After the war, Harry stays at Hogwarts. Honestly, where else would he go?
Hogwarts is home, even with the long black scratches running down over the Astronomy Tower, even with the blood that the house-elves can’t scrub out of the stones of the Great Hall. Even haunted by memories of Fred and Remus and Tonks and Colin and the others who suffered and died this year.
Even haunted by Voldemort.
Yet Harry doesn’t feel haunted by Voldemort, not really. He knows he killed the bastard good and dead. He just feels like he’s haunting everyone else.
Their voices don’t reach him. Their hands seem to touch him first and then give him the feeling of the touch afterwards, echoing like a lagging heartbeat several pauses behind where it should be.
Harry manages smiles for Ginny and Ron and Hermione. He holds strong for George, because he has to. He finds time to visit with Andromeda and cuddle Teddy. If anyone should be able to reach him, he thinks, it’s Teddy, his tiny, cute godson with the color-changing hair and the waving chubby fists.
But that’s not the way it works. Harry wants to feel, but he can’t fill up the aching pit inside himself.
And then he sees the black rider.
The first time Harry sees him, it’s as an image on a tapestry on the sixth floor, and Harry actually pauses from levitating stones and rubble away from the wall. He’s sure that he’s never seen a tapestry like this before. And it’s remarkable that it’s so undamaged from the spells that almost brought down the tower above it.
The tapestry is gorgeous, shimmering with deep, perfect colors. The background is green, but not detailed, so Harry’s not sure whether it’s supposed to be a forest or grass or something else. Nonetheless, it looks so rich that he wants to sink his hand into it. On grass like that, he imagines, he could finally find peace.
The forefront is occupied entirely by the image of a rearing black horse. Harry finds himself looking for the wings, but he doesn’t see any, and it doesn’t seem to be any special breed of wizarding horse, either. Just an ordinary one, except for the shimmer of colors in its flanks, the colors a raven’s black wing or a starling’s flash in the sunlight. On his back—Harry knows it’s a stallion without seeing visual cues, he’s just sure of it—is a young man leaning forwards over the saddle. His hair is windblown, as dark as the horse’s coat, and his face is in profile. But Harry can make out the strong cheekbone and jaw, the flash of an eye as richly detailed as all the rest.
He doesn’t know how long he stares before Hermione calls his name in an impatient tone. Harry shakes his head and turns away from the tapestry. He knows they aren’t animated like the portraits, so he doesn’t understand why he feels a flash of disappointment. The rider definitely can’t turn his head to watch Harry go.
But Harry feels like he’s being watched, all the way down the corridor.
Harry returns to the tapestry more than once. If there’s a rebuilding chore that needs to be done in the corridor under the Astronomy Tower, he volunteers. He stands there sometimes and simply admires the colors, how the ripple and flash and shine of the light brings the horse’s mane to life, or makes the eye of the rider seem alive.
He talks to it, too. He sits on the floor beneath the tapestry and tells the rider about his doubts.
“I don’t think I actually want to marry Ginny.” Harry finally says it aloud some days after he’s begun to wonder it, maybe a fortnight since he found the tapestry. He leans against the stone and stares, for once, not at the background or the rider but the opposite wall. There’s a curlicue of ash there. The house-elves can’t scrub that away, either.
“It seemed so simple, last year. When we were here and we got along and we snogged and laughed. But now we’ve both seen so many things, and we can’t talk about them…”
Then perhaps you should not.
Harry feels as though someone has shot lightning up from the floor through his feet. He leaps up and snatches his wand, but nothing else intrudes or replies to him. He calls hoarsely down the corridor.
Silence comes back.
Harry turns to the tapestry, and finds that the rider has moved. His face is now, well, facing Harry, although the rest of his body remains turned so that he can control his rearing horse. There’s a gleam of purple and black in his eyes. Or maybe blue. Harry has never seen something woven appear so alive.
And then he realizes that he knows the rider.
Harry takes to his heels as he hasn’t done since being chased by Snatchers.
“A tapestry of a horse and rider? I don’t recall a tapestry like that, Harry.”
Everyone he asks says variations of the same thing. Harry thought that maybe—maybe—he wasn’t going mad and it got hung this year when the Death Eaters were in control of the school. But no one can tell him about it, and Harry shivers in bed in the Gryffindor Tower and can’t get warm even sitting in front of the fire in the common room.
So he does what he knows he has to do. He goes back to the tapestry.
