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draw me after you (let us run)

Chapter Text

I. 

The flash of spellfire burns past Harry as he runs, red and vicious and singing in the air.  

The peat and dirt and dead leaves are wet from the constant rain.  It makes keeping his footing more difficult. Makes dodging a slippery kind of hassle.  He grunts as he goes sliding around the trunk of a tree, vaulting quickly over the fallen mess of another as another spell is hissed and cast and tossed at his back.  

Clothes soaked, hair in his face, Harry Potter runs.  There’s mud on his shoes and his jeans and he thinks maybe his face; he longs for a warm shower as the cold seeps into his bones despite the burn of his legs and his lungs.  He just has to go a little faster, for a little longer. Just has to get through to the clearing he sees ahead of him.  

It’s instinct and the reflexes of years-- a childhood, an adulthood-- that keep him from going over the sheer drop on the other side of the treeline.  A cliff face. A fucking cliff face. 

Harry slides.  Drops onto his back and claws at the wet earth to slow his momentum.  Feels the debris of the forest seep into the folds of his clothes. Feels a rock slice across his palm as he clutches it and comes to a stop with his feet hanging over the edge into nothing.  

There is a crack of apparition behind him.  

Harry grunts and drops his head back.  Unaware-- or perhaps uncaring-- of the mud and muck that clumps into the mess of his hair.  

“Harry Potter,” comes the soft, sibilant hiss of a voice he has heard in his dreams, in his nightmares, in his waking hours for years.  

Slowly, carefully, Harry twists over and pushes up onto his hands and knees.  He stays there, short breath fogging in front of his face, and his pursuer lets him.  Harry has no doubt of that; he’s being allowed this respite. This small moment to catch his bearings, heart pounding in his ears, blood singing. 

“It seems I have finally caught you.” 

Harry barks out a laugh, head tilting and twisting to stare at the man standing at the edge of the forest.  

He looks untouched by the elements, but Harry knows better.  Can see the small tells-- the open robe, black as pitch; the muddy boots; the faint flush of his cheeks, his ears, his knuckles as he clutches the bleached white wand at his side.  Voldemort stares him down with red eyes, hardly out of breath, and still looking completely winded from the chase. 

As Harry rocks back, sitting on his heels with his hands on his knees, he offers a smile that holds no kindness.  Voldemort’s grip on his wand grows impossibly tighter. 

“Don’t,” he hisses. 

But Harry is already clicking his tongue.  

“Sorry, Tom,” he says.  “Better luck next time.” 

And then he pushes himself off the edge of the cliff. 

*

When Harry was very young, he learned very quickly how to run fast.  

You have to learn fast when there is no one to hold your hand and teach you the ways of the world.  When it is just you, in your too large hand-me-downs, with a bruised face, and a pack of bullies at your back.  When it is just you, curled up in a cot at night, alone, under some stairs.  

Harry learned very fast, very young. 

So, when the time came, and he looked Lord Voldemort in the eye, a crystal ball glowing in his hand, he knew what to do. 

*

It is not the night that his parents died that this begins.  It is not in a basement, surrounded by fire, a stone burning in his pocket.  It is not in a chamber, with a girl and a diary and a snake. It is not even in a graveyard, a friend not long dead beside him.  

It is in a Headmaster’s office, with sweat cooling on his skin, with his shouted plea still ringing around the room as Albus Dumbledore refuses to meet his eyes.  It is with a splitting headache and a rolling fear that he just saw someone die-- that he’d felt it and relished it -- and it is with a hate so profound that it almost wrecks him.

“Tell me what’s happening to me,” Harry says, again, breathless and trembling.  “I can’t-- I don’t want to feel like this.” 

And that-- that small admittance-- seems to give the Headmaster pause.  The door opens, somewhere behind Harry, but Dumbledore holds up his hand to still whoever is there.  To stop them.  

Then, with a great amount of care, Dumbledore sits and sets his hands on top of his desk, tilts his head down, and peers at Harry over the edge of his glasses.  Meets his eyes. Holds his stare. 

“My boy,” he says.  “Whatever do you mean?” 

*

Trouble.   That’s what the Dursleys always said he was.  That boy is nothing but trouble. 

Harry hadn’t wanted to believe them.  Hadn’t thought he did anything particularly troublesome, not most of the time, but somehow he always ended up in the cupboard anyways. 

The trouble seemed to follow him, though, to Hogwarts.  He remembers getting in trouble, causing trouble, and even one memorable moment in first year when Snape looked down his nose at him and called him trouble. 

Perhaps, Harry thinks, he is trouble.  

Perhaps, he thinks, that’s why it always seems to find him. 

*

Dumbledore is no longer sitting.  He’s in front of his desk, his hands folded in front of himself, staring down at Harry with a pensive expression.  Wrinkles making the folds of his worried face stand out all the more.  

Harry is still shaking.  He’s not cold anymore, not with the blanket over his shoulders that Dumbledore summoned for him.  Not with the half empty cup of tea cradled in his hands. But still he trembles, his eyes burn, and he does not understand this hate in his chest.  It is not his. He doesn’t want it. 

“Tell me again, Harry, what it is that troubles you,” Dumbledore says, soft and coaxing, and Harry wets his lips. 

“I-- I don’t know how to explain it, sir.” Harry says.  “I just-- I just hate everything.  I hate-- I hate myself.” 

And that, perhaps, is the most worrisome.  Because, while Harry has always felt less than, it has never been so truly and painfully intense.  It has settled, unsettlingly, behind his back molars.  It creeps in him like something black, like something alive, and waiting to consume him. 

Dumbledore stares at him some more, a hand coming up to stroke at his long beard, and Harry watches the movement in a daze.  “And do you normally hate yourself, Harry?” 

Harry wants to say no.  He has the lie, right on the tip of his tongue, but he can’t quite manage to spit it out.  His chest aches.

Instead, he lowers his eyes, shrugs, and says: “Not like this.” 

Dumbledore makes a sound.  It’s a terrible, sad thing, and it makes Harry look up into the face of his professor to see something so profoundly wounded.  That too makes him ache. 

“My boy,” Dumbledore breathes, and he crouches before him, hands settling over where Harry’s are clutching the teacup in his lap before he can even protest.  “I am so very sorry.” 

His eyes are burning again, and Harry tries valiantly to blink it away.  “It’s not your fault, sir.” 

“No, not entirely,” Dumbledore nods.  “But the blame is on my old shoulders either way.”

Harry opens his mouth, to deny it, and Dumbledore holds up a hand. 

“Hush, now, Harry.  And listen.” 

So Harry does. 

*

It does not take much to create hate.  A bit of negligence here. A sprinkle of pain there.  Fear. Loneliness.  

Just a bit, just enough, and the heart turns cold.  

*

“Years ago, there was a young man a lot like you who walked these halls.  A lot like you in many ways.”

Dumbledore is still kneeling.  Still holding Harry’s hands.  

Harry shifts.  “I think I’ve heard this one, professor.” 

Dumbledore smiles.  “Yes, I suppose you have, haven’t you?  Tom Riddle was a brilliant young man. His potential was boundless.  Infinite. He could have done great things. He has done great things.” 

After all, He Who Must Not Be Named did great things-- terrible, yes, but great. 

It’s been years, but Ollivander’s words still ring true in Harry Potter’s head.  Terrible but great. 

“While I do not wish to bore you with a story you’ve heard before, Harry, I do think it is important that I… confess something to you.” Dumbledore continues, and Harry blinks down at him and nods and is rewarded with a kind smile.  “You see, Harry, Tom Riddle was so very much like you-- strong, driven, brilliant--” 

Harry snorts at this, and feels chided when Dumbledore’s face pinches with something like guilt.

“You are brilliant, Harry.  Perhaps not like your friend, Ms. Granger, but brilliant in all that matters-- courage, kindness, and an impossible, wonderful, profound ability to forgive.”  Dumbledore says it, as if it is some kind of truth, and Harry-- Harry wants to believe it.  “But, it appears, very much like Tom, you also have a great deal of pain within you.” 

“You say that like Voldemort still feels this way.  That he feels anything-- that he feels this--” Harry’s voice breaks as he realizes how close he was to shouting, and he wets his lips and closes his eyes.  “That he feels this alone.” 

“Oh, Harry,” Dumbledore sighs, and long fingers brush aside the mess of his bangs, fingertips barely touching the swollen, red numbness of his scar.  “Where do you think all of this self-hatred comes from?” 

*

A boy in a cupboard.  A boy in an attic. Both unwanted.  Unloved.  

Freakish. 

*

Harry sits and listens.  Sits and drinks his tea and listens.  Listens as Dumbledore tells him of the orphanage Tom Riddle was found in and sent back to, over and over.  Listens as Dumbledore tells him of the way he was belittled, singled out, isolated from his peers because of his blood, his intellect, his name.  Listens as Dumbledore tells him how a boy without friendship, without love, grew into a man without.  

“After all,” Dumbledore says, clutching at one of Harry’s hands.  “Who could love the monster that could not love himself?” 

Harry squeezes his eyes shut. 

“I am so very sorry, my boy.  That I did not see it all sooner.” 

Harry’s voice breaks as he sobs.  

Shatters into tiny pieces as he curls over on himself, empty teacup forgotten for the ground, tears hot and unrelenting down his face as Dumbledore takes him into his old arms and holds him close.  Cradles him there, on the floor of his office, until Harry can cry no more. 

“Why--” Harry’s breath hitches.  “Why are you telling me this?” 

Dumbledore sighs, and Harry feels it move his hair; he clutches at the purple of Dumbledore predictably garrish robes.  “Because, Harry, one of the biggest regrets in my life is not reaching out. Not helping that boy when he needed it most.  And I will not repeat that mistake twice.” 

“What do I do?” Harry asks, voice trembling with something a lot like fear.  “How do I… What can I do?” 

“Well,” Dumbledore pats his shoulder.  “I believe some chocolate should suffice, for now.  And perhaps a good night’s rest.” 

Helplessly, happily, Harry laughs. 

*

Fear is so hard to overcome when one is alone.  It is a little easier, however, with someone to hold your hand. 

*

Cleaned up and drained, Harry sits across from Dumbledore.  There are chocolate wrappers all over. Harry thinks Remus would get a real kick out of this. 

Dumbledore seems to be giving Harry time to think.  To process. He is not stuck here, he knows, and thinks perhaps he should take pity on his old professor and allow them both some sleep.  

But he is on the precipice of something.  He can taste it. Can feel it in the air. Trouble, he thinks. 

“What can I do?” Harry finally asks again, in the hush between them, the only other sounds a clock chiming somewhere and Fawks preening on his stand.  “How can I…” 

He almost says help.  He very nearly says fix this.  Fix him. 

Dumbledore smiles at him from behind his desk, like he already knows, and Harry thinks that he probably does. 

“Once again, your ability to forgive astounds me, Harry.” Dumbledore says.  “Though, I do not believe this can be fixed.” 

“I have to try,” Harry says.  “No one-- No one should feel like that.  It’s not-- It’s not living, feeling like that.” 

“No.  No, I suppose it isn’t.  And you would help him?” Dumbledore tilts his head, peering at him over his glasses again.  “This is not a boy anymore, Harry. And he has done terrible things.” 

“He killed my parents,” Harry says.  “He killed Cedric. I know what he’s done.” 

“Yes,” Dumbledore nods, breathing out long, and stroking over his beard.  “And you would still help him?” 

“I would try.” 

Dumbledore’s eyes take on that eery, wondrous twinkle as he peers over at him; his mouth twitches into a crooked smile.  “Yes. I suppose you would. And, I dare say, you might even be stubborn enough to succeed where I have failed.” 

Harry barks out a little laugh.  Dumbledore’s smile broadens a bit.  

“So,” Harry breathes out, careful and slow, steeling himself.  “What can I do?” 

Dumbledore stares at him for a little while longer.  On his desk, there is a chess board unlike Harry has ever seen-- layered; with pieces, gleaming and polished, on each level.  Dumbledore waves his hand, and Harry sees the pieces begin to move.  

Then, Dumbledore leans forward. 

“Tell me, my boy,” Dumbledore says.  “Have you ever heard of a horcrux?” 

*

There is no good.  There is no evil.  Only power.  

Knowledge is power. 

Chapter Text

II.

Harry can still feel his rage, even when he gets far enough on his Firebolt that the rain is a distant memory.  

As he stumbles to a stop in a clearing not far from a nearby town, Harry winces as his body protests.  He aches in places he shouldn’t. He’s covered in mud. He’s bleeding. 

He can remember, for one blissful second, the absolute fear Voldemort felt, echoing into Harry with such depth that it nearly deafened him, when Harry plummeted off the side of the cliff before him.  

Digging around in the mokeskin pouch Hermione pressed into his hands years ago, he pulls out a mirror.  He’s smiling when the person on the other end picks up.  

*

In third year, when Harry Potter found out all he thought there was to know about Sirius Black but before he actually knew it all, he’d been angry.  Or, rather, he thought he’d been angry.  

Later, much later, he realized he’d been mad, yes-- but he’d also been hurt.  He’d also been alone.  

Even his own godfather had wanted him dead.  Who else out there could ever want him? 

*

Yule at Grimmauld Place is lively, despite the heavy air that hangs over the Weasleys.  Harry is content, but feels like he is somehow walking on eggshells. That this family full of red hair and big smiles is fragile.  That with one wrong word, one wrong touch, they will shatter under the pressure of it all. 

Harry knows the feeling.  

He tries his best not to think too much about his conversation with the Headmaster.  Tries not to let the weight of it hold him, frozen, on the precipice of decision.  

Because, despite the reluctance with which Dumbledore unfolded what he believed he knew, Harry does have a decision to make.  

It’s what leads him to avoiding the happy, covalessing family in the lower floors.  It’s what leads him to exploring what broken, dilapidated doors will open to him, floorboards creaking beneath his feet as he walks the darkened halls.  

“Some of these rooms are still dangerous, you know.” 

Harry looks up, from his spot on the floor in one of the many bedrooms, papers all around him on a worn, dusty carpet.  Sirius stands in the doorway like he’s unsure of his welcome, leaning against the jamb, his hands stuffed in the pockets of threadbare pants that might’ve looked fetching were it not for the years of disuse.  

Harry offers him a crooked little grin and shrugs.  “Has a bit of danger ever stopped me before?” 

“No,” Sirius laughs.  “No, I suppose it hasn’t.  What are you reading?” 

In his lap, there’s a journal.  Each page is signed R.A.B. and Harry doesn’t know who that is, but he seems young and he seems just as lonely as Harry in some of the entries. 

“A journal,” Harry holds it up.  “Do you know who…?” 

“My brother,” Sirius says, tapping the backs of his knuckles against the open door with a little sigh.  “Regulus. This was his room. Surprised you were able to get in. I thought that blasted little house-elf sealed it shut.” 

Harry shrugs again.  “Didn’t give me much trouble.  I just asked.” 

Sirius’ brows fly up.  “You asked Kreacher?” 

“I asked the house,” Harry says. 

Sirius blinks at him and then beams.  “Of course, you did. And, as the Heir, they opened for you.” 

Tilting his head, Harry purses his lips.  “The Heir?” 

Finally pushing off the door jamb, Sirius pads into the room and plops down in front of him on the floor.  There’s a plume of dust that follows, making them both laugh and cough, but Sirius fans it away with a roguish smile as he crosses his legs under himself to mirror Harry on the carpet.  

“I’ve missed quite a bit of your life, pup.” Sirius says, when the dust finally settles enough that there’s only specs of it, catching what little light there is like freshly falling snow.  “And that’s my fault. But even long before that, I knew the moment you were born, that those big green eyes and those tiny, chubby fists had stolen my heart. I never planned on having children, so when your father asked me to be godfather, I named you my Heir as well.” 

“Your--” Harry blinks a few times and then shoves his glasses up his nose to squint at him.  “But… why would you do that?” 

“Because as much as you were James and Lily’s son, you were my godson.  My little pup.” Sirius says, looking away with a soft sigh, and he looks suddenly so much older than he really is; like all the years of fighting, of being is Azkaban, of being in hiding has finally caught up to him; he’s barely thirty-six and he looks fifty.  “I regret, every day, that I was too blinded by anger to--” 

“Stop,” Harry says, reaching over and laying a hand over one of Sirius’.  “It’s okay. The past doesn’t matter; you’re here, now.” 

“Yes, well,” Sirius clears his throat.  “Not all here, all the time, am I?” 

Harry knows what he means.  He’s seen it, on occasion, the way Sirius will lose himself in memories-- and then in a bottle.  He’s seen Remus guide him up the stairs. He’s seen the dark bruising under his eyes in the morning.  

But Harry can’t hold it against him.  He’s been broken and sad, too.  

“You’re here, now.” Harry repeats, squeezing at his hand, like that’s all that matters. 

In a way, it is.  

Sirius looks at him.  His eyes flit over Harry’s face, and he wonders if he sees his father in his expression.  Or his mother. Or if he sees just Harry.  

His hand flips over under Harry’s fingers.  Sirius’ curl around his own, perhaps a bit tighter than necessary, as he offers another crooked smile.  Harry’s chest fills with warmth. 

“Yes.  I’m here, now.” 

It feels, strangely, like a promise. 

*

The first Chirstmas Harry ever had was at age eleven.  He did not receive much, but he had not expected anything.  Each gift had made his heart swell.  

Even now, a too large Weasley sweater makes him feel like part of a family he’d always wanted but never had.  

As he sits in the parlor, arms over his knees, with the rest of the Weasleys and Sirius and Hermione, watching them pass presents to each other over warm cider and cookies and fairy lights, Harry feels at home.  He feels a deep, undeniable sense of belonging.  

His content smile only falters when he thinks about not having this.  About it ending. 

*

It is this idea, dreadful and lonely as it is, of being without that keeps Harry up that night.  

Ron is snoring, loudly, in the bed across from him.  On his back, Harry lays in bed, awake, for the longest time.  He stares up at the ceiling, hands over his stomach, breathing slow as he thinks and thinks and thinks about all that Dumbledore told him.  

Mostly, though, he thinks about Tom Riddle.  About the angry boy from a diary he destroyed.  About what it must’ve been like, to grow up alone the way that they both did-- unloved, feared, in what was supposed to be a home-- and what it would have, could have been if Harry had not found Ron or Hermione or all the others who have slowly made him feel a little less alone in this world.  About if he’d never found this, if he would have turned out just as angry.

It’s nearly the witching hour when Harry finally gives up on trying to find sleep.  

Quietly, carefully, he creeps out of the bedroom he shares with Ron and down the stairs.  He minds the first landing, and the curtains that cover the portrait of Walburga Black, and eases down the stairs before heading toward the kitchens.  

He thinks, perhaps, a cup of tea will do him some good.  

He’s not expecting the old Black house-elf, Kreacher, to be lingering about the kitchen so late in the evening.  He stops in the doorway, blinking at the wooden spoon the old thing bradishes like a weapon all its own.

“Filthy half-blood, desecrating the Noble House of Black,” Kreacher grumbles, eyes narrowed on Harry.  “Bringing in the bloodtraitors to dirty up my Mistress’ home.” 

“Kreacher,” Harry breathes, easing around him toward the stove where the kettle sits, and he recalls the way Sirius has scolded him and thrown him out when he lets that kind of talk flow free.  “That’s very rude. Would your Mistress want you to be rude?” 

Kreacher seems to falter, wooden spoon lowering, and he watches Harry with narrowed eyes.  “What does the half-blood want?” he croaks. 

“Just making some tea,” Harry says.  “Would you like some?” 

Kreacher seems to tremble as Harry plucks up the kettle.  Then, with his wrinkled face scrunched up, he rushes over and bats at Harry’s legs. 

“Away!  Away, half-blood.  Kreacher will be making the tea,” Kreacher grouces, bullying Harry back until he’s falling into an open chair at the table, kettle still in hand and eyes wide.  “It is Kreacher’s job and the half-blood will not be stealing it.” 

“I wasn’t trying to steal anything--” 

“Half-blood Heir, not knowing his place,” Kreacher grumbles, snapping his fingers and taking the kettle away from Harry’s loose, surprised fingers; Harry watches it float over to the sink, watches it fill, watches it drift to the stove.  “Kreacher must obey. Half-blood asking if Kreacher wants tea.  Bah!” 

A wry little smile finds its way onto Harry’s face.  He’s not sure, exactly, what he’s done wrong-- but he’s happy to sit patiently as Kreacher putters about the kitchen, mumbling to himself of Blacks and half-bloods and wizards who don’t know their own standing.  

In a way, it’s endearing.  This grouchy old house-elf worrying over him.  

It reminds him, oddly, of Severus Snape.  Spitting insults this way and that, but stepping in front of him on a full moon anyways.  

It’s a strange thought, one that Harry doesn’t linger over, as he instead zones out the soft noise of the house-elf working in the quiet dark of the kitchen.  

Before long, there is a steaming cup of tea in front of him and a plate of leftover cookies.  Harry’s smile comes easy, if a little tired, as Kreacher hovers and stares up at him with big, narrowed eyes. 

“Thank you, Kreacher,” he says.  “I appreciate it.” 

Kreacher sneers.  “Ridiculous Heir. Stupid half-blood.” 

“Yes, I suppose I am,” Harry nods, picking up his tea.  “I’ll clean up, if you’d like to get some rest--” 

Before Harry can properly finish, Kreacher has that wooden spoon again.  He swats at Harry, and Harry winces back with a bit of a laugh. 

“The half-blood will do no such thing!” Kreacher snaps.  “The Heir of the Ancient and Most Noble House of Black will not be rid of Kreacher so easily.” 

“Sorry,” Harry chuckles into his teacup.  “Didn’t mean anything by it.” 

Kreacher prods at one of Harry’s knee with the end of the spoon.  “The filthy half-blood Heir will not be doing the cleanings. Is Kreacher understood?” 

“Yes, Kreacher.”  Harry dutifully nods his head.

Kreacher seems to straighten some, giving a jerky nod.  “Good,” he says, then with a great deal of reluctance, stares at Harry with bright expectation.  “Does the filthy bloodtraitor’s Heir need anything else of Kreacher?” 

For a moment, Harry is at a loss.  He knows what he’s heard from Sirius, that Kreacher is hardheaded and unwilling to help them clean up the old Black estate.  That Kreacher grouses and sneers and refuses most orders.  

Yet, here he is, asking for some.  

Hermione would kill him if she knew.  

“Could you start cleaning up the place a bit?” Harry asks, a little hesitant.  “I’m sure your old Mistress would hate the state the place has fallen into.” 

“The bloodtraitor’s fault,” Kreacher insists with a snap, but is already nodding his head.  “Left to decay. Does not let Kreacher do his job.” 

Harry shrugs.  “Who cares about letting?  It’s your home too, isn’t it?” 

Kreacher stares at him.  His expression of disdain seems to lessen some.  He points the wooden spoon right in Harry’s face. 

“Strange Heir,” he says.  “He will not do the cleaning up when he is done.” 

“Promise,” Harry replies. 

With a little nod, Kreacher stares unblinking at him for a moment longer, and then pops away.  In the hush of the kitchen after he’s gone, Harry sits there sipping his tea, bemused.  

*

Harry had to make himself useful when at the Dursleys.  There was no time that he can remember where he was not meant to be useful.  To clean, to cook, to garden for the relatives that only put up with him, only clothed him and sheltered him, for his usefulness.  

He thinks, perhaps, he understands why Kreacher hates Sirius so much sometimes. 

*

Harry wakes in the sitting room, just before dawn.  The tree is still in the corner, glittering with light, and there is a moth-bitten blanket draped across him.  It’s worn, but clean. Warm.  

In the hearth, there is a low fire.  

Despite this all, the room is dark.  Dim, though perhaps a little less dreary, and the empty teacup Harry had left on the table next to the chair he eventually curled up in is long gone.  There is no sign of Kreacher.  

A hand is on his shoulder.  Warm and large. Harry blinks up, blind, and sees Sirius’ dark hair and house robe and crooked smile. 

“What are you doing down here, pup?” he asks. 

Harry shifts, wincing at the little aches and pains borne of sleeping curled up in a chair that hardly hold a candle to the ones he knew growing up sleeping in a cupboard.  “Couldn’t sleep last night.” 

Sirius frowns.  “Nightmares?”

Harry shakes his head. 

“...Visions?” 

Harry huffs.  “No. Just couldn’t sleep.” 

Sirius nods as he hums.  Carefully, his hand eases from Harry’s shoulder to the top of his head, as though he is unsure if his touch is welcome or not.  Harry, unused to the gentle, cautious affection, stills.  

Rough fingers card through the mess of his hair.  Scratch at his scalp. Leave him shuddering out a breath and closing his eyes.  Sirius laughs a little, rounding the wingback Harry’s tucked into, and sits on the arm without stopping.  Coaxes him into leaning more fully into his touch. Scrubs at his scalp with slow, easy circles, until Harry’s face is pressed into his ribs.  

“You’re too young to be without sleep,” Sirius says, thumb passing back and forth behind his ear, and Harry feels completely and totally cared for in this moment.  “It’ll stunt your growth.” 

Harry laughs against Sirius’ side.  “No wonder I’m so short.” 

“Yes,” Sirius says, and Harry can hear his smile.  “We’ll work on it.” 

Smiling, sleep heavy and happily doped on the steady touch of Sirius’ fingers in his hair, Harry hums.  “I like the sound of that.” 

*

For a long time, Harry has had no one to care for him.  No one to touch him kindly. No one to pet through his hair and tell him that he needs more sleep.  

He cannot imagine a life of this.  A life of absence. A life bereft.  

He cannot imagine what it would turn him into. 

*

Harry stays at Grimmauld Place with Hermione, with the Weasleys, with Sirius for the entirety of the winter holidays.  He sleeps across from Ron’s snoring, spends the days playing chess and Exploding Snap and avoiding the twins’ newest prototypes.  He spends it happy. He spends it warm. He gets no visions. 

Still, a decision hangs over his head, as heavy as the weight of Dumbledore’s gaze.  

It is on the last days of break when it finally happens.  When that edge, that precipice Harry has been ignoring despite its drawing, precarious closeness, finally makes itself unignorable.  

It is late at night.  It is with Grimmauld Place and its sleeping occupants quiet in the dark.  It is with Harry, up and unable to sleep in bed while Ron snores, a journal that is not his own pressed to his knees, wand glowing with a gentle lumos.  

It is with a final entry from Sirius Black’s younger brother, Regulus, scrawled quickly and messily in the back pages.  

Off and on, Harry has been reading Regulus’ old journal during the break.  Trying to understand the mind of a young man Sirius himself said was very much not like him at all, having followed in his parents’ footsteps and been swayed to the dark.  And yet, as the entries continued, Harry had felt an odd kinship-- and, really, Harry really should be concerned with how many dark wizards he’s beginning to identify with-- to him as he struggled with the expectations placed on his shoulders by those around him. 

It kept him reading on the nights he couldn’t sleep.  It keeps him reading now, as he stumbles across the last of Regulus’ entries before his disappearance and assumed death, and as Harry rushes through his messy scrawl, shoulders climbing to his ears, he knows that Regulus must, indeed, be lost to the world.  

There is no other way he could have survived.  Not with the confessions he spilled in these back pages.

I know the Dark Lord’s secrets.  I know what he made Kreacher do. I know what he made Kreacher hide in that cave.  The piece of his broken soul. I know what must be done. 

Harry is out of bed before he can think.  Out the door and down the stairs, bursting into the kitchen and hissing for Kreacher in the dark. 

The pop of sound makes the house-elf known.  Harry drops to his knees before him, holding out the journal with wide eyes and shaking hands, as Kreacher stares at him with contempt and caution. 

“What does the half-blood Heir be needing?” Kreacher croaks into the dark shadows of the room, his face more severe than ever before.  

“Your Master--” Harry’s voice wobbles and he wets his lips, shoving the journal toward Kreacher.  “Kreacher, your Master Regulus, he says you hid something. Something for Voldemort--” 

Kreacher cringes away as he snatches the book from Harry’s hands, cradling it to his chest.  “The filthy half-blood will not speak his name.” 

“I’m sorry, Kreacher, but--” he wets his lips again, practically crawling after Kreacher as the house-elf backs away.  “But I need to know what it was. Where it was.  What Regulus--” 

Kreacher hisses. 

“-- what your Master did with whatever it was that was hidden,” Harry hisses.  “Please, Kreacher, it’s very important.” 

“What does the half-blood want with it?” Kreacher asks, eyes narrowed.  “Disgusting, dark magic. The half-blood should not want it.” 

“Do you know where it is, Kreacher?  Do you know what Regulus did with it?” 

Kreacher’s mouth wobbles.  He blinks his big eyes like he might cry.  

“Master Regulus was a good master.  Not like the bloodtraitor.” Kreacher says.  “Master Regulus was honorable.” 

“I believe you,” Harry breathes.  “I believe you, Kreacher. What did he do with the thing the Dark Lord made you hide?” 

“Master tried to destroy it,” Kreacher stares at Harry, and then, stares at a small cupboard behind him, hidden in long, dark shadows.  “He told Kreacher to destroy it when he could not. Kreacher failed.” 

Harry gaze follows Kreacher’s.  He stares at the little wooden door.  On his hands and knees, in the middle of the kitchen, Harry breathes out.  

“It’s here,” Harry says. 

Kreacher’s eyes snap back to him as he shuffles to block the way between Harry and the door.  “Kreacher will not--” 

“Kreacher,” Harry says, firm, his fingers curling uselessly into the stone of the floor before he softens his tone.  “Kreacher, please. Listen to me. I can take care of it. If you let me-- if you let me, I can take care of it for you.” 

Kreacher’s long nose scrunches up.  “A half-blood will not succeed where Master Regulus has failed.” 

“But I already have, Kreacher,” Harry says.  “There was something else, just like it, and I took care of it my second year at Hogwarts.  If you let me, I can take care of that one, too.” 

Kreacher does not move.  Does not waver.  

Harry holds his gaze and then holds out a hand.  “Please, Kreacher. I promise-- I promise you , I will take care of it.  Please.” 

Kreacher clutches Regulus’ journal tighter to his chest.  His wrinkled lips purse.  

“It is unseemly for an Heir of the Ancient and Most Noble House of Black to beg,” Kreacher croaks. 

And then-- Then, he moves toward the cupboard. 

*

In the dungeons, surrounded by fire, Harry Potter faced Lord Voldemort alone.  In the Chamber of Secrets, he faced Lord Voldemort alone. In the graveyard, Cedric’s body cooling in the grass, he faced Lord Voldemort alone. 

He has always been alone. 

*

The green light from the floo is nearly blinding in the parlor.  All around him is the arching branches of the Black family tree. He wonders, briefly, what they would all think of what he is doing.  

“Headmaster Dumbledore’s office, Hogwarts,” Harry hisses into the flame, leaning over it, on his hands and knees.  “Professor? Professor, are you there?” 

He waits, holding his breath.  There is only the sound of the fire crackling.  

“Professor Dumbledore,” Harry says, a little louder, spine rigid and heart racing as he clutches the cold, whispering metal of a locket in his hand.  

There is a sound, and then Dumbledore is there, frowning at Harry through the embers.  

“Harry, my boy,” Dumbledore says.  “What is it?” 

Harry’s throat works.  “I found one.” 

“Oh, dear,” Dumbledore blinks.  “I was not expecting that.” 

Harry lets out a half hysteric laugh of a sound.  “Neither was I.” 

Dumbledore nods, and Harry can’t see it, but he imagines that Dumbledore is stroking his beard.  “And what do you need of me, dear boy?” 

“I don’t--” Harry breathes out sharp.  “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know if I should-- if I should--” 

Harry thinks he might split apart.  Thinks he might crumble under the weight of making a single choice. 

Dumbledore seems to understand, his face softening around the eyes.  “I think, perhaps, one more piece to the puzzle might help. Can you come through?” 

“Yes, I--” Harry nods.  “Yes, just let me grab my things.” 

“I will await your return, Harry.” 

Withdrawing from the fire, Harry moves to stand.  To go upstairs. To grab his things. To face this, once again, alone. 

He stops as he sees Sirius, standing in the threshold between the parlor and the foyer, his arms folded and his eyes on Harry’s own wide gaze.

“Where do you think you’re going, pup?” Sirius asks, but it is not anger in his face. 

Just something tired.  Something resigned. 

“I have a decision to make,” Harry confesses.  “And a task to complete.” 

“And you’ve decided you’ll do it by yourself?” 

Harry’s lips press thin.  “It’s how I’ve always done it, in the end.” 

Sirius’ mouth twists into a grimace.  

Then, he paces forward and stops in front of Harry.  He reaches out, takes Harry’s face between his hands, and stares him down.  

“Not this time.” 

Harry very nearly weeps.  Feels the burn of his eyes.  The give in his knees. He clutches at Sirius’ wrists. 

“It’s dangerous,” Harry says. 

Sirius grins, wide and bright and with too much teeth.  Half mad. Glorious.  

“Has danger ever stopped us before?” Sirius asks. 

Harry laughs and presses impossibly close.  Hides his face in Sirius’ chest. Clutches at his robe.  Sags with the relief that, this time, he will not be alone. 

*

It is not a weakness to need help.  It is not a weakness to ask for it. It is not a weakness to accept it.

Chapter Text

III. 

The Grim finds him sitting by the fire, in the frozen woods of Albania, easing through his wards like it is nothing but water he needs only to shake off.  As he nears Harry, he licks his face all over and Harry laughs and pushes him away by the muzzle. 

“You’re disgusting, Padfoot,” Harry huffs.

It’s cold enough that he should be able to see his own breath, but the warmth of charms keeps him safe from the bitter winter that is settling into the branches of the trees all around them.  A cold, wet nose prods at his bandaged palm, a low whine ringing between them, and Harry scratches the big dog behind his ears. 

“He didn’t touch me,” Harry assures him, smile crooked, pressing his face into warm fur that smells of pine and smoke.  “Scraped myself up when I fell. I’m fine, Padfoot.” 

Plopping down, practically in his lap, Sirius whines again. 

“You know I’m bollocks at healing charms,” Harry shrugs. 

Padfoot licks at his chin.  Pulls back. Cocks his head. 

With a grimace, Harry shakes his head.  “It’s not here. Wherever it is, it’s not where he found it.” 

With a soft yip, Sirius thumps his tail. 

“I think…” Harry sighs, petting over Sirius’ head, nose pressing to his muzzle.  “I think it’s time we split up.” 

Sirius whines, long and high.  It’s as good as a hell no.  

With a grimace of a smile, Harry pulls back to meet smart, dark eyes.  He cups the big dog’s face and squishes it up between his hands until Sirius huffs and shifts on the pads of his paws. 

“You know it’s true,” Harry says.  “We need more information. And he isn’t chasing you.” 

Sirius grumbles out a sound and then lets his head lay heavy over Harry’s thighs.  As if saying: if you’re staying, I’m staying. 

“I need you to go back,” Harry says, stroking through his fur.  “I need you to talk to Dumbledore. Can you do that for me, Padfoot?” 

Burying his face against Harry’s stomach, Sirius huffs.  His tail thumps twice.

With a soft smile, Harry leans down and kisses the top of his head.  

“Thanks, Sirius,” he breathes, curled over his head, holding him close.  “I’ll stay safe. And if he gets too close, I’ll lead him on a merry chase.  I promise.” 

In the warmth of the fire, surrounded by charms and wards as strong as Grimmauld Place, Sirius grumbles his opinions into Harry’s stomach the only way he can in this form: with a hint of teeth and a sneeze that nearly knocks Harry onto his back as he laughs. 

*

The Ministry of Magic is dark and hauntingly empty when they arrive. A far cry from the hustle and bustle of witches and wizards it had been when Harry was last here with Albus Dumbledore defending his use of underage magic in the defense of himself and his cousin against Dementors that shouldn't have been there in the first place.  

His left hand flexes at his side, scars lining the delicate tendons across the back of it, as he remembers the first time he'd set eyes on Umbridge. One of the reasons they're standing here, at night, breaking into the Ministry with the help of a painfully loyal house-elf.

*

“You have a choice, Harry.” 

It’s after he’s stumbled through the floo, with Sirius at his back.  It’s after he’s placed the necklace, carefully, on Dumbledore’s desk.  It’s after Dumbledore has pulled the Sword of Bloody Gryffindor down from his wall and placed it on the desk before him.  It’s after he’s told Harry that this is the first of many, hand hovering over the locket and flinching away from the pulse of dark magic that seems to bleed from it.  

“If you so choose, you could destroy this now,” Dumbledore says.  “Destroy a piece of him before he could ever know.”

Sirius is frowning behind Harry, arms crossed, watching the pair of them.  “Destroy who?” 

“You know who,” Harry mutters, inching closer to the desk, the locket, the sword.  

Dumbledore’s mouth twitches, his solemn face blooming in something like wicked amusement.  “Very apt, my boy.” 

Sirius sputters.  “Excuse me? There was-- There was a piece of You Know Who in my house?” 

“So it would seem,” Dumbledore says. 

“Harry, destroy it,” Sirius is at his side in an instant, hand warm at the center of his back.  “Destroy it, right now--” 

Dumbledore holds up a hand, and Sirius barely holds his tongue.  

Shuddering, Harry closes his eyes, and lets his hands rest at the edge of Dumbledore’s desk.  He can feel the weight of Sirius’ hand on his back and Dumbledore’s eyes on him. He can feel the familiar thrumming strength of the sword.  He can hear the whisper of a voice that does not belong there. 

His scar gives a dull throb.  He’s afraid of what that means. 

Opening his eyes, he looks up at Dumbledore.  “You said there was another piece to the puzzle,” he says. 

Dumbledore nods.  “It might help you come to your decision, Harry.”

“What decision?” Sirius balks.  “There is no decision.  We destroy the Dark Lord, we go home, we celebrate.” 

“Sirius,” Harry breathes, twisting to look at him over his shoulders, catching Sirius’ dark eyes and the line between his brows.  “I-- There’s a chance that I could… that I could stop him another way.” 

The line between Sirius’ brows only deepens.  “Weren’t you just saying this summer that you wanted to fight, pup?” 

“Yes,” Harry nods.  “Yes, I-- I did. And I would.  But if there’s another way-- if there’s a chance that I can… do better , then… then I want that chance.  I want to be able to--” 

Harry’s voice cracks.  He can’t say I want to be able to sleep at night after or I want to be able to live with myself after.  Not because they’re not how he feels, but because he feels them a little too much.  

“I don’t want to be a killer, Sirius,” Harry whispers.  “Not if there’s another way.” 

Sirius’ face softens impossibly.  The hand at his back falls away, and at first Harry is terrified by what that means. 

Then, Sirius is pushing his hair back from his face.  His thumb is rubbing at Harry’s temple. He leans in and presses his nose to Harry’s brow. 

“I forget, sometimes, that you are still a boy.” Sirius confesses.  “I’m-- I’m sorry.” 

Harry, still so unused to these types of touches, closes his eyes and leans carefully into it.  

“It’s okay, Padfoot.”

Dumbledore hums.  “Well, now that that is settled, my boys, we have a trip to make.” 

“A trip,” Sirius says, pulling his face away from Harry but staying impossibly close, like he might try and hide him away.  “A trip where?” 

“The Ministry of Magic,” Dumbledore says, looking over at the complex time piece on one of the walls that he pretends to call a clock.  “Though, I’m afraid that we are on a time crunch, as I believe it would be best if Harry made this decision by the end of the evening. Isn’t that right, my boy?” 

Harry winces, fingers twitching to move up to his scar, where it is still painfully and ominously numb.

“Yes,” he admits.  

Dumbledore sighs.  “It appears, my boys, we may have to break a few laws.” 

Sirius’ arm settles easily around Harry’s shoulders.  His fingers scrub through his hair. Harry tries valiantly not to laugh. 

“Wouldn’t be the first time, would it?” Sirius asks. 

*

Harry had always thought his scars ugly.  A sign of his freakishness. A mark upon his skin that made him other.  

As time went on, there was nothing to dissuade him of this notion.  

The most recent: a scrawl of words on the back of his hand-- given to him by a quill and a woman he is too stubborn to back down from-- that marks him a liar.  The angry line down the inside of his right wrist-- like the mocking, inverse of a Dark Mark, from the resurrection ritual-- that marks him a failure. The welt in the crook of his elbow-- a gift from a Basilisk’s fang, gouging into muscle and tissue-- the marks him a hero.

And the lightning bolt that streaks across his forehead and into his brow, like the first signs of a storm-- given to him on a night he remembers most clearly in the midst of nightmares and in the clutches of Dementors; given to him by a man who is no longer a man but who might be -- that marks him a survivor.   

*

Harry doesn’t understand house-elf magic, but it’s stunning sometimes, to behold. 

Dobby is eager to help them into the Ministry.  Eager to pop them right into the Department of Mysteries-- to the hallway that Harry has been seeing in his dreams for months.  Right before the very door that Voldemort himself has been trying to get past.

His scar is painfully, horribly numb.  Harry does not think that they have much time.  

“Where is this?” Harry asks. 

Dumbledore’s smile is grim.  “Welcome to the Hall of Prophecies, Harry.” 

With a wave of his wand, Dumbledore unlocks the door and they step inside.  

It is lined with shelf upon shelf upon shelf of orbs.  Glowing crystals, barely lit, of all shapes and sizes. A veritable warehouse, full of them.

Harry stares with wide eyes.  He shuffles forward, into the room, the sound of Sirius’ claws against the stone floor behind him-- a decision made, at the last moment, to conceal him just in case something inevitably goes wrong.  

“What are we doing here?” Harry asks on a whisper.

But Dumbledore does not reply.  Doesn’t have to. Because Harry can hear something calling his name, from the depths of the room, and his feet are taking him toward it before he can stop himself.  Guiding him, blindly, deeper and deeper into the long hall of shelves.  

Padfoot trots after him as he goes.  Harry thinks he hears him whine, but Harry is busy following a voice that is coaxing him closer and closer to something that feels a lot like destiny. 

When he finally stops, down one of the long rows of stacks, there is a small orb full of mist, glowing faintly before him.  He reaches out, fingertips just skimming the surface of the orb, when Padfoot prods him in the back of the knees with his head. 

Harry blinks, jerking out of his daze, and he glances down at him.  When he looks back up, he frowns at the plaque below the glowing sphere.  He squints at it, shuffling a touch closer.  

S.P.T to A.P.W.B.D.

Dark Lord

and (?) Harry Potter

Harry thumbs at the metal plaque, brows drawing together, and still when he hears Dumbledore clear his throat.  At the end of the row, Dumbledore stands, his hands behind his back and his head tilted. 

“What is this, professor?” Harry asks.  “Why is my name on it?” 

“Spun glass,” Dumbledore says, smile wry when Padfoot grumbles behind Harry.  “A prophecy, my boy. A prophecy about you. A prophecy that, unfortunately, is the reason Tom is so very focused on you.” 

“This is my puzzle piece?” Harry asks. 

Dumbledore nods.

Without hesitation, without reservation, Harry reaches up and takes the sphere from its stand.  He rolls it between his hands, watching it light up between his palms, mist swirling around inside the glass.  

“You’ve heard it,” Harry says, tapping at the initials-- A.P.W.B.D.; Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore, a full name Harry only heard for the first time back in August-- on the plaque.  “You know what it says.” 

“I do,” Dumbledore says.  “And I know that Tom has heard the very beginnings of it.” 

“Why did we come here, then?” Harry asks.  “If you already know it? You could have just told me.” 

“It is the only record of it ever being spoken,” Dumbledore says.  “And only those mentioned within it can remove it from the hall.” 

“So, me.  And Voldemort.” 

“Yes.” 

Realization comes easily.  Softly. Horrifically.  

“He’s been trying to get it,” Harry says, eyes wide, fingers curling tighter around the orb.  “All year, he’s been trying to get the prophecy. Because he’s only heard the beginning.” 

“Yes,” Dumbledore says, holding his ground as Padfoot lets out a snarl of a sound. 

“You brought me here to draw him out.” 

It’s not a question.  Dumbledore seems to know that.  He dips his head in something like agreement anyways.  In something like an apology.  

“You’re a manipulative old codger,” Harry says, without any venom at all.  

Dumbledore breathes out a laugh.  A sigh. 

It sounds like relief.  

“It has been mentioned before,” Dumbledore replies as he meets Harry’s gaze again, and Harry offers him a small smile.  “It is also unfair of me to leave out the fact that the very prophecy in your hand may influence your decision.” 

“If this was all a ploy to get Voldemort to show himself, then where is he?” Harry asks.  “And how do I listen to--?” 

Harry feels him.  Feels him before he sees him.  Before he hears him.  

His scars explodes with sensation.  He nearly buckles to the floor, voice ripping from his throat on a ragged cry, and it is only Padfoot that keeps him upright with his weight braced against Harry’s hip, teeth bared, and hackles raised. 

When Harry turns, squinting through the aftershocks of agony, he sees Lord Voldemort standing at the other end of the row in robes as dark as pitch, with half a dozen Death Eaters at his flank.  His wand is held loosely at his side. His smile is tight, inhuman, and unkind.  

Harry clutches at Padfoot’s fur with one hand.  The prophecy with the other. He shuffles back a step. 

“Yes, Albus,” Voldemort says, Dumbledore’s name like a poison in his mouth.  “Do tell the boy. I am itching to know, myself.” 

*

Harry has always been stunned and humbled by the loyalty of friends.  By the unwavering strength of the bonds between people who care, relentlessly, about one another.  

By the way a simple act of kindness can bring people so closely together. 

*

In the stillness of Voldemort’s arrival, Harry does not move.  Does not breathe.  

Luckily, he does not need to. 

Dobby is at his side before he can blink.  Before Voldemort can even raise his wand. And then both he and Padfoot are in the atrium.  

The rage is quick to follow.  Harry falls to his knees this time.  His eyes burn; his blood feels like fire.  His very skull feels like it might split open trying to contain all that anger. 

“Dobby,” Harry rasps.  “Dumbledore.” 

“Right away, Mister Harry Potter, sir.” 

Dobby is gone with a pop .  Padfoot licks at the tears streaming down his face.  

Behind him, the fountain fills the atrium with the sound of running water.  It is all he can hear, for a time, outside of the throbbing between his ears.  The anger bubbling under his skin makes him squeeze his eyes shut tight, breath coming sharp, and he feels Padfoot’s tongue against his forehead. 

He’s bleeding, he realizes.  His scar is bleeding.

With his eyes closed, he can see flashes of light.  Of spellfire. Of shattering glass.  

There’s a sudden pop behind him, and then Dumbledore is there, crouching before Harry and tipping his face upward.  Harry opens his eyes, bleary and blind, and squints at him. 

“We must take our leave now, my boy.” Dumbledore says. 

The ominous rumble of the fountain behind Harry has him stumbling to his feet.  His heart is racing. In his hand, the prophecy seems to burn. 

Dumbledore pulls away from him, wand drawn and face severe, and Harry knows why as a crack of sound rends the air.  

*

The laws of apparition are simple: desitation, determination, and deliberation. 

*

It should be impossible to apparate into the atrium from the Department of Mysteries.  Harry only learns of this later. All he knows is that Voldemort is there, wards ripped apart from the raw desire to get to them before they can take their leave.  All he knows is that Voldemort is casting at them, face twisted in a sneer, and Dumbledore is shoving Harry back and erecting a shield to stop it. 

Their magic clashes in a shock of light.  As another of Voldemort’s spells hits the faint, shimmering dome encapsulating them, Harry can see the spiderwebbing of the shield already beginning to fail. 

It’s terrifying.  Voldemort is terrifying.  Harry doesn’t know if he can save him-- fix him-- as he looks upon him now, casting with rage in every inch of his form, crimson eyes practically glowing.  

Something swells in Harry’s chest.  Something he can’t name. Something he doesn’t know the name of.  Something that tastes inevitable.  

“You cannot protect the boy forever, Albus,” Voldemort snarls as Dumbledore whips off a parry of hexes his way, shield charm trembling all around them.  “Give me the prophecy.” 

“Stay back, Harry,” Dumbledore says.  “Dobby, get them both away from here.” 

Padfoot nudges at Harry’s thighs, crowding him back and away from where Dumbledore is defending them, toward where Dobby is standing.  Stumbling back, Harry looks at the orb in his hand, breath coming faster. His thoughts are a rush, a flood, an impossible wave of doubt and hope.  He doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t know what to do. 

Voldemort bares his teeth.  A red jet of color clashes with the shield and shatters it completely.  Harry’s heart lodges itself in his throat. 

“Stop,” he gasps.

But Dumbledore is busy deflecting Voldemort’s spells and Voldemort is busy trying to get around him and Padfoot is nudging him closer and closer to where Dobby is watching with wide eyes and wringing hands. 

Harry swallows, holds the prophecy up in a fist, and locks his knees.  “Stop!” 

Even over the spellfire, Harry’s voice rings out.  Echoes off the walls of the atrium.  

The quiet that follows is equally as deafening.  

Dumbledore does not look at him.  Harry thinks, perhaps, he knows what Harry’s doing without sparing a glance.  Harry thinks, perhaps, he expected it.  

Voldemort doesn’t lower his wand, but he does still his magic.  Holds steady as his eyes meet Harry’s from the space Dumbledore has created between them.  His fingers curl over the bleached white of his wand, like a spell is on the tip of his tongue, but he holds it back as Harry stands there, trembling, prophecy raised in the air. 

“You want this,” Harry says, into the quiet.  

Voldemort’s mouth presses into a thin line.  His nostrils flare. He looks every inch the monster he’s made himself into. 

“Yes,” he hisses, practically vibrating with his ire, word drawn out so much it nearly sounds like parseltongue.  

“One wrong move,” Harry says.  “And I’ll smash it.” 

Voldemort’s lips curl back into that familiar sneer.  “Are you attempting to negotiate with me, Harry Potter?” 

“No,” Harry says.  “I’m threatening you.” 

“Oh,” Voldemort barks out a laugh; it grates, harsh and echoing, and makes Harry cringe.  “What an absolute delight. To think that you could threaten me.” 

“You want this,” Harry snaps, taking a step forward, hand still raised and Voldemort stiffens as Dumbledore shifts to try and stay between them.  “I can feel how much you do. But me? I don’t.”

Dumbledore seems to start a little at that.  His face turns, lips pursed in a frown as he regards Harry. 

“Harry,” he says, voice low with warning, but Harry keeps his eyes on Voldemort. 

“Don’t you, though?” Voldemort asks, soft, almost like he’s trying to tempt Harry.  “We could listen to it, right now. The both of us. We could find out just what path the universe has set for us.” 

“You’re talking of fate.” 

“I’m speaking of destiny, Harry Potter.” Voldemort says.  “Don’t you want to know your destiny?” 

As Harry stands there, staring down his parents’ killer, he feels the precipice he’s been hovering on the edge of finally demand its presence be known.  The decision Dumbledore left him with-- to destroy Voldemort or to save him-- the final piece of the puzzle gripped tight in his hand.  

Sweat rolls down the back of his neck.  His stomach clenches. Padfoot presses to his leg, ears twitching.  Harry can hear the sound of shouting, of boots on stone, of the Death Eaters coming to find their lord. 

“Harry,” Dumbledore breathes, urgent and urging in equal measure.  “We do not have much time.” 

Harry wets his lips, carefully lowering his hand as Voldemort watches.  He sees the faintest softening of his face-- relief, Harry realizes-- and feels himself fall over the edge of choice. 

“I don’t believe in destiny,” Harry says.  

And, standing there with Death Eaters right around the corner and the Dark Lord waiting before him, Harry holds out the orb.  

“But I believe I would like to negotiate, now.” 

*

One act, one simple change in course, can affect the outcome of everything to come. 

Chapter Text

IV.

“You’re infuriating,” Voldemort hisses, the moment that Harry opens his eyes in the dream.  

Harry groans, pushing himself up from the chaise with a crack of his spine and a tilt of his head.  His body is much too stiff to have truly slept here, in this lavish room that Harry doesn’t recognize, and he knows he must still be curled up on a cot somewhere in the woods.  

This is not the first time Voldemort has dragged him into his dreams-- something he began doing not long after he could no longer press into Harry’s own-- and Harry knows it is unlikely to be the last.  

“Did you think I would toss myself over the edge without a plan?” Harry asks, cringing back as his words roused the usual agitation in Voldemort up enough that he stops his pacing, spins, and snarls into Harry’s face, bracing clawed hands against the back and the arm of the chaise, pinning him into the corner.  

“You, Harry Potter, have a death wish,” he hisses.  “I wouldn’t put it past you.” 

Harry snorts.  “Wouldn’t that just make your life easier if it were true?” 

“Tell me where you are,” Voldemort demands.  

A slow, delighted grin that he knows gets right under Voldemort’s skin uncurls over his face, unbidden but completely welcome.  “Come find me.” 

*

Dreams often reflect life.  It is not often that life reflects dreams. 

*

The spell that comes for him is not one of Voldemort's.  It comes with a cackle and a crack , a hint of madness in the air, and even Dumbledore seems too slow to stop it-- later, Harry will realize that this is on purpose. 

Voldemort is not too slow. 

His rage is vicious as he deflects the spell with a flick of his wand. As he cuts the Death Eater-- Bellatrix, Harry realizes-- down to the floor with a counter curse that has her writhing even as the others come to a faltering stop.

"Useless," Voldemort spits. "Hold your wands."

They do. 

And then, invariably, Voldemort's focus returns to Harry. To the prophecy he has, outstretched, in his palm. 

Harry has, a number of times in his life, been stared at. Ogled. Dissected for any hidden strength or weakness. 

It is nothing compared to the regard with which Voldemort gives him now. 

"You wish to bargain," Voldemort says, almost sweetly, a cruel croon of wicked amusement that makes Harry shake. "For your life, perhaps?"

"No," Harry says, surprised by the steel of his own voice, perhaps only bolstered by Dumbledore standing there with his wand between Harry and certain doom. "But I would strike a deal with you." 

Voldemort tilts his head, gaze not straying from Harry's own, and Harry thinks he feels a press of intention-- of seeking fingers touching at the gray matter of his brain. He bares his teeth, presses back, and lifts the orb.

Voldemort stiffens. 

"Play fair," Harry warns. "Or don't play at all." 

"My Lord--" a Death Eater hisses, but Voldemort raises a hand, face twisted with hate and red eyes unrelenting against Harry's own. 

"Name your terms," Voldemort breathes, mouth twitching with something like amusement, like Harry is a very interesting bug under the heel of his boot.  "And perhaps I'll consider them."

"And I should take your word?" Harry asks, dubious, voice carrying. "For all that you won't actually give it?" 

Voldemort's nostrils flare. "An act of good faith, then. An oath. I swear I will not harm you or your companions until the completion of our… conversation." 

"And your Death Eaters?"

"Will stay their wands as well." 

Harry takes a deep breath. He can feel the weight of Voldemort's words, of magic, settling in the air. Padfoot presses his head against Harry's hip. Harry's fingers find his fur.

There's a shuffling off to the side. Harry doesn't look, but the hair on his neck raises. Instinct and Dumbledore's quick, urging glance has his heart racing. He does not have time to bargain for it all. 

He will take what he can get. 

"You want the prophecy," Harry says. "I want my loved ones safe.  I want the guaranteed safety of my friends and their families until I give it to you." 

"Will you provide a list?" Voldemort asks, tone dry. 

There is soft laughter that echoes, like so much mocking, around the atrium. Harry bites on the inside of his cheek. 

"I will give the prophecy to you, I swear." Harry says, and sees Voldemort's eyes widen, just a fraction, as the weight of Harry's own words settle in to the oath weaving into the air between them, invisible and heavy.  "Guarantee their safety." 

Voldemort's mouth twists into a delighted, horrible smile. "Done."

At his side, Padfoot whines. Dumbledore's mouth presses thin. 

But it is too late. The oath settles and snaps into place. The Death Eaters laugh. 

"Harry--" Dumbledore starts.

There is a pop somewhere. Voldemort's gaze draws away and Harry tugs at Padfoot's fur.  

Voldemort snarls. "What--?"

"My Lord!" The Death Eater from before gasps out. "The apparition wards.  The Aurors will have been alerted--" 

Harry tugs a bit sharper at Padfoot's scruff.  

Voldemort sneers and steps forward, hand out. "The prophecy, boy. You swore it."

There is a tingle of magic at his fingertips. A glance shared with Dumbledore. A smile and a very faint nod given. 

"I did swear, Tom." Harry says. "And I will give it to you."

His wand is in his hand, Sirius changed and standing at his side as they both clutch at the holly, in an instant. Voldemort's face twists into something manic. 

Harry smiles.  

"You just have to catch me, first." 

And then, with a step and a twist and his godfather guiding him, they are gone. 

*

The first time Harry runs away from Lord Voldemort, it goes like this: 

With a magically binding promise. With a pop of side-along apparition and a stream of Aurors to buy them time. 

*

"You brilliant boy!" Sirius crows, the second their feet are on the ground, scooping Harry up into his arms.  "You brilliant, utterly mad lad!" 

Harry laughs as Sirius spins him. Clutches the prophecy close. 

Realizes just how completely insane his plan is the moment Sirius has set him on the ground again. 

They're just outside of Hogwarts, the castle looming. Harry glances at it, wistful as his realization begins to settle at the back of his mind. 

"Sirius, we have to go." 

Sirius blinks. "Go? Go where?" 

"Anywhere," Harry says. "Anywhere but here, where he will find me." 

Sirius frowns. His brow pinches. 

"We have to run."

"Yes, and quickly." Harry says. "You don't-- You don't have to come if you're--"

"That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard," Sirius says, pulling him close and cradling the back of his head. "Where you go, I go." 

Harry feels relief sink into him as he sinks into his godfather's arms. He smiles. 

"Thank you, Sirius."

Sirius kisses his crown. "Let's get moving."

*

The second time Harry Potter runs away from Lord Voldemort, it goes like this: 

With his godfather.  With a goodbye. With a gift. 

*

Harry doesn’t think that they should return to Grimmauld Place, but Sirius insists.  

It’s still the dead of night, but the entire house is in an uproar.  Kingsley is there, with Dumbledore, and Severus Snape is hovering with his perpetual scowl.  Dumbledore smiles upon seeing them, clapping his hands together to settle the wild, rampant chatter filling the room-- the Weasleys and Hermione and Remus all there demanding to know what is going on.  If Harry were a lesser man-- for as much as a fifteen year old boy can be a man-- he would take a great deal of satisfaction in their unanswered demands to be told what is going on.  

Admittedly, he is at the very least a little vindictive, and even as Hermione’s wide eyes find his own, even as she jumps up from the couch and pulls Ron after her, he does get a small kick out of knowing more than them.  Of not only being in the loop, but being the bloody ringleader.  

“Harry,” Hermione gasps, pulling him to her, arms tight over his shoulders as Ron crowds in and rests his hand at the center of Harry’s back, as if to reassure himself that Harry is there.  “Oh, we were so worried.” 

Ron’s fingers curl in at his shirt and tug.  “Yeah, mate. Weren’t in bed, cloak was gone, no note.  Mum near went mental.” 

Harry knows he means that he nearly went mental.  They’ve all been worried, all been treating him like so much broken glass, for months.  

“I’m fine, promise.” Harry says, glancing first at Sirius and then at Dumbledore; he’s got a prophecy and a horcrux in his bloody backpack and they are not here to stay, so he savors the embrace because he knows it will be a long while before he gets it again.  “I was with Sirius. And Dumbledore.” 

There’s a small clatter from the kitchen door.  It swings open and Dobby comes out, shoving Kreacher’s pawing hands away with one hand and a bright smile, the other clutching a teacup to offer up to Harry. 

“And with Dobby, Mister Harry Potter, sir.” 

Harry smiles.  “Yes, and with Dobby.” 

Someone clears their throat.  When Harry looks, Snape has his arms folded in front of himself looking utterly unimpressed and rather painfully impatient. 

“Yes, well, now that we’re all assured that the boy and his mut are not, in fact, rotting in some gutter,” Snape drawls, narrowed eyes turning on Dumbledore.  “I do believe you should tell us what exactly is going on.” 

Dumbledore, patient and kind as ever, simply smiles and nods his head.  “I’m afraid that Mr. Potter will not be returning to Hogwarts.” 

There is a pause. And then the entire house is in an uproar. 

It takes a while to settle them down.  It takes longer to explain. Molly Weasley keeps interrupting, keeps gesturing at Harry and calling him child, while Dumbledore explains.  He minces his words as he tells them about the prophecy and the oath, hides what he needs to, and the only one who seems to notice is Snape.  Even Remus is distracted, off to the side with Sirius, talking in hushed tones as Dumbledore promises that everything is going according to plan. 

Harry nearly laughs.  What plan? There’s definitely no plan.  Harry is just, as usual, flying by the seat of his pants.  

Hermione is the one who cuts to the point, and Harry isn’t all that surprised. 

“So, Harry will be staying here with Sirius?” 

“Ah,” Dumbledore’s gaze falls on Harry.  “I do believe that decision is rather up in the air.” 

Harry gives a small shake of his head.  Snape is not the only one to catch it because Hermione’s eyes go a bit wet, and then she is off the couch where she squeezed Harry down in between her and Ron to clutch at his hand and is bounding up the stairs before anyone can stop her.  

Snape, however, rounds on Dumbledore. 

“You cannot be serious,” he demands. 

Sirius perks up.  “No, actually, that would be me.” 

Snape’s mouth curls into a snarl.  “He is a boy.  You expect him to carry out this scheme on his own?  The Dark Lord will hunt him down in days.  In hours.” 

“He won’t be alone,” Sirius frowns.  “I’ll be with him.” 

“Yes, because that is such an assurance.” 

“Watch your tongue, Snivellus.  I’d hate to see it cursed off.” 

Snape tosses his hands in the air.  “You expect this overgrown child to protect him?  They’ll be dead within the week.” 

“Severus,” Dumbledore says, resting a hand on Snape’s shoulder.  “I assure you, I do not do this with a light heart.” 

“Then don’t do it,” Snape says. 

In the midst of this arguing, Hermione returns.  In her hand is a small pouch, sewn together with a cinch at the top, and she holds it out to Harry with a bitten lip and wet eyes.  

“Take this,” she says.  “I’d been saving it for-- well, I suppose it doesn’t matter now.” 

“What is it?” Harry asks with a small frown, taking it from her and opening it to peer into its empty depths.  

“Mokeskin,” Hermione says in a hush, wiping her eyes with the back of a hand as she takes her seat back next to him, leaning in so that they can talk under the argument still passing back and forth between the adults in the room, and Ron leans in to clutch at Harry’s knee and Hermione’s wrist.  “Hagrid told me about it. They’re very rare. Whatever you put in, no one else can get out. Keep-- Keep the prophecy in it. Keep it on you at all times. It’s enchanted, so you can put other things in there too. More than you probably think.” 

Harry offers up a weak but honest smile.  “Magic is brilliant.” 

The laugh it earns him, from both of his friends, is watery.  

“Yes,” Hermione says.  “Yes, I suppose it is.” 

Ron bobs his head, throat working, brows furrowing.  “Maybe-- Maybe we should go with you.” 

They aren’t speaking as quietly as they probably should because Molly Weasley hears this and hisses like a cat.  

“Ronald Weasley, you will do no such thing,” she snaps.  

Ron blinks up at her.  “Mum, he’s my best mate--” 

“And he would want you in school or at home where you are safe,” she insists. 

Harry can see the anger building in Ron’s face.  In the red cheeks and the way his shoulders draw up. 

Harry rests his hand at the center of his back.  “It’s alright, Ron. It’s easier, if it’s just Sirius and me.  A kid and his dog on the run are a lot harder to find than three kids and a dog.” 

Hermione sniffles.  “He’s right, Ron.” 

Ron huffs.  “Doesn’t mean I have to like it.” 

“No,” Harry shakes his head, knocking his shoulder into Ron’s.  “Do me a favor? Watch Hedwig for me? I don’t think I’ll be able to take her along without getting noticed rather quickly.” 

Ron’s smile is a tremulous thing.  “Of course. Anything, mate.” 

“When will you leave?” Hermione asks, fingers creeping back over to clutch at his hand again.  

Harry squeezes back.  Clutches tight. Smiles the best he can. 

“As soon as possible,” Harry says.  

“This is goodbye, then.” Ron mumbles, scooching in closer.  

Harry nods, jerkingly, like a puppet on strings.  He feels as though he is still soaring on adrenaline, still staring Voldemort in the face and telling him to come and catch him.  

His mouth is dry. 

Hermione shakes her head quickly, hair everywhere, and he loves his friends so very much.  

“No,” she insists, clutching at them both.  “This isn’t goodbye. Never goodbye.” 

Harry’s chest aches.  He pulls them both closer still, their heads together, his heart warm. 

“Never goodbye,” he promises.  “Just a see you later.” 

Hermione laughs and Ron does, too.  Arms over their shoulders, he keeps them there, for as long as he can.  For he does not know when he will have them again. 

The third time Harry Potter runs away from Lord Voldemort, it goes like this: 

With a swift wind, carrying him toward the unknown. 

*

The mokeskin pouch holds the prophecy, wrapped up and nestled deep into an impervius skin that Remus hands him, easily.  It holds the horcrux, his two-way mirror, his map of Hogwarts, and his cloak, too.  

It even, inevitably, holds the box of tricks and treats that the Weasley twins hand him, Fred and George winking as they pass him their prototypes-- along with a little vial filled with small stones that, when Harry holds them up to the light, look a bit like tiny meteorites.  When Harry asks, Fred slings his arm around Harry’s shoulders and pulls him close.

“Little something we special ordered,” Fred says, as George nods. 

“Should help you out in a pinch.” 

“Just throw it down--” 

“--and let the magic happen.” 

Fred squeezes at Harry’s shoulder as George ruffles his hair.  Harry grunts and ducks his head. 

“Stay safe out there--” 

“-- little benefactor. We’d hate--” 

“--to lose our biggest investor.”  

When they smile down at him, wide and perhaps a bit forced, Harry can’t help but smile back.  

“We haven’t even opened up shop, yet, after all.” They say together.  “Can’t have you dying before you even see the return on your charitable donation.” 

So, Harry reads the label on the vial with his brows up, and tucks it away with the rest of his things in the pouch.  

The entire house seems to be in a tizzy-- Walburga’s portrait included, wailing away until someone pulls the curtains over her again-- as Harry and Sirius gather what they need before they take their leave.  Molly keeps bickering with Kreacher in the kitchen, cooking her stress away, muttering about food and growing boys the entire time.  

Sirius disappeared up the stairs with Remus not long ago.  Harry enjoys what warmth he can, sitting at the table in the dining room with his friends, until it becomes a little too much and he sneaks away.  

It’s hard to imagine this might be the last time he sees them all. 

In the parlor, surrounded by the Black family tree, Harry lingers in the quiet.  He thumbs at the pouch over his shoulder, tucked safely away in his clothes, and wonders if he’ll ever see this room again.  

When someone clears their throat, Harry turns.  He’s surprised to find Severus Snape standing there; he’d left not long after the late night argument with Dumbledore in a flurry of billowing robes, cursing everyone’s idiocy, and he hadn’t thought he’d see him again before he left. 

“This expedition is unwise,” Snape says, before Harry can say anything.  “I’d go so far as to call it completely imbecilic. The Dark Lord will hunt you down.” 

Harry shrugs and offers up a crooked smile.  “Well, I’m very good at running.” 

Closing his eyes, Snape lets out a long breath.  “You will run for the rest of your life.” 

“My friends will be safe,” Harry says.  “Their families will be safe.” 

Snape sneers down at him, drawing closer across the parlor until he can tower over Harry and peer down his nose at him.  “And everyone else?” 

“If he’s too busy chasing after me,” Harry says.  “What time will he have to come after the rest of you?” 

“Positively idiotic,” Snape hisses, but then digs into his robes and thrusts out a small, dragonhide case toward Harry.  “Take this.” 

Carefully, cautiously, Harry does. 

“What is it?” he asks. 

“Potions,” Snape says, like it’s being pulled from the clench of his crooked teeth.  “And a few herbs reduced to potent oils-- dittany, peppermint, and the like. Most with healing properties.  In case they are… needed.” 

Harry blinks a few times, opening the case and staring at the vials all lined up in neat rows.  Corks labeled, organized from most to least helpful, in three rows of nine.

“The case is charmed to protect the vials and keep them in a stasis,” Snape adds, with something like reluctance.  “Once a vial is empty, remove it and close the case, and I should be… notified. And perhaps be able to get you more.” 

Just as carefully as he took the case, Harry closes it again, and looks up at Snape.  A part of him-- a young and recklessly cruel part-- almost wants to ask Snape if they’re poison.  

He doesn’t.

“Thank you, sir.” Harry says.  “This will be very helpful.” 

“Yes,” Snape nods.  “I imagine it will be.  Do try not to get yourself killed.” 

“I’m very hard to kill, sir.” Harry replies, a little dryly, and he thinks he catches Snape’s mouth twitch.  

“Yes, you very much are.” Snape nods again. 

Then, even more impossibly, he reaches up.  Almost like he might push aside Harry’s hair.  Instead, his hand rests, so lightly it almost feels nonexistent, on Harry’s shoulder. 

“I-- Your mother--” Snape cuts himself off, lips thinning, fingers digging in a bit.  “You know how to cast a patronus. To send for help with it. Use it.” 

Harry wants to know.  He wants to ask and press and needle Snape until he says what he originally meant to say.  

Instead, he nods.  “Yes, sir.” 

“Good.” 

And without another word, Snape turns and leaves.  Leaves Harry alone in the parlor, holding a case of potions Severus Snape made just for him, that will inevitably go into his mokeskin pouch.  Leaves Harry alone, wondering exactly what had just happened, stunned and a little bit relieved in the same breath. 

Harry is not alone for much longer. 

Because then Sirius is there with his grim smile and a bag slung over his shoulder.  Sirius is there, holding out a hand. Sirius is there, and Harry knows it is time to leave.  To run. 

Hermione gets one last hug in before they head out the door.  Ron does, too. Molly hands him a sack of sandwiches and all sorts of other things, wrapped up and under charms, to put in his pack with his clothes as she tearfully cups his face and kisses his forehead.  Ginny smacks a kiss to his cheek. Dumbledore gives him a journal, promises it will guide him, and tells Harry to follow his instincts-- that they will not lead him astray.  

He hopes that Dumbledore is right. 

When they step outside the wards, Harry does not have to look back to know that they are being watched.  That Hermione is crying into Ron’s shoulder. That he is leaving his family-- mostly-- behind in order to keep them safe. 

“I have everything that we’ll need for a while,” Sirius promises, holding Harry’s hand tight in his, a wand in the other.  “Are you ready?” 

“As I’ll ever be,” Harry admits. 

“We keep moving,” Sirius says.  “We don’t stop, not for long.” 

“We keep moving,” Harry nods, clutching tighter at Sirius’ hand.  

“It’ll be okay, pup.  I promise.” Sirius sighs.  “Hold tight, now. We’re making quite the jump.” 

And then, with a turn of the heel and a crack of sound, they are gone.  Taken with the wind.

*

Harry Potter runs away from Lord Voldemort and it goes like this: 

He does not stop.  He is not alone.  

At least, not at first.

Chapter Text

V.

Padfoot is gone by the time Harry wakes.  The dream with Voldemort is a distant memory, the way that it always is.  He vaguely remembers angry red eyes and hissed threats.  The fire at the camp is out, but his wards are strong.  

He rolls out of his cot and packs up his things, humming softly to himself all the while.  Puts away his books and his clothes, collapses his tent; tucks everything away.  It is a routine-- easy to keep as long as he follows the rules:

Keep moving.  Don’t stop.  

Even when he’s been separated from Sirius-- which has happened more and more often as time has gone-- he abides these rules they set when they first began this chase.  Harry is not to stay in one place too long.  He is to move as frequently as he possibly can.  He cannot let Voldemort catch him. 

Once he’s packed, mokeskin pouch around his neck and tucked into his coat, he digs into his shirt for the medallion he keeps hanging there-- goblin made and quite tricky and something he and Sirius have been using for a while, a gift from Bill Weasley.  He thumbs over the engraving, tapping his wand to the center until the small globe at the center rotates to where he’s aiming, and steps through his wards as he dispells them with a whisper.  

It wouldn’t do to have any muggles stumble across an invisible, impenetrable wall while hiking through the woods. 

As a small pinprick of light glows on the globe-- his next location, far from the Albanian woods and from Voldemort’s increasingly close grasp-- Harry tucks his wand away.  The sphere at the center of the medallion starts spinning as he adjusts the strap of his pack, and he feels the wind catch his hair.  He hears the sound of a twig snap.  He twists, just in time to see Voldemort’s red eyes.

Just in time for Voldemort to slip an arm around his waist and hitch a ride, the familiar and disorienting sensation of a pull behind his navel, sweeping them both away. 

*

The first time Lord Voldemort almost catches Harry Potter, it is August 1st.  He is just sixteen years old, has been running with Sirius for seven months, and Sirius decides that they can squeeze in a little bit of fun.  

Harry should honestly know better, by now, than to trust that when Sirius says fun it only means trouble for Harry. 

*

They’ve been moving around the English countryside for months.  They try to stay away from the public, the people, except for food and very occasionally for rest.  

Muggle B&Bs, for a proper shower and bed, usually only for a smattering of hours and occasionally through the evening.  Small markets they can walk through, buy what they need, and then keep walking.

Harry can’t use magic, not with the trace still on him, and Sirius tends to vacillate between trotting along as his faithful dog and guiding him as his intrepid godfather.  Sirius has a bag full of books that Remus gave him to use-- to teach Harry as much as he can while on the road-- and Harry has never been strong in the magical theory behind Dark Arts, Charms, Potions, and Transfiguration, but he certainly has a strong handle on it now.  

There’s not much else to do, after all.  They are simply running.  Hiding.  Keeping their noses clean.  Checking the papers for all that they can, for any hint of terror that screams dark magic. 

There have been a couple of close calls, of course.  Moments when Harry was certain the Death Eaters would snatch them both up and it would all be over.  But so far, there has not been much.  

Not much, except of course, for the dreams.  

Dreams that, at first, have them moving the moment that Harry starts thrashing.  Sirius stays up while Harry sleeps, and the moment Voldemort seeks his mind and the location they are in within it, Sirius wakes him and they are gone again.  Then, on a day when they hide themselves on the shores of Scotland, Sirius leaves for just a while, just long enough to pop back to London and raid the Black library. 

When he returns it is with a book.  Magic of the Mind it reads, and from that night on, Occlumency is something that they both begin learning.  Until, when Voldemort presses at his mind, Harry can simply press back.  

Until, when Voldemort tugs on Harry’s dreams, he ends up tumbling into a mind that is not his own.  

They leave Harry tired but content.  Knowing that Voldemort cannot reach into his head to pluck out where they’re hiding, no matter how much he threatens and hisses at Harry through the night, usually in the garish ballroom of some manor Harry does not know, is a relief.  Exhausting, certainly, but a relief.  

The point is: they’ve been lucky.  Incredibly lucky. 

So, when Sirius slings his arm around Harry’s shoulders and says: “You’re sixteen, now.  Wanna go to a pub?” 

All Harry can do is smile and nod. 

They’re in Ireland at the time.  Harry keeps thinking he might run into Seamus or something, but they keep to the hills and the cliffs and the woods.  They don’t see many people.  Mostly, actually, they see an awful lot of sheep. 

It’s a bit overwhelming when Sirius drags him into the pub that afternoon, the day after he turned sixteen, and shoves a beer in his hand with a wink.  He doesn’t know what kind of party is going on, but there is one-- there’s singing and there’s dancing, and Harry is so carried away by it that he doesn’t even notice the man that stares at him for too long before leaving.  Sirius is pulled onto the crowded dance floor-- more a crudely put together clearing made by tables and chairs pushed aside-- by some woman with hair as red as his mother’s, and Harry is so carried away that he doesn’t notice the person that settles next to him at the bar.  

Not until there is a wand at his side and a hand on his wrist.  Not until there is a mouth at his ear, voice low and hauntingly familiar, as awareness pulses in the scar drawn over his forehead. 

“You are a very hard person to find, Harry Potter.” 

Harry’s breath catches, and he goes incredibly still.  The fingers tighten, painfully, over his wrist.  Until he winces.  

“Now, you’re going to come outside with me and give me what I came for,” Voldemort whispers. 

For a moment, Harry fully believes that.  Believes that Voldemort will kill everyone in this pub if he does not move, right this instant, and follow him outside.

But Voldemort is not striking down everyone in this pub.  He is not burning it to the ground, the way Harry expected he would with any muggle establishment, and Harry glances over, unable to help himself, and finds Tom Riddle’s high cheekbones and dark hair and slate grey eyes staring back at him.  

He’s stunning.  Just as tall and as handsome as he was when Harry first saw him, in the memory of a book, so many years ago.  A bit older, perhaps, but no less breathtaking.  Harry can, at the very least, admit that he prefers this face over the usual gleam of red eyes and serpent skin. 

When Harry’s lips part, Voldemort catches the sight of it, and his grip tightens on Harry’s wrist until the bones grind. 

“Do not call out,” Voldemort warns.  “Do not call attention to yourself.  Come with me.” 

Harry’s eyes narrow behind his glasses.  Because Voldemort should be firing spells and slaughtering muggles.  He should be but he isn’t -- and it takes a moment for Harry to realize why. 

Voldemort doesn’t know who all Harry knows in this pub.  Doesn’t know if, perhaps, he is friends with anyone here or everyone here-- and he can’t risk it. 

An accidental oath is still an oath, after all.  And Voldemort did swear not to bring harm to Harry’s friends or their families until Harry handed the prophecy over.  

Harry certainly hasn’t done that. 

With a tilt of his chin, Harry raises his beer up.  Voldemort jabs his wand into Harry’s side, but it is of no use at all.  

“I love everyone in this pub!” Harry declares at a shout.  

The cheers and jeers in reply brings a smile to Harry’s face.  Smug.  Delighted.  

Voldemort sneers down at him.  Harry’s scar aches a bit, but he bites down the wince. 

“I should curse you where you stand,” Voldemort hisses.  “I could kill you, right now.” 

“Ah, but would you be able to find where I hid the prophecy?” 

Voldemort opens his mouth, probably to follow through with the threats he’s been whispering in his dreams for months and the one he placed just now, and Harry braces for the pain of it-- but it does not come. 

“Harry?” 

Sirius is standing there, brow up and fingers twitching.  Guarded.  He’s glancing between Harry and the man holding him so close, and Harry realizes that Sirius doesn’t know. 

“You alright, pup?” Sirius asks. 

Voldemort’s grip eases somewhat.  He offers Sirius a charming smile, but does not let Harry go. 

