Harry struggled in vain as Pettigrew (now traitor to him as well as to his late parents) cut his arm, chanting about “blood of the enemy, unwillingly given”. Then his gaze fell on Cedric, tied into a ball some twenty miles away, barely conscious under an unknown curse. At least, Harry murmured to himself, he had had the presence of mind to yell “Don’t hurt him!” when Wormtail had first pointed his wand at the Hufflepuff boy. He didn't want to know what would have happened otherwise, but at least, Cedric was alive.
So was Voldemort, however, much to Harry Potter's great chagrin. He was pale, and bald, and a bit scaly around the edges, but alive enough to demand being robed. A pair of scarlet eyes now scrutinized the trapped opponent, openly curious and unblinking. The reborn Dark Lord even touched his one-time defeater, and no longer experienced the burn caused by his mother's loving sacrifice. After causing his downfall once and then stopping him twice, Harry grudgily admitted that finally the evil wizard had succeeded in his goal.
“Let me go!” he grumbled, more out of defiance than because rationally expecting his demand to be met. He was lucky enough to have stopped the traitor from killing the other champion before the ritual, and his luck wasn't known to last.
But to his great surprise, that was exactly what happened. The freshly reborn Tom Riddle flashed him an incredulous look, then, with wide-open eyes (was that terror on his face? Really?) undid all the paralyzing charms on him. Of course, his boasting of having the last laugh also ceased, immediately.
Peter might have squeaked in the background.
As it might happen in very important and unbelievable situations, an absolutely meaningless detail caught the attention of the boy. Having spent almost four years in the wizarding world, he couldn't help but notice the bone colored wand that untied him; it wasn't the one the rat had previously used.
“Your wand….” Harry started, trying to put together a complete sentence, trying to ask if this really was the twin of his own, but the other wizard moved faster than he could speak.
With an expression of clear horror on his face, Voldemort held out his own pale wand in his open palm, as if expecting it to be taken. Or snapped.
He might have been raised in a cupboard under the stairs, but Harry knew better than to take another's wand, when he had his own.
Well, he indeed had his own.
Merely touching the lightly colored wood, Harry summoned his own wand, and caught it with a Seeker's ease. The two tips exchanged red and silverish sparks, having recognized each other.
“What is going on?” Harry asked, taking a step back across the graves, his own wand now in his hand, a reassuring presence in this bizarre situation.
“By the symptoms, I suppose it's an extreme case of a life debt,” Voldemort explained, not quite willingly. His own answer sent more shivers through his newly restored body.
“Merlin’s nifty left ear,” Harry murmured. “Peter easily escaped last year from the same.” He looked briefly around in an attempt to find the animagus in question, but he yet again made himself scarce, and Harry couldn't trust this so-claimed life debt when there was a Dark Lord just three steps away from him.
“You saved his life, but immediately agreed to send him off to a life sentence in Azkaban,” Tom Riddle explained. “Had everything happened as you intended, he wouldn't be much better off with his miserable life.”
Remembering his own experience with dementor presence, Harry really couldn't help but agree with the observation. He hadn't willingly made much of a difference to the traitor of his parents. So now he looked into the scarlet eyes of the one who murdered them. By the same logic, he maybe shouldn't press his luck yet again. There was now a fearful man in front of him, but should he be turned in to the magical authorities, this life debt lookalike would be diminished.
“How about making sure you and your cronies refrain from trying to kill me and my friends?” he offered. That was more important than yet another doomed attempt at trying to bring justice and the wizarding world a little bit closer to each other. What if nobody attacked him for an entire year? And then, the weird debt would remain in place. He hoped.
The red-eyed wizard nodded in what was almost a bow. “I will make sure none of the death eaters will stand in your way.” There was the hatred of a defeated man in that face, oddly reminiscent of how Uncle Vernon had looked when Hagrid had opened the cabin door to invite him to Hogwarts.
Harry looked around. Cedric was still tied behind that grave, the portkey cup was near that huge stone. This man now wouldn't stop him from going back, right?
Cedric was still casting spell-ending incantations on himself when they passed the now placid sphinx, but otherwise he looked like he had not suffered worse than a bad fall. He even cast a healing charm on Harry's bleeding arm.
“You know… If people didn't believe you when you said you didn't enter the Tournament, I doubt they would do any better now.”
“Clearly,” Cedric replied in a cold tone. “That was You-Know-Who, right? And his servant is an animagus. Just as you have claimed last year. Creepy that you talked to him like an old friend.”
Harry harrumphed. “Anything but!”
“And he looked at you like an unruly house-elf! Too bad I didn't catch a word after you asked what's going on. Really, two men hissing is the wildest thing I have ever heard.”
“We were… hissing?” Harry now stopped. He didn't even notice that! But, thinking back, he never had much thought about Parseltongue in second year either, when he understood what his talent had meant.
“You were having a nice conversation. But… Thanks for being there. Had I grabbed the Cup alone, they would have just, dunno… killed me. Ironic way to go, right? I robbed the nest of a Swedish short-snout dragon and almost died of picking up the wrong portkey.
“Not another life debt!”
“Now you're hissing again. Creepy.”
“Sorry.” Harry sat down on the grass in the maze, and the Hufflepuff boy, the REAL champion of Hogwarts, sat down next to him.
“How are we going to tell everyone?” Harry suddenly asked.
“Please remind me of one thing you ever said that was believed,” Cedric said quietly. “That you're not the one who attacked Justin and the others, that you didn't enter on your own will, dunno. That story with Black being innocent is also true, right?”
“You’ve seen Pettigrew today,” Harry nodded. “He’s that servant. That rat.”
“Point proven,” young Diggory nodded.
The Gryffindor champion scratched his head, until his fingers wandered to his lightning-bolt scar. Was his situation really that bad as Cedric made it seem? How about… He tried hard to come up with anything he had ever said and more than one person had believed, but the only one who really believed him was Hermione, who had also (at the time) believed the Lockhart goose. Voldemort's return was something the entire wizarding world would need to hear about, but if its only result would be getting discredited again… He had lost Ron's friendship already, so what would come next?
“Maybe you should go and claim that You-Know-Who didn't just get a body, add that you've seen Black there, and trust the wizarding world to go looking.”
“That's anything but funny.”
“No, it's not.” Indeed, the Hufflepuff didn't produce more than a forced, and very tired smile. “That’s how wizards work. Trust the pureblood,” he added with a grimace.
Harry mirrored the grimace, then looked at the cup they were still both holding.
“This was a setup. The entire Tournament was,” Harry noted.
“Agreed. I was wondering if we deserve the money that goes with it.”
Harry admitted that he never thought about that aspect.
“We should put it up for charity,” Cedric offered. “The cup too. What do you think?”
“Are there wizarding charities?” Harry asked. Certainly he never heard of one.
“We can always start one. What about…. Do you remember Professor Lupin?”
“We should start one for werewolves. I would have been eaten in the maze by the first bend without his classes. He was my favorite teacher last year.”
The two boys picked themselves off the lawn, and moved to the maze exit. Harry's mind was running wild. Who should he tell the truth about the Cup? About Voldemort, his resurrection, and then the unexpected reaction to Harry’s requests, which had scared the dreaded wizard so much? Hermione maybe. But then she would tell Ron. Ron he didn't want to talk to, at all. Hagrid was someone who would always trust him, but if he learnt one thing about the gamekeeper, is that he horribly cannot keep a secret. Really, with that Skeeter woman, was there any place at Hogwarts where anyone could tell something they don't want to read, ridiculed, only the day after?
Now that answered the question.
That night Harry slept fretfully, not being able to share the truth with anyone. He wondered if Cedric was feeling the same way. But the other champion clearly had a point. Especially about the werewolf fund. Cedric was the one who had made the announcement for the both of them, and his father proudly agreed to handle the formalities. Werewolves could always do with some good press, anyway.
Headmaster Dumbledore was not available all evening, and, more surprisingly, nor was Professor Moody. Several Ministry busybodies flooded the teachers' floor, however, but they were talking in a hushed voice. All Harry could make out were the words “Imperius” and “trunk”. That made no sense, what would a teacher have to do with an elephant?