It hangs there and looks the same as ever. The rider’s face is in profile again, and now Harry is beginning to wonder if the likeness to Tom Riddle he saw was only imagined. Hermione has been worried about him even before he mentioned the tapestry, telling him about flashbacks and hallucinations and how they’re almost normal things to happen to someone. Harry doesn’t want to think they could be normal, not for him, but he knows he isn’t uniquely strong and invulnerable to ordinary challenges, either.
If anyone should know that, it’s him.
He stands and observes the tapestry for a time. Gradually, his fear flakes away and reveals the core of yearning underneath. He wishes he could be in a world like that, riding through colors so bright that they outshine the dim grey Harry finds himself surrounded with, with no concern except keeping on his horse.
Harry stands still so he doesn’t shiver. This time, he sees the threads alter as the rider’s head turns, and he’s looking Tom Riddle in the eye, but his face is different. Not the diary’s hateful one, not the mask he put on to fool Dippet just before he framed Hagrid. Not the bone-white dying one, either.
This is a Tom Riddle who looks—content. At peace.
You could come in, Harry. Come up.
“Come up what?” Harry asks aloud, but the minute he does, the delicate enchantment breaks. Riddle’s voice fades, and Harry is only standing in front of a piece of cloth—wondrously finely-woven, but only cloth.
He walks away with a heaviness in his heart and only one motive that makes sense in his mind. Everyone else denies that the tapestry exists or hangs there. Harry thinks he has to bring Ginny to see it. She’ll know. She’ll understand.
She knew Riddle, too.
But when he brings Ginny, the tapestry isn’t there.
“Are you sure this is the place where it hangs, Harry?” Ginny is giving him a kind look that he hates more than anything. When she lifts her hand and puts it on his forehead like she’s checking him for a fever, Harry breaks away irritably and roams to the wall.
“Yes. It was right here…” But Harry’s voice trails off, because he can clearly see the worn, dusty stone that hasn’t been covered by a tapestry any time recently. He bows his head and stands there, hand splayed out on the rock.
Ginny doesn’t try to touch him again, but she clears her throat gently behind him. “Maybe you came here in a dream? I find myself doing that a lot lately.” Then her voice falters. “But I’m always dreaming that Fred’s still alive. Nothing else.”
Harry can’t reply. It’s a bitter truth that killing Voldemort didn’t bring Fred back.
Ginny waits until she seems to realize that he’s not going to say anything else, and then she stands up on her toes and kisses his forehead. “I’ll be here when you need me,” she says softly. “Not a girlfriend, just a friend. When you’re ready to grow past the end of the war and face it in some other way. I’ll be here, Harry.” And she turns and goes down the corridor back to the Gryffindor common room.
Harry waits, his arms folded around his knees. He wonders if he’s going mad, having a hallucination. When he raises his head, the tapestry is back in place across the corridor, hanging on the stones, as he knew it would be.
Why not come in to me?
“You’re not real,” Harry says dully. His stomach is still stinging from the risk he took, and it was all for nothing. He was ridiculous. Of course Ginny can’t see something that he can only see because he’s going mad. “Why would I be able to climb into a tapestry that’s not real?”
I am real.
And Harry walks away from the corridor and doesn’t come back for a long time.
But he’s still under a pane of glass. Ron and Hermione announce their engagement, and he can barely smile. He watches Teddy’s hair change color, and it’s like it’s happening in some other world, where some other Harry Potter is little Teddy’s godfather. He has nightmares and no one comes and soothes them, because most people are sleeping in other places of the castle now. He drifts into the past, sometimes, hazily.
The past where Voldemort is still alive, where he speaks to Tom Riddle.
But he always comes back to the real world, and goes on.
He leaves Hogwarts when the rebuilding is done, and goes to Grimmauld Place. It’s cool and dark and sad there, but at least he knows that he’s not going to have other people glancing at him in worry when he laughs too loud or too late. He sits in the drawing room and falls asleep, with a cup of tea Kreacher made him cooling at his left hand.
When he wakes with a gasp and a thump and a blink, the tapestry is hanging on the wall in front of him. But the position of the horse and rider has changed. Now the horse rears directly towards the viewer, and the rider is looking straight at him and smiling. There can be no doubt that the rider is Tom Riddle now.
Harry stares at it dully. The Black house is a place for madness and dreams, he thinks. Why not? Let him hallucinate here. No one’s going to see him doing it here, either.
You’re left drifting. Do you know why?
Harry shrugs. Even the cloth of the chair is dull against the underside of his arm, not pressing enough to make it through to him as feeling.