“Pardon me,” Voldemort says, all sleaze and ease, thumb dragging over Harry’s arm like he’s trying to flirt with him, and not a second away from disemboweling him, and Harry’s face floods with color.  “I was just offering to buy Harry, here, a drink.” 

Sirius’ brows fly up, a delighted grin stretching over his face, and Harry nearly starts shaking his head emphatically no, when Voldemort’s wand prods at his ribs again.  

“A drink, huh?” Sirius gives Voldemort a quick look, gaze skimming down and then right back up, before darting to Harry’s.  “Haven’t had too many, yet?  You do love the whole pub, after all.” 

Harry wants the earth to open up and swallow him whole.  He downs the rest of his beer instead, and slams the glass onto the counter.

“Nope,” Harry says.  “All empty.  Need a refill.  And since Tom has so kindly offered…” 

Harry bats his eyes up at Voldemort, smile sickeningly sweet, and Voldemort returns it.  

“Of course,” he says.

Harry thinks he’s the only one that hears the strain of it as he turns toward the bar to flag down the barkeep, because Sirius claps Harry on the shoulder, leans in, and mutters: “don’t do anything I wouldn’t, pup.” 

And then he’s off, back toward the dance floor, and for once, Harry believes every derisive insult Snape has thrown his godfather’s way.  He stares after him, wide eyed and still subtly at wandpoint, and wants to hurl his empty beer stein at Sirius’ head. 

The second they’re alone again, Voldemort turns to him.  He’s annoyed, Harry can tell, and not just from the pinch of his rather aristocratic face.  He can feel it, throbbing under his skin, and Harry spitefully thinks: good. 

“Your companion is going to get you killed,” Voldemort says, almost casually, and Harry lets out a slow breath.

If he wants to rile Harry up, it’s working.  If he wants to play that way, Harry will play right back. 

“Yes, well, at least he’s not going to get himself killed,” Harry says, smile sharp when he offers it.  “At least, not by you or your Death Eaters.” 

Voldemort’s jaw clenches, and Harry would be lying if he said that it wasn’t an arresting sight.  The Dark Lord Voldemort, biting back his anger while wearing such a pretty face, sliding Harry an actual beer when it is set on the bartop, and plastering on a smile. 

“Tricky little oath you weaved,” Voldemort admits between the brittle smile of his white teeth.  “I have to admit I was impressed.  It was very… Slytherin of you.” 

“The Hat did offer,” Harry says, all too happy to keep Voldemort off his footing, to keep him guessing and unsteady until Harry can get away; he doesn’t touch his drink.  

Voldemort’s brow raises.  “Did it?” 

“It was rather insistent,” Harry says.  “I told it no.” 

“That’s not how the Hat works.” 

Harry barks out a laugh.  “Yes, actually, it very much is.” 

“Regardless,” Voldemort hisses, leaning in, and Harry takes a careful step back.  “How about a new oath?” 

“How about no?” 

Voldemort’s eyes catch the light, taking on an eerily familiar red hue.  “How about I just take what I want, then?” 

And the thing is, Harry knows that he will.  That he very well could.  There was no part of the oath that promised Harry’s safety.  Honestly, Harry’s surprised that Voldemort didn’t wisk him away and torture him until he gave the prophecy up already.  Or that he hasn’t just struck him down where he stands.  

Perhaps, Harry thinks, it’s part of the oath.  He can’t kill Harry just to get himself out of it.  But Harry doesn’t know for sure-- and he’s certainly not going to stick around taking that chance. 

With a wild idea already stirring up in his head, Harry takes the drink Voldemort bought for him in hand.  Voldemort catches the movement, eyes darting to his hand, but Harry is already pressing the other to his chest, face twisting in offence, and backing up one step-- then another. 

“Keep your hands to yourself , you old pervert,” Harry snaps, half shouting, and then he slings his full pint into Voldemort’s face without a single lick of remorse.  “No means no.” 

And then, before Voldemort can get the idea in his head to strike Harry down where he stands, Harry weaves himself into the mess of the crowded pub.  He can hear Voldemort spitting his name like a curse, and even as a lance of pain ricochets through his skull, Harry can’t help but smile as he finds Sirius spinning a girl on the dance floor.  

He grabs him by the scruff of his shirt, pulls, and starts running and shoving through the crowd the second that Sirius realizes something has happened and starts moving with him.  Sirius’ hand catches his arm, then his hand, and then he is clearing the way with a subtle flick of his wand and dragging Harry out the door. 

“What’s going on, pup?” 

“Long story,” Harry says.  “Get us out of here.” 

Sirius doesn’t argue.  Knows better not to, or trusts Harry enough not to, he’s not sure.  Either way, he barely catches sight of Voldemort bursting out the door before Sirius is squeezing Harry’s hand tight and apparating them away. 

*

The second time Lord Voldemort nearly catches Harry Potter, it is October 31st. He is still sixteen. He is still constantly on the move, Sirius at his side. He is still waiting for the other shoe to drop. 

It's obvious, coming here on this day. Obvious and utterly necessary. 

*

The headstones are nice. Polished. 

Harry's never seen their graves before.

Fifteen years.  It has been fifteen years since Harry has been here, the place he was born, the town where his parents died.  He doesn’t remember any of it.  Not any of the streets.  Not the church next to the graveyard.  Not the broken down house that Sirius apparated them to in the first place, the moment the sun started to settle beyond the horizon, the place where his parents died, on the fifteenth anniversary of their deaths.  

James and Lily Potter’s graves.  Nothing but deadened grass and pretty stones.  

Something inside of Harry aches terribly.  

It is not the same kind of ache that Sirius suffers, a ways away, leaning against a different headstone with his hands in his pockets and his face turned away.  Sirius feels the loss of something real; something he’d had, held, and lost of the grip of. 

Harry feels the loss of potential.  Of all the could have and would have beens that came with their deaths on that night so long ago.  Of two parents he’ll never have and never know.  Of a happy childhood, without the harsh lessons of life he had to learn early in order to survive.  

That’s all he’s done, he thinks, as he stares down at Lily Potter’s grave.  All he’s done is survive.  Since the night she gave her life for his own, all Harry has been able to do is survive.  

He lets himself cry for that.  For the loss of a future that isn’t his.  For people he never knew.  Quiet and steady, tears burning, hot against a face cooled by an autumn evening.  He lets himself cry for the loss of something he never even had. 

The crack of apparition isn’t even enough to move him.  

Sirius is at his side in an instant.  His wand drawn, his face severe, anger bubbling up in that same way it did so many years ago-- only stilled and quieted by Harry’s hand on his arm, gripping tight, like it is the only thing holding him to this place.  

“Sentiment,” Voldemort hisses, and Harry’s not sure it’s in English until Sirius bristles.  “You are surrounded, Harry Potter.  Give me the prophecy and I shall show mercy.” 

There’s a prickling against Harry’s skin.  He closes his eyes, against the sensation and against more tears, and Sirius sucks in a sharp breath.  

“They’ve put up wards, pup.” Sirius says, voice low, reaching out to clutch at Harry’s sweater.

It’s true.  Harry can feel them.  Figures he knows what they’re for-- keeping Sirius from apparating them away-- and wonders how long one of Voldemort’s Death Eaters camped out here to see if he would come.  To see if Harry really was foolish and sentimental enough to make such an obvious decision now that he wasn’t trapped at Hogwarts on this dreaded day.  

“We’re going to have to fight our way out of here,” Sirius breathes, agitated and tight like a spring.  “You’ll stay behind me.  They can’t hurt me, right?  Fancy oath and all that?” 

Harry hums.  Absent and tired, eyes still closed and hand still wrapped over Sirius’ arm.  

He knows Voldemort is standing somewhere behind him.  Can feel his gaze.  Can feel the rising irritation that is slowly bleeding into his own.  Can feel an underlying, smug satisfaction that makes Harry want to spit. 

Voldemort clicks his tongue.  “Come now, Harry.  I may not be able to hurt you to get what I want--” ah, so that is part of their oath-- “but I can certainly keep you here--” 

“You have no right,” Harry says, voice shaking, and Sirius starts at the sound of it, cracking like a whip in the night, but Harry pays no mind as he stares down at their graves.  “You have no right to be here.  And you know it.” 

There’s another spike of emotion-- something Harry can’t quite name-- but the pain along his scalp is enough to have him turning around to meet Voldemort’s stare.  Steady.  Red.  

The monster instead of the man.  

But Harry knows.  He knows what this monster can feel.  Knows that the pulse that comes along the thread between them is something like shock-- perhaps at the state of Harry, staring hard at him with tears rolling down his face; or perhaps at what Voldemort can feel of Harry, the grief and the relentless anger that is only rivaled by Voldemort’s own-- and he sees the moment that Voldemort becomes far less smug and far more apprehensive.  

“Stubborn,” Voldemort notes, tone dry, like he’s trying to regain his footing, and Harry will not have it.  “Give me the prophecy, boy, and--” 

“No,” Harry snarls, stepping forward, ignoring the way Sirius clutches at his sweater to keep him a good distance from Voldemort, lest he be whisked away.  “Not here.  Not now.  You have no right!” 

The ground beneath their feet rumbles.  

Later, Harry will be shocked to realize that it’s because of him.  That after months of bottling most of his magic up, the ground quakes beneath their feet because of Harry’s rage.  

Voldemort stares at him like he’s not quite sure what to make of him.  Long fingers toy with the bleached white of his wand, but he otherwise does not move.  His eyes narrow, red like blood spilled across fresh snow, but Harry feels no anger from him.  Feels only his own, pulsing and building up in his chest, threatening to boil over and ravage everything.  

Voldemort takes one slow step forward.  Bare feet on dead grass.  Sirius tries to pull Harry back. 

“You think,” Voldemort breathes, low with warning, “that you have the right to tell me what I can do?” 

Harry’s own wand is in his hand faster than he can think to have it there, raised and pointed at Voldemort’s chest, Harry’s own magic crackling like a living creature in the air.  He can feel it vibrating in his teeth.  

“Fuck the prophecy.  Fuck the oath.  Fuck you.” Harry sneers.  “You’ll leave-- or I will tear you apart.” 

“You think you can?” 

“Right now?” Harry feels his face shift, a rictus of mockery.  “Yes.  And unless you want to risk breaking the oath trying to stop me, you will leave.” 

“You would lose your magic,” Voldemort tells him, matter of fact, and it makes sense knowing that-- makes the fact that Harry survived their last encounter unscathed make sense.  “Possibly your life.”

Harry’s grip twists that much tighter on his wand; he can feel something oppressive weigh them all down, can feel the hair on his arms, on his head, on the back of his neck stand on end, can feel a static in the air.  “Does it look like I care?” 

Harry may have set himself on this path-- the one of trying to find a way to fix Voldemort-- but he draws the line here.  Here, where Voldemort took everything from him.  Harry refuses to let Voldemort do this here. 

Voldemort holds his gaze for a long time.  Stares at him.  Searches over him.  For what, Harry does not know.  

Then, he raises one of those long, pale hands and waves.  And Harry feels the wards come down.  

Harry does not lower his wand. 

Voldemort does not drop his gaze.  

“Black,” Voldemort hisses, not once looking away from Harry, even as Sirius finally moves, pulling Harry back and bringing himself in front of him, like he might fend off Voldemort’s eyes.  “You would do well to get your… ward a wand he can practice with.  Suppressing that much magic will prove to be… disastrous.” 

Harry doesn’t know what that could mean. 

Sirius’ jaw clenches so tight Harry thinks he might crack a molar; Hermione’s parents would have a field day.  Harry thinks, vaguely, he might be in some kind of emotional shock. 

“Noted,” Sirius spits.  “Now, you heard my godson.  Leave.  Unlike him, I have no oath holding me back.”

Voldemort doesn’t even look at him.  Those red eyes are for Harry and Harry alone.  

“Next time, Harry Potter,” he says, and Harry twitches as he switches into parseltongue without a hitch.  “I will not show you mercy.” 

Harry’s chin tilts up, defiance in every bone of his body, the language of snakes lilting like water over his own tongue.  “When have you ever?” 

Voldemort’s mouth twitches into something like a smile.  He dips his head; a concession.  

“Until next time.” 

And then, he is gone.  The pops of distant apparition are the only indication that he and Sirius are finally alone.  

*

The third time Lord Voldemort nearly catches Harry Potter, it is New Year’s Eve.  He is still sixteen.  He is walking, willingly, into the snake pit.  It is Tom Riddle’s birthday. 

*

He has spent the last two months pouring over the journal Dumbledore gave him before this chase began.  Two months of reading the ramblings and ruminations of his favorite professor, trying to make sense of it all.  Trying to piece anything together that might help him figure out what to do.  

Figures, if he’s going to be running about the world trying to avoid the Dark Lord and his Death Eaters, he might as well hunt while he is being hunted.  Track down the traces of Voldemort’s broken soul, gather them together, and then figure out how to make them whole again.  

They even took a risky trip to Knockturn Alley, to check out Borgin & Burkes, when he came across Dumbledore’s notation that Tom Riddle had worked there for a time.  A useless trip that did nothing but afford him the knowledge that, while Harry’s been on the run, not much at all has changed in the wizarding world.  No war on the horizon-- at least, not an obvious one-- while the Dark Lord spends all of his time trying to track down the Wayward Boy Hero, as the Prophet proclaims him.  

Not that anyone knows the Dark Lord is back, despite their tete-a-tete at the Ministry nearly a year before.  

It’s all very hush.  Harry thinks he can spot some of it, bubbling under the surface, in certain articles he reads-- a new Undersecretary, some new regulations being passed in the Wizengamot about Dark Creatures and Dark Magic, et cetera and ad nauseum--  that shows there is a secret, softer kind of war going on.  Nothing that could raise too many eyebrows.  Nothing that could be twisted in any way to hurt Harry’s friends or their families-- he sees nothing about muggleborns or muggles or bloodtraitors or mudbloods; not even propaganda.  

It’s a pleasant kind of surprise, that just by running and not fighting, Harry has had a greater effect on this war than ever before.  

Still, Harry is running.  And Harry is hunting.  

The problem is, he’s got perhaps one lead.  One place he’s pretty sure will have a horcrux hidden, based on Dumbledore’s notes and his own knowledge of Voldemort’s mind, and it is the one place he does not want to go.  Not yet.  

So, between pouring over Dumbledore’s journal, ignoring the occasional nighttime visit from a red-eyed megalomaniac, practicing magic with Sirius using the old wand he dug up on a brief visit back to No. 12, and bouncing from place to place, Harry spends a lot of his time trying to puzzle out exactly where Voldemort is hiding his stupid horcruxes.  He’s got a good idea of what three might be-- based on Dumbledore’s notes-- but he’s got no idea about any others.  Not how many and not what they are. 

In a pique of frustration, Harry had tossed Dumbledore’s journal at one point, right across their tent.  Sirius had plopped down in front of him after that. 

“Okay, talk to me,” he’d said.  “Think out loud.  I hear it helps.” 

“There’s nothing to think about.  I don’t know enough to think about anything.” 

“What do you know then?” 

And then Harry had told him about the two Harry had encountered so far.  Slytherin’s locket, entrusted to Regulus as far as Harry knew, and Tom Riddle’s diary, held by Lucius Malfoy.  Two horcruxes; two Death Eaters. 

That’s when it clicked. 

“Maybe… maybe he left others with one of his Death Eaters?” 

Sirius had beamed at him.  “Only his most loyal.  Who falls in that category?” 

They’d barely taken much time at all to think about it.  Hardly needed even a moment.  

That’s how Harry ends up where he is.  Dressed up and dolled up and sneaking his way into bloody masquerade on New Year’s Eve at Malfoy fucking Manor .  Because where else would he find Voldemort’s most loyal, Most Wanted Death Eater?  Because where else would Bellatrix Lestrange stay, with all of her and her husband’s properties seized by the Ministry during the first war, if not at her own sister’s manor estate? 

So, with Dobby’s help-- and an illegal, emergency portkey tucked away on his person-- Harry finds himself crashing the Malfoy’s utterly gaudy, elaborate Yule Ball.  He practically trips over himself and the ridiculous robes Sirius cajoled him into-- why he couldn’t just sneak about outside the ballroom in his invisibility cloak, Harry didn’t know-- when he lands in a dark office.  

He smooths his hands down the front of his robes, ridiculously soft to the touch, and tries not to think about how stupid this is.  Tries not to think about the amount of galleons Sirius had spent on these robes-- satin and clinging to his chest in a way that makes it hard to breathe and clasped in silver up to his throat in a deep purple so dark it looks like an oil spill under the light-- or the mask-- charmed to stay on unless Harry takes it off himself, covering half his face in what Sirius assured him was a traditional fashion, and molded perfectly to his features in a simple black if not for the gemstones weaved into the edges.  Tries not to think about the subtle threading of silver in the shape of a lightning bolt cutting down across the left side of the mask that nearly had Harry spinning into a panic attack the second he saw it in the right light.  Tries not to think about where or how Sirius got his hands on all of this. 

Instead, Harry smiles down at Dobby, tells him thank you, and heads out into the fray.  Follows Dobby’s squeaked directions down the hall and to a side entrance to the ballroom, where no one should notice his arrival, not this late into the evening.  

To Harry’s relief, no one does.  It helps that he has a subtle notice-me-not weaved into his mask.  

It also helps that, in the chaos of the music and the dancing and the mingling at the edges, no one would notice him anyway.  

No one except the only person that’s supposed to.  The very reason that Sirius even allowed him on this venture in the first place.  Because while Sirius knows himself well enough to sneak around high society-- and knows his cousin well enough to spot her even beyond a mask-- to gather what they might need, Harry is there to play a very different role.  

Harry is there to play bait.  

While Sirius tracks down his dear cousin, while he gets what information he can out of her, Harry is meant to distract the most powerful dark wizard alive.  

Even now, Harry knows that Voldemort can feel him.  Feels the prickle of awareness along his scalp and the sharp throb of irritated curiosity.  It’s quickly followed by a determined satisfaction that nearly makes Harry weak in the knees.  

It lasts a second.  Then, Harry is moving.  Slipping and sliding through the crowds, a placid smile fixed firmly on his face.  Ignoring the subtle tug at the back of his head, constantly moving away from it, pace easy so as not to draw attention from anyone but the rather large fish dangling from his metaphysical hook.  Taking advantage of the masquerade the same way all of the Death Eaters and Ministry officials are; hiding in plain sight.  

He doesn’t know how long he plays this game.  Gets lost in the chaos of it all.  In the elaborate masks and dresses and suits and robes.  The colors and the sounds; swirls of greens and silvers and blacks and blues, drenched and dripping in silks and gems, music and chatter swarming like a hive.  It’s blinding.  Deafening.  

Harry hasn’t been around this many people in so long that he nearly feels claustrophobic.  Nearly feels like he’s back in his cupboard, surrounded by all of this.  

It’s the only reason he stumbles into Draco Malfoy.  Practically bowls him over.  Only catches himself because Draco catches hold of his arm, sneer firmly in place.  

“Sorry about that,” Harry says, already moving to shrug him off and keep moving. 

Draco’s fingers tighten over his arm.  His sneer falters, dropping into something vaguely horrified.  Grey eyes hunt over his face, and before Harry can think of some excuse to get away, Draco is drawing him impossibly closer. 

“Potter, what are you doing here?” 

His voice is a low hiss.  Barely audible over everything else.  But he’s dragged Harry so close that they’re practically flush. 

Harry blinks, guileless and wide eyed, tension rippling across his shoulders.  “I’m afraid you’re mistaken.” 

Behind the intricate silver mask on his face, top edges twisted into something like horns and detailed in black lace to look like scales, Draco’s nostrils flare like the dragon his mask is supposed to disguise him as.  “Do you even know who is here?  You need to leave.  Get out before he--” 

“Draco, dear,” a soft voice interrupts, and when Harry looks, there’s a woman who Harry determines must be Draco’s mother.  “Have you discovered one of your friends?” 

"Mother," Draco smiles, but judging by the shrewd way her eyes narrow on his face, she must be able to see right through it. "Yes. A school mate I hadn't realized was invited. We were just catching up."

"I see. Well, I'm afraid I'll have to steal you away. Your father was asking after you." 

"Of course," Draco says, but his hand seems reluctant to release its hold on Harry's arm, even as Draco turns and nods his head. "I suppose I'll see you back at school."

Harry gets the message: get out of here.  

"Yes. Enjoy the rest of your evening."

That, it seems, is enough to get Draco to let go and move along after his mother. 

For a moment, Harry is left standing there, shocked to his core. That Draco could tell, so easily, it was him. That Draco would warn him away. 

It doesn't fit with anything Harry's seen of him before. In a way, it was sort of… kind. 

Shaking his head, Harry blinks a few times and turns. He's been in one spot too long. He can feel that prickle of awareness along his scalp, down the back of his fucking neck -- 

An arm slides, easily and carefully, around his middle. Harry's head swims. 

"Hello, Harry." 

Harry goes stiff. Tries to step forward, step away.  The arm around his waist tightens, tugs, and torques him back against a solid chest. Harry's breath completely stalls.

"Now, now," Voldemort's voice is low and chiding in his ear, impossibly warm as the body pressed flush against his own, and when Harry's right hand flinches to draw his wand, to do something, Voldemort catches his wrist with a firm grip and a click of his tongue. "We wouldn't want to cause a scene and ruin this lovely night for everyone, would we?" 

The threat is very clear. Harry winces, and not just because Voldemort's fingers splay out over his abdomen or tighten over his wrist to keep him tucked against him. 

He goes still. He's pulled taut, ready to spring free at any second, but he goes still. Doesn't fight the way Voldemort has him in his clutches. 

"Good, Harry," Voldemort practically purrs, that sharp edge of danger just under the surface. "Now, I do believe we should take this conversation some place private, but I have a feeling you would throw quite a fit-- and, amusing as it would be, we unfortunately can't have that. Not tonight."

Right. Too many non-Death Eater guests around, to question why Harry is being dragged off, screaming, to a dungeon somewhere. 

Social niceties, it seems, have saved his skin. 

Wetting his lips, Harry wills his voice not to shake. "What do you suggest?"

In his head, at his back, Harry feels a rumble of dreadful, delighted amusement. 

"Dance with me."

Harry jerks. "What?"

Voldemort clicks his tongue again. "You'd be surprised by the kinds of quiet conversation one can have on a dance floor."

"I can't dance," Harry insists, face flooding with heat at the admission. 

"All you have to do, Harry, is follow." Voldemort says, right against the curve of his ear, and Harry cringes away with a shudder.  "Come along." 

And then, against all reason, Lord Voldemort is leading Harry toward the center of the ballroom. Burying them deeper and deeper into the swirling couples, not letting up an inch, until they come to a free space.

When Voldemort finally lets up, it's only to turn Harry around to face him. Dark eyes meet his own, glinting red in the enchanted lights swirling above, and Harry manages a stilted step back before there are hands on him again. One catching his own, sending a jolt right down his arm, as the other slides round to settle at the middle of his back. 

Harry wants to shake apart. Wants to run screaming. 

But that's not what he's here to do. 

And what better way to distract Voldemort than by giving in?

With trembling fingers, Harry reaches up and settles his free hand on Voldemort's shoulder, nails digging in blunt against the crisp black of his suit jacket. He very obviously avoids his eyes, staring instead at the milky white edge of his mask. It takes him a second to realize that, despite the glamours giving him a human facade, Voldemort is wearing a mask in the shape of a skull. 

He very nearly scoffs.

"Have you ever waltzed?"

Harry blinks rapidly, lips pursing up, and the hand caught with Voldemort's flexes. "What part of I can't dance did you misunderstand?"

Despite the crooked, charming smile that Voldemort offers up, Harry feels a pang of anger flare in his scar.  "The steps are really rather simple, even you couldn't mess it up."

"I guess we'll just have to see how well you lead, if you can at all." Harry replies, plastering on a smile so sweet it could rot teeth, and he knows Voldemort must feel some of his own ire if the way his grip tightens is any indication. "I warned you, so I won't apologize for stepping on your toes."

Voldemort hums, short and just barely clinging to his composure if the pain in Harry's head is anything to judge by. 

Then, as the band at the front of the ballroom rolls into a new song, they move. Shuffling-- and, on Harry's behalf, stumbling-- a bit at first, until the motion smoothes out. Until the rhythm clicks, somewhere between one stilted step and the next, and Harry just gives up and lets Voldemort guide him around the floor. 

As the first song bleeds into the next, no hint of conversation forthcoming, Harry lets his mind drift. Lets his body flow through the motions, Voldemort's hand hot against his spine, pushing and pulling him through the steps until repetition shifts into memorization. 

As Voldemort turns them, Harry can't help but notice the curl of hair that falls in front of the macabre mask of bone Voldemort's wearing. It's not a surprise, that mask, nor is the sharp way he's dressed; pants and jacket as dark as pitch, shirt an impossible shade darker, the only spot of color standing out garishly in a sash of red around his waist. 

Like death himself.

"I'm surprised to find you here," Voldemort finally says, somewhere around their third song, after reeling Harry closer to mutter in his ear. "I don't believe you were on the invite list."

"Must've been a mix up," Harry says, glancing off Voldemort's shoulder into the dancers moving all around him. 

Harry feels like he's caught on a merry-go-round. Spinning, stuck at the center, a half a second from being sick. 

"Must've been," Voldemort hums, dipping that much closer, until his mouth is right at Harry's ear, and Harry's half certain he's going to bite it off , when he hears the hiss of parseltongue. "What are you doing here, Harry?"

Harry swallows. Something flutters, low in his stomach, that feels a lot like fear. 

"Enjoying the Yule festivities," Harry says, glib as can be. "Just like everyone else."

"Don't. Lie. To me." Voldemort hisses, fingers digging in so hard at his back that Harry is helpless to do anything but stumble forward against Voldemort's chest. "You snuck your way in here, past the wards, for something. You will tell me what it is." 

They're not quite dancing, not anymore. It's more of a slow swaying, the barest efforts of visible normalcy. 

Harry, half hysterically, wonders what they must look like to others. Certainly not like You-Know-Who and the Boy Who Lived caught in a battle of wills. Not with the way Voldemort is pressed so close, with the way he's clutching Harry tight, with the way his lips are ghosting against his ear with each word. 

No. Harry imagines they rather likely look like lovers. 

His stomach clenches tight. 

"Reconnaissance," Harry confesses, breathless and burning with a sudden flush of awareness. "I'm looking for something."

"Oh?" Voldemort withdraws, pulling back until he can meet Harry's eyes, smile smug and mean on that aristocratic face. "And what might that be?"

And really, Harry's had quite enough of this. His heart has been trying to beat out of his chest all night. His hands are sweaty. His nerves are alight with sensation, burning up and firing off, like right before he drops into a Wronkski Feint. 

So, with a smile, Harry leans up on his toes as he curls his hand up and around to the nape of Voldemort's neck, guiding him closer. Turning his head, stomach quivering with something Harry can't name, he presses his mouth to the spot before Voldemort's ear and says:

"None of your fucking business, Tom."

Harry's head very nearly splits open at the overwhelming flood of rage. 

With a snarl of a sound, Voldemort wrenches his hand from Harry's own, going for his hair and catching it in a fist before pulling. Harry gasps out, the corners of his eyes tearing, hands clutching at Voldemort's jacket, even as he offers up the nastiest smile he can-- too much teeth and too much pain ricocheting in his head for it to be anything but.

"My patience grows thin," Voldemort sneers down at him. "I have caught you. You will tell me what I want. You will give me what I want."

Harry laughs. "You have patience?" 

Fingers dig in at the small of his back. Harry swears he can feel claws. 

All he sees is red. 

"You will--"

But Voldemort doesn't get to tell him what he will and won't do. 

Mostly because, right when he's about to, a sudden pop of noise shakes the entire ballroom. The chandelier shudders, trembling dangerously. Then, there's a crash and a sudden burst of color and light and fire.

People around him scream. 

Another ball of light and sound and fire goes up, shaping and twisting against the ceiling in half formed fireworks. They shower sparks down upon all the guests. 

In the sudden rush of panic, Voldemort's grip loosens, his gaze draws up. Just for a second. 

A second is all Harry needs. He's gotten out of tighter squeezes before. 

Wrenching himself free, Harry stumbles back just out of reach. Voldemort is already focused back on him, already stalking after him, but Harry-- Harry already has his hand on the third clasp of his robes, Harry is already activating his emergency portkey, Harry is already being swept away by the sharp pull below his navel with a smug smile on his face. 

The world blurs. 

Harry lands, sharply and suddenly, face down on the forest floor. He groans, head throbbing as angeranger rage splits up from his brow to his scalp. 

There's the sound of a body landing next to him, and then Sirius is there. Sirius is there, turning him over, cradling his face between his big hands. 

"Harry? Harry, are you alright?" 

"Pouch," Harry grunts. "Pain potion." 

Sirius makes quick work of it. 

When Harry has downed it, ripping off his mask, he feels less like he's going to die and more like he has the worst migraine in the world. Sirius winces, on his knees in front of him, using the sleeve of his very nice coat to mop up the blood dripping from his scar. 

"I got away again," Harry says as an explanation. "He's angry."

Sirius' face twists up. Guilt and concern creating a new kind of creature.

"Did you get it?" Harry finally asks, after a few moments of laying there with his eyes shut, with Sirius petting through his hair.  "Did you find her--?"

"Yes," Sirius says, and then sighs. "You were right. She's got one."

Harry doesn't ask how he knows or how he found out. That part doesn't really matter. 

"Where?"

When Sirius goes quiet, Harry squints up at him. 

"Padfoot. Where is it?"

The grimace is really all Harry needs, but the real nail in the coffin is when he says: 

"Gringotts."

*

The fourth time Lord Voldemort nearly catches Harry Potter, it is spring in the Thetford forest. Harry is still sixteen. He spends his morning watching the sun catch between the trees, lighting the world up in red and gold. 

He doesn't know what's going to happen later that day. It has been five months since he's seen Voldemort. 

*

“Pretty little thing, aintcha?” 

Harry’s entire right side throbs.  A low, aching pain that speaks of bruising he’ll find later in yellow and blue and purple.  A fucking watercolor abstract down his shoulder, across his ribs, at his hip.  He swallows down a groan at the thought of it.  

A hand smooths his fringe back from his brow, thick fingers threading through sweaty, messy hair before curling, fisting, and yanking.  Pulling so hard that Harry has no choice but to tip his head back, teetering on his knees, lips parted as he measures out each breath, blinking blindly forward-- glasses lost sometime during the run between the trees.  There’s sweat clinging to his skin, his shirt torn at the collar and hanging from one shoulder, blood dripping from a split in his brow from being so thoroughly tossed across the clearing where Fenrir Greyback finally got a hold of him.  

This is not how he imagined his day going when he spent the morning watching the sun rise with a dented cup of tea in his hands.  

He’s spent the last few months keeping mostly away from people in general.  The only company he’s had has been Sirius and, occasionally, muggles when they managed to find a small town to restock and stay an evening or two.  Bouncing around like a pinball, never staying in one spot too long, even when Sirius took off on his own to sneak back home and check in with the Order.  

Considering the weeks after New Year’s he dealt with Voldemort’s rage rocking around his head, temples pulsing in constant pain, Harry couldn’t take that much of a risk.  Couldn’t go back to London or Ottery St. Catchpole or Hogsmeade.  None of the places that were too obvious.  The less people he saw, the less likely it was for him to catch any dangerous attention.  

He’d missed his friends dreadfully.  The only contact he had with them was the letters Sirius brought back with him.  He’d missed so much already, over a year gone, and he wanted nothing more than to drop everything and go to the Burrow for an evening of Weasley cooking and hyjinx.  

Though, the delight from Fred and George about the success of their prototype fireworks wrecking the Malfoy Yule Ball was evident in their replies.  As was the bumbling, sweet, awkward concern from Ron, along with a pack of Exploding Snap cards to keep him “entertained” on the run.  The best, though, were probably the missives from Hermione and Remus-- filled with updates on the politics unfolding in the world he’s hiding from, the lessons he gets to practice using with the wand Sirius scrounged up for him, and information Harry might find interesting.

It makes him feel a little more connected to them.  Makes him feel like maybe he isn’t missing all too much-- though, he is disappointed that he missed Hermione banding students together and blackmailing Rita Skeeter into writing the article to end all articles about Umbridge that got the Board of Governors to boot her from Hogwarts so fast they practically fired the pink out of her clothes last year.  And he’s sad he missed Fred and George opening their shop in Diagon, even if they send a cut of his returns on his “investment in their success” back with Sirius each time to help supplement their life on the run.  

He is happy he missed the drama Hermione tells him about between her and Ron during the last school year.  Even if he’s a little disheartened that he couldn’t be there for her while she watched Ron and Lavender Brown make fools of themselves every chance they got after Ron made the Quidditch team.  He doesn’t know how all of that ended, not yet, but he hopes it turns out okay.  He’d hate to see Ron’s obliviousness ruin the friendship they’d had for years.

But hearing about it all, knowing life is going on without him there, has an all too familiar pang of longing ringing in his chest.  He misses his friends.  He misses Hogwarts.  Hell, he even misses Snape, sneering and snarking at him every chance he got; the note he’d received-- a bruised ego is not a reason to abuse my potions, Potter--  with a refill of pain potion had made him laugh. 

The only thing that keeps him going is knowing that staying away is what is keeping them all safe.  Keeping the world safe, restricted as Voldemort and his followers are with the oath weaved between them.  

So, he’d started his day early, stewing a bit in misery knowing there was no way back, but determined to find a way forward.  Sipping his tea and watching the sun begin to crest through the trees, like a world on fire, he’d decided he needed to make a move soon.  Needed to make the hard decision to finally go for the one place he knew he’d probably find a horcrux.  Needed to set resolving all of this in motion.  

Gringotts was out of the question, the second Sirius told him back on New Year’s Eve.  If he made a move on the horcrux there, Voldemort would instantly know what Harry had discovered and what he was after.  Voldemort would know and make moves to hide all the others.  

Harry would need to try for Riddle Manor.  

He just didn’t want to do that, not yet, not until he knew how many Voldemort had created.  He was still waiting on word back from Dumbledore about that; his old professor had, apparently, been working on getting him that information all year long from a potions professor pulled out of retirement.  

The second Harry knew, however, he’d move in on Riddle Manor and then onto Albania.  Albania, where he knew a young Tom Riddle had traveled to track down the lost diadem of Rowena Ravenclaw, according to the story he’d made between missives from Dumbledore and a detailed legend from the whimsical Luna Lovegood.  

Today, he sat waiting on word back from Sirius.  Sipping his tea, waiting for Sirius to get back from another venture into the wizarding world, where he’d hopefully return with a trinket from Bill Weasley and information from Dumbledore. 

It was only chance, really, that it was on this same day that Harry’s luck finally seemed to run out.  

It had happened after he’d packed up their things to start hiking toward their rendezvous point.  It was maybe midday, the air warm enough to have his old cotton shirt sticking to his skin.  He’d been alone, him and the green earth unfurled around him, and then he’d been surrounded.  

Werewolves.  Voldemort had sent werewolves to track after him by scent.  

He’d tried to run.  Tried to lead them on a chase away from his original destination.  Tried to get far enough away that he could apparate without splinching himself in his panic. 

He hadn’t run fast enough.  

That’s how he found himself caught, bruised and bleeding and sweating, panting for breath through the pain along his side.  That’s how he found himself on his knees before Fenrir Greyback and part of his pack, scalp screaming as rough fingers dragged his head back.  That’s how he found himself glaring up into gold eyes, Fenrir crouching next to him, grin sharp as he regards Harry, silver hair falling into his face. 

“So, you’re the one he’s been after,” Fenrir rumbles, his other hand coming up, thumb brushing hard enough against Harry’s split brow to make him wince, smearing the blood there before bringing it to his mouth with a pleased hum.  “I can see why.  Taste as good as ya look.” 

Harry’s nose scrunches up in disgust.  

Fenrir just grins that much wider.  He leans in, nose pressing behind Harry’s ear, and inhales deep. 

“Smell good, too.” 

A shudder ripples up through Harry.  He feels his very blood curdle as a tongue, hot and flat, presses along the length of his throat.  Harry jerks, clawing at Fenrir’s wrist, shoving at him and trying to get free.  

Fenrir laughs.  The sound thrums up Harry’s spine, making him struggle all the more. 

He’d use his wand, but the temporary one Sirius had given him is broken, and his own is buried in the depths of the mokeskin pouch across his chest, along with every other valuable he owns.  There’s no way for them to open it or get it off of him, not unless he’s dead or he does it himself.  

And he can’t reach in and pull his wand free, risking discovery of the prophecy and the horcrux he’s got tucked in there, especially not when one of the gruff men lingering in the clearing says: 

“The Dark Lord is on his way, alpha.” 

Harry is stuck.  Trapped by a strong hand in his hair, and then another on his jaw.  

Harry nearly bites his own tongue when Fenrir drags him to his feet by that grip.  Snarls and spits, right up until Fenrir lets go of his hair to catch his wrists and twist them around at his back.  Right up until that grip on his jaw drops, settling on his throat, deadly claws scraping at the sensitive skin along his neck and under his ears.  Right up until there’s a crack of apparition and Fenrir holds him back against his chest, licking at the shell of his ear. 

“Hold still, now, pretty.  Wouldn’t want my grip to slip, would ya?” Fenrir says, claws like needle points at Harry’s pulse, and then Harry is left standing there, chest heaving, and bleeding.  “Would be a shame to shred that pretty neck.” 

Swallowing thick, Harry trembles in place, head tilted back.  He’s always felt small, but standing here with Fenrir towering against his back, his entire hand covering Harry’s throat, he feels tiny.  

He feels vulnerable.  

Then, that familiar tingle.  That static of awareness, of Voldemort drawing near.  Harry, as always, feels him before he ever sees him.  

The Death Eaters come from between the trees first.  Harry spots Bellatrix, no mask on her face, being trailed by a hulking figure that Harry thinks might be her husband.  He spots another figure, masked, but the white blonde of his hair gives him away.  Their wands are drawn.  Bellatrix hisses at one of the closest werewolves, smiling with all her teeth, looking half deranged, and they back away from the Death Eaters until they’re positioned somewhere behind where Harry and Fenrir are at the center of the clearing.  

Then, and only then, does Voldemort emerge from the trees.  

He’s draped in black, his robes long enough to drag behind him against the forest floor like smoke.  All red eyes and pale, bone-white skin.  

His gaze is only for Harry. 

“Greyback,” he greets in that eery breath of a voice, the one Harry’s only heard him use around his followers.  “You have done well.” 

“Wasn’t hard,” Fenrir says.  “Once I got his scent, it was easy.  Spent weeks trailing after it.  Like peach blossoms.” 

Fenrir’s fingers flex over Harry’s wrists.  Against his throat.  

Voldemort’s eyes narrow at the movement.  Jaw tight, Harry watches as his fingers trail over the bleached wood of his wand.  A dangerous sign, Harry knows.  

“Yes, well.  You’ve done your job well, and you will be rewarded.” Voldemort says.  “Now, hand the boy over.” 

Behind him, Fenrir clicks his tongue.  “Don’t think I’ll be doing that just yet.  Or at all.” 

Voldemort’s lips curl up in a sneer, expression pinching, though it smooths out quickly.  Like he’s just barely holding on to his composure. When Harry’s scar aches, he knows that to be true. 

“Pardon?” 

“I think I’d like to change terms,” Fenrir grins, grip tightening enough, drawing Harry up onto his toes with a choked grunt, so that Fenrir can bury his nose in Harry’s hair for a moment to breathe him in.  “Think I wanna keep this one.” 

Harry’s eyes screw shut at the sudden wave of blistering rage.  It makes his head swim.  Makes one of his knees buckle, until the only thing holding him up is Fenrir.  He chokes, vision going spotty, and it doesn’t help that he’s probably got a concussion.  

The rage ebbs, after a moment.  When Harry gets his feet again, eyes fluttering open, sight blurrier than it was with the tears burning at the edges, he sees Voldemort standing there, regarding him.  Red gaze hunting over the sight of him.  Taking in his dirty jeans, his torn shirt, the blood on his face and the sweat on his skin.  

Harry imagines he looks rather pitiful.  

“You,” Voldemort is practically hissing, eyes locking with Harry’s own, “want to keep him?” 

“Pretty little thing like this?” Fenrir squeezes at Harry’s neck, claws digging in, and Harry smells the blood more than he feels the pain of his skin splitting open.  “He’d make a lovely wolf.  Once I broke ‘im in.” 

Bellatrix cackles like it’s the funniest thing she’s ever heard.  The idea of Fenrir Greyback breaking him in. 

Something like resignation settles and pits in Harry’s stomach.  He’s heard the story from Sirius about Greyback turning Remus.  He’s heard how vicious he is.  He’s heard how he likes his victims young. 

He also knows that Voldemort wants nothing more than to see him dead.  

Harry’s eyes flicker down to the earth.  He wonders if he’ll survive the bite.  

“I’m afraid, Greyback,” Voldemort says, slow and careful, drawing closer.  “That will not be possible.” 

Harry’s eyes snap up to him.  Shock ripples down his spine, and not just because of the threat under the surface of Voldemort’s words.  It’s because of the way Voldemort is holding his wand, lax at his side, as if he isn’t about to cast a curse-- but Harry knows better.  It’s because of the way Voldemort is drawing closer and closer still, lazy and relaxed, like he isn’t about to tear into someone he sees as an enemy-- but Harry knows better.  It’s because of the placid, uncaring expression on Voldemort’s face as he stares over Harry’s head at Fenrir-- but Harry knows better. 

There’s a deadly wrath, simmering between them.  An anger so soft, so insidious, that it makes Harry’s mouth go dry. 

“No?” Fenrir snarls, and wrenches the grip he has on Harry’s wrists higher, forcing a ragged sound out of Harry’s mouth for the first time during this whole standoff.  “Why not?” 

“It’s really quite simple, Greyback.” 

Voldemort comes to a slow stop, barely a meter between them.  Harry’s scalp and the nape of his neck tingle with a fresh wave of nearness. 

“You see, you cannot keep him,” Voldemort hisses, sneer unfurling over his face.  “Because he’s already mine.” 

The spell that Voldemort lets loose after that is perfectly aimed.  It catches Fenrir in the face, knocking his grip free, and Harry jerks away, falling to his hands and knees. 

Spellfire singes the air.  Voldemort’s Death Eaters are quick to react, following his lead and whipping out curse after curse at Fenrir and his pack.  The wolves respond just as quick-- those with wands tossing out counter hexes, while those without are trying to get close and sink their claws into flesh. 

Harry scrambles out of the way.

Heart pounding, Harry ducks once stray curse and then a second.  There’s dirt under his nails as he hauls himself to his feet, dodging around the thick trunk of a tree right as another spell spatters sparks against the bark of it.  

Panting, Harry feels a throb at his neck, and winces.  Bringing his hand up, he touches the shallow claw marks at his throat, his fingers coming away bloody.  With a hissed curse, Harry glances back at the fight going on in the clearing-- Death Eaters herding the werewolves back, Voldemort casting curse after curse as Greyback deflects them-- and then away toward the rest of the forest. 

They’re distracted.  He could run right now.  Get far enough away, get his wand out, take the risk of the trace and apparate out of there.  

There’s a scream-- a shriek, really-- and Harry’s gaze whips back to the battle.  Bellatrix is cradling her side, a werewolf felled at her boots, but she’s bleeding and spitting curses.  

It seems like the sound of her pain and her mad anger is enough to distract Voldemort too.  

His focus draws from Greyback to her.  Just long enough for Greyback to get some ground back.  To lunge forward, wand drawn and claws ready, and Harry is moving before he even realizes what he’s doing.

Harry’s apparated without a wand once before in his life.  Running from Dudley and his friends on the playground, up onto the rooftop of the school building, just to get away.  It’s about as stomach twisting the second time as it was the first, and Harry nearly loses his stomach even as he appears in place at Voldemort’s side and tackles him out of the way of whatever noxious green curse Greyback spits at him.  

They tumble to the leaves and dirt on the forest floor, spell flying over and beyond them.  Harry lands, sprawled over Voldemort, body protesting every motion.  Somewhere to his right, Bellatrix shrieks again, and somewhere behind him, he hears Lucius Malfoy’s shocked “my Lord!”  

But Harry is running on adrenaline and instinct.  His hand flies up, a wordless and wandless protego shooting up between him and the next curse that Fenrir unleashes, too weak to hold long but strong enough to take the spellfire.  

In that fraction of a second, his eyes meet Voldemort’s.

Staring up at him, like he’s something wild and unknown, Voldemort holds his gaze. Harry doesn’t know how to describe the expression on the monster’s face-- but he knows it looks very human.  

Then, Voldemort is twisting their weight over, sending Harry sprawling away from him as he climbs to his feet and starts to counter Greyback’s spells.  Disarming him with a cruel snarl, sending the werewolf’s wand flying. 

Harry takes that for the opening that it is.  Springing forward, he catches hold of the wand, thinks of Sirius and safety and the rendezvous point and anything except the fact that he just saved Voldemort’s life, and apparates away.  

*

The fifth time Lord Voldemort almost catches Harry Potter, Harry almost lets him. 

He’s seventeen years old.  It’s September.  It’s been months since he has seen Voldemort in person.  

That is not to say that he has not seen him in his dreams. 

*

Seven.  

Seven horcruxes.  

Harry wants to weep.  Wants to apparate to Voldemort and shake him.  Wants to demand he explain why.  Why destroy his soul like this?  Why tear himself to pieces like this?  Why? 

He doesn’t do any of that.  He wants to, but he doesn’t.  

He doesn’t because, in some way, Harry knows.  Fear and hate and so much self-loathing that destroying himself probably seemed like nothing.  Probably seemed like the best possible outcome, twisting and breaking and marring himself into something different.  Something new.  Something so monstrous it could never be mistaken for Tom Marvolo Riddle. 

With the pale, wispy memory of a young Tom Riddle asking his professor about splitting his soul seven times still haunting Harry’s own memories, Harry finally makes his move on the night of the Welcoming Feast.  

If he was at Hogwarts, it would be his final feast.  His final year.  

But he has set himself on this path.  Running from Voldemort and trying to find a way to piece him back together.  Trying to bring back the boy, too smart for his own good and too lonely, that’s been long since buried under the face of a monster.  

The monster that has been pulling Harry into his mind more and more frequently since that day in the woods, where against all reason, Harry saved Voldemort’s life.  He can keep Voldemort out of his own head, but he can’t seem to keep Voldemort from dragging him into his own.  It’s a lot like it was, at the beginning of it all, but instead of demanding to know where Harry is, Voldemort coaxes.  

Paces an elaborate throne room, or an office filled with books and lit with firelight, or a bedroom dripping with so much green Harry wouldn’t be surprised if he was told it was Salazar Slytherin’s own private chambers.  Paces, slow and steady, circling Harry in his own mind like a predator about to strike.  Whispers, or perhaps hisses, soft promises to Harry that, if he comes to him of his own free will, Voldemort will show him mercy.  That he’ll reward Harry.  That he’ll make a new oath with him, if only Harry will come to him.  

On the first of September, Harry finally gives in, in a way. 

He doesn’t tell Sirius what he’s going to do.  Leaves in the middle of the night, holly wand clutched in hand, invisibility cloak wrapped around his shoulders.  

He’d discarded Greyback’s stolen wand the moment he’d turned seventeen.  It hadn’t worked well for him, had all of his spells reacting too strong, and finally getting to practice duelling with Sirius in the middle of the woods while using his own wand has felt a little bit like coming home.  

Apparating to Little Hangleton’s cemetery, where Voldemort came back and Harry watched Cedric Diggory die, is surprisingly easy.  He stands there for a moment, staring at the angel statue that held him down, letting the cold of the night nip at his face, before securing the hood of his cloak and stepping away.   

The walk up the hill toward Riddle Manor is a short one.  

From outside, it looks just as abandoned and decrepit as it had been in the visions from his fourth year.  As he draws nearer, though, his brow furrows at the feeling of magic in the air.  Of wards-- muggle repellents, perhaps-- and something else hiding under their protective layer.  It has him drawing to a slow stand still, just outside of the wards surrounding the place, face pinched.  

He hadn’t thought Voldemort would want to lay claim to this place.  This house where Dumbledore postulated his father lived and died.  Where Tom Riddle killed him, likely to make one of his very first horcruxes.  Feeling the magic there now, a skill he has slowly developed under Sirius’ guidance, he’s positive that what he’d thought had been wrong.  

He reaches out, skimming his fingers across the wards, and feels an echo of sensation along his scalp.  Even his body recognizes the traces of Voldemort’s magic. 

There’s no resistance, though.  Nothing there that would keep Harry out.  Not that blood wards would work, if Voldemort used his own blood as the key, because Harry’s blood runs through Voldemort’s veins.  Harry’s blood was what brought him back in the first place. 

He eases through the layers of wards, silencing his breath and his footfalls with a quick muffliato as he walks toward the house.  

The front door is too obvious, but Harry uses it anyways. Alohamoras his way in, pressing into the foyer as slow as he can, and shutting the door behind him. Falters the moment he's inside as he realizes just how much the broken down exterior was nothing but an illusion. 

The foyer stretches out deep into the manor, lit up by a circling halo of crystal dangling from the ceiling, the walls a soft creme and the floors a dark, rich birch wood, shining and untouched by time. It looks nothing like the shambles of an estate it appeared to be from the outside. It looks like a home.  It looks like someone's home.

And it looks an awful lot like someone is home. 

Pressing himself back against the door, Harry takes a shuddering breath, grateful that it's so muted that even he can't hear the way it wavers. He's got his hand on the door knob, ready to back away slowly, when Voldemort steps out from one of the doors and crosses the hall to another, not breaking stride or looking up from the papers in his hands once. 

There's a very faint sensation of awareness prickling at his scar, but it is nowhere near the usual feeling he'd have from standing this near to the Dark Lord. He thinks maybe his cloak is buffering it, hiding him from detection, and he has never been more grateful. It gives him the chance to get away before Voldemort ever realizes that he was here in the first place. 

He should leave. He knows he should leave. 

But curiosity has gotten the better of him more than once.  It's the thing that usually precedes trouble.  Harry's already in trouble, so he lets curiosity lead him. Lets it pull at his navel until he's stepping away from the door. 

Follows it down the foyer to the archway between the two rooms that Voldemort was just in.  The first one, now empty, is sharply and suddenly familiar.  The study Voldemort has been dragging him into during the night, with too many books and a big desk and a low fire crackling in the hearth. In the light of day-- or, rather, the light of reality, considering it's the middle of the night-- the details of the room stand out more. 

With a glance over his shoulder, he sees Voldemort moving around a room filled with yet more books. A personal library, perhaps, and it has Harry huffing out a silent breath at the realization that Lord Voldemort is a bookworm. 

It fits the genius stereotype, at least. 

Instead of stepping in after Voldemort into his library, Harry drifts over to the study. Pauses at the door to take in the dark walls and the hardwood floors. The big desk at the far end, papers and texts strewn over the top. The plush chaise, over by the fire, along with a wingback that looks more than comfortable, a subtle striped jade and creme of the lounger with throw pillows in emerald contrasting with the warm leather of the chair respectively. The paintings hanging on what available space there is on the wall above and beside the fireplace. 

It looks like the kind of room one would find at Malfoy Manor, Harry muses as he pads into the room. Opulent and comfortable, wealth so apparent you couldn't help but notice. Harry tilts his head back, eyeing the same circling crystal he'd seen out in the hallway, light burning softly from within. Opulence. 

He finds himself gravitating further and further into the room.  Practically tip toeing around the edge of Voldemort's desk to peer down at the papers there. Squinting at the mixture of research and business, catching sight of something about the Minister of Magic along with the potential for something called scrying.  

He doesn't get to try and puzzle those things out.

Because Voldemort is stepping back into the study, a book in hand, and he's closing the door behind him. 

Shuffling back from the desk, Harry stares with wide eyes as Voldemort drifts by, book already open and mouth moving as he reads aloud to himself under his breath, a long white finger trailing down the page to keep his place.  The sight of it, of Voldemort's gaunt face pinched in concentration, distracts Harry for long enough that he almost doesn't notice the dread welling up in his chest until it's already settled there; a tight knot of apprehensive horror. 

The door is shut. The door is shut and Harry is trapped, stuck in the same room with Lord Voldemort, unless he wants to risk breaking out and running for it. 

Something Voldemort will certainly notice. 

Harry is trapped. Stuck. 

He drags his eyes away from the dark wood of the door and back over to where Voldemort has taken his seat at the desk.  He's got a self-inking quill in his hand, his other still resting on a page in the open book, blindly jotting down notes onto the parchment Harry had caught sight of the word scrying on without looking away from the text itself. 

When Harry risks a step closer, he sees the delicate curves and arches of the words he's jotting down. He's caught on them and how exact they are. On how much they look like the same perfect calligraphy of a diary from years before.  He can't quite make out the words. 

Harry shuffles in that much closer, ignoring the way the nape of his neck has broken into goose flesh, trying to squint at Voldemort's notes. 

He freezes as Voldemort hisses out a sound. At first he thinks it's parseltongue, until he realizes there are no words there, and until he looks up from the notes to Voldemort's face. His eyes are pinched shut, his body still, and his head cocked almost like he's trying to hear something.  It's not like Harry has ever seen him before, face twisted in concentration, and Harry holds his breath as he realizes why. 

He's too close. Harry can feel the pricking at his nape and knows Voldemort must feel something too.

Quietly, quickly, Harry takes three steps back, until the sensation eases back into that faint awareness. 

With the distance, Voldemort seems to ease. He draws back from his studious slouch, leaning back in the chair that matches the one by the fireplace. His eyes open, staring blindly forward. He brings a hand up to his mouth, elbow resting on the armrest, a repose of thought. 

"Harry Potter," he mutters, and Harry nearly jumps out of his own skin, taking another sharp step back. "What are you up to that has you emoting so loudly?" 

Oh. Harry lets out the breath he was holding, shoulders slumping. Oh, Voldemort can feel his emotions, too. 

Feels it like maybe Harry does, as physical sensations, trembling across his nerves. 

He wonders what he's felt from him. Has he felt the elation Harry did, when Sirius surprised him with his Firebolt on his birthday? Did he suffer over Harry's grief that day in the graveyard less than a year ago? Had he felt Harry's fear when Greyback had licked up the side of his neck and called him pretty?

Harry starts again, as Voldemort moves, sitting up straight to drag a hand over his pale scalp and plucking up his quill again. Harry wonders if he misses having hair. 

Knowing he can't get close again, not without giving himself away, Harry stands there and watches as Voldemort gets back to work. He wonders just who has seen Voldemort like this, or even Tom Riddle during his school days, so lost in his studies that he almost seems to tune anything and everything else out.  Thinks maybe Harry is the only one, at least in the last few decades.

It makes him feel vaguely privileged. 

He doesn't know how long he stands there watching.  Surveying the monster that killed his parents while he acts like the man Harry is certain, now, that lurks beneath the surface.

He knows it's too long. Knows that he's been here long enough for his feet to begin aching. Knows that he's overstayed his nonexistent welcome the second Voldemort waves his hand apropos of nothing, opening the door, and Harry catches sight of Nagini slithering her way in. 

Right. The snake. 

Fuck.

Harry's already moving, easing his way along toward the door, eyes on the sprawling length of Nagini as her tongue sips at the air. 

"Nagini. How was your hunt?" 

The soft hiss of parseltongue has Harry shuddering. He has never heard it so soft, so casual. Has only heard it twisted with anger.  Has only responded in kind. 

"It went well, Master," Nagini hisses back, tongue flicking out again. "We have a guest?" 

Voldemort looks up from his book, eyes narrowed. "There are no guests here, Nagini."

Nagini tastes the air, head tilting up, and Harry's bolting for the door, cursing under his breath, even as she hisses, "I smell someone sweet, Master."

The door slams shut before Harry can get out.

Voldemort is on his feet, wand drawn, a snarl on his face. He's firing off a locking charm at the door and a finite in Harry's general direction. It hits true, canceling the charm clinging to Harry's skin, enough so that Voldemort can hear his breath catching. Voldemort's head cocks, his wand held aloft, eyes narrowed into dangerous slits of crimson. 

As Harry backs himself away from the door, clutching his own wand in hand as Nagini rears up with a hiss, Voldemort rounds his desk slowly. Doesn't take his eyes off of where he can hear Harry's shallow breath, even as he reaches for the powder on the mantle and tosses it into the flames with a hissed order at Nagini. 

"Go to my rooms. Wait for me there." 

Nagini susurrates in protest, but uncoils to slither into the hearth and disappears in a flash of green flame. 

When she's gone, the flames die after her, until the only light is the one shining dimly from the rotating crystals above.  Locking the floo network, Harry's only other obvious way out.  

Voldemort doesn't once lower his wand from tracking Harry's gradual motion along the edge of the room. Harry freezes only when another spell is cast, wordless, but it splashes uselessly against his cloak.  A revelio, Harry realizes. He shudders out another breath, and Voldemort's head tilts again, like before. Like when he'd been sitting at his desk, head cocked, like he might hear whatever disturbance he felt prickling along his nerves. 

"An invisibility cloak?" Voldemort says, his gaze not quite landing on where Harry is pressed back against the shelves. "Impressive. Is that you, Harry?"

Harry's heart leaps into his throat, and lodges there when he catches the way Voldemort's mouth curves up in something like wicked delight. 

"There's no need to be frightened, Harry," he says, taking slow steps closer.  "I can feel it, your panic. I can practically hear your heart, beating right out of your chest."

Harry clutches at his wand. His back aches as the shelves dig in at his spine. 

"Have you finally stopped running, Harry?" Voldemort asks, closer and closer still, eyes finally seeming to find Harry's own despite the impossibility of it. "Have you finally come to give me what I want? To strike a new deal? Have you finally come to me, Harry Potter?"

Harry's throat works. His mouth is dry. He's shaking. 

Voldemort is right before him. Towering over him. Reaching out with his other hand, fingers long and graceful and terrifying -- 

And Harry is ripping through the wards to apparate away before he can think about it. Tearing away just as Voldemort gets hold of his cloak, the world already blurring and narrowing down to a slim tube of light and color--

He lands back in the graveyard with a pained grunt, Voldemort landing with him in the grass. Already snarling and clawing into motion as Harry's panic swells up. Already grasping and shoving the cloak away from Harry's face and yanking it away from his chest as Harry squirms and scrambles to get out from underneath him until his invisibility cloak is a spill of shimmering material on the grass beneath him, and Voldemort is knocking Harry's wand away and catching his wrists to pin Harry down with the weight of him. 

A vicious, victorious smile splits across Voldemort's face as Harry pants and tries to push up from under him.  "Hello, Harry."

"Let me go," Harry breathes, winded and dizzy, drained from apparating through Voldemort's wards. 

"Now, now. None of that. You came to me, Harry." Voldemort says. "You'll not be getting away this time."

Harry bucks, straining against a grip like iron.  "I didn't think you'd be here."

"No? Then why did you come?" Voldemort's smile takes on a cruel edge. "Nostalgia? Did you want to see the place I was reborn again? Or perhaps you came to grieve over that boy. What was his name again?"

A familiar rage roils up in his chest. Harry feels with it a burst of energy, enough to have him spitting in Voldemort's face and wrenching a hand free to claw at his cheek with a viciousness that will shock him when this is all over. 

It's enough to shove Voldemort off of him so that Harry can scramble over to his wand and onto his feet.  Harry levels his wand at where Voldemort laughs, slowly pushing up from the ground to regard Harry with mean eyes and a meaner smile.

"Hit a nerve?" Voldemort asks, just as breathless as Harry.  "Your anger is a revelation, Harry. Have I ever told you that?"

"His name was Cedric Diggory, you bastard," Harry snarls. "And he died for nothing.  You murdered him for nothing."

"He died because he was in the way," Voldemort says, holding his hands away from his sides. "And I was not the one to cast the curse." 

"No, it was that rat, Pettigrew, under your orders," Harry snaps back, already stepping slowly away as Voldemort watches him. "How is Peter, by the way? Still a miserable coward? My, you must truly be desperate for followers if that's what you'll accept."

Voldemort takes a deep breath, tracking Harry's movements with his eyes. He's smiling again, a horrifying satisfaction on his face, and on Harry's next step back, he steps forward. 

"Not a fan of the man who betrayed your parents, Harry?" Voldemort asks, almost sweetly. "He has his uses, but if you truly wish it, I could summon him here for you."

Harry falters, his throat going tight. "What?"

"Come now, you can't tell me you're above a little… vengeance." Voldemort lifts his face, as if scenting the air the way Nagini did earlier. "I can feel it, how much you hate him. It's practically euphoric, your rage."

"I don't--"

"Wouldn't you like to see the light leave his eyes, Harry?" Voldemort stalks another slow step forward.  "I could give that to you."

"You're sick."

"I'm striking a new deal. Pettigrew for the prophecy." Voldemort insists. "I'm reasonable."

Harry barks out a laugh. "Yes, because senseless murder is reasonable."

"Not senseless. Vengeance." Voldemort holds out one of his hands toward Harry, like an offer, and Harry is struck by a sense of jarring deja vu, remembering a circle of fire, a mirror, a stone burning in his pocket and a devil offering him a deal.  "What do you want, Harry? Name it. Give me the prophecy, stop this game, and I shall give you whatever you want."

The stunner is firing from his wand in an instant, clipping Voldemort in the shoulder and sending him stumbling back. 

"I want my parents back , you prick."

And then, as Voldemort regains his footing, Harry takes off. Running in the opposite direction, dodging past the headstones, hearing the crash of spellfire at his back. 

Harry knows he only has enough energy for perhaps one more apparition. Harry knows he can't leave until he gets what he came here for.  Harry knows he'll never get this chance again. 

He's already puzzling at how to circle back to Riddle Manor without getting caught. As he runs, he pulls his hood back up, disappearing into nothing, his scar aching sharply as Voldemort loses sight of him. He heads for the only other building near the graveyard; a broken down shack, with a garden overrun with weeds, and a snake tacked to the front door.  It's familiar, in a vague way, like maybe he's heard someone describe it. 

Behind him, another spell slides by. Voldemort calls after him. 

Harry practically breaks the door down when he bowls into it. Tumbles into the messy, dusty hall, head already spinning with spells to keep Voldemort out, at least long enough for Harry to catch a breath. He tosses a shield up, as big as he can make it, followed by as many wards as he can easily name, until a barrier stands between him and where Voldemort stops just beyond the doorway. 

Slumping back against the floor, on his elbows, Harry stares up at Voldemort. He's agitated, pressing a palm to the vaguely shimmering barrier between them, his wand touching it and coming away with a shower of sparks. His smile is a snarl of teeth. He stares down at Harry, the invisibility cloak splayed open and hood knocked off when he fell into the shack. 

"This will not keep me out long, Harry." Voldemort warns. "Come out before I have to break in."

Chest heaving, Harry props himself up onto his hands, a reply already burning the tip of his tongue when he stops. 

With the barrier between them, Harry can't quite feel Voldemort. Can only feel the muted throb of his anger-- and perhaps something like delight, of all things. Can't quite feel the usual tingle of proximity. 

So when he hears that buzzing, that whispering of Voldemort, Harry stalls. Feels the tingle of recognition in his nailbeds.  Knows it for exactly what it is. His head turns, gaze falling beyond the crooked archway leading into what might've once been a sitting room. 

There's a horcrux here. Here, in this shack, not buried away in Riddle Manor like he thought. 

"Harry?" Voldemort hisses, but Harry barely hears him.

Not over that whisper. 

Dazed, much like he'd been the first time he'd held Tom Riddle's diary and Slytherin's locket, Harry pushes to his feet. Drifts from the hallway, from the sound of one of his wards already cracking, from Voldemort calling for him. 

It's ringing in his ears by the time he gets to a spot in front of a collapsed fireplace. Pulsing through his veins, as he comes to a stop over a creaking floorboard. Driving him down to his knees, urging his fingers into the cracks between the splintered and rotting wood. Coaxing him into ripping open this hidden place-- so much like the loose boards under his own bed at Privet Drive, hiding his most sacred possessions-- until he can see it. 

The box, small and unassuming, in black satin. Nestled under the floor like the worst kind of secret, between pieces of straw and the dirt.

Harry has it in his hands and open before he feels the sudden crash of his wards coming down.  Feels the break in his barriers.

And then Voldemort is there, in the crooked archway, staring at Harry in growing horror. Fear so thick and overwhelming that it leaves no room for rage. 

Harry quivers with it. With the way it brings tears to his eyes. With the way the broken piece of soul caught in this ring seems to rattle with agony.  With disappointment and mourning. 

"What did you do?" Harry whispers, voice cracking down the middle as he cradles the box carefully between his palms. "Oh, Tom, what did you do?"

Somewhere in his chest, Harry's heart breaks. 

In the archway, Voldemort is frozen. His eyes are on the horcrux in Harry's hands, wide and red and scared. 

Harry doesn't think he's ever seen the Dark Lord scared. When he looks up to see the expression, a rictus of terror on his monstrous face that's so human, it does not bring him any satisfaction. 

"You will give that to me," Voldemort commands, voice rough and low.  "You will give that to me, Harry Potter, and I will let you go."

But Harry is already shaking his head, tears rolling down his face as a grief that is not his, not Voldemort's, but was Tom Riddle's, rips past his ribcage. 

"Can't you feel it?" Harry asks, desperate. "Can't you feel what you've done to yourself?"

A shaking, half-hearted snarl curls over Voldemort's mouth. "What nonsense are you babbling about--?"

A fury ripples up, hot like dragon fire, at the back of his throat as he slashes a hand through the air, accidental magic sparking enough to cut Voldemort's voice off before he can hear an excuse. He shoves up, box holding the ring tight in his grasp even as he holds it out like evidence. 

"You've torn yourself apart so much you can't even feel the agony of it anymore," Harry snaps, magic crackling around him.  "You thought you were making yourself invincible-- immortal-- but you destroyed yourself."

Voldemort rips into motion. Harry's accidental spell breaks and Voldemort catches him by the shirt front to shove him back against one of the molding, rotted walls hard enough for Harry's vision to go spotty. 

He goes for the ring. But Harry has already snapped the box shut and tucked it into his fist. 

"What do you know, Potter?" Voldemort sneers, wand clattering to the floor as he catches the wrist with the hand that's holding the horcrux, squeezing until the bones grind in protest; catching Harry by the jaw with the other, and the fear has bled away into wrath that scorches Harry's skin and has him crying out. "What has that old man told you? What do you know?"

Harry shoves a fist against against Voldemort's shoulder as the grip on his jaw has the joint protesting. He grunts, fighting that impossible hold, Voldemort's rage throbbing in his scar until he nearly goes cross-eyed from it and he has to blink past the blood that rolls down his brow and into his left eye.

"You will tell me what you know," Voldemort hisses, using his hold on Harry to bring him forward and then slam him back that much harder against the wall. "You will give me my ring back--"

"You don't deserve it back," Harry spits, clutching at Voldemort's wrist and trying to peel his hand away from his face. "You gave it up. A piece of your soul. You don't even care .  You don't deserve it."

Voldemort's gaze hunts over Harry's face, his voice a hush of horror.  "You know what it is."

"You don't deserve it back," Harry insists, dazed at the conflicting rush that comes through their connection. "You have to earn it back."

"Earn it?" The insidious hiss has a shudder rippling up Harry's back, even as Voldemort's grip lowers, long fingers wrapping around Harry's throat. "No. I will take it."

Voldemort squeezes. Harry can't draw a breath. His temples, his teeth, throb. He clutches tight at the box in his hand, at Voldemort's wrist. His voice catches on a whine, desperate and reedy, and his vision blurs at the corners. 

Voldemort eases up. Harry chokes down a stuttering breath, coughing, face burning with a sudden blush of blood. 

Leaning in, Voldemort sneers down at him. He clatters Harry's hand back against the wall again. He presses his thumb and his fingers in under Harry's ears, forcing another whimper of a sound from Harry's gaping mouth. 

"I cannot kill you, Harry Potter," Voldemort says. "But I can do this all night."

Blinking the fresh wave of tears from his eyes, Harry bucks against Voldemort's hold. 

"I won't hurt it," Harry whispers, rasps, voice a thready gasp that has Voldemort pausing.  "I won't destroy it. I'll keep it safe. I swear."

An oath, shiny and new, begins to settle into the room. Voldemort rears back, face twisting in confusion. 

"What?"

"I could've destroyed the locket," Harry confesses, throat working against Voldemort's hand. "I haven't. I've kept it safe. For over a year."

A new wave of horror washes over them. Voldemort's emotions welling up into a terrible sensory feedback that has fresh tears rolling down Harry's face. 

Helplessly, Harry squeezes at Voldemort's wrist. 

"I'll keep them safe, I swear it." Harry says, feeling the threads of the oath reaching out to finish the pact. "If you let me go, right now, no harm will ever come to them."

"And if I don't?" 

"Sirius Black will take the locket to Albus Dumbledore and see it destroyed by the Sword of Gryffindor."

Voldemort rips away from Harry with a hiss. 

Slumping against the wall, Harry rubs at his throat, coughing weakly as Voldemort watches him collect himself.  As Voldemort silently summons his wand.  As Harry regards him with utter caution. 

"I accept your oath, Harry Potter." Voldemort finally says, after such a long silence that Harry thought perhaps he'd gone deaf from all the blood rushing back to his head.  "But the next time I catch you-- and I will catch you-- you will give them back to me, unharmed, or I will send my Death Eaters to destroy everything you hold dear."

Harry doesn't nod. Doesn't reply. What could he say to a threat like that? 

Instead, without another word, Harry summons his own wand where he'd discarded it for the floor upon finding the horcrux, turns, and apparates away. 

He lands on his knees, right on the edge of his and Sirius' camp.  Sirius is out of the tent in an instant, Harry's scrawled note clutched in a fist, eyes wide with worry and relief. 

Sliding to his knees through the brush, Sirius catches Harry as he slumps forward against him. He cradles the back of his head, mouth pressing into the mess of his hair, already muttering a string of chiding curses as Harry buries a hand into Sirius' shirt. 

"I was so worried, pup."

"Sorry," Harry mumbles. "I got it."

Face going slack, Sirius draws back, taking Harry's face between his hands.  "You got it?"

Harry holds up the box with a little waggle.

Barking out a laugh, Sirius kisses Harry's brow. "Utterly mad, you are. Gotta stop hanging out with me so much."

Harry huffs, smile lazy and slow. "I'm tired, Padfoot."

"I can imagine," Sirius says. "You'll tell me about it in the morning. And then we'll move."

"Albania," Harry mutters as Sirius hefts him to his feet, and then when Harry sways, up into his arms. "Albania, tomorrow."

"Tomorrow," Sirius promises.

With that promise ringing between his ears, Harry's head lulls against Sirius' shoulder. Cradling the box holding Voldemort's horcrux against his chest, Harry sleeps. 

*

The sixth time Lord Voldemort almost catches Harry Potter, Harry takes a nosedive off the side of a cliff. 

It’s the end of February.  Harry is seventeen years old.  He’s been on the run for just a little over two years, now.  His search through the woods of Albania for Ravenclaw’s lost diadem has been fruitless and long.  He’s tired. 

*

Bill Weasley gifted Sirius and Harry an international portkey, back in the spring, on the day that Harry got caught by Fenrir Greyback.  It’s goblin made, a tiny twisting globe, keyed into every Gringotts Bank around the world.  All you have to do is tap your wand to indicate the destination you wish, let it turn, and follow the pull.  

The closest bank to Albania is the branch in Bulgaria.  It takes them almost three weeks to hike their way there, both Sirius and Harry too unfamiliar with the area to try apparition, and both unwilling enough to risk any wizarding spaces after the threat Voldemort offered Harry.  

The same threat that Harry told Sirius all about.  The same threat that Voldemort repeats, almost nightly now, after yanking Harry into his mind while Harry sleeps.  

Still, Harry has never been outside of the United Kingdom.  They’ve spent the last two years popping from place to place on the islands-- Ireland and Scotland and Wales and England-- but not anywhere else.  So, for Harry, it’s a new experience, and one he savors.  It’s a bit like backpacking, the way he’s heard people his age doing after they finish school, and the food and the culture and the people and the places all fascinate Harry. 

He wonders why they hadn’t hopped off the mainland before this, and then remembers how much more difficult it will be to get back home to get more information or letters or supplies from those who are missing them both. 

They spend the next six months hunting through the woods of Albania, fighting off winter snow, spending any holidays toasting with a bottle of aged Firewhiskey, and any free time amusing each other with stories and small pranks and practicing dueling.  Harry thinks that, by the end of it, his hair has been dyed fifty different colors, he’s tricked Sirius into eating the twins’ Puking Pastilles a dozen times, and he could apply to be an Auror and pass with accolades.  

Thinks he could get a Mastery in Defense and Charms, if he really wanted to.  It’s all he can do to pass the time, practicing and studying the texts and combining all sorts of new things together in a way that even impresses Sirius. 

It’s the end of February when Harry goes for the last possible location where the diadem might be hidden, if it’s still in Albania at all.  It’s the end of February when he finds its original hiding place, the place where Tom Riddle must have found it years ago, and trips over the wards left there without noticing because they’re so old he can’t even feel them. 

It’s the end of February when Voldemort finds him.  

Sirius is an hour away, in a nearby town getting them some more food, and Harry is running.  Bolting away from Voldemort, even though he knows Voldemort can’t actually kill him.  He’s not ready to be caught.  He still has things to find, to see, to do. 

The flash of spellfire burns past Harry as he runs, red and vicious and singing in the air.  

The peat and dirt and dead leaves are wet from the constant rain.  It makes keeping his footing more difficult.  Makes dodging a slippery kind of hassle.  He grunts as he goes sliding around the trunk of a tree, vaulting quickly over the fallen mess of another as another spell is hissed and cast and tossed at his back.  

Clothes soaked, hair in his face, Harry Potter runs.  There’s mud on his shoes and his jeans and he thinks maybe his face; he longs for a warm shower as the cold seeps into his bones despite the burn of his legs and his lungs.  He just has to go a little faster, for a little longer.  Just has to get through to the clearing he sees ahead of him.  

It’s instinct and the reflexes of years-- a childhood, an adulthood-- that keep him from going over the sheer drop on the other side of the treeline.  A cliff face.  

Harry slides.  Drops onto his back and claws at the wet earth to slow his momentum.  Feels the debris of the forest seep into the folds of his clothes.  Feels a rock slice across his palm as he clutches it and comes to a stop with his feet hanging over the edge into nothing.  

There is a crack of apparition behind him.  

Harry grunts and drops his head back.  Unaware-- or perhaps uncaring-- of the mud and muck that clumps into the mess of his hair.  

“Harry Potter,” comes the soft, sibilant hiss of a voice he has heard in his dreams, in his nightmares, in his waking hours for years.  

Slowly, carefully, Harry twists over and pushes up onto his hands and knees.  He stays there, short breath fogging in front of his face, and his pursuer lets him.  Harry has no doubt of that; he’s being allowed this respite.  This small moment to catch his bearings, heart pounding in his ears, blood singing. 

“It seems I have finally caught you.” 

Harry barks out a laugh, head tilting and twisting to stare at the man standing at the edge of the forest.  

He looks untouched by the elements, but Harry knows better.  Can see the small tells-- the open robe, black as pitch; the muddy boots; the faint flush of his cheeks, his ears, his knuckles as he clutches the bleached white wand at his side.  Voldemort stares him down with red eyes, hardly out of breath, and still looking completely winded from the chase. 

As Harry rocks back, sitting on his heels with his hands on his knees, he offers a smile that holds no kindness.  Voldemort’s grip on his wand grows impossibly tighter. 

“Don’t,” he hisses. 

But Harry is already clicking his tongue.  

“Sorry, Tom,” he says.  “Better luck next time.” 

And then he pushes himself off the edge of the cliff. 

*

The seventh time Lord Voldemort almost catches Harry Potter, he actually does catch him.  Right before he’s about to use his fancy little international portkey and whisk himself away.  Right before the tug at his navel, the sudden pull, Voldemort is there catching him right around the middle.  

Harry has to give it to the Dark Lord; he’s certainly determined. 

Chapter Text

VI.

They land on the steps outside of the goblins' branch in Egypt. 

Eyes wide, Harry is already swaying back, wand snapping to his hand from the holster Sirius transfigured for him this Christmas. Voldemort doesn't let up, arm around Harry's waist, hand fisted in Harry's jacket that's officially too hot to be wearing-- both because he's no longer dealing with below freezing temperatures and also because panic lights up his blood like a fucking Hungarian Horntail.  

It's Tom Riddle's face, grinning down at him in triumph, but Harry finds that almost more unsettling than Voldemort's own bone white skin.  Either way, Harry's magic sparks up in an instant, sliding over his skin and making his hair stand on end. Voldemort must feel it, too, because those dark glamoured eyes of his widen just a fraction. 

"Potter--"

But Harry is already popping away, dragging Voldemort right after him.

*

They land with a jarring splash, waist deep in water, the sun rising behind the buildings butted up against the shore of whatever river they've landed in. Probably the Nile.

Sputtering, Harry shoves free of Voldemort's grip, not even getting a chance to enjoy the stunned disbelief on his face as Harry focuses solely on getting away. 

He knows Voldemort can't kill him, not until Harry passes the prophecy over, but he's not thinking about the prophecy. He's thinking about the horcruxes in his mokeskin pouch, the ones he's listened to the whispers of sometimes on nights when he couldn't sleep and Sirius was dead to the world, and how he can't let Voldemort catch him because he hasn't figured out how to fix him yet. 

Really, Harry's not thinking at all.  He's kind of in shock, if he's being honest, because he's not sure how Voldemort found him.  Not in the middle of nowhere, Albania. 

Voldemort is cursing behind him, water splashing as Harry scrambles for the shore. There's a strain at the back of Harry's head, from apparating blindly, but Harry's magic is already twisting up around him again.  Fingers catch him by the collar right as it snaps--

*

They land in a library, displaced water spilling all around them. 

It soaks into the carpet, into the books, and sends them both crashing to the floor.  Harry clips his chin hard enough that he bites into his lip and tastes his own blood. His bones ache.  His muscles feel strained like when he's run too hard for too long. 

"Potter, stop this--" 

There's a hand still clutching at the scruff of his coat. Harry swings an elbow back blindly, catching Voldemort in the cheek.  

Harry has no idea where he's going. No clue what he's doing.  He drags himself onto his hands and knees, carpet burning his palms, anyway. His magic has the shelves rattling around them. 

Hissing as Harry tries to crawl away, Voldemort catches Harry by the ankle. Books are toppling off the shelves. Harry has to get away--

*

They land in the middle of the fucking street, sopping wet papers fluttering around them. 

"Fuck," Harry spits, kicking free of Voldemort's grip, pushing to his feet.  "Fuck!"