When he finally fell asleep, however, or maybe he was only in an intermediate state, he had seen a dark and elegant room…. With Draco's father writhing on the floor in pain. To Harry's greatest shock, however, he could see a wand in the right corner of his own vision, a pale one, pointing at the screaming wizard. Beside the elder Malfoy, there was the pierced diary on the carpet.
For a moment he felt satisfied, because the white-haired wizard deserved it. A second later he was flooded by remorse – how could he wish torture on anyone? Even if it was deserved! He was angry, of course he was angry with Mr Malfoy who had put all the muggleborns in danger, who almost caused Ginny's demise! But that's no reason to expose him to this!
Harry's head was spinning as the sight he was seeing moved left and right, without his head moving.
“You hear me?!” Clearly they shared the same confusion.
“Let Mr Malfoy go!”
“He is at home, I assure you.”
“Stop torturing him!”
“I hate what you've done to me!”
“You made me an orphan! You are why I live with my uncle and not with my parents!”
Meanwhile, Malfoy was still on the floor, whimpering, but no longer rolling and screaming. Perhaps this was only the after-effect now.
“Are we at least talking in Parseltongue? I can never tell.”
“I usually can. Not now. WHY ARE YOU A PARSELMOUTH?”
Harry wasn't inclined to answer. He wasn't under a compulsion to tell, either.
“Leave Mr Malfoy alone.”
“He isn't your friend. So why should I?”
There was a minute or two of a standstill, during which Harry (and, quite possibly, his enemy) experienced a shared and very mutual distress, some hatred towards one another, a good dose of awkwardness over the situation, and a growing demand of an explanation. Voldemort's gaze returned, several times, to the butchered diary with the black splashes of ink and the hole where it had been pierced. Harry could tell the older wizard was getting closer and closer to a breakdown – who were they kidding, the Dark Lord was going through a crisis.
And, without either of them admitting it for long, they both felt that they needed to talk this through, in person, not through this unwanted mind bridge, despite neither of them being too eager for the other's presence.
With a very irritated sigh, Voldemort reached for the long-haired wizard's left arm (sending Harry's head spinning again) and tore the sleeve away to reveal a snake-and-skull tattoo. It appeared more like an inflammated wound right now. Voldemort pressed his palm on that wound.
Harry looked up, this time with his own eye, through is own glasses. He was seeing the Gryffindor dormitory. Great. At least partially he was still here. Where he knew where “here” was. After the day he had had, one learns to appreciate such luxuries.
He could still hear a dialogue in the other place, which wasn't a good thing, even if it wasn't in snake language. Because, this time, he recognized the voice of the other man talking.
“Yes, my…. Lord.”
“Bring Potter here. I don't care about your image as Dumbledore's pet double agent. Potter. Now.”
“I… Will. My Lord.”
The boy rubbed his eyes. ‘Pet double agent'? ‘Image’? Is it possible that what he had seen so far, was the friendliest face the bat could force on himself?
But then, he didn't want to see Professor Snape exposed to that same curse, either. His least favorite teacher, admittedly, out of those who had no tried to kill him yet, but the Cruciatus curse was still the Cruciatus curse. And there really wasn’t much where he could have ran away in the middle of the night, either. He could, at least, get dressed. With Gryffindor courage, he should at least not get kidnapped in pajamas. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he noted that this outing would, in retrospect, fall into the ‘It seemed a good idea at the time' category. Or maybe not. Slipping out of the castle with the intention to speak with the killer of his parents was a bad idea and he knew it. Too bad, there wasn't any better. They had to talk, and if Voldemort had been able to try and kill him, he would have attempted by now.
Slipping through the portrait hole was the hardest part. At two in the morning nobody seemed to be awake (although, according to the Map, several adults were pacing in their rooms, perhaps making floo calls or using a private bathroom) and for once, he didn't need to worry about running into Snape by accident, either. Because that was his intention.
They met on the path connecting the front gates and the castle's main entrance. If the potioneer was surprised to see him here, dressed up and semi-agreeing in getting himself kidnapped, he hid it behind a (honest) grimace of disdain and disagreement. “You are very uncooperative with me in keeping you out of trouble, Potter.”
“Believe me, Professor, I wish this weren't so.”
They left it at that. Snape soundlessly led him to the gate, and only there, he asked, “Have you ever apparated before, Potter?”
“No.” It wasn't best time to ask what in Merlin’s name Snape meant.
“I’m surprised. Try not to get yourself splinched.”
He grabbed Harry by the elbow, and pointed his wand at the two of them. After a sense of being squished through an impossibly narrow tube, losing balance on arrival, and falling over an elegant marble ornament immediately after, Harry found himself in the front yard of a manor. The building might have been less intimidating in daylight, but of that, Harry wasn't sure.
When his Potions professor led him to the main room, Draco's father was still on the floor, quietly lying in a corner, at least not being the target of the Dark Lord’s immediate wrath.
“I see none of us is getting much sleep tonight,” Harry spoke. Next to him, his professor gave a deep bow. His wand was still in his hand between the folds of his black robe, Harry noted.
“Welcome to Malfoy Manor, young Potter,” Voldemort greeted him. He waved Snape to the older Malfoy's side, not even wasting a word on them. As it appeared, he was playing the host here right now, not the owner of the house. Harry looked at the scarlet-eyed man, then politely greeted both hosts. Being raised by Uncle Vernon wasn't an excuse to be as much a jerk as Draco tended to be.
“How deeply are we connected, Potter?” Voldemort immediately asked.
“Worse than either of us would like,” Harry replied. “I guess this isn't what you had in mind for a glorious return?”
In that corner, Snape looked up from checking Mr Malfoy's aching body. “I swear he has a death wish.” Maybe that remark was intended for the white-haired one only, but Harry tended to agree with the observation. Was there any better explanation of why he allowed himself to be delivered here?
But to everyone's surprise, the Dark Lord only replied in a quiet voice. “I should have been able to continue right where I have left everything fourteen years ago. Yet here you are, and have absolute power over me. There's no point in denying that.”
“How could it happen?” Judging from the looks Professor Snape and Draco's father exchanged, Harry supposed he had just switched to Parseltongue again. Not his fault! Voldemort started it. As always.
Not for the first time since his resurrection, Tom Riddle's face contorted into that of a very unwilling person. “I can only guess what happened, but I'm certain it has to do with my late diary.” The Dark Lord gave a disdainful gaze in the direction of his followers' hiding corner, perhaps wishing he could just join them and not be forced to give out one secret after the other. “You didn't have control over me before that.”
“Yes, I remember I didn't.” How he had wished, back then, that he had had! His eleven-year-old self would have loved to be able to tell Voldemort to stand down and leave the Stone alone. Now, at almost fifteen, Harry would have preferred to have nothing to do with Riddle. It wasn't his choice, however.
From one of the green armchairs in the far side of the room, a huge olive green snake rose. It was large enough to be some sort of a boa, but the shape of its head left no doubt about the presence of venom glands. Harry was glad he had paid attention in his muggle biology lessons. He immediately drew his wand, expecting an attack.
The snake, however, stayed at a quite preferable distance. Either it was just curious about the goings-on, or it knew better than to run into a blasting curse.
“May I introduce Nagini. She's the only one I still trust.”
“Hello,” Harry said, not lowering his wand.
“Good evening, young wizard. I heard a lot about you. You don't appear as bad as I expected. Untrusting and inexperienced, that's what you are, and I don't know who you remind me of.” Harry didn't approve of the likeliness she pointed out, and that must have been written in his face.
“There are similarities, starting with both of us being orphans. Only, in my case it's his fault.”
The huge (and most likely, venomous) reptile slithered to her master’s side. “Don't you think it's time to sit down, you both? And talk?”
Harry slowly lowered his wand. “That’s why I had to come, I guess.”
Once they were both seated, Nagini coiled up next to her lord's legs, but putting her head on the armrest. Harry didn't miss the friendly pat Voldemort immediately gave her. It must have been the first kind gesture from him that Harry had ever seen.
“So, did you find out what happened?”
Voldemort nodded. “A part of it. Did you really kill Salazar's basilisk?”
“It was self-defense.”
“Please tell me what exactly happened. From the point that the diary took young Miss Weasley down to the Chamber as its lifesource reserve.”