The soul shard you had in you was integrated with your own soul. You’ve had a whole soul plus a bit more since you were fifteen months old. And now it’s gone, and your soul is without foundations. It’s crumbling. You’re wisping away.
“Then I suppose that’s what’s going to happen,” says Harry. He can barely muster interest even in that. He stands up and goes to the kitchen to get a plate of biscuits, only to get shooed back to his seat by Kreacher. He seems personally offended when Harry tries to do anything for himself.
Your friends will be sad when they see what you’ve become.
Harry laughs without humor, his eyes closed. You should know better than to try and make me think that you’re concerned about them, he says, in the same way Riddle’s saying his words. If the rules of the hallucination so far hold true, then Riddle should be able to hear Harry as well as Harry hears him.
I don’t care about them. I’m telling you the truth.
Harry nods and reaches out to take a biscuit from the plate Kreacher has put next to him. I know. But since it’s going to happen no matter what you say, why even waste your time with me?
There’s one way to keep your soul from crumbling—
This is the part where you tell me that I have to bring Voldemort back. And I don’t care. I wouldn’t do that to save myself. Ever.
No. If you come into the tapestry and ride with me, then you’ll be whole again, and at peace. I’m what’s left of Tom Riddle’s diary. My soul was left without foundations or attachments in the castle, but I was able to imagine a place for myself.
Harry opens his eyes, a little interested by something the tapestry’s said since he failed to show it to Ginny. If you found a place to go in the castle, why did you follow me to Grimmauld Place?
I no longer needed to be in the castle to survive. And you’re the only person in the world who can understand me. None of the other soul-fragments were strong enough. They’re all gone, completely. Probably because he made them later in life. But you—his soul was part of yours. You retain an echo of him now. Come join me, Harry. I would speak to you and we would ride free forever. You can’t tell me that you have much left in the world to stay for.
Harry doesn’t answer. What Riddle says is true, even though it shouldn’t be. There isn’t much he cares about now.
Your capacity to care is almost gone.
Then why should I care about what you say, either?
Because of that echo I mentioned. We’re more like each other than you are like anyone else. Come and ride, Harry.
Harry shakes his head, and goes up the stairs. The tapestry doesn’t follow.
He suspects that what Riddle says is true, if not for the reasons he says it is. He’s dying. But Harry intends to die on his own terms.
And those terms include not letting his friends suspect anything is wrong. Harry goes out with them, and plays with Teddy, making funny faces at him. Now and then he chats amiably with Ginny and lets her believe he’s getting better. Ginny is dating Neville now. Both their faces are so much calmer and happier when Harry looks at them, and now and then they exchange secret glances. Thinking about things that happened during the war, Harry’s sure, things they both shared.
He bears them no malice, not even when the tapestry mutters darkly about them. Well, Neville destroyed a Horcrux and Ginny is part of the reason this diary-fragment is in a tapestry, anyway. Harry wouldn’t expect it to like them.
You don’t really like them, either. You despise them for living through hard things and managing to recover. It’s not fair that you’re the one who did the most but you’re the one who’s left with the crumbling soul.
For a second, Harry cringes under an onrushing wave of hatred that makes him fear the tapestry is telling the truth—
And then it simply fades away again. Harry sighs and shakes his head. “Was that an attempt to get me to be jealous of them, Riddle?” he asks aloud, since he doesn’t want to share any silent communions with the tapestry right now. “A pretty pathetic attempt. If it was.”
Why would I be jealous of them?
“They’re alive and you’re not.”
Riddle says nothing. Harry stands, feeling like he’s scored a mild victory over the tapestry, and heads towards the stairs.
Neither are you.
Harry flinches, ignores the impact of an arrow landing between his shoulder blades, and says, “And that’s one reason I wouldn’t want to climb into the tapestry and spend all of eternity with you, Riddle.”
The tapestry remains silent the rest of the evening, but that night, when Harry closes his eyes, he discovers another way in which Riddle intends to influence him.
He’s in the middle of the Chamber of Secrets, but this time, there’s no bloody great snake looming over him and no water or blood staining the stone floor. Instead, the Chamber glows as if it’s illuminated by sunlight, even though Harry can’t see any source of the light when he looks around. The pillars sparkle and blind him like marble or snow. In the center of everything, where Slytherin’s statue stood before, is an enormous throne, as big as the statue.
Riddle sits on a much smaller, plush chair at the base of the throne, watching as Harry walks towards him.
“You say that you don’t want to spend eternity with me. But your dream can feel like much longer than eternity, if I will it.”