"Damn it, Potter," Voldemort snarls, catching his arm and spinning him out of the way of an oncoming motorbike, horns blaring all around them.  "Stop--"

But Harry is already twisting on his heel, already pulling his magic to wrap around them, right as an oncoming truck--

*

They land on a table.  A stranger's breakfast is ruined by Harry's back crashing into the glass and wire frame, Voldemort's weight settling in on top of him. 

Voldemort's hands trying to catch at Harry's own. Voldemort's mouth twisted up with his growing impatience.  Voldemort's eyes flashing red. 

Harry hears startled shouts in a language he doesn't know. 

He's half blind and half deaf, heart pounding too hard in his ears. He's clawing at Voldemort's shoulder with one hand.  His head is throbbing. 

"You're going to splinch us, you stupid boy--" 

Voldemort is sneering down at him right as Harry's magic swells up for one more kick--

*

They land in the sand at the base of a massive dune, the sun already beginning to scorch the earth. 

Voldemort knocks Harry's wand from his hand.  He's got the other fisted in Harry's shirt. 

Harry bares his teeth, like a trapped animal.  Twisting his weight around, he tilts them over, shoves Voldemort over, closer to where his holly wand has landed.  Lands on top of Voldemort and pushes up, knees digging into the sand on either side of Voldemort's waist, hand flat on his chest to leverage him down while Harry summons his wand wordlessly.  Has the tip of it under Voldemort's jaw--

"Harry!" 

Harry falters. 

His breath is ragged and shallow. His teeth ache and he feels like his head is splitting in two. He's shaking. 

Voldemort is beneath him, staring up with wide eyes, like he did all those months ago when Harry saved his skin from Fenrir Greyback. Like Harry's a shock.  Like Voldemort's never seen anything like him before.  Like Harry's a revelation. 

In that moment of hesitance, Harry blinking down at Voldemort's glamoured face, something thick and red splatters against Voldemort's cheek. A sudden spatter of droplets against the high line of his cheekbone. 

Harry jerks back, toppling off of Voldemort and into the sand. He brings a hand up to his nose.  His fingers, trembling, come back stained red.

"You idiot child," Voldemort sighs.

Harry jerks again. He tightens his hold on his wand--

But Voldemort is already there, hand over Harry's, sending a jolt up his arm. Voldemort is already there, crouched before Harry in soaked slacks and a crisp white shirt, sand clinging at his hair as he tips Harry's chin up with the crook of his finger.  Voldemort is already there, lips pressed thin, dark eyes hunting over his face. 

He clicks his tongue. "If you try to apparate again, I've no doubt you'll kill yourself." 

"What--?" Harry's voice croaks out, and he blinks, not even recognizing it. 

"Magical exhaustion," Voldemort says, eyes on Harry's face as he tilts his head this way and that. "Your ears are bleeding."

Harry blinks again. "Oh."

Voldemort's smile, when he offers it, is a sharp thing. His head cocks over, and, dazedly, Harry eyes the dark curl of hair that falls over his forehead. 

"You've never been to any of these places, have you?"

"No," Harry confesses, head swimming as Voldemort tilts his chin back to meet his eyes. "Was just… trying to get away. From you."

Voldemort's brow arches. "You're a constant surprise, Harry Potter." 

Harry hums, noncommittal. 

Mostly because, if Harry's being very honest, his vision is starting to blur at the edges. 

"I believe, Harry, that I have caught you." Voldemort adds, voice low, eyes narrowing. "Which I believe means, darling, that you owe me something."

"I do?"

"My locket and my ring, Potter," Voldemort snaps. 

"Oh. Right." Harry's tongue feels heavy; words are hard.  "Your, um. Soul. The, uh… horcruxes." 

Voldemort's nostrils flare. The gentle grip on his chin shifts until Voldemort has him by the jaw, fingers digging in at bone. 

Harry blinks at him, making a pitiful sound. 

"Yes. I caught you. Now, you will hand them and the prophecy over."

"I will? Tha's… tha's awful nice of me." 

Voldemort goes deathly still. "Potter. Harry, what's the matter with you?" 

One blink. Two. So slow. 

When did Harry's bones turn to liquid? 

Maybe Lockhart banished them all. 

Swaying forward into Voldemort's grip, Harry frowns. There's something wrong. There's something wrong with him. 

He just really can't tell what. 

"Sorry, Tom," Harry breathes. "Think… I think I'm gonna--"

He sees Voldemort's eyes go impossibly wide. Blearily, right before Harry loses consciousness, Harry thinks he's really rather emotive when he lets himself be. 

And then Harry's world goes blank. 

*

Harry wakes in a dark room.  

It’s one slow blink between nothing and then something.  His head lulls over, and he stares up at a canopy of sheer white.  There’s a breeze that smells like salt, rippling across the material, coaxing a furrow between his brows.  The bed beneath him is probably softer than any he’s ever slept in. 

His entire body aches. He doesn't think he's felt a pain like this before. It's not even really pain. Just an aching, deep in his marrow, throbbing in his chest in time with the slow beat of his heart. 

With a quiet groan, Harry convinces his body into motion. Pushing up onto his elbows, Harry squints at the room around him, vision blurry and swaying, like being caught under water.  Even his ears feel stuffed, like his head is swollen and heavy on his shoulders. 

"Your glasses are on the side table."

The languid easiness with which Harry woke evaporates in an instant. Tension, like a snake, coils along his spine as Harry goes still on the bed. 

Like, maybe, if he doesn't move, no harm can come to him. 

"Do you know, Harry, just how many wizards alive can apparate without a destination in mind?" 

Harry opens his mouth, and then closes it again. His mouth is dry; his throat is sore. He doesn't think he'd be able to speak if he tried. 

He hears a rustle of material, a creak of a chair, and a very faint sigh. "There's water on the side table, too."

It's enough to have Harry moving. Tentatively, slowly, Harry finishes sitting up on the bed. Swinging his legs around to the edge of the mattress, he's pleased to note that, while he's still dressed, the sand and the water from his earlier panic is gone. 

As he pulls his glasses on and glances around the room, he's less pleased to note that he doesn't know where he is and the sun has long since set. Considering he started his journey in the early morning, it's not a comfort to see the stars in the sky outside of the open double doors that appear to lead out to a patio overlooking the sea, even if the view is a pretty one. 

It's not a comfort to see a lavish room he's never seen before, not with his bag open on the couch at the center of the room, his things strewn about the floor. Nor is it a comfort to see Lord Voldemort, lounging back in a chair across from him, glamour gone, crisp white shirt and pressed slacks still present, one leg crossed over the other, his chin resting in one hand as he leans his elbow on the armrest and a familiar journal held in his other, regarding Harry with eyes that seem lit from within through the dark. 

It is, however, a relief to realize that even though his jacket is gone, his mokeskin pouch is still strapped across his chest. 

Voldemort nods his head toward the table. 

"Drink, Harry. I have… questions for you."

Just as carefully as he began his movement into sitting up, Harry reaches for the glass. 

It's heavy, perhaps crystal, and as Harry swallows down mouthful after mouthful, he weighs the option of hurling it at Voldemort as a distraction so that he can try getting away again. He discounts the idea as useless the second he has it, upon realizing he has no clue where his wand is at. 

He drinks until the glass is empty, but keeps hold of it when he's done. A weapon is still a weapon, after all. 

"Now," Voldemort breathes, unmoving, still staring Harry down. "Do you know? How many wizards can apparate without destination?"

"I had a destination," Harry says, voice still a rough croak.  "Away." 

The sound Voldemort makes is something very near a snort, despite the inelegance of it.  "That does not qualify as a destination, Harry."

Harry shrugs. "It's worked before."

When Voldemort's brows go up, Harry thinks it would convey much more on his human guise than on the face he's currently wearing. Harry watches, fingers curling around the glass in his hand, as Voldemort unfolds his legs and leans forward, elbows on his knees as he sits there and watches Harry back. 

"When?" he asks. 

Harry bites down on the inside of his cheek, eyes narrowing. "Why do you want to know?"

"Because perhaps one in one hundred thousand wizards would be able to pull off a single moment of blind apparition-- and less than that would be able to survive it," Voldemort says. "And you, Harry Potter, did it five times. Concurrently."

Harry blinks. 

If he didn't know any better, he'd think Voldemort was impressed.

"And?"

The serpentine slits of his nose flare.  "Do not be obtuse. You may have thoroughly exhausted yourself, to the point of near critical magical depletion, but you did it. How?"

"Like I said, I'd done it before."

"When?"

Huffing out a sigh, Harry rubs at his forehead when Voldemort's irritation slips along under his skin. "I dunno. I was five or six. My cousin was chasing me and I knew I just had to get away."

"Accidental magic," Voldemort says. "You're basing what you did this morning, and your ability to do it, on accidental magic you performed as a child."

"Yes?" Harry frowns, shaking his head. "What's the problem with that?"

"Accidental magic is spontaneous. Uncontrolled." Voldemort says it like it's fact, like he's teaching Harry a lesson about the most obvious aspects of the wizarding world itself.  "It does not obey the normal laws and restrictions on the magic we use once matured." 

"It's magic," Harry insists, stupidly, obviously.  "And it worked , didn't it?  If you hadn't kept grabbing hold of me, it would've done exactly what I wanted it to."

Voldemort actually blinks at him, head tilting.  "Are you trying to tell me the laws of magic don't apply to you? That you can break them on a whim?"

"I'm trying to tell you that it's magic. And that perhaps people just take the restrictions too literally." Harry says, tossing out a hand, like Voldemort is being unreasonable. "I had a destination: away.  Perhaps it wasn't a physical one, but it had worked before, and I knew it would work again. I bent the rules; I didn't break them."

They lapse into silence. Harry does his very best not to fidget under the stare of his parents' killer. 

It's difficult not to. Especially considering just how heavy the weight of that gaze is. Like a physical touch, combing over him, looking for any lie or secret. 

Eventually, it becomes too much. 

"Where are we?" Harry asks, gaze straying to the open doors, the stars, the sea. 

Voldemort finally relents, leaning back in his chair to follow the line of Harry's vision toward the world outside of this room. "A hotel in Egypt, on the coast of the Red Sea."

Harry hunts around the room, faltering at the sight of a telephone, a digital clock, a television. His brows draw together. 

"A muggle hotel?"

When Harry looks back at Voldemort, it's to catch the faint sneer on his face. "Yes. Unfortunately, due to the very public apparition destinations of someone, the local wizarding authorities are attempting to track us down for questioning."

"Oh," Harry blinks, shoulders slumping, feeling strangely chided-- before another thought occurs to him that has him jerking in surprise even before it's fully formed. "Did you carry me here?"

Voldemort meets his gaze again. "Yes."

"Oh," Harry feels dumb, repeating himself so much, and his cheeks feel warm. "Thanks."

"It wasn't out of kindness, Harry." Voldemort waves a lazy hand, but the fingers of his other curl in so tight that those long, dangerous nails scrape at the leather of Dumbledore's journal, still clutched in hand.  "You still have some things of mine that I want back."

Harry's hand goes to the pouch resting at his hip, and he feels it draw tight and shrink under his fingers, like Voldemort's words alone are enough for it to sense the presence of a potential pickpocket.  Voldemort's eyes follow that motion.

The smile he offers is more a bearing of his teeth than anything else.

"Yes, you do carry such interesting things with you, don't you?" Voldemort hisses, holding up Dumbledore's journal. "This, for instance. And that lovely little bobble you used to portkey us to this country. But I couldn't find what I was looking for in your pack--and when I tried for that pouch, it refused to budge.  I couldn't even remove it from your person."

Harry's lips press tight together. He's not sure what he's supposed to say to that, if anything. Knows that most of what comes to his head-- like: good; or: yeah, that's what it's supposed to do-- would likely end with him on the opposite end of Voldemort's wand. 

He's being surprisingly patient. Harry doesn't want to press his luck further than it's already carried him. 

But Voldemort drags his gaze away from the bag back up to Harry's face. Looks at him and then leans in again, slow, like Harry is some skittish colt ready to spring away the instant he moves too fast. 

He's not wrong. Harry's probably given himself away with just how many times he's glanced at the double doors leading outside to freedom. He's not subtle. 

"I couldn't find that lovely invisibility cloak of yours, either." Voldemort says. "Makes me wonder, Harry, just what all you're hiding."

Harry swallows. "Hiding?"

Voldemort tosses Dumbledore's journal down at Harry's feet with a sneer. Harry's ashamed at the way the motion, the sound of it thumping to the floor, has him jumping. Has him hefting the glass in his hand, ready to hurl it at Voldemort's face and make a break for it. 

It, of all things, has Voldemort relaxing back with a crooked smile on his face. Like he's pleased that Harry is afraid of him. 

Harry almost wants to throw the glass out of spite, now.  Because he's not afraid of Voldemort.  

He just knows what he's capable of. 

Settling back, Harry's fingers flex over glass. Breathes in slow and lets it out slower. Gestures to the book with the glass. 

"Is that supposed to prompt me into offering up what it is you want me to tell you?"

Voldemort's eyes narrow. 

Harry's mouth twitches into a terse smile. "Because I will not offer it. You want to know something? Ask."

The peace, tumultuous as it is, finally breaks. 

Before Voldemort is even fully on his feet, Harry has rolled back over to the other side of the bed, dropping to the floor as a spell sparks out across the room and hits the far wall.  He recognizes the color of it, even if Voldemort doesn't speak it outloud.  

"Torturing me won't work either!" Harry shouts.  "Get ahold of your temper or I'll apparate out of here!"

Voldemort laughs. "Without your wand, Harry?"

"I didn't have a wand when I saved your life from Fenrir Greyback, did I?" Harry snaps back, head popping up over the edge of the bed, glaring at Voldemort's lowering wand. 

"You're drained," Voldemort insists, but he's staring at Harry again. "It would be impossible for you to attempt, now."

"Tell me, Voldemort," Harry says, mouth twisting in a grimace. "Exactly how many times impossible has stopped me."

That familiar sneer finds its home on Voldemort's face. "Ah, yes. How could I forget? The legendary Boy Who Lived."

The glass in Harry's hand becomes too tempting. He throws, aim true, and only misses because Voldemort steps out of the way. 

It shatters just beyond him, the sound ripping through the room. 

"And whose fault is that?" Harry snarls, standing, half bent over the bed, comforter clenched between his fingers. "Which of us targeted a child? For no reason?"

"No, Harry, not no reason." Voldemort hisses, trailing his fingers along his wand, eyes straying pointedly to the pouch at Harry's hip. "For a prophecy, half heard and delivered to Albus Dumbledore. One that predicted my downfall."

Harry's eyes screw shut, his head shaking, a hand coming up. "Wait. Wait, I'm--" 

He blinks his eyes open and stares at Voldemort, aghast and horrified and despondent. Voldemort frowns, wand hand dropping again. 

"You…" Harry's throat works against the feeling of bile threatening to surge up.  "You targeted my parents-- you targeted me -- because of an incomplete prophecy?"

Voldemort actually seems to hesitate before saying, softly, but not without conviction: "Yes."

Magic swells out of Harry in a wave. Ripples across the room in a crash of static, like lightning striking, and tears at anything it can reach. 

It doesn't touch Voldemort, but it shreds the bedding, the couch, the curtains drifting by the doors with the sea breeze. It shatters the vase by the door, the chair Voldemort had been sitting in. It shorts out the TV and the phone and the electric clock on the bedside table as the bulbs burst and shower sparks down upon them. 

Harry clenches his jaw and closes his eyes. Draws his anger back into himself with sharp breaths, along with his magic. 

When the room is quiet again, the only sound left is Harry's ragged breath and the pulse pounding in his ears. Harry feels dizzy again. Like he's seconds from falling face forward onto the bed.  Slowly, his fingers unfurl from the comforter. 

"You killed them-- you ruined my life," Harry gasps, finally looking up at Voldemort again, finding him standing terribly still as he watches Harry. "For a half heard prophecy."

It's not a question. Harry doesn't want an answer to it. 

Voldemort doesn't give him one. 

"You're stupid," Harry spits, rage rolling up his back, hackles raising as his shoulders draw up.  "I thought you were foolish before, breaking your soul to pieces like that might make you better than what you were, but this? Merlin, Tom, you're not anywhere near the genius I'd believed you to be." 

Voldemort seems to suck in a breath. Seems to draw as taut and tense as Harry has.  

Seems to restrain himself, even as he tightens his grip over his wand. 

Harry shoves away from the bed and rounds it. Stalks around the foot of the bed toward him, ignoring the way his knees want to give, already digging into the bag at his hip. Already withdrawing the orb, clenching it in his fist, wishing it would shatter to pieces. 

Knowing it's the reason for all of this. That he could have had a normal life, a happy childhood, if Voldemort hadn't acted on it. Heard it. Believed it. 

"This is what you did this for, isn't it?" Harry asks, face twisted into something he wouldn't recognize if he saw it on himself in the mirror, too much pain and anger and grief wrapped up in it. "Some stupid prophecy? Take it, then."

Voldemort stands there, staring at him, and Harry can't stand it. 

Shoving it against his chest, Harry bares his teeth. "Take it, you bastard. You want to hear your destiny, right? You want to know if I'm the end of you? Take it."

A hand-- that delicate, pale, long fingered hand-- comes up to curl over his wrist. It's not just the contact that jolts Harry, but the way it cradles the base of his own hand. The way it takes Harry's hand in its own, turns it over gently, and holds it. 

Voldemort is looking down at him. Red eyes darting between Harry's own. Standing tall and immovable and unrelenting-- and for the first time in a long time, Harry wants to rip him to shreds.

" Take it," Harry says, voice cracking. 

And that seems to be all the energy Harry has left. 

His knees give out beneath him. His body drops, so impossibly heavy, and Voldemort is there to catch him. 

The prophecy drops quietly to the floor. An empty, dull thud that they both ignore. 

Voldemort's arm is around his waist, a hand behind his head. Harry feels the dry drag of his thumb just beneath his ear.

"You're bleeding, again." Voldemort says. 

Harry's head gives a sharp throb. His eyes flutter shut. He slumps into the arms of the man who has wanted to kill him since before he was born. 

Voldemort sighs. "I don't think I'll take that prophecy just yet, Harry Potter. Not yet."

Harry doesn't know what that means. 

Chapter Text

VII.

The boy sleeps.  Soundly and softly, the boy sleeps.

He thinks, perhaps, that isn't quite fair. 

The slip of a thing sleeping on the bed isn't the same boy that tricked Lord Voldemort into the oath that's bound him so impossibly for the last two years.  An oath so vaguely worded that it has left Voldemort and his followers entrapped within the simplest of constraints-- no harm could come to those who Harry Potter extended his care to.  

A laugh of an oath, when Voldemort had first heard its requirements.  Aside from the obvious loophole of the prophecy itself, the idea-- the very preposterous concept-- of Harry Potter caring about enough people, that their safety would be enough to affect Voldemort's aims and goals, it had seemed like a poorly written joke. 

Staring down at the boy now, face lax in his sleep, a shade of growth along his jaw, hair wild as ever, Voldemort knows how shortsighted he had been. 

He should have never underestimated the boy, holding his ground in the atrium of the Ministry, threatening to destroy what Voldemort had wanted most at the time. The boy with the killing curse eyes. The boy with his mark on his brow.

The boy that had tricked him into that ridiculous oath. An oath that forced Voldemort's hand, once he realized what had happened, into changing all of his plans. 

There could be no war, no righteous slaughter, with Harry Potter extending his protection over everyone. Mudbloods and bloodtraitors and werewolves and muggles and bloody house elves. He could not move against them, any of them, without triggering the effects of the oath. He sneers at the memory of trying to draft the laws about muggleborn restriction only to find his hand cramping up before he could put quill to paper. 

Harry Potter had trapped him in an oath of Voldemort's own devising and then had run. He'd run, and he'd kept running, and Voldemort had no doubt he would've kept running until the ends of the earth if Voldemort hadn't finally caught him. And as loath as he was to admit his own failings, it had been luck that he'd managed to catch the slippery slip of a thing in the first place-- a bit of accidentally spilled blood during their last chase that Voldemort had used to scry for his location. 

He'd had to use blood magic to find a seventeen year old. 

Harry Potter had tricked him, run from him, and evaded him.  This was not even accounting for all of the small things in between-- or the magic he had seen him perform today. 

Lord Voldemort would not be underestimating him again. 

*

The sky is blue when Harry wakes again, curled on his side, face pressed into a pillow he's pretty sure he shredded with his magic the night before in a fit of pique.  The first thing he sees is the clear sky outside of the double doors across from him.  The next is the shimmering glow of the prophecy, sitting  on the bedside table in front of his face. 

Harry jerks up, ignoring the faint spike of pain up his spine and into the base of his skull.  His hand goes to the pouch at his side, fingers finding it recinched and closed tight. 

Snatching up the orb, Harry springs to his feet. He fixes his glasses, left askew on his face instead folded neatly like they'd been the night previous, and finds the room utterly empty. 

As he tucks the orb away and rushes over to the rest of his things, he wonders hysterically if Voldemort had caved and listened to the prophecy while Harry slept off his second bought of magical exhaustion in less than twenty four hours. If he needs to run, not walk, back to London and warn everyone. If he could manage a patronus message such a distance with his head pounding and a cold sweat still clinging to his skin. 

He forces his hands to steady as he shoves everything back into his pack, cursing when he realizes he cannot find three very important things: the portkey, Dumbledore's journal, and his wand. 

"Fuck," Harry hisses, stilling as the hotel door clicks open. 

"Going somewhere, Harry?"

Shit, Harry thinks. 

Carefully, he turns around to find Tom Riddle standing in the doorway. The crisp lines of his shirt, of his pants, seem fresh and pressed. His hair is perfectly in place. Utterly unruffled, next to the mess Harry's sure he is, leaning in the doorway, one hand in his pocket and the other clutching a paper bag. 

As Harry regards him, lips pressed thin and fingers flexing at his sides, Voldemort's mouth curls into a lazy grin.  Harry does not reply, but he doesn't think that Voldemort is expecting him to.

"Ah, yes," Voldemort pushes off the jamb, kicking the door shut behind him with his heel, and withdrawing Harry's wand from his pocket with no fan fair, offering it out in an open hand and stepping forward until Harry tries to take a step back, knocking into the edge of the couch. "I suppose you must be looking for this." 

Harry's eyes narrow as Voldemort stops, three paces away. 

Voldemort's grin only goes wider, revealing a hint of straight, white teeth. He seems to take a great deal of pleasure out of Harry's distrust and discomfort. Smug bastard. 

"Go on," Voldemort says, voice low and coaxing the way it had been in some of the dreams before their encounter at Riddle Manor.  "Take it."

Harry's fingers twitch. "What's the catch?"

Voldemort tilts his head, just slightly, to the left. "The hat truly did want to put you in Slytherin, didn't it?"

"It said I would do well there," Harry says, unashamed.  "Your point?"

"A snake can shed its skin, can camouflage itself, but it cannot hide its true nature." Voldemort says. "Tell me, Harry, have you always been this faithless?"

Harry's brows fly up. "You expect me to have faith? In you?" 

"Have I ever lied to you? Flattered you with empty promises? Have I not kept my word these last couple of years?" 

"Because of an oath, one I'm sure you tried to work around as much as possible," Harry huffs, taking one step closer. "A snake sheds its skin, not its nature. And I'm all too familiar with your species, Lord Voldemort.  I suppose if you want faith, you have it; I have absolute faith that you will do anything, trick anyone, so that you will wind up on the better side of the deal."

Voldemort takes a slow breath, dark eyes darting between Harry's own.  "A snake with a lion's roar.  You're an interesting species yourself, Harry Potter, one I cannot say I've ever seen before."

Harry doesn't quite know how to take that. He blinks, brows pinching, and Voldemort is still holding out his wand. 

"Take it. No tricks." Voldemort says. "Only a request."

"A request?"

"Did you not tell me last night that if I wanted to know something, I only need ask?" 

Harry stares at him for a very long moment. Long enough that, certainly if this all was some sort of trick, a lulling of false security, so that Voldemort could get the most out of fooling him, he would've run out of patience for it already. 

Harry also thinks about the horcruxes in his mokeskin pouch.  About how, if Voldemort had listened to the prophecy, their oath would be null and void, and Voldemort wouldn’t have hesitated to kill Harry in order to get his hands on what was hidden in the bag at his hip.  

But Harry is very much alive, right now.  The enchantments on the bag still intact.  And Voldemort is offering Harry his wand, patient and waiting, like he wants something and only Harry can give it. 

With as much reluctance as he’d had originally picking up the prophecy, Harry reaches out and takes his wand from Voldemort’s hand.  

Despite the apprehension, there’s something to be said about a wizard reuniting with his wand.  Warmth rushes through him once it’s fixed in his palm, solid and strong as the day it picked him in Ollivander’s shop.  It soothes the fray of his nerves, eases some of the ache that Harry had been feeling in his bones, and leaves him with a steady sense of assurance.  He closes his eyes, nearly swaying on his feet, realizing just how bad a shape he’d been in after depleting his core so thoroughly.

“Well, then.” Voldemort says, and Harry opens his eyes, sharp, to look up at him.  “Now that that’s taken care of, have a seat.” 

Voldemort doesn’t wait for the confusion to clear from Harry’s face.  He’s already moving, levitating his repaired chair over to sit across the coffee table from the couch.  Settling down and setting the paper bag on the table now between them.  Opening it and pulling out styrofoam containers from within.  

Harry blinks at him, then at his wand, and then at Voldemort again.  Voldemort, having set out the cartons of food, leans back, one leg crossing over his knee, an arm draping lazily over the head of the chair. 

“Why?” Harry asks. 

“If you’d prefer to eat while standing, that is, of course, entirely your decision.” 

“No,” Harry has to fight the urge to grind his teeth.  “Why return my wand?  Why not take the prophecy and go?  Why not finish what you started sixteen years ago?” 

Voldemort tilts his head again, hair falling into his face.  “Would you prefer that, Harry?  The psychotic killer that you called-- What was it?  Stupid and foolish?” 

“It would certainly feel a bit more in character,” Harry replies, unrepentant.  

“I have shown quite a bit of restraint in regards to you, haven’t I?” 

“That remains to be seen,” Harry says, tucking his wand into its holster.  “I recall escaping by the skin of my teeth, on most occasions.  And your displeasure of it.” 

Harry thinks, specifically and loudly, about Voldemort strangling him in the shack just outside of Riddle Manor. 

“Yes, well, you can hardly blame me for that,”  Voldemort waves a dismissive hand.  “Not when you were the one who kept running away, taking things that don’t belong to you.  Speaking of, I have a new… proposition for you.”

“I thought it was a request,” Harry rebuts. 

Voldemort’s mouth twitches.  “Sit, Harry.  Eat.  You need the energy, and you owe me my request.” 

“And what is your request?” 

“A conversation,” Voldemort says, so confident that he will get what he wants that it’s almost mesmerizing as he leans forward, peering up at Harry with eyes that could drown him.  “Sit.  Eat.  And talk, Harry.  Hardly much of a burden.” 

It can’t be that easy, Harry thinks.  Nothing with Voldemort ever is. 

Still, Harry sits.  

*

Harry was hungrier than he’d thought he was.  The second the cartons are open, Harry is digging in, without thought of poisons or potions.  Seems a silly way for the Dark Lord to try and kill someone.  

He’s halfway through something a lot like a pasty, though richer and a much larger delight to the senses than the usual meat and potatoes of home, when he remembers that he and Voldemort are meant to be having a conversation.  Though Voldemort has made no move to start it. 

Instead of tucking up to get comfortable, Harry is sat on the edge of the couch, directly across from Voldemort.  Eating quietly and quickly, while Voldemort watched without eating anything himself. Chewing his next bite slowly, Harry swallows and then clears his throat.  

“What is this?” Harry asks, bringing the food in his hand up in indication.  

“Hawawshi,” Voldemort says.  “Have you never had traditional Egyptian cuisine, Harry?” 

“Considering my first time in the country was yesterday and they don’t exactly serve this in the Dining Hall, I can’t say I have.” 

“Ah,” Voldemort nods.  “I suppose that rather brings us to the point, doesn’t it?” 

“Which point?” 

“Why you’re in Egypt,” Voldemort says, pulling something from his pocket and tossing it to the coffee table, the shrunken journal returning to its normal size upon landing.  “Dumbledore has some very interesting theories on my… movements during my youth.” 

“So, you didn’t come to Egypt to study after Dumbledore told you to stuff it when you went after the Defense position?” 

Voldemort’s smile is a nasty thing with too much teeth.  “So, you are following in my footsteps?”

Harry very nearly curses himself. 

With a sigh and a vicious bite of his meal, Harry holds Voldemort’s amused stare as he chews slow.  Swallows slow.  Reaches out and takes a drink of water.  Slow. 

“Yes,” Harry finally confesses.  “I am.” 

“Then you are on the right track,” Voldemort says.  “I went to Alexandria after the esteemed Headmaster declined my employment.” 

Harry’s fingers twitch for the pen in his pack, the one he’s used to add and postulate and transcribe his own thoughts down along with Dumbledore’s in the journal.  His own theories on Tom Riddle’s actions and movements, based on Harry’s own similar experiences.  

“Why Alexandria?” 

“I had no interest in cursing or curse breaking, having already held that experience in my hands thanks to my tenier handling cursed objects for Borgin and Burke,” Voldemort says.  “I was interested in learning other types of magic.  Old and new.  The Hidden Library of Alexandria is the only place in the world with all knowledge of the written world.  Any magical text published finds its way onto the shelves there.” 

Harry blinks, setting his food back in it’s styrofoam carton, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees.  “And what did you learn there?” 

“All sorts of things, Harry.” Voldemort says, almost sighs, almost wistful and hungry and promising all at once.  “Not many that you would approve of.” 

Harry swallows. 

“Now, I’ve told you something,” Voldemort says.  “It’s only fair if you offer me the same courtesy.  Why are you following the path of my youth, Harry?” 

Wetting his lips, Harry shifts.  “Reconnaissance.” 

Voldemort clicks his tongue.  “That’s not very fair, is it, Harry?  I gave you quite a few details you wouldn’t have found in that journal of yours.” 

Harry bites down hard on the inside of his cheek.  He feels his spine straighten.  His heart, however, keeps steady.  

He is not afraid of this man.  

“I’m hunting something,” Harry confesses.  “I believe you know what they are.” 

“Careful, Harry,” Voldemort breathes, eyes bleeding to that dangerous red.  “I would not respond well if you tell me you are hunting my horcruxes according to the strictest definition of the word.” 

“Searching for them, then.” Harry says. “I’ve already sworn the safety of two, why would I bring harm to the others?” 

“Why would you not?” 

“Because I am not you,” Harry says, sure and true and earnest, not letting his eyes leave Voldemort’s.  “And I do not kill what has the potential to kill me.  I do not let my fear rule my actions.” 

Voldemort’s jaw flexes.  Harry’s eyes dart to it, the arresting sight of it, and then back up.  

“What would you do with them, then?” Voldemort asks, after the quiet has drawn out too long. 

And Harry-- Harry answers, just as sure and true and earnest: 

“I would put you back together again.” 

*

You will not succeed. 

Voldemort's words ring in Harry's head, even a day later.  They resonate, like a war drum, urging Harry forward, up the steps of Gringotts' Cairo branch, pack slung over his shoulder, two horcruxes and a prophecy burning a metaphorical hole in his mokeskin pouch.

The entire conversation keeps playing on a loop. Like an avant-garde film that Harry is still trying to unpuzzle. 

"You will not succeed," Voldemort had said, some mix of amused and annoyed.  "There's only one method to merge them, and I guarantee it will not come to be."

Harry had jumped on that. "What's the method?"

Voldemort, leaning more toward amused now, had given him a mean smile. "Oh, no, Harry. I will not make it that easy on you. You've decided on following in my footsteps-- I've decided I will let you."

"Pardon?"

"Consider it a test, of sorts. Or a new bargain, if you prefer that."

Harry had blinked, dumbfounded.  "Why?"

"Why, what, Harry?"

"Why are doing this?" Harry had gestured between them.  "You have me exactly where you want me.  You've never hesitated toward violence when it comes to me before, and I offered you the key to dissolving our oath last night. You could've taken it, killed me, and been done with it all. You haven't. Why?"

Resting his chin in his hand, Voldemort had regarded him in silence for a long few moments. Harry hadn't been sure if it was because Voldemort was debating giving him an answer-- or just choosing his words carefully. 

"You've not listened to the prophecy," Voldemort said. 

"No," Harry said.  "And I refuse to."

"Why?"

"I don't believe in fate," Harry said. "We make our own destiny, our own choices. I will not have my future dictated to me."

"Even if it comes true regardless?" Voldemort asked. "Even if it predicts your death?"

Harry had bristled. "I am not you, Tom. I am not afraid of death-- and I will not be bound by words. My actions will not be ruled by predictions."

"You judge me as foolish for allowing my own actions to be ruled by them."

It hadn't been a question. 

Harry had answered it anyway. "Yes. And I will not fall into the same trap you did. It didn't turn out well for either of us last time, did it?"

"And that is why I am offering you this new bargain," Voldemort said, continuing before Harry could ask anything more.  "I find that my… decisions in the past have had undesirable consequences. I based them on the potential of words, as you so eloquently put it.  I will not allow such a thing to dictate my actions again."

"That doesn't explain why, after years of chasing me, you're letting me go."

"I find you interesting, Harry Potter.  A frustrating impossibility with a great deal of potential." Voldemort said, and Harry had nearly balked at the implication of those words.  "You do not think of our world, of the laws of magic that rule our world, like any wizard I have ever met. I think I would like to see what you become, following in my footsteps. See if you are… worthy."

Harry stared, blatantly, stupidly. "You're going to try and recruit me."

"Perhaps."

"You think I would ever let you? That I would ever buy into your rhetoric?"

And Voldemort had smiled. "Perhaps."

It was a conversation that left Harry with more questions than answers. But Harry was not one to look a gift horse in the mouth-- even if it came back to bite him, he'd enjoy and revel in the security it would give him now. 

Their previous oath was still in effect. Voldemort could not move against those Harry cared for, or their families, and although Voldemort would be left locked into his current position of using politics instead of guerrilla warfare in order to reach some of his goals, he seemed more than willing to participate in a longer game.  Willing to wait, bide his time, until whatever potential he saw in Harry became apparent. 

Willing to wait and see if he could turn Harry. 

Willing to wait and see if Harry could succeed in his own goals.

It had seemed like agreeing to a game , not like negotiating with a potential dictator while lives and livelihoods were on the line. It had turned Harry's stomach a bit, agreeing to think on Voldemort's offer. 

But he had. He'd asked for time to think on it, to discuss it with his allies, and Voldemort had agreed only with the caveat that Harry not leave Egypt until coming to a decision and striking their new deal. Had kept Dumbledore's journal and Harry's portkey as his own security before departing back to Britain for business. 

It's a day later, after resting in the hotel room Voldemort had told him was booked and paid through the weekend, that determination to prove Voldemort wrong had finally woken in him and moved him into beginning this new journey. 

You will not succeed, Voldemort had said. Implied it was impossible.

And Harry had never met something impossible he couldn't solve with a little determination and a bit of help. 

So, with Voldemort's shadow hanging over him like a ticking clock counting down the seconds Harry had left to consider Voldemort's offer, Harry marches into the Gringotts' Cairo branch. Marches in and up to the nearest desk, offering the goblin sitting there a winning smile. 

"Hello," Harry says. "I'm here to speak with Bill Weasley, please."

*

The only problem with people caring about Harry's welfare is the troubling fact that, when presented with information that would only directly affect Harry, all of a sudden everyone has an opinion. 

It's sweet, in a way, the way Sirius had burst through the floo with Dumbledore in Bill's office at the bank, checked Harry over, and then preceded to pace and rant about all the dangers of Harry agreeing to another oath with Voldemort. Sweet, and also maybe a little annoying. 

"What kind of trick does he think he's pulling?" Sirius says, looking not much different than when Harry had seen him last with his clothes dirty and his long hair pulled back in a sloppy bun, and Harry almost feels bad for taking full advantage of the hotel's bathroom to shower, shave, and change. "How naive does he believe you to be?"

"Not naive," Harry says. "Young."

Dumbledore, who had been sitting quietly in one of the chairs in front of Bill's desk, next to Harry, sipping tea, finally clears his throat to speak for the first time since greeting Harry with a warm smile. "And what, my boy, do you believe is the difference?"

"He said he believes I have potential," Harry says. "I think he wants to see if that's true. He doesn't believe I can do what I've set out to do, but he wants to see me try. He wants to see if I can learn what he's learned, uncover what he's uncovered, do what he has done. And he wants to see if it will change me."

"Ah," Dumbledore nods. "You believe he wants to mold you in his image and that your youth would lend to your malleability."

Harry gives a hesitant nod.  "If not in his image, then at least someone with a more sympathetic view.  Someone he would no longer have to view as a threat."

"Narcissistic prick," Sirius spits, and Bill seems to hide a snort behind his hand. 

"And do you think that it would be a successful endeavor?" Dumbledore asks. 

Harry pauses. Even as Sirius responds on Harry's behalf, denying it all.

Dumbledore regards Harry quietly and contentedly, sipping his tea. 

"In regards to many of his beliefs, no. It would be impossible to sway me against muggleborns or muggles, or to sway me toward pureblood supremacy," Harry says, with some caution. "But protecting magical children, investing in an understanding of other magics, and increased rights for Dark Creatures like Remus? I can understand many of those views. I can agree with some of them-- though not to the extreme view that he and his followers have, professor." 

Dumbledore reaches out, a kind smile on his face, as he pats Harry's knee.  "Perfectly understandable, my boy. But I have not been your professor for quite a while. I think I would like you to call me Albus."

"Albus," Harry nods, returning his smile. 

Sirius makes a choked sound, stilling from his pacing to stare at them both. "I'm sorry, it sounds as if you're actually considering agreeing to this, Albus."

Dumbledore shifts in his seat, finally looking up at Sirius. "Well, it is not up to me to agree or disagree. It is up to Harry."

Sirius blinks. "Harry?"

"It's--" Harry sighs. "It's a good deal, Padfoot.  I wouldn't be running, not like I have been. We could stop running."

"If he betrays you when this is all over, you'd have no way to fight back." Sirius says.

Harry stands, padding close, his smile small. "That's what I have you for, Padfoot. And you don't have to make a vow." 

Barking out a laugh, Sirius drags Harry close, hugging him tight and burying his face in Harry's hair.  "No. No, I don't. And I would protect you to the ends of the earth."

Harry's smile broadens, and he presses his nose against Sirius' chest, sinking into the embrace. "And you get to go home."

"What?" Sirius asks, pulling back a bit.  "There's no reason for me to leave you to this on your own, pup. Not when I'm still a wanted man."

"Right," Harry says, brows pinching, giving a slow nod.

Behind him, Dumbledore stands with a small clap of his hands. "Well, my boys, it sounds like we have a Dark Lord to call upon.  Harry, would you do the honors?"

Sirius snorts, squeezing Harry close one more time before releasing him and stepping back. "We're summoning him here?"

"If Mr. Weasley doesn't mind?" Dumbledore looks over at Bill, who blanches but nods. "Very good. Harry?" 

"Right," Harry lets out a breath, moving with Dumbledore over to Bill's floo, taking the powder once Dumbledore offers it out, and inhaling deep before tossing it down into the hearth. "Riddle Manor!"

Chapter Text

VIII.

“Lucius,” Voldemort greets, watching as Lucius drops to one knee, a thrill running up his spine as the Lord of an Ancient and Most Noble House supplicates himself before the feet of a half-blood; something Voldemort thinks he will never get tired of seeing.  “Always a pleasure.” 

“My Lord,” Lucius dips his head all the lower.  

“Rise, Lucius,” Voldemort says, waving a hand, and when Lucius is on his feet, Voldemort gestures him closer.  “What news have you?” 

“Sirius Black has been cleared of all charges, my Lord.”  Lucius says, tone clipped and face smooth.  “The Wizengamot was in full agreement after the investigation into Pettigrew’s sudden… appearance at the Ministry.” 

“And what did the Aurors conclude?” 

“Insanity,” Lucius states.  “He was speaking gibberish, but the fact that he appeared at all was enough for Bones to open up the old case.  When they brought in and questioned Sirius Black under Veritaserum, it was confirmed he was not the secret keeper.  Pettigrew has been sentenced to life in the Janus Thickey Ward at St. Mungos.” 

“Well done, Lucius,” Voldemort nods, drifting over to the large windows at the back of the ballroom. 

He’s hosted many meetings here, since his return.  He knows that it makes Lucius twitchy, every time Voldemort demands its use, and that is usually enough to keep Voldemort from getting too dreadfully bored. 

As he stares out over the gardens of Malfoy Manor, he tries to remember the last time he’d felt anything but apathy in this place-- directing his followers, punishing those who would not comply with their new approach to his goals, attending galas with the weight of glamours hiding his true nature as he reestablished himself in the wizarding world.  It comes as no surprise that, as he thinks on it, he remembers Harry Potter sneaking into this ballroom, snooping around, and slipping past his fingers again. 

Yes.  He supposes that was the last time this room held any true interest for him. 

“My Lord?” Lucius clears his throat, tentative as ever; his father had never been so lily livered, though he’d certainly been loyal.  “If I may ask a question.” 

“Speak, Lucius,” Voldemort waves a hand, not bothering to tear his gaze away from the albino peacocks fluttering across the grounds.  

“There are many who are-- who are curious as to why you turned Pettigrew over,” Lucius manages to say, nearly stammering.  “Sirius Black is a known member of the Order--” 

Turning to meet Lucius’ eyes, Voldemort’s sneer alone is enough to quiet him.  It would take a miracle, Voldemort thinks, for Lucius to grow a spine. 

“Let’s just say,” Voldemort says, something at the back of his mind tugging, an odd mixture of elation and sorrow that is not his own making itself known, and Voldemort knows that Harry has heard the news as well.  “That Wormtail had nothing more to offer.  He no longer fit with our new directive.” 

The threat is blatantly clear: those who will not bend to change will be broken. 

Lucius takes it as such, bowing his head.  “Of course, my Lord.  I will inform any who may ask.” 

“See that you do, Lucius.” Voldemort says, already striding for the grand staircase that led to the exit of this grand, boring ballroom.  “I will be traveling for the next few days.  Do ensure that everything goes according to our plans.” 

“Of course, my Lord.” 

Voldemort does not pass him any form of farewell.  He knows that, even if only out of pride and fear alone, Lucius will not disappoint him.  

Voldemort has something much more interesting to be doing. 

*

The news is wonderful.  Harry smiles helplessly down at Sirius’ face through the flames, knelt in Bill’s living room, hair still wet from his bath.  He can hear Bill puttering about in the kitchen with a kettle.  He’d been staying here at Bill’s flat since striking his deal with Voldemort.  

It had been awkward to say the least, summoning Voldemort through the floo into a room filled with some of his most blatant opposition.  Sirius and Bill as members of the Order aside, Harry was quietly impressed that Voldemort hadn’t refused outright when Harry had told him he had Dumbledore there as witness.  

Harry thinks it was only the oath that kept Voldemort from striking out the moment Dumbledore had smiled at him and said: “It is lovely to see you under these circumstances, Tom.” 

Harry’d nearly popped a blood vessel fighting down his wince when he’d felt Voldemort’s irritation flare. 

With a start already so fraught with tension, Harry hadn’t had much hope of having his demands met, but he’d tried anyways.  He’d swallowed down his nerves, shoved any doubt he had in himself down into the deepest parts of himself, and wrestled up his Gryffindor courage.  Sure, it hadn’t been a life-or-death battle, but to face Voldemort on any playing field always required a bit of bravery. 

“Come to a decision already, Harry?” Voldemort had asked. 

Harry had ignored Dumbledore watching them both.  Ignored the way Sirius bristled and practically growled.  Ignored the way Bill seemed to brace himself for anything.  

Instead, he’d nodded and stepped forward, offering his hand out.  “If you agree to my terms, I’ll agree to yours.” 

“Your terms?” 

“You offered me Pettigrew, once.  I’d like to take you up on that.” 

And Harry had ignored Sirius’ sputtering, too busy focusing on the delight that suddenly bloomed under his skin and the wicked smile that unfurled on Voldemort’s face.  Voldemort had not hesitated to take Harry’s hand. 

It had gone smoothly after that.  Their forearms clasped, they had made an Unbreakable Vow, and Dumbledore had sealed it himself.  

In the end, Harry felt that it all rather worked out in his favor: not only had Lord Voldemort sworn no harm to Harry or any who Harry cared for as long as they did not threaten Voldemort himself, he’d wrangled Sirius’ freedom and a promise to suspend all aggressive acts toward muggleborns and muggles until Harry finished or failed in his endeavor and returned to England.  All Harry had to do was swear the safety of any horcruxes in his possession, or any he found, and that he would not raise his wand maliciously against Voldemort except in defense of himself-- that last part on Sirius’ fierce insistence.  

The only real sacrifice Harry had to make was to agree that he could not return to England until he finished or failed.  The moment he did, their Vow would be null and void. 

It had hurt, to give that up, to accept what was essentially exile, but Harry thought it would be a worthy sacrifice.  And there was nothing to stop his friends, his family, from coming to him.  

Now, a little over a week later, kneeling in front of the floo and hearing Sirius tell him the good news, Harry knows that he’d made the right decision.  

“I have to settle the Black accounts, now that I’m legally a free man,” Sirius is saying, and Harry blinks down at him, drawing himself back to the moment.  “And the Ministry awarded me recompense, which needs to be processed.  But the second that’s all done, pup, I’m all yours again.” 

Harry’s smile is so wide it makes his face ache.  “Don’t rush it, Padfoot.  Enjoy it.  I’m not going anywhere.” 

And Harry isn’t.  On Bill’s day off, he’d taken him up to Alexandria and shown him the library hidden from muggle eyes.  A massive, underground hall of paper and ink and worn leather bindings.  

Harry’d been caught, dwarfed by the enormous scale of it all-- at the stained glass dome that reflected light down between the floors upon floors upon floors of shelves like a living green flame; at the pillars and statues and impossible mosaics on the floor; at the globe, golden and glowing and gravitating in slow rotations at the center of the library’s main floor, speckled with constellations instead of any sort of land or seas.  At the overwhelming knowledge that was suddenly at his fingertips.  Hermione would lose it.  

Harry knows he will be here, in Egypt, for months at the very least.  

“I already miss you, pup.” Sirius says, voice tight, and Harry wishes he could reach through and draw himself into the comfort that Sirius has become.  

“I miss you too, Padfoot.  I’ve got to get going.  I’ll speak with you soon.” 

“Keep your mirror on you.” 

Harry grins.  “Always.” 

He’s shutting the floo right as Fleur comes padding down the hall, looking as perfect as ever.  It had been a surprise, but a pleasant one, to find out that Bill and Fleur were something of an item after Bill had offered up his couch.  Fleur had greeted Harry with enthusiasm, prattling on about her own studies, having come to Egypt to work on a Mastery in Curse Breaking and met Bill in the field.  She’d been all too happy to welcome Harry into their home.  

Catching her smile, Harry returns it with one of his own, already gathering up his things for the day.  He has a library to get to, and not enough time in the world.  

“I’ll probably be late again,” Harry confesses, as Bill steps out of the kitchen with two cups of tea in hand; something spicy and sweet smelling that makes Harry’s mouth water.  

“No worries, Harry,” Bill says.  “We’re going out for dinner tonight, so we’ll probably be up when you get back.” 

“Yes, ‘ave a good day, ‘arry,” Fleur says, coming across the room, kissing both his cheeks before he can stop her, pale pink lipstick smearing against his skin even as he laughs and shrugs away.  “Do not work too ‘ard.” 

“I’ll do my best,” Harry says, smile tight, already heading for the door.  “Have a good one.” 

He’s out of the flat and down the stairs in record time.  Rubbing at his cheek as he steps out onto the quiet morning streets of the wizarding district Bill lives in, just down the road from the bank.  He’s not sure what it is, but he thinks that his years spent in what was essentially isolation, with only Sirius as company, has made him rather uncomfortable receiving human contact.  

Part of the reason he leaves so early and comes back so late is because he knows there is less foot traffic during those times.  And also because, after hearing from Bill that he should probably keep his head down until the heat of the unknown apparators died off, Harry had been avoiding being noticed-- only going from Bill’s flat, to the library, and back again.  

Making his way down the street toward the apparition point, Harry keeps his gaze down, hood of his cloak pulled up over his head to help mask his features.  He’s not paying enough attention, too busy thinking about the smile that had stretched over Sirius’ face when he’d told Harry the news.  Harry is happy for him-- elated, really-- but a part of him aches knowing that Sirius is so far, that Sirius got to go home, even if it was all Harry’s idea.  He’s too busy trying to bury his sorrow and his envy. 

That’s the only reason he doesn’t notice the way the hair on his arms stands on end.  The way his skin suddenly sings with awareness. 

His reflexes, however, do not fail him. 

The moment the hand is on his arm, dragging him into a space between two buildings, Harry’s wand is in his hand, point digging into the soft flesh under Tom Riddle’s jaw.  Harry freezes, blinking up at Voldemort’s raised brow and his elegant, unimpressed features. 

“What the fuck?” Harry spits, eyes narrowing, shrugging away from Voldemort’s grip and stepping back as Voldemort’s mouth twitches, amusement bleeding loudly through their bond.  

“Hello, Harry.” 

Harry’s face shutters.  “Are you stalking me, now?  I don’t recall accosting me for random check-ins being part of our vow.” 

The amusement doesn’t fade.  Harry can feel it vibrating between his teeth.  

“And here I thought you would be delighted to see me, today of all days, Harry Potter.” Voldemort says.  “Don’t I at least deserve some amount of gratitude?” 

Harry very nearly rolls his eyes.  “Oh, yes, thank you for fulfilling your part of an Unbreakable Vow.  I am ever so grateful.” 

There’s a small thread of irritation present, now.  Harry’s always much better at feeling Voldemort out, the nuances of him, when he’s near.  

It’s better.  More familiar ground.  Harry doesn’t know what to do with an amused Dark Lord. 

“I meant for Pettigrew,” Voldemort says, smile sharp.  “Or did your godfather not tell you?” 

Harry sucks in a short breath, a sensation like cold water washing over him.  He physically recoils-- but not because of Voldemort or the implication dripping like venom from his mouth.  Rather, Harry flinches back from his own recalled satisfaction when Sirius had told him exactly how his name had been cleared. 

"I heard," Harry says, arms folding over his chest, knowing that he shouldn't be okay with what Voldemort did even if he secretly, privately is. "And you expect gratitude for torturing a man into madness?"

"You disapprove of my methods?"

No, Harry thinks, even as shame wells up in his chest. 

"Yes," Harry says. 

Voldemort's eyes narrow, his head tilting as he takes a slow step closer. Harry only backs away when Voldemort's smile twists into something terribly, wickedly delighted. 

"Oh, Harry," Voldemort breathes, and a shudder rips up Harry's spine at the heat of it. "There's no need to lie to me."

Harry's chest floods with warmth, shoulders drawing up and stringing tight.  It's not a pleasant feeling, the sudden wash of mortification joining in with the guilt, and Harry's jaw winds tight. 

Voldemort clicks his tongue. "No, no. Don't do that. You asked and I delivered. He betrayed your parents, you've every right to take pleasure from his suffering. You wanted his suffering. There's no need for shame."

Harry feels all the color drain from his face. His heart lurches in his chest. 

He wants to say no. Wants to deny it all. Wants to spit back that yes, Pettigrew betrayed his parents, but Voldemort was the one that killed them. 

But he doesn't, he can't, because what Voldemort's saying is true. 

Without a word, without a denial, Harry twists on his heel and rushes away. Runs away, with Voldemort's laugh trailing hauntingly behind him. 

"No thank you then, Harry?" Voldemort calls after him, and it takes everything not to lash out as he heads back to the street. "Perhaps next time!" 

Squeezing his eyes shut, Harry rounds the corner, and leaves Voldemort and his taunts behind. 

*

Harry spends his day absolutely ignoring his entire morning and burying himself into ancient texts, hunting for any mention of soul magic. 

That's also how he spends the next day. And the day after that. And the day after that. And-- well, the Hidden Library of Alexandria is a wealth of information, on almost every magical topic imaginable, in nearly every language, and Harry is beginning to think he's going to spend the rest of his life with his nose in a book. 

It doesn't help that Harry is in a particularly foul mood, three days after hearing about Sirius' good news and being cornered by Voldemort, because last night Bill and Fleur told him the very lovely, very exciting news that Fleur was pregnant and they'd be popping to France and then the Burrow to announce the good news, soon.  

Harry had tried to be elated for them-- and he was, in most ways that mattered-- but just like with Sirius' good news, Harry couldn't help but feel a lance of envy lurking under it all. It hadn't helped that Fleur was intent on smothering him with affection every chance she got-- and, really, Harry needs to work on the whole touching people thing. 

It's why his hours at the library have been getting longer and longer. It's why he's still sitting here, at one of the back tables, after most of the other visitors have already left, staring at the purple prose of a wizard who died during the 15th century, longing for a quality cuppa and maybe a sandwich. 

Unfortunately, just like with most of his previous readings so far, Harry can find nothing about fracturing the soul. There's no mention of immortality. As the words start to blur, all he finds, after twenty god forsaken chapters, is the briefest mention of something the author calls soul resonance that can occur between wizard and familiar-- and, occasionally, between witches and wizards of extraordinary power. 

It's interesting, but not what he's looking for at all. Though, he does note the reference the author alludes to down for later. 

With a migraine building up at the front of his head, Harry finally packs up for the evening. Sends his books back to the shelves with a wave of his wand. Pads out of the library with a wave to the evening attendant-- a scholarly young man with dark skin and bright eyes, always with his nose in his own books, that Harry is getting more and more used to seeing. A nice bloke that helped him figure out the organization system of the shelves and had let Harry borrow a nifty little charmed glass that translated most languages to the reader's default when held over the words. 

As he trudges up the worn marble steps that led up from the underground, Harry wishes, not for the first time, that he had Hermione and Ron with him. Hermione would've definitely been a help in all this. 

He wonders if, after they finish their year at Hogwarts, they'll come down and stay with him a while. Ron's already been, after all, and he knows he can woo Hermione with the library alone. 

Doubt is a terrible thing, though. It's been two years, of nothing but letters linking them, and a part of him imagines that perhaps they've moved on.  That, after all this time, they've left him behind. 

"Long day, Harry?"

Harry nearly jumps right out of his skin. 

Just outside of the hidden entrance-- a dead end out the back of a lovely little cafe disguised as a limestone wall, painted like a mural of an oasis-- Tom Riddle stands leaning next to the back door of the cafe. Casual and vaguely windblown, dressed as sharp as usual, and despite the lack of school colors or robes, he looks like the spitting image of his sixteen year old self, if Harry didn’t count the lines at his eyes or the hint of grey at the temples. 

Harry very nearly turns back around to head back into the library. 

Instead, he takes a breath and lets it out slow, adjusting the strap of his bag before proceeding forward. Ignores Voldemort's gaze and heads for the door.

"Go away," Harry says, jerking open the door and heading through the den of the cafe; there's the smell of tea and the smell of sweet smoke, music and chatter low, as he stalks through with the Dark Lord hot on his heels, all the way through until they're outside on the street.  

"That's not very nice, Harry." Voldemort says, easily keeping pace as Harry heads for the apparition point.  "I was simply asking after your day."

"You're not very nice," Harry snipes back, his head giving a dull throb.  "Why would I be nice to you?"

Voldemort sighs. "Manners makyth man.  It would serve you well to learn them."

"I don't need etiquette lessons from a hypocrite," Harry says. "I need a nap and a bottle of firewhiskey."

"Search not going well?" Voldemort asks, and Harry can't mistake his tone for anything but pleased. 

"It's been two weeks, not five years. I knew it would take time." Harry snaps, whipping about to glare up at Voldemort's crooked grin. "What are you even doing here? Why are you bothering me? Because if you're still sniffing around for a thank you, for what you did to Pettigrew, you're not going to get it."

"Oh, I don't need it, Harry." Voldemort says, voicing dipping low as he eats up the space between them with an easy stride, hands tucked into his trouser pockets. "I know how you really feel about it-- that filthy bit of satisfaction you're trying to bury under all that guilt. Not quite Dumbledore's Golden Boy, are you?"

"Sod off," Harry spits, twisting back around to storm away. 

However, Voldemort is, unsurprisingly, relentless. He strides after Harry, keeping pace with an ease that just makes the anger in Harry's chest twist and turn all the more. 

"Your rage truly is a divine little rush, Harry." Voldemort tells him.  "Much better than that incessant brooding that's been buzzing at the back of my head for days. I was beginning to think you'd give me a migraine."

"Yes, because your spikes of unadulterated madness are much more fun to deal with," Harry mutters.  "It's your fault for trying to kill me, anyways. Deal with the consequences."

Voldemort seems to pause at that. "And what interesting consequences they are. Unprecedented. Though, I'm more inclined to believe it's your fault for surviving."

Harry stops in his tracks. He stares up at Voldemort, brows arched and eyes wide, and Voldemort stares back, completely unabashed. 

"You're the most abhorrent person alive," Harry says. 

Hand to his chest, Voldemort smiles. "You wound me, Harry."

Mouth twisting up in his sudden disgust, Harry clutches at the strap of his bag and clenches his fist so tight that his knuckles ache. "Stop following me or you can forget about any of our agreements."

"You'd break an Unbreakable Vow?"

"I'd break your nose, if you actually had one." Harry warns. "You don't get to make light of that night."

"Of course, Harry." Voldemort holds up his hands, completely and infuriatingly unrepentant, even as he backs up a step.  "My mistake."

"Yes, you rather make a lot of those," Harry snaps. "Goodbye, Tom."

"Until next time, Harry."

Harry's already walking away, blood still burning under his skin. But he can feel a spike of irritation that's not his, and Harry takes what little pleasure from that he can before reaching the apparition point and letting his magic carry him away. 

*

Once is an accident. Twice, a coincidence. Three times, Harry realizes in horror, is a pattern. One he does not want to continue. 

And yet. 

It's been almost another two weeks since he's seen or heard from Voldemort. But, somehow, on the day of Bill and Fleur's departure, he appears, sitting down across from Harry at the small table he's enjoying his breakfast at, wearing dark slacks, a darker shirt, and Tom Riddle's pretty fucking face. 

Harry quickly loses his appetite. 

"Oh, Merlin, you're actually stalking me," he says. 

Voldemort doesn't seem to notice, too busy wrinkling up that entirely too expressive nose at the muggle surroundings.  "Certainly there are better establishments you could be dining at."

Harry snorts, resigns himself, and takes a bite of toast. "Bill recommended it."

And he had. Harry still felt too uncomfortable to eat out at any of the wizarding establishments, always at risk of being identified by his scar-- or as the wizard that apparated himself in front of over a dozen muggles-- but he had to acclimatize himself to people somehow.  This place was the perfect little spot, not too far from Bill's place, and not a tourist trap like a lot of the places closer to the pyramids. Plus, they made a quality cup of tea.

"They make good tea," Harry adds apropos of nothing, shrugging with unrepentant nonchalance when Voldemort finally looks at him. 

Crossing a leg over the other, Voldemort leans back in his chair with an aggravated huff.  "Yes, well, it's evident your taste leaves much to be desired." 

"Feel free to leave at any time," Harry replies with a sweet smile. "I won't stop you."

For a moment, Voldemort just watches Harry pick through his breakfast. Sits there, staring, like an utter creep, as Harry sips his tea. 

Then, he says: "Speaking of your Curse Breaker, I've been informed he's taken a leave of absence back to England."

"Oh, good, not only are you stalking me, but you're watching all of my friends, too." Harry mutters, tone dry. "What a comfort."

Harry always forgets just how quick Voldemort can move. It's the face, he thinks; the high cheekbones and dark eyes and curl of his hair. He doesn't look like a vicious killer like this. He rather looks a bit like a posh swot, too self-involved to bother with getting his hands dirty. 

That's not the case. This is still Voldemort, Harry reminds himself, even as Voldemort reminds him by reaching across the table in a flash to grip at Harry's wrist, fingers curling so tight that pain ricochets up Harry's arm along with the jolt that usually accompanies their skin-on-skin contact. 

Harry winces. 

"I sincerely hope he didn't depart with anything that doesn't belong to him," Voldemort says, leaning forward. 

He squeezes that much harder. The bones in Harry's wrist protest. Sensation and emotion, not all his, vibrate behind his back molars. 

Harry snatches up the knife next to his plate, handling it with fingers just as deft as when he handles his wand. He drives it, point down, into place right next to Voldemort's own wrist with a dull thunk. 

Voldemort freezes, eyes wide.  The knife, buried in the wood of the table, has pinned and torn into the dark cotton of Voldemort's shirt. Has nicked a shallow line against the inside of his wrist. It bleeds, red and sluggish. 

Harry bares his teeth. "Bill's going home because his wife is pregnant, you absolute tosser.  And your property is where it's always been: with me."

Voldemort's gaze flickers from the knife, to the strap of Harry's mokeskin pouch, ever present, even now. Then, his eyes meet Harry's. 

"Understood," Voldemort says, grip on Harry's wrist easing up. 

"Good," Harry snaps, yanking the knife free before pulling his arm from Voldemort's grasp, pushing to his feet and tossing down the cash for his unfinished meal. "Next time you try and intimidate me with pain, I won't hesitate to actually stab you. Understand that?"

Voldemort's eyes narrow. "Yes."

"Good."

Without another word, Harry rounds the table and walks away from the outdoor eatery, outrage and irritation flush under his skin. His wrist aches; it'll probably bruise. 

For a moment, as he's making his way down the street back toward the hidden wizarding district, he thinks that's the end of it. That Voldemort will depart, once again, and Harry will see him when he pops up at random to get under Harry's skin. 

He's not expecting Voldemort to fall into pace at Harry's side.

"Where did you learn that?" Voldemort asks. 

Harry lets out a heavy, loud sigh. "Learn what?"

"To use a knife like that."

"Is that really any of your business?"

Voldemort makes a sound, impatient and short, and when Harry glances over at him his face is pinched; his shirt sleeve is also mended.  "Consider it professional curiosity."

"Professional curiosity," Harry scoffs.  "In what way has our relationship ever been professional?" 

"You are currently influencing the politics at the cradle of the wizarding world," Voldemort says, and it's startling to realize it's true. "If it hasn't been professional before, your role in restricting my ability to enact certain policies that would affect the rest of the wizarding world would certainly make it such."

"Wow," Harry huffs, shaking his head in something like disbelief.  "That is… incredibly eurocentric of you.  The cradle of the wizarding world. Seriously?"

"If the British Ministry moves, the rest of the world is likely to follow."

"You're disturbingly egocentric." 

Voldemort makes another sound. "The knife trick, Harry. Where did you learn it?"

"I spent the last two years in the company of one of Europe's top Aurors, wrongfully convicted or not," Harry says.  "He taught me what to do if I was ever without a wand."

“Did he?” Voldemort asks, slow, voice lilting with an unabashed interest.  “And what else did he teach you, Harry?” 

“Oh, all sorts of things,” Harry replies, sweet and guileless, grin spreading over his face when he glances up again to see that Voldemort has caught on to the fact that Harry isn’t planning on elaborating.   

There’s a furrow between his brows as he walks along with Harry, eyes practically boring into him, his mouth pressed into a thin line.  Harry smiles, just as sweet and just as guileless, up at him. 

“You’re not going to tell me, are you?” 

“What reason do I have to tell you anything?” Harry asks. 

“You said I need only ask--” 

“That doesn’t mean I have to answer,” Harry says.  “You’ve given me no reason to want to.” 

“I hadn’t realized I needed to give a reason,” Voldemort says, that crease between his brows just growing deeper.  

“I’m not your ally.  I’m not your friend.  I’m not even your follower.” Harry says, slowing to a stop to face him on the sidewalk, holding Voldemort’s gaze.  “I owe you nothing except what I’ve already promised to protect.  Last time we spoke, you told me I wasn’t very nice.  If you want something from me, information or otherwise, perhaps you should consider taking your own advice.” 

Voldemort’s features smooth out some.  His gaze, dark but with something burning and red underneath a layer of magic, seem to hunt over Harry’s face.  

Then, he takes a careful step forward, until Harry has to tilt his head back to hold his stare.

Voldemort’s mouth curves up, and if Harry didn’t know who he was, a man smiling at him like that would have been devastating.  “Are you saying you’d like me to be nice to you, Harry?” Voldemort asks, voice low, like a dangerous invitation. 

Harry’s mouth feels suddenly, terribly dry.  “Yes,” he breathes. 

“Understood,” Voldemort says, something thrumming along that thread of connection between them that Harry can’t quite put his finger on.  “Until next time, Harry Potter.” 

As Voldemort walks away, Harry feels his breath leave him in a sudden and sharp exhale.  He hadn’t realized he’d been holding it. 

*

Harry tosses the Prophet down onto the table.  

His face scrunches up as he reads the headline again, eyes darting over the paper.  Taking off his glasses, he sighs, rubbing at his face as he pads into Bill’s kitchen.  

The flat is quiet, so empty, without Bill or Fleur.  Before they departed, Bill had thankfully gotten the permit to expand his flat and had opened up a new bedroom down the hall.  It was small, but better than sleeping on a transfigured couch, and even better than sleeping on a cot in a tent in the middle of the woods.  Harry had been getting some of his best sleep, if he was being completely honest, and it’s why his days keep starting later and later. 

It would have been a lovely morning, started with a lovely cup of tea, if it wasn’t for the paper sitting on the kitchen table.   

Deciding to ignore it for now, Harry finishes up with the kettle, only faltering when he hears the floo. 

“Pup?” 

A smile breaks over Harry’s face.  “Padfoot!  I’m in the kitchen, come on through.” 

As the sound of the floo going off fills the house, the faint smell of smoke following, Harry preps two cups of tea.  Probably too much sugar and a dash of cream for himself, leaving the other cup undoctored, the way Sirius usually takes it.  

As he rounds the corner out of the kitchen, he stalls in the doorway as he spots Sirius standing by the table, a grimace on his face and the paper in his hand.  Even more surprising, Remus stands just behind him, something large dangling from his hand.  

“You’ve seen the news, then,” Sirius sighs, his usual expressiveness dampened by something Harry knows is resignation.  

“Unfortunately,” Harry says, then offers a short smile to Remus.  “If I’d known you were coming through, I would’ve made you a cuppa too.” 

“Not to worry, Harry,” Remus says, eyes darting down over him, his smile much more easy than Harry’s own.  “You look good.  Healthy.” 

“It’s amazing what having a regular shower can do for a person,” Harry says on a laugh, padding over and setting the teacups down before gesturing to the covered object.  “I’d hug you, but…” 

“Ah!  Yes, well,” Remus shifts, setting his package down on the table with a crooked little grin.  “I imagine you’d much rather be reunited with her.” 

Before he pulls the covering free, Harry already knows exactly what’s beneath it.  The distinct rustle and trill are a sure enough giveaway. 

“Hedwig!” Harry gasps, rushing the cage, fingers fumbling with the latches even as she fluffs up her feathers from within.  “Oh, just look at you, girl.  Still pretty as ever.” 

She’s nipping at his fingers with gentle, excited affection before he even fully reaches into the cage.  The smile on Harry’s face aches with how broad it is, pulling her free, laughing as she shuffles along up his forearm and chitters at him.  When she reaches his shoulder with a little flap of her wings, she leans in and beaks at his hair. 

“Yes, yes, I know I need a cut,” Harry huffs, dragging a finger along the soft plumes of her chest, turning his beaming smile on Remus.  “Thank you.” 

“She missed you rather terribly, I think.” Remus says, his own face fond.  “As has everyone.” 

“Yes, well,” Harry clears his throat, cheeks feeling warm as Remus reaches out to squeeze at his shoulder, and Harry gestures to the paper still clutched in Sirius’ hands.  “I might be heading back sooner than we all thought, if that’s the shit he’s going to be pulling.” 

With a grunt, Sirius smacks the Prophet back down onto the table.  The headline-- Lost Gaunt Heir Reclaims Wizengamot Seats!-- is worrisome enough.  It doesn’t help that Tom Riddle, dressed in fine robes and offering a benign smile, is pictured on the front page shaking Fudge’s hand.  

“How’d he even manage to get away with it?” Harry asks. 

Remus sighs.  “Albus says that there aren’t many around who would recognize him for who he is, anymore.  And, even if they did, Voldemort took great efforts to bury any link between himself and Tom Riddle.” 

“What’s he going by?” 

“Thomas Gaunt,” Sirius sneers, plopping down into a seat and picking up his tea, sipping, and making a pleased noise.  “Ta, pup.  This is fantastic.” 

“Cinnamon,” Harry shrugs, claiming a seat of his own, and gesturing with a hand for Remus to follow suit.  “So, he can really do that?  Reclaim a title?” 

“It’s not unusual for bastards of a dead, noble line to take it up again,” Remus says.  “The Selwyns, for instance, have come in and out of existence for as long as the Sacred Twenty-Eight have existed.  The family name can only be claimed by proof of blood after fifty years of being considered extant-- either by death or by imprisonment.  The last Gaunt was in Azkaban since the 1940s before he passed a few years ago.” 

“Morfin,” Harry nods, recalling Dumbledore’s notes.  “His uncle.” 

“Right,” Remus nods, and despite the topic of discussion, smiles at the way Harry idly strokes over Hedwig’s feathers.  “He proved his claim by blood right.  He’s Lord Gaunt, now.  With all the power that comes with it.” 

Sirius winces, setting his teacup down.  “Which means, unfortunately, I won’t be able to join you as I thought I would, pup.” 

Harry feels a deep, resonating pang of disappointment ring through his chest.  Sipping his tea, he nods, eyes lingering on the headline once more. 

“I understand,” Harry says, after a moment.  “You’re Lord Black.  Your seats on the Wizengamot could be one of the only things standing in their way passing laws we don’t favor.” 

“Oh, pup,” Sirius sighs again, and when Harry looks up, he looks so sad that all Harry wants to do is embrace him.  “I’m so sorry.” 

“It’s fine, Sirius,” Harry offers a soft smile.  “Besides, it’s not bad here.  And I’ll have company when Bill and Fleur return.” 

Hedwig nips at his ear.

Laughing, Harry pets between her eyes.  “Yes, and you as well, girl.” 

A hand falls over his own.  Harry startles, blinking over at Remus, finding that fond smile twisted into something like a saddened grimace.  

“You’ve grown into a wonderful young man, Harry,” he says.  “Your parents would be very proud.” 

Harry’s throat goes tight.

“Oh, Moony, don’t pull that!” Sirius whines, his head falling back, blowing his messy hair out of his face.  “Like he hasn’t heard me say that to him a million times these last two years.” 

“It’s worth saying,” Remus argues, lips pursed, but Harry can tell he’s fighting another smile.  

“It’s maudlin enough, telling him I won’t be joining him,” Sirius tosses his hands out, dramatic as ever.  “You had to bring James and Lily into it?” 

Remus’ gaze rolls back over to Harry.  “I am deeply sorry you’ve had only Padfoot for company since you’ve left.” 

Barking out a laugh, Harry holds a hand to his stomach and lurches over.  Hedwig, displaced and discomfited, lifts off his shoulder and over to the spare chair, chiding Harry with a hoot.  

It only makes him laugh harder. 

Before he knows it, they’re all cackling over tea and strange news, Harry telling Remus about all of the stupid things Sirius has gotten up to during their time on the road.  Remus listens intently, eyes bright, almost never looking from Harry’s face.  Sirius is much the same, even as he argues that Harry was as culpable as he was during the incident with skinny dipping in a freezing river only a few months prior.  

When they’re all settled again, fresh cups of tea on the table, Hedwig napping from her perch on the back of a chair, Harry drags the paper back to himself once more.  Remus is chiding Sirius about something-- probably what Harry mentioned about Sirius skipping over the “boring chapters” in the books Remus had sent with them-- as Harry looks over the picture once more.  

Voldemort looks so utterly smug as he shakes Fudge’s hand.  Like everything is going his way.  Like nothing could stand in his way.  

Absently, Harry wonders how in the world Fudge was ever reelected. 

“I’m the Heir to the Potter line, aren’t I?” Harry asks, almost silently, but Remus and Sirius both hear him. 

“Heir Potter and Heir Black,” Sirius nods.  

“And there’s a hundred seats on the Wizengamot?” Harry glances up to their twin nods.  “How many do the Potters hold?” 

“Three, I believe,” Remus says.  “Like most of the Sacred Twenty-Eight, the Potter family is an old and noble house.  Most of the Lordships have three seats, with very few exceptions.  Though, they’ve been left in absentia until the Lordship is claimed-- not counting for or against anything.” 

“A vote per seat, a hundred votes available in total if all are present.  Majority wins.” Sirius adds, leaning forward with his elbows on the table.  “What are you thinking, kiddo?” 

“Would it be possible… for me to claim my Lordship and give my votes to someone I trust to cast them?” Harry asks, gaze shrewd as he glances between Sirius and Remus’ grave expressions.  

“Plenty of Lords and Ladies have done it before with the right documentation from the bank,” Remus says, slow and musing, but Sirius is already grinning. 

“Lucky I live right down the street from the bank then, isn’t it?” 

Sirius’ eyes are gleaming.  “You absolutely mad lad.”

Chapter Text

IX.

Voldemort tosses the Prophet down onto the table. 

It's subtle, almost imperceptible, but Voldemort catches the collective flinch of everyone else sitting at the table.  Lucius is the worst of them, though Voldemort has no doubt that if his progeny were present, he would've visibly shied away from the sound of the paper hitting the polished wood of the table. His wife, Narcissa, hardly blinks; her spoon just barely pausing on its path from her bowl to her mouth. Rodolphus and Rabastan exchange a look, mouths pressed thin.

Bellatrix, however, practically lurches over the edge of the table toward the paper, her eyes wide and her face twisting in its open disdain, as she reads over the headline. She's half a twitch away from a full snarl-- something that wouldn't have looked strange on her face back when he'd first broken his most loyal free from Azkaban, but after a couple of years of pampering under the constant watch of her sister Narcissa, it clashes with the soft curls of her hair and the delicate, dark lace of her daygown. 

To his left, Lucius clears his throat. "My Lord--"

Holding up a hand is enough to silence him. 

As if he timed it to perfection, the dining room door opens. Severus Snape strides in, robes buttoned to his chin and billowing behind him until he comes to a stop, bowing before Voldemort. Stiff and disinterested as ever. It truly is a shame, Voldemort thinks, that Severus has been left to rot in his role at Hogwarts.  

Even now, as Voldemort gestures him closer, Severus does not falter. Voldemort has always respected his ability to hold his resolve, even when faced with Voldemort himself. 

"Severus," Voldemort says. "So nice of you to join us."

"You summoned and I came, my Lord." Severus says, coming to a stop by Voldemort's seat. 

"Yes. I imagine you're curious as to why I've summoned you away from molding the bright minds of our future," Voldemort says, mouth twitching as Bellatrix cackles at Voldemort's derisive tone and Severus' reflexive sneer, but he gestures to the paper rather than attempting to make his followers squirm any further.  "Tell me, did the dear Headmaster arrange this?"

Severus frowns down at the paper.  Then, to Voldemort's surprise and shocking another subtle flinch from around the table, Severus snatches up the paper to skim over the front page story with rapid little flickers of his dark eyes. 

Voldemort already knows what it says. 

Boy Who Lived… in Egypt?

As many of you know, the famous-- or, perhaps to some, infamous-- Boy Who Lived, Harry James Potter, disappeared from the wizarding public a little over two years ago.  Our wayward hero dropped out of Hogwarts, left wizarding Britain behind, and all without a word of warning!

Over the years, there have been many theories over his sudden absence, dear readers, even a few from yours truly. Had the pressure of his childhood finally gotten to him? Was it the work of escaped Death Eaters, taking revenge for their fallen leader? A result of the obvious, heartbreaking trauma dealt the previous year during the tragic end of the Triwizard Tournament? Or, perhaps, with the foreknowledge of the disgraced former Undersecretary Umbridge's treatment of students during her tenure at Hogwarts, did our boy hero flee out of fear of further abuse?

As it turns out, none of this was the exact truth, dear readers. In an exclusive interview-- see page 4-- I met with our beloved Boy Who Lived to discuss his long absence, only to find that not only is he alive and well, but has spent the last two years training under the recently cleared Sirius Black, his godfather and the Lord to House Black, and has decided to claim his Potter Lordship while he furthers his studies in Cairo. For more on this shocking development, turn to page 3.

Severus seems to just barely restrain himself. Though, Voldemort is not sure if it's from flipping to pages to read more, or shred the paper between his hands. 

"Care to shed some light on the situation, Severus?"

Severus sucks in a sharp breath. "I was unaware of this development, my Lord. I do not believe even Dumbledore knew of these plans to announce himself and claim his title." 

Voldemort hums. "Interesting."

Severus folds the paper over, and Voldemort's gaze falls upon the upended image of Harry Potter, sitting in an unfamiliar flat, placid smile on his face as he passes tea to Rita Skeeter on loop. He looks no different than when Voldemort had seen him last, even if the black and white of the image diminishes the brightness of his eyes. 

"Interesting, my Lord?" Lucius asks. 

"Perhaps," Voldemort says, and then pushes to his feet. "Lucius, do make sure to use my votes wisely while I am away."

Bellatrix nearly shoots out of her seat. "You're leaving again, my Lord?" 

"Yes," Voldemort says, then adds.  "Keep the more unruly characters in line, won't you, Bella? I've noticed the Carrows have grown… restless.  I would hate to lose them."

"Of course, my Lord." Bellatrix replies, breathless as she bows, peering up at him with a familiar, hungry, wide eyed stare that Voldemort ignores. 

"Very good," Voldemort nods.  "Severus, until next time."

*

Harry wakes to a crash coming from the floo. He jerks awake, sprawled out on the couch, pinned by the weight of Padfoot's body, who refuses to budge even with the noise.  

From Harry's room down the hall, Remus emerges, wand drawn. "What's going on--?"

"Potter!" A familiar snarl comes from the hearth, and Harry blinks at the chiding voice of Albus Dumbledore somewhere beyond that vicious shout of his name. "Open this bloody floo or so help me--"

Remus comes to a stop by the couch, even as Harry shoves at Sirius' big, furry head; Sirius wuffs, and just settles more firmly over Harry's chest. "Is that Severus?" Remus asks. 

"What in the bloody hell?" Harry grunts, squirming as Sirius nips at his chin and thumps his tail. "Seriously, Padfoot?"

Sirius yips.

Harry's head flops back against the cushion he must've dozed off on the night before. "Remus, could you--?"

But Remus is already striding forward, toward the floo, opening it up to let people through. 