“I went after her. Sixteen-year-old you turned the basilisk on me. Then Fawkes arrived and helped me defeat it.”
“Fawkes? The phoenix that gave the cores of our wands? You said yourself, we have twin wands. So, when we stood opposed, the phoenix appeared?”
Harry nodded. “He took out the basilisk's eyes, and helped me get a sword. The basilisk bit me just as I stabbed it, but with my last strength, I pulled out the broken fang from the wound, and stabbed the diary.”
The pale and scaly dark wizard stiffened. “With the fang that had your blood on it!?”
Several shivers ran through the older wizard, it took all his strength not to collapse right then, right there. “You mixed your blood with the diary as you destroyed it? Your own blood?”
“With a basilisk fang, of all things?!”
Was that a tear in those scarlet eyes?
“Was there anyone else at the time? Apart from us and the phoenix?”
“Ginny. But she was lying unconscious at the time.”
“Time. When you stabbed the diary with the blooded fang, did it happen within three minutes after murdering a being whose words you could understand?” Harry could feel Voldemort's horror through his scar. Weird as it sounds, he wasn't happier for it.
“I think so. How fast does basilisk venom kill?”
Voldemort took a deep breath. “Within one.”
“There's your answer.”
Voldemort was shattered, breaking down in the living-room of one of his followers, burying his face in his palms. Harry could see his shivers, he wasn't sure if he didn't hear his sobs. As much as he wished for his own answers, it clearly wasn't the time. He looked up and gestured the black- and the white-haired wizards to leave the room, who took their cue pretty fast. On their way out, he heard Professor Snape asking ‘Cissa’s’ whereabouts, and Draco's dad replied that he asked her to take a Dreamless Sleep potion. Harry would have preferred to go with them.
Nagini curled her upper half around her master, offering a snake version of a hug. She licked a tear off the extremely pale face. Of the sobs, Harry could make out, “What have I become?” and an even more devastated, “I’m immortal!” To these, Nagini only replied in a calmer tone, “He’s not as bad as he could be.”
Now, wasn't that a vote of confidence. Harry leaned back and waited for the sobs to quiet down. He wanted to go back to his red and golden dormitory, it was almost three in the morning, and after a day like what he had! Winning a Triwizard Cup, being part of an arch-enemy's resurrection, both of these against his own will! Having to lie to his friends when they had asked if he was okay! He wanted to go back to bed!
“Tell me what you think has happened,” he prompted after a while. Ever since that damned resurrection, Voldemort seemed to be compelled to honestly answer him, so he pressed his luck. “Tom! What happened?”
When the pale wizard looked up, his gaze somehow reminded of Sirius. When he was mere meters from tearing Peter Pettigrew apart.
“Do you know what was in that diary?”
“A preserved memory of yours.”
“More. It was the first fragment of my soul.”
“I left it behind as an anchor. To keep me with the living for times like when one-year-old you happened.”
“Your soul?” Did the old murderer really have one?
“Yes, in the hindsight, I know it was a bad idea!”
“Anyone you could have asked would have told you in advance it's a terrible idea!”
“We are alike. When you're told what’s the wise choice to make, you will go completely the other way, too! Don't you? Same happened.”
Now Harry found he couldn’t disagree. “Big time.”
“The one hindrance with such an anchor is that once a soul piece is tied to it, it normally doesn't survive the destruction of its vessel. Once the object is destroyed, so is whatever was tied to it.”
“Like, with a dementor's kiss.”
There was a new wave of shiver. “Yes. But that is where your blood came in. You tied yourself to my perishing soul, and strengthened this bond by using a snake for that.”
“You're welcome. It wasn't even the first time, I guess.”
The pale Dark Lord gaped.
“Professor Dumbledore told me, after Fawkes brought me back to the, well, surface, that a part of you might have latched on to me when your killing curse hit back. I was the only one alive.”
The darkest wizard of his age just whimpered in resignation. He was deep in a debt, and he couldn't even die!
Harry quietly longed for the Gryffindor dorm.
“Professor Snape?” It was almost half past three. “Could you please tell me what a two-conditions magical contract is?”
“It's exactly what it is.”
That was helpful, as always.
Draco’s father volunteered to explain.
“Technically, a magical contract is not far from a wizard's oath. The point is, they make an agreement, and if one party breaks the deal, the other will immediately know. It is very serious, not for someone my son's age.”
“Nobody seemed to mind my age when I was forced into the Tournament,” Harry pointed out. “How is it done, exactly?”
“You hold hands, you both repeat the conditions. The contract is sealed when a third wizard ties your magic together. Which of us do you want as the bonder?”
Two death eaters. Brilliant choices to choose from.
“I don't think Tom is happy with you right now, sir. No offense.”
The white-haired man swallowed. “None taken, Mr Potter.”
Harry looked at the two wizards, who were looking back at him. Perhaps hissing with a Dark Lord for over an hour, then walking out of the room unscratched, does that to his followers.
He vividly remembered how easily such admiration can shift into hatred.
“Let's get over this,” Professor Snape sighed.
By the time they re-entered the room, Voldemort had more or less collected himself. Snape bowed deeply to him, clearly in an attempt to avoid eye contact.
“There’s not much you need to know. I discussed a lot of personal matters with Mr Potter here. I will not cause or allow any further control, torture or murder of any human, be they magical or muggle, as long as what we talked about in the past two hours doesn't get back to any witch or wizard, especially not, directly or indirectly, to Albus Dumbledore.”
This time Snape couldn't help but stare. This was a lot. And so little, at the same time. Young Potter had many faults, but telling the actually important details was definitely not his forte.
“That’s what we agreed on. Professor Snape, would you please seal our contract?”
“Do it,” was the pale wizard's order.
It was quickly done. Harry managed not to yawn until the ties were in place.
At this point, clearly all four of them was longing for a bed of some sort. Nagini already coiled herself up in the seat her master had previously occupied, and she was sleeping with her head under a dark green pillow.
Harry fought back yet another yawn. He had seen more than enough trembling wizards this early hour. “Harry is willing to take you off my hand. You will swear an oath to him, one more strongly binding than the one I got from you, and you're no longer my death eater. Think up what you're still worth, quickly, and I will be the one to bind.”
Yet another paling dark wizard, Harry inwardly groaned. And quite possibly, yet another life debt. He was starting to lose count.
“One more strongly binding…” Mr Malfoy moaned.
“Equally strong will do,” Harry offered. To these two, he might have appeared to be opposing Voldemort just because he could (now quite clearly) get away with it. While in fact, he just didn't want to wait for too long.
Maybe he was being rash. Maybe he was taking unnecessary risks. As he heard Tom growl “Gryffindor,” he guessed the other wizard was of the same opinion.
But later, as he had witnessed Mr Malfoy's Dark Mark shrinking to about half its original size, and the skull being replaced with the curled tail of the serpent, he realized that rash choices were sometimes better than the ones mulled over and over. Tom had, for example, taken quite some time to create that diary, and now he didn't seem to think it was the wise option.
Harry woke just in time not to miss lunch. Ron was getting worried for him, especially as he chose this morning to try and make up for a year of hostility by filling him in on the school gossip that broke out with Professor Moody being found in a travel trunk, and the older Barty Crouch admitting that it was his son who had been impersonating the DADA teacher all year.
“Ever since the start of September, Harry! That jinx is wicked! An auror comes to teach us and he doesn't even last a day!”
“Hi, Hermione. Sorry, I didn't sleep much last night.”
“You slept through breakfast!” The young witch pointed out.
“I said, night,” Harry replied, sleepily.
“Now the entire school is after Crouch Junior!” Ron continued. “Did you know he was one of those who tortured Neville's parents insane?”
“Ron, don't be so tactless!”
“Well, it's in the Prophet!” Ron insisted.
“Why would that mean it's true?” Harry blinked. He faintly recalled seeing Crouch's name on the Marauder's Map a good while ago, and it was still in his pocket, so he handed the old parchment over to Hermione, and put his head down next to his silverware.
It wasn't long, however, before the bench creaked under the weight of an adult sitting down nearby. Harry blinked up, “Professor Dumbledore?”
“Hi, Harry. Would you mind if I congratulate again, in this more private setting?”