Harry only glances around, wondering if his mind or Riddle’s brought him here. He doesn’t have any fond memories of the Chamber of Secrets that would make him want to prettify it, but then again, Riddle seems like he would like the former snake-infested ambience rather than one that might feel more friendly to Harry.
Riddle stands up, and Harry’s attention comes back to him. Riddle is wearing a set of dark robes trimmed with purple. As Harry watches, he reaches up and sheds them with a simple motion of his hands, revealing that they were only clasped with a silver brooch around the throat.
And that he’s wearing nothing underneath them.
Harry stares. His heartbeat is dashing along in his ears. He doesn’t understand what he’s seeing, not really. He doesn’t know how to react, not really.
Riddle ducks his head and smiles at Harry around the corners of his mouth. “You want me.”
“In a dream. Not aloud.”
“But as you pointed out earlier, neither of us is really alive any longer.” Riddle moves towards him and cocks his head. “But reach out, if you can. Feel beyond the dream. What’s different from the grey haze that you walk around in every day?”
Harry frowns and reaches out, even though he can’t even describe the senses that he’s using to do that, and he doesn’t think Riddle can, either. There’s the haze of the dream over his thoughts, and magic—
And life. Harry gasps and drops to his knees on the floor of the conjured Chamber. Suddenly the life is there where it wasn’t before, draping over him, breathing into his pores. He can feel emotions again, and lust is a bright flame.
“Yes, you want me,” Riddle says, and extends a hand down. “I’m joining with your soul again, giving it the support that it’s been seeking since your Horcrux died. Come to me, Harry. Let me show you what your ex-girlfriend is probably experiencing right now.”
Harry kneels there for a second, thinking that he’s being stupid. He’s got used to his life with his crumbling soul. He can just open his eyes and go back to that. Despite Riddle’s threat to make the dream last forever, or seemingly forever, Harry knows he’s in ultimate control. Riddle can’t keep him here without his permission.
He honestly doesn’t want to leave the dream. Or the feelings that crackle around him like lightning, even if they’re false.
He reaches up and clasps Riddle’s hand.
Riddle draws him to his feet at once, and bends down to meet his lips. Harry surges upwards, and winds his hands in Riddle’s dark hair. Riddle makes a soft sound, but it doesn’t seem like it’s one of disapproval.
And then Harry knows it’s not, when Riddle lays him down and hisses a command that Harry can still grasp. Bind him.
Stone snakes shoot out of the floor of the Chamber of Secrets, slim and gleaming as much as the marble-like pillars, and wind around Harry’s wrists and ankles. He finds his limbs jerked to the sides and his body displayed for Riddle. No chance to hide, no chance to retract anything. A snake even curls around his neck, not enough to tie his head completely down, but enough to ensure that he can’t turn to watch Riddle when he paces to the side.
Riddle bends down again. Harry braces himself to hear a sarcastic hiss in his ear.
But he doesn’t, although Riddle does speak in Parseltongue.
Harry writhes helplessly as Riddle rests a long hand over his groin and begins to massage, cloth and flesh together. He wants to thrust up, but his hips can only move the tiniest bit. He wants to bite and claw and kiss to make up for the long months when he’s felt nothing at all. But Riddle is the one in control here.
And that makes Harry harder.
Riddle keeps up the massage long past the point when Harry thinks he’s going to die of the sparks spiraling and trailing through him. Then he bites Harry’s lip so hard that Harry’s head bangs against the floor, and then all of Harry’s clothes are gone, turning to serpents and crawling away from him.
Riddle’s robes disappear in the same way and at the same moment.
Riddle swings his leg to the side and straddles Harry’s body. He is breathing easily, his eyes alight, his movements as smooth as a werewolf’s. He rears back, and Harry finds the snake on his neck loosening a little. He lifts his head and looks down at what Riddle wants him to look at.
Riddle’s cock, gleaming and like marble itself, flushed with a little purple at the head. Glistening, too, with what must be some kind of conjured lubrication.
“Now,” Riddle says in Parseltongue, and pushes into Harry. Harry is already lying there with his legs spread for Riddle, but he would spread them wider, take more of Riddle in, if he could.
This is wonderful.
The physical sensation of being filled is there, and everything Harry never knew to dream it could be, but also the sensation of a new foundation to his soul. Harry can feel everything: the cracks in the stone underneath them, the unyielding nature of the snakes around his wrists and ankles, the piercing gaze Riddle is directing at him, the furious rocking pace.
Someone inside him. Someone who never should have left.