On his chest, Padfoot whines. His ears lay flat and he buries his nose in his paws. 

This is not at all how Harry saw his morning going. 

"Serves you right," Harry says as the floo flares to life once more.  "Are you going to get off of me yet, you great lump?"

There's two distinct tail thumps. Harry sighs. 

He can only imagine what a lazy sod he looks like as Severus Snape and Albus Dumbledore come into view. Barely awake, in nothing but an old t-shirt and his shorts, bleary eyed and messy haired. A blanket tangled around his legs. A bottle of firewhiskey from their celebration the night before on the coffee table.  A giant Grim hiding on his chest. 

He can't quite make out their faces without his glasses on, but he can imagine Snape's sneer. 

"Good morning," Harry greets, as chipper as he can. 

"You idiot child," Snape all but growls. 

Dumbledore lets out a soft breath. "Now, Severus--"

"No, Albus! I still can't believe you approved of this."

"He didn't approve of anything," Harry says. "I just did it. Up, Padfoot."

Slapping at Sirius' side, Harry is relieved when he finally gets the message, changing form fluidly as he stands. Pushing up, Harry rubs a tired hand over his face as Snape hisses in a breath. When his glasses are offered to him, Harry takes them blindly and shoves them onto his face. Looking up, he smiles at Remus' equally sleepy smile. 

It had been a pleasant few days. Sirius and Remus both had stuck around, helping him get everything processed at the bank, including a formal letter addressing the Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot-- conveniently, the very same Albus Dumbledore currently standing in Bill Weasley’s living room-- sealed with the Potter Crest. They'd kept him from his studies, insisting on seeing Cairo while they were there, though Harry did get to drag his bookish ex-professor to the Library of Alexandria at least once. Sirius had complained the whole time. 

"Are you saying you had no awareness of this?" Snape turns on Dumbledore. 

"Remus did inform me of their goals," Dumbledore says with a congenial nod, stroking over his beard, an odd smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye that Harry has come to recognize as trouble. "Though, I must admit, when I heard Harry's plan to even the playing field, I thought it rather clever.  I approved his request immediately upon receiving it."

"Of course you did," Snape spits, and then turns his focus back on where Harry is sitting. "And you. You were arrogant enough to believe you would get away with it."

Harry can't help it. Another smile pulls across his face. 

"It really is lovely to see you again, professor." Harry says, with all sincerity. 

Snape just seems to rear back. 

"Just like your father, driving forward recklessly, stupid enough to not even think about the consequences--" Snape's voice is only cut momentarily by Sirius' indignant hey of protest. "-- of your actions! Did you think he would not find out, with that blasted interview?"

"Well, no, I kind of wanted him to find out."

"Have your years spent in the company of your flea-ridden dog of a godfather truly reduced what little thought you had left in that head?" Snape presses close, throwing a copy of the Prophet in Harry's lap. "He will not see this go unpunished. He will track you down, not that it'll be hard with you announcing yourself like a particularly desperate peacock, and break you until there is nothing left, Unbreakable Vow or not, you imbecilic infant."

Sirius steps forward, shoving Snape back by the shoulder. "Alright, that's about enough of that, Snivellus." 

All of a sudden, much to Harry's amusement and perhaps a bit to his chagrin, wands are being drawn. Harry quickly tunes out their increasingly loud insults. 

With a little sigh, Harry glances up at Remus. Remus catches the look and has to cover a laugh with his hand. 

"Tea?" Harry asks.

"I'll get it started," Remus says.

Dumbledore perks. "Would you like any assistance?"

"Certainly, Albus."

Harry watches them go, pushing to his feet. Seeing that Sirius and Snape were still preoccupied with one another, Harry pads back down the hall toward his room to pull on a housecoat. 

He's just tying the sash when he hears a knocking at the front door. Frowning, Harry wonders if maybe he should've put a muffliato on the fight in the front room. It's too early to deal with an irate neighbor. 

Padding back through the flat, Harry heads toward the door. Snape is practically shouting down at Sirius by now, his usually pale face flush, but despite their wands, Harry is happy to see no spells flying. 

With a little twitch of his fingers, he muffles their bickering to a low murmur, and then shakes his head as he turns back to the door. Plastering a smile on his face, he preps himself to handle any one of Bill's nosy neighbors while battling a mild hangover, Harry pulls open the front door and immediately freezes. 

"Good morning, Lord Potter." 

Voldemort, as he usually does when out in public, looks pleasant as can be. Dressed to the nines, suit fitted perfectly across broad shoulders and a tapered waist. Hair perfectly coiffed. 

Dark eyes flit down over Harry, and Harry's entire scalp lights up with a tingling rush. 

"Have I caught you at a bad time?" Voldemort asks, as his gaze slowly drags back up. 

Harry, panicking in nothing but a t-shirt, his pants, and an old housecoat, slams the door in his face. 

Everything else in the flat stops.

Sirius, frowning, takes a step toward him.  "Pup?" he asks, voice still muffled. 

"Um," Harry says, lips pursed, giving a little shake of his head. "I'll just. Be a moment."

And then he's opening the door, stepping out, and shutting the door behind him again. 

Voldemort is waiting for him there. He has a brow arched, a crooked grin on his face, and Harry grinds his teeth as he feels Voldemort's delight zip along his nerves. 

"What are you doing here?" Harry hisses, glaring up at him. "Better yet: how the fuck do you keep finding my exact location?"

"I can't come to congratulate you on your Lordship?" Voldemort asks, grin growing a little wider. 

"That is not an answer."

"Really, Lord Potter, I truly am here to express my… amazement." Voldemort says, still grinning, hands in his pockets. "An impressive move on your part. I would've expected it from Dumbledore, but you?"

"Yes, good, now that you're done insulting my intelligence with all the subtlety of a hammer," Harry snaps, gripping the doorknob behind him to keep from lashing out.  "How do you keep finding me?"

"Just a bit of simple scrying, Harry, really." Voldemort says-- the word familiar to Harry, though he can't place it-- like he thinks Harry is simple, even though his face is lit with his amusement, and then peers over Harry's head at the door.  "Was that Severus I heard in there?"

Severus Snape is a spy for the Order.  Severus Snape is inside Bill's flat, present only because he bullied his way in, to warn Harry. Despite all the insults and venom, Harry knows this to be true. Severus Snape came to protect Harry-- and that goes against everything a good, true Death Eater would do.  Severus Snape is about to have his cover blown to complete bits. 

Harry feels something cold slip down his spine. Then, he presses his back to the door, tilts his chin up, and shrugs. 

"Albus came by to discuss what I've done, and he dragged professor Snape along after him. I don't know why." Harry says, eyes holding Voldemort's.  "He and my godfather are currently at each other's throats."

Voldemort hums. Almost seems to buy it. 

But then he is crowding Harry back against the door, one hand coming up to rest against the frame of it, caging Harry in as he leans down. His eyes, still locked with Harry, burn red.  Like the promise of hellfire. 

"Lying, Harry?" Voldemort asks, voice low, somehow both chiding and amused. "I have to admit, you're certainly good at it.  Not a hint of deception in those lovely eyes. But certainly you know by now that it will not work on me." 

Harry can feel the heat of him, suffocating and heavy, and his nerves light up. Voldemort isn't even touching him, but Harry can feel the phantom of it. A ghost under his skin. 

Harry shudders. There's another lie on the tip of his tongue-- but sod it. 

Voldemort would see right through it. Sod it, and sod Snape's precarious position. 

"He's one of mine," Harry breathes, eyes darting over Voldemort's face as a slow, subtle rage begins to seethe across their connection. "You cannot hurt him." 

"One of yours?" Voldemort hisses, his face deceptively impassive. "You would truly claim him?"

"Why wouldn't I?"

The smile on his face is vicious. Venomous. Victorious. 

But, most of all, Harry thinks the smile on Voldemort's face is hungry. 

"Oh, Harry, didn't you know?" Voldemort reaches up, catching Harry's chin with the crook of his finger, tilting his face over so that he can lean in and whisper in his ear; Harry's pulse flutters, face growing warm, and he clutches at the door behind him with useless fingers.  "Severus Snape was the one who delivered the prophecy to me."

Harry's sucks in a sharp breath. 

He blinks, blind, at a spot over Voldemort's shoulder. Feels the words, the defamation and damnation of a man who had ridiculed him and saved his life countless times in equal measure, wash over him. Feels them connect and make a sad, terrible sort of sense. 

Snape had always hated Harry for his father.  Had never shied from letting him know of his disdain. Had, apparently, told Voldemort the very thing-- a half finished prophecy-- that set all of this into motion. Had condemned his parents, and Harry, to death, before Harry had even been born. 

He thinks this is supposed to make him angry. That this is supposed to unleash the rage Harry has learned to keep a careful hold of.  He thinks that's exactly what Voldemort wants-- so that he may take Snape's double crossing out of his hide without triggering their vow.

But then he thinks about Snape pulling Harry behind him in the face of a werewolf on a full moon. He thinks of Snape trying to foil Quirrel in his first year. He thinks of Snape looking at him, offering him his potions, and saying his mother's name with something like regret. 

Harry exhales. 

"You mean the prophecy that you only heard part of and that led you to destroying yourself with a rebounded curse like a complete pillock?" Harry asks, taking Voldemort's wrist in hand and turning his face to hiss back into Voldemort's ear. "He's still mine. And he will not be bowing to you anymore."

Voldemort pulls back like Harry's touch alone burns him. His face is twisted with a familiar anger and Harry feels the responding ache in his head. 

He thinks, perhaps, he's about to get cursed--

When suddenly, happily, the door behind him opens. 

Harry staggers forward a step, twisting around, and he spots Dumbledore's twinkling eyes. Trouble, he thinks. 

"Tom, what a lovely surprise," Dumbledore says, and Harry swallows down a half hysteric laugh. "Or is it Lord Gaunt, now? I imagine I'll be seeing more of you at the Wizengamot sessions."

Voldemort sneers. "Dumbledore."

"We were just about to sit down for a spot of tea, my boy." Dumbledore adds, smile bright; Harry has no clue how he manages it, the mad codger.  "Would you care to join us?"

Inside, he hears someone choke.

*

The flat is full of a tension Lord Voldemort usually feeds off of. It's thick in the air; heavy. He can practically taste it on his tongue as he steps inside after Harry. 

It truly is a shame that Voldemort cannot truly enjoy this room, fraught with a stillness. Men hovering, sweating, waiting for him to make a move. 

But there is no move to be made. Not with a vow keeping his anger leashed.  Not with Harry Potter watching him like a hawk.  

There’s something to be said, Voldemort thinks, about being the one person to hold the complete attention of someone else.  Even more to be said about holding Harry’s full attention, considering all of the other people in the room.  Those eyes, unwavering and green, never leave Voldemort for a moment.  Not to glance at the werewolf, who has paused in the midst of setting a dining table for tea; not to look at his godfather, who is clutching his wand and practically vibrating with his restraint; not to check on the Potion’s Master, the spy, the betrayer, not even after what Voldemort had told him; certainly not to Dumbledore, the benevolent Headmaster, not even to bend to his guidance. 

Standing in this room, with Harry Potter watching him, the green of his eyes unyielding as Voldemort meets them with his own, Voldemort comes to a realization that has been whispering at the back of his mind since that night in the Ministry’s atrium.  The same one that had Voldemort returning the prophecy and entrusting his most precious possessions to him. 

That this boy, this young man, this little Lord, is a force to be reckoned with.  That Harry Potter, in barely anything more than a cotton morning gown and looking like perhaps he just woke, is the biggest threat in the room.  That he could very well be Lord Voldemort’s downfall-- or he could be his greatest ally.  And he knows that Harry views him in the same shades of potential blacks and whites and greys. 

Even the great Albus Dumbledore seems to defer to Harry.

“How quaint,” Voldemort says, gaze not leaving Harry’s, even as those eyes narrow with warning.  “Is this how the Order of the Phoenix meets?  Over morning tea?” 

“Nonsense, my boy,” Dumbledore says, and Voldemort takes a slow breath, his teeth grinding; he can tell by the way Harry shifts on his feet that he can feel it too.  “We’re simply here to congratulate Harry on his Lordship.  Just as, I imagine, you are.” 

“Of course,” Voldemort says, smiling at Dumbledore in the same way he used to when he was still a child, encountering him in the halls of Hogwarts late in the evening.  “It was a wonderful surprise to read about in this morning’s paper.  Ms. Skeeter did an exceptional job.” 

He doesn’t miss the way Harry rolls his eyes.  Nor does he miss Harry’s hushed, muttered: “she’d better have.” 

There’s something to be said about that.  The resolute surety underlying those words.  

Voldemort knows that Skeeter is risky to work with at best, from Lucius’ tellings.  Money has some sway, but Skeeter has a way of getting her grubby fingers on knowledge she shouldn’t.  Has always had a way of twisting words in her favor with a keen viciousness.  The glowing article about Harry Potter’s sudden reappearance is suspicious.  

And telling.  

Voldemort smells a secret.  Yet another, of the many, hidden perks that Harry Potter seems to carry with him.  

He wants to press.  Wants to press and pull and tear into every hidden thing Harry Potter has.  His palms itch; his mouth burns.  He wants to unbury every part of Harry until there is nothing left to hide.  Nothing left to surprise him.  

Dumbledore interrupts him before he can even try.  

“It is quite the pleasant surprise to find you here with such kind words, my boy.” Dumbledore says, and Voldemort can see the way Harry crosses his arms from the corner of his vision; can feel his displeasure.  “Would you like to join us for tea?” 

Sirius Black seems to jerk in place; a puppet on strings.  “Albus, you cannot be serious--” 

“Speaking of surprises,” Voldemort says, reveling in the way Harry’s shoulders draw up as he turns his gaze on the spy in their midst.  “Severus.  What a pleasure to find you in my presence twice in a single day.” 

What little color was in Severus’ face drains away.  Voldemort savors it, smile cruel, as he watches the way Severus’ hands curl in.  The way he clutches at his wand-- though, why it is out at all is a mystery.  

He sees Albus Dumbledore, already moving to intercept whatever Voldemort has planned.  It is unnecessary.  

Mostly because Harry Potter does it for him.  

“He’s mine, Tom.” 

The parseltongue alone is enough to have stopped Voldemort in his tracks, no matter what he might have been in the middle of.  It always is, when he hears Harry speak it.  The only other with the gift outside of his own bloodline in centuries.  It is a rush, a heady delight, to hear it spoken beyond the tongues of serpents-- though, when Voldemort first discovered Harry Potter stole that gift from him, he’d been enraged.  

Now, though, hearing the soft resolve under the hush of hissed words, Voldemort is drawn back to him.  Is filled to the brim with satisfaction, knowing he can speak with Harry while surrounded by his enemies, and none of them will know what is spoken.  

“So you’ve said,” Voldemort hisses back, easing one step closer to him, ignoring the others and their curious, horrified eyes for the way Harry Potter tilts his chin up like he’s ready to fight Voldemort in nothing but his undergarments.  “And I don’t suppose there’s anything I could offer that would change your mind?” 

Harry’s brows shoot up, his arms still crossed, as stubborn as ever.  “My care for people’s well-being is not bought.” 

“So noble,” Voldemort sneers, stepping close enough that Harry has to look up at him.  

Black seems to let out a snarl more befitting of the werewolf that catches him by the arm to hold him back.  “Step away from my godson--” 

“Sirius,” the werewolf chides, but his eyes are a dangerous gold when Voldemort catches sight of them, darting between himself and Harry.  “Wait.” 

Harry clears his throat, smile terse when Voldemort peers back down at him.  “You were insulting me again?” 

Voldemort very nearly smiles back.  “Was I?” 

“That, and trying to convince me to turn Snape over to you,” Harry nods.  “Not very successfully, I might add.” 

Voldemort doesn’t know what it is about this man that utterly infuriates and delights him in equal measure.  Folding his hands behind his back, he leans in. 

“Perhaps a bit more convincing is in order,” Voldemort says, gaze darting between the burning green of Harry’s eyes.  “Did you know he begged?  Not for mercy on behalf of you or your father, no.  But for you mother?  He begged.” 

Harry blinks up at him.  This close, Voldemort can feel the soft shock of his words hit home.  Can see it, too, in the way Harry’s jaw goes tight.  

Voldemort knows the look on his face is sinister.  “I do believe he loved her a great deal.  Would’ve been elated to have your father and his brood out of the way.” 

Harry’s gaze flickers over Voldemort’s shoulder.  He knows that Harry is looking at Severus.  Judging him, perhaps. 

Finding him wanting, Voldemort hopes. 

Instead, as usual, Harry Potter surprises him.  Firms his jaw and his feet and stands up that much straighter as he stares Voldemort down. 

“Nothing you say will change my mind,” Harry says, and the switch back into English is jarring, even as soft and unrelenting as it is; it is also Harry’s own way of reassuring the others present that Severus is officially off limits, including Severus himself, when he adds: “Severus Snape has saved my life as many times as you have tried to take it.  He falls under our oath.  You cannot touch him.” 

Wetting his lips, Voldemort straightens back out, head tilting as he regards the resolve on Harry’s face.  He knows, without even having to dip into their strange connection, that Harry will not budge on this.  

Severus Snape is someone Harry has decided he cares about.  There is no changing his mind. 

“Understood,” Voldemort says, and takes the subtle widening of Harry’s eyes as satisfaction enough for catching Harry just as off guard as Harry takes him, their last meeting undoubtedly flickering through Harry’s mind. "Congratulations, Lord Potter.  I will be seeing you again, soon.” 

It’s a promise as much as it is a threat.  Voldemort will not leave Harry Potter be, not as long as either of them live, and Voldemort has an infinite amount of time ahead of him.  

As he turns to go, he does not look at any of the others.  They do not matter. 

Harry calls after him.  “Not staying for tea then, Lord Gaunt?” 

Harry Potter is infuriating.  Harry Potter is a delight.  

There is not a man alive that would speak to him the way Harry Potter does.  

Pausing at the door to the flat, Voldemort turns to meet Harry’s stare.  A challenge, clear as day, and Voldemort only does not take it because of the other men in this room.  

“I promise, Harry Potter,” Voldemort hisses, so that only Harry can hear him make this promise, because only Harry’s reaction to it matters.  “That next time, I will stay as long as you wish.” 

The splash of color that warms Harry’s face is as satisfying as the utter horror and mortification that sings between them.  Satisfying enough that, despite the traitor he can no longer exact his vengeance upon, Voldemort leaves the flat with a wicked smile on his face. 

*

“Harry.” 

Sirius’ voice is a desperate rasp.  A reedy, quiet thing, that is both curious and horrified.  Harry doesn’t look away from the door.  

“Harry, what in the bloody hell was that?” 

"Now, Sirius, I'm sure there's a reasonable explanation." Dumbledore says. 

"Reasonable? Reasonable? The bloody Dark Lord just swung by for a casual conversation with my godson, and you call that reasonable, Albus?"

Harry can hear Remus sigh. "Sirius, please. There's no need to get worked up. Nothing happened."

"Yes. Harry handled it all remarkably well." Dumbledore adds.

Harry knows that, if he looked, Dumbledore would be staring at him in something like curiosity-- and perhaps wonder. If he looked, he'd know he would see that twinkle in his eye. 

He doesn't look. 

"Nothing happened?" Sirius' distress is apparent-- and vaguely sweet, if Harry thinks about it-- and echoes Harry's own dread at Voldemort's parting words.  "Moony, did you not see any of that? That noseless prick was-- was-- well, I don't know what he was doing, but it didn't look like nothing!"

Remus sighs. Again. 

"I know, Sirius, but--"

"Potter." 

Snape's voice is quiet. Almost wavering. 

It is the only thing that tears Harry's eyes from the door. 

Turning, Harry peers up at his old potions professor.  Finds his face pinched and pensive. Finds his dark eyes staring down at Harry in a way that he hasn't seen before. 

"Professor?"

Snape sucks in a sharp breath. "What did you do?"

It's almost accusatory. There's that subtle, usual bite to it. But under everything else, there is something shocked. Breathless. 

"I saved your life, professor.  You are no longer in Voldemort's service." Harry says, simply, with a smile. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I really think I ought to put on a pair of trousers before any other surprise guests appear."

He moves to step around him, to head back to his room and find something more appropriate to wear.  A hand catches his arm, long stained fingers wrapped carefully at Harry's bicep. 

Snape is still looking at him like he doesn't know what to make of Harry. Pride pinches at the corners of his eyes and the thin line of his mouth. 

But, to Harry's shock, Snape does not lay into him for being a presumptuous imbecil.  Instead, he tips his head forward, long hair falling into his gaunt face, bowing in his gratitude. 

"Thank you."

Harry feels something like pride well up in his chest. "There's no need to thank me, professor. It was the right thing to do."

Nodding, Snape lets him go. 

Without another word, Harry retreats.

Chapter Text

X.

"Oh, for fuck's sake."

One would think that the charm of catching Harry Potter off guard would've worn thin after the first few occasions. And yet. 

Voldemort thinks perhaps it's a petty vengeance for all the times Harry got away from him. The absolute pleasure he takes out of the way Harry's entire demeanor changes. The quiet ease that melts away for tense apprehension. The way he looks, in an instant, like he is ready to fight for his life-- muscles taut, eyes burning, magic a constant thrum under his skin. 

The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord, indeed. 

"Really, Lord Potter, this is a library," Voldemort chides, rounding the table where Harry is sat, books strewn about, ink on his fingers and his cheek, notes scrawled in a notebook at his elbow. "Show some decorum."

Harry glares up at him from his seat, fingers tight over his quill. Voldemort wonders if Harry's contemplating stabbing him with it. 

He almost wants to see him try.

"How did you get my blood?" Harry asks. 

Voldemort blinks. Cocking his head, he settles into the seat across the table from Harry, fingers folded on the wood between them. 

"Pardon?"

Scoffing, Harry snags up one of the books from further down in his neat stacks and tosses it across the table to him. It lands with a dull thump, a bit of dust flying, and Voldemort's face scrunches up at the lack of care.  The glamours on his face itch. 

When he glances at the book's title-- From Lost to Found: A Comprehensive Collection of Tracking Charms, Spells, and Rituals-- inlaid in gold on leather, Voldemort lifts a brow. Looking back up at Harry, he finds the boy's face is painfully unamused. 

"Playing fool does you very little favor," Harry says. "The scrying. You mentioned it last time, and I remembered where I'd seen the word before-- in your study.  You need my blood to pin down my exact location.  Where did you get it?"

Once again, Harry is full of surprises. He didn't think he'd bother with looking it up-- or figuring out its significance. 

Still, Voldemort refuses to be impressed. 

"What makes you think I didn't just use my own?" Voldemort asks, knowing just what to say to burrow right under Harry's skin-- reminding him of his resurrection always seems to do the trick. 

Harry hardly bats a lash, though Voldemort can see the irritation in his shoulders, if not feel it along their bond, even as Harry's mouth turns up in a bitter smile. "I imagine you did try that. A couple of times. Didn't work, did it?"

Alright. Voldemort is a little impressed. 

"No," he says, and knows his own face has a smile on it. 

Harry leans forward, eyes narrowed. "So. Back to the original question: how did you get my blood?"

Voldemort debates not telling him. Debates letting him stew in the unknown of it. 

A lot of dreadful, wonderful things can be done with a wizard's blood, after all.

It's tempting; to leave Harry with that fear. Tempting, but it will not get him what he wants. Even if what that want is seems to be elusive and opaque every time he thinks on it. 

"The last chase, in Albania." Voldemort finally says. "You sliced your hand open on a rock. Just enough for my needs." 

Harry huffs out a breath, dropping his quill to run a hand over his face. "Of course it was." 

Voldemort watches as he flops back in his seat, pulling his glasses off to rub at his eyes. 

He looks like he always looks, except for that one rare occasion at the Malfoys' Yule Ball, a bit messy but all together too comfortable. Worn muggle trousers and a cotton shirt with a hole in the collar hidden beneath a sweater that looks too big, a big H knit across the chest. Hair an utter disaster. Voldemort doesn't want to think about whatever he's calling shoes. 

Better than nothing but a robe and his underwear, but a true disgrace considering how well he'd shined in that proper, fitted dress robe from the Ball. 

He looks tired, Voldemort thinks, a bit absently. Considering he knows Harry has been here, at the Library of Alexandria all day, it makes sense. 

Harry has never struck him as someone studious. Willing to crack into a book for research, but not for the desire of knowledge itself.  Too stubborn, however, to give in. 

It would be admirable, if it wasn't so utterly frustrating to go up against. 

"Was there something specific you wanted?" Harry asks, still rubbing at his eyes. "Or are you just here to annoy me for fun?"

Voldemort grins. "Was that an option? If I'd known, I would have come sooner."

"Prat," Harry says, dropping his hand to glare at him again, but it lacks its usual venom.  "What did you want, then?"

Voldemort straightens out.  "And if I tell you, would you give me what I want, Harry?"

"I suppose it rather depends on what it is," Harry says, eyeing him with caution that isn't unfairly present. 

They do, generally, have rather conflicting views. 

"There's a bill I want passed being lobbied around members of the Wizengamot,” Voldemort says, taking in the way that Harry suddenly sits forward, elbows on the table, gaze avid on Voldemort’s.  “I have a feeling that your godfather will shoot it down before it is even presented to the floor simply because I intend to sponsor it.  And he will use your votes to do so, unless you tell him otherwise.” 

“You’re actually here for business,” Harry mutters, a wrinkle between his brows and a frown on his lips as his gaze darts down over Voldemort, as if looking for some hidden reason behind this visit.  “You’re actually here to win my political favor.” 

Voldemort dips his head; the only acquiescence he’ll allow.  

“Huh,” Harry breathes to himself, head tilting over.  “Let’s see the bill, then.” 

“It’s in the drafting stages,” Voldemort says, picking and choosing his words with care, knowing that with the votes from the Potter and Black seats, he could easily pass the bill through-- and that without them, it would be an uphill battle.  “It would completely restructure the system for identifying magical children born to non-magical parents and how they are… handled.” 

“Handled?” Harry’s brow arches, tone low with mocking.  “How utterly vague and ominous.” 

“It would be beneficial for every party involved.” 

“Forgive me for not taking your word for it,” Harry mutters, holding out a hand.  “The bill, Lord Gaunt.” 

Jaw working, Voldemort stares him down. 

It would be so easy, he thinks. To whisper the killing curse. To reach across the table and wrap his fingers around Harry's neck. 

But he remembers the last time he had Harry by the throat.  Pinning him in place and watching his face go flush and his eyes glaze over as he gasped helplessly, in the shack of Voldemort's mother, clutching Voldemort's horcrux relentlessly in hand.  His fingers twitch; a flesh memory of heat against his palm. Temptation at its finest. 

He reaches into the inside pocket of his suit coat and pulls out a roll of parchment, instead. 

"The current draft," he says. 

Voldemort offers it out. Harry takes it. 

Sitting back in his chair, Voldemort crosses one leg over the other and folds his hands over his knee as Harry shoves his glasses back on his face and unrolls the parchment.  There are multiple pages within, the scroll thick, but nowhere near as full as it will be once it is ready to be presented on the floor of the Wizengamot. Harry thumbs through them with a visible grimace, but presses it flat onto the table, curling over it as he skims the first page with a sigh. His posture is atrocious, but his focus is unwavering. 

"The Magical Child Relocation Act?" Harry asks, without looking up, and Voldemort takes in the pinch of his features, something he isn't sure is frustration or contemplation. "Be it hereby enacted by the honorable members of the Wizengamot. This bill, upon passing with majority vote, will restructure and overturn the Tracing of Underage Magic Act of 1697 with the addition of further regulations in regards to magical children born to non-magical parents-- including, but not limited to, the relocation of magical children born to non-magical parents delivered to the care of a magical guardian or guardians at the youngest possible age of detection--?" 

Harry cuts himself off, looking up sharply, his face a rictus of exasperated confusion.  At first, Voldemort thinks he's going to have to explain the legal jargon. 

Then, Harry shakes his head, mouth pressing into a thin line.  "Are you mad? Wait, no, actually don't answer that. You're obviously mad, I knew that already."

Voldemort feels something like rage prickle up his spine. His mouth curls into a sneer. 

"I thought, perhaps, you'd be invested in the protection of your precious mudbloods," Voldemort says, and a small part of him not busy being insulted takes a keen glee out of the way Harry vibrates with anger at the slur so easy to roll off Voldemort's tongue.  "You haven't even read the bill in its entirety--"

"The preamble alone suggests that you intend to kidnap children and obliviate their parents," Harry snarls back.  "Every single one-- even if their parents are perfectly accepting and happy to have a magical child." 

Voldemort scoffs, waving a hand, dismissing the absurd statement before he can even give it any thought.  "Happy and accepting or not, magical children need a magical upbringing.  Notifying them at eleven leaves them years behind other magical children, stunting the educational growth of the whole for the needs of the few."

"Yes, alright, then notify them earlier," Harry says, like it's obvious, and Voldemort cannot help but blink in surprise. "Start integrating them into magical education at a younger age, along with children of magical lineage, instead of starting their schooling at eleven. The muggles start their schooling as early as five.  And I know for a fact that most purebloods usually only have tutors until they're eleven, if that at all. Why not start them all earlier?"

"A witch or wizard's core is not stable enough for a proper wand until they reach eleven years of age," Voldemort says, but his sneer is gone and so is his anger, evaporated somewhere between Harry calling him mad and Harry offering up a perfectly logical argument. 

Harry's brows arch up, his hands going out, expressive as always. "And? Who gives a fuck? You can learn loads without a wand-- history, theory, general arithmetic, writing with a bloody quill and parchment. All things that could easily be covered in a classroom and integrates muggleborns into the magical world much easier than stealing them from their parents." 

Voldemort blinks again. He regards Harry, for a long and quiet moment; the vibrance of his eyes, the flush of irritation on his cheeks, the shortness of his breath.  

Oh, Voldemort thinks, it truly is a shame he cannot face this little Lord on the floor of the Wizengamot.  It would make the otherwise tedious meetings far more interesting. 

Surprised, once again, by Harry Potter-- pleasantly so-- Voldemort concedes: "I hadn't thought of that."

Harry's eyes widen behind his glasses. He sits back with a little huff.

"Obviously," he says. 

Voldemort offers up a crooked smile, satisfaction warm in his chest.  He does so enjoy unbalancing Harry as much as Harry unbalances him. 

"Of course, I do not necessarily agree with you," Voldemort adds.

And Harry-- Harry rolls his eyes and smiles. 

"Of course you don't," he says, almost fond, of all things.  "If it was easy and we agreed, the world would fall apart." 

Voldemort finds his smile broadening into a slow grin. 

"Precisely."

"Then, I'm afraid, I will not be able to give you the support of my votes," Harry shrugs. "Not with the bill as it currently stands."

Uncrossing his legs, Voldemort leans forward, elbows on the table and fingers laced between them. Harry watches with those careful green eyes, always so cautious, brow up but smile undiminished. 

"I have a proposition for you," Voldemort offers, because he refuses to let this conversation end here, with his goal unaccomplished.

He refuses to let this conversation end. 

Harry sighs, casting a glance to the books stacked on the table around him. His research and his notes, the things Voldemort knows he thinks he should be focusing on, and Voldemort doesn't feel even a little guilty about pulling him away from it. 

It's not purposeful, but it is certainly a nice bonus. 

With another little huff of a breath, the pinch between Harry's brows easing as he leans forward too, Voldemort watches with something like fascination as Harry debates and thinks and comes to a decision-- resting his chin on his hand as he meets Voldemort's eyes once more. 

"Alright," Harry says, and Voldemort knows there's an edge to his grin now, and he does not care. "I'm listening."

*

Later, Harry will blame it on the fatigue. 

But, really, who could blame him?  Who wants to spend literal months, hunting for every mention of a single topic, through dozens upon dozens of texts that barely mention what he's looking for at all? 

Other than Hermione, anyways. 

In his own defense-- which, really, he only ever has to make for himself to himself, as no one else really knows what he's doing-- Harry has read everything he can find on soul magic with little to no solution.  Soul resonance and soul bonds and reincarnation and soul theory and bloody astral projection of the soul-- all fruitless and not what he's looking for and buried in pages upon pages of outlandish theory that would sound more at home in Trelawney's classroom than in a published piece of pompous purple prose pretending at being academic study. 

Though, he will admit, that some of what he's read of soul resonance and bonds had his skin prickling with a cold sweat at the similarities between the descriptions and his connection with Voldemort.  He tries not to think about that too much. 

The point is, Harry is fully blaming all of this on research exhaustion. This being the fact that, not for the first time this week, Lord Voldemort is bothering him because Harry was stupid enough to agree to work with Voldemort on the bill. 

"You gave the bill to your mudblood?" 

Harry blows out a long, slow breath, faltering where he's halfway down one of the stacks on the second floor of the library, fingers skimming over the leather bound tomes. "Use that word again and you can forget any endorsement I might give."

He glances over at Voldemort, mostly to see if his face reflects the irritation Harry feels ebb off of him, and is pleasantly surprised by the apparent pinch of his features. Something else that has been happening more and more; the slick mask of Lord Thomas Gaunt giving way for the true feeling beneath, for Harry's eyes only. 

He thinks, very rightly, that is probably only due to the fact that they really can't hide from each other anyway. There's no point to the facade. 

"You're infuriating," Voldemort says. 

"Yes, you've mentioned," Harry shrugs, turning back to squint at the faded lettering on the spine of the book in front of him. "You can't blame me for wanting someone brilliant to double check my work."

Plucking the book from the shelf, Harry adds it to the growing pile in his arms and checks the title off of his list. The last book he read on soul resonance, as foundless as it was, cited quite a few sources that mentioned the soul. Some he hadn't come across yet. 

Voldemort being a nuisance

As he turns to head down the aisle, already puzzling out where the next author might be located, he hears Voldemort sigh behind him, swiftly followed by the clip of his shiny oxfords against the marble floor. 

"Why bother with the muggleborn at all?" Voldemort asks, trailing after Harry as he hunts through the stacks. "If you had uncertainties about one of the sections, I would have happily clarified it for you--"

Harry cuts him off with a snort and a look over his shoulder that actually has Voldemort stopping in his tracks. He sneers down at Harry, fingers twitching at his side. 

He looks different today. It's subtle. Hardly even worth noting-- the robes over his suit, the style of his hair, far more formal than usual. Considering there was a Wizengamot meeting this morning, Harry can guess why. 

"What?" Voldemort asks, mouth still twisted with a snarl, insult plain on his face for Harry to see; his patience, or what little he has, seems even shorter today. 

"First, I sincerely doubt you would've happily done anything for me," Harry says, already drifting down another row of books, Voldemort keeping pace behind him. "Second, even if you had, I wouldn't have taken your word for it-- you are the Heir of Slytherin, after all."

Harry feels a little thrill zip from Voldemort's side of the bond. Pride. 

He rolls his eyes. 

"And third," Harry adds, finally coming to a full stop to face this pest of a Dark Lord. "Unlike some people, I am not a savant. My dealings with politics are minimal, at best, and I know when to ask for help from those who will provide it. Also, unlike some people, I'm not ancient. I don't have decades of experience. It made perfect sense to ask for a second set of eyes on a bill that had to do with laws I know little about, from a person who would be in the most affected demographic."

Voldemort blinks down at him. "Most wizards live upwards of 200 years. I'd hardly consider myself ancient."

Harry nearly chokes on his own tongue, a little shocked that Voldemort has chosen to focus on that, but mostly annoyed that Voldemort has chosen to focus on that. 

"And yet you were so afraid of dying, you broke your soul into over half a dozen pieces," Harry snaps. "Speaking of: you're interrupting my research. Again."

With that, Harry turns on his heel and walks away. 

He's positive that's the last of it, as he turns down another row of stacks.  Positive that they've irritated each other enough, that Harry has pushed all the right buttons, to win peace for the rest of the day at the very least. 

Voldemort rarely sticks around once Harry gets waspish enough to bring up his horcruxes, after all. 

It suites Harry just fine.  Harry doesn't much like talking to Voldemort about his horcruxes anyway.  Not when Harry knows he cares more for them than Voldemort ever will. As more than vessels for the broken pieces of him. As more than a means of survival. 

Because Harry, unlike Voldemort, has sat and listened to them. In the quiet of a forest, and now in the silence of a flat empty for all else but him, Harry has sat on his bed, alone, with the two pieces of Tom Riddle's soul and listened. Has heard the angry, broken whispers of a boy long since killed by his own self-loathing. Has been the sole recipient of their quiet agony and has whispered soft assurances in turn. 

Honestly, he probably cares more for the trinkets than Voldemort himself ever has. 

"Your muggleborn," Voldemort says, and Harry feels his muscles seize in shock when he finds him so close, leaning at the entrance to the aisle Harry's on. "You truly trust her guidance?"

"She's brilliant," Harry says, the frown on his face more of confusion than anything else.  

"She's a muggleborn."

"We're halfbloods," Harry replies, squinting at Voldemort; he really doesn't understand how Voldemort relies so heavily on the pureblood propaganda. "And her name is Hermione Granger. Use it."

Voldemort's jaw flexes. The usual sign of his growing anger.

Still, he tucks his hands into the pockets of his slacks and nods his head. 

"Miss Granger, then." Voldemort says.  "When will she have her… guidance returned to you?"

"Knowing 'Mione?" Harry shrugs, focus falling fully now to the man in front of him. "Give it a long weekend. But it is NEWT season."

"A week, then." Voldemort nods. "And what will you be doing in the interim?"

Harry looks down at the books in his arms and then back up. "Really?"

Voldemort regards him for a moment. Harry very nearly dreads the slow smile that spreads over his face. 

"You have realized you won't find what you're looking for out here in the public sections, haven't you?" 

Harry closes his eyes, resisting the urge to either throw the books in his hands at Voldemort's face or just drop them and leave. "Please tell me that the Secret Library of Alexandria doesn't have a secret library hidden within it."

The weight in his arms is suddenly gone. Harry opens his eyes to see the tomes he'd painstakingly collected go zooming off with a wave of Voldemort's wand. 

Then, Voldemort steps forward and takes him by the wrist. "Come now, Harry. Don't look so disappointed. Follow me."

*

The walk to the hidden study on the third floor is a quick one.  It’s muscle memory, a path Voldemort could probably follow with his eyes closed, despite the years it has been sense he spent his youth drowning himself in this library.  

Just like Harry, back when Voldemort was still Tom Marvolo Riddle, he’d spent months in the public sections, consuming every worthy piece of literature he could get his hands on.  The only problem had been that, just like Harry, the regular stacks held little to no answers for him.  It wasn’t until nearly a year into his studies that he managed to find the hidden study-- hidden behind the stacks, beyond the near floor to ceiling portrait of the pyramids in all their glory, and into the dim hallway of sandstone and firelight. 

Harry follows dutifully behind him.  For all that he bucks and protests the shackles of following, he takes to it beautifully when he lets Voldemort lead.  During their discussion on the bill, he’d sat and listened to Voldemort make his points, interjecting only when he vehemently disagreed or didn’t understand something.  Now, his wrist caught in Voldemort’s grasp, he trails along after, more curious than belligerent.  

It’s a strange thing, wanting to encourage that curiosity.  Wanting to see if it will blossom and bloom the way Harry’s mind has, cunning and earnest and sharp.  

It is the only reason, Voldemort tells himself, that he is making Harry’s search easier.  The search that, Voldemort knows, is pointless anyway.  Though, he has no plans of telling Harry that.  

The door they finally come upon is a simple one to open.  A simple tap of the wand to the engraving at the center.  Then, it swings open, into the study.  

It’s as glamorous, as ostentatious as the library itself-- though, the natural light, the golds, the light stone and towering floors are not present.  Arched ceilings, bolstered by dark wood beams, walls lined with shelves, no sunlight to be seen.  Instead, it is torches, flickering to life as Voldemort pulls Harry into the room, the door shutting behind them, and at the far end of the room, a bowl of eternal flame, casting Harry’s face in shades of blue.  

There are more than just books and a few pieces of art, here, in this study.  Artifacts and cursed objects and all of the dark things young witches and wizards are warned go bump in the night.  

Voldemort has already seen them all.  Studied what interested him in detail.  Instead, his attention falls, as it always seems to these days, to Harry Potter. 

His wrist, still in Voldemort’s hand, is warm to the touch. 

“What is this place?” Harry asks. 

He sounds breathless.  With the advantage of Harry’s skin against his own, Voldemort can feel the more subtle nuances of Harry’s emotions through their connection: the curiosity, the trepidation, the reluctant awe.  

“This, Harry,” Voldemort says, something pleased in his chest as Harry’s eyes dart around the room, and his palms itch and his mouth floods like he’s swallowed something tarte, only relieved as he releases Harry’s wrist in order to pace around to Harry’s back, easing his hands over Harry’s shoulders and leaning down to speak, softly and intently, into his ear.  “Is everything that you cannot find where the public might frown upon it.  Everything dark and frightening and powerful.” 

He can feel Harry’s shoulders draw taut under his palms.  Can hear the hitch of his breath.  Can sense the war of fear and desire as Voldemort presses along the length of his back.

“Such a Gryffindor,” Voldemort chides, unable and unwilling to stop the smile that spreads over his face as Harry goes still and quiet in his hold.  “Reading about dark things will not make you dark, Harry.  There’s no shame in being curious.” 

“Pretty sure there’s a saying about curiosity,” Harry mutters, though it is not as sharp as it usually is.  

Voldemort hums.  “And will you let that stop you?” 

Harry huffs, and Voldemort feels muscles ease under his fingertips, though tension remains; he wonders what it would take to rid Harry of all of it.  “I know what you’re doing.  You’re not nearly as sly as you think you are.” 

“But you are curious, aren’t you?” Voldemort asks, squeezing at one of Harry’s shoulders and gesturing forward with the other hand.  “What you’re looking for is in this room, that I can promise you.  But that is not the only thing you will find.  I spent months in this very room, reading all that I could.  You will not find judgement from me, Harry.”

Voldemort steps back, then.  Releases his hold on Harry, hands dropping to his sides, and he watches.  Watches as the boy, prophecized as his downfall, takes a tentative step forward.  Watches as Harry, oh so carefully, drifts deeper into the study.  

At his sides, his fingers flex, feeling the absence of Harry’s warmth. 

Voldemort waits.  Watches and waits as Harry starts to make his way around the room.  

He does not go for any of the books on the shelves, not yet, and Voldemort understands that.  The blue light of the eternal flame coaxes him close first, and as he rounds the bowl propped on arched obsidian, Voldemort catches sight of his face.  The pinch of his brows, the subtle frown curving his mouth, eyes still so green, even with his features washed in blue.  

Harry jerks, like he wants to reach out and touch, but stops himself.  He imagines, rightly so, that Harry learns better with his hands dirty.  Imagines that he has little use for words written in old books or professors droning on.  Give him something to touch, something concrete, something to physically puzzle out, and he will flourish.  

Voldemort wonders, as Harry drifts on past the cauldron of Pair Dadeni as blue flame licks up the sides, what it would be like to duel him now.  

Harry moves, past artifact after artifact, stopping along the edges of the vast room.  He rarely pauses long, too busy reading the plaques placed before each item-- though, they do not reveal much.  Names, perhaps, and occasionally dates.  The Armour of Örvar-Oddr, silver and shimmering and shiny; the shield of Dubán, gold and engraved with delicate runes; Nægling, the sword, far too large for most mortal men to lift; a shard of Draconite, black and endless, gleaming with the dragonfire that borne it.  He pauses only upon the holly spring rumored to have been the very same that Loptr used to begin the rights of Ragnarok-- and then, finally, comes to a stop at one of the center pieces of the room: a book made of solid black gold near the center of the room. 

Harry seems stuck there, staring at the hieroglyphs that decorate the front, at the keylock in the shape of a star and the engraving of a scarab at the center.  Voldemort tilts his head, taking in the way Harry’s brows smooth out, in the way he reaches out and lets his fingers hover.  

Even from where he’s standing, Voldemort can feel Harry’s longing.  As if he has come across something that he has known and has been missing.  As if the ancient book in front of him is something that Harry feels belongs to him. 

It’s fascinating. 

“What is this?” Harry finally asks, voice rough and low in the dark of the room.  

Voldemort eases closer, steps into his space, looking down upon the golden tome with him.  “The Book of the Dead.” 

Harry’s hands jerk back.  “The what?” 

Voldemort reaches around him, drawing his fingertips across the surface of the text; Harry seizes at his side, as if he might reach out and pull Voldemort’s touch away from it.  “They call it the Black Book.  It’s said to contain ancient spells and incantations that could resurrect the dead.” 

Beside him, Harry shudders and swallows.  “Is it real?  Or just more mythology?” 

“There have been some,” Voldemort says, eyes on the way Harry tracks Voldemort’s proprietary hand on the cover of the tome.  “Dark wizards, of course, who have… found some truth to a few of the curses within.  Do you know what an inferius is, Harry?” 

Harry blinks up at him.  “No.” 

“A corpse, reanimated by magic,” Voldemort says, grin sharp as Harry pales.  “They’re puppets.  Not truly alive.  Not truly dead.  Necromancy.  The closest any could come to the claims of resurrection this book has.” 

Harry’s breath is short.  Voldemort savors it-- the way Harry looks at him, eyes darting over his face, a subtle tremor leaving him quaking before Voldemort in a way he hasn’t since he was, perhaps, 14 years old.  

“You--” Harry cuts himself off, wetting his lips, and Voldemort can practically smell his fear; his curiosity.  “You’ve done it.  Created an inferius.” 

“I’ve created many, Harry.” Voldemort confides, leaning in, wanting to taste that fear.  “I learned in my travels.  Haiti.  Not long after I left Egypt, when I was hardly older than you.” 

Harry’s lashes flutter as he blinks, lips parting like he might ask something more.

Before he can, Voldemort reaches up, discarding his lingering touch on the Book of the Dead in order to curve his hand along Harry’s jaw.  “Would you like me to teach you, Harry?” 

Harry stumbles back a step, knocking Voldemort’s hand away.  

Any fear is quickly consumed by anger.  Voldemort is surprised to find he prefers it. 

“You’re disturbed,” Harry snarls. 

“And yet, you’re still curious, aren’t you?” Voldemort asks with a smile. 

Harry can’t deny it; Voldemort knows it and knows that Harry knows it.  

He can feel the static, the subtle electricity, of Harry’s magic.  Heady and wild and free. 

Harry turns on his heel and heads for the door.  “Don’t come back until I owl you.  I won’t have anything to speak with you about until I have Hermione’s notes on the bill.” 

Voldemort doesn’t reply.  Not until Harry stops and turns to look at him.  

“Do I need to repeat myself, or do you understand?” Harry snaps. 

Voldemort is torn, as Harry usually leaves him these days, between rage and delight.  “Understood, Harry.  I look forward to your owl.” 

Harry doesn’t reply before he storms from the room. 

Chapter Text

XI.

“Your Miss Granger is surprisingly efficient,” Voldemort says. 

Harry purses his lips, glancing up at him from the book in his hands.  It’s hardly been a week since he’s last seen him, provoking him in the very same study Harry is now hiding in, a book on the darkest of magics in his hands.  

Honestly, Hermione had the bill with her notes on it back to him by the weekend, along with a long rant via floo that had Harry’s ears ringing by the end.  Harry just hadn’t wanted to deal with Voldemort’s taunting. 

“She’s got quite a bit to say,” Harry finally replies.  “You aren’t going to like a lot of it.”

Voldemort tilts his head.  There’s no Wizengamot robes today.  Just Voldemort with his glamours and nice slacks and his usual button up.  All pressed, all pristine.  Like he can’t stand to not be clothed in the finest of things, even when there’s no one to impress. 

“What makes you assume that?” 

Harry rolls his eyes, squinting back down at the book in his hands instead of trying to confront Voldemort’s searching gaze.  “She’s far more progressive than you are.  I imagine she went to such extremes to counteract your own, actually.” 

“Oh?” Harry glances up as Voldemort rounds the empty wingback chair across from him-- one of the few little study nooks in this hidden place-- and takes a seat.  “Why do you believe she would do that?” 

Harry sighs and closes the book in his hands, resting it on the coffee table between them. 

Honestly, as put upon as he is to have Voldemort join him again-- despite having been the one to owl him in the first place-- he’s actually quite relieved to put a pause on his research.  Reading about dark things may not make Harry dark, but some of what he’s found has certainly been disturbing.  

Some of the spells and rituals he’s found so far are enough to put him off.  It doesn’t help that he’s been actively avoiding the Book of the Dead since his first visit to the private study.  Nor does the few books on sex magic he’s found; that had been a bit of an eye-opener.  One he’d quickly shut and then shelved again.  

“It’s the logic of bargaining, isn’t it?” Harry asks, resting back in his own chair, meeting Voldemort’s gaze and feeling the thread of their connection waking more with their proximity the way it is wont to do; at least, Harry thinks, there is no physical touch to open it further.  The last time they were in here together, with Voldemort’s hands on him having Harry’s nerves lighting up, Harry had nearly lost himself in Voldemort’s own wicked satisfaction.  “Highball until you meet somewhere in the middle.” 

Voldemort hums, a smile on his face, one leg crossing over the other as he threads his fingers over his knee; settling in, comfortable, completely at ease in contrast to the constant tension Harry feels around him.  “Smart,” Voldemort says.  “Very smart, Harry.” 

“I didn’t come up with it,” Harry shrugs, uncomfortable with the concept of Voldemort complimenting him.  “That was all Hermione.” 

“Don’t sell yourself short, Harry.” Voldemort says.  “You recognize the tactic.  I imagine you’ve utilized it yourself in your own amendments of the bill.  Am I wrong?” 

Harry huffs out a breath.  “No.  You’re not wrong.  It was rather easy to contradict most of it anyways.  The original is… absurd.” 

“Tactful,” Voldemort says, lips pressing thin, and even annoyance is charming on that face.  “Insulting my efforts is not how you will find compromise.” 

“I’m sorry.  Is abhorrent more to your taste?” Harry asks, unable to stop himself from offering a sweet, guileless smile.  

Voldemort’s eyes narrow, and behind all those layers of magic, Harry can see the red of them.  “Careful, Harry.  I’m doing my best to be… nice.  It would only be fair that you are as well.” 

“I’d prefer to be honest,” Harry says, unrepentant; he doesn’t owe Voldemort kindness, not as they currently stand.  “I will not grovel before you-- you’ve got plenty of others to do that.  How are your followers handling this all, by the way?” 

For a moment, Voldemort does not reply.  Harry thinks, perhaps, that he might simply demand the amended bill from Harry and leave.  That Harry has already chipped away at his patience.  

Then, Voldemort leans forward, uncrossing his legs, elbows on his knees as he studies Harry’s face.  “Would you really like to know, Harry?” 

Harry blinks, pithy retort caught in the back of his mouth for a second, but only a second.  “Not well, I take it?” 

Voldemort’s smile is vicious; Harry feels almost like he’s just walked into a trap.  

“They have fallen in line.  My followers were built for war, Harry.  A war that came to a standstill the night I gave you that scar on your head.” Voldemort says, and Harry very nearly reaches for the lightning bolt on his skin.  “And then, not long after I’ve returned and the most loyal of them are freed from their prisons, I found myself and by proxy my followers bound by an oath from a child.  Their rebellion stopped before it could even begin--” 

“Rebellion?  Are you even listening to yourself?” Harry scoffs.  “What’s rebellious about the privileged vying for even more privilege?” 

“My followers know that I would lead the wizarding world to a new era,” Voldemort sneers.  “They knew that they would no longer have to bow and cater to the whims of muggles and muggleborns.” 

“Bow and cater?” Harry squints at him, a headache already throbbing at the back of his head.  “There’s not a single pureblood alive that bows and caters to the muggleborns in our world.  They’re all too happy to bully and judge and discriminate against them.  Draco Malfoy was calling Hermione a mudblood in our second year.  We were twelve and that pointy faced prat thought he was better than her because she was a muggleborn, better than Ron because his family didn’t have as much money, and better than me because I was raised by muggles and was a halfblood.  We were twelve-- that’s learned behavior, Tom.  Behavior he learned from his father, your follower, about who was better than who based on nothing but status and blood, and you know it.” 

“It isn’t as simple as that,” Voldemort shakes his head.  “It’s--” 

“It’s prejudice, Tom.  Simple as that.   And I don’t understand how you can buy into the pureblood rhetoric anyways.” 

“Blood is power.” 

“That’s bullshit, and you know that too.” Harry snaps, and he feels agitation-- both his own and Voldemort’s-- building up in his chest, feels his magic bleed out a bit in response until his hair is standing on end.  “I mean, Merlin, Tom-- you know how powerful you are.  You know you’re a genius-- but you’re blindingly stupid when it comes to this.” 

“When it comes to what?” Voldemort hisses, eyes red and dangerous, but Harry doesn’t care.  

Not now.  Not when this has been something, an egregious character flaw, a schism in logic, that Harry has seen in Voldemort since he read Dumbledore’s journal about him.  Since he understood, more fully, the boy from the diary he first properly met in his second year.

“When it comes to the fact that, despite whatever pureblood bullshit you want to spout, you’re one of the most powerful wizards alive.  And you’re a halfblood.”  Harry says, leaning forward, gaze held with Voldemort’s even as those crimson eyes widen.  “If blood is power, then how do you explain yourself?” 

“I’m the Heir to the Slytherin line,” Voldemort replies.  

“And?  So was your uncle.  Would you call him powerful?” 

Voldemort’s mouth twists with his disdain.  “My family never had the ambition --” 

“Your family was the product of incest,” Harry says, firm, with no room for argument.  “As many pureblood families are.  And they all cower at the feet of a halfblood, stronger and more brilliant than all of them.  The Gaunt line was nearly extinct before you, a halfblood, came along.  And the most damning thing about it all is that you know this.  You know it’s true, that blood has nothing to do with power, but you use that prejudice to your advantage.” 

“And what is to my advantage, Harry?” Voldemort asks, voice low, gaze intent on Harry’s face.  “What is my ultimate goal?”

“The destruction of or complete separation from muggles,” Harry says.  “Because of what you went through as a child, and the hate you have for them is far greater than the hate you have for the pretentious pricks you’ve convinced to treat you as a god.  Which, frankly, I think is it’s own vengeance.  The very same pureblood families that belittled you when you first arrived at Hogwarts, left to fear or worship you now.  Am I wrong?” 

For a long moment-- a very long moment-- Voldemort does nothing but look at him.  Even their connection, usually so loud when they are close, feels almost numb.  

Then, Voldemort laughs.  

Leaning back in his chair, hand curled over his mouth, Voldemort laughs.  

Harry blinks.  Tension burns up his spine.  Voldemort’s eyes are creased at the corners, his amusement raw and present, in a way that Harry has never felt or seen before.  

In a way, it’s sort of stunning.  

“What?” Harry asks, voice clipped, hackles raising. 

“Oh, Harry,” Voldemort breathes, mouth still curved in a bright smile that Harry knows charmed dozens of people when Voldemort was still Tom Riddle.  “I must say, I’m impressed.”

“Excuse me?” 

Pressing back forward until his elbows are on his knees, head cocking over, Voldemort grins.  “I’m impressed.  You’re startlingly perceptive.  I don’t believe anyone has ever realized just how much joy I take out of watching purebloods, that would love nothing more than to look down upon me for my lineage, kneel at my feet.” 

Harry blinks once.  Then twice.  

“So you admit it,” Harry says.  “You admit that all of that blood is power stuff is bullshit.” 

“I wouldn’t say that, Harry.” Voldemort clicks his tongue.  “But you are right in that my goal is the… separation of the magical and muggle world.  I would admit to destruction, but our oaths leave no space for that.  And you are certainly right that I take a great deal of pleasure from watching the purebloods grovel to a halfblood.” 

“You’re using them,” Harry says, right as the realization fully settles at the back of his mind.  “You’re using them because their wants suit your needs.  They think they’re better than muggleborns and muggles, and you’re taking advantage of that.” 

Voldemort’s grin looks sharp, almost hungry, like Harry is looking at the face of a predator.  “Yes, Harry, very good.” 

Harry flops back in his chair.  “You’re an utter sociopath.  Do you not care for anyone?  At all?” 

“Did the gods care for the disciples?” Voldemort asks, gesturing with a lazy hand about the room littered with artefacts from myth and legend.

“But you’re not a god,” Harry says.  “You’re a man that likes to think he is.  But you’re not.”

“You said it yourself, Harry, and we both know it’s true: I am one of the most powerful wizards alive.  And you know that, as long as my horcruxes are kept safe, I’m immortal.” Voldemort says, and Harry’s skin crawls a bit at the way Voldemort says it, earnest and honest and with complete faith in his own claims.  “My Death Eaters fear me, respect me, worship me.  Would you not call that a god?” 

Harry feels as if the breath has been knocked right from his lungs.  Like he’s taken a sharp drop on his broom and the earth is coming up too fast. 

It’s a tragedy.  Lord Voldemort is sitting before him, wearing the face of who he could have been, speaking as if fear and respect and worship are all a person needs.  It’s a tragedy.  

“No, Tom,” Harry says, the pang of sorrow in his chest choking his words.  “I’d call that a man trying his best to pretend he’s happy with what he has.” 

Finally, the smile on Voldemort’s face seems to slip.  “I have everything.  Practically the entire world at my fingertips-- despite the obstacles you have placed in my way.  I have everything.” 

“Everything,” Harry nods, and he knows that Voldemort must feel Harry’s mess of sorrowregretanger because Harry can feel it, his ribs going tight.  “Everything-- and nothing.  Nothing that truly matters in the world.” 

Voldemort has gone stiff.  Rigid.  He stares at Harry like Harry might pull out his wand any moment. 

“And what matters, Harry?  What truly matters?” Voldemort asks, upper lip curling with some amount of disgust, voice taut with derision. 

“Companionship.  Trust.” Harry shrugs, and his voice hardly sounds like his own right now, his head ringing with Voldemort’s increasing anger-- and something else.  Something Harry can’t name.  “Joy and friendship and family.  Love. You have power and followers and a lordship and all those other things, yes-- but you have a half life, in all other things.  And I--” 

Harry cuts himself off, shocked at the strength of his own empathy.  At the idea of living the way Voldemort does.  At how lonely he truly must be.  

He swallows it down. 

“And I feel sorry for you,” Harry confesses on a breath. 

*

Love. 

Voldemort has heard the same rhetoric spill from Dumbledore's mouth over a dozen times. That love, above all else, conquers all. That one could not know true happiness, could never have a truly fulfilled life, without love. 

To hear Harry Potter echo that same sentiment leaves Voldemort seething. 

You have a half life… and I feel sorry for you. 

Three weeks. Three weeks and Voldemort still cannot get his words, his expression, his emotions out of his mind. 

I feel sorry for you, Harry had said. 

So earnest. So honest. So lacking in pity. 

At first, Voldemort had thought that was what it was. Pity. Disgusting and simpering and insulting.  He'd wanted to snarl and snap, wanted to draw his wand and strike this stupid boy down. Had thought, blind, and only for a moment: how dare he?

Until he'd realized that there was something there, something in their connection that wasn't his, and when he'd recognized it as pain-- as one so immense, tinged with such longing, that it rivaled and echoed his own, when he'd been younger-- that he'd let himself pause long enough to evaluate what Harry Potter was truly offering him. 

Empathy. 

A true and simple understanding. A sorrow and a pain and a rage and a yearning that Voldemort recognized like a reflection of his youth. 

It was jarring enough for Voldemort to hold his tongue, to hold his wrath, just long enough to ask for Harry's notes on the bill and take his leave. Startling enough to have him still lingering on it, on the way Harry Potter had looked at Lord Voldemort as if he understood, weeks later. 

He'd yet to face Harry since. Refused to, until he could grasp it-- that a boy who, by all rights, appeared loved and cherished, could ever understand Lord Voldemort. That he could feel that same destructive yearning that had driven him when he was still Tom Riddle. 

Focusing his mind on the addendum Harry had obviously added to the bill-- with his muggleborn's notes littering the parchment-- about removing magical children from dangerous homes, he thinks perhaps he might have found the first threads of it. Of unraveling the tapestry that made up the preposterous enigma of Dumbledore's Golden Boy.

When Severus had still been in his service, back before Harry had so thoroughly claimed him and before their initial chase had begun, he'd been told that the Potter boy was spoiled.  Doted upon and tended to worse than the Malfoy brat.  Selfish and foolhardy and pompous.  Full of himself from years spent with a silver spoon in his mouth. 

His defense of muggles made sense, then. Of course he'd want the family who raised him protected. 

Reading this amendment, when Harry had so vehemently protested the relocation of all magical children, it appears to speak to something different than what he'd been led to believe.

Addendum III

Under the purview of the aforementioned committee overlooking the Rights of Muggleborn and Magical Children (RMMC) established in section II, this document will guarantee the creation of a subcommittee employed specifically to attend to each magical child in their homes in order to establish the following: 

  • Safe and secure living quarters with access to standard comforts required for child development, such as:
  • Bed and bedding
  • Clothes
  • Shower/bath, toilet, and other restroom facilities
  • Items of interest, such as books or developmentally beneficial toys
  • Steady and normal meals or access to food appropriate for general child development
  • Access to fresh, clean water
  • Freedom of ability to:
  • Attend primary school as necessary
  • Leave housing quarters while attended by parent or guardian
  • Acquaint with other children of a similar age in social and academic settings

If the above minimum requirements are not seen or met, the committee may choose to remove the magical child from their Non-Magic parents and/or guardians and relocate them to a designated magical guardian (see subsection II-B) until such a time as requirements are met.  If the problem remains unresolved, Obliviation of the original Non-Magic guardian(s) may be voted upon by the committee and permanent relocation of the magical child may occur.  

It’s a small addendum that speaks loudly.  One that, at first, Voldemort believed to have stemmed from Harry’s knowledge-- given to him by Hogwarts’ Headmaster-- of Voldemort’s own upbringing.  But the notes scribbled along the edges by the underlined section on Obliviation, in a hand that isn’t Harry’s, says otherwise: 

Is Obliviation and relocation the only purview the committee has?  These are just standard expectations of a proper homelife, Harry. If a child is lacking these standards, there should be some sort of charge leveled against the parents/guardians.  Abuse, especially child abuse, is a chargeable offense in the muggle world.  What are our options? 

Then, just under that, is Harry’s own chicken scratch reply: 

Would negligence even qualify as abuse?  Are there already laws in the wizarding world established to handle such cases?  If so, what are they and can they be applied to muggle/Non-Magic parents or guardians?  

There’s no answer to the questions, left in black ink, stark against the parchment.  Voldemort can only assume that they are questions that Harry, rather specifically, meant for Voldemort to answer.  A rather wild concept, if Voldemort is being very honest, that Harry would ask in the first place.  

Or, rather, that Harry would ask him. 

Though, considering their conversation after Harry had passed his copy of the bill onto his little muggleborn friend, and the fact that Harry had not only noticed but commented on Voldemort’s knowledge of the political ins-and-outs of wizarding law, it does make a sort of sense.  It is obvious his friend does not know or does not have access to the answers to their questions, so the only other option would be to ask Voldemort himself. 

If Voldemort feels a small amount of satisfaction, knowing Harry had turned to him for answers, there’s no one but himself and Harry Potter to ever know about it.  Even if the satisfaction of it all is very promptly buried by an all too familiar curiosity and an even more unfamiliar concern.  

Would negligence even qualify as abuse? Harry asks, plain as day, ink on parchment.  Voldemort closes his eyes and sees the expression Harry’s face, those green eyes soft and solemn from behind wire-rimmed glasses, brows pinched and lips pressed thin as he told Voldemort what he believed mattered: 

Companionship.  Trust.  Joy and friendship and family.  Love. 

In his mind, he sees Harry looking at him in that dim study in the Library of Alexandria.  He sees Harry looking at him, at all his accomplishments, and finding him wanting.  He sees Harry looking at him, a keen understanding on his face and dancing over the connection between them, as he says: 

And I feel sorry for you. 

Because, somehow, Harry knows what existing like that is.  Has felt it, seen it, experienced it himself.  He has known a life without those things, the things he thinks matters most, and he sees Voldemort without them and feels sorry for him. 

Another thing Lord Voldemort does not know about Harry Potter.  Another thing he is hungry to uncover.  

It is the reason he calls upon Lucius.  The reason he barely looks at his kneeling form when he arrives, waving a dismissive hand even as he summons his glamours to hide his unearthly visage, and orders Lucius to look into Harry Potter’s previous guardians, to use whatever means he deems necessary to do so, and to get the information back to him promptly before dismissing him. 

It is the reason he gathers the addendum Harry Potter spent so long crafting, rolling it up, and apparating to the last point he’d found Harry’s location-- the lounge that hides the entrance to the Library of Alexandria.

It is noon in Egypt.  The sun is high and warm in the sky; increasingly hot as summer draws nearer and nearer.  Voldemort is all at once loathsome and grateful for the heat, for he finds the robes over his normal crisp formal wear stifling even as, once setting his gaze upon the young man he’s traveled all this way for, he finds the lack sweater on Harry’s form is much more appealing.  

Even if the boy is only wearing a worn shirt and torn jeans.  

Sitting at a table outside of the cafe, Harry’s head is tossed back as he laughs.  He is not alone.  Across from him is another young man, skin darker and hair longer, pulled back into a messy bun of curls.  He’s dressed professionally, or at the very least, as a proper wizard should in this heat; pressed slacks and a linen shirt.  

It doesn’t take Voldemort long to recognize the young man-- a librarian, or the librarian, he has passed a dozen times in order to find Harry hidden within the depths of the stacks-- just as it doesn’t take long for Harry to notice his arrival.  

His attention is neatly and efficiently snagged as Voldemort paces over to their table, brow raised, and Voldemort cannot put to words the sensation that practically shudders its way through him once those green eyes are on him and only him.  As Harry’s attention falls fully and completely into Voldemort’s hands before he even need say a single word.  

As it should be.  

“Lord Gaunt,” Harry says, and Voldemort savors the way his shoulders draw tight, the way his eyes seem suddenly that much brighter, the way his spine draws straight where he sits-- and he grins at the subtle thrum of irritation and caution he sees and feels as Harry regards him.  “What a pleasant surprise.” 

Voldemort knows he means anything but.  

“Lord Potter,” he dips his head, unwilling to take his eyes from Harry’s own.  “I am dreadfully sorry to interrupt, but I would like to steal a moment of your time to discuss… business.” 

“Business,” Harry repeats, tone dull and utterly unimpressed, but Voldemort can feel the irritation in him build to consume any wariness he might’ve had-- just as he can see it in the way Harry glances fleetingly at the librarian across from him and drums his fingers against the top of the table.  “Right.  And you couldn’t post an owl?” 

“I’m afraid it’s rather pressing,” Voldemort says, finally drawing his gaze away in order to address the other man at the table.  “My apologies, mister…?” 

“Oh, please, call me Omar,” the man says with a bright smile.  “Are all English wizards so formal, Harry?” 

“Most of them,” Harry sighs. 

“Omar,” Voldemort says, clipped, patience already dwindling.  “I am afraid I must steal your… companion."

“Of course,” Omar dips his head, already pushing to his feet as he exchanges a small smile with Harry from across the table.  “My lunch break is nearly over anyway.  I’ll see you back later this afternoon?” 

Harry perks.  “Yes--” 

“Actually,” Voldemort smiles, lips pressed thin, already moving to slide into the place that Omar the librarian has just vacated.  “I believe this might end up taking much of our time.  Well into the evening, perhaps.” 

“Tomorrow, then,” Omar says, unperturbed, eyes locked with Harry’s own and smile crooked; Voldemort bristles.  “You can return my transliterator, then.” 

“Oh!” Harry goes to dig into the satchel at his side.  “I forgot--” 

“Don’t worry about it,” Omar laughs.  “It’ll give me an excuse to speak with you in the morning.  Have a good day, Harry.  Harry’s friend.” 

With a polite bow, more shallow than Voldemort would like, Omar takes his leave-- heading back into the lounge and through toward the back, where the entrance to the library would be.  As soon as he is gone, any joy in Harry is lost.  He leans back in his seat, arms folded over his chest, brows up, all annoyance.  Any careful caution he’d had upon Voldemort’s arrival has evaporated. 

Voldemort knows he’s waiting for an explanation.  He keeps him waiting. 

Waves down a waiter, has his half of the table cleared, orders a cup of tea.  Harry is rolling his eyes by the time he’s done, but he’s already more relaxed.  There’s no frustration burning at the edges of Voldemort’s teeth-- none of Harry’s, anyway-- and Voldemort can see it in the way his shoulders slump, in the way he drags a hand through the mess of his dark hair, a touch of sweat from the sun clinging to his skin.  

“Hello, Harry.  It’s been a while, hasn’t it?” Voldemort asks, when he finally has his tea, and exasperation thrums clear and bright between them.  

“After you scarpered off during our last conversation, I’d hoped it would be longer,” Harry retorts, tongue as sharp as usual, unashamed of their last meeting.  “If you’re looking for an apology, you won’t get one.”

There will be no bowing or cowering or begging, not from Harry Potter.  

Voldemort finds it utterly refreshing.  

“Nonsense, Harry,” Voldemort waves a hand, sitting back and crossing one leg over the other, sipping his tea idly.  “The words of a boy hardly have any lasting impact.” 

“And yet, the words of a prophecy of unknown origin seem to be so life changing.  Life ending, if you prefer.” Harry says, smile terse.  “Funny double standards you have, Lord Gaunt.” 

Voldemort practically vibrates with some dreadful, delightful cross between outrage and amusement.  How had he gone nearly a month without this little thorn in his side? 

“You’re cross with me,” Voldemort notes, eyes tracking over Harry’s form, the compact and inert power held there, the magic he can practically taste hovering about him.  “For interrupting your date?” 

Harry seems to choke.  His face goes pink, as do his ears, and isn’t that a lovely sight? 

“It-- It wasn’t a date,” he says, shaking his head.  “He’s helping me with some of my translations-- has been lending me this while I research.” 

He pulls something from his bag and sets it on the table between them.  A little disc of glass, a bit like a magnifier, but Voldemort can sense the charm carved into the wood of its handle.  

At Voldemort’s raised brow, Harry huffs. 

“You can’t expect me to learn 105 new and dead languages.  Omar’s transliterator does the work for me.”

“You could cast a simple translation spell?  Charm your glasses, perhaps?” Voldemort asks.  

“Is that what you did?  A new translation spell for each language you couldn’t read yourself?” Harry asks, gesturing single-handedly to the glass.  “This is universal.  Faster, simpler.” 

“Innovation, thy name is convenience,” Voldemort sighs with some disdain and Harry’s lips press thin.  “It is… interesting, I suppose.” 

“You suppose.” 

“Yes,” Voldemort smiles, all teeth.  “Just as, I suppose, your addendum is.  Interesting bit of policy.” 

It is almost instant, the way Harry draws short.  The easy back and forth of their usual conversation-- Voldemort would go so far as to call it banter, if he ever participated in such a thing-- comes to an abrupt halt.  

Rage, curiosity, fear, sorrow-- all things Voldemort has seen on Harry Potter’s face.  This, though, the sudden shuttering of his eyes, the dull glaze of them, the tight line of his jaw and his mouth, is new.  For the first time since Voldemort has known Harry Potter, Harry is completely guarded.  

“Is it?” Harry asks.

“Incredibly,” Voldemort says, unwilling to tear his gaze away from Harry’s own, finding even their connection seeming to have numbed at the turn in conversation.  “Wherever did you get such an idea?” 

“What do you mean?” 

“Well, I don’t suppose it was from your muggleborn.  You are rather adamant that her parents are very… supportive of her magical nature.”  Voldemort says, reaching into his cloak to pull the bit of parchment free, setting in on the table between them.  “And yet, you’ve detailed a perfectly abhorrent situation for a magical child in a non-magical household.  Even your muggleborn calls it what it is: abuse.  Something that wizarding law has no inherent court history of or precedence for-- not for muggleborns, not for halfbloods, and not for purebloods.” 

Harry winces-- and then his face twists up.  “What, are you saying there’s no history of pureblood parents abusing and abandoning their squib children?  Or of their pureblood children?  I know for a fact that the Blacks weren’t exactly kind to their children-- and I’ve heard about Neville Longbottom’s uncle tossing him out a window to see if he would bounce.  You can’t tell me those are singular instances.” 

“No, I cannot.  And I won’t.  But they were never taken to court.” Voldemort says, eyes narrowing.  “And you are avoiding the question.” 

Harry, though, is leaning forward.  “Are you telling me that there is no precedence for prosecuting child abusers in English wizarding law?” 

Voldemort blinks.  “Magical parents cherish their magical children.  There would be no need of it--” 

“No need?” Harry scoffs.  “Tell that to my godfather.  Tell that to Neville Longbottom.  Hell, tell that to Draco Malfoy.  I can’t imagine that, despite being spoiled rotten, there hasn’t been some type of abuse.  I have met Lucius Malfoy-- and the only thing that stopped him from attacking an unarmed twelve year old was a newly freed house elf.” 

Voldemort blinks again, a frown finding its way to his face.  “Lucius attacked you?” 

“I-- Well, yes.”  Harry falters, shaking his head a bit, before reaching out to jab his finger at the addendum sitting between them.  “That’s not the point.  The point is, it exists and it is happening, even if it isn’t being taken to court.  There should be some sort of protection for that.  For all magical children-- not just the ones living in non-magical households.” 

Voldemort sits back in his seat.  “That, Harry, would be an entirely different bill.” 

“And?  We break it into two different bills.  One for education, one for safety.” Harry shrugs.  “You wanted to better the wizarding world and protect magical children, didn’t you?” 

“And what would you call the bill you’re proposing to ensure the safety of all these children, Harry?” 

“The Magical Child Protection Act,” Harry says, so quickly that Voldemort has no doubt that he’s already thought of it, planned it, hashed out many of the details with those he would seek the advice of.  “Rope your relocation bill in with it-- but only if their household fails to meet the requirements.” 

“Those requirements appear to be the bare minimum.  They would hardly qualify as a household at all.”  Voldemort narrows his eyes pointedly as Harry’s jaw works.  “Not to mention it discusses nothing of other abuses or who qualifies as a magical child.” 

“Any child born with magic or to parents of magical lineage under the age of seventeen,” Harry says.  

“Including squibs?” Voldemort asks, but he already knows the answer. 

Harry Potter is a bleeding heart, after all. 

“Including squibs.”

“You’ll have your hands full with the purebloods fighting against that one.” 

“Not if it’s your bill,” Harry replies.

Voldemort feels something like wicked delight unfurl in his chest.  He hums and nods.  

“And the qualifications for abuse?” he asks. 

“Physical and emotional abuse are the most obvious-- beatings or torture or tossing your kid out of a window shouldn’t be allowed.  Forcing your child to practice spells that they’re uncomfortable with or are illegal, like, oh, the Unforgivables , should be outlawed.”  He raises his brow at Voldemort, and all Voldemort can do is smile.  “And… abandonment and negligence would qualify under--” Harry falters here, and Voldemort knows; he knows that he’s thinking of Voldemort’s own childhood and of, perhaps, Harry’s own childhood.  “Abandonment and negligence would qualify as abuse under this act.” 

Voldemort uncrosses his legs, sitting forward and setting his teacup aside.  Harry blinks at him and then looks away.  Voldemort will not have it. 

Reaching out, he catches Harry by the chin, turning his face back to meet Voldemort’s eyes.  He knows they’re a dangerous, unnatural red just by the way Harry’s gaze darts between them.  Just by the way his lips part. 

“Negligence,” Voldemort hums.  “Such a soft word for such a ruinous thing, don’t you think, Harry?” 

Harry swallows. 

Voldemort and Harry

“It is your only exception in my original bill, Harry; negligence or abuse of a child.  You were so adamantly against obliviating the original guardians.”  Voldemort practically croons, thumb dragging against the strong line of Harry’s jaw, feeling the muscle flex under his touch.  “Whatever made you think to include such an exception?”

Harry huffs out a sharp breath from his nose.  “You know why.” 

“Do I?” Voldemort tilts his head.  “Surely, you don’t mean to tell me you wrote that in simply because you knew of my childhood, Harry?” 

“And if I did?” 

“I’d know you were lying,” Voldemort says, squeezing at Harry’s jaw before finally releasing him, fingertips tingling.  “And I would be forced to figure out about what.” 

It’s a threat.  A very simple and small one.  

Still, it doesn’t stop Harry’s magic from lashing out and shattering his teacup. 

*

Of all the people in the world, Harry couldn’t have ever predicted that it would be Voldemort who finally cornered him about his childhood home.  Hermione, probably; she’d come close, a number of times.  Sirius, too.  Harry could even see Remus or Dumbledore or Mrs. Weasley sitting him down to finally, actually talk about it.  Honestly, he would’ve guessed Draco Malfoy before he ever guessed Lord Voldemort. 

And yet. 

His magic sparks before he can stop it.  Shatters the teacup, then his own glass of water, then whips the wind around them.  Buzzes under his skin, as his heart trips over itself in his chest, ready to cast him away.  A pull at his navel, threatening to jerk him away from this-- this moment, this man, this monster intent on unraveling his secrets. 

It’s the same feeling he’d had the last time they were sitting across from each other like this.  Except, last time, it was not dread that motivated this panicked desire to flee-- rather, it had been sorrow and yearning and the knowledge that Voldemort had been a moment from snapping.  A moment that never properly came, not when Voldemort instead calmed and took his leave. 

Voldemort is not leaving this time.  And, when he reaches over and clasps his hand over Harry’s wrist, he’s not intending to let Harry leave either. 

He’d known it was a mistake, responding to Hermione’s notes and leaving them for Voldemort to look at.  He’d known, but he’d done it anyways, and in the wake of their last conversation, had forgotten all about it in the weeks between then and now.  He’d been busy, burying himself in the secret study, spending his nights speaking with Sirius and Remus or Hermione and Ron through the floo, and listening to Voldemort’s horcruxes well into dusk on the evenings sleep would not come to him.  

It was only this week that he’d started going out with Omar during his lunch break-- after one too many comments from Sirius about eating better.  It had been a nice distraction, from the research and the bill and the obvious absence of Voldemort sneaking up on him in his daily life.  But it had been just that: a friendly distraction. 

There is nothing to distract him, now. 

"Let me go," Harry says, his own voice unfamiliar to him. 

Voldemort just smiles and tightens his grip. "Surely you've realized by now, Harry… wherever you go, I will follow."

And Harry-- Harry doesn't know what to say to that. 

Chapter Text

XII.

It's a disastrous thing: fear. 

It has sunken ships, burned cities, broken even the strongest of men. Fear boils and burns, festers and lingers, ravages everything until there is nothing left. 

Lord Voldemort cannot say he has ever truly feared anything but what mortals consider the inevitable.  

