there’s no one else here who understands Parseltongue.
In the end, it’s Ron, the only one who knows about his form because Harry didn’t bother telling anyone but his friends before he registered, who touches him gently on the top of the head. Harry inclines his neck, then swarms back to his clothes and aligns himself with his trousers. His comrades will probably be less disturbed seeing him naked from the waist up.
He melts back into himself, and sound rushes in like a popping balloon, so that he can hear, as his head projects near his shirt, “Someone cast a Stasis Charm on him! Harry pumped a lot of poison into him, it’ll kill more quickly otherwise—”
Harry shakes his head and pulls his shirt back over his head, then reaches for the robes. At least he’s getting better at telling where he should position himself so he won’t be naked when he turns back.
He glances up, then, and stares at the stares that are coming back to him. Ron is the one casting the Stasis Charm and collecting Borune’s wand. All the other six Aurors they brought along for this task are motionless and looking at him.
In five faces is panic mixed with caution.
Only Draco Malfoy looks at him and smiles.
“I don’t understand.” Harry speaks the words to his lap. Kingsley sighs and waits until he looks up.
“You didn’t do anything legally wrong, Harry. You were registered weeks before the incident with Borune, and I told that to all the people who tried to get you in trouble. And Borune is going to survive, although he needed a few heavy doses of antivenin. I know that you didn’t bite him with the intention of killing him, just to slow him down.”
“Then why won’t they work with me anymore?”
Kingsley shakes his head. “Because of their feelings about serpents. Auror Malfoy is the only former Slytherin among the Corps, did you know that? Some of the others work among the Hit Wizards, but no one but him in the Aurors.”
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” Harry says flatly. “I got over my House prejudices, and I had Slytherins try to kill me. Why can’t other Gryffindors and Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws do the same thing?”
“That is only a partial explanation. You know how people feel about snakes on a daily basis, Harry. Add to that the fact that you are a deadly snake, and it was a surprise, and no one expected that you, of all people, would have a serpent Animagus form…” Kingsley hesitates. “Forgive them. It’s a lot to pile on all at once.”
“And they’re allowing it to interfere with their jobs by refusing to work with me!”
“I think they will come around in time. Give them that time. Besides, Auror Malfoy isn’t avoiding you. He specifically asked to work with you on the Helton case, which is the next one I was going to assign you.”
Harry blinks. “But he was only with us to track down Borune because he knows more about Dark Arts than the rest of us.” Malfoy has never worked regularly with him or Ron. Harry might have got over his House prejudices, and he thinks Malfoy has, too, but it seemed prudent to nod from a distance instead of forcing each other into contact.
“I know, but now he wants to work with you. And I think it would be good for you to get some experience working with an Auror who isn’t Ron. So you and Auror Malfoy will be investigating the Helton disappearance in Knockturn Alley on your own.”
Kingsley shows no signs of yielding.
“Auror Potter.” Malfoy’s greeting would be the same as ever if not for the quick smile he flings Harry as he turns to study the map of Knockturn Alley on the wall of Harry’s office.
Harry shakes off the temptation to ask him a question—which is probably what Malfoy wants, anyway—and focuses on the map. He raises his eyebrows when he sees how extensive the bright silver trail is. “So we’ve been tracking Helton by magic for a while?”
“Yes.” Malfoy tilts his head a little. “He tried to kidnap several prominent people’s children, including several members of the Wizengamot. He failed each time, but he also managed to escape, which is what makes Kingsley and the rest think that he’s in possession of some sort of artifact that can chew through Anti-Apparition defenses. They want him badly.”
He has a half-smile on his face still. Harry glares at him. “Spit it out, Malfoy.”
“Your face is distinctive, and I know that there’s no way for you to hide that scar even though it doesn’t have a link to Voldemort anymore.” Malfoy speaks Voldemort’s name without flinching, which startles Harry enough to make him listen to the next part of the proposal. “You should go in a better disguise.”
“A robe and cloak will work well enough.”
“Didn’t you notice that you got no results the last two times that you went into Knockturn Alley in that disguise, Potter?”
“I mean—I knew I didn’t get results, but I thought that was just because I was unlucky and someone recognized an Auror’s stride.”
“No. There are defenses all over the Alley attuned to your magic, now. You’ve gone there too many times and dragged out too many warlocks and hags and former Death Eaters. So you won’t get far even with your face hidden, and ordinary Polyjuice and glamours are out of the question for the same reason.”
“Spit it out, Malfoy.”
“My magic isn’t going to be recognized in anything like the same way. And of course, if you’re in the form of an animal, then your magical signature changes with you.”
Harry rears back a little. “What are you suggesting?”