Riddle hisses, “Come,” and Harry obeys because he has to. The pleasure snaps through his body like a whip, like he’s the end of the whip, and he’s barely finished before Riddle hisses it again, and Harry obeys again, and the pleasure floods his soul and heals the place that was filled with the Horcrux for so long.
When Riddle comes, it’s completion, it’s strength, it’s magic, it’s as fulfilling as the moment when Hagrid looked at Harry and told him that he was a wizard.
Riddle sprawls on top of him afterwards and hisses into his ear, “You only had seven years to be a wizard. But you can have more than that, if you come with me and ride into eternity. You’ve given up all you had to give. Even part of your soul. Come with me, Harry. There’s no one who can blame you.”
Harry almost wants to tell Riddle that that’s a lie. There are people who can blame him.
The point is, though, that Harry no longer thinks he has to listen.
Harry doesn’t consent to go with Riddle right away.
Of course not. There’s far too much to do. He has some things to put in order, money to make sure of, documents to leave so that people will know he hasn’t been kidnapped or committed suicide, Kreacher to inform, Gringotts goblins to argue with.
But the thing is: he’s able to do it. Signing a document that once would have taken him a morning of apathetic staring and far more than one attempt to lift the quill is so easily accomplished he wants to shout with joy. He lies to his friends with an open face and an honest smile, and they smile back and stay away, convinced that, after all, he’s recovering. Harry goes to visit Teddy and Andromeda one last time, and tossed Teddy in the air and makes him laugh.
He vows to remember that laughter. Riddle never said that he couldn’t remember things. Harry only has to go into the tapestry, not give up any vision of his life outside it right away.
Of course, part of him does play, briefly, with the notion that he could stay in his world and simply keep the tapestry around. If Riddle’s soul is joined with his, that ought to mean he can live, now, and his soul won’t crumble.
But he doesn’t even have to ask Riddle about that to recognize the futility of the idea. Riddle would withdraw his soul’s support from Harry at once if he thought Harry wasn’t going to keep his end of the bargain.
Death and becoming embedded in a tapestry that Harry is still pretty sure he’s hallucinating hasn’t changed Tom Riddle into an altruist. Harry has to be prepared to sacrifice as Riddle is always hissing that he’s sacrificing, by using part of his own strength to keep Harry from breaking apart in these last days.
And he is. If he’s dying anyway, as he suspects, and this is a painless way of doing it, then he’ll keep with the painlessness, thanks.
You haven’t sought out your friends to say goodbye.
Harry shakes his head as he stands in front of the tapestry and meets Riddle’s sewn eyes. “There’s no point,” he says, aloud but in Parseltongue. “They either wouldn’t understand and think I was mad and it would only lead to hard feelings, or they would believe me and they’d never let me do it.”
Poor little Gryffindors.
Harry shrugs. One good thing, the only good thing, about that pane of glass separating him from the rest of the world is that he no longer thinks in terms of hurting Hermione and Ron’s feelings. And Ginny’s, and Mrs. Weasley’s, and Teddy’s, and all the rest of them. He simply doesn’t have the energy to care. “I’ve made my peace.”
And your peace is the only thing that matters?
“You know it is,” Harry says, in English this time, for the last time, and holds out his hand. “Now, Tom, I think you promised that we could ride forever.”
The tapestry ripples, shines. The hand of the stitched rider comes towards him, and Harry hardly has time to grasp it before he finds the world changing, pouring, around him, and he’s in the midst of colors so dark they break his heart. He’s on the back of the black horse, seated behind Tom—
Sidesaddle. Harry rolls his eyes and turns himself forwards again. “Funny.” He realizes his words are emerging in Parseltongue with no surprise at all.
Tom turns his head. He wears the dark purple glory of robes he wore in the Chamber of Secrets in Harry’s dream, his gaze sharp and searching. “Ready, Harry?”
“I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t.”
“Ready, my soul,” Tom whispers, but this time it isn’t a question. He reaches out and touches the black horse’s neck.
The horse leaps. Harry can’t see any wings, but clearly the horse doesn’t need them. It’s only a moment before they’re galloping across the green fields that Harry could only glimpse from standing in front of the tapestry. And he can see the fields, he can see their swelling hollows and hilly curves and the distant land that stretches out in front of him, dove-like mountains and hidden forests and caves behind waterfalls.
Tom turns around on the horse and kisses him on the lips. Harry raises his head, feeling the coldness of the marble pillars behind Tom’s mouth, the snakes in the Chamber of Secrets, the pulse of darkness beating beneath his fingers.