And yet, when fear takes Harry Potter in her tight grip, Voldemort can taste it. Can feel the familiar claws of it sink in between the bones of his ribcage, as if it were his very own. 

He feels Harry Potter's fear and finds it utterly, indisputably familiar. 

*

"Let me go," Harry says, his own voice unfamiliar to him. 

Voldemort just smiles and tightens his grip. "Surely you've realized by now, Harry… wherever you go, I will follow."

And Harry-- Harry doesn't know what to say to that. 

His magic speaks for him. It pulls taut, under his skin, and then snaps-- dragging him from his seat and yanking Voldemort along right after him. 

It's a bit like deja vu, apparating blindly and wandlessly away, Voldemort's grip unyielding as he follows. The sudden spin and pull, the dizzy head rush, the burn of Voldemort's fingers on his skin. 

They clatter into being inside of Bill and Fleur's empty flat. 

Harry yanks away from Voldemort's touch. Stumbles back. Catches a short breath and holds it to keep himself from taking another. Turns a glare on the easy way Voldemort catches his bearings, as if he'd expected Harry's reaction, dusting off his robes and standing tall like he belongs in the sitting room of a flat he's been in only once. 

All the while, his cool, sharp smile does not falter. 

"You truly do not wish to speak on this, do you?" Voldemort asks.

Harry wants to throw something, anything, at his smug face; his magic lashes at a throw pillow instead, shredding it until feathers are flying. "Goodness, I wonder what gave you that impression?"

There are red eyes, unrelenting and unwavering, staring at Harry from beyond those immaculate features.  It makes Harry seethe, makes his skin crawl, makes him want to claw the glamours right off of his face. 

"Did you know, Harry, that when creatures feel true fear, they often fall to their most basic of instincts?" Voldemort asks, taking one slow step forward, and the furniture around them rattles. "Fight or flight. It's interesting that, even as you run, your magic is practically begging for the former." 

"I'm fairly certain there is nothing in any of our agreements that covers this," Harry spits, eyes darting, palm itching for his wand, even though he doesn't know what he's looking for, even though he doesn't know why. "And even if I wanted to properly hex you, I'm bound by oath to only raise my wand against you in defense of myself."

"I suppose you're right," Voldemort hums, head canting over, regarding Harry like he's some kind of new creature he's never seen before-- and then he's withdrawing his wand. "Let's fix that, shall we?"

The spell comes fast-- too fast for Harry to counter but not so quickly that he can't dodge it.  It hits the coffee table instead, wood splintering. His own wand snaps into place from its holster before he can even think about it. 

Spellfire lights up the room. 

There is no room, no time, for discussion here.  Not with curses being cast, one whizzing just beyond his left ear, another being spat back and missing its mark by a hair. Not with Lord Voldemort intent on dueling Harry, in nothing but this little flat, with no warning and no precedence. 

There is only action and reaction. Harry's magic swelling up in his chest, under his skin, to echo the call of Voldemort's own. A shield for a curse, a hex for a charm, a blinding array of hissed spells that, Harry will realize later, would never truly cause any lasting damage. 

It's over nearly as abruptly as it began. 

Harry catches Voldemort, right around the same time Voldemort catches Harry, with common first year hexes. Still, the power behind Harry's spell is enough to shatter and disintegrate whatever glamours are on Voldemort's face, so harsh in their undoing that it leaves Voldemort staggering like Harry had punched him-- and Voldemort's bloody jelly legs jinx is enough to send Harry toppling to the floor. 

In the disaster of the flat, only their harsh breathing fills the silence. 

And then, of course, Harry's laughter. 

Harry can’t see him, collapsed behind the couch as he is, but he hears Voldemort’s huff of annoyance.  Harry’s stomach aches as he tries to swallow down the ridiculous, absurd peels of laughter that have bubbled up in his chest. 

“Amused, are we?” Voldemort asks. 

“This is ridiculous,” Harry responds, words a tangle as a near hysteric giggle falls from his mouth.  “This is absurd.” 

His knees still feel like jelly, even as Voldemort utters the countercurse with a sigh.  He remains where he is, on the floor behind the couch, flat a disaster, even as one of the dining chairs comes levitating over.  Harry’s head lulls over to watch as it settles into place across from him.  He blinks, grin going tired and rueful as Lord Voldemort takes a seat in it. 

Even pale and monstrous as he is, there is an air about him.  The way he sits, the way he tucks his wand back into place, the way he crosses one leg over the other and rests his hands at his knee.  Calm and collected.  He’s powerful; something to be feared.  Harry knows it-- and yet he cannot find it in himself to fear him. 

Voldemort waits until Harry has pushed himself up, until he has propped himself against the back of the couch, until his legs are sprawled out before him and his wand is tucked carefully back into its holster.  Waits until Harry meets his eyes. 

“What about this do you find so ridiculous, Harry?” Voldemort asks. 

Harry’s brows go up.  “Seriously?” 

He’s staring at his parents’ killer.  Sitting in a room with him-- has, in fact, sat with him many times before this, and has shared more than one almost normal conversation.  He’s sitting in a room with a potential dictator, with more knowledge and more access to magic than Harry can even really imagine on his best days.  He’s sitting with his own killer-- or wouldbe killer-- after a casual duel that left neither of them bleeding over writhing on the floor.  

And his killer, the man who has verbally claimed Harry’s death as his own, wants to discuss things that he has no reason to want the knowledge of.  

“Besides the obvious,” Voldemort says, expression pinching in a way that makes Harry think, if he still had his glamours, he’d be wrinkling up his nose the way he does when he’s exasperated.  “We both know that our situation is… unique.” 

“Insane,” Harry adds.  “Impossible.  Pick a synonym.” 

Voldemort snorts and then shifts in his seat, like he hadn’t exactly meant to do that. 

“Why the impromptu duel?” Harry asks, glancing around the wreckage of the flat.  “Pretty sure there’ve been other times I pictured you finally snapping and drawing your wand on me-- that wasn’t one of them.” 

Voldemort’s gaze flits over where Harry has slumped back against the couch, then back up to his eyes; a long moment passes before he finally speaks.  “Your magic was practically leaking out of you.”

“Was it?” 

“Yes,” Voldemort dips his head.  “I’ve only seen it so present in you once before-- at Godric’s Hollow.  In the graveyard.” 

Harry feels his shoulder try to draw up, but he rolls them out and sighs.  “Alright.  And?”

“It’s dangerous.  Having your magic bottled up like that.  When was the last time you had a proper duel?” Voldemort gestures toward Harry’s wand hand, still buzzing from the rush of spellfire flung from his fingers.  “I can’t imagine it was recent.  Not with the way your magic was so… active in your distress.” 

“February, maybe.” Harry shrugs.  “Not since our last chase.  Why is it dangerous?  I use magic every day.” 

Voldemort’s smile is a thin thing, but there is something like satisfaction there.  Harry can feel it.  

“You, Harry Potter, have an unprecedented amount of power that rivals my own.” Voldemort says, and Harry just blinks at him, at the admittance that Voldemort has just made.  “Simple levitation and cleaning charms are not enough to eat through your reserves.  They’ll hardly make a dent.  And then, when your… emotions get the better of you, your magic has a nasty habit of lashing out for you.” 

Harry doesn’t really understand that.  Doesn’t really understand why they’re even having this conversation, honestly.  

But Voldemort inhales slow, closes his eyes, and hums.  “The damage you could do, if you truly put your mind to it, Harry.  The absolute devastation.  It would be glorious.” 

“Right,” Harry says, a little slow, eyes narrowing on Voldemort’s pale face.  “Damage and destruction and devastation.  All definitely things that I would associate with being glorious.” 

Voldemort’s eyes snap open, locking with Harry’s, and he unfolds his legs and leans forward until his elbows are on his thighs as he stares Harry down.  “You really have no idea what potential you have, do you?” 

“Potential?” 

“You’re cunning.  Quick on your feet.  Creative, at least from what I’ve seen.” Voldemort says, like he’s given it thought, the things that Harry doesn’t find all that extraordinary about himself.  “And, as you know, one of the few wizards alive who has apparated blindly, multiple times, without cessation.  Also, one of the few alive who has ever stood against me and survived.” 

“Dumbledore is still up and kicking, isn’t he?” Harry responds, but the retort is almost dull, his head swimming from the compliments Voldemort has leveled at him.  

“You’re blind to it,” Voldemort huffs out a laugh, incredulous and delighted, all at once, and Harry shudders as he feels it echo down their connection.  “You could level a city block, if you truly wanted, Harry.  Your magic is so potent, and you bottle it so frequently, it could tear a person to pieces.  You could very well tear yourself to pieces.” 

“And… that would be bad?” 

Voldemort tilts his head, eyes narrowed.  “Have you ever heard of an Obscurus, Harry?” 

Harry blinks up at him.  “It sounds vaguely familiar.” 

“Usually, they are borne of young children who suppress their magic to such a degree that it eats them apart from the inside out,” Voldemort says, voice low, and Harry is half tempted to lean forward, as if to hear him better; it’s evocative, the way Voldemort imparts knowledge, like it is something Harry needs be grateful for, as if Voldemort and only Voldemort has the information, any information, that Harry would seek.  “It was very common, back during the witch trials, when we were hunted.  Before the Statute of Secrecy came into being.  A child, so fearful of their own abilities, that their magic tore them apart and left nothing but raw, untameable magic in their place.” 

Harry shivers.  “I’m not a child.” 

“No,” Voldemort agrees, smile somehow as sinister as it is pleased.  “You’re not a child.  And yet, when I met you in that graveyard and you threatened me, I was certain that, unless that useless godfather of yours managed to find a way for you to expel your magic in a practiced way, that would be your fate.” 

Harry feels the blood drain from his face.  His fists clench in his lap.  

Voldemort sits back in his seat.  Still just as sinister.  Just as pleased.  

For the first time in a long time, Harry feels very small in front of him.  Like he’ll never quite measure up. 

“I imagine you’ve had these outbursts since you were a child,” Voldemort says, softer now, perhaps with thought as he searches over Harry’s face.  “Even once you were at Hogwarts, I imagine your rage got the better of your magic from time to time.  And yet, none of your peers had that same problem.  Do you not wonder why that is, Harry?” 

He doesn’t.  Or, rather, he hadn’t.  

He hadn’t really realized, not to the full extent, that people don’t generally go around blowing up their aunts because of a few harsh words.  That wizards his age are generally beyond shattering teacups when they don’t want to speak of something.  That they don’t usually destroy or ravage hotel rooms, not when they’ve already exhausted their magical core to near depletion, nor do they tear up throw pillows without the blink of an eye when what they really want to do is punch someone in the face. 

He’s not normal.  Harry’s never been normal.  Not in the muggle word and not in the wizarding world. 

For a moment, it breaks his heart.  

He winces away from it, the realization, knees drawing up to his chest.  But Voldemort is there, clicking his tongue and leaning forward with a shake of his head. 

“No, don’t do that,” Voldemort breathes, easing from the chair to kneel before him, reaching out to take Harry’s jaw in hand, to tilt his face upward.  “Don’t shy from it, Harry.  You have power-- I’ve known since I heard that unfinished prophecy, since before you were born-- all you need to do is embrace it.” 

*

Embrace it, Harry. Voldemort thinks, burning with a slick, dastardly desire to see what that would be, what that would look like.  Just embrace it. 

He's seen hints of it, of Harry at his brightest; shining with the raw potential Voldemort had witnessed in him.  On that night in the atrium, in the graveyard, outside of his ancestral home in Little Whinging. 

Though, that night at the Malfoy's ball, seeing Harry in clothes that were fit to be on his person, seeing him cautious but utterly defiant, standing his ground even when Voldemort had him quite literally in his grasp-- that night had left the brightest impression.  

It had been a mistake, all those years ago, to chase after a prophecy boy, driven by his own fear of simple words.  A mistake to doubt that this boy, this young man, was something; a mistake to believe he was nothing-- nothing at all compared to Lord Voldemort. 

He sees it now.  Sees more than just the potential of it.  Sees the reality, sitting in front of him, frightened of his own power.  

He wonders, briefly, who made him so.  If it was all those years he spent being compared to Voldemort.  If it was all the accidental moments of raw magic.  If it was something else entirely.  He wonders, briefly, who made him afraid to be powerful-- and resolves to rip them to pieces.

Because it is a shame to see all of this power go to waste.  It is a shame, and he will not have it.  Not from the boy he marked.  Not from the boy fate marked his equal. 

Harry shivers in his grip, eyes wide behind his glasses, and Voldemort decides that he wants Harry to look at him always.  

“You’re going to burst, if you don’t, Harry.  You’ll break.”  Voldemort tells him, warns him, croons a bittersweet caution at him.  “You need to embrace what you’re capable of.  Master it.  For if you don’t, I fear it will be the end of you and anyone who may be around you at the wrong time.” 

Harry’s lashes flutter.  There is no fear in him-- not now.  

Only a burning desire; one that echoes his own.  

Harry’s a pretty thing, Voldemort thinks, when he wets his lips with a quick tongue, and presses forward into Voldemort’s hand.  A pretty thing, with eyes as green as the killing curse.

“How?” he asks. 

Voldemort grins. 

Chapter Text

XIII.

“I’m sorry, you what?” 

Harry rubs his face, tired as Sirius stares up at him from the floo.  

If Harry is being very honest, he’s just as astounded by his own decision as Sirius is.  He’d argue that it was all Tom Riddle-- the charm, the temptation, the slithering subtly of it-- but it hadn’t been Tom Riddle. 

It had been Voldemort.  It had been the monster, knelt in front of Harry, pale skin and red eyes and all, promising to help Harry feel like more than less than.  Promising to help Harry reach his full potential-- whatever that might be.  

It had been the devil himself that Harry had made a deal with-- another bargain struck, another promise to keep-- between Harry and the man who meant to kill him.  The monster Harry had decided to fix. 

How? Harry had asked.

And Voldemort had answered.

“It’s simple, really,” Voldemort had said, as he glanced pointedly around the ruins of the flat.  “You do what you did with me today.  You practice.  You duel.  With me.”  

There had been a weight there, to that.  A threat or a promise, Harry couldn’t tell.  

Voldemort’s thumb had dragged, dangerously, against his cheek.  “You let yourself shine, Harry.”  

“I am not one of your followers, Tom.” Harry said, some sense still clinging to him. 

Voldemort’s smile had only grown.  “That’s the reason I’m offering.” 

Staring down at Sirius, flat cleaned up and pieced back together, Harry slumps.  

“I agreed to practice dueling with him for as long as it takes us to finish writing the Magical Child Protection Act,” Harry admits, teeth grit.  “And the education bill he wants to pass.” 

Sirius grunts.  “That’s what I thought you bloody well said.  Move back.  I’m coming through.” 

“What--?” Harry blinks.  “No, you don’t have to--” 

“Pup, if you don’t move, I will step on you.”  Sirius warns. 

Harry is quick to scramble out of the way. 

The floo sputters out and then back into life almost immediately. Warmth and green light flood the room for an instant, and then Sirius is there, in not much more than a housecoat, dark hair wet and pulled up in a sloppy half bun, face partially shaven. 

Harry wants to laugh, but the grave expression on his godfather's face has him biting it back. He fidgets, for a moment, and Sirius must notice the way he's standing and shifting because his expression softens, and then Sirius presses into his space and grips his shoulders. 

"Are you completely mental, pup?" he asks.

There's a note of chiding, of reproach, but there's also a half grin of a thing already forming on his face. 

Harry swallows. "Research is so boring, Padfoot."

The laugh it earns him is worth the slightly damp hug he's drawn into. Sirius tugs him close and holds him tight. Cradles the back of his head, tucking Harry's face to his collar even as he buries his nose in Harry's hair. Harry's arms come up to clutch at him; just as tight. 

For a moment, they stand there like that. For a moment, all of Harry's worries and exhaustion are soothed. 

Because Sirius Black is his godfather and he loves him-- Harry Potter-- not the ghost of his dead dad. Because Sirius will support him in almost anything he chooses. 

The relief sags in his bones. 

"Knew I was a bad influence on you," Sirius mutters into Harry's hair, rocking them a bit and squeezing tighter before pulling back to look down at him. "You've gone right around the twist. Next I know, you'll be tatted up and buying your first motorbike."

"Why would I buy one when you said I could have yours?" Harry asks, smile lopsided. 

Sirius rolls his eyes, laughter fond, and pinches at Harry's cheek. "Listen here, trouble. If you even think about getting your first tattoo without me, I'll have your hide. Your first piercing, even."

"I'll be sure to work around your schedule."

"That's a good lad," Sirius says, dropping his arms away and plopping himself down onto the recently repaired couch with a sigh. "C'mon, now. Tell uncle Sirius what you've gotten yourself into with the Dark Lord this time."

"Please never call yourself that again," Harry cringes, but settles in next to him.  "And you make it sound so much worse than it is."

Still, he lets Sirius draw him close with an arm around his shoulders, the way he would when it was too cold or they got too lonely while on the run, as he explains everything that's been happening in Egypt while Sirius has been away.  The frequent, surprise visits. The goading and the arguments.  The original bill he'd been propositioned to co-sponsor.  The secret study and all that was within it.  The new bargain he'd struck merely hours before, with the Dark Lord, after destroying Bill Weasley's flat. 

Sirius takes it all in without interjection.  He laughs, though, when Harry tells him about utilizing that little knife trick Sirius taught him.  And he sniffs a little, when Harry tells him about Voldemort following him back here, and wrinkles up his sensitive nose as if he can still smell him lingering. 

"Can't say I'm exactly thrilled that you've been having secret meetings with that ponce since I've been away," Sirius says, when Harry is finally finished, and Harry's eyes are closed, head resting on his shoulder, as Sirius cards his fingers through his hair while he talks.  "But I can't exactly blame you for the Dark Lord being a creepy stalker."

Harry snorts and elbows him. "Sirius."

"Just saying it like it is, pup. Knew something was up when he showed up after the article came out," Sirius mutters, pulling a bit at Harry's hair in retaliation. "But I suppose I can give it a pass-- you are in possession of pieces of his soul.  And you have backed him into a bit of a political corner.  It's… bloody hell, I guess it's smart to keep tabs on you, the fucking pillock."

Harry shakes with quiet laughter. He can only imagine Voldemort's face, if he heard what Sirius said about him. If he heard the list of colorful names Sirius has called him over the years. 

Sirius drops his hand back to Harry's shoulder and squeezes him tight. 

"You sure about this, pup?" he asks.

Harry sighs. With his eyes closed, he can see Voldemort kneeling before him. He can see the honest promise burning in those red eyes. He can see a wicked sort of urging.

He knows it's not as simple as all that. Knows that there's something, something Voldemort isn't telling him, some ulterior motive behind this new bargain, something for Voldemort to gain.  Perhaps secrets. Perhaps a way to gauge Harry's true magic ability. Perhaps a way to keep him occupied, distracted, from finding what Voldemort has told him is in the secret study: answers. 

Perhaps it's none of that. 

Still, Harry sighs and opens his eyes. Curls closer to Sirius, tucks against his side, and nods.

"If I'm going to do this, if I'm going to try and fix him rather than destroy him, I'm going to have to get close to him." Harry says, wincing a bit.  "I know you don't believe it, but-- but he's lonely, Sirius. He's alone."

"A sad little king of a sad little hill," Sirius sighs.  “I don’t like it.  You know that, right, pup?” 

“I know,” Harry says, closing his eyes again, just to enjoy the warmth of Sirius pressed against him; it makes him miss being on the run, being curled up in a cot with his godfather-- or, more likely, buried under his furrier, more Padfoot shaped version of himself.  “You know I’m going to do it anyway, right?” 

“I know,” Sirius says, and Harry can hear his smile.  “Completely ‘round the twist, you are.  Remus is going to tear me to pieces for what I’ve turned you into.  Can’t wait for the earful from Molly.  Or, hell, Snivellus.” 

“Snape won’t care.” 

Sirius scoffs.  “You’ll be beating ‘em off with a broom, pup.”

Harry grins, privately pleased at the very thought of so many people being so worried.  His family, as strange and pieced together as they are, will always look out for him. 

It’s with that thought-- no further dread on what he’s agreed to between himself and Voldemort-- that he drifts off.  Tired and tuckered out and tucked against Sirius’ side, Harry falls into a peaceful sleep.  

It's the first peaceful sleep in a very long time. 

*

Wizengamot meetings are something that Lord Voldemort both savors and dreads.  

The former because it is one of the only places he’s found that, when given the opportunity, he can wipe the floor with any opponent and not have the people crying in the street about a maniac afterward.  The latter because-- 

Well.  Mostly because they are painfully, unethically tedious.  

There is nothing more pointless than a room full of the most influential wizards and witches bickering back and forth about whether or not they’ll pass policy on new broom speed limitations in certain wizarding areas.  The tiny, miniscule issues that do not actually impact most of wizardkind in the grandest scheme of things and clog up their inefficient system with tedium.   The sort of things that originally drove Voldemort to what most would consider extremism-- or, rather, to a certain few, he supposes, terrorism-- in order to get things done. 

“If we put limitations on speed, what’s next?” A purple faced man spits, almost quite literally; a man Voldemort hasn’t bothered learning the name of simply because he never agrees with any new motion ever and isn’t worth the effort of convincing.  “Height limitations?  Wood type?” 

“There already are height limitations,” Voldemort drawls, fingers twitching, itching to just crucio the lot of them and be done with it.

Next to him, Lucius seems to notice his growing agitation.  Has been walking on eggshells since Voldemort returned from Egypt, days ago, and had… gently interrogated him about what Harry had mentioned during their last meeting.  Voldemort imagined Lucius was still a bit tender after Voldemort had lost his temper upon hearing that Lucius had very nearly cast the killing curse at Harry Potter half a decade previous. 

Lucius clears his throat.  “I believe we’ve exhausted all there is to hear about this topic.  I move to take a vote.” 

From his seat high above them, in the Chief Warlock position, Albus Dumbledore casts them a congenial smile that just makes Voldemort’s palm itch for his wand all the more. 

“I believe Lord Malfoy is correct,” he says.  “All in favor of the new limitations?” 

Less than half of the room raises their hands.  Voldemort swallows back a sigh. 

“All against them?” 

Most of the hands shoot up.  There are few who never raised their hands, like Voldemort himself, but his eye catches on the man across from him.  

Lord Black sits, nearly parallel to Voldemort across the cylindrical room, hand raised high.  There’s a look on his face that Voldemort has seen before, many times, though his eyes burn with something Voldemort cannot place.  Something dangerous.  Warning.  He thinks he’s only seen it once, back when he took an Unbreakable Vow with Harry Potter, and it has him sitting that much straighter in his seat. 

“The nays have it, I’m afraid Lady Longbottom.” Dumbledore says, and the woman who offered the motion up in the first place looks far more putout about broom speed than any old woman has a right to.  “I believe that draws this meeting to an end.  Until next week.” 

Dumbledore stands and the rest of the Wizengamot follow.  Sirius Black is still looking at him. 

It is not until they are filing out of the room, though, that Black makes a move.  

“Lord Gaunt,” he calls, smile affable for lingerers, for the press still mulling about in the seats above.  “A word, if you have a moment?” 

Lucius steps forward, and even Lords Flint and Nott seem to dally with suspicion on their pinched faces. Voldemort waves a hand to ward them off and they comply with ease.

Voldemort misses the days when a wizard could simply challenge another to a duel if they had issue. Misses the generation he groomed as his followers before their children took up the mantle; quivering idiots, the lot of them. 

"Lord Black," Voldemort replies, smile crisp, curious more than he is cautious about the glint in Sirius Black's eye.  "I do not believe I've had the honor outside of gathered pleasantries.  What is it you wanted to discuss?"

Black's grin goes vaguely feral.  Voldemort is half certain he's about to shift form into a Grim right here for all to see, unregistered or not. 

"I'm sure you're aware of my temporary appointment overseeing the young Lord Potter's seats while he studies abroad," Black says, easy as can be, as if it hadn't been to his side's vexation since he was appointed the position and the votes that came with it; Voldemort dips his head, even as some of the others sneer.  "Ah, very good. Then you know I'm in frequent contact with him to see to it that his wishes are honored-- outside, of course, being his godfather." 

Voldemort hears something proprietary in that. A claim to Harry Potter over all other claims: godfather and godson. A relationship that implies closeness; one that the press has been drooling over ever since the first article about Harry's lordship and the grande tales of the golden child's adventures on the run with his, at the time, convict of a guardian. 

Even now, up above, the remaining reporters seem to lean a bit closer. 

"Yes, I believe we're all familiar." Voldemort says, smile stretching that much tighter. 

"Good, good," Black says, all boyish charm, but that dangerous glint is still in his eye and Voldemort is almost worried that perhaps they've been wrong all along about who the werewolf is in the Order.  "Then, certainly you know he's kept me updated on your little project."

Voldemort cocks a brow.  "Project?"

"Oh, you know, the protection act and the education bill you two are working on, amongst other things." Black continues, pointedly oblivious to the shocked looks passing between any remaining members of the Wizengamot or the quills flying over notepads overhead.  "Really, it is truly kind of you to take him under your wing on such complex pieces of policy. Kind, but unnecessary. I taught him everything he knows, after all." 

Voldemort instantly knows it is not policy that Black is talking about. 

It sets his teeth on edge. He isn't exactly certain as to why, but it does. 

Black is talking about dueling. About using magic to fight and about teaching it to Harry.  He's bragging about it. 

Voldemort finds his palm itching again. 

"Did you, now?" Voldemort asks. 

"Oh, yes. Everything I know, I taught to him. He's a very quick learner; an apt student; clever on his feet. I imagine you'll have your hands full." Black says, then leans in a bit.  "I trust he can take care of himself, but I'll always be here to double check his work if needed."

The gaul. The absolute impunity. 

Sirius Black is threatening him. 

Sirius Black is threatening him in front of the Wizengamot and the press-- and Voldemort can do absolutely nothing about it.

"Of course," he says, voice cool, outrage warring under his skin. "I'll be certain to keep that in mind."

Black nods, reaches out, and pats Voldemort on the shoulder. "See that you do. Until next week, gentlemen."

Without another word, Sirius Black turns away. Leaves without a hair out of place when Voldemort wants to skin him alive.  Walks away as Voldemort is left silently seething-- a sharp pang of annoyance that isn't his the only thing that keeps him in check-- with no one the wiser of what had just been truly exchanged. 

The newspapers tomorrow would read of a collaboration between the Gaunt and Potter lines.  An unprecedented move, a shocking  partnership between a historically light and an infamously dark family. It would say nothing of Sirius Black threatening him in public for all to see. 

A dastardly, brilliant move, Voldemort must admit. 

"My Lord?" Lucius asks, voice too low to be heard by anyone else. 

Voldemort offers another sharp smile. "I'm afraid our evening plans will have to be rescheduled, Lord Malfoy.  I have something to attend."

Lucius' gaze widens just slightly, but he is quick to nod. "Of course. I shall inform the others of the change and inform you of anything of note next I see you, Lord Gaunt." 

"Very good," Voldemort dips his head, the only departing gesture he will offer. 

He has a little thorn in his side to find, after all. His time is far too precious for pleasantries. 

It does not take him long to exit the Wizengamot chambers, take the lift to the atrium, and then make use of the many floo exits to get back to his manor.  Nor does it take him more than a mere moment to hiss soft instructions to Nagini for while he is away, gathering up a silver chord and the small agate stone connected to it, red with the blood of his prophecized enemy, scrying for and finding Harry Potter's exact location easily.  It takes him even less time than that to turn on his heel and apparate through his thickly layered wards to find himself at Harry Potter's side. 

It does, however, take him a long moment to realize that this is not where he usually finds him. 

Evening has set on the sands of Egypt. Above him there are stars; below, cresting dunes of blue gold, cast in shadows from the night's shade.  In the distance, he can see the Nile, and beyond that, a city. 

And at his feet, in the sand, Harry Potter sits.  He's in his night clothes, sleep mussed like perhaps he just woke, hair in disarray. Most interestingly, his glasses are missing and his eyes are wide as he clutches something between his hands. 

"Hello, Harry." Voldemort says, head cocking. "I must admit, this is not where I expected you'd be."

Those eyes are so vivid, so green, even in the dark, unburdened by the glass and wire frames that usually perch on his nose. Voldemort realizes the last time he'd truly seen that gaze, free of any trappings that might shield it, was the night of the Malfoy's ball. The night he had Harry in his grasp, in his arms, and he'd been so very certain that Harry wouldn't get away again. 

In the two years between these moments, the spark of irritation that lights in those eyes is just the same. Burning, bright, and immutable. 

There's a saying that speaks of unstoppable forces and immovable objects; for the first time, Voldemort believes he understands it.

"It's nearly nine o'clock in the evening," Harry says.  "What are you doing here?"

"I just finished another pointless session with the Wizengamot," Voldemort says.  "And a very interesting conversation with your godfather."

"Is that what got you all huffy? Sirius?" Harry scoffs, fingers still curled tight over whatever is between his fists. "I had tucked in for an early night before you woke me with a migraine from hell.  Thanks for that."

Voldemort nearly says you're welcome, but Harry is twisting to glare-- or perhaps simply squint-- up at him. 

"Wait, are you actually here to complain about something Sirius said to you? At nine in the evening?" 

He sounds skeptical. Annoyed. Exasperated. 

Voldemort nods once. "That was my intention. He had a few fascinating things to tell me--"

"It's nine at night, Tom!" Harry practically shouts, gesturing wildly with his clenched fists.  "What if I'd actually been asleep in bed?" 

"Then I would've woken you."

Harry groans and flops back against the sand, pressing his knuckles to his eyes. "You self-centered pillock."

While usually Voldemort might take offense to that, he's gotten rather used to Harry Potter insulting him in a fit of frustration. There's not much he can do besides, other than leave, and he is not leaving without addressing the issue he came with in the first place. 

Harry can be as rude and unruly as he likes. 

"You need to have word with your godfather," Voldemort plows on, adjusting his robes, face twisting in distaste at all the sand at his feet and now clinging to Harry's hair. "Threatening me in a court of public based solely on agreements made between the two of us is the height of insult and completely against propriety, no matter how subtly worded."

"Do you hear yourself when you speak, or is it all just pompous background noise at this point?" Harry asks, hands falling away from his face, though he makes no move to sit up and address Voldemort properly.  "And, honestly, just be grateful he was subtle at all. Sirius is usually more likely to punch someone in the face first, rather than imply a threat." 

Voldemort and Harry in the sand

Voldemort's mouth curls into a sneer, but then Harry is laughing. 

"I mean, can you even imagine? Sirius, my idiot of a godfather, the man who thought-- upon seeing you in a glamour for the first time and threatening me at a pub-- that you were hitting on me , the dog who literally swam his way out of Azkaban and then spent a year stalking me as a Grim, would ever be proper or polite in public society?" Harry's cackling by now, tears in his eyes, and Voldemort is starting to suspect that he really had needed to tuck in early for sleep.

He looks half hysteric and mildly exhausted. Like, perhaps, he hasn't slept proper in days. 

Voldemort isn't sure why that would be. He hasn't been able to haunt Harry's dreams for something like two years, and he hasn't bothered coaxing him into the place between their sleeping worlds since finally catching him on dunes not dissimilar to these very sands.

Despite the weary tiredness clinging to him, Voldemort admits to himself, quite privately, that Harry laughing is far better than Harry insulting him. 

Still, Voldemort clears his throat. "Are you quite finished?"

"Not by half," Harry says around another laugh, chuckles petering out as he pushes himself up onto his elbows.  "Was that really what set you off?"

Voldemort's mouth presses thin, and that seems enough of an answer for Harry. That, and certainly the swell of irritation Voldemort knows Harry feels, just by the way he winces a bit and rubs the back of his hand against his forehead. 

His scar. 

It's fascinating, really, their connection. His curse mark on Harry's skin. A constant reminder of Voldemort's-- admittedly hasty-- action against him when Harry was barely more than a babe. An ever-present claim-- Harry Potter is his prophecized enemy. His equal. His.

It is, perhaps, that rushing thought that has Voldemort tilting his head. "Does it bother you often?"

Harry pauses-- falters, really-- and clears his throat. "I'm fairly used to it, by now."

"That's not an answer," Voldemort says, and Harry is already sighing and looking away. "You're rather good at deflection when you wish not to speak of things. You did the same when I confronted you about your addendum about child abuse."

"Then perhaps you should take it as answer enough: that I don't want to talk about it."

Voldemort hums, and then against his better judgment, settles in the sand next to him.  Harry blinks, eyes a little wide again, fingers tightening over whatever he has hidden. 

"Because you don't wish to discuss it with me?" Voldemort asks. "Or because you don't wish to discuss it at all?"

Harry squints at him. "Both." 

"And if I want to know anyways?"

"I imagine you'll pester me until I give it up. Not much else you can really do, bound as we are." Harry shrugs a shoulder. 

"Like a hound on a leash," Voldemort sneers, though he does not feel his usual ire, and he joins Harry in leaning back against the night cool sand to peer up at the stars.  "I can't even curse your godfather when he threatens me."

When he glances over, Harry's face is twisted up in something like thought, a bemused half smile on his lips. Voldemort cannot name what he feels tugging at the thread that connects him to Harry from the back of his mind. 

It does, however, feel vaguely soft. 

"Not a leash," Harry finally says, after a long moment. "We're both bound. It's… sympathetic?"

Voldemort instantly knows what he truly means-- two creatures, two people, bound by each other.  Connected by space or by circumstance, be it to their benefit or detriment, a relationship that is constructed on mutualism. 

"Symbiotic," he says, not finding it in himself to truly mind in the least.

Not right now, anyway.

"That," Harry sighs against, then shifts, gaze toward the sky, lips pursed for a long moment; then: "Strong emotions. When you… feel strongly, it becomes-- well, something of a bit of a bother. Especially since it's mostly rage. You anger rather quickly, I've noticed."

"People anger me rather quickly," Voldemort replies. 

It seems to shock a short laugh out of Harry. 

When he looks at Voldemort again, those green eyes are curious. Lit with something more than frustration. 

Voldemort decides he rather likes that. 

"It hurts," Harry confesses.  "I imagine you'll take some joy out of that, but… it hurts.  When you rage.  Rather a lot." 

It's candid. Brutally honest. 

Voldemort decides he rather likes that, too.

Twisting over onto his side, propped on an elbow, Voldemort recalls younger years when he used charming smiles and soft touches to get what he wanted. He recalls false words and pretty promises and all the lies he used to use. He recalls that none of that has ever, will ever, work on Harry Potter without a hint of earnestness in his own actions. 

So it is with pure curiosity of his own, one he has always had, that he reaches out to brush the fringe of Harry's dark hair away. To touch the scar, jagged and red against Harry's skin, that he has not touched since his rebirth, with the pad of his thumb.

There is no intent to hurt, though a small bit to manipulate, and that seems to make all the difference. 

Though Harry winces at first, when no pain follows, he seems to still under Voldemort's touch. Not with ease, not with comfort, but with an equally curious acceptance. 

Harry's skin is soft and warm, his temple and cheek against Voldemort's knuckles, but the scar is warmer still. It makes his fingertips buzz. Like raw magic is lingering in the air. 

"And now?" Voldemort asks. "How does it feel, now?"

Harry hesitates, green eyes hunting over Voldemort's face, and then they flutter shut.  "Um. Fine? You're calm, now, so it feels… normal. No pain."

"How do you handle it? The pain?" 

"Snape makes a killer pain potion," Harry says, but his fingers clench all the tighter around what's in his hands.

Voldemort clicks his tongue. "You're deflecting."

"You're pestering."

"I'm being nice, am I not?" Voldemort asks, voice lowered, grin crooked on his face. "What other means do I have?"

"You could offer up another bargain for what you want. That tends to be our status quo."

"Ah," Voldemort drops his hand away, and is delighted, fascinated, when Harry seems to unconsciously lean after him for just a moment, before blinking his eyes open and giving his head a shake. "But what would you have me bargain?"

Harry seems caught off guard for a second. Then, a determined pinch between his brows, he leans forward. 

"You tell me a secret, and I'll tell you mine."

*

Harry paces in front of the floo, arms half crossed, hand over his mouth. It's late, not as bad in Scotland, but it's well past 3am for Harry. 

He's still got sand clinging to his clothes. 

He really should have known, offering a secret for a secret would truly be his best option. Even Dumbledore stated in his old journal that Tom Riddle had an insatiable curiosity. 

Harry had taken the brunt of some of that curiosity tonight. Amongst other things. 

Specifically, that twisting parseltongue spell Voldemort had shot at him, mid-duel, while they were sliding through the sands of the dunes. Harry still has a crick in his neck from that landing. 

It had come after their secrets, after Harry had confessed to what he used to keep some of the pain at bay when Voldemort was in a rage, and after Voldemort had told him one of his own. 

"Your godfather said he taught you everything he knows," Voldemort had said, eyes gleaming and wicked in the dark, wand drawn as Harry prepared himself. "Let's test that against my own knowledge, shall we?"

In pure knowledge, it was very obvious Harry was outclassed. Voldemort knew spells in languages Harry had never even heard and then some. 

But Harry was quick on his feet, inventive, creative. He combined spells and charms that others hadn't thought of, had defended himself well during Voldemort's impromptu evening test. He knew that, if it had been on the more life-and-death end of the spectrum, he probably would have at least kept most of his limbs to get away. Maybe. 

None of that had really been a shock, however. No, what had been the biggest surprise of it all was how thrilling it had been. Dodging sprays of sand, tossing curses, unleashing a bit of the magic he'd pent up for so long, had been a relief. 

Voldemort had been right. 

Even more so, Voldemort had been delighted. 

Harry could feel it. Could feel the joy of the challenge Harry presented. Of being met and, perhaps one day, matched by Harry's ability.  

"Perhaps," Voldemort had said before leaving, "the prophecy wasn't so wrong after all."

Harry hadn't really known what that meant, but Voldemort had seemed pleased-- and Harry, breathless and dripping with sweat, hadn't felt the dread that he perhaps should've.  Not when Voldemort said that, starting three days from then, he would teach Harry "whatever your idiot godfather hasn't." 

Harry hadn't felt scared. Nor worried. Nor confused. 

He'd felt excited. 

But that was all after they shared their secrets.

After Harry had opened his palms to reveal the two horcruxes at their center. After Harry had admitted, to Voldemort's guarded face and chaotic connection, that he would use these items, these pieces of Voldemort's soul, to soothe whatever ache a potion couldn't, by sitting and holding them and listening to them whisper. 

"You don't wear them?" Voldemort had asked, careful, as if Harry was completely oblivious. 

"I'm not stupid," Harry replied. 

Voldemort had been amused by that. Then, with a careful wand, had very carefully unwound the curses he'd laid into the locket and the ring. 

"Now you can," Voldemort said. "But only you can."

Even now, the ring on his finger glints in the firefight of the floo. The locket around his neck hangs heavy. 

They're quieter, worn like this. As if soothed by the heat of Harry's body the same way Harry had soothed them in the cup of his palms for so many nights. 

But Harry's secret had been nothing on Voldemort's. Not really. Not in the big scheme of things. 

The floo sputters. Dumbledore clears his throat. 

"They're both here, my boy."

Harry drops to his knees. "Thank you, Albus."

Dumbledore smiles. "Of course, Harry. Anytime. Anytime at all."

Then he is gone, and Ron and Hermione are there. Ron looks dead asleep, and Hermione nudges him. 

"Harry? Do you have any idea what time it is?"

Harry winces. "I know, I'm sorry, but this is important."

"Better be," Ron yawns. "Not that it isn't nice to talk, mate, but not this bloody early in the morning in the headmaster's office."

Hermione rolls her eyes at Ron. "What is it?"

Harry lets out a short breath. "You remember the Room of Requirement?"

Hermione frowns. "Of course. We still study there."

"Good," Harry nods. "I need you to go find something for me there."

"Find something? Mate, I don't think the room works like that." Ron says. 

"It does. I know it does because it's also known as the Room of Lost Things," Harry says. "And I know that because Voldemort hid something there."

Chapter Text

XIV.

Voldemort is not having a very good day. 

First, the Carrows are getting out of hand. No matter how many times, how many reassurances he's given his followers that they are on the track to success, that their war will be won on a different battlefield and their sickly desires given free reign, they are the worst of his Death Eaters when it comes to patience, with Bellatrix not far behind. During their last meeting they practically begged to be taken off the leash, to be set loose on the public, to ransack and pillage and destroy and torture to their delights end. 

Blubbering, inbred imbeciles, the lot of them. 

Then, of course, it was announced that Lady Longbottom is recalling a vote to appeal for her last motion for the upcoming Wizengamot session, and Voldemort is already planning on leaving his seat vacant. 

And that, of course, was following the headlines in the papers-- Potter-Gaunt to Collaborate on Education Bill? and Gaunt Changing Stance on Muggleborns with Protection Act? and Potter being Groomed by Black and Gaunt Lines-- all of which had multiple pureblood aristocrats up in arms, sending Lord Gaunt howlers, some from even his own followers, who are still unaware of his movements as Lord Gaunt in the political arena. 

Which all, of course, preceded Lucius Malfoy kneeling before him to inform his Lord that he could find nothing about Harry Potter's muggle family outside of rumors and whispers.  Not even their full names or location.  And, when… delicately pressed, Lucius had admitted that he was waylaid by Albus Dumbledore himself. 

Who, naturally, passed on a message:

"He-- He said that, if it is something you wish to know, you should ask the source itself, my Lord," Lucius says, shuddering a bit in place, though Voldemort doesn't know why when he barely cast the cruciatis for much longer than a second. 

He thinks, perhaps, he's growing soft. More lenient.  

He's uncertain if it's with age-- or simply with distraction. 

His anger did seem to wake some sense of reproach from down the line, after all. A resigned sort of irritation. Something that tempered his wand. 

It nearly makes him end the discussion right then, to apparate away and find the boy who is responsible. To see his face, to see if he is truly using his horcruxes to keep some of the pain at bay, the way he had confessed so sweetly --

It's utterly ridiculous. Absolutely absurd. Voldemort has more important business to attend to than Harry Potter.

Still, the urge remains as Lucius stammers through the rest of his explanation, his excuses, and informs him of the restlessness of the Carrows, the frustration of some of his more blood-thirsty followers, and the interested mutters behind closed doors from the other Wizengamot party members about the rumored bills. 

It is, after all, a hard thing to ignore.  He can still picture it clearly, the way Harry had sat up in the sand. The way he'd unfurled his fingers, as if he were worried Voldemort was a threat to his own soul fragments. The way they had been quiet, perhaps for the first time Voldemort could ever recall, sitting in the palms of Harry's hands, cradled like they were infinitely more precious than Voldemort had ever believed them to be.  

His soul in the hands of his enemy. Held with a care Voldemort knew not. 

"They're angry a lot. Like you." Harry had said. "I… I listen to them. And I talk to them. It helps take my mind off of-- well. Loads of things, really."

Off of the pain Voldemort caused in his rages. Off of whatever else might plague the young boy hero-- no longer a boy, not really-- that Voldemort did not know of. Things like what might've inspired that child abuse addendum. 

It itches, at the back of his mind, that he doesn't know more. That, after all this time, he does not know Harry Potter the way Harry Potter seems to know him.  It could drive him mad, he thinks, a person knowing so much, the same way Albus knows too much, if it weren't for the way Harry held the locket and ring so carefully. 

He always thought of kindness as being equivocal to weakness-- he may very well still think that-- but he would not shy from taking advantage of that kindness. Of ensuring his horcruxes were kept in hands sworn to protect them under the misguided apprehension of putting him back together. 

He does not understand Harry Potter, the boy whose parents he killed, and his determination to piece him together rather than destroy what bits of Voldemort he can-- but he is curious to see him try. Motivation be damned and foolishness on Harry's part aside. 

He will let him try. And he will let him fail. And when the time comes, he may offer leniency to the boy marked as his equal and take him into the fold. 

It would be a shame, after all, to waste all of that potential. 

"Tell me, Lucius," Voldemort says.  "What do you believe we should do about the Carrows?" 

*

"So," Ron clears his throat. "What should we do with it?"

Ron and Hermione arrived by floo early that morning, Dumbledore accompanying them, something wrapped in shimmering cloth between his hands.  

It sits, now, on the coffee table between them.  Silver and shining with gems, Ravenclaw’s lost diadem sits before them, as though it was simply waiting to be found.  Unhidden and unmuffled. 

It had been quiet, at first.  Too quiet.  For a moment, Harry had worried they’d found the wrong trinket in a room that, as Ron described upon arrival, was filled to the vaulted ceiling with piles of things that had been lost in the years since Hogwarts had been established.  Or, worse, Harry had the terrible thought that, perhaps, Dumbledore decided he was taking too long on his self-appointed mission and had taken care of the horcrux before arriving. 

It had been only after Dumbledore had set the diadem down on the table, unveiling it for Harry to see as Hermione explained they’d had to use a point-me spell with the most specific of specifications in order to find it, that Harry felt relief.  The moment the cloth was pulled aside, the familiar whispers of Tom Riddle’s soul began to call to him.  

It was vaguely horrifying, Harry realizes now, that he’d been relieved at the sound of Voldemort’s horcrux.  A horribly, twisted turn of events.  

When he’d let out a long breath, Dumbledore had simply smiled at him, eyes bright with the trouble Harry has learned to recognize so easily after all these years.  Gaze lingering on the locket Harry wore around his neck; at the ring on his hand.  Head canting, just a bit, at the sight, as though he might ask Harry--

Then, of course, Harry had been distracted away from the headmaster’s curious gaze and away from the terror of finally recognizing how invested he’s become into these tiny pieces of soul, by Hermione barreling into his arms-- followed swiftly by Ron. 

Any worry that had haunted him over the years evaporated in an instant, as Hermione cried against his shoulder and Ron held him tight.  As Hermione said how much she’d missed him, how worried she’d been, how proud she was.  As Ron actually kissed Harry’s temple, refusing to budge his vice of a hold around the two of them, and considering how tall he’d grown, how broad, how strong, Harry didn’t imagine he’d have much luck getting away in the first place. 

Not that he wanted to.  

Merlin, he had missed them. 

Now, sitting with them on the couch, Ron’s hand fisted in the back of Harry’s shirt as if he might just go running off again, and Hermione’s hand on his knee as if to secure him in his spot between them, he feels an awful lot like he’s finally gotten to come home.  There’s no homesickness in his chest; just delight, joy, and relief.  

Though, considering they’re discussing the fate of a horcrux, he thinks he should probably focus on that instead of how right it feels to have lovely, brilliant, beautiful Hermione against one side and brave, strong, wild Ron on the other.  

Dumbledore helps get him on track as he stands in front of them.  “That, my boy, is entirely up to Harry.”

“It is?” Ron asks. 

“Yes,” Dumbledore nods.  “As all this has been, for quite some time.” 

Hermione frowns, her nails digging in through Harry’s denims at his thigh; he’s frightened for a moment, until he realizes her piercing stare is for Dumbledore, and Dumbledore alone.  “Are you trying to say that, in fifth year, you simply… let Harry run off on his own, with no guidance from yourself, Headmaster?” 

Dumbledore pauses, regarding Hermione, and Harry doesn’t think he imagines the old man blanching just a bit.  “Well, not without any guidance--” 

“Are you telling me, sir, that you let a fifteen year old boy take the fate of wizarding Britain into his hands, by himself, in a war with a Dark Lord who has been after him since he was an infant?” Hermione drives forward, her nails digging in enough at Harry’s inner thigh that he winces and Ron makes a noise of sympathy. 

Dumbledore does, in fact, look at least one shade paler.  

“Yes, my dear,” Dumbledore says, dipping his head.  “I did.” 

Harry places his hand over Hermione’s to stop her from exploding right then and there.  

“Hermione,” he says, voice soft, smile softer.  “It’s alright.  It’s all worked out, for now, hasn’t it?” 

“That remains to be seen,” Hermione retorts, tone just as haughty and words just as whip quick as they’ve always been; though it feels like a scolding, her hand flips over under Harry’s in order to clutch at his fingers.  “Have we reached an impasse with the Dark Lord and his followers?  Certainly.  They’re tied up in political red tape now, rather than running rampant and cursing people in the streets, and you’ve made sure there are certain moves that they cannot even attempt to make-- even if they would very much like to.  You’ve done very well for us all, Harry, and you should be very proud-- but the point is that you shouldn’t have had to.” 

Harry frowns.  “Who else could’ve done it, Hermione?  I could have never asked someone to do what I’ve done.” 

When Hermione sighs and twists to meet his eyes, her smile goes crooked and wistful.  “I know, Harry.  And you’re so brave.  And so brilliant.  To have tricked the Dark Lord into the oaths you have… you amaze me, Harry.  You really do.” 

Ron clears his throat, leaning a little more fully into his side.  “Would’ve been terrified, if it were me, mate.  Dunno how you managed it, running from Death Eaters all these years.  Would’ve much rather had you in the bunk next to me, to be honest.” 

“And we know you never would’ve asked us to give up Hogwarts to help, not the way you did.” Hermione adds, thumb dragging over the back of Harry’s hand, and Harry feels his face grow warm, the flattery leaving him with a desire to squirm.  “But the point is, Harry, you shouldn’t have had to.” 

She pauses, takes a breath, and then fixes her stare back on Dumbledore. 

The headmaster stands tall and at the ready.  His hands folded behind his back.  The lines of his face a touch deeper, as though whatever Hermione is about to say has already run through his own mind a dozen times. 

Harry wouldn’t doubt it.  Dumbledore is, as always, a figure of potential wisdom and understanding-- at least to Harry.  A flawed man, trying his best to create a better world.  An old man, doing what he believes might be best for the whole and not just the few. 

“Not when there are older wizards-- century old Chief Warlocks, for instance-- that could have been leading this cold war, rather than a boy not even out of school yet.”  Hermione says, gaze piercing into the headmaster again.  “You shouldn’t have had to give up your education.  Your childhood.  Your life.  Someone else should’ve handled it.” 

Dumbledore bows his head; silent acquiescence.  

Harry squeezes at Hermione’s hand.  “I know you think that, ‘Mione.  That you’re-- you’re angry on my behalf, and I appreciate that, but… no one could have handled this but me.” 

Hermione’s gaze snaps to Harry’s, face already pinched.  “Don’t make excuses for them, Harry.  That’s ridiculous--”  

“It’s true,” Harry says.  

Ron releases Harry’s shirt, but only in order to reach up and squeeze at his shoulders instead.  “What do you mean, mate?” 

Harry falters for a moment.  His gaze flits, briefly, to Dumbledore.  It’s been a long time since he’s sought Dumbledore’s approval over anything, and though he does not seek it now, he still looks at the man he’s always seen as a mentor for the small smile he offers in assurance anyway. 

“I mean,” Harry says, gaze falling to the diadem still whispering to him from the coffee table.  “That there is no one alive who knows Voldemort the way that I do.  There is no one… no one connected to him, the way that I am, and I’ve only doubled and tripled that unique relationship by binding us in a half dozen oaths and vows.  No one could have managed what I’ve managed-- not someone in the Order, not even Dumbledore-- because no one could ever hold Tom’s attention the way that I do.” 

It’s a strange thing, to admit that outloud.  It’s a strange thing to realize that it’s true. 

There is no one else in the world who could meet and match Voldemort as his equal outside of Harry himself. 

It seems arrogant.  To think something like that, it seems so utterly arrogant.  That he is the only one-- Harry Potter, the orphan freak, the no one, the boy hero who only survived because of his mother’s own sacrifice-- who could ever face off with the Dark Lord Voldemort this way.  

But no matter how arrogant or odd, it is the truth.  

“Obsession, I think you mean, Harry.” Ron says, arm still draped over his shoulders.  “Downright creepy, it is.” 

Hermione reaches across Harry and slaps at him.  “Ronald!” 

With a yelp, Ron laughs and shirks away, attempting to hide his bulking form behind Harry’s slighter one.  “What?  I’m talking ‘bout You-Know-Who!  He’s been after Harry since he was a baby-- if that’s not obsession, I don’t know what it is.  Bloke has a problem, that’s all I’m saying.” 

Before Hermione can use the pillow she’s grabbed to do any further damage, Harry is laughing between them.  Laughing so much that his side hurts, even as he feels Ron’s own mirth rumble against his side, even as Hermione’s brown eyes catch alight with further humor and her lips purse as she tries not to smile. 

They haven’t changed.  Not a lick.  Harry loves them. 

When the laughter has passed, when they have all settled, Dumbledore is still there.  The diadem is still there.  

Hermione glances at the headmaster, then at the crown, then at Harry. 

“Alright,” she says.  “What do we do now, then?” 

Harry carefully untangles himself from his friends and reaches out to pick up the horcrux.  Just like the others, it quiets in his hold; the angry hiss of parseltongue fades into a restless murmur.  

He’s got three of them, now.  What must be half of Voldemort’s soul, around his neck, on his finger, in his hands.  He found a third, despite Voldemort’s belief that he would fail, that he would be unable to complete his task, and he knows now why he was so confident in that belief. 

Voldemort, like the very snake he’s always been, barred him from returning home.  From returning to the place where he could find what he needs.  Voldemort set him up for failure. 

A burning, unrelenting fire blossoms in his chest. He clutches the diadem close.  

“I know exactly what we’ll do,” Harry says. 

*

Voldemort is having a very bad day. 

He'd started his morning with an ache behind his eyes. A familiar unfamiliar presence of anger echoing around his skull, spiteful and sharp as a thorn. 

It had only got worse when, before taking tea at Malfoy Manor, he'd received another batch of howlers from idiots who did not know their standing. Who did not understand what consequences would be coming, very soon, if all worked out as intended.  What wrath they would truly meet. 

Then, at tea, Bellatrix had done nothing but whine and simper at his side, about what he'd done to the Carrows-- torturing them and leaving them for the aurors to find-- and how he had not invited her to the fun. As if punishing and casting out the inbred hounds had been anything more than arduous. 

He'd thought, perhaps, things were looking up when he'd recieved the morning paper.  That he would open it, read the headline about dastardly Death Eaters being finally caught, and congratulate himself and perhaps Lucius on a job well done fooling the masses yet again. 

There is no headline about the Carrows. 

Black Seizes Half of Lestrange Vaults

The screech Bellatrix let forth nearly shattered the fine china. Even her husband, quiet as he'd been since his stint in Azkaban, grimaced and cursed. 

It was nothing, however, compared to the rage that rippled through the room from Voldemort's own magic. Tearing into the silk curtains and tablecloth. Rending his chair in two. Shattering the chandelier above their heads and blasting out the windows. 

He was gone before they could blink. Ripping through wards and tearing across space to find the boy he knew was responsible. 

It wasn't hard. He finds Harry, as he almost always does, sitting at the library. 

"Hello, Tom." Harry says, without looking up from what he's reading, legs crossed under him and tone pleasant despite the fire Voldemort can feel burning beneath both their skins. "You're a day early for our dueling lesson. Did you come to talk about one of the bills?"

Voldemort wants to rend him to pieces. 

"How did you do it?" he spits.

Harry blinks up at him. "Do what?"

Voldemort tears the book from his hands and shoves the paper into his lap. 

With a hum, Harry unfolds himself, seeming to skim the front page with a brow raised. Voldemort wants to destroy him-- he wants to see the life leave those green eyes. 

"Well, I suppose goblins do work rather fast with the right incentive and proper papers," Harry says, setting the paper aside. "Would you like to have a seat?"

"The goblins couldn't have possibly let Black seize property that does not belong to him. There are laws." Voldemort sneers, practically vibrating under Harry's placid stare. 

"Laws have loopholes, and I'm living in the flat of a man who has worked for the goblins for years." Harry replies, barely batting a lash. "Though, you're correct. Sirius couldn't seize anything that belonged to or was an heirloom of the Lestrange family. Have a seat, Tom, really. It's impolite to hover, isn't it?"

Voldemort's skin crawls. The glamours he put on in his haste, just before he apparated to Harry's location, itch. 

"And what could you possibly be after, siccing your dog on those vaults?"

"I think you know," Harry says, and then reaches into the ever present bag at his side and pulls forth Rowena Ravenclaw's lost diadem, setting it on the coffee table, Voldemort's ring glinting on his finger. "Sit down, Tom."

Voldemort feels, vaguely, like he is being compressed from every angle. Like the first time he apparated. 

He sits, slowly, and regards Harry with a look of steel. 

"How?" he asks. 

"You told me yourself," Harry says. "Did you really believe you were the only one to ever find the Room of Requirement?"

Voldemort breathes out once, sharply. 

"You're a liar," Harry adds. "And a cheat."

"I have never lied to you, Harry."

"Just a cheat then, because that's so much better.  You led me to believe that I could find what I needed in this room. You implied I could succeed by following your path across the world.  You barred me from ever going home-- the one place where you kept all of your horcruxes."

Voldemort presses his hand to his chest, smile brittle and sharp, broken glass ready to draw first blood. "Slytherin, darling. Or did you forget?"

"Good thing there's two snakes in the room, then." Harry says, reaching into his satchel and slamming Helga Hufflepuff's goblet down on the table, the impossible thud so resounding it echoes in Voldemort's head as he stares, dumb and numb, at the cup, at his horcrux, at the last piece aside from himself and Nagini, all the others in the hands of Harry Potter; Harry's smile is just as sharp as Voldemort's own when he finally looks back up. "Or did you forget?"

He moves without thinking. Is out of his chair, the table between them flying, his horcruxes be damned, and on Harry Potter before the boy can even draw his wand. Before he can even draw a breath. 

He pins him there, to that chair, eyes burning red and sneer curling over his face. His glamour wavers as he sets a hand on Harry Potter's throat. As he presses the tip of his wand to Harry's chest. 

And Harry does nothing. Sits there and lets him pin him down. Tilts his chin up, bares his throat against Voldemort's palm, like an offering. 

"Do it," he breathes, green eyes all but incandescent with his rage, Voldemort's own cracking like a whip against his ribcage, and though Harry's scar has begun to bleed, he does not flinch away. "Do it. Break the vow. See what happens." 

Voldemort's jaw winds tight; his ears ring. His fingers flex over Harry's throat and he can feel the flutter of Harry's heart against his fingertips. 

"I want another vow," Voldemort hisses. 

Harry's smile is a wicked thing. "No."

"You will give me what I want, or you will--"

"You can't do anything to me, Tom."

Voldemort's hand convulses against Harry's throat. 

"You're nothing but a boy.  Do you truly think you're a match for me? Do you truly believe you can win?"

Voldemort strangling Harry

"I can. And I will." Harry's hand comes up, sliding over Voldemort's wrist, wrapping around it like a vice, eyes glowing green as the killing curse, as he leans forward in his seat, as Voldemort's wand digs into the place over his heart.  "I would rather never go home than give you the satisfaction of winning. I will undo every spiteful little trick, ruin every inch of every plan, fight you every step of the way."

Voldemort's mouth feels dry. His breath, short. 

He is terrified, he realizes, of this young man. He is enraptured. 

Harry's gaze never leaves his own. 

"Did you think I would find out and concede to failure? That I would tuck tail, come home, give in? After three years of running, that I would just give up? On my task? My mission? On you?" Harry asks these questions and Voldemort cannot help but hear the truth in them; the conviction. There is blood running down the side of his face, a tremor shuddering through his body, and still Harry defies him.  "I don't care if I can't find the answer in this room. I will make one. I will fix you, Tom Riddle. I will put you back together again and there is nothing you can do to stop me."

Chapter Text

XV.

"You're angry with me."

Whatever bit of Voldemort's rage that had torn across the room has faded, now. It's still present, in the dull ache of his skull, in the red of Voldemort's eyes, in the way he is sat across from Harry like he might very well spring to his feet again and go for the jugular. 

The table is sat between them, all of Voldemort's horcruxes-- or, at least, all of the ones Harry has found-- laid out between them. They're restless, like Voldemort, and Harry has to fight the urge to claim them back with gentle hands and soft whispers. To soothe them, the way he has, so many times before. 

To seek their calming as a balm for his own pain. There is still blood drying on the side of his face. 

"Not because I have them-- I'm bound, as you are, in oaths that allow me to do them no harm." Harry adds when all Voldemort does is glower, jaw flexing and fingers clenched.  "You're angry with me because you thought I wouldn't succeed and you hate being wrong."

Voldemort stiffens all the more, but still he does not speak. There is a look, in his eyes and upon his face, that Harry reads as cold calculation. Something Voldemort hasn't looked at him with since that first day, in the muggle hotel, after Harry had somehow managed to turn getting caught around in his favor. 

Like, perhaps, he is being appraised. Or reappraised, as it were. 

"You made a wager, and you've lost this particular bet. It rankles. I know because I can feel it." Harry finally says, gesturing with a hand toward his scar, still burning and red, temples pounding.  "Every prickly little emotion, I can feel it. Your anger. Your frustration. Even your fear."

Voldemort's mouth curls into a sneer that is very unattractive on an otherwise pretty face. A projection, of who he could've been, and the facade of it burrows under Harry's skin. 

He's not dealing with Lord Gaunt. He's not dealing with Tom Riddle. He's dealing with Voldemort. 

"You've told me, a few times now, that I cannot lie to you." Harry says, tone pleasant as can be, smile terse.  "Well, the reverse is the same. I know you, Lord Voldemort."

There's something. Almost a flinch. A twitch. 

Something floods the connection between them. Something Harry cannot place or name, so unfamiliar that it's almost a slap to the face except for the fact that it's impossibly warm. Practically burning. 

Harry frowns. 

"Drop the glamour," he says. 

He doesn't even have to move. Like still water rippling at first touch, the glamour sheds itself away. Melts into nothing, until only Lord Voldemort remains. 

Harry takes a moment-- a true, honest moment-- to look at him. At the parlor of his skin and the red of his eyes. At the serpentine slits of his nose. At the cheekbones, still high, and the jawline, still firm. 

Before him there is no longer some boogie man parents warn their children of. No skeletal nightmare that emerged from the depths of a cauldron. It is just a man who has made all the wrong choices, whose face shows the toll those choices took. 

It is Lord Voldemort. It is Tom Riddle. 

Voldemort shifts in his seat, sitting back and with one leg crossed over the other. Just as prim, just as proper, as he always is. The same swot Harry knows Tom Riddle was. Pompous and arrogant and, perhaps, a little insecure. 

"Well?" Voldemort says, voice a dangerous hiss. "You were expounding on how much you know of me, weren't you, Harry?"

Harry sighs. 

"I do know what you are. Who you are." Harry says, and ignores Voldemort's scoff.  "You're the monster that killed my parents. That ordered Cedric Diggory dead." 

"Yes, I am," Voldemort says, smile vicious.

"You're the Dark Lord Voldemort," Harry says, holding his stare, unwavering in the face of this man. "And you do not frighten me."

*

There is something to be said about Harry Potter calling him by the name he made for himself.  Considering just how often Harry has called him Tom or Lord Gaunt, and how rarely he has addressed him by the name Voldemort crafted so cleverly for his own liking, it's very nearly jarring to hear. 

Jarring, and somehow just as right as it is incredibly wrong. 

Harry is not the type to kneel on bended knee, head bowed in supplication, mouth kissing the hem of his robes as he venerates Lord Voldemort. The only other times he's heard Harry call him by that name had either been in rage or in mocking. 

Now, to hear it stated like simple fact, to have Harry call him the Dark Lord Voldemort while staring him in the eye with as much defiance as he's ever had, with the same look he wore when Voldemort had a hand around his throat, with the stubborn dare in his eyes tempting him to just do it, Voldemort is left with a warm rush of satisfaction-- that is followed swiftly on the heels by discomfort. 

The problem is, he thinks, is that he likes Harry calling him Voldemort a little too much. Just as, for reason he knows not, he's let the boy call him Tom without repercussion or the same crawling sensation that comes when Dumbledore uses the long dead name. 

Perhaps, he thinks, it is because when Harry looks at him he does not see the misguided orphan that Dumbledore does. Perhaps, he thinks, a bit horrified, it is because when Harry looks at him and calls him Tom or Lord Gaunt or Lord Voldemort, he sees Voldemort. No matter the pretty glamour or clever tricks. 

Harry sees him. 

The ugly, the powerful, the angry, the righteous. Harry sees all of him. 

It leaves him itching. Leaves his chest feeling tight in a way that it hasn't since he was a boy. Leaves him frozen, stuck, immobilized under that dangerous green gaze. 

Still, he leans forward. "I am the monster, Harry. The very same one that took your parents from you-- that would take everything from you, if my hands were not tied by pretty words and oath magic. I think you very well know that, don't you, darling?"

Harry's lashes flutter for a moment behind his glasses. The only tell he gives, aside from the thrum of warning anger that zips along his nerves.  Aside from the way his right hand clenches, like it's aching for a wand. 

"Yes," Harry says. 

Voldemort allows himself a small second of pleasure from it. The admittance. The knowledge that Harry knows what he would do, what he is capable of, if given the opportunity. If given proper motivation. 

Voldemort is still angry enough at being beat that it's motivation enough, right now.

"And yet," Voldemort hums, tilting his head over.  "You say I do not frighten you. Why is that?"

"Because, like me, you're just a wizard. Just a man." Harry says, and Voldemort sneers at the idea that he is just anything.  "Because, like me, you were a boy once. More brilliant, probably. More lonely, definitely." 

Voldemort practically pounces on that, if only to ignore the way Harry's words strike true, like an arrow to the heart.  He leans forward, mouth still twisted with malicious intent, eyes narrowed. 

"Were you lonely, as a boy, Harry?" he asks.

Harry ignores him-- or seems to.  It has Voldemort's claws digging in at the leather of the armrests. Harry presses on. 

"You asked me why I created that addendum to your bill, and you were right when you implied I did it for me." Harry says, admits, some amount of discomfort in the way he shifts, but it settles away for that solid determination; for a look of pure relentlessness.  "But I also did it for you." 

Voldemort barks out a sharp laugh, and Harry's brow pinches. "Did you, now?"

"I had a choice, you know." Harry says, tone much sharper than it was before; like a blade looking for place between two rib bones.  "Before all of this began, I was given a choice."

"And what choice was that?" 

"I found your locket-- where I least expected it, right under my nose-- and I took it to Dumbledore." Harry gestures to the only heirloom to Slytherin's line as if it couldn't matter any less, eyes still intent on Voldemort's face.  "He let me choose-- told me what he could, gave me the means to destroy another piece of you, and let me decide."

Voldemort waves a hand.  "As if there was ever truly any choice at all. I doubt you had the knowledge or the means to destroy my horcrux." 

"I had the sword of Gryffindor-- and if that didn't work, a secret chamber with a dead basilisk waiting for me, because its fang seemed to do the trick last time.  Or have you forgotten that I destroyed your basilisk and one of your horcruxes, already? When I was twelve." 

Voldemort breathes in sharply. 

Merlin, Harry Potter is a fright. Defeating him as a babe, and again at eleven. Killing a centuries old basilisk at twelve. Fighting off, from all accounts Voldemort could get his hands on, what could only be considered a horde, a murder, of Dementors the year after. Standing against and defying Voldemort over and over. 

That's not to mention that moment, during their last chase, when Harry flung himself off of the edge of a cliff and fell onto his broom-- or the blind apparition, to the point of magic exhaustion. 

Harry Potter may have nearly been sorted into Slytherin, but Gryffindor runs through his veins. He's either pathetically brave or delightfully stupid, and Voldemort knows by now that it isn't the latter.

A boy of twelve, destroying his horcrux and slaying a basilisk. 

It's a shame Harry doesn't have more ambition, outside of besting Voldemort himself. Outside of this hair brained scheme of his to put Voldemort together like humpty bloody dumpty. 

He could be tremendous. 

"I had the beginning of your end, right at my fingertips…" Harry says. "And I didn't do it."

Voldemort finds that he very much wants him to be.

"Why?" Voldemort asks. "Why didn't you, Harry?"

"Because I know what it feels like, to hate so much it seems like there's nothing good left in the world. To hate yourself so much that destruction seems better than anything else." Harry says, the admittance coming without any of the shame Voldemort would expect from him, the confession falling from Harry's lips like a secret while his eyes dare Voldemort to counter otherwise.  "To want to burn it all down and emerge from the ashes as something new. Like a phoenix."

Voldemort finds that he very much wants him to be-- and that he wants to be the one who guides him on that journey.  

"You make my destruction and resurrection sound like a thing of beauty," Voldemort says, gaze hunting over Harry's face, searching for any hint of deceit. 

He finds none. 

"It was horrific," Harry says, blunt and honest and unyielding as always. 

Voldemort finds he wants to stand at Harry's side when he finally reaches the heights Voldemort knows he could reach. 

"You've killed off so many pieces of yourself that there's hardly anything left, Tom." 

Voldemort feels this want, this desire to see Harry fulfill his potential, grow a touch cold.  He stiffens, sneer firm on his face.  "I did not kill them--"

"But you did," Harry insists, sitting forward in his seat, plucking up Slytherin's locket and holding it out to him.  "Don't you hear them? Don't you hear what suffering you caused yourself? What pain? Don't you feel it? Their absence?"

Voldemort finally lets his gaze fall from Harry's own. To the locket, metal catching in the light, in Harry's hand. 

There is a pull, one Voldemort knows is always present but is rarely loud enough to be noticed. In this room, sat in front of so many of his soul pieces, there is a tug. Like a thread has attached itself to his breastbone, connecting him to these priceless heirlooms with the finest, strongest silk. It thrums, between him and them, and he bares his teeth at it. 

"What does it matter if I can or not?" he asks.

Harry's expression, once firm, softens impossibly at the edges. 

He reaches out with his other hand, breaches the distance between them, and takes Voldemort's wrist. His fingers are rough, calloused from years handling a wand and perhaps a broom, but his touch is cautious. Gentle, even. He turns Voldemort's hand over and Voldemort lets him-- just to see what he'll do. 

This is the first time Harry has ever reached out to touch him. 

"You were already in so much agony. You were already so alone, Tom." Harry says, voice lower now, as he lets the chain of the necklace pool into Voldemort's open palm, before settling the weight of the locket there at the center; closing Voldemort's fingers around it with his own, that wild green gaze dropping to their hands.  "And now it's even worse. You've been like this so long, been angry and afraid and alone for so long, that you're numb to the pain of it."

When Harry looks up again, Voldemort is once more caught. Trapped by that stare. By the hands curved over one of his own. 

He cannot even find the anger in him. 

"This is nonsense." Voldemort hisses, breathes, his voice gone hushed as this boy, this wizard, this little thorn sees through him and threatens to unravel him with killing curse eyes, soft words, and a softer touch. 

"Perhaps," Harry says, fingers slipping away as he leans back once more in his seat, leaving Voldemort's hand cold as Harry nods his head at the way he is clutching the locket tight.  "It doesn't make it any less true, does it?"

Yes, Harry Potter is a fright, Voldemort decides.  

He does not want to admit it, would never truly admit it outloud, but there is no denying the truth in Harry’s words.  The truth he finds in holding the locket in his hand, in feeling the shard of his soul buried within it, whine and strain and scream to be whole.  The truth he finds, sitting so near these horcruxes, that he is drawn to them; that some part of him longs in return.  The truth he finds that Harry Potter can see or sense in him, unlike anyone else he has ever known. 

Harry Potter sees the monster and is unafraid.  Harry Potter sees the man and understands. 

And if this is Harry against him, against the Dark Lord Voldemort, constantly on the edge of outmaneuvering him and outrunning him and outplaying him, he knows that Harry against anyone else would be child’s play.  That Harry against anyone else would be complete destruction.  Devastation. 

A true fright.  The most dangerous creature Voldemort has ever, and undoubtedly will ever, encounter. 

He cannot honestly say, anymore, if he would defeat Harry if Harry truly put his mind toward Voldemort’s demise.  But what he can say, without any reluctance now, is that he does not long to face against Harry in true battle.  That, when Harry fails to find a way to put him together, Voldemort will not hesitate to offer Harry the alternative: joining with Voldemort. 

Sitting back in his seat, some amount of ease coming along with these revelations, like a weight off of his mind and his shoulders, Voldemort holds onto the locket, thumb tracing over the glass.  “How did you manage it?” 

Harry frowns.  “Manage what?” 

“You said you know what it feels like,” Voldemort says, holding Harry’s confused stare.  “To hate to the point of destruction.  And yet, here you are, a constant thorn in my side.  How did you manage it?” 

Harry’s mouth presses thin, his brows drawn together.  It is something like shame, Voldemort thinks, the way he shifts and glances away.  Or, perhaps, something like regret. 

It isn’t a good look, not on Harry, Voldemort decides. 

“Why do you want to know?” Harry asks.

Pushing to his feet, Voldemort rounds the low table between them in order to stand before him.  In order to reach out and take Harry’s chin between his thumb and fingers.  In order to tilt his face up, so that those eyes are on him once more. 

“You have the dubious fortune of knowing very much about me, Harry Potter.” Voldemort says, dangling the locket before him.  “My past.  My present.  My secrets.  I do not doubt you know more, now, than even the illustrious headmaster.” 

Harry eyes dart between his own, his hand coming up slow to take the locket.  “Your point?” 

“You know so very much of me, and I know so very little of you,” Voldemort says, releasing his hold on the necklace, and instead reaches to drag his thumb against the edge of his mark, red and angry, on Harry’s skin; healing what he can of it, disappearing the mess of blood on Harry’s face, with nothing more than a whisper.  “That’s hardly very fair, is it, darling?” 

Harry clutches the locket to his chest.  He does not pull away from Voldemort’s touch.  

“And what would you gain?” he asks.  “From knowing more of me?” 

It is a good question.  A smart question.  

“Perhaps nothing,” he says.  “Perhaps everything.” 

Harry’s eyes narrow, and Voldemort feels a thrill zip through his chest.  “And what would I gain?” Harry asks. 

Voldemort grins down at him. 

*

“No.  You’re still not performing it with the correct motion.  It’s all about the torque in the wrist.  Do it again.” 

Harry rolls his eyes, wand hand dropping as he huffs out a breath, a faint layer of sweat clinging to his skin and his shirt.  Magically powerful as Voldemort may claim him to be, there is still a level of exertion that comes with learning to cast a new and complicated spell.  Spellwork, Harry thinks, is only second from flying in a list of things that keep him fit. 

They’ve been at it for hours.  Ever since Voldemort came and plucked him up, practically at Bill and Fleur’s doorstep, that morning.  

Harry had already been tired, having spent half the night sitting in front of the floo after his and Voldemort’s last conversation.  He’d first talked to Sirius, who dragged Remus in with him while making dubious faces at Harry’s summary of events, when he told them both what had occurred upon Voldemort’s arrival-- the anger, the conversation, the calm after the storm-- while he carefully skirted around the information of the agreement that led him to today’s “lesson” with Voldemort.  Then, of course, he’d told Dumbledore, who had been meeting with Snape at the time, who had been all too content to snip worry disguised as insults at him through the fire.  Then, upon Dumbledore’s advice, Harry had sat down and wrote to Hermione and Ron, updating them on what had occurred-- seeing as they had been rather helpful with the situation in the first place-- and had apologized to Hedwig profusely before sending her out on a late night delivery. 

She’d nipped at his fingers, but had cooed and taken off into the dusk without much complaint. 

When morning came, Harry was ready to head to the library for another day of research, and the moment he stepped out the door, Voldemort was there.  Even with the glamours he wore, disguising himself as Lord Gaunt, Voldemort stood out-- his light brown herringbone trousers, his pressed shirt in a green so pale it was nearly white, his robes of the finest and darkest silk to match the shiny black of his oxfords.  Standing on this street, even surrounded by other witches and wizards, his hands tucked into his pockets and his hair coiffed to a boyish yet charming perfection, Voldemort looked like power. 

When he’d smiled, crooked and just as charming, and offered out his arm to Harry’s wide eyed stare, Harry had nearly felt miniscule in comparison.  Had felt a bit like a boy again, standing in shabby hand-me-downs next to his cousin-- or Draco Malfoy-- while they preened in their fine new clothes.  

To be fair, he did still wear hand-me-downs.  Was, in fact, wearing a ratty red shirt he’d had since he was, perhaps, twelve years old-- with holes in the collar and the hem-- and denims he’d owned for almost as long-- ones he used to have to cinch around his waist with a rope.  

Voldemort had distracted him from that line of thought, though, with a pointed: “Come along, darling.  We’ve a reservation to get to.” 

As it turned out, Voldemort had reserved an entire dueling hall under the Gaunt name for the two of them.  

Harry hadn’t even really known that was possible.  Or that such things as dueling halls existed.  

Though, when Voldemort side-alongs him and then escorts him inside, he finds it rather reminiscent of his last months at Hogwarts-- hiding in the Room of Requirement for DA meetings-- with vaulted ceilings and long empty spaces and lights hanging far above their heads and mirrors reflecting their every movement lining the walls.  Rich portières of red draped from the tall ceilings to the marble floors, cinched to pale pillars that held the towering ceiling up, only the gold glow from the massive chandeliers lighting the chamber.  At the far end, Harry could make out a weapons rack made of dark wood, with an assortment of blades on display.  

He’d raised a brow at that, but hadn’t the chance to ask.  Not when, after being instructed to place his satchel on a nearby chair-- red velvet and gold filigree and Harry was positively delighted by the Gryffindor colors on display, despite the distance and lack of connection to his Hogwarts House-- he and Voldemort had spent the first hour trading spells and jinxes and curses, only stopping when their wands finally clashed in a shower of familiar gold sparks. 

Priori Incantatem, Harry thought, half expecting to see ghosts spring from Voldemort’s wand, like it had the last time.  Instead, it had simply haloed them in light, until Voldemort jerked his wand free of the connection and stepped deftly out of the way of Harry’s blasting curse. 

“Interesting,” Voldemort had said, but hadn’t pressed despite the calculative look in his eyes. 

After that, they’d quickly transitioned into this: Voldemort teaching Harry parseltongue magic.

It had been, after all, the thing that Voldemort bartered with for more of Harry’s secrets. One spell or curse in parseltongue at the cost of three secrets upon Voldemort’s request and specification.  

Harry has nearly mastered this one-- a curse that constricts one’s opponent, much like a boa might wrap around its victim, and is uncounterable by anyone who cannot speak parseltongue-- though he cannot quite get it to stick for long enough.  To strike and hold with enough force to knock his dummy opponents over, yes; to hold until Harry releases the curse, no. 

“You repeating your instructions to the point of redundancy doesn’t actually help, you know.” Harry finally says, pushing his fringe aside, and he really needs a haircut, he decides. 

From his spot leaning against one of the pillars, robes long discarded and sleeves rolled up, Voldemort raises a brow.  “Torque is the force with which you use to twist and flick your wrist at the end of the encantation--” 

“Yes, I’m aware,” Harry snaps, and then heaves out a great sigh.  “Just… show me again?” 