“That we be not Auror Malfoy and Auror Potter, but a seedy warlock with his black mamba familiar.”
Harry only stares at him, shocked for more than one reason. Then he shakes his head and says, “If I was posing as your familiar, Malfoy, then I’d need to drape around your neck or your arm or—something. Be riding you, not slithering beside you.”
“I know that full well.” Malfoy sounds a little insulted, as if he thinks that Harry is questioning his intelligence.
“And you’re not upset about having a deadly snake that close to your face?” Harry imitates the intonation that Kingsley used, his chest still aching with his bitterness.
Malfoy takes a step towards him and reaches out, placing a hand on Harry’s shoulder in a quick clasp. He steps back before Harry can do anything but stare at him.
And after that, there doesn’t seem to be much Harry can do, except agree to this insane plan.
“We’ll want to go right. There’s a hag on the left staring at us like she wants to kidnap me for Potions ingredients.”
Malfoy’s shoulder tenses for a moment, but he nods and veers right. He cast a spell just before they entered Knockturn Alley that used a small amount of blood and means that he can understand Parseltongue, although not speak it.
Harry is wrapped around his shoulders, his slender neck rearing beside Malfoy’s. More than one person recognizes a black mamba, if the nervous glances in his direction are anything to go by. And sometimes the covetous ones, too.
The last thing Harry wants to do is become Animagus Potions ingredients, so he lets his tongue flicker out constantly, testing the air for danger, which emotions of greed and lust and possessiveness are.
It seems that Francis Helton didn’t count on the possibility that the Aurors would manage to track him as well as they have. The sharp silver sparks that dot the walls and stones of the Alley and fade as Malfoy reaches them are perfectly obvious. Or maybe the Aurors who set up the map used Dark magic, Harry muses. Sometimes they do and can get away with it, as long as they don’t go around advertising it to all and sundry.
They use Dark magic, and they’re nervous about a perfectly natural serpent Animagus form.
Before Harry can sink into brooding, though, he scents something rotting. Even for Knockturn Alley, that’s not a normal scent. Harry turns his head and tracks the scent to its source. The mouth of one of the small side alleys that, most of the time, holds nothing but one small shop and perhaps an alcove where the street-dwellers sleep.
Someone is crouched there, rising to his feet—no, something is shambling to its feet. Harry tightens around Malfoy’s neck and hisses a warning. “Inferius! Alcove to the right, where that rotten piece of fruit is hanging.”
Malfoy nods and probably says something, not that Harry can hear. He draws his wand. A few people and beings in the alley move out of the way, but others lean forwards or open their mouths in prurient interest.
Harry opens his mouth, too, baring the black throat in instinctive threat-display. But he can’t do much to an Inferius. His venom won’t work on an undead creature, and it won’t recognize the potential consequences with its human intelligence gone.
The Inferius is most of the way towards them now. It’s a badly-made example of its kind, with dangling, dripping hands that barely cling to its wrists. Its face is so deteriorated that Harry can’t tell whether it was once male or female. Its breath sends thick waves of the rotten scent over Harry’s tongue.
Malfoy uses a red curse that catches the Inferius’s left foot on fire. But the creature doesn’t flee or keep coming, both of which would be normal actions. Instead, it stomps and rubs the fire out in a pile of moist rubbish next to it.
“Malfoy! Someone is controlling it.”
Malfoy tosses his head in acknowledgment, but he has to fight both that Inferius and others that are beginning to shamble from rubbish piles nearby. Some of them actually look as if they’re forming out of them. Harry hisses loudly, but none of them stop or slow down. And all of them are focusing on Malfoy.
Harry uncoils and drops to the ground, ignoring the way that Malfoy promptly tries to catch him. Their only chance is for Harry to find out who’s controlling the Inferi and…take care of the problem.
He shoots away from Malfoy, whipping his body smoothly through the rubbish and past the Inferi, and watches and scents the darkness and feels the vibrations around him. He only has to see who looks or smells nervous to have a black mamba heading straight for them.
And there! Movement in the mouth of another small alley shows someone flinching away, and then waving a wand in movements that look like those of a Disillusionment Charm. But no charm hides your scent.
Harry arrows straight for them.
The figure holds steady for a few seconds, then breaks and runs. Harry alters the angle of his body. The wizard, or warlock, is running straight for a set of stairs that lead down from the roof of a building that might be a pub. Harry would find it really hard to go up the stairs. That means he’s going to catch this bastard before he makes it to them.
The wizard glances back over his shoulder, and the remnants of his Disillusionment Charm break apart. Harry recognizes his face. Francis Helton, the man they’ve come hunting.