Harry sat his glasses straight, and looked around. There really wasn't anyone else, only some Gryffindor couple arguing by the entrance.
“What’s there to congratulate for, in a more private setting?” Harry wondered aloud. “Sorry, Professor. Please feel free to do so.”
“Harry, you are the bravest child Gryffindor could ever hoped for. Professor Snape told me about the contract he sealed. Very, very brave of you, offering to reject any help for everyone's safety.”
Put like that, the contract didn't exactly sound like a bargain. Most of the time Harry had only survived the various murder attempts because someone was there for him. His mother, his friends, Fawkes. Sirius Black had risked his soul (his entire soul, Harry now couldn't help but make a distinction) to remove Pettigrew from the bed next to his.
On the other hand, despite Tom strongly believing the exact opposite, the debt wasn't something he could trust to hold back an evil wizard forever. What if he screws it up and Voldemort’s debt gets fulfilled? Or he loses it, like he'd lost Wormtail’s?
“We knew he would be back. Professor Trelawney told me an entire year ago.”
“I was afraid of yet another self-fulfilling prophecy. Maybe I was too scared to act on it… I should have cancelled the Tournament.”
“What’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, sir?”
There was a long silence, one often interrupted by the headmaster opening his mouth, only to close it again. After the night he had, Harry more than understood reluctance to reveal something that’s not to be talked about. So he asked the other question that was bothering him.
“Before I left the Manor, Mr Malfoy said something I cannot get straight. We were talking about… Snuffles. When I said you cannot openly help him, Mr Malfoy's reply was, and I quote, “You are either lying, or you have been lied to.” I didn't have time to ask what he meant. Sir?”
“Do you have time for an old man's lecture, and maybe just making excuses, about power and those who seek it?”
Harry rubbed his temples. “Okay.”
“When I was young, I did seek power. Great power, to change the entire world as we know it. And I had an equally aspiring friend, with whom by my side I felt nothing was impossible.”
“Was this friend a Slytherin?” Harry asked.
“No. No, he went to Durmstrang, but had he been born in Britain, I'm sure that's where he would have been Sorted. As time went, we drifted apart. I started teaching, he went for world domination.”
Harry had a feeling that any child with magical parents raising them would have already heard about this. His aunt and uncle however couldn't have told him the same story even if they had wanted to.
“I never heard about him.”
“Gellert Grindelwald was his name.”
Ron once traded a chocolate frog card of him, that's all Harry could recall.
“I had to be the one to stop and defeat him. After that, I was given a number of positions in the wizarding hierarchy. Positions I never was prepared for, and never had time to properly learn into. And so I neglected most of those tasks in favor of nourishing the future.” He gestured at the tables, perhaps indicating the hundreds of children attending to Hogwarts each year.
After a pause, Dumbledore continued, “Of course, I had to take charge and make the best of my never-wanted power at the times of Voldemort. But as soon as I could, I returned to being Headmaster, from having been Chief Warlock. I didn't choose to fight all the intrigues that fill the Ministry to this day. But I hope I will live to see a student of mine one day doing so.”
“So you could have helped Padfoot back then, and now you can't anymore.”
“I made plenty of mistakes as an amateur leader in position, I was afraid to repeat them. Maybe I still am. Please believe me when I say, Harry, power is, if you want to do it right, a huge burden. And every mistake I made came back to me tenfold. Abandoning your godfather's case is one of those I deeply, deeply regret.”
Harry inwardly hummed. After just returning (victorious) from a Tournament he had been thrown into against his will, he could more than relate. And he had been the guardian of his archenemy's soul from the age of one.
The wizard with half-moon spectacles and very bright blue eyes finally asked, “Do you understand, Harry?”
“Thank you for explaining what I got into, Professor. And thank you for honoring my choice of contract. I cannot tell you what I know without putting everyone in danger, but if there's anything more you can help me with, I would be grateful.”
The headmaster appeared a slight bit disappointed. “So you insist on keeping up your part.”
“Voldemort is my burden, Professor. I just wish there weren't more.”
“Like the exams.”
Dumbledore laughed, “There’s quite a good survival ratio of them.”
He didn't even make it to the Entrance Hall when he was stopped by another headmaster, this one being from Durmstrang. After a nauseating round of fake congratulations, Igor Karkaroff asked if Harry would be willing to help him out with a problem.
“What sort of problem?” Harry asked with extreme suspicion. Since he had seen this man and Snape talking during lunch, he suspected it was a tattoo on the man's lower arm.
And, how right he was.
In short, Karkaroff was a wanted man. Because of the ties Durmstrang's (admittedly numerous) alumni had to death eaters, Voldemort's return meant that suddenly not even his own school was a safe place for one who left them.
Harry remembered accidentally seeing this man's trial in the pensieve. He had only helped the aurors so that he could trade other death eaters' freedom for his own. On one hand, Harry very clearly understood what’s it like to be near dementors, on the other hand, this behavior was far too similar of Wormtail selling out his friends.
This much, he shared. He didn't have time to add that just because Voldemort was soul-tied to him, he didn't wish to become a one-man jury to any and all death eaters. Accepting Mr Malfoy's feeble oath of loyalty was a one time occurrence.
Karkaroff, however, saw the opportunity and jumped for it. Did Harry want Pettigrew? He will get him! How many pieces did he wish to receive his family's traitor in?
The younger wizard almost threw up his lunch. He definitely felt sick with the offer. “One! I need him to testify so that my godfather is cleared!” It wasn't even a day for Voldemort being alive and soul-tied to him, and the burden he had just discussed with his own headmaster was already tying him down by his neck.
And he couldn't even be sure if Dumbledore wasn't listening in. Professor Snape most certainly was.
Ron was refreshingly normal (immature and funny, with his trademark jealousy now tuned out to give space to a mending friendship) while Hermione was uncharacteristically relieved and reassuringly enthusiastic. Harry told them that on the way back from grabbing the Cup something happened, and it was Cedric who recommended not talking about it. Then, sometime after the celebration he had also promised a wizard, who might be distantly related to him, and at least two teachers had agreed to the secrecy. One of those being the headmaster.
“So will you spend the summer with us, mate?” Ron immediately offered, trying to put those “Potter Stinks” badges behind themselves.
Summer? Harry's smile turned into a wide grin. “It seems, after defeating a dragon, then facing some mermen, a sphinx and some very nasty cursed objects, I finally proved I can defend myself from Voldemort and his followers if I don’t have to hide my wand,” he announced. “Yes, Ron, if your family is still willing to see me, I won't even set a foot in Surrey!”
And so, their friendship was officially back to normal. Inwardly, Harry admitted that there were advantages of Voldemort being unable to harm him again.
Monday morning was the first normal schoolday he might have had in the entire year. End of the year exams were close, and Hermione kept quizzing him about theories of Transfiguration and History of Magic. He was about to actually look up the birth year of Pierre Bonaccord when Hedwig landed in his empty plate, carrying a letter from Amos Diggory.
“Cedric's father? What does he want?” Hermione asked, curiously as always.
“If I still uphold my statement that Sirius isn't the one who betrayed my family.” Then, Harry added, “Apparently, someone in the Wizengamot brought up his case again, and Mr Diggory wants to know what side the only wizard directly involved -that being me - is on. There’s a first time for everything.”
He immediately grabbed a parchment, and wrote his answer (that yes, he still believes that an innocent man shouldn't be left to be Kissed, no matter how much more the press would ridicule him for such an opinion) before looking over to the Slytherin table. Draco's face was long and his eyes wide, as he was casting spell after spell on his own mail, all of which indicating that the letter from his parents wasn't just a bad prank. Then, irritated, he went to fetch his Head of House, and Snape's calm words only seemed to infuriate him further.
Hedwig hooted, as if urging him to fold the reply and tie it to her outstretched leg. Deciding he had already meddled more with the Malfoys than he would have preferred, Harry trusted his letter to the snowy owl. “Here, good girl. Won't you like a rest before you go back? You aren't supposed to fly during daytime anyway.” But Hedwig took off immediately, and Harry only hoped she would at least take a rest wherever she would find Diggory. The Ministry had an owlery, didn't it?