Eyes narrowed, Voldemort scans Harry over in a way that makes Harry very much want to shift his weight from foot to foot, and then he clicks his tongue as his gaze lingers on Harry’s wand hand.  Pushing off the pillar, Voldemort draws near. 

“I think, perhaps, the issue is not with my instruction, but with your grip.” 

“My grip works just fine with, oh, every other spell I’ve ever cast.” Harry replies, jerking as Voldemort presses in close enough to touch, and then reaches down to clasp Harry’s wrist in hand.  “Oi!” 

“Easy, Harry.” Voldemort chides, and there’s a loathsome amount of amusement dripping between their connection as Voldemort catches Harry around the shoulders before he can pull away. 

He steps flush, a broad chest pressing to Harry’s side, as he draws Harry’s wand hand into the air.  His grip on Harry’s wrist twists, bringing Harry’s hand with it, until his fingers are curled along the underside of his wand; his thumb resting on top. 

“You clutch at your wand as if it will jump right out of your grasp,” Voldemort says, easing his fingers along the back of Harry’s hand, and Harry’s shoulders draw tight at the flare of warmth that follows.  “You grip it like a tool.  It isn’t a tool, Harry.  It is an extension-- of your hand, your body, your magic.  It allows you to channel your magic through the wood to the core and release it with complete control over the flow.” 

Frowning, Harry watches as Voldemort’s fingers shift over his own.  As they frame his, pressure unyielding but almost delicate, adjusting Harry’s grasp of his wand with a careful touch Harry would never expect from the Dark Lord.  

His fingers are surprisingly warm; long and graceful and powerful, as they curve over Harry’s wand alongside Harry’s own work roughened touch.  A shudder pulls up, from low in Harry’s stomach, and the hand that Voldemort has at Harry’s shoulder squeezes. 

“Relax, darling,” Voldemort mutters, the grip at his shoulder sliding up to the curve of his neck, Voldemort’s thumb brushing just under his ear; Harry shudders again.  “It may well work with other spells-- but that’s likely due to your level of power.  You force it through, rather than release it.  With parseltongue magic, it must flow.” 

“Why?” Harry asks, as he lets Voldemort finish adjusting his grip.  “Why is it any different?” 

“It is the language of serpents, Harry.  Your action must reflect your words.” Voldemort says, then turns his head until Harry can feel Voldemort’s breath at his ear.  “Try it now.” 

Voldemort Teaching Harry

The parseltongue comes easy-- easier, perhaps, with Voldemort pressed along his side-- and the spell lights the end of his wand.  Harry can feel it.  Can feel his magic in a way that he usually doesn’t, or perhaps usually ignores, the way it pulls at his navel and wells up into his chest and travels down his arm.  Can feel the spell literally flow up through him. 

It hits the dummy with as much ease and efficiency as his past tries had.  It also, unlike his past tries, sends it flying into one of the many mirrored walls, limbs bound tight, left completely imobile. 

“Oh,” Harry breathes, a bit dumb, blinking his eyes at the sight of it and at the control he can feel in holding the curse on his target. 

“Very good, Harry,” Voldemort says, releasing him and stepping away. 

Harry drops his wand hand and the curse.  As Voldemort makes his way toward the dummy, Harry can feel his delight. 

“Now, let’s see if you can do it without my help—” 

Voldemort’s words come to a faltering stop as Harry hisses the curse at his back.  He trips over his feet and hits the ground with a harsh thud.  When he turns over, his eyes are red and Harry can feel the spike of anger at his scar. 

“Oops,” Harry says and shrugs.  “You were saying?” 

Voldemort dismisses the curse with a hissed release.  Harry bites the inside of his lips to keep the smile off of his face as Voldemort pushes back to his feet, dusting himself and his absurdly nice clothes off.  

“You do know, don’t you, Harry?  That it is rude to cast at a man’s back?” Voldemort asks, eyes still red, but there is no bite to his chiding. 

“As if you’ve never spelled someone in the back before?” Harry asks, brows up, tone dry and dubious.  "Or used other shady tactics in battle?"

Voldemort stares at him for a long moment.  "I am always fair when I duel, Harry."

Harry scoffs. 

Voldemort's face pinches, irritation plain.  "You're thinking of our duel in the graveyard."

Harry doesn't even have to reply to that. 

"You had your wand, I made sure of that," Voldemort says, holding out his hands as if to physically offer up an explanation.  "You were not without some form of defense.  There is no honor in dueling someone defenseless.  We bowed--"

"You forced me to bow," Harry snaps, his fingers tightening over his wand, ready to fire another spell at him.  "You surrounded me with your followers.  You forced an injured, terrified teenager to bow to you before forcing him into a duel.  And that's just that night at the graveyard.  You call that honorable?"

Voldemort's mouth purses. His jaw winds tight.

"You're right.  It wasn't."  Voldemort says, and all Harry can do is blink.  "Would you like me to apologize?"

Harry blinks again. 

"What?"

Voldemort huffs.  "I do know how to apologize, Harry."

"Sincerely?"

That gives Voldemort pause.  Then, he nods.

"For that, yes." Voldemort says.  "I take the rights of dueling very seriously."

Of course he does, Harry thinks.  Of course, of all things, Voldemort would be willing to apologize for forcing Harry into the motions of a duel-- based on some inane concept of honor-- but wouldn't be willing to apologize for the plethora of other wrongs he's done over the years. 

Still, Harry crosses his arms.  "Right.  Let's hear it, then."

Pacing over, closing the space between them with long, even strides, Voldemort holds his gaze and withdraws his wand with his left hand.  Harry's brow inches higher and higher, until Voldemort is before him, wand hand out, face expectant. 

When Harry doesn't move, Voldemort clears his throat.  "May I?" he asks.

"Sure?" Harry replies, line forming between his brows now as he regards the man before him.  "I don't know what you're asking for."

"Your hand, darling." Voldemort replies, tone droll, a crooked smile teasing at his mouth.  "So that I might apologize."

"You need my hand for that?"

"For a formal apology?  Yes."

"Right," Harry says, slow, and then tucks his wand away into his holster before offering his right hand. 

Voldemort takes it in his own.  His touch is just as careful as it had been when he'd been fixing Harry's grip; long fingers folding around Harry's, knuckles pressing into his palm. 

"I, Lord Voldemort, formally apologize to Lord Harry James Potter," Voldemort says, voice a steady, low cadence as he crosses his wand over his chest and bows before Harry, forehead resting against the ridge of Harry's knuckles, and Harry's breath catches.  "I am sorry for any disrespect given on the night of my resurrection, during our formal duel.  It reflects a lack forethought and wisdom upon myself and those who I would claim as my own.  I hope that, in the future, I can strive to earn and deserve your forgiveness on this matter-- and your regard."

Harry's fingers twitch in Voldemort's grasp.  From his position, bowed before Harry Potter, Voldemort makes a small sound and grips Harry's hand tighter. 

"Um," Harry wets his lips, face feeling oddly warm.  "Am I meant to do something?"

A laugh seems to escape Voldemort's mouth as he straightens out.  He keeps hold of Harry's hand, eyes red and bright with amusement, mouth twisted in a grin that looks perfectly at home on his face. 

His thumb drags over the backs of Harry's fingers, and they twitch again. 

"Usually, you would accept or decline the terms of my apology.  If you declined, that would be the end of it."  Voldemort says, drawing Harry's hand up until he can feel Voldemort's breath at his knuckles.  "If you accepted, I would further show sincerity in my terms by offering a kiss to your wand hand.  As per tradition."

Victorian hand porn

Harry jerks his hand free, face and ears warmed and undoubtedly pink.  He steps back, and Voldemort's smile goes a little wider. 

Harry forgets, sometimes, that those pretty glamours hide a predator. 

"Strange tradition," Harry mutters. 

"It is as old as the practice of dueling,"  Voldemort says, tucking his wand away once more.  "You don't know very much about wizarding tradition, do you, Harry?"

"Because I had so much time to learn it, during my years on the run," Harry replies with a roll of his eyes, then mockingly bows.  "Forgive me for being a complete dunderhead in all things ancient."  

"It should be taught in History of Magic," Voldemort says when Harry straightens back out, eyes still red, amusement undiminished.  

"And tell Binns to wax poetic about anything but the Goblin Rebellions?  Perish the thought."

His wit earns him yet another laugh.  Harry feels as though the earth might tilt beneath his feet. 

"Did it help?" Voldemort asks, after a moment, arms folding over that broad chest, somehow still evoking a sense of superiority and power, despite the casual picture of his unbuttoned collar and his bare forearms.  "The apology?  Did it make you feel better?" 

Harry doesn't miss the hint of mocking.  The tone of derision. 

"A bit," Harry replies, tone just as dry.  "I'd really still rather fire a hex at your face, though." 

Voldemort hums.  "Tempting offer, but I'm afraid I must decline.  Our wands seem rather… temperamental in regard to each other."

Harry sees right through that comment.  Sees it for exactly what it is. 

"You're fishing," he says.  "If you want to know, ask.  I do owe you three secrets, after all."

Voldemort's eyes narrow.  "Yes.  Yes, I suppose you do."

*

Voldemort sighs. 

"Are you planning on sitting any time soon," he asks, as Harry tries and fails to hide his apprehensive pacing by exploring the dueling hall. "Or will you worry marks into the marble floors?"

Harry casts him a dark look from over his shoulder.  Unamused.  Irritated. 

All a facade for nerves. 

Nerves that, if Voldemort is being completely honest, he didn't imagine Harry would have.  Considering how many times he's stared Voldemort in the face and defied him, he never thought a bit of conversation would cause this level of unrest in the young man. 

And yet. 

Gesturing to the table, set by a house elf of the Hall with tea, Voldemort sits back in his own seat and watches Harry move about the room.  "At least take your tea.  It will get cold."

"We're wizards," Harry scoffs, once more turning his back on him, muscles bunching and shifting under worn cotton.  "It'll keep."

It truly is a shame, Voldemort thinks and not for the first time, that Harry refuses to dress more appropriate to his standing.  

Though, he must admit, watching Harry move across from him when they had dueled, critiquing his form when Voldemort had been teaching him a new curse, pressing alongside him as he'd adjusted Harry's grip, the clothes hadn't really mattered.  Not when he could see the strength, the determination in the line of his shoulders; not when he had felt the warmth of Harry's body, firm and unyielding, against him.  Not when he'd seen the easy power in his spells; the skill in his ability to master them with the simplest of instruction. 

Not when he'd managed to shock a blush onto his face.  Voldemort hadn't cared at all about his ratty clothes, then. 

He'd been far too delighted.  Had, briefly, wondered what other little things might evoke that reaction, amusing and admittedly fetching as it had been. 

Harry Potter, powerful and cunning and stupidly brave, flustered over a kiss on the hand.  Over the mention of it.  What an absurd, wondrous thing-- Harry's discomfitted embarrassment notwithstanding. 

"Are you going to ask your questions, or are we going to be locked at a standstill for the rest of the day?" Harry finally breaks, turning about to face Voldemort again, arms crossed tight and shoulders bunched.  "I do have other things I could be doing, you know."

"Such as?" Voldemort asks, simply for the sole purpose of being contrary-- and for the way Harry stiffens and straightens up, like he might make good on that threat of tossing a hex at his face from earlier. 

"Ask, or I'm leaving."

“Alright,” Voldemort says, plucking up his teacup and taking a slow sip, watching the way Harry shifts over the porcelain edge, and decides to be kind.   “That cloak you wore, the night I caught you at my manor… where did you get it?” 

Harry releases a breath, shoulders drooping, as if all he’d been waiting and nervously pacing for was a simple question.  He stands there, across the hall from Voldemort, arms still crossed even as he tilts his head over. 

“Dumbledore gave it to me,” he says. 

Voldemort waits, as if expecting more, and when it doesn’t come, he shoves to his feet.  Setting his teacup down, he paces over to where Harry lingers in place, knowing that those darting green eyes are hunting over him for a threat.  Knowing that Harry sees the warning in his movements. 

“Are you trying to cheat me out of your secrets, Harry?” 

Harry’s mouth twitches, like he might be biting back a grin, and that same elated giddiness Harry’d felt when he managed to hit Voldemort in the back with that binding curse thrums like sunshine along their connection.  

“I’ve no idea what you mean,” Harry says.  “I answered your question, didn’t I?  You asked me where I got the cloak from-- I told you Dumbledore gave it to me.  It’s the truth.” 

“It’s not the whole truth,” Voldemort sneers down at him. 

Harry shrugs.  “Perhaps you ought to ask better questions, then.” 

“Fine,” Voldemort huffs, circling where Harry is standing with slow calculation, watching his body for any sort of tell or whisper of deception.  “What do you know of our wands and why they behave the way that they do when in conflict with one another?” 

“What is your wand made of, Tom?” he asks. 

Voldemort blinks.  “Yew.  Phoenix feather core.”

“Right,” Harry nods, and Voldemort realizes that this is information Harry must have already known.  “Mine’s holly.  With a phoenix feather core.”

“What are you implying?”  Voldemort frowns.  

“When I went to Ollivander’s, that day I got my wand, I went through… a dozen different wands.  None of them reacted right.  None of them-- None of them wanted me.”  Harry says, rubbing at his arms and shuffling on his feet.  “The wand chooses the wizard, right?  And none of them were choosing me, and for a moment I was so sure that it had all been a mistake-- that I wasn’t what Hagrid told me I was, or there was something wrong, or-- well.  It doesn’t really matter.”

Voldemort would beg to differ.  It sounds rather like it very much mattered.  

It sounds rather like Voldemort’s own experience in the wand shop, going through wand after wand, with no true match.  Feeling as though it was all some horrid prank.  

“After a while, Ollivander looked at me the way he… the way he looks at people sometimes.  As if he’s not really looking at them, but through them…”  Harry sighs, dragging a hand through his messy hair before shaking his head a bit.  “Anyway.  He looks at me like that, and then he goes: I wonder.  Walks off into the shop, into the boxes upon boxes of wands, and I think, well, that’s it, right?  No wand for me.  Until he comes back.” 

Rounding to his front again, Voldemort sees the way Harry’s lips press thin.  Sees the way his gaze is on the floor, glazed a bit, lost in memory. 

“And what did he come back with, Harry?” 

Harry’s eyes snap back up, meeting Voldemort’s.  He takes a short breath.  

Carefully, he withdraws his wand from his holster.  

“A wand.  My wand.”  Harry says, holding it out, the dark holly balanced in his hands like something precious; Voldemort knows that, to many muggleborns or muggle raised children, their wand is something precious.  

He always thought so, anyway. 

“I-- I can’t confess to knowing much about the crafting of wands, or their history or lore or whatever,” Harry says, eyes on his wand.  “But when this one chose me, when I picked it up and it felt like coming home, Ollivander told me that it was… odd.  Holly and phoenix feather, eleven inches, nice and supple, he said.  And then… then he told me that the phoenix who gave the feather for my wand’s core only ever gave one other.” 

His gaze draws up once more, to meet Voldemort’s searching stare.  To offer out his wand, as if it might prove something. 

Voldemort, with an uncharacteristic hesitance, reaches out to take it. 

When his fingers touch the wood, it hums to life.  Spits sparks, just as his own had when he’d first touched it so many years ago, lighting up the space between them.  

He hears Harry’s breath catch.  Sees the way his eyes go wide.  Feels his own bewilderment echoed in Harry with a stunned sort of awe.  

“Our wands have twin cores,” Harry says, when the light finally dies down, gaze tracking the way Voldemort runs his fingers along the dark wood of his wand.  “They’re brothers, of a sort.  The phoenix that gave the feather for my wand only ever gave one other-- and it’s in yours.” 

For a long moment, all Voldemort can do is stare at Harry.  At this young wizard, at this prophecy boy, who someone somewhere declared as Voldemort’s downfall.  This little Lord.  This little thorn.  Voldemort’s equal.  

To hear it, to know, that even their magic is similar enough-- so similar, in fact-- that their wands have the same core from the same phoenix… well.  It simply solidifies many of the things Voldemort had already realized: 

That Harry Potter has the potential to be something spectacular. 

“That’s why, when we duel, they… react the way that they do,” Harry finally adds, as Voldemort hands him back his wand, taking it and tucking it away once more.  “I think it’s… sort of a way of protesting, kind of.  They don’t want to be turned on each other because they’re-- well, they’re the same.” 

They’re the same.

The thought runs rampant, runs wild, through Voldemort’s head.  The same wand core.  The same trouble finding their match at Ollivander’s.  The same temperament-- quick to anger, easy to needle-- and the same outbursts of power, if Harry’s word and the reports are anything to go by, when they were children.  The same-- or, at the very least, similar-- strength in magic.

If Voldemort were decades younger than he is, Harry Potter might even very well outmatch him. 

The same.  They are the same; not just their wands.  Powerful halfbloods, stubborn and cunning, with a flock of people willing to follow them at their word-- Voldemort’s earned by right of conquest and domination and manipulation; Harry’s earned with wit and bravery and twice damned kindness.  

Voldemort wonders, not for the first time, just how similar they really are. 

“You still owe me a third secret, little thorn.” Voldemort says, voice almost hushed. 

Practically soft.  Coaxing, he realizes. 

“Ask me,” Harry replies. 

“Tell me the reason-- the true reason-- that you added that amendment to my original draft of the bill,” Voldemort says.  “Tell me about your childhood, about your time before Hogwarts, Harry.”

And Harry-- Harry flinches. 

*

Harry knew.  He knew when he agreed to this-- knew when Voldemort looked at him in that study, saying he knew nothing of Harry and looking like he very much wanted to-- that Voldemort would ask this of him.  He knew that he’d been avoiding it, deflecting it, hiding from it so long that Voldemort would pick this, this one thing Harry doesn’t know how or wish to know how to speak of, and ask it of him.  

Even though he knew, it still doesn’t leave him prepared for it. 

He flinches back from the request, away from Voldemort, taking a few steps to distance himself-- from the man or the monster or the subject itself, Harry doesn’t know.  Just like the first time Voldemort cornered him about this, Harry feels very much like he might vibrate right out of his skin.  Like he needs to get away, though he doesn’t quite know where or what away is. 

He freezes as Voldemort shifts forward after him; Harry’s a skittish colt, ready to run in a moment’s notice.  Voldemort stills. 

Slowly, as if trying not to spook him further, Voldemort tucks his hands behind his back.  

Tilting his head, Voldemort’s gaze narrows on him.  Red eyes that once haunted his nightmares and see straight through him now. 

“You truly don’t wish to speak of this,” Voldemort murmurs, almost thoughtful, musing in a way as if he can’t understand why Harry wouldn’t want to speak of his childhood.  “You’re actually afraid.  I don’t believe I’ve felt your true fear for quite some time, Harry.” 

The cold sweat clinging to Harry’s skin becomes suddenly apparent.  The racing of his heart.  The clench of his hands.  

Voldemort’s right.  He’s afraid. 

And then, quite suddenly, he’s angry.  

“They kept me in a cupboard,” Harry spits.

Voldemort’s eyes go wide. 

And Harry is angry.  More than angry, he’s enraged.  

“You killed my parents.  You tried to kill me.  You orphaned me.”  Harry says, and he feels his magic begin to burn up and churn up within him; like something wild and dangerous and with teeth.  “And when you orphaned me, I was given to the only guardians available-- and they kept me in a cupboard for eleven years.”  

A laugh-- a bitter, short thing-- escapes him, then.  His limbs, having been locked in this dread, are strung tight.  Wound with tension.  A spring, ready to burst into motion.  Like that moment, right before a drop into a feint on his broom.  

Like the moment, right on the edge of a cliff. 

“You want to know about my childhood, Voldemort?”   Harry asks, derisive and sharp and mean, and takes satisfaction from the way Voldemort takes a small step back.  “The childhood I had because you killed my parents?  For the first five years of my life, I didn’t have a name.” 

Voldemort holds out his hands, then, like he might try and calm him.  “Harry--” 

“No, I wasn’t Harry.  I was boy.  I was freak.”   Harry sneers, eating up whatever space Voldemort places between them with his cautious steps backward, and some part of him knows that Voldemort is not the only predator in this room anymore.  “Do you remember what that was like, Tom, being a freak?  But, I suppose, at least you had a name-- even if you did grow to hate it.” 

Voldemort’s face grows taut.  His jaw clenches and his brow furrows and his lips press thin.  

It’s not fair, Harry thinks.  It’s not fair that this man who took everything from him-- or the potential of everything-- can stand there and demand more.  

Harry wants to hate him for it.  For all of it.  And yet, he can’t.  

He agreed to this.  He set himself on this path.  Harry chose this.  He cannot blame it all on Voldemort. 

But he can damn well make him regret asking. 

“You want to know why I added that amendment, darling?”  Harry asks, and mocks, and draws ever nearer until he is glaring up into Voldemort’s shocked and horrified and fascinated face.  “Because when you took, when you stole, when you murdered my parents, I was given to what little family I had left.  They didn’t beat me, no, not really-- but they starved me, and they ridiculed me, and they used me, and they locked me in a cupboard under some stairs as if that might make me disappear.”

Harry’s crying, he realizes in a single blink.  There are tears, hot and angry and hurt, running down his face.  

His throat feels tight.

“I wrote that amendment because I know what it means to be hated for what you are,” Harry says, trembling now, voice a tight mess of a thing.  “What we are.  And I never want any child to feel like that again.” 

For a moment, all Harry can hear is the pounding rush of blood in his ears.  All he can taste on his tongue is the potential of complete destruction.  

Then, Voldemort reaches up.  Then, Voldemort takes Harry’s jaw between his hands, ignoring Harry’s reflexive wince, and brushes the mess of tears from one of his cheeks with a careful thumb. 

“I’m sorry,” he says, voice low, and Harry can sense no lie in him.  “I am sorry, Harry.  That you ever went through that.” 

Harry’s face twists up.  

“Your words mean nothing.  Your apology means nothing.”  Harry says.

It will not fix anything, Harry thinks. 

Voldemort sighs, as though he hears it anyway.  

“I know,” he says.  “But I am sorry anyway.” 

And Harry-- Harry cries. 

Chapter Text

XVI.

The study is silent, outside of the low crackle of fire in the hearth.  Voldemort sits, in the dim light, gaze blind on the lick of flame along the scorched brickwork.  He does not see it, not truly, his mind somewhere else-- somewhere distant, in the rolling sands of Egypt, in a room of marble and glass, with magic wild in the air, with a young man standing in front of him, crying. 

Voldemort has never been one to be swayed by tears.  Not even when he was still Tom Riddle-- not at the orphanage, not at Hogwarts.  Harry had called him a sociopath before-- egocentric, as well-- and he has never considered the lack of care he has toward others as a damnation of character.  He’d simply thought all others were, rather, lesser.  Beneath him.  His mind was simply sharper than those of his peers, those of his elders, and he could see beyond those soft, fleeting things that people seemed to hold so dear.  That care and compassion were simple excuses for weakness.  

And yet. 

And yet, when Harry Potter stood before him and spat his accusations-- not foundless, not untrue-- when Harry Potter finally broke and confessed to the history of his childhood-- horrific and so much like Voldemort’s own-- when Harry Potter wept before him-- well.  

He has never known himself to be swayed by tears, but somehow the sight of Harry Potter, burning with anger and sorrow and hurt, had him stepping forward.  Had him reaching out.  Had him wiping away the tears on Harry’s face-- and Merlin, he’d never seen Harry’s eyes so bright, not even in the graveyard or the ballroom or the library-- and breathing out an apology.  

As if he cared.  As if he held some sort of compassion for him.  As if he wanted to take all of that pain and make it better.  

It had been a jarring revelation, after.  Not something he noticed, not truly, when he was standing there with Harry.  Not with the hurt Harry felt, open and aching like a fresh wound, flooding their connection.  Not when Voldemort had been too preoccupied with a warring desire between doing anything, saying anything that might make it better, and the dastardly, familiar want of someone else’s pain.  

Perhaps, he thinks, the same someone that dared lock Harry Potter in a cupboard under some stairs.  

Guilt is not something that Voldemort can say he is accustomed to.  And it is not exactly guilt that he feels, nor felt when Harry finally pulled away from him to wipe at his eyes with the crook of a wrist, but it was something very similar.  

A blistering, boiling need to do something.  To fix a mistake that shouldn’t have ever been made. 

“What are their names?” he’d asked. 

Harry had looked at him, green eyes wet and lashes clinging, and he’d barked out a laugh so short and sharp it could’ve broken glass.  His smile had been bitter and rueful and exhausted and Voldemort decided, right then, that he would find a way, somehow, to make it up to him. 

By stringing the muggles up in the streets, perhaps.  

But Harry had shaken his head, clicked his tongue, and said: “I believe I’ve met my quota of secrets for the day, Tom.  Ask me again, tomorrow.” 

Sitting in his study, as tomorrow threatens to flood the horizon with light, Voldemort knows that he will ask Harry again.  It is, however, buffered by a feeling that he should perhaps not. 

For the first time-- the very first time in his life-- Voldemort is questioning himself and whether he should do something based on the wants or needs of another.  Based on the wants or needs of Harry Potter. 

It's madness. 

"Master," Nagini hisses, finally drawing his gaze away from the fire for the first time all evening, to her green scales as she winds her way up the side of his chair.  "You smell of that boy, again."

"Do I?" he asks, smoothing a pale hand over her head.  "How was your hunt, my dear?"

"Fruitful," Nagini says as she curls herself loosely around his arm.  "The rabbits are breeding."

Voldemort snorts.  "You do so love it when they're fast."

Nagini hisses, long and wordless, a pleased sound Voldemort has come to recognize well.  "The better the challenge, the better the satisfaction, Master."

With a hum, Voldemort nods.  “Yes, my dear, I suppose that’s true.” 

As Voldemort strokes over the soft place behind her head, Nagini settles, tongue flicking out idly.  Sipping the air, tasting his emotions.  Voldemort lets her. 

“You will see the boy again, today, Master?” she eventually asks. 

Voldemort takes a slow breath.  “Yes, I will.” 

“You will have to take me to him, sometime,” she demands, in the simple way that reptiles such as herself are wont to do; without any concept of what consequences there might be. 

He wonders what Harry would do, exactly, in the face of his last horcrux. If he would try to keep her. 

If Voldemort would let him. 

"Yes, my dear, perhaps I will," he says. 

He sits for a while longer, until the sun has finally risen, before coaxing Nagini off of his arm.  She hisses her displeasure, but quickly slithers away to find a patch of morning sunlight to warm herself in. 

Padding over to his desk, he plucks up the chain and stone, scrying for Harry’s location.  His wand drops into his hand, and he holds it, ready to spell himself into a fresh set of clothes and lace the glamours together over his face-- but once it is in his grip, he pauses.  

Yesterday, he held Harry Potter’s wand in his hand, and it had felt not unlike his own.  They had dueled, dueled well, until their wands had met in that golden stream of light.  

They’d never be able to properly duel, not with genuine stakes.  Not to the death.  

Though, the thought of Harry Potter dead at his feet sends an uncomfortable chill down Voldemort’s spine.  

Jaw tight, Voldemort finishes summoning new clothes, smoothing a hand down the open lapel of his robes, and then casts the glamours over his features.  There is the usual itch as they settle, but Voldemort is already turning on his heel and apparating away.  

In the early morning, the streets of Cairo’s wizarding district are near empty.  A few witches, walking to work, the sun a bit higher here than back in Little Whinging.  Shops beginning to open, wizards casting their signs over windows and guiding carts out with baubles and trinkets and whatever else might entice passing shoppers.  So similar to the markets of Diagon Alley.  

Voldemort does not linger long. 

He makes his way from the apparition point toward where the stone had indicated Harry was-- which, it turns out, is a café not far from the flat in which Harry has been staying.  It's a quaint little place-- all mismatched chairs and tables, worn porcelain cups on even worse off plates, and as the waitress comes out the door to leave a plate at the table Harry is sitting at, Voldemort can hear the faint strains of something like a guitar from inside. 

And Harry is sitting at a table, out in the rising sun, offering a smile that's tight at the edges as the waitress leaves him to his breakfast.  He's sipping at his tea, hair mussed, eyes tired. Perched on the back of his chair, a snowy owl sits, nipping at the messy strands curling around Harry's ear.  Harry laughs, softly, and sets his tea down before offering up a bit of bacon from his plate. With the other hand, he's got a letter, his eyes not leaving it even as he moves to stroke over the owl's head. 

He looks comfortable. Perhaps a bit distracted. Definitely as though, like Voldemort, he hadn't had much sleep the night before-- though Voldemort does not often need it, while Harry looks very much like he does.  Voldemort thinks he's wearing the same trousers from the day before, but his shirt is a soft blue. It isn't as fetching as the red.  

Around his neck, Slytherin's locket hangs.  On his right hand, the Gaunt ring sits on his ring finger.  At his hip, that mokeskin pouch. 

For a moment, Voldemort is reluctant to intrude.  Wonders what Harry Potter is distracting himself from, if what he'd confessed all those nights ago was true, and that Voldemort's horcruxes help take his mind off of… things. 

Harry's owl catches sight of him before he can contemplate anything further.  It trills, feathers puffing out, and Harry glances up from his letter, green eyes finding Voldemort's like a key fitting into lock-- smooth and easy and without hesitation.  As Voldemort steps forward, Harry sets his letter aside and sits up straighter in his seat, though he does not stop stroking over his owl's head. 

"Good morning, Tom." Harry says.  "Tea?"

As Voldemort slides into the seat across from him, he finds himself reluctantly pleased at the offer.  "I believe I would prefer coffee." 

"Really?" Harry's nose wrinkles up a bit, his head cocking.  "I wouldn't have pegged you as someone who drinks coffee." 

"When I was pursuing my studies here, I practically lived on it," Voldemort says. 

Harry hums, his gaze sliding along Voldemort's shoulders and then back up to his face.  "Yes, I suppose I can picture that." 

As Harry waves down another server with a polite smile, Voldemort cannot help but let his eyes linger on the glint of the Gaunt ring on Harry's hand.  

Shuffling over his shoulder, the owl stretches out her wings a bit.  Coos sharp, just once, to draw Voldemort's attention, and puffs up further once she has it. 

"Hedwig," Harry chides, stroking down the plumes of her chest.  "Stop it, now.  He's not here to hurt me." 

Voldemort clears his throat, trying not to feel too offended at being threatened by a bird. 

"Your familiar?" he asks. 

"Yes," Harry says, smile fond as the owl beaks at his hair again, and shrugs when Voldemort lifts a brow.  "She's been trying to convince me to get it cut.  She's got very strong opinions." 

"Not many familiars develop a sense of personality," Voldemort says.  "Nor do they bond closely enough with their wizard to be able to communicate it.  Not these days, anyway.  They tend to be common pets." 

"Not Hedwig," Harry shakes his head, and she seems to preen a bit, nuzzling against the side of Harry's face and earning a breath of a laugh.  "Think she knew I was hers the moment I saw her in Diagon Alley."

"An interesting perspective to take: believing you are hers, rather than she yours."

"She's more than just an owl for post," Harry replies, some amount of unyielding in his tone, but without any sharpness.  "She's my companion. My friend.  My first friend, if I'm being honest-- though, I'd never tell Ron that."

He pauses as the server comes back, two steaming, metal cups of coffee floating after her.  Voldemort takes his, allowing a moment of indulgence, breathing in the old but familiar scents of coffee and nutmeg and clove.  He watches Harry do the same, cradling the cup as if to warm himself, despite the spring sun still rising on them.

After taking a long dreg, Harry hums and sets the mug down.  Voldemort sits back in his seat, one leg crossing over the other, oddly content to let Harry keep filling the quiet. 

"Hagrid may have got her for me, but I have a feeling we would've wound up together anyway," Harry says. 

Voldemort tilts his head.  "I thought you weren't fond of fate." 

Harry's mouth presses thin, and he regards Voldemort from over the table, green eyes unreadable-- their connection, Voldemort finally realizes, muted.  It is unnerving, to realize that Harry has had his guard up this entire time. 

"It's not fate, not exactly." Harry finally says.  "It's… a feeling.  An instinctual imperative."

It seems fanciful.  A wistful notion of belonging and companionship.  Almost naive.

But Voldemort glances once more at Harry’s owl, her gold eyes staring unblinkingly back at him.  There's a kind of wisdom there, a daring that Voldemort has only seen in Harry, and he imagines this familiar would fight talon and beak for her wizard's safety. 

"As always, you've a unique philosophy of things, Harry." Voldemort says, drawing his eyes back to Harry's own as he drinks from his coffee.  "You say she was your first friend. Most wizards don't garner their familiars until they get their wands.  At eleven."

Harry blows out a long breath, slumping back in his seat, rubbing a hand up under his glasses and over his face.  "Are we doing this, already?"

"Doing what?"

"Playing twenty questions about Harry Potter's horrible childhood until you're satisfied." 

Voldemort very nearly smiles.  "Is that what we are calling it?"

"That's what I'm calling it," Harry mutters, then sighs again.  "So, should I brace myself for the interrogation?" 

For a moment, Voldemort plans to do just that. To press and pull and unbury all of Harry's secrets. 

Then, as Harry's hand drops from his face after adjusting his glasses once more, as Harry stares over at him with tired, green eyes, as Harry sits waiting and expecting and guarding himself for something he thinks is inevitable, Voldemort decides he can be patient.  

"Nonsense," he says.  "I haven't even taught you a new spell, yet. Finish your breakfast." 

Harry blinks at him. 

Then, with some amount of care, he sits forward again. Plucks up his fork and knife. Starts cutting into eggs and hash, smiles to himself, and eats. 

It's a strange sort of calm, the thing that settles between them. There's the sounds of the other patrons, of the marketplace, of conversation passing them by.  It's idle; something Voldemort usually detests.  He has no time for idle. 

But as he sits, nursing his coffee and watching Harry finish his meal-- pausing to feed small bites to his familiar and at ease with pretending Voldemort isn't there as he finishes reading over whatever letter he has in his hand-- he finds himself content.  

Better, he finds Harry content. Whatever blockade he'd erected between himself, his emotions, and Voldemort slowly coming down. 

Voldemort tells himself this is only better because it makes Harry easier to read. Easier to pick apart, when the time comes. 

"Here," Harry says, once he's halfway through his meal, sliding his coffee across the table when Voldemort finishes his own.  "It's a touch too rich, for me." 

"Not a fan of coffee, Harry?" Voldemort asks, but takes it nonetheless. 

"Certain drinks and food don't sit well with me. Never do."

"No? Why is that?"

Harry eyes him for a moment, an idle hand turning his knife over between his fingers, but that numbness does not return to their connection.  "Pomphrey told me I was malnourished, once.  I imagine it comes from being… unused to large, heavy meals."

They starved him, Voldemort thinks. Remembers him saying as much, yesterday. 

"You seem to have a healthy appetite, now." Voldemort says, but his mouth feels unlike his own. 

"I, uh… I don't get hungry, actually. Or-- I guess I don't realize I am."  Harry admits, words chosen with care and reluctance, but this is something of a secret Voldemort already half knows; Harry was starved as a child and his mind learned to ignore the hunger pangs in order to survive.  "I just know I need to eat.  Do you… do you eat at all?" 

"On occasion," Voldemort says.  "I find I do not need much, these days."

"Right." 

Harry is still looking at him, food apparently forgotten. Voldemort nearly shifts under that stare. 

"I was also… unaccustomed to larger meals," Voldemort admits, uncertain as to why he's telling Harry Potter this, but unable to stop himself.  "I often made myself ill, during the Welcoming Feast, until I learned better." 

Harry's mouth twitches into something like a smile.  "Too tempted by the beef pasties and turkey legs?"

Voldemort gives himself pause.  Wants to answer and finds himself curious of that want. 

"It was the sweets, actually." Voldemort finally says. 

Harry's brows fly up.  "The sweets. Really?"

Voldemort does not bristle at the dubious mirth in Harry's eyes and curving at his mouth.  "I am quite fond of sweets." 

It earns him a laugh.  Something in Voldemort's chest comes loose at the sound. 

"I'll have to keep that in mind, next we barter over terms of agreement.  The Dark Lord likes sweets." Harry says, grinning now, taking another bite of his meal and then pointing his fork Voldemort's direction.  "You're a very strange man, Tom Riddle." 

Voldemort doesn't even bat an eye at Harry's use of his birth name. It doesn't prickle the way it has, so many times before. 

"I could say the same of you, Harry Potter," he says.  "Now, finish up. We've a dueling hall to get to."

*

Harry's having a rather odd morning, all things considered.  

He woke from his restless sleep to a flat filled with noise-- Bill and Fleur having returned in the night from their long visit to England and France.  Fleur, showing her pregnancy much more now and still as lovely as ever, had worked herself into a tizzy over something Harry hadn’t stuck around long enough to hear about outside of things being too small and a seaside house would be better to raise a child in.  

He’d quickly and unabashedly made his escape, as Bill tried to navigate his wife’s hormones and the brilliance of her Veela temper, with a quick good morning to them both as he was on his way out the door.  To be fair, Fleur had instantly smiled and waved him goodbye before rounding on Bill once more, but Harry was more than happy to leave the bickering couple to it. 

He'd ended up just around the block, ordering tea and a small breakfast, and had been pleasantly surprised when Hedwig swooped down to join him, a letter tied to her ankle.  Seeing that it was from Hermione, he'd been quick to open it, and he'd made it about halfway through her long rant about Ron not taking his studies seriously enough and how he had, apparently, gotten sickly pale and near fainted when the first of their exams started.  Harry had been ready to laugh, his amusement tinged with the faintest of envy, when Hedwig alerted him to Voldemort's presence. 

Harry had expected him to sit down, perhaps make small talk for as long as he deemed polite or until his patience ran thin, and then grill him for the names of his muggle relatives and more until he knew enough to be satisfied.  But he hadn't done that.  Instead, Voldemort had simply sat and drank his coffee and talked with Harry while Harry finished his meal and his letter.  

And then he all but admitted he had a sweet tooth -- which, judging by the rich spices and saccharine flavor of their kahwa bl bharat and the way Voldemort had seemed to savor his before moving on to Harry's offered cup, made a lot of sense-- while telling Harry he'd had similar issues with eating at Harry's age.  Thinking back on Dumbledore's journal, Harry can put orphanage and rationing and war and starvation together with ease. 

As they walk into the dueling hall, Voldemort shedding his cloak and already rolling up the sleeves of his pressed white shirt, Harry can picture it. A young Tom Riddle, delighted at the sprawling amounts of food before him much the same way Harry had been, gorging himself until he was sick, fearful it would be the first and last time he received such a treat. 

Harry did much the same thing, after all. 

Having sent Hedwig off to get some rest, Harry doesn’t need do much more than get his wand out.  He stands at the center of the hall, rocking forward and then back on his toes. He's eager, he realizes, to duel and to learn something new. A spell he's never known before. 

Eager to learn from Voldemort. To duel with Voldemort. 

It's an odd thought, especially since he spent most of his night dreading this meeting. 

"You can put your wand away," Voldemort says, shiny oxfords clipping against the marble floors as he makes his way across the hall. 

Harry frowns. "Are we not dueling today?"

"Don't sound so disappointed, darling." Voldemort chides, stopping at the far end of the hall by the weapons rack, and glancing over his shoulder at Harry.  "We'll be dueling. Just not with our wands."

Without another word, he pulls two swords free of the rack, and turns to hold one out to Harry. Harry blinks at it, brows up. 

"Did your godfather not teach you to handle a sword?" Voldemort asks, something like smug satisfaction radiating through their bond, and plain as day on his face. 

"Said it was for pompous, traditionalist pricks," Harry says, eyeing the hilt of the weapon and padding carefully closer in order to take it in his grasp.  "But he taught me a few things." 

Voldemort's smirk wavers a bit, and he sighs. "Yes, well, he isn't necessarily wrong about it being traditional."

“No?  Was he wrong about it being for pompous pricks?” Harry chirps, grinning when Voldemort frowns at him, and stepping back to test the weight of the blade in his hand.  

“Wizards of Merlin’s time would duel with both sword and wand at hand.  It is a skill nearly as old as magic itself,” Voldemort says, and Harry can feel the faint strains of irritation and exasperation thrum over their connection.  “You bow, you duel, and first blood wins.” 

Harry hums and raises his rapier up, touching the tips of his fingers along the blade.  “It’s blunted.”

“Well, we wouldn’t want to make it too easy, would we?” Voldemort says, shifting on his feet until one is in front of the other, a hand behind his back and the other extended out-- the point of his blade pointing at Harry’s heart.  “Shall we see what you know?” 

Harry hesitates.  Eyes drawing over Voldemort’s form, all he can see is Tom Riddle.  In his pressed slacks and white shirt and shiny shoes.  With a dark curl falling over his brow, with his eyes a delighted slate grey, with a strong jaw and an easy grin.  Smug and pompous and eager.  He seems young, suddenly.  Young and bright and powerful.  

For a moment, Harry can see how someone might have blindly followed him. 

“Nervous, darling?” Voldemort asks, flashing a bit of teeth, a bit like a wolf ready to swallow Harry whole. 

Harry barks out a laugh, shuffling back a few paces and leveling his rapier much like he would level his wand.  “Tell me, Tom.  Do I feel nervous to you?” 

Those grey eyes flit between Harry’s own.  His head tilts, just slightly. 

“No,” Voldemort says, slowly and after a moment; then: “But your posture is atrocious.” 

“Would you like to correct my posture?  Or would you like to duel, Tom?” 

With a polite dip of his head, Voldemort bows.  “On your lead, little thorn.” 

Harry returns it with a bow of his own head.  Then, crouching more fully into his stance, Harry lunges slightly forward, their blades just kissing with the sound of metal meeting metal as Voldemort parries.  Voldemort is quick to return the attack with a soft one of his own that Harry easily blocks. 

They exist like that, just for a moment, testing each other’s reactions.  Teasing the other into movement.  Taunting the other into attacking first.  Parrying tentative blows as they slowly gravitate toward the center of the dueling hall.  Harry’s eyes don’t leave Voldemort, and Voldemort’s don’t leave Harry.  

It’s a feint that finally has Harry lunging forward with more force.  A feint that has Voldemort catching Harry by the shoulder with the tip of his blunted blade.  A feint that has them bursting into motion.  

Harry would be lying if he said he didn’t feel outclassed.  Sirius may have taught him how to use a sword, if needed, but it wasn’t his favorite weapon of choice.  Sirius has always been a bit of a dirty fighter-- more likely to throw a punch than properly fence.  

And that’s exactly how he taught Harry. 

So, as Voldemort begins gaining ground, as he eats up the space between them with more aggressive attacks and Harry is left parrying and reposting and falling back to gain lost footing, Harry waits for an opening.  Waits and blocks and waits-- until Voldemort goes to lunge and Harry can dodge back, swing his sword out blindly and pointedly, and follow it with the fist of his left hand when Voldemort ducks the first and doesn’t see the second coming.  

It connects, solid and firm, with Voldemort’s jaw.  Sends him staggering back a step, hand coming up to cradle his jaw, eyes flashing that dangerous red. 

It doesn’t make Harry feel the sense of fear he’s sure he’s supposed to.  Instead, a thrill zips down his spine at the sight.  At the way Voldemort’s mouth curls into a sneer.  At the way he comes at Harry with much more speed, much more agility, until Harry is stumbling back, just trying to keep up, failing to keep up--

And then he’s on his ass, sword skittering across the marble floor, Voldemort’s blade under his jaw.  

He’s breathless, he realizes.  A sheen of sweat is clinging to his skin, face warm and flush, head tipped back as Voldemort presses the tip of his rapier up under his chin.  Lips parted, panting, Harry stares up at where Voldemort stands, victorious.  

“You’re sloppy,” Voldemort tells him with a click of his tongue, tilting Harry’s head up all the more, and Harry swallows as the blade digs into his skin.  “And you cheated, little thorn.” 

“I was taught by Sirius Black,” Harry replies, a grin pulling at his mouth as Voldemort’s eyes narrowed.  “Did you really expect me to fight cleanly?” 

“No,” Voldemort says, and finally drops his blade down, holding it at his side as he offers his other hand out.  “I can’t say that I did.” 

Harry takes that hand, gaze never leaving the red of Voldemort’s eyes, even as he’s pulled back up onto his feet.  “Then why such the look of surprise?” Harry asks. 

“Perhaps I thought better of you.” 

Harry rolls his eyes.  “Traditional isn’t always better, y’know.  Sometimes it’s better to change it up.  Have a bit of fun.  It’s certainly gotten me out of a tight squeeze or two.” 

“Or five or six,” Voldemort adds, hand squeezing at Harry’s.  “You have a wild propensity for landing yourself into trouble.” 

With a laugh, Harry goes to pull away, stepping back.  “You’ve no idea,” he says. 

But Voldemort’s grip on his hand stops him.  He’s frowning, tilting Harry’s left hand over until the back is facing upward.  Until he can smooth his thumb along the edges of familiar words in a familiar handwriting.  His brows draw together and he shuffles closer, eating up the step Harry took away.  

Harry knows what he’s looking at.  Knows what the words say.  His shoulders draw tight and his hand flexes in Voldemort’s unyielding grip.

“What is this?” he asks. 

I must not tell lies.  

“Trouble,” Harry says, clearing his throat, tugging at his hand.

Voldemort’s grip tightens all the more.  

“That’s not an answer,” Voldemort says, lips pressed thin, eyes still that dangerous red.  “This is your handwriting.”

Harry sucks in a sharp breath.  “You haven’t taught me a new spell, yet.  You can ask again when you’ve done that.” 

Voldemort blinks.  Once, then twice.  Then, he lets Harry go. 

Stepping back a few paces, Harry covers the scars on the back of his left hand with the fingers of his right.  The skin prickles, as if suddenly cold.  He misses, with a strength that almost shocks him, the winter months; where he could cover those marks with the sleeve of a sweater.  

"Is that what you would prefer, Harry?" Voldemort finally asks, and there is something almost soft in his voice; something Harry has only heard the once, yesterday, when Voldemort stood there and apologized for what Harry went through; something that has Harry bristling.  "The two of us, bartering for secrets, until there are none left?"

"I'd prefer you leave off and stop asking about things you've no right to know," Harry snaps. 

Voldemort's eyes narrow once more.  "Someone did that to you, didn't they, Harry?  Who was it?" 

Harry wants to bare his teeth.  Wants to unleash whatever is in him that has woken, stirred, and is practically foaming at the mouth to be set loose. 

"Merlin, you're like a dog with a bloody bone." Harry spits, arms crossing, backing away.  "Have you ever thought that, perhaps, I just don't want to play show-and-tell with a megalomaniac?" 

Voldemort discards his blade. It lands with a jarring clang of metal on stone. He steps forward, tongue clicking, and Harry wishes he'd punched him harder. 

"Now you're just trying to bait me into anger," Voldemort says, following after Harry's retreat.  "I've discovered that you're actually quite content to share things about yourself with me-- until it's about someone that hurt you." 

Harry's jaw goes tight.  His temples give a dull throb. 

"So, I'll ask again: who did that to you?"

Harry knows-- he knows-- that telling Voldemort what he wants to know is his only way out of this conversation.  The only way to end it. 

Still, the words stick in his mouth. At the back of his tongue. In his throat. They threaten to choke him. Drown him. 

Worse, he knows Voldemort is right. That it is these secrets, the ones that Harry has gathered close to his chest and are tempered and tainted with an acute shame, that Harry does not want to speak on. That he would flee from, forever, if he had the choice. 

"I did," Harry finally says, words bitten and sharp.  "I did it." 

Voldemort shakes his head.  "You can't lie to me, Harry."

"I'm not lying--"

"You're telling me that you did that? You carved those words into your hand? Of your own volition?" Voldemort huffs, smile like glass, drawing ever closer.  "Try again, darling."

"Why does it matter?" Harry asks-- demands-- a sort of panic beginning to well up in his chest, a taste of magic on his tongue, a spark at his fingertips.  "Why does it fucking matter? Especially to you?"

Something slides into place in Voldemort's face.  Something firm.  Something quiet.  Something a lot like wrath. 

Harry remembers seeing him like this, once, in a forest. Surrounded by werewolves. Flanked by Death Eaters. 

He remembers saving Voldemort's life. He remembers Voldemort saving his first. 

"Because, Harry Potter, you are mine." Voldemort says, and Harry remembers that too, the vehemence of it when Voldemort looked at Greyback and claimed him above everyone else.  "You have been mine since the moment I put that scar on your head.  You are mine, and there is no one, in this world or the next, who is allowed to--"

"To what?" Harry asks, halting in his retreat, the shock of Voldemort's blatant claim giving way for Harry's own anger.  "To hurt me? Kill me, perhaps? No one but who? You?"

Without conscious thought, Harry finds his wand in his grasp. Finds his magic, buzzing at his fingertips, begging to be used. 

Voldemort falters to a stop, a hand coming up.  "Harry.  Don't."

Harry ignores him.  "Because my death is yours, isn't it?  That's what you said, at the graveyard all those years ago, warding off your followers.  That I was yours and my death was yours.  That you wanted to see the light leave my eyes, wasn't it?"

Harry levels his wand at Voldemort's chest. There's a spell, on the tip of his tongue, burning at the back of his mind and no doubt in his eyes. 

He won't say it. Wouldn't ever say it. But, in this moment, he wants to. 

He's never wanted to before. 

He opens his mouth, to tell Voldemort exactly where he can stuff it--

But Voldemort has his wand drawn.  But Voldemort is disarming him.  But Voldemort is stepping forward, another spell in his mouth, and Harry is moving. 

Knocking Voldemort’s wand away with a hand. Following through with the other. Aiming for the part of Voldemort's jaw he didn't get last time. 

Voldemort catches his wrist, dodging his head back, and as Harry tries to twist and get away from that grip, Voldemort catches him round the waist and pulls him tight. Grabs for Harry's hands, even as Harry lands an elbow to his abdomen. Grunts and jerks Harry closer, fingers enveloping Harry's own and holding him fast; back to Voldemort's chest, arms locked over his front, breath reedy and short and so unlike his own. 

"Easy, Harry," Voldemort says, voice low in Harry's ear, and Harry thrashes a moment, panic and fight still pounding in his blood, and Voldemort just holds him tighter.  "Easy."

"Get-- get off of me," Harry snarls, straining, and Voldemort doesn't budge. "Let go!"

"Take a breath, Harry." Voldemort says, in that same damning voice, low and coaxing.  "Stop and take a breath."

Almost involuntarily, Harry does. He sucks in one shuddering breath and then another. Then another and another-- until the anger has left him.  Until it bleeds out of him.  Until the only thing left is exhaustion and shame.

When that is all that remains, Harry slumps in Voldemort's relentless hold. His eyes squeeze shut tight.  At the nape of his neck, there is a dull ache. 

Mortification follows swiftly at the heels of realization. 

Harry sucks in another sharp, short breath.  "I'm--"

"Hush," Voldemort chides.  "None of that, now, Harry."

Harry shakes his head.  "You don't even know what I'm--"

"I can feel your guilt, Harry.  Your shame." Voldemort says, and Harry can feel his breath at his ear even as his head bows forward, fringe falling into his face.  "There is no need of it."

"Why?" Harry laughs, bitter and worn.  "Because you don't bother to feel those things?"

Voldemort gives him a little jerk, as though he might shake some sense into him, and when he presses his mouth to Harry's ear, his voice is sharp.  "No. Because when someone hurts us, Harry, it is not our fault.  When someone hurts you, it is not your fault." 

Harry squeezes his eyes shut tighter. 

"Your muggle relatives, whoever did that to your hand-- even me." Voldemort insists, his grip finally giving, though he does not let go.  "It is not your fault, Harry."

Harry's throat tightens around a sound. One that he swallows back, chokes down. 

He refuses to cry in front of Voldemort again. 

For a moment, a long moment, all Harry can do is hang his head and breathe through it.  All the while, Voldemort keeps close, keeps him held tight, keeps him still. 

"And Harry," Voldemort finally adds, voice dipping into that softness, that hushed vehemence, once more.  "I have not wanted your death for quite some time." 

Another breath, one he did not know he was holding, shudders out of Harry's chest.  

Then, Voldemort is unwinding his arms from around him. Is shifting his grip, fingers curling over Harry's forearms.  Is coaxing Harry around, until Harry is facing him, and tipping his chin up to meet Voldemort's gaze. 

"Do you understand, Harry?" he asks. 

"Yes," Harry breathes. 

And Harry does. He senses no lie; no deception. 

Only the truth. Stunning and unbelievable as it is. 

"Good," Voldemort says, lifting Harry's left hand between them.  "Now, tell me who did this, Harry." 

*

"Dolores Umbridge," Harry says, still looking up at him with those wide eyes, like he can't quite believe who is standing in front of him.  "She was my Defense professor.  Before I left Hogwarts." 

To run from you, he doesn't say, but Voldemort understands what he means anyway. 

Voldemort feels a scowl tug at his face, feels that all too familiar anger burn and turn over like hot coals in his chest. 

It had taken him-- swept him up and left his blood boiling-- when he'd noticed the words scarring the back of Harry's hand.  Had moved him to press, to dig, to claw despite any previous understanding they'd had between them. 

It was unlike hearing Harry's relatives had starved him and belittled him and stored him in a cupboard like some useful tool.  It had been physical. Something he could see and touch and--

And he'd been angry. 

He'd been angry that someone would dare touch Harry. That they would dare harm him in a way that is so permanent.  That would dare harm him. 

That anyone would dare harm what was his. 

But that anger had burned out, the moment Harry raised his wand at him. Stared at him with contempt in those green eyes. Hand shaking, breath short.  It had burned out, snuffed itself, when he felt the overwhelming consumption of Harry's panic and rage and shame. 

He was certain he was staring Harry's own self-destruction in the face. Certain that, if he did not calm him, Harry would burst into a supernova and consume everything around him.  

Voldemort had done something similar, when he was not much older than Harry, and had nearly brought Riddle Manor down around his ears. 

Deciding to step forward, to stop him, to still him, had been an easy decision to make, after that.  To try and rid him of that shame. 

Telling Harry, once he'd calmed, that he had no true intention or desire for his death anymore, had been something he hadn't fully realized was true until it was out of his mouth.

The surprise still on Harry's face, however-- the unhesitant belief of Voldemort's words-- had made the utterance worth it. 

"A professor did this?" Voldemort asks. 

"Yes," Harry nods, chin still caught on the crook of Voldemort's fingers, lips pressing thin.  "She was planted, by Minister Fudge, when I started saying that you were back. She didn't like me saying it."

Voldemort takes a slow, steady breath.  "How?"

"A blood quill," Harry says.  "I wasn't the only one." 

Voldemort drags his thumb along the words: I must not tell lies.  

They're ragged.  Deep.  A scarring that only repeated use of such a dark object can leave. 

"Blood magic is very powerful, Harry.  I'm surprised you can still tell a lie, at all." Voldemort says, because he cannot think beyond the growing maw of anger opening like a chasm in his gut.  

Harry shrugs. "I'm not very good at it."

"You're very good at deception," Voldemort rebuts.  "You said you were not the only one. Dumbledore allowed this? The other teachers? The Heads of House?"

"The Ministry was threatening to oust Dumbledore; instate Umbridge as Headmistress.  I think the other teachers would've done something, if their jobs weren't on the line as well.  Hermione eventually took care of it."

Voldemort blinks away from the words written into Harry's skin, surprise like a rush of cold water in his veins.  "Your muggleborn?  A student?"

There's a faint smile, finally on Harry's face.  "Didn't you see the article by Rita Skeeter?  Labeled her a deplorable, I think.  Of the worst kind of witch. Fudge yanked her from the position, slapped her with a fine, and fired her as Undersecretary." 

"A fine is hardly what I would consider proper punishment," Voldemort sneers.

Harry makes a soft noise, from the back of his throat, and his face twists into something that is somehow chiding and immeasurably soft at the same time.  "No.  I think we both know what you prefer as punishment."

"She would deserve it," Voldemort replies.  "She held a position of power, over students, and she abused it." 

Harry lifts a brow.  "And you wouldn't be casting a crucio left and right?"

"No, I wouldn't--" Voldemort sighs, grip shifting and then firming on Harry's jaw, and Harry does not bother shying away, keeping his eyes on Voldemort's.  "Have I cast it on you since I've been teaching you?"

"No, but--"

"Our oaths would not stop me from casting it, Harry.  It would only stop me from holding it too long." Voldemort says, giving a pointed squeeze to Harry's jaw.  "Before all this, I wanted to be a professor at Hogwarts. Or did you forget?"

Harry's eyes dart between his own. Something burns through their bond, something like recognition, and Voldemort feels the warmth of that knowing spread into his chest.

"No," Harry admits, on something like a breath.  "No, I didn't forget."

Harry is still hunting over his face. Still searching his eyes.

Then, he offers up a crooked little smile.  "I think you would've made a good teacher, Tom. For what it's worth."

It near knocks the breath from him. A part of him, some small piece he thought he'd buried or broken off decades ago, echoes with an old longing. 

A crease forms between Harry's brows.  He frowns.  Then, his right hand is coming up between them, is curling over Voldemort's wrist, is squeezing, gently, thumb pressing at the heel of Voldemort's palm until his fingers twitch against the line of Harry's jaw. 

"Hogwarts was my first home," Harry says, pointed and weighted with understanding and all that's missing from his statement is the too.  

"Yes, well," Voldemort clears his throat, and then he is finally letting Harry Potter out of his grasp, stepping back and smoothing out the wrinkles in his shirt.  "Things would've been rather different, I imagine, if I'd ever been permitted the position." 

"Rather different," Harry agrees. 

"For instance," Voldemort adds, nodding his head toward Harry's scarred hand.  "Dolores Umbridge would've never had the opportunity to do that to students." 

Harry's mouth presses into a grimace, and he rubs at the back of his hand.  Clenches his fingers and tucks it behind his back. 

"Perhaps I would've had a proper Defense professor outside of third year," Harry says. 

Voldemort lifts a brow.  "You've a proper Defense professor now."

"That remains to be seen," Harry replies, a bit cheekier.  "You've only taught me one thing, officially, after all."

Humming, Voldemort holds out his hand and summons his wand back to his palm without a word.  Harry eyes it, with some amount of trepidation, and then glances back up at Voldemort with expectation.  With something Voldemort might call eagerness. 

It sends a thrill through him, those green eyes looking upon him with curiosity.  Thrills him-- and confounds him. 

"Let's see about remedying that, shall we?"

Grinning, Harry holds out his hand and summons his own wand. 

"On your lead, Lord Gaunt."

*

Dawn is lingering at the horizon, a few days later, and Harry is sitting in bed.  He isn't sleeping, hasn’t slept, most of the night.  Half tucked under his sheets, shirt long since abandoned to the rising summer heat, Harry frowns down at the paper sprawled open on his bed.  He toys with the locket round his neck, arms resting on the tops of his knees, the other hand still curled loosely over Hermione’s most recent letter, and the whispers of the ring and the necklace are muted and hushed and calmed by so long against the warmth of his skin. 

At the end of his bed, Hedwig sits perched on the footboard, fluffing up her feathers with a hoot. 

Harry sighs.  "Stop looking at me like that.  It's not like I knew."

Hedwig hoots again. 

"What do you want me to do?  Send him a strongly worded letter?" Harry asks, eyes narrowing on where his owl shuffles about on her feet.  "You'd have to deliver it, y'know."

Hedwig stops her restless shuffle. Blinks her eyes at him. 

With a pointed, cocky little nod, Harry points at her.  "Didn't think about that, did you?"

As his familiar finally quiets down once more, her judgement hushed for a moment, Harry sighs and glances back down at the paper.

Former Undersecretary Confesses to Aiding and Abetting in Death Eater Breakout

Rubbing a hand over his face, Harry sighs, again, more heavily.  "Bollocks."

Slumping back against the headboard, Harry glances once more at Hermione’s letter.  There's an abundance of underlined sections. A great deal of splattered ink. He can imagine Hermione in quite the tizzy, jotting him this note between exams.

Harry James Potter, what in Merlin is going on?  It was one thing when it was Pettigrew -- while callous, it was a brilliant way to fulfill his side of the oath you took.  Then, of course, the Ministry started picking up random escaped Death Eaters, half mad, and it seemed almost natural.  But this?  Harry, tell me you didn’t make another deal with him to get vengeance on Umbridge .  And if you did, what did you offer in return

Eagerly awaiting your reply, 

Hermione Jean Granger

Harry thinks it’s a bit funny-- that she thinks he would be sly or twisted enough to offer up a deal with Voldemort to get a woman he hasn’t seen in over two years locked up in prison for something she didn’t do.  He also thinks it’s a bit funny that she still signs her full name when writing him letters. 

Ultimately, though, he thinks the funniest thing about this all is: he didn’t ask Voldemort to do anything.  He just did it.  And while a part of him knows he should, perhaps, feel a bit of remorse at the idea of Voldemort sending someone to track Umbridge down and imperious her into confessing to crimes uncommitted-- he doesn’t.  

Not a lick of guilt invades his mind when he thinks about it.  

He wonders what that says about his conscience.  If it says anything at all.  

But Voldemort didn’t torture her-- that he knows about-- and didn’t kill her.  He got her locked up, when her previous crimes didn’t do the trick.  He got justice, in a roundabout way, for all of the students that she hurt during her tenure at Hogwarts.  He got justice, in a roundabout way, for Harry.  

There’s something warm, under his breastbone.  Something soft, like petals, unfurling and rooting into place.  

Hedwig narrows her eyes at him from the foot of the bed and hoots again. 

Rolling his eyes, Harry tosses the sheets aside and climbs out of bed.  “Oh, hush, you.” 

Rummaging about his things, Harry finds a clean shirt and pair of trousers, pulling them both on.  Gets ready, mind lingering on yesterday’s paper and Hermione’s letter, wondering just what it could all mean-- if anything at all.  He pauses by the small mirror at the door, running his fingers through the messy curls of his hair; Hedwig is right, it is getting a bit out of hand. 

Stepping out into the hall, he smells something sweet and fresh mingling in with the scent of tea and cinnamon.  He pads down the hall, pausing when he sees Bill at the table with a cuppa and a new copy of The Daily Prophet.  On the front page, there’s a new headline: Fudge Under Pressure for Former Undersecretary’s Crimes. 

“Morning, Harry,” Bill says with a nod of his head.  “Seen today’s headline?” 

Harry takes a seat at the table. “Unfortunately.” 

“Think it’s good, honestly,” Bill shrugs, sipping at his tea and holding the paper out for Harry to skim over.  “Fudge is a bit of a prick.” 

Harry snorts and doesn’t argue.   

As he mixes some milk and sugar into his own cup of tea, he eyes the paper in Bill’s hand.  Watches the moving picture of Minister Fudge shy away from flashing lights.  Wonders if he’s meant to feel guilty about all of this-- when he really, really doesn’t. 

“Oh! ‘Arry, so lovely to see you,” Fleur beams at him as she steps out of the kitchen, a platter of scones in hand; she stops to kiss the top of Bill’s head as she sets them down.  “Please, ‘ave one.  Bill was kind enough to get zem for me when I told him I wanted sweets.” 

Harry grins a little as Bill’s cheeks go pink.  Looks like they’ve made up.  Or, at the very least, Bill is doing his best to satisfy his pregnant wife.  

“Thank you, Fleur.  Really.”  Harry says, reaching over and taking up a warm scone, wrapping it in a napkin.  “I’ll take it with me.” 

“Leaving already?” Bill asks.  

Harry swigs back his tea.  “Unfortunately, I’ve not had as much time in the library as I usually do.  Need to take advantage of a free day.  Plus, I don’t want to step on any toes.” 

Fleur shakes her head.  “You are not.  You are always welcome, ‘Arry.” 

“Yeah, well.  I was thinking I might start looking for a place,” Harry shrugs a bit, his own cheeks going a bit warm.  “Might be here for a while, you know?” 

Fleur perks.  “I can ‘elp!  Zer are lovely places to stay in ze city.  We could tour zem!  Find one, just right, for you.” 

“Um,” Harry blinks. 

Bill snorts.  “Easy, love.  He said he was thinking about it.  Let him think.” 

With a roll of her eyes, Fleur plops down.  “I never get to have any fun, anymore,” she says, resting her chin in her palm, casting a sly glance at Harry that has him sitting a bit straighter.  “It would be nice.  Per’aps you could aid me in my search, ‘Arry.  Bill keeps saying we do not need a bigger place.” 

Bill sighs, head tipping back.  “That’s your cue to leave, Harry.”

“Right,” Harry laughs, especially when Fleur winks at him and then gives an exaggerated pout in reply to Bill’s fondly annoyed look.  “I’ll see you two later.” 

“‘Ave a good day, mon chou!” Fleur says, smiling all the while. 

She really does look quite radiant, Harry can admit to himself.  As he gathers his things and excuses himself from the table, he sees Fleur laugh and kiss Bill’s cheek while Bill tries to hide his own smile in the Daily Prophet. 

Love, Harry thinks, should always look like that.  

It has him feeling warm and content, seeing his family and friends so happy, as he heads out the door and down to the street.  Has him warm and content as he steps out onto the road, smiling to himself, hands stuffed into his pockets.  Has him warm and content knowing that, in some strange way, he’s had a hand in keeping them all safe enough that they can be happy.  

He’s caught in these soft, effervescent feelings as he heads toward the library.  Caught in them, so much so, that he doesn’t notice his shadow until it is already accosting him.  

Just like in those first days, when Voldemort appeared out of nowhere and cornered him, Harry is not immediately expecting it-- but he does have his wand in hand by the time his back hits the brick wall of the alley.  Has it pressed just under Voldemort’s ribs, even as Voldemort pins him back, a hand over Harry’s mouth and eyes burning red, hair disheveled and robes crooked.  

Eyes wide, Harry stares up at him.  He doesn’t think he’s ever seen Voldemort like this-- not with his perfect glamours in place.  He jerks, trying to get free, but Voldemort hisses a quick hush down at him, hand still pressed over Harry’s mouth as he draws his wand with his other.  Harry’s brows fly up, curse already burning at his fingertips, ready to fend this man off of him--

When all Voldemort does is cast some charms around them both, hiding them from view and muffling their voices, Harry’s brows pinch.  

“Waff--” 

Voldemort’s mouth presses thin.  “Did I not tell you to hush?” 

Harry scowls.  In the small space between Voldemort’s body and his own, he crosses his arms.  He presses his irritation, his confusion, his curiosity at Voldemort with all the finesse of a quaffle to the head. 

Voldemort winces.  “Stop that.  I’m almost finished.” 

With what? Harry wants to ask.  

A final charm laces around them-- something in parseltongue that sounds an awful lot like hidden-- and then Voldemort tucks his wand away and turns those red eyes back on Harry.  

Harry waits. 

“Rita Skeeter,” Voldemort sneers. 

Harry’s brows fly up.  

“I know that you have some hold over her,” Voldemort adds.  “So why do you have her following me about?” 

Hand still pressed over Harry’s mouth, Voldemort glares down at him.  

Harry waits a moment. Then, he silently gestures to the hand keeping him quiet, brows up, eyes rolling. 

Huffing, Voldemort shifts his grip. Moves his hand to curl under Harry's chin, fingers digging in at his jaw, and Harry cannot help but wince.

"Well, little thorn?" Voldemort hisses. "What do you have to say for yourself?"

Harry feels Voldemort's irritation prickling along his nerves.  His own echoes right back, his face scrunching up as he moves to grasp at Voldemort's wrist. 

"I've no idea what you're talking about," Harry says.

Voldemort's jaw winds tight.  "Rita Skeeter. That abominable reporter, if you can even call her that."

"What about her?" 

"Harry," Voldemort says, voice lowering with something like a warning, fingers squeezing.  "I know you have something on her.  And since reports of Umbridge's arrest, she's been attempting to corner me and follow me whenever I'm free of my wards for an interview.  Why have you sicced her attentions on me?"

It takes Harry all but a moment to connect those dots-- Rita, Umbridge's arrest, Hermione’s letter, and Voldemort's disheveled appearance-- but when he does, he cannot help but snort out a laugh. 

Voldemort's eyes narrow all the more, and Harry feels a pang in his head. 

Holding up both hands, open with surrender, Harry wrestles down his amusement.  "I didn't do anything.  Promise."

"And your promise is meant to mean something to me?"

"Have I ever broken any of our oaths? Even the informal ones?"

Voldemort holds his gaze for a moment, then sighs.  "No. I suppose you haven't."

Then, he steps back, releasing his hold on Harry. Harry lets out a breath, rubbing at the side of his jaw with the backs of his knuckles, letting the cool, black stone of the Gaunt ring on his hand ease the faint ache there. 

Voldemort watches, eyes tracking the movement of his horcrux, before he drags his gaze back to Harry's and folds his arms over his chest. 

"She's really got you piqued, doesn't she?" Harry asks, biting the inside of his cheek to keep from grinning in delighted amusement.  "Bit of a pest, wouldn't you say?"

"Yes," Voldemort replies, eyes narrowing, but the red of them has already started to fade.  "Why is she following me?"

"Perhaps she thinks you're an interesting, attractive new story, Lord Gaunt," Harry says, swallowing down another laugh as Voldemort’s face twitches.  "Maybe she'll even do an exposè on you.  Did you ever read the one she did on me, my fourth year?  She's quite a way with words.  And lies."

Uncrossing his arms, Voldemort steps back close. He towers over Harry, pressing him back against the wall, hand bracing by his head.  

He's simmering with a restrained ire. It's hilarious. It's fascinating. 

Eyes bright, Harry grins up at him. 

"The truth, now, Harry.  Stop your dancing about it, and tell me." 

"But you've yet to teach me anything, today." Harry says.  "And it isn't exactly my secret to tell." 

"Harry--"

Harry shrugs.  "Perhaps if you asked me nicely…"

Voldemort's mouth thins. From the corner of his eye, Harry can see Voldemort's wand hand twitch. 

Harry knows that, perhaps, he's pushing this a little too much.  Knows that, perhaps, he's worn Voldemort's limited patience a bit too thin. 

He honestly can't help it. There's something a little wonderful at seeing Voldemort this way. Frustrated and exasperated by a reporter that had truly been the bane of Harry's existence his fourth year.  

It feels a bit like vindication. 

Dropping his head, Harry laughs a bit, holding up a hand.  "Alright, alright. I'll--"

Fingers touch under his chin. Press and tip his head back up. 

The smile on Voldemort’s face is as charming as it is deadly.  

"Would you like me to say please, Harry?"

Harry swallows. Heat rushes to his head. 

Still, he barks out another laugh. 

"No," he says. "You'll just owe me a new spell."

"Demanding, aren't we, little Lord?" Voldemort clicks his tongue, tilting his head as he peers down at Harry; Harry's cheeks feel warm.  "Fine. I acquiesce.  Now, tell me who--"

"Hermione."

Voldemort blinks.  "Your muggleborn."

"My friend," Harry corrects, eyes rolling as he rests back against the wall, batting Voldemort's hand away from his face.  "She's the one who figured out Rita's secret in the first place. And I've no doubt she's using that to pressure her into stalking you."

"Why?" Voldemort asks, and he sounds so utterly frustrated that it's nearly endearing; he sounds a bit like a child, stomping his foot and throwing a tantrum. 

"Umbridge," Harry says, finally glancing away, some of his amusement fading, and he folds his arms over his chest as he shrugs, tongue feeling a touch thick in his mouth.  "She's worried I made another deal with you.  She's worried about what you might've asked for in return." 

"Ah," Voldemort says, though he sounds distant, somehow-- despite having crowded Harry back against a wall.  "But I didn't ask for anything in return."

"No," Harry says, brows pinching, eyes on the ground by Voldemort's shoes.  "No, you didn't." 

There's a sigh. Harry feels it, as it ruffles his hair.  Voldemort shifts and Harry's gaze stays down, lingers on the shiny leather of Voldemort's shoes, until Voldemort reaches up and catches the locket around Harry's neck. 

Harry jerks, looking up sharp, but Voldemort’s eyes are on the locket as he drags his thumb across the crystal surface.  

"I do not abide fools, Harry Potter." Voldemort says.  "Nor do I tolerate idiocy-- particularly not in positions where being inept could be catastrophic to the future of the wizarding world.  I did what I did because I refuse to let actions like hers go unpunished."

"I know," Harry breathes, and he's moving, reaching, curling his fingers over where Voldemort's are cradling the locket, before he can even think about it.  "Thank you for doing it, anyway."

For a drawn, long second, all Voldemort does is stare down at Harry.  Harry thinks, perhaps, he should feel uncomfortable under that stare.  

He doesn't. 

"You're welcome," Voldemort says, with a touch of softness; then, he pulls a bit at the necklace around Harry's throat, eyes narrowing.  "Tell your muggleborn to keep Skeeter away from me."

Harry snorts.  "I mean, I'll ask.  But it's Hermione."

"That means very little to me."

"You'll understand someday soon," Harry replies, rocking up onto his toes, releasing Voldemort's hand to give his shoulder a pat as he edges out from between him and the wall.  

"I am not playing, Harry." Voldemort warns, but he's following as Harry moves beyond whatever privacy barriers Voldemort had erected around them.  "Do I need to remind you that this is not my true visage?  I don't have the time to be dodging reporters."

Harry glances over his shoulder at him.  "Yes. How do you manage to keep those up? Aren't their wards in the Ministry to keep people from walking about wearing glamours?" 

"There are," Voldemort says, momentarily pleased from what Harry can tell by the smug smile on his face, until he's frowning at Harry again.  "Tell your muggleborn to call off her dog."

Harry pauses at the mouth of the alley and clears his throat. He waits, staring up at Voldemort, until Voldemort rolls his eyes. 

"Tell your friend to call off her dog," Voldemort corrects. 

Harry smiles.  "Sure thing.  Get right on that.  I'll pen her right when I get back from the library." 

"No," Voldemort says, jaw flexing again, and he strides forward to catch Harry by the wrist, pulling him away from the direction of the library.  "You'll come with me and do it now.  And, once you've sent it off, I'll teach you how to cast an undetectable glamour."

Harry's smile grows into a grin.  "Sounds reasonable enough."

Voldemort falters.  Stops in his tracks and stares down at Harry. 

"Gryffindor has done you an incredible disservice," Voldemort says, though Harry feels amusement lick up his spine.  

"I don't know about that," Harry shrugs.  "Would you have expected a Gryffindor to do what I've done?" 

"No," Voldemort says, fingers tightening around Harry's wrist. "I wouldn't."

"Kind of works perfectly for me, then, doesn't it?" 

"You're a menace." 

Harry finds himself laughing again.  "I'm a menace?  Are you sure you want to point that finger in my direction?"

Voldemort's face twitches once more.  "I'm a perfectly upstanding individual." 

"That's the worst lie I've ever heard," Harry says, mirth making his sides ache, but Voldemort is already tugging him along by the wrist as Harry muffles his amusement behind a hand.  

"I've never lied a day in my life."

Harry stumbles as his laughter renews.  He lets Voldemort pull him, guide him, and doesn’t mind for a moment that he's laughing himself silly all because of Voldemort's boldfaced lies.  All because of the earnest conviction in his words. 

He doesn't even mind that he can feel Voldemort's amusement, too.

*

“Oh.” 

Harry, Voldemort decides as the young man looks down at the back of his own hand with wide eyes, is in a very peculiar mood.  

Ever since he accosted him this morning, Harry has been broadcasting little shockwaves of delight along their strange bond.  Even when Voldemort had pinned him in, had all but threatened him with the consequences of his wrath, there had been something so warm hiding under all of that confused irritation. 

It was only when Harry had taken his hand, had looked up at him, had said thank you, that Voldemort recognized it for what it was: joy. 

There was no shame in him. No guilt. Not like with Pettigrew.  Just gratitude. Just joy.

Like the first hint of bubbles on the tongue after a mouthful of champagne. 

Voldemort wanted to cage that feeling. Wanted to bottle it and keep it for himself. 

"Oh, that's brilliant," Harry says, still peering down at the back of his left hand, bare of any scars, dragging his fingers over the unblemished skin.  “I can’t even feel them.  That’s gorgeous.” 

Yes, Voldemort thinks as Harry finally glances up, smile blinding and joy rippling along their connection like finally stepping out into the warm relief of sunlight on a dreadfully cold day, he would like to catch that feeling for himself.  

“Gorgeous?” Voldemort finds himself asking. 

“Magic,” Harry says, an eagerness to his voice that Voldemort has never heard, but recognizes for the way he has felt so many times before upon discovering a new spell.  “The things we can do with it.  It’s gorgeous.  Don’t you think?” 

“I suppose it is an apt descriptor,” Voldemort nods. 

Harry hums, still running his fingers over the back of his hand, glancing down at it again.  “Does that mean your glamour is physical, too?” 

“Pardon?” 

“The hair, for instance,” Harry says, gesturing to his own face and taking a step forward.  “And the rest of it.  If I can’t feel my scar, does that mean yours is physical as well?” 

Ah, curiosity.  It is such a lovely look on Harry.  The way his brows pinch, like he’s trying to unpuzzle something.  The way he cocks his head.  The way he wants, always, to test whatever new thing Voldemort has taught him. 

"Would you like to see for yourself?" Voldemort asks. 

Harry's expression pinches all the more, but before he can open his mouth, Voldemort is already holding both of his hands out to him.

With the hiss of the counter charm-- unnecessary, except for Harry to know it-- the glamours over his left hand dissipate. In their wake, Voldemort's skin is paler, fingers slightly longer, nails more like claws.  

Harry blinks down at Voldemort's open palms.  Then, he reaches out.  

He touches Voldemort's unhidden hand first, much to his surprise.  Cradles the back of it in one palm, tracing his fingers over the lines in Voldemort's skin.  Touching warmth into Voldemort's fingertips as he tracks the length and feel of his hand. 

"You're cold," Harry mutters.

"A side effect," Voldemort says, watching as Harry switches to his other hand, the glamoured one, repeating the way he traced over his palm, his fingers, the veins under his skin.  "Of all the things I have done to become what I am." 

Harry hums, again.  "Immortal?" 

"Yes." 

Green eyes, burning and bright, flit up to meet his gaze. There's that crease between his brows, that tilt to his head. 

He drops Voldemort's hand, shuffles forward another step, and reaches up.  

Fingers find his hair first. They push aside his fringe. Then, a thumb traces over his brow.  Down his nose. Across his cheek. 

Harry Potter touches his face with a solemn curiosity.  A quiet desire to concrete the abstract. To feel the proof of Voldemort's spell with his own hands. 

Voldemort lets him. 

Still feels those ebbs and crests of Harry's content mood-- the lazy warmth of it-- waking and flowing between them.  Feels an odd calm settle over his shoulders, at the heat he feels as Harry ghosts his fingertips against Voldemort's jaw. Feels it with such a pronounced awareness that he could nearly mistake the emotion for his own. 