I suppose he decided to be proactive, Harry thinks, and then ducks his head and slithers through a small tunnel in the rubbish along the wall that no wizard could walk through, and which they might not even realize was there. He comes out in front of Helton, and rears up in front of him with a hiss that he knows must be loud when Helton skids to a stop.
They watch each other for a second. Harry opens his mouth as wide as possible and shows off his fangs, while trying his best to look past Helton so that he can make out what Malfoy is doing. Surely he should be done with the Inferi by now and coming after Harry? The Inferi will have gone back to being mindless, shambling things without a wizard there to control them.
Unless Helton wasn’t the one controlling them…
Helton tries to dart past him. Harry strikes on instinct, and only barely manages to make the bite “dry,” which means he doesn’t pump venom into the idiot.
But while he’s distracted with Helton, someone fires a Stunner at him. Harry finds himself collapsing to the ground. Someone scoops a hand under his body and hauls it into the air; apparently, catching a Stunner as a snake doesn’t send him into sleep right away.
He does see a flash of distinctive pale hair in the distance, and what he thinks is Malfoy running after him, before they Apparate.
You’d better come and rescue me, you berk.
“…But why would they allow an Auror to have a black mamba familiar? Do you think Malfoy is returning to his roots after all?”
Harry lies very still. He awakened in mamba form, in a small cage. He promptly used wandless magic to cast a Silencing Charm and then changed back to human, which burst the cage open around him. He’s naked, never pleasant, and without his wand, too. He’s hiding behind the door in the small room where they have the cage now, because he’ll probably only get one chance to take his opponents on.
And now that he’s human, he can overhear their enemies’ interesting chats, too.
“Don’t be more ridiculous than you can help, Francis. Of course Malfoy was never a real Auror. He was there for reasons of his own, doubtless. And him having a black mamba familiar fits into the Dark magic that he always practiced.”
Why do even Dark wizards assume snakes must be a sign of evil? Harry thinks in exasperation.
“So…the Aurors haven’t caught up with me?”
“Of course not. They just found you by bad luck, and if you hadn’t panicked and told Edward to send in the Inferi before they even made a move towards you, then everything would be fine.”
A long sigh. “I’m sorry, Gerald.”
“In the future, Francis, do leave the thinking to me. I’m so much better at it.”
Harry tenses as he hears footsteps moving towards the door of his prison. He changes back in a rush of magic, and squirms further into the corner, tongue darting out. A strong scent of rot. This is probably Edward, the one who was controlling the Inferi. Harry doesn’t think he has any with him right now, though.
The door swings open.
Harry snaps his body forwards and bites Edward in the calf. The man yells and swings his wand through the air, but Harry is gone before he can strike. He’s left enough venom in the wounds to kill the idiot. It will take a while, though.
Francis Helton is already yelping and up on a table. The third wizard, Gerald, has a patched grey robe and writhing darkness dancing in the air around him. Harry resists the temptation to stop.
Shadowmaster. It’s been a long, long time since he saw one of those. Suddenly Helton’s ability to get out of anywhere he got into makes a lot of sense. He was walking the shadows his ally gave him.
Gerald gestures lazily, and one of the shadows takes the form of a hollow snake itself and rushes at Harry. Harry doesn’t dare go through it; he might be consumed or transported somewhere else entirely. Instead, he snaps himself sideways under the table, and then swarms up the leg and attacks Helton.
He actually makes it a dry bite, but Helton still screams like he’s dying and crumples to the ground. Harry avoids another spell from Edward’s direction and another shadow, and now Gerald’s eyes are narrow and his lips are moving in what look like English instead of Latin words. Harry isn’t good enough at reading lips in any form to figure out what he’s saying, but it looks as though he’s maybe thinking that Harry isn’t just a wizard’s familiar.
Harry coils and then launches himself through the air as hard as he can. His only chance is to reach Gerald before the man can hit him with a shadow, or a Stunner, or maybe the charm that would transform him back.
Gerald is grinning and waiting for him, a massive web of shadow stretched in front of him, when he abruptly stops grinning and collapses. Harry goes past him, unable to stop. At least the web of shadow is gone.
He lands on an arm and rears back, furious, ready to strike, when he realizes abruptly that the scent of the arm is familiar. He turns his head, and Malfoy gives him a mild look and fires two more Stunners at Helton and Edward.
“Hello,” Harry says, a little lamely. He remembers that he held himself back before he bit Malfoy, but he was still coiled like he was going to do it.
Malfoy touches his ear and extends his hand towards Harry. He obviously wants Harry to change back so he can listen to something Malfoy is going to tell him.