It was Neville, this time, holding out the Prophet. On the second page was an article that the Department of Magical Law Enforcement was looking into records of old death eater cases, hoping to get a clue for Sirius Black's whereabouts. So far, they not only failed to find his statement, not only found the lack of the trial documents, but there wasn't a single worker in the DMLE who remembered if there had been one. The Ministry had issued all possibly affected workers to a thorough check-up of a healer to determine who and when had modified their memories. “Do you think they will find anything?” Neville nervously asked.
“The lack of a trial?” Harry guessed. The wizarding world was outdoing itself being crazy!
“WHAT? Hermione grabbed the paper, and devoured the article with an appetite normally reserved for school books. “He didn't even have a TRIAL? Minister Fudge signed the permit to get him Kissed while he didn't even have a TRIAL?”
“There wasn't a need, I suppose,” Ron guessed. He preferred having milk-loaf with honey for breakfast, not a piece of paper.
Harry spotted Cedric kissing Cho in the very center of the room, and a thunder of hand-claps from both the Rawenclaw and the Hufflepuff tables followed. The Weasley twins released a set of pink fireworks that formed a huge heart shape under the sunshine-like ceiling. As if on a clue, the Gryffindors and several Slytherins joined the applause.
“That's unfair! No snogging is allowed on the corridors!” somebody lamented.
“The Great Hall is not a corridor,” was the reply, and this time Harry recognized one of the Slytherin chasers talking. Merlin, as happy as he was for Cedric and Cho, he could have done with more Quidditch in his life.
“I can feel your irritation, again. What's wrong this time?”
“Apart from being under house arrest with a death eater who isn't even mine anymore?” came the reply. Harry opened his eyes, and tried to make out the outlines of the other beds without his glasses on. In the blur, however, the only clear lines in his field of vision belonged to a guest room of Malfoy Manor.
“You've been reading. What's the matter there?”
There was a pause, Voldemort clearly trying to hide something from Harry. The soul bond felt to be tickled, then the entire reality, with the dark wizard's disappointment and shame over not being able to withhold information, all crashed on Harry's scar.
Which, to his surprise, Voldemort now felt too.
“So Occlumency doesn't work. I feared it won't – it shields the mind only, not the soul. And Nagini keeps telling me this is all right.”
“Greet Nagini for me, when she’s back from hunting.”
“I will do.”
Harry remained silent for a while, focusing on the information he just got. According to this, his soul-bound evil wizard was trying to find a way to undo his anchors to the living world, so that even if he would be unable to resist Harry's orders in his entire life, he would at least be able to die and move on. The boy could even feel his Dark Lord's relief when he told him that it's quite all right to do such research, in fact he encouraged it. He really didn't intend to stop Voldemort from repairing what he could. He didn't expect his bound wizard, however, to be a male version of Hermione.
Aware that the contact won't cease anytime soon, Voldemort said, “I heard you claiming my case from your headmaster.”
“How much you heard?”
“Anything you said, but none of his replies. The contract isn't supposed to work in this detail, but calling me your burden was touching.”
By Tuesday morning, the Ministry made a public announcement about Sirius' never-held trial, and on Wednesday the Prophet’s front picture was that of the hundreds of howlers flying around in the press office of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. A pureblood being sentenced to life based on statements from muggles didn't seem to sit well with the similar (and, as Harry had learned from Draco’s mother, closely related) ancient pureblood families. By Friday, the department head of the time Barty Crouch took advantage of the distraction, slipped from his holding cell in the Ministry, and fled the country. The same day the current Head of Department, who happened to be Susan's aunt, announced that the Wizengamot will go through the entire procedure as it should have in the first place. On the Monday of the exam week, Minister Fudge denounced the ‘kiss on sight’ order, and in the same column invited Harry Potter to repeat his statement about seeing Peter Pettigrew alive the year before. That same Prophet arrived together with a tawdry apology from Lucius Malfoy, claiming that “Cornelius was far less cooperative than normally”. He also informed Harry that he had visited Petunia Dursley one day ‘for some minor formalities' (Harry couldn't imagine what that might have meant) and he was even more disappointed in muggles than he had expected. As he pointed out, some animals honor the memory of their sibling more deeply than this puny flower.
In his reply, Harry assured his own not-a-death-eater that not all muggles are like that, and wasn't shy to mention it was a wizard's fault that he had to live with her instead of his parents. He also inquired about the ‘minor formalities' and thanked Mr Malfoy, more than once, for the effort he'd put into Black's case. In their continued correspondence, Lucius mentioned repeating the visit with Vernon Dursley also present. His report of the events was the most entertaining read Harry had ever found, especially the part where Mr Malfoy showed ‘that cripple' how one can expand their clothes so that they will fit even if (especially if) the wearer puts on some more dozen pounds. He had also demonstrated the Muffliato charm, which is exactly what one needs to prevent neighbors from overhearing a discussion about magic, like the one that happened to be going on at the top of both their lungs. Harry wrote back that nobody had ever stood up for him in this manner. The reply arrived just before Astronomy exam. “That isn't my credit, Mr Potter, only the shame of everybody else.”
Amos Diggory also wrote him once, asking if the werewolf support should go as far as allowing a lycanthrope to testify as witness in court. Harry had to seek out Cedric and ask if his father was being serious. (And Cedric was really unimpressed, as he was studying for his Ancient Runes NEWT, and he had also promised a certain Rawenclaw seeker to help with her DADA revision.)
Contact with strange people didn’t cease with the start of the summer holidays, either. Just as Harry settled his trunk in the room that had been Ron's own until now, the Weasleys got a floo call from Igor Karkaroff, announcing that one of his former students, currently a high-ranked officer in the muggle state of Cuba, had reported a rat had tripped a ward that would only react to magical humans. With the money on Wormtail's head, the island was soon crawling with hunters. When Peter slipped on to a ship, from which he could apparate to Mexico, the MACUSA joined in, so that Pettigrew would be incarcerated before he would get past their own borderlines. Casting magic-detecting charms on all the ships, large and small, was a tedious job, but it helped them reveal several illegal activities that had been overlooked before. The next report came from Venezuela.
“Enjoying this brutal heat. She found a sun-warmed rock behind the stables.”
“I was considering Mr Malfoy's offer to come through for a day. Odd as it is, I think I can feel you reaching out to me.”
There was an awkward pause. Harry tried his best not to actively demand an answer, as it crashing against his scar wasn't the most pleasant sensation.
“I'm trying to re-adsorb the fragment I broke off accidentally. Just detecting it took three days of meditation.” Harry nodded inwardly, this much he had felt. “It seemed like the easiest one to repair, as I didn't even intend to kill Lily Evans until she refused to let you die.”
Harry had heard this part of the story, several times, courtesy of the dementors around the school in his third year.
“Did you really expect her to step aside?”
“You've never even heard of a mother's love?” That was somewhat sad. Did his mom have to die because Voldemort never encountered that before? Was the lack of Tom's experience in family life that landed him with Vernon and Petunia and Dudley? Also, without his mother's sacrifice, they surely would have never ended up in this soul bond.
And there was something Harry felt unfair. He had the strongest shield possible, while his opponent's protection only consisted of the unintendedly adopted segment being now under Lily's shield as well.
“I don't need your pity!”
“No, but I do. If you just understood back then, I would have grown up without you ruining so many lives.”
Tom’s table come into view, and on one parchment, to the list of soul-repairing ideas, Harry could see a pale hand writing, ‘not ruining so many lives'. There was also an arrow, pointing to the word ‘survivors’.
“Maybe you could add ‘families’, as in, families of those you killed?”
“What, like the puny plant Lucius told me about?”
“Molly's brothers were killed by your followers, who also died in the battle. She still grieves them.”
“Your godfather's parents celebrated with champagne when their only surviving offspring was taken to Azkaban.”
“What about Neville's family? He lives with his grandmother since his parents were tortured?”
To Harry's surprise, Voldemort summoned another parchment, one that was titled ‘Later / Never’. On this, he wrote ‘deeds of death eaters’.
“Will you look through these when you come?” He was clearly planning to make copies before Harry's visit. There was no point in risking his one and only way out of the eternal misery. And he hated not having any private life. How could he take over the wizarding world if he wasn't even allowed to use a simple Cruciatus?