His palms itch. His fingers twitch. He wants to--

Face touchhhh

"Brilliant," Harry says, rocking back, grin crooked on his face.  "What else can you do with it? Is it only for glamours?"

Voldemort blinks and then clears his throat.  "It is not illusion magic, not really.  It is a bit like… bending reality."

"Bending reality?"

"Like hiding something by creating something new in its place. A bit like transfiguration." Voldemort explains.  "Though, far less dangerous."

"Transfiguration is dangerous?"

"It can be," Voldemort nods. "When you permanently alter the matter of what you are transfiguring, you sometimes cannot change it back.  With this spell, it simply requires the power, the ability to hold that power in focus, and the clarity to keep whatever it is you want hidden.  It can hide entire cities from detection-- like Shangri La.  It is a form of camouflage." 

"And what else can you camouflage?" Harry asks. 

"Anything I would like," Voldemort says, drawing his wand.  "Would you like a demonstration?"

"If you're willing," Harry says, then jerks as Voldemort levels his wand at Harry's chest. 

"Hold still." 

"Say please," Harry replies, wary and somehow still as full of cheek as ever, eyeing Voldemort's wand. 

Voldemort lets himself grin. The caution as flattering as Harry's sharp wit is amusing. 

"Please," Voldemort says, voice dripping with derision.  

With a faint snort, Harry nods.  He stands before Voldemort, arms out at his sides, waiting. 

The spell comes as easy as it does each morning, when Voldemort sets it over his own skin. Threads through the air and weaves its way around Harry, settling into his clothes and over his skin.  Knits into place. 

The spell comes as easy as it does, Voldemort knows, simply because he knows already what a fine bolt of material properly cut looks like on Harry Potter's form.  Simply because he has wanted to see Harry Potter dressed as a proper wizard of his standing for quite some time.

The robes are a near exact replica of the ones Harry wore, so many eves ago, on the night of Voldemort's birth.  The material a dark drape of satin, near black, shining like an oil spill in the light. Clings at his shoulders, his arms, and across his chest. Collar high, sleeves long, and hem brushing the floor.  

Harry glances down at himself, ears pink, and he shoves his glasses up as they try to slip down his nose.  Beneath the hem of his robes, he pokes the toe of his ratty sneakers out.

There is something about that action that Voldemort vaguely enjoys.  Something about seeing Harry, dressed as he should be, still with beaten shoes and messy hair.  

He should hate it. He finds it rather suits Harry, instead. 

"Oh, bollocks," Harry grunts, plucking at the length of his robes, nose scrunching.

"Not to your taste?" Voldemort asks, grin crooked. 

"Does anyone find dress robes to their taste?" Harry asks, casting an irritated glance at Voldemort over the edge of his glasses.  "I can barely breathe in them-- let alone move."

Voldemort hums, stepping forward and rounding Harry.  The fit is snug, certainly, but not tight enough to be restrictive.  

Harry is plucking at the sleeves, now.  Pulling at the collar. 

Stepping close, Voldemort presses a hand to the middle of Harry's back, the other gripping at his shoulder.  "Stand up straight. Chin up and shoulders back.  You're simply used to the usual… wears you tend to throw on." 

Harry's spine curves under Voldemort’s guidance, and he twists his head back to look up at him.  "Are you mocking my clothes, now?"

"Yes," Voldemort says.  "You're a wizard of well known standing.  A lord of one house and the heir of another.  You should dress to fit your titles, at the very least."

"In dress robes?" Harry scoffs. 

"Yes, if the occasion calls for it," Voldemort says.

"And this occasion calls for it?"

"Well," Voldemort sighs, hand still pressed to Harry's back, and he turns him to face the center of the dueling hall. "You did ask for a demonstration."

With that, Voldemort lets his magic loose.

Chapter Text

XVII.

It starts with the colors. 

The red of the drapes billowing into deep greens and emeralds.  The dark floor paling to a white marble.  The light dimming, gold no longer streaking across the room; a softer, silvery shimmer taking its place.  

Then, the music. A slow strumming, at first, then a gradual building.  A haunting rhythm. A pulsing, aching drag of a violin. 

In horror, in awe, Harry watches as Voldemort’s magic twists in the air.  As the empty dueling hall is suddenly filled-- transformed and lined with couples in all the finery the richest of the wizarding world could offer-- men and women twirling, fully formed, from a fine mist of non-existence.  Marionettes, masked and moving, following the pluck and pull of their strings in perfect synchronicity as their puppet master directs them in a dizzying dance. 

Harry feels short of breath, and not just from the tight pull of satin across his chest. The power, the utter control of it all, has him taking a step back. 

He forgot, for a moment, and he feels stupid for forgetting-- that Voldemort is one of the most powerful wizards alive. 

Wetting his lips, he stares with wide eyes as the illusion unfolds all around him. "How…?"

"Focus and power," Voldemort says, right in his ear, and Harry shudders as the hand at his back urges him forward, closer to the dancers.  "And the proper incantation." 

"How long could you keep this up?" Harry asks, unashamed of the slight shake of his voice. 

"Not forever," Voldemort admits.  "But long enough. It is easier, the smaller the illusion. My daily… disguise is a much simpler thing.  Especially as I am not making something from nothing." 

Harry huffs.  "How could you possibly keep this going for long? How could you focus on anything else?"

"Shall I show you?" Voldemort asks, stepping away and offering out a hand. 

Harry stares at it. 

It's no different than the hand he'd just spent so long examining. When Harry glances up, Voldemort's face is rather the same too.  Too real and too pretty. 

"I still can't dance," Harry says. 

Voldemort's grin is crooked. Charming. 

"All you need do is follow."

Yes.  Yes, Harry can very much see it now. 

The man people devoted their lives completely to. 

Carefully, he reaches out and places his hand in Voldemort's. Voldemort thrums with something triumphant, something that should make Harry recoil with caution, but he is too stunned to do anything but let himself be guided toward the center of the dance floor.  Of the illusion. 

Voldemort coaxes him into position easily. A hand at the center of his back, Harry's arm resting upon his own, fingers curving over Voldemort's shoulder.  The other cups Harry's right hand, holding him in position. 

It's as familiar as it is unfamiliar.  A refrain, of sorts, of a night long ago.

It doesn't seem like it was only a year and a half ago that Harry fled from Malfoy Manor.  It feels like an age.  Like an entire lifetime. 

It's jarring to realize how much has changed. That, after all of this time, Voldemort's touch no longer startles him-- there is no shock of new sensation, only that frightening familiarity.  

His gaze darts down, to the shiny shoes on Voldemort's feet, and his face feels warm.  

Voldemort clicks his tongue.  "Eyes up, little thorn."

"I'll step on you," Harry replies. 

The hand holding his own releases.  Fingers curl under his chin and tip his face up. 

"Trust me to guide you, and you'll be fine." 

Harry swallows. 

"That's asking a rather lot," Harry mutters, eyes darting between Voldemort's own.  "Asking me to trust you." 

Voldemort's mouth twitches; something like amusement, something warm and fluttering like a heartbeat, hums along their strange connection.  "It's just a dance, Harry.  Not the fate of the wizarding world."

"Alright," Harry says, though he cannot help but feel that it is somehow more than that.  "They're your toes." 

With a smile that seems more conspiratory than genuine, Voldemort takes Harry's hand again, presses him a touch closer with a steady pressure at his back.  And then he moves. 

It's stiff, at first. Harry's steps come stilted, short, unsteady-- the same way, he imagines, he was when Voldemort had first swept him onto the dance floor in Malfoy Manor.  Just as the quiet that settles, everything drowned out by the music, everything except the rapid thump of Harry's pulse reminds him the same. 

Then, just like at the New Year's Ball, they find a rhythm.  

It's startlingly, terrifyingly easy to find a cadence with Voldemort guiding him through the motions-- a waltz, Harry thinks, though he cannot be sure.  So simple to follow the instinct of it, of the gentle push and pull of Voldemort's hands, feet following until he is being turned about the dueling hall like some sort of Cinderella, waiting for midnight to strike.  Or simply for sense to return. 

He remembers, vaguely, hearing the story from a teacher when he was young.  Young and so small and so utterly ignored.  He remembers hearing about a girl, covered in soot and discarded by her family, getting to dress beyond her standing and pretend to be more than the dirt beneath her nails, the ash of her clothes, the dust in her hair.  He remembers wishing, for a moment, that someone, anyone, would come and whisk him away from his cupboard for some farfetched happily ever after.

A vague smile, something a little sad and perhaps wistful, finds its way onto his face.  As it does, the dancers around them seem to falter, like a note being skipped, before they continue in their motion swirling about the floor, and he blinks up at Voldemort. 

He finds eyes, red and warm as mulled wine, on his own. Finds a pinch between Voldemort's brows. 

"What are you thinking of, little thorn?" Voldemort asks. 

Harry swallows down the reflexive answer-- the honest one-- and plasters on a better smile.  "You keep calling me that.  Why?"

Voldemort's eyes narrow, and Harry feels a tingling along the edges of his scar.  He doesn't press, but Harry knows he wants to. 

"You are the constant thorn in my side," Voldemort says, but it is impossibly fond, and Harry is left blinking up at him as Voldemort turns him about the floor; he's not sure which is making him the most dizzy.  "In my plans, in my expectations.  A little thorn."

Harry snorts, indelicate but decidedly amused.  "Better than other names I've been called, I suppose."

"And what other names have you been called?" 

"Some good, some bad," Harry says, sighing when all Voldemort does is lift a brow and guide him into a small turn.  "Shall I list them alphabetically or chronologically, Lord Gaunt?" 

The dancers seem to falter again.  There is a darkness to Voldemort's mood as he reels Harry back in, a danger in his gaze.  Harry doesn't stumble, not exactly, but he reaffirms his grip on Voldemort's shoulder to steady himself as Voldemort’s hand presses at the center of his back, and he's left swaying that much closer as Voldemort leads him along to the music. 

"List them however you like," Voldemort says, holding Harry's gaze.  "But I would like to know them." 

Harry almost asks why, almost demands why he should be expected to tell Voldemort these things.  But he knows better, by now, he thinks.  

Knows that being stubborn will only make Voldemort more curious. More hungry. 

"I'm sure you're familiar with some of them: the Boy-Who-Lived, the Chosen One, the Golden Boy," Harry shrugs, but can't stop his nose from scrunching in distaste at these titles.  "I was the Heir of Slytherin for a bit, my second year.  A cheat my fourth year, as well as a champion.  A liar, my fifth." 

Voldemort hums, fingers flexing in Harry's, a tightness around his mouth.  That darkness, that deep well of wrath, seems closer now.  

Harry can see it, the way Voldemort's growing anger seems to unseat the focus he stated was necessary to keep up the illusion around them, in the way the music seems softer and more distant, in the way a few couples at the edges of the room have stopped moving all together-- and the rest are mimicking Harry and Voldemort's movements a second shy of in rhythm. 

"What else?" Voldemort asks. 

"I've been a savior.  I've been the next Dark Lord. Scarhead and half-blood and blood-traitor," Harry says, confesses, and then smiles.  "But I've been mate and sweetie and pup, as well.  I rather like those ones."

Voldemort's eyes dart between his own.  "And which do you like the least?" 

It's an easy answer. An obvious one. 

"Boy," Harry says.  "Freak." 

There are no more dancers. There is no more music.  

Just Voldemort and Harry, swaying to the empty echoes of a quiet room.  Even the pretty satin of his robes fade back to his trousers and shirt. 

"And the name you like the most?" Voldemort asks as they come to a slow stop, still posed to waltz, even if their dance is long since over; even if the midnight bell has already struck and the spell has broken.  

"Harry.  Just Harry.  It's all I ever wanted to be." Harry tells him.  "Not some hero, set to fight some Dark Lord.  Just… normal.  Just Harry."

"Just Harry," Voldemort repeats, and there is no more building anger under Voldemort's glamoured skin, but something new. 

Something Harry can't name. 

"Well," Harry clears his throat, face going a bit pink, and he's unsure as to why.  "I think I'm growing rather attached to little thorn.  I enjoy throwing a wrench into your plans." 

Voldemort's face twitches, and then he is stepping back, grin crooked once more.  "Of course you do.  You're very good at it." 

Taking his cue, Harry pulls from Voldemort's grip.  He returns Voldemort's grin with one of his own. 

"Of course I am." Harry says.  "I've had loads of practice."

*

Just Harry.  

It's a useless wish, Voldemort thinks, walking alongside Harry on the street.  They had spent another few hours in the dueling hall, Voldemort teaching Harry the nuances of the new spell, watching him practice in the mirror-- changing his hair, his face, the color of his clothes.  It wouldn't be long until Harry could form fully physical illusions apart from himself.  It wouldn't be long at all. 

With power like Harry's, with a quick mind like Harry's, with a stubborn determination to stand up for those who may or may not deserve it like Harry's-- he would never be normal. He would never be just Harry. 

He would always be extraordinary. 

Voldemort understands now, he thinks, why Harry reacted the way he did when Voldemort offered to teach him.  When Voldemort told him, admitted to him, how powerful he was, and all Harry could do was shy away. 

He wants to be normal. He wishes, desperately, to be anything-- anything at all-- other than a freak. 

"This is me," Harry says, as they come up to the building where the flat he's staying in is, as if Voldemort doesn't know exactly where that is.  "I'd invite you up for tea, but I don't imagine my hosts would take to that very well."

"No," Voldemort dips his head.  "I don't imagine they would." 

Harry's grin is mischievous and lopsided, like he’s contemplating doing just that simply for the small joy of the chaos of it.  Voldemort wonders if he gets that from his tawdry, ridiculous godfather-- or if it is some manner of natural inclination. 

It doesn't matter, in the end.  Harry just shakes his head and steps toward the building. 

"Next time, try not to jump me in an alleyway, yeah?" Harry asks.  "Just send an owl."

He turns away, as if to leave it at that, but Voldemort-- Voldemort is not ready.  He's not done.  He's not satisfied. 

"Harry," he calls, and Harry stops and glances over at him, blinking those green eyes at him behind his ridiculous glasses.  "What are their names?" 

Harry's eyes go a bit wide.  He takes a step closer to the building, further from Voldemort.

Voldemort steps forward to eat up the space between them.  Harry's mouth presses thin. 

"Whose names?"

"You know," Voldemort says, voice low, eyes not leaving Harry's own.  "Tell me their names, Harry."

For a long moment, Harry stares at him.  Stares at him like Voldemort is something to unpuzzle.  Like he's something Harry needs to take to pieces, even though most of them are already in Harry's hands. 

Then, he wets his lips and sighs, turns back to face him proper, and crosses his arms as he looks up into Voldemort's face. 

"Why?" he asks.  "So you can hunt them down?  Torture them for hurting a magical child?  How would that make things better?" 

"They would be gone." Voldemort says. 

That should be enough, he thinks.  Harry's face pinches up, dubious, and Voldemort shuffles forward another step, something urgent in his chest. 

"They would be-- They would suffer, as punishment, for it." Voldemort says, realizing vaguely and distantly, that he is asking permission, in a way, to exact this punishment on Harry's behalf.  "For what they did.  For what they made you feel." 

"And what would they learn for their suffering?  That magic is monstrous?  No, they already think that." Harry is shaking his head, is pulling his gaze from Voldemort's own, is sighing again, as if he is disappointed.  "What would I gain, from telling you their names, other than more family dead at your feet?"

Voldemort doesn't understand how Harry can call them family.  Doesn't understand how he can't see the logic in his offer.  

But perhaps Harry would prefer to do it himself.  Would rather know that his family, the people that belittled him and abused him, were punished by his own hand.  Voldemort remembers how liberating, how freeing it had been, to punish his father, after all.  To look him in the eye himself. 

"I-- I could bring them to you," Voldemort finds himself offering in a rush, that urgent thing in his chest driving him to not let this chance slip through his fingers-- whatever that chance might be.  "Or bring you there-- I could make an exception, in our oath, and you could seek reparations for yourself--"

"Reparations?" Harry asks, glancing up again, brows furrowed.  "Vengeance, you mean.  You would let me go back to England, back home, to kill the only relatives I have left?"

Voldemort should know it's a trap.  It's obvious.  Blatant. 

But he cannot explain this desperation in him.  This need, this desire, to fix this.  To make Harry realize that his relatives were wrong. 

So, he steps that much closer, takes Harry by the shoulders, and says:

"Yes.  Yes, I would."

Harry stares up at him.  Horrified.  Confused. Something else, something warm, like all that joy from before. 

Voldemort wants it.  Craves it. 

"And if you… if you could not do it yourself, I could--" Voldemort blinks at the things he is offering, at the concessions he is willing to make, but he is willing-- if it will make Harry realize just what he is, what he truly is beneath all of the self-doubt and shame, he is willing to offer a rather lot.  "Perhaps I could do it for you."

It's startling.  It is not something he would ever offer anyone else. 

Harry's face seems to soften some.  A break in the confusion.  A fracture in his denial. 

"Tom," Harry sighs, and Voldemort is struck with the knowledge that it is not a concession-- but a rejection.  "The only reason I was ever with them was because of you." 

There's no denying the truth in Harry's words.  There's nothing Voldemort can say, can offer, that would make it less true. 

But he will not shoulder all the blame. 

"Yes. The fact that you were left with them was because I killed your parents.  But Harry," Voldemort breathes, and those impossible green eyes won't leave his own, and Voldemort does not want them to; he releases Harry's shoulders, reaches up, and takes his face between his hands, keeps a thumb under Harry's chin, keeps their eyes locked.  "I am not to blame for how they treated you.  That was a decision they made.  A mistake that they chose to make.  And they should be punished for it.  They should suffer for it."

There is a lance of sorrow.  A sweet, bitter melancholy that Voldemort knows is not his own.  

Harry gives a little nod. A silent acceptance of the truth in Voldemort's words, too.

Then, Harry is touching Voldemort's wrist. Is gripping it, loose, with the hand that carries the Gaunt ring. 

"And you?" Harry asks, voice hushed, eyes searching.  "What punishment will you give yourself?  What suffering?"

"I… I will tell you where to find how to make me whole." Voldemort says-- reluctant, at first, and then more certain as Harry's eyes go wide.  "If you tell me their names, I will tell you exactly where to find what you've been looking for."

Harry blinks at him; then, he laughs.  "There’s a catch there."

Voldemort does not bother to bite back the smile that forms on his face, triumph already thundering through his veins.  "Did you ever imagine there wouldn’t be?"

"No," Harry says, pulling carefully away from him, amused and bemused all at once as he backs up enough to stand on the first step of the stoop leading up to the entrance of the building. "No. Not really." 

Voldemort lets him.  He has no doubt that Harry knows that. 

"Their names, Harry."

For a moment, Harry stares down at him, from his distance on the stairs.  Hunts for something, or waits for something.  Something that he will not find and that will never come. 

Because once Lord Voldemort gives his word, he does not take it back. 

"A new bargain, then." Harry finally says, clearing his throat, crossing his arms, that stubborn set to his jaw all the more apparent from a step below him.  "I'll give you their names-- if you get our bill passed on the Wizengamot floor." 

"Pardon?" Voldemort blinks. 

"You get our Magical Child Protection Act passed on the Wizengamot floor," Harry repeats, a little more sure than he'd been even a second earlier.  "And when you do, I'll give you their names.  And you will see them sentenced, under the letter of the law, for what they did.  That's how I want them punished."

Stunned, all Voldemort can do is stare.

Because even now, even with all that Voldemort has to offer-- reparations, vengeance, justice, whatever one might call it-- Harry is not thinking of seeking something for himself.  He is, as always, maddeningly thinking of others. 

"You set a precedent, for all the other children like me-- like us." Harry adds, and Voldemort wants--  "You make sure that it can’t happen again to someone else-- not someone muggleborn or pureblood or anything in between.  If you do that, I’ll give you their names." 

And Voldemort-- Voldemort knows better than to turn down an opportunity like this.  Knows that Harry will dig his heels in otherwise.  Knows that, in a way, he will get to string those muggles up the way he so desperately wants-- in a court of public opinion, in a world that adores their wayward hero, and will ruin the people that made Harry Potter feel less than. 

"Done," he says. 

And Harry gifts his agreement with a smile. 

*

For the third time that day, Harry forces himself to glance away from the Book of the Dead.  He shifts, the chair he'd come to think of as his, in the weeks turned months he's spent in here, creaking beneath him.  

It's been weeks, and it is quite firmly June, and Harry is restless. 

He knows why.  He doesn't want to think much on why, but he knows.  

It is a combination of everything.  Of the months he has spent here, in Egypt, researching for something that might never come to pass.  Of the knowledge that his friends, the people he left behind in order to keep them safe, have finished their time at Hogwarts, now.  Of the knowledge that he hasn't.  

But mostly, Harry is restless due to the weeks it has been since Voldemort had agreed to pass their bill through the Wizengamot, and the weeks he will no doubt have to wait for it to come to any sort of conclusion.  

He has never done well: restless.  It often has precipitated what everyone else calls trouble. 

Point of fact, Harry's gaze is lingering once more on the book he's been avoiding since his first visit-- outside, of course, the texts on sex magic that has blood rushing to his face and other places so quickly that it's dizzying.  

He knows he should avoid the book.  Or, rather, feels that he should.  Feels that he should because each time he lets himself linger over it, there is a pull in his gut so strong that it gets harder to ignore each time.  Like so many magical artefacts before it, Harry can taste trouble in its temptation. 

With a sigh, he drags his gaze away from the book again, discarding the text in his lap so that he can drag a hand over his face. Slumping back, not wanting to think about horcruxes or bills or artefacts that call to him, Harry pulls his satchel to him and digs around inside until he finds a familiar mirror. 

"Padfoot?" Harry asks, staring into a vague mist of his own reflection, hidden mostly by the image of a bedroom ceiling-- undoubtedly somewhere in Grimmauld Place.  "Padfoot, you there?"

There is a long moment where no reaction comes. Harry is half a second from giving up, from tucking the mirror away, when someone finally picks up on the other end. 

It isn't Sirius, though. 

"Remus?" 

Remus' tired face smiles back at him.  "Hello, pup."

"Sorry, did I wake you?" Harry frowns. 

"Not at all," Remus shakes his head.  "My exhaustion is a simple but permanent byproduct of handling your godfather most of my life."

Harry barks out a laugh and feels himself go easy in his chair.  

This is just what he needed, he thinks.  A familiar face.  Someone to distract him from the uneasy restlessness living in his bones. 

"Is my godfather around, or is he out causing trouble?" 

"At another Wizengamot session, I believe." Remus says, and Harry when sighs, it earns him a concerned frown.  "Are you alright, Harry?" 

"Fine. I'm-- I'm fine, Moony, really." Harry shakes his head.  "Just, uh… just pent up, I guess." 

"Pent up?" 

Harry bobs his head, gaze straying once more to the Book of the Dead. Lingering a moment, then jerking back again, his scalp tingling. 

"Yeah, y'know. Like-- like I should be doing something, but I'm not." Harry says, then sighs again as he pulls his glasses off to scrub at his face.  "I suppose I'm just… feeling a bit useless, these days." 

Remus lets out a soft sound.  "Harry, you're never useless." 

"Listless, then." Harry shrugs.  "I mean, Hermione and Ron are-- well, Hermione is starting an internship soon, at the Ministry.  Ron is still deciding between helping George and Fred or trying out for the Aurors, but-- but at least he's doing something."

With a small nod, Remus tilts his head.  "And you feel that you should be right there with them, starting a career, settling into life outside of school and instead…"

"Instead, I'm here," Harry huffs.  "I'm here, trapped in a million oaths, with no formal education, waiting for Lord bloody Voldemort to pass a bill on the Wizengamot floor that I should be helping pass, spending my days reading books that don't have any answers that will--" 

Harry's voice breaks. He swallows once, twice, and blinks down at the soft, patient look on Remus' face.  

"Reading books that don't have any answers that will let me come home," Harry finishes, hushed, sniffing as his eyes burn. 

"Oh, pup," Remus sighs.  "I'm sorry."

Harry laughs, rubbing at his eyes again, the burn just getting worse.  "Not your fault, is it? I'm the idiot that put myself in this position." 

"You put yourself on this particular path, yes." Remus agrees.  "But it doesn't make it any less unfair to you.  It doesn't make the fact that you had to choose a path at all any less unfair."

Harry laughs a bit, hiding half his face against his palm.  It sounds bitter, even to his own ears.  It sounds a bit like a sob. 

"Oh, pup, I wish I could make it better." Remus says.  "I wish I could turn back time, stop all the bad from happening. Stop you from running, from sacrificing what was left of your childhood to keep everyone safe-- but I can't."

Harry appreciates that.  Knows that he wouldn't have let Remus stop him besides. 

But the sentiment is kind. 

"What I can do is tell you that you're not useless," Remus adds, voice so firm, so unyielding, that Harry blinks down at the mirror to see the gentle lines of Remus' face.  "You've never been useless.  And you may feel a bit adrift right now, but what you're doing is still important if you believe it is.  What you're doing, what you've been doing, has kept our world from bloodshed and war.  And even now, it is your bill being discussed at the Ministry.  It is your hard work unfolding, changing the wizarding world, making it better."

Harry shakes his head.  "I hardly did anything--"

"You changed an absurd bill on child relocation into an act meant to protect children-- all children-- and you convinced the Dark Lord to spearhead it for you, under an alias or not, in front of some of the most powerful and influential witches and wizards in our world," Remus says, soft and chiding, smile small.  "That's something you should be very proud of, pup.  I know Sirius and I are." 

Harry's throat goes tight. He can't even swallow, not past the sudden clench in his chest, but there's no give in Remus' expression.  

Harry knows, vaguely and distantly, that what he's been doing is important. That it's made a difference.  It is an entirely different animal to have someone lay it out before him. 

An entirely different beast to hear that someone is proud of him and what he's doing. 

A tear rolls down his face, and he's quick to swipe it away with another sniff.  A tremulous smile makes its way onto his face, and he sees Remus' features soften. 

"Thanks, Moony." Harry says. 

"Anytime, Harry." Remus says.  "Anytime at all." 

There is a moment between them, quiet and soft, as Harry gets ahold of himself.  Remus waits him through it, patient as always. 

"Now," Remus clears his throat after Harry is a bit more pieced together.  "What I think you need is a break.  Get out of the library and go have some fun."

"Your brand of fun?" Harry asks, smile crooked.  "Or Padfoot's?" 

"A bit of both, I think." Remus nods, gaze going a bit distant for a moment before something certain settles over his face.  "Go on.  Go back to the flat, eat a good lunch, and relax for the rest of the day.  You've earned it.  Let me know when you get there.  Floo me."

"Um," Harry blinks, a bit puzzled and a bit more than suspicious.  "Alright.  I guess… I'll talk to you in a mo'?" 

"Yes," Remus smiles.  "Go on, now, pup.  Talk soon."

"Alright," Harry says again. 

Then, as Remus disappears from the mirror, he tucks it away into his rucksack.  Brow furrowed and head shaking, Harry sends the books he'd been looking through back to their shelves with an absent wave of his hand. 

He casts one last look at the Book of the Dead-- but his curiosity over Remus' more than dodgy behavior there at the end has him tearing himself away easily. 

Making his way out of the study and into the main stacks, head down and clutching at the strap of his bag, Harry nearly crashes right into someone else.  Startled, he rocks back on his heels, almost tripping on air and only catching himself because someone catches him first. 

It's Omar, his surprise apparent but his smile easy, hands warm and steadying on Harry's shoulders.  Harry's already blurting out an apology, and once he's balanced on his feet, Omar is already waving him off. 

"No harm, Harry," Omar says, and Harry is struck by the dimple of his cheek as he grins, the look a bit charming, though not quite-- "It's been a while, hasn't it?  I almost never see you anymore."

Harry blinks, then flusters.  Feels all too ridiculous for running into him in the first place, and then by almost getting distracted by a smile. 

"Oh. Yes, well," Harry clears his throat, waving a vague hand somewhere behind himself.  "Research takes up quite a bit of my time, and--"

"And you've found our secret study."

Harry feels his face grow warmer at the knowing look on Omar's face.  At the way he leans against the shelves and peers down at him.  

"Well." Harry wets his lips.  "Yes." 

"I see," Omar nods, glancing over his shoulder, as if looking for something.  "It is not often strangers find it. How did you manage?"

"Someone showed me. Someone who found it before."

Omar seems to accept that with another nod.  "Ah, I see. And you find it to your liking?"

Harry's nose scrunches up, and it earns him a laugh from the other man. 

"Not… particularly?" Harry offers, a bit bashful-- he was admitting to not liking books to the face of a librarian, after all.  "It's all a bit… Well, it's all a bit dark. Isn't it?"

"Not all of it," Omar says, shrugging with a shoulder and with his face, his dark eyes warm as he holds Harry's gaze.  "If you have any questions about what you find there, you can always ask me, Harry."

"Oh.  Yes.  Um.  Thank you."  Harry bobs his head, palming at the back, no doubt messing up his already unruly hair.  "You know, actually, I was-- there's a book. An artefact. I was, um. Does your transliterator work on hieroglyphs?"

Omar barks out a little laugh, shuffling closer a step.  "I think you forget, sometimes, Harry."

"Forget what?" Harry asks, cocking his head. 

"Where you are," Omar says, leaning in and pulling the transliterator from his pocket, offering it out.  "I grew up in Cairo. I'm not an English wizard, not like you. I grew up around old magics of my country.  My transliterator can translate ancient sumerian.  It can certainly translate hieroglyphs."

"Oh." Harry huffs out a laugh of his own and wonders if his cheeks will ever stop burning red.  "Right, yes, of course. Thank you."

Reaching out, he takes the offered tool with another small smile. Omar passes it to him, but his eyes linger a moment on the ring on Harry's hand before shifting back up. 

He seems to take a step back, then, shoving his hands into the pockets of his trousers.  For a librarian, he's always very neatly dressed.  Harry's head lingers on Voldemort's words from weeks ago, about dressing to fit his standing, and he imagines he looks a bit like a lump, standing in front of Omar in his ratty hand-me-downs. 

"Might I ask what it is you want to read?" Omar asks.

"There's, um. Well." Harry sighs.  "I was told it's called The Book of the Dead." 

Omar's brows shoot up.  "And why would you be interested in that book?"

Harry hesitates.  He hasn't told anyone this.  Not Hermione, not Ron, not Sirius or Remus-- not even Dumbledore.  

Certainly not Voldemort. 

But if anyone could be a trustworthy source on a book-- well. 

"It… well, it sounds rather silly, but…" Harry shuffles a bit, thinking about the book, black and plated in gold.  "It feels as though I'm supposed to.  Like it's just… waiting for me to try.  If… that makes any sense at all?"

Omar's expression seems to soften with something. Understanding, perhaps. 

"It makes perfect sense," he says.  "That book has been around for nearly as long as magic itself.  Its spells have been studied, thoroughly, and they are so ancient that no one knows how to practice them anymore. But there is one thing all the academics who have studied it agree on: it is a book of life and death."

Harry frowns.  "How-- how does that make sense, then? That I would… be drawn to it?"

"I--  I hate to say it, Harry, but even in Egypt we know who the Boy Who Lived is," Omar winces.  "The only one to ever survive the killing curse. You have death's mark on your very skin; you lived.  Of course the Book would call to you."

Oh. 

Oh, it isn't understanding on his face at all. 

It's pity.

"Right," Harry takes a step back, his gut clenching.  "Yes, well. Right. I should… get to it, then."

"Of course," Omar says, but Harry is already skirting around him to make for the exit, stopping only when Omar reaches out to touch his arm.  "And Harry? If you'd ever like to get lunch again, just… let me know."

Harry nearly recoils-- then chides himself for such a strong reaction.  

Instead, he plasters on a smile. 

"I'll think about it."

Pulling away, Harry hurries the rest of the way out of the stacks.  Hurries down the stairs to the ground floor.  Hurries out of the library and toward the street. 

He doesn't know why, exactly, but he feels silly.  Feels a weight in his chest that he doesn't think has any good reason to be there.  

It isn't like Omar is anything more than someone Harry sees and talks to in passing.  It isn't like pity is a bad thing.  It isn't like Omar knows enough about him-- about who he really is-- or that Harry knows enough about Omar-- that he should be upset by the reaction.  Upset by the knowledge that someone-- a practical stranger-- knows his story and presumes to know him because of it. 

It isn't the first time that it's happened, after all. 

Perhaps, Harry thinks, that's why it pits in his stomach.  

He broods on this all the way to the apparition point, turning the locket around his neck over between his fingers. All the way down the street to the flat.  All the way up the stairs and into the place he's temporarily calling home.  

It's only inside, satchel tossed to the couch, that he recalls Remus' strange orders.  Though, now that he's here, he feels the tension already bleeding from his shoulders.  

Remus, as always, was quite right.  He needs a break. He needs some fun. 

Crouching before the fireplace, Harry tosses some powder in and watches it light up green as he calls the address.  

"Moony," he says into the embers.  "I'm back at the flat."

"Oh, good, right on time." Remus says, grinning at him through the flames, and Harry's eyes narrow.  

"What is this all about?"

"You'll see," Remus says.  "Step back, now.  I've a care package coming through to you."

"A care package?"

"Yes, yes," Remus replies, an eagerness about him that Harry can't quite place.  "Now, step back."

Sighing, deciding it best to just go along with it, Harry scoots away from the fireplace.  "Alright." 

The sudden flare of green is near blinding.  Harry jerks back, falling onto his backside with a start, coughing and waving away the soot that hits him as first one person steps out of the floo-- then another-- then another-- then another--

"Didn't step back far enough, did he, Fred?"

"Can't say he did, George." 

Eyes going wide, Harry blinks up at Fred and George Weasley, dressed up in absurd suits of even more absurd colors.  

"Oh, boys," Hermione’s sharp chiding has Harry's mouth already tugging up into a grin, even as she rounds the twins to kneel by Harry.  "You alright?"

"Yeah, sorry, mate." Ron pipes up, grinning.  "Didn't think you'd be that close.  Nothing singed, right?"

"No," Harry breathes, and he's smiling like an idiot, he knows, but Ron is helping him to his feet and Hermione is cleaning him off and the twins are beaming at him and-- "Brilliant. I'm-- I'm brilliant." 

"Don't know about that--" Fred starts.

"-- with you standing so close to the floo--" George adds.

"-- while people are coming through." Fred winks.  "Bit of a not brilliant move, that one." 

Barking out a laugh, Harry spreads his arms and yanks them all as close as he can.  They go easily, press against him and all around him-- his Weasleys and his Hermione-- and Harry is smiling so wide his face hurts. 

"Thanks, Moony!" Harry calls, voice muffled against the garish purple of Fred's-- or maybe George's-- coat. 

He can hear Remus' laugh.  "Anytime, pup.  Have fun."

"With us around?" Fred and George ask at the same time, and Harry snickers as he catches Ron's groan, chest filling with warmth.  "It's a guarantee, mate."

*

"I'm afraid another extension will be required for a vote on this, Lord Gaunt."

It's congenial. Polite. Dismissive. 

Standing on the Wizengamot floor, Lord Voldemort silently seethes, smile plastered on his face.  Above him, in the stands, there's a murmur of agreement-- decrepit wizards and ancient witches complaining about the time, about the ridiculous and outlandish nature of the bill he has been presenting at each session.  

Politicians, he thinks with a mental snarl, are worse than children. 

"Of course," he says, dipping his head politely in Dumbledore's direction.  "It is a lot of new information to digest for some of the… more traditional attending parties, I'm sure." 

From the corner of his eye, he can see Sirius Black hiding a grin behind his hand.  No doubt pleased at the dig at some of the older seat members.  

Usually, seeing Black amused would add to Voldemort's ire.  However, today, seeing another person on his side of things, outside of the very few aware of his true face, is somewhat of a relief.  Even if Black can only be counted as support due to his godson's name being written in tandem with his own. 

"Yes," Dumbledore replies, eyes gleaming and mouth twitching, hearing the insult and not calling Voldemort out for it.  "This session is dismissed, then.  I will see all of you on Wednesday." 

As if they'd all been waiting for it, the attending members all begin filing out of their high seats.  Voldemort's jaw aches as he turns about to face his podium-- mostly to keep himself from casting curses indiscriminately. 

When he spots Lucius lingering near the pretentiously large double doors that lead out of the chambers, Voldemort waves a dismissive hand.  He has no plans of attending to his followers this evening, lest he unleash his considerable rage upon the gaggle of simpering idiots without any thought of mercy.  Lucius nods his head, taking his leave without question as Voldemort gathers up his papers.

He's rolling them back together, Harry's messy scrawl apparent on all of the original drafts, when someone clears their throat. 

Glancing up, he spots Black.  He looks amused, if a bit reluctant to be where he is, hands shoved into slacks and robes sloppily draped over his shoulders. 

How this man helped Harry evade him for years will forever be a mystery. 

"Can I help you, Lord Black?" Voldemort asks, tying a neat ribbon around his documents. 

"Ah, actually, I think I might be helping you." Black huffs, face twisting up in distaste, even as he shakes his head, as though he cannot believe his own actions.  "I mean, really, I'm here to help Harry-- but enemy of my enemy and all that rot."

"Was that particular string of babble supposed to be an explanation?" Voldemort asks, a wariness creeping into his shoulders, even as he folds his hands behind his back. 

"The old codgers set in their ways," Black says, like it's a very clear explanation, and when all Voldemort does is blink placidly at him, the man sighs.  "They won't ever listen to a young face like yours.  If you're not over a hundred, they honestly don't care what you have to say or offer.  Even if you aren't… well. As young as you look." 

Voldemort, unfortunately, is very aware of this.  Even when he was a young upstart, charm could only get him so far.  

It was one of the many reasons he started working behind the scenes.  Political stalwarts were not easy to sway in public-- but with enough power and the right pressure?  They were oh so easy to bend. 

"And what do you suggest, Lord Black?" Voldemort asks, drawing closer, seeing a brief glimpse of the Auror he once was in the narrowing of his gaze.  "Because I believe we both know my preferred methods are out of the question." 

Black grunts, shaking his head again.  "Don't know how Harry handles listening to you talk all the time.  Thought he'd developed my abhorrence for posh, but he's a stubborn sod when he wants to be." 

Black is right, of course.  Painfully right. 

That doesn't mean Voldemort is going to say it. 

"Your point, Lord Black?"

"Well, the only way you'll get this through is either by greasing some palms, something I'm sure you've got that blonde prick doing for you," Black shrugs, grin roguish and wide.  "Or you could get someone with considerable sway on your side." 

"You?" Voldemort scoffs.

Black barks out a laugh, though it looks as though it pains him to do it.  "Please. We both know I'll be tossing in my vote in favor of your bill simply because Harry worked so bloody hard on it." 

Voldemort frowns.  If Black is not referring to himself, to his position as the holder of both the Black and the Potter votes, then who--

Oh. Oh, Merlin, no.

"Absolutely not," Voldemort does not hide the sneer on his face.  "I will not stoop so low as to ask Albus Dumbledore for his endorsement." 

Black lifts a brow, unphased or perhaps unimpressed by the rage on Voldemort's face.  "Even if it expedited the process to getting your bill passed and into processing and enactment by the end of the next session?" 

Voldemort feels something in his stomach clench.  Some terrible, dreadful thing like want. 

He wants this tedium over. Wants to focus on other things. Wants to know the names.

The names he will not get until this bill has passed and Harry Potter has some proof that his muggle relatives will be tried and convicted through legal means-- rather than Voldemort's means. 

Something must show in the firming of his jaw because Sirius Black tips his chin up in triumph.  Voldemort hates it just about as much as he respects it.  

If Sirius Black had been one of his followers, rather than one of his enemies, he imagines he would probably like the man a bit more.

"Where is he?" Voldemort asks.

Black grins with all his teeth, looking very much like the madman that Harry said stalked him for a year as a dog.  "Come with me."

And Voldemort does.

Their exit from the Wizengamot chambers is swift and uncomplicated.  As is their path out of the Ministry, no one paying much mind to two Wizengamot members departing side by side-- not the way they would if they knew who Lord Gaunt was or that the man leading him to the street exit out into London was a member of the resistance against him. 

However, as they reach the apparition point, Black stops him. Places a hand on his arm, offers out a slip of paper, and allows Voldemort just long enough to read: the Order of the Phoenix headquarters is at 12 Grimmauld Place.  Then, he's sidealonging Voldemort directly into the residence without warning.

The loud bang of their arrival announces them.  It is only a mere moment before someone rounds the corner of the freshly cleaned sitting room and all manner of discord breaks loose. 

As Voldemort glances about, taking in a newly papered wall where, if he recalls correctly, there used to be the Black family tree, a wand is drawn.  As Voldemort chides himself on forgetting about the Black ancestral home-- though, he supposes, that is rather the point of making something unplottable and putting it under the fidelius-- Sirius Black steps in front of him with both hands up. 

"Now, Moony," he says, sweet and coaxing.  "I know what you're thinking--"

"You know what I'm thinking?" The man in the archway asks, voice rough and all manner of accusing, wand still drawn; Voldemort recognizes him as the werewolf, as one of Harry's many guardians.  "Have you completely lost the plot, Sirius Black?  How could you bring him here?" 

Black tosses his hands out.  "Oh, c'mon, it's not like he can do anything.  Our little prongs has him all tied up in vows.  What's the harm?"

"What's the harm?" The other man scowls, looking fierce, glancing over Black's shoulder to glare at Voldemort.  "The harm, you big blundering fool, is that when this all falls apart--"

"If!" Black half shouts, an offended hand on his chest, but Voldemort is half certain it is an act.  "Remus Lupin, how dare you doubt my godson."

"He's not here, you prat, stop trying to earn favorites."  

Black has his mouth open, like he might argue that statement further, but Voldemort cuts him off with a clearing of his throat. 

"If I may interrupt," he says, smooth and calm and seemingly utterly disinterested in their spat-- even if something in him is quite delighted at seeing his enemies otherwise behaving foolishly; even if something is further delighted at this odd look inside of the people Harry guards so desperately.  "I believe I am here to speak with the other guest currently in your home.  As soon as that is done, I will happily take my leave." 

Black makes a sort of choked sound-- probably disgusted by Voldemort's manner of speaking once again-- and Lupin blinks at him, stiffening. 

"There is no one else here--"

"Easy, Remus," Dumbledore says, rounding the corner, probably having waited for just this moment to step in.  "I believe he means me. Isn't that correct, Tom?"

Voldemort's face twists into a reflexive snarl. His palm itches for his wand. 

"It is," he says, through his teeth, and Dumbledore nods once before placing a hand on Lupin's shoulder.  

"Perhaps a spot of tea will do us all some good," Dumbledore says.  "Shall we?" 

Carefully, reluctantly, Lupin lowers his wand. He glances at Voldemort, barely lingering a moment, before he directs one of the coldest looks he thinks he's ever seen on a human's face at Black. 

"Kitchen," he says.  "Now."

Black, apparently fully prepared for whatever scolding is to come, droops.  Still, he follows after Lupin as he heads out of the sitting room, leaving Voldemort standing, alone, across from Albus Dumbledore.

It has been a long time, Voldemort realizes, since he has stood alone before Albus Dumbledore without a wand in his hand. 

"You don't seem surprised," Voldemort finally says, and is treated to a benevolent smile. 

"I actually am," Dumbledore says.  "I would have never expected compromise from you, Tom."

"No, of course not," Voldemort scoffs.  "All you've ever expected of me has been darkness and cruelty. I do hope I've lived up to those expectations thus far."

Dumbledore’s smile fades.  "Tom--"

"I'm here to speak about earning your endorsement for the Magical Child Protection Act," Voldemort cuts him off with vicious and barely contained ire.  "Not my adolescence." 

A heavy sigh leaves his old professor, but he gives a nod of his head.  "I imagine you're here to convince me of the importance of the section on muggle parents and guardians."

"Yes," Voldemort says.  

"Then I'm afraid I will have to decline any endorsement."

Voldemort feels something in his blood begin to boil.  "Why?" 

"As much as I appreciate what this bill could do, what it represents, there is no way for us to hold council over muggles, Tom." Dumbledore says, moving out of the doorway and making his way to one of the wingbacks near the fireplace.  "Even if we discovered evidence of abuse, we could not sentence them to time in Azkaban the way that you wish." 

Voldemort's hands fist at his sides.  "Why not?" 

"We do not have jurisdiction over muggles," Dumbledore explains with a patronizing patience.  "You know this. While we may have contacts in their government, there is no way we could get away with imprisoning them without notice--" 

"Do not presume to condescend to me, Albus," Voldemort snaps.  "I am not talking about asking permission.  They hurt ours; we should be able to seek justice on theirs."

Dumbledore looks, quite suddenly, very old.  "I thought, perhaps, Harry would have tempered that rage you have for muggles some.  It appears that I was wrong."

Voldemort wants to bare his teeth. Wants to take Dumbledore's crafted disappointment, ball it up, and shove it down the old man's throat. 

"I am not speaking of muggles," Voldemort hisses, drawing around the back of the chair across from Dumbledore, hands bracing on the back, fingers digging into the soft material.  "I am speaking of abusers.  Of people who beat and neglect and ostracize magical children-- the children of our future-- simply because they feel they can.  Simply because they can get away with it.  Purebloods, halfbloods, muggles-- they are all guilty of this. Because no one has bothered to stop them."

For a moment, all Dumbledore does is stare up at him over the edge of those absurd half moon glasses.  Those blue eyes, which so many saw as kind and wise but to Voldemort had always been suspicious and calculating, dimmed some as Dumbledore finally looked away. 

"I do understand what it is you are trying to do here, Tom, and I do appreciate the act of it," Dumbledore says.  "The fact still stands: we have no hold or jurisdiction over muggles. We cannot jail them." 

Voldemort's upper lip curls up in distaste.  "Then what can we do?"

"A fine, perhaps. Removal of the child, of course--"

"Not good enough," Voldemort states with a firm shake of his head.  "The punishment should fit the crime." 

Dumbledore blinks.  "An eye for an eye, Tom?  And what would that accomplish but perhaps revealing our magic to the world you so hate even more?"

Seeing the futility of this, seeing the ultimate end to this conversation before it can even unravel, Voldemort’s fingers flex over the back of the chair.  His jaw is aching once more, his teeth clenched so tight, Voldemort takes a slow breath. 

Still, he imagines bringing back nothing but failure to Harry.  Imagines the solemn acceptance that Harry would give.  Imagines the disappointment he would hide, even as he undoubtedly rationalized their loss as something deserved.  As he convinced himself that his abusers did not deserve punishment. As he convinced himself that he did not deserve justice. 

The thought alone, of Harry's shame and acceptance, is enough to make Voldemort's blood boil.  Enough to make him betray the small trust Harry had given him, if only to make his point. 

"Do you even know what they did?" Voldemort asks, voice a hush, eyes locked with Dumbledore's own.  "To your precious hero?  Do you know what those muggles did?"

Dumbledore blanches. If Voldemort was in any mind to, he'd take satisfaction in that. 

"What do you mean?" Dumbledore asks, but Voldemort can hear the shake of it. 

"Did he never tell you?" Voldemort asks, brow arching, even though he knows-- he knows-- Harry had never admitted to any of it until him.  "Tell me, Albus, was he eager to leave the school on holidays?  Did he never beg to stay at Hogwarts during the summer months? The way that I used to?" 

Finally-- finally-- the old man's face breaks.  Pulling his glasses off, Dumbledore buries his brow against his palm.  

He seems incredibly old, all of a sudden.  Before him, there is no benevolent headmaster.  There is no wizened leader.  There is no manipulative chess master.  There is only an old man. 

"He said he was unhappy," Dumbledore says, after a long second of quiet.  "He said that they were not fond of him." 

Voldemort wants to scoff and sneer.  Instead, he waits. 

Eventually, Dumbledore looks back up at him.  "Tell me," he says. 

"They starved him," Voldemort says, not bothering to confide in the old fool that he does not know many of the details; he knows enough.  "They worked him and they worked him hard, probably from as young as they could get away with."

Dumbledore winces.  Cringes back with a considerable amount of guilt written in the wrinkles of his face. 

But Voldemort is not done. 

"They stored your hero, the savior of the wizarding world, Harry Potter, in a cupboard under some stairs." 

Dumbledore's eyes slide shut.  He slumps back into his seat.  Voldemort knows, already, what is running through his mind. 

How did he not know?

With a croaking voice, Dumbledore asks: "And what do you suggest we do?  It does not change our inability to throw them in Azkaban."

"Some curses, Albus, do not leave a trace anywhere but in the mind," Voldemort says, softly, intently, and he knows Dumbledore can read the rage in his eyes; knows he can see the harsh, unyielding inevitability there; knows that Voldemort will seek this penance out of the muggles' hides, through legal means or otherwise.  "The punishment should fit the crime." 

Understanding dawns, just as Voldemort knew it would, upon Dumbledore's face. 

"Untraceable," Voldemort adds.  "By muggle means.  One insidious enough that they would be unaware of it, until it was far too late.  A nightmare of their own making.  Their own actions reflected back upon them, in the mind alone."

"It would drive many of them mad," Dumbledore protests, but it is a weak thing.  

"A loss they themselves signed up for the moment they harmed a magical child," Voldemort says.  

Sitting forward once more, Dumbledore holds his gaze, but he is already nodding.  "And how would you go about enacting such a curse?"

"After trial, after conviction, upon paying a fine," Voldemort doesn't hide his distaste at the simple, useless idea, "for their misdeeds.  After the child is removed from harm's way.  They would never know they were being cursed."

"An object?" 

Voldemort thinks, briefly, and then nods.  "Likely attached to the paperwork they'd need sign upon a guilty verdict." 

Dumbledore lets out a long, slow breath.  "If those changes are made-- I would be happy to endorse the Potter-Gaunt bill." 

Triumph soars through Voldemort's veins.  Thunders through his head. 

"I will take my leave, then." Voldemort nods, just as Sirius Black and Remus Lupin come walking back from the kitchen, a tea tray floating behind them.  "To discuss the changes with Lord Potter." 

Lupin stalls in the doorway.  "I would suggest another day to pay Harry a visit." 

"Pardon?" 

Even Black is frowning.  "What do you mean, Moony?"

"Harry is busy today," Lupin states, firm, brown eyes tinted with a warning gleam of gold.  "His friends are visiting.  He's taking a well-deserved break."

"All the better to catch him in a good mood, then." Voldemort says, letting his wand drop into his hand. 

Lupin stands up all the straighter.  "Now see here--"

"Remus," Dumbledore holds up a hand.  "It will be alright."

Sneering at Dumbledore's perceived permission, Voldemort grips his wand tighter, but does not offer another word.  Lupin glances between them, face pinched, and Voldemort does not wait. 

He is already moving to leave, moving to apparate away, to move through space to Harry Potter's side-- friends be damned-- when Dumbledore offers him a small smile. 

"I apologize for my assumption from before, Tom." Dumbledore says.  "It appears I was wrong.  Harry truly is an astounding young man, isn't he?" 

Voldemort does not bother with a reply.  

Instead, he turns sharp on his heel and apparates away, leaving Black and Lupin's confusion, leaving Dumbledore's knowing blue gaze, behind. 

Chapter Text

XVIII.

"This seems like a very bad idea." 

In front of him, Fred and George scrunch up their noses.  “Rubbish.” 

“Absolute nonsense,” Fred adds. 

“Complete poppycock,” George nods.  

Harry huffs out a laugh, though the dubious arch of his brow does not diminish.  Ron elbows him, rolling his eyes when Harry chances a glance, even as the twins wave their newest creation about with deliberate exaggeration.  

“Would we--” 

“--two very fine businessmen--” 

“--two upstanding individuals--” 

“--offer our great benefactor--” 

“--something unsafe?” 

Ron snorts.  “They tested it on Lee.  Poor sod.” 

George scowls.  “Gred?” 

They share a quick look.  Fred nods and steps forward.

“Got it, Forge.” 

Ron’s eyes go wide before his brother can take another step closer.  He holds up his hands, already backing away and shaking his head. 

“Now, hold on a minute,” Ron squeaks, glancing frantically over his shoulder for where Hermione is looking at the weapons rack on the far side of the hall.  “Don’t even think about it--” 

Grinning, Harry watches as Ron scarpers off, Fred hot on his heels.  

They hadn’t been at the dueling hall for very long.  By all accounts, they’d just arrived, after spending the rest of the morning and some of the afternoon walking the streets of Cairo and perusing the shops.  Harry hadn’t had a proper chance to really explore since Sirius and Remus had visited; it had been a nice break from his usual patterns.  

When Harry had mentioned his lessons-- after Hermione had wheedled him for details, of course-- and the dueling hall, they’d all voiced an interest in seeing it.  Harry had been happy to show them.  Had been happy to connect his life now, with his life then.  To see his friends gathered in this place.  

They’d only avoided the library due to Hermione’s concern over what hyjinx the twins might get up to in a place like that.  

An arm slings around his shoulder, tugging Harry close until he stumbles into George’s side.  “Now, then.  I solemnly swear that this product has absolutely zero embarrassing side-effects.” 

“Oh, but it has regular, non-embarrassing side-effects?” Harry asks, eyeing the small potion bottle that George dangles in his face.  “What a relief.” 

George’s face pinches up as he jostles Harry by the shoulders.  “C’mon, mate.  It’s just a potion.”

With a hum, Harry crosses his arms.  “And what’s it called?” 

“Weasley’s Fizzy Lifting Drink,” George declares, with some amount of pride.  “Guaranteed to have you floating for hours.” 

“Floating?” 

“Well, it lets you hover off the ground, just for a bit.” George says, then quickly adds.  “Not too far, of course.  Had that issue in the beginning, but once we got Lee off the ceiling and figured out the ratios, it worked a treat.” 

Barking out a laugh, Harry shakes his head.  “What’s the use of that?” 

“Fun!” George says, with all the seriousness a man in a purple suit can.  

Sighing, Harry eyes the bubbling blue liquid in the bottle once more.  George grins, wagging it back and forth, like he’s trying to lure Harry into taking the bait. 

Harry, of course, does. 

Taking the bottle, he uncorks it, and downs it with a single swig.  He expects something putrid or bitter-- something he tends to associate with most potions-- but he's pleasantly surprised by the burst of sweetness that fizzles across his tongue and down his throat.  A small hiccup escapes him, as he blinks at the empty bottle, and then George is letting him go. 

And then-- then Harry is, quite literally, floating up off the floor. Just hovering a few inches from the ground, until he's about George’s height. 

"Oh!" Harry says, a grin on his face, and George is beaming at him.

From across the room, Fred whoops. "Well done, George!" 

But Ron is already groaning.  "Harry, mate, did he tell you about the side-effects?" 

"I haven't noticed anything, yet," Harry says with a shrug.  "What should I be worried about?" 

George’s beaming smile turns, very quickly, into a wicked smirk.  "Like I said, mate. You'll be floating for hours." 

"Oh, that doesn't sound so bad," Harry says. 

Someone, somewhere, said something about famous last words, Harry knows. And as a sudden rush-- warm, sweet, heady-- floods through him, Harry recognizes his very own. 

"Oh," Harry breathes, a lazy liquid heat tingling though his limbs and to his fingers and across his scalp.  "Oh, dear." 

*

It isn’t a surprise, Voldemort thinks, that he finds Harry at the dueling hall.  From the digging he’d done, after Harry had told him about Umbridge, Harry had been known for teaching students new spellwork.  He imagines that he brought his friends to the dueling hall in order to show them what he’s learned.  

It is, however, quite the shock to walk into the dueling hall and find it littered with trees.  

He recognizes the illusion magic for what it is almost immediately-- but he must admit that, despite the vines and roots sprouting up from the dark wood of the floor, the that trees tower and sway to an impossible breeze and the light from the chandeliers that strikes them as if there are a dozen tiny stars bursting sunlight into the hall, a wilderness captured and displayed between marble pillars and an array of mirrors-- he must admit that it is quite beautiful.  

He hears laughter before he sees them.  Around the thick trunk of a tree, at the center of this enchanted forest Harry Potter has fashioned for himself, is where he finds them.  There is grass, here, and twinkling lights and bubbles and small white flowers that cluster and dot the ground like snow.  Toward a large clutch of these little blossoms, three red headed boys sit-- Weasleys, he knows-- shoving at each other and laughing and knitting something between their fingers.  At the edge of this cornucopia of light and shimmering life, he finds Harry.  

There is a halo of flowers upon his head.  A ring of them around a wrist.  Even from where Voldemort lingers, standing and watching, he can see how bright Harry’s eyes are.  How broad his smile.  How wild and unrestrained his hands are as he speaks, with abandon, to the witch who seems to be summoning the bubbles that are floating, drifting, dancing in their little clearing.  

The witch who is cradling Harry’s head in her lap, wand delicately aloft in one hand, the other twirling idle curls into the ends of Harry’s hair.  Every few moments, another burst of sparks and bubbles swell up out of the end of her wand-- glistening and glimmering and seeming to distract Harry into a hiccup of silence in the midst of whatever tale he is weaving.  Her smiles, a small and quiet constant, seem to go sweeter and softer each time that it happens.  

And the laughter-- the raw joy-- on his face, in his voice, flowing through their bond like starlight refracting on water-- it is very nearly a revelation in itself.  

“Interesting,” Voldemort says, to himself, to the others in the room, and he crouches down to pluck up one of the little white buds from the grassy earth, twisting the stem between his fingers.  “I hadn’t realized you’d already progressed this far with your illusions.” 

“Tom!” 

Voldemort expected the surprise.  Shock-- perhaps even a bit of wariness-- and maybe even a touch of fear.  

He did not expect the reality. 

The three wide-eyed Weasleys, staring, unabashed.  The way the two of them, the twins, start elbowing each other almost immediately.  The way the younger of them sets his jaw and sighs.  

“I’m not making a crown for him, Harry,” he says, firm and solemn, and the twins next to him snort into hysterics.  

“I wasn’t going to ask you to, Ron,” Harry says, rolling his eyes, his own crown crooked on his head as he climbs to his feet.  

It seems that is all the youngest Weasley boy needs.  He shrugs, casts one last glance in Voldemort’s direction, and then gets right back to weaving flowers together.  

The twins still seem to be laughing.  

It appears, out of all of them, only the witch has any manner of sense.  Her grip tightens on her wand, and she stands to hover at Harry’s side.  Her eyes, shrewd and dark, do not move from Voldemort for a second.  

“Lord Gaunt,” she greets.  

She does not bow her head. 

Standing back up, Voldemort paces closer, taking in the way her hand goes to Harry’s wrist-- as though she might pull him behind her at any moment.  Voldemort plasters a smile to his face.  

“I do not believe I’ve had the pleasure,” Voldemort says as he comes to a stop before them, offering out his hand.  “I imagine you’re Miss Granger.” 

“You’ve imagined correctly,” she says, unhesitant to reach out and take his hand in her own.  

As he greets her, his gaze strays to where Harry is watching.  There’s a curious little smile on Harry’s face; something almost placid.  Content.  When Voldemort reaches for that impossible string between them and touches it with the quietest of inquiries, he finds it humming with a cloying sweetness, like berries just shy of too ripe.  

Voldemort’s eyes narrow. 

“I apologize for the intrusion,” Voldemort says, withdrawing his hand from the witch’s grip, the face of gentile docility still plastered across his features as he folds his hands behind his back.  “But I need to steal Lord Potter for a moment--”

“Lord Potter!”  Someone gasps, loud enough to have Voldemort near startled, and when he looks over, the two twins are clamoring to their feet, arms around each other as they talk back and forth.  “Oh, my, surely not Lord Potter.” 

Faintly, he hears the witch curse under her breath.  “Boys, really, now is not the time.” 

“But Miss Granger, ” one of them protests, swaying a bit on his feet as the pair loafs over.  “He’s talking about stealing our benefactor--” 

“--our kind master--” 

“--our sweet Harrykins.” 

“What a good and benevolent lord,” the other twin grins as he drapes an arm around Harry’s shoulders, smacking a kiss to his temple, and Voldemort feels something tight knit itself across his back and shoulders as the first twin joins in on Harry’s other side.  “A truly spectacular thing, our Harry.” 

The kind, mischievous grins on their faces twist, then.  Contort, somehow.  Into an almost vicious leering. 

“You can’t have him,” they say, with eerie synchronicity.  

Voldemort can’t do much more than stare.  

Then, Harry snorts into laughter.  Covers his mouth with a hand, face having gone flush with the apparent amusement welling up out of him.  Curls over a bit, bracing his other hand at his knee, forcing the twins to drop their arms from around him as he giggles, hysteric, into his own palm.  

“Oh, Harry,” Granger sighs, patting him on the back.  “You’re going to give yourself the hiccups, again.” 

And Voldemort-- Voldemort isn’t quite certain of what is going on, here, in this place where Harry usually faces him with fierce eyes and a defiant tilt of his head.  But he is certain of one thing: 

“You’re intoxicated.” 

Harry shakes his head, still laughing, but Voldemort can feel it.  Can feel it pouring through their bond-- euphoria.  A sweet giddiness.

“Is that judgement, Fred?” One of the twins asks the other, nudging him in the ribs, and Voldemort’s jaw locks.  

“I think it is, George.”  

“Funny,” George hums as he leans against his brother-- and oh, they’re intoxicated, too-- Voldemort wants to sigh, wants to hex them, wants to know if he’d just stumbled into some sort of haphazard den of youthful iniquity-- but he goes still as the twins peer over at him again with flinty eyes just begging to start a fire.  “I never imagined You-Know-Who would have a problem with such a thing.  You know, considering all the murder and stuff.” 

Voldemort’s fingers curl in tight behind his back.  These are Harry’s friends.  If there was anyone more off-limits under their oaths, they would have to be Harry’s own parents returned from the dead. 

If he would like to keep his temper-- and his magic, the cost of losing such a thing when surrounded by Harry’s most near and dear-- he knows he needs to leave.  His wand hand is getting far too itchy.  

“Perhaps another time,” Voldemort says, smile tight, and without further salutation, turns to take his leave.  

Anger churns, mullish and absurd, in his chest.  A fury he cannot put to name or word.  A muffled, muzzled rage.  A dog on a leash.  

He manages to make it to the edge of their little clearing-- the outskirts of Harry’s indoor oasis-- when a tug on his robes stops him.  

He turns, wand dropping into his hand, though he never raises it.  He knows who it will be and isn’t certain if he’s disappointed or not when it is just as he expected.  

Harry Potter, cheeks flush, lashes wet from his laughter, and pupils blown wide.  Harry Potter wincing as he grins, crooked and abashed in a boyish way that Voldemort doesn’t believe he’s gotten the chance to see, yet.  

“Sorry,” Harry breathes, still grasping at Voldemort’s robes, and Voldemort almost wants to look, to see what Harry’s little friends are doing, but his eyes are caught on that clutch of fabric between Harry's fingers. “Merlin, you’re really quite cross, aren’t you?” 

Voldemort frowns down at him.  “Pardon?” 

Harry taps at his scar, then brushes his fringe down over it, as though the mark shames him.  “Sorry.  Didn’t mean to be rude.  Wasn’t expecting you, but, well… Well, I suppose you came to find me, so…” 

Harry’s face is still pink.  A ruddy, rosy color that seems to spread to his ears and down his neck as well.  Voldemort blinks and meets Harry’s eyes.  

“So?” Voldemort asks, voice tight, control barely in his grasp.  

“So,” Harry says, rolling his eyes, giving another tug at Voldemort’s robes, and Voldemort has to take a long, slow breath as something he’s certain must be irritation burns through his chest because anything else would be appalling, even if it doesn't quite feel like the right word for the emotion.  “I don’t imagine you came here for nothing.” 

"That would be an accurate assumption." 

Harry nods.  "Alright. So?  What is it?" 

Harry's still holding on at his robes with a loose fist-- like he's anchoring himself-- or perhaps anchoring Voldemort.  His face is still pink; a side-effect of whatever he took, Voldemort's sure.  

He's still staring up at Voldemort with those bright green eyes.  Voldemort is tempted, so tempted, to reach up and pull Harry's glasses off to get a better look at them. 

"And what answer would you accept?" Voldemort asks.

Harry's nose scrunches up.  "Are you planning on murder and mayhem?" 

He really should be used to Harry Potter surprising him by now. 

And yet, even as seriously as Harry is inquiring into Voldemort's intentions, he's also joking. Practically teasing, as easy as talking about the weather, rather than their fairly fraught history. 

"Actively? No." Voldemort answers, like an olive branch of truth.  "Subconsciously?  Perhaps." 

Harry snorts. 

He jumps, like his own amusement startles him, and covers his mouth with the tips of his fingers.  "Oh," he says.  "I probably shouldn't laugh at that." 

"And yet," Voldemort says, the first genuinely pleased smile to grace his mouth all day-- or perhaps in these past weeks-- broadening over his face.  "You are remarkably candid like this.  Perhaps I should thank your friends-- though I don't believe they'd accept such a show of gratitude from You-Know-Who." 

Harry huffs. "Worst best kept secret of the Order of the Phoenix, I'm afraid. Or something like that." 

It takes another moment for Harry to tilt his head and frown. 

"Why would you thank them?" 

"I wonder," Voldemort says, peering into Harry's eyes, curious if it is only the inhibitions of his behavior that's been eased-- or if other blockades have come crumbling down, too.  

As he reaches out, skimming the surface thoughts of Harry's mind, like dipping his fingers into a cool, clear pool of water, he finds that they have.  Finds that he could sink right into Harry's mind without any effort at all. 

He withdraws. 

"You're much more honest like this," Voldemort says. 

"I can't recall a single lie I've ever told you." 

Voldemort bites down on the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing, even as Harry's mouth twitches into a crooked little grin. 

"I wonder what truth I could pull from you, like this." Voldemort adds, and Harry finally pulls back, releases the hold he's kept on Voldemort's robes for so long, and folds his arms over his chest.  

Tilts his chin up. Narrows his eyes. It's a haughty little look; one that doesn't quite suit him, like he stole it from someone else. 

"I'm certain this isn't what you came here to talk to me about," he says.  "You're just trying to take advantage of the situation."

Malfoy, Voldemort thinks, and very nearly laughs again. 

"Would you truly expect anything else of me?" he asks. 

"Slytherin, through and through," Harry mutters, dropping his head back with a long, exaggerated sigh.  "Fine. What is it that you're so curious about that you'd prefer my candid honesty?" 

"That's a dangerous opening you're giving me, little thorn." 

Voldemort is happy to take advantage-- but there is something he's been wondering about since the morning in the hotel, since that day in the library, when Harry swore to put him together. 

"One question only, then."

Perfect. 

"Done," Voldemort says, taking a step closer, so that Harry has to blink up at him again. "Tell me, darling, what do you imagine will happen?" 

A crease forms between Harry's brows.  "What do you mean?" 

"If you succeed in your task of putting me together?" Voldemort asks, reaching out to pluck up the locket hanging around Harry's neck, thumb dragging over the glass.  "Do you expect you'll find me changed? The repentant orphan here to confess his sins?"

"No," Harry says, drawing out the word, as though he's just realizing it himself.  "No, I wouldn't." 

Voldemort finds himself again pleasantly surprised-- and perhaps a bit confused.  "Why not?"

"You may have been that boy at some point," Harry says, gesturing toward Voldemort with a hand, "and perhaps he's still inside you somewhere-- but you're not Tom Riddle, Head Boy, anymore.  Just like I'm not Harry Potter, Gryffindor hot head, anymore. He's part of you, but he isn't you.  You outgrew the boy."

"And became the monster?" Voldemort asks.

"And became the man," Harry insists, and something in Voldemort's chest untwists, then Harry shrugs a shoulder.  "A sociopath, yes, but a man nonetheless."

Harry should be this honest more often. It's honestly quite the delight. 

"Then what is the point of your little venture?" Voldemort asks.

"Because you deserve to be whole," Harry says, with a completely relentless certainty, so unyielding it nearly knocks Voldemort breathless.  "And a bit to piss you off.  That was more than one question, by the way."

"Do you enjoy inciting me toward anger?" Voldemort says, and he knows he's pushing his luck just by the way Harry's eyes narrow.

But Harry leans in, leans up, and lowers his voice to a whisper.  "It is a bit fun," Harry says, like it's a secret, and perhaps it is. "Given the proper circumstances." 

Mischievous; that's the only word that comes to mind when looking at Harry Potter like this. His clothes disheveled and his hair a mess. His eyes burning bright, almost inhumanly so; that crown of flowers crooked on his head, as though he's some sort of woodland creature, teasing and taunting the human that dared stray into his fairy circle. 

"Now," Harry says, firm, rocking back on his heels. "What did you come here to tell me?" 

Right.  Business.  Voldemort did not come here simply to seek Harry Potter out.  

Though, perhaps, catching this moment, witnessing how Harry has become unburdened by these friends, the lax lines of his shoulders and his smile and his brow, is something of its own reward.  Something of a reminder.  

Harry Potter has ties, many of them, and to so many people.  Perhaps that makes him weak-- or, at the very least, open to weakness.  Or, perhaps, it should remind Voldemort the power, the people, that Harry could rally behind him as support if he so wished.  Could amas his own following with ease.  

Loyalty is a very Gryffindor trait, after all. 

Clearing his throat, Voldemort straightens some.  “Dumbledore has agreed to support the bill in the Wizengamot if we make an amendment for muggle offenders.”

Harry’s eyes go wide.  “Oh,” he says, then wets his lips and frowns.  “What's the amendment?”

“We cannot enforce a prison sentence for those not in our world,” Voldemort says, a grimace coming to his mouth.  “We would exchange it with a curse.”

“A curse?”

“One of the mind,” Voldemort nods.  “One that inflicts whatever they did to their victim back upon them, but only in the mind.”

Harry cocks his head.  Crosses his arms.  Furrows his brows a bit. 

“Isn't that dangerous?” he asks, after a moment, and Voldemort grins as-- even intoxicated-- Harry puzzles out the true depth of what the amendment would likely do.  “Wouldn't they go mad?”

“It's a possibility,” Voldemort dips his head in acquiescence.  “A possibility that I am, frankly, not troubled by.” 

Harry’s lips purse up.  That wrinkle between his brows deepens a bit.  

Voldemort watches him mull it over.  Wonders what sort of debate Harry is having with himself, what thoughts are streaming through the river of his mind.  

Carefully, Voldemort dips into that stream.  Catches the smallest threads-- is this right, should I accept this, is this what I wanted, what if-- but does not hold onto them for long.  Only lingers on something that resounds and reverberates, something that wells up from the depths of Harry’s conscious, from the darker and colder places Voldemort had never been certain existed until this very moment: 

They deserve it. 

A simple thought.  But so sweetly and darkly damning. 

Voldemort wants to savor it.  Wants to tip it back into his mouth, roll it over his tongue, indulge in the sweet wrath of it.

“… Hermione,” Harry says, suddenly and firmly, face still pinched.

Voldemort blinks, swallows down the slick of saliva that’s flooded his mouth, and clears his throat past the burst of heat that threatens to choke him.  “Excuse me?”

But Harry is already nodding, already holding up a hand, already motioning for Voldemort to give him a moment.  “I need Hermione. Be right back.”

He starts to twist away, to turn back toward his friends, but then falters.  Sways a bit, like his head is running too fast for his body, and he faces Voldemort in order to place a hand on his shoulder.  His fingers squeeze, his face is solemn and serious and severe in a manner that is nearly endearing considering the shine of his eyes and the dilation of his pupils. 

His touch burns through Voldemort’s robes.  Like a brand. 

“Stay here,” he says, brooking no room for argument, waiting until Voldemort gives a small nod of his head before releasing him with a crooked smile. 

Voldemort watches him go, in something of an intoxicated daze himself-- one that only grows worse, headier, as Harry waves away a muffliato that had cloaked them with a flick of his fingers.  Voldemort hadn’t even realized he’d put it in place. 

They deserve it, Harry had thought, somewhere in that mess of thoughts, and it had been made of teeth and claws and enticing, righteous anger.  Voldemort takes that thought into himself, into his hands, and clutches at it with a fresh and burning desire.  

A desire to see Harry embrace that rage, that powerful creature, that animal vengeance, within himself.  A desire to see what Harry would look like if he did.  If his eyes would burn as bright.  If he’d smile or if he’d frown.  If he’d feel regret after--

Or if he’d feel strong. 

Voldemort can imagine it, standing here and watching as Harry speaks with his witch, his muggleborn, his adviser.  Can imagine the potential in Harry flourishing into something far more breathtaking than Voldemort could have possibly conceived before-- with that softness, that kindness, that benedictive sweetness he wears, like a cloak or perhaps on his sleeve, concealing that backbone of steel.  The unyielding anger and determination that has been, almost solely, dedicated toward Voldemort being turned upon the world around them.  

As Harry gestures with his hands, as Harry speaks with energy and enthusiasm and boyish charm to his friends, his followers, Voldemort can see it.  Can see it-- and craves it all the more. 

What a vision he would be.  A perfect counterpoint to Voldemort’s own ruthlessness. 

But as Harry makes his way back over, his witch at hand, another of his friends trailing along after and draping another crown upon his head, Voldemort shakes himself free of this reverie.  Of this dastardly, disastrous desire.  

He has other things to focus on.  Observing Harry and his allies as they are before him takes president over musings.  

It is the witch, Granger, who speaks first as they draw to stop in front of him. 

“How, exactly, would this curse be cast?” she asks, eyes narrowed and shrewd.  

“A contact curse, via the fine agreement upon a guilty verdict,” Voldemort replies.

“So it's confined to confirmed abusers,” Hermione nods, glancing over at Harry, who is watching her, serious despite the subtle sway of him.  “That's a good restriction-- it should, conceivably, prevent abuse of the system.”

The Weasley, bulking figure that he is, frowns.  “But how is that decided?”

It is a smart question.  One that he and Harry had gone over, a number of times, to find something they both agreed on. 

Voldemort sees, now, that Harry has more than one advisor.  In fact, he likely has a court of them. 

“Jury of three, I believe. Rotating Wizengamot seats.” Harry replies by rote, wetting his lips, and glancing up at Voldemort.  “Majority rules?”

Voldermort dips his head.  “That was what we decided on, yes.”

“What about specifically requiring a mixture of magic type houses?” Weasley says, sighs really, arms folding over his chest as he lingers at Harry’s left, the witch to Harry’s right-- Harry at the center, a king of his own making, with his knights at his flank.  Harry Potter is a terror.  “One light, one dark, one neutral. It could prevent Majority rules of sympathetic parties.”

Voldemort makes a small sound-- surprised, a bit, by the suggestion.  “You suspect there'll be an increase in guilty verdicts under dark house Majority.” 

Granger clears her throat.  “Or a decrease, in regard to pureblood rulings during pureblood trials.” 

Yes, Voldemort nods, the purebloods do like to stick together.  “Dumbledore would likely favor such a change,” he says. 

Harry scoffs.  “I favor it, so I don't really care what Albus thinks.”

Voldemort catches and holds his gaze.  “Not concerned your mentor will be disappointed?” 

“Not when it comes to this,” Harry shakes his head, shrugging a shoulder.  “Though, his disappointed stare stopped working second year.”

Voldemort grins, unrepentant and wide.  “As I said before: quite candid.”

Harry arches a brow. “Stop enjoying it so much.” 

“I will endeavor to do so,” Voldemort replies, ignoring the way Harry’s friends are exchanging glances over Harry’s head.  “So, you approve?”

Looking first to Weasley, and then to Granger, Harry hesitates.  The witch offers a small smile; the Weasley reaches up and squeezes at Harry’s shoulder. 

Harry lets out a short breath, meeting Voldemort’s gaze once more.  “Yes.” 

Good, Voldemort thinks.  Very good, Harry.  With this, we shall be victorious.   

“Then, I suppose, I have taken up enough of your time,” Voldemort says, nodding his head toward Harry’s followers with just enough deference.  “I hope I have not encroached too much on your day off.” 

Snorting, Harry clicks his tongue, playful again, even under the watchful eye of his friends.  “Since when have you worried about that before?”

Voldemort grins.  “Goodbye, little thorn.”

Harry returns the look on Voldemort’s face with a crooked smile.  “Bring back good news, next time, yeah?”

And Voldemort-- Voldemort cannot help himself.  

Not with Harry looking at him with those bright eyes of his.  Not with him here, before him, looking like a wild thing.  Not with his small, private court watching the proceedings with sharp eyes.  

“It is a promise, darling,” Voldemort hisses, gathering up Harry’s wand hand and bringing it to his mouth, touching his lips to the knuckle above his family ring where it sits on Harry’s finger.  “Until next time.” 

He doesn’t miss the sharp breath the witch takes.  Doesn’t miss the wide eyed quiet of the Weasley boy.  

And he certainly doesn’t miss the flood of color that rises in Harry’s cheeks.  The subtle flinch of his fingers in Voldemort’s grasp.  The rush of noise that floods their bond-- embarrassment, annoyance, fascination-- and the delightful way Harry’s eyes go wide when his witch tugs, hard, at the back of his shirt. 

Harry jerks his hand away.  Voldemort dearly wants to laugh. 

“You’re a bastard,” Harry tells him, soundly and without room for argument, though Voldemort wouldn’t bother arguing anyway.  “Go away.” 

“As you wish, little thorn.” 

And then, as promised and with his business concluded, Voldemort turns and takes his leave.  If he listens for the hissed demands of Harry’s friends-- what was that, Harry?-- then there is no one to know but himself.  

There is certainly no one to know how pleased it leaves him.  

No one but Harry, who broadcasts his exasperation loudly, even as Voldemort apparates away.  

*

“Harry James Potter,” Hermione hisses in his ear, already hauling Harry back toward the center of the oasis Harry had conjured from his mind.  “Seriously?  Seriously?” 

Ron chokes, trailing after them, grin lopsided.  “Sirius isn’t here, I don’t think, ‘Mione.” 

“Oh, you,” Hermione smacks at him, and Harry would find endless amusement in the face Ron makes, high as he is, if he wasn’t so busy staring off after where Voldemort disappeared to.  “This isn’t a joking matter.  Whatever that was, that was not normal.” 

“You expect the Dark Lord to be normal?” Ron asks, nose scrunching.  “Honestly, I’m just glad the bloke wasn’t threatening bodily harm.” 

“He was thinking about it,” Harry says, absent, still staring at the place between trees where Voldemort departed from; completely missing the horrified exchange between Hermione and Ron.  

Hermione sighs, heavy and burdened and totally exasperated.  “Harry.” 

Blinking a few times, Harry finally looks at her and beams.  “What?” 

“Focus, please.” Hermione says, though she can’t help but smile back at him.  “Care to explain?” 

Harry hums, nodding his head, the two circlets of flowers coming at serious risk of falling right off his crown.  “He wanted to see how I would react.  And how you would.” 

“Why?” Ron asks, glancing over his shoulder at where they’d all just been stood.

And Harry-- Harry shrugs. 