Harry clears his throat. “I’ll be naked if I do that.” The Parseltongue word for naked is something like “with a brand-new skin.” He hopes that the translation isn’t too literal for Malfoy to follow.
Malfoy’s grin widens and he mouths, with such exaggerated obviousness that Harry can’t miss it, “So?”
“You don’t want to see me naked,” Harry hisses, even as his tongue darts out to catch a taste of Malfoy’s scent. There’s sweat in it, and a thick, musky arousal that he normally only smells as a snake when he’s tracking prey in the middle of their breeding season.
Malfoy continues to study him, gaze warm and appreciative.
Apparently he doesn’t mind. Or even wants it. Which is beyond strange for Harry to think about. But they’re also wasting time with him staying a snake on Malfoy’s arm, so he takes a deep breath, crawls down Malfoy’s arm to the end, drops to the floor, and transforms.
A conjured robe drapes over him, but only after a long moment when Harry’s sure Malfoy got an eyeful. He blushes and tugs the robe closer around him, still not meeting Malfoy’s eyes. “You should use a Stasis Charm on the one Stunned in the doorway, he has a lot of venom in him. What did you want to tell me?”
“I used a bit of your skin to track you,” Malfoy says casually, casting the Stasis Charm wordlessly. “There are other Aurors on the way, but I was sure that I could handle the lowlifes here by myself.”
“One of them was a shadowmaster, you idiot.”
“Doesn’t make any difference when he’s busy taking a Stunner to the back, does it?”
Harry folds his arms and glares at Malfoy. Malfoy only looks him over, slowly, the smile that he seems to have worn permanently since finding out that Harry’s a mamba Animagus tucked in the corner of his mouth.
Harry finally sighs and runs a hand through his hair. “Were there are any other casualties from the Inferi attack in Knockturn Alley?”
“No, it ended almost as soon as they Apparated away. And you should be careful who you’re calling an idiot, by the way,” Malfoy adds, “when you were the one who got captured by our clever threesome here.”
“Whatever,” Harry mutters. He’s aching from the quick movements and the time spent in a small cage and bursting out of it, and he’s magically exhausted from the transformations. “Can we go back to the Ministry now?”
“Not until the other Aurors get here.” Malfoy takes a deliberate step towards him. “Besides, there’s something you neglected to ask me.”
“Why I came ahead of the other Aurors and only called them when I found this place, instead of waiting for backup.”
“I assumed you wanted the glory of being the one to capture Helton—”
Harry’s voice trails off when he sees the intense flare in Malfoy’s eyes. He reaches out and touches Harry’s shoulder, sliding the robe back a little so that the bare skin is revealed.
He doesn’t touch it. Honestly, Harry doesn’t need him to. It’s enough to know that it’s been revealed and Malfoy is looking at it.
“I couldn’t stand the thought of them taking you,” Malfoy says softly. “Hurting you.” He lifts his head, and Harry starts. It’s like looking into the eyes of someone he’s never seen before. “It might have taken the news that you’re a mamba Animagus to make me start noticing you, but once that is started…”
He leans towards Harry, his mouth hovering an inch or so away from his lips. “Malfoys move fast when they know what they want,” he whispers.
Harry stands there, shocked, but—when he thinks about it, there’s a lot of sense to what Malfoy’s saying. He’s not afraid of Harry like the other Aurors. At the same time, he is an Auror and understands a lot about the job and the hours and the risks you have to run. Harry’s previous relationships tended not to last long with that hanging over their heads.
And when Harry looks at Malfoy, who obligingly holds still, he’s handsome enough. A sense of humor that might be fun when it isn’t being turned on Harry. Enough bravery to come charge into a situation with at least three Dark wizards who might have hurt him.
A lot more than Harry thought he could be.
“I’ll need a little more persuasion than this,” Harry whispers back.
A sheet of cold water seems to slide over Malfoy’s face. “Of course,” he says, voice neutral, and starts to pull back.
Harry catches his hand and rolls his eyes. “Like a date, you idiot. You know, that’s twice that I’ve been able to call you an idiot in a short period of time. Let’s see you make up for it.”
Malfoy gives him a delighted smile as they hear the cracks of Apparition outside, and slides an arm around his waist. “You know what they’re going to think when they see us standing like this and you only wearing a robe?”
“They can think it,” Harry mutters. He’s in a less than charitable mood with his fellow Aurors at the moment, given the sheer stupidity so many of them displayed about his Animagus form.
Malfoy does a sidelong glance full of the same delight, and tightens the hold of his arm a little as other Aurors begin bursting in.
Being a mamba Animagus might not be so bad after all, Harry has to admit, and lets himself lean on Malfoy. The arm around his waist becomes firmer.
Definitely not so bad.