“Will you tell me what sort of help do you need from someone with a conscience?” Harry asked back.
The word ‘conscience’ then got written to the ‘meditation topics' list. The other word not yet crossed out on the same sheet was ‘family’.
Harry quickly wished good night and did his best to suspend this connection.
Morning came, and Harry considered his options over and over, but found he had no good solution. Really, he mostly wanted Voldemort to not cause any further problems, because undoing what was already wrong was impossible. Nothing would bring his parents back. Nothing would give Sirius his youth back. Nothing could help Neville's parents, and perhaps the dark wizard's soul was also beyond any help. He very lividly remembered Remus telling him how a soul's loss is much worse than death. (But then, he also remembered what qualifies as ‘worse than death' to Hermione, and this memory quite cheered him up.)
So, again, he focused on answering the seemingly simple question. What did he want?
His parents back. To have someone he could ask for real advice.
Spending the entire summer away from the Dursleys was a good start, however. He really shouldn't complain for minor details like having a Dark Lord's soul partially fused with his own.
Hedwig landed on the windowsill, and hooted impatiently when Harry, still lost in his thoughts, didn't untie the small parcel immediately.
It was a letter from Charlie, and the contents were easy to guess. The second oldest Weasley son had promised to send a few pictures of Norbert (well, Norberta) when he had last talked with his family through the floo. Sending photographs through fire was impossible even for wizards, as it seemed.
The not-so-little Norwegian Ridgeback had grown considerably since she had almost burnt down Hagrid's hut over three years before. Harry still preferred to keep a safe distance from dragons, or anything dangerous, knowing all too well that trouble would find him even without any effort on his own. As for reptiles, he preferred snakes, who were much more intelligent. And, as Ron had recently pointed out, too few legs weren't as scary as too many. Then Hermione had immediately told Ron he should have grown out of his arachnophobia. Ron, in turn, offered to introduce her to Aragog, another pet beast of Hagrid.
Hagrid… Now, he was a wizard with a history of keeping dangerous things around, even if he couldn't be called an expert at safety. Surely a Dark Lord didn't exactly qualify as a beast, and the gamekeeper wasn't known for his wise choices or foresight, but he was a good friend and one whom Harry could at least ask without revealing too much about his soul-trapped Tom Marvolo Riddle.
Hedwig took her normal place on the wardrobe, and hooted once more before falling asleep. On the other bed, Ron stirred, then wrapped himself even more tightly in his blanket. Harry ignored him, and steped to the wardrobe to pet his owl.
“Sleep well, girl.” Now Harry had an entire day to compose a letter to Hagrid, or so he thought. Pigwidgeon came in just half a minute later, and started pestering Hedwig, who had flown with the parcel straight from Romania.
“Pig, could I please ask you a favor?”
A loud flapping of wings and some excited hooting were the answer.
“Thanks, Pigwidgeon. I'll write a quick note to Hagrid, if you'd be kind to deliver?”
And so, he started to write.
I'm sure you'll find my purely theoretical question a bit confusing, but please don't ask me to explain more. I'm already telling more than to many people I'm close to.
So, if you found a wounded predator, one that has been killing innocent creatures like unicorns –‘
Harry paused, grimacing. Killing unicorns actually had happened, he just hoped Hagrid won't see the connection.
‘ - and you're certain this is the very same beast, what would you do? Leave it in the forest? Take it in? Would you go as far as to ask Professor Snape for a specific potion it needs and you don't have on hand?’
From here, he continued with the chat they had over the floo with Charlie, and enclosed one of the better photographs of the truck-sized Norberta. Then he trusted the letter to Pigwidgeon, so that Hedwig could finally get some well deserved rest.
Lucius Malfoy apparated to the many-times expanded old shack that was the Burrow, and took the sight in. After collecting himself, he put on the haughty expression he was normally seen with, and moved to the front gate. A bright spell, shot from one of the upper rooms, unlocked the entrance for him, and he walked on, prepared to be ridiculed by the infamous twins. He couldn't tell how long his shield charm would hold out. He was expecting trap stones in the pavement, or something thrown or cast in his direction. A large but thin black dog – no, a grim, if he wasn't mistaken – guiding him through the garden to a back door wasn't what he had hoped for.
“Hi, Mr Malfoy! Please, come this way. It's more quiet here than in the living-room.”
“Mr Potter.” He bowed deeply before looking around in the eclectic structure. “I trust my visit won't disturb the life of the family you've honored with your company.”
“I offered Ginny my Firebolt for the morning, so that she won't be hexing you,” Harry grinned. He wouldn't have come up with this brilliant idea on his own, but having an active bond to a Slytherin mastermind had its advantages. Again.
“That’s considerate of you, Mr Potter.” He might have wanted to continue with a few more rounds of politeness, but the skinny grim sniffing him thoroughly from head to toe wasn't good for his concentration. Those extremely silver eyes couldn't belong to a normal dog.
Harry found the situation hilarious. The grim continued searching the newcomer's robes, then, with a disappointed sigh, settled under the table on which some less successful transfiguration practice items were spread.
“Could we start with Sirius' case please?” Harry prompted. “You know, he's getting impatient.” A disapproving look didn't stop the grim from staring at the wizard with a fixed gaze, pointed ears, tense muscles (not that he had much) and a moderately wagging tail.
“Of course, Mr Potter. As, I suppose, nobody but the craziest aurors expect your godfather being present for his own trial, my wife and his cousin, Narcissa Malfoy née Black will represent him. Unless you have any objections, sir.”
“Will the Wizengamot accept her? They want me to testify in person, and they heard more from me in the past few weeks than your wife had from Sirius for over a decade.”
Lucius blinked twice. “Please understand, sir, it was hard enough for her to visit her sister Bellatrix, we never thought she should bear the same for a more distant family member.”
“Who happens to be disowned,” Harry added.
“That fact can be used to his advantage, considering the reputation his family holds.”
Harry just nodded. “I heard some stories. Regulus was a death eater, yet not even Tom knows what happened to him.” All the former theories had been crossed out, and not even Voldemort could provide more input than admitting he had used the Black house-elf for testing a potion in a place from where nobody could get out. Harry had passed on this information, and Sirius' only reply had been ‘Served that creep well!’ But the fate of the old elf didn't explain where Regulus disappeared.
The long-haired Malfoy swallowed back a comment about Harry referring to the greatest dark wizard of his age by his given name, and steered back to the original topic. “I have further good news, Mr Potter. Yesterday evening the number of people who sighted Pettigrew has reached seventy. That means, his status as a dead wizard has to be denounced, subsequently, his murder isn't listed among the charges anymore. I understand you value the lives of muggles as well, but not the entire jury does, so blasting off twelve of them isn't generally considered as severely as blasting off a wizard. And, after some well directed questions, a former witness admitted that he didn't have solid proof of Sirius Black having been the secret-keeper, only that your father had, at some point, considered him for that role.”
The grim yelped in surprise.
“With that witness out of the way, I think the treason part will be dropped from the charges as well. What remains is a much more moderate blasting curse, and lack of cooperation with the investigating authorities. I sincerely hope that my Narcissa will be able to work her way through that.”
Harry's gaze fell on the grim, and it nodded, tail now more enthusiastically wagging.
“Thank you, sir. For all the effort you and your wife both put into this. Once my owl reco….”
“Molly!” a jovial voice shook the entire Burrow. “Guess what, Percy will be joining us for lunch!”
“I followed your advice, and now I'm confused.”
“Which one? That you don't let Malfoy exploit your lack of knowledge of the wizarding world?”
“I asked a garden snake to watch him when he was alone. According to him, and I quote, ‘the proud two-legs was darn jealous over the den he was seeing'. Why would Mr Malfoy be jealous? Of the Weasleys?”
“What does the Burrow look like from the outside?”
“Rooms piled on each other, one always added when a new child was born. Except for the twins, of course, they share one.”
“So, what's written on the building, is the number of successful pregnancies. Malfoy Manor has a much larger habitable area, but only one heir. Jealousy over that is petty, however. But Malfoy can be petty.”
“I noticed. His help is invaluable, however. Thank you for sparing his life.”
There was a pause over the bond. It went unsaid that Voldemort blamed the head of the Malfoy family for his current (and ever-lasting, unless some miracle happens) situation, and Lucius getting away with his careless idea wasn’t what he intended.
“Will you take Karkaroff as well? Even if he fails to retrieve Pettigrew?”
“Can't you just let him be? And… may I ask something personal?”
“More personal than full control over me?”
A dose of bitterness, fear, and another pile of thoughts crashed against Harry's scar, evidence that Voldemort tried (and yet again, failed) to keep his own thoughts shielded from the one who owned a good chunk of his soul. He wondered how long it would take before the Dark Lord tries to actively use this method for hammering on his head.
But the answer to that was among the thoughts he had received. Harry blinked through them quietly, groaning at some of the images. Voldemort appeared to be expecting the worst of the wizard who had been destined to diminish him. Every time they talked, Harry's power over him was becoming more and more prominent. And so was Tom's disability to fend for himself.
And Harry was still not prepared for his unwillingly shared ideas.
“Tom? I will never use this bond to humiliate you like you would have done to me. And I won't order you to slaughter anyone still loyal to you.”
“So how much are we similar?” Harry could tell how little the other wizard believed him.
“And how much are we different, Tom?”
There was silence again.
“So what was your personal question?”
“Have you ever found yourself close to a dementor?”
“Rarely. They're bound to the Ministry of Magic, won't lift a finger for any other ally. They only can be converted after setting a foot in the Ministry. It was on my list, though. I planned my final horcrux to be that fountain in the Atrium. Too bad it won't ever happen.”
Harry rubbed his forehead. The soul-bound Voldemort was doing research on the topic of remorse, but at this rate he would literally take hundreds of years to get a hang of morale. One of the topics he just wished he could discuss with Dumbledore was having an unnaturally long life, but Hermione had assured him that Nicolas Flamel had lived well over six hundred. Perhaps with his soul now fused over with Voldemort's, Harry would he would live to see the wizard developing a conscience on his own.
Or maybe that was his childish optimism.
“Did you mean to ask if we share the same worst memory? It is possible, but there is something else.” This time he didn't try to hold his thoughts out of the bond, and Harry only watched, as helplessly as once Voldemort had been, as his first-ever snake friend had been crashed under an older muggle's heel. Perhaps that was the last time the dark wizard had any chance for a normal, sane life. He certainly hated humankind ever since.
In return Harry focused on his own first occasion of talking in Parseltongue, which he had crowned with an impressive vanishing of the entire sheet of glass.
This time he felt some comfortable warmth over the otherwise bleak bond.
Being given a house, at least nominally, wasn't among Harry's plans. On all the official muggle papers, it was bought for him by Aunt Petunia, as a gesture to provide for her nephew as he had not inherited anything from his parents. In no muggle documents was the place the ancestral home of the murderer of his parents, especially since the Muggle-Worthy Excuse Committee had been the original source of the story behind the ‘car crash'. Between no other explanation of the two deaths, the place having its own gloomy history, and tax evasion by handing in fake repair bills working no longer as it once had, there was no connection any muggle authority would have made. The Dursleys changed Harry's permanent address to that of Number One, Squire road, Little Hangleton, England.
“Not quite a place where I would be able to regret my past,” Voldemort said as he apparated the three of them to the front gates. “But Lucius wanted to mess with me one last time, and you, despite all my warnings, let him do as he pleased.”
“It's desolate enough for you and Nagini. And you promised to teach me warding, so that the next time I have to sit idle and wait for a crazed murderer to come after me, I can at least kill some time.”
“There’s also plenty of opportunities for you to practice repairs and all the cleaning spells,” the dark wizard looked around, as if he hadn't been the one to inhabit the house last. “You will be casting wandlessly, or wordlessly, and still have further chance to go. As this hadn't been a magical household until recently, so there won't be pests that need specific spells. And….”
They both giggled as Nagini rushed after a mouse.
“Some people are easy to please.”
It wasn't a bad house, after all. Abandoned, yes, and in the neighborhood of petty and malevolent people. But it had a nice view to a gorgeous forest, and a little magic helped it improve greatly. Harry believed that the hopeless ruin turning into a habitable place would symbolize the long overdue change of his scaly soul-bound slowly becoming more human again. Tom only asked if Harry would let him incinerate the armchair he used to sit in when he was so weak he couldn't even move; this led to them discussing how the killing curse had become so easy for him while the rest of his magic had faded away with misuse. Then he told that there was a time when he had to take care of every possession he had had, and how his books (second-hand, mostly) were in better condition at the end of the school year than those the rich parents had bought for their careless prats fresh from the print. He shared a few stories of items he had repaired during his time at Borgin and Burkes. By the end of the day they had a properly enlarged fireplace, and Harry sent his owl to the Ministry to have it connected to the Floo Network as ‘the Great Riddle'.
That night, full with Molly's delicious dinner, Harry wondered if maybe he (and Mr Malfoy) had found the key to repairing a torn-to-shreds soul, as well. Tom did have a latent talent to be mindful of what was his own.
As much as Harry was aware of what he had already lost to Tom Riddle, by now he secretly enjoyed the current state. With his aunt, uncle and nephew, he would have been weeding the garden in the harsh summer sun all day. Tom had spent an hour explaining wandless magic, until Harry had managed to repair a moth-eaten jacket.
Two days later, early in the morning, the young Potter was waken by a torn barn owl that must have been attacked by some wild beast in its flight. He took the letter, then asked Molly’s help with the poor animal. Realizing he was almost late from the appointment with the Floo Network maintenance witch, he quickly floo'ed over to Malfoy Manor, from where Draco's mother apparated him to his new place. Mrs Malfoy took the opportunity to ask about her wayward cousin’s current doings, then she told Harry about the wider Black family and about Alphard, who had been burnt off the family tapestry when it turned out that he had left everything to the disowned Sirius. They were discussing Andromeda, her own disowned sister, long after Madam Edgecombe had activated the floo mantel. Harry wondered if there were more torn things coming his way, after an enemy's soul and a family which he just found he was distantly related to.
He didn't feel he would be able to fix either of these.
According to Narcissa, she had merely been old that her husband getting rid of the wrong item the wrong way had caused a great disappointment and setback in the plans of the scales-covered Dark Lord who was still residing with them. Seeing how the two former nemeses were having lunch together, delightedly hissing over Salazar-knows-what, she had concluded that there was a level of magic not even those of the purest origin were entitled to possess.
“Not even the headmaster,” Harry added. “It feels wrong to exclude my friends, my teachers.”
“But you do so, because you care about them,” Narcissa pointed out. “You’re keeping them safe.”
“Yes, but… Ron would have never kept something from me. Even during this year, he was honest all the time.”
“Anyone not a Gryffindor would value security over information. Andromeda kept us in the dark about Ted Tonks so that we couldn't keep them apart. Then she said goodbye and got engaged. But I'm sure Sirius had a few secrets he never bothered to share with us.”
“Azkaban really must have broken him, if he managed to stay out of trouble for almost two years. Is he still after muggle girls instead of a respectable witch's company?”
Harry shook his head. “I don't think so, no. At least he never mentioned having anyone.”
Narcissa sniffed back a tear, although Harry wasn't sure how genuine it was. Then she paled and bowed deeply, seeing her Dark Lord enter the room. She politely excused herself, asked if they needed anything, and very quickly left by the floo.
“I don't have an idea which of you scared her more,” Harry sighed. “Nagini, your new skin is dashing gorgeous.”
He was about to leave for the Burrow when the morning letter fell from his robe pocket. The boy read it through, again and again, with various colors on his face from bone white to angry red, then a sick shade of green, before returning to relatively normal. Next to him, Tom was trying to make sense of the array of emotions their conjoined soul was going through.
Harry just shook his head, then gave his barely-a-man burden a long, troubled look. “So, you would think I'm not tempted to make the exact same mistake that killed you?”
He handed the parchment over to his soul-bound to read.
“Ironic,” was the hissed reply. “Ironic indeed. Do you intend to reply her?”
Harry just shook his head, bid farewell, and hurried to the fireplace. He already was holding the pinch of floo powder when he heard Tom Riddle hissing, “Don’t ignore this could be a trap,” so he steadied his wand in the other hand, ready to stun or disarm immediately on arrival. Then he steeled himself. He was a Gryffindor, he was entitled to take some risks.
So he pulled his elbows closer, and, loud and clearly, he said “Pettigrew Home!”
The next time he had been to the Great Riddle was almost a week after Sirius' trial. Being free, pardoned and compensated, Padfoot obviously didn’t waste the opportunity to enjoy the summer with his godson. Only because Harry insisted was Sirius eventually willing to set foot in the House of Black in Grimmauld Square, show him the infamous tapestry, and let him rescue a few books Sirius would have otherwise thrown into the fire. Remembering the talk (their first-ever friendly talk) about spoiled purebloods going Dudley on their belongings, Harry had asked his godfather to apparate the stacked tomes to the house that Lucius Malfoy had bought for the officially still not returned, and even more officially, not ever captured Dark Lord.
Sirius hesitated for about a minute. How exactly Harry had got the upper hand, was still a mystery that not even Albus Dumbledore could comprehend, but it was an open secret nevertheless, and, if Harry was willing to accept this setup, Sirius wasn't about to complain. The messy-haired godson reassured him that there were at least some things on the mend, and once there, Sirius immediately pointed out that the nearby forest seemed like a good place to set up a warded zone for a werewolf.
Just like with Mrs Edgecombe, Voldemort didn't surface until the visitor was gone. This time, however, Harry feared the reason was that Tom didn't trust the owner of his soul not to force him into some humiliation. He didn't want to be a trophy paraded to his victorious opponents. Being introduced to Draco as the defeated Dark Lord was bad enough.
“And what's that?” Tom pointed at what looked like a muggle waste-bag.
“He gathered up a few dark objects as well. I thought you would appreciate them, so he brought them along with the books. Careful, he claims there's also an ill-mannered house elf as well.”
And indeed, one of the first items in the bag was a stunned old creature, one which Voldemort found oddly familiar. With great trepidation, he reached into the plastic bag again, and he found an item that really should have been elsewhere: a locket that had once belonged to Salazar Slytherin.
Lifting his own self from the dark junk was later claimed to be one of his most sobering moments.
An almost-blinding flash of whiteness filled the half-collapsed forest shack as a protective charm was removed. Harry looked around in what had once been the Gaunt family's home, and couldn't help but compare it to the cupboard at Privet Drive. Nagini slipped past the boy, curiously examining the wooden structure.
Well, it was a miracle that some of the walls were still standing.
“Here it is,” Tom stepped in behind the two of them, following the quickly fading spell-light. It wasn't brighter than the scaly man's wand when the wizard produced a ring with a shapeless black stone, and held it out to Harry. “Take it if you will, Mr Potter. The most valuable possession this wretched family of mine still had.”
The younger wizard eyed the newly unearthed horcrux, and fought back the disgust not to touch it. When he made contact, however, the gold (gilded?) metal felt warm under his finger, as if it were a live creature. A warmblood, not a reptile. More human than Tom.
With a dubious look, he blinked at his soul-bound nemesis, and got a confident smile. “There’s no way I'll ever manage remorse over this one. Everybody I killed then could have taken me in, could have and refused to. My father, and his proud family. My uncle, who had been daydreaming about doing more than harmless hexes, but who was an illiterate pest himself. The called my mother a…. Make a guess. When he died in Azkaban, it was a good riddance.”
Just a month before, Harry would have put on a defiant face and would have bellowed that Tom was a monster for killing his entire parental family, then framing his maternal uncle. But if he had learned something from his bound extra soul, it was that all monsters had come from somewhere. With each passing day, he valued his own parents' love for him more and more. His father was his patronus. His mother was a shield no evil could penetrate. He hadn't become a monster himself, not even with the Dursleys, because of that incredibly strong protection. Tom was what Harry could have become without Lily's unconditional and self-sacrificing love.
Knowing that the ugly ring could not hurt him, he held it in his palm, and listened to it with his own soul.
“It’s radiating self-assurance,” he eventually said. “Like, you know, like a cheering charm? When you’re aware you have no reason to be really happy, and perhaps you aren't for real, but you still feel as if you were.”
Tom took out his note sheet, and jotted ‘try remorse over self-assurance' on the parchment. Merlin, he had been so stupidly confident when he decided to take this road to immortality! Now he was unable to die when he would have preferred that to being an extra limb to the Boy-Who-Lived. He quickly took some further notes, then stared at his own paper and frowned. “That overconfidence doesn't seem to work on me.”
Harry shrugged. Despite knowing his current mood being false, he saw no reason to fight back the feeling. “I started reading Martial Transfiguration,” he said. “Just because it had an entire chapter on how to turn people into animals against their will, and Draco being turned into a ferret was the high point of the year's Defense education. And ever since, I've been wondering if we all would be better off with you as a snake.” There, he knew he was being overconfident, but the more he thought about the idea, the more stupid anything else appeared. Voldemort was alive enough to be entitled to some sort of a life, and as a mostly human Dark Lord he wouldn't have been able to blend in with any society. Allowing him to go his own way was out of question, but this forceful obedience was like keeping him under Imperius. Harry would have never sank as deep as that. Transfiguration seemed to be a compromise.
“That was a very weak threat, Mr Potter.” He kept calling him ‘Mr Potter’. Once Harry had reached for an explanation through their bond, and found that his former nemesis still didn't trust him enough to ask if he should address him by some other name, afraid that he would be forced to say ‘master’ or ‘my hero'. The soul debt didn't seem to leave space for disobedience. Potter could have even ordered him to cut his own tongue out. Or he could have been forced to part from Nagini, the only person in his current life whose support his remaining soul had depended on.
“That wasn't a threat, Tom. It was an offer.”
Scarlet red eyes gazed into emerald green, then Voldemort shook his head. He had been defeated, mostly through his own doing – but at least, he still was something like he had always been.
“You can't sleep.” That was an observation, worthy of maybe Crabbe or Goyle, because if a man was sitting on the floor near Harry's bed in the middle of the night, there wasn't much left for guesswork. The stack of parchments on the table, arranged in a neat pile and tied together with a conjured ribbon, had a much more dubious reason.
“I don't want to die,” Voldemort whispered, terrified of both the prospect, and the consequences of such statement. “If your offer still stands, I choose to be a snake for you. For an entire month now, Nagini kept saying that you're not nearly as bad as you could be. Tonight I started to agree with her. I won't be begging. But this is my choice.”
Twelve years later
Returning from school, the young Defense Against Dark Arts teacher watched with a proud smile as the little black-haired girl wrestled with the two large snakes in the Great Riddle’s garden. She had heard often enough that both her dad and her honorary uncle had received their Hogwarts letters from a teacher instead of some common Hogwarts owl, and he had seen no point in breaking the tradition. She was being tripped by her mother now, however, and an equally large pale snake with scarlet eyes slithered away in the grass with the still unopened letter in his mouth.
“Dad! That's mine! You had had your own!”
“So come and get it!”
She had been practicing wandless magic on her mother's insistence. Merlin knew, there would come a time when she won't be able to hold a wand anymore, and her parents wanted her to be prepared. The letter flew to her, and so did her father who was still holding onto it. Looking his daughter in the eyes, the pale snake slowly let go of his prey, so that Delphini could finally open the envelope.
Harry watched the scene from afar, not wanting to disturb the family. Albus Dumbledore had once told him that the extra power he had over Voldemort was love, but here in front of him was the proof of something else. It was forgiveness. Love was quite within the former Dark Lord's abilities, if he was given a chance.
Soon the little eleven-year-old found her way to the young professor, with a slightly puzzled look on her face.
“What's the matter, little orca girl?”
“Harry…”she whispered, “what if I don't make it to Slytherin?”
The young teacher sat down in the grass, and looked into her slightly Asian face. “Delphini dear, Salazar had never founded a school just for himself. He was part of a larger effort, right? All you have to do is to make it to the Sorting Hat in one piece, and I assure you, your family will be proud. And whatever happens from there, you will have shared classes with all other Houses, so you can stay in touch with everyone. But if I were a meddling old hat, I certainly would put you in Slythertin.”
The girl smiled, and ran back to her parents. She intended to tie her dad in a knot for piercing her letter with his fang, and that was a more immediate project.