“He thought it would be funny.” 

*

Chapter Text

XIX.

"You're in a good mood, master."

Nagini's hissed admonition echoes the curious fervor of Bellatrix's own eager comments during his visit at Malfoy Manor.  How she had peered up at him through her lashes, cheeks flush, the delicate curves of her bosom swelling at the edge of the low cut of her dress-- ignoring, faithfully, the way her own husband watched on with a distinct lack of care. Be it because he knew Bellatrix would ignore his jealousy, or because he knew Voldemort had yet to be wooed by these wiles, was unclear but ultimately did not matter.  Not when Voldemort was far too busy savoring the thrum of giddy content at the back of his mind. 

Even the usual tedium he found when dealing with his followers did not express itself so blatantly as usual. Who knew that having Harry happy -- and a bit buzzed-- would have such an effect? 

That he could ignore Bellatrix's covetous designs. That he could brush by Draco Malfoy's wide eyed fear; trembling subtly, so like his father.  That he could overlook the bumbling outrage of some of his more vocal supporters after Lucius reported the changes to the bill his "newest follower" was passing through the Wizengamot; though, not enough to dismiss a direct insult to his alias when the eldest Nott got it into his head to do such a thing.  Even then, his crucio felt almost light handed. Though, it was certainly enough to discourage any other opposition, especially once he made it very clear that, whatever Lord Gaunt did, it was under Voldemort's command. 

"Yes," Voldemort hisses back as Nagini watches him disrobe from her coils by the fireplace across from the foot of his bed.  "Things are going smoothly. Progress is imminent." 

Nagini flicks out her tongue, tasting the air.  "And you went to see the boy."

Voldemort does not falter-- though, his movements do come to a deliberate pause-- before he nods and dismisses the rest of his day wear to the laundry bin with a wave of his hand.  "And I saw the boy."

If Nagini could, he imagines she would hum in something like satisfaction. "When will you bring him to meet me, master?" 

It is an odd thought. The idea that his familiar, his horcrux, would want to meet the person that has caused her master so much trouble. 

So is the idea that he wouldn't mind it. Would find it fascinating, in all actuality, to witness the two of them interacting. 

"Soon," he says, without truly giving thought to the implications of it, as he climbs into his bed. 

He isn't planning on sleeping-- has almost no use for it, these days, when the sole reason for his dreaming is so near at hand-- but he finds that, once he's closed his eyes, there is no stopping the sudden pull into another's consciousness. 

It is disorienting-- a torrid rush of thought, of memory, of sleepy imagination-- until he finds his footing. Until, within a small moment after realizing what has happened, he recognizes the mind currently ushering him in.  

It is then that he finds himself in a room. 

It is familiar in the way that something he's seen only once or twice is familiar.  Tall ceilings, familiar stone work, a mismatch of tables and chairs and couches.  There are no paintings on the walls, the way he knows there should be, but living photographs, the likes of which might be found in an album. A broom is propped against a bookshelf.  A snitch flits about.  Just the colors, deep reds and bright golds, would have given it away even if it weren't for the little lion dozing away in the armchair by the low light of the hearth. 

Voldemort cannot say he is too much surprised that Harry's mental fortress takes the shape of what appears to be the Gryffindor common room.  

It has been a rather long time since he's had unchallenged access to this mind.  Voldemort is once more tempted to offer his thanks to Harry's gaggle of followers for leaving the door open for him in the shape of whatever potion he'd imbibed. 

Curiosity is a dangerous thing. His gaze is drawn to the doors placed throughout the room-- all locked and all out of place-- before he settles his focus for the most interesting thing in the room:

Harry Potter, curled up in his seat, delicate in his sleep and in the soft light cast from the fire. 

He appears small, tucked into himself the way he is, and Voldemort wonders if he curls in on himself this way when he's in a bed.  He's clutching at a pillow in his lap, wearing striped pajamas and a sweater too large for his shoulders, and his glasses are nowhere to be seen. His face is lax, relaxed, and the scar cutting across his forehead to his brow is a pale thing, barely visible beneath the mess of Harry's fringe. 

Voldemort, not for the first time, is struck by the thought that this is his equal.  That this young man, small and sweet and soft as he looks in his sleep, is a force to be reckoned with. 

Easing over, Voldemort watches the light play against Harry's features. The way it flickers across his cheeks, his brow, his nose, his mouth. Down his neck, the way the blue of the shadows find home to pool at his collar; in the hollow of his throat. The way his maddening mess of hair catches the dark in streaks of black, while the fire threads it with hints of copper.

Lovely, Voldemort thinks, coming to a stop at Harry's side.  

Then, he leans down, bracing a hand at the back of Harry's chair, and places his mouth near to Harry's ear.  "Hello, Harry." 

*

When Harry went to sleep that evening, he did so surrounded by family. 

In the living room of Bill and Fleur's flat, on the couch, his head pillowed on Ron's thighs, high dwindling down into a contented fatigue. He'd been laughing as the twins waxed poetic over some research Hermione had helped them with, as she'd flushed and rolled her eyes and pulled Harry's feet into her lap with a sharp rebuttal on her tongue for the mischievous Fred and George, before he'd been lulled so easily into sleep, surrounded by so much warmth. 

When Harry woke, it was alone, with nothing more than a voice in his ear. 

Startling into wakefulness, Harry swings the only thing on hand out, catching someone in the face with the edge of his fist and the pillow in his grasp. 

There is a thump. A hiss. 

Harry stumbles to his feet, jerking around, pillow still clutched before him like a shield. On the floor, by the chair he'd woke tucked into, Voldemort glares up at him. 

Harry blinks. "What--?" 

Grunting, Voldemort props himself up on an elbow, cradling his jaw with one hand.  "You're really rather fond of hitting me in the face, aren't you, darling?" 

Harry blinks again. 

It is not something he's seen very much: Voldemort, pale and crimson eyed, felled and at his feet.  He can count the times on a single hand. 

Still, it is incongruous enough that Harry chances a quick glance about the room.  His brows furrow all the more. 

This is--

"How are you here?" Harry asks, pillow going slack at his side, not exactly outraged like he feels he likely should be, but more exasperated and a bit confused.  "I always keep the doors locked." 

"I would say magic," Voldemort says, sighing as he pushes to his feet, and if Harry were simply sixth months younger, seeing Lord Voldemort in all his black robed glory, standing at the center of the Gryffindor common room, at the core of Harry's occlumency shields, would've been a nightmare.  "But I imagine you would find that answer rather appallingly redundant and not a little subpar." 

Instead of terrifying, Harry finds the whole thing rather absurd. 

He rolls his eyes, tossing the pillow in his hand onto the chair so that he can cross his arms. "Yes, thank you, and now that you've finished being appallingly redundant and not a little subpar, can you actually answer the question?" 

"What a terror, you are," Voldemort sniffs, like Harry's offended him, and he smooths out his robes.  "Here I am, politely minding my own business, despite the blatant opportunity your friends provided me by dosing you with a mind altering potion, and you attack and accuse me?" 

Harry snorts, discourteous and disbelieving, regarding the man before him with nothing more or less than amused suspicion. 

"Really, darling," Voldemort adds, chiding, and it would almost be funny, this teasing, if it wasn't so terribly disconcerting. "I was as surprised as you are, to find myself here."

"So you just… stumbled your way into my head," Harry says, droll, dubious.  "Tripped and fell right in?" 

"Something like that." 

Harry breathes in, slow and deep.  "Then I'm sure you won't have any trouble finding your way out." 

Voldemort's eyes narrow.  "Of course. It appears I have overstayed my welcome."

"Overstayed might be a bit of an understatement," Harry frowns, arms crossing all the tighter across his chest.  "You were never welcome in the first place." 

Voldemort tips his chin up, at that. Regards Harry with dangerous eyes-- red and unyielding as always. 

Then, he clicks his tongue and glances away, gaze straying to one of the many locked doors that lined the walls of Harry's mind. 

"I suppose I'll just find my way through one of these, then." Voldemort says, not even bothering with feigned nonchalance, and one of the bulky padlocks on an old, wooden door Harry knows leads to the memories of camping with Sirius rattles ominously.  "I would so hate to linger where I am not wanted." 

For the first time since Voldemort's arrival, Harry realizes, Harry can feel the pressure of his inner most thoughts being prized at. Being poked and prodded.  Unveiled. Dug up. 

Harry winces. 

"Don't," he warns. 

"Wrong door?" Voldemort asks, a cruel and facile naivete to his voice, shifting away, moving deeper into the common room, the lock on another door trembling-- a red door, gilded in a filigree of burnished gold, that holds his memories of his friends.  "Perhaps this one?" 

"Tom," Harry starts, jerking forward a step and then faltering as the lock gives a sharp tug. "Don't." 

"Ah, you're right," Voldemort nods, moving on, and Harry feels a spike of dread rattle through him, shaking everything in its place the moment Voldemort comes to a stop before a very distinctly plain looking door.  "This one seems a better choice." 

Harry is moving. He's across the room in a blink. He's clutching on at Voldemort's robes, giving a harsh yank, his breath hissing through the clench of his teeth. 

The white door shakes violently on its hinges as Voldemort brushes his fingers across the wood. The lock groans.

Harry gasps at the ripple of pain across his scalp.  Like a fire being set inside his skull. 

"Voldemort, please," Harry rasps, eyes squeezed shut, fingers fisted at Voldemort's back.  "Don't.  Don't." 

Voldemort goes still.  Doesn't even seem to breathe. 

"What's behind this door, Harry?" Voldemort asks, facade and irritation gone, voice a hush. 

Quiet. Coaxing. 

Harry pulls, again, at the back of Voldemort's robes.  He wets his lips, eyes still shut tight. 

"Nothing good," Harry confesses.

There is a moment. A lull.  A quiet, one that is as much a relief as it is foreboding, that presses into the space between them, like a balloon swelling and swelling and swelling--

Voldemort turns. The bubble pops.  Harry's shoulders hike up to his ears and his eyes flutter open in a wince; a flinch; a wounded animal startling away from a loud and sudden sound. 

"Are your nightmares lurking behind that door, Harry?" Voldemort asks, voice still low, hand catching Harry's arm to coax Harry's grip free, fingers a striking pallor against the wool of Harry's jumper.  "Or just your memory of them?" 

Harry's breath catches.  His gaze jerks up; meets red with wide eyed green.

Voldemort makes a soft sound. Something like a hum, something from the back of his throat. He tilts his head and reaches up, fingers a ghost at Harry's jaw.  His grip tightens on Harry's arm. 

"You're wise to shield your eyes," Voldemort tells him, thumb brushing at Harry's temple where his wire frames are missing.  "They give too much of you away, darling." 

Something in Harry's chest quivers. The books in the room seem to shudder on their shelves. 

"What memories do you shy away from?" Voldemort asks, his voice a hypnotic lull, a carefully constructed cadence of compassion, a curiosity hidden behind something that isn't quite a lie.  "What monsters lay in wait, in the shadowed corners of your mind?  Do they all wear my face, Harry?" 

Harry jerks in place. Stung, or perhaps just shocked.  His gaze flits to the white door over Voldemort's shoulder. 

Voldemort doesn't allow it. 

He grips Harry's chin, touch a reprimand and a balm, and tilts his face back up. Makes Harry look him in the eye when he answers. 

"No," he breathes, blinks, and then sighs as he recognizes the inevitable stitched into the color of Voldemort's eyes; a dog with a bone, and it's always Harry's bone.  "You have a different door." 

Voldemort's mouth twitches at that.  "A room to myself?" 

"Rooms," Harry admits. 

"Do they frighten you?" 

"No," Harry says, another shudder rippling through the room as Voldemort’s thumb drags down his throat, as if to test Harry at his word.  "You don't frighten me, Tom."

Voldemort hums again. "Why not?"

"Because I understand you." 

"And that makes me less frightening?" 

"In my mind," Harry takes a breath and then lets it out slow, stepping back, pulling away from Voldemort's touch.  "Yes." 

For a moment, all Voldemort does is look at him. His hands are at his sides, his head still canted over, his eyes narrowed.  Harry knows that look. 

Knows that Voldemort is looking at him like he is something to be unpuzzled. 

Something to be taken apart. 

It's unsettling. It's thrilling. 

"Perhaps that's why you're such a terror," Voldemort says.  "I've yet to understand you." 

"But you want to." 

It isn't a question. Harry knows it to be the truth of the matter. Why else would Voldemort so constantly pry into Harry's past, his life, his choices? 

Voldemort dips his head in something like a nod.  "I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty-- to know what occurs but not recognize the fact." 

Harry feels something in his chest twist.  "What's that from?" 

"A poem," Voldemort tells him.  "By William Stafford." 

The rapid beating of Harry's heart has calmed. He can no longer feel the blood rushing in his ears. 

He knows Voldemort still wants whatever Harry has locked behind that door, but he appreciates that the man is meandering toward it, laying a trail of breadcrumbs for Harry to follow, waiting for Harry to unlock it for him-- rather than just bursting in. 

It is another olive branch. An offer to wait, to bide his time, to meet Harry where he is. Harry's throat goes tight at the petal soft realization of it. 

"I didn't know you liked poetry," Harry confesses. 

"I have always considered myself an academic of many studies," Voldemort says.  "The arts being one of them." 

Harry stares.

Voldemort grins, sharp; perhaps deadly.  "You seem surprised." 

"It's just… odd. Sweets and poetry and ballroom dancing." Harry shakes his head.  "Lord Voldemort, the romantic." 

"It clashes with what you know of me," Voldemort concludes, folding his hands behind his back, standing up straighter, eyes locked with Harry's own.  "Does it change your understanding?" 

Harry regards him a moment. Lets his eyes drift-- over a pale face, a monster's face, and broad shoulders and a tall frame and danger that always lurks.  

Harry finds himself smiling. 

"No," he says.  "It clarifies.  You feel very strongly and in multiple directions."

Voldemort's grin goes wider, with more teeth.  "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; (I am large. I contain multitudes)." 

Harry snorts.  "Stafford?" 

"Whitman." 

"I have no idea who these people are," Harry admits. 

"A shame and a blemish on your schooling, though not necessarily your fault." 

"Oh," Harry huffs, finding himself pleased and amused where he was once tipping toward anger and terror.  "Well, as long as it isn't my fault." 

"It is only a fault of your own if, upon becoming aware of your own ignorance, you continue to ignore it." 

Harry's brows pinch, but he cannot smother the smile on his face.  "Are you suggesting I study poetry, Tom?" 

"Perhaps," he says.  "Would you take such a suggestion?" 

"I suppose it depends on what door it would open," Harry says, glancing once more at the white door, locked tight.  "What else would you start suggesting if I started accepting them?  Or would I be able to close that door once it's opened?" 

Voldemort pauses.  "You think I would attempt to groom you.  That I would take advantage."

"Wouldn't you?" 

Voldemort tilts his head, seeming to mull the idea over.  Harry's surprised the answer isn't more instantaneous. 

Then, Voldemort surprises him again by shaking his head.  "I would take advantage; perhaps, undoubtedly or inevitably.  It's in my nature.  But wild things do not need taming; grooming you to follow in my footsteps is unnecessary." 

"Wild things," Harry huffs, strangely breathless.  "Am I a wild thing?" 

"Little thorn," Voldemort says, voice low and deep with something Harry could easily mistake for fondness.  "You are the wildest thing I have ever encountered." 

*

Perhaps another night. 

Voldemort waves away Malfoy’s grandiose hawk owl with an absent hand as he swirls cream and sugar into a cup of tea, eyes on the headline of the Daily Prophet.  The dim chatter of the shop around him is background noise-- something to take advantage of, something to ignore.  

It is not often he finds himself willing to sit in public to take tea.  He does not have the patience or the care to.

The other night’s dream walking clings, though.  Bickering with Harry; talking with Harry; trying to coax more secrets from Harry.  The many doors with their many locks.  

Perhaps another night. 

Harry hadn’t meant it as a promise when he’d said it, Voldemort knew.  If anything, it had been a barb, a joke, something not to be taken with any seriousness.  He certainly hadn’t found himself in Harry’s mind during the late hours, after all. 

And yet. 

Perhaps another night.  Such promise.  

The chair across from him at his little table scrapes back.  Voldemort glances up, amused by the pinched features and stark black robes; pleased by the recalcitrant anger, the deserved wariness.  Voldemort sets his paper aside. 

“Hello, Severus,” he says.  

“Lord Gaunt,” Severus replies, something wavering about the small, deferential nod he gives, nothing like the deep bows Voldemort has always demanded of him before.  “I do believe you summoned me.” 

“Yes, I did, didn’t I?” Voldemort sits back, regarding the traitor across from him and finding none of the usual heat in his breast that he might upon looking a betrayer in the face.  “Funny, our little Lord Potter can claim you, and yet I can still summon you to my side with ease.” 

Voldemort savors the way Severus’ mouth twitches into a faint sneer.  A reflex, perhaps, from pretending to loathe the boy for so long-- or, perhaps, the first bit of honesty that Voldemort has ever seen in him.  Distaste at being summoned.  

Amazing, what one very stubborn young wizard can achieve.  

With a flick of his fingers, Voldemort settles a spell around them to muffle their voices, blend them in with the rest of the noise; if anyone looked closely or walked by, all they would see or hear was two men having a mild conversation over a spot of tea.  

“You informed your headmaster, I presume?” Voldemort asks. 

“Dumbledore was informed that you wished to speak with me,” Severus nods, once, arms folded over his chest.  “Though neither of us were quite certain as to why.” 

“It’s quite simple, Severus,” Voldemort replies, offering out the paper for him to see, and though Severus is reluctant to accept anything from Voldemort’s hands now that he has been freed of him, he does take it and skim over the headline-- Potter-Gaunt Bill To Change the Shape of the Wizarding World?  “Harry Potter cannot return to London.” 

The statement sends a rictus of tension through Severus’ frame.  It isn’t obvious; Voldemort likely wouldn’t have even noticed, if he weren’t so very aware of the truth behind his motivations, now.  It is a twitch of the fingers.  A press of the mouth.  A dart of flinty eyes. 

“I am aware of the oaths struck between the two of you,” Severus says, carefully, setting the paper down.  “And I’ve been kept apprised of the… work the two of you are completing.” 

“Yes.  Rather clever, really.  Though, I imagine it has left some of your Order in a bit of a tizzy.”  Voldemort replies, grin undoubtedly malicious in appearance, if the striking pallor Severus’ already pale skin takes on is anything to judge by.  “Tell me, do they all know their Golden Boy has been working so closely with their enemy?  Have they bitten their nails down to the quick, Severus?” 

Severus’ spine straightens.  “That is not something I need report to you, anymore.” 

“No, it isn’t,” Voldemort says, but he can read between the lines and letters of it.  

Not everyone in their precious Order knows just who Lord Gaunt is.  Those that do are keeping a close eye-- or, rather, as close as Harry will let them.  

Strikingly independent, Harry Potter is. 

Severus seems to understand his misstep with a rapid flicker of his dark eyes.  He stiffens all the more for it. 

“Was that all you summoned me for, Lord Gaunt?” Severus asks, as eager to depart early as he was late to arrive; testing all new boundaries, it seems.  “I have a rather volatile potion waiting for my return.” 

“Straight to the point?  Wherever has your patience gone, Severus?” Voldemort asks, goading and cutting in equal measure, drawing blood with words rather than with wand, and he enjoys, immensely, the faintest flinch around Severus’ eyes.  “The point, then.  Harry Potter cannot return to London.” 

“So you’ve said.” 

“He cannot return, and therefore I need someone to stand for him during the trial of his relatives.”  Voldemort says, holding Severus’ gaze.  “Someone who can procure memories and present them.  Someone who can… defend him.” 

Severus’ brow arches.  A completely reflexive reaction.  Something Severus is too surprised to cover.  

“You wish for me to offer evidence damning Harry Potter’s relatives before the Wizengamot?” 

“You were his professor,” Voldemort nods.  “A… friend of his mother’s.  And, to my disappointment, a rather valiant protector of the boy during his years at Hogwarts.  Besides, it wouldn’t be before the entirety of the Wizengamot.  Only those selected for judgement over the trial.” 

For a moment, Severus is trapped in stillness.  Like a moment in time, caught in amber.  

Voldemort sips his tea. 

Leaning forward, Severus uncrosses his arms, fingers steepled together on the table.  His dark eyes are narrowed.  His head tilted.  

Voldemort can see, very easily, how students would be so intimidated by the man.  He looks rather like a hawk, ready to spring down on the easiest meal. 

“You want me to defend Harry Potter?” 

“Yes.” 

Severus bares his teeth.  “Why?” 

“I made an oath,” Voldemort says, rather decisively even if not truthfully, taking another sip from his cup before setting it aside.  “Will you do it?” 

Severus does not back down.  “Why not ask his godfather?  Lupin?  The headmaster?” 

“The headmaster is also, unfortunately, an integral part of the Wizengamot proceedings.  Though, believe me, if I could foist this role upon him simply to rub his considerably crooked nose in the error of his ways, I would.”  Voldemort replies, sitting back, crossing a leg over the other, hands folding neatly in his lap.  “And you’ve known him longer than the others.  Lupin was his professor for, what?  A single academic year?  And Lord Black, title reclaimed and innocence proven or not, would be seen as unreliable.” 

Severus straightens once more.  His brow arches again.  “The error of his ways?” 

“There was a reason you joined me, Severus.  I do not imagine you’ve forgotten it, despite whatever vengeance you cling to.”  Voldemort says, voice lowering, knowing, catching sight of the tightness that pinches at the man’s eyes.  “And, just as before, you are not the only child Albus Dumbledore has left to suffering.” 

Severus blinks.  “A bill for protecting magical children.  Harry Potter cannot return to London.  I am to be providing evidence and memories during a trial.  His relatives...?” 

“Muggles are foul, loathsome little creatures, aren’t they?” Voldemort asks, another grin that is too sharp and too dangerous finding its way to his face.  “Certainly you noticed.  All those years, staring down your nose at your muggleborn’s progeny.  Certainly you saw the signs.” 

Severus takes a measured breath.  “I did not.” 

“Perhaps you should reassess your memories, then.” Voldemort says, though it is anything but a suggestion.  “And do be expedient in gathering what you need-- from your own thoughts and from Harry’s.  I intend to take care of this issue as soon as the bill has passed.” 

For a long second, all Severus does is look at him.  He looks at him as if, perhaps, he has never seen him.  Though, even that does not seem true.  

He looks at him as if, perhaps, he is seeing the man he originally pledged himself to.  

Something like satisfaction spreads through Voldemort, then.  Something warm and pleased.  Something he isn’t certain of the origins of. 

“Can I expect your usual level of expertise and detail in this?” Voldemort asks. 

Severus takes another breath; then, he nods, head dipping once.  “Yes.  If this is, indeed, all not a farce.”  

“Very good,” Voldemort uncrosses his legs and pushes to his feet, dropping a few coins for his half finished tea and dispelling their table.  “I expect to speak with you again, soon, Severus.” 

He does not wait for a response.  Does not need one.  Severus will, at the very least, be far too curious about the truth of Voldemort’s claims to let it go.  And, once he discovers how deep that truth runs, will undoubtedly provide Voldemort with exactly what he needs.  Severus has always been vicious, when he wants; it’s something that Voldemort has admired about him.  

He does not linger in the shop, heading out into Diagon’s busy streets.  He straightens his robes, moves to take his leave back to his home, and stops only when he sees the Flourish and Blotts sign.  

He cannot give name to what pulls him toward the bookshop, but if he had to, he would say it was Harry Potter. 

*

Harry is half certain he’ll never get all of the petals out of his hair.  Even after Hermione, Ron, and Fred and George are long gone, even after he has bathed and combed through the mess of it with his fingers, even after two mornings of Hedwig plucking the pale, delicate things from his crown, he keeps waking to more.  

Better than a hangover, Harry thinks, dusting away the petals from his pillow.  

He hears a knocking from the front door of the flat as he’s pulling a t-shirt over his head.  He’s just grabbing for a pair of jeans when he hears Bill call out. 

“Heads up, Harry!  You’ve a guest!” 

Harry falters as his bedroom door swings open.  In the doorway, Severus Snape halts, and Harry blinks.  

This is the second time his potions professor has walked into this flat with Harry still only half dressed.  This is the first time that Harry has seen said professor in anything but his billowing robes.  

While he still wears them, draped over his shoulders, beneath it is a pressed white shirt and shockingly sharp slacks.  Despite the usual shine to his hair, the stains on his fingers, and the dragonhide boots on his feet, Severus Snape looks, of all things, utterly casual.  

It’s all a bit mind boggling.  

“Professor,” Harry says, a frown finding its way to his face.  “What brings you by?” 

Snape tilts his chin up, eyes narrowed; Harry recognizes the look.  It’s his lie detector face, as Harry once confided in Hermione, the one he wears when he assumes Harry is up to something.  

Trouble, Harry thinks. 

“Is it true?” Snape asks, voice a hiss of a thing. 

“Excuse me?  Is what true, professor?” Harry’s frown only deepens, and even though Snape does not seem bothered by his state of undress, Harry shoves his feet into the legs of his jeans and pulls them up.  

Snape takes a haltingly short step forward, voice taking on a familiar derisive bite.  “I just had the dubious delight of tea with the Dark Lord where he, politely, commanded my aide in the trial of your muggle relatives.  The implication was that there has been abuse.  Is it true?” 

With a wince, Harry glances away.  In his gut, something cold pits and then twists.  He has to wipe his hands off on his thighs to rid them of a sudden claminess.  

He supposes he should’ve expected something like this.  Though, expecting something does not always make it easier to deal with the confrontation of it. 

“What did he say?” Harry asks, rather than answer, feeling a lump in his throat.  

“Not much aside to remind me you are unable to set foot on English soil and to imply that he intends to spearhead your relatives on the battlements of your little bill with myself acting as middleman,” Snape sneers, arms folding imperiously in front of himself, dark eyes still like steel as he stares down his nose at where Harry fidgets.  “Is it true, Potter?” 

“Better than spearing their actual heads, I suppose,” Harry mutters, sighs, and then pulls off his glasses so that he can scrub a hand over his face.  “Close the door, please.” 

Snape falters at the request.  Almost seems to startle at it.  

Then, he presses Harry’s door shut, and it is just the two of them and Hedwig.  

In the hush that follows, Harry’s head gives a dull throb.  He glances, half blind without his glasses, over at his bedside table where the locket and ring sits.  It is tempting to take them up, to use them as an emotional buffer for the hell that this conversation will no doubt be, but he doesn’t.  

Instead, he looks back at Snape, folding his arms over his chest like a physical buffer might help in their stead.  

“Yes, it’s true.” Harry nods, throat working around a terrified constriction; shame threatens to bubble up to the back of his mouth.  “Not-- Not in a traditional sense of abuse, but I have been… reliably informed that what I experienced was not… normal.” 

“Reliably informed by who?  The Dark Lord?”  Snape’s sneer only grows more bitter and brittle.  “Did you not get seconds at dessert?  Is that what we’re considering abuse?” 

Like a match striking, anger flares up in Harry’s chest.  “No, I did not get seconds at dessert.  I didn’t often get food, let alone dessert, professor.” 

Snape startles again.  The tight line of his shoulders drops.  

“They starved you,” he breathes.  

“Not always, but often enough.” Harry bobs his head, clutching at his own arms.  “I wasn’t beaten or anything.  But I know what being struck feels like.  Knew what it felt like, before-- before any of this.” 

Before finding out he was magic.  Before Voldemort.  Before he was even eleven years old.  

Snape’s eyes, keen and sharp and unyielding, dart over his face.  His fingers flex at his sides.  

“You did not tell your head of house,” Snape says, almost insisting.  “You did not tell the headmaster.” 

Not insisting, then.  Searching for a lie.  Hunting for the truth.  Scouring over Harry with those all-seeing eyes, trying to find what he had missed.  

Harry offers a tight smile.  “Would you have?  If your only family shoved you into a cupboard and hid you there for the shame you brought them?  Would you have told someone?” 

Something in Snape’s face breaks.  Like glass shattering.  Like the cold rush of epiphany.  Something in his face breaks, and then Snape is sitting down heavily on the foot of Harry’s bed.  

“Dear Merlin,” he breathes, pressing his face into his palms.  

Harry frowns.  He shuffles forward a step, tilting his head to peer down at him.  

“Professor?” 

“Does Albus know?” Snape asks, face still hidden from view.  

“I… I really can’t say,” Harry shrugs a shoulder.  “I always-- Well, I always sort of assumed he knew everything.” 

The bark of a laugh that earns him is startling and sharp.  When Snape drops his hands away, Harry can clearly see the shine of his eyes in a face pulled taut with resignation and distress.  

“The headmaster has always cultivated such a misunderstanding,” Snape states, meeting and holding Harry’s gaze.  “That does not make it true.” 

“Right,” Harry breathes, an age old ache seeming to ease under that backwards reassurance; Dumbledore hadn’t known, therefore he hadn’t sent Harry back there, over and over, out of malicious intent.  “Well.  I, um--” 

“Mr. Potter,” Snape cuts him off, still sitting at the foot of his bed, looking more worn than Harry has ever had the chance to see.  “I must offer an… apology.  On behalf of the entire staff.” 

Instantly, heat floods Harry’s cheeks.  He shakes his head.  

“No, um.  No, don’t, uh-- Don’t do that.” Harry winces, cringing away from the potential pity of it all.  “Please, I’d really rather you not.” 

“Rather or not,” Snape says, and the steel of his gaze makes itself known in his voice and in the shape of his words.  “We owe you one all the same.  We should have seen it.  I-- I should have seen it.” 

“You--” Harry blinks, and as Snape holds his stare steady, he sees.  “Oh.” 

A sharp and bitter man.  A brittle, bully of a man.  An insistent, strict, perfectionist prick.  All things that Harry has always thought of him.  All true, in one way or another, even as the truth behind the vitriol unravels itself in the slump of Snape’s shoulders and the glimmer of understood pain of his eyes.  

Harry huffs out a breath.  He uncrosses his arms and plops down on the foot of the bed next to him. 

“Well,” Harry says.  “Hermione is always trying to tell me that there are hidden depths to everyone.” 

Snape snorts.  “Miss Granger may have been a know-it-all, but she is quite the clever witch.” 

“High praise,” Harry murmurs, brows up, glancing over at where Snape has curled over to rest his elbows on his knees, head too proud to hang but very close to it.  “Considering her house.  And, y’know, you.” 

Snape tosses him a glare.  

Holding up his hands in surrender, Harry laughs.  

When Snape looks away again, staring down at his own hands, Harry mirrors him.  Rests his elbows on his thighs.  Folds his hands together.  Touches, idly, at the empty place on his ring finger. 

“I’m sorry,” Harry eventually says, after the quiet has gotten too much for him.  “For-- Um.  Well, I’m sorry to hear that you, uh…” 

Snape inhales, slowly and deeply, before letting it out again.  “Must we?” 

Harry laughs, again.  “No.  No, we definitely don’t-- Yeah, no.  I’m fine with not.” 

“Good,” Snape nods, sits up, and twists to face Harry properly.  “I need to collect memories for the trial.  And a statement, to provide in your stead.” 

“Because I can’t be there for it,” Harry sighs, mouth pressing thin, before he looks at Snape from the corner of his eye.  “But you will be.” 

“If you would prefer an alternative, I assure you, you will find no complaint from me.”

“No,” Harry shakes his head, gracing Snape with a weak grin.  “No, if anyone, I think I’d almost prefer it be you.  Sirius would-- that would be a nightmare.  And I can’t… I can’t tell them.  Not-- Not Remus or Sirius or Albus or-- or--” 

“You can’t tell them,” Snape mutters, eyes narrowing, again.  “And yet you told the Dark Lord.  And the Dark Lord has decided to… pursue the matter.” 

Harry winces.  “I mean.  It was an oath.” 

“Interesting,” Snape says, slow.  “The Dark Lord said much the same thing.  And what, exactly, does the Dark Lord get out of this oath?” 

“I…” Harry blinks, brows pinching.  “I don’t actually know.  Retribution, I suppose.  In the only way he can.” 

“Retribution?” 

“He has made statements,” Harry says, unsure, trying to find the right words that don’t sound utterly nutters.  “Claims, really.  On me.  Others are not… permitted to do me harm.” 

“Ah,” Snape nods, as if the implied possessive nature of that statement does not come at a shock.  “Yes.  I recall times where he was rather insistent that no Death Eater was to touch you.  I am unsurprised that it would extend to muggles.” 

“Right.  Muggles.” Harry nods, clearing his throat, and then he straightens out to stand, not thinking about a particular witch that fell under Voldemort’s wrath, limited as it is.  “So.  You need memories?  I don’t imagine you want the ones of Aunt Petunia’s pound cakes for the garden and cribbage parties.”

“I do not,” Snape stares up at him, a furrow to his brows that he quickly shakes away, standing as well.  “And I cannot collect them today.  I will need to return with the proper vials.  Think on what you would like your statement to be.  That will lead us to what memories we need collect.” 

“Right,” Harry repeats.  “Well.  I suppose I’ll see you soon, professor.” 

“Yes, Mr. Potter,” Snape nods, head bowing in something like deference.  “Soon.” 

He does not wait for further dismissal.  Even without his usual school robes, he still manages to billow out of the room once the door is open.  

Harry stares after him for a moment.  Stares at the open doorway, at a loss.  

He feels, very suddenly, like things are moving too quickly.  Feels a pressure in his chest and in his head, at the thought of coming up with a statement against his family.  Of drawing out the memories to go with it.  

Padding over to the bedside table, he pulls the locket over his head.  Slides the ring onto his finger.  Takes a slow breath as their soft whispering washes through him.  

A knock has him turning about.  

Bill stands in the doorway, curious but not pressing, holding out a copy of today’s Prophet, along with a package sealed tight with twine.  Harry smiles. 

“Morning,” he says. 

“A good one, I hope?” Bill asks, glancing over his shoulder and down the hall, as if expecting their potions professor to still be lingering.  

“A surprising one,” Harry admits, rounding his bed to hold out his hand.  “What’s this?” 

“Just the paper,” Bill replies.  “And something addressed to you.” 

“I didn’t order anything,” Harry frowns, tossing the Prophet onto the bed and taking the package, already plucking at the twine knotted around the thick, brown paper packaging.  

“Feels like a book,” Bill shrugs.  “Hermione, maybe?” 

“Probably,” Harry chuckles, peeling the paper back as the twine unravels, and faltering at the sight of the title: Magically Muggle - Poems Through the Ages.  “Oh.” 

The book is a dark shade of blue-- he’d think it was leather, dyed, if it weren’t for the scales on the spine that spoke of dragonhide.  The title is engraved on its front, a burnished silver that catches the light, and the edges of the pages within match.  It is heavy.  Thick.  It smells like fresh parchment.  

Flipping open the cover, Harry finds the familiar and neat calligraphy he’d first encountered when he was twelve years old.  It sends a shudder down his spine. 

For your continued education. See page 256.  - V. 

“Definitely a Hermione gift,” Bill says, breaking Harry out of his sudden stillness.  

Blinking, Harry offers a crooked grin and snaps the book shut.  “Yes.  Definitely.  Are there scones, again?” 

“Fresh batch,” Bill sighs, weary and fond.  “Vanilla and blueberry, if you’re interested.” 

“Save me a few,” Harry nods.  “I’ll be out in a bit.” 

“Take your time.” 

When Bill departs, none the wiser, Harry carefully shuts his bedroom door once more.  

Moving over to his bed, he sits and opens the book once more.  Stares at the inscription.  Runs his fingers against the edges of dark ink.  Traces the sharp point of the V. 

Then, he turns to page 256, and he reads. 

*

Voldemort did not expect to be invited back into Harry’s mind with open arms.  He did not expect to be invited back at all.  

So, to find himself present in that familiar unfamiliar room is a pleasant surprise.  

“Hello, Harry.” 

Much like last time, Harry is sitting by the fire, though this time not in a chair.  He’s on the floor, pinstriped pajamas and lopsided sweater and all.  He glances up from the book in his lap, no glasses to shield either of them from his gaze.  

Voldemort spots the familiar cover and he smiles.  “Are you enjoying your gift?” 

Harry’s mouth purses.  He taps on the open page in front of him with the back of a knuckle.  

“If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.” 

Harry sighs, grimaces, and stares up at Voldemort.  He looks so small, so determined, sitting on the floor like that.  

Voldemort very nearly joins him. 

“What star do you suppose I’ve missed?” Harry asks, voice soft, the crackle and burn of the fire fluttering behind him.  “Or, perhaps, have you missed?” 

“You propose I have regrets?  That I regret the path unfollowed?” 

Harry’s green eyes hunt over his face.  “Don’t you?”

“I have no use for regret,” Voldemort shakes his head, and decides, quickly and easily, to sit himself in front of Harry on the rug before the flames; taking in the play of light on the side of Harry’s face.  “It has never brought anything but bitterness.  I have chosen to move forward.  Beyond.” 

A sad sort of smile makes its way onto Harry’s face.  He dips his head, as if to hide it from Voldemort.  

“You truly regret nothing?  Nothing you’ve ever done?  Nothing you’ve ever not done?” Harry asks, voice just as soft as before, and Voldemort is tempted to lean forward, closer, so that he might hear him better.  

“You seek an answer I will not give.  Not to your satisfaction.” 

“I seek honesty,” Harry sighs, eyes on the book in his lap, fingers drawing down to the last two stanzas: 

“And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
Though we could fool each other, we should consider--
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark. 

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give -- yes or no, or maybe --
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.” 

Voldemort tilts his head.  Harry, after some time, looks back up at him.  

“You believe we should be candid with one another?” Voldemort asks. 

“I believe anything else will lead to-- to ruin,” Harry admits, grimacing more to himself for the admittance than at having to admit it to Voldemort.  “Though, perhaps, you might enjoy that.” 

“I do not want ruins, Harry,” Voldemort assures, and finds it odd that he wants to assure.  “I want our people to stand tall and proud.”

“On the backs of others.” 

“If it comes to it,” Voldemort nods, then finds himself frowning, finds himself puzzled.  “I am not a good man, Harry.  I have never claimed to be.  I have only claimed to be right.” 

“But you’re not always right,” Harry insists, then squeezes his eyes shut tight and gives a sharp shake of his head.  “That’s not what I wanted to-- This isn’t-- Why did you send me this?” 

“Pardon?” 

“The book,” Harry breathes.  “Why did you send me the book, Tom?” 

Voldemort’s frown deepens into something like a scowl.  “Do you not like it?” 

“I do,” Harry confesses, face twisted up, earnest pleasure confounded only by an eager confusion.  “Did you send it to me because you thought I’d like it?” 

“Yes,” Voldemort says. 

Harry’s breath catches.  “Oh.” 

“You said you wanted us to be candid.” 

“Right,” Harry’s throat works as his head bobs with his nodding, a lovely pink burning at his cheeks as he looks down to his lap again.  “Right.  Um.” 

It takes a moment for Voldemort to realize that Harry had not been expecting that answer.  That he’d been expecting something else.  

Regret, he thinks.  He’d wanted Voldemort to feel regret. 

“Did you think it was an apology?” Voldemort asks.  

“Yes.” 

“It isn’t,” Voldemort says, unable to stop himself from reaching out, from tipping Harry’s face up by his chin.  “Though, if you would like it to be, you may see it as such.” 

Harry’s eyes-- so bright, so exquisitely expressive-- dart between his own.  Voldemort waits.

He can be patient.  Sometimes. 

“Right,” Harry says again, nods, and pulls from Voldemort’s touch.  “Well.  Thank you.” 

“You’re welcome,” Voldemort replies, sitting back, watching as Harry closes the book with a great deal of care despite the metaphysical nature of it and feeling a swell of warmth in his chest.  “Now, are we to open any doors tonight?  Or am I to be kept waiting until next time?” 

Harry snorts, giving Voldemort a dry look.  “I’m not giving you a free pass into my memories.  Speaking of: Snape visited me today.” 

“He always did work quickly,” Voldemort nods, assured that had selected the right man for this particular job.  “A good thing, too.  We are voting tomorrow on the bill.  I’ve no doubt it will pass.” 

The smile that statement earns him is a bright and broad one.  Harry, beaming, at the prospect of a job well done.  

It is exactly the reaction Voldemort desired.  

“Which means,” he adds, soaking up the expression on Harry’s face, knowing it will be as quick to flee as it was to arrive.  “I will need their names, Harry.” 

Harry shifts in place.  The joy on his face melts away, to something far more cautious.  

Voldemort almost regrets seeing it go. 

“Don’t bother my cousin,” Harry says, firm, and then sighs.  “He was just a kid, too.  Didn’t know better.  Just did what he saw his parents do.” 

“That excuses it?” 

Harry shrugs.  “He’s sent letters.  Ever since I-- When I ran.  He sent me letters.  Apologizing.  I haven’t replied.” 

“You haven’t replied,” Voldemort hums.  “But you’ve forgiven him.” 

“He was a kid,” Harry repeats, as if that will mean something to Voldemort, and rolls his eyes when he sees that it won’t.  “Leave him out of it.  That’s me telling you, not asking.” 

Even a month ago, Voldemort imagines he would have been offended at that.  He would’ve bristled and rebutted and struck down anyone who might attempt to command him.  

It seems, as always, Harry is an exception. 

“Your aunt and uncle, then.” 

Harry stares at him for a long moment.  He worries at his lower lip with his teeth.  He clutches at the book, as though it might shield him from the avalanche that will follow whatever names are in his mouth.  From the inevitable outcome he has known was coming.  From the shame and the fear and the hurt and the anger that will be unburied when Voldemort sets things into motion.  

Offering out a hand, Voldemort waits.  Waits and knows that, while Harry knows him, Harry does not trust him.  

He wonders when he started wanting Harry to trust him. 

Carefully, Harry sets his hand in Voldemort’s own.  It is warm and rough, their fingers barely touching, Harry’s hand hovering in Voldemort’s grip rather than resting in it.  

Voldemort draws it toward his mouth.  Kisses the knuckle above his family’s ring.  Holds Harry’s stare even as Harry blinks and blinks and goes red in the face.  

“I give my word,” Voldemort says.  “I will not pursue your cousin.” 

“Wizard’s oath?” Harry asks, voice trembling, and Voldemort feels a rush of giddy, amused warmth.  “You must be very serious, indeed.” 

“Yes,” Voldemort says, biting back a grin as Harry’s fingers twitch in his grip.  “Their names, little thorn.  Give them to me and I will take care of the rest.” 

Harry stares and stares.  Voldemort is tempted with another kiss to his hand, another reassurance, another oath.  He would give as many as he needed for those names.  

He does not need to.  

“The Dursleys,” Harry says, on a shuddered breath, clutching at Voldemort’s hand with a sudden viceness that might have ached were it real.  “Petunia and Vernon Dursley.” 

Voldemort smiles. 

Chapter Text

XX.

“It is a circus out there.” 

Standing at the window, peering out past the curtains, down onto the street below.  There is a gathering of reporters-- a mischief, Hermione had called them, like a group rats; bottom feeders-- all clustered by the entrance to the flat.  The only reason they haven’t broken down the doors, Harry thinks, is because of the very real threat that living with two curse breakers that work for goblins brings.  

Funny thing, that.  Curse breakers can craft curses just as easy as break them.  

He stands there, peering down from the window, arms half crossed, with a hand holding the curtains aside.  He doesn’t turn to look at Bill, obvious statements of greeting aside, but he can hear the slap of a paper, fresh off the press, hit the coffee table.  

“It’s a circus in here,” Harry replies. 

And it is.  

The flat is packed to the gills, like so many sardines in a can.  Molly Weasley had arrived like a woman possessed, had hugged Harry so tight that he could barely breathe.  Ron and Hermione had followed; Fred and George often popping in and out whenever they could.  Sirius had taken to curling up with Harry in bed as Padfoot.  Remus lingered more often than not.  Even Kingsley and Moody had made an appearance.  

He knew-- or some part of him knew-- that this was what would happen the moment he told Voldemort the names.  He knew, at least partially, that this is what he had been so fearful of.  

Because the moment the bill-- Protection Bill of the Century, the Prophet had called it-- had passed, Voldemort had immediately moved forward with a proposed prosecution.  He had, according to Sirius, barely waited for the applause to even stop before pulling another scroll from his robes.  Had offered it to the Chief Warlock, Dumbledore, himself.  Had named three members of the Wizengamot to prevail over the trial-- Lucius Malfoy, Amelia Bones, Tiberius Ogden-- and had offered a list of witnesses to speak on behalf of an absentee victim.  

And then, like the dramatic bastard he is, Voldemort had announced to the Wizengamot something that had been immortalized in dozens of headlines since: 

“Lord Harry James Potter was victimized by his relatives until he was fifteen years of age.  In good faith of the new steps we have taken to better our world on this day, I move to prosecute Petunia and Vernon Dursley for their crimes against a magical child, on his behalf and under these new laws.  Who seconds this motion?” 

It was those words that set the circus down in the street into motion.  As well as the one in Bill and Fleur’s flat.  

The moment the session had been dismissed, Sirius had come.  Remus had been not long after.  Dumbledore and Snape not long after that.  Then, of course, once the press hit-- well.  That was a week ago. 

“Who thought it was a good idea to let press into Wizengamot sessions?” Ron grumbles.  

“The general assembly is a public forum, Ronald,” Hermione chides.  

Harry hasn’t been alone for a week. 

"Harry, dear," Mrs. Weasley calls, from Bill's kitchen, where she seems to have made herself at home, much to Fleur's chagrin. "You really should eat some breakfast."

"Thank you, Mrs. Weasley," Harry mutters, still staring out the window.  "But I'm not very hungry."

"Really, dear, you should try to eat something--" 

"Give it a break, mum." Bill tells her, voice low.

Mrs. Weasley huffs. "Well, pardon me for trying to feed you all."

Harry's grins to himself when he hears Bill immediately apologize.  Mrs. Weasley’s affection is shown in sweaters at Christmas and food year round. As near to pestering-- Sirius' words, not his-- as she has been since arriving, Harry cannot blame her for wanting him fed. 

Even if he cannot stomach the thought of eating.  Not while waiting on word of the apprehension of his aunt and uncle. 

It is the flare of the floo coming to life that finally drags Harry's gaze away from the street. He glances over just in time to see Ron dodge away from the hearth as Severus Snape emerges.  He dusts the soot from his robes and does not bother with pleasantries. 

Harry goes very still. 

"Kingsley was on the team to approach your relatives at their residence this morning," Snape says, dark eyes only for Harry, even in this crowded room.  "They have been arrested and taken into custody.  Their trial begins in three days." 

For a moment, Harry cannot breathe. His throat tightens.  His ribs, suddenly, feel like a vice around his lungs.  There is a weight on his chest; on his shoulders. 

He doesn't want to do this, he thinks. He's not ready, not prepared, for this.  He didn't think-- he hadn't ever thought-- 

When he made the changes to Voldemort's original bill, he had never intended for this to be the outcome. 

"I see," he says, and hates the way he says it, like it's been punched out of him.  "You're here for my memories, then?" 

Snape dips his head in a nod.  "Yes." 

The room is quiet.  All eyes are on Harry. 

He swallows and gives a little nod.  “Let’s take this to my room.” 

Hermione jolts to her feet, but Harry sees Ron catch her wrist even as Snape billows by, already heading down the hall.  Harry offers his friends a little smile, a small assurance that he’ll be alright, and then he follows after him.  

When they’re in his room, the door shut between them and the rest of the world, Snape turns to him.  From his cloak, he withdraws a number of vials, lining them up on the foot of Harry’s bed.  Hedwig perks from her perch, watching them with sleepy eyes, and Harry crosses his arms and shifts his weight as he watches Snape draw his wand and pull a large, marble bowl out of seemingly nowhere.  

Magic, Harry thinks.  What a fantastic, terrifying thing. 

“I will need specific memories,” Snape informs him.  “Of your neglect and any other moments that stand out as… particularly pertinent.” 

Harry’s lips press thin.  “I’m not exactly the best judge.  I always thought-- Well, it was normal, wasn’t it?” 

Snape gives him a dark, searching glance, and then gives a small nod.  “Normal.  For you, perhaps.  But you have had example aplenty of what a family is, as tedious as the Weasleys may be.” 

Harry barks out a short laugh.  

Snape lifts a brow. 

“Sorry,” Harry shrugs.  

Snape rolls his eyes and then draws over the chair nestled into the corner of the room.  “Sit, Mr. Potter.  This will not hurt, but it will not be easy.” 

“Right,” Harry breathes, hands flexing at his sides, before he takes a quick seat.  “So, I just… think real hard about it?” 

With a faint sneer, Snape withdraws his wand.  “Yes.  Do try not to strain anything.” 

Snorting, Harry closes his eyes, and in the mental barriers of his mind, he unlocks a plain white door.  Lets the memories flood to the surface.  He doesn’t linger on a single moment but lets them swarm, like a large school of fish, at the forefront of his consciousness. 

There is a touch at his temple.  Snape’s wand is warm against his skin, and Harry can feel the threads of his magic strike out, seeking, snaring small bits of memory-- pulling them to the surface with a brutal, clean efficiency.  

There’s a tug, like something coming loose, and then Harry’s eyes are fluttering open as Snape steps back.  There’s a wisp, silvery at the edges with a dark core, clinging to the end of Snape’s wand.  As he moves away to set the collection of memories into the marble bowl, Harry blinks a few times and realizes that he’s crying. 

“Oh,” he says with a soft sniff, hand coming up to swipe under his eyes.  “Sorry.” 

“You’ve nothing to apologize for,” Snape mutters, not looking at him, focus unwavering on the pool of memories in the bowl before him.  “As I said-- it will not hurt, but it is not easy.” 

Harry nods, sniffing again, and he slumps in the chair, watching as Snape dips his wand into the liquid circling round and round the marble.  Watching as he gives it a slow turn, with the same careful precision Harry has seen him use over a cauldron.  

It’s almost flattering, really, the care Snape shows to those memories.  Harry wonders if it is out of sympathy, pity, or if the threads of memory are truly that fragile.  

“We will need to separate out the more important moments,” Snape finally says, finally looking over at him, and he stretches out a hand, stained fingertips and all.  “If you would.” 

“Right,” Harry says, sighing, and he pushes himself to his feet so that he can step closer and stare down into the miasma of his own childhood.  “This is going to suck, isn’t it?” 

Snape’s mouth actually twitches.  “Yes, I imagine it will.  Shall we?” 

“Only if there’s the promise of firewhiskey after,” Harry croaks. 

Snape makes a small, considering sound.  “I imagine a bit of Ogden’s finest wouldn’t go amiss after this.” 

“Got any on hand?” 

“None that I would share with you,” Snape replies.  

“Right,” Harry laughs, but he places his hand in Snape’s waiting palm, queasy with apprehension but bolstered by Snape’s unchanging, unwaveringly sharp tongue.  “I forget you’re a right bastard, sometimes.” 

“Only sometimes?” Snape sneers, and yet his grip is kind as he coaxes Harry closer, wand lowering toward the memories swirling in the bowl.  “That’s something I will need to remedy in the future.” 

“Could always steal it from your stores,” Harry adds, stomach knotting as he watches the end of Snape’s wand.  “Finally give you an honest reason to accuse me.” 

“You say that as if you were the paragon of good behavior during your time walking Hogwarts’ halls,” Snape says, but his mouth is twitching again.  “I would beg to differ.” 

“I wouldn’t deny it.” 

Snape arches a brow.  “Have we delayed enough?” 

“Quite enough,” Harry huffs, laughter threading his voice, even if it is strained.  “Let’s get this over with.” 

Decisive, Snape nods.  “Let’s.” 

*

Voldemort was having a fine morning.  

It had started with the sharp tang of anticipation at the tip of his tongue.  A thrumming in his limbs, at his fingertips, like he was about to summon lightning from the heavens above.  It had carried him through his morning meeting with the Malfoys, as well as another distasteful outburst from Bellatrix.  It had him smug and serene upon greeting Dumbledore in the meeting hall. 

Even being surrounded by the general tedium of the Ministry of Magic isn’t enough to silence the steady buzz humming under his skin.  

Not Sirius Black hovering.  Not Lucius casting him nervous glances.  Not Amelia Bones muttering to others about that poor Potter boy.  Not even Dumbledore standing at his side, watching the door as intently as Voldemort. 

Today is the day he will see Harry Potter’s abusers arrested.  

And oh, it is a sweet sight when those doors finally burst open at half past ten. 

The muggles are disheveled.  Flustered.  Straining against whatever spell was cast to keep them quiet.  

The woman, a tall and spindly thing, has a mouth that seems perpetually pursed-- much like the nuns from Voldemort's own youth-- and a shrewd, narrow gaze that alights with disgust the moment she sets eyes on Dumbledore.  Next to the blubbering behemoth of a man that is so ruddy in the face he's gone purple, she looks like a waif.  An error in contrasts, they look like creatures out of an old funhouse mirror. 

But both of them share this in common: the look of unabashed, unashamed loathing in their eyes. 

The room falls into a hush at their entry.  In that quiet, Voldemort catches one of the aurors slipping away.  He knows, without even looking, that it was at Dumbledore's signal.  That Harry will be informed before his relatives are even arraigned.  

Part of him hates that he will not be able to witness Harry's reaction upon hearing the news. 

The other is far too pleased with watching the proceedings unfold.  

"The accused have arrived," Dumbledore finally says.  "Let us begin.  Madam Bones?" 

It's stunning, sometimes, the sway Albus Dumbledore holds over the wizarding populace.  Every witch and wizard, regardless of blood or age, falls into line under his command when he chooses to wield it.   

The members of the Wizengamot are no different.  

The hush churns into a hum as everyone finds their seats, as the muggles are brought before this magical court of witches and wizards.  Then, once everyone is in their place, Bones takes her spot at the stand towering over the two trembling before her, still in their night clothes.  

Events proceed smoothly after that.  As the charges levied against them are read, as they are informed of the fine they will have to pay if they are found guilty of these charges are spoken, no one else moves, speaks, breathes. There is not a single witch or wizard present that feels any manner of reluctance over these proceedings-- be it the satisfaction of prosecuting a muggle before the scales of a court of magic on many of the purebloods' side, it is very obviously to everyone's satisfaction to see Harry Potter’s relatives brought to justice.  His years away and subsequent emergence into the spotlight had done wonders for his reputation; a savior returned. 

Even if there was a witch or wizard present who couldn't be bothered, they wouldn't survive the public backlash if they revealed even a hint of apathy, let alone descension. 

"Now that you are fully informed of the charges held against you and the consequences you face," Amelia Bones concludes, her face pinched, and when Voldemort sees the increasingly distasteful flush on the man's face, he understands why.  "How do you plead for the record?" 

Like a bubble bursting-- or perhaps a dam breaking-- an outraged shout wells from the mouth of Harry's uncle.  

"-- what utter nonsense, I say!  That boy has always been trouble, you won't be getting a note out of us--" 

There is a resounding bang that rings out, echoing off the chamber walls, rattling in their ears.  When Voldemort looks, Dumbledore has his wand in hand. 

At the center of the room, the muggles clutch at one another.  Their fear is so utterly apparent that they practically reek of it.  And it is their fear, their envy, that has led them here.

Sitting forward in his own seat, Voldemort savors the sudden pallor to a man who had been so flush.  He savors the way their eyes dart, rapid and quick, like an animal cornered.  They way they tremble.  They way they are so utterly powerless here, in this moment, in their world.  

He will show this to Harry.  This specific moment. 

"Guilty or not guilty," Dumbledore says, a frigid clip to his words that Voldemort realizes he has never heard.  "How do you plead?"

Despite all the earlier bluster, despite the proud tilt of the woman's chin and the quivering jowl of the man clenching his jaw, they still cower before Albus Dumbledore's flinty gaze. 

"Of course not guilty," the man finally spits.  "Now, you freaks will let us go home, or I--" 

A flick of the wand is all it takes to silence him again. Voldemort doesn't even use that. 

It's the word-- and the disgust breathed to life in the word-- that does it.  Voldemort has done well controlling his temper within these halls, but it all comes crumbling in front of this creature masquerading as a man.  This thing that Harry keeps locked behind a white door. 

They're simply lucky that all he does is slap a silencing charm back on them with such a force that they stagger.

When the fist he'd clenched in his lap finally relaxes, he turns his gaze to Dumbledore and ignores everyone else.  His smile is placid, but the space beneath his ribcage feels molten. 

"Forgive me," he says.  "I do believe they have said all they need to." 

"More than they need," Black adds, and when Voldemort glances at him, he looks half restrained and barely holding on.  

Dumbledore doesn't rebuke them.  Either of them. 

Instead, he peers down at the muggles cowering before them and nods toward the aurors.  "Quite.  Take them to holding.  We will proceed with the trial." 

The fat one, Harry's uncle, blusters back up.  His face is purple, his chest puffed out, a wagging finger pointing up at Dumbledore.  His voice chokes itself in his throat. 

The aurors are quick to slap cuffs on them and haul them off. 

To Voldemort's surprise-- and his surprised delight-- Black leans over, voice low, but not nearly low enough.  "What an absolute cock."  

Voldemort bites down a shocked laugh. 

"Well, then," Dumbledore clears his throat, casting a look that is pure chiding in Black's direction.  "Madam Bones, Lord Malfoy, Lord Ogden, will you be ready to attend the hearing scheduled for three days hence?" 

"Of course," Bones says, still at the platform below, a fierce furrow to her brow; the pity from earlier replaced with something nearing disgust.  

Lord Ogden echoes the sentiment.  Lucius nods his agreement. 

Dumbledore nods, sitting back in his seat, looking ages older than his meager century would imply.  "Then we are dismissed until trial." 

Voldemort stands.  

He intends to find Harry Potter.  He intends to find him and tell him the outcome of the preliminary hearing.  He intends to show him exactly what they looked like-- bumbling, blustering fools-- when confronted by the entirety of the Wizengamot.  He intends to show him--

"My Lord," Lucius hisses, low enough for no one but him to hear, catching hold of Voldemort's arm-- only to jerk back as soon as Voldemort turns his attention his direction, paling and clearing his throat.  "Lord Gaunt.  A word, if you can?" 

Arching a brow, Voldemort smooths out the wrinkles Lucius left in his robes.  "Very well.  Lead the way, Lord Malfoy." 

Relief brings some color back to Lucius' face.  He turns, heading for the doors that lead out of the Wizengamot chambers and to the lifts, and Voldemort follows at a leisurely pace.  

He's overjoyed, he realizes.  Elated.  Satisfied in a way he has not been in quite some time.  

Not even Lucius' skittish glances-- directed his way the entirety of the journey from the chambers, to the atrium, to the floo system, to the Malfoys' study-- can ruin this for him. 

Not even the small gathering that greets him when he arrives.  

Lucius stands to the side, twitching to keep from blatantly fidgeting, and the urgency with which he asked for Voldemort's time makes much more sense as he peers out over the small collection of his followers. 

The Lestrange brothers, silent and considering as always, hover at the back, keeping as careful a distance as Lucius but without the rampant fear.  And at the head of this little pack stands Bellatrix, wand twisting between her fingers, her smile as delighted as it is demented. 

The Black madness had always been strong within her; years in Azkaban did her no favors. 

"My Lord," she breathes, rocking up onto her toes.  "Potter’s relatives. They've been taken in by the Ministry, haven't they?"

Voldemort pauses, his own satisfaction dimming as he gives a careful nod.  "That's correct." 

"Then we should strike, now, yes?" Bella asks, shuffling forward toward where Voldemort stands watching her.  "Destroy the rest of his family and watch that Potter boy crumble."

Voldemort arches a brow. Glancing at Lucius, he finds him wilting, turning his lordship ring over on his finger. Voldemort wonders where exactly Narcissa and Draco ran off to during this little confrontation. 

Focus falling back upon Bella, Voldemort does not even need to press her for more. She's eager to offer it up all on her own. 

"It's what we've been working toward, isn't it, my Lord?  Potter’s fall.  Soon, he'll be shattered-- broken over the loss of his muggle relatives," Bella says, grin growing wider and wider and wider-- and all the more manic when Voldemort cannot bite back a sharp bark of laughter.  

"You believe it would break him, do you, Bella?" he asks. 

"Of course," Bella chirps.  "And I could deliver the boy to you, my Lord, when he comes to seek his vengeance.  I could make him suffer for you, my Lord, I--"

Bellatrix's scream is a shrill one.  It always has been, even when she was younger and still frothing at the bit to go muggle hunting like her grandfather used to tell her about.  

Pureblood families always had an odd sense of tradition. 

But Voldemort does not care about that, not now.  Not with a fire in his veins and his wand burning in his hand.  Not with Bellatrix writhing under his curse, her eyes rolling back, her body convulsing.  

Her mental fortitude means nothing to him.  Her childhood, her family, her blood means nothing to him.  Her loyalty means nothing to him.  

"You will not touch him," Voldemort hisses, his glamours wavering under the very force of his rage.  "Do you understand me?"

He does not relent to let her reply.  There's a froth of blood at her lips. 

He would kill her, he knows, if it wasn't for the sudden and dreadful rush of dread that screams down his connection to Harry with the desperate, clawing fingers of a man drowning.  

It is this, and only this, that halts Voldemort's wand. 

In the following silence, in the sudden hush, there is only Bellatrix panting on the floor of the study.  The Lestranges stand at the ready, over the fallen woman, waiting for Voldemort's word.  Lucius still cowers in the corner. 

"Be grateful, Bella," Voldemort breathes, his voice near wavering, something pinching in his chest so tight it nearly steals his breath all together.  "You are fortunate enough that I am required elsewhere."

Turning on his heel, Voldemort heads for the floo.  

"Put her in the dungeons and take her wand, I will deal with her later," he says. 

Lucius, for the first time since arriving, moves to speak.  "My Lord--"

"Do what you are told, Lucius," Voldemort sneers, fingers curling over his wand so tight that his bones ache; he needs to leave, now.  "Or I will have no further need of you."

He does not bother with the floo, after that.  The dread-- the cold knot of it in his chest-- has twisted into something cold. Into something numb.  

Like a missing limb. 

So Voldemort does not bother with the floo.  

Instead, like Harry had shown him so many months ago, he thinks of where he wants to be-- with Harry Potter-- and he rips through the Malfoys' wards and apparates away.  

*

"Drink this," Snape says, offering up a vial to Harry's mouth. 

Harry grunts.  His fingers tremble as he reaches up to take it, something sweet and herbal soothing over his tongue. 

"Chamomile and honey," Snape says, some amount of chiding to it when Harry blinks up at him in surprise at the taste.  "If you'd taken any time at all to ever study potions, you would know that it calms the nerves.  You're in shock."

"Oh," Harry breathes.  "Is that what this is?"

Snape opens his mouth to reply when there is a sudden, rattling bang just outside.  The room seems to tremble for a moment.  From the window, Harry can see a shower of sparks fly off an invisible wall like fireworks. 

"Oh," Harry says again, mouth vaguely numb.  "And what is that?"

Snape frowns, far more shaken than Harry thinks he's ever seen.  "I have no earthly idea."

Chapter Text

XXI. 

If anyone was ever brave enough to ask-- Harry would be -- Voldemort would have to say one of the most shameful moments of his life was feeling any sort of fear when Albus Dumbledore cast an illusion of fire eating up his wardrobe.  Perhaps getting caught with Walburga Black in sixth year.  Certainly being denied the position of Defense teacher twice. 

The most shameful, however, would have to be this:

In something that resembled a blind panic, Lord Voldemort apparated face first into curse wards. 

"Oh, my word, Lord Gaunt! Are you quite alright?"

It does not help that, robes singed and flat on his back with his glamours hanging on by a thread, it is Rita Skeeter that comes to his aid.  

He wants to leave a crater where this place stands.  He doesn't want a speck of it to remain after this.  He'll have to tell Harry to move--

"What a surprise, Lord Gaunt," Rita says, quill and notepad already hovering as she waves at someone to help him up. "Finding you here."

Voldemort ignores it, pushing up onto his hands, fringe in his face, skin too tight and control wavering. 

"Is it?" he asks. 

"Well, you certainly weren't expected, were you?" Rita simpers, lips pursing into a little mue. 

Shoving to his feet, Voldemort bites back a groan of pain as a profound ache runs up his spine.  His jaw clenches, his wand still at hand, and his eyes find the barrier wards that knocked him flat.

The wards that stand between him and Harry Potter. 

Stalking past the gathered press and ignoring each and every one of them-- even as Rita totters along behind him-- Voldemort steps up to the barrier.  Touching it with the tip of his wand, it comes away with a fine shower of sparks. 

It's a powerful curse barrier.  Stronger, perhaps, than Voldemort has seen in sometime.  And certainly not for use on a city street. 

He could break it, he knows.  Nearly did, upon his harried entry, as he did with the few others that had been layered with it.  The one that rebounded him still stands strong, but Voldemort could reach out and untwist it with the right pressure, could cut right through it and get to--

"Are you here to tell Lord Potter of the conclusion to his relatives' arraignment?"  Rita chirps.

Voldemort has to close his eyes and take a breath.  "I believe that should be obvious.  Lord Potter and I drafted this bill for purposes exactly like this." 

"Yes, you mentioned during your initial pitch," Rita says, and Voldemort can hear the scratching of her quill; there is a part of him envisioning and savoring the idea of using it in some terribly horrific way to silence her, and it is not a very distant part of him. "Would you say you and Lord Potter formed a… bond over the shared trauma of your childhood?"

Voldemort stills.  

A bond.  Had he formed a bond with Harry Potter?  Had he tied himself to someone, irrevocably, the way he swore to never do?  

Somewhere down their connection, Harry is still terrifyingly, hauntingly muted.

"Yes," Voldemort says, and then he is cracking the barrier with a twist of his wand, slipping inside, and letting it snap shut behind him. 

"Really?" Rita calls, over a swell of chatter, over the shutter snap of cameras.  "Care to elaborate?"  

"Not at all," Voldemort says. 

The door to the apartment building opens, Hermione Granger standing there with her wand at the ready.  At least two Weasleys hover at her back. Voldemort very pointedly puts his wand away.  

Granger does not move. 

"Good morning," Voldemort says, a deferential nod aimed in her direction.  "I apologize for the surprise of my arrival.  May I come in?" 

"Well, you're already through the barrier, aren't you?" One of the Weasleys says, the one Harry is closest to, and Granger gives him a dark look from over her shoulder.  "Not much else we could do to stop you if you put your mind to it." 

"No," Voldemort admits.  "But I think it would put all at ease if I was given permission first." 

The young man snorts.  "Sirius was right.  You really do talk like a swot.  Let him in, 'Mione."

"Ron," Granger starts, protest on her face and on her tongue, but it stalls itself when she meets Ron's steady gaze.  "Really?"

"Really."

Granger blows out a breath, lowering her wand.  "You and your chess games.  Come in, then, Lord Gaunt." 

It's a curious little display-- and once again, Voldemort is struck by the way in which Harry Potter’s closest friends behave as generals at the final line of defense.  Ready to tear down whatever came their way, or die trying.  

The loyalty is astounding. 

But Voldemort has other things to worry about. 

As he steps into the building, the door snaps shut behind him, and he does not stop where the little trio of Harry's followers stand, heading instead for the stairs up.  There's a clatter of shoe fall behind him. 

"What are you doing here, Lord Gaunt?"  Granger asks, hot on his heels.  

Voldemort cannot bring himself to say: to see Harry Potter with my own eyes. 

"Did one of you craft that curse line?" he asks instead, rounding the last landing before the door to Harry's current home.  

"Um," the other Weasley, taller and older, comes to a sudden halt as Voldemort stops outside of his front door.  "No. My wife did." 

"Hm," Voldemort eyes him, noting that he must be the curse breaker, the eldest Weasley boy.  "She's quite good."

The man blinks at him.  "Thank you?" 

"You're very welcome," Voldemort says, with all sincerity, and then he looks at Granger, who is eyeing him with a look akin to horrified curiosity.  "Where is he?" 

Her lips press thin. Her index finger taps against her wand.  She glances at the younger Weasley boy. 

He gives a short nod.

"In his room," she finally says, brow pinched, not looking away from her friend.  "With Professor Snape." 

"Thank you," Voldemort says.

And then his wand is in his hand.  

*

Snape is still inspecting the window-- or, rather, what might lay outside the window in the street below-- and Harry is still nursing another vial of something that tastes like peppermint when the bedroom door clatters open.  

Harry, glasses set aside to keep his head from swimming, squints at the figure in the doorway.  “Tom?” 

Although, judging by the red of his irises and the shimmer Harry can catch at the edges of his body-- a bit like paper or cloth rippling under a harsh wind-- and the bone white wand clutched in hand, perhaps Harry thinks he should have addressed him differently.  

Because looming in his doorway, looking far more frightful than Harry has seen him in some time, Lord Voldemort stands with magic quivering under his skin and at his fingertips.  Somewhere, distantly but distinctly, Harry can feel something buzzing at the back of his mind.  A bit like an alarm going off. 

He thinks, perhaps, he should be worried.  Especially when Snape levels his wand at where Lord Voldemort stands.  

Voldemort does not even raise his own wand, staring Snape down with no room for yielding.  “Get out.” 

Snape does not move.  

At the foot of the bed, Harry blinks.  First at Snape, standing at the ready, between him and Lord Voldemort.  Then, at the way Voldemort’s hand curls all the tighter over his own wand.  

Pushing to his feet, Harry reaches out and places a hand on Snape’s arm, not quite pressing.  Voldemort’s gaze does not leave the potions professor, but Snape’s gaze darts down to Harry. 

“It’s alright, professor,” Harry says, smile grim.  “Do you have all you need?” 

“Yes,” he says, wand still leveled, the defensive line of his stance unwavering until Harry finally urges that arm down with an easy push.  “If there was any question as to their guilt before, there will be none, now.” 

Harry doesn’t quite know what to say to that, but he nods anyway, stepping back as Snape tucks his wand away with a graceful flick.  His eyes, as dark as ever, cast a contemptuous look at Voldemort-- before Snape moves, bodily placing himself between Harry and the door, bony and stained fingers coming to clasp, so carefully, at Harry’s shoulders. 

“Mister Potter--” Snape starts and stops, taking a short breath, and the feather light touch at his shoulders grows more firm.  “Harry.” 

“Yes, professor?” Harry blinks up at him.

It could be the shock, still lingering in Harry's veins and numbing his nerves, but he thinks that the look he catches on Snape’s face is one he has not seen before.  

“Your mother,” Snape starts again, voice low.  “Your mother, Harry, if she were-- if she had been here to know… she would have done far worse than curse them for what they did to you.  You should know that.” 

Something-- some knot that Harry hadn’t been aware of, some tangle of guilt and fear and hurt-- comes undone in Harry’s chest.  It sparks a burning at the edges of Harry’s vision; a tightness in his throat.  

“Thank you, professor,” Harry says and finds his voice wavering.  “Perhaps-- Perhaps sometime you might tell me more about her.” 

Snape dips his head, a nod that looks far too like a bow, and then he withdraws, stepping back and away from where Harry is standing.  “Perhaps.” 

Without another word-- not of warning and not of apology-- Snape turns on his heel and heads out the door, through the threshold and past Voldemort, robes billowing.  Down the hallway, just beyond Voldemort’s shoulder, Harry thinks he can spot Hermione and Ron guarding the hallway entrance and the chaos of the flat beyond it.  

He can only imagine how flustered Mrs. Weasley became, considering the man that is currently shutting Harry’s bedroom door, and he’s half tempted to protest.  

The thought of it sounds really rather exhausting, though, and Harry thinks he’s been through quite enough for the day.  Thinks that, perhaps, after he’s finished with whatever conversation he’s about to have with the Dark Lord, he might curl up and sleep until tomorrow. 

It’s not as though he can go anywhere, after all. 

When the lock clicks into place, however, Harry feels some amount of stiffness rise to his shoulders.  

“What in the world are you doing here, Tom?” he asks, gesturing over his shoulder to the window behind him.  “Was that you out there?” 

Voldemort looks disheveled, now that Harry’s getting a good look at him.  Hair in disarray, robes off-kilter, eyes a vivid red.  A bit frayed at the edges.  There’s an anger in him-- or maybe just hovering about him-- that Harry finds strange.  

Not, of course, because he is angry-- rather that because he is angry and Harry cannot feel it himself. 

“You look tired,” Voldemort says.  

Harry blinks again, brain like static, and he is too tired to try and unpuzzle Voldemort’s schemes today.  

“Yes, well, I feel rather tired,” he says, rather than press.  “As it turns out, revisiting some of my worst childhood memories is a bit exhausting.” 

Voldemort hums, drifting over to the window on the far side of the room, and Harry stands there watching him move.  A frown purses his mouth, pinches at his brow, but he leaves the air empty, just waiting for Voldemort to fill it. 

“The reporters are ravenous, aren’t they?” Voldemort asks, glancing down at the street below, curtain drawn aside.  

“Bottom feeders,” Harry says, shrugging when Voldemort glances back at him.  “Hermione calls them that.  Ron just calls them prats.” 

Voldemort makes a sound, something like a sniff of amusement, and Harry’s frown only deepens.  “Inelegant, but not inaccurate.” 

Crossing his arms, Harry turns to face Voldemort properly.  “Tom.  Why are you here?” 

Once again, instead of giving a proper answer, Voldemort turns his attention elsewhere.  Avoidance, while not an unfamiliar practice, looks rather strange on Voldemort.  

Especially when it involves him moving toward where Hedwig is perched, something like a rueful smile curving over his mouth when all Hedwig does is puff up her feathers at him.  

“Your familiar does not like me very much, does she?” 

“She doesn’t like people who’ve tried to kill me,” Harry states, gaze following Voldemort as he trails throughout the room.  “Historically, she thinks that’s not on.” 

Voldemort frowns over at him.  “I’m not trying to kill you, anymore.” 

“Be that as it may,” Harry sighs, rolling his eyes.  “You have in the past.  Hence, she doesn’t like you.” 

Voldemort’s frown only grows deeper, creasing the lines of his glamoured face, the tick of his jaw winding tight something of an arresting sight.  

“Voldemort,” Harry says, watching the way Voldemort goes very suddenly still, and when he tries to look elsewhere, Harry dips his head to keep his gaze.  “Why are you here?” 

Turning to face him proper, Voldemort holds the weight of Harry’s stare without folding.  

“You were distressed,” he says.  

Harry finds himself blinking.  Again.  

“Oh,” he replies.  “I didn’t realize you could-- Oh.” 

“Yes,” Voldemort says, voice clipped, something prim in the way he nods his head.  “It was very unpleasant.” 

“Oh,” Harry repeats.  “I see.  So.  You came to… see if I was alright?” 

“I do not waste my time on poor investments,” Voldemort says, like that somehow explains it all, but Harry just tilts his head; Voldemort sighs.  “It was very, very unpleasant.” 

“I suppose you know how I feel half the time, then,” Harry rebuts just to see the way Voldemort scrunches up his nose.  “Well, perhaps magnify it by about twenty fold, suffer a migraine or two, then we’ll talk.” 

Voldemort huffs-- huffs like perhaps he wants to say something but is biting his tongue-- and then glances back once more at the window.  

There's a moment, very briefly, where they are just standing there in the quiet of the room.  A moment where Harry lets himself feel vaguely flustered. 

Because Tom Riddle, the Dark Lord Voldemort, just rushed his way here because Harry was distressed. 

When Voldemort glances back at him, Harry very nearly startles. 

"Would you like to leave here?" 

Harry blinks.  

He really ought to stop being surprised by this strange man.  He's starting to think it's become a habit. 

"Leave here?" Harry asks.  "And go where?"

"Anywhere," Voldemort says, instantly and so quickly that Harry's brows shoot up.  "Well.  Almost anywhere."

A grimace finds its way to Harry's face, but it is a passing thing. A vague reminder that he's still barred from returning to his home. 

With half the Weasleys in his flat, he doesn't feel like he's missing very much. 

"I think Mrs. Weasley might go apoplectic if I disappear," Harry says.  "Especially with you." 

Voldemort scoffs-- and while Harry doesn't think that's necessarily fair, he knows Voldemort has never experienced Molly Weasley on a rampage.  Like a whirlwind, she is. 

"Have you never wanted to live a little dangerously, Harry?" 

A helpless and sudden bark of laughter escapes him.  "Is that a joke? My entire life has been living dangerously from one catastrophe to the next.  Maybe I just want to settle down with a nice cuppa and a book." 

A pinch forming between his brows, Voldemort tilts his head.  "Do you?" 

Harry laughs again, almost feeling winded this time, almost dizzy. There's something strange here-- something trembling in the air. 

Trouble, he thinks. 

"Absolutely fucking not," Harry says, half chuckling all the while, something buzzing back to life within the depths of him.  "Merlin, that sounds so boring." 

Let it be said that Harry has seen Voldemort smile before.  Cruel little things.  Broad, cocky grins.  Sometimes they even resemble a sneer more than a smile. 

But he doesn't think he's ever seen Voldemort's eyes light up like this.  Like rubies in sunlight.  

Smiling, Voldemort extends a hand.  "Come with me, Harry.  I'd like to show you something." 

Trouble, Harry thinks, looking at that outstretched hand. 

It feels like a deal with the devil.  It feels like a lock unturning.  Like a door opening.  Like the lurch before a fall. 

Definitely trouble, Harry thinks, and reaches out and takes that hand. 

*

If anyone was ever brave enough to ask-- Harry would be -- Voldemort would have to say one of the most shameful moments of his life was feeling any sort of fear when Albus Dumbledore cast an illusion of fire eating up his wardrobe.  Perhaps getting caught with Walburga Black in sixth year.  Certainly being denied the position of Defense teacher twice. 

The most shameful, however, would have to be this:

Not realizing how treacherous Harry Potter is. 

Harry Potter.  The Boy Who Lived. Voldemort's very own Prophecy Boy. 

The only person alive to ever make Lord Voldemort worried.  Concern leaves a strange aftertaste in the mouth.  

Relief, though. Relief at seeing him, rumpled and tired and unharmed.  Relief at seeing his eyes light up as he speaks of danger.  Relief at seeing him. 

It's the eyes, Voldemort thinks.  

Once, he thought they were quite like the Killing Curse.  The way they lit up.  The way they glowed. 

He'd thought it fitting that the only one to ever survive the curse carried it with him for all to see. 

He was wrong, though, he decides. Dreadfully wrong and horribly blind. 

Harry's eyes are like peering into a dark forest at midday and seeing the sunlight catch on the leaves until they burn green.  Like stepping out into warmth after a long winter. 

Yes, Voldemort thinks as Harry's hand eases into his own, fingers warm and touch light.  What a pitiful thing to only realize now. 

Harry Potter was a terror.  A little thorn in his side. 

I want him, Voldemort thinks, whisper soft and silk-fine, and he apparates